Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A Series of Unfortunate Events

It's been a while, so get ready for a long one. :) So no topic per se for this posting, rather just a collection of tales of various depth, humanity, humor, and nausea-inducing grotesqueness from the other side of the world. But before we begin, kudos to Mom and Claire, who both correctly identified the items in the picture of the last post as, yes, my skin! These were just a few of the peeling sheets of skin after an unbelievable sunburn. I actually peeled three times from that one. Melanoma, here I come! So to begin with: The Tale of the Goat. For those to whom I've already told this, just bear with me.

The other morning I awoke to what sounded like a goat bleating outside. This was strange as my host family does not own any animals, farm-type or otherwise. But then it changed to a terrible sound which I can only describe as screaming. However, the sound soon reverted to its previous timbre, so I didn't go investigate. Why not, you may ask? Any kind-hearted, animal loving soul like myself should have done so. Here's the thing--in preparation for the World Cup, everyone is always going around blowing these plastic horns called vuvuzelas, the South African equivalent of noise-makers at a hockey game. But these in general sound like some sort of large animal dying. I'd finally gotten used to these sounding off at all hours of the day and night when little baby vuvuzelas came out which seem to perfectly mimic the sound of a six-year old screaming as his mother strangles him to death in Wal-Mart once she's finally lost it due to his incessant begging for more candy.

So anyway, I wasn't sure if this screaming goat sound was just another attempt at good 'ole fashioned South African fun. However, when I left for work that morning, sure enough there was a goat tied to a small tree in the yard. The screaming sound seemed to be the result of its rope being tangled in some nearby bushes, and it was trying to get free. This is where my kind-hearted soul bit kicked in and, although I knew what would be the eventual outcome for the goat, I proceeded to untangle it. It looked at me with its big goat eyes and stopped struggling as if to thank me for my good deed. All the children, however, looked at me like, "Why are you messing with our food?" However, as much as I wanted to, I didn't just untie it and let it free--it wasn't mine, and I can't afford to pay my family back for a goat.

An hour and a half later, I walked home from work to get something, and there was the goat, hanging from a tree with its head and pelt on the ground. Host brother Sizwe was cleaning it, and kind of looked at me and laughed like, "Crap, she wasn't supposed to see," as I've told them several times I didn't want to watch the animals being slaughtered. (On a side note, you may think this is strange given by background. But no, give me a human body in an autopsy room any day. I just don't want to watch it being done to poor little baby animals). I asked if there was going to be a wedding/funeral/ceremony of some kind, but no, apparently it was just time to eat goat. So the goat I'd rescued from the torment of the bushes was now slaughtered. I thought that was the end of it.

A few hours later, I returned to the house again, this time to show a visiting friend, also a PCV, my new house which is being built. The goat was now just hanging forlornly from its tree. We went into the new house (which still had unsealed concrete floors) only to find that they'd obviously been keeping the goat in there over the weekend. Let's just say the house was a mess. Now, someone asked me, "Are they just that unclean?" The answer is, No. In fact, they're pretty anal when it comes to keeping the main house clean--you can't wear your shoes inside, constantlysweeping out the door, have a maid that comes every day, etc, etc. But I assume they just figured that the new house wasn't finished, and it would get cleaned out, so it didn't really matter. I did not ask why they'd kept the goat in there; I assume it was without food or water so that after a few days, the process of cleaning it would be, well, cleaner, if you get my drift. Anyway, I showed my friend the now dirty new house, and she was appropriately impressed.

Finally, I return again at the end of the day, this time to find that the goat is no longer hanging from the tree. Sweet, sweet mercy! But no, I then looked up through the window of my new house, and there it was, hanging inside! I have no idea why they hung it in there--it'd already ben hanging outside all day. But so now my Pretty, Pretty Princess house is going to be haunted by the spirit of the goat I failed to save. What am I to do?

After all that, again as I was settling in to thinking it was all over, my host dad scared the crap out of me accidentally. My back was turned, I heard him coming in the room behind me, I turned around and he had the damn skinned thing right there. I jumped and shrieked like a girl, God forbid. My current room has their deep freeze in it,so now I'm also sleeping in the room with the goat. It just won't go away.

Another little interesting nugget to the story--no one in my host family really eats goat much. As I may have mentioned in a previous post, according to my host mom JZ, 80% of South Africans get the dreaded 'runny tummy' when eating goat (and just because they have a cute name for it doesn't make it any more pleasant). Speaking from experience, I fall into that 80%. I asked JZ about this, and she said, oh no, it's fine, this was a goat/sheep hybrid apparently, kind of like a mule or a liger, which I didn't even know existed but apparently has all the tasty aof goat without the gastrointestinal side effects (I'd wondered why it had long hair). Anyway, so the shoat, as I'll now refer to it, is no more, except that I assume we'll be eating it for the next few weeks.

Other things: You probably wonder why I haven't written much about my actual work here yet. This is because, to be honest, I haven't done much that is very interesting yet. At this point, I have basically become a glorified secretary for my NOAH organization, as the fact that I can actually type is considered quite the talent. If this were Victorian England, I would be called "accomplished" and people would actually mean it. But I am proud of the fact that since I've come here, the quality of the record keeping for the organization has gone up drastically. The previously questionable record keeping was not due to the fault of anyone here, but more to the combined effects of bare minimum staff, lack of computer skills all around, LOTS of children registered, and LOTS of record keeping required by funders, obviously. But until this point, it's all been done as everything here seems to be--you make the best you can out of limited resources, and keep going basically on sheer will.

So anyway, basically I've been doing computer work, although lately I have given some HIV presentations to teachers at events sponsored by NATU (National Teacher's Union), which were fun for me and made me feel like I was doing what I came here to do. As it stands, a good deal of people's education about HIV come from the national campaign to follow the ABCs: "Abstain, Be Faithful, and Condomize." An enterprising Peace Corps Volunteer has added D for "Do It Yourself." So far that hasn't gone over well in my talks, and I don't want to explain it any further to a group of strangers ("So, have you heard, the little mlungu from America is teaching about masturbation!" "Well, damn, even more reason for me to go check her out!" "Maybe she'll give a demonstration like with the condoms!").

Despite the act that I'm generally doing computer work, it's not possible to escape the effects of HIV and what it's doing to the population here. The stigma is so great that people don't discuss it and instead talk around the issue, saying "oh, she was sick for a long time," as though not naming it AIDS means you're somehow safe from its effects. I suppose it's the same in the States, just not to the same extent, and people will do any number of things out of fear. Still, with an average of one funeral every week or two of someone at least tangentially connected to the average person, often of young to middle aged adults, it's hard to grasp the lasting effects of fear and denial.

Two siblings, one in sixth grade and one in kindergarten, lost their mother last week of "being sick." Their father died last year, I've heard due to cancer, although I don't know what kind. They are currently living with a grandmother who is extremely poor; when my supervisor went to visit them the other day, she said there was absolutely no food in the house. And so, everyone came together, my organization as well, to donate food and help with the funeral. I and some of the other volunteers from my org went to do the cooking for the funeral.

A word on funerals: as this was the only one I've been to so far since being here, I can't generalize and say that this is what the average funeral is like in rural South Africa, but I will describe this one. I was rather surprised at how ordinary the situation seemed to me, as rituals generally are what highlight the traditional culture of a community best. Instead, someone had set up a large tent in the yard, under which chairs were placed. The family was all gathered in the house, sitting with the coffin which was covered with a blanket. I and some other women were outside, cooking for the large group which was expected. The men were gathered together in the yard, taking turns digging the grave there on the property. I was told that men with cattle (a symbol ofyour prosperity) are buried within the grounds where the cattle are kept so that he may watch over them even after death; men without cattle and women are buried anywhere on the property (no comment). When it came time for the service, the coffin was carried out underneath the tent, everyone gathered, songs were sung and a religious service given, then they all moved out to the actual gravesite for more singing during the burial. Except for the fact that this took place at a home rather than a cemetery, it was all in essence very similar to something you would see in the States.

One thing dfferent that I did notice was that there was not the overwhelming sense of sadness and heartbreak that is generally found at our funerals. People were not speaking in muted whispers, they were not dabbing their eyes, and they did not seem ashamed if they happened to laugh. They seemed, in fact, to be enjoying themselves just as they would at any other function, although perhaps slightly more reservedly. Whether this is due to a kind of sterilization of feeling because of the sheer number of relatively young people dying, or a difference in culture due to the very firm belief that ancestors are still amongst us and can be called upon for guidance, or some other reason altogether, I do not know.

Some other stories have come to my attention lately which put more of a face on what people face here daily. I recently found out that one little boy I see every day is HIV+ and currently on an ARV regimen. Here again is another case showing that children can overcome most anything (it seems to be only in adulthood that our true psychological pathologies make themselves blindingly obvious). He is a happy kid, and I see him running around and playing with the other children every day. Of course, I don't know how much he is aware of his illness or its long term prospects, but for the time being he's just a normal kid. I wonder how many other children that I see and work with every day are HIV+, but of course no one is giving up that information.

I suppose I feel differently about this type of illness in kids. I've (briefly) worked with sick and dying kids in the past, and it's always a terrible thng, most especially for the families. Yet this is not cancer, or cerebral palsy, or a heart defect, all of which are due to some chance disruption in the normal process of vents, terrible but blameless. HIV is preventable, and if a child has it, it's because he or she was raped in the erroneous belief that this would cure an infected adult, or that one or both of his parents were sleeping around and had no concern for the livelihood of those nearest and dearest (such as possible unborn children, or spouses, or lovers), or (extremely unlikely today) he'd had a transfusion of infected blood products, or that ritualistic mutilation was performed without strilization of tools. Yes, there are other ways for a child to have contracted HIV, but no matter what the cause, you can bet there was an uneducated adult behind it, and behind him, another adult who was just careless, insensitve, or stupid.

Not every sad case is a result of HIV, however. Recently, I registered two brothers for our organization. Several years ago, their mother was killed and father went missing (presumably killed) during some inter-family conflict (the best description I could get of what was going on). The two boys moved in with an uncle, who, after a time, was also killed in the ensuing fighting. They then moved in with another uncle, and apparently spent quite a time themselves hiding out for fear of being murdered because they closely resemble in appearance those other family members already killed. These are children. And all I could think was that the older boy, probably fifteen, had such a sweet, gentle face, no anger or hatred or I'm-pissed-off-at-the-world-because-I'm-a-self-indulgent-American-teenager. Just a bit of sadness. But I suppose shitty things happen to people every day in every country of the world, and people everywhere are just trying their damndest to get through their days with a little less pain and suffering and self-doubt, in whatever form that may be. But I also have to wonder if there are now children without parents in the other family, and if they were also hiding for fear of misguided adult retribution.

Anyway, that's my sad spiel for the day. On to brighter topics. I'm introducing a new portion of the blog today entitled "Things I've Learned in South Africa," and will be adding to it as appropriate.

1. How to open a tin can with a big-ass butcher knife. All ten fingers not required.
2. How to use my bra as a purse, concealing money, ID, credit cards, cell phone, USB drive and a collection of small teacups all at once. Even if it's obvious you're carrying lots of stuff in your bra, no one cares because everyone does it and they realize that, after all, you're just carying stuff in your bra. You don't actually have a cell phone shaped boob.
3. Rice Crispy Treats have international appeal.
4. Going topless is optional, but never show your thighs--that's where the real appeal is.
5. Getting fat is considered a good thing. If you lose weight, they suspect you of having AIDS.
6. "Meat is meat."

That's it for today's post. As for the pictures. The first is me holding a tiny chameleon. Next is me and friend Katie getting ready to go to Race For The Cure. Next is me with a group of kids from my school at their cultural dance competition. The fourth is the principal of my school, Mrs. Matenjwa, dressed to support Bafana Bafana for the World Cup. After this is a pic of the kids at school blowing celebrating and blowing the ever-present vuvuzelas. The following is me with several of my coworkers cooking at the funeral for the OVC's mother. Yes, I know, the outfit is super sexy. Next is the "shoat" hanging in my new house (at least it no longer had a head to stare at me with its little shoat eyes). I took a picture of this candle lying on the beach because I've seen a few since going. The beach apparently has a great deal of spiritual significance in Zulu culture. The first time I went with friends, I thought one of them must have dropped the candle out of their bag, and bent to pick it up. Suddenly they all yelled at me to put it down, and then finally explained that people use candles to lure bad spirits out to the beach; the candle's are then thrown into the water to rid themselves of the evil spirits. Others believe the ocean is a holy place, and so they are bringing the spirits there to be cleansed, as it were. People feel they can go to the beach to commume with God directly or with their ancestors, and several times I've seen people collecting the water from the ocean to bring back and use in traditional medicines (umuthi). Apparently, you can also make wishes at the beach; if you throw a candle in and it comes back to shore, that means your wish will come true. If it gets washed away, bad luck for you. Not everyone believes these superstitions, but I have to say, it's a much prettier story than throwing a penny into the fountain at the mall.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

More pictures!

Just another couple of pics to share.

I went to a cultural dance competition for students the other day--this was one of the groups of boys preparing before their turn.

Another group of primary school boys who were in the competition doing ingoma, or Zulu dance. I'll send home a CD with videos for Mom to post on here; too difficult for me to do it.

Host mom JZ with friend Mduduzi. I really liked this pic because both are smiling; it's kind of a Zulu thing that no matter how much laughing and smiling you do otherwise, you don't smile for pictures.

In the tree is host brother Thalente with his cousins; on the ground is Sipheto, dancing as always.

This zebra was in the middle of someone's yard in a nice little resort town; it and another had just wandered in.

Besides the fact that this shows a 200 Rand bill (R200, or almost $30), there's something else in this picture (the bill is used for sizing). Super props to whoever can figure out what it is in the pic.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Food For Thought

So the topic for this discussion--answering that timeless and always so delicately expressed query of, "Oh my God, what the hell are you going to eat over there?" To be honest, I can't complain--I did tell the Peace Corps interviewer that new cuisine was one of the things I was looking forward to experiencing. Well, I suppose I got what I asked for.

Having grown up on the Gulf Coast with that spectacular blend of seafood, Cajun/Creole and just good 'ole Southern, coronary-inducing food, I am surprised that I haven't been too distraught over the reative lack of variety here. Not that it's all been kobe beef and truffles. Every meal is basically the same--a large portion of a flavorless, fluffy, cornmeal based starch called phuthu (poo-too), which I've come to like quite a bit, with a "curry," generally a brown sauce made from a soup packet with meat in it, maybe potatoes as well. (In other regions, phuthu is substituted with pap, a thick cornmeal paste, immeasurablt worse than phuthu with its flavorless, sticky, digestion-inhibiting properties). This actually doesn't sound bad, and depending on the meat involved, it's usually quite good. Of course, depending on the meat it can also be really, really bad.

Chicken is not consumed nearly as much here as at home, and when it is, it's usually small wings. I now have a very definite mental image of the phrase, "suck the marrow out of life." Chicken bones are meant to be cracked into here, relishing every bite. I haven't yet worked up the courage for this, but politely pass the bones along for someone else to bite into. But beef of all varieties is the mainstay. By "varieties," I mean beef meat (as in muscle tissue), beef stomach, beef liver, kidneys, intestines, even HEELS. I actually saw "guts" advertised for sale at the meat market the other day. What?! Then the other night we had curry with what my host mother described to me as the "stuff" on the inside, doing a general wave with her hand over her abdomen in an effort to clarify. I never was able to completely identify what it was. However, my intricate knowledge of anatomy led me to believe the piece I ate was stomach, as it had neither the fluffy, villous texture of intestines, nor the homogeneity of kidney or liver. It was rubbery and, you guessed it, really gross. Since that night, my host mom warns me when we are having "insides," and I gratefully cook for myself.

Other meats regularly consumed are sheep (mutton) and goat. Word to the wise: goat meat often causes the dreaded yet ever looming "runny tummy," as it's so lyrically called here. Again according to my host mom, about 80% of Africans have this unfortunate reaction to goat meat, so it's not too widely consumed. However, having been invited to a friend's for dinner, aka the goat they had slaughtered the day before, I felt obligated (I didn't want it to have died in vain). Luckily, I only just missed the actual slaughtering (I seem to have become good at that). Sure enough, I fell into the category of people negatively affected by goat meat; I'll pass next time. As for the mutton, the only part of it I have tried was the liver. Something I have learned about myself in South Africa--I really, really hate liver. I know people eat it everywhere, and I always had a curious desire to try liver and onions. But not anymore. I don't know if the type of liver makes a difference, but just imagine eating dead, sweaty, rotting feet. That would be better than this. The only other thing I have sworn off since coming here besides the liver is Pilchard's (a brand name), aka tinned fish, aka rotten sardines in a can. I like canned tuna fish, so it's not the idea of fish in a can I'm inherently opposed to. But if all the food in the world disappeared except for mutton liver and Pilchard's, well, even then I'd have to think about it long and hard.

Anyway, other than that, most meals are served with a side of some fruit or vegetable, usually something in season. At this point in time, it's cooked butternut squash, fresh avocado or pickled beetroot, all quite nice. Something else I learned about myself here is that I really like beets, can you believe it? And if you've never seen a fresh beet before, they really are that color. Some of the more adventurous things I've seen here are chicken feet (haven't yet had to try, but I suppose I will at some point), unidentifiable meat on a stick (a really gross version of the chicken on a stick that you get at fairs; I asked the person selling it what it was, and he kind of looked at me funny and said "cow"), and ishongololo, or dried caterpillars. Behold the attached picture--a bit blury because my camera was so close to it, but it's about three inches long and as wide as those fat pencils little kids use. Yes, I ate one of those. It tasted like a dried stick.

But I have to say that so far, my cooking has not gone over just swimmingly either. For a long list of reasons, I haven't had the opportunity/capability/strength of will to do much cooking since I've been at my new host family's house. I would like to do this for myself as I always feel I'm putting my host mom out, but the kitchen is tiny, difficult to use, and she always brings me a huge plate of food before I can say no. Anyway, the few times I've cooked it's generally been pasta ("You always cook pasta. Pasta! Pasta! Pasta!" my host mom says. "But you always eat phuthu!" I want to return. But don't, of course.) Anyway, even this seemingly un-mess-up-able dish has left a lot to be desired. The pasta sauce here (at least where I can get it) is pretty gross, and everything fresh I buy goes bad for various reasons. So then I tried buying one of those boxed cheesy tuna pasta things--let's just say the South African equivalent is, well, gross. The next one of these boxed meals I had (I'd bought the two at the same time), was one that you "just add chicken."

A brief synopsis of my meal preparation: there's nowhere to cut the chicken, so I use a dinner plate. Meanwhile, I've dumped the rock hard block of fake powdered cheese into the water in the pot and am trying to crush it with a ladle before my host mom sees the mess I'm making. While that heats I cut up the chicken, then go to the bathroom to wash my hands (no sink in kitchen). Of course there's no running water, so in the process of trying to dip up water to wash my hands (and I'd purchased the only hand soap in the house; hand washing isn't a big priority, hence a good deal of the runny tummy), I managed to spread salmonella throughout the entire house, including the huge water barrel that's used to bathe with and flush the toilet. God only knows where the bacteria ended up, although I did the best I could. Then I go back to break out the pasta that came with the kit only to see that it has been infested with little black bugs. I noticed this in a bag of rice the other day and my host mom said I shouldn't throw it out because there are hungry people around who would want it. True enough, I thought, so she took it to debug it before giving it to said hungry people. So I therefore debugged my own pasta as best as I could and dumped it in the pot. Later, when the meal was actually cooked, I realized that a good dash of fresh ground pepper (which I finally found here) covered up the sight of any lingering bugs so that I could eat in peace, and they probably added to my protein intake anyway. Afterwards, I went to wash the plate and knife I'd used to cut the chicken in the bucket of dirty water that had been sitting there all day for dishes to be intermittently washed (it started out clean) with a minimal amount of soap in it; just a splash of water will do, no need to superheat the water to antibacterial temp, nor to use such superfluous things as clean water and soap. After all this, not only did I fully expect to be suffering the rampaging furies of a gastrointestinal meltdown the following day, but I figured the food would be gross too. But as fate would have it, it actually turned out quite good, and I (and everyone who tasted it) suffered no ill effects in consequence.

So that's today's food diary. There's more for future posts, of course, but I'm sure you're sufficiently hungry by now. Now go eat some jalapeno poppers in honor of me. As for today's pics--The first is of friends (L to R) Claire, Katie, Kim, Leah and Erin on a weekend break, cooking dinner and enjoying some American ex-pat company. The zebras were in a small herd that came to drink from the lake at Newcastle (I think I posted another really pretty pic of Newcastle scenery in an earlier post). The boy and girl are just some of the cute kids at the school where I'm working. After that is a pic of some of the OVCs eating the lunch we provide; no covered area to eat, no spoons--they eat with their hands then rinse their plates themselves in a big bucket of water, then the plates get used again. General hygiene in this regard is going to become one of my projects. Following this is the oh, so delectable caterpillar. The next is of my host family's house; notice the satelite dish. The one following that shows some of the traditional style houses which are on my host family's property right near their own home in which some of their extended family live.

One other thing--I recently read the really good book, The Art of Crossing Cultures by Craig Storti which the Peace Corps so generously provided us with. I think this is a great read for anyone doing any serious traveling, but even if not, it's appeal lies in teaching us as much about our own culture and all its many ridiculous and funny faults as those of others. I will leave you today with some quotes taken from this book, which themselves have been pulled from other works. These I felt were particularly apt for me.

It is so very HOT I do not know how to write it
large enough.
--EMILY EDEN, Up the Country

An American? I looked up. "How do you know?"
"Wearing a hat," he said. "Carrying her own
boxes." "That doesn't mean she's an American."
"Riding the night bus," he smiled. "American."
--PAUL THEROUX, The Consul's File

Thursday, May 6, 2010


Just had a couple of pictures I thought I'd post for everyone to see--should be more coming of my host site pretty soon. Enjoy! Waiting on the khumbi with Claire and Ryan.

Beautiful SS Skhosana were we had classes for the first 8 wks. In the pic are friends Angie and Farah.

Host sister Thembi (at first site) with her new baby.
My language group back in the good 'ole Bundu days. L to R: Andrew, Claire, Sandile, Doug, Ryan.
I found this happy little creature on my bedroom wall in Bundu. I made sure to take this pic before calling in the family; sure enough, when they came, they sprayed it with South African Raid and beat it to death.
Gorgeous view at dusk from the front of my current host family's house.

My two host brothers at my new house--on the left is Siphetho (3 yrs) and on the right is Thalenthe (6 yrs). In the middle is a cousin, wearing one of the bright yellow Bafana Bafana jerseys seen all over SA now in preparation for the upcoming World Cup. In the background, you can see my new house being constructed!

Monday, April 26, 2010

All I Felt Was A Slight Burning Sensation

You may have noticed in my previous post that I did not conclude discussing my events of the weekend. However, this was done with purposeful regard for my Dear Readers, who I honestly didn't think would want to sit through another two pages of my rapier wit and Holmes-ian insights into the human psyche. And so, I left it for today! And the topic of discussion...going to church! After the previous days' foibles, I was in need of some kind of spirit-cleansing ritual to remove my streak of bad luck (maybe I really shouldn't leave my laundry on the line overnight--more on this later). Lucky for me, we were in for a long stretch of good, Christian, revival/praise/worship style church.

Like so many other things, I was surprised to find how deeply Western influence has been integrated into the religious culture here. It is even more surprising as I generally always expect religion to be one of those things to which people cling most strongly. However, in the several hundred years since the first white establishment was settled at the Cape of Good Hope to provide a refill station for sailors working for the East India Trading Company, (what I call) Western religions such as Christianity have made a distinct impression on the cultural landscape.

In fact, the only religion locally (to my knowledge) that can really be considered a traditional African religion is Shembe, and even this is apparently a form of the Baptist Church. I am told the attendants dress in more traditional clothing, with leather skirts, head wraps, etc., and their places of worship can be seen periodically in the form of a circle of white stones on the ground. The circle represents their church hall, as it were, with a space left in the stones to serve as a "doorway," through which they come and go. Their belief is that Shembe is a kind of prophet or intercessor between that person and God.

**I know this is a very superficial description of a religion, but it's all I've got so far and I will correct any inaccuracies at a later date as I am made aware of them (speaking of--thanks for the Facebook tip several weeks ago, Meredith. I have corrected my "personal information" page. Lol--wouldn't want to make that mistake. Although, who knows? I might actually go to heaven). This goes for everything else in this or any other post--I take no responsibility for my inability to tease out all the varied and nuanced beliefs and distinctions of a different culture, especially one in which my language capacity runs that dangerous gauntlet from, "Hello. How are you?" to "Where's the bathroom?"**

Even so, what we would consider religious belief is not always so distinct from daily life here, and the Christian traditions which have grown up have done so alongside many continuing cultural practices. For instance, it is still known that the ancestors are not only present, but actively interacting with the physical world on many levels. They are prayed to for help and guidance, and married women continue to cover their hair in their homes, even if nowhere else, for fear of displeasing them.

So I went with my wonderfully friendly weekend-host family (I think I'm going to have lots of these) to their church Sunday morning, and to my initial and immediate shock, I did not burst into flames upon entering the building (all I felt was a slight burning sensation; I must not be doing something right). And so we took our seats at the front of the approximately 800-capacity hall, which quickly filled behind us.

I must say, this church puts TV worship/praise services in the States to shame. For the first hour (no kidding), one song played while people sang and danced and praised Jesus. The music never actually stopped, but the band (drums, guitar, keyboard) would variously change the tempo and roll from one theme to another. Seriously, this group could have made a fortune as a jam band in the States playing for teenagers on mind-altering drugs. Widespread Panic at its height didn't go for this long. Anyway, all the while the people were dancing and singing, praying independently and out loud, so that the room was filled with a veritable storm of worshipping. This was all led by a group of women at the front who were dressed as though for stylish job interviews, wearing neon pink silk shirts under smart black business suits with skirts and strappy heels. One woman even wore knee-high black leather boots. Generally one of these women would be at the front, straining into a microphone, seemingly under the impression that the louder she praised God, the more likely He would be to hear her. "Thank you...Jay-suhs! Thank you...Jay-suhs! Thank you...Jay-suhs! When your praises go up, your glories come down!" Throughout all this, the women on stage were steadily working themselves into a frenzy, pacing back and forth, necks taut and straining with the tension of their prayers, hands beating in rhythm to the music.

It was about this point in the service that a woman sitting in front of me fell out on the floor, hands fluttering at her chest and tears streaming down her face. Everyone just sort of moved the chairs out of the way so that she wouldn't hit her head as she slumped down, then several women hurried over with shawls to cover her legs so that her nether regions wouldn't be exposed during her raptures.

Around this same time, I noticed one of the women on stage was lying down, also in a sort of rapturous exaltation. However, unlike the woman in front of me who got up after about 10 minutes, this woman stayed on the floor throughout the next three hours of the service, intermittently flapping a body part such as a hand or a foot, or rolling onto her stomach and shaking all four limbs in the air. In between times, she would lie there, seemingly worn out. Had I not been in a church and seen everyone else's nonchalant response, I would have said her asterixis was acting up again (can't remember if I spelled that right). I personally think she just wanted to take a nap, and felt she had to keep up the act every now and then. Of course, she could really have been touched by the Holy Spirit. As for me, I don't want to be touched by anything I can't see.

After another hour or so of singing, it was time for the sermon, and it was just as animated as one could hope for. Several different people came up to preach, and each had their own style, though they all fell under the "televangelist" heading. And sure enough, the service was being filmed for broadcast in the local areas. That's when my big debut came about. They called all new members up to the front, so I and about 20 others had to get up in front of this enormous crowd, and I quickly introduced myself in isiZulu as both Lindsay Wiggins and Lwandle Ndunakazi, and left it at that. Several people then came up to green us, and were extremely sweet and excited as they shook my hand. I don't think they'd ever had a white person there before, but like in all other aspects, they were thrilled when I came in to share in their experiences. So for a while at least, I was on South African church TV. Wonder what they thought about that.

Eventually, it came time for those people in the crowd who felt as though they needed to be saved, or resaved, or something like that (it was Zulu), to come to the front and kneel down. This was when I determined the significance of the women with the shawls. Several of them lined up behind the group of about 75 people kneeling in front and passed out shawls to each other, I assume so that they could rush in and cover any female in the group overcome with the Holy Spirit. I suppose this happens enough that they're prepared and have now appointed this guerilla-style fashion police. Maybe it's just me, but I would think that if God caused you to fall over in ecstasy at his presence, He could at least have the decency to cover up your legs for you. Either that, or maybe relax the standard about women having to wear skirts.

Anyway, the service ended up with more singing and dancing. After four hours, the entire while I having been a good, respectful, diligent Southern daughter who appreciated the people I was with and the fact that this was a cultural experience I would likely never have again, I had to excuse myself. I intended to give my mind a rest by sitting in the car and reading my science fiction book (oh, sweet science). Shortly thereafter, however, my host family came out and joined me. They, too, were worn out (the service had apparently run long even for them; usually its only about three and a half hours), and no one seemed to be surprised by the fact that I couldn't hang.

So, I hope everyone takes this post in the manner in which it was intended, not to make fun or make light of a truly wonderful group of people and their admirable enthusiasm in their style of worship. But I can't help but treat this form of religious expression with the same skepticism that I treat all religions. I mean, really, is it any more believable that wine turns to blood with a few magic words, or that everything that doesn't go right in life can be explained by God's divine plan (as in, "Damn it, I didn't win the lottery when I know there were about 1.3 million other people also praying to win. Must be that Plan everyone is talking about, as opposed to just pure friggin' chance."), than that a demon spirit possessed my host cousin a few weeks ago because she believes there were Satanists in the crowd at church (which she believes happened; again, more on this later)?

Anyway, I hope I haven't stepped on too many toes with this blog, and that everyone will keep reading. I suppose I'm just bitter because religion has managed to corner the marked on expressive forms of belief. How would it go over if we could get the scientists to jump on this bandwagon? "Thank you...Ein-stein! Thank you... Ein-stein! As the mass...uh-goes down...the uh-energy...approaches the spay-eed...of light!"

So, as for this week's pictures. The first is me with my host brother in my first home, Thulani. After a few weeks, he finally warmed up to me, and began calling me "Sisi," meaning "sister,"and making me feel very special. The next is several of our group dressed up at the farewell dinner we had for our host families during training. From L to R are Doug, wearing clothing from Swaziland; Grace, wearing Xhosa; Ntokozo, one of our LCFs, wearing her Zulu outfit; Leah, wearing Ndebele; and Matt--I forget now, but I'll remember later. It's like a veritable African Red Carpet Awards. The next pic is me with a bunch of PCVs at one of our few opportunities to go to a real restaurant, followed by a pic of me with Ntokozo and Bongiwe at our 5K Fun Run we put on. Next is a pic of the kids at the start of our 5K race, followed by a shot of the gorgeous view we had at Newcastle when we were there for a Supervisor's Workshop. Anyway, I love and miss everybody! Hope you're all doing well, and that Mama Jean's finger is doing better. Write me, text me, email me, comment me.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

My Vanity Fair

So this weekend was full of interesting cultural experiences. I was invited by a colleague at work to spend the weekend with his family in a nearby township, attending a wedding and church with them, and I was surprised how much many of these "traditional" activities have become so similar to American or westernized traditions.
Before launching into all that, I'll give a bit of background on the activities surrounding weddings, as they still retain a good deal of the more historical cultural elements. Initially, when a man wants to marry a woman, he has to pay what is called lobola, a kind of bride price, to her family. This is done in the form of eleven cows. This is quite expensive--each cow is approx. 6000 Rand, or $850, for a grand total of ~$10K. Eight of the cows represent a monetary payment to the family, one cow is meant for the mother-of-the-bride in thanks for having given birth to her, and two cows are for the bride: symbols of her virginity and the future children she will bear in the marriage. But here's the thing: if a girl already has a child (the only time her virginity can conclusively be said to no longer be present), the man only has to pay nine cows. I suppose this can be seen as either a good thing or a bad thing depending on your point of view. Like everything else, recent historical events have had a direct impact on the practice. With the introduction of apartheid, the population became more and more poverty-stricken, making marriages less common as men were unable to pay the lobola. With this, more and more women had babies prior to becoming married, so much so that now I don't think it's considered in any way a detriment or shameful. Instead, it's just another thing to be taken into consideration, like if a fiance' has a lot of student loan debt (that's me!). But this may not be accurate, and instead a mistake on my part due to language and cultural barriers. Regardless, there's a lot of people raising children while unmarried.

Heads up: ever since I've been here, there has been talk of little else but someone paying lobola for me, as in, oh, haha, we'll find you a husband, oh, haha, this man will pay lobola for you, etc, etc. However, whosoever should embark upon this task would find it a difficult one to accomplish, as my host mother has now made the stipulation that he should have to pay fifteen cows for me; eleven to her and the family here (I presume for being here so that I could come and find a husband) and four to my real family in the States (I was told four is just a good number). But don't worry, Mom and Dad; for people who live in cities, or, for example, overseas, it's not necessary to take the cows, as nowadays money can change hands instead.

All that being said, to the wedding. The first night, generally a Friday evening, a large party is given and the two families exchange gifts. Many of the presents are what we would recognize as more traditionally wedding related, but others are historically tribal based, such as food and blankets. I haven't actually been to one of these parties yet, but I've been told there is a tradition of wrapping the women of the families up in thick, heavy blankets one by one (remember, this is South Africa, where the temp is in the 80s or above for 10 months out of the year with no air conditioning at these events), while they're all smiling and having their pictures taken. I'm not sure what this symbolizes, but I'll update if I find out. It is at these parties that one of the cows is slaughtered in celebration, and also to assure that there will be enough food at the wedding the next day (generally there is no guest list, everyone is welcome). Apparently, this has become a source of conflict, especially in areas where blacks and whites live relatively close to one another. The whites don't slaughter cows, see it as cruel, and complain that it's messy and brings in flies. Even some of the young black South Africans are developing mixed feelings about this particular tradition, so I'm not sure how much further into the 21st century it will last. As for my part, I couldn't stand to watch an animal be slaughtered and then say, "Oh, yes, this is delicious, good thing we murdered it in front of our little ones," but I also don't want all the traditions of the world to slowly be replaced with McDonald's and Coca-Cola and Wal-Mart.

The next day, Saturdays, are usually reserved for a Westernized ceremony, complete with white dress and veil, bridesmaids in matching dresses, cutting the cake and tossing the bouquet (which I almost caught). Even the decorations were similar, with white chair covers tied with sashes and draped guazy material everywhere (although the colors were African themed--white with black, brown, yellow, and leopard-print touches; very pretty). However, the ceremony was spiced up with the fact that the wedding party all danced down the aisle and back, there was a much more free-flowing atmosphere to the entrire thing,and the reception seemed an extension of the ceremony itself. There is a great sense of excitement and a feeling that all are responsible in some part for making the ceremony complete, as music and dancing are much more organic at these kinds of events, and people join in and often take the lead as they feel compelled.

Sundays are reserved for the capstone of the weekend, the traditional African wedding. Unfortunately, I have not yet been able to attend one of these, but be assured I'll post when I do. So you may be wondering how I responded living with a new family (the third so far) for a weekend while experiencing all these new and fascinating sights? Well, this little social climber didn't disappoint. Firstly, I was not exactly appropriatly dresed, as everyone here dresses much more fashionably than we Americans do--looking nice is of utmost importance here and shows your respect for others, and they were all dressed in cute little dresses and skirts, and I had my dowdy, long black skirt (which I actually rather like). I then managed to spill a bottle of sparkling red grape juice all over my white sirt and the white tablecloth when I was asked to pop the cork. Later, we went home and I managed to lock myself in their bathroom (oh, sweet, hot, running water), then break the key off in the lock trying to get out. My colleague had to rescue me by taking the handle off the door. The to top off the day, I managed to recreate Becky Sharp's little scene of choking on the hot chilies while trying to impress the host family--"oh, yes, I'm a Southerner, we just love spicy food." Lastly, several times this weekend I walked into the room where I was staying and noticed a strange smell. I didn't know where this was coming from as the room was clean, my clothes were clean, I was clean, etc. Then I had a terrifying thought--am I the stinky foreigner now?
Anyway, that's it for this entry. One last thought--I just explained to the father of the family that no, American wresting isn't real in the sense that he thinks it is. I felt like I was telling a five-year old there was no Santa Claus.

Enjoy the pics, although they don't relate to this post. The first is of myself and friends Claire and Ryan in our first ever khumbi ride--this was one of those death traps on wheels, but we made it fine. As you can see, this was a sweaty day for me. The second is of a vervet monkey, one of the many at the nature reserve where we had classes for the first eight weeks. They were bold enough to steal lunchboxes, and I even got one to eat out of my hand (I know it's bad, but I was having a bad day and needed some animal cuteness). The next is of several gogos (grandmothers) in their traditional Ndebele clothing. These were drumming while several other did a dance for us when we first met our host families (if I'm ever able to post the video I took of them, I will). The last is...wait for it...the pit toilet. Yes, this is it, complete with enormous spiders and lots of flies, though, surprisingly, not that stinky.

Hope you're all doing well. Love hearing from you, and yes, I can get email now if anyone wants shoot me a line.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Grapes of Wrath

So although I will have more to post later about my further adventures in my first South African home, I'm going to move on to my new (and final) location. The transition from being a Peace Corps Trainee to a Peace Corps Volunteer was not without its share of Peace Corps moments (namely, tons of baggage, fifty people all scrambling to do different things, complaining about such and such, no longer any respect for our poor, bedraggled PC Training Intructor, Victor, etc, etc). In the midst of all this, we were sworn in as true, honest-to-God PCVs. For the first time in 8 weeks, we were able to get dressed up and have a ceremony to commenorate this momentous occasion in all our lives. It wasn't quite as formal as all that, but it was very nice, and considering we'd all had a very nice time the night before, hanging out like dirty, sloppy Americans, it was just the thing to top off our training experience. At the ceremony, we sang both the American and South African anthems, then took the same pledge that members of Congress take (sorry, Brice, beat you to the punch). Anyway, after much photo-taking and general to-do (of course I'd forgotten my camera), we were off, perhaps never to see each other again (except during Mid-Service Training, In-Service Training, Close of Service stuff, etc, etc). It's surprising how quickly you become grand friends with 36 other people when you put them in a situation like this.

Then after much hugging and Good Lucks!, I was out to the parking lot to find that, actually, I would not be setting out on this voyage of discovery all alone, at least not just yet. In fact, I would be traveling the rest of that day with five other PCVs who were all going to the same general part of the country. That was the good part. However, we then realized that, in our supervisors' efforts to save what little money their organizations could afford, we would all be riding together in one mini-van taxi, along with our six supervisors and three drivers/guys to help with luggage (that's fifteen). Additionally, we had our six bedding comforters, six large blankets, pillows, twelve overstuffed pieces of luggage, twelve carry-on bags, and approximately 36 random articles ranging from bags of books to portable fans to water filters, crock-pots and electric kettles (I like my electric kettle). Did I mention that this was in one khumbi? And that it had a prominently displayed sign that said, "Maximum 13 passengers, 0 kg luggage?" Anyway, it was quite an experience, one person having to stand for three hours in the middle of all our stuff literally packed to the ceiling around us, and the roof piled on top with the stuff that might have actually killed us had we wrecked. (I remember thinking that if we did in fact wreck, I didn't know if we'd be fine because we were so well padded, or if we'd all die slow, tragic, sweaty deaths buried under a mountain of stuff from which they'd never be able to retrieve our mangled forms.) Anyway, we eventually picked up a trailer, reloaded it and set off again. Surprisingly, we and all our stuff arrived at our individual sites safe and in one piece.

The area of the country in which I am now posted is on the eastern coast of the Indian Ocean near Richards Bay. It's absolutely gorgeous, lush and green and semi-tropical, with light misting rains several days a week. The wide stretches of green are even more pronounced because of the fields of sugarcane and groves of tall, thin gum trees making up the majority of local vegetation. When the wind blows through these trees, hard and insistently as it so often does here, it sounds like the ocean at home, being back on the water with the wind rushing past your ears and the water chopping along under the boat. Fruit trees grow huge and abundantly; mango trees like oaks and avocado trees dropping fruit the size of grapefruits are found throughout the region, including, happily, in my yard.

The beach is not too far removed, only a short drive away (supposedly a short walk as well, but I've not yet had someone show me where to go). The beach was amazing, white sand stretching on for probably 300 yards, waves crashing at one end, and on the other side a small cliff-like wall of sand and rock covered with trees and home to numerous vervet monkeys running around and onto the sand. For some reason, the locals don't use the beach much, and many talk as though the last time they went was many years ago; there were only a few other people out the day I went with a friend. If this were in the States, it would be covered in condos and beach chairs and colorful, tacky umbrellas. Needless to say, if I can figure out how to walk there, and talk down my host family's fears of me going by myself, this is going to become my new retreat. I think this is very appropriate that I should be living here on the beach, and come from the beach at home, as my Zulu name is Lwandle--I may have mentioned this somewhere else, but the name means "ocean" and "traveler."

My host family at my final site is really wonderful, a mother and father (JZ and Mike) with two young sons (Thalente and Sipheto), all of them as sweet and kind as I could hope for. My host mother is a kindergarten teacher at a school just a three minute walk down the road, and my host father works at one of the local industries on the docks (Richards Bay is a fairly large port), but they are both quite entrepreneurial as well, she selling bags and shoes on the weekends, and he owning several small business ventures as well as some real estate. The family is quite well off, and the home is a two bedroom with a kitchen and living room, and, glory of glories, a bathroom (my new standard of high living)! There is no running water inside, but there's a large barrel of water in the bathroom they refill everyday with a hose that is used to flush the toilet and take a bath. So no more bucket baths for me! Although I still have to heat my own water (in my electric kettle!), this is a small price to pay in order to lay down in a tub.

My pointing out that the family is well off has less to do with gloating on their behalf than it has to do with commending them for the ways in which they use their status. As I've written before, the families often live together in sort of compounds, and my host family has five or six other smaller homes surrounding theirs. Additionally, they help support many of these family members, and have become surrogate parents to many related children whose parents have died. When I first met my host dad, he proudly told me he had 13 children. I tried to politely hide my disbelief and untintentional judgement. I now realize he means he is supporting that many. I've not heard how any of these other relatives have died, and I think often if someone is ill, especially in the case of HIV due to the local stigma, they are not public about it; instead, as the person sickens and weakens, they simply become more closeted and hidden in their homes, and later they are simply said to have died because they were ill.

On that topic, the organization I'm working for is one of several satellite stations of an NGO called NOAH Ark (Nurturing Orphans of Aids for Humanity). This is an OVC (Orphans and Vulnerable Children) organization which identifies children who are orphans (not necessarily of AIDS) or classified as "vulnerable" meaning they are living in some sort of undesirable circumstances, meaning their parent(s)/guardian is too sick to care for them, there is abuse in the home, or they are living in a child-headed household. The org is based at the nearby school that my host mother works at, and we provide hot, (somewhat) healthy lunches to them daily. The org also assists in geting the children's birth certificates if they don't already have one so that they can apply for governmental assistace, as well as provide the children with school uniforms, blankets, or any other available items. Currently they feed about 300 children daily, and have a daycare for those too young to be in school.

As this has become a long post, I'll stop here for now and only say that, I'm sure you'll all be thrilled to know I now have my first South African infestation. I think this must be some form of bedbugs, but whatever it is, I have the dreaded itchy bump disease, bane of good explorers and travelers throughout time immemorable. So wish me well, and more effective fingernails. Salani kahle!

P.S. At this point, I've lost the cable to my camera to upload my photos, so I'll put up ones of my new site in a later post.