Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Turkey and Post-Turkey

Hope everyone enjoyed their Thanksgiving. I certainly did, but ever since then I've been suffering from a mild viral infection. Being sick in a village setting is draining, especially when I'm busy trying to wrap up my schoolwork and domestic chores in time for my vacation. So, if you've been trying to get in touch with me lately, thank you, I always enjoy hearing from you, but I've been a little too wiped out lately to formulate a coherent response.

Anyways... Thanksgiving!

Just like last year, I went into Kuruman to a guesthouse where the owner prepared a fabulous feast for about a dozen Americans (all volunteers). There were not one, not two, but three whole turkeys and we ate all of them over the course of the day. I baked four loaves of psimo spitiko (sp), and they were a hit. Other volunteers prepared banana bread and apple pies, everything was delicious. It was such a refreshing change from my regular village fare of rice and beans or bread and peanut butter. After the meal, and the Christmas crackers which contained both very self-explanatory crowns and completely inexplicable pink plastic bits, E brought out a surprise. It was a hand-drawn board game.

E is a fantastic artist, as well as my roommate during staging. Her board game was loosely based on Monopoly. Each player started out with R500 and had to make their way around the board without going bankrupt. Each place on the board was somehow related to Peace Corps and/or South Africa, and there were both PC acronym cards and Ga Ke Itse (I don't know) question cards as well. I took several pictures of the board. It was almost too beautiful to play on, especially considering the dirty rocks we were using as pieces. Anyway, I suffered a brutal loss after being sent back to PST and then spending a few too many nights clubbing in Pretoria. Other players suffered such fates as being trapped at taxi ranks, tied to other volunteers in a relationship and being stuck on indefinite medical leave in Pretoria. Such is life.

After Thanksgiving was, of course, Black Friday, which K and I duly celebrated with a trip to uber-cheap clothing retailer, Mr Price. Afterwards I made my way to a classier part of town to spend the rest of my weekend with some Afrikaaner friends. I went swimming, played chess, worked on my language skills, watched rugby and cricket and generally lazed about. The feasting continued with a braai Saturday night with several other families. (SA rubgy played England and won, finally.) As much as I love a good bacon roll washed down by cheesecake, all the rich food left me feeling less than well. That, combined with whatever virus I picked up, led to my spending most of Sunday sleeping off the previous few days.

I'm feeling a bit better, but still a little rough around the edges. I hope to spend as much time resting as possible between now and next week in order to be in tip-top shape for my upcoming vacation.

Oh, and one last thing that some of you may get a kick out of. It's been raining quite a bit lately, and the pit toilet in the backyard could not take it any more. It has caved in. So if you were thinking about how "Posh Corps" SA is based on my long weekends spent eating, shopping and swimming, let me say that right now, I would trade in everything for a decent hole in the ground.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


As much as I bashed Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love the other day, I will cop to one sentiment I wholeheartedly share.

"Maybe we must all give up trying to pay back the people in this world who sustain our lives. In the end, maybe it's wiser to surrender before the miraculous scope of human generosity and to just keep saying thank you, forever and sincerely, for as long as we have voices."

Happy Thanksgiving! And thank you.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Anthropological Study: SA Mating Rituals: The Jive

Bar, club, lounge, tavern, whatever you call it, and wherever it is, the same scene plays out again and again.

There is music of the loud and thumping variety and there are men and women hoping to attract each other with the awesomeness of their dance moves.In South Africa, however, people do not dance. They jive. The best way I can describe what jiving looks like is as follows:

Imagine a tyrannosaurus rex with its really small arms. Now imagine a person imitating a crimpled, limp tyrannosaurus rex. Shoulders up, elbows in, wrists flapping in the breeze. Got it? Okay, now picture said person hurling their body with great force in a series of random directions at high speed. In order to prevent themselves from toppling over entirely, they keep their feet in constant motion. It might appear that they are attempting to trip themselves. In fact, they are just trying to remain vertical.

Done well, this display is quite impressive. Done poorly, well, it's still a lot more interesting than what you might see in America.

Intellectual Snobbery

I'm a voracious reader, but not particularly discerning. I consume books of all types: trashy, high-brow, best-sellers and basically whatever I can get my paws on. I just like to read. Quality is a secondary concern. Often I find popular books highly entertaining, if not particularly enlightening, hence my love of authors like Sophie Kinsella. So regardless of my collection fancy Russian literature, I do not consider myself a snob.

A few months ago, while perusing the library at the Peace Corps office in Pretoria, I heard another volunteer state that she did not read popular books. Mentally, I instantly catgorized her under "snob". Well, maybe she is and maybe she isn't, but I should apologize because I definitely am.

Long, long ago I stumbled across a Newsweek that reviewed two very popular books in America: Julie Powell's Julie and Julia and Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love. Finally, I have read them both. In my humble opinion, they were terrible. I had trouble getting through them. Powell and Gilbert are not masters of the written word. Their stories were fundamentally interesting, but their narratives wandered. Their voices came off as whiny and unsympathetic. It's tough to be a W.A.S.P. in America these days. We (Gilbert and Powell) deserve more. We're destined for greatness! Life as it is is just so unsatisfying. That was the message I got. Also, according to Gilbert, if I'm not happily married at 34 I should just roll into a ball and pray for divine intervention because 34 is just so terribly OLD! She, at the time of writing, was not even part of More magazine's target demographic! (If you don't get that reference, good, you're not a forty year old woman looking for fashion tips and insipiring stories of reinvention.) Ugh. Ridiculous books, but at least we got two decent movies out of them.

We have yet to get a decent film out of Alexander McCall's Ladies' Detective Agency series, but I have also been consistently underwhelmed by those books. I recommend them if you're interested in seTswana culture, but if you just want a good mystery, look elsewhere.

Looking back on books that I have enjoyed I find more evidence of my snobbery. I absolutely loved Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy. I think that's my favorite book ever, all 900 pages of it. Other members of my personal hit parade are historical biographies and non-fiction. I'm a nerd. And a snob. I'm a nerb. Or a snerd.

Crazy Animal Lady

If Rustenburg (Rusty, Rusters, Rustafarian) had lived, today would have marked 1 year since he came into my life. I still miss him. He was a wonderful dog.

The people here in Loopeng seem to agree with me. They actually liked Rusty. He was (relatively) calm, well-behaved and friendly. Shaka Zulu, on the other hand, is nuts. Totally and completely crazy. Insane. The vet seems to think this is good. He's got plenty of energy. It means he's healthy. I keep trying to convince myself of that every morning at 5 a.m. when he decides to start using my feet as chew toys. There may be less pleasant ways to wake up, but I don't know them.

I was afraid that Shaka's ferocity would set me back a couple light-years in my quest to convince people that animals can be pets, companions, not punching bags. Sometimes even I want to punch that little beast. Anyhow, it seems that my fears were unfounded. I got home from school today to find a half-dozen neighbor kids playing with Shaka. They were tossing around his rope toy and, of course, playing tug-of-war as "Drop it" is not yet a phrase the dog recognizes. Anyways, it warmed my heart to see children actually having fun with a dog in a respectful manner (i.e. not causing the dog any physical harm). While I doubt people will soon start putting collars and leashes on their dogs and going for evening walks, at least the concept of "play" has been adopted.

Since the kids had Shaka and his evening exercise under control, I wandered around to the background where my host father keeps his donkeys. I like donkeys. I think they're pretty cute. Most people here treat them like, well, I'm not sure there exists an American equivalent of the village donkey. Let's just say these animals are literal beasts of burden. Rather than harass or mistreat them, as many Loopeng-ers are apt to do, I decided to pet them. They seemed scared at first, but loosened up eventually. Just call me the donkey whisperer.

Petting a donkey is pretty weird, but what I did next was truly bizarre. I wandered into my hovel empty-handed and wandered out with 2 carrots. I wanted to feed the donkeys. This was probably not the most culturally-sensitive thing I've ever done. The carrots were perfectly suitable for human consumption, and those neighbor kids looked hungry enough, but I was intent on my donkey feeding mission.

Do you know what a donkey likes to eat?

Neither do I, but not carrots.

That's right, I could not convince them to eat my carrots! At least not in my presence. I left them on the ground and walked away eventually. The donkeys ate them then. Maybe they're just very polite? In any case, I am definitely the crazy animal lady. Who knows what creature I'll adopt next?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Middle of Nowhere

Rolling into Kuruman on a taxi from Pretoria is a bit of an exercise in contradiction. On the one hand, it is generally a relief to be that much closer to "home", but on the other hand it is usually late in the evening when I arrive and I am instantly presented with a conundrum. Where to sleep for the night? Guesthouses are nice, but expensive. Friends are welcoming, but I hate to take advantage. On my last trip to the big city, I decided to avoid the issue altogether. I decided to stay with a friend in Vryburg.

It was great. I met her in town and we took a taxi to her village. I love visiting other volunteers' sites. It's so interesting to see how differently we live in such similar circumstances. We did some baking, a lot of dishwashing, but mostly just gabbed the night away. I was sad to leave the next morning, but leave I did.

This volunteer had managed to get to my site from Vryburg before. She had no difficuly, so I didn't anticipate any. Silly me. Once at the taxi rank I was informed that there were no taxis to Loopeng, but I could take one to a nearby village and then catch another taxi from there. At the time, this seemed not only plausible, but possible.

After waiting several hours for the taxi to leave the rank, I was crushed when we suffered a flat tire just after leaving Vryburg. It took a while to fix, but eventually we were on the road again.

Instead of taking a direct route through the Moshaweng valley, this taxi went wandering through the bush. It was scenic, but as the day wore on I started getting nervous. Where was I? How close to home?

Fading hopes started to turn to panic when the taxi suffered another puncture. Once again it was repaired, but by then the sun was setting. We drove on.

Eventually I was the only passenger left on the taxi. The driver arranged a ride for me to a village I recognized as only about 30 km from mine. When we arrived it was completely dark. There were no taxis. I was in trouble. Panic turned into a giant ocean of despair and I was beginning to drown.

Luckily, there was a tuck shop not too far from the road. I wandered in and lo and behold! A learner from Moshaweng was perched on the counter. She took me under her wing and tried valiantly to get one of her friends to come rescue us. I clung to this faint hope, but alas, rescue in the form of a motor vehicle never arrived. Rescue in the form of a kindly tuck shop owner who gave me a blanket and a place on her floor surely did arrive. I was exhausted and slept like a rock, despite the constant hum of house music.

The next day we woke up bright and early and walked out to the tar road, where we sat and sat and sat and sat and sat and sat and waited for a taxi to come along and take pity on us. I read Morality for Beautiful Girls by Alexander McCall Smith. I had almost finished when salvation, in the form of four wheels and an engine, finally showed up.

24 hours after I left my friend's place, I made it home to choirs of "Sego, where have you been?"

It was a long story.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Uncontrollable Rage

After more than a year here in South Africa, one would think that I had developed a tolerance for all of the little things that make life here what it is. Instead, I find myself growing less tolerant as time goes on. When the school staff breaks into song while I am grading papers in the library, I no longer consider it a cultural quirk. I am deeply annoyed by it. When men in the taxi rank decide that I must give them my phone number, I have no patience to smile and brush them off politely. Instead, I am all but quivering with rage. It takes very little to set me off. I called an Afrikaans friend, and when she answered the phone in Afrikaans, as I knew she would, it bothered me. Listening to people speak seTswana, a language in which nearly every word ends in a vowel, can drive me to the brink of insanity. My anger is baseless and aimless. There's no reason to explain it and certainly no appropriate outlet to express it.

This shamed me for a while. I felt guilty about being unable to enjoy some of South Africa's quirkier elements. It seemed like everyone else I knew had managed to make the adjustment and wasn't suffering bouts of fist-clenching anger in response to perfectly innocuous incidents. Alas, things are not always what they seem, and, as it turns out, I am not the only volunteer suffering from the effects of extreme frustration.

On my last trip to Pretoria, I met a friend. We hung out, did the usual things, got caught in a rainstorm, hopped a taxi... and a perfectly lovely day was nearly destroyed by our lack of tolerance for what we should have come to expect.

The taxi stopped so passengers could get out and switch to taxis more appropriate for their destination. We were headed to Bloed Street and it seemed as soon as we were directed to the Bloed Street taxi, it disappeared within the crowded, busy, muddy, rainy melee. Everyone was perfectly unhelpful. My friend and I were separated at one point. Some yelling ensued. All in all it was rather unpleasant, but instead of just letting it roll off our backs, our emotions ran a little high. We dubbed our feeling U.R., which stands for uncontrollable rage.

Hopefully this will subside soon. I think I just need a vacation.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

American Democracy: The View from Zimbabwe

I was sitting in a taxi, stuck in commuter traffic between Pretoria and Johanessburg, the day after the midterm elections in the US. The radio was tuned to a program I had never heard before, some talk program out of Zimbabwe. After the usual morning cracks about the trials and tribulations of the working masses midweek, the discussion got a little more serious when it turned to the recent elections.

While most Americans seem to be oscillating between disgust, anger, frustration and total apathy, the Zimbabweans went straight to the silver lining of the Republican take-over of the House. In America, so they claimed, there are no second chances. If an elected official tries, and then fails, to meet a campaign promise or the duties of the office, that's it. After just a couple years in power, the Democrats are out. In Africa, on the other hand, the people are far too forgiving. "He just needs more time. He'll fix the economy in the next term," the people say. They've been saying this about Robert Mugabe for thirty years now.

So while our political system may grind to a halt as the parties bicker, at least it is unlikely that any of our newly elected officials are likely to stay elected for long. Meanwhile who knows how long the current governments will maintain their iron grips on the continent of Africa?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Pioneer Days

At most American elementary schools (in the Northeast at least), there is a delightful period of study often known as "Pioneer Days" in which young students are invited, to some degree, to reenact, through field trips and hands-on activities, the lifestyle of real pioneers. The definition of "pioneer" is generally loose. I've seen it applied to everyone from the earliest colonists at Roanoke to those preoccupied with Manifest Destiny centuries later. I suppose technically the "Pioneer Day" equivalent of the former should properly be called "Colonial Day".

In any case, I always enjoyed "Pioneer Days". There were visits to one-room school houses, days on end spent playing dress up and even one field trip all the way out to Plymouth. Unfortunately, try as I might, I never really felt like a pioneer. Not even weeks of playing Oregon Trail on the computer, or essentially LARPing it in Mr. C's fifth grade class ever gave me a genuine sense of what a pioneer's daily life looked and felt like.

Finally, a decade later, Peace Corps has given me that experience. I realized this while elbow deep in flour, kneading bread. I wasn't making bread for the sheer joy of baking. I was making bread out of an actual need. The shop was out and I was hungry. Similarly, I do not always go for long walks in the desert for pleasure. I go because I need to get somewhere and my two feet are all I've got. The same goes for hopping rides on donkey carts going to fetch water, doing laundry outside in a bucket and any number of other things that you may consider quaint or old-timey, but I now consider part of everyday life.

Living like a pioneer in the Peace Corps isn't so bad, but I do miss the costumes. It's pity I left my bonnet back in the States.

For those of you who don't know what LARPing is, it stands for live action role-playing. I can't remember my character from fifth grade, but I think my husband almost drowned while fording the Platte. I definitely lost of few oxen, and my children died of cholera. Fifth grade was pretty scarring for me, but at least my table (ahem, wagon) didn't turn into the Donner Party.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Examinations and the Last Term

They should call the fourth and final school term of the year the lost term. It seems like there were only a few weeks of actual teaching. Already we are in deep into National Senior Certificate Exams with local exams to start on Wednesday. Following a couple weeks of testing, educators will spend another week on paperwork before schools officially close for the "summer" break. The learning process ceased long, long ago, but the school calendar continues for another month.

During the examination period teaching is replaced by invigilating, or proctoring for all you Americans. Generally I don't mind invigilating. Yes, it is exceptionally boring, but there is nothing tortuous about monitoring an exam, passing out scrap paper and facilitating the sharing of calculators, rulers and rubbers. The NSC exams, however, are awful.

Invigilators for these nation-wide exams must be appointed and are expected to attend a training session prior to the start of exams. I was appointed and attended the training, led by the principal in the library afterschool one day. It, like most trainings, was incredibly lengthy and mind-numbingly boring. Essentially, the trainees were read a list of the many things invigilators are not permitted to do during an examination, such as: eat, drink, chew gum, wear heels, sit down or stand still. These exans are often three hours long. Invigilators are permitted one break.

If the rules don't shock and horrify you sufficiently, picture this: a regular sized classroom crammed with three rows of writing tables, two lined up againts the walls with the third arranged in the middle. This leaves two narrow rows and some space near the blackboard for walking. Now imagine that you must remain in constant motion for several hours contained in that tiny space. If that sounds like something you would enjoy, you are more than welcome to hop on a plane, move to my village and come do it for me because it is just about the least fun I've had all year.

While generally I have found the classroom experience a bit less of a drag from the teacher's side of the desk, I find myself wishing to be a student during exam time. I would rather take the NSC exams than invigilate them.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

I'm Back!

The test is over, and I will return to intermittent blogging soon. I look forward to boring you all with exciting tales of taxis, examinations, baboons, piracy and, of course, the elections (from a bizarre African perspective). I can sense how thrilled you all are from here.

Check back soon!