Thursday, December 1, 2011

Time and Purpose

I have a problem with time. It's moving too quickly! Exams are over, my marks are completed and my teacher career is almost past the finish line. This Saturday is my farewell party. There are people coming in from town, Deorham and, of course, all over Loopeng. I will be back "home" in upstate New York in three weeks.

I'm excited. I'm nervous. I'm a little bit nauseous. I'm frantic. I haven't started packing! I'm surprised. I never once thought time would move so quickly. I thought this experience would never end, and now it almost has.

I've made an uneasy peace with the work I got done. I did my best. Maybe it was enough and maybe it wasn't, but the whole Peace Corps experience was a net positive for both myself and the various places I worked. I'm content.

Loopeng will be a difficult place to leave. Just yesterday I went for lovely walk along the riverbed and discovered a part of the village that was entirely new to me. After all the time I've spent here, and I'm still learning and seeing new things. My favorite discovery was one of those balloon-ish flowers that opens only at night. This one is huge, and tucked right up against the village's largest thoroughfare. I must have walked right past before. Now, I'm trying to soak up every detail.

People keep asking when I'll come back. I have no idea. I want to come back and visit, but I don't think "coming back" is really possible. I can't come back to my life here. I'm sure I'll wish I could. As rough as it's been, it has its charms.

Another Peace Corps friend wrote to me recently about readjusting to life back in the States. What she missed most about life here really resonated with me: living a life with purpose.

Lots of people have purpose in their lives. Teachers influence young lives, doctors save them, families raise them. But many people don't. Many people just get up everyday and go to work. For what? To earn a paycheck? To earn money for an anonymous corporation? For nothing?

Life as a Peace Corps volunteer has purpose: make the world a better place. The task may be entirely impossible, but it's there. It's something to strive for, to get out of bed for, day after day, disaster after disaster. I hope my return to America doesn't mean a return to my prior life as a purpose-less amoeba.

Tomorrow's a big day. I'm headed to town to blow my entire paycheck on party supplies. My family's borrowed a grill and invested in a new soundsystem. I'm going to buy wors and pap and beer. I may be leaving soon, but I'm going out with a bang!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Heat and Humor

In case you haven't noticed, I have been blogging a lot lately. There are a few reasons. First of all, I suspect you will all lose interest as soon as I leave South Africa so I want to jabber on as much as possible while I still have your attention. Secondly, I have a lot of free time at the moment. Learners are busy writing exams, but they haven't yet written mine, so I'm in that awkward limbo where I'm not teaching, not marking and yet I'm still attending school. Anyway, here's another post that's been percolating in the back of my head for a while.

"How do you keep from getting depressed?" is a frequently asked question for Peace Corps volunteers. My reaction is always, "Uh, what makes you think I'm not depressed?" I once cried at a dinner party because there was so much food and the other guests kept rattling on about orphans, which led me to thinking about one particular orphan I live with who cries every day because he's hungry. True story. I am frequently depressed. However, nothing can jolt a person out of a depression-induced funk quite like a hearty laugh, so for that I turn to the following:


This is a webcomic I've been reading for years. I'm not sure where or when I first came across it, but it has remained consistently funny. It's got a strong nerdish bent, so it's not exactly slapstick comedy, but if you know just a bit about math, physics and computer science then I'm sure it'll put a smile on your face every now and then. It updates Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at

Hyperbole and a Half

This is not quite a blog and not quite a webcomic, but it is 100% awesome. Allie, the author, describes her life experiences using amusing narrative interrupted by stick-figure illustration done in Paint (or a similar low-brow program). I cannot tell you how many times I have laughed out loud at her descriptions of social entrapment, the antics of her dogs, her childhood out West and her near-death experience in Texas. She's writing a book now, so the website is rarely updated, but the archives are worth a look at

David Thorne

This guy is an Australian comedian whose schtick seems to be harassing anyone and everyone he comes into contact with. His attempts to settle a bill using a drawing of a spider, design a missing cat poster, invite himself to a party and refusal to collaborate with a colleague are particularly memorable. You can find them at

In other news, it is finally hot in the Kalahari. It reached 100 degrees before noon today. It wouldn't be so bad if there was any hint of rain, but the sky is blindingly clear.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011


South Africa may be home to several of the largest cities on the entire continent, but it is also home to a mind-blowing level of total dysfunction in some areas.

I went to the post office last week to pick up a package. It was work-related, so don't get too excited. Anyway, here in South Africa, you must present ID to retrieve a package. For locals, this requirement is satisfied by their Orwellian ID books. Foreigners need to present a passport.

Standing in line, I suddenly realized that under no circumstances could I surrender my passport. I settled on my Peace Corps ID instead, which has my passport number on it.

I rocked up to the window. Passed over my package slip and ID. The post master frowned. My ID expired on September 16th, my original COS date. I explained that my contract had been renewed, but I had yet to receive a new hardcopy ID. He sighed deeply and asked for my passport. I shook my head. He sighed again and went off to fetch my package.

Why did I refuse to show him my passport? Because my visa is expired! The Department of Home Affairs has had my application for months, but they have yet to formally grant my extension. I'm officially in limbo. As exciting as it is to be an outlaw, it's also pretty annoying. South Africa has an obsession with indentification, so a valid passport would be most helpful. As I have no plans to leave the country between now and December, I'm okay, but come December 20th they better let me on that plane.


After two and a half years in South Africa, I am leaving next month. While I am all kinds of sad and depressed one minute and crazed with joy and excitement the next, most bizarre to me is that people here just don't seem to get it. They keep telling me how much they'll miss me, then they try to load me up with work for the next term. I explain that I won't be here and then they beg me to extend my contract. I shake my head, they shake theirs and we settle at a kind of awkward impasse.

Part of the problem, of course, is me. I spent two years declaring I would leave in September, but September came and went and I'm still here. Since I obviously extended my contract once, people no doubt think it would be simple for me to do it again. As much as I would enjoy staying just a few more months, being granted a second extension is wildly unlikely and besides, I recognize the need for to start my "real" life. I have school to attend and a career to get started. I have a whole other life to get back to. As great as my experience has been here, that's all it's been, an experience. Fun, valuable and certainly educational, but it has to end. I understand that, I wish everyone else here did too.

Resettlement: A Tale of Several Villages

Here's a new perspective on the resettlement of the Moshaweng Valley. I heard it second-hand from the local priest, but I thought it interesting enough to share.

The party line about the area's history is that the people suffered a forced removal from Gatlhose (now Lohatla) to Padstow, Laxey, Slough, Deorham and Bendell. The alternate version claims there was nothing "forced" about it.

In this scenario, the government wanted the people out of Gatlhose. Either they wanted the land for military purposes, or they simply wanted the people moved into Bophutatswana. Either way, they went to the tribal chiefs and negoiated. They bought up the farms of Padstow, Laxey and so forth and offered this land to the chiefs. The chiefs came, saw all the green foliage and agreed to move themselves and their people. The move happened, people brought their cows and goats along with them, and suddenly the land wasn't so green anymore. The land's new residents weren't exactly pleased to discover that beneath all the pretty, pretty green foliage was nothing but a whole lot of sand. So now the people are less than thrilled to be living here, but at the time, apparently, there was little resistance. Granted, not everyone got a vote. Tribal societies are not democracies, a fact no doubt exploited by the apartheid government.

I guess the lesson here is yes, do look a gift horse in the mouth. What was quality farming land for a half dozen people is not necessarily quality farming land for thousands.

What I find most interesting is that finally, all the English village names have been explained. The villages were often named for the farm or farmer who originally occupied the land. Aha!

Community Task Force

Everyone who's ever worked in development knows the importance of getting community buy-in. This is probably the single most difficult aspect of development and this difficulty has been compounded in Loopeng by the lack of any sense of community amongst residents.

As I've mentioned before, Loopeng is not one village but rather the combination of many plus a large resettlement. While the roadsign may say Loopeng, generally people don't identify with that name. Instead, they insist on retaining the historic, and more specific, name of their neighborhood. For example, when the attendance sheet passed around during an examination asks for their address, learners do not just put their house number and then Loopeng. No, they put Slough, or Mampestad, or Agrico or any number of places that aren't distinct villages.

The refusal of local people to adopt Loopeng as their "official" home is quite understandable when you consider that there is no chief in Loopeng. Instead, each "neighborhood" retains their own chief.

This has all come up recently because the school I work at has decided to prepare sports grounds. The school used to have this land available, but it was requisitioned by the municipality. In order to have it returned to us, the parents have formed task teams to petition each local chief who will in turn petition the higher-ups.

I have no doubt that these parental task force teams will get the job done and our land will eventually be returned to us, but the whole episode has been a very good lesson to me in how easily off-track projects can get when you don't understand or utilize the appropriate hierarchy. Sure, this is annoying and will probably drag on and on, but it's better to do it right the first time than fight over it forever.

I should note here that the only chief I am familiar with is the one in Slough, where I live and work. Should I have gone to meet the others? Yes. Hindsight is always 20/20.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Amen in Africa

In my tiny corner of Africa, most everyone is Christian. Not being a Christian is equated with being the spawn of Satan himself and is a statement most often greeted with shock, horror and repeated attempts at conversion.Luckily, I just so happen to be a Christian. There is a Roman Catholic church in the village which I have attended a handful of times and thus, I am not too harassed by Bible-thumping locals. However, I am frequently alarmed and annoyed by life in this uber-Christian environment.

Most appalling is the intolerance displayed towards other faiths. Considering how recently the locals were converted to Christianity by missionaries, I find it bizarre how quick the people are to condemn others with different belief systems. As an American, people often attempt to bond with me over an assumed mutual hatred of Muslims. When they discover that I bear no ill will towards Muslims or Islam at all, people are stunned. "But, but it's bad! It's an evil religion," they stutter. They, of course, know nothing about Islam, but because it's not Christianity it is presumed to be something horrific and awful. If I told someone here that Muslims are cannibals who eat their own children, I would probably be believed as it conforms to the local notion of Christianity's inherent superiority. If I try to explain that Islam is a peaceful, mainstream, monotheistic faith practice, well, no such luck. No one wants to hear that.

Aside from the very un-Christian
attitude of hateful intolerance, the practice of other aspects of the Christian moral code are equally dubious. I recently attended the baptism of a friend's daughter. While I greatly enjoyed the ceremony and was honored to be invited, I could not help but marvel at the irony of the Catholic baptism of a child deliberately born outside of marriage. This is not at all uncommon. People have children before marriage to ensure they as a couple will be fertile, and also because marriages are just too expensive. This itself doesn't frustrate me, but when an unmarried man or woman with multiple partners and children comes along preaching all fire and brimstone, I get a little testy. If being a Christian is oh so important, I wish people would spend a little more time applying its principles and teachings to their own lives instead of shaking their fists in my face.

On the bright side, I do genuinely enjoy many religious services here in the village. While the oratory can be quite bombastic and veer quickly towards the absolutely ridiculous, the singing is always a treat. It's usually upbeat, and always loud and inclusive. You almost can't help but join in. I also like attending mass at the local church. While it's always said in seTswana and I understand very little, a Catholic mass is a Catholic mass all the world over. The service is so highly ritualistic that I'm able to follow right along using mostly muscle memory. It's comforting to participate in something so familiar even when I'm on the other side of the world.

Sunday, November 6, 2011


South Africa is one of Peace Corps' largest posts and most local people are familiar with the organization. I have never encountered any negativity regarding the Peace Corps or its volunteers. Rather, people seem to love it and consequently shower me with praise. It happens on taxis, in shops, and even just standing around on the street. People learn I'm a volunteer with the Peace Corps and suddenly they're gushing with thanks. I even had a taxi driver dedicate a song to me. While I enjoy a nice thank-you every now and then, and the song dedication was good fun, generally the praise makes me extremely uncomfortable. It just feels undeserved.

The most frequently cited explanation for the gratitude of strangers is that Peace Corps volunteers speak, and therefore often teach, English. South Africa has many official languages, but two are predominate in-country. These are, of course, Afrikaans and English. These are also the only languages in which secondary school is taught and Grade 12 exams are given. Thus it is imperative that people learn one of these languages in addition to their home language. Due to South Africa's recent, and still painful, history most black people wish to learn English. However, this can be a real difficulty in rural areas where the most qualified and well-educated English-speaking teachers fear to tread. Enter the Peace Corps in shining armour on a white horse.

We go to rural areas and speak English. We often teach it, both formally and informally. When we are lazy and don't keep up our local language skills, we inadvertently teach English by virtue of being incompetent fools who can't communicate properly without falling back on our native tongue.

I work at a thousand different projects everyday for which I receive little more than a cursory note of appreciation, but near strangers profusely thank me just for opening my mouth and saying what comes naturally. Using English is, for me, just too easy to deserve the level of praise that is heaped on it. So while I always nod and smile along when I'm being praised like a demi-god, I also cringe a little on the inside and feel just a tad guilty. Yes, I speak and teach English in a rural African village, but it's not especially difficult for me so let's not get too carried away with gratitude.

Sidenote: The scale of the English-teaching operation of Peace Corps is truly impressive. I have met people in South Africa who learned English from volunteers in Ghana, Malawi and other African countries decades ago. They still remember that Peace Corps volunteer, and they are still grateful to them.

Second Sidenote: Dear South Africans, you're welcome.

Monday, October 31, 2011


During my first few months as a volunteer, I would sms my friend and fellow volunteer every Monday with the number of weeks we had left of service. 99 weeks, 85 weeks, 78 weeks... It felt like an eternity. Time crawled. It doesn't feel that way anymore. Now I feel like the end is rushing towards me like a train. It's all happening too fast. Where have the last two years gone? What do I have to show for them? While I am deeply saddened to be leaving a country I've come to love and so many people I consider a second family, my greatest fear in regard to leaving is that my time spent here was a waste. I, as a volunteer, have been a failure.

I briefly spoke with another American visiting the Kuruman area about this very nagging and persistent feeling of mine. His response was that it only takes one to make a difference. You only need to change one life.

Sure, changing one life is a whole heck of a lot easier than changing the entire world (a goal Peace Corps works tirelessly to beat out of its prospective volunteers), but still, it's a tall order. I mean, how does one do it? Is there a book? A manual? A 12-step program? Are there metrics by which to measure one's influence on another? Is there any measurable result at all? How do you know you've changed a life?

Due to the lack of accurate data on life-changing, I've decided not to pursue that line of thought in the evaluation of myself as a Peace Corps volunteer. Instead, I'll revert to the three goals of Peace Corps itself.

(I'm paraphrasing here. I am not fluent in legalese.)

1) To help developing countries meet their need for skilled manpower.

I am skilled? According to the US job market, certainly not, unless you count french-frying and burger-flipping as marketable skills. In a South African work environment, this question is more difficult to answer. South Africa suffers from a massive skills crisis. While I am no more or less skilled than the average American, I am far better educated and experienced than Joe Schmo South African. This is not to say that I'm better than my colleagues. They are all infinitely more knowledgable and experienced concerning education in South Africa than I am or will ever be. However, I have skills to offer that don't already exist here. For example, I type with all ten fingers. I'm fluent in English. I can do maths without a calculator. On the flip side, I could be more skilled. Other volunteers have decades-worth of teaching experience. They have graduate degrees. They are considered skilled no matter where in the world they are. So, I think with regard to myself, the first goal is a draw. I'm right smack in the middle of the skill spectrum.

2) To share American culture with host country nationals

American culture is already pretty well represented in South Africa. Beyonce and Rihanna are mega-popular. Even Dolly Parton can be heard blasting from the sound system on taxis occassionally. All of the movies I've seen in theaters here in South Africa have been Hollywood productions. In terms of entertainment, there's nothing left for me to share. In terms of dispelling myths about America, I've done quite a lot of work, repeating everything from "No, not everyone in America is rich" to "No, not everyone in America is white" like a broken American propaganda record. In addition to answering the many point-blank questions I get, "Do you have children? Are you Christian?" ("No, most American women my age are childless." "Yes, but many Americans practice other religions.") I also spread a bit of American culture through my s'more making and holiday baking. Nothing is more cross-cultural than sharing a meal, or a cupcake. I'm putting a mental check mark next to this box.

3) Share host country culture with Americans. Well, you tell me. Have you learned anything about South Africa through my infrequent blogposts? I hope so!

When I stack myself up against the Peace Corps goals, I come out looking pretty good. Not glowing, exactly, but an all-around solid volunteer. I came, I achieved and soon, I will leave. I guess my nagging feelings of failure have more to do with my expectations of what success looks like. Namely, that success is a thing to be looked at. Whether it's a report card or a new house, generally "success" can be tied to a physical object. In my case as a Peace Corps volunteer, it's not. I kind of wish it were.

Out of the Woods

Just when I thought I had the whole "survival in Africa" thing figured out, I was felled once more by a violent and mysterious illness. It came straight out of nowhere, and laid me up in bed for two days, vomiting every few hours like clockwork. Don't worry, I'm better now. I'm not 100% yet, but I'm dressed, my teeth are brushed and I've kept down several crackers for most of the day. Anyway, while I was in throes of agony yesterday, I checked online to see what treatment advice the old interwebs had for me. Turns out, most people who post advice online don't live in a rural African village.

Ginger ale? Doesn't exist here.
Peppermint tea? Not available.
Toast? I don't own a toaster, or have any bread for that matter.

I made do with a package of stale crackers and water. It may not have helped speed my healing process, but I'm still alive and really looking forward to returning to a world where all manner of natural remedies are just a short drive down the road and I have friends and family willing to make the trip for me.

Right now I'm eating oatmeal and remembering how much I don't like it, who wants to fly over with some homemade chicken soup?

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Death of a Tswana

Death is a big deal here in the village, it's also a big business in South Africa. Dealing with death is a three-step process that involves tremendous expense on the part of the deceased's family, as a result funeral cover is probably the single most advertised product on local television.

Step one is a memorial service. The memorial service generally takes place as soon after death as possible. It happens in a gigantic (rented) tent. The whole village is invited. People come and go as they please. Women are expected to wear skirts and cover their hair. At the front of the tent is usually a table for the VIPs, such as the family and any local preachers. Preacher is typically defined as anyone moved by the Spirit to, well, preach. The preaching is frequently interrupted by random intervals of singing. Again, the singing starts whenever anyone is moved by the Spirit to begin singing. Everyone joins in, standing, singing and clapping. The singing is truly awesome. The clapping is unimaginably difficult. The music is simply far more rythmnically difficult than I am accustomed to. Eventually, all this singing and preaching is interrupted by the arrival of food. There is always, always, food. Sometimes it's small, just a magunya or two (fried dough), other times it's quite substantial, pap and spinach and plenty of meat. After the everyone's had their fill, people begin to file out. Unless, of course, they stay behind to either help clean up (women) or continue the cycle of singing and preaching.

Step two is the funeral itself. Funerals always take place on Saturday mornings. They begin at sunrise, usually at 6:30. I have never showed up that early. I usually wander over at 7:00. The giant tent is set up as for a memorial service, with a preacher (or two) busy in the front and rows and rows of plastic chairs squashed into every other available space. Crowds of latecomers (myself included) stand at the back, for hours. It's a good time. Once the preaching is over, the casket is carried out to a waiting hearse (provided by large funeral company, such as Rekathusa) and a large procession begins to the burial site. Sometimes I'm able to hitch a ride, piling into the back of a bakkie with village friends or distant relatives of the deceased from faraway places. Often I trudge through the dirt and sand in my skirt, jacket and scarf. At the cemetery (and there are several in Loopeng), there's a tent for immediate relatives, complete with chairs, and a big hole in the ground that everyone else crowds around. There's more preaching, more singing, and finally, the burial. The casket is lowered into the ground, and then a group of men take shovels and begin filling in the hole to the sound of more singing. This takes some time. I'm always amazed at the stamina of the singers and shovelers. After the dirt come the rocks. The fresh grave is covered by white rocks, placed there by the same men responsible for the filling the grave. Once complete, everyone trudges back to the tent in the yard of the family home. I try to walk pretty fast, because once you get back to the house, and wash your hands in a large communal basin, it's time to stand in, essentially, a very large, ragtag cafeteria line. That's right, there's more food! You get your plate, find a seat, chow down and then hit the road. That great part about funerals is that since they start so early, they end early too. I'm home well before noon, exhausted, but at least back in my own bed.

Step three sometimes never takes place at all, and when it does, it sometimes takes place months or years after the funeral. It's the tombstone unveiling. Similar to a funeral, it starts at dawn. There's preaching and singing. Then there's the trek to the burial site, where there's more preaching and singing, followed by a literal unveiling of the tombstone. A white sheet is lifted, and there it is! Wa-la! Afterwards, it's back to the giant tent for, you guessed it, food. After all the eating comes a short period of rest before the real festivities begin. The festivities in this case are, literally, a party. There's a DJ, loud music, dancing, drinking, and, obviously, more food. The men braai meat over an open flame, and the women cook up giant pots of pap. Everyone who cares to drop by eats, busts a move or two, and leaves.

Basically, a death in the village means a lot of free food for everyone else. It's not a bad way to go, if you ask me.

Spring Awakening

No, this post is not about the musical (though the soundtrack is quite good). Rather, spring just snuck up on Loopeng and sprung. Everything's green, if not exactly lush, the sun is warm and my tin roof is burning hot. There are clouds in the sky and the Kalahari sunsets are accordingly spectacular. It's a good time of year to be here, and I'm glad I am.

Not so good is that I'm writing this while sitting atop my empty water bucket in line at the neighborhood tap. The water is running painfully slowly. I swear I've seen my hair grow. With so much time on my hands, I'd like to update you on my current reading list.

Wilbur Smith is a white African novelist whose books are terrible, positively dreadful, but oh so readable. They're like Indiana Jones meets James Bond. Smith has been quite prolific over the last few decades, his many books number more than thirty. They're highly formulaic, but quite enjoyable if you're just looking for a fun, wild, and eye-rollingly ridiculous adventure story set in an African context. Most of the books feature a historical bent, so you may actually learn something between all the torrid affairs and big game hunting. Wilbur Smith is the perfect author for when you're in the mood for the literary equivalent of a Nicolas Cage film.

JM Coetzee is exactly the opposite. His books are very serious and intellectual, so deep it's easy to start drowing in all the layers and metaphors. While not particularly thick, Coetzee's books take me a lot of time to get through because I keep pausing to re-read, reflect and repeat. It's dense material, but absolutely worth the effort. His essay On Raiding in the novel Diary of a Bad Year is a stunningly sharp, but simultaneously poignant analysis of apartheid. It's on page 104. Go to a library, find this book, and read it. Right now. Your time will not be wasted.

Hugh Lewin's Stones Against the Mirror is also worth a read. While I don't usually enjoy books about apartheid, Lewin handles the subject well. He restricts his writing to his personal experiences, which as a member of an underground anti-apartheid movement responsible for multiple bombings are quite intense. He describes his time in jail and his journey to forgiving the man who put him there, his best friend. While these parts of the book are certainly interesting and well-written, I was really struck by the chapters describing his involvment with the Truth and Reconciliation hearings. The book actually quotes testimony from the TRC and Lewin describes the context exactly as it was, because he was there, he was in those rooms. He listened to that testimony, participated in the inquiries, he was there. Apartheid's been gone for nearly two decades, and yet it's not quite history. Nelson Mandela's election didn't erase the memory of the people. For most of the adult population of South Africa, apartheid is not an abstract footnote in history, it is the backdrop against which much of their lives played out. Lewin's book carefully knits the past into the present and gives the reader a personal glimpse into South Africa's troubled past. As most readers of this blog will never get a lift from a retired member of Umkonto wa Sizwe, I think Lewin's book is the next best way to get a strong dose of perspective on the apartheid state. Stones Against the Mirror injects life and color into a historical period too often painted in lifeless shades of gray. The people and places of the apartheid state are, for the most part, still present in South Africa today. They've always been here. Lewin just points them out.

I've also been reading some Tom Robbins, which is always a delight, but with school back in session my long days in bed with a book are mostly things of the past. I'm about to curl up with hundreds of papers to mark and several seasons of Grey's Anatomy. Saturday night in the village: it's just like every other night!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Poverty Spectrum

I used to live in Fairfield County, Connecticut. This does not mean that I had an Uncle Scrooge-like vault of money to practice my backstroke in. Similarly, I now live in a poor village. This does not mean that everyone wanders the streets wearing rags and looking dangerously emaciated. There are different levels of disadvantage. There is a spectrum of poverty present in poor communities, just as there is a spectrum of wealth between Bill Gates and Joe Executive, even if they both happen to live in the same place.

Many homes in Loopeng are made of a mixture of cow dung and mud, which is daubed over a tight structure of sticks and covered by a thatch roof. These homes are often well-taken care of, almost always electrified and frequently the home of such modern frivolities as television and stereos. They may be made of cow dung and mud, but cow dung and mud are not necessarily indicators of extreme poverty.

In fact, a residential address in a "poor" village is hardly an indicator of poverty at all. In addition to a plethora of mud-stick homes, Loopeng has houses that would not be too terribly out of place in suburbia. These houses have 2-car garages, several bedrooms and, of course, running water. Hot and cold, even! They have lawns and gardens watered by irrigation systems. They haven't got a speck of pavement nearby, but that's practically the only giveaway that these homes are in an African village, not a Floridian suburb.

Loopeng has poverty. Some people living here don't get enough to eat. It's true. But not all residents can be painted with the same brush. Not everyone suffers the same level of disadvantage. Even in a rural African village, the playing field isn't level. Some of my students are orphans living in child-headed households amidst absolute squalor (the mud-stick house with the roof caving in and holes in the walls). Some of my students live with both their parents in a three bedroom house and get dropped off at school in shiny new cars. As it turns out, very few assumptions can, or should, be made about someone based on geography.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Untimely Demise

I have many things to blog about. Almost everyday I have some little experience and I think, "I should really blog about that!" Then life gets in the way. By the time I've fetched water, made dinner, washed the dishes and sorted myself out for the next day I'm far too exhausted to do much more than crawl into bed with a book or old episodes of Grey's Anatomy and so my blog gets put off again and again. Now there's another reason for my time away. Shaka died last week and I haven't been able to blog on until I've addressed the shadowy cloud that is the loss of my third dog in two years.

Simba was my first dog. My host mother in Deorham noticed my affection for a certain village puppy, and so knowing where that puppy had come from, she requested that a sibling be given to me. I think I got the runt of the litter. Exactly two weeks into Simba's life with me, he passed away. I came home from school to find him curled up in his box in the garage, cold and stiff. We buried him in the backyard, where my host mother said a few loving words before her domestic piled dirt on top of him. I never found out exactly what killed him, but I later discovered that all his sibling died as well. They were probably just from one sick litter.

I was still pretty sad about Simba's death. People in the village knew this, and one person in particular proposed a solution. He would get me another dog. While he said this to me personally, I was still pretty surprised when he rolled up one day with a squirming bundle of adorable, Rustenburg. I named him for his "rusty" copper ears and the South African city of the same name. He lived well past the two week mark, and even moved with me when I left Deorham for Loopeng. There he was a quick hit with my new family, as Rusty was a fairly composed and unflappable animal. He rarely barked, or jumped, or made anyone's foot a chew toy. I left him for a few days to attend a workshop, and while there learned that he was found dead back in Loopeng.

That was devastating. I was halfway across the country. I had no idea what had happened. I had seen him just a few days prior, as happy and healthy as could be. Then, he was gone. Poof.

I returned to Loopeng and began life as a dog-less volunteer for the first time in almost a year. It was bearable. I could handle it. But it wasn't fun. I didn't enjoy spending time outside without a dog to throw a stick to. I didn't like not having a warm head to pat first thing in the morning, before I brushed my teeth. I was lonely without a dog to greet me at home after a long, and frequently depressing, day at work. Still, I survived. I puttered on.

Then a friend moved to a new village. I went to visit her, and lo and behold. Her neighbor had puppies, and yes, they were for sale. I picked the first fluff ball to stagger towards my feet and start nibbling my toes. I named him Shaka, because obviously he was going to be fierce.

I didn't know the half of it. Shaka was a handful like no other. He was cute as a button, but man, was he crazy. He jumped. He scratched. He chewed. He bit. He barked when he wanted attention, which was all the time. He was never tired. Never, ever. I would toss his rope toy til my arm was sore, and he would still have enough energy to tear my clothes straight off the clothesline with his jaws. I couldn't take him for proper walks because he was so busy biting the leash to bits. Shaka was a spitfire, and he drove me insane.

Time passed, though, and age mellowed him just a tad, just enough to make him seem manageable. I invested in some dog biscuits and began training him, both vocally and visually. He could sit, stay, paw and lay down. He actually did those things whenever he felt like it. On many occasions, during an evening training session, I could feel the gears grinding in his head as his attention wavered between the treat in my hand and the donkey cart outside the yard. The donkey cart usually won.

Shaka died last Tuesday. He came to my door in the evening, as usual. I let him in, but something was off. He stumbled to his bed, but was too weak to climb up properly. I lifted his hind legs, and he started to settle down. He was panting heavily and drooling like a maniac, so I gave him a bowl of water. He lapped it up, but couldn't seem to actually swallow it. I still wasn't too concerned. I thought maybe he'd been in a fight, he was stressed, he was anxious, he just needed to rest. I started towel-drying my hair. Shaka started shaking. I called his name, he looked at me, and I saw that he was not improving. I put down the towel and started frantically Googling his symptoms. I found nothing helpful. Stroking him with one hand, I started dialling numbers. The call to the vet didn't go through. Shaka started seizing, his jaw snapping wildly. I called another friend with dogs. She was helpful and kind, but minutes after I hung up the seizing stopped. I said his name to no response. My heart rose to feel his continue beating, but I burst into tears when I felt it stop.

I stroked him until his body went stiff, covered him in his towel and lay him outside. I couldn't bear to have his body in the room. My host dad buried him the next day.

So I've had three dogs die, each more terribly than the last. Of course I asked myself what I did wrong. Plenty of other volunteers adopt pets during their service, but I don't know anyone else with such a tragic track record. As it turns out, dog poisonings are not uncommon in Loopeng. Farmers, in particular, set out poison to prevent dogs from eating their chickens. Other people just hate dogs. I heard this after Rusty's death, I just didn't really believe it or its now-obvious extent. In a way it makes me feel better to know that there was really nothing to be done for Shaka. That he didn't die of something accidental or preventable. His death was intentional, and short of locking him up inside all day, everyday there was nothing I, or anyone, could have done to save him. It also infuriates me that I live in a part of the world where people deliberately kill man's best friend. Thankfully, many of my friends and colleagues feel the same way. I've heard nothing but angry and empathetic comments about "these people" for a week straight. "These people" are supposedly responsible for a rash of dog poisonings that stretches from Loopeng to several villages east. Apparently it's been happening for years.

Knowing this now, and given the general difficulties of pet ownership in a rural, African setting, do I regret all the time, money and emotional resources I invested in my dogs?

Really and truly and honestly, no, no I don't regret anything and I would do it all again.

I'm not alone as a volunteer prone to acting like a hermit. Interacting with the village, day in and day out, all alone, is exhausting, often difficult, and, of course, sad. There have been so many days when I just did not want to get out of bed, much less go outside. But I had to. Simba, Rusty and Shaka all needed to be fed. They all needed to be played with. If nothing else, my dogs made me get up, go outside and face the world. Every. Single. Day. Sure, sometimes we never made it outside the yard, but at least I got some sunshine to drive away the constantly impending doldrums.
The exercise wasn't a bad bonus either. Additionally, my daily dose of their affection, though no human substitute, was far, far superior to the daily dose of absolutely nothing that most other volunteers subsist on.

My dogs also served as a vehicle for some of my most meaningful, and fun, interactions with local people. I enjoyed walking them, and having people comment on how nice and friendly they were. I enjoyed showing off how dogs could learn to listen and obey commands. I really enjoyed seeing children, who were once terrified, pick up a ball and include my dog in a game. For example, I have some really fun photos of Shaka and local children playing with bubbles. In a world where dogs are frequently treated as pests, and are more often abused and neglected, showing off my dogs as models for a more mutually beneficial relationship between man and beast has been one of the highlights of my service. If just one of the many, many admirers of my dogs some day puts out a bowl of pap, instead of poison, takes a stick and tosses it to dog, instead of using it to beat the dog, I will consider my service a job well done, and my three dogs well worth all the pain and suffering.

Ultimately, all relationships between pets and their owners end in sorrow. My sorrows just came a whole lot sooner than I expected. However, just like the potential for an untimely demise never stopped anyone I know from adopting an animal in America, it didn't keep me from keeping pets in Africa. And with just three months left of my service, I'm glad it didn't. I loved each of my dogs, learned a lot from my experience with them, and generally benefitted from their presence. That's the best anyone can hope for.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Criminal Activity

A fellow volunteer once remarked that the only time anyone in South Africa was in a hurry, there was a crime in progress. That's a fairly keen observation, although I would expect to see a lot more people on the run given the level of crime here. It's quite high here, regardless of category. From murder to muggings, this country has it all and in great quantity to boot. Fortunately, I have not dealt with the more serious and violent end of the criminal spectrum. No, I've been busy being bludgeoned by petty theft.

People steal from me with alarming regularity, but what really gets my goat is what they steal. It's bizarre.

Since my arrival in 2009, I've lost:

-R200 and some inexpensive jewelry (from a suitcase that contained wildly expensive electronics)
-prescription sunglasses
-dog collar (from neck of dog)
-dog biscuits

And the list goes on... I've had dishware nipped from the wash bucket, art supplies taken from my desk, essentially anything not nailed down is fair game for thieves (be they grabby-handed children or sticky-fingered adults).

Most frustrating to me is that people do not steal what would be most useful to them. My wallet has never been filched, my cameras and computer are untouched, and my cell phone is perfectly safe in spite of my flaunting it wherever I go. No, people do not steal the things they could benefit most from, instead they seem to steal from me whatever it is that will make my immediate future more difficult. Shaka's collar wasn't too expensive, but it was of no value to anyone else so why did they bother except to make me miserable? This type of petty theft is too personal. It's just mean and demoralizing. I'm also a little concerned about how I'm going to open future canned goods now that my can opener's been pinched. (Someone borrowed it and failed to return it, claiming that someone else stole it. Either way, all my tantalizing tinned food will have to stay that way... Tantalizing, and surrounded by an impenetrable fortress of tin).

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Image Rights

Sorting through all the photos I've accumulated over the last couple years in Africa, I see plenty of dramatic nature shots from various vacations but virtually no pictures of any of the three villages I've called home. Unfortunately, that's not going to change. Unless you hop a flight out here and see it for yourself, the scenic beauty of Loopeng and the quirks of its residents are eventually going to reside only in my memories. It's not that I don't enjoy taking photos, or feel uncomfortable hauling such an expensive piece of equipment around, but rather I've grown extremely conscious of the image rights of individuals.

As the sole white occupant of Loopeng, and quite often the only white girl wherever I go, I've gotten used to the camera phones whirring wherever I go. It's not often that taxi passengers are seated next to a lekgowa. They want proof to show their friends. They want a photo. Sometimes people ask. Often they don't. While I am accustomed to the attention, I am not exactly comfortable with it. I may be the subject in these pictures, but I have no control of the image itself. It may be duplicated, it may be altered, it may be posted online. It may spend decades covered by electronic dust until I attempt to embark on a political career, at which point it will be sure to rear its potentially ugly head. The point is, having your photo taken by strangers is unpleasant, particularly in this digital age where there is no way to tell where the photo may end up and how it might be used.

I am hardly the only person who feels this way. During a trip to Zambia, I spent an afternoon walking out to a local market. The path was dotted with quaint colonial-era homes surrounded by lush jungle vegetation. It was gorgeous and the urge to take a photo was strong, but I resisted. The homes, many of which had seen better days, were inhabited. There was laundry in the yards, stacks of wash buckets and, of course, people. The yards and alleys were crammed with locals. While I kept my hands in my pockets, my companion was not so cautious. She whipped out her camera and started snapping. Instantly, there was shouting from the house she had just photographed. Neither of us spoke the language, but the message was clear, particularly when our guide asked her to put her camera away.

Not all subjects are as vocal about their objections, particularly children. Their ignorance makes them easily exploitable and they often are. Almost every visitor to an African village goes home with a dozen photos of adorable children. The kids here certainly are cute and they frequently enjoy having their picture taken. However, I've seen this go way overboard. A close-up photograph of several local children was turned into a postcard, duplicated and is now being sold. Granted, it's being sold as a fundraiser, but that misses my larger point which is that when it comes to image rights, Africans don't have them.

No one would ever walk into a well-off Western community and start snapping photos of people's homes. No one would go to a playground there and take pictures of children who belong to strangers. Those photos would definitely never be sold. The photographer in any of these cases could expect a harsh reprimand at the very least.

And yet, when the scene moves to Africa, the rules seem to change. Of course it's okay to take pictures of poor people, their homes and their children without their permission!

Except that it's not. Some people don't want their personal poverty on display in some foreign person's photo album. Some people want to protect their privacy. On the other hand, some people love to ham it up for the tourists. So the next time you're on vacation remember to relax your trigger finger, take a deep breath, and ask!

Friday, August 5, 2011

Water Snake Safety Tips

Ages ago I had a conversation with my friend at school. She was fortunate enough to have traveled to Germany a couple years ago. She was telling me all about her adventures when she mentioned her unwillingness to go anywhere near water. I asked her to explain, and she did.

Apparently, a local belief is that giant, dangerous snakes live in water and (get this) prey only on black people. They are also capable of speech and will call out a person's name in order to lure them into the water, bite them and drown them. They ignore white people because their skin and hair is too soft for the snakes to grab.

"You? You're fine. You can cross the river," said my friend,"but me? No!"

This might sound completely ridiculous, but given all my free time lately I've taken to going on long walks in the bush and boy, it can be creepy out there. Rest assured though, if I start hearing the wildlife call out my name, I will run right home.

I have no update on the strike, other than that it is still going on. It's been in the local paper, and also on the news. While all the schools are closed, the village is relatively quiet. The calm before the storm, or just eternal calm? Ga ke itse. I'm keeping relatively busy with a new cookbook and the construction of a soccer field with the neighborhood kids. Apparently the big kids have commandeered the field across the road, so we've resorted to building our very own. It's amazing what ten-year-old boys with a lot of free time can do with a few sticks and the saw attachment on a Swiss Army knife (I knew it would come in handy, I just knew it!).

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Blast from the Past

It's funny that I'm out of work again this time of year. Last year it was the teachers striking. Now it's the learners. It's really all the same to me. I have no reason to get out of bed in the morning. The most productive thing I've done all week is wash my hair (twice).

I would love to take the time off as an opportunity to do a bit of traveling, but I'm certain that Murphy's Law would kick in as soon as I hit the road. As soon as I got away from Loopeng I would receive a call from school saying that classes would begin the very next day. It's a pickle, for sure.

Rumours abound as to when school will begin again. I've heard anywhere from Wednesday next week to sometime after the 19th. I'm torn between enjoying the break and tearing my hair out in frustration and anticipation of the massive workload I'll have once school starts again. August was the last month of just classes before exams begin in September. We had a ton of material to cover in very little time, and now we have just as much material to squeeze into a rapidly shrinking time frame.

I'm feeling a bit stressed, in spite of my newfound free time. On the bright side, I had a chest x-ray required by the Department of Home Affairs to extend my visa and guess what? I do not have an active case of pulmonary tuberculosis. That's about as good as it gets, eh?

Monday, August 1, 2011


There is a tendency, I believe, among the well-off to imagine the lives of the poor as a sort of noble struggle. People don't realize that, in reality, the lower classes live just as sordidly as the characters on Gossip Girl.

In October last year, the same weekend as the matric farewell, there was a rape of one learner, Sarah, by another, Paul. Sarah went to an educator, Sam, and reported it. He then reported it to the police. Fast-forward almost a year through the trial, and last week Paul was sentenced to fifteen years in jail.

Simple, right?

Except that the educator, Sam, was having an affair with the learner, Sarah, and he manipulated her into testifying against Paul.

Or did he?

There's no way to tease out the truth from all the swirling rumours. I'd believe the learners based on Sam's odd behavior, but then as an occassional victim of village gossip I can sympathize. A few inside jokes with a male educator, and suddenly we must be dating! Loopeng is a regular gossip manufacturing machine. But isn't every rumour based on a shred of truth?

Anyway, I was on my way to school this morning when my host mother stopped me. "No," she said, "You must not go to school today."

I went.

At school I found a small huddle of educators, and across the road, in front of the school gates were dozens of learners and even a few community members. They were singing, dancing and drinking. It might have been a party were it not for everyone holding sticks and hurling rocks. The mass got bigger as more learners arrived and joined in. Burning tires added to the atmosphere of chaos. Signs waved saying, "No Paul! No school!".

Yep, that's what this is about. The learners have decided that Paul's sentence is too harsh and they've shut down the school in response. I guess Sam's involvement makes it a school issue, but the lack of critical thinking that has gone into this display is, well, I have no words.

After an hour, during which one educator was hit and received a small but bloody cut and Shaka took a rock to a back leg, I went home. I promptly locked myself in.

Several times in South Africa I have witnessed the violent potential of a mob. This may just be a band of schoolchildren, but it is large and in the frenzy of marching and chanting, rational thought sails out the window right along with individual responsibility. Collective action can turn violent quickly, and until everyone puts down their bull horns, I'm not going out there again.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Communist Propaganda

Loopeng's middle school, Bosheng, recently hosted the regional South African Democratic Teachers' Union (SADTU) meeting. It was a big event, complete with much song and dance.

One song went like this (call and echo):

My mother
(My mother)
Was a kitchen girl
(Was a kitchen girl)

My father
(My father)
Was a garden boy
(Was a garden boy)

That's why
(That's why)
I'm a communist
(I'm a communist)

Most people actually pronounce "communist" as "commonist". I believe there is a grave misunderstanding among the locals as to what communism actually is.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


It's the end of the world as we know it, and I'm wet and freezing cold.

School has started back up, and I'm recently returned from an epic journey in Botswana. I'd love to tell you more about it, but I'm just too darn cold to lift my frozen fingers out from their fleece pockets. The weather is not supposed to be like this. Winter in southern Africa is chilly, but dry and cloudless. Except that this year, it's cold, cloudy and, occassionally, rainy. I think it's a sign of the apocalypse, or maybe the rapture. Whatever it is, I'm popping straight back to bed and blankets soon.

I will give you a little teaser about my vacation though. In the words of Spamalot...

Oh, Patsy, this is a total bloody disaster! All my knights have fled, and we're lost in a dark and very expensive forest.

Throw in a couple broken ribs, a hefty portion of theft, two overzealous banks and a sprinkling of bizarre (and mildly offensive) strangers, and well, that's basically it. Obviously, it was a good time.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Snake Devil

This story was just told to me by a friend here in the village as a warning. I'm passing it along to you as entertainment.

In another village, not too far down along the main road, a local woman encountered an attractive stranger. The usual pleasantries were exchanged, Africa-style. Eventually, the young woman brought the handsome man home to her parents and introduced him as her boyfriend. More pleasantries were exchanged, and then the girl prepared water and a basin for the man to bathe in. She left the room. Upon her return, she saw not a man in the basin, but rather an enormous snake!

The young woman fled, but returned later that night. The snake was gone, and the attractive man was waiting for her. "Forget what you saw," he said. "If you tell anyone, I'll kill you."

The girl kept silent. The next day, the couple ventured into the bush. At the sight of the tall, weaving grasses, the man's eyes glittered and he began to transform into a giant snake. "If you tell anyone," the snake hissed, "I'll break every bone in your body."

The girl kept silent. In time she learned that she was pregnant. She would give birth to two beings: one human and one snake. The snake-man promised that as soon as she gave birth, he would take the "children" and disappear forever.

As no women in the area have given birth to snakes recently, we can only assume that the snake-man is still staying down the road. However, I will keep my wits about me should an attractive stranger with a child and baby snake ever want my number.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Progress: More Power, More Problems

Electricity arrived in Loopeng shortly after the end of apartheid. Prior to the arrival of electricity people relied on paraffin or wood fires for cooking, and the well-off had a generator to power their televisions and a few lightbulbs. Power lines, which extended to every home, shanty, mansion or shack, were a great equalizer. Suddenly, everyone was able to cook on a stove, flip a lightswitch and watch the soapies. Life was much improved.

Or was it?

An older Loopeng resident explained to me, during the journey home from town, how much life had worsened in the village since the arrival of electricity. Back in the day, residents relied on local ingredients in their cooking. Meat was prized, and rare. Everyone kept a garden, and grew what little they could. Vegetables were a large part of the local diet. Sure, not everyone got enough to eat, but those that did ate a healthy, balanced diet. All of that came to an end when the power lines introduced their good pal, the freezer.

Gone are the vegetable gardens. Hello, giant bags of frozen chicken! Those who can afford meat now buy it in massive quantities becaue they are able to keep it frozen at home. The local diet has shifted to one of maize for the poor, meat for the rich and vegetables for no one. Naturally, this has caused health problems, but no one seems eager to throw out their freezers and start killing their own chickens again every time they want a bit of meat.

Additionally, as Loopeng has transitioned from a complete, apartheid-era hellhole to a mere, moderately uncomfortable pit of despair, it has attracted shopkeepers. The shopkeepers in Loopeng don't sell expensive organic kale, no, they sell soft drinks, chips and sweets. Basically, everything they sell has as little nutritional value as possible, but the people gladly spend their pension money at these shops. Fat cakes may be terrible for your arteries, but they are filling and, most importantly, cheap. Similar to more developed countries, South Africa's poor generally do not eat properly and this trend has been aided, not abetted, by "progress". So much for "development".

A World Without Fathers

The typical South African village is composed of hordes of young children, a few young people, some mothers, a great number of gogos and a few old men. The number of fathers hovers between zero and none. Where's daddy?

In the most functional of family units, daddy is at work. Many men are employed by mines across the country and their families are unable to accompany them. Thus, the wife and children stay behind in the village while the man is at work. He will likely come home once per month, after pay day. This is the best-case scenario.

There's a wide variety of worst-case scenarios that result in a no-show dad. Perhaps the most unfortunate is death. Poverty kills, particularly in South Africa where HIV/AIDS, rampant alcohol abuse and dangerous roads all make a potentially lethal lifestyle widely available to the country's poor.

Even if a man survives to become a father, he is still likely to be absent. I attribute this mostly to cultural values, or a lack thereof. Children are seen as a financial drain, and thus men have a compelling reason to deny responsibility. By and large, women let them do it as the importance of having a father figure around is ignored. Additionally, most children are born outside of marriage. The father has very little link to the child, who is often packed off to some distant relative and then, effectively, abandoned.

The results of a fatherless society are disasterous. The young, fatherless men of South Africa are poorly educated, frequently unemployed and often part of the large criminal class that makes South Africa such an infamously unpleasant country. This should not be surprising. While the young girls of Loopeng have role models in the gogos and aunts who look after them, clean their homes, cook their food and budget their money, the young boys have role models only in the men wasting away on the front stoop of the bottle store. It's no wonder that they grow up to be the same thing.

While most development projects focus on the plight of girls in third-world countries, I've found the suffering of boys in South Africa just as, if not more, troubling. Without appropriate male role models, young boys in this country are set adrift in the sea of adulthood utterly unprepared to make good decisions and the result is a self-perpetuating cycle of poverty.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Most Children Left Behind: Education in South Africa

South Africa, compared to the rest of the African continent, is developed, wealthy and well-governed. So why does its education system consistently underperform, even and especially when compared to such kleptocratic basket-cases as Zimbabwe? There are a thousand potential explanations, but there are a few in particular that I've gleaned from my experiences as an educator in this country.

By far, the biggest issues are social and involve the break-down of the family unit. Children are abandoned or orphaned, with alarming frequency, at a young age. If they are lucky and taken in by a neighbor or relative, instead of forced into miniature adulthood, they often live a Cinderella-like existence. Except sadly, their prince never comes. In most cases, using children as little more than free labor is not a malicious act, nor a necessity. Instead, it springs from a lack of modern parenting skills. Case in point, several neighborhood children and I spent an afternoon drawing pictures. One child, five years old and infinitely pleased with his scribblings, took his picture to show his adoptive mother. She picked it up, glanced at it and threw it away. He was crushed. The same inattention that is paid to childish drawings is also paid to schoolwork. Children frequently receive no parental feedback regarding their progress, and so naturally begin to view the whole endeavor with the same indifference as their caretaker. While children lucky enough to live with one or both parents may suffer similarly, in my experience biological parents are willing to invest more in the education of their offspring. For example, my host mother's biological children all went to boarding school while her adopted children are stuck in the village schools.

Unfortunately, regardless of the level of parental involvement, many South African schools manage to fail their learners all by themselves. Within the four walls of the average classroom in this country, the biggest obstacle faced by learners is often the educator. Teacher training, in my experience, focuses much too heavily on dealing with the bureaucratic elements of teaching a national curriculum and way too lighly on actual content. Far too frequently I have observed teachers teach information that is factually incorrect. Connecting circuits in parallel has no effect on how bright or dim the lightbulb shines, but I know dozens of students who are convinced it does. Teachers without a solid grasp on content knowledge are doing a huge disservice to their learners, and that has a direct impact on learner performance on national exams.

Granted, being taught the odd bit of misinformation may have little impact on whether a learner passes the class or grade because the passing score necessary is so incredibly low. In my subject, it's 30%. Yes, 30%. You can pass maths literacy with a mere 30%. This is the cause of an enormous amount of trouble. Learners are passed into upper-level courses without a solid grasp on lower-level material. For example, I'm expected to teach linear functions to learners with virtually no understanding of the basics of arithmetic. Because of the pressing and insistent spectre of looming national examinations, there's only so much time available to review before moving on the material to be tested. This is an impossible situation, and cannot be maintained for long. Imagine a Jenga tower where each level consists of only one block. How many levels can be built before it all falls apart, and the learner either fails or drops out? Additionally, the low threshold for passing cheapens the value of school-leaving certificates. Too many learners leave school with just a piece of paper in their pocket, and virtually nothing rattling around their minds after a dozen years in the South African school system.

Such a long post, and I haven't even started in on the curriculum itself! I think I'll save that for another day. Oh, South Africa...

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Surreal Life

It's technically Sunday morning. I just stumbled into my hovel. My Saturday night might seem mundane in America, but it was surreal to live such an ordinary night in Africa.

My friend picked me up around 7:30. We drove about three minutes to his brother's house. Wandered inside, greeted his brother, who was hard at work on the stove, and plopped on a couch to watch DVDs. Dinner was served. We gave up on the scratchy DVDs and switched over to good 'ol television. Then we all trooped outside into the cold, drove back to my friend's place, and chatted until I got tired and walked home.

Ordinary, right?

Except that the roads we drove on weren't paved, there were absolutely zero traffic signs, and the night was pitch black. Dinner was Ethiopian stew, made by an actual Ethiopian. The DVDs were traditional Ethiopian music and drama. The television stations were all South African, but playing terrible, old American films. Back at my friend's room (adjacent to mine; we're neighbors) we huddled around a space heater for survival. When we spoke to each other, we managed to comprehend only about a third of what we were each attempting to communicate. Turns out Amharic is rather tricky.

While I consider myself exceptionally lucky to have such great friends in Loopeng, spending time with them is always a bit, well, surreal.

Working with Others

Working with others is hard, particularly when the people you work with don't necessarily want to be associated with you at all. This is conundrum I find myself in lately. For years, practically ever since the founding of the local mission, do-gooders have flocked to Loopeng from Europe and Australia to do, well, "good". They are usually white.

Hey, I'm white too! In the minds of my fellow residents of Loopeng, this means that I exist on the same wave-length as the Euralian visitors, we are all associated with the same organization, we have each others phone numbers, are in constant communication and get along great. Absolutely none of that is true, of course, but I can't seem to convince anyone of that. I've barely convinced people that New York is in the US of A, not Germany or Australia.

Generally, I'm untroubled by people's assumptions, but lately it's been putting me in a real pickle. See, people keep pointing out different projects they want done, and sites they want visited, by the Euralians. The local impression of the Euralians is that they have deep pockets, and so people are eager to invite them here and there to help out with various maintenance projects.

"When are the people from Germany coming? Australia? They must come... They must see... I want them to..." I'm asked this frequently. What makes it so uncomfortable is that I have no idea when they're coming, no idea if they're able or willing to do said projects, and very little in the way of contact information. I just smile and nod along. I do know a group, or two, is coming later this month, so I usually mumble something about June and hurry away.

I'm thinking about hanging a giant banner from my house for when the visitors arrive.

"Welcome back! Please visit Mampestad and Agrico! Thanks!"

Other than that, I'm not sure what else to do. I just hope it all works out, because if it doesn't, who will be responsible for cleaning up the mess and soothing the ruffled feathers?

I will. I may not be formally associated with the visitors, some may routinely trash myself and my colleagues as "unqualified", many others may leave a trail of missed opportunities and frustration in their wake, but since we're all white foreigners in Africa, we have to stick together.

Anyone have a large banner they'd like to ship over?

(Don't worry, I promise that's not my only plan. Plan B is much more traditional. I have three e-mail addresses for people I plan to grovel to. Good thing Peace Corps teaches humility.)

What I Read

Today is a beautiful African "winter" day. The sun is shining, it's warm enough for flip-flops and I'm not wearing a hat, gloves or a blanket. Yay! I've spent most of the morning outside, basking the precious warmth for the first time in quite a while. During the late cold spell, when it was too cold to go outside, I spent a lot of time in bed with a book. I averaged about one book a day. It was ridiculous. My source of reading material was the school library. Between Books for Africa and the Northern Cape provincial library service, Moshaweng High School has quite the selection. There's everything from Shakespeare to John Grisham, including Agatha Christie, Sue Grafton and a host of unknowns.

First, I worked my way through Mary Higgins Clark-style mysteries which I once really enjoyed, but Stieg Larsson's trilogy has spoiled me and now the other books pale in comparison. I moved on to New York Times bestsellers by unfamiliar, and often first-time, authors. My only conclusion is that there must be no correlation between the bestsellers list and actual book quality. I wondered how a few of them even got published. I disliked Eat, Pray, Love, but at least it was coherent. In the interest of not bashing relative newbies to the literary world, my lips are sealed as to book titles and authors not worth your time. I'll let you discover them on your own.

However, I will tell you that the book I just finished last night was rather good. It's Nick Hornby's How to be Good. I tried reading another of Hornby's books (the Polysyllabic Spree) but I just couldn't get through it. How to be Good was a different story. Compared to authors I've indulged in recently, Hornby is a seasoned professional, and it shows. The book has definite structure and a distinct style. The theme is obvious and interesting. The plot is somewhat bizarre and not exactly enjoyable (a middle-aged couple on the brink of divorce, saved by an alternative "healer"), but Hornby's voice is amusing enough that I muddled through and wound up with some quality food for thought.

The premise of How to be Good is that everyone wants to be good. Everyone knows how to be good. But no one really is good. No one is willing to act on their beliefs, at least not to the full extent of their potential to be "good". As a Peace Corps volunteer whose job description might be summed up simply as "do-gooder", Hornby's analysis of the chasm between morality and charity was thought-provoking. As much as like to think, "I'm in Peace Corps! I'm a good person!" That isn't necessarily true. I could do more. I could do better. I'm not inherently "good", and unless you donate most of your income, give away your possesions and let the homeless sleep in your spare room, neither are you. How to be Good won't make you feel warm and fuzzy, but it is a good book and it may help you justify however much you spend on movies and take-aways instead of donating to, oh, say, Save Darfur.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

A Wet Start to the Dry Season

Most of Africa has only two distinct seasons: the wet and the dry. For equatorial Africa, spring and autumn are irrelevant when it's burning hot year round. For my little corner of the world, while the temperature does vary with the season, by far the most noticeable difference is the level of precipitation. During the hot summer months, rain is frequent. It rarely falls during the day, but I swear it rained every night in January this year. Winter is much different. It doesn't rain at all, not one drop, during the dry season. All the plants dry up, the landscape turns brown and ugly. Goats reach new levels of desperation in their endless quest for food. At least that's the theory anyway.

In reality, I haven't seen the sun for three days. It's been raining, or at least drizzling, all day, everyday. The high temperatures are only in the mid-fifties. It's cold and wet. In my opinion, that's the very worst weather combination. It's absolute misery. While the rain continues, the cold has done it's duty and most plants are dead. The school garden's moment in the sun is well over for this year. I'll try again next year, when and if it warms up enough to be outside again. Thankfully, I have wonderful neighbors and colleagues who cleverly invested in space heaters. As it is my last winter in South Africa, I can't quite bring myself to buy my own, but they certainly are nice. It's good to have feeling in my fingers and toes at least once a day.

I was quite toasty this morning, when the heater in the computer lab was turned on. Unfortunately, the heater sucked up what little electricity is available in that room and the lights promptly flickered and died, along with all the computers. *sigh* I switched off the heater. Maybe I can rip it out of the wall and take it to my house? Surely no one would notice. The sad part is that after a multitude of charities (including US-funded) outfitted the tiny, African classroom with heaps and loads of modernity and expensive electronic equipment, the space simply couldn't handle it and now it's mostly functionally useless. Shame. At least we get a good metaphor out of it.

On the bright side, I've booked myself an upcoming weekend in Kuruman. May hot showers, great food and excellent company ensue!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

What I Wore: Frigid Edition

I had an interesting exchange recently, on a phone call with my mother.

"Mom, it's so cold here!"

"I don't mean to make you jealous, but it's 65 and sunny here."

It was 76 in Loopeng. It seems like I've over-achieved in terms of adjusting to the heat. Now anything below eighty calls for a sweater.

Since this coversation with my mother, the temperature has dropped much further. When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I see is my own breath. As a cheapskate, I have nothing, no heater, no hot water bottle, to combat the freezing temperatures. I have only layers.

It is 51 degrees as I write this. I'm wearing slippers, two pairs of socks, flannel pajamas, two fleeces, a bathrobe, a hat and a blanket. While I have little to no feeling in my fingers and toes, I'm reasonably toasty otherwise. Still, it is at times like this when I wonder how I will ever survive a New England winter again. I'm dressed like an Eskimo now, but two years ago this was "skirt weather". No more!

On the bright side, wearing a blanket to work is perfectly acceptable here and you can bet that the blanket around my shoulders right now is goint to be there all through school tomorrow. Maybe I'll just wear it until it warms up in September. That's just 12 weeks away! I can do this for 12 weeks. The power of positive thinking...

Town Bound

It's been a while since I recounted an average day as a Peace Corps volunteer in South Africa, so let me tell you about my day.

Due to some administrative error in the States, volunteer stipends were delayed by almost two weeks. Due to my recent vacation, I had no savings to fall back on. Basically, I've been living off scraps for about two weeks. It's been rough, though not impossible. Anyway, a recent paycheck, a desperate need for groceries and an opportunity for Shaka to see the vet all led me to pop off to Kuruman on a Thursday (it's exam time at school, nobody missed me).

Wednesday night I called my favorite taxi driver.

"Hello, buti (brother), are you going to town tomorrow?"

"Yes, I will pick you up at 7, ne?"

"Gosiame (okay)."

Of course, he showed up at 7:30. I waited by the fire my host mother had built for breakfast and attempted to de-freeze my hair. In preparation for visiting a white town where people know what clean hair looks like, I washed mine the night before. The temperature then dropped, and it quite literally froze. Once I was sufficiently warmed, I took Shaka for a short walk. Out in the nearby veld I saw something terrifying: frost. Ulp. Apparently due to all the rain this past summer, we're in for an especially long and cold winter. What fun.

The taxi pulled up, Shaka and I climbed in and settled down for the two+ hour trip to Kuruman. Well, it actually doesn't take that long to get to town, what takes so long is wandering around the village picking people up until the vehicle (a mini-bus) is full to bursting. I'm not complaining, all the people made the trip cozy and warm.

Once in Kuruman, I paid a single fare (R33) and began a brisk walk to the local animal clinic. The doctor was busy, so his wife prepared a cage for Shaka and I left him there while I did my shopping.

Or, at least I tried to do my shopping. The power was out. I had only a debit card. You get the picture. Luckily, I had a stash of borrowed cash at a guesthouse. Another volunteer was kind enough to lend me some funds to tide me over until our payday finally arrived. Due to school commitments and an unfortunate transport situation in my village, today was the first day I was free to pick up the money. I walked up to the guesthouse and settled in next to a space heater for a chat. What did we talk about? Oh, you know, mining strikes, the bush war against Swapo, literal battle scars, lack of service delivery in the villages... the usual.

Armed with cash, I finally worked up the inner-strength to leave the space heater and actually run my errands. That done, it was back to the vet's office to hear his verdict on the state of Shaka. The good news is that he'll be fine. The bad news is that the wound on his chest is a chemical burn. I have no idea how he got it, nor what sort of chemicals are used at a cattle post that would cause this kind of damage. Anyway, I've been given a special ointment to apply several times a day for a couple weeks. That's right, I'll be spending the rest of June playing doctor to a dog.

The good animal doctor gave Shaka and I a ride to the taxi rank in his bakkie. Shaka managed to not fall out this time. I was relieved. Near the rank were a few Loopeng taxis. The first two were full. The third was practically empty. It took two hours to fill. Actually, it left slightly less than full. No one wanted to sit next to my dog. While his wound was dirty and covered by matted fur in the morning, in the afternoon, after the vet visit, the area had been shaved, cleaned and covered with a greenish goo. Apparently, some people were afraid they'd become sick if they got too close. Nevermind, I paid for two seats and got some extra stretching room.

We arrived back in Loopeng after dark. Once I hauled all my bags back to my room, I realized I left my jacket in the taxi. Brilliant. It's likely gone forever now. It wasn't particularly cute, but I'm that much colder now. After wrestling Shaka to apply the ointment (it stings just a tad), I wandered over to my host family's indoor fire.

In a small building, just a couple metres from the main house, is an indoor firepit. At night, my host mother builds a fire and shuts up the building. The result is a refuge of warmth. I love it in there, even if the highly flammable thatch roof makes me nervous. Tonight I brought a bag of coconut marshmallows, a bar of chocolate and a pack of biscuits to make South African s'mores with my host mother, her grandchild and the three orphans. The kids and I did this last year, but it was new for my host mother. She was pretty pysched. So was I, for that matter. Coconut marshmallows are pretty great, especially when hot.

When I was sufficiently stuffed and thawed out, I ventured back to my room and crawled into bed. I get a lot of sleep in the winter here. It is simply too cold to be awake!

And that, is a fairly typical day for me here in SA.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Porky the Pigeon

Moshaweng High School recently acquired a school mascot. His name is Porky, and he is a pigeon. A rather pathetic excuse for a pigeon, seeing as he can't fly, but an otherwise garden-variety pigeon. Actually, I only assume he's a pigeon. In reality, he may be some kind of fancy African bird species, but trust me, he looks just like a bird you might see in New York City, pecking at yesterday's pizza.

Anyway, Porky wandered into the schoolyard one afternoon and was caught by the general worker, who tried to hand him over to me in order to replace my missing dog. I politely declined, so he found an old cardboard box, poked some holes in it, sprinkled the bottom with some seeds and stuck the bird inside. The box was put in the storage room cum office space, and it has stayed there, with Porky inside, everyday since.

Well, technically, the bird just sleeps in the box in the storage room. During the day, Porky is taken out and allowed to roam about the school yard. Shaka discovered this today and promptly decided to make Porky his new play-mate. The poor bird didn't have a chance. Shaka started running for him, jaws agape, and all Porky could do was hop, waddle and flap helplessly. What Porky lacks in physical advantage, however, he more than makes up for in brains. He waddle-flapped into a classroom, I quickly slammed the door, and poor Shaka was left all alone, with nothing but a mouth full of feathers.

The Moshaweng Menagerie is growing. I'm so tempted to add a few goldfish to the collection. That's educational, right?

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Return of the Prodigal Puppy

What would I ever blog about if I didn't have a dog? Here's Shaka's latest adventure.

When I left for school on Monday morning, I left Shaka in the yard. When I came home from school that afternoon, Shaka was gone. I wasn't too worried. I assumed the children had taken him out to play, or that my host mother had taken him to visit her friends. I expected him to follow my host family home shortly. However, as the hours passed and my family trickled back to the homestead, there was no sign of Shaka. He didn't scratch at my door, nor did he whine outside. Still, I wasn't too concerned. He was friendly with the new neighbors, I thought he might spend the evening over there. I put out his dinner and went to bed.

The next morning Shaka's bowl was empty and while Shaka was nowhere in sight, my host mother assured me that she knew where he was and would go and fetch him that afternoon. Any worries I had disappated and I marched off to school, fully expecting to see Shaka waiting for me at home at the end of the day. Late afternoon rolled around, I arrived home and my dog wasn't there. I was finally worried, although my host mother assured me that there was nothing to worry about and that Shaka would be found.

By Wednesday I started asking around the village if anyone had seen Shaka. No one had, but they promised to keep an eye out. While lost dogs are generally not a big deal to residents of Loopeng, most people were very supportive of my mission to save Shaka. Several of my students and colleagues volunteered to help me search and offered suggestions as to his whereabouts. By this point it was becoming clear that Shaka wasn't hiding just around the corner. I needed to expand the search.

Unfortunately, all of my cross-cultural training failed to provide me with the tools to iniate a "lost dog" campaign in a rural African village, so I relied on what I knew as a suburbanite American. I made signs. I whipped out Microsoft Word, inserted a black-and-white photo of Shaka, listed my phone number and offered a reward for his return. I surreptiously made copies at school, and nipped out during my lunch break on Thursday to begin posting them in tuck shops around the village. (Tuck shop windows are common places for local announcements to be posted. There are lots of notices for cattle sales, as well as local job openings and government notices.)

Outside one shop, I was hailed by a learner. His grandfather knew what had happened to Shaka. He had been stolen and taken to a cattle post outside the village, on the road to Kuruman. Not to worry, the learner would go fetch him that night and bring Shaka home.

I waited, and waited, and waited, and nothing. I was afraid the learner had gone to the farm, only to find that Shaka was dead or lost. Luckily enough, none of that was true. As I found out the next day (Friday), the thief had moved Shaka to another location in the village. The learner went to the new location, only to find that Shaka had already been moved back to the farm.

Saturday dawned, and my morale was low. It seemed that everyone knew who had taken Shaka, but the thief was hell-bent on not returning him. I went to school, taught a class, and then went on an epic journey through the village, asking everyone I encountered about Shaka. No one knew anything until I reached a tuck shop outside the school. A neighbor of mine who sells magunyas (fat cakes, similar to fried dough) was sitting on the porch. She had some good news for me.

The thief had agreed to return my dog that very day. If he didn't, she knew exactly which cattle post he was at and encouraged me to get a ride out there myself. As much as I wanted Shaka back, I wasn't keen on traveling to an isolated farm alone. I opted to stay home that afternoon.

Once again, I waited, and waited, and waited. The sun set, and I thought I would never get Shaka back. Then, there a quick knock on the door. I opened it to find a neighborhood kid excitedly pointing and saying, "Shaka's back!" We ran around the corner of the house, and there he was. Tied to the end of a disgusting rope was Shaka. As soon as I got the make-shift collar off him, Shaka ran to my door. I paid the man who returned him and went off to play with my returned puppy.

He's in pretty good shape, considering the level of abuse most African village dogs endure. He's got a rather large patch of bloody, matted fur on his upper chest, along with a few hairless patched. Whatever his injuries may be, they don't seem to bother him too much although he is spending most of today asleep. We tried going to a walk, but after a few minutes he turned around and went home. I'm just so glad to have him back! It took a real community effort for him to be returned, and I feel so lucky to live in a village where people band together to defeat the evil forces of dog thieves.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Truth and Lies: A History of Loopeng

There are books about the history of South Africa. There are even books about the history of Kuruman. But there are no books about the history of Loopeng. In fact, there are no authoritative historical records whatsoever. Loopeng's history is recorded only in the minds of its residents, and memory alone is a notoriously imperfect source. Still, I feel that Loopeng's history is worth noting and so I want to record as much of it as I can here. I make no guarantees about accuracy, but this is the truth as I've found it.

Loopeng, or Lop City as it affectionately known to its young people, is like the Atlanta, Georgia of rural South Africa. It is a city of neighborhoods. Each neighborhood was once its own village, but the population has grown to a point where the villages have melded together. To the east, there's Tlhaping. Tlhaping is, and was, a farming community. (Cultural note: The Batswana are *historically* cattle herders.) Tlhaping has been around for generations. If you wander around the fields that side, you're sure to stumble upon the remnants of a farm house or two, and maybe the rusted heap of a motor vehicle.

Just down the river is Agrico. Agrico is not really a village. It refers to the collection of homes around the Loopeng Agricultural Cooperative (basically, a farm supply store and the office of a deparment of agriculture official). These residences are a result of Loopeng's growing population. They are relatively new and laid out in a neat grid pattern, like an African village version of suburbia.

Across the road from Agrico is Slough. Slough is the site of an enormous resettlement that dates to the years of apartheid. Here is where the history gets tricky (and remarkable similar to that of my former village). The most detailed version I've heard is that in December of 1976, several thousand people were moved from the village of Gatlhose to Loopeng and surrounding villages. Those who were removed from Gatlhose and sent to Slough were given R500 and a tent (or in some cases, a tin shack) and instructed to use mud, sticks and cow dung to build a more permanent structure for themselves. They were allowed to bring along any livestock they owned, and the primary school from Gatlhose was even torn down, transported and rebuilt in Slough. Deorham's history is the same, right down to the date.

Gatlhose was not the only village to suffer a forced removal in the area of Sishen, there were others. Once all residents were removed, the region was taken over by the South African Defense Force and renamed Lohatla. It you look up Lohatla online, you will find it in reference to the military presence there. I have found no mention of the forced removals that took place there.

The primary motivation behind the forced removal of Gatlhose was to move its residents to the homeland or Bantu state of Bophutatswana, thus depriving them of their rights as South African citizens and removing them from the responsibility of the apartheid government. The removals had neither the consent of those forced to move, nor their new neighbors. As bad as it was, the end result was virtually no change in the standard of living of the peoplef from Gatlhose. They lived in mud houses in Slough. Well, that's what they had in Gatlhose. They had taps in Gatlhose, the government built taps in Slough. There was no electricity in Gatlhose. Well, neither was there in Slough, or all of Loopeng, for that matter. It would come after the end of apartheid.

While Slough greatly increased the size of Lop City, at first its residents lived in remarkably similar circumstances to their neighbors. Gradually, life there actually improved. With the help of a Catholic mission, the government built a clinic and a middle school before brothers at the mission built the high school I teach at today. While Slough is still rough around the edges, it has morphed from the least desirable part of the village to the one with the most amenities. Similar to Agrico, it is also laid out in a formal grid pattern.

Less grid-like neighborhoods are found on the other side of the river in Mampestad and Loopeng proper. Yes, the name Loopeng does have a namesake. Squished across the river from Slough and between Agrico and Mampestad is Loopeng. It is home to a "downtown" district of two tuck shops, a tavern and a bottle store, everything a rural South African village needs.

Tucked right next to Loopeng is Mampestad. Mampestad gives Slough a run for its money in terms of size, and is also the home of another primary school. The roads in this part of the village are little more than glorified pathways and they wind in and out of fields and more tightly-packed residential areas. The further west you go, the windier, sandier and generally unkempt the "roads" get. Pretty soon, the paths start crossing over to the other side of the river and you're in the final neighborhood of Loopeng. I wish I could spell it. I can't even say it. I know it starts with L.

Anyway, L is basically a reflection of Tlhaping. It is generations-old and traditionally a farming community. While Tlhaping hugs tightly one side of the valley, L meanders along both sides of the riverbank. L slowly peters out into a series of farms before the next major village in the valley is reached.

And there you have it, a guided walking tour of Loopeng today! While it is difficult to find where one neighborhood ends and the next begins, native Loopengians are very aware of the distinctions. Neighborly relations are increasingly difficult as the government gears up to distribute R57 000 to each family who lost land at Lohatla due to the forced removals. The residents of Slough are now looked at with increasing envy. The schools and clinics might be shared with all residents of Lop City, but R57 000 is a lot of money to be distributed to only one portion of the local population.

Oh well, I live in Slough. I know some people who plan to buy cars with the money. Now there's something I can get onboard with!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Election Day

Last Wednesday was municipal election day across South Africa. It was a holiday, so school was closed and transformed into a voting location. I was a bit surprised, as the community hall was previously used for local elections. It seemed plenty big, although set back from the main road. Anyhow, these elections were a bit of a disappointment in how calm and normal they were.

I walked past the school twice during the day and while there were more cars parked in the road than I'd ever previously seen in Loopeng, everything was quiet. The quiet might be explained by how few people in Loopeng actually voted.

I had expected a certain degree of hoopla around the fourth municipal elections since the end of apartheid, but no one seemed particularly enthused and the winner for Loopeng's ward was all but already elected months before the actual polling took place. Still I was stunned to learn how few people I knew were voting. Most of them couldn't vote in Loopeng because they were registered elsewhere. For the most part, they were students and teachers whose residences are anywhere from 10 to 1000 kilometres away. Sure, absentee ballots can be obtained, but who really does that? (Confession: I don't. That's right. I haven't voted since coming to South Africa.) In any case, while I can understand the lack of voting on the part of educators with homes in other provinces, I was shocked by learners whose technical homes are villages just down the road. The learners don't live at home because Loopeng has the nearest high school and they board in the village. They had neither the time nor money to travel home just to vote.

If I were a local politician, I would have hired a taxi or two just to take them to their official polling station, or made some other arrangement. These students were denied the opportunity to exercise their rights as citizens of a democratic republic because of their poverty. As these students represent actual votes, I'm surprised that there was no effort made to get them to the polls. Oh well, I think all the non-voters enjoyed the day off!

Burnt: Trash Disposal in Africa

Once upon a time, not so long ago, a visitor to Moshaweng asked me where he could find a trash can. He had a scrap of paper in need of disposal. I looked about. We normally keep a cardboard book in the corner of every room. However, at this point in time, I could find no box. "Just throw it outside," I said. He was horrified by my suggestion and refused. I have no idea what he did with his garbage. Maybe he carted it all the way back to town with him. The point is, while I'm normally more environmentally conscious, things are very different here.

I suggested that he just toss the paper outside because that's what everyone does. Everyone. And not just paper. Cans. Styrofoam. Wrappers. Chicken bones. The box they came in. Everything. This is especially noticeable aboard taxis. Whenever someone finishes a snack, they open the nearest window, reach over and toss out their trash. In the city. In the country. Wherever, whenever. This frustrates me on taxis from one urban area to another. There are usually trash cans at either end of the route, would it kill anyone to hang onto their garbage until they could dispose of it properly? However, I have much more sympathy when traveling between villages.

In the average South African village there are no trash cans, no garbage trucks, no municipal dumping ground. One's trash is one's own responsibility and "properly" getting rid of it is a time-consuming and imperfect process. Garbage is collected, sometimes in a small container but frequently in a large pit in the yard and then burned. Paper, plastic and everything else you can imagine. Just tossing trash out the window is probably more environmentally sound than burning it. In my opinion, what rural South Africa needs most in terms of infrastructure improvement is a a garbage collection system. It would clean the place up and provide the kind of low-skill employment that is so desperately needed. Are you listening, ANC?

As it is, I do burn my own trash. I absolutely hate doing it, mostly because I'm terrible at it. I just spent half hour trying to get a cardboard box to burn. Darn you, cornflakes! I can build recreational fires, but a fire that will turn an empty bag of dog food and other grocery remnants into ash is still far beyond my skill level. Sometimes I get it right, other days I run out of matches trying. On those days I often suffer the humiliation of dragging my trash home. My family doesn't burn their trash in the yard, we burn it by the side of the *very* public road. It's quite a show. My old host family had a pit. It was quite nice. I threw my trash in, and a few weeks later someone else would burn it for me. I can't believe I just called that "nice". In just a few months, I'll never burn trash again. That will be truly "nice".

By the way, had the visitor found a box to dispose of his paper it would have eventually been burned by the general worker. At school last week, I glanced out a window to see a massive bonfire in the field beyond the garden. It is a testament to how long I've lived here that I thought absolutely nothing of it and went back to work.

Ahh, burning plastic... It will always remind me of Africa.