Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Almost Forgot

Here we are, just days away from the marathon, and I almost forgot to pester you all about KLM! My preparations for Saturday are almost complete. I've washed fresh socks and packed my bag. Have you donated to KLM? Every penny makes a difference.

I'll trade you a fun fact. There are thousands more elephants than white people in Zimbabwe.

And how about a pithy quote from Robert Guest's The Shackled Continent?

"The Third World lives at the back of the First World's garden, which he weeds on Wednesday." I can't think of better way to describe South Africa myself.


Rioting 101: UA Has Much to Learn from SA

I was doing my morning Facebook browse recently when I discovered my college friends all a-twitter about the university cancelling the largest on-campus event of the year, Fountain Day. The campus of the University at Albany is focused around a gigantic fountain in the middle of an enormous concrete block that hosts 13 3-story buildings. The block is fondly referred to as the Podium. It looks very sci-fi. In any case, slapping a campus designed around a major water feature in upstate New York was maybe not such a bright idea as the freezing cold temperatures dictate that it be kept off for most of the year. The day when it is turned back on is called Fountain Day and the whole university, students, faculty and staff turn out to enjoy the first of the spring sunshine and splash in the fountain's pool. Apparently that will not be happening this year.


Well, there's another big UAlbany tradition that takes place around St. Patrick's Day. It's called Kegs and Eggs. On the appointed day, people set their alarms for 6 am and start drinking immediately. The bars open at 7. The party lasts all morning. Kegs and Eggs is hardly a venerable tradition, but it certainly helps UA retain their reputation as a massive party school. "We pregame harder than you party," is a common, if idiotic, refrain.

Nevertheless, Kegs and Eggs is not necessarily a troublesome event. Usually the only clue to its presence for non-paricipants is an unusual number of college students pouring into diners and dining halls in the early morning hours under an alcohol-induced haze. The drunken masses choke down a few waffles and then quietly collapse to sleep off the, err, morning. This year was an exception. Kegs and Eggs announced itself with rioting along a city street popular with university students. Some two dozen have been or will be arrested. Expulsions are being threatened. Apparently, the party got out of hand on Hudson Street. Bottle were being thrown, vehicles damaged, and even appliances flung from windows. The police tried to intervene, but the student weren't having any of it. A full-out riot ensued. It was certainly not the university's proudest moment. The Albany community is furious, and very likely yielding to this pressure, UA's president decided to punish the student body by getting rid of Fountain Day 2011.

While most of my friend's objections to this lie in sound, rational fact (a few dozen individuals are responsible for the riot, there are twenty-thousand other students who were not at all involved) my principal objection comes from a very real encounter with a riot of a much more serious nature. Students at a high school in a village outside Kuruman, Batlharos, decided to go on strike after a police officer assaulted a student following the student's refusal to submit to corporal punishment. Their strike lasted several days, involved learners at multiple high schools, and resulted in the blocking of a major road with trees, rocks and destroyed road signs. A police car was burned, and there was an attempt at burning the entire police station. Reinforcements were called in from Kimberley to calm the region after a few days. Reportedly there was also a stabbing related to the strike. This terrifying glimpse into the destruction wreaked by a mob mentality is brought to you by a genuine, South African riot. Two dozen angry drunks and Albany cries the end of civilization. An entire village terrorized by high school students and it's just another day in Africa.

Now that's what I call perspective. If the university insists on their disproportionate response the so-called riot, I suggest importing some South Africans to show them what is "real" riot is all about.

Don't worry, I wasn't present during the worst of the rioting in Batlharos. I just happened to try driving through with my principal on the way to a meeting in Kuruman. "Why are there rocks in the road? What are helicopters doing here? Is that smoke coming from the police station?" I had a few questions...

Monday, March 21, 2011

Dog Days of Summer

I'm not actually sure what the title phrase means, just like I'm not totally clear on the exact meaning of "Indian summer" either. No matter, this post is about a real dog, Shaka, and what we've been up to lately.

I usually take him for an evening walk, and we wander all over to new and exciting parts of the village. Loopeng is so large that there are little pockets I still haven't visited. Anyway, out on one of these walks we met another dog. Well, he was more of a puppy. He looked very similar to Shaka, black with a white chest, except much smaller. Shaka and the new dog stared to play, but the new dog's owner wanted to be on her way. She called to her dog, "Rusty! Rustenburg!" Her dog perked his ears and went trotting towards her. I was more than a little surprised to hear the name of my former dog. What it mere coincedence? Nope, this lady liked Rusty so much she named her dog after mine. It was oddly touching.

In more recent dog news, Shaka got his first bath today. It consisted of me holding onto him tightly as he tried desperately to wriggle away from four kids splashing water at him. He did much better when we got to the lathering. He stood patiently while we scrubbed him up and down. The rinsing was a near-disaster. He saw me coming with the water bucket and ran like the wind. We managed to get him clean enough that no soap was visible, and any remaining he quickly scrubbed off with a roll in the sand. So much for a clean dog.

All the washing and rolling left him a bit tired, and he trotted off for a nap in the shade, but we still didn't leave the poor puppy alone. No, we brought out the brush. He actually seemed to enjoy it, even though all four kids insisted on their turn with the brush. It's amazing to me how just a few months ago all the children were terrified of the "beast" and now they enjoy nothing more than sitting next to him on the stoop and giving him a pat. It's a good thing Shaka is so patient.

Also today, I heard a mysterious noise coming from the roof of the house. I looked up and saw two kids on the roof, and one on a ladder on his way up! Needless to say, I was next in line. I got all the way up the ladder, but chickened out when it came to putting my weight on the tin roof. I admired the view for a minute, and clambered back down. "Resego!" called one of the kids. I looked up just in time to see one of Shaka's toys flying towards me. I thought it had been lost or stolen ages ago. It turns out that it had just been on the roof all that time. Shaka is extremely pleased to have it returned, as am I.

I so wish I could take Shaka to Longtom with me, but alas, dogs and taxis are not a good mix.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Fundraising Update

The Longtom Marathon is one week from tomorrow! I'm getting excited, but also a bit nervous. Last year's left me all but inert from exhaustion. It was totally worth it though!

Thanks to all my generous donators. We are just $5 away from $300! Very impressive! Now if we can just sneak over $300...

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


I wake up in the mornings to the sound of my cellphone alarm. As soon as I turn it off, I usually check my e-mail.

This morning I was greeted by two messages of interest. One notified me that a decision had been rendered on my application to SAIS and could be found online. The other was less cryptic. "Congratulations from the Fletcher School!" was the subject line. I was pretty sure I was dreaming.

When I decided to pursue a master's degree in international affairs, I researched the top programs in the country. I selected three from the top five and applied without any regard to my less-than-stellar academic and professional background. (I went to a state school for only 2 years, and Peace Corps is the closest I've ever come to a real job.) My hopes were not high.

So being accepted to Fletcher was ridiculously exciting. I went through the whole day with a smile. "Ma'am, why are you so excited today? Did you get married?" my learners asked.

"Nope, I'm going to school!" They faked appropriate enthusiasm. I got a few high-fives.

When I wasn't in class, I daydreamed about Fletcher, moving to Massachusetts, seeing the Boston-area side of the family. It was a pretty rosy picture. The SAIS e-mail was all but forgotten.

I couldn't access the SAIS website through my pathetic excuse for an internet connection. I thought about waiting til the weekend, but on a whim I called a friend to see if she would check it. She did. She called back.

"I regret to inform you," she said.

"Okay, whatever, Fletcher rocks!" I thought.

"Nevermind," she continued, "You're in!"

And how! I was not only accepted to the school, but the capped international development program, and a first year of study at the campus in Bologna, Italy.

Looks like I have some big decisions to make in the month of April. The decision-making process is looking difficult as I'm still in South Africa. I means, thanks for inviting me to "Accepted Students Day" but a campus visit is pretty much out of the question. Any advice, folks?

If you're happy for me and you want to show it, please consider a donation to KLM. See older post.

I'm off to celebrate with a semi-warm Coke from the tuck shop. Best of luck to those still waiting to hear.

Oh, and I have not heard from the third school, Georgetown, but 2/3 so far is pretty good for me!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Whoo-eee: Showing a Little Knee

Women in South Africa can, and do, wear low-cut blouses without provoking so much as a second glance. This should not be confused with a lack of modesty. The women I'm most familiar with are extremely modest, but their South African standards are quite different from what we are accustomed to in the US. While both cultures seem to view bare shoulders as mildly indecent for school, work and religious gatherings, the body part whose exposure is deemed least acceptable here may come as a surprise. It is the knee.

A good Motswana woman never bares her knees. It can be well over a hundred degrees, she can be wearing the skimpiest excuse for a blouse imaginable, but her knees will be well covered by a skirt or even pants. The local aversion to the sight of one's knees has been brought home to me on two occasions.

The first occurred many moons ago. I was at a shop in town, visiting my host sister M. A young Afrikaner girl stopped in to inquire about a traditional, Setswana-style miniskirt. M attempted to point her in the direction of the traditional clothes, whose skirts were calf-length and longer, but the girl insisted on a shorter style. M resorted to a blank stare. It wasn't just that she had nothing of the like in stock, it was that it simply did not exist. Traditionally dressed Batswana women did not wear short skirts. They did not show their knees.

The second instance was more recent. An international school visited Loopeng from Hong Kong. They played a soccer game with learners from Moshaweng. I was among the gawking spectators. What were we gawking at? The knees! Our international visitors were dressed conservatively to the best of their knowledge with big, baggy t-shirts and shorts that definitely followed the thumb rule, but there were a lot of knees on the field that day. I don't think anyone was particularly offended by it, just surprised (myself included). I guess that's a good sign. I've adapted so well to the local culture, I've started to take their fashion choices as the norm. Hopefully, I won't be overwhelmed by the preponderence of bare legs when I return to the US.

Longtom is in 1 week and 6 days. Please consider a donation. Dankie!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Directions for Donating

Two weeks before the marathon is a pretty good time for a gentle reminder that I will be crawling through the Drakensburg to raise money for the KLM foundation. Of course, a gentle reminder means nothing if it's not accompanied by directions on how to donate, so here we go:

1. Write a check payable to Kelsey Marie Soeth.
2. Mail to Private Bag 1532 x PostNet Suite 120
Kuruman, South Africa 8460

Done? Wonderful.

Not fooled? Rats!

*sigh* If you insist on supporting the educational goals of South Africa's disadvantaged youth by making a donation to Kwagle le Mollo, here's how (I promise):

1. Go to www.klm-foundation.org
2. Click 'Donate'
3. Follow instructions
4. Please put my name down as the individual you are sponsoring for the Longtom marathon
5. Feel free to skip step four. I don't care how much money I am personally responsible for. Focus your limited energies on steps 1-3.

I did a lot of training today. I walked to the tuck shop for flour. Cookies are in the oven now. If you come visit me, maybe I'll give you one.

If you figured out the tad of trickery above the real directions, yes, that is my address. Just in case anyone needed it...

Thanks for everything, loyal blog readers! I'll have a cookie for each and every one of you!

The Sand Beneath My Feet

A friend recently passed on a book for me to read. It was given to her by author, and passed on to me because she thought I would be able to relate to the author's experience. I thought she was nuts, but I was wrong.

The book is The Ice Beneath My Feet by Diana Patterson. Ms Patterson was the first female station leader at an Australian research post in Antarctica. Her book is all about that experience, and it is fascinating. I highly recommend the book just for a fun read. Her descriptions of Antarctica and its inhabitants are interesting, but her stories of dog-sled expeditions and even the day-to-day of station life are both well-crafted and often hilarious. Reading about ice and cold was a nice change to the sweltering heat we've been experiencing lately here in Africa.

While the setting was dramatically different, I was able to relate to a large portion of the book from my perspective as a Peace Corps volunteer. The importance of mail is an obvious example, less obvious might be the lack of physical contact (go a few months without a hug and see how you feel) or the great disadvantage women face in needing to use the facilities in an environment where no such facilities exist (these passages in Ms Patterson's book are painfully funny and put my sunken pit toilet in a whole lot of perspective). I certainly stand corrected in my presumption that the only people in the world who can relate to the experience of PCVs are fellow PCVs. Apparently, those living in Antarctica have some pretty similar experiences.

In other news, we are two weeks out from the Longtom marathon and if you haven't yet donated, please do! I am $30 away from $250! Let's make it happen! Any amount, no matter how small, will go a long way towards helping KLM provide an Uplands education to another rural learner. Many thanks!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Rugby Rodeo

It is sports season in this corner of the world. Nearly every day Moshaweng hosts several in-house soccer and netball games, and most weekends involve a sporting event or two at another school. This past weekend I traded a Moshaweng sports day for a much bigger event in the nearby town of Vryburg.

I attended with Kuruman friends whose son plays rugby for die Kalahari Byes (the Kalahari bees). While I expected to see nicer playing facilities at an event in which the generally better-funded town schools participated, I was not at all prepared for the reality of the event.

First of all, it turned out to be a sports day in which 22 schools from all over the North-West and Northern Cape participated. Schools came from as far away as Kimberley and Upington. There were a half-dozen fields on which soccer, rugby and netball were being played simultaneously from nine in the morning well into the afternoon. There was a photo booth, and an enormous food stand where everything from toasted sandwiches to donuts were being sold at an alarming rate. By 10 am they had started to run out of utensils! In any event, the whole production even had a corporate sponsor in the form of the South African grocery chain, Pick n' Pay. This was no village sports day, for sure.

The best part of the day was having a fellow volunteer visit. I don't get to Vryburg too often, so it was a real treat to see a friend from the area, all decked out in her Afrikaaner plaid. (Afrikaaners do seem to share a fondness for a good check pattern, at least near my site.) She commented that the whole event felt very suburban America, and, in many ways, it did. Except that, to me, it felt less like a suburb I lived in, and more like a mix of Texas-Midwest. From the sheer number of trucks in the parking area to the blaring country-ish music on the sound system to the utter seriousness that parents paid to their children's primary school-level athletics, it felt very much like a rodeo in the Dakotas or a football game further south. Really, if a game announcer had said, "The calf roping starts at one o'clock, stay with us!" I would not have been particularly surprised.

Alas, there was no rodeo, just a lot of rugby. While not quite as dangerous as bull-riding, it's not a sport for the the faint of heart. Watching rugby is like watching a car crash. People are getting hurt and you know it, but you can't look away. Luckily there were no major injuries on the field that day, and I escaped with nothing more serious than a very light sunburn. All in all, a great way to spend a Saturday!

That evening brought even more fun, as I played the South African version of Monopoly for the first time. I lost badly in terms of finance, but I ended up owning both Clifton and Franshoek so I was happy. They are basically the SA equivalents of Park Place and the Boardwalk.

Sunday morning brought some time to recover from all the excitement of the weekend, and by evening I was back in Loopeng. I'm so looking forward to my next adventure!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Melodrama 2011: Afrikaaners of Inconceivable Talent

This weekend, the Laerskool Seodin (Seodin Primary School) put on a melodrama to raise funds for the school. I was lucky enough to attend as a guest of some Kuruman friends. Here, the term "melodrama" refers to a series of choreographed and lip-synched musical stylings of popular American and Afrikaaner songs. They were each performed by members of the school staff, faculty and School Governing Body (SGB). I had seen pictures of melodramas from previous years, so I went in with high expectations. I came away more than impressed and more than a little amused.

The show opened with the principal and his wife in a moving rendition of "Lady in Red." A teacher and her fiance soon followed with "My Heart Will Go On," which was just listed in the program as "Titanic". The set for that piece included the bow of a ship, helpfully labelled "Titanic" in case anyone was confused. Afrikaans offerings included the rather sweet "Ek bring diamante vir jou" (I bring diamonds for you), but far more hilarious was the novelty song "Sexy Hoender (Sexy Chicken). The dancers for this song included 2 women arrayed in boas, 1 in a penguin suit and 1 splendidly dressed as the sexy chicken herself in a feathered neon headdress, wings and a hula-style skirt from which she whipped out plastic eggs and hurled them into the audience.

The only slightly awkward arrangement was that of DJ Ossewa. I should mention here that every performer and audience member was white. Laerskool Seodin uses Afrikaans as the language of instruction and it is located in a well-off and predominantly Afrikaaner section of town. Perhaps as a result black students are a small minority. In any case, DJ Ossewa's set consisted of an Afrikaaner trio dressed in tattered clothes dancing to the house music so popular in the villages. It was likely to be well-intentioned gentle mockery, of the variety so popular on late-night TV, but it was still a bit unsettling. In any case, after the house music, DJ Ossewa and crew rocked the place with traditional Afrikaaner children's songs set to a modern beat. That part was great fun.

In addition to Elvis medleys sung by cricket coaches, ballet performances and more outrageous musical fakery than I'd ever seen in one place before, the melodrama featured several intermissions during which the curtains closed, but the lights stayed down and the music was turned up. Young and old, couples took to a large, cleared space on the gymnasium floor to dance. Apparently, Afrikaaners love to dance, and many of the couple were quite good. What surprised me most were the youngest attendees, high-school age, who seemed to enjoy nothing better than a good waltz. It was like a 19th century prom, but with jeans.

The whole event took place in the school gym, but the space had been transformed by a dozen or so parents who decorated tables with candles and fancy tablescapes and also provided a dinner to ticket-holders. It was the closest I've ever come to dinner theater. Sexy chickens on stage, fried chicken off-stage. Well actually, my table was provided with mini-quiches, cheese puffs, deviled eggs, meatballs, brownies and all manner of delicious things to eat and drink. Oh, the drinking...

It was a school function. A primary school function. When a tablemate asked what I would like to drink my first thought was, "How many options could there be?" A lot, as it turned out, and that was just the alcohol. This was no water-juice-soda school function. Not only was there a bar from which to purchase drinks, but many people brought their own. During the first part of the evening my table stuck to the bar, but then out came the little tin cup. It was passed around the table. When it got to me, I looked questioningly to my host. "It's nice," she assured me. And it was. It was melktart-flavored and topped with cinnamon. I'd tried it before at another Afrikaaner function. I passed the cup on. The show continued. Time passed. A shot appeared on my plate. I looked around. "It's awful," said my host, grinning. We drank. It was, indeed, awful. That finished, we returned to the show. Time again passed. Then the cup came back. Everyone looked at me, I looked at them. "It's lethal," they told me. Not quite, but close. The cup went around a few times. There may be a link to that and the fact that the final intermission involved my entire table dancing in a circle, taking turns with the sexy hoender head gear and doing the "twist".

The drinking, dancing and general hilarity came to an end around midnight. As "Jabulani" came on the sound system and the dancers on the floor dwindled to the under-twenty set, my table abandoned ship and retreated to someone's home for coffee. Momentarily re-charged we chatted away about Africa, but exhaustion soon overcame us and we drove home to our respectives beds around 1 am.

A mere five hours later, the household I was staying with was on the road, but more on that later.