Thursday, April 21, 2011

War of Multiple Worlds

It's been a hectic couple weeks around Loopeng. War was all but declared on multiple fronts, and that's never fun.

We'll start with the most personal. The war the local water supply has declared on my intestines. If that's too graphic for you, don't join the Peace Corps. Health issues are a mainstay of volunteer small talk. In any case, early this week I ventured out to the nearest tap with the intent of spending a minute or two filling my bucket and then hauling it home. A minute or two turned into an eternity. The water was barely trickle. I should have taken the hint and hiked to another tap, like everyone else in the village, but the thought of hauling my water all that much further was much too unpleasant for my ladylike sensibilities. I waited it out at the creepy, abandoned, dripping tap. Big mistake. Whatever was lurking in that water decided to wreak havoc on my inner organs, and I've been barely mobile ever since. In fact, despite regular doses of painkillers, I took my first sick day. Well, it was really only a half-day, but I skipped two of my classes. The thought of remaining upright for two straight hours was just too much for me.

Meanwhile, Shaka the puppy had his own agenda. Instead of being sensitive to his doting owner's ill condition and being on his best behavior, his animal instincts won over and he went wild. Over what? Several women from Australia. This requires some backstory, so here we go:

What on earth are Australians doing in Loopeng? Well, it all goes back to the eighties when... *sigh* Let's get back to the present for a moment. There's a small consortium of schools that participate in service learning projects in "the valley" as they so pretentiously refer to a select few villages lining the Moshaweng riverbed. They have a kicky name, the Kalahari Experience, and a website or two (Google will tell you more than I know). By no means are all Moshaweng's international visitors associated with the Experience, but my impression was that these women were. Their mission was multi-faceted: 1) inspect the school for needed maintenance, 2) prepare for a winter school program and 3) interview applicants for a scholarship program. Shaka did his very best to interfere with all of this.

But why was Shaka at school? If you've been following the blog, you'll know all about my trials of keeping him tied up. I have an update! While the chain worked for a long time, the last weekend I spent away from home resulted in the theft of his collar. Yes, someone stole his collar. Why? It's impossible for me to even speculate. Apparently, Shaka is a bit too friendly. In any case, since Shaka is no longer restrained, he has taken too following my host mother around. As a member of the SGB, she often winds up at school, where Shaka finds me. Shaka now associates going to school with having a playmate all day long. Not the most professional of situations, I admit, but not a problem. He shows up, barks at a donkey or two, and sleeps the day away under a tree or a chair.

Well, that was his M.O. until the Australian invasion. The women showed up, and he went straight for them, jumping, jaws agape. It was bizarre. In a way I was pleased because he had seemed a bit lethargic of late. It was was nice to see so much energy out of him. However, he would not calm down. I would tackle him, he would wriggle away and make beeline for them. Or, if they were far, far away, he run in wild circles around their vehicle. Casualties were sustained by the visitors, including a small tear in a skirt and a light scratch on the arm. I felt terrible. Notice the past tense there. At the time of incident I felt awful, here were these nice people, coming to do some good, only to be met by 10 kg ball of fury hell-bent on terrorizing them. Oh dear. But when one woman's response was to inform me that Shaka was a "danger" to the students and staff of Moshaweng, well frankly, I was a bit put off. So put off, in fact, that the next day I did virtually nothing to prevent Shaka from making an early-morning appearance at school. He caught up with Danger lady as soon as she stepped from her vehicle. It had rained the night before, so when he jumped at her calf he left a row of sandy paw prints for her to wipe off. "Your dog did this," were her first words to me, rapidly followed by, "and I'm doing interviews today." All of which was accompanied by an expression that reflected the extreme difficulty she felt she'd been unfairly subjected to, along with her obvious contempt for the person she held responsible. I apologised profusely, even though it killed me. Next time she comes to Africa, I hope she remembers to pack her sense of humor. In a country where life expectancy hovers around forty, there's only so much shame and grief I can muster for a scratch and some sand. At least she didn't have to go clean herself up in a bucket!

On the homefront, the war against button spiders has continued, but I expect the end is coming. Or not. I just looked up and spotted a new web between ceiling beams. I guess the war on poisonous spiders is ongoing.

In more upbeat news, I'm checking out the Casa Thubisi and heading to the lovely beachtown of Swakopmund, Namibia for a few days. Happy Easter!

Oh, and in case anyone still doesn't have my new e-mail:

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Cultural Bias

Recently, I read an article about white poverty in South Africa. Yes, it exists, and, as one friend said, "It is the saddest form of poverty." While many blacks are accustomed to being poor, the experience is new to some whites.

The article explained that as the South African economy boomed in the early twentieth-century, white poverty became a problem for the white capitalist elite. They feared poor whites would band with their black socio-economic peers to disrupt the capitalist agenda. Apartheid was then introduced as a way to eliminate the rise of communism, particularly in the white community. During apartheid, the government essentially became an employment agency for white people. At its height, the apartheid government employed 40% of white adult males. These men frequently had little skill and were unemployable in other sectors of the economy. Also, the economy's growth was limited by the relatively small number of people who sought employment outside the government.

Of course, when the apartheid regime came to an end, so did many of the perks of being a white, particularly Afrikaner, male. The presence of white men in government has declined drastically in the last fifteen years. Those who thought they had jobs for life suddenly have no jobs at all. Black economic empowerment programs aren't exactly helping white men find jobs either, regardless of skill or lack thereof. While whites qualify for the same welfare programs as black, they sometimes suffer a dramatic reducation in circumstance, moving from their comfortable homes into dirty, cramped caravan parks.

It was at one caravan park, in Klerksdorp, where photos accompanying the article were taken. Most were of the usual, generic and sympathic variety. An old man, sitting on the ground outside his tent, having a smoke and staring into middle distance. Young children, clothing tattered and dirty, playing in the mud. A middle-aged woman, cooking a paltry meal on a single hot plate. The final photograph, however, missed its mark entirely. It showed four girls, arm in arm, happily skipping to school in tidy green school uniforms. They were barefoot, which the caption did not fail to point out.

I'm going to assume, dear reader, that you are American. Coming as you do from a place where "No Shoes, No Service" signs are almost as ubiquitous as the shops and restaurants they occupy, you may be thinking, "No shoes! How shocking! How sad!" If so, you have never been to South Africa.

Shoes are the merest suggestion here, particularly among the Afrikaner population. People don't wear shoes at home, they don't wear them walking down the street, they don't wear them going to the store, they just don't wear them. Young, old, rich, poor, shoes in South Africa are optional. In fact, straight from an Afrikaner's mouth, church is the only place where shoes are required.

So unless those girls were headed to church all dressed up in their school uniforms, the presence of shoes is a poor indicator of poverty.

Lesson: The norms of your home country are not universal. Think critically, not conventionally. The conventional wisdom frequently does not apply.

This lesson was brought to you by a journalist of dubious quality whose name I can no longer remember, but Google can probably find.

Finally, the weather... Loopeng is interesting. It's hot whenever the sun is out. The difference is when it's not. During the summer, nights and early mornings are still pretty hot, but during the winter the temperatures drop into the forties. We're not there yet, but I've adjusted too well to the heat and anything below eighty calls for a sweater to me.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Pied Piper of Loopeng

After a long and cramped trip back from town, I often enjoy a long walk around the village to loosen up. Today I noticed a particularly beautiful South African sunset in the works, so I grabbed my camera before setting off for the best photographic vantage point in the village.

I walked out of my yard, greeted my neighbor at the gate, continued down the main road, greeted more people at the shops, turned to cross the bridge over the dried-up riverbed and greeted my usual taxi driver at the bottle shop. Suddenly I heard the roar of tiny footsteps. Before I could turn around, I was swarmed by a group of tiny children.

We walked together through the village and started out into the bush as the sun began to set. Yes, I led very small children into the wild bush in growing darkness. I had expected them to beat a hasty retreat as most people don't enjoy long walks in the wilderness out here, but the kids were so thrilled to be singing "Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes" they forgot their natural fear. They followed me blindly. It was cute, but I was praying that all the snakes and scorpions stayed home in their dens.

They did. We reached the top of the valley on the far side of the village. I snapped a few photos and then hurried everyone back down into the village proper, safe and sound. I might experiment with them next week. See how far they willingly follow me until their poor, tiny little bodies just give out. I'll report back.

In unrelated news, I really should be washing my hair now, but I'm not. It's 75 degrees. It's too cold. I know, I'm pathetic. I'm wearing jeans, socks, a sweater and a scarf. I'm cold. I really don't like "winter". I'm also seriously considering an investment in a hot water bottle or 12.

Saturday, April 9, 2011


Many of you believe that I currently inhabit the country of South Africa. You are wrong. Recently, it seems as though I've moved to a new place, the glorious land of terrifying arachnids. That is to say, a band of button spiders have moved in and made my home their own. In honor of their arrival I renamed my space Arachnahomia. See how I did that?

During the summer months I noticed an increase in spider webs throughout my hovel. Whereas I once had none, I started knocking them down every week. Because I never actually saw a spider, I assumed I was just being visited by a particularly industrious few who might have made their home inside the cracks in the walls. I didn't worry about it too much.

A few weeks ago I finally saw a spider. It was in my closet. I grabbed a shoe and that was that. I expected a sharp decrease in spider webs, but that didn't happen. In fact, suddenly, spiders were everywhere! And not the cute kind, these are black with ominous red markings. I looked them up in my handy-dandy guidebook and they turned out to be button spiders. Button spiders may be a cute name, but they possess a dangerous neurotoxic venom and propensity to bite that is decidedly inconsistent.

Even worse than the big momma spiders are the egg sacs. Yes, spiders are laying eggs sacs in my room! They look fluffy and soft, like tiny clouds, from a distance, but they're oddly crunchy to the touch. Baby spider bones? Anyway, these spiders are terribly creative in their selection of web and egg sac locations. I found today's batch in the folds of a curtain. Three egg sacs and a spider in the folds of a curtain! What an unfortunate surprise.

Hopefully the spiders will fade away as the weather cools, but until then I'm never going on vacation. These spiders are taking advantage of my every absence to stage a take over. On the bright side, they've eaten every other insect that used to creep inside. Nevertheless, residents of Arachnahomia, prepare to die!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Loopeng Walking Safari

I was at the tap, fetching water, when my evening reverie was interrupted by teenage girl with a red umbrella coming down the path towards me.

"Hello?" she called.

"Hi." I don't like my evening reverie interrupted.

"Are you visiting someone?"

"No." I've lived here almost a year. Get with the program.

"You stay here?"

"Yes." Brilliant conclusion, Captain Obvious.


I pointed.

At this point the girl's enthusiasm started to rub off on me and we engaged in an actual conversation. As it turned out, she's spent most of the last year away at school and her family lives on the very fringes of the village. She had no reason to be aware of my existence. I had a reason to be a wee bit ashamed of myself. Oh well. We moved on.

She came over to my house for a visit this afternoon, and she wound up taking me on the most entertaining and informative walking tour of Loopeng I've experienced in the last 11 months of living here. We climbed up one side of the valley, into the bush, and she pointed out the various neighborhoods, the old sections of the village, where certain families lived, old cemetaries, the remains of kraals and farmhouses. She showed me various edible flora, and even had me try some of it. There were a few historic sites as well, including where a cheetah was killed half a century ago, a solid metal pipe stuck into a stone (King Arthur, anyone?) and an abandoned bakkie deep in the bush.

The best part, of course, was being accompanied by her four dogs. We were hoping one would catch a rabbit for dinner, but alas, no such luck. Maybe next time. I hope to go again sometime this winter, when I'm not quite as deathly afraid of stepping on a snake.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Occupation: Baker

I've always enjoyed baking. Well, I've always enjoyed opening a box, pouring its contents into a bowl, adding a few liquids and throwing it into the oven. That was my pre-Peace Corps idea of baking. Now, in spite of the lack of mixes and dishwashers, I find I still really enjoy baking, even if it's a bit more difficult.

I own no mixing bowls, just a pot, a frying pan, a couple cereal bowls and a small variety of cups and mugs. I have a cup measure, but the lines have worn off. I splurged on teaspoon and tablespoon measures. I'm a sucker for accuracy. For recipes, I use the internet and scour or just e-mail the fount of all wisdom (my mother). I almost always have to make a few adjustments. The village tuck shop is not a great source of whole vanilla beans or coconut oil. I make do, and things generally turn out okay.

Better than okay, actually. With a little bit of free time and/or nothing better to do, I've discovered my own frostings, icings and syrups. As a result, I've discovered fantastic frosted brownies, pound cake soaked in syrup, and glazed lemon muffins. When I have less time and more fruit about to turn, I make banana bread and apple crumble, seemingly by the ton.

Of course, I've had my fair share of utter failures. My peanut butter muffins turned out terribly. Thankfully, the young neighbor kids turned out in force to polish them off. The kids are also useful when it comes to cleaning. I give them a pan glazed with brownie batter and it comes back to me in perfect condition. I give them a piece of cake on a plate and wah-la! Clean plate. I might be taking advantage of them. Oh well. They get cookies. They're pretty happy.

I hope I manage to keep up my baking abilities when I go back to the States, but the allure of the microwave may be too much for me. We shall see. In the meantime, I must go soak my pound cake.

Friday, April 1, 2011


It rained. I earned multiple new blisters, one of which popped 6 km from the finish. When my friend was brutally attacked by the sidewalk, we became the walking wounded (she's fine, scraped and bloody, but okay). Even with all that, Longtom Marathon 2011 was a great success. I finished the race, and we raised almost $400 for a great cause!

KLM had their best year yet and over $20 000 was raised to support the learners at Uplands College by PCVs and even a few RPCVs. There were over sixty people participating in the Longtom/KLM event this year and meeting all the new-to-me people was definitely a highlight for me. Not so much of a highlight? The long trip there and back!

I've got a few posts up my sleeve in the next few days, but this weekend I plan to spend mostly curled up in bed, in recovery. Thanks for all the support!