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.