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.