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.