Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Weathering the Storm

Thanksgiving weekend has come and gone leaving Christmas right in front of us. Though we will not be having a white Christmas, we did have at least a small spell of cool days over the last weekend and it made for some fantastic adventures.

On Thursday we were able to spend the night at Brandon and Rachel's place and enjoy a Thanksgiving meal as well as celebrate Brandon's birthday. No turkey, but still plenty to be thankful for, namely good food, good friends, and electricity. Most of our meals live and die by our access to electricity and Thursday afternoon produced quite a storm. Jess and I were lucky to still be at home when the worst came through, sounding like cannons firing across our tin roof. If not for the iron beams that hold the house in place I thought for sure everything was going to collapse on us. After a solid 30 minute pounding the rain slowed and was building up again on the north side of our little 'mountain' (really an oversized hill of rocks). We made a break for the main road to try and stay as dry as we could. Luckily we happened to meet a truck that was heading toward our destination and were able to be dropped off at the front door in Klipspruit just midnight blue clouds and scores of lightning were descending upon the village. Huddling in their house, Brandon and Rachel informed us that their power was out (as was ours in Seleka after only a few minutes of the earlier downpour). The plan was to have BBQ chicken along with mashed potatoes to complement our green salad, cranberry Jell-O salad, pumpkin spiced pudding and banana cupcakes. Yes, it was as delicious as it sounds! We had finally bitten the bullet and sat down under candlelight to consume what cold items we had. No sooner were our glasses raised to toast salad and good friends when the fan began to whir back to life. It was music to our ears! With the return of power we were able to enjoy our feast in full under the soft glow of fluorescent bulbs, though we kept the candles for a bit of holiday ambiance.

The following day was wonderful! Overcast, cool and relaxing as we worked together on some up coming projects for next year. Officially through with Thanksgiving we merrily turned up the Christmas music on the radio. Towards dinner time the calm, grey clouds of afternoon transformed into a wall of black that was quickly marching upon us; preceded by rolling thunder and lit with spectacular bolts of lightning. We made the decision to quickly head up to the shop to pick up a few items for dinner. Not the wisest move, but hunger was gnawing at us. The enormous revolving eye of the storm seemed to gather speed the further we got from the house. Just as we were in sight of the shop it was as if a wall had come down on the edge of the village and a flood of wind tore through, whipping up a magnificent dust storm that sent us and the few other villagers in sight running, eyes shielded and shoulders braced, the last 1000m to the shop. No sooner had we taken huddled alee of the storm the rain came. It was not the heavy, damaging rain we expected, but a steady, cleansing rain. The clouds overhead began to swirl and move as they passed. Most ominous was the thunder and lightning. Bolts were striking within what seemed a stone's throw of where we stood and thunder crackled across the entire sky. For almost 45 minutes this continued all of standing mostly silent and just watching. Then slowly the rain began to ease. We emerged from our hiding and happily danced our way home around the puddles and small streams that had formed on the main dirt road, laughing about the fact that when we arrived home we knew we would be without power again.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Giving Thanks

Though Thanksgiving is not a holiday in South Africa, we have come to realize people here give thanks everyday for the good in their lives. Their lists mirror ours in so many ways. We all give thanks for family, friends, our home and our food. While we enjoy the comforts of many things, they are often not what we are truly thankful for and we are humbly reminded of this each day in our village.

Spending this day with friends sharing good food and fun stories we will be thinking of home. We give thanks for the opportunity to be here doing this work and we give thanks for the love and support of our family and friends. Today, and everyday, celebrate and give thanks for all that is good in your life.

Happy Thanksgiving
Paul and Jess


Although most villagers of Seleka live with many uncertainties (will we be able to stretch our food out through the end of the month, can we afford school fees for the children, when will the rain come, etc), one certainty always remains: with the arrival of every weekend there are
funerals to attend. Since our arrival on September 20th, there have been more funerals than we care to count.

We attended our first funeral a month ago. The husband of one of my colleague passed away unexpectedly on a Tuesday, therefore his funeral was planned for the following Saturday.

Preparations for a funeral often take an entire extended family a full week of preparation. When someone dies, extended family will travel to be with the family of the deceased. They will stay through the weekend of the funeral, assisting with all the necessary preparations. Throughout the week, friends will stop by to find a plate of fatcakes (they taste similar to a funnel cake, but without the powdered sugar), and a freshly steeped pot of tea waiting for them. Whereas many of us in the United States may wait for a proper invitation to stop by or attend a funeral, it is an unspoken norm here that if you knew the person, or any member of their family, you are expected to visit that family during the week and attend the funeral.

Towards the end of the week, a tent will appear in the yard, and a cow and/or goats will be slaughtered. All the women will start cooking the meat, vegetables, rice, potatoes, pap (a South African staple–a dense starch made from maize meal and water) and pumpkin using large 3-legged pots. The family will be expected to feed all those who attend the funeral.

On the eve of the funeral, friends and family will stay up throughout the night singing and talking by the fire. Once the first ray of daylight breaks across the horizon, the ceremony begins. Proper attire consists of a blazer and long pants for men, and skirt, and shawl for women. Women are also expected to cover their hair. Once the ceremony has concluded, everyone will travel by foot to the graveyard to watch the lowering of the casket into the ground. Men are expected to stand to one side of the casket, with women on the opposing side. Immediately following the lowering of the casket into the ground, family of the deceased are invited to throw a handful of dirt on top the casket. Although a list of songs to be sung doesn’t seem to be prepared in advance for these occasions, the initiative is always taken by someone to lead the group through a series of songs during the burial process.

Following the burial, everyone will walk back to the house and eat together. It is easy to understand why funerals can be financially all consuming for a family as the cost of feeding an entire village and more can be staggering. Families will often join funeral co-ops; paying monthly dues in order to receive financial assistance when a loved one dies.

To observe the coming together of many to express love and support for family or friends is a humbling experience. It is in these occasions that the spirit of South African Ubuntu, “I am because you are” is unearthed from deep within. To be joined with a people so connected by land, tradition, culture, language, and struggle sheds new light on the notions of community as family, and family as community. We hope to remember and appreciate these experiences long after we have left our new South African home.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Letsatsi go a fisa!

Translated ‘The sun is hot!’, this phrase sums up most every conversation we have these days with people in the village. There are a few reasons for this:

1) It is in fact getting very hot. In recent weeks it has become more and more uncomfortable during peak hours of sun while our days of clouds and cooler temperatures have lessened. Our house does not cool as quickly at night and the mornings are warmer. The fan runs constantly when we are home and ice has become more valuable than gold. We hear it only gets worse from now through February.
2) People here are very concerned that we are unaware how hot it will actually get. We are asked frequently if we have weather like this at home. When we tell them it is similar in the summer, but not this hot all the time, they proceed to be sure we know to drink enough water, wear a hat, and find shade to rest during the afternoons. It is comforting to know that the village is looking out for us. Not so comforting is knowing this weather will last for quite some time.
3) Unbrellas serve a completely different function in Seleka. Instead of their traditional role of helping to keep a person dry, here they are used as a sun shield. Jessica is asked regularly where her umbrella is as she should be using it to shade herself. She has tried to explain the concept of suntanning, mentioning that many people in the US actually go out and lay in the sun purely to darken their skin. This conversation normally ends with her friends and colleagues letting out a rip roaring laugh as this is an entirely foreign concept to them.

If I were to speak only the phrase ‘Letsatsi go a fisa’ for these next few months, I think I could manage any conversation just fine and no one would take notice that I was not saying anything else. It’s just that hot.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


We have been rather busy in the last few weeks! Schools have been gearing up for final exams that start tomorrow. I have been teaching in a 7th grade classroom for three weeks leading up to the exam period. We were doing review of their work from the year in science and economics. My goal was to gain a bit of insight into the life of an everyday teacher in rural South African schools. It was very wonderful gesture for one of the teachers at the upper primary school to allow me into her classroom and work with her for those few weeks. Due to the installation of a new fence and some repair work on a few of the classrooms at the school, one of the grade 7 classes was displaced from it’s normal classroom and split amongst the other two grade 7 classes for two of the three weeks that I was teaching. This meant that each day when I came through the door to class, I turned to face a small room, crowded with about 75 young faces peering back at me. On my first day, I wondered what they thought of this strange American who has suddenly appeared in their class to teach. The students had seen me around the school grounds, and I spent time with many of them playing frisbee at the drop-in center after school, but most seemed unsure what I will end up doing at their school. With a short explaination in my somewhat improved, yet still inadequate Setswana (and quick blurb of clarification from the teacher I was helping) they understood why I was there and off we went. Over the course of these weeks the students seemed to enjoy having me in class. My lessons were somewhat different than what they are used to seeing, incorporating some fun review games from home (hangman was a favorite and they requested it on a few occasions). Not knowing what exactly had been done to teach them the material earlier in the year it was very much for me, and sometimes for them, like learning it all over again. My accent and swiftly spoken English occasionally took some extra questions and clarification to get the point across. I learned to speak more slowly and to incorporate as much Setswana into each lesson as I could to help the students understand and build their confidence in English. It was a give and take process many days, but as the days went by classes became smoother. Students seemed to be more comfortable asking questions of me, raising their hands, inquiring about help after class and more. Many of them now seek me out to say hello during the day (frequently just to hear my amusing attempt at Setswana in return), or they want to know if I will be playing frisbee after school, do I have my camera to take some pictures of them with their friends, are our other Peace Corps friends coming to visit etc. They are some amazing young people and I cannot wait to continue being a part of their lives.

My interaction with the teachers before school, after school and durning lunch were just as much of a learning experience for me as my time in the classroom. Being able to plan lessons and discuss activities with my counterpart teacher for these weeks was incredible. My knowledge of the workings of the school has expanded enormously and I feel that many doors are opening to possibilities for projects and other work that I can undertake in the coming year. On top of that, just spending time with the teachers in conversation makes for a pleasant day. The staff at the schools are very welcoming. We sit over lunch and talk about the day, the weather, family, the village, sports, etc. As I continue to make friends at the school and deeper connections with the community, more and more I realize the scope of what it means to live in rural South Africa.

There are some amazing things taking place yet at the same time some gaping holes in areas of life that need immediate attention. The task set before us of creating a meaningful, practical and sustainable impact on our village is rather daunting. We constantly are reminding ourselves that this change will take time. Very likely it will take more than our two short years in the village. However it is apparant that there are people, teachers and otherwise, in this community and this country who are working diligently toward the improvement of life here. They are qualified, motivated and doing great things all around. Continuing that in the future means raising the children to believe they can do the same. We see this happening at the schools and the drop-in center and find ourselves drawn to spend much of our time with the youth of the village. We realize that every day spent with the children here is a day we can put down in our books as a great day.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Minnesota Connection

Each day in the village we are reminded how different the life is that we lead in South Africa. A far cry indeed from the bustling city life we led back in Chicago. Hours are spent fetching water from the tap in the street, cooking, washing dishes and clothes by hand, sweeping and cleaning from all the burnt orange dust that gathers in each nook and cranny of our home, walking to the shop to pick up our eggs and vegetables, etc. The list goes on. It is not at all a bad life to lead though, and we enjoy many of the simple pleasures that come with our days and weeks. We read more, take early morning walks to enjoy the cool mornings and spectacular sunrises, play cards (Uno has become very popular) and frisbee with the kids in the afternoon, and sit on the front patio in the evening to watch the stars come out and escape the heat inside the house. Our work keeps us busy during the day, however with the heat of summer upon us, being busy often means working to find a bit of shade a hopefully a rustle of breeze. Not quite the weather we associate with the holiday season. We are reminded of that each time we go to town to pick up groceries and see silver tinsel lining the windows of shops and green and red wrapping paper sold at all the stores. Crisp fall/winter mornings and a warm cup of coffee back are frequent thoughts of holidays back home when we are pulling out shorts and a t-shirt for the day thinking even that will be too hot to wear. Sometimes home feels like a long way off.

Yet, just when we think we have left home for good for these next two years we find that there is a bit of truth to the phrase ‘it’s a small world’. On one of our forays into town a few weeks back we heard tell of a woman from Minnesota who, with her husband, is part owner of a BuildIt store (hardware store similar Menards). We had the chance to meet them the other day and come to find out that Chanda, originally from Minnesota and her South Africa husband Jacobus, lived on a hobby farm just outside of Nerstrand, MN (the next town down the road from Northfield where Jessica and I grew up). Sitting in their office here in South Africa over a cup of coffee we were exchanging names of mutual friends and neighbors, popular hunting areas (Jacobus is an avid bowhunter), favorite places in Minneapolis/St, Paul and more. It truly felt like catching up with old friends (the popular, yet very positive, stereotypes of ‘Minnesota Nice’ and ‘The Long Goodbye’ were played out in full). They are extremely welcoming and generous people whom we hope to spend more time with, perhaps sharing a front porch, a little lunch and making the holidays seem a bit more like home.

Friday, October 26, 2007

A Glimpse of Our Village

Here is a quick sample of pictures. I also attached a few to previous entries. You should be able to click on the thumbnail to view a larger image. If you have any problems, please let me know. We are working on posting our pictures to another site with better access and viewing capacity. Once that is set we will provide a link. Until then, enjoy!

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Helping Hands

As we continue to settle in we are frequently reminded of how genuinely kind and considerate the people are here. Not just the adults, but the children as well. During one of our first weeks at the village, we realized we would need one more plastic school chair for our house so that we could both study and work at the table together. Paul asked at the primary school if we could borrow one (for two years) and promised to take good care of it so that we could return it when we leave. Instead of getting just one chair, we received two more smaller school tables, a chair, a shovel and a pick axe. It was explained to us that we would both need our own table to work as our desk and that we could have more chairs at any time. The shovel and pick axe were to be used so that we could dig a hole in the back of our yard to burn our trash. They had were thinking of everything. So, after school, Paul and a troop of fourth grade boys gathered up the items and set off down the road. One tall American surrounded by half a dozen young lads in their black trousers and white oxford school uniforms. They eagerly practiced their English, pointing out their various items and testing each other, laughing whenever Paul tried the same in Setswana, but always assisting with the correct pronunciation eventually. Despite the short walk, it was a warm day and not ideal for hauling things back from school, but they were nothing but happy to help. After, arranging our assorted furniture on the front step they grinned as I thanked them in Setswana and proceeded to scramble off to play yelling back that they would ‘See you tomorrow malome(unlce)’.

Once the tables and chairs were inside, it was time to dig the hole. It is necessary to burn our trash here because there is no central, or community, waste disposal system (unless goats count; they will eat anything!). This is not the most environmentally friendly option, considering some of the plastics used each week, but it also keeps streets and yards from piling up with trash. The nice thing is that most all the glass bottles from colddrink (the one word that is universal for ’soda’ here in SA)or the taverns are recycled by the shop owners. A good start! Since we cannot use only glass or paper products here, Paul went out to dig our hole. The ground in our yard is a burnt red color and a bit rocky, so the pick axe came in handy. Having only been working for around a quarter of an hour, but already sweating rather uncomfortably, a young boy appeared from around our house heading toward Paul, shovel in hand. His name is Salan, a lanky 7th grader from the upper primary school where Paul works. Looking from me to my unfinished hole he asked rhetorically, “Need some help?”. No sooner had Paul said yes, than he was drawing a line in the sand with the corner of his shovel, saying, ‘You need to make it larger and deeper.” Side by side they worked for another hour, making small talk about school and the village. Once the hole was complete, he surveyed our work and smiled, half with approval, half amusement that this American was actually digging holes and burning trash. We exchanged a few laughs about our settling in, a handshake and then he was off for home to help his family prepare for dinner. We were amazed. At that age we would not have been too eager to help small hole to plant a few flowers, let alone help the new neighbors dig a hole in their backyard large enough for a few months of burning trash.

That is what life is about here. Everyone helps everyone else. Young or old, black or white, it does not matter. It was explained to us by a couple young guys from the high school who helped us hang the line outside for us to dry our clothes:

“If we help you today, and you help us tomorrow, everyone is happy and we get to know our neighbors as friends.” The village becomes a family.

Springboks Win!

The South Africa Springboks won the Rugby World Cup last night over England 15-6. The match was intense with a near try by England that would have dramatically changed the way the end was played. Celebrations were had all around the country and President Thabo Mbeki was on hand in France to help hand out medals to the team. In the last month we have been transformed into die hard SA Rugby fans. The sport is fantastic and addictive. It commands the same attetion that the NFL does on a Sunday afternoon back home.

We have met some great friends, Stehpen and Jolene, in our shopping town and they invited us and some other friends over for the day to watch the match. In the afternoon, Brandon, Stephen and myself went over to the local rugby field. Stephen, who plays on a team in town, gave us a quick tutorial in the ways of rugby. We passed, kicked and goofed around on what turned out to be a great afternoon. Afterward, just prior to the start of the match, we put together a braai (BBQ) of lamb chops with a potato bake to compliment. It was a perfect way to spend the day, and a new part of South Africa for us to experience. One we hope to take part in again. Go Springboks!

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Settling In

On September 20th we had our official swearing in ceremony in Pretoria. Our training class is the 10th anniversary of Peace Corps in South Africa and the largest class South Africa has sworn in. We were joined by our Regional Director, our supervisors from the village, as well as a large number of current volunteers in South Africa. Our hosts, the US Ambassador and his wife, provided a delicious spread for lunch and we sat in the shade on a warm afternoon enjoying last moments with our friends from training before departing with our supervisors for our new home. We traveled with Ben and Susie, another couple serving in a village about 40 minutes by car from ours. With all our boxes, bags and people, two of our supervisors actually sat in the back of the truck for the four hour ride from Pretoria! We arrived at sunset, but there was a miscommunication with the keys, so we sat on the front step in the dark with our bags for around an hour until we could reach the woman from the church who had them. Despite the long day, we laughed at the thought of such a long journey only to be met with a locked door.
Our house is an old mission house owned by the Dutch Reform Church, our neighbors with whom we share a fence. The house is quite large by Peace Corps standards and we live on our own, not with a host family as is the case with most volunteers. There are four bedrooms, a main room, dining room/kitchen, and small bathroom. Our room and the dining room are the only furnished rooms. Another bedroom is used for storage, one for exercising, and the last for hanging ‘unmentionable’ laundry that we would rather not hang outside! We have electricity, but no running water. There is a tap in the church yard where we fetch water to use in the house. The water is rather bitter and a bit salty, so we resort to boiling and filtering our drinking water. Coffee, tea and Tang serve as a great way to give it a better flavor, if you are inclined to send any packages our way!
Our new home is slowly taking shape and looking like our own. We bought our first major appliance as a married couple just the other week, a new mini refridgerator! Being in a home without a host family we have had to buy a few larger items that other volunteers usually do not get. We also purchased a small oven with two hot plates on top. Just these two items have transformed the possibilities for us here when it comes to food. They will definitely get a workout over the next two years, at least when the power is on. Whenever it rains the power goes out, and it has rained.
It has rained more days than we can count. Mostly it has rained at night which is nice. We are grateful not to slop through the mud to work, and the steady drumming of rain on our tin roof lulls us to sleep at night (when we do not have rain, we rely on barking dogs, crowing roosters, bleating goats, noisy donkeys, and the music from the local tavern to sing us to sleep). Unfortunately in the morning we have to navigate a few pools of water on the floor that have formed beneath the few small holes in our roof or blown in under the cracks in the doors. A few strategically placed buckets and a mop have sufficed until we can patch things up. What may be an inconvenience for us is a great thing for the area around our village. Last year the rains did not come until later in November and crops were not good. This year is off to an early and good start with rain and they are beginning to plow. Mealies (or maize/corn) is the staple crop here in South Africa. The way it is prepared is not like anything we are used to eating. The mealies are ground down to flour and usually boiled in water with salt to obtain a sticky, mashed potato-esque, consistency. Served with one of a variety of sauces or gravy made with vegetables, beans, and occasionally meat this is the main course on most days for the large percentage of the rural population. We eat it occasionally when visiting friends, but at home we like to cook dishes that are a bit more familiar. Nothing like recipe from mom’s cookbook to make this truly feel like home.

The Road Thus Far

After two days in Philadelphia, we traveled for another two days on long flights with a substantial layover to arrive in Johannesburg on July 21. Our first order of business upon arrival was to grab a copy of the newest Harry Potter book at the Jo’burg airport. We had barely left the baggage claim and had not even met our South African colleagues before ducking into the nearest shop in the terminal to buy it. Following a two hour bus ride from the airport into the North West Province, we finally came to stop at Mankwe Teacher’s College. Our first week was spent here as we struggled to overcome jet lag and began to learn more about the work we will be doing. A broad overview of our projects was given and we were introduced to the training staff that would become our sources of information and our good friends over the next couple months. We met current volunteers as well, who provided a glimpse into our future in South Africa. Over the course of training we met many more volunteers from all different areas of the country. They provided short trainings on different work we will be doing, gave a number of amusing, yet informative skits on scenarios we are likely to encounter during our stay, and lent an ear to many of us individually who had questions or concerns regarding our service.
After our initial week at Mankwe, our training moved to a cluster of three villages just outside Zeerust, a town in the North West Province. There we all stayed with families that volunteered to host us for eight weeks. Our host family was wonderful. We lived in a lovely home with our Gogo (grandmother in Setswana), our host aunt Sidi, her son Amo, and our two host sisters Lekhabe and Mpho. Our host parents, Mmampho and Bushy, along with our host brother Robbie, lived in another house near the shop that they own. We shared meals with them, learned to cook a few delicious South African dishes, became avid soccer fans in a short time and were quickly told that the Kaizer Chiefs are the team to support. The love and hospitality they showed us made for an enjoyable transition into life here. They were also very helpful in getting us started on the long road to language learning by helping us each night master a few words and phrases.

During the days at training, we were attending sessions for our respective projects. We had speakers, workshops, presentations and short field trips around the area to bring us up to speed on South African history, culture and daily life. Along with this, each day we also had language training for a few hours. Our days started early, we were out the door around 7:30am and lasted until about 5:00pm. By the time we got home, did a bit of language homework and reading for the next day, helped with dinner and chatted with our family, we were exhausted. Average bedtime for training: 9:30pm. We just could not keep our eyes open much past that time.
On the weekends we were able to spend more time with our family and they were eager to show us around. The very first weekend in the village we were taken out to our family’s cattle post where Bushy and his colleagues care for their cattle. We learned about the cattle industry in the rural areas, weather patterns, rain (or lack there of in recent years) and much more. Cattle farming is a common and successful business for many people in the area. We had a home cooked meal over the fire that afternoon and it was a great day. Other weekends we were able to visit our host parents at their shop, see other family members for lunch or dinner, visit our fellow trainees and explore the village.
As the weeks went by we became quite comfortable in the village. Neighbors would recognize us and stop to talk, usually in a combination of Setswana and English. We had a number of experiences with all sorts of people around the village. Here are a few anecdotes from those two months:
-Walking to Botswana. Round trip was just over 20km.
-Learned the intricacies of South African pop-culture life through the soapies (soap opera) Generations.
-Visited a sangoma, or traditional healer and watched as they cast bones to read the future of a volunteer.
-Our bus broke down on the interstate from Rustenburg. We had to walk a couple km on the side of the highway to get to a B&B to wait for a new bus.
-Cooked dinner for our host family in the dark after we lost power. Luckily they had a gas stove!
-Our big training party fell on Jess’ birthday weekend. She had a cake and ice cream.
-Made sloppy joe’s for the host family. It was a huge hit.
-Paul tried cow brains. They taste like scrambled eggs.
-Peace Corps held a big event to thank our host families for their hospitality.
-Spent our 1st anniversary having lunch at our host aunt and uncle’s place. They had a huge spread for us and it was a great way to spend the day.
-Paul shaved his head.
-Spent many evenings with Gogo learning to speak Setswana, watching WWE (she loves it!), meeting her friends who are over for tea, and listening to stories from her 87 years in the same village.
-Paul spent two weeks teaching grade 6 at a primary school.
-Listening to our host cousin giggle at the noise of us shuffling a deck of cards. We spent countless hours keeping up with his four years of constant energy.

We have been busy, yet there is so much to learn about South Africa we feel we have barely scratched the surface. Thankfully each day we are greeted with smiling faces and genuine warmth everywhere we go. People are eager to know about us and even more eager to invite us into their homes and their lives. So with our Setswana dictionary in one hand and usually a small neighbor child grasping on to the other, we set off each morning down the dirt road in front of our house for another day under the African sun.


The opinions expressed are our own and do not reflect those of the Peace Corps, the U.S. Government, the Republic of South Africa, or and other person, party, or organization mentioned on this website.