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.


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.