Another reason the language groups are important is that we are all placed in walking distance to each other in the local villages for the portion of PST that is referred to as “Homestay.”
After the first week of training, each PCT is assigned a Homestay family to live with for the remainder of training. This helps with immersing yourself into living in a rural South African village. There are two communities relatively close to the college, where all of the trainees (and the LCFs) were set up to stay with a host family. Each member of a language group and their LCF stays within the same village, and with any luck, the families they are assigned to are relatively close to one another. I am happy to say that Team Awesome was that lucky. We were all within four blocks of each other, and the blocks in the village we stayed in are pretty small.
The Homestay announcements were a bigger deal than the language group announcements. The day was Friday, July 20. All of us had our luggage re-packed and ready to move in with a family we would be meeting later that day. We were minus our non-essential bag, but had gained our official Peace Corps water filter, mosquito net and medical kit. Additionally, most of us were taking advantage of the blankets and pillows that PC were allowing us to borrow for the remainder of training.
Also, there was the food. As part of their payment for taking us in, the families were supplied with a bunch of groceries. Of course, this makes it easier to feed us, too. Huge heads of cabbage, large sacks of mealie-meal (maize meal), cereal, peanut butter, eggs, frozen chicken … and the list goes on. We had the food allotments laid out the evening before.
Our main hall that we used for instruction at the college was arranged theater-style with lots of additional chairs so it could hold all the folks from the families and the PCTs. Peace Corps vans were sent out to the two villages throughout the morning to pick people up.
The drill: The name of the person (or persons) who came from the village to collect us would be called, followed by the PCT name. We meet at the front of the room, exchange big hugs and smiles, and then go back and sit down with our new family member(s) until all the names had been called for that village. When everyone is assigned to their family, we all get in the food line, the PCT grabs their luggage, we get in a van and make our way to our new home.
But of course, in the excitement of the moment things didn’t go exactly that smooth. My host Mama’s name is called, and then my name. Except I wasn’t sure that it was actually my name that was called. Luckily, Katrina said “That’s you, Erik!” and I rushed up to the front of the room and hugged a lady who couldn’t have looked happier to be meeting a complete stranger.
We sat down together. I tried to pay attention to the rest of the announcements, but Mama had her heart set on introducing me to her neighbors – who were, of course, seated all around us – in the best English she could speak. It was clear the announcements were wrapping up and I could tell Mama was eager to get in the food line.
Of course, I had left my little satchel of study materials, pens, etc. in the seat I was originally sitting in at the beginning of the announcements. So, my dilemma: do I leave my stuff for later and stick with Mama, or try to grab them fast before the food line.
They dismiss us. Mama bolts for food. I bolt for my stuff. Pandemonium ensues. I have to wiggle my way through a thick line of people to catch up with her. I remember thinking at the time that I was every bit as much a meal ticket as I was a new member of the family. But I couldn’t blame her. These people know the value of food, but I have yet to prove myself. For all she knew, I was otherwise useless.
We got our allotment of food and I went to grab my luggage so I could wait in the transport line with my new Mama. Most of the guys’ luggage was on the second floor of the building we had been staying in, which was three buildings away from where we were to wait our turn for transport.
I had ensured that I could carry all of my stuff at one time (thanks to wheeled cases and luggage straps), but I hadn’t accounted for the stairs. When I got to the bottom of the stairs on my first trip down and turned the corner to the sidewalk, one of the Peace Corps drivers was waiting there next to a Peace Corps pick-up truck. He asked if that was all of my stuff.
“No, I need to make one more trip up the stairs – but lots of other guys’ cases are up there still.” I was under the impression he was going to move all the luggage in this pickup to save the rest of the guys from having to do what I was expecting to do: walk across the campus with all my luggage. This made sense to me for expediting getting us all in vans.
He looked at me a little puzzled, but accompanied me up the stairs. He helped me with just my stuff. We threw it in the back of the truck and he said, “Let’s go.” He started the engine and the next thing I knew we were rounding the corner of the campus to where everyone was waiting in line. I think Mama was impressed that I left on foot for my luggage and came back with a pickup, complete with a driver. Line avoided. Erik is already proving to be more than just a meal ticket.
We could fit lots more in the back, but only so many people in this crew-cab style truck. Carolyn, another PCT who was headed to our same village was ready with luggage, food and new Mama, so we loaded them up and we were on our way.
We dropped off Carolyn and her Mama at their place first. I helped unload her stuff from the back. I gave Carolyn a hug and said good luck before I got back in the truck. Of course everyone was a little nervous.
Then we pulled up to the house that would be my home for the next seven weeks.
I started to unload the back of the truck when I was greeted in the front yard by a young South African lady. “Hello! Hello! I am your sister,” she clearly said in Ndebele-accented English. Her name is Abegail, and she is my sister. She is in her early twenties, and is the youngest of the family.
Within seconds I was introduced to my host-dad, or “Baba” as the father is called in Ndebele (and Zulu, and most of the other official South African languages). Right there in the yard, he went over the pronunciation of my new last name, Mahlangu. I practiced it in front of him. I had to, as it includes one of those great consonant clusters not used in English, the “HL”.
According to my Zulu language book it is like pronouncing “SHL”, but removing the “S”. But to be honest, that description doesn’t really make sense to me. To me, this sound is best learned by watching, listening and practicing. I liken it more to sticking your tongue between your teeth and saying a “TH” sound and rolling it into an “L”.
Anyway, within minutes I had moved my luggage into my new room, took off my tie and started to get to know the people who I would rely on for meals, shelter, and family-style companionship for the better part of two months.
Mama was very quick to show me pictures of the rest of her children: her sons that had started their own families and moved out (or mostly moved out) of the house. She was a gogo, as well (South African grandmother), so she couldn’t wait to show me pictures of grandchildren and lots of other extended family. Over the following weeks, I would get to meet them all for myself. I showed some photos of my family on my phone, which are mostly dominated by my niece, Fiona.
Then, I learned about Sipho. It turns out that I am not the first Peace Corps Trainee to stay with them. “Sipho” was the African name they gave him (it is a common African name that translates to “gift”). They had been through all of this before, only a couple of years ago. Now it was starting to make sense how Mama knew so well how to beat the rush of people for the food line, and how calm she was about having a somewhat apprehensive stranger moving into her house.
Then I got a tour of the property from Baba. The home is very neat and clean, constructed in the common method for the area: concrete block with a corrugated metal roof. The main house has three bedrooms, a living room and kitchen. The two-bay garage is connected by a small breezeway. Another smaller house sits on the other side of the driveway with two rooms that are accessed from the outside. One of those is mostly just used for storage and their chickens (at least six chickens, but hard for me to say exactly how many), and the other is a guest room for any family members that need a place to crash. A third building adjacent to these is a decent sized, thatch roof rondavel, which serves as Sebelo’s place (one of my host brothers), though it wasn’t common for him to be present the majority of the time I was staying there, as he was working out-of-town. In the shade of the second house and an avocado tree is the garden, that mostly contains a small crop of spinach. In the corner of their lot is a pen for their one, well-mannered cow.
Before I knew it, I could smell dinner being cooked. It was served right there in the living room, as seems to be pretty common (at least in this neighborhood). As with much of South Africa without indoor plumbing, a small plastic basin with warm, soapy water is passed around for everyone to wash their hands before eating. A simple blessing is said over the food (in English, though this may have been for my benefit): “God, please bless this food we are about to eat. Amen.”
Eating is something these folks take seriously. Quantities are large and everybody eats fast. In a culture where people generally don’t get in a hurry over much of anything, South Africans can make fast American eaters look like chumps. And there is very little they won’t eat, including fat, skin, bones, gristle … you name it. The first week of training prepared me for what types of food to expect, but nothing can quite prepare you for someone to eat a heaping plate of maize-meal porridge (the previously described “pap”), pan-fried vegetables and a large piece of fried chicken in record time with only the largest of cleanly picked bones remaining at the end.
Also, Baba and I were the only people afforded the luxury of silverware. Don’t get me wrong, there was plenty to go around; the ladies just seemed to prefer to eat with their hands. This is traditional, but there is also a trick to it. The pap is used as a somewhat sticky vehicle for the other foods on your plate. You could compare it to the way flatbread is used in middle-eastern cuisine, or the way you can use a thick piece of Italian bread to mop up what’s left of the sauce after eating a plate of spaghetti. (I’m making myself hungry just typing this.)
We watched television throughout dinner and the rest of the evening, and much like Americans, this was the evening ritual every night I stayed there. Usually we just watched whatever was on SABC 1 – this channel is a free, over-the-air station that switches in and out of English and the Nguni languages, often within the same program. On weekends, SABC 1 is very good about showing American movies that either spent very little time in theaters, or were straight-to-video in the USA. It seems that escaping American entertainment is impossible.
At some point on any given evening, Mama brought out a tray of hot water, instant coffee and some teabags. “Any time is tea time,” was a common thing for her to say as she performed this ritual, as well. I usually opted for actually making myself a cup of tea, while the others made themselves some strong java.
Many other PCTs would describe how their little host-siblings would drive them crazy as much as be endless sources of entertainment. But since I had no little ones running about the house, I had a very calm, quiet environment to come home to every evening after a long day of Peace Corps training. I couldn’t have asked for a more comfortable situation. I’ll be happy to stop in and see them whenever I am in that general area of South Africa.
As for my African name, I had to wait a few days. While visiting the family a few days after I had moved in, Jafta, my eldest host-brother, decided I should be “Mongezi.” I was told that this translates to “Addition.” I know it doesn’t have the same ring to it as “Gift,” but I took it in the spirit in which it was intended. I will happily respond to the moniker “Mongezi Mahlangu” for the rest of my days in South Africa and beyond.