Monthly Archives: November 2012

Down the Tar Road and Through the Town, To Gogo’s House We Go

“… the driver knows the way, to steer the taxi to the village off of the sand-paved road.” I think that’s how that tune goes, right? Anyway, as I post this Thanksgiving edition, I realize my choice of food for tonight’s dinner may reflect the wrong holiday: pork sausage slow cooked in sauerkraut. I’m reminded of a phrase from one of my favorite holiday films: “You do what you do, I do what I do.” Anyway, even though I am seven hours ahead of America’s east coast, I am days ahead for celebrating Thanksgiving …

Last weekend, I celebrated Thanksgiving as traditionally as possible. My friend and fellow volunteer, Briana – and her host family – were so gracious to host seven PCVs and our German volunteer friend, Franzi for a pre-thanksgiving dinner this past Saturday afternoon. Briana’s site is in a village that isn’t too far away from mine. Since I was eager to help with the cooking, I met her in town at the grocery store on Friday after school.

The walk to town was particularly sweaty, considering the temperature (remember that it is summertime here), humidity (remember where we are on a map), and amount of weight I was lugging: clothes, toiletries, and sleeping bag for the weekend, plus the makings of a green bean casserole and three dozen freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. I knew it would be some time before I would be eating dinner, so I grabbed a couple of hard-boiled eggs from the fridge to eat on the way.

When I got to town, my shirt was thoroughly soaked with sweat. I dropped my bags at the parcel counter (a small room that serves as a baggage check, that is common at stores here, as many people don’t have a car to lock up their belongings in while they shop), and I went inside to find Briana.

As per usual, there were folks inside the store that I knew. Today it was one of my colleagues from the school: Intermediate Phase (that means “middle school”) teacher and village neighbor, MK. She was there with her eldest daughter, whom I hadn’t met before (and promptly forgot her name). I’m sure my sweaty, huffing-and-puffing appearance left an impression.

I told them I was looking for another volunteer, but they said they hadn’t seen her. (We do sort of stand out due to the color of our skin, but as it was a Friday afternoon and it is officially tourist season, there were more white people roaming around the store than I am accustomed to.) After I bid them a nice weekend, I quickly found B in the dry soup mix section. (By the way, all soup mixes around here are dry. There are no cans of soup, condensed or otherwise.)

We took our time crossing items off of her list. Since Turkey wasn’t available, we had to settle for four whole chickens. (We were cooking for 18 people, after all.) We went through the checkout, loaded up her big, zippered grocery bag, and made our way out of the store, around the back to the parcel counter.

I normally tip the people who attend the parcel counters one to two rand (a whopping 12 to 25 cents USD), though I’m not sure it is customary in this culture. It must be a very boring and thankless job, and I figure it can’t hurt for them to remember me and take extra care with my things. But today, in addition to the money, she got to sample an all-American culinary delight: chocolate chip cookies made less than 24 hours earlier using the famous Nestle’ Toll House recipe. I don’t think her face was capable of smiling any larger.

We carried B’s huge grocery bag – each of us holding one of the handles – as we walked to the taxi rank, just a short distance down the street. She quickly found her taxi driver. Naturally, we were waiting for more passengers before we could leave, so she took the opportunity of the additional time to pick up a few more fresh vegetables from the vendors on the street. I guarded the loot.

While I was waiting, Shawn – another of the local PCVs – saw me and ran over to chat. He explained that in hindsight he wished he would have done what I was doing and stayed Friday night at B’s, too. His village is further away from town than Briana’s, and it would have saved him a trip the next day. We discussed the latest Peace Corps gossip and how we were excited to be eating a real Thanksgiving meal. B came back with some spinach and a couple of cans of cool drink (the South African name for soda or pop), and Shawn was on his way. Soon, we and our taxi headed out of town.

When we got to Briana’s, we were greeted by her host family: a gogo (grandma), brother, sister, nephew, and some others. In all the confusion of unloading the bags and me being introduced to the family, we forgot to pay the driver. Of course, he didn’t forget. A little embarrassed, I paid for B’s and my fare.

Then, we unloaded the groceries. As her site doesn’t have electricity, I found myself loading up her host family’s gas-powered refrigerator. I think it is supposed to be a chest freezer, actually, but they weren’t running it cold enough to deep freeze anything. It uses a tank much like you would use for a grill in the US. Chickens, beans, cookies, and other groceries went in there. Everything else not requiring refrigeration went in Briana’s room, which is situated in another structure just outside the main house.

Before long, it was getting dark. Briana boiled some cubed beef with some vegetables and prepared some couscous. We ate dinner and turned in early. I realized that if I didn’t have electricity, I would probably get more sleep.

Then again, I woke up several times throughout the night from the noises on the corrugated metal roof. Either a bat or some other kind of rodent was squeaking around up there a lot. I think I could have slept through the noise if it wasn’t for B’s cat jumping up there and making some louder pouncing noises. But once I was awake, it seems all I could do was listen to the animal noises. This made me thankful for a thatch roof at my house.

I took some of my awake time to email some folks in the States. I decided to give up when I realized I was nodding off while typing on my BlackBerry.

The next morning we were up with the sun at 5am. B was going for a run with her host brother. I took the opportunity to bathe and prepare for the day. When she returned, she bathed while I went for a walk around her host family’s property with my camera. Then, we made breakfast: veggie-egg scramble, topped with grated cheese and diced tomatoes, with a side of home fries. (Who says you can’t have sophistication without electricity?) B made a list of all the food we had to make and we decided roughly what order it would be produced in. We had B’s one portable stove top (connected to a gas tank) and the host family’s small oven and range at our disposal to make this happen.

Shortly after we started preparing food, Shawn arrived. Apparently, his unscheduled stop more than half-way to town from his village irritated his taxi driver. But Shawn – in his usual happy-go-lucky demeanor – was unperturbed. Our kitchen crew had just increased in size by 50%, and we immediately put him to work. In the meantime, the three of us were keeping tabs on the whereabouts of the other volunteers via our BlackBerries.

In between various food preparations, B and Shawn started the host family on making decorations. Since our Thanksgiving traditions are thoroughly foreign to these folks, I think the Americans took great delight in showing the South Africans how to outline their hand on a piece of paper and then color it to look like a turkey. Before long, it became an expectation of all the day’s guests to create one, and I, too, was sitting at the dining room table outlining my hand … something I don’t believe I’ve done since elementary school.

Michael and Katrina showed up in the midst of decoration creation, and jumped right in. Cooking also continued with our enlarged workforce, and the next thing I knew, Franzi, Diana, Vanessa and Susan had arrived. This is when it really started to feel like Thanksgiving. I discovered that the arrival of folks from a distance with these distinct food aromas in the air are all I need for it to feel like Thanksgiving. Luckily, this works anywhere in the world.

We were still in for a few more hours of preparation. I managed to get a burn on my finger while we were improvising a chicken gravy from the juice/stock that ran off of the first two birds (we could only fit two in the oven at a time) mixed into a cream-of-chicken soup mix. While it was boiling, it spit up at my hand and landed a nice little blister on my right ring finger. (Boo hoo!)

While we were finishing up the food prep, the frisbee came out in the front yard for a little more American fun. It was nice to take a break from the hot kitchen and bake in the hot sun in the yard with an international circle of frisbee throwing. There was a thought of trying to play some flag football with a rugby ball to really set a Thanksgiving mood, but it just never seemed to get organized.

Then, two tables were arranged end-to-end on the long front veranda of the main house and the table was set. I was still spending most of my time in the kitchen, seeing many of the dishes through to their completion as an assistant to each dish’s creator. Shawn carved the first two birds.

When we finally set up the buffet line, we had:

  • carved, roasted chicken
  • stuffing
  • mashed potatoes (garlic and plain) with gravy (that may or may not have been a bit lumpy)
  • sweet potatoes with marshmallow topping
  • homemade applesauce
  • green bean casserole
  • cheesy rolls
  • creamed corn
  • green salad
  • beets (not my favorite, so I left them for everyone else to enjoy)
  • spaetzle covered in melted cheese (thanks to our German friend, Franzi)

There was also plenty of Coke, Sprite, and Fanta Orange and Grape. (I hope I didn’t forget anything, as everyone worked hard in their preparations.)

After dinner, Briana took us all for a walk. The route we took was her everyday journey to the school she works. It is a beautiful walk, and had it not been for the looming clouds, I would have taken my camera. Had it actually rained, I wouldn’t be kicking myself over that decision.

We returned for cleaning up all the dishes in the little bit of daylight we had left. Then came dessert and a rousing, candle-lit game of Banana-grams (a spelling game that can be played in a fraction of the time of a standard game of Scrabble). For dessert, we had:

  • apple/pear crisp
  • chocolate chip cookies
  • store-bought cake (thanks to gogo)

The party moved to Briana’s room for the volunteers to just spend some quality time together. Really, we just talked, but it feels good to just hang out with people in the same situation (for the most part) that you are in.

The next morning, Briana made some really delicious banana pancakes. We packed up our stuff and (somehow) easily found a taxi back to town. After a quick stop at the grocery store, we scattered back to our respective villages, and back to what now seems a fairly routine life. And in that respect, I think even the journey home parallels the holiday process one can find themselves in the States.

Though I’m sure it isn’t quite what you are doing for Thanksgiving, all-in-all it was quite a feast and lives up to everything you could expect for a Thanksgiving celebration so far away from home. And I’m thankful for it.


Posted by on 22 November 2012 in Cultural Experiences, Friends


“It’s My Culture”

I’ve struggled with how best to word this particular post for over two weeks. Most of the people here are like most of the people anywhere in the world: good. They want to do good things for themselves and live in a good community. I want to be as fair as possible to the folks I’m here to help, including when I’m being critical of them. But ultimately, you, the reader, will be the judge of that. So, know that my intentions here are not to make the good folks here look bad. Being honest about problems is the first step in solving them.

So far, I feel like I may only have been presenting a rather sugar-coated version of South Africa. Other than fetching water in buckets, dealing with many insects of many sizes, and a language not welcoming to my American tongue, this blog has spent little time discussing the problems here (at least, the problems as I perceive them).

With all due respect, this place is far from perfect. (I mean, the Peace Corps wouldn’t be here if it was a flourishing utopia, right?) The problems here exist at all levels – from local to national. Of course they have a very regrettable history to live with, and a recent history at that. And then there are the myriad issues and allegations of corruption in their current government. Economically, it could be described as one step up, two steps back, if not just perpetually stuck. Much of this is nicely outlined in this recent article from The Economist. To get a clearer picture of the society I am immersing myself into, I urge you to read it. Go ahead and read it now; I just read it again myself. And, this site will still be waiting for you when you are through.

What this story in the Economist doesn’t tell you about is the culture(s) of South Africa. To be fair, entire novels would have a hard time encapsulating all of what each of the cultures found here has to offer. The contents of this blog are strictly my firsthand knowledge and experience, and I won’t attempt to say other than what I’ve seen. And, truthfully, though I feel I have seen multiple cultures in action since I’ve arrived here, I’ve barely scratched the surface. In general, this is a tricky subject, because one can only view other cultures through the lenses of the culture(s) they were brought up in.

Culture has been used as an explanation for, apology for, and excuse for behaviors – good and bad – that I’ve witnessed here. (Keep in mind that “good” and “bad” are used here in an all-encompassing, American sense. People steeped in this culture can be entirely neutral on anything and everything that an American would pass judgement on.)

Me: “You didn’t have to bring me an overflowing plate of food from across the yard in the pouring rain, especially considering that I’ve already fed myself this evening.”
South African female: “It’s my culture.”

South African male: “I want to have at least ten children.”
Me: “Do you really think that is a good idea? You’ll have an easier time feeding and housing fewer children. You’ll work less, so you’ll be healthier, and you’ll have more quality time with the fewer children you do have.”
South African male: “It’s my culture.”

I’ve mentioned in previous posts the concept of “African Time” (aka “Abantu Time”). All the Africans I’ve met here embrace it, or – at a minimum – accept it without question or hesitation. We were actually taught in Pre-Service Training the difference between “now” and “now-now,” that 30 minutes could mean as many as 90, and “later” could in fact mean “never.”

As an American, I’m not crazy about this. Imagine working in a school where there are no clocks on the walls of any classroom. There is a bell (sirens actually seem to be more common) to indicate when classes start and end. This is really more like a suggestion.

On the flip side, everyone here has seemingly unlimited patience. People here are used to waiting.

An attempt at an explanation for this cultural chasm during my training was something along the lines of “Africans are more focused on people, but Americans are more focused on work.” Needless to say, this statement brought much contempt for the South African gentleman who uttered it from all of the American Peace Corps Trainees in the room. (We’ve all forgiven him since then; at least, I have.)

Of course, his experiences with American culture have mostly been with the go-getter types that Peace Corps attracts. People that make lists of their lists, who had projects for their village in the works before they knew their site location, and who have post-Peace Corps plans for single-handedly saving the world. (You know, the people who are way more motivated than I am.) So, to a degree, he may be right. Plus, it’s hard to counter that argument with “Hey, pal, I’ll have you know there are plenty of Americans who are never on time for anything, and – dare I say – many who are downright lazy!” Well, at least not seriously, even if it is true.

The other argument is that Americans love people just as much as Africans do; we just happen to be a lot more time conscious, too. That is, these concepts don’t have to be mutually exclusive. As a matter of fact, I think that being on time is one of the best ways to show respect for others. And, time efficiency in your work should leave you with more time to spend doing other things, like hanging out with people. Maybe that is just my American-ness surfacing.

And all of this is just one element of the culture. “African Time” seems to be generally accepted across the different provinces I’ve had the pleasure of visiting. From here, we could dig deeper into each tribe’s specific cultures, but I’ll leave that for you to do at your leisure.

Instead, let’s look at the education problems (because these are the problems that I am constantly thinking about). Of course, there are the many damning details in the article from The Economist’s website. I agree with everything they say regarding the education problems, and I’ve seen much of it firsthand. And, though I’m happy to report the school I work in is far from the worst offender on any count, it has problems that are rooted in a community that is poor and under-educated and lacks resources.

However, education is always viewed in western terms, and maybe it shouldn’t always be that way. The schools here are seemingly trying to conform to the notion of a school from 1950’s Britain – where the children wear uniforms and the teachers walk with a stick to smack the kids that get out of line. (You know, the type of place Roger Waters sings about in The Wall.) But these people are far from British. This idea of school is a very square peg trying to be fit into a culture that is a very round hole.

But what really happens? The aspects that do match to their culture get amplified (like the hierarchy of teachers, principals and other staff) and the those that don’t match get overlooked, if not completely left behind (like punctuality).

Am I saying that I would add culture to the list of problems with the education system here? Not exactly. I’m sure there is a way to adapt the schools to better accommodate the culture. But this also needs to be a two way street. If South Africa truly wants an education system that competes with western schools, they need to be simultaneously looking at how they can adapt their culture to make this happen.

How can Peace Corps help this situation? How can I help this situation? Changes always happen slowly. So, I think our short-term successes in our individual schools need to serve as an example for what they can do to improve in the long-term. There’s no doubt that just by being here, Peace Corps changes the course of how these schools operate. Let’s hope the culture accepts and adopts any and all changes for the positive.


Posted by on 13 November 2012 in Cultural Experiences, Teaching


By the Numbers

I’ve been in South Africa for nearly four months – and at my site for two months now – which is enough time that I ought to stop counting things here (as in, “this is the seventh time I’ve eaten at KFC since I’ve been here”). But I haven’t. The following list also includes some info I’ve been asked about (like my class sizes). Hopefully, this helps to fill in some more of the blanks.

  • PCVs teaching in schools in the same general area I am: 6
  • PCV Leader in our area: 1
  • Average number of times per week I see other PCVs: 1
  • Other Americans I’ve seen in person (excluding PCVs) since arriving at my site: 0
  • German volunteers in this area: 1
  • Approximate distance to town: 3 km
  • Average number of visits to town per week: 4
  • Average number of times per week I walk to town, just to do something on my own: 1
  • Honest-to-goodness supermarkets in town: 3
  • Shops that refer to themselves as “supermarkets”: too many to count, but nearly all of them.
  • Local chicken restaurants trying to compete with KFC: at least 4, off the top of my head – probably many more
  • Fast food burger chains: 1 (Steers – similar to Burger King, I’d say)
  • Pizza chains: 0 (There was one, but it went out of business before I got here)
  • Grades I have been teaching English: 6 and 7
  • Learners in grade 6: 42
  • Learners in grade 7: 48
  • Teachers for grades 4-7 (including me): 8
  • Classrooms per grade: 1
  • Learners per desk: 2 (This is a connected bench/desktop designed for two people, though I often find three learners have crammed themselves into a desk, while other desks sit vacant. I think it is a combination of cultural differences and the weirdness of 11-13 year old children.)
  • Oldest learner in grade 6 (that I know of): age 16
  • Oldest learner in grade 7 (that I know of): age 17
  • Minimum passing grade for most subjects: 50% or less, depending on the subject
    Note: One could actually fail more than one subject completely and still pass the grade. Thus, there are learners in grade seven who are nearly illiterate in English (let alone being able to speak it).
  • Learners I know by name: less than 12 (They’re hard names to remember … or I’m not trying hard enough.)
  • Grade 7 learners that have been to my home for help with homework or to see photos from the USA: 3 (Sfiso, Sibongile, and Khulekani)
  • Host family members: hmmm … hard telling … lots
  • Percentage of family members that speak reasonably fluent English: better than 50%
  • Number of mangos given to me by various children in the village in the past week: at least 2 dozen

  • Live snakes I’ve seen in the village: 2
  • Snakes I’ve seen in my outhouse: 1
  • Lizard fights I’ve witnessed inside my house: 3
  • Lizard fights resulting in lizards falling off the wall: 1
  • Lizard fights resulting in one lizard having a chunk of his tail bit off: 1
  • Weddings I’ve attended: 1
  • Funerals I’ve attended: 1
  • Churches I’ve attended: 3
  • Books I’ve checked out from the local library: 1

  • DVDs I’ve checked out from the local library: 3
  • DVDs from the library that were in a condition to actually play on my computer: 2
  • CDs I’ve checked out from the local library: 11
  • Number of songs added to my iTunes library: I’ll never tell
  • Haircuts I’ve had in South Africa: 4 (this includes the first one that I gave myself)
  • Cost of the haircut I got yesterday in town: R20 (this is less than $2.50 USD!)
  • Buckets I’ve purchased: 4
  • Buckets currently on loan from my host family: 2
  • Average number of times per day the electricity goes out: 1
  • Approximate number of hours the electricity has been out in the past week: 60

Interested in some more numbers on ZA? They recently released their census info …


Posted by on 3 November 2012 in Everyday Life, Teaching