Thursday, October 29, 2009

storms, Kuki Gallmann, and white man's footprint

I watched a thunderstorm roll in and roll out last night and captured these pics. I love watching the storms from my window seat; I feel as if I'm in the IMAX theater. I’m posting the pics now, because I think they’re a good metaphor for my post today. The storm clouds of western "civilization" blowing over Africa…
The following is a direct quote from Kuki Gallmann’s, I Dreamed of Africa:

“But now in the times we call modern, like the large herds of animals which once roamed the Highlands, like the forests and the indigenous plants of Africa, these people [native Africans] are endangered because their space and their way of life are disappearing fast and for ever. Since the mission came, with the school and the church, and the shop full of strange things which one needs money to buy, life has changed for the worse for the free pastoral African people. They have been given seeds of alien plants to sow in their virgin forests and of alien beliefs to confuse the innocence of their minds. They wear the discarded garish nylon rags of the white man, which cost money they do not have, rather than the traditional shukas made of animal hides, camouflaged and resistant to the wear-and-tear of bush life, which need not be washed with the chemical soap they cannot afford and which offends their pure streams of clear water.”

I picked up Kuki Gallmann’s memoir at the Vryburg library wondering if I’d read it before. The title seemed familiar. As it turned out, I hadn’t read it before, but had seen the film version starring Kim Bassinger. The book and the film are both passable, if you can stand yet another story of a ridiculously wealthy, white, European woman’s account of moving to Africa to kill a great deal of the wild, large game.

I like this passage and agree with every word of it.

When I began my study of the regional flora/fauna of Kentucky, I loved learning stories of how plants earned their common names. One invasive weed of Kentucky is plantain and its nickname is “white man’s footprint.” The story goes that white European’s brought the seeds of this plant to North America with them from Europe, and the Native Americans at that time named the plant “white man’s footprint” because they knew in seeing these plants that the white men had passed that way.

The danger of any invasive plant to any region is that it usually spreads like wildfire and crowds out native species, making it difficult for any native species to thrive.

I find myself seeing “white man’s footprint” everywhere I turn here in South Africa. Not the plant literally, but certainly evidence of white men’s (European’s) influence in coming here.

Most of this evidence I find disheartening.

From what I understand, most large game of South Africa is no longer running free but is limited to large game reserves and Kruger National Park. This is because the large game was killed in horrific numbers by (white) people coming to Africa to shoot them. Theodore Roosevelt was a big game hunter in Africa and killed a frightening number of animals. As noted in PF Fourie’s, Kruger National Park: Questions and Answers, about the area that eventually became Kruger National Park, “Giraffe, hippo, buffalo, and rhino were extremely rare and elephants occasionally wondered in from Mozambique, but the did not stay” (9). In fact, many of the African animals now residing in Kruger were reintroduced because they had all been but killed out.

As for the African forests, well, I haven’t seen any African forests yet. But as I study the regional flora and fauna of the South Africa of my area, which is of the thornveld savanna, I’m finding that most the plant species I’m seeing, at least the blooming ones, are of a species that have been brought here from somewhere else. Whenever I find a new flower or a new blooming tree, I run to my field guides to identify them and learn they are native to Australia, North or South America, or Europe. When I find a new blooming plant now, instead of becoming excited at its potential African-ness, my first thought is, “Why bother…It is sure to have come from somewhere else and is now crowding out all of the native African flora.”

“Since the missions came…” My, my, how Christianity is flourishing here. I was hoping, and during our pre-service training it was even alluded to, to see African’s practicing a traditional African religion. I have seen no evidence of any African religion in my day-to-day existence so far. All evidence of religion is of the variety (or lack of variety) of the Christian tradition, both Catholic and Protestant, and you can’t walk ten feet without crossing the ground of yet another Christian church.

Africans go to school now because the Europeans came, told them they must leave their work in their homes and traditional ways, to don pants and dress shirts and come sit in a room all day to “learn” of ideals honored and respected by Europeans.

Not that going to school is a bad thing. I have quite a lot to say about the school system in South Africa and frankly, that is why I am here. But for now, let’s just imagine the Europeans did not come to South African and the native peoples were still living with the land and practicing their native traditions. Who is to say OUR way, the western, European way, is the RIGHT way? Weren’t the native South Africans doing just fine without us?

“and the shop full of strange things which one needs money to buy. . . ” The tuck shop. I’m not sure how this institution has earned its name, perhaps from the English who like to “tuck in” to things? Everywhere in the South African villages, you’ll find small, independently owned “tuck shops,” the South African version of a convenience store. Some of the larger ones sell real food and household necessities, but most of them sell cold drinks, candy, and white bread. And guess what? Everyone wants these items but the money to have them is scarce indeed. South Africans’ have been eating a porridge made from corn as their primary starch for generations; what do they want now? White bread and cold, sugary drinks.

“They wear the discarded garish nylon rags of the white man, which cost money they do not have, rather than the traditional shukas made of animal hides, camouflaged and resistant to the wear-and-tear of bush life, which need not be washed with the chemical soap they cannot afford and which offends their pure streams of clear water.”

Haven’t we all seen the full-color photos of wonderful, vibrantly colored garments of traditional African clothing? I must admit, I had hopes of seeing some. I haven’t. Most South Africans, or the ones I see, dress as Americans do, without the casual wear component. This means that if you meet a South African, they are likely to be wearing very nice suits, pants, and dresses with very nice, dressy, shiny shoes. Remember when you used to have to dress nicely to go to church? That’s how South Africans typically dress.

If anyone needs casual wear, in all of this red dust, it’s South Africa. But they won’t have it…

There is a traditional South African dress that you see here. Usually the older women wear them. The fabric they use is a bit drab, and I’ve read that drab fabric was all that was available to black South Africans under the oppressive governments and the drab fabric shows up in their hand-made dresses to this day. They are striking and beautiful in their own way, but are nothing like the colorful clothing of other nations in Africa. I hope to have one or two of these hand-made dresses by the time I come home. I’ll concede to wearing a dress/skirt… If it’s African made!!

“rather than the traditional shukas made of animal hides, camouflaged and resistant to the wear-and-tear of bush life”

I think this is what bugs me the most about the Western influence and is perhaps best illustrated in South African fashion. Their traditional clothing was durable and made sense in living with such a harsh environment. Now, everyone is tiptoeing around in high heels then running home to wash the dust out of the polyester and ironing away the wrinkles to do it all over again tomorrow.

“They have been given seeds of alien plants to sow. . .” I can almost cry in watching South Africans garden. There is no mulching or composting so there is no soil amendment. They simply plant their seeds in the red dirt of Africa and throw in some chemical fertilizer. When the plants push up, the pesticide is applied. Since the soil is not amended, to dig in it is back-breaking work. Eish!

Africans imitating the worst behaviors of Americans...

Isn’t that a horrible thing to say? It is. It’s also a horrible thing to think, but I keep coming to this thought again and again.

In my college days I was something of a budding feminist and even minored in Women’s Studies. I dated this guy who liked to torment me about his notions of professional women in the business world. He would say that professional women in the business world were simply women imitating the worst behaviors of men. It made my blood boil when he would say this, which is, I’m sure, why he said it so often.

I return to this thought in my own, judgmental African version: the native Africans here seem to be imitating the worst behavior of Westeners/Americans. And too, I think of the western/European/American influences as the invasive species to this region and is, and has been, making it difficult for the native species to thrive.

Soon, Karen

bird's nest, Aunt Susan's tree, Bunton's, and my little blind goat...

See my weaver-bird's nest? Isn't it fabulous? I was walking home from "my" primary school yesterday and this was lying in the middle of the playground (so no, I did not rob some poor bird of it's nest). I love it, my very own African treasure!!

Speaking of weaver-birds, I visited "Aunt Susan's tree" that I sometimes think of as the luscious tree, and the timing of my original visit was remarkable: the day that I sat there feeling sad about Aunt Susan's passing, with the lush blossoms full of nectar, their lushness, too, was very soon to pass: when I returned this past Saturday (a week later), the blossoms are still there, but the precious drops of nectar were gone. While the birds still very much like the tree, their numbers have decreased markedly. Nothing yummy to eat any longer...

I've identified this wonderful tree--and WANT ONE! :-)

Its common name is the silver oak or the silky oak, which is very misleading because it isn't an oak tree at all. Its botanical name is Grevillea robusta and according to Kristo Pienaan's The South African: What Flower is That?, it is a "large evergreen tree that drops its silver backed leaves just before flowering. Showy, golden orange flower spikes appear in spring and are rich in nectar." Lovely, lovely tree.

By the way, there are oak trees here in South Africa. They are not, however, native to South Africa and were brought here by "settlers" to this country. Both oak and pine trees were brought here to use primarily as fuel (fire) but also for building materials.

I went shopping yesterday and was standing in the grocery store wondering why I was hearing the Beach Boys singing, "Merry Christmas, Baby" when it occurred to me, that, oh, it's time for Xmas marketing (they seem to start at Halloween here as well). It was somewhat jarring to realize that the Xmas season is already upon us, because it is sunny, hot, and dry here; it is anything like the Xmas weather back home... But, sure enough, as I looked around, the store workers were very busy hanging Xmas trees, stocking the "Xmas aisle," etc.

I'll have that Beach Boy song playing in my head now for weeks...

I also found a South African "Buntons." I was walking past this wonderful, lush yard when I glanced down and saw plants marked for sale. I thought, "Wait a second, this isn't a lush, private yard, this is a plant nursery!" I abruptly turned to find my way to the store entrance.

What fun! There are my old friends potted up for sale: fuchsias, begonias, impatiens, sweet william... And yummy basil and tomato starts... I had such a good time. There were rows and rows of beautiful plants/trees/shrubs for sale. The sales clerk came bouncing out and I told her I was "browsing." At one point I thought, "Wow, I wonder if they'll let me volunteer here?" when I remembered that a similar stint this past spring at Bunton's Seed Company about did me in.

It was great fun to work with such knowledgeable people at Bunton's and they were very nice. I learned a great deal about vegetable plants--TOMATOES!, herbs, annuals, perennials, and fruit trees. But at the same time, it was a retail job (nuff said) and I'm a bit old, or my body thinks it's too old, to be standing on concrete for 8-hour stretches and hoisting 50-pound bags of compost/soil into peoples' cars (who usually bought several bags!).

My absolute favorite part of the job was watering the plants. It took most of the day to water them well and I would get grumpy having my watering task interrupted to go help those pesky customers! The watering felt like a meditation.

On the taxi ride into Vryburg yesterday I saw a beautiful bunch of moon flower growing along the side of the road with their big, white trumpeted blossoms closed in the daytime heat. Would love to sneak out at night sometime and get a peek of them opening to the moon and smelling lovely and fragrant... Maybe I can plant some...
An update on the little blind goat. He's still hanging in there! Apparently, my ministry to this animal is to help him get "unstuck." Yesterday, I heard his frantic bleating and found that he had wondered into the fenced area of the tennis court and he was stuck inside and frustrated that he couldn't get to his mother. She was standing right beside him on the OTHER side of the fencing: he was inside the court, she was outside.
I went inside the tennis court, did my best, "Come here little goat," to which he completely ignored. I gave up and walked out. A college student was nearby and watched my failed efforts. Upon my leaving, he entered the tennis court, walked BEHIND the little goat (I always try to LEAD him from the front), and "shoo ed" him out. I was greatly relieved and learned how to better herd him in the future. The college student came to advise me that he was "trying to get to his mother." Indeed he was.
Soon, Karen/Molebogeng

Day in the life of Molebogang Part Two

Ok, so another day in the life of KAREN, part two. (I’m sick of Molebogang again.) This morning, I woke up to this LOVELY double rainbow outside of my window. Nice, huh? I love the African sky. It is always, always gorgeous. I don’t know if our sky back home is gorgeous and we just can’t see it through the trees, or if it just isn’t as gorgeous. I’ll take trees over gorgeous at this point. ;-) There are a couple of shots of the rainbow, of course. And then a “trick” shot hoping to capture the image of a rainbow coming out of my “God can.” Several years ago, I learned the secret of happiness: quit worrying and give your troubles to God (or whatever you name your Higher Power). I also learned, that you can easily represent this surrender with a physical representation: a God box. You simply make a container that represents a “higher power,” and feed it slips of paper with your worries listed on it. A good friend suggested a “God can” because of the double entendre. My God can is relatively new here and so far the entries include my sons (they are almost ALWAYS in there!), my primary school (because I worry about my integration there), a woman’s name that I worry doesn’t like me, and ME! I thought it would be fun to grab a shot of the rainbow coming out of my God can. It kind of worked. But seeing the rainbows this morning was absolutely glorious! What a treat!

A bit more for my worry worts... See all of the fresh fruits and vegetables I have access to? I can buy apples, pears, bananas, limes, pineapples, limes, and guava. For veggies, I can buy English cucumbers, peppers, cabbages, carrots, beets, potatoes, and butternut squash. For seasoning, I can buy fresh onions, garlic, and ginger root.

It's taken some time to make peace with the tomatoes bought here. When I first arrived (it was still winter), they were sold as these small, pale, greenish pink things. I didn't even know what they were until someone told me. I've learned to let them ripen in on my window sill which helps a great deal, but they are a far cry from the super steaks and heirloom chocolates I grew back home earlier this year. But I have hope that the home-growns out in the community garden will make me happier.

Here too, are fresh eggs and butter. And I'm sprouting lentils for a very fresh vegetable. I have sprouts growing constantly so I have them 3-4 times a week.

Several of you still are worried about my water situation. My water situation IS FINE! As you can see, I have taps in my room, in the bathroom sink, kitchen sink, and bath tub. We're advised not to drink water from the taps here in South Africa, so I boil my drinking water and run it through the Brita.
Also, while I was without water for two days when I originally arrived at the college, my water hasn't been shut off since. But you can see that I have a cabinet full of emergency-water-supply.

Here is a shot of laundry day: as you can see, my "washer" is my bath tub and my "dryer" is a line with clothes hanging, my fan providing a drying breeze.

I often think of my Grandmother Simon when I hand wash clothes. I've heard stories that she was not happy with her washing machine when they first came out back in the days; she was not convinced the machine was getting her clothes clean enough.

I have the opposite worry: that I'm not getting them clean enough!

I also know why machine washers have two rinse cycles: the washing isn't so bad; it's the rinsing that is tricky! And of course, centrifugal force goes a long way with getting the water wrung out of the clothes! I think of Grandma while ringing: she was certainly strong enough to wring water out of clothes. I'm hoping that all of this wringing builds me some upper body strength, but I'm not there yet!

One of the other volunteers mentioned, way back in training, a great way of making money here in rural South Africa: bring in the old-time wringers to sell to the women in the villages! Indeed.

I'll be quiet for a couple of days, as I'm off to Kimberly for a Dr.'s appointment. I am going to the "big city" for a routine check. Since my appointment is for late in the day, I'm staying overnight and won't return to campus until late Thursday. I won't have a lot of time to sight see, but I hope to have enough time to get a feel for the city for future trips.

Kimberly will probably be my "vacation spot," since I feel overwhelmed at the thought of going very far from my town. Believe it or not, I'm not a good traveller. I don't travel well by car and the crowded mini-bus koombies are quite a challenge. I will rally for a trip to Kruger but it will take me awhile to find the least painful way of travel. I'm checking into the train (would LOVE to ride the train as I never have ridden any train!) and Greyhound.

I have two years to figure it out! Until Friday then! Karen

A day in the life of Molebogeng

I want to send some photos of my abode now that it is my abode. In the earlier photos of my room, the occupant was my predecessor, the leaving Peace Corps volunteer. (Quite a dynamo was she, and is sorely missed by the students and staff of our little college here!) I miss her too and am so glad to have met her. She is returned now, to our beloved New York City, but is sweet enough to pass along words of wisdom across the sea.
This is also an attempt to again try to reassure my militant worry-worts back home!
Welcome to my lovely abode. I reside in a "house mother's" room in the girls' dormitory, which are called hostels here.
My dorm room is more grand than the girls', as I have a private bathroom and kitchen.
While basically one big room, my kitchen area and bathroom are off to the side.
The kitchen:
In my kitchen, I have hung lovely fabrics to serve as curtains and both were special gifts to me from family/friends at home. Although I'd rather be wearing them in some way, they cheer me a great deal hanging and reminding me of home.
In the sink area you can see that I have a sink and running water--yay! What a perk! I've also outfitted myself with bowls, utensils, etc. You can also see my "must have" condiments: olive oil, balsamic vinegar, crushed salt and pepper. I can live anywhere with these four ingredients.
You can see my kitchen appliances, none of which work, save the hot plate. I use both the oven and refrigerator as "storage." Now I can hear the screams of alarm primarily from my mother, Deanna, and probably Aunt Bea, "WHAT?! NO REFRIGERATOR?!" Please rest assured that I am doing fine without one, and have money to buy one if necessary, but am trying to go without for now. I quite like the simplicity of not having a refrigerator, and it forces me to be thoughtful about meal preparation, food shopping, etc.
I can still hear the alarm, "What about MEAT?" Well, I'm not eating it but I wasn't really eating it in the US either. (I like to eat meat when someone else prepares it for me because I think raw meat is gross.) :-)
But I have plenty of protein in the manner of beans/grains, eggs, nuts, and peanut butter.
The one thing I do worry about is butter, but Deanna has taught me that butter can set out at room temperature for days at a time. (This must be some type of baker's trick.) Also, I've found a market where I can buy a small amount at at time. I love real butter. I didn't eat it for many years in my frantic fear of fat, but I'm glad to have it in my life again. Real butter is such a small thing that offers a big punch of happiness!
So, so far so good without a fridge!
In one pantry shot, which is actually my freezer, you'll see a variety of whole grains: oats, rice, crackers, nuts, and tea. In the other, which is actually a cabinet, you'll see my store of beans, peanut butter, and olive oil. Chakalaka is a wonderful prepared sauce here made of vegetables, mostly tomatoes, that is very spicy and yummy!
My kitchen isn't always so well stocked, but I've just returned from my shopping town where I stock up on non-perishables. I can buy my perishables in my village.
I have no photos of fresh fruit and vegetables as I'm on my way to the village after this post, but have very close access to fresh fruit (apples, pears, bananas, pineapple, oranges), vegetables (tomatoes, cucumbers, beets, peppers, cabbage, lettuce, butternut squashes, and onions), and spices (fresh ginger root and garlic!) and will post proof soon!
There is a shot of my beloved fan and it provides many comforts: cool breezes, lovely, lovely white noise that drowns out the noise of the college kids, and also serves as my clothes dryer.
And then shots of my working/sleeping space. I love my work table as it overlooks the soccer field and community garden. I love to watch the birds running about in the grass in the morning and for anything else that might wander--or fly--along.
You'll notice how tidy my work table is: this shot is staged as Deanna can tell you, I always have piles and piles of books and papers strewn about. And I do have piles and piles of books and papers strewn about but have them temporarily moved from the shot to deceptively portray that I'm tidy. And yes, there is my weaver-bird's nest propped in the window; it is my newest favorite thing.
My good friend Bonnie asked if I would send or bring the weaver-bird's nest home and I certainly want to. I'm sure the relative national Departments of Agriculture would not approve--South Africa or the USA. Maybe I can think of an acceptable way to keep it/send it home. I could always ASK FOR PERMISSION!! What a concept!!
And then lastly, my sleeping "tent." This is, of course, my "everything-but-a-mosquito net," as you've heard my scorpions horror stories. I'm not worried about scorpions in the dorm room, as I haven't seen any, but I do worry about poisonous spiders, as I've read that 90% of spider bites in South Africa happen in the night while we are sleeping. A current volunteer also warned me that she had, indeed, been bitten by a spider so "be sure to use your bed net."
I love my mosquito net, because I've come to feel protected in it and know that something can't drop out of the ceiling onto me while I'm sleeping-or even awake! I do worry though, because the net is drenched in DEET, and fear I might develop some type of neurological disorder by sleeping in such close proximity to a chemical that can melt plastic. (Am teasing--no worrying worry worts!)
That's it for now and more is sure to come soon!
Have a wonderful weekend, and thanks for reading and for sending along kind words!
Best, Karen/Molebogeng

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

this morning, yet more on language, and cash cows

These are the things that greeted me from outside my window this morning: the African Hoopoe (Upapa Africana) and an African (domestic) pig. The Tswana word for “pig” is kolobe (kuh lobe ay). There is a Tswana word for the Hoopoe as well, but can't recall it at the moment...

The really nice shot of the bird isn’t mine and I hate using photos that aren’t mine, but I want you to get a good look at this bird. I LOVE THIS BIRD! Isn’t he gorgeous? He is so striking. I love how he looks like two different birds halved and then swapped their tops! (Or bottoms!) My favorite thing about this bird is that while foraging (on the ground), they stick around for quite some time. I was highly entertained one day when one foraged close by for almost an hour!

In my study of human communications, I’ve learned that slight and subtle phrasing can make all of the difference when trying to communicate. This is best evidenced, I think, when using “I statements” versus “you statements.”

For example, “YOU need to do the dishes” isn’t as well received as “It would be helpful if you could help me with the dishes.” This very subtle shift from “you need to” to “I need” is very powerful and the results are nothing short of amazing. I’ve come to rely on it at home, in the workplace, with friends, etc.

It’s probably not surprising then, that I’m very sensitive to someone speaking to me from “you statements.” What I’m finding, when dealing with Tswana speakers, that “you statements” are the norm. For example:

“Why are you here?” translates, I hope, to “How nice to see you! Are you here for the meeting?”

“You are always so busy.” Perhaps: “Do you have a few minutes that we can talk?”

“Where have you been?” “Oh, I’m happy to see you!”

“When are you coming to visit?” “Let’s get together for coffee!”

“Are you working the other side?” “I miss you and wish you were here. (or vice versa, if I’m hearing it at the primary school)

For these kinds of comments, I’m hoping my interpretation is more in line with how it is offered rather than how icky it feels to recieve. As for the following, well:

“Will you take me to America with you?” Which translates as, well, you’re a rich American and of course you have so much money you can fly me to America for a visit. With this one, a nice lady went on to elaborate that we would simply fly to America and stay a few days, and then I could fly her back. With very few exceptions, this is always the question I'm asked when I meet someone.

You can’t blame people for perceiving me as the rich American.

We are warned, over and over again from Peace Corps that “first impressions are important.” (That is why the blasted skirt is so important.) Although we were granted a “shopping day” in Pretoria to buy things we need to set up our households, we're also encouraged to “try to buy your large items in the nearest shopping town of your village” (because transport of all of that stuff to outlying provinces would be quite a chore).

So, the college kids’ first impression of me was that of an American, making repeated trips to town (it isn’t cheap to go to town and making multiple trips made it worse) bringing home parcels and packages for three days straight.

Of course they think I’m a cash cow.

Well, my coffers are emptied and while I have plenty of money to eat, it's pretty much about it. And because the kids initially met me while I was buying all this stuff, I’m met repeatedly with: “Can you give me money to get to town?”; “Will you buy us cold drinks?”; “Are you having lunch in your room? May we come have lunch in your room with you?”

To make matters worse, when you’re packing your bags to come to a continent to spend two years of your life, the tendancy is to pack brand new things that you hope will last for two years. In other words, we look sharp in our new duds. (Except me, who is hard pressed to wear the blasted skirt.)
So I'm ever worried, as I'm trying to fit in, with all of my "I'm sorry, I can't." Or "I'm sorry, I don't have it." It feels really icky to say "no" but I really don't have anything over the small amount I'm contributing at the community churches.
I hated being "pan handled" in America, but here it's even worse. I hope after a zillion "no s" that it will get better. But surely I'm close to a zillion by now?
Am caught complaining again! Eish! Karen/Molebogeng

New pictures and my three month mark…

I hear you complaining about needing new pictures, and I HAD some… And, for the first time since owning my camera, I accidentally ERASED them this morning before coming to the computer lab… So please make due with some old ones again.

And yes, am feeling very upset at the accidental erasure, because I spent 4 hours trying to photograph an electrical storm on Friday, got ONE picture of lightning, and now it is gone. It was much more fun, by the way, to put the camera away after two hours of frustrating attempts (have YOU ever tried to photography a strike of lightning?) and simply enjoy the lightning display. Oh well. The picture wasn’t that good anyway.

And the others I lost were more of flora that I can’t identify and a series of photos representative of “a day in the life of Karen Kaye”: snaps of my dorm room (now that it’s mine), snaps of the food I’m eating, what laundry day looks like, etc. Read: BORING. J And those lost will be easy to retake (except of the blooming flora I had that is no longer blooming).

Deanna reminded me last week that I’m at my three-month mark after having had arrived in South Africa. It is a significant milestone for me because, in addition to being at the half-way mark of feeling icky emotionally (according to Peace Corps statistics), it was at the three-month mark that I was returning home from my first big volunteer trip I made to Alaska in 2006.

So far, the trips couldn’t be more different!

I’ve mentioned before that I find my professional career (writing/teaching) to be draining and I’ve come to find gardening a creative release. What I truly, truly love to do is go hiking in the woods! At one point I thought, “I need to find a job that keeps me hiking in the woods!” Hiking in the woods and getting PAID for it! Can you think of anything more divine?

However, with prayer and discernment, I came to believe that I have gifts and talents with teaching and that the Higher Power would rather me be sharing these gifts and talents than hiking in the woods! J

But I really, really do love hiking in the woods and love talking to people about things we find in the natural world. One of my favorite things to do back in Kentucky is volunteer with Bernheim Forest. It was by volunteering with Bernheim that I gained enough volunteer experience (and a certification in interpretation: a credential that is helpful to have if you want to work in parks) that in the summer of 2006, I applied for a volunteer position with the Eagle River Nature Center in Chugach State Park in Alaska.

Thanks to the Alaskan State Parks Program, I was invited to work with the Eagle River Nature Center in Chugach State Park for three months (the summer season). In exchange of “work hours” for the Nature Center, I was housed and fed, but most importantly, I had three months to explore the wonderland of Alaska!

And a wonderland Alaska is!

I loved every second I was in Alaska. Every second.

Here in South Africa, well, I’m trying.

But the trips couldn’t be more different: with AK, I chose the location, with South Africa, someone else chose (and I didn’t know where I’d end up); with AK, I was living out my “dream job” of a naturalist interpreter; with South Africa, I’m in the exhausting world of education; in AK, the region is lush and green with water and trees everywhere; in SA, the region (where I am) is hot and dry, with little vegetation or water anywhere.

Now please, please, don’t anyone get up in arms about Karen being depressed or hating South Africa. I am neither depressed nor hating South Africa. I’m certain, CERTAIN that I will come to love and adore South Africa in the same way I love and adore Alaska. I’m just not there yet! J

And I’m excited to work in the schools in South Africa. I have some great ideas for both the primary school and the college, and can’t wait to get started. (Peace Corps urges us to wait to begin projects and to observe our communities/school systems to better understand the South African ways before we “jump right in.”) I’ve visited the village clinic and police station in hopes of finding connections and ways to work in the community and I’m soon to visit the village’s youth center where I’m sure to find work.

So, yes, I’m at my three-month milestone. I am thinking a lot about my Alaskan trip; I’m thinking so hard my former boss at ERNC she emailed me this week! What a treat to hear from her! She wants to know of all of my new adventures and I look forward to “chatting” with her a bit. Hi Asta, if you’re reading!!

I promise new pictures in future and look forward to meeting my next milestone: six months. It will be interesting to see what has changed!

Much love, Karen/Molebogeng

Ps. The photo here is of my beloved water spot here in South Africa near my host-family's home. I was hoping to contrast it with a photo from my AK trip, but Facebook won't let me copy/paste. I have some great shots of my AK trip in Facebook, with the following album names: Chugach State Park, AK Summer 2006, Eagle River Nature Center summer 2006, Alaska native plants summer 2006 and Day cruise, Prince William Sound, summer 2006.
Pss. If any of you DO know how to copy and paste photos from Facebook, let me know... Although Facebook probably doesn't allow it...

Monday, October 26, 2009

Out of Africa, trying to be “just like us”, “Are you Catholic?”, and may be offensive to some

There is a scene in Sydney’ Pollack’s 1985 film Out of Africa whereby the Karen Blixen character (Meryl Streep) goes to the manager of her coffee plantation and says, “Give me work.”

I find the scene very poignant because the woman seems to be getting on her own last nerve and turns to physical labor to remove herself from her mental/emotional troubles.

Since the late 90s, I’ve worked professionally (usually) in the “white collar” world of computers, business dress, writing, and in work that almost always involves general, all-around thinking tasks.

I noticed that when I’d come home from “the office,” I usually dreaded making dinner (yet, another thing to do!) when I realized that something quite meditative occurred in the motions involved in meal preparation: rinsing vegetables, chopping food to be cooked, measuring ingredients, heating pans, etc. It seemed the physical activity of the chore restored my spirit after thinking all day. I’ve come to love—and appreciate—working with my hands.

Over the years, I have come to love gardening in this way: the physical activity and having my hands in the soil seems meditative. I’ve read in Julia Cameron’s work, The Artist’s Way, that artists and anyone in the creative process will move into this kind of “meditative zone” while in the process of creating. As a writer (very much a thinking occupation for me), my creative process doesn’t usually take me into this meditative zone, and often feels difficult, exhausting, and draining. Because I feel driven to write, as most writers do, I cannot leave it. So I have turned to gardening as a restorative way to counterbalance my thinking, writing ways.

When I was living with my host family in the village, I assumed the role of water hauler and dish washer because I needed this physical meditation to help me feel grounded in all of the thinking activity required of pre-service training. (Truthfully, it was also a form of “trade” because I didn’t want to do the cooking.) The dish washing I did after the evening meal, outside on the porch under the brilliant stars of the South Africa with the water I had hauled that very morning. The water-hauling I did very early, before the start of my work day, when the vividly-colored birds of South Africa were drinking from the puddles surrounding the community water tap. When asked, “How can you do that hard work? Aren’t you too tired?” I’d reply, “It is the highlight of my day.” Indeed it was.

I was later told that my willingness to do these chores (along with hand washing my clothes) made quite a hit among the village women: it was said, I’m told, “She is just like us.” This is the most meaningful compliment I’ve ever received.

This is all a long way to go about saying that I’ve gone to the members of my community garden and have said, “Give me work.” I am getting on my own last nerve and I need to be doing some physical activity to get myself restored.

Yesterday, (Sunday), I went to the garden where this lovely woman was weeding her onion bed and graciously allowed me to help. I was using some type of homemade tool that may have once been a bracket of some sort (it reminded me of the remnants of a tent stake) that proceeded to rip the skin on my hands to shreds. I couldn’t have been happier!

I weeded with her for about three hours, came home, muscles aching, hands bleeding, and having the red dirt of Africa under my fingernails. It was the highlight of my week! (I will pick up a pair of work gloves in town this week!)

I have several motives for working in the community garden: the first has just been mentioned, the second is just as selfish, I hope to learn how to garden in South Africa, and third, I hope my willingness to work in the garden will help me wiggle my way “into” my community (in the same way that hauling water helped me be appreciated in my former village). Learning how to garden in South Africa isn’t 100% selfish, as I hope to help resurrect the currently defunct garden at the primary school.

Another way I’m trying to wiggle my way into the village community is by going to church. To date, I’ve been invited to 3 different churches and have gone, so far to 2 and will try the third this Saturday (Seventh-day Adventist).

In each visit, I am warmly welcomed and the congregation seems thrilled to have me. Usually, I’m pointed out, asked to stand, etc. (It’s very embarrassing to be acknowledged in such a way, but again, I’m seen here somewhat as a celebrity.)

Please note that the following may be offensive to some. Also note that I’m speaking from my own limited experience and am certain to be far, far from what many of you hold as sacred truth. I’m not trying to be offensive to anyone but am certain the following certainly could. For this offense, I apologize.

In my first weeks here at my permanent site, I visited a church here on campus: World of Faith. Now, I’m no church expert (if you keep reading as you certainly will see) but this church seems to be of the Protestant, apostolic variety, and may even engage in the practice of “speaking in tongues.” I was told of this before my first service and was somewhat alarmed, as the only “speaking of tongues” I’m familiar with (through reading) resembles that of a seizure or fit (with or without the venomous snakes): bodies flailing about uncontrollably, unintelligible utterings with or without drool, etc.

There was in at least one part of the service that there was indeed, some unintelligible utterings, but these were far from what was just described: the congregation bowed there heads and began speaking: it sounded more like a group of people praying together, but praying different prayers together (so it was unintelligible). It was all very calm and undramatic, and I remember thinking, “Is this speaking in tongues? They very well could be reciting the Lord’s Prayer out-of-sync.”

What was uncomfortable for me in this church service was the decibel level of the celebratory music.

One of the things I love the most about the Tswana people is that each and every one of them is full of music. They are so full of music that songs bubble up out of them and spill out of them beautifully all over Africa. In fact, as I’m always asked, “Will you take me with you to America?” I always think to myself: Get there yourself as you will certainly unseat our current Beyonce/Brittany/Maria (whomever the pop diva is for the day is) and the guys could certainly do the same… but perhaps they might become versed in rap.

Now, Tswana people, when singing, need NO amplification.

My discomfort at the World of Faith church service came in the musical interludes as their song was electronically enhanced: loud speakers, microphones, drums, and very bad acoustics (of the lecture hall of the campus where the service is held). I am very sensitive to loud noises and generally take ear-plugs with me to musical concerts.

The decibel level of the service was quite painful for me because I didn’t feel it appropriate to insert my earplugs at a church service. But other than than, I felt very comfortable and welcome in the congregation.

For my second church “outing,” I’ve visited the Catholic Church of the village: St. Konrad’s. (Yes, Konrad with a “k.”) When I was invited, I was told it was the “Roman” church, instead of the more familiar designation (to me): Roman Catholic.

I felt much more comfortable at the Roman Catholic service. Although the mass was given in Tswana, could somewhat follow along. Also, while these people were full of music, the kind that would spill out of them all over Africa, they were not amplified. The music was absolutely beautiful and many times moved to tears. I felt so much more at home at this church perhaps because it was more familiar to me. However, I was pained, because I must be spoiled by the padded kneelers in American churches; the kneelers here are unpadded--straight, hard, flat, wood--and kneeling on them makes me feel like my knee caps are popping off!

As with the other church, the congregation seemed very pleased to have me (and yes, had me stand before them to be acknowledged—yikes!) and I felt very welcome.

Now what happened with my attendance at the Catholic church seemed to cause quite a stir: everyone in the community, everyone, knew I went to the Catholic Church on Sunday. Even at the primary school staff meeting, it was noted that I had attended the Catholic Church. (Perhaps this news made the circuit because the Catholic Church was located off campus? In contrast to the Protestant Church located on campus? I do not know…)

So now I am greeted with, “You go to the Roman Church. Are you Catholic?” Er, uh, ummm, uh… This is a tricky question for me. It’s a tricky question for me even in the United States. Let’s just say that earlier in my life the Catholic Church meant a great deal to me and I considered myself, in every way, a practicing, devoted Catholic. Then, for complicated, personal reasons, I started to have doubt. The reasons are several, and again personal, but it mostly had to do with: There are many world religions: Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, etc. All believe in their version of the truth, all versions of truth are different, who is right?

This wouldn’t feel so problematic to me except that ALL churches I’ve attended seem to think theirs' is the right way and for me to participate (or be accepted) in the Church, I must believe as they do and practice their form of truth.

In my stubbornness, since I don’t know who is right, why prescribe to any particular one? Why not avail yourself to them all?

What I do know is that there is a Higher Power in my life (God, or my favorite way of thinking, “That which we think of as God”), and I can feel connected to God in many ways, but a favorite way is to be with other people praying, who are easiest found together in a church. So I like going to church. I like visiting different churches. I do not participate in communion or other sacraments because these are, well, sacred and reserved for the devoted.

So after this very public attendance of a Catholic Mass, everyone I met asked, “Are you Catholic?” I was troubled with this question and didn’t quite know how to respond, so I, well, prayed about it.

I now know to say, “I go to church where I am invited,” which seems to work very well and will certainly help me better to “wiggle my way” into the community! And I will, indeed, be visiting a "new" church, new to me, on Saturday.
Soon, Karen/Molebogeng
PS. I'm beginning to like my African name again.

Friday, October 23, 2009

African animals--the domestic kind

When thinking of coming to Africa, I knew I needed to prepare myself to see wrenching, heartbreaking things. I knew I would see heart-wrenching things in people and in animals.

In study of human nature, I’ve learned that humans must deal with matters of survival before they can think about others or anything, really, outside of themselves. For example, if I’m trying to haul water and build fires so I can eat and drink, I can’t concern myself where an empty tin can ends up.

And my expectations have proved true: I’ve seen wrenching, wrenching things. And as native South Africans living in rural areas survive with basic survival, I’ve seen that they can’t really concern themselves with other things.

And these other things that native South Africans, living in rural areas, can’t concern themselves with (because they are too busy with trying to survive) are those things that do concern me, because I am an American who doesn’t have to struggle to survive. Two things in particular that concern me are the environment and the care of animals.

I’ll speak more to the environment later—and at length, I’m sure. And please know too, that my concern number one is for the people of South Africa. For now, I’d like to speak to the care of animals.

Let me qualify the following with the fact that when I was reading meters for LG&E, there were days I could come home and bawl for hours about the treatment of dogs I witnessed from the homes I visited on my job. The cruelty and neglect, in many cases, was beyond my comprehension. I could not then, or now, see how people can subject dependent creatures to such horrible living conditions, and feel especially tender around the suffering of animals “kept” by human beings.

Native South Africans, living in rural areas, depend upon domestic animals for their survival. Many, many native South African families have domestic animals in their care. These animals usually consist of cattle, chickens, donkeys/burros, goats, sheep, and pigs. Depending on the “wealth” of the family, they might have several kinds of domestic animals in their care.

Often in South Africa, groups of large domestic animals (cows, donkeys/burros) are allowed to roam about at will. What I have observed, and I find quite troubling, is that often times, especially for the donkeys/burros (who are famously stubborn), their front legs are chained together in a way that severely limits their mobility: one front leg is bound to the other with 3-4’ of chain or rope. I feel certain this limitation is imposed in order contain and/or retrieve the animal easier, but is heartbreaking to watch such a large animal crippled in such a way.

It’s also alarming to see large animals, especially cattle, lying dead on the side of the road having obviously been hit by a car.

These free-roaming, (well, free in that they can go wherever they’d like) animals are herded back home with the smack of a stick or the prod of a rock thrown into their hides. Because these animals don’t fare well at the hands of their handlers, most domestic animals here are afraid of people and will not allow my approach. (Which is a good thing, because if I were allowed to approach a suffering animal, I’d likely attach myself to it in a way that I’d try to care for it and worry about it. And I’ve been warned about becoming attached to animals in Africa.)

In the States, I would sometimes see a dog chained in such a way that he could barely move; so limited would the animal be that I wondered how it could sit, let alone lie down, get water, or poo. It’s heartbreaking to look into the eyes of a creature “living” in this way. I know of a cow that is restrained here in Africa in that way.

Every morning a herd of goats comes to the college campus to browse. How many US colleges can claim that distinction?

A city girl, or at least a girl of the suburbs, I’m not used to the ways of domestic animals. When I lived with my host family during training, I was alarmed at the crowing of roosters off and on throughout the day. (I’m so used to the sounds now that I don’t even notice them.)

I’ve not lived near goats and didn’t realize how loud their calls could be: especially the calls of baby goats.

Yesterday morning, I was distracted by the sound of a baby goat obviously in distress. It sounded very much like a small child having a temper tantrum, but it was much more urgent. I thought to myself, “Will someone please quiet that child?”

I looked out the window and watched the herd run up (they run in the morning; I think they must be hungry) and saw most of the goats run past but clearly a young one was running behind.

The main group of the goats disappeared around the corner of the dormitory to go into a gated area where grass grows. The screaming little one finally caught up I felt relieved that he would find his family. My relief was short lived though, because the little goat tripped onto the pavement parking lot and stood looking off into the wrong direction. My heart fell a bit, because I thought, “Oh no, there must be something wrong with it.”

The little goat stayed in the parking lot, crying and crying for its mother, who was with the rest of the herd.

I left for work few minutes later and saw that the little distressed goat was still at it, crying for its mother, and had made it at least to the fence with the gate. However, his little head was caught between the bars and he stood there, unable to move forward, and crying all the while.

As I approached him, my fear was confirmed: there was something wrong with him. H was certainly blind because his little eyes were cloudy and white.

Now I knew that this little guy probably wouldn’t allow me to approach, and I wasn’t about to try to pick him up, but I did approach him with my best, very gentle “Come here little puppy” voice.

I was surprised that he responded and did seem comforted with my voice and it worked well enough that I maneuvered this little guy out of the fence, through the gate, and back with his herd.

I knew at once that this little guy didn’t have a chance and his situation was proving, right before my eyes, the notion of “survival of the fittest.”

So I went about my way, had a good cry, and tried to console myself with the fact that this was an example of God having the earthly experience of a baby goat’s suffering. (One way I soothe myself it to imagine that God, or “that which we think of as God” resides in every living (and even not living) thing on earth with the goal of experiencing everything that we do).

Later that day, on returning home, I saw a dispersed herd of goats nearby my dorm and a little one off beside himself. I wondered if it was him again, this little blind one. It was, and when I tried to herd him back to his mother (she was calling for him) he seemed disinterested, wasn’t bawling, and not motivated to go to his mother.

I don’t think he’ll make it much longer and somewhat hope that his end comes soon, as it is heart-wrenching to watch him suffer.

Soon, Karen

PS. Peace Corps is in no way connected to or supportive or approving of what is written on this post.

PSS. The photo is not of the blind baby goat, but of one born when I was living with my host family during training.

On "being pink"

Thank you for rallying in support of my "feeling weird" at being so different living in my new community.

I'm a bit worried that I may have come across a bit focused on the issue of "white" versus "black" and not only focused on, but have come across in a negative way.

Let me try to repair.

I was hoping to describe feelings-which really, can you describe something of which you FEEL? Really?--feelings which are new to me and that I've never experienced before. The feelings are uncomfortable because they are so different and are, I believe, growing pains at the transformation I am undergoing.

Before I came to Africa, I would comment to friends that I felt this experience would “crack me wide open.” More than one person would say, “What do you mean?”

I’ve felt that this experience, of living in another part of the world with people from a different culture speaking a different language, would transform me into a completely different person. I’ve felt that this experience would change me in every way: how I see the world, what I think about the world, how I value my world, how I value my life, and how I value my life’s work. I’ve felt I would change at a cellular level and become a brand new person.

So a part of the discomfort I’m feeling, living in a new part of the world with people who are very different from me, is a part of this transformation. I’m experiencing growing pains!

Now, as far as the “white” and “black” issue: I think I would be having these same feelings regardless of my color (or lack of color!). I would feel the same if I were pink, purple, polka-dotted, or tie-died.

What complicates things, I think, for me, is that I am white. If you look at recent South African history, and one of the reasons Peace Corps is even here, the country has gone through a recent, very turbulent change in government. South Africa has become a democratic nation and the nation is very, very new in its democracy.

What does this mean? It means, that although the peoples of South Africa are trying to live together as one nation, desegregated and working and living together, they have had little time to practice.

Think about it. President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 in order to unify United States of America by declaring equality for all American citizens. We’ve had almost 150 years to work out our racial differences. Have we achieved racial equality in the United States?

In contrast, South Africa has only had a democracy since 1994 and has only had fourteen years to practice!

Now, South African history is quite involved-and very fascinating as it shares many traits with American history—and I’m no South African history expert (yet!). The reasons for divisions of South African peoples into race/class distinctions are quite involved and have evolved (devolved?) over hundreds of years. But it is my understanding that the government in power prior to 1994, the National Party, was extremely oppressive to any peoples not white in race, and especially oppressive and cruel to black South Africans. And the National Party was in power from 1948-1994. The policy in place to support this segregation was, of course, Apartheid.

Any guesses on the color of people (or lack of color) who held the cruel and oppressive power in South Africa for nearly 50 years? Yep, you guessed it: they were WHITE.

So here I am, a white woman, living in a village that is only populated by black South Africans. Let me repeat: I live in a village that is only populated by black South Africans. I am the only white person working in the primary school of the village, and although three other white people work on staff of the college, they do not live in the village. There are no other white people living in the village that I'm aware of.

While I am wanted here, and I am wanted here, many, many people don’t know who I am or why I am here. These are mostly the people I encounter when I walk about anywhere in the village. And for them, I represent, guess what? I represent, for them, a person from a former cruel, and very oppressive, regime. Now most people are very, very warm and pleasant with me. Let me repeat: most people, most people, most people! But I have noticed, especially when I encounter groups of young people (usually groups of young men), they seem, well, not pleased with my presence among them.

And I can’t blame them.

But it doesn’t feel good to not feel wanted or welcome. And these are the kinds of feelings that are in that very complicated mix of feelings I was trying to describe in my former “celebrity” post.

But again, I think I would be experiencing most of these feelings if I were pink.

I'm certain to speak more to this, but for now, I am tired! Happy weekend!

Best, Karen

PS Peace Corps is in no way connected to this post, nor does it support or agree with anything written here.
PSS The photo posted is of the fig tree leafing out back in August when I was living with my host family. It is the "pinkest" African photo I have on hand. :-)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Good-bye train track. Hello red clay of Africa!

I won't be walking alone along the train track of my village anymore. I've already told this to my top worriers, but it seems as if many of you have been alarmed for me.

I stopped in the village police station last week and asked about walking along the train track. I was hoping to find where the track led (it leads all the way to J-burg). When I asked the policemen if it were safe for me to walk along this train track, they very sternly said, "NO." So I've quit. (I didn't press them as to why it was unsafe.)

Another reason is I've learned that the snake I spotted was likely to be a Cape Cobra: one of the nastier of the species as far as venom is concerned.

So I will contain my walking to the "alley walks" around the village and on the back ways of the college campus. I am very sad at losing this hike, however, because it had become my highlight of my week.
The first photo is of my beloved train track. This shot is a view coming back into my village (although I'm still too far out to actually see the village just yet).
The second photo is of the beautiful gorge that followed along the track that I'd come to call "the Karen Gorge" (kind of in the vein of "the Grand Canyon"--I know, how pretentious of me!). It is a gorge that runs through the village and even runs behind the college campus. One of my planned hikes was to, at some point, walk the length of the gorge. I feel certain this gorge is the result of water erosion, but when I ask the students if the rains fill the gorge in the summer, they say, "not really."
Perhaps rain carved the gorge a long time ago?

I took these photos and was unhappy with them: they don't seem to provide a dramatic visual. I'm glad I saved them though, as I may not get to walk that way again.

I have thought of drumming up some of the volunteers to hike with me, and may yet. I can't imagine anyone being happy about walking out into the bush following a train track. Maybe I'll be pleasantly surprised.

When one door closes...

There is a community garden located on the college campus. (I've uploaded pictures of it earlier in my posts.) It has been on my list as one of the ways to "wiggle into" my community. I have visited the garden, but only once and then when I first arrived.
The garden sits right out in front of my picture window, so I can watch it every day and at any time of day. During daylight hours, there is almost ALWAYS someone out there working. And every day, several times a day, I think, "I should go out there and talk to them."

I'm kind of a baby about taking on new things or doing too many things in one day. For example, when working, I like to do my food shopping on the weekends because working AND food shopping in one day is too much. In this way, I've been taking the "new things" in Africa a step at a time.
For example, going to the Primary School for the day counted as one, big, hard thing. Going to a new church counts as one, big, hard thing. Going to the village grocer is one, big, hard thing. (Going to the grocer will probably always feel big and hard because I find new and different people to talk to each time.) Each day feels big, scary, and hard because I haven't gotten used to my new life yet. (But it is getting easier.)
So yesterday, I spent the morning at the college, then spent the afternoon in at the Primary School: this counts as two big, hard things on my list and I was done for the day.
Just like every day, I glanced out the window to see these wonderful people, bending over, working their gardens. And I whimpered to myself, "I want to go play!"
I was trying to justify that I had already done TWO big, hard things for the day and I was excused from taking anything else on. Blessedly, I was brought to my senses.
One of my character defects, which is really self-centered fear, is to think: "I don't want to bother anyone."
So I'm sitting there thinking, "I don't want to bother anyone" when I had a crystal-clear, sharp thought: "Ridiculous! There is nothing I'd rather do than show off my garden!" So out I marched feeling certain South Africans are the same.
As it was late, there were only four people there: two elderly ladies, a kindergartner (from my Primary School) and a laborer.
I approached, did my greeting in Setswana, only to find that they spoke only Setswana and Afrikaans. My Setswana is terrible and my Afrikaans even worse! But they were glad to have me and smiled at my walking about. (The laborer too, introduced himself as "illiterate" and could only speak Tswana and Afrikaans. I tried to tell him that anyone who could speak many languages and GARDEN was plenty literate! It broke my heart that he introduced himself in that way.)
So I'm walking about, admiring the new green stuff growing in this blood-red African clay. Africans dig their plots down a bit, kind of like a plate with a rim, and do this probably to conserve water (which is very scarce). There is a lovely image in Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible whereby the main character (an American) sets out to garden in Africa, only to have a village woman come behind him and "redo" his planting plot. He was infuriated with her actions but she of course, knew that the plot must be dug just so to accommodate African growing conditions. Every time I see an African garden, I think of this scene in the novel...
So I'm strolling along, thrilled to be among carrots, onions, beets, cabbages when I came upon an old friend. I came upon a plot and thought, "I know that plant, but what is it?" And then it hit me. I knelt down and ran my fingers gently along the new green leaves and brought my hands to my nose to inhale the fragrance: TOMATOES! Tomatoes! Oh, Tomatoes here growing in Africa! And I started crying. (Surely you guys know now that I'm crying at the drop of a hat these days!)
I found tomatoes growing in Africa and that seemed to make everything ok.
I'm walking along, wiping my eyes when I see another plant. This one I have trouble identifying: I know this leaf... But wait, I know this leaf from growing out of a container: these are POTATOES! I was thrilled to see potatoes growing in Africa. And I didn't recognize them because they were growing in the ground--which is how they are supposed to. I was growing potatoes back home in container as an experiment.
I walked back to the elderly ladies, picked up a rake, and motioned that I wanted to help. So last night, at dusk, I broke up the African clay with a beautiful, old African woman in the African sunset, and I knew I'd be ok.
Soon, Karen
PS Peace Corps is in no way connected to this post.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Cleaning house, Aunt Susan, and feeding deeply from the table

There is a family tradition, at least on my maternal side, that women in my family who are worried or upset tend to clean house. I’m not talking about your run-of-the-mill grab a dust cloth and a can of Pledge kind of clean, but a scrubbing baseboards, scour bathtubs with boiling water, dig the grime out of the grout kind of clean. I’m not sure why we do this: perhaps the physical activity helps dispel some of the worry and other uncomfortable feelings; or perhaps we clean with such vigor because we feel powerless over our lives and need something tangible to do with our hands to help us feel grounded.

Regardless of why, my bathroom is very clean. I can honestly say it is spotless.

On Saturday (Oct17), I received the bad news that a favorite aunt had died unexpectedly on Friday (Oct 16). She was an aunt by marriage to one of my maternal uncles. I love how marriage can bring new and vibrant people into our lives and families and she was certainly one of these! She had serious health problems all of her life but I, for one, had grown used to her rallying back to health every time. Every time. But not this time.

So she’s gone and I feel sad and feel very far away from my family as they negotiate this difficult time…

The sun was shining here on Saturday and while it is on the way to becoming very hot, it was quite pleasant on Saturday. As I was walking about, feeling sad about my aunt’s passing, and trying to think of a way I could honor her, I found this beautiful, beautiful tree. I had seen it once before, but had forgotten it. Here, in all of its glory in the beautiful breezy sunshine, I sat down with the tree to enjoy its beauty and honor my Aunt Susan.

As I sat, I soon realized that the birds and bees LOVE this tree. And why would they not? I don’t know if the photos show it well, but his tree is full of thick, yellow, comb-like blossoms. (And of course, I don’t yet know what it is, but will soon, as many of you are sending me field guides!!—thank you!). At any time it would fill with yellow canaries and they flitted from branch to branch, chirping away, enjoying the lushness of the tree.

As I was sitting, a bright yellow weaver-bird flew up and I could see that s/he was working on a nest. These birds are a favorite--Do we have weaver birds in the States? A weaver-bird is bright yellow with a black face and they collect strands of grass to “weave” their nests and there are often many, many nests in a single thorn tree. (The photo with the sun shining through a thorn tree has a single weaver-bird nest in the lower branches of the left side of the tree.)

I love these birds and adore spotting them.

This one perched relatively close to me so I could see her/him well. S/he literally turned upside down, and with its feet still grasping the branch, stuck its head down into the comb of one of these beautiful blossoms and took a big drink. I don’t know if the photos show it clearly, but can you see the little black dots that look like seeds? These are actually droplets of nectar! I squealed when I touched one and the liquid dispersed upon my fingers! This beautiful weaver bird was clearly “feeding deeply from the table.”

What a beautiful metaphor for Aunt Susan: she loved feeding people deeply from her table.

Aunt Susan loved good food, she loved preparing wonderful, lovely meals, and loved having people come to “feed from her table.” Her dinners, dinner parties, and out-and-out parties were anticipated and enjoyed. And her Derby Eve Party was nationally famous!

Her other great loves were her family, the company for which she worked for many years, travel, all things Japanese, and her grandbabies. She LOVED her grandbabies! Her whole face lit up when she was asked about them.

I felt upset in thinking about her no longer loving with her grandbabies when I realized that she loved them so much, she surely loved them enough for a lifetime.

As the lovely weaver bird finished its meal, I couldn’t help but think that Aunt Susan was with me, letting me know that she was still “feeding deeply from the table.” In this way, she reminded me too, to keep “feeding deeply from the table.”

Please keep my Uncle Larry and the rest of my family in your prayers as they move through their grief of losing this wonderful woman.

Best, Karen

Thursday, October 15, 2009

More on language and living as a "celebrity"

South Africa is so multilingual that the national anthem is written in four languages: Zulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans, and English. We sung both America's and South Africa's national anthems at the Swearing In Ceremony. (Yes, we had "cheat sheets" for both.)

I, as are most internationals, was given an African name upon arrival: Molebogang. Lebogang is the Tswana word for "go give thanks" and with the addition of the prefix "Mo," my name is loosely translated as "to give thanks to God."

I used to love my African name, but lately, it has been a source of irritation. There are apparently four shorter, "nickname" versions of my African name and they are as follows:

MOO lay
MOE lay
LAY boo
LAY boe

As I've been called "Karen" all of my life and am not used to "Molebogang," let alone any of its variations, I find myself head-jerking in the direction of any of these variations as someone may be calling for me... To make matters worse, "Lebogang" is a very popular name among boys, girls, women, and men, so at any point of time someone is being called a version of this name. As I said, I used to like my African name. :-)

Just an interesting note: when the new Peace Corps trainees were first brought home to the families in the village, it rained. It was an odd time for it to rain in that part of Africa (the winter months when it is usually dry) so many of the trainees were renamed in honor of the rain... Something along the line of "one who brings rain..."

And I know, my folks in Louisville are sick of rain, but we're longing for it here and beginning to see a bit of it...

Speaking of Louisville and language... I love telling the story of my trip to Alaska. Although I was there to talk to visitors about the Alaskan park, inevitably (and probably because of my accent), I would be asked where I was from. Of course, I replied, "Louisville, Kentucky." But they heard, "LOO uh vul" and had no idea what I was talking about. When they finally realized I was trying to say, "LOOEYville," they felt much better and patted me on the back because they had helped me figure out how to pronounce my city's name.

So, here in Africa, when I'm asked, "Where are you from?," I reply, "From the United States of America." (I used to only say, "the United States," when it was pointed out to me that there are other countries of united states... As in "the United States of Brazil--I think).

Usually, they press further: "From what part of the United States?" To which I reply: Kentucky. I used to reply, "Louisville, KY," but quickly learned that Louisville is completely unidentifiable to native South Africans. Not only is Louisville unrecognizable, Kentucky is. In the beginning, I would make a point to make a connection: "You know, like Kentucky Fried Chicken?" To this they would smile and laugh, so I don't do it anymore (and am grateful the company years ago launched a campaign to move the name closer to "KFC" in order to avoid the word "fried"). I personally find it embarrassing to be identified with a food item, a fried, dead food item at that.

So no, no one has heard of the Kentucky Derby, Kentucky bourbon, or of our college basketball teams. They only want to hear of New York, Washington D.C., and Chicago (probably because of the election of our new president--the Nobel Peace Prize winner!). They quickly lose interest in my state.

So I'm spared the "Louisville" pronunciation problem, but am saddened that no one knows of my glorious state--and city!!

My personal emails home have contained a whiney note (I hope it hasn't shown up here) and my sister recently called me out on it: "Why are you having such a hard time?"

So, am I having a hard time? Well, yes, and I will try to explain why. Please note that these feelings/sensations are very new to me, as I've not experienced them before, and I'm not sure I can adequately describe them. (Thanks Kim, btw, for helping me to "snap me out of it.")

For all practical purposes, I'm the only white person here. (I know, I know, the race issue again.) But not only am I the only white person here, I DON'T SPEAK THE LANGUAGE OF THOSE I'M LIVING WITH. Why the emphasis? Well, I've never lived anywhere before that a) I'm the only person of my race and b) I don't have a clue what everyone around me is saying--EVER.

Now, the Peace Corps warned me (and others) that the emotional state that evolves out of such a living arrangement is very, very difficult. And they're right: it is very, very difficult.

On many levels I've learned that it was one thing, living in the States, to think, "Oh sure, I can do that" and quite another, to be in Africa, trying to do it.

So again, why is it so difficult? And, here again, I'm not sure. I can only describe what it feels like and the observations I've made.

At first, I thought it must be similar, on a much smaller scale, to what celebrities experience: you're a single being surrounded by tens, hundreds, thousands of people who ALL KNOW WHO YOU ARE but you have NO IDEA WHO THEY ARE. It is unnerving to walk down the street and have person after person call you by name and not having a clue as to who these people are.

Not only does everyone know who you are, they know who you are, WHERE YOU ARE, ALL THE TIME. There is literally no escape. There is nowhere to go to "hide." People in towns 40 minutes away know who I am (and can call me by name).

It truly is an unnerving experience and it's ongoing: 24 hours a day 7 days a week. I'm known where ever I go: school, church, shopping, trips to town, and hiking out of town. (I've decided to try beginning my hikes a 5:30 am, to escape notice--hopefully everyone will still be asleep!!)

And even if I'm not known, I'm known because I'm so different. I'm a white person. Many young children have never seen a white person. I've made at least one small child cry and run for his mother. Dogs bark at me because I'm so strange in appearance. Everywhere I walk, all heads turn and you can hear the glimmer of conversations erupting (in my honor).

What I find most unsettling about it is, that I've noticed a striking decrease in my confidence and self-esteem. In the States, I walk tall and strong, I hold my head high, I feel comfortable and confident about WHO I AM. Here, I've noticed myself walking slumped down, with my head lowered, and not making eye contact. I HATE IT. I hate that I feel this way and that I'm behaving this way, but am unsure as to how to deal with it.

Again, these feelings and sensations are so unsettling because, I think, I've never experienced them before.

I'm told that these feelings are normal and that all Peace Corps volunteers experience them. I'm told too, that they pass. Sadly for me, is that it often takes SIX months for them to pass, and I'm only three months in!

Yikes, I hope this post hasn't been a downer and there aren't even any pretty pictures to post... But writing about it has probably helped me move through some of it, and maybe a kind soul out there who relates can offer up, "Yes, I know how that feels and here's what helped me cope..."

So I'll sign off for now and practice walking tall, proud, straight, with my head held high!

Soon, Karen
PS Peace Corps is in no way connected to this post.