Friday, July 30, 2010

Presence of God

I love having “spiritual assignments.” A recent one, suggested to me, is to note the moments in my days when I feel “the presence of God.”

I’ve enjoyed this assignment very much and am delightfully surprised to find that I can feel the presence of God at almost any time, but there are definitely certain times when I find the presence of God more than others.

I feel the presence of God most certainly at day break. When I was living in the States and my life was crazy busy, I still managed to get up early enough to see the morning come in. There is something very special about the stillness found in the early-morning hours of dawn. I’m finding myself here in Africa, too, making sure to set my alarm for waking when the night is still dark, but will allow me time to see the first pink of the morning light and then sit in the stillness as the dawn breaks. It continues to be a favorite part of my day.

There is another part of the day that I feel the presence of God strongly, if I pause long enough to listen and feel. It’s the time of day in late afternoon, when the light changes. If there is a breeze blowing or a strong wind, I feel the presence of God.

I DEFINITELY don’t feel the presence of God when I’m working on the computer!  And seem to feel God’s presence mostly when I’m OUTSIDE, out of doors, not inside!

I have three stories of finding the presence of God since coming to South Africa. I’ve already told you one—about the intimate moment I shared with my African “grandmother” when I was trying to comfort her by massaging her feet. (So actually, I have four stories!) These next stories share a similar theme: suffering and attempting to provide comfort.

I’m often struck by the suffering of animals. This was the case for me in the States as well. I worked as a meter-reader for a utilities company for a few years and there were many days when I would come home and cry myself to sleep at the suffering (of dogs) I had witnessed in the course of my workday. At home I could do something about it: I could call the Humane Society (or even the police) and make a report.

When I first arrived at my permanent site, I noticed a starving dog. She had the coloring of a Rotweiler but the shape of a Dalmatian. She was so thin that she seemed a walking spine with an attached ribcage. I would see her in the soccer field in front of my hostel (when I was residing in the hostel) and she seemed to come regularly to forage (for garbage left about by the college students).

Although my heart is very tender for suffering animals, it is not so tender that I’ll “take them in.” In my self-centeredness, I’ve decided I can barely take care of myself, let alone another living being. So, when I would see this creature, I would tell myself, “Don’t look at her.” I would see her somewhat regularly and would always think, at her wasting away, “She’s not long for this world.”

One afternoon I watched her approach and she had a loopy, staggering gate. She was below my window looking for food to eat, but she could barely stand.

I said to myself, “I can’t watch this anymore” and went about looking to find her something to eat. I knew this was a bad idea with potentially unwelcome consequences: if I fed her, she would come regularly; I would become attached, etc. But no matter, I could not endure this suffering a moment longer.

I was on the bottom end of my week’s worth of groceries but I did have three raw eggs. I broke open the eggs and placed them in a dish and carried them out to her. It was all that I had that a carnivore would eat.

As soon as she saw me approaching, she fled. I could have cried. Well, I did cry. I gingerly placed the dish of raw egg in the grass, hoping she would come back, but one of the eggs slipped out and fell into the grass. I left the dish anyway. I spent the next few hours bawling my eyes out, but crying was a good thing. It was my first in Africa and overdue. Crying your eyes out seems to clean the soul like nothing else.

I never knew if she came back for the eggs. The dish was empty the next day, so I knew SOMETHING ate the eggs.

I saw her only once more, when the grass in the soccer field was quite tall. She wasn’t in great shape, and again, her gait was uneven and wobbly. She bounded out into the tall grass and lay down. The grass was so high I couldn’t see her.

It was an especially hot part of the day and I couldn’t imagine why she would choose this spot, out in the middle of the field, unprotected from the hot sun, to lie down. I wondered if she had chosen this spot—and this time--to die.

I tried to find her, out in the tall grass the next day, but could not. I still look for her bones in the burned, dried grass of the soccer field, but cannot any sign of her.

I felt the presence of God in the suffering of that animal.

Another morning, I was sitting on a concrete bench, outside the college library waiting for it to open. It was a cool morning and I remember enjoying how good it felt to sit in the warm sun. The bench I was sitting was placed under a large pepper tree and I heard a large, crashing noise as something came falling down out of the tree and around me.

A pigeon, obviously dying, came crashing out of the pepper tree to lie dying at my feet. His last gesture was to spread his wings, surely in hopes of cushioning his fall, and he lay at my feet, belly and head down, with his wings outspread. He lay in a way that I could see his body expand and contract with his dying breaths.

There was nothing I could do for this creature but stay with it, be present, and witness his death. I was willing and able to do this; I felt it my obligation to be with this dying creature. It took him quite a few minutes to die and college students and staff walked by us, glancing down at the dying bird, and curious, I’m sure, as to what I was doing.

I stayed with that dying bird and I felt the presence of God. They were exquisitely beautiful moments.

On my walk to the primary school, I pass two especially heart-wrenching cases. One is of a starving dog, chained and fenced in someone’s yard (he is a family pet). He is chained to his dog house and has about 1.5 feet of lead to move about. So, he doesn’t have room to move about.

The dog is very thin and his eyes are cloudy (a sign of malnutrition). He makes his poo as far away as he can, which isn’t far at all, and it mounds up in a big pile, but he must lie very near it, in the way that he is chained. He is there, lying on the cold ground on the freezing mornings, and he is there, lying in the hot sun, in brutally hot afternoons. Every day, he is there.

On my same route, there is another creature suffering in the same manner, except this creature is significantly larger: it is a cow. Now there is something significantly more horrible about watching an animal of this size being contained in such a way: it is tethered, with very little rope, and made to live in its excrement. I’ve seen it lying down, although with the little length of its tether, cannot imagine how it does so. On most days, I find the suffering of this animal more than I can bear, and I choose to walk by a different route.

One day, when I was feeling especially brave, I walked by to see my favorite suffering animal. As I approached, I was somewhat startled to realize that this cow had something live, lying at its feet, and was licking it in way that a mother cow would lick a calf.

“Oh no, please don’t tell me that this poor, tortured creature has given birth,” I thought to myself. But as I came nearer, I could see that the creature lying at the cow’s feet was not a calf, but a dog. There was a dog tethered in the same area near the cow, and tethered in a way that the dog and cow could be near each other, if they reached far enough on their respective, cruelly-short ropes.

The dog was lying on his back, his legs in the air, and the cow was stroking the dog’s belly with its tongue, much in the way a human would “rub a dog’s belly.” The dog’s little leg was bouncing with the joy of the ticklishness of the sensation.

These poor, suffering creatures, were providing a measure of comfort to each other. In all of this African filth and cruelty, these beautiful, blessed, suffering creatures were providing comfort to each other.

And I felt the presence of God.


Ps. The photo is one of mine, of the African sky. And I feel the presence of God when I see it.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Teaching in South Africa

The pictures are a repeat--sorry-and of my primary school kids. I like these photos and they are related to the blog: I will speak of my first year in Africa, my year of teaching.

A family member has said to me, all of my life, "It takes a good year to feel used to any new job." Every time I've taken a new job and struggled with feeling overwhelmed, I've thought of this advice. The problem I’m having in adjusting to my Peace Corps job, is that, after my first year, I’m finding my work is changing.

When we come to our service positions in joining Peace Corps, we're advised not to take on any commitments for a couple of months until we get the feel of the community and get a feel for what services the community needs. My group came to South Africa knowing that we would be working with the schools. We also knew that some of us would be teaching and some of us would not, and that it would be up to individuals to decide for themselves.

Peace Corps has come to South Africa to work with South African schools for a decade. However, 2010 was the first year that PC Americans were allowed to teach in the schools. Prior to this year, the South African labor unions fought to keep Americans out of South African teaching positions to save the teaching jobs for South Africans. During the past decade, instead of teaching in the schools, Peace Corps volunteers have worked with the schools in the capacity of building school and community-based projects. From 1999-2009 then, Peace Corps volunteers might be developing projects to help with libraries, obtain computer equipment, obtain books, etc. In this way, Peace Corps volunteers have been working to improve their schools and their communities.

In 2010, Peace Corps volunteers were allowed into South African schools to teach because of a critical shortage of teachers. It was the hope, I believe, that in 2010, Peace Corps volunteers would be able to teach AND take on community projects.

And some of us have been able to do both, but I am not one of these. In teaching in two schools (as all of us are), I found I could barely keep up with the teaching load, let alone trying to take on community projects.

However, it is often with community projects that Peace Corps volunteers and their communities derive the most satisfaction. With several discussions with my Peace Corps supervisor, supervisors from my schools, and with community members, I have decided to lessen my teaching load to make time to develop community projects.

Truth be told here too, one of the reasons I’ve avoided “taking on” community projects is that if you commit to them, it is expected that you’ll “be around” to see the projects completed. It’s taken me all of this year to decide on whether or not I want to remain in South Africa.

So, I’ve decided to remain in South Africa and I’ve decided to change my work focus from teaching to community projects, so my work is changing. During my second year in Africa, I will find myself teaching one college class (I’ve let go of teaching in the primary school) and find myself developing community projects.

So what is this new animal, this new work of developing community projects? Well, I find myself again, trying to adjust to a “new job.”

In developing community projects, the first thing you need to do is find out what the community wants. Well, what I’ve learned is, that the community “wants” whatever the individual I’m talking with at the time wants. As there are many individuals in a community, the “wants” list can become quite long.

So, the college seems keen on the idea of a “movie club” that will bring the addition of a “movie house” to the college campus and give the students (and surrounding community members) an avenue of entertainment. My college project is to make this happen. How do you make a community project happen? Peace Corps has funds to assist with project building and we, as volunteers, write a grant proposal asking for funds. I’m in the process now of asking for funds to “build” this movie house (which is actually only asking for funds to purchase the equipment: screen, projector, sound system). If funded, the movie club will give the college kids something constructive to do with their Saturday nights (the currently engage in all kinds of unsafe activities), bring an enrichment opportunity (film studies), and the project calls for a pre-viewing HIV/AIDS education session that will allow “free admission” to the film. (So, if they come to the safe sex talk, they get into the movie for free. Killing two birds with one stone, so to speak)

So, that’s one project I’m working on.

The primary school is ambivalent about their needs and is currently requesting assistance with building a “sports/recreation facility” or a “community hall.” Everything happens very slowly with the primary school so I’m not as hopeful here. But they need to hurry, because one of the stipulations about receiving grant money is that the Peace Corps volunteer needs to be around to help with spending the money! And hello, I’m outta here in a year!

And lastly, I’m kicking around the idea of raising funds to build a “tool-share” scheme with my community gardeners.

So, my work is changing. I’m finding myself running to the computer lab every day to work on grant writing instead of running to school every day. We’ll see how it goes.

And remember, it “takes a good year to get used to any new job.”


Monday, July 26, 2010

I get by with a little help from my friends...

July 24 marked my anniversary of being "in country" (in Africa) for one year.  And oh my goodness, what a year it has been.   In a way I find myself thinking, "Wow, have I been here a year?"  But in other ways, it feels like many lifetimes.

Most of you know that for every day of this year, I've thought about returning home.  I've felt a lot of shame around this, but I had a friend of mine make the following comment: "There are two kinds of Peace Corps Volunteers: those that think about going home and those that are lying about it."  I laughed at the comment and it helped me feel better.  This gentleman is on his second tour of Peace Corps service, so his opinions carry twice the weight.

And I'll be the first to admit: this first year has been ROUGH.  However, I'm hopeful that my second year will be happier, and there is evidence of this.  Most Peace Corps volunteers have stated that their first year was challenging and that their second went much better.  I'm counting on this.

I'm also making some changes to facilitate a happier second year in South Africa.  I've made changes in my work schedule, I've bought a couple of magazine subscriptions (I will have a little prize in my mailbox once a month to give me something to look forward to for my remaining year), and I've decided to make better use of my Peace Corps family.

I've been asked how I get along with the other Peace Corps volunteers in my group and truth to tell, I haven't spent much time with them.  We are all scattered and of various ages and, well, I have a hard time riding the public taxis and rarely want to ride them without a very good reason.  (The usual reason is: mandatory attendance at a training session.)  So, I'm trying to become more willing to hop on a taxi to ride out to see friends.

This past weekend I rode out to Kuruman to visit other Peace Corps friends.  In the photos you will see Jonelle, Lauren, Marcia, and Justin. I spent a great weekend hanging out, catching up, and seeing beautiful, smiling, AMERICAN faces.  It was great fun and staying at a posh Bed and Breakfast--the Kuru-Kuru-- never hurts either.  I had a yummy "4th of July" meal of cheeseburgers, potato salad, and apple pie!  YUM!  And another elegant meal out of fish, salad, and a baked potato.  It was the best baked potato I've had since arriving in South Africa!  (They do French fries well here--they call them "chips"--but I had yet to encounter a good baked potato.)

One of the photos is of Emily and you've seen it before.  She came to my house last weekend for a nice visit.  We watched movies, had popcorn, and went for walks. I fed her fried eggs and cornbread.  We tried to buy meat in my village's market but we were both put off enough with the selection (both from the butcher and the market's freezer case) that we returned home to yet another meal of fried eggs and cornbread.  Neither of us had meat for dinner that night, but we both had a funny story to tell, about TRYING to buy meat at the village market! 

I have much more room at my house for company than Emily does, and as she is the closest volunteer to me, I hope she comes often this second year to visit. 

So, I'm a year in country--wow!  Just 14 months to go!


PS. One photo is of the nearly-full moon at my site last night.  Gorgeous, just gorgeous!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

My African h-o-m… h-o-m… HOUSE

Ok, ok, I just can’t say it. It has been suggested that I begin to think of my African life as my h-o-m… h-o-m… h-o-m… I just can’t say it. I’m not sure I’ll ever think of Africa as my HOME. There, I said it.

But I am falling in love with my HOUSE.

I absolutely love my new house.

A friend has mentioned that she envies my “simpler lifestyle.” I never really think of my life here in Africa as simple, but I guess comparatively speaking, it is.

For one thing, I am much more conscious of resources and of two specifically: water and electricity.

The water pressure in my home is very low. This means that it takes a long time for things to fill: kettles, cooking pots, washing basins, bathtubs… It also means that I can't try to run two faucets at once.  For example, I can’t run the tub and fill a kettle at the kitchen sink. Is this complaining? Heck no! I just have a lot of time to sit by a running faucet feeling grateful for it.

Also, my toilet doesn’t flush. I flush it by dumping a bucket (or two, or three) of water into the bowl to flush it. In this way, I’m constantly horrified to see (and know!) how much fresh water it takes to flush a toilet bowl. Every time I flush, I’m reminded what a wasteful process we have in place to remove our waste.

And lastly, the water on campus is shut off on a regular basis. I can go without water for as little as a couple of hours to the record-to-date: six days. (This was the notorious water outage I experienced upon arriving to site: when I had swine flu!! Yuck! It's really nice to have running water--and a flush toilet--when your sick!)

Each morning when I’m washing my hands, I’m reminded how nice it is to have HOT water coming out of a tap. I’m reminded of this because I only have cold water running out of my tap. When living in Louisville, I worked for an employer who rented our office space in an old building. For awhile, the boiler was out, and I remember grumbling about how painful it is to wash my hands in cold water. I was grumpy enough to write a commentary about it that aired on our local public radio station! To think, I would be grumpy about washing my hands in cold water!

Welcome to rural South Africa!!

So I try to be grateful as I heat the kettle that heats my water for the basin I’ll pour to wash my hands.

I’m very, very, very grateful to have running taps in my house, as I know that many PC volunteers haul their water from a community tap. I’m a lucky girl.

Another consumable resource I’m constantly reminded of is electricity.

In the hostel room where I was staying, the college provided—paid for—my electricity. It was one of the perks I lost when I moved to the trailer. (Believe me, the trade off was worth it!!) I now pay for my electricity and I put money on a meter inside my trailer. I buy electricity from various vendors in my shopping town, they issue a receipt with a code, and I punch the code into my meter when I return home. The meter lets me see how much electricity I’m using so I always feel anxious when I’m cooking, heating water for a bath, and sitting by my heater—all at the same time!

I like how the meter has a smiley face and a frowney face to encourage me to put a lot of money in the meter! Aren’t utilities companies smart? You KNOW I want to keep my guy smiling!

We lose power somewhat regularly. All South Africans were amazed at the continuous supply of water and electricity while the world had their eyes on South African World Cup Soccer. And more than a few of us find ourselves sitting in the dark eating a cold dinner these days after soccer. But I enjoy my dinner by candlelight and feel something like Abe Lincoln must as he trundled off to bed to read for a bit.

There are three things that I love best about my new h-o-m-… h-o-m… HOUSE: there is a lot of elbow room, it’s quiet, and it’s close to the ground.

Most PC volunteers live in very, very small quarters. Emily, my nearest volunteer lives in a shoebox. Or a closet...  I live in a very, very large home. I have my bedroom (pictured, with the maps), a store room, (yes, a store room!), a combined kitchen and living area, and a guest room (yes, a guest room). I have plenty of room to spread out and it is very comfortable. I've decided that Emily should come live with me! 

Since my trailer is especially long, it’s amazing how I can move away from noise just from moving from one end to the other. I often find myself retreating to my bedroom if the college kids are especially boisterous.

I absolutely adore how quiet my new home is. I sit on my porch every night when the sun goes down, listening to the quiet of the night. On church nights, I can hear a congregation singing across the village. I mostly enjoy watching the swallows fly silently by to go nestle into the eaves for the night.

And finally, I love how my new home is closer to the ground. When I stayed in the hostel, I was on the second floor, and very far from the ground. With my own space, I am free to garden, compost, and feed the wild birds.

I bought a shovel for my birthday and am using the winter months to prepare a few beds to grow vegetables. I was hoping to use a deep mulching technique to prepare my vegetable beds, but as the photo above illustrates, my college campus groundskeepers are a bit of fire bugs. They burn all useable yard debris.

Living near the ground allows me to save my vegetable scraps for composting. In this way, I can feed the soil that will feed my vegetable garden. I saved my vegetable scraps while living in the hostel and used them to feed the goats. Unfortunately, the goats still sometimes lunch in my compost! Oh well! It all works in all comes out the same in the end!  ;-)
And living closer to the ground allows me to feed my wild birds. I love feeding wild birds. I spent a fortune feeding wild birds in the States, but I’m getting along fine with a bit of peanut crumbs and fruit peelings. As all birders know, fresh water draws birds better than feed anyway. And fresh water is somewhat free!

So, as I can’t call it my h-o-m… h-o-m… h-o-m-e just yet, I absolutely LOVE my African HOUSE!



What's in a name?

Throughout the course of the day, I may be addressed by any of the following:




Det (don’t ask)

Lebo (LAY bow-version of African name)

Mole (MOO lay-version of African name )



Miss Kaye

Mrs. Kaye


Babelelo (my second African name, bestowed by a colleague that doesn’t like my original African name: Molebogeng)

Babe (BAH bee—version of second African name)


However, there is ONE name I will never be referred to throughout the day, unless there is an American in the midst: Karen.


PS. Photos are of recent sunsets. Enjoy!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Keeping warm: my new best friend

I used to dream of "living off the grid" in a log cabin in the woods with a wood stove for heat.  Pipe dream!  It's so cold here in South Africa, and I KNOW you guys back in Louisville are having a hard time imagining it, but it is so cold here in South Africa, that I stumble along my wall every morning, sleepily looking for a (nonexistent) furnace switch to turn on.  It's COLD.

How cold is it?  The water in my bird bath freezes every morning.  While I'm standing in my kitchen (INSIDE my kitchen) I can see the fog of my breath.  My fingers, even in gloves and wool hand warmers are so cold; I can barely button my blouse and remain stiff until noon, when the day finally warms.

Before I left for my trip to Messina, it had already turned cold and I knew that I would need to visit my shopping town to purchase a heater, but I put this very necessary chore off until after my trip.  Silly me, after my trip, and for a full three weeks, we had very mild and WARM temperatures in my village.  I put off buying the heater until it became painfully cold again, which was last week.

So, trying to arrange a ride to town to buy my heater was quite an adventure in itself, but I'll leave it for your imagination.  Suffice it to say, it took several days--several COLD days before I grabbed a ride to town to buy my heater.  While not huge, the heater I had my eye on was bulky enough and heavy enough that it would have been difficult to carry through the taxi rank and get it on a taxi for transport.  I needed a private car for this purchase.

But oh my, do I LOVE my new heater!  And boy was it worth the trouble, the expense, and the wait!  (Well, maybe not the wait!)  It is my new best friend. It is warm and toasty!  I just love it! 

It's shaped like a radiator and stands about 3 feet tall.  It is an electric heater but it has oil inside that is heated instead of having an element that becomes red-hot.  It takes awhile to heat but it holds the heat long after it is switched off.  It has wheels on it and I can roll it from room to room.  I'm a lucky girl!

So, every morning, I set my clock about an hour early so I can switch on my heater.  (It's so hard to leave a warm bed to an icy house!)  When the alarm clock rings, I spring out of bed, wrap my layers of fleece with my hand-made afghan, and set on the tea-kettle.  Now, if only I could drag my heater and tea to the freezing primary school!

Another way I warm up is to take a hot bath.   I have a hot bath on Wednesday and Sunday. I am a lucky, lucky Peace Corps volunteer, in that I have a bath tub.  However, I am with my brethren PC volunteers in that I live without hot water. (In fact, most PC volunteers live without cold water, and haul theirs from a tap.)   I heat my water for a bath.

I was heating my water for a bath on the stove and using my electric kettle. However, the college campus authorities felt sorry for me (living without a hot water heater ) and bought me a "mini-geyser."  A "geyser" is the South African term for a hot water heater.  See the photo below?  That's me holding my hot water heater.  No sarcastic comments please.

So, how does this implement work?  You place the large end in a tub of water and the heating element inside (the flared end of the mini-geyser) heats the water.  Yes, you plug the other in to an electrical outlet.  Yes, it feels very frightening to put an electrical appliance into a tub of water.  (I do not get INTO the water with the appliance still in--I remove the appliance--and unplug it first--before entering the water.) But still, there is something very frightening about this electrical device to warm a tub of water.  But, it's made for this purpose...

At first I was disappointed, because it didn't seem to warm the water very well. However, I've learned that it takes a long time to warm, and if I can wait an hour (and the electricity doesn't go out), I have a nice, very nice, hot bath. YUM!

With my new best friends, I may survive this cold South African winter, but I'm longing for the hot days--and yes, would happily trade places with you all in Louisville.  Too bad I can't send a little cold air your way in trade of some warm--and yes, even humid! 


Thursday, July 15, 2010

my first African birthday

Wednesday, July 7 marked my 47th birthday, the first day of my 48th year, and my first birthday in Africa.

I hadn’t any big plans, other than wanting to sleep in and take it easy, and was eager only to just watch the day unfold. The Higher Power had other plans in store for me, however, with this sleeping in part. I woke just before dawn and had time to get my tea and blanket ready to cozy up on my “stoop” to watch the sun rise. It was the most beautiful sunrise, with the sky breaking open in pinks tinged with orange and the violet of the night fading away.  I loved seeing the silhouette of the thorn trees, they black against changing colors of the brightening new day.  And God graced me with the waves of cattle egrets and their fly-bys, as they headed out for a new day of foraging.  The bulbuls fussed at me for breakfast and I readied their fresh water and crumbs.

We were still out of school for the term break so I had no commitments..  I did a bit of laundry as I've found it easiest to do a bit every day rather than wait for it to pile up on me.  I would smile at the scent of hot-sudsy bleach water as I swished my clothes about in my tub, smiling at my need to "agitate" my clothes every few minutes with an old broom handle I found for the purpose.  After a rinsing, I hung them to dry outside in the sunshine, and laughed at my silly fondness for laundry and line-drying my clothes.  I'm not sure why such a simple little thing makes me so happy; I'm just glad it does. 

Emily, my nearest Peace Corps Volunteer was coming later in the day and we were to visit the post office; we share a PO box and often go together.  I spent the later part of the morning catching up on my letter-writing so I would have letters to carry to post.   It's a year since I've left home, and I'm feeling the need to touch base with some of the people that came to my farewell party.  There were a lot of people at my party, so it's no small task!

Emily came with my favorite gift: notecards! She knows I'm a big letter writer!  At the post office, in her perfect Setswana and without my knowing (because my Setswana is not so perfect!), she mentioned to the postal clerks that it was my birthday.

I'll never forget the look of joy on Mma Rachel's, the postmistress's,  face and she clasped her hands to her heart and began an earnest "Happy Birthday."  Everyone in the post office joined in, and I had my very own "Happy Birthday" concert.  It was very sweet.  Thank you Emily.

Another reason I was excited to have Emily along for the trip was that I was planning to purchase my "birthday shovel."  I've had my eye on a shovel for quite some time, but was afraid to try to get it home by myself.  In Emily's company, I happily carried home my birthday shovel.  I'm hoping to find some orphans and crippled old women to dig a garden for, in my remaining year in Africa.

In the photos, Emily is graciously patient with my trying to get a shot of us and my shovel.  She stayed with me until almost dark, shared some of my birthday cornbread, and then it was time to see her off.

After I put her on her taxi back to her village, I walked to the campus pay-phone to call everyone I loved on my birthday. Don't worry about my love for you if I didn't talk to you that day, the chances are I tried!  And there is not enough money in the world for me to call everyone I love on my birthday.  I am a rich and blessed girl.

Later that night, I had dinner again on my "stoop," and watched the same day fade that I had watched dawn that morning.  I was eating one of my favorite dishes: green beans sauteed w/ garlic and tomato, eating them with my chopsticks, thinking of home...  A neighbor came by and smilingly asked, "Are you Chinese?"  :-)

It was a wonderful, perfect birthday, my first in Africa.  God willing, I'll have at least one more.


Ps. If you've noticed the burned areas of my home, you're right.  The campus groundskeepers have thoroughly burned every living thing around my home and school.  All of my potential-mulch, up in smoke.  It is fun to watch the crowned plovers run about in the singed areas though: their bright red legs set off nicely from the black of the burn.  It must be easier for them to eat bugs and such. Ah, when one door closes, another opens!

Monday, July 5, 2010

more about my journey to Messina

It is said that God watches over fools and small children...

The Monday, June 14, I left for Messina, I sat in my shopping town waiting for the taxi to Pretoria to fill. The first to arrive, I had snagged my preferred seat: the first one directly behind the driver.

On arriving in South Africa, and for a very long time after, I was often irritated at the habit of the taxi filling from front to back, thereby requiring old, large, and infirm ladies to struggle to move to the back of the bus. In my southern upbringing, it was rude to accommodate myself first, so I would move to the back of the bus, even if free seats remained in the front. I’ve since learned that the filling of the bus from front to back is a matter of survival, and in the front, near the driver, one is much safer from being accosted by, well, any undesirable, but my lesson came at being trapped in the very back with three very drunken men. Since that time, I choose my front seat very selfishly and do not relinquish it to anyone.

The Monday of my trip had me waiting in my preferred seat on a taxi and a lady with three young children approached. Her three children, two young sons and a daughter, climbed in that front seat with me. It was clear that the mother would not be making the journey with her children and her smile to me indicated she thought her children would be safe riding to the big city in my care. I thought her crazy and the situation instead much more in line with “the lamb leading the lambs.” She tucked the children in with lunches from KFC, gave their father’s phone number to the taxi driver, and closed the door on us all. We were off to Pretoria.

The daughter sat nearest me and as her English was quite good, we talked a bit. It was one of her brothers that whispered to her that I “looked almost like Michael Jackson.” (I think it was the hat I was wearing to protect me from the hot sun my anti-malarial medication would be making me especially sensitive to. Although, maybe I do look like Michael Jackson…)

I find myself living in the “rainbow nation” of South Africa and find myself as a person of little color living with persons of a variety of color. I’m finding it common, among the people I live, that it is acceptable to talk of others based on these differences. I find myself too, speaking along these same terms, although this kind of distinction in talk is strictly forbidden in America and even among other volunteers. In fact, I’m quite unconscious of it until I realize another volunteer is listening to me speak with a look of horror on his/her face and I’m jolted back into my previous-life’s version of political correctness.

The children—they of black heritage and I, of European heritage, found ourselves in the majority company of passengers with Indian heritage.

The little girl and I shared a conversation about it:

Her: “I’ve never ridden a taxi where there were so many Indians on it. Indian people are either very rich or very poor—they are never normal like we are. My friends think I am rich because my father is a celebrity (apparently, he is a newscaster on a SA news show) but we’re just normal.”

To this I smiled and replied, “I understand. People think I’m rich too, because I’m from America, but I’m just normal.”

I was feeling apprehensive about my journey because I would be using public transportation the whole way. While Peace Corps encourages us to use public transportation, it can be quite dangerous, and people of all colors constantly advise me not to do it. Although my experiences of real danger have not culminated in my personal harm, other friends (volunteers) have been robbed (some repeatedly) and one friend has been in a serious taxi accident. I often feel I am merely waiting my turn…

I had about talked myself out of taking the trip, but prayed about it, and decided to try, knowing that I could stop at any moment and turn around to return.

Getting to Pretoria on a taxi was the first leg of my journey.

On arriving in Pretoria, my next task was asking directions to the Train Station. I had studied the map carefully and even written myself directions knowing I would be overwhelmed and confused upon arriving: Find the corner of this street and that; turn right, walk two blocks, turn right…

I stumbled off of the taxi, having traded seats with the youngster sitting nearest the door (it hadn’t closed properly and he was frightened about falling out) and I began asking my directions with two of the gentlemen in the taxi rank reaching down at the same time to zip up my bag. Everyone knows that you must never walk about a taxi rank with open bags…

The children’s father arrived in his shiny BMW (well, maybe he’s a little rich) and I helped load the children in the car, and headed the way I thought I was supposed to be going. This is one of my scariest parts of my journey: negotiating downtown Pretoria alone and not quite sure where I am going. I assume my best “I know where I am and where I am going and don’t you dare approach me” stance and navigate the two blocks without incident.

I find the train station, pay for my ticket, and move to the area to wait. My train departs in 4 hours.

I’m pretty happy to people watch, and there is no better place to do so than at a Pretoria train station during the World Cup soccer tournament.

When traveling with the common people, because of my skin color, or better yet, because of the lack of my skin color, I stand out, and everyone takes a special note of me. In this way, I’ve found, the group I’m traveling with, involuntarily—but very protectively--assumes the responsibility of my care. Inevitably, a group of women, or a woman alone, will hail me, ask me to sit, and assume me as her (or their) charge on their portion of the journey.

I sat for awhile with another woman traveling alone and two gentlemen traveling together. This was the most uncomfortable portion of my journey, as I seem to be cursed, when feeling especially vulnerable, to have a blinking, neon sign on my forehead that seems to flash: “if you are very odd, mentally ill, dirty, unkempt, foaming at the mouth, or otherwise of questionable human character, please approach me and ask in a very loud voice if I am a stranger to this country, if I am traveling alone, where I am going, if I am married, and the like.” I had two of these kinds of gentlemen and each approached me more than once but they finally went away and left me to my waiting. (Unluckily for me, I had forgotten to wear my “wedding rings” that seem to offer women alone a marked protection.)

As darkness fell and my departure time drew nearer, a lady and her daughter hailed me and asked me to sit with them. A security guard, who had kept a special eye on me all along, eventually advised this woman and her daughter, as we were boarding, to “keep an eye on this one” (me). They did as they were told, and when I lost them during the crush of boarding, they held a seat for me and anxiously watched and hailed to me as I made my way. The second leg of my journey was managed: I was on the train and I had people with me “for protection.” My train ride would take 13 hours—through all of the night. I felt safe on the train and the women were there to watch my bags when I needed to use the restroom. (This seems my biggest hardship when traveling: having someone to watch my bags when needing to use the restroom.)

I found on this journey that one thing that sets Americans off from rural

South Africans is the bags we carry: they carry none or carry their belongings in the regular plastic grocery sacks or a cheap plastic sack available for purchase. Americans, on the other hand, arriving in this country (and often living) as travelers, often have “nice bags,” well made, for the rigors of traveling. While I’m sure that the lure of robbery lies in what resides in the bags, I couldn’t help but wonder if someone wouldn’t want to rob and American simply for the bags themselves.

The night ride to Messina was boisterous, crowded, and had the added “attraction” of a vendor selling herbal supplements—the passengers in my car, at least for an hour or so, were a captive audience. (My principal at the primary school inflicts this torture regularly upon us at “staff meetings.”) He shouted the benefits of his miracle cures in the same fashion of a Protestant preacher would on Sunday mornings, making sure to involve his “special client” (me) in his pitch. After awhile, I plopped my bag in my lap, lay my head on it, and pulled my jacket over it in hopes of “resting.”

I can’t say as I slept but I did manage to doze a bit, with several arousals to full consciousness when the train stopped. I lost my guardians around 4:30 in the morning, but they (and I) felt safe that I would manage “on my own” until morning. The train was considerably less crowded by then and everyone left was dozing. (The train had security teams that walked the length of the train corridors all night.)

At dawn, I woke completely and became excited: it was light now and I could see out the windows and watch South Africa ride by as we made our way to Messina. It was during the morning on Tuesday of my trip that we made our way through the Soutpansberg Mountains and I knew I was near the baobabs. It was this morning too, that I saw my first baobabs.

The train arrived in Messina at 10:15 in the morning. I began the last let of my journey to Messina: finding my hotel. I knew it was near and a gentleman at the train station directed me; I was at my hotel within minutes. Unfortunately, my check-in time wasn’t until 2:00 pm, and the lady at the desk wasn’t terribly sympathetic, so she allowed me to use the toilet and turned my back out into the streets of Messina. I found a place to lunch and internet cafĂ© to abide my time until check in. (Later, the owner of the hotel, who was of different skin color, would go to great lengths to “let me out of special locked gates” to avoid the streets of Messina, where she felt sure I was in danger.)

At one point in my life I wanted to write a story about how it feels to be homeless. My plan was to live as a homeless person and write about it. I had found a place to live (a graveyard no longer used —I was going to pitch a tent) and thought I could spend rainy days riding the bus all day or hanging out in the library. I was never brave enough to actually follow through with this plan, but there were several times on this journey to Messina where I felt “homeless.” One of the times was when I was turned away from the hotel in the lobby that morning.

One of the tricks of homelessness, I think, is actually finding a place “to be.” I had never noticed it before, but owning a car goes a long way in providing one a “place to be.” Without a car, one becomes much more vulnerable. This feeling of homelessness left me when I was finally able to check in to the hotel, and therefore established a “place to be,” but would leave me again on Sunday, as I made my way back to my site. Checking out of the hotel was at 10:00 am and I needed to find a place “to be” until my train departed at 3:30 pm. I would hang out at a nearby mall for most of the morning and have lunch, and then sat most of the afternoon in Messina’s train station, establishing my new traveling companions that would watch over me on my return home. (The photo is of my sitting bench and my bags by the last baobab tree I could touch with another favorite African tree (wild fig) covering me with its branches, and the “god light” colors that I sometimes catch with my camera.) Here too, once I found a place to sit and feel safe, I enjoyed my afternoon people watching. But while I was in the mall, “shopping” (really killing time) and having lunch, I felt the peculiar feeling that everyone knew I was there because I had no where else to be. It’s a very vulnerable feeling.

The train trip on return was much the same as the train trip to Messina, except that I froze to death on the night ride back to site. The northern climate of Messina had spoiled me to the freezing temperatures of Pretoria and my site. I lost my travellign companion at the Pretoria station (but she was with me the whole of the ride), found somewhere to sit with security, and waited for daylight so I could make my way back to the Pretoria taxi rank at day break. (I would later learn, much to my dismay, that I could have quickly boarded an Intercape bus as soon as the train arrived in Pretoria and made my way back to site quicker and much more comfortably.)

I had a bit of a meltdown on my taxi wait in Pretoria. I was overtired (from staying semi-awake on a cold, overnight train ride), and sitting with my knees to my chin waiting for the taxi to fill and make its way to my shopping town. As passengers boarded, I was trapped in with a young mother who was obviously very sick with an upper-respiratory infection, and she was alternating between blowing her very stuffy nose and inhaling snuff on regular intervals, with her also very sick baby with weepy eyes grabbing my water bottle. As my panic escalated (I hate being sick), I found myself quietly weeping, wondering if I would ever make it back to site. I tried to negotiate a ride on anther taxi (one that would have gotten me even closer to site) but the man that could help me was blunt and refused to do so: no, I must ride this one (the one with the very sick young mother and child). When I thought things couldn’t get any worse, God directed the same man (who was denying me passage on the other taxi) to say, “Why don’t you ride up front?,” to which I blessedly agreed, unwedged myself away from the sick young mother and moved myself into the front of the taxi where I would have a working seatbelt, legroom, and at least some chance of avoiding contagion.

The ride home was long and arduous and I’m sure it felt especially bad because I was overtired. We stopped at a petroleum station/convenience store for a break and I felt a woman’s eyes on me in the restroom as I made my way from a stall to wash my hands. I was trying to ignore her but felt her eyes on me. Her head must of turned a full 360 degrees to follow me and although it wasn’t my best moment, I stopped, turned to her, and pulled out the coldest, meanest stare I could muster with an eyebrow expression that indicated, “White people use the toilet too.” She shrugged at herself, embarrassed at my challenge, and shook her head. Again, it wasn’t my best moment.

In the United States, I have the blessing of anonymity. Because I have no special attributes, I can “blend in” very well and have done so all of my life. One Christmas, when my young son having an allergic reaction requiring a trip to the hospital emergency room, he was very embarrassed and humiliated at being stared at by other people waiting in the emergency room. He was breaking out in hives and had these huge, nasty-looking red whelps all over his body. The people in the emergency room couldn’t help but stare at him. Unable to cope with the stares, my son pulled up the hood of his down jacket and disappeared into the depths of his hood so no one could see him. I remember feeling furious that these people couldn’t control their stares at my suffering, young son. Likewise, I have a family member who is unusually tall for a woman. She is so tall that people will often glance at her and assume she’s a man. The tendency to stand out in this way has caused her many embarrassing encounters in public restrooms as women become upset thinking a man has entered a restroom. A life of these encounters has made it difficult for her to use public restrooms, an inconvenience that is quite bothersome at times. I remember thinking to myself, “She’s dealt with this her whole life: it seems as though she’d get used to it.”

But that’s just it: there is no getting used to such scrutiny. It is a very disconcerting feeling.

After this train journey, I feel I can finally understand what my family members have endured. The Peace Corps calls this phenomenon: a “fish bowl” effect or “receiving unwanted attention.” As a very private person in general, I find this aspect of my life as a Peace Corps volunteer one of the most difficult to deal with, and find myself sympathizing with celebrities and other persons of fame.

During my journey, I feel I had lessons in vulnerability while at the same time finding protection the midst of South African’s “common people.” Would I do it again? I’m ashamed to admit that I much prefer the comforts I’m used to accommodated to my race: privacy and the feeling of security in private cars or the more expensive long-distance bus routes. If I were feeling urgent to do it again, I probably would, just because I’ve learned that it’s easy to saddle up to security or groups of women willing to take me on as a charge. I feel more comfortable in my knowledge of Pretoria, its streets, and its train/bus stations.

But will I do it again? Probably not. I was feeling urgent at seeing the trees because I thought there was an urgent situation at home requiring my attention. (The urgent situation at home seems to have resolved itself.) Embarking upon such an adventure with a sense of urgency greatly increases my risks in waiting my turn to be robbed, assaulted, or die in a taxi accident—all three things I’m trying to avoid.



PS. Many of you will wail and pull your hair at me wondering why in the world it is that I’m traveling alone, because I would be much safer traveling with friends. You’re right: I would be much safer traveling with friends. However, for this instance in particular, I was doubtful of finding a friend that would want to travel very far to sit with trees (Sit with trees?) when there were many other attractions in South Africa available, none of the least was World Cup Soccer.