Friday, September 17, 2010

I wish it would rain…

These images were taken back in May of this year, just before I visited Eduland in Rustenburg. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had seen, at this time, the end of the rainy season and it hasn’t rained here at the college since then.

When I had returned from Eduland, the campus groundskeepers had burned the beautiful grasses and all that remained was a black, charred ground, the ugliness I’ve lived with now for months.

The sky, these last few winter months, has not provided the dramatic shows of color and clouds, it has been a clear, spotless blue and now is burning with a hot African sun and strong, gusty winds.

I find myself wishing it would rain. I’ve not lived through an African rain in my new house, and am craving an African baptism such a rain would provide.

I’ve been living on at my site now for a year and I keep notes on the weather. We did have rain here in September of last year, but late September. The locals tell me the rains won’t come until November.

I’m leaving next week for my (our) mid-service training and will be gone from my site for almost two weeks. I have seedlings emerging: green beans, carrots, Swiss chard, flowers, and I’ve been watering my seedlings every day.

I must leave them for and am hoping the late September rain will come again this year. If the rains don’t come, I’m not sure my seedlings will survive.

When I initially signed on with Peace Corps, I was assigned to a “French-speaking area of Africa” to teach at a university post. This original assignment was cancelled and in May of 2009, Peace Corps contacted me, to see if I could ready myself to leave within six weeks for position in Eastern Europe.

While I could not accept this new assignment because I was committed to teaching in Louisville through the end of July, I had just put beet seeds in the ground, and couldn’t bear the thought of leaving them.

I feel very attached to my emerging seedlings sprouting here in the hot South African sun: I don’t want to leave them.

My next-door-neighbor often asks me, “Aunt Karen, (she calls me Aunt Karen), don’t you ever get tired of gardening and working outside?

No, Lesego, I never get tired of gardening and working outside.

Her mother, in commenting on my gardening habit, mentioned, “I’ve never had an interest in things that don’t talk back.”

Ah, Mam Refilwe, if only I could have an interest in things that talk back!

Learning to love growing things and having my hands in the soil has come to me late in life. The women in my family have always gardened, and I’m sure my love of it has come from them. One family member has noted, “It has been my therapy over the years; it has saved me my sanity.”

One day a few weeks ago, I was feeling especially blue. I decided to plant some flower seeds in the college’s flower boxes, as I did last year. Just the simple act of planting the seeds made me deliciously happy. I was smiling broadly, practically bursting at the seams! I remember thinking, “I should probably plant flowers every day!”

Internet here at the college has been down for weeks and I’ve traveled to my shopping town to post, check email, and monitor progress on my projects. And with traveling in the upcoming weeks, I’m likely to be even “quieter” for awhile. No worries. Peace Corps seems to supply us with trainings just at the nick of time: training breaks seem to come when I feel most worn and bruised from my life in Africa, and provide a much-needed respite and recharge.

I will have a respite and recharge beginning next week.

If God is especially good, when I return to my site in a few weeks, I will return with the rain.


Thursday, September 16, 2010

Thorn fences, rising from the dead, and my very own Shakespearean drama

A family member has asked to see photos of my thorn fence.  It isn't photogenic, but it's my masterpiece.  I closed it yesterday, because my green beans are emerging, and goats are roaming.  Now it's up to my thorn fence and God to see if it keeps the goats out...

I was dreadfully ill all last week with some type of stomach disturbance. It began with vomiting early in the week but seemed to resolve itself with some queasiness lasting throughout the week. The bug decided to turn into awful diarrhea early Friday morning and left me with fever and chills late Saturday evening.

A phone call from a family member had me pleading for a “laying on of hands” from across the sea, I prayed to any other greater entity that might help me, and popped a pro-biotic my sister had sent.

At midnight I awoke and felt so much better I wanted to dance a jig. The fever was gone, the chills were gone, the blinding headache gone. I felt so much better that I didn’t mind the middle-of-the-night insomnia that ensued.

Sunday morning, I felt like Lazarus rising from the dead: I washed bed clothes, scrubbed my bathroom, dusted from floor to ceiling, and moved furniture! I couldn’t believe how much better I felt!

I felt well enough to finish my thorn fence and planted another round of beets and beans.

I feel so grateful to be healthy, mobile, pain-free, digesting, and absorbing! I feel grateful for an appetite! There is nothing like feeling so ill to make you appreciate feeling healthy again!

I seem to be averaging one severe illness per year. I was seriously sick about this time last year with H1N1. If I’m to be seriously ill every September, let’s hope I’m home in time next year to either miss my turn, or be surrounded by family and friends to comfort me.

There has been some depressing commotion around my household. I haven’t talked about this at all and perhaps shouldn’t, as it concerns my host-national colleagues. But here goes.

When I arrived on-site in September of last year, I was greeted and feted by the acting campus manager who had asked for a Peace Corps volunteer to come to his college. HE was invested with wanting a PC volunteer at his school; while everyone else was warm and welcoming, it was clear that he was really the only person invested in having a PC volunteer at his site.

Very shortly after my arrival, this man left for another position. Although the remaining staff was warm and accommodating, I found myself without a host-country national that truly wanted a PC volunteer on site and at the school. I found myself somewhat “lost” and felt more floating than grounded.

At the beginning of the new school year, January of this year, we were introduced to a vibrant young woman, coming from the outside, to assume the responsibilities of “acting campus manager.” I liked her right away, she seemed to be dynamic, pro-active, responsible, etc. In fact, I described her as like a powerful American woman: a get-up-and-go-er. I watched her do impressive things: she began making improvements to the campus (those alarming plumbing problems I was worried about), went about meeting the student requests, hosted campus activities for outside organizations (and therefore earned income for the college), and most impressive of all, to me, was that she seemed to rally the staff to begin the weekly staff meetings ON TIME. I was impressed!

Well, I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but the staff at the college wasn’t too keen on her arrival: it seems that feathers were ruffled about who should assume the position of acting campus manager. In other words, some staff here felt they were overlooked and should have been appointed as the leader. (Or at least, this is the kind of thing I learn from the “grapevine.”)

Well, it’s depressing and defeating for me to think about it, but every since her arrival, there seems to have been dissention amongst our little college here, so much so that the students have been protesting. At times I feel that I’m in a Shakespearean history play, whereby the generals are plotting to unseat their queen, and at others, I feel that I’m in some ridiculous soap opera that can’t possibly be real. The allegations against this woman (and apparently believed by those in charge) are jaw-droppingly ridiculous.

But of course, I’m only an outsider, and an outsider unfamiliar with the native language, so I’m probably pretty clueless to what’s truly going on. I’m unaware of the history of the college and its relationships. And because I find the situation so depressing, and because Peace Corps asks us to remain neutral in controversial matters, I try to stay out of it.

What saddens me the most, however, is this woman’s family has been my next-door neighbors for a few months now, and I’ve gotten quite fond of them, especially her 15-year old daughter, who calls me “Aunt Karen.” She and her family have been very nice to me and generous to make me feel “a part of.” It’s no wonder I feel sided toward her cause.

It appears that the students’ demands have been honored, they have asked all along that she step down, and apparently she be removed as campus manager, and this family will be leaving quite soon.

I find all of it very depressing and the craziness of it makes me want to come back home. I’m amazed at the power given to the youth of this country and especially the power given the youth at this college!

Perhaps my physical illness this week has been a manifestation of the drama that is occurring all around me. It’s too bad that I can’t erect a thorn fence to protect this woman and her family from the goats that can, and are, eating her alive.


PS.  Goats, donkeys, cattle, and any other free-roaming domestic animals have since visited my garden.  I'm very happy to report that the thorn fence is working and keeping the hungry animals at bay!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Eating and striking in rural South Africa

There is an interesting food product that is available in South Africa. It’s a soy product produced by Knorrox (the South African version of Knox??) and comes in several flavors: chilli beef, chicken, curry, savory, ox tail… I’m sure it’s not great for you and full of salt and msg, but I find myself eating a lot of it. It makes a nice gravy for my dishes of steamed vegetables and has some soy flecks in it.

Other than indulging in my soya mince products, I’m eating well. The move from the hostel (dormitory) to the portacamp (trailer) gave me the added benefit of a stove, so I have four burners and an oven. In addition to my soy products, I’m eating eggs and cornbread regularly. I will fry a mean egg on my return! Some of my favorite meals include, and are pictured:

*My smashed potato salad on a bed of lettuce greens—yum!

*Yoghurt, cashews, and sautéed apples on top of Ms. Camille’s Sour cream Cornbread

*Sautéed Swiss chard with onion and melted mozzarella served with Clementines

*Fried eggs with onion served with sautéed zucchini

*Stove popped popcorn sprinkled with chipotle chilli powder

So I'm eating well, eating well indeed!

The nation’s strike has ended and we are back to school. Many have asked if I was bored during the strike, and have wondered what I have done to pass the time.

Well, I’m easily entertained and rarely find myself bored.

Since moving to the portacamp, I’m blessed to now have a bit of ground that I can garden, and this garden space has kept me very busy the past few weeks. South Africa, or at least in the green Kalahari where I’m residing, skips spring, and moves directly into summer, so I’ve busied myself preparing a trenched bed (which requires a LOT of digging). The bed is one meter wide and three meters long (metric really IS easier) and a meter deep (hence, the lots of digging). I filled it with layers of manure and yard debris and am amazed at how much “stuff” it took to fill it and amazed to see how one bed can quickly clean up an area filled with manure and yard debris! (My college campus has plenty of both.)

I am unperturbed to pick up cow manure since I was paying almost $10 a bag for it before leaving the States.

So the trenched bed is dug and the even bigger task has been constructing a fence. In order to protect my seedlings from our free-roaming goats, (yes, free-roaming goats!!), I have also been constructing a thorn fence. Yes, you’re reading correctly, a thorn fence. So, this past week in particular, I’ve been gathering branches from thorn trees and constructing a fence from them. This task has involved a bit of bleeding and a lot of cursing, as you can imagine. The task has ruined a brand new pair of scimitars, made mince-meat of a pair of leather gardening gloves, and has shredded my gardening shirt (a icky old button down that family members will be glad to see go!).

The fun part came with planting!  I’ve planted some African spinach (amaranth), bush beans, Swiss chard, leeks, and carrots. Tonight, I will plant some beets and more beans.

This weekend I hope to put in some tomatoes, chilli peppers, and okra (yes! Okra! I love okra!) and two kinds of squash. If I have time, cucumbers and sunflowers.

I’m hoping all of this will have emerged and be somewhat established, before I have to leave it for a training coming at the end of September.  I hate to leave my seedlings when they are so vulnerable!

I have also planted some butterfly weed, zinnias, and marigolds in the college’s planter boxes. The marigolds are emerging already, which makes me squeal with delight!

I've also kept busy with project work, as I've learned that both gardening and project work go on whether the nation is striking or not!  When I can get to a computer (when the college library is open), I’ve been working on my community projects. The college is asking for help to establish a “movie club” and I’ve needed a computer to do research and grant writing.  I have some ideas for projects for my primary school and my community's garden, which also require a computer (and internet access) for working.

So, I’ve been staying busy during this national strike. The national strike is now over and I’m to return to my primary school tomorrow, hopefully. The problem is the college kids (I work in both a college and a primary school) have decided to strike and may prevent my leaving tomorrow.

Never a dull moment in South Africa!



Wednesday, September 1, 2010


Family members loaned me money to buy my first car when I was fifteen years old. Mercifully, I was not to know that I would live in debt for the next twenty something years--most of my adult life. I had department store credit cards at eighteen with MasterCard and Visa accounts soon to follow. Later, I would cripple myself with student loans.

In 2006, for the first time in my adult life, I became debt-free. And how glorious it was! I could rest easily at night and not obsess about how I could borrow from Peter to pay Paul; I no longer dreaded the mailbox or the phone; I learned to plan my spending for the month and live within my means. In short, I learned that I can’t always have what I want when I want it, but if I want something badly enough, I can plan for it and save. I learned delayed gratification--I learned to be a grown up!

Except in 2008 I became very willful and HAD TO HAVE a new clothes washer. I was renting an apartment and felt sorry for myself for hauling my laundry to a Laundromat and decided a new washing machine was a MUST HAVE. I did not have a chunk of money to purchase a washer out-right so I financed a washer. In other words, I became very, very willful, I wanted what I wanted when I wanted it, and I re-entered the world of debt to have my clothes washer.

Now, I was blessed and lucky to have the blasted thing paid off within months, but it was still a valuable lesson at how I can turn so willful on a dime. (Pun intended.)

I smile to myself now, living in Africa, as I hand-wash all of my laundry. While some rural South Africans own clothes washers and dryers, most rural South Africans hand-wash their clothes. Whenever I load up my bathtub for a days worth of washing, I smile to myself and think of my HAVING TO HAVE A CLOTHES WASHER back in the States. I don’t mind the hand-washing and delight in the fact that my bathtub stays sparkling clean in the process. Now, I feel silly at once needing a machine to do such a simple task!

Living in South Africa has also helped me learn new ways of seeing things.

For example, in the States, I HAD TO HAVE a full set of dishes. Since living on my own in South Africa, I’ve lived just fine with one plate, a couple of bowls and cups. I use styro-foam trays for plates and just smile big when I have company. Likewise, I would HAVE TO HAVE a set of canisters to store my dry-good grains. Here, I’ve learned that a washed and rinsed plastic 2-liter bottle works just as well. Similarly, a pop bottle cut in half serves as a funnel and a one-cup measure—two for the price of one!

In the States, I would HAVE TO HAVE 30 different kinds of cleaners for my household. Here, I’ve learned that a dash of Omo (our hand-washing soap powder) and a splash of bleach cleans everything from the toilet to the floors.

In the States, I would HAVE TO HAVE specially made trash bins; here I’ve learned that discarded boxes, crate-size, work just as well.

In the States, I would HAVE TO HAVE a microwave oven; at 47 years old, I’ve learned that I can steam my food warm by placing a dish within a pan of boiling water.

In the States, I would HAVE TO HAVE to shower every single day; here in South Africa, I’ve learned that bathing twice a week is an option, and my hair seems to lay better without so being so frequently washed.

In the States, I would HAVE TO HAVE paper products for every occasion; here in South Africa, I’ve learned that a roll of toilet tissue covers the spectrum: paper towels, napkins, and tissue—and anything you can possibly imagine in between!

In the States, it would HAVE NEVER OCCURRED TO ME that a cold drink could be a special treat. In fact, I didn’t care much for cold drinks when I lived in the States. Living here in rural South Africa, I find myself hoarding them and delighting in the “only one a day” I allow myself. (I don’t ration them due to lack of money, I ration them because they aren’t good for me and they are heavy to carry home. In fact, I’ve learned that all liquid food items are heavy to carry home: canned goods, beverages, etc.)

In the States, I would never have gone to the trouble of sprouting seeds or making home-made yogurt. Living here in South Africa, I find great pleasure in these simple tasks.

In the States, I would HAVE TO HAVE the most expensive bird feed available and keep my feeders full throughout the day. Living here in South Africa, I’ve learned that the birds appreciate a bit of crumb in the morning and are happy to be refilled with water throughout the day.

Am I finding myself still willful living in South Africa? You bet I am! But Mother Africa is helping to tame my willfulness by teaching me how to do laundry!