Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Thanksgiving in Kuruman

I celebrated the Thanksgiving holiday, 2010, by traveling to the nearby town of Kuruman. I’ve spoken of Kuruman before: it is an oasis on the edge of the Kalahari Desert! Several of us converged on the town to have a lovely Thanksgiving Day meal with our favorite South African family at the Kuru-Kuru Guest House. (Be sure to check them out if you ever need a splendid spot to stay while touring Kuruman!)

Suzette, Peter, Rob and Moira (Blast! How could I NOT have taken a photo of this lovely family??) fed us a Thanksgiving Day meal with all the trimmings: THREE scrumptious turkeys, (yes, THREE turkeys!!), dressing, broccoli salad, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, mac and cheese, fruit salad and several kinds of bread. If that weren’t enough, we were treated to THREE kinds of pie: pumpkin, pecan, and apple and wine all around!

This was the Kuru-Kuru family’s second Thanksgiving as they hosted us originally last year. (Not all of us were able to participate last year, myself included.) The feast was nothing short of breathtaking; considering this was Suzette’s second go with turkey and trimmings. (Turkey is not a preferred meat in South Africa and somewhat hard to find.)

We all nearly cried at the lovely table and American/Thanksgiving decorations. The scarecrow, hay bales, and autumn gourds made us smile and seeing the American flag hung about brought lumps to our throats. It wasn’t as good as being at home, but it was the next best thing!

It was my second and most memorable Thanksgiving in Africa. (Last year’s was only memorable in that I graded 150 papers instead of splitting a wish bone!)

We were lucky and blessed to have such a wonderful South African family to host such an American holiday meal for us. Thanks to all at the Kuru-Kuru!!

Soon, Karen

Monday, November 29, 2010

Post-Thanksgiving bounty...

I spent the Thanksgiving holiday weekend with Americans, my Peace Corps family, in a nearby town: Kuruman. I hope to post pictures from the festivities soon.

For now, I want to show you what was waiting for me when I returned home. (Yes, I used the word “home”-- you didn’t imagine it! I think Africa has, at last, become a home for me.)

I was dismayed upon leaving for the trip because the goats had ravaged my garden. On my return, however, I was welcomed with the most gorgeous squash blossom I’ve ever seen. My squash plant has rebounded nicely. (Perhaps I’ll have goats eat my squash plants as a growth enhancer upon returning to the States.) I was also heartened to see that I have newly emerging tomato seedlings. This was my second planting and I worried that the seed I bought was bad. Nothing cheers me like brand-new, baby tomato seedlings. Enough emerged so that I could thin and transplant. Hopefully, I’ll have two robust tomato plants when I return from my Christmas trip.

I was heartened enough at seeing my garden to bolster my thorn fence and will do so again before I leave for Cape Town. I replanted some heirloom okra that the goats had gotten and will wait and watch.

One of the reasons the garden has done so well in only a few days is we’ve had our first significant rainfall of the season, and we’ve therefore, officially entered the rainy season. It actually rained while I was in Kuruman, but I was hope, hope, hoping that the rain was drenching my village as well. It was and it did! We had enough rain to cause standing water nearly everywhere. I love sitting at my writing desk and watching the dragonflies buzz by. Dragonflies! And dragonflies eat a slew of mosquitoes (because yes, standing water will certainly bring on the mosquitoes!)

But the most surprising thing awaiting my return was, well, a dog. A stray dog from the village seems to have adopted me (see photos below). I made the mistake of feeding her a bit of cheese and well, she’s stuck to me like white on rice.

She’s a she, and I know this because she’s recently had a litter of pups and the teats to prove it. I’m not sure how old she is but she looks pretty mussed up. She has slash marks on her face that are likely the result of an encounter with razor wire. She’s very gentle, yet she’s already become very protective of me. She barks whenever anyone approaches my person or my trailer. While the last thing in the world I need in Africa is a dog, I must admit, I appreciate her companionship.

She must have been thrashed severely for entering homes (dogs are mostly feared in rural South Africa, and rightly so, as carriers of disease) because she refuses to enter mine. She’s made a nice home for herself in a bed of pine needles underneath my trailer. She sleeps there overnight and then sits on my porch most of the day.

I haven’t named her, because, well, I’ve heard stories of naming animals in Africa and especially of naming animals one is fond of. And because I don’t want anything bad to happen to her, I’m afraid to name her. Perhaps you guys can name her… Any suggestions?

She is badly in need of a bath, has fleas and likely worms, and of course, needs to be spayed. I had originally thought I’d wait and see if she were still here after my trip to Cape Town, but I may go ahead and check into these things for her. And perhaps find her a decent home.

Peace Corps volunteers are known to bring home pets from their country-of-service at great expense and trouble. (No, no, no, and no, I don’t plan on returning to the States with an African mongrel in tow!)

So yes, I was blessed with a Thanksgiving bounty: squash, tomatoes, dragonflies, and dogs!


Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Goats, gratitude, and Happy Thanksgiving!

The rainbow is the first of this rainy season and happened on Sunday, November 21, the night of the full moon, or even the blue moon, if you will. I had watched the moonrise for a couple of nights in anticipation of the blue moon, and wouldn’t you know it? We had a series of magnificent thunderstorms on Sunday, so the moonrise was hidden in cloud cover. No matter. I was treated to the beautiful, lovely full, blue moon in the middle of the night and I imagined a chorus of Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and smiled at knowing that Louisville would soon be seeing it: keep on shining blue moon of Kentucky!

(You guys are seven-or-even eight hours behind me now with Daylight Savings time, so by the time you see the moon, I’m fast asleep or even only waking up!!)

The other photo is a shot from that same evening. I’ve taken to visiting a nearby vacant trailer each evening where I retreat to a shaded back porch to avoid the hottest part of the day and the blare of my neighbors’ preaching. (I have neighbors who enjoy listening to their favorite preacher from a very high noise level on their TV/stereo system and it grates on my nerves. At the risk of offence, I’ve never understood the attraction to threats of damnation, hell, and brimstone and having someone scream about it for hours at a time.) The back porch of the vacant trailer has become a favorite spot and on the night of the storms I photographed this thorn tree in the lovely evening light. (I had to work hard to make such a lovely shot: it isn’t nearly that lovely where I sit each evening.)

And the photos at the bottom are of what is remaining of my garden. The goats have won! I have lost! I wasn’t as devastated as I thought I would be, as, after all, I was expecting it. I was shooing the goats away every day and knew there would come a day when I wouldn’t be there to shoo them and they’d have their snack of my vegetables undisturbed. I took heart in the fact that they didn’t uproot everything and in fact, the vegetables, especially the amaranth, is likely to leaf out again. I also appreciated the fact that my zinnia blooms seemed unappetizing to them, although they did eat the zinnia buds on the plants.

A neighbor came by last night to cluck and suck teeth with me to sympathize in my disappointment. She encouraged me, as others have, to “build my thorn fence thicker and higher.” She and others are right: the thorn fence would be very effective if higher and thicker, but I’ve run out of enthusiasm for building thorn fences: I ruined a pair of pruners, a good pair of leather gloves, and a long sleeved shirt to build what I have, not to mention the scratches and pricks—and bleeding!--in my skin I have endured in building. Also, when I was building my thorn fence, it was winter, and I wasn’t as afraid to harvest my thorn branches from the bushveld as I hoped, hoped, hoped that snakes were in hibernation. I can’t say the same now that it is summer, and think it foolish and unwise to be out and about cutting brush in an area of the world that is home to some of the most venomous snakes on the planet. I will chalk the failed thorn fence up to lessons learned: adequate fencing of gardens is absolutely necessary if one wants to protect vegetable plants from free-roaming goats. If I’m to help the people in my village with food gardens, fencing, and good, sturdy fencing, is top priority.

This is the week of Thanksgiving, so Happy Thanksgiving to all! I will be spending the holiday with my Peace Corps family and fellow Americans and (celebrating in spirit with my family back home!)

An important part of my spiritual practice is to write a daily gratitude list and in honor of Thanksgiving, I’d like to share my gratitude list with you. So for today, I’m grateful for the following (and in no particular order):

• fresh apricots

• a nice Italian roasted coffee in my French press

• chakalaka spicy enough to require tissues

• and then cooled with a nice dollop of sour cream

• hand-washed laundry drying in the sun

• African neighbors full of music and joy

• wild birds waking me each morning

• my sobriety and abstinence that foster a connection to God

• my family of blood and my family of choice

• my sons, my sons, my sons

• Africa in all her prickles and bites

• USA in all of its comforts!

• life, blood, sweat, tears, sorrow

• breath, renewal, hope, refreshment

• health, vitality, vigor

• mobility, motion, movement

• safety, security, comfort, peace

• thorn trees

• South African thunderstorms

• my African home, privacy, electricity, clean water

• clothing, money, having enough

• healthy, nutritious food

• my African community

• fellow Peace Corps volunteers

• my computer, internet access, letters, books

• education, learning, teaching, knowing

• being, spirituality, song, dance

• and YOU!

Happy Thanksgiving! May your holiday be full of love, happiness, blessings, and gratitude!


PS. I will “unplug” myself for a few days to enjoy food and fellowship--so no worries if you don’t hear from me. Love you!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

My sister has never divorced me

My sister has never divorced me, although she’s had a lifetime of opportunities to do so.  We’re a couple of years apart in age, I’m older, and we couldn’t be more different.  However, if there were anyone I could kill for, it would be her, and if not kill, then at least walk through fire.  If there is anyone in my life who is steadfast and true in her love for me, it is my sister.  She has never let me down.

Peace Corps has been in business now for 50 years, or will be as of 2011. They’ve figured out a few things along the way, about what does and what does not work for volunteers serving in-country. When you apply for Peace Corps, they ask you several “nosey” kinds of questions, but none in the least is about being in a committed, romantic relationship, or marriage. If a potential volunteer is in a serious relationship, the “spouse” remaining at home must sign a consent form, a “permission letter,” so to speak, acknowledging their blessing of their mate’s intended service. If I remember correctly, the document is official enough to need notarization.

Why is this highly formal spousal agreement necessary? Because Peace Corps has learned, that of all the challenges in-country volunteers face, one of the most insurmountable involves matters of the heart: especially if matters of the heart call the volunteer home.

When I applied for and was accepted for Peace Corps, I knew I was taking a risk with my primary relationship. Although we had been in a partnership for nearly 10 years, and I felt remarkably happy, I must admit (I felt) we had reached a “flat place” in our relationship. While I had idealistic notions that our time apart would allow us to foster and enrich our personal lives, so that we could come back together and reunite as a “better, stronger couple,” I intuitively suspected the relationship wouldn’t make it and, as best as I could, found a safe home for my belongings. If the relationship were lost, I didn’t want to have to deal with “moving” from the other side of the world. I found a home for most of my possessions, but not all.

Even though I prepared intellectually for the loss of the relationship, when the loss was finally realized, the emotional reality of it unraveled me. And this is why Peace Corps is very smart about their qualification process: it is very, very, very difficult to come to a new world, where the language, the people, and the culture is very different from one’s own, to try to integrate and try to find meaningful work, and to operate as a functional human being when one is devastated from the loss of a romantic relationship.

As hard as it is to lose love in one’s own country, it is a billion times harder to lose love in another. I’ve certainly been here before, in this place of lost love. I joke with others that I don’t know if I’ve been incredibly lucky in love or incredibly unlucky in love, (as I can’t seem to find one that “sticks”) because I’ve had quite a variety! I’m approaching 50 years old and feel pretty grown up most of the time, but the loss of this relationship has completely undone me and at times in my Peace Corps service, I’ve felt less than functional.

Everyone knows the pain of lost love, and I think Elizabeth Gilbert does an excellent job of describing it in her Eat, Pray, Love. For me, there is the loss of appetite that lasts for weeks and the choking down of meals into a stomach that refuses to cooperate; there is the ongoing and never- ending sobbing and production of mucous; there is the dull ache on waking in the many mornings on the realization of “Oh my God, did this really happen?”; and there is the feeling like a zombie-fied, empty-shell remaining of a person, gliding through her days with a smile pasted to her face and the robotic, “Yes, I’m fine. How are you?,” all the while feeling anything but fine. But the worst of it, for me, is feeling unloved in an unlovable world: my surroundings feel chaotic and threatening, and I miss, sorely miss the comfort of knowing that on the other side of the world, someone loves me, and only me (or, well, mostly me), and lives and breathes with loving attention for me. I wore that love like a magical, all-powerful cloak: it was durable, it was warm, it was inpenetrable, and it was indestructible. It kept me safe and sheltered… Or so I thought… And without it, I feel raw, naked, vulnerable, unprotected, and exposed.

Only days after hearing “the news” of my break up, I was asked to “go to Grade Seven and make them be quiet” and I entered the classroom wondering, “What can I do with these kids for all of the eleven minutes I have before I have to teach my own class?” Being somewhat silly, I decided we would have a few minutes of a game-type quiz show: “Ask an American ANYTHING.” Of any question they could ask, they asked, “Who are your friends in the US?” When I stumbled back with, “I have many, many friends in the US, far too many to name,” I nearly came to tears when they revised their question with, “ Who is your BEST friend in the US?” The children, of course, had no idea I had just lost my “best friend.”

I’m finding myself in a strange place, away from family and friends, away from everything I know, and am awkwardly trying to live “all alone in the world.” Of course, I’m not alone, but it feels like it. I’m amazed too, to find how much my identity was derived from being a part of this person’s life, to be a part of this couple. Who will I be now without this person in my life? Who will I be when I come home? Where will I live? What work will I do?

I told friends and family members on coming to Africa that I felt the experience of my Peace Corps service would “crack me wide open.” I feel indeed “cracked open,” but rather from the loss of this relationship than my Peace Corps experience.

For perhaps the first time in my life, I’m experiencing the pain of loss of love unaided by the “crutches” of food, chemicals, alcohol, compulsive “busyness,” or indeed, in the love of another. I do have friends and family that are supporting me and nurturing me through this painful transition and I’m working furiously trying to gain a better spiritual grounding. I do, in fact, feel as though I’m walking through a fire, and that the old me is breaking to bits and burning ferociously away. On bad days, all of this feels absolutely dreadful and I can’t imagine enduring yet one more day of it. On good days, I’m excited about the new Karen and who I’ll be when I emerge from this fire and rise up and walk out of it from the other side.

My sister will spend a weekend very near the Thanksgiving holiday, with her family having just arrived just from out-of-town, and with another family member seriously ill in the hospital, to interrupt her always-busy-life and stop what she’s doing to go to my former-residence to pick up my belongings, as I am indeed, bothering with a move from the other side of the world.

In this way, and as she always has when I needed her to, she is walking through the fire with me.


PS. I have many other “sisters” (and brothers) of blood and of choice who are loving and supporting me through this incredibly challenging time of my life. And in my tribute to my sister, I honor you all. Thank you, I am incredibly lucky and blessed to have so many loving people in my life.

PSS. My zinnia is more fully opened now… Isn’t it divine? I have another partially opened and several more buds. God is good!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Demise of the brood… Or, alone again, naturally…

"We're meant to lose the people we love. How else would we know how important they are to us?" --Mrs. Maple to Benjamin in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

I love this quote from the film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. It’s held a special poignancy for me lately, and I find myself mulling it over in my mind, shining it up like some precious stone. We lose people we love in many ways, and the Peace Corps service has taught me that in being so far away from home, loved ones are somewhat “lost” to me in a way, and in this “loss,” in the space of this physical distance, I realize how important the people I love in my life are.

Many of you reading have been following my attachment from a new brood of chicks that a resident hen has hatched. She started out with 18 chicks and impressed all in the neighborhood with the simple volume of her nestlings and how in the world she would manage such a large brood. My neighbors and I would come out each morning as she paraded by, and one of my neighbors was bursting with joy: “She has made a home!” She had made a home, indeed.

The spectacle of mama hen and her brood has been difficult to watch. By the sheer volume in number, you could simply look at her chicks and see the ones that were weaker, the ones surely to be doomed. Many of you sympathized with me when I attempted to rescue and nurture one of her runts. (I wasn’t successful.)

She didn’t hatch her chicks under my house (trailer), but hatched them and had her original nest under a trailer three doors down. Her nesting spot was well-chosen: my neighbor has a water leak and a nice puddle of fresh water has developed and supplies our resident wild and domestic animals with a nice drink.

She did, however, make a point to visit me every morning, because she was aware that I provided a bit of a breakfast in the mornings: free peanut crumbs and bits of apple to anyone willing to come by and go to the trouble. She would approach each morning, brood in tow, hop up on my bird-feeding table, and eat. She was careful too, to knock some of the peanut crumbs down to her peeping brood waiting below.

Her brood, being the size it was, was difficult for her to manage, and my neighbors warned me that the resident mongooses would help themselves to the vulnerable little morsels. And true enough, I would hear a squawk in the middle of the night and then rush to count the chicks in the next morning: 18, down to 12, down to 10… Her final count seemed to be with six remaining chicks and they seemed robust indeed and she seemed to manage these quite well. I wondered to myself, “Six must be the magic number.” I would hear her sometimes in the afternoon, rousing an alarm cry, and sure enough, I would watch her impressively put up quite a fuss until she drove a snooping, hungry mongoose away. I rest assured and was impressed with her maternal abilities: she was a good mom.

After most of her brood was culled and she seemed to be managing the remaining six, she decided to relocate her nightly nesting site to a small depression she had made in my gardening mulch underneath my bedroom window. I wasn’t particularly pleased with her new nesting site, after all, it was IN MY GARDEN and everyone knows that chickens can make a significant mess in a garden, but I tolerated her and fussed at her sternly if I noticed her scratching furiously too near my fragile seedlings. She tolerated the scolding well enough and curiously, seemed to leave my vegetable seedlings alone. She, in turn, tolerated my evening walkabouts and watering of the garden and have me her own brand of scolding: “Don’t come too near my chicks.”

I felt a strange comfort in her choosing to rest so near me at night and found myself appreciating some companionship.

She may have liked my home, too, because I provide another snack to the resident animals of my college campus: my “compost pile” lies below my kitchen window. It’s not technically a compost pile, because goats and chickens and wild birds come by to feed before anything is remotely ready to rot. After having tried to have a compost pile and failed, I take comfort in the fact that animal manure is a highly valuable soil amendment as well, and well, is still “composted” in this way. I would hear a flurry of peeping and sure enough, mom and chicks would be below my kitchen window feasting among the scraps. I accidently doused one young chick one evening as I dumped a bowl of dishwater. Mama cackled furiously and baby shook off as well as he could, then ran under his mama’s belly to be soothed and dried. I received yet another of her scoldings.

Night before last, I heard yet another alarmed squawk in the middle of the night, but assured myself that all was well: mom had demonstrated that she could manage her six chicks and I felt sure she had deterred any danger in the night. The next morning, I woke, and looked out my window. I wondered who this new chicken was waiting to be fed, because she looked like mama hen, but it couldn’t be mama hen, because where were her chicks? A sense of doom and dread rose up out of my belly, but I squashed it back down and walked from window to window searching for mama and her chicks. I put my coffee on, crunched up some peanuts and chopped some apple, and carried it outside to the tray. I glanced over to the nesting site in my garden mulch and was stunned at what I saw: on the aluminum siding near where mama hen had nested in the night was a bright, blood-red smear and a small piece of innards of what was remaining of mama’s brood.

I was stunned. This WAS mama hen and her brood was slaughtered in the middle of the night and slaughtered underneath my bedroom window! How could I have slept through such a violent carnage?

I think mama hen was stunned too and seemed highly agitated: “WHERE are my chicks??” she seemed to be pleading. I fed her the crumb and let her eat all of it. I usually try to shoo her away and let some of the smaller song birds feed, but I let her have all the breakfast that morning. I felt sad and guilty: How could this have happened? She hung around my kitchen window, furiously scratching as she had, trying to wrestle up grub for her brood, clucking insistently, and seemingly looking to me for help: Where are my chicks?

Last night, as I watered my garden, she was nowhere to be found. I glanced at the blood stain and felt depressed and despondent. I need to clean it away but just can’t bring myself to do it. Mama hen had not returned to the bloodied nesting site to retire for the evening, and I felt a dull ache at realizing I was alone again.

She was up at dawn this morning, clucking away at the small, fresh-water puddle down by my neighbor’s, clucking and calling for her brood that will not come.

In only a matter of weeks I had become attached to and developed a fondness for this little family. And in my loss of them, am realizing how important they were to me. And in my sadness, I’m finding myself, alone again… Naturally…


Wednesday, November 17, 2010

gardens, flowers, chickens, and clouds

Hi there!

No update or stories to tell. Someone asked about my garden and I thought I'd send along some photos.  I chased of a  goat today, so it's only a matter of time before they get it all.  Munch, munch, munch.

But I'm enjoying new green beans and baby beets and delicious gleanings of beet greens, Swiss chard, and African spinach (amaranth).  My first zinnia of the season is almost open and it's a lovely, vibrant fuscia.

I'm gaining a bit of attention from passer-byers, as the garden produces, which is what I'd hoped.  I can't share my gardening methods if no one is interested.  People are generally plenty happy to see a producing garden, but it's hard to hook them in the initial stages (read: when it's time to DIG).

Here's a shot of mama and baby chick. She's down to six live chicks now, the other 12 having fed the resident mongooses.  (Mongeese?).  She seems to do just fine defending the six chicks now though.

And here's a shot of one of my recent sunsets.  The one consistent happiness for me in summer South Africa: an amazing and dramatic African sky!


Saturday, November 13, 2010

Fourteen months at my permanent site and still trying…

The photos posted are of the sweet-thorn acacia in bloom. I love the bloom of this tree: it looks like a little, yellow fuzz ball and smells very sweet. The blooms are the size of marbles and don’t last very long. I love the scent of this tree in bloom and it reminds me of honeysuckle. Bees, beetles, ants and birds love it! And so do I! This may be the last time I see it, so I’m careful to walk to the trees in bloom each day and enjoy them.

After fourteen months in my rural South African community, I’m still struggling with trying to find my place and feel comfortable and “fit in” with this alien nation on the other side of the world. I often comment to friends, “I feel more like I’m on Mars than in South Africa.” Some will argue that because I’m so different from those in my community (they’re black, South African, are recovering from the effects of apartheid, and speak Setswana; and I’m white, American, am used to the comforts of living in a first world nation, and speak English), that I will never fit in and feel comfortable.

It’s a complicated mix of my trying to find meaningful work, my feeling painfully homesick, my struggling with learning the language (but admittedly, have given up), my trying to forge meaningful and supportive relationship with my community members, and my trying to feel safe.

It’s a complicated mix, but I keep trying.

Why do I keep trying? Well, I massively rearranged my life to come to South Africa, took professional and personal risks (leaving my work and my family), and overcame significant obstacles to join Peace Corps (the application process is extensive—and expensive--and the medical evaluations border on the ridiculous). I feel I was prayerful about my decision to join and was in discernment about it for several years. And lastly, and perhaps most significantly, I swore an oath that serve with Peace Corps for 27 months. I take vows and oaths a bit seriously, and keeping my word and my promises are important to me. (The oath reads, in part: … I will well and faithfully discharge my duties in the Peace Corps for the benefit of the people of South Africa, so help me God.”) Also, I have a very strong, blue-collar, Protestant work ethic and I like to finish what I set out to do and finish well. (In other words, I’m very stubborn!)

So, my service and my commitment are important to me and I keep trying.

Also, while I tried to not have expectations about my Peace Corps service, I’m afraid I had one very dominant expectation over all the others: I thought I would like it. I knew living in a different part of the world with people from a different culture would be difficult and challenging, but I thought I would like it. And because I thought I would like my Peace Corps service, I keep thinking I must be doing something wrong to keep me from liking it, and in my stubborn-headedness, keep trying to find ways to like my Peace Corps service.

One day this week I dragged myself to my primary school because it’s important to me to keep trying. I hate going, because now that I’m not teaching (I’ve moved into project work), there is really nothing for me to do, and I’m always at risk of being told, “Go to Grade 4 and make them be quiet,” which I hate. Everyone seems perfectly happy to have me sit in the teacher’s lounge all day and do nothing, everyone except me. But I feel it’s important that I keep trying. On my way to school that morning, I had to cross the main road that is under construction, so I had to deal with a massive road crew who delighted in their early morning taunting of me. I tried not to give them any reaction for obvious reasons, but on this morning, perhaps because it was so difficult for me to rally myself to keep trying, rage bubbled up and I gave them all the most hateful “stare full of daggers” that I could muster. My reaction, of course, filled them with glee and the taunting intensified.

A woman that attends my church, who is normally kind and gracious to me, was standing at the water tap drawing water and delighted in the men taunting me. She physically rolled with laughter and began slapping her knees. She was having a grand old time at the spectacle of my suffering. Her delight in my taunting broke my heart in a million more ways.

While I was trying to maintain, or regain at this point, my composure, I thought to myself, “These people hate me. I keep trying, but it is not working. Why am I here?”

I enter my primary school having endured this early morning distress. Granted, I’m probably not in the best frame of mind at this point, but can’t help thinking, “What kind of fresh hell awaits me here?”

My principal sees me began his usual banter of “Hello Miss Karen Kaye, are you here to visit again, or will you actually help us today?” I’m irritated at his sarcasm and do my equally sarcastic return, but in the submissive way he requires, “Mr. K, you know I’m here to serve you in how you best see fit.”

It seems I’m to “help” my school for the day by stapling the exam papers for the students’ testing next week. He brings me sets of photocopied pages I’m to arrange them in order and staple them. There is nothing complicated about the task, and is something a clerk or assistant would have been assigned in the States, before the invention of the fancier copiers that manage this task all inside the machine. I felt undaunted by the task. Most volunteers bristle with this kind of task, because, well, because we should be doing more important things, but I generally don’t mind. I seem able to do these kinds of tasks quickly and efficiently, and my doing the tasks instead of a teacher means the teacher is in the classroom with the children instead of stapling or typing papers.

My first batch is a twenty page paper, all numbered pages facing front to back. My principal spends twenty minutes explaining how to order the pages (I’m not kidding) and how to staple: the staple must enter the pages just so and at just the right angle. I thank Mr. K and somewhat sarcastically comment that “I think I can handle this, thank you.”

He spends another twenty minutes watching me staple, taking care to correct me if the staple is a bit off angle or the staple is buckled in some way: the stapling has to be perfect.

At this point, I’m roiling, and I comment a bit more sarcastically than I should have, “Yes, Mr. K., I’m sure that stapling these pages in this fashion is the most important way I can help your school today and I’ll be careful, I promise.”

He leaves me and I find myself praying: “God, grant me the serenity, to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” I pray the prayer a thousand times, but it is not bringing relief.

The stapler I’m given is substandard and the staples keep buckling. I remove ten buckled staples from one packet of pages and nearly start crying: “God, grant me the serenity, to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Mr. K returns to check my work and seems satisfied that I’m handling the task at hand but tries to reassure me that “I shouldn’t work too hard and stress myself out.” He doesn’t want to “make me run away.”

He leaves me again, and I lay my head on the table and pray, “God, give me strength and courage to continue. PLEASE give me courage and strength to continue.”

I guess the saddest irony in this spectacle is that the school has purchased a brand-new copy machine that could certainly assemble the pages and staple them, and even more “perfectly” than I’m able to master. Sadly, Mr. K rules over the copier, won’t allow anyone near it, and certainly isn’t keen on my helping him understand the complexities of the machine.

Now, I’m not one to toot my own horn. I’m most happy knowing that I’m just “another Bozo on the bus” and no better nor worse than any of my fellow human beings. I try to approach these kinds of instances as lessons in humility. However, I do have a graduate-level degree; I have taught college classes at respected universities in the States; I have special training for teaching reading to young children; I’ve designed and implemented curriculum; I’m a published and award-winning writer; my volunteer work with parks and national areas has taken me to places like Alaska; I’ve had several commentaries to air on my city’s NPR affiliate; I’m a member and contributor to several professional organizations; I’ve participated and coordinated numerous professional committees and workshops, and my professional training, even in Peace Corps, is ongoing. I’ve demonstrated leadership qualities in all of my professional career and come to each new venture highly recommended. People in the States consider me a team-player and always enjoying working with me.

However, on that day in South Africa, I’m an unwelcome white woman making my way, fearfully to a school that doesn’t quite know what to do with me, and in their attempt to find a way to know what to do with me, have made me feel angry and humiliated. I can’t help but wonder how this experience demonstrates Peace Corps two other goals?

• To help promote a better understanding of the American people on the part of the peoples served

• To promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of the American people

Is my life and work here in Africa helpful? Or harmful? And for whom?




I wrote this piece earlier in the week and was reluctant to post it because it seems so negative and I couldn’t think of anything redeeming to say. Well, in waiting to post, I’ve realized an even greater reason that inspires me to keep trying.

I keep trying because, like Mandela, I believe the hope of South Africa lies in the children of South Africa. I believe the people of the adult generation alive in South Africa today are too close to the horrors and wounds of apartheid: there simply hasn’t been a passage of time to heal the bitterness and resentment that still poisons attempts at healing race relations in South Africa. I mean, if you think about it, look how long the US has had to heal race relations and we still struggle with it. I believe that the generation alive today, and perhaps several more, will struggle with racism, and hate, and crime, and fear. But even so, I think it’s good that I’m here. I think it’s good that I keep trying. I think it’s important for the children of my primary school to see and experience a white woman who genuinely loves and cares about them, because I do, genuinely love and care about them. And that’s why I especially keep trying with this primary school, even though every single day I want to walk away from it (because I can’t stand this one South African adult). It’s important for me to be here, and it’s important for me to keep trying, because the children are watching, and I don’t want to let them down.

(Sadly, I think it may be too soon for my presence and willingness to be kind and loving to the college-age kids in South Africa. Even at this young age, the kids at my college seemed poisoned by the hate of racism. They seem hell-bent on challenging everything and everyone in South Africa: from their educators, their parents, their college, their community, and their government. They seem hell-bent on striking (and burning and destroying things) and making ridiculous demands and being disrespectful and destructive. They’ve certainly made it clear to me that they don’t value the presence of a white, American woman in their midst. I’ve not quite given up on them, but almost; it feels easier to focus on the younger children.)

Also, I’ve noticed, that I tend to let the challenges of South African life wear me down, and I become rigid and inflexible. This morning, for more a spiritual practice than anything, I decided that on my walk through the village to the post office, that I would be kind and loving to everyone I met first and count the ways that people were kind and loving back. I’ve learned, but have forgotten, that if I focus on the problem, the problem gets bigger, yet if I focus on the solution, the solution gets bigger. I was hoping this exercise would help make the solution bigger. I counted no less than 20 occasions of people being loving and kind to me. As I neared my home and my exercise almost completed, I noticed a truck approaching with a crew of workers on the back. My stomach clinched in fear as I braced for the taunting, but called up the biggest smile and wave that I could muster and felt victorious when the road workers smiled and waved in return. Ah, redemption at last!

So, for today, I keep trying.

Pets in South Africa

My dogs in the States are very keen about meal times. If breakfast time during the week falls at 5:30 in the morning, you best bet that on 5:30 Saturday morning, when I’d like to sleep in, someone’s bellies are rumbling. Being quite aware that someone’s breakfast time has long since passed, I’ll begin to here the click, click, click of toenails on hardwood floors as the pacing begins along the side of the bed, back and forth, back and forth, click, click, click; then the slap of the bottom as it hits the floor in a way to say, “Hello! I’m here! I’m hungry!”; or even the quivering, twittering, low-key yet irritatingly persistent whine the one of them has: I need you to get up now, I’m hungry. With a soon-dissipated irritation, (good coffee has a way of dissipating early morning irritation), I would crawl out of bed to feed them and grump: Can’t you guys let me sleep in??

I don’t keep dogs in South Africa, although some in our group do. I do think, in feeding the wild birds a bit of crumb every morning, that I’ve inherited another breed of pet in this way. Like with my dogs in the States, I feed my wild birds at an earlier hour during the school week, and like to sleep in on Saturday. This morning, I heard this raucous chatter, this incessant twittering, these clunky landings on the aluminum outside my window and I thought to myself, “Are these birds trying to rouse me out of bed to fetch them something to eat?” It sure felt like it.

I’ve written before about making a big to-do about feeding the wild birds in the States: buying expensive squirrel-proof feeders and two kinds of seed; making special provisions for hummingbirds; finding containers to serve as bird houses; and having a special watering “station” that may or may not require the digging of a pond. Here in South Africa, my bird-feeding life is much simpler, but just as rewarding. I’ve found a small table that I’ve outfitted with a shallow dish for water and a wooden board to leave them a bit of crumb; I don’t even buy bird feed. After the birds drag me out of bed, I chop a handful of peanuts and slice up a half an apple while my coffee is brewing. They have their crumb and I watch their antics from my bedroom window while I drink my coffee. It’s a simple morning ritual that I have come to love and need.

I’m posting general shots of some of my regulars: these photos are not mine but ones I’ve gotten from the internet. I don’t have the talent or the appropriate camera equipment to capture compelling shots of birds in the wild: they seem to refuse to sit still. These guys, except for the bishops and the weavers, are typically plain and unassuming. The cape sparrows and the canaries are usually the rowdy ones making all the fuss to get me out of bed, and are generally around to eat first. But I’ve noticed that size rules in the bird kingdom at the feeder, and the pigeons soon fly end to keep everyone smaller at bay. The smaller ones persist, however, and I love how the sneak and dart underneath the pigeons to steal a bit of crumb. And then my momma hen comes and since she’s really the biggest, everyone flees until she is full. She usually eats most of the nuts or knocks them down to her chicks gathered below. (Six chicks have survived from the original eighteen, and she seems capable of defending the six: I observed her rocket away a yellow mongoose yesterday: that mongoose got the heck out of there!) After the nuts are gone, the bulbuls come in for the chopped apple: they’re fruit eaters. Even with a small amount of food, the eating lasts a good hour or more. And the birds seem to enjoy the fresh water. I love the times that the parent birds bring the juniors: baby birds are so distinct: fuzzy, big eyed, and awkward.

Since different birds eat different things, some of my favorite birds don’t eat at my feeder at all. I have to go to other places to watch some of my favorite insect-eating birds, and I’ll post pictures and stories about them another time.

I will close with a pretty cool bird story from yesterday, however. I don’t have a picture posted to this page of the black-headed heron, but I’ve posted pictures of him before. He resembles our great blue heron back home and is about the same size. I’ve told stories about him coming to sit at the side of the community garden, when I lived in the girls’ dormitory and my room faced out over the garden. It always cheered me to see him come. I’m happy now to report that he visits very near my new home now too; he hunts everyday in the reed bed that sits behind my trailer. He sometimes comes early in the morning, so I enjoy him with my coffee and my smaller birds too. But yesterday, he was hunting in midday and he caught my eye and I paused in my chores just to watch him. (This bird is so magnificent, he demands you stop whatever your doing to come watch him.) Well, I was treated for a bigger show than I could have ever imagined, because after only a few minutes of sitting still, he reached into the reed bed and pulled out the biggest rat I have ever seen! This rat had to be as big as a size 9 shoe, and I was wondering, that after the heron killed the thing, how in the world it was going to be able to open its mouth widely enough to swallow it. The struggle by the rat was impressive and he was squealing loudly. The crane had him behind the neck and jerked him about and clamped his beak ever more tightly about the rat’s neck. Finally, the rat quit struggling and the heron gulped him down! It was amazing! The heron’s neck seemed about 15 inches long and about as round as the size of my thumb, so it was amazing watching the profile of the rat’s body descend down the heron’s throat and into its body. I couldn’t imagine how in the world that graceful neck could swallow such a massive meal! I kept thinking, about the heron, “Boy, you better hope that rat’s good and dead or he’s going to eat you from the inside out!” It was all over in a matter of minutes, with the heron gracefully moving away again into the reed bed with no hint of the rat ever existing.

Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom—in Africa!



Friday, November 12, 2010

Going to Cape Town for Christmas!

The photos posted are not mine but they’re of Cape Town and Table Mountain (the photos are gleaned from the internet). I’ll be spending a great deal of December and the first of the New Year in South Africa’s famous city. I’ll be volunteering for Table Mountain National Park and I’m super excited!

When we first arrived in South Africa, by the time our first holidays rolled around, I was still reeling from being rocked by my new world and still felt I was finding my “South African legs.” I was incredibly overwhelmed with our pre-service training and trying to adjust to life at my permanent site. While by Christmas last year I had spent a couple of months at my site, I still felt I was finding my way in my community and worried more than a bit about planning for the upcoming school year: my first school year in South Africa.

All of my friends planned exciting trips for the December holidays and couldn’t wait to visit such exciting locals as: the Wild Coast, Turkey, Senegal, Coffee Bay, Victoria Falls, and of course, Cape Town. They cheerfully invited me along, but me being me, I mostly remained at my site last Christmas and was somewhat cajoled into visiting other Peace Corps volunteers in Mmakau. (This ended up being a lovely, lovely little trip and a wonderful way to spend my first Christmas in South Africa!)

It was also during this time that my ongoing struggle of “should I stay or should I go?” would begin. (Mercifully, I didn’t realize that this question would plague me my entire Peace Corps service.) One of the things I decided, something along the lines of goal setting and something along the lines of having something to look forward to, was to plan a trip.

I don’t travel extensively in the States either, mostly because I live in the beautiful state of Kentucky and it is full of woods and waterways where I spend my happiest moments. I generally hike and camp in Kentucky and Southern Indiana as my favorite forms of recreation, and simply don’t need to travel far. Not surprisingly, I’ve fallen in love with state parks and other natural areas and I’ve spent the last several years volunteering for such places. In this way, in the States at least, I’ve learned that you can travel a bit on the cheap if you’re willing to do a bit of a work exchange. This is how I got to Alaska in 2006: I volunteered to work in an Alaskan State Park for the summer and they “paid” me by allowing to room and board in the park.

So, during Christmas last year, I decided I’d try to find a park in South Africa to volunteer for, and plan one of my school holidays in this way. If I could plan a trip, I would have something to look forward to!

“Volunteer” means something different in South Africa, and I’m still not sure exactly what the term means in South Africa, even though my host father tried his best to explain, but it seems to mean something along the lines of “job posturing,” that seems initiated by a person to rise in the ranks of any given career, a form of professional development, if you will. For my South African host father, the fact that I was an American “volunteer,” he was convinced that I was guaranteed riches and wealth upon my return to the US. (I tried to argue this fact with him for several hours, and ultimately surrendered in defeat.)

Even with this, I was more than a bit surprised to find that in South Africa, to volunteer for a national park, you’re typically expected to pay a fee for your volunteer experience, and the fee isn’t cheap! On coming to South Africa, I was all about Kruger, wanting to see Kruger, etc., because Kruger is arguably the most famous natural area in the world. I found out rather quickly, that to “volunteer” for one week in Kruger, you’d pony up R 4,000 (about $600 US dollars).

I persevered in my research, however, mostly because I never could accept the concept of paying for volunteering. I found two possible options: one was to work with the “Friends of Pilanesberg” Game Reserve and the other, of course, Table Mountain National Park in Cape Town. I contacted the “Friends of Pilanesberg” and learned that they have “volunteer weekends” whereby people get together, one weekend per month, for maintenance-type work in the park: in exchange for “working,” you get an insider’s eye of the park. (I actually planned to join these people for a couple of weekends, but ultimately was discouraged by the traveling logistics.)

The more I read about the volunteer opportunity at Table Mountain National Park, the more excited I became, because it felt most like how I experienced similar situations in the US: they “hired” volunteers to help with park visitors with the Visitor’s Desk, with guided nature walks, with trail maintenance, with security, and with assisting with horticulture. I was more excited still to see they had a webpage, a Volunteer Coordinator, and contact numbers.

To volunteer for these positions is much like applying for any paid job. While park experience isn’t necessary, having it, for obvious reasons, is desirable. I’m blessed and lucky in that my love of parks and natural areas has kept me “volunteering” for such places for several years, so my “volunteer resume” is pretty impressive. But even so, it was a bit of work from my end to update my qualifications, contact people in the States to request them as references, etc., and I became more and more invested in this position at Table Mountain National Park.

After compiling and submitting my application/resume, it occurred to me that I might need Peace Corps’ permission for such a venture. Was there some obscure rule about “not volunteering” while serving as a “volunteer?” Although the practical side of me assured that of course Peace Corps would support my volunteering at TMNP if accepted, I had a small but niggling fear that Peace Corps might object and I’d better check. I sent a casual email to my boss: “Hey, by the way, I’m trying to volunteer for Table Mountain National Park for December, 2010. That won’t be a problem, will it?” Long, protracted silence. Uh, oh, I thought. Sure enough, the administration with Peace Corps South Africa had never entertained such a request and would have to seek approval from Washington, DC.

Seek approval from Washington, DC? Are you kidding me? I’ll be in Cape Town, I’ll be stationary, in one place, not traveling around. I’ll be in a National Park. You’ll know exactly where I am for the whole time. This seemed like an easy, no-brainer to me. Of course they would approve it!

So I waited to hear from both TMNP and Peace Corps in Washington. Well, of course the news was that I was accepted by the park and Peace Corps in Washington approved, but I still wasn’t home free.

In the US, in many park volunteer situations, you “work” in exchange for room and board. I had yet to have anyone from TMNP confirm that my accommodations would be provided by the park. And a question remained, but a significant question for me: I could come and work a three full weeks for the park, however, in order to do so I must have accommodations—a room—to stay in for the duration of my volunteer time.

A simple question, right? It would be a simple question in the US, but it took six months of phone calls and emails for an affirmative reply, that I’m still feeling a bit shaky about and worry yet that I may show up and no one will be expecting me and I’ll be out on the street.

But I’m going. I have my bus ticket and hopefully a place to stay and I’m reading up on the regional flora and fauna of Cape Town. I’m so excited and grateful for this opportunity, and am counting the days. I am going to have a B-B-B-----L-A-S-T!

I can’t wait until I can supply you with my own pictures and words concerning Cape Town and Table Mountain National Park, but until then, here’s some information from the 2000 edition of Must See South Africa:

“Table Mountain is one of the world’s most famous landmarks. The gigantic in-sign promising hospitality, its flat-topped summit can be seen by approaching ships from as far as 200 km-away—although whenever a southeaster blows (more often than holidaymakers care to think about), a fluffy ‘cloth’ of cloud quickly descends.

No visit to Cape Town is complete without a ride to the top of Table Mountain by cable car, a dizzying four-minute journey. Vertigo sufferers should grit their teeth and think of the marvelous views in store from the 1086m summit…

The mountain is also a nature reserve with around 500 footpaths up to the summit: pick up a leaflet with maps from the tourist office. Devil’s Peak, to the left of the mountain as you look up from the city center, and Lion’s Head, guarding its western flank, offer rewarding hikes too, especially when the watsonias are out in flower” (37).

I’ll be hiking in Cape Town for Christmas, 2010. Anyone want to join me?



Sunday, November 7, 2010

One less rooster to crow in South Africa

One less rooster to crow in South Africa

This is mamma hen and she had eighteen chicks initially. EIGHTEEN. She introduced me to her new brood about three days ago. And every day, her brood decreases a bit: from eighteen, down to twelve, and now at ten.

I’m sure her species is one of those whose newborns encounter all sorts of peril, hence the great numbers at hatching, so hopefully a few survive.

It was apparent right off the bat that some were doomed to fail. There were about four chicks that couldn’t keep up with mom and their siblings. They would lag really far behind and somewhat squat in the dust and squawk. At seeing them struggle, my heart would feel a tender pang for them and hope their end would be quick merciful. I also noticed my previous fondness for the mongeese that roam the area where I’m living waning, as they’re sure to brunch heartily on the young chicks. (We have the yellow mongoose on campus, and they’re very abundant. I like having them about because they’re fun to watch: they’re like little foxes but stand up on their hind legs like meerkats and they’re supposedly wonder animals at keeping the snake population at bay. Remember Rikki Tikki Tavi from the Jungle Book?)

So, yesterday I notice one of these little doomed peepers, over in the shade, flailing and peeping like mad, calling for some kind of attention from his mother. Mom and her brood would sometimes wander over that way, and she would simply ignore the little guy and his siblings would trample right over him. Then they would amble away and abandon him. I watched him peep in desperation throughout the day and caught myself condemning the mother hen, thinking, “Would you come feed him? Or peck him to death? Or something?” My heart would break a bit more with each passing minute. I would take walks, hoping he would expire before I returned. I wondered if I could rally enough to go squash him or in some other way quickly but mercifully dispatch him. I couldn’t.

A bit of background on me and my tender-heartedness concerning animals and pets: I’ve had pets and love them and they can enhance my life very much. However, and especially after attempting to raise children, I find caring for another being simply too much to bear. I often think I can barely take care of myself, let alone another living being. Also, I have severe maternal guilt in believing I did a terrible job parenting my sons. I think this guilt interferes in my “mothering” or “nurturing” another creature: I think I feel too guilty to love an animal in that way.

So, the night was falling, the chick was peeping, mom was nowhere to be found, and I could stand it no longer. Perhaps inspired by thoughts of my paternal grandmother (she saved a fledgling bird or two in her day) I walked over, scooped him up and brought him home. I placed him in a box with a blankey and set about figuring out how to feed him. I immediately thought of feeding him warm milk with an eye dropper. (Much later, it would occur to me how ridiculous it is to feed a BIRD milk from a MAMMAL.) Of course, I live in rural South Africa, and don’t have an eye dropper with me. (Although there may be one in our Peace Corps medical kit, now that I think of it… Oh well, too late…) I improvised by unscrewing a ball-point pen and using the pointy end to feed and my thumb over the opening to control suction.

Poor little guy. Here he was, absolutely abandoned and traumatized all day, and now a ginormous WOMAN force feeding him milk! Heavens! I remember watching the parent bulbuls feeding their fledgling: they would force huge chunks of apple down the poor baby’s throat, although the fledgling didn’t seem to mind. I wasn’t quite as forceful with this tiny chick as that, but it was a bit of a hardship to dribble the milk down the little guy’s throat. I worried more about drowning the poor chick than anything.

I fooled with him for a couple of hours. I would try to feed him until we both became exhausted, then I would wipe him as best I could (because I worried too, he would become cold from being drenched in the milk) and set his box in the dark so he would rest. I sang to him a bit. At one point, I had a “eureka!” moment and looked up “how to care for a sick chick” on-line. Rightly so, it recommends feeding it a wet mash of corn, the meal ground up really well. (Mealie meal, anyone?). I left my computer, happy at the suggestion of a more appropriate food to try and reached for my sack of mealie meal, but it was too late. The poor little guy had expired.

I don’t know if my last few hours with him were more comforting for him or more terrifying (and painful!). In a way, I felt relieved he died, knowing it was for the best. I don’t have time to “parent” a fledgling chick and provide around-the-clock feedings (How would I explain this to my schools?) I would have fallen in love with the blasted thing and wanted to bring him home. I’m told Peace Corps volunteers do take South African dogs and cats as pets during their service, and then experience an arduous and expensive process to return the pets to the States… Somehow, I don’t think a chicken would “fly” as a pet appropriate for crossing borders and seas.

Ah, so in South Africa, I experience, yet another, defeat. Another parenting defeat…



Thursday, November 4, 2010


Ok, so I promised a blog on Chakalaka, so here goes.

Chakalaka started out as convenience food for me, because it is available in my local market by the can, but has become my South African comfort food, my “chili” if you will. To purchase it by the can, it’s easy to keep in the pantry and to prepare, it’s quick, it’s easy, and it’s delicious.

At first, I felt really guilty, eating so much canned food in an area where there is no recycling, but I seemed to have overcome my aversion! (Guilt, guilt!)

In South Africa, you’re likely to be served chakalaka as a “salad” at a braii. (Braii, rhymes with sky = cook out in South Africa). At a braii, on your plate, you’ll be served 2 pounds of beef, 1 pound of sausage, 1 pound of chicken, and 3 pounds of the stiff corn porridge (pap or bagobe, similar to corn grits). If you’re lucky, you’ll be served a tablespoon of chakalaka as your “salad.”

So what is chakalaka?

Chakalaka is a vegetable sauce made from tomatoes, carrots, onions, green peppers, and oil. The best chakalaka is, of course, homemade, but you can purchase chakalaka by the can in “mild and spicy” and “hot and spicy” flavors. Additionally, you can buy it with added beans, added corn, or added butternut squash.

I love it hot and spicy!

You can eat it straight out of the can, and if it’s too hot to cook, I like it served as a relish/sauce over chunky raw vegetables (cucumber, lentil sprouts, carrot scrapes, and chopped apple) and canned beans. My favorite way to eat chakalaka, however, is to cook it up with cabbage:

• Lightly steam ½ head of cabbage in chicken stock (bullion, in my case)

• Add 2 crushed bay leaves, and 1 ½ T of whole cumin seed

• Simmer until cabbage begins to soften (about 5 minutes)

• Add ½ chopped onion and 1 chopped chili pepper (if you like it spicy—I do!)

• Salt and pepper generously

• Simmer another 5 minutes

• Add one can of chakalaka and one can of (starchy) beans

• Simmer until mixture is good and hot

Serve piping hot with a good dollop of sour cream and a good dollop of spicy Indian pickle. I like to eat mine with a whole wheat cracker (Ryvita: South Africa’s version of RyeKrisp) but you can serve it over rice or with potatoes. This recipe fills a deep skillet and could probably serve 4 normal eaters, but this same portion serves as my lunch and dinner. I eat it hot for lunch and then put the remaining half away for dinner—and eat it cold for dinner.

I like it spicy enough to need a hanky nearby to wipe the tears from my face and blow my running nose! Ooooh, eeeee! (Of course, you need not make it THIS spicy: you can purchase the milder version of chakalaka and forgo the addition of fresh chilies and spicy Indian pickle.)

What is Indian pickle? I was actually introduced to this lovely condiment back in the States: a good friend took me to an Indian restaurant, introduced me to the spicy Indian pickle, and rocked my world! (You can purchase Indian pickle in a milder version as well.) It is a condiment of chunky vegetables “pickled” in spices and oil. Delicious!

Can you purchase chakalaka in Louisville? I’m not sure. I’d love it if someone could let me know. Perhaps in some of the ethnic markets or Lotsa Pasta?

Also in South Africa, there is a condiment widely favored here that is similar to the Indian pickle, called atchar (pronounced “ought cha”). It is made from green mangoes and is available in mild and spicy varieties. I like atchar, but prefer the Indian pickle.

When we had our Mid-service Training in Pretoria back in September, we were treated to a glorious buffet three times a day. At breakfast, someone asked me, “Do you like oatmeal?” I replied, “I love oatmeal. I eat it every day of my life when I’m in my village” and proceeded to dish up my three kinds of meat and fried potatoes. I ate like a glutton and felt like a glutton and made myself ridiculously ill—for a full week! Since returning to my village, I’ve been craving my version of chakalaka and have been eating it nearly every day. My body responds much better to a simpler fare.

My friends and family back home have sent me “goodie packages” from the States all along, but one of my favorite items included is “a pinch of any favorite spice you have on hand.” In this way, I’ve accumulated a wide variety of spices and having this “spice collection” has brought great happiness to my “plain” life in Africa. It continues to delight me, meal after meal.

So, I promised a blog on chakalaka, and here it is. And all of this talk has made me hungry, for, guess what! CHAKALAKA!


Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Welcome to my garden, October 2010

I figure I’d better show you some pictures of my garden. It’s just a matter of time before the goats get it. My thorn fence needs to be three times as high and three times as thick to be effective, and I think I’ve built all the thorn fence I want to build this season.

That’s me, of course, sitting on my porch in my new Tilley hat. Aren’t I still smokin’ hot in that hat?? (Okay, okay, I know, enough with the smokin hot in the hat!)

It’s still a tossup between dusk and dawn for my favorite time of day, but I have to tell you, I sure look forward to 4:00pm. The workday is done, my garden needs some watering, and Mother Africa brings in her dramatic, late afternoon skyscapes. I thought I’d miss my IMAX windows (from when I was living in the girls’ dormitory—the hostile hostel), but sitting directly underneath it all is much more entertaining! I just sit in the splendor of it until night falls. It’s a great, regular, evening show, and I just love it!

In the photo below you’ll see a free-standing, pavilion type structure. This building is a former college project (they used to have a construction/masonry program at the college) and is usually not used. There has been, however, one campus party and well, it made me pretty grumpy to have a large party so near my home. It doesn’t happen often though, thank goodness. In this photo, you can also see a large water tank in the background: this is the same water tank that leaks and is the cause of my wetland-habitat. This photo also shows how lovely and dramatic African sky.

In the photo where you my thorn fence, a table with a pink dish (my bird-feeding station), you can also see the leaky water tower, but at the top left of the photo, you can see the tall reeds that grow as a result of the leakage. These reeds can grow up to twenty feet high and the birds love them! (I’m actually standing inside my thorn fence, inside my garden area to take this shot.)

Another shot is of my garden in full view. The greens in the background are of my trenched bed: the project I undertook during the nation’s strike. If the greens look a bit hodge-podge, it’s because I plant, seedlings emerge, goats eat them, and I replant. I also planted in rows, before our permagarden training and I learned to use a “tripod” planting style. The muddy round spots in the foreground are where you can see my baby okra emerging and my baby tomatoes (hopefully) are emerging.

Then, lastly, are some shots of individual plants: Swiss chard, dill, zinnia, and African spinach (amaranth).

So this is my garden, early in the season, 2010. Oh wait, I hear some muching... MUNCH, MUNCH, MUNCH...  Blasted goats!