Saturday, January 29, 2011


The sun rises over Pudimoe.

I feel spoiled with the beautiful South African sky. It is gorgeous most of the time but I live for the sunrises and sunsets. This was a sunrise this week: it was well worth getting up at 5:00 am for! (South Africa does not acknowledge Daylight Savings Time.) This sunrise was so pretty I feel inspired to rise each of my remaining days in South Africa just to see the loveliness of each new day. I visited Key West, Florida, once, and was told that Key West is home of the most beautiful sunsets in the world. I think South Africa may be a very strong rival for this distinction. But I feel spoiled living in such decadent beauty of the South African sky, and will miss it when I return home.

I feel spoiled with the recent rainfall in my area. With rain coming down steadily for four days straight, my little patch of Kalahari thornveld has transformed into a wetland. The earth smells rich and wet, like a forest floor; dragonflies buzz by my windows like they wouldn’t dream of living anywhere else; flocks of butterflies have come alive and are feasting in the newly opened blooms of my campus’s lush new growth. For once, the rich wetness of my surroundings feels like home—my Kentucky home! I feel spoiled by the vibrant aliveness and the thick, humid air and am resenting the return of the blistering hot African sun which is drying everything out.

Ounaai is spoiled with her post-op pampering. She’s grown fat and happy and I swear this dog smiles. Currently, she’s thin and small enough to squeeze through the openings in my “burglar bars” (South Africa’s name for security doors), but not for much longer!! She’s making herself more and more comfortable in my trailer, and is becoming more of an inside dog than out. So Ounaai is being spoiled by my American dog-care tendencies.

Growing up, as an adolescent, I was terribly cruel to a neighborhood boy. He was a sweet kid, my age, but he had a speech impediment and was from an obviously poor family. He was often disheveled and didn’t wear the current fashions. He was just a kid, trying to fit in with “our gang” and I remember our group taunting him mercilessly and excluding him at every opportunity. But he continued to hang around, hoping for a way into our exclusive club.

One day he invited us to his house after school and, as we were so snotty, I can’t imagine why we accepted the offer, but we did. He offered us a snack of jelly sandwiches and I remember being absolutely horrified by the fact that he scraped the mold off of the top of the jelly and proceeded to feed us from the spoiled jar.

I was highly offended, in my snotty little self, that this neighborhood boy would offer me spoiled food.

In the South African summer months, food obviously tends to spoil much more quickly. I find myself cutting mold off of bread, or cutting away the rotten places off my cabbage, and throwing out rotting cheese Even though I place my groceries on the window sill to cool in the evening temperatures, it’s only a race with time, trying to outrun the bacteria that spoils my food. In the heat of the summer temperatures, the bacteria win more battles and are consuming more of my food.

Each day, as I scrape the rot off of my food, I remember that neighborhood boy and how cruel I was to him. I wonder if he’d find any consolation in the fact that thirty years later, this spoiled USAmerican is finally learning her lessons with spoiled food.



Ounaai growing fatter by the minute.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The rainy season

My former garden, now the jungle, becomes more and more frightening with each rainy day

Ounaai's salad is taller than she is

the dead end of our street is now a lake

This is my second rainy season in South Africa. It is the last week of January and I’m told it will rain from now until March and then stop completely until it resumes again next November.

This is my first rainy season in my trailer. I spent last year’s in the college girls’ dormitory and was nice and dry in my second-floor abode, completely protected from the weather. With the nice, large windows in my dorm room, I had an “IMAX” view of all of the African storms that blew through.

This year, I’m in my trailer and was delighted to find it very weather-resistant. I had one leaky window that I somewhat worried about, but overall, it was fine. However, on New Year’s Eve, a severe wind blew through and downed several trees and caused extensive structural damage throughout the campus. I was lucky, as far as structural damage goes, and came away with only broken bedroom windows.

Lucky, for sure, but am now dealing with a leaking mess as the rains continue to pour down. I’ve managed to plug the broken windows with a plastic table cloth which does a fabulous job of keeping the water out, but water came in for several days before I managed this unattractive repair. The carpet in my bedroom is soaked and the rain continues, so it doesn’t dry out.

The other problem is, my trailer, the wooden parts of it, are made from pressed wood. It seems that pressed wood becomes soggy cardboard when wet. Eish.

The other things I’ve noticed is that my window frames, door jambs, and plug sockets have all warped in a way to make closing doors difficult and plugging in my electric appliances difficult.

And nothing dries so everything feels wet and damp, even my bed: ick!

The other thing the rainy season brings, and that I had forgotten, is wave after wave of hoards of bugs! Yuck! The rain also seems to anger the biting ants and they become ferocious and the biting flies are bad too. Ounaai seems to be suffering the worst of it, as she has a fresh wound in her belly—and the bugs love it!

Ounaai has tired of her confinement, is tired of her leashed walks and enforced periods of rest, and is wanting to roam (and resume eating garbage). I worry that the muddy, messy water will infect her wound, so continue to imprison her.

So, I’m pretty grumpy and crabby and have no right to be: most of my neighbors live in tin shacks; their suffering is certainly worse.

Karen, Ounaai, and my village are longing for a sunny day or two to dry out and go out and play.



more rain on the way

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Finding happy work in Africa

My fan base—my mom—gently inquired “Have you stopped blogging?” No, I haven’t stopped blogging, but I’ve been crazy-busy with school. South Africa’s school calendar year runs from January-December with generous school breaks throughout the school year. I hadn’t thought about it before, but I guess you can say we’re “year-round schools.” I’ve had a bit of time this weekend to pause and catch my breath and to catch up with you!

And truth to tell, blogging was the primary source of happiness for me during my Peace Corps service to-date, but I've found pleny of happiness in other things now, and don't feel so compelled to blog so much. And when coming back to Cape Town, I realized I was yammering on about things that aren't really important...  But yes, I'm back and happy to be blogging.

The very strong wind storm knocked down several trees (and buildings!) at our campus and there is lots of clean up. One good thing that has come from the storm is that it has made firewood available to the poorer of our community members. Many people have visited the campus to retrieve wood and I wanted to show you one version of a donkey cart: as you can see in the photo, the rear-end of a truck bed serves as the trailer and the donkeys are hitched for pulling. The young boys that drive the donkeys can often be quite cruel.

Now to me and Africa--Yes, yes, I’m still deliciously happy in Africa! I thought my sudden and profound happiness might be temporary, but no, it’s still here! I think the shift in my happiness has come with finding happy work.

Peace Corps has only been coming to South Africa for eleven or twelve years now, since the fall of apartheid. While originally the South African government asked Peace Corps volunteers not to teach in the schools, as our teaching would displace resident South Africans from well-paying jobs, the government has since changed its mind in the wake of South Africa’s HIV/AIDS crisis.

My group, the one that came to Africa in 2009, was the first group allowed to teach in South African schools because of a critical teacher shortage (as a generation of South African teachers has perished in the HIV/AIDS crisis).

What did South African Peace Corps volunteers do when they weren’t allowed to teach in the schools? They assisted schools with various kinds of support and school projects: teacher training, school workshops, tutoring, computer training, school events (like World AIDS Day), etc. In coming to South Africa, while I was happy to teach, I really wanted to help support the schools with school/community projects.

For some reason I do not understand, education volunteers are introduced to their schools at the school year’s end, when everyone is the busiest trying to finish the school year: lessons need to be finished, reports need to be filed, and grades need to be turned in. The South African teachers and students are swamped at the end of the year, and well, to have a Peace Corps volunteer tagging along trying to figure out how best to help the schools is something of a difficult situation. (Or at least it was for me.) Although I had two months to get a feel for both of my schools (I teach for a technical college and a primary school), by the end of the school year and my introductory period, I felt clueless as to go a about school/community projects. I thought, What the heck, I’ll teach for both schools. In this way I’ll be in familiar terrain and I can scope out how to later coordinate school/community projects.

So that’s what I did my first year in Africa: I taught a business level English class for the college and I taught two sections of Grade Six English for the primary school

I learned very quickly that I was somewhat swamped with my teaching load, although my Peace Corps supervisor had warned me. Not only did I need to prepare to administer curriculum for two different grade levels, I was “thrown into the deep end” of swimming through how the South African school system works. One thing I was quite surprised by was the amount of paperwork thrown at South African educators: all of the administrative work seems quite beyond the pale to me. The policies and their resulting requirements are tricky too: lots of reading and interpretation. And I had a supreme advantage over my colleagues, as the policy documents are written in English. More than once I thought to myself, “Gosh, this is difficult to understand all on its own. I can’t imagine trying to understand it if English weren’t my first language.” It was like reading “lawyer-ese.” The other thing, as any good teacher can tell you, teaching is front-end loaded work; What I mean by this is, when you teach a brand new class for the first time, you really don’t know what works and what doesn’t, and your first year with a new class you see a lot of what doesn’t work, and then tweak things to the coursework runs better for future classes. It generally takes me a good year and a half to work out my course “bugs” and my classes aren’t really into top form until the second or even third year. And, well, Peace Corps volunteers don’t have that much time.

So, I found myself drowning in my teaching load, averaging 9.5 hour workdays, and working all weekends. Also, I was running back and forth between the schools, sometimes several times a day. But my workload with teaching wasn’t really the cause of my stress and unhappiness: as weird as it sounds, I felt isolated in my teaching.

What? How can one feel isolated teaching? You deal with people all day every day. Yes, this is true: I came to love my classes very much, and I felt very connected with my own students, but I felt very isolated from all of the other students, from the other educators and from the people in my community. I came and went, was always in a hurry, and felt very much “my own island.” As most of you know, I was pretty miserable for a long time.

Peace Corps, in its 50 years of service (2011 is Peace Corps’ 50th anniversary!), has learned that it takes quite a long time for (some) volunteers to feel comfortable in their communities and find happy work. Although the length of service asked of a Peace Corps volunteer is 27 months, and feels quite formidable going in, Peace Corps has learned that although 27 months seems a very long time, in reality, for the volunteer to be truly effective, 27 months isn’t a long enough period. Many, many former volunteers will say, “I had a very difficult first year, and my second was so much better and flew by in a blur.” They say this, because many of them didn’t find happy work until their second year. In fact, Peace Corps has learned this so well, that it is trying to make 3rd and 4th year extensions more desirable to established, in-country volunteers.

Perhaps in my eighteen months, I took a bit longer than the average volunteer to reach that happy point in my Peace Corps service. I’m just grateful that I stuck in there and kept trying. I was somewhat stubborn about it too—I felt I was being robbed of a happy Peace Corps experience and didn’t want to return home with an unhappy one!!

But all has changed for me, I’m happy to say. At the very end of last year’s school year I was relieved of my teaching duties so that I might better concentrate on school/community projects. (I was lucky and grateful that my supervisors and colleagues were as happy about the shift to project work as I.) The end of my last year’s school year was beyond satisfactory to me: in my primary school we participated in a World Wise Schools project (a letter exchange with a USAmerican school) and we hosted a World AIDS Day event. Everyone was happier: my principal was happier, my fellow educators were happier, the kids were happier (and I had much, much more exposure to many, many more of the school children), and the community members were much happier. (The community members in this case were the parents of the school children.) But most importantly, I was much happier.

So I was happy and joyous at the end of the school year last year, went to Cape Town, was happy and joyous there, and quite frankly, worried that on my return to my village, the happiness would have disappeared.

Not true, Oh I am so happy to report, not true. I’m crazy busy trying to pull together a Valentine’s Day Event for the college in February, where we hope to make a strong push for HIV/AIDS awareness. (Get it? Day of Love? Love one another safely?) We reported for school on the 10th of January, and feeling a time pinch (Valentine’s Day IS on February 14th!!), so I’ve been in planning meetings with my colleagues, begging for money from the college’s corporate center, writing letters begging for money and donations from local businesses and organizations. In short, sending a million faxes and following up with a million phone calls! And then too, following up with personal visits. But I’m having SO MUCH FUN and MEETING SO MANY PEOPLE than I had been. I finally feel that I’m doing the Peace Corps work I dreamed of doing: working with community members to build relationships and bringing community members together to better our lives. I feel ridiculously happy and so very grateful. I love my community, I love my life, and yes, finally, I LOVE MY PEACE CORPS EXPERIENCE! I’m a very lucky girl!

Saturday, January 22, 2011


“We can do no great things—only small things with great love.” --Mother Teresa

Ok, ok, and no, the looks are not deceiving you… Yes, that is a dog… Yes, that is a dog sleeping on my furniture. Yes, I am the person that has spouted “NO DOG” for more than a decade. Yes, I’m the person who claimed, “I can barely take care of myself! I can’t possibly care for another living thing!” So what happened?

This is Ounaai, the little dog that adopted me in November. Actually, I’ve learned she has two names: one provided by her Afrikaner daddy, Ounaai (OOO nay), and a second name given by her Indian daddy as well: Chakkra (Shah—KA-rah—and role the “r”). I guess I’ll continue to call her Ounaai, because that what I’ve been calling her all along, but will use Chakkra as her surname… Her surname? You mean, to name a dog like a human being? Like a CHILD??

I grew up in suburbia in the 70s and I must have lived through the first big push for leash laws and having pets spayed or neutered. I can remember we had dogs that ran wild outside and I remember these same dogs would sometimes have puppies. My parents were smart enough to know that if we had a family dog, spaying or neutering was a must, and well, having a pet is an investment in more ways than one. I remember my parents less than happy to hear our cries of, “Oh PLEASE, CAN WE KEEP THIS DOG?” when one followed us home, or sometimes, but very rarely, a cat. However, being tender-hearted as they are, we always had a family pet, and the family pet was always spayed or neutered and came and went in and out of the house at will (before the leash laws). In my family, a dog was loved and appreciated, but it was clear that the dog was a dog (and not a human being), ate regular dog food and sometimes table scraps, and well, we just didn’t pamper our pets.

In the last 10 or 15 years, I’ve noticed and have become increasingly irritated with the American trend of pampering pets: prescription dog food, dog super stores, dog beds, dog sweaters, dog Halloween costumes, dog snugglies, dog treats, dog portraits, vet house calls, and dogs so pampered they are carried, rather than walked. This trend grated my nerves and irritated me highly and I would think to myself, “There is so much suffering in the world, yet many of our dogs in the USA live better than I do.” I just didn’t get it, I just didn’t understand, I just couldn’t get my mind around it.

So, for most of my adult life, I haven’t owned a dog nor even desired to.

When I came to Africa, I noticed a lot of suffering: I noticed a lot of people suffering and I noticed a lot of animals suffering. I live with some of the most impoverished people in the world and I live with children who have lost their parents to HIV/AIDS. However, much to my dismay, it was the dying pigeon or the cruelly tethered cow that I would come home and cry about; It was the donkeys braying in desperation as they were brutally beaten by the young children trying to drive them that shredded my heart; It was the starving dog, wobbling on unsteady legs and too weak to stand that went right through me. I felt more sympathetic to the suffering of animals and couldn’t figure out why (and of course, felt extraordinarily guilty for it).

Ok, back to the dog: Ounaai. So, Ounaai shows up when I’m feeling especially down and she seems very happy to see me, the “wiggly-all-over-happy” and of course, endeared herself to me immediately; although, of course, I didn’t want a dog. I noticed right away that she was a very gentle dog and she seemed timid and afraid around people. I also noticed that she had recently had puppies and wondered if she had a puppy cache somewhere. She hung around for a few days and did that wiggly, very happy-to-see you thing, and then I did the thing I knew I shouldn’t: I fed her. At that point, she began to sleep in the pine needles under my trailer and would bark through the night at anything that she found threatening. I began to appreciate her protection and affection more and more. I went from feeding her crushed crackers and milk to buying dry dog food. (Notice the increased investment.) I learned that she isn’t all that crazy about dry dog food, because she has at least two other daddies that love to braii (the South African word for grilling meat) and feed her generously from their table. I put the dog food away but felt happy to know that she has an extended family large enough to rotate through: she had a mommy and two daddies and establishes a pattern of nights with me, breakfast with Daddy #1 and dinner with Daddy #2. I very much like having a part-time dog.

But I worried about the potential puppies that were certain to come: yes, the three of us were taking care of the one dog between us, but what if she had a litter of puppies? With the poverty in the village, there is no way it could absorb litter after litter of puppies. And then it was time to go to Cape Town for the Christmas holiday. I knew I’d be gone for nearly a month, but it seemed between the three of us, arrangements were made for her care and feeding. (But I would learn on my return that she hadn’t been fed or cared for.) In my leaving, I decided if she were still be around on my return, getting her cleaned up and see about spaying.

I cried at leaving the dog when I left (already so attached) but hoped she would find a magical, happy family to care for her in my absence. (Like THIS would happen in rural South Africa!)

I returned, a severe storm passed my village in my absence, Ounaai’s #1 dad’s trailer had flipped, and I worried that Ounaai were lying dead under it. On my second day home, she returned in all of her wiggly-all-over happiness. (Actually, she had returned that very same night I’d arrived, but I didn’t recognize it her scratching at the door.)

So, as I had promised, I set about treating the fleas and the worms and the ear mites. I gave her a bath and picked ticks off of her and made her greatly perturbed. And then of course, it would not go away—the biggest of all dreads: I would have to address the potential puppy problem. I phoned vet after vet, called the State Veterinarians in two towns, visited the public library for information, and even went to my shopping town’s city newspaper to plead: I need money to have this dog spayed. Can you help me? I was told “no” in every instance. (South Africa, it seems, at least in Vryburg, has no charity or organization dedicated to spaying and neutering dogs and cats, and you can just imagine the pet problem in the villages. To have Ounaai spayed is just a drop in the large sea of the problem.) I was crying on the phone and two of my family members, sensing my distress, mailed me the money to have her spayed.

So, Ounaai Chakkra was spayed yesterday. It was an ordeal for both of us. For her, it was a first time on a collar/leash, first time in a car, first time in a vet’s clinic, first time to have a surgical procedure. For me, it was a couple of weeks of begging for money, and begging even more for a ride to the veterinarian, feeling very anxious about the plans for the ride not working out (as I am still experiencing “indirect communication” in South Africa, which is people telling me things that are not true, like, “Yes, I’ll pick you up at 4:00,” but then not showing until well past 6:00, when the vet’s office has closed, and I can no longer wait in their office, and I’m carrying a very groggy, freshly spayed dog, wrapped in her bloody sheet, crying, because it’s after 6:00 pm, I’m an hour away from my village, will need to catch a public taxi that will probably not pick me up because most of the people on the taxis, including the driver, have a deep-seated fear of dogs, on a Friday night, when everyone is drinking, and it is nearly dark. So I’m crying, and walking, and the guy eventually comes, but it was a very long day.)

So, Ounaai is spayed, I’ve had laundered all of the blood and fear out of my clothes and her bedding, she is resting now, on my furniture, convalescing because I feel it is the least I can do after the trauma I caused. After all of this investment, she will officially become “my dog.”

So, why all this trouble now, for a dog, from the famously-proclaimed, “Not I”?

It has been a difficult 18 months for me: I’ve lost my home; I’ve lost family members; and my sons continue to struggle horribly with consequences of their life choices. I feel far away and powerless. I come to South Africa and live with people that live in tin shacks, with no heat or air, little to eat, and have rags for clothes. I see orphaned children in shoes that are so worn, they are barely recognized as shoes. I see children so malnourished, their hair is brittle and discolored. I see children that play by breaking glass bottles, because that is all for them to play with. I see domestic animals and pets starving, because their owners can’t even feed themselves. And I feel powerless.

And then the light bulb: I care about this one dog, because I can do something to help her. I have the power to help with this one small, living creature, to decrease her suffering. I can stop the suffering of one living creature in this great big world of pain and suffering. (Actually, in her spaying, I may be preventing future litters of dogs and puppies from suffering starvation, neglect, and abuse.) I can’t do anything for my sons; I can’t do anything for the suffering people in my community; I can’t do anything to alleviate suffering in Africa; I can’t do anything to alleviate the suffering of the world. But I can do something for this one, small, suffering animal. I’ve cleaned her up and had her spayed.

So, I have a dog. Maybe now I can better understand and appreciate the American need for doggy-day care. After all, while living in the wealthiest country of the world, isn’t there a lot of pain and suffering we cannot alleviate?



Monday, January 10, 2011

Telling on myself: the Cape Flats smile

Ok, I’m going to tell on myself here and remind you of how critical and judgmental I am—in case you had forgotten!

While in Cape Town, I met a lovely young man and he was very, very handsome. I couldn’t help but notice though, that he was missing all of his top-front teeth. I remember worrying about what happened to him at such a young age: Was he in a car accident? Was he in a fight? Could he have suffered with such horrible tooth decay? He looked marvelously healthy in every other way. We spent a bit of time together and I had an occasion or two to observe him eat. As I watched him tackle an apple, I was saddened at the thought of him trying to eat with such difficulties, and again, at such a young age.

After a few days of my ranger duty, I noticed a BMW in the office parking lot. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t met many park workers making enough money for such a high-end car, and curious, I asked to whom it belonged. I was told that the car belonged to the parents of the very handsome young man who had no teeth. And in my critical and judgmental thinking, I thought, “His parents can afford such a nice car, and yet they cannot afford to fix their son’s teeth?” (Notice too, my thought of “fixing” the teeth… I’m becoming aware of my USAmerican notions of “fixing things” instead of letting things be. Is this a Karen tendency? Or a USAmerican tendency?)


A few days later, my housemate commented that she had noticed several Capetonians of the colored race having missing front-top teeth and was curious about it. Was it a cultural thing? (And I can feel the collective cringe from the USAmericans at my designation of a people by their race. Sorry folks! That’s the way it’s done here! It takes awhile, but unfortunately, you somewhat get used to it, or at least I have, which is sad…) She later confirmed that when she inquired with Captonian friends about it—this missing of top-frontal teeth—it is indeed, a cultural thing and is considered a very, very attractive attribute from those who practice it.

Yikes! I just shudder at the thought of a dentist extracting perfectly healthy teeth!

So, I learned a completely new cultural thing about a new group of people (to me) living in Cape Town. I’m posting an article from News24 and a photo I’ve borrowed from the internet. (The photo of the toothless young men was not a part of the article.)

Can’t quite wrap my mind around this one, but hey, I don’t have to!  And, I must admit, I don't understand the attraction in a lot of USAmericans "fashions" either!


The Cape Flats smile

2009-10-09 14:26

Fran Blandy

Cape Town - The laughing young man has a perfect set of teeth, his golden incisors glinting in the sunlight.

Suddenly he pops out a pair of dentures, revealing a gap-toothed smile, the four upper front teeth missing, a common sight among coloured Capetonians that has spawned outrageous myths and stereotypes.

A group of youngsters clad in baggy sweaters, caps drawn low over shiny sunglasses, mill around curiously before they start to pop out their own dentures, showing off gummy smiles and striking gangster poses.

"It is fashion, everyone has it," said 21-year-old Yazeed Adams, who insists he had to take out his healthy incisors because they were "huge".

One of the most enduring images of coloured South Africans is the frequent absence of their front teeth, a mystery to many but popularly believed to facilitate oral sex.

Fashion, peer pressure

This sexual myth - not borne out by research - has seen the trend referred to as the "Passion Gap" or the "Cape Flats smile", after a populous neighbourhood.

Jacqui Friedling of the University of Cape Town's human biology department studied the phenomenon in 2003 and found fashion and peer pressure the main reasons for removing teeth, followed by gangsterism and medical reasons.

"It is the 'in' thing to do. It went through a wave, it was fashionable in my parents' time," she said of the practice which has been around for at least 60 years.

Dental modification in Africa is historically found only in tribal people, including filing of teeth and ornamentation, but in modern Cape Town the practice abounds, often as a rite of passage for teenagers - almost exclusively from poorer families.

Rob Barry from the dentistry faculty at the University of the Western Cape said the practice has surged, even though dentists are ethically barred from removing healthy teeth.

"Almost every week I get some or other teenager in here wanting teeth out," he said.


He said he has made thousands of partial dentures for people who need to look acceptable at work or for special occasions.

Friedling said the dentures themselves have become a fashion statement, some decorated with gold or bits of precious stone or various designs.

She noted that the Cape Town trend preceded the hip-hop culture fad of wearing ornate gold or diamond "grills" on teeth that swept the United States in the last decade, in which people opted for removable gold or ornamented caps rather than extracting the actual teeth.

"Here, it was a case of them elevating themselves above the rest of their peers, (it was) not to do with hip hop culture. The minute they can afford different sets of dentures then (the idea is) 'I am a bit better than you'," Friedling said.

"That's what makes it here in South Africa so unique," she said.

Kevin Brown, 33, sits in his "office", a crate on the corner of Long Street, the city's nightlife hub, where he hands out cards for an upstairs brothel, popping out his teeth at passers by - often tourists - and laughing at their reactions.

"I am the pimp," he smiles, displaying four gold incisors. "It is a fashionable thing."

Form of identity

Ronald de Villiers, 45, lost all his teeth after he initially put in gold dentures which infected the rest of his mouth, a common occurrence.

He said his 11-year-old and 14-year-old had already had theirs out "to look a bit prettier" and says it is easy to find a dentist to pay a bit extra to remove the healthy teeth.

"I think it was initially a form of identity. If you look at the coloured people they are a hodge podge of everyone that came in, they couldn't claim any of those ancestries of their own," said Friedling.

To her surprise, she also discovered the practice among a few whites, blacks and even one or two Chinese living alongside poor coloured areas.

In interviews with 2 167 people, 41% had modified their teeth, of which 44.8% were male, in the only study of its kind.


Peer pressure was cited by 42% while 10% removed their teeth due to gangsterism practices - a huge problem on the Cape Flats - a mainly coloured area on the outskirts of Cape Town.

"They said when they have gang fights they take the people's teeth away, it is taking a bit of their wealth away," said Friedling, adding that different gangs would also have different implants.

Not everyone is pleased with their decision.

Ebrahim Jardin, 33, is not wearing his silver, gold or plain pair of dentures today. A cigarette is clenched between his gums.

"I should have kept my front teeth. Most of the younger people do it, but I don't think it's cool anymore. It is people expressing their stupidity."


photo from internet:

Return of the prodigal gardener

Welcome to the jungle! 
Thorn fence blown apart; African spinach (back left) towering as behemoths;
tired zucchini on right;
 tomatoes and okra hiding in the weeds

Several of you have asked about my garden and how it fared in my absence and how it weathered the storms. W—e—l—l… It did ok, all things considering.

I almost fell over at the sight of the 2’ high weeds on my return—so much for deep mulching! Oh well, at least the weeds were happy and thriving in their mulch! The weeds, it seems, is the most formidable challenge of repair on my return. They’ve had massive, massive rain while I was gone and have been living quite happily and growing to monstrous proportions in my vegetable bed!

A portion of my thorn fence was lifted over onto my beans/green bed. This has happened before. The beans seemed to be happily blooming up through the thorns! My African spinach (amaranth) as happy though and had grown into 4’ behemoths. Zinnias too, were happy blooming in the amaranth’s shade. (I’ve since had a couple of dinners of African spinach, so the shade problem has been solved.)

My tomatoes were sprawling (as the plants were quite small when I left and I hadn’t yet tied them to their stakes) but seemed to be doing well in spite of the weeds; they were in bloom when I returned. Maybe I’ll have decent maters yet! My heirloom okra is alive and well too, again, in a tangle of weeds. I had asked a neighbor to come “take what you’d like” from my garden, hoping she’d take the zucchini, so it would keep producing. I confused her, however, as I told her it was a “squash plant” and so she was expecting to see butternut squash. Since the plant was producing, well, green zucchinis, she didn’t know what they were and did not harvest them. (They call zucchinis “baby marrows” here). So I SHOULD have said, it’s a baby marrow plant. Oh well. So, I had some bloated, tough zucchinis rotting on the vine. I’ve removed them, in hopes of reviving the plant, but we’ll see.

I’m debating what to do next. I will certainly salvage the tomatoes and okra and keep the amaranth, of course. (It will produce all season with cutting.) Will watch the zucchini plant to see how it fares, but I may need to go ahead and put it out of its misery. Any suggestions?

I think I will not rebuild my thorn fence and will dismantle what is left of it. The point of the garden was to see if a home garden could be (somewhat) easily constructed by someone living in rural South Africa, and even more to the point, someone who is living in rural South Africa and affected by HIV/AIDs. So, the hope was that the installation and maintenance of the garden would be somewhat easy. I have learned that it is not so easy, even with a healthy, able-bodied individual. The digging of a trenched bed is labor-intensive, although community members could help an ill person with digging; and a home garden most certainly needs proper fencing and without it, goats are a formidable problem (proper fencing being too expensive for most ill, rural South Africans).

Also, I was hoping my “demonstration garden” would be a point of interest for community members and, well, it was not.

Ultimately, I garden for personal satisfaction and enjoyment, and will likely continue to garden a bit during my last days in Africa; however, I think I’ll downsize considerably—and be free from the danged thorn fence!


Zinnias thriving, despite shade from the towering African spinach

Did I mention that Ounaai is ok??

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The college brings in the New Year with a BANG!

A neighbor who had it the worst, but he was away and is ok.

School on Monday?  Maybe not...

wind strong enough to bend a steel security fence

A BANG to the drum of a a terrible, terrible storm.

At one point in my South African career, I erroneously believed tornadoes only occurred in North America: NOT TRUE, NOT TRUE, NOT TRUE! Tornadoes most certainly occur in South Africa and if a tornado didn’t blow through my village on New Year’s Eve, then tornado-force winds certainly did! My trailer fared very well, considering my neighbors’ damage (as you can see)—mine only suffered only a broken window. And I am more than a bit grateful I was not here for the bringing in of the New Year!

As you can see from the top photo, my furthest neighbor, Mr. J, had his trailer flipped: the good news is that he wasn’t home either! School is supposed to resume on Monday (the 10th) but with all of the power wires down, I’m somewhat doubtful. Thorn trees were snapped at the trunk, huge pepper trees were uprooted, steel fences were twisted, and roofs were blown off of several of the educators’ houses

.I’ve not heard of anyone being hurt—if this is the case, my village is lucky indeed! Eish!

In this awful aftermath, I have developed an emergency evacuation plan: run for the most secure structure, and in my case, the students’ toilets—a stinky but much more protected spot for waiting out the fierce African winds!


another neighbor's home shifted about 5 feet--note former staircase into home

trees down everywhere

But Ounaii is ok!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

African Penguins at Boulders Beach

In my remaining days of the park, I was lucky enough to hook up with a group of incoming conservation students and sit in on their orientation and get the full tour of the park as well as gaining helpful history and background of the park. On the second day of the orientation, we visited all the major areas of the park: the northern section where Table Mountain is; the central section, where the Silvermine Dam and Silvermine River Valleys are (where I have been residing in the park), and the southern portion of the park, where Boulders Beach is along with the very famous Cape Point.

I have pictures of the penguins at Boulders Beach and was delighted to actually be seeing the birds that I had taught a lesson on with my sixth graders last year--and was wishing more that my sixth graders were there to see the penguins as well!

Here’s a bit on the penguins from Mountains in the Sea: Table Mountain to Cape Point: An Interpretive Guide to the Table Mountain National Park, 2004:

“Penguins are among the creatures most loved by people, and with good reason, for they are perhaps the most human of all birds. Slow, comical, and clumsy on land, they are incredibly swift and graceful in the water. Brave, loyal to their partners, and good socializers, they are also feisty individuals given to odd eccentricities. Penguins are a flagship species for conservation, and nowhere else on Earth is a member of this remarkable as accessible to people as Boulders.

The African Penguin (Spheniscus demersus) is one of the 17 penguin species, all of which occur in the southern hemisphere. It is Africa’s only penguin, with a breeding range from Namibia to Port Elizabeth. There are 27 breeding colonies, 24 on offshore islands where a protection from predators is greatest. Mainland breeding colonies are rare because the birds are much more vulnerable here. . . . They are accustomed to human presence and this is the only place in the world where you can get this close to wild penguins. (138-39)


Sunday, January 2, 2011

Amended New Year’s Resolution: or, Falling in love in Africa, Part Two!

Hiking over the forests and winelands of Constantia.
 I'm told that Constantia is home to the "oldest winelands in the Cape."

“This is a good sign, having a broken heart. It means we have tried for something.” As (re)told by Elizabeth Gilbert

In 1989, I discovered 12-step recovery and my life would change forever. Of the many, many lessons I’ve learned, the most helpful is “stay in today.” If I’m able to stay in the day, and this simple instruction is by no means easy, I am free from worry of tomorrow or pain from the past, and life feels much, much easier. In learning to live one day at a time, I gave up my habit of making “New Year’s resolutions” because really, I needed to be making “new resolutions each and every day” instead. In 12-step recovery, this is called “trying to do the next right thing.” So I quit following the tradition of New Year’s resolutions, and hadn’t made any for almost 20 years. But all of this changed for me last year, when I decided that yes, certainly, I would live my life one day at a time, but it would be nice to set a yearly goal for myself, to have something I could monitor and adjust and evaluate, (I AM an American, from the USA after all!) and in 2010, my tradition of New Year’s resolutions resumed. Last year, I resolved to cease complaining and dedicate each and every Sunday to spiritual devotion followed by a day off. In other words: NO WORK ON SUNDAY! I think I made it to the third week of January for NO WORK ON SUNDAY and the complaining, I’m sorry to say, resumed even earlier!

Alas, I’m trying again in 2011. I had originally decided that I would try to meditate each and every day of 2011, and so far so good (today is Jan 2), but in my meditation, another idea has come up. (I love how that works!)

I will probably remember 2010 not only as a challenging first year in Peace Corps South Africa, but also as a year of healing (again) from a broken heart. I’m far from finished with my grief, but believe I’ve made great gains. In my struggle with healing from the grief of loss, I’ve spent a great deal of time in prayer, asking for prayer support, feeling my feelings, and reading spiritual texts. Two texts have helped me immensely in my recovery from a broken heart: Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. (Go ahead and roll your eyes!)

Pema Chodron, in her retelling of Buddhist philosophy, advises to lean into the pain, embrace it, and run towards it (rather than numb it with anything: tv, computer, reading, eating, drinking, or –and this is my favorite way of avoiding the pain of a beak up--falling in love with someone else) and although I find the practice daunting, to lean into the pain, I find it very effective.

Elizabeth Gilbert has helped me in many ways too, although her memoir Eat, Pray, Love is probably not considered a spiritual text by most people. But her book (in part) tells of her quest to find a true(er) spiritual connection, and in telling of her spiritual journey she has greatly helped me with mine.

In her search, she examines the notion of true love, long-term passionate love, and the notion of being so in love, you’re convinced you have a “soul mate.” I was particularly struck by Richard from Texas’s (one of Gilbert’s many spiritual guides along her journey) definition of a soul mate:

“People think a soul mate is your perfect fit, and that’s what everyone wants. But a true soul mate is a mirror, the person who shows you everything that’s holding you back, the person who brings you to our own attention so you can change your life. A true soul mate is probably the most important person you’ll ever meet, because they tear down your walls and smack you awake. But to live with a soul mate forever? Nah. Too painful. Soul mates, they come into your life just to reveal another layer of yourself to you, and then they leave. And thank God for it” (Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, 149).

And thank God for it indeed!

I love Richard’s spin on soul mates because I can shift my perspective to one from my many “failed” relationships to one of being blessed with a lifetime of soul mates! And it’s true when I think of it: in all of my presumed “life partnerships,” each and every “spouse” has helped me to change my life in ways that I discover more about myself—and really, what a blessing! Although they are painful blessings!

While there is a part of me that still searches for that “one true love” or the “love that lasts forever” (which is why I’m enamored with finding couples in their 70s, 80s, or 90s still being publicly affectionate with one another), I’m gently reminded that my one true love has been with me all along: me. And if there were something “wrong” or something “needing fixing” because of my seemingly inability to sustain a long-term committed relationship, the “problem” would be with me; because as much as I like to believe that I’m a whole, completely self-sufficient, evolved, intact human being, and therefore an ideal partner, the fact is that I still wrap myself (and my identity) up in my partner and come to depend on that partner for my “happiness.” Shame! And what a batch of problems to lay on a life partner! Yikes!

All of which has prompted me to amend my New Year’s Resolution: while yes indeed, I hope to devote time each and every day to meditation, I also devote and dedicate the year 2011 to falling in love with Karen! I hope this New Year is a passionate, joyful, compassionate, sensuous, sexy search for that unconditional love for me, and in so doing, that I will ultimately—and eventually--evolve into whole-heartedness. So, that’s it! I’m devoting 2011 to having a delicious love affair with Karen--and no one else is invited!


one of the original reservoirs for Cape Town on top of Back Table

Saturday, January 1, 2011

New Year’s Day on the beach: People-watching on Fish Hoek Bay

protected pool

rocky point, high shark alert area, kelp beds, mountain range: Hottentot's Holland in background

I woke on New Year’s Day to a steady rain. I was hoping the rain would allow a leisurely morning with plenty of good coffee and then clear later so I could walk down to the beach to engage in one of my favorite hobbies: people watching. It did and I did!

And perhaps I should wish more for rain: after the rain cleared, there was no wind and not a white cap on Fish Hoek Bay: it was absolutely the calmest I’ve seen the sea. And even now, when I’m home and settling in for the evening, there is no wind breaking down the doors and I can still see the calm bay—not a white cap in sight!

A friend recently noted that she doesn’t approve of my hobby—people watching--because she doesn’t like to be stared at. In my defense, I people-watch in a loving, affirmative way, not a mean-spirited, cruel way. People-watching brings me great joy. I love to watch people, well, almost anywhere really, but I especially like to watch them at happy places: like parties, or wedding receptions, in malls, in airports, or at the beach! And Bardstown Road in Louisville is an especially good people-watching spot!

I’ve been especially watching for happy families—probably because I so keenly miss mine. And Cape Town has its lion’s share of happy families, I’m pleased to report!

On Christmas Day, while Raquel and I were sitting on the beach, I was watching a huge, HUGE family having a wonderful meal on the beach. There were many grandfathers bouncing babies, many grandmothers fussing with food, and many children running in and out of the surf. I delighted in their interaction: everyone seemed so happy! The next thing I know, a grandmother approaches us, plates in hand ready to dole out some lunch for us. We politely declined, as we had just eaten, but I was moved by her friendly generosity.

There is also a large, family group staying at the Sunbird Center, having a family reunion for New Year’s. They too, have included me as part of their family! They’ve just delivered my share of their New Year’s Day braii: much meat (chicken and sausage), not the usual 5 pounds of pap—but plenty, and a nice serving of veggies. I’m a lucky girl!

Today, I was treated to families, many families having New Year’s Day fun on the beach. And I treat the world “family” very broadly, and even a single person on the beach, like me, qualifies! The older I get, the more I appreciate the beauty of children. I remember being a kid, being mean about so and so being so ugly! Now I can’t find an ugly child anywhere! Each and every child I see seems so perfect! So beautifully perfect and full of joy! I love watching the little ones play in sea. They’re precious.

I too, enjoy seeing the different body shapes. We are really unique and beautiful, no matter our body size or shape—no matter what the media tries to tell us! I love too, how unselfconscious everyone seems. Everyone seems perfectly happy with their bodies and very comfortable, and that makes me happy to see!

But the plum prize, for whenever and wherever I’m people watching, is to find an elderly couple being openly affectionate with one another. I love seeing an elderly couple holding hands or having their arms about one another, and it gladdens my heart to see long-lasting love! I got my plum prize today when I saw a man and a woman, sitting at the point, him with his arm around her! I almost cried!

It was also super-dooper nice to see people of all colors playing on the beach together! South Africa as truly the rainbow nation! At least in Fish Hoek Bay, on New Year’s Day!

Happy New Year everyone!


kelp beds

protected pool with stairway down to

Greatest holiday gift of 2010: a broadened perspective

mountain fynbos overlooking Kalk Bay
 I have enjoyed my holiday trip to Table Mountain National Park, near Cape Town, South Africa, in so many ways. As my holiday concludes and I move into the New Year, I’d like to share some of the gifts my Christmas holiday in Cape Town has brought me.

Of course, the greatest gift has been to see and experience the amazing Cape Floral Kingdom in Table Mountain National Park, and I’m posting here a few more pictures of this amazing, amazing flora! I feel so lucky to have walked along with the watsonias, the proteas, and the restios! To experience the flora has been nothing short of spectacular for me!

But perhaps the more long-lasting gift I have received from my stay in the park is a substantial increase in my perspective. I understand that people travel the world to gain wider perspectives, but I am not that world traveler, and my Peace Corps service is my first opportunity to travel abroad and encounter “another way” of living. While I’ve been living and working in the Republic of South Africa for well over a year, it has taken coming to Cape Town to better understand my life and work here in South Africa.

In meeting Capetonians, although they live in arguably the most beautiful city in the world (or at least one of them), of those I meet, many feel very, very sad that I have seen more of their nation than they have. Many of the people I meet here have never traveled any other area in South Africa and indeed, I have seen more of their country than they have. Now, I haven’t traveled as extensively as other volunteers and compared to most of them, I haven’t traveled at all! But I have been north, near the Zimbabwean border and have seen northern Kruger (to see the baobabs!!); I have seen South Africa’s great cities of Pretoria and Johannesburg; and I have ventured west through the Namaqualand to see the Atlantic coast. And now, of course, I have traveled to Cape Town. So I feel very, very rich in my travels through South Africa!

I have met and spent time with a true world traveler in my new friend and fellow park volunteer Raquel. She is from Spain, but has lived in Scotland, Guatemala, the USA, and the Canary Islands. She has helped me understand many things about my life in South Africa, my perceptions, and my attitudes.

Raquel’s home language is Spanish, of course, but she speaks excellent English. She speaks so well in English, in fact, and seemingly without any struggle, that I never for a moment imagine her as a person for whom English is a second language. One night, after a very busy day, we were chatting a bit and she commented that she was very tired, and her English in her head was “becoming all jumbled up and she was too tired to make any sense of it.” With this simple statement, I suddenly realized that, “Hey! Although her English is excellent, she is having to work much harder (than I am) to converse with me!” Finally, it dawned on me how much harder my counterparts and other friends in my village community have to work to speak English with me! No wonder they would rather speak to each other (and me!) in Setswana—to speak to me in English takes a great deal of effort!

And although Raquel has never, ever suggested it, she has helped me to see how arrogant I am as a citizen of the USA. I simply assume everyone will speak English to me, if they want to speak to me. It never occurs to me to learn, so I can speak with fluency, Afrikaans, Spanish, Xhosa, Sepedi, Zulu, or yes, even Setswana! I have come to the conclusion that trying to learn Setswana and gaining fluency is too hard and I’ve simply given up. In my haughty, , lazy, American way, I’ve decided that people must speak English to me if they want to speak to me. How arrogant is that??

Speaking of being an American… Again, Raquel has never, ever suggested it, but I’ve sensed unease in her when I referred to anything in my experience as being “American.” At one point, sensing her unease, I qualified my “American” statement as “American, as from the USA.” She was visibly relieved at this statement and went on to explain that yes, my experience was specific to the USA, because my “American” experiences wouldn’t apply to someone living in Guatemala (or anywhere else in South America). So, now I know to qualify that my experience is that of an American from the USA and will be careful to do so.

Raquel has also helped me become aware of my American (as from the USA) distraction with cleanliness and germs. She seems to disapprove of my desire to line the trash can with plastic as a harmful, unnecessary waste. (Indeed, I’m using brand new PLASTIC to line the trash basket and THROW AWAY.) I seem constantly concerned about washing my hands, brushing my teeth, etc., and she notices with an amused yet “am so glad I’m not like that” smile. Indeed, I’m reminded by a time in my village, that I refused the community cup, and my counterpart explained, “She doesn’t like African germs.” Similarly, I’ve become aware of my American (as in from the USA) distraction of hydration: Where are we going? How long will we be gone? How much WATER do I need to bring?

And lastly, for this trip, I brought along Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. I read her book long ago, when it was first published, and understand that it has since (and rather recently) been made into a movie with the smoking hot, Spanish actor, Janvier Bardem. (OMG, is he not the most gorgeous man alive today?? And well, Julia Roberts-- she isn’t hard on the eyes either!) The book had been floating about in the “Peace Corps volunteer-shared-book-stream and I picked it up. I remember being strongly impressed by Gilbert’s account of heartbreak and despair following a painful divorce, and, well, having gone through one myself recently, thought Gilbert’s book might prove even more meaningful for me.

I laughed out loud when I realized the book is about many things, but mainly about a woman living in three DIFFERENT CULTURES, and it was her account of living in different cultures that proved the most meaningful to me. (And in fact, her account of her painful break up brought up another painful, sorrowful wave of grief for me.)

In one part of her story, she accounts for the Balinese and how they greet each other in Bali. My jaw nearly hit the floor when she relayed that the Balinese, each time they greet, will ask a series of questions: the first, “Where are you going?” the second, “Where are you coming from?” and the third, well, is “Are you married?” One of the first things I noted in my village life was that people would greet me in this manner and it felt invasive and rude to me: WHERE ARE YOU GOING? WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN? And I would think to myself, “None of your business—quit being so nosey.” But now, rather than being grumpy about this kind of greeting, I understand it better, having read Gilbert’s account of the Balinese greeting in the same manner in another culture. She explains that it is their way (of the Balinese) to mentally place their community members on a grid of understanding: if they know where you’ve been or where you’re going, they feel they know you better as a person and therefore, you better “fit” in their community. I guess my community members have a similar cultural understanding and I will be much, much more tolerant of it in the future.

So when returning to my village, after having spent time with fellow Capetonians, a woman from Spain, and Elizabeth Gilbert, I will better understand my South African community. The fynbos and a broadened perspective—what wonderful holiday gifts indeed!

Happy New Year everyone! May 2011 bring abundance and blessings to you and to yours!


PS: I spent my New Year’s Eve on the beach--tough job, but somebody’s got to do it! It’s a rainy New Year’s Day morning here in Silvermine and I’m enjoying the lovely sound of the rain on the roof, bountiful cups of very delicious coffee, and “talking” to you! I’m hoping the sun will pop out and the Cape winds will blow out the rain so I can revisit the beach for New Year’s Day. I found a lovely area along the point full of boulders, crashing surf, kelp beds, and protected pools that I’d like to show you pictures of. Until then!

view from my park "home"--that's the Fish Hoek bay in the distance

took this shot for the moon, which you see as a tiny white speck in the sky!

The light green is a lichen: old man's beard. I was introduced to this lichen in Alaska--it's usually found in the higher elevations and it will not tolerate any air pollution, so you know you're in really clean air if you see it.  The air is really clean in the higher elevations of Cape Town!