Friday, February 4, 2011


The photo is of a lovely wild zinnia that I noticed and fell in love with when I arrived in Africa last year. (Or whenever it was that I arrived in Africa… I’m losing track…) One morning, as I was walking to my primary school, I noticed a whole stand of these growing by the side of the road. They are all this brilliant red and the blooms only reach the diameter size of a quarter, but I just love them. In fact, I love them so much, that I gathered seeds and was intending to send them to all of my “flower lovers” back home in the States--and I know many, many flower lovers! I would walk by every day and pause to enjoy their beauty and I couldn’t wait until the flowers were spent so I could harvest the lovely dried seed heads. I harvested many, many of the wild zinnia seed heads, and put them aside to dry well before mailing them home to various friends and family members.

However, I knew better than to do this. Not only is it illegal to import seeds from a different country, I also know enough that regional flora grows where it is planted for a reason: because it is indigenous to the area in which it lives. These wild zinnias are living in Africa, not in the USA. Also, I know how devastating an “invasive or exotic species” can be in an already-established flora and fauna.

For example, in the USA, European starlings have become a pest and a “problem bird” because it lives, thrives, and reproduces very well in the USA. How did it come to the USA? Someone from England loved the bird so much that when he decided to come to the USA to live, he brought these “beloved birds” with him. Asian kudzu is another example of how an invasive/exotic flora can run wild. It was brought to the USA to assist with erosion control and now you can’t ride down any of our southern highways without seeing it swallow up everything in sight.

But I loved these zinnias so much, I felt very compelled to share them with family back home. (As did, I’m sure, the gentleman who so loved the European starling!) Eventually, I resigned myself to the fact that I simply couldn’t in good conscience do so, and dumped the lot of the seed outside my windows. I should have gone to the trouble to plant them carefully, but I did not. Nevertheless, these lovely beauties defied my carelessness and decided to grow anyway! And I’m so glad they did, because they have become my housemates. They send me off to work each day with their bright-red, cheery faces and it makes me very, very happy to see them.

Most of you know that a village dog has adopted me: Ounaai. As a fellow mammal and as a household resident, she is my most dedicated housemate. I love that Ounaai is an outside dog and she is very low-maintenance. Well, after the initial “start up” of spaying, worming, de-flea-ing, etc., provided by angels residing in the USA, she is now low-maintenance. And a special thank you to the USAmericans who provided for her—for us—in this way. Ounaai has brought me great happiness in my African home!

She loves to scratch her belly by lying with her legs straight back, and pulling her very long self along on the carpet or grass with her front legs: it’s a land version of “dog paddling” and she doubles me over in laughter to watch her.

My home is equipped with security doors and she is small enough to move through the bars. In this way I can leave my home open for her and she comes in and out as she pleases.

Although she has her run of all of Africa, she does choose to stay close. If I’m working at my desk, she is under my feet. If I move to another room, she follows right behind. She sleeps under my bed and barks at any suspicious noise she hears outside. Although she is welcome to stay inside my house when I’m gone, she remains on my front porch, regardless of the weather, to guard our shared abode.

Her new way of sharing companionship is to follow me out into the garden. I was away from my garden for nearly a month during the rainy season, and as a consequence, the weeds—and African weeds are FIERCE—have taken over. Ounaai likes it though, because she follows me out and lies in the tall weeds as I attempt to harvest. You can tell she delights in her “dogness,” in her way of lying hidden in the very tall grass. And that swirly-round thing that house dogs do when trying to settle? I’ve watched the village dogs exhibiting the same gesture, actually in the tall grass to dampen it and lie down. The gesture makes sense when you see it in its natural setting.

Ounaai has become a true companion and I’m already extremely fond of her. And--BLAST! I didn’t want a dog!!

Not quite as reliable are other housemates, and most of these are temporary—just visiting, so to speak. I used to be, like almost everyone I know and meet, very afraid of spiders and snakes. As I’ve learned more about them, I have come to admire and appreciate them very much. I’m not crazy about spiders in my house, but I don’t mind them. (And of course, don’t want snakes of any variety in my house!) I have a beautiful orb spider outside one of my front windows and each evening, as I’m watching the sunset, I watch her acrobatics as she spins and swirls to travel from one side of her web to the other. I believe she delights in the African sunsets as much as I! I especially like to watch her because she lives outside.

I have a different variety of garden spider that is sharing my living space, and she too, is outside. I haven’t gotten a very good look at her, because she resides in her web upside down and I haven’t seen her since our initial introduction. I’m hoping she’s still with me and will pose one day for a picture. While these garden spiders can look quite threatening, they are harmless and do a great job of keeping garden pests at bay. I usually fall deeply in love with my garden spiders and am heartbroken when the summer season ends, which sadly, also brings about the end of spider season too.

I’m not sure exactly where they are coming from, but I have a whole slew of baby spiders living in the vicinity of my bathtub. I try to relocate these whenever I’m drawing water for a bath or for laundry, but as I scoop one out, another appears. They are very tiny and I have no idea what kind they are, but I feel assured that they are valuable and necessary, so I attempt to rescue each one. I scoop them out with an empty toilet paper roll. I try to guide them inside the “tunnel” and drop them out the other by shaking the tube outside my window. In this way, I hope, they are outside of my house, yet still alive to flourish elsewhere—perhaps even in my garden!

I have a visiting bat, or perhaps one that stays in the house and comes out only on occasion. I had one come in a week or so ago, and watched him bounce around my bedroom trying to find a way out. This is no easy task for him, as my bedroom windows are covered in security bars and I have sheets of fabric pegged up as curtains. I love watching him circle around my bedroom, as I’m protected under my mosquito net (my anything-but-mosquito net!) and have a front row seat. It is a bit frightening though, because he bangs into the walls in an attempt to escape, and I worry about him becoming injured. Last night, he flew about and landed in a protected area behind my door. He heard, or otherwise sensed, a moth buzzing and bumping about near my overhead light and came flying out of his hiding place in hopes of a snack. (In fact, perhaps the bats are drawn into my house because the moths are drawn to my light as I’m reading.) The bat actually missed the moth, but did escape out of the hole in my broken window pane. I was worried the broken glass in the pane might harm him, but he seems to have escaped without injury. When lights were out, I heard Ounaai chasing and eventually chomping the huge moth that had earlier enticed the bat. Oh well--at least SOMEONE had a snack!

And I have a mouse. I’ve never seen this mouse, but s/he lives in my kitchen, and curiously, leaves my food alone. S/he does, however, leave “evidence” of nightly visits.

I learn a great deal from those I live most intimately with. When I was residing temporarily in Table Mountain National Park for the December holidays, I met and shared living quarters with a lovely woman, also a visitor to South Africa. She was from elsewhere in the world, a European, and she helped me better understand my “USAmerican-ness” probably better than anyone I’ve encountered in my life. But she gifted me in another way: she taught me to do the dishes.

I love to cook and do cook for myself, but tend to take shortcuts, mostly because I hate scrubbing dirty pans with cooked on/baked on food. For example, some mornings I will cook oatmeal for myself, while others, when I’m feeling short on time (or lazy), I will eat it raw—so I need not bother with scrubbing a breakfast pan. Likewise, I often eat eggs boiled so I need not scrub my fried egg off of the bottom of a pan. Good grief, have you noticed how difficult it is to clean a fried egg off the bottom of a pan? I have to use bleach to loosen it… And we put this substance in our bodies?? Now I understand why tempera paint (made from eggs) lasts FOREVER. And what about grilled cheese? Have you ever noticed how difficult it is to clean grilled cheese off of a plate? And we put this substance in our bodies? While many of you worry that I don’t eat enough meat, even in the States, I avoid cooking meat—because I don’t like to clean the greasy pots and pans! Gross!

Ok, back to the lovely housemate. Every single morning of every single day, every single lunch of every single lunchtime, and every single supper and every single snack, this woman would dirty every dish in the house to prepare herself a lovely, hot meal or snack: every single dish in the house! These meals weren’t even fancy: they consisted of simple fare, often only of toasted bread and pasta or a lovely fish omelet or soup. Even with her coffee break, she would trouble herself with toasted bread—toasted bread, like, in a pan on the stovetop! I would watch her and my head would hurt thinking of all those dishes she would wash; but in each and every instance, for each and every meal, she would go to the trouble.

I admired the way she troubled herself to practice self-care. Since my return to the village, I have been taking great care to cook wonderfully hot meals for myself throughout the day. And yes, I’m scrubbing pots and pans with cooked-on food, but each time I scrape, I think of her and the important lesson she taught me: life is too short to compromise on any meal, that each meal should be special and delicious!! And with this lesson and this practice, I’ve incorporated great joy into my life!

I am blessed with an abundance of rich housemates in Africa!

Soon, Karen

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