Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Have I enjoyed my time in South Africa?

Living as a white American in a rural South African village is unusual, and not unexpectedly, my presence within a black community where, sadly, white people refuse to live, often raises curious conversations. I can’t tell you how many times I’m approached by someone asking who I am, where I’m from, and what am I doing here. These initial questions are always followed with one more, “How do I find South Africa?” As in, How do I like it?

Well, answers regarding my life and work in South Africa are variable and dependent upon my mood; however, I’ve learned that a pat answer of “I find South Africa very nice” satisfies everyone all the way around: I’m spared of having to devolve in a complicated discussion of how I find South Africa (South Africa is a very complicated country!) and, well, basically I’m telling them what they want to hear: that I find their country as wonderful as they do.

Now that I’m approaching the end of my Peace Corps service, this question has been revised, when it is asked of me, and one that I initially found very startling: Have I ENJOYED my time in South Africa?

I was first asked this a few weeks ago when I was in Pretoria for a medical concern, and a doctor, new to me, asked this. I was dumbfounded with the question and kind of stammered a vague reply, but it seems to have permanently replaced the original version of the question, so I’d better get used to it.

In thinking about how stunning this question felt I’ve realized my concern. Now, this will sound terribly negative, and perhaps it is, but I don’t mean it so: I would never, ever use the word “enjoy” to describe my time in South Africa.

Ok, ok… Let me unpack this a bit… I haven’t enjoyed my time in South Africa in much the same way I didn’t enjoy going to graduate school: I’ve found the experience difficult and challenging.

Am I not glad for having had gone to graduate school? Of course I’m glad I attended graduate school: It was a life changing experience and I learned a lot. Were there not moments and times when I enjoyed graduate school? Of course there were moments and times when I enjoyed graduate school! Would I do it again? Well, here it gets a bit complicated, because knowing what I know now (hindsight is always 20/20), I’m not sure I would have attended graduate school (or at least the same program I finished) and knowing what I know now, I’m not sure I would join Peace Corps again, or at least join Peace Corps South Africa.

(However, newly-invited Peace Corps volunteers have very little to say about where they will serve. Well, you can make a general request: for example, I said, “I’d like to serve in Africa—anywhere on the continent of Africa. Potential Peace Corps Volunteers who adopt the attitude of, “I would like to go where I am most needed” are the volunteers PC most wants to deal with.)

Now, being someone who believes everything happens for a reason, I don’t spend a lot of time wondering “what if” and “if only” and trust that my life is playing out exactly as it is for all of the right reasons and trust that I was “meant” to join Peace Corps at 46 years old and I was “meant” to serve in South Africa.

And I have certainly had moments and times when I've enjoyed myself very much living and working in South Africa:
• I’ve enjoyed every single church service I’ve attended in South Africa. Usually, I can’t understand a word of the service, but I am deeply moved by the spiritual devotion of the people I live with and have found nothing more beautiful than my community dancing, singing, and praying together in church.

• I have enjoyed, very much, working with the children of South Africa. I feel hopeful about the future of South Africa when I see the excitement and delight in the eyes of her children.

• As bizarre as this sounds, I’ve enjoyed being invited to my community’s funerals: To be invited to my community’s funerals makes me feel more loved and accepted and “a part of” than any other gesture offered to me. My community is very kind to invite me into such intimate gatherings. I feel special at being a part of these solemn (yet, at the same time, very festive) occasions.

• I have enjoyed working with my primary school. This professional relationship was rocky in the beginning but I feel we have grown to love and care for each other very much.

• I have enjoyed my relationships with my neighbors on the college campus: I’ve grown very fond of these people and love them very much. They are very good to me.

• I enjoyed working with a college student, Israel, in learning Setswana. He’s a very bright and dear boy, and he too, gives me hope in regards to South Africa’s future.

• I enjoyed very much attending both the primary school’s and the college’s “special events”: Heritage Day celebrations, end-of-school year celebrations, the college’s Academic Opening, etc.

• I enjoyed teaching both a Grade Six class at my primary school and an ENG Level 3 course at the college.

• I enjoyed my vacations in South Africa: I traveled north to see Africa’s majestic baobab trees (Adansonia digitata) and Northern Kruger (Kruger National Park) and I enjoyed traveling south to South Africa’s Cape Town to volunteer for Table Mountain National Park.

• I’ve enjoyed developing friendships with my fellow Peace Corps volunteers.

• I enjoyed living with my host family for my first 8 weeks in Africa.

• I’ve enjoyed gardening and growing food in South Africa.

• I’ve enjoyed spending time with the very old women in my community.

So, YES, I’ve enjoyed moments and times in my two years of living in South Africa.

And yes, I have certainly learned a lot in my time in South Africa:

• I’ve learned a great deal about South Africa’s history, its literature, its music, and its “rainbow nation” of multi-culturalism; I certainly know much more about South Africa than I did before arriving.

• I have learned a tiny, tiny bit of Setswana—enough to please people in my community very much in greeting them.

• I’ve learned how important it is to me to have collaborative professional relationships.

• I’ve learned how important it is to me to feel safe and protected from the threat of physical harm, that threat being from other people or conditions in my environment.

• I’ve learned that South African women, 80 years old or older, are tanks: they dig all day with handmade tools in soil with the consistency of concrete; they carry 5 gallons of water on their heads; they raise at least two families in their lives--their own and their grandchildren; they harvest their own firewood in the African “bush” and cook all their meals over a cook fire (and have been all their lives); that South African “gogos” are wonderful cooks; and that a South African gogo can be my most powerful ally and strongest protector!

• I’ve learned how wonderful it is to walk freely and unafraid after dark.

• I’ve learned that South African youth hold very strong and powerful political influence. (The police force in my community is afraid of the college students.)

• I’ve learned how WONDERFUL it is to have reliable water, electricity, a clothes washer, central heat and air, working plumbing with a flushed toilet and hot and cold water inside the house, and not needing to sleep under a mosquito net!

• I’ve learned how wonderful my friends and family are in their on-going support of my African adventure.

• I’ve learned that complete strangers can become dear friends via Facebook, email, and snail-mail.

• I’ve learned a great deal about South African flora, fauna, and birds.

• I’ve learned that yes, very dangerous snakes do live in my area and they can be found if you look for them.

• I’ve learned that the South African sky is one of the most beautiful in the world.

• I’ve learned how to build a thorn fence (to protect my garden.)

• I’ve learned how to ride the public taxis.

• And sadly, I’ve learned that there are many people, all over the world, who hate Americans simply for being Americans, and some of these are former-Americans themselves (ex-pats).

• I’ve learned that a little village dog can trot her way into my life and provide an affection and companionship I hadn’t realized I was craving.

I’ve learned very many more things in my two years in South Africa; however, I think the most important thing I’ve learned in my time in South Africa, is how much of an American patriot I am. This was a surprising revelation to me, as I’m certainly one to criticize my country and especially its politics. I could barely get out of bed when Bush defeated Kerry in 2004. I had no idea how much I loved my country or how lucky and blessed I feel to have simply been born in the USA. I had no idea how lucky I was to have infrastructure in place to keep me safe and protected: how we have safety codes to protect us from faulty electrical wiring in our buildings and our sewage safely disposed of and away from us; how lucky we are to have regular garbage pick-up and recycling; how lucky we are not to be locked—or have our children locked, with padlocks, inside of buildings that have no fire safety systems such as sprinklers; how lucky we are to have safe public transportation; how lucky we are that our children can attend good schools at no cost and are taught to think critically; how lucky we are to have heated, comfortable safe homes; how lucky we are to live in a democracy not tainted with corruption and the hatred resulting from the recent revolution; how lucky we are to have a safe and varied food supply that provides enjoyment and promotes health; how lucky we are that our children aren’t playing by breaking glass bottles in the streets; how lucky we are that our homes are homes, and not fortresses surrounded by razor wire or elaborate security systems; and how lucky we are that we don’t have armed guards with assault rifles guarding our ATMs.

Of course, these are broad generalizations and of course, we DO, in America, have problems with the exact issues listed above. And we are moving toward living in fortresses, with the trend of the “gated community” and for all I know, we do now have guards armed with assault rifles guarding our ATMs… But, for the most part, I feel very grateful to have such a safe country to return home to and to live in. I have realized how much I truly love my country and that I will likely never again leave it.

And lastly, I’ve learned that although Peace Corps hopes we, as volunteers, aspire to noble deeds, perhaps the noblest of deed is simply that we live with the people in our communities, that we love their children, that we pray with them, that we bury their dead with them, that we ride their dangerous taxis with them, and that we eat their rotten produce with them.  Perhaps our willingness to live with the people in our communities and to try to be kind and loving is the noblest of deeds we can aspire to.  I hope it has, for my community, mattered a little.

Has serving Peace Corps and living in South Africa changed my life? Of course it has! I left my Louisville home in 2009 at 46 years old, teaching college writing mostly but also developing interests in sustainable agriculture and living “off the grid.” I left Louisville considering a career switch from teaching to working in parks or perhaps moving into environmental education. I left two sons, the love of my life, my church, and my dear, dear family and friends. I left people who have loved me my whole life. I left my beloved city, I left my beloved State, and I left my beloved country.

I will be returning to my country in September of this year, as a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, at 48 years old, to my sons, my family, my friends and my community. I may or may not teach college writing on my return; I may or may not even live in Louisville on my return. My life will be brand new and wide open—a clean slate, so to speak. How much of a life change is that?? The feeling of this brand new life awaiting me is exhilarating and terrifying at the same time.

So, have I enjoyed my time in South Africa? I have enjoyed times and moments of my life in South Africa. My life in South Africa has taught me a lot, perhaps mostly it has taught me a lot about myself and how much I love my country Has joining Peace Corps and living in South Africa changed my life?: Most certainly, it has, and more of that will soon be revealed.

Would I do it again? Knowing what I know now, would I join Peace Corps at 46 years old and live and work in South Africa? This is, of course, the “what if” question that I cannot answer at the moment—or perhaps will ever be able to. Maybe in several years, after I see where my life goes and can better tell how the effects of serving South Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer has had on my life, I will be able to say, with a resounding yes, that, certainly, I would do it all over again. I would do it all over again in a heartbeat! We’ll just have to wait and see.


PS. I couldn’t think of what kind of photos to post with this blog. I hope you enjoy seeing more shots of amazing South African children receiving toy bears from the Mother Bear Project.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

On holiday!

An African Harrier-hawk (Polyboroides typus)
Isn’t he gorgeous?
Photo courteous of

So, did I mention?--I’m on holiday.

One of the things I love about the South African school year is that there are a LOT of holidays. There are so many national holidays in the last two weeks of April, that we basically have two weeks off from school.

It all started with Good Friday, April 22. No school!

Then, on Monday, April 25, we had a national holiday and no school: Family Day. I tried to find out the meaning of Family Day but could only find that South Africa changed its name from Easter Monday to Family Day in 1995. So, the Easter weekend has always been a long holiday in South Africa, and now, only the name has changed. It seems that several Canadian provinces, Australia, and a few states in the USA also honor Family Day.

Then, tomorrow, April 27, is Freedom Day, and also a national holiday and no school. This day is honored because 4/27/1994 was the day of the first democratic election held in South Africa after the fall of apartheid. Also, on 4/27/1997, the new South African constitution took effect. So, there is indeed, a reason or two to celebrate Freedom Day in South Africa.

And THEN, on Sunday, May 1, South Africa honors Workers Day. However, Monday, May 2 is a national holiday in honor of Workers Day, so there will be no school. I’ve read that the USA doesn’t honor Worker’s Day because of its communist origins, in that the Trade and Labor Unions of South Africa have always had a strong presence and important political influences in South Africa’s history. (Although, the USA does honor its workers and provide a holiday on Labor Day.)

My Easter dinner: curried rice and lentils with pan-roasted vegetables.  No ham!

So basically, we have a 12 day holiday at the end of April. Many of my fellow Peace Corps friends are traveling now, because this is the last opportunity for volunteers in my group to travel before we come home.
Why didn’t I travel? Well, there are lots of reasons why I didn’t travel, but to boil it all down, it is because I didn’t want to.
I’m at home taking a “stay-cation.” For long holidays, all of the college kids and many of the college staff leave to spend their holidays with their families. So, everyone is GONE! Long holidays are the only time on campus when it is quiet. I happen to enjoy solitude and quiet, so I’m drinking these days up like a sponge.

I had hoped to use this time to initiate a serious job search so that I’ll have employment on my return home in September. However, when I tried to see about jobs on-line, I felt immediate and intense anxiety. So, I don’t want to be anxious on my holiday and have decided to rest and enjoy myself instead.

The weather here in my part of South Africa has been perfect: the nights are cool and comfortable and the days sunny and breezy. I’ve been taking long walks twice a day, morning and afternoon and am enjoying myself. I’m exploring my community a bit, meeting and talking to people, and exploring the thornveld. (The desert’s version of a “forest.”)

The African sky is breathtaking with its huge, white-puffy clouds blowing over and then the later afternoon appearance of the black-bottomed thunder clouds. I will miss the desert sky of South Africa! It truly has been a 24-hour/7-day a week entertainment source for all of my time in Africa.

Fella, my neighbor’s dog keeps me company, and, as with all dogs all over the world, I suppose, LOVES to go walking. He gets all wiggly and bouncy when he sees me changing clothes for a walk. We have a great time and are doing lots of exploring.

I enjoy having this time to better watch the South African birds and study up on plants and trees. I’m saddened to think about how busy I get with school in session that I rarely take time to enjoy South Africa’s natural world. I guess as with my life in the States, I tend to put all my time and energy into my work. (I was hoping to break that nasty habit!!)

So, I’m on holiday! But you guys have some big holidays in a row too: Easter, Derby, Mother’s Day... Hope you’re enjoying it too!


Ok, here you’ll know I have too much time on my hands.
But this was my African sky, with a rainbow, and if you use your imagination,
and look to the lower-middle of the photo, you can see clouds that look like the shape of the African continent!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Fella is a sweetheart, but he is no Ounaai

This is Fella.  Isn't he gorgeous?

Many of you have followed along with my tale of Ounaai, the little African village dog that adopted me. Ounaai came to me last year when I was feeling particularly vulnerable and wiggled her way into my heart so deeply that I hadn’t realized how deep until recently, when she left, to go live happily-ever-after with a South African family who will take very good care of her. I missed her so much when she first left that I cried for days. And even now, with her gone for over a month, I still think about her and miss her very much. (And will cry if I think about her long enough…)

Prior to Ounaai, I strongly disliked friends and family sentimentalizing their pets in a way that made them the most important members of the family. And although I still try very hard not to sentimentalize my African canine friends, I’m finding myself quite a bit more empathetic to the practice. It simply adds another dimension to a person’s life: to care for a dependant creature who is consistently and overly appreciative of the fact.

Ounaai enriched my life in ways no other living person or animal has since arriving in Africa, nearly two years ago. She was consistently happy to see me, so much so that her whole body wiggled with delight on my returns from work days. She was devoted to me and became very protective of me in the very short time we spent together.

Many of you read of my ordeal at having Ounaai spayed. I invested quite a lot of money, time and care into this animal because, well, at that time I was considering extending my stay in Africa another year or two and wanted to avoid the trauma of dealing with several litters of puppies. And, well, as we’ve come to realize in the US, having pets spayed or neutered is simply the most practical way to deal with exploding pet populations that contribute to the suffering of animals. (Sadly, in rural South Africa, spaying or neutering pets is simply not an option, but my community has many, many starving, suffering, and homeless animals that eat garbage and are shunned by people.) It is heartbreaking.

Having Ounaai spayed became urgent for me in January of this year, because, well, she had gone into heat and I witnessed several attempts at her impregnation. While several strange dogs were hanging around, one in particular seemed a favorite: a quiet, passive dog I recognized from my neighbor’s house.

I have known of this dog all of my time in Africa. I have known of him because he is a fellow-colleague’s dog, or if not a family pet, at least a family-cared-for stray. On my walks around campus, I would pass my colleague’s house and another ferocious dog, chained near the house, would lunge at me, barking and acting like he would free himself and come to maul me. All the while this other dog, unchained and completely unrestrained, would lie passively nearby under the shade of a tree with his eyes turned carefully away in submission. While the aggressive dog barked constantly and loudly, I never heard this other dog make a sound.

So, after Ounaai went into heat, this other gentle dog, whom I’ve come to call Fella, was hanging around and I rushed Ounaai as quickly as I could to the vet to have her spayed. Fella hung around a bit longer after Ounaai’s spay, but he seemed very fearful and afraid of me. He acted like he wanted to follow Ounaai into the house and perhaps eat a bit of her supper, but he always seemed too terrified to come in.

Fella being playful

A month or two after Ounaai’s spay, Fella returned to my house and curled up in the tall grass beside the front steps of my house. He seemed terribly wounded: he had gashes of deep cuts in his legs and seemed listless in a way that I thought he had come to me to die: He wouldn’t even rouse himself to clean the flying insects away from his wounds. I would check on him throughout the day to simply see if he were still breathing.

He stayed for a few days and I began offering him a bit of dry dog food and water, outside the house but near him, and he began to feed. Because he seemed so weak and ill, I added a good dose of vegetable oil to his food for extra energy in what I hoped would help with his healing. Miraculously, he became stronger each and every day, but I still worried about his wounds.

As Fella became stronger, he became more and more interested in Ounaai’s being in the house and no doubt curious about what she was eating. He would timidly venture into the house, just a few steps at a time then fearfully retreat to the safety of outside. He did this for quite a long time, never ever seeming able to overcome his fear of being in the house when a miracle happened: one day it rained and he decided he’d rather be in the warm dry house than out in the cold wet day. He stayed in close proximity to Ounaai though, as if he felt safer beside her.

At last! I had Fella in the house and thought I might get some medicine on those wounds!

Fella has obviously been brutalized by people and will not let anyone near him—myself included. Our most stressful time ever has been when I tricked him to go into a small room in my house, closed the door, and basically lunged after him as he fled from me, racing furiously about the room as I tried to smear antibiotic ointment on his wounds. I got a glob of the ointment on the worst wound, and then gave up, but the experience traumatized us both. It was then that I learned Fella does indeed make a sound: he yelps in terror! Later, I would administer his flea/tick treatment and that experience would prove no better.

It wasn’t long after Ounaai’s spay that I found her a home and Ounaai left us. I was heartbroken, of course, but he would look for her too. I had made several “dog beds” and placed them about the house where she liked to lie as she followed me from room to room, and he would diligently check each bed in each room in hopes of finding her. I would gently whisper to Fella, “I know boy. I miss her too….”

I cried myself to sleep for several nights after Ounaai left. My crying must have distressed Fella, because after a few days, he brought me the “gift” of a dead bird in hopes of consoling me. (Or at least, this is how I’ve interpreted the gesture.)

It has been over a month now, and Fella no longer goes from room to room in search of Ounaai. I still think about her and miss her though, and smile at remembering her thumping tail when she was happy to see me. And, although Fella is a sweet dog, and I’m becoming fonder of him, he is no Ounaai.

We miss Ounaai

For one thing, in appearance, they are very different dogs. Ounaai wasn’t the loveliest of dogs: she was short and squat mongrel, had scars on her face, and her eyes could appear orange in color. Fella is a much larger dog, taller, with a narrow face and gentle, dark eyes. He is very attractive.

For another, Ounaai had a long, thick tail that seemed a fifth leg. When I would go looking for her, she would let me know of her presence by thumping her tail. So, if I was wondering if she were under my bed, I would say, “Are you in here?” and she would reply with a “thump, thump, thump.” I loved hearing the sound of her thumping tail.

Fella, on the other hand, has barely a tail at all. His tail seems bobbed or clipped, although I can’t imagine anyone in the village paying for a dog that is altered in such a way—these dogs are usually very expensive! Are any breeds of dogs ever born with stubs of tails that seem bobbed? It’s taken many weeks for Fella to feel safe enough with me that he will cautiously wag it, but his tail is so short, it makes no sound at all.

Ounaai was sharp as a tack. She was very, very clever. Ounaai would mind my voice commands and was easily trained. She would follow me into my village market and tuck herself under a shady tree to wait for me to finish my shopping so she could walk me home. She was confident and assured. Fella follows me into my village market and feels terrorized, becomes disoriented and flees for home. He’s getting better though, and will usually wait for me at the half way mark between my grocer and home. He is very nervous and afraid.

Ounaai would come running to me when she had a nasty South African thorn in her paw pad; she knew I would remove it.  Fella will suffer for weeks with a nasty thorn in his and I pray that a friendly mouse will come along and remove it.

Ounaai stayed out of my way. Although she would follow me from room to room, she would tuck herself up under a piece of furniture or otherwise be out of the way. Fella has decided he likes to lie at the head of my bed and I’m constantly tripping over him. And, as both dogs are outside dogs (read: aren’t bathed), they are unpleasantly fragrant. And Fella is sleeping at the head of my bed… Pee-ew! And he farts too… Eish! Ounaai was very lady-like and did not fart, or not that I noticed.

Ounaai turned her nose up to store-bought dry dog food and I had to work especially hard at “dressing” it to get her to eat it. I would have to sweeten her pot with liquid from the tuna can, olive oil, or pan scrapings to entice her to eat it. She would eat it if hungry enough, but it wasn’t her favorite. Fella, on the other hand, eats it right up. He loves the sound the bag makes and comes running each morning when I prepare to feed him. In fact, while Ounaai would gulp down her cans of nasty wet dog food, Fella won’t touch it. (I learned this fact, sadly, when I had to dig out the pieces of dewormer I had broken up in the wet food hoping he would gulp it down. Yuck!) In this way at least, of eating dry dog food, Fella is easier to care for than Ounaai.

Both dogs submit in a way that they never, ever walk in front of me—always behind, but close behind. I’ve always thought a dog must be trained to do this.

Fella is an unneutered male dog, which I’m learning is much more trouble to deal with than it’s worth! Ounaai, although she would roam, could let herself in and out independently (she was small enough to squeeze through the security bars on my door) and was no trouble at all. Fella, on the other hand, is too large to squeeze through and his roaming urges seem to happen at all hours of the night. I am letting him in and out when I hear him whining. Eish!

Ounaai loved me but was afraid of the camera; Fella is fine with the camera but very afraid of me.

Ounaai was very protective of me. She would gently growl when strangers approached and would bark at night when she was disturbed. Strangers seemed afraid of her. Fella, on the other hand, is absolutely terrified of everything and everyone. I’ve never heard him make a sound, other than his whining to come in or his terrorized yelps when I’m trying to provide some kind of medical care. When strangers approach, he disappears.

However, strangers don’t know this about Fella and just his size and appearance are enough to provide the illusion of protection, or at least I hope this is so. We’ve begun taking long walks together and both of us are enjoying these walks very much. He is beginning to prance and play like Ounaai had, when he realizes I am readying myself for a walk.

It’s amazing watching these creatures transform from quivering, terrified beasts into confident, playful, happy ones. Although I still miss Ounaai sorely, I’m becoming more grateful every day that Fella is around to keep me company.

On my walk to school each day, I pass a starving dog cruelly restrained with about two feet of metal chain. He is scraggly and his eyes are cloudy (a sign of malnutrition.) He is forced to defecate and urinate only inches from where he eats and sleeps and he tries mightily to keep it all neatly mounded and as far from him as possible, as it is rarely removed. My heart aches for this animal and I dread passing by. His spot is in the middle of a dirt yard and he is exposed to the brutally hot sun or the drenching African rain. However, I once passed when his owner was approaching with a plate of food. This dog became animated and playful, leaping excitedly for this attention. I smiled in thinking the animal might know some moments of joy.

The dog died several weeks ago. I would feel sad passing his yard each day, but feel relieved that his suffering had finally ended.

Today when I passed, I realized a new horror awaits: a puppy is chained to the same two feet of metal chain.


Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Saying “Hello” to my last South African winter

A favorite to watch in winter, the hoopoe, or Upapa Africana

Photo courtesy of

When I arrived in South Africa to begin my two years of Peace Corps service, I had left the mid-summer season of Kentucky to come to South Africa’s ending winter—which meant South Africa would soon be warming up. In other words, I was a very lucky girl to experience two summers in a row. Of course, I didn’t have the foresight to realize that, two years later, when leaving South Africa to return to Kentucky, I would weather two winters: We’re entering our winter in South Africa (as you are entering your summer in the States) and when I arrive back home in September, the USA, or at least the Kentuckiana region, will be preparing for the winter season. Drats!

Oh well. I guess having two winters in a row is payment enough for having two summers in a row!

As I write this, I have my first season’s batch of cornbread in the oven and am pan-roasting some root vegetables: two of my favorite wintertime foods.

On arriving in Africa, I was lucky enough to meet and spend a few days with the Peace Corps Volunteer who served at my site prior. She explained South Africa’s season’s in this way: There are really only two: summer and winter. And she’s spot-on! Luckily for us, however, the South African summer is much longer than the South African winter!

In hoping to garden for most of my time in South Africa, I took daily notes on the weather for over a year. This information helps me watch for similar weather conditions this year. According to my notes, by April 22 last year, I was already wearing a coat and gloves. Although we’re not quite that cold yet, I have retired my fan and have donned my pink fleecy pajama pants with green frogs on them. My sister sent me these and I just love them. They are silly enough that I’d never buy such an item for myself but they are such fun I always smile the whole time I wear them. They make me very happy and I’m so glad she sent them.

I’m sure I’ll be digging my heater out from its storage box very soon.

Speaking of my heater… Last year I survived nearly the whole winter without having a heater, but it was an unfortunate and unnecessary experience. To try to live in South Africa without a heater in wintertime is simply TOO PAINFUL. There was no escaping from the painful cold: as soon as I got myself out of bed each morning, I never seemed to thoroughly warm up. My hands and feet were always icy. Going to work at either the primary school or the college provided no relief, as neither the college nor primary school buildings have central heat. I would find myself always in search of a thermostat to turn the heat up, and of course, the thermostat was never to be found! I finally broke down and purchased a heater at the end of winter last year, and felt much more comfortable. I can keep the heater in one small room in my house and close the door, and be toasty and warm. So I’m grateful I will have this important coziness the all of my last winter in Africa.

A favorite to watch in winter, the blue waxbill, or Uraeginthus angolensis
Photo courtesy of

In summertime, the African days are long enough and the sun hot early enough that I can launder and line-dry every washable item in my house in one single day! With the approaching cold, I’m noticing that I feel lucky to get one or two loads of laundry washed and line-dried by the end of the day—and very often, even after drying all day, they’re still not crisply dry like they are in summer.

With the approaching winter, I’ll soon resume my favorite practice of feeding and watering the wild birds. I cease feeding them in summer because, well, there is plenty of food for them to eat and the only birds that seem to frequent my feeding station in summer are the pigeons, which get on my nerves. I’ve already noticed some of my favorite wintertime birds; I don’t think these birds disappear in summer, but I think with the summer’s grass mown, my favorites are easier to see. I’m posting photos of my favorites. These photos are not mine—I don’t have camera equipment of high enough quality to shoot fine photos of wildlife—especially of birds that are in constant motion. These photos are gleaned from the internet.

I think I naturally withdraw a bit and somewhat hibernate when the winter months and cold weather come: I sometimes wonder if I weren’t a bear in a previous life. I’m finding this tendency beginning already, and I’m withdrawing a bit. Now that the afternoon air temperatures are milder, I’ve taken to going for long, late-afternoon walks with Fella (my surrogate African dog), and we seem to avoid people at all costs. I love these walks; it is the only time of my day I don’t have to experience the “fishbowl” effect. Peace Corps warned us of the “fishbowl effect,” and it is the same phenomenon that must drive celebrities absolutely bonkers: being the constant source of curiosity to every single person on the planet each and every single day. The stress of it is constant and relentless. I long to return home and resume my very-much-taken-for-granted ability to blend in and remain an ordinary Joe; to be simply just another Bozo on the bus; to have the ability to hide in a crowd and remain anonymous. I want to come home to people who simply do not care who I am!!

It seems I’ll be spending my last remaining months in Africa working primarily with orphans and vulnerable children. This is fine with me. I’ve had the chance to work with the college, the primary school, and now orphans and vulnerable children and my Pudimoe community.

Ok Kentucky… As your warming and sowing your season’s seeds, I’m gearing up to endure two winters in a row! Wish me luck!


My pink, fleecy pajama pants with green frogs on them!

Monday, April 18, 2011

The King's Speech

''Movie poster courtesy of See-Saw Pictures/Bedlam Productions”
I’ve only now seen the 2010 British historical drama, The King’s Speech, and enjoyed it so much I watched it twice—and paid a fortune to do so! Of course, it’s old news to you guys, as earlier this year the film won four Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director for Tom Hooper, Best Actor for Colin Firth, and Best Screenplay for David Seidler.

This film features the enormously talented Colin Firth, who deservedly won the
Academy Award for Best Actor, but I have only this to say about the film: Geoffry Rush, Geoffry Rush, and Geoffry Rush!

I was introduced to Geoffry Rush’s enormously talented acting in his 1996 film, Shine, and have been a devoted fan since, but I delighted in every moment of Rush’s performance in The King’s Speech. Rush’s acting in this film is simply flawless and The King’s Speech showcases his talents brilliantly. Rush’s performance absolutely steals the show!

The King’s Speech dramatizes the story of King George VI of England’s ascension to the throne after his brother Edward VIII abdicated his rule prior to the beginning of World War II. Although based on historical facts, the film dramatizes the relationship that developed between the reluctant king, George VI, played by Firth, and his speech therapist, Lionel Logue, played by Rush, hired to help the King overcome his embarrassing and un-king-like stammer. The acting of both Firth and Rush is a delight to watch in the seeming sparring match as the men build a tenuous-at-first but ultimately a rich, lifelong relationship between a common man and a royal.

As with the 2006 film, The Queen, starring Helen Mirren, which depicts the lives of the royals in the wake of the tragedy of the death of Princess Diana, The King’s Speech beautifully allows us entry and an insider’s view into the lives of the royal family and what challenges they face as human beings, even though they are under enormous pressure to rise above the thoughts, feelings, and reactions to events as contrasted to those of “the common man.” Stories such as these make the families of the British monarchy more accessible to us all residing in the realm of the “common man.”

Also, since I’ve lived in the time of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, it was great fun to see her portrayed as a child along with her sister, Princess Margaret, under the care of their royal parents. And it was fun too, to see a more playful, witty side of the Queen Mother, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, in her younger years played by the wonderful Helena Bonham Carter.

The story is based on true events but the historical facts are altered to increase the dramatic effect of the film. In particular, the film has been criticized for the portrayal of Winston Churchill’s part in the abdication crisis. In history, Churchill urged King Edward the VII to resist abdicating the throne, but in the film he supports the abdication. It is also said the characters of King Edward and King George V were made more antagonistic than they actually were to increase the dramatic effects of the film as well.

I was delighted in the casting of this film: the roles seem tailor-made for every actor. I can’t imagine anyone better to play the Queen Mother, Helena Bonham Carter, another fabulous actress and a favorite of mine, and Guy Pearce’s performance of King Edward VIII is delightfully wicked. The casting choice of Timothy Spall as Winston Churchill has been criticized, but I found him fine in the role. The more I see of Michael Gambon the more I like and he was a perfect choice to play the superbly strong but ultimately ailing King George V.

At first I was put off by the very dark and murky tone of Danny Cohen’s cinematography: the film seems washed in dark gray tones and I felt I was in a depressing cave the whole time viewing the film. However, such cinematography wonderfully captures the mood and dreariness of nineteenth century England at the beginning of another World War as Hitler and Nazism came to power. The costume designer Jenny Beaven was spot-on and it was fun to see the royals decked out in their impeccable clothes as contrasted to the attire of Logue and his family’s “commoner’s” fashion.

Again, I delighted in the film and felt a personal connection as I’ve lived in the time of the reign of the current Queen, Elizabeth II. I loved an insider’s seat to the story of her mother and father and I found myself, a closeted anglophile, running to brush up on my British history as soon as I left the theater. This film is a definite must-see if you missed it—and Geoffry Rush single-handedly steals the show!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Health Symposium, Spider bites, and sight-seeing in Pretoria

Union Buildings in Pretoria

Hello all!

Peace Corps provides its in-country volunteers with training opportunities throughout a volunteer’s service. For example, we’re provided six weeks of training when we first arrive in-country to prepare us for living in a new country with a new language, a new culture, and (usually) new work assignments.

We’re provided more opportunities for training as our time passes: training opportunities to prepare us for teaching life skills and permagarden skills for our schools and communities; training opportunities to prepare us for grant writing; training opportunities to prepare us for community and school project management; and training opportunities to prepare us for helping our schools or NGOs with organizational development.

As a volunteer nearing my Close of Service (my Peace Corps contract ends in September of this year), I thought my training opportunities had all passed. However, I was surprised and delighted to learn that Peace Corps, in partnership with PEPFAR (The U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief), was hosting yet one more training opportunity for me to attend: a Health Symposium hosted in a hotel near Pretoria for a week.

Often, our trainings invite us to bring along our counterpart from our communities: the people we most closely work with in our schools. My counterpart is a superstar teacher from my primary school, Rebecca, and also an HOD (Head of Department) in our school. She has accompanied me to all of the Peace Corps trainings I’ve attended in South Africa.

It’s strange, because as Rebecca and I live in the same community and work for the same school, you’d think we’d have all the time in the world to discuss matters related to our primary school. But for some reason, we seem to “fire up” for these training sessions and not only do we benefit from the actual training sessions, we also benefit from having this concentrated time together to think and talk about projects for our school. In every training, we seem to put our heads together and get really excited about projects for our school.

This time together was no exception; in fact, I think it was the best training time ever for us to spend together. There was, however, one problem.

The Friday before I was to travel to Pretoria, I noticed an especially itchy, what I thought at the time, a mosquito bite. Other than the itchiness and trying not to scratch it, I didn’t pay the bite much mind. (Due to the rain, the mosquitoes at my sight had become very bad, but in my stubbornness at witnessing the splendor of the South African sunsets, I continued to sit on my porch steps each evening for the sky show—and of course, was eaten alive each evening by mosquitoes! But it was worth it!)

Rebecca and I spent all day Sunday on the taxi travelling from Pudimoe to Pretoria. When we arrived, I noticed a sharp pain on the inside of my left leg. I would soon learn that my lymph nodes, in my groin area, were swollen in reaction to the insect bite.

On Monday, sessions started and my leg at the bite site became very painful and the bite was growing bigger and looking more threatening. By Tuesday, I had contacted Peace Corps medical and by that evening, had started antibiotics. Even with the medication, the wound and the pain from it seemed to worsen and I was also experiencing other unpleasant symptoms: head/body aches, fever/chills, malaise and I started developing shooting pains from the insect bite.

Throughout all of this, I attended sessions and felt Rebecca and I were doing very good work together. By Thursday though, I could bear it no more and left the Health Symposium to seek medical attention in Pretoria. (The hotel of the conference was located just south of Pretoria.)

I hated to leave Rebecca and the good work we were doing, but, well, I was no longer able to function on a professional level. She was able to remain at the Health Symposium and complete the training, even though I felt dreadful leaving her.

Long story short: my doctors were never completely convinced of the cause of my bite or the illness that may or may not have resulted from it. The doctors kept me in Pretoria much longer than I wanted just to monitor my condition and watch how I reacted to and recovered with the antibiotics. I was not able to return to Pudimoe until Wednesday, the week after the Health Symposium finished.

Now, a bit of information on me and Pretoria. I don’t visit Pretoria often and I usually only visit for medical reasons. If I am visiting Pretoria for a medical reason, I usually don’t feel very good. There are tons of fun things to do in Pretoria, but again, I have only visited Pretoria when I wasn’t feeling well and haven’t had the opportunity to “site see” in the Jacaranda City.

So, last week, I was in Pretoria, not feeling well, but staying in this dark, damp, depressing hostel room that felt filthy. I didn’t feel I was in a situation that fostered recovery so I did everything I could to get out of that filthy room every day, even though I didn’t feel well. (Peace Corps does provide a very nice venue for recuperating volunteers, but I was told “you must have a broken leg or something” to stay there.)

So, I got out every day and hobbled about Pretoria. Interestingly, I saw more sights on this visit to Pretoria than I’ve had in nearly two years of living in South Africa.

A dear and new friend Amy B, helped me hobble to the lovely Union Buildings of Pretoria, and graciously took these photos that you see here. If I look a bit green around the gills, it is because I was feeling a bit green around the gills. The buildings were absolutely lovely and I couldn’t believe how lush and well-kept the grounds were. It is now my favorite place in Pretoria and I’m so glad Amy helped me to get there.

I, with vendors in the background, standing beside some fabulous scarlett sage.

Here is a bit of information about the Union Buildings of Pretoria, taken from the 2004 edition of Lonely Planet’s South Africa: Lesotho & Swaziland:

“These buildings are the headquarters of government, South Africa’s equivalent to the Kremlin. The impressive red sandstone structures—with a self-conscious imperial grandeur—are surrounded by expansive gardens and are home to the presidential offices.

The architect was Sir Herbert Baker, who was responsible for many of the best public buildings constructed immediately after the Union of South Africa was formed” (411).

Since the buildings are an actual operating seat of the government, South African President Jacob Zuma may have been there that very day! And Mandela gave a historical speech from there on his release from prison. Thanks Amy for the lovely photos!

Again, I was in Pretoria, somewhat against my will and very uncomfortable. In the end, I convinced the drs. to let me return to Pudimoe to finish my recovery. Although the bite and the illness still remain something of a mystery, I feel it was a spider bite, rather than an infected mosquito bite, that caused my illness.

I’m very glad to be back in Pudimoe where I feel much more able to rest and better recover. So, sorry so quiet, but that is what has been up with me!