Friday, May 20, 2011

An anniversary of a different kind…

Notice lights glowing in the distance--these are from homes in Pudimoe

I’m celebrating and acknowledging my Peace Corps swear-in date, which is the 17th of each month, on Facebook. As my time for returning home draws nearer, I’m becoming more and more excited—especially on the 17th of each month and am having fun counting down the days!

However, I’m quietly celebrating another anniversary of a different kind. In May of 2010, I relocated my Peace Corps South Africa living situation from a very busy, boisterous “dorm room” setting, to a much more private residence on campus in a permanent “caravan home” at my college. (In the States, we call these “trailers,” or at least we used to call them this.) So, I’m celebrating a year in my little trailer here at the college and have been very, very happy living in it.

It was difficult for me to ask to move out of the “hostile hostel,” which I jokingly, but somewhat truthfully, began calling it. For one thing, when compared with my fellow Peace Corps volunteers, having my own private “flat,” with a separate kitchen and bath space, even if inside a girls’ dormitory, was considered a “Posh Corps” living assignment, and many of my friends expressed jealousy. For Pete’s sake, I had indoor plumbing, a bathtub, and a flushed toilet! (Many, many of my fellow volunteers live in homes without indoor plumbing and haul water for drinking and household use from a community tap.) For another, there was a lot I liked about living in the dormitory, especially my large glass windows that provided an “IMAX” viewing experience while watching the drama of the African sky. And when things felt threatening outside, be it a weather-related storm or a soccer-related storm (I could overlook the campus soccer field from my room), I felt snug and secure inside my second-floor castle room in a cinder-block building.

After eight months of desperately trying to find happiness in my dorm room existence, I did ask to move. I was living with, well, college-aged kids who were joyful, boisterous, and loud during restful hours. Also, since I was a captured audience, I had frequent visitors and it was difficult to hide if I need to rest or be alone. But there were other things about it, that were much more unpleasant. For example, the building itself was infested with rats and African-sized cockroaches and about 200 girls and I were pad-locked into the building each evening with no possible escape in the case of an emergency (and no sprinkler system in case of a fire). While I was living there, a sewage pipe burst and raw sewage bubbled up out of the ground underneath my bathroom window for months. Also, the building lost water and electricity regularly.

However, even with these undesirable living conditions, there was something else much more intolerable to me: Strange men would visit the dormitory on weekend nights and the solicit college-aged girls. I found this to be the least tolerable circumstance of my living situation and eventually asked to move. (Yes, yes, I did make my campus supervisors aware of this unacceptable issue but unfortunately, nothing was done. There are cultural differences between American and South African attitudes regarding sexual relations between “older men” and “young girls.” Although I find the practice unacceptable, unfortunately and sadly, it is accepted here.)

When I made my supervisor aware of my wish to make other living arrangements, she encouraged me to “start looking around” for other possibilities. I was assigned two schools, as we all are, and in addition to the college, was working for a primary school out in the village. I began seeking a place to live off-campus, as I preferred to live in the village anyway.

Before I decided to move I was in the habit of strolling around the campus and had found a row of caravan homes—trailers—that I learned were occupied by educators at the college. There was one abandoned trailer and I began to long for it. It hadn’t been inhabited for quite some time, so I wasn’t even sure if it were habitable. I found myself visiting a picnic table on campus and sitting dreamily, eyeing the vacant trailer and praying for the possibility of living there.

Long story shorter: I did find someplace else to live in the village, but hadn’t realized the problem of the college “losing face” if I left it. In rural South African culture, to be embarrassed or seen to “lose” something is highly, highly undesirable—and for the college, to “lose” their Peace Corps volunteer to a village home would have been embarrassing.

I approached the college about moving into the vacant trailer.

Now, keep in mind, no one had lived in the trailer for quite some time. I knew there was a reason it was uninhabited and figured it must be in pretty bad shape. At this point however, I would have rather lived in a pitched tent in the back lot of the college than in the dorm room, so I asked to see it. As imagined, it was in pretty bad shape: the stairs providing entry way to the trailer weren’t there, the toilet didn’t flush, the cold-only water trickled out of the faucets, the hot water heater needed replacing, and there were hot wires coming out of most of the electrical outlets. Furthermore, while I had water and electricity provided by the college in the dorm room, I would need to purchase my own electricity for the trailer.

I didn’t mind any of these things—I’LL TAKE IT!

My change in residence needed to be approved by Peace Corps, especially in regards to my safety and security. With my Peace Corps supervisor’s help, we negotiated repairs and made arrangements to have security bars put in place.

My new home was becoming a reality!

Well, in the end, there was quite a bit of unhappiness involved with my move. I would later learn that, even though the trailer had sat vacant for quite some time, my South African colleagues—fellow educators—raised quite a stink at my “getting” to move into the trailer when they were without campus housing. They viewed my moving as an example of “white privilege.” So AFTER Peace Corps had installed security doors and AFTER I had moved myself in (I hired college kids to help me move—none of my peers were interesting in helping); AFTER I had scrubbed as much of the filth and grime away as I could, I get a visit from the campus manager to explain that everyone at the college was upset at my preferential treatment and no, they wouldn’t be repairing the hot wires, the toilet, the stairs, or the hot water heater after all.

I was FURIOUS. :-)

In the end, I got to stay, and, well, the live wires were repaired, the stairs somewhat replaced, and the college bought me a “mini-geyser,” which is basically a device you drop into your bath water to heat it. Many, many rural South Africans heat their bath water with pots on the stove, pots over a wood-fire, or with electric kettles.

I was also warned too, by a sympathetic South African, that the trailer sitting unprotected from the African sky “would be an icebox in the winter, and an oven in the summer.” And she was absolutely right about this! It does become an easy-bake oven in the summer and now that winter is coming, has turned into an icebox.

However, even with the dramatic extremes in temperature, even with the disgruntled college educators, even with faulty wiring and a toilet that doesn’t flush, I’m much happier here and have been—for a whole year. I have privacy, I have a “yard,” I can garden, I can line-dry my clothes, I can “hide” if I need privacy or space, I have space to accommodate overnight guests, I have an oven, and yes, I have indoor-plumbing and a bathtub! I have been much, much happier here in my little African home and am grateful to have had it.

As my time in South Africa draws to a close, I’m rearranging my little trailer home one last time: I’m moving my “living area” back to my bedroom, which is on the east-facing end of the house, so I have good, direct sunshine (and heat!!) all of the day. Also, I have a door that I can shut to keep in the heat from an electric heater that I eventually broke down and bought last winter (after foolishly trying to “tough it out” most of the winter!)

I’m finding in the mornings now, I’m waking warm with my heater on, and dress into warm clothes, and then exit into the kitchen of my trailer—which is ice cold. I warm water immediately to wash and prepare my coffee. For my coffee, I must warm my cup and milk or, because my dishes are so cold, my coffee ends up being tepid. I return to my warm bedroom, which now has become my “living room,” to prepare for my workday. With my heater and my rearranged living space, I’m warm enough now that I go off to school feeling warm and my mornings feel bearable, rather than last year when I felt my hands and feet nothing but blocks of ice all winter.

In my rearranging my house for my last winter in Africa, I’m also making a mental note of who I’ll be leaving my Peace-Corps-purchased belongings to. (While Peace Corps provides us funds to set up our households, they also ask that when we leave and return to our homes in the States, that these same household furnishings be distributed to needy members of our communities.) I will be finding a home for my bed, my wardrobe (these were actually provided by the South African Department of Education), my linens, my fan, my dishes and all kitchen pots and utensils, my electric kettle, and yes, my heater. I’ve met some wonderful people here in my time in Africa, and have “earmarked” my friends for these things along the way.

Since my group is in the School and Resource Project classification in South Africa, most of us finish our teaching and work with schools at the end of June. By wrapping up our professional work assignments, and after an extended school break in July, this leaves us a month or so to say our goodbyes to our communities.

My Peace Corps service is quickly coming to an end. Although I’ve been away from home and not seen my family members, I’m already hearing my loved ones say, “It doesn’t seem like it has been two years.” (Meaning, for them, time has gone quickly.) For me, it has definitely felt like two years and has felt like a VERY LONG TIME.

So, I’m counting the days and gearing up for my last winter in South Africa knowing this one, with my heater, will be much more comfortable. I have loved living in my little trailer home and am sure I’ll feel sad to leave it.

Soon, Karen

PS. Although my dorm room provided an “IMAX” view, my trailer allowed “amphitheater seating”—and these pictures are of “my” South African sky.


Sunday, May 15, 2011


Movie poster courtesy of Spyglass Entertainment, Revelations Entertainment, Malpaso Productions, and Warner Bros. Pictures
I came to South Africa to serve with Peace Corps in 2009 and the country was already very excited about World Cup Soccer to be hosted in South Africa in 2010 with soccer teams competing from all over the world. I’m not a sports fan, but the excitement for the upcoming soccer competitions was contagious—you couldn’t go anywhere in South Africa and not hear about the upcoming World Cup games. South Africa hosted one big party from June through the end of July, 2010.

Also in 2009, the year I came to South Africa, a film about the South African World Cup Rugby games hosted in South Africa in 1995, Invictus, was released in the United States and starred Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela. The film was based on John Carlin’s book, Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Changed a Nation, that recounts Mandela’s political strategy of using a national sport—rugby—to unify a newly democratic South Africa in 1995.

Please note the difference: 1995 was a rugby match and 2010 was a soccer match—this distinction has racial implications for South Africa.

The film’s title, Invictus, is also the title of a poem written by English poet, William Earnest Henley, a poem that inspired Nelson Mandela while in prison and in a way he hoped to pass along to the captain of the Springboks, François Pienaar. Translated from Latin, “invictus” means “undefeated” or “unconquered” and the film uses the poem as a core theme.

If you watch the film, Invictus, you will see a lot of the South Africa I see and live in, and you will be under the impression that at that one moment in time, when the South African Springboks defeated the New Zealand All-Blacks in that famous game in 1995, that the racial tensions in South Africa at the end of apartheid were completely healed thus culminating in “the Rainbow Nation.” I too, came to South Africa, under the impression that Mandela had done great things and that South Africa was truly a diverse and happily homogeneous—but racially diverse-- population, an impression that I was saddened to learn very quickly that does not exist, at least it does not exist among the South Africans that I live with. When I first arrived in SA, not understanding much about sports and soccer, I was asking a white South African about the World Cup Soccer and was told that white South Africans enjoy rugby while black South Africans enjoy soccer. (A “joke” in regards to this reference is made in the movie.)

I was also struck with how the black South African college kids that I lived with were outraged that an American actor, Morgan Freeman, was cast as their beloved Nelson Mandela. I told them that of course, it was an American made movie and that the movie makers were mostly interested in making money. But it saddened me to see how this one casting choice stood as yet another example of American imperialism: we’ll choose an American actor to play a famous South African leader.

Here are some general impressions that I came away with after watching the film:
• In the opening shot, you will see two schools: a white school and a black school. The white school children are impeccably dressed in smart uniforms, are attending a fine school, are practicing rugby, and are playing on grass. The black school children, on the other hand, are dressed in street clothes, are attending a modest school, are practicing soccer, and are playing on dirt. This opening shot, I believe, best represents the racial divisions that I still see in South Africa today. The two schools are divided by a road that Mandela’s entourage will travel and you will see the black children excited at Mandela’s passing and the white children observing with contempt. The white coach advises his team to “remember this day when our country went to the dogs.” Sadly, I still see these attitudes in the South Africa today.

Also, the family’s attitude of the white South African rugby team captain, François Pienaar, especially the father’s comments, mirror those of what I still see in white South Africans today, that “they (black South Africans) will take our jobs and drive us into the sea.”

• In the film, you will see wonderful aerial shots of Cape Town and Table Mountain National Park, where I spent Christmas holiday, 2010. Also, the South African rugby team trains in Cape Town throughout the film and there are lovely shots of Table Mountain against the backdrop of the city. These are the same views I experienced while in Cape Town, and yes, the city and the mountains are truly this beautiful.

• The film opens with the South African song, “Shosholoza,” and we, as Peace Corps volunteers were taught on our arrival in-country. The song was used controversially in the past by black South Africans as a show of solidarity in defiance of the apartheid government. Mandela speaks of singing the song with other prisoners while during his imprisonment on Robben Island. The song has since become a source of national pride and you will often hear it at sporting events and other national competitions.

• Many of the shots of Mandela as a statesman are at the Pretoria Union Buildings that I recently visited. Yes, these buildings are this grand and beautiful and I can only imagine how exciting it must have been to be in that crowd and hear the great Nelson Mandela at the fall of the apartheid era.

• In the film, we see Mandela residing in a “fortress-like” home with high security measures in place. This is how I see all white South Africans living in the South Africa of today: all of their homes are fortresses.

• Mandela was a brilliant political strategist, something you get a much better idea of in John Carlin’s book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Changed a Nation (on which the film is based) and in my reading about him, I find myself comparing to Mandela to Abraham Lincoln in thinking about how these men were simply brilliant in their political strategies. When Mandela won the first democratic election in South Africa in 1994, the white South African Afrikaners hated black South Africans and vice versa, and this hatred had raged for 50 years. You get a sense of this hatred in the film when the police force, both newly-appointed members and members of the old regime are forced to work together at Mandela’s request: these racial tensions in the film are depicted as very, very high. (Also an attitude that I’m sad to report exists still today.)

What was brilliant about Mandela, is he knew that to undermine the racial hatred in his country was to approach the white South Africans, the Afrikaners, with their language, their history, and their culture. Mandela spent many of his years in prison learning everything he could about Afrikaners, and was especially careful to learn the Afrikaaner language.

Because Invictus is an American-made film, the actors are speaking in English and we lose the significance of the impact of Nelson Mandela speaking Afrikaans to every white South African he encountered and the impression that made. Therefore, in the scenes we see with Mandela and the Springbok’s captain, François Pienaar, they are speaking in English. In reality, Mandela would have been speaking to Pienaar in Afrikaans, not in English.

• There is also a shot in the film that juxtaposes the white reality of a white South African farm, a large, spacious, well-established house surrounded in an abundance of gorgeous landscape against the black reality of a crowded and poverty-stricken township: we see the sun rising over a “city” of tin shacks, where people live on top of each other. I see this as very much a stark reality in the South Africa of today, that the white South Africans are still in the role of the “haves” and black South Africans are still oppressed and limited in their roles of the “have nots.” Also, in the shots of the townships, you will see the donkey carts, street vendors, and street markets that are common in my village and shopping town. In several shots of the movie, you can see vendors selling their wares on busy streets, something along the lines of having people selling things on the side of I-65 in America, and yes, this actually happens in South Africa.

• In the film, you will see black South African women in roles of domestic servants (still a large reality today); notice their clothing of the drab fabric you frequently see black South African women wearing today. The cloth is still the least expensive of any cloth you can buy in the shops and is still the primary cloth used in “traditional” black South African fashions.

• The first rugby match in the film is played in Loftus Stadium in Pretoria. I have visited this stadium a couple of times: there is a restaurant inside that you can sit, and eat, and watch the teams practice. The rugby match of the World Cup match is played in Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg. I have not seen this stadium.

• At one point in the film, you see black South Africans being “led” by a choir in singing the South African national anthem, Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika. Black South Africans would never, ever need a choir to lead them in song; furthermore, the spontaneous singing of black South Africans is much more beautiful than that depicted in the film.

• Something fun to watch for: Clint Eastwood, the director of the film, cast one of his sons, who looks just like him, as one of the Springbok rugby team players. See if you can spot him. Also, Matt Damon is cast as François Pienaar, the white South African rugby captain of the Springboks. Mr. Damon is fine in the role but he is an American actor cast with true South African rugby players. If you’ll notice Mr. Damon’s physique when compared to the other rugby players, Mr. Damon is shockingly smaller than the sportsmen.  Rugby players are giants, literally and in every way.

• At one point in the film, the rugby players tour Robben Island and the infamous prison where Mandela served most of his 27 years in prison. Yes, the prison cell in the film depicted as Mandela’s is indeed, the actual prison cell of Nelson Mandela. In the film, the “tour guide” is a white South African. However, I’m told that former inmates of the prison on Robben Island currently serve as tour guides—black South Africans and former inmates—and that these tours are not to be missed.

• Notice that the crews sweeping a rain-soaked rugby field are black South African women.

• The Pienaar’s black South African domestic servant is invited to attend the World Cup match. Watch for her to do the famous cry of black South African women: “Lee, lee, lee, lee!” I have been practicing this cry and am not very good at it, but hope to be able to demonstrate it for you when I come home.

• During the famous match, the film depicts black South African’s watching the match on TV in a liquor store: Zuki’s Liquor Store. You see these kinds of stores all over South Africa and they are made secure by the walls of metal grating that you see in the scenes. I have to say too, that the black South Africans watching the match on TV in the film are much more sedate and subdued than I imagine they would have been. I have never seen a group of black South African men gathered together and being quiet.

• In the film, you get a sense of the reluctance of the white South African rugby team to learn the new South African anthem: Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika. In the book, you get a much better idea of how the team’s learning of the song and then singing it publically impacted the nation. Also, the fact that Nelson Mandela wore the Springbok jersey and cap at the match was a very, very controversial gesture and you don’t quite grasp the significance of it by watching the film only—it’s better understood by reading the book. The Springboks as a team and especially the colors of their uniforms were strongly representative—to black South Africans—of the apartheid government and its brutality for a very long time.

• One of my favorite parts of the film is the closing credits: Mr. Eastwood has included actual photographs of the winning Springbok 1995 rugby team, so you get to see pictures of François Pienaar and his teammates during the world-famous match. It gave me cold chills to see them.

Again, the movie closes and gives the impression that black and white South Africans were united as one nation that day in love and kinship. This is the impression I hoped to see and experience in my two years in South Africa. I’m very sad to say, however, that the racial relations I have observed between white and black South Africans is hardly loving and kind.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Happy Mother's Day

Morning glories, having been mowed all the way back, but bloom beautifully still.
The little black barbs in the center--these are the seeds to South Africa's ubiquitous "black jack."
These seeds are in my bed, in my clothes, and everywhere in my house!  They're everywhere!

It is my second and last Mother’s Day in South Africa. I didn’t post last year for Mother’s Day, and can’t remember why.  Mother’s Day always seems to sneak up on me--something happens with being too busy in April, with Easter and all.  And then, as a Louisvillian, the beginning of May signifies the coming of the Kentucky Derby for me, not Mother’s Day.

So, for this holiday especially, I run late with cards and greetings. And this one is no exception. So, if you’re a mother in my life, a card is on the way, but it will reach you after the fact. However, I’m thinking of you today, on Mother’s Day, so Happy Mother’s Day!

I’m posting photos of plants still surviving in my garden. These plants have endured a brutally hot, South African summer sun, the constant-throughout-the-whole-season-attack by hungry goats, a horrible infestation of weeds, a full, down-to-the-ground mowing, and a light frost. They have been growing for seven months and keep cycling through blooming, fruiting, and destruction —yet they endure. They are survivors and they are resilient, like mothers.

My green beans are blooming again!

I am a mother of sons, but I never think about my sons on Mother’s Day. I think instead about my mother, my grandmother, and my aunt--the “major” mothers of my life. I also think of the grandmothers I have lost and how important they were to me—and still are to me. And I think of others who are favorite mothers: this year a favorite niece is a new mother and I can’t wait to come home and see my grandniece! Two of my best friends are mothers, and one of my spiritual guides is a powerful woman who has raised a wonderful family.

I am blessed with many mothers in my life!

I woke this morning, early this Mother’s Day, to a text message from a fellow Peace Corps volunteer who is also a mother. Like me, she longs for home and family, and like me, has longed for them since she arrived in South Africa two years ago. I enjoyed very much this early morning Mother’s Day greeting, and we commented about how the closer the time comes to being reunited with our families, the longer the time seems to tick on “this side.” We both ache for home and on Mother’s Day, we are missing our families and our sons.

This is my amaranth... You can see the stalks lying on the ground--they were mowed down to the ground.
However, the amaranth refuses to give up and is generating new growth--and new growth with seeds!

There is a six hour time difference, so my early morning calls to express Mother’s Day greetings might come at 3:00 am.  This, as you can imagine, might not be so happily received, even by the kindest and most compassionate of moms, so I decided to treat myself  to a “Happy Mother’s Day” walk instead of waking all of the women in my family in the middle of the night.  Mother’s Day is celebrated in South Africa too, so on my early morning walk, a wonderful young man greeted me, “ Good morning Madam, and Happy Mother’s Day.” Since he seemed the same age as my sons, I smiled especially big at hearing it.

As I walked, I thought about the roles of motherhood and the women who have served as mothers in my life. In thinking about these women and the definition of “mother,” I started wondering about what makes a mother what a mother is: What defines motherhood?

Must one give birth to a child to be a mother? What about adoptive moms? What about widowed dads? What about grandparents who “take on” the responsibility of raising their grandkids? What about older siblings taking on the maternal role of an absent parent or parents?

My tomatoes, also mown all the way back, are resprouting and reblooming! 
It was a cold, rainy morning, so the blooms are closed up tight--but they're there!

And what about those dads, anyway? Can a dad be a mom? Of course a dad can be a mom: dads cook, clean, bathe, protect, and care for their children. Dads are certainly moms—or can be.

What about children? Can a child be a mom? Ever watched a little girl—or boy—care for a baby doll? A beloved stuffed-animal? Or a puppy?

What about women who haven’t birthed children? I have dear, childless friends who watch over me, are protective, nurturing, loving, kind, and maternal—they care for me. Same goes for childless male friends.

When I think about my mom and the other mothers in my life, these are the qualities I see: strength, perseverance, creativity, kindness, compassion, a giving nature, patience, quick-thinking, is fiercely-protective, smart, capable, loving, warm, faithful, loyal, and generous. However, in my musings, I found the consistent quality of “mothering” and the “ability to mother” is the demonstration of care. All mothers I know care and care deeply about another or others.

A watermelon on the vine that has been mowed, eaten, frozen, etc.

My faithful remaining one plant of Swiss chard. 
The goats and I fight over it.
And what about this notion of giving birth, after all? Must we give birth to a child? What about giving birth to ideas, art, music, sculpture, and literature. Can we care about our ideas? Our art? Our films? Our stories? What about being a mother to kindness? Or a mother to compassion? Or a mother to patience? What about giving birth to a garden or a flower arrangement? How about giving birth to a salad or decadent soup? What about giving birth to a political movement or a new ideology? What about giving birth to a new nation? What about giving birth to a new earth or a new world? What about giving birth to a new way of life?

We are all mothers who care—or could all be mothers who care! So, Happy Mother’s Day to all of us, Happy Mother’s Day to everyone!

And a very special Happy Mother’s Day to my Mom, my Grandma, and my Aunt Bea. Thank you for caring especially for me!