12/7: So my flimsy door hasn’t taken too well to the rainy season. Several months ago, after a particularly heavy rain, the wood expanded so much that after I yanked it open the wood split half way up the side. Ever since then the life of the door to my hut has been a bit touch and go. Today it took a turn for the worse when what seemed to be monsoon rains threatened to seep its soon to be moldy fangs into my few prized possessions. I covered my floor with buckets and pots to keep the streams of water from my thatched roof at bay and had a complicated series of rags set up to concentrate the encroaching water from under my door to a designated area. All of this maneuvering amounted to a moderate amount of success but unfortunately when I woke up the next morning I couldn’t open my door. I eventually resorted to a sort of good cop, bad cop scenario where I would attempt to wiggle the door loose gently then pull it as hard as I could. Nothing worked. I was sitting in the pool of water, which my rags so effectively created, soaked in sweat, no closer to ever getting out of my hut. The bottom half of my door hasn’t been flush with the door jamb for quite some time so I was able to squeeze my fingers in the gap and throw my body weight backwards in one last ditch effort to not be held captive in my hut like some modern day Rapunzel. The door flung open as I took several huge leaps backward from the momentum and with it came the door handle. My Peace Corps supervisor should be coming to approve my new housing on Monday and after that burglar bars need to be put on the window and door of my new room. So realistically I need to deal with this surly door for just a few more weeks, that’s nothing in African time. I’ve since duct taped the latch closed and I slip my PC Emergency card through the door jamb at night so that I don’t get stuck inside again. As I write this a few days later, the door issue continues to be a daily comical endeavor.
12/9: Today I went to a belated World AIDS Day event. Before it started a teacher sought out advice from Tshengie and me concerning a young girl on our hot meal program. She’s worried about Zihle, who happens to be my very favorite child on our feeding scheme, and yes I play favorites. She’s around 8 years old and has a developmental delay along with what I have guessed is mild cerebral palsy, not to mention one of the biggest smiles I’ve ever seen. She has seven siblings who have all been orphaned by AIDS. They currently live with her grandmother who neither feeds them nor bathes them properly. The teacher explained that Zihle fainted Monday at school and was taken to the clinic. The nurse asked when she had last eaten and she said on Friday afternoon on our meal program. The teacher was concerned as to what Zihle and her siblings would do when Zamimpilo closes for four weeks during the holidays. One of her sisters saw me at the event and her teacher had to peel her off of me when I was summoned to the head table. These kids are so starved for attention (among other things) and it just breaks my heart to imagine them suffering. It’s humiliating enough to go to school dirty, without shoes and a functional zipper on your dress which is three sizes too small let alone to do that hungry and without parents. These are some of the most resilient children I’ve ever met, if anyone deserves a break it’s them.
12/10: Today I went to a fellow PCV’s pledge drive event for her org. I thought the idea of enlisting local businesses to help sustain her NGO was a fantastic idea. Unfortunately, the local businessmen didn’t seem to agree and it wasn’t well attended. On the positive side, that left me and the few other attendees with an absurd amount of food. I sat amongst dozens of empty chairs shoveling food into my mouth for the better part of the afternoon. It was wonderful.
Another highlight was talking to two of my co-workers who had just come back from a conference in Cape Town. Naturally, a fancy training such as this was organized by the holier-than-thou Isibindi, nothing that the lowly staff of peon Zamimpilo would be invited to. The week before I was approached by Siyah, one of the staff members elected to go to the conference. He requested I walk him through every single step of riding on an airplane, including exactly what one looks like. I was so excited to hear how the plane ride went, along with the training. They were both so excited, no detail was spared.
12/11: I had a relaxing day with my shadow who seemed to have been slipped some sort of stimulant because she was quite literally throwing her body against walls. It was quite bizarre. Eventually she wore herself out by running around in circles and when I turned around, concerned at the sudden lack of commotion, I saw her curled up in a little ball on the floor, asleep.
12/12: So today I was tricked into going to church…again. This is the second time a local pastor has used the vague ‘community event’ ploy to hook me into going to what is, in reality, a church service with people fainting, speaking in tongues and performing exorcisms. It lasts four hours on average. He wasn’t entirely wrong when he claimed that this was a Christmas event because he did hand out a few food parcels…one of which he awkwardly gave to me in addition to a gigantic bag of cookies. So I stood there with the haggard old women and children in rags to smile for the camera. I was also asked to give a speech. It was written in the program as, ‘speeches of VIPs.’ I am never going to some community event mumbo jumbo again.
12/13: Today my Peace Corps supervisor flew from the capitol to approve my new housing. Even though his flight was delayed several hours it was a veritable Alena, Tshengie, Matseke love fest; all of us mutually enjoying our jobs and each other’s company. If I was a fly on the wall I probably would have vomited by the sheer cheesiness factor but as a participant I embraced it.
12/14: So I was up before dawn to scrub my new room. Today was also the teddy bear distribution event so I couldn’t stay long. It was comical to have two pressing events in one day when there are weeks that go by without something so burning, let alone two items on the agenda. My new host family didn’t seem to share my sense of urgency and after the first round of tea was finished and the popular soap opera watched, I put my foot down when the young girl was sent to get fried dough from a neighbor for the second round of tea. Sadly this was taken with much disappointment but I had a wheelbarrow calling my name. I carried one of large boxes filled with teddy bears on my head until Sindi took one look at me and basically told me to hand it over to the pro. I gladly traded her for the wheelbarrow full of boxes.
Even though our MC, Mpostol, was belligerently drunk, I still consider our event a huge success. The kids just loved getting the bears. I never saw one without its rightful owner and many were fed lunch and had lively conversations with their fellow bear friends. There was lots of cuddling. It was wonderful to give 150 children what will probably be their only Christmas gift.
The chaos, though suppressed for the duration of the event, came to a head soon after. My go go gave Tshengie a non-negotiable ultimatum which involved me leaving the following day. This made the laundry list of necessities needing to be fixed/purchased, which is what the approval of my housing is hinged upon, quite literally impossible to accomplish. In addition to trying to have a civil discussion with Tshengie concerning this matter, I had hoards of caregivers bombarding me with guilt-riddled pleas for the extra teddy bears. “This will be my child’s only Christmas gift, please!” “I have a list of orphans who are suffering, they have nothing.” Woman after woman came into the tiny office until I was swimming in begging co-workers. I could barely come up for air before Tshengie attempted to recruit me to fight some of her fires with her. I told her that I wasn’t doing too well on my own over here. In reality I was drowning. I had 14 teddy bears and grown women were stuffing them in their blouses and refusing to fork them over. I was on the brink of tears in the corner of a tiny office being suffocated by prayers for leniency having to play the bad guy. After I put my foot down, I left the room and was immediately surrounded by smiling children holding their bears. As I walked outside I was flooded with happiness, the children’s joy was seeping out of their pores. And yes, though sometimes my job is difficult, today was a good day.
12/15: Today was moving day. I went over to my go go’s house early in the morning to give her my thank you gifts for hosting me for almost a year. She’s been so unpredictable I didn’t know how she would react but I didn’t expect disbelief. Once reality sunk in she moved from denial to full on hysterics. She was begging me to stay in between heaving sobs. I reminded her that this was, in fact, her idea and that just a few days ago she marched over to Zamimpilo to insist I leave this very day. I assured her that I would visit and how much I enjoyed spending time with her and Zindle. I was so overwhelmed that my body seemed to shut down so at that moment I felt nothing. I was numb to Zindle’s look of panic and of my go go’s repeated apologies and pleas. I piled my things into my new room which boasts a missing window pane, door handle and functional electricity, amongst other things. My numbness continues.
I was given no time to process, instead I jumped head first into bonding with my new host family. I absolutely adore the four children I live with: Mpo (6), Thobile (9), Pendu (11) and Lindo (13) and was later grateful for the distraction. They’re clearly starved for attention and I would pretend to not notice when they non-chalantly grazed my white skin or foreign ponytail. Mpo was the least sneaky. He would frequently walk up to me and start rubbing the skin between my thumb and fore-finger in the same soothing way I sub-consciously rubbed the back of my grandmother’s ears when I was his age.
12/16: After an exhausting few days, I was more than a bit wary of going to ceremony of which I knew absolutely nothing including how many days it could last. After I made sure it was less than 24 hours, I agreed. And I’m so glad I did. It was a coming of age ceremony. I’ve been to a similar ceremony for a young woman in the Ndebele tribe and also for one who was also a sangoma (witch doctor) which meant that the rituals were a bit different. This was a traditional Zulu ceremony for a young woman who was ready for adulthood. The songs and dance were beautiful and everyone was so happy. I filled my memory card with colorful pictures of women in beaded skirts and men with staffs and animal skin headdresses. It was quite the party.
12/17: So in a series of unfortunate events, it took me three times longer to reach Angie’s village than the usual two hours, due mainly to the fact that I forgot my bank card at home and had to turn back though before that fateful event, I had yet another traumatic experience at the post office that also put me behind schedule. I stumbled upon a fellow PCV that led me in the wrong direction and after lugging around three heavy bags for six hours I couldn’t even fathom walking uphill for another hour at dusk. I begged one of my friends to meet me halfway as I was passed left and right by toddlers carrying buckets of water on their heads. Once there, I drank two liters of water and made a beeline for the dinner everyone had been patiently waiting to start. After inhaling far more than my share, I was courteously asked to take a breather so everyone else could eat. It was also suggested that next time I don’t eat straight out of the pan. I would like to say that I then graciously stepped aside so the rest of the meal could be prepared but instead I regressed to a sort of caveman like mumbling before shoveling the majority of that remaining side dish into my mouth. Somehow I was forgiven and the rest of the night was filled with Christmas music and good wine.
12/18: Luck was on my side as I seemed to step into every single taxi just as it was ready to pull away. The effortless journey to visit my fellow PCV friends was met with an even more relaxing day in their company.
12/19: I hitched a ride with an Afrikaner man almost all the way home. It was so strange to be in a real car again that two hours into the journey my travel companion politely suggested I roll my window up after my voice cracked from yelling over the wind. Despite my attempts at getting back quicker, I missed the entirety of my co-worker’s sister’s funeral. The ceremony was finished but I was just in time for the food and clean up. No one seemed to mind I was late. It’s African time after all. The cause of death insisted upon by the family is cancer. Unfortunately, her sister was treated at the local ‘hospital’ an hour away that boasts five doctors of which nobody can remember ever seeing. It is unlikely that a nurse in this rural area could diagnose a disease as complex as cancer without any of the modern testing tools at their disposal. I’m very close to my co-worker, Sonto, she even announces to random strangers that she’s my best friend and it broke my heart to see her so devastated. I saw her take her sister to the local hospital several times and once helped to carry her out of the bush taxi we all happened to be on together. She had lost about 75 pounds. She was also a witch doctor. I wonder how many healthy years she would have had with her children if she would have taken ARVs instead of muthi.
12/20: Today, after a day of chaotic food parcel distribution, I was escorted back home by a slew of young girls I recognized from our hot meal program. They silently watched me open the door of my new home and get settled. Mutually excited to have some company, the six of us enjoyed a solid hour of South African card games before we moved on to jump rope. The game was that the first person jumping rope would pick a category then each girl would say 3 local schools for example then jump out in time for the next girl to jump in. I was shocked how quickly I was able to dust the cobwebs off my skipping skills. Though jumping out was my amusing Achilles’ heel this game entertained us for another solid hour. Then, out of nowhere, they bombarded me with pleas to teach them English. I assured them that there was no need to grovel, I love to teach. So I asked them a series of open ended questions while they all sat on my bed with their hands waving wildly in the air. It was then requested that they practice their writing skills. Someone found a pencil I had left on the ground and they were prepared to share the one writing utensil with old magazine print as paper. I gave them each proper pens and lined paper and I pretended to ignore their squeals of delight. I asked them if they could go anywhere on holiday where would they want to go and why. One girl wrote, “I want to holiday visit at America because I want to see white person and I want to see money and I want to learn to be a doctor.”
12/21: Today I went on a staff appreciation event to a nearby town to have a BBQ. The funding, of course, was from Isibindi. I never quite understood why we needed to travel an hour and a half to reach a location to have a BBQ and I found it humorous that we spent the entire morning waiting while a select few ran errands in town. The afternoon was relaxing and enjoyable but I started to get concerned when the day was winding down and people started hitchhiking back. When only half our group was left I started to panic. We had a mound of stuff and I had visions of me trying to hitch a ride with a BBQ pit, multiple pots and a pop-up tent. The taxi finally came but I arrived home after dark and since all activity ceases after the sun goes down my new host family thought I might have died. Mental note: get new host family’s phone numbers.