Friday, December 9, 2011

10/17-28: I translated for One Sight these past two weeks which is the philanthropic arm of Lens Optica which owns Lens Crafters, Pearle Vision and Sunglass Hut. It sends eye doctors to developing countries to run eye health exams and give away glasses. They also found a South African doctor that would do any surgeries they found needed to be done for free. We saw a thousand people a day. I was translating in the eye health room and we saw patient after patient with horrible stories of untreated infections, corneal damage from five decades worth of work outside, many, many burns and glazed over blue, rheumy eyes from untreated cataracts. Sadly, many of those patients were beyond treatment but it was so wonderful to see so many people who before were unable to read the big ‘E’ on the eye charts now seeing 20/20. I’ve been feeling a bit burnt out lately and it was exactly what I needed to have that instant gratification and to feel truly needed every minute of the day. Amazing. 11/8: Today in girls club we talked about a woman’s body: menstruation, puberty, that kind of thing. The girls seemed really engaged though they wouldn’t dare ask questions let alone make eye contact with me. I know they were listening though. We then made necklaces and they were a huge hit. 11/9: I was shocked to see so many women I didn’t recognize at my org today seeing as though I’m usually sitting with just two or three other women. When I asked around I discovered that all 21 of these women were here for the support group for women living with AIDS. Now to back up, last year around this time I taught a series of workshops to the caregivers the last of which was an all-day session on how to form a support group. It was the last workshop in the series and I didn’t think too much of the seemingly apathetic stares I was receiving. I tried in vain to encourage interest in forming a support group especially because they were lying about having four functional support groups on their monthly reports. Nobody cared about all the untruths as most if not all of their reports are fabricated and everyone dismissed the idea of a support group claiming it would be impossible to find interested people as the stigma here is so high. But against all odds, they had been coordinating a group slowly but surely all this time and today was their first meeting. They’re even planning on coming back tomorrow to start a community garden! It is part of life here in Africa that your emotions are always on a rollercoaster ride. After the realization that some of my words might have actually resonated with someone I went back home with a bounce in my step to shoot the breeze with Thobi on my front stoop. As the hours passed with UNO and cloud watching, she went into the hut where her brother and cousin were hanging out. Her cousin ran her out and took off his belt and beat her bloody. With no explanation. I was screaming at him to stop which he eventually did and I used all of my White power in the hierarchy to make sure he didn’t come around for a while. My exact words were: “Does this make you feel powerful?! Beating up little girls until they’re crying hysterically in a pool of blood?! Do you feel like a man?! You need to leave and don’t come back for a very long time. I will never forget you did this.” Before that horrible incident, Thobi and I were listening to Beyonce’s new album, her favorite artist, and she was still sobbing when the last track played a girls empowerment anthem. She didn’t want to talk about what happened insisting she was fine probably assuming they’d just blend in with all her previous scars from men taking out their anger at the world on someone less powerful. As the CD played several versions of the last song the lyrics stayed the same, “Who will run the world? Girls. Girls.” I closed my door and cried. 11/10: I came early for girls club and I tried to talk to one of the teachers about a possible World AIDS Day event at his school. Though interested in the concept, he said he just found out that his brother and best friend just died ‘after being sick’ which is often code for living with AIDS. He must have been looking for a listening ear because he went on to say that both of his parents and now all four of his brothers have passed away. He was an orphan at 30. More difficult than that he says was this brother was the only one who called him, his best friend, not to mention his only friend. “I am so alone. Lost, I feel a bit lost.” He said he’s going to go home to raise his brother’s kids with his kids. “Why does everyone keep having kids when so many people are dying? Everyone’s dead. I have no one. What’s the point? My brother, my brother…is dead….and I’ll never talk to him again. Everyone is dying in this place. Everyone. My whole family is dead Lindelwa!!” “I don’t know what to say,” I said, “but maybe his kids will give you hope for a better tomorrow.” Silently I was wondering if that were true. After talking about alcohol abuse today in girls club, instead of doing the craft one of the girls made me a card that said, “You are the woman I admire.” My heart melted. 11/11: It has been two weeks since we’ve served food with our daily hot meal program. The staff explained that the company selling cooking gas was on strike. This seemed more than plausible as there was always someone on strike. But when I vented to my PCV friends in the area they had never heard about it. I then asked around and people just looked at me quizzically. After several days worth of investigation, I bluffed my way through a tense discussion with Tshengie. But it wasn’t enough. Time for drastic measures. I read her and the Management Committee the Riot Act, eliciting graphic if not a bit exaggerated images of our food program’s saddest clients and how their greed is leaving these children with empty stomachs. But in the end it wasn’t their guilt or empathy that broke them down but the fact that I rocked the boat and they wanted to steady it again. They knew I meant business. There was a tank full of cooking gas the very next day. 11/12: Today I put up the four foot tall Christmas tree complete with lights and garland that I got in the mail from my family in March. I love everything Christmas and I don’t care that its weeks before Thanksgiving, I’ve already listened to Mariah Carey’s Christmas album three times through. Thobi peeked her head in looking for some sweets but when she saw this bizarre thing in my room she was a bit unconcern. She knew it was a Christmas tree but had never seen one up close and didn’t know what to make of it. She gathered the half dozen kids milling about our compound and I turned the lights on. Everyone screamed then started jumping up and down and hugging each other. Thobi said she’d never seen something so beautiful. I told her she could touch it but she was scared. She hadn’t stopped smiling. After everyone took their spots under the tree to stare in a more comfortable position with their necks craned and their eyes like saucers Thobi got up the courage to ask as casually as she could if I was planning on bringing the tree back with me to America. I said no. Everyone started hugging again. A little girl I’d never met was crying. The Christmas season never ceases to amaze me.

Monday, October 10, 2011

9/12: I went to an event that I thought was an awareness campaign and was encouraged to dress in traditional dress only to find out it was a micro-credit group’s monthly meeting. Duped again.

9/14: Today in GLOW club was Part 2 Honoring Your Body: Exercise. After my lesson we played some goofy relay race games and then I taught them this fun game I thought my youth group leader made up called Spud. The girls let me finish the instructions before they said they play this game all the time. Small world.

9/15: Today was a soul-crushing day for after spending an embarrassingly large amount of time planning this peer educator training I talked about on 9/9 only five people came to my informational meeting. I went so far as to submit an extremely long proposal to a group back home interested in funding this project so this basically can’t fail. To make matters worse, I gave this long, drawn-out, impassioned, soapbox worthy speech last week to the Caregivers who were delegated with bringing 1-3 charismatic youth today. Apparently, this rallying cry was met with complete and utter apathy. I usually can get at least a dozen people to show up if not just to humor me then out of pity but today was quite the exception. Will drown my sorrows in copious amounts of chocolate.

9/17: Thobi, my 11 year old host sister has been talking about her school trip to Durban, the provincial capital, for months. She had a rough week because when she went to Vryheid, the nearest White town, a few days ago, a young White girl about her age who was walking with her mother pointed to her and said, “Look Mom, that girl looks like a monkey.” Not only does Thobi not look like a monkey but is, in fact, in the running to win her elementary school’s beauty pageant this year (yes, the local elementary schools have beauty pageants).

It was her first time to experience a city and she got her hair braided and bought ‘new’ shoes off the side of the street for the occasion. When she came back today I asked her to tell me all about it. She talked about her first time in an aquarium, how there were fish that looked like snakes and bubbles and rainbows. I remember her whispering to me when I saw her off on Thursday morning that her mom gave her some pocket money so I asked what she spent it on. She started crying and said that she was mugged and the wallet her mom lent her was stolen. Now that criminal must either have no soul or just be that desperate to rob a village girl on a school trip by knife point. May his karma forever be affected.

9/20-22: I went to a fellow PCV’s site for a few days to observe her vision screening program. She’s trained people in her community to perform a basic vision test and she’s in the middle of facilitating these vision drives for 35 schools in her area. She will then refer the children with poor vision to a group of Western doctors who will come next month. Now her organization has far more resources than mine with three illiterate grannies but I still feel confident that I could replicate the basic screening she does and refer the necessary children to the local optometrist who’s agreed to see them for free. I’m excited!

9/25: Thobi, my 11 year old host sister, and I were playing cards when she asked me:
Thobi: Why do white people hate black people?
Me: Why do you think they do?
Thobi: I really don’t know.
Me: Well, I don’t think all white people hate black people. What about me, do you think I hate black people?
Thobi: Yes.
Me: Really, why do you think that, honey?
Thobi: Because you’re white.
Me: Well, do you think I hate you, you’re black?
Thobi: No. (Laughs).
Me: We don’t hate each other because we’re not looking on the outside; we’re looking on the inside.
Thobi: I’m glad that you don’t hate black people.
Me: I am too. Then we couldn’t be friends which would be sad.

9/27: So many people came to the second attempt at an informational meeting for my peer educational training that we ran out of chairs! And I gave my impassioned speech about an HIV free generation and people were engaged and excited. Yes!

9/29: I was asked to teach 9th grade math which is comical in and of itself seeing as though I can barely remember how to do long division, but it got even better when I talked to the math teacher and he suggested I teach during the afternoons which are designated as 'free study time,' when I inquired about a textbook and syllabus he said he doesn't use a textbook, just his brain, and the 'syllabus' is the rubric for the government's quarterly standardized test. Oh and he doesn't bother teaching anything that's worth less than 30% on the standardized test...that leaves five concepts. So when I gave them a pre-test on those five concepts they've apparently been learning since January I was mildly surprised that the average was about a 20%.

10/3: I was genuinely shocked when one of the teachers suggested they come in during their school break this week to study math and even more shocked when they agreed. So today I went there in the rain thinking optimistically that maybe 3 people would show. All but five students came and walked an average of an hour each way in the rain to come. Oh and they asked if I'd please come back tomorrow. Seriously.

10/4: My host siblings and I literally danced around my room for two hours Stepmom style, Kodak would be proud.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

9/1: Today I had my best GLOW club meeting yet. When I was home I heard Beyonce’s latest single, “Run the World (Girls)” and regardless of your affinity for the Top 40 (or lack thereof) I think you’d appreciate her attempt at a girl’s anthem. The girls in my village worship her and for her to say lyrics like, “Who runs the world? Girls,” was incredibly empowering. I played it for them today and one of the girls said, “I always think girls are just good for cooking and cleaning but Beyonce just said that girls can run the world. Maybe they can.” We talked about what the women in our lives taught us about school, careers, our appearance, marriage and children. We then made collages out of old magazines I got in care packages and the girls chose pictures of women and girls they admired and then presented them. Many of the girls wrote, “Girls run the world” in crayon on their papers. It was one of those days where I could just see the pieces of the puzzle clicking together in many of the girls’ heads. Awesome. It was just awesome. It also didn't hurt that I was able to download the latest Beyonce and Rihanna albums while I was at home which we blasted while crafting. : )

9/2: So I’m currently cooped up in my hut because gale force winds have turned my village into a dust bowl. Unfortunately, I learned just how severe the winds were the hard way. So I was attempting to hang dry my wash and not only was I getting whipped by wet clothes (and quickly soaked) but soon enough I would have to chase after the newly dirty item after it got torn from the line…again. There was really no going back for if I let my wet clothes sit in a bucket overnight (or until the wind died down, who knows how long that could take?) they could get moldy. So I trekked ahead. It was pretty humorous actually. Gotta love Africa.

9/5: My family donated backpacks and school supplies to all 22 of the girls I took to Camp GLOW so I had a blast playing Santa this week. I told the girls that these bright pink backpacks were symbols that they were strong, beautiful, intelligent young women, passionate about bringing change to their community. So that when they wear these backpacks not only are they representing all the GLOW girls but they’re telling the world that they’re a leader and a change maker. It could be in my head but I could swear when they walked out of that room with their backpacks on they walked a little taller.

9/8: So I prepared all day for a rockin’ girls club lesson on nutrition that was equal parts fun and stimulating when I went to the storage area that houses our art supplies donated to us by a Dutch youth group. And the cupboards were bare. I was fuming. Not only do I regularly use those supplies for art lessons with the orphans on our feeding scheme but they were a part of the lesson I had planned for right then. Thankfully I had a few packages of crayons that were donated by my family but I wanted to give those packages away as gifs. Sadly, none of my co-workers could look me in the eye or give me a straight answer about yet another incident of theft at our organization. Trust me, I understand that they probably just wanted to give a little joy to their own children who most likely have never had art supplies but there has to be a line somewhere.

I am happy to report that my girls club, as always, was a cure to my frustration. We had a great discussion about the challenges to eating a healthy diet (fruit and vegetables are expensive, they aren’t commonplace in Zulu diets so are deemed strange and there are very limited options in the market or store). We also reviewed the concept of a food pyramid which I was shocked had changed shape since I last checked and the idea of putting good food into your body to give it vitamins and energy not just to feel full.

9/9: I am so excited about this new training I’m planning on doing for out-of-school youth. I hope to give them a three day training on HIV/AIDS so that they could become peer educators in our community. Once trained, they’ll be asked to go on a pre-determined amount of home visits. During the home visit they’ll first give another youth a pre-test. Once completed, the educator will then talk to the youth about AIDS and review any answers that were incorrect. Then the youth will take the post-test. Not only do I feel this is a measurable, tangible way to educate my community about specific points concerning AIDS but I also think it’ll be incredibly empowering for the peer educators who currently sit at home all day but I know many of them see the ravages of AIDS and want to make a change.

I’ve discussed this idea with a fellow PCV who did this training in the past, informed the local municipality (as a formality) and have had several meetings with Tshengie to discuss logistics. Today Tshengie and I introduced the idea to the caregivers who will be asked to bring 1-3 candidates to our informational meeting next week.

I mentioned in passing that refreshments will be served during the training and Tshengie balked. She deferred to the Management Committee which is ironic because a typical meeting ends in a screaming match with no decision ever being made. The one male in the group, Mpostol, decided that the trainees couldn’t eat off the feeding scheme as per usual, but would need to bring lunch boxes. Of course the room was full of women; none of whom dared to challenge him. This, in effect, rendered the training DOA. Sounds dramatic, but trust me, after a year and a half here I know what incentives are necessary to entice people to come to a training and they are: printing an attendance certificate at the end and food. Take one or the other away and you’ll be lucky if three people show.

They said we wouldn’t have enough food for 20 adults when there are 20-25 adults that come for weekly reporting and eat off the feeding scheme twice a week. Every week. I let go a long time ago about trying to help people who don’t want to change but it’s one thing to not do anything to support my work but it’s quite another to sabotage it.

9/10: My host mom called me this morning and asked me to come to the neighbors (my host cousins). When I walked into their compound I realized immediately that there was a ceremony going on and there wasn’t some lazy Saturday morning chit chat or card playing like I’d assumed. Now even though being a slave for a day is exhausting I love ceremonies and would normally be thrilled to stumble upon one but today I was wearing capris and was immediately self-conscious as to how grossly taboo my pants were. I felt that I would have made an even bigger scene if I went home and changed so I decided to play it cool. Well the father of the house later pulled me aside and said, “I know you’re from a different culture but you’re in my culture now and I don’t ever want to see you at a ceremony at my compound in pants again, disrespecting my culture.” I was appropriately shamed. With that incident aside, the ceremony helped remind me why I’m here in the first place after a rough couple of days. I felt a part of the family, I had a place with the young women and connected with the culture even with my fashion faux pas. In short, it was exactly what I needed.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

8/3-4: Today I started my trek back to the land of milk and honey. It is really a testament to my overall absentmindedness that it took me as long as it did to realize my culture shock started at the airport. Let me back up. So I had already been travelling for ten hours when I got to the airport. In my overwhelmed daze I circled the terminals not once or twice but three times. And let me tell you it’s not a small circle. It involves multiple elevators and a seemingly endless stretch of ramps. I was so distracted by being plunged back into a sea of white faces and neon lights that I literally couldn’t concentrate. I’m known to not be too directionally savvy so if my problems ended there it wouldn’t have been anything out of the ordinary. But they didn’t. Shockingly nobody in my village owns a scale so it was only at the check in desk (in my second time through the line around the corner) that I realized my bag was overweight. I walked into the airport already soaked in sweat from being crammed into someone’s armpit for a full day but I was now a walking circus act. I literally saw people pointing. I ended up carrying on a down coat, large grass mat, and two bulging bags filled with books that got booted from my checked bag. How they let me on the plane is anyone’s guess. I somehow made it to London carrying my body weight in books and went through immigration twice when I never really had to go in the first place. I then cried to the baggage guy that I couldn’t find my bag and he politely steered me to the right baggage pick up area. I needed to re-check my bags in London because I failed to tell the check-in lady in SA my final destination. It was a genuine miracle I made it back here relatively in one piece (I looked like a homeless person) and with all 27 of my bags.

8/4-24: Being home was amazing. I blocked out all thoughts of SA which allowed me to enjoy my time guilt-free though only prolonging the inevitable culture shock later. I saw almost everyone I wanted to see and gained at least my goal of five pounds in greasy food. It was perfect.

8/25: So I purposefully scheduled a 12 hour layover in London so I could enjoy a day there. It was only when I got off the tube carrying my carry-on luggage that I realized it was pouring down rain. So I made it my first order of business to buy a glamorous plastic poncho. Bizarrely enough it took me three people before I found someone who spoke English. This involved a lot of circling because not many people were on the streets due to the monsoon. Once I was thoroughly soaked to the bone I found what I was looking for. Though cold and wet I was determined to sight see. I asked several more people where Kensington Palace was only to find they too didn’t understand me. Doesn’t anyone in London speak English anymore?! I finally asked a tourist with a map and he pointed me in what turned out to be the wrong direction. I found that out after about 20 minutes when I realized I was surrounded by houses. Thoroughly shivering, I had already tried to wait out the rain in a coffee shop and there were no signs it was letting up. I finally resigned myself to failure and went back to the airport where I wrung out my skirt and hair and slept for several hours.

8/26-30: By some miracle I was able to find an airport shuttle from Jo-burg to Mbabane, the capitol of Swaziland, so I took that when I went to the Umhlanga Reeds Festival. This is an annual event where 60,000 half-naked virgins parade in front of the King in traditional dress carrying 10 foot high bundles of reeds in the hopes he will pick them as his next bride. (He currently has 13). It was really quite beautiful.

There were four very different types of dress worn signifying the four regions or tribes of Swaziland. Dress varied from poufs of brightly colored yarn worn around the waist and shoulders to the more demure cloth tied across the shoulder in a toga-esque style. The elderly women perform ‘checks’ on the girls before they’re able to participate in the two week ceremony to confirm they are indeed a virgin. (These ‘checks’ are also done periodically in my village by the female elders). If they pass, their virginity could be held in question once again if one of the reeds they’re holding breaks or falls.

The members of the royal family are identified by the red feathers in their hair. The closer your relation to the king the more feathers you have. So there were several girls with a full ring around their face which means they are daughters of the King with his first born pinning two full rings of feathers in her hair. If the King is more of a distant cousin you might have only one or two feathers.
The first day the girls are divided into groups of about 50 and are singing while carrying their reeds. After several hours all 60,000 girls have made it into the clearing where they will give the Queen Mother their bundle of reeds. The reeds are saved until December when the male teenaged virgins have a ceremony of their own of equal if not greater size where they use the reeds to repair the King’s large compound.

The next day the girls are all gathered in the arena where they are singing and dancing all day. There was even a Zulu group there from South Africa who danced individually. The Zulu dancing with large drums and tons of high kicks was a huge crowd pleaser and made me incredibly proud to be considered one of them.
All in all it was the perfect way to transition back to life in Africa.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

7/16-17: Today I noticed several old women I hadn’t seen before deep cleaning our compound. This could mean only one thing, we’re preparing for a ceremony. I was so excited. Though I’ve been to countless ceremonies this would be the first at my home. So I was shocked when I asked around and nobody could give me a straight answer as to why we’re having a ceremony. You’re spending thousands of rand and dozens of hours sweeping the dirt around our huts and dusting our glass dog collection and you don’t even know why?!

Well I finally discovered the reason for all the hub bub was my host mom and sister both dreamt that our family would come into money. Zulus believe that dreams are a way for their ancestors to communicate with them. To insure this would come true we performed a ceremony and sacrificed a goat. The goat’s blood, along with a ceramic vase filled with sorghum beer, a grass mat, a loaf of bread and some traditional medicine were left at what could be described as an alter.

Sunday is the day during a ceremony I call Slave Day. Since it was a small ceremony the only young women were my host sister GuGu, my host cousin Sindi and myself. We proceeded to be at the beck and call to everyone who entered our compound until well into the night. Fortunately for me, we ran out of goat meat and since the women eat last I was served only a small portion of goat intestines and was spared the far worse pancreas, bladder and boiled skin.

After we ate, my host siblings all showed me their izinpandlas which are bracelets of goat skin signifying your family has just performed a ceremony. I wanted one too and something changed when everyone in my family went together to cut a slice of skin from the goat to show we honored our ancestors. It was really special. We’re all connected now.

Well my luck ran out about mid-afternoon when both Sindi and GuGu left leaving me to tend to a few dozen drunken men and elderly women all by my lonesome. Just as I was falling asleep standing up they came sauntering back in wondering why I looked like death. They were unimpressed. “Oh you’re tired,” they scoffed. “Please, we do this every day.”

7/18: I had another great day when I finished the world map I’ve been working on with the middle school. We then had an assembly where I talked about being a global citizen and how a lot more unites us than divides us. They were really proud.

7/19: After asking Tshengie a month ago if she knew of anyone to teach my girls clubs beadwork she finally came up with someone. This woman had recently taught a group for free and when I asked if she would do the same for us she snickered. When I then asked how much it would cost she responded, “It depends if you’re asking or requesting.” I had woken up on the wrong side of the bed and was in no mood for games. “Whichever is cheaper,” I snapped. “Asking,” she said matter-of-factly. Instead of naming a price she fell into this sudden shyness and it took quite a while to agree to an absurd price.

Though I had a bad feeling about her I had some money allotted in my PEPFAR grant for girls clubs so I agreed. Well let’s just say nobody will be drawing comparisons between her and Mary Poppins anytime soon. It was quickly apparent that the beadwork was too difficult for the girls. Now would it have been possible if she was a bit more patient and whole lot less critical? Yes. But sadly she wasn’t. She was easily frustrated and when the girls would ask for help she would patronize them for wasting her time. I had music going and definitely made light of the situation but I really didn’t want this woman to drive these girls away. So I asked a few of them after club how they thought it went. They didn’t have anything negative to say. But I asked if they thought perhaps the teacher was a bit strict. They agreed but they said she’s just like all of their other teachers. Now it’s sad that none of their teachers can be bothered to help them, are highly critical of their work and treat them badly but at least I know their first beadwork experience wasn’t a total wash.

7/21: Learning from Tuesday’s mistake I politely declined beadwork lady’s second slated appearance with my other girls club and went into town to buy some yarn. Instead I taught them how to make friendship bracelets. It was a huge success. Great relaxed atmosphere, fun music and company. Two thumbs up.

7/23-24: This weekend I helped organize a 30th birthday extravaganza for my closest Peace Corps friend. Such fun.

7/25-29: This week I’ve been teaching a financial literacy course back to back first to the caregivers at my organization and then to grade 12 students at the local high school. The booklets were donated by Operation HOPE, an American NGO, and they supplied me with lesson plans so all I had to do was facilitate which is the fun part. It was such a success. We had great discussions on how easy it is for desperate people to turn to loan sharks and how impossible it seems to get out of debt. We talked about budgeting your money and starting your own small business. About checking accounts and savings accounts. About how if you have money you have options. It was very empowering.

7/29: Today I facilitated a training on permaculture gardening techniques. I went to a training last year to learn this method and I used the facilitator’s tagline: Feeding the world: one family a time; Saving the world: one garden at a time. The idea is to teach the importance of kitchen gardens to improve the nutrition of families and to increase yield by using practices similar to bio-intensive gardening. Demonstrating how to garden was my first time actually gardening. It wasn’t an exactly ideal situation but it somehow worked out pretty well.

8/1: The chickens ate every single one of our seedlings. Sigh.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

7/3: So I’ve been trying to build a well in a remote section o

f Nondweni and today I met with Tshengie and the equivalent of the area mayor to discuss logistics. There’s this great American NGO that funds small water and sanitation projects organized by Peace Corps Volunteers but I didn’t realize how expensive it would be. There’s only one well for several hundred families which means the majority of people in that area have to walk quite far to fetch water and when I went to haul water with Tshengie, who lives in the area, and the well water was literally brown. She said that more people are using the river for water even though it was a source of an outbreak of cholera a few years ago because the well water is now so dirty and in my opinion, undrinkable.

7/4: Today I stumbled upon my seven year old host brother, Mpho, crying on the path that leads to our house. Here is our translated conversation:

Me: Mpho, what’s wrong?
Mpho: I’m SO cold!
Me: It’s really cold outside. Why don’t we run? We’re almost home and running will make us warmer and we’ll get home faster.
Mpho: I’m too cold to run.
Me: Okay honey; well are you too cold to picture the tea I’m going to make you when we reach our house?
Mpho: Tea? (He’s looking up with his puppy-dog eyes and he now has snot running all down his tattered shirt).
Me: Yes, and I have milk AND sugar to put in it.
Mpho: You have milk?!
Me: Yes and you can have as much as you want.

After I wrapped him in my fleece blanket and tucked us both under the covers with tea I turned on “Finding Nemo” on my computer which he watched in a foreign language with rapt attention.

7/7: Today I went to the large market that we have in our village once a month. There’s women selling fruit or vegetables from their garden, tables full of raw meat freshly slaughtered, colorful dresses nicely sewn or even piles of popcorn or suckers for the kids. Basically there’s something for everyone. I went to buy a grass mat but when I took Thobi on my search with me she was very flustered. She said that her aunt sells grass mats and to buy one from her. So after making the hour journey to the market I came up empty handed. But when the neighborhood kids started trickling back from the market this afternoon they begged to watch ‘fish fish’ or Finding Nemo that I watched with Mpho a few days before. So I literally had kids stacked on top of each other on my bed as we had an afternoon popcorn and a movie event.

7/9: My family is burning broken furniture they’ve scavenged from the piles of trash in our immediate vicinity to keep warm. I’m now more convinced than ever that I’m going to die here (just kidding of course).

7/10: I went to Tshengie’s for a cleansing ceremony. Her father had two wives, one of whom died last year (not Tshengie’s blood mother). When a spouse dies the surviving spouse wears black every day for a year. Women wear a black skirt, shirt, cape and head scarf and men pin a square of black cloth to their arm. The burning of these clothes after the year of mourning is signified by a cleansing ceremony. This is also the time when the deceased’s spirit leaves the compound where it’s been lingering the past year and goes up to the ancestors. A goat was sacrificed in her honor and I ate so much food I literally thought I would cry if someone fed me one more bite. At this ceremony, as in all Zulu ceremonies, people are segregated by gender and age and are always found in the same location. Young men are always outside drinking copious amounts of alcohol and cooking the sacrifice. The male elders can be found in the ancestral hut. Young women are in the kitchen and once they’ve served the men and female elders will sit on the kitchen floor and eat. The female elders are located in the same house on the compound as the kitchen but in a separate room. Though I helped the young women prepare the food I was soon shooed away to sit with the grannies. Cooking for white families is so engrained in the Black South African psyche that it was just rather flustering to have me around. So I was banished to the land of hunchbacks and wooden canes but little did I know how entertaining it would be. The women, all so haggard you couldn’t count their wrinkles, were really having a blast getting drunk off sorghum beer and traditional dancing, yes dancing! Now traditional Zulu dancing is basically a series of high kicks and though these women couldn’t quite be compared to the Rockettes, they were singing and stomping and having a grand ole time. When everyone was good and ready we filled the room that had been occupied all day by myself and the old ladies. Then Tshengie’s dad said a prayer to the ancestors saying it was time for his wife’s spirit to join them and then glasses of soda and sorghum beer were passed around. Everyone took a sip of every glass regardless of what it was. Then we went outside and a cow was chosen for another sacrifice. The ceremony ended with the male elders dancing in celebration.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

6/13: So tonight I was called into one of my host family’s huts. We all were wrapped in blankets, huddled around the fire in the center of the hut when my host mom walked in with a cake. It was my host brother, Mpho’s, seventh birthday and he was jumping all around with the biggest smile I had ever seen. She then cut a small piece for all ten members of the family with Mpho’s as the largest. We then each shared a liter of Fanta. It was so wonderful to see everyone so happy.

6/14: Today I saw my go go and Zindle at the post office in town. I was a bit weary to talk to her seeing as though she was so unpredictable in the months leading up to my host family switch but I had already stood in line for an hour and couldn’t, on principle, bring myself to leave. Luckily, she was in a good mood and I held Zindle in my arms for the next hour as I jockeyed for a position with the next available teller. I went to visit them the following week and she said that Zindle cried the whole taxi ride back to the village saying she missed her mom. That just broke my heart. Leaving Zindle six months ago in such a dire situation I know will pale in comparison to my feelings when I leave all the children I’ve grown to love here.

6/11, 6/18: So I recently had three failed projects in a week’s time which has led me to question my utility here and the community’s interest in my work. Are they just humoring me? Do they really care? But after some serious soul searching I can no longer consider these events fruitless.

The first was a Camp GLOW sharing and thank you event. Because I’m crafty and have quite a bit of time on my hands, I spent a lot of it making this event really special. All sorts of fun things were created out of construction paper to make the classroom we would use as nice as possible. The GLOW girls and I invited their families and the people in the community that helped make Camp GLOW possible. The goal was to share with the village what the girls learned and to thank everyone who helped us. Well three people showed up one of whom was Tshengie, my supervisor, who I invited as a friend and who we didn’t need to thank. But the girls were all there so I passed out the programs and we had the entire event like we weren’t sitting in a room full of empty seats.

Since poetry was such a hit at camp, I asked the girls to bring poems about camp or what they learned at camp to the event if they were interested. About a third of the girls came prepared with poetry. One girl wrote this poem about me and could barely get through it she was crying so hard:

"My friend"
When she sees me
Her cheeks visit her ears
She smiles and greets me
With love.

She is always smiling.
She’s not easily influenced.
She thinks and loves
That’s my friend.

My friend
Lindelwa,
I treasure your friendship in my heart.

My second event that can now be seen as a positive after my new found attitude adjustment is Zamimpilo’s first Board of Directors meeting.

Now Tshengie and I have been talking about acquiring a Board of Directors for almost nine months now but I had dropped the issue months before when interest had seriously waned. Well, after the Treasurer of our org went to a training she came back and announced the necessity of a Board so the idea was reignited (or frankly lit for the first time). So we had three Management Committee meetings where we discussed the roles and responsibilities of a Board. Fortunately for me I have some spotty Internet access and was able to Google the topic of this series of impromptu workshops which was invaluable so I could have some semblance of credibility.
The consensus was to provide a written application to people we thought would do well as Board members. Fast forward several months and we didn’t receive any applications. Back to the drawing board with another workshop on the purpose of a Board. (After inquiring about the lack of applications, I found people were still confused about why we would need two Management Committees). After another month or so went by I suggested changing tactics. I proposed we invite potential Board members to an informational meeting. Everyone was then assigned a person to go scourging through the hills to find and ask to come to Zamimpilo in two weeks time. Only half the people asked showed up (four elderly and illiterate women) and when Tshengie reached the item on the agenda of the Board’s role at Zamimpilo she didn’t know what to say. Nothing. Not one sentence. We had spent hours and hours talking about this. I have spent twice as much time with her on this topic than anyone else and still nothing? Luckily for me, I had a cheat sheet that I was able to pass her but was still incredibly discouraged. I’m happy that this project is off the ground and our next meeting date is set and I hope to bring in someone from an NGO in town that another PCV works at who could potentially explain this better. But hey, we’re better off now with a table full of go gos then we were before.

Lastly, though one of my girls clubs is thriving the other is well…not. After discussing a meeting time, day and place the girls all agreed on Saturdays. Well this past Saturday two girls came one of whom I know walked two hours to get there. The Saturday club has always struggled with attendance but each time there’s been enough to have a good discussion. The two girls, my counterpart Zanele and I decided to overrule the group (who didn’t show up) and moved the club to Tuesdays after school. I’ll keep you posted on how that decision fared.

6/30: So I swear whenever I’m having a down day the alarm bells must sound in all of Nondweni because it doesn’t take long before I’m reminded why I love it here. Today I was immersed in the last Salander book and wasn’t too thrilled when three of my host siblings barged in looking at me expectantly for entertainment. After much persistence, I agreed to give them a computer lesson. (And yes, they were begging for lessons). It started when my host sister Thobile (nicknamed Thobi, pronounced ‘Toby’) asked if I wrote letters to my sisters in America on my computer. I said, “As a matter of fact I do,” and she asked if she could write them one as well. She wanted it to be perfect and we both worked on it for over an hour. She typed it and everything (her first time ever using a computer) and of course I helped her with the spelling and grammar.

TO: Rachel Katherine Emily
From: Thobile Mtshali

Hi everyone
I want to ask you some question
About USA
Do you sit well without your sister?
You eat well without your sister?
Do you sleep well without your sister?
You go well without your sister?
Do you sit in a table all of you without your sister? HOW
ABOUT LINDELWA MTSHALI
She is a nice girl
She is lovely person
It is so nice to play with her
WE love her all of us in SOUTH AFRICA
She is so kind
ABOUT THOBILE MTSHALI
I am doing grade 6
If I grow up I want to be a doctor at usa
I want to be famous like LINDELWA
One day I want to see at USA IF it nice
I want to be a government of SA

She planned it so well that (in case you didn't notice) she wrote five questions, then wrote five things about me (Lindelwa) then five things about herself. Isn't she just the cutest thing?! She's one of the smartest kids in her class, I'm so proud of her. As you can see, NOBODY here including Thobi can comprehend living away from your family haha. It broke my heart when she said 'if I grow up' such a testament to life's uncertainties here.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

6/1: So when I asked my host brother why our newly acquired puppy is chained to a post which is of particular importance to me because since his banishment to the corner of the compound he has not stopped barking, he replied that he keeps eating our chickens. Ah yes. That would be frustrating. Ever thought about feeding it then?!

This is now my third girls club meeting in as many weeks. I have yet to formally ask the principal’s permission to have these afterschool meetings because she is always too busy to see me. Oh and by after school I mean during school but since the afternoons typically consist of recess I thought it proactive to do something constructive with the girls’ time rather than wait until the time they usually use to do chores and cooking. Nobody has even noticed they were gone…from netball. Well I felt guilty for not following protocol so today when I was told the principal was busy I responded that I would wait until she was free. This seemed a bit disconcerting to the minion in charge of shooing away such nuisances. I stood my ground and forty-five minutes later I asked the principal for her blessing on our girls club. She did not approve. “You want to meet for one in a half to two hours on Wednesday s? No. You will meet for thirty minutes on Thursday s.” “But the girls voted on Wednesday s MaNdlovu and with all due respect I don’t think thirty minutes will be enough time,” I pleaded. Perhaps it was na├»ve of me to assume my request would be met with apathy or indifference. “Fine,” she said in what I imagine she was thinking was quite conciliatory. “You will come back tomorrow and tell the girls you will now be meeting on Thursday s. Then you will have a meeting with their parents on Friday to discuss how long the club meetings should be.” “So the lesson I have prepared for today on decision making?” I asked hopefully. “Wednesdays are not a good day.” End of meeting.

6/2: So I was attempting to hold my ground waiting for the next bush taxi and was getting elbowed and pushed from all sides. As I saw it approaching, I turned around as someone was calling me. I knew this slight hesitation meant I lost my place and would have to wait for the next one. As I searched the crowd for someone I recognized I saw a woman waving her hand. I didn’t remember ever meeting her. I wasn’t fazed. Random strangers running up to me like long lost friends is an almost daily occurrence. So I played along as we small talked but as I saw another taxi coming I gathered all my bags and got my elbows out. I was getting a seat this time. The woman I was talking with ran up to me just as I sat down to show me a wrinkled photo of me and two of her children at a ceremony I went to nine months ago. She said she carries it around with her wherever she goes. You honestly will never know how your words or actions will affect others. “This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We cannot do everything and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.” Oscar Romero

6/3: My host sister was taken away by an ambulance a few days ago in the middle of the night and nobody could tell me why. Apparently, cross-cultural immersion coupled with vain attempts at development work warrant me dead to the world once the sun goes down because I totally missed the emergency. I finally discovered, after quite a bit of prodding, that my host sister fainted because she was cold and hungry (it gets freezing cold at night here).

She holds a special place in my heart mainly because the rest of the family pretends she doesn’t exist. She recently told them that she’s HIV positive and has been ostracized ever since. She rarely leaves her room (which is not in the main house but in a separate one attached to mine) and is often gone, sleeping over at one of her many ‘boyfriend’s’ houses.

Part of the reason why the AIDS rate here is so high is because since the unemployment rate is so high people, especially women, turn to other under-the-table means of earning money. Transactional sex, or having sex in exchange for food, clothing, cell phone minutes, a ride into town or money is a socially acceptable end justifying the means. My host sister does just that. Instead of being lauded for her sacrifice for the family and the likely way she contracted the virus she is admonished for her sin-filled HIV status. But everyone looks away as she leaves at night to another man’s bed.

None of this is ever spoken, it’s shown with turned backs and deafening silence. And my constant rousing from dogs barking as she leaves at night and an ear-splitting concoction of the TV and gospel music at dawn where I’ll find her sitting on the cement floor trying to drown out the demons the next morning.

6/4: So on Saturdays I meet with my other girls club. The girls really took the drama topics on decision making and ran with them. It was so great to see them having fun (and learning!) After every Saturday meeting I have a few girls over for an afternoon movie with popcorn. Aaahh the joy of fellowship : )

6/9: So after a three day long struggle to get permission for the girls to come to the Section 5 girls club, I was worried it might be in vain BUT I’m pretty sure every single girl in grades 8-9 showed up. It was definitely standing room only and the dramas brought the house down.

Monday, May 30, 2011

5/28: The image I cannot escape of my all day taxi ride the day before is of a man about my age clearly dying of AIDS. He was too weak to get into the taxi himself and when I pulled him through the doorway, I guided his frail body with ease, his body now merely flesh covered bones. All of his layers of clothing couldn’t hide his ashen pallor or soft gasps at bumps in the road. He mumbled unintelligibly several times to stop on the side of the road to use the toilet before someone could understand him. By that time it was too late. He hung his head in humiliation the rest of the day, only lifting it when another male twenty-something, a young, attractive, charismatic guy who had spent the better part of the trip swapping stories about girls with his new friends in the back seat, reached over and wiped his nose and mouth. He was drooling. The young man left the used tissue in the other’s lap for future use. Nothing was said, no eye contact made. For the fun loving guy knows that that could have been him sitting there and might easily be him. That among his friends he’s subtlely wiped more drool and turned the other way more times when his friends have soiled themselves than he would care to remember or admit. For doing so would acknowledge that more of his friends are dead than alive. That this slow and silent killer, which is discussed solely with memorized figures and regurgitated facts, has decimated an entire generation. The overwhelming fear of this disease’s anonymity and brevity has created a culture of silence. So the young man said nothing when he wiped a stranger’s face. And nobody acknowledged the smell of urine or his whimpers or his shame. It was like he was invisible, like nothing was happening at all.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

3/26 continued: So I seemed to have forgotten a rather large chunk of March 26 that fortunately I wasn’t a big part of. We so graciously offered the taxi drivers dinner and a place to stay last night seeing as though we arrived at night but also knowing full well that they pull all-nighters regularly on crazy cross-country trips with Zulu patrons. We awoke this morning to them refusing to leave and demanding to stay all five days claiming it’s too far to go and come back. We reference the contract they have in their possession that states they will do just that. They again claim ignorance to their previous awareness of the location of the camp and say they would do what was previously agreed upon if the venue was at ‘Drakensburg’ which again is a mountain range spanning two provinces in SA and two countries but they seem to believe is a town not too far away from Nondweni. The idea of us funding their mountain holiday is ridiculous especially after how inappropriate and upsetting their behavior was the day before. They weren’t budging. On the contrary, they threatened us by saying if we force them to leave now not only will they not come back to pick up the girls but they will ensure that no one else does. The situation escalated and we requested that the Camp Director get involved to mediate. A comprise was eventually agreed upon that involved the taxi drivers staying for the duration of the camp but were not allowed to be fraternizing with the girls or even to be seen in close proximity. This was just the beginning of our awareness of the power of the Taxi Association.

3/27: I circled around doing the wake-up call which involved greeting the already bright eyed and bushy-tailed campers. I walked into several cabins where all six campers were moisturizing, dressing or just chatting in the nude. I love their overall comfort level with their bodies; I wish American teens would feel the same.
Today we gathered in the clearing to do yoga. The girls took it very seriously, never laughing at the strange or sometimes awkward positions. One of the GLOW girls visited me several weeks later and when I asked her about her day she said she starts each day now with yoga.

After breakfast, we went into the forest for the high ropes course. The campers started by climbing up and down a 12 foot high net. They scaled it three or four at a time and though there were some tears everyone was cheering on the other girls no matter if they took 30 seconds or 15 minutes. We then walked up to a tire chained about three feet into the air. Each girl fell into the arms of several others and was guided, lying down, through the tire to the girls on the other side.
Those two activities paled in comparison to the main event. For this you started on a six inch ledge about four feet off the ground. You then attempted to time your jump nicely on the first swing so that your foot could catch the next swing without A: doing the splits or B: awkwardly swinging half heartedly back to the starting ledge. After four swings there was another ledge which allowed you to get your bearings before reaching the next vantage point by way of a sequence of tires. Since they weren’t bolted down the tires swung just as badly as the swings did but were more cumbersome. The consensus by the next ledge is undoubtedly to use the top of the tires as opposed to the hole in the middle. Trust me, seeing as though they are all hanging at quite different lengths trying to get to the hole is near impossible at times. And yes, out of stubbornness I stuck out my hole strategy till the next ledge. Next, you have a high balance beam to maneuver with the help of a rope arm rail for the faint of heart. The following ledge involves a rather large gap that is to be circumvented by way of a Tarzan-style rope leap and it’s then hoped that you would latch onto the vertical netting which by the way is quite difficult to manage though somehow everyone did. You then cross the netting parallel with the ground until you reach the final post. The girls loved it and as a spotter I saw quite a few going three or four times.

The last event was one that I demonstrated with Angie. There were two thick cables about three feet off the ground attached to three tree trunks. At one end the two cables were touching each other but gradually separated until they were perhaps five feet apart. I stood on one cable and Angie was on the other and to keep balanced we held each other’s arms first at the shoulders then slowly at the fingertips. Now we’re both shaking like leaves and fortunately for me I have several Nondweni girls behind me basically propping me up and the entire crowd of spectators behind me in case one of them flinches. Angie, on the other hand, has one tiny girl spotting her. I communicate my alarm at her lack of support through clenched teeth while teetering on this cable as 100 girls watched. As the Camp Director tries to soothe Angie’s fears she falls and has a gash from her knee to her ankle. At that point another scrawny girl runs to Angie’s side when we decide we want to give it another go. Three quarters of the way there and I’m essentially at like a 30 degree angle with my ‘spotters’ being the sole reason I don’t smack on my face. After some muttered begging from yours truly the Camp Director agrees to let us stop. Embarrassingly enough, three sets of campers go after us and had a far easier go of it.

Due to a miscommunication, we had a picnic lunch and many of the girls carried their sacks as close to the river as possible. One camper told me later that eating outdoors with her friends was one of her favorite parts of camp.
After lunch I facilitated a session on goal setting and achieving. I asked the girls to define short and long term goals and give examples of each on flip chart paper in small groups. After a few groups shared, I passed out a handout that had a chart with a space for a short term goal on one side and a long term goal on the other. After writing down a specific short and long term goal they had to outline the steps they were going to take to achieve them. The benefits of achieving the goal were discussed along with the stumbling blocks. At the bottom of the chart was a completion date and a lyric from ‘Bridge over Troubled Water’ that says, “Your time has come to shine. All your dreams are on their way.”

One girl’s short term goal was to purchase a backpack. Her plan of action involved setting aside R1 ($0.14) each week out of her school snack money until December. Another girl’s short term goal entailed selling small snack bags and fruit to help support her family. She was worried about her starting capital but she figured she could start small.

Many girls had aspirations to be doctors and though they detailed the steps they would take to get there they also realized there would be quite a few stumbling blocks along the way. Several girls talked about how time-consuming chores like hauling water, cooking and washing clothes were and how those activities severely cut into their study time. Even so, I saw the girls’ faces light up when they read the completion date of their goals aloud.

After my session the campers tie-dyed t-shirts. We were fortunate enough to get thick organic cotton shirts at a heavily discounted price and high quality dye so that the shirts turned out great.

We had no idea of the time it would take for 100 girls to tie-dye shirts and let me tell you it’s longer than you’d think. Three PCVs took ten campers at a time outside to the various rubber banding and tie-dyeing stations while Angie and I entertained the masses. We started by asking them to decorate the outside of their notebooks. Though we had music playing and a very casual atmosphere attention eventually diminished which is when we asked them to decorate the back cover of their journals with a poem. This was a huge hit. Camper after camper volunteered to read theirs aloud and I can’t articulate how powerful they were. Phrases like, ‘I gave you my body/I gave you my heart/I gave you my time/you gave me HIV,’ or ‘I am a woman /I am strong/ I am independent/ I am a woman,’ are just a snippet of that impromptu sharing session.

Next was a session on relationships and sexuality. We asked each girl to write down a question they had concerning sex the day before and Trudell answered them during her session. Questions varied from what is sex, when is a good age to have sex, what if I’m gay to what should I do if I was raped, or what should I do if my teacher is touching me? She led a powerful session on taking a stand and owning your body. Every girl was taking furious notes.

After dinner we had a talent show which was a camp highlight for many including myself. Trudell’s counterpart GuGu was the mc for the night and with her million watt smile coupled with her natural confidence in front of a big crowd you would have thought she was Ryan Seacrest mc-ing for American Idol. And plenty of these girls would have blown the other American Idol contestants out of the water. Not only was there traditional singing and dancing but dramas, dialogues, gospel singing and poems as well. Poems with phrases said with such strength and power they brought the house down. Here are just two examples: You hit me harder and harder/Kick me when I’m down/You want me to cry/I refuse/You won’t break me, or Martin Luther King had a dream and/SO. DO. I. At this last stanza all 100 girls were on their feet, screaming and banging on the tables. Actually there were so many acts that brought the audience to its knees that one of the tables broke after so much banging. I can’t adequately explain the energy of that night but to say that every singer sang as loud and as passionately as she could, every dancer kicked as high and with as much enthusiasm, every word was full of meaning, courage and intensity. Frankly, I was blown away. I was utterly humbled knowing I was in the presence of greatness.

3/28: The talent show went well into the night so because of that we cancelled this morning’s Aerobics session in lieu of a little extra sleep. Little did we know how necessary it would be to fill up our energy coffers.

After breakfast, we set off for a hike in the mountains to see Bushmen paintings. It quickly turned into a death march. Our hike commenced up this steep mountainside that seemed never ending. Girls were stopping for breaks every twenty feet and it wasn’t long before morale waned. I was located in the upper-middle section of the pack so I had the unfortunate vantage point of seeing that the leaders of this operation were a handful of overzealous GLOW girls, not Greg, the facilitator of this session. Not only were there not enough adults but the few that participated had no communication between them. So I wasn’t aware that one PCV climbed down the mountain with a camper who was having an asthma attack until hours into the hike. Once the group I was walking with reached the top of the first mountain (out of 6!) I organized a cheerleading squad to encourage the remaining sixty. We waited for about half the group to catch up then we continued. When we reached our second peak Greg gave us some history on the Bushmen people. Unfortunately we were still missing about a quarter of our girls. (There were adults with them). Since we didn’t wait until the group was together there was no way to tell that nobody was hurt or got lost. Also, we were led by the group of five campers to an incorrect point because Greg was not leading us. At this juncture, the girls were exhausted and hungry and all were apparently convinced we were getting a ride back down once we made it to our elusive destination. When I burst their bubble they refused to go any further. A group of 40 or so GLOW girls stayed at the point they were led to by the other campers. No amount of cheering and enthusiasm on my part could get them to budge. Well, it turns out it was just as well because due to the rains we couldn’t access the Bushmen paintings after all. Greg claimed he knew of another location of Bushmen paintings nearby but after all this hemming and hawing the stragglers caught up and we were now with the 30 or so girls furthest away from camp. Once the girls saw us move west they all headed off. I was with five GLOW girls and I didn’t see anyone in front of me or behind me for an hour and had no idea if I was going in the right direction. I was in charge of these girls’ welfare and didn’t have something as simple as a map or compass to direct us. Greg was near the back. I think. I didn’t see him again till we got back to camp. One of the girls asked me, “Are we climbing a mountain or a Drakensburg?” “It’s a Drakensburg,” I responded. “Cool.”

What was supposed to be a fun morning hike where they learned about their ancestry ended up as a six hour hike to nowhere. The girls were pissed and rightfully so. We were able to frame it as an analogy for life with some success. We scrapped the scheduled scavenger hunt for more swimming which greatly boosted their spirits. Swimming attire meant stripping down to your underpants (who owns a swimming suit?!) but many of the girls in life jackets just wore panties using the life vest as the cover up for their upper body. It was much warmer so many girls jumped in. We also got a bunch of balls out so there were games of keep away and catch all over the place.

When we reeled it back in, the smiles had returned and it was time for Leah’s session on career development. When we read through the applications for Camp GLOW it quickly became clear that there are only a handful of careers these young women aspire to be: social workers, doctors, nurses, teachers and policemen. 95% of applicants listed one of these as their career ambitions with the high majority of those with the goal to be a doctor. That is all well and good but it’s also important to be aware of other career options. You don’t need to choose from five options, in reality there are thousands of careers open to you. Leah also discussed this and scholarships and other schooling opportunities.

Next was a session on values and human rights facilitated by my counterpart Lindiwe. She said something that has stuck with me almost a month later. She said, “If you want to go fast go alone. If you want to go far go together.”
After dinner we had an awards ceremony. We first gave a word of thanks to the counterparts and junior counselors and all of them received a nice necklace. Then each PCV and Counterpart called the girls from their village and everyone got a certificate for the hard work they did this week.

After that was the ‘I can’t’ funeral. Katie started by giving her mother’s rags to riches story about how so many people told her she would never go far in life and now she’s a successful businesswoman and mother in Seattle. She wove a beautiful and inspiring story about perseverance and hope. She looked each girl in the eye when she said, “If and when you make mistakes pick yourself back up. Don’t ever let anyone tell you you will fail. You cannot fail. Failure is not trying and I know you all will try and try and try. Don’t ever let anyone blow out the fire that is inside of you. People will see that you are special. You are all intelligent, driven, passionate women. Your charisma is seeping out of you. People will be jealous of you and try to take that spirit away. Don’t let them. Your spirit is all you have.

Who has ever been told you can’t do something? (Everyone raised their hands). Who has ever believed it? (Everyone raised their hands again). Make a decision to end that cycle tonight. I want everyone to write a list of things people have told you you cannot do. We will then go out into the bonfire and burn it. (There were many girls that had such long lists they covered both sides of their papers). When we were finished we gathered outside and each girl threw her paper into the fire and said, “Yes, I can.”

All 100 women then lined the walls of the meeting hall with a candle. Katie started with hers lit. She said, “There is a fire inside each of us. Commit today to never letting anyone snuff it out.” Then one by one each girl said a statement that started with “I will….” and lit her candle from the flame already burning from the girl standing beside her. There were statements like, “I will be a doctor,” “I will be a strong woman,” “I will be an electrician.” Then Katie finished by saying that the room is glowing with GLOW girls. Keep your light shining.”

It was another late night but we played the movie “Freedom Writers” for the campers that were interested. It’s a true story about a group of inner-city students who are taken under the wing of an inspiring teacher and are able to channel their difficult experiences by journaling. I was sitting next to one of my junior counselors that seemed a bit disengaged at times during camp. I glanced at her during the movie and noticed she was crying. When I asked her what was wrong she said she was just so moved by the students’ stories.

3/29: We had yoga and breakfast and announcements. Everyone was sad that this magical time together was coming to an end. Greg asked one of the girls if she was excited to go back home. She said she wasn’t. When he asked why not she said that she has so many chores, so many responsibilities. She has to cook for the family, clean, haul water, wash clothes. It’s never ending she says. Here she is free. She loves to feel free. Like a bird. Rather than minimizing her challenges he said he hopes she can come again. As I overheard that exchange, I was thinking the same thing. How can I recreate this?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Here you will find my thoughts on days 1 and 2 of Camp GLOW! (Girls Leading Our World) Days 3-5 will come shortly.

Seven months of planning, organizing and fundraising all came down to these five days. It goes without saying that I barely slept in the anticipation. Many PCVs asked me during these seven months if I had any advice for someone interested in taking on a similar challenge and the first thing out of my mouth would invariably be, “do it alone.” Working with three other born leaders led to a constant feeling of too many cooks in the kitchen. Long debates ensued at planning meetings over issues that would be so easily decided if every choice was to be made my way! I would hold firmly to this piece of advice up until the day we were to leave but halfway through camp it was quite apparent that I could have never done this alone. Not even close. In fact, it was better than I had ever imagined it to be.

3/25: Adrenaline and caffeinated tea were pumping through my veins as I waited along the path at sunrise for our ride into town. Our driver’s internal clock was running on African time and when I called him to inquire about his tardiness he had no idea of the time (who owns a watch anyway?) but assured me he had only to drink a bit more tea before he headed off. That sounded perfectly reasonable to me, you can’t properly start your day without a good cup of tea to get your thoughts in order. In all honesty I had no need for tea. I was so excited I was jogging in place. Seriously. He finally made it and we squished ten girls and their blankets and luggage into the back of his pickup.

When he dropped us off in town I realized not everyone was sharing in my enthusiasm. Due to a complicated claim to territory, the bush taxis we took to the camp couldn’t come to two out of the four villages, my village being one of the ones off limits. Since I had asked two friends to take us into town I hadn’t yet been exposed to the taxi drivers and their scheming sliminess.

Said taxi drivers took no interest in waiting for late comers or had any empathy towards a PCV’s sick grandmother. When all 100 girls were packed in the bush taxis, doors closed, ready to go, the taxi drivers decided that the payment that was previously agreed upon wasn’t, in fact, sufficient. They claimed that the original amount was for the destination ‘Drakensburg’ (a mountain range spanning two provinces in SA and two countries) and not Underberg a town in the southern portion of the mountains. If they had known this they would have asked for more money which is why they’re doing so now. There are many reasons why their logic didn’t add up principally being they had our agreement in writing in their taxis that states the destination being the town of Underberg. But they wouldn’t budge. They refused to drive us any further without a considerable amount more. It took two hours of tense negotiations before we agreed to concede.

While we were humoring their little stunt, the girls started to get restless. The bathrooms (a gross, fly infested room with standing sewage not fit for humans) were closed so a few of the girls went in the grass. A security guard seized the opportunity of squeezing some extra cash out of the malungus and demanded the White women pay a fine in retribution for the girls’ folly. Now negotiations were being discussed on two fronts with us backed into a corner with no way out but through the money pit. When we finally left, our bridge with the taxi drivers was all but burned and the week had just begun.

As I felt the caffeine waning in my system I pumped in some more so my energy and excitement remained at super-human levels. The first tense hours with the drivers didn’t seem to faze me. Nothing could get me down at this point, I had waited too long and worked too hard for this week to be ruined by some money-hungry scum bags.
We drove all day with house music playing at ear-piercing levels and the girls dancing the whole way. Nobody was quite sure how long the drive would be and the animation started to fade after lunch. We stopped at a small shop on the side of the road where the girls were again asked to think creatively about bushes as bathrooms. It was then that one of the girls came up to Angie and said, “This is the best day of my life.” We were up before dawn, had been driving for hours on end getting an earful from our chauvinistic drivers while enduring permanent hearing loss due to the absurdly loud bass. The best day of your life?! Just you wait girlfriend, we’re about to rock your world.

It starts to rain as patience grows thin and we begin driving in circles. The taxi drivers need to again be talked into continuing with much ego-stroking and carrying on. It’s getting dark and though we know we’re close we’re unable to reach the camp director with directions for the last few miles. Angie convinces everyone that perhaps there are two entrances to the road we’re looking for and we finally find the camp.

Though tensions were high with some of the PCVs, the overall atmosphere was a joyous one as we had arrived at our destination safely (albeit at dark). All the girls were given a name tag that was to be worn throughout the duration of camp that signaled their cabin and village. We chose 12 girls from grade 11 to join the others in grades 8-10 as junior counselors. They were each in charge of a cabin and were thrilled with the extra responsibility. I fielded many questions about how many girls were to sleep per bed. When I responded by saying that every girl gets her own bed there were many cheers.

When everyone was settled we came back to the dining hall where a BBQ was in full swing and music was playing from the loud speakers. When everyone was finished, Greg, the camp director, though of British ancestry, explained in fluent Zulu how to roast a marshmallow. This was met by lots of giggling but many asked for a gooey second.

We then walked to a ten foot high campfire where I sat as several girls braided my hair and 100 voices sang songs that have been sung for hundreds of years. Many took turns kicking their legs to their ears to the beat of the music. Indigenous games were also played around the campfire that were reminiscent of tag with a fun song attached and stories were told of which most girls seemed to know all the words to. My heart was so full at that moment; little did I know I wouldn’t come down from that high until days after the camp was over.

It was lights out for the girls but the day’s debrief and the next day’s planning went well into the night for the planning committee.

3/26: Learning from the disorganization of the day before we decided to implement a ‘Decision Maker’ or one go-to person who would make all final decisions for the day. This resulted in a much more streamlined approach where everyone was able to take a day to lead and was able to support the leader during the other four.
As someone with seemingly endless stores of energy I elected to do the daily wake up call. Every single girl was awake, had showered and was dressed when I came around to their cabin at 6:30. When I circled back around I reminded them about Aerobics which were starting soon led by yours truly.

Since it had been dark when we arrived, it wasn’t until this morning that I was able to take in the full grandeur of our location. Our venue was in a small clearing surrounded by the mountains with a large rushing river running through the camp. The cabins, with log cabin facades, were fairly centrally located with the dining hall being the focal point.

We gathered in the large grassy area separating the dining hall from the river for Aerobics and blasted Rhianna while we got our blood flowing. I spent an absurdly large period of time choreographing a fun routine in the days leading up to the camp and it seemed to be on par with their ability which can be chalked up to luck more than anything else.

After breakfast, Angie facilitated a session on Women’s Health: Nutrition and Body Image and talked a lot about beauty being something inside of each woman and related women’s health to your mind, body and your environment.

Next up was Nozipo’s (Leah’s counterpart) session on Stress and Relaxation. She started with a great energizer and a series of songs. After she defined the terms she would be discussing she led all 100 girls in a relaxation exercise. One of the Nondweni girls ran out of the room crying in the middle of the session. When I went to see what was wrong she said that during the stress-relieving activity she was asked to close her eyes and focus on a calming place. She thought of her home but was immediately reminded of the sexual abuse she regularly endures from her stepdad. She went on to say that she told her mom about it and that she doesn’t believe her. She also hoped that this week would be a time she could escape from her problems and was so sad that she was reminded of her struggles. I hope that I was able to provide some source of comfort and tried not to think about dropping her off at that house in a few days time.

After lunch, Greg, the Camp Director, led the GLOW Olympics. Each village competed against each other in a series of events, the first of which was a low ropes course. Here, a participant from each team dove under a set of tires, jumped over and dropped under five wooden hurdles, leapt across a mud pit Tarzan-style with the help of a rope, scaled an 8 foot high wall with the help of her teammates, climbed up and down an 8 foot high net, clambered along a balance beam, scrambled up and down a teeter totter, Army crawled under a large net and lastly, hopped from wooden stump to wooden stump till you reached the finish line. The last participants were the leaders and I’m proud to admit that though I finished covered in mud and sweat with no shortage of cuts and bruises and frankly, barely breathing, I was victorious!! I had five Nondweni girls on either side of me the entire time helping me and who basically threw me over the 8 foot wall. The other ten Nondweni girls were blue in the face from cheering and jumping up and down, many of whom had scratchy voices by the end of the afternoon, myself included. Not only did I win the leaders’ race but the Nondweni girls won the event! I can’t remember ever screaming so loud, chanting our impromptu Nondweni song with all my girls huddled around me.

The next event was a sequence of relay races. Each team lined up in a row with two representatives from each village facing their team. Four balls were given to each team and each girl had a chance to throw one into the crate on the side with the two girls facing them. Each basket counted as a point and Nondweni continued their domination by winning once again. The two girls raised the stakes by holding the crate above their heads. This obstacle was no match for Nondweni and we won three in a row. The last relay race event of a similar nature was won by another village under highly contested circumstances. : ) All the girls were on their feet yelling and cheering the entire time. The Camp Director was so impressed by their enthusiasm and sportsmanship that he awarded monetary prizes to each team. Since we had won the Olympics we earned the biggest prize. When this was announced and the initial screams had died down, my team started a traditional song to show their excitement. The other villages joined in singing other traditional songs and we all were competing as to who would be the loudest. Then many villages, including mine, started dancing to the songs they were singing at full volume. Nobody was letting up and it was quite awhile before any of the leaders had the heart to end the team spirit.

GLOW Olympics, in all its glory, ran way over its allotted time slot so the following session was all but eliminated and was replaced by a session that we missed yesterday due to our tardiness. Trudell framed the bridge model perfectly along the backdrop of life skills and the choices you make in life. The leaders then shared tips about self-esteem and the girls participated by talking about when they feel confident. Here are some examples: “I tell myself I’m beautiful and I don’t listen to other people,” “If anyone throws a stone at you use it as a stepping stone,” “Believe in yourself.”

The girls were anxious to get out of their mud soaked clothes but were asked to hurry back from the showers to collect their prizes from the snack shop. I should have known that chips and pop would elicit a complete free-for-all with girls climbing on top of each other to get their choice drink and chip flavors.
We scheduled a 45 minute long break where the river was open to swimming with the acquisition of a life vest. Now swimming is a generous term for the reality of the situation was that the girls were wading in six inches of water…with life jackets on just in case. I did not encounter one young woman who had swam before and they were grinning from ear to ear. It was late in the afternoon and since the sun had gone down it was quite cold for a dip in the chilly water. Their shivering, goose-bumped skin didn’t stop the rampant denials from the few dozen girls in the water that they were cold. It was like pulling teeth trying to get them out for dinner.

When everyone had washed up after the meal, we sat down for a relaxing workshop on how to journal and journal decorating. They were taught how to draw self-portraits and drew theirs on the front cover of their new journal. Many of them drew theirs several times, erasing it time and again so that it was perfect. Quite a few decorated the background as well and one of them wrote her name and ‘A GLOW girl’ underneath as a sort of tagline. It was nice to have some free time to listen to good music and write creatively. The idea of writing has a stress reliever, a joy or a comfort was a new concept and many girls connected with this new outlet instantly.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

So I realize I’m quite behind on my blog posts so instead of posting a novel all at once I’m going to do it in sections. Here are my thoughts on my life for the third week in March. Stay tuned for stories about Camp GLOW.

3/14: Today I was at the NGO working on a grant proposal when I heard someone crying. This is something that is so rarely done in public that I didn’t know how to react. One of my co-workers asked Tshengie to talk to MaMabanga. She came back less than a minute later. I asked if MaMabanga was alright and if there was anything I could do, still flustered at this sudden breach of emotional armor. She said that she just got a phone call that her sister had died of AIDS. She hid in the storage closet, crying for perhaps thirty seconds, then came out and continued mopping the floor as if nothing ever happened. I was stunned. I asked Tshengie why she didn’t go home to mourn with her family and she said she’s fine now. I asked MaMabanga and she just shook her head.

When someone dies in the Zulu culture they do this beautiful thing of singing the dying loved one into the next life. I will frequently hear drums and song through the night and I’ll know that someone is passing. The next morning the women and young girls will go to the hut reserved for ceremonies and mourn. I was invited into the mourning hut when my neighbor died of TB. There you will find the tears, the questions, the anger, the grief. But nowhere else. The days between the death and the next Saturday are the ones allotted for the mourning hut. You have only a handful of days to grieve so that finite amount of time is full of an anguish like that of which I’ve never experienced. The haunting songs of grief are muffled by the constant, unabashed wailing of the community of women. A wailing that is so raw that their voices would often break from overuse.

I think there’s something very powerful about mourning in a community of women. Grief in the American culture is something that is private and personal but here nothing is private. Nobody is ever alone. I take comfort in knowing that MaMabanga will have that time when she gets home.

3/15: Today I was painting the world map with the kids when one of them asked me where Japan was. He said that he heard that the ground was moving there and that many people died. Many of the kids hadn’t heard that yet and we stopped and talked about what happened and I assured them that it wouldn’t happen here.

3/16: As I was walking down the street a guy about my age jogged up to catch up with me. I groaned as I braced myself for half a mile of sexual harassment. I was shocked when he seemed genuinely interested in my field of work. He said that it’s so difficult to not get AIDS because everyone has it. He went on to say that if one person in your family has it then you’re pretty much doomed. “Why is that,” I asked. He said that he shares a bed with several of his siblings along with kitchen utensils and clothes. I told him that you cannot contract HIV from sharing those things. He told me that his teachers told him otherwise. I responded by saying that there’s a lot of misinformation and it’s easy to get confused but that he could trust me. He said that he wasn’t worried about getting HIV anyway because he was circumcised. I told him that that does reduce your risk but it doesn’t eliminate it. He went on to say that he was sure I was trying to mix him up. The nurse who performed the circumcision told him he has nothing to worry about now. I insisted that I wasn’t trying to play games with him. That what I was saying was true. I talked to him along the path for maybe twenty minutes and I feel certain I planted a seed of doubt in the myths he held as fact before.

3/20: We finally got our PEPFAR grant with only six days to spare, hooray! One of the PCVs found a store that we could purchase many of our supplies at, it can only be described as CostCo on crack. It is owned by Chinese immigrants one of which stands on top of a mound of junk at the head of every aisle, oftentimes with his shirt off and always with one arm balancing himself on the ceiling. It’s stiflingly hot and has such a negative air about it I wanted to leave as soon as I entered.
The bins of Chinese imports are of such a low caliber that you can see through the plastic. Half the items are already broken. There are stacks of things that scream illegal, repressive child labor. It was a perfect first stop for us ladies on a budget.
So I realize I’m quite behind on my blog posts so instead of posting a novel all at once I’m going to do it in sections. Here are my thoughts on my life for the third week in March. Stay tuned for stories about Camp GLOW.

3/14: Today I was at the NGO working on a grant proposal when I heard someone crying. This is something that is so rarely done in public that I didn’t know how to react. One of my co-workers asked Tshengie to talk to MaMabanga. She came back less than a minute later. I asked if MaMabanga was alright and if there was anything I could do, still flustered at this sudden breach of emotional armor. She said that she just got a phone call that her sister had died of AIDS. She hid in the storage closet, crying for perhaps thirty seconds, then came out and continued mopping the floor as if nothing ever happened. I was stunned. I asked Tshengie why she didn’t go home to mourn with her family and she said she’s fine now. I asked MaMabanga and she just shook her head.

When someone dies in the Zulu culture they do this beautiful thing of singing the dying loved one into the next life. I will frequently hear drums and song through the night and I’ll know that someone is passing. The next morning the women and young girls will go to the hut reserved for ceremonies and mourn. I was invited into the mourning hut when my neighbor died of TB. There you will find the tears, the questions, the anger, the grief. But nowhere else. The days between the death and the next Saturday are the ones allotted for the mourning hut. You have only a handful of days to grieve so that finite amount of time is full of an anguish like that of which I’ve never experienced. The haunting songs of grief are muffled by the constant, unabashed wailing of the community of women. A wailing that is so raw that their voices would often break from overuse.

I think there’s something very powerful about mourning in a community of women. Grief in the American culture is something that is private and personal but here nothing is private. Nobody is ever alone. I take comfort in knowing that MaMabanga will have that time when she gets home.

3/15: Today I was painting the world map with the kids when one of them asked me where Japan was. He said that he heard that the ground was moving there and that many people died. Many of the kids hadn’t heard that yet and we stopped and talked about what happened and I assured them that it wouldn’t happen here.

3/16: As I was walking down the street a guy about my age jogged up to catch up with me. I groaned as I braced myself for half a mile of sexual harassment. I was shocked when he seemed genuinely interested in my field of work. He said that it’s so difficult to not get AIDS because everyone has it. He went on to say that if one person in your family has it then you’re pretty much doomed. “Why is that,” I asked. He said that he shares a bed with several of his siblings along with kitchen utensils and clothes. I told him that you cannot contract HIV from sharing those things. He told me that his teachers told him otherwise. I responded by saying that there’s a lot of misinformation and it’s easy to get confused but that he could trust me. He said that he wasn’t worried about getting HIV anyway because he was circumcised. I told him that that does reduce your risk but it doesn’t eliminate it. He went on to say that he was sure I was trying to mix him up. The nurse who performed the circumcision told him he has nothing to worry about now. I insisted that I wasn’t trying to play games with him. That what I was saying was true. I talked to him along the path for maybe twenty minutes and I feel certain I planted a seed of doubt in the myths he held as fact before.

3/20: We finally got our PEPFAR grant with only six days to spare, hooray! One of the PCVs found a store that we could purchase many of our supplies at, it can only be described as CostCo on crack. It is owned by Chinese immigrants one of which stands on top of a mound of junk at the head of every aisle, oftentimes with his shirt off and always with one arm balancing himself on the ceiling. It’s stiflingly hot and has such a negative air about it I wanted to leave as soon as I entered.
The bins of Chinese imports are of such a low caliber that you can see through the plastic. Half the items are already broken. There are stacks of things that scream illegal, repressive child labor. It was a perfect first stop for us ladies on a budget.

Monday, March 21, 2011

3/6: I had an interesting series of altercations with a herd of cows today. I was the only one at the compound this afternoon so it fell to me to get the cows out. I’m not exactly sure why my host family doesn’t like the cows in our area but they do seem to enjoy eating the thatched roofing and tend to have a blanket disregard to the location of their bowels so I’m guessing those two factors might make the list. Anyway, my young host brothers have no apparent trouble getting them to leave. I tried to make the same noises the kids do then proceeded to use a broom as a threatening device. Nothing. I scrapped the bad cop routine and tried some good ole fashioned sweet talk. They didn’t even budge. It took several more tries over an entire afternoon to get them out. I’m sure they found my whole charade quite entertaining. (As did the neighbors I can imagine).

3/8-9: In planning the Camp GLOW parent meetings my counterpart tried to calm my nerves when I showed my concern in having a parent meeting in the middle of the day on a weekday. “Oh don’t worry, Lindelwa, they’ll just send a representative.” Perfect. So I was bracing for the meetings to be a circus. To be honest I was a bit disappointed at how smooth they went. Maybe I’ve adapted too much so that I don’t have as many cultural snafus. I didn’t anticipate the literacy rate being as low as it was but that was easily fixed by my counterpart and I shouting over each other as the parents/representatives dictated their pertinent information and signed with an X.

Also worth mentioning is Tshengie’s very creative excuse for not helping me with our grant proposal: her elbows hurt. Uh-huh.

3/11-13: I met a girl on a bush taxi a few months ago who invited me to be in her sister’s wedding. Not kidding. She then called me about three dozen times to remind me of the date that she watched me put in my phone on the bush taxi. So Friday morning I was at her house, overnight bag in hand, for the big day. I was put immediately to work and spent the next six hours chopping and peeling various vegetables with the bridesmaids that seemed to appear in shifts.

I was then escorted to a bedroom that I would later spend the majority of my three days. It housed a double bed and we later pulled a second thin double sized mattress from under the first bed. These two mattresses touched all four walls. On average there were about fifteen girls in this room at one time. I seemed to always be one of them. I watched the bridal party get ready and not wanting me to feel left out my hair was slathered with just as much relaxer and baby oil as the next girl. Unfortunately the end result was far less attractive. Think slick backed grease with a ring of frizz. Thankfully they didn’t dress me as so often happens when I go to these events. I almost wish they did. I felt quite out of place in my flowy skirt and Chacos next to the plastic heels and Forever 21-esque ensembles of the bridal party, all of whom are currently at university in Durban and very urbanized. I think they felt much better about ‘my look’ after the slicked back frizz coif was complete though they clearly disapproved of my far inferior clothing selection.

I had prepared to stay over for the night with Friday being the day of cooking and preparation and Saturday being the big event. Au contraire, the first of three ceremonies was Friday night hence the primping during what I thought was the prep day. I’m used to not knowing what’s going on but this weekend took the cake in the confusion department. After a day of eating nothing but biscuits and soda the first of three ceremonies began. The ‘warm-up wedding’ was more of a Southern revival with a few people in matching outfits. The groom was hanging out in his pick-up truck throughout the duration of his wedding and was dressed in jeans. The sound system was set at such a high volume that I was in physical pain from the very first Hallelujah. Four hours of fire and brimstone screaming, oftentimes with three or four people speaking in tongues into mics over the intended speaker, and it was time to eat. I was beyond lightheaded when we finally sat down to eat our first proper meal of the day at around 8:00pm. Unlike anything else that day, we were in a mad scramble. So I followed suit and ate as quickly as I could then cleaned the tent of the remains of the warm-up wedding I asked my friend Zama where we were going and she said we were going to Escourt, “not right now but now.” So African. We left six hours later at 4:30am. In the meantime I piled onto one of the two mattresses and ate more biscuits and drank more sugary pop. Thankfully, we slept from 11-1:00am.

It was so interesting to live with over thirty people in a three room house. Throw modesty and privacy out the window. This weekend is what guys envision girls’ sleepovers to be like; girls forever in various stages of undress. The wedding was in town and so we had running water. Girls bathed two at a time. We slept (for two hours) four to a bed dressed in just our underpants. (For some reason I was given the grandmother’s nightgown). Girls would come in and out unfazed by the nakedness. Out of the three full days I spent there I might have spent five minutes with a male.

After we primped and ate more biscuits and pop we loaded up into taxis in the middle of the night. I knew enough to not expect an environment conducive to sleeping in transit but what I got was another thing entirely. We ushered in the sunrise with traditional Zulu songs driving through the hills of SA. It took about four hours to get there but was one of those moments that confirm that you’re in the right place at the right time doing the right thing.

The second wedding venue was beautiful, think 80s wedding. The groomsmen dressed in too-big, gold pin-striped tan polyester suits. There were white lights under the white cloth that covered the walls and gold cloth was swagged everywhere.
This is not your average Zulu wedding. It’s what Zulus call a ‘white wedding’ and is what the ‘born-again Christians’ prefer as they no longer believe in Zulu traditions like ancestors which tie into traditional Zulu weddings. The groom’s family, on the other hand, still pays lobola (bride price). Another interesting fun fact I learned about born-again Christians is that they typically prefer arranged marriages. This wedding was just that with the bride being 19 years old and the groom 35.

But back to the festivities. So I quickly discovered I was the unofficial photographer which was both stressful and demanding. But the ceremony seemed to go off without a hitch. It was six hours long with many people giving long-winded speeches and our first meal again was at dinnertime. It was really warm in the hall and the maid of honor and best man kept running up to the honored couple to dab at their sweaty faces. It was also pretty humorous to see that there was no need to put on airs. Nobody feigned interest when they were getting bored and at the end there were quite a few heads on the table openly sleeping.

After the food was eaten the bridal party and other VIPS were carted off to the third ceremony. It was dark, cold and rainy when we arrived at the groom’s family’s home in a village outside Escourt. The family’s compound was built almost on the edge of a cliff. I was thanking the Nigerien cell phone gods that my phone had a built in flashlight. The entire bridal party changed into traditional clothes. Then the bride’s family gave the groom’s extended family blankets and grass mats amongst other things. We then crossed a swamp to another tent where there was more food. I licked mine clean.

We got home in the middle of the night and all the girls piled into the same room with the same minimal clothing. (I was given the grandmother’s robe). The next day we bathed and ate more biscuits and pop. I was so used to this routine that I didn’t want to leave. But I haven’t quite gone native and when I got home I relished in my aloneness for the rest of the evening. I caught up on the news from BBC World Service, swept out a fresh batch of critters and finished a good book.