Peace Corps Blog

This is a blog of my experience as a Peace Corps volunteer, working in South Africa. My job title is a capacity builder, which means I help increase the effectiveness of a local NGO that does AIDS/HIV related work.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Weekend Party

Just the other day, I was thinking how difficult it is to fully communicate the subtle difference between cultures. Most of my experiences here could easily be described in a few sentences, but I have come to understand that unless you have been here and experienced things first hand, those few sentences will only conjure up very familiar images. So I figured I would write about another one of my weekend adventures to capture that…

In a few sentences: “Yesterday, after a relaxed morning cleaning my room and playing with Beapo (the five year old grandson of my host mother), my host mom invited me to attend a birthday party nearby – someone was turning 21. I went and sat around meeting people, eating and eventually dancing (the dance steps were new, so I had to be shown). After that, one of the people I met at the party took me to see traditional beer being brewed, and from there we went to another house where I took place in a heated debate about international politics (not really participated, more sat on the side).”

Now, to really illustrate how those few sentences don’t really do justice to my experience, I will retell the day adding more detail:

“Yesterday, I woke up and decided that my room was in desperate need of cleaning. I borrowed the broom from inside the house, and began sweeping the mounds of dust that collect here, since there are wholes in the ceiling and the door has to always be open, otherwise the heat will kill me. From the time I woke up at seven, there was ‘house music’ blasting at the neighbour’s house (they were preparing for a party). Basically, house music is very electronic music that extremely repetitive. There are a handful of decent songs, but most (in my opinion) doesn’t really warrant listening too once. But, as is quite common here, songs got repeated again and again. Beapo came over and demonstrated his dancing ability by humping the wall outside my room. We then played around, and he taught me a few words in Sepedi.

In the early afternoon, my host mom headed over to the party to help prepare and said she would get me when it started. So I sat around reading Angela’s Ashes (amazing, by the way) until three when I got a one-word call from her saying “Come.” You have to understand that almost all cell phones here are pay as you go, so people are very careful with their airtime.

So I wandered over to the party. As is common here, my presence attracts a lot of attention. This happens for a number of reasons: 1) I am white and probably the only white person in the village at the time (there is a volunteer from Denmark here, but he was away for the weekend and will only be around until December); 2) I am from the United States of America; and 3) I can greet in the local language (and say a few other assorted, but mostly useless sentences). Wandering into the party, everyone stares and wants to greet me.

But to set the situation a little more, I should describe how parties work here. The vast majority of parties are for funerals, tomb stone unveilings and weddings (birthdays are rarely celebrated). It always takes place outside (often with a rented tent) and there is music, lots of sitting around talking and usually some dancing. Most of the men get very, very drunk. Some of the women also get very, very drunk (especially the older ones), but you won’t see them actually drinking from a bottle, because its frowned upon. For food, the host family usually slaughters an animal (probably a cow, depending on the number of people expected) the day before, cut it up and cook everything, so little is wasted. (Luckily, I haven’t seen the full slaughtering, but one day I walked past a recently slaughtered cow, which was being skinned…not pretty). And with all events here, there is a programme (to use the British spelling), a programme director, etc. It strikes me as oddly formal for a birthday party, but so goes. The programme always begins and ends with prayer, and for a birthday party, involves family members and friends and eventually the birthday boy saying a few words.

So upon my arrival, my host mom came and found me and ushered me over to a group of seats under a tree. This turned out to be where the older, important men of the community would sit, talk, drink and smoke (not just tobacco, I don’t think). I felt honoured. The man sitting next to me, who was nicely sober (due to his religion) and happened to teach math and science at a private school, so he spoke excellent English and talked to me about the political situation here. Three of his fives kids were also at the party, the youngest of whom was seven years old and was learning her fourth language.

A plate was brought out for me with porridge (or pap or bogobe depending on your language choice) and intestines of some sort (I think from a cow). There was a third animal part on the plate, but I stayed away from it. Simply said, the intestines are disgusting. The flavour isn’t that bad, but the texture makes me gag (luckily no one was watching the first time, then I figured out to take very small bites and avoid chewing). Worst of all, it felt like my mouth was coated with dirt after eating them. But this time around, they didn’t bother my stomach at all, which surprised me.

After sitting around with the men for a while (and having to put up with some of the drunker ones communicate in a bizarre combination of English Afrikaans and Sepedi, which even the others didn’t really understand), the part of the programme began. The local priest came and read a few sections from the bible. Then everyone started dancing, so I joined in. One woman dragged me into the middle and showed me the general step. Luckily, a man named Blessing/Charles/Hlabirwa (people have many names here) took over teaching me, as he actually used words instead of just pulling me around. Charles represents the general welcoming spirit that you generally meet here. He and I spoke for a long time, and he talked about how neat it was that I was living here and learning a new culture. He then purposed to take me to where the traditional beer was being brewed, so we walked along very rocky roads (more like trails) in the pitch black to a house a little ways away. We arrived at a small room where two women force a mixture of malt, maize and water that has fermented through a bag to separate the beer from the other ingredients.

Overall, I have decided not to drink here, as even having one drink can be result in being labelled an alcoholic, especially in the rural community where word travels very quickly. So all I had at the party was soda (or ‘cold drink’ as its called here). I was somewhat interested in just tasting the beer, but since Charles had explained to everyone that I don’t drink, I figured I wouldn’t confused the matter and stick to soda.

From there, I continued with Charles to a house that seconds as a little shop selling beer and cigarettes. Again, I was greeted by a number of people and here we began discussing international politics. A heated debate broke out after one man, Source, said that the United States was a member of the European Union. It took about twenty minutes for the other two guys to explain that no, not all countries belong to either the African Union or the European Union. I decided to not say much for the part of the conversation. But then we proceeded to talk about some real issues, such as colonialism, identity and power in the world.

At this point, I was feeling worn out and a little tired of drunken people rambling, so I decided to lead. Charles nicely walked me home, as it was dark and is supposedly not safe to walk alone at night (my supervisor at work said ‘a drunk man may ask you for money, and then if you don’t give him some, he will hit you with a rock’). Upon returning home, I found that my host mother was already in bed, but she had left a plate with lots of food out for me, because she figured I wouldn’t have eaten recently.

Climbing into bed, I was able to hear the music blasting at the party all through the night. Not the best night of sleep. But it was quite a fun day, such wonderful experiences and such neat people!”

Hopefully this will provide another little glimpse into life here. At some point, I want to begin talking about the larger political situation and the effects of HIV/AIDS here, but I figure for the first few posts, I should more just communicate some of my day to day experiences.


At October 29, 2007 8:16 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...


I am a completely random person who was looking up Peace Corps and South Africa on the google search engine, and found your blog. I was hoping to ask you some questions on your placement, and such, if you get this message and have the inclination.

My email is:

I am looking into the PeaceCorps for South Africa. I am wanting to be farther south than you (St. Jeffrey's bay, preferably) as I have contacts there.

I am looking for the 'Business Advising or Business Development' position through the Corps, and I hope to focus in AIDS/HIV/Healthcare realm.

Thanks so much! I hope to hear back from you!


At November 3, 2007 4:42 PM , Blogger susan said...

thoroughly enjoy reading of your adventures dear nate. would love to see more pictures if possible.
the new logo is excellent....modern and very clean. good job. missing you.

At November 5, 2007 3:49 AM , Blogger Camille&Amanda said...

Dear Nathan,
how I love your stories! They cross barriers of space, culture, race and class.

We lost trouble a couple months ago and have two new puppies Stevie W. and Macy. We are training for another marathon and worrking hard.
love love love to you from New Mexico
Camille and Amanda

At November 6, 2007 4:15 AM , Anonymous Connie said...

Reading your account of the party reminds me of when Bill and I left Los Angeles and moved to Zuni. Leaving your home and culture helps to identify what you value and find "home". Love always, Connie


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