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.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

A Visible Impact

Yesterday morning, I completed one of my first projects at my organization. I was able to assist them with designing and selecting a new logo. Jacob, a Danish volunteer who has been here for a few months, already helped open people up to the idea of a new logo. So I worked on putting together a few different rough ideas. But life at my organization is rather hectic and busy, so the project was put aside, until one of donors was visiting and suggested printing a banner with the logo for an upcoming event (a big deal, with a thousand people expected and a number of important people from the provincial government). This little mention rekindled the idea, and in a matter of two hours, we had gone through over twelve different versions of the logo, trying to select the right colors and make other minor tweaks.

In the end, we had four different color variations and everyone had a different preference, but all four looked viable. I suggested that we present the four options to the caregivers here, so that they might have input into the new logo. Both my supervisor and the head of the organization liked this idea, but we still needed to talk to the board of directors. As it happened, the chairperson from the board came by to talk with my supervisor for unrelated purposes, but he liked the four logos and approved them on behalf of the board.

So then yesterday morning, with all the important administrators away at a workshop, I took the logo samples to the caregivers and asked them to vote. Everyone seemed positive about contributing and they even sent me away so it could be secret voting. In the end, they overwhelmingly selected one option and that has since become the official logo for our organization. We went from rough drafts to new logo, all in less then twenty-four hours (a little faster then I was hoping for, but I am happy with the result).

Below you can see the original logo for the organization:

And here is the new logo:

Note that "Fanang Diatla" means "Hands Together", so the symbol of the hand is very important to the organization.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

My Weekend Adventures

My weekend, as so much of daily life here, was filled with adventures, many of which I am simply an unknowing participants brought along by others. I figure describing the fun will provide a little insight into life here.

Friday afternoon at work as mellow (most people leave around eleven in the morning), but I stayed until five. My time is spent in my supervisor's office, where so much of the organization's excitement takes place. His name is Knowledge (or at least that is what everyone calls him) and his technical title is the General Manager, but he is essentially second in command and spends his day overseeing the general operations of the organization. As a result, people are constantly coming and going from the office and his phone is constantly ringing. In addition, Jacob, a volunteer from Denmark, often works at the computer in the office (he is starting a newsletter to highlight the accomplishments of the organization). And this last week, we also had Peter, the accountant from Johannesburg, working in the office. He provides great company, as he is well traveled (all over Africa, lots of time in New York and recently the Dominican Republic), speaks perfect English and manages to tell entertaining stories, even well typing accounting reports. The office provides a packed little hub of nonstop entertainment.

Leaving at five (which is actually the earliest I left all week) allowed me to do some reading when I got home, before I cooked vegetable curry and rice. It sounds a lot more impressive then it really is (the vegetable curry comes in a can, but is surprisingly good, with lots of spice and potatoes, peas, beans, and peanuts).

Saturday morning, I awoke rather early to find water dripping into my room. It had been pouring rain all night and it had finally founds it way into my room, so I strategically placed some bowls around the room. As Knowledge had requested, I headed down to my organization at 8am. At some point, I will learn better, but the general rule is never to arrive on time. In the end, I waited until 9:40am before he showed up (to pass the time, I put together a Little Mermaid puzzle that the kids had left out). Even after departing, we ended up going through a number of stops, picking up some dry cleaning and other people, including another Peace Corps volunteer who lives nearby.

Then we drove for about two hours into a rural community on the other side of Polokwane to see how their municipal Love Life Games day was going. Love Life is a government-funded project seeking to promote behavior change to help prevent HIV/AIDS in younger demographics. So one of their activities involves creating game days, where kids come together to play soccer, ultimate frisbee, netball and other sports. As it was very gusty and rainy, we watched for less than hour, before my supervisor declared, "I'm bored. Let's go." So we headed back towards Polokwane, the provincial capital (and closest big city to where I live).

On the outskirts of town, we pulled up to a big warehouse, with a few tables setup outside with a makeshift kitchen. Knowledge headed over, talked for a few minutes, and returned with about five plates of food for everyone to share. It turned out to be some of the most amazing South African food that I have eaten yet. Lots of bogobe (or porridge, made from maize), with flavorful gravy, some spinach thing, some other vegetable thing and a number of tasty meats. We stood around the back of the truck and the eight of us ate (with are hands, using the bogobe to pick up other foods). As the food was being polished off, another seven or so plates showed up. We left stuffed with absolutely delicious food from some hidden little place.

Next, we went shopping at the Savannah Mall (as American as you can imagine). I managed to get an espresso (mmm...) and to finally buy the device I needed to get online.

From there, we got lost in the Savannah suburbs looking for a party, which Peter the accountant had invited us to attend (as it turns out, it was a party for one of our organization's funders, so it was good we went). The party was both a tombstone unveiling party (in the morning) and a fiftieth birthday party (in the afternoon), so it was quite the big deal. A rented tent, lots of tables and lots of people. Upon arriving, they tried to serve us both food and drink. The food was declined on account of being stuffed, while the drinks were declined on account of the fact that Knowledge does not drink (and in the interest of him respecting me, I won't drink around him). But we did accept dessert of cake and custard. But once the long-winded speeches started, Knowledge plotted a stealthy exit (he sent one or two people off at a time from our group in order to not draw too much attention).

Finally, we headed towards home, again making a number of stops to drop people off, buying juice, visit someone in the hospital and get gas. I arrived home at 8pm after twelve hours driving all over the Limpopo province (my host mom was very worried, she called to make sure I was alright). The day was a blast, because I got to hang out with Laurent (one of my closest fellow Peace Corps Volunteer), but also with Knowledge. With the exception of his lack of punctuality, I have so much respect and appreciation for him. He is generous, extremely bright and tuned into so much around him. It makes me happy that I will get to work with him over the coming two years.

As for today, I ended up going to my organization's soccer game. My organization recently organized a soccer team and so this was our sixth game so far. It ended up a draw (ruining our winning streak sadly). The game took place in a nearby town (still not sure what the place was called). Being in a new town is always an adventure, because they are not yet accustomed to having a white person around. So in the shop, I was ushered to the front of the line and addressed in Afrikaans a number of times. Best of all though are the varied reactions to me greeting using the local language (Sepedi, or Norther Sotho). Some people get very excited, others just seem too shocked to respond, while others use English for their response.

Surprisingly, this has been the eighth day in a row that I have gone into work. You would think that life here would be more relaxed, but it seems that at every moment, I am being invited to join in some new adventure. It keeps things very lively here.

I posted five more photos from my weekend of fun to the album I setup earlier this week. Click here to see the photo album.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Photos from Site

So I am well on my way to having my own internet access. I have at least gotten online at this point, and will eventually buy the little device I need so that I do not have to borrow one from my organization. But I did manage to post seven photos of my site.

This last weekend, I attended a ceremony celebrating the girls who completed initiation school. It was a week long program, where they camp out, sing songs and do other secret activities. Two of the photos are from that event, where there were about 450 girls wearing traditional outfits. Keep in mind that the event started at 7AM on a rainy Sunday, so a number of the girls were shivering. The poverty/wealth dichotomy was well represented, as some of the initiates were clearly underfed and otherwise unhealthy, while others were picked up in BMW SUVs.

Peace Corps Site