An Email from Wimpys – August 23, 2014

[The following blog post is excerpted from an email from Karen that she sent to several people and suggested I turn into a blog post if I could. I can and have – lots of interesting new information! – Caitlin]


Due to scheduling difficulties, our workshop on Diversity in SA was postponed for a week.  No one was upset to finally have an unscheduled moment AND an opportunity to go to town.  We are about 25 days away from being sworn in as real Peace Corps volunteers and leaving for our assigned villages and schools.  We are studying isiZulu for two hours/day (plus homework), going to daily sessions on teaching English, writing lesson plans, and teaching for 1.5 hours 4 afternoons/week in English Clubs ( with a partner) created just for us (practice teaching) at a local elementary school.   My head is too full and can barely manage to put one more new isiZulu grammar lesson into action.  Learning a language is hard for me; I have great performance anxiety and can barely utter words I know when they are not on paper.  The teaching tech sessions are a good review and done by actual PC volunteers now teaching in schools in SA.  The English clubs are going well (total of 11 sessions) as we learn to talk very slowly, adjust to many different levels of English ability, and find the right tone and pacing, with very limited materials.  Did you know it was exhausting to teach?!?  I am tired, worried about passing the upcoming language proficiency interview (I panic), hoping my partner and I come up with good lessons for the Club, eating a pb&j sandwich every day, 3 kinds of starch and chicken for dinner every day, worrying about the final teaching test, listening to the howling wind all night long,  only receiving two letters so far, missing friends and family. 

But I am hanging in there, have not been sick, have a fabulous host family and home to be a part of with the cutest baby ever, mostly (!) enjoying the other volunteers, and I now know where I will be living and teaching.  Here is the update:  I will be in the village of B______ in Kwa Zulu Natal.   I will be working at a Primary School, built 11 years ago by an Anglo American company.  It is supposedly well-run, and tidy.  I will be living alone in a rondaval with a tile roof on the property of a Police Officer, his wife, his son (16) and daughter (11).  He is also the chair of the School Governing Board.  The school is on the main road to J_____, the biggest nearby town, about 34 kilometers away. 

When I get there, I will set up my own household, cook for myself (hah!) and get myself to and from school by walking 2.5 kms.  I WILL have electricity!  No plumbing or bathroom — outhouse!  I will get a smartphone and a wifi source too and I will be touch with all of you then.  

I am once again at Wimpy’s, using the half hour of free wifi, and using the clean flush toilets, and having a coffee drink!  

I can tell the weather is changing from winter to spring here.  We have had one good rain, fruit trees are flowering, a few spots on the dry, brown hills have hints of green. The road is still very dusty when cars or buses whizz by, the days now vary from bright, warm and sunny, to overcast and foggy.  It is so lovely here!  I still marvel that I am in Africa!  (Or is Berkeley just over the brown hills?)

I miss you all and wish I could zip home for just a weekend and then come back to continue this new life.  

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August 11, 2014

Hello again from M_____ in Kwa Zulu Natal, South Africa. I’m done with half of my training program and am now looking forward to our swearing-in ceremony on September 15, 2014. They have not yet decided where that will occur but it will most likely be close to where we are now and NOT in Pretoria.

Last Tuesday, August 5, our training schedule was rearranged to accommodate a request from a local high school principal who had seen volunteers in his village and coming and going to the nearby Tribal Court building, our training hub. He asked if these Peace Corps volunteers could come to his school and talk to his learners (students) and answer their questions.

When we arrived, we found a huge “hall” filled with at least 1000 learners, all in their tidy school uniforms, sitting or standing with their teachers. All 34 of us plus our isiZulu teachers, our third-year Peace Corps trainers, and our training director (Mr. Baker) were on the stage facing the learners. One of the teachers (I think) was the emcee and he introduced the principal. Both of them spoke to the students about being on their best behavior and to ask good questions about education in America. Some Peace Corps volunteers spoke about how important education was, to remember to follow their dreams, to stay in school and study hard, to go to university. When the learners were allowed to ask their questions, they amazed us with their depth, their concern, their variety: how were students disciplined in America, how was American handling HIV/AIDS, did Americans care about the human trafficking crisis in the world, what happened when a teenage school girl got pregnant in America, and how important was proficiency in math and science. They cheered when a volunteer told them that teachers in America could not hit students but used other methods of consequences for bad behavior.

The learners cheered when Peace Corps trainees spoke some greetings in isiZulu and used their new isiZulu names. (Mine is Sihenhlahla which means good luck.)

When the learners got restless with the speeches and the steady stream of exhortations to do well in school, we changed the pace. We trainees sang “Shosholoza,” a song Mr. Baker taught us. (Keep on moving in those mountains, the train is coming from South Africa, we are running in those mountains.) Some talented students sang Zulu songs and showed us the high kicks and stomps of traditional Zulu dances. There was an incredible happy cheering din of noise as volunteers attempted to dance as well.

In the odd wrap-up, just before we left the stage, one administrator said the learners got corporal punishment (which is against the law) to motivate them (!!) and another man said they had a real problem with lateness and not studying hard. By then the students were done listening, but wanted more time to shake our hands, take photos, hug an American, all of which they did in the parking area right before we got into the vans and drove away.

Afterwards we debriefed and someone said we were treated like rock stars! Most of us wished that we could gone into the classrooms and answered their questions in smaller and more personal groups.

My second interesting cultural event was yesterday, Sunday, August 10. I went to an Anglican church service with Mama and Thanda (13) in nearby eMondlo. As you know, church and religion are not exactly my thing, so give me lots of kudos for sitting on a hard oak pew for 5 hours paying “attention” to the service which was almost entirely in isiZulu!! It was a LONG 5 hours! Mama and about 25 other women were dressed similarly in black skirts, stockings, shoes and hat, with white blouses/jackets. Among that dedicated group there were some wonderful singers, and their voices kept me going. The Reverend wore a white cassock and a robe with lime green accents and embroidery. There was incense, hymns, boy and girl helpers in red robes with white robes over the red, special attention and blessings to the children (imagine 5 hours to them!), communion, recognition to the women for Women’s Day (the previous day), a sermon, a guest speaker, an election of officers, and handshakes with people sitting nearby. Finally, in desperation during communion, I started reading Mama’s English Bible. There I was, sitting there reading about Joseph in the land of Egypt, taking good care of the people in times of plenty and times of famine, when Mama stands up next to me. I stopped the reading and realized she was talking to the congregation about me living with her and learning isiZulu and my isiZulu name. Then the Reverend came over to me and asked if I’d like to say something to the group. I spoke into the hand-held microphone and explained that I was being well-taken care of by Mama, that I was one of 34 Peace Corps volunteers who have come to KwaZuluNatal to teach English. I thanked them for allowing me to come to their church and welcoming me there. I was calm, spoke clearly (in English) and wasn’t freaked out about public speaking! And after another hour, we got to leave the church and head for the eMondlo taxi rank.

Mama and I put Thandi on a taxi going to Vryheid where he lives and goes to school. She and I got onto one of the worst taxis in South Africa, just the kind the Peace Corps told us never to get into (unless we have to). But I followed Mama and we both ended up laughing: all the seats were ripped, the front grate had fallen off and was slipped in behind one of the bench seats, the rubber casings on the windows were torn, the back door was broken and wouldn’t stay shut, the sliding side passenger had some trouble staying closed, there was a crack in the windshield. When the Khumbi was full (14 adults plus 2 small children), the driver came over and filled one of the tires with air and drove next door to a gas station for a “bit” of gas, not a fill-up. We departed for M_____, slowly, bumping along the gravel road, several of us laughing, wondering if we’d make it. At first, I thought it was the worst taxi in Africa, but we made it back safely. The worst taxi would have died along the way and we’d have to walk home!

Oh, I DO get a bit of news occasionally, from TV and newspapers. I am appalled at the Israeli bombing of Gaza, ISIS actions in Iraq, and U.S. bombing in Iraq. My dear English friend, Sue Hepworth, texted me that she went to the anti-war demonstration in London with 150,000 other people. Good for her!!! Is there any way at all we can stop these wars?

Under African Skies

Some mornings at 8 am, I find myself walking out of my family’s home and down the dusty dirt path to language class. It’s not far, just three houses away. Not far enough really. The winter air is usually crisply chilly, and I find myself in awe of the incredibly lovely landscape in front of me and all around me. It’s vast, tan-colored, almost treeless, dotted with clusters of small gray houses. I SO wish I could add a photo! There are low mountains in the distance. Perhaps it’s like the Big Sky country parts of Montana. Perhaps it’s like the Redding/Yreka area of northern California (but without Mt. Shasta or Mt. Lassen). Each time I come out of our small house, I am brimming full to be in this lovely land, the morning quiet punctuated by the sounds of the roosters.

Then, there’s the cows! My family does not have cows here in M_____, but many families do. Cows are loose, free to walk the gravel road, the dirt roads, the paths. They are all shapes, sizes, ages, eating grasses, pooping wherever, knowing how to avoid people and cars, somehow knowing where they are going and where their kraal is. Boys are the usual cow herds, often going out to bring the cows home after school. I often walk by and say, “hi cow.” They ignore me.

And then, there’s the goats! They roam around, just like the cows! There are some sheep and lambs too! It’s a busy place for some animals.

There are NO wild animals: no lions, no giraffes, no elephants, no zebras. I wonder what animals were here before the Europeans came to South Africa when Zulu life was intact and not influenced by outsiders. [Someday, when I re-enter internet land, I’ll google it.]

I’ve been on the Peace Corps adventure almost one months now. (By the time you read this it will be more than a month.) Every single day has been full of activity, mostly Peace Corps generated and required. There have been intensive language classes in isiZulu; long discussions about culture and gender roles; workshops on the South African educational system and mandated curriculum; discussions about coping with unwanted attention from men (“I love you. I want to marry you.”); advice on traveling safely by Khumbi on our own or in small groups; a site visit to the home and school of a current Peace Corps volunteer.

Last week, they told us the areas where our permanent site will be, but not the specific village, school or host family. That information will come when we are close to finishing our training. My area is Ingwavuma. it is in a mountainous region close to the border of Swaziland. No education volunteers have been there yet; we will be the pioneers. Health volunteers are there now.

Last Saturday, about 26 of the 34 volunteers went to the wedding of the King of the Zulus, King Goodwill Zwelithini, 66, to his 6th wife, Queen Zola Mafu, 28. The President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, was there, as was Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. We traveled to the Ulundi Regional Sports Complex in two vans, stopping along the way to visit a burial site of 6 Zulu kings and a memorial to the Zulu kings atop a high hill with tremendous views of much of the traditional Zulu lands. At first, we were able to sit in the VIP seating but were moved when the King’s family and the politicians arrived. We watched the Zulu warriors in traditional dress, the dancers from Swaziland, and left when it got cold and before the food was served. It was a privilege to be allowed to attend and observe this event.

Each of the volunteers is living with a local Zulu family and all have grown to love them, even when there is difficulty communicating or bridging the culture gap. However, like Peace Corps volunteers before us, we miss our former creature comforts: indoor flush toilets, hot showers in an indoor bathroom, easy access to any kind of food or drink we desire, a warm house in the winter, unlimited access to the internet. None of this is available in our village so we laugh and dream and wish but in reality, we can live without those delightful amenities for a while. We all know that in 26 months we will return to the U.S.A. and enjoy those luxuries.

Instead, we are in a quiet village, full of people who work, play, learn, drink too much, go to church, take care of their children, wash the dishes and clean the house, do the laundry, talk, laugh and make new friends, just like people everywhere. Their lives are made harder by high unemployment, limited access to higher education, the recovery from apartheid, HIV/AIDS, poverty and alcohol. Khamyo, my South African daughter, says it is too dangerous to go out at night because of crime and no street lights. She is young and bored and wants to get out to a bigger city to find a job. She doesn’t appreciate the incredible beauty of her present home the same way I do when I leave the house each morning before language class.

Life in Rural KZN

[Note – this blog entry is transcribed from a handwritten letter from Karen. As always, Caitlin apologizes for any misspellings or errors!]

Your won’t find M______ on any common map of South Africa. It is about a 45 minute ride in a khumbi (a van/taxi) from Vryheid, Kwa Zulu Natal Province, part of the ride on a paved road but the rest on a gravel road. Once you arrive, you can walk to the house where you live. There are no street names although some houses do have some numbers on them. The streets are all dusty dirt.

I am living with a wonderful host family who are so kind and helpful to me. There is Mama, age 64 (younger than I am but Mama nonetheless). There is her daughter, Kyanyo, Age 25. Sometimes Khanyo’s twin sister, Lungi, is here but she mostly is away somewhere at a training program. There is Asimbonge, age 2 1/2, Mama’s grandson and darling son of an elder daughter. There is Lwandile, age 9 months, the adorable daughter of some relatives who needed Mama and Khanyo for childcare. During my first week here, there was Thanda, Mama’s 13-year-old grandson and brother of Asimbonge. He stayed here during his school holidays which just ended on July 20. He’s back at school now and living with his mom in Vryheid.

Thanda is smart, polite, helpful, kind, and SO unlike any 13-year-old boy I’ve ever met. He speaks great English, wanted to know all about America, went for walks with me, showed me how the household worked, and translated whenever I was lost trying to communicate with Mama.

Mama works night and day, rarely sitting down. If she does sit, there is a little boy or girl on her lap. She cooks, cleans, does the wash, takes care of the babies. Khanyo words hard too, taking care of the little ones and cooking and hauling water. I help with the dishes–that’s it!

All the PC trainees are now living with a family in one of three villages. Our first week here was spent in intensive language study, in small groups, learning survival isiZulu phrases, vocabulary and some grammar. We can all now speak a ritual formulaic greeting to anyone we meet, and say why were are here in South Africa. We meet in small groups with a native isiZulu speaker/teacher. My groups meets in the garage of a nearby neighbor who is hosting two PC trainees. The language classes were overwhelming to almost everyone.

This past weekend, July 19-22, all the PC trainees went with a PC volunteer to “shadow” and learn what it might be like once we are sworn in and are sent to our permanent sites. It was a great trip, using public transport. I went with Katie (a PCV), Nicole and Kelsey to the tiny rural town of M_____ (again, you won’t find it on any map). Katie lives there in a one-room thatched-roof house (if I had internet I’d attach photos to this blog!) in a compound of about six other houses with a fabulous host family. The four of us had a 3-night slumber party, enjoying being away, asking Katie endless questions about what it is like to be a Peace Corps volunteer, making meals together, sharing our lives with each other. We took a hike to the nearby Battlefields area, Isandlwana (it IS on the map!), where the British and the Zulus fought and killed each other in 1879. We went with Katie to the primary school where she has been teaching English for the last two years. We met the principal, some teachers, sat in on classes and were all impressed at how fine a school it is. It gave us a feel for the kind of environment we might find sometime in our near future!

This morning, on our reverse trip from Magaga, to the shopping town of Nqutu, to Vryheid to M______, we again took public transport. Imagine being crammed in a 14 person van with 14 adults plus several tiny toddlers, a lot of luggage, and then stopping to let out one of the passengers in the back row. Very patiently, all in the way climb out, let out the departing passenger, and climb in, readjusting the seating. Khumbis don’t leave the taxi rank until they are full so we all sat in Nqutu, in the taxi, for an hour before we left for Vryheid! Being “on time” is not a South African concept. You could be en route for 2-6 hours for a 1 hour ride. This is very hard for Americans!

There are only two things I don’t like about my life here: the house gets locked at dark and there is no access to the outside toilet; the fierce winds. I have no control over either of these things. I do have a chamber pot (think plastic bucket) in my room and the winds have died down the last few days. Life is good. I am living in the moment as much as possible, enjoying what I can, laughing at and obeying the many Peace Corps rules, and being very grateful to be given this opportunity by the U.S. taxpayers and the U.S. government. Can you believe I said that?