[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?