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.

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One thought on “Under African Skies

  1. Hi Karen — I have been reading your posts with relish. Your writing is wonderful – so visual. I feel like I can see it all. So many memories. What a treat.

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