The “Doldrums”

I think I am in the “doldrums” of my service.  It is not that there is nothing happening but not much is new and I not going anywhere fast.


Weekdays are fairly busy at school and I enjoy seeing my colleagues.

Our fabulous admin clerk, Nelisiwe, finished her degree with distinction.  Because she knows so much and so many people, she was immediately offered a Grade 3 teaching position by a principal in Johannesburg.  Although getting all the correct paperwork done within a short period of time was a huge challenge, it was apparently not insurmountable.  Mneli left us for her new job in the city, just where she wanted to be.  Next year, her daughter, who is in grade 7 in a Durban private school, will join her and attend high school in the city.  Mneli sends frequent Whatsapp messages telling about her class size (27), that the district makes the lesson plans, that there is water and electricity at her school, and her kids are doing well.  She also says she misses us at Okhayeni.  We miss her too!  She has left a big hole but the district doesn’t seem to be in any big hurry to find a replacement.  The principal is now left to do her own job (principal and 14 hrs/week teaching) plus admin clerk duties and it is too much.  She is spread thin and is running around from meeting to meeting to workshop and occasionally to teach her classes.

I miss Mneli a lot.  She was a friend.  She spoke beautiful English, having lived in England for two years.  She loves to travel, is smart, works hard, and is kind and thoughtful.  She understood what it is like to be far away from family and friends in a foreign land.

Our local NGO educational trust (Zisize) that has done a fabulous job working with teacher training and providing teacher aides, has almost run out of money.  (I don’t know why the foreign donations have fallen off.) They have been unable to regularly pay their workers.  It is not a good situation.  We are about to lose these wonderful, hard-working people who help our school so much.

The other day, some soldiers (South African Defence Force) came and did health presentations about diseases to our learners.  They asked questions and provided information.  Our grade 6 and 7 learners were well-behaved.  I hope it was not just because the soldiers gave out healthy snacks (incentives) to learners who asked and answered questions.  The soldiers were quite impressed that our learners spoke in English as well as isiZulu.  (No guns or recruiting were involved!)


Mam Zulu talking to a soldier about the boxes of “healthy stuff” (cheese, raisins, dried peaches, sweet aid for cough, dried soup mix, powdered energy drink mix, fruit rolls, cookies, etc.)



The children were lined up quietly to listen to the information about tuberculosis, HIV, AIDS, malaria, diabetes, asthma. Each year a group of soldiers goes to schools to talk about health-related topics.

I am teaching three classes, all of which are assigned to another teacher because I will be leaving halfway through the school year.  All my classes are with Grade 7 — 42 kids with attitude!   I am teaching English (5 hours) and Creative Arts (2 hours) and Economic Management Systems (2 hours).  For each of these classes, there is way more curriculum than fits in the allotted time.  We are already one month away from final Term 1 assessments, wondering how and when to teach them what they need to know in order to pass any assessment!  It makes me crazy–but not as crazy as it did last year.


I have been asking Mam Zulu many questions about Zulu culture.  She is a dear friend now and always answers me thoughtfully and with lots of details.


I asked if she and her husband ever hosted “dinner parties” for friends, couples, not family.  I explained that in America, we invite our friends over for dinner, cook a delicious meal for them, sit around the dining room table, eating, talking on many subjects, drinking wine, beer, tea, coffee, and enjoying each others’ company.  She says that does not happen in Zulu culture, especially in traditional families.  Her family is a bit more progressive and open-minded but they do not do this either.

In traditional families, the man eats separately from the wife and children, usually in the main house or a separate rondaval.  He is served by the woman.  He sits in a chair.  Children eat in the kitchen, which is a separate room or separate building.  The women eat with the children.  The kitchen is the domain of women.  The children can be noisy, free to talk and play, run in and out, enjoy themselves, around their mother.  If they are around their father, they are to show great respect, to be quiet, to sit on the floor, to only do what they are asked, to speak in a low voice, to kneel or bend over when talking to him.  They do not look an adult in the eyes.   He may ask them to fetch something.  He may call them over to ask a question.  He does not play with them.

Women do not eat with the men and do not sit on a chair in the presence of a man.  They bring the food to him, in a kneeling position, and sit down on a woven mat if asked to be nearby.

Families do not sit around a dining room table together, eating dinner and discussing their day.

This helps to explain why I have not been invited to join any family (except the principal’s) for any family meal or visit.  I have not been invited to any other house.  They don’t do that!  She also said that the language barrier is a problem, however some families (my host family) speak very good English.  I thought maybe it was because I am white and they had never had a white person over to their house.  That may be a bit of the situation.  Several people have said they want me to come over but in 16 months it has not happened.

[This also explains behavior in school. When asked a direct question by an adult, children are almost mute. They don’t look at you.  They speak very, very softly.  When they come to the office to ask for something, they bend over, look at the floor, and very, very quietly ask for what they want.  Teachers ask them repeatedly to speak aloud but the home behavior is an engrained habit hard to change.  However, they are loud and disruptive when on their own.]


Although they don’t invite small groups of friends to dinner, Zulus have huge numbers of people (hundreds) come to their place if there is a wedding, a funeral, an engagement, a lobola ceremony, or other life-changing event.  These visitors (known and unknown) are all fed during the course of the event.  It is almost always the same menu.

Cows are only slaughtered for a special event.  They are special and provide a lot of meat.

All the parts of the cow are used and there is prescribed set of rules for slaughtering and eating.

No women or children are allowed in the kraal out of respect for the ancestors.   All the cows are in the kraal and the elders select the one for the event.  They tie it with a rope.  A special man in the family who is good at it kills the cow. They stab the cow’s brain in the kraal.  The cow dies quickly.  The blood is drained out after they slit the neck, into a dish.  They skin the cow and cook the meat in a big pot.  Then they distribute the beef.

Women get chest and thigh and stomachs and feet.

Men get the shoulder and front legs.

Boys get the head and then they cook and eat the lungs in the bush, the following day.

The heart is given to the “hero” after he fights for it.  Not everyone wants to fight and they get to eat lungs with water and they are considered a coward.  But, it is for fun!

Visitors and any others get front legs — braii  (BBQ) cooked on the fire not the big pot.

Girls eat ribs.

Little children are invited to eat anything.

If the family wants beef any other time, they go to the store and buy it!


Some women cannot wear trousers. It depends on what their husband says.  This is changing with the younger generation and in the cities.

In the past, some women were not allowed to drive.

Some married women cannot go out without covering their hair. Scarves are tied over their hair.  It depends on the family and what the husband wants.  In reality, most women wear a scarf wrapped around their hair.  Our teachers do not do that while they are in school, unless they want to keep the dust out of their hair.  They often have a scarf tucked away in their purse.

Although preserving your virginity until marriage is a cultural dictate, it goes unobserved by many girls.  They often have babies at a young age and get a small government grant to help support their child.  There is a special ceremony and party to honor a young woman who reaches age 21 and is still a virgin.  (I don’t know about the guys!)

Paying lobola for the woman you want to marry is often financially impossible and so marriage (but not having children) is postponed.  Cows vary in size and the number can vary from 8-16 cows, each cow being worth approximately R8000.  Some families will accept money instead of cows and will accept an installment plan.

Women must serve the men food first.

At a funeral, men and women stand in separate groups.


And here, finally, is an update on the unfinished paint job.  We are still waiting for green paint!  We were told that there was no more money in the budget so we have to wait until the next funding cycle, after the end of March.  I decided to put the library back in operation because 6 months without a library is just a big waste of resources and possibilities.  Kids are reading!!!!!!!!

Google Earth is amazing!


An aerial view of my school!


4 thoughts on “The “Doldrums”

  1. Karen: This is an absolutely fascinating continuation of your blog. It is so helpful to those of us who don’t have a clear idea of what life is like for you (and your neighbors) on a daily basis. I am struck by the way your are now using “we,” “us,” “our” etc., because it means that whatever the difficulties, you’ve become a part of your new community. That to me is an extraordinary experience. Thank you for sharing all of this with your friends and family. You’re heading down the home stretch in a good way.


  2. Dear Karen, Cultural differences are so interesting and it looks like you are not letting your own western ideas to influence you in getting to know and understand these village people.

    I’m so glad you have a friend in Mam Zulu. Miss you. Jacquelyn

  3. Karen, thank you for all your wonderful blogs, they paint a vivid picture of life in So. Africa. Looking forward to welcoming you back to California.

  4. hello there. you seem to be doing quite well. i recognize the voice of someone who now knows her way around the village and has absorbed so many different ways of being. it seems the women there are much more restricted than here in tz. or perhaps the strictures just sound so much more formal. that must be very difficult. and here people think it blesses the house to have a mzungu visit. i certainly don’t think that the government helps any young mothers take care of the children. how diverse and yet the same. when is your cos date? i am leaving the end of april. thanks for writing abt all of these things. d.

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