getting sentimental

Some things I’ll miss most about South Africa (in no particular order):

- Ma Dolly’s laugh
- Kgosi’s wisdom
- Mr. Mphumela’s positivity
- Megan’s absurdity
- Ma T giggling and saying “whoooo, Refilwe!”
- Ma Sebolao calling me “Erin” at unexpected times (she’s the only one in the village who calls me by my real name)
- The sunrises and sunsets
- “hellohowareyouIamfineandthankyou!”
- jika ma jika
- pee buckets being a part of slumber parties (ok, really just pee buckets in general)
- the wide open spaces
- Ruthie (my cat)
- My Peace Corps people
- old women cheering me on as I run past “O a go TRAINING! Nice nice!”
- all the beautiful singing
- Mamun our shop keeper giving me free fruit and saying “you are my sister in South Africa”
- The looks white people give me when they speed past the village
- Dookie (the dog) sneaking into my house every day
- pension day (when all the old people come to get their pension and hawkers come to sell pretty much anything you could ever need for village life)
- The Daily Sun (it's a cross between the Weekly World News and a regular paper but it's taken as an appropriate source of information on what's happening in South Africa)
- Omphemetse, this darling little girl, practicing her English on all of my visitors: “What is your surname?” “My surname is Letube”.
- Kids who play homemade games like “tins” and soccer with sticks for goals and bag balls
- Thato and Tshepie’s constant company, kisses, hugs, dancing, playing, and sassing me in SeTswana.
- Hanging out with the World Map Project students
- Maynard’s Wine Gums
- Mr. Mohulatsi calling me “fi-zo!” (“fi” is from Refilwe… and that has turned into “fi-zo”)
- Long walks
- Running with a huge group of barefoot kids
- taxi adventures
- turkeys on my doorstep
- watching donkeys
- Bunnychow (take away curry in a hollowed out half loaf of bread… sooo good)
- “Ko ko” (What you say instead of knocking when you enter someone's yard or house)
- Old men in tiger striped cowboy hats and other dapper apparel
- Chakalaka
- Culture Spears (yup, I’m serious. I’ll miss Culture Spears)
- Wire cars (but I bought a really, really cool one this week that I'm shipping home! Woohoo!)
- morogo and bagobe (my favorite traditional Batswana food)
- Donkey carts driven by little kids or drunk old women
- Babies on backs
- The stars at night (they’re big and bright)
- the smell in the air during fire season
- rain on the metal roof
- Hansa, Castle and Black Label... They're all beers that are so bad they're good.
- tea and biscuits as a cure for most ills
- Sweet Chili flavored chips
- Seeing educators try new things in their classrooms

Now that I only have a week left in my village it's really starting to hit me how much I'm going to miss this place...



When we were kids we used to have "staring contests" where were would keep our eyes wide, staring down our opponent as we felt our eyeballs water in a futile effort to keep them from getting that gummy dry eyeball feeling. The victory of winning a staring contest was always a little sweeter because you are staring into your opponent's eyes at the moment of their defeat. I'm telling you, these contests could be intense.
A few days ago my staring contest training from childhood finally came into good use. One of the principals I work with has ignored my advice on computers for literally months because he doesn't want to put the work/time into getting his school's computer fixed. The other day the computer crashed completely. It wouldn't even turn on. When he realized what had happened our interaction went something like this:
him : "what is wrong with it?"
me : "err... umm... well... yeah. The computer won't turn on."
him : "well, fix it Refilwe"
me : "I don't know how."
him : "fix it"
me : "I'm an art teacher"
him : "fix it"
me : "I think you need to take it to get fixed" (the three hundred thousandth time I've said this)
him : "fix it"
me : "really, I don't know how."
him : "fix it"
And then the staring contest began. I really think that he believed that he could silently bully me into obtaining computer skills I don't have. I stared. He stared. I tried to smile. He remained very serious. I stared. He stared. It was tense. There was another woman in the office and she watched with rapt attention, waiting to see who would win.
Of course, there was no winning for him. I really couldn't fix the computer so no matter how long he stared at me I wasn't going to fix the computer. Finally, he looked away and left the office without a word.
I tell this story not only to show off my staring contest skills, but also to illustrate that even after all this time working with people here there are some people who still see me as a machine, a tool to use when they need it and to ignore when they don't.

South Africa has a long history of dehumanization, of racism and violence beyond what most Americans of my generation can even imagine. Tribalism, racism and xenophobia are all symptoms of this history of dehumanization and I sometimes find myself an object and not a subject in my life here.

Two days ago a teacher who I know pretty well and have worked with on a number of occasions told me she was feeling sick and then said to me, "Refilwe, do you know what menstruation is?" in the same way people will ask me if I know what a traditional ceremony is. After I told her that yes, of course I know what menstruation is she was shocked. Totally shocked. I was a little offended by her shock, so I told her "you know, I'm a woman too. I menstruate". She didn't know what to do with this information so she just looked at me with a "no way" facial expression and walked away. She couldn't even fathom that we have something that basic in common.

These moments, in some ways, are similar to the moments when I am called a racial slur or harassed by strange men on the street. They are about distance and dominance, about asserting that the person doing the staring, laughing or harassing is better, more human than me. I remember studying dehumanization in college and thinking I "got it" because I could imagine situations in America when people were dehumanized. Being objectified is a totally different experience than witnessing the objectification of another. In my glimpses into what it is to be dehumanized I have gained a clarity in my understanding of what it is and how to diminish dehumanization so people can begin to relate, respect and learn from each other.

These moments also make me really appreciate all the wholly human moments I have here. I have a lot of people who I care about and who care about me. People who have made an effort to see past my foreign-ness, language and race and see me as a fellow human, as a person seeking understanding and connection.

I have a friend who is an older woman and her son has been "sick" and lately it has been getting much worse. When I know they are at the hospital I call periodically to check on him and she sends me text messages about what the doctor says. A few times we have just hugged each other, hoping against hope that things will turn out ok. She talks to me about how hard it can be to be a mom, and once she said it must be really hard for my mom to have me be so far away. In this moment of empathy for my mother I saw so clearly that she has made a real effort to see what things are like for me just as I have tried to empathize with her situation. Neither of us can really understand, but we try and in that we honor each other's humanity.
When I told my host father that I was leaving for China where I was going to teach at a university he was overcome with pride. He kept telling me that it was a "big big promotion". I tried to explain that I would still be a Peace Corps Volunteer, just in a different place but he wasn't convinced. It also became clear to me that he is a man who values education and takes great pride in his children and he has adopted me as one of his children and he is very proud of me. I am so honored by his pride. So I let it stand and I think most of the people in the village have heard from Kgosi that I got a "big big promotion".

My life here is still a mixed bag of dehumanization and human connection. For awhile there I wondered if I would ever have real connections with any South Africans and now my life is full of them. I am learning to cherish the connections I have made and be grateful for the efforts people have made to create space in their lives for this strange, American, white woman. I am learning to value the people who show me kindness and acceptance and to place my focus on those people instead of those who refuse to see me as a fellow human struggling through this world. I am also learning to be more accepting, to make the effort to see beyond "otherness" and welcome people into my life.


CHINA! oh, and election day

I found out this morning I've been accepted to transfer/extend to China for a year... this means I'll serve another year in Peace Corps but I'm moving to China to do it. I'm excited. I'm overwhelmed. I have a lot to think about. I'm really looking forward to the new challenge.

It has been interesting to hear South African's views on China and Chinese people today, as I told people what was happening. My students all insisted on saying "ching chong ching chong" imitating spoken Mandarin... which gave me an opportunity to gently challenge them by impersonating what Setswana sounded like to me before I understood it (and they enjoyed impersonating the American English on t.v. that they cannot understand). One of my principals gave me a twenty minute lecture on how the Chinese people are harder workers than anyone else in the world (this was all based on the fact that many things in his home were made in China). Many people just commented on how far away I was going, which I thought was a little charming because they don't seem to realize that I'm already pretty far from home. All in all, I was really pleased with how excited people in my village are for me, how supportive they are of my going and how sweet they have been about me leaving early. It won't be easy to leave the people I care about here.

In other news, the South African elections were held yesterday. My host sister Barbara was the presiding officer at the polling station and my friend Nono was also a volunteer worker at the station so I went to visit them. Across South Africa there were long lines and some reports of voting not going smoothly but the polling station in my village (a classroom in our school) was running like a well-oiled machine. This is a result of two major factors: 1) Barbara is not someone you choose not to listen to and 2) there were about twenty five people working the poll and about three voters. It was touching to see how excited the people in my village were about voting and about democracy, and it was a good reminder of how hard South Africans fought for the right to pick their own president.



Today, on the way to school, I was thinking for millionth time about how beautiful my village is and how lucky I am to be living this life. I looked down at the sandy path and realized that amongst the bare footprints, the bootprints, and the ubiqutious generic converse prints were my shoeprints from yesterday. I don't know why this struck me but it did, it led me to think about my place in this place.

Thutlwane Village is beautiful. It sits on the edge of an expanse of flat bush that seems to go on forever. The sunrises and sunsets are lovely every single day, without fail. There is a sleepy windmill at the center of the village, a gathering place for kids to hang out (sometimes they literally hang from the windmill) and adults to collect water. There are sleepy cows and ornery donkeys in every open space. Dogs run free, and unlike the dogs in Megan's village they are friendly or shy or both. Old women work to keep their yards neat and old men heard the livestock and drive on ancient tractors. It's a farming community, but the fields are shrinking and the younger generation are striking out to find a different fortune or quietly sitting with their sickness behind closed doors. There are kids everywhere: laughing, fighting, playing soccer with homemade balls, and doing all those things kids everywhere do to amuse themselves and grow their little brains.

In the midst of all of this there is a white woman. I walk around with a level of comfort no white person has probably ever had in this place. I greet people and I'm greeted back. I get scolded for not using my umbrella to protect me from the sun. I get stared at for reading in my yard. I send the whole shop full of people into giggles when I scoff at the advances of drunk men. I live here. I am not of the community, and I am not exactly in the community, but I am somehow a part of this community.

This weekend our little village will have four funerals. Three of the dead are young people. Earlier this week Kgosi mused, "who will bury the old ones?" The friends and family of the dead, the city people who have never been here or more likely have not been here in a long time, will return to pay their respects and help these four people pass on. They will gawk at me. Saturday night, as they move into the "after tears" parties, they may even harass. They will not understand the fragile but very real position I hold as a somehow part of this community. But I will pass their confusion and even their possible harassment off as a misunderstanding because I know that somehow this is my place for right now and I'm incredibly grateful for that place, even if it is hard for people to understand.


monkey drama

Something I've learned about myself since I came to South Africa is that I hate monkeys. My use of the word "hate" may strike you as a little harsh, but let me assure you it is accurate.

I don't like them. They have teeth and claws and opposable thumbs. They steal and make messes and masturbate in public. They are dirty and they often give humans dirty looks. I imagine they smell, but I never get close enough to them to find out. They act as if they have every right to enter into the human world but they are not welcome in this human's world!

Lots of people think they are cute. Last year at Christmas some friends of mine (who will go unnamed... but you know who you are) decided it was funny to feed the monkeys that hung out at our beach house in Durban. Upon viewing the food a well meaning but horribly misled friend had left around the front door the cleaning woman exclaimed, "much party for monkeys!".

It wasn't much party for me, though.

If it's not obvious by now let me be clear: I am really, really afraid of monkeys. I can't fully explain it. Until this past week I considered this an unreasonable fear, up there with my fear of birds and their hollow bones.

Well, last week I was in Blyde River Canyon helping with a training. It was a lovely week, filled with amazing people, good food and beautiful views. Go ahead, imagine me in this idyllic setting surrounded by rosy-cheeked-saving-the-world Peace Corps Volunteers and their South African counterparts. Imagine me strolling from breakfast to our first workshop with come colleagues, discussing some deep but cheerful topic. While you're at it, imagine me looking really stunning because we had access to hot showers EVERY DAY.

Well, now the stage is set: I was walking with my friends Katie and Tera when we saw some monkeys. There were a lot of monkeys in residence at the hotel where we were staying so we didn't think much of it. Then a car pulled up behind us and pushed us closer to the troop of monkeys. The car sounded its horn and sped past, pissing off the monkeys and forcing us even closer to the pissed off monkeys.

Then it happened. My irrational fear of monkeys became, in one terrifying moment, a completely rational fear. A monkey started following us. Katie, in an effort to get it to go away yelled an unmentionable word in Afrikaans that usually is quite successful in dispersing annoying animals. This monkey was not impressed with her alpha behavior and began TO CHASE US. Yes, this is true. The monkey chased us.

In this moment all of my higher brain functions shut down and all the miles I've clocked on my running shoes finally paid off. I took off, showing my cowardly colors, screaming and running as fast as I could. I left my friends behind, trying to convince myself that if the monkey caught them I'd come back and help but knowing that may very well not be true. So go ahead, imagine me running as fast as I can, screaming my head off, skirt flying, tears flowing as Katie and Tera ran with the monkey in hot pursuit.

They outran the evil beast and caught up with me at the top of the hill. When I realized we were safe I turned and yelled an unmentionable phrase in English in order to reestablish the dominance of humans. Tears mixed with laughter as Katie, Tera and I regained our higher brain functions (notably, that little jerk of a monkey had no higher brain functions to regain).


Miles to go before I sleep...

By the time I came home from school it was about five and the golden evening had set in. The evenings here are lovely beyond description, with everything just a little warmer looking and cooler feeling. When I got home my host family was sitting in the yard. The adults were enjoying the evening and the kids were enjoying the attention of the adults. As I walked up Ma pointed to a chair and I sat down. Kgosi was cutting a watermelon and handing out pieces to everyone, including me. We chatted about the weather, the rain (that’s a different subject than the weather in rural South Africa), the kids, the livestock, and other news of the day. My host sister Barbara and I talked a bit about the HIV and STI prevention work she’s doing in our community. Mostly, though, we just sat with each other enjoying the time together. It was a magical hour, comfortable and laced with my understanding that few outsiders ever get this sort of daily intimacy with people living in rural villages. It was a precious reminder that I am very lucky to be living as I am.

I’ve been having a hard time personally in the last few months. I’ve been struggling with some anxiety. Earlier this week, in the midst of quite a bit of internal turmoil, I realized I want to be here. In fact, I love my life here. Life here has been really hard for me for a number of reasons I’ve shared with many of you but in the end I feel very sure that the hardship has been and will continue to be worth it. My life is peppered not only with wonderful moments like this evening, but also with hard working people who are doing their best to make their worlds better. My life here is made up of challenge, frustration, surprising moments of accomplishment and lots of reminders that this is the life I wish to be leading.

I got lost for a while. Honestly, I got scared. I was afraid that I was losing myself. Now I feel like I’ve turned a corner and found that I’m not only still the person I want to be, but even closer to perfecting that person. I’ve got “miles to go before I sleep”, but this effort to be true to who I want to be and what I believe is what I want my life to be made of.

I feel recommitted to my service and to myself. It’s a good feeling.
Thanks to all of you who helped me to get to this point.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
-Robert Frost (Excerpt from "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening")


This really happened. Like, for real.

I just got back from a leadership camp I planned and ran for the student leaders at my primary school and a primary school in my area. Thanks to the incredible help of my principal, his friend (who is the principal of the other school) and Megan it was a success.

Not only did some of the kids at the camp swim in a pool for the first time (sheer, wet chaos) and have their own can of pop for the first time (lots of initial issues with opening, but then the natural progression to mixing coke and sprite to look like whiskey) but we also had... well... some incidents...

Let me just tell you about today, the second day in our two day camp. It started early and noisy. The kids woke up at about 5:15 and began romping as only unattended kids can romp. Then, later I ran some workshops on listening skills and self love that went really well. All was peaceful and happy. It was going great. Kids were listening to each other. They were showing off their "me" collages. I was feeling like we were almost done and everything had gone well.

Then, our guests arrived. They were two members of the South African Police Service form our area. They were on time and prepared. Ready to do a speech and question and answer time with our students about the drugs in our community. We decided to hold this session because there have been a wave of kids at our school who are huffing glue. I introduced them, got the kids ready to listen and then went to sit in the back of the room. I must admit I didn't understand most of what was being said because they were speaking in Setswana and my limited vocabulary doesn't include a lot of drug terms.

All of the sudden, the police officer started dropping baggies in front of all of the kids. He told them in Setswana "I'm giving you sweets" (of course my vocabulary includes "sweets"). I looked at what he was passing out and realized it was bags of weed. I'm not kidding. The police gave my kids weed. I thought, "no, way. that's got to be dried grass or something." but then I took a whif of the bag that dropped on our table and it smelled a whole lot like weed. I asked my principal if it was really "daga" (what they call marijuana here- pronounced "da ha") and he told me it was. Now I have all these pictures of my students holding little baggies of weed. I cannot even begin to describe how surreal it was.

Megan and I had to excuse ourselves to have a 30 second freak-out behind the building and then we came back in. The kids were still holding, sniffing, and looking at the bags of weed. The weirdest thing was, no one else seemed to think this was strange. Apparently, police giving small children weed is not cause for humor or alarm from my colleagues. I told my principal that Megan and I thought it was pretty strange and funny that the police were handing out daga and he just smiled and told me it was important for the kids to know what the "real thing" looks like.

In the end, the police collected all the baggies, reminded the kids to stay away from drugs and left. I must admit that the kids seemed to really enjoy the speech and learn a lot. I've had a lot of moments where I thought, "this would NEVER happen in the US" but I think cops giving weed to children (even if it was temporarily) may top them all.

Then, as if my day hadn't been strange enough, Megan and I were walking toward our bus when I noticed my principal helping the driver back up. I was struck by how badly the driver was driving when I realized the person driving our bus was not the bus driver at all but actually the principal from the other school! I asked why he was driving and he informed me that our bus driver had hitchhiked back to town and the owner of the bus had told him they would have to drive the bus themselves. So there he was, having never driven a bus before, driving all of our kids down the dirt roads back to the village. It's important to note that both of these principals are WONDERFUL and unceasingly positive, so they just laughed, loaded the kids and took off down the road.

Some things can really only happen in Africa...