Saturday, May 28, 2011

Nearing the End

With each passing day, we get closer to the end of our Peace Corps service. As I alluded in our last post, we have applied for an early Close of Service date of July 20th so if this date is approved we have less than 8 weeks left here in South Africa and only 4 weeks left of school (there is a school break at the end of June and beginning of July). We will most likely be going to school during this time anyway to finish up with sorting library books, but it doesn't feel the same when the kids and teachers aren't around.

The weird thing about leaving so soon is that it doesn't really feel like a particularly big deal. I think most people have just gotten so used to us being here that they forget we are leaving at all. While in December, it seemed like every 5 minutes I was being told not to leave and how much people would miss me, now people have settled into the year and aren't really thinking about us leaving. There has not been any talk about a "farewell function" in months. A farewell function is the typical large extravaganza held when someone retires or moves away for a new job, it usually involves a long program followed by a big meal. Though we are more than happy to go out like lambs, it is a bit of a weird ending to these two years of our lives in which we have been constantly thrust into the spotlight.

The biggest reminder that we are leaving is when we meet new people and are asked to help them with this or that project and have to reply that there just won't be time in the next two months.

In other news, though every day seems to be more important than the next in the quest to finish up our work here, we have both come down with a pretty bad flu/cold. James could not speak for about four days and I had a pretty high fever on Friday. Now, we both just seem to have pretty horrible sinus/throat situations going on, and I couldn't really sleep through the night last night because I just couldn't breathe. I'm hoping to make a fast recovery so that Monday I'll be good to go, but the freezing temperatures and constant dust clouds (dry season has officially arrived) are making it a challenge.

We recently had the opportunity to read a magazine article in a tourism magazine for the North West province that described our village in the context of a car passing through on the way to our neighboring national park (usually Friday and Sunday we see lots of Afrikaaners driving by, mostly intending to go fishing in the dam there as it's not as known for wildlife as other parks in the province). They say our village is clean and organized without a lot of trash on the side of the road. It is quite a funny description since there usually is quite a bit of trash on the side of the road, but I guess since there aren't like piles of it, it has gained the approval of the magazine writer. I was pondering this statement on Friday as I walked home, just 100 m or so from that same road the Afrikaaners were driving down, past a women and some children digging in the dry riverbed for water as, as usual, the water is out and has been for weeks. I wonder how that would fit with their image of this perfect, idyllic village where everyone is happy and properly disposing of their trash.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Culture and Friendship

As an anthropologist, how you define culture is part of how you situate yourself theoretically, and I don't intend to discuss the many different definitions and ways of looking at culture that there are in the world, but I want to reflect a bit on culture and how people view it. When I first came to South Africa, I commented to some of the Peace Corps higher ups when they were asking me about differences between here and Chad that people are a lot more proud of their culture here. They were surprised, and I've heard repeatedly both from South Africans and foreigners living here that South Africans no longer embrace their culture, that ubuntu is dead, etc, etc. Yet, I have not changed my opinion on that matter. Never in Chad did I see anyone perform a "traditional dance" or wear "traditional dress" (though the way people danced was certainly different than how people dance in South Africa or anywhere else I've been and South African's would describe the way Chadians dress as traditional, but having seen photos of how people dressed in Chad 100 years ago, it's certainly not.) This country works very hard to promote the idea that every person has a culture and as part of that there are traditions including dance, music, dress, and food. The textbooks promote it. The existence of 11 official languages promotes it. TV shows promote it. Heritage Day promotes it. School competitions in traditional dance promote it.

Never in Chad did I hear anyone say they were proud to be Ngambaye or anyone tell anyone they should be. Speaking Ngambaye at school is forbidden, and other volunteers were shocked to hear that the teachers would speak Ngambaye sometimes to each other at my school between classes because that was not the norm. But when it came to way of life, the life people lived was certainly much more "traditional" than the life of the vast, vast majority of South Africans. Personally, I do not think you can say that one group of people have more of a culture than another group of people because culture isn't just traditions or living a certain way. It is all of that and more. What I would say is that for South Africans, especially those living in rural places as those in urban areas often deal with competing cultural identities, recognizing themselves as cultural beings is much more a part of their culture, and whether this recognition only comes from the imposition of others that it should be valued or is something comes from within, I cannot say.

I've been thinking a lot lately about friendship as we are nearing the end of our Peace Corps service. Though I feel that I have been successful here in becoming a part of my community, I do not feel like I have made any friends that I feel anywhere as close to as I felt to my host mother/sister (she is a year younger than me so hard to call her a mother) Isabelle in Chad. I think that part of our ability to become as close as we did came from not sharing a knowledge base of pop culture and the world. I can have conversations with friends here about just about anything because they watch the news, have seen lots of movies, have seen the latest Lady Gaga video, but it often feels like small talk because that's what it is. I think I was able to get to a deeper level with her more easily because we couldn't have those kinds of conversations. I don't remember 90% of what we used to talk about but we hung out for hours at a time every day. Of course, we were also able to do that because we had the time. People like to say that life in the village is boring but I don't know anyone who has time to just spend their whole afternoon just sitting around, talking and playing Uno every single day.

I guess what I'm saying is that sometimes the gulf of difference between two people can actually be a blessing and that you cannot assume that just because you share knowledge or interests with another person that will allow you to relate to them. Culture and identity are much more complex than interests or even traditions as these things have different meanings to different people and it may be harder to get to the meaning behind things that are more familiar to you than things that are foreign.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Cats Funerals Elections and Work

We have recently started to possess a cat. We do not own this cat and do not feed it, but it likes us quite a lot. It started about two months ago when I had the great urge to pet our next door neighbor's cats. No such thing was possible as they would not come within twenty feet of me so we bought two cans of tuna fish and started leaving out a tuna/lentil combo every night which was gone by morning. After a few days of this, we put it out earlier in the evening and then sat patiently inside until the cats showed up at which point we snuck outside and watched while they finished their meal. The next step was to sit outside the whole time they were eating. Finally, we tried to pet them. One of them, the dominant one of the two, allowed petting, but the other still won't come near us. At that point the feeding stopped (we had also just run out of tuna fish). We have not fed the cats in almost two months but the dominant cat comes to our door every day. She will walk with me to and from the bathroom or wherever I may be going as long as I stay inside the yard. She loves being petted, and it seems that that is her only incentive for hanging outside our door all day long as it never results in food. It's kind of the perfect relationship as I like her but not enough that I will be sad to leave her behind.

Last weekend, we attended the funeral of our host mother's nephew in law. It was a sad funeral because he had died in a car accident, but it was a wonderful time to be with our extended family here. We had to spend the night because it was in a nearby village and funerals start so early in the morning that you can't really get there on a taxi at that hour. Spending the night in an unfamiliar place is always a bit nerve-wracking because you never know how much time will be spent just sitting around with no one to talk to since Mma was of course busy taking care of the immediate family. That was not the case at all though as we arrived just when our sister and her kids arrived as well as our cousin. It was great to spend time with all of them. In some ways, even though this was a funeral for a person I didn't really know, I felt like I was getting a chance to attend my grandma's funeral. I know that's a silly thought, but it was the first time I got to be in a family oriented setting since she died and it was really nice.

This week was the municipal elections in South Africa. As Peace Corps volunteers we are not allowed to have political opinions, so I will just say that the election for ward counselor in our village was quite interesting and quite different from in nearby wards. We had 3 candidates, an ANC candidate, a DA (democratic alliance) candidate, and an independent candidate. The ANC candidate won with 57% while the DA candidate got 18% and the independent got 22%. In most other wards around us, the ANC had 80% or more of the votes so it was a relatively close election.

We've been really busy wrapping things up at our schools lately. If our early COS gets approved, we have only 5 more weeks of school and there's lots to do. It's been great finally getting to do things I've wanted to for the past two years. I have done some workshops for teachers and have been helping the English teacher a lot at one school. We're also getting the books organized at each school which is a bit of a task since they all have different levels of shelving situations. The community service club has been sponsoring after-school activities for the younger kids which has been crazy but fun. I'm also doing a leadership retreat for one school's prefects next week which I'm excited about. All in all things are going quite well, but it's crazy to think about how soon we'll be leaving.

Saturday, May 7, 2011


This blog is not intended for reading by family or friends or fellow Peace Corps enthusiasts though of course you are welcome to. It is intended for those people who create computer viruses and other malware because for some reason they find that an enjoyable pastime.

I may be wrong in assuming that when people make viruses they do not understand the full impact that these viruses have around the world. They must find it funny to think about all the people that their viruses impact, but I cannot imagine that they include people in developing countries in their private laugh fests.

Viruses spread like wildfire here in South Africa as I'm sure they do in other places with similar conditions (where technology is very prevalent but not very well understood). It seems like it's a constant battle to keep the computers at our schools free of viruses which are mostly spread by USB sticks. Whenever the administrative assistants get together for a workshop or to submit data about the school, they come back with new virus from other administrative assistants. Some people are more concerned than others and follow the directions we give for checking their USB sticks and computers and can usually keep their computers pretty clean, they have to be extremely vigilant whenever anyone else uses their computer. Others don't seem to mind wiping their hard drives clean and reinstalling Windows every few months and just throwing away (or they know how reformatting) USB sticks.

So all this is to say, if you like to make computer viruses for fun, please stop. You are making the lives of people working in under resourced rural schools in South Africa more difficult. Is that really that fun? Are those really the people you thought you were messing with when you made your viruses?