I awake before the alarm, a good sign that I’m getting enough sleep now. But when it goes off and I actually have to get out of bed, I still resent it. Zenzo and I are heading to Ncome today, to follow up with the teachers from last week. I pick him up and we drive over the hills and far away.
I forgot to mention before, but on the way to Ncome, there’s a neat one lane bridge over the buffalo river. Since the road is two way, you have to stop and take turns with the cars coming the other direction. It’s a pretty long bridge, too. But there’s so little traffic on the road that I’ve only had to wait for another car once.
I tell Zenzo that I watched Mama Jack last night, and that it was funny. He tells me that the main guy is a well known South African comedian, he has another movie where he is raised by Zulus thinking he his Zulu, even though he is really white. I should check that out sometime, too.
Ncome is fine when we get there at quarter past eight. The lady at the front office has actually forgotten to bring the key to the computer room, so she sends one of the kids to run to her home and get it. The deputy principal tells us they’ll have some kids for us by nine.
The three main teachers, Mr. Mbatha, Mrs. Khubheka, and Mrs. Nyembe are not there when the kids arrive, so Zenzo runs the class. They are fourth graders that didn’t get to try the computers last week. I ask the deputy principal if the teachers are coming and he says yes, they just have to assign some work for the kids they’re supposed to be tending this period. I remind myself that they are juggling this new responsibility with their existing full-time teaching job. Considering, they are doing remarkably well.
They show up half way through the class and take over with Mr. Mbatha in the lead. Zenzo and I hang back for a bit. After the class is done, I talk with them for a minute to make sure we’ve got a plan. Right now, we’re still cycling kids through who’ve never used the computer before; for them, KidPix is the best program; just for learning basic mouse movement like selecting, dragging, etc. But if we start bringing in the same kids for a second shot at the computers, we should switch to a different program.
The next class comes in, fifth graders, I believe. Mr. Mbatha, who ran several classes last week (and who normally teaches grade 7-9 kids) takes off. Mrs. Khubekha takes the lead, a first for her, so again we hang back. Mrs. Nyembe assists, she’s the oldest of the three, and though she seems to be doing well, she also seems a little shy to run a class. We’ll have to push her to do it next time.
Just before the class ends, however, the power cuts out. All the machines go blank and that’s that. I head over to the office, where I know they have the circuit breaker panel and check it out. The front office lady is already trying things. The main breaker tripped, and when she resets it, two of the sub breakers trip. When she resets those, the main trips again.
I go back and tell them we’ll have to dismiss the class. But soon after they do, the breakers stay on and we start up the machines one by one to see if there’s a load problem. Everything is up and running a minute later, so we shrug it off. I decide to torture the system a bit: wall outlets in South Africa have a switch on them, that lets you turn the outlet itself on and off. This seems to be the case with all outlets. We have about 15 machines chained to one outlet on the long side of the room. I turn the main switch off, and then back on, forcing all 15 machines to power up at once, for a large load spike. The breaker doesn’t trip, but the fluorescent overhead light loses its arc for a moment and then comes back. So we are running close to power capacity here.
Since the machines are staying up now, we invite them to bring back those kids so we can complete the class: how to do File -> Quit, and shutdown. Because of the disruption, these kids are a a little more playful and assertive. As they come back into the room they are laughing and excited. Zenzo is the lead for the moment and tells them they have five minutes to draw something before we have them look at each others’ work. I don’t need Zenzo to translate back to me the cries of protest from the kids, who hurridly start drawing. As he counts down the last minute, they all say “no! no!”. But they seem happy when they run around to see each others’ work. They shutdown and are dismissed, laughing and loundly saying “thank you!” to us as they go.
It’s break now and I make Zenzo and I PBJ sandwiches. Between lunch and recess the kids won’t be back for an hour: at noon. Zenzo finds out they have soda for sale, so he buys a 1 liter glass bottle of Coke for us to share. I know he doesn’t have money, it is a very nice gesture. We enjoy the soda and play some educational games on the Mac. I focus on the geography game, I’m pretty bad, but after a while I think I have a much better picture of Central and South America, and the Middle East. Those were the three areas I focused on in my practice.
And then, with only three computers on, the power cuts out again. Zenzo and I go back to the office and play with the breakers. This time they won’t stay on. I try to isolate which of the sub-breakers is causing the main to trip, by selectively turning each one on and off. It seems to be only a combination of two of the sub breakers that causes the main to trip. We head back to the room and it is filled with the acrid smell of electrical burn. Eek.
I go around the perimeter and check our extention cords… no visible smoke or burn marks. The smell permeates the whole room, and neither of us can find the source. I unplug the two sets of computers from the wall and try the breakers again. They trip again, whenever the lights for the lab and the plugs for the lab are on at the same time. Since we’re not even plugged in any more, it can’t be our extention cords or computers, it must be the wiring that the electrician put in. We tell the teachers there’s not much we can do until they get an electrician. The principal says he’ll look into it and give us a call; I give him my number.
Zenzo and I take off before noon. I call Alan and Donna, coincidentally they’re having power problems too at their school. He says they’re leaving soon though, so no point in coming over. Zenzo and I just head back to town.
On the way home we talk about Zulu pronounciation. I like the sound of the Zulu language. Aside from the clicks (which I’ll get to in a moment) it’s got a smooth rolling sound to it. They use the English alphabet to spell things out, though the pronounciation in reading the words seems to me a bit like French. For example, a common last name is Sithole, pronounced “sit-HO-lay”. This, by the way gives rise to Alan and Donna joking about bad pavement: “Look out for that pot-HO-lay”.
From that, many Americans could probably pronounce most Zulu words with some degree of accuracy. But then there are the three clicks, which to my knowledge are unique to the languages of Southern Africa. They are represented by C, Q, and X.
The C is the *tsk* sound you would make when scolding a child.
The Q is clucking your tongue; i.e. snapping it from the roof of your mouth to the floor.
The X is made by made with the side of the tongue, clicking the way you would right before telling a horse to “giddyup”.
I practice the sounds: Ncome is the school we go to. It is on the way to the town of Nqutu. I did not know a word with X in it, so Zenzo gives me a great example: the Zulu word for frog is “xoxo”, that’s two clicks! Try saying these words if you can: here’s me saying Ncome, Nqutu, Xoxo… probably not great pronounciation, but it gives you the idea. In practical speaking, I only hear one or two clicks every sentence or two, so they’re not terribly common.
I am flattered when Zenzo tells me “it is ironic that you pronounce Zulu better than the people from my own country”. He tells me that a lot of the white people don’t bother with the clicks when pronouncing Zulu place names and such. They might call the school we go to just “NO-may”.
Zenzo mentions that he wants to learn the guitar; he heard someone speaking poetry while playing the guitar once and it inspired him. I tell him I’d be willing to show him a bit on my guitar, but obviously he’ll need his own if he wants to continue.
We get back to town, and I fill up on cell phone airtime and petrol, both of which are running low. I think petrol is even pricier here than in the US; many things are about half price here, but it costs me 280 rand, about $37 to fill up a little VW that had about 1/8 of a tank left. I hear that the price is set by the government, and that it will soon be going up because of the trouble in Iran.
Alan and Donna aren’t back yet, so we drive into Sibongile. I ask him to show me where he goes to church. He had told me that he goes every Sunday. I ask if I could come by next week and with a smile he says it would be fine. The church is just a little single room house, probably only 12′x12′. I have no idea how many people they jam in there, but it must be crowded. He says they meet at 9:30AM and do a half hour of singing and a half hour of teaching. It’s all in Zulu, so I won’t understand any of it, but I figure it’ll be fun.
Then I bring him back to his place. I ask him if I can get a copy of his poem, to put online so people back home can read it. He says that is fine. I tell him that I write about my experiences every day, including about him, and put it online. He seems flattered. I also ask if I can take pictures of his super sharp little 16 month old neice, the one I mentioned a couple days ago. He says it is fine.
She’s as bright and curious as always, and seems tickled when I show her the picture on the tiny viewfinder. She mimics everything Zenzo says, Zulu or English, “How are you?” she says after him. I reply, “good, and how are you?” “Fine” says Zenzo. “Fine” says Andiswa.
We go into his room so I can get a copy of the poem. It is a poem written to his yet-to-be-born son, who is due in August. I reproduce it here:
AWANDE MY LOVE
(to my baby-love of my life)
Eyes full of glee
head rocking sideways
hands stretching in embrace
love stuck on your face
to you I’m a leader
not an ordinary human being
a silent fart
you shit on my hand!
you gleam with delight
a very friendly smile
eyes searched for answers
I must provide
as though you hear
you decide to trust me
you think I am a teacher
I am your father!
You think I am devine
Your jolly self tickles me
you don’t scrutinize
You show no hatred
You feel protection
you choose to trust
There you go
then a burp
a laid-down fart
You shit again!
I can’t express how much I like that poem. I think Zenzo is going to be a great father.
We say goodbye and I head back to the backpackers. Alan calls a little later and invites me to walk around town. I had thought my day was wrapping up, but I’m in for a little more adventure, so I agree to go. After a brief stop at the unremarkable post office, we stop by the taxi rank.
Most people in the area don’t have cars, but people still need to travel, so the taxi rank becomes the commercial center of the city. I am told that you’ll see this kind of setup throughout Africa. I had described it a bit before but let me have at it again.
First, “taxis” are vans; not full sized vans, and not American style minvans. They’re more like the old VW vans from the 60′s, but they’re nearly all made by Toyota. The ones that aren’t obviously made by Toyota are old and beat enough it’s hard to tell who they’re made by. They call them taxis or combis. The taxi rank itself is a big roughly paved parking lot. There’s a thin aluminum cover over part of it, like a series of carports all tied together. Each one has a little sign and the name of a nearby or not so nearby city hanging from the cover; Glencoe, Ladysmith, Nqutu, Durban. There’s probably twenty or so destinations. Each destination has a line of the taxis beneath it. As people come by they hop into the taxi for the appropriate city, and they wait until the van is full. And when I say full, I mean _full_. Oftentimes I see them on the road and someone has their arm out the window because that’s the only place for it.
This section I’ve just described is the central nervous system for local transport.
Surrounding the taxi rank is what amounts to a farmer’s market. There are rows and rows of tables and tents selling all manner of stuff; fresh fruits and veggies: bananas, plums, grapes, apples, corn, potato, onion, tomato. There’s also people selling beaded jewlery and apparel items. One tent gives out haircuts. Another man, sitting on the curb, repairs shoes. Homemade potpourri and what seems to be liquid coffee mix are at the next table.
In keeping with the central nervous system theme, there’s also a lot of pay telephones here, but these pay telephones are not like ours. To some degree the area has skipped over wired telephone lines and gone straight to cellular. So the payphones are actually cell phones, except they look like desk phones. You’ll see them sitting on little folding tables here and there, with a guy or gal waiting to do business. You walk up and give them some money and make your call. A little taxi-meter looking aparatus next to the phone ticks off the rands and cents.
The place is a mess, scraps of paper and plastic wrapping and bits of vegetable matter flutter through the street and collect in the gutters. Still, they must clean it regularly because it never seems to get any worse. At least not in the time I’ve been here. It’s always got about a days worth of refuse floating around.
The place is also busy. For a small town like Dundee this corner has almost as much bustle as a big city. Of course it’s only a single block, but people are going every which way all the time. If you stop they’ll just flow around you.
Alan and I walk through the crowd. There’s a bit of open air mall here too, with an electronics store, a clothing store, a supermarket, and several greasy spoon restaurants. Bunny chow, anyone?
Rounding a corner I spot someone who I think is Zenzo’s mother; I know because as I said she looks like Dr. Bailey on Grey’s Anatomy. Right as I’m about to say “hi” Zenzo spots Alan and me and says “hi”. We all greet. Zenzo’s mother says she is so grateful for the computer that Alan gave to her son. She asks if she can give him a hug, which Alan gladly accepts. Alan then buys a couple bananas from a nearby stand, and Zenzo’s mother buys us a pack of four for 2 rand. “You can take them home and give some to Donna,” she says. “Well, not if Jonathan and I eat them all first,” he jokes. I thank her for the bananas, and ask if I can give her a hug. She gladly accepts.
We head off and walk down part of the main drag, Victoria street. We pass a few shops. Laid out in front of one is a sheet with what looks to me like a bunch of large Taro root chunks on it. Next to it is another sheet with some type of wood shavings, and next a basket of what looks like bark. We guess at what it is for a moment, but aren’t sure. We ask a muscular Zulu man wearing a brimmed hat and tank top who is watching us from nearby, but he doesn’t seem to speak English. He goes into the shop and calls out the proprietor, an comfortably plump Indian man in his 40s.
He tells us that they are various roots, but are not for eating. They are for medicinal purposes. We step into his shop.
It is dark, and in the moment that it takes my eyes to adjust I am struck by the pungent and dank smells of a thousand bits of dried or rotting nature, harvested from the fields or scraped from the forest floors. Only the natural light from the street illuminates the walls: a hundred cubbyholes made from planks of reused wood. Each box filled to overflowing with a differently textured shade of brown matter. My eyes scan over them; each marked with a name I’ve never heard.
The proprietor has stepped back to the counter and picked up his cigarette from the disposable foil ashtray he’s obviously been using for years. Smoking is not common here; but I didn’t even notice the smell of the cigarette over the rest of the musty room.
He tells us that these are all traditional ingredients for many Zulu medicine preparations. They call it “muti”. Muti means more than medicine, though, it means witchcraft and spells and curses. These are the ingredients of magic. I remember Zenzo telling me of the spell he believes to be cast on him by his girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend. I imagine the boy had made a trip here to get his goods. But the proprietor tells us also that it is used for many practical preparations, laxitives for the goats, and things like that.
On the wall he has metal tipped spears, for bleeding or sacrificing goats or other animals as part of traditional cermonies. It is all interesting because most of the Zulus I’ve met identify as Christian. However, and I’ve seen this before, the missionaries succeeded in bringing their beliefs to the Zulus, but not in getting the Zulus to give up their old beliefs. In the end you have people who just blend the various supernatural ideas together: prayer and the bible and potions and spells. I’ve met people from Korea who follow both Jesus and Buddah.
He also has some traditional Zulu weapons, a wooden tipped spear and a stick carved with a wooden ball at one end, sort of like a mace. These were the simple yet effective weapons that the Zulus used to successfully repel the technologically advanced British forces in the early days of colonization. The muscular Zulu man with the hat comes back in as we are examining the weapons. He says something in Zulu. The proprietor translates: the Zulu man had carved that weapon himself.
We chat with the proprietor. He has lived in the area his whole live, and his family has run this business for 60 years. From what I can tell, the Indians are the racial middleclass here. They make up a sizeable percentage of the population. During the days of apartheid they were seperated from both the blacks and whites, and got middling quality treatment. The fellow is pleasant as he talks with us, then business picks up and he tends to his customers.
Another Indian fellow, rail thin with rough skin and bad teeth is sitting in the corner. His eyes are pink to the irises but bright and lively. Alan chats with him about life here. The fellow is a good friend of the proprietor, and tells us how they have been friends since grade school, and nothing could keep them apart. His accent is strong but he is easy to understand. He is well spoken despite his appearance and seems to have a sharp mind.
Then we talk a bit about the schools. He graduated high school in the early 80′s. He tells us that school was in some ways cheaper under apartheid, because there were no fees. It’s a complex issue when taking into account the cost of books and uniforms, whether you get lunch or not, and the quality of the teachers, but his overall sense is that it’s not any better or more fair now, and quite possibly less fair.
We talk about marriage and death and labola in the Zulu community. He tells us that because of the Zulu custom of ubuntu, or “community property”, that it is common for a man to take over responsibility for his brother’s wife and child if the brother dies. It has always been that way, and that was good. However these days the brother taking over responsibility usually expects to have sexual relations with the widow in exchange for taking care of her and the children — this is a new development that is not so good. It is not about ubuntu any more, but the man’s advantage. The man now chooses between the two houses day to day at his whim. The Indian man seems concerned this is not so good for the family.
He isn’t happy about the current practice of paying girls 200 rand per month for each baby they have. He says that the grandmothers end up taking care of young girls’ babies anyways, and so having a baby is just a way to get pocket money for some of the kids. This is a common complaint that Alan and I have heard from many sources, from every race.
I fear the way I’m relating his thoughts makes him sound like an old socio political crank. But sitting listening to him talk in person his thoughts are more articulate and subtle than what I’m remembering now, and his manner is more inquisitive and thoughtful. He comes across more as an old philosopher.
We cover many topics until the shop closes down. He asks us to come back and bring him a souvenir of something from America and he will give us something in return. We bid him farewell and head off.
Alan tells me as we walk back to the car, that when he and Donna first arrived here they came to the taxi rank and thought they were in the wild west: within minutes of walking around, they heard a gunshot and then a black lady ran by them screaming, followed by a white man brandishing a pistol over his head. She managed to escape into the crowd and the fellow just cursed and such. Who knows what that was about. He also remembers seeing uniformed guards with military rifles patrolling a street where an armoured car was unloading. He says it’s gotten much better. This agrees with Zenzo’s take.
I haven’t played guitar in a while, so when we get back to the trailer I break it out and play for an hour as the sun sets. It is a lovely feeling. I notice a couple birds flying in circles over the yard, but they look a little different than the birds I’m used to and so I stop to watch them. After a moment I realize what it is: they aren’t birds, they’re bats. They are pretty small, about the size of mouse, and they do even circles around and around the sky above the yard, scanning for prey.
I go inside and share dinner with Donna and Alan: leftovers: chicken, brocoli & cauliflower, and pan fried bits of the stiff-pap that Zenzo had made.
We finish off with dessert: the bananas that Zenzo’s mother bought mashed with peanut butter and a sprinkling of mixed spice. It’s very tasty.
We plan briefly for tomorrow; and then Alan brings me back to the backpackers place. It’s been a good, full day.
I’ve been here two weeks now. Things are starting to feel natural. As always when I travel the world becomes simultaneously larger and smaller. I see a greater breadth of human experience than I’ve known, while the similarities within us brings it back together.
I’m over the culture shock. My attitude has changed too: I don’t look so much with my American pity, but rather an appreciative compassion. Yes, life is hard for most people here, very hard. But it is no less valid than the life bought by our riches back home.
I don’t want to romanticize it though. We all complain about things back home but not a one of us would trade places with these fine folks. And that makes me wonder about what really brings joy and and satisfaction.
If I may digress:
I’ve been pretty seriously depressed for the better part of the past four years. It was a new experience for me: I’ve been angry and upset about things in my life many times, but never the defeated apathy that has plagued me recently. Sophie has struggled with this too for a longer period, and it has been the source of our marriage troubles. Right now I feel we’re finally pulling out of it. I hope we can maintain that.
But I wonder at our depression in spite of our good fortune. Considering the greater hardships here, the people don’t seem to pity themselves as much as we do. There is depression and frustration, but they laugh a lot and see purpose in life despite the hard work of survival. Thus it amazes me how quickly we blessed folk can sink into self pity.
What then makes one feel whole? I don’t buy any easy answers — I’ve seen every foundation; family, friends, money, love, even God; leave people feeling empty at times. Perhaps we are destined to always teeter on the edge of dissatisfaction no matter what our life holds. It is perhaps this drive that keeps us fighting our way towards the future, a survival trait and nothing more. So be it; I’ll try to temper my weariness with that knowledge the next time it comes.