Jonathan Field - Maker of Random Stuff

In addition to the two white guys who were here last night, there was a Zulu truck driver. When I wake up and go to the kitchen he is sitting there and he greets me. I wonder if he heard the other guys complaining last night as he fell asleep. But he seems in good spirits in any case. His name is Joseph, he’s a driver from Johannesburg and is here to pick up a truck.

I have some leftover cheesy stew from last night, so I heat that up for breakfast. We chat a bit as he waits for a friend. He asks how I like South Africa and what I’m doing, I tell him, and he says “that is wonderful, thank you.” He also mentions the crime problem, perhaps it is the item he most feels he should apologize for to visitors.

At that point I get a call from Alan, he just got an email from someone reminding him to read through my journal postings to make sure they aren’t revealing information that is likely to cause problems. I tell him I’ll bring by what I’ve got tonight. He’s a super reasonable guy, all he wants to do is read them, and I am pretty sure that my postings are okay. But for some reason it puts me in a bit of a down mood. I really just want to increase understanding… but I wonder if I’m being naive about what is okay to write.

I bid Joseph farewell and head off to pick up Zenzo. When we get there his sister asks if she can get a ride into town. Since we’re heading that way anyways, I agree. We drop her off a few minutes later and head off towards Ncome.

But a few blocks after we pass the taxi rank, Zenzo shouts out: “hey, it’s the teachers from Ncome”. I look back but I can’t pick them out amongst all the other hitchhikers.

Culture note: there is lots of hitchhiking in South Africa. On a drive of any length you’ll probably pass several. I think it’s also probably more common for people to actually pick up hitchhikers here than in the US, which is a little surprising since at first I’d think it must be more dangerous. But perhaps by virtue of it being so common it’s less dangerous? In the US hitchhikers are usually weirdoes, but here it’s just everybody. I am told that it’s not uncommon for hitchhikers to pay, as well. I suppose it’s just ad hoc taxiing. You’ll come across them almost anywhere along the road, but there are often collections of them near the major roads out of the town, or near the taxi rank, as here.

In any case, I don’t normally pick up hitchhikers. But I pull over and look back, and I do see Mrs. Kubheka, another woman who I recognize but don’t remember her name, and a professional looking fellow who seems to be with them who I don’t recognize. I’m a little surprised because school would have already started; going with us they’ll be about 40 minutes late. It’s drizzling out, and I figure it’s okay, so they hop in and thank us.

The three of them in the back seat talk in Zulu the whole way. Zenzo and I just chill in the front as we drive along. He has popped in a mix CD. Some of the songs are South African, some American. He lets me know which are which.
We get to the school and the electricity has been fixed. They improved the wiring so there’s no longer the hazards we saw before. However the overhead light in the computer lab still doesn’t work. That’s okay, though, it’s not clear that we need it anyways.

I didn’t take many pictures today — perhaps a bit worn out from all the pictures I took the last two days. But I did snap this picture of a crab that was hanging around outside the entrance to the lab. Zenzo spotted it and called me out. It’s a little curious because there isn’t a notable body of water nearby… perhaps a river a kilometer away. A couple of boys came with a glass jar and captured him. Soon after kids arrive for the first class.

There are no teachers with us yet, which is unfortunate, because they’re the ones we’re really here to train. But Zenzo runs the class, and when the deputy principal stops by I ask him where the teachers are. He says they’ll be coming.

The next class is ninth graders, the oldest kids at the school, and the oldest we’ve run a class with. Zenzo says that they understand English, so I should run the class myself. I give it a whirl, and it goes okay. The ninth graders are far less energetic about trying things. Their pictures are nowhere near as developed as the younger kids. I guess they’re already getting to that apathetic phase. Or perhaps I’m just a lousy teacher. Or perhaps they don’t like getting bossed around by some funny-talking white dude. Still, the class is a success, just not a very exciting one.

Finally, Mrs. Kubheka comes in. She tells me the Mr. Mbatha isn’t here at all today, which is why she was late and needed a ride: he usually picks them up. Mrs. Nyembe says she is busy. At first I figure she’s just making excuses but since they are short a teacher she may have a lot of extra kids to attend to. But Mrs. Kubheka brings in a class and leads it, doing a great job.

At the end, after they shut down Kid Pix, she takes things in a new direction: this is the last group of kids (save grades 1-3) who hadn’t used the computer and Kid Pix. So she decides to also make them the first group that goes on to the next program. Without any suggestion from Zenzo or I, she instructs them to open up another program called “Kids Time”, and walks them through the steps of selecting the skill level “Easy” and choosing the shape matching game. I am quite impressed — not just by the directing of the kids, but she obviously was taking some notes when she experimented with the computers last week, because she knows just what she wants them to do. The shape matching game is pretty easy, and after that she has them do a letter matching game that’s a little harder, and finally a word matching game that involves English words being mapped to body parts. These are fourth graders that only recently began learning English, but most of them do remarkably well.

It’s 11AM, the class ends, and so does the school day: it’s a half day because it’s the Friday before a two week break. Specifically, the end of the first term. So we won’t be coming back to school until April 16th. The kids go outside for an hour of recess before being released to go home. I tell Mrs. Kubheka that she is the best and she laughs.

I ask Zenzo if he wants to take a drive over to Nqutu, where they are having the grand opening of the mall today. He says sure. I check with Mrs. Kubheka and she could use a ride home after recess, just after noon. So I tell her we’ll be back to pick her up.

Nqutu is only ten minutes further down the road. The mall is of the open air variety, a bit more like a plaza than a mall. It is very crowded, with cars parking along the roadside and paths of people coming and going to and from the nearby homes. We hop out and walk around. There are places to eat, including a chain called “Hungry Lion”, several shoe and clothing stores, a couple of general merchandise discount stores, furniture, and what not. Many of the stores have DJ’s out front playing music and trying to excite the crowd. There is a stage at one point where, Zenzo tells me, the mayor of Nqutu is speaking. There are a group of men dressed in traditional Zulu garments who will be doing a performance of some kind, but they are just staying off to the side for now. Zenzo tells me from listening to the Mayor that they won’t be performing soon.

The only problem is that it’s chilly and drizzling out. It’s still a crowded grand opening, but people are largely congregating under the awnings. Perhaps this is good too as they are pushed into the stores themselves. Overall it looks to me to be quite a success.

There were many people in Dundee that were worried about the mall. They were afraid it was going to take business away from Dundee. Only the future will tell, but I think that’s a highly irrational fear. There aren’t many people who can drive at all, let alone justify nearly 40 minutes each way, just to shop at Nqutu. And more importantly: with the massive dearth of jobs here, any place that provides employment is going to increase free cash in the area and will likely boost all business to a degree. I find myself inspired by the development.

Zenzo, popular as always, bumps into a young girl he knows: the sister of his girlfriend. They hug and he seems very glad to see her. Soon after we take off back to Ncome school.

We pick up Mrs. Kubheka and the other lady teacher whose name I don’t remember. Just the two of them, and we drive back to Dundee. Zenzo still has his mix CD in the car, and at one point Vanessa Carlton’s “One Thousand Miles” comes on. Thanks to the trailer for the movie “White Chicks”, I have an image in my head of the Wayans brothers, made up as white girls, attempting to sing along as they drive with a carfull of actual white girls. Because of course no black man would know “One Thousand Miles”. In my reality, though, it is Zenzo singing along and me scratching my head.

I think generally that music is less racially divided out here. For example, I often here what I would call “white” music playing when I visit people in the location, which I think is cool. I do my part by playing ProVerb and 50 cent as I cruise around.

After dropping off the teachers in the center of town, I ask if Zenzo wants to get lunch at Wimpy’s. He says sure, and so we head over there. At this point I’ve figured out that it’s not just a fast food place, though that’s what you see when you first come in. But you can also be seated and served with a full menu more like a Denny’s. They have steaks and seafood and other platters of food. We sit and order. Zenzo seems positively overwhelmed by the choices and I wonder if he’s eaten here before. Eventually he decides on just a cheeseburger, fries, and a Coke. I get a greek salad with grilled chicken breast, which is actually quite good. I order “Coke Light”; the term “diet” allegedly has undesirable connotations here, as it did in Chile. But they are out of it, and I end up with a regular Coke instead. Also like in Chile, I am convinced that it is sweeter and more syrupy. I don’t know if this is intentional, or a just a accidental mixing error, but it’s pretty sweet stuff.

I ask him about working here, and he says that the people at Wimpy’s have been here for a long time, whereas the people at the Spur’s restaurant have changed many times. He concludes this must be a better place to work, but also there aren’t any openings. Strangely they’re owned by the same person, so it’s not clear one would be better managed than the other.

I pay for lunch, drop him off at home and tell him we’ll call him for plans over the weekend. I head to the backpacker’s and write and read a bit.

After a bit Alan comes by and asks if I want to join him on a search around Sibongile: he wants to have a reunion party for the Dundee Voices of Joy, and he has to try finding its members, who probably haven’t met up in almost ten years. There are eighteen of them total, but a couple have died and several have moved away. But he thinks there are about eight still in Dundee. He also needs a venue for the gathering. So we head off to look. It is dusk.

The streets in Sibongile aren’t marked. So even though they do have names, they aren’t that useful. In fact, people often just give their address as a number: 206 Sibongile, for example. Because of the lack of street names, all the houses have unique numbers. But the numbers don’t necessarily go in order; often jumping at the end of a street from the 540 to 600 for example, and the 541-599 houses exist, just not right there. The upshot is that Alan and I don’t have much luck finding the first house we are looking for.

We decide to grab Zenzo and see if he can help. Also, we want to pay him for his work this week. Even though he has been doing this, like us, on a volunteer basis, we agree that 200 rand is a fair amount. On the one hand it seems low to me, but on the other hand it is probably in line with what he could make at a regular job. Money has a different meaning over here, though the conversion rate is roughly 7.5 to 1, making 200 rand convert to only 30 US dollars, it actually has the buying power of about $60 over here. And in turn, that is a fair sum of money for a kid in Zenzo’s position.

It is a tough thing to know what is appropriate. On the one hand I’d love to dump money on the kid. On the other hand, what good would that do? No amount I can afford is enough to meaningfully change his life, and when we leave in just five weeks the well will dry up anyways, leaving him with unrealistic expectations for earning potential in a poor economy here. I reluctantly decide it’s best to play along with this world.

We get to his house and Alan calls him out. For fun, he leaves 100 rand on the front seat for Zenzo to find when he gets in. Zenzo says “whoa…” as he gets in and picks up the note. Then Alan does a joke trick where he pretends that the money doubles itself by appearing in his other hand. Zenzo says “thank you guys, you are very good to me.” “You earned it,” I say, “you did lots of good work at the schools this week.” The main thing I want to try to communicate is that we like him and he is our friend; and that the pay is not a handout, but specifically for his work. I don’t know if I succeed. In any case, he seems happy.

We head out and even with Zenzo’s help, finding the right houses is very difficult. Especially now that it’s dark out. We visit several places, and I find it immensely interesting to see how each little place looks inside. I imagine living there, and try to imagine what it would be like. As I mentioned before, I’m past the culture shock and I’ve come to see a nice simple life here. The homes are small, and they are simple, but they are homes. Though I can’t imagine anyone I know back home agreeing to live here, this is still a fairer life than some, which I’ve never seen. We do find one person, who says we can use his place for the party. He also gives us some contact info so that Alan can find others later.

We bring Zenzo home. In his yard, next to a modern house, is a traditional Zulu hut called a “rondo”. It is round, probably about three or four meters in diameter, with a thatched roof. Here is a picture of a rondo. Though not the one in Zenzo’s yard, it looks roughly the same. He had told me earlier that it was just used for storage at the moment, and that the roof had a leak. He said his mother was planning to tear it down and build a new one. But Alan has since taken a look inside and convinced them that except for the roof the rest of it is in good shape, and they could save a lot of time and money just fixing it instead of rebuilding it. Zenzo agreed and so they plan to fix it up. We joke that if it was fixed up, I might want to rent it and stay there. Zenzo laughs heartily at this, but I tell him that in reality, I probably would like to try it. He says that next year it will be my rondo. We start calling it “Jon’s rondo” whenever we refer to it.

Back at the trailer, Donna is getting ready to go out. There’s a great little restaurant in town that she wants to go to. We pick her up and head over.

The restaurant is has a gate like so many places here; though usually only residences. Apparently a few years ago someone had barged in and robbed them, so they put a gate with camera up. We ring the bell, announce ourselves, and the gate opens.

The inside of the place is a charming rustic decor. We actually go into the kitchen and say “hi” to the two Zulu lady cooks, who take our order. I can’t help myself from ordering the grilled lamb chops. The cook represents the mushroom sauce as being the best accompaniment to that, though there is “monkey gland” sauce which both frightens and entices me. Apparently it is just a sort of sweet and sour sauce.

We head over to the bar where we meet the proprietress and her father. She is a studying archeologist and linguist. They speak both English and Afrikaans, and who knows what else. Donna and I get glasses of some local red wine, which I enjoy. The proprietress and her father have scotch.

As we wait for the meal, we chat with them. They are warm and friendly folk. And we are the only people in the bar area. A television is playing on the wall; some music concert. This sparks some discussion about a recent controversial pop song called “De la Rey”. The proprietress says that she thinks the controversy has been blown out of proportion.

The issue as I understand it is this:

The lyrics are about a Boer general, Koos de le Rey. Boers are a subset of Dutch Afrikaners. Around the turn of last century, he led the Boers against the British, who at the time were doing awful things to the Boers and the blacks. The chorus of the song says something along the lines of “De la Rey, will you come and lead the Boers”.

The problem is that it has become very popular in the Afrikaner community, including with some extremists, and the chorus is being interpreted by some as a call against the black ruling party of the new South Africa today. The author denies that interpretation. The song is catchy and was becoming popular before the controversial meaning was explored. Since then it has of course, like anything controversial, become even more popular. I have no idea whether the song is simply a proud piece of Afrikaner history or a subversive call to arms for the extremists, but it reminds me how all communication holds part of its meaning in interpretation: part of what it means is in the recipient’s mind, not just in the sender’s mind. There are so few absolutes in the world, it can be a bit frightening.

Here’s an article on the song that I find interesting. It reminds me a bit of the possible interpretations of Skynard’s Sweet Home Alabama.

Dinner is ready and so we get our money out to pay, but the lady tells us that the wine is on the house tonight. We thank her and head downstairs. There is a black man having his dinner alone there, and Alan and Donna ask if he wouldn’t mind if we join him. It is at the same time something I would never think to do, never feel comfortable doing, yet I find charming and good. The man says it would be fine, so then we sit down with him as our dinner comes out.

The food is excellent; probably the best I’ve had since I came here. Of course having a little red wine with it helps things too.

The fellow has just moved up from Durban and is looking for a place to live. He is a sales manager at Shop-Rite, and the company is paying for him to stay here at the moment. We talk about his work, which includes purchasing plans. He explains that they compete with Pick-n-Pay on price, but that Spar’s Market is a more expensive place. He is half Zulu and half Xhosa. We learn that from him that the languages are pretty similar. It is pleasant conversation over a pleasant meal.

The lamb dinner was only 85 rand (about $13), and includes three chops, mashed potatoes, sweet squash, a green bean mixture, a bit of salad, and a dessert of vanilla ice cream with peaches. Everything is delicious. I would expect to pay no less than $30 for the same thing back home. Again I wonder about the meaning of the bank conversion rates when the dollar seems so powerful here. I should read more about how those are set.

I drop off Alan and Donna and give Alan a copy of the journal entries posted so far for them to read. I use a little old-iMac style USB floppy drive that he happens to have. It’s the only way we could actually transfer them over to his computer. He doesn’t seem concerned about the journal, but wants to read them anyways just to be sure. I joke about whether I’m a bit of a troublemaker like my Dad. They laugh knowingly at this. In either case, I’m proud to be like my Dad.

I head back to the backpackers. There I meet a young Frenchman who is staying for a night. He tells me he has been working in the Capetown area for the past year, making wine. The season is over and now he is travelling for a bit before heading back to France. He does winemaking there as well, and has also done some in Oregon.

“Do you get to taste the wine?” I ask with a smile. “It’s not the worst part of the job,” he replies with a grin.

He tells me that the pay for that work here is the worst of the three. In the US he can make in a week what he makes here in a month. Though he also says that in France the pay is usually less than the US, but you often get free room and board so overall it sometimes works out better. I mention how I envy the French balance of work an leisure. He says that these days it’s tending even more towards the leisure. I bid him goodnight.

Then I hit the sack.

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2 Responses to

  1. When I read your posts, I love that a get a sense of the people you meet & how they live. I feel that I’m actually learning something.
    : )

    re: hitchhiking
    I was asked about that by a pen pal from Europe (many years ago). I remember the person was extremely surprised that more people didn’t do it and that I’d always been cautioned against it. (’cause you never know about the person you’re picking up or about the person you’re getting in the car with)

    re: music
    Out of curiosity, does Zenzo listen to Johnny Clegg at all?

    • Great! Glad you’re enjoying it!

      I have started thinking that Americans respond to fear more dramatically than most… to what degree that actually keeps us safe vs. separating us from others is up in the air.

      I’ll ask Zenzo about Clegg and report back :)

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