It’s off to Ncome today with Zenzo. I’m planning to push for some changes in the way they’re doing things. They’ve made good progress so far, but I can tell that if we don’t set something more formal up with regards to the classes, that the whole process will drop off once we’re not going there. It’s to be expected: the computers are not part of their curriculum. My hope is to change that, at least for that school.
I go over my plan with Zenzo as we drive and he agrees it’s a good idea. When we get there we meet Mr. Mbatha and Ms. Kubheka, the two teachers who have been taking the lead in rounding up kids and teaching classes here. I tell them that I’m thankful for all their work in teaching the kids so far.
Then I outline my plan: I recognize they can’t be the only ones who bring kids in to use the computers, by pulling kids out of other classes. This worked well so far as it was the first time the kids had used computers, but going forward I think we need something more structured. I’d like to try to set up some kind of a scheduled computer class where each teacher in the school brings their class to the lab once a week. The computers would be used to teach whatever was in the curriculum for that class; so the English teacher would bring the kids by once a week and use one of the English teaching programs to do exercises. And the maths teacher would come by once a week with their class to do math exercises. The hope would be that this would encourage regular use, it would relate to the curriculum, and it would provide a change of pace for both the educators and the learners.
I reiterate that the reason we are here is to assist, and that my plan is just a suggestion. In the end, we have to find what works best for them.
They seem to like the plan, and I suggest that we get together with the principal to discuss. We find the deputy principal ask him if he can call the principal in to talk. As we are waiting, both Mr. Mbatha and Ms. Kubheka vent a little about their frustrations so far. It seems that some of the other teachers think they are getting some kind of break by leading the computer classes. Even though it is an extra job on top of their regular responsibilities, it is perceived almost as cheating. They are unhappy with that attitude from their peers. I suggest that if everyone has to do it that will quickly change, and they agree. I explain that they should end up being the experts that other teachers can come to with questions, but that they shouldn’t have to do extra classes themselves.
They seem to like the idea and are looking forward to talking with the principal about it. I pick up a slight sense of relief, that they see some hope for the computers becoming a helpful teaching tool rather than a burden for the two of them.
The deputy principal comes back, however, and tells us that the principal is teaching and that he said we can do whatever we want, we don’t need his approval. As nice as that sounds, I think we do need his approval, or more specifically, his authority. I explain this to the deputy principal and he goes back to talk to the principal again.
A moment later they both come back; so I guess that worked. We explain the plan to him and he says it sounds fine. I ask if we can get copies of the schedule so that we can plot out the specific times, so that the lab gets maximum use. He agrees, but doesn’t produce the schedules. There are a few posted on the office wall for the R-3 grades, but nothing for the upper classes. I ask again and it seems apparent from his response that they don’t have anything written down, but he will put something together for me. We plan to go over the details next time we visit, later this week.
I’m excited to set things up, figuring out which programs and settings work best for which classes and grades. Zenzo and I go into the lab and turn on a couple computers. I start digging into the details of the various programs and taking notes on which might be most useful for each purpose. Mrs. Nyembe, who has generally been absent from recent classes, and whom I’ve sort of sensed was trying to avoid us, comes by. She stays with me for a while and helps to figure out which stuff is most appropriate for each grade.
We also run two more classes, to cover the kids that were somehow missed in the first round. Same basic stuff; but one interesting discovery is made:
For the longest time there has been this intermittent problem with the one of the programs, called “Match It”. Normally the game lays out a bunch of tiles randomly on the screen and you match things up: dots to numbers, shapes to names, verbs to past tense, etc. But sometimes, for unknown reasons, the game gets messed up and the tiles all appear blank. It’s a pretty rare problem, but it happens just often enough that whenever we work on computers one of the things we always do is to start up “Match It” and make sure the tiles aren’t blank. If they are blank, Donna has a disk that has fresh copies of the corrupted files. Once she replaces them, things go back to normal.
Well today I happen to witness something that changes everything: a kid is messing around with “Match It”, and they happen across a menu option labeled “Concentration”. When they select this, the whole tile set, which was already visible, goes blank. Suddenly I get it: the blank tiles aren’t caused by a corrupted file, they’re a game setting! It’s a way to play “Match It” as a concentration or memory type game. I try changing the setting back and the pictures on the tiles reappear.
When I tell Alan and Donna this later, they have a good laugh. Donna says she wished we had figured that out nine years ago; it would have saved a heck of a lot of testing and file copying. Alan jokes that we often poke fun at the novice local computer users for doing things that are wrong just because they work… like turning the machine off and on to get rid of the screen saver or to exit a program: it “works” but is inefficient and shows a lack of understanding. Of course, on a slightly higher level of expertise, we were doing the exact same thing. Success in problem solving doesn’t always mean you understand the problem. And the understanding for this one came completely by luck: if I hadn’t been standing behind that kid when he fiddled the “Concentration” setting, we’d still be overwriting “corrupted files” any time we saw that behavior.
Zenzo and I head home. He told me earlier that he had a pair of shoes on lay-away at a local store, so we drop by there when we get to town. The store is closed, and the sign says “Hours: we open when we arrive and we close when we leave”. In spite of that helpful information we aren’t sure when to return. But luckily Zenzo spots someone who works at the store nearby and asks them. They say they’ll open up in a few minutes.
Once they do, Zenzo pays out a few more rand and picks up a slick pair of white canvas Levi slip-ons. They cost a fair amount of the pay he’s earned so far, and a tiny part of me wonders “is this really the best thing to do with your money?”, but then I remember that he knows his desires far better than I do, so I relax and enjoy seeing him happy. He really loves the shoes and puts them on immediately. They do look sharp.
I drop him off at his place and go back to mine to do some writing. A moment after sitting in the kitchen with a cup of coffee, I hear someone throwing rocks at the place. At first it seems annoying, then a little scary as they pick up pace. I look out the window and don’t see anyone, but I keep hearing rocks hitting the building. The rate picks up and I can’t believe anyone could throw that many rocks continuously. I step outside and look around, most of the noise seems to be coming from the roof. I quickly guess that some birds might be dropping rocks? But again, the intensity picks up further and I can’t imagine what it might be. Then as the clattering of pebbles on the roof picks up to a roar, I finally see little white pebbles bouncing all over the yard: a hailstorm.
I’ve never seen substantial hail before. This is substantial. The noise is amazing, and the entire lawn looks like a skillet full of sparkling bouncing popcorn. The dogs are absolutely going crazy with excitement, running and leaping around the yard, flummoxed by the noise and motion.
I notice the hailstones are around the size of large raisins. The sound gets louder, the individual pings of each stone on the roof sound heavier. It starts sounding downright vicious. My amusement turns to mild concern, first for the windows of the B&B, and then suddenly to my rental car. I had been told early in my trip that a panel beater could make quite a business of following the hailstorms around South Africa and repairing automobile damage. I don’t know where the threshold for that damage is, and I don’t know how much worse the storm is going to get, but I quickly decide I should move my car under the big tree in the front yard; the only shelter around.
Right before I run out, I get the awful vision in my head of getting brained by a baseball sized lump of hail, so I run into the kitchen and get a cutting board. With this inch thick helmet of hardwood I run out into the yard and hop in the car. I pull it under the big tree and get out again. The car looks undamaged so far; though covered in the little stones there are no dings or broken glass that I can see. I notice Evan has come out to pull one of his cars into his carport.
We chat and laugh for a moment, watching the dogs react. The hail never gets larger than a small grape, and doesn’t cause any harm that I can see, but it is still enough to make one a bit nervous. Within twenty minutes it has turned into a drizzle and the brief layer of pebbles that covered the yard and pavement melt away. The whole time it was probably 80 degrees out. Of course I spend the next thirty minutes reading about hail on Wikipedia.
Then Marco comes back. He’s bare chested, like last night, but now wearing a leather jacket. He seems glad to see me, though I’m not totally sure I feel the same; as I said, he strikes me as sketchy. He says to me “you know how last night I said I wasn’t sure how long I’d be staying?” “Yes,” I reply. “Well,” he says, “I think I like this place. I think I’ll be here for a while.” I sigh to myself. “I’m doing better today; I got a hold of some of my money. I had to make a few calls.”
He asks me if he can do me a favor. I say sure. He says he’d like to do a braai with me tonight; a South African barbecue. That actually sounds nice. I’m not totally sure about the guy, but grilling some meat together and a few beers sounds like fun. So I agree. I was originally planning to have dinner with Alan and Donna, so I figure I’ll give them a call and invite them along. I am also curious to see what they make of the guy, since some of my “trouble” sensors are going off. But I’m still trying to learn what’s what over here.
I call Donna and Alan and they agree to come over for the cookout; they’ll supply a salad. Marco and I head off to the market to get some supplies. We grab meat and a few other bits. As we’re heading to checkout I’m actually mildly surprised when Marco pulls out enough to cover half the food. I had been thinking that the braai offer was a means to get me to buy him dinner, and frankly I was fine with that. But he produces some cash and then goes off to find some beer, which he buys himself.
We get back to the backpackers and we start up a charcoal fire. He tells me that he’s a bush pilot and that he guides hunting tours and that he’s cooked for groups before, so he’s pretty good. He seems to be constantly telling me about cool stuff he does and how he’s a skilled guy.
He does seem to know his way around a barbecue, lighting up the fire with just newspaper and a match, no lighter fluid. And he starts preparing the meat, soaking the pork in beer.
Alan and Donna arrive in a bit; it’s dark now and the fire is turning into red hot coals. We hang out in the kitchen as Marco does the preparations. He talks grandly about himself the whole time, and I sense a mile annoyance in Alan and Donna. They go along and chat with him though, and everyone seems to be having a good time. Part of me wonders if it was a bit foolish to invite them over when I knew Marco was a bit of a boor.
I’d make a pun there with “Boer”, but I think that the words actually share the same root. I wonder if Boers consider using the word “boor” in a pejorative sense to be racially insensitive; like using “gyp”.
At some point Alan mentions a famous South African political comedian. Marco, who has the same last name says, “that’s my brother”. Alan and Donna are in disbelief at first, but Marco assures them and even does a bit of an imitation of his brother’s act. The coincidence seems unlikely to me, but there’s no point arguing it.
At some point he’s sharpening a big knife to cut the meat with and I get a strange sense of concern; I’m not sure I totally trust him with the knife. I start feeling that I’ve invited this fellow in and he’s going to cause trouble. But I didn’t actually invite him in: he became my housemate and I’m just trying to be pleasant.
We go outside and Marco does the grilling. I break out my guitar and play a stirring rendition of “Wish You Were Here”, if I do say so myself. He tells us about his adventures as a bush pilot; getting lost in the desert and such. He also says his family owns a huge game hunting park. He gives enough detail that he seems to know what he’s talking about, but there’s something about him that seems not quite right. My take is that he’s largely full of crap.
He mentions a few times over the course of the night that he’s just had a very rough week, but doesn’t elaborate. At one point he says, “when I got up here to Dundee I didn’t have any money. I’ve got some now, but today I had to push some people hard.” I have no idea what that means and nobody asks.
I have a couple beers, Alan and Donna share one, and Marco drinks a lot. The food comes out quite excellently; the man knows how to grill. Some of the best pork I’ve ever had.
Evan comes by to check up on us, and notes that Marco isn’t wearing a shirt. “You trying to get a sunburn,” he asks wryly; as only the moon is out. Evan seems a bit disapproving of Marco, and the feeling seems mutual. “Evan, could you might be able to let me sleep in a bit tomorrow?” asks Marco pointedly. Evan reminds him that checkout time is 10AM. Apparently this morning Evan woke him up at that time and asked him to leave if he wasn’t paying for another night. He didn’t have the money then, but somehow today he got it. Along with the leather jacket.
At some point later as we eat, Marco misunderstands what one of us says and thinks we are talking ill about him. He seems a little tense for a while, and quiets down a bit.
Eventually we wrap things up and Alan and Donna prepare to leave. As they’re about to go, Alan shakes Marco’s hand earnestly and puts his hand on his shoulder. “It was good to meet you, and I hope to see you again, and I hope things work out.” I can tell from the tone of his voice that Alan has picked up that Marco is maybe a bit troubled. They head off and we go back into the backpackers. “Brilliant, brilliant people,” Marco says with feeling. I get some sense that he is rarely well received, and that while to us tonight was a bit awkward and tense, to him it was particularly nice.
Inside, as I’m about to go to my room, Marco stops me and says, “hey, do you think you could lend me about 20 dollars US?” My reaction is instinctual, “no, no man, I can’t.” “I could really use some cash,” he reiterates. “I can’t spare that kind of money,” I like, “sorry.” “Well, what can you spare? I’m getting very low. I’ll pay you back.” I know I’m wearing a sour expression at this point, “I can cover your half of dinner, but that’s it.”
That amounts to around seven dollars, and from a principle standpoint it seems reasonable that we provide the supplies and he provided the preparation. I just wish it had been upfront instead of in a sneaky way. “Yeah, yeah,” he says, “that would be great.” I annoyedly go to my room and scrounge up fifty rand, his contribution towards the food.
When I go back out to give him the money, he’s got a bottle of prescription pills and is doling out a couple round white tablets out into his palm. I don’t say anything but he offers “I got some bad shoulder pain” before dry swallowing them.
The pills look like Oxycodone or one of the other opium based pain relievers they give out these days. I’ve been prescribed similar stuff post surgery more than once (whether I asked for them or not) but I’ve not used them much. I hear they sell for twenty to forty dollars on the street. One time I tossed the pills out and refilled the prescription bottle with Altoids and gave it to a stoner friend of mine as a gag birthday gift. People observing were very uncomfortable until he opened the bottle, sniffed, and laughed. Actually, I think they were still a little uncomfortable even after that.
Anyways, it all becomes clear now: Marco is a junkie. Despite my general lack of contact with such folk, I was able to pick up early that something was off. I hadn’t know what, but now I get it. His personality; his narrow eyes and shifty demeanor laced with a bit of desperation: a drug addict. My mild annoyance becomes sympathy, and then even a bit of fear. I wonder if he’s going to try to rob me in my sleep. I decide not to be such a worrier, and I bid him goodnight and head off to bed.
I’m a little nervous and I hop online to relax. I find it ironic that amidst all the places I’ve been and people I’ve seen since I got here; in the poorest towns with people living in supposedly backward, high crime communities, surrounded by the mysterious Zulu culture and the fearsome black man, the most worrisome person I’ve met, indeed the only disagreeable person I’ve met at all is a white man addicted to modern prescription drugs.
I hope my friendliness and respect will help keep him from trying to pull anything while I sleep. I’m really not in the mood to have to deal with that.
Chatting online I bump into my sister, who tells me she has some concerns about our mom’s health. She convinces my mom to tell me about it and so they do. This effectively gets my mind of Marco.
My mom’s health has not been very good in recent years. A large part of her health trouble is related to weight, and though she’s been trying to lose for a long time now she hasn’t been able to make much progress. I had planned to go spend several months with her when I got back from South Africa to help her out; by being a personal chef and trainer. And it would be fun to spend some time together as well.
Turns out that since I’ve been here in South Africa, my mom has had three fairly serious new health conditions arise. First, she was diagnosed with inadequate oxygen intake, so she was now using a supplemental tank. Second, she was diagnosed as type 2 diabetic. Third, she had acquired a cellulitis infection that was not responding to antibiotics.
I don’t know if I was overreacting, but the combination of these three things spoke to me of a serious decline. Though I was scheduled to be home in just a few weeks anyways, I felt that time was of the essence. So after brief discussions, I decided I wanted to head home right away. Though my mom was initially resistant to the idea, not wanting to interfere with my trip, I assured her that I would be most comfortable coming home. Staying here while her health declined was not something I could do.
Besides, I had already in my six weeks here got more immersed in the flavor of this country than I thought possible. So I didn’t feel it was a major loss at this point. I would be coming back to South Africa if at all possible, in any case.
After that I went to bed and slept well. Marco didn’t bother me.