Photo by Teresa Rafidi

Photo by Teresa Rafidi

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The In-Between World of Your Favorite PCVs – A Slice of Life is Not Always a Piece of Cake

Communication is Dead (article by Robin)
"The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place." ~George Bernard Shaw

One thing that we struggle with often here is communication. For starters, everyone seems to think that because we are white, that we must speak Afrikaans. Unfortunately, we don't. The few phrases we learned during our training included “Goeie Môre” (Good Morning) and “Ek kan nie Afrikaans praat nie” (I don't speak Afrikaans). It can be a bit frustrating when people insist on speaking Afrikaans to us regardless of how much we tell them that we don't speak it. Especially the older generation here in the village. Once we were at a muchonglo traditional dance in the village and an elderly gentleman tried to speak to us in Afrikaans. We told him in xiTsonga (Shangaan) “A ni vulavuli Afrikaans” (I don't speak Afrikaans). Yet, he still continued asking us questions in Afrikaans. Another time we were on a khumbi riding to our shopping town, and a drunk guy on the taxi started speaking to us in Afrikaans. Again we told him in xiTsonga “A ni twisisi Afrikaans” (I do not understand Afrikaans) and “A ni vulavuli Afrikaans, Ni vulavula Xilungu” (I do not speak Afrikaans, I speak English). But, it took a good ten or fifteen minutes to convince him that we actually didn't speak Afrikaans. No really, we speak English!

Even when we are communicating in English or a mixture of Shangaan and English, we still often have language barriers and confusion. A few weeks ago, Woody went to into our host mom's house to “top up” electricity on our meter box. The conversation that proceeded went much like the old vaudeville joke by Abbott and Costello “Who's on First?” Here is the conversation that occurred between Woody and our host mom:

           Host mom: Do you have film? “Ni vone kamareni” I saw it in the bedroom.
           Woody:U lava film yini?” What kind of film do you want?
           Host mom: “Papayi.
           Woody: Yini??. . . Papayi? Papayi?. . .I don't know Papayi.
           Host mom:Papayi, Papayi, you know. . . Papayi!!

Our host mom thought this conversation was hysterical and soon told me all about it. It turns out that she was asking for “Popeye.” Popeye is the general word that people use here to refer to cartoons. Because she had very THOROUGHLY cleaned our house about a month ago while we were away on vacation, she now knows everything we own... So, she knew that we had some cartoon DVDs given to us by the previous volunteers. The best part of this story is that “Popeye” is also what they call cartoons in Kuwait where Woody grew up. So of anyone, he really should have known what she was talking about.

Every Day Stuff and Household Chores (article by Robin)
Learn to do common things uncommonly well.” ~George Washington Carver

Our Pit Toilet
Many of you are probably wondering how we do stuff. I mean everyday ordinary stuff like bathing, doing laundry, and using the toilet, etc. You may recall that Woody and I do have electricity but do not have running water inside our home. That means no running water to wash our hands, drinking, taking a shower, washing dishes, no washing machines, and no flush toilets. We are actually quite lucky though because the municipal water system to our village was recently installed about 6 months before Woody and I arrived in the village after having been out for the last 11 or 12 years. So, the previous volunteers had to fetch water from the river or at the village boreholes using a wheelbarrow. Luckily the village taps were installed before we arrived. So, mostly all Woody has to do is fill up our jerry cans (large jugs) at the tap in our yard. Because we have access to municipal water, we also do not have to boil our water as we would have to do with either well water or river water. For drinking water, we usually just filter it to remove rust and sediment, which is sufficient.

We use candles when the electricity is out
(Photo by Adam Willard)
Fortunately, the small RDP government house that we live in does have a sink in our kitchen with a drain that goes outside and a “wash room” with a drain where we can bathe. So, for washing hands, brushing teeth, and doing dishes, we use the sink and a small water pitcher.

Our washroom for bathing
For bathing, we use a modified version of a “bucket bath.” Since we have a washroom with a drain, we are able to pour water over our heads without being confined to an actual bucket to catch water. There is a whole convoluted system to bucket bathing. We generally use the top-down method. Starting with the face, then the hair, then work your way down. This method works best because the water gets dirtier as you bathe. So, it's best use the cleanest water first to wash your hair and face.

Laundry day Peace Corps style
Since we have water available in our yard, we can also do our laundry at home rather than hauling it the 2K to the river. Basically we have a system of buckets (large basins) that we use for washing our clothes by hand. Generally, because of the labor intensiveness of hand washing and the often scarcity of water, we only wash clothes about every other week or when our clothes are obviously dirty or smell bad.

Laundry time...
Sideways pit toilet
Last but not least, without running water, we don't have indoor pluming and no flush toilet. So, we have to use an outdoor pit toilet. The genius who installed the pit toilet on our property, installed it sideways making using it a bit of a challenge. Do we enjoy using a pit toilet, you ask? Well, NO. But you do get used to it. Eventually, you just have to go! With pit-toilets comes lots of challenges, most notably the bugs and then the lizards who hang out in the pit toilet to eat the bugs. You might ask – what do you do when it is really late at night and you have to go but don't want to walk outside in the dark? Well, then you use a pee bucket... I have truly learned to embrace my inner-pee bucket here in SA.

How do we dispose of trash here in SA, you may ask? Well, we burn it of course... Without municipal services in the village, that means there is no trash collection or recycling. So, unfortunately, while it is horrible for the environment, not to mention our lungs, the only choice is to burn trash. We do try to reuse as many items as we can. But, there are only so many plastic bottles that you can reuse before they overtake your house and you have no choice but to burn them.

Trash pit on fire...

Slow Food (article by Robin)

Home-made pretzels
When it comes to cooking, we use a two-burner hotplate and what we affectionately refer to as an “easy-bake oven.” The oven is like a slightly larger version of a toaster oven in the States which is where we do all of our baking. There is no such thing as fast-food or “take away” here, unless you are visiting a larger town/city. So, our typical version of fast-food when we don't really feel like cooking is generally grilled cheese sandwiches or those mac-and-cheese packets that people so generously stock us up on! Basically, if you want anything it has to be hand made from scratch. If we want Mexican food for dinner, then we have to make tortillas and frijoles refritos from scratch. If we want spaghetti, then we have to make the tomato sauce from scratch. If we want pizza, we have to make the dough from scratch. If you want pancake mix, well then you have to make it from scratch too. You would be surprised to see how long it takes us to make even a simple dinner.

Navigating the Rules of the Road (article by Woody)

Woody and Robin crammed into a khumbi taxi
(Photo by Adam Willard)
Traveling around southern Africa by public transport, locally known as Khumbis or taxis (minivan-sized vehicles) – not to be confused with "private" or "metered" taxis like the ones most common in the US, can be an interesting, confusing, and often challenging endeavor, as any PCV will tell you.

Khumbis are a kind of social pressure-cooker; they're typically uncomfortable, often loud from blaring house music or church sermons, always over-crowded, and, more often than not, in various states of disrepair that make riding in them a real adventure. Considering all these factors, it's amazing how patient and understanding the passengers typically are. Or maybe they're so used to it that to expect anything different would be unthinkable. I think it says a lot that when taking a trip over 2 hours long, you have to fill out a form asking for next-of-kin contact information.

Local taxi rank... (photo by Adam Willard)
The social dynamics of the taxi are a bit odd. People will entrust everything from their belongings - including purses - to their children to just about anyone else in the taxi without any hesitation, and for the duration of their trip, if there's a more convenient place for their baggage or kid with the other person. It's also not unusual for the driver to bump someone from the front-seat to the back of the cab, even a gogo (grandmother), just so the cute girl that's getting on the taxi can sit up front next to the driver. Passengers in the front-seat or front row generally tell the driver where people in the back want to get off, help collect the money, and often make change. Another unwritten rule of the khumbi is that there always has to be music blaring at all times. The two types of music that are most common are house music and religious music.

And in all the travels we've taken, only once have I been on a taxi where they asked where anyone was going in order to seat the first ones out closer to the door. Consequently it seems it's always the ones at the back of the taxi, quite often including us, are some of the first ones to get out. On an overloaded taxi - more on that later - this can mean a 3 - 5 minute stop to let one person out, as almost one-third of the passengers have to get out to let the person at the back get out, then they all pile back in, in exactly the same order, just to do it all over again 1km later. Many times people are sitting on each other's laps or standing in the aisle between seats. On a bad day this will turn our 20 minute trip back from shopping into a 45 minute sardine-packed adventure.

We're fortunate that the taxi rank in our shopping town is clearly labeled with the destinations each cab is going to, and the drivers and rank manager can tell you which one to take to get to where you're going. The same goes with the mega-rank in downtown Nelspruit, our closest large city. But I have seen a few ranks that have no labeling whatsoever, so your only option is to ask, and hope that the person you're asking is either the manager or a seasoned driver. If you're traveling a long distance, then it's best to know where you're going and what taxi changes you'll need to make along the way. And there's absolutely no central directory that we've been able to find of what routes exist, so other PCVs and co-workers are really the best resource on navigating the public transport system.

It's a bit confusing to me, but the taxis will almost always wait at the rank until they're full to capacity before leaving. It's not unusual to wait half an hour to 1 hour while the taxi loads up, then wait another 15 minutes to get the one last passenger that would bring it to capacity. The reason it confuses me is that as soon as they leave the rank there's another passenger waiting on the roadside signaling that they want to catch this taxi. That person has probably been there for at least 15 minutes, and we could have reached capacity by being on the road 15 minutes earlier. Instead, the taxi might stop for that person, and another and yet another further down the road, putting it well past capacity. Or if the driver's not feeling particularly in need of the fares, then he'll just pass them by signaling that the taxi is full. I think the worst we've been on, where we've been able to count heads, was a taxi rated for 15 passengers, and carrying 20 not including the driver. We've probably been on more overloaded taxis, but at that point it seems impossible to count.

If you're really lucky, and we have been twice, you'll end up on a taxi where the driver only has a vague idea of where he's going. On-the-job-training seems to involve another driver at the rank, possibly one who also doesn't know the route, telling the newbie how to get to his new destination. Once, traveling into Ermelo to change taxis, the driver made it part way into town, then said he had no idea where the taxi rank was, but he'd be glad to drop us right there... “E-e, inkomu... Please flag down another taxi and ask the driver how to get to the rank.” Later on that same trip, coming into Nelspruit on another taxi, the driver had no clue where he was going. Fortunately another passenger knew the route so well that he was able to give him turn-by-turn directions. One day GPS will revolutionize transport they might realize that many of their fancy cell phones actually have GPS...

All children, people, and cattle beware when a khumbi is speeding down the road... Once we saw a live chicken fly out of the back of a chicken truck driving in front of us. The taxi driver didn't miss a beat as he swerved around a young girl who ran out into the middle of the road to catch the free meal.

In a nation with 11 official languages, the taxi hand signals are a universal language. In South Africa, people have developed a very innovative hand signal communication system for taxis. So much so that the South Africa Post Office (SAPO) issued a set of ten taxi signal stamps. In order to ride the public khumbi system here, you've got to know the signals. There are regional variations on the signals. But, the ones that we have observed locally are: To hail a taxi – hold your arm horizontal and index finger pointing in the direction that you want to go indicating “Are you going that way?” Arm vertical, index finger pointing up, means “I want to go long distance.” Index finger pointing down means “I want to go local.” Hand-curve motion indicating left or right indicates which town you want to travel to on the main road. Return signals from the cabbies include the “I dunno” palms-up shoulder shrug signal given by the driver (usually while barreling down the road at 100K per hour) indicates “I'm full..." or "The taxi is full.” The flat-palm capping the closed fist (like “paper covers rock”) also indicates that the the cab is full.

Khumbis are one of the most interesting ways to travel around and see the country, and - aside from the trains - seems to be less expensive and more within our budgets than any other form of transport.

Meeting Deputy Director (article by Robin)

Robin and Woody with Dept. Director Hessler
and Senior Advisor Minutillo

Recently, Woody and I got to meet the Deputy Director of Peace Corps, Carrie Hessler-Radelet, and the Senior Advisor to the Director of Peace Corps, Maryann Minutillo, from PC headquarters in Washington, DC who came to speak to a select group of volunteers. They chose to visit three countries including South Africa, Jordan, and Honduras. For South Africa, they chose to speak to volunteers closest to Pretoria, Newcastle in KwaZulu-Natal Province, and Nelspruit in Mpumalanga Province. The meeting was in regards to issues around safety and security and to see how Peace Corps can strengthen current practices. It was a great meeting and very informative and productive. They seemed to really take what we had to say to heart. Woody and I also felt that the meeting gave us a clearer picture on how things are structured within the organization both locally and at headquarters. Hopefully, some good organizational policy changes come out of it.

Some of you may have seen the recent news about safety and security issues in the Peace Corps. While I believe there have been some severe problems in the past, I think Peace Corps is now working on correcting that. The current Director of Peace Corps, Aaron Williams, was nominated by President Obama in August 2009. So, he has been in the office for less than two years. The Deputy Director of Peace Corps is newer and she was nominated in June 2010. So, they are now having to address past shortcomings in the organization. We would like to personally thank those volunteers who spoke up about sexual assault and the lack of support within Peace Corps. We are grateful that they have brought these issues to light within the Peace Corps and their actions are helping Peace Corps review and change their policies and treatment of victims.

Woody and I both came away with a really positive feeling from the meeting because it seems that they are taking our concerns seriously. The Deputy Director even encouraged us to start a volunteer-run Committee on Sexual Assault and Harassment. So, myself and three other volunteers are currently trying to spearhead a committee to address these issues among volunteers.

1 comment:

David said...

This is really awesome stuff to read. I'd like to see this as a coffee table book someday.