Socks and Underwear

Socks and Underwear: November 2009

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


I went to a learner's funeral over the weekend. This is now the second funeral I have been to since I have been here, which equals the number of funerals I have been to in my entire life thus far.

It was absolutely shocking when I came in to school last week to find out one of the grade 5 learner's had passed away that morning. It was like a smack in the face. I am unsure if death is more common here, which I have a feeling it is, but it is more in the open for which the evidence is abundant. It is obvious when a funeral is happening because people set up small circus tents outside of their homes for the services. One of the few thriving businesses in these small villages are funeral homes. When asking about someone's weekend plans, with few exceptions the answer is "attend funerals". And I have been startled on a couple of occasions to here people singing songs all night as part of the funeral ritual.

While the funeral is out in the open and the respect for the person is cherished. The cause of death is usual not talked about. "They were sick" is a common answer or "They just died" is given exhaustively. The mindset that perhaps some deaths can be delayed is not well ingrained.

I felt compelled to learn more about why this learner had died. It is ridiculous to think I was teaching her what the pieces of the chess board were like just a few days prior. Luckily her principal was less reserved than most others when I asked her about the details of the learner's death. She had TB. When probed further about illnesses in general she mentioned that few parents know of their children's ailments (or even their own) and furthermore would not divulge it if they did know. Apparently the people here attribute these ailments to witchcraft thus do not wish to discuss it lest they be accused of witchcraft themselves or to be further cursed. This is only from one source but I know there is an underlying belief in witchcraft among many people. Whether most extend it to TB and AIDS I do not know.

This recent turn of events motivated me to visit the local clinic. I was suppose to do this anyway but it had a much more urgent feel to it now. I asked about the common things people come in for which unsurprisingly were colds and minor aches and pains related to getting older. When asked about the rates of TB and AIDS in the community I was stunned. The clinic manager was unsure but put his best guess at 5O% and 5-10% respectively. It completely changes my view of this community. Half the people here have TB! My self-preservation instinct kicked in and caused me to become a temporary hypochondriac. "My lymph nodes do feel a little tender". Then this revelation put everyone's actions into a new light. "Of course they don't want to balance this reaction they are probably tired since they most likely have TB".

This reality has reminded me that I am a small force in this world. I think it is despicable that people are making irrational choices that have killed. Moreover they are making them for their children who have no choice in the matter. But what can be done to change a cultural belief formed against reason? They clearly are missing the signs that whatever anti witchcraft they are practicing is not working against TB. I will say what I need to say and teach where I need to but this will only be changed by generational conquest. Hopefully they won't be to tired to listen when I talk.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Funk of 40,000 Years

Welcome Itumeleng and Lorato!

Two weekends ago now, Lorato(South African name of the next closest volunteer) and I had a little surprise party. First of all it was not exactly a surprise but it's the thought that counts right. I was somewhat tipped off by one of my principles and then it was confirmed later that day when I was asked to go to Tlakgameng at 11:30 on Saturday. "Why", I asked "Just because" was the reply. If I didn't have a notion they were planning something I would have emphatically refused. It is a serious effort to get to the next town, a wait for the taxi and then there is the taxi ride itself, which is a topic for another post. Although short it is always another occasion. Not to mention the cost to travel. It is enough to say it is an effort and any decision to travel is not taken lightly.

In any case I got ready and headed to the town at 11:30. I planned very poorly for this particular event though because I was without phone* and I had no idea where I was supposed to meet. So I sat down in the shade and read (always bring a book). Eventually I was recognized, which is one of the benefits of being maybe one of the few white people in the entire area, then told I was supposed to be elsewhere. I was then carted off to Lorato's house to wait for further instructions. Lorato and I discussed the trials and tribulations of being PCVs and generally enjoyed speaking effortless English. And we waited and waited and waited some more. It was not until about 2:30 that we were then picked to "go to one of the supervisor's uncle's house". This delay of 3 hours would normally be considered inconsiderate and possible rude, but not so, here is South Africa. We are on "African Time", where the goal is to finish the project not to finish it at some particular time. There is always tomorrow or you know, whenever.

When we pulled up to the community hall our guesses were confirmed. Upon entering there were a a smattering our teachers and principals and a big wall with the message "Welcome to K/Tlakgameng Itumeleng/Lorato", then under our names was "Philladelphia" and "Virginia". Certainly an "A" for effort. I was grateful but somewhat confused about what was going on because we then sat around for another 30 minutes or so, no real explanation. It was just assumed we would now sit around and chat. A few more people came in and then our celebration officially began.

There was an M.C. who went through the proceedings according to a schedule. This is exactly the sort of thing that I just get a kick out of in South Africa. There will be utter disorganization and lack or planning and timing for the organization and then the will still have a formal structure to how the celebration will be undertaken.

There were songs and dances and speeches. Each event was prefaced by a song that required standing and clapping at the very least. If I knew the words I would sing but I don't yet, but I plan on learning them. They seem to be fairly common. There was a section were we all introduced ourselves and then describe ourselves through our initials. I hate this game, luckily I was in the middle so I had time to think. It was difficult however because the people leading up to me were not hesitant to take the floor and talk about themselves. "My name is Joseph, I am the father of God", somewhat outside the rules and scope of the exercise but I think I got an idea of his character nonetheless. When it came my turn I said "My name is Itumeleng which means 'Be Happy' (which it does) and my real name is Noah Prescott. N.P. stands for New Person because I am new to the community". It was cheesy but I was pleased with my answer.

The songs were nice the dancing was nice. We also were given the opportunity to speak. That is how they phrase it usually, "you can respond now, if you want". Well of course you can't turn that down, you have to say something, it is never forewarned either but at this point I should assume I will have to speak at some point. So the improvised speech here and there is required. One of the skills I will have gained from this 2 years. They also wanted to know a traditional American dance which I was at a loss to do. Lorato and I disagreed on this topic but I don't think there are any traditional "American" dances there are just dances that the various cultures of America know. In actuality the dances we were being shown weren't traditional "South African" dances either. They are traditional Setswana dances which make up a fraction of the people of South Africa. An interesting topic I think but I digress. We were fumbling thinking of things to show the crows that had now grown to about 80 or so (if there is anything going on, people will just show up). We decided on the electric slide. Again I say we but it was really Lorato and I sort of clumsily followed her. They humored us and then proceeded to put us to shame by showing us one of their dances.

We were then treated to a nice little meal which I happily devoured and a beer. Alcohol is yet another interesting topic to be covered but for now I will say drinking is a bit of an issue here. So I was happy to accept a beer, which they referred to as "Item 17" to conceal from children. All-in-all it was worth the trip and my time. I guess that is how "African Time" when the event finally does happen it is usually good enough to make you forget that you waited forever for it to happen.


A few volunteers and myself met up for a little Halloween celebration over the past weekend. Apparently we were stretching the limits of our lockdown but I think we didn't do any damage to out integration. Anyway, we all met at a convenient central city and generally enjoyed each others' company.

I arrived a little later than everyone else because of taxi difficulties but arrived safely. There was a flat tire which I was surprised to see handled quite expertly (they even tightened the bolts in the correct star pattern to ensure a even fastening). Well I got there and was happy to see everyone as it had been a couple months since I had last seen them.

It was enough to see everyone but the highlight of the trip was our braai (barbecue) with the hotel owner. One of the volunteers was charming enough to get us all invited. We decided to dress in our Halloween costumes because it would make us feel better and maybe they would get a kick out of it too. We are used to being stared at at this point anyhow. I decided to go as an Afrikaner, which is a very simple costume. Add one bushwhacking type hat, khaki shirt and short shorts and you got yourself the Afrikaner stereotype. I am working on the accent but I felt I shouldn't try tonight as I felt I didn't want to seem like I was mocking anybody. So there went a cluster of happy Americans all dressed up through the heart of Vryburg.

We got to out destination but were not exactly greeted with an obvious party. We tried the intercom several times, then we asked the neighbors who pointed us to the hotel behind us. We then went venturing to the adjacent hotel where no party was taking place either. Somewhat defeated we started to head home when one volunteer decided to try the house one more time. Success.

Being a hotel owner anywhere has got to make you a wealthy person but I just get the feeling this man was extra wealthy. His home reminded me of the Roman style courtyard mansions. We were led into the rec room of sorts which also doubled as a bar and tripled as the man's display of animal heads he had collected over the years. This animal-head room put all other animal-head rooms I have seen to shame. He had all manner of antelope, a stuffed lion and the centerpiece was an adult giraffe head w/neck. Unbelievable, to see that actually mounted. He also had the giraffes shinbone made into a towel rack and its hooves fashioned into bookends. Now that I think about it, I wonder if he ate the meat.

We had a great time, at least I had a great time. The man had the biggest pool table I have ever seen. It must be a snooker table although I don't know what that is. I felt like I was 8 years old playing on that table. He also had a fully stocked bar and a couple of TV's to watch the rugby match. There was was discussion and there was interest in our projects. The other volunteers had much more in-depth conversations about the state of things of South Africa, I was just happy to get away from these things for the moment and soak up some amenities. The best part I do believe was the actual braai wherein he grilled several racks of lamb ribs, chicken, and voorst (sausage). I am basically a vegetarian out in the village so this display of mouth watering meat was too much for me to behave with dignity. I ate voraciously and polished off at least half a lamb and a whole chicken myself. I felt very mighty. It was a fantastic time.

The whole experience was very memorable and although there was very little Halloween about it I would not have asked for anything else.


The Peace Corps project, which I represent is the Schools and Community Resource Project (SCRP) is a bit of a catch-all project. Most of the training and focus is on improving the schools in whatever capacity would best suit any particular volunteer. Yet if a volunteer feels they would rather work on some other project, this is still possible because that bit on the end about the community. So any help whatsoever for anybody is OK with the SCRP project, is the feeling I get.

So I try to be clear when I meet people to mention that I work mainly in the schools, but I will also be helping with community's projects/problems. The more the better I figure it will keep me busy. There is little, from what I have observed so far, in the way of community projects. There is a community garden which is less of the entire community and more of about 7 people. Other than that nothing.

At Kudunkgwane last week there was a parents meeting which I was pleasantly surprised to see. And was yet again called to make an appearance and make a short introduction. After the meeting I was approached by two separate parties for help. I felt as though I was finally recognized as an ally. Score one for the Peace Corps.

This bubble was quickly burst when I heard what they actually wanted help with. The general theme is to get more money. In one circumstance a local man wanted sponsorship/funding for his dance troupe. Funding for what, I was not sure. He mentioned making a c.d. which makes it sound like a professional venture meaning he doesn't need me, he needs a manager or record producer. I said I would think of ideas and come to his event he organized over the weekend (mentioned later). The best I could do without flat out telling him I couldn't help him.

The next group wanted me to help them get money to put a roof on their church. Now you might think that they were saving money and they only needed a little bit more and then they could build the whole church. No, in actuality, they had built most of the church but were short and now there is no roof. Again, churches are not really my forte nor are they something I feel particularly inclined to help out, nevertheless I feel I should make an effort if someone wants my help. I said I would again think things over but they insisted I come and look at their church first. So I went and it definitely did not have a roof or a floor for that matter. This sort of thing is another common problem. There is little budgeting or foresight. The church raised some money, it seemed like it was enough to build a church. They started building and they ran out. Now what. I would like to help but I am not sure they will get anything out of me finding someone to pay for their roof.

I've gone from having no one asking for help to people asking me to help me where I am not sure I can even help them. Oh boy.

More and More

Taught another primary science class. I taught a technology class. I've been teaching chemistry at the middle school. Getting to be quite regular now. I wouldn't say I am comfortable but I feel like I know what I am doing at least. This also means they are getting comfortable with me which means they are starting to not pay attention and the like. I do not feel uncomfortable managing the class though, I run a tight ship. You don't want to disrespect my science.

I have not decided if I want to teach my own class for next term. I think it would be a great experience for me and would probably get some good science into the school. I feel like it would be too easy for me to focus on my class and forget about the whole school though. And that would go for both schools too. Something to think about.

I held the first "Boardgames Club" meeting last week. It was kind of a mess. There were some that were clearly interested in learning the game and many who had nothing else to do so they showed up. I am having a tug-of-war in my head whether I should kick people out who are distracting others generally just there to be there. Should I make it better for a few or mediocre for all? I don't want it to be a waste of time for me or them. In any case next time I am not handing out the boards before I say what I need to say. I am also going to start with checkers, I realized chess has a lot of rules to remember.

Working at the middle school when I can will be beneficial for me. See if I can't recruit some of the students there to tutor some of the primary kids. Also I think I may have found someone to help me with Setswana. He seems like he has an excellent grasp of the link between English and Setswana.

*Things Break a Little

My cheap phone broke somehow (my traveling phone), then again I do call it my "cheap" phone for a reason. I have had enough time to get down just where it malfunctions. If I press buttons 1 or 2 more than twice it shuts off and the left select arrow or call button immediately shuts it off. This isn't really helpful to anybody since they would just replace the phone but was really interesting to me. Why would it do that? Weird!

All that really doesn't matter because I don't even have the receipt. Apparently I still have not learned my lesson in this area. I may or may not have gone through my compost pile trying to find the pieces of receipt that I had ripped up weeks prior. It may or may not have been my finest moment either. I didn't find the receipt.

The upside now is that I have a dummy phone to give potential robbers so they will not take my real phone. Oh man, they are going to be so mad when they find out they stole a broken phone, suckers.

During my first weeks here I put up some shelves to store my pots and pans and food. One of the most satisfying handyman projects of my life. I was especially proud of them, very level and even. I really only had to reinstall the shelves. But it still took some work. I had to measure and cut wood! In any case, I used wood glue to give extra security to the concrete screw anchors because the holes had gotten top large when they took the shelves out for my arrival (my room used to be a tuck shop which is like a little convenience store). I thought things were secure until during the week the top shelf came crashing down. Nothing like seeing all your food for a month scatter across the floor. Hard to describe my reaction. Defeat played a large part, a lot of anger, a little sadness, then I started questioning why I put so much up there when I knew only wood glue was holding the thing together. Still have not repaired it. Is there such thing as concrete glue? I put in some sticky tack put that didn't work. I want my shelf back.


As I mentioned I went to a dance performance/show(?) this weekend. It was nice to see some event other than church or a funeral being organized for entertainment. It was also nice not to be the center of attention. When I was invited I was told 11:00-6:00. Since this is far too long for a dance show (in my opinion) I assumed it would be more of a festival type feel and I could show up later, see some dancing and head home.

When I arrived at 1:00 I saw that they still had not started because of electricity problems but where almost ready to start. For one, the music was far far far too loud. I like my music pretty loud, I can even tolerate concert music on occasion. This was way over the top, my head actually hurt. I though my ears would start to bleed at any time. There is no need for music that loud. I couldn't believe it, it was clear everyone else found it uncomfortable at first too because they were sitting in the back until the show started. I think at that point they were numbed enough to tolerate being any closer. The dancing was fantastic though.

The troupe consisted of 6 boys ranging from primary school to high school and two girls. Their leader was the man who asked me about sponsorship and was the father of two of the boys. They were dressed in tradition outfits which seemed to be made of some animal hide and sandals. I think I will try to get myself a pair of those sandals at some point. The dancing was very unique and was a pleasure to watch. They clearly practice very hard and enjoy what they do.

Highlights were one particular traditional dance were each male went through a tunnel doing a unique sort of dance. Everyone got to show off and it was pretty hilarious. It seems to be a lot about swagger and posturing, machismo if you will. That's right dancing can actually display masculinity. Another highlight was a sort of stomp dancing. Three guys wore rubber boots and hit the boots and stomped in patterns. I am not sure I am describing it very well but it was very hypnotizing and impressive. Finally there was a section were all the members just dance to a bunch of modern songs and one of the older gents did the dance to Beyonce Knowles "Put a Ring On It", I was dieing, too funny.

If they want my advice I would tell them next time to make things a little tighter. That is, don't have a dance show that lasts 5 hours. I know because I was there for most of it waiting to talk to the leader about my ideas for his sponsorship. Finally before my head was about explode from the music and I saw another dance for the 4th hour I got up and talked to him and told him I would see him on Tuesday. I can only handle so much dancing.

Pick Up Soccer

Definitely some of the most fun I have had at site so far. Played with two of my host brothers and like 8 neighbors. It was great. I was made to look like a slow old man but I still had a great time. I hope to play as much as possible, makes me feel like I am a little kid again. I actually saw a kid rub dirt into a cut he got while playing. I thought it was just a saying I had never actually seen anybody take it literally. I was too dumb-founded to stop him. Next time I will explain to him the benefits of soap and water.

In any case my soccer skills have to improve over the next two years. I think I will try out for D.C. United when I get home.