Socks and Underwear

Socks and Underwear: November 2010

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Lost Blog Posts Volume III: Namibia Part 2 - Episode 1 Sossusvlei Dunes

Here's a treat since you all have been so good. The first video of the blog! I spent a huge chunk of the day trying to figure out the best way to do this and have found a pretty nice solution. Perhaps more videos will appear in the future as well.

I am not going to write much about it today. Descriptions and pictures will be posted in Episode 2. This was from the vacation to Namibia I went on quite a while ago. All you really need to know is that the best way to get down the huge dunes in the Namib desert is to run down them. Look out for celebrity guest appearances from other famous Peace Corps South Africa Bloggers. Warning: Very shaky at times and I apologize for my cackling and heavy panting but what do you expect, I was running down an enormous sand dune!

You'll notice I came really close to face-planting a few times. Holding the camera did not help out at all.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Snake in the Dirt

The households in my village keep their property free of any grass. I consider it a negative lawn. Although you may think that this option would be carefree, it actually takes quite a bit of work. Cutting the grass and watering is replaced with plant removal and grading, especially after the rain makes mini ruts and gullies. Unexpectedly, raking is even a daily routine with the dirt lawn. It turns out that this landscaping choice has a practical aspect in addition to any aesthetic value that has been attached to it. The function is to remove any hiding spots for snakes or any other unwanted critters or at least make it easy to spot them.

Up until now, I was not too convinced this technique was actually needed any more since I had not seen any snakes or anything remotely threatening (ants excluded). Then again maybe the lawn was doing it's duty extra well. The latter idea was given more credence the other day when I spotted my first snake. It was just a juvenile and there was something clearly wrong with it because it wandered into the yard amidst all the bustle of the morning chores and animals and it was moving slow enough to be covered with ants. The host family seemed extra frightened of it but this is understandable because there are some notoriously venomous snakes in this country. And although I would love to say it was a black mamba to give me some herpetologist street-cred, I am fairly certain it was a non-venomous snake.

Anyone good at identifying snakes? It is hard to tell but it has a round head and had orange coloring on the side of its head. So far I have narrowed it down to not python and not black mamba

Surprisingly, the snake was not killed but was shuffled into a nearby cow pasture and soon forgotten. Later that day, as I was dumping water into the very same pasture, I noticed the snake was still there albeit much more desiccated. My immediate reaction was to go poke it. Upon investigation, I found it to be extremely dead and was pleased with my find. I now have it is a souvenir in my room despite the possibility that something toxic caused this snake an early termination. It has already proven itself to be full of entertainment because I scared the bejesus out of my host sister the very same day it was discovered. You know the set-up. You pretend like you found something interesting but you keep it concealed until your victim gets close. Then you scream and pretend like the snake is lunging at the person's jugular to inject lethal poison. Classic!

The sun really did a number on this snake. It was probably 8 feet long before it dried out. I am lying.

The price of this ruse is that I have firmly pushed myself even more into the utterly bizarre with my host family. Moreover, when they asked why I was keeping the snake, I felt they didn't quite accept my answer of “I think it is interesting”. I hope they don't think I am trying to undercut the family sangoma that has put up a her shingle next door with my own form of medicine. I'm confident they'll see I have no interest in this but I have to make sure I don't flaunt my Namibian baboon skull for a couple of days.

The best and only paperweight I own. So if you were planning on buying me one...don't.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


We burn our trash out here. There is very little positive about this situation. Maybe a large scale incinerating operation with air scrubbers and metal removal capabilities could provide a somewhat reasonable garbage solution but that is not an option yet out here. Garbage is taken care of on a household basis. It is chucked into a decently large hole somewhere on the property and after enough has accumulated, a fire is lit. This is in an effort to make the hole last longer by reducing the size of the garbage and to help along any reincorporation into the soil. For the most part, the outcome is a low-temperature, plastic-fueled bonfire. Who knows what sort of sinister and noxious things are forged in those bonfires but there is little doubt they are mostly unhealthy for the surrounding population and even the global environment.

My garbage burning addiction will catch up to me eventually. Most likely in the form of multiple cancers and heavy metal poisoning

The personal upside to this waste solution is that fire is amazing. This is one of those cases where one man's trash is another man's treasure. This is because sometimes I get to turn the trash into a glorious inferno. Simultaneously, my environmentally-conscience side sees a rubbish pit as half empty and my pyromaniac side sees it as half full. Wait, strike that and reverse it. Actually, I suppose it would all depend on if I was being pessimistic or optimistic. As you can see, it is a very conflicted state of being! My love of fire is one of my most atavistic features. I enjoy making fires, tending fires, watching fires, cooking over fires, crouching and grunting beside fires. I find them to be calming and stabilizing. In fact, I bet I could start a successful New Age therapy where every so often, one would build a small camp-fire and stare at it for an hour and let the healing begin. It is still in the developmental phase but I can tell that this is a billion dollar idea.

Garbage fires don't rank very highly on my favorite activities, it is more of a silver lining issue. Still, how bad should I feel about this and more importantly, are garbage fires a huge problem for my village? Without any solid evidence to guide me, I think not. The people here have very little waste and I would bet the carbon footprint of the entire village is significantly smaller than the same population selected from the U.S. At my host families house, these garbage fires happen once, maybe twice a month. I can't see it happening more frequently at other homes. One, people here are relatively poor so they don't buy many things or they usually buy in bulk with less packaging and two, the village is remote enough that all the things that tend to be garbage pit bound are hard to come by (soda cans, wrappers, all manner of plastic packaging etc.).

The garbage fires might actually be a good thing when thought about in a different way. It is at least taking some sort of action with regards to the waste. Again for the reasons mentioned above, there is little waste in my village but that does not mean that people do not litter. If someone has any bit of trash and isn't within maybe 10 meters of a garbage pit they'll just toss it anywhere. A terrible thing indeed but it doesn't lead to an eyesore in the village, not yet at least. In a larger setting though, even in the next village over, the litter is considerable worse. There are ever growing piles of garbage everywhere. Invariably, the worst offenders are taxis ranks where the ground is actually made of crushed soda cans and ice-juice wrappers.

The first step to correcting and preventing this would be getting people to throw things in a bin. This is hard enough in itself because you first have to convince people that littering is not a good thing because it is apparent that the sights and smells from it are not dissuading anyone. Although, and this may be why no one bothers, the next step is altogether missing. No one is going to come around to collect the bins nor would anyone take it upon themselves to make a landfill or village sized garbage fire. Large scale waste management in a rural context is a difficult thing and unfortunately, I don't really see anybody stepping up to that problem in the near future.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Group Photos

My host mother has 5 grown children. Of those grown children (3 daughters, 2 sons), the daughters all have children that stay with their grandmother, my host mother. The sangoma celebration was the first time since I have been at site that all of my host mother's children and grandchildren were all together. My self-appointed duty was to get all of the grown children together for a picture. This turned out to be a difficult task. In my experience, there is no middle ground for photos among the Tswana people. Either someone loves getting their picture taken and will go out of his or her way to get their picture or someone hates getting their picture taken and he or she will make sure you know it when you take the picture, if you manage to that is. I think it is fair to say it is largely age related. Although, I might be misunderstanding a different philosophy on how pictures are to be taken but more on that later. Regarding the family picture, I failed because I waited until the next morning and one of the daughters left under the cover of darkness. This is a fine example of how far someone will go not to have there picture taken. I did manage to get the other four children and my host mother in one shot.

Smiling faces and the evil eye from the older woman sitting down

Now that is a nice picture I think. It took a long time to wrestle up all the children and along the way some other people joined in because they thought I wanted to get their picture too and I didn't have the heart to tell them to scram. As you can see, most everyone is smiling and/or mid laugh. There are a few exceptions and this is the point I mentioned earlier, some people just don't smile. There are two women in the picture who are giving the same look and did so in every other picture too. It looks more like the pose they would give if they were having someone draw their portrait. Smiling is just not their style. Likewise, the man in the middle is not looking at the camera. I took several pictures of him and he purposefully never looks at the camera. I think his goal is a sort of faux candidness. Again that is just how he takes pictures. This is similar to how some people cannot take a picture without giving the sideways peace sign/thumbs up, acting the fool, pouting his/her lips etc. It's not something that deserves any guff because that is how that person wants to be remembered-- so be it I say! Well I want you to see the next picture as a foil to this first one.

That's right little one, learn the ways of the smile. It is strong in you.

As you can see, a major difference is that I am in this one. Do you notice anything else? I am sure you have noticed that there are a lot of hard looks and not many smiling faces. This picture is saying 1000 words but those words probably distill down to “I do not want to take a picture with this goober”. Ok, I don't think they all hate me. I am leaving out some important context. The cause for the big difference between the pictures is that in the first one I said an absolutely hilarious joke and it killed. The joke was me saying “smile” in Setswana. This was in contrast to when the other man took the second picture. His button pressing was haphazard and he did not make it clear that everyone should be ready. Moreover, there was concern that he didn't know what he was doing. Nevertheless, the picture was taken and I wouldn't want it any other way, it's much better this way.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Sangoma Celebration: Aftermath

As described in earlier installments, the sangoma celebration was a long event. My host family had their share of fun I'm sure but they could never have too much fun because they were the hosts. This also meant having to take care of the after party clean-up. I helped here and there but every time I asked my host mother how I could help, she would just get mad and tell me, “it's all womens' work”. In most circumstances in Tswana culture, all manner of cleaning is considered “womens' work” but there were plenty of men cleaning since almost every detail after the party was a cleaning detail. I think she just didn't want me pestering her because she was dog-tired and figured it would go faster without having to explain things in English. I should mention that the cleaning started just as soon as the last drunken soul left. So that would mean that the family had been up for roughly 34 hrs and now they were doing heavy duty clean-up. Under my super-vision, the first priority would have been an extra-strength power nap and then maybe...maybe cleaning would be discussed. This might be why nobody calls me to plan sangoma celebrations.

Imagine washing that many gigantic pots! This is another reason why I would not be asked to organize a sangoma celebration. Only one gigantic pot would be allowed.

Near sunset, most everything had been taken care of. You wouldn't have been able to tell that a little over a hundred people were revelling in the same spot just a few hours prior. Impressively, most of the family was still awake at this point. They must have hit their second wind because they were now sitting around telling stories and reverting to old childhood roles. The sangoma celebration was assuredly a special event and a smashing success in itself but it was also something special for this family. It was a great excuse to come home and be with each other.

Friday, November 19, 2010

1000% Extra Post

Today is a rare double post so don't get used to it. I have been on a hot streak lately and I didn't want to kill it but the power was out yesterday and it didn't come back until a few hours ago. So this is an added bonus.

Yesterday was important because the final exam for the Natural Science class was given. Unfortunately, it was a miserable day to give the exam because it was raining all day. I would have loved to just stay inside and read all day but alas duty called. I trudged back and forth from both schools which totaled quite a bit of inclement weather hiking. It did make getting home all the sweater but then the power was out so that meant a little morvite by candle light and reading.

On the bright side, from what I have graded, things look really good. This pleases me. Hurray for being mostly done with teaching and leaving it on a good note!

The culmination of a year of awkward science teaching (interrupted by months of strikes) is contained in that pile of exams

Sangoma Celebration: A Time to Drink Beer

When the dancing had gone on long enough or because the sun had risen, the alcohol was unleashed upon the people and the people rejoiced. I did not get a good picture of all that was purchased for the event but I would feel comfortable saying that you could have killed 3 woolly mammoths with the amount of alcohol present. Ok that might be a little hard to grasp, how about there was enough alcohol to fill 100 Spanish conquistador helmets. If your still not getting it, there was enough alcohol to get about 50 people noticeable tipsy and another 50 people over the moon and through the woods drunk.

Not only were there copious amounts of purchased alcohol, there was also quite a bit of home made alcohol too. This traditional brew is called Umqombothi. Don't feel bad because you might not know how to say that word because I still have trouble with it. In my area it is only made for special occasions but it still seems to be quite popular. The few times I have seen it now, it has been made very quickly (3-4 days) and relies heavily on corn meal and sorghum. Interestingly, it has been around South Africa before the European settlers arrived which really warms the cockles of my heart. It seems most all humanity has been able to make and enjoy beer for a very long time.

This is probably a health code violation for a microbrewery operation

When the drinking started, my host mother came around and asked me if I wanted anything. Since I didn't really want to drink at 6 o'clock in the morning, I asked her if she could save me some of the traditional beer so I could sample it. She brought back a 2 liter bottle. It was safe to say my cup runneth over with Umqombothi. From what I have seen, most people choose not to drink the traditional beer out of a cup but rather opt for a bowl. When I felt enough time had passed in the day (7 o'clock) I choose to be a dirty westerner and drink it out of a cup (sometimes I eat Chinese food with a fork too). Initial reactions: very thick, yeasty, somewhat sour. It did not seem overly alcoholic yet an incredible volume can be made incredibly fast so it still has dangerous potential. I think it would take someone who is used to the European style beer a while to adjust. Ultimately, I would say it is quite palatable but I still prefer lagers and ales without so much corn.

Not rotten Fanta.

This is the part where I facilely present a large and complicated societal issue. I alluded to it earlier and I bring up the dangerous potential of beer now because many South Africans have a completely unhealthy relationship with alcohol. The vast majority seems to be men but a few women are also included. Reckless abandon would be a good way to describe how drunk some people get. I have seen people staggering around mumbling to themselves drunk at 9 AM on a Tuesday. There is no concept of moderation; if they are drinking, they are drinking so that they can get blind drunk. I do not think I am being overly judgmental here either. I have had way too much alcohol before. I've had it to the point of embarrassing myself. This however, is a very rare occurrence and one that I try to avoid most of the time. Perhaps people would say that a college campus is just as troubling or worse. I admit that drinking is not a problem unique to South Africa but the difference to me is that I see the same people getting consistently getting wasted in close proximity to those trying to get by in an already difficult existence. Even worse is most peoples' reaction to seeing this, which is to do nothing at all. It is evident that they are unhappy with it but they act as they there is nothing that can be done. It is just another thing to add to the list of things to take in stride because that's the way things are.

There are some people that have no self-control or don't know any other way to drink but to go beyond any reasonable amount. Then there are some people who are alcoholics who are addicted and do not experience alcohol the same way most other people do. At the same time, without any recognition of this fact or dealing with the problem in any logical way, drinking is ruined for all the responsible adults who know when to stop. In fact drinking is taken so seriously that during Peace Corps training, the alcohol lectures were over-the-top severe and given in absolutes. The recommended course of action was not to drink at all but if we did we should do it secretly and hide all the evidence. I understand why they would recommend this because many people here equate any form of drinking with a total lack of responsibility. The idea was not received well at the time by me and my fellow trainees because it seemed utterly ludicrous to hide something we can legally and responsibly do as adults. While I still feel this is the way it should be, I basically follow the guidelines now. It is really one of those situations where you must pick your battles. Sure I could help to change the attitudes on drinking in my area but that is not something I want to devote my time defending.

This guy was just fine, in fact he was cleaning up. Just wanted to show all those empties.

Back to the party. In the afternoon, things started to fade and close down. This meant there was an exodus of intoxicated people somewhat successfully heading home. There was one boy, among many other drunken people, who may have just reached the drinking age that clearly went beyond his limit. He was absolutely covered in dirt and sand, beer and vomit and he could barely stand up. There were also about 15 kids around watching all these adults acting like complete fools. I don't know if that is the sort of thing that makes a kid never want to drink or the sort of thing that makes them want to drink immediately but it didn't seem right. To me, the celebration ended with a whimper rather than a bang,

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Sangoma Celebration: A Celebration for Sangomas

This was the party tent. Tents are big business in rural South Africa.

As I've mentioned in previous posts, the affair did not start until pretty late. The sangomas and such did not arrive until midnight. I've mentioned the fanfare and ritual which lasted about an hour and a half. Then there was quite a bit of eating and then the singing and dancing started and it didn't stop for about twelve hours. I am not exaggerating in the slightest. I watched a little bit of the dancing but only stayed for short periods of time. First, I am not a huge fan of dancing. During some occasions sure but I was just too tired for it especially since the dancing they were doing seemed extra exhausting. The idea was to move around the center pole of the tent in a circle while rotating at the same time. If that seems too easy, you also had to move rhythmically to the beat and clap. It seemed tremendously disorientating. Back to my original point though, the other reason I didn't stay for very long at any one time is because I think most people are ok with my presence but it seems I still make some people uncomfortable, especially older people and I didn't want to make their celebration unpleasant.

There were people who stayed in the circle until they achieved a trance-like state.

I have been part of and witnessed a few marathon parties. This one definitely ranks pretty highly on that list. I am not sure I could of kept up if I had tried. I woke up every two hours or so and would make the rounds to see what was going on. I could of course hear that it was still going on and upon inspection it was confirmed to be as strong as when it started. Additionally, everyone went until sunrise without alcohol which was surprising to me because there was quite a bit of it stockpiled for the celebration. I am not sure if that makes the feat more or less impressive but most parties I know of don't start with twelve hours of dancing before anyone has anything to drink. In the end, the alcohol was taken care of but that is a post for tomorrow.

These drums got to rest by the fire while others were used. I guess there needs to be a hot drum ready at all times.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Sangoma Celebration: Who is a Sangoma?

This was a sneak attack picture. She looks exhausted.

This lady is a sangoma. I know I said I would get to the bottom of what this whole celebration was about but I could not get much more than that. I'm sorry, I am not a very effective journalist. My host mother's daughter has been a sangoma for two years now and from what I could tell this celebration was to commemorate that fact. “Sangoma” is a South African term for a traditional healer. There are different kinds of sangoma that have different sorts of specialities; some dabble in divination, some in herbs and some in both. I was under the impression that sangomas were more a part of other South African tribes such as the Zulu and Xhosa but apparently the Tswana use the term as well. I couldn't get any better name for the event other than sangoma celebration. Either everyone was too busy setting up or partying to have a long conversation about it.

The guest of honor arrived around midnight and the ritual of her arrival was the only one I was able to see. She was accompanied by several other older sangomas, one of which trained her, and several assistants who took part in the rituals. I could hear the drums but couldn't see what was happening. I went closer to the crowd that had gathered to watch. The arriving party was next to the gate saying some sort of prayer or incantation and then all of the sudden one of the male assistants launched a chicken in the direction of the crowd, killing the chicken in the process. It was startling, just when I noticed that the man was holding a chicken he chucked it into the air. A few minutes later the same exact thing happened again . A prayer was said and a chicken was swung like a golf club only it was intentionally released sending it about 20 feet. The chickens were collected by another assistant and brought to the kitchen. Meanwhile, drumming began and the rest of the assistants started unrolling mats from the bus. From there the sangomas, fulling shrouded with patterned cloth, started inching forward on hands and knees on the mats towards the room next to mine. This journey from gate to room lasted about 15 minutes and it was powerful. The combination of darkness, the bizarre movements of the sangomas, the loud drums and the great number of credulous people around me contributed to the potency of the moment. In no way did anything supernatural or unexplainable happen but I can see how witnessing something like that ritual would help someone to be convinced by a person claiming to talk to spirits and cure through dreams.

In South African style, there were seemingly incompatible elements working side by side. These are the sorts of things that still baffle me. For example, modern clothing and cell phones coupled with ancestral spirit worship and herbal remedies or Christian hymns right after an animal sacrifice. Things just combine in a unique way here and I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised to see even something like a sangoma celebration interwoven with foreign elements.

The best picture of the ritual I could get, I didn't feel comfortable taking several pictures with a flash. You can barely make out the sangomas going into the door on the left.

Beyond the arrival, I and many others were shut out from what went on with the sangomas. I am not too sure much else happened becuase the rest of the night was devoted to having a huge party which I will discuss in a subsequent post. I won't go too much into how I feel about the practice of sangomas but I will say they still have enormous influence over many communities and have great potential to have an impact on the well being of South Africa including dealing with HIV/AIDS by working with medical science. Leaving that discussion aside, I was happy enough to just be a witness to something not many people in the world have seen and something I will probably never see again.

The assortment of herbal remedies that are at the disposal of the household sangoma.
I am sure an ethnopharmacologist would love to get his or her hands on this stuff.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Sangoma Celebration: Cow Slaughtering

The next couple of posts will be about the celebration that took place over the weekend. Although I left out some of the more intense photos this post is still graphic. You've been warned.

First off, on Saturday morning, a cow was slaughtered. This would be the first cow slaughtering I have seen. Not my first slaughtering, I have witnessed a few goats and many chickens killed for dinner. I don't know what it says about me, but I was a lot less affected by the process than I thought I would be. It was gruesome and nasty and unpleasant but not inhumane. I am not sure if "inhumane" is the right word but I didn't feel like a great wrong was being committed. Normally, there is not an enormous amount of respect for animals but in this instance although it was violent, nothing was cruel.

The killing itself went by fairly quickly. As you might imagine, there was a great volume of blood and some amount of struggle but the wound was severe and large enough that I don't believe the cow suffered for long, if at all. After enough blood had drained and the cow had gone, everything and everyone repositioned for the remainder of the work. There were about 5 or 6 men and a smattering of boys from around the area in charge of the affair. It was apparent to me that the passing down of knowledge was taking place. The roles were well defined that the oldest man ran the show, directing what to do and how to do it. The men did all the unpleasant business of cutting and sawing and the boys mostly held things in place and ran small errands.

It was a laborious undertaking. It may be the case that the whole process took more time and effort because the tools were simply not up to the task. I have seen this in other arenas too. Sometimes the better resources or options are not available but often I see an unwillingness to try another way or use another method for no other reason than a reluctance to change. For example, the flaying was done with 3 knives only one of which was actually a hunting knife that seemed appropriate. The other two knives were a pocket knife and a cheap kitchen knife. All the knives, however, were incredibly dull. This was remedied by inefficiently scraping the knife against the concrete porch. During the sectioning of the cow, a very dull hacksaw was used to cut through bone. The blade had been worn down so that the teeth were almost non-existent. Why not buy a couple of proper hunting knives and a replacement blade or at least keep better care of the knives so they stay sharp or invest in a whetstone? I don't know and I didn't ask. To be fair, this sort of thing is not exactly common so maybe proper cow slaughtering equipment isn't really needed. Everything was completed and there is never a rush on any task and this one wasn't any different so perhaps I'm the only one with objections.

Despite the tools, everything looked like it was done quite well. There were a few set-backs mostly after the skinning. The saw got stuck for a period when the kerf collapsed on the blade because one of the boys was falling down on his job to hold the leg. The intestine was pierced at one moment which made things considerably more messy. In fact, this was an interesting moment. As I said before, the eldest male present was pointing and directing throughout much of the slaughtering. During the part where the hind legs were to be split, the man who was sawing at the hip was being careful no to pierce the intestine which had not been removed yet. For whatever reason, the eldest man was not happy with what he was seeing and yelled and pointed while this other man was busy being careful. Eventually, the eldest man took control of the saw to do what he thought needed to be done and ended up piercing the intestine almost immediately. Instead of a told you so moment or any sort of dirty looks, everyone just worked right around what the eldest man had done and continued to defer to him for the rest of the ordeal. I thought it was a fine example of how far respect for elders really goes. I am sure the older man really did know what he was doing as I am sure he has been been involved with many a slaughtering but his impatience or carelessness made everyone's job much worse. He happened to make a mistake but that did not affect his status whatsoever.

In summary, the major tasks involved were: skinning, evisceration, quartering and sectioning of the ribs and spine. The major sounds were: gurgling, slicing and tearing of flesh as well as cracking and grinding of bone. The major smells were all malodorous. It was was an all out assault on the senses. The price that needs to be paid for meat is not cheap. The only things I know that were tossed were the gall bladder and the contents of the stomach and intestines. Everything else was eaten including the head and remaining organs which I respect for efficiency sake.

I know what was used and what wasn't because shortly after the slaughtering and butchering, the organs were already being cooked. First, the liver was eaten by all who were involved which included me. It was cut up and cooked within an hour of being taken out of the cow. It was not that bad, in fact it was quite good. I don't think I would go out of my way to have it again but it was flavorful. As for the rest of the organs, I was not that thrilled about them. There's more bad news. I cannot say whether I am more courageous than before I had eaten cow's feet. Furthermore, even if I were more courageous than before, I wouldn't be able to tell you if it was the cow's feet that did it since I had just about everything. I ate a hodgepodge of lungs, stomach, intestine, heart, feet, and head. At least these were the parts that I could pick out. After cooking, it all sort of looked the same. Not sure if it was the items themselves or just the manner of cooking but I found the dish to be far from delicious. I had a notion beforehand but I couldn't be sure until I tried. Nevertheless, it was definitely a worthwhile event and the meat was more appreciated after seeing what sort of work went into getting it.

Friday, November 12, 2010


The final examinations began today which marks the beginning of the end for the school year. The pressure to do actual work drastically diminishes after the last exam for both the learners and educators. So things are soon to wind down for the summer.

I mentioned the exams for another reason though. Before their first exam this morning, the learners at one of my school went through a briefing with all the educators including the principal. Many of the major points and tips about test taking were covered. Unfortunately, this is the most preparation most of the learners get on how to take tests. Most assessments are not in class exams with formats similar to the mid and final year examinations (Multiple Choice, Fill-in-the-Blank, True or False etc.). For example, the first few times I gave multiple choice questions, several learners would select 2 or more of the choices or some would just leave it blank not knowing what to do. Still, this little reminder about what things to do and not do before the test will give the learners a leg up.

Lastly, I just want to say a few words about the principal at this same school. He might be one of the most hyper-active people I have ever met. He has some real positive attributes that I think make him a great principal. He is intelligent and charismatic and is always pushing his school and students to improve. On the other hand, I think he tries to do to much at one time and things get forgotten or neglected; he can be a little scatter-brained. With all the things he tries to do, a lot gets ignored but some great things get done to. He is in top form around the learners and it was a pleasure to see it this morning. Like I said before he is very energetic, always moving fast and changing the timbre and volume of his speech and he's always making jokes. Quite a contrast to how most of the other educators go about teaching. It is hard not to pay attention when he is in front of the class. At the end of the speech he started singing an improv devotional, “We thank you exam!” in Setswana, and even all the learners were looking around at each other with a look that said “Is this guy serious?”. Eventually everyone joined him in the song and afterwards it was all smiles walking into the exam room.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Get Ready

There has been a lot of activity around the house this past week. There is going to be a celebration for one of the family this weekend. Embarrassingly, I do not know what exactly for, however, no one has been exactly clear or forthcoming with the information. It has something to do with this particular family member's status in the traditional culture. I even want to say she is a traditional healer but that might be wrong. I am on the task as of Friday afternoon so you'll know more when I do.

The preparations have been starting early in the morning and have been lasting all day. It has mostly been cleaning the house and yard and getting ready for the guests. There has also been some minor construction setting up an outdoor kitchen which I am sure will play a big role in the festivities. I have been told that there will be quite a lot of food too. On Saturday a cow will be slaughtered along with a goat and some chickens. I was told today in earnest that I should eat the cow's feet so I could be “as brave as a cow”. Don't know how I feel about that, it doesn't seem quite right. Setting aside the whole issue of how unappetizing cow's feet might seem, cows are not the animals that spring to mind when I think of bravery. I haven't thought about it much but maybe those little fish that swim under the shark (remora) or those birds that hop in and out of the crocodile's mouth (plover), those might be better courage filled treats. Sure these are both examples of symbiotic relationships but I bet a few of them bite the dust every now and then from being so close to deadly carnivores. Then again cows are living in a sort of symbiotic relationship with a notorious predator too. What's more, most humans fully intend to eat the cows they keep at some point, the remora and plover aren't the prey of their symbiotic counterpart. Now I don't know what to believe anymore. This question is going to require much more meditation and reflection. I believe this weekend will prove to be an enlightening experience.

This hut was made a while back and will be an important part of the celebration

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


Turns out my memory is short. I should have been more thankful that the rain had been so long a-coming, it was the only thing keeping the ants away. Perhaps it is just a little post hoc ergo proctor hoc (after this, therefore because of this) but I am willing to bet it was the rain that initiated the emergence of the brood. It seems like every patch of land was claimed by a nest. The ground was alive with hell spawn and relief was nowhere in sight.

What's worse, my feet have grown soft since this time last year. My flesh has become tender and yielding. I couldn't stay in the same spot for more than a few seconds before the swarm became overwhelming. I wasn't alone however, everyone had a bit more urgency to their gait. And the tell tale “ant stomp” is back again. This is the practice of slamming your foot down hard enough to hopefully dislodge any ants crawling over your foot and leg. I am convinced that the traditional Tswana dance, which has very similar stomps, has origins in this very same maneuver.

I think the ants wanted to set the tone for this season by being extra aggressive and biting extra hard. Once one of them locked its pincers, it was in it until one of us died. My feeling is they don't have to be such relentless jerks. Once I am sufficiently far away from the nest, come on, just let it go. For example, this morning I thought I had brushed off all the soldiers I had picked up on my walk but I discovered on a subsequent pass that there was one still hanging on in between my toes. This little guy had been biting me for like 4 hours straight. It should have given up and gone home a long time ago. Still, what a tremendous warrior spirit! I certainly respect that kind of moxie but not enough to spare its existence so I promptly crushed it. Respect for your enemies is important, can't underestimate these buggers for a second.

Walking barefoot to fetch water is simple no longer an option.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Computer Compute!

There was a computer class today. There haven't been any computer classes for the learners in some time, not since the beginning of the strikes anyway but that is a different story. It was a really basic re-introduction, really only as much to get to the math game which took up the majority of the time. Man, those kids were excited though. They did addition, subtraction, multiplication and division for two hours after school. Although, It was disguised as a game and had lasers so I'm sure it didn't seem like work or learning. It was intense, I am pretty sure their basic arithmetic is going to skyrocket with more of this sort of thing.

Aside from physically wrecking the place, there is very little the learners can do to permanently disable the system. Even with no experience and a teacher who speaks strange English, why not just let the learners have at it? This is the one good thing about the way the system is setup, as long as no one touches the server everything should be stable. Unfortunately, this is exactly how most of the computer labs get wrecked. Memory sticks that are absolutely jam packed with viruses get put into the server which is either totally unequipped with an anti-virus or is outdated and cannot handle new viruses because no one has the internet capabilities to regularly download the (relatively) huge package definitions. On top of this, the volunteer who had previously gone to several sites to re-install or set-up the computer lab's was sent home. Hopefully things won't get to that point at my site but a lot happens when I am not around so I can't be sure.

The only major problem with the lab is the speed of the system. With every client running, things get sluggish. This causes some serious gridlock. The learners click on something and it doesn't respond immediately so they click on it again and again and again. Until there are about 10 of the same program grabbing for memory. This is normal though, and I remember doing this myself when I was first getting acquainted with computers. In fact, I am glad they are learning the basics on these seemingly older models. It is the proper way to learn computers. It will teach patience and although, as I said earlier, nothing really bad can happen easily irreversibly, slightly irritating things can happen which will encourage problem solving (should I say trouble-shooting). You can certainly pick up a lot by trial and error and just by being curious. As long as I'm am on the subject, this generation should watch Episodes IV-VI first and then Episodes I-III afterwards if they wish. SPOILER: If you know that Vader is Luke and Leia's father, then the power of Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi is significantly reduced. Who's with me on this one? I am not sure how this applies to the conversation, I just felt it was necessary to reference Star Wars while I was talking about computers.

Monday, November 8, 2010


It is about to rain and it looks like it is gonna be a doozy. It rained somewhat, more of a shower really, two weekends ago which I will admit was nice but it wasn't the knock-down, drag-out rainstorm my heart was after. This is a special moment since it hasn't rained like this in some time. It feels like 6 or 7 months. So, I have been outside taking pictures because the sky is absolutely gorgeous. The mixture of the sunset and oncoming thunderheads is doing wonderfully eerie things.

After a few pictures I'd noticed the kids had stopped playing their last soccer game of the evening and were inching closer and closer to where I was. They were also in a tight mass about the width of a picture shot. I can sense when people are mugging for the camera. Ahh, how things have changed. The little one in front ran away crying the first time I took her picture. I suppose cameras do look a little intimidating if you haven't seen one before. Especially if the first time you are seeing a camera is the first time you are seeing a large bearded white man too.

The lightening and thunder started a short while after the kids were satisfied with having their pictures taken. I decided I had to get a picture of the lightening. This turns out to be extremely difficult. Do you have any idea how fast lightening is? Lightening-fast is the answer to that question. After taking about 100 of the same picture, I figured I'd better stop taunting Thor to have another shot at killing me. My solution was to take a movie and then take a snapshot of the frame with the best bolt. It turned out to be a bit blurry but you can definitely tell what part of the picture is the lightening.

I am now going to turn off the electricity, safely store all valuables away from outlets and double wrap them in plastics bags, then I am going to read a book.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence

Dagnabbit, I missed Carl Sagan Day yesterday. A scientist and writer, he filled the much needed role of science popularizer and did it engagingly without compromising what science has been telling us and can tell us. There's a big Carl Sagan shaped hole in the world today, at least in America. This is from "The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark" , an apropos quote I thought:

But there's another reason: science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an America in my children's or grandchildren's time - when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what's true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness. The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30-second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.

The plaque designed by Carl Sagan sent on Pioneer 10

and 11 just in case it ran into little green men.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way Back from the Water Pump

My little host brothers and sisters are unflappable! They are unable to be flapped! I just walked by with buckets of water filled to the brim in each hand. I'm talking heavy buckets too. And the ball they were playing soccer with fell on the other side of the fence, the side of the fence where I was walking. I could of gone one of two ways: 1) Put the buckets down, bend over, pick the ball up and throw it back 2) Kick the ball with or without putting the buckets down. I guess I could of just ignored the ball and kept walking too but that would just make me a jerk.

Let me just say that I did not let fear or weary arms stop me from greatness. Which option do you think the greats in history would have chosen? Do you think Neil Armstrong would have stopped and put the buckets down? What about Sally Ride or Yuri Gagarin? Do you think any astronaut would have bent over to pick the ball up? I don't think so, he or she would have done what they needed to do for glory. So I stopped and concentrated for a fraction of a second. I had to account for the ball's dynamics which mind you is no normal ball. It is hand crafted out of plastic bags, in this instance primarily Shoprite bags which tend to be springier than say Pick n Pay or Spar bags. There was a ferocious wind but I was not alarmed, instead a sort of calm washed over me. I executed, threading the ball through a gap in the fence while simultaneously holding both buckets without spilling a drop. Not a drop I tell you! I would have raised my hands in the air as a show of victory but I figured it is better to play it down as if I could pull it off each time. Also I was carrying those buckets. It was one of those moments in life where you wish someone were there to see it and acknowledge how incredible it was. Only there were like 6 people there and they didn't even care! You guys care right? It happened. Anybody...

This was taken a long time ago but I think it shows the general reaction to the

above mentioned event pretty well. It also shows the general reaction to most things I do.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Potent Quotables

I have been working on a creative outlet once again. In the past, having very little artistic ability usually gets in my way and this frustrates me so I quit. Now is the beginning of the cycle again so I am giving another go to calligraphy since you don't need that much skill to at least make the letters look decent. I am not belittling calligraphy, surely mastery takes as much hard work as anything else. There are a couple of things I learned the hard way today. Having been raised with either ball point or roller ball pens, I have little experience with nib pens. The things get a little fussy if they go unused for a while and it is hard to get the ink to come out. Some helpful tips:
  1. Do not lick the nib. You will get a mouthful of ink and your tongue will get stained. If you insist on licking the pen, then I recommend investing in the children's calligraphy pen set that is non-toxic and safe. If that exists.

  2. Do not flick the pen down in the hope that the force will bring the ink to the tip. Because it will bring it to the tip and then past the tip and then all over everything in your room.

  3. If you prefer to ignore 1 and 2 prepare to have ink all over you and to be kind of woozy with ink poisoning.

For practice I have been writing quotes that I enjoy and then post them around my room. Lately I have been putting up a lot of quotes telling me not to waste so much time and that I should spend more time on self improvement after all “We say we waste time, but that is impossible. We waste ourselves.” - Alice Bloch.

I know some of you might be saying,

“Here's a quote for your stupid wall, 'Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted' - Marthe Troly-Curtin”.

And to that I say,

"Take it easy let's not get nasty. I guess you are right, I should say, 'Time wastes our bodies and our wits, but we waste time, so we are quits.' - Some Person”.

And then you say,

“Smart guy huh? Well, 'You must have been warned against letting the golden hours slip by; but some of them are golden only because we let them slip by.' - James M. Barrie”.

And then Henry David Thoreau comes out of nowhere and says,

“hey guys, 'Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in' - Henry David Thoreau”

Somehow this ends the whole argument. While we ponder what Thoreau is on about, Voltaire slips by and casually reminds us all that “a witty saying proves nothing”.

I think that ink I swallowed has crossed the blood brain barrier.

Not a particularly inspiring quote. I just thought it was funny.

I guess it is good advice though.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Farewell for Grade 6

Today was unexpectedly excellent. I was informed on Tuesday that today there would be a celebration party for the Grade 6 learners. At the time, I thought that this was a really inappropriate time to stop classes for a day. There are only a few more weeks left until the final national test and this time should be devoted to learning. After the test there will be plenty of time especially since things kind of peter out teaching-wise. Also why not have something like an end of the year party at the actual end of the year. Anyhow, it really wasn't worth arguing about it at that point and went with the flow.

A lot of work went into this farewell party and I was quite impressed with how quickly it came together. There was a tent set up in the courtyard of the school, the learners all put on nice clothes and brought their parents. My official duty was “certificate creator” which I was reluctant to do when I first got to site but at this point I have acquiesced. My thoughts were that it would be much better to teach somehow how to make it but I realize now that that sort of thing is way down the line of computer education. I should just make the certificates which really doesn't take me too long and help make the event that much better. Certificates go a long way here so I am happy for my contribution even though a real graphic designer would probably be embarrassed by what I made.

The festivities didn't begin until noon so I had some time on my hands. I spent a good chunk of that time grading papers which was not particularly bad in this instance because many of the learners absolutely crushed it. It was soothing to put stickers on so many papers. With the rest of the time, I had one of the best conversations about teaching and functioning as an outsider here with one of the teachers I had previously worked with at the middle school. We will call him Mr. T because his last name starts with a “T”. Coincidentally, he also happens to be as cool as the character from the A-team but only in terms of education. He is not from this village but has been working here for 3 years and it was really amazing how similar our experiences were even though my level of foreigner-ness is a bit more than his. It was invigorating to talk with him and hear his optimism so I look forward to working more with him next year when I focus more on the middle school.

Eventually, things got underway and just like similar events in the past, it was an exercise in controlled chaos. The learners came out dancing dressed to the nines and dancing in pairs. It was a spectacular the entrance. A rough sequence of what followed next would be: songs, prayers, speakers, more songs, dancing, more speakers, more songs and dancing, certificates, and then another prayer for good measure. I'll drill down a little more now and give my top moments from the celebration.

Looking Sharp


There were a couple of songs by the learners which were great. Immediately following one of the songs, the man in charge of the local clinic was introduced to say a few words. He is a pretty big figure in the community and is invited to every single school function. The speech he gave today seemed longer than normal. I could understand a few words here and there but could not really grasp the larger idea. During the speech, the learners were all still standing where they were performing which was out in the sun. Suddenly, there was a bit of a commotion. It turns out one of the learners fainted. She was taken inside and given water and soon enough she was fine. Two things, I have never seen someone faint before so that was a life experience and I thought it was funny that the man responsible for preventing something like heat stroke leading to a learner fainting from heat stroke. He can't really be blamed though, there must have been other factors to her passing out, those kids are out in the sun all day. Maybe she was just too excited.

Mr. T's Speech

He gave my favorite speech of the ceremony. Because of our conversation beforehand, he spliced in an English word every now and then which really helped me understand what he was saying. I'm glad he did too because it was all solid gold. The major points were: know your rights and exercise them, have a dream, have a role model, work hard to get what you want. I am really distilling it down here so just trust me that he was much more eloquent. And maybe that sort of thing sounds cheesy to you but these kids don't really here that sort of thing a lot, at least not when I'm around and not from what I can understand, so I am glad somebody said it.

The refreshments on the plates was a mixture of candy, gum,

chips, cheese puffs, cookies, peanuts and raisins.

Traditional Dance

There was some traditional dancing from the younger learners at the school. I hadn't seen the traditional dancing in a while. It is the biggest display of uniquely Tswana culture that I see in the village. And it is full of culture, I am talking chock-a-block with culture. I wish I could upload a video of some of the dances. There was the cutest little girl trying her hand at some of the dances. Just adorable.

Emotions Run High

There were some seriously emotional times where even I got a little chocked up. At one point, one of the educators gave a speech. Well, she really is THE educator at this school. Although I don't think her methods are particularly effective she makes up for it by working an unbelievable amount. When I first came to the school the time table was outrageous. She was scheduled to teach all but three periods during the entire week. She was teaching 5 or 6 more classes than the next busiest educator. It has since been adjusted but she has still taken on classes from the other teachers. In her speech, she was speaking deep Setswana and speaking it far too fast for me to get anything out of it. But I could see that she was starting to cry and just about everyone gave her their full attention which doesn't happen with every speaker. I can only imagine how proud she must be to see students move on after teaching them for 3 years. I mean I was proud and I only taught them one class for one year.

Afterwards, the awards were handed out and the learners who received awards tried their best not to show how excited they were but it came through anyway. It is nice to see great work rewarded and to see the learners happy about it is even better.

Finally, there was general merriment and a fantastic meal which I devoured. Like I said, it was an excellent day.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Porch Sitting

Today I spent a about half an hour on my stoop watching the new born cows chase each other. First of all sitting on my porch is one of my favorite hobbies, especially since it is too hot in my kiln of a room. Second, new born cows are surprisingly playful and entertaining. For some reason I thought they would be more like the adult cows that only move for shade, food or water and occasionally to avoid people. No, these calves have been tearing around the yard at a pretty good clip just because they can I suppose. Definitely foreign enough to me seeing playful cows to justify an extended viewing. Unfortunately for me, these cows will get tired of running and figure out the good life is chewing some cud next to a tree. Hopefully not for a while though.

As I was watching these young cows, I was reminded of an audiobook I just recently finished called “All Creatures Great and Small” which frequently talked about birthing cows more than I thought I would ever hear about. By the end I was convinced that unless some human was guiding the process, cows just couldn't give birth anymore without the mother dying or something else awful happening. Of course this is not the case, just a little bias with the selection of stories. A completely uneventful, unaided calving wouldn't make the cut as an interesting veterinary tale. I would think at least, this is all coming from my complete lack of any farm or veterinary knowledge whatsoever.

I have often thought that most of the animals around here get by pretty well without much human intervention. On the other hand I am sure there are plenty of problems I don't know about, all sorts of lost livestock which means lost money which could have been prevented. I am sure that a rural vet would have his or her fill of business out here if the people ever decided to take their collection of cows, goats, chickens, sheep, donkeys, and horses to the next level. These are the sort of thoughts I have when porch sitting. How many times have I talked about cows on this blog?

Holy cow! The one on the right is licking inside its nostril!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Casual Friday

I never thought I would enjoy such a concept as Casual Friday but I have really learned to appreciate it these days. Well I suppose it is only really somewhat like Casual Friday, in an even bigger way it is an unofficial South African Pride day and in another way Bafana Bafana support day. Before World Cup, a consensus was made that on Fridays people were to wear something to support the South African soccer team (Bafana Bafana) whether it be a jersey or t-shirt or just green and yellow. This was mostly followed by the educators at my site but when I happened to be in town on a Friday I would see plenty of people showing support and it always made me happy.

Now World Cup has come and gone but people are still going strong with the jerseys and colors on Fridays. I recall seeing an advertisement giving momentum to the idea that even though the World Cup is over, the citizens should still feel proud and make efforts to show unity. There's a long list of things that separates people here and even a small token like this helps I think.

Well I managed to snag myself one of these jerseys and have since taken it upon myself to wear it on Fridays. Of course, I am not South African but I am still proud to support it. I don't see why anyone would give me any grief anyway. In fact the first time I wore it to class, the learners actually applauded me. It was strange but I'll take the show of appreciation and choose to believe they were really applauding my hard work and excellent classes. Maybe it was a very clever ploy to delay the test I was giving them that day. In any case, flattery will get you everywhere.

Fortunately, there is an added bonus to the jersey which I just realized this past Friday. Normally I wear a button up shirt and pants Monday through Thursday. I don't really mind this in itself and understand how far looking the part of “teacher” goes but it is getting too damn hot for pants and a long sleeve shirt. I am sweating now just thinking about having to wear it again tomorrow. This is were the jersey comes in. The thing is made using state-of-the-art fabric technology. It is designed so that top athletes stay comfortable and cool when performing at the higher echelons of sport. In many ways teachers are just like world class soccer players. Not in what they do or how much they get paid or how much respect they get but in that they like to stay cool and comfortable. So I guess most people have something in common with world class soccer players. The point I'm trying to make is that I love wearing this jersey to school because it is awfully hot and I get sweaty. Fridays now hold the sweet promise of moisture-wicking action which surely makes my teaching statistics skyrocket (not backed by any research).