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Posts from the ‘Ubuntu’ Category

Everyone can learn a lot from my sister

When I first arrived at my host family’s house way back in September 2012, I had been told I had a sister the same age as me. She was nowhere to be found.  It wasn’t too soon until I found out that she had been admitted to the hospital due to a miscarriage at seven months because of high blood pressure. When she returned home, I remember meeting her for the first time. It was somber moment,  as we quietly sat next to the wood stove to warm up. I knew she was happy to meet me, but it just wasn’t the right time.

As months went on, obviously my relationship with her grew. She told me how much she wanted a baby, and how last time it just had been the wrong time. I reassured her everything happens for a reason.

Late March, I got a knock on my hut door. It was her beaming with joy, delivering the news that she was pregnant again. Her and her boyfriend were delighted. Since then, she has taken every precaution possible and been to and forth from the doctor’s. She was determined to make it right this time with anything she had control over.

A few weeks ago, she had her second miscarriage at seven months in. The doctors cannot give her a reason why.

I sat on writing about what’s been going on with my family for quite some time. Mostly because it’s personal and everyone deserves a certain right to privacy during challenging times.  But as the weeks have gone on, I’ve realised more and more that I should write about this – and in fact, celebrate my sister.

I know an American reading this may say 24 is far too early to want a kid so badly/have one. I completely agree in our culture. But in her culture, it’s pretty incredible she has waited this long. All of her friends have at least two children. Not to mention, her boyfriend has planned for it and saved money. This is something that is rare, as usually babies just come along as something that “just happens”.

My sister would make an incredible mother; my mom would be the fun-loving gogo. My sister’s boyfriend and his family would be very involved.

She knows that. We all know that. Then we look around our community and see so many young teen mothers, kids who were unexpected and being raised by gogo at home with young mothers living elsewhere or too busy, absent fathers, and come back to our perfect set up. My sister and the two families involved deserve a little one. So why can’t it happen?

They say God only knows; I say everything happens for a reason and sometimes it takes a while to see what that reason is, good or bad.

Life. That’s just life, right?

Well, that’s my sister’s attitude even after going through this twice. She has said to me: “There is nothing I can do about it now. I must move on. That’s life.”

She carried the baby after the miscarriage for three weeks and gave birth to a stillborn. I never heard her complain once about being in pain. And when doctors were telling her conflicting information, she sat there calm and collected. Of course she cried, and seeing her at the funeral was heartbreaking. However, she has gone on with normal life as is, and as if nothing had happened.

It’s not that she doesn’t care that it happened. It’s her reaction to the situation within her cultural norms – Zulu women are brave, extremely strong and have a high threshold for pain and suffering. My sister falls directly into this description, and may be just one of the strongest people I’ve met.

My sister is one example of a woman in my community enduring such strife with a smile on her face. I can only imagine what other women take and handle.

Everyone can learn a lot from my sister. Life happens and sometimes it doesn’t turn out the way you planned, but you may have no control over it. You’ve got to pick the pieces up and keep on going, just like many Zulu women do.

Amandla / strength

Ngiyazama: the most overused Zulu phrase in my vocabulary

My Zulu ability is pretty rudimentary because I speak English Monday-Friday to the kids at school. I say the same things over and over again. Here are a few phrase that I’m likely to say at least once a day:

1. Ahhhhh, ngikhatele (I am tired)
2. Sawubona! (Hey!) Unjani? (How are you?) Ahhh, siyaphila (we are alive, referring to my family)
3. Ngilambile (I am hungry)
4. Ngisuthi (I am full)
5. Uyaphi? (Where are you going?)
6. Ngifundisa isingisi eMasotsheni Primary School (I teach English at Masotsheni Primary School)
7. Ohhhhhh, ngikhuluma isiZulu ncane (I speak a little bit of Zulu)
8. Hai bo! (Stop it)
9. Uphekaini? (What are you cooking?)
10. Udingaini? (What do you need?)

But, my favourite of all time – and most overused Zulu phrase – goes to…

11. NGIYAZAMA! (I am trying) or SIYAZAMA! (We are trying)

Everything and everything I do in this culture, ngiyazama. I am trying new things and making an effort, but usually don’t do them well. But effort is what counts, right?!

Siyazama - really hard. Look at that focus

Siyazama – really hard. Look at that focus

Last week at my mom’s wedding, my host sister gave the Americans the easiest possible job ever: blowing up balloons (when in doubt, give the American the easy job). My friend Michael and I epically failed at it. Balloons were popping all over the place, none of them were the same size and we couldn’t tie them. Of course we were sitting there laughing just saying, “Siyazama!” while my host sister laughed.

The gogos that were also helping decorate the tent were shaking their heads. We could hear them in Zulu saying, “Ah, they are playing!” But really – we weren’t! Siyazamile!

A few days later at school, my counterpart Miss Molefe called me into the kitchen to help cook for a school governing board meeting. ALL South Africans who know me well know I cannot cook – or even chop vegetables for that matter. They’re determined to whip me into shape.

I’ll always offer extra hands when needed, but I’m not sure if it ever makes much of a difference. I chopped up and skinned butternut one-by-one for the meeting. My counterpart schooled me and did it all with her hands and not on a chopping board. She tried to teach me how to skin the butternut with my hands and a knife, but I’m too clumsy. I swear, if something happens to me here it’ll be because I chopped vegetables wrong and stabbed myself.

So, once again, Miss Molefe gave me – the helpless American — the easiest job: stirring pap. To cook pap, a maize meal dish, you add maize meal to boiling water, let it sit, add more, then stir occasionally. Miss Molefe added all the measurements and told me what to do. All I did was stir, stir and stir.

Once the pap was finished, Miss Molefe said, “Ah, Lizzz! It’s your pap! You made pap!” I laughed and responded with the most overused Zulu phrase in my vocabulary, again: “Ngizamile!”

Then we served the food to everyone at the meeting. All the teachers who were in the meeting after came up to me and said, “Lizzie! Your pap was delicious! Ah, Lizzie! You can make pap!” Same response, while referencing that Miss Molefe did all the work: Ngizamile. They always try to make me feel better about about how pathetically I play the “woman” role.

A woman struggling with the simplest things like chopping an onion or blowing up a balloon is not something that is seen in this culture. I know watching me cook or try to do anything domestic is a serious comic relief to my family and colleagues; I laugh at myself as well. They claim I’ll be able to cook and clean after these two years. I’m really doubtful of that because egg shells somehow still always make it into my breakfast – but ngizozama! (I will try.)

For those of you that know me in person, I know you can picture all of this playing out.

From now until the end of service, I will continue to try. That’s all I can do. Try.

Small heartYours in service,

A month in photos: September 2013

  • My mama’s traditional Sesotho/Swati wedding on our property! Long story short – my mama’s husband (Victor Mathebula) passed away around two years ago. They had their “white” wedding in 1993. (South Africans call a modern wedding – white dress, tux, church – wedding a “white” wedding.) They planned to do the traditional wedding later during their marriage to honor the ancestors and keep with tradition. Unfortunately, Baba Mathebula passed away before this could happen. However, the two families – Mathebula (Swati) and Skhosana (Sesotho) celebrated together. Victor Mathebula’s brother stood in for him as the groom. My mama first wore traditional Sesotho attire to represent her heritage then switched over to Swati, as she was accepted into the Mathebula clan. South Africa is known as the “rainbow nation” because of the diversity of languages and cultures. This wedding was in a Zulu/Sesotho village and brought Zulu, Sesotho and Swati culture and languages together. How neat, right?! This wedding happened right on our lawn and will be one of those days of my service I’ll never forget. My friends Michael and Shawn attended as well; Michael bonded with my host brother Nduduzo last time he visited with Katrina, so he came back to visit all of us and brought Shawn along.
  • Mid-service training at the Peace Corps office in Pretoria and Khayalethu backpackers; first time I’ve seen my cohort in six months. Nice to see everyone. The 26 26s!
  • Visiting Siyabonga (Will) in Rorke’s Drift and adventuring around

Happy Baba’s Day 2013

My first time in th snow. I'm pretty sure I coerced my father into building a snowman for me...

My first time in the snow. I’m pretty sure I coerced my father into building a snowman for me…

I serve because I am holding fast to my dreams and want to teach others to be able to. I serve because my dad supported all of my outlandish dreams in my life, one of which brought me all the way across the world to South Africa.

When I was in the fourth grade (or so I think), I got this idea that I wanted to be a broadcast journalist. I would take my dad’s Sony camera and practice newscasts, film TV shows and infomericals with my friends in my spare time throughout middle school.

Some Christmases ago, my dad gave me a book called, “Breaking into Television”. It was some adult ‘all about’ the broadcast journalism industry and far beyond my reading capacity, but I kept that book.

As young as I was, my dad was already actively telling me to follow my dreams, which I followed to college as a journo major. Years later, staying true to a similar theme, “Walter Cronkite” would give me Christmas presents – like a snazzy voice recorder.

The Peace Corps has been a dream of mine for a good while. I always knew I was going to do it, regardless of what people would say. And yes, my mother told me otherwise. Anytime it was brought up, she told I’d get raped.

My dad just basically said, “Ok, cool. Go for it.”

So what’s this long anecdote have to do with Father’s Day? Well, I want to celebrate my father, who has never once told me I couldn’t do something and supported every big dream I’ve had. Maybe he’s learned after 24 years of dealing with me that I’m a stubborn piece of work and won’t take no for an answer, but at least he trusts that I am making the right decisions and everything will always work out.

Earlier this year he told me, as our favorite musician Bruce Springsteen said, “Liz, keep working on your dream.”

I wish all the kids I’ve come into contact with during my service years had someone in their life consistently like my dad. I try my best to be that person.

I’ll keep working on my dream. Thanks for always supporting it, Tom Warden!

Ubuntu: indlamu

Watch my little Zulu warriors kick some butt in a district-wide cultural competition! This is a traditional Zulu dance called Indlamu. My learners won 1st place for Indlamu and 2nd place for another traditional danced called Amahubo.

Ubuntu: a bittersweet bathroom

South Africa is a diverse country – there are multiple languages spoken and cultures that reside here, but also contrasting ways people live. I live in a rural village of South Africa with electricity, but no running water.

Just about 50 km away you can find a town where practically everyone has such amenities. Or, I can go to another PCVs village about a 15 minute drive down the road to a village with no electricity. Mind boggling.

Rural villages are becoming more “advanced” as time goes on – some villages in my area have sanitary pit latrines provided by the government (mine has yet to receive this delicacy), most have electricity, most have water taps also provided by the government, and few families have running water.

My village got electricity in 2005. Everyone in the village has access to electricity if they can pay for it. People have to recharge a card with electricity to have it turned on in their houses. Then when the card runs out of money, their electricity goes out until they recharge it.

It seems as though the progression of development in the village goes like this: electricity –> pit latrine –> running water.

As of today, my homestead – the Mathebula house – has running water in the bathroom! My host brother, his father and uncle have been working on installing water pipes for two days. They somehow connected the water pipes to the tap pipe so the water can flow to the bathroom. I tried to have my host brother explain it, but was lost in translation. I got a little too excited about it because it was so neat to watch them do all that work that we would just call someone to do for us in America. Every handy-man, fix-it, type of construction projects are done solely by those in the village or family members, no matter how daunting the task may be.

The pipes connecting to the bathroom

The pipes connecting to the bathroom

The front yard all dug up to somehow build new pipes and attach them to old ones

The front yard all dug up to somehow build new pipes and attach them to old ones

My mom bought a bathtub, sink and toilet two or so years ago. I remember one of the first days at my family’s house she gave me a tour of the house; I saw a bunch of bathroom supplies just sitting there ready for installation.

I later found out how the story goes: her husband died almost two years ago from a sudden heart attack. Before he died, they bought a bunch of stuff to re-do their house that he was going to construct or install. Then when he passed away, everything just sat there. Since I’ve been here, my mom has been filling up her house the way her and her husband wanted it. Now my mom is finally getting the house her and her husband dreamed of, even if he’s not here.

Anyways, it’s 2013 and my family just now has access to a bathroom and is one of the few in the village that do. And when my 23-year-old host sister was 15, they got electricity. The little things we take for granted in America and don’t even think twice about are such a milestone for people in my village.

Will I get to use the bathtub? Nah, I don’t live in my host family’s house; I just live on the compound in a hut. I’ll still be splashing around in a bucket. Two years of crouching over a bucket isn’t bad, but my mama’s done it her whole life. Time for a bubble bath! You go mama!

Small heartLiz

Ubuntu: African Time

In America, we run on the notion that 15 minutes before something is scheduled is on time, arriving exactly at the scheduled time is late and arriving late is unacceptable.

In Africa, it’s literally the opposite. Fifteen minutes after something is supposed to start is early, 30 minutes is on time, and so on.

My first experience with African Time was during PST when my host sister and I went to her cousin’s beauty pageant. We traveled there by public taxi, which meant we had to leave the pageant by at least 4:30 p.m. to catch a ride back home. The beauty pageant was supposed to start at 11:00 a.m. and we were an hour late. Not that it even mattered we were late, because the pageant didn’t actually start until 3:30 p.m. and lasted until 6:30 p.m. My host sister struggled to find us a ride home, and thankfully, she did at the last minute. Mind you, this was the night before my swearing-in ceremony. Her mama instincts stepped in, but gogo wasn’t too happy. From then on, I knew there was no turning back: My time-oriented life from the previous year – where I had to be at work exactly at 7:00 a.m. or face discipline – was long gone.

I didn’t wear a watch in America, but my watch means the world to me here. I don’t know how I’d survive without it because we don’t have clocks in our classrooms at school. Nope, not because we don’t have the money. It’s just simply because time management doesn’t mean much to South Africans.

My handy dandy watch

Everything. Always. Starts. Late. The most comical thing about African Time is that South Africans openly acknowledge it and it’s always fun to take a wild guess about how late something is going to start:

“So, when’s the event start?” I asked my counterpart Miss Molefe.
“It’s supposed to start now now, but you know African Time [laughing],” Miss Molefe said. “[laughing].”
“Oh, so that means it’ll start in 30 minutes?”
“Maybe 40.”
“It’s such a different culture here! Back home we always have to be on time for something, or even early. Here it is always, always late.”
“Ah, but Lizzie, that’s a bad thing [laughing]”
“No, I wouldn’t say that. It’s just a different culture. You guys are so laid back and easy going; it’s a way of life. You don’t worry so much about the future; you just live in the moment. I think that’s pretty cool.”

Now, I don’t think African Time is “pretty cool” when it interferes with the way our school runs, but the only thing I can do about it is make sure I’m in my class on time. Although, my Monday and Tuesday 8 a.m. English class usually starts at 8:15 a.m. due to various circumstances at morning assembly or in the staff room. That’s a battle I decided not to pick – even if I herded my learners to class on time they would still be fidgety and too much to handle without downing my daily two cups of coffee. No thanks.

Look at me here – I’ve got 18 months left in my service, and I’ve already researched my graduate school possibilities. I’ve started to make a plan for when I return to the States in more than a year and already know where I might move to. As an American, I must always have the future in mind.

Currently, term one is coming to a close and teachers (including myself) are cramming to throw in end-of-the-term assignments for our learner’s final grades. I’m sinking with the other teachers trying to get everything done, so what happened to that American girl that likes to plan ahead?

Oh yeah, I’ve been working with South Africans for eight months and African Time has sucked me into its warp at school. Everything I multi-task has become a blur and gets done when I finally get to it. I can be very-American-like when it comes to planning things about America like graduate school, but when it comes to anything that has to do with South Africans I tend to put it off. Does this mean I’m integrating?! Maybe. Or maybe I’m just becoming Last Minute Lizzie – a persona I played very well in college.

I know well enough that no planned activity will start on time according to schedule. But for some reason, I still pick my American mind and get ready on time or arrive on time. I’m secretly hoping that this time, maybe this one time, something will start on time.

A few more fun examples:

African time outside of school:

“I’ll come get you at 8:00 a.m.” – my principal to me [South African translation: I’ll come around 9 a.m.]

“Hi, Ma’am, I have my door open at Mathebula so I can see you when you drive by. Honk when you are outside,” –text message to my principal sent at 9 a.m. [American translation: Where the hell are you? Are you even coming?]

9:20 a.m. – picked up [South African translation: we won’t be late; American translation: oh, my…]

African time at school:

“Start doing your work now.” [American translation: DO YOUR WORK NOW; South African translation: okay, maybe I’ll start in 10-15 minutes]

“Start doing your work now now.” [American translation: okay, I’m annoyed; South African translation: alright, I’ll start in five minutes]

“DO YOUR WORK NOW NOW NOW.” [American translation: how long does it take?! South African translation: okay, I guess I have to start]

“Teachers there will be a meeting at 1:30 p.m.” – my principal
1:30 p.m., no teachers have arrived.
1:40 p.m., teachers start to arrive.
2:00 p.m., all the teachers finally arrive.

“Why are you late? I need you to tell me why you are late. Is there a reason?” – my principal, trying to fight African Time. “Siyaxolisa (we are sorry)” – the teachers, with no excuse.

Yup. This Is Africa (TIA).

Yours in service,
Small heartLiz

The real meaning of Ubuntu

Hit it on the spot — this exactly what the Zulu proverb Ubuntu means to me here in South Africa and back in the States.


Umuntu Ngumuntu Ngamantu. I am a person through other people. My humanity is tied to yours. – Zulu Proverb

The spritual foundation of South African society, Ubuntu involves a belief in a universal bond of sharing and respect that connects all of humanity. Ubuntu is a concept formally recognised by the 1996 South African Governmental White Paper on Welfare as, “The principal of caring for each other’s well-being…and a spirit of mutual support…Each individual’s humanity is ideally expressed through his or her relationship with others and theirs in turn through recognition of the individuals humanity. Ubuntu means that people are people through other people. It also acknowledges both the rights and responsibilities of every citizen in promoting individual and societal well-being.

Ubuntu also conveys the idea the a person cannot be complete if others do not enjoy full humanity. The spirit of Ubuntu resonates so strongly that if one group…

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Ubuntu: Zulu weddings and lobola

Whenever a guy proposes to me here I respond with, “30 cows”. Then they laugh and tell me that’s far too much, because the average price for a bride here is 12 cows. (How many cows do you think you’re worth?)

Traditionally in South Africa, after a man proposes to a woman, he must negotiate “lobola” with the bride’s family. Lobola is a practice where the bride and groom’s fathers, or other men in their families, meet to discuss how much the man will have to pay to marry the woman.

The average arranged payment is 12 cows and each cow costs around 1,500R (~$200USD). The price is lowered by one cow per each child the bride has given birth to before marriage. Nowadays the negotiation process is a little more modern, and the groom can pay in cash or split it between cash and cows. The negotiations must be done by men from both families, or else it is a disgrace to the ancestors. Once the negotiations are settled, the plans for the actual wedding plans start forming.

Zulu weddings last three days. On the first day of ceremonies, the groom’s family travels to the bride’s family’s household to partake in a traditional ceremony. All men and women are dressed in Zulu traditional dress. Women wear an isidwaba (wrap around beaded and pleaded skirt), beads, and an isicholo – a straw hat that is beaded. Men wear amabheshu – a cow skin cover-up and carry a Zulu shield, also made out of cow skin.

The groom -- Baba Mhkwanazi -- in amabheshu

The groom — Baba Mhkwanazi — in amabheshu

The two separate families gather together and watch each one march and sing around the household property. This is the beginning of a friendly “competition” between the families. The families then will march to wherever the groom or bride is and sing for them to come out of the house and join them. Once both families have gathered either the groom or bride, they sing and march out to a larger grass field.

The bride’s family, with the bride in the middle of the group, then sings and dances traditional songs – songs about marriage and love, many of which do not have direct translations to English.

After about 30 minutes of dancing and singing, the bride’s family stops and the groom’s family begins. Once both sides have completed, they will do the gita – a traditional Zulu dance when one kicks his or her leg to the beat of a drum or song as high as they can in the air and maintain balance. The families spend anywhere from a couple of weeks to a week to prepare and practice the choreographed dancing and singing before the big day.

About an hour or so later, they gather and march together back to the family compound to eat a traditional meal. The area is set up as it is at any American wedding reception – tables gathered around a long table for the groom, bride, bridesmaids and groomsmen amongst a backdrop of decorative cheetah fabric. The day ends in lots of socializing and drinking umqombothi (Zulu beer).

Traditional decorations

Traditional decorations

The next day is the Westernized wedding ceremony in a church. The ceremony is pretty much the same as an American wedding, sans the extra loud African music, yelling and cheering and dancing. The wedding has a colored theme – for example, purple and silver. All the guests are expected to wear that color combination (although many don’t) and the bridesmaids and groomsmen are dressed in those colors. The dresses are handmade and ruffled as if came from a time machine straight from the 1980s. The bride wears a white dress and the groom wears a tux.


Bride and groom stand united

After the Western wedding ceremony, the guests and families head back to the groom’s house – where the bride will be staying from then on. As soon as both families arrive on the property they sing and march outside the property. They compete with the same songs and dances that sang the day before, but they are dressed in the wedding garb from the church. This time the dancing and singing lasts a little longer because a few other rituals take place.

The men of the community ask the ancestors for peace that the couple unites by first kneeling in silence and then traditional dancing. This ritual lasts about 10-15 minutes and once the union of families is approved they jump around and celebrate with both sides of the families. After, the mama’s of the community – who wear the same dress (which, may I add, my mama sewed and wore), stand in a line in front of both families. The women sweep the air with an “umshanelo wotshani” – a broom made out of grass to cleanse the bride’s new home for her. This signifies that they are welcoming the new mama into the community. To show their respect and welcome, they later serve food and clean up after the reception.

Mamas serving

Mamas serving ukudla (f00d)

Once the dancing and singing is over, the families unite and march into the property together for food and drinks. The groom’s family takes the bride and her family on a small tour of the property to show her where she will be staying (this is just traditional, because many brides have already started living at the groom’s before the marriage). The bride and groom receive presents – mostly household items – and cut a cake. There is usually a DJ and a dancing tent for the night so guests can dance and drink the night away.

On the last day of ceremonies, the bride gives the groom’s family gifts, which are mostly blankets for their houses and ironically usually bought with lobola money. The families gather around, open each individual blanket, and invite a family member from the groom’s side to lay under it for 30 seconds or so. This is another welcoming gesture that groom’s family into the mother’s care and new household.

Blanket ritual

Blanket ritual

Anybody in the village is invited to all the ceremonies because of the Ubuntu mentality here, so the families have to estimate how much food they’ll need to prepare. Two cows are usually slaughtered, which is a good amount of food. However, preparation of food and decorations are another story, and it literally does take a village to help cook and prepare for any wedding. I find it absolutely awesome that although there is a little Western influence on Zulu weddings (they literally call part of it a “white wedding”), they still haven’t lost their heritage and go about weddings “the right way” to please the ancestors. And you bet they are proud of it!

To get a glimpse all the rituals discussed in this post, watch the video below:

Ubuntu: ngihawukele thonga lami

From an early age, children in my village learn to sing and dance — music is at the heart of Zulu culture. I seriously haven’t seen or heard one kid who doesn’t have rhythm or a pretty voice.

The children pick up traditional songs and dance from their families and the community and then practice them in their arts and culture class at school.

This traditional dance, ngihawukele thonga lami, is about the ancestors (thonga lami; our ancestors). This song and dance is specific to an isangoma,  which is the Zulu equivalent of a fortune teller.

Each isangoma in Zulu culture has a different song and dance, specific to his or her practice. When the isangomas gather together, they individually sing their songs. This song is an isangoma song from my community that the children know by association.

Isangomas place sea shells into a bag, shake it, throw the shells out, then use a stick to move the shells and talk about the positions. Then they repeat to confirm. The position of the shells tells a person about their life/future.

Watch grade 3s perform the dance and song with instruments they made themselves out of old cans and bottle caps! I couldn’t stop smiling when they performed it for me: