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Just another day in the Peace Corps: no water, no problem!

I don’t have running water at my site, but I do have a water tap in close proximity to my hut. I fetch water once or twice a week from the yard tap and carry the buckets to store in my hut. Back in the day, when my principal was younger, people from my village used to buy water at the local shop bucket-by-the-bucket.

Every so often, my village experiences a water shortage; the water taps in our yards run dry. In the village, there are a few other communal water pumps — boreholes — in the area that everyone uses when the yard taps are out. To be honest, these past few months I’ve gotten really lazy and will only fill up one bucket of water when needed. Usually, families store buckets of water in case of such a shortage. My laziness nipped me in the butt because now I need that storage water. My water has been out for seven days and counting (in the past, it has been out for a month or so at a time. It’ll be fun to keep tallying and see how far we go).

Communal tap

Communal tap

My guide to living with little water:

  1. Eat lots of eggs, bread, peanut butter and ramen – all of which take very little or no water at all to cook. I try not to cook canned food because then that creates a non-reusable dirty dish.
  2.  Use a wet soapy cloth to bathe and only one small pitcher of water to wet your hair, wash and rinse it.
  3. Reuse dishes (gross, I know, but it’s what PCVs do. Seriously, we hate dishes).
  4. Don’t do laundry – or do as little as possible to get you through the week. When laundry is needed, as it was in my case, wash with only one bucket of soapy water and avoid washing whites because the dirt from the water and other clothes will stain them. The clothes may be secretly dirty, but at least they will smell better than sweat!
  5. Attempt to catch rain water in your buckets if it’s raining really hard. Hey, I’ve caught enough to make a cup a coffee and that’s something!
  6. Learn / attempt to twala water.
  7. And most importantly, make sure you have enough water to fill up at least two cups of coffee worth each morning (drinking water, by my very wise decision, is optional; coffee is mandatory).

It seriously amazes me how much little water one can live off of (disclaimer: I don’t drink a lot of drinking water. I know it’s bad, but my eating/drinking habits are quite strange). I’ve lived on a small bucket for the past week and been completely okay with it. Granted, I could have a lot more water if I was able to carry the bucket from the communal tap so I wouldn’t have to resort to my “living with little water” practices. There’s one little problem: I struggle to carry the water bucket from the communal tap. I don’t have “amandla” (power/strength in Zulu). Give me a break here; I’m a 5’1 itty bitty girl who has never tried it before until now!

When I’m in desperate need of more water, I’ll stroll on down to the communal pump and pump some delicious murky, brown water. All community members twala the water from the communal pump, which means they carry the bucket of water on top of their heads back to their homes. My attempt at twalaing a medium-sized bucket full of water was an epic fail, as I was drenched in water and could only rest the bucket on my shoulder at the most. Everyone who walked by me said, “Mpho! You must put it on your head!” My response to all the witnesses: “Ngiyazama! (I am trying)” and a bunch of laughter. One thing a PCV must be able to do is laugh at him or herself because more than often PCVs are stuck ridiculous and embarrassing situations and have to think, in a comical way of course, “Yup, this is seriously my life.”

It’s quite impressive how Zulu women lift the water — and just about everything else — and balance it on their heads and walk for long distances, especially old gogos and young kids. I know balance/strength comes from much practice over time, so maybe eventually I’ll be able to do so myself. Some of my PCV friends can and practice on the regular! As for now, every time anyone sees Mpho trying to twala water, I can promise it’ll be a good laugh.

Mama carrying a bulk bag of potatoes up our hill

A mama carrying a bulk bag of potatoes up our hill

Yours in embarrassment and good spirit,
Small heartMpho

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Month eight: just call me mama

Every morning, I walk by the grade R classroom and the kids either say, “buh byeeee Ms. Mathebula” (because it’s all they know how to say in English). One of my wittle friends, Zinhle, always says, “Hi mama!”


Zinhle swingin’ away, where the “Hi Mamas!” usually come from

Mama is how one refers to an older woman in Zulu culture. But as we know, I’m not old, and I look like I’m 18. South Africans usually call me intombazane (girl), so it always cracks me up when Zinhle calls me mama. Learners have also asked me many times if I have a baby. Am I really old enough (23, soon to be 24), to be called mama and have a baby? Maybe in this culture, but in my own culture? Uh… I sure hope not.

Although I’m in a drastically different place from last year, I keep experiencing things here that remind me of my City Year service. One of which has come to mind quite often this school term: students seeing me as a motherly figure.

Liz Warden, as a motherly figure? The girl who has vowed countless times that she will not have kids because she can’t deal with them? The girl who often has a scowl on her face – without even knowing it? Yup. I guess there’s just something so warming about that infamous scowl.

Last year, I had a couple of students who called me “mom” and clung to me. Their mothers had either passed away or they were absent from their lives. I never really understood it because I was far too young to be considered a mom in America.

After almost two years of this stuff, I am starting to understand the mama role a little more. Because I show a lot of interest in my student’s lives and try to get to know them personally, they open up to me. They see that I care and trust me, so they begin to see me as a motherly figure. To have a young, energetic woman, pushing them to do their best in their life is different than what they normally get.

In my journaling efforts with my grade 5 class, one of my students wrote all about her mom. She told me everything. That her mom lives all the way in Johannesburg and rarely sees or talks to her, she forgot about her birthday, and she even said, “My mom doesn’t care about me.” Then she wrote, “Miss, tell me about your mom. What is your mom like?”

Alright. To my readers who don’t personally know me or my life story, I guess it’s a time to get a little mushy because I can only truly explain this impact of my service by digging deeper into my past. I don’t have a relationship with my mom, and cut off all communication with her last year for various reasons. I haven’t had a — let’s say — present mother since I graduated high school and my parents split. Blah blah blah blah life story blah blah blah.

I’m sure my student thought I would write about how perfect my mom was, how much I miss her, how beautiful she is, and all that. As someone from America, of course everything has to be perfect, right?

I could have simply described what my mother looked like, her name, where she lived, and all that boring stuff. But I had a gut instinct to be honest, probably because I had tears filling up my eyes. I told her I don’t talk to my mom also, we don’t agree about many things and it can be very hard without a mom, especially at her age. I told her that she’ll look back to when she was 10-years-old when she’s my age and realize how strong she is because of all of her mama drama. I knew by writing this, she would trust me more and hopefully not get so down on herself. I understand both of us have very different mama drama, but mama drama in general is always bond-worthy because somehow it always relates to an absent mother.

I know you’re probably thinking how can one of my grade 5 learners comprehend any of this, as I have said plenty of times before that some of them can barely write a sentence in English. This little girl, however, is an anomaly. Her aunts spoke English to her growing up, so she speaks very fluent English for a fifth grader. She’s really mature, too. I enjoy talking to her sometimes more than talking to adults at my school. After telling her about my mom, I can tell she feels more comfortable with me. Sometimes she’ll just come into the library because, “They’re being too noisy in class.”

With little of a language barrier, I can be a mama figure for this learner and push her to succeed in school and life – something her gogo, who she loves very, very much, can’t do because she’s too old. Two years of being my little buddy will be something unforgettable for the both of us.

Staff told us in Peace Corps training, our “self-identities” would change drastically during our service. Well, so far mine has changed from “Liz Warden” and “friend and daughter” to “Miss Mathebula” and “friend, daughter, sister and mother”. Call it mentorship, call it whatever, but honestly, sometimes I really do feel like a mother and care for some of these kids as if I was related to them. Maybe because of my past, maybe because I feel guilty about my family, maybe because I’m old enough to be considered a mother here, or maybe that’s just how this service game plays out. Who knows, except I do know that I’m happy, excited, and have found just another one of those kids that makes my service worth it.

Yours in service,
Small heartLiz

A month in photos: February 2013

  • The first meeting of Girls on the Rise — a girl’s club that my counterpart Yama and I started at the high school in my village. The club is open to anyone and will run until November. We will teach about health issues, self-esteem, love problems (that one is on Yama), sex, really anything else a high school girl would want to talk about. With 38 teenage pregnancies last year at the high school, we can only hope this club will help girls make the right decisions for their futures. My counterpart rocks and organized all the girls. We will meet twice a month. During our first meeting we had the girls draw and discuss their “self-image”, how they see themselves, which I think they enjoyed! (more to come on Girls on the Rise as it takes off!)
  • Pen pal project with my City Year school Markham Middle School in Watts and also Stevenson Middle School in Boyle Heights of Los Angeles. My former roommates Marissa and Josh are team leaders this year at each school! Hopefully I can send the letters this week, but there’s a post office strike (Africa always wins).
  • Learners helping me label library books, which of course got out of hand
  • Other randoms from February


Yours in service,
Small heartLiz

Peace Corps realities: that one kid

I  don’t know why the Peace Corps sent me to South Africa or the village I’m living in, but I do think everything happens for a reason. It may take a while, but we usually figure out what that reason is. We find our purpose.

Finding one’s purpose can be a different path for every Peace Corps Volunteer. It can take days, months, years, or that moment may never come. As someone who is so interested in the individual – a person’s history, strengths and weaknesses — it usually just takes that one kid to show me why I’m here and doing what I’m doing. That one kid is that kid who gives you hope. That one kid who amazingly made it through a dysfunctional school system. That one kid who keeps trying and will fight against all odds to learn. That one kid that shows you that not all of your students will be engulfed in a repetitive cycle of poverty. That one kid you know you are going to have an impact on.

A couple of weeks ago, I got a surprise visit from a grade 7 learner at my school. Usually when older learners knock on my door, they want me to help them with homework (and do it for them). This time it was different. A tall boy stood at my doorstep and handed me a notebook. We had never formally met.

“Here, these are my English stories. I want you to read them,” he told me.
“Oh wow!” I exclaimed. “Thanks, I will definitely read them. I’ll give them back to you at school.”

I asked him for his name and off he went. I sat down and read Sebetsang’s stories. All 10 of them. I couldn’t believe what I was reading –a book full of creative stories with dialogues, characters and drama. His stories are almost as if they are a mini-South African soap opera with love, lust and revenge.

English stories

English stories

As I’ve said before, critical thinking isn’t taught here. Creativity is rarely heard of. The fact that a grade 7 boy is able to write his own creative stories is astonishing.

In my journaling efforts with grade 7, I asked them to describe what their homes looked like. Sebetsang wrote a lot, but also discussed the poverty around him and where he lives. It was the first time I had heard an answer from my whole school that was realistic because he clearly observed and inferred from his own experiences.

When I responded to his response, I told him that when I was his age, I loved to write. I would write short stories like he did. I even wrote a book like he has done. With time, I got better at writing. And even though I graduated from university, I still love to write a lot because it calms me down and makes me happy.

One of the reasons why I serve is to help students I work with find their passions (idealistically). I don’t know if I’ve really completed that goal yet, but at least I’ve been able to share my passion with kids. Now that I’ve met this boy, I know we can share a passion together and I can encourage him to hold fast to his dreams like my tattoo says. I realize that if I wasn’t here, he wouldn’t have had anyone to share his stories with or anyone that would take such interest in them.

Now it’s time to figure out how exactly I can work with him. I don’t want to waste his talent. He just came by today with a new batch of stories for me to read. Any suggestions on working with this young writer? Send them on over!

PCVs, never underestimate the impact you are going to have on at least that one kid in your village. It took just that one kid to show me why I’m in my village. I can assure you there is that one kid that will reaffirm why you are here. We may not be able to change the whole system, or influence every kid we come into contact with – but that one kid like Sebetsang is good enough in my books.

Yours in service,

Small heartLiz

Happy Valentine’s Day from our learners to you!

To be honest, I did miss the hilarious awkward middle school love-lust today. However, it was a change of pace being at a primary school because my South African learners aren’t too cool — just yet — to not make Valentine’s Day cards for their family or teachers.

My English counterpart had her grade 4 students make Valentine’s Cards in English for their loved ones then present them. I really admire her creativity in the classroom. This is her example.

Show Miss Mathebula your cards!

They each wanted an individual picture! Grade 4s and their cards after presentations.

Cards my learners made me. My learner Ayanda cut out a picture of Kim Kardashian and wrote that it was me. Too great. “I love you Miss Mathebula and I will always love you.”

All the learners out of uniform and wearing red, white and pink! I didn’t get the memo because they told the learners in Zulu…typical.

Ngikuthanda! (I love you in Zulu)

I was stopped by a community member on my way home from school who asked me if I am physically strong enough to bear his child. I told him sorry, but I am far too weak and little. Sorry I’m not sorry. Happy Valentine’s Day to me! At least instances like that make me laugh pretty hard…

SmallTransparentLogoMiss Mathebula

Month seven: I struggle, you struggle, we struggle [present tense]

I already did something I was trying not to do. I yelled, very harshly, at my students. My “everyone’s hands are in the air so it must be quiet” method wasn’t working — too much chitter-chatter. Another group was stealing each other’s rulers and hitting each other. One girl even started to cry during reading time. I couldn’t take it anymore – it had been a week of childish games. They’re just children, damnit, just children. I closed the book I was reading, told them we would try again tomorrow, and walked out of the classroom holding back tears of frustration.

I told the other grade 5 educators that the grade 5s were being “naughty” (a favourite South African term) and that they were disrespectful. Two teachers went and yelled at them, and likely threatened to beat them, or did. I know it’s hard to fathom that a child may have been beaten or threatened in my name, but this early in the game, I have no choice. I either get the other educators to help me control the kids and speak to them in a language they understand, or wade my way through a neck deep river until the student’s finally trust me, which could possibly be never.

To effectively teach, one needs to build relationships with the students to gain trust. I can’t just pop into their classroom and expect them to respect me just because I am different from them. My PCV friend George couldn’t have summed it up better — right now all the students see is, “OMG OMG LOL LOL UMLUNGU (white person)” instead of someone who cares and is here to really try to give them an adequate education. They don’t know much about me, and I don’t know much about them (although I am learning a lot through their journals!) Also, they know I won’t hit them, so they aren’t scared, which opens a whole ‘nother can of worms.

The day after the grade 5 educators addressed the class, they kids were angels. They earned a lot of rocks in their “rock jar” (if they’re good, they get rocks. If they’re bad, rocks are taken out. If they fill it, I will give them a class prize like an English movie).

After class, all of my girls came to the library and gave me a card. They tried their best in English — it was a “Happy Birthday” card (too cute) from Mr. Verb to Ms. Noun. Inside it reads, “Mr. Verb loves Ms. Noun. They agree all the time.” If you’re wondering what the hell that means, I made these stupid-childish-looking cardboard puppets named Mr. Verb and Ms. Noun. I introduced them to the class as our classroom friends and as the year goes on I will ask them, “Do Mr. Verb and Ms. Noun agree in your work? Remember they really love each other so they agree a lot!” I told the kids Mr. Verb paid a heavy lobola to marry Ms. Noun. Cheesy, but that’s the kind of stuff you’ll get in my classroom. Any oddly creative thing that can stick in their heads I will try.

The girls are mostly well-behaved in my class. The boys are usually the ones who are acting up. However, a couple of the boys also came by to apologize to and then spent the day in the library reading grade one books while I worked on classroom posters.

I know they were probably told to apologize to me, but I am human and I need love sometimes too, especially in my Peace Corps lows.

After school that day, another girl, Nqobile, came by to just say hello and one of my boys, Siyabonga, came by with a friend and hung out. I talked in Zulu to him, and he basically said he wants to try to learn English and he is trying. Ngiyazama (I am trying).

I felt pretty helpless after that. I realized that their behaviour isn’t just the problem; I am the problem too. I am trying to get used to a new classroom culture, teaching for my first time, and not really knowing if my students understand me or not. They rarely will tell me if they don’t because it’s cultural that the educator is a divine being. I even have a group of students who can’t even read in Zulu — let alone understand a sentence of English.

It occurred to me that we are in this battle together. It’s like a symbiotic relationship — we both want something out of this, but we’re going to have opposite struggles. They are going to have a hard time understanding me and the work and adjusting to me, and I will have a hard time communicating with them, explaining concepts and adjusting to them. If we can get through this year together as a unit, we will all only be better in the end. But it won’t be easy and we will need to help each other.

Seeing my students read grade one books and my student Siyabonga trying his hardest to say simple things in English at my hut door, slapped me upside the head to be easier on than them and lower my expectations. During reading time, instead of reading longer grade 4/5 passages, I will read picture books. My Peace Corps leader even made the awesome suggestion of having them draw and describe their favourite scene from the book afterwards. Likewise, I will start translating some things into Zulu when necessary. I need people to translate Zulu to English for me many times, so it’s only fair.

Once I start doing sports activities with the kids, I think I’ll start bonding with them more because that is something that a language barrier can overcome. As we always say in the Peace Corps, only time will tell.

In honour of our grammar review: I will struggle. You will struggle. We will struggle. [future tense]

Eleven months from now I hope we can all write on the chalkboard: I struggled. You struggled. We struggled. [past tense]

In honour of spelling: I am now using British English.

Keep on zamaing (like my Zunglish?)

Yours in service,

SmallTransparentLogoLiz


The card the girls made me. Pretty sure they meant to say, “Simple Present Tense” and not “Simple Person” but they tried. Bayazama.

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.

IMG_5760

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: