September 29, 2007

It's Hard Not To Get Attached To These Ones

September 28, 2007

Mooving and Grooving

So I brought my guitar back to the pre-school on Wednesday morning and the children again loved it. They danced away and some of them even managed to sing along with “O When The Saints.” For many of them, singing and dancing at the same time is just too big of a challenge so they just sort of dance a bit and then stare at me and then start dancing again.

When we were done, the teachers said they just wanted to hear me play so I tried “This Little Light of Mine” first, which flopped, and then opted for “Johnny B. Goode,” admittedly not particularly religious but a rollicking good time nonetheless. I always associate this song with children as it was the tune for a theme song at the summer camp I used to work at and it is so easy and so fun to play. And if I forgot almost all the words to the second verse, mixed in a few words from our theme song, missed half the chords (“so easy”), and got so winded from all the dancing I could barely sing the last chorus, it didn’t matter because the children were having a great time. (And they couldn’t understand me anyway because it was in English!)

As I was walking away, our after-school program coordinator asked me to play a song or two for him so I launched into my rendition of “Siyahamba,” still the only song I know in Xhosa. Our singing drew a small crowd and a couple of young ladies, who were both great singers and dancers joined in. The rest of the by-now growing crowd sort of stared at us in amusement and bewilderment.

After another long rendition of “Siyahamba” (I am getting very good at making simple songs very long), they asked for another so I tried “O When The Saints” and “Swing Low” but both kind of flopped. They asked for the South African national anthem, which I confessed I didn’t know and my attempts to get them to teach me were unsuccessful.

By this point, I was getting kind of hoarse and my fingers were sore but they wanted another so I opted for “Johnny B. Goode” again. But this time, I spared nothing and even got in the one-legged hop a la Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future, which went over exceedingly well. I think I did more on this one day to integrate myself into this community than I have in my first four weeks.

When I grow up, I hope I have a job where I can bring my guitar to work every day.


The power of the Internet never ceases to amaze me and I am already thankful for the connections and re-connections I have made through this web site.

But I was particularly delighted to learn the other day that this web site is being used for explicitly pedagogical purposes by an elementary school class in Charleston, South Carolina. So I’d like to say a special hello and good morning to the students in Miss Coyne’s class and say thank you for reading about my work in Mthatha. I hope some day when you children get older you also decide to move some place neat and exciting and tell the world about it. I got interested in moving to Africa by reading about other people who had been there and I hope you do too.

A Simple Task

One of the jobs I do at the clinic is find a person’s medical record so the nurse can review it when it’s the patient’s turn to be seen. Easy job, right? Just ask the patient their name, go over to our alphabetized 5 by 8 index cards, pull the record, hand it over, and move on.

It might be easy if this was Canada or the U.S. or England or any place where people had names I was familiar with like “John Smith” or “Jennifer White.” I could probably even handle Spanish or French or German names with a little practice.

But everything becomes much harder in Xhosa. For one thing, when I ask someone their name, it just rolls of their tongue so fast I can barely tell what was the first name and what was the surname. (I quickly learned the word for “surname” in Xhosa so I could ask them to repeat just that.) And Xhosa names all seem to be a minimum of eight syllables long. And they all start with either M or N, even when it sounds like they start with another letter. (We have 8 drawers of index card records and 4 are solely for the Ms and Ns.) So, for instance, the last name that sounds to my ear like DAH-mass is actually spelled N-D-A-M-A-S-E. And then many names, of course, have clicks so I have to decide if it sounded like an “x,” a “c,” or a “q” click (and if it was a diphthong, like “gc) and insert that into my mental spelling of the name.

Most of the patients are, well, patient with our attempts to get their names and most of them can write their own name so when all else fails I just give them pen and paper. Still, it is not uncommon for me to ask a patient’s name 6 or 10 times before I find it and I generally count that a success.

The other day, for the first time ever, I found a patient’s card and he only had to tell me his name once. I was ecstatic.

September 25, 2007

When The Saints Go Dancing In

After a month of mostly observing and figuring out how things work in Itipini, I brought my guitar along with me this morning and decided to teach the pre-school children some music. After all, I reasoned, they sing quite beautifully a capella every morning so surely they would enjoy a little accompaniment and some new songs. I thought, briefly and at the back of my mind, that the fact that I only knew songs in English and they sang mostly in Xhosa might prove to be a challenge but I quickly dismissed the idea.

Like children everywhere, they got excited when I took out the guitar and taught me the Xhosa word for it, which I forget. But a sort of confused and dumfounded look came over their faces when I started teaching them the words to “When The Saints Go Marching In.” I asked them to repeat after me but they could only sort of mumble a rough imitation of the lyrics. Undeterred, I started playing and singing, hoping they would join in.

They didn’t join in the singing but as soon as I started playing the guitar, a new look came over their faces – one of excitement and joy that said to me, “This is really neat! He’s playing a guitar.” All of a sudden, they stood up and started dancing to the music. Only about one or two got the hang of the lyrics by the tenth time I had played it through but everyone was moving and grooving, much like saints marching in heaven, I imagine.

It was then I realized I did know one song from South Africa, “Siyahamba” or “We Are Marching in the Light of God.” The lyrics I learned in the U.S. are slightly different to how they sing it in Xhosa here but the chords are the same so we had a very long rendition of the song in which we not only marched, but also danced, sang, clapped, and much more, all, of course, in the light of God.

It was a fantastic way to start the day and I got invited back tomorrow. My next goal is to get someone to teach me how to sing in Xhosa.

A Fellow Traveler

One of the neat things about being a YASC missionary in South Africa is that there are two others in the country with me. That means I can make a domestic phone call and talk to two interesting and reflective people about the same sort of issues I’m facing. It’s been a great support so far and I count it a great blessing.

Of course, talking on the phone is one thing, talking in person is quite another. And I was fortunate to spend this past long weekend in Grahamstown, with my fellow YASCer Matt Kellen. Not only was Matt a great host but he let me plunder his library so I would have more books to fill my evenings.

Grahamstown is a world removed from Mthatha – the stoplights, for instance, work and there are several bookstores – but Matt and I found, I think, that we are dealing with a similar set of issues, like the isolation and loneliness that comes with moving to a new country on one’s own, the feelings that come with being a racial minority, the difficulty of learning a new language, and so on and so forth.

Here we are in front of a sculpture in Grahamstown called “Life Cycles.” (Another difference: Grahamstown has sculptures.)

We also visited the nearby Addo Elephant National Park. How come we don’t have cool animals like kudu in the U.S.?


About two weeks ago, a patient was carried into the clinic complaining of pain in his shoulder and general body weakness. The patient was a man about 50 years old, though he looked much older and was thin and had difficulty standing on his own.

It’s tough to know what to do in these situations, as there’s not some miracle drug that can cure a lifetime of physical maladies and hard living. We gave him some pain-killers, specimen jars to collect sputum for a tuberculosis test, and told him to come back on Thursday when we could do an HIV test. Patients might need more help than that but this is a good first step. Generally, I’ve noticed, we also try to tell a family member as well so there’s a little pressure to take the pills, spit in the jars, and come back. But in this case, as I recall, the family member who came with him was clearly drunk and in no condition to remember anything we told her.

He never came back and I can’t say I really noticed. There are so many patients who come through the clinic each week it’s hard to keep track of them all. If I thought of this particular patient at all, I probably thought, “Haven’t seen him lately – he must be feeling better.”

Anyway, the other day someone mentioned that he had died in his shack a few days earlier. When I was putting the information in our death records book, I thought, “I recognize that name” and noticed my hand-writing on his record.

It was a reminder that even though we provide some pretty good health care to some people who need it, we can’t cure every patient.

September 17, 2007

In Real Life

One of the struggles I’ve always had in reading the stories of the New Testament is that the context seems so foreign. The story of the Good Samaritan really only makes sense when we understand the outcast status of Samaritans. The significance of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples makes most sense when we understand how filthy feet were seen to be in his time. Our modern, 21st century world is at quite a remove from the world Jesus knew and so we are forced to turn to Bible commentaries and the like to learn about the context of his world before we can truly understand his teachings.

What’s been neat for me about Itipini is that the context is much closer to Jesus’ world than it is to the developed world I know best. So, for instance, there really are women at wells in Itipini (actually, faucets but close enough) and while I wouldn’t drink the water if they offered it, it is neat to be in the position of standing around a faucet with women waiting for water, though I still don’t understand what they are saying. A big part of my job seems to be bandaging wounds, frequently on the feet, as footwear is sparse and Itipini is an unforgiving environment. As I clean the patients’ wounds, I think of the people in the New Testament who washed feet for each other. If we’re supposed to do what Christ did, I find I am in situations that are almost literally – and not just metaphorically – the same as situations he confronted. (Of course, being in the same situation doesn’t mean I act the same way. Just that the possibility exists. There’s still the matter of my sinful and fallen nature to overcome.)

Of course, what I can’t do is perform miracles, though I would love to. There have been several people I have seen who are in such pain and all I can do is help alleviate some of the symptoms. Jesus would have touched them and all would have been well. The children have peanut butter and bread for snack every afternoon and I wish I could be like Jesus and turn the eight loaves and three jars into enough for everyone in Itipini.


I have never owned a car in my life but now in Mthatha I find I am primarily responsible for one. The volunteers of the African Medical Mission are given a community car and because I am here the longest, I have been designated as its caretaker. Due to a series of unfortunate events that totaled the previous vehicle, we didn’t have a car when I arrived but this new one arrived last week. The major challenge for me with the new car is that it is a stick-shift. Theoretically, I know exactly how to drive a stick but practically I am a bit rusty. So I have been sharpening my skills on the mad roads of Mthatha. So far, I’ve only stalled in the middle of one intersection (the cars kept whizzing by on either side) and am generally feeling better each day about my ability. (My driving skills, however, have sunk into a pit of despair. "If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em" and since no one else in Mthatha follows the rules I can’t say I’ve been a very good driver either.)

Our VW is apparently a 2005 model, though it would perhaps be more accurate to call it a 1980 model assembled in 2005. It reminds me of a car my family owned when I was about 8 or 10. It would never be sold in the United States because there just aren’t enough extraneous bells and whistles to make it appealing. In fact, there aren’t any bells and whistles, like, say, power steering, electric locks, and so on and so forth. When people in the past asked me what my dream car was, I often said, "Anything with four wheels that moves forward when I tell it to." That, almost literally, is what this car does and nothing more. (Backwards, too, though it’s tough to find reverse.)

I found my favourite part of the car the other morning when the car was having trouble starting. My East German fellow volunteer said, "Try the choke." "Choke," I thought, "he’s got to be kidding. Only boat and snowmobile engines have chokes." But sure enough, underneath the steering column is a choke, which started the car quite nicely. I asked him if he had ever seen a choke on a car before and he said, "Of course, every car in the GDR had one!" Great, I’m glad to know the Stasi would approve of our new wheels.

Anyway, except for the small issue of leg room, which is more or less an issue in every car I drive, I am quite pleased with the car. And driving on the left is even beginning to seem normal lately.


Every day at noon, the pre-school children tumble out of their classrooms, wash their hands, and sit down for what might be their only hot meal of the day. I hardly need to wear a watch anymore because when I hear the children making a lot of noise, I know it is noon. The meals are quite simple, carbohydrates and protein, generally rice or semp (corn kernels off the cob, dried up, and cooked) and beans. Potatoes are a treat for the children.

Stay off it for the weekend

On Friday, a woman came into the clinic with severe swelling in her left ankle. I managed to gather, from her hand motions, that she had twisted it and likely sprained it. She had limited motion in the foot and was walking with the help of a stick.

I immediately thought, "Oh, this is fairly easy to treat. Put ice on it and stay off it for a few days." Then I thought, "Where’s she going to get the ice if she doesn’t have any electricity?" Then I thought, "She’s a woman and has so many responsibilities keeping her household running – getting water, getting firewood, cooking, keeping track of the children – how is she going to stay off it for the weekend?"

So I went to our propane-fuelled fridge and got one or two ice packs we use to keep our immunizations cool and propped her up in a corner for 15 minutes. Then I wrapped it as tight as I could with a bandage, gave her a pain-killer, and sent her out the door. Not an ideal solution but I guess it was the solution that was culturally practical and feasible. When you live at the margins of society, "staying off it" doesn’t seem like an option.

They did tell us at training it was important to take a break every now and again...

September 11, 2007

Long Lines and Young Mothers

Tuesday is the day we immunize children and hand out baby food and formula at the clinic. It is easily the busiest day of the week and rather hectic, with children crawling, drooling, toddling, screaming, crying, and laughing all over the place and mothers talking to each other (in Xhosa, of course.) The line is long when we show up and never appears to slacken. On an average day, we see about 30 patients at the clinic. Today, we saw 58.

Here’s some pictures I took today of the mothers waiting outside:

And also waiting inside:

This baby probably knew it had a shot coming:

Jenny was teaching me today how to give immunizations. The actual skill of loading a syringe and performing an IM injection is one I’m familiar with but I don’t quite think I’m as cold-blooded as she is. She just jabs that needle right into the baby’s thigh. Meanwhile, I was watching the baby’s face go from giggling to shock to pain to screaming. Tomorrow, though, we go to a children’s home to perform immunizations and I think I’ll have to overcome my squeamishness then.

"The Little Differences"

In the movie Pulp Fiction, John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson begin the movie by discussing Travolta’s recent trip to Amsterdam. Before they get to the famous “Royale with cheese” moment, the conversation includes this snippet:

JT: “But you know the funniest thing about Europe is?”
SLJ: “What?”
JT: “It’s the little differences. I mean, they got the same stuff over there they got here but just there it’s a little different.”

I’ve been thinking about this conversation as I adjust to life in Mthatha and figure out how to describe what life is like. So, in the spirit of Pulp Fiction, here’s a list of the “little differences” I’ve found in adjusting to life in Mthatha, South Africa from life in Nome, Alaska.

-Light switches are opposite from the U.S. Push down to turn on, push up to turn off.

-Neither Italian nor Mexican cuisines appear to have penetrated the market much. Pasta is relegated to a tiny corner of the store and pasta sauce is often impossible to find. Salsa is similarly hidden (though not hot sauces) and I haven’t been able to find black beans – a staple of my diet – anywhere

-Speaking of food, Mthatha has to have the highest grocery store per person ratio of any town I have ever lived in. They are everywhere! I’d be happy to trade a couple grocery stores for a good bookstore, as Mthatha doesn’t have one of those.

-For all my 25 years, I’ve used Crest toothpaste, only to move to South Africa and find Crest has overlooked this market. So I’ve been forced to switch to Colgate, much to my dismay.

-Cars here (and I am sure this is true all over the world) are much smaller than the behemoths Americans drive. Several people refer to the truck we drive to Itipini as a “tank” because it is so big to them, when, in fact, it is smaller than what in the U.S. is classified as a “light truck.” Consequently, I am learning a lot of new car models that major manufacturers make but clearly do not even bother marketing in the U.S. as they are so small. Also, I haven’t seen a car yet with power windows.

-There’s always an attendant for everything. If I go to the gas station, there’s someone to pump the gas for me. If I park someplace, someone will offer to “watch the car” for me and then help me out of the space when I come back. At the grocery store, there are people to help carry the groceries to the car. Of course, everyone wants to be paid for this.

-People in Mthatha seem to like clean cars, as there are a number of car washing places around town. (Not the automatic type, but people who will wash your car by hand.) This compares to Nome, where people seem to measure their manhood by how dirty their truck is.

-In my house, the toilet, bathtub, and shower each have a separate room. And the room with the toilet is not the room with the sink.

-I can't find plain ol' orange juice anywhere. It's all some sort of orange-fruit mixture. Another staple of the diet down the drain.

There are many, many more but that’s a preliminary list.

September 10, 2007

Positive / Negative

Thursday is the day that the clinic offers free HIV tests to anyone who wants one. There are often aren’t too many takers and it seems a number of people don’t want a test because they don’t want to know the results. But we’re usually able to badger enough people who’ve been chronically ill or have STDs to come get a test.

I asked to learn how to do the tests as I imagined it was a matter of drawing blood, sending it off to a lab, and getting the results in a few days. The real reason I wanted to learn was that I wanted more experience drawing blood. The actual testing of the blood, I assumed, would be someone else’s job. But when I sat down to learn, I realized the reality was quite different.

Apparently, there are kits these days that can test blood for HIV within 15 minutes. All it takes is a few drops of blood dropped in a plastic tray, a reagent chemical, and an egg timer. So my job was to prick the patient’s finger, draw blood, drop it onto the test, and wait. It reminded me a lot of taking a patient’s blood sugar.

The patients receive pre-test counseling from our Xhosa nurse, Dorothy, so when they sit down in front of me they are totally clear on what the stakes are for them. It is literally a matter of life or death. As you might expect, there is a tremendous amount of emotion flowing through them and it is impossible to draw blood from them and not share in those emotions. After I draw the blood, we sit and wait and watch for the lines to appear on the test. One line means negative, two means positive. Each test feels so emotionally draining and it is not even my blood and life on the line. I don’t actually tell them the result – they go back to Dorothy for that – but I am the first to know and I am sure they can read my body language.

(Of course, I shouldn’t be quite so dramatic. We have a number of HIV-positive patients in Itipini who have been living with the virus for a number of years. Even in South Africa, where the virus is endemic and the government has been controversially slow to respond, HIV is not an automatic death sentence. There is reason for hope.)

I did three tests my first Thursday. They were, thankfully, all negative.

Working Hard or Hardly Working?

When I was a reporter in Nome, I worked at least 40 hours a week and frequently more, covering whatever happened to be newsworthy. So it has been quite a shock to work in Itipini, where we show up around 9:30 and are done by 3.

On the one hand, it is nice to have the time in the afternoon to read and relax while it is still daylight (though the commute eats up significant time on both ends). But on the other hand, part of me wants to scream, “These people are living in horrible conditions. How come we aren’t working round the clock to make them better!” There are a number of talented people working in Itipini. Surely if we all worked longer and harder we’d do more good than we’re doing now.

In fact, I’ve taken this thought further at times and thought about how unjust it is that at the end of a day of work I can return to my electrified home with running water, cook a hot dinner with food that’s been in a refrigerator all day, and generally be warm and safe all night long. If I’m truly to serve the people of Itipini, should I not only work long and hard hours but also actually become one of them as well?

I’ve been reading Thomas Merton’s excellent memoir The Seven Storey Mountain lately and this passage, in which he speaks with a Hindu monk, caught my eye and helped me wrestle with some of these thoughts:

One of the chief reasons he [the monk] gave for the failure of any Christian missionaries to really strike deep into the tremendous populations of Asia was the fact that they maintained themselves on a social level that was too far above the natives. The Church of England, indeed, though they would convert the Indians by maintaining a strict separation – white men in one church, natives in a different church: both of them listening to sermons on brotherly love and unity. [Merton is always looking for opportunities to slam the Anglicans it seems.]

I don’t know anything about missionaries: but I am sure that, by our own standards of living, their life is an arduous and difficult one, and certainly not one that could be regarded as comfortable. And by comparison with life in Europe and America it represents a tremendous sacrifice. Yet I suppose it would literally endanger their lives if they tried to subsist on the standard of living with which the vast majority of Asiatics have to be content.
Perhaps I am too busy quantifying the good we are doing to realize it really can’t be quantified. What matters is that somehow the interactions between the people of Itipini and us build a small part of God’s kingdom in this corner of South Africa. No human or group of humans will ever be able to snap their fingers and make all things well. To use economic terms, I’m not sure what the marginal gain of each additional hour of work would be, though the marginal cost to us would increase the more we worked. So what matters, then, is not how much gets done but that it gets done at all and done well.

Still, part of me can’t shake the thought that it’s all a complicated rationalization for a short work day.

(Of course, there's a ton of behind-the-scenes work that makes Itipini function so smoothly that I am not yet really aware of. I'm sure if I had to do all that, I'd be complaining about working too much.)

Man, this missionary business is tough!

September 5, 2007

First “Ambulance” Call in Mthatha

It was a busy day Monday at the clinic and I was trying to keep the patients in some semblance of order, which is challenging enough in English and even more so in Xhosa. In the middle of it all, two young men walked in, picked up our stretcher, and walked out. They returned in a few minutes with a young man on the stretcher and wordlessly put him down in the middle of the floor. With the help of our after-school program director, who is Xhosa, I was able to figure out that he had just been shot, several times, in a fight.

I had never seen a gun shot wound during my time in the Nome Ambulance Department but quickly swung into EMT mode. He was fairly lucky as the bullet appeared to pass through his abdomen with minimal damage. He did have a broken elbow, however, which was spurting blood. (Ironically, of all the body parts the children have been teaching me in Xhosa, the only one that has stuck so far is the word for elbow – “nqneba.”) We got him bandaged up and put him in the back of our truck to take him to the hospital. My fellow volunteer Robert drove and I rode in the back. “Great,” I thought. “I’m finally doing something and it’s just like Nome!”

Of course, it was nothing like Nome. First, the canopy on the truck bed has about four feet of clearance so I was crouching. Second, I realized how used I was to the machines we had on the ambulances in Nome. I could just hook a patient up to one and get a set of vital signs. On Monday, I had to physically take them, which is not usually hard but becomes much harder on rutted and pothole-strewn roads. I could hardly keep my fingers on a vein long enough to get anything. Third, we had to negotiate downtown Mthatha without lights or sirens. Downtown Mthatha brings new meaning to the word chaotic – pedestrians crossing freely, cars ignoring lane marking, stop lights that barely function, and so and so forth – and I doubt lights or sirens would have helped. Fourth, I had no tools. It was just me, my knowledge, and the patient. No fluids, no needles, no stethoscope, nothing. Fortunately, he was fairly stable without any interventions.

We got the hospital (the shiny new Nelson Mandela showpiece hospital) and handed him over. I took off my gloves and went to wash my hands. And though I searched high and low and found several sinks and soap dispensers, I found no soap at all. And it wasn’t like all the soap dispensers were just temporarily empty. It looked like they had never even seen soap. So I rode back to Itipini with my hands at arms length. We’ve got plenty of soap at the clinic.

What Does Itipini Look Like?

Pictures are worth a thousand words, after all.

And this is the clinic.


After a week of riding shotgun, I have begun driving myself around Mthatha this week and dealing with all the challenges that brings. So far, I think, so good.

South Africans drive on the “wrong” side of the road and while I still occasionally head to the left side of the car to drive, I am more or less adjusting to this difference. Of course, it helps immensely to have a passenger who will start screaming in terror when I forget where I am and revert to the right side of the road.

I also re-learning how to drive a stick shift car. On a theoretical level, I know how to drive stick but on a practical level, I am quite a bit rusty. Fortunately, the car has a forgiving clutch and I haven’t stalled in the middle of any intersections yet.

The biggest challenge is what might be called the driving ethos is Mthatha, which can basically be summarized by saying “anything goes.” I have to drive right through downtown to get to Itipini and it is quite exciting and terrifying, particular as I try to remember to stay on the left, not stall, not hit any pedestrians, and get through intersections with frequently broken traffic lights.

September 3, 2007

Doing and Being

When I look back on my first week in Itipini, I can’t say I’ve actually done anything. Sure, I’ve bandaged a few wounds, helped a few children learn their alphabet a bit better, bought food that’s been distributed to people who need it, and a variety of other small tasks. But when you tally it all up, I’ve hardly accomplished anything.

I was thinking about this mid-way through the week and feeling pretty discouraged. After all, at my old job in Nome, I measured the success of a work day by how many news stories I was able to write, how many minutes of tape I could edit, how many interviews I could get, how many events I could cover. Outside of work, it was the same: how many ambulance runs I could take, how many mountains I could climb, how much activity I could cram into the 24 hours I had each day. As a student, it was also the same: how many papers I could write, how many books I could read, and so on and so forth. I am in the habit of measuring myself by what I am able to do so to be confronted at the end of the week with a wholly inadequate list of accomplishments is somewhat frustrating.

But when I reflect on my week in another light I can be a bit more positive. I was an adult who spent time with children who crave attention and I did so in a mostly loving way that hopefully shone a little joy into their world. I was a welcoming presence at the clinic and smiled at the patients who visited and even when I mangled their language and names, I did it in a way that made us both laugh. I think I treated TB and HIV patients the same way I would treat anyone else, which can’t be said for everyone here. I was willing to spend time in a place I did not have to (and that most other people stay away from if they can) and I did so ungrudgingly. Who I was last week was more important than what I did.

On the one hand, this is great. I thought several times last week as several children turned me into a jungle gym, “I’m getting paid for this. This is fantastic!” On the other hand, if I get to the end of a year and all I can say is, “I was a kind and loving presence to people who don’t see a lot of that,” I doubt I’ll be satisfied. Who we are may, in fact, be more important than what we do but that’s a lot easier to say than it is to internalize and act upon.

Of course, I’ve only been a here a week. Once I figure out how things are done at Itipini, I’m sure I’ll go right back to measuring myself by what I’ve done. But I’ll try to be thankful for this brief period when I primarily cared about who I was.

Becoming a Xhosa Woman

My fellow volunteers and I spent the weekend at a lodge on the Wild Coast known as Bulungulu. The Wild Coast is an undeveloped (and under-visited) part of the South African coastline, famed for its beaches, rolling hills, and much more. Bulungulu is an interesting approach to tourism – part business and part community development. The lodge is 40-percent owned by the local subsistence community and local residents own and operate all the touristy type attractions the lodge offers. On Saturday, we signed up for the “women power” tour, in which we were to spend part of the day living as a Xhosa woman.

Now I have long believed that in many cultures it is women who are the glue of a society (honestly!). The role of men in many societies, it seems, is to take it easy, show up when all the work is done, and claim credit. But it is one thing to objectively “know” this and quite another to actually “do” it.

First, let me say, this tour was the ultimate in Tom Sawyer-ism. Basically, we paid money to help a (very intelligent) young woman with chores she would have had to do anyway: getting water, collecting wood, cooking, washing dishes. I was happy to pay the money, not only because it went directly to her but because it was such an eye-opening experience.

Collecting water is not so hard; it’s the carrying it back on your head that kills you. In this picture, our tour guide is only holding her bucket, I am sure, so I don’t look quite as bad. Girls start learning this at age four and she could easily walk without a helping hand on the bucket.
Collecting wood is harder; you have to go searching through tangled thickets looking for whatever deadwood hasn’t already been picked up by another family. Carrying it back is even harder than the water. You get poked every which way and it’s heavy. When carrying both the water and the wood, I was glad to take a picture because it was a valid excuse to put down the load.
When you’ve got something on your head, you can only look side-to-side and then only gingerly. You can’t look up-or-down to see what you might be about to step on or trip over. And have I mentioned the Wild Coast is renowned for its hilliness?

Cooking and cleaning is not so hard. But is just a steady stream of work, one thing after another. Every time, we sat down to take a break, it seemed, we were told what there was to do next. I managed to get out of a little work by collecting some rocks and entertaining the children with a little juggling.

This morning “tour” nearly did me in so I spent the rest of the day on the beach. It was legendary.

September 2, 2007

Same All Over

Kids... gotta love 'em