June 7, 2008

“Usazi isiXhosa!”

One of my favourite things to do at Itipini is to sit around with some of the dozen or so women we employ to cook food, distribute food, and clean. Often, during a slow moment, I’ll take a seat in the kitchen or the craft room or wherever the crowd is and try to join in the conversation.

I say “try” because, of course, the conversation is entirely in Xhosa and these moments are most valuable because it allows me a chance to work on my language skills. I’m thankful that my relationship with these women is such that I can feel free to mess up in front of them and know I’ll still be welcome. The few of them who do know a bit of English now will only talk to me in Xhosa because they want me to practice. At times when I pull off a complicated thought in gramatically-correct Xhosa or throw out an advanced vocabulary word, they’ll use the all-purpose expression of surprise around here - “yho!” - and exclaim, “usazi isiXhosa!” (“you know Xhosa!”). Hearing that is always like a little pat on the back for me and inspires me to continue my language struggle.

One thing these women cannot figure out is why I am not married. I always insist that I am too young for marriage but they just snort in derision at that. This is a frequent topic of conversation and has led to several new vocabulary words, notably “isishumane” (a bachelor but with the connotation that the man is afraid of women) and “ulewu” (a man with several girlfriends, a playboy). Debate raged for a few weeks (it has since died down, thankfully) about which one I was. On the one hand, there was the attention I attract from all the young women I see every day that seemed to indicate lewu status. But on the other hand, I don’t have an isithandwa (lover) so I must be a isishumane. I threw this picture from my 20th birthday into the mix one day and it created more turmoil.

I realize I have not yet written much about these women, who, because they are my co-workers, are a fundamental part of my daily life and some of my closest friends here. Their stories are some of the ones I know best and I am always amazed at the obstacles they overcome every single day just to survive. I’ll try to write more about them someday but in the meantime here are some pictures.