I was picked up by my eldest sisi (sister) Ntombi, who turned thirty-two in July. Once we arrived home, I met my baba (father) Japie and my next oldest sisi Nomsa. By day's end, I had met everyone: youngest sister Mbali, sixteen years old, Grade 9; buthi (brother) Bheki, same age as me; mama (mother) Emily; niece Nobonga, age three when I met her, but she turned four in August; and nephew Khulegani, age seven, Grade 2. Our housing situation was set up in a compound style; there was the main house where I my room was, along with Mbali's room and mama and baba's room. Outside there was an L-shaped structure, which housed Bheki, Nomsa and Nobonga, and Ntombi and Khulegani. Our backyard housed several goats and four geese that I hated with all that I've got.
Whether it was because she was the first member of the family that I met, the fact that she was the one that taught me almost everything I needed to know, or a combination of the two and more, Ntombi became the one that I was closest to. Her constant laughter and upbeat attitude kept a smile on my face regardless of the kind of day that I had had. I was very fortunate, in that everyone in my family spoke English, even the kids who spoke just a few words. Sometimes we hit a slight language barrier, but we were always able to explain our way around it. This definitely proved instrumental in my creating a relationship with each of these people, and is something that I am so thankful for.
My first interactions with Khulegani and Nobonga were typical; Khulegani walked into the kitchen after school with friends and his eyes widened to twice their normal size. Nobonga hid behind the doorframe and peeked at me for ten minutes before she came in. But in time, we became friends. Khulegani loves to dance, and would make sure to show Ntombi some new move he had learned that day. Even though he was calling her name, he would always glance my way to make sure I was also paying attention before he began his performance. We also bonded over a game of "kick the football in a triangle" (football; you know, how the rest of the world refers to soccer) and volleyball with a balloon. Nobonga soon became my best friend in the house and my most dedicated isiZulu teacher. Nomsa told me that she dreamed about me one night. "How do you know that?" I asked. "She was saying your name," Nomsa tells me. "Thandi, sweet Thandi." My Zulu name is Thandi. It comes from the verb thanda, which means like or love. Nobonga spent most of her waking hours with her hand in mine. She has little hoops in her ears, and everyday when I'd come home from school or sessions, she would reach out for my earrings. I hung them in her hoops, and she would parade around the house showing everyone. Her favorite phrase of mine to copy was "sizabonana late" and "pashasha;" the first one means "we will see each other later," while the other one apparently means "awesome" in some language in this country.
Mbali and I spent many of our conversations laughing. I'd see her in the morning and greet her and she'd laugh and then say good morning. We shared earrings and nail polish and shirts. I'd be greeted on the street by people that I'd never met before, and later on she'd tell me that it was one of her friends from school who saw me walking once. Her favorite song is "Apologize" by One Republic and her favorite color is pink.
Bheki and I interacted very minimally because he'd wake up for work after I left for school and returned later than me at the end of the day. I didn't see him at dinner either, because in isiNdebele culture, men and women do not eat meals together. (While I learned Zulu and live in KwaZulu Natal, our first host families were isiNdebele. The languages are very close, the cultures relatively different.) The first day Bheki and I met, he handed me a baby goat. I was sitting on the back stoop and he carried this little black goat inside the house, followed by four or so kids. He came back outside and asked if I wanted to hold it, handed it off, and went into his room. I came to love this baby goat, and introduced everyone to him when they came over to meet my fam. I will always associate Bheki with my baby goat.
Nomsa is a great netball player and a talented beader. On Sunday mornings, we would sometimes go running at the soccer field near the house. She is also an excellent cook, and I would try to learn her recipes for tomato sauce (not at all like you'd imagine) and butternut/pumpkin (aka sweet potato). My beaded headdress and earrings and bracelet for our family day were made by Nomsa (photos below). Last but not least, she would crack jokes that left me laughing long after everyone else.
Both of my host parents are loving, happy, strong individuals. On the first afternoon at home, my father talked to me about his life during apartheid. He explained pass cards and what happened if one was out after curfew. Heavy stuff for our first conversation, but fascinating and eye-opening nonetheless. My mother worried when I got home late, told me to put on socks because it was too cold, and dressed me in traditional clothing for family day. She laughed with me and taught me all she could about her family and her culture.
One of my favorite memories was when I came home with my head shaved. I told them I was doing it so it came as no surprise, but I was still greeted with screams and eight pairs of curious hands touching my newly peach-fuzzed head. My other favorite is the picture below. In South Africa, smiling for pictures is not as customary as it is in the United States. Most everyone keeps a solemn face. In the picture below, my dear friend and PCV Vanessa made everyone laugh and snapped a photo just in time. My host dad's smile is the best part, because he is one who always keeps that straight face for pictures. Everyone's smile is beautiful, and that picture is framed here in my room.
My least favorite memory is the morning that I left for site here in KwaZulu Natal. I woke up at five to be out at the tar road with all of my things by six. I was in the bathroom brushing my teeth at the bathtub telling myself "it's okay, I think I can do this without crying too much." Just then, my mother walks out of her bedroom and stands in the doorway. I say good morning and ask how she is. She just shakes her head and looks down. From that moment on, I could not control my tears. Five of them accompanied me to the tar road; baba, Bheki, and Mbali stayed at home to get ready for work and school. Mbali's tear-stained face is burned into my memory, as I'm sure mine is to her. More tears came when the Peace Corps van rolled up. As sad a day as this was, in a way it's good. It's good that we impacted each other to the point that we didn't want to say goodbye. And it's good that I have a place to call my home away from home in this far-off country.