Sunday, October 21, 2012

At Home in the Sand

Now that I've been living here for over a month and a half, it's about time I tell you something about where I will call home for the next two years (or just under that, now). The region that I live in is called the Elephant Coast or Maputaland, located in the north of the KwaZulu-Natal province. A travel book called this region "an eco-tourist mecca." You can see all of the "big five" (lion, elephant, rhinoceros, leopard, and buffalo) here, and you can also go to the beach and see whales, dolphins, and turtles. I sound a little bit like I'm trying to sell you something. Those are the big points; here's a taste of what I live.

My shopping town is called Manguzi. The name means "land of the mangos," which this certainly is. In my yard alone, we have at least a dozen mango trees. Their season is coming up in mid-November, just in time for my birthday. Manguzi is small and has just the basics: we've got two supermarkets (SPAR is better than Boxer), a Target-like branch called PEP, a couple furniture stores, and some other random stores. And there are lots of fruits, veggies, clothes, shoes, etc. sold on the street. I've been unable to find some things that I consider basics (cotton balls, for example) so if you want to send me anything, I'll never say no J

My village and new home is a short ride outside town. When I heard that I'd be living in a village, I imagined some sort of grid setup with neighbors at short distances from one another. Instead, I walk about one kilometer back on a winding sandy road to my house. I sometimes walk on the main sandy road that is wide enough for a single car, but other times I walk the one footpath that I know the route of. There are more walking paths than anything else, and I still have so many of them to learn (I asked my host brother to take a walk with me soon to show me some more of them).

I live about equidistant from the beach and the border with Mozambique. I've also looked into Swaziland from a hill up in the mountains on the South Africa side, so I think I'll have quite the collection of passport stamps when I get back to the States. There are lots and lots of four-wheel drive bakkies here, and at first I didn't understand it. I thought about why we use our 4x4 at home in New York: for those days when we get lots of snow and the roads are slippery and dangerous. Now I get it: the sand here is just as potentially debilitating as snow, especially right after it rains. The day we ventured to the ocean, we had to take a 4x4, and even then we got stuck a couple of times on our way out there.

At home, I live in my own space separate from the house, but on the property of a really wonderful family. At present, it is a little disjointed. My host mom is studying in Pietermaritzburg to become a pastor. My host sister, Zwelethu, is at college in Durban. So at home it is my host dad, two brothers, Ndomiso and Stanley (one sixteen in Grade 10, and the other twenty two, twenty three in mid-December), and gogo. I'm fortunate for the fact that the boys all speak great English, but it's made it so that I use Zulu very rarely. (I'm starting Zulu lessons with a teacher from my school this week, so I'll have the opportunity to learn more and be able to use it more.)

I'm really bad at estimating distances and sizes, but I think I'd say my living space is about 10ish by 15ish feet, maybe a little bigger than that. It functions as both my living and cooking space and because I live in my own place, all of the cooking is up to me. I really like cooking and I've always wanted to get better at it, but I've either been lazy or too busy when I was at home. Now, I'm doing it all the time, oftentimes because I'm bored and want to do something productive. I've been baking fruity things like banana bread and apple pear crisp, and I've been cooking lots of lentils, some potatoes, and butternut squash soup! I'm also perfecting an applesauce recipe. Being vegetarian here is easier than I imagined it would be. First, because there are lots of fresh fruits and veggies to be found, and second, because the meat selection is so repulsive that I wouldn't dare eat it anyway; the word "parts" is notoriously listed under the description of meat being purchased. South Africans are also really into eating things like chicken livers and feet. I think I'll stick with my lentils.

My room is somewhat of a bucket kingdom. I have two big ones for washing clothes, one big one for stored/reserve water, one for bathing, one for transporting water from my tap to my room, one for rinsing dishes, two for washing dishes, and one for peeing in at night when I don't want to walk outside in the darkness to my pit latrine that is often home to several small lizards. At the same time, I have never used so little or reused so much water in my life. When I wash dishes, if they need to soak overnight I use water from my bath to soak them in, then wash them and rinse them in one bucket of water. The water that I use to boil eggs becomes the hot water that helps loosen foods caked onto a pan. Before my bath water is dumped, it is used to wash my hands at the end of the day after hours of being around kids. Another seriously awesome statistic is the amount of water I used to bathe myself every day. I fill up one kettle full of water to boil (1.7 liters). It takes three bowls full of water to fill this kettle. When the water is boiled, I add six bowls of room temperature water to even it out. That totals around five and a half liters. There are 3.8 liters in one gallon. That means I use about one and a half gallons of water each time I bathe. The average American uses 80-100 gallons of water a day, of which baths and showers are at the top of the list for most water used. Most showers use two gallons of water a minute. My entire bathing process takes less water than one minute in the shower.

My school is one of five within walking distance of my house. There are three primaries and two secondaries; primaries are grades R (K) through seven, and secondaries grades eight through twelve. It has just over five hundred learners and eighteen teachers. Grades one through three have 3 or 4 learning areas and four through seven have like 7 or 8; this will change slightly with the new curriculum starting in January, but not by a whole lot. The learners will still make the jump from classes in exams taught in Zulu up to third grade and everything in English (hypothetically, of course) from fourth grade on. The exams being in English is not hypothetical, it is fact, but the instruction being in English is the part that does not always happen. I have spent the past two weeks observing classes. One teacher asked me how her class was as we were walking in one day. I told her it would be helpful if the class (English, Grade 4) was taught more in English and less in Zulu. She responded by saying that their Zulu isn't even that great in some instances. Cue BBM emoticon of a smiley with his hand over his eyes.

The area that I live in has some of the highest HIV rates in the province, let alone the country. The term OVC (orphaned and vulnerable child(ren)) is used a lot, and I imagine that's one of the reasons why. I've never lived in a place where the poverty is so evident. There are dozens of kids at my school who come to school barefoot everyday because they can't afford shoes. At least half of them show up wearing tattered button-down shirts, ripped sweater vests, and pants with stitches in the butt because they've obviously been handed down/worn for years without replacement. There is an up-side to the shoe problem: TOMS Shoes is in the process of signing an agreement with Peace Corps South Africa and they want us to start collecting shoe sizes of learners that don't have them. We will be doing shoe drops in our own communities sometime early next year. I've been torn on how I feel about TOMS for some time now; the idea of paying a little extra to make sure kids like my learners have shoes is a happy fuzzy feeling that everyone wants to be a part of, but what happens to the local economy of the shoe salesman? The local economy example has left with me my reservations, but the idea of being directly involved and seeing firsthand what my little extra money can do has got me rethinking my skepticism.

The climate and topography is unlike anywhere I've ever lived or visited before. There is no such thing as soil here; everything is sand. I have to sweep my house out at least every other day to get it all out. This place is hot. It's been ninety degrees Fahrenheit and people say "kuyashisa (it's hot), but this is nothing." Because that's actually true. On the hottest of hot summer days (coming up in December and January) it can get up to forty degrees Celsius; that's 104 F. That's madness. Also, this place is flat. Like, I saw a small hill and was overjoyed at land that was not all the same level. I'm missing the Hudson Valley like never before, especially now that it's my favorite season and all the leaves are changing colors and I can't see it. You remember the end of high school when you were so tired of everything that you talked about how much you just wanted to get out? I was that person, so I remember it well; and then I ended up staying and going to Bard. Anyway, it's times like this when I/you/we really realize the beauty of home. It's beautiful in a new way here, but I'm still always brought back to thinking about what it's like at home on this day, this season. And I'm left feeling really thankful for being where I'm from.


  1. Diana,
    I tried to comment another time. Hope this works. I love reading your blog. Your life there seems very interesting and an adventure everyday. We will miss you on Thanksgiving. Have a wonderful Birthday. Love Trish

  2. Diana,
    Do you have an address where you can receive things? If yes, is there anything you need? Let me know. Everyone sends their love. Talk to you soon Love, Trish
    PS- My class is learning about Timbutku, Mali and I told them all about you and what you are doing. I showed them on the map where you are. The aide in my classroom told me her sister is a missionary in South Africa the other day. I going to try and find out where she is located.