Monday, October 8, 2012

T.I.(S.)A.: This is (South) Africa

K'naan has a song called T.I.A., which served as the inspiration for the title of this post. The song talks about the more dangerous parts of Africa, specifically in Somalia where he's from. I know nothing about "the city we call Doomsday" or "my Somali niggaz [are] quick to grab the uzi," and I hope I never do. The T.I.(S.)A. I'm talking about is referring to the things I've seen in the three months that I've been in this country: customs, strange and admired; hand gestures; driving practices; etc.

Let's start with greetings. In isiZulu, there are greetings for one person and more than one person. "Sanibonani" is used for groups, "Sawubona" is used for one person. But the greeting you choose depends on the age of the person you're greeting. I can use "Sawubona" for someone younger than me or around the same age as me. If I see a gogo (grandmother), I have to use "Sanibonani" to demonstrate respect. If you're walking on the street by yourself and pass a group of people, it is your responsibility as the single person to initiate the greeting. This culture is all about greetings, even to people you don't know. Each time I'm on a taxi and we stop to pick someone up, they slide open the door and say "Sanibonani" to the passengers already onboard. The passengers respond to that person and they ask each other "ninjani?" (how are you?). Handshakes are also big here, but not like handshakes that we know in the United States. In most cases, you start with a normal handshake once, then you interlock thumbs so you're almost holding the other person's wrist, and then you do one more normal handshake. When you greet younger people, they will usually do the normal handshake followed by almost a thumb shake, where you press your thumbs together and until one person's thumb pushes left and the other's pushes right. Just like with me trying to explain how certain letter combinations sound, this description sounds over-thought and ridiculous, so I'll just have to demonstrate it sometime :)

During one of our training sessions on culture, our training director made a clear distinction between all of us as American trainees and he and his staff as South Africans: "Your country is obsessed with time. You're all always looking at your watches and showing up at 08:55 if you have a meeting that starts at 09:00. Here in South Africa, we may show up to something that was scheduled to begin at 10:00 at 11:00 or half past 11 because someone stopped us on the street to talk, or because we had to help a family member with something. We are more concerned with relationships than time and schedules." As frustrating as that is for someone who makes plans and wants to be able to say "alright, I'll be done with this meeting at 15:30 so I can get home to do x," it's refreshing to learn about the importance of individuals to this culture and its people.

Hand gestures: I've never seen the thumbs up sign used so much in my life, or used it so much myself in everyday goings on. The term "sharp" is used as a response to almost everything, meaning "good" or "great." It's pronounced like "shop" taking into account the British accent that South Africans have when they speak English because they're taught British English here (I'm going to make so many spelling mistakes when I first start teaching). The response we're taught to say when asked how we are is "Ngiyaphila" when responding for one person, "Siyaphila" for "we;" lots of kids just say "sharp" and give a thumbs up. The thumbs up is also used as a way to say hello, especially between taxi drivers. (When I say taxi, the vehicle described is actually a mini van with fourteen seats and a sliding door.) Speaking of taxi drivers and drivers in general, the only time the horn is used is to say hello to other drivers, followed by a thumbs up out the window. There has only been one exception to this practice that I have seen, and that was when we almost rear-ended a truck that stopped short in the middle of the road. Lines painted on the road might as well not be there, because no one abides by them; cars, trucks, and taxis pass each other whenever they want.

Still on hand gestures, when you say something funny, if the person you're talking to thinks it's really funny, they laugh and extend their hand to give you a low five. Sometimes they pat you on the back too. This response lets you know that your sense of humor is appreciated.

Terminology: there is lots of it. A "bakkie" is a pick up truck, and often the main source of transportation in rural areas like the one I live in. Many have bench seats built into the bed of the truck, some even have cushions. Some have caps, but most do not. People pack in the back and ride along long, mostly unpaved roads until they reach their destinations. Peace Corps forbids us to ride in one, unless we sit inside the cab with the driver. A "robot" is a traffic light. I have only seen one of these machines in cities. Soda is called "cold drink" and I confuse the hell out of everyone when I use the first one. French fries are called "chips." Students are called "learners." Math is called "maths." A taxi is called a "khumbi." "Shame" is used when something goes wrong; I usually say "that sucks," but South Africans would just say "shame." "Yoh!/Joh!" is like saying "wow!" "Eish!" is an exclamation used to describe being surprised in a negative way about something (does that even make sense in English?) "Eh heh" is like saying "uh huh," but there is a certain intonation on the e in heh; your voice goes up a little. What we call "bathroom" South Africans call "toilet," which sounds strange to us but is actually the most correct because a pit latrine is just a toilet; good luck finding a sink to wash your hands. A "braii" is a "barbecue." A "rondaval" is essentially a closed-in gazebo with a thatched roof; it's a one room home where gogos sometimes live, but some PCVs live in them too (a PCV is a Peace Corps Volunteer; I hope that one was easy). "Flu" is an all-encompassing term used to describe having a simple cough to legit having the flu, used here in a sentence: "I don't feel well, I have flu."

Terminology continued: "bowl" is pronounced like "bowel." What do we need for the party? Well, we could use some "amabowels" if anyone has extras. That's another thing: ama. If you add "ama" in front of a plural English word, you have the plural Zulu equivalent if such a word does not exist in the Zulu language. Words such as "amaplates," "amaspelling mistakes," and "amanonsense" are all some that I've actually heard used. "What what" is used like "whatnot," or when you can't think of the word you're looking for. "How?!" repeated a minimum of three times is an expression of disbelief or astonishment. I'm probably forgetting some good ones, but this is lots of them.

Religion: is so huge here. Mass can go on for anywhere from one to four hours. Prayer precedes any and all events, and usually includes a lot of yelling. Personal prayer is not like that in the United States. People speak out loud, yell, cry, hands reaching out, hands reaching up. This practice really fascinates me, regardless of the fact that I'm not the slightest bit religious. In our culture, prayer is contained and timed and neat. Here it is whatever one makes of it, whatever they need to say, and I like that a lot; the religion seems less organized, but in a good way.

Stores that sell general items and appliances at very discounted prices are called China or Pakistani shops, depending on the nationality of the owner(s). People pick their nose whenever they feel like it: on the taxi, at the store, in a meeting, at school, etc. I probably see more umbrellas when it's sunny than I do when it's raining; I guess people are more concerned about the strength of the sun than arriving to work with wet clothes?

Personal space is not understood or recognized here. Women carry just about everything on their heads, and it's more amazing than I can express. This country can harmonize like nothing I've ever heard before, even the kids; morning meeting songs at my school everyday are a daily treat. Friends hold hands and put their arms around each other's shoulders regardless of age. One can hold the wrist or hand of the other and it is seen as normal, without any of this "no homo" shit in the United States. People can be friends and show that they're friends and that's alright.

Goats and chickens roam freely: in the streets, on school grounds, on busy roads. Security guards check your receipt and sign it as you walk out of any grocery store. When there is a car accident or someone has a flat tire, there is never only one car on the side of the road. People stop to help out, to see what they can do for that person that is a total and complete stranger. This is called "ubuntu," and is specific to South Africa. "Ubuntu" means something along the lines of "hands washing hands," doing for others as you would do for your own family. It means stopping to talk for hours, and making extra food in case someone stops by right in the middle of your dinner. And it's one of my favorite things about this country, one that I think we as Americans can learn a lot from.

And last but not least, every sunset in this country looks like it's right out of the Lion King.

1 comment:

  1. How very thoughtful and concise your blog is. It
    brings back some good memories. You are fortunate
    to have this experience at an early age.
    I had such when I was 20 touring with my college drama school in Asia entertaining the troops- you learn a lot which shapes your world thereafter. being in Japan and Korea at crucial times and the S Pacific change my whole outlook on life.
    Thinking of all of you-wishing you good health and great experiences! You are giving so much!
    Thank you. Mary Kate Ziesmer.