Yesterday I did something amazing…I walked through crunchy, dead leaves. You know the kind – copper brown, piled up, and just asking for a whooping. I’d say it’s officially autumn now! About time too, I’ve been waiting 16 months for this season. Term 1 finished on 28 March so all education Volunteers have been, and still are, enjoying a week off. I’m actually in a kind of blissful trance right now; this entire past week has been topless (…I originally wrote that trying to convey that my week couldn’t be topped and now it’s just too funny to change). A cursory glance at what I’m going to write about: an infection, Chinese food babies, Siyabuswa homecoming, “seeing” some of my American roots, and (mostly) smooth travels in between…
Well. I finally got the chicken pox of Peace Corps: tick bite fever. I guess it’s kind of a rite of passage here – a passage wrought with intense aches, little sleep, fever/chills, and general “blah”ness. I got the bite either from hiking recently or from my cat (I know, I’m shocked too: I finally found a cat I like), and the little blood s(f)ucker staked claim near my right armpit (that was probably the best part of the infection; I can think of a few other choice spots that could’ve made matters worse). Peace Corps Medical was amazingly feisty and after a couple days of some good ol’ South African-American TLC (a colossal ‘thank you’ for all your support!), this little Volunteer was back on her feet. And just in time too, because I had planned to go visit my PST host family in Mpumalanga. I couldn’t comprehend that it had been seven months since I’d left them and I was insanely excited to roll up to my new-old-new-again digs.
On Friday, my good friend Katie and I travelled to Pretoria together before splitting up on exciting agendas. Can you imagine two PCVs, who take an occasional trip to town to buy food, in a city with restaurants? Although we finally had options, we knew what we had wanted for months: Chinese food. Katie and I enjoyed a delicious, romantic meal for two and left with enough girth for four: our souvenir food babies. A Good Friday indeed. The next day we split up to connect with our respective families – Katie’s was to arrive from America and I was off to Siyabuswa, Mpumalanga to visit my original South African one. It was my first time travelling there from Pretoria via public transport and my voyage was…exciting. I was the last person on the last taxi to Siyabuswa and, silly me, I didn’t realize that the van wouldn’t simply pull up to the taxi rank I knew and loved last August. No, no, I was supposed to holler when I wanted off but was inconveniently zoned out. Luckily my seatmate took pity on me and used her wily local language to tell the driver what I needed.
Only when I was booted out and left in the dust did I learn that this particular taxi was only scheduled to pass by Siyabuswa (and already had) on the way to its real destination. So, there I was on the side of the road at sunset, feeling like I knew no more than I did in August – quite fitting for the situation, really. Luckily there was a private taxi nearby and, after the driver spoke with my frantic Ndebele family on the phone, I was on my way. Although there’s nothing like a “don’t worry, my sister, you’re safe with me” to achieve the opposite effect, I arrived at my first Peace Corps home and instantly forgot all about the past hour. Y’all, it was incredible. Seeing my sisters beam, my little nieces light up as they remembered me and launched into my arms, and my Mama yelling for her “lastborn” makes me tear up even as I write this, not to mention the Lake Bramblett I became as it was happening.
We all had a fantastic couple days together, cooking, singing, walking around, and playing. I was able to tour my old stomping grounds as a young PCT last year and it was neat to see the same things but in an entirely new light…the tuck shops, the soccer field, the houses, the chores, the people (Hau! Ubuyile?! – Woah! You came back?!). One of the coolest things was getting updates on my family: my sister Zanele started volunteering at a school and is writing stories for a publishing company, my other sister Yvonne is finishing her second to last year at engineering school and started an in-home business for printing/faxing/ copying/what have you, Mama is still rocking being a mama, and all the kids have grown, improved in English, and are just as lively if not more so. I apologize if this is redundant, but I cannot adequately describe what it felt like to be back with them. The experience of re-visiting my first family was one of the most, if not the most, powerful occasions I’ve had in South Africa. Truly connecting with people is unrivalled.
I’m not sure if I’ll see the Mtsweni family again – I sure hope so, but who knows. Due to that uncertainty, Tuesday’s farewell was really difficult. The hardest was saying goodbye to Mbali and Nonthando…4 year olds really give the best hugs. And then I was off because, in Peace Corps, nothing’s permanent (except, hopefully, any sustainable work you do).
Travelling home was the simplest, breeziest, least harassment, most varied transportation I’ve had over here. On Tuesday I took a mega bus, hopped onto a train basically as it started moving, and stayed overnight in Pretoria where I was able to use the mysterious concept of Wifi. It was weird to use lightning fast Internet on an actual computer – I even got to Skype with my parents and gogo as well as one of my besties Michelle! It’s so powerful to actually see the faces of the people with whom you communicate. After feeding my soul with Skype, I fed my tummy with another Chinese food baby and then my deprived hygiene with a hot shower. Pampered in Pretoria.
Wednesday brought the home stretch of travel back to my village. On the morning train, I had this temporarily emotional time: I don’t know why but with every person I saw disembarking I got really sad because I knew I’d never see them again. I hadn’t spoken to any of them so I didn’t know their name or language or astrological sign but for some reason I didn’t want to let them leave. Go figure…I’ll just chalk it up to the fact that my week was heavily based on personal connections. Last in my journey were two final taxis and each instance I only waited 15 minutes (it’s not uncommon to wait for hours). Then I was back at site! My village had gotten a bit chillier, windier, and rainier while I was gone so now I’ve returned to the lifestyle of bundling up and using candlelight to type. I’m so excited because tomorrow I’ll get to meet Katie’s American family. Yeehaw!
Some observations, realizations, and funny moments I had whilst visiting the Mtswenis:
– I’m a permanent member of a safari: Mtsweni means ‘monkey’ and Ndlovu means ‘elephant’
– It’s interesting how the more developed an area is, the more compartmentalized it is. In my rural KZN village, everyone takes mass transport together and there are no fences around any houses – neighbours drop by all day long to socialize, eat, and do chores together. In Siyabuswa, a township of sorts, there are more individually-owned cars but it’s still mainly mass transport and the houses are much closer together but all have sturdy, dividing fences. In cities, most people drive alone with locked car doors, have high fences, barbed wire and security systems, and may not know the names of their neighbours. Hmm.
– The whole time I was visiting them, the new 2-year-old cousin at the residence kept trying to put his finger up my bumhole. That’s certainly one way to get to know someone quickly and efficiently.
– I was finally able to compare my two living situations: Siyabuswa and central KZN. I really saw how development truly benefits kids, learners, adults, everyone. In Siyabuswa, having electricity and regularly seeing/hearing media has exponentially improved people’s English. Silindile, my Mtsweni cousin in grade 2, is taller, heavier, and healthier than any of my grade 6s in the village. Philisiwe, my Mtsweni cousin in grade 7, has better English than any grade 12 I’ve met in my village. Visiting my temporary placement affirmed and re-ignited the reasons for how I can be of aid in my permanent placement.
– I didn’t take too many pictures on the trip. I may be unhappy with this down the line, but I was channelling something that my friend Kit inadvertently instilled in me on our adventure in Malawi back in 2007. Instead of always fiddling with buttons and trying to capture moments, why not set the camera down, enter the present, and fully participate in the moment? It’s pretty rewarding.
– In Ndebele, “khuwa” means “white person”. I learned that, in colloquial language, if a person is only nibbling at food, someone will say “Idla ngekhuwa!” – “You’re eating like a white person!”
– I was able to visit the house where, during PST, my language group met five times a week to attempt learning isiZulu. I will never forget turning a corner, seeing the house gogo sitting on the soil peeling potatoes, and feeling her emotional expression when our eyes met. Tears, tears, tears.
– The Mtswenis are fairly well off, compared to their immediate surroundings. Sadly, this is due to an unfortunate road accident in 2007 where they lost Baba Mtsweni and were given a large lump sum from the Mpumalanga Department of Transportation. This has allowed the Mtsweni household to undergo a makeover of sorts – they have an indoor flushing toilet, a TV and DVD player, two computers and a printer, a brand new kitchen, and cabinets in every bedroom. The kitchen and cabinet installations happened in my absence. It’s
intriguing to compare that home to ones I see in my village. Thatched roof dwellings with cow dung floors and only the bare essentials versus a modernized, more lavish living style that encourages purchasing and amassing items to keep in said cabinets. As I’ve stated above, the more developed areas are positive in many ways but as you note a pro in a situation, you just may find that there’s a hidden con as well.
Signing off to make coffee and heat up these ol’ bones of mine. Lots of love!