It’s funny how quickly something new and awkward can become a routine. From odd and clunky, it morphs into a well-oiled practice. Classic memories of this growing up include learning to use a fork, throw a baseball, wipe your bum, work a cash register, kiss (my 7th grade self is positively mortified), write an essay, drive a car, pay a bill, etc. These things, while at one point seeming so complex and impossible, become second-nature and potentially even part of multitasking. I’ve noted this quite a few times during my service here. For example: from only being able to focus on balancing the bucket when twala-ing water to being able to simultaneously tote and converse, from nervously calling out my taxi stop to confidently launching over people at the turnoff, or from slowly scouring my grocery store’s aisles to making pinball beelines to my bi-weekly essentials. When arriving at my village – and South Africa in general – I knew that I’d need to transform many new practices into diurnal routines, but what’s been more unexpected is seeing my presence being slowly incorporated into the routines of others. It’s been fun to witness and I hope it doesn’t sound as egotistical as it feels writing it…
There are two main paths to school and, even though it means they have to leave their houses earlier, some learners have altered how they go so that they can walk with me on my path. After 14:30 a clump of learners wait by the school gate so that they can accompany me back up the hill to our houses. Every night my brother comes to my door to say, “Sleep well like a baby baby baby!” When I say that I’m going to cook, instead of asking what I’ll make, most villagers now know to say, “Amaqanda nesinkwa? (Eggs and bread?)” Yes indeed. However, I think my favourite observation of melding into others’ routines is the act of walking to and from school.
When I first arrived at my site last September (almost a year ago!) and started going to school, there was a modest, straggly line of learners that ‘accompanied’ me, if I can even call it that. Perhaps ‘intensely intrigued by the new, blindingly white weirdo and following at a safe distance’ better describes it. At the beginning, when they were near me, they would either be completely silent or whisper to each other in hushed Zulu. They wouldn’t dare speak to me and if I spoke to them, in English or Zulu, their eyes would bulge and they’d practically run away. Throughout my integration phase (September through November), and throughout about 60 days of school – 120 walks – they slowly warmed up to me. They became acclimated to my presence and it was quite neat to notice the phases of their…acceptance, I guess. At first they became comfortable talking to each other normally around me, then they would make eye contact with me, then they would hazard a question directly to me, and eventually they would ask me to dance or play games. The progress made in 2012 made me less of a sore thumb and more of a usual presence in the troupe; the progress made thus far in 2013 has made me seem like almost one of them.
Now, there is usually no holds barred on the goings on during our walks to and from school. Learners will ignore me and blow past as they chase their friends, or prance around being silly, or yell weird things in English to see my reaction (“Don’t touch my Obama!” – ??), or have heated fights in rapid Zulu, or hide in the tall grass to jump out at me, or feel comfortable enough to walk side-by-side with me and have a 40 minute conversation in broken English.
Sometimes it’s almost as if I don’t exist and that makes me so happy because I feel extremely integrated – just one of the bunch who happens to command a classroom on weekdays. I’m reminded of an episode of Modern Family when Phil comments on driving the family minivan. He conveys that being in the driver’s seat almost makes him invisible – his presence isn’t noted by the passengers and all the activity and conversation behind him happens as if he wasn’t there. He enjoys it because he gets to hear his kids talk with their friends, see their true feelings, and probably gains much more insight to their lives than if they were speaking directly with him. Not that I see myself as a parenting figure of the learners (if so, Lord help that child), but it’s been really cool to blend into the fabric of the stroll as if my presence is nothing new or bizarre or intimidating. I can picture a new cover of Abbey Road…a pale chick with a few little kids striding, stumbling, skipping through the bushveld.
In late September my cohort will have its MST (Mid-Service Training). You guessed it – it marks the midpoint of our service and is generally a time of reflection and realistic goal-making. I’ve heard Volunteers look back at the last year of their lives and either can’t believe it’s only been a year or can’t believe it’s been so long, they feel excited for the work they’ve done or disappointed in the lack of results, they can’t wait to enjoy their final year of service or they can’t wait to go home. I’m sure I’ll write another couple posts before or around MST but, in general, I feel quite pleased with my one year of service thus far. It’s been fun to teach English, help where I can with community development, integrate with my family, and delve into what has slowly become routine village life. I’m one happy camper and I hope you are too.