Be it how it will, do right now.

…And We’re Back!

Apologies for the brief interruption, ladies and gentlemen; the show now continues. Sort of. In actuality, I’ll remain without regular access to the intertubes for several more weeks (through the end of training). Some time in early September, I hope to acquire a USB modem for ye olde laptop and should be able to post more regularly; so my apologies until then for the extended absence from email, blog, facebook, and the like.

Details: I’m living with a host family in a small village called Waterval B, about two hours east of Pretoria. If you google map-it, I’m told the larger township (SA for small town) of Waterval does pop up; that’s more or less where I’m bedding down these days.

In Waterval B (Afrikaans for waterfall but, alas, said waterfall does not exist), there are two paved or “tar” roads and all the homes branch out along smaller dirt roads. Most community members keep some combination of cows, goats, pigs, and chickens – mostly for slaughter at culturally important ceremonies (I was honored with cow intestine after a funeral last week – but more on that later). These guys wander the streets as if they own the place and, occasionally (like when one encounters 50 horned head of cattle walking toward you), they do. Water flows easily from taps in the yards and has only been “off” one day this week. Yes, I relieve myself in a pit latrine out back (though I’m pretty lucky as my family has a modern one with attached toilet seat) and wash in the evening with a basin and washcloth.

All this has been relatively easy to adjust to… I enjoy the serenity found in bucket baths; their slow, methodical pace is a welcome respite from gregarious, dusty days. Unsurprisingly, utilizing the facilities here retains the same basic element found in the states of dispelling waste into a hole in the ground. And y’all know how I feel about animals, so we all get along swimmingly. The most challenging adjustment thus far has really been SA-cans heavy reliance on starch in their diet. The effect of meals of potato, maize porridge (pap), chicken, and well-steamed spinach on my digestive system has been, shall we say, limiting. Thankfully, the foodie in me has been on the offensive, and I’ve already introduced salads of raw veggies (w/o pasta!) and lunches of avocado and cucumber sandwiches to my family. And everyone in my language group (19 of us in Waterval B, of the total 52 in our PCT group) is exceedingly health conscious, so there’s a lot of bonding over raw spinach and the presence of a bell pepper in someone’s lunch.

In fairness, however, I must give credit to my Mama (term of respect for older women, as is Baba for men), probably the best cook in Waterval B and certainly the matriarch of my side of the village. She is a former caterer, experienced volunteer herself, and generally wizened women. The second night in her home, she and I discussed xenophobia over tea in broken English. She told me how excited she had been when she learned that they had been approved by PC to host a volunteer, because “of the importance of the work you are doing with our children.” Wow.

She cares for 9 children (four biological, four foster, and one granddaughter) and her husband (my Baba) drives a commuter bus to and from Pretoria every day, leaving home at 4am and returning at 9pm. Mama knows every little thing going on in the village at any given time; she’s like the internet of Waterval B. I know this because she will ask me about my day in the evening and when I don’t cover everything, she prompts me for a story I forgot happened. I also know this because she fills me in on things my fellow trainees did that day before they’ve even told me.

She’s able to do this because social conversation and greeting is a large part of the culture here and it is considered rude if you do not stop and greet someone everywhere you go. A trip to the local tuck shop (think corner bodega) for a loaf of bread often takes thirty minutes. This, then, is why my days are both dusty and gregarious, as I have taken avidly to said system. Most people here have never seen an umlungu (white person) in their village before, never mind one who speaks their language (or attempts to, anyway). There is a potent and sustained joy found in the shocked expressions on children’s faces and surprised smiles of passing men and women when I greet them in isiNdebele. It is considered an honor, as for the last fifty years black men and women were expected to learn Afrikaans and English (not the other way around). I greet everyone.

–Which brings up another challenge: Waterval B is a primarily isiNdebele-speaking community, but my formal language training is in siSwati. siSwati is the language spoken in, you guessed it, Swaziland, as well as certain regions of SA (like Nelspruit, where I will most likely end up for my two-year term, btw). And while the languages are related (both are members of the Nguni family) and more or less understood by both parties, there are significant differences in the spelling and pronunciation of verbs and nouns. So, PC has placed eleven siSwati students (the other 8 are learning isiNdebele) in an Ndebele village with Ndebele families – not exactly the most conducive learning environment. As they will tell you, PC training places a special emphasis on CBL (or Community Based Learning), a process that encourages active engagement of one’s target language in the homestay and around town. Yeah…

All in all, I’m thrilled. My entire class (SA22, the twenty-second group of PCVs to come through South Africa) is great, a quirky grab bag of big-hearted do-gooders from around the country. Many are teachers, most from low-income, low-resource communities. Several are retired, while a few more are fresh out of undergrad. Of the non-married, under-50 trainees, this cool cat from LA and myself are the oldest. I like it. I’m big brother to several guys and gals and a friendly ear for others. We’re a good group, full of real knowledge and experience, but also goofy and amiable. I’m proud and happy to be here with them.

We’ve started school visits this week, which I hope to get into in my next post. As well as the story of “Matt’s First Adventure with Fried Cow’s Intestine” and the novella, Chicken Feet Aren’t So Bad Once You Get Past the Toenail. In the meantime, please send me emails! Jesse’s kindle miraculously has dial-up access to the internet and there is nothing so tantalizing as being able to see email from friends in your inbox and taking 10 minutes for the text to load. Refrain from FB, if you can, as the security measures dissuade me from logging in regularly. And if you feel so inclined, the following items would be absolutely wonderful to receive in the mail (in addition to your lovely letters), as they have thus far proven difficult to obtain here:

-Gum!!! Especially spearmint and peppermint flavors of Orbitz

-Small bags of individually-wrapped Jolly Ranchers (any flavors)

-Hershey’s (and other US-chocolate) bars, wrapped in plastic (if they melt, I can re-form)

-Power Bars, Odwalla bars, and generally anything small and packing energy like that

-The latest and greatest in Hollywood productions, especially on Region 1 DVDs or on flash drives

Remember to mark the value of goods as zero dollars (or very low) and indicate on the packaging that they are donated or religious materials. While this helps packages slip by sticky-fingered customs agents, it’s even more helpful in avoiding high-priced duties. And no boxes please, no matter how small. Padded shipping envelopes are best. My most earnest thanks for your generosity and thoughtfulness!

Please send any and all mail to the following address until I have my permanent homestay address.

Matt Kertman

Peace Corps

PO Box 9536

Pretoria 0001

South Africa

That’s all for now, dear reader. I miss you, I love you, and I send my warmest thoughts and prayers your way.

Stay tuned for the next edition… … … Ngijabulile!

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One response

  1. marilynbuehler

    Hi Matt, Just getting time to catch up with your blog. It appears from your list of wanted items that you are eating a little dust on a daily basis… It is quite a modern list and I am surprised that I think I would make the same list.
    How fascinating that you have learned some new language…language is your key in life to open the mysteries of it…
    I had a long and wonderful lunch with Kate Glantz and she told me some detailed and hilarious stories. She mentioned the greetings and the giftings and then told me of a night where she was afraid at the first and her family had to keep her on the phone to calm her down. She looks radiant and her entire philosophy has been altered by this experience. I think that you must try and meet with her. I am still hoping to come there while you and the others are there.
    I am thinking of you every day and know that you are living the dream that you have of your life. This is comforting for us teachers who follow you with huge eyes…in Cry, Beloved Country, do you remember the greetings in the book? “Go well, umfundisi”…do you have particular greetings that you use when you meet and greet others? I am imagining that you are very popular there already.
    I am hopeful you are keeping a private diary there that describes your innermost thoughts so that you may remember always. I guess my questions to you would be things like what are these new experiences awakening in your heart, your mind, your beliefs? I would love living in another language and have been told that it is an enlightening experience.
    On a lighter side, I just came from Colorado where the mountains absolutely bring out the best in me. Sixty-six degrees at nite with all the windows open and reading something until wee hours in the morning awakes the life in me and staring at a full moon at the top of the Rockies is my bliss for now. I am thinking you are looking at the moon as well. Go well,Matt. Be well, Matt. The earth is under you and surrounds you with joy. Love, B.

    August 10, 2010 at 4:00 AM

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