Saturday, June 21, 2008

Besmear One's Mouth

So, I've been busy. I've been writing business plans and grant proposals, and plotting and scheming on how to turn youth into plotting and scheming entrepreneurs, and, of course, computer solitaire. This is all good, and I feel productive (except for the computer solitaire, but it does promote problem-solving skills), but I haven't had much time or will to study the language.

Oh, it's so easy not to study. Most people know English. Although Northern Sotho is spoken by 4 million people, all of them live in one general region in South Africa, it doesn't count for another language when applying to Johns Hopkins PhD program in international development, I'm not good at learning languages, etc., etc. However, what I learned in Japan, and again learning kiSwahili in Kenya and Tanzania, is that nothing gives you more insight into another culture than by learning the language. Plus, everyone at the office is bugging me to learn it. So, I'm learning. Or, as they say, "Ke a ithuta."

I found this great website that has an online Northern Sotho dictionary, with some audio files attached to some words ( for those of you who are interested), so I was going through the "hl" words trying to find a good audio example. It's a tricky, lispy sound that I often confuse with the tricky, lispy sound of "tl" and I wanted to tell the difference. As I was going through my dictionary, I found the word "hlamukela" meaning to besmear one's mouth. Now, my English has gone to hell, but I can't ever remember using the word "besmear" even though I vaguely know what it means. But to besmear one's mouth? What does that mean? So, I enter the word in the handy-dandy online dictionary and find this: "besmear one's mouth and hands with fat when eating."

This is now my new favorite word.

And, you know what, it does say something about a culture that has a word that means to besmear one's mouth and hands with fat when eating. I don't know how much the word is used, but that word exists. And what it means about the culture is that people eat with their hands and eat a lot of meat, meat with fat that can be besmeared. And yes, I have experienced that result. I live here after all. I just didn't know there was a word for it.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

What Was That?

I glanced over at my friend's house the other day and though to myself "Wait. Is that a HORSE in her backyard?" Then I thought, "No, silly! It's a cow." And so it was.

Monday, June 9, 2008

A Day in the Life Of…

Friday wasn’t exactly typical, but it wasn’t exactly atypical either. For those curious to what I do all day, this blog entry is intended to enlighten and explain. So sit back, crack open a cold one, and enjoy.

It’s autumn here, so getting chilly and extra hard to get out of bed. I eventually flipped back the covers, knowing that I couldn’t be late. We’re going to Polokwane, partially for doing our annual planning with the management team, partially for a candlelight memorial service for AIDS victims. Our peer support group came for the memorial service, a group of HIV + women who have been together, in some cases, for years. The service will be part support group and part candles. A busy day.

But, first things first. My toilet is a pit latrine, not bad as outhouses go, but it’s made out of corrugated aluminum, so it’s a little shaky. I use it as little as possible, about once a day. The rest of the time when nature calls, I use the outhouse at work (cement and sturdy, although not comfortable for someone with long legs, as Angela, my tall and leggy step-mom, can attest to) or my “chamber pot,” a cute little bucket that is now one of my favorite possessions. On my way to the outhouse, I was joined by the neighbor’s dog. She’s trying to get me to adopt her, so she spends a lot of time at my house. Unfortunately, it’s not a good idea to give dogs too much attention here (they get out of control, then put back in their place, something I don’t like to be a party to), so I don’t give her too much. Still, she knows there’s a dog-lover just beneath the surface, plus I scratch her head and occasionally give her my left-overs, so she follows me around. So, I go to the toilet, enjoy the view of the maize field, keep the dog from getting too frisky, then continue on my way.

As I leave my house, I catch up with Pheladi, my neighbor and co-worker. She (and everyone I meet after that) make a big deal of my new shoes and the fact I’m wearing a skirt. It’s not often that I look pretty! I catch a lift with the van hired to take us to Polokwane, a whole four blocks. Nnana, another manager, is already on the van. I get to the office at 8:30. We’re supposed to leave at 9:00. (Cue the foreboding music).

I printed out the draft I made of the annual plan (I promise, this will get interesting soon). Then I wait. Sometimes I sit in the van, sometimes the office. I’m especially shy today because there’s a lot of new people, and although I’m studying Sepedi, I’m not speaking or understanding much, so I get a little intimidated. It’s 9:30, and people are starting to pile in the van. I pick out a seat, but no one I know sits near me. The peer group mostly avoids me, although everyone says hello, and then, we’re off!

[Flashback] Once, in DC, I went to a club that set up their sound system so that you could FEEL the music if you stood in a certain place. The bass would throb under your sternum and your joints would pulse with the drums. Although this was supposed to be a good thing, it wasn’t an exactly pleasurable experience for me. But this is what I thought about as we traveled to Polokwane, although the music was gospel and we were in a van. Pretty soon, there was dancing in the aisles, and loud singing complementing the loud gospel on the MP3 player (of course they have MP3 players in the cars here! They just don’t work very well). I loved seeing how excited everyone was, and although I was stuck in a seat where I couldn’t dance, I started learning the songs and singing along. One was pretty easy, and with the help of my dictionary, I could actually translate it: “O ska ganana tu.” “O ska” basically means “Don’t” and “ganana,” according to the dictionary, means “reject each other.” “Tu” I have no idea, and still don’t. However, I thought this was an amazing message for an AIDS support group, especially since stigma is such a problem here and keeps people from getting the care they need. This song, along with about five others, was played over and over on the 40 min trip to Polokwane.

Oh and for those of you sad for me because I was sitting alone, we picked someone else up in Lebowakgomo, my shopping town, and she sat next to me. She had no choice. But she was very nice about it.

From there, we went to the hotel that I had been at before for management training (see previous post). We even used the same room with the mints on the table and bottles of water. So, the peer group did their thing, and we went and worked on our annual plan, which I am actually quite excited about. We’re going to start a job training program for our older orphans, and right now, I’m working on the computer training part. But that story’s for another day…

Then was a tea break, and what should be on TV, but wrestling! And not just any wrestling, but World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), with their master villains and corny, obnoxious posturing and smack-talk. I have a lot of moments like this in South Africa, where I wonder, “Where am I? What is this doing here?” But wrestling, like KFC and Beyonce, is EVERYWHERE. I mean, I knew that “American” multi-nationals were taking over the world, but it’s still so strange to go from goats to WWE. And the funny thing is, I was downloading podcasts from NPR’s “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” and they had Jesse Ventura on as the special guest. So, I had a wrestler for governor and wrestlers in South Africa within two days of each other. Go figure.

After the break, we went and joined the peer group and had our candlelight ceremony. The speaker had just given a very inspiring talk on going out and working with other HIV+ people, and these women seemed ready to do it. There were 16 women, from early twenties to mid-fifties, all HIV+ and all there for each other. After the ceremony, more singing, more dancing, and then, best of all, lots of hugging. I was pulled into the middle of all these singing, clapping whirlwinds of inspiration, and I just felt so surrounded by peace and love. And that’s a rare feeling for me these days.

But these moments are here, lurking beneath the surface. It’s so easy to see the violence and feel scared, or sad, or angry. But I’m lucky enough to also see the people who are doing what they can, in spite of personal struggles, bad luck, children, death, lack of education, and lack of money, and those are the people I want to work with for the rest of my life.

On the journey home, I got a seat where I, too, could stand up and dance. So I did. And sang along with the best of them. And when I told Mokgadi, my supervisor, the translation of “O ska ganana tu,” she laughed and said “no, no, no.” You see, I had forgotten that “k” often sounds like “g” (which I should know, because my African name, Karabo, sounds like “Ga-ra-bo.”) “O ska kanana tu,” or whatever the actual words are, mean “We’re all going to Canaan.” Oh well. Not quite the message I though it was. But it’s still a catchy tune.