Monday, November 30, 2009

using small things to help understand the South African mind

One of the quotes I loved from the Kuki Gallman memoir was "Sometimes it takes small things to make the big things bearable."
I have many, many small moments in my days here that make my big adjustment to my African lifestyle more enjoyable.
Many of my small moments come from watching from my window. Here are some shots of my "friends" as observed from my window.
I figured out why mom and dad African red-eyed bulbul were hanging around. Meet bulbul junior. He is my new alarm clock: 4:40 am every morning every day.
Isn't he adorable? And he is loud! So he's practicing his fruit-finding skills on my window sill and letting me know that the chunks I am cutting are still too large!!
The playful goats are my South African version of Emma and Sparky. I love watching the young goats play. They butt heads and rear-up at each other. It is great fun to watch. Last night, I had a young burro run and run circles around the soccer field and his mother. He was having a blast and it was great fun watching him stretch his legs!
The other shot of a goat is my way to say, "By gosh, I will compost one way or the other!!" So, I'm feeding my vegetable scraps to the goats. Actually, their digestion speeds up the composting process. Soil amendment in only a few hours...
The South African mind…

One of the things we Peace Corps volunteers were alerted to during our pre-service training was to expect a different “mindset” from South Africans. It’s hard to describe these differences without sounding critical or condescending, but I will try. I will also keep in mind, “Who says our way (my way) is the right way?”
I see these kinds of differences in many ways every day, so I'm sure to speak more of them.

To describe this African mindset most clearly, I think, I’ll have to borrow someone else’s description, and am sorry to say that I can’t remember where I’ve recently read this. I read a story about a South African merchant who stocked his shelves with a certain product. The product sold so well, it sold off the shelves. Rather than order more of the best-selling product, the merchant decided it was too much trouble to keep stocking the shelves with this product, so he did not reorder.

Now, if you are like me, you may be thinking, “What? Is he crazy? Surely he knows that to restock with this item is the way to make money, to restock is the way to make even more money, and ultimately, to restock his shelves again is the way to make enough money to retire” (so he never has to stock the shelves again).

In America, we would have ordered tons of the stuff; in South Africa, no more was ordered.

Black South Africans originated as a migrating, tribal people, who moved themselves when the weather or other living conditions became inhospitable. I hadn’t really thought about it, but this fact has a huge influence, I think, on how our cultures differ and how our peoples think.

In the US, at least in the Mid-west, we seem to have evolved from an agricultural heritage that relied heavily on the four distinct seasons: spring, summer, fall, and winter. The change of seasons had such an impact on us because we had to work especially hard during the temperate months to produce enough food to carry us through the harsh winter months, when there would be little or no food. In fact, our school calendar has evolved around a farming schedule: kids are out of school during the summer because this was when they were needed to help on the farms.

In this way, I think, Americans have acquired a “need to save for hard times” attitude.

Native South Africans, on the other hand, never had this need to work hard and save for the future because they were always moving if the environment became inhospitable. So there was no need to develop a “save it for a rainy day” attitude. I see this lack of need for forethought affecting many facets of South African life.
The great joke here is that, South Africans are never on time. In America, if you're late everyday to work, you're fired. This is not the case in South Africa. In fact, if you're "on time," you're likely to be the only person in the room. Because I have some compulsivity for being on time, I have noticed this tendency for lateness. However, I see this ""South African mindset" evidenced in many other ways.

For example, the water in our area went out last week and was out for a couple of days. Some of you may remember that when I first arrived on campus, I was without water for several days. I was very sick during this time, so it probably wouldn’t have been such a big deal to me otherwise, but I was impressed enough that I have since been hoarding water for future emergencies.

So, the water had been out for a couple of days, I show up at the college to help “invigilate” an exam. Isn’t invigilate an ugly word? I hate it. It makes me want to say, Gesundheit! after someone says it. It basically means to supervise.
Anyway, there were 600 kids in this room who hadn’t had any water for a couple of days. I was thinking nothing of carrying my little water bottle around (because I had been saving and hoarding water for two months and had some on hand) and when one of the students asked me for water, I withheld it from her on the grounds that it had been awhile since I had washed the bottle and I didn’t want to expose her to my germs. (Native South African’s don’t buy into the whole germs thing either, but that will be a blog for another day.)

Please don’t think I’m so pointedly cruel. At this point, I didn’t realize that EVERYONE had been without water, not just those of us who lived on campus. There was a large water main break north of the village/town and the whole area was without water.

As it turned out, I ended up giving my germy water to another student who nearly passed out because he was so dehydrated. To my horror, bottles of chilled water and soft drinks were brought in for the invigilators, (Gesundheit!) but none for the students. I couldn’t in good consciousness drink these beverages in front of these very thirsty, some dangerously so, students. I ended up giving girl who originally asked for my water my chilled one. (I hope this gesture somewhat redeems me.)

So, I, as an American, had been saving water because I anticipated another series of days of going without. No one else, it seemed, had stored water and there was none on hand.
In America, we would have certainly cancelled school for the day; in South Africa, it the water problem was not even mentioned during the daily staff meeting.
Is one way of thinking right or wrong? No, they are just different. So this is an example of one of the ways I'm trying to adjust my thinking.

There will be more on my understanding of South African thinking to come, and I’m sure this is plenty for now. I’m off to boil some water!

Soon, Karen/Molebogeng
Ps. It seems the South Africans are not going to let me get away with, "I prefer to be called 'Karen,' so Molebogeng it is, at least on "this side."


  1. Thanks for sharing Karen. Now, I want to visit South Africa. Have you started teaching yet?

  2. Hello! The new school year begins in the middle of January. I hope to be teaching in both the primary school and the technical college in my village/location then.

    Let me know when you're coming to SA!

  3. How is your hand? Did you cut it with a 'garden tool'? This is a very sad story. 600 thirsty kids. 600? Need more detail of the room and how you were set up with the other invigilators. That's amazing!