Honoring Heritage

Happy Heritage Day! This South African public holiday celebrates the many diverse cultures, traditions and beliefs in the country. The secondary school in my village hosted a celebration and invited me to give a presentation on HIV as part of the event.
Totally panicked, I asked for help from some of my coworkers at my organization (LCCS) and the youth sports organization (YASPO). I wanted to be sure the learners understood us, so my counterparts led the session in Setswana. It was a lot of pressure to put on them, but thankfully they rose to the occasion. I was really excited to see how they stepped up to the challenge!

Counterparts from LCCS & YASPO leading the HIV session

We used a modified version of the Fact or Nonsense game from Grassroot Soccer. Learners (students) would listen to a statement about HIV, such as “You can only get HIV from blood-to-blood contact,” then put their hands on their head if they agreed and their hands on their hips if they disagreed. It was a bit challenging in the large hall, but generally we managed to pull it off. We wrapped up with me talking for a few minutes on the importance of exercises and leading everyone in some basic stretches. 

Learners taking a stand on statements about HIV

Then we were treated to some really incredible performances. Two students did spoken word performances, including a very moving piece on domestic violence. Other learners performed traditional songs and dances. There was even a 30 minute play about HIV that was so good, it felt like I was watching a South African soapie. The learners were really excited when their teachers performed an amazing choreographed routine. It was an amazing celebration of pride and love for the Setwana culture and South Africa, and it was an incredible first Heritage Day for me.

A very talented learner doing a powerful spoken word performance on domestic abuse

Amazing traditional dancing by learners!

Another learner reciting an original poem on pride in her culture and nation

Do you have different stories about experiences of Heritage Day or other holidays celebrating culture? Share them in the comments!


Mandela Day

Please excuse this long-overdue post about Mandela Day (July 18)! With all of the traveling and catching up, I finally made time this week to sit down and write about the amazing event our community held honoring Nelson Mandela.

Recently, two dedicated community members, Pitso and Sophy, formed an NPO forum for our ward. They want to help the NPOs work together and access greater opportunities. The NPOs in my area work very hard for very little compensation and often cannot put on large-scale events due to the low funding they receive. The forum helped them band together and create a very memorable day celebrating the birthday of world-renowned leader, Nelson Mandela. The event was fully funded through the forum members’ efforts to get donations from local small businesses.

Pitso and Sophy celebrating a successful Mandela Day

July 18 dawned bright and early, and those of us from the participating NPOs were busy at work peeling, chopping, cooking, and setting up for the event. My duties were to help with cooking and to be the official photographer (despite my total lack of camera skills). We hoped to have about 100 people or so. Throughout the day, we passed out food parcels and blanket donations to families in need, and several youth from the community performed tributes to Mandela through poetry, dancing, and rapping. One local group performed some musical selections from the very popular musical Sarafina. By the end of the day, we had over 250 people, and the chief for our area even came!

Local youth putting on some great selections from Sarafina

Passing out blanket donations!

It was a joyous celebration. These are the kinds of days that I live for as a PCV—seeing my community come together and do so much with so little. I can’t wait for next year’s Mandela Day!

The awesome ladies behind the event

Lenyalo la buti wa ka! (My Brother’s Wedding)


My gogo, who I call Mma, and host brother Andrew walking down the aisle

This week was all about the impending wedding of my host brother, Andrew, and his fiancée, Mantoba.  We had community members and relatives at the house round the clock cooking, cleaning, setting up, and dropping off contributions such as drinks, food, plates, etc. South African weddings are quite a lot of work! The most recent PCV, Barbara, also came to visit for the wedding, so we were roommates for the weekend.

Andrew and Mantoba’s wedding was two days: the first day, Saturday, was the “white wedding” ceremony. This was similar to American wedding ceremonies. After that was a more traditional South African reception at the bride’s house, and day 2 was a traditional reception at the groom’s house where I live. My family hired some of our relatives to do catering, but unlike most American weddings that I’ve been to, the bulk of the cooking and clean-up crew was family and friends who helped out as their contribution to the wedding. Friday was a buzz of activity, and I helped a bit with cooking. Although we have an oven, we mainly cooked over the fire in giant pots to accommodate the large servings. I helped stir the cabbage and tried to help with the pap (a traditional South African dish made from corn that’s similar to mashed potatoes), but I couldn’t stir fast enough! Saturday morning we headed to the lodge for the wedding ceremony, which was decorated magnificently. Margaret, one of our relatives, took pity on me and helped me to tie my headwrap- she did a great job, but I did feel like I was channeling Chiquita Banana! Sadly, my camera died early on in the ceremony, so I only have a few photos. Andrew danced down the aisle with Mma, and I teared up a little. We’ve only been family for a short time, but I am so grateful to be living with such wonderful people! Next were the bridesmaids and groomsmen; Andrew and Mantoba’s son and ringbearer, Ditiro, who was wearing a sign that said, “Daddy, here comes our girl!;” and finally, Mantoba, who looked incredible, with her father. The priest, Father Vincent, gave a speech in SeTswana, punctuated by traditional wedding songs. I don’t know how the audience knew when to sing which song, but they were beautiful! My favorite was one that goes: “Andrew namela thaba, o ba botse goreng wena o nyetse” or “Andrew is climbing the mountain, he must tell them why [he] is married” (rough translation, and please excuse any misspelling). Two of my cohort members came to visit, and it was also great to catch up with them and share my first South African wedding!

One of my relatives, Mma, my cousin Mapula, and my cousin Sthupi dressed to the nines for the wedding

Sthuphi and I

After that, we all piled on the bus that my family hired to drive to the village next to mine for the bride’s traditional reception. A friend of mine explained that the family kept the gate open to show that anyone in the community is welcome, and there were hundreds of people there. There was a lot of singing, dancing, speeches, and delicious food. We ate ting (fermented pap- it tastes better than it sounds), beef, chicken, salad, morogo (a local green similar to spinach), and rice. At one point, a procession of people wearing face paint, fake noses, and other costumes walked in led by a man in a wedding dress. This was the groom’s family come to poke some light-hearted fun, and the next day this would be replicated at the groom’s reception by the bride’s family. We left around four to ensure my friends got the taxi home before dark and so that I could go help with food prep for the reception at our house the next day. I helped peel and chop butternut squash and potatoes for several hours, enjoying the company of dozens of women from my village. I was so slow in comparison to them, but I ingratiated myself by practicing my Tswana and attempting to join in the impromptu singing. Around 10 P.M., Andrew and Mantoba returned to the house as a married couple. All of the people helping (which was at least 50) swarmed our gate, singing and dancing, as they drove in. A neighbor explained that the bride is stopped at the gate to pay the previously agreed-upon dowry, or labola, if it hasn’t been paid already. She also explained that the bride arrived so late as symbolic of her father’s reluctance to let her go, which I thought was sweet. The prep and set up continued until at least 2 A.M., but Barbara and I were exhausted so we headed to bed.

The following day I was up bright and early to help with food prep. My host family all went to church, but I stayed behind to chop spinach and peel carrots. I became fast friends with my companion, Lekeledi, who is part of a group that runs a self-funded charity to feed destitute families in Pretoria and to provide them with hygiene kits, school uniforms, and school fees. She told me that her dream is to start her own non-profit that focuses on enabling girls to get an education and have more opportunities, and she was inspired by her own struggles to pay for and access her education. I was very inspired by her passion and commitment to women’s empowerment, and we exchanged information to stay in touch! Our house was insanely busy, and I barely managed to bathe and change before the reception started. A big brass band came in to herald the start, followed by a great women’s dance group. Afterward, the bride’s uncle came bearing gifts, including an umbrella with rand (the local currency) paperclipped to an umbrella. This was followed by the bride’s family doing their mock procession.  The bride and groom returned from church about an hour later, and then things really kicked into high gear. They performed a practiced dance with the bridesmaids and groomsmen as they entered, looking stunning in their traditional wedding garb. The dance ended at the main tent, which was one of three tents in our yard.

Dancing as the bride’s uncle presents gifts

Mma pulled Barbara and I into the main tent, which is reserved for close family and friends. I was very grateful to be included and have an up-close seat for the rest of the wedding. Our tent got a tasty appetizer and champagne to toast the bride and groom. Once again, there were speeches, a prayer, and lots of traditional songs and dance. I was amazed by the beautiful fashions—I really love the traditional SeTswana clothes. There was also a motivational speaker, which I found surprising and interesting! All of the speeches were in Tswana, but I picked up some key words like “love each other (ratana).” We dined on pap, some succulent beef, a delicious broccoli salad, butternut squash (called pumpkin here), a bean salad, and more! I may be biased, but I thought our food was better than at the bride’s reception

Main wedding tent

Bride, groom, bridesmaids and groomsmen dancing to the main tent

After the main part of the reception, I helped clean up. There had to be at least a thousand people at our house! My host family is very popular. I also hung out with some of the local kids that I’ve befriended and showed them how to use my camera. My supervisor, Martha, was there and looked particularly on point with her gorgeous outfit, and I also saw some friends from another org. The electricity went in and out during the day (probably from overuse) and went off again at night. I brought my headlamp out to help with the braai. Braai is sort of like the South African version of barbecue, except better. They roast sausages called boerewors and beef. Just as I came to help, the electricity came back on, but the headlamp still proved useful for delighting some of the kids. While the braai was starting, I helped to clean some of the hundreds of plates. My washing companion, Ginny, is a manufacturer who started her own traditional embroidery company after losing her last job. They focus mostly on clothing, specifically traditional wedding clothes. She’s looking into starting embroidery manufacturing in-house to save costs. We quickly bonded, and I marveled at how lucky I was to meet two amazing women working on empowering women in just one day!

Post-reception dance party

My supervisor, Martha, and I

After washing dishes, I met one of my host cousins. He complimented me on my integration into, and respect of, Tswana culture. I was glowing with pride. I feel as though I’m constantly making mistakes, such as using the wrong greeting. It’s hard to remember sometimes that the most important part of my service is learning about and respecting another culture, but moments like these really drive that point home. I enjoyed some of the very delicious braai afterward, then collapsed into bed around 11:30 P.M. with the party still raging. Today, I’ve helped out with more of the cleaning as we set out the pots, pans, dishes, chafing dishes, spoons, etc. for those who donated them to come pick up. It’s never a dull day!

Post-wedding clean-up

This post has excluded many other wonderful and amazing people that I met, but suffice to say there are a lot of great people in my village, and I’m very excited to be here. Most of all, I want to acknowledge the many men and women that have been at the house daily to cook, clean, set up, and tear down for the wedding for free. It’s a very different concept than American weddings. Unfortunately for any future South African weddings, this one set the bar really high!

The Halfway Point

Today marks the halfway point for pre-service training (PST)! In 1 week, I will find out where I’ll be working for the next 2 years. In 5 weeks, I will swear in as a volunteer. The last 6 weeks of staging & PST feel simultaneously like a lifetime and like no time at all.

My host gogo & brother!

The main focus lately had been on our practicum. During PST, we have an opportunity to practice our facilitation skills over the course of 5 days (1 hour each) with a group of secondary (high school) students. The practicum has been a welcome relief from day-long sessions on technical, language, health and safety! The first day we focused on building relationships with the students, and the second day we voted on the health topics we wanted to talk about. We also came up with a game to talk about life in the US vs. South Africa, which was fun.


Pedi Pals, my language group!

Speaking of language, I took my midterm language test and did better than I expected! It’s amazing how much we’ve learned in such a short period of time. I had an opportunity to practice even more last weekend when we went to a local dance festival! It was amazing. The young girls pictured below moved so quickly I could hardly follow their feet. There was also a group of young men and women in what looked like military garb that did an interesting march/dance. I tried on a skirt from the Tsonga culture, but it was quickly clear that I have no dancing skills :). I had just gotten a pixie cut the day before, and I was grateful for the extra coolness!

Crazy talented dancers

Some of our cohort at the dance festival

Me attempting to move my hips in a traditional Tsonga skirt

We also went to Johannesburg (Joburg) last weekend. We visited the apartheid museum first. I’d previously gone in 2009, but the impact was even more profound now that I’m actually living in the after effects of apartheid. I’m still processing many of my thoughts around the museum. It begins with the rock paintings of the native Bushmen in Southern Africa, talks a bit about the next 2,000 years, then jumps into the 1800s and the circumstances surrounding the rise of apartheid. Some of the architects of apartheid studied under Hitler’s Third Reich and other forms of institutionalized racism, like the
treatment of Native Americans and African-Americans in the U.S. The giant casspir, or armored truck, forcibly reminded me of the Wars on Poverty and Drugs. There was a room of ropes hung from the ceiling to represent those who had been hanged, a common occurrence under apartheid, that really gave me pause. Another room was dedicated to the photojournalism of Ernest Cole, who exposed the realities of life for blacks under apartheid, including the government sponsorship of alcoholism. It was also difficult to see how long it took the U.S. to impose sanctions on the apartheid regime. I didn’t end up finishing in time to see the Mandela exhibit, but I was grateful to have the opportunity to visit the museum again.

One of many moving photos by Ernest Cole of a Hector Pieterson, a young student killed by police who used live ammo during a student protest against the apartheid-era Bantu education system that sentenced black students to an inferior education (Soweto, June 16, 1976)

Additionally, we had the opportunity to speak with a panel of people living with HIV in South Africa. It was an incredible privilege to have these strangers come in and share these raw, emotional life stories with us. Many spoke of being ostracized by family, friends, significant others, and community members. One woman contracted HIV after being sexually assaulted; another lost her first child, which was born with HIV. There is a stigma often associated with HIV that you sleep around a lot, as well as how you can contract HIV (you can ONLY get HIV through semen/vaginal fluid, blood, breastmilk or pre-cum). However, that stigma does vary by area and individual; South Africa has conducted a lot of awareness-raising. Medication has also improved to help counter side effects and to reduce to 1 pill, instead of 4 or 5 pills. It was encouraging to speak to those who had lived with HIV for over 10 years.

Additionally, I just finished Trevor Noah’s “Born a Crime.” I highly recommend it. The book is funny, but it sheds light on a lot of the tragedies of life here as well.

I’ll end this rather long entry with another, very useful Sepedi phrase: “Go a fiša kudu” (pronounced “ro ah feesh-ah koodoo”)= it’s very hot!