Shekhinah

My latest SA musical obsession is Shekhinah, an extraordinarily talented 23-year-old R&B singer-songwriter from Durban.  She premiered on two seasons of SA Idols while still in high school and has continued her career in Joburg, releasing her first album Rose Gold this year and collaborating with internationally famous SA EDM DJs like Black Coffee and Sketchy Bongo.  I first fell in love with her luscious, sultry voice when I heard “Let You Know,” and my love and admiration has only grown since then.  Her music videos are also great works of art, featuring great street art and moments of daily life in SA cities.  Below are a few of my current favorite songs/videos!

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Sonic South Africa

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Live R&B at the Blues Room in Johannesburg during my study abroad trip, Dec. 2009

Music has always been a very important influence in my life.  In fact, it’s rare to find me without headphones or delving into new music.  One of my side hobbies since I’ve come to South Africa has been to learn more about the South African music scene and listen to local music.  However, there is a lot of American music presence here, from Rihanna and Beyonce playing in the taxi to Dolly Parton in the background at petrol (gas) stations to an African MTV channel.  It’s made finding South African music somewhat more challenging, but luckily public radio has made that a bit easier.

A bit of background on local music in South Africa: In May 2016, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) declared its commitment to playing 90% local music on its 18 South African public radio stations (SABC 2016).  This decision has been controversial, as some stations experienced a significant drop in listeners and revenue.  One station, Lotus FM, cited that while the decision to promote local content was good, the increase to 90% should have been gradual instead (Business Live 2017).  SABC is now considering reversing that decision, to the consternation of local artists (News24 2017).

Music played an important role in the resistance against apartheid, and traditional songs and dances are still prevalent in my village.  South African musicians span all genres, including rap, hip-hop, gospel, house, jazz, rock, and more.  Prior to coming to South Africa, I had no idea that there was such a strong jazz culture here.  Jazz was incorporated as part of anti-apartheid movements in similar ways to its role in the civil rights movement in the US (Wikipedia).

Kwaito is a uniquely South African genre that emerged in the townships in the 1990s–it “is a distinctly home-grown style of popular dance music that is rooted in Johannesburg urban culture and features rhythmically recited vocals over an instrumental backing with strong bass lines” (Kwaito Music).  Another genre, Maskanda or maskandi, is a “kind of Zulu folk music that is evolving with South African society” (Wikipedia).  I’m very glad to be in a country where music is so omnipresent and important.  I’ve really enjoyed exploring South Africa’s unique and talented music scene so far, including getting to go to a house concert in my area and seeing several top DJs!

Here are a few examples of some different music that’s currently popular in SA:

  • Kwaito- “Wololo” by Babes Wodumo ft. Mampintsha.  This was one of the top-played songs in 2016 and is still all over South Africa.  It’s almost impossible to sit still when it’s playing!
  • Hip Hop- “Don’t Forget to Pray” by AKA and Anatii, the current top song.  AKA is a well-known South African rapper with several hit singles.
  • R&B/Soul- “Amazulu” by Amanda Black, who won South African Music Awards (SAMA) Best Female Artist of the Year.
  • Rap- “Ngud’” by Kwesta ft. Cassper Nyovest.  Kwesta dominated the charts at SAMA, winning Best Male Artist, Best Album, and Best Rap Album among other awards.  This particular song had the highest airplay over the past year in all of South Africa.
  • Maskandi- “Iso Lami” by Khuzani, who won this year’s SAMA for Best Maskandi album.
  • Jazz- “Mayine” by Simphiwe Dana, a very talented jazz artist.

These are just a few examples from a vibrant and diverse musical culture, but hopefully I’ve managed to whet your appetite for more South African music- I know I’m looking forward to diving deeper into the sonic scene here!  Have any suggestions for other South African artists?  Let me know in the comments!

Also, wishing a happy Memorial Day to my American readers, a slightly belated Ramadan mubarak to my Muslim readers, and a very special wedding day to two of my close friends (Emily & Steve) who tied the knot this past weekend!

Operation: Integration

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Village views

My job for the next three months is to conduct a community needs assessment (CNA) and integrate into my family, work, and community. One of the aspects that drew me to Peace Corps is their grassroots approach to development; during my CNA period, the emphasis is on me building relationships rather than jumping in to implement unsustainable and uninformed programs. I’m currently working at my org three days a week and traveling around the community for my CNA the other two days. I spend a lot of time greeting community members, desperately trying to remember the names of the 100+ people I meet every week, and sharing small moments where I feel as though I’ve done well (and many other times when I don’t). Thankfully, my community is full of some very patient tutors! For example, this past week my org asked me to do a roll call at our daily lunch for secondary (high school) students. In typical American fashion, I began reading out the students’ names without an introduction or greeting. I ended up marking about 20 students absent (largely because I couldn’t hear some of the students, who often speak very quietly) until one of my coworkers helped me to correct my mistake. I introduced myself in my broken Tswana attempts and asked the students to help me by speaking loudly, and the rest of roll call went much more smoothly!

I’ve been very fortunate in my integration thus far. Quite a few people saw me last weekend at the wedding, and I bonded with some of the women helping to cook and clean for the event. Also, the local social workers come to my org on Wednesdays to meet with people in the village so they don’t have to travel to the main office. I am taking advantage of this to meet some of the people (mostly women, several with small children) in my area who are receiving support from the Department of Social Development and talk about what they perceive are the needs and opportunities in the village. My org also does home visits, and I’ll be accompanying two of my coworkers this week to get to know the families we serve this week. As I keep reiterating, integration happens in the small moments and the relationships built. For instance, I shared with two of my coworkers that I had learned the “[X] namela thaba” wedding song, and we ended up having an amazing, impromptu sing-along. Then later that week, my coworker announced that she was getting married in August and trusted me enough to request that I design her wedding invitations!

I’ve also been spending some time in my shopping town both to finish outfitting my room and also to relax. Getting to my shopping town entails getting up very early to walk to the tar road and catch a taxi; taking a 30 minute taxi (read: SA’s rural public transportation) ride to another, larger town; then getting off at the taxi rank, waiting around an hour for that taxi to fill up, and an hour-long ride to my actual shopping town. I’ve been doing a lot of my shopping at Game, which is sort of South Africa’s equivalent of Walmart. Many of the people in my shopping town speak Tswana, so I try to use it as an opportunity to practice and make friends. Recently, I was buying a heater (SA gets cold during its winter season, which is now) and the friendly associate helping me was floored that I could speak Tswana and that I traveled by taxi. I’m constantly surprised at the level of amazement other people have when they find out that I’m learning Tswana, living in a village, and doing ordinary things like riding a taxi; PCVs have been in South Africa since 1997 and my village alone has had five PCVs, including me. This past weekend, Bobby (the most recent PCV) and I went to our shopping town for a relaxing weekend. We went to a spa, ate some delicious food, watched a lot of Animal Planet, and enjoyed the pool! I came back today feeling refreshed and ready to flex my burgeoning Tswana skills. I’ve been spending a lot of time listening to Black Motion, a great South African artist, also- their song “Imali Imali” was practically the theme of my cohort’s PST! I highly recommend giving it a listen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HuslzuKdMGk&sns=em.

Yummy breakfast of sharonfruit (persimmon), koeksister (honey-covered pastry), and brie

Peaceful garden at the spa

One of my cohort mates recently pointed out that, as of yesterday, we have been in South Africa for 100 days. That really made me pause. One hundred days sounds like a long time; almost a third of a year, and a little over three months. But in reality, one hundred days is hardly any time at all. Nearly 8,500 days ago, South Africa held its first democratic elections after the demise of apartheid. Now, the country celebrates Freedom Day every April 27 to commemorate that landmark day in 1994. But, as this article points out, the freedom celebrated: “should mean emancipation from poverty, unemployment, racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination… and many of these issues are still rife in our country…. Freedom Day therefore serves as a reminder to us that the guarantee of our freedom requires us to remain permanently vigilant against corruption and the erosion of the values of the Freedom Struggle and to build an active citizenry that will work towards wiping out the legacy of racism, inequality, and the promotion of the rights embodied in our constitution.” (South African History Online,  http://www.sahistory.org.za/dated-event/freedom-day-celebrated-south-africa) These words apply far beyond South Africa and are a galvanizing call to us all to reject complacency in the face of inequality, and to commit to this fight not for 100 days, or a year, but for a lifetime.

Going from a “T” to a “V”

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My host gogo, brother and I after Appreciation Day

Quite a bit has happened in the past few weeks! We had a very nice host family appreciation day with dancing, singing, speeches, and lots of delicious food. I wore the traditional skirt that a local tailor made for me and a few others in my cohort, and my gogo was fashionable as ever! The following week was a blur of administrative and policy discussions. At the end, we had a beautiful function at the US Embassy Recreation Center where the SA35s swore in as Peace Corps Volunteers, officially graduating from PCTs (trainees) to PCVs!

My language group, the Pedi Pals

After swearing in, we said some hard goodbyes to our host families. I gave my gogo a beautiful cross that I bought in America, my brother a headlamp, and photos for both. They loved them. I’m glad my training village isn’t far so that I can visit them again soon! The next day, we went to a nearby nature reserve and had a fun day to celebrate and say goodbye to our cohort and staff members. It was a great time, although sad to say goodbye to my constant companions for the past 10 weeks. Our cohort is split between Mpumulanga and KwaZulu-Natal provinces, and each had separate supervisor’s workshops. I gave out last-minute hugs and hopped on board the Mpumulanga bus towards Nelspruit. It was a long ride, but I was grateful that our bus didn’t break down like the KZN’s did! The hotel was gorgeous, with a lakeside view. It was great to see my supervisor again. I came back to site last Tuesday and had the week off for the Easter holidays, allowing me some time to settle in.

10 long weeks of hard work to go from “T” to “V!”

The 33 SA35s who swore in as PCVs

The first weeks have been full of the uncertainty and awkwardness characteristic of a big life change, but there have been wonderful moments as well. I am now living with a different host family and I have this great little house adjacent to the main house. It’s been fantastic to have some measure of independence and solitude to recharge my partial introvert batteries. My family comprises a gogo, two host brothers, and two host sisters. One of my sisters just had a beautiful baby boy, and I was able to be there when we picked them both up from the hospital. I was nervous when they asked me to hold him (I’d only held a baby once in my life, and that was here in South Africa), but it went fine. I haven’t seen him much since because the house is crazy in preparation for my brother’s wedding next weekend. Weddings in my village are treated much differently than in the U.S.; the wedding is open to the whole community, no invitations needed. The community also contributes to the wedding. Every day, there are between five to fifteen people here contributing labor (such as roofing and tiling) for free, helping to cook, or donating food and alcohol for the event. I thanked one of the men for his help, and he corrected me- it isn’t help, it’s “our [the community’s] wedding.” I really liked that perspective.

I also did a 5K fun run with my host brothers on Good Friday; my time was abysmal, but it was a good opportunity to meet community members! Afterward, I went to Good Friday mass with my family. Some of the local youth put on a great passion play, and then we went into the church. Mass ended up being 5 hours long and all in Setswana, which was challenging, but I really enjoyed the singing. It was a busy but exciting first weekend!

The past week was my first week at work. My organization is a drop-in center for orphans and vulnerable children (OVC), particularly those affected by and/or at high risk for HIV. One of our main activities is providing a meal a day for local OVCs. We have a garden, kitchen, library, and main office, and we share grounds with the local youth center. My first three months at site will be spent conducting a community needs assessment, so I’m at work three days a week right now and out in the community to talk to stakeholders and citizens the other two days. This period is largely about observation and relationship-building. However, I did get to help a young woman apply to college, which was a highlight of my week. I also worked with the cooks to help peel and prep food, talked with staff, and met people who came in to the office to copy documents or just to say hello. Thursday, I attended a meeting on a community sports project hosted by site mate’s organization. It was a great meeting, but it also ended up lasting nearly the whole day. Clearly, I need to up my endurance to keep up with my community members!

I’ve also spent a lot of time trying to settle in to my new home and community. I live in a village of Tswana people who primarily speak a combination of the Setswana and Sepedi languages. The area comprises three villages; the village where I live and work has several thousand people (estimates vary on the actual number). I’ve met at least a hundred people in the past two weeks and barely scratched the surface, but I’ve managed to make a few friends. I’ve also spent some time walking around the beautiful pond at the center of the village, which has a big, open green space around it that makes it look and feel like a park. Yesterday, I set up my P.O. box and checked a few books out of the library on HIV in South Africa and a kids’ book in Setswana to help me study. I’ve really enjoyed being able to cook for myself for the first time in three months, although my meals are far from gourmet! Additionally, I hung up some photos of friends and family using some clothespins and string (thanks Kathryn!). I feel as though I’ve begun the process of integration, but it’s going to take a lot of time, endurance and patience.

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The beautiful pond

I’ve had several encounters recently that made me recognize and appreciate the incredible endurance of the South Africans I’ve met, including mass and the project meeting. People don’t complain, they dig in and keep giving here. The other day, my site mate and I were riding with her sister when the car got stuck in a ton of sand (not uncommon). We tried to get out and push the car but couldn’t fight the ocean of sand. While I was frustrated and annoyed, her sister was calm and unflustered. She called some friends to come with a rope, and they showed up laughing, singing, dancing instead of being laser- focused on the most efficient and fastest way to get the car out of the sand like I was. We ended up getting the car out, and I managed to relax and appreciate the situation. I think it’s an important lesson that I’ll continue to learn while I’m here- Peace Corps is a marathon, not a sprint, and South Africans have superior endurance.

I’ll end this rather long update with an awesome South African song, “Gobisiqolo” by Bhizer. I’m aiming to update weekly after this. Also, I just got my P.O. box, so if you want my address email me!

Gobisiqolo: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=kvRVHim8YkA