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In case you missed it

Here’s the piece I wrote for The Atlantic on pit latrines.

This article is the 25th in the Object Lessons series, which are insights into the hidden lives of objects. Read those too.


First Impressions

I haven’t been able to start anything serious because everyone is preoccupied with the end-of-year exams, but it’s overdue that I write about my impressions here.

I don’t like to admit it, but Zululand is better than Venda in a lot of ways. There are a classier sort of people here. I went to an event at someone’s house, and instead of everyone asking me for money because I’m white, they asked me for jobs because I’m white.

More importantly, the food is amazing compared to what I’m used to. Something I immediately found odd is that they don’t absolutely need pap at every meal like people in Limpopo do. They do cook pap, but they make it with less water, so it has the texture of couscous. What makes it so good is that they’ve learned to incorporate Indian spices into their traditional Zulu foods. It really makes Limpopo food seem like a weak showing by comparison.

The people I work with here actually want to do their job, which isn’t to say that everyone at my old site was lazy, but there work ethic here is much stronger overall. They also understand technology better. I met the mathematics subject advisor here, which is saying something in and of itself, because in Limpopo the subject advisors just stay home when they’re supposed to visit schools and claim mileage for it anyway. The local mathematics teachers have a chat group on Whatsapp on their phones, and the subject advisor will send notices starting with something classy like “colleagues, please be advised…”

I’m coming home in a few weeks, but next year I’m going back to finish the job here, provided the government doesn’t shut down again. The place I am now is kind of a halfway step back to the society I’m used to.

This mountain is called Amahwaqa, which means The Misty One in English.

This mountain is called Amahwaqa, which means The Misty One in English.

Making of the map

The World Map Project is a popular thing for PCVs to do when they feel like getting out of the classroom or office. In some countries in Latin America, it’s a requirement to do this early in one’s service because it’s a way to connect with the youth in the community. I had wanted to do that, but instead I did it right before I left. Whoops.

One reason for the delay is that I had chosen an inconvenient wall to paint. Despite being on the oldest building of the school, it was still in good shape, and I liked that it was well-framed and visible from the road. It was too high to reach, though, and the hedges meant that one couldn’t just reach it by climbing on a table.

The solution was to borrow some scaffolds from one of the families. (I think there’s a better word for these things, but they call them scaffolds here and I’ve forgotten what else to call them.) The school had some old planks and an unused door, so by propping those up on the scaffolds, we could have a platform to reach the wall. The first thing we did was scrape the old paint off the wall. I bought some scrapers for this but I also used some random stuff lying around to make it go faster.

After that, we applied a coat of primer so hopefully it will last longer. Then we mixed the blue paint for the water. All I had was a 20-liter bucket of white paint. All the 25 or so colors I used on the map were that paint mixed with various amounts of stainer.


One problem I encountered during production was that I didn’t have enough containers to mix the paint. I was using all the extra peanut butter jars and yogurt cups I had at home, but it wasn’t enough. I would tell learners that I needed more jars, and that was met with the question, “What is a jars?” Eventually one of the teachers bought some containers for me to use. While I was painting, some girls came to the map gushing over how pretty it was, but they were really just admiring the container I was using.


The instructions for the map have a suggested list of countries and colors, but I didn’t use that because I wanted to show the continents as well. The people here aren’t very good at geography, and even the ones I consider educated don’t really understand what continent I’m from.


Once it was finished, the only thing left to do was admire it and use it for photo ops for my going away parties.


Changes to the World Map Project

The World Map Project is cool and all, but the documentation is from 1995 and the world has changed since then. I think I ended up with a count of 196 countries. Here’s a brief list of the changes I included:

  • In the documentation, there’s some messy dotted lines in Yugoslavia. That is now four countries: Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Kosovo.
  • East Timor has gained independence from Indonesia.
  • South Sudan has broken off from Sudan.
  • I went by the UN designations by listing the countries, but I included Taiwan as its own country even though the UN doesn’t recognize it.
  • Palau is now a country. I’m not sure what it was before.

Also, I read or heard somewhere you shouldn’t use chalk lines, but I found that they’re a snap. They’re easier to make and to erase than pencil.

That’s about it.

New home

I finished two years at my site in Venda and now I’m moving to Kwa-Zulu Natal for a different job as a mathematics specialist. I till have some unfinished drafts I need to post, but for now I’m just going to show these photos of my new place.

This is the view out my window one day.


Then this is the next day. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Shango Linwe Li A Konadzea

I thought I’d take a picture of the completed map before writing all the labels. Right now I want to discuss the words at the top. I’ll write more about the map later.

After deciding that the map would be 175cm tall so the grid cells could be a neat 6.25cm in height and width, I knew there would be some space above the map, enough space to write some sort of pithy saying. I didn’t know exactly what to write. All I could think of was “Another World is Possible”, which was painted on a mural on the back of the Civic Media Center where I volunteered in college. I thought it might be a good motto for a South African school, as opposed to the generic “Education is Light” or something, because there’s so much rubbish here that people accept as just the way it is.

When I asked for a translation, I was given “Shango Linwe Li A Konadzea”, which sounds right in Venda but I knew it might be a problem because shango also means country, and I didn’t want to give the impression that I was trying to promote some imperialist agenda. (“Another country is possible! And it’s called America!”)

I didn’t get any other ideas, though, so I just went with it. I had it painted in blue because I wanted to save the black paint for the labels. We finished it after school, and the next day at school I challenged some of the learners to tell me what it means. I know it’s ambiguous, but in Venda it becomes even more imprecise. “Linwe” means “other” but it can also mean “some”. Some of the translations I got were along the lines of “Some countries are possible” and “Another world is easy”. Not really what I was going for.

I was kind of shocked when some of the teachers disagreed with it, saying no, another world is not possible. (To be fair, they thought I meant space exploration.) I complained to our administrative assistant about their ambivalence. “Don’t listen to them”, she said in Venda. “They don’t know anything.”

The children still read it when they walk by, and even if then don’t understand it, maybe some day they will. And despite everything, maybe some day it will be true for them.

Not even the photo I wanted. the WordPress app is being a real pain.

Not even the photo I wanted. the WordPress app is being a real pain.


When I first had my kitten and I couldn’t figure out how to make her use a litter box, I emailed a vet in the nearest town asking her what to do. I figured out how to digestive system working that night, but I arranged to have little Unarine brought in for vaccinations. I didn’t have a carrier, so I just put her in a shoebox with a towel and held her in my lap on the bus.

The office was a good walk north of the bus stop, into the whiter, less crowded part of town. The vet and her assistants gushed over the cute little kitten, who at this age could hardly walk because she was just a belly with legs. She would playfully bat the assistant on the nose when she was picked up. They gave her a de-worming pill and some high-nutrient hospital food and sent her back with me.

When I brought her in for her second round of vaccinations, she was a little bigger. There was a light rain as I went to the vet’s office, and by the time I was ready to leave, it was coming down hard. I hunched over Una’s shoebox as I carried her, trying to protect her from the rain, but she kept poking her head out of the cracks. By the time I made it to the mall near the bus stop, the box was destroyed. I wrapped her in the towel and tried to dry her off, with shoppers all around me, and once the rain died down a little, I finished the trek to the bus stop. The bus was full so I had to wait for the next one, which is very typical. At this point I was carrying the cat in my backpack, but she kept wanting to climb out and ride on my shoulder. On the bus ride home, I held her in my lap and she squirmed a little but otherwise stayed on me and not on the other passengers.

When I went on vacation in December, the vet agreed to board the Unarine for me because I didn’t trust anyone in the village to take care of her. In the middle of my trip, she emailed me to say that Unarine was being boarded with a ginger cat of the same age who had been rescued in town, and that I could have him if I wanted, but if not she had a home for him. Having one cat was difficult enough, living with a family that doesn’t like cats and not owning a car, so I emailed her back saying no.

When I got back, I was brought to their kennel to wait for the vet to debrief me. I opened the door and took out Una, and the ginger cat started meowing, not knowing what was going on or where his friend was going. I decided I couldn’t separate them. I took them both home in the collapsible carrier my mother sent me. The ginger one’s name is Andrus, after Andrus Poder from Cart Life, but everyone in the village thinks it’s the Afrikaner name Andries. I’m in the process now of arranging a flight to the USA for them.

I can’t access my photos from then but here are some more recent ones, where they’re grown up.

Scout Camped

Ok, it’s overdue that I write about what happened at the scout camp, and I’ve been putting off writing about other things because I knew I had to post about this first, at the very least so the people who helped with donations can see what happened. (I don’t mean “see” literally since I’m in the village right now and don’t have the data connection to upload photos. I will next time I’m in town with the photos.) Here’s my first post on the subject.

I don’t want to complain so I’ll be brief about the unpleasant parts. Suffice to say the grant process was harrowing. That’s why we had to reach out to donors at the last minute to cover transportation costs. Peace Corps South Africa’s administrative official, normally very knowledgeable and helpful, didn’t respond to my frantic emails about how I hadn’t received the grant money when I was supposed to. (He didn’t respond because I was using the wrong email address and emailing some other guy. Whoops!) I went to the grocery store the day before the camp to buy everything, even though I still didn’t have money for it, just clinging to the hope that it would be deposited into my account while I was shopping. And it was! But then I couldn’t pay for the food because the order was too large for my debit card, and I couldn’t withdraw all the money from the bank because I wasn’t carrying my passport…

A whole bunch of snafus later, I arrived at the camp the next day with 14 people from my village representing our Scout Troop. We were the first there, so we made a rough plan for the layout of the camp, and sandwiches for the Troops yet to arrive. When they finally arrived, marching into the camp because the roads leading up to it were not bus friendly, it was something beautiful. By the end of the first day, everyone was there and all the tents were set up before the dark.

Let me explain who exactly attended. There were 6 Troops, consisting of 12 Scouts and a few adult leaders. We had budgeted for 3 adults per troop, but not every Troop was able to come up with that many adults willing to be involved in Scouting. 5 of the 6 Troops were founded by a Peace Corps Volunteer, and the other one was founded by a South African who is so driven and capable that it’s hard to believe he’s South African. He probably wouldn’t take that as a compliment, but there it is. Most of people were Vendas, but one Troop was Tsonga and one was Tswana. That last one had to travel very far to get here. It was great to have so many different South African cultures and languages represented, and it was great that 3 of the 6 PCVs in attendance had been camp counselors so they knew how to encourage to Scouts to make new friends. Even though our plan for meals was to have the Scouts cook, we had one PCV not associated with a Troop who managed the kitchen, and that was an enormous help.

On the full days of camp, we had two sessions that were led by Scouts. The first session, map reading, set the tone for the others: Scouts from the Troop leading the session would break into teams of two or three and go to the other Troops, where they would have an explanation and a hands-on demonstration of a particular skill. So in the morning, Scouts learned how to find north and make a compass from a magnet and needle, and in the evening a different Troop led a session on camping. I was busy running from area to area making sure the whole operation was running smoothly, so I didn’t get to see the sessions as much as I’d have liked, but I was confident my Troop Scouter could manage our Troop in my semi-absence.

Right before bedtime every night, we would have a campfire. After working hard and playing hard all day, a Scout campfire is the perfect way to end it. On any given day, the Troops not responsible for a session acted a skit at the campfire as we all sat in a circle, and the skits were interspersed with songs and chants from our camp counselors. You kind of had to be there. We also made s’mores a couple of times, and those were a big hit.

The next day had sessions on ropes and axes and first aid. Those were all really fun activities. We also had visitors from the Limpopo Scouting headquarters, and they interviewed and invested Scouts who were ready. Whether we were leading or learning in a session or participating in a ceremony or swimming in a river, one thing that made every aspect of the camp enjoyable is that the grounds were so incredibly lovely. That was thanks to the natural beauty of Venda plus the efforts of two groundskeepers who lived on the premises. The last full day of the camp was a long hike, with time budgeted for silent observation of nature. Most of the Scouts hiked up the river, while the older Scouts took a more adventurous climb up a mountain.

The upshot of the camp was that everyone learned valuable skills and made new friends. All the Scouts had a unique opportunity to lead, and the were able to bring what they learned back home. Also important is that everyone had fun. The next issue of the Peace Corps South Africa newsletter had two articles about the camp, both written by faster authors than me.

The Illuminati

My neighbors had a funeral for an old lady yesterday. The deceased might have been someone I never met but who had once called this place home, or she might have been someone I walked past a thousand times and never really noticed. I know it was an old lady because during the church service Friday night, they kept saying “mukegulu”, which means “old lady”. At this point I could go on a tangent about South Africans’ strange naming habits, how even at a person’s funeral they will refer to someone by her age rather than her name. I could vent my frustrations at how hard it is to get into their culture, how the service was in Sepedi and not Tshivenda, and halfway through I realized I was sitting on the side of the tent for women and I was the only man wearing a hat. I could talk about how different South African funerals are, a topic I believe I’ve discussed before. But no, I can’t afford to get distracted today. Every second I delay is a second the Illuminati gains on me.

At the funeral Saturday, some of the men were sitting under the tent drinking their traditional beer, and one of them called me over. He’s in grade 11 if I’m not mistaken and he likes to talk.

“Did you hear that Obama’s visiting?” he mentioned in the conversation.

“Oh, really. I should call him and tell him to visit me here.” I’m used to being asked if I know any American that happens to be South Africa-famous, and it’s gotten to the point where I always just pretend we’re close friends.

“Obama’s here to visit Nelson Mandela since they are friends. We’ll all be very sad when he dies.” The news I’ve read said that Mandela isn’t taking visitors, but the grade 11 was right on that last part. I’m expecting the events after Mandela’s death to be memorable.

He continued, “Obama’s a devil-worshiper, did you know?”

“No, I didn’t know what.” In South Africa, devil worship is an accusation leveled at anything that isn’t Christian, so I’ve learned to stop taking it seriously.

“It’s true. Obama’s in the Illuminati.”

Oh boy. I’ve heard of the Illuminati jokingly, but I’ve never heard a serious accusation that someone is part of it. According to the board game Paranoia, “The Illuminati is a secretive organization whose goals are so well hidden that most members don’t know them.”

The boy kept on talking. “It’s true. Chris Brown, Rhianna, most Americans are members of the Illuminati… Except you. They don’t believe in God.”

“Wait, they don’t believe in God but they believe in the devil?” I asked, trying to bring some sense back to the conversation.

“No, they worship idols.” This led to an interrogation on my religion, to make sure I wasn’t one of them. People don’t drink traditional African beer for its taste, I’ll tell you that much.

So there you have it, folks. The Illuminati run USA. I don’t know what they’re up to, but consider yourself warned.

Oh snap I’m late

There’s a backlog of things I want to blog about but I have to skip to this one because it’s rather time-sensitive. Next month I’ll be doing a camp with some friends and this time we’re focusing on SCIENCE. I will be leading a bunch of kids to do experiments with mass, and other volunteers will do related subjects. The learners attending have never done a science experiment in their lives, and can’t say anything nice about their science education so I won’t say anything at all. If you would like to support the camp, please go to . Your donation pays for a t-shirt for you as well as a participant of the camp. The deadline to do so is TOMORROW. Pick the green one.