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Venda Justice

November 30, 2011

I had my first visit to my village by Peace Corps staff. It consisted of them coming to my house (since they were too late for the schools) and asking my family and me questions that would seem prying under other circumstances besides the Peace Corps. For instance, one of the questions posed to me was “Do you have any friends?”

“…Yes?” I replied, not sure what was being implied here.

“Outside of school?” he pressed, looking at me sharply. I once again told him yes, since I had spent some time talking with some guys outside the shabeen when I went to buy some pineapple soda just a little earlier.

The next day I was taking a long route back home after a fruitless trip to the clinic because the director was gone for a workshop. I saw some guys I knew from around the village sitting on a log, and with yesterday’s visit still fresh in my mind, I sat on the log with them. Some were from my secondary school and some were men who were constantly drunk on homebrew in the middle of the day (with some overlap between those two groups).

“Stay with us,” one of them said to me. “I want you to eat with us in an hour.” Fine. I wasn’t going to do anything that day besides work. They had a fire going with a big pot full of cow meat, and behind them completely blocking the road were two big tents set up on metal poles. They explained that they were preparing a funeral for the weekend, and I guess they had too much meat because they were about to eat some of it now.

It was ready sooner than I expected and soon the meat was hauled under the tent with another pot full of pap. Come to think of it, I don’t know why they didn’t just stay under the tent with chairs the whole time. One of South Africa’s favorite pastimes is complaining that it’s hot. We ate by grabbing a handful of pap and then another handful of meat, although sometimes we would dip the pap in the juices first. Once that was done, a bowl of water was passed around so we could rinse our hands.

After returning to the log, I let them see my driver’s license and they all marveled at how hard my name is to pronounce. (In South Africa, instead of using ID cards, they carry thick passport-like IDs. I’m surprised this isn’t a sore point because during the apartheid, blacks were required to carry passes at all times. I’m told that they don’t wear ties because they were forced to during apartheid.)

While this was going on, two police cars pulled up and stopped in front of the tents. This is a rare sight around here because the police station is in a village far away. The police cars here are no Crown Victorias. They’re vans with rows of benches in the back, as if they expect to be arresting large groups or transporting troops. The cops didn’t leap into action and no one seemed to be alarmed by them. In fact, I almost forgot they were there until a guy started running from them. In his haste he kicked off his shoes, leaving them sitting in the middle of the road.

Some of my friends tried to fill me in on what was going on: this guy has a grudge against this family and called the police on them, and when the police came and found nothing wrong (despite the tents blocking the road), in a fit of frustration, he grabbed the keys to the police car and bolted. That explained why only one car went after him.

The guys I was sitting with noticed the deck of cards I had in my backpack. “Why do you have those cards?” they asked.

“I use them for lessons on probability.”

“Can we borrow them?” I let them take the cards and after removing the face cards from the deck, they started playing this game where cards were played one at a time into stacks. They didn’t explain it to me and I couldn’t figure it out, but it looked like they wanted the cards to add up to a certain number sometimes.

It didn’t take long for the police to find their barefoot culprit. I couldn’t see into the cab because the blinds were lowered, but the other car had returned with the stolen keys. One of my friends calmly narrated to me what was going on. “They have found him. He is being taken away for making trouble. He is making a case for himself.”

For some reason, another car was showed up and two more people were arrested, including one who had been sitting with me. No one knew or cared why so I didn’t press it. Even the guys being arrested didn’t make a fuss.

So as I was sitting there trying to figure out their new card game (this time the numbers had to add to be 10), a woman approached me. “I’m Joyce,” she said, and that seemed to be extent of her English. Was I supposed to know this Joyce? It’s much easier for people to recognize me in the village than it is for me to recognize them. Did she want me to follow her? I don’t know what exactly she wanted but I ended up following her through the gate to the house behind us. There we sat on the porch with some of her family, including a baby that wouldn’t stop staring at me until I gave it some candy. I didn’t see any reason for me to be there but they seemed to just appreciate having me around. “It is not often we get to talk to someone like you,” I was told. I wonder what that means.

Apparently they were resting from the funeral preparations. One of the men explained that they had slaughtered a cow that day. “See that on the fence?” he said, pointing to behind where I was sitting. “Those are its private parts. It was a bull.”

“What are you going to do with it?” I asked, unfazed and curious if they used every part of the animal like Native Americans did.

“Nothing. Just throw it to the dogs.”

By then I was tired of guessing what was going on, so I headed home, leaving my deck of cards behind. (These would show up later, so stay tuned!) Just another day in Venda.

I took a photo as they were leaving with the first guy. You can sort of see his shoes under the car.

I took a photo as they were leaving with the first guy. You can sort of see his shoes under the car.

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