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January 9, 2012

The six of us volunteers in Venda had gotten together for Thanksgiving week to visit each other’s schools and spread the spirit of Thanksgiving in a land that doesn’t celebrate it. We had just finished a productive time of having the higher grades write letters to America (which I’m going to have to try at my school) and letting the lower grades play with paper mache (doing laundry by hand is hard enough as it is, thank you very much). Three volunteers had gone ahead to the next school in the principal’s car while the rest of us had to sit there and wait for them to come back.

So we sat there on the fence in front of the classroom, having surprisingly intelligible conversation in Tshivenda with some grade 4 or 5 girls. I would have gotten something to eat but it was a small school and the ladies who sold snacks didn’t have an impressive selection. Instead of fatcakes and biscuits, they had stale puffed corn covered in a strong red powder that added more color than flavor, and they also sold little pouches with a wrestler’s picture on them containing colored sugar. Kids eat this by pouring it on their hand and licking it off, typically staining their hands and teeth red.

As we were sitting there, some of the kids walked passed us and brushed our knees with their hands, saying “swa” as they did so. I pulled away from them. I didn’t bring that many clothes and I had a few days until I was home again, so the last thing I wanted was saliva and powdered sugar stains on my pants.

There was my mistake. My friends didn’t have the same reaction that I did, so I was immediately singled out as a good “swa” target. A crowd quickly gathered around me, chanting “swa” and trying to wipe their filthy hands on me. I had no choice at that point but to run. I bounded down the stairs and ran to the back of the building. What stopped me there, besides the fact that this whole thing was silly, was a boy lying on the ground with his arms covering his face. I wasn’t quite sure if he was hurt or just taking a nap, and in my hesitation, the mob surrounded me, completely ignoring the boy on the ground. They stood in a circle around me, more children than I had seen on the other side of the building. Finally, one of the girls from before broke the silence with a big “swa” on my arm. Rather than stand there and accept my impending doom, I ran back around to the front of the building, this time heading for the office.

Something you should know about South Africa is that all the buildings are barricaded as if they expect a zombie apocalypse any day now. Even in low-crime areas like villages, all the fences have sharp pointy things on them in some fashion or another, and all the outside doors hiding anything remotely valuable have metal security gates. When I got to the office, this gate was the only thing between me and the horde amassing outside. I didn’t want to lock myself in so I jammed the gate with my foot. They stuck their tiny arms through the bars and swa’d at my leg, but I didn’t yield.

After a few minutes it seemed that the learners were being called away for class, so when the coast was clear, I let the gate open so my friends could come in and we checked out the books in the office. Now, I really should have known better than thinking learners would actually go to class in South Africa. It didn’t take long at all for them to get on my trail again, and I managed to force the gate shut before they swarmed me, but two or three had gotten inside. Had they been real zombies I could have killed them without any fuss, but since they were only children acting like zombies, I wasn’t allowed to hurt them. My only option was to flee.

This time I chose an empty classroom on the other end of the building (of course, all the classrooms were empty) but there was no lock on the door I could see so I had to stand there holding it shut. The learners clawed at the windows and doors, a few of them shouting “Teacher! Open the door!” But I would never let them take me alive.

Then they started using tools. On the other side of the room, a group of boys jimmied open a window with a stick. Although it didn’t have burglar bars like most other windows do, it was small and they weren’t desperate enough to climb through it yet. On my side of the room, one of them was trying to pick the lock on the door, which was pointless because I was there blocking it.

When it seemed that they were getting bored, I crossed the room to secure the open window where the boys were. “Open it!” one of the boys shouted in Venda, and my friend outside, who was enjoying this thoroughly, warned me that they were indeed opening the door. After shutting the window I ran across the room and lunged for the door handle, but it was too late. They were all over me.

“Swa! Swa! Swa!”

Wrestling free, with these little black zombie imitators clawing at me from every angle, I climbed on the counter so they could only reach my feet. I was finished. There was nowhere for me to run.

It was then that my friends told my the car had arrived. I was mistrustful at first, but it had. However, the principal didn’t understand the gravity of the situation and she was taking her precious African time. I forced my way through the horde and I had to block myself in another room before they were ready to leave.

The presence of the principal seemed to calm them down, but as I was walking to the car, the ringleader from before took one final swa at me, as if to say, “you may be leaving alive, but we know who really won here today.”

The moral of this story is that you shouldn’t worry about getting your pants dirty in Africa because that will only make it worse.



  1. So glad you’re having experiences that our little town couldn’t offer you.

  2. Kyle permalink

    I promise I was not encouraging them in any way. Promise…

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