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Making noise

August 18, 2012

South Africa has a curious relationship with noise. People in my village love it, but in parts of their lives they want nothing to do it. Right now it’s almost midnight and I seem to be the only person losing sleep thanks to the radio thumping out bass to the tempo of a rapid heartbeat.

Sure, any South African will claim to hate noise. Last term I gave my math classes group projects that I expected them to complete during afternoon studies (when learners are expected to sit in class without a teacher, so not all that different from the rest of the school day) or after school. One of the issues the learners had preventing them from completing the projects on time is that they would be beaten for talking about it with their team during studies. So I went to the principal to get permission for my classes to talk.

“They can work on these projects as long as you’re in the room with them,” he told me. “They can’t be making noise. I can’t stand noise.”

The verb rasa means to make noise, and I don’t even think it’s a Venda word, but it’s used here because it’s so deeply ingrained in South African culture. When my three-year-old host niece is crying, “U khou rasa,” her parents will tell her. You are making noise. As if she didn’t know that, and that this new-found knowledge will fix whatever she’s crying about, and she should be ashamed.

Or one time my grade 6 class told me that the principal just came in and beat them. When I asked why, a girl told me, “We were rassing.”

But there are times when South Africans will call a truce with noise and act like best of friends. Like at night when I’m trying to sleep. Of course, South Africa is famous for its vuvuzelas, horn-shaped weapons that are played whenever your favorite soccer team scores a goal. People don’t play them in my village but we had them during training.

At a shabeen (a “black” bar), all rules are off. Music can be played however loud, whenever. For this reason, volunteers aren’t allowed to be placed in a house within a certain radius of a shabeen, but at times this rule really seems like a moot point.

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