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Strike culture in South Afirca

I just want to post some thoughts before I head to school to see if there’s really a teacher strike today. People like strikes in South Africa. It’s pretty much their favorite negotiation tool, and it’s a right provided by South Africa’s new constitution. It’s almost always about money. The ongoing bus strike is for an 18% raise across the board, and the rumored teacher strike will be because teachers haven’t been paid for work they did recently.

I would think that striking is such a powerful image in South Africa because years ago, people marching in large groups with picket signs really did bring a significant change in the government. Now you see the image of the picket march being used in the most incongruent of places. There’s a poster at my secondary school featuring cartoony people picketing AIDS. There’s a chapter in the Life Orientation groups with some kids picketing crime. When I was in training, there was a TV commercial for Maggi seasoning, featuring a mob of women happily marching on another woman’s house because she was using the wrong seasoning. (I tried to find it on Youtube but couldn’t; it wasn’t very good anyway.)

The impact these strikes have are real. When I first arrived in Venda, there was a municipal strike. Imagine, if you will, being at City Hall for a near-tropical African city, with carefully groomed and cultivated plants, and trash overflowing in the streets because no one will take it away. I remember in the States hearing about standoffs between unions and companies, but it always seemed so distant.

My question is this: what image of real people do we have in the USA that’s so popular it permeates print and advertising? South Africa has strikers. I would think in America we have revolutionaries defying status quo to do what they believe in, because that relates to the founding of our country, but I can’t think of any examples.


Scout Camp Mangwele

First of all, a big thanks to those who donated for the camp. Everyone who attended has been telling me, and I can see for myself, that the camping experience really invigorated the troops that attended. Just as one example of what I mean, the last meeting for my Troop was planned and conducted by the Scouts without my help. I’ll attempt now to give a brief rundown of what happened at the camp.

But first, let me say what happened leading up to it. The goal as I envisioned it was to advance Scouts to the next rank beyond basic membership. This would give tangible growth to the Troops and it would put the Scouts in a better position to lead, because the requirements for future ranks involve planning things for the younger Scouts. The requirements for the Pathfinder rank are here, and it’s kind of a lot. So how were we to cover so much content in four days? Easy. We get the kids to do it.

Children in South Africa are used to being put to work. As a general rule, adults in South Africa don’t carry things. You just send a child to fetch or deliver whatever you want. Or for miscellaneous labor, it’s always children doing it. At my primary school, the children are responsible for sweeping their classrooms and polishing the floor and trimming the hedges. This is maybe the one aspect of the South African education system I’d like to see implemented in the US, except for the part where it’s usually divided by gender roles, with the girls sweeping and the boys hoeing for weeds. I mention this because there’s correlation, if not causation, with the fact that children in South Africa are very often harder-working and more reliable and more competent than the adults. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. If these kids are the future of South Africa, the future might be okay.

But anyone can sweep. The task we gave them at the camp was something not every child gets: we wanted them to lead. There were 6 Troops attending, and 6 aspects of the Pathfinder rank we wanted to cover, so what we decided is that every Troop would take a part and master it, and then at the camp they would be responsible for teaching all the other Scouts what they’ve mastered. The scouts in my Troop had the assignment of preparing everyone for a 10km hike. Rather than just being an attendee, every Scout would be responsible for making the camp what it is.

My time at this Internet cafe’s almost up so I’m going to cut this post short here. I’ll write about what happened at the camp, I promise. Maybe.

Real camp

I should have mentioned this earlier, maybe before we met our goal, but we’re raising funds for the big Scout camp we’re doing this break. I’ve been writing the grant application and I don’t want to complain about the process, especially since the money is still in flux, but suffice to say that there are budget restrictions that will make it impossible to get everyone to the campsite without outside help.

Like I said, we’ve met our minimum goal, but further funds will help smooth things over, and anything leftover at the end of the camp will go toward equipment for the Troops so they can keep going after we leave.

To lend your support, click on the big link below:

This picture's pretty old. I've been too busy during recent meetings to take pictures.

This picture’s pretty old. I’ve been too busy during recent meetings to take pictures.

Practice camp

A lot of my energy this term has been spent planning a Scout camp for six new troops that my fellow volunteers and I have founded. The motivation is to get out Scouts promoted to Pathfinder, the first rank in South African Scouting after basic membership, and hopefully their momentum will continue once we’re gone. The camp is 5 days and 4 nights, but the Pathfinder rank actually requires 5 nights of camping, so in preparation, I’ve asked everyone to camp a night before arrival. Nothing fancy, just a night of sleeping outside.

Although South Africa is notorious for its high crime rate thanks to its high economic disparity, my village is pretty safe because everyone’s poor here. So during our planning meetings at the primary school, I had no reservations about suggesting we camp on the soccer field.

“No, we won’t do it,” one of my patrol leaders objected. “There are ghosts there.”

The obvious solution, the one I should have thought of first, was to camp at the school where we were meeting. They have water and toilets and shelter in case of rain (this last one is important because we don’t have tents), and they were kind enough to lend us space for these meetings, so I didn’t see any harm in a camp Friday night. So I informed the teachers of my plan, borrowed the gate key from one, and waited for Friday night.

At 7:00 in the fading twilight, I unlocked the gate and we walked across the school to the concrete assembly area. Thanks to the flakiness that South Africans are famous for, I only had two adults helping me: the grade 12 who runs the meetings, and my host uncle, who lends us his credibility. Together we had to control 15 learners, which thanks to African Time, became 40 before the night was over.

Now, the Scout Motto is “Be Prepared”, and sometimes I fail spectacularly at that because I didn’t have much of a plan. Normally things go smoothly because with the regimented Patrol system, everyone knows their own role, but we had a bunch of new Scouts (the circumstances leading up to that is another story) who would have to adopt temporary patrols for this camp. I asked everyone to set their bags down and come into an unused room so we can make a plan, but the room was filthy and kind of scary at night, so instead I had one of the nice classrooms unlocked so we could use that. Almost predictably, then the power went out.

There was talk of mutiny, but the stopped quickly. Maybe they realized we didn’t really need electricity with a gibbous moon out, and that the power was out at home as well. As I was trying to wing it and get everyone settled in, I was called to the gate by my grade 12 counterpart to sort out a problem. “Some boys are trying to get in,” he told me. “I don’t know if they’ve been coming to the meetings for new Scouts, but I know them and I don’t think they belong here.”

At the gate were three boys of varying height, looking like a band of miscreants from a cartoon show. I knew the middle height boy. He was repeating grade 6, and last year he had consummately refused to do any work I assigned him, not in a bad-natured way, but with a determined laziness that is rare even in South Africa. “I don’t know your friends, and I don’t think you’ve been coming to meetings,” I told him. “I’ll check my attendance records, but if you know you’re not on there, you might as well leave now.”

Going back to my Scouts, I tried to get them in order, but it was dark and there we hadn’t had an opening or flag ceremony because it was dark. I didn’t really know how to get them quiet. None of the clever classroom management techniques we learned in training ever worked for me.

“Hey, be quiet… Everyone, please pay attention… Troop, troop alert!” Even the new Scouts were trained to respond to these pseudo-military commands. I put them at ease, selected two temporary patrol leaders for the new scouts, and we portioned out the areas where the patrols would sleep. At the end of this orientation, I was called back again for a more serious problem. Someone had taken the lock from the gate and wouldn’t give it back. As safe as I considered the village, the primary school is right across from a bar, whose patrons hadn’t left just because the power was out. This was a problem.

I went out past a different group of gate-crashers to see the guy. He looked as if he had been drinking. “Don’t you memorize me, he asked?”

“Of course I memorize you,” I lied. Everyone remembers me because I’m the only white guy in a 50-mile radius, and everyone expects me to remember them too. “Why did you take our lock.”

His story was that he was a member of the School Governance Board, and he didn’t know about this camp, and thought he’d make himself feel important by exposing kids to danger (not his words). I started talking nonstop in order to get the lock back. The principal entrusted me with the key (he didn’t, as I wanted to tell him but he wasn’t there Thursday or Friday), and no, I’m not saying I don’t trust you but I need the lock or else it looks like I can’t be trusted with it.

I finally wore him down and locked the gate back, and went back grumbling to the camp.

The next thing we did as a camp was play capture the flag on the netball field, which is a good game for night because we saw some impressive feats of stealth. I met a couple of parents over the course of the night. One wanted to see what her child was doing and I thanked her for finally showing an interest. Another wanted to take her child home because she didn’t have permission. I didn’t bother with permission forms because none of the parents had shown any interest before this point.

To finish the night, we simulated a campfire. Although I didn’t want to start a fire at school, we sat in a circle and I explained that this is where we sing songs and cook s’mores and share a good time in general. I started them singing Kumbaya. “But sir,” one of my patrol leaders said, “we’re not allowed to sing when there’s a funeral.” This is a rule I had heard before but never cared about because there’s a funeral practically every Saturday morning.

At this point the power had come back on, and my host uncle was standing aside with two SGB members, talking and trying to convince them to stop bothering us. Leaving a patrol leader to lead a silly chant or something, I went over to see what was going on. “Yes, we won’t bother you,” the newly arrived and more sober SGB member said. “You can have your camp.”

After that it was time to get everyone to bed. Most had brought blankets to spread on the concrete. I was surprised to learn the didn’t know what pillows are.

Getting them to sleep was the most challenging part. The advantages of not having tents are it’s cheap and it’s nice to see the stars, and the disadvantages are you can hear everything, and you get covered with dew. Both of those kept us awake for a long time. My grade 12 found a stick to smack anyone talking, and before long I joined him, except I couldn’t find a stick, just a board from a broken desk.

In the morning we packed our bags, I parceled out some bread and peanut butter, we were gone before 7, and I managed to catch the 8:00 bus for shopping and stuff. Here’s to hoping our camp this break is a little more restful.

American food comes to Makhado

Along the N1 road, east of Makhado proper, there’s this small, tidy mall called Makhado Crossing. Over the past few months, a rash of new restaurants have opened there. Glad as I am to see economic progress (if there had been businesses in the now-occupied spaces before, I’ve already forgotten what they were), there are three new enterprises that I want to mention directly because they tug at a specific American place in my heart.

One Saturday I walked into the mall and I found myself staring at a big anthropomorphic hot dog wearing nothing but a bun and a streak of mustard. He was on a sign for this new place, “Hot Dog and Sausage Cafe”. Several things struck me as odd about this. First of all, there are no “hot dogs” in South Africa. There are “viennas” or “russians” or “frankfurters”, but no one knows or cares what a hot dog is. Could it be that they serve American-inspired food? Secondly, a sausage cafe? When I hear the word cafe, I think of coffee and French people wearing berets. Sausage doesn’t enter the picture. Thirdly, it’s strange to see a restaurant specializing in hot dogs anywhere. Hot dogs are always a side attraction, an alternative to burgers. Maybe it could be done in Chicago, or a city large enough to support such a degree of specialization, but even after living in a village for over a year, I can still say that Makhado is not a big town. But enough thinking! I went in to try it.

The walls and the staff were decorated in yellow, and they offered two attractions: a hotdog and chips, or a boerwors and chips. I don’t actually remember whether they were called chips or fries, but I do remember feeling betrayed. This wasn’t American. It was British. Bangers and chips, just like you can get at any fish and chips place in South Africa. They even put salt and vinegar on their fried. I ordered a wrinkly hot dog in a too-big bun and vowed never to return.

Not too long after that, I noticed another attraction across from the Sausage Cafe. The sign read Big Al’s and it had a guy, presumably Big Al or possibly Elvis, with a red shirt and a hairdo that belonged in Grease. How quaint, I thought. A restaurant in South Africa themed to appeal to American nostalgia. There wasn’t any space for anyone to sit inside but they owned the tables outside. I went to the counter and to see what their burgers were all about.

Once again, I was misled. It wasn’t American. It was Afrikaner, plain and simple, and I don’t think it would be controversial of me to say that Afrikaners do not know how to make a burger. They lather the buns with cold, unmelted butter, they don’t use ketchup or tomato sauce, and the meat is not meat. It tastes as though it’s largely cornmeal. I don’t get it. There’s a grocery store in the mall that sells ground beef. You South Africans call it “mince”. Use that stuff to make your burgers. Just try it. You’ll never go back.

As I was leaving, I noticed some more construction going on. In one of the outside lots, there were some actual Chinese people (I guess) and they were setting up an actual Chinese restaurant. Their sign, sitting on the floor unmounted, said “Yummy Kitchen” and it featured a pink Oriental guy in a chef’s hat. A sign in the window said they were opening December 10, and I would be on vacation then, but it seemed promising so I resolved to go back later.

When I finally managed to catch them open, I sat down and pored over their familiar-looking menu. I ordered some lo mein and I took the place in visually as I waited. The decoration is simple enough: unadorned walls, a tiled floor and some polished tables. Behind the counter were some shelves where they stocked specialty items and some kitschy cat figurines waving their paws. I felt right at home. Most jobs I’ve ever had have had a restaurant just like this within walking distance. When my food arrived, it was the real deal. The ingredients were quality and my only complaint is that it was too salty but I can chalk that up to them being new. I worry about how well their business will do in a culture that’s not used to chinese food, but I plan to support them with what I can spare from my Peace Corps stipend. Of all the restaurants there, the Chinese one is the most American.

The sign outside Hot Dog and Sausage Cafe

The sign outside Hot Dog and Sausage Cafe

The sign for Yummy Kitchen while they were still modeling the place

The sign for Yummy Kitchen while they were still modeling the place

The banner in the parking lot for Big Al's

The banner in the parking lot for Big Al’s

The Eighth Plague

Every PCV gets accused of being things they’re not (rich, spies, Germans, etc.). I get accused of being a researcher because I like to take photos. Like this one.


I first saw these bugs crawling in a mass over the trash-strewn lot outside my house. They’re not by any stretch the biggest locusts here, but they’re certainly the most eye-catching. Most animals in nature will camouflage themselves to conceal themselves from predators (or prey), but some go the opposite direction and try to look too unusual to be eaten. One night on my way to the latrine I found a cluster of them on the wall. This photo had to be adjusted because it was too dark even with a light shining on them, but they look alien enough without my help.


I asked my host mother if she ate these. “Some locusts tastes good,” she said, “but not these.”

Molting time.

Molting time.

(P.S. I don’t want to apologize for infrequent updates, nor do I want to promise future updates, but just know that I’ve been having technical problems and I have lots more to write about.)

Introducing Unarine

Despite everything that happened in the last two posts, I still hadn’t told my host family about the cat. I was afraid it wouldn’t be easy because I knew they didn’t like cats. At the time, the odds of the cat surviving didn’t seem to justify the risk of causing a conflict with my host family. Those odds changed once I managed to make him eat and go through the other motions of surviving.

One day my host sister had her newborn baby outside and she called me over to play with it. I held the thing for a while, and then I told her, “I have a baby too. Want to see it?” I gave hers back and went to get mine.

I could hear my host sister and other talking behind me in Tshivenda as I went to my room. “Mpho has a child?” “Yes, he’s going to get a picture.”

You can imagine their surprise when I brought out a tiny black cat. “Mpho, that is not a baby,” my host mother said in a not terribly impressed tone. “That is a cat.”

“His name is Fhulufhelo,” I told them. It was my sister’s turn to be not terribly impressed, because that’s her baby’s name.

“No, it can’t be Fhulu!” she said, smiling.

“Just kidding. His name’s Unarine.”



Where there is no veterinarian part 2

Sunday morning, I woke up and peered over my bed to make sure the cat was still breathing. Check.

I hadn’t gotten it to eat more than a few crumbs and conventional wisdom said it would die soon. On the advice of friends I had consulted with over BBM and Facebook, I went to the clinic to get a syringe for feeding it. The clinic was allegedly 24/7 and my thinking was that Sunday morning would be a good time to go because patients would be busy with church. The guards took my ID and made me sign in at the gate.

Once I was inside, I found the benches were packed full. There were three beleaugered nurses working the whole operation: one in the exam room, one at a desk in the middle, and one flitting between patients like a butterfly, administering a thermometer (or possibly a litmus test) here, taking a reading there. After a few minutes of standing there and futilely flipping through the Venda and Tsonga pamphlets to see if they had anything about cats, I decided this wasn’t a good use of my time. I told the guards I’d be back when it’s less busy.

I tried asking around the village for help, but the indifference I met toward the life of my baby cat was brutal.

Taking a small plastic soda bottle, a dish sponge, a condom and a rubber band, I fashioned together an improvised baby bottle. The cat rejected the bottle as he seemed to know it was gross, but he wasn’t strong enough to resist a good force feeding. His claws did poke extra holes in the condom, though, so that didn’t last long.

At six I returned to the clinic, which was empty except for three weary nurses. I was ushered into the exam room.

I explained to the nurse. “Look, I don’t know how you will take this, but… I need a syringe to feed a cat. It’s too young to eat on its own so I need the syringe to give it milk.”

She still didn’t get it. “Who’s baby is this?”

“Ndi kumange.” It’s a kitten.

“Oh, tshimange!” she chuckled. “Let me say that this clinic is for humans, not animals.” She got up and went to the back of the room, and when she came back, she offered me my choice of three syringes. I took the 5ml one and thanked her and went home to try it out.

That’s how I’ve been feeding the cat since. I try giving him real cat food or milk in a jar lid, but he just steps in it, or at best, gnaws on the rim. The measurements on the syringe are wearing off, and the label that says “discard after single use” is by now illegible, but it seems to do the trick.

His name is Unarine. That’s Venda for “he’s with us”.

He's too dark for a good photo.

He’s too dark for a good photo.

Where there is no veterenarian part 1

November in South Africa means exam time, and exam time means there are no classes at my secondary school because multitasking is a foreign concept here, as is efficiency. The learners don’t even come to school unless they have an exam, so the school remains strangely empty at all times. This leaves me with precious little to do at that school. These days I’m just going there for lunch and to see the teachers, and then leaving back to the other school.

Last Friday I arrived at noon, when the exams were finished and everyone had left except for teachers grading exams, and some learners who stay behind to wash the teachers’ cars. If they put half the effort from keeping the cars clean into keeping the school clean, I might feel more inclined to spend time there. As I was walking to the office building, one of the older learners lounging around called out to me.

“Mr. Mpho! What is this?” he asked, pointing at the bottom of the stairs. Down there was a little gray ball of fur, desperately clinging to the ground with its claws on all four feet. I don’t know what it had been through before I arrived, as people aren’t exactly nice to animals in South Africa, but it did not look happy to be there at that moment.

What else could I do? I walked over and picked it up. It didn’t resist, sitting neatly in the palm of one hand. It clearly wanted the day to be over already.

The learner showed me where he had originally found it. It was up the stairs under a broken window in the “library”, presumably where its mother had moved it and then abandoned it.

Some teachers started coming by to see what I was doing. “What is that?” one asked in Tshivenda. “A dog?” Although it was an indistinguishable gray blob with triangular ears that wouldn’t stand up, the triangular nose and retractable claws gave it away as a cap. But I played along.

“Ee, ndi mmbwa.”

“No, I can tell this is not a dog. This is a wild cat. It’s not domestic.”

Wild or not, it was only a few weeks old. It was unfair not to give it a chance.

I went and got my lunch and ate it outside with the cat. I tried feeding it some chicken intestine, which I never eat anyway, but it wouldn’t eat.

When we were done and the teachers began to lock the gates, I put the kitten in my jacket pocket and carried it home with me. I didn’t see what choice I had.

At home I set up a shoebox with a washcloth for a bed and a jar lid full of milk for it to eat. I didn’t introduce it to my host family because they didn’t like cats. It spent the rest of the day there.

On Saturday I went shopping in town and I bought a small packet of cat food. I wanted to feed it, but I also didn’t want to spend too much money in case it didn’t live long.

When I got home, I found that it had climbed out of the shoebox and was hiding under the bed. I tried luring it out with food, but in the end I had to move the bed to reach it. It still wouldn’t eat more than a few crumbs.

Read the thrilling conclusion tomorrow.

A review of South African bus lines

We had our Mid-Service training earlier this month, and it was great to get back in the city and see all the people who came with me on the plane a year ago. Thanks to the internet access we had at the backpackers, I somehow managed to wreck my operating system. For you, that means no more photos until I get it fixed.

But you already know what a bus looks like, right? Bosman station, my hub for going between Pretoria and Limpopo, has a lot of them. The ticket offices are lined up in a tidy little row, with beggars hovering around them looking for Americans to pester. Here I review the bus lines I have and haven’t used, to memory.

  • City to City is the line I use most often for traveling between cities. It’s the best choice for me because, oddly enough, none of the other major lines serve Limpopo at all. So I’m lucky that even though there’s no competition, it’s still a good line. I don’t want to say it’s luxurious, but it’s solid. With nice cushioned seats that are four to a row instead of five, curtains that a usually clean, and a TV that plays pedi or tsonga music videos on a loop, there’s not that much to complain about. It’s usually cheaper than a taxi, too.

    City to City has a sister line called Translux, which does the same job for half again the price. As far as I can tell, the only difference is the seats are bigger and the clientele is whiter. As an artifact of apartheid, the ladies at the ticket office will sometimes assume I want to ride Translux. Even if I weren’t living on a PCV’s budget, City to City does the job for me.

  • Greyhound is one that I’ve never ridden. I’ve heard mixed things, and it’s possible that some reviewers may be conflating it with the American Greyhound. All I can say is that the staff was helpful in answering my questions. (“Do you go where I want to go?” “No.”)
  • SA Roadlink is affectionately(?) called SA Deathlink by volunteers. I’ve only used it once, and that’s more than enough. They’re designed for cargo, transporting a group of mannequins, maybe, but not for people. The rows seat five, which is too crowded to really work, so Deathlink’s twisted engineers came up with a solution: stagger the middle seat back a little so the person sitting there and the person sitting next to them can overlap. That’s where I had to sit, of course. The icing on the cake was when the guy in front of me reclined his seat into my face. Short review: taxis are safer and more comfortable, and that’s saying something.
  • Intercape is one I’ve never used because I don’t have business in the cape, but plenty of volunteers do. Their buses are clean and shiny and large, sometimes with a second deck. If the roads of South Africa were colonial era Caribbean seas, then Intercape buses would be the Spanish galleons. It’s a Christian company, which means that every voyage begins with an official prayer (as opposed to a frantic prayer from one of the passengers, I guess) and they play religious movies during the trip.
  • Phadziri and Sons does not seem like a big company, but I’m including it because they run a small office in Bosman, even though it never seems to have any business. Seeing this bus line makes me think that businesses catering to a black customer base will work to cultivate an image of being dirt cheap and barely functional, in order to attract those without much money. The inside of their office smells worse of urine than the outside, and the cheap metal chairs have had their covers stripped off, exposing the foam underneath. I once rode one of their buses accidentally on a local trip. It was just like the bus I use to reach my village, which is to say, the bare minimum. Using a bus like this on a long journey qualifies as rock bottom.

That’s all I can remember. There are also smaller companies that are in league with each other, but they don’t have offices, and they instead hustle their customers off the streets. They’re not bad, but I can more reliably find a City to City bus for the same price.