“Your living is determined not so much by what life brings to you as by the attitude you bring to life; not so much by what happens to you as by the way your mind looks at what happens.”
I love that South Africa is referred to as “The Rainbow Nation.” The cultural diversity in this country rivals that of America. There is one difference though; the diversity here is mostly indigenous! Each indigenous tribe practices its own customs, and speaks entirely different languages. Add the Afrikaners, English, Indian, and Chinese populations, and immigrants from various African countries (to name a few) and you’ve got a rainbow of culture under one South African sky.
The nation has 11 official languages, reduced from the former 13. There are many more unofficial languages. Within one language, there can be multiple dialects with such variousness that they can be interpreted as distinct languages all their own.
Where I live, in Limpopo province, I have encountered 8 languages: Sipedi, isiNdebele, Tshivenda, Xitsonga, Shangaan, Sesotho, Afrikaans, and English. This means that I can travel an hour away from my home and find that the language I’ve worked so hard to speak (Tshivenda), is not understood. It is rare that other people outside the Venda culture speak Tshivenda, as most natives claim it is the most difficult language to learn. On occasion, you will find people who are fluent in multiple tribal languages. In my 10 months in country, such encounters have been sparse.
I can greet in multiple languages, but am only mildly conversational in Sipedi, and minimally fluent in Tshivenda. English was introduced as the medium for cross-cultural communication, but I’ve mostly encountered fluent English speakers outside of the rural communities in which I work.
Storytelling in isiZulu at the Human Rights Day Festival by Alliance Francaise de Durban. This was also the venue of my chance meeting with the Ambassador of Switzerland (unfortunately I was dressed only in a swim suit at the time).
In the province of KwaZulu-Natal, which houses the city of Durban, isiZulu is spoken. When I hear isiZulu I melt- especially when the men speak it! It is melodic and powerful and delights me in more ways than one.
Shangaan language incorporates sounds like whistling through the teeth, and reminds me of birds singing in the morning.
IsiXhosa is the language of Eastern Cape, and Nelson Mandela’s mother tongue. It is the language of clicks, and its music could make foreign bystanders move to dancing!
The variety of languages presents some obvious challenges for the nation. In my own work, I have experienced some of these challenges. It is easy for meanings to become skewed or lost in translation. Additionally, progress is a slower process than when communicating with American colleagues in the conference room of a sky scraper back home.
There is one consistency I’ve observed in my cross-cultural communications: Energy is a Universal Language! Enthusiasm, Belief, Positivity, Confidence, Compassion – all transmit frequencies to which other humans, as bodies of energy themselves, are innately receptive. It is amazing that in some of my victories no words were even needed. What a lesson for someone who loves to talk!
To learn more about South African languages, visit this link:
2. Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela, “Tata Madiba, Father of the Nation” epitomizes transcendence. His past includes the practice of the non-violent resistance methods of Mahatma Gandhi. However, Madiba eventually took to arms to combat the heavy restrictions placed upon blacks by the Apartheid’s Nationalist Party. These violent measures resulted in the loss of many civilian lives and ultimately led him to a fate of 27 years imprisonment. During that time, Mandela used his isolation as a temple for spiritual and moral nourishment. He shed resentment and anger which had limited him in his previous efforts for an equal South Africa. In 1990, Mandela was granted freedom, and emerged from isolation not only as a free man, but a free spirit. Through peaceful negotiations, Mandela would successfully advocate for the end of Apartheid. In 1994, he became the first democratically elected president of the new nation.
“No one is born hating…People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
On December 5, 2013, Nelson Mandela ended his tour on planet Earth. I was in South Africa’s capital city of Pretoria on the night of his death announcement. An hour after the announcement, I was in conversation with a black South African man, aged 30. I will never forget my surprise as the man said to me:
“I am glad our father has passed now. Now we can move on from the reminder of Apartheid. We can quit living back then in our minds. It is over. It is all over.”
The morning after Mandela’s death announcement, a group of my fellow volunteers walked to the Union Building in Pretoria. When we arrived, we found a group of people marching, dancing, and repeating the famous anti-Apartheid cry, “Amandla! Awethu!” (isiXhosa/isiZulu expression meaning, “Power! To the People!”). The group was a unified mix of blacks and whites who had gathered to celebrate the great works of the nation’s lost father.
Blacks and whites unified at the Union Building on the morning after Madiba’s death announcement.
I choked back tears as I sounded along with group, “Amandla! Awethu! Power! To the People!” Here I was standing on the ground which Nelson Mandela stood 20 years prior and he gave his inaugural speech as the president of a nation in the infancy of democracy. It was surreal. The
Union Building. Pretoria, South Africa. Site of Nelson Mandela’s inaugural speech as president of South Africa.
effervescence of honor accompanied my mind’s echo of the words from that famous speech; the speech I had recited two months prior at our swear-in ceremony as official members of the United States Peace Corps South Africa project:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our
United States Peace Corps South Africa swear-in ceremony, September 2013.
darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
The day after Mandela’s death, orders from the US Embassy required that all Peace Corps volunteers evacuate and abstain from travel to South Africa’s capital cities (of which there are three: Pretoria, Cape Town, and Bloemfontein), and Johannesburg, where memorial services would be taking place. Following orders, I booked a bus from Pretoria back to my home in Limpopo. On the bus, an elderly white woman sat next to me with a newspaper in her hand.
The woman’s hand stroked the front page of the newspaper; a picture of Father Madiba. Moments later, tears streamed down her face. “Are you okay?” I tried to console.
She lamented, “It’s just… Our father. He is gone. He was our leader. Our role model. Blacks, whites….he was a father to us all!”
Contrary to popular belief of folks not from Africa, I do not walk through village neighborhoods alongside zebras and elephants. Most of the wild game runs freely on private game reserves and in national parks. However, my colleagues who live in more remote parts of South Africa commonly encounter hippos during their trips to nearby rivers in which villagers wash their laundry.
Where I live, cattle and goats roam freely, often presenting hazards as the
Magoebaskloof, Limpopo, South Africa. At a conference, this monkey and his friends teamed up to steal our sandwiches during tea time outside the conference hall.
taxis race down the rocky mountain roads. It is not unusual to see mule-drawn carts transporting the locals to their nearby farms. I always encounter monkeys and baboons during my voyages through the Venda mountains to my nearby town. When staying at nearby camps, it is an absolute requirement to keep the windows locked and the food stored away to prevent being ransacked by hungry monkeys and sneaky honey badgers!
I have been lucky enough to spend a great deal of time roaming with the
Blyde River Canyon Lodge, Mpumalanga, South Africa
wild things! I recently stayed at Blyde River Canyon Lodge, at the world’s third largest canyon. It is renowned as one of the most stunning and spiritual places on the planet. A local shaman says one of the nearby mountains of the Drakensberg Mountain Range is where God lived when he created the world. The energy of the place is electrifying, and after three days there I felt a sense of ethereal connectedness that I haven’t yet been able to describe in words. Each morning, I awoke bright eyed and bushy tailed, and as I drew open my curtains and exited my room, I was greeted by wild zebra. Near Blyde River Canyon is the land of Timbavati, which is home to the mysterious white lion, which only appeared in nature in 1970! There is a movement to save the white lions as they have become nearly extinct since their discovery just over 40 years ago. Their existence is still a perplexing mystery to nature experts worldwide.
(For more information on the mystery of the white lion, please visit this website: http://www.whitelion.org)
Thorny Bush Game Reserve, Mpumalanga
The most thrilling experience of my South African life was a week stay at Thorny Bush Game Reserve, bordering Kruger National Park. I am told that people can travel to Kruger and never see Africa’s Big 5: Rhino, Elephant, Lion, Buffalo, Leopard. At Thorny Bush, I stayed with locals who are friends of the owner of a private camp. The front yard of our lodge was the natural habitat of Africa’s Big 5. I recall one night, on which I stood in the darkness, sending a message on my cell phone. I heard a loud exhale and rustling just a few meters away from me. I hurried to fetch a spot light and was astounded at what I saw! An entire herd of elephant were eating on our lawn! That night, after cleaning up the ruins of a honey badger’s intrusion into our kitchen, I fell asleep to the sound of lions roaring in the distance.
Africa’s Big Elephant. Thorny Bush Game Reserve, Mpumalanga
During our safaris at Thorny Bush, I observed lions mating, was nearly
Africa’s Big Lion. Thorny Bush Game Reserve, Mpumalanga
scared out of my dress by a large rhino sighting, laughed as I watched buffalo wallow in the mud, and had become so accustomed to hanging out with giraffes that they seemed as common as domestic pets.
The most astonishing event of the week was when we suddenly stopped our safari vehicle for the sound of
Africa’s Big Buffalo. Thorny Bush Game Reserve, Mpumalanga
an oncoming stampede. Elephants bustled past us, trumpeting furiously. We followed them into the bush. Suddenly, we began to see large tree tops swaying in the distance. “They’re excited!” said our guide, “This is very unusual behavior.” One by one, I watched tree tops disappear as the mad elephants uprooted them and trampled them down. Later, our guide stopped the vehicle to examine elephant excrement, in which she found traces of marula fruit. It is believed that the marula fruit has intoxicating properties to which the wild elephant behavior is commonly attributed.
Africa’s Big Rhino. Thorny Bush Game Reserve, Mpumalanga
Africa’s Big Rhino. Thorny Bush Game Reserve, Mpumalanga
Thorny Bush Game Reserve, Mpumalanga
As common as a house pet in the African wild!
On safari, we spotted this mother cheetah with 5 cubs. It is extremely rare to see more than 3 cubs as once as they are the prey of other animal gods of wild.
On our last safari, we stopped at dusk for a drink. After finishing up our cocktails and laughing about the drunken elephants, we set out for adventure again. We’d been searching for a leopard all week, but to no avail. We rode into the night as my friends told me they had been visiting Thorny Bush for 43 years and had never witnessed the animal behavior we had seen in just those few days. Suddenly, our driver began to speed around corners. The only thing lighting our way through the wild of Africa’s bushveldt was our two small headlights and a sky full of stars. The wind excited me as it ripped through my hair, and I was feeling some intoxicating properties of my own previous cocktail. We wondered, “why is our guide driving so furiously?” I laughed about it being our final joy ride of the week, and then suddenly we came to a halt. We sat in darkness, and I could only hear whispers from our guide situated two seats in front of me. Slowly, we crept around a corner, and found ourselves positioned atop a hill overlooking a dry river bed.
“There she is…” I heard someone whisper. A member of our crew turned on his spotlight, and shone the light into the river bed. Seductive eyes of a big kitty cat peered back at us. Casual, cool, and undisturbed by our presence, the leopard lie alone in the rocky terrain.
Her quiet contentment emanated a lesson of independence and a value of solitude- a lesson that I’ve come to cherish most in life after venturing into the African wild alone.
Africa’s Big Leopard. Thorny Bush Game Reserve, Mpumalanga
I like to think of myself and my fellow Americans as warm and welcoming people. The truth is, in even the most hospitable of households back home, we Americans are simply outdone by South Africans. As one of the Peace Corps goals is to enlighten Americans as to the traditions and ideals of other nations, upon my return to the US, I aim to instill a higher commitment to hospitality in my American counterparts. I also challenge myself to exhibit that commitment in my own behavior.
As a visitor in South Africa, it is unacceptable to visit the home of natives without joining them for a meal. This is true across the spectrum of cultures; I have visited with friends from various tribes, Afrikaners, English and Scottish South Africans, and beyond. Even in some of the poorest parts of the country, families have happily served their only morsels of food, sometimes consisting only of porridge. To decline food is an absolute insult to the host. This has resulted in an ongoing fluctuation of my weight as South Africans love bread, meat, and starchy vegetables. While these are foods I had mostly avoided back in the US, my personal preferences aren’t worth offending the overly affable cooks in my host country. I’ve learned to roll with the changes; loving myself 20 pounds heavier and 20 pounds lighter; I’m still me just the same. I never thought such a day would come when I could be comfortable in my own skin with such plumpness underneath.
The hospitality goes beyond meal time. Natives want to ensure your safety, show you around to local landmarks, help you map out your journeys, keep your glass of brandy always full, and will even arrange drivers to escort you from point A to point B. These gestures are not something I feel like I had to earn, they were invitations extended to me upon initial meetings!
I recall an adventure in Durban that delighted me. I was leaving a restaurant on the pier, and was stopped by a happy group of people my age who were hyped up on cocktails. After being introduced to everyone in the crew, it was decided a private driver would escort us to a local reggae club. When we arrived at the club, the driver, Max, escorted us inside, brought us our drinks from the bar, remained sober while swinging and dipping me along to the beats, and then drove us safely home. Max is a Zulu man in his 50s, and I felt protected in his presence. The next time I was in Durban, I asked the concierge of the place I was staying to call me a private taxi. Twenty minutes later, my ride arrived. A man in his 50s stepped out of the car with a huge smile.
“Max!” I exclaimed. I gave him a big hug. My friend and I told Max we wanted to find a nice jazz club for the night. Not only did Max drive us there, but he accompanied us inside, gave us a tour of the venue, asked if it was to our liking, introduced us to the staff, and even joined us in dancing in between his trips to accommodate other folks who were venturing out for the night.
When my friend and I decided we wanted to journey to another venue with some folks we met, Max refused. “No, it is time to go home,” he said. “It is late, and you aren’t from here. You are going home.”
I felt like my father had just spoken, and I told my new friends, “I’m sorry, I can’t go. Father won’t let me.”
On the way home, Max explained his reasons for making his decision had been out of protection for us as foreigners in his country. I asked him why he cared so much- he could have ended his night and returned home to his family upon our request to stay out. He told me, “It’s ubuntu.”
Ubuntu is an African concept which has many meanings. One interpretation is, “I am because we are.” It implies a strong humanitarian sense and protection of your fellow man. I had heard the term many times before, but honestly considered it a lost concept in the hard knock world of Africa. Max proved to me that the spirit of ubuntu is alive and well. My friend and I then nicknamed Max, “Durban Dad.” To which Max responded, “No, no. Durban Dude.”
Another friend of mine from Durban venerates ubuntu poetically,
“Without ubuntu life is nothing. Ubuntu is like purified water.”
In Africa, there is never a time of year in which butterflies are not adorning the open air with their colors. On days that the mind weighs heavy with challenges to overcome, a cloud of butterflies can swirl around me, bringing me fully into the present moment.
My mind stops churning as I smile in wonder and adoration. Concerns dissolve and my attention is brought fully into the Now- the space of clarity, simplicity, and pure potential.
The butterfly’s reminder: Patience and Process. It is a reminder that things get better when we take our time. In life, as in nature, there is a season for everything. The culmination of a revolution requires a certain ripeness of all people, ideas, and resources involved.
As a visionary, I tend to see the fruits of my labor before the labor even begins. This is how I know what I am pulled to do in my life. Having visions among foreign cultures and foreign languages could mean I’m only a dreamer- unless I embrace the patience required for Doing. It seems counterintuitive to some, “How does one Wait and Do?” It is this simple:
Keep the Vision.
See the people and events unfolding perfectly, and wait for the elements of the vision to reveal themselves to you in the present.
This means that the vision lives and breathes in my every breath. It is a life force all its own; it has its own energy.
Feeling the vision means that I am always aware that at any moment, the right person or resource can present itself, and because I’ve been waiting for just that, I am prepared to act when the time arises.
A caterpillar doesn’t stress about becoming a butterfly.
It just does.
A security officer in the village shopping center startled me when I looked up from inspecting this fallen butterfly. He was confused by my odd behavior, and my Whiteness in this region of
South Africa. I explained to him that butterflies are symbolic…for Change.
6. The Symphony
No, I have yet to enjoy a symphony or musical in South Africa, though it is a pressing to-do. For my birthday, I’ve promised to take myself out for an evening of proper theatre. For now, a symphony of insects sings me to sleep each night and fills me with love as I am stirred from my sleep in the wee hours of the morning; voices whispering in my ear, “Wake up, Amanda. Write it all down.”
My heart beats in tune as the roar of insects exhibit nature at its finest; intrinsic perfection by simple being! It is a reminder that I am in the midst of being my own orchestra; honing in on opportunities of the Now, connecting on a real level with people who coincidentally enter my life, as Higher Purpose artfully weaves them into a grand composition for the betterment of South Africa and beyond. Nature can be such a motivator!
This also reminds me of a message on a bottle cap of Magic Hat beer I drank just a few weeks before moving to South Africa:
“Be your own orchestra”
Two beers I drank prior to that one had caps which read:
“The world needs your deeds”
“You need to write more”
JFK Center for Performing Arts, Washington DC Six weeks before my Peace Corps departure, my favorite artist, Trey Anastasio, of Phish, performed with the National Symphony Orchestra. As Washington DC was the city that birthed my Peace Corps decision, and JFK was the founder of the Peace Corps program, this was the perfect Blast Off!
Trey Anastasio with the National Symphony Orchestra
“Burlap Sack and Pumps”
Sporting the appropriate look to complement those famous Trey lyrics! The burlap sack and leopard pumps were my first fun adaptation to Africa inspired fashion in preparation for the journey ahead
JFK Center for Performing Arts. Washington DC
Recently, when unpacking a suit case, I found another one of those bottle caps. I don’t remember it from before, but I’ve never encountered Magic Hat in South Africa, so I know the cap followed me from home. It reads:
“Peel off your skin to see we’re all kin”
The number of times that message has centered me as the only white female in rowdy South African village! I like to describe such perfectly timed synchronous happenings as “orchestral coincidence.”
7. The Kekana Family
This Sepedi and isiNdebele speaking family hosted me for my initial two months in South Africa. They are the quintessential family! Despite having worked during the Apartheid for a white woman who wouldn’t allow her to sit in the same room as her, Koko (Sipedi term for “granny”) welcomed me with open arms. She is a wise and strong woman responsible for gaining British sponsorship to establish the first creche (pre-school) in her village. She taught me lessons about the power of love and forgiveness which helped me transcend some of my own personal limitations, thus changing my life.
Koko’s husband is a retired church deacon. I was grateful to attend his retirement party. At the function, I visited from one guest to the next learning about the great works of Mr. Kekana. Stories included a testimonial from a physically disabled man who wasn’t allowed access to schools on account of his condition. Mr. Kekana led a victorious fight for the man’s right to education. Years later, the man recalls how his life was forever changed thanks to Deacon Kekana.
Me with Mr. Kekana. In the Kekana house, it was common to have conversations in 5 languages happening at once (isiNdebele, Sepedi, Sesotho, Tshivenda, and English). This is an effect of family heritage and Africa’s blend of cultures.
Their daughter, Rachel, is the most selfless person I know. In defiance of her demands as an educator, single mother, and caregiver, she always makes time to check on me and ensure my safety when travelling back for visits. And she never misses an opportunity to get a crowd rolling in laughter! Her son, Pope is a musical genius on the djembe drum and performed with a Peace Corps volunteer at our host family farewell function.
I have had enlightening conversations with with all of the brothers, sisters, cousins, and even young children of the Kekana family. Cousin Alfred may well be a future leader of South Africa. His inquisitive mind has made him a sponge for knowledge, and he grasps concepts of great social and moral magnitude with such grace that I can hardly believe he was only 15 when we met!
Me and Koko. I am wearing traditional isiNdebele clothing, made by Koko.
Back in September, I departed from the Kekanas for my permanent work site. After a night of dinner, toasts, singing, dancing, and spontaneous erupts of “Amanda! Awethu!’ (a play on my name, discussed in previous posts), the family would see me off. To my surprise, the entire family arrived on the morning of my departure. They thanked me and prayed for my safety. Just as I thought it was time for goodbye, each member, including the cousins, scurried to their cars and pick-up trucks (carrying multitudes of family members in the truck beds), and launched a convoy to my departure point. As I stepped out of the car to wait for the Peace Corps van to fetch me along the dirt road, I began to swell with love. Each member of the family exited their vehicles and began dancing and singing songs of praise which serenaded me until I was packed into the Peace Corps van and their images faded in the distance. The last thing I heard before landing in Venda was the sound of Koko’s whistle she blew with triumph as I rode away to my new life.
Kekana family seeing me off as Peace Corps vehicle pulls away, taking me to my permanent work site. A caravan of family accompanied to my departure location; literally everyone and their cousin, blowing whistles and singing praises as I rode away to begin my new chapter.
8. The Youth
The glow in their eyes when you reveal to them that they meet all of the requirements for greatness. The spark you can literally see catch fire when they feel inspired!
During my first school visit in South Africa, secondary school youths were told they could ask questions about me as an American. Their immediate response to this welcome was:
“What is your deepest fear?”
“What can you not live without?”
At that same school, I noticed a carving in a student’s desk which read:
“There are many challenges in life. Being happy is not one of them.”
The youth are like old souls that have been here before. They work harder
than most adults I know as they care for younger siblings, fetch water from rivers, haul wood in wheel barrows, wash their laundry by hand, plant their food, and boil water for their bucket baths.
In the US, I would sometimes hear the complaint, “Look at all this work I do without a thank you or show of appreciation!”
Folks, I am talking about 10 year olds who don’t have a choice but to work this hard for survival, and many of them are not even hugged-even if they do have parents at home. In the US, kids are often put on a pedestal; the source of pride and center of adoration. In rural South Africa, kids are commonly treated as inferiors. Even when they have proper families, it is customary that kids eat last at dinner.
I remember being upset about late arrivals for my Saturday youth empowerment workshops. My Peace Corps supervisor shed some light on this for me. I was recently moved to a developed township near the school at which I volunteer. The roads are paved, I have a functioning shower, and the houses in the neighborhood rival those in the wealthy suburbs of America. Things are different here. A few kilometers away, however, there is a lack of water, a lack of food, and no roads. This is from where my group of youths are coming. I learned that the youths wanted so badly to attend my workshops, but didn’t know how to negotiate the time with respect to their Saturday work duties of securing food, water, and clean clothes for their families.
The amazing thing is that, in many cases, the youth is undeterred by their work load. Day after day, they arrive at school, open minded, eager to learn, and beyond grateful to receive my praise and encouragement. Hugs are now on demand since my recent hugging flash mob.
Love Lights of Ekurhuleni Orphan Center applying their new skills in permaculture
My friend, Barbara, inspired the idea. “Amanda, think about when you were young. At night, your mother bathed you, put you in pajamas, and hugged you. These kids don’t have pajamas. And there is no one to hug them.”
There are exceptions-not all youths are orphaned, but a vast percentage are. Most of them live in poverty, and all are required to carry out these “adult-like” duties before starting the day, or enjoying free time (for many free time doesn’t exist). School, and my Saturday workshops, are a get-away for them.
They also Get Life. They are awakening to the truth that health, safety, and a future to desire is in their hands. Twenty years after becoming a free country, South Africa is plagued by domestic abuse (this includes spousal, children, and rape; the nation leads the world in reported rape crimes, though only 7% of reports end in conviction- a legacy of cultural acceptance and gender inequality perpetuates the horror), poverty, disease (highest HIV prevalence rate in the world), and lack of resources. Together, we are diffusing fear.
There is a Nelson Mandela in embryo in each one of them, and the more they are reminded of that, the more empowered they feel, and the more convicted in cause they become. There is nothing more satisfying than to watch a young person become aware of their own power! Well, yes there is; watching them conceive plans to tap into that power for a higher good.
Since I began working with this group I’ve watched their aspirations shift from wanting to be famous and having nice cars and flashy phones like the Americans they see on television (yes, despite poverty, nearly every South African household has a functioning television-I will write later about the most popular shows and the lack of positive role models available to the youth. I will say that many of their idols are American stars that glorify fame and money and exhibit zero social responsibility or even awareness of life outside the bubble of narcissism). Now, the youth is anxious to demonstrate leadership within their community.
A course in becoming our own heroes
When a majority of the group decided they wanted to help others who don’t have access to food, I asked them how they could do it. Their first suggestion was to give food to the hungry. I was real with them. I insisted our plan must be something we can and will do. How can we give what we don’t have?
I then shared the story of “give a man a fish, he eats for a day; teach a man to fish…” Their eyes lit up with sparks when they learned that by teaching, they could help others eat for a lifetime.
I committed to coordinating known leaders from the community to train the youths in permaculture, a sustainable gardening technique which requires minimal resources. Its benefits include food security, income generation, and household cost reduction. When I attended a leadership forum this month with two world renowned development pioneers, I learned that the facilitators trained a group of people one week prior in permaculture; coincidentally, the trainees are from my region in Limpopo. A Divine Plan at Work.
The ladies of my Takalani Empowerment Project
This is a culture where the youth is scolded and often beaten by educators and family members. Corporal punishment is now illegal in South Africa, but remains ubiquitous in schools throughout the country. For those of you who believe, “Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child,” I am talking about beatings with pipes, hoses, and sticks, and being grabbed and twisted by body parts for offenses such as not being able to read. And then we wonder why South Africa is perhaps the most violent country in the world which is not at war. Positive reinforcement is such a foreign concept that educators at conferences and even the majority of callers to news radio programs will beg, “If we don’t beat them, how will we control them?”
I’m not saying I have all the answers, but my Siyabonga persists at excelling in his academic performance, participation, and enthusiasm since the one day I saw him drawing in class as I lectured. Most teachers would have punished him-some by extreme measures. Instead, I praised his drawing talent. The young man doesn’t have a mother or father at home to take an interest in him or pat him on the back. The fact that I noticed him, and acknowledged his worth created a strong unspoken bond between us. It is one of those relationships that hardly requires words. The love is palpable, the mutual respect is real, and the results are quantitative. He went from a non-performing student to a top performing student in one week. That thing about Energy being universal, well, it’s real. Love happens to transmit the highest frequency of all. I get to experience the truth of this everyday.
Gentlemen of the Takalani Empowerment Project
I’ve been asked by numerous people who follow my writing, “Amanda, what or who inspires you?”
Here in South Africa, it’s the youth! I’d be nothing without them. That word, “ubuntu,” I fully understand now. Feeling ubuntu through experience is the only way to truly taste its nectar.
I shared the story of Siyabonga with a teacher I recently met when she asked me how I get the children to behave.
“Oh, wow!” she shrieked. “I’ve never tried that!”
“Yes,” I reply, “when you take stop and praise them, it will startle them. They will be shocked! They aren’t used to it. Isn’t it that some of them have no one to notice them?”
“Yes, it’s true,” she agrees.
“When you notice them, they will feel respected. Then they will respect you. They will want to please you. Siya even wrote a paper about how he wants to make Amanda happy.”
She shrieks again, ‘Oh, wow! Oh! Wow!”
“Yes, it is love,” I affirm.
Our paths home diverge, and as she walks in the other direction, I turn around and stop her. I look her square in the eyes as our faces hover inches apart. “They won’t fear you. They will respect you. It is different. And it works,” I exhort.
We stand in silence for a few moments and I let her feel the energy of my Conviction.
“I’m going to try it!” she excites. “I will use it tomorrow!” she laughs and shrills with ethusiasm as she walks up the road to her home.
Last week I experienced my happiest moment while with the youth. After a discussion on leadership, the youth came to a consensus that being in a leadership role does not mean that you will make good decisions for others. Good decisions are a choice regardless of your societal status or prescribed role. I prompted the group to complete the following statement:
“When I am a leader, I will do these three things…”
I was overcome with joy when the youth’s responses demonstrated not only an awareness of community need, but a tangible passion to meet those needs. After the session, three girls scurried to my desk positioned under a tree on the school yard.
“Amanda. When will the people come to show us how to help people grow food?” Tshililo, an 11 year old girl asks.
“I made a phone call today. We will try to arrange in 2 weeks, but I am not sure yet,” I respond.
“What if the people we want to help will not let us help them?” she asks. A legitimate question. I have had to answer this question from within myself as part of my own work here in South Africa. At age 11, this young woman knows people.
“Then we find someone who wants our help!” I assure her.
“Ok. But Amanda, we want to help someone today!” Tshililo and her two friends, Lucia and Ndivhuwo chime in.
“You do!?” a surge of love and gratitude runs through my veins. I get chills
Young leaders of South Africa
and I can feel the moisture trying to surface from my tear ducts. A part of me- the mind-piece which challenges and doubts the purity that exists in the world had wondered if I would ever be able to instill a passion for service in others. Here, Now, the day had come. “Do you know what you want to do for someone today?”
To my fancy, Tshililo immediately fires back, “Yes, I want to help someone read and write.”
Lucia and Ndivhuwo chime in, “Yes! Yes!”
“Who do you want to help read and write?” I ask.
Each of the three girls instantly offer names of struggling learners in the Grade 7 English class that they want to help. It is as if they had been thinking about this for some time.
I lean forward and look each of them in the eyes. My hand rests on Tshililo’s shoulder and her exotic eyes look lovingly into mine. She wears a half smirk as if she knows what she’s just done to me- nearly bringing me to my knees, my heart beats harmony as my soul performs a victory dance. “Ladies…” I push back tears, “You just made me the happiest person today. I am so proud of you! You are amazing!”
We make a plan, and I float in a love bubble as I observe them carrying out their goals during the next class.
Wow. How did our goals as a group shift from popularity and flashy objects to helping someone else right Now…”today“!? The days of wondering if I am teaching these ‘kids’ anything ARE over. I can feel the credence erupt as we affirm in our Saturday workshops:
“Ndi vhu matshelo ha Afrika Tshi Phembe!”
“I am the future of South Africa”
“What happens to my country is up to me!!!”
To view a 4 second video of our Saturday workshops, follow this link:
Durban is a port city in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. After being in South Africa for a few months, I found myself in the midst of the month long end- of-year holiday between December and January. I had zero interest in visiting Durban, as I foolishly assumed it would offer me no more than surfers and sand. I was completely wrong.
I ended up in Durban last January when other travel plans fell through. Within my first 24 hours of touring, I had been engaged in some of the most profound conversations of my life, I received my first Japanese language lesson (all of which I forget), blindly walked into a parade of traditional Zulu dancers, met multiple writers, stumbled upon a two-story art studio and mingled with the artists, meditated to the sound of the Indian ocean, and was surprised by what I can only assume was an instinctive discovery of a historic South Africa jazz club, home to some of the most prolific jazz musicians of the previous decades!
Durban has become my home away from home. My productivity and sanity while in South Africa rely partly on a commitment to rejuvenation of mind, body, and spirit. Durban provides all of these things for me. I am free to solo silent disco down the beach front, and free from the judgements of traditional tribal elders of the village which create a constant conscientiousness in my daily life.
Having discovered an air and water show during my last visit, I paraded down the entire stretch of sand along the ocean as I watched jets perform tricks in the sky above me. In my ears were the loud sounds of Phish’s new Wingsuit album. In my mind, I planned all the next moves for my development work, as my body boogied along to the words, “It’s time to put your wingsuit on.” Considered odd, or not, I was the personification of Soulshine! The only bystander that interrupted my bliss was a man, with the polite request:
“Excuse me Miss, can you spare a Rainbow?”
Moyo’s Pier, Durban, KwaZulu-Natal. Where genius stirs.
Moyo’s pier is the new house of the rising sun for me as I sit and organize people, events, and ideas in a plan for Revolution Evolution Africa. During my last visit for The Time of the Writer Festival, I spent many nights in conversation with peers from the Zulu tribe which included writers, entrepreneurs, developers, and researchers. These folks have become more than my friends-they will be my professional counterparts well beyond my Peace Corps service. One of these amazing people gifted me with a shirt from his very own clothing line.
Our Talking T-shirts, my friend’s clothing line.
10. The Wild
Modjadiskloof. Site of the world’s largest Baobab tree.
Africa is The Wild in as many ways as any one thing can be anything. Recently, I confided in a South African friend about some reservations regarding the environment in which I live. His exact response was,“Stay tough, little lady. It’s Africa. That’s the only way you survive.”
In Afrikaans, there is a common saying, “Afrika is nie vir sissies, nie,” meaning, “Africa is not for sissies.”
It is true. What I share in my posts is only a small glimpse of life here. Someday, long after I depart from Peace Corps service in rural South Africa, perhaps I will publish more details about the day- to- day risks of living here. To maintain my vitality and enthusiasm, and to deter folks back home from incessant worry, I now choose to keep those details my lonesome secret.
There is one thing about this country that cleanses my mind and heart even on the most disheartening of days: the pristine landscapes of Africa’s wild.
When I am confounded by contradictions of value within a single value system, when I am beside myself over the apathetic attitudes which perpetuate some of the most heinous violations of humanity, when I wonder if I have reached my threshold for tolerance of aversion, adversity, and single mindedness, when I question whether a revolution of consciousness is possible in a world whose leaders embody egoism and disorder, the lay of South Africa’s land baptizes me, and I become whole again.
Mpumalanga near God’s Window
Peering out from a mountaintop, I see birds flock together. I see the roots of some of the oldest trees on the planet twist and curve in defiance of the changing foundation beneath them. I learn again, and again, that one day long ago, before we were men with egos and women of vanity, we were free. Africa’s wild makes me aware; it makes me remember my truest essence: I am a free spirit, bound by nothing. And we are free spirits swimming the boundless seas of potential. As I continue to communicate with the world through the energy of love, we will together remember who we are; we will twist and curve in the defiance of a changing world, and stand bold and strong and Pristine.
Blyde River Canyon, Mpumalanga
Thank you, Africa!
Disclaimer: The content on this webpage is mine personally and does not reflect the opinions or positions of the US Peace Corps or US Government.