a blog about the cultural experiences my husband and I have because of our work abroad...what's delightful and beautiful about different countries and cultures...what we have learned from living and working in countries other than our home country...and how those experiences have changed us

Monday, December 7, 2009

music, art, and sustainable work

When does a new culture start to feel normal? We drive on the left side of the road and I'm used to getting into the left side as a passenger. I know which side we need to be on, I don't get confused, but it doesn't feel normal. I can pay in Rand but I still don't know just how much I'm paying. I don't right away know if I'm getting a good deal or not, I have to convert to dollars. I know that 40 degrees Celsius is stinkin' hot but other than that I need to convert to Fahrenheit in order to know what the temperature is. I still can't estimate quickly how long it will take to go a certain number of kilometers. Anywhere there are other people, we will hear a number of foreign languages or English with any number of foreign accents being spoken and I often cannot understand anything that's said at all.

Everything is still very foreign. Although we are aware of what to expect, it is all still foreign. And both Stephen and I are weary of foreign. We long for familiar. Even when we go out exploring on the weekend, though we generally stay in comfortable places and eat out, it's not familiar. I feel like a gypsy.

Stephen and I are working very hard to understand this culture. But what we are finding is that there really is not just one culture to which we must assimilate. South Africa encompasses several cultures in fact. After all, there are 11 official language recognized by the government. And the history of how these cultures have interacted in this country informs on the current relations and practices Stephen and I are experiencing today. And that may be the most challenging aspect of our experience here. We both have read South African history from numerous sources, so we knew before coming here that we would encounter exactly what we have, but that doesn't necessarily make the challenges easier to negotiate. One thing we know for sure is that we are glad we have each other for support. Stephen and I both want our work to be meaningful here. We want what we spend our time on to be sustainable. But knowing just exactly what that looks like will take some time.

A few years ago, with the dream of Africa in our minds, Stephen and I read Nine Hills to Nombonkaha by Sarah Erdman which chronicles the two years she served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast). One of the things that I took away from that book was that only near the end of her two-year service did she truly discover a useful contribution to the village in which she was stationed. I believe it takes a fair amount of listening and observing before the true needs of a community reveal themselves. That doesn't mean I'm not going to be working the whole two years, but it does mean that I can expect to modify my goals and activities along the way. It would be foolish, even arrogant for me to just decide in abstraction to do something at this moment and bullishly pursue that goal for the next two years. Currently I find myself flooded with information that could very well indicate the need for a tremendous amount of work. Certainly not something achieved in one or two years time. If our stay here is only the two years we committed to and not more, how can I make the most of my time? Where do I channel my energies? How will I use the limited resources available to me most effectively? And once I figure that out how will I be able to convey my goals to others who may not share them or understand them?

I am wrestling with those questions now. And I am also trying to negotiate the limitations of my Lupus condition. In June of this year I was diagnosed with Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE). SLE is an autoimmune disease that is treatable but at this time not curable. My case is not a severe one (in as far as my organs have not been damaged) and my main symptoms are pain from inflammation in my joints and muscles, and fatigue. I am currently in what is known as a "flare" which I have been in since about January of this year. Since June I have been getting better, having less pain, able to get better quality sleep, but I am not in "remission" yet. As I have only known my diagnosis for about 6 months I don't yet know the nature of the disease for me, and it is something I have to figure out for myself because Lupus patients vary widely. What does seem to affect me quite definitively is stress. Everyone who has moved or started a new job knows the stress of transition. Though I have moved many times, this move has definitely been the most dramatic. And not without stress. At times, it does seem as though I'm heading into remission, but there have been many days recently where I feel most certainly smack dab in the middle of a flare. So as much as my heart and mind would love to dive into work here, my body is telling me I have to pace myself or even reevaluate the direction I'm going. I am so thankful that we brought my new digital piano with us. On the days that I've practiced, I can tell a decrease in pain and better sleep. And the same is true for the day I took out my painting supplies and started working on a couple of canvases. Art renews me, I know that more than ever now that I am living with Lupus. Maybe this, more than anything else, will determine what I do in South Africa.

This weekend Stephen and I spent back in the peaceful Drakensberg Mountains again. I made reservations in a different location where we stayed in a chalet that felt right up in the mountains. From our huge picture windows we could look out and only see the mountains, numerous birds, and even a wild hare. In the morning, we took an hour hike up the path from the camp, stopping at the end of the paved section. Along the way, I especially noticed the unique flora next to the path. There were many different beautiful small colorful wild flowers. The mountains themselves are covered in grasses not trees and we learned that the reason for this ecology is that many years ago the practice of burning the grasses was done by the San people to attract wildlife with the intensive spring regrowth.

The impetus of this trip to the "Berg" so soon after the last one was the Drakensberg Boys' Choir Music Festival. On Friday night we listened to the world renowned Drakenberg Boys' Choir perform Christmas music in many languages and styles and on Saturday we attended the Soweto String Quartet Concert. The choir concert brought back fond memories of my time as a member of the Whitworth Choir. I enjoyed the vocal harmonies. Stephen especially enjoyed the traditional South African music of the Soweto String Quartet. It was a musical weekend.

On the 3+ hour drive home we stopped to give a ride to a young woman and her baby. Once we stopped another woman appeared from somewhere wanting a ride as well. Hitch-hiking is a way of life for many South Africans. They signal the need for a ride by pointing their first finger at the road; they do not stick out their thumb the way American hitchhikers do. The higher their arm is in the air, the longer the distance they need to go. People travel long distances for work in this country, staying in the town or village during the week, then traveling the long distance back home again each weekend. I was glad we could offer the two women a ride. Stephen and I have resources (a car) because we each were born into a middle class American family. We feel compelled to share these resources whenever possible, knowing that it is more the history of injustices than anything else that we are the ones with the resources and not these South African women hitchhiking on the side of the road.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

picture safari in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi

South Africa is a beautiful country brimming with magnificent wildlife! Over the weekend, Stephen and I took a picture safari through the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Park, driving our own car. We spotted all of the "Big Five" animals (lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo, and rhino) except the leopard. The best time to catch a glimpse of one of the numerous leopards in the park is at the 5am opening time. Stephen and I chose instead to sleep in this time. Hopefully on another excursion, we will stay closer or even in the park and get up early enough to finally see a leopard. :) Hluhluwe-iMfolozi is world renowned for its "Operation Rhino" that saved the "white rhino" from extinction. And we saw many rhinos up close throughout the day. The big cats are generally what people are most keen to see, and several other visitors took the time to stop and tell us where cats were that day in the park. The first lion we saw was lying next to the dead giraffe it had just made a meal of. Its back was to us so we couldn't see its face but just the idea that we were a car's length away from a wild lion was pretty thrilling. Then later in the day we saw six lions lying under a tree quite a distance from us. We could see their outlines and the occasional swish of the tail. Sadly the zoom on our camera is not that powerful and we forgot our binoculars at home!
So we saw some lions, but I generally get more excited about giraffes or elephants or even warthogs! :) We got some great warthog pictures. :) The elephants are more elusive in Hluluwe-iMfolozi than they were in the parks in Tanzania. But they also seemed much bigger. On our way toward the lion pride, we were following two other cars when suddenly both were driving in reverse. Up ahead a huge elephant was in the road walking toward us. One of the rules I read as we entered the park was to give the elephants plenty of space and there was an illustration of an elephant pushing over a vehicle! :) So we were all backing up, out of his way. Once he was satisfied we were far enough back from the path he wanted to take, the elephant turned and walked away from us. We were to the left side of a fork in the road while a car with a trailer was to the right. The shortcut the elephant took put him on that right hand road and he apparently didn't like how close the car and trailer were to him because he walked toward them until they too backed up sufficiently. He then turned around and walked down the road.

It's still springtime here so we saw lots of babies: baby giraffe, baby zebra, baby warthogs, baby impalas. We actually saw a little giraffe family: mama, daddy, and baby. The dad seemed to purposely draw our attention away from the baby because as we sat taking pictures, he walked right into the road in front of our car. And then when he started walking down the road, in the opposite direction of the baby, we followed. It was an effective strategy.

We stayed two nights in a comfortable guest house/bed and breakfast near the park. King size bed with soft sheets, air conditioning, hot shower with lots of water pressure, and a tasty breakfast each morning. Luxury. On Sunday we took a boat tour at St. Lucia, seeing hippos, crocodiles, and numerous birds. It was a most pleasant weekend excursion!

We are slowly getting used to the different terminology here.We don't standing in a "line" here we stand in the "queue". You can "forward" your calls to another number but it's called "diverting". If you need to put something in the "trunk" of your car you open the "boot" and to look at the engine you open the "bonnet". The hot water heater is a "geyser". Restrooms are "toilets". At Wimpy Burgers you get "chips" with a meal not "french fries". If you want water at any restaurant you order either "tap" "still" or "sparkling". Ordering "ice water" will just get you looks of confusion. "You want just ice in a glass???"

And there are definitely different rules of the road. One has to constantly watch out for goats, cows, donkeys and people walking on both sides of the road, something I'm not used to and not sure if I ever will be. Where driving in the US used to be something I could do on autopilot, now I have to be on high alert. Even as a passenger I feel compelled to stay alert, while Stephen drives, to help avoid accidents. There is a driving courtesy in South Africa that I've noticed. In the states, for the most part, it is the passing car's responsibility to get around a slower moving vehicle. On the roads here, however, the slow car watches for those who want or need to pass and take to the shoulder, allowing better sight and more space for the passing car to get around quickly. An informal rule of the road is speedy cars have the right of way. Even cars coming in the opposite direction will take to shoulder driving so that passing cars have the space they need. For the passing car it is customary to thank the vehicle that just allowed you to pass by turning on your caution lights briefly. The car horn is used more to be helpful here where as in the states we tend to use our horn to reprimand drivers who have made things unsafe, or simply to express anger and annoyance. On Sunday a car was driving in reverse from the on ramp back on to the freeway. In accordance with informal South African practices and not US practices, Stephen simply swerved around this car instead of laying on the horn at the danger it was causing.

On Friday of last week, I visited the mission school again, observed in grade 2, spoke with the principal, said hello to some of the teachers I had met before, and collected some materials for planning. The principal was very welcoming and said that they are always desperate for teachers, it's so difficult to get teachers and then to keep them. When I told her that Stephen and I plan to be here for two years she said, "That's wonderful. An answer to prayer."

At work Stephen is helping to build a program. He is creating organization charts, planning to put systems in place, and managing the nine research staff. Yesterday, with the one of the team having left for the rest of the year, Stephen was called to troubleshoot a computer problem for the pharmacy drug dispensing program at the hospital. Both Friday and Monday he moved transmitter receivers for better signal and hopefully more reliable internet. And every week he participates in six conference calls to the states.
Life is starting to have a rhythm. During the week Stephen and I are adjusting to living and working in rural Tugela Ferry while on the weekends we explore and enjoy the plentiful natural riches of South Africa. Though technically we are residents of Tugela Ferry, nearly every weekend we get to act like tourists on holiday. And for the moment, this routine makes all that we are adjusting to more manageable.