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.