Heritage Day was founded in 1995 as a way for all South Africans to celebrate their diverse heritage.  Previously, September 24th was known as Shaka Day, commemorating the Zulu king who united the Zulu clans.  This day was not initially included in the Public Holidays Bill presented in Parliament, so as a compromise it became “Heritage Day,” a day for each and every South African.  Granted, it has devolved somewhat into “Braai Day” (barbecue), but the idea is to celebrate the variety that makes up the rainbow nation.

For the first several months at my host school, students and teachers told me about the local Heritage Day celebration.  Virgins dress up in their traditional Zulu costumes, everybody hikes up to the south peak, and after lots of singing, dancing, and praying, it rains.


The women of our host school sport their Zulu duds.

I never got to see this ceremony.  The holiday falls too close to the September exams which fall too close to the big, fat national exams the 12th graders have to take in October – November.  And early in September 2015, my host school hosted a giant farewell party for the principal who had resigned (back in February) including food, a celebrity gospel singer, and a colossal circus tent in the middle of the grounds.  So the community celebration on the south peak fell by the wayside.

However, in honor of this Heritage Day, I would like to share the aspect of Zulu culture that is most symbolic to me:  the Zulu dance.

I am a dancer, but I cannot partake in this high-kicking acrobatic feat.  I choose to drum (the rapid triplets are also an acrobatic feat).  With my current access to the magic of wifi which eluded me in rural KwaZulu-Natal, please allow me to share with you my favorite samples of Zulu dancing.

Church Ladies

One day, a preacher and a bunch of church ladies showed up at the school.  Perhaps it was in response to some recent discipline issues, but they came to bless the school.  They marched around the perimeter of the grounds, singing, praying, and collecting kids in their wake.  At the end, the church ladies showed us their mettle:

The Principal’s Farewell

At the event of the century, there were kid troupes, teen troupes, and professional troupes.  To the delight of all, the guest of honor Mr. Principal himself donned full Zulu regalia and kicked the kicks of a much younger man:

Tiny Girls

By far, my favorite Zulu dancing is done by my favorite people:  the young ladies of Grades R and 1.  This was a chilly day when we had to sun ourselves like lizards. After some structured games and marching to my riq, they burst into song and dance:


“Auntie Nette” is my favorite title. I love it even more than my Admiralship in the Nebraska Navy. The most difficult part about serving in South Africa is being far from my sisters and their smart, funny, surprising children.


Typical family photo. If it looks as if the Butt Pincher has me in a choke hold, he does.

I spent my first several months here breaking the ice with the neighbor kids, otherwise known to me as the “Itsy-Bitsy Spider Gang.” Forget the language barrier, the racial barrier here was much more difficult to overcome. Nothing screams “Stranger Danger” like a face bereft of pigmentation. The Squirrel took at least 2 months to stop running away from me. Now he runs and jumps in my lap. Lonely Boy warmed up to Colonel Tom first after 5 months of gentle persuasion, and once he warmed up to me, he started giving me rib-crushing hugs. Babygirl has never been shy and is liberal with kisses.

Like any aunt, I cuddle my adopted nieces and nephews when they want it, scold them when they need it, and refuse them cupcakes. I help the older ones lift the water bucket to their heads and the younger ones keep their flies zipped. A rough day at work is redeemed by their smiles, “Hokey Pokey” giggles, and good-bye hugs. They are the best thing to happen to me in South Africa.

The Itsy Bitsy Spider Gang sporting their early Christmas cowls/headbands from Auntie Nette.  Clockwise from the upper left:  Babygirl, Kung Fu, Polka Queen, Itty Bitty, Butt Pincher, Squirrel, Lonely Boy.

The Itsy Bitsy Spider Gang sporting their early Christmas cowls/headbands crocheted by Auntie Nette. Clockwise from the upper left: Babygirl, Kung-Fu, Polka Queen, Fearless, Butt Pincher, Squirrel, Lonely Boy.

Inappropriate Questions

People (in South Africa AND in Georgia, USA) often start conversations by asking me, “How many children do you have?” None. “Not even one?” Well, that’s what “none” means. Do single children not count? “But you love kids, why don’t you want them?” There’s a wide spectrum of reasons for a woman not to have kids and they are all too personal to discuss with you. Thanks for asking.

Then we move on to, “You’re not married? Why not?” Well, whom should I marry? When I told my friend Dlukula that I intended to stay single until I met someone who could convince me otherwise, he told me, “You are wrong.” The men of KwaZulu-Natal are doing their best to free me from my freedom. I get proposals constantly, mostly from random strangers on public vehicles but occasionally from supervisors or principals looking for a second wife.

The “Inappropriate Question of the Year Award” goes to a woman I had just met playing netball: “You don’t want a boyfriend? Why not? Or is it because you are a virgin?


The only South African “husband” I’m willing to claim. Rather than power or status, he just wants to help me carry my water.

Sisters in Spirit

I have met a large number of single women in South Africa, probably more than I had expected. Many have kids who are living with their gogos or aunts while mama works far from home. My closest (adult) friend Miss D is like me: single, childless, and devoted to her nephews. I don’t know whether she gets the same barage of inappropriate questions I get about my lifestyle choices. We have other things to talk about.

I had the great pleasure of going home with Miss D to meet her mother. And her nephews: sweet, rambunctious boys who were shy of me at first but full of mischief and affection after a while. They follow their aunt everywhere, even on a long walk with me. She helps them bathe, takes care of them when they are sick, and laughs at their jokes.

Sweet Auntie D with her nephew.

Sweet Auntie D with her nephew.

Whenever Miss D has to leave home and go back to work, her nephews lobby hard for her to stay, “Mum is working. Dad is working. You don’t have to work. You should stay and take care of us.” My nephew is a bit more subtle–he likes to sing the praises of Colorado as a wonderful place to live. The state should hire him as a PR consultant.

Homeward Thoughts

There is a brother-sister pair among the “Itsy-Bitsy Spider Gang” who remind me very much of my Colorado kiddos. My lavender baby powder smells like my baby niece at bedtime. Tiny infants direct my thoughts to the wee one on the way. My heart will rejoice to see my nieces and nephews back home, but it will break to leave the ones I love here.

Lest you think my primary project is playing “Itsy Bitsy Spider” with my little buddies, I am actually posted here in South Africa as a Life Science Teacher Trainer in 8 rural secondary schools.  By far, my best day on the job was my March workshop. I pushed for more opportunities to train my teachers as a group but unfortunately, subsequent workshops were all “postponed” indefinitely.

Then my housemates got an idea from a Peace Corps staff member–write a grant to host a large, multi-day, multi-subject workshop at a nice place with good food.  The Maths/Science Symposium was born.

Edited in Lumia Selfie

Elandsheim: a nice place with good food.


Principals, teachers, and Ministry of Education officials universally agreed that the symposium should be in September.  The big, fat national exams that the 12th graders take were to start on October 26th, so a September workshop would still give the teachers time to revise with them.

Unfortunately, there was no way to receive grant money until the end of September, so we either had to run the symposium for free using ministry resources, or push it to October, closer to the behemoth that is the national exams and the general end-of-year mayhem.

On August 11th, we met with Mr. D and the subject advisors from the Ministry of Education district office.  These folks were supposed to be our right-hand men and women throughout the year, but in our 7th month, this was our first meeting.  Collectively, we chose the venue (Elandsheim) and the date (Oct 23 – 24), reconciling schedules for the teachers, volunteers, and the venue.

I had some doubts.  The date was not optimal, the venue was beautiful but a bit far, and the grant required a 25% community contribution.  Could we make it work?

  • Will the teachers be willing to come so close to the matriculation exam?  If we tell them to come, they will come.
  • Will the principals support the symposium?  Will they agree to release their teachers that day as well as provide transportation?  We will write an official letter of invitation to show that this is a collaboration between the Ministry of Education and Peace Corps.  Ultimately, this will help their learners, so how can they refuse?
  • Is the venue too far?  It is better to be in an out-of-the-way place.  Teachers will stay focused on the mission instead of going out.  Many of them have cars; they can carpool together.
  • As part of the community contribution, we need the schools to provide photocopies of handouts.  How many pages do you need?  Email us your files and we will arrange to make copies in the district office.
  • Can we get microscopes, science kits, and projectors?  No problem.

I felt reassured.  The three of us submitted our grants:  John for mathematics, Randee for physical science, and myself for life science.  Mr. D and the subject advisors gave us their blessings and promises of collaboration.  We spent the next couple of months developing student-centered teaching materials, making friends with local hardware shopkeepers, and talking up the symposium to everyone we met.


Science takes a lot of stuff.  And a good friend with a pickup truck.

The plan unravels.

Then Mr. D became ill.  Very ill.  We lost our Ministry of Education go-to guy.  Other people tried to pick up the slack, but he was the one who had the to-do list and he was the one with the drive and authorization to make things happen.

There was no official letter to the schools from the Ministry.  People willing to help us did not have the authority to write it and people who had the authority were not willing to help us.  Principals were hesitant.  Teachers were confused.  We handed out fliers and registration forms as best we could, but we could not reach all the schools we intended to invite.

My life science subject advisor was also too busy to return my calls.  To add insult to injury, the district boss called a last-minute, all-day meeting for the subject advisors for the first day of our symposium.  I scrambled to beg and borrow microscopes from area schools.  I planned to proceed without the life sciences practical kit and resolved to be content with my bits and pieces of recyclables, hardware, and pharmacy supplies.

We had to travel 100 km to the office a day early to make photocopies ourselves on the district machine.  Until we ran out of paper.  And toner.

But we were still optimistic.  Most events here come together at the last minute, and there was genuine interest among some of the teachers.

For the sake of the few.

On the morning of October 23rd, I had a very early breakfast and checked my classroom for the umpteenth time to make sure everything was in order.  I held my breath and waited.  And waited.  And waited some more.  I should have passed out.

I planned for 14 life science teachers.  I got 3.  One of them was also a mathematics teacher, so I had to wrestle John for him.

Those 3 got the best science experience of their lives.  We sewed butterfly nets, built transpirometers, and constructed alcohol burners.  They saw Spirogyra for the first time:  a green, filamentous algae with helical chloroplasts that looks like a fancy bracelet.  They made their own microscope slides from clear welding glass and plastic bags.  They investigated surface area-to-volume ratios with play dough.  They developed number sense by playing “higher-lower” for Cadbury Dairy Milk bars.


Life science shenanigans!

All the teachers got together for an evening discussion facilitated by Peace Corps Volunteer Cathy on teaching HIV/AIDS and sexuality to their students.  Broaching the subject of sex with young ones is difficult:  there are cultural taboos and personal discomfort.  But South Africa has the highest rate of new infections in the world and teachers have a captive audience.


A lively discussion on HIV and teen sex continuing way past my bedtime.

Before leaving, math, physical science, and life science teachers gathered to identify what skills and topics their subjects had in common.  They found they could share equipment, reinforce each others’ lessons, and maybe even teach together.

When all was said and done, I had to return a large chunk of change that was meant for biology apparatus because the community contributions from teacher travel, registration fees, copies, and equipment could not add up to 25%.  Some moments, I wish I could go back in time and not submit that grant.  I could have closed my service early, skipped the chaotic doldrums of term 4, and spent Thanksgiving with my family.

However, for the sake of the 3, I am glad I did the symposium.  They had an eye-opening weekend, and they vowed to make the other teachers sorry they missed out.  One teacher declared that she had always thrown her hands in the air when it came to doing practicals because her school had no equipment.  Now she knows she can improvise.  Seeds were planted.  That’s all I can do:  sow seeds and let them take root where they will.

Look in my crochet basket and you will find an astonishing number of works in progress (WIPs).  Perhaps I am a process crocheter–I love starting projects and once my curiosity or creativity is satisfied, I may or may not finish the item before starting another one.  Because of this habit, you might think I should have more empathy for the half-finished or neglected structures I see around my community in rural South Africa.  However, I feel a sense of loss and frustration for the opportunities and resources squandered by WIPs.

The house with some electricity and nearly running water.

The house with some electricity and nearly running water.

“The house has electricity and running water,” Peace Corps said during our conference call before leaving America.  This statement is half-true.  There is electricity in one room in the house, and extension cords snake their way from this room to the distal regions.  All the rooms have wiring; all that is required is to install outlets, switches, and a distribution box.  The hard work is already done.  Why take years and years to give that extra push to make the house completely electrified?

The house does have pipes, sinks, and faucets, and when the tank on the tower is full and the valve is open, we can get running water.  However, the tank had laid empty for many years and on its second filling, the pressure proved to be too much and the tank burst.  Its carcass still lies on the school grounds.  The kids now like to feel the biceps I have developed by hauling water from the borehole.

Everybody loves to hang out at the borehole. EVERYBODY.

Everybody loves to hang out at the borehole. EVERYBODY.

The hand pump at the borehole was once obsolete.  A windmill once pumped water up to the tower tank (in its younger days), supplying the house, the administration block, and a standpipe.  Windmills make my Nebraskan heart sing.  There is so much wind power here, I’m surprised there aren’t more of them.  Unfortunately, this lovely Antarctic wind-powered machine was destroyed by a storm.  She still lies in a valley.

Casualty of a storm.

Casualty of a storm.

There are tanks, gutters, and pipes all over the school, but not a single fully-functional rain catchment system.  Gutters are missing, pipes lead to nowhere, and tank taps are broken.  After every hard rain, water pours steadily from the broken tap of the tank next to the 12th grade classroom for two days.  Meanwhile, we place bets on when the borehole will run dry from the drought and the increase of students and their laundry.

The pipe that leads to nowhere; a nearly functional catchment system except for . . . the broken tap.

The pipe that leads to nowhere; a nearly functional catchment system except for . . . the broken tap.

There was once even a solar panel at the school, a very sensible, progressive use of a renewable resource.  The current teachers don’t remember what it powered:  perhaps electricity for the classrooms, perhaps a water pump.  It was stolen.  Now the frame serves as a hot spot for after-school scrambling and hanging out.

The empty solar panel frame. Where all the cool kids hang out.

The empty solar panel frame. Where all the cool kids hang out.

The current acting principal has a vision.  If he gets the principal position permanently, he wants to fix the gutters, reinforce the water tower, and install globes in the house.  He also wants a strong, sturdy gate to prevent the stealing of taps and pipes.  He has even found a tap that comes with a lock, so people can’t steal it from the tank and the wee ones can’t bust it. He has already started renovating the classrooms, so we know he is a man of action.  The realization of his vision comes down to money.  It’s a no-fee school, so funding comes from the government.  The government takes time and often falls short, so schools often try to find sponsors, both locally and abroad.

The money may come.  Eventually.  In the meantime, rain falls unharvested, extension cords fill the gap, and the WIP list grows.

Our little corner of the Battlefields Region of KwaZulu-Natal is over 1200 m (almost 4000 ft) in elevation, so even summer days can become chilly with cloud cover. As a surprise for my roommates, I decided to crochet them South African flag hats. I enlisted their wives as co-conspirators, who sent me gift certificates for yarn (fun fact: one of my co-conspirators is now my co-volunteer and roommate).

The temporary banner that became the pride of South Africa.

The temporary banner that became the pride of South Africa.

History of the Flag

Apartheid was abolished in the early 1990’s, and a new democracy needed a new flag. The current national flag was designed by South African State Herald Mr. Fred Brownell, and was first used on 27 April 1994, just in time for the first racially inclusive national elections. It was intended to be an interim flag, adopted at the last second. However, it proved to be so popular that it was adopted officially in the final draft of the Constitution in 1996.


The green “Y” represents the convergence of diverse elements within South African society, taking the road ahead in unity. The colors of the flag mean many things to many different people, so there is no universal symbolism assigned to them. Black, green, and yellow are from the banner of the African National Congress, while red, white, and blue are from the Dutch tricolor and British Union flag.


Tom's toque before stitching it together. Alas and alack, I never got a photo of the handsome Colonel in the finished product.

Tom’s toque before stitching it together. Alas and alack, I never got a photo of the handsome Colonel in the finished product.

I chose to use slip stitch in the back loop (sl blo).  It’s not as fast as single crochet, but the fabric makes beautiful stripes and is super stretchy.  To make the hats, I crocheted two flags, sewed the long edge together to make a cyllinder, put the black triangles on the brim, and sewed the striped ends together at the crown in 6 short seams.  You could also gather the crown end together instead of sewing seams, but you need to cover the top with a small circle or a pom pom.

The best spot for drying the washed crocheted piece. Until the wind picks up.

The best spot for drying the washed crocheted piece. Until the wind picks up.

A hat flag will not have the same aspect ratio as the actual flag, but the important detail is to get the stripe ratios correct.  One-third of the flag width is blue, one-third is red, and the middle one-third is green and white.  The tail of the green “Y” is at least three-fifths of the middle stripe.  Each white stripe is one-fifth of the middle stripe, optimally 4 stitches.  The yellow stripe is the same width as the white.  The most difficult decision is how tall to make the black triangle; if it is too large, it will dominate the entire design.  Use graph paper to make a sketch, keeping in mind that slip stitches are flat while single crochet stitches are almost square.

Mike's hat--before it became a neck warmer.

Mike’s hat–before it became a neck warmer.

Regardless of what stitch you use, the most important step is to correctly measure your gauge.  For the first hat I crocheted, I made the gauge swatch early in the morning.  I am not a morning person.  When I finished Mike’s hat, it was HUGE!  Mike now has a lovely neckwarmer.  Tom’s hat had much more accurate dimensions.

For both Mike and Tom,  I used “Joy” by African Expressions, a lovely mohair-wool-acrylic blend, made in South Africa.  The mohair does make it difficult to frog your stitches if you make a mistake, however (“rip-it, rip-it!”).  I got it from Craft & Yarn online.  They make gift cards very easy, but the website is currently under re-construction.

John sports his 3-country Peace Corps hat.

John sports his 3-country Peace Corps hat.

Those of you who know John will know he’s a special case (in the best ways possible).  His sensitive skin required a 100% acrylic yarn:  Elle’s Family Knit DK.  Since South Africa is his third country of Peace Corps service, he requested Tanzanian and Liberian flags in addition to the South African flag.  He also got a brim and a fantastic pom-pom.

Proudly stitching the colors of Liberia and Tanzania.

Proudly stitching the colors of Liberia and Tanzania.

If you or a loved one would like a South African flag toque, you can find instructions on my Crochet Patterns page.  Happy hooking!

I don’t like to talk much.  If I have something to say, I’ll say it, but I find idle chit-chat a bit painful.  I do, however, love to crochet anytime, anywhere.  And I find it a lovely way to engage people in conversation and to be present in another’s company without having to think of something to say.  Even the grumpy snack lady who scowls at me whenever I pass through the school gates without buying her cheesy poofs will come over to see what I’m crocheting.

When I was packing for South Africa, I brought a stash of yarn and two crochet books full of flower granny squares.  My project for the year–a floral afghan for a friend yet to be met.  I am nearly done with the squares.  The neighbor kids have all picked out their favorite colors and patterns, but I hope they will forgive me when I give this to the deputy principal.

The ever-growing pile of floral granny squares.

The ever-growing pile of floral granny squares.

I don’t need a lot of vocabulary to talk crochet.  I had a wonderful conversation with a gogo in the small town nearby.  I was buying an unusually large crochet hook and she was asking me what I would use it for.  I spoke completely in English, she spoke completely in isiZulu.  It was a lovely chat.

I like to crochet on public transport.  It passes the time–sometimes hours waiting for the vehicle to fill up.  It engages hawkers in more interesting conversations than “Please buy from me.”  I got a thumbs up from one gogo, and two fellow passengers offered me money for the baby booties I was crocheting.  Sorry ladies, but these sweet little socks are destined for the extraordinarily busy teacher expecting twins.

Double trouble for baby beanies and booties. No, I did not plan to have identical booties from self-striping yarn. I couldn't have pulled it off better if I tried.

Double trouble for baby beanies and booties. No, I did not plan to have pairs of actual matching booties from self-striping yarn. I couldn’t have executed this any better if I had tried.

A friend invited me to visit her rural home for a weekend.  I don’t have much, but I do have time, talent, and a bit of lovely, color-changing Noro yarn I still had in store for something special. So to show my appreciation to her mother for hosting me, I crocheted her an infinity scarf of mitered squares in Tunisian crochet.   Lucky for me, this jolly gogo loves scarves.

Mrs. Dlamini sporting her new infinity scarf.

Mrs. Dlamini sporting her new infinity scarf.

Crochet is my happy place.  The repeated motions are soothing and the geometry and color combinations are intellectually stimulating.  Writing a pattern is like writing computer code.  Crochet helps me to say “Thank you,” or “I love you,” when words don’t suffice.

I honor my friend Amy.  I met Amy through the yarn shop near Athens, GA, and in the years I knew her, I watched her knitting skills grow and develop.  She was quiet and kind, but on Game Night, Amy was silent and stealthy–if you didn’t pay attention she would sneak up from behind and totally dominate a game of “Hand and Foot” or “Settlers of Catan.”  We lost Amy over a week ago, and my love and prayers go to her husband and daughter.

Weird he may be, but this little guy is king of the laundry line.

Weird he may be, but this guy is king of the laundry line.

The chameleon is a weird little dude.  From its roving eyes to its freaky feet, it has many characteristics that set it apart from your average lizard.


Chameleon eyes sit on raised stalks that rotate around.  Independently.  You may think it’s paying attention to you, a scary predator, but it is also following that tasty fly buzzing around.

Their tongues are lightning-quick, even if the rest of their bodies are sluggish from cold.  While other lizards wait to warm up for breakfast, chameleons can feast on insects early in the chilly morning.

Their zygodactyl feet have five toes split into two groups, all the better for grabbing branches and climbing trees.  Many of them have prehensile tails that also help them to hang out in the aboreal scene.

The prehensile tail:  good for holding tree branches and biology teacher thumbs.

The prehensile tail: good for holding tree branches and biology teacher thumbs.

They also have a funky walk:  a slow, lurching gait, as if it were grooving to disco music only it can hear.  I have no idea why it does this, but if I were a predator, I would certainly be put off.

A little dude, strutting his stuff.  Don't stop 'til you get enough, little buddy.

A little dude, strutting his stuff. Don’t stop ’til you get enough, little buddy.

Most famously, chameleons can change color, particularly the males.  Part of this is for camouflage, but much of it is for communication.  Like a full-bodied mood ring.  Guanine nanocrystals in their iridophores (think “iridescent cells”) rapidly change the overall color in some species (Teyssier, 2015).  When he’s relaxed, the crystals are close together and he’s a calm blue or green.  When he gets excited, the crystals spread apart and make him appear more red.  He can tell the ladies to come hither or tell competing males to back off.  He can warn other chameleons of predators in the vicinity. He can also regulate his temperature by increasing or decreasing the infra-red rays he absorbs.


The unique qualities and behavior of the chameleon has landed it in the myths of many cultures.  In the Zulu culture of South Africa, God was happy with humans, so He sent the chameleon to deliver the message that they should live eternally.  But the chameleon dilly-dallied, eating or basking in the sun.  God had time to change His mind, and instead sent the lizard to tell humans that they would die.  The lizard was much faster than the chameleon in delivering its message, so humans are now mortal.

The lightning-quick tongue has also led people to believe that chameleons can smite their enemies with lightning. This belief and the association of chameleons with mortality have made many people afraid of them.  Not Eddie, though.  Eddie is a student at the school where we live, and his gentle nature with small children and small critters has earned my deep respect.  He’s a bit of a chameleon whisperer, coaxing them out of trees and off laundry lines and showing the little ones there is nothing to fear from this weird, fascinating lizard.

Judge a man by how he treats the wee ones.

Judge a man by how he treats the wee ones.