My first Peace Corps experience was in Kenya, about 15 years ago.  I was teaching math, biology, and physics in a very, very rural secondary school.  There are certain joys found in rural life in a developing nation, and I was looking forward to finding them again here in South Africa.

However, my current site has been developed out of some of those joyful simplicities I remembered from Kenya, either because South Africa is generally much more wealthy and developed than Kenya or simply through the passing of time. Allow me to illustrate three examples:  bottles, baskets, and tuck shops.  Keep in mind that I am comparing one little village in South Africa today to one little village in Kenya in 2000.

Bottles

Coca-cola is everywhere, so Coke bottles are everywhere.  In Kenya (2000), they were glass.  You paid a deposit and the bottle was dutifully collected and re-used over and over, evident from the scratches it accumulated over its many lifetimes.

Sharing pop with a friend in Kenya (2011).  Not only are the bottles glass, but they are of a reasonable, modest 300 mL size.

Sharing pop with a friend in Kenya (2011). Not only are the bottles made of glass, but they are of a reasonably modest 300 mL size.

The bottles in South Africa, however, are mostly plastic.  While some of the larger municipalities have recycling, the rural areas have no infrastructure to take care of the mass of plastic littering roads, open fields, and school grounds.  I hoard plastic bottles, using them for science experiments, art projects, or to hand to the little ones so they don’t have to put their faces up to the pump and risk getting bonked in the head to drink some water.  The bottles that aren’t free-range litter end up in a burn pile.

Plastic bottles scavenged to teach colour theory.

Plastic bottles scavenged to teach colour theory.

Baskets

Many ladies from my Kenyan village were skilled basket weavers.  The kiondo or kikapu was the traditional gift for weddings and good-byes; I went home with a small fortune of them.  I have one fitted with a leather strap and enclosure that I use as a purse.  It’s beautiful and unique.

A pile of kikapus bestowed upon my Kenyan sister at her wedding.

A pile of kikapus bestowed upon my Kenyan sister at her wedding.

My hand-woven purse is the only one of its kind that I’ve seen in South Africa.  Everyone carries pleather purses and bags made in China.  There are the traditional Zulu ukhamba, beautifully woven and traditionally water-tight, but I have only seen them in tourist shops.

Tuck shops

In Kenya, I rarely went to town to shop for groceries.  It required an hour-long hike up hill and a multi-hour wait for a matatu to come by. With the exception of pasta and tomato paste, I could get all my staples at the local kiosks known as dukas.  They were everywhere:  next to the school, next to my village, next to apparently nothing.

A row of dukas in Kyalavo, Kenya.

A row of dukas in Kyalavo, Kenya.

Many teachers drive in South Africa, so they go to town for all their needs.  People who can’t afford a car can take a shared taxi; even the dirt roads are readily passable.  As a result, there isn’t the demand for a well-stocked, mom and pop shop around the corner.  It took a month for me to find the closest tuck shop a 20 minute walk away.

The bright coral blip in the center is the only tuck shop for kilometers.  A beacon in the wilderness.

The bright coral blip near the center is the only tuck shop for kilometers. A beacon in the wilderness.

Development comes with an increase in quality of life through clean drinking water, access to health clinics, and education.  Sometimes it also comes with a western-style consumerism that squelches conservation, improvisation, and indigenous technology.  I suppose it was the same phenomenon seen in my little Nebraskan town when the big box superstore 90 miles away edged out the local five-and-dime. I have no answers, only observations and a fabulous kikapu purse found nowhere else.

Around the world, people with access to flour and oil have fried dough.  I have a deep and abiding love for these heart-stopping, diabetes-inducing balls of deliciousness.  Allow me to highlight some of my favorites.

Largest

The South African amagwinya are by far the fattest fat cakes around.  The snack ladies selling lollipops and cheesy poofs at the schools carry these in a big bucket, and if you don’t get there before the kids do, you will miss out.  As big as my fist, these babies will stave off my hunger for hours, even if I split one with Colonel Tom.

Fattest fat cake ever.

Fattest fat cake ever.

Highest SA:V

The funnel cakes of America’s fairs and carnivals compete with the South African amagwinya in volume, but they definitely own every other fried dough in surface area to volume ratio.  If you like that crispy surface, you’re in luck!  Plus, it will be covered in powdered sugar or cinnamon.

Sweetest

Of course, the Americans take the gold in the sugary category as well.  The Boston Creme is a pudding-filled, chocolate-covered pillow from heaven (actually, Dunkin Donuts).

Most delicious

The Hawaiian version of the Portuguese malasada is my favorite of all fried dough.  I love them plain, simply dusted with sugar, and hot out of the fryer.  But they also come filled with puddings (lilikoi, anyone?) and there are some made of poi (who doesn’t love purple food?).  Cape Cod malasadas are okay, but the Hawaiians have raised this fat cake to a whole new level of sublime.

Partaking in the finest malasada in Honolulu!

Partaking in the finest malasada in Honolulu!

Honorable mention

The Kenyan andazi isn’t as big as an igwinya, as sugary as a Boston Creme, or as delicious as a malasada.  However, these simple little angular doughnuts hit the spot.  In some regions of the country, there is even a hint of coconut.  And if they are made by my sister Wavinya, they rival the malasada in supreme flavor.

The happy couple walking down the aisle.

The happy couple walking down the aisle.

Msane is a quiet man.  He is also very sweet.  He calls on the younger kids to speak during assembly, he can be encouraging while still acknowledging the challenges facing educators in rural South Africa, and he always gives me a big hug when I return from Peace Corps meetings and workshops.  One day, he came to work with a radiant smile.  He had gotten engaged.

He invited the entire school staff to the wedding, even though some of us had not known him long.  Early on a Sunday morning, we put on our finery, piled into the hired vehicle, and rode the three hours to Mtubatuba, my favorite name in all of South Africa.

Mtubatuba-bound with this motley crew, representing the workmates.

Mtubatuba-bound with this motley crew, representing the workmates.

The white wedding had many of the elements of an American wedding:  wedding colors, bridesmaids and groomsmen, vows, exchanging rings, cutting the cake, and a big, white dress.  The speeching and preaching went on longer than I’m used to, continuing into the meal.  The bride was shy and the groom was in love.

Family of the groom, kicking it up.

Family of the groom, kicking it up.

After the wedding, we went to the groom’s home for the umabo, or traditional Zulu wedding.  Family members dressed up in their traditional costumes to sing and dance. A gift was presented to the king and he danced his appreciation.  The bride’s father danced to show his satisfaction with the bride price.  The bride’s family presented gifts of blankets and pillows to the groom’s family, and not just as a “come and get it” queue, passing out blankets and checking off a list.  Two by two, the family members came, lay down on a mat, and were covered with their new blanket.

Family of the bride:  preparing the blankets.

Family of the bride: preparing the blankets.

There was a little old gogo wearing ankle shakers made of tin cans.  She moved too quickly for me to study them or to even get a photo, but I think I have a new project for Grade R.

There was so much back and forth and singing and dancing during the umabo that I’m sure I had no idea what was happening.  I just knew that I was ridiculously happy to be able witness a Zulu traditional ceremony and to wish health and happiness to sweet Msane.

I love color.  My clothes are arranged in rainbow order.  I can spend hours re-arranging my yarn stash into different color combinations.  Even my PhD thesis was inspired by the diversity of pigmentation in cultures of Trichodesmium.

Extracts of Trichodesmium spp.:  the pigmented cells that launched a thesis.

Extracts of Trichodesmium spp.: the pigmented cells that launched a thesis.

Gogo Squirrel asked me to help her teach creative arts in her 2nd grade class, and I peeked over her shoulder as she flipped through her South African curriculum.  The color wheel popped out at me.  Forget symmetry or bean mosaics, I wanted to teach color theory.

Droplets of rain acting as tiny prisms to form a rainbow over the school.  Alas, how I miss rain.

Droplets of rain acting as tiny prisms to form a rainbow over the school. Alas, how I miss rain.

Our perception of color is a combination of physics and biology.  Visible light covers a small range of wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum (400 – 700 nm), and these wavelengths can be separated by a prism into a visible rainbow.  Our eyes have three different kinds of cones that detect red, green, and blue, and with those three channels we can detect millions of colors.  Remove any one of these cones, and you get color-blindness.  The mantis shrimp has 12 cones. That’s insane.

There is some overlap in the detection wavelengths for human cones, especially for red and green, resulting in fun effects.  Concentrated yellow food dye looks red.  Green or yellow algal cells can produce a red tide; ocean water goes from blue to green to red as more blue/green light is absorbed, red light is backscattered, and the upwelling color hits the sweet spot between human red and green cones (570 nm) when a bloom develops (Dierssen et al, 2006).

When South African students learn about the human eye in grade 12, all the detail they are given is that the retina has rods and cones.  No red-green-blue, no shift from yellow to red, no understanding of why chlorophyll appears green.  They study the genetics of color-blindness without understanding what makes a person colorblind.  I have to get my color fun in the fundamental phase.

Well, if they aren't used for Winogradsky columns, the bottles may as well be used for color theory.

Well, if they aren’t used for Winogradsky columns, my bottle collection may as well be used for color theory.

In Gogo Squirrel’s 2nd grade class, I made a color wheel for them.  I used food dye in soda bottles to show them how primary colors mixed to form secondary colors, and they did their own color mixing with play dough.  After rolling balls and snakes to our hearts’ content, we drew flowers. Gogo Squirrel was very strict; each flower must be the right size and have exactly five petals.

After admiring the color display in 2nd grade, the grade R teacher asked me to repeat the lesson in her class.  It was a big hit.  Mixing colored water elicited awes and applause.  It’s wonderful to watch a child’s first experience with play dough, and they somehow managed to keep it out of each others’ hair.  They are young and new to school, so their flowers were wild and unconstrained.

The ladies of Grade R display their snakes.

The ladies of grade R display their snakes.

As my grade R kids grow up and learn about the electromagnetic spectrum, I hope they think about chlorophyll and why it’s green.  When they learn about photosynthesis, I hope they think about the elctromagnetic spectrum and how pigments are tuned to absorb specific wavelengths.  I hope their flowers stay wild and unconstrained.

A selection from the masterpieces of Grade R.  Note the dutiful presentation of complementary colors on the left.

A selection from the wild masterpieces of grade R. Note the dutiful presentation of complementary colors on the left.

Look!  I caught a Squirrel!

Look! I caught a Squirrel!

My best friend in South Africa is a moody four-year-old boy. Most people around here call him “Boy.” I call him “The Squirrel.” You think you have your eye on him, but if you blink, he’s gone.

The Squirrel lives next door to our host school and his gogo (grandmother) is a 2nd grade teacher–very tough but very good, just like my 2nd grade teacher. He comes to school and steps up to the front of the line at assembly, looking like kid in a catalog. Sort of. His trousers are too big, his shirt never stays tucked, and getting a tie on him would be a small miracle. He used to wear a white faux fur jacket that made him look like a tiny pimp. I miss that jacket, but I am thoroughly enjoying his current little pea coat.

The Squirrel with some of his cousins.  They usually follow the oldest girl closely, but today they are extra close because she has a giant bag of candy.

The Squirrel with some of his cousins next door. They usually follow the oldest girl closely, but today they are extra close because she has a giant bag of candy.

He’s a smart little man. In class he catches on quickly and adds his comical anecdotes to the teacher’s explanations. The Squirrel works hard and plays harder. He’s front and center for songs and stories, and he’ll fight to the death for the right to hold my hand. He laughs heartily but also sobs deeply; almost every day he ends up wiping his tears in a teacher’s lap.

The Squirrel and his bestie with the coolest toys in Grade R.

The Squirrel and his bestie with the coolest toys in Grade R.

After hours, he plays with his many cousins, often on the school compound. He’s not as quick as the older boys at soccer, but I once got a one-on-one game with him and a bread sack ball. For a big kick he takes a few steps back, winds up his little hip, and lets it loose. If he’s herding livestock, however, he’s all business. No time for greetings or games, just keep your mouth shut and help him get the goats out the gate.

The boys next door.

The boys next door.

The Squirrel is very cat-like. If you approach him directly, he will scatter. If you do something interesting near him and pretend not to notice him, he will hop in your lap to play along. Once in a blue moon if he’s in the right mood, he will run and jump in your arms.

A rare quiet moment.  Photobombing courtesy of one of my twins.

A rare quiet moment. Photobombing courtesy of one of my twins.

The easiest way to engage him is to make “Itsy Bitsy Spider” fingers. He’s an expert. In fact, he knows all my songs, even the ones I haven’t sung in a few months. For a long time, his favorite song was “Six Little Ducklings,” but now he seems partial to “The Hokey Pokey.” I think he likes wiggling his backside.

When the sun goes down and it’s way too cold for him to stay out in bare feet, The Squirrel says “Bye, Missi!” and runs home to his gogo.

The many faces of The Squirrel.

The many faces of The Squirrel.

A rotating schedule for eight rural South African schools is bound to have some hiccups.  Sometimes transport never arrives.  Sometimes transport arrives, but it is the bed of a pick-up truck, forbidden by Peace Corps.  Sometimes transport arrives, it’s the right kind of vehicle, but you find your teacher absent from school.  Sometimes transport arrives and your teacher is present, but they are too busy to deal with you.

These little lovelies ride in the back of a pick-up every day to school.  It's a no-go for PCV's.

These little lovelies ride in the back of a pick-up every day to school. It’s a no-go for PCV’s.

One day, we arrived at school #7.  My teacher was there and she actually had life science lessons on her schedule.  When I found her, she was heading to a natural science class.  “May I come with you?”  Deer in headlights.  That’s okay, we’ll wait for life sciences.

After her class, she came to tell me that she had to take her child to the clinic but that she planned to be back for her afternoon class.  Perfectly reasonable; life is hectic for working parents.  But to keep the focus on training teachers, I vowed to not go down the rabbit hole of substitute teaching.  So I spent some quality time with a text book (a rare treat, indeed) and sat quietly in the staff room.  My teacher never returned, but one of her colleagues brought in leftover birthday cake, so the day wasn’t a total bust.  At least I got cake.

I have no photos of South African cakes, so please allow me to entertain with some of my favorite American ones.  This is from my sister's baby shower, New Jersey, 2013.

I have no photos of South African cakes, so please allow me to entertain you with some of my favorite American ones. This is from my sister’s baby shower, New Jersey, 2013.

Some days are good.  I’ve had good communication with my teacher, we have hands-on activities planned together, the students enjoy the class and perhaps something clicks for them.  I discover something I didn’t know about South African education and my teacher discovers a new teaching technique.  But the merry-go-round of visiting schools week after week can leave me feeling tired and uninspired.  I’d much rather gather my teachers together and do an intensive workshop where I can control the time and they can learn from each other.

The fantastically retro doll cake.  Woods Hole, MA, 2011.

The fantastically retro doll cake. Woods Hole, MA, 200X.

The best work I’ve done here so far was my first life science teachers’ workshop.  I couldn’t wait to do it again.  At the beginning of second term, my teachers scheduled it for the end of the term on 6th June.  I didn’t want to wait that long, but I am here for them, so I shall do what they ask and provide what they need.  I worked long and hard on practicals with locally available materials, activities on topics the learners had difficulty with, and a boatload of handouts fresh from the photocopier at the library (best deal in town).  While sitting at the taxi stand on Friday the 5th, waiting for the public transport back to my school, I received a text.  “Most of the teachers can’t make it tomorrow–can we please postpone?”

Where’s my cake?

Kitty Gato guards a Garfield cupcake.  Falmouth, MA, 2009.

Kitty Gato guards a Garfield cupcake. Falmouth, MA, 2009.

The South Peak in greener days.

The South Peak in greener days.

Winter is dry here.  This year, even the summer rains failed a bit, so the maize stalks are stunted and the grass is even dryer than normal.  There’ll be some skinny cows.

In September on Heritage Day, the school girls dress in their traditional Zulu costumes, everybody climbs the South Peak, and they pray for rain.  I am told that without fail, it rains on them as they return, breaking the dry season with life-giving if sometimes merciless water.

Mike and Colonel Tom tramping along the top.

Mike and Colonel Tom tramping along the top.

The South Peak is a bit more hiker-friendly than her sister the North Peak.  I can reach the first little knobby peak in about an hour from my house when I am determined.  The cow paths meander across the broad top; these “mountains” are really mesas, carved by erosion from layers of sedimentary and metamorphic rock.

Obligatory housemate selfie:  Mike, Colonel Tom, and me.

Obligatory hiking housemate selfie: Mike, Colonel Tom, and me.

I see more flowers up here than I see in the fields by the school, perhaps because they have not yet been munched by the goats.  While there are some dams along the sides, there are also springs at the top where I am surprised by mud and fresh green vegetation.

Sweet surprises on top.  Check out the boggy flora in the lower right!

Sweet surprises on top. Check out the boggy flora in the lower right!

You can see clouds from far away.  And lightning.  My first visit to the peak was a bit more exciting than I bargained for.  Whether you have prayed for it or not, if you see rain in the distance, haul down as quickly as you can.

Weather from the west.  Lightning!  Gotta scoot down!

Weather from the west. Lightning! Gotta scoot down!

People ask me why Dlukula wears dreadlocks.  Because he looks flippin' fantastic, obviously!

People ask me why Dlukula wears dreadlocks. Because he looks flippin’ fantastic, obviously!

I am an introvert. I like people, but socializing requires a large investment of emotional energy on my part. However, every now and then I meet a person whose interactions energize me. “Dlukula” with his contagious laugh brightens my day like an exothermic reaction.

In April, Dlukula donned his sandals, grabbed his walking stick with the knobby handle for beating stuff, and took Colonel Tom and I on a long-awaited hike to the top of the north peak. I had spent three months tromping around the base of that mountain, but I never would have found the switch-backs up without his help. At 63, he is agile and strong. He was also kind enough to know when Tom and I needed a break.

Trying my best to keep up.  Snakes, beware of that

Trying my best to keep up. Snakes, beware of that “hiking stick!”

Our guide is a force to be reckoned with; “Dlukula” is the honorific version of his surname (can you imagine what the royal “Hynes” would sound like?). He has livestock. A LOT of livestock, many of which were waiting for us on the top of the mountain. He speaks four languages that I can remember. I love hearing him speak with Tom in Setswana, and with a 4th grade education in Johannesburg, his English is much better than that of most of the 12th graders running around campus. Most importantly, he’s helpful. If a teacher is stuck at night without a ride, he’s there in his white pick-up truck.

Dlukula and the Colonel sharing stories at the top of the north peak.

Dlukula and the Colonel sharing stories at the top of the north peak.

From the top of the peak, he pointed out schools and mountains far away. He also pointed out the ruins of the Afrikaaner farm that had been abandoned at the end of apartheid. As a teenager, he worked on that farm. They worked long hours for no pay, and all they were fed was some pap (think hard grits) with milk and a little sugar. Those memories seem unbelievable now. He exclaims and shakes his dreads in disbelief that he had led such a life.

Living on a school compound where teachers frequently go home on the weekends, we don’t have many close friends. We asked Dlukula to be our friend. He replied, “No, I don’t like having friends. They talk too much.” Sounds like the perfect friend for a couple of introverts.

Best

Best “not friends.” (Note to self–when taking a group selfie, don’t stand in a rut.)

North_peak

The Mountain.  Back in the summer when life was lush and green.

“There is magic in that mountain.”  I have heard that statement over and over again.  I get the full story from no one, but little tidbits of information here and there.

There are many small peaks in our area, but only one associated with this magic.  I hike near this peak several times a week and people ask me, “Aren’t you afraid?”  Of what, exactly?  Snakes?  Yes, we have cobras up here, but I grew up scouting for rattlesnakes, so I am cautious rather than fearful of snakes.  “Maybe there are other animals.”  Like what?  Cows, sheep, and goats run rampant up there, so I doubt there is any sort of predator.  Perhaps they mean the giant, multi-headed snake associated with the mountain.  The students here don’t quite believe in it, but they also don’t want to discount it.  They want to see with their own eyes.

One of the 12th graders told me that her mother saw the snake when she was a little girl.  A dark cloud shrouded the peak, and she saw a big, black snake go up into the clouds and then come racing back to the mountain as if it were trying to hide deep within it.  Shortly thereafter, stones fell from the sky.  The Nebraskan in me immediately thinks “tornado and hailstorm.”  The little girl in me thinks “giant snake smart enough to get out of the way.”

Enveloped in mist.  Get thee home.

Enveloped in mist. Get thee home.

When there is mist on the mountain, we know change is coming.  Weather changes, of course, but also life changes.  People also believe that the mountain brings weather, that thunderstorms originate from its very peak.

There are caves in the mountain.  I’ve been told that they run from the north peak all the way to the south peak.  Anyone who goes in too deep never comes out.  There is heat coming from those caves.  Our neighbor known affectionately as “Dlukula” said he’d take me to the caves some day.  I promise I won’t go in too far.

Seriously, how do cows get up here?

Seriously, how do cows get up here?

Dlukula took Tom and I up to the top.  I tried to find the way myself, but the last push is very steep.  You can see EVERYTHING up there:  faraway schools and other peaks famous from the Zulu wars.  You can also see some of Dlukula’s cattle.  I don’t know what path they took, but I admire their agility.  The students tell me that when something seems amiss, like a goat with four kids or a cow on top of the mountain, it is the giant snake transformed into a disguise.

As in the valley below, there is not much wildlife on the mountain.  The mammals are all livestock, but lizards abound and we even found a cobra.  It appeared to be a pacifist, so we left it alone.  The wildflowers that manage to escape the munching mouths of the ungulates are wildly spectacular.

Dlukula eats these like honeysuckle.

Dlukula eats these like honeysuckle.  I’m not convinced.

This photo doesn't even begin to show how pink this flower really is.

This photo doesn’t even begin to show how pink this flower really is.

There’s some kind of antenna or weather station at the peak.  Dlukula doesn’t know what it is.  He said a helicopter just landed one day and somebody installed it.  Tom and I are planning a return trip to check it out . . . with permission from the great snake, of course.

Colonel Tom with the north peak looming in the background.

Colonel Tom with the north peak looming in the background.

The smallest besties in school.

The smallest besties in school.

You may recall from your childhood that older kids are cool, little kids are lame.  When I first met “Tiny Boy,” he was being harassed by the other boys because his shoes were on the wrong feet.  They sat on him and verbally abused him until he started crying.  Usually South African teachers let children resolve their own disputes, but Tiny Boy is only three.  So I shooed the older boys away, wiped his tears, put his shoes on the correct feet, and tucked in his shirt.

As the youngest boy in school, Tiny Boy gets bullied.  A lot.  Sometimes he stays quiet and takes it.  Sometimes he gets mad and pulls off his belt.

When I first met “Tiny Girl,” she was standing at the front of the line during morning assembly, immaculate in her new school uniform.  I don’t know what the older boy next to her said or did, but she was shooting laser beams from her eyes.

As the youngest girl in school, Tiny Girl also gets bullied.  She always fights back.  As a result, she sometimes gets bit or kicked, and I find myself scooping her up and drying her tears.

Tiny Boy and Tiny Girl have become best friends.  He follows her wherever she goes and she punches anybody who tries to mess with him.  During assembly, she reaches out and holds his hand.  They have also found a new protector; the young girl in a wheelchair is sweet and motherly to them.  She keeps them in line and nobody picks on them when she is near.

Every week they get braver, checking out new haunts at the school as they wait for their ride home.  She climbs stuff she’s not supposed to and he throws sticks and garbage in the mud, splashing any onlookers.  In the absence of bigger kids, they are free to play, chatter, and explore.

Fun note regarding the isiZulu root -ngane:  depending on the prefix you use, it can mean friend (umngane), sweetheart (isingane), child (ingane), or childhood (ubungane).

Playing at the pump, just like they shouldn't.  I am beginning to understand where all the bubble wands disappeared to.

Playing at the pump, just like they shouldn’t. I am beginning to understand where all the bubble wands disappeared to.