“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.

Family_photo

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?

Bobo_and_I

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.

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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 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.