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.

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.


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.


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.