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.

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.


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.


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.

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


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.

Back view of the campus with the tank standing tall and proud.

Back view of the campus with the tank standing tall and proud.

“The house has electricity and running water.”  That’s what we heard on the conference call with Peace Corps a few days before leaving for South Africa.  Both are technically true.  The living room has electricity, but I’m using candles in my bedroom.  When the water tank is full and the valve is open, the house does have running water.  But there’s a leak, so the valve is only open long enough for us to fill our buckets for the day.

The water tank is a thing of beauty.  This hulking mass of green plastic is visible from far, serving as a homing beacon when I go for long hikes.  It is filled with a large municipal truck by students and teachers climbing the tower with hoses.  A highly entertaining enterprise.

Filing up the tank.  We actually got out lawn chairs to take in the show.

Filing up the tank. We actually got out lawn chairs to take in the show.

When the tank runs out, we use the pump for the borehole.  The water is sweet and cold.  It’s not a long walk, but it’s not a short walk, either.  We also compete with students (and pigs) for position at the pump, so Colonel Tom prefers to fetch water in the evening.  I cannot yet balance a bucket on my head, so I haul two buckets at a time to stay balanced.

This little piggy had whatever the kids washed off from their lunch plates.

This little piggy had whatever the kids washed off from their lunch plates.

Our tank was last filled on Sunday.  About 24 hours later, I heard a large booming SPLASH and peeked out my window to see our tank split in three pieces and a river of precious water running across the school yard.  It was spectacular.  The students cheered.

The demise of the water tower.

The demise of the water tower.

We have three hypotheses for the destruction of the water tower:
1) Lightning stuck the tank and split it.
2) There was a small fracture in the tank and it split under the pressure of being newly full (physics students will remember the “notch effect”).
3) The tank was not positioned squarely on the tower and being in a state of unstable equilibrium, it eventually toppled over.

I have dismissed #1. While there was a thunderstorm going on, there was no thunder at the time of the strike.  It would have been exceptionally loud.  Also, there is no evidence of lightning strike on the tank pieces.

I am debating between #2 and #3.  In general, the tank appears to be in good shape (aside from being in three pieces), so I wouldn’t expect a fracture.  The tank was certainly left in a precarious position, but how did the bottom end up on the opposite side of the tower from the top?  I need more evidence.
We are lucky no one was opening the valve at the time.  We are lucky no kids were nearby when it fell.  We are lucky the pigs weren’t napping beside the tower.  There’s talk of a new tank.  I have my fingers crossed for a ground installation so we can connect our gutters to it.  In the meantime, the boys and I are getting our upper body workouts.