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.