To summarize the last three weeks in South Africa would be difficult. Since arriving on the continent three weeks ago, I have begun learning a new language (Setswana), moved in with a Tswana family, moved in with a different Tswana family, taught two hour-long Life Orientation classes on the fly when the teacher I was shadowing just didn’t show up, and ridden in a dozen kombis.
A few lessons I have learned since being in South Africa:
- Greet everyone who passes within 20 meters of you. Anyone you make eye contact with (and even those that don’t) expect to be greeted. The Tswana say that you never know when you may need to go back and ask for someone’s help – and how can you ask somebody for help that you ignored earlier?
- If a kombi (bus) driver makes a gesture, it does not mean you can make the same gesture.
- Most Tswana names have meaning. My Tswana name, Thabo, means “Pleasure” (Joy or Happiness might be better translations).
- The Tswana communicate indirectly. Americans communicate directly. This difference in styles of communication can lead to some very awkward (and certain times, hilarious; at other times, hurtful) moments in the house and around the village.
- South African dogs do not trust people like American dogs do. This distrust probably has something to do with people throwing rocks at them all the time. Regardless, the dogs that live in my language teacher’s backyard have taught me that my acrobatic ability far exceeds my aim with a rock. Two mongrels defending pups can be very, very scary.
- Villages with the traditional leadership (i.e. chiefs and their tribal authorities) intact tend to have lower rates of crime. The chief works to resolve minor legal offenses, domestic conflicts, and disputes between neighbors. Because village chiefs know the families personally, they can intervene directly on behalf of wayward youngsters and serve as arbitors between parties. They also serve as spokesmen to the municipal authorities for their people.
- Tswana take personal appearance very seriously. Most men carrry a brush or cloth in their briefcase to keep their shoes polished and shiny. Trousers and shirts must be neatly ironed. My host gogo (granny) even makes me iron my undershirts.
- Taxis, or kombis, are not metered. Unless the taxi is full, it doesn’t go anywhere. The driver will wait until he has 14 passengers.
- South Africans think nothing of shouting “lekgoa!” (white person) when they pass you on the road. They shout it in the same manner I might shout, “Look! A deer!”
On the horizon: mid-term Language Proficiency Exam; final Site Placement for my two years of service (I will be somewhere in the North West or Northern Cape provinces – sort of like the Nevada of South Africa, with broad plains broken by craggy mountains; mining is a big deal); field trips to the Voortrekker Monument and Apartheid Museum; and lots of language and education training. If all goes well, I will be sworn in as an official Peace Corps Volunteer in mid-September.
Future editions will discuss: the Voortrekker monument and the impact of Bantu Education on South Africa’s learners.