Reflections on South Africa, 3 Weeks In

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:

  1. 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?
  2. If a kombi (bus) driver makes a gesture, it does not mean you can make the same gesture.
  3. Most Tswana names have meaning.  My Tswana name, Thabo, means “Pleasure” (Joy or Happiness might be better translations).
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.


15 responses to “Reflections on South Africa, 3 Weeks In

  1. Amazing dear Thabo…it was a spectacular pleasure reading this happy, joyful, adventure-filled post of reflections…you are awesome! Team Cariveau misses you and sends boundless love and hugs from Sparkle City!

  2. Howell, It was good to read about where you are and loved the pictures. Can you take pics of where you are staying? Wy Hamby and I are working on the Wedding day lunch for Parker and Kayse. We will and do miss you. L, Cathy

  3. Thanks for posting this primer on South Africa. It is very informative! Our son, Chris Ames, is also a PCV. He put a link to this page on his facebook page

    Ray Ames

    • Hi Mr. Ames,

      Chris was in my language group and I count him among my closest friends here. Unfortunately we are posted very far from one another, but we are just an SMS away. We have plans to travel together over the December holidays.

      Howell Burke

  4. Hey Mr. Burke!! Is everything still going well? Is it really hard to learn the new language? It sounds so amazing there, and it looks absolutely gorgeous too! We miss you at school! Oh, and my mom says hi!

  5. Howell,
    I hope your language exam and placement went well. You might also want to advise the Peace Corp to add a class in “Throwing Rocks at Village Beasts 101” to their core curriculum.

    • We actually have a list of titles for potential self help books related to SA going: “Choosing the Right Bucket for You: Bathing, Washing, and Other Conundrums”; “Don’t Sell Yourself Short: Calculating Your Lobola” (this is the fee a man pays to marry a woman, always paid in cows); etc.

  6. Howell,
    Will sent me the link to your postings. Fascinating details about your life w/the Tswana! I imagine that learning to communicate indirectly must be challenging…for there is nothing indirect about you dear Howell! Just back from Nashville for Parent’s weekend…fall was definitely in the air…beautiful weather all weekend…a nice break from TX heat. Though, have to say there is a wee bit of fall in the air in Dallas since we returned…at least we’re not in the 100+ temps. Saw your mom when I was in Atlanta a few weeks ago and had fun catching up w/her. Looking forward to following your adventures over the next two years!
    L, Nancy J

    • Good to hear from you! I also got the post card you sent. Have been meaning to write a letter in rwturn. It’s getting hot here too. Trying to figure out how to post multimedia on the blog from my Blackberry. Stay posted! My village looks like how I imagine most of TX looking – lots of cows wandering rolling savanna.

  7. Hey Howell! Love the lessons learned; very informative about your life on a daily basis. Keep it up! Where are you posted? Hope all is going well with you. Saludos from Ecuador.

  8. good luck dude. you are indeed a champion.

    regarding #9, welcome to the last 2 years of my life. by year two you may want to punch everyone who does that in the face. just fair, judgement-free, warning. i certainly felt like it.

    also i hope you didn’t eat the postcard i sent you.

    • Hey dude! My new favorite response to #9 is to reply in perfect Setswana, “White person? I don’t see it? Where is it?” Then I point to a random villager who is obviously not a lekgoa and ask “Is it him?”

      I got your postcard a while ago. Where can I write a letter back?

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