Arundodaleng, 23 September 2011
When I first located my permanent site on a map of South Africa, I confess I felt a pang of disappointment. For months I had picture my first day at site: an old 4×4 dropping me off in a remote village, many hours from the nearest large city. Instead, I would be heading to a village on the periphery of Pretoria, the nation’s capital. Many of the teachers I would be working with in fact commute from Pretoria on a daily basis. My service would hardly fit into the “classic Peace Corps experience” I had looked forward to for the better part of a year. Furthermore, many of the people I had become closest with during training would be located great distances from me, in the Limpopo and Northern Cape provinces.
As I have slowly come to know Arundodaleng* over my first weeks staying here, I appreciate the community a little more each day. Despite its proximity to Pretoria, the village is very rural, lying a couple of miles from the tar road. Here, water is a precious resource, available once a week—if it is a good week. Though the community is small, it is well laid-out, its broad streets arranged in a grid. Cattle, goats, and barefoot children roam the streets in late afternoon when school is out and the herdsman are driving their stock from the bushveld back to the kraal. Arundodaleng is set on a ridge, overlooking an expansive, shallow valley stretching to the north and west. This valley’s slope is perceptible only over the great distances it is possible to see. The faint outlines of distant, high mountains nearly merge with the washed-out, hazy horizon. Before those ranges lies a vast grassland, checkered with dense stands of thorny acacia trees.
At first, the people of Arundodaleng seemed as unsure of my presence as I did. Frequently children would address me by my skin color: lekgoa. Adults seemed either confused (“So….what exactly are you doing here?”) or amused (“Your accent…you sound like one of those….how do you say…cowboys”) by my presence. Now, everyone in the village seems to know my name. When I take my afternoon walk now, people holler my name: “Thabo! Abuti Thabo! Ntate Thabo! Malome Thabo!”** Frequently I gather an small entourage of children following me, eager to engage the lekgoa in a quick-paced conversation in Setswana, of which I understand, “Hello, how are you?”
On one such walk, I was joined by some thirty-odd children. I held a child’s hand in each of my own; each of these children took another’s hand, forming lines stretching out to either side behind me. We walked like this for half an hour, until the children broke rank in unison and began to sing, clapping out a rhythm as we walked. Two children rolling tires joined the parade, running circles around the group. The gogos paused their sweeping and washing, clucking in a mixture of disapproval and amusement. Though I said nothing, I laughed the whole way home. My host mother, Ma Grace, was waiting for me, smiling and shaking her head at the spectacle we were creating. What else could I do but laugh? Pretoria fell off the map. I felt at home.
*In accordance with Peace Corps security policy, I have given my host community a pseudonym.
**Abuti, Ntate, and Malome are SeTswana words meaning brother, father, and uncle, respectively.