Monthly Archives: June 2011

Blue Ball Safari

Driving through the township of Kurland, I noticed a number of signs: ‘Elephant Sanctuary’, ‘Snake Sanctuary’, ‘Wolf Sanctuary’, etc. I was a bit skeptical at first, because I wondered how feasible it was to have any sort of animal sanctuary within walking distance of a small village. There were no apparent wires or walls anywhere…perhaps the signs were all a hoax – or at best, pointed towards animal life further from town. Who lives right next to an elephant sanctuary? (And I do mean ‘next’ to.)

Taking a cue from White people, I chose to investigate.

“Hey Marshall,” I said on Saturday morning, “let’s go check out  that elephant sanctuary today.”

“Okay.”

I knew that there would be some sort of entry fee, but I expected it to be nominal. We might even get charged a foreigner rate, but it wouldn’t be anything more than 20 bucks, tops. I mean, this is Africa. It’s lush and picturesque everywhere you look. How much could it cost to see something that practically lives in someone’s back yard? We loaded the children in the car and set off for a mini safari.

The children sang songs of praise, thanking us in advance for taking them to see the elephants.

“Epetants! Epetants!” Stone screeched in joyous anticipations.

“Yes, baby. Elephants,” I said warmly. It was a dreary day, but I was willing to face the muck and drizzle in the hopes of seeing some large wildlife up and close and personal.

When we go to the lodge, it was rather impressive. There was elephant artwork all over the place, and overhead sat a massive sculpture of a bull elephant’s head watching you at the entrance of the door. A Black man in a skull cap sat at the reception and ignored us until we were right under his nose. Since he didn’t greet us, I opened the conversation.

“Good morning,” I said. “We’d like to see some elephants please.”

Duh.

“Okay,” said the man. “But first I’m gonna explain how ees gonna work,” he said in a mixed American/South African/Zimbabwe accent.

“First, you gonna take the elephant by the trunk and lead him to some water. Then, he will display some elephant behavior for you. After an hour, the keeper will return the elephant to him housing and you can return here for some more information on elephants.”

Not very exciting stuff, but whatever. That’s what you get for 20 bucks.

“All this will cost you R325 for each adult and R160 for children. Children under 3 are free,” the man said in conclusion.

Wait…R325? I did some quick math:

If the dollar is trading 1:7 then that’s ($50≤ per adult) + ($16≤ per child) = a month of groceries and a dude that’s out of his mind if he thinks I’m giving him a month’s worth of groceries to watch an elephant take a poo, possibly on one of my kids.

The man and I stared at each other for a moment. Marshall broke the silence.

“Yeah…that’s too much money.”

I called the kids over towards the door and told them we had to go.

“Go and see the elephants?” they asked expectantly.

“Nah…we’re gonna do something else.”

Stone was beside himself.

“Epetants! Ehhhpiiiitaaaants!!!” he howled.

We drove around for a few more minutes and saw a sign for Monkeyland.

“We could give that a try?” I suggested furtively. “Maybe it’s cheaper.”

  So off to Monkeyland we went. $60 got us all in.

Our guide was Mr. Hamidi, who also had a mixed up accent. His was more English with a hint of the Islands dashed in, and was more pleasant to the ear.  He took us into the entrance of the gated forest and introduced himself with authority. As soon as he began his speech about the history of the park, the phone rang. It was Douche Bag. Ugh.

“Hello?” I whispered harshly.

“Hey. Can I talk to Nadjah?”

I passed her the phone. I assume he asked her where she was because she said she was “in the forest – looking for monkeys.”

Great. Now Old Douche thinks I’m making the child hunt for food. He already thinks Africa is backwards. She hung up shortly after that. (Watch for the next court summons!)

The trek was pretty interesting. There are 9 species in the park that have been rescued after being abandoned or confiscated. They have to go through a process of ‘dehumanization’  and learn to be monkeys again. My two favorite species were the golden squirrel monkeys who have been described as the piranha of the forest. They’ll anything and fear nothing. The other was the vervet monkeys. We used to own one called Sheba when we were kids.

“The monkey with the bluest balls is the most dominant monkey,” said Mr. Hamidi. “Indeed, they sit around and display their balls to one another. That one with the bluest and biggest is the one who will lead the troop.”

I looked around at the other people in our group. Was I the only one getting a kick out of this?

The tour continued with an arduous trek through the forest, made only more difficult by the stroller that I was pushing over tree roots, rock and muck. Why hadn’t I paid more attention on how to tie a baby to ones back?? It came to a slightly terrifying end with our group crossing a very shaky 120 meter-long suspension bridge (the longest in southern Africa by the way) that hovered over a 20 meter drop below.

We’d had our encounter with the wild and were satisfied; although I still can’t understand how anyone can justify charging anyone $50 to watch an elephant eat some grass and take a dump. That’s just un-American.

Forgive My Attitude, Lord!

This Sunday we went back to the broke down Church spot for Sunday service. We didn’t go last week, and our absence was apparently felt. Several people had asked if we were coming this week, so we made every effort to comply. I had mixed feelings about going though.

How can I put this delicately? Oh, I know! :

I hate going to church in Qolweni.

I know, I know. I should be focusing on the fellowship that we’re sharing in the Spirit of the Lord, but it’s hard to focus on fellowship when you’re freezing and you can’t concentrate on what the pastor is saying.  Don’t get me wrong: There is definitely a sweet spirit in the church every time you go – however I wonder how much of that is imposed joy and how much of it is generated. I get the feeling that folks are just trying to make the best of what they’ve got. Perhaps that’s what ‘joy’ is after all. That, or utter nonsense.

The temperature in South Africa is frigid, and this Sunday happened to be the coldest, rainiest day that we’ve experienced to date. As I said previously, yours truly did not believe that it could actually get cold in Africa, so she didn’t bring a coat or a jacket. And so there I sat, in a 200 square foot church shivering in my knee length skirt sans stockings and jacket, my attention shifting between the rain pounding on the tin roof outside and the large white man at the pulpit imploring us to consider our sin and cast it unto Jesus.

You know what’s a sin? I wanted to scream. You having us sit in this leaky, cold room when you had the power to have it built properly in the first place!! This place is a lightning rod and we’re all going to die!

I managed to keep both my composure and my thoughts to myself, however, and remain expressionless. That is, until he said the following:

“You know, I’m so pleased to see you all here today. I thought because of the rain there would only be one or two people here. It’s just evidence that even though it is cold outside, it’s warm in our hearts for Jesus! Amen?”

Nonsense.

“Amen,” some folk muttered. There were some foreign visitors in the congregation as well. I wondered how they were taking the whole experience. I just smiled wryly. My heart was pumping extra hard to keep the rest of my extremities warm, so it was the only facial expression I could muster.

I later confessed my disgruntled feelings to one of the ladies at church.

“You know, I’m really angry with the pastor for building this shoddy building,” I said in measured tones. “I mean, he’s in construction! Does he feel no shame?”

“He doesn’t feel shame!” she shot back rather quickly. I think she’d been pondering the same question. “Even me, I was praying that the rain would come HARDER so that it would rain on the heads of those White visitors.”

“Oh!” I laughed.

“No, yes,” said another lady. “Do you know when it rains we ourselves have to wake up very early to come and sweep the floor to clear the water?”

She sucked her teeth despondently.

I felt better that everyone else was as annoyed as I was concerning the condition of their church. As I said before, it’s representative of the value that this man has placed on the lives of the people. I’m all for suffering for Jesus, but this is nonsense; and I’m not into suffering for nonsense!

I’m Sorry…You Want to Be WHAT?

Last night I was watching Malcolm X with Marshall, and there was a portion of the movie that I had never recalled seeing. Little Malcolm was sitting in the classroom of his foster home being admonished by one of his teachers.

“Now Malcolm, you’ve written that you want to be a lawyer when you grow up,” the teacher said in measured tones. “You have to come up with something else. You can never be a lawyer.”

“Why not?” moped Malcolm.

“Because you’re a nigger, Malcolm, and a lawyer is not a realistic profession for a nigger.”

“But why sir? I gets the best grades in class,” he said in objection.

“Now Malcolm,” the teacher said sternly. “A nigger just can’t be lawyer. Let’s think of something else. You’re good with your hands! And you’re very personable. People like you. How about a carpenter? A carpenter is a fine profession. Jesus was a carpenter.”

“Yes sir,” sulked Malcolm.

So Malcolm never became a lawyer. He became ‘Malcolm X’. ‘Nuff said.

This scene in the movie brought to mind an assignment that I had given the kids last week. I asked them to write an essay called “My future occupation.” Of course, the majority of them DID NOT, but many of them were happy to talk to me about their future aspirations all the same.

“I want to grow  up and be a maid and clean your house,” said 3 third graders in Xhosa. When this was translated to me I frowned most angrily.

“I can clean my own house!” I shot back. “You people are not going to school to become maids – unless you are opening a business and employing other maids. Now think!”

The alternate answers came slowly. Of course, all the boys wanted to be football players (but not rappers; shocking!), but the girls were a little more creative.

“An actress!”

“A singer!”

“A mistress!”

A mistress? What do you mean by mistress?

“Like you!” the little girl said emphatically.

Huh?

“Like to stand in front of the class and teach!”

Note to self: Remind self that in South Africa, ‘mistress’ is used as an alternative to ‘teacher’. As in headmistress.

“I want to be a model,” said one teenager confidently.

I looked her over. She was clad in all pink, but outside of the color of her clothing, there was nothing to even suggest she was female. She looked completely androgynous – which I suppose could serve her well in the modeling world.

“I guess you’ll have to learn how to walk the catwalk,” I said warmly. “But you’ll have to stand up straight.”

This particular girl has a bad habit of slouching. She looked at me blankly when I told her she’d have to stand up straight. Upon closer inspection, I realized she was not slouching at all. She had a hunchback.

Now, I didn’t come to South Africa to take a dump on anybody’s parade, but Harper’s Bazaar isn’t going to put androgynous hunchbacks on the cover of their June issue; however if there was ever an audition for Quasimodo – the Untold Story, I’m sure my girl would get a call.

One high school student who actually took the time to write an ‘essay’ (it was 2 paragraphs really), said that she wanted to finish her ‘shcool’ and go to ‘cholage’ to become a teacher. Clearly, we need to work on at least being able to spell where we want to go – that place being ‘college’ after we’ve finished ‘school’.

Of the 15 notebooks I handed out, I got 3 back; and of those 3, only one was deemed excellent. These are very poor numbers, but I wonder if they are reflective of the larger success rate in a township like Qolweni? Is only 1 out of 15 students going to make something of themselves and have a future they can take pride in? God I hope not.

When we were kids, GI Joe, our parents, Nickelodeon and whoever was selling dreams that week used to tell us that we could ‘be all that we could be’ and that we could ‘be anything we wanted’. It appears that someone has sold the same dream to this generation, but without tempering their expectations and providing them with the necessary tools to succeed. (Again: There are NO hunchback supermodels!)

It’s weird. It’s like a perverted version of apartheid all over again, with a sprinkling of narcissism and reverse psychology. And it’s just as tragic as little Malcolm, who had the skill and knowledge, but was denied the opportunity.

She Always ™ Misses Out on the Fun

Last week one of my girls walked up to me and told me that she was not coming to the SCAB program anymore. My heart dropped.

“Why not?” I asked furtively. “Did I do something?”

“Oh no, Ms. Malaka.”

“Then why?” I pressed.

“I’ll tell you afterwards,” she promised.

I was on edge for the rest of the afternoon. A flurry of thoughts shrouded my mind concerning my teenaged student.

Oh God, I thought. She’s pregnant and is going to have an abortion, isn’t she? What else could it be?

The afterschool program ended and she had not come to seek me out. I found her chatting with some of her friends, and I pulled her aside.

“Eh heh! Why aren’t you coming anymore?” I demanded.

“Oh…it’s not like I won’t come again forever – just for a few days.”

Note to self: Remind self that ‘anymore’ in Africa usually means an extended period of time, NOT an infinite period of time.

“Oh. Okay,” I breathed, looking at her abdomen warily. “What’s keeping you away? Is anybody…sick?”

“I will be getting my period this week, and I don’t have money for Always,” she whispered. “I have to stay in the house and use rags…I won’t feel comfortable to come outside in rags.”

Oh!! So THAT’s what “on the rag” means! Because you’re literally…Oh, eww.

I broke into a grin. No one was going to die, and this was a problem that was easily fixable. She said she was going to ask one of the other instructors that she’s known longer if she could buy her some pads, but she felt awkward asking.

“I’ll tell you what, if you don’t gather up the courage to do it, then I’ll go get them,” I offered. “But I hope you DO gather the courage.”

I didn’t see her for 3 consecutive days after that conversation, so I guess courage failed her.

The first time I heard about this issue about girls missing school and other activities was from the Fabulous Akuba Sheen(!) on her blog a few years ago. I believe Always ™ had a commercial campaign during that time as well. Like if you bought 80 packages of Always they would donate 1 to one child in a village in Mobutou (or something) so that they wouldn’t miss out on school. The commercial featured a little girl in a hut, so I honestly (and naively) thought the issue only affected girls in the most remote portions of the world…like Mobutou – or something. Here I was, facing a real live global campaign issue! I felt like I was on the solution end of a UN crisis.

So today I went out to purchase a package of Always for my teen student; although her cycle has probably ended already. Why did I buy Always and not some weird, unfamiliar (albeit cheaper) South African/China brand? Because the only thing worse than being stuck at home, stuffing an old t-shirt between your legs in an attempt to pause ‘Mother Nature’s Flow’, is putting your faith in said cheaper sanitary towel, only to have it drop lifelessly (and soggily) from under your skirt as you skip off for a Spring outing with your friends.

Stone, the Mutt Whisperer

Move over Cesar Millan! There’s a new canine charmer in town, and his name is Stone Grant.

 

There is only one thing my son loves more than the outdoors, and that’s putting the outdoors in his mouth. Previously I would merely grimace when he put bits of pinecone and rose petals in his mouth, but now that the ‘outdoors’ includes free range pig and cow feces and slimy muddy, rocks, I’m sent into a full blown panic daily.

Like all boys, he’s a magnet for filth. He genuinely is not happy unless he’s so covered in grime that it virtually seeps from his pores. Can you think of another mammal that likes to roll around in dirt? Ten points if you said a dog!

I believe any given township has an abundance of one thing, and that’s stray dogs. Stone loves dogs, and they love him back; which is something he and Cesar have in common. However, unlike the very polished Mr. Melan, whose show showcases him solving the problems of pampered, well-groomed pooches, Stone gravitates towards street dogs – the mangier the better.

One day during dance time, a dog wondered up to the entrance. Stone was ecstatic.

“Ooooo! Doggie!!” he exclaimed while, to my horror, he began to stroke and pet the dog. There had to be an innumerable number of fleas and ticks in its matted pelt. Don’t ticks carry lime disease?

“Doggie, doggie, dooooggiiiie!” he continued to proclaim, joy and rapture infused in every syllable.

The dog took the incessant screaming surprisingly well. After all, it was probably the most positive human contact he’d had since birth. He cautiously relished in the attention.

Eventually, Stone quieted down as the two of them began to meld into a temporary single being – just a dusty boy and his dusty, mangy mutt sunning themselves and taking in a show. The primal need to forage for food finally separated them. A pack of stray dogs barked and ran by beckoning their comrade to flee with them; and Stone waddled over to me in search of cookies, his clothes and hands still bearing the evidence of his brief playtime with his beloved (filthy) canine friend.

Here it is folks! The classroom of the future.

Because it darn well ain’t the classroom of the present, that’s for sure.

See this shack? This is an appendage to the YMCA/Church/theater. This is where the kids are supposed to be having lessons, once it’s ‘cleaned up’. Nuh uh. This room doesn’t need cleaning up – it needs a torch set to it. There will be rainbows and ice-cream cones in Hell before I set foot in there with a book in my hand.

  Lemme tell you how bad it is. It’d dark and dingy in there, and the air has a quality that reminds me of something…something earthy. I believe it’s mushrooms – of the ‘icky fungus’ species to be exact. Mushrooms belong outside or in the grocery store, not on floors or walls. The roof leaks and there is no electricity. The first (and last) time I went in there to survey the space, my bulk cause the floor to buckle under me. If you put 10 kids in there, the whole thing would come crashing down. Oh, but it only gets better!

As Marshall was taking pictures of the interior (because I refuse to reenter the space until Satan and his minions are sucking down sarsaparillas), a rat ran by.

“What?!?”

“A rat,” he repeated. “Although I think it might have been a mouse…”

He was trying to make the presence of a rodent less ghastly by intimating that the existence of a mouse is better than that of a rat.

It’s not.

There is a hodgepodge of assorted toys, boxes and just crap over all stuffed in there. I think someone used to live there and abandoned it some time ago. Who knows for sure? There is a Quranic scripture hanging over the door. I could probably decipher it (I used to take Arabic), but again, I didn’t hang out long enough to get a feel for anything besides the immediate and obvious.

But as ‘wonderful’ as this space is, do you know what’s even better? The pastor, the guy who built the church and I assume owns the land, is in CONSTRUCTION…and he owns 3 houses and a B+B in the White side of town. I could scarcely believe it what the news bearer was telling me.  

“You mean to tell me that this dude builds buildings for a living and this is the best he could come up with?”

“Yup.”

“This is his church? The house he built to ‘honor the Lord’?” I emphasized incredulously.

“Uh huh.”

I felt the Too Known American rising up in me. The room made my skin crawl, but that tidbit of information made me SICK.

 It’s so true what Oprah said: ‘If you don’t have a vision for yourself, someone else will create a vision for you.’

Clearly, this was the best this (wealthy!) pastor thought this community was worth. But why should he care? Apparently he shows up when he’s ready, booms his sermons and leaves to his comfortable home in town. At least he fed the people spiritually right? Gimme a frikkin’ break!

So what do we do Readers? What say you? Burn it to the ground, of have a street fundraiser a la Breakin’ 2?

I’ve got the kerosene in my trunk just in case…

Pee-pee…The Plot Thickens!

Eii  A-Fri-Ca!

Just when I thought South Africa possessed more sophistication than the rest of the continent, The natives have gone and proved me wrong!

Now that I have earned the confidence of the women’s inner circle, they give me snippets of what’s really going down in the community. Sadly as fate would have it, I have to learn Xhosa quickly because the juiciest details are left out in English.

According to Thadiswa, the sotry of how Pee-pee lost his hearing is very different than what I was initially led to believe. If you recall, I said he was born deaf and late last year their pastor prayed for him and he regained part of his hearing.

One day, she stopped cooking lunch for the children and looked me in the eye, preparing to tell me what really happened. Cue the drums and wooden flutes!

“Malaka, come I want to tell you something,” said Thandiswa one afternoon.

“What’s up?”

“You see Pee-pee neh? He was born like you and me.”

(‘Neh’ is used for emphasis or as a verbal filler, like ‘umm’.)

“Like how?” I asked.

“He was talking, hearing, he could do everything. But one day, when he was a teenager neh? He saw a witch and she was doing something.”

“A witch?” I interrupted. “You mean like a sangoma?”

“No!” hissed Thandiswa. “I mean a witch. A real witch!”

“Ahh…” Note to self. Find out the difference between a witch and a sangoma.

“When he saw the witch neh, she also saw him. She told him ‘If you repeat what you’ve seen here, you will never talk again!’ And he too, because he was a foolish boy, we went to talk the thing!”

“I see…so what happened?”

She looked very serious, as though she were recounting a tale that dare not be whispered.

“Ah. You see the way he is now neh. So after many years Pastor George was praying for him, so he is hearing small now neh.”

“I see. So where is the witch?”

“She dead!” she muttered, throwing her hand backwards to indicate that she died long ago.

“Oh! So she can’t break her spell,” I lamented.

Thandiswa held my gaze before grunting a loud cautionary ‘hmmm’ and returning to her lunch duties. I stood next to her, wondering what I was supposed to do or say next. I opted for nothing.

NB: So let this be a lesson to you children! If you see a witch doing ‘something’ and she tells you not to repeat what you’ve seen, don’t do it! That, and never let the high rises and tarred roads in more ‘developed’ African nations fool you. Underneath it all we are all THE SAME.

 

Oh.