Rural is a relative definition for PCVs. You could easily start a lively debate over who in SA 31’s Team KZN has the most rural site, but no one has time for that purposeless display. For comprehension purposes I will officially establish my area as rural as there are only dirt roads to access the communities after the highway, we have no indoor plumbing, the nearest fair-priced grocery store is an hour away, and our overcrowded clinic is the only medical facility that serves 50,000 people. With such vastness, it is easy to forget not all SA PCVs in KZN see long dry grassy plains in the Drakensburg (technically I am the only one at the moment).
My friend the anthropologist (as that is how she views the world) frequently mentions her rural area and the challenges it entails on our daily What’s App Chats. When I was battling with wasps, she was feuding with scorpions. I have a 20 minute walk to work, and the Anthropologist is picked up by her Org every work day because her area is so remote. While I spent my first three months of service comprehending data bases, she was also out of her comfort zone learning how to make goat feed blocks. I think y’all can tell my interest ballooned, I had to see this mythical place called Msinga where a health extension volunteer could with goats. With the response volunteer leaving South Africa coupled with an organization training in Pietermaritzburg this past week, it seemed like an ideal opportunity to venture out to Msinga to see what the Anthropologist is talking about, and also visit my other friends the MSW couple (who met while getting their MSWs…really my names are not that creative).
Msinga is one of the municipalities in South Africa that is plastered with unpleasant public health statistics. Granted it is the emergence-place (birth place sounds weird) of multidrug resistant tuberculosis, has high poverty rates, and where there is high poverty in South Africa…chances are there are also high HIV/AIDS rates. Also unfiltered tap water is a bad idea for any PCV, but in Msinga there are periodic cholera outbreaks every few years and the filter is not an options. Yes that cholera bacteria behind John Snow’s initial epidemiology map in the 1800s still wreaks havoc in 2015. Hug your reliable toilets extra tight tonight.
Maybe that is why I feel so much affection for Msinga, because like New Mexico it is an acquired admiration you either have. New Mexico also has delightful public health statistics like our high teen pregnancy, DWI, and violent crime rates that can leave a bad first impression. Case in point: My first week of college an illustrious jerk from Denver asked me if I was from Albuquerque how have I not been shot yet? Good luck trying to get that kid to break his stereotypes towards a state. The other area of derogatory comments that both New Mexico and Msinga get is the heat. I have not been to the northern part of Msinga yet, but my director used to live in MSW couple’s town/city in the South part of the district and frequently talks about the unbearable heat. Yes if you do not like the desert, Msinga and New Mexico will make you miserable. Deserts and mountains are my home so I find the jagged titan rocks that gently cascade into the wide Tugela River among uniquely African plants breathtaking (but ask me in December and maybe I will complain about the summer conditions).
Entering Msinga involves a taxi ride to my shopping town (where all South Africa trips start these days) and another taxi into the Social Worker’s town. It is amazing how the topography changes between shopping town and Social Worker’s township. The west side of the shopping town currently sports colorful fall leaves and the east side starts to ramp up to the desert. Taxis out to Msinga are limited and I waited about an hour before we got on the road. The dust was so thick that the Anthropologist’s detailed directions went out the window. Thankfully I rode in with her supervisor’s cousin who was home from varsity for her holiday break. She is studying zoology and true to a budding KZN Wildlife guide, she was able to tell the taxi driver where I needed to get off even though she got off after me (that takes skills). I was greeted by five excited children and the Anthropologist’s hugs. After we said hello the children quickly picked up my bags because they wanted to and not letting them do so would have caused an incident. Thankfully I did not injure a child’s back (to be fair I was gone for a week so I had to pack thoroughly) and we were able to start preparations for the Sabbath.
Sabbath? In Msinga the tough topography provides a unique advantage: you are fully encapsulated into amaZulu culture. The anthropologist serves at least 6 different tribal areas through her org and lives with a Shembe minister. Shembe is a religion that started in Durban during the 1900’s, and probably is best associated with Orthodox Judaism. During the Sabbath Shembes are not supposed to clean or cook from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. The Anthropologist is extremely respectful of other cultures and since she cares deeply about her host family, she has adopted the Sabbath. It was a frantic rush to make coffee, tea, and banana pancakes for the next day. We made it…even though much to the Anthropologist’s chagrin I accidentally turned off the oven while the chicken while I was sautéing peppers…several times. It may seem like an extreme lifestyle for a PCV to adopt but if you met the Anthropologist’s host baba, you would see what a wonderful and welcoming person he is. You would also hear the beautiful prayers they sing and how important it was to them. It was humbling to play a small insignificant role in honoring their culture as a guest.
For the rest of the Sabbath, the Anthropologist and I had our own day of rest where we talked. Both she and I get worn out by travel easily. PC and our orgs had us running up to Guateng/ the West Side of KZN this month so we spent Saturday eating banana pancakes and playing with her kitten. Shembes tend to not have pets but the Anthropologist knew what questions to ask respectfully. She got a kitten that decided we were friends as it would fall asleep on my chest and attack my toes first thing in the morning. I still disagree and was thrown out of my comfort zone. The one thing I like about the cat is its name (cats do not require privacy): Baleka. There are two words for run in isiZulu; gijima is your basic gyming (running) and baleka is escaping/ running for your life. Did I mention the Anthropologist has a dark sense of humor (one of the many reasons why we are friends)?
Once the Sabbath was over we visited the Anthropologist’s wonderful supervisor who invited us to her birthday party the following day. Unfortunately I had to be at my destination for Sunday night accommodations but tried to help create custard for her birthday. Hilariously both the Social Worker and Anthropologist are significantly older …but sometimes I am the most experienced in the kitchen (although they are catching up…the Social Worker now whips out mean tortillas apparently). But the Anthropologist decided to exploit my visit…and almond custard (there was not vanilla extract) that tasted good while mimicking spit up resulted. The Anthropologist had to buy more ingredients for another attempt in Research Town the next day. Eish y’all I tried (but we fully enjoyed it upon apples for dessert).
The next morning we headed to the Anthropologist’s shopping town to meet up with the MSW couple. The car ride to Research Town was stunning with a green Tugela River slithering through tall canyons. . When we got to Research Town, the Anthropologist confidently made her way to the main road…and forgot where the MSW couple lived. We were able to call the MSW couple who walked out meet us with hugs (although I am still worried that the Anthropologist does not know her way around her shopping town). There was excitement in the air as their daughter went into labor that morning and their long awaited grandson was born on Father’s Day back in the States. We saw their super nice house on the grounds of a hospital and ventured out for an early lunch at a restaurant where I was warned that the options were misleading. The MSW couple graciously offered to pay for my lunch in honor of my birthday (which was the previous Wednesday but bad luck prevented a formal group celebration) so I tried to order a modest chicken wrap, only to hear them say that are out of chicken. I quickly asked for a cheeseburger, and ½ of the MSW couple plus the anthropologist followed my lead. The other half of the MSW couple was brave enough to order a coke and fish and chips. Our bottled water (Research Town also struggles with cholera) never arrived but the cheeseburger was delightful.
After too short of a visit, Anthropologist had to head to the store so she could return for the party. I also decided to head to the taxi rank and the MSW couple walked me to the swanky new shopping mall where I got lucky and found a taxi directly to Pietermaritzburg. As I rolled over their steep valley (grateful that I had the seat-belt/passenger seat) in the taxi, I was amazed at how large and diverse this country is in every aspect.
The next time someone asks how I keep from being homesick, I will say that I go to Msinga for my taste of New Mexico!