New Mexican Problems in isiZulu

People acquainted with me before this South African Life, know that I am a proud New Mexican. Albuquerque will always be home for me, even if I choose to live somewhere else. I am always amused when people struggle to spell my city (I do not understand America’s irrational phobia of q or z). I am an incompetent speller without Mircosoft’s aid (I could not spell Tucson right until I lived there for 4 months…that is another story) but we had to spell Albuquerque right on spelling tests starting in 2nd grade. The Basque name basically uses the same k like sound for q’s like English (granted it has probably been Anglicized but all verbal Americans are capable of saying Albuquerque if they try).

It was a slow Thursday at work and I was hanging out in the soup kitchen with some of the carers. We were looking at the centre’s menagerie of children’s books to see if I could find a basic isiZulu book to read to our OVCs (Orphans and Vulnerable Children) that afternoon for isiZulu practice. I found a book with an illustrated cactus and tried to tell the carers that this plant was also at my home. The PCV that I visited here in the Berg back in 2013, was also a Burquena. I have fond memories of creating tortillas in the kitchen area per her suggestion, and now I am the unofficial homemade tortilla maker for SA 31 (Ngiyabonga Kristen)!

I love this photo…505 pride in SA back in 2013

I love this photo…505 pride in the Berg back in 2013

Anyways I mention Nobhle and how we came from the same town. Suddenly I became aware that there are two q’s in the name. While most Americans panic at the site of q in the middle of the word, it is a different ball game in isiZulu. See q is one of the three tongue clicks (c and x are the other ones…more in future posts), and I would argue it is the most involved. The other two letters involve the tongue vibrating across the teeth, but q is a firm click from the top of the mouth. It is taxing for this American to do multiple q clicks in a row. I can get by ordering eggs (amaqanda) but more than one makes my mouth tired. So I took a deep breath and tried to Zululize (as my teacher would say from PST) my city.

Carer: What is the name of your town?
Zama: Albuquerque no wait…Albu click, uer, click ue

The Carers and I laughed for 30 seconds straight. Eish y’all I tried.


Since When is Salmon Pink a Feminine Color?

Zulu word of the post: bomvana/ipinki
isiNgisi: Pink (adjective)
Meaning: as in the color of a ljezi (jersey) that caused an interesting interaction this week.

When I was a little girl, I wanted to embarrass my dad and for his birthday purchased him a salmon pink shirt and pastel castle play set to try and make him more of a girl. Being an awesome dad, he played with the castle often and dutifully wore his “pink” shirt to work. As a result I started to realize how colors do not really have a gender, but it is people place things into pink and blue boxes.

Leave it to South Africa to show me that despite great parenting and fantastic Safe Zone training to support LGBTQ+ individuals at the University of Arizona last semester, I still have more progress to make when it comes to not assuming gender.

Many people in Zulu culture address each other by calling each other sisi and bruthi lto show respect. If they are older you can say gogo, kulu (grandfather), baba (father), or mama. I like this idea of a big AmaZulu family but was too shy to use bruthi or sisi in my daily greetings (except calling taxi drivers bruthi, because you need to win over taxi drivers). One morning on my way to work I saw a woman pushing a wheelbarrow with a toddler in a knitted salmon pink jumper (or sweater in South African English). I greeted the woman properly and then decided to be brave and greet the wheelbarrow occupant.

Zama: Sanibonani Sisi
Woman: looking amused, says something in isiZulu I cannot understand
Zama: Ngiyaxolisa Anguzwa (I am sorry but I did not hear/understand)
Woman: He is a boy!

Oops. However later on that afternoon, my Zulu supervisor made the same mistake so I am not the only one!
I thought about the time I came home two weeks ago, and saw my 8 year old host nephew running around in a blue stripped sweater with silver strands of glitter weaved through the patterns. I was slightly amused and thought he grabbed someone’s sweater as he hurried outside to play. Then I remembered that is the only 8 year old on the compound and that would be his sweater. In South Africa, a jumper is a jumper. If it keeps you warm in the Berg, then who cares if the sweater would only be worn by girls in America because of tiny flecks of glitter?

Also, the following day after the wheelbarrow incident, I was in the War Room (post coming on what that is) and was serving a frosted cake I made for my supervisor’s birthday. I dislike the texture sticky things and pulled out one of my mini American hand sanitizers so I would not have to leave the room to wash my hands. I was sitting next to two men who started to look at me. Granted I was the only non-Zulu in the room and I am sort of used to random stares. Then one of the men picks up the blue bottle of hand sanitizer, absolutely mesmerized. Maybe the men were also perplexed about how “Fresh Sparking Snow” has a smell (which according to Bath and Body Works it evidently does) but I have to laugh at how the two men were interested by the product, when most men in the States run away from the mere sight of a Bath and Body Works store!

On being White with a Capital “W”


Posted on May 8, 2015  and edited on February 17, 2016

(I know this is long…but complicated issues do not care about character limits).

isZulu word of the post: -mhlophe

isiNgisi: white (an adjective)

As in: a generalization for the color of my skin

I have a confession to make. I struggle to identify as white. There are many reasons for my identity confusion but for those who know my immediate family, my mother/the Math Teacher is half Sicilian with beautiful olive colored skin. Even though the racial deciders in the US threw all Mediterranean residents (including Italians) under the “white” label, my “white” mother often experiences incorrect guesses about her ethnicity from Hawaiian to Peruvian to Indonesian.  I on the hand, I got the light Irish complexion and on the day of my birth shocked her family with my pale skin. Growing up in New Mexico, assumed I was Latina or that I was adopted when I was out with my mother. There was more than one medical appointment when people would look at my file in a waiting room and say “Catalina?” Nope Caitlin, wrong side of Europe and peninsula of heritage. Yet when my 17 year old sister (who inherited my mother’s beauty) was in middle school, she was called a terrorist by a classmate although she was in preschool during 9/11 and does not share my vivid memories of that awful day.


The Math Teacher and White Katey, c 1993, Yebo we are biologically related

Granted my pragmatic father has referred to me as the “white one” in my South African photos (and my mother classified me as the Gringa in the Yellow Dress in my folklorico groups) but beyond government classification it does not generally compose my identity. White privilege has absolutely benefited me but as an autistic woman, I still deal with stigma because I do not behave like most white American women. Right before I left one of my best friends (who is half Latina, a quarter white and a quarter African American) was venting about America’s social injustices and annoying white people. I surprisingly pointed out that on the US Census that is what I am classified as, but my friend quickly responded, “Yeah Katey but you are not white with a capital ‘W’.”

Well, I have become white with a capital “W” in South Africa. There have been several incidents when this happened. I have been spoken to in Afrikaans several times (by both Afrikaaners and my 90 year old Ndebele Gogo) and people are upset when I do not understand the language. During PST, I walked into the Voortreker Monument and Apartheid Museum and left numb as opposed to crying tears of pain for my ancestors. During my initial site visit, I went to bed as my director and her Afrikaaner husband watched 12 Years a Slave because a blockbuster’s take on North Carolinian ancestors could have done to some of my friends’ ancestors hit too close to home.  I spent that night in the rondavel thinking of two incredible and intelligent women in the next cluster over from mine, who have been very open about how the color of their skin impacts their life in the States and now they have to put up with similar crap in South Africa.


Monday, was a rough day at work. Since the Response Volunteer is still here until June I do not have a real desk. I occupy the table with the organization’s computer. I was working on grant (and stealing information for the Community Needs Assessment…you can see a trend here) that was due on Friday but received an extension, when our data computer in the other room breaks down. Our substitute data staff needed online access for the database, so I moved to provide computer access and spent the day on my supervisor’s floor. That afternoon I did not make any progress because we had to reformat the virus-riddled data computer and had to check periodically on progress.

At 4:30 PM in the afternoon I was done and my office was occupied by our substitute data staff, the response volunteer, and a local learner (who is a friend of our host family) working on a school assignment on the response volunteer’s Mac. I was sitting on our pile of donated magazines trying to extract recipe ideas from magazines since I could not type or layout papers. Y’all I was done. I dislike walking home in the dark and started to close the center by shutting the windows. The response volunteer walked outside to close the soup kitchen and the learner responded by anxiously showing me the one page of his tourism assignment (an overview of Gauteng Province the home of Pretoria and Johannesburg) He told me in broken English that he had so much work to do and showed me 6 pages of written work that had not been typed.

Zama: What is the deadline?

Learner: What?

Zama (realizing she used American Jargon): Sorry, a deadline is the date a paper needs to be done. When is the paper due?

Learner: Yes see I typed the first page and I have 6 more pages

Zama: You showed me that, when does this need to be done by?

Learner: Zama…I am not used to white people. I cannot understand the way you talk.

For a second I was irate. Our struggle to communicate did not have anything to do our skin color. It probably had more to do with the English language’s adoration for slang or my exhausted autistic mind. I was this close to saying, “I am American and this has nothing to do with my skin color” when I took a mental pause. At the moment I am working through a dense historical overview of South Africa and is high school learner was raised in a country that was constructed on attitudes towards visual characteristics since the 1700s. He did not have the luxury to contemplate how he would like to identify or how he views white people. It is true, white people usually do not come into my valley unless they hike the mountains that buttress the end. He lost his parents before he reached metric (completed high school) and had much more on his mind than the accuracy of his perception of white people. Expecting him to see think that there is more to communication styles than race was unfair.

I took a deep breath and tried to ask when he had to give it to his teacher (and whipped out an isiZulu word). He said Thursday…we have a victory! Thankfully we had two more days for him to use the response volunteer’s laptop. Once we eased his fear, I tried to widen his perspective of communication and English. I talked about how English is not a unified language in America or South Africa, and how people speak English differently (Compared to some Americans, my grammar skills are poor).


When I was a child life volunteer in high school, I made an awful mistake when I assumed a child was Mexican because of their jaundiced skin. I also have a last name that can sometimes been misconstrued as a derogatory name towards Native Americans. Since then I have tried to get rid of the inaccurate Crayola colors when discussing ethnicity. My attempts to be more humanistic are not working in South Africa, because people willing identify as white, black, or colored (specific race originated in the Western Cape). People call themselves black and do not appear hurt. They call me white because pale skin people in South Africa are clumped under that label. It does not matter if you are Afrikaaner, of English decent, a German missionary, or in my case an American PCV. It is not malicious, but a polite way to remind me that there is no way I will be able to fully comprehend who it is like to be black in a post-conflict society. Despite my efforts to limit my white privilege I am facing it head on and also using white and black in regular speech.

One of my pet peeves is when people reduce South Africa to its racial past and apartheid. I cannot remember who said this initially in PCSA (I think it was our medical officer or PCMO) but South Africa is like an onion because here are many complex layers to how life works here. Just as peeling an onion makes your body uncomfortable or induces tears (not ashamed of the several times I have cried in the past month), uncovering South Africa’s layers can be downright agitating. For this reason, most people are scared to look beyond the academic books. The easy thing to do is call the onion skin apartheid and use it to describe the only reason behind South Africa’s social inequities. The center of the onion could be general inequity between ethnic groups that lasted hundreds of years before apartheid, but 4 months in this country is not enough time to classify the center. South Africa is more complicated than the circumstances that happened under the 40 years of apartheid policy, just like the Civil Rights Movement does not determine everything in the United States. Both experiences were fueled by multiple past situations and historical events.

This is probably not going to be the last time race impacts my time in South Africa. I would like to encourage people reading this stateside to start thinking about how we view race because we are not “better” than South Africa when it comes to inequity. The countries may have different population dynamics and histories, yet there is clearly a need for this hard conversation often. I come from a country where we have a black president, because there is a fear to identify him as biracial and acknowledge half of his background. Life is much too complicated to be categorized in limited boxes of race.

Thanks for reading my soap box.


All the best,


Icebreakers: Lost in Translation

isiZulu word of the post: iswidi
isiNgisi: sweet (what South Africans call candy)
Meaning: The thing that can make or break my icebreakers in the Rainbow Nation

A common activity in American leadership workshops and diversity talks is to do something called an icebreaker which comes from American slang “to break the ice”. Icebreakers gets strangers to get to know each other through outlandish behavior or deep questions. I have a love/hate relationship with icebreakers. I love meaningful icebreakers that use storytelling and questions to reinforce the importance of listening. However I am not a fan of the goofy icebreakers that involve yelling.

Caregiver camp was a weekend full of icebreakers and I enjoyed watching how the AmaZulu women (and one man) reacted to the icebreakers. My director (who is American but after 10 years in South Africa she is capable of conversational isiZulu…she refuses to say she is fluent) was translating my roommate’s instructions and sometimes it took a while for the caregivers to understand the directions. Our name game and first activity was a bust. They also did not like the icebreakers that involved yelling!

On the schedule, I was co-facilitating one of my favorite and versatile icebreakers called color Jacuzzi. The activity involves a set of colored candies (in South Africa Smarties work well which are “naturally” colored M&Ms and more delicious than their chalky American counterpart) and each color is assigned a question. The questions can be whatever the facilitator deems appropriate. Our questions developed by my roommate (who has a master’s in Child Development and is a former Child Life Specialist) involved feelings like share a time when you were very happy, sad, or embarrassed. For example, this time I got yellow which was sharing a time that I was very happy and talked about swearing in as a PCV! People pick their candy and before eating their sweet, they are supposed to answer the question.

Unfortunately our transportation to the camp was two hours late and the schedule had to be cut back. We had a chance to do the activity with my organization’s home based carers during a staff meeting the following Monday. Before we started the activity we distributed three candies, discussed the questions, gave participants a minute to pick one color/story to share and eat the two that they choose not to use. We almost made it around the circle without an accident, and then one of our carers ate all of their Smarties and forgot their colors before their turn! Thankfully we had extra candies, which also worked well as motivators for the discussion afterwards. I loved hearing what the advice our staff had for other carers and tips for a healthy lifestyle!

I also learned that the subjunctive tense is also hard to place into isiZulu. I was trying to lead the activity’s debrief with my director translating and said something along the lines, “If your clients were well you would not be their carer”. Eish, I wish y’all saw how wide her eyes got when that came out of my mouth! I made sure to give her a break (and be more cautious not to use subjunctive language or as I call it, passive aggressive English)!

Euphemisms are Deadly…but not this Time

Originally written on March 3, 2015

(Scene)This morning at the breakfast. Musa (Katey-the-klutz’s name in the bush which ironically means grace) is frantically packing her lunch before she walks to isiZulu class and Mam is eating breakfast.

Mam: Musa this morning my mom passed.

Musa: Puts down the bread, processes the heartache for a few seconds, and comes up with a response. Mam, I am so sorry.

Mam: She passed her regards.

Musa: recovering from the thought of her 90 year old Gogo’s demise Mam for the record that means something very different in the United States.