Amagwinya: Edible Gold



This entry’s theme for the Blogging Abroad Boot Camp Challenge: Money, money, money (aka rand, rand, rand, or what PCVs and their communities need for subsistence in 2016…also cue the Abba)!

The currency of South Africa is the rand (ZAR), short for Witwatersrand, an Afrikaans term meaning “White Waters Ridge.” The Witwatersrand is where Johannesburg and most of South Africa’s former gold deposits. Actually the isiZulu name for Johannesburg is eGoli, “the place of gold” where young men left home to try their luck.

Eish. Money is a touchy subject right now because South Africa is hitting a recession.  Right now the 1 South African Rand (ZAR) is worth about $0.06 USD or on the flip side, 1 USD equals over 16 ZAR. The school year started a few weeks ago with news stories reiterating how spending is down on supplies and will sales are not expected to rise soon. As the economic powerhouse of Southern Africa, the monetary changes are impacting other African countries. I have a friend serving as a PCV in Northern Mozambique, and last month during a skype call (where hilariously both of us lost connection 5 times because of our countries’ respective utility Olympics), she made sure to ask me, “What is going on with the Rand?” She was noticing price inflation on basic items like bread.

The people of my community know how to adapt to financial hardships. In both sites, there are high unemployment rates and most of the population are dependent on government grants. Just like the United States, these grants are not meant for subsistence and to generate extra income people come up with creative side businesses. The most memorable business I have encountered was my Aunt X.’s informal food service.

A bit of background: For the first 5 months of my service, I lived in a beautiful and remote valley in the Drakensburg Mountains. While I was there during South Africa’s winter, the area was getting the brunt of South Africa’s drought and food access was difficult. There were tuck shops in most of the 18 communities, but these provided basic non-perishable goods (produce was seldom available). The closest and overpriced grocery store was at the base of the valley (a 12 ZAR trip) in an unsafe intersection. Shopping town 1.0 was an hour away and the sporadic taxi service to South Africa’s grocery store chains was 21 ZAR for a one way trip. When food is a challenge to obtain, you can see how Aunt X. easily made a profit off of her amagwinya.

Amagwinya (the term from Gauteng townships for fat cakes which comes from the Afrikaans Vetkoeks) are fried dough balls, like unsweetened doughnuts with less dense of a texture. They are far from nutritious but these days any homemade carbohydrate serves as my comfort food. Aunt X. made these big and fluffy amagwinya the size of my hands that she would sell for 3 ZAR. I have sampled my share of the delicacy in Southern Africa and nothing comes close to Aunt X.’s quality. Her amagwinya alone made a profit but Aunt X. added more options. She also offered sides of polony slices (pink tinted processed meat, but an invaluable source of cheap protein) for 2 ZAR and mango achaar (an Indian influenced condiment that infuses pickled mango with chile pieces…in other words delicious) for another 1 ZAR. Amagwinya alone are an energy dense meal in the mountains and adding the achaar with polony touches two other nutrition areas.


The entire spread of Aunt X.’s business

The community loved Aunt X.’s amagwinya. She is also a caregiver for organization 1.0, and every staff meeting Aunt X. would haul her Pick n Pay cooler filled with fresh amagwinya. I learned to race to the front room with my rand in hand, once I heard the end of the meeting amaZulu hynms. When I was slow, 25 caregivers would purchase Aunt X.’s entire stock within 2 minutes! On pension days when a market formed at the community hall, Aunt X. would provide another batch and sell out within an hour.

While I never learned what made Aunt X.’s amagwinya special, I know the main ingredients are oil, water, flour, sugar, and baking soda. In term of access, the one common problem Aunt X. could run into is if the water was cut off for a few days, as the rest of the ingredients are relatively inexpensive. With the compound structure of households, amaZulu are fans of purchasing in the bulk to feed all the family members (plus friends that visit unannounced and still get food). Most amaZulu women already have large bowls and pots required for the cooking. She would just have to obtain tiny plastics (plastic bags) for each item. Below is a breakdown of ingredient prices (and all ingredients would be used for basic cooking beyond amagwinya creation).



Price Range in ZAR

USD as of January 27, 2016

10 kilogram bag of flour 50-60 ZAR $3.05-$3.66
5 liters of oil 70-80 ZAR $4.27-$4.88
500 grams baking powder 20-30 ZAR $1.27-$1.82
5 kilogram bag of sugar 50-60 ZAR $3.05-$3.66



I did not get my act together to get a photo of the 10 K bag of flour but this is an empty bottle for 5 L of sunflower oil. Picture this filled to the top with yellow liquid. This is how amaZulu buy in bulk,


So if you do the math, at minimum if all 30 amagwinya were sold at 3 ZAR, that is 90 ZAR. If she did that 5 times a month, that would be 400 ZAR. For a year 400 ZAR per month would be a total of 4,800 ZAR. As of today (January 27, 2016) that would be over $24.00 ZAR a month or roughly $292.85 in USD annually.

In the best case scenario if every amagwinya sold with all the fixings (polony and achaar) for 6 ZAR, 30 amagwinya would make 180 ZAR. Under the same optimistic circumstances, that would be 900 ZAR a month and the projected annual total would be 10,800 ZAR. In USD that is currently an estimated $55.00 a month or $658.25 per year.

Compare this to the theater concessions business my friend and I ran for a summer (our staples were brownies and chocolate chip madeleines…the later was my pretentious idea). Between splitting our profits and purchasing ingredients, I earned about $200.00 USD for 3months of work. It was right before I moved to college and the money went to dorm supplies. Aunt X. generates more cash to replace her ingredients and fuels demand with a culturally accepted food. I can see how her business would generate enough money for basic groceries, taxi fares, or if she saved a small portion of her profits each month, her sons’ school uniforms.

When I return to graduate school, I may enter the amagwinya with the fixings market stateside for year. $292.00 is substantial textbook money!

Besides, they look gold on the inside just like the currency’s namesake! Amagwinya basically emulate money!


Casa de Izilokazane



Ngiyabonga khakulu/Thanks a lot for the kind feedback on my last post! I hope y’all enjoy my future contributions for the Blogging Abroad Boot Camp  Challenge for early 2016. This entry’s prompt: home (aka where I reside and type most of my observations on South African Life). Special thanks to Blogging Abroad for the task and a much needed excuse for me to clean the house!

Round up link will be posted here when received.

Side note: Here is the page of my place code words with an explanation why I use them.

Casa de Izilokazane

“Our Slice of Heaven in Rural Amajuba”


Located in beautiful Schnizeland Municipality, Casa de Izilokazane provides an authentic amaZulu cultural experience. The building is part of a traditional amaZulu compound, directly across from a rondavel where the ancestors protect the property.

Under Schintzeland’s spacious skies that provide views of infamous Majuba Hill on clear days and equally stunning night time displays of the Southern Hemisphere constellations, we guarantee your stay at Casa de Izilokazane will provide you with an appreciation of why “Zulu” translates to heavens.


This two room residence consists of a bedroom and living space with bathroom and kitchen amenities. The Bedroom has a double sized bed and a wardrobe. Wide windows in both rooms provide plenty of natural light. Casa de Izilokazane is lucky to have an effective security system through the neighborhood watch and a gracious host family in an altruistic community. We also have aesthetically pleasing burglar bars that maintain peace of mind.



Front door with a peek of the rondavel. These adorable spirals were worth the extra 2 week wait in Pretoria to ensure they would be installed properly!


Our state of the art kitchen consists of a borrowed refrigerator, pantry, and minimal kitchen utensils. At the moment Casa de Izilokazane is receiving a much needed electrical system update and the hot plate stove and hot water kettle are currently out of commission. The kitchen equipped with an oven on the main compound is accessible upon request. Guests have unfettered access to the accumulated library of South African Cooking Magazines, which fuel the host’s Rainbow Nation cooking adventures.


An eclectic kitchen: dishes, refrigerator, water buckets and the sink with the PC water filter



The pantry next to the bedroom door

Running water is available through a tap, 10 meters from the doorstep. In the event the water supply is interrupted during your stay, the host stores extra water. Even though hot water is not available at the moment, frigid baths are quite reinvigorating in the Amajuba Summer. All water consumed at Casa de Izilokazane, goes through the Peace Corps initiated gravity fed water filter which also doubles as the faucet for the sink.


Latrine at the edge of the compound (left to the to the family garden) and tap in the foreground.

The facility provides complimentary access to a large bathing tub, buckets, and toiletries. Toilet facilities are a comfortable western toilet on a pour flush system located at the edge of a property (all guests will receive an orientation on how to operate the toilet at registration).There is also a nocturnal bucket provided for your safety and convenience.


Buckets upon buckets: 1/3 of Casa de Izilokazane’s simple plumbing system

Nature provides our heating and cooling systems. It also serves as our reliable alarm clock with our on-site, reluctant, bird sanctuary and resident chickens. On warm nights, guests may be lulled to sleep by melodic frogs croaking at their habitat (a nearby dam).


Internet: Minimal internet access is available upon request (depending on the signal’s level of corporation at the time of your need.)

Grocery Stores and Petrol Station: There is a China shop and Shell Petrol staons about 3000 meters away from the house that address basic needs. For special food requests, Duke City contains several branches of South Africa’s upscale grocery stores less than an hour away.

Transport: Casa de Izilokazane is a convenient 2000 meters from minibus ranks to Schnizteland, Duke City, and Scotland.

Conference Facilities: A community HIV-focused organization located 500 meters from the premises provides a professional meeting space. Brief volunteer shadowing opportunities at the organization and local clinic may be feasible depending on the time of year. Ask your host (the full time volunteer) for more information.

Potential Cultural Excursions:


The Unsupervised Livestock of Amajuba as seen from the solar powered laundry facility

  • Wildlife Viewing of the Unsupervised Livestock of Amajuba
  • Minibus Taxi Rides
  • KZN Battlefield Tours
  • Hikes in the Central and Northern Drakensburg

2016 rate includes: opportunities to witness a brand new Peace Corps Site, be immersed in amaZulu Culture, and see a part of South Africa many tourists will not experience.

In other words: Priceless.

Casa de Izilokazane is a certified safe place for site-less PCVs to have a work experience and nighttime stop for PCVs traveling through the Battlefields region of KZN.*

*No certification exists in PCSA but I make myself a contact so the staff can offer another resource for site-less PCV stuck in Pretoria.

Behind the name: “Casa de ” is a nod to my New Mexican background but izilokazane translates to “small creatures”. It is the most appropriate isiZulu word to encompass my stubborn roommates: ants, spiders, mosquitos, centipedes,and the ever resilient iziyoni/birds. The current methods I have used have not encouraged a migration. Anyone who visits my place may possibly have an intimate bug or bird encounter.


Flashback to the time two birds got stuck in the bedroom. Yebo/Yes, this is the window right above my bed


Life Administration: How I Cope in Taxis

When I filled out my health history form, I knew that transport would be an agitating trigger as an autistic. Almost a year and a half after declaring this, I realize that I was right. Navigating the logistics of South African transport can be anxiety inducing, but there are methods for reducing the anxiety. By monitoring finances (so they cover the taxi fees), being prepared to move once you reach the destination, and being cognizant of sensory triggers, it is possible to have successes in taxi transport…meltdown free!

First the ability to move around South Africa via minibus is dependent on your ability to cover fees….which involves a whole other set of logistics. The taxi fee from site 1.0 to shopping town 1.0 was 21 rand exactly. My current taxi fees are 16 rand to Duke City (with the last 2 rand paid at a certain point), 14 rand to Scotland, and 8 rand to Schnitzeland. I try give exact change for local destination, as there is always a local passenger who will give a 100 or 200 rand bill which stresses the driver out. If I am desperate, I will ask them to break a 50 rand.

Now, PCSA’s bank of choice does not have a branch in the closest town (Schnitzeland…technically there is a perpetually broken ATM at one of the hardware stores) and at site 1.0 the closest ATM was at least an hour away. The way I manage this is that I pull out a couple hundred rand and purchase food as need at the local grocery store (at site 1.0 I did this at the tuck shops). While I am in town, I will treat myself to lunch just to break the cash for the ride home (Chicken Licken was my unfortunate choice at shopping town 1.0). Also if at all possible have extra cash on hand for public restrooms (Petrol station stops usually let you use the restroom for free but at many malls it is a 2 rand fee) and food stops for long distance trips.  Finally, taxi associations raise prices with short notice quite frequently and it is best not to be caught off guard. Listen to your host family and friends in the community about potential changes. PCSA is great about sharing safe issues but host family 1.0 knew about the taxi strikes in Pretty City the hour it started.

Also along the lines of taxi strikes, there is a lot in South African transport that you cannot control. However if you are prepared to adapt to changes in the unpredictable schedule, the changes will not shake you up too much. Take my last trip to Msinga, after Cluster 1.0’s retreat the plan was to take a taxi to Durban and stay with my PCVL (Peace Corps Volunteer Leader the 3rd year who signed up to maintain SA 31’s sanity and does a beautiful job with it) in Durban and then go up North Coast and visit the Gogo at her site. The day before I was about to leave both Msinga and Durban had nasty taxi wars, and I had to change my route by going back to Shopping Town 1.0 and taking the Empangeni taxi. I got to the Gogo’s site right at dusk (and just in time for dinner), and minimized my anxiety levels. Also, long distance taxi’s leave when it gets full, or at minimum noon. So if you are trying to take a local taxi to Johannesburg in the winter and need to go to Pretoria for PC business, be prepared to transfer to the Gautrain and navigate Pretoria at night.

The other aspect of being prepared is being ready to move when the minibus arrives at the destination. I practice staying “please drop me off at…” in isiZulu before I get on the taxi. Crime is higher in the big cities especially in the taxi ranks, and right when a taxi enters city limits I zip my bags up, hide money, and make a plan. If I meeting another PCV, I message them to establish a location before I get on the taxi (since cell service can be spotty) and try to make contact before I disembark so my phone is not temping criminals. If I am alone, I try to coordinate a local taxi, place to stay overnight (and have the address handy for the taxi driver), or locate a safe place to make a call. When I went to Maritzburg for the database training, I did not know which one of the taxi ranks to disembark at but most passengers got off to the rank next to a petrol station. I walked into the petrol station, explained my situation and the attendants got out a phone book while pointing out the reliable private taxi company for Maritzburg. A taxi came 10 minutes after I called and for 50 rand they got me to the hotel safe.

I have not had the chance to travel internationally as a PCV, but from my exchange student days being organized before reaching a border crossing always pays off.  I always have black pen (pens disappear at border crossings like leaves in the late fall and the South African government has a weird aversion to blue ink) and a potential address and contact information (hotel, friend, company etc.) ready, as long as you write something most border officials will accept the form. It should go without saying but always obtain the correct visa requirements before entering the country (All of South Africa’s neighbors have some form of Bureaucracy in their government but especially be mindful of Mozambique, it has the most requests for tourist visas and it MUST be obtained before you reach the border) and make sure you are able to renter South Africa (breaking the rule can throw you in perpetual gridlock with the South African government).  On that note, before leaving the border crossing I stow away my passport and any tickets (if on an international bus…because my Botswana-mates do not let me forget the time I left the return tickets at the South Africa border and getting the replacements nearly caused me to miss the bus back to Bots) so they are not snatched. Losing a passport is a pain everywhere, but replacing a South African visa is extremely difficult.

Finally in terms of being the most comfortable as possible on taxis (and minimizing sensory overstimulation) takes a bit of trial and error to figure out what the triggers are. The main two are harassment and heat. If there are intoxicated men on the bus, I have to navigate unwanted attention. To keep a low profile, I choose to wear a knee length skirt (sometimes capri pants…depends how hot it is) and a modest top for the ride. Also I try to bring activities to keep me distracted like crossword puzzles or my Mp3 player, and most of the time people do not bother me for long when they see me occupied.

As for heat, I get carsick and more agitated when it is hot in the taxi. The first line of defense is ing the taxi during holidays, first and last weeked  of the months when government gants are realeased.

Because this was Duke City’s taxi rank on Christmas Eve,


Introvert’s nightmare. Enough said.

Second is taking only what I need for long trips because more stuff adds to body heat (and taxis do not leave if they are full). If it is a taller taxi (I will explain taxi types another time) then there will be head space, but small minibuses are crammed. If I can, I try to get the front window seat on the right side, because I can control the window and there is a bit of leg space. However since the sun could be on my side of the bus, wear a hat, sunscreen, light and sunglasses to keep cool. If there are Cool Times (Popsicles in a plastic bubble availible in the local tax ranks) I buy one for 2-3 rand and place it at the back of my neck with wipes handy because sticky fingers can quickly exacerbate my agitation levels. Finally the last life hacks I have is staying as hydrated as possible (hard when the bathroom access is unpredictable), balancing salt and sugar intake, and having mint gum on hand (sold at all South African stores). It is a quick way to relieve car induced nausea and when swallowed serves as a laxative in a pinch (if that is TMI…well traveling in low resource areas is the epitome of TMI, you get used to it if you love this lifestyle).


This concludes the end of the Life Administration Series. Thanks for reading this experiment!  I may elaborate on certain areas  (like minibus types and layout…I ran out of time to elaborate) but if anyone wants more information, comment on the blog (I monitor all comments but see the emails, and if you indicate this is a private message I will delete the comment but email you personally.

All the best,


One last money side note for SA bound PCTs: As I have documented on here, I have had several unexpected stays in Pretoria for PC related issues which requires bus tickets and hostel stays. I try to budget 3000 Rand in the account at all times, in the event of an emergency/unexpected and only dip into those resources when the situation arises. Also, PC reimburses all expenses related to official business and since I am horrible at remembering numbers I write down taxi fees(and hostel bills if applicable) immediately after paying them in in writing and in draft e-mail on my phone (in case I lose the paper) so they are ready for the travel reimbursement forms.

Life Administration: How I Move

South Africa has a network of national highways and several transportation options. It is pretty neat that I can access 70% of major South African cities by grabbing a taxi from my site (getting to the Western Cape would take 2 days but it is still feasible) and if I had my passport accessible technically I could get to Namibia, Lesotho, Swaziland, Mozambique, or Botswana within a day through minibuses (Zimbabwe has travel restrictions in place at our post). South Africa is huge and while long distance bus rides are exhausting it is a great opportunity to see the natural landscape evolve.  Each province has its own personality reflected in the landscape from KZN’s boastful mountains and labyrinth of sugar cane fields, Free State’s stoic plains, Mpumalanga’s meandering paths that gently transition through all of its attractions, Gauteng’s glittery urbanity, and Limpopo’s nostalgic orange soils that provide a taste of tropical Africa.  You can read a book in the way to Pretoria (from here it is about 5-7 hours depending on the method), or you can look out the window and understand one of the reasons why Tutu calls this the Rainbow Nation. Both are pleasurable depending on my mood.

There are two main forms of transport used by rural South Africans: the minibuses and buses. Minibuses or taxis run Southern Africa at large, and in South Africa they are the lifeline of the rural communities that PCSA serves. Some areas have spotty taxi service and you have to be creative. In site 1.0, usually I would have to walk up the valley 30 minutes to catch a taxi and ride another 30 minutes up until it turned around and reached shopping town 1.0. I love hiking and until security issues surfaced at the site walking up was not a problem, just a source of exercise with a good story to tell.  Getting anywhere from site 1.0 (minus Winterton which was a different routes) required another taxi from shopping town 1.0’s taxi rank. My current area serves more as a link for rural Schntizeland, which means I have a stable taxi network 1000 meters from my house (and a rank across the street). I can get to Schnitzeland, Scottland (with a minor transfer but nothing to stress about), and the most popular destination Duke City (with a reliable taxi rank that serves most of South Africa). There are also taxis for the other rural communities in the area.


Buses are more spacious and comfortable for long term travel. There are the more expensive Greyhounds (chuck your expectations at the door Americans…Greyhounds are living large here) and slightly less expensive Cityliner, City to City, or Translux. The nice thing about these buses is that they provide a straight shot to Pretoria, with a brief stopover in Johannesburg’s Park Station (also home to the international buses as well) before heading to Bosman Station where a PCSA approved taxi service can pick you up for 100 rand (call ahead first…I have had luck calling them at Midrand about 20 minutes away from Pretoria).

The disadvantage is that these buses always run late. At site 1.0 I would wait an hour on the N3 for the Cityliner and would not get into Pretoria until 8:30 PM (it is due around 6 PM). At that point, the 100 rand ride to the backpackers is worth it. The other logistic is figuring out how to get back your rural site, as the buses connect major hubs and usually not the rural communities.  Duke City is on the pricy Greyhound route, but I can easily get to Pretty City and stay with the SpEd for the Cityliner bus. I learned that if the Cityliner from Pretoria gets to Pretty City later than 2:00 PM, there was no way I could go further and the SpEd has graciously opened her site for visitors who cannot get home that day. Also, I have learned the hard way that if you cancel a bus ticket and ask for a refund, it can screw up a preexisting itinerary (inducing a meltdown in the Pretoria bus station the day before my birthday, because instead of providing a refund they canceled my ticket and on a public holiday the bus my friends who were coordinating a small observation with cake was full.)

Transport: never a dull moment.

Life Administration: How I Wash Clothes



While my electricity experiences in rural South Africa are complicated, my household plumbing is straight forward. My bathtub, sink, dishwasher, and washing machine consist of four buckets: a green bathtub and three navy blue bins. One of the bins serves as the sink basin while the PC initiated water filter is the faucet. Two bins alternate between the aforementioned roles (and before anyone flips out over hygiene I clean the buckets thoroughly before they switch tasks). Water comes from the tap 10 meters from my house (I got really lucky in terms of tap access at both sites…there are SA PCVs who walk kilometers for water).

I could talk about washing dishes and bathing, but laundry is my sense of accomplishment as a PCV. Many PCVs dread laundry day, but for me it is the one task I can complete that week. Also laundry day is a treat these days because it has to be done when there is water and it is sunny.

Sunday is the unofficial laundry day, in part because listening to Kosi FM’s blaring soul classics makes the task fun!  However this summer my schedule is all over the place. Add South Africa to the list of places impacted by climate change (cough global warming) and KZN is in a bad drought. Because of this drought, the municipality shuts off the water and I am the water police who humanely confronts my host niece and nephew about their using water as a toy habit (but that is a. My second week in Amajuba, I went without water for 6 days. When the water is off my only priority is drinking and filling the PC water filter. If I get dehydrated, there is no way that the other tasks will happen. Usually I budget enough water for one bath for a district meeting or my 3 day schedule, but laundry does not happen.


Ingredients for laundry

On a laundry morning (starting no later than 10 AM before afternoon thunderstorms are a problem), I gather my clothes, clothespins, laundry detergent, and nailbrush on my stoop. Clad in sunscreen, I sprinkle my detergent (Sunlight which is an cheap fabric softener and detergent plus a taste of my exchange student nostalgia) from the Pick N Pay yogurt container and add half a clear bucketful of water to each bin. Then I stir the detergent with the nailbrush (about 5 rand and the best laundry tool I have). After a minute the soap starts to dissolve and I add one more bucket from the tap to the buckets.

For the washing part, I have to confess that I am not high maintenance at washing. I separate my modest pile of white apparel but beyond that I mix reds with blues, towels with underwear and only “scrub” when the clothes are visibly dirty ( so far it has not ruined any of my clothes). As long as the clothes smell good, they are clean enough for me. When stains are present, I gently scrub back and forth with the nail brush. Without a lot of force, the nailbrush does a remarkable job of cleaning without rubbing the fabric thin. Once the clothes finish soaking (most are ready in 10 minutes) I wring them out and dunk them in the rinse bucket. Then after the clothes are rinsed, I ring them out and stick them on the clothesline to dry (depending on the timing, most clothes are done by the evening…quick dry fabrics are your friend. .

Right after I arrived, my host family put up a study clothes line which works great. Depending on the area, underwear can be taboo. Bras here are hung out here with no problem but bottoms are concealed. If you are like me and like underwear with adequate amount of material, one of the life hacks that I took from the roommate is grabbing the middle and loosely pulling it though a leg hole around the wire. Not only does this conserve clothes pins, and provides even areas for drying.  It also makes the underwear smaller and easier to cover up with bigger clothes on the front clothesline. Host Family 1.0 taught me to hang long sleeved clothes (jackets, shirts, and jeans) upside down so they dry quicker. Jeans and heavier materials take more clothespins to secure on the line, and longer to dry (hence why I avoid wearing jeans, I get 5 wears out of a skirt but 1 wear out of jeans). For articles that cannot be exposed to direct sunlight (in my case reusable pads) I lay them to dry on a travel towel inside the house. When there is really no space, I would purposely wash the travel towel and hang the materials underneath)

One last laundry hack: I always have a travel laundry kit consisting of a handful of clothespins, nailbrush, and a bar of Sunlight Soap in a plastic bag. Other PCVs utilize it and it helped me maintain a routine while I was living in a backpackers (and laundromats in Pretoria charge per item…eish).


Laundry in South Africa. It is more effort than wash and dry machinery but feels better when it is done with solar energy.





Life Administration: How I Dress

Aka: to bring pants or leave pants as a woman PCV


I really should not make a generalizations, but in my experience most South Africans care about appearance especially in the way that they dress. You could see a woman in a pencil skirt and dressy blouse for running errands. I cannot talk about the male experience, but the general consensus is South African PCVs should look neat in the workplace. Dress also depends on the location.  Mpumalanga and Limpopo (most of that province is located above the Tropic of Capricorn) are hotter areas while Amajuba and the Berg experience cold winters. Also, if you are closer to a city, chances are the community will be more accepting towards modern tastes in fashion. Yet (as I found out this year) you never know what will happen during service. I am currently the only PCV in the district and happen to work closely with district government offices while always being watched especially with my appearance.

Most days I wear either a knee length skirt with a corresponding top or a dress. To maintain a professional appearance (read hide my underwear) I always wear biker shorts and camisoles every day. Sometimes I wear pants, but both Amajuba and the Drakensburg fluctuate between very hot to freezing comfort levels. It is easier for me to maintain temperature control in clothes I can layer. My summer dresses became winter gear by adding leggings and long-sleeved shirts.

It is worth noting that some traditional areas, pants are NOT acceptable for women to wear. We are about 45 minutes away from Duke City, and my current host sisters live in leggings and the 19 year old feels most comfortable in trousers. At site 1.0 I was in a traditional tribal authority and did not see boo of pants on women until the shopping town. Also if you ran into the induna or traditional spiritual leader (who happened to live at the bottom of my hillside) it was more respectful to be in a skirt. As an example of old habits dying hard, when my Amajuba family knocks on the door and I am in pant attire, I still throw on a skirt.

With my long legs and wide feet, it is hard to find affordable clothes that fit my body type in South Africa (stress on affordable). I have purchased a few skirts and a dress, but even on sale they were splurges under the volunteer in country allowance.  Before I left for Staging, I raided the local Goodwill and came out with most of my tops and skirts. At first I felt embarrassed about the amount of clothes I brought, but a year in I am glad because my Amajuba house is surrounded by barbed wire that keeps poking holes in my clothes. Also, when laundry is delayed (see next post) I have enough clothes to help me subsist. The one thing I would have left behind were my dress pants, which I wore at staging but not since. Maybe I will attend the international AIDS conference and use them but just as an SA PCV I have not needed them.

Finally, accessorizing is probably the most fun aspect I have while dressing as a PCV. Beaded jewelry is one of my favorite aspects of amaZulu culture and brings a guaranteed pop of color to an outfit. Something that I did not realize was that wearing beadwork serves as a great icebreaker, especially when I am asking personal questions for the CNA or registering clients for ARV pick up at the local clinic. I have a Venda beaded necklace as well, and wore it while greeting a Venda chief who noticed. If beads are not your thing, many PCVs find local tailors who sew custom clothes with South Africa’s traditional fabrics. I just found dressmakers in Duke City and my local taxi rank who do incredible work. Regardless of your gender identity, using local business for gifts or everyday clothes.

In the end, take what makes you feel comfortable but be safe and bring at least 3 skirts. Whatever you take remember, quick dry fabrics are your friend.


My Tribal Authority uniform Autumn edition for site 1.0, hanging out in the medical supply cabinet


Life Administration: How I Bake


Cooking has been an adventure through my time in South Africa as both of my living arrangements had electricity access problems (I need to head into Duke City for the latest repair this week). Since digging a hole in the middle of an amaZulu homestead and filling it with hot coals for a natural oven would not go over well, I had to be creative with my dietary choices. Even with these challenges, I have been able to maintain one of my main therapies in my life: baking. Back in the states, I would reward myself for completing a week of classes with a baking experiment. Throwing ingredients together in a bowl is a physically cathartic distraction so I stop perseverating on anxiety triggers. Plus sharing baked goods requires minimal social cues and provides great opportunities for cultural exchange in my current role.

Since being in South Africa I have made banana bread, tortillas, natural red velvet cake complete with cream cheese icing (with beetroot…that was for my supervisor’s birthday and I attempted a challenge for the occasion), funfetti cake, and sweet potato casserole just to provide an idea. The additional effort just makes the final products taste better (or maybe that is my sugar addition but still) and potential disasters edible. I once tried to make a literal coffee cake (not the breakfast entity but a cake flavored as coffee) for the social worker’s birthday celebration. I added the coffee to a flour mixture when it was too hot and it became more of a sticky coffee pudding. I hauled the item to Shopping Town 1.0 explaining my intentions. Surprisingly the Social Worker loved it, actually tried to recreate the mistake, and the indent established me as the primary baking consultant for our former cluster.

In terms of equipment, South Africa has most kitchen appliances and tools available, in the shopping towns. I inherited knives, pots, and measuring cups from the former roommate and buy additional tools as needed. At site 1.0 we had a gas stove (gas tank connected to hot plate) which worked great until it broke right before I left and permeated the smell of gas through the house every time it was used. The nice thing about gas stoves is that they do not require electricity and are less of a strain when the host family is on a metered electricity system.

Refrigerators are also widely available and in my experience most families have at least one. For site 1.0, I followed the precedent set by former roommate and used the host family’s refrigerator for minimal storage as it was always crammed to the brim. In Amajuba, I am borrowing the organization’s fridge/freezer (the deal we made was I would buy the wardrobe which is less expensive and they would let me borrow the fridge. Besides the fridge I have an electric kettle and hot plate. These kitchen appliances and also food processor (which former roommate found at a second hand store in Pretoria), stoven (combination of stove and oven), and hot plates take a significant amount of energy that can stress an already taxed power supply. With the exception of the refrigerator (which is always running) I try to use them sparingly.

I may not have a stoven, but host family 1.0 did and my Amajuba family has an oven. What I do is schedule “oven time” in advance, so the host families are aware that I will be using the equipment. To save time, I mix the ingredients up in advance so they are ready for the oven and kitchen space is available for my host sisters. In turn they get to eat the final product and have access to my refrigerator (I am currently hosting all the frozen chicken for the New Year’s Eve Extravaganza).

South Africa’s abundance of commercial grocery stores means that most ingredients are accessible. They even have mixes available for basic muffins, scones, and cakes if that is your style. I love cooking from scratch and the dry ingredients cost less in the long run. Sealed plastic containers are great for storing powdery ingredients (flours and sugars) and makes replacing stock less messy. If you are in an area with limited refrigeration options, long life milk is available in all the major grocery stores or since site 1.0 was an hour away from the shopping town (where perishable goods would be exposed to heat in the taxis), I used powered milk instead which is a sufficient substitute for basic recipes. The other ubiquitous baking element, eggs are often available in local tuck shops and a great way to support the community economy (without worrying about shell hazards in transport…trust me it is not fun to deal with yolk on the taxi).

The other aspect of obtaining ingredients is they can have a different appearance in South Africa. Speaking of eggs, all South Africans (including the stores) keep eggs at room temperature which does not automatically spoil them…they can last months in that state (raw and rotten eggs are damaging regardless of how they are stored, so just be careful). Or the time I searched for ricotta cheese all over Duke City and after 2 weeks found it not in a yogurt container but in plastic bags. Another example is sweet potatoes, and my North Carolinan parents are infamous for the sweet potato casserole that graces our Thanksgiving style. I made one for the host family this Christmas but the filling was not the familiar titan hue, but a creamy ecru. With snowy connotations of the holiday and the abundance of amafu/clouds over Amajuba, the white South African potatoes were more appropriate for Christmas.


Christmas 2015, holding the white sweet potato casserole during a rainstorm (hence the bad light…yet another element of baking in rural South Africa)!

 Also, I bake on the Volunteer In-Country Allowance (VICA) and adapt recipes for the budget. Yebo, butter is available but it is 40 rand and a bar of margarine for the same amount is 8 rand. I do not have an animosity towards margarine and so far it does not affect the taste. Spices are also expensive and I only buy what I need and use often (for baking that is cinnamon and vanilla).

Finally there is the cultural shock in measurements, but that is shared in the next post. Baking is an excellent way to bond with host families and explore the Rainbow Nation’s cuisines. Even though it is more challenging to obtain the final project, the extra effort makes the baked goods taste better!

All the best,