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.


I think my American was Showing

Originally written on February 10, 2015

A couple weeks ago, our group had a discussion on nudity. I currently reside in an Ndebele community which has elaborate coming of age ceremonies. The first night of homestays, some of the group attended as one concerned trainee put it as a “Naked Girl” ceremony where breasts were exposed. I think it is fair to say that most Americans would be shocked at the sight of exposed breasts in public. Our training director explained that American’s definition of naked and South Africans definition are different. If the public area is covered in South Africa, then people are not considered naked. Breasts are not classified as private parts, but in my experience most South Africans opt to cover their chest in public. However women can show their chest during traditional ceremonies.

I was invited to a coming of age ceremony Mam’s in-laws threw last Friday, but had a prior engagement. Last Sunday morning, I was doing my laundry when my host mom said to bring my camera, last night’s honoree from the party was waiting for me in traditional costume. I finished my wash and walked across the street. I walked into the house and saw a topless woman putting on her costume. Slowly she stacked the beaded rings on her arms and attached beaded belts to her waist. I was waiting to see what they used to cover breasts, when the woman fastens a beaded collar around her neck and then says, “let’s go show the Americans Musa”.

Wait…what? Show Americans breasts…am I trying to get in trouble?

She slowly walked outside and her proud mother has found a good background for the photo-shoot. They ask me to start taking pictures and I oblige. My impromptu subject did not seem intimidated or upset. She looked serene with silent pride for her culture and surrounded by support. There were no cries of disgust or judging stars at her breasts as her family directed the pose. It was a pleasant interaction and despite my American definition of intimate, I never felt that I was intruding.

Then the family asks me to pose with her and I was thrown back out of my comfort zone. I slowly walked over her and tried to keep my hands at a respectful distance. The woman tells me “Don’t be shy Musa” and I placed my arm around her shoulders. At this moment an aunt positions a smiling baby girl in my arms. We take several photos and then we look at my images. The family encourages me (with the model’s consent) to share the moment with the Americans. After contemplating on how to handle the situation, I decide to use this moment to share American culture. I told them I would share the pictures, but because Americans are uncomfortable with breasts, I will edit the photo on my computer. The impromptu photo shoot was too beautiful not to share.

My American moment...and decision to block out the breasts

My American moment…and decision to block out the breasts

After the photo shoot I thought the least I could do was help the woman out of the costume. After four years of participating in a form of dance with elaborate costumes and quick dress changes, I can gently peel off costumes without hurting the performer. Yanking off the beaded rings off her legs was a snug fit and while we had several close calls to pulling too hard, she did not flinch. I am still impressed by how carefully she handled each part of her costume and gingerly placed them in the suitcase. After Peace Corps I should strive to handle of my group’s costumes with such dignity.

The traditional wear, the beaded rings are actually not that heavy.

The traditional wear, the beaded rings are actually not that heavy.

All the best,

What do we really think of South Africa (let alone the African Continent)?

This could be my last post until Swearing in (early April) but hey I can officially call myself a Peace Corps Trainee. That is the last stage of gestation before Volunteer in the Peace Corps’ model of development…progress! However I will continue to type insights on South African culture. Some of you receive e-mail subscriptions for the blog, and I am flattered. However I wanted to let you know that I will probably have an avalanche of posts in April, and I am not offended if unsubscribe if it becomes overwhelming. Whatever you need to do to subsist is fine by me.

Since it will be a while, I wanted to share some food for thought. I do not endorse the Daily Show as news, and the content is not “G rated” (I would not watch this at work). However they sometimes excel at presenting problems in a creative manner. The newest correspondent, Trevor Noah, hails from South Africa. On Noah’s debut show, he and John Stewart talked about African stereotypes in a new way.
Yes, the video is funny (I may have laughed too loudly at the “starving fat children remark”…I can be an unkind Public Health Student sometimes) and it may not accurately describe all South African perspectives. It does not change the powerful messages worth sharing. I will leave you with these two questions present in my Trainee mind:

1. How does America’s view of African nations match up with reality?
2. What is the impact of these perceptions on our connections with the 54 countries on the African Continent?

All the best,
Katey-Red, Peace Corps Trainee Extraordinaire!