The Smallest Unit of the “Rainbow Nation”

Blog-Challenge-2016This entry’s prompt for the Blogging Abroad Blog Boot Camp: details (aka the small aspects of life that we tend to overlook). While reflecting on this prompt, I tried to think of the smallest element of amaZulu culture or the vibrant “Rainbow Nation.” Then it hit me: beads.


Traditionally composed with glass (I have yet to see glass beads used here), products embellished or composed of plastic beads are ubiquitous throughout South Africa. Women are the main participants in beadwork and vendors in urban and rural areas offer a variety of beaded objects from cups, food protectors, embroidered clothing, and traditional costumes. Yet the most common use for beads in South Africa is jewelry. All basic forms of jewelry are produced with beads including brooches, earrings, bracelets, hairbands, traditional headpieces, and necklaces.


This was made by a Vhavenda woman from Louis Trichart (near the Zimbabwe Border in Northern Limpopo) and sold in Pretoria. This style of  necklace  is found through Limpopo and I have even seen similar necklaces sold in Duke City here in KZN.


The amaZulu undeniably excel at beadwork, but most tribal cultures in South Africa incorporate beadwork into their traditional costumes especially the Nguni tribes (language family of isiZulu). My first encounter with South African beadwork was through my amaNdebele host family during PST (Pre-Service Training). My great aunt was a beader in the community and for our Host Family Farewell, she made me a beautiful jewelry set. After the event, I had a chance to thank host aunt in person and she showed me her entire range of beaded items. I was unaware of the adaptability of beads.


A small sample of my host aunt’s capabilities. Yebo, those are shoes. Women like to wear embroidered sneakers with their traditional short skirts (common in both amaNdebele and amaZulu dress) especially around Heritage Day in September

She also demonstrated how she made bracelets by tightly folding plastic bags (or plastics here in South Africa) until there was a circular band. She would then use thread to bind the design to the base.


Bracelet made by my amaNdebele host mam. You can see the string wrapped around the base composed of plastics.


Necklaces are a different and intricate technique, especially traditional amaZulu collars. Using a combination of knots and bead strands, women develop nets of diamonds. I have seen necklaces long enough reach the shoulders and middle back.


Example of a diamond pattern bead necklace, made by my amaNdebele great aunt. This design is what I have encountered most often in South Africa.

Another design is embellishing larger beads. At site 1.0 my neighbor’s wife (married to the iduna/local amaZulu branch of chief) made necklaces similar to the one below. She threaded a strand of beads and wrapped it around a large plastic bead. She continued the process until the bead was covered. Once she had enough large beads, the iduna’s wife would bead her pieces into a complete necklace.


Necklace made with bead embellishing techniques. Made my former amaZulu neighbor in a rural tribal authority.

The meticulous process to make jewelry is not the only incredible aspect of beadwork. Another shocking element is how many beads are involved; a single necklace incorporates at least a 1000 beads. Not only must a beader contain 1000s of beads as they work but they organize the colors into geometric patterns. For a sustainable Income Generating Activity (IGA), they will generate at least several necklaces a month. Taking this to another level, if you look at Ndebele traditional dress I would bet this blanket alone has 10,000 beads.


A beaded amaNdebele blanket that physically strong women can wear for hours. I was done after five minutes.


Combined with the traditional skirt and body rings, a woman could wear over 100,000 beads at once.

In the world of fashion beads are either loved or shunned for precious stones. My time in South Africa has firmly placed me in the bead lover camp for a variety of reasons. Jewelry made out of beads are a lightweight pop of color to daily outfits and travel well. Beadwork is a culturally appropriate way to preserve tradition while ethically supporting a local economy (as opposed to gemstones). Also after a year in country, I learned that beads help me connect with the community and do my job. When I conduct health focus groups with community members, I always wear a beaded necklace or hairband because it helps break the ice. Indirectly, wearing beads acknowledges an appreciation for a dynamic culture that is not reduced to derogatory public health statistics.


My service in a photo: HIV awareness pin made by my cohort mates’ (awesome married Couple current serving as PCVs near Durban) amaNdebele host gogo from PST.




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!

10 Ways to Use Heaven (Beyond Radio Codes)



Another entry of the Blogging Abroad Blog Boot Camp and it is hard to believe we are halfway through! This entry’s theme: I never knew (aka what cultural aspects we were unaware before arriving in country…so for me almost everything).  I am a guilty of over researching in all aspects of life but especially countries I visit. Yet a menagerie of historical facts and a previous 4 day stint in the country does not provide an adequate view of how a PCV experience shapes perspectives of the Rainbow Nation. This prompt also coincides with my (and SA 31’s) one year in country mark on the 22nd   and tomorrow the next CHOP cohort (SA 33) will arrive! There are so many unique aspects about South Africa that I have gained from living here. For the sake of brevity, here is an example of how my host culture (amaZulu) impresses me with their linguistic creativity

As the most spoken indigenous language in South Africa, isiZulu has a strong presence throughout out the Southern African Continent. Beyond the lexical dominance isiZulu is a really neat language to learn, with its unique palatal click, fame as the language sung at the beginning of The Lion King, and base of Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s melodies.Yet the heart of isiZulu is it’s creativity to reuse words and construct new phases.

When most Americans think of “Zulu” they probably contemplate the radio alphabet or an African culture that starts with the letter “Z”. English does not fully embrace the letter “Z” and I can picture the military official on a role from “A as in Alpha” reaching the 26th letter in a panic until they remembered the amaZulu. Shaka’s people saved the day and “Z as in Zulu” continues keeps telecommunications afloat.

isiZulu like most languages in Southern Africa is noun-based and sentence structure is dependent on the noun class it falls under. Since all nouns belong to one of 15 noun classes, a word like “Zulu” has multiple meanings. In other words, simply saying “Zulu” does not make grammatical sense.

“Zulu” in isiZulu means heaven. With additional noun classes, prefixes for locatives, and phrases, heaven takes on at least 10 other meanings like an etymological chameleon.

10 Ways to Use Heaven (Beyond Radio Codes)

With “zulu” you can…

  1. Discuss heaven or the weather: izulu (noun class 5 for miscellaneous)


    Clouds over Cathkin Peak= High probability the weather is about to change at Site 1.0

  2. Express that there is a thunderstorm in the area: izulu liyaduma


    Side of Amajuba’s family rondavel soaked during a severe thunderstorm (and my 7 year old host nice being daring while getting soaked).

  3. Describe rainy weather: izulu liyana


    When it is misty in the Drakensburg (pictured here) or Amajuba, there is almost always rain. Even the heron on top of the telephone wire is hunkering down for the droplets.

  4. Refer to the culture or people: amaZulu (Abantu in noun class 2 is people, and thus the Zulu people are amaZulu)


    Families washing their clothes at the river in an amaZulu tribal authority (site 1.0)

  5. Identify where many amaZulu originated: KwaZulu-Natal aka KZN, my province and place of the amaZulu (this is a locative that does not belong to a specific noun class)IMG_0149
  6. Show a homestead where a family with the surname of Zulu stays (also KwaZulu but this works for any isiZulu surname. I currently stay at KwaMazibuko or place of the Mazibuko family)


    I have no idea if any of these homes are KwaZulu specifically(the surname as this was an amaZulu tribal authority), but here at Site 1.0 in the Central Drakensburg (that sliver of snow on the left is Lesotho) you can see the cluster of buildings that form homesteads

  7. Respect the many Christians in KZN by articulating their beliefs and depicting heaven as a destination: ezuluwini, another locative also the name of a valley in Swaziland (sitSwati is a similar language and ezuluwini has the same meaning and another locative).


    My Amajuba Family is part of an apostolic church, and they wear white clothes to their services. I always am in awe of how stunning they look and they keep the clothes clean!

  8. Give directions involving an upward motion : phezulu, which comes in handy when children are operating fireworks (directions do not belong to a noun class)


    Phezulu: the only way fireworks should go

  9. Request for someone to speak louder: kulumele phezulu/You speak up.


    A taste of the many meetings I attend for the local government. This is my municipal chamber and at this Local AIDS Council Meeting, microphone use was expected!


  1. Be able to explain that you are learning the language: Ngiyafunda isiZulu/I am learning isiZulu. (isiZulu, noun class 7 for inanimate objects and language )


    The Peace  Corps isiZulu labeled language aids, and the book on the right is actually a primary school textbook from  host family 1.0 that accidently got packed during the site change…whoops. Since it was published during the early 90’s it has witnessed a lot of history, and I am working on getting the book back to them.

The next time someone is communicating on the radio and the need arises to clarify “Z,” they probably will remain unaware of their mistake.

Because it really is “Z as in Heaven.”


The Northern Drakensburg’s Amphitheater, somewhere in this formation, there is an unseen (in this photo anyways) trickle of water from the top called the top called Tugela Falls: the world’s 2nd highest waterfall






A Field Guide to Amajuba Minibus Taxis


The Blogging Abroad Boot Camp Challenge 2016 Continues! This week’s topic: on the road (aka the aspects of our communities that keep us entertained while moving through our communities). My source of constant amusement are the minibus taxis (I live 500 meters from the local taxi rank) and I could probably write an anthropological case study on minibus culture. For the sake of brevity and in the spirit of South Africa’s safari-dependent tourism industry, here is my take on a field guide for the vehicles that keep me mobile. My page code names for South African places are found here.

Side note: “Minibus” and “taxi” are interchangeable. However American-like taxi services are available in the big cities like Pietermartizburg and Pretoria. Keeping my audience in mind, I tried to refer to the animals…er vehicles as minibuses except the traditional model which is only called taxi.

A Field Guide to Amajuba Minibus Taxis

While they have numerous names across Southern Africa from “combi” in Botswana to “dala dala” in Tanzania, minibuses or taxis in Northern KZN are the lifeline between rural communities. For men who do not get to leave their communities after metric /high school graduation, minibus driving is a sustainable job, especially in rural areas with high unemployment rates. The country of South Africa is connected through local taxi associations and their dedicated drivers. The people of Amajuba are  dependent on minibuses to maneuver groceries, luggage, and of course relatives.


A minibus is capable of being any car color such as blue, red, orange, turquoise, or lime green. The majority of minibuses are white. Décor is minimal but a predominate design is the South African flag emulating a comet on the passenger doors with the five colors (red, blue, yellow, green, and black)  appearing as intertwining flames throughout the bus’ exterior perimeter. Occasionally minibuses serve as an advert for a variety of products like groceries and in some cases soapies/televised soap operas. These minibuses are a rolling billboard with the entire décor theme based on the product.

IMG_1577 (2)

A typical minibus, bringing people home in the Drakensburg Dusk


A minibus sporting Huletts (one of the main sugar brands in SA) adverts in Duke City



A minibus (or driver) makes their presence known by incessant honking of the car horn and boisterous music. This music ranges from the latest KZN sensations like Dbn Nights to flute covers of Celine Dion’s greatest hits (I kid you not, yesterday most of my 5 hour drive from Gauteng was spent trying to identify the songs). If loud music is a problem, it is imperative to bring earplugs for the minibus encounter as it could be one decked out with large speakers next to your ear.

Species of Minibuses in Amajuba District

There are currently 5 types of minibuses that serve the rural areas of Amajuba. At minimum taxis are capable of transporting 15 people (and they will not leave until they are close to 15 passengers. Fares are determined by distance and are same regardless of the minibus model.


Traditional and Quantum in Research Town’s taxi rank. Quantum are the taller cars

Traditional (15 Passengers):

The oldest model, traditional taxis have the defining feature of folding seats as seen in the cross section below. The only seatbelt available for passengers tends to be the front seat. Traditional models are the least expensive option on the market and drivers in the rural areas can easily obtain this form of minibus. By far traditional models are the most available species of minibus in all of South Africa.

South  African minibus

Interior layout of a traditional South African Taxi that seats 15 passengers

Quantum (16 Passengers):

 As the traditional minibus is cramped in space, more drivers are starting to opt for Toyota Quantum. The additional space supports passengers with physical disabilities, provides and additional passenger seat and more space for groceries. Quantum also tend to have seatbelts available in all of the seats.

South  African quantum minibus

Interior layout for a Quantum, that seats 16 passengers


Shoprite (SA’s discount grocery chain) Soup Kitchen service at my org, with a Quantum adapted for their needs

Sprinter (21 Passengers):

Located near larger cities, advantages of the Sprinter include space, a comfortable height, bag storage above the seats, and storage in the trunk for luggage. These models also have seatbelts accessible for all the seats and are by far are the safest transport option in rural Amajuba. Sprinters are the most expensive model to obtain and only drivers serving urban destinations are capable of obtaining them.

South  African sprinter minibus

Interior layout of a Sprinter for 21 passengers


Sprinter in Duke City’s local destinations taxi rank

Nyathi (13 Passengers):

 The Nyathi is used for celebrations as opposed to practical purposes. Nyathis are rented out for parties, weddings, and metric formals. Passengers are treated to loud music and dancing on the way to their destination.


Nyathi (with a blue stripe), right of my local taxi rank (500 meters from my compound)

School Buses (~40 Passengers):

For frequent destinations like local cities, some rural areas use school buses to transport large groups of people.


Example of the school buses in rural Amajuba


Beyond their usual rounds on country roads and urban streets, minibuses typically reside at a taxi rank. Minibuses retire under tin awnings for shade when available, and nicer ranks have signs indicating the destination names.  In ranks, you can spot minibus by watching the local vendors. Vendors will congregate around taxis selling a myriad of goods from airtime, towels, and of course food. For passengers waiting for taxis to fill, vendors sell cold treats directly through the windows.

In rural areas without rank facilities, drivers create their own ranks by clustering minibuses on the side of the road. Ask the community members where the rank and minibuses stop (different destinations tend to have different watering holes…or parking spots where the minibus waits to fill).


Scotland’s taxi rank, with vendors in position at the windows


How to Approach a Minibus

Unlike most South Africa wildlife, minibuses will not automatically stop at the presence of humans. Especially if all seats are full Approaching minibuses involves an acquired technique, the below tips are only meant to serve as a guide.  

Before approaching a minibus, research where you want to go and the fare. Unless you are going a significant distance, most drivers cannot break large bills like 100 or 200 ZAR. Do your best to break the fare at local tuck shops or in town; exact change is always the best option. Also, learn the local language enough so you can maneuver the minibuses because chances are high that the driver will struggle to understand English.

Once the fare and language skills are covered, you are prepared to take the minibus. Using the local knowledge walk towards the side of the road. If a minibus approached, point your index finger up for the nearest city or down the nearest hub. If the bus is full, the driver will turn his palms up and go past you. If there is space and you are visible, the driver will pull over! If your community has a taxi rank that services the desired destination, simply walk to the rank and locate the minibus.  

When on the minibus, wait for the locals to start paying before offering the fee. Often minibuses serving rural areas need to transfer passengers to another driver for specific destinations and the fee will not be paid until everyone boards the new bus.

One last tip:. Building rapport through acknowledging a driver’s presence as you wander around the community may help when you actually need a ride. They make respond to a friendly wave with a lively honk for “hello” in return!  If the ride was particularly safety oriented and smooth, a local “thank you” and “go well” to the driver when you disembark never hurts.

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.

Metric System Mayhem

Finally, South Africa ignores America’s rebellious tendencies and uses the metric system. Really America, we lost the measurement war and instead of bickering over why America is “behind” in math, maybe we should focus more energy on rising global citizens who can decipher the metric system. Sorry end of my rant, but it is really frustrating to be unable to read nutrition labels, estimate distance, or in a health context be unable to read a basic indicator like BMI (which was a pain during my time in Botswana). The metric culture extends to baking and I have a nifty scrapper/converter I got at Dis-Chem to help me decipher the math. Nevertheless mistakes happen and I have a story to close with.

This Thanksgiving, I crashed the Education Cohort’s gathering in the Battlefields (I will explain KZN’s ambiguous geographic classifications another time) about 2 hours from the site. One of the older volunteers has established connections with the local hotel and coordinated a wonderful feast. Anyways it was a lovely first outing away from Amajuba and this party crasher’s contributions was finding the cranberry sauce in the Scotland Pick N Pay’s menagerie of canned fruits and helping with the pumpkin pie.

The host PCV did not have a wealth of baking experience and was relieved when I wanted a baking fix. Since this was in a nice hotel, we had a state of the art kitchen including a food processor to puree produce. Using BBC recipes as our guide, the plan was to make 3 pies (1 pumpkin and 2 butternut as we could only find one fresh pumpkin) for the PCV party of almost 20 and the regular hotel guests. Anyways things were going well, I made my first pie crust (with real butter since that was what the hotel used) which was far from aesthetically pleasing but it held the filling so task accomplished!  Meanwhile the host pureed the pumpkin and once we found a good spice balance we got ready to add the milk.

The host adds the required amount and the mixture with a vibrant saffron hue gradually mutes to a pastel peach. Now the Engineer loves pumpkin pie and he finds any excuse to bake one (I am willing to bet we are the only family in Albuquerque who observes Martin Luther King Day with pumpkin pie). I had enough pumpkin pie…expertise if you will, to realize something is off. I gently encourage the host to recheck the recipe and she finds out we were supposed to use a 1/3 of the milk we poured. Curse you metric system.

Oops. With about 20 Americans craving an authentic pumpkin pie, the stakes were high.

Thankfully the head chef (a no-nonsense amaZulu woman) who has seen her share of kitchen blunders figures out a solution. She comes up with an idea to keep a 1/3 of the current mixture and prepare the butternut puree as the filling. It takes another hour to season the butternut but we find the right consistency and put the pies in the oven. As completed my kitchen duty by supporting the food processor as it created whipped cream, I was worried that the butternut would throw the taste off.

In the end, my anxiety was misplaced (typical) and the other PCVs appreciated the taste of home with the whipped cream. You could definitely taste the butternut but it did not distracted wholesome sensation from pumpkin pie. Honestly in British Spheres of influence, pumpkin describes any type of squash (not just Jack o’ Lantern material) so including butternut put a South African flare to the meal.

Most important, it made for a delightful breakfast the next morning (my favorite way to enjoy pumpkin pie).


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,