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.




The Izikhanyezi Theory

Setting: Afternoon of Christmas Eve, on the taxi back to site from Duke City. I have stumbled into conversation with a few men in the back. After exchanging pleasantries, a gist of the following exchange took place.

Man: It is too hot!

Me: Yebo, Kuyashisa (the sun is hot…what I say to commiserate with people when the temperature is uncomfortable in terms of heat).

Man: Yebo Kuyashisa. Did you hear about the stars exploding?

Me: No (wondering where the sudden supernova reference is directing the conversation). What about the izikanyezi (stars)?

Man: It is usually not this hot, but (gestures towards one of Amajuba’s steel/coal plants) the factories put chemicals in the sky. The chemicals make the stars grow and then they blow up. The pieces of the stars hit the earth and heat the ground up. That is why we are in a drought.

Me: (Speechless for a few seconds) Interesting. No, I have not heard of the exploding stars.

As someone who believes that global warming is a reality that must be addressed, I like this perspective better than the abstract version of the phenomena (no offense to the Engineer and Bill Nye).  It is not exactly accurate but more creative, if only the conference officials tapped into South Africa’s storytelling genius before Paris. I think bits of stars falling from the sky (or fireballs of gas) is visual enough to help those who are in denial understand.  

In the end, people realize it is a problem (and they got 60% of the story right) and KwaZulu-Natal is hotter than usual. I struggle to explain the ozone layer’s dynamics in English, so I did not push the conversation forward. Instead the men asked me why some women do not respond when a man approaches them. That conversation took the rest of the 45 minute ride.

I’d like to Teach the World to Sing…about Adult things!

Currently there is an awesome contest happening with Peace Corps Blogs. The Office of the 3rd Goal (3rd goal=sharing host country culture with the US) is currently hosting the 3rd annual blog it home contest on Facebooks. One of PSCA’s response volunteers up in KZN’s battlefields, is a finalist! I have met Annette several times, and she is as epic in person. She is fantastic and generates a much needed love of the sciences in KZN…in other words she deserves a free trip to DC!

Although Eish did not place, it is still a great competition. Peace Corps experiences are as diverse as the countries and volunteers who serve them. In the spirit of redefining nations outside of the US beyond the single story, I am encouraging my communities (and my big Catholic family…lots of people) to donate their votes to the blogs they think have merit (Annette’s cough cough). Voting (aka liking the blog picture on the website) ends August 10th. Enjoy your trip around the world through PCVs (I am biased but nice to see Botswana and Ecuador represented)!

It has been quiet on here as of late. Well for 13 days I was away from site partaking in In-service Training (IST). Unfortunately everyone’s favorite power utility was working on the power lines, and the electricity was having a heyday. My plans to skype my friends and blog were derailed. However not even the lack of hot water and dark workshops could quell SA 31’s enthusiasm. We made it to month 6, and are now allowed to implement projects (and leave the country for annual leave).

Honestly, I was under the weather for most of IST. In addition to random agitation I could not shake, there was a nasty cold that hit me one week into IST. Hilariously the day before I had to give an impromptu speech for PC committee elections, the bug struck and my voice was compromised (that never happens to me). I had to do my 90 second spiel with half my usual volume! Even though I did not win the election, I am still proud that I pulled the speech off!

Honestly when I reflect back on IST, the highlights involved music. It all started with my supervisor. We were trying to find a Zulu phrase for our proposed program. She started to sing Masidose Kanye Kanye.

Masidonse kanye kanye. Kanye Kanye, Masidonse kanye kanye. Sijabule sonke!

Rough isiNgisi: Pull Together, together, together, Pull together, we are happy together!
This is the tune for your creepy throw back Friday: In creche they have a rope children play with as well.

So we may have the Masidonse Kanye Kanye Impilo (health) Adherence clubs in the future (TBC).

Fast forward a few more days, and I am in a group (PCVs and South African counterparts) who have to create a song on safe sex( I try to be “G” rated but I am a health volunteer in an HIV concentrated program). This is our brilliant musical opus to the first verse of the tune!


Then on day 10  (out of 13), my group has to do a creative and educational travel health skit, covering the entire alphabet (A-Z) based on the medical office’s presentation! Using one of our older PCV’s mad puppet skills, the Nutritionist’s general entertainment, and the Anthropologist’s insistence on education (they got REALLY competitive) we revived Sesame Street. My group we won the hazelnut cream filled Belgian chocolate seashells based on our education component.

We were winning as they say in SA!

We were winning as they say in SA!

Not all of health education is cucumbers/bananas and condoms…but I will not psychoanalyze what our tendency to use childhood references means about our first 6 months in Peace Corps!

Personification: AmaZulu Style

Since I am needing additional language practice, I am initiating the isiZulu word of the post.

isiZulu: Mbali
isiNgisi: flower (or a girl’s name, it is my roommate’s Zulu name)
Meaning: the thorny and though plants all over my hillside that I should be more whimsical about).

My first weekend of service fell over Easter weekend. As we drove into my valley where I would start this adventure, the hillside was blanketed in wildflowers.

IMG_0921 (2)In my American brain, they were wildflowers or cosmos. When I asked about the phenomena, my director said the AmaZulu called them “Good Friday Flowers” because they appear around Easter time.

IMG_0935 - CopyWell the “Good Friday Flowers” are very resilient. They thrived for 3 weeks, and now as the air gets colder, they are starting to withdrawal and take a crisp texture. Yet last week, I was introducing myself to the induna (local branch of the Zulu monarchy, they fall under the chief’s jurisdiction, who fall under the king), and while getting out of a car, I stepped into a patch of dried up cosmos and they bestowed some scratches on my ankle!

IMG_1102Last week, my host sister was waiting with us for a taxi and commented on the flowers. She told me that the Zulu name for the flowers were called ikholwa which means Christian. When asked about the meaning behind Christian, thinking it had some symbolism related to the bible, she said they mimic the church uniforms. Around Easter time, many churches have a huge gathering, and you would see women in colorful skirts, sometimes a jacket, and a white blouse attempting to catch taxis to their church’s location. Some churches have uniforms year round, last weekend I took a taxi to town and there were a few gogos (grandmothers) decked out in red who were trying to attend a Saturday service.


The only uniform colors I have seen are red, white, teal, and blue. I am a bit confused because the in my area display lovely shades of hot pink, light pink, and white. Four months in South Africa and I have yet to see a pink church uniform. Then again growing up in the Catholic Church, the only time a priest displayed bright pink robes was the third Sunday of Advent (coinciding with the pink candle for joy) and sometimes one Sunday of Lent. However I remember that most of them opted for white or purple on those days.


Maybe I am taking this too literally, but in case anyone was keeping score in terms of creativity:
AmaZulu: 1, Katey-Red: 0