When “Going to the Mountain” Does Not Involve S’mores


The final prompt for the Blogging Abroad Boot Camp: My new normal (aka the behaviors we required). One of the biggest PC adages in existence is that service makes you a completely different person. Some PCVs do undergo a personality transformation, yet I cannot say South Africa completely changed me. Hopefully I am less brash and gained bit more tenacity with humility but honestly I feel like the same Katey-Red that left. What South Africa has impacted is my view of the world and patterns of thought. These new perceptions I have obtained applies to serious topics and fascinating cultural interpretations of concepts I was  familiar with in the States.  Like I will never think of camping or mountains in the same manner.

I am a proud mountain girl and regardless of where life leads me, mountains will always symbolize home. Every place I lived (North Carolina does not count as I was a baby) had dramatic conglomerates of rock that pierce the sky. This pattern has continued in South Africa where for the first 5 months of service I lived in the Central Drakensburg foothills and here in my Amajuba site I can see Utrecht’s Balele Mountains on clear days. Anyways, like most mountain appreciators two of my hobbies are hiking and camping. South Africa’s natural beauty happens to be breathtaking.


I rest my case: South Africa is aesthetically pleasing. Taken on the way to Tugela Falls, March 2013.

As time passed in South Africa, I felt uncomfortable because my communities did not share my enthusiasm. There are black South Africans who enjoy hiking, but the people I usually encounter in outdoor stores like Cape Union Mart are other whites (usually Afrikaaners) There were other signs as well like in May when I hiked in Royal Natal and a prep school class comprised of Indian children from Durban was there but I did not see many Black people. When I wanted to hike the hill that overlooks my site to get a photo of the valley for the Community Needs Assessment, my host cousin just balked.  

Last month I was attending a PCSA training of the trainers and gained an answer for why the lack of enthusiasm exists. I was at breakfast with three PCSA staff (our training manager who I believe is Pedi /Northern Sotho and siSwati and Xitsonga Language teachers) who happened to be men, when the conversation arose about mountains. Then I asked if they shared my admiration for the outdoors and with wide eyes they shook their heads as they started to share their childhood cattle camping trips.

Little boys in the rural areas would join the male adults of the family in herding the cows wherever the bulls wanted. Sometimes the bulls would decide to spend the night on the mountain in spite of Southern African elements that can be lethal. After the training, I related my discussion with Mr. Swazi who laughed and then proceeded to tell me about all the snakes he encountered during those forced hikes in Swaziland. Eish. He may have ruined my hiking plans if I make it to Swaziland.

When typing this, I remembered an additional connotation for South African mountains. “Going to the mountain” is another way to describe boys attending South African initiation schools where circumcision takes place. Unlike the United States where most infant boys are circumcised at birth, many African cultures use circumcision as a rite of passage. These days the events usually take place during the winter school holidays (June-July) and every year initiates experience injuries and some even die during this process. There is a continuous and conscious effort on part of the South African governments to incorporate medical procedures with traditional practices in order to keep these boys safe.

 Surprisingly while other Nguni cultures like the Xhosa practice initiation schools, the amaZulu do not generally participate. King Shaka banned the practice in the 19th century because it put warriors out of commission for months during the recovery time and it has become part of culture to abstain from the practice. However the advent of Voluntary Medical Male Circumcision (VMMC) as a reliable method to prevent HIV transmission, the amaZulu King has encouraged VMMC and some teenager boys are opting for the experience in medical facilities. Like most things in South Africa, circumcision is at the heart of a debate of preserving traditional cultural practices or adopting modern practices to address problems.

There are two ways Americans would not usually perceive mountains! Moving forward I will continue to enjoy the local scenery (and maybe attempt hikes) but respect that the amaZulu will not feel the same way.

Side note if anyone was curious about what initiation schools are like, Nelson Mandela vividly describes his Xhosa initiation in “A Long Walk to Freedom.”  Granted things have changed since the early 20th century but Mandela did a beautiful job explaining the cultural significance behind initiation schools.

This concludes the Blogging Abroad Boot Camp Challenge! Thank y’all for the likes, comments, visits, and a special thanks to Blogging Abroad for the opportunity! I now have at least 20 new post ideas and enjoyed exploring other cultures through the other bloggers. Also, Blogging Abroad has an awesome blog directory of Peace Corps Blogs. Please check out the directory and meet more of the stellar bloggers (there are some incredible voices currently in the PCV field) and once the stipend comes in I will update my own directory with a few blogs that encountered through the challenge! Feel free to continue following Eish. My intent is to keep the commentary on South African Life until March/April 2017!

All the best,




The Domesticated Big 5: Amajuba Style


Blog-Challenge-2016This entry’s prompt for the Blogging Abroad Blog Contest: Top 5 (aka a condensed set of community highlights).  In Southern Africa, Safari Companies have a promotion called “Big 5” which refers to 5 large species of game: Cape Water Buffalo, Rhino, Lion, Elephant, and Leopard. It is a source of excitement to spot all 5 animals on a game drive. As an exchange student in Botswana, I saw 4 out of the 5 in the wild(minus the elusive lion). Yet as my time continues in South Africa, I realize that animal excitement does not require expensive stays at a national park. The unsupervised livestock of Amajuba keep me plenty  entertained.


A blurry photo of the big 5 (minus elephants, those stamps were already used) as illustrated by the South African Post Office…just to prove that I am not making the concept up!

In honor of our neighboring municipality’s seat Utrecht and its designation as the only town in South Africa completely surrounded by game park (alas with no Big 5 there for the sake of Utrecht’s residents), here is one of Casa de Izilokazane’s activity options: game viewing (Amajuba edition). Presenting: izinkomo, izinkhuku, izimvu, izimbuzi, and izinja.

Casa de Izilokazane offers prime game viewing for the Amajuba “Big 5.” We guarantee our guests will at least see 3 if not all 5 on the list.

Izikomo or Cows


Typical life in rural South Africa. One day I walk to work and a cow is tied up next to the gate.

South Africa competes for the title of “Beef Country of the world.” The amaZulu love cows and consume most body parts including tripe (the stomach) and livers (an excellent source of iron with a bloody taste). Cows are also the heart of a traditional practice called lobola. Common in many indigenous cultures of Southern Africa, lobola is a bride price where a man provides a certain number of cows to his hopeful father in law.

Best time for viewing: Cows are present year round but calving season is in the summer (January-March) when green grass is readily available.

(Side note: calving season depends on the area. At site 1.0 calving season with its nocturnal births was in the winter from June-September. In the Drakensburg there is a parasite in sprouting grass that kills young calves. Even though the grass is sparsely availably in the winter, the calves would build enough immunity by the time spring hit).

Prime Locations: Any place with grass.

Izinkukhu/ chickens


Right outside Casa de Izilokazane’s windows. In the late morning our building’s shadows provide an oasis from the South African heat.

Chickens are the best source of protein with meat and amaqanda/eggs!

Prime Locations: Chickens are free spirits and wander through out Amajuba’s bucolic terrain. Ideal settings are blanketed in corn kernels (Our Gogo can provide some if you are pining for a chicken encounter).They are the only animal our host family domesticates on our compound.

Best time for viewing: Anytime, according to our Hosts, “Goats, sheep, and chickens birth like humans.”



I am cheating here because the izimvu were elusive this past week. This is from site 1.0 in the Drakensburg.

The amaZulu use sheep practically for food and wool in the cooler Battlefields regions. Utrecht is also a major producer of wool in KZN. However an interesting use for sheep is a common prize for amaZulu dance competitions because sheep are the least expensive animal to obtain (although if funding is great goats or cows are the first choice). The winning team kills the sheep and enjoys mutton.

Prime Locations: the rolling hills covered in luscious grass (and often they trail behind cow herds).



My corner of Schnizteland’s taxi stop for Duke City, occupied by izimbuzi. Immediately prior to this photo, the izimbuzi were engaged in a passionate albeit inconvenient (for everyone else) head-butting competition.

The clever goats are important in isiZulu culture, as they are the only animal who can communicate with the ancestors. They are traditionally slaughtered at ceremonies called umsebenzis where families communicate with the ancestors. At Casa de Izilokazane, the adjacent rondavel is the ancestor house with a small shrine. Space is limited for our large host family and people live in the rondavel full time. Yet in the event of an umsebenzi they would offer the goat inside the rondavel before cooking it for the guests.

Prime Locations: Everywhere. Goats are the real mayors of Amajuba, they own the street. Their favorite place to exert power is at the local taxi rank for Duke City, where they frequently strut in front of moving vehicles.

Izinja or dogs


A typical February izinja scene, scrambling for food at the taxi rank.

As my former host uncle said, dogs are security systems not pets in rural South Africa. Casa de Izilokazane is not liable for all potential events that could perpetuate if you touch said dogs.

Best time for viewing: February. The isiZulu word for February “uNhololnja” means “dogs in heat” and this time of the year, dogs all over KZN are desperately trying to procreate. Come see females devouring every scrap of food insight and hear lover’s squabbles at 11 PM!

Prime locations: any trash can in a resident’s yard, especially after dinner.

Guests who spot all 5 animals win a pair of earplugs and eye mask! If the sightings occur at night or in the workplace, they receive a paid meal (their choice of South Africa’s chain restaurants) in Duke City!


Imbuzi butt, scuttling out the door after being caught red-handed in my organization’s building. This was my first work day in Amajuba.


*extra isiZulu cultural note: You may have noticed that all of the animal names start with “izin” or “Izim” This is because they belong to noun classes for plural animate objects (these classes are primarily composed of animals but as in every language there are exceptions to the rule). To talk about one animal the vocabulary is as follows:

Chicken: inkukhu       

Cow: Inkomo

Dog: Inja

Sheep: Imvu

Goat: Imbuzi

Apparently Pinafores Make You Look Married

I have not been able to put my clothes or dishes away since I switched rooms. A couple days ago I walked out and shoved a dress skirt over jeans. One of the home based carers called me out on my frumpy fashion choice, and gave me permission to wear jeans or a skirt but not both! When will I ever learn, wearing jeans is okay in Southern Africa (in some areas pants are not okay I was also called out for a fashion violations in Botswana). Regardless, I live in a tribal authority and I have only seen my Zulu supervisor done jeans once. If I am working with gogos, I build more rapport with skirts.

Yesterday we had special visitors (more later), but the home based carers generously waited an all day for a high school to show up. While we were waiting I tried to do a small activity for the needs assessment. We finished the activity and the same carer who gave me permission commented on that day’s outfit.

Carer: Zama you are wearing Jeans. Just jeans!

Zama: Yebo, I have not had a chance to put all my clothes away since I moved rooms. Jeans were what I could find this morning.

Carer: You should wear Jeans more often.

Zama: But if I am working with gogos I feel more comfortable in my pinafore (a gift from my Ndebele family).

Carer: Haibo Zama if you wear you pinafore you will look like a Gogo!

Zama: My mother has called me a Gogo since I was 15! (truth)

Everyone laughs

Carer: Zama you only wear the pinafore if you are married.

Zama: Well good! If people think I am married then they will not bother me! Laughter ensues

Carer: I still want you to wear jeans.

Zama: Sure but where are your Jeans! Why are you not wearing them?

Carer: No response

That concludes this round of “Katey Could Dress Better in the Eyes of AmaZulu.” I am sure there will be other options to tune in!

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.

We want you, We want you, for the Ward 9 War Room

Where can you find AmaZulu, in every field, to discuss problems
Discussing how maintain children’s safety and well being?
In the War Room! Where Operation Sukuma Sakhe makes a Stand
In the War Room!
In the War Room! Can’t you see Ward 9 needs a Hand!
We want you, We want you, for the Ward 9 War Room

Please excuse my awful attempt at the Village people, but I kept hearing in the Navy during the meeting!

IMG_1294The political boundaries of South Africa are a befuddled source of amusement. KZN is one of South Africa’s 9 provinces, which is divided into one metropolitan municipality (eThekwini aka Durban) and 10 districts. Within districts we have municipalities. My district is composed of 5 municipalities, but soon to be 4 after the 2016 general elections as my municipality is set to merge with another. If that is not enough imaginary linear detail to make you dizzy, each municipality is divided into wards. My valley is composed of 4 wards, but physically I work in Ward 9.

Some South African wards, have regular meetings called War Rooms. Contrary to the name, there is not a massive map of the area to plot attacks (but my ward has a snazzy polka dot table cloth) nor are people belligerent in discussion. It is a place for people to gather and discuss problems in the area. Our area participates in a provincial program called Operation Sukuma Sakhe. The name Masisukume Sakhe is derived from a biblical quote where someone yearns to build a city that has been destroyed and is on the KZN provincial coat of arms. The program is intended to be all for communities to overcome health and social obstacles specifically related to HIV and TB (Tuberculosis). Since my org has funding for a child care forum, they are very active in the meetings and try to push conversations about the well-being of children. We had two of our carers present, my supervisor (who is the dynamic auxiliary social worker and manager who keeps the org running) and myself.

I was not lying about the polka dots!

I was not lying about the polka dots!

Granted I was the palest and only person in the room who was not fluent in isiZulu but I understood a bit of the discussion, like there was a 20 minute debate about gogos! My job was to maintain the register and I had a chance to see what organizations were represented. I am still amazed how people from the local clinic, school nurses, Department of Agriculture, Department Social Services, municipality administrators, the community at learn and one of the other non-profits took time away from their busy work days to discuss the concerns in Ward 9.

IMG_1289After 2 hours of debates it was time for lunch. Lunch was not the American platter of deli sandwiches but three trays of an eclectic mix of appetizers fitting for the Rainbow Nation: a array of samosas, tiny meatballs, spring rolls, and cheese onion turnovers with sweet chili sauce for dipping. Since it was my supervisor’s birthday I also made a beetroot red velvet cake with cream cheese frosting. In American leadership activities, I have noticed that once there is free food people dive in and the pizza or catering is scarfed down in minutes. Anyone who obtains a morsel is lucky (and most of the time I have been unlucky)! However at the Ward 9 War Room, people were daintily eating their lunch. Our supplies were limited but participants shared plates, cups, and adapted to my poor planning with the cake (I brought a knife but no serviettes/napkins, utensils, or plates…oops). Everyone had their fill of food (I ate more of the cheese and onion turnovers than I care to admit…when cheese is around I tend to go crazy these days) and there was still at least half a tray left over for the primary school children (the cake and drinks were dutifully consumed). Yet another example of South Africans unconsciously thinking about others.
It was a great outing and heartening to see people from different fields care about the children in the valley. I also was inspired by the school nurses who were never afraid to speak their mind, in an area where gender based violence continues to resurface in the needs assessment. I told my supervisor that would attend every War Room possible during my service and am excited to see what the Ward 9 representatives accomplish in the next meetings.

Caregivers, Camp, & Culture

On my “creative” photos of people.

My photos of people tend to be non-identifying (not National Geographic cover worthy). I support an organization that was founded to provide relief in an area with a significant HIV/AIDS prevalence (ask me about the specific rate after June 15th when the community needs assessment is complete…I am still calculating). My director and I agree that as long as the photos are non-identifying it is okay to blog them. As someone who lives with a medical label that is often misconstrued, I firmly believe that it is not my place to accidentally “out” someone’s diagnosis full stop/period. I also really value privacy and while I ask before posting any photo of people, it is hard to see if they can fully comprehend the potential impacts of having their image online (my isiZulu is not capable of those conversations…yet). I really wish I could share the photos of the Gogos’ disgusted faces with their first taste of American Smores, but it does not feel right. This probably will not be the coolest Peace Corps blog on the internet, but it is not about me. I welcome the challenge to share the South African perspective while maintaining host country nationals’ privacy. Nyigabonga for respecting my decision.

isiZulu word of the post: umnakeleli
isiNgisi: Caregiver
Meaning: An example of the most resilient and knowledgeable South Africans I have been lucky to meet.

My second weekend at site coincided with my org’s camp for primary caregivers of HIV positive children and adolescents. Most caregivers at this camp, were the primary guardians of children who attended a camp for HIV positive children last fall. Everyone cared for an HIV positive child that would have qualified for the camp. My supervisor came up with the idea to have their caregivers to attend a weekend retreat so that they would have the skills the teenagers obtained and a chance to have a camp experience. My roommate obtained a Peace Corps grant to fund this event and I was able to witness the awesome potential of VAST grants (and at that point I was a PCV for less than 15 days). I think I learned more than the caregivers from camp.

Credits to my talented roommate/camp director!

Credits to my talented roommate/camp director!

Like how my American definition of a magazine collage was translated into delicately folding a picture that symbolized something important to the caregiver and using that to cover their notebook.

IMG_0985bThere are magazines printed in Afrikaans and apparently many crafty South Africans.

IMG_1034bEveryone still has a bit of little kid in them when water balloons come out.


South African S’more Materials: When there are no Graham Crackers (but Tea Biscuits give the same effect)

Most of the caregivers disliked Smores but loved pink marshmallows by themselves.

IMG_1056Nothing can top the magic of isiZulu praise songs and dancing around a campfire.

Yes I can stick an entire s'more in my mouth, it is one of my weird talents that provides entertainment at campfires. This camp was no exception, the caregivers were whipping out the cellphones!

Yes I can stick an entire s’more in my mouth, it is one of my weird talents that provides entertainment at campfires. This camp was no exception, the caregivers were whipping out the cellphones!

And how putting my big mouth to use will always entertain people abroad or stateside!

However, the biggest take away from camp was breaking stereotypes for me. I now know that not all caregivers of HIV positive children are women. Most are but we had a caregiver who was a man who lost his wife to the illness and loved his 12 year old son dearly. Also, not all caregivers are necessarily HIV positive. A lot are due to the nature of the condition, but the big bag of oranges I kept in my room at night were not just for taking ARV (antiretroviral) on a full stomach. They were also for diabetes (or Sugar as they call it in the valley) and high blood pressure. Also I saw how ARVs impact the body. Not my finest moment, but I thought one woman was very pregnant as she was waddling around with a big torso and I was wondering if we had a plan to get her to a hospital if labor started. Thankfully I had enough tact to ask my director in private, who answered that she had a big stomach due to the medication.

IMG_1006The other important take away was the diversity of the AmaZulu within my communities. I can sometimes generalize people based on what language they speak and forget that many concepts are involved in defining culture. While I may reside in a traditional area (In the Berg I have seen pants worn by a woman once…and that was my fashionable 17 year old host sister), My SA 31 friends serving in Msinga, other areas of uThukela, near Richards Bay and Durban probably have very different experiences. We may all attempt to speak isiZulu, but the culture is so diverse.

IMG_1049I could not establish a female caregiver as “traditional” or “modern” whether it was through their ideas or their dress. We had an exercise where the facilitator read off statements about life with HIV and the caregivers had to stand in designated areas of the room to show that they disagreed, agreed, or did not know. My isiZulu comprehension is limited, but I knew there were passionate discussion that ensured when a gogo in a print dress and dukas(head covering) stood in a different area than expected! Similar discussions occurred when younger women in long skirts and dukas had surprising views. Even the younger women who wore leopard prints and tight fits, still wore skirts. It was incredible to watch how each of them contributed knowledge to the group.

IMG_1028bIt is usually viewed as superficial to focus on clothes, but even though South African dresses are not generally made of the dramatic colors of West African batik fabric, but they still create a vibrant story. Within the “Rainbow Nation” there are threads of different colors that bind together the myriad of cultures in South Africa. It was a powerful reminder of the danger of the single story.

The wonderful caregivers and privacy courtesy of the intense South African Sun!

Credit to my talented roommate/camp director: The wonderful caregivers with their certificates and privacy courtesy of the intense South African Sun!