Tag Archives: Venda

Haggling | Customary Business Transaction or Another Means of Exploiting the Poor?

I grew up as an expat in East Africa. A part of my childhood experience and memory is haggling with hawkers/vendors/traders, whether for farming produce in the open air market or for curios made out of a combination of ebony wood and elephant ivory.

Ebony walking sticks

Ebony walking sticks

Baseball caps, in particular, were a popular trading item. My family kept a ream for just such occasions. Economic transactions of one baseball cap for one or more carvings was always disproportionately financially skewed to favor the buyer, and gifted the buyer with a smugness that s/he got the better of the merchant.

My family learned this “cultural practice” as it were from other expatriates, and probably, truth be told, from Kenyans and Tanzanians themselves, never having personal reason or conscience to rethink a practice or game, depending upon one’s perspective, that everyone seemed to participate in.

It wasn’t until years later as a young adult living in one of South Africa’s self-proclaimed “Bantu homelands,” Venda, that I became conscience-stricken over my acquired attitude toward and manner of engaging people, who just happened to be street vendors.

Venda, a small and veritable garden of Eden exception to the much more arid homelands the apartheid government created in an effort to falsely convey to the world a “separate but equal” racial policy, was renowned for its fresh produce of litchi (lychee), mango, papaya, banana, avocado, and pineapple.

Early during my family’s three-year residence in Venda, I discovered that local roadside traders refused to haggle over price. The price listed–most often times scrawled on a cut-out small piece of cardboard–was the cash expected. Full stop.

I asked our language and culture tutor about this, referencing my experience in East Africa. I remember him looking at me with a puzzled expression before replying, “If anything, you should pay more than the asking price. Never less than.”

Our mentor’s surprised facial expression was similar to a Germiston Afrikaner police officer’s two years later, who, when I asked why South African law did not allow motorists to turn left on a red light (called “robot” in South Africa) after coming to a complete stop and checking to be certain no cars were oncoming (as motorists are allowed to turn right at most stop lights in the United States) looked quizzically at me and stated emphatically, “Because the light is red!

These random memories came tumbling to mind this morning when I was reading the former South African Pulitzer Prize novelist and anti-apartheid activist, Nadine Gordimer’s short story, “The Train From Rhodesia” (now Zimbabwean). In it, she describes a sleepy Rhodesian backwater, where the only social stirring and economic activity occurred when the “creaking, jerking, jostling, gasping, train filled the station.”

An old man attempts to entice a young white woman and her male compatriot passenger to buy a lion, one “carved out of soft dry wood that looked like spongecake; heraldic, black and white, with impressionistic detail burnt in.”

The woman hesitates to buy the lion carving, uncertain of how it will look back at home or where she’ll put it. As the train lurches to movement again, the young man, thinking that he’s doing his lover a favor, quickly tosses the old man “one-and-six” pence for the lion (just a bit more than one penny in old British currency, I believe).

Once the train is moving he arrives in the carriage doorway breathless, “shaking his head with laughter and triumph. Here! he said. And waggled the lion at her. One-and-six!”

What was merely a fun-filled argument (haggle/barter) for him, was perceived and met with angered incredulity on her part.

She almost shouted, “If you wanted the thing, her voice rising and breaking with the shrill impotence of anger, why didn’t you buy it in the first place? Why didn’t you take it decently, when he offered it? Why did you have to wait for him to run after the train with it, and give him one-and-six? One-and-six!”

 

 

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“I’m White and He’s Black!”

Growing up in then recent post-colonial Kenya, I don’t recall when, if ever, race consciousness hit me. My earliest recollections are a blended hue of white, black and brown.

Kikuyu herdsmen, young boys actually, are among my earliest memories. They regularly traveled by our front gate as they tended cattle, sheep and goats. I loved their weathered 1.5 meter long herding sticks, and the ease with which they shrilly whistled at their livestock; similar to what I remember trail hand and cook Frank McGrath shouting and whistling out to his team of horses on the 1960’s TV show, Wagon Train.

I remember our maid occasionally taking me on a long, winding footpath to a local, all-Kikuyu village market where she bought a loaf of white bread. When we arrived home she would cut thick slices, slather on a thick coating of delicious Blue Band margarine, then make hot, sweet, white tea for dipping.

blue_band

If any negative remembrance of racial encounter during Kindergarten to 2nd grade, it would be a 1st grade bully, who not only convinced and panicked me that our family’s post office box had been left wide open (my khaki school short’s fly/zipper), but regularly threatened me into sharing my food. It would be untrue to call this incident racial just because I was bullied by a black boy. After all, only a few years later in the seventh grade, I was bullied by a white classmate when he sprayed cologne in my eyes following football practice.

For my eldest child and only son (who, incidentally, was born at Parkland Hospital, the same hospital where JFK was taken after being shot, and from where his death was announced), racial consciousness arose out of an apartheid versus colonial context.

At one year of age, my son, plus my wife and I boarded a KLM, Johannesburg bound flight in Amsterdam for what was then apartheid South Africa. It was 1989. We were headed for Thohoyandou (literally “head of elephant”), Venda, one of several so-called independent Bantu homelands within South Africa. In reality they were mere international, geopolitical window dressings, attempts by a white government to legitimate a “separate but equal” racial segregation policy.

What at first was a significant discomfiture – a white and young American family living in and amongst an all-black Venda neighborhood in apartheid South Africa – became a transformative experience for us. For many Venda people who frequented our home, it was their first experience of being in a white person’s home, much less being welcomed as guests.

Our willingness to disengage from our traditional and accustomed racial and economic community of belonging, and live within the constrictions of a people, who knew and experienced first-hand and often on a daily basis the effects of racial bigotry and discrimination spoke louder than any words possibly could.

When we relocated from Venda to another South African province three years later, our residential Block G neighbors hosted a farewell for us. A principal of a local high school was the master of ceremony. He surely said more than this, but all I remember these many years later is his expression of gratitude on behalf of those present, for our having come and lived with and among them – sharing life and a partial history of discrimination alongside them.

It wasn’t long after settling into our new, small, yet quaint home in Block G that our son found a friend to play with. Gabriel (*not his real name) lived two houses down (a mere 30 to 40 meters away), and a neat feature of his house was the courtyard and driveway “tarred” with wet cow manure, that when dry can be drawn on, sat on, played on, driven on, eaten on and which leaves little to no odor, nor attracts flies. Unlike carpet that frequently induces apoplexy in adults each time children eat or drink on it, a floor protected and sealed with cow manure is extremely absorbent, and stress free!

Anyway, back to our son and his Venda friend. They were best friends, riding their three-wheeled plastic motorcycles up and down the driveway together, watching TV together on our bed as they reclined against our pillows, and enjoying raiding the dry Epol dog food together – stuffing their pockets and mouths with it, as they hid their dastardly deed behind our corner wall.

D&Naki

During three years in Venda, and up until the age of four, Daniel never once seemed conscious of or mentioned racial, ethnic or cultural differences. When we returned to Texas for a few months at the end of 1992, however, and just prior to our relocating to Zululand, my wife remembers him noticing and commenting on a few African-Americans he saw on our way to or from Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, “There’s some Zulus!”

Sometime after our return to South Africa in 1993, and during a brief visit back to Thohoyandou after a year-plus absence, I remember driving toward town with Daniel and his friend Gabriel, both of whom were now somewhat shy around each other. Out of nowhere my five-year-old son suddenly made the following observation, “Hey, I’m white and he’s black!” And fortunately that was that. No malice intended. Just a childish observation derived no doubt from some developmental context.

I’m not sure if this blog has any intended message or purpose, other than what you take from it.

It does have a context, I suppose. The 50th anniversary of MLK’s famous speech. As I listened to the 50th anniversary events and speeches this past Wednesday, a radio commentator, in referring to one African-American participant, who marched with MLK and who was still alive, described this gentleman with the words, “He experienced violence.”

EXPERIENCE . . . Seems this is the essential one-word white elephant among so many fellow and white Americans, who glibly and from a protective and sheltered confine of some type argue that we live in a post-racial society, and who become angry and condescending to the many who need and desire to confront and talk through persistent, de facto racism and racial bigotry that persists and continues to be experienced by so many today.

I am forever grateful that my family and I had the forced (we didn’t have a choice where we would live) opportunity to experience life with and from the perspective of a disenfranchised and discriminated against South African people.

It was the first of what would be many future steps out of the safe, yet sheltered identity cocoon of my American, Christian and Anglo-Saxon heritage, and into the storied lives of people who knew and had experienced little in the way of political or socioeconomic privilege and power.

For this inestimable gift of exposure and life experience we are forever grateful.

Maybe it’s time the socio-economically privileged – irrespective of race, culture or ethnicity – reconsider what has traditionally been referred to as “white flight,” or its more racially neutral and nuanced term “suburban sprawl,” and give some thought to participating in the potentially transformative experiences of living with and among transitional communities and neighborhoods, as detailed in the article, “Here Comes The Neighborhood.” At the least, let’s work on attitudes so that we’re communicating respect and dignity and not their opposites.

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Why Learn A Foreign Language?

Want to see millions of North Americans experience apoplexy (incapacity or speechlessness caused by extreme anger)?

Insist they become fully conversant in a foreign language!

This is ironical because wherever you go in the United States, at least, from airports and train stations, to Wal-Mart, Costco and Barnes & Noble – even virtual behemoths like Amazon – you’ll see displays of, if not solicited to buy, language learning books and software.

Merely search “Spanish software” on Amazon and 190-pages appear, including Instant Immersion, Rosetta Stone, Fluenz, Learn To Speak, Language Trek, eLanguage, Visual Link, JumpStart, Berlitz, SmartPolyglot, Hooked On, The Learning Company, and, well . . . you get the picture.

If there is such an evident commercial, even educational, push to learn another language, why are we as a nation still so monolingual?

Partly because it’s still too common that required school language courses are taught by non-native or non-fully conversant speakers, who teach grammar and vocabulary but do not insist on full language immersion from day one. This is true for my three girls currently enrolled at elementary, intermediate, and high school.

Partly because as a nation we have been for more than a century, and remain-to-this-day, a “superpower.” Power and privilege generally imply that “the others” have to accommodate themselves to you. NO, I’m not even slightly suggesting this is the way it should be! Power should imply responsibility versus privilege.

I propose that the millions of North Americans, who annually go on mission trips, studies abroad, frequent bucket list vacations, or who start non-profits to eradicate hunger or water shortages in such-and-such African countries, should seriously, as a precondition for going or doing, set a goal of attaining a minimum of Level 2 or 3 (out of 5) proficiency (Limited to Professional) in the language of destination prior to departure.

Why this is important . . .

I could justifiably say “for world peace,” and in the long-term and grand scale of things this is true.

Practically speaking, learning the other’s language minimizes you or your group’s potential (or propensity) to misrepresent the people, culture and country you visit or “help” when you return back home.

The annals of adventure travelogues and missionary correspondence overflow with false witness and disparaging stereotype, which as we know (yet few of us WASPS have experienced), once spoken or visually projected has the insidious power to become the persistent manner by which the world speaks about and views “the other.”

For example, for the past 300 years, portrayal of blacks as savages and heathens, corresponded to a like-treatment of them. According to Winthrop Jordan, former National Book Award-winning historian who wrote several influential works on American slavery and race relations, “Negroes were from the very first encounters with Europeans likened to beasts.”

Why? Because in Africa there resided a beast that was like a man. That is, whites encountered blacks at almost precisely the same time as they encountered apes.  Unfortunately for blacks, this led to rabid European speculations, which incorporated centuries-old traditions with the coincidence of simultaneous ape/African contact.  It resulted in the inevitable correlation of similarities between the “man-like beasts and the beast-like men of Africa.”

Expending the time and many embarrassed frustrations of learning a foreign language also conveys the message(s): “I see you! We are on this life journey together. I value your perspective and way of life equally with my own. Neither of our ways of life or worldview is without fault, yet through sharing and listening to our respective personal and cultural narratives we will respect and honor each other. In respecting each other’s dignity, we will each, then, be open to hearing the candid criticisms we each might need to hear.”

This raises a critical question . . .

What should be the principle reason or motivation to learn a foreign language?

I realize this likely will be met with some derision, yet from my bi-cultural, American and African life experience, I believe most of my fellow Americans might be inclined to learn a foreign language primarily to speak, to tell, or to ask – so as to navigate in and around a foreign country and culture. As a 19th century American missionary to southeast Africa voiced his motivation to learn isiZulu, “I trust however that I shall understand enough of the language to explain to the people the way of salvation.”

I believe the principle reason to study a language should be TO LISTEN. And in listening, TO HEAR. And in hearing, TO UNDERSTAND.

LanguageBlog

A 19th century English clergyman to southeast Africa, John W. Colenso, expressed these thoughts about itinerant travelers and fellow missionaries, “I doubt if they have been able—or willing if able—to sit down, hour by hour, in closest friendly intercourse with natives of all classes, and in the spirit of earnest, patient, research, with a full command of the native language, have sought to enter, as it were, within the [native’s] heart.”

Long before there was language software or language schools, Colenso became fluent in isiZulu through no special skills except diligence, hard work, and a willingness to work and live in near proximity to those people, whose language he wanted to learn.

Of this experience he stated, “I have no special gift for languages, but what is shared by most educated men of fair ability.  What I have done, I have done by hard work—by sitting day after day, from early morn to sunset, till they, as well as myself, were fairly exhausted—conversing with them as well as I could, and listening to them conversing,—writing down what I could of their talk from their own lips, and, when they were gone, still turning round again to my desk, to copy out the results of the day.”

Now . . . in case you’ve been thinking “Scott must be a linguist also,” let me dispel that thought! Unlike my wife who is fluent in Spanish, German, English, and conversant in Zulu, Venda and Swahili, languages do not come easily to me. This is largely due to my having bi-lateral high frequency hearing loss, which practically means that in noisy environments initial word consonants are indiscernible due to them being high-frequency. In short, in noisy contexts it’s often like trying to decipher meaning by hearing only vowels and a consonant or two – imagine Wheel of Fortune contestants!

BUT . . . given my own state and nation’s current and rapidly changing demographics, I’m enrolled in a Spanish course at a local community college, and I do possess Level 3 proficiency in Swahili and Venda.

Would you join me in committing to learn another/foreign language? 

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Men Holding Hands | A Tribute to an African Friend

Let me tell you about my former friend Peter Khosa.

Peter was a refugee from Mozambique, who I first met in 1990 in the small town of Malamulele, in what is now Limpopo Province, South Africa.  Peter was managing a non-profit food relief project for thousands of people fleeing Mozambique’s civil war.

Peter distributing food to two refugee children.

Peter Khosa distributing food to two children.

Peter’s English was imperfect, yet eloquent.  He was the hardest worker I have known.  In order to support his immediate family of six, plus, family in Mozambique, including parents, Peter bought an old 4×4 bakkie (pick-up truck), and made weekly trips of 900+ kilometers to purchase bulk fresh produce, including cabbage, onions, potatoes and citrus.  His wife, Rosa, then sold the produce for minimal profit in two local open-air markets.

Peter & Rosa's "bakkie" (truck) and vegetable stall.

Peter & Rosa’s “bakkie” (truck) and vegetable stall.

 

Peter's family

Peter’s family

Peter died in 2007 of brain cancer – a disease he fought for five years.

Peter Khoza

Peter

I take this opportunity to share how Peter affected and shaped my life.  I am a bi-cultural person, who was born in the United States, yet grew up in Africa.

In addition to his ethos of hard work, Peter was extremely truthful and candid.  He didn’t put on airs of niceness merely to please (or deceive). Two cases in point:

One day in Thohoyandou, Venda, my wife and I had several unexpected visitors.  Offering hot tea or coffee, plus something to eat, was a Venda cultural expression of respect to visitors, and my wife did this with our three Venda male visitors.  Not long into their visit, Peter also unexpectedly showed up.  After greetings were exchanged my wife brought Peter something to drink and eat without asking, but upon offer, Peter politely declined.

tea

His “cheeky candor” became a topic of light-hearted discussion among our Venda guests. “Oh, but you have to accept it, Peter!  We have just ‘trained’ Mme a Daniel (mother of Daniel) in the ways of our culture and now you’ve gone and sown confusion in her mind.”  Peter responded, “But I’m not hungry!  Why should I accept and waste food and drink when I have no need?”  Discussion continued over cultural differences between such close neighbors as the Venda and Shangaan people.

A final example of Peter’s candor.  One late afternoon he, along with his wife and a friend of hers, arrived unannounced at our house.  I had spent the afternoon making what I believed to be an excellent potjiekos (=small pot food), an Afrikaaner “stew” cooked in a three-legged, cast iron, Dutch rounded potjie (cooking pot), which is slow-cooked on an open fire.  A hint of what is to come . . . I had been taught the “art” of potjiekos cooking from a fellow American, although in fairness to him, my culinary skills should not be blamed on anyone but myself.

On this occasion I recall making a potjiekos of chunks of fresh beef, white onions, potatoes, slices of mango, and a generous dash of red wine.  A secret of good potjiekos – so I’m told – is in choosing the right ingredients, on correctly layering the ingredients, and on slow and precise cooking.

A potjie on an open fire.

A potjie on an open fire.

We invited our guests in, and despite their insistence that they were not in great need of food, I served them my “delicious” potjiekos, anyway.  My wife and I then sat across from them at the dining table.  We engaged in conversation, all the while I kept expecting them to comment on how delicious my potjiekos was.  Affirmation never came. Food consumed, they excused themselves.

We walked them to the front gate and their bakkie.  As they were driving off and we were waving, Peter suddenly did a 360-degree turn.  He drove up alongside us, stopped, rolled down his window, placed his hand on my arm, and smilingly stated, “My friend, when you come to my house I will teach you how to cook!”  With that he rolled the window up and drove off into the darkening night, leaving a cloud of fine red Venda dust in his wake.  He was true to his word.  Another day, another time, he made me Portuguese style food, including a large steak, topped with two or three medium fried eggs, served with a generous portion of “chips” (french fries), a side salad, and a large glass of Coke.

A Portuguese meal similar to what Peter fed me.

A Portuguese meal similar to what Peter fed me.

In addition to Peter’s candor, what some might mistake for impoliteness, he also frequently demonstrated affection and vulnerability.

One time I spent several nights at Peter and Rosa’s house. One evening, just prior to dinner, he suggested we take a walk in the neighborhood.  As to its relevance, you decide, but know that Malamulele is mostly, if not entirely, a “black town.”  Its city center consisted of a few small shops and cafes. Neighborhoods included a mixture of face-brick homes with tiled roofs, to rural looking thatched rondavels. Needless to say, a white man walking in the community, while not unheard of, was not common.

"Three Rondavels" in Mpumalanga Province, adjacent to Limpopo

“Three Rondavels” in Mpumalanga Province, adjacent to Limpopo

At some point during our stroll, and as Peter pointed out different features of his community to me, several fingers of one hand softly held my own.  It was then him leading me around the neighborhood.

Black,+white+handshake+hands

I’m as “American male” as the next person, and it took a few seconds or minutes, I can’t say exactly which, before I was able to come to terms with this newfound, and highly cultural “holding hands experience.”  After my inner macho man-ness was convinced that the experience did not awaken any latent gay feelings of pleasure, and that no bystanders were aghast, I actually appreciated the feeling that came from knowing Peter took my hand because he felt a close kinship with me – that I had become to him like a brother and family.  Holding hands then became to me something of a badge of honor.

Concluding thought:

All of this is to say . . . I miss close friendships and “connectedness” like what I shared with Peter.  A friend who is kind yet candid, who offers you his best hospitality and troubles himself to walk the neighborhood with you, taking your hand, and showing you what you might not otherwise have seen or experienced.

I’m almost three years into Austin residency and I have yet to feel much connection to this city and its people.  I’m sure the fault is shared by me.

Initially, and as a newcomer, I sought some measure of connection through the tradition I grew up in, that is, church and the Christian community.  In those faith communities my family and I frequented, I did find “nice” people, yet my family’s experience suggests one becomes an “insider” by coming to them, reaching out to them, and it helps significantly if you have disposable and leisure income, which can enable you to participate fully in all social and “ministry” events.

I find it somewhat ironic that in what many people call “Christian America,” my family have had as many if not more invitations to dinners, parties, house dedications, and even offers of job networking from Hindu and Muslim neighbors and friends, including our girls’ school friends’ families, than from full-time pastoral staff of my own faith tradition or members. Obviously, there are a few exceptions to this generalization.

 

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Breast-Feeding, Elephant Ears, and Basking Lizards | Meanderings of an American-African Mind

The mind is an amazing thing.

Do you know what I mean?

One minute you’re sitting alone or with others, thinking or discussing one thing or the other, and the next thing you know a random, sub-conscious word, thought or optical image diverts your thought processes to what appears on the surface to be an absurdly different topic altogether.

A case in point:

It’s a sunny yet relatively “cold” day today in Austin – high of 61F.  I’ve placed my seedling tray of tomato plants just behind our all-glass front door, so they will capture the light and warmth of the sun.  As I bent over to position them in full sunlight, I felt the morning sun’s warmth refracted through the door and on to my face, neck and arms.  The warmth and its soothing sensation, combined a moment later with the pleasured taste of a Starbuck’s Americano, drunk while sitting and looking out on an awakening neighborhood, somehow combined to trigger distant yet still close-at-hand memories.

I remember numerous happy childhood days at Kisumu’s Nyanza Club swimming pool, particularly, how good it felt (and feels) climbing out of cold water, then immediately lying face down on a sun-warmed border of the pool. 

From 3rd Wimpy Kid Movie

Diary of A Wimpy Kid: Dog Days

Do you have similar recollections? Can you feel even as you read these words the sun warming your cold body, head to toes?  

This remembrance somehow linked to and triggered in my mind an idiomatic Venda expression for “I need to go to the toilet,” of which, the relevance to water and sun will soon be evident.

One day I asked my Venda tutor, “How do I tell someone, ‘Please excuse me, I need to go to the toilet?'” He thought a minute then replied, “In formal Venda you simply say, ‘Ndi khou toda u di thusa,’ which simply translates ‘I need to help myself.'”  But, he said, “If you want to speak ‘deep Venda’ then you can say, ‘Ndi khou toda u kumbedza tswina,’ which roughly translates ‘I need to blind a lizard.'”

lizard

As you likely are doing now, I chuckled, yet think about its contextual accuracy.  Most Venda people still rely on foot power and foot paths.  Distances are quite far, and if you’ve traveled abroad, you know that relieving oneself outdoors seldom conveys any similar degree of uncouthness as it does in the United States. Given Venda’s proximity to the Tropic of Capricorn, imagine that it’s a 39-degree Celsius day. You’re walking along a foot path when morning tea catches up with you.  You stop to relieve yourself in the shelter of a rocky and sparsely vegetated hill, and lying just before you is a basking lizard!

Tropic of Capricorn marker, north of Polokwane, Limpopo.

Tropic of Capricorn marker, north of Polokwane, Limpopo.

Regrettably, all language lessons were not that painless.

The most embarrassingly painful Venda language learning remembrance for my wife and me was over the simplest and most frequently used daily expression – “hello.”

Our mistake?  Young when we arrived in South Africa, we asked an older – you would think more informed – white colleague how to greet, instead of asking someone from Venda.  As our colleague drove us to Venda from Johannesburg, a then six-hour drive, he told us, “Oh, it’s easy.  If it’s a man you say ‘Ndaa’ (masculine tone). If it’s a woman you say, ‘Aaah’ (feminine tone).”  So for the first few weeks, if not months, every man and every woman we greeted with either an “Ndaa” or “Aaah.”  Regrettably, what our colleague neglected to tell us is that only men greet with “Ndaa” and only women greet with “Aaah.”

Venda woman displaying most respectful posture in greeting.

Venda woman displaying most respectful posture in greeting.

We each received many strange and smiled looks when we greeted people.

My most painful related remembrance is of a woman I gave a lift to.  As she entered my bakkie (equivalent to a pick-up truck), I articulated in my most feminine tone and pitch, “Aaa!”  She must have been desperate for a ride, because rather than leaping out the window, she chose to remain with this seemingly crazed white taxi driver.

My wife’s faux pas was more painful, perhaps.  Soon after our arrival in Venda there was a peaceful coup, and our immediate neighbor in Block G, Thohoyandou (=head of the elephant), a general in Venda’s “air force,” Gabriel Ramushwana became president.  Rather then relocate from Block G to the substantial presidential compound situated mid-point between Thohoyandou and the white suburb of Sibasa on the hill, he chose to live with and among his people (there’s a lesson in there for all current and want-to-be politicians).

It wasn’t long, then, before the president’s yard was fitted with razor wire and a 24-hour military presence, much to our young son’s pleasure.  As President Ramushwana was exiting his premises one morning, and my wife was simultaneously closing our gate, she greeted him properly through his open car window.  It caused him to stop and respond kindly, “I see you’ve learned to greet properly in Venda!”

SA's 9 provinces & a rough outline of languages spoken in each.

South Africa’s nine provinces and a rough outline of languages spoken in each.

An important thing you should know about many, if not most of South Africa’s eleven official languages. They are tonal. Practically, this means one word can have multiple meanings depending upon tone and inflection. An example in Venda: “thoho” can communicate either “head” or “monkey.”

Vervet monkey

Vervet monkey

A personal example of a language miscue related to tone and inflection: It was a hot summer day, and as I arrived at my meeting destination a group of Venda ladies were sitting under a large shade tree.  We exchanged greetings, after which one of the group said something incoherent to me.  I attempted to say, “I didn’t hear well or clearly.” They all immediately yet politely stifled laughter, which, of course, told me my language effort failed miserably.  One of the ladies rose to her feet, walked over to me, and politely told me, “You have just told us that you have big ears like an elephant!”

censoredbreastfeed

A more U.S./European view of breast-feeding – taboo

Speaking of women and language learning . . . my mind again, as if it operates independently from intentional thought, skipped to a different page of memories.  This time a page of memories related to two breast-feeding incidents. Breasts and breast-feeding are viewed in wholesome (pure) and healthy terms in Venda, as in most parts Africa.

African woman breast feeding

African woman breast-feeding

Our arrival in Block G, Thohoyandou, Venda in early November, 1989, caused quite a stir, I’m certain.  The reason being: South Africa, even its so-called “independent” black homelands, existed within a canopy of legislated segregation or apartheid. It was more scandalous than normal for races to mix.  Yet here we were a young, white couple setting up home in what was effectively a new “black housing development.”  Within days of arrival, welcoming guests arrived at our front gate, including two pastors of local churches and their wives – one of whom, had recently given birth.

My wife quickly learned the cultural role of providing “tea” and some form of “pudding” (sweet pastry).  Midway through their visit, the one pastor’s wife decided it was time to feed her newborn.  This was no big event, except for two complicating factors:  In likely her first-ever visit to a white person’s house she had worn her best dress, which was beautiful, yet impractical for nursing purposes, in that, the neck of the dress extended up near her clavicle, making “breast extraction” near impossible.  Secondly, she was a very buxom woman.  These factors did not deter her from trying, though – and repeatedly so!  Given that we all were sharing a small living room space, her efforts and failures became increasingly pronounced as time went on.  Much to all of our relief, I’m sure, the senior pastor finally voiced our discomfiture and what was evident to all of us – “Shame, she’s having trouble getting the pipe out.”

A final humorous story related to language and breast-feeding.  My wife grew up in the Dominican Republic, and is fluent in Spanish (and German).  Inspired by a college professor, she chose – actually, we chose – to raise all five of our children bilingual.  Upon arrival in Venda our eldest, a boy, was a year old.  After two years living in Venda and among the Venda people, he had learned a lot, but also “absorbed” a lot – specifically, the reality that many infants and small children received milk from their mothers’ breasts.

One evening we invited an elderly American couple over for dinner.  They were assisting in the management of a relief project at the time.  She, like the pastor’s wife, was quite a buxom woman, and sitting immediately to the right of my son at the dining table, he couldn’t help but notice.  Given the sights and cultural experiences he had absorbed to that point, he very innocently verbalized midway through dinner to my wife – fortunately in Spanish – “Does she have milk?”  It was obviously a moment of great discomfiture for my wife, but fortunately an anonymously embarrassing moment, which today we remember with great laughter.

Concluding thought: 

Meandering minds and their on-the-surface incoherent and dissonant linkages with past memories and associations frequently result in fond and kind remembrances of happier and simpler periods, events and relationships in life, which if we’ll allow them, just might warm up, encourage, what to that point in time or day we might tend to label as struggle, despondency, heartache or melancholy.

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Post Office Memories and Cultural Apropos Uses of the “F-word”

In our era of high-tech gadgets and high rolling entertainment I’m struck by how prominently small, simple, and insignificant past events figure into consciousness and identity.  An example of mine are memories associated with checking the mail or post.  I’m not referring to the typical U.S. residence mailbox, situated right outside most front doors, but the mailbox you rent on a monthly or yearly basis at the post office.  I still remember distinctive experiences, sights, smells and sounds of many post offices in places I lived in Kenya and Tanzania as a child, and in South Africa as an adult.

For instance, when we lived in Thohoyandou (= “head of the elephant”), Venda, South Africa, our post box was a ten minute drive up the hill to a mostly white suburb called Sibasa.  The reason I reference “white suburb” is that my family’s experiences in Venda included both “apartheid South Africa,” as well as a free Nelson Mandela, yet pre-1994 constitutional democratic South Africa.  Thohoyandou was a mostly “black” town in Venda.

Neighboring Shangaan women sitting at a post office.

Immediately adjacent to the Sibasa post office was an OK Bazaar (grocer) and a PEP store (comparable to a Dollar Tree in the U.S.).  In deep, traditional Venda culture, when a young girl or a woman greets a man, especially an elderly man, she shows formal respect by at minimum kneeling on her knees, averting her eyes and head away from direct eye contact with the man, positioning both hands together and with them outstretched and curled upward “losha(ing)” (greeting) with the Venda feminine greeting “Aaah.”

A Venda woman's respectful posture of greeting.

A Venda woman’s respectful posture of greeting.

The man is expected to cup his hands together, perhaps, even, softly clap them repeatedly (if you’ve seen the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy, the bumbling scientist, Marius Weyers demonstrates this when greeting the Bushman Xixo or his given name Nǃxau ǂToma), and with them on the outside of his right thigh, respond with “Ndaa.”

One day as I exited the Sibasa post office, a young girl in bright and beautiful Venda traditional dress and I encountered each other face-to-face on the sidewalk. Each time we tried to sidestep and get out-of-the-way of the other, we simply kept moving in the same direction and impeding each other’s forward momentum.  I won’t forget what occurred as we both simultaneously saw the humor in our respective and awkward positions.  I simply smiled and greeted her in Tshivenda. She, on the other hand, immediately prostrated herself full-length on the red clay-dirtied and people congested sidewalk, and extended to me the highest and most respectful of Venda greetings.

Venda hands in greeting.

Venda hands in greeting.

Yes, one could read into her “respectful display” a racialized political context, from which she merely acted out of abject fear of a white man.  On the other hand, I’ve chosen to remember it as a memory snapshot of how a young Venda girl chose to acknowledge and respect me, a stranger (the “wow effect”). I wish I could inform this young girl today, what an impression she made on this “mutshena” or “mukhuwa” (white or white person).

As a transition story from post office to coarse cultural language memory is a post office and coarse language memory I have from my childhood years in Kisumu, Kenya (the same place I reference in my blog “Fly fishing for sheep and slingshotting for ‘ndeges.'”

A daily family ritual, as it were, was to drive downtown to the post office and check the mail.  My favorite “check time” was evening after dinner – in the absence of TV, the drive to town served as a surrogate.  I recall how my five siblings and I competed for who got to check the mail, much as we also competed for who got to have their piece of pie in the pie pan, instead of a dessert plate, because then it meant you might have a few extra crushed graham cracker crumbs or sweet pie filling residue.

Lest you mock the importance we placed on the mail event, and its lasting place in my memory hard drive, is the fact that this occurred prior to the age of internet and email, and therefore mail was our primary means of news and “goodies.”  By goodies I mean American food care packages from family in Texas, or even a letter from my aunt, who used to send me envelopes stuffed with stamps for my stamp collection from places all over the world that she collected from work.  Or as I’m told by my parents, the first and only letter written by my dad’s dad, who worked for decades at an agriculture and feed store, and wrote to inform me – an aspiring fourth or fifth-grade millionaire chicken farmer (I sold my broiler chickens to my parents) – the prices of chicks, feed, and poultry supplies, from which I then devised my get-super rich-schemes.

On one particular night time mail run, I recall sitting in the front across from my dad, and as we neared and rounded one of Kisumu’s many traffic roundabouts, belting out for all the car’s occupants to hear Neil Diamond’s “High Rolling Man,” specifically the refrain “Hot damn, hot damn, hot damn, you know that he could.”

My parents, well, especially my mom, but on this occasion my dad, too, clear their throats when they’re undergoing and experiencing uncomfortable situations (an example of my mom’s quick onset of throat obstruction was at a viewing of the movie In Her Shoes, which my wife and I watched together with my parents at Bedfordview Mall, South Africa.  My mom’s throat clearing occurred during Cameron Diaz’s toilet stall sex scene). By the way, in case you’re wondering, yes, despite any ribbing of my parents I’m very grateful to them for the examples they were and continue to be.  They will celebrate sixty years of marriage in 2013.

A Kisumu roundabout.

A Kisumu roundabout.

When I started belting out loud the refrain to “High Rolling Man” my dad first cleared his throat, then proceeded with eyes averted straight ahead, to say something to the effect, “Uh, um, son, do you know what you’re singing?”  It says something as to the Puritan-like sensibilities I grew up with, as well as to the time period of my childhood, but I honestly was naive to the possible inappropriateness of the words I was singing.  I don’t remember us laughing about it then, nor was I punished, but it’s humorous to think back upon now.  Especially in light of the following two “swearing stories” that occurred in South Africa years later.

During postgraduate studies my mentor and primary instructor was a South African, but of Scandinavian descent. He could regale people with stories, both historical, as well as with a combination of “creative thought” and energy.  Of the latter, possibly, he frequently told students that the Zulus had to create words to fit mostly British sport and culture.  For instance, when soccer arrived on the scene, they simply called it “e-football,” and when cricket arrived, “e-cricket.”  Golf was a particular problem since few if any non-whites played the sport.  What the Zulus consistently heard white players saying during rounds of golf was “dammit.”  So, according to my professor, golf came to be referred to by Zulus by the “Zulu word” “e-dammit.”

When my family and I moved to Johannesburg in 2003 we, like the majority of South Africans, urban and rural, rich and even poor, employed a part-time outside yard worker. “Eddie” was from Tzaneen, a city in the north-eastern part of the country.  He spoke Pedi (northern Sotho) and little English.  I spoke mediocre Venda, but not Pedi.  Due to rampant crime, my wife insisted we get a few dogs.  We found a few “township dogs” (mixed breed) on the outskirts of Soshanguve township, situated 25 kms north of Pretoria.  Both dogs were less than one year old, and despite our efforts to prevent them, they chewed up everything, including a large dog bed made from sisal, which was advertised as “dog chew resistant”!  Hah, I have pictures to prove the fallacy of that marketing assertion.

One morning I went outside to water the flower bed and could not find the attachments for our water hose. Eventually I asked Eddie if he knew where they were.  His face told me “yes, ” but now the difficulty was telling me where or what happened to them.  I do not presume to know whether what I am about to tell you is a culturally and socially accepted expression among all South Africans or not, but I can tell you it is very common, nor is it looked aghast at, as it would be, and is, among conservative and “Christian” American.  Eddie spoke hesitantly and communicated this short and very clear message: “dogs . . . fucked up.”

One of the culprits!

One of the culprits!

You see, in South Africa “f#@ked up” is an expression that unambiguously communicates that something or someone is “beyond repair.”  So Eddie was telling me that our dogs, who were capable of destroying even a purported to be indestructible dog bed, were the culprits responsible for destroying my water hose attachments.

About a year later, I was advocating for a group of young women, who were part of a HIV/AIDS home-based caregiver support group, started by a retired Zulu school teacher, Thokozile, or simply “Thoko,” as a service to her community of Emdeni, Soweto.  These ladies were remarkable in their compassionate care and commitment to help people and families infected and affected by HIV/AIDS for little financial remuneration.  One day a year or so after working with them, I received a call from Thoko.  Her voice didn’t sound itself, but at the same time I was not immediately concerned or alarmed.  I answered the phone “Hello?”  She replied, “Scott?”  I said, “Thoko, is that you? How are you?”  She answered, “Oh, Scott, I’m f#@cked up.”  I had never heard that expression used by persons referring to themselves before, and so did not immediately clue in to its implied severity.  Sadly, Thoko passed away before that week ended. She was telling me, in effect, “Scott, I’m beyond repair. Goodbye.”

Thoko, fourth from right

Thoko, fourth from right

I end this blog with two thoughts. Why is it that many North Americans, in particular, especially many among my former community of meaning – “Christian America” – still chafe so painfully under the discomfort of swear words, when many to most of them frequently or regularly use slang or “Christian cursing” themselves (e.g., effin’, dang, frickin, darnit, gosh dangit, dadgummit, heck, shoot, shitzu, fudge, etc.)?  And, why do sensibilities about coarse language loom so disproportionately large compared to far more serious “real sensibility” issues like child and wife abuse, hunger and homelessness, child trafficking, racial bigotry, ad infinitum?


			

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A Cultural Lesson on Time and Values

Years ago, when my family and I were living in Venda, at that time one of the so-called Bantu homelands within South Africa – an effort by the apartheid government to legitimate to the international community a “separate but equal” racial policy (that failed) – I was driving with an older Venda colleague to a meeting.  At some point he noticed my concern with our possible lateness because I kept looking at my wrist watch.  Seizing this teaching opportunity, he pointed at his own watch and said, “Scott, do you see this?  We only wear this for decoration.”  In other words, I was being politely  taught a cultural lesson – that from an African’s perspective, relationships are of more importance than punctuality and a fixation on schedules.

casio

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