Beyond the Workplace (Intro)

Thobela! (Hello!)

No, we have not been eaten by lions or melted by the African sun. We are, in fact, still alive and all is well! Our original goal was to post a weekly blog update, but somehow time has gotten away from us, again. (This is partially due to the fact that we are becoming more involved in our community and its surrounding villages, including those of our fellow Peace Corps Volunteers!) Know that your patience, support, and continued interest in our adventures are greatly appreciated. Although updates may not be weekly, we will continue to use this blog as a journal of our time in South Africa, and hope that it provides insight into this unique lifestyle and culture that we have the amazing opportunity to experience.

Pomp & Circumstance; Dance Parties and Photo Shoots

Pomp & Circumstance, Dance Parties, and Photo Shoots

Last Friday, Ben and I attended a graduation ceremony for the creche’ (preschool) in Abbotspoort. We had been asked by one of the mothers to “take a photo” of her daughter in her graduation outfit, so we arrived before the ceremony, prepared to do just that. Attempting to keep the focus off of us and on the graduates as much as possible, we sat in two chairs in the back row. I leaned over to Ben and said with a small sigh of relief, “This will be the first community event that we haven’t been asked to sit up front as special guests!” No sooner had the words left my mouth than a woman from the creche’ approached us and indicated that there were two seats for us at the front table. (Dough! So close!) We obligingly moved to the “VIP section,” sitting alongside school teachers, principals, and pastors.

Special events in South Africa seem to all follow a similar pattern: The designated speakers and prominent community members sit at front tables, facing the audience. The tables are always covered in white linens, usually with artificial flowers as center pieces. VIPs are served water, “cold drink” (pop/soda), and communal snack plates (chips, biscuits, trail mix, etc). It is impolite to not accept food in this culture, but we cannot help but feel a bit awkward about eating/drinking with the other VIPs up front, while the entire audience watches and waits for the end of the event, when a larger meal is commonly prepared for everyone present. The program, itself, typically consists of various speeches, songs, prayers, and dancing. The creche’ graduation was no exception…

The ceremony was scheduled to begin at 10am, so when the MC kicked things off at 10:45, we were impressed! There were 21 items on the program, including five speeches and four choirs. Around noon (item number 15), I got a text message from our nearby Peace Corps friends, Rachel & Brandon, who had just arrived in Abbotspoort and were coming to stay with us that evening. Since Ben and I hadn’t expected to be at the creche’ so long, let alone sit up front as special guests, we hadn’t forewarned Rachel & Brandon that they might be included in the event, too. I politely excused myself to meet them and when we returned, we were all ushered to the front tables as VIPs; Brandon actually had to squeeze behind the speaker giving the presentation to take his designated seat. Ha! Fortunately, both Rachel & Brandon are used to this constant public recognition, by now, after being in South Africa for a year, so it didn’t even really seem to phase them.

The best part of the ceremony was the presentation of the graduates. The kids were shuffled in, one-by-one, wearing black gowns and given black caps. I was asked to help hand out certificates, so Ben took over the camera. Just like at the Abbotspoort Primary assembly, parents raced to the front when their children’s names were called, whooping, hollering, and dancing up a storm! Many of the parents were so proud and excited, they swooped up their son/daughter in their arms before they could even receive their cap or certificate. I actually had to chase down a few crazed moms to stick the certificate somewhere between the child, parent, cap, gown, and huge embrace that was taking place. It was a riot!

Before the ceremony began, I found the mother who had asked us to take a picture of her graduating daughter, Tebogo. As you might have guessed, this one picture turned into over 100 over the course of the event. I took nearly every combination possible with Tebogo, her mother, Tebogo’s friends, and her mother’s friends. We are happy to help take photos for people, but also hope to establish an understanding that we are not here to be the official village photographers. Nevertheless, it was a fun community event to be a part of and the children were absolutely precious…

Tebogo’s Graduation Day

Meetse, Meetse! (Water, Water!)

Meetse, Meetse! (Water, Water!)After the ceremony and enjoying a traditional South African meal of pap, chicken, goat, beats, cabbage, and squash (”pumpkin”), we showed Rachel & Brandon our home and took them on a brief tour of Abbotspoort, the major highlight being the river. We had made the walk to the river many times before and were simply looking forward to seeing the dry, but beautiful, ravine created by the river that once flowed here. Imagine our surprise when the “river” came into view and we actually saw water rushing down it! Not just a little bit of water, either; the river was nearly full and flowing at a decent pace! Since less than a week prior, it had been bone-dry, Ben and I were absolutely floored. It’s hard to believe that rain could have filled it so high, so quickly, so our speculation is that a damn must have been opened somewhere and released the floodgates. Regardless of the cause, it was still a sight for sore eyes in this immensely dry area and the rest of the village thought so, too. Kids were swimming and jumping off of rocks into the new water, below, people were fishing on the opposite bank, and the four of us (not dressed for full-on swimming) enjoyed a bit of river-walking in our sandals and relaxing on the shore, sharing stories and taking in the beauty of the actual Palala River.

This water was truly a sight for sore eyes. We have so been missing larger bodies of water!
It was so much fun watching the kids line up to jump and flip into the river, below!

Lephalale Connections: The Other Side of South Africa

Lephalale Connections: The Other Side of South Africa

After a nice evening catching up with Rachel & Brandon, the four of us went to town the next morning to meet Jess & Paul (the other nearby Peace Corps couple) for lunch and to do our biweekly grocery shopping. Lephalale is an interesting place–it’s very safe and clean, but there are definite areas where primarily white South Africans (Africaners) congregate and shop, and places where more black South Africans can be found. Ben and I are most often the only white people in our village, so it’s a different sort of experience going to town and making connections with this “other side of South Africa.” Generally speaking, everywhere we go in South Africa, we are treated with nothing but kindness and respect, for which we are immensely grateful. Now that we’ve shared a bit about life in the village, let us introduce you to a few of the people (Africaners) we’ve met in town:

  • Denise and Peter: An older couple who own and manage an artistic metalwork shop in Lephalale, but hope to retire soon. A couple weeks ago, Denise kindly drove the six of us (three Peace Corps couples) around town, allowing us to move more freely without carting around everything. They have a pre-teen grandaughter, Veronica, who is full of energy and enjoys attention from the three guys, Ben, Paul, and Brandon.
  • Jacobus and Shanda: Jacobus along with his brother own “Build It,” a hardware store in town and his wife, Shanda, is from the U.S.! She grew up in Minnesota (close to where Paul & Jess are from, actually) and she and Jacobus both lived in the U.S. for a few years. They invited the six of us into the store office, one day, for coffee, and would like to have us over for a “brie” (barbeque), sometime. Such nice people!
  • Francois: A young guy, early-mid twenties, who owns the only tourist-type shop in town, “Ancient Africa.” Extremely helpful, genuine, friendly, and a world-traveler!
  • Steven and Jolene: Another young couple, introduced to us by Brandon and Rachel. Steven has a supervisory role at the mine and Jolene works at a store in town. They’re newly pregnant, so we’ll get to see the baby while we’re here!
  • Anna & Hanz and Anita: Anna and Hanz, an older couple in town, own and operate a fabric store. Their twenty-something granddaughter, Anita, currently lives and works with them. Another wonderful family that had kindly offered to have us over to their house!
  • Erica & Dowald and Tonya: Rachel recently introduced us to Erica and Dowald, owners of a bead/craft store, and their daughter, Tonya. We’ve only talked with them that once, but Erica is one of those special people that makes you feel welcomed and appreciated, right away. I can see myself forming a neat friendship with her and I look forward to getting to chat with them more!
  • Alma & Louisa: Last but, by far, not least, we’ve developed a neat friendship with two terrific women who own/manage Wimpy’s, one of the popular restaurant chains in South Africa. They’re a riot! We go into Wimpy’s every time we’re in town to greet them and use their restroom. The last two times, we’ve been met with huge smiles and hugs. Louisa has insisted that if she’s busy or not available, we can just walk behind the counter and take the restroom key. Ha! I know if we every have any questions or need to find something in town, Alma & Louisa would be great resources.

Youth Day in Ga-Seleka

Youth Day in Ga-Seleka

Hey everybody, Ben here. Just wanted to write a bit about a fun and inspiring event that took place a few weekends ago in Ga Seleka (where Paul and Jess live).

HIV/AIDS has ravaged much of Africa and South Africa is truly no exception. In our village we commonly bare witness to 1-3 funerals a week (sometimes more). While some of this hardship has been brought on by other causes (e.g. car accidents, old age, etc. ) many deaths have been attributed to “sickness”. This “sickness” is either not fully examined or is just not truly explained to the public. We suspect many are actually suffering and dying from the affects of the virus here in Abbot’s Poort.

Taken from a South African governmental website one finds that “more than 5 million South Africans are living with HIV, more than in any other country in the world. Studies project that by the year 2010, this toll could reach 10 million, and South Africa’s GDP could be reduced by more than 17 percent as a result of the disease.”

It is also true that many patients who the Abbotspoort Home Based Care Group serves have been diagnosed with TB. TB is often linked with HIV/AIDS but must be treated before ARV drugs can be administered (if they are needed.)

With this being said, there is a organization that has been formed here in South Africa called Love Life. Love Life is South Africa’s National HIV prevention programme for young people. Love Life has truly taken on a life of its own working positively in youth around the country. We have heard of it promoting healthy lifestyles through presentations in the schools, as well as through larger events like the Love Life Games in Ga Seleka.

Paul and Jess invited Rachel, Brandon, Suz and me up to their place to “help where needed” during the games. These took place on a Saturday so we ventured north on Friday after school to enjoy the company of the Vig’s and Johnson’s a night a head of time. (Always an enjoyable experience. Who knew curried potatoes and home baked bread could taste so good.)

In the morning we headed over to the local high school. Here we encountered so many wonderful people. It felt as though the whole village was getting involved. Many woman spent the whole of the morning and much of the afternoon preparing the food which was served after the indoor program. Children and youth began arriving by the police-van-full. (The police had volunteered to tour the surrounding villages and to provide transport to those in need.)

The program itself lasted from around 11 am to 3 in the afternoon. The girls (Suz, Jess, and Rachel) were asked to manage the sign-in lists to make sure that all who attended were recorded, Paul was the “official” photographer and Brandon and I were placed by the front door to act as the “bouncers”. We where told to point the hoards of people who crowded around the door to see the program to the windows along the sides of the hall. The room was packed and the sound system pumped dance music at unbelievable volumes between speeches, dances, songs and empowered testimonials. After the program was finished and food was consumed we headed out to the sports fields.

Brandon and Ben, the official Love Life Games “bouncers


Netball, volleyball, and soccer were the games of choice and teams had arrived from many different villages ready to play (uniforms and all). Ga Seleka has a small, but nice sports complex with paved netball and volleyball courts.

The Americans took a few minutes before the games began to toss around a Frisbee in an open field next to the complex. On our way out to the field I was stopped and asked if we played volleyball and would be willing to play as a fifth team in the tournament. I love volleyball and so does Brandon, both of us playing on intramural teams throughout college and were itching to get back on the court. Considering that the whole group of us enjoy athletic activities we agreed, even though we are a bit rusty and haven’t actually played together before.

We watched the volleyball games unfold and quickly realized that we had our work cut out for us. Eventually we were called out. We offered the option to mix up the teams and to just play a match with integrated teams (American and SA together) but they didn’t go for that. So the game was on.

My favorite comment for the days was Brandon’s, “We’re not really a team ,we’re just a bunch of Americans,” as he tried to explain that we were in it for the joy of playing, not for the competition. (It might be interesting to note, we did look a bit like team given the set of free t-shirts we all were wearing.)

“We’re not really a team, we’re just a bunch of Americans.”

Our games went fast as the score was quickly adjusted giving us a considerable handy-cap. (Not by our choice, but what can you do?) I nicely jammed my thumb early on in the game so it was painful bumps and spikes for the rest of the game. In the end, we “won” after just starting to get warmed up. Oh well at least we got to play a bit.

As we headed back to Paul and Jess’s from the games, Susie became captivated by a litter of energetic puppies behind a fence at the shop next to the taxi rank. She was so captivated in fact that she didn’t pay attention to the older and rather more aggressive dog who was hanging out with the pups. Suz walked away with a nice little nip on her hand, mainly a tug on the skin but it did draw some blood.

The Barr-Wilsons left the day a little beat up, but as a whole the day was tremendous. Go Love Life, a job well done!

FYI: The thumb and nip are both healing well, so no worries there.

Two girls jump for the ball in the netball tournament.
(Netball is a basically a blend of basketball and ultimate frisbee–you’re trying to make baskets, but you can’t move with the ball and must pass it up and down the court).

Home Improvement

Home ImprovementOur little home is a blessing we did not expect to receive. It came equipped with mini-oven two plate stove combo, refrigerator, table and chairs, wooden cabinet for food storage, dresser with mirror and one without, queen-sized bed, and wardrobe. Really this was much more than we ever expected. This being said there were a few improvements we wanted to make here and there.

Creating the Door of Champions

Ok, so it’s pink, I guess we’ll live with it . The door on the other hand has left something to be desired. Apparently over the years is has seen it’s share of hardship. Constructed of vertical slats it was anything but square. At first we had quite a time closing the darn thing and then we had to get it open again. This took one swift kick or a some good shoulder action. (If felt a little like tying to put a square peg into a round hole.) After a little discussion with the Faddermon back in Kent I choose to put in a few nails and to connect a wire diagonally across to attempt to bring it back to square. While this worked to square up the door it left a considerable gap on the bottom. This, I have learned, is a clear invitation to all the bugs of SA to the party we have every night in the Barr-Wilson bungalow.

Door from the outside. This is after it has been fixed on the inside. Notice it’s hanging straight, but still a little munched.


So on our next trip into town we stopped at Build-It (our Home Depot of sorts) to see if I could get a rubber mud flap like material to block the space. Hearing of our door situation the owner produced a sheet of masonite just the size of a door. (Apparently it was damaged and couldn’t be sold.) His idea was to take the door off the hinges, square it up and then nail the masonite to the door, “just nail the heck out of it,” he said. This would replace the wire. Considering the original door was nicely munched by termites at the bottom I gladly agreed. Only one problem. We travel home from the village using public taxis. We have mentioned before that Khombi rides can become pretty hairy (15-19 people in a small mini-bus) even without a door-sized piece of masonite to cart along with you. Thank goodness the Build-It guys offered to have it sent up with their next delivery guy who was heading though Abbot’s Poort in a week or so.

It arrived just as he has said, awesome! Now we just had to hang it. It was a bit too large for the door, luckily for me I have my trusty Swiss Army knife equipped with a handsaw. The installation was fairly easy once the door was actually made square. So now we have what appears to be a brand new door (from the inside at least), considering the fact that it swings freely and closes without gaps along the side and top this is a big step forward.


The finished product! Including the rubber stripping from home.


The final touch arrived yesterday, graciously donated by the family back home. Who knew getting rubber strips would be that difficult? Thank you again. I think we now have the best PCV door in SA!

Mosquito Nets (It never hurts to steel a good idea.)

Upon arrival in SA Peace Corps supplied us with a mosquito net to hang over our bed. Nobody from our volunteer group was placed in malaria country, but the bugs can get pretty bad even if you aren’t fearing for your life with every high pitched squeal in your ear.

Brandon and Rachel had a fabulous idea for a use of their bug nets so we borrowed it. In fact, the whole Palahla crew now has the same contraption. (PCVs along the Palahla river, Jess, Paul, Suz, Brandon and Rachel.) In town we purchased some Velcro stripping with adhesive backs, enough so that we could outline the perimeter of each window. We then cut up our bug net to make rectangles large enough to cover all of the windows. So now we have window screens to protect us from all of the little creepy crawlies. To open and close our windows all we need do is to pull away the netting and reach underneath to the handle.


Suz, demonstrating the joys of mosquito netting.


A couple nights ago I was reading a book by headlamp, so that Suz could go to sleep without the overhead light on. I had done this once before, when we did not have the netting over the windows. On that occasion my face was constantly attacked by all sorts of winged creatures, but not this time. The netting was doing its job! What an excellent innovation.

So with one step at a time our little place gets better and better!

Crazy Critters

Crazy Critters (Chris Lee this one’s for you.)

A Bushveld Rain Frog. He was found under one of our washing basin after a night of hard rain. You can’t get perspective on him here but he was a little larger than the size of my palm.


A centipede, and yes he was in our house. Just one more example of a creature that was heard before seen. To get perspective, he is about a thick as your index finger and about 6 inches long.



I think I saw this cute little guy in a storybook once.

Dan Key once told me that if you were to line up every species on the planet that every 6th one would be a beetle. I’m really beginning to believe him. (I think this is how this goes. Please correct me if I’m remembering this wrong.)


Locals call this one a “Fire Bug”.


We have no idea what this “little” guy is called but I’m thinking Charging Horny Grasshopper.



The Dung Beetle or “The Tank” as Suz prefers.

We have more stories to share, but will sign-off for now, so this blog can be posted. Hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Joyfully yours,
Mokgadi le Tiro Majadibodu

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has. – Margaret Mead