Sunday, November 11, 2007

Desert Flowers

The rains come suddenly and with intensity here. The salt pan fills with water to make a shallow lake. The greening that follows comes as swiftly as the rains that caused it. The once brown landscape has a glow of life highlighted by the yellow flowers that spring to life. White butterflies swirl around me as I walk to school, but even now, the salt pan has already dried. Once the rains stop, the flowers and greens shall soon fade too. The fleeting presence of such beauty is a reminder of how fragile everything is out here. Ideas, dreams, health, and even life come and go with just as much intensity and brevity as the desert flowers.

Sickness and Health

On Wednesday, despite a mild headache, I decided to bike to Maphalwane P.S. in the middle of the day. This turned out to be a very bad idea. By the time I got home at around 2pm, I was burning up and my head was pounding. For the next two days, I medicated myself with Tylenol and oral rehydration while my host family checked in on my and brought me food. By Friday morning I was finally better though weak and fatigued. The rapidity with which the fever struck shocked me. I think the bike ride contributed to the intensity which made me fear I had heat stroke. I’ll be sure to avoid that kind of exertion in the summer heat again. It was a sobering experience to be sure. It makes the distance set in when I realized that I had to get up out of bed to check my temperature myself because my parents, Kana, and friends were thousands of miles away and my host family doesn’t understand medicine enough to know what exactly to do. However, my host family and local friends were very helpful. The high school boys I’ve befriended and my host sisters would check in on me every few hours, bringing me food or going on errands for me to get some Sprite or biscuits.

Dreams and a Disconnect

I spent part of the past week getting to know some of the people in the neighborhood I live in. I prepared an interview in Setswana and then tried to hold the whole conversation in Setswana and it worked out alright. Part of my questioning was meant to discover what kinds of project there is community interest in. Though I have not yet finished interviewing a large enough group to have a clear picture, it seems that people are very interested in starting income generating projects and a community garden. In one sense, this is wonderful to see interest here. However, it is also saddening because it underlines the lack of awareness within the community itself about what is already available. Through the efforts of the local NGO, Rural Youth Development Organization, there already is one income generating project, a honey making project. However, it is struggling because of lack of community participation. Also through RYDO, there is a garden already but again it is virtually unknown. There is a gap between what people want and what people know that causes a lot of waste. This is evident in the schools as well. Many grade 12 learners have approached me to ask how they should go about applying for bursaries (scholarships). I ask them if they have applied to college yet, and they say they haven’t because they don’t know if they’ll have money to afford college. What they don’t realize, is that they must already be accepted into college to apply for a bursary. Something I will have to work on is figuring out how to improve communication so that the dreams of the youth and the community don’t sit around only to shrivel up in the desert.

A Life Barely Lived

This past Tuesday, one of the girls in grade ten at the high school passed away after struggling with TB. Although AIDS is a huge problem in South Africa it gets a disproportionate amount of media attention in the West compared to TB which is just as real a killer here. The local clinic in my village estimates that roughly 30% of the population has TB. I’m not sure how accurate that is but it’s probably a decent ballpark figure. This Saturday, I joined a group of my teachers to go to the funeral at 5:30am in the morning. The funeral took place in Mokhubung, which is one of the villages of Tsoe about 8 km south of the school. We arrived at the house of the parents at 6am. The traditional funeral tent was up in front of the house and inside, a group of six women stood surrounding the casket, lit candles in hand. An all night vigil is done before the burial. After some time, other women go to take the place of those around the casket. By now, a large crowd has already gathered and is seated around the women. The crowd has spilled out of the tent and we stand in the back row until more chairs are brought. Prayers are said and hymns are sung. A few people make speeches but I only understand a little. After an hour, the crowd parts and the casket is moved into the back of a pick-up. Then the crowd processes down to the cemetery. Mokhubung is in the hills around the salt flats and as we process down, I am struck by the beauty of the scene sweeping my eyes out over the procession along the red brown road, over the green hills, across the white salt pan and finally resting on the wide blue sky. Finally, the procession arrives at the small plot. There are only 3 other graves on the small flat piece of earth. We gather round and the casket is placed. Prayers are said and holy water is used to bless the ground and casket. As they begin to lower it into the ground, several women, and notably one young man walk off a short distance and begin to cry. The grief is palpable as others move off to console those that have left. Once lowered, the men all line up and we take turns shoveling earth until the grave has been filled. Then more hymns are sung and prayers said before two of the oldest men in the gathering say some words, thanking the guests for coming and adding some light words to bring some cheer. We then walk back up to the home and wash our hands in the communal basin (a sign that our hands are clean and played no role in the death of the departed). Then we eat the traditional funeral fare. There is a choice of samp or rice to eat with a tomato based sauce, shredded beef (tshotle?), cabbage, and a cup of juice. After eating, people slowly begin to disperse and get back to their daily life. Though this is the first funeral I’ve attended at my site, there seems to be one almost every weekend even in my small village. When I’ve talked to teachers and other adults about their weekly schedule, many have said Friday’s are for helping with funeral preparations and Saturdays for helping with the funeral.

After I returned home, my host mother was gone to another funeral. The next day my host grandmother is away at another funeral. The constant procession of death reminds me how much I have to be thankful for and how little there is that can be taken for granted. The beauty of the village and its warm people is set against the despair of disease, alcoholism, and apathy. The sea of yellow flowers cannot hide the summer sun and the withering heat that it brings. Yet, the flowers do not seem to mind, springing from the sandy ground and living boldly if only for a month or too, spreading their petals open, almost defiantly, to the burning sun. So I must get to work, taking the fragile ideas and projects that exist in the minds of me and my counterparts, and expose them to the burning realities of South African rural life. Maybe, just maybe, one or two will actually take root.