Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Lekgoa and the Lekwerekwere

“Lekgoa! Lekgoa!” the children scream as they run behind me. Well, I guess it’s not surprising; it’s what you expect as the only white person in the village. Every Peace Corps Volunteer is told to expect it. Wait a second…

I’m not white.

There is no mob of little people trailing me in adoration. There is no verbal labeling of “Whitey”. But there is another type of labeling.

My white colleagues may at first find me in an enviable position. As an American of South Asian decent, I fit rather well into my Tswana village. There are roughly half a dozen Bangladeshi and Pakistani shop owners (in addition to the Somali and the Chinese couple). When I showed up in the village, I wasn’t a rock star. People assumed I had come to sell biscuits and cooldrink (pop…or soda…or coke…whatever). Granted, it’s been almost a year now so people have mostly figured out that’s not my shtick. In a couple of months, if all goes well, when villagers see children reading books under trees and condoms flowing freely from the taverns, they’ll shake their heads and say, “Oh, that KB…” But it’s taken a lot to get to this point. Upon entering my village, I quickly realized, I needed to make an effort to go out and introduce myself to people. If I showed up at a community event or was just walking around the village, I did not attract the attention, questions, and introductions that my fairer skinned friends received a few villages away. I didn’t mind. The challenge added to the impetus to bulk up on language and social networking skills.

The biggest challenge of not being a “Lekgoa” PCV is knowing when to pre-empt a random stranger by somehow declaring, “Wait! I’m not Makwerekwere! I’m an American volunteer.” Ma-what? While Lekgoa is used to reference to any White, non-South African or English South African, Makwerekwere is used to reference migrant workers and illegal immigrants. Makwerekwere is mostly used in reference to other African’s but can extend to the East and South Asians who work all over the country and are often perceived as “stealing” jobs. Examining each word etymologically is an interesting exercise. I’ve heard two different tales of the origins of Lekgoa.

Lekgoa – “lay-k’ho-a” – n. – a European or white American, “whitey”

The first, perhaps more fanciful origin, is that the word is a combination of the Tswana/Sotho words “lewatle” and “go kqwa”. These word’s mean “ocean” and “to spit”, respectively. Hence “Lekgoa” would be “The spit of the ocean” because the first white people to arrive in South Africa were more or less spat up from the ocean. Lovely [1]. The second, and perhaps more credible explanation is that the word finds its roots in the verb “go kgoa” which means “to be rude or have no manners”. Adding “le-“ is a common way to nounify a verb in Setswana [2]. (Now, I have friends that complain that the “le-/ma-“ noun class is an object class used to describe things like brooms, spoons, and bad people like thieves. Honestly, though, “lekgarebe” and “lekgau” are in the same class and mean “girlfriend” and “boyfriend” respectively, so no more complaining on that count.)

Lekwerekwere – “lay-kway-ray-kway-ray” – n. – non-southern African African’s, illegal immigrants, the equivalent of “spick” in American English.

This also has many fanciful candidates for an origin story, but the most credible one I’ve found comes from Lesotho. The Sotho equivalent is “lekoerekoere” and it’s origin is pretty much the same as the origin of the word “barbarian”. When Sotho speaking southern African’s encountered other Africans, it sounded like they were speaking gibberish saying “kwere-kwere-kwere” so there you have it, they are the “makwerekwere”.

So on the face of it, “Lekgoa” seems like a greater slur than “Lekwerekwere” but the subtext of South Africa flips that on its head.

When the xenophobic attacks broke out, people at home became frantic because PCVs are also foreigners and might be targeted. But there are two classes of foreigners in South Africa; the Lekgoa and the Lekwerekwere. Xenophobia is mostly targeted at the latter. “Makwerekwere” was originally restricted to other Africans, but unfortunately, I feel like the term has become a bit more derogatory in South Africa and signifies a sentiment against any “foreigner” that is seen to be taking jobs. I was told that I shouldn’t worry about the attacks because it was aimed at other Africans. Then I watched the news and saw a Bangladeshi guy almost in tears talking about how a mob came and destroyed everything he had worked years to create. In the background, some cops were standing around outside of his shop, laughing. My Bangladeshi shop owner friends started locking up earlier each night.

So really, even if I was white, I wouldn’t mind being called “Lekgoa” every day. At least it means, people know I’m a foreigner and not an Afrikaaner. Not that there is anything wrong with being Afrikaaner. It would just lead to a lot of other unspoken assumptions that could be problematic. Instead, whenever I travel to a city or a new taxi rank, I ask myself, who is calling me “Makwerekwere” in their head and what can I do to change their mind. I have never heard someone call me “Makwerekwere” to my face and if I did, I would probably be better off showing them my heels; whether that meant kicking them in the face or running away, would probably depend on how many of them there were. (On the plus side, I do get called “my friend” which is the generic village term for any South Asian shopowner. The less nice term for South Asians is “coolie” or “macoolie” in Tswana)

Riding a khumbi is always a unique experience. Cramming a minimum of 14 people, a driver, a few babies, luggage, groceries, and perhaps two, three, or ten more people into a minibus van has a tendency to bring out the best and worst in people. A week ago, two of my teachers were shopping in town and loading up a taxi to take their things back to the village. Now, these teachers, like most of my teachers, are not Batswana (Tswana people). They come from Gauteng, Limpopo, Eastern Cape, KZN, Mpumalanga, etc. They serve a village educating kids while their own kids are thousands of kilometers away. Some of them have been doing it for up to 13 years. I have a huge respect for them because I know I couldn’t do this for much more than two years. So, two of these teachers were at the taxi loading up and leaving some bags on their seats to save their spots.

A woman came buy, looked angrily at the seats and demanded, “Why are those bags on the seat?”
Mme S replied, “We are loading our things. That is where my friend Mme M is going to sit.”
The woman grunted in disapproval, removed the bags, and sat down. Mme M confronted her about it to which the woman replied,

“You teachers think you are so special but you’re just Makwerekwere who came here on the back of some trucks. You should just go back to where you came from.”
“Excuse me, we are teaching your children.”
“You’re just here because you can’t get a job in your home. We aren’t stupid. Why do we need you to teach our children?”
“So where are your teachers then?”

In the end both my teachers made it back to the village but they were both fuming. It made me wonder what people might be thinking about me on the khumbi, or anywhere really.

But being “Lekwerekwere” isn’t always a bad thing. When a group is stereotyped and clumped together, people that previously had no connection tend to unite and watch each other’s backs. On a taxi, a South Asian will always give me a knowing nod. Non-South African African’s will approach me in the taxi rank to ask for help or directions, sometimes choosing to talk to me over South Africans. Once, a village shop owner that I’d never met before sat next to me on a taxi. After saying hello we sat in silence for one and a half hours until we came to a gas station. While the tank filled, he got out and came back with two Powerades and handed me one. Again, I got the knowing nod. I like that nod.

Most recently, I was standing by the side of the road waiting for a taxi to take me back to my village. There were a few Tswana people waiting as well as a guy that I’m going to guess was Somali. I greeted everyone as usual and we stood around for a long time. Finally a taxi came but had only two spots open. A woman with a small child got in as well as the Somali guy. Once I saw the taxi was full, I turned around to go sit down. When I didn’t hear the engine start, I turned around to see the Somali guy gesturing for me to come back. He said I had arrived before him so shouldn’t wait and he squeezed over to give me room to cram in. There were other people who had arrived earlier too but he knew I was a strange person in a strange land, just like him, and lent a hand with a knowing nod.

I used to be a bit annoyed that I didn’t have the “Pied Piper Effect”. I used to be relieved to not constantly be harangued by people yelling “Lekgoa”. Being a white volunteer brings challenges and benefits. Being a minority volunteer brings challenges and benefits. They just are different challenges and benefits. In the end you just have to be aware of it, be mindful of it, and give a little nod.

(1) This first explanation comes from my Pre-Service Training language instructor, in incredible Gordan.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Turning the Page

Disclaimer: The month of July was somewhat tumultuous for me on a personal level. Now at last, I feel enough at peace to write again. However, I’ve also debated at level of detail which I wish to write about my own private life in a domain as public as this blog. I understand that part of the point of a blog is to share one’s private life and indeed that is what I’ve been doing, but there are some things that I don’t think are right to put out so openly. The most I will say is this: the past month has made me more deeply aware of the beauty of life and the sorrow of death; the comfort of love and the pain of separation. Those of you who are my friends reading this will probably find out more detail about this past month from me at some point through a more private means of communication. Nevertheless, the private struggle of the last month has helped me focus more clearly on my public work as a volunteer. So, I apologize if this post seems to be high on philosophy and low on storyline but I want to share the upshot of the last month.

It’s now been over a year since I arrived in South Africa (September 21 will mark 1 year as an official Peace Corps Volunteer). I’ve been going through many transitions all at once. The main project that consumes my time at the moment is my library and literacy campaign. I’ve also found myself reading and writing a lot more recently. The cold winter is slowly warming to spring. Some changes are welcome, some are dreaded, but all seem to become more manageable when taken in the context of a bigger picture. Every change, no matter the size, is the turning of a page. Though the good ones may seem small and insignificant, they help move us forward bit by bit. Though the bad ones seem insurmountable, they too will be buried behind chapters with time.

The Family Book

July Holiday

My family and Kana came to visit for two weeks. We went to Zambia to see Victoria Falls and then traveled back to South Africa to see Kruger, my village, and a few other places along the way. It was an incredible time, though bittersweet at points.
When everyone arrived, we spent a day to allow them to get over jetlag and just hang out. We got dinner with a bunch of my volunteer friends in Pretoria one night. The next day we went to a mall and my parents insisted on getting me a new pair of shoes since the ones I was wearing had holes in them and had had their soles glued back on twice. We also saw Kung-Fu Panda, which was great (my second time seeing it…). Then we packed up and got on a plane to head to Victoria Falls.

Rainbows in the mist

Victoria Falls was incredible and the place we stayed, the Royal Livingstone, was something out of a fairy tale. It’s basically the epitome of luxury within my life’s experience so far, and probably will remain so for quite a while. At check in, they walk you into a spacious lounge, seat you on a couch, give you fresh juice and a hand massage, while taking your particulars. You then get on a golf cart and are driven to your room/cottage, equipped with its own butler. Outside, giraffes and zebras are roaming around on the banks of the Zambezi River, in which hippos wallow. You can see the mist rising from the falls, which are only a 10 minute walk away. The meals are exquisite and the staff, incredibly warm. When you return to your room after dinner, you find the bed turned down for you, covered in rose petals, bathrobes and slippers laid out nicely, and soothing light classical music playing. After a year of battling cock-roaches, baking under a corrugated iron roof, and subsisting on pap and peanut butter, it was almost too much to completely soak in. The falls themselves were magnificent, with a spray that would leave you doused just walking by it. It was quite different than Niagara Falls, with its sheer breadth enough to leave you in awe. With Victoria Falls, it was hard to take in the whole falls at once. It is more reticent to disclose its full splendor. There is also a surprising lack of guardrails at hazardous locations. One evening we went on a sunset cruise up the Zambezi River. It was very relaxing and we got a chance to see some more hippos and elephants from our boat.

It's a baby!

Soon though, the lazy days came to an end and we headed back to South Africa. We drove a little north of Pretoria and spent the night. The next day we headed to Magoebaskloof on our way to Kruger. Magoesbaskloof is a beautiful area, full of mountains and waterfalls. We did a short hike from our hotel to a waterfall and spent time just hanging out. The next day we headed into Kruger to Gomo Gomo Game Lodge. It is in the Timbavati Private Game Reserve which is part of the Greater Kruger, but technically not part of the national park. Every day at 5:30am we’d get a wake-up call. By 6:30am we were in our Land Rover with our ranger and tracker looking for wildlife. We’d come back at 10 and have breakfast before going for a nature walk where we’d learn about tracks, droppings, and flora. At 2pm we’d have lunch and then 3:30pm mount back up for an afternoon game drive. We’d be back by 7:30 and have dinner and be in bed by 9ish. During the night, we couldn’t go outside our rooms because there are no fences. One night, some lions walked through our camp. I don’t remember all the animals we saw but there were a lot. We saw all the big five: lion, leopard, elephant, water buffalo, and rhino. We also saw giraffes, zebras, hippos, crocodiles, a multitude of different antelope, eagles, cranes, chameleons, mongoose, bushbabies, baboons, monkeys, and more. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.


After Kruger, we drove up through the Blyde River Canyon and I got to share some of my favorite spots of South Africa with my family. We stayed in Graskop and I haggled with some street vendors to get two drums. One huge ornamental one that got sent home, and one djembe for me to play here. It was the last full day of the trip with Kana. The next day we drove to the airport and sent her off back to Japan. From there we continued on our way out west. The next day we went to Vryburg and got to do some major shopping for me. I still have tons of food I’m trying to finish. We then made our way up to Tsoe where I shared the people and places I’ve grown to love with my family. We even had time to make a small jaunt down to Perth to see Art. After a few days though, they had to head back and I had to prepare for getting back to work.
It was wonderful to spend time with my family and Kana, and to share my life here with them. At the same time, I realized that the life I return to a year from now will have little resemblance to the one I left last year. The care and affection for the important people in my life will remain, but the details, the locations, and the terms of all relationships changes with time.

Pages of a Troubled Past

Before, during, and after the vacation, I was busy trying to put together the 3rd PCSA Cultural Panel for the Pre-Service Training of SA18. The Diversity Committee started this panel, which brings together speakers from different racial backgrounds to share their life experiences with the trainees and give them a better understanding of the often complex racial subtext on which our service takes place. Unfortunately I was unable to lock down a white speaker and logistics ended up being a nightmare, but it was well worth it to get to befriend three amazing South Africans and help them share their stories with the trainees. While changing names to preserve privacy, I’d like to share some of the highlights that these speakers shared with me.

Mma Mabatho was raised in the townships but spent her adult life in a rural community. She was the last child of her parents and her father, who had so wanted a son, decided to raise her as one. He taught her that she was responsible fully to herself and should never let anyone, man or woman make her think she was less than them. When she got beat up by a boy in school, her father didn’t get angry; he gave her boxing lessons so that next time, she walloped the punk. Living out in rural South Africa, she defied traditions, wearing pants and driving trucks while she was pregnant. Still, she forged her image as a leader, developing her community and pushing education. She is a testament to the individual that doesn’t just fight against the restrictions of society, but transcends them in a way that makes them seem non-existent to an onlooker. In a world still dominated by males and tainted with chauvinism, her and her father are archetypes of a bright future.

Yvonne is a young colored woman from KZN. When going through high school, she approached her principal saying she wanted to go to tertiary school. He looked at her in disbelief and tried to convince her to just get a job like everyone else. After struggling for a year in a university for which her high school had not prepared her, she begrudgingly took his advice, working five years before deciding, to hell with them all, she was going to educate herself. She went back to school, studying by day, working by night, and finished her bachelors. She took some time off from education to be a mother and get a job but is ready to go back for further education now. She is an incredibly driven woman, very well read, and well spoken. She eloquently lays out the great contradictions of the colored identity. Kept at arms distance by the white government, they now find themselves kept at arms distance by the black government because they were seen as trying to be white when it was fashionable and now trying to be black. It was hard to fit them into the Apartheid system because they were the evidence that Apartheid didn’t really work. It was illegal for whites and blacks to have sex but somehow these colored babies kept popping up. Yvonne was raised in a household where her parents rejected the label colored saying, we’re all black and we’re all in this together. She is passionate about developing the human potential of South Africa, even taking in kids from bad home situations and helping to raise and educate them.

Mr. Chandra was born in the late ‘40s and lived through the lifetime of Apartheid. Growing up in a small hut in an Indian township in Durban, he’d read by candlelight until his eyes hurt, seeing education as his only way out of the system. When he got his first bicycle, he was so excited he biked 5km to the beach for the first time. He didn’t have much time to enjoy the view of the Indian Ocean as a crowd of white boys gathered and started stoning him for daring to wander onto a white beach. Later, Mr. Chandra became a teacher and worked his way up the education system. One day for lunch, he and some colleagues went out for lunch at the SA equivalent of Wendy’s, called Wimpy’s. As they sat down at the counter, the manager approached them and said, “You can’t stay here. If you want to get food, go order at the pigeon hole outside. If you sit here, no one will come in here.” Indignant they all left eventually. In 1996, after the fall of Apartheid, Mr. Chandra went back to the same Wimpy’s and sat down. The very same manager was still there and came, this time with a smile on his face and ready to serve. Mr. Chandra asked if the manager remembered him, which he did not. He reminded him of the incident and the manager looked mortified and begged his forgiveness for participation in the system. What struck me was that Mr. Chandra did not harbor ill feelings towards those people that slighted him, he realized that they were also manipulated by the system and so could not be fully blamed. Now, Mr. Chandra is the principal of a school in an Afrikaans town that is now integrated. He is known and respected by all people there and is the go-to man if anyone has any problem with anything. Chatting after the panel he was saying how speaking about these things was interesting to him because he usually didn’t talk about the past. So much is buried inside that stirring it up can make one uncomfortable. Yet, he said, it was necessary to confront and make peace with the past if we are to turn the page and begin writing a future.

Books for a Brighter Future

Back in my village, I’ve been busy at work preparing for 1000 books to arrive at my school. I apologize to all those who generously donated that I have not yet sent out the thank you letters I should have sent out long ago. The books will be arriving in two weeks. In the meantime I’ve been busy preparing for their arrival. Our library committee is revving up. We’ve recruited to student librarians and I’ve got about 6 teachers behind me. We’ve begun cleaning out the shelves and sorting through the books we currently have. I’ve set up Koha Integrated Library Software on a computer ( and been setting it up to catalog all our books so we can register library members and run circulation with the computer. This past week, I went to the tribal meeting to speak about the library and recruit community volunteers to be librarians. Before the meeting began, I met two young villagers on the Youth Council. They both are bright young people who want to build up more skills but don’t have a job. They both signed up to help and then helped me during the meeting to explain exactly what a library is and how it can be useful to the village. When I got up to speak, I gave my presentation in seTswana. After a few sentences, an old cantankerous man stood up, ignored the chairperson and began railing about how he couldn’t understand what I was saying and that I should have brought an interpreter. To my immense relief, villagers all around started yelling at him saying to shut up and sit down because they could hear me just fine. Deflated, he sat down and I continued after the crowd said they understood me perfectly and wanted me to continue. At the end of the presentation, I sat down and the crowd applauded. A couple of people asked me questions about what kinds of books they could find and what they could do. One of my newly recruited assistants stood up and added some further information.

The next day, my friend George, another old villager, came to me and said he was so sorry that other man had harassed me and that they all understood me perfectly and appreciated what I was doing. Then on Friday as I was sorting through old books and writing up instructions, an older man came to the library and asked to see me. He was interested in finding some books on agriculture, particularly about pigs. Since the library is not nearly set up yet, I guided him through the piles and hastily created a circulation log and explained the lending rules. He was very excited to see borrow the books and also wanted to sign up to help with the organization of the library. In a village where reading just isn’t done, seeing an older man excited to have some books in his hands fills me with confidence as I prepare myself for some grueling weeks of cataloging and book sorting. Of course, it will be a long and tiring journey to making a library that is not only functional but also utilized but page by page, we are going to get there.

Keeping the Narrative Alive

I’ve been thinking deeply about what the meaning of change is and what is the point of struggling and suffering. My own, comparatively petty, struggles aside, I look around me every day: seeing teenagers that can’t write their own names, seeing girls having babies in middle school so they can get a government check, seeing an endless line of funerals, seeing the few kids that have dreams find them strangled in a bureaucracy that doesn’t care about anything except its own politics. I ask myself, what can I possibly offer them? Society has already written their story for them. Am I making it worse to even try to give them a glimpse of something better if they may never escape this poverty? No. The thought itself is dangerously akin to the patronizing talk that built up Apartheid and the Bantu Education system in the first place. I am not here imposing “development” on anyone. I am here to help people realize they have choices. If they are willing to make some tough choices, they can take their lives in their own hands and reclaim their future. The choice is still theirs as it always has been. I am here to help them realize that they still have a choice and help them find all the information they need to make the choice they want to make. My thoughts go back to a prayer I remember from my childhood, “Lord, give me the courage to change what should be changed, the grace to accept what cannot be changed, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Theistic beliefs aside, striving for such courage, grace, and wisdom is key to any type of development work, whether it be civil development or personal development. When thinking of the dire situation some of my kids here are faced with, I think of Michael K from Coetzee’s book “The Life and Times of Michael K.” Whatever struggles we face, if at the end we can feel free and in control of our life. The end of that book, after so much despair and suffering, is to me, one of the most uplifting passages I’ve ever read. So this quote probably won’t make sense if you haven’t read the book and if you haven’t you may not want to read this, as it is the end of the book but I feel it is fitting to end on a final page:

“And if the old man climbed out of the cart and stretched himself (things were gathering pace now) and looked at where the pump had been that the soldiers had blown up so that nothing should be left standing, and complained, saying, 'What are we going to do about water?,' he, Michael K, would produce a teaspoon from his pocket, a teaspoon and a long roll of string. He would clear the rubble from the mouth of the shaft, he would bend the handle of the teaspoon in a loop and tie the string to it, he would lower it down the shaft deep into the earth, and when he brought it up, there would be water in the bowl of the spoon; and in that way, he would say, one can live.” – Closing of “The Life and Times of Michael K” by J.M. Coetzee

Sunset over the Zambezi