Nov 17, 2009

News: the road goes ever on and on

This is a picture of the road to Heuningvlei.

Not much has changed here in my village. The students are taking their end-of-year tests, as the year is over the second week in December. I’m helping write the exams, as I’ve been teaching nearly all the English and maths classes for the senior phase (grade 7-9). I’m getting ready for the Thanksgiving celebration in town, which should be a nice get-together for us Northern Capesters. I’m also preparing for my Christmas vacation in Eastern Cape with a load of other Peace Corps. It will be nice to get out of the desert for a time.

I’ve been practicing my Setswana, which seems to be improving, albeit very slowly. Oddly, I’ve been practicing Afrikaans a lot, and improving very fast. I think this is mostly due to my possession of a good Afrikaans-English dictionary, and a couple Afrikaans books. I’m not quite sure why I want to learn—the language has a strange attraction for me. All the double letters, the harsh yet romantic sound of it (consider words like “belangrik,” or “Highveld”), it’s just cool. I've always liked the idea of speaking other languages in any case--which ones are of secondary importance. I think I’m almost alone in this pursuit—that and my obsessive blog posts are my most distinctive attributes amongst my cohort of Peace Corps. Though on the other hand, Afrikaans is very close to Dutch, which is very close to German and Flemish in its turn. If I ever turn up in Europe I may be glad for my studying.

I’m also integrating into the village, even more slowly than I’m learning Setswana. This weekend there was a funeral for one of my neighbors, so a whole bunch of my host family showed up to hang out and spend the whole weekend shitfaced. A local mentally ill guy with a crushed nose showed up as well, and he would not stop speaking to me in Afrikaans no matter what I did. That was a bit off-putting, but I also talked for a long time with a woman named Maletsatsi (my host niece technically, I think, but she’s 29) who is a civil engineer for the local government. It’s always interesting to talk to someone whose English is good enough that I can’t easily confuse her—with most everyone else I can drawl a bit, or talk fast, or use a few idiomatic expressions and become unintelligible.

As I speak to other volunteers I’m getting the impression that I am in a nearly unique situation. It’s definitely against Peace Corps policy for my family to sell alcohol, and living in what amounts to a tavern can be a little weird sometimes (like when I wake up on Sunday at 8:00 to find a couple guys already staggering drunk). Yet I like my host family, and I try to participate where I can, like helping brew some of their hooch. I’ve always prided myself on my ability to handle rough situations, to not be disgusted or scared by poverty. One of my few talents, if I can call it that. I might not be sophisticated, or have good taste, or be able to cook, or have sexy hair like Cary Grant, but I can handle indigence. Still, being a female here would be out of the question. South Africa is a rough place to be a woman.

One other thought: the power of English continues to amaze me. So adaptable, so plastic, so many different little dialects everywhere around the world—mostly I’m astounded at the how far the language has penetrated foreign countries, and how much it is embraced by different cultures around the world. Knowing English as well as I do gives me tremendous power, and I’m just beginning to realize the extent of it. (Of course, English might be as it is because it was the language of the world’s most powerful empires for several centuries, and we've made it a huge advantage to know English well, but that’s a question for another time.) I wonder if anyone will be speaking Setswana in 100 years.
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