Beautiful Venda

Rondevals and maize in Venda.

Rondevals and maize in Venda.

I had been asked by a fellow PCV in December if I could come facilitate a permagarden workshop at her site, which I quickly agreed to. I was a little worried because her site is quite far from mine, in an entirely different climate in SA: up in Venda, or northern Limpopo province.

Start of the workshop!

Start of the workshop!

Fun fact: during Apartheid, Venda (home of the Venda people) was one of the few regions that actually because a sovereign country. The Apartheid government intended to make several of these areas, but Venda was one of the few that were actually created and recognized as a sovereign nation. Due to this, the Venda culture is still very strong. Where I live in SA was also an independent homeland during Apartheid, Bophuthatswana….but the Tswana culture didn’t survive Apartheid as well as Venda did.

Completing the compost heap.

Completing the compost heap.

Anyways, I was delighted to travel to one of the most beautiful parts of South Africa, and excited to garden in an area where things actually grow (unlike the Kalahari Desert). After approval with my APCD, I merged this workshop into a trip that would include a visit to a potential third year site, where one of the awesome SA24 PCVs live.

Takalani and her counterpart, Bruni.

Takalani and her counterpart, Bruni.

After a stop at my favourite backpackers in Pretoria (Khayalethu), I hopped on a bus up to Venda. The further north I went, the more lush and mountainous the landscape became. Finally, up near Louis Trichardt, I fell in love with Venda, its numerous mango trees, the intense green of summer, and the gently rolling mountains that contrasted sharply with my dry, flat, Kalahari home. I met up with Takalani, the PCV who I was helping.

Nearby students dancing....hard to talk over the drums and singing, but fun to watch anyways.

Nearby students dancing….hard to talk over the drums and singing, but fun to watch anyways.

The next two days were spent leading an intense permagarden workshop and drinking in the beauty of Venda. The workshop went very well, despite near constant translation, a cramped room, and interruptive culture dancing while we were working in the garden (ohhhhh Africa….it was still fun to watch). Despite my age, the people-adults and professionals who work in OVC drop-in centers all over Venda-were eager to listen and learn from me. A guy from the department of Agriculture attended the whole workshop and was excited to see the permaculture methods I was teaching. This is the second very positive experience with the Dept of Agric I’ve had while training, and I really hope to make some connections-they are amazingly supportive of permaculture, which makes me very happy!

Getting ready to plant seedlings.

Getting ready to plant seedlings.

A completed trench bed, with Takalani and the Dept of Ag guy next to her.

A completed trench bed, with Takalani and the Dept of Ag guy next to her.

At the end of the workshop, I knew a little more Venda and honestly didn’t want to leave the area. I’ve learned to see the beauty of the desert, but it was hard to leave the lush semi-jungle of Venda. However, I managed to travel via 4 (FOUR) bush taxis down to Southern Limpopo the day after the workshop to visit a potential third year site, but I think that deserves its own post.
-Jen

Wormery session.

Wormery session.

Sibasa, near Thohoyandou in Venda.

Sibasa, near Thohoyandou in Venda.

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The Real Faces of Apartheid

Putting a face to a story, or finding someone who lived through an event always makes such events more “real” to a person. I’m living in a country where I interact daily with people who lived through the horrors of Apartheid-who were so crushed and oppressed, who lost loved ones at the hands of policemen. But we don’t talk about it, at least not on a personal level.

Maybe the pain is still too much. Maybe people want to put it behind them. Maybe it’s because I’m white. But the reality is that Apartheid still exists in many areas of the country, my village included. Racisms and xenophobia run strong, and racial tension is ever-present, pulsing in the background of my South African life. Maybe I don’t talk about Apartheid to people because I am afraid to hear their stories. Maybe it’s because I’m ashamed of what my race did.

During the December holidays, I had two poignant moments where the realities of Apartheid reached out and slapped me in the face. It became more real because I put a face to Apartheid, hearing the real life stories of my friends. One filled me with sadness, and the other with utter horror.

While at my PDC, I met some new friends who I shall call Priya, Sephiwe, and Josephine*. Priya is an older Indian lady, and Josephine is a young black lady, around my age. Josephine was too young to experience the darkest times of Apartheid, but she remembers the birth of democracy and has grown up in the period where the Rainbow Nation struggled to emerge from decades of oppression. Priya lived her young adult years during the worst periods of Apartheid. Sephiwe grew up during the 80s, when the violence was at its worst and the Apartheid government was realizing the end was around the corner.

We stood outside a museum, waiting for it to open, when Priya started talking about how her grandfather was forced out of his home during Apartheid. As an Indian man, he was no longer allowed to live in his neighbourhood with the Group Areas Act. One day he came home and found his belongings on the sidewalk, forcibly removed from his home. Can you imagine? After Apartheid ended, the government pretended to make amends by offering him land again. But how can you replace a home, once it has been brutally taken away, the safety of home shattered?

Sephiwe began talking about living in a township in the 80s, when he was attending secondary school. Townships were generally dangerous to live in, and the 80s saw many uprisings. One day he was at school and gunshots rang out: the police had come to shoot. He ran desperately away from the school, fleeing bullets and death. He also saw his classmates get brutally beaten by the police. Once home, he told his mother what had happened, who promptly beat him, then sent him to another school, away from the township.

All three recounted stories of friends and family who disappeared. Some emerge from harsh torture and interrogation sessions. Others were never heard from again. Their families desperately sought information about their fates at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to no avail. Even today, their fates are unknown.

Josephine reflected that it is a miracle that anyone survived Apartheid, which Sephiwe quickly affirmed. Meanwhile, I choked back tears.

A few weeks later, I sat in the home of a wonderfully kind Afrikaner family, enjoying a braai while getting to know some new friends. Kathy*, the mother of the family, was a spry, middle-aged mom who seemed like she’d be perfect at a PTA fundraiser. Around the dinner table, we started talking about Pretoria. Kathy, who had been a career military woman during Apartheid, started talking about the suburb of Hillbrow. During Apartheid, it was a black area and was very dangerous. She told us that they used to go to Hillbrow when people started getting “restless” and would start shooting, to remind them of their place. The gunfire would quell the violence and create a temporary peace.

I tried to hide my expression of horror. I couldn’t believe that this kind lady would speak of such shootings without a hint of shame or regret. That was the norm. That was her job. She did what she was supposed to do and doesn’t seem to understand the effects of such violence, even 19 years after Apartheid.

Living in a country where an oppressive government was so recently dismantled means I constantly navigate a delicate racial reality everyday. Rarely am I not aware of my race, but hearing these stories isn’t common. It is very difficult to hear them, and realize the pain and loss so many people went through. Furthermore, it is difficult to be reminded that many white people do not understand the horrors of Apartheid, and how much racism still lives.

As I look out at a group of women sitting beneath a tree outside my school, sharing a meal, talking, and laughing, I see a beautiful community. But I also see abject poverty and hardened, wrinkled faces. What horrors have these women been subjected to? What violence have they faced? Who have they lost? And yet they are resilient. They have come together today to clean our school, making it a safety and more beautiful for their children, the future of Africa. And when they see me, a young white women, they greet me and smile with laughter as I greet them back in their mother tongue.

This country has been through so much, and there is still much that is broken, struggling to heal from the deep wounds of Apartheid. I struggle with racial tension every day, but I also know that I have the power to change opinions. I see a gentle shift in my village and how people in my community relate to me. Maybe we are on the path to becoming colorblind, but it is a long, slow walk.

*All names have been changed.
-Jen

Reflections on South Africa: Redistribution of Wealth

During Apartheid, nearly all the wealth in SA was concentrated amongst the white population, while the Indian, Coloured, and Black populations were left without, especially the black people. This was, obviously, one of the many problems with Apartheid, and one that wasn’t easily resolved in 1994, at the advent of a new, democratic South Africa.

Nowadays, wealth is spread out more evenly among all the populations in SA, but vast inequalities still exist. There are more black people on the list of wealthiest people in SA. However, the Census 2011 found that white people make SIX TIMES the average salary of black people here. WOW! Six times as much. This means that many black people, who represent 79% of SA, are frustrated by the lack of fiscal improvement since Apartheid.

So some take it into their own hands to redistribute the wealth.

How? They rob white people. This may sound incredibly racist to you, but it is a reality here, not a stereotype. Of course, white people commit crimes here, as do Indians and Coloured people, and Black South Africans are victims of crime as well. But being a white people in a rural area makes me a target.

PC warned us about this “redistribution of wealth” and how some black people do not consider it stealing. They believe that since white people have money, they can easily afford to replace a smart phone, bank card, computer, car, etc. And because they can afford to replace it without suffering, it’s not really stealing. Sixty-seven years of Apartheid and inferior education brough up generations of Black South Africans who believed that their education wouldn’t help them suceed, and those ideas still exist amongst younger South Africans. Instead of trying to get a better education, which can be nearly impossible in village schools, many end up falling into a life of crime.

I’m a white person, and I can’t easily afford to replace my blackberry if it was stolen. I would replace it though, even if I had to skimp on food. But stealing from someone is still a crime, even if they can replace what you stole.

Last month, I watched my friend get mugged in our shopping town. We were heading out of the taxi rank, where no white people go, besides us. We were being careful because we knew it was a dangerous area of the town for us. Regardless, she got her phone stolen. She replaced it later, but that doesn’t mean a crime wasn’t committed. Redistribution of wealth? No, it was a CRIME. This attitude NEEDS to stop.

I think it’s awful that a typical white person make six times the amount as a typical black South African. I hate that I’m a target because of my skin colour. I hate that the education has failed black children, funnelling many into a life of crime in order to escape poverty. But I also hate that some people choose to use their race as an excuse to be a criminal.

*Please note: terms like white, black, Indian, and coloured are OFFICIAL designations of race here, and not offensive or colloquial terms.*
-Jen

Riots, Strikes, and Toitoing

The school flag flying at half staff in honor of the victims at the Lonmin mine.

The school flag flying at half staff in honor of the victims at the Lonmin mine.

Since coming to South Africa, strikes and riots (toitoi in the village) have been an ever present reality. I know of about a dozen PCVs from my cohort alone that have been misplaced temporarily or permanently. One had villagers burn down the school, and others have struggled against burning tires, barricades, bribery, and school shutdowns. My village has been safe, only because they spent the previous two years rioting and striking. Almost all of these cases are because the villagers want a tar road, which mine is now getting. But strikes have happened numerous times at the national level or in large cities because of the stagnant economy, staggering unemployment rate, corruption, poverty, or lack of “service delivery”…South Africans are very unhappy with the state of the nation, and with the government. For a good reason too.

Last week’s strike and massacre at the Marikana/Lonmin platinum mine in Rustenburg brought some of the problems South Africa faces to the international stage. Sadly, it cost more than 40 lives and brought memories of Apartheid and the Sharpeville Massacre to the forefront of the nation’s mind. It broke my heart to see footage of the “rainbow nation” opening fire on miners who work incredibly hard for a tiny paycheck. I’ve driven by mines, possibly even the Marikana mine. Surrounding the mines are endless shantytowns, tin piled on sticks that serve as houses. I’ve seen the level of poverty and the hardships mining families face. And I know that miners consider themselves lucky because they actually have a job. I can only imagine the terror that followed the massacre, and the fear that must have been tangible in the Marikana shantytown. Who didn’t come home? Which families suddenly lost the only income they had? How will the mining community recover from this? What did the South African policemen feel when the ruthlessly shot down their fellow South Africans?

Yes, I know the situation was dangerous, and I know that the strikers were armed and had chopped two policemen to death previously. But I also know what role the police service played during Apartheid, and the Marikana massacre paralleled that far too eerily. This country has been through so much in the last 18 years, and now is being forced to realize that massacres can happen in democratic societies too, and that a black man can open fire on a crowd of black men. The once racial divide has now become an economic divide.

I once asked another PCV why there were so many strikes and riots. She told me it is the only way the black community knows how to fight back. It worked during Apartheid, and was the only thing that worked consistently. And it works now-come to my village and see the tar road they are building as evidence. It is the only way black South Africans can be heard. They STILL receive a subpar education, almost twenty years after Bantu education was banished. They still struggle to escape the cycle of poverty, in a nation with a crippling unemployment and poverty rate. Riots and strikes are a way South Africans can unify and make change, and I know we haven’t yet seen the end of the mining strikes. Thirty-four men gave their lives for the cause, and even today, more are willing to do so.

If you could only see how mining families live, you would understand why they are willing to die for higher wages. Heck, they literally put their lives on the line every day when they show up to work, taking on the most dangerous jobs and willing to deal with lifelong health effects, for a pittance.

South Africa has found an intimate place in my heart, and what hurts the country hurts me. This massacre will leave a lasting legacy on this nation, and scar which will endure. It was the worst incidence of police violence since the end of Apartheid. It brought up horrible memories for most of South Africa. The striking miners had turned and were fleeing, yet the police continued to shoot, just like in the Sharpeville Massacre. Something’s just not right with that.
-Jen