One of the greatest aspects of cross-cultural exchange, in my opinion, is the conversations you have with the family, friends, coworkers and fellow travelers you meet when staying someplace different for a while – the casual, unassuming chats that lead to something surprising and, as is usually the case, rather entertaining or enlightening. While we’ve had more of these types of interactions than we could possibly recount in a single post, there were a couple note-worthy ones that I felt should not go unmentioned. Each one provided some type of insight – either funny or intriguing – that I thought was worth being recorded somewhere along the way. Enjoy!
A Conversation with Mama Christine & Johannas:
South Africans tend to be very honest about their observations of others. In fact, it is not uncommon at all for our reasonably fit and petite, female volunteers to be told by a woman three-times they’re girth that they are “looking quite fat” on their first day back to work after vacation!! But it is never intended as a direct insult of any kind, it is simply a statement. And it works in the reverse as well… When Adam and I returned to visit our PST Host Family during our training in July, both of our host parents made mention of our somewhat decreased “size”. Our host mother, Mama Christine, is a very rotund woman (due mostly to the rampant diabetes in South Africa), while our host father, Johannas, could not weigh more than 100lbs, soaking wet – they are quite the couple! Our return conversation went something like as follows…
Mama Christine [upon seeing Adam first]: Jabu! Jabu! Oh my goodness… where have you gone?!? [Then patting him around the middle] You are going to end up like Johannas!!
Us [picturing Adam as a 100lb man]: Oh no mama, he won’t end up like Johannas [Johannas nodding]. This is good, we are healthy!
Mama Christine [then turning to me, who had lost far less weight]: Oh Sesi! Sesi, you too are getting so sick! Why have you done this?!?
Us [trying to reiterate that we were, in fact, in much better shape at that point]: No mama, we are just walking more every day. It’s good for us!
Mama Christine: Oh, but Sesi, I liked you better when you had all your curves. [She then proceeds to make multiple “donut” gestures around my mid section, not including my boobs.]
Me [thinking to myself]: Thanks.
A Conversation with an Eskom Supervisor:
We often get curious, if not worrisome looks, from white South Africans when they see us walking through our village with our work backpacks or grocery bags. Simply put, most white South Africans are not accustomed to seeing other white people – especially younger ones, that look as though they are quite familiarized – in the rural villages and towns of South Africa. This was one such instance as I walked back from The Plaza with some groceries and passed a group of Eskom workers (all black South Africans) and their supervisor (a white South African).
Me [as I was passing the supervisor]: Hello.I glanced back at the supervisor, he was utterly baffled. Too funny!
Supervisor [looking a bit confused]: Um, hello. Are you lost?
Me [slowing down to answer]: No, I stay just there [pointing to the dirt road off the main route.]
Supervisor [confused]: Oh, okay… but wait, where do you actually live?
Me [starting to laugh]: I actually live just there [pointing to that same dirt road.]
Supervisor [even more confused]: But you have a car to get to and from the city for work?
Me [laughing now]: No, I don’t have a car. I work in the village – I walk to work.
Supervisor [totally confused]: Then how do you get to the city???
Me [bordering on an entertaining sense of frustration]: I take the coombies.
Supervisor [chuckles loudly]: No really, how do you get there?
Me: Really, I take the coombies.
Supervisor [in total schock]: The coombies?!? You mean the public taxis?!? With everyone else?!?
Me [rolling my eyes]: Yes, those coombies.
Supervisor: Oh… [trailing off to nothing].
Me [as I started walking again and was passing his team of workers]: Sanibonani!
Workers: Sawubona sesi!
A Conversation with Dumisani:
Dumisani is one of the drivers and maintenance workers for Thembalethu. He has one of the softest voices and one of the greatest smiles! As the summer days get longer and hotter, he often takes on the task of driving our lazy butts back home after work, as we are entirely exhausted from sweating all day in the offices of the compound. On one drive, we discussed the incredible amount of rain that we had been getting in the area and how a lot of the roads had been flooding and becoming impassable:
Me: So Dumisani, is the bridge that goes that side [pointing towards Tonga, on the western side of Schoemansdal] still above water?
Dumisani: No, it has been flooded all week.
Me: Then how is everyone getting to work from there?
Dumisani: They have to pay the coombie to drive them all the way around, through Malelane, to come this side.
Me: Oh shame! That is very expensive!!
Dumisani [more somber]: Yes, but last week a taxi tried to cross the bridge that side and it went underwater and the woman in the front could not get out. She drowned.
Me [horrified]: Oh my! That’s terrible!! Why did the coombie go through the water???
Dumisani: The driver did not want to pay the extra petrol to go all the way around. Me [still horrified]: And she died because of that?!? That is awful!!!
Dumisani [turning to look at me in order to provide this very pertinent bit of advice]: Nobuhle, you should know, that when the roads are flooded, I think it is better to pay the extra money for petrol than to get trapped in the coombie underwater and drowned. [A long pause.] Yes, I do think so.
Me [trying to restrain a smile at this advice in the face of this seriousness]: Yes Dumisani, I think you are right.
A Conversation with a “Bru”:
While travelling over the holidays, we had the opportunity to meet many of the younger Afrikaans and British residents of South Africa. Many of these encounters were thoroughly enlightening – as we learned (“learned”) the rules of cricket, heard their insights on the socio-political climate of their country, and exchanged stories about living in rural areas versus city centers. Many in this younger generation strike me as an odd mix between ethnic African lifestyles and a type of laid-back, Australian, surfer lifestyle. For example, more than few love the word “Bru” when talking to eachother. While staying in Coffee Bay, we played a game called 30 Seconds (basically the South African version of Catchprhase) with several of these fellow residents. And while Adam and I were at a serious disadvantage, because most of the words on the cards were native to South African pop culture and history, we had one particular round that left us rolling on the floor…
Bru #1 [flipping the card to start giving clues to the word]: Okay, Bru, right, right, this is totally like one of those Egyptian kings, you know bru?!?
Bru #2: Umm, King Tut, right bru?
Bru #1 [standing up in his excitement to give better clues]: No bru, come on bru!! Like another one, I think a newer one… think of a newer one bru!
Bru #3: Okay, um, King Tut isn’t newer though bru! What other one is there bru?!?
Bru #1 [totally frustrated and now jumping up and down]: Argh… come on bru, you know this! Come on!
Brus #2 & #3 [yelling angrily]: Bru, King Tut is the only one we know bru!!
Us [watching the last bit of sand fall in the timer]: Time!!
Bru #2: Christ, bru!!
Bru #3: Yeah, bru, who the hell was it?!?
Bru #1: God bru, it was Desmond Tutu.
Us: [I’m not even going to try to explain our response… I almost pissed my pants!!!!]
Our Conversations with Siyanda:
We have many, many conversations with our two year old host brother. While doing laundry, while sitting out on the stoop, while hanging out on their porch, he chats and chats and chats to us and we listen intently to his stories of, well, who knows… it’s all in SiSwati. Sometimes, he’ll add to his stories by utilizing props for our benefit, such as playing his toy electric guitar while singing a song (usually, not at all to the pre-set tunes on the guitar) or the time that he took a tin can, filled it with dirt, placed it atop his head, and walked with a funny little waddle across the yard saying, “Gogo! Gogo! Gogo!” (“Gogo” means “Grandmother”) Ha! That was a particular favorite!! But most of our conversations are pretty much repeats of all the others, and they go something like this…
Siyanda [spotting us from the porch and yelling very sweetly]: Nobuuuuhle! Theeeemba!! (Our SiSwati names, with very elongated vowels)
Us [waving back]: Yebo bhuti! (“Yes, brother!”)
Siyanda [frighteningly stern & demanding]: Buya! (“Come here!)
Us [walking down to him]: Unjani bhuti? (“How are you brother?)
Siyanda [back to being very sweet and innocent]: Nikoooona. (“Good”, but stretching out the vowels)
Siyanda: Okay. [And then he starts to prattle in SiSwati] Aasdfkj werlhaf adihawenka poweasdjdfkj fdahwenk [my interpretation of what he is saying.]
Us: Oh, uh huh.
Siyanda [still prattling, sometimes more enthusiastically or in a new tone of voice]: kfsldkjflknwe asdfininf nnvheryo jopfenio!
Us [starting to walk back with him to our house, where we are working]: Oh! Yebo!
Siyanda [more prattle]: iidfndkanfek hadfqebnf alkjfpopjean.
Us [every now and then, to break up the conversation]: Eh wena!! (“Hey you!”, but translates loosely to, “Really?”)
Siyanda [always very serious at this point]: Wena! (“You!”, but again, translating loosely to, “Yes, really.”)
Us: Hauw! (“Wow!”) Okay…
Siyanda [prattles again for a while]: knndaslfow ihfehean asdlkn fewa sfdfjefi….
And about a half hour later, after helping with the laundry, lounging on the stoop with us, or commandeering the bed to act out his very vivid stories…
Siyanda [done prattling and entirely abruptly]: Okay, bye bye now. [And off he goes with a wave.]
Us [always with a laugh and wave]: Okay, bye bye Siyanda!
Thanks for all the conversations everyone! We’ve loved every one of them!!