“We haven’t heard the final say-so yet.” On Tuesday morning, by the gates of UNIVEN (University of Venda), we were waiting for an important cellphone call. It honestly sounded like we were setting up a mob hit while we were just setting off to meet with the chief of Tshibvumo.
On Monday, we had a day-long orientation. We met the UNIVEN students who would be working with us, other UVA students working at UNIVEN, and our program’s associated UNIVEN faculty. We learned a lot about the Limpopo Province, homeland of the Venda ethnic group, through the local language (Tshivenda), politics, history, family culture, religion, and customs. We were warned that meeting a chief was traditionally a big deal. Men should wear long pants and squat when in his presence. Women should wear long skirts and physically lie on the ground when meeting a chief. Eye contact and physical contact are highly discouraged, and all meetings must happen at his leisure. His approval of our approach and our gifts is absolutely essential to working within his village community. So Tuesday was bound to be an important and memorable day for the rest of the summer here. [Or should I say winter?]
As soon as our leader heard that the chief was allowing our visit, we started the hour-long caravan. As we got closer, the road got bumpier. My notebook has an improvised seismograph; I tried to draw straight lines but drew a mountain range instead.
Going uphill to the chief’s residence, we took a sharp left turn and drove slightly off the road… into a ditch. We bottomed out on the side of the road with our left-side wheels spinning in the ditch. Our driver, the leader of my specific project, seemed stunned. Oddly enough, almost this exact scenario happened when I was driving on icy roads in western Pennsylvania last winter (the real winter, that season with snow).
So just like last time, I told everyone to climb out of the car to lighten the load. This included Hannah and I leaving the passenger side seats out the driver’s side doors (right side of the car). Oliver and I checked out the free-spinning wheels and saw they could be re-oriented to reach the ground better. After turning the tires to cut upwards and out of the ditch, it still took all three of us pushing the car up and out of the ditch to get moving again. High fives and celebrations proliferated. This poor rental car is not going to survive our abuse, but at least we’ll make it out alive.
Laughingly frustrated by the roads, we parked downhill and walked to the meet-up. After a few minutes of nervous waiting, the chief and the chief’s messenger (AKA assistant) arrived and promptly shook our hands. His black beanie read “COOL DUDE,” and judging by the fact that we weren’t groveling on the ground, he actually was a cool dude.
He was offended that we had not given him more notice of our visit, but he was happy to hear about the project we proposed: a controlled field test of ceramic water filters effect on family health. Despite our impatient blunder of arriving on short notice, he accepted our proposal along with our small gift of UVA gear and money. He had someone pick us narqis (pronounced NAR-keys) and paw-paw (papaya). It was obvious that our anxiousness to get the project started had ever-so-slightly jeopardized our connections with this Venda chief, but we were still off to a strong start. We arranged to deliver the first 25-50 water filters on this coming Monday, knowing that the very first filter must be given to the chief.
As we were leaving, he walked back to our car with us and invited me to ask him questions. I asked about the local cooking habits and agriculture, but the conversation always returned to discussing money. He said, “Money is life. If you have little money, you get little life. More money, more life.” I naturally rebelled against this mentality, but I really can’t argue too well against his main point: you get to cook on an electric stove, grow better fruits, drink better water, and marry into a better family if you have money. I replied, “At least these new water filters won’t be dependent on wealth,” and I’m hopeful that this project is at least a tiny step towards a new equality.
Yesterday we went to visit the pottery factory (basically a pottery studio under a picnic shelter) where these filters were being created. We were given the full tour to see where the clay is dug from the earth, sifted, ground, mixed, molded, smoothed, fired, quality tested, and painted with silver nanoparticles. The clay is mixed with fine saw dust such that firing in the kiln creates a porous final product that works as a physical filter. Successful filters (the size and shape of a flower pot) are coated inside and out with silver nanoparticles to disinfect water as it passes through. Local women create these filters which can be sold at a profitable market value or bought and distributed by charity organizations. The genius of this project is the combination of local employment of traditional skills for the creation of inexpensive water purification devices. The only non-indigenous ingredient is the silver, which is imported at the relatively low cost of 50 cents per filter.
Hanging out after the factory tour, I heard the women singing as they worked. I slowly walked over towards them and started swaying to the a cappella music. A couple of the potters spotted me and laughed at my attempt at polite surveillance (read that as smiling and staring). I moved towards them and was pretty soon picking up the phonemes (is that the right linguistic word?). It sounded something like,“HO-GO-ooo-Oko Ooo-wa-la-ah Ah-ma-gah” to me. As I started singing along, a few of the women started dancing and showing me how to move with the song. Other people from our group had come over to see the source of the singing as it had gotten noticeably louder. Within a minute or two, Hannah was right beside me clapping and moving to the beat. The rest of our group was around the factory or just behind us, taking pictures and video or clapping along. When the singing finally stopped, we gave a round of applause and I asked what the song was about. “Hogo” is sung at the beginning of the initiation school, a coming of age crash course on adulthood for pre-teen Venda children. Through broken English and a translator, they said that this is the only song they could sing on that day because it was the first day of initiation school. They sang for the children of the village, and I felt like I was just starting to be “vendalized.”
Altogether, this week has shown me once again the importance of what I’ve been calling human resources: things like hugs, compliments, attentive listening, honesty, laughter, and all those mushy-gushy awesome and limitless parts of being social. Selective encouragement determined which students are here working on these projects, and our manners can convince a chief to let us interact with, survey, and report on his constituents or cause him to ignore us. And just smiling and listening patiently can welcome you into a totally new cultural experience.
On a less cheesy note, life here is pretty good. The students from the US and the students from UNIVEN are getting along really well. The food here is delicious, especially the fruit, dairy products, and inexpensive South African beers and wines. But our meals are labor intensive since we don’t have an oven, a microwave, a blender, a mixer, much fridge space, clean tap water or fresh produce, or consistent stove burners. We’ve started at a local gym for the low price of $15 per month. Our chalet just got a toilet seat (HUZZAH!) and full lighting which we fully appreciate after a full week without. It’s been a fantastic first week, and I hope the fun continues.