The Confused Captain Cori

I got a chance to drive the safari boat, which was rather easy and fun. You just needed the patience not to over-correct your steering, just like in kayaks and canoes. Then Lucky, our outrageously fun tour guide, said I would be parking the boat, so this picture captures that moment of “Huh!?”

With a little bit of direction and assistance, we parked it properly, if not smoothly. Right as we bumped into the shore, one of the short dogs riding with us used the momentum to leap off the boat and back to land.

We saw a couple crocodiles and beautiful birds, but no hippos. We’re headed to Kruger National Park for a quick visit today, so they’re my main objective.


The Confused Captain Cori



“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.



My plane from Pittsburgh to Atlanta was delayed such that I was expected to land in Atlanta too late to leave for Johannesburg. I would be given a hotel room and free food until the next flight, one day later. But when I arrived at Atlanta (slightly earlier than predicted), I sprinted to the terminal and became the last boarding passenger to South Africa. I was—then I wasn’t—and then I was on my way to Limpopo. Somehow my luggage and I both made the flight.

With these rapidly changing expectations came a degree of disorientation, and when I set foot in Africa it didn’t get any easier. The six hour time difference was noticeable, but the sunset at 5:15 PM is even more confusing. Prices, distances, and temperatures all need to be mentally converted to my accustomed units. And then came the drive from Johannesburg to our lodgings in the Limpopo Province.

Just in case you didn’t know, the southern hemisphere actually feels a bit upside down. The driving is obviously backwards, but so are the cup holders, driver’s seat, shifter, and signaling thingamabobs. It’s almost these little things that mess with my head the most. The one thing that isn’t backwards is the yellow lane lines, which are still to the left of you as you drive (along the shoulder)? And of course, the driving is balanced, lawless mayhem, much like Ghana, Haiti, and New York City.

Oh, and I realized I’m in the desert! I should have noticed that locations with hazy heat in the day and shivering cold at night might not have much water vapor. My chapped lips confirm this is in fact arid land.

We’ve settled into our housing, Challet #4 of Acacia Wildlife Resort. We were told to expect lodging for three, an equipped kitchenette, and a shared room with a pull-out couch. Thankfully we have hot showers and heating for the 40 degree Fahrenheit nights, but we don’t currently have an oven, a microwave, a toilet seat, a working stovetop, or sufficient lighting. Some of these are being “looked at on Monday,” but it’s currently a laughable situation. In fact, my roommate Hannah and I were checking it out and laughing at the 18 ft by 18 ft lodgings when we learned that the only male student in our half of the project group (the half staying in the same area as us) still needed housing. Oliver was assigned to the rough pullout couch in the office sized room in the corner. The room barely fits the bed frame, and I don’t think the small bed fits his 6 ft. 2 in. frame! I’m very happy with my roommates’ company (and adaptive cooking skills!) but I hope the housing will improve with time.

As if there hadn’t been enough disorientation, our first full day in Limpopo was purposefully winding. After buying groceries, eating lunch, and getting our modems and cell phones set up, we set out in our rental car to get a feel for our neighboring areas. The first inclination was to go uphill to see whole area, but that ended in a full loop sending us behind our lodgings. On the second try we rode up the local mountain ridge (intense hills?) to some spectacular views. The sprawling villages, cinderblock buildings, and wild bush areas were extraordinary to see again. I feel very nostalgic about the shared taxi passenger vans, dusty red dirt roads, scary driving limbo of aggressive passing, intrusive pedestrians, roaming livestock, small waving barefoot children, roadside fruit stands, and metal gated homesteads. The occasional four donkey cart and over-populated truck bed still catch my attention but are still remarkably familiar even in this new place.

In the distance we saw a few select hills with green, open fields. It looked like a small patch of Scotland had migrated south. As we approached, we realized the open fields were really the manicured agriculture of a large and picturesque tea estate.

We also saw a sign for Phiphidi (PIH-pih-dee), known for its attractive waterfalls. So that’s the way we headed. After a bit more driving, confusion, and a U-turn, we found the falls. For less than two dollars a person, we spent until sunset exploring a multi-tiered waterfall complete with invented climbing paths up and down the falls. They weren’t difficult to follow, but they lead to some marvelous outcroppings. In fact, there were a few locals who made the same route with open beer bottles in tow. We had stumbled upon a local hot spot for grilling, drinking, and dancing. We plan to return with the rest of our group for a full day’s outing and picnic—especially because that’s where we found a clan of really adorable monkeys. ;)


Play “spot the monkey!” I seem to have a keen eye for these little munchkins.


Here is just one portion of the falls. The colors from the plants and water were brilliant.


“Yes, I’d love some cannabalism for breakfast.”


These little boys liked taking pictures with my camera such as the ones below:



Most of the images are upside down or cut off at the middle of the person’s face. Their adorableness was the highlight of my day.



My last American lunch was an ice cream cone and two moshi balls (490 calories of materialized emotions). You could say I was getting a little stressed out. Just 24 hours before leaving I really wasn’t packed. And even once I was packed I just kept thinking, “Did I forget anything? Where’d I just put my passport down? How does iTunes suck so badly? Should I bring more books? Less books?”
But here I am with all my bags ready to go. And I’m no longer focused on my things. I’m focused on the actual trip. Something interesting happens when you go to a new place with new people. You can act however you’d like. No one there knows who you are now, and if you’re not staying for long, it may not even matter what they think of you. It was fun for me to see which characteristics were emphasized or diminished last summer. In Ghana, I was both more individualistic and more sensitive to peer pressure, a simultaneous dualism that was new to me. I’ve kept most of the nuances I developed while I away, and close friends have noted the changes. I mostly notice my new willingness to just go for it. I’m less scared of saying “Sure, why not?” and I’ve certainly had more adventures because of it (Philly, anyone?).
I’m also remembering all the things I didn’t know I was going to experience last summer, like clubbing in Accra, Adinkra symbology, meeting and singing to a chief in his home, and dancing in a Nigerian music video. And I’m getting even more excited for South Africa because I really have no idea what these two months will hold.

Migrating South

Hello, everyone!

It’s just two days until I leave the States. I’ll be flying into Johannesburg, commonly referred to as Joberg. I’ll be spending the night in a hotel and travelling the next day to Thoyandou (in the Limpopo Province) and staying at Acacia Park Resort for eight weeks. I’ll be doing full-time research on nanoparticle-imbibed filter papers at the University of Venda. The University of Virginia is the institution in charge of all this craziness; they won some awesome NSF grant money to get college students interested in research and graduate school. I applied last fall for this opportunity and now I’m one of the few, the proud, the WaSH Scholars.

Here are some of the things I’m currently really excited about:

  • trying new foods such as the local delicacy of fried worms
  • getting better at blogging by not trying so hard (I will not be heavily editing myself)
  • dealing with *monkey* business (the local pests)
  • going on a safari in Kruger National Park WITH MY MOM (my mom is so much cooler than yours)
  • visiting the Blyde River Canyon
  • driving on the wrong side of the road
  • learning about Venda culture and language
  • NOT getting parasites this summer
  • and getting experience in improving public health (this makes me soooo giddy).

Things I’m not excited about:

  • cooking all of my own food (“Boil it, cook it, peel it, or forget it.”)
  • handwashing laundry
  • lack of internet
  • malaria prophylaxis
  • trying desperately to document it all as I go (photos! blogs! doodles!)
  • and, most of all, seriously missing my lovely American friends and family.

So I hope to entertain you, show you my life in SA, and simultaneously make myself reflect on my trip. If you have comments or questions, it’ll be best if you just email me. I’ll be as safe as I can while experiencing all that I can. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll stop ranting so much about Ghana. ;)