Early Lessons Learned

I’ll have you know that my journal is so much more exciting than this blog. I hope that anyone who is enjoying this chronological listing of activities gets the chance to sit with me and look over my notebook which is really where I process things. It’s as experiential as possible, as it includes textures, quotes, impressions, and visualizations of my travels. Some parts are nerdy, such as my improvised seismograph of riding the dirt road to the village, and some parts are more functional, like my calendar, driving directions, and newly-tried-foods list. Some parts are even faintly creative like the remnants of our paper beards (to be explained later).

Close quarters have been a general theme of the summer. I doodled it in my very “Jeffersonian” journal when I first arrived, and it’s been interesting to meet everyone within this context. Unfortunately, it means that our opinions of friends here are sometimes affected by seeing their frilly underwear drying proudly on their porches. Fortunately, we are getting to know each other well AND still getting along very well. We’ve learned who greets the world every morning by brushing their teeth outdoors, and we also know who gets stir-crazy the fastest. I don’t know any faster way to spend the summer than by having a limited amount of time with people you genuinely like.

Another one of the running themes has been shown explicitly and implicitly to me. One of my first conversations with Chief Lucas kept coming back to the idea that money is life. When I asked how most cooking was done, he said that it depended on if you had the money to buy an electric stove. When I asked about toilets, he replied that those with money have flush toilets, but most use pit toilets. The same divide was mentioned when I asked about children going to school because they need uniforms. One of the most common requests in the village is for employment so people can bring money home. On the same note, some rastas I met in Ghana used a call-and-reply of “more money” and “more life.” Last summer, I told them I disagreed. “No, no! There’s more to life than money,” I chided. But it’s really hard to be sure of that when education, medical care, and even time with your family are all really controlled by your finances. This lesson sounds very materialistic, but I feel it’s an important one for me because it will shape my future pursuits in development and aid. What good are better medical treatments if those most in need can’t afford them? How useful can clean water be when a family feels helpless because they can’t afford proper nutrition? At the very least I need to understand economics and public policy better than I do now before trying to address any of these issues.

Speaking of future coursework and development work, here is my current plan for graduate education. [These ideas have changed about once a week since May, and this current rendition has lasted about two weeks now, but nothing here is set in stone.] In May 2014 I’ll be done my undergraduate degree, and by December 2014, I hope to finish my MS in BME at CMU (yay acronyms!). I hope to start the 2-year Masters of Public Health (MPH) program at University of Pittsburgh, especially if I can get full tuition funding. During that time, I want to look into a Fulbright student fellowship so that my MPH thesis is based on global health research. I’m also trying to use Duolingo to teach myself French so that I’ll have more countries where I can understand the native language. This all take at least 4 years, which is certainly enough of a plan for me. One year ago I had no clue I’d be in Africa again, and it’s fun to think about how little I know about where I’ll be in five years.

On Friday (July 19) we went to the student bar on campus. Just imagine an elementary school cafeteria with bright fluorescent lights. Now insert a small bar counter and bartender in the center of the room and start playing loud, low-quality music. Seven of us headed there from Acacia (our lodgings) and ended up sitting in a large booth with our UNIVEN friends for a lovely couple of hours. The crowd was overwhelmingly male, so it almost seemed like I was back at CMU!

One of those UNIVEN friends also invited us to a wedding on Saturday. We were very nervous about attending because we know how expensive and planning-intensive weddings can be. Apparently weddings here are more of a community gathering than a precisely scheduled event. The wedding party arrived in a caravan of loudly honking cars. Dressed in our best clothing, we shuffled to the back of the huge picnic shelter and awkwardly tried to stay out of the way. The wedding ceremony and reception were combined into one 3 hour event. There was a 45 minute-long, emphatically yelled sermon about marriage, covenants, and divorce. My favorite excerpt has to be when the preacher explained the cultural significance of Jesus turning water into wine. “Wine at their weddings was like the meat at our wedding!”

A live band supported fantastic little dance breaks mixed in with the toasts and vows, both in English and Tshivenda. There were plenty of women wearing the traditional Venda clothing (like the skirt I just bought!), but the wedding was not a traditional Venda wedding. We noted that the newlyweds did not display as much affection as American couples tend to show. I’m not sure if that’s a cultural difference or just something different about this couple. Also the provided meal was had a fast food approach; it was a functional and easy to share meal rather than a sit-down banquet like I’m used to.

Courtney, Oliver, and I went to a Catholic mass the next day. This was only my second ever mass, but there were some obvious differences. Most notably, they didn’t serve communion. Also, the service was going quickly and probably would have lasted just one hour if they hadn’t started the announcements section which was at least a 45 minute community meeting about planning and logistics. Church services here regularly last at least three hours, so our two hour experience was a relief (at least to my impatient character). I find that South Africans have outstanding patience for everything (except driving).

Some other lessons learned worth noting here:

  • Outsiders who are somewhat similar to you can be even more intimidating that outsiders who are nothing like you. This is one small benefit of being from a different culture than the communities you’re doing field work with.
  • Just because someone says “thank you” does not mean you helped them or did the right thing. People say thanks just because it’s the polite response to an action. Discerning if you’re doing something useful or helpful is so much more complicated than the face value of someone’s response.
  • Ironically, I feel like I belong better in groups where I don’t technically belong. For example, I’m not a brother of AEPi (that fraternity I talk about all the time), so any time I’m invited or included there, I know it’s because people want me to be there. However, being part of an assumed open invite, like a group that I’m already a part of, is difficult for me because I rely on consistent positive reinforcement (aka I’m needy). Moreover, I’m just sensitive to being wanted around. I like who I am, but I never want to force my presence on someone else who doesn’t necessarily appreciate me. This is also evident in the parties I throw; I love creating a scenario where I know people attend if they want to be around me.
  • No matter how personally responsible I’ve learned to be with my car, laptop, keys, wallet, etc., I’m still naturally prone to losing things. I managed to change at the gym and leave an entire outfit there. I believe my favorite bra, jeans, and belt have been whisked away to a new home.
  • Suitcase locks do not protect belongings kept in soft-sided luggage. Hannah accidentally locked herself out of her bag by locking it up and then temporarily losing the key. For a week she’d say something like, “Oh! I have Benadryl if you need it. Nevermind, I can’t get to it.” Finally I approached it with the few lock picking techniques I’ve seen online, but wasn’t successful at opening the lock. Laughingly, I realized that you could just pull the zippered openings to either side of the lock.


Recently, our lab work has been more interesting because we’ve had to pick up all the duties of our graduate mentor, Teri. While she was away on a quick vacation with her boyfriend (now fiancé, congrats!), Hannah and I had to take over more of the data recording and analysis, as well as deciding what to do the next day. As soon as Teri left, we had a day with almost entirely blank petri dishes, controls and all, which yields no significant research information. We suspect the water source we had used (our UCK stream) is no longer being polluted with raw sewage, which is great for the environment, but not for our research when we’re expecting another two or three orders of magnitude on our bacterial counts. Despite the lame results, this wasn’t something we could have or should have predicted, so I didn’t worry about it. The next day we had to consider our research conditions (volume, pre-filtration or not, single or double filter papers), weather conditions, and the measured turbidity to decide what dilutions to use for the samples. We had to balance the concerns of limited research supplies and time against the threat of missing another day’s data. Picking dilutions is like selecting the microscope lens you’ll need twenty four hours later; if you’re right you get a great view of the cells, else you’re left with unfocused frustration at the loss of time and resources. Thankfully we selected an appropriate range of dilutions—not the ideal range, but a fitting one all the same.

As far as data management, I think Hannah and I streamlined the recording and copying process when we took over the lab notebook, but it seems like we might have missed one day’s data… All I can tell from my detective work on my personal notebook, the lab notebook, the contaminated loose-leaf papers we keep in the lab, and the spreadsheet is that we ran a day of tests on July 18th. We’re not sure if we lost the petri dishes, forgot to count them, or counted them and lost the results, but it’s a loss all the same. I keep hoping we’ll walk into lab and find a sheet of our results just sitting underneath the lab bench where it had fallen or something fanciful like that. I’m such a nerd that even my daydreams are research related.

The rest of the week went well, especially because it included three days of not being in the lab. I really do love this program, but it’s pretty evident that I don’t belong doing lab work for the rest of my life. On Tuesday, Hannah and I had the chance to revisit the Mukondeni Pottery Cooperative where the ceramic water filters are made. This time we went back for a lesson on traditional pottery, which was a very welcomed artistic outlet. We sat down on the concrete floor, each with a placemat (a piece of carpet), a round plate, and a blob of clay mined from the natural deposits just outside. The potter taught by example, almost an entire pottery lesson without verbal communication. She started by balling up the clay, pushing it into a disk, stretching up side walls, and smoothing the sides with a plastic scraper. The women do not have or use the typical pottery spinners I’ve seen in the US. To make a rounded pot, you spun the plate as you worked and hoped that you had a steady hand. Unfortunately, if you weren’t working fast enough or well enough, the potters had a tendency to take the clay from you and fix it. As a very independent and driven student, this frustrated me intensely. How was I supposed to learn to make pottery if they didn’t let me make pottery?! When my pot was too small for their interests, they added clay, even though I really wanted a small pot that I could bring home. When they took the pot away from me for a second time, I got defiant and just started working on a new, even smaller pot that I would be able to start and finish on my own.

Then I realized that we each got to make a few pieces of pottery, not just one… I started realizing how foolish I was for being so frustrated. They were showing me what to do with the first pot, but I was going to get more chances to practice and learn. From that point on, the experience was entirely lovely. I finished one round, traditional pot; my tiny, defiant little bowl; an oval dish with quaint side handles; and a small scotty dog (go CMU!). I’m pretty sure the women thought the dog was just a really ugly cow since that’s what they had shown us to make, but another potter stopped by to make a point of how nice my oval dish was. As she was complimenting me, she taught me how to say, “she’s great,” in sePedi (a local dialect) and I taught her how to say “circle” and “oval” in English.

We had to leave the shaped clay there for a couple of days to dry out before being painted/glazed and detailed. I’m not entirely sure that the pieces won’t be “touched up” by the potters before we get them back, fired and finished. If so, I certainly don’t blame them. We did make our own pottery, but I imagine they feel that our results reflect on their cooperative, their tradition, and their livelihood.

Every free hour of Monday through Wednesday involved some sort of planning, internet searching, or wondering about my mom’s visit. Our trip together, which was sort of a vacation from a vacation for me, started bright and early Thursday morning.