The final chapter of Proverbs graces us with a portrait of an excellent woman: “more precious than jewels,” “with willing hands,” rising “while it is yet night,” clothed in strength and dignity, teaching kindness.
My host mother gives life to these virtues. She welcomed me into her home as another daughter–a invitation as kind as it must be familiar for her. Eva cares for four children at once most days: a daughter, a granddaughter, and two twin boys.
Her daughter is six years old, and her granddaughter is seven. “SamKele was a surprise,” I remarked to her older brother, a twenty-five year old college student.
“I’d say that’s an understatement,” he chuckled.
Eva calls it a blessing. “More than twenty years–and God gave us a daughter!” The name “SamKele” means “We accept.”
Peace Corps united us with our host families through a boisterous ceremony, complete with wild cheering, cross-translations, and grandmothers boogeying up the aisle. One trainee sighed afterwards that clapping for 50+ names was like reliving college graduation.
For our eleven weeks of training, Peace Corps distributes us between two villages: Bhundu and Boekenhouthoek. We are bunking in rural South Africa, where chickens, goats, and cows roam the streets. Even though we have surrendered our northern hemisphere summer for chilly winter nights, the local orange trees are heavy with fruit and many families pack homegrown avocados in our lunches.
Some homes are outfitted with bathtubs, washing machines, and even flat screen TVs, while others rely on basins, tubs, and water tanks for all daily chores, washing, and cooking.
It soothed my nervous worries and warmed my heart when I cracked open my bedroom door to discover my host family’s loving preparations: an elegant bedspread, vanity with a mirror, and my own towel. The red bucket on the left serves as my bathtub every morning. The infamous “bucket baths” represent one of the first cultural hurdles for trainees to overcome, testing our mettle as aspiring Volunteers.
To ready myself for service, I schooled myself to wish for nothing and welcome everything — but even so, the Lord answered my secret hope when He placed me in a host family with babies!
The twins are a walking language lesson: Nqobi and Nqobile both require “Q” clicks in their names. Their surrogate sisters made no secret of their confusion and disbelief at my efforts to pronounce these names. It’s daunting enough to form a click on command, but try articulating it in the middle of a word with the correct consonant or vowel on either end.
After less than a week together, the boys would greet me with outstretched arms whenever I crouched down for a hug. They also know to say, “Amen!” at the end (or beginning … or middle…) of dinnertime prayer.
Nomfundo is a wonder. She never flinches from chores: usually washing up and making tea without prompting. When I tackle the after-dinner dishes, she attends me with a drying cloth, tutoring me in vocabulary upon request. She is learning to be fluent in three languages: isiZulu, her native tongue Ndebele, and English (required in all South African schools for 4th grade and up).
My “usisi” entertains herself in the evenings by crafting makeshift report cards for herself–and for me! Upon arrival, my family christened me “Nolwazi,” a Zulu word meaning “brilliant,” so Nomfundo captions her works of art, “Nolwazi, goood gel.”
As excited as I felt about attending church with my host family (“nomdemni”), it proved to be another challenge, because our service was conducted entirely in Ndebele. Since that language is related yet nonetheless distinct from Zulu, even my nascent studies couldn’t afford me any hope of following. I’m praying understanding will come with time, especially as my language skills develop — the sooner the better! It’s lonely without a church community, especially in contrast with my time at the John Jay Institute this past spring.
Our training staff dubbed the past phase of training “Language Intensive Week,” and it’s not a misnomer. In a four person class conducted by a native Zulu speaker, we crammed between four and eight hours of conversation and grammar into our heads for five days straight.
Umama permits me to make my own breakfast… sometimes. Once the girls started classes on Tuesday, she more often waves me out of the kitchen with a cheery, “I will make oatmeal!” or “I’m making eggs today!” She keeps me well-fed and happy — a much-needed blessing since my body seems to be demanding more fuel than usual.
Just as we were settling into a new routine, the staff coached us to push our boundaries with a new adventure: site shadowing! Tomorrow I depart for Venda, a northern province where a current volunteer awaits to guide us through a week in her life as a primary school English teacher. My travel buddy Emmie and I are both anticipating long hours of reading on the “taxi” (more like what we would call a mini-bus: public transportation that seats about 15 people).
To equip me for the journey, umama packed me an enormous lunch including half a loaf of “dumplings” (cornbread?). When I return, I know she’ll be waiting for me on the front step, beaming, with arms open wide.