If you have ever traveled with me, you know that my sense of direction is, well, lacking. I can walk into a building and come back out confused: Which way did we come in?
My hapless navigating generated some laughs when we were all together during training, but I confess it gave me a feeling of trepidation when I thought ahead to finding my way around site.
The Peace Corps answer to areas where Google Maps may be faulty or non-existent is a mandatory “community mapping” assignment. This key element of integration entails a hand-drawn map with local landmarks, but also an investigation of the intangible network of relationships that make up a community.
My second week at site, I armed myself with pencil and paper, ready to try my hand at surveying. Happily for me, my host brother answered the call–he and some friends allowed me to recruit them for a tour of my new village.
Before finding my way around the neighborhood, I had to reacquaint myself with life in a South African family. There have been some adjustments to make because the dynamics are different from what I experienced in Bundu.
The biggest change is that I live separately from the family, in something like a free-standing studio apartment. My “indlu” is one of three concrete constructions within the family compound, besides the main house where my host parents live. This gives me more independence and privacy, but also requires more intentional effort in bonding the family. When it’s time for a visit, I trek across a rock-strewn property fenced with spiky aloe plants.
In terms of family structure, the situation is again very different: Both my host parents are at home more often than not; I have one sister who lives with us and four other adult siblings who visit from out of town (two sisters and two brothers).
I call the two children in the house my “brothers” but they are technically nephews: the grandchildren of my host parents. One nephew/brother is eleven years old–Olwethu, my valiant tour guide–and the other is just over six months!
My host mother is a spiritual rock in our small community: She leads worship and prayer in our living room at least three times a week, including Sunday mornings, and often travels into town to attend the larger church services. In September she consented to my accompanying her for an all-day praise and worship affair–after which they treated us to an excellent lunch.
It’s lucky for me that my host dad lives in the house with us, instead of commuting to work, because my very first week I required his assistance with expelling some unwelcome guests: two mammoth spiders.
To my horror, the first vanished before my rescuer arrived. There are still some nights when I peek at the patch of wall it occupied, bracing myself for the sight of its black bulge.
The second spider was creeping across the floor when I discovered it, however. I corralled it with my church hat, further barricading it with a plastic bucket for good measure, before fleeing for assistance.
My host dad dutifully accompanied me back to my place for the second time in two days, probably wondering if he had adopted a girl who cried spider, but this time there was no escape for “isicabucabu.” He dispatched the beast with nothing but his bare hands and a flip-flop!
Not all the animals at my site are extras from Halloween horror films: Cheeping baby chicks speckle the compound, and a herd of doleful goats roams the grounds. The goat kids camp out on my porch when the rains pours down, which would be cute if they didn’t leave a mess as their calling cards. Some Peace Corps Volunteers adopt cats and dogs to keep them company, but I’m content with the lizard who likes to hang out–literally–inside my curtains.
Besides the livestock, my family also cultivates a gorgeous garden. One of my favorite evenings to date has been watering and weeding with my host mother while the sun declined behind the mountains.
One of the surprises of living in a small town is discovering you have relatives everywhere. When one of my brothers visited for the weekend, he introduced me to his grandmother, a venerable lady still independent in her late years.
You have to cross the highway to find much beyond my school and a handful of houses. When I’m feeling adventurous, I call upon the guides who supervised my first mapping project: Olwethu and his band of merry friends.
At the conclusion of these excursions, I proudly presented my pencil drawing to my family’s curious inspection. They chuckled over it, pointing out familiar landmarks rendered by a foreign hand, no doubt bemused at my attempts to scale distances on the fly.
Every member of my family has played a special part in making me feel at home here, and I’m thankful for it. Thanks to their kindness, I’m starting to feel like I know my way around.
Your description of the veritable “gazanots” (Armenian word for zoo) made me chuckle… and miss you much. Though if we will meet up, I’m now suggesting Armenia instead of South Africa. We, praise God, do not have mammoth spiders.
Ha ha, oh no! I haven’t seen any more monster spiders since my first week… does that reassure you?
If it’s not monkeys and tarantulas, what kind of pests do you deal with in Armenia? I’ll come prepared!