Cheer with Hope: Celebrations, St. Lucia, the Reed Dance

Cheer with Hope: Celebrations, St. Lucia, the Reed Dance

Whenever someone surprises me with that infamous question – “How’s it going in Africa?” or “What’s it like doing Peace Corps?” – I resort to my emergency reply: “Mountains and valleys!”

Peace Corps has given me some of the happiest times of my life – and some of the most difficult. The past month unfolded along the same lines, running from birthday celebrations to a memorial service for a Grade 6 learner at my school. In the good times, in the difficult times, we need not fear…for the Lord walks with us.

August began with a celebration: my dear friend Talitha’s birthday. Another friend granted me kitchen access so that I could indulge Talitha’s favorite flavors by baking a rich, fudgy, dark chocolate bonanza of a cake – complete with coffee icing!

We ambushed her unannounced at home to deliver the prize. Even though she was engrossed with teacher duties, Talitha didn’t turn us away – instead, she turned the occasion into an impromptu party! We savored slices of cake on the porch overlooking the lovely mountains of northern KZN.

The next week gave us cause for celebrating an occasion no one would wish for: My school lost a learner.

Memorial services here have a different vibe than you might expect – during training, one of my cohort made the mistake of calling it a ‘party.’ Our Language Culture Facilitators gently corrected us: Don’t confuse the singing, dancing, and ear-pounding music at Zulu funerals for festivities!

On Monday, every teacher made the solemn journey to Amahle’s home, where we crowded into a low-roofed rondavel to sit alongside her weeping family. Our principal and head of department offered prayers and encouragement, while we all contributed to a small offering for funeral expenses.

On Wednesday, the school hosted the community for a memorial service. Learners sang and recited eulogies for their lost classmate under a canvas tent erected on the sports ground.

On Saturday, we drove to a wake at the hospital: After waiting outside the mortuary, we prayed around the open casket then processed down the road to the school with the teachers in a vehicle caravan. I wore the douk (head wrap) to show respect and solidarity with my teachers, as women traditionally cover their hair at church ceremonies here.

One Sunday, missing my nearby friends, I was inspired to make the jump for church. There’s no guarantee of nabbing a taxi in the quiet morning hours on weekends, so it’s always a gamble to try for the 9:30 am service. Would you believe it, but my teacher was passing by! She offered to drop me off if she found me still waiting on her way back to town.

As I waved good-bye, my phone jangled in my pocket. Puzzled, I answered to discover my host mother had spied me from the porch – apparently caught in the act of contemplating that dangerous and illegal activity: hitchhiking! I hastened to explain. Within the hour, I found myself in my shopping town, with time to join my fellow Volunteer Sydney for a delicious breakfast. Sydney’s effortless and gracious hospitality would put a caterer to shame!

It was life-giving to meet all my friends for worship. To cap off a blessed day, the lovely Maryna hosted us for lunch. Sydney met her for the first time, and the warmth and love was palpable – until then, Sydney had only heard about Maryna from her host mother, who looked after Maryna’s children when they were young. It’s beautiful to close the loop in the network of relationships the Lord has laid in this place.

A week later, I joined the local Christian school for a community clean-up! While I scrubbed the walls and windows with Lara, a Swiss volunteer, other teams shoveled gravel for a path, hammered in fence posts, and swept the courtyard. Many hands make light work!

With the third term of my first full year of teaching drawing to a close, my learners and I are settling into a rhythm. They never tire of wielding the chalk whenever there’s something to write on the board – they covet it as a privilege.

One morning when I arrived early, the learners included me in their jump rope games. My hair tumbled down around my shoulders and one shoe went flying – I bobbled on with one foot, like a manic Tigger, to their startled delight.

My Grade 7 learners made me proud with a practical activity in Creative Arts: gluing yarn to paper in spirals and shapes to form 3-D designs. The tacky glue made it trickier than it looked, but they were tireless in coaxing the thread into spirals.

Grades 1-3 gather early in the morning for an all-day outing

At the end of August, we rose with the sun for the foundation level school trip to St. Lucia.

At the Simangaliso (‘amazement’) wetland park, we indulged in a brief game drive then dashed back just in time for our scheduled river cruise. “Are you with these children?” one of the part attendants demanded, prompting me to look around in doubt as to whether the teachers were taking a different boat.

We spotted hippos and crocodiles (from a comfortable distance) then retired to the beach for a photo – a good 50 meters away from the surf, since none of the students and no doubt few of the teachers have learned to swim.

I have to admit my favorite part of the trip might have been shopping for lunch: Each child toted small change for a drink, snack, or dessert, nudging carts down the supermarket aisles with tiny gravity. Then we retired to the taxis, where the teachers doled out KFC (ordered in bulk in advance) with bread and an apple for each.

The last weekend before September, a learner’s parent surprised me with an invitation to the most iconic of Zulu festivals: “Umkhosi womhlanga” or the Reed Dance. This event features a Cinderella’s ball for the maidens of the Zulu nation, where they present themselves in traditional attire before the king.

The generous and radiant Studla hosted me for the day, guiding me up the mountain to the king’s house and explaining the customs. Though she and the other women took pride in their daughters’ participation, they voiced concerns about the king’s continuing to choose brides from the virgins…despite his being married several times over already.

The dancing and singing is spectacular – foot stomping rhythms and fierce with local pride, as women gather from throughout the province – to say nothing of the towering sugar canes that the women bear aloft to lay at the feet of their king. Unfortunately, the young women involved often fall prey to assaults and harassment as their daily attire has since evolved to more Western standards…and the Reed Dance stipulates the traditional dress of short skirts and no top other than their elaborate bead necklaces.

At the conclusion of the event, we witnessed the king departing with his court, the men attired in skins and feathers, according to the dress of Zulu warriors. When we collected Studla’s little daughter Aneso, she was more than ready for the adventure to end after a long day in the sun.

Emholweni, a monthly outdoor market timed to coincide with the day pensions are paid

Mme. Xulu, the foundation level Head of Department, invited me to accompany her to a more regular local tradition: Uhlolo, an outdoor market that rolls out the first day of the month when the people have received their pension and social service paychecks. The stands bristle with fruit, fat cakes, and secondhand clothing.

She bought us a dish of stewed beef’s neck – “No seasoning!” she told me, “It’s pure!” – and pap for a snack while we waited to meet her elderly mother. It felt good to be part of the community.

At the latest GirlsTalk, we coached the girls on positive self-image – complete with declaiming self-affirmation in front of a full-length mirror. On the way home, Thobeka (a Grade 10 learner) mentioned to me that she was struggling with studying for her final exams.

My ears pricked up. Did I hear someone in need of…tutoring?

The next weekend I arrived with flour, sugar, and the most dear ingredient: pure butter. The girls mixed, beat, and rolled out batches of sugar cookies while we jived to South African beats. Then Nontobeko and I settled down for an extended tour of her textbook.

I came away glowing, accompanied by two new friends. We managed to flag down the last taxi home, where the friendly and deeply polite driver shared his family’s rich heritage with me: several generations born and raised, all in this very area. He enumerated the careers of his eight children, pointing out their dwellings as we past – including an auto repair business! – then answered my questions about herding goats and owning chickens, all in Zulu. It was a proud moment for me, validating the hours of language learning as invested in a worthy cause.

Friends like Talitha and Sylvia have inspired me to strive for connections with not only South Africans doing development work in the area, but also with the people who were born, raised, and expecting to live out their lives here

Whether the season of life shows dark or whether it shines light, it’s better to weather it with friends.

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