Thursday, September 23, 2010

“Who are the white girls in my wedding photos?”

I have only ever attended unique weddings—first my brother’s on Maui and then last Saturday, where I was welcomed into a Xhosa wedding ceremony by Mama Ghana and her family.  The celebration was well underway when we showed up—bright colours, beading, gorgeous fabrics and embroidery, and singing and dancing--the bride works for the Department of Arts and Culture and had hired two Xhosa groups to perform.  One was a troupe of adolescents who sang, drummed, and danced and the other was a group of beautiful older women in traditional paint and outfits. 

Our scheme of blending into the background was sidelined by members of the wedding party who shoved us into the middle of the tent where all eyes were, once again, on us.  During one speech, everyone in the tent turned around to look at us and laugh—Sarah and I turned beet red, but apparently someone had only made a joke about those in the audience who couldn’t understand what was being said.  You find that you are much more conscious of your behaviour when you realize that everyone is aware of your presence—no room for error! But a good laugh broke the tension and we started getting more smiles!

Other memorable moments include being followed around by the photographer and featured in a series of photo shoots—the newlyweds are going to look back at their wedding pictures and wonder who the two random blondes are!  But, like anything, there are universal similarities; long speeches, cheesy wedding singers, children playing and yelling in the background, and drunken leery uncles.  Another hilarious similarity was the reaction that a young barely-dressed dancer can have on women of all ages!  The star of the dancing group had the entire tent in shrieks and screams—at one point, he pulled a grandmother from the audience and the whole crowd hooted and hollered with jealousy and excitement!    

There were also noticeable differences— for example, a flatbed truck pulled up with a giant bed in the back—the family will sleep in the newlywed’s home for the first night to signify that you have married into the whole family.  Also, a sheep was slaughtered the day before to honour the event and the women sat behind the house with large calabashes of slow-simmered meat, creamed vegetables, squash, and nqushu (a staple food of beans and samp).  One thing I’ve noticed about South Africa is the generosity of portions—I could barely carry my plate and I think I ripped a few stitches in my dress.  Sarah and I also had the pleasure of tasting two types of home brew—regular hops beer and ginger beer.  In the tradition of being polite Canadians, we both downed the beer so as not to leave empty glasses.    

You realize how much energy it takes to be introduced to countless people, remember names, keep smiling, and trying not to make any huge cultural faux pas.  I hope we made a good impression and conveyed our gratitude in being invited and welcomed so warmly to this family event.  As far as I can tell, we didn’t insult anyone and I now have a camera full of amazing photos!

P.S. I am in Mthatha so stay tuned for my beautiful photos...

Monday, September 20, 2010

Canucks After Dark

An overactive imagination and pastime of reading books and articles about crime in South Africa caused me and Sarah to become quite fearful of leaving our cosy home after dark and we were under the impression that, with the setting sun, a terror-filled world came alive.  We were becoming our own personal wardens in the house (the bars on the doors and windows add that extra touch).  Our first taste of East London at night was a lesson in how the mind can be a dangerous opponent to reality and humanity! 

Jason, Sarah, and I were introduced to the world after dark with the help of someone we had met earlier that day at the university.  The first two places were a little too swanky for me and I felt sufficiently out of place.  For the third and final place, you had to walk under and behind the building into what looked like an abandoned warehouse.  Inside, there were a few pool tables and a bar, but you could barely see anything for the smoke.  I did however see almost all the eyeballs in the place turn around to stare at us and that’s about the time I was ready to call it a night!  Everyone else seemed relatively calm and I tried to dance my way to relaxation (not one of my fortes at the best of times, let alone when I’m terrified). 

My heart rate was finally slowing down, when two girls came up to us and demanded to know why we were there.  Sarah, with her smooth talking ways, stammered, “We don’t know, we’re Canadian, and with that guy”.  The mention of the word "Canada" caused the girls to start shrieking about how much they loved Canada and we both got giant bear hugs.  I was totally relieved as my completely irrational suspicion and primal instincts had kicked in and (as Sarah continues to remind me), I whispered, “I thought we were going to be in girlfight and I was ready”. 

This ending was much better and they even showed me a few (bizarre) dance moves and how to shake what my mama gave me.  Sorry Mum, but I could have used a bit more.  Don't think I will head back there by myself in the future, but a good night all in all.

Off to Mthatha tomorrow for the planning of the 6th Annual Rural Development Conference.  We will be there until the beginning of October--Sarah and I will be staying in the one-room structure outside of Professor Bello and his family's home.  Professor Bello is a Nigerian agricultural economist who is helping set up the Faculty of Agriculture and Rural Development.  Sarah and I will be sharing their kitchen and other facilities with him, his wife, and their 5 children!

Stay tuned for the amazing photos and videos from our traditional Xhosa wedding last weekend!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

There Will Be a Test


Celeb Status

Here is the official Niagara College Encounters blog site: my blog was the first to be highlighted!!

Also, please get to know the Niagara College Intern team a little better:

Promised Photos

tulip in Schiphol Airport
Here are the photos of places and experiences I've mentioned

Sis Ghana and Asa welcome us to East London
Indian Ocean (East London Beach)
Live Band at Airport
Road to Mthatha
Jos and Mama Ghana
Ghana's old high school
Asa and Sarah at Ebony Lodge
Mthatha sunset
Trying on wooden shoes
In front of Nelson Mandela's primary school

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Home Sweet Home (with barred windows and a giant dog)

Home sweet home—time to unpack (some things I hadn’t seen since I left Winnipeg a month ago) and get settled.  My nesting instincts kicked in as Sarah and I moved into our new home and it already feels very cosy!  When I look out the window, I feel like I’m back on Maui. I love being in the home of rooibos tea and have even found a gourmet food store! 
A week has passed since we touched down—full of introductions, meetings, and trying to find my place in a foreign country.  There are times here where I forget where I am—there is a large mall near my house with a grocery store, movie theatre, and bookstore--I could be anywhere.  Everyone has at least one cellphone (and doesn't hesitate to answer it in meetings) and there are more Mercedes Benz on the road than anywhere I’ve ever been (huge factory in town).  But then I look at the metal bars on every window, the high gates with barbed wire, the security guards in front of every store, and the warnings on ATMs.  We’ve been told matter-of-factedly that we shouldn’t walk after 6pm and we need to shut our curtains at night if we have the light on.  Note to potential visitors to South Africa: don’t watch the film "Tsotsi".  At least I didn’t see it before leaving Canada!  As we are still very new, it is difficult to gauge whether this is paranoia or whether it comes with living in South Africa—all I know is that I am quite glad that the couple who owns our house have a giant dog, Fido, and his little sidekick Minkey who are always outside and on guard!

Photos are Coming! Keep Reading!

Dear readers, 
I apologize for all the words and no photos—I know that pictures are the best way to get people to read a blog.  However, Internet is not quite the same as in North America and uploading photos has proved to be a challenge--I know actually understand "bandwidth usage"!  I have used my camera and want to share the pictures, so stay tuned!


We boarded our trusty Mercedes van for the drive from East London to Mthatha on the N2 highway—narrowly avoiding wayward donkeys and daring sheep.  There was an almost immediate transition from urban to rural as we wove along the Wild Coast region (once known as the Transkei, the largest of the black “homelands” during apartheid).  The landscape was dry, vast, and as big as the prairies and patches of brightly coloured rondavel housing dotted the rolling hills. Our road trip included a stop in Butterworth at Msobomvu high school and Qunu, the hometown of Nelson Mandela. 

The Transkei was one of 10 “Bantustans” or “homelands” that were established in 1962 as separate territories for black South Africans.  Mthatha, the capital of the Transkei during the apartheid era, is the main campus of Walter Sisulu University and their Centre for Rural Development (our primary partner) is housed in the former parliament and palace of the Transkei president.  We had our first formal introductions to the Centre for Rural Development and discussed our work and research involvement.  The students at WSU are on strike (possibly with some violence) so we have yet to actually see the campus. 
I did however try springbok carpaccio (a type of antelope) and beans and samp (staple food) while staying at the Ebony & Ivory lodge (cue Stevie Wonder).  I had my own bachelorette pad, outfitted with an emergency panic button and sliding bars on my front door—not sure if that was comforting or concerning!

On our last day of our first trip to Mthata, we visited the Ikhwezi Lokusa Crafts organization which is a forested compound that has workshops in leatherwork, pottery, and beadwork that are created and staffed by residents with physical and mental disabilities.  To gain an even greater understanding of the vastness of South Africa, we drove to Mfundisweni; the land and buildings of a former Jesuit college that has been reclaimed by the community with a 10 year plan to create sustainable income generation through its B&B, conference centre, agricultural work, bakery, and crafts.   

Thursday, September 9, 2010

It's all Xhosa to Me

The Xhosa language is the dominant indigenous language spoken in the Eastern Cape Province and the second largest language group in the country after Zulu. About 18% of South Africa’s population uses Xhosa as its first language, including Nelson Mandela. It is distinguished by the “click” sounds that punctuate the words—there are three distinct clicks that are formed by using different areas of the mouth and tongue. It is beautiful to listen to as one of the clicks is very subtle, while another one is very strong and sounds like a champagne bottle being cracked open. The rhythm and mannerisms of the language and the way words are drawn out make it mesmerizing to listen to. I am doing tongue strengthening exercises to build up my proficiency! Luckily, everyone I’ve spoken to speaks beautiful English (better than most Canadians) so the language barrier has not been as extreme as it could have been!

My vocabulary includes:

-“hello/good morning” = “molo”
-“how are you?” = “unjani”
-“I’m fine” = “ndiphilile kanye”
-“thank you” = “enkosi”

Asa and Akona have been teaching me other words and phrases, but remembering these three took the better part of a week, so this will be a slow process. But I will continue the Xhosa lessons throughout the 6 months and share them with you!

Please note that some of the spelling is phonetic!

Check out this video link for actual Xhosa 101!
Stay tuned for photos-I promise I have some gems!

The First Few Days...

Our first two days in East London were a whirlwind of meeting with different Niagara College partners—The Enterprise Development Centre, Border Kei Chamber of Business, Walter Sisulu University Research Department and Counselling Services, Akona from Statistics South Africa, and the Ikhwezi Lokusa Wellness Centre for HIV/AIDS. My mind was flooded with ideas and it was overwhelming to meet with all of these interesting people and organizations and learn about their projects and goals and the successes of previous interns.

As with arriving in any new place, the first two days were a lesson in being in a new city, country, continent...

The driver sits on the right side and drives on the left—driving is an exercise in courage as is crossing the street and I think I should have included getting hit by a car or being in the van with Jos at the wheel at night on my official Risk Management plan.
Washroom doors lock from the inside with a skeleton key—the count of locking myself in the bathroom stands at 4.
My assumption that the entire continent of Africa is always hot has been destroyed as it was 7 degrees overnight—it was much warmer in Canada. But I take comfort in the fact that their summer is just beginning, while the rest of you are beginning the inevitable descent into winter.
The trees, plants, and flowers are nearly identical to Hawaii—jacaranda, plumeria, night-blooming jasmine, eucalyptus, calalillies, bougainvillea, avocado, birds of paradise, and palms and ferns. I’ve had papaya every morning for breakfast!
The first couple of days have been a demonstration of the great contrasts, contradictions, and complexity of life in South Africa. The chaos of overcrowded mini-buses, plastic bag tornadoes in the streets, and hawkers at intersections occurs at the same time as we meet incredibly educated university staff and drive by huge manicured homes with large dogs, barbed wire, and electric fences.
We're off to Mthatha to discover the second city of our internship!

100 Rand Note (about 6.8 Rand to $1CDN)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


I hope you all enjoyed your Labour Day weekend-the majority of mine was spent in an airplane or airport.
Here are some numbers to contemplate:

3 flights, 21 hours airborne, 4 airports, 3 continents, a couple timezones, and countless airplane meals. And my first time on a doubledecker plane! I thought being Dutch might get me a visit to the penthouse level, but KLM didn't share the same feelings. But I did appreciate their flying style--not a lot of talk, but ample booze and food.

The flight from Toronto to Amsterdam on Friday night was quick and it's amazing how many stars you can see at 38,000 feet. I bid farewell to the Big Dipper for the next 6 months. While descending into Amsterdam's Schiphol airport, I felt an overwhelming sense of "being home" and pride in my Dutch heritage. This could have also been fueled by the lack of sleep and free wine (I got IDed by the flight attendant), but I think a return visit to the Netherlands is in order before going back to Canada. Our layover was spent trying on wooden shoes, while I marvelled at the fact that people do actually eat pannekoek in Holland and use blue and white china with windmills.

We met up with Jos, head of the international projects department at Niagara College, for our long trek South. Incredible Dutch hospitality, a brand new 747 plane, and a window seat over the Mediterranean sea, the equator, and the Sahara desert made the trip fly by until we descended into Oliver Tambo Airport in the Johannesburg night. With the visa approved and passport stamped, we headed off to the airport hotel, where a shower and soft bed was very much appreciated!

The next morning, with a few hours of sleep, we boarded our flight to East London with South African Airways. Air Canada could take some notes--I can't remember the last time I was offered sparkling water and a vegetarian sandwich on one of their short-haul flights. Upon arrival, Mama Ghana, Mawethu, and Asa were our warm welcoming party, complete with a Canadian flag and a large steel drum band (not actually for us but still exciting!). Then it was off to our beautiful B&B with views of the Indian Ocean and animal heads on the wall-we’re getting spoiled before we find our own accommodation. Too excited by our new surroundings to be tired, we walked along the beach before meeting up for dinner where I tried Port Alfred Kingklip (a local fish).

Pictures to follow once internet is better...

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Goodbye Welland, Hello Toronto!

After spending two intensive weeks with the Niagara College "family", it was bittersweet to say goodbye.  I felt like a baby bird, not quite ready to be pushed out of the nest and away from Lesley, Lisa, and the other interns!

But the excitement is building and while I wait for my Friday flight, I have had the pleasure of being a tourist in Toronto with two of my closest friends and the city welcomed me with open (albeit record-breaking hot, humid, and muggy) arms.

Amelie was a stellar tour guide over the weekend--highlights included Buskerfest, the Distillery District, the Hockey Hall of Fame, and a courtyard picnic with ingredients sourced from my idea of heaven on earth-St. Lawrence Market.  Saturday was capped off with an unforgettable night of live music at Joe Mamas and the next morning, we celebrated Kasia's birthday with breakfast in hipster central. 

Local peaches
Kasia has exposed me to the eclectic collection of Toronto neighbourhoods, Niagara Falls and the Maid of the Mist, Lick's burgers, Cow's ice cream, and Ontario peaches. 

If I can't spend my last few days of being in Canada with the Hamily, being with Kasia and the Trojan Stelmaszynski family is certainly an excellent alternative! 

Thanks to the Byam and Trojan Stelmaszynski families for their warmth and hospitality.

P.S. The links to websites are in colour.

St. Lawrence Market (seconds before my camera died)
Maid of the Mist at Niagara Falls

Hockey Hall of Fame