Sunday, October 31, 2010

An Ode to Meat (Inyama)

Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and I are best friends.  We know each other well and I even considered myself an almost vegetarian before heading over to South Africa.  Now however, I believe I am in the midst of a sea change—I don’t remember including “learning to re-appreciate the consumption of dead animal” on my CIDA workplan, but I would like to add that as a pinnacle of personal growth.  I don’t know what South Africa’s national slogan is, but I would like to suggest “We Love Meat”.  Perfectly seasoned, long simmered, finger-licking, fall-off-the-bone, oily, hearty, satisfying animal.  I simply love the Xhosa plate.  I love that you are guaranteed at least two types of meat at formal events and that it will come with a generous heaping mountain of umngqusho (beans and samp), beetroot, potatoes and spinach.  And I like eating with my hands and then seeing the glisten of beautifully cooked meat juice on my fingers.  Because it’s not meat that has just been sitting on the grocery shelves and pumped full of synthetic chemicals, but meat that’s been slaughtered for an event and has a purpose and is appreciated.  It’s not separated from its origins—the meat in the Xhosa pots has bones and fat and muscle and proof that it was once alive and part of our earth.    

And the food is more than what is on your plate-- in Canada, when someone offers you food, you politely say “no, thank you” even if you are starving because you know that person was just being polite.  But as polite Canadians, we do not actually mean what we say—we’re just going through the motions.  In Xhosa culture, when someone offers you food (and they always do), you eat some even if you’re full.  Sarah and I thought we were being polite in demurely repeating the Canadian party line, “we’re fine, thank you”.  We were swiftly informed that when someone offers you a bite, you take it or risk being seen as thinking you’re better than them and their food.  For example, at the end of the WSU Peer Educator reflection session, we headed to the boardroom for an afternoon snack which was a plate of meat-a pork rib, a chicken leg, a smoked sausage, fried fish, and chicken salad sandwiches (typical Canadian meeting fare eh?).  As a self-imposed hot-yoga practicing and 5-a-day fanatic, I hesitated and then thought, why am I fighting this meat?  Let me celebrate it and embrace it.  Why?  Of course, I don’t want to be rude, but mostly, it’s just so good!
I’ve commissioned Mandisa from the Centre for HIV/AIDS to be my mentor in my Xhosa culinary journey.  I’ve promised to buy the groceries and use my kitchen so she can dedicate a few hours to showing me how to make magic.  I can string together simple sentences in Xhosa and surprise people with the arbitrary vocabulary I’ve picked up but I want to prove myself in my ability to cook the food of the Eastern Cape.  If I’m allowed, perhaps I will post the recipes...

Wild Dolphins

In the one day gap between torrential downpours, Sarah and I were mesmerized by a family of wild Indian Ocean dolphins (ihlengesi) frolicking off the coast of Nahoon Beach on Saturday.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Water, Water Everywhere and Not a Drop to Drink

I've asked Sarah to be my plus one on Noah's Ark as East London continues to be deluged by rain.  Last night and this morning were huge shows of National Geographic-style thunder and lightning!  The local newspaper, the Daily Dispatch, published an article on the recent weather. Even though the Eastern Cape Province is in the midst of a 3 year long drought, Sarah and I selfishly holding out for sunny weather!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

World AIDS Days in a Shared Taxi

Culinary delights, both familiar and foreign, were revealed this week in East London.  For example, Sarah and I have discovered an outlet for our sushi cravings that is actually decent compared with the other attempts I’ve subjected myself to.  Another highlight are the mind-blowing Cadbury displays-not just your usual flavours of Dairy Milk, but novel ones such as “cashew and coconut”, “pecan maple syrup”, and “butter shortbread”.  While on our inaugural shared taxi ride into town on Tuesday (details below), Mandisa exposed us to Pie City, a local meat pie chain and Sarah forced me to try the unique flavour of fluorescent “dairy juice mix”.  Our chosen flavour was orange which tasted like melted candy—couldn’t down a whole bottle, but a few sips to wash down a steaming hot chicken pie tasted great!

Walter Sisulu University, the Centre for HIV/AIDS, and all of the volunteers and students involved in planning the World AIDS day events did an outstanding job (perhaps our flyers and posters helped too...).  The program featured guest speakers, singing and dancing, health testing (I passed with flying colours!), lots of free condoms, and dramatic performances.  The theatrical highlight came courtesy of inmates from Mdantsane Prison who are involved in community outreach programs, such as HIV/AIDS peer education.  Although the play was in Xhosa, we pieced together the plot of a man’s experience of being HIV positive and the accompanying stigma and discrimination, both in prison and the rest of the country. 

Quantum Shared Taxi
Our day began with a trip into town on a shared taxi with our hands lovingly held by Mandisa from the Centre for HIV/AIDS.  At designated taxi ranks, there are groups of men who yell out popular destinations and then herd you into large vans until they are full.  Once full, you are on your way with much yelling and honking!  As the smallest member of our party, I was ushered into the back of the car where I had the pleasure of trying to squeeze my bum in between two passengers while wearing a dress, maintaining my gracefulness, and trying not to look like the rookie.  My attempts at being polite and taking up as little room as possible disappeared by the end of the trip when I decided that I would just let my body expand where it wanted and get to know my fellow seatmates a little better.  No matter your destination, the fare is R6 (about CDN$1).  You nudge the person in front of you with your money and they pass it up to whoever is in the passenger seat, who is then responsible for ensuring that everyone has paid.  When Sarah and I took a shared taxi on Saturday (by ourselves to the workshop we designed about peer pressure for 1st year university students), she became the official fare collector and change dispenser, while I apparently looked like I knew what I was doing as I was asked intricate questions about taxi routes and transfers.  As someone who grew up in the wide open spaces of the Prairies or surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, I am still getting used to the busyness of downtown East London and the “coziness” of the shared taxis!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Magic in a Pot

I hate to let this culinary masterpiece secret out of the bag, but due to readers' demands, I have published the Bello family recipe of "Nigerian stew".  It will be great on those cold winter days that you all are expecting in the near future!

to eat = yitya   
to cook = pheka
tasty food = ukutya okunencasa 

1 kg of chicken pieces (inkuku)
1.5 onions, chopped (itswele)
3 tomatoes, chopped
2 potatoes, cubed (itapile)
2 carrots, sliced
2 teaspoons curry powder
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon clove
1/2 teaspon pepper (ipepile)
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 chicken stock cube
salt to taste (ityuwa)
green pepper, celery (imifuno)

-Heat some oil in a pot and brown chicken.
-Remove chicken.  Add onion and garlic to the oil and saute.
-Add tomatoes and fry for a few minutes.
-Add potatoes, carrots, spices, and about 1/2 cup of water.  Bring to a boil.
-Return the chicken to the pot and reduce heat to simmer.
-Simmer until veggies and chicken are done, adding water when necessary.
-Add any other chopped vegetables (green pepper, celery, etc.)
-You may also want to experiment with chili flakes depending on the strength of your curry.

Serve with rice.

Monday, October 18, 2010

A Coke in Paradise

Dear Canadian tax payers and those who are beginning their descent into winter—perhaps you should skip this post...
Sarah and I spent this weekend at Chintsa, a stretch of windswept and whitesand beach about 40km from East London.  We hitched a ride with the owner of the Buccaneer Backpackers, a backpacking and surf-bum institution, and landed in a little piece of paradise.  The photos speak for themselves and of the beachfront access through tropical fronds, a peaceful lagoon, and the everchanging sand dunes.  The sand held a treasure trove of shells and we braved the cold waves which wanted to suck us out to open ocean and also spit us back out!  The weather was perfect for both days, aside from the gale-like winds on Sunday.  It was a great way to spend a few days and nice to know that paradise is a 30 minute drive away.    
P.S. My self-taught Xhosa language skills experienced a slight hiccup, yet important lesson last week.  When trying to describe what I cooked for dinner, I learned that there’s only a one letter difference between the word for “chicken” and the word for a woman’s reproductive organ.  Goodto know...
P.P.S. Somehow, stellar Canadian programming such as “Style by Jury” and “Heartland” are in syndication on South African television.

The view from our room
The view from the bar
Bridge over the lagoon
The lagoon

Our room

Chintsa East
Chintsa East
View from the main house

Chintsa East

A Coke in paradise
Sunrise walk
Sand dunes
Lagoon path to the beach

Paradise again

Tastes better in a bottle

Chintsa East

Future second home?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Nigerian Stew

You know when you find a recipe that you just can't get enough of?  You have it once at someone's house, ask for the recipe, and then dedicate your life to perfecting it, tweaking it, and having it be second nature in your culinary repertoire.  Sarah and I would like to extend a don allah (Nigerian Hausa for thank you) to Mrs. Bello and Hauwa for sharing their Nigerian chicken curry recipe.  During our time as captives in Mthatha, we tasted this for the first time and after waiting to hear a beautiful complicated name for the dish, we were told it was "stew".  It's nearly perfect though and Sarah and I have made it at least 6 times since we got home.  Our most recent addition has been steamed spinach, a staple vegetable here.  We live, eat, and breathe Nigerian stew.  And during the recent days of nearly bone-chilling weather, it is the perfect dish. 

I am debating about starting a blog dedicated to those moments where I feel like I am an unintentional celebrity.  For example, last Sunday at the church service (my first time in almost 5 years) that Sarah and I were invited to by Mawethu and Lwandile.  Not realizing how swanked up churchgoers around here would get and with a post-church service beach trip in mind, Sarah and I looked like we had just rolled out of bed.  Little did we know that we would be seated with the pastor and his family, warmly welcomed into the community, and then asked to stand in front of the entire congregation while "our friends from Canada" were being introduced.  We both turned a deep shade of bomvu (red).  It was full of singing, clapping, evangelizing, praying out loud, and crying.  After that and in the place of worship I'm a little more familiar with, we trekked out to Gonubie and Nahoon Beach with our faithful Dean's Taxi and I had my first jump in the Indian Ocean!

A Poster, A Rainstorm, and an Interview

Sarah and I have been assisting Walter Sisulu University and their Centre for HIV/AIDS with poster and flyer designs for their upcoming World AIDS Days around the different campuses.  We spent the day with Mawethu and Mandisa, putting up posters and handing out flyers in residences and on campus.  The poster is also featured on the Walter Sisulu website.  Click on it to see the enlarged version!

I also had the pleasure of acting as a mock interviewer for university students as a follow-up to Sarah's hugely attended and popular workshop on job searches, CV and cover letter writing, and networking.  Our expected attendance was great diminished by the wicked rainstorm (imvula) but allowed us extra time to meet with students and discuss their CVs, skills, and interview best practices.  A very productive day!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Mthatha and my house

Home Sweet Home


Road to Mthatha

Road to Mthatha

Wedding Meal

Saturday, October 9, 2010

A face in the crowd

When you first land in a new place, there is an initial exhilaration of being a complete stranger where you know no one and no one knows you.  Everything is brand new and foreign and to everyone you pass, you are just another body.  That stage has not passed as I find that every day holds another lesson with South Africa and its people sharing more of themselves, but since returning to East London from Mthatha, I can say that I know people here and East London is not just another city on a map.
We know all of the driving crew at Dean’s Taxis; they joke with us about work projects and why they hadn’t seen us in a while and we ask them about the recent birth of a grandchild.  When we first walked into our office last Monday after returning from the conference, we immediately ran into student volunteers we had met in Mthatha who were thrilled to see we worked at their campus.  While walking down the hallway to our office, we were greeted with big smiles, demands of where we had been, interest in a Canadian’s impression of Mthatha, astonishment at our new Xhosa, and happiness that we had returned and were staying!  While walking later that day, we ran into more people from the university as well as a contact we made at the conference who pulled over his car to give us a big hug and encouraged us to stop by his office.  It’s a small world after all and this last week has been encouraging and rewarding. 
I would like to thank the South African mosquitoes who had almost complete access to my entire vulnerable sleeping flesh last night, but who chose to target my right eyelid and just above my left eyebrow, rendering me a blonde Quasimoto.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

"Ndifuna umyeni"

My grasp of the Xhosa language is improving and I am like a sponge trying to soak up any words or phrases I hear.  The most common reaction to my speaking Xhosa is surprise, smiling, laughter, and pleasure, especially when I whisper the few swear words I've picked up!  I promised myself that by the time I left South Africa, I would be able to put intermediate level Xhsoa on my resume!

While in Mthatha, there was a lot of opportunity to learn and practice new vocabulary.  Sarah and I are both very trusting in repeating whatever words we are told to say as we try to learn more and more.  The student volunteers enjoyed watching me scribble in my notebook whenever a new phrase or word was said and learnt.  While at dinner one night, Andy and Nomve, student conference organizers, taught us, "ndifuna umyeni!".  We weren't completely sure what we were saying, but by the end of the night, we were yelling it out to any community member who walked by in our attempts to impress.  As it turned out, we were yelling, "I want a husband!" which explained the laughter and looks of pity.

Speaking of husbands, consider this an informal poll of how many cows I am worth.  Sarah and I both received marriage proposals while in Mthatha.  Bride price (lobola) is still paid here and we were both wooed by a man with 600 cows and countless sheep.  I am not sure if FedEx will transport livestock to Canada, but if I really hit hard times, I can fall back on my bovine reserves.

Saying I Do, Xhosa Style

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Art of Waiting

The last two weeks in Mthatha have been a crash course in patience and the ability to simply wait.  We finally made it to Mthatha and the Nkululekweni site, only to be told that the student strike was still on and had become violent with students blocking faculty and staff from the campus.  When we arrived, classes had been suspended and the police had evicted students from their reside nces. 
Our first assignment was assisting with the Student Session and I learned:
1)      how entrenched political affiliations are (especially with the ANC) as the impromptu and rowdy political rally at the end of the night demonstrated
2)      how long people here can ramble on for
3)      the challenges that all women still face.
It was an eye opening experience and yet another example of how little I know.  During the Gender Commission, Sarah and I both had to bite our tongues as almost only men contributed to the session and yet when a woman volunteered to present the discussion to the whole conference, she was nearly heckled off the floor. 
The second and most interesting part of the conference was the Capacity Building and Training for Community Development Workers which redeemed my faith after the student session.  Community members met at the Centre for Rural Development for an intensive week of workshops.  Sarah, Jason, and I sat in on the introduction and were pointed out as the “mlungus” (white people) and unmarried too!  Sarah and I assisted with much of the basic logistics (apparently we looked like we knew what was going on) as well as proofreading and adding content to the workshops on HIV/AIDS and gender.  The community members also prepared a presentation for the main conference to address the rural voice and confront the academic and government population. 
The final part of the conference was the main conference—I didn’t see a lot of it, but as it consistently ran hours later than scheduled, I am not too heartbroken.  It continues to amaze me how people can speak simply because there is a microphone in front of them and assume that the audience is interested.   I did however get roped into addressing the crowd for the Vote of Thanks in the closing ceremonies on behalf of Niagara College!  The best part of the main conference was meeting all of the student volunteers; being “mlungu” is an easy conversation starter, but they made us feel very welcomed and we will hopefully all see each other soon. I also got my first marriage proposal from a local chief with a herd of 600 inkomos (cows) as part of the bride price (a tradition that continues today). 
Although we did not see much of Mthatha on this trip because of our marathon days and no weekends, Sarah and I did have the unique pleasure of staying with Professor Bello and his family.  We tasted traditional Nigerian foods, learned some basic Hausa (a language spoken in northern Nigeria), and got a lesson in the marketing of the Texas spring onion (Prof Bello’s PhD concentration).  My Xhosa vocabulary has grown hugely in the last two weeks and we continue to surprise people with the words we know.  I also learned that the word for a nearby town, Qunu, can be pronounced incorrectly and become a vulgar term for a body part.  That always gets a few laughs! I have developed a great appreciation for Xhosa cuisine-tons of meat, nqushu (beans and samp), creamed greens, pap, beets and squash, and Rooibos tea.  Only a few uncomfortable run-ins with the Mthatha washroom facilities, but it has only reinforced my belief that one should always carry a roll of toilet paper. 
Now, we continue to wait for transportation back home—it seems to be a never-ending tease that we will make it back to East London and it has come to the point where you just search for the cleanest dirty clothes you have and hope that tomorrow is actually the day!