The Top of the Mountain

December 11, 2011

The Top of the Mountain

looking down on the veld from the top!


Moving to my site in Eastern Cape was a crazy adjustment from Pre-Service Training.  Instead of having most of my days dictated by Peace Corps classes and activities, I was totally on my own and free to make my own schedule.  It was kind of like making the transition from high school to college, and at first I didn’t know what to do with all the freedom.  I’m incredibly lucky to live with a fantastic host family, and they made my whole adjustment process so much easier.  I did my best to be out and about in the township so that people would begin to recognize the crazy “umlungu” (Xhosa for white person) scampering around the “location” (what everyone here calls the township).  I went to funerals, churches, a baby shower, a graduation party, and many other events where I was the only white person for miles and I was warmly welcomed by the community members who all wanted to know why on earth an American would move to a township in rural South Africa.  When I accompanied my host dad to the church where he serves as the reverend, I was placed in a seat of honor at the front of the church (even though I had no idea what was going on as the entire service was in Xhosa) and later, during the collection, I ended up dancing in a circle of gogos and generally looking like an idiot, I’d like to think the gogos got a kick out of it.  

One of my favorite days when I was first at site occurred when I went with the kids from my host family (there are 9 of them) on a hike up a nearby mountain outside of Molteno.  Most of the children had never been to the mountain before, but once we got started they were more excited than me.  After a season of heavy rains the mountains and veld were green and beautiful and looking down on the countryside from the top of the mountain left us all standing in awe.  Eastern Cape is a gorgeous province and I feel really lucky to be a part of the first (and probably last) Peace Corps group to be placed here.  Being with the kids, climbing the mountain, taking countless pictures, writing our names on a rock at the top, and exploring this new area made me really feel like a part of the family, which was surprisingly comforting after such a long separation from my family back home.  After our hike I even attempted to be domestic and baked peanut butter chocolate chip cookies with the little ones, who went crazy for the new treat.  It’s been kind of unreal how quickly the children in my host family accepted me as part of the family unit.  While a lot of people in the township still can’t quite wrap their heads around an American living in their midst, these children run down the street to me every day on my walk home from work and welcome me back with an endless stream of hugs.  Occasionally some of the neighborhood children will jump on the hug train and sneak their way in there, I figure at least they can tell their friends at school that they touched the crazy umlungu . . . and she’s not as scary as they think.

Even though I’m living in a township in rural South Africa, my life here can often seem strangely familiar to my American life.  I eat dinner with my host family every night and we all will gather around the television and watch the famous South African “soapie” (SA term for soap opera) called Generations.  I have been an avid watcher since training, and my host family still gets a kick out of how obsessed with it I am.  The music I hear the most walking through the location is Rihanna or Beyonce, and the little kids go crazy over WWE wrestling.  It’s not at all how I imagined my Peace Corps service in Sub-Saharan Africa, but there are still these mildly surreal moments that remind you you’re half a world away from a comfortable American life.  Walking back from work one day, I rounded the corner behind my house and came upon the severed head and legs of a buck that my host dad and brother had slaughtered in the yard.  After recovering from the shock, I went into the kitchen and found some of the kids helping to clean the intestines of this buck.  Many of the internal organs are considered especially tasty in the township and I knew I would encounter them eventually, but I didn’t know I’d also have to deal with these things raw.  Mind you I wouldn’t even cook meat for myself in the states because a pre-packaged, boneless, skinless chicken breast grossed me out.  Not to be outdone by a couple of 12 year old girls who were cleaning the intestines, I choked back my vomit and jumped right in.  I didn’t have quite the seamless technique they had, after all those little fingers had been cleaning intestines from a very early age, but I managed to help a little, and I think I earned some serious street cred with my host family (however, they could not stop laughing at the expression on my face while I cleaned these intestines, it was a mix of horror and despair I think).  After I had put in the necessary effort with the intestines, the raw liver was brought out.  One of the kids cut off a piece, sprinkled some salt on it and popped it into her mouth like it was candy.  She told me that the liver was her favorite part and wouldn’t I like to try some?  The kids in my host family quickly learned that they could get me to do almost anything if they said it was a “cultural experience.”  They told me that the girls cleaning the organs was part of their culture, as was nibbling on the raw liver . . . so I ate some of the damn liver.  It wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it’d be, but after sampling a variety of organs, I’ve decided that I’m probably more of a brains girl (cooked, thank god).

host family farewell event

October 11, 2011

wearing a traditional Sepedi head-wrap (courtesy of my gogo) at the peace corps host family farewell event in Moshate

my posse of small children

October 11, 2011

some of the kids that would come and hang out at my house in Limpopo

my gogo

October 11, 2011

the gogo and baby boy I lived with during training, she's just wonderful

nice, eh?

peace corps health event

August 2, 2011

At the Peace Corps health event in Moshate.

August 2, 2011

If anyone still checks this silly blog (and I would be terribly surprised if you do . . . it’s been a solid 5 months since I last posted anything) I wanted you to know how sorry I am for not keeping my family and friends in America fully updated on my South African adventures.  In my defense . . . I really have no defense, I just hope that anyone who still reads this can understand that part of why I joined Peace Corps was to disconnect and give myself some serious time to contemplate my life and what I want to do with it.  Now that I’ve undergone my necessary isolation from America during Pre-Service Training (henceforth referred to as PST) and in my first three months at my permanent site (henceforth referred to as “lockdown”), I am finally prepared to share (or at least attempt to share) this crazy experience with you all.  I very much hope there are still a couple of you interested in hearing about it . . .

So, it began with my training group’s arrival in Jo’burg on January 26th.  All 46 cranky, jetlagged Americans stumbled into the bright African sunlight and we were immediately greeted by Peace Corps staff and whisked off to our training site in Limpopo Province.  Limpopo is a beautiful place, but in the middle of a South African summer, the only two constants are heat and dust, which this group of naive Americans soon discovered.  We spent our first couple weeks in South Africa at Mokopane College of Education where we began our South African education.

Starting each day with a different language lesson in order to learn how to greet properly in a variety of South African languages which included Sepedi, Xitsonga, Siswati, Zulu, Xhosa and Afrikaans ensured that most of the group was completely befuddled with all these languages within the first week.  After numerous tea breaks we moved on to classes in the afternoon which ranged from health, safety, international development, South African history, internalized oppression (the group favorite) and how not to look like a complete American moron navigating this new culture.

After a week or two of language torture, Peace Corps finally informed us of what language we would be learning and attempting to communicate with for the next two years.  The only language I was really dreading having to learn was Xhosa, since it is the language with the most clicking sounds (the name itself has a click in it – VERY intimidating).  So naturally I was assigned to the Xhosa language group.  How typical.  The letters that signify clicks in Xhosa are “c”, “x”, and “q” each representing a different part of your mouth that you have to use to make the proper sound.  My language group looked like a bunch of idiots when we all practiced making these clicks at the same time, our language teacher Nkosi was perpetually exasperated and flabbergasted at how hopeless we were.

In between language classes, tea time and afternoon classes, SA 23 snuck in some incredibly valuable bonding time.  There is nothing like being thrust into a new culture thousands of miles from everyone and everything you know and love to facilitate rapid bonding among a group of Americans. With a dearth of technology and booze, Peace Corps training slowly evolved into a middle school like summer camp with a bunch of grown ups.  Card and board games were occasionally interrupted so that the Americans could get their asses kicked in a soccer match by a bunch of South Africans.  Eventually the little cocoon we built for ourselves at Mokopane College had to burst open and send us forth into villages to live with South African host families.

Initially I was intimidated to be on my own trying to navigate my place in a rural South African family’s household.  I know, I know, I joined Peace Corps to do just that, but after building up a safety net of fellow Peace Corps friends, being on my own felt kind of terrifying.  Luckily, my gogo (South African term for grandmother/old lady) was so incredibly welcoming and kind that the transition from the Peace Corps bubble to village life was really easy.  I stayed with my gogo, my host sister, my host sister’s newborn baby and my host father who spent most of his time working in Jo’burg.  For the six weeks that I lived there I helped with chores, I held the baby, I watched the South African soap operas, I greeted the endless stream of gogos who visited, I used the pit latrine, and I bathed out of bucket.  One evening while partaking in my evening bucket back ritual (which happened to occur in the garage), an ancient gogo proceeds to open the door, march in on my bucket bath, and greet me in Afrikaans.  Having been so indoctrinated into cultural sensitivity by Peace Corps, I proceed to respond in Afrikaans and inquire about her day.  The gogo eventually scampers away and I realized that I had received my first lesson in South African respect for privacy . . . there is none, and that’s ok.

Our time in Moshate was filled with tons of “holy hell I’m in Africa” moments.  When the rooster woke me up over the sound of the shebeen (illegitimate South African bar) at 4 in the morning, when I had to wait for a herd of goats to cross the dirt road, or when a group of 10 small children would assemble each evening to play with my hair and ask me about America – all moments that I will vividly remember forever.  I was eventually given a South African name by my host family, “Lerato,” which means love in Sepedi.  The Xhosa, Zulu and Swati language groups were all placed in this village and as we became more comfortable navigating the community we started exploring and visiting each other.  It was great to meet the different host families who were all so incredibly welcoming and generous to each of the volunteers.  Between my new Peace Corps buddies and my wonderful host family, I was finally able to feel at home in this country.

The Americans who were staying in Moshate met almost every day at the local shop called Mock’s Cafe where we could get a cold soda and make brief phone calls home from the pay phone outside.  Occasionally I would explore down by the river just outside of town with some other trainees.  With the mountains in the background and the river in the foreground, it was a beautiful spot to walk and talk or just sit in silence and listen to the cowbells of the herd who rambled through the water in an attempt to catch a break from the hot African sun.  There were countless magical moments like these in my eight weeks as a trainee, and I’m sorry that I can’t recount all of them for you.

Towards the end of PST we received our site placements and then went on site visits to scope out the places we’d be living for the next two years.  I found out that I would be serving in the Eastern Cape (which I already knew because that is the only Xhosa speaking province where volunteers would be sent) in a township outside of a small town called Molteno.  The initial information I heard about Molteno didn’t give me any confidence in my future site – it’s one of the coldest spots in South Africa with winter temperatures dropping as low as negative fifteen degrees Celsius and there are very few trees since Molteno is located where the mountains meet the veld.  My site visit showed me that this town, townships and the surrounding countryside were beautiful in a way that I would never have associated with Africa.  The veld reminds me of the Great Plains in America with mountains interspersed at random intervals.  You can see for days and the wind that tears across these plains rips right through you, but there is something about this vast expanse of openness that draws you in . . . I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to move back to a crowded city where epic sunsets and cold, clean air are not the norm.

My site visit was a blur of introductions, tours, and explaining endlessly why on earth an American would move to Molteno.  I ended up staying in three different places over the course of three nights because I was mildly homeless at the time.  This was my first experience with the unending generosity of the people of Molteno.  People were so happy opening up their homes to me.  On the last night of my site visit I ended up staying out on one of the surrounding farms – I braai-ed (South African BBQ), played cricket with small children, and the next morning I even went berry picking.  The whole trip was felt completely unreal, not only does Eastern Cape feel like a different world from Limpopo, but I also realized that my Peace Corps service was going to be totally different than what I imagined.

When the Americans had all reconvened in Limpopo, we were able to swap stories about our different sites – some were hilarious, some were dreadful and some were terrifying . . . luckily nobody decided to go back to America at that point.  It was such a relief seeing my training group again that I finally realized how important they had become as my support system in South Africa.  We made the most of our last few weeks as a group, even managing to find a fantastic Afrikaner dive bar in town where we quickly became regulars.  I had an absolute blast those last couple of weeks with all the Americans, culminating in our host family farewell event where lots of us dressed up in traditional South African attire and thanked our host families for putting up with us for the past two months.  For our last day as a group, we had a braai which remains one of the most fun days I’ve had with my training group so far.  The weather was perfect, the food was great, and most of us just spent the day sitting in the grass with music, libations, grilled meat, and the excellent company of 45 other Peace Corps Trainees.

Eventually the time came to swear-in and depart for our permanent sites which were located in Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Kwazulu-Natal and Eastern Cape Provinces.  I was indescribably sad to leave my Peace Corps friends and I was more than a little nervous about my site – I still wasn’t even sure if I’d have a place to stay when I arrived.  Thinking about what an unknown we were all traveling into reminds me of a quotation that my friend Charlie sent me which says, “To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest.”  Throughout this entire Peace Corps experience I’ve been continually thrown out of the nest, and it’s been amazing.

Address at Site

August 2, 2011

My current mailing address at site is . . .


Cassie Griffin

Inkwanca Home Based Care

38 White Street



South Africa


January 19, 2011

My Peace Corps training will take place from January 26th (arrival in South Africa) to March 24th.  Since the purpose of training is immersion in the culture and language of South Africa, my access to the internet and phone will be limited.  I can, however, still receive letters and packages at the address listed below.  (helpful hint: my favorite candy is Milk Duds)


Catherine Griffin

Peace Corps

PO Box 9536

Pretoria 0001

South Africa