July 30, 2012

Africa: The Rhythm of Life

I've written about my love of Africa before. The natural beauty of the landscapes. The incredibly friendly and cheerful people. The stunning skies, particularly at sunrise and sunset.

But at the top of the list of things to love about Africa has to be its music.

From the time you set foot on African soil until the time you leave, you are surrounded by music.

You might pass a nondescript classroom on a Sunday, dropping your kids off at school for some event, and the most beautiful singing will waft out of it, this classroom having been appropriated for church by the grounds staff.

V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, 2011

You might walk around Cape Town's beautiful waterfront and be stopped in your tracks by an a capella performance that inevitably has you clapping and swaying along. You will reluctantly tear yourself off, only to stop again a few minutes later listening to opera that sounds like it's beamed straight from La Scala in Milan, except it is sung by a born- and bred African who has perfect Italian inflection.

Or you might be pushing your trolley through O.R. Tambo International Airport when you come to a large gathering of a school choir going on tour in Namibia and giving an impromptu performance right there in the airport terminal to the other travelers, who, like you, will be mesmerized and totally forgetting they have a flight to catch.

Impromptu school choir performance at O.R. Tambo International Airport, 2010

Africans, it seems, are born to dance and sing. If you go on a safari and stay at a game lodge in the bush, you might be treated to a "boma night" where the staff gives you a native dance and music show. Invariably these people are more or less thrown together, but invariably they will perform as if they'd been practicing as a travelling troupe for years.

Greeting dance at Xigera Camp in the Ocavango Delta, 2012

I still cannot listen to a rendering of South Africa's National Anthem, Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika, without a serious attack of goose bumps.

I wish I could give you a video clip of any of the above, but seeing as I was carrying an almost museum-quality phone with me most of our time here in Africa, I can't. However, having recently upgraded to a new iPhone with Vodacom (something I will blog about soon, for sure) I can offer you my recent taping of a school choir and orchestra performance at Linder Auditorium here in Johannesburg, where Dainfern College performed along with a few other prep schools.

It was rather a well-rehearsed event as opposed to some of the impromptu examples I cited above, so it's not quite the same thing, but it nevertheless captures some of that African music and rhythm I've tried to describe. I hope you stay around till the end of it, where Dainfern College sings about the "Rhythm of Life."

That's what Africa, more than anything else, is all about.

The Rhythm of Life.

July 26, 2012

Strong Women of Africa - The Sequel

It was the perfect day to do it.

I had just finished a marathon sewing session at Dainfern College in honor of Mandela Day, when people all over South Africa come together to give back to their communities. What better way to end out the day than performing an unplanned-for act of community service?

So I happened to drive past Diepsloot on my way from hockey to horse riding with Sunshine, still visions of the hundreds of beanie hats we had finished that morning dancing through my head. It was the same shortcut I took the day that I helped two women transport their firewood to their homes, which later became my first Strong Women of Africa story.

Sure enough, I came across another group of women this time. These ones had a bit of a leg up on the last ones in that they were the proud owners of two wheelbarrows, piled high with what looked like two whole trees. But they also had babies with them. One strapped to the back of one of the women, the other one riding high on top of a pile of wood.

I checked my watch, noticed I had a bit of extra time, and pulled over.

"Are you going to stop for everybody carrying wood from now on?" was Sunshine's question. She had heard about my previous adventure and was probably a bit wary of what would come next.

"No, but I'm going to stop for these ones."

All three of them greeted me with a friendly wave. Much different from the last group, who had been very skeptical about my offer. In fact, if I didn't know any better, it almost seemed like these ones expected me as they were waiting by the roadside. Perhaps my big black car already has a reputation in these parts?

It seems hard enough to walk huge bundles of firewood halfway through town. Now imagine doing it with a baby strapped to your back. I don't know about you, but when I had kids that age, I was already exhausted by the time I had finally wrestled stray arms and legs into the Baby Bjorn and read the instruction manual on how, exactly, all those buckles were supposed to fit into one another. (Though it must be mentioned here that I did my fair share of dragging trees all over the place when I had a newborn, courtesy of Hurricane Fran paying a visit to North Carolina in September of 1996 and felling about half the trees on our property, two weeks after Zax was born. But I had the luxury of putting him down for his nap before reporting to tree duty.) 

Together, we heaved and shoved and pushed until everything was in my car, or at least most of it. Some of these logs were brutally heavy but they hefted them up as if they did this every day. Which I had to remind myself they did. As I had learned the last time around, a load of firewood, even as big as this one, barely lasts two days.

We had to  leave two of the women behind to push the now empty wheelbarrows, but the third, Cecilia, clambered into the front seat next to me, the baby, Sarah, on her lap.

On the short drive back to the township, I learned that Cecilia wasn't South African but had fled from Zimbabwe several years ago. This soon became evident in that she directed me to the outskirts of Diepsloot to an area that looked even more decrepit and ramshackle than the rest. There is a certain hierarchy to township life, you see, and as a foreigner and relative newcomer, Cecilia and her family had to make do with what no one else wanted. She told me she really wanted to clean houses but so far hadn't had any luck finding permanent employment. It made me think of my own trusted domestic helper, who is also from Zimbabwe and was overjoyed recently to finally received her South African permanent residence status.

I didn't get to ask Cecilia any more questions, as I really had to get Sunshine to horse riding, but what I would have liked to know is this:

What was the life she had in Zimbabwe that she was willing to give that up for this backbreaking existence? 

You often hear about Zimbabweans with good educations, teachers, doctors, nurses and the like, who perform menial tasks here in South Africa, just to get away from Robert Mugabe and what is surely one of the cruelest regimes in the world. Not knowing where your next meal will come from, performing odd jobs, if you're lucky, in hopes of permanent employment, and walking miles every few days just to keep yourself and your baby warm, and never knowing if you'll even be allowed to stay... All this is probably infinitely better than living in fear of torture, perhaps even death, in a country like Zimbabwe, where just being seen with an opposition figure might get you put on a hit list for reprisals. The ones who simply go to jail are the lucky ones. Read Peter Godwin's The Fear, his third and most disturbing memoir about Zimbabwe, and you will have a whole new appreciation for your freedom and security.

If I'm indeed going to do this firewood-delivery more often, I want to be better prepared next time and carry a list of interview questions with me.

And a broom to clean out the car.

When we got to the vicinity of Cecilia's house, we passed a makeshift soccer field full of boys who immediately crowded around my car. That's one thing I love about visiting townships. There is always something going on and the kids are running around outside around the clock, only summoned back to the house at dusk, much like I remember from my own childhood.

Posing for me was way more exciting than finishing the soccer game

Quite a few pictures later, the truck was finally unloaded and Sunshine and I waved our goodbyes.

Bumping along the rutted lanes, Sunshine contributed her piece of wisdom for the day:

"It took us much less time than 67 minutes to help, but it probably saved Cecilia much more than 67 minutes by not having to push the wheelbarrows all this way." (Read about the meaning of the 67 minutes here.)

And you know what? All that jostling and jolting over potholed dirt paths somehow got a pesky warning light on my dashboard unstuck, which had been glaring accusingly at me for quite some time, nagging at my subconscious to schedule a date with my friends at the car dealership.

I might have saved myself a 67-minute errand as well.

Cecilia was much more shy than the boys, but you can see her way in the back on the right,
the pile of unloaded firewood next to her.

July 24, 2012

Diving in the Red Sea

This will be the final part of my Traveling to Egypt with Kids series.

But never fear, it won't involve nearly as much reading as the previous ones. The reason being that it didn't involve nearly as much whining by the kids. Because this is the story about what we mainly came to do in Egypt, which is diving in the Red Sea.

And what can't you do while you are diving?

Talk, that's right. Which includes the category of whining. It's much harder to whine using gestures only. And I suppose much easier to ignore.

Plus, you might remember that the whiny kids were the ones on top, snorkeling, with me.

I haven't been convinced yet to actually take up diving, much preferring to stay at the hotel pool and read my book and then look at all the pretty pictures afterwards, but the one aspect of diving that might convince me is the prospect of absolute silence underwater.

In any case, I hope you enjoy the incredible colors of these following pictures. They were all taken by Noisette, unless otherwise noted, and fiddled around with in Photoshop by me.

Sunshine doing her introductory dive with the instructor

Finding Nemo?

One of my favorites for all the colors in one picture


I love the colors on this one too but I could say that of every one of these so will stop now

Don't ask me any fish  names but if you know any of them please let me know

Isn't this the coolest fish? These were actually a bit creepy, I'd run into them when snorkeling
as they were often hanging out right below the surface

Jabulani, always easy to identify (and find in  murky water) due to his white flippers

Wouldn't want to get too close to this eel

A remora catching a ride

Looks like a Bunny Fish to me, judging by the teeth

Spotted Ray

I love them all, but this is definitely one of  my favorite pictures of this batch

The photographer, with eerie blue forehead. Photo by Zax

July 21, 2012

How I spent Mandela Day

South Africa. Nelson Mandela.

You cannot think of one without the other. They often come up in the same sentence. Think of George Washington and Martin Luther King Jr. combined, and you will have an idea of what Nelson Mandela means to this country. I've talked a little bit about him before, here and here.

This week, July 18th, was Nelson Mandela's birthday. It's easy to remember for me because it's the day after mine.

Sometime in 2009 somebody came up with the idea of honoring Nelson Mandela every July 18th. Okay, I guess not just somebody, I think it was the United Nations that declared July 18th Mandela Day henceforth. Here in this country it is commemorated by a call for everyone to contribute 67 minutes of their day to give back to the community. Be it by helping out in an orphanage. Or cleaning up a stretch of road. Or randomly helping strangers.

Or by getting a bunch of high school kids to sew a total of 670 beanie hats for needy babies.

Sewing beanie hats at Dainfern College for Mandela Day

This is what was happening at Dainfern College this year on Mandela Day. Do you know how hard it is to get high school kids to sew a beanie hat? With actual seams on them that run in straight lines? With stitches that are much shorter than toothpick-length? Where the two pieces of fabric actually end up being sewn to each other and not something else entirely?

Okay, maybe it's not that hard, but let me just say that I'm signing up for the all-girls table next time.

Even the teachers got busy sewing

For some reason, my table attracted all the novices as if I'd been wearing a huge sign around my neck: "If you have no clue, come this way!" I had contemplated this being a leisurely affair, with all of us sitting around and sewing away, but at my table I was constantly putting out fires.

Though I'm quite proud to say I doggedly introduced the art of sewing to all those boys who somehow found their way to my all-boys table in a steady stream. I didn't let anyone off the hook. They might not ever sew anything again and they were probably relieved to escape my lectures 67 minutes and two beanie hats later, but they sure heard about the virtues of stringing up a long enough piece of thread and of listening well and doing it right the first time around. Because, by golly, I was making them redo a sloppy seam.

It might have been the most exhausting thing I've ever done in my life.

About half-way through the morning it occurred to me that I hadn't seen my own boys doing any sewing yet. When I set out looking for them, I was surprised to find Jabulani in the midst of an all-girls group, the one table where they were doing the difficult  pattern, not the simple one.

Jabulani engrossed with needle and thread

"I thought this one's only for people who have sewn before," I ventured.

"I HAVE sewn before," he says. "You showed me how to do it!"

I do not recall ever showing Jabulani how to sew. Sometimes I surprise even myself. But I must have done a good job of it, because he ended ups sewing three hats, with decorations on them, and was eager to go for more, had the day not eventually ended. But lest I pat myself on the back for turning out such a cooperative child, I should confess that it was much harder going with the other one. I finally hunted down Zax, milling around outside with friends, and he flat out refused to enter "that room." I admit, it was very loud and crowded and I was desperate to eventually retreat from it myself, but what is so hard about sitting down for an hour and doing some sewing? When you don't even have to help anyone else?

The demand for beanie-hat-sewing at Dainfern College was huge!

But such logic has never worked on Zax and there was no changing his mind. He claimed to have found some other service project in a different corner of the school grounds, planting an herb garden (yeah right, this is the child who cannot abide any dirt under his fingernails and washes his hands a million times a day) and even my decree of  "no xBox without beanie" did not change his mind.

We eventually compromised on me bringing home leftover fabric and him making the beanie hat at home the next day. Which, lo and behold, he ended up having fun with. It was actually a Tom Sawyer kind of moment. I showed him how to do it at the kitchen counter, and eventually Jabulani came and joined us, then Sunshine, and finally Impatience. Here they were all making beanie hats and I left them to it after a while, needing to run an errand. When I came home later, a happy row of beanie hats were greeting me on the windowsill.

While the other kids faded away again after their one hat was done, Jabulani and I got so into it, we requested more leftover fabric, dug out my old sewing machine, and spent the following weekend sewing one beanie after the other. He'd pin the fabric and thread needles for me - I suck at threading needles because at this stage in my life I can neither see the needle nor the thread properly -  we'd both sew the bottom seams, and then I'd run the side seams on the machine while he finished off the tops and even got fancy with the occasional button. Most importantly, we talked with each other for hours.

What I want to know is this: How can one child of mine be so passionate about everything, while the other is passionate about nothing? (Not counting the passion he summons when debating me on why he shouldn't be required to do something).

But I suppose on average our family did fine this Mandela Day. A big thank you to the ladies of the Dainfern College PA who put in a lot more of their time cutting up fabric and getting everything organized! (And whoever baked those heavenly brownies deserves a special medal.)

I know you've been dying to ask: Why 67 minutes? It took a bit of digging to figure this out. When the community service idea was created back in 2009, Nelson Mandela had spent 67 years (since 1942) in pursuit of the struggle to bring freedom to his people. 

Yes, it seems a bit lame or cheap, if you think about it, to do a community service for just over an hour once a year when one man contributed 67 whole years instead, 27 of them imprisoned. But the beauty of Mandela day lies in the power of the community. People coming together doing good things, and finding out they're having a great time.

Can I just mention here that these reading glasses are not mine but Noisette's - he makes me
ferry them around in my purse so he can read the menu when we go out for dinner. But they
did come in handy for threading those devilish needles.


To be fair, Zax did come back later that weekend to do more sewing. He was actually quite good at it. Between him, Jabulani, Impatience, myself, and, briefly, they neighbors' son, we sewed 37 more beanie hats.

Zax, Jabulani - who was taking a lunch break - and our neighbor all working on beanie making

All 37 hats on display. I can't believe we have so many stuffed animals and dolls at our house!

Thank you, Mr. Mandela, for being such an inspiration to us all!

July 19, 2012

Snorkeling with Kids and Ready to Trade them at the Next Bazaar

There are certain things in life that you should not attempt to teach your children.

Like riding a bike. Invariably, you will work your heart out, huffing and puffing beside that bike, hovering so as to catch it should it lean too much to one side, and when things go wrong, as of course they will, who is the person getting yelled at? You, of course.

Skiing also belongs in that category. Which is why we always wisely opted for full-day ski school whenever we went skiing. But just the act of schlepping four kids with skis to the ski school building, which is never anywhere close to the slope - or if it is, the only way to get there is right across the busiest slope on the whole mountain - and prying yourself loose from the grip of death by a toddler refusing to be left behind is so grueling that Noisette and I would typically aim straight for the next hut after drop-off and recuperate over a Jägertee for the rest of the day, forget skiing.

So now I've added a new item to that list. Teaching your kids snorkeling is most assuredly one of those things you shouldn't attempt to do yourself but rather find someone else to outsource to.

Or perhaps you just shouldn't attempt to teach our kids. Sunshine and Impatience particularly.

Because there actually are other kids who follow their parents' instructions like docile little lambs, hanging on their every word and nodding their little heads in eager agreement, following them around through the Egyptian museum, mouths agape at all the wonders to be seen, asking eager questions and reading all the plaques.

Those kids do exist, they really do, but sadly only in other families.

Our kids, first of all, cannot ever agree on anything. If there are four directions to go into, each of them will choose a different one. Four different meals at the restaurant, or, rather, four different restaurants altogether. Four different types of fruit in their lunch boxes. Twelve different salad ingredients, none of them overlapping.

The only time they can ever agree on anything is when it comes to seating arrangements. Like in an airplane. Then all of a sudden everyone is in agreement on the one very best seat to be had and will proceed to fight tooth and nail for that very same seat.

Should you, as the parent, be so unfortunate as to try and resolve their dispute, they will also be in perfect agreement on who to start yelling at next.

When we went to the Egyptian museum, our kids headed straight for the nearest bench, because after five steps in the stifling heat they were exhausted. Occasionally they'd get up to trudge along behind us, but only to ask for the 100th time "how much longer in this horrible place?" The only thing that roused them temporarily was the prospect of seeing real mummies. Which it turned out you had to pay an extra fee for, something they didn't mention at the ticket booth at the entrance. Our supply of Egyptian pounds having dwindled once again to almost nothing, we determined that there was only enough left for two mummy tickets. Which somehow the four kids shared between them, don't ask me how, to disappear for about 2 minutes and come back with a hearty "Ok, can we go now?"

Noisette and I never got to see the mummies.

But I digress. So we are on a boat off the coast of Sharm-el Sheik, bobbing on the Red Sea in the most perfect snorkeling conditions anyone could ever wish for. Warm water, plenty of sun, great visibility both above and below, the most stunning coral reef you have ever seen right under us. The boys and Noisette are off diving already and it is time for the non-divers to go snorkeling.

Ras Mohamed National Park, Red Sea

Can I just insert here that I am hereby making a mental note to never attempt explaining something to Impatience when she tells me she doesn't get it? Please remind me to run, next time, and fast! If there is one thing I'm certain of it is this: Had I ever tried to home-school my children, not all of us would have survived to tell the tale.
In her defense I should mention that Impatience didn't really want to snorkel. She gets a little flustered - one might also call it impatient - when something ever so slightly doesn't go according to plan. Like let's say a mask that leaks. Plus stuff in the water that freaks her out. Like a bazillion fishes and other creatures. She probably cares even less for the fish than she cared for the camel in Giza.

But her dilemma, you see, is that the prospect of being left behind on the boat with a bunch of Middle Eastern men with funny accents was even worse than giving snorkeling a go.

Sunshine, on the other hand, is eager to go. She has already snorkeled happily around the hotel dock and even done an introductory scuba dive. I'm not worried about Sunshine.

Except I have not considered the possibility of faulty equipment. We don everything we're handed, hop in - Impatience only after much coaxing and arm-flailing - and I take one breath through my snorkel only to come up spluttering and spitting out a mouthful of seawater. I make for the float our guide Sharif has brought along, where I am greeted by withering looks from my girls, who are already there, ready with a litany of complaints.

"My mask is leeeeeaking," screams the one.

"My snooooorkel isn't working, wails the other.

So we spend the next fifteen minutes treading water and swapping equipment. Or rather, I tread water while the girls hold on to the float and whine at me. First the strap is too loose. Then it is too tight. The life vest, so eagerly grabbed by one when offered earlier, is now a hindrance and must come off. A fin has already come off and is floating into the distance. Hair is getting into eyes. When it isn't tangled up in the strap. Masks are ripped off and handed to me to readjust, and then saltwater gets into the now mask-less eyes. A fight between them breaks out when Impatience says "I told you so," in response to Sunshine gloating the entire previous day how great the snorkeling was for her.

My mistake, if anything, is that I'm trying to be helpful. If you don't have kids, you may not know this, but you should never really try to help them with anything. Or, if you must, only if they've given you a written and notarized permission. Because what will happen is that you will help by explaining, calmly (!) how it should be done, your kids will not listen, and then they will yell at you because you didn't explain it right. 

In Sunshine's case, I can see the culprit. She is craning her  neck too far down so that the top of the snorkel dips under the surface. But of course trying to explain this simple law of physics to a hysterical girl is as futile as trying to get any money back from Eskom, and I am informed right then and there that this was a terrible idea, that it's impossible to snorkel with such bad equipment that doesn't fit, and that it's all my fault. 

In the  meantime, while my legs are getting tired from all the kicking and I struggle to hold onto stray masks and fins and life jackets, I keep hearing exalted shouts from the other snorkelers. A turtle this way! A stingray that way! And, by god, a barracuda right below us!

I am not proud of it, but do you know what I did in the end? I just swam away. Left the girls and all their stuff and dipped my head in the blissful quiet of the sea, seawater-breathing snorkel notwithstanding. I fleetingly conjured up scenarios of girls bobbing on the waves by themselves, scared, swallowing water, panicking, crying inconsolably, exhausted. And yet the urge to swim away was simply too strong. They say that a mother will do anything to defend her offspring against predators, but in this instant, if a shark had come along and circled around us, I'm not sure I could have brought myself to go back and defend this particular offspring.

Perhaps the next time we should just stick to underwater photography in the pool.

Or do what I love best in the whole wide world: Find an umbrella and read a good book.