Integrated? You bet I am!!

July 14, 2008 at 8:08 am 1 comment

I can recall when I was just new at this Peace Corps thing and had a discussion with some of the veteran volunteers about “integration”.  The question was, “how long does it take before you feel like you are fully integrated into your community?”  Some of the answers ranged from 6 to 9 to 12 months.  At the time, it sure seemed awfully long, but now that I look back on that moment I can’t believe that already one year separates the then and now.  As those old veteran volunteers start packing their bags, I am stepping into the light as a veteran volunteer myself and finally feeling integrated in my little Brooksby Village. 


You just don’t wake up one morning though and find integration knocking on your door.  It is something that happens over time.  Slowly you begin to feel that you are being accepted by your community.  Usually this comes about through small events.  Some of those small events for me were invitations to church and birthday celebrations, offerings of tea and dishes full of freshly baked biscuits and cookies, getting to hold a new born baby and having her fall asleep in your arms, being told I am not “white”, or getting handed a plate full of pap and eating the whole thing like a champ.  I experienced all of these things over the past six months but never knew if they could be considered as a sign of complete integration.  Well, after today I know that I am about as integrated as a white boy from the U.S.A. can get in a rural South African village.


The day had started out pretty normal.  I was trying to enjoy the warmth from under my blankets for as long as I could but the commotion outside my door at 7:00am was too much for me to resume dreaming.  I laid in bed for about 30 minutes just watching my breath of air mix with the possibly near zero temperatures in my room.  It is winter here and yes, it does get cold in Africa.  After a while, I finally talked myself into facing the cold cement floor, stepped out of bed and suddenly felt the urge to urinate.  As quickly as I could put on three layers of clothes, shoes, and stocking hat I ran out the door to the bathroom.  Made it!  Whew!


I decided to take advantage of the morning and went for a run.  I came back as quickly as I could to the wood burning stove in the kitchen.  I placed myself next to the stove enjoying the heat on my pant legs.  I would keep my leg next to the stove as long as I could until the heat passed through my pant legs and I had to pull back for fear of my pant leg catching on fire.  I sat there next to the stove for a while reading my 3rd book of the week when my host brother asked me to cook some lunch for the family.  He and my host mother were too busy washing clothes so I was the only one left for the job. 


After I finished the chapter I was on, I got to work making a nice warm stew to go with, what else, but pap (a stiff porridge made of white corn flour and boiled water).  I have realized that to be a true South Africa you always have to keep a warm pot of pap on the stove at all times.  You just don’t know when you might need it to feed a hungry visitor or dish up a quick meal for hungry mouths.  In two hours time the food was ready and within 5 minutes it was all eaten up.  Ugh…I hate that part of cooking. 


With a belly full of pap and stew I settled myself in the sun on a chair, leaned back and put my nose back into the book and pursued the next chapter.  I had no plan for the day, so when my host mother said to me, “Ba tlhabile kgomo (They slaughtered the cow) I decided to check it out for myself.  I had never been able to fully attend a cow slaughter from beginning to end.  Usually I just caught the end when the men are cutting up the meat and bones into chunks at a rapid pace and flinging the meat into the big iron pot. 


Just down the road a family was preparing for the next day’s tombstone unveiling.   [Side note:  a tombstone unveiling is like a second funeral.  When a family cannot afford the tombstone immediately for the funeral they will have a second semi-funeral event to show the new tombstone when it is bought.]  As I came around the trees I could see that the men had a brown cow down on the ground and another group of men had a black and white wool sheep down just to the side of the cow.  I entered the fence onto the open field just behind the house.  I greeted the women near the house who were washing dishes, cooking something in pots over a fire, and making the traditional beer.  I walked over to the men to check on their progress.


I had arrived just after they had killed the two animals.  Thank goodness!  That is my least favorite part to watch. What am I saying?  I don’t think I can find a favorite part about the whole process at all, but my curiosity outweighed my desire to go watch the women cut up the carrots instead, so I settled into the huddle of men and watched as a cow and a sheep were fully butchered before me in just one hour. 


If you are curious about how a cow and a sheep are butchered, read on.  If not, skip to the next paragraph.  The process for butchering the sheep and the cow were basically the same, except everything being on a grander scale for the cow.  The first step, after slitting the animal’s throat is to take off the skin.  Cutting across the belly the men worked with a various assortment of dull knifes until they had the skin mostly peeled off.  The carcass remained laying on the pelt of skin.  Then the portion of the leg below the knee was taken off, the belly opened and the bowels removed, and lastly the head de-attached.  The sheep carcass was laid across a barb wire fence, of course, and the cow, being much too large, was cut up into 6 pieces…four legs and two rib cages.  But don’t think that the rest of the animal went to waste.  Come to think of it…I didn’t see a darn thing from the animals get thrown away!  The only thing that was discarded was the digestive material that was still in the animal’s stomach and digestive tract.   A three foot hole was dug and the inner contents were dumped in.  I was much impressed by the massive amounts of semi digested grass that came out of the cow…it nearly filled up the whole hole!  I have to say I was a bit disgusted watching them clean out the stomach and the intestines, mostly because I knew that I was going to be eating those organs for dinner.  The best meat of the cow and sheep was going to be saved for the next day to be eaten after the church service.  The night before is always pap, of course, and “mala mogodu” the stomach and intestine of the cow or sheep.  I had eaten it before and never really minded it as long as I didn’t look at it too long or smell it, but after watching the whole preparation process from the beginning and seeing what it looked like after phase one…I was having second thoughts about asking for seconds.


After the men had finished cleaning up the two animals and had separated the meat from the not so desirable parts, like the head, I decided that the job, besides cooking, was pretty much wrapped up for the day. I decided to go and properly great the group of women and see what they were doing. 


I made my way across the yard and talked with a group of four old women and had a few good laughs together.  They then pointed into the almost sealed up tent behind me and told me that the other women were inside peeling vegetables.  I ducked my head into the tent and greeted the women warmly.  I looked at the massive amounts of carrots, cabbage, potatoes, pumpkin, green beans, and onions that layered the table and floor.  I asked if anyone needed a hand and if there was an extra knife so I could help.  One of the ladies kindly offered her knife to me and I got to work on peeling the potatoes.  After busting through a bag of potatoes together, a woman and I put down our knives on the table and took a breather.  At that time, I handed my knife over to another woman so she could take over the next project: green beans. 


As I sat their on my chair I started to reflect on the day.  I realized how wonderful the whole event was.  A large portion of the community had come together this week to help the family putting on the event.  This day just demonstrated how much of a community event it was.  Every old man, old woman, young man, and young woman was putting their effort into the project.  Even the children played around on the outside of the yard, tackling one another and playing chase. 


After spending time in the tent, I mingled around the various groups of men and women, spending most of my time next to the fire that was cooking the big pots of pap and “mala mogodu” just to keep myself warm.  The sun was going down now (it was almost 5:00pm) and it was getting a bit nippy.  Around 6:15 there was a huddle of 20-30 men sitting and standing close to the warmth of the fire, mostly waiting for the food to finish.  It wasn’t much longer and then the signal was given as two young men pulled the pots off the fire and started to dish up.  This was the moment that had been lingering in the back of my head.  What was going to be dished up and was I going to be able to eat it respectively?  As the plates started to circle around I was inspecting each one…no doubt about it, that was the stomach I had just seen taken out of a cow 4 hours ago. 


I got my plate and thanked them warmly for it, of course.  This was the traditional Setswana dish and there was no way I could show any sign of reservation in eating it.  I started in on the pap and gravy and found it to be quite palatable actually.  The next hardest part was getting into that stomach.  I took a bite and ripped off a piece with my front teeth.  I started to chew, and boy you had to chew, but all in all it wasn’t too bad.  I just had to try and forget about what it looked like before and what came out of it.  The next part on the plate was not identifiable.  I assumed it was part of an intestine.  It looked like two giant elbow macaroni noodles that tasted nothing like macaroni.  The texture of the substance made me think that this is what it must feel like to chew on rubber tubing.  Huh.  Just then, an old man leaned over next to me and told me that if I didn’t clean my plate I would have to pay 20 rand.  I knew I could get the pap and stomach part down but the mystery pieces were not possible.  I eyed the few dogs roaming the area around the fire and thought about quietly flinging the meat to them, but didn’t want to take the chance of getting caught tossing pieces of precious “meat” to the dogs.  I left the two macaroni intestine pieces on my plate and noticed that others hadn’t eaten theirs either so I didn’t feel so bad. 


After that “feast” I sat around the fire for another hour with a group of men.  For the most part I just sat leaned back in my chair staring into the mesmerizing fire, tossing a few branches in and watching the leaves burst into flames and then feel the heat on my face.  Occasionally some of the men would give me a hard time, as they do most people, and I fended there attacks well and laughed along with them at their jokes and questions about American women and my sister, which I told them was already taken.  Ha! 


After sleep started to creep across me I decided to join a few others as they departed for the way home.  Before we left though, I helped carry two large plastic garbage bins full of traditional beer into the little tin shack where two men were busy cutting up the rest of the cow.  So that is how the night ended, me putting enough traditional beer to get an elephant drunk into a room with two men wielding dull knifes.  I hoped for the best and exited the yard while waving goodbye to the women still there cleaning up for the next day. 


So I guess that at some point throughout the 5 hours I decided that I was officially integrated into my village.  Maybe it was the warm hugs and handshakes I received when I came to join in the festivities.  Maybe it was not getting squeamish as I watched a cow and sheep get dissected before my eyes.  Maybe it was peeling dozens of potatoes and chatting jovially with the women in the tent.  Maybe it was eating and almost enjoying eating stomach and intestine around a fire with men.  Or maybe it was the fact that I had spent 5 enjoyable hours at the event without anything feeling strange.  After today’s events, I would tell knew volunteers that they will know when they are integrated when they can participate in a series of different cultural experiences, but never feel like you are out of place.  Gosh, it sure feels good to feel at home away from home.  J     




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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Joey  |  July 17, 2008 at 1:31 pm

    Great entry Adam. I felt I was there with you by the fire the whole time (though I excused myself for the ingesting of the organs/cow stomach part – I’ve had it before and do not have fond memories of the experience)

    Keep being awesome.


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