Sunset at Noordhoek Beach

A while back, before we left for South Africa, one of my Chicago buddies (who since had the nerve to move to Seattle) tipped me off to this cool blog called the3six5. The idea is simple and brilliant: tell the story of a year in 365 days by 365 different people. Scott’s poignant post last September reminded me to sign up.

Well, today was my day.

There’s a lot going on today, as you can read in my 365-word post: Jaimie and Zach are here from Chicago, I have a job interview and basketball practice tonight, and we’re already starting to think about the logistics of our return to the U.S. this summer.

So, in lieu of a true post here, I encourage you to check out my entry on the3six5. And…Zach has promised to write a guest post about their visit, so please help me to keep the pressure on!

Ke a leboga.

Live from Cape Point

Just a quick update from our travels with my mom and my Mike. We are at Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope today. It’s just as beautiful as we remember.

More updates to come, including photos of the V&A Waterfront, Robben Island and Table Mountain, but for now here’s a shot from Cape Point.


Now, off to see more baboons.

Goodbye, Dear Chum

The beautiful Genevieve and handsome Bill Boian on their wedding day in 1941

Yesterday was a sad day. Jenny’s maternal grandmother, Genevieve “Chum” Boian, passed away at the age of 93.

Chum was one of the kindest, tiniest women you’ll ever meet. Fueled by coffee and honey buns, she was sharp until the last, always current with and interested in what you were doing.

Jenny and I visited with her shortly before we moved to South Africa. She was very excited for and proud of her granddaughter, and encouraged us to make the most of our year here. Of course, she also extolled us to write as often as possible.

We also spoke with her by phone a couple of times after we moved, and once we got the news that she was in her final days, Jenny found a way to travel home in time to say goodbye and be with her family.

I know Jenny considers herself fortunate to have had her grandmother for so long. Her passing now leaves us both without grandparents, which does seem strange. And, obviously, sad.

In the nearly 15 years Jenny and I have been together, I had a chance to spend a fair amount of time with Chum, and her late husband, Bill, as well.

One day in late 1997 or early 1998 I stopped by their house on my way home from delivering an age-appropriate sexuality/contraception presentation to a class at Chenoa High School. I was working for Planned Parenthood in Bloomington, IL at the time, a topic not frequently discussed, though I think generally accepted as “pretty much OK” with her. What I remember most about the day — aside from her generously cooked pork chops, which she kindly offered upon my arrival — was showing her and Bill the Internet on my laptop.

As far as we all knew, they had never before experienced the wonders of the Web. So, I plugged in to their kitchen phone jack, dialed the toll-free number of the ISP and voilà! We were online.

But what does “online” mean? What could I show them that would express the importance and necessity of…whatever this is?

Without enough thought, I searched for the City of Chenoa website – something I knew they would recognize. Once the pixels came together and the page finally loaded, they could see “City of Chenoa” and a picture of the water tower. They oohed and aahed, just like any grandparent would. I could have been showing them a pretty rock I just found. “Well isn’t that lovely?”

Soon, though, Grandpa Bill deadpanned, “Now why would I want to look at a picture of the water tower on a computer when I can just step outside and see the real thing?”

Good question.

And, I think, the end of the demonstration.

Chum also had a habit of calling those she loved “Dear.” It was sweet. However, she said it so often that an actual deer once heard the call and lumbered into her living room.

A few years back, while she was living at Blair House, a retirement village in Bloomington, she returned from breakfast to find a real, live deer in her apartment. Situated near garden level, the apartment had a large window facing the lawn, which an unfortunate deer apparently mistook for a gateway to greener pastures. It crashed through, but was unable to find its way out.

Dazed, confused and bleeding from the broken glass, the deer was floundering on the bathroom floor when Chum entered the apartment. She saw a stain on the carpet and heard rustling in the bathroom and thought a maintenance man was doing some repairs. She remained in the outside hallway and closed the door. Eventually, an employee came by, saw her standing in front of her door and inquired. Well, it didn’t take long to learn the true score.

After the deer was handled and everyone was safe, Chum was left with a nearly unlivable apartment and a rather odd renter’s insurance claim. There was busted furniture, shattered glass and bloodstained carpet to remedy. The insurance adjuster tried to lowball her. “Act of God,” I think he argued. The normally sweet, four-foot-nothin’ Chum wasn’t havin’ it. She laid it on thick and asked him if he really thought that was the right thing to do. In the end, he relented, the poor dear.

So, with these and other fond memories, we say goodbye to dear Grandma Chum. May she rest in peace.

Doing Gender

Yes, it’s me (Jenny) again for the second time on the blog.  And yes, I am still here.  Ryan’s been a runaway success with the blog, whereas I’ve been a rather reticent participant.  But I am coming around to seeing its value.  While he’s on photo safari (learning from professional photographers while on safari–much like it sounds I guess!) this weekend, it seems like a good time for me to post.

My research project here in South Africa which was funded by a Fulbright award (U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs funding for students, scholars, teachers, and professionals to undertake graduate study, advanced research, and university teaching), is about gender.  I’ve always had an interest in understanding why men and women are viewed and view themselves differently in the workplace.  And some of my recent research projects have focused on new ways of understanding the glass ceiling, that is, invisible yet salient barriers that impede women and other minorities’ progress in organizations.  Here in South Africa, I’m working with Dr. Stella Nkomo at the University of Pretoria to understand whether companies who have gender equity at the top (women represented on their boards of directors and in top management) not only experience better financial performance, but also–and this is what I’m really interested in–have more positive work climates for women at all levels.  So, are women on Boards and in top management simply a matter of “window-dressing,” or is their presence a true indicator of an equitable workplace?

While I focus on these topics every day at work, “doing gender” is not just what I do, it seems more and more to be a lens through which I view the world.  More on that in just a second–but first, a funny story.  I’ve become friends with another Fulbrighter here in Pretoria, Dr. Hannah Britton from the University of Kansas.  She’s a political scientist who also “does gender” but her focus is on violence against women and girls, and women’s representation in governments in Africa.  [So as I’m writing this, I’m thinking that maybe this isn’t going to be funny to you, but it is to me.]  Hannah has become known as the “gender person” at an organization she works with here in South Africa.  Recently, a well-intended coworker showed up in her office and asked her if she could, quite simply, “write something about gender” for her.  [That was the funny part, in case you missed it.]  Presumably this was for a grant, or for a newsletter, or something.  But we had a laugh about what “something about gender” would be:  “Well, I’m a girl…..,”  “sugar and spice and everything nice, that’s what little girls are made of…,” or “hear me roar….,”–you get the point.

Now back to the idea of gender being a lens:  a South African cultural example.  Our house on the Education campus includes the services of a housekeeper, not once every two weeks as is probably standard in the U.S., but…get this…every day Monday through Friday.  So about 9AM every weekday a really friendly, clever, candid, funny, hard-working young woman [note: I don’t want to use her name without her permission] shows up at our house to do dishes, sweep and vacuum, make beds, clean bathrooms, dust, etc.  And on Friday she swaps the bedsheets, duvets, and towels out with clean ones.  She cleans our house and three others on campus every day.  She works very hard and for this she makes around R 700 per month (or $97).  Right now her husband is out of work, and she is supporting him and their two children on this salary.  It may be tempting to say, oh, but the cost of living must be cheaper there.  Not really.  Gas is about one and a half times the U.S. price.  The 2006 car we bought is worth about $10K here whereas the book value would be about half that in the States.  And groceries are really pricey–definitely higher than at home.

While this woman supports her family by cleaning my house (and puts up with my dog following her from room to room), I’m off to my nice office at the University.  As the Phil Collins’ song goes, “Oh, think twice.  Just another day for you and me in paradise.”  I have a lot of thoughts about her life versus my life, and all of the privileges I’ve had and continue to enjoy.  Just because I have the education, skin color, and opportunities that I have, my job is not physically demanding, clean, and comes with resources like healthcare, travel, enough money to live comfortably, and a degree of respect.  Whereas, how many years will she able to stand on tile floors, bend, and carry to support her family?  As a woman “doing gender” in the context of work, how can I dismiss the differences in the lives that we lead, now so tightly entwined with one another?

Yet she has a strong sense of self, and has pride in the hard work she does every day.  Lest you fall into a deep depression due to the previous paragraph, let me give you an example of how she is clever and candid.  I made 2 dozen or so biscuits last week, and I left several in a baggie on our kitchen counter with her name on it.  When I saw her on Friday, she thanked me for the “cookies.”  She was VERY surprised that they tasted good.  First, she said she was puzzled by this because she thought American women “couldn’t cook.”  She asked how I made them, in a tone that was a little skeptical that I had actually done it, which I assured her I had.  Then, she told the story of her family sitting down together for dinner, telling them that these “cookies” were made by an American, and literally asking them all to pray that they would be edible.  🙂

Our housekeeper is a strong, assertive, young woman, with a good sense of humor, who, despite the fact that her cleaners’ union is now out on strike, continues to come early, work hard, and perform death-defying acts of eating food made by Americans.  I came to South Africa to “do gender” in the ivory tower of academia, studying privileged women working in corporate jobs.  Little did I know that perhaps the most valuable lessons I’d learn would happen in my own home.

South African Cleaners - On-strike Since August 3


Some of the best food we’ve had in South Africa came from this crazy menu. Cranx Thai House of Blues at Rosebank Mall in Johannesburg:


Perhaps the only thing more interesting than the menu was the decor, which was dominated by Barbie and Ken dolls in, shall we say, “demonstrative” positions.

It’s about a 40 minute drive from our place in Pretoria, but I’m sure we’ll be back. For the food.

Fourteen Days of Frustration

Tomorrow will be Day 14 of the ongoing saga of our pending wire transfer from Bank of America to ABSA bank for the purchase of a car. We initiated the wire on July 16, confirmed it on the 18th and it still has not appeared in the appropriate account.


Bank of America apparently uses an intermediary bank in South Africa for wires. That bank, it seems, does acknowledge receipt of the funds, but they have now “raised an enquiry” to determine what’s become of the money.

Meanwhile, we still do not have a car.

So much for the global economy.

Happy Birthday, Madiba!

Today is a big day in South Africa: It is Nelson Mandela’s birthday! Madiba is 93 beautiful years old.

As part of the celebration, South Africans are encouraged to take part in Nelson Mandela Day activities and to volunteer at least 67 minutes of time supporting a charity or working in local communities. That’s one minute for each of the 67 years of his life Mandela gave fighting for the rights of the oppressed in South Africa and around the world.

For our part, Jenny and I will be volunteering with others from the University of Pretoria this Saturday in Mamelodi. Mamelodi is a township outside of Pretoria that was established under apartheid. In the 1960’s, black South Africans were forcefully removed their homes and relocated to Mamelodi and other townships. While we have visited a township called Khayelitsha outside of Cape Town as tourists, I’m sure this experience as volunteers — and adopted South Africans — will be different and hopefully deeper.

I have to say, the feeling of being a part of anything remotely related to Nelson Mandela is electric. He is one of a select few figures that emit such energy and possess such gravity, whether you are near him or thousands of miles from him. I mean, he is in a category with the likes of Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Dalai Lama. He is an inspiration to all.

Back in 2006, a year after Jenny and I visited Robben Island (where Mandela spent most of his 27 years in prison), I had the opportunity to work on a project to promote the Robben Island Singers during their visit to Chicago. These three men — Grant Shezi, Muntu Nxumalo and Thembinkosi Sithole — were also political prisoners on Robben Island. Now, they sing the songs and tell the stories of the struggle for freedom, sharing a message of forgiveness, tolerance and peace. It was a tremendous honor to meet these men and be a small part of their ongoing efforts.

While today is a happy day and this week will be filled with acts of kindness and spikes in volunteerism, it also reminds me that Mandela’s release did not put an end to the struggles here or elsewhere. There remains an institutional bias in favor of the white minority that will take some time to balance out, just like our systems continue to need balance in the United States.

It also reminds me that the practice of imprisoning political enemies or those who speak out against government abuses continues around the world, even in America. Human Rights Watch in Chicago recently screened a film called In the Land of the Free that chronicles the situation of the Angola 3, three men targeted by prison officials for being members of the Black Panther Party and kept in solitary confinement for decades. Two of the men remain in prison.

So, wherever you are and whatever you do, let’s all wish Madiba a happy 93rd birthday and try to spend at least 67 minutes improving our little corners of the world.