The End of an Annum

Hey.

Howzit? You’re still here?

I probably would have given up waiting for that one last blog post by now. It’s been, what, a month? More than a month! What gives?

Ag, man…eish! It’s been hectic. In the past 30 days, we’ve driven across the US in a rented car, purchased a new car, moved back into our house, installed new carpet in our house, moved our stuff back into our house (which involved hoisting a sofa bed up through a third-story bedroom window), painted nearly every wall in the house, ordered internet service, cancelled internet service, ordered different internet service and a whole bunch of other stuff that required the focus of a blinkered thoroughbred…all while learning how to live in America again.

Sure, we’ve taken time out to enjoy time with family and friends, but until now there just hasn’t been a quiet moment to reflect on the past year, on the experiences we had, on the life we lived in South Africa, on that which was there but now is gone.

Truthfully, several quiet moments have likely come and gone. Instead of filling them with contemplation or remembrance, I played Words With Friends or watched a very sensationalized and very tape-delayed Olympic event. Shame on me. Loathe to admit in writing what I already know to be true, I’ve been putting off this task, as if not summarizing the past year would somehow leave the door open to a swift return to life in South Africa, as if these very characters would fashion themselves into nails and forever seal shut our portal to Pretoria.

As if the 8,000-mile, 16-hour flight didn’t do just that. That is, once we actually took off.

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“Yes, you can check the boot” and other things I never used to say

It started early. Our first visitors, my mom and my Mike, commented that our vernacular and inflection was changing. We were adapting to life in South Africa. It was survival.

It was October.

Now, after nearly 11 months living, working and playing in Pretoria, it’s like we speak a whole new language. Just ask Jenny what human-like noise hyenas make.

Every once in a while, we’ll catch ourselves speaking full-on South African, sometimes for good reason (like when naïvely hoping for a smooth customer service transaction), and sometimes not (like when it’s just the two of us in the kitchen). These moments inspired me to make a little list of things I never used to say:

  • Howzit? – One of the first pick-ups upon arrival in SA. It will undoubtedly take me another year to stop saying it. Apologies in advance, Chicago.
  • Izzit? – I do love this one. I’ll most likely keep this one under wraps in the US, except as a private joke. (I’m looking at you, Anna Alcaro.) In case it’s not clear, this phrase is a version of “is it?” but South Africans use it as an interrogative even when the words is and it do not apply to the context. (Example: “We drove to Swaziland this weekend.” “Izzit?”)
  • I’ll come fetch you just now. – OK, there are so many things wrong about this phrase. First, only southerners use fetch, and my four years in Kentucky don’t qualify me. More importantly, though, is the just now part. I know what “just now” means in Africa Time (anywhere between five minutes and five hours) and I still use it. I must stop.
  • Let’s keep an eye on it, hey? – I honestly can’t remember which of us used this one first, but I know Jenny has said it, too. The whole idea of tacking on a “hey?” is unusual … a bit Canadian.
  • It’s hot today, neh? – This is the ebony to hey’s ivory. White people say, “hey?” and black people say, “ne?” Adjust accordingly.
  • Do you stay this side? – I’ve said this a few times, and what I’m asking is where a person lives. This wording is interesting to me because it’s another one that can show differences in language use by different races. I’ve often had black friends or colleagues in the U.S. ask me where I stay. I feel like the use of stay is primarily along racial lines here, as well, but I know it’s a term used by South Africans in general. Same goes for “this side.” Nonverbal gestures are necessary to indicate “sides.”
  • … and what, what, what … – A multi-purpose tool. It can mean “and whatever.” It can mean “and so on.” It can mean “and whatchamacallit.” It can mean “blah, blah, blah.” It can mean “I forgot what I was going to say.” I’m just starting to use this one more, consciously or not, so it might be with me for a while.

The above are the more common, stylistic speech modifications that have crept into our lives. But, simply by virtue of where we live and where I work (most of the time), there are a host of other sentences I’ve uttered this year that I never could have imagined. For example:

  • We had a delegation from South Sudan in the office today. – Working at the Centre for Human Rights provides opportunities to meet people from countries all over the world, including the world’s newest country. Very cool.
  • So, let’s geo-target specific users in Kenya, Tanzania, Mali and Senegal. – Creating Facebook ads may never be the same.
  • The crazy thing was, we had to think about what would happen if the former president died on South African soil. – I can’t even begin to explain…
  • Sorry, can’t play basketball today. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights is in town. – I know I’ll never say that again … basketball should always come first.
  • It’s in Tembisa. – I’ve said this many times. It comes up when people learn that I’ve been involved in some projects in the Ivory Park township. People have heard of Ivory Park, but often don’t know where it is, even those from Pretoria or Joburg. It’s in Tembisa.
  • Did you see that guy at the robot with a holographic eagle poster in one hand and a bunch of USB drives in the other? – Variations of this sentence are produced weekly, at minimum. There’s always somethin’ crazy at the traffic lights.
  • Full tank 93, windscreen, and 2 bars in the tyres, please. Oil and water are sharp. – So many things, but it’s just a routine stop at the gas station (aka “garage”). Here it is, translated to American: “Fill ‘er up! 93-octane unleaded. Can you please wash the windshield and fill the tires to 29 psi? The engine oil and windshield wiper fluid are fine.”
  • Yes, you can check the boot. – A daily mantra. Every morning we go to work, and every afternoon the guards at the main campus ask to look inside the trunk of our car (the “boot”) to make sure we’ve not stolen a computer or what, what, what. Like robots (actual robots, not stoplight robots), we say, “Yes, you can check the boot.”

And there you have it. I’m sure there are more as we likely don’t recognize all the changes in our speech patterns. Either they’ll be with us for a while once we move back, or they’ll be washed down with the first swig of Starbucks.

Let’s keep an eye on it, hey?

Have You Seen the Taal Kraal?

Yesterday, one of my colleagues, a young woman from Zimbabwe named Joy, asked me about ten gallon hats, cowboys and John Wayne. While her inquiries were clearly in jest – the mock-galloping gave her away – I really wasn’t surprised by the questions. As strangers in a strange land, we’ve become popular targets for interrogation.

This is despite the fact that (the very best of) American culture is regularly imported here by way of B-grade Hollywood films, sitcom reruns and Royales with Cheese. The opportunity to grill a real, live American about anything from the supposed superiority of Starbucks to driving on the other side of the road to “Why do your Republicans talk so much about ‘freedom’ when they insist on taking it away from women/minorities/immigrants/gays?” is often too difficult to resist. Shame that we still don’t have good answers.

Without conducting the scientific research necessary to confirm, I’d say that the two questions we get most often are these, and I quote:

  • “When are you people leaving?”
  • “Have you seen the rugby?”

The first question, you must understand, is not meant to be rude. We like to think of the phrase “you people” less as an arbitrary, disdainful lumping and more as a term of endearment. As if the word wonderful was accidentally omitted. Still, we’ve been getting the question for the better part of six months now …

As for the rugby question, until recently, we could not supply a satisfactory answer. While we became avid supporters of the Springboks during the Rugby World Cup last year, we couldn’t see one of those matches in person because, well, they were all in New Zealand. Now, however, all attention is on the Super Rugby league, and we have our own team here in Pretoria: the unfortunately named Blue Bulls.

It was time to see the rugby.

Thanks to the gracious organizing efforts of Quintus and Christa Smit, their daughter, Marni, and Marni’s boyfriend, Giancarlo, we scored tickets to a Bulls v. Crusaders match at Loftus Versfeld Stadium.

Crouch. Touch. Pause. Engage. Blue Bulls & Crusaders preparing for a scrum.

Loftus during Blue Bulls matches is informally, yet fittingly, known as the “Taal Kraal.” Taal is the word for “language” in Afrikaans, and kraal is the word for “corral.” In essence, by going to a rugby match at Loftus, one is effectively surrounded on all sides – corralled in, as it were – by Afrikaans. And I mean Afrikaans Afrikaans. The Boers love themselves some rugby! And they love to talk about it. In Afrikaans.

Don’t get me wrong, we understand why people like the sport. I enjoy the strategy, something I learned to appreciate while watching and discussing World Cup matches. (As it happens, the match we saw featured several players from the Springboks side, as well as the All Blacks, as the Crusaders are from New Zealand.) Jenny, bless her, loves the muscular men with the thick thighs. When she spotted Victor Matfield, I thought she might rush the pitch and hurl herself into his arms, nuzzle his werewolf beard. Never mind that he is actually retired and his appearance was as a business-suited sideline reporter.

Blue Bulls & Crusaders players compete for the ball during a lineout. (not pictured: Victor Matfield)

But, the point is, rugby – especially Blou Bulle rugby at the Taal Kraal – is a white thing. I think fellow American Ryan Brown said it best:

… don’t let Invictus convince you otherwise: rugby is whiter than a Wilco concert and always will be.

So it is. And, so what? So is ice hockey, eh?

At least we got to experience an authentic slice of modern Afrikaner culture. At least we got to openly and enthusiastically support men with Blue Bulls … jerseys.

At least we people got to see the rugby before we left.

I’m sure you didn’t mean it that way…

WARNING: This post gets slightly NSFW towards the end…

As Americans who speak only one of the 11 official South African languages (English), you could argue that we are missing out on 90.9% of the national conversation. Of course, that’s not precisely accurate. Or, it is, depending on how you figure it (I’ve never been good at math, or “maths,” as they say here).

On the one hand, it is true that despite our best (feeble) efforts to learn Afrikaans (Jenny), seSotho/Nguni (Ryan), or any other local language (Indie does respond favorably to the word Zulu), we are basically only able to operate in English.

And this, one would think, on the other hand, should be fine. English is, after all, the de facto language of commerce, navigation, and (for the most part) politics. However, as we have detailed here, here and here, South African English is different enough from American English that it can – at minimum – cause confusion, or – in some cases – demand a double-take, or – in the extreme – trigger a face-twisting sort of cringe-wince-smirk that encapsulates the usually disparate feelings of embarrassment and hilarity.

OK, to be fair, there are really no truly squirm-worthy moments in normal conversation. Unless, that is, we have a momentary lapse and ask a waitron for a napkin (which here means diaper or feminine napkin) instead of a serviette.  What we see more often are unfortunately named brands, shops and restaurants that, while in English, must have much different – and more innocent, perhaps – connotations in South Africa.

Let’s start with some of the more innocuous examples:

  • DEFY – This is an appliance manufacturer, like GE, Maytag, Bosch, etc. I guess my question is, why DEFY? Our tiny refrigerator (the one with the freezer setting for dinosaur meat) is made by DEFY, as is our cooktop (or hob). What is it saying? “I DEFY you to cook on me!”
  • HOMELEE – Again, why? Our coffee maker is HOMELEE. No, really, it is.
  • Chicken Licken – This one really doesn’t deserve to be listed here…it’s not that bad. While we’ve not sampled the food, we expect it to be in the league of KFC, which here is more commonly referred to as “the Kentucky.” Funny, yes. Outrageous, no.
  • The Old Boys Club – We always wondered where the Old Boys Club met, and now we know. It’s near the corner of George Storrar Drive and Queen Wilhelmina Avenue.

And then there are those that are a bit more scandalous:

  • The Blue what?

    The Vodacom Blue Bulls – Yes, that’s right. The Blue Bulls. If you allow your mind to move past the color of the bulls and more towards the replacement of the letter u with the letter a, you will hear what we hear: that the local, Pretoria rugby team consists of a bunch of hunky, yet extremely “frustrated” dudes. Shame. [Aside: The Afrikaans name does not help. In Afrikaans, they are the Blou Bulle. Still seems unfortunate.]

  • UTI Distribution – In a country suffering from high rates of HIV and sexually transmitted infections, it is slightly regrettable to see the acronym for urinary tract infection on delivery vans.
  • Something Feminine – Maybe you had to be there, but when Jenny and I first saw this store in Menlyn Mall, we wondered out loud whether the “something” was an itch, an odor, a product…an infection? Mercifully, it was a jewelry store.

Finally, there is the shop that started it all. The inspiration for this post. The one that made our friend Hannah nearly drive off the road when she first saw the sign. The one that would make Altria change its name back to Philip Morris. The one that made Caligula blush. The one known as:

  • You just can't make this stuff up...

    CUM Bookstore – Eish! Go ahead. Do a double-take. Do a triple-take. You read it correctly the first time. But, wait, it’s not what you think. Ohhhh, no. In fact, if you visit the website, you will learn that it is, in fact, a “Christian Family Bookstore.” Ouch! Insult to injury. They have to know, don’t they? “Hey, where can I find a copy of The Bible for Dummies and the Cliff’s Notes for the Left Behind series?” Why, the CUM Bookstore, of course! COME ON, PEOPLE! PLEASE, PEOPLE!

I’m sure there are more examples, but I doubt any can beat the final entry here. We will be on the lookout, nonetheless. We do it all for you…it’s only for you. 

The Gogos Want a Picture of their Chickens

Some time ago, after we had only been in South Africa for about a month, I posted a description of our “new normal.” Now, nearly five months in, it is safe to say that our new normal is infinitely stranger. It’s just that we don’t always notice.

Until it slaps us in the face.

Take this:

The other day, I came home from work (from a volunteer consultancy position, that is), wrestled with an energetic Indie, and heard the following from Jenny:

“Oh, by the way, the gogos want a picture of their chickens.”

The scary thing is that I knew exactly what she meant.

When my mom and my Mike were here, they observed that our patterns of speech and word choices had already changed, both in subtle and occasionally dramatic ways. We’ve previously blogged about things like “howzit?” and must vs. should, but now we are truly speaking like locals. Well, almost.

I’ve started using “Heita!”, a sort of township greeting, with the security guards and gardeners on campus, and we’ve both started using the phrase, “Is that fine?” (with a necessary lilt on the word fine) when confirming a date/time for a meeting, when requesting an outside table at a restaurant or just generally when asking whether we are allowed to do something.

But the “gogos and chickens” comment takes us to a whole new level.

Fortunately, there is a simple explanation.

You may recall that we celebrated Jenny’s birthday twice, once at Moyo and once in Mamelodi. In Mamelodi, Ephney introduced us to some of her neighbors — two older women, grannies, or “gogos” — who have in their mattress-coil-fenced yard a few (free-range, shall we say) roosters and chickens that became the subjects of some photos I took that day. Because the gogos were so kind to us and had asked me to take several photos of them and their house, I decided to have a dozen or so photos printed for Ephney to share with them, including one of the chickens.

However, as she was riding the train home one day, Ephney let one of her friends peruse the photos. That friend, for one reason or another, wanted to keep the photo of the chickens.

Your guess is as good as mine.

So, Ephney gave the remaining photos to the gogos and told them that there is also one of the chickens. What she didn’t tell them is that her friend took it. Instead, she told the gogos that we have the photo of the chickens hanging on our wall. Yeah…not yet.

“How are your white people?” the gogos asked Ephney the other day. I suppose she said we were fine, but what they really wanted to know was whether they could get that picture of their chickens.

Yes, of course. I will print another one just now.

The gogos' chickens

How do you say…

So I realized that we’ve been sharing all sorts of new words and names of places here on the blog, but we’ve not described how you actually say them. I remember how surprised I was to learn that Havmandsvej Street in Herlev (suburban Copenhagen), where I was to live during my college semester abroad, was not have-MAN-dis-veg in HER-lev, it was HOW-mands-vie in HARE-lou. (Tusind tak til Familien Jørgensen for undervisning mig lidt dansk.)

HOW do you say Gauteng?

To this point, most of the new words we are using on an everyday basis are rooted in Afrikaans, which derives primarily from Dutch. For example, the province that includes Pretoria and Johannesburg is called Gauteng. Not GOW-teng with a hard g, more like HOW-teng. But since we are talking about a relative of Dutch, the g sounds are more like ch sounds in English words like school, or the proper German pronunciation of Bach, or borrowed Scottish words like loch. As the sound comes at the beginning of the word, it isn’t quite as hard a sound as school or loch, but softer and more “throaty” — like if someone from Chicago said (in a derogatory way??) that they spotted Hanukkah Harry in Highland Park.

There are quite a lot of these g sounds in our life these days:

  • The new, high-speed train between Pretoria and Johannesburg is called the Gautrain (HOW-train).
  • The main road behind Menlyn Mall is Garsfontein (HARS-fon-tayn).
  • The suburb, the nature reserve and the name of the campus where we live is Groenkloof (HROON-kloof)

As “ugly” as the sound may seem to an American English speaker, The Starry Night remains just as beautiful as painted by Vincent van HOCH as by Vincent van GO. But I digress…

Another consonant sound that differs slightly from English is the Afrikaans v. Take the word Voortrekker, which is a big word here, for many reasons. Voortrekker literally means “those who trek ahead” and has great historical significance in South Africa. The Voortrekkers were the Afrikaners who left the Cape Colony (on the west coast, where Cape Town was settled) under British rule in order to find independence in the interior. Many ended up in the area where we live now, formerly part of the Transvaal, as well as the (Orange) Free State. [Of course, there were already people living here at that time, but that’s another story…] Anyway, the word is not pronounced VORE-trekker, as we might want to say it in English; it is FOUR-trekker.

If you visit us in Pretoria, we might see you staring off quizzically into the distance before asking, “What, on Earth, is that giant toaster-looking thing on the side of that mountain?” We would smile, nod, chuckle knowingly and say, “Eish. That’s the Fourtrekker Monument. Shame…”

Vowels can be equally tricky, actually. In English, by and large, when two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking (I eat pie on the boat!). In German, when two vowels go walking, the second does the talking (Ich liebe Fleisch!). In Afrikaans, it’s every vowel for itself! Run for your lives!

Examples:

  • Jenny likes to drink a Windhoek on the front stoep after a nice meal of snoek. (VIND-hook, stoop, snook)
  • Ryan likes to buy koeksisters from the oumas at the tuisnywerheid. (COOK-sisters, AH-mas, TIES-nee-vehr-hide)

See the inconsistency?

Now, for an added degree of difficulty, there are the African names and words, which can be derived from any of a dozen or more languages and dialects. My attempts to learn a few words in Sotho from our friend and former housekeeper, Maria, have not helped me greatly in attempts to pronounce names of cities, surnames, etc. Some can be tackled in a fairly straightforward, phonetic manner (Polokwane =  po-lo-KWA-nay), but others follow rules we don’t have experience with just yet (Tshwane = TSWA-nay).

These last two examples are indicative of something that’s very interesting here: Since 1994, when the ANC became the governing party and the majority black population gained more influence, many cities and areas were given new names to replace — or in some cases coincide — with their Afrikaans or English names. Polokwane was formerly called Pietersburg; Bela Bela was called Warmbaths; and Tshwane was just kinda made up

Perhaps our favorite pronunciations, though, are our own names. Tannie Elsje, who manages our guest flat at Groenkloof, is a lovely auntie with a strong Afrikaans accent. “Jaynie!” she yells. “Are you and Keelpatreek OK here?”

Yes. Yes, we are. Buy a donkey.