World Map!

So I’ve been in South Africa for a year now and many people are starting to wonder “Hey Andrew, what have you done?”  We know you’ve taken sketchy plane trips and had encounters with Machiavellian old ladies, but isn’t part of Peace Corps supposed to be helping people?  A legitimate question indeed.  Let me start off by saying that the organizations volunteers are placed with are (for the most part) struggling with basic operations and management.  This makes getting things done within the organization very frustrating and oftentimes impossible.  One of the advantages of Peace Corps is that volunteers can plan and execute their own secondary projects not involving their organization.  One popular secondary project is the World Map Project.  The idea started in 1989 when a volunteer in Haiti had the idea to paint a giant world map mural on the side of a building to help students in the local school learn geography.  The idea picked up like wildfire and within years hundreds of maps were being done around the world by Peace Corps Volunteers.  The map project was something I knew I wanted to do.  First of all, anyone who knows me well is aware that I’m obsessed with maps.  I could sit for hours in room full of maps and just stare and not get bored.  In fact, when I was young, I would sometimes sit and stare at the world map my parents hung on my bedroom wall.  The other reason this project was so special to me is that the students here have a HORRIBLE understanding of geography.  There are several reasons for this (that I’ll address later) but I felt the map project would fit well with my personal interests and the needs of the community.  A HUGE thanks to the lovely Jill Peters who came over to help me with the map.  Without her assistance, the entire process would have been much more difficult and I’m pretty sure the students would have learned some new curse words from me while I struggled to finish it.  Here are some pictures of the process:

Measuring and priming the surface

First, you measure out the surface and paint a coat of primer. 

I decided to do two maps.  One map is of the world, the other of South Africa.  I felt the part to whole aspect of doing the country map would help give the learners a sense of scale in relation to the entire world.  It may seem like a strange thing, but I’m routinely asked after I’m away for a few days “did you go home to visit America?”  When I tell them that I didn’t, the trip to America requires an 18 hour flight, I’ve gotten responses like “Oh. So it’s overseas?”  I’ve also been asked on more than one occasion how long the drive to America is.    

The next step in painting the map is to paint two coats of ocean blue over the primer.  Unfortunately, I didn’t take a picture of this step.  After that, you take an overhead projector and project an image of your map onto the surface and trace the map. 

Jill traces the map from the overhead


After that, we mixed the paint

Mixing up the paint

Then we dab each color on the country to color it.

Dabbing the colors on the appropriate countries


After that, we paint the countries completely. 

Jill painting the map!

I had my host brother, Sandiso come in and help with a little bit of it.  I think he liked it. 

Sandiso helps out


Then lunch



Then the students help paint the South Africa Map

The students help paint the South Africa map


Jill and I in front of the map

The finished product


So I feel like I have to offer some sort of justification for the general lack of knowledge regarding geography on the part of rural South Africans.  During Apartheid, black South Africans were given very specific restraints as to where they could and could not go.  Any deviation in these restraints was met with brutal punishment.  The result was a lack of curiosity as to what lay beyond their village, country or continent.  Even though Apartheid has been gone for twenty years now, the nasty legacy of its policies continue.  There is also a bit of a practicality aspect.  For many rural South Africans, their entire worldview exists only in their village, and occasional trips to large cities like Durban or Johannesburg. It’s a very contained and isolated world where maps and travel have no real role or use.  Even still, the changing geopolitical climate necessitates a broader worldview for the next generation of South Africans, and (in my opinion) showing the next generation that there is a wider world beyond South Africa is a good first step in broadening their horizons.

The Time I Almost Died

I’ve flown in airplanes dozens of times and never had a fear of flying.  That all changed when I had to fly from Jo’Burg to Richards Bay the other month aboard a commuter plane.  I figured the flight would be similar to the Spokane to Seattle flight I made dozens of times as an undergrad, and in a way it was, just with Wright Brothers era technology carrying us.

When I arrived at the gate, instead of having the plane pull up to the gate and have the ramp connect the plane and terminal, they have a tram that takes you to the plane waiting on the tarmac.  We crammed into the tram car and were driven out to our plane.  This is when things began to get weird.  Our plane looked like it could have been the same one Ingrid Bergman flew away in at the end of Casablanca.  The propellers were going and it was loud as hell.  I walked up the stairs onto the plane.  As I made my way past the cockpit I peeked in.  I swear one of the pilot’s seats had electrical tape over part of it where the fabric had been worn away.  Everything about the plane had an old feel to it.  And not the “oh that’s so charming and quaint” sort of old feel, but the “holy shit, I think we may die because of this” sort of feel.  The guy in front of me was carrying an empty birdcage.  I privately speculated it was to hold some sort of data recording parrot they keep in the cockpit instead of a black box. As we prepared to take off, the propellers began to make a wheezing noise.  As my fingernails dug into the armrest, I looked down and noticed that the armrest had an ashtray built into it.  I think even Southwest has retired most of its aircraft that were built when smoking on an airplane was still allowed, but not this plane.  When we reached cruising altitude, I noticed the propellers were again making a funny noise.  It sounded (to me) almost like the pilot was putting the plane into neutral and revving the engines (I doubt this is even possible; it’s just what it sounded like to me).  I turned to the businessman sitting next to me asked him what he thought about this.  It turns out he has made this trip twice a week and has been doing it for about 2 years.  I asked him if the propellers always made such a strange sound.  He gave me a perplexed look.

“Strange sound?”

“Ya, like that wheezing and revving noise the propellers are making.  You don’t hear that?”

“Oh that.  Ya, I suppose you get used to it after a while.”

“Well does it make you nervous, flying so routinely on a plane that sounds like it’s about to die?”  He paused a moment and privately contemplated what I had just said.

“Well, I’m not really sure, I guess one of these planes goes down every once and a while, you just have to hope you’re not on it.  Besides, beats the hell out of driving, right mate?”  With that, he turned to the flight attendant and ordered a Black Label.  I ordered two.  The flight attendant informed me that there was a one drink maximum on flights less than two hours.  I’m very displeased by this and begin to mentally compose the complaint letter I’m going to write to SA Airlines (future blog post).  On the plus side, the beer only cost R10 (which made sense given the condition of the plane).  This is the point in the story where normally the plane would begin to lose altitude suddenly, the oxygen masks would (hopefully) drop from the ceiling, and half the plane would find religion in about 2 seconds.  Fortunately, none of that happened.  The plane just continued on to our destination and I was serenaded by the sweet sounds of gerbil powered propellers.  So yes, the title of this post was a bit deceiving, but I’m guessing it made you read the entire thing with baited anticipation, so objective achieved.

ten things about South Africa I bet you didn’t know

1.)     About 1/3rd of the time people in the rural areas pronounce Andrew “Angry”.  “How are you Angry?”

2.)    The most popular television show here is a soap opera called Generations.  It’s been running for 15 years, airs 5 nights a week, and is shown during prime time.

3.)    WWE wrestling is also shown during prime time.

4.)    I live in a house with no indoor plumbing and no heat BUT I have dish TV.  Remind you of anything?

5.)    There is a dish here called walkie talkie chicken.  It’s chicken feet and chicken head.  Get it?

6.)    Cars are not just used for driving.  They can also be parked outside your house with the radio blaring to serenade the neighbourhood.  Also, when it won’t drive anymore it can make a lovely lawn ornament.

7.)    Nobody owns a lawnmower.  They have cows and goats instead.  This is something I can really get behind.

8.)    If it really burns you up whenever you have to pay the $1.25 fee to use an ATM not owned by your bank, think again.  South Africa banks charge fees for everything.  I know someone who had to pay a fee to close out her account.  When the account balance didn’t cover the fee, she had to deposit more money to pay the fee.  A fee was charged on the deposit to pay the fee.

9.)    When something breaks here, the common solution is to take it apart and start messing with it.  One morning, the ignition in my host father’s car wouldn’t turn.  When I came home, the steering column cover had been taken off and the ignition was hanging by the wires.  It looked like someone had gone grand theft auto on the car.  As much as I wanted to try and hotwire it, I decided against it as it’s been a while since I saw the Fast and the Furious.

My host father classifies any music type other than South African gospel music as jazz.  I could be listening to Eagles and he would say “listening to the jazz?”  I just agree with him because I can’t articulate the nuances of musical genres to him in Zulu or the innate musical elitism that results from growing up in the Pacific Northwest.

This Side, That Side

One of the different things about South Africa that Peace Corps Volunteers experience almost immediately when they arrive at site is what I call the “this side, that side” phenomenon.  In the South African parlance, the phrase “this side” is used as a relative geographic location meaning where you are at the present moment.  “That side” can mean anywhere except where you are at the moment.  Let me use an example.  If you live in say, Seattle, and a friend comes to visit from Philadelphia, instead of asking your friend “how are things in Philly?” a South African may say “how are things that side?”  The tricky part is realizing that “this side, that side” doesn’t just apply to large geographical distances.  The following scenario could also apply: Say you are in your family room watching a baseball game.  Your friend gets up to use the bathroom and walks past the kitchen to get to the bathroom.  You could say “Hey, can you please get me a beer from the fridge while you’re over that side?”  I’ve had friends here who after returning from a vacation in Durban or Cape Town have been asked by people in their village “how are things that side?”  When the PCV starts to describe his or her experiences in Durban or Cape Town they are met with confusion followed by the question “so you didn’t go home to visit America?”  So you see, “that side” can mean across the house, across the country or even across the world.

Wild Coast

The Wild Coast

This picture was taken on a trip I went on in July to the Wild Coast.  It’s super beautiful.  It looks very similar to Big Sur but without the development.  I usually have a rule about taking a trip to the same place more than once, but I’m considering breaking it in this instance.