When we looked back behind us, the western sky had turned into a towering wall of cobalt blue and grey. All around us it seemed as if the cloud ceiling was getting lower and lower. But we weren't very concerned. Home base was at most a 10 minute walk from where we were. A little bit of rain wouldn't be a big deal, especially after the intense heat of the past few days.
Two fellow PCVs, Susie and Ben were taking me around the eastern part of their village of Abbots Poort, or Majadibodu. We were at the high school, and Ben was showing me the shells of classrooms that still semi-existed there. I could see the disappointment on his face as he strolled aimlessly around the empty room - walking amongst disassembled plastic chairs, moving wooden desks that had been broken in half, and side-stepping the goat droppings that littered the floor. The wind blowing in from the half dozen broken windows moved the garbage in circles at his feet.
"The weird thing," he said, "is that, when the kids write graffiti on the walls of classrooms, it almost always has positive message..."
He pointed out some writings near the front of the class - "Stay in School!" or "Education is the key to your future!"
I wondered if the kids who wrote it really knew what they were writing, or if they just copied phrases they had seen written in an old torn apart textbook they came across once. The graffiti messages certainly seemed antithetical to the reality of the situation all around us in that room.
We left the high school and headed back towards the tar road, the whole time observing the massive wall of thunder clouds in the distance. They were threatening, but seemed to be moving south, so we weren't too hopeful for rain.
Still, the clouds were mesmerizing. We looked upon these vibrant grey clouds (if there is such a colour as vibrant grey, this was it) with nothing less than a sense of true awe. They stretched on for miles upon miles from north to south, and were separated rather cleanly by a curving line-break, formed due to what I could only assume was a strange pressure difference among them. (I'll admit, my knowledge of weather and what causes anything related to it is virtually zero.)
The clean, curving separation in the sky left a dark grey ceiling of clouds above us, and in front of us, a monstrous tidal wave of an imposing nature that looked like it would come crashing down on us at any minute. I might have liked to surf it, if I only knew how to surf, if it were made out of actual water, and if I had any balls.
We stopped at the post office to try and pick up some parcels that relatives had sent Susie and Ben, and as they were working that out, I sat out front near the road, watching streaks of lightning flash down from the sky in the not too far off distance.
I took out my camera, and tested out my reaction time, hitting the shutter button as soon as I saw a flash of light in the sky. I don't know if it was luck or if I'm just that awesome, (probably the latter), but I caught some really nice lightning strikes. This guess and check method is not the preferred way to take pictures of lightning, but it is more rewarding.
Susie and Ben waited patiently behind me as I was trying to capture one or two last strikes. After missing about 8 times in a row, we felt the wind suddenly change direction, and the storm started blowing directly towards us.
I packed up my camera and we started the walk to their humble abode, a quaint two room structure adjacent to their host family's house. A herd of goats scurried frantically past us, losing their footing, stumbling and crashing into each other as they tried to escape some unseen force coming from behind them. An older woman waddled behind them, holding her head scarf in place as she gently threatened them with a makeshift walking stick.
The first drops of rain came.
They were small and cold, but consistent. We were 50 yards from the door at this point, and upon entering Susie and Ben's place, we were considerably wet. Thirty seconds later, it sounded like a drum line had perched on the tin roof of the house and was pounding away at a Big 10 football game at half-time. We looked out the windows to see that visibility had been cut down to only 20 yards or so. Everything was grey, the wind was howling, and their were flashes of lightning and booming thunder every so often.
At that point in time, I hadn't officially bathed in about a week, due to my travel schedule, the lack of showers in rural South Africa, and my utter disdain for bucket baths. As I looked outside at the downpour, I dreamily said aloud, "I wish I could shower in that."
Ben and Susie turned to me and responded with a resounding "Yea!!! Go for it! We've done it before, and it's awesome!"
I wasn't surprised to hear this from them. I mean, for anyone who knows even a little bit about Ben and Susie, this made perfect sense. They are outdoorsy, carefree, grab-life-by-the-horns type of people. Of course they would have showered in the rain before. At home, and in Africa.
The wonderful thing about the rain storms that blow in here is that when the rain falls, it falls HARD. It's difficult to keep your eyes open when caught outside in those type of storms.
Encouraged by my raucous supporters, I grabbed my green bar of soap and little travel shampoo bottle that smells like vanilla, stripped off my clothes, ditched my shoes, slipped into my bathing suit (I still have some sense of decency it seems), and ran out into the storm.
Oh boy was the rain cold.
But it was such a refreshing and energizing cold! The kind of cold rain that stimulates your senses as each drop hits every inch of your body. It was the type of cold rain where you would force your body to shiver and let out gasps of nonsensical mumblings until your skin adjusted to the temperature and after a while it felt like a full body aqua-massage conducted by mother nature herself.
I hopped over to the corner of the family's house, where the rain gutter spilled out onto the stone patio. I stepped into a shin-deep rain collection bucket that was now constantly overflowing, and let the water from the gutter pound my body with the force of a small waterfall.
I took out my soap, washed my face, arms, chest, back, unmentionables, legs and feet, and decided I didn't feel clean enough (it had been a week after all), so I did it again. After that, I squeezed out some fragrant but cheap vanilla shampoo and attempted to wash my hair. Three times I did so just because it felt so good.
I took forever to rinse off, mainly because I didn't want my rain shower to end. As I tilted my head sideways to rinse out some more shampoo, I felt the sudden and uncomfortable feeling of 100 gallons worth of water instantly flooding my right ear. Not a fun feeling. I stepped away from the gutter, back into the rain, and began the necessary process of hopping up and down on one leg with my right ear facing the ground to try and release some water from my imploding ear drum. It got clear eventually and I was happy for it.
I remained standing in the still pouring rain for another 10 minutes. As the rain continued to pepper me with it's big, numbing droplets, I looked up and noticed a bright white break in the dark clouds to the west.
The sun didn't quite come out, but the bright spot shone white as angel stone, and it gave the world I was living in an unearthly and beautiful glow. I didn't want to dry off, so I continued to stand in the retreating rain, staring skyward at this revelatory and inspiring view.
I had this fleeting and unfortunately uncommon feeling of pride, joy, and contentment that I was truly in AFRICA - a place where you can experience natural beauty, wonder and joys that are unfamiliar or non-existent at home in every day life. Like a bus load of kids running up to you flashing their bright white smiles, wanting only to give you a high five; like being given a ride to a distant destination by someone interested in you and your story, not accepting payment, but only wanted good conversation; or like showering in the rain in a small village near the Botswana border, with not a care in the world.
I stood outside until the rain ceased completely, and let myself air-dry in the cool, moist air. My nipples certainly felt the chill - they got to that "could cut diamonds" stature, so I had to cover them up with my hands like a beauty queen whose top accidentally falls off during the swimsuit part of the competition.
Looking like a damp, shy, flat-chested school girl, I turned to Ben and Susie, who were watching the sky open up from their window and I tried to express to them how magnificent I felt.
It was the best shower I've ever had.
Two days later we had another powerful rainstorm. The wind was much more fierce this time around, and the whole lightning situation maybe slightly less stable. I had wanted to repeat the experience of two days before, but I had already committed myself to the notion of getting my hair braided by a friend of Ben and Susie's - a local 9th grade girl named Happy. She did a fabulous job (I paid her R10 for her tireless efforts too), though the whole time, I really did desire to be frolicking outside in the rain and mud like a kid with the world at his fingertips.
As my hair appointment was coming to a close in the candlelit kitchen space of Ben and Susie's, the rain stopped, and again, the clouds broke open in the west. It was much later when the rain stopped that second day, and the sun had already began to set. All of us taking shelter at Susie and Ben's walked outside to behold the endlessly colourful artist's canvas of an African Sunset. Pictures of these events are ok, but they will never do justice to the magnificence of what seems to never be anything less than a "perfect" sunset here.
Not only did the westward sky leave us breathless, but when we looked east to watch the storm moving on, we were treated to the most spectacular lightning show we had ever seen in our lives. The flash of light would start low in the sky and then the streak would splinter and crawl out in a million different directions directly above us, ending with booming thunder that we felt in our chests more than we heard with our ears. The entire evening sky left me in staring endlessly in awe at the beauty all around us, feeling overwhelmed and completely content.
I wrote a brief description of the sky in my journal after that second rain storm:
"Crimson red and orange lava-like coals from an ancient bonfire settled on the horizon, giving way to golden hues like angels' hair. Blue as bright as a child's eyes and as deep as the ocean trenches hovered just above. Purple clouds as black as nite covered the eastern sky with flashes of lightning spreading like electric spiderwebs across the entire magnificent sky."
These are two storms I will never forget, and hope I experience again, someday.
If not, I hope to always be able to paint a picture in my mind.
Oh also, we killed a scorpion that day that was hanging out right next to my head where I was sleeping.
Tsotsi (noun) TSO-tsee def: 1- Thug or criminal 2- Oscar winning 2005 film directed by Gavin Hood 3- Asshole South African who violates your space and security with his asshole friends by using threats of violence against you and takes your possessions because they like being assholes to people 4- Really, they're just huge assholes
Maybe this isn't the current accepted definition of what a "Tsotsi" is, but I've put a request into Merriam-Webster to get my definition included in the 2009 updated dictionary. Because I think my definition is way more accurate.
I suppose it was bound to happen sooner or later. And now that it did, I feel officially initiated into life in South Africa.
About 3 weeks ago, while en route to Pretoria for medical appointments and then to meet my parents for vacation, I was mugged by some fellow South Africans who it seems had nothing better to do than to seriously inconvenience me by taking shit that did not belong to them.
The story is as follows...
I hopped on a taxi from Tzaneen to Pretoria early-ish in the day, around 9:30 am or so. The ride was typically uncomfortable for a plethora of reasons: I had no leg room, it was hot and humid like the jungle of a fat guy's armpit, people were sweaty and smelly (myself included), and the chubby guy next to me obviously had something wrong with him because the whole ride, he wouldn't stop jiggling in his seat, bobbing his head around in circles, talking aloud to himself in siPedi, and spreading his fat legs out as wide as possible, thus eliminating the minimal seat space I had for my small ass to begin with.
I managed to sort-of fall asleep after the break in the ride (on a 4-hour ride to Pretoria, taxi's take a short bathroom and food break about 2 hours in), but I was woken up from the feeling of warm, greasy beef broth being dribbled on my leg, courtesy of Fat Bobby next to me. During the break he had decided to get a dish of pap, beef and gravy which he couldn't eat during the break, so he took the plate on the taxi with him to eat on the ride. Because of the bumpy nature of the ride and the obvious dim-wittedness and completely uncoordinated nature of my seat mate, about half the gravy ended up on my leg - an event which caused my friend to simply look at me and smile a dumb smile, just before he decided to throw the entire meal, pap, beef, plate and all, out the taxi's open window, splashing the remains on the glass of the taxi doors so the people in the seats behind us could enjoy the greasy streaks they left upon the clear surface.
Upon arriving in Pretoria, tired, anxious, angry and more than frustrated, I noticed that the taxi was pulling into a part of town that I hadn't been before. I had recognized it as being in the vicinity of the taxi rank I usually go to, but not quite where I'd end up normally. As the door opened, I asked a man outside if there were taxis going to Hatfield, my destination.
"Hatfield, yes. Follow me my friend."
I got out of the taxi clutching my duffel bag and day pack in either hand, the bags hanging low, and my Canon 10D DSLR camera backpack on my back. I expected to follow the guy to one of the taxis just on the side of the road in front of me, but I saw he turned the corner and was leading me down another block.
As I picked up my pace, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a short, stumpy looking black South African in a dirty green jacket abruptly turn around and start following me with an obvious purpose in his step.
Instantly, a warning light went off in my head. Something wasn't right. I could feel it.
The man I was following to the Hatfield taxi was about 5 or 6 paces ahead of me, and the sidewalk was crowded enough with people so that I couldn't catch up to him as quickly as I would have liked. There was a solid wall to my right, garbage, parked cars and people selling things on my left, and two ladies walking very slowly in front of me. Though I felt something wasn't right, I tried to tell myself I was just being paranoid and that things were probably completely normal.
Still, I picked up my pace as best I could, and I kept glancing behind me to see if I was putting any distance between myself and the man in the green jacket.
I decided that things were actually not at all normal, and that I should quickly make a move to get the hell out of the situation.
I was about to start jogging ahead, but the instant I was about to take my first step, my heart stopped as I felt an arm come from behind me, swing around my neck, and I felt something blunt pushing against my lower back.
"GIVE! GIVE!" was all the man said.
I stood like a scarecrow, my arms out to the side, not moving, saying "Take what you want. Just take it..."
It was then that I felt 3 pairs of hands going thru all my pockets, and I heard the sound of the zippers on my bags being opened and the contents searched. I knew they'd take my phone. I knew they'd take my wallet, and I knew they'd take my small Pentax camera, because I always kept it in my pocket. Having people go thru your pockets makes you feel violated in such an awkward way. It's a hard feeling to describe. It isn't the worst thing in the world, but it just feels so wrong.
As they were searching me, I decided I could be ok with all that being taken, but I was absolutely terrified that they would take my Canon DSLR camera.
I began panicking slightly at the thought of them taking it, and so I started trying to plead with them to not take "it" without mentioning the item directly.
I thought to myself, "Don't take my nice camera" probably isn't the best thing to say to a group of criminals searching you, if you indeed want to keep your camera. I don't remember exactly what was coming out of my mouth, but I quickly realized it was useless and stupid. They weren't going to listen to me. They probably didn't even understand me.
I felt like I was being held for minutes on end while they searched me, in broad daylight, with people all around, watching the event go down.
At some point I looked ahead to the guy taking me to the taxi. He was looking at me with a desperate and apologetic face, his arms held out in an "I don't know what to say or do" manner, and he was shaking his head. I was mouthing the word "Help" to him, and then I actually began saying it aloud quite loudly as I saw more and more people pass by, look at me, then continue walking.
"Help?!?" I was practically shouting to the people who passed by. I said it in a disbelieving manner, like, "Is anyone going to do ANYTHING? Are you really just going to keep walking away? I'm getting mugged here jackass!"
No one did anything. No one acted as if anything was wrong. Everyone just went about as if it was part of the daily routine. And I suppose in that part of town, it really is part of the daily routine.
Eventually, after what felt like 15 minutes but was probably more like 15 seconds, the 5 or 6 men let me go, gave me a small shove, and began slowly walking the other way down the street.
I was overwhelmed, pissed off, and panicked that all my shit was gone.
I was quite surprised when I turned around and noticed that my duffel bag and day pack had not had anything taken out of them, and I was about to check if my Canon camera was gone until I thought to myself, "PSST! GET THE HELL AWAY FROM WHERE YOU ARE. IF YOUR CAMERA WASN'T TAKEN, DON'T TAKE IT OUT TO SHOW THEM THEY MISSED SOMETHING."
I ran up the block to where the taxi was waiting and started yelling at the guy who was leading me there.
"Why wouldn't you do anything?!? Why doesn't ANYONE do anything? That's the problem with this damn country. Everyone is too scared to stand up for anyone else. Everyone looks after themselves and who the hell cares if someone else is a victim? What the hell man?!"
The guy didn't argue. He agreed with everything I said.
"Yes. You're right! I don't do anything because they all had knives. They would kill me if I did anything. That is why I don't do anything."
I was still pissed at him, and also for a brief moment thought he might have been in on the whole thing, but after some thought, that didn't seem justifiable. I put myself in his shoes. If I saw someone getting mugged by 6 men with knives, would I do anything? Could I do anything?
I probably could if I wanted to get stabbed.
It's a fucked up situation, but the rules you follow as a potential victim or onlooker are generally the same: Don't resist, don't intervene. If the situation is non-violent, let them take what they want and they'll be on their way. Stuff can be replaced. That's really the best and only thing you can do.
When I was being held there, I had thoughts of "Ok... If I was Jackie Chan, how would I get out of this?"
My mind was racing, but I came to the conclusion that even Jackie Chan couldn't have done anything. I was in a vulnerable position, off balance, and outnumbered 6 to 1 by guys with sharp objects intended to cause pretty severe bodily harm.
I decided that if I was Jackie Chan, I would have to have waited for the incident to be over with. Then when the assholes turned around to leave, I would have drop kicked their sorry asses all the way to the Indian Ocean, tied them up, pierced their ears and noses with big hoop rings, hang them over the side of a rickety boat, tied to the boat only by thin fishing line I attached to their newly pierced appendages, and make them apologize to me repeatedly while dangling their testicles just above the Great White shark infested waters.
But alas, I am not Jackie Chan, or any variation thereof.
I got on the taxi to Hatfield, accepted the expressions of "Oh, shame." from the people riding with me, and inspected my belongings.
The only things missing were my phone, my Pentax camera, 150 rand, a few random items not important enough to remember, and my polarizing lens for my camera.
I felt a bulge in my pocket and realized that they had even given me back my wallet after they took the cash out. All my bank cards and IDs were still in there.
What the hell?
I was extremely lucky. These guys must have been professionals. Amateurs would have been much more uncoordinated and possibly much more violent. These guys knew what they were after, and knew the most efficient way to get it.
The biggest relief was to find that the assholes didn't even touch my Canon. Upon visual inspection, I realized that to the untrained eye, you can't even tell there is a zipper or a separate compartment to my backpack where my camera sits in rest. The compartment was flanked by two full water bottles as well, and those weren't touched, so I knew they had no clue that there was something of much more value in my possession than a crappy cell phone and 2 year old digital camera.
The fact that I did not lose my Canon took so much weight off of my shoulders that it made the whole incident seem petty. Still, I had a bit of trouble staying asleep the next few nites.
I really don't know how I ended up being so lucky. I realize that the whole situation could have been infinitely worse.
I've replaced my phone already, and 150 rand isn't a huge deal to lose, considering the circumstances. I'm pissed I don't have my small camera anymore though. I always have it on me, for pictures, videos, or even recording sound clips for song ideas. I'll wait a while until I get a new one. I didn't like that one so much anymore anyway.
Other stories from volunteers are more hair-raising than mine, and some have ended up much worse. It's a frustrating thing to deal with in this country. Crimes like this happen in the middle of the day, in broad daylight, with hundreds of people around to witness it. Most of them happen in the cities, though some in the more rural areas. Generally at our sites, volunteers feel safe. Elsewhere, volunteers are obvious targets, and they can't always avoid areas of town where the crime rate is high. Sometimes it's just bad luck that makes us end up there, and shit luck if something happens. We are all very wary of our surroundings, but there will always be times where you just can't do anything.
I found myself in that situation and am so thankful that nothing worse happened.
I just wish there was more of a desire to stop these guys. The police are useless. One of my friends, upon reporting a mugging to the local police station was told by the policemen that they wouldn't pursue the case. Why? Their reason:
"If we go after these guys, then they come after us and our families."
I'm sorry... what? Where I come from, [the majority of] cops sign up to be a cop because they want to make a difference and want to make our streets safer. Where I come from, it's the cops who call the shots and who willingly put themselves in the face of danger to keep others safe. Where I come from it's the cops who are to be feared by the criminals. Not the other way around.
But I guess I'm not living in NY now.
Here in South Africa, criminals truly do live in a "Tsotsi Paradise". It seems that for most of the policemen I've come across since being here, being a cop means nothing more than getting a paycheck and laying low if any real shite goes down.
Thankfully, I didn't need them. I hope I never do.
The content of this website is intended to express my own personal views and opinions and therefore does not represent or reflect any position of the U.S. Government or the Peace Corps.
That being said, don't get lost.