“Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence in society.”
– Mark Twain
“Who told you that you were naked?”
— God, Genesis 3:11
I shot a glance at the man in the airport. The rational part of my brain appreciated the fact that this was a man working to make a living. The part of my brain coaxed for a year into cultural-integration reached my mouth first.
“Are you saying my shoes aren’t polished enough?” I retorted. His offer had become an argument. “I polish my own shoes.”
It didn’t take long to pick up on the fact that people where I’m living place great value on a shoe’s shine. Walking along the roads, littered along the side lay beer bottles, condom packets, and empty tins of shoe polish. (I considered but rejected the likelihood of some wild parties involving the three items in tandem). When I meet someone, I’ll often catch him or her shooting a none-too-subtle glance down at my shoes as we shake hands.
Until I arrived in South Africa, I had never given the condition of my shoes much thought. But now, knowing that I’m likely to be ogled from the ankle down, nightly shoe clean has become a ritualized labor of love.
A few brush strokes remove the heftiest clumps of the day’s dirt. Water, gently heated in my trusty iron, is misted across the surface of the shoe. Next, a coat of shoe polish is scooped from the tin and evenly applied. I use a toothbrush to work the polish into the crevice where the sole joins the leather. Next, I work a second, stiff-bristled brush across the shoe. Finally, with a piece of cloth, I buff out the shoe until it’s picked up a soft shine. Then, I repeat the process with the second shoe.
This is in no way exceptional. Virtually everything I do elicits some commentary – how I eat my food, how quickly or slowly I write something down, how I type, how I drink my coffee, how I walk, how I talk, how I don’t talk. One day, in the middle of the teachers’ staff room, I pulled a cloth from my pocket and started conspicuously wiping some dirt off my shoe. Lo and behold – no comment.
The real kicker (no half-pun intended) is that my shoe polishing is the most Sisyphean of tasks. In terms of dirt and gravel, I might as well live on the surface of Mars. Two steps out of my rondaval, my shoes have started picking up a film of dust. By the end of they day, my once-black shoes have taken a furry orange covering of dirt.
The conspicuous attention paid to shoes is neither simple materialism nor simple vanity. As one astute South African pointed out to me, people aren’t looking for a brand name, or for the expensiveness of vestments. First and foremost, they’re likely checking the condition. And not condition in terms of newness, but in terms of maintenance.
There are two basic explanations for clothing. The first is one of function. A post on the Social Evolution Forum describes pants as a technological adaptation, an important weapon in the arsenals of both the cavalry who unified China and the soldiers securing the Roman Empire. My shoes have their functional value; they protect my feet from the wicked thorns and swarms of insects on the ground. Dirty shoes, however, protect as well as shiny ones.
In the story of the Garden of Eden, Adam takes a bite of forbidden fruit, and acquires a sense of shame. He has gained the ability to perceive himself through the eyes of others. Shocked, he uses clothing as shield, concealing his naked body from others’ gazes. A passing observer might attribute furious shoe polishing to a similar sense of shame, less corporeal and more economic.
But the shoeshine isn’t an obstruction. It doesn’t conceal the worn condition of a shoe. Shoe shining is, rather, a prideful declaration.
The Sisyphean nature of shoe maintenance isn’t incidental to the value ascribed to the shine. It is the ultimate hopelessness of the task that gives such profound, if ephemeral respect accorded to the buff.
There is some analogy to be found in shaving. With pale skin and dark hair, I have to shave every morning before heading off to work. Even as I pat on after-shave, running my hand across a smooth cheek, I know my victory is temporary. Stubble, entropic, begins retaking ground the moment the razor is removed. My clean-shaven face represents personal upkeep, and a vague sense of professionalism.
The polished shoe is prey to the same entropic force. But its upkeep has an additional significance. People discuss dirt roads in symbolic terms. The well-developed tar road passes by, outside the village. The village paths are left unpaved. No mystery in the significance.
Many problems are beyond individual capacity. Some problems, like steady water supply, are intractable. Paving roads require municipal resources and technology. Community and political initiatives are at work, but for tomorrow, people are left walking along dirt paths.
Underdeveloped conditions are beyond immediate control, but conditions need neither define nor limit dignity. During my schools’ morning assemblies, I’ve seen students with shoes so worn that the front part of the shoe has become detached from the sole — but the shoe is polished.
Bring what you will, unpaved paths. For at least a few minutes, you can track my stride as my shoes flash in the sun.
Below is a column I wrote for the newsletter published for Peace Corps Volunteers in South Africa. A few words of introduction:
Peace Corps brings volunteers in cycles; each group has a 2-to-3-month training. During this Pre-Service Training, volunteers learn about the history and cultures of their country, study local languages, and receive technical training relevant to their project. I am in the twenty-fourth group of volunteers sent to South Africa (SA-24); the twenty-sixth group, of about forty-five volunteers, just arrived (SA-26). The rest should be fairly self-explanatory. And so, without further ado, the column:
“More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”
Welcome and hoorah, SA-26! Woody Allen wrote the above words in 1980. Sorry to greet you with such dark tidings, but 32 years later, we remain wobbling along the very same precipice. I congratulate you, however, on making a choice. Make no mistake: by signing your name to a wrist-numbingly large number of dotted lines, you’ve made a hefty one. And for my money (what little the Peace Corps provides), you’ve shown both the wisdom and also the requisite brashness to choose correctly.
A sunnier injunction: resist humbling your optimism.
During my Pre-Service Training, my fellow SA-24s and I were repeatedly told to abandon the presumption of changing the world; to recognize that in two years we would not transform a country, not transform an educational system, not even reform a school. Because I realized these comments were true, I dumbly nodded along.
I nodded along because I didn’t want to fall prey to hubris. I also nodded because I didn’t want to be branded with the starry-eyed naiveté that figures large in the popular caricature of the Peace Corps.
And I nodded more vigorously than ever when I started work in earnest. I was thrown into complexly-layered cultures and institutions, which were not only alien, but which also continue to rumble and from the upheavals of rainbow-colored revolution. With the language barrier, I generally didn’t know which way was up, let alone what needed changing, let alone how to change it. Or so I affirmed with all of my nodding.
But it’s no good nodding like a PCV bobble-head doll strapped to a khombi disintegrating even as it rocks down an unpaved road. It’s downright nauseating.
What’s the point of my overwrought simile? Too much under-cutting of ambition, too much misplaced humility and hemming and hawingvitiates the hands-on interventionism that makes the Peace Corps great.
When you come into a group of fourteen-, fifteen-, and sixteen-year-olds struggling to read and frightened of trying, you don’t have to consult a tract of cultural sensitivity to know things are wrong. And even if you know neither the root nor the compounding causes of the situation, don’t be too humble to wade in and fiddle. You were sent here to meddle, not to watch.
Decades ago, Langston Hughes, American jazzman of words, poetic sage and seer, wrote the following:
What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore -- And then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? or crust and sugar over -- like a syrupy sweet?
South Africa has made me ponder Hughes’s words often. I don’t have the answers to his questions. I know this, however: Every day you work in this country, you are working to realize a dream deferred. If you do good work, you’ll help prevent that dream from drying up, from festering, stinking, crusting, sagging or exploding.
Too often, having impact is conflated with having control. It’s true, you alone won’t control the destiny of the South African dream — Mandela himself couldn’t do that. But don’t let others delude you, and don’t delude yourself, into thinking that if you can’t have control of a dream, a big, puffy, country- or world-sized dream, then you shouldn’t concern yourself with having an impact.
And have some fun.
(h/t David Simon for the Allen quote)
There’s a distinctive sound that Shangaan men make as an exclamation of surprise. It’s a multi-voiced explosion, equal parts a man’s gut-punched grunt and a woman’s cry of pleasure. I’ve tried imitating it, but so far I’ve only succeeded in sounding like a woman faking an orgasm for the first time.
In Xitsonga, “Wa hemba!” literally translates as “You lie!” In practice, however, “wa hemba” covers “you’re kidding,” and “get out of here!” Little kids yell it as often as they cry “Wa penga!” [You’re crazy!].
Generally, I hear laughter, “wa hemba” and the Shangaan cry/grunt, all for doing nothing more than introducing myself.
Nearly every Peace Corps volunteer takes a local name when they reach their village. Casey becomes “Refilwe,” “Jillian” becomes “Xongile,” “Meghan” becomes “Nyeleti.” In the unlikeliest transformation, I go from “Mordchai” to “Hlulani.”
Taking on the name isn’t an attempt at assimilation. As I walk through my village, the child who starts hopping from foot to foot, screaming “Mulungu! Mulungu!” [“Whitey! Cracker!”] is a solid reminder that I’ll never shed my capital-O Outsider status.
So why take the name? There’s the practical benefit of going by “Hlulani;” I spare myself hours of watching my neighbors struggling to wrap their tongues around the phonemes of “Mordchai.” If it was simply a matter of expedience, however, I could just as easily switch to “Bob.” It’d be glib to dismiss the new moniker as a heavy-handed attempt at integration. Taking a local name is a deeply transformative action.
“What’s in a name?” Juliet opines to Romeo. “That which we call a rose/By any other word would smell as sweet.” Whether I introduce myself as Mordchai, Hlulani or Mr. Montague, Juliet tells me, I’ll be just as white, just as American, with a nose that is longer and thinner than the noses of my neighbors (people are consistently and persistently excited to tell me this).
Juliet’s not wrong, but she’s right in a narrow way. Study after self-satisfied study has shown that when people are given piss-poor wine in fancy bottles, they rate the wine more highly. We are creatures of language, and our experience is mediated by the names we use for things. If I hand you a rose and tell you it’s a special strain, genetically modified to smell less sweet, Juliet is correct in objective terms. No matter what I say, the same particles are striking your olfactory receptor neurons. You would never know it though — the name transforms your perception.
In his seminal paper On Sinn and Bedeutung, the late-nineteenth-century linguist and philosopher Gottleb Frege wrestles with the question of how proper names are used meaningfully.
Ancient civilizations made many remarkably accurate observations about celestial bodies. One particularly bright body can be seen most clearly shortly before sunrise; it was, reasonably enough, dubbed the “Morning Star.” Another can be seen shortly after sunset – the “Evening Star.” And then, at various times, astronomers in various civilizations recognized that the Morning Star and Evening Star were in fact one and the same – what we now refer to as Venus.
Frege notes that if we were only interested in the objects that words refer to, saying “The Morning Star and the Evening Star are both Venus” would be no different than saying “Venus is Venus is Venus.” And yet when Pythagoras pointed out that the two stars are single body, he was presenting a radical observation. In everyday exchanges, we treat proper nouns as simple signposts; they are tags, and casually used to discuss the objects with which those tags are associated. The signposts themselves, however, are significant.
And so when I choose a name, I’m giving more than a tag, more than a sound to which I’ll turn my head, canine-like.
My name, “Mordchai,” is historically derived from Marduk, a supreme Babylonian god who came to power through the murder of another god. The name “Mordchai” is taken from the tale of a Jewish man working in the royal Persian court. He refused to bow to one of the king’s advisors, prompting the advisor’s wrathful plot to murder all of the Jews within the empire; through political machinations, Mordchai succeeds in averting this disaster. I am named after my grandfather. It was his name, and the affiliated identity, that redefined the trajectory of his life. Mordchai was once again marked for destruction, not by the Persians but by the Nazis. Once again, Mordchai triumphed by surviving.
When people here in my village learn that my name is Mordchai, all of this encoded information is generally missed. People learn, however, that I’m not local, not Afrikaaner. Occasionally someone will recognize the name as being Hebrew, but with the absence of Judaism in the region, that usually leads to me explaining that I’m not a descendent of Jesus (unfortunately, perhaps, since that could make me some sort of great-grandson of God).
When I introduce myself as Hlulani, however, I’m making a statement and beginning an argument. It’s understood that I was not given the named Hlulani at birth.
When I introduce myself by a local name, I make a declaration of investment. If I were passing through the district to make a survey of mango production, I probably wouldn’t bother with a local name. That I am a white man taking on an African name has additional significance in South Africa. In his hefty memoir, Nelson Mandela writes the following,
On the first day of school, my teacher, Miss Mdingane, gave each of us an English name and said that from thenceforth that was the name we would answer to in school. This was the custom among Africans in those days and was undoubtedly due to the British bias of our education. The education I received was a British education, in which British ideas, British culture, British institutions, were automatically assumed to be superior. There was no such thing as African culture. Africans of my generation — and even today — generally have both an English and an African name. Whites were either unable or unwilling to pronounce an African name, and considered it uncivilized to have one. That day, Miss Mdingane told me that my new name was Nelson. Why she bestowed this particular name upon me I have no idea. Perhaps it had something to do with the great British sea captain Lord Nelson, but that would be only a guess.
To say that many South Africans remain sensitive to race is like saying that a rabbi might notice if you run into a synagogue dressed as a ham sandwich. When I introduce myself as Hlulani, I’m not breaking from the past – an impossible task, no matter how common the phrase – but I am rejecting the previously dominant structures, and the beliefs upon which they were founded.
The moment of introduction by local name is a jump, a jitter, a shaky blast of static. In South Africa, all relations are race relations, in a way more fundamental and immediate than anything I’ve ever experienced in America. Claiming an African name doesn’t magically wash away that lens. It creates a moment of confusion however, an opening in the doors of perception just wide enough to jam your foot into before they slam shut.
Ultimately, the name change affects me more than anyone else. When I first began introducing myself by a local name, it was with a wink and a nod. I’m not from here, most would say I don’t belong here, give a guy a break.
Every time that I use the name Hlulani, or respond to it, I am reasserting that I have come for more than consulting work, for more than a job in any conventional sense. No native son, but more than a long-term visitor.
When I introduce myself as Hlulani, I continue to get a laugh, a cry/grunt and a “wa hemba!” Six months later, however, my response has changed.
“I’m not lying,” I respond in Xitsonga – “a ni hembi.”
“Rintiho rin’we a ri nusi hove” [A single finger cannot grasp].
– Xitsonga proverb
Every society has its margins; even a Möbius strip has its edges. Most often the political and social margins discussed are drawn along economic lines, with the wealthy at the center and the poor falling off the rim. There are margins drawn along ethnic lines. There are the margins drawn along racial lines, an ever-raw nerve here in South Africa.
The most literal margin is among the least discussed. And yet the spatial, the geographic rural/urban divide is hugely significant.
It is also hugely visceral. About a week ago, I was taking a public taxi back to my village. One of the van’s windows was out; in its place flapped a half-taped cardboard square. As we rattled down the unpaved dirt road, dust blasted its way through the hole. Dirt caked on sweaty skin, and formed a fuzzy orange skin on shoes, clothes, and belongings. One man twisted about in his seat, trying to shield his open can of beer, with little success. With the acrid taste of dirt in your mouth, you can’t forget you’re far from city center.
Living in the margins means limited or no access to all kinds of resources. There is no semblance of a public library in my village, nor in any of the surrounding villages. The closest is in the nearest township, about 50 kilometers and a sixteen-Rand taxi ride away.
I’ve worked for the past couple of months to gather a committee to plan and create a community library, to serve residents of all ages. The committee is comprised of representatives from the local schools, the local churches, the village clinics, the tribal authorities, the municipal authorities, and other organizations.
As a first step, we are participating in Books for Peace. The program is a partnership between United States Peace Corps Volunteers serving in South Africa and the US-based nonprofit Books For Africa. This project will distribute 22,000 books to 30 schools throughout South Africa.
In order to receive books for our library, people in the village are raising 1,500 Rand, to partially cover shipping costs. In addition, I must raise another $300 before the end of June.
About fifty years ago, sitting in a Birmingham city jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote:
I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states… Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
When King wrote this, he was putting a physical pen to physical paper, decades before global markets would dive-bomb and buoy in time units observable only by a machine’s unblinking eye. Decades before a blog post could leap from a dusty rural village to any major metropolis, with nothing but a tricked-up telephone.
“Rintiho ri’new a ri nusi hove,” goes one Xitsonga proverb – a single finger cannot grasp. We in the village are working to raise money to bring a much-needed resource. We need your help, however, to reach our goal.
To donate, simply click on the Paypal Donate button below, an entirely safe and secure method of transferring funds online.
Several weeks ago I was walking home from school when I heard some particularly desperate-sounding bleating. I came across a goat kid stumbling about, with an old paint can stuck on its head. I managed to catch it, and wiggle the can off. Freed from the unwanted helmet, the goat happily bounded off.
When I related the story to a fellow volunteer the following day, she had the perfect response: “Now, if anyone asks you whether you made a difference as a Peace Corps volunteer, you can honestly say that you saved a kid’s life.”
Where have I been the past couple of months? I’ve been completing “Pre-Service Training,” a period during which Peace Corps trainees live in the same village, study local languages, get vaccines, and participate in lectures detailing South African history, culture, politics, and education. We’ve also had the opportunity to guest-teach at local primary and secondary schools. Throughout, trainees live with local families.
A quick summary of what’s been happening with me:
I am part of a group of 55 volunteers — we started at 57, but have unfortunately had two trainees head back to the States. We are living in a muddled village/town northwest of Pretoria. Along with four other trainees, I’ve been studying the language Xitsonga. Our permanent sites, where the five of us will be living and working for the next two years, are in the Limpopo Province, located in the northeastern part of South Africa, in Xitsonga-speaking villages.
I’ve been living with a delightful family of four. In the first picture are the family’s father, Julius, the mother, Doreen, and their eight-year-old daughter, Zanele. On the far left is their twenty-year-old son, Sbusiso, who is now studying at a university in Pretoria, and isn’t currently living with the family. In the second picture, on the right, is Doreen and Julius’s five-year-old grandson, Mbulelo. On the left is a young man from the neighborhood who often comes by to play. I recently taught them the hokey-pokey, which was a huge hit, particularly the shaking it all around and turning about sections.
I now have regular internet access, and so I plan to post a bunch of pictures, stories and ideas that have built up during my first months here in Afrika Dzonga, as we say in Xitsonga.
I will say that I have thoroughly enjoyed PST. Earlier cohorts of volunteers here have had much more negative things to say about their experiences during PST. This isn’t because they’re a whinier bunch; apparently a significant number of changes have been made to the training program, which also reflects well on the Peace Corps staff working here. No doubt it’s often been a grind, with long days, six days a week. Every day has been interesting, however, and I think that I’ve gained a lot of knowledge that will be hugely helpful as I begin working in my village.
The Smithsonian Folklife Festival has posted a cool video of an interview with Earl Yates, a former Peace Corps Country Director for South Africa; he briefly describes the experience of bringing a diverse group of volunteers to the country so soon after the end of Apartheid.