A land full of surprises

2010-05-05 00:00

NO, I did not expect to see lions and monkeys roaming the streets when I came to South Africa. I was not shocked to see supermarkets or shopping malls, and I knew people had cars. For some reason, as soon as someone realises I am American they ask if I thought that all of Africa was a scene out of National Geographic. The answer is no, but I will admit that I had some surprises.

It was hard for me to paint a picture of South Africa before coming here. Unfortunately the media industry dominates human perception as it is often the only easy access to information. Documentaries had taught me about apartheid. International newspapers had posted South Africa’s crime rate and its HIV/Aids situation. The Lion King showed me that somewhere in Africa there are talking monkeys and lion cubs who befriend warthogs. This is what the media had taught me, and so I came without expectations but rather just the hope to assimilate into the South African culture.

My first surprise was seeing how much I stuck out as an American. How do you stick out in such a diverse country, in the Rainbow Nation? At first glance I might be classified as coloured, but apparently my awkward “American-ness” shines through. I bought the clothes from Mr Price and even started using strange South African phrases such as “lekker” and “Izit?” My accent gives me away and apparently I “walk like an American”. I give up.

I didn’t expect to see a nation so crazy about rugby and cricket — the two sports that may never, ever make sense to me. Rugby vaguely resembles American football, but cricket is such a far cry from baseball that I fear I will never understand it.

I was shocked to see “monkey gland” on the menus. I have yet to try it, but everyone assures me that I am not going to eat real internal monkey organs. It didn’t take long to figure out that “tomato sauce” is what I refer to as ketchup and when I ordered chips off the menu, I would be getting French fries.

Eyeing beautiful saris and recovering from extremely spicy curry dishes, at times it was surprising to realise that I was not in Little India.

But I was truly surprised when I saw that in a matter of minutes I could go from a bustling city to a rural township. I learnt that many people had never entered the communities that surrounded them either to avoid the painful reality of income disparity or because they had no interest in seeing what lay beyond the city centre.

Once I figured out how to navigate the kombi taxi system I finally felt comfortable knowing that I was no longer limited only to places within walking distance.

Through the work I did with Thandanani Children’s Foundation, I was able to go into the communities and learn about the strength and hope that was being kept alive there.

I met women who used their one pension cheque to care for multiple orphans, only on the basis that you take care of other people and that every child needs a future. I harvested a garden with community volunteers who wanted nothing but to know that 11 families would have dinner that evening. I taught students with great potential, who aspired to be doctors and social workers. Despite the difficulties many face in South Africa, I was pleasantly surprised to see the trust they have in a brighter future.

I will admit to being surprised to hear kombis incessantly honking their horns and blasting kwaito music at all hours, to see how religion and spirituality permeate the land, and to learn that “sarmie” is actually a South African code word for sandwich.

I found that I love listening to South Africa — there is always music and there is always singing. A wedding, a funeral, a protest, a happy event or a sad occasion, someone is always singing and dancing — it is wonderful.

I was amazed to see that in light of all the Westernisation occurring, South Africa is still full of culture. Every town, province, race, tribe and any sort of community have their own distinct culture. I was even surprised at how quickly I learnt how to say “I’m sorry, but my brain is small” in Zulu.

I definitely did not know what to expect when I came here, but I am incredibly happy with what I have found.


• Brittan Smith is from California and joined Thandanani as a volunteer in August 2009. She has a BA degree in sociology from Harvard University, concentrating her studies on race and education. Due to her own observations of and personal experiences with race, family, poverty and education in the United States, Smith felt the need to come to South Africa to learn about these very prevalent themes in South African culture. She chose to join Thandanani because she has always had a passion to help children in need and to assist in community development.

ON March 4, Brittan Smith stepped outside her flat to the sights and sounds of protesting municipal workers and the rubbish they were marching through. She took some quick photos, wrote a brief story in about 30 minutes, and published it on CCN iReport. It has been viewed by nearly 18 000 people. This is what she wrote.


“When you walk around KwaZulu-Natal’s capital city of Pietermaritzburg you cannot help but notice something different. The smell of corn and sausage being sold in the streets is replaced with the stench of trash that has been left on the road. The trash, which was scheduled to be picked up by the city earlier this week, instead lies in heaps on the sidewalk, picked through by animals and scavengers, covered in maggots.

This is because the city trash collectors are on strike, as are the rest of the municipality’s workers. The workers of the Msunduzi Municipality are calling for current Mayor Zanele Hlatshwayo’s forced resignation, along with municipal manager Rob Haswell.

It is the ineptitude of the municipality that concerns not only the workers but the residents. It was announced two weeks ago that the otherwise prosperous municipality had enough money to operate for just one week.

Last week those within Pietermaritzburg were made aware of the strike as dozens of vehicles with titles such as “Pietermaritzburg Electricity” stamped on them formed long lines down the roads and honked their horns repeatedly. Today, the major roads in the city are blocked off by police cars as workers sing and dance a unified beat asking for reformation in the system and overtime wages that have gone unpaid. In one financial year, the net available cash has decreased from R120 million in 2007/08 to about R1,5 million in 2008/9.

It will take a lot to get these streets clean again.”

BRITTAN Smith created a South African slang dictionary on her blog site http://brittansadventure.blogspot.com

Here is one example.


This is my favourite one. It is used instead of “really?” This is a great word to use in conversations.

Derived from the two words “is” and “it”, it doesn’t quite make sense all the time according to American grammar standards. Example: “I went to the pool yesterday and it was soo cold!” Answer: “Isit?!” (See, it makes no sense.)

“I was sitting next to Amanda and you know what, you wouldn’t frikkin believe it, she was like all over that guy next to her while Johann was right there, as in next to her.” Answer: “Isit?” (Really?)

Or in a more cheeky way: “I suggest you have an attitude adjustment real soon or we’re going to have a problem.” Answer: “ Isit?” (You reckon? Whatcha gonna do?)

It can also be used when you have nothing to contribute if someone tells you something at a braai. For instance, if someone says: “The Russians will succeed in their bid for capitalism once they adopt a work ethic and respect for private ownership.” It is quite appropriate to respond by saying: “Izit?” I say this a little too often for it to be healthy.

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