Women Rule the Roost

Party of Five

I had more family photos for this post, however the internet is not cooperating. I hope to post more next time!

Estrogen runs high here in my Huntington household. My co-advisor and I live with a grandmother and her twin granddaughters, making us a house of five women. Our closest friends in the village are our female cousins. I have no idea how lucky I got, but I don’t think I could have found a more perfect family. And the irony is that I got to choose all of the homestays for my students, but when I arrived my homestay had already been decided. Considering I’ve been in the village for well over a month, I figured it was time to write about family!

Women Rule
My grandmother has three daughters, all of whom I’ve met. The eldest daughter has three daughters of her own, all of whom have come to visit for several weeks. Our cousins closest to our age are all women. While there are plenty of men & boys in the family, it is clear that the women are the ties that bind. My cousin visiting from Nelspruit pointed out to me that this was a family dominated by women. She described her grandmother as ‘the pillar, the woman that holds this family together,’ and I have no doubt in my mind that she hit the nail on the head with her description.

Families in this area are large. They also tend to live within a block radius, so all of my neighbors’ homes are family. In America, every person in the family tree has a distinct title- cousin, great-aunt, brother-in-law, second cousin twice removed. Here, there is less distinction: they refer to their cousin as their brother and their great-aunt as their grandmother. Families are extremely close, and those bonds are quite obvious in social life here.

Meet My Family
Kokwana: My grandmother doesn’t speak English. For several weeks, I never even knew she was a pastor at church (and yes, I made sure to go to church the following Sunday). Learning about my grandmother has been a process of slowly peeling away the layers and synthesizing bits and pieces of information about her that I gather from others. Everything I know about her I have learned either through observation or from a community or family member. Her bark is worse than her bite. She is a stern woman. She has a deep-bellied laugh and deep-set eyes. When she says jump, you don’t ask how high- you do it! She runs a tight ship, but she also has successful children who are in turn sending their children to university; my kokwana’s influence on her family is very apparent. Even before I got to know all of the relatives and before I knew much about her, I could tell she was important in the community. She commands respect. Aside from her strict and intense demeanor, I should also mention that my kokwana is hysterical. No, not funny- hysterical. She deserves her very own post entitled “Sh*t my Grandma Says”. I want to pack her in my suitcase and take her home with me.

N&L: I have twin sisters that are 11 years old. Though naturally very quiet, they are extremely well behaved. It took a good week or two to break through their shyness, but they’ve come around. We play games, work on a lot of math homework, and they act as my translators when kokwana and I are having a bad go at miming what we’re trying to say.

N: N is my 29 year old cousin but I first knew her as my babysitter. Yes, you read that right. My first weekend, my kokwana went out of town and had my cousin stay the weekend. We’re convinced that she was there to keep an eye on us because our sisters are very independent little girls. We soon learned our babysitter was our cousin and now she’s our best friend in the village. She comes over every single day and spends the evenings watching our favorite local soap with us. She tells me on a regular basis (as in everyday) how sad she’ll be when we leave.

P: P is N’s sister. She is 18 and in Grade 11 at the secondary school. She’s soooo funny! Not your typical village girl, she hates to wear skirts and also hates to cook. We bond over R&B and hip-hop music and she often spearheads our evening dance parties.

S: S is P and N’s youngest brother from another mother. Polygamy is really common in the area and he’s a product of that. He’s 10 years old and my homestay sisters’ best friend. His pipsqueak voice and cheery demeanor make him one of my favorites. You might ask 100 children how their day was at school and they will say “Fine.” You ask S, and he will say, “It was grrrreat!”

V: V is N, P, and S’s nephew. He’s four years old and the best dancer I’ve ever seen (after Shakira). This boy has rhythm and seriously is a ridiculously good dancer. I catch him watching a local dance group performing for tourists from afar and he will stand in the dusty street and dance along with them. Someone should put him on tv.

There are four other cousins who also come over almost every night, along with another female cousin and her baby that stops in every now and then. That sums up the ones I see on a daily basis, however, there are many more that live around us.

The Pillar
My grandmother’s children have all moved outside of the village but two of them come back every Sunday for church. Her granddaughters in Nelspruit come on school breaks and are a great source for informing us about family history. From them I learned that many years ago, my kokwana used to help refugees from Zimbabwe or Mozambique and provide them a place to stay in her home. She’s truly a remarkable woman. Since my co-advisor and I are taking up her guest room, when family members come to visit they must bunk up. My 70-year old kokwana let her visiting granddaughters sleep in her bed, while she slept on a foam mattress on the floor… and she was sick at the time. And it doesn’t matter how hard we try, she remakes our bed almost every day. She and I understand each other even if we can’t speak the same language. But we try. We try really hard, in fact. I string together a few words in Shangaan, she strings together a few words in English, and then we resort to gestures!

In Huntington, blood is much thicker than water. But my kokwana and I have formed a special bond. It doesn’t come close to that formed by being family, but at the end of the day we relate because we’re both stubborn, independent women. God knows I can’t wax a floor on my hands and knees or hack away at things with a machete like she can, but I can cook on a fire (as she so surprisingly discovered), and I have the desire to learn everything she’s eager to teach me. Playing with my twin sisters is a bright spot in my day and a stress relief from my students. And hearing my cousins turn down invitations to visit people because they want to spend time with us touches me greatly. When I leave this village in two weeks, I will be quite sad. I found a piece of home in South Africa.

6 thoughts on “Women Rule the Roost

  • Wow — it’s already time to leave?! I guess it is almost August. Time has flown since we met in DC.

    I really loved this post — your descriptions of your family and the images I am creating of the enriching experience you’ve had. I can’t wait to hear more stories in person.

  • The grandmother reminds me of my grandmother same look and all. Ha the left you and the hands of a babysitter now thats funny but at least you can away with a good friend. Love the hip hop jackets!

  • What a beautiful story! I am so happy to hear that you are living with such a wonderful family and it sounds like it is an amazing experience for you.

    It’s hard to make a connection with someone when you don’t speak the same language and it really says a lot about you as a person and about your relationship!

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