It has been rather quiet around the office for me since Ncamsile and I resolved the abuse case earlier this week. Sometimes I look up from my computer screen and survey the room, looking at the other interns, who all look very busy, and I wonder what they are working on. So much of what Ncamsile and I do is purely fieldwork, so when I’m in the office, I feel like I should be doing more. I’ve written some reports of case notes, meetings and workshops I have attended so far, but there’s no ongoing project in the office for me to work on at the moment. I will have to talk to Mandla and ask him to assign me some more work. I have mainly been reading a big stack of reports on child rights, conventions held in the region on HIV/AIDS, etc. during the down time.
I was in the kitchen yesterday, taking a tea break from my “work,” and Andile came in and started making a cup for himself.
“So what kinds of things do you like to do?” Andile asked me as he stirred cream and sugar into his cup of tea.
“I like to do all kinds of things,” I said.
“Like what?” he asked.
“Well, I like to write.”
“Ah!” he said with some excitement. “That makes two of us then. But I don’t have one now. My family gave one to me when I was younger, but now I don’t have it. Just a car.”
I stared at him for a minute and then asked him what he meant.
He said, “Well, I got my first motorbike when I was very young, maybe when I was 16, but I don’t have it anymore.”
“Oh,” I said, “I meant that I like to write,” using my hand to mimic scribbling in the air.
“Oh…” he said, trailing off. “I don’t really like to write. I like to ride.” And then we each took a sip of our tea and looked at different places on the wall.
“I like poetry,” he ventured hopefully a minute later.
“Poetry! Oh, that’s good,” I said.
“Do you like poetry?” he asked.
“Um, well, I guess I’m more of a prose kind of girl,” I replied. “I’ve never really been very good at understanding poetry.”
“Ah, come on,” he said. “You must just decide to understand it. Then you will be fine. Have you ever been on a motorbike before?”
“No, I actually never have!” I said.
“Oh, come on! Come on. You haven’t been on a motorbike? Come ON.”
I love conversations like this because I feel simultaneously like a player in the dialogue and also like the suppressed laugh track – the audience who is watching and sees the ridiculous elements of the interaction with a slightly distanced clarity. We chatted in the kitchen for a while longer before returning to our desks, and I learned some new siSwati words from him. I can now say “cool” and “I’m just chillin’.” Yeah.
Yesterday morning, I came into the dining room and started pouring boiling water into one of the French presses. Celiwe came in wearing her usual skirt, tennis shoes, worn fleece jacket, and scarf with her arms crossed and pressed against her chest and said, “Eesh! It is cold, Siphiwe.” I told her she should look for some leggings to wear under her skirt, and showed her the ones I was wearing under my pants. “Those are nice, Siphiwe. Where did you get them?” I told her I got them in the U.S. but that I bet she could find them here. I said I had two pairs, and that I would offer her a pair, but that it would almost definitely be too short for her. After breakfast, as I was gathering my things in my room, she knocked on my door and called out, “Sisi Siphiwe! Are you in there?” I opened the door and she said, “I wanted to catch you before you go to work so I can get the leggings you promised me.” My face flushed and I thought back to the conversation and tried to figure out what I had said that made her think I had a pair of leggings for her, and I said, “Oh, I’m so sorry sisi, but I don’t think I have any that will fit you; they’re all too short.” I got out my extra pair and showed her, and her face fell as she held them up in front of her, and she said, “Oh, they are too small. Maybe if they were large or XL… Ok, thank you anyway, sisi,” and she walked back to the main building. So during my lunch break, I went shopping. I had been planning to go shopping for the last few days because it is really, really cold here and I don’t have a coat with me, but now I was on a secondary mission to find some leggings. I got really lucky at a store called Mr. Price and found not only a coat that didn’t look terrible on me for about $12, but also bought the last two pairs of large and XL leggings that they had in stock. The next morning, I presented a pair to Celiwe, who was standing in the dining hall in exactly the same pose as the day before, shivering in between setting placemats on the tables, and her face lit up with delight. She disappeared immediately into one of the empty rooms and emerged a minute later sporting her new leggings under her skirt, with her hot pink socks rolled up over the bottoms. “Oh, I am warm today, sisi,” she said happily. I brought the other pair into the kitchen and gave them to Sindi, who thanked me and smiled, holding them up to look at them. Antonio looked over from doing dishes at the sink and said with fake consternation, “Siphiwe, when are you bringing me some leggings?”
I have been using the guest house kitchen a lot lately to cook dinner for myself. I was living primarily on rice cakes and peanut butter for the first few weeks, and don’t get me wrong – I’m not complaining, because peanut butter is one of my favorite things on this planet. But now I’ve graduated to making curries, sautéed vegetables, steamed rice, and roasted squash for my dinners, and the kitchen staff has observed each effort with great interest. Earlier this week, I removed a bag of butternut squash from the refrigerator and set it on the counter with a few apples and an onion. I started slicing the onion and arranged it in the bottom of a pan, and then started peeling and chopping the apples. Justice came and stood next to me silently, watching me methodically chop everything into small pieces and thoughtfully murmuring, “hmmmm” every few minutes. I put it all in the baking dish together, drizzled some olive oil over the whole thing, and then sprinkled a little brown sugar, rosemary, thyme, sage, basil, and oregano, covered it with foil, and let it bake slowly in the oven. I ate some later after it had been chilled in the fridge, and I offered Justice a taste. He looked at it warily and remarked that it was probably too sweet because of the brown sugar, but he held out his hand anyway, and I spooned some of the squash into his cupped palm. He ate it, widened his eyes, and said, “Ah! That is very nice, Siphiwe. How did you do this?” He got out a piece of paper and said, “Can you write down for me? I want to surprise my family with this. Also please write the recipe for the cake you made.” I wrote down roughly what I had done to make each one, and he folded it carefully and slipped it into his pocket before picking up the tray of tea he was delivering to one of the rooms.
Last night, I brought my little photo album into the kitchen and showed Justice, Celiwe, Antonio, Jose, and Minjeon (it’s pronounced like “minion,” amazingly) some pictures of my family and friends. They came to the counter to look, huddling around me and peering over my shoulders as I turned the pages. “That’s my Gogo,” I said, pointing to the first picture. Justice studied her for a minute and said, “Oh, she look like she is very nice. You can tell that she is a very beautiful woman.” I looked at the photo, which was of my Nana sitting at a table with her hands folded under her chin and her head slightly tilted to the side, looking at the camera as if she loved it unconditionally, like she does everything else, and I said, “Yes, she is a very beautiful woman.”
Looking at the rest of the pictures turned into a very amusing game of “Which one is Siphiwe?” They had to study each picture closely and at length to distinguish me from the other people in the photos. It seemed to be particularly difficult for them when a female had short hair because anyone with short hair was immediately classified as one of my male relatives, no matter how obviously feminine their facial features and body.
A picture of me and my two sisters came first. “You are this one, I found you, Siphiwe!” said Justice.
“No, that’s my youngest sister, Sophie,” I said, smiling.
“Oh, there you are,” he corrected himself.
“Actually, that’s my other sister, Elsa. I’m the one at the end there.”
“Eesh! But you look like a Gogo (grandmother) there, Siphiwe. So you are three in your family?”
I flipped through the album and found a picture of my brother to show them the fourth sibling, and Jose said, “Ach! Why is his hair longer than yours?”
“I don’t know, he just likes it like that,” I replied, smiling inwardly at what Michael would think of the conversation he’s had with so many people spanning continents like that.
Next came a photo of me and Dezorie, my Little Sister, sitting in the stands at a Rams game in St. Louis.
“Ah! This is in Swaziland. That is a Swazi girl,” said Jose.
“No, she’s American! She’s my Little Sister,” I said, and explained what the Big Brothers Big Sisters program is.
“But she look older than you, Siphiwe,” Justice remarked.
“I know,” I replied. “She looks like the Big Sister, even though I’m 10 years older than she is.”
The next page showed my father smiling up at us at one of our family gatherings with a piece of our family’s special apricot cheesecake in front of him. “That’s my father,” I said.
“Ehhhh, that is your Babe…? He look Japanese or something,” said Justice, and laughed himself silly.
“He like to eat cake!” chimed in Minjeon, noticing the half-eaten cheesecake in the picture.
“Yes,” I agreed. “He likes cake.”
When he saw the next photo, Jose said proudly, “I found Siphiwe! You are in the middle. Who are these people with you?”
“Those are some friends of mine from Germany,” I said.
“You are fatter in this picture,” observed Justice. “Why you were so fat? You used eat too much cake then!”
We continued to make our way through the dozens of pictures I brought with me, and the rest of the conversation pretty much continued on in the same fashion.  I only wish I had brought a pen and paper to write down all of the hilarious commentary I received in its entirety.
Ncamsile and I spent most of Tuesday wondering about how things were going with the girl we had brought back to her family, and so we called the school and asked them to send the girl down to our office at lunch so we could talk to her. She came in and immediately, I noticed a change in her appearance. It wasn’t just the fact that she had shaved all of her hair off and that, without the frame of the braids that had been woven tightly against her scalp the day before, her face looked more mature and lovely. It was more than that. She looked happy. A half-smile played on her lips the entire time she was in the office. It was the first time I had seen her look happy coming into our office. She spoke with Ncamsile for a few minutes, and then she came over to my cubicle and, without a word, leaned down and gave me a big hug. She pulled back with that shy smile on her face, and I asked her how things were going at home since she had been back. “Everything is fine,” she said. “I feel very welcome there. I am very happy to be home again.” I said that I was very glad to hear that, and she said, “Thank you for all of your help, Siphiwe. Can I still come back on Friday to talk to you in counseling?” “Absolutely,” I said, and we chatted a little while longer over some dried mango slices I had at my desk (which she loved).
Dealing with this case has been a very good learning experience for me. I have been looking at it through a definitely American cultural lens, thinking of it in terms of child rights and foster care and adoption, and how in my mind, the goal should be to remove children from abusive homes in America. Even though I listened to everything Ncamsile told me about how abuse cases are handled here, there was something in me that was strongly resistant to the idea that returning the child to an abusive home is ever a good idea. It’s still very early for this girl’s case, and only time will tell if it was the right solution, but in seeing how genuinely happy she was to be back with her family, and how much more at ease she appeared in general, I think I see the gray area between mine and Ncamsile’s respective positions on the issue a little better now.