Home is where the garden is

There are so many things I have wanted to write, could write, but simply lacked the stamina to apply any mental energy here.  Last week was “Back to School” week for all four of us, I’d better face the fact that this summer has come to a close.

Here’s one thing I can say about returning – Home is most certainly where the garden is!  The fact that this year’s bounty is from a garden that was given to us in our own backyard astounds me each time I see and pick from it.  The friends who made this happen know us well.  They understand that nothing could root us more swiftly and deeply than working in, picking, and eating from the garden.  Imagine my reaction upon entering the backyard to find tomatoes (18 plants!), eggplant, broccoli, kale, basil, spinach, cucumber, cauliflower.  “Mom!  Mom!  Someone has planted your garden!” Simon called out as my tears began to flow.


Before we even entered our house there were familiar corners to inspect.  Yes, the squirrels have spared us a few raspberries.  “Look…we’re gonna have a good apple year!”  And even our front door smiled out a welcome.



Those first weeks were a flurry of reunions, many that looked like this:


We indulged in missed foods. Bagels! Smoothies!


We celebrated birthdays and sent Simon off to camp.




The weeks ticked by and here it is September.  How can it be that time moves so swiftly in this place and culture?  I’m fighting it and watching it unfold at the same time.  Nothing reminds me of that more than the launch of a new school year.  Elsa Ruth is a third grader and Simon is braving sixth grade at middle school.



During these past months I would have liked more than anything for time to crawl or even stall!  But it chugs along and I see that time is a puzzle in our friends lives too as people face major events.  We watched as dear friends uprooted and moved far away.  Others hang on every minute as they wait for a clear treatment for their hospitalized child.  It’s enough to make you want to yell “Stop! Stop!”

Just like every year, I am reminded that one remedy for that run-away time feeling is a garden.  With a counter like this and more outside the work required from our hands is comforting, tangible, and slow.  Time – we are eating it, seeing it, working it.  This 2016 harvest is the gift of home, nourishment for the body and soul.








Like just about everything, this year took a village

We are in Cape Town at the end of our June road trip.  Is it allowed to have this much fun?










We even managed to connect with my “shirt-tail relative” Shawn Buck for a day at Cape Point.


Shawn is in his second year serving as a volunteer with the Ubuntu Football Academy.  The program uses soccer, mentoring, and academic support to nurture the next generation of leaders.  Shawn showed us the organizational system used at the house where some boys live while attending school.



It’s our second to the last day before we fly to Pietermaritzburg to gather our belongings before flying back to the U.S.

Three hundred sixty five days we got to do this.  A big long year and the blink of an eye.  How could it be swift and full and gradual, beginning and finishing, all at the same time?  I know we will be contemplating what this year has meant for a long time to come.

We certainly are overdue offering some thank-yous, because like all life events this one took the support of many people!  Specifically we needed: Erin and others who taught my classes at the Fargo Adult Learning Center; Scott’s colleagues who covered his courses, advising, and committees; my Mom who stored our car and kept us going with letters all year; the Keals who sent us off with a Christmas party last June and then managed our house and yard; Scott’s folks who helped make the banking work; teachers, friends, and neighbors who sent news in emails and letters.  Thank you to all of these people and to each of you, readers, who have followed along and commented on our blog this year.

What about the blog?  This is something we have discussed in recent days.  It feels like this space of recording our year should end with our physical departure from South Africa.  But we have also talked about how we will continue to be shaped by what has happened here even after returning to North Dakota.  The “stats” page reports that we’ve accumulated 76 posts, some 123 regular readers in ten countries, and over 350 comments during the last year.  Amazing!  As much as blogging was a means of updating you about our experiences, it was also a centering place for me (and sometimes all of us) to explore and process those experiences.  For that reason, we’ve decided not to conclude things here.  We’ll stay open to the likelihood that stories will continue to unfold and need a place to land.


Weaver Birds

We cannot call ourselves “birders” by any stretch, but we do try to appreciate birds. Anyone visiting South Africa would have to be asleep not to notice some of the gigantic, colorful, fast, loud, or melodious species here!  We’ve made an attempt to learn some bird families and to “check off” certain species while visiting a national park or reserve.

Weavers caught our attention early on when we discovered them along the route we drive to school each morning.


The males work furiously upside down, tucking and pulling, as they weave these hanging nests.  We’re told that the females select a mate based on the quality of his nest building.  Apparently females sometimes bite the unacceptable nests off and all that work goes falling to the ground.



We thought the above weaver species was cool enough, but then learned about the “Sociable Weavers” which live in groups.  We first came across their nests during the drive toward the Kalahari Desert last week.  It was a long haul, beautiful (or to some, boring) in a wide-open and rugged sort of way.


Imagine our delight when we discovered these enormous creations clinging to the electrical poles along a certain stretch.


We stopped to get a closer look and discovered hundreds of individual entrances facing the bottom – an apartment building for birds!



I think it’s funny that we didn’t pay much attention to the actual birds that use these.  Unlike the beautiful yellow weavers above, the Sociable Weavers are small, brown (black?), and very fast as they zoom in and out.  You can’t believe the size of some of their nests!  Once inside Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (probably familiar to you as The Kalahari), we found more nests on trees.  Sometimes the weight caused trees to split in half or lose a branch.



This one looks like a giant sheep dog piñata!


Here are several “growing” on a windmill and providing a nice perch for a pair of Pale Chanting Goshawks.


I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t have bothered to identify this other bird if we hadn’t first gotten hooked on the weavers.  Is there such a thing as a “gateway species” that draws new birders in?  Perhaps we’ve found ours!

We’re not the only ones they’ve intrigued.  It’s easy to see how the architecture of weaver birds inspired landscape artists at the Company’s Garden in Cape Town.




This is what novice birders we are… we don’t even know if there are weaver species in North Dakota.  Who knows if birds will continue to capture our attention once we’re home in a couple of weeks.  I do know that I’d like to have one of these nests though!





Humans – old and recent history in South Africa

We’re two weeks into our June road trip that will round out our year here.  Today is a “down day” in the middle of the Karoo; think Texas, only this is “lamb country” with butcheries on every block.  While waiting for laundry to dry and looking for a dentist, we’re taking some time to regroup.  I’m sorting photos of recent days, so I’ll share some of what we’ve seen so far.

We started in Johannesburg, a sprawling mega-city with a reputation for crime and little to see.  We learned it’s one of the only cities in the world that is not located on a water source.  Its birth and explosive growth resulted from the discovery of gold in the area.  Even though gold is not mined there now, that history is evident in the enormous sand tailings around the outskirts of town.


We spent our first day at the Cradle of Humankind, a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its role in unfolding the story of human evolution.



This is the location for some of the most important discoveries about human origins.



We enjoyed the exhibits as well as observing scientists at work on real specimens.


We also visited the nearby Sterkfontein caves which turned up this discovery in 1947.


Or you may remember the announcement two years ago of the new species Homo Naledi, discovered in the area by this team of women.  (Photo is by John Hawkes, from The Atlantic article about them.)

Simon and Elsa Ruth had never been in a cave before.


The guide emphasized how challenging it would be descending 60m underground, but with the steps, lighting, and clear pathways we decided we had it pretty easy comparatively!

Our first day was a day of wonder, marveling about how our species evolved and all that is understood about that process.  And our second day provoked a different kind of wonder, puzzlement really, about how it is possible that humans can be capable of such cruelty and ignorance.  We spent Day 2 in Soweto where we gained a better understanding of life under apartheid and how that system was ultimately dismantled.  The content at the Apartheid Museum was pretty challenging and we all absorbed it on different levels.



What would it have felt like to see these vehicles patrolling the neighborhood, or to be the men inside?


I especially enjoyed learning more about the first democratic elections in 1994, one of the few historical events from South Africa that I can place in my own memory timeline.  I remember seeing the photos of snaking lines of people waiting to cast their votes and the news that Nelson Mandela had been elected.  What I did not know was that there had been so many parties on the ballot – 18 of them!  The sense of possibility and participation must have been so inspiring.


Who knew there was even a Soccer Party!?  I like their acronym which stood for, “Sports Organization for Collective Contributions and Equal Rights.”


There was also one party running a paired team.  I would love to learn more about these two individuals.


Another site in Soweto was the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum.  It tells the difficult story of Pieterson’s killing at age 12 by police, along with many other students who were protesting the required use of Afrikaans in schools.  The famous photograph of his sister and friend carrying his body rallied people around the world and fueled the subsequent rioting throughout S.A.


In fact, that event occurred 40 years ago today; June 16th is now a public holiday known as “Youth Day.”

“Heavy-duty” pretty much sums up the day in Soweto- a lot to take in and react to.  There were lighter moments though – art tucked in here and there personalizing the spaces.



And many school children were out and about on field trips.  Here a group watches street performers outside the home that belonged to Mandela’s family.


The Orlando Towers are a site to behold.  Visible from Soweto, these towers were part of a station that supplied power to white neighborhoods during Apartheid (while Soweto went without).


Today they are painted with colorful murals and you can watch the adventurous bungee jump from the middle.






We’ve had a folder called “Signs” since early in our year.  Time’s about up, so I’d better showcase some of these gems!  They fall into several categories.

Driving Signs.  Mostly these are hard to capture, because…duh, we’re driving when we see them.  But here are three good ones that can cause a driver to panic or laugh depending on one’s mood.




And then there’s this one, spotted at a parking lot.


The local newspapers put up daily headlines on placards along the road.  They play on people’s fears to sell these papers.  There are far too many headlines that are sensationalized and inappropriate for all ages, in my opinion.  But sometimes we encounter signs that make us laugh; it’s great fun just to wonder about the stories behind them.  The Daily Sun seems to have a theme:




And this one could sum up much of history, don’t you think?


Danger and warning signs are not quite as abundant as in the U.S.  Even so, there are plenty to keep you on the alert!




We only ever saw black flags flying on this beach.  Mildly comforting.


sign danger stairs

Some people try to lighten things by highlighting their advanced security systems and guard dogs.  Pretty tasteless, if you ask me.


In a category all its own has to be this warning sign:


With this many dangers, it’s a wonder they built a lookout here.  Or maybe they meant “Look out!”


There are often creative takes on bathroom signs.



I don’t believe this is a typo…but then again, I’m not sure what’s the point of this misspelling.


Other signs are reminders of South Africa’s complicated and difficult history.




This sign shows an impressive commitment to honoring at least seven of the eleven official languages of South Africa.


And this last sign is one example of a whole family of advertising that comes in the form of placards on buildings, handouts at street corners, and fliers tucked under windshield wipers.  In case you are wondering, a “tokoloshe” in Zulu culture is an evil spirit sent to you by an enemy to cause mishcief or worse.