We all sat around the table drinking milkshakes from the Khoroni, a local hotel in Thohoyandou, after a long day in the field observing Community Health Workers as they made patient home visits. Everyone was discussing amicably the day’s events and necessary next steps for the project. Eventually the conversation steered away from work and towards activities for the weekend. Awe, a 3rd year Univen nursing student, suddenly became very excited and brought up the pressing need for everyone to go shopping at a local dress shop, Mr. Price. Her eyes gleamed and with careful inflection in her voice, she told us in that moment, “I need to VENDA-lize you guys!” We all stared back, curiously, a bit confused. A short silence was given before we all erupted in laughter. Of course, “VENDA-lize” means “to make someone of the culture of the Venda people, native to Thohoyandou and surrounding area of the Limpopo Province.” Of course. So in honor of Awe’s new meaningful word and offering of cultural inclusion, we have each provided you here with a small paragraph of our most meaningful Venda-lizing moments.
It always amazes me how the idea of a simple hug can truly traverse cultures and languages. The act of enveloping arms for just a brief second, with small but sweet contact, brief phrases of interaction, may seem trivial and may seem inconsequential. However, it is this brief moment that I have found here during my time in South Africa, working with such an amazing and smart team of students, to be indelible and sustaining in a way that I feel connected to my team, to this brief home. The hug makes me feel Venda-lized. I remember first meeting the Univen students we were going to be working with for the next 5 weeks on the Community Health in Limpopo Motivational Interviewing project. We met with a simple hug. From then on, with every project meeting or get-together of any kind, we would all greet each other with that simple hug, that simple connection. I truly felt like I knew each student that much more deeply because we hugged with every meeting. In the United States, hugging with every work meeting is practically unheard of and seems almost unnecessary in order to work effectively as a group, but here in South Africa, community and group sharing is priority, which makes the act of hugging a key link towards integrating all members into that same community and work group. I will carry this sense of brief, profound connection to community with me as I travel back to the United States and engage again in those less physically-engaging work meetings. I will remember how profound that brief touch can be, how it makes one seem connected to many, and how it makes all members feel valued.
When I think of the Venda culture, I think of a strong sense of community and a true camaraderie between those who share this open and loving culture. My Venda-lizing experience thus rests on a moment where I felt somewhat initiated into the Venda life. The Venda have a traditional marriage dance. It involves some stomping feet, some singing, strong arm gestures, lively movement, and- at its core- a man trying to convince a woman to accept his marriage proposal. The dance involves some play-acting with the man trying to first entice the woman to rise off the floor, and then offering her some money pulled from his pockets. The woman generally looks at the gift with some disdain before eventually agreeing. The entire affair is vibrant; full of shouts and claps from the audience. I first saw this dance at the orientation put on by the University of Venda (Univen). It was performed by a dance troop from the university. I realized however, that unlike in the US, where the majority of people do not know dance routines (unless of course the electric slide counts), in the Venda region, almost everyone knew this dance and the accompanying song. Not only did the Univen students pick up immediately what the dance was and spiritedly sang and clapped along when the dance troop performed, several of the students also performed it for us at the talent show organized with our departing braai. I was also able to learn a bit of this dance. In a true Venda-lizing fashion, Univen nursing students Chuchu, Ntombe, and Hope- after learning I had no comparable dance of my own- set out to teach me the steps. At its base is a simple one stomp, two stomp, three stomp, hop. I would not say I mastered the dance, in fact I believe my teachers were a bit dismayed at my innate lack of beat. However, through the instruction and joint dancing, I had a brief glimpse into this unifying community. Being part of the tradition, even for a brief period of time, made me feel Venda-lized.
In terms of Vendalization, I would say that my favorite encounter with this concept was the appreciation that I witnessed with local people whenever their traditional clothing was worn by any of our team members. One example of this was when a member of the UVA team, Dr. Idil Aktan wore her traditional dress that she had bought at the market one day, and multiple people came up to her to talk with her. All of them were thrilled with her new dress. I personally love the colorful pattern of the Venda people and even bought a custom made shirt from a local tailor. When I wore this shirt to our Nurse training event, the amount of compliments, smiles, and even astonished expressions that I received was mutually surprising. Even when making a quick errand to the bank wearing this shirt elicited a genuinely thrilled response from one man while waiting in line. This positive reaction whenever any of our members have made an effort to participate in the dress of the local culture has been consistent throughout our time here, and is always heart warming.
Everyone was resting in the shade by the main road. Despite being winter in South Africa, the sun was still all-powerful. Aptly, this enormous tree served as a meeting point, complete with a bus stop and a small snack stand. While cell phones in Limpopo, South Africa are ubiquitous, with each Community Health Worker carrying 2-3, consistent transportation remains an issue. Thus this large tree acted as our departure and meeting point as we fanned into the community during our daily observations.
My Venda-lizing moment came while waiting for a ride under this tree. Awe, the University of Venda nursing student mentioned above, offered a handful of neon colored food. Never seeing such a snack, I needed further investigation before indulging. Audibly, I smelled the sugar covered sweet popcorn. Having satisfied my analysis with a handful of the neon treats, I heard Awe suddenly exclaim, “You are RUDE!” She described that in Venda it is improper to smell food, which has been offered; rather, one must immediately accept and begin to eat. The only alternative is to refuse and to politely explain that one is full.
Grateful for this tip, I was able avoid similar offensives over the next several weeks. It was surprising that such a small unconscious act could stir such a reaction. While we can do our best at being culturally aware and appropriate, certain things simply need to be experienced. In this exchange, I could not leave without one Virginia-lizing tip for Awe. When Virginia wine tasting one must smell the wine before taking a sip.
“Now repeat after me, darling girl…” says Ms. Patty, one of the housekeepers at our lodge and also one of the most loving, warm people I have ever met, “Ndi matsheloni! It means ‘Good morning!’” “Day macheroni?” I hesitatingly ask, my mouth forming shapes it has never experienced, my brain working to absorb these new sounds. But alas, I quickly realize my first try is a no-go. Ms. Patty says, “No, no, no. Slower now. Ndi… Mat… She… Loni.” After many more repeated attempts and some coaching from my new friend, I finally said it, a proud smile upon my face – “Ndi matsheloni!” While I would still receive corrections on my pronunciation in the weeks to come, it was in this moment that I was finally able to say my very first words in Tshivenda; it was my very first time to be Venda-lized.
Following this encounter, I became fascinated with this new language. I wanted to keep practicing and, once I mastered one phrase, to learn new words, too. Each time I pursued this endeavor of mine, I shared a moment with my teacher—whether he or she was Ms. Patty, one of my Univen colleagues, a patient who we met, or a stranger in the local grocery store—during which I took a little piece of the Tshivenda language, internalized it, and, effectively, experienced Venda-lization once more.
Above all, though, the most rewarding result of this Venda-lization occurred when I was able to put my newly acquired knowledge to use with anyone I met. As soon as I would say, “Aa! Hu ita hani? (Hello! How are you?),” my new friend’s face would light up as clear as day, pleased to find Tshivenda, not English, traveling from my lips to their ears. Instantly, this small moment allowed the two of us to begin from a common ground and, thus, laid the foundation for what was soon to be a newfound camaraderie. In this way, my Venda-lizing moments allowed me not only to gain new syllables, sounds, and words, but also, and most importantly, to make memories with new friends that will last long after our time in South Africa comes to a close.
I found myself holding a huge plastic bag full of at least 15 giant avocados, freshly shaken from the tree, as I walked down a dirt road with two community health workers and a University of Venda student. During a home visit while doing field observations, a patient had asked if I wanted any avocadoes and, at the encouragement of the community health workers, I accepted, expecting to receive one or two. I was ecstatic at the rainfall of avocadoes from the tree. I tried to explain to them that in the U.S., one avocado can easily cost $2. Aghast at American prices, they proceeded to explain how people in their neighborhoods rarely buy avocadoes, oranges, mangoes, papayas, spinach, cabbage, tomatoes, or sweet potatoes, since so many people grow them in their yards. They explained that even if one household doesn’t grow avocadoes (or any other crop), a neighbor surely does, and they’ll have plenty to share. I was struck by the strong web of community in the Venda culture and the pervasiveness of sharing, and wondered how communities in the U.S. would be different if the success and happiness of the community were valued over that of the individual. Venda-lized, I shared my windfall of avocados with the rest of the team.