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Surveys and speeches

We walked from house to house, knocking on doors and explaining ourselves. Our purpose was to determine how much water was being wasted due to dripping faucets—an important, if mundane, task we were charged with by the local municipality.

Our project was simple enough to explain but, as a foreigner, my presence immediately created interest and distraction. While we spent a fair amount of time clarifying my unlikely presence in the township of Nkowankowa, we also got permission to look at a lot of faucets.

My colleague was a local gentleman who went by the name Oros, named after the tasty orange-flavored drink you mix with water, popular in South Africa. I don’t remember why he adopted this moniker, but he did bear a certain resemblance to the happy, orange mascot on the bottle. Together, we battled the sun on a daily basis, wiping away sweat and seeking shade whenever possible. On one day, the intense heat of the sun was obscured by clouds and the air became heavy and damp. As an earthy petrichor permeated the air and rain began to fall, we sought shelter. Luckily enough, we spotted a marching band filing into a community center down the road. We immediately followed them in.

Once inside, we saw hundreds of people sitting in folding chairs in front of a stage. I was quickly greeted by an enthusiastic woman wearing a brightly-colored dress and an elaborate duku on her head. She asked who I was, and I went through my standard explanation of being an American volunteer, studying water usage, etc. Her eyes lit up and she led us on stage, offering us two seats at the table facing out to the rest of the audience.

In a moment of panic I looked back at Oros and saw that he was glad-handing various personages, and acting as if it made perfect sense for us to sit on stage with the other VIPs presiding over an event that we knew nothing about. As I slid into my seat, I noticed silverware and a plate, a program, and—troublingly—a microphone.

Immediately, the event began. There was singing and dancing and speeches from different community stakeholders. The aforementioned marching band gave an impressive, and incredibly loud, performance. This was followed by more singing and dancing, and then more speeches. As the proceedings developed, I watched a dozen women rushing around cooking in the back of the building. Like most events in South Africa, food is an essential and expected component. And after a long day, the prospect of a meal was very welcome indeed.

But then, the speeches migrated to the stage. They started stage left, and worked their way inexorably towards my seat. Everyone at the VIP table seemed to be there in some capacity with the government—elected officials who knew what to say at these sorts of things. Since everyone up to this point had been speaking in Xitsonga, I remained ignorant as to the purpose of the event. I was going to have to wing it.

As I listened to the speeches preceding my own, and the resulting laughter and applause, I wracked my brain. What do you say when you have nothing to say? Will my fraudulent participation be revealed? The person before me wrapped up her speech and sat down just as I realized that I hadn’t even thought of an opening line. I stood up, apologized for only being able to speak English, and briefly explained myself in general terms. At a loss of anything else to say, I then expressed my deep—and genuine—appreciation for the hospitality I had received. Finally, I bowed slightly to the MC, and took my seat.

As minimal as my performance was, it was received warmly. I even got some ululations from the assemblage. Oros took my lead and gave an even shorter speech.

With the program over, the food came out. A massive plate of meats, stews, and rice found its way to me and I happily devoured it. After thanking everyone we could, Oros and I slipped outside and surveyed the damp landscape. The rain was finished, and we went back to knocking on doors.

Learn to say this one just right, and you'll have the perfect word for that soft and special smell.

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