Friday, December 23, 2011

Annual Kerr Christmas Letter

Wow? Is it really that time of the year for the annual Kerr Christmas letter? It must be because there are three dozen cookies and baklava cooling on my kitchen table. That can only mean one thing. I've totally given up on good nutrition. It's Christmas time!

So what happened this year in Kerrville?

In January, Buttercup placed second in a spelling bee having only practiced for three weeks. I'm kind of glad she didn't get first because the girl who did spent three months practicing. The winner might have blown a gasket had she been beaten by Buttercup's three weeks of practice. Regardless, we were quite proud of her.

In February, Bo Hunkmeister and my dad took the girls to a Father Daughter dance with the local homeschooling group. In order to teach the girls the basics of gettin' yer groove on, we held a family dance party cueing up some Bee Gees, Jackson Five and, of course, C + C Music Factory. It was here that we learned Gummi was born with only one dance move, but W. Bear is double jointed in every joint in his body.

April was a big adventure for the girls as they traveled by themselves to San Francisco to see Grandma Barbara and Grandpa Richard. I've only recently recovered from letting my little babies get on a plane to fly across the country. Despite mom's neurosis, the girls had a great time. They saw all the sights, met family and had dim sum!

In the summer, Bo Hunkmeister went and did piratey things at Gaspee Days in Warwick, RI. Gaspee Days celebrates the Revolutionary War burning of the British schooner Gaspee, but more importantly, that we Rhode Islanders stuck it to The Man before Boston did. The yearly event culminates with burning the Gaspee in effigy in the harbor. I love a town that celebrates independence each year with pirates and burning effigies.

In August, the Bo and I celebrated 20 years of marital bliss by going on an overnight trip. Not content to let us have all the fun ourselves, my parents (the babysitters), made friends with the neighbor's guests from Holland (still with me?) and had dinner parties with them. There were rumors of an epic water fight and the weekend culminated in taking said neighbor's guests to Iggy's for clamcakes and doughboys. The Dutch visitors have since returned to Holland and I believe have taken up the vegetarian lifestyle in an effort to purge all that fried food from their bodies.
Like I said...rumors.

There was also the "S'more Incident" but we won't bring that up again.
Mistakes were made.

In September, we had a lovely visit from Grandpa Michael and Grandma Peggy. A wonderful, relaxing time was spent by the water near picturesque Wickford Village. The grandparents spoiled the kids, and best of all, I didn't have to cook for a week! (Come again soon, guys. Really, anytime.)

Bo went to the Newfangled retreat in October to eat fabulous food and avoid games of RISK (the boss will do ANYTHING to gain Kamchatka). Meanwhile, in an effort to gain a little more culture and refinement, the kids and I went to New York to do a little Shakespeare with my friend Lisa. This did nothing to lessen the burp and fart jokes from the boys. Better luck next time, eh Lisa?

Oh and Hurricane Irene? How could I could I forget kickin' it Laura Ingalls style? We were without lights for four days, but I'm not complaining because I got a sparkling clean refrigerator out of the deal. It was actually a wonderful experience in learning what we could live without and improvisational dinners with neighbors. 
No hurricane's gonna cramp our fun!

Justin is still working for Newfangled Web Factory. It is quite possibly the coolest place on earth and that's just not because they bought me a flourless chocolate raspberry torte.

Me, I'm still cookin', writin', and cookin' some more.

Princess Buttercup is still taking pictures, but her current obsession is the Beatles. That's her picture at the top getting her brothers to re-enact Abbey Road. She's also taken up playing guitar.

In April, Princess Git Er Done auditioned for the RI Youth Philharmonic and was admitted! In between playing violin, she makes earrings and uses her camera to make stop motion Lego videos.

W. Bear is the latest member of the family to discover photography. Boy are we glad for the digital age. 435 photos on film would have been really expensive to develop. W. Bear is also a serious Lego devotee.

Tater has moved to an upper bunk, learned to let go of the side of the pool and is also a major Lego devotee. It seems to be epidemic here.

This is Baby in one of his non-hospital pictures. He's learning to read this year. Maybe we can teach him drive so he can take himself to the hospital.

Turning the cute up to 11!
And last, but certaintly not least, Gummi! His latest fascination is puzzles, announcing he's up from his nap and charming everyone he meets.

So from all of us to all of yours, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah and best wishes for a wonderful New Year!

Friday, December 02, 2011

Life After University

Part 8: The new decade was to bring significant changes in South Africa. The powder keg that was South African race relations seemed on the verge of exploding at any minute. Despite the regular violence and protests, life for many South Africans continued as 'normal' That is, if normal was regular bomb threats. While it might seem as if the release of Mandela would have diffused the powder keg, if anything, politics got more tumultuous as various groups jockeyed for positions of power in the new South Africa. But again, for most white South Africans, amidst what would seem like chaos to others, life went on as if everything was 'normal'

Ian and I graduated from Rhodes University at the end of 1989. I had wanted to pursue a master’s degree in psychology and my grades were good enough, but my advisors at Rhodes told me to get some life experience first. Like most students, I had gone to university straight out of high school. It made sense that before I got my master's and started counseling people, I had some practical life experience. So I moved back to Benoni near Johannesburg and lived with my mom and sisters.

Since I had received a government scholarship to go to Rhodes, I re-paid it by working for the Department of Home Affairs in their human resources department. My job was in Pretoria, the administrative capital of South Africa, an hour north of Benoni. Everyday I car pooled with Ian and two other friends from Benoni to Pretoria and back. Back then, with the Nationalist Party still in the majority, government personnel were predominantly white; Afrikaans speaking whites to be more specific. There was an Indian girl and myself who were the only English speaking people in our entire human resources department.

It was a tumultuous time not only for the country but for me personally. Ian and I had been dating since high school and all throughout university. I even switched universities to be with him. Yet in 1989 we started to question whether we should stay together. In my own family, after twenty three years of marriage, my parents decided to divorce after struggling in their own relationship.

In February of 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison. I was still working for the government and while I don’t remember the actual day itself, during the weeks before and after, I remember the reactions around me at work. A lot of people were in fear of losing their jobs because of what they thought was an impending affirmative action plan. The more racist Afrikaners were saying, "I will never work for a kaffir!" (extreme racist term) or “If a black man comes in here and has to work, I’m leaving!” or “There’s no way I'm working next to a black man.”

I want to point out that I also met some Afrikaners who were liberal minded. I remember one lady in particular, she was excited. She told me, “I can’t wait for the changes, you know? I almost ashamed to be Afrikaans...” But then, given the environment we were in, she also said to me don’t say this out loud, don’t let everybody know, and I knew what she was talking about.

I do remember seeing in the news on TV the jubilation around the country by the Xhosa people. There was dancing in the streets and massive gatherings of people wherever Mandela went. I remember how he always wore those floral shirts, always waving at people and always smiling.

In my circle of friends and family at that time, including my Methodist church, there was great excitement and a readiness to get voting. It was almost surreal in a way. Looking back I do not think I realized just how significant these events were. We were all sick of the violence, the unrest, the sanctions and the negative view of the world. We wanted peace and we knew that the National party was coming to an end.

While most South Africans, white and black, were jubilant at Mandela’s release, there was an underlying fear of what it meant for the country. There had been so much violence and bloodshed, everyone was pretty convinced that civil war was imminent, and, contrary to what the world thought, Mandela’s release did not bring immediate peace. There would be four long hard years of negotiations amidst more violence and protest before South Africans elected a new, truly democratic government.

Towards the end of 1990, I announced to my father that I wanted to work for South African Airways. Take aback, he said, "You have a degree. Why are you going to do that?" I told him, "Because I want to fly, I want to travel some more." I still wanted to become a psychologist, but since my advisors said I needed life experience, I thought travel would be a great way to do it. I applied to South African Airways in October of that year and started working for them as a flight attendant in December.

In April 1991, the plane I was on had just started backing out of the gate when the captain announced that we had to go back and evacuate the plane. Apparently there was a bomb threat, which, in South Africa at that time, was a weekly event. Having been with South Africa Airways for a few months by then, I was used to the announcement. We went back to the gate so the authorities could search our luggage. As we helped the passengers disembark to a secluded area, in the midst of a large group of Chinese tourists, I saw Nelson Mandela! Oddly enough, my first thought was, 'How do these Chinese tourists know who he is?' I stood off to the side watching the Chinese take all these pictures of him. Then my boss said to me, "Can you make Mr. Mandela a cup of tea?" I couldn’t believe it. While I was so nervous, I was determined to shake his hand and tell him that I admired him. And that’s what I did. I gave him his tea and shook his hand. To this day, I remember what his hand felt like. I said to him, "I think you're amazing." Then I asked him to sign my appointment book, on the date of our flight, and he signed it simply, “Mandela.” I doubt I will ever part with that book.

After graduation, Ian worked for the Department of Foreign Affairs. Since his area of study at university was international affairs, he applied for a position in the diplomatic corp. Given my love of travel, even with our rocky relationship, I told him in no uncertain terms that he was not going to abroad without me. As circumstances would have it, Ian got a position at the United Nations in New York City. I was so excited to realize my dream of returning to the US. However, in order for me to join Ian in New York, we needed to be married.

On hearing the news of our engagement and impending departure, my parents were flabbergasted. My mom said to me afterwards, "You left at 18 and you never came back." As I said before, we were a close family. It was kind of like a sad, heaviness for her, to lose her girl to America.

Ian and I were married in June 1991 at the Benoni Country Club. Ours was a very elaborate wedding with many people because Ian’s dad the mayor of Benoni. Flora, a former maid of my family, and her son, John, were invited. As a result, some of my conservative Afrikaner uncles did not attend the wedding. This incident was a mirror of what was going on in South Africa; huge changes that many had a hard time coming to terms with. Interestingly enough, despite their prejudice against black South Africans, my Afrikaner relatives never considered leaving the country despite the inevitable power shift from white Afrikaner to black South Africans.

We honeymooned at Gold Reef City, a resort built around an old gold mine near Johannesburg. Then we lived with Ian's dad and his dad’s wife for three weeks while we got ready for our three year overseas assignment.

The South African government did little to prepare us for this diplomatic corp life. While Ian had some political and technical orientation, mine was simply conversations with other wives in the corp who had already completed a few overseas postings. The only formal training I remember was around dinner protocol; who sits where, how you set the table, and not leaving the party before your own ambassador leaves. Otherwise my orientation into this new life was just what I could glean from my conversations with the other wives, and those conversations pretty much revolved around finding apartments and furniture once we arrived at our posting.

Even though I had been to the US before, I was still excited about going abroad again. And just like when I left for my AFS year in North Carolina, all of our family and friends were at the airport to see us off, excited for us, our new life and the adventure that lay ahead of us. I mean, the whole thing was like a fairy tale. Ian and I were married in big wedding and now we were traveling to the United States. And it wasn’t just to New York; we were going into the diplomatic corp. Who knew what other international postings lay ahead for us? So we had this big glamorous career ahead of us and I was very excited.

Friday, September 30, 2011

They Call Me Mister Moneypenny

As is the case with most of these emergency rooms visits, I had plans for a nice quiet evening. The little boys were in bed, the older boys engrossed in Lego-land, and the girls and I were going to snuggle on my bed and watch a classic movie.

Now, every evening after the little boys go to bed, I expect a certain amount of "I need to go potty!" and "I need a drink!" and "Dad didn't give me a hug!" sort of shenanigans.

But this evening we had an entirely new pronouncement.
Baby came out and announced, "I accidentally swallowed a penny."
"What?" I said.
"I accidentally swallowed a penny. Pennies don't taste good."
"Why did you swallow a penny?" I asked.
"Because I didn't want it on my bed," he said.

At this point, I was at a loss for words and a rush of thoughts railroaded through my head:
Did he really eat a penny? Is there any harm in swallowing a penny? Should I just tell him to stop eating money and go to bed? What if he gets really sick from swallowing the penny? I'm not going to watch my movie, am I? Why the heck did he swallow a penny? What is wrong with that boy? Should I call the doctor or just Google this?

I decided to call the doctor to avoid finding out that the internet was wrong at 2:30 in the morning.

The pediatrician informed me that of all the coins Baby could swallow, pennies were the worst. I told him I expect no less of Baby than full throttle. After an awkward pause, he told me his concern was that the minerals in the penny could chemically react with whatever is in Baby's stomach and start causing ulcers. With the heavy sigh of a mom giving up her quiet evening, I told him I would take Baby into the emergency room.

Now let me pause to give you a little perspective here. In my 29+ years (42 for those who know me well), I have been to the emergency room twice. Just two times. In Baby's five years, he's been three times. Doing the math, that means I will visit the ER many, many, many more times before this kid moves out of my house. I would like to take this opportunity now to suggest to Hasbro Children's Hospital a call ahead seating arrangement for frequent patrons such as myself.

Anyway, bless their hearts, my girls, known as "Can!" and "Do!", sprung into action helping me prepare for an ER visit. As a seasoned veteran, unless someone is coding on the floor, I've learned to slow down and pack some essentials for a visit to the ER. The girls dressed Baby and got me some cash. Meanwhile I packed snacks, water and that ER must have, a good book. Then we headed out.

We got to the ER at 8:15 pm. We did triage, we did registration and then we settled in for a long wait. After a while, we were called in for x-rays whereupon Baby, through his extensive questioning of the technician, managed to earn his associate's degree in radiology. Then I heard the technician say, "Yup, there it is." Ever have one of those moments were you experience that perverse relief of "Oh good they found it, so I didn't come down here to find out Baby was pulling my leg."?

Having the pictures they needed, we were ushered out to the lobby to wait for the doctor. Here Baby asked me, "Can I have a penny?"
"A penny," he said, "I want a penny."
"WHY? Are you hungry?"
"No, I want to do a magic trick."
"NO! You are not getting a penny!! I will never give you a penny! From here on out, all your financial affairs will have to be conducted with bills or coins larger than a half dollar!"
"Ok," he said.

Soon we were called in to speak with the doctor. He showed us Baby's x-ray with the "foreign object" noting that the size of said object was "consistent with a coin". This was a good thing according to him, and here's why: (you mommies of orally fixated kids might want to take note) small coins are generally not a problem. It's those little tablet batteries that you find in those noisy Oriental Trading toys that are. If one of those bad boys gets swallowed, you have three hours to get it out. As the doctor told me, "It's one of those all hands on deck kind of emergencies." So it was important to note on the x-ray that the size of the object was coin size and not battery size. I made a mental note to clean my house of any and all tablet batteries lest Baby get any ideas.

As far as we were concerned, the doctor told us that since the penny had gone down smoothly, all we had to do was to let Baby poop it out. We didn't even need to keep an eye out that it had passed. I expressed my gratitude to the doctor for being relieved of poop surveillance for the next few days. After an awkward pause, he told Baby that the only thing he should put in his mouth was food.

Baby acknowledge this by saying, "Yes, food and whippits."

The doctor looked at me and I sheepishly told him that in our house, Bo sprays the whipped cream directly into the kids' mouths and that is what the kids call whippits. I assured him that they were in no way doing inhalants, in addition to eating money. It's the grace of God the man didn't call child protective services at that point.

Lest you think I'm one of those cynical mommy bloggers, I'd like to take this moment to give thanks here. If that's not your thing, scroll down to the end of the page.
I'm thankful that pennies are really harmless.
I'm thankful for 24/7 access to my personal pediatrician.
I'm thankful for access to 24/7 quality health care.
I'm thankful for helpful daughters and a husband who understands mommy hormones.

So we got home at 11:00 pm tired, but with some really cool pictures of Baby's innards. While the pictures show the coin in his belly, they do not show what makes him tick. The best part though, was the next morning when we all got the opportunity to exercise our pun and joke talents” "Hey Copperhead, whaddya want for breakfast?" "Excuse Mr. Moneypenny, please pass the napkins." and so on and so forth. Feel free to contribute, I think it would make a nice scrapbook page in Baby's book.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

How to Make StroopWafels


for the cookie:
4 cups all purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoon cinnamon
½ cup sugar
1 cup butter (2 sticks)
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ cup warm water
2 teaspoons yeast

for the syrup:
1 cup butter (2 sticks)
1 ½ light brown sugar
6 tablespoons corn syrup

pizzelle/ice cream cone maker
stand mixer (optional)

  1. Become friendly with your Dutch neighbor. Be so neighborly that she returns from her visits to Holland with “a little something called Stroopwafels”
  2. Become immediately infatuated with these little morsels of heaven on earth.
  3. Lament the fact that your other neighbor found some at Aldi’s, but Aldi’s stopped carrying them by the time you got there. Find some at Starbucks and preach a small sermon about why you shouldn’t have to pay so much money at Starbucks for such an simple cookie.
  4. Obsess with your other neighbor about how to purchase/make/otherwise acquire Stroopwafels. Meanwhile, continue to ingratiate yourself to the Dutch neighbor so she will keep your supply of Stroopwafels going.
  5. Go on an anniversary trip with your husband that involves going to many yard sales. Ignore all the comments about, “Really? That’s the most romantic thing you guys could think of?”
  6. Find a pizzelle maker for $2 and literally see the culinary possibilities unfurl before your eyes. Race home to try that bad boy out.
  7. To make the cookie dough, stir yeast into ½ cup warm water.
  8. When yeast dissolves, mix with eggs, sugar and vanilla.
  9. Mix flour, salt and cinnamon in a bowl. Cut in butter as you would with a pie crust. Realize how much better this will be than pie crust.
  10. Attach dough hook to stand mixer. Praise God for the 4,567th time for the woman who sold it to you for $10.
  11. With flour in bowl, mix in egg/yeast mixture and put mixer on kneading speed until cohesive ball is formed.
  12. Realize that the dough hook is still hitting the bottom of the bowl. Curse yourself that you still haven’t looked on the internet about how to fix this, yet you’ve been able to check Facebook 354 times per day.
  13. Let dough rest in greased bowl for 1 hour (it will not rise much). Become too impatient to wait and cut the time to 30 minutes.
  14. Melt butter in sauce pan. Add brown sugar and corn syrup. Stirring frequently, heat to 220 degrees.
  15. Consider that if you could figure out how to make chocolate Stroopwafels, your dreams for world domination would finally be realized.
  16. Place bouncy ball size bits of dough on pizzelle maker. Take off when toasty brown and immediately cut cookies in half using serrated knife.
  17. Place 1 tbl of syrup on center of one cut cookie and place top on, pressing down to spread syrup. Say a few choice words after you burn yourself on hot syrup and wonder how the Dutch manage to not burn their fingers. Gain an understanding of why these little bundles of joy cost so much at Starbucks.
  18. Repeat steps 16 and 17 until dough is used up.
  19. Wonder how pathetic you might look if you eat syrup drippings directly off the stove. Resolve to do it while children are not looking.
  20. Share cookies with Dutch neighbor who pronounces it good. Share cookies with other neighbor who squeals with delight. Plan to start cult using the Stroopwafel as a bait.

this recipe makes 7 cookies after sharing, giving some to the kids, allowing the husband a few for quality control test and eating the ‘mistakes’ (I think I originally had 4 dozen)


Saturday, July 16, 2011

Bathing and Other Natural Disasters

As some of you Facebook addicts junkies hobbyists might know, we recently had a small reenactment of the Johnstown flood in our kitchen. Two of my boys had gotten dirty in the yard and I told them to go upstairs and take a bath. This is the part where you scratch your head and ask, “Why did she send them to take a bath by themselves?” Well, Miss Nosy Pants, it wasn’t because I was busy outside enjoying an iced coffee and some time with my friend, it was because I subconsciously knew this would uncover a clog in our drain that needed our attention.

After a bit, my friend and I went inside only to see water overflowing out of my kitchen sink. Apparently my husband, possessing the common sense I refuse to engage, decided to check on the boys and found our oversized tub filled to the brim with boys and water once again proving my point that boys as a species could not have survived more than two weeks after their evolution. He quickly shut off the water and pulled the drain plug. The massive gush of water met with the aforementioned plug in the drain pipe and backed up into our kitchen sink and onto the floor in waves reminiscent of the tide coming in on the beach. Let me tell you how glad I am that modern building code requires the waste pipes for sinks and tubs to be separate from the waste pipe for the toilet. Mucky grey water was every where. All over the floor. In all the cabinets and drawers below the sink, and even in the dishwasher which, until this point, was filled with clean dishes.

General hi-jinks ensued as me, my friend and my two girls tried to stem the tide of water while the men folk tried to figure out why the drains were not draining. Eventually Bo and my friend’s husband plugged everything so there was no more water gushing forth and us ladies managed to get the floor wiped up and the counters cleared off. Faced with a non-functioning kitchen sink, the next day I set up a tent outside with washing stations a la Laura Ingalls and undertook to wash half of everything that was in the kitchen. After which I sanitized my counter tops, cabinet interiors and mop the floor. All the while praising God for the invention of bleach and Clorox Sanitizing Wipe.

Clorox, you complete me.
In relating this story to some friends a few days later, one of them commented “What?!? You didn’t turn this into a blog post?” Apparently, they are familiar with my perverse need to milk a crisis for a laugh.

While I don’t want to take away your need to have a good laugh at my expense, there was something else I realized that day: the importance of community. I’m not talking about the casual relationships with friends and neighbors, but people you can “do life with”. Bo and I are blessed to have such a group of people in our lives. I say blessed because I’m far too self serving and opinionated to have cultivated such rich friendships on my own.

We have a group of friends who will have helped us and we have helped on many, many occasions. Sometimes it’s with babysitting or odd household task. Sometimes it’s that kick in the pants you need to do the right thing. Sometimes it’s a shoulder to cry on when things go bad. Sometime it's someone to drink the champagne when things go right. Heck, one of my friends in this group helped me birth a kid.

And it was two of these same friends who jumped right in and helped with the massive clean up. No standing around, no “Oh! Look at the time! Gotta go!” Just rolled up the sleeves and got down to business. It wasn’t just the physical help either, but the camaraderie and laughs we had that made a dirty job (literally) much easier to face. Left on my own, I probably would have swore like a drunken sailor and had a big pity party.

If you have a group of friends like this, cultivate those relationships. You'll be glad you did.

p.s. If you need a good plumber, I know a guy.

Thursday, July 07, 2011


After fourteen years of parenting, I believe I have come across irrefutable evidence that evolution could not have occurred. One of the main tenets of evolution is survival of the fittest or natural selection wherein only those living organisms with physical attributes favorable to survival live long enough to pass on their DNA.  If this is true, then boys would have died out long ago. I’m not entirely sure how early boys (I’m talking Pre-Cambrian here) lived long enough to pass on anything beyond gas, let alone DNA. I will elaborate on my theory for the rest of you who do not have boys, because those who have one or more boys are nodding your head emphatically saying, “Yes, I believe!”

I started my parenting journey with girls; quiet, sensible, girls. Then I had boys, and daily I am dumbfounded on how these puppies make it through the day.

honestly, he would have maimed himself before he created the Death Star
First of all, they’re noisy. It’s as if there’s an ongoing noise generator in their little heads and if they don’t release some noise pressure by singing, chanting or other forms of noise making, their heads will explode in a cacophony of sound. And when they’re not making noise, they’re asking questions.

I made the near fatal mistake of taking my four boys to the grocery store. I say near fatal because they all made it back home. I had more questions in that 45 minute period than a politician at a prayer meeting.
“Mom, what’s for dinner tonight?”
“Mom what if my name was Farboogerwinkle?”
“Mom, what would you think if I could fly?”
“Mom what’s for dinner tonight?”
“Mom, why is that guy dressed like that?”
“Mom, where’s Dad?”
“Mom, can I watch tv?”
“Mom, what’s for dinner tonight?”
“Mom, why does Pikachu never battle with Gorganzobot?”
“Mom, what would happen if we lived at the grocery store?” (gee, I thought we already did)

and on and on and on and on.

and on.

and on.

And it really doesn’t matter if you answer the question because they will ask it again. Or the other boy who was staring right at you when you answered it the first time wants to know if he will get the same answer in his own time/space continuum or if, by some miracle, the answer for him will be “pizza.”

By the end of the shopping trip I was ready to sell them to the first roving band of gypsies that came by. Heck, the gypsies didn’t even have to be roving. However, because I spent quite a bit of time and effort birthing these boys, I decided to take them home.

I had to wonder, though. Somewhere in prehistoric times, were there some little male velociraptors asking lots of question in a similar manner? Because I believe the parent velociraptor, lacking my maternal inclinations, would say to him, “What little brain I have is about to melt as a result of all these questions so I’m afraid I’m going to have to eat you.” How many times could an early caveman have answered, “What if my name was Quarkiemcfinklepuss?” before he bludgeoned the guy?

The second reason I question the boy species survival is their inability to consider personal safety. We have a picnic table in our yard. Our boys think it’s a good idea to stand on this picnic table and wrestle until one of them falls off. Please keep in mind, they have already fallen off the table, bonked their heads on the ground and cried in pain. Yet the next day, they still consider wrestling on the table to be good fun. My boys probably would have had great careers in science had they grasped the ongoing reality of gravity, hard surfaces and its effect on their heads. It’s not just my boys either. I remember my brothers thought that hiding on top of a one story garage roof and then jumping off to scare one of their friends was a good idea. My husband said that most of the scars men have on their bodies started with, “Hey guys, watch this!” Consider all this in addition to boys’ natural inclination to bugs, explosives and all things dirt and you really must consider the low probability of their survival as a species. In trying to get through the mayhem that was early life on earth, who had time to rescue the boy who thought it would be fun to get a whisker off that saber tooth tiger?

As complicated a creature as women are, and tasked with the enormous job of trying to keep men alive, I find it very hard to believe that women evolved from some simple single cell amoeba. Woman was created by God after the angels told him that the dog was having a hard time trying to keep Adam from killing himself in the Garden of Eden.

Mayhem? What mayhem?

Friday, June 24, 2011


Part 7:  Here’s the short history. For the full history, go here. The first inhabitants of South Africa were the San people who were hunter/gathers. In 1653, on behalf of the Dutch trading company, the VOC, Jan van Riebeeck established a Dutch colony at Cape Town. The Dutch who settled in South Africa later became known as Afrikaners. In 1795, the British arrived and since then there has been tension between the two European groups which has periodically flared into open combat. The on going tensions between the two white groups however, did little to assuage their combined oppression of the native Africans. In 1948, the Afrikaner dominated National Party won the general election and instituted a series of restrictive laws that formalized the discrimination that was generally practiced since the Europeans first arrived. These laws became know to the world as ‘Apartheid’ (pronounced ‘apart- tide’). From the arrival of the first European, the native Africans have struggled to assert their basic rights. Of the many groups established to fight for equality, two became the clear leaders in the 70’s; the African National Congress (ANC) with it’s legendary leader Nelson Mandela and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) under the leadership of Mangosuthu Buthelezi. The final push for black South African freedom is generally thought to have started with the uprising at Soweto in 1976, when schoolchildren, staging a peaceful protest, were fired upon by police forces. The following decades brought increasing violence and protest. The relentless conflict coupled with a slowing economy and increasing international pressure led the National Party government to realize the “apart-ness” between the races they had hoped to achieve was futile if they ever hope to live in peace. Both sides knew they could not stay where they were, but a future with racial equality and without violence seemed almost impossible to achieve.

At the age of 18, I finished high school. Because of the way the school year is set up in South Africa (January to December versus September to June), I had six months at the University of the Witwatersrand before I went to Shelby, NC for my American Field Service exchange year. As I mentioned previously, those six months were pretty much useless. When I got back from the US in July 1986, I had very little time before I had to return to University and resume my studies.

It was a given in my family that I would be going to an English university and not an Afrikaans one; the difference being mostly what language the courses were taught in. The choices were University of Witswatersrand, University of Cape Town or Rhodes University in Grahamstown. Since I didn’t want to move out of Johannesburg, Cape Town and Rhodes were not options for me, and I went to the University of Witswatersrand (or 'Wits' as we called it) as a commuting student.

My boyfriend, Ian went to the University of Witswatersrand too. He became very involved in the Modern Student Association, MSA. He was studying international relations and economics. I studied psychology and sociology and together we studied politics and law. Unfortunately, he wasn't able to return to Wits the following year. Having spent a year in America without him, I didn't want to be without him again. So when he transferred to Rhodes University in Grahamstown, twelve hours away from Johannesburg, I wanted to go to Rhodes too.

My parents were flabbergasted. My dad didn't want me to leave home again. Both my parents said, "You've just come back. Why are you leaving again?" I remember crying and crying and telling my Mom, "You don't understand. I love him. I have to go with him." And just like with AFS, I pleaded my case to my mother and she advocated for me to my dad. Interestingly enough, my dad had actually attended Rhodes. He studied theology there for a couple of years and even played rugby for Rhodes. So there was kind of a connection all ready. But even when my parents finally consented, there was a lot that had to happen because it was quite expensive to go to Rhodes. I had to work on getting student loans and scholarships.

Up until I went to university, I felt like I lived in a cocoon. Like I said before, my world was my family, school and church. While I was increasingly aware of the poor treatment of black South Africans, I wasn’t affected much by the Apartheid policies of my country. My life seemed normal to me. Normal changed when I went to university. At university was the first time I had contact with a black person who was not some one's servant. The university was not segregated so there were all sorts of people there. Not only did I meet all sorts of diverse people, I learned for the first time about socialism, Marxism and capitalism. It was a mind blowing experience coming from how I'd grown up to this most liberal institution. Going to university opened my eyes a lot and it’s where my participation in the struggles began.

There were a few political student organizations on campus; some more radical than others. As a result of my dad's influence, I joined the Moderate Students Association, the MSA. A lot of the black South Africans didn't like us because they thought we were selling out. They figured we were just white people, watered down, who didn’t understand and were not really into the struggle; they thought we were elitists. But we had a lot of black, whites, and Indians join the moderate movement.

There were a lot of protests and marches on the university campuses. On some days you'd arrive on campus and there would be a police battalion, ten rows deep and ten rows wide in full riot gear. They would come to the university and line up on the rugby fields because they'd got wind that there was going to be a demonstration on campus that day. One was never quite sure where the confrontation was going to go down, but it would start out at a particular point on campus with everybody gathering. Mostly black people and some of the more militant ones in the front. Then the students started this toi toi thing.

The toi toi was like a military march. The protesters would jump from left foot to right foot, lifting their knees high in the air. Then as they marched forward, they would shout something that sounded like "Ahoy! Ahoy, Ahoy!" They would do this right through the university campus with the women ululating in a high shrill voice. It was scary, and so intimidating. The white students would join and walk along with them yelling "Freedom! We want freedom!" or "Down with Apartheid!" and stuff like that. We'd mostly walk in the middle of all the marchers because we were always afraid that there were people taking photographs and we could be arrested for treason. In South Africa, you could be detained for 90 days for ‘questioning’ without being charged for a crime and without access to due process. At the end of the 90 days, you could be re-arrested should the police feel the desire to do so.

Often things would get violent. Once at Wits I somehow ended up in the front row of a demonstration on campus one day. The band of protesters were maybe 15 people wide and about 200 hundred students all in all. We came face to face with the South African Police (SAP) riot squad and their dogs. It was chaotic; the students were doing the toi toi, some of the women were wailing in that high shrill voice used in protests, people were shouting, “Viva Mandela!”, dogs were barking and the SAP were shouting in English and Afrikaans, "Get back!! Get back!!" I remember making eye contact with one of the SAP officers, but it wasn't a moment of animosity for me. I actually felt sorry for him because I assumed he was doing something he didn't really want to do. It’s strange the things that go through one's mind in a split second! I don't remember much of what happened after that. I do remember being filled with adrenalin, feeling obstinate...acting fearless...angry...face to face with apartheid in a way. Ian was there too, and I think that made me feel safer. That day the protesters actually burned the South African flag. As the flames got bigger, the crowd went wild. Then they started to sing “Nkosi Sikelel'i” which means 'God Save Africa' in Xhosa, an native African language. It was a hymn written and composed in 1897 by a Xhosa teacher named Enoch Sontonga and adopted as the ANC anthem in 1925. Today, it is the South African national anthem, but at that time, to sing it was considered treasonous. I didn't know all the words back then, but I loved listening to the song, sung with such passion and beautiful harmonies. While they sang, I stood arm in arm with some sweaty black students I didn't know nor ever saw again, and felt uplifted, hopeful.

The university teachers were some of the stronger voices in the struggle for freedom and equality. Frequently during my university years, I'd arrive for a lecture in one of my classes, but it was canceled because the professor had been detained. Banning was also another popular tool used by the government to silence dissent. While you were technically not arrested nor detained, banning prohibited you from speaking to more than one person at a time, from gathering with more than one person at a time and from writing anything for publication. It was done by signature of a cabinet minister, without legal proceedings or court hearings of any kind, and the banned person had no legal redress.

While Rhodes had it’s share of protests, it was not like the chaos I felt at Wits in Johannesburg. We had many marches down the center of Grahamstown, but I don’t recall the flag being burned; which frequently happened in Johannesburg. At Rhodes, the protests were more peaceful; we would have midnight marches. We would go to one of the halls that had amazing acoustics, and sing "Nkosi Sikelel'i"

However, like I told the Ogburns in North Carolina, my life wasn't all about the protests.

While going to University of Witswatersrand, I commuted from my mother’s house. So I didn’t really have the opportunity to participate in campus life much. I was there for school and then I came home and did my essays and such. But at Rhodes it was a whole different experience living in the residence halls; that was a different vibe all together.

At Rhodes we had the student union where we could all go hang out. There was lots of drinking and partying. While universities in South Africa don’t have the Greek fraternity system that the American colleges have, they did have drinking clubs. The clubs would have different uniforms, crazy hats and other things that they wore. While I never joined one, there were cool little restaurants and places to go in Grahamstown; places you could hang out, play pool and eat something. It was like student town. I took part in that sort of thing on the weekends, but during the week I just stuck to my work. I was good at finding that balance because I was motivated to do my work and do well. I wanted the degree and I wanted to get good marks. I was competitive, and I wanted to be the top of my class.

After finishing my bachelor’s degree, I wanted to go on to obtaining my master’s degree. However, the master’s program was very competitive and I was young so my advisers at Rhodes told me to go get some life experience before I applied to the program. Thus in December of 1989, I graduated from the University of Rhodes with an Honor’s Degree in psychology. It would prove to be a tumultuous time for me and especially my country.

A Brief South African History Lesson

“In confidence we lay our cause before the whole world. Whether we win or whether we die, freedom will rise in Africa like the sun from the morning clouds.” *

San rock painting
The earliest signs of human habitation in South Africa were found in the Sterkfontein caves about 30 miles northwest of Johannesburg. When Darwin wrote in On the Origin of the Species, “It is ….probable that our early progenitors lived on the African continent”, the Victorian world was horrified as man was considered too grand to have his cradle in Africa.

The first known people group in South Africa were the San, who were hunter-gatherers. Gradually, some of the San began to acquire livestock from the Bantu speaking people of the north. These pastoralists started to call themselves “Khoikhoi”, which is thought to mean ‘men of men’ or ‘real people.’ Most of the San were eventually assimilated into the Khoikhoi, although some of them retreated to the mountain and desert regions. As a result, the Khoikhoi became the dominant people in South Africa until the Europeans arrived.

Bartolomeu Dias
Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias is considered to be the first European to reach South Africa in 1487. Only five years later would another European, Christopher Columbus ‘discover’ North America. Legend has it that in February 1488, when Dias’ crew came ashore to fill their casks, one of the Khoikhoi threw a stone. Other Khoikhoi joined in as the strangers shouted back. Suddenly there was a hiss and one of the Khoikhoi fell dead from a crossbow shot. The Khoikhoi fled and thus began decades of turbulent relations between native Africans and European settlers.

Landing of van Riebeeck by Charles Bell
By 1600’s Portuguese dominance of the seas gave way to Dutch and English dominance. The Dutch East India Company (or VOC for the Dutch Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie) was a major European trading house sending ships around southern Africa en route to the East Indies. Looking for a way-station where their ships could restock, the VOC sent Jan van Riebeeck to look for a suitable site on the southern tip of Africa. He reached Table Bay on April 6, 1652.

Out of necessity, the VOC traded with the Khoikhoi but the relationship was not an easy one. The VOC deliberately attempted to limit contact between the Europeans and the indigenous peoples. For labor, the VOC brought slaves from Indonesia, Madagascar, and India. Needing to stock the Cape Town base camp with food stuffs, some VOC employees were given an early release from their contracts in order to establish farms that could supply Cape Town. These early Dutch farmers were quite successful and started to move inland from coast. They were joined by Germans, a smattering of Scandinavians and French Huguenots. As these European farmers intermarried they became known as ‘Afrikaners’. Those who pushed further inland to escape the autocratic VOC, became known as the Trekboers (“wandering farmers”), and eventually as just Boers.

Karoo Trekboer by Charles Bell
Like the American frontier settlers who experienced harsh lives in the American West, the Boers were staunch individualists; hardy, self-reliant people who knew the land. As the Boers continued eastward, their need for livestock and land led to a series of wars with the Khoikhoi. With land and livestock lost to the Boers, Khoikhoi tribes fought each other for what was left.

Their traditional life fading away, many Khoikhoi had little choice but to work for the Boers. As a subjugated people, the Khoikhoi could only find positions of “dreadful servitude” on Boer farms. Those Khoikhoi still trying to maintain their pastoral life and not work for a white master, ran the risk of being shot on sight. The first attempt to overcome this oppression was in 1659, when a Khoikhoi named Doman led a revolt against the Dutch. It was unsuccessful and, by the turn of the century, the Khoikhoi were decimated. However, the ever expanding Boer migration was to face a new challenge in the Bantu-speaking peoples further north known as the Xhosa and the Zulu.

the Wedderburns who were part of the 1820 Settlers
By the time of the French Revolution, VOC power waned and the British, wanting to keep South Africa out of French hands, seized the Cape in 1795. The British initially had little interest in the Cape Colony other than as a strategically located port. This attitude gradually changed and in 1820, about 5,000 middle-class British were persuaded to immigrate and cultivate the land in the Eastern Cape region. In Part 2 of her story, “Childhood”, Arlene mentioned that her father could trace his ancestors back to ‘the 1820 settlers.’ The British authorities hoped that the settlers would not only increase the British hold on South Africa but also provide a buffer zone between the feuding Boer and Xhosa/Zulu groups. Seeing the British encroaching on their land created tension between the British and the Xhosa/Zulus as well, which, in 1879, erupted into full out war. Eventually, almost half of the ‘1820 Settlers’ moved to towns, notably Grahamstown and Port Elizabeth, giving up farming to pursue jobs like they had in Britain.

The arrival of the ‘1820 Settlers’ solidified the British presence in South Africa, much to the angst of the Afrikaners. During the height of VOC dominance, the Afrikaners and their ideas had largely gone unchallenged. Now white South Africa had two different languages and cultures. A pattern soon emerged of the English-speakers being considered urbanized and educated, dominating politics, trade, finance, and manufacturing, while the Afrikaners, and specifically the Boers, were considered uneducated, simple farmers. Further aggravating the Afrikaners was the British Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 (thirty years before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation). The Afrikaners generally regarded their dominance of the native Africans as the God-given ordering of the races. It was what was preached from their church pulpits and so they took offense to the Act. Tension between the two white groups over the treatment of a third group seems somewhat reminiscent of the tensions between the American North and South over the issue of slavery. Neither group treated the third group well. It was just a question of who was more obvious about their prejudice.

the two Afrikaner states (in orange)
In 1836, frustrated at what they felt was a forced acceptance of English language and culture and a lack of representation in governance, approximately 12,000 Afrikaners left the British controlled Cape Town for lands to the northeast. Past the Orange River in the north, they founded two republics: the South African Republic (sometimes called the Transvaal Republic) and the Orange Free State. This migration, later known as The Great Trek, is looked upon today by Afrikaners as a defining moment in their history, a symbol of their self determination.

However, Boer attempts to evade the British rule were all but lost with the discovery of diamonds and gold in the Boer controlled areas in the late 1800’s. The British desire to control this mineral rich area not only further angered the Boers, but also intensified the subjugation of the native Africans as the need to acquire cheap labor increased. The Boer republics successfully resisted British encroachments during the First Boer War (1880–1881) using guerrilla warfare tactics, but the British returned with greater numbers, more experience, and new strategy in the Second Boer War (1899–1902), which they won. This was a bitter defeat for the Boers, and like the American Civil War, the mere mention this defeat will conjure a bitterness in some that would make one think the war was lost yesterday.

Combined with the British territorial acquisition after the Anglo-Zulu War, the former Boer republics, the British states and Zulu lands became known as the Union of South Africa. After German defeat in World War I, South West Africa (now Namibia) was added to this as well. These territories were considered British dominions with the Afrikaners being granted home rule within British oversight. Blacks could only become representatives in the South African government if nominated by whites.

During World War I, South Africa joined with the United Kingdom against the Germans. Whether due to their partial German heritage or the thought that any enemy of the British was a friend of theirs, a lot of Boers refused to fight and at one point rose up in open revolt. In general, there was a delicate unity among white South Africans that lasted through World War II. However, given their history together, this unity was short lived.

Daniel Malan
In 1948, riding on a wave of economic discontent, the Afrikaner dominated National Party won a majority of seats in the national election leading party leader, Daniel Malan, to announce, “Today South Africa belongs to us once more.” And by “us” he meant the Afrikaner. No one was surprised at the outcome of the ‘48 election. The British dominated United Party thought they’d have the power back in four years and the black Africans thought it was the same evil but with a different face.

However, within three years, the most restrictive set of laws against not only Blacks, but any non-white South African were in place. As Nelson Mandela said in his book, Long Walk to Freedom, “What had been more or less de facto was to become relentlessly de jure. The often haphazard segregation of the past three hundred years was to be consolidated into a monolithic system that was diabolical in its detail, inescapable in its reach, and overwhelming in its power.” This was the birth of Apartheid.

As Mandela mentioned, from the beginning of South African history, the black South Africans were discriminated against. The Boers, through their Dutch Reformed Church, were taught that the white man was meant to dominate the black man, who was not capable of self determination. The British, while holding out promises of reform prior to the Boer Wars, afterward showed no intention of holding to them. Indeed in 1905, the British formed South African Native Affairs commission rejected political equality between the races and advocated for territorial separation of the races as well. There was a pecking order of value: whites meaning those of European extractions, Colored, meaning those who intermarried at the very beginning of the colony, Asian, meaning Indian, Malaysian, Chinese and then Black, the indigenous peoples.

To address such discrimination, in 1898, the South African Native Congress was formed. It’s weapons were pressure groups, petitions and newspaper editorials mainly aimed at the British. In 1912, the South African Native National Congress (‘SANNC’) was formed to advocate for reform. It was hoped that the SANNC could peacefully articulate their political aspirations and thus affect change. In 1923, the group was renamed the African National Congress (‘ANC’). The ANC initially opposed the use of violence. However, by 1951, it was obvious that the moderate stance of the ANC was not accomplishing the desired goal of racial equality. In June of 1955, the ANC drafted the ‘Freedom Charter’, “a blue print for a new, non-racial South Africa”. With the charter came a new game plan of strikes, work stoppages and mass protest. The Nationalist government responded with further restrictions and laws. By 1960, many African activists felt the only avenue left was violence and the Umkhonto we Sizwe (‘Spear of the Nation’) was formed to initiate armed struggle. Their expressed hope was that the dramatic actions would “bring the government and its supporters to their senses before it is too late, so that the government and its policies can be changed before matters reach the desperate stage of civil war.” During the next 18 months, 2,000 bombings were carried out.

Again the government responded with an even heavier hand, using what ever judicial and physical means at hand to crush the opposition. Some of the weapons used were the 'banning' laws created under the Suppression of Communism Act of 1950. To be banned was to be under house arrest with limits on movement and speech without the recourse of a trial. A banned person was, among other restrictions, prohibited from meeting with more than one person at a time and from writing anything for publication. Another government weapon was the General Law Amendment Act No. 37 of 1963 which came to be know as the 90 Day Law. Under this law, the police could hold a suspect for 90 days without charge. In her book Every Secret Thing: My Family, My Country, Gillian Slovo wrote that the 90 day detainment "...was an arbitrary sentence that could be endlessly prolonged. Anybody could be picked up and held in solitary, without charge or recourse to legal advise. The period of ninety days itself was a euphemism. At the end of it, the prisoner could be summarily rearrested and held for another ninety days - on and on and on, as the then justice minister Vorster put it, '...until eternity'."

Finally, in 1963, the South African Police Force arrested Nelson Mandela along with 19 other ANC leaders on charges of sabotage. Mandela was sentenced to life in prison. Those who were not imprisoned fled South Africa and lived in exile. So complete was this crack down that the opposition which would stay quiet until the mid 70’s.

In 1975, eager to rid itself of its unwinnable war, the new Portuguese government vacated Mozambique and Angola. As Gillian Slovo wrote, “...driven by the example of these recently independent black states, tens of thousands of young South Africans rediscovered the power of anger.” In 1976, thousands of African school children took to the streets in Soweto to protest the use of Afrikaans in their school. When the police responded with the usual force, the protest march boiled over into a full on riot throughout the area, and caused violence in other parts of the country.

Realizing that the apartheid as they knew it was falling the pieces, and with the surrounding countries throwing off the shackles of whites-only rule, the South African government, under John Voster tried to implement reforms.

map of "Homeland" areas
Hoping to revitalize the economy and quell the rebellion, the government tried to create a black South African middle class through the revocation of the Pass Act. This would allow blacks Africans to travel freely and not have to vacate “white areas” by certain times of the day. The government also started to pursue the ‘homeland’ political structure. The homeland idea was to set up areas where the various tribes of native Africans could have a homeland for their particular tribe. The ‘homelands’ had no basis in historic tribal locations or current population distribution. The government merely thought that if the black Africans could “exercise their political rights in their respective ‘homelands’ ”, they would cease protesting against the white South African government. Another reform was the tricameral parliament created in 1984 with one house for whites (with 178 seats), one for coloreds (85 seats) and one for Asians (45 seats). As one can see from the seat distribution, this new parliament did little to appease government critics as the power still remained in the hand of the whites and black South Africans were still excluded.

While the race struggles in South Africa could be seen as similar to struggles in American, Mandela pointed out to a US journalist in 1985, “the conditions in which Martin Luther King struggled were totally different conditions from my own: The United States was a democracy with constitutional guarantees of equal rights that protected nonviolent protest (though there was still prejudice against blacks); South Africa was a police state with a constitution that enshrined inequality and an army that responded to nonviolence with force.” The ANC knew they could never physically overpower the government forces, so they did the next best thing: make South Africa exceedingly difficult to govern.

The ANC succeeded at their task. By the mid 80’s, international sanctions, internal violence and the economic difficulties made the government realized that the above reforms were not working. Having previously referred to the ANC as a communist terrorist organization, the government refused to negotiate with them. Both sides saw initiating talks with the other as a sign of weakness or betrayal of their followers. Yet both realized, as Mandela said, “If we do not start a dialogue soon, both sides would be plunged into a dark night of oppression, violence and war....It simply did not make sense for both sides to lose thousands if not millions of lives in a conflict that was unnecessary.”

This is not to say the violence was nation wide. Outside of the townships and large cities, one might be hard pressed to see the violence. In 1987, on a rare drive through Cape Town with a prison guard, Mandela noticed that despite a country that was in upheaval and black townships on the brink of open warfare, white life went on placidly and undisturbed. Their lives seemed unaffected.

None the less, the Nationalist Party government was coming to the end of itself. In 1988, talks started between the South African government and ANC through Nelson Mandela. In 1989 the government repealed the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act which prohibited black Africans from using facilities that whites used. In 1990, the government lifted its ban on the ANC and other black organizations. And on February 11, 1990, after 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela was released.

Nelson and Winnie Mandela on his release from Verster Prison
While the release of Mandela and the other ANC political prisoners was a huge step by the government in recognizing the futility of Apartheid, Mandela knew beforehand that his release would not end the violence in South Africa. Before there was to be a new democratic government, there would be power struggles among the groups long denied a voice in their future. “What should have been an era of peace turned instead into what Reuter journalist Rich Mkhondo described as ‘a time of weeping’.” Like Mkhondo, many South Africans, jubilant at Mandela’s release, greatly feared what lay ahead for their country.

For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” Nelson Mandela

* the quote at the beginning of this post is the inscription from the base of a statue of Paul Kruger in Church Square, Pretoria. Kruger was the president of the Afrikaner Republic of the Transvaal and fought against the British in the nineteenth century.

Mandela, Nelson, Long Walk to Freedom. Little, Brown & Co., 1994.
Slovo, Gillian. Every Secret Thing: My Family, My Country. Little, Brown & Co., New York, 1997.
Woods, Donald, Asking for Trouble. Beacon Press, 1980.
Reader’s Digest Illustrated History of South Africa: The Real Story, Dougie Oakes, ed. The Reader’s Digest Association South Africa, Ltd. Cape Town, SA, 3rd ed. 1994.