Thursday afternoon, South Africa

            I arrive at school and go to my wife’s office. Deb comes in to tell her that a student at the school just had her house robbed. Men had held her father up at gunpoint at the petrol station, made him drive the back to his house, where they loaded up his valuables in his car and left with it. You hear stories like this everyday lately, she says.

            I go to play rehearsal where middle schoolers are learning to waltz. When asked if they want to move on and learn the dance to their chosen song, “Uptown Funk,” they say they’d rather keep on and perfect the waltz.

            I drive home, on my guard. I move into the other lane gently to give pedestrians space. I notice the black woman driving behind me gives them a wider berth and I wonder if people will think I’m disrespectful or racist based on how much I move over for walkers. There are hundreds of people walking between Fourways and Diepsloot. Buses honk at them, but no one is willing to fork over money for a ride. It is a long walk. I see a man begging on the road, which is not unusual. They are at most intersections. One of them is wearing a shirt and tie and his sign says, “I need money for college.” My heart goes out to him, and I feel manipulated, all in the same breath.

            I stop to get pizza. Most patrons in the restaurant are white. A white woman takes my takeout order, asking a black man named Simba to help her with the computer on multiple occasions. Even though he clearly knows more than she does, she proceeds to boss him around, asking him to get her things, criticizing the way he cuts a cake. While I wait, two white men come in from the Montecasino Tactile Response Team. I see it written on their truck. They each have a machine gun, a hand gun, and a knife.

            Tomorrow I will have lunch with a black friend, Joseph. I try to think of an appropriate restaurant I could take him to, that wouldn’t feel pretentious or offensive somehow. I can’t think of any.

            I leave and see people pulling out of the busy parking lots, directed by black men wearing vests. I see no one tip them, though tips are their entire livelihood.

            I drive home into an African sunset. The sun sets on this continent in its own glorious way. There is a fire burning in the distance, as there always is. There is always a fire burning somewhere. 

Maybe this time, South Africa

I think most of us start out with a bit of idealism in us. We enter adulthood open-eyed, wondering how we will make it, what we will find, and who life might have in store. We inherit, develop, or adopt some sort of belief system, a moral code that will help guide decisions. We start by wanting create the kind of world that we want to be a part of, yet in the end most of us just try to work out the best way to be part of the world we’ve already got.

We all make compromises along the way. We say that the idealist in us grew up into a realist, and stop seeking ways to break down the systems. Instead of Ani Difranco and Hope for the Flowers, we go to church and pray for God to take care of His people and we buy fair trade coffee and resign ourselves to doing our own small part. I am told that all the small parts add up. From where I sit, they don’t seem to be adding up very quickly.

My revolutionary spirit lasted longer than most, I think, which therefore earned me the label of a “hippie” in present-day America. I lived on volunteer stipends, learned to farm organically, sometimes considered a tent as my home, traveled to developing nations, didn’t own a cell phone. I spent a decade living like this, always grasping for the coattails of the revolution I knew must be really brewing somewhere. Wanting my one little life to be part of the answer, even if I could not exactly define the question.

One problem is that there are so many ways to satiate those of us that want to do good, by doing a small good, that the larger system actually remains unchanged. We offer a homeless person food, donate to a non-profit, then keep paying our taxes and spending our incomes in a capitalist society designed to perpetuate itself, not create a just world.

I once heard a story of a girl who is throwing back starfish from a beach where hundreds of them have washed ashore. She is told she can’t make a difference, there are too many to save. She throws another back and says, “I made a difference to that one!” In the same place I heard this story is a sign on the wall: Give me a lever long enough and a place to stand, and I will move the earth.

I struggle in the tension between saving that one starfish, and finding a lever long enough (or a place to stand). For all the time I have spent with starfish in mentoring programs and the like, I fear that just excuses and perpetuates the defunct system. It distracts those of us who want a better world from looking for a place to stand.

After years of searching for a different way to live, I came to join an Intentional Community (formerly known as a commune). In a fairly small but fantastic way, there is in fact a model for creating a society that is structured around the ways people actually want to live, work, eat, enjoy, and find fulfillment. They redefine how much influence power and money have over daily life, and how much community and sharing do. It is the only time in America that I have seen people successfully create a new system, instead of chipping away at the old iceberg of culture to make it a few inches more shapely.

I did not stay there, though I miss it sometimes grievously and still dream of it. Back out here in mainstream Babylon, I grasp for ways to do more than change my light bulb. Is there nothing in between? What does it mean to grow up, to leave the commune, but to still be a hippie on the inside?

I just moved to South Africa. Here on this continent, it is expected to hire someone to work in your home. I don’t want to hire someone to work in my home. I know that it provides someone with a job... but it doesn’t feel right. Others here feel a little uncomfortable at first, then find themselves grateful to never wash their own dishes anymore. It goes against some internal grain of mine. Like having someone give me a pedicure. But bigger. Reinforcing those sorts of job opportunities and socio-economic (not to mention racial) dynamics is counter-intuitive to me in the bigger picture. It is helping in a small way, at the expense of the wider view. Instead of a job scrubbing my toilet, I think people everywhere need to live in a world based on more equality in the first place. Not knowing how to find a reset button that big, most of us (including us former hippies) opt for the starfish with the toilet brush. Determined that this is better than nothing.

There is a pessimism in this kind of optimism that I must rage against. Maybe because I’ve seen another way. Yet I don’t know how to bring that way crashing into the rest of the world, all going about daily life. I don’t even know how to bring it crashing into my own life. By most measurable standards, it seems I’ve sold out. A wife, a kid, a lawn, a car. I am far from the commune; I am afraid to even ask my seemingly straight-laced neighbor to borrow his vacuum, instead of buying my own. If I buy my own vacuum, it will sit around the house, like all the other stuff I own, getting use about 10 minutes a week. Which doesn’t even take into account where the vacuum might have been made, under what conditions, and what kind of economies and systems I support by making this purchase. Is it really necessary for us all to own private vacuum cleaners?

Perhaps here is where we find the intersection of doing small things that are working toward a better world, instead of doing small things to try to patch over the fact that the world is crappy. I know that the most revolutionary things have to be broken down to be small as well. A friend of mine once told me that when making a decision, he wonders, “what would the world be like if a million people made this same choice right now?” Sometimes I do find it helpful to imagine my impact magnified in this way. Yet now I think I am starting to see the next level to that question. The step further is asking, “if a million people did this, would the world actually function in a more just way, or would there be really awesome band-aids covering up the enduring systemic flaws?” The difference is subtle, but real. I don’t want a society with huge nonprofits cleaning up the endless messes, or a fat and happy homeless population. I want a world where we don’t need nonprofits, and people are not homeless (unless by choice).

Today for me that balance is not hiring a maid, and asking to borrow the vacuum. Which oddly is much harder, because that is the counter-cultural choice here. However, deep down, I know that systems of sharing are a bigger picture answer, and systems of oppression are not. Let me be clear, I do not advocate for leaving the starfish out to dry. I just want to be the girl in the story who also figures out why hundreds of starfish are on the beach in the first place, and then gets out to fix that. The girl who shops at the Farmers Market and advocates for the needed overhaul of the Farm Bill.

By understanding how the broken systems exist around us, we can maybe start imagining a way out. Not a way around the systems, but out of them. I will keep caring and believing, more than is reasonable, for longer than is fashionable. We have to have an end goal in mind, a better world we want to live in, and even if it is uncomfortable, dare.

Driving the tractor, ZJ Farm

Photo by Patricia Black McCauley

Photo by Patricia Black McCauley

I found Susan outside the barn after I finished milking. She wore the same clothes as yesterday, ripped shorts and a tank top that began its life as pink. One desperate bobby pin held her unruly curls. ““LK wants her tomato seedlings today.” And then, “You haven’t learned to drive the tractor yet, have you?” she said.

“No, but I can,” I said, feigning confidence.

“Okay. Hop on. I’ll get David to show you while I get her trays organized.”

I walked to the dark and dusty barn. From the outside, it was that old farm version of the color white. Not white, but dirty, lived-in once-white. The building itself stood so proud and necessary. There was a set of massive sliding wooden doors at the front and back. The back doors were always open for the lambs, and this provided the only light. I pushed with all my weight to slide the front doors open, one at a time. The far end of the barn was filled with the remaining straw, dust, and fencing from last season’s lambing. The Kubota was parked among huge orange metal trailers packed with soybeans, oats, or corn. Each had a scattering of plastic jugs around them, in various levels of disrepair. I sat in the squishy black seat of the small orange tractor and waited. All I needed was a straw hat and a lifetime worth of grit and I’d blend right in.

I heard David’s skateboarding in the garage, and then it stopped. He came to meet me, not wearing yesterday’s clothes. Rather, he wore sagging jeans, a Blink 182 shirt, and had a comb stuck in his mini-fro.

Susan headed up the path on foot. “We’ll fill the bucket at the hoop house, and then you can drive her trays down here to load them in the truck.”

Whatever that meant.

I got off the seat and David sat down. He turned the key halfway, holding it. I wondered where to sit. I settled on the edge of the seat, half a butt cheek on the rim, the rest balancing in space.

“What are you doing?” I asked, as we just sat there, awkward.

“Counting to thirty.”


“I don’t know, you just do it,” he replied. “Or it won’t start.” A red light came on, with an oil can symbol. I pointed to it, and David just shrugged. “I don’t know what it means. Doesn’t matter.” At last he turned the key fully, and with a rumble and eruption of smoke, it was running.

He drove first along the path parallel to the barn, showing me the front and back pedals, one for moving in each respective direction. They seemed to have nothing do with speed. Acceleration, I gathered, came from a hand lever. He then reversed without looking behind him, nearly hitting the dog. I shooed Martin around the tractor and up the path to the garden. I watched him go, longingly.

David did a three-point turn and headed around the silo and driveway, immediately at full speed. It felt like riding in a combination of a convertible and a little red wagon. As we sped up, the vibrations were replaced by bumps and jolts on my increasingly sore butt. I didn’t want him to think I was trying to sit on his lap or something, so I was mostly doing a prolonged squat.

“How do you stop?” I hollered, over the roaring engine and the bumps.

He turned the acceleration lever back down, and we slowed, rolling to an unsure neutral-ish pause.

“But what about a brake? What if I need to stop fast?”

He shrugged.

“You can use this to put the bucket down,” he said pulling another lever on the side. The big front scoop on the tractor went down and rested on the ground. “If that’s down, you won’t roll.”

Slow down and not roll were not exactly the same thing to me as brakes, but it seemed that was all I was going to get.

“Don’t touch this side,” he said. “That’s the PTO.”

“I don’t know what that means, but okay,” I answered, obediently.

It was my turn. I slid into the comfy driving position and David climbed behind me, standing and holding the back of my seat. Forward pedal, and I gently turned the accelerator by hand. I looked over my shoulder, worried he would fall, but he only teased me for going too slow. I tried going faster, but was too scared. We returned full circle to the start, David thoroughly bored. I slowed down and took my foot off the gas. We inched toward the barn and I breathed out, relieved.

Except, we were on a slight decline, and weren’t fully stopping.

“David! It’s still rolling!” I frantically pushed my foot in space of an absent car brake. My heart pounded. Should I try to turn sharply? Put the bucket thing down?

“You can’t try to stop it on a hill…” he was saying, laughing. He tried to reach over me, and I pulled the side lever. The front scoop went up, not down, and there was a crunch and a crack as we ran into the huge, old, beautiful barn door.

I looked up to see a long vertical split in the wood, and a hole where my big front shovel ripped its way to a stop.

“Oh shit!” I said. David found this even more funny, since I never swore. I got out of the driver’s seat and looked at my destruction. David backed the tractor up, shut it down, and then joined me.

“Nice,” he laughed, gazing at my wreckage. I reached up and touched the spot, frantic, wracked with guilt.

Susan returned from the hoop house, carrying a tray of seedlings.

“What are you two doing? I’m waiting for you up there.”

“Yeah… Kelsey totally crashed into the barn,” David said almost proudly, no help in my defense. I would give him the stink eye for tossing me under the bus, but I was about to cry.

“Oh my God, I’m so sorry,” was all I could get out. David looked and me and started laughing again. Then, amazingly, Susan started laughing too. They were both laughing. Hard. Which… I’d never actually seen before.

“Well, you’ve left your mark,” said Susan, in no hurry to recover her composure. “We’re always going to remember you now.”

My wedding, years later, with the tractor hole remaining on right hand door of the barn. Photo by Patricia Black McCauley

My wedding, years later, with the tractor hole remaining on right hand door of the barn. Photo by Patricia Black McCauley

Worming the lambs, ZJ Farm

            “Put on different shoes, you and George are worming the lambs today,” Susan said the next morning, almost in passing. Approximately a quarter of the things she said to me were in this type of foreign language. Worming the lambs. I thought about what this might mean as I walked to the house.

I went in the back door with the missing lower right windowpane. The door stuck and squeaked. Going into the house mid-morning meant I could sneak a snack. I cut a hunk of bread from the fresh loaf sitting on the cutting board, the knife ripping through the homemade crispy crust. I covered it with my first batch of goat cheese I’d made a few days ago. It smelled goaty, but tasted creamy and delicious. Then again, I’d never had goat cheese before so perhaps I wasn’t the best critic. I got my shoes and glanced at the wall next to the door jam. “You owe me $5,” written in pencil. This little note, in David’s handwriting, always reminded me of something I was trying to grasp about this place. Where I came from, a teenager doesn’t write stuff like that on the wall. But here, the buildings and furniture and tools and dishes and walls are really intended for living in, not just inhabiting and upkeep. Which isn’t to say that things aren’t clean—the old farmhouse was beyond beautiful. It was just that the farmhouse was also a scarred and authentic and unembarrassed member of the family.

I obediently laced up my shoes, feeling like the human sheep. I rarely fully understood what was going on, but people pointed me in the right direction, spoke some language I didn’t know, and I did my best. My college degree meant nothing in this real world. Luckily, I had full faith that George, age seventeen, would know exactly what to do with the lambs.

Martin whined to come out with me. He was some sort of herding dog, so I decided to bring him. I found George arranging wooden fence pieces to make a sort of small enclosure at the end of the sheep paddock. I climbed over the orange gate to get in, and Martin squeezed through below me.

“I’m going to get the syringes and the marker,” he said. “Can you bring the lambs over here?”

“Sure,” I responded, trying not to reveal that I had no idea what was going on. George thinks I know how to herd sheep, I thought. What a compliment. I’m like a real farmer. I walked to the back edge of the flock. They didn’t look like cute storybook lambs, but bigger, with matted dirty wool embedded with burrs. I looked for the one I named Valencia, with a black patch on her eye, but they all looked the same. At least to me.

I started clapping, waving, and hollering. Martin got excited with me and was crouching, running and barking. The lambs moved like giant squirrels in the middle of a road: quick and anxious on their toes, but only in a non-productive zigzag confusion.  I thought herding sheep was supposed to be easy, I thought. I went to the back of the paddock again, stepping through their piles of round poo. I tried again with lots more hand waving, like I must’ve seen in a movie somewhere. Martin added some ankle-biting. As soon as I got the whole group running away from me, a handful would sprint back around behind me. It was like playing Red Rover, but with sixty lambs versus me and a dog. 

George came back. “Sorry, Martin’s no help. He gets too excited.” I pretended that Martin was the problem and brought him back to the house. When I returned, George was quietly walking behind the lambs, which were now calmly moving as a group. He was all subtlety and experience. That is, the opposite of me. I held the gate where he told me, and quietly and calmly they were all cooped up in his tiny pen. A hundred times a day that kid was my hero.

The next phase of this operation was sort of a blur. My job was basically that of lamb-wrestler. I caught one at a time and held it while George squirted something into its mouth and drew an orange line down its head with the fat crayon. Then he marked his count on the barn wall with the orange crayon, and I let go. All this within the dense, thigh-high sea of wiggling, wooly panic. How could it be so hard to catch them when they were all squished together?

As usual on this land, I wanted to prove myself, and prove I was strong enough. Some lambs outweighed me, and many stepped on my feet. My adrenaline rose with theirs each time George went to refill his medicine and I scrambled to headlock the next unmarked animal within reach. I was definitely sweating, bruised, and possibly bleeding. Yet something about farming made me not notice those things. Like the house, and the marked barn walls, my body was there to be lived in. 

Photo by Patricia Black McCauley

Photo by Patricia Black McCauley

No Tribe, Tanzania

            Another business trip to Posta: a promising cultural experience. This time we go to get a criminal background check for you, as we start the visa process for our move to South Africa. We have a vague idea where we are going, and are advised to just ask around.

            We wander the street, crowded with people sending packages, newspaper stands, men with baskets of miraculously cold water on their heads, and the busiest bus stop in all of downtown. We stop at the post office to send two identical packages, to people who live in the same zip code. One of these costs 7,700tsh and the other 8,800tsh.

            We start asking around for the stesheni polici, and get a series of people that point us towards the ocean, and then south. It is about three thousand degrees outside, and we are no longer on the street listed in the address. We keep asking, people pointing us onward, and walking. At last, Polici, on the right and the left.

            Many people are hanging around and there are no helpful signs, but we finally make it to a desk where a man beckons us. You explain you need a background check.

            “Why, are you a criminal?”

            “No no! I just need to show my new employer that I am not.”

            “How do I know that you are not?”

            “Well… I’m not. I came here to get that proof on paper.”

            “Why should I believe you? You come in here and want me to say this, but how do I know? Is there a warrant out for your arrest?”

            “What? No! You know, you take my fingerprints and then you check them.” We are trying not to panic. This plan is backfiring entirely.

            Eventually, he breaks into a smile. “Okay. We do not do that here. You have to go back to Posta to the Ministry of Home Affairs. Here, I will write you down the directions.”

            His name is Schubert. He asks where we are from, and is please because he says he does not yet have friends in America, and now he does. He gets out a piece of paper to take all my contact information so we can be friends. He also gives me his.

            So, back to Posta we go, buying a drink along the way that tastes like a caramel apple sucker. We find the building, complete with a retirement ceremony taking place in the courtyard. You sign in at the front desk and get a visitor badge, but I apparently don’t need one. We head to the second floor (which is actually the third) and in the stairwell there are boxes and boxes of old records and files, spilling out in a tan, disorganized heap.

            There are windows and doors and rooms and a man who seems to be waiting in line. We stand near him. Suddenly, he turns to us, acting like he works here and leads us into one of the rooms. You repeat your request. He tells us we will need a copy of your passport, and a letter written to the Director of Forensic Services. He gives you the address.

            “I have to write him a letter?” you clarify.

            He nods.

            “Can I write it now?” you ask.

            He slides his notebook of lined paper over to you, and goes to make copies.

            Through another windowed-doored passageway is a place to pay, and then back to another small fishbowl room for the fingerprinting. There are black inky fingerprints covering all the walls, most densely around hand-height. There is also a poster with a cartoon of two donkeys talking about teamwork. A huge tube of black ink sits on the table, by a plank of wood and a roller. There is a sink next to the door.

            The kind man asks a couple of questions. Your surname? Date of birth? Your tribe?

            You pause. “No tribe.” The moment hangs in our hearts, as we each think of what this means. I suddenly feel sorry for us, somehow adrift in space and time. While I’m grateful for my endless opportunities, I’m also adrift in space and time. I wonder what it feels like to have a tribe.

            He takes your fingerprints onto a piece of paper, telling you that you should not leave Tanzania, you are a good teacher and are needed here.

            While I’m sure you will receive a clean record report from Tanzania, I don’t think there is even the smallest chance that your fingerprints will be cross-referenced with anything in the next 7-10 days. There are no computers, nor likely a system in place to support this demand of the developed world. You might as well be putting your inky fingers on the wall with all the rest.


Mister So Much Better

            Kariakoo is a bustling chaos-fest of a market, sprawling many blocks in every direction. When I stand still, it all seems orchestrated, humming like a machine with a million parts. Diving into the fray, I am whisked through rooms and shouts and colors and piles of tomatoes and tiny fishes and sacks of mystery pods and powders and people shelling peas in baskets and towers of buckets and strange tools and giant umbrellas and fabrics and clinking coins.

      “Mister So Much Better!”

      For reasons unbeknownst to me, this is the call sign for me here. I was given this name by Athmani, the fruit vendor I frequent. His friends caught on, and is now hollered all over the market as a sign of greeting me. My mother becomes Mama So Much Better, my son, Mtoto So Much Better. It is this name, and the familiarity and kindness with it, that I am perhaps most proud of in my Dar experience.

            When people talk to us, a common question is, unatoka wapi? You come from where? It’s a reasonable question. We sometimes hesitate, wanting people to know that we actually live here now, that we choose to call this place home. It is part wanting to affirm that we admire and desire to live here, and part wanting to be treated like a regular person instead of a tourist. We often answer with, Tunakaa Dar es Salaam. Changing the verb, not claiming we are from here, but that we stay here. Sometimes this satisfies people, sometimes it does not.

            The cries of, “Mister So Much Better,” continue to widen when I go to Kariakoo. People I don’t even recognize will say it to me, happily seeming to join some sort of inner circle I didn’t know I was creating.

            Today someone I don’t think I’ve met before greeted me familiarly and started talking to me as I passed. He asked that question, Unatoka wapi? I come from where? Today I answer straight: Marikani. America.

            Marikani? He seems surprised. He gives me examples of what he means. Ilala, Msasani… He names the districts around Dar. Somehow in my weekly visits to the market, this man I have never met has grown to consider me “from” here.

         Mikocheni, I say. He shakes my hand.

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