My wife and I have been living and working in a rural village in South Africa for several months now. We were hoping that people would be glad we’re here and available to help. We even expected a bit more attention than we were used to. But we had no idea what it’d be like to be full-blown celebrities here.
We’re not actually famous celebrities everywhere in South Africa, mainly just in our little portion of it. But here, we definitely are celebrities, whether we like it or not. I’ve never been a celebrity before, so I don’t have a lot to compare it to, but it’s definitely an interesting, sometimes funny, and sometimes disappointing situation to be in.
I’m serious though: everyone knows our names. I mean, it’s only natural when we’ve met so many people in a short span of time and for each of them, they’ve only met two of us; it makes sense that in that situation there’d be people who know our names but we forgot theirs. But there are people we’ve never met who know our names. We meet them for the first time, tell them our names, they say, “I know”, we tell them where we stay, they say, “I know”, etc., etc. It’s true that they don’t know everything about us, but they know about as much as you might expect someone to know about a celebrity.
Anytime we step outside of our house, walk down the road, go to town, anywhere, we hear shouts of “Nyiko!” and “Tsakani!” (our Tsonga names given to us by our host family). We look left and right, up and down, sometimes the person may be a quarter of a mile off and they’re shouting our names, just to say “hi”.
It’s more surprising in town. The nearest small town, (still probably 10-15km away) where we sometimes go to buy groceries, has at least 10,000 or more people in it. Yet every time we go many people who we don’t recognize at all greet us by name. It’s a shame we don’t know their names, it makes us feel a little bit bad. But then again, it’s kind of nice if everyone knows you and is happy to see you, right?
Other than just being famous, there are other rewards to being celebrities. Anytime there’s a public gathering, there’s food available. As celebrities, we receive one of two privileges: either going straight to the front of the line, or even having someone prepare a plate and serve it to us, even while everyone else is serving themselves. No matter how much we protest that we want to wait in line or serve ourselves (and hopefully avoid being served too many chicken feet or hairy pieces of cow head), it’s to no avail: we’re always catered to.
If we arrive late at a funeral, in time to stand at the back with everyone else, we can usually stay in that position for no more than five minutes. People near us start whispering that we’ve arrived. They pass the news quickly through the ranks. Before we know it, a couple people seated near the front of the funeral gathering near the grieving family are getting out of their seats to offer them to us. Even if we refuse, they make a show out of bringing their seats back to where we are so that we can sit down and not “have to” stand.
All this commotion over our arrival is happening while some relative or dear one is giving a eulogy for the deceased. And we, the celebrities, are an unwilling distraction. I was almost asked to speak at a funeral once, a funeral of someone I’d never met. Thankfully we left just as the news of the impending request reached us and I was able to avoid it.
But there’s no avoiding it at church… any church. In our village, all the churches are small, with anywhere from 20-80 people in regular attendance. We’ve made a point of trying to visit every one, both to experience the different church cultures and to get to know more people in the village. It’s also to keep any one church from being jealous that the “village celebrities” go only to someone else’s church. But every time we attend church, even if we’ve been there before, they ask us to go to the front and speak to them, preach to them, pray for them, something. There’s no getting out of it.
Even though our Tsonga isn’t nearly good enough to say more than a few lines, and even when no one in attendance speaks good enough English to hope to understand us, even then they ask us to publicly address the entire church. It was surprising and really caught us off guard at first. The first time was definitely a horrible speech! But thankfully, we’re prepared for it now. Even though we say mostly the same things every time, it’s something, and everyone’s happy just that we spoke at their church.
At the request of one of our school’s teachers, we agreed to visit her church in the nearby town for their big 10-year celebration. We were very surprised when we arrived. It was the beginnings of a mega-church, at least a couple thousand people in attendance, elaborate and expensive architecture, a nice sound system, the whole works. And because it was a 10-year celebration, they had guest speakers and political leaders from all over the country come, with titles like “Apostle” and “Bishop”, etc.
All the dignitaries were sitting in one two-row section at the front right and when we arrived, they escorted us over to the same seating, on the same row as the rest of them, even when we told the usher we weren’t guest speakers. Thankfully, they didn’t ask us to speak this time, but they did make a point of welcoming us from the stage, along with all the other guest speakers who had much more promising titles than “volunteer”.
I was even made “principal-in-charge” during a school trip we went on one time, when the principal himself couldn’t make it. Even though I have no school management experience, my Tsonga skills are too rough to communicate adequately with either the teachers on the trip or their kindergarten-age students, and I didn’t even know the agenda for the day’s trip; despite all that (and me explaining all that), I was made “principal-in-charge” for the day.
But being a celebrity is more than just people knowing your name and asking you to speak at their public function. I imagine any celebrity experiences some of the other things we do. People not-infrequently ask us for money. Or they ask us for a job. They take pictures of us with their camera-phones. Or they ask if we know the other celebrities in America (the ones they see on TV or whose albums they buy or listen to on the radio).
The funny thing is, a real celebrity, the richly famous Sir Richard Branson (of Virgin Records, Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Mobile, and even Virgin Galactic), has his own private game lodge just a few kilometers away. I’ve heard he comes a few times a year. But in the minds of most people in our village – we’re at the same level as him.
And it makes it hard to find a friend. People are happy to see us and be seen talking to us, but they’re usually too nervous to approach us at our house, to enter into our yard – as if they’re not good enough for us. One of our school’s staff explained that most people here are too embarrassed to invite us into their homes or even their yards, thinking that we’ll see too much that isn’t up to our “standards”.
Certainly when we do enter people’s homes from time-to-time, the first thing they usually do is apologize about how small their house is or how they don’t have nice things. The truth is, their homes are always bigger than the one we have now in the same village, and often bigger than our apartment was in America. And I can’t tell you what I’d give if I could buy just one couch to have in our home here. Yet most of them have entire living room sets and kitchen sets, etc.
I suppose celebrity status is necessarily a confusing situation for most people around us. Other than greeting, they simply don’t know what to make of us. They apparently don’t believe us when we say we’re “volunteers” and that we’re working for free – usually one of the first conversations we have with people when we meet them.
Even the ones who’ve come to know us a bit better often ask why we don’t buy this thing or that thing for our house, or why we ride bicycles instead of buying a car or at least taking the taxi. When we tell them it’s too expensive, that we’re volunteers, that we’re only given enough money for our basic needs, they act like it’s the first time they ever heard it. Then the whole conversation repeats itself a few days later, and they’re just as surprised as they were the first time we told them.
If they see me hoeing our yard to plant some seedlings, they’re sometimes surprised that I even know what a hoe is. Even though our house was there before we were, some people are even surprised that we don’t have our own tap and magic water supply – that instead we have to haul our water in a wheelbarrow like everyone else. I tried to explain to one young man, who seems more discerning than most, that we don’t really like people to treat us “special” like they do and that when it comes down to it, we’re just like everyone else. The only response he could come up with was, “but you are special!”
So, all this “celebrity distance” has made our desired level of integration into our village community more difficult than we expected. After being here for several months now, it seems it may slowly be fading away, if not the celebrity status itself, maybe at least the safe distance associated with it.
The people we’ve already known best seem to be more comfortable coming over to our house from time to time and even a few new people have surprisingly stopped by unannounced in the last few weeks. We haven’t heard as many requests for money or jobs lately and it seems like some people may be starting to realize that we’ll actually be here in their village for two years, and that we’re not going to be jet-setting back and forth to America in the meantime.
We certainly haven’t reached this more informal stage with everyone. Actually, it’s only a few so far. But it’s a start and we think it promises more natural relationships to come.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering what we did to become celebrities in third-world South Africa, the answer is simple: nothing. Our development work is only just beginning and the few results have been nearly invisible to everyone outside our schools.
We didn’t do anything to achieve this celebrity status, it’s simply from being who we are: white Americans. But it’s from being it here rather than there at home in America. The first aspect (that we’re white) of course is the most noticeable. But the second is what really seals the deal – that we’re all the way here from America (though most aren’t really sure where that is), the land of Hollywood and other celebrities, of money and everything a person could ever want.
If you ever have the chance to visit and spend some time in a third-world country, I hope you have the good luck to enjoy only the privileges of your new-found celebrity status, rather than its disappointments and obligations. In the meantime, we’re just trying to convince everyone here in South Africa that we’re normal just like they are and we’re busy trying to avoid giving eulogies for people we’ve never met!