One of the best compliments you can give a Peace Corps volunteer is that they seem very integrated. That said, every volunteer has at least a few common local practices that they swear they’ll never adopt. Some are big issues: egregious littering, animal abuse, corporal punishment. One day I should write a serious post about navigating these cross-cultural minefields while maintaing respect for both yourself and your South African colleagues.
But not today. The integration issue I’m going to write about today is: umbrellas. Yep.
For a lot of people, carrying an umbrella everywhere is an integration line they refuse to cross. See, it’s common here to use an umbrella to protect yourself from the sun, to the point where people are scandalized if you walk around without one. South Africans seem to give each other a break, but everyone bubbles over with concern for my pasty Welsh complexion. One time Kate insisted I borrow her parasol for a less-than-15ft walk between her car and a pavilion. Maybe they think I’m a vampire.
Like most volunteers, I privately considered this an exasperating cultural quirk. I get why people do it, but I just didn’t want to do it myself. It looks goofy. It’s yet another thing to carry around. Somewhere past 95 degrees, using an umbrella to stay cool is like using a newspaper to stay dry in a tsunami. Also, I wanted to be tan. “AT LEAST GIVE ME THAT, AFRICA,” I thought. This place is such a tease; your “tan” usually turns out to be red dirt. Last but not least, all this alone time in the village can make you pretty neurotic. Doubt I ever had an opinion about umbrellas before, let alone the drive to blog about ‘em.
Anyway, so you see, sunbrellas ain’t necessary. Yet the level of commentary I inspire when I don’t carry one is absurd. “Xi kwihi xambhulela??? Where’s the umbrella???” Everyone I passed would ask why I didn’t have one. “It’s not raining!” I would cry. “I don’t need one! Stop asking me! ARGH.”
(Note: the Tsonga word for “umbrella” is pronounced “sham-bu-lay-la”. Easily one of the silliest-sounding words in the language.)
Eventually I decided it was easier to start carrying one rather than deal with people asking why I wasn’t. Just on really hot days. Then less-hot days. And then somehow, it started feeling normal. Which is how integration gets you. I once caught myself in Pretoria saying to another volunteer, “I’d really like to walk to the mall, but it’s pretty sunny and I don’t have an umbrella…”
It was like that moment in a zombie flick where a character realizes they’ve been bitten. Ahhhh! Too much integration!! My friends all mocked me for picking up the umbrella habit. But it gets worse.
I woke up yesterday and saw that it was overcast, as if about to drizzle. I thought: “Maybe the sun won’t come out, and I can leave my umbrella at home. I already have too much to carry anyway.”
By the afternoon, it was blazing hot and sunny. Of course. As I trudged home a woman started walking with me.
“Where is your umbrella?!” She asked.
“Oh, but it is too hot.”
“It was cloudy this morning,” I explained, “So I didn’t bring an umbrella because I thought it might rain.”
We stared at each other for a minute as the stupidity of that statement sunk in. D’oh! When it comes to umbrellas, apparently I integrated so much that I came out the other side.