Stellenbosch Update #6 (Posted Friday morning, Feb 15, 2008)

Final chapter of the ATM story. I took my ATM card inside a different bank than the one that had “retained” it. My American bank had suggested I do the transaction over the counter to avoid trouble. The second bank said that because it is an ATM card and not a VISA card they cannot do the transaction at the window, only in the ATM. But, don’t try it in their ATM because they are having trouble with foreign connections and it would probably get retained again. They suggested another bank up the street. At this point, the card is useless to me unless I can use it in an ATM, so even if it gets taken again, I would be no worse off. At the FNB (First National Bank) I go inside to use the ATM (in case the machine “eats” my card). Lo, and behold, the machine does what it is supposed to do and gives me money! I even got the balance of my American account given to me in rands on the receipt (makes me feel like we have a whole lot more money than we really do).

I was able to meet another American student today. She is here doing a masters degree in one of Christo’s programs. She is from Texas and moved here 2 weeks ago with her husband (who is doing some kind of international relations degree). We had a good time talking and exchanging stories of transitioning to Stellenbosch. She and her husband, Ricky, will hopefully join us on Sunday when we travel to Capetown. Andrea will be living here for 2 years while they finish their degrees. The masters programs are (mostly) English. She will be helping with one of Christo’s tutorial sections for first year Hebrew(he has one section of English speaking students). Right now, no one else is in her program! So, she has classes with Christo by herself.

Everyone has cell phones. They are cheaper than land lines. I have been trying to see if I can get a cell phone to use here, or to get my cell phone from home to work. Unfortunately, my phone does not have a SIM card slot in it. That is what makes it so easy to switch to a local cell phone number. I bought a SIM card for R6 (less than a dollar!). Christo loaned to me an old cell phone of his, and the SIM card just goes into that. Each SIM card has its own phone number. Once activated you “recharge” the phone by buying a voucher for airtime and entering the PIN code of the voucher. The airtime is deducted based on how many seconds you are on the phone. Tomorrow I will be able to start to use the phone. This will be nice because then I can call people I have met, or Christo can reach me when I am offline. It’s also a nice for safety issues.

Spelling correction. “Church” is not really “kirk.” It should be spelled “kerk.” So “kerk” means “church” and “kerker” means “dungeon.” Go figure. And for those of you who have been using “stoot,” here’s the complement: “trek.” Which means “pull” of course!

I haven’t written much about the University, so I guess now is the time. Stellenbosch University is home to 24,000 students. It is the equivalent of a public university in the US in that it is subsidized. It has a very high reputation for academics. US (Universiteit Stellenbosch) has an art school, a conservatory, and a law school among its many disciplines. Undergrad students who come here try to be admitted to a “res” or residence hall. It is highly desirable to be part of these dorms. Once you are in a res you stay there for your entire time at University (as long as your grades remain high enough). No one would prefer to live off-campus. But of course, there is not enough room for everyone in a res, so it is highly competitive. Students dress, eat, and act much like Westerners. Except for a few things. Some just don’t wear shoes. It’s optional (even in stores). On sunny days you won’t catch even one person out “sun-tanning.” They just don’t do it. Most students do not own cars. They either walk or bicycle.

The campus is large and beautiful. The large main library is underground (two floors). The center of the library is open to windows above so that there is natural light. There is a spiral walkway that leads down to a vast sea of study cubicles and stacks. They still use a card catalog in addition to the computer catalog. The light fixtures are quite unique. They look like suspended red pipes and there are single fluourescent tubes (with fins to disperse the light) all along the pipes. I will try to get a photo. The academic journals here are what you might expect in any university library…with a few exceptions. My favorite is “Pachederms.” You need a student card to get both into and out of the library.

The lecture halls and classrooms in the Arts building (where the Dept of Ancient Studies is located) are pretty typical of a large university. The student areas in the center of the buildings have couches and computer kiosks (to check email, etc). There are no vending machines, but there are little closets with counters that open up during parts of the day so that you can buy snacks. There are signs everywhere that say where you can and cannot eat, but no one pays attention. The ladies room has a bed in it. No idea why.

Christo says that the faculty all get evaluated by students each semester. These evaluations are directly related to the salary they will receive in the next year. Since it is a public institution, the government requires a certain amount of publishing by each faculty every year. Each department actually has its own wing (unlike WTS), so there is a “feel” for each department. There is a faculty room in the department where you can go to take tea in the morning and afternoon. If I am on campus at that time, I was invited to join in.

My gastehuis (guesthouse) is right next to the river, and just across the river are the playing fields for the university. Hence, at night I can hear the chanting, cheering, and singing crowds of sports fans. I’m not sure what they are playing (it is too dark for me to be out alone at that point), but they are quite enthusiastic.

Today there were some odd sights around campus. One was male students riding poles with paper horseheads on them as they went about campus. I saw several, and I don’t know if it was for a sports team or a club or some kind of initiation, but it was certainly amusing.

Not on campus, but in town, I saw another unusual group riding about. This was some kind of tour group on bicycles, but there must have been about 30 of them, and they were all at least 65 years old (and while fit enough to ride a bike, definitely not athletes). And all of them (every man and every woman) had bike shorts on. Ouch. This was a sight not to behold.

Today Christo and I met and discussed more about my research. It has been so helpful. He is so well-acquainted with the field and knows scholars all over the world. I will ask a question and he will bring up someone in Germany and discuss their writing. Then he will pull off the shelf various books that highlight what we are thinking about. He is very encouraging and I am grateful to have him as a mentor. He is revising his Biblical Hebrew Reference Grammar (actually it will end up being two versions, one for students and one for more advanced scholars). I like the way he is reorganizing it and how he is incorporating new ways of thinking about how we describe Biblical Hebrew. There is still much work to be done before it is ready for publication (the one version is slated for 2010 or 2011 I think).

I don’t want to bore most of my readers with details about Hebrew pedagogy, but Christo has given me all his exams and lecture notes to peruse and I think some of his ideas are really terrific. All of his exams are open book… but that doesn’t mean they are easy! In fact, I think they really help circumvent the “memorize English” issues that often crop up and get to the heart of really identifying what is important to notice in a text.

Thursday was Valentine’s Day and yes, it is celebrated in South Africa (sorry, Mel). Mostly just flowers and bakery sweets. I didn’t see any cards. And of course lots of folks out for dinner. But then, that is the norm all the time. Every restaurant and café has outdoor seating. You can sit and have a cup of coffee and be there for hours and no one rushes you off. The cafés are full from morning until the late evening. If it isn’t breakfast then it is tea, or lunch, or tea again, or dinner, or dessert, or drinks. A hobbit would be very at home.

Closing thoughts. This is a country of contrasts that often live quite harmoniously (at least for some things). Music can be Jack Johnson followed by African rhythms. European cuisine sits beside a dish of the exotic on the same table. The variety is not just an attempt to maintain multiple heritages (although it is that, too), but a relaxed comfort with things that might elsewhere seem jarring when juxtaposed. The ability, somehow, to coexist in the fullest sense. Not blending or melding into one thing so as to lose the individual identities, not just tolerating, but more than interleaving. Somehow enriching each other. It is hard to nail down. But it is a delightful (and instructive) change.