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Vaalwater Information

April 2009. In recent years, I've met a few volunteers in the Waterberg who've come from places far away. I've sensed a bit of culture shock in some of them, and so wrote this to help orient others who are considering spending some time here.

It's still called the "undiscovered" Waterberg of South Africa. It is remote (though less than three hours from Johannesburg), sparsely populated, and quite beautiful with its rugged mountains, water courses, and wildlife. It is also very poor.

North American, European, and Australian doctors, medical students, and teachers work for various periods in and around Vaalwater, the main town in the Waterberg. It is a rewarding experience for the foreigner, who will be making an important and appreciated contribution to the health, welfare and education of the impoverished residents of the Waterberg. The information provided here is intended to introduce you to the expectations and realities of your life in the Waterberg.

Accommodation. You may be accommodated in a fine cottage on a farm about five minutes outside of Vaalwater. The furnished cottage has a shower, kitchen, washing machine (if enough water is available). Alternative accommodation might be provided in local homes or in a backpackers’ hostel. There is electricity though there are frequent outages, sometimes planned and scheduled by Eskom, sometimes as a result of summer storms. It’s easy to enjoy dinner by candlelight and lantern.

Food and meals. You’ll probably find yourself preparing your own meals. There is one perfectly adequate grocery store in Vaalwater, and several small shops to buy foodstuff. Depending on how you count, there are at least six cafés and restaurants in town.

Banking. There are two small mini-branches in Vaalwater, representing two large national banks. All banking services are available at both and both have ATM machines. Foreign exchange transactions at both are not immediate; that is, you may leave your foreign currency at the bank and not get South African Rands back for a couple or more days. You may also encounter occasional problems with your foreign credit cards and ATM cards.

Vaalwater shopping and services. Most services you’d find in an urban area are available in Vaalwater, and if not, Modimolle is about 45 minutes away. Vaalwater has an Emergency Medical Service and doctors in private practice, as well as a dentist. Besides a post office, cafés and restaurants, and internet cafés, you’ll find a dry cleaning and laundry service, hair salons, “hardware” stores, cell phone shops, a sports bar, several gift shops, real estate offices, motor vehicle and other repair shops, butcher shops, liquor stores, a couple of places to rent DVDs, and tennis courts.
There is no book store, but you’ll find used books for sale in a couple of places. There is a small municipal library. There is a newly revived hotel and several B&Bs. Daily Pretoria and Johannesburg newspapers and current South African magazines are available at a couple of places in town. You will probably not need the several places that serve the farming community, but they’re in town as well.

Social life. You’ll find a very casual atmosphere in the Waterberg, with very outgoing and friendly residents. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be frequently invited to homes for dinner or other social occasions. You may find yourself with a lot of free time on your hands, best filled by your own personal interests and avocations, time with your work colleagues, and otherwise finding ways to enjoy the outdoor experience of the African bush, which is all around you. You’ll find that time has a different value than you might be used to.

Town Life. Vaalwater is more complex than the typical small town character you might expect. Yes, you’ll soon see many familiar faces, colleagues and service providers and more. You’ll know all your options for shopping very quickly. As a foreigner, and as a stranger, you’ll stand out. The entire Waterberg’s population may be about 80,000, but Vaalwater – with a population estimated between 1,000 and 1,500 – is certainly a small town.

But other dynamics play the dominant role in the area. Throughout South Africa, race is an unavoidable fact of life, and Vaalwater is no different. The great majority of the town and surrounding area residents are black South Africans, as many as 20,000, maybe more, living in Leseding (the community just outside of the town centre, a former township, still known as “the township”, or “the location”) and many more living in other Waterberg townships or on farms. They are generally poor, unskilled, unemployed or underemployed, and poorly educated. Their first language is Northern Sotho, Sepedi or Setswana. Many are likely to speak Afrikaans quite well, and many speak English with some facility.

Reliable data is hard to come by, but Afrikaners make up the next largest group in the Waterberg. They are generally small and medium sized farmers and owners of countless small and medium sized services in and around Vaalwater. Their first language is of course Afrikaans.

English-speaking South Africans (yes, another category of whites), are a stable but small population, perhaps 30 percent of the total white population. Those of an “older” generation and those younger ones who have grown up in the Waterberg speak Afrikaans quite comfortably.

There are many foreign nationalities represented in the Waterberg – British, American, Dutch, German, and more. They come to their Waterberg bush homes a few times a year, or are permanent residents in retirement, or they own or are working at a variety of tourist destinations in the Waterberg.

The black/white divide is enormous. The races meet at the symbiotic level of employer/employee and customer/service level, not much more. There is minimal social interaction and a tacit recognition of the wide cultural, educational and language differences. Yes, the students and teachers at the schools and health and welfare facilities may be somewhat mixed, and it’s easy to enjoy light banter across the races, but the fact of separateness is evident wherever you go.

Language, Names, and Words. The dominant language is Northern Sotho, followed by Afrikaans, then English. But English works virtually everywhere. Many places have been renamed in South Africa in the last few years. Thus Northern Province has become Limpopo Province. While Vaalwater has not been officially renamed Mabatlane, other nearby towns have changed their names: Nylstroom to Modimolle, Warm Baths to Bela Bela; Ellisras to Lephalale, Pietersburg to Polokwane, Naboomspruit to Mookgophong, Potgietersrus to Mokopane. You’ll quickly learn local new words and idioms. You’ll be saying “lekker” when you mean “nice” or even “cool”. You’ll be saying “that side” when you mean “over there”. And you’ll learn the difference between “just now” and “now now”.

Crime. No place is immune from crime, of course, but there is very little the foreign visitor should worry about in and around Vaalwater. Very rarely is there any crime in the area that confronts the individual – attacks, muggings, carjackings, etc. You will feel quite comfortable walking around Vaalwater. Rather, there are the occasional night time and weekend break-ins in Vaalwater shops; there are occasional “inside jobs” on farms and at tourist establishments, stealing for instance solar panels or telephone equipment; and there is alcohol-induced violence in Leseding.

Communications. You may want to get a telephone line installed wherever you are living, but it is not an easy, quick process. Instead, you will likely rely on a cell phone, easily purchased, even in Vaalwater. Using your overseas cell phone once you are in South Africa will be expensive for you as well as for those who want to call you. Sometimes it is easier for those overseas to call you.

There is cell phone reception in and around Vaalwater, but not in all parts of the Waterberg.

Internet access on a private computer is possible through a cell phone connection. Everything can be bought and set up in Vaalwater. Alternatively, there are two internet cafés in Vaalwater. You’ll find that internet connections are not at the high speeds and general reliability that you are probably used to, including at the internet cafés in the area.

The Post Office in Vaalwater works well, despite what you may hear. You should be eligible to get yourself a PO Box.

Transportation. If you are not provided with a vehicle, you should consider renting a car during your stay. Otherwise, you may be dependent on others for rides, and find your mobility restricted. There are uncomfortable and some would say unsafe busses and taxis available to get you to Modimolle and further to Pretoria and Johannesburg. A bicycle can be arranged for or bought. It is good for transport within Vaalwater but not beyond.

Climate. Summer months are from October through March, and days are generally sunny and hot, but without stifling humidity. Summer evenings are pleasant. Average summer temperatures range from 15 degrees Celsius at night to 30 degrees Celsius during the day (59-86 degrees Fahrenheit). Exciting thunderstorms strike during the summer. Daily rainfall is a regular and important topic of conversation in the Waterberg.

Winter months, April through September, are moderate with temperatures averaging 5-20 degrees Celsius (41-68 degrees Fahrenheit). Days are sunny and pleasant with virtually no rain. Mornings and nights are cold, reaching freezing on only a few nights during June and July. Without the kind of heating you may be used to in homes and buildings, you’ll be well aware of the cold.

Yes, fall and spring exist, but not in the obvious ways you may be used to. Rather, you’ll find a gradual transition from winter to summer and back.

Clothing. To maintain a professional look, it is best to wear clothing without branding, logos or pictures. The suggestion is professional but casual attire. Here are some other ideas of clothes to bring: comfortable walking shoes and sandals; long sleeved cotton shirts or T-shirts. For winter, sweaters, jerseys, fleece and jackets for warm, dry days and cool to cold nights; a wool hat, scarf and gloves might be useful in winter as well. For summer, light, cool clothing and waterproof raincoat and hat for hot days and warm nights, with short thunderstorms; jeans or casual trousers; swimming costume (bathing suit) and swimming towel.

Other items to bring. You might want to bring a torch (flashlight); head torch; camera and film; binoculars; reading matter; pastimes, such as for art; reference books, pen and paper; multi-purpose knife; your own medical necessities; sun block; small, travel-sized first aid kit (with aspirin, band aids, a disinfectant wash, etc.). Think of the adapters for your electrical devices. Electrical devices like hair dryers from the US must have the option to switch voltage (from 110 to 220).

Insurance. It is essential to have your own comprehensive medical and travel insurance coverage.

Health. The Waterberg is called “malaria-free”. While that cannot be one-hundred percent assured, the region is generally devoid of the Anopheles mosquito which transmits malaria. Malaria precautions need not be taken if you are only visiting this region of South Africa. If you plan to travel to other parts of South Africa or further, consult your local travel advisory clinic regarding malaria risks.

In general, tap water is perfectly safe to drink in the Waterberg (as it is in most of South Africa). However, water provided by the municipality of Vaalwater may not always be potable; know the source. Plan to drink lots of water. Because of the danger of dehydration, it is important for new arrivals to drink a lot of water until they are acclimatised.

Costs. You’ll find the cost of living in the Waterberg much less than in the US or Europe, partly because it is and partly because there will be so little to spend your money on. That said, the cost of petrol and diesel is much higher than the US and Europe and you’ll find some normal grocery store items more expensive. Fresh fruits and vegetables are generally less costly.

A Note on Expectations. You’ll be living and working in circumstances very different than what you might be used to. “Manage” your expectations. Self-sufficiency is a great virtue. You’ll occasionally be working alone, and often have evenings and other time to yourself. You’ll not be on holiday, but you will get a chance to enjoy yourself. Bring books to read or a pastime to pursue (e.g., hiking, writing, reading, art, astronomy).

Working in the Waterberg is for you if you
• want to make a genuine contribution to the health, welfare or education of impoverished people who are normally without adequate health care and education;
• want to experience a dramatic change in your working and living conditions;
• are interested in learning about medical conditions and diseases you may not be familiar with;
• enjoy life in a small town, rural area;
• enjoy meeting new and different people;
• love having time to read;
• prefer to climb a mountain and enjoy a spectacular view rather than watch a DVD or shop.
First written and distributed in 2007