Thursday, August 21, 2008

Today I wrote a book.

Sanibonani Bonkhosi! So, hopefully, this (extremely long) blog entry will be more composed than the previous ones because I FINALLY got my computer fixed. That means that I don’t have the constant pressure of pay-by-the-minute internet while I’m writing this! (And more than once I’ve written a blog only to have it not post. I never thought I’d be so grateful for MS Word and a jump drive.) But still, don’t expect too much…I’m still under the pressure of a short-lived computer battery and I have Phil Collins blaring in my room. Just because I can…for about 2 hours a day (then my battery dies and I don’t have electricity). It’s a good life.

So the days have been going by SO fast! Last week I met my “counterpart” (his name is Vusi) and he took me to my permanent site, a place called Hhohho Emuva. So to clear up some confusion (Erin, you totally were dead on!) it’s a tiny village, population 6000 in the southern region of Swaziland (called Shiselweni, but maybe not spelled like that) near the town of Hluti. It’s confusing, I guess, because Hhohho is the name of the region in the north of the country, so that’s about like living in Colorado City, Texas. It’s still in Texas, but it’s called Colorado. Anyway…calling Hluti a “town” MAY be an overstatement because I visited for all of ten minutes and exhausted the town’s offerings. It consists of a hardware store which sells sugar, flour, rice, eggs, live chickens, and assorted “housewares” like mattress (not mattresses, just one), tea set and glasses (they had three of those, but one was cracked). And they had one can of paint. They weren’t sure what color it was. The grocery store offers standard fare and there’s a nice produce market there offering a wide array of tomatoes, green peppers, carrots, onions and beetroot, which is basically all the vegetables that exist in Swaziland. Creativity and tolerance for questionable culinary concoctions is something Peace Corps should stress as a requirement for applicants. And if you don’t like grilled cheese, you’d probably starve…it’s one of the few decent things you can make that requires no water.

Anyway, my permanent site host family is FANTASTIC. I have a cute little house that measures 478cm x 385cm and I have no idea what that is in inches/feet or anything, but just picture me measuring it with a yard-long measuring tape from my sewing kit. Whatever, it passes the time…and that I’ve got PLENTY of here in Swaziland. Note: if you need a few years to just contemplate life, join the Peace Corps. I think my favorite part of my house is that a goat clearly walked around in my room before the cement of the floor was dry, so I’ve got little baby goat hoof prints all over my house. My host family consists of my Babe (father) and Make (mother), who are really Mkhulu (grandfather) and Gogo (grandmother) to the children living at the homestead, but I haven’t really figured out the family structure yet so I don’t know for sure. Then I’ve got two bosisi (sisters) who are in their mid- to late-twenties and unmarried, which makes them spinsters by Swazi standards, and one bhuti (brother) who is high school-aged. And then younger than that I’ve got a collection of bobhuti (brothers) and bosisi (sisters) who don’t speak a word of English and who sometimes cry at the site of me, but they’ll get over it. There are probably 7 or 8 little kids under the age of 12, and the youngest is probably about 3. We played hide and seek, but I don’t think she understood the game because every time I found her she cried. Maybe she was just hiding and I didn’t get the game…

Oh, and at my permanent site I get the best radio station in the whole world—East Coast Radio out of Durban. If nothing else, that’s reason for other volunteers to visit me.

Vusi took me around the community for the three days I was staying there and I got to know where the sitolo (store) and market are, and he showed me how to use a hand-pump well and I pretended to be intrigued by this new skill. (Technically it was my first time, but it’s kind of self-explanatory.) His job is “kaGogo clerk” which means nothing to you, but essentially the kaGogo Centre is a place that’s been set up in each community by the government of Swaziland to coordinate HIV/AIDS mitigation efforts in the rural areas. The clerk, my counterpart, is responsible for surveying the community to determine the demographics of the area and the HIV/AIDS prevalence, organizing educational workshops on HIV/AIDS for school-aged children, and coordinating the activities of NCPs. An NCP is a neighborhood care point, which is essentially a building established by the government/UNICEF/the government of Japan to provide meals for orphans. All the food and labor is donated by local bomake (mothers), and some of the NCPs even offer classes for children who can’t afford to go to school. (School costs about E250 a term and there are three terms a year…that’s about $100 a year.) There are 9 NCPs in my village, which is a HUGE number for a community the size of mine, which directly reflects the population of orphans in my community. According to Vusi there are only two child-headed households in my community where the oldest acting parent is below the age of 10 (I say “only,” but by Swazi standards that’s good), but he still has to survey a huge portion of the community. My village is both low-, mid-, and high-veld, which means that to walk anywhere is up and down and up and down some mountains, so he hasn’t surveyed the lowest part of the lowveld community yet. And when he does, now he gets to drag me along too. But he’s been really fantastic in introducing me to the chief and the chief’s inner council (at which point I forgot every last word of siSwati I ever knew) and in warding off marriage proposals, and he speaks PERFECT English. It’s amazing. And he even threatened to beat some guy who insisted on calling me “umlungu,” which is a derogatory term for white people or foreigners.

After OJT (on the job training…that’s what that visit was) I even found my way back to my current homestay village all by myself and without incident. It’s a big step because Peace Corps likes us to learn by teeny tiny baby steps. I understand it’s for safety and all, but being able to ride on a kombi (mini-bus) by myself and being able to shop in Nhlangano (that’s the town I’m nearest) at my own pace was an exhilarating experience after 2 months of traveling in a pack. I could finally walk at Justine speed!

I’ve completely gotten used to the rhythm of my life here during pre-service training (PST). The family I’m staying with now, the Matses, are great, but it’s going to be nice to have a bit of privacy at my permanent site. It’s really awkward to have to walk through the kitchen with a bucket of dirty bath water every morning while all the kids are in there eating breakfast, and I only have another week of that before I’m truly on my own. And I definitely won’t miss the stupid geese at this homestead. I never realized before how terrible geese are, but for real they are the most obnoxious animals ever. They are constantly noisy (as in people who live several homesteads down the road complain about our geese), they’re aggressive (they hiss and flail their wings and if you let them get too close they will nibble on you with their creepy teeth-ed beaks), they smell and they poo just anywhere they want to. But mostly they’re scary, especially since it’s mating season. I guess Mr. Goose is just protecting his lady friends, but he’s a real jerk about it and my family likes to tell stories about Phindile and her fear of geese. The stories are reenacted complete with running and arm flailing, and they’re not really exaggerating. But I have stashed goose-hitting sticks a few places around the homestead so I’m never completely defenseless.

We also had our “mock LPI” (Language Proficiency Interview) the week before we left for OJT. Clearly, the Peace Corps loves acronyms. (Or I could say PC/SD…) Anyway, it’s essentially a 20-minute interview during which some guy I’d never met/heard speak siSwati before grilled me in siSwati on such questions as “what’s your name?” and “what do you like to do on the weekend?” and “what are the rules of Frisbee?” Right. Good thing I remembered how to say “run” and “throw” and “catch.” I ended up rating at intermediate low, which is as high as we have to be for our final exam and that was only a little more than half-way through our intensive language course. We had our final exam this afternoon (Thursday) and as long as I don’t do worse than my last test I get to stay, so I’m not terribly worried. I guess if we fail they send us to Mbabane, the capital city, for a week or two and make us study constantly until we pass. And if we still fail, they send us home, but I don’t think that’s ever happened in the Swaz. We’ll see.

We did have one of our trainees ET (early terminate) this past week, which was really sad for us. There’s an empty chair and an extra copy of every handout, but I know it was absolutely the right decision for her and in a lot of ways I think it’s better for both the trainee/volunteer and his/her potential community to realize that Peace Corps isn’t right this early in the game. The completion rate of Peace Corps in Swaziland is about 30% so there will be more, but for now we’re still at 35.

The past weekend was pretty exciting. One day we had two doctors from Baylor University come visit us and teach us everything there is to know about HIV/AIDS and the epidemic in Swaziland specifically. Baylor runs a few clinics (three?) in the country where they provide anti-retroviral therapy (ART or ARVs) to HIV-positive Swazis, breastfeeding education, pre- and post-natal care, and obviously HIV testing. I was surprised to learn some of the impacts of the disease on the age structure of the population and it seems that, now that rapidly-aging grandparents are caring for such a large segment of the under-15 population, that the social impact of HIV/AIDS is yet to be seen…those bogogo and bomkhulu won’t live forever. It’s sad to see, but at the same time we learned some of the amazing things that ARVs can do for people living with HIV. In Swaziland it’s free for people with a CD4 count lower than 250 to receive ART and many clinics provide HIV-positive pregnant women with the medications necessary to prevent mother-to-child transmission of the disease during labor, delivery and the first week of the child’s life. While it can’t completely eliminate the risk, it does significantly reduce it (from 50% to less than 3% or something like that). It’s amazing, really, but sad because the rate of transmission from HIV-positive mother to child is still about 14%--one of the highest in the world. The problem is that many of the medications are located only in the bigger cities so it’s financially impossible to pay for transport, or because women don’t wish to disclose their HIV status to their families for fear of being shunned (which is common) and, obviously, taking ARVs and giving ARVs to a newborn baby is a dead giveaway of HIV-positive status. But it’s not entirely hopeless…progress is happening. The first AIDS-related death in Swaziland was in the 1920s or 1930s so obviously AIDS has been here a lot longer than HIV/AIDS educators and epidemiologists…nothing is going to change overnight.

The next day we talked to three traditional healers (inyanga, plural tinyanga), all of whom were women. One of them, named Priscilla, was a doctor or nurse or something by profession and had a PhD in medical something and had previously lived in San Francisco, so she was an educated and well-traveled woman in addition to being a traditional healer. They talked about the role of traditional healers in Swazi society—there are over 20,000 in the country and more than 80% of people still visit them—and their role in mitigating the spread of HIV/AIDS. Of course we got into the specifics of “what about those healers who advertise that they can cure HIV?” which is obviously a concern of ours—it’s exactly what we’re working AGAINST. They answered for their audience and said that they don’t really believe they can “cure” it but they just want business, or they don’t really understand what “cure” means or something. Which I guess I understand. If a traditional healer who knows nothing about HIV/AIDS sees a woman with a skin rash one month and cures it with an ointment, then sees the same woman for diarrhea the next month and cures it with an herbal medicine, that healer may not assume that the two illnesses are related. But because the traditional healers have so much contact with the people it’s really crucial to educate them on what HIV looks like and to teach them that they should urge people to get tested. I guess that’s why we’re here. It’s encouraging, though, that when I was in my permanent village I saw a man that my counterpart said was an inyanga (traditional healer) dropping some of his patients off at a clinic, presumably as referrals. That’s exactly what needs to happen here!

Then of course there were a million things that the traditional healers said that I DIDN’T agree with…even the really educated woman. When we asked if they were searching for a cure for HIV/AIDS, one of the women said that she was sure that one existed but they just hadn’t found it yet. Another said there was a cure for HIV/AIDS, but that the ancestors said the “time wasn’t right” and if they let the secret out then people would lose their jobs and children would starve. WHAT? It’s some of those things that we’re here to dispel, too. The doctor lady also said that the reason that so many Africans are dying of AIDS is because ARVs were developed by Americans and so they only work for white people, which is entirely false. Yes, more Africans are dying of AIDS even on ARVs but that’s because Americans take ARVs much earlier in the illness, they have better nutrition, they aren’t continually re-infected with the virus, they aren’t exposed to opportunistic infections like malaria and TB, and they have a near-100% adherence rate to the medications so their bodies don’t develop resistance as quickly. And what about Black Americans on ARVs? (Most Swazis are absolutely flabbergasted when we tell them that there are black people in America. “What? You mean you have seen people with skin like me before?”) She also described a man who she said was a witch who, for E500 ($67), would cast a spell on someone to make them die. Um, that’s called a hitman. Or a really shady businessman—not a witch. It was frustrating, especially after the very Western, very logical, very American perspective of the Baylor doctors the previous afternoon, but it was good to see that those kinds of beliefs exist among all sectors of Swazi society. I guess that’s why we’re here…If I can convince one person to use condoms even after they’ve been “cured” by the inyanga, I will have done my job.

We also went to the Swazi Cultural Village at Mantenga this week. If you Google Swaziland, the first image that comes up is of a waterfall called Mantenga Falls…that’s where I was yesterday. It was GORGEOUS, despite the fact that I was wearing a long skirt and dress shoes…they didn’t tell us what we were doing so I hadn’t dressed for the occasion. We also got to see some traditional Swazi dances (complete with female toplessness and men wearing loin cloths made of animal skins) and if I ever get internet fast enough to post pictures I’ll show you some. (Not of the nudity, but I got a few that are internet-appropriate) We stopped over in Manzini and I bought a traditional dress for our swear-in ceremony (in 2 weeks!!!!!), a yoga mat and a jump rope. Last night I put on some “Eye of the Tiger” and jumped rope in true Rocky style in my bedroom while my family stared at me through the window. They think I’m crazy and my calves hurt like you wouldn’t believe, but it feels nice to do something other than sit in a classroom. It was pretty funny, though, to try to explain to my family what a yoga mat was for. It led to an impromptu yoga lesson in the grass outside my house. I was wearing a skirt.

Just so you know what's in my future, today I have my LPI (at 3:30 today, but I'm very very prepared). Saturday we're having a huge braai (cook-out) and I'm making potato salad to feed a million people. Sunday we have a family appreciation ceremony for our host families, then we go to Mbabane for a few days to decompress/hang out and buy some necessities like bedding and dishes. On the 28th we have our swear-in ceremony (assuming I do well enough on my LPI, which I will...) and on the 29th they drop us off at our sites. Then I may not post again until Thanksgiving because I won't be allowed to leave my site for longer than a few hours. I think I'm going to take up a hobby like knitting or something. I've already got yoga going for myself, but I guess I can't do that for 8 hours a day. I'm seriously considering buying a keyboard. I really don't know what I'm going to do with myself for 3 siSwati I guess is the correct answer...Really I'm planning on spending all of my time working on my farmer tan in my new GARDEN! I'm not really sure if I'm supposed to plant this time of year, but I'm going to because there's nowhere near my house to buy produce. And besides, gardening is good exercise (especially when you're plowing the field by hand!) and it passes the time. Oh, Africa.

Some other thoughts:
--I’m never going to remember to flush a toilet ever again in my life. And 2-ply toilet paper is going to be such a luxury when I get back to the US…it might just be the “best thing since sliced bread” which, incidentally, I now understand.
--Turns out, “when the cows come home” isn’t as abstract as I thought, either…it means “about 5:45.” Maybe it’s later in the summer, but I’m not sure yet.
--For some reason I’m absolutely incompetent at Swazi crossword puzzles. And they’re in English. There’s no excuse. But I’m getting really good at Sudoku (as if that’s an acquired skill)
--I’ve been listening to the Olympic updates days late on Swazi radio and Swazis really don’t know what the Olympics are. I DID go to a furniture store that sells TVs to watch diving the other day. If anyone wants to record the gymnastics and burn it on a DVD and send it to me, that’d be great. But I won’t get my hopes up.
--I also understand those two-part doors where the top can be open but the bottom is still shut. It’s to keep chickens out. I’ve learned that no amount of rock-throwing will teach them to stay out for more than 15 minutes. It’s a constant battle.
--Roosters don’t crow at sunrise. They crow about every 40 minutes, day and night.
--I found an ad in the newspaper from USAID. It says “Life rocks when abstaining!” That’s all. I tore it out because I thought it was funny and my family didn’t understand why it was funny.

Sengicedzile (“I’m done”…that c is a click sound)

Love to everyone and thanks to everyone who’s sent me mail/packages. I’m the envy of the training class with my Crystal Light and quality nail polish. Who knew you could barter with that stuff?

Salani Kahle (stay well),

(Oh, Phindile is pronounced like Pen-Dee-Lay. Just so you know.)


hbbugleboy said...

"One can of paint...not sure what color". Great mental picture!! I love your blog and I am always excited when you post something. We are all amazed at your dedication and are very proud of you!! Keep up the good work!
Love, your Dad.

Erin said...

I'm so excited for you! Every time you post, I make everyone in my office read it. I think we're all addicted. I want to send you something but I don't know what. Email me for anything at all. I do think that I have a knitting book and a bunch of yarn from when I tried to knit. You probably have more patience (and time) than I do, so maybe I'll send that too. I finally got that calling card Mom was talking about, so I'll try to call you sometime. Good luck on your test today! Love, your Sister.

Erin said...

So I went home at lunch and checked the mail and there was a letter from you! It was the highlight of my week! A blog post and a letter in the same day! Woo hoo!