Wednesday, September 17, 2008

40/40, Animal Farm and Gender Relations

So here’s the warning: this is a long entry composed over a number of days (possibly weeks…I don’t know when I’ll be going to town next to use the internet) so just bear with me. I’ll try to make it make sense.

This year is a big one in the Swaz. It’s the 40th anniversary of independence from Britain and the 40th birthday of His Majesty King Mswati III (apparently, it’s offensive to say his name without “His Majesty” in front of it) so there was a big 40/40 celebration this year in Lobamba at some stadium. Despite being really really far away from Manzini and Lobamba, I left my village bright and early on the day of the event (Sept 6) and managed to get to the event by 9:15 traveling all by myself. It was a proud moment for me…using only siSwati I managed to find a nice older couple also heading to the 40/40 and they helped me navigate my way through the bus ranks to the stadium, then waited with me in the queue (line) until I finally met up with some other Americans. It was a good time. They even bought me some roast chicken and rice! Bekumnandzi.

Anyway, the day’s festivities, in true Swazi style, involved a lot of sitting out in the hot sun waiting for things to happen. There were a couple thousand young maidens in their umhlanga attire (Google it, but probably not at work), lots of men with beer bellies in traditional attire (topless for both men and women) and a good number of important people from Africa at the event. In attendance were the presidents of Mozambique, Rwanda, Uganda, Namibia, Madagascar and ZIMBABWE. Yeah, that’s right. Mugabe came to the party. And the worst part is that he was introduced after a long list of other leaders that nobody really clapped for, and when his name was announced everyone cheered and whistled and was generally very supportive. Um, okay. He was wearing big, dark sunglasses and he kind of looked like Kanye West or something. And next to the King he looked very small. But maybe that’s because I was only seeing him through the zoom on some British guy’s camera…

So there was dancing and singing and a marching band (emasoldiers, which is also what you call CD4 cells) and the King spoke for what seemed like forever (in English, then somebody translated to siSwati…does he speak siSwati????) and some other people spoke and then there was more dancing. But we all got hungry and bored because the only part in English was the king speaking so we left at like 2:30 and headed into Mbabane for pizza and ice cream. (KFC currently has this thing called the “brownie avalanche” which consists of an absurd number of fudge brownies and vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce. It’s basically worth the trip to Mbabane by itself.) Then we went to a braai (cook-out) for one of the Group 5 PCVs who will be heading home this week and stayed overnight in Mbabane. I got to cuddle with two dogs (Jess and Nelly), play bocce ball, figure out how to sneak through an electric fence without getting shocked (the Frisbee went over the fence) and I woke up with a cat sleeping on my back, which really freaked me out. A good time was had by all.

Other than that, I’ve just been hanging out at my site and settling into my new house. These first three months I’m supposed to be doing research of sorts and getting to know my community. “Integrating,” they call it. But, unfortunately or fortunately, my counterpart Vusi was elected Bucopho which means that he’s now the liaison between our village and parliament so he’s not around to translate and introduce me to people. I talked to a few other people about it and I’m pretty much just supposed to wander on my own and figure stuff out, so I’ve been playing soccer with the kids on my homestead, painting my house ( walls were much more absorbent than I anticipated), gardening (mostly contemplating and budgeting for gardening), shopping and studying siSwati. And doing Sudokus. Lots of Sudokus. School starts again on the 15th so I’ll hopefully have more to do then, but we’ll see what actually happens. I DID have one private tutoring session with a Form 3 student (sophomore in high school) who is preparing for the equivalent of the SAT and needs help with English composition. I wish I had kept all of those seemingly unnecessary handouts from Mrs. Jecheva and Mrs. Davis on how to write papers with TS-CD-CM-CM-CD-CM-CM and the inverted triangle introductions. (If you went to WRHS, you know what I’m talking about). Anyway, if anyone has them and wants to send them to me, that’d be great.

I did get to meet the Deputy Police Commander, Mr. Zwane, the other day. Four of us in the region gathered at Hluti to meet with him and he decided he wanted all of us to know where each person lived so we drove around in the back of a pick-up (called a “bakkie” here, from the English word “buggy”) to each person’s site and I got REALLY sunburned, despite the fact that I was wearing sunscreen. Stupid African sun. Since then Mr. Zwane has called me twice to check on me and make sure nobody is harassing me and he came by one afternoon with the police commander (whose name I forget) to introduce us. At least if I have an emergency I know they know where to find me.

Last week in town I bought the “Julia Roberts Collection” DVD featuring bootleg Pretty Woman, Mona Lisa Smile, Erin Brockovich, Sleeping with the Enemy (bad movie!), My Best Friend’s Wedding and Notting Hill. All in widescreen and with closed captions in Indonesian (no joke)! I watched four movies today, despite the fact that I could barely hear over the pouring rain on my tin roof. They say the rainy season begins in October and I’m not looking forward to it considering that this is the “dry season” and it’s still pretty wet out. I guess I shouldn’t complain—there’s been eight years of drought plaguing this country and any amount of rain is good. But yeah, when it rains I just sit around and watch movies.

The most important aspect of my laziness, I think, is the wonderful new addition to my house known as ELECTRICITY! I woke up the other day to the frightening sound of my Babe and bhuti crawling on my roof trying to get the cord through the space between the cement wall and the tin roof into my house. So now I have one plug (it’s just an extension cord run from the main house) and I bought a surge protector so I don’t kill my computer (the power frequently goes on and off here) and one of those work light things with the extension cord and the hook on the top. I don’t know what they’re called, but that’s what I have for a light now. And let me tell you that 15 watts of energy efficient light REALLY makes a difference. There are three more hours in every day now that I can stay up after dark, and I can read without wearing a headlamp. It’s amazing. I even baked some banana bread for my family today in appreciation, now that my oven finally works. Well, that and I think my rotting bananas were attracting bats.

And the bats are just part of my animal problem. Basically I live on a farm. We have hogs, goats, cows, chickens and one very loud rooster who never sleeps. The Monday after I moved in I heard some commotion outside and stuck my head out the door to see a mama goat having babies, which I took lots of pictures of from my door. My family thought I was a bit nuts because, well, they’ve seen this so much that it’s not exciting for them anymore, but nonetheless I continued to “shoot” the event. There were two babies, a brown and white one and a black one, and they were SO CUTE! So I decided to leave them alone and I walked back into my hut and locked my burglar door for the night. Then I heard a horrible screaming sound and I looked outside and, long story short, I learned that hogs eat baby goats. They are also not deterred by Nerf footballs, but once I got out of my house and hit her with rocks she (the big 400-pound hog) ran away squealing. The one baby was unhurt because the mama goat was positioned to protect her, but the other one was seriously injured and as of writing (Sept 11) was still alive but probably not for much longer. It was sad, really, and now I’m pretty afraid of the stupid hogs because I’ve seen how disgusting and violent they can be. (Now, though, I’ve befriended the little brown and white one which I decided to call Norma and she even lets me pet her. When I wake up in the morning she’s sitting out on my doorstep waiting for me, like a dog. But then there’s also the dog. We’re friends too because I won’t let my Babe kill her despite the fact that she’s very old and doesn’t do anything but sit around.)

The morning after the night of the stupid hog my Make led me out into the maize field (unplanted now) where the stupid hog was laying in the grass writhing in pain. My first thought was “good, you stupid hog, I hope you die” (I was hoping for a punctured bowel or something, the result of eating a bony baby goat) but then I realized that it was actually giving birth, which is basically the opposite of dying. I watched the first 7 be born and got to cut one of the umbilical cords and the babies are SO CUTE. There were 13, but a week later there are 12, which apparently is really good for hogs who usually kill/eat/sit on their babies. Anyway, my Make wanted me to “shoot” the pigs, which means take pictures of them, and I did because the babies are cute. But I hate their mother. I tell her that every day, too. And my family thinks I’m crazy…I talk to the pigs (“Suka, pig, I don’t like you”) and the goats (“Hey Mrs. Goat, how are the kids?”) and the dog (we mostly talk about fleas, but sometimes I ask her to escort me to the latrine) and the bats (“not tonight, bats, go away…I’ve got a broom!”) and the chickens (“excuse me, chickens”). I pretend they understand my English because nobody else in my family does, that’s for sure. (Although they understand more English than they let on…but I guess we’re even because I do that with siSwati, too.)

I also showed my family my computer after I got electricity. They don’t really understand the concept of a computer (except my two sisis who are in high school) so I told them it’s like a TV but it only plays movies and music and it holds pictures. But we looked through pictures of my life (all the ones on this computer) and tried to explain what a windmill was (they understand because they mill their maize by hand every morning) and why the dog was wearing hats and sitting on the couch and how even though all white people look the same we are not, in fact, all sisters. I’ve had this conversation so many times. And then I showed them that I could type on it and I think I’m going to try to help my sisis with typing because it’s a coveted skill here in Swaziland. (The lady at the internet café once offered me an hour of free internet for every hour of typing instruction I could give her, and internet is a precious commodity!) And for my sharing of computer they invited me into the house to watch Sunday afternoon WWE Raw. Great! I haven’t watched TV in months and you sit me down for 2 hours of wrestling? Why can’t we export Sex & The City or something?

And now for the most hilarious exchange I’ve had so far in Swaziland. We were watching wrestling and some lady (Mickie James, I think…I’m ashamed I know her name) came out and she’s wearing this skin tight leotard thing that her large, artificial breasts are about to jump out of and her hair is all tussled she’s wearing too much makeup and she looks, well, like a bimbo. And my sisi says “oh, Americans are so beautiful!” to which I reply “Americans don’t really look like that.” And she says, “but YOU do!” Who knew I was so voluptuous and shiny.

Life here is interesting, to say the least. It’s unpredictable and routine, boring and overwhelming, easy and painful. There are things I’m starting to understand and things I don’t yet know I DON’T understand. But all things considered I’m thrilled to be here and I love every minute of it (except when there are bats flying around in my room because then I’m shrieking too much to enjoy Swaziland). In moving here, I prepared myself to have to adjust to things like using a pit latrine instead of a toilet, to using candles instead of lights, to eating weird foods and not having the luxury of things like Milano cookies (or raspberry milanos, or mint milanos…), to walking everywhere instead of taking the bus and to inhaling large amounts of dust all the while. But surprisingly, those have been the easiest things to get used to.

The difficult adjustments are much more abstract. For example, because of the possibility of unknown creatures on the homestead, it’s not really advisable to go out to the latrine after dark. This means that you either can’t pee from 6 to 6, or you have to use the “pee bucket.” I haven’t yet christened the bucket, but I’ve also been going to bed shortly after dark…now that I have electricity I think it will be more of a challenge. I’m also adjusting to the weather actually having an impact on my life. In the US, if it rains that just means you get to wear fun boots, but here that means you can’t do laundry or the kombis aren’t running regularly so you can’t get back from town if you decide to go, or there will be an inordinate amount of lizards in the latrine. And who knew that fruits and vegetables had a SEASON? Apparently onions are a winter crop, which means that during the months that you have tomatoes you don’t have onions. No wonder Swazis don’t eat pasta. This is all very new to me. And my family absolutely does not understand the concept of animals as pets. Animals exist either to provide protection (dogs) or to provide foot (goats, pigs, chickens, etc.) and nothing else. Animals are NOT allowed in or near the house, and if they come begging for food they are usually hit with rocks. They find it very amusing when I let the dog have the peels of my carrots or the crumbs from my bread, and they’re especially amused when I walk around the homestead with a banana peel searching for a goat or a pig to feed it to. Now that I’m thinking about it, I’m not sure what cats are for.

In terms of things I can just complain about, I do really miss dairy products. I’m convinced there’s no way to make a glass of powdered milk without swallowing a big chunk of wet nastiness at the end. Ick. And I feel a bit nauseous every time I have it. Maybe it’s just a mental thing. I DID buy cheese the other day and I figured it would last a few days unrefrigerated but then it was over 100 degrees in the afternoon and it made itself into cheese sauce and I made myself an omelet, grilled cheese and popcorn (which I dipped in the cheese) for dinner. Twenty four slices in one day! But on a more serious note…

By far the MOST frustrating thing to adjust to, though, is the distinctly defined and drastically different gender roles here in Swaziland. Most women in Swaziland don’t work. Their husbands are the breadwinners and, subsequently, are allowed to be philanderers too. (Polygamy is not only legal in Swaziland, it is common and very much accepted.) From a very young age, it is the girls/women who fetch the water, wash and iron the clothes, gather firewood, light the fire and cook, do the gardening and tend to most of the animals. The boys/men chop the firewood once it’s gathered by the girls, herd the cattle around if they don’t come back home in time and then they sit and watch TV or listen to the radio while their sisters/mothers cook. And if money is tight and a family can’t afford to educate all their kids, they’ll almost certainly educate an unmotivated boy over an eager-to-learn girl. Naturally, it is always the woman who is infertile, and if a man dies of AIDS it is obviously his wife who infected him (even though he’s the one who probably brought the infection to the marriage.) It KILLS me! And even though I know these attitudes exist, it never ceases to surprise me because I’ve never been told I couldn’t do something just because I’m a girl. For example, apparently painting is a man’s job, but I know I’m perfectly capable of doing it. The first day I was painting (the second time) two high school aged boys showed up at my door at 8am because they had been told by my family that I needed a boy to paint for me and that since I wasn’t married I was trying to do it myself. I sent them away. Then later that day I got a call from Mr. Zwane, the deputy police commander, who said he heard I was “trying to paint.” And he said to me something to the effect of: “but you must know that girls cannot paint! I would hate to be the man you call to clean up your mess after you are done doing what you are calling painting!” Great. (The next time he stopped by I invited him in to see my painting, which actually looks quite nice if I may say so myself. He said maybe next time.) I also faced much opposition when I was buying fencing and a hoe for my garden. At the hardware store they didn’t even think I could CARRY the fence (it weighed maybe 10 pounds), and I ran into another volunteer’s counterpart outside who asked me questions about what I was carrying. “What are those for? YOUR garden? Who will you hire to build the fence? Who will you hire to plant the seeds and do the weeding?” Actually, I can do those things myself, which I guess is surprising. On my last trip to the hardware store I bought a towel rack and the salesman kept insisting I needed to buy a screwdriver and I told him I had one at home. “Oh, you mean you have a husband and HE has one, I get it.” No, I mean I HAVE ONE. And on multiple occasions high school aged boys from the community have made comments like “oh, I see you are playing like a little boy” when I’m playing Frisbee or something. Obviously I’m a woman so I should be cooking or sewing or tending to the needs of a man. It makes me think of women in Victorian times or something that you see in movies who faint any time she encounters bad news or a difficult decision. Yes, I’m wearing a skirt, but I am actually capable of doing everything a 22-year-old man can do. (In fact, today I used the metal file on my Leatherman to fix the window in my house that Peace Corps told me to hire someone to fix, and now it closes beautifully. Even they doubt my handiness.)

I mean, in this culture I’m not really a woman either. My sisi (who is 35 or something, I guess) asked me how old I am and when I answered “22” she said, “No! If you were 22 you would have many little ones running around!” So I’m a neuter. In a skirt. Painting but not bearing children. It’s all very confusing.

Anyway, I skipped lunch for wrestling so I’m going to make a tuna casserole or something for dinner. And then I’m going to eat the whole thing because I don’t have a fridge. (The other day I made a banana cream pie, but I had to eat the whole thing because the cream was spoiling in the heat…I see how people get fat in the Peace Corps.) And my Make just dropped off a big basin full of vegetables and herbs, including fennel. And when I asked her what it was (to see what fennel is in siSwati) she looked at me like I was stupid and said “greens.” Okay, but I know fennel when I see it, and I’m going to cook something fancy and abundant for me, myself, and maybe (secretly) the dog. We’re friends.

That was long. Love from the Swaz. Come visit.
--P.S. (those are my new initials)

Oh! If you want to call me, my number is (from the US): 011-268-660-7042 I can’t receive international or Skype texts, but you can call whenever you want. It would be a welcome interruption from talking to myself.


Carrie said...

I just got my Peace Corps assignment...Zambia for Rural Educational Development in February. I was thinking of going to South Africa for the world cup, perhaps we can meet up at some point?

Also, I am taking a sheep and goat class, and I learned how to milk a goat! This might help your craving for dairy, especially if one of the twins, died, the goat will be producing more milk than the one kid needs. Just make sure to pasteurize it (heat it to near boiling...71.7 °C (161 °F) for 15 seconds in a double boiler if you have the means). Anyway, I hope this helps!


Carrie said...

Oh, and if you have any specific questions about pigs, chickens, goats or sheep, I can ask my teachers at the farm (i got twice a week) so let me know!

Erin said...

I saw the 40/40 celebration on BBC News. Looks like the king likes to party.
here's a link for anyone who's interested:
BBC News - Swazi 40/40