Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Wow, you know how to dig a hole!

This past week I’ve amazed myself with my competence. Please allow me to brag.

So Tuesday morning I woke up bright and early and wandered out to the site of my future garden and stood there for a while visualizing the possibilities and all the work I would have to do to make it an actual garden instead of a muddy little plot of land (or a dry and dusty plot of land, depending on the day). And then I decided I was ridiculous and I should just do it already. I tracked down my Babe and told him my plans for the garden. He looked at me like I was crazy as I took a stick and drew my plans for the fence and the posts in the dirt. All he said was “you?” as he shook his head. (Yet another example of my skills being doubted!) He said that instead I should go to the school and get “some nice, strong boys” to do it for me. I assured him I was competent enough to do it and asked him for a shovel and a saw and asked where I could find wood to use as fence posts. After standing over my shoulder to make sure I knew how to dig a hole, he declared me competent (which he seemed very surprised by) and left me to my job for the afternoon.

Between 8:00am and 2:00pm I dug six holes (each about 18” deep) and put up all six posts, plowed the whole thing by hand with a hoe (and some work gloves that I brought as an afterthought but I’m SO glad I have!) and put up 15 meters of chain-link-type fence around the garden. I still need to put up a gate (which I’ll make out of four sticks and a section of fence, attached with some binding wire or a rope), but I’m so close to being done. And until I get the gate up, the pigs are hanging out in the garden, rolling around and snuffling through the wonderfully plowed dirt. I think my proudest accomplishment is that my family doesn’t have a saw or a hatchet, so I chopped all of my fence posts down to the proper height with a machete. Yes, I hacked logs as big around as my arm into two pieces with a machete. How Peace Corps of me.

Wednesday (when I posted my last blog) I ran into town to order seedlings for my garden. I ordered basil, rosemary, cilantro and broccoli seedlings, which I will pick up next week, and started a seed bed with green beans, celery and chili peppers. The nursery place stocks green peppers, tomatoes, lettuce and spinach (which is really chard or mustard greens, but they call it spinach), so I’ll have a wide variety of produce in my garden. I’m not growing carrots or potatoes because they’re so ridiculously cheap it would be a waste of planting space, which I would much rather dedicate to a variety of tomatoes. And then I got ambitious and I made some homemade wheat bread involving yeast and water and 675 grams of flour (which is approximately 5.5 cups…Thanks Brandy!) Yum. The funny part, though, was that it was too cold in my room for the dough to rise so I had to put it in the kitchen next to the enormous fire, which made it rise in about 10 minutes (which is just as well because if it had been in there for longer than 10 minutes some animal surely would have eaten it). But it turned out alright and it was delicious.

I’ve also begun my teaching this week. Accidentally. I wandered up to the school, Florence Christian Academy, on Thursday morning to say hello to the head teachers of the primary and high schools, just to let them know that I’m in the area and looking for something to do. The primary school wants me to teach HIV/AIDS-related things to the primary students every Thursday morning at an all-school assembly (ah!), but I think I can warm up to the idea. The main challenge is the drastically different levels of English proficiency in the school—a seventh grader is fluent, but a first grader doesn’t understand any English whatsoever. All classes from third grade on are taught in English, in theory, but some of the teachers secretly teach in siSwati because they’re more comfortable with it than English. So we’ll see about that.

Then I wandered to the high school where I met with the deputy head teacher and talked for what turned out to be hours. He seems like a really great guy and I’m excited to work with him because he seems really motivated and committed to educating his students on ways to avoid HIV/AIDS and pregnancy. (Pregnancy is a huge problem in the school. Out of a student body of about 200, 3 girls have “failed their pregnancy tests” this school year already. The school year began on Monday. I guess I know what kids in this community do over winter break. And if the rate of conception is any indication of the number of high school-aged kids having unprotected sex, I’ve got my work cut out for me.) We talked all about the problems of the school and the fact that during any given class period half of the school’s students are sitting in the courtyard socializing (either because there is no teacher or because they aren’t interested in learning). We visited the “computer lab,” which consists of 20 computers, most of which are about half connected and none of which have been used in recent memory. Instead, the room is used for storing the TVs that, for some reason, were donated by USAID. He runs the school “library” (there are about 100 books in it and most of them are old American textbooks, including the Econ book from my freshman year of high school with the Caterpillar Eyebrow Man) and teaches Form 4 (Junior Level) English twice a day. He invited me to come sit in on his afternoon class and be introduced to the students, which I figured was a good first step toward setting up a youth club.

So we walk into the classroom at noon and he introduces me to the class as “an unmarried young lady from America” and tells me to pick out a boy to be my “Swazi boyfriend” for the next two years. Yeah, okay. I laughed it off by saying I was too old for all of them and then took over the introduction to let the class know that I’m here to teach about HIV/AIDS and help organize events in the community and NOT to find a sixteen-year-old Swazi husband. They laughed. Good, I want them to know I’m approachable.

I was feeling pretty good about my control of the situation, and Mr. Mvubu (the teacher) took notice. He said something like, “well obviously you know how to control the crowd, so I’ll just leave it to you.” He handed me a thick stack of papers and told me to report back to him at the end of the class. WHAT???? He just walked out and left me to teach a lesson I hadn’t even looked at to a class I’d only met in a school I’ve been to once…and I’m not an English teacher! But I didn’t want them to take advantage of the situation so I acted like I knew what I was doing. I passed out the papers and taught an impromptu lesson on reading comprehension and summarization without any prior preparation. I hadn’t even read the passages we were comprehending and summarizing prior to when they were read aloud in class! But I think it went alright. I would have been a much better teacher if I had known I was going to be teaching. My “lesson” took about 40 minutes of the 50 minute class period and for the rest of it we just talked, which was a pretty good thing for me. They asked me if I knew Alicia Keyes and I asked them if they knew what four fluids contain HIV. Unfortunately the answer was “no” for both.

He asked me to come back on Monday and Thursday of this week to teach his morning class, which I don’t really want to make a habit of considering that I’m still not an English teacher. I can tutor fine, but the idea of being single-handedly responsible for the test preparation of 50 students is a bit intimidating. And I’ve learned that I’m going to always carry with me at least an hour’s worth of HIV/AIDS-related lesson plan because I never know when I’m going to happen upon a captive audience wanting me to teach them something. On Monday when I went, I took with me some surveys about HIV/AIDS and perceptions of services available in the community, which is ACTUALLY my job. I snuck them in after the lesson quite beautifully. On Thursday he’ll be introducing me to the “career guidance” teacher, who theoretically teaches about goal-setting and applying for college and those kinds of things, but I guess he has yet to teach a class and the students just take it as a “free period.” He said that since the teacher doesn’t really have any lesson plans for the class that he could probably share the class period with me and I could sneak in some “life skills” lessons since, well, that’s my job. Woo! I would be excited about a regular teaching gig. For about 25 lessons, which is all the lesson plans I have in the book Peace Corps gave me. But that’s something to do!

I’ve also been helping my sisi, Londiwe, out with her Grade 6 homework for the past week. I’m really confused about my family even though I have a quite nicely illustrated family tree (drawn by Londiwe) on my wall, which I use to remember people’s names. I have siblings who are 13, 15 and 17 and for some reason they’re all in Grade 6. It’s not that uncommon for students to have their studies interrupted at some point, but I can’t imagine what would have delayed my oldest sisi’s education by five years. But I guess it makes helping with homework really easy because they’re all doing the same level of English. It’s also very frustrating, though, because the text book that they use is older than me (1984) and most of the short stories are simplified versions of the Bible or practical stories like “How to recognize dehydration” and “Caring for a snake bite.” One of the stories is called “Malaria Kills” and it says that you can get malaria from the bite of a mosquito or from taking care of a person with malaria. What?? Even in 1984 I’m pretty sure people knew that you couldn’t get malaria from touching a person with malaria. And there’s one story about AIDS that says that the best way to protect yourself from HIV is not to have a “relationship” with people who have the virus. I’m assuming it means not to have sex with them, but isn’t a friendship a kind of relationship? Unfortunately I see vague and incorrect things like that written even in recent publications here in Swaziland, especially when they’re in siSwati or directly translated from siSwati. Because Swaziland is a relatively conservative society, the language does not include words for “sex” or “sexually transmitted infection” or even “penis” (it’s called “ligwayi lagogo,” or “grandma’s cigar”), and the word for “vagina” is the same as the name for a roasted leg of lamb. So when you tell a 6th grader who sleeps in the same bed with her 3 sisters every night that you can get HIV from “kulalana” (sharing a bed with someone, the closest thing to “sex” in siSwati), it doesn’t really make sense. I guess that’s why I’m here, but I’m not exactly sure how to explain the importance of using a “cigar jacket” (condom) in relations involving grandma’s cigar and a roasted leg of lamb.

I also ran into a guy today in Hluti who does CD4 tests on Tuesdays at one of the clinics in my community. Since I’m not trained to draw blood or run CD4 tests, he invited me to come hang out with him on Tuesday and poke around the clinic a bit to see what I can help with. Maybe they’ll let me do nutrition counseling or work with the HIV/AIDS support group or play with babies or something. I’d also like to become acquainted with the Rural Health Motivators (they assist with the hygiene of families, including the cleanliness of latrines and the availability of water) and Care Facilitators (take care of orphans and people sick with AIDS) and I think the clinic is a good place to start. Fortunately my clinic is very well-organized and very well-run, which is selfishly unfortunate for me because it means they don’t really need my help. I’m hoping, though, that it will be a good way to get involved with Doctors Without Borders (they have a doctor there a few days a week) so that I can get some of their support for events I’ll want to do. So Tuesday I went to the clinic and worked with MSF (Doctors Without Borders) and counted pills all day. I found it really frustrating that we were counting out antibiotics and TB treatment and all of the nurses counting with me were ESTIMATING. How do you know if you’ve taken a full 60-day course of TB treatment if you don’t have exactly 60 pills? What if you only have 50 and you don’t finish the course but you think you do because all the pills are gone? They’re antibiotics! I guess apathy comes with being a nurse in Swaziland. I’m planning to go back Friday to help with an MSF support group, and then next Tuesday to count pills again. Or put pills in bags, as the rest of the nurses were doing. Then we’ll have tea and biscuits. I also have hopes of weaseling my way into working with Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (the national philanthropy of AEPhi…they have a big office here) and the Red Cross (they’re building a market in my community).

Anyway, last Friday (Sept 19th) was Election Day and the wife of my chief is running for parliament (MP) and having some big party or something (at the polling station) to win votes and I wasn’t allowed to go because I can’t show any political partiality. I can’t vote anyway…what does it matter? I don’t really understand politics here, though. Swaziland is an absolute monarchy, so half the parliament is appointed by the king anyway, and most people are elected, it seems, based on their surnames. In this constituency, there are three people running for MP, including the wife of my chief. And where is the polling place? At her house, of course! I wonder how “democratic” the voting can really be when ballots are cast at the home of one of the candidates. Even worse, when I was at the school on Thursday, one of the candidates (I don’t know who) was campaigning for votes among some of the high school students (many are old enough to vote because their schooling was interrupted for whatever reason, so about half of the Form 5 Seniors are older than me) by handing out pamphlets with information about the candidate and when and where to vote along with a hunk of meat. Because nothing buys loyalty in Swaziland like a fist full of beef. And I thought politicians in the US were shameless. We still don’t know who won, by the way. I don’t have any idea when we WILL, but I was told people would be sworn in by December, so for sure by December. How efficient.

But I guess Election Day is a national holiday so everything—including the clinic—is closed. I asked someone what people who get sick or have emergencies do if the clinic is closed (there’s no hospital so the clinic provides emergency services and transport to the hospital in Nhlangano) and he told me “either they die or they wait until Saturday.” Duh. In honor of the holiday, I purchased the “Leonardo DiCaprio Collection” DVD featuring The Departed, Catch Me if You Can, Gangs of New York, The Man in the Iron Mask and Poison Ivy. I don’t think the last two movies work, but considering that the whole disc cost me less than $2, I think I can live with that. I can even watch them with subtitles in Indonesian, Thai or Malay if I want! Oh, bootleg DVDs.

In animal news, apparently my family has TWO dogs and they’re both named Boca. That confuses me, but I guess then it’s easy to call the dogs. And I watched another goat birth and nailed the big hog with several big rocks and quite a variety of verbal insults, which the kids in my family largely understood because they hear them on wrestling. And I think I’m going to get a slingshot. That would be fun.

Saturday I went to town (Nhlangano) for a meeting about a support group for HIV+ youth (or those affected by HIV). The meeting for the group is next Saturday and this was just the planning meeting, but it didn’t exactly go off as planned. We were supposed to have it at the Nhlangano Regional Public Library, which is supposed to be open from 9 to 1 on Saturdays, but we waited until 10 and it still wasn’t open and there were about 30 people standing outside waiting for it to open. We finally asked a security guard outside and he said “no, they’re not opening it today.” How can the public library just decide not to open when it’s supposed to be open? The other volunteers said it wasn’t the first time that had happened. And I wanted to check out some books! I’ve read 7 reputable books this week (including Amy Tan’s “The Joy Luck Club,” which is fantastic and the Best American Short Stories of 1995) and I’m currently reading Al Franken’s “Lies and the Lying Liars who Tell Them.” Oh, my parents should be so proud.

Tuesday, the PCMO (PC Medical Officer) came to check my site for “medical safety” or something, which essentially means that she wanted to check that I have available water and that I know how to clean myself and my house so as not to pose any risks to my personal health. She asked questions all about my nutrition and my exercise (neither were up to par, I thought, but she gave me props for my barley-split pea-lentil-bean stews and the creative use of tuna, and I guess walking 2 hours a day counts as exercise) and we talked about alcoholism (there’s no alcohol within a 45 minutes bus ride so it’s not really a problem, even if I wanted it to be) and high-risk sexual behavior. Right, I’m an HIV/AIDS educator. One of the key things that she was checking for is a secure door (my door is currently sheltering the baby goats in the baby goat house because I still have no way to cut it down to the right size) and that food and clothes are off the floor to keep mice, scorpions and cockroaches out of my house (but I’m still waiting for the carpenter to finish all my furniture, which could be a few more weeks). She IS loaning me a drill and saw to fit my door, which I’m sure my family will think is absolutely ridiculous. Then Friday my training director will be visiting I think to check on the progress of my siSwati homework, which I haven’t yet started. But the good news is that they’ll be bringing my mail and packages from the head office. I know I have a letter from Jess, a postcard from Jerusalem (??), 5 Newsweeks and a number of packages. Finally I’ll get news about the Olympics!

I’m done now. If you want to send me a text, apparently you can send me an email and it works about 50% of the time. You can send up to 700 characters (which is 2-3 sentences) but it’s free for me to receive them so if you have to break it into a number of separate emails, do that. Anyway, just send the email to: and I’ll possibly get it. But I can’t answer you so I guess you’ll never know either way. And Skype texts or international texts from cell phones don’t work, so this is it.

Now I’m going to town to pick up my seedlings and buy 2 more meters of fence so I can make a gate, which will undoubtedly be a fun exercise in creativity. But the pre-made gates that you can just buy are over $50 and the rest of my garden has so far cost about $25, so there’s NO way I’m buying a gate. It will be fun. Hopefully I can have everything planted by Friday (I’m only one person and it’s a big garden!!) so that Musa can be impressed by my productivity. It will be nice to be able to show him what I’ve been doing, since it obviously hasn’t been studying siSwati. And I think I’m going to buy “The Incredibles” and “Finding Nemo” because my family really wants to watch a DVD on my computer and, even though they don’t understand English, I’m not sure that “Gangs of New York” is appropriate for children ages 4-11.

That’s all.


Dad said...

Al Franken? I hope you didn't buy the book, at least. I can send you a copy of John McCains book, if you promise not to read it in the latrine (oops!!)Love your Blog...keep it coming!

Erin said...

Ha! That's funny Dad! Aaron has actually been collecting books for her, too. I'm sure you'd love them. Maybe he'll send one or two to you. :)

Keep up the good work 'Teen! Love ya!