Thursday, October 9, 2008

Condoms? Yes, they live at the shop down the road.

So I’ve been conducting surveys at the high school regarding attitudes toward HIV/AIDS, including questions like “If you found out you were HIV-positive would you want it to remain a secret?” and “Can you get HIV from sharing a meal with someone who is HIV-positive?” One of the questions is “Do you know where to get a condom?” and I’ve had some pretty humorous answers, including the title of this blog. Another was “Yes, in the glossary at the back of the book.” I love my job.

Apparently not everyone loves the job, though. I found out that this week my two closest volunteers, with whom I used to share lunch at the fantastic Hluti Café, have decided to Early Terminate, or ET, which means that by the time you read this I will have been abandoned. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, I guess, but still. For entirely selfish reasons it stinks that they’re gone (example: they both lived on really good bus routes, which would have made it easy to access the Lubombo region), but I suppose their happiness and mental well-being are a little more important than convenient transport for me. But only a little. Either way, I wish them the best and I hope they put their pictures on Webshots or something so I can steal them. (Please note.) Yep, now we’re down to 33.

This past weekend was a nice break from, well, the rest of my life minus the weekend. (It’s not really a break from anything, since I’m not stressed and my life isn’t mundane or routine or anything, but every once in a while it’s really nice to hang out with native English speakers.) Friday I went up to Mbabane to visit Brittany (hi Brittany’s mom!), and we spent the evening watching “Notting Hill” (except the last 20 minutes because my laptop battery died and she doesn’t have electricity) and eating tuna melts and drinking cheap red wine out of a box with a hole in it so that the bag squirted all over the floor instead of in the mug (yes, mug…we’re that classy). It’s nice to see other peoples’ new homes and meet their bhutis and sisis and see their communities. And it gives me a little context for texts and stories about the grueling hike to the sitolo/school/bus stop/etc. Saturday I went to another volunteer’s house in the Lubombo region for a small birthday celebration involving a vegetable tray and French onion dip and grilled cheese sandwiches, which is pretty much the way to my heart. We watched “Labyrinth” and ate brie and crackers (!!!!) and drank all of his filtered water, then I returned home to realize how lonely it is all by myself in the Siberia of Swaziland. (Not that it’s cold, but it’s pretty isolated…measured mostly by my proximity to grocery stores selling dairy products.) I WAS pleasantly surprised to see that my garden had turned into a jungle of sorts in my absence and that my green beans finally sprouted so I can pull up those things I previously thought were green beans because, well, they were weeds. I also bought a scale in Mbabane (so that I can weigh myself in kilos, like that means anything to me), which is apparently a very rare purchase because the word got out and I’ve had neighbors knocking on my door to weigh themselves. And so far everyone weighs infinitely less than me. I also bought a bag of raisins, which my family thinks is candy. It makes me feel like a dentist on Halloween.

On Sunday night I read the entirety of “The History of Love” by Nicole Krauss, which is my favorite of all the books I’ve read here. Read it. I also resolved to end this week with a sense of accomplishment. (My life too, but I’m going one step at a time here.)

Monday morning at 7am I received a lovely text from one of the teachers at the high school saying “I’m in Mbabane today, please come teach my English classes at 8 and 12.” Um, okay. I conducted my HIV attitudes surveys and talked to them about America (they thought Brazil was a state, which is why I should know all about soccer, and no I don’t know Chris Brown). It was a good time. Tuesday I got up bright and early for the hour-plus walk to the clinic to count pills with MSF and hang out. (It’s sad that my life has come to hanging out at the clinic, but they seem to have an unlimited supply of tea, bread and peanut butter!) The nurse I had previously worked with, whose name sounds like “sneak away” (Sinikiwe?) is on maternity leave or something so I was the only one counting pills. There was an American woman who I assume was a nurse and was conducting the check-ups in English (another nurse was translating), which was quite a learning experience for me since I could actually understand what she was asking and what the patients were answering. While I sat there counting pills (THOUSANDS of pills) the two nurses saw 21 patients for ARV day, some of whom were picking up medicines for their children or family members.

I think today was the first time I was actually shocked at the impact of HIV/AIDS on society here. One patient, a 13-year-old boy, had been on ARVs for over a year and had a rapidly decreasing CD4 count. The nurse asked him about his adherence to his ARVs which, judging by the number of leftover pills he brought in, was not very good. He admitted to her that sometimes he does not take them when he has had nothing to eat all day. It’s not that he didn’t know he should be, he literally couldn’t. And he wasn’t the only one. Later we had a young woman come in to collect ARVs for herself, her 5-year-old son and her 3-year-old daughter. She decided to get tested for HIV last year after her husband died without ever being tested, and she was shocked to find out that she and her kids were all positive. (The rate of transmission from mother to child in Swaziland is MUCH higher than it should be, considering the availability of preventative drugs. But you have to know you’re HIV-positive to know you need it. Clinics are now trying to test 100% of pregnant women, but they can’t force people to test, and besides many never visit a clinic for pre-natal care or deliver at home where the risk of transmission is much higher.) Others were collecting ARVs on behalf of a friend or relative who worked in South Africa as a domestic worker or in the mines, but who couldn’t afford to come in once a month for the check-up because they would lose their jobs if they left South Africa during the week. (I guess MSF is trying to make it possible for Swazi citizens to get ARVs at clinics in South Africa so they don’t have to travel, but since the drugs are provided for free by the government, it’s a tough sell.) It is a bit awkward, though, since my role in the community is a bit more permanent, that I be sitting in on ART distribution and interviews because many of the people who come in (and are obviously HIV-positive) have not disclosed to the community, or even to their families. Wednesday morning I saw a young man I recognized and said hello, and he made some comment about how I obviously recognized him from the ARV clinic the day before. Oops…I recognize 80% of my community for no particular reason, and I just figured that’s how I knew him. He didn’t seem upset, and instead we talked about the support group, which he decided to join yesterday. But what if someone else is uncomfortable with me knowing their status? I’m obviously not going to tell anyone, but maybe they don’t know that. And what if someone I know (like my family members) come in to the clinic to refill on a day I’m there? I really don’t think it’s appropriate for me to sit in on the “do you have diarrhea from the ARVs?” and “are you SURE there’s no way you could be pregnant?” questions if I know the person. And as I get to know the community a bit more, it’s going to be harder and harder for me to avoid everyone I know.

On Wednesday, after a morning of conducting oral interviews, I ran into town briefly for fried chicken (yum!) and to pick up my dresser, which was FINALLY done, after which I trekked back to the clinic to talk to the head nurse for an extended period of time about everything I could think of. I’d like to brag that I walked for about 4 hours today, which means that I deserve every last Tootsie Roll I ate this evening (thanks, Grandma!). The interview was pretty informal since I’ve met her on several occasions (mostly at tea), so we kind of just talked while I took notes. I certainly learned a lot, though. For example, the clinic, which has a full-time staff of 3 nurses and one cleaning lady, sees between 600 and 1000 patients a month. They test around 100 people a month, not counting pregnant women, and draw blood from between 40 and 75 people a month to run CD4 tests. I guess 15-20% of the people they test are positive, most of whom are in their early twenties (they get infected at university or after moving to the city/South Africa in search of work). I found out about a lot of the services for HIV-positive people going on in the community. For example, there are 4 community educators who do home-based care and function as the executive board for the support group. She said they wanted to start a garden for the support group, and that they have a fenced-in area to do it, but they need motivation and a water tank. That’s easy enough. They also, apparently, have an established “chicken run” (isn’t it a chicken coop? Chicken Run is a movie…) that they just need chickens for so they can breed the support group members some protein. Again, that seems easy enough. She also had some good ideas about starting a youth center to do after-school activities (sports, snacks, exercise classes, ping-pong, etc.) and starting a youth club to educate HIV/AIDS peer educators. She also tipped me off to the best place to find the community leaders (they all meet informally at a shop on Wednesday mornings) and gave me some insight into the feeding programs that, theoretically, happen at the NCPs. I think it was a really good starting point for me, and I hope to talk to the Bucopho (my old counterpart) about all of the things I now have brewing in my head. It’s nice to feel like the community needs me and to see that there are things that I actually WANT to do (ie, garden, youth club) that the community wants.

On Wednesday some people from Peace Corps came to install a lightening rod (a tall metal thing with a 3 foot long copper thing sticking off the end, attached with a zip tie) at my homestead and they brought a package for me from the Mbabane office. Yay! So I opened it excitedly and while I was ripping into it a Tic Tac fell out. An orange one. Yum. So I immediately ate it almost without tasting it, only to find out that there was no box of Tic Tacs in the package. Um, that was a Tic Tac, right?? I got a little freaked out about it and called my mother (the sender of the package) only to find out that apparently the package was pilfered at customs and some jerks took about half my Crystal Light (all but two of the blueberry white tea--my favorite!) and something metal and my Tic Tacs and possibly something else of importance, but maybe not. I feel so violated.

Thursday I went to the primary school bright and early (7am I was there) to attend Thursday morning Chapel and to introduce myself to the primary school students. I show up and I'm ushered into the back pew of the chapel (there are only 4 pews, everyone else brings their chair from their classroom) and I sit there for about 10 minutes. Then I hear the lady who is preaching saying my name, and motioning for me to come up. I figure it's time for my introduction, which I've been practicing in siSwati, so I go up. She points at her watch and tells me to be done by 8:20. Um, it's only 7:30. I think I'll be done by 7:35. So then all the teachers and staff go sit down and leave me with a chapel full of 5 to 17-year-olds (approximately 350 of them), half of whom speak decent English and half of whom are afraid of me because I'm white. I wasn't even about to wing this one, so I just talked for about 10 minutes about myself, my family, America, college, what my job is, etc. All of which I did in perfect siSwanglish. And everyone laughed. Finally I called the other teacher back up and she said something like "well we didn't bring our bibles today because Phindi was supposed to be teaching, but since I guess she didn't want to today we'll talk about how sex is a sin" and then proceeded to yell at them in true preacher style about how you go to hell if you have sex and how HIV is God's way of punishing people who have sex before marriage. Cool! And I sat in the back with this little kid named Justin who is half white (his father was a Mormon missionary, supposedly) and who only speaks English so he's about as lost as I am with everything. It was a good time. He also really enjoys the fact that we have basically the same name (it's pronounced the same to siSwati speakers).

I think my proudest accomplishment is that I took the "shortcut" to the school on Thursday morning, which literally cuts the walking time in half. I think it burns twice the calories, though, because rather than walking AROUND the enormous valley, I walked down into it and back up. I crossed one river, two streams and a dried-out river bed, and about fell on my butt on steep inclines twice. Then some Form 4 kid who obviously makes the hike twice a day caught up to me and wanted to talk. I was barely able to breathe, and he wanted to make smalltalk! I was also sweating quite unattractively, which is why I bathe when I get back from school and not before. But he did tell me that he thought I was a better teacher than the regular teacher, which is flattering. Maybe he just means better looking, but I'll take what I can get.

Also, after 3 weeks of leaving increasingly frustrated messages with the GSO at the US Embassy in Swaziland, I finally got in touch with someone who had some vague idea of what it would take (money, apparently) to get a dog here and take it back to the US with me at the end of my two years, but I have to wait for someone named Riley to give me the official policy. Apparently the cheap shipping of pets courtesy of the US Government is part of the deluxe employee package, which also comes with diplomatic immunity, and I’m just not that special. In Mbabane this weekend I happened upon a book sale benefiting the Animal Welfare Society of Swaziland, which adopts abused/abandoned dogs and cats to loving homes. I’m a loving home!! I think it’s selfish of me NOT to get a dog. It’s really not practical, I guess, but at least I know a dog wouldn’t ET. There's a cat right outside the internet cafe and it's got a million little kittens and I've got some extra room in my bag...I could totally snatch one and nobody would ever notice. Instead, though, I think I'm going to go buy a live chicken and have my sisis teach me how to kill/pluck/butcher it. I asked if they would and they laughed at me because I'm 22 and I don't know how to do it. I'd be a terrible Swazi wife.

That's all.

Send me a letter and I’ll write you one back. Good deal, right?


Erin said...

You have to wait for someone named Riley to find out if you can get a dog. I think that's a sign! You should name your dog Riley too! Then we will each have a Riley! All Riley's! woo hoo!

I'm sending you a package tomorrow. Some stuff for your house, some snacks, and some magazines. Much less education magazines than what Mom and Dad send you, I'm sure. So the kids won't have to cut out pictures of New England sea monsters. (which turned out to be a shell-less sea turtle, in case you didn't get that issue)
You're doing a great job! Love ya!

Dad said...

Oh, Justine...I am so proud of you. I bet you're the only girl from WRHS that knows how to kill a chicken, other than hitting it with a car. I hope the packages we sent turn up intact. We'll send more and risk it. Is there a Vet in your village that can care for a dog if it gets sick? Something to think about. Love You!!!