Friday, October 3, 2008

Oh, Africa.

So, I’m learning about this gardening business as I go. For example, I learned that when you use cow manure to fertilize, that every seed the cow ate sprouts before the seeds you planted decide to. Or at least I think it’s the seeds from the cow manure because it’s had only been 3 days and it says my seeds will sprout in 7-10 days. Unfortunately I don’t know what green bean sprouts look like and they’re growing from the same spot where I put the green bean seeds, so I guess I’ll just leave them until I can figure it out. Maybe plants grow extra fast in Swaziland to compensate for the fact that everything else takes twice as long as it should. Seems logical. Or maybe I should ask my 4-year-old bhuti for help since I’m pretty sure he knows more about gardening than me.

Last Saturday I went to the youth club meeting in Nhlangano. It’s officially called the Shiselweni Regional Youth HIV/AIDS Club, and it’s open to 7 to 21-year-olds infected with or affected by HIV/AIDS. Many of the kids have lost one or both parents to AIDS, and a number of them are HIV-positive, though they may or may not know. The group has met monthly since January and has a regular attendance of at least 25, but thanks to the fantastic advertising of my fellow volunteers there were about 40 kids there, including a good number of new kids. Over the past meetings, the kids have learned about parts of the body, nutrition, the function of the immune system, emotions (love vs. lust, etc.) and how to cope with anger without violence. This week we (well, our Swazi counterparts who speak siSwati) were talking with the kids about journaling as a way to work through complicated feelings like grief and jealousy. We showed them some examples of journals and then assembled all the little kids to make journals of their own with folded paper bound by ribbon (thanks to the excellent ribbon-tying skills of yours truly). They decorated the covers with stickers, glitter, foam letters spelling their names, and pictures cut out of magazines. Unfortunately the only magazines we had were Newsweeks, so they ended up with some pretty weird decorations on their journals. Did any of you see the weird monster thing that supposedly washed up on the beach somewhere in New England? Yeah, well we had two copies of that issue, so two little kids have that on their journals. How pretty! Others ended up with pictures of Barack Obama from college, or pictures of vacuum cleaners and other foreign objects. I think my favorite was a kid who wanted us to cut out a big picture of the KKK, which we talked him out of. Instead he got a flock of sheep standing in the snow. A good trade, if you ask me.

I would also like to point out that, as much as PEPFAR is criticized for its focus on an abstinence-only approach to HIV/AIDS mitigation (which I think is ridiculous, by the way), PEPFAR provides the kids reimbursement for transport costs and helps provide basic supplies like the paper and ribbon (the Newsweeks were provided courtesy of Newsweek, apparently, who provides free subscriptions for all Peace Corps Volunteers. Or something.). As a matter of fact, a lot of the projects we do here in Swaziland are funded by PEPFAR, as Swaziland is one of the largest recipients of PEPFAR funds. I guess the government of Swaziland is working with Congress to try to get the mandate here extended on a sort of “state of emergency” basis to allow funds to support a wider variety of projects, including providing support for OVCs (orphans and vulnerable children) and other means of indirect HIV/AIDS mitigation or impact relief. And that’s a step in the right direction, I think.

Sunday the carpenter who made my furniture came over to hang my new door since it takes tools that I don’t have to drill holes in a solid door. Unfortunately the door isn’t the same size as the door frame (as in the door frame isn’t exactly rectangular) so he couldn’t finish it until he could get a “plane.” I’m not entirely sure what that is. All I know is that it doesn’t have anything to do with sandpaper, which I have. (Why? Because I’m American and I like to store things I’ll never need, like sandpaper and Jell-O. And because I needed about 4 inches of it and you can only buy it in increments of 5 meters. So if you know anyone in Swaziland who needs sandpaper, I can hook them up.) He finally came back on Tuesday with his “plane” (apparently a razor blade-type thing attached to a handle that you run along an almost flat part of wood to make it smooth…like really efficient sandpaper) and put up my door, which is now quite nice.

While he was working on my door (for 5 hours) we talked a lot about a support group he belongs to that is for HIV-positive adults and child heads of household (children who are taking care of siblings because their parents have died). Apparently they have a group of about 45 people and they’re looking to start an income-generating project because many of the members are too sick to work. Last year, I guess they each donated a chicken to start a chicken-breeding and egg-selling project, but then they ran out of money to feed the chickens and they ran out of food so they each took back their one chicken and ate it. I’m hoping that maybe I can work with them to find alternative income-generating projects, or to successfully implement the chicken thing. I asked if the group was currently run by MSF or Red Cross or something and he said it was “started by the community and it’s still run by the community because the people realized that they needed organization to beat this thing.” Excellent. That’s exactly the kind of motivation we’re looking to support! And just to comment on how nice my family is, they fed him—the carpenter working on MY door—an enormous portion of maize meal porridge, rice, gravy, cabbage and BEEF. That’s a special occasion meal, and they didn’t even know him! I could understand if he was volunteering his time, but he got paid AND got meat out of the deal. My family’s so nice…

I also learned on Sunday that the dog is taking advantage of me because she knows I won’t hit her or throw rocks at her. When my door was out of commission all morning she kept coming in and I kept pushing her out with my foot and yelling at her and saying “bakushaya” (I’ll beat you!) because that’s what the other people in my family do and she goes away with her tail between her legs. But with me she just stands about 2 feet outside my house, counts to 5 and comes back in, tail wagging. And she’s right—I’m NOT going to hit her. But anyone who sees us playing this little game comes over and hits her for me. And then I feel sorry for her so I feed her and it starts all over again. I play a similar game with the baby goat, but she just comes in to sniff stuff. And I’ve learned to keep my produce out of goat’s reach.

I’ve run into my former-counterpart-turned-bucopho a few times in the past week, and he has promised that his old position will be filled in the next 2 weeks. Apparently they interviewed two people for the job and just have to choose between them and notify them. Since everything takes way longer than it should in Swaziland, that means about 2 weeks. I’ll give them until the end of October. Maybe they’ll decide to start earlier if they know the job includes a free American sidekick!

Even without a counterpart I think I’m integrating alright. I mean, my silk-blend Ann Taylor cardigan is drying over the barbed wire fence as I write this. If that’s not integrating into Swazi culture, I don’t know what is. Honestly I couldn’t think of a worse place to dry clothes…it makes holes in clothes and it rusts. At least it gives me things to do in the evenings after I do laundry, and I’m getting pretty good at patching up barbed-wire holes. I have grand plans to build a clothesline for myself, but I think the more immediate plan is just to not do laundry.

I taught 6 English classes at the high school this week, which consisted entirely of oral exams in English. I was originally given 3 topics to discuss (films, jobs in healthcare and sports) with all 80 students in Form 4 (I talk to them for 3-5 minutes about their interests, then decide on a topic to give them for the graded part of the exam, which we talk about for 10 minutes or so). But on Monday I had 3 students in a row tell me that they were interested in science and wanted to be doctors, meaning that they’d memorized or practiced a good conversation for the “working in healthcare” topic. I was bored with it, so I gave the third boy the “sports” topic and he said something like “I think you gave me the wrong topic—I don’t know how to talk about this one.” So I asked the teacher for all the topics he had so I could mix it up a bit more. At this point I have a stock of about 10 topics, but a lot of them are completely irrelevant to Swazi school children. (They’re from Cambridge University and intended for non-native English speakers testing into British schools.) Some of the inappropriate topics include clothes shopping (most kids have a school uniform and another outfit), noise pollution (I don’t think they mean roosters), family vacations (I’ve seen more of Swaziland than most of these students and most have never left the country, unless they’re refugees from Mozambique or Zimbabwe, in which case they probably don’t vacation much) and the technological revolution’s impact on the workplace (most of these kids have no employed family members, and they’ve probably never used a computer so it’s impossible to have a 10 minute discussion about the impact of the internet). One of the topics, which I used only once, was about telling lies, which asks us to discuss situations in which it is okay to lie and when it is not. The student I was talking to told me “I am Christian and I believe that even talking about lying is a sin.” Excellent…that conversation lasted a painful 3 minutes, during which I learned when you should be honest (always) and what happens if you are not (damnation). But I have learned a significant amount about the students and about Swaziland through the conversations. Like over half of the students board at the school, and of those who live in the area and are “dayschoolers,” only about half of them live with their families (the other half live with family friends). Some of them have talked openly about the impact of HIV/AIDS on their families when we start talking about what they do in their free time. I would never expect an answer of “I don’t have much free time because I’m taking care of all my younger siblings since our parents died” or “I don’t visit my family over holidays because they all died of AIDS,” but I’ve definitely had all of those answers. And it’s so normal in this society that it scares me.

In related sad news, apparently my babe’s sister died on Thursday after a long battle with an unspecified illness (AIDS?), leaving behind her 3 young children who are currently coloring in my room (they’re staying with us, I guess). My babe returned early from South Africa to make arrangements for the funeral this Sunday and I offered him my condolences, but he said something like “it’s nature, and if we mourned every time someone in our family died we’d always be crying.” And it’s true. Of the 8 children currently in my house (they’re wallpapering my room with the pictures they’re coloring), all of them have lost at least one parent and three have lost both. It’s terrible, I know, but I guess at a certain point you just get used to it.

On a much less serious note, I am getting used to the constant barrage of sexual harassment and marriage proposals that have become my everyday life here. When I meet a new person, regardless of age or gender, my first encounter usually involves confusion over my name (no, your REAL name), amazement at the fact that I’ll be here for 2 years, a request for money/candy/sponsorship for school and an inquiry into whether I’m married or not. If the person is male and between the ages of 14 and 60, he then proposes marriage to me. I’ve started telling people that I’m married and my husband is in America (can somebody male please come visit me so I can prove this?) and they insist that I can still sleep with them and my husband will never know. At this point I get annoyed and tell them a firm “no” or “angifuni” (I don’t want it/you) and they begin to confess their love to me. Right. I think my first lesson as a Life Skills teacher (which will be in January) will be distinguishing love from lust. Maybe next time I’ll tell them “yes” and see what happens. At least that would be a new conversation.

So right now my house looks like a preschool classroom. My sister Erin sent me three coloring books—Sesame Street, Thomas the Tank Engine and Mickey Mouse—and I currently have about 25 coloring pages on my walls, courtesy of my bhutis and sisis and the neighbors. The past week we’ve been hanging out in my house for a bit every evening, either coloring pictures or reading through magazines (or looking at the pictures, as the case may be), working on homework or playing cards, and I’ve developed a pretty good relationship with them. Sure, they stare at me awkwardly when I start belting out Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” along with the radio, but I don’t mind. And one of my bhutis, MK, even dances for me when I sing. It keeps me sane. (At least according to Peace Corps standards, which is certifiably nuts in the real world.) And if they’re judging me, they’re doing it in siSwati so I don’t understand it anyway.

Thursday night my sisi, Londiwe, came home with her English workbook to show me. We had been working on a number of short writing exercises throughout the week, and I’d been really impressed with her work ethic. And it clearly paid off. She got a check (check means correct) on every single exercise for the week, which was a first for her and she was so proud to show it off to ANYONE who would look. And I SWEAR I wasn’t giving her the answers, just talking her through to the right ones. In exchange she’s been helping me with siSwati and she taught me how to find the area of a triangle because I’m terrible at geometry. Earlier in the week she spent 45 minutes at my table writing a 1-page composition, which she wanted me to edit. The topic of the composition was “My Favorite Person” and she wrote about me, which was really flattering. In very proper English she talked about how I help her with English homework, how I like to eat Jungle Oats (a breakfast food), how I always remind them to brush their teeth and how I like dogs. It was really sweet!!

Thursday I also had the pleasure of visiting the library at the high school. It’s a pretty big building, so I had high hopes, but the room consisted of one bookshelf full of dusty books, a stack of gospel choir books and two construction workers taking a tea break from their finishing of the English lab. I’d say there were probably 200 books in there, but I’d also bet that 198 of them were older than me. The walls need to be painted badly, except for the one with a giant impala painted on it (what??), and the floor shows evidence of past water damage (that’s a problem), but the place is easily accessible and large enough to function as a library at some point. Hopefully that will happen while I’m here, but we’ll see.

That’s all I have for now. I’m heading up to Mbabane this weekend to go to the office and pick up packages (please???) and visit some other volunteers. And I have a new address!!! My very own PO Box. I AM somebody! So if you want to send letters or packages, send them to:

Justine Amos (or “Phindile Simelane”)
US Peace Corps
PO Box 158
Hluti S409
Swaziland, AFRICA

Oh, and HAPPY BELATED BIRTHDAY EZRA! And HAPPY early BIRTHDAY to my fantastic little, Tory, since I don’t know if I’ll have internet access again before her b-day. (And YAY for the Alpha Lambdas, too, who are super cute.)

That’s all for real now. Salani Kahle.

1 comment:

Carrie said...

So I am wondering how you have so much internet access? Are you near a town, or have some sort of wireless near your house?