Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Best Week Ever / This is Africa / War on Bats, cont.

So when Obama said something about people “gathered around their radios in the forgotten corners of the world” listening to election results, I think he was talking about Peace Corps Swaziland. Except we were fancy enough to have a TV with satellite so we could watch CNN (at an amazing hostel for less than $10 a night)! We all (as in 28 of the 33 of us in Group 6) met up in Mbabane for the best election party ever which consisted of CNN (broadcast from London initially because of the time difference…) from about 4pm Tuesday evening to 7am Wednesday morning, pizza, beer (well, wine because I don’t drink beer) and an enormous slumber party (the kind where you don’t actually sleep). The election results didn’t actually start coming in until 2am, and Obama spoke at 6:30, at which point we were all so exhausted we were crying with joy. It was an incredible experience and I really missed being home in DC because I totally would have been one of those obnoxious people causing a ruckus outside the White House. Oh, DC…I miss you and your 93% Democratic vote. But I have to say it was pretty amazing to be surrounded entirely by liberal Democrats on a night like that and I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have shared it with. Peace Corps is amazing. The next morning, still wearing my Obama ’08 shirt, I was surprised at the number of Swazis who congratulated me on my country’s good decision. I know, I’m proud. (But how did they know? It wasn’t even in the newspaper until Thursday!) And also, CNN, what was that “hologram” business? It made for really amusing Star Wars jokes. Sad, though, that Will.I.Am was officially the first man (second person, but the first one was a woman) to be “broadcast by hologram.”

In other news, I taught my first big class the Thursday after the election. Having slept only about 6 hours of the previous 72, I was pretty nervous about my competency, and I had only prepared my lesson for about an hour the night before…and the lesson was an hour long. But it all worked out in the end. I was supposed to teach grades 5-7 and another teacher was going to take the younger kids who don’t speak English, but she didn’t show up so I had grades 2-7 for a grand total of just over 200 kids. That’s how things go in Swaziland, so I wasn’t surprised, really. After the head teacher had yelled at all of them to sit down and be quiet and listen to me, I got them all out of their chairs to play a game where each child gets a card with an X, O or triangle on it and they go around and shake hands with each other for a minute and then I explain what it means. If they had an X on the card it represented an HIV-positive person. Anyone who shook hands with that person had sex with them, and if they have a triangle they used a condom but an O they didn’t. It’s pretty dramatic to see how quickly it spreads…I started out with 7 X’s originally and there were over 30 by the time they had shaken hands with others. I did have to PEPFAR-ize it a little bit so that each handshake was an “high-risk encounter” with an HIV-positive person, and the triangles “knew how to protect themselves” from HIV since I’m funded by PEPFAR and not allowed to talk about condoms and I wasn’t really comfortable talking to 2nd graders about sex. Then we did an exercise where we talked about ways that HIV is spread and ways it isn’t, and I was impressed with what they knew overall. They thought you could get HIV from a mosquito bite, but they got all of the other ones right (as in you can’t get HIV from sitting next to someone in class, playing soccer with someone, hugging someone, sharing a meal, etc.). And when we discussed how you can protect yourself one girl said “if you don’t abstain, always use a condom!” And then I made them all repeat what that girl had said since I’m not technically allowed to say that, but they’re allowed to learn from their peers. Amazing.

I did also have what was probably the most embarrassing moment of my life that morning, though. I was teaching in the chapel (and, no, I didn’t get struck by lightening and I even sang along with some of the songs in English) so I was standing on a big platform at the front of the classroom, behind a big lectern that the preacher usually uses. I was pretty conscious of where the edge of the stage was (it was about 2 feet off the ground) and managed not to fall off the front of it while I was teaching, but I didn’t realize there was a back exit off the stage with a small, well-hidden staircase going down. At the end of my lesson, after I was pretty confident I had made it through, I stepped back so they could all see the amazing posters I had stuck to the walls and I landed 2 steps down the staircase and fell into the door (luckily it didn’t open or I’d have landed outside). Great! Swazis apologize for everything, so they responded with a synchronized chorus of “I’m sorry,” which made it even more embarrassing. I tried to just move on, but I know I was glowing red.

This past week has been pretty busy, all in all. I’ve been teaching “argumentative writing” to the Form 4s, which is a completely new concept to them even though in less than a year they have to take an examination on argumentative writing. But they seem to be getting it pretty well. I’m also teaching the Thursday morning lesson at the primary school and working at the clinic with Doctors Without Borders (MSF) on Tuesdays, and trying frantically to get my “homework” done in time to turn it in at In-Service Training. I have about a million pages of siSwati homework due on the 16th of November and my “Phase II report” about my community, which I didn’t start until the weekend before it was due. Whoops. I also got a new Gogo Centre Clerk this past week, which means that I finally have someone to use as a translator and tour guide, but it’s a bit late for that to be very helpful. I have learned, though, that in Swaziland it takes exactly 5 weeks to choose between 2 people they interview for a job. And I was supposed to meet with him on Friday but he didn’t show up. Welcome to Swaziland.

It's so easy to forget that I'm in Swaziland when I'm going through the everyday routine of life. Somehow it seems so normal. Until, of course, something absolutely ridiculous happens to remind me. On Tuesday night, after teaching, I headed up to Brittany's site to stay the night so I could visit the office early Wednesday morning. It was a fun night--we watched all of My Best Friend's Wedding and my computer battery didn't die!. But the next morning at about 5:30 we decided to head into the office to be the first ones on the computer. Easy enough. Except it was raining. Raining like crazy and I didn't have a rain jacket or an umbrella. And that's just problem number one. After standing at the bust stop for about 30 minutes, constantly battling the flying termites (problem number two) that were trying to fly into our eyes/ears/noses/hair, and bonding over removing dead termite carcasses from each other's faces, we finally got a kombi. And the kombi drove for about 10 minutes before getting stuck in the mud at the bottom of a big hill. Great! Problem number three: We sat there in the kombi for a while until we saw that there was gasoline spewing from the bottom of the kombi (we had slid into a mud bank and bottomed-out on some rocks), at which point we booked it and decided to walk back to her site. Problem number four: biggest hill ever, in sandals, in the mud, in the pouring rain, in a skirt, carrying a heavy bag with a computer in it. We walked for about 45 minutes, nearly vertical, until finally a pick-up truck full of old women came along. We hopped in, which meant my black skirt was completely covered in mud, until we intercepted a functioning kombi. So, yes, turns out I live in Africa. Mud, rain, broke-down kombis, flying termites, barefoot hikes in a skirt up a hill, hitch-hiking in a pick-up truck. It was an adventure, to say the least. And we still made it to the office by 8:15!

I also had an eye-opening experience this week “shadowing” a woman who works as an “expert client” at the clinic and is on the executive board of the support group. Her name is Nombuso and she’s in her mid-20s and is, amazingly, unmarried. Still, she has a daughter of her own (welcome to Swaziland…) and is raising the numerous children of her 3 brothers, all of whom have died of HIV/AIDS in the past few years (and her mother died this year of breast cancer, so it’s just her and all the kids). She’s become a good friend of mine because she speaks English and is interested in involving me in her work, which I really appreciate. So last week she took me to one of the NCPs (Neighborhood Care Points) where they teach “pre-school” to the kids for a few hours a day and, in exchange for enthusiastic singing of “head-and-shoulders-knees-and-toes” they get a meal. When I visited, the meal was boiled split peas and salt with boiled wheat, which was prepared much like oats. Ew. En route to the NCP we stopped by two homesteads to check on homebound patients. The first was a 43-year-old widow who had no children of her own but who was raising two children of relatives who had died of HIV/AIDS. She had fallen down and broken her leg, which the clinic had put in a cement cast so she could walk on it because she couldn’t afford the expensive crutches or hospital visit. Then we stopped in and saw an 80-year-old gogo (grandmother) who was literally wasting away in her bed. She probably weighed 80 pounds and was about 2% conscious because she had gone over a week without food. She had never been tested for HIV, but all of the other women in the family were HIV-positive so she may have contracted the virus taking care of a family member, which would explain her rapid wasting. But because she is so old, she decided she would rather die than consume the family’s limited stock of food. It’s pretty overwhelming to see the impact of HIV/AIDS and food shortage in that way, and even worse to see that Nombuso was not even surprised. Examples like that are pretty common.

Back on the homefront, I think I may have won the War on Bats. Last week I was talking to some drunk guy sitting next to me on a kombi and he suggested that I stuff wet newspaper in the cracks between the wall and the ceiling to keep the bats out, so I improvised with wet typing paper, newspaper and a few colored-on pages of a coloring book. I did it on Saturday and, as of Tuesday, I have not had a bat and there is no bat poop in my house. It may be a bit early to declare victory, but at least I have a game plan now. The bats have been replaced by another critter problem, though, as I discovered Monday that the largest spider in the world is living under my bed. Seriously, he was about the size of my palm and really hairy and brown and, in all likelihood, poisonous. I tried to kill him a number of times, then decided that ignoring him is probably the best idea.

From the 16th to 21st of November Group 6 has what is called In-Service Training (IST). We’re all meeting in Manzini to learn more about HIV/AIDS from doctors from Baylor University and to learn the logistics of applying for grants and such. Our previous training focused on acculturation to Swaziland and on language training, and this second training focuses on the more technical aspects of what it means to be a Peace Corps Volunteer. It will be amazing for all of us to be together again and I’m excited to actually be able to begin work in my community. And if I’m lucky, when I get back home I’ll actually have vegetables in my garden! (I have a tomato now, but it’s still green so I’m sure it will be eaten while I’m gone at IST…bad timing on my part. And the first of my lettuce is almost ready.)

Also, I planted a papaya tree. Apparently they bear fruit within a few months of being planted. Aside from the fact that papayas are gross (they smell like feet and taste like nothing), I’m excited about my first fruit tree.

I’m hosting my first slumber party this Saturday (really a dinner party, but since dinner happens after dark, everyone will stay the night). It’ll be fun. I’m going to bake like crazy in an attempt to lure visitors to my house in the future. I’m thinking chocolate chip cookies, brownies and apple crisp. Yum! Add to that some homemade pasta sauce (store-bought pasta) and a nice salad made with homegrown vegetables (at least the lettuce)…delicious! Not to mention that I have East Coast Radio…

Things I love about Swaziland: chutney-flavored processed cheese, which makes great grilled cheese sandwiches that I eat for all 3 meals a day until the cheese is gone; being able to nap for 4 hours on a Thursday afternoon without it interfering with work; the sun-bleaching of my hair from my long walks every day; working with 99% Democrats; the fact that it’s cool after the sun goes down so it’s never too hot to sleep; my bhutis and sisis, who are very generous with their hugs; making my own Raisin Bran from a bag of raisins and a box of bran flakes, which means I can put even more than two scoops in every box; and being so well-known in my community that even on a kombi from Nhlangano I always know someone.

Final thought: I have a new cell phone with a South African number so I can receive incoming text messages. The number (from the US) is 011 27 79 668 7818. So yeah, text me and make me happy. There’s probably a 60% chance I’ll get it.

Love from the Swaz!


Dad said...

Always nice to hear about your adventures. Have fun at your slumber party, and hopefully nobody will accidently find the big freaky spider in your house!

Anonymous said...

Justine, I'm the mom of one of your fellow Swaziland Peace Corps Obama Election Night non-slumbermates...Connor.

I always love learning more about what my son is up to by reading your blog than I can find out talking to him! Thank you for your description of the festivities in Mbabane on Nov 4/5th. It was just as I imagined...memories to last a lifetime.


Erin said...

Your house is being invaded by bats and mutant spiders and you still live there? You should have your own show on Animal Planet or something. I would freak out!