Monday, December 22, 2008

Things I don't understand about Swaziland/Life

Every day I experience things I absolutely do not understand. For example, why are all the spoons at KFC pink with silver sparkles in them and the forks are just plain white? How do all these ladies with umbrellas know it’s going to rain today? Why are you giving your baby Coca-Cola when it’s still young enough to be breastfeeding? How come my cucumber seeds never germinate? (They did, my family just kept pulling them up because they thought they were weeds…we got that problem fixed now and I have 4 healthy cucumber plants.)

There are some bigger things that continue to baffle/frustrate me that I thought I’d share. This is NOT me complaining so much as expressing my frustration with things I could not possibly understand/get used to in Swaziland. Sorry Peace Corps, but sometimes cultural adjustment is just not possible.

Heat. So these past 2 weeks or so it’s been a consistent 85 degrees daily, which is fine since I know it could be worse (as in I could live in the Lubombo region where it’s often over 100 degrees) and because when I get too hot I can just lay on my cement floor and sweat because I’m my own boss. I manage by wearing skirts and a tank top and by having my hair tied up in a bun and drinking lots of water. And then I look around the room at the meeting I’m melting in and there’s a lady wearing a hoodie that says “Maine” on the front of it, and another lady in a coat with a fur-lined hood, and all the babies are bundled up like it’s the dead of winter in Saskatchewan, complete with knit caps with little tassel things on them. How are you not melting? And then they criticize me for not wearing long sleeves and a hat (and they mean a ski cap-type hat, not the wide-brimmed straw hat that would actually be helpful). Apparently they stay cool by not letting the sun touch them. I could see doing that with linen, but you look like you’re ready to go skiing!

Kombi etiquette. Imagine that it’s 90 degrees outside and you’re stuck in the back seat of a mini-bus, 4 people wedged into 3 seats, for a 45-minute ride. The man to your left has a giant bag of rancid meat and the 300-pound-woman to your right, whose left thigh is on top of yours, is sweating so profusely that she’s dripping on you. If you were anywhere else in the world, I bet somebody would open a window so that y’all could breathe, right? Not in Swaziland! If I’m sitting by the window, which I try to do whenever possible, I play a fun game where I open the window a crack and gasp for air until some Gogo (grandmother) reaches over and slams it shut and gives me the stink eye. And then I proceed to sneak the window back open little by little until Gogo notices again. You’d think that Gogo, in her leather jacket and ski cap, would WANT the window open, but you’d be wrong.

Withholding information. In my Cross-Cultural Communication class in college we talked about high-context and low-context cultures and I don’t really remember what that means but I’m pretty sure it explains the things Swazis don’t tell me. For example, my chief is apparently the regional Something Important for NERCHA (National Emergency Response Committee for HIV/AIDS) and is so important that he was asked to speak at the biggest World AIDS Day event in the country. Does he tell me this? No. But he may have denied it even if I had specifically asked…it’s what one of the Baylor doctors jokingly called the “Swazi no.” It doesn’t actually mean “no,” it means ask again with slightly different words. Or maybe the same exact words. I understand getting a “Swazi no” to questions like “Are you sexually active?” (that’s actually just lying) but I don’t understand how there is confusion when I ask something like “Are there peer educators in the community?” There are. And the woman I asked had, in fact, trained them. And she told me “no.”

Like/Love. In siSwati there is no distinction between the words “like” and “love,” which I think is closely related to the me-getting-hit-on-all-the-time problem. Last week I was sitting on a bus next to a man with no legs (yes, this is true) who asked my name and then promptly began confessing his love to me. As usual, I tried explaining the difference between love and lust, and telling him that I didn’t love him. I don’t know how to explain the difference to someone who “tsandzas” carrots in the same way that he “tsandzas” his wife since there’s no such thing as love in siSwati. (Really, though, I think the root of the inappropriate sexual comments and marriage proposals that I get constantly on the bus, etc., is that women in Swaziland don’t go to bars. In America bars are designated places to say inappropriate things to women, but since there’s no designated place to hit on women in Swaziland men just do it everywhere.)

Flies. You know when you see those Save the Children commercials with starving Ethiopian children and there are flies crawling all over their faces and you wonder why they don’t swat them away? It’s because African flies are exceptionally fearless and I could spend all day swatting them away from my face. It’s so bad that sometimes one will land on my spoonful of food on the short journey between the bowl and my mouth, and I don’t notice until it’s in my mouth. They also really like my headlamp, which is fun when I use the latrine at night and I end up with dead flies in my hair. (Hey, I never said Peace Corps was sexy.)

Destruction of property. Perhaps this comes from never owning anything nice, but Swazis don’t seem to be able to take care of anything. For example, when I hang my clothes over the barbed wire fence and it gets a little hole in it from flapping in the wind, I take a needle and thread and fix it before it turns into a big hole. My family thinks I’m crazy. They prefer to just ignore it until the hole is so large that they can breastfeed through it. Or how when I made a cute dog bowl for Bokhi with glitter glue pens (Secret Santa gift) and a peanut butter tub and it was destroyed within 10 minutes of being put outside. Not just the glitter glue scraped off, they had stabbed a hole in it. A water bowl with a hole in it serves no purpose, even if it says “Bokhi” in purple and blue glitter.

Concept of work. This morning I got up at 5:45 and went running, washed all my laundry from the past 2 weeks (by hand), planted green beans, watered my garden, visited the NCP (neighborhood care point) and studied for the GRE. At 6pm my Make comes to my door as I’m reading a novel and says “you are always resting!” What? Nothing I ever do is considered “work” to the women on my homestead because laundry/cooking/gardening are all the expected duties of women and they don’t really understand the exercise or reading part so they ignore it. As far as I’m concerned this has been a busy day, but to them I’m lazy unless I spend 5 hours with a hoe in the ill-fated maize field (hello, drought…all that maize is going to die anyway). And they don’t think I cook, either, because I don’t prepare porridge over an open fire twice a day. On multiple occasions they have come to my house at 6 or 7pm and asked why I’m not preparing dinner. Since they always have porridge for dinner, which takes a few hours to prepare, they don’t understand that a PB&J only takes about 2 minutes of “work.”

Water consumption. Swazis don’t drink water. Ever. When they see me with my Nalgene full of water, they always ask if they can have some juice (“juice” here is flavored sugar water, like Kool-Aid but about 10 times as unhealthy and always orange) and I have to go to great lengths to explain to them that it’s water and, no, I’m not drinking it because I’m out of juice. It’s healthy! One of the American nurses who sometimes works at my clinic said that American blood is actually thinner than Swazi blood (and that of other cultures that don’t drink water) because Americans put so much more fluid in their bodies every day. (I’m supposed to recognize this as a “difference” not as something that Americans do right and Swazis do wrong, but then I’d have to ignore how many babies/children die of dehydration in this country…)

Latrine etiquette/use. Since Swazis never drink water, they hardly ever pee. Even when they do, most people just go on the side of the road or on the side of the house or something, so the only people who ever use the latrine to pee are Gogos and Mkhulus (grandparents), Peace Corps volunteers, and people with TB (frequent urination is a symptom). And when they DO use the latrine for other business, they don’t close the door. If there IS a door. On my homestead there is a crocheted blanket thing hanging over the door of the family’s latrine (I have my own and it has a door) and they will physically hold it open while sitting on the latrine so that they can see out, which is really awkward when I walk by the latrine on the way to my own and my Make insists on having a conversation with me.

Holiday declaration and event planning. Last Monday was a holiday (Incwala), which meant that I had to cancel my meeting for that day and that public transportation wasn’t running as usual. It was a problem for me. It’s easy to not plan things for, say, Christmas day because you know when it is. The Incwala holiday, which is usually the first week of January, came early this year because the king decided to declare it the previous Thursday. And somehow Swaziland managed to put together a big event in the 4 days it had to plan. I don’t get it. But I guess this is how things like our World AIDS Day event happened…Us Americans thought that Friday was too late to start planning an event for Monday, but Swazis are used to it since they have to throw together events whenever the king feels like having a holiday on short notice. I wonder how significant a holiday can really be if it doesn’t commemorate a significant day or at least have something to do with the phases of the moon… (Incwala is actually pretty interesting. It has something to do with the initiation of boys as men and they have to go to Mozambique and get branches from a sacred bush and if it wilts on the journey back then they’re not virgins and then the boys with the unwilted branches have to beat a cow to death with their fists and then they can be in the army. And the king is in seclusion. Or something. Somehow that celebrates men and the first maize harvest.)

Subject-verb agreement. In high school (and in life) I was taught that if the subject of a sentence is plural that the verb needs to be plural, but I don’t think Swazis or South Africans got the message. For example, I hear this on the radio a million times a day: “Your family are celebrating the holidays early this year with the pre-Christmas sale at The Hub.” Or “Mattress Warehouse are having a big sale this weekend.” Or on the sports part of the news they always say things like “The Kaiser Chiefs won its first test match in cricket this afternoon in Durban.” I understand “Kaiser Chiefs” (a soccer team) is a collective noun and technically I guess it’s correct, it just sounds so wrong. (I won’t even get started on how Swazis don’t understand gender-specific pronouns, so “he” and “she” and “him” and “her” are completely interchangeable.)

I think that’s all I have to vent about for now. Things here are going well even though I’m doing basically nothing. This past week we had a going away party for our Country Director, who’s moving to Ethiopia, and I watched a million movies thanks to a sneakily-packed package from my sister Erin. On Tuesday (the 23rd) about half of the group is going to Mozambique for Christmas/New Years, so maybe I’ll have something ridiculous to write about when I get back. (I’m hoping for ridiculous in a good way, not in the “we got escorted to the embassy by a crazy man with an AK-47” way like the group that went last year…but in the defense of the crazy man with the AK-47, he was a cop and just didn’t speak English so he couldn’t explain that they couldn’t take photos of the police station, so he took them to the embassy for translation.) I made 3 dozen chocolate chip cookies for the trip, but of course I had to make a test batch (or 3) to figure out how to use my oven so I’ve basically eaten nothing but cookies for 3 days. That’s a great choice right before the beach…

Anyway, Merry Christmas, etc. and lots of love from the Swaz (Mozambique, actually)!

PS: If you’re looking for something delicious to drink for the holidays you should try “Flirtinis.” Mix equal parts vodka, pineapple juice and pink champagne over ice. It’s delicious, but unless you want to spend the next 2 days removing temporary tattoos from your neck (they said “bling bling” and “balla shot calla”) you should only have one. At least they were temporary.


Erin said...

yay! you got the movies! i'll send more soon, i've been making a collection.

i can't believe how much you're putting up with there. my head would have exploded by now! I keep searching for you community on, as soon as it's up we're going to sponsor a family.

have a great christmas vacation!!! love ya!!!

Watt Smith said...

Great blog! let me know if you ever make it to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I will hook you up with a FREE "Awesome Video" I really respect what you are doing!