Sunday, March 29, 2009

I'm Alive!

Sanibonani! There's not much going on in my life this week. Except work, but that's pretty boring. A few notes:

1. Both of the puppies are girls (thank you for everyone who made fun of me for not knowing what they were...). I kind of wish they were both boys so I could name them Mario and Luigi, but I guess nobody here would understand that reference so I guess I could just call them that anyway.

2. I spent the weekend at Mlilwane Game Reserve at a backpackers with a bunch of other volunteers and it was fantastic. There's a pool and campfire and hiking and it was a much needed vacation. Amazing! There's an ostrich named Peter (it's a girl) that wanders around the backpackers and drinks out of the pool and stuff, which is pretty surreal. And ostriches have really prehistoric-looking toes, which freak me out...

3. I bought an exercise bike today from another volunteer and I'm going to be in really really good shape by the time I get back, assuming I actually use it. Usually I spend my evenings sitting around doing nothing and listening to the radio, so now I figure I can at least sit around on the exercise bike and listen to the radio. With my fan blowing on me the whole time. Man it's a tough life.

That's all. I'm going back to site today and I'll write an actual blog (when I'm not paying by the minute) and come into town early in the week to post it and some photos.


Thursday, March 19, 2009

Better Late Than Never...

Tuesday morning, when I left my house at 6:45, it was 81 degrees. By 1pm it was 63. By nightfall it was cold (I could see my breath) and rainy and I wanted nothing more than to sit around in sweatpants, eat popcorn and watch the Presidential and Vice-Presidential Debates. So that’s exactly what I did. (A big thanks to my sister, Erin, who burned and sent them to me.) It may be too late for it to matter, but just so you know I wouldn’t have changed my vote even if I’d seen these 6 months ago. Anyway, here’s what I learned:
1. I would probably enjoy having John McCain over for dinner.
2. South Koreans are 3” taller, on average, than North Koreans.
3. Joe Biden can’t pronounce the word “hundred.” (He says HUN-erd.) But, man, he has a nice smile. Dentures, I’m sure.
4. Sarah Palin says things like “folks,” “bless their hearts,” “Joe six-pack,” “darn sure, “dear friends,” “um,” “say it ain’t so, Joe” and “drill, baby, drill.” And she pronounces “nuclear” as “NUKE-you-luhr,” which is wrong.
5. John McCain is a “maverick.”
6. Barack Obama is really good at getting the last word in. Always.
7. John McCain is left-handed.
8. Yes, we can.

I assure you, though, that I don’t spend my whole life sitting around doing nothing. I work at least 3 hours a day. Here’s what I do with the majority of my life:

--Last Wednesday (the 11th) I bought my first batch of seedlings for the garden at the NCP (the place where they feed orphans and hungry kids in the community). I bought 100 spinach, 100 cabbage, 100 onion and 20 tomato seedlings, which the women who volunteer at the NCP had planted by Saturday morning. I told them that I’d buy them more if they could get them all planted in time, so I’m back in town today buying more seedlings (they are cut on Wednesdays and need to be planted by Saturday). Today I’m buying 100 lettuce, 100 beetroot, 100 green pepper and 100 more tomato seedlings in the hope that the kids at the NCP will get more than just boiled wheat and water (yum!) for their daily meal. And I want to thank Dan Brooks and his wife Kim for the donation that made the NCP garden possible.

--On Saturday (the 14th) I also attended a “TB Day” put on by Doctors without Borders (MSF) in the neighboring community of Sigwe. Essentially, they brought speaker system and started blasting really loud gospel music and people showed up and sat down and learned about Tuberculosis (transmission, prevention, cure, association with HIV, etc.) in anticipation of free food and goodies (handkerchief, condoms, t-shirts) afterwards. That’s how events work in Swaziland. My job was to wipe off and line up all of the 200 chairs in rows of 12 and then to help package the “sensual safety” gift bags. Simple, right? Not in Swaziland. I had a team of about 5 Swazis (adults, mind you) working with me on the chair thing, so I lined up two rows properly (7 chairs then an aisle then 5 more chairs) and instructed the people to do the same. I ended up with rows of 4 chairs, rows of 15 chairs, rows of chairs that had no leg room and then proceeded to fix them all myself while my “team” rested in the shade. Then I joined the ongoing task of the condom goodie bags. There were 250 gift bags, 250 female condoms and 250 packs of male condoms. So here’s a math problem for you: if you have 250 bags, 250 of item x and 250 of item y, how many of each item should you put in each of the bags so that 250 people get gifts? When I showed up, the women who were filling the bags were putting 2 female condoms and 4 packs of male condoms in each bag. Which makes no sense! Okay, then what do you do with the extra 125 female condoms and the extra 188 gift bags? Hide them under the table and wait for the American to come over and fix it. Oh well, at least they're trying and that's a start.

--Teaching at Florence Christian Academy is going well. I’ve finally finished revising my syllabus, which outlines all 98 lessons I’ll be teaching this year so that the administration can approve it. This week my classes are (hopefully) learning about the consequences of high-risk behavior and how to diffuse peer pressure in situations that may expose people to HIV. It’s a two-part lesson, since the school’s class periods have been shortened from an hour to only 40 minutes and you can’t do ANYTHING in a 40 minute class period. My students hate me because I make them do things like think and write and speak in front of the class, but I think they’re learning. I did get really frustrated with my Form 2 (9th grade) class on Tuesday and actually yelled at them to shut up. They immediately responded with wide eyes and a chorus of “sorry” and I didn’t hear one bit of side conversation for the rest of the class period.

--I’m also helping teach Form 5 (Grade 12) English this week. Actually I’m not helping anyone because the teacher I’m supposed to be “helping” doesn’t even bother to show up most of the time. And when he does show up at school, he is usually found watching DVDs of angry-sounding preaching and gospel music videos on the big TV in the computer lab. We’re practicing for the oral communication exam, which means I have a 10 minute directed conversation with each student (which would take half the time if the other teacher would do it too). Overall I’m impressed with their performance, but it never fails to amaze me that Swazis don’t seem to grasp the concept of gender-specific pronouns. This week I’m also going to make them write haikus. Maybe I’ll discover some creativity in Swaziland…if I can effectively explain to these students (17 of whom are older than me) what a syllable is.

--This week I finalized plans (and permission) to paint the enormous world map on a wall in the courtyard at the high school. I’m hoping to get it finished in the 3 weeks that school is out between the first and second terms at the beginning of May, provided it stops raining by then. Tuesday I went to the woodworking teacher and asked to borrow a tape measure, and he was incredulous that I’d actually know how to use it. That’s when I decided that I would complete the map with help only from other women, so I took the tape measure and enlisted the help of the secretary to help me measure the wall while the male teachers stood around and laughed at us. Later, when I asked the Deputy Head Teacher if I could use his step-ladder to paint the top parts of the map, he asked me if I knew how to use a ladder. For real? Yes, I know how to “use” a 3-foot step-ladder. When I explained the project to another male teacher, he joked that I better have enough paint to hire a man to paint over my map when I’m done, since they don’t want an ugly map on the wall. Maybe they would trust me if they knew what a perfectionist I am. They’ll see. (Or else I’ll paint the map over break while all the students are gone and they’ll just assume I hired a man to do it.)

--Also, I FINALLY got a list of the kids who need sponsorship through Young Heroes, but unfortunately at the meeting it was written in pencil and that’s too unprofessional to give to me so I have to wait until the woman who has it copies it in pen before I can arrange things. There’s no shortage of things to wait for in Swaziland. I’m going to be so patient after this experience.

As much as I complain, I really do love my job. I find humor in how awkward and frustrating it is, and happiness in the smallest measure of success. It’s a good way to live, I think.

Other goings-on:

--Mr. Bread, one of the two bread companies in Swaziland, has introduced a new kind of brown bread. (There’s only “brown” and “white” bread, and nutritionally they’re not very different.) This new type of brown bread, called “Swazi Choice,” advertises that it has “added roughage.” Really? Why don’t just advertise that it “makes you have regular bowel movements!”

--The other day my 22-year-old neighbor came confess his love to me and found me watering my garden. We started talking about the garden and he commented that my family had obviously worked hard to give me such a nice garden. I told him that, in fact, I’d built the fence and plowed the land and planted everything, to which he replied: “Yeah, now that I look closer I can tell that it was all done by a woman.” And he wasn’t joking! Yeah, that’s my life. A warning to the married women coming in Group 7: your husband will get credit for everything you do in your community. (This is why I’m doing the map project without male help…so that a random 15-year-old boy who helps me for 10 minutes doesn’t get credit for the whole thing.) I will appreciate even the most sexist of American men after this experience.

--I’m thinking of dying my hair really, really dark brown. Maybe I wouldn’t get sexually harassed so often if I didn’t radiate whiteness. Thoughts?

--I woke up this morning to find a dead goat sitting outside my house. It’s the second time this has happened…the first one was a few weeks ago and I found him laying half inside my latrine. Nobody moved him for 2 or 3 days because they didn’t really see it as a problem, but I’m pretty sure that whatever killed him made this second now-dead goat (who was in the latrine with the dead goat) sick. Later, there was a baby goat (about a week old) sniffing around the dead goat. I tried to explain that they should move the goat so it doesn’t infect others with whatever it had, but it’s still laying there. It’s sad, too, because this is the goat I watched the birth of when I first moved here 7 months ago…the one where its sister was eaten by the pig and I was traumatized. I liked that goat! Life’s tough on the farm, especially when the farmer lacks a basic understanding of infectious diseases.

--Last Sunday was my neighbor Gladness’s birthday, so two of the kids and I and spent the early morning making two loaves of banana bread. They helped me mix in the flour and mash the bananas and everything else, but they ran out of my house when I poured in the vanilla. Okay…so I baked the bread and cut it into a million pieces so that everyone on the homestead would get a piece, but they all refused to eat it. I took the second loaf to Gladness, but she said she didn’t want it. So I asked my sisi Londiwe what was going on…apparently, the two boys helping me thought that the vanilla was “muti” and told everyone else not to eat it. Muti, in Swaziland, is a sort of witch’s potion used to curse the person who it is intended for. They believe that if you have a miscarriage, it’s because a jealous neighbor probably put muti on your doorstep. If you have a car accident, it’s because there was muti on the road and you drove over it and you and your car became cursed. If someone in your family dies mysteriously, it’s because muti summoned the spirits to kill them (this is how a lot of AIDS-related deaths are explained in rural communities where families are afraid to admit that their family has been affected by AIDS). I’m not really sure what they all thought I was trying to do to them, but I brought out the vanilla and let them smell it and I ate some of the bread myself and they all laughed. What would I gain from cursing my own family?

--With the oral communication practice, one of the topics is “the clothes I like to wear” so I ask students what things they like to buy, what they would never wear, what dress code is enforced by their parents, where they get their inspiration for their fashion, etc. I’ve used the topic 5 or 6 times and it always leads into a discussion of whether “trousers” are appropriate for women to wear. And I have yet to find a single student (male or female) in my class that says that women should be allowed to wear pants. One girl did say that it’s harder to get raped if you’re wearing pants, but that she was more afraid of being thought un-Christian than of being raped. And almost all of them said that it’s un-Christian for women to wear pants. What? Since when do all Christians wear skirts? Is there some 11th Commandment that I missed? “Thou shall not wear trousers.” Never mind adultery, gluttony, coveting, stealing, etc. As long as you’re wearing a skirt while you’re sleeping with your neighbor’s husband and stealing his food, you’re a good Christian. I really don’t get it.

--You would think that beliefs in things like “muti” and witchcraft would be un-Christian. In fact, I think that’s a far more obvious contradiction with Christianity than wearing pants. But not in Swaziland.

--There’s some sort of motor vehicle that the radio station I listen to refers to as a “mechanical horse.” Is that a tractor?

--Do you think I could get NPR if I had a shortwave radio? Does anybody want to send me one? If not a shortwave radio, I could definitely use some “Crest Whitening Plus Scope” with the minty fresh stripe (not the Crest Whitening Expressions; that makes my mouth hurt). Most of the toothpaste here is mentholated and/or makes my mouth taste like cough drops and/or makes my teeth feel gross. Maybe I’m too picky. Or maybe I’m just a Crest Kid.

--Lately I’ve been fantasizing about all-you-can-eat buffets. I’d kill for some free refill root beer, clam chowder (with those little hexagonal crackers), macaroni and cheese, roast beef, fried zucchini and broccoli and cheese in one sitting. With a bowl of chocolate-vanilla-swirl ice cream and gummy bears for dessert. Maybe a brownie or some banana cream pie or cherry crisp…or all three. I never thought I’d daydream about Golden Corral.

--Bokhi’s puppies (my puppies!) are 9 days old today. There are 2 survivors (I think there were 3 originally) and they’re adorable! They’re black with white feet and heads and a little bit of white on the tips of their tails. She’s still really protective of them, but she doesn’t mind if I pet them or even pick them up. I know already I’m going to have a hard time getting rid of them. The English teacher I work with at the high school said he wanted to buy one, so I said I’d give it to him on the condition that he would love it as much as I do. He laughed and told me it would be easier to just buy one from someone else. Anyway, I don’t know if they’re boys or girls or what (am I dumb or are they too young to tell?), but I’m open to name suggestions. Nothing with an “r” in it because Swazis can’t pronounce those.

This is the best picture I have of the puppies, but I'll try to sneak in and get better ones before the weekend. They're adorable!!

Oh, and Happy St. Patrick’s Day. I didn’t even realize it was St. Patrick’s Day until about 8pm on Tuesday, but I’d been eating bread with little green spots on it all day, so I guess I was celebrating.

That’s all for today. Most likely I’ll be back in town on Saturday for a “meeting,” which is really just an excuse to eat fried chicken and stay the night somewhere with cable TV and running water. Swaziland is amazing.

I caught Hle and Xolile hiding outside the kitchen eating stolen maize. And instead of telling on them, I snuck up and took a picture.

My neighbors coloring and playing in my house to avoid the pouring rain. The naked little boy, Lindo, is just over a year old and HIV+. His parents have managed to have 3 HIV+ children, which means that they clearly don't understand safe breastfeeding (with safe breastfeeding, the chance of transmission is 3%, with unsafe breastfeeding it's very high). This is why home-based-care and follow-up on women after birth is crucial.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Stigmatizing Stigma (and also Nginemidlwane!)

So the other day I was sitting in the Deputy Head Teacher’s office (he was gone) busy doing nothing when two Form 4 (Grade 11) boys walked in to ask me questions about sex and HIV and other things they can’t talk to their normal teachers about. They asked me about ARVs and how do ARVs work? (There are reverse transcriptase and protease inhibitors.) Do they cure HIV? (No, they just slow the progression of the virus.) Can you still spread HIV if you’re taking ARVs? (Even with treatment, it is still possible to spread HIV to others.) Why do people wait to start taking ARVs? (You don’t start taking ARVs in Swaziland until your CD4 count is 200 or lower, which can be up to 10 years after infection.) How long can you live once you start taking ARVs? (Ten years is pretty standard, but it depends on a lot of other factors.

At this point, they did some math. If you are infected for 10 years before you have to take ARVs, and if you can live on ARVs for about 10 years, a person who is infected with HIV when they’re 20 can live to be 40 years old. Or, the way they put it, “If I don’t get infected until I’m 20, I’ll live just as long as I would even if I never got HIV.” At this point I was horrified for 2 reasons: (1) Something has gone terribly wrong in this country that a 17-year-old boy doesn’t plan on living past 40 (the life expectancy is 31), and (2) Maybe eliminating stigma is a bad thing…

Okay, I do still have a heart…but I also have a brain. Stigma causes all sorts of bad things—people refuse to test for fear that they’ll be positive and others will shun them, women are afraid to disclose their status to their husbands for fear they’ll be blamed, people on ARVs don’t take them when they have company or when they’re traveling for fear of being found out, people who choose to be openly positive are alienated by those who are not openly positive, etc.—but I honestly think that a certain level of stigma is required to make people afraid of getting HIV in the first place. Why waste your time and money with condoms when the worst thing that could happen is that you’d get a disease that everyone else has and that won’t do anything worse than inconvenience you twice a day when you have to take pills? How do I teach my students that they should treat people with HIV just like they treat anyone else, but that they should try their best to never become one of those people because it’s bad to be like them? That’s a dilemma…

Can you imagine if we, as a society, completely destigmatized teenage pregnancy? What if every health teacher and guidance counselor told high school students that getting pregnant when you’re 15 is no big deal, that you can live a completely normal life, that 1 in 4 people in the country have kids before they’re 18 and it’s not the end of the world for them? What if parents sat their kids down and told them that they would be okay with it if they had a kid before they graduated high school? What incentive would high school students have NOT to have sex, or what incentive would they have to use contraception? Honestly, that’s kind of what it’s like in Swaziland. And kids have lots of sex. And lots of 17-year-olds have kids. Because there’s nothing bad that happens to you if you do (and, in fact, it proves your fertility so it’s a good thing for marriage prospects).

I don’t know that I’m going to change what I’m teaching, but I am having something of a personal crisis about whether my anti-stigma lessons are doing more harm than good. Maybe I’ll just try to emphasize the “visualizing your future” lesson where students think about how different their lives would be with and without HIV. But maybe in rural Swaziland—where nobody has jobs, nobody gets educated, nobody lives to meet their grandchildren except those born to their 17-year-old daughters—getting HIV doesn’t really make your life any worse than it would have been otherwise. Why bother trying not to get it?

Wow, that’s depressing.

In other news, life is going well. This week I’m teaching the “ABCDEFG Model” of prevention (Abstain, Be faithful, Condomise, Delay sexual debut, Educate yourself, Fight stigma, Get tested) and I’m taking entries for the HIV prevention art competition that PEPFAR is paying for. I’m also working in my own garden and that of the NCP (the place where they feed orphans) so that me and the orphans in my community can eat more than just carbs. The small business thing at Hluti Central HS has been put on hold for a week for some sort of track meet that justifies canceling school all week (after last week school was cancelled for a teacher strike). Also, after MUCH waiting, I SHOULD have the list of kids who need sponsorship after one final meeting today…hopefully. I saw the list on Monday so I know it exists, but apparently it has to be finalized in a meeting with the chief today (Wednesday), so hopefully this weekend I’ll be able to post more information.

Also, NGINEMIDLWANE (ngee-nay-mee-dluh-WAA-nay). I have puppies! My mother/grandmother warned me that Bokhi would look kind of confused or have glazed-over eyes before she went into labor, and on Tuesday afternoon when I came home from the school she was acting kind of weird. (I couldn’t tell about the cloudy eyes thing because she only has one eye and it’s pretty cloudy all the time because she’s 9 years old.) It was a week early, but she had the puppies in the afternoon and I know at least 2 of them survived. She has them hidden away in a stack of thatch that my family intends to use on the kitchen roof so I haven’t been able to steal them and put them in my house yet, but this morning I got a good look at two tiny little white fuzzy heads so I know there are at least 2 of them. And I know who the baby daddy is (he’s the more attractive of the boys I saw her having relations with)…I’ll post pictures whenever I get a good look at them. And, most importantly, Bokhi is doing well. I was worried since it’s about like a 65-year-old woman having babies, but she’s happy and busy being a good mom (this is litter number 8 so she’s had lots of practice).

That’s all for today. Happy Belated Daylight Savings Time, even though we don’t have that here. Instead we have no concept of time whatsoever.

Love from the Swaz!

Mukelo, Kwanele and Xolile with the newest addition to the homestead, who I've named "Baby Goat." Original, I know. They think it's hilarious to sneak the goat into my house through my burglar bars when I'm busy doing work at my table so that I don't notice him unti he starts crying. I'm sure there's something unsanitary about that, but I enjoy the company.

Hlengiwe and the "Alphabet Tree" my parents sent. They love it! And it's really funny when they get to "Z" because they call it "zed" and they get into an argument with it, saying "no, zed!"

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Me and Beth at KFC on the day of its grand opening in Nhlangano. Beth went home this week, which means that our group is down to 29 from its original 36. And 5 of them were in Shiselweni region, which means we're down to only 3 of us in the south of the country. Sad, sad.

Dear Group 7,

Sanibonani and congratulations on your invitation! Now that all the paperwork is done, you have time to obsess about packing and all the other things you have to do before June 20-somethingth when you leave for staging. Let the panic begin! You’ll be getting a “staging packet” sometime between now and when you leave, but just in case you’re anything like I was last year and you want to know NOW what you’ve gotten yourself into, maybe this will help.

First things first: Swaziland. Hopefully you know that it’s a tiny little country in Southern Africa between Mozambique and South Africa with a nearly 100% homogenous Swazi population. It’s an absolute monarchy led by His Majesty King Mswati III (one of the richest political leaders in the world), who took the throne in 1986, and there is a fledgling movement toward democracy that probably will not be realized until the king dies since political parties are technically illegal. It’s a very conservative country politically, religiously and culturally. Just about everyone you meet is Christian (sometimes belligerently so) and you will be asked probably every day if you have “been saved.” (It’s not so bad, though. I’m not Christian and I’ve made it this far.) Especially in the rural areas, women have very few rights (including the right to wear pants) and female volunteers will learn very quickly how to diffuse sexual harassment. A lot of traditional beliefs also still exist in the rural areas, including some beliefs that are particularly helpful in spreading HIV (like the cutting of babies with a razor blade, polygamy, traditional healers who use blood-letting to cure things, traditional healers who say they can cure HIV, multiple concurrent sexual partners even for married men, intergenerational sex, etc.) In the rural areas, most people are unemployed and survive on subsistence farming and animal husbandry. The education system is the exam-based model typical of former British colonies with lots of problems: it’s expensive and therefore inaccessible to many people in rural areas, teachers become teachers mostly because of guaranteed employment and not because they love teaching, there’s a high failure rate so many students don’t complete high school until their mid-20s, there’s no continuous assessment so students don’t do homework, there are frequently strikes of teachers and/or students for silly things, etc. Hopefully you also know that Swaziland has the highest rate of HIV of any country in the world, which is somewhere between 26% and 43% depending on what statistic you’re using. There are a lot of problems created by HIV, too, including the prevalence of OVCs (orphans and vulnerable children), restructuring of the traditional family, kids who can’t go to school because they are needed to take care of sick relatives, etc. Medical care in most communities is lacking, and even where it’s considered “good” the services offered are very basic and some patients have to walk many hours to get to the clinic. Anti-retroviral therapy (ART) is technically free for all people with a CD4 count below 200, but all patients must go to 1 of 6 ART initiation centers for the first 3 months of their treatment, which is financially impossible for many rural Swazis. All things considered, Swaziland is considered a “middle income country,” meaning that it’s ineligible for a lot of foreign assistance that’s only made available to poorer countries. If you took the royal family out of the equation, though, Swaziland is a low income country. There are a lot of NGOs and IOs that work here, including UNESCO, World Food Program, Doctors without Borders (MSF), Elizabeth Glaser, World Vision, USAID, UNAIDS, Baylor Clinic, etc.

Swaziland is a completely unique country, which lends itself to a completely unique Peace Corps experience. First of all, Swaziland is small, which means that the 50 or so volunteers who are here at the same time are really close geographically and otherwise. I think we all live within an hour of another volunteer and we’re all within 3 hours of the office and the “big city” of Mbabane. Since all of us are Community Health and HIV/AIDS Education volunteers, we are able to work together on some projects and to share programming ideas with each other. (Or, if you don’t want to hang out or work with other people, that’s an option too.) The in-country staff is really great and very supportive of and patient with all the ridiculous logistical, programming, cultural, linguistic, medical and otherwise random questions you could possibly think to ask. And, since the country is small, they’re really accessible. Even though we’re all, technically, doing the same job, your actual work depends largely on what you want to do and what your community is willing to work with you on. For example, some of us teach Life Skills (HIV/AIDS, nutrition, decision-making, goal-setting, career planning, drugs and alcohol, etc.) at primary or high schools, some work with a local person to do workshops and mobile testing in their communities, some work with church leaders to do HIV education, some work with other NGOs to produce educational materials or run after-school programs, some run sports or drama clubs to teach youth about HIV and others volunteer at a clinic. You can do any combination of those things, or whatever else you’re comfortable doing. (And, trust me, by the time you get to your community you’ll be comfortable with a lot more than you think you are now.) Just know that, in all likelihood, nobody is going to show up and invite you to do these things. You have to be really self-motivated to find work in most communities, but once you do it’s really rewarding. And once you get to know your community it’s not as difficult as it sounds, either!

As far as living conditions, we all live on homesteads with Swazi families. A traditional “homestead” houses an extended family, usually including a Babe (father), Make (mother) or two (polygamy, remember?), lots of kids and maybe grandparents, and consists of several buildings in a cluster of sorts. (With the high death rate this has changed a lot, so most of us have a big homestead consisting of a mix of remaining parts of several nuclear families.) Most of us have our own 1 or 2 room cement houses with a tin or thatch roof, but a few have a room or 2 connected to the main house (with their own entrance for security and privacy reasons). More than 50% of us have electricity (this is high for PC Africa), and some who don’t have electricity have a solar panel on their roof that charges a car battery that they use to run a light and/or computer (you can buy all of that here!). Even if you “have electricity,” sometimes it won’t work (like when it’s raining), so even though I have electricity I still have a back-up lantern and gas stove. We get our water from boreholes, rainwater collection or from “Jojo” tanks on the homestead (which a company will come out and fill), and since we don’t have running water we use a pit latrine and bathe in a basin. (Trust me, it’s easier than it seems.)

Depending on what you want to spend, where you live and how much work you want to do, you can pretty much eat whatever you want while you’re here. For the first part of training, you’ll be fed by your host family, which means you’ll be eating maize-meal porridge or rice, boiled chicken and some sort of overcooked vegetable (carrots, cabbage, spinach, pumpkin or beets) for dinner every night. You’ll probably have corn flakes with warm milk or oatmeal for breakfast and an egg sandwich for lunch, but you’ll be in town often enough to feed yourself real food. Once you move to site, you’ll be cooking on your own so you can eat whatever you’re willing to make. I eat a lot of pasta, grilled cheese, eggs, popcorn, PB&J sandwiches, fruit, rice and vegetables, toast, oatmeal and corn flakes, and if I have guests I cook meat. Some of us have refrigerators, but those of us who don’t just eat perishable things quickly so they don’t spoil or (like me) use their family’s fridge. A few of us also have vegetable gardens, and you can pretty much grow anything if you have the energy to goat-proof and consistently upkeep your garden. If you’re a vegetarian, the first couple of weeks may be difficult for you since nobody is going to understand what a vegetarian is, but once you’re on your own it will be absolutely no problem. If you don’t eat MSG you’ll have a harder time, since there’s MSG in absolutely everything. One challenge I have had here is in getting enough dairy in my diet, since Swazis don’t drink milk unless it’s spoiled (“emasi” they call it…ew). The medical office in Mbabane can give you calcium supplements (and anything else you will ever need, really), and at site you can drink and cook with powdered milk, which is kind of gross. In town (Nhlangano, Manzini, Mbabane, Matata) you can buy just about anything at the grocery store, and the grocery stores around Mbabane have a wide selection of things you can splurge on once a month if you want (brie). Also, Swaziland is great if you like avocados (there are about 6 kinds here and they’re really cheap) or mangoes (there are about 6 kinds here and they’re really cheap).

As far as wardrobe (this is where we get into what you should pack), it varies widely from one region to another and from one volunteer to the next. Which doesn’t help at all, I know. Swaziland is divided into 4 regions—Shiselweni, Lubombo, HhoHho and Manzini—and the climate depends on your region and your proximity to the mountains. HhoHho is rainy and cold, but still gets hot in the summer. Lubombo is hot and dry (we’re talking 115F) during the summer, but can get cool on winter nights. Shiselweni and Manzini regions are pretty moderate, with cooler temperatures in the mountains and more heat in the lowveld. Basically, there’s no way to plan for where you’ll be or what you need to wear while you’re here! Generally speaking, you should probably plan for anything from 30F (and when you live in a cement refrigerator and the cold is inescapable, 30F is a lot worse than in the US) to really hot (like 80 to 110F).

For Ladies: Generally speaking (and definitely during training), you SHOULD wear skirts that fall below the knee every day in your community, particularly if you’re doing anything in an official capacity. (Honestly, you don’t HAVE to but it’s strongly recommended, it’s considered disrespectful to wear pants and if you wear pants you’ll be the only one in your community.) This means if you’re teaching, introducing yourself to your community or anyone important, working at your chief’s homestead or doing any other work-related thing where you want people to take you seriously, pants are not allowed (especially the first few months). Fun, right? On your homestead it’s okay to wear pants (“trousers” as they call them) or capris, but when it’s hot outside you’re not really going to want to wear jeans with the amount of walking and sweating you’ll be doing. If you’re not comfortable wearing skirts, you can probably wear pants in your community after they’ve realized how un-Swazi you are in general, but you NEED a few good skirts! As far as tops go, boobs and shoulders aren’t sexy so you can pretty much wear whatever you want, including tank tops or tight shirts, in your community. The only exception is on the chief’s homestead or in church, where you’ll be expected to cover your shoulders. Generally when I’m working I wear below-the-knee skirts and nicer T-shirts (t-shirts with decorative necks, polo shirts or something else you would consider “business casual”) with flip-flops, and when it’s colder I have cardigans or long-sleeved shirts (tees, light sweaters, jacket-type things, etc.) to wear over my warm-weather outfits. Also, and I can’t believe I’m actually recommending this to you: leggings! I would never wear them in the US, but in Swaziland they are really handy to wear under skirts during the winter because it gets cold! Under ankle-length skirts you can wear pants to keep warm, but shorter skirts are more professional-looking with leggings. Since the weather is so unpredictable, layers are key! For exercising, shorts are fine as long as they’re knee-length and yoga pants or capris are perfect. Married women will sometimes be expected to cover their heads with wraps or hats (which you can buy here) as a sign of respect, especially in official community meetings where the chief or the chief’s inner council are present. (Don’t worry about this now!) For shoes, you can pretty much wear whatever you’d like. Most of us wear flip-flops or Chacos or Keens all the time (my Chaco Flips are my favorite shoes ever), and if you are buying any of those things let them know you’re a Peace Corps Volunteer because they’ll give you a discount! You should also bring nicer shoes (flats!) for important meetings or the first few weeks of training or when it’s cold, and maybe heels if you want to go “out” sometimes, but honestly every “club” here is pretty casual so it’s not really necessary.

For men, the dress code is a lot more relaxed. Guys can pretty much wear casual-ish khakis or even jeans in community for meetings, and shorts for less formal work-related things. Polo shirts or t-shirts are fine, but sometimes (training and meetings) more formal dress shirts will be required (but not a lot of them!). Dress shoes are good, but they don’t need to be anything fancy. Again, layers are key!! For dressier occasions, you can bring a jacket if you want but if you don’t have one I’m 99% sure you’ll never wish you had one. (Same for women, actually.) Since they don’t take up much space, maybe bring a tie or two just in case you need to dress up (for swear-in, definitely).

One thing that I wish I knew before I came (and Group 5 told me, I just didn’t listen) is that it gets cold. Cold, cold, cold. The winter here is June to August-ish, and even though it only gets down to 30F or so at night, it seems a lot more miserable than in the US because it’s absolutely inescapable. I’d DEFINITELY recommend bringing a fleece of sorts or a heavier hoodie or SOMETHING to keep yourself warm. My North Face Denali (they’re cheap on Ebay) is maybe my favorite article of clothing I have here.

Before you come, you’ll get a video and a packing list from Peace Corps so you’ll have a better idea of what to pack. I would say the crucial items are a fleece, Leatherman or similar tool, a backpack large enough to travel for a week (35-50 liters?), a quick-dry towel, headlamp, leggings (for women), and LAPTOP (if you have one). You should DEFINITELY bring your computer if you have one and if you’re not going to be heartbroken if it gets damaged by the power flow or dust…it makes it so much easier to write blogs, grant proposals, quarterly reports for Peace Corps and any other work-related things you have to do. You’ll be provided with a water filter so you don’t need to bring one of those (but a SteriPen might be useful when you travel if you already have one), and solar chargers aren’t really too necessary. You’ll buy a phone here so you don’t need to bring one from home. Just keep in mind that you’re moving here for your job, you’re not going camping, so you don’t need a whole lot of outdoorsy things. Bring clothes you’re comfortable in and things you’re used to using! And don’t tell Peace Corps I told you this, but the only baggage restrictions you really have are the ones provided by the airline, so if your total linear dimensions are over 63” but still within the allowable range for the airline, you’re fine! Just mind the weight because you’ll have to haul them around for a while…

All things considered, Swaziland is a pretty cool place. There’s enough South African influence here that you can buy just about anything you’d need in Mbabane or Manzini, but enough traditional culture that it’s still a completely new experience. Don’t stress over the details (or the siSwati), but if you have any questions at all, ASK! We’re all really excited to meet you and good luck with all the preparations that you’ll be doing between now and then…

Hambani kahle na Inhlanhla Lenhle!
Justine / Phindile