Saturday, March 7, 2009

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


Erin said...

(ok first of all, that guy is a weirdo and i'd delete his comments.)

and you actaully make it sound ok there. except for the bathing in a bucket thing! i can't wait to come visit you and see all the great stuff you're doing!

Anonymous said...

Wow. You appear to have a friend who has a LOT to say. ;)

Thanks for taking the time to make this huge post! It is very helpful.

Looking forward to meeting you (and the rest of group 6).


Justine's Mom :o) said...

Just so these comments make sense....What Erin and Rachel are talking about is that a very well meaning gentleman had previously left a few irrelevant comments which have since been deleted.