Monday, May 18, 2009

I believe in fate, personal responsibility and well-timed potty breaks.

After 8 fabulous weeks, 6 wonderful days, 8 kilos of puppy chow and countless “accidents” on my conveniently cement floor, Monday marked the most difficult day yet in my short history of puppy parenting. I guess I was secretly harboring hope that the US would magically change all travel restrictions regarding dogs coming from Swaziland and I’d be able to take Maggie home without quarantine, but it seems I’m not quite that lucky. So, loaded down with a bag of puppy chow, a freshly repaired stuffed giraffe and one apprehensive puppy in my arms (she wouldn’t walk), I walked the 20 minutes to the tar road and hitched a ride to Hluti.

The puppy hand-over was scheduled for 9:00 Monday morning, but I was soon informed that Maggie’s mom-to-be wouldn’t be around until the afternoon. No problem. I’d just take her to my meeting, then hand her over after lunch. Honestly, I was excited at the prospect of one last afternoon with my favorite puppy ever. We hitched another ride to the high school, where we played with Giraffe on the soccer pitch until the meeting started (at 10:15, which is apparently the Swazi 9:00), then held her on my lap for the entirety of the meeting. Honestly, about an hour into a boring meeting full of siSwati talking in circles, I decided that meetings are infinitely more bearable with a puppy in my lap.

After the meeting we took a kombi back to Hluti. The kombi driver was all upset about me having a dog on my lap and tried to charge me extra, which is ridiculous because they don’t charge extra for stinky, crying babies or tied-up livestock, so why should they charge extra for a well-behaved puppy? He gave up when I pointed out that the woman sitting behind me had two live chickens in a pot on her lap. I bet you can’t wait to take public transportation when you come to visit me, right? (I didn’t even blog about the time I got peed on by a grown man in the back of a kombi, did I?)

Anyway, I soon found out that the woman who was supposed to take Maggie had gone to South Africa and would be staying for a day or two or a lifetime or something, so her sister asked me to bring the pup back later in the week. Um, no. I wasn’t really excited about the prospect of yet another tearful good-bye to Bokhi (I was the only one crying, actually) and I figured that if she couldn’t even show up to pick up the dog she probably wouldn’t get her spayed and vaccinated like she had promised. Time for a new game plan. I texted the Peace Corps office desperately seeking a staff member in need of a puppy, then figured out a way to get her up to the shelter in Mbabane by 5:00, then went into the shop across the street to buy airtime to make some more phone calls.

In the shop I ran into Jerome, the head teacher of Our Lady of Sorrows School a few kilometers from my house. We’d met once before when he’d given me a lift from the school to Hluti and he seemed like a nice guy, so I greeted him in the check-out line. He reached out and patted Maggie on the head and told me that if I wanted to sell him my dog when I went back to America, he’d take her in a heartbeat. So I handed her over to him. He thought I was joking, but no. In addition to having a job and a fenced yard away from a main road and being a “dog-lover” (his words), the man went to grad school in Chicago and knows how to spoil a dog like an American. He even asked if she was house-broken! As in he plans to let her in the house! I made him promise to get her spayed and vaccinated, and he said I could visit her anytime I want because his house is right next to the clinic where I work every Tuesday. I ran into him on Thursday afternoon in Hluti and he reported that she is well-behaved and, after a day of mild depression, very perky and adorable. And she’ll be visiting the vet on Friday for her vaccinations.

And that’s why I believe in fate.

Meanwhile, I have one depressed but recently vaccinated puppy (that was a fiasco on two 40-minute kombi rides) and a sick Bokhi (that’s nothing new) who is being strangely overly-affectionate. Seriously, she crawled into my lap on Monday afternoon when I was sitting on the ground outside, which is pretty out of character for a supposedly vicious Swazi guard dog. It’s sad to me that I’m the only one who knows what’s going on in this situation. But I’m confident that Jerome is taking good care of Maggie (he plans to re-name her) and I’m going to visit her next Tuesday.

This Tuesday, however, I was delinquent in my pill-counting duties and, instead, went on a mysterious trek in the name of Corporate Social Responsibility. As part of the mini-company thing I’m doing through TechnoServe at Hluti Central High School, I taught the students about the importance of giving back to the community in which your business operates and they came up with a community service project for the company that I was actually really impressed with.

The project involves providing basic assistance to a child-headed household in the neighboring community of Nsingizini. There are 3 kids, ages 13, 7 and 4, living in a tiny little thatch hut with no adults. After learning that the youngest was HIV-positive, I naturally assumed that their mother had died of AIDS, but I was wrong. As I think I’ve explained before, Swazi tradition makes orphans out of children born out of wedlock because when a woman gets married, her husband usually refuses to accept her existing children as part of the family. Thus, they get sent to live with grandparents or other relatives. But this family is an example of what happens when the bride/mother has no living relatives or, as in this case, the mother is estranged from the only living relatives. After getting married in 2007, she literally abandoned the kids without looking back, leaving them (ages 11, 5 and 2) to fend for themselves.

The kids, though, seem to be taking surprisingly good care of themselves, with little help from their mother’s brother who, rather than caring for them, tends to steal the food NGOs provide for them. The school was kind enough to waive the fees for the two oldest kids, and the oldest girl is responsible enough to take her little sister to the clinic every month for ARVs. Unable to farm, they get most of their food from World Food Program, UNICEF and the Government of Malawi (see 2nd bullet below), and a little corn-soya-blend with the ARVs from the clinic (theoretically given to all under-5’s on ARVs), but it all gets picked over by their uncle who is listed as their caregiver. But there are just some things that a motherless 13-year-old girl can’t do. For example, they have plenty of clothes but no money for laundry soap and no basin to wash (laundry or themselves) in. They have 2 old wheel barrows and a piece of corrugated iron to block the wind and build a cooking fire, but can’t afford matches. Their stick-and-mud, thatch-roof hut hasn’t been repaired since long before their mother left and has no door or window panes and a horrible roof, which means that they have problems with keeping rain and snakes out of the house. Their bed, which consists of two threadbare, uncovered mattresses stacked on top of a bunch of broken chairs to keep it off the floor, is easily 20 years older than me. And they have no pit latrine and no way to build one. Worst of all, the house is situated right next to a shibeen (moonshine bar), so the kids are constantly harassed and perhaps sexually abused by drunk men at night. (When we arrived, there was half a bottle of booze on the ground outside and the oldest girl said a man had left it there…why was he there in the first place?)

Seeing those kids living like that kind gave me a new perspective on all that is unfair in this world. In my community there are two “child-headed households,” but in both cases the oldest child has already finished school (one has a college education), so this was a completely new experience for me. It’s so sad to think that of the challenges they face and the responsibilities they’ve had thrust on them simply because their mother chose a man (and the financial security that comes with being married in Swaziland) over them. That’s the frustration of a communal society, though: people choose not to take personal responsibility for their actions/problems/obligations because they assume that somebody else will pick up the slack. But sometimes there isn’t anyone left to pick up the pieces…

It kind of puts my “problems” in perspective too. I felt pretty guilty, after spending a day at the vet with my HEALTHY DOG, seeing SICK CHILDREN who can’t even afford to go to the clinic. And it’s not just them, either; it’s most of the families in the rural areas, even where there are parents.

Anyway, after an initial survey of the help needed we decided on a multi-day project. Day one the girls rounded up a basin and some jerry cans and headed down to the river to wash the kids’ clothes and blankets. Meanwhile the boys (they don’t wash laundry) tidied up the house, borrowed a machete to cut down the grass around the homestead (except the grass they use as a latrine) in hopes of keeping the snakes away and dug a shallow pit for the kids to throw their rubbish in. After some negotiations with a roof thatch salesman, on day two the girls cut down enough thatch to fix the roof of the house as soon as we find some affordable rope. Meanwhile, the boys were busy digging a 3 meter-deep hole for the pit latrine, which will hopefully be completed in the next few weeks if we can get some cement and corrugated iron donated. Unfortunately I don’t know how to make windows. Honestly, I’d kind of like to build them an entirely new house, but the company didn’t make nearly enough money to do that…

I do have to say, though, that I’m really impressed with the way the students in the club have come together to do this project. Originally when we were brainstorming ideas for community service projects, people mentioned things like building a pit latrine for a family without one or doing laundry for a homestead with handicapped or elderly people who can’t do it for themselves, but the ideas were voted out because they said it was too much work. Then, after meeting the kids and seeing the situation they were living in, the students all changed their minds. They even volunteered to make bricks and build them an entirely new house if we find a way to come up with the money for it. (I’m in town today to talk to Peace Corps about financial resources and organizations providing support for child-headed households, so hopefully I’ll figure something out.)

In other news:

--I saw an enormous, unconscious rat lying on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant I always go to. I almost stepped on it, which freaked me out. But not as much as when I realized that he wasn’t dead, he was just in shock or sleeping or something. Maybe the cat in the restaurant chased him out, I guess, but he was just passed out on the sidewalk waiting to be stepped on by my big foot. THAT never happens in America.

--I think I mentioned this before, but why does the Government of Malawi donate food to Swaziland? Malawi is WAY less developed than Swaziland, way poorer, and has way less arable land. And they have pretty much the same size population. Why, then, is Malawi able to produce enough excess maize to donate it elsewhere, but Swazis are starving? Maybe it’s because Swazis seem unable to adjust their farming practices to the drought (a.k.a. permanent change in weather patterns).

--After being here almost 11 months (whoa!), all of the weird little parts of my routine (bucket bathing, flooding with the rain, power outages, flies in the latrine, noisy roosters, etc.) seem so normal to me. But, no matter how long I’m here, I’m pretty sure I’ll never be comfortable with all the critters that invade my personal space on a daily basis. Right now I have a very noisy but well-hidden frog (toad?) croaking up a storm from under my bed and all manner of flying beasts swarming the light above my head. When I turn out the light, the bugs will be replaced by bats, except for the mosquito which will buzz in my ear all night, and the frog will crank it up a notch. And man oh man am I tired of cleaning up lizard poop. My life would be so much easier if my house was critter-proof.

--There’s no remaining evidence of my lightening strike except for my intense fear of lightening and electricity. When I returned Sunday afternoon, the electric company had already restored power to my homestead (apparently it knocked out the chief’s electricity, too, so fixing it was a priority), and my family had another extension cord for me. My computer magically survived, too. It makes a strangely loud buzzing noise (the fan?) and keeps telling me that my Windows Explorer has a virus and then closing and trying to send error reports over the non-existent internet, which is pretty annoying, but otherwise it’s functioning normally. Good thing, too, because I have lots of new movies to watch.

--I’m tired of people telling me I’m fat. All the time people are saying thing like “now that she’s taking ARVs, she’s almost as big as you” or “I thought you were older because you are so big” or “you must eat more than that because you are so fat.” Or there was the time that a man told me that my hips were so wide I must have at least 3 children. It doesn’t make any sense, either, because it seems that as soon as a woman has her first child she puts on 40 pounds that she never loses, so half of this country is fatter than me. I’m muscular, people. It’s muscle.

Anyway, that’s all. This weekend I’m heading up to Mbabane for a friend’s Slip-N-Slide-ful 30th birthday party (since when do I have 30-year-old friends?) and to buy a collar and some new de-worming tablets for my tinja (dogs). Next week school is supposed to start again, then I have a big week-long conference with Peace Corps, then my sisi will be having her baby (June 9!), so I promise I’ll stop writing about my dogs very soon.

Oh, and some advice to the Group 7ers who will be joining us very soon: learn to sew before you come so that when you cut the top of your shoe off with a pick-axe while trying to prove that women CAN, in fact, dig pit latrines, you can sew it back on. (Seriously, though, with a limited wardrobe and lots of barbed-wire fences, it’s a really good idea to know how to sew. And you can buy sewing kits here for really cheap.)

Love from the Swaz!

Fourteen of the 31 kids in our "company" showed up for the community service project. I think we're going to fire everyone else.

The 7-year-old boy in the family. He was afraid of me.

All the girls washing laundry.

The family inside their house.

Maggie on our last day together. Adorable, I know.

The oldest girl...

This girl is 4. She was also afriad of me.

The dinner table...

The family cooking. I'm going to get these pictures printed and framed to put up in their house. It's rare for families to have photos of themselves, so I think it will be a special gift for them.

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