Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Johnny Clegg, Public Nudity and The War on Rats

If you haven’t noticed, I accidentally took a month-long vacation from blog-writing. (Well, schools were out…) I’m going to blame it on the fact that I had 8 seasons of Scrubs, 3 seasons of Arrested Development, 6 seasons of Sex & The City, both seasons of Flight of the Concords and 5 seasons of The Wire to watch. And Beauty and the Beast, which my host family LOVES. It’s been a real struggle to use my computer for anything but TV-watching. Disgusting, I know. But somehow, despite the seemingly endless entertainment options in my hut, I DID actually do things this month, including: Bushfire Music Festival, site announcement and swearing-in of Group 7, a trip to Jo’burg to take the GRE, Umhlanga (Reed Dance), the painting of the pre-school at Pasture Valley and a seemingly endless battle against the largest, loudest and most evil rats ever. Just your typical August in Swaziland…

I started the month off with a bang by wasting/losing the entirety of my August stipend at the third annual Bushfire Music Festival at “House on Fire” bar/club/outdoor concert venue in Malkerns. After setting up our tents at my friend Ian’s house on Friday afternoon, me and the other 15 people camping on his lawn walked the half mile to House on Fire and weaseled our way into a free VIP badge (that was me), free drinks, dark-chocolate-almond brownies and two mock-traditional Zulu beer pots made out of blue plastic (also me). It was a strangely feels-like-home experience, complete with LOTS of other Americans and tourists from all over the world who had come to see Johnny Clegg, Hip Hop Pantsula, Nana, Bolotja and other well-known artists from Southern Africa (which you should definitely check out, especially Bolotja).

The party was just getting started when, at 12:30 Saturday morning, Ian received a phone call from his previously-armed guard reporting a robbery at the house. Before we’d left the house, we had all locked our valuables—cameras, money, credit cards, iPods and laptop computers—inside his double-locked, burglar-barred, electric-fence-surrounded, pit-bull-guarded house, and hired an armed guard just in case. (This is normal for Swaziland.) Anyway, none of that mattered. The dog was sedated, the gate snuck through, the guard tied up in a clothesline and the house broken into by four men with a gun and bolt-cutters. While everyone was at the festival, they ransacked the entire house looking for cash and cameras, both of which they got from me. I had left behind about E1500 (80% of my pay for the month) in my wallet at the house along with my fancy Nikon camera, which I didn’t take to Bushfire for fear of getting it stolen. Several people lost their cameras, everyone lost their cash and a girl who had just returned from the US with a large quantity of duty-free cigarettes lost those, but they left behind all credit cards, laptops and other valuables too big to carry inconspicuously. (But, mysteriously, they opened the computers, turned them on and left them outside in the bushes…) So, we filed a report with the police and, because we couldn’t let it ruin our all-night party, went back to House on Fire, where we continued our weekend. No sense in letting a little thing like robbery ruin a perfectly paid-for weekend festival…

The official party went until 4am on both Friday and Saturday nights, and all day Saturday and Sunday (except for the Saturday morning I spent at site announcement, which I write about later). The highlight of the whole festival was Johnny Clegg’s ridiculously enthusiastic (in a good way) performance on Saturday, followed promptly by torrential rains that ruined my shoes and drove several hundred people onto the tiny indoor dance floor. All things considered, it was an extremely expensive weekend (there were also lots of hand-made earrings for sale, too, which we all know I can’t resist) but completely worth it. Anybody want to join me next August for Bushfire 4? (I’m serious.)

Despite the unfortunate events of that first night at Bushfire, I surprised everyone else who closed down the dance floor and successfully made it to work by 6am on Saturday morning, after about 20 minutes of sleep and a quick shower. I had volunteered myself to help out with site announcement for the new volunteers, which is the big event where they find out where they will be working in for the next 2 years. We made up brochures that said “Congratulations! You’ve won a free 730 day, 729 night stay in Shisizwe in the Shiselweni Region of Swaziland!” and described the country, the life, the job and “must see” recommendations like the value-for-money Streetwise 2 Meal at KFC (I obviously made the brochure…) and made them hard-laminated luggage tags with their photo, site and Peace Corps contact info for their “trip.” Then we used yarn and rocks to make a HUGE horizontal map of Swaziland on the ground so that, after we announced their destination, we could escort them to their sites.

A few days later, they went to their REAL sites for a 5-day visit, after which they were paired up with their closest Group 6 volunteer (that’s my group) for a day or two of shadowing/mentoring. Because I’m all alone out here in the Shis, I was the closest G6er for 3 of the new volunteers, so we met up in Hluti and had a day-long gab-fest and spaghetti slumber party at my house. It happened to be my birthday, so it was nice to spend it with someone other than myself. We went for a hike, played with Eliza and had an intense Q&A session about everything Peace Corps/Swaziland, which helped me remind myself about everything I love about this job and this country. Then, on the 28th, I journeyed up to Mbabane for Group 7’s swearing-in ceremony, where they officially became volunteers. After the ceremony, they were given one night of freedom before moving to their permanent sites on Friday, so, naturally, we took them out to the shadiest night club in Swaziland (Portugalia) as their introduction to Swazi night life. Portugalia, though it’s exceptionally shady, is a blast if you have a big enough entourage to fill the dance floor and influence the DJ—otherwise it’s just full of drunk old men with sneaky hands (sexual harassment and robbery both) and overly-perfumed prostitutes. Last year, when Group 5 took us there the night of our swear-in, we thought they were nuts for thinking it was so fun, but after a year of Swaziland’s version of night life, I completely understand. And, for the record, it WAS fun.

The GRE, however, was NOT such a good time. The GRE, or Graduate Record Exam, is the exam you have to take to attend grad school in the US, and I have been studying for it pretty consistently since November in anticipation of doing a Masters in Public Health program after my two years here. Unfortunately, the closest testing center is in Johannesburg, South Africa, which is approximately 7 sweaty hours in the back of a mini-bus away from my house. Without much else to do (my brain was DONE studying), I made the trek early Monday morning. I’m sure everyone else on the kombi thought I was nuts to be so giddy about the golden arches and other reminders of home, but Jo’burg was like a completely different world from Swaziland. After checking in at the most castle-like backpackers I’ve ever stayed at (Brown Sugar Backpackers, which I 100% recommend to anyone renting a car, but cabs are expensive if you don’t have your own car), I walked to a MALL—a real mall—where I ate McDonald’s and bought a recent Economist and perused a Barnes & Noble-sized book store and hung out at a coffee shop. It was incredible. I even found a store, Stuttaford’s, that sells J.Crew, Banana Republic and Gap clothes, including my fantastic brown flower dress from graduation last year (they’re a season behind). I’ve never been so happy in a dressing room. I spent most of Tuesday doing last-minute panicking about the test, which I actually took on Wednesday morning. The exam went well and my score is good enough to get into any of the schools I’m looking at, but that was by no means the highlight of the trip. I think it’s a three-way tie between the Banana Republic, the Big Mac meal and the sailor costume I bought for E5 (about $0.50). Jo’burg is the land of plenty.

In stark contrast to the surreal experience that was Jo’burg, on the 30th and 31st I attended the very traditional Umhlanga, or Reed Dance, held every August in Lobamba, Swaziland. If you Google “Swaziland” and you see photos of topless pre-pubescent girls dancing with sticks, etc., they’re probably from the Umhlanga. Umhlanga is an annual ceremony that Lonely Planet describes as a “weeklong debutante ball for marriageable young Swazi women, who journey from all over the kingdom to help repair the queen mother’s home at Lobamba.” Basically, every virgin (most between 10 and 18 years old) in the country (a minimum of 4 per chiefdom) are sent to cut one reed each from a designated location of Swaziland and then bring the reeds back to Lobamba, the traditional home of the royal family, to help repair the wall around the home of the queen mother (the king’s mother). After the reeds have been presented (on day 6), the king comes to watch all the girls dance. They come into the Eludzidzini Stadium in a grand procession while chanting, then pass in small groups in front of the stands where the royal family is seated on their way to a single-file line that wraps many times around the stadium grounds. After all the girls have passed, the king, close male relatives, designated high-ranking officers in the “regiment” (army) and a handful of armed security guards make a slow procession through the winding line to “inspect” the girls and, potentially, to choose a wife. In reality, if the king were to decide to take another wife, he would have chosen her and discussed the marriage with her family prior to announcing it at the ceremony, but nobody outside the royal family would know of the arrangement before to the ceremony. This year, though, he didn’t take a wife—not surprising considering the scandal surrounding his last choice of wife, who dropped out of high school to become wife number 13 in 2006. (See Wikipedia for more information…)

Honestly, though, if the king wants you to marry him, you don’t say “no.” I’d probably consent. (This is a big decision that has taken much consideration, but after meeting one of the king’s brothers at Umhlanga and seeing how beautiful his wives and daughters are, I would consider it a great honor to marry the king. I told his brother to let him know. (joking!) Then Peace Corps Volunteers would hate me way more than they hate Brenda Kunene, the topless white woman on the front page of the newspaper a few months back.)

Anyway, it was a pretty awesome experience. I showed up early (nobody was sure what time it started, so we got there at 8 even though the gates didn’t open until 1:45…I don’t know why we expected the king to get up early) and got a fantastic seat in the “VIP” section (because there weren’t enough VIPs), so I was sitting right next to a prince and, because I was in a special red seat, I got a complementary meal and bottled water, not to mention a fantastic view of His Majesty climbing the stairs and, because I was sitting directly below the king’s seat, a front-row seat to all the best dance moves. (If you’re planning on going in the future, I would also advise sitting down LOW, meaning second, third or fourth rows, but no higher. We all argued about this and everyone else went up high, but I stayed down low and got all the best photos even though other people had better cameras.) It was pretty incredible. Apparently there’s an even cooler part after the actual ceremony where women and men split up and the men go with the king and his soldiers and do some dance, and the women go with the princesses and queens and do some other ceremony, but it went late into the night and I wasn’t in love with the idea of paying for a cab to drive us all the way back to Mbabane. Maybe next year (if anyone wants to come visit me in August and go to Bushfire, stay the whole month and go to Umhlanga, that would be fabulous. And I’m still serious).

The one qualm I DID have with the whole ordeal was the intrusive photographers. I mean, I understand that it’s important for National Geographic to have fabulously up-close documentation of the whole thing so that Americans can judge the backward traditionalism of Swazis, but this was just extreme. For example, when the king was making his slow jog procession around the line of maidens, there was a gigantic video camera in his face, surrounded by a cluster of telescopic lens-wielding photographers running backwards so they could catch every drop of sweat glistening on the king’s forehead. Their polo shirts and khakis kind of ruined the atmosphere and took some of the “tradition” out of the traditional ceremony. And then, when the king and his entourage stopped and lined up for a quick photo shoot (which, for the record, he had never done before), half of the white tourists (including a large number of Peace Corps Volunteers) stampeded the group to get their own photo in. It was ridiculous. (I actually took more photos of the stampede than the actual object of the stampede because of the absurdity of the whole ordeal.) There were also a number of presumably Japanese (I don’t mean to be racist, but I was there with a Vietnamese girl who identified them as Japanese) tourists who kept stopping the girls as they were passing by to take photos or jumping into the middle of their procession and making a peace sign to have photos taken. (It was reminiscent of an episode of South Park.) Now, don’t get me wrong, I took photos too. Several hundred of them, in fact. But from the comfort of my own seat, not 6 inches from the girls’ faces. And I don’t even have a very powerful zoom on my new replacement camera (though for the record, Sony cameras are fantastic), as you’ll see below.

In other news, I DID do some work this month. If you can call it that. After the complicated transfer of 14 liters of paint from my school to Nhlangano, Jenn, Jaci and I finally finished the pre-school at Pasture Valley Children’s Home. The Children’s Home, which is run by Michelle and Peter McCubbin, is now housing 23 boys and girls between 9 weeks and 17 years old, many of whom are newly arrived. For the kids too young for Grade 1, the Children’s Home has an English-medium pre-school where kids learn the basics of the alphabet, numbers, months, colors, shapes and the Bible (it’s a Christian children’s home). Anyway, the three of us girls in the Shiselweni Region have been painting the walls of the pre-school bit by bit over the last few weeks, and we finally finished on Friday. There are photos below, but the basic theme is an apple orchard (that bright blue sign now says “Pasture Valley Orchard”), where there’s an apple tree full of numbered apples, a basket of apples on the ground, the sign and lots of grass and flowers. And of course, a fully-illustrated alphabet. It’s super cute and the kids seemed to love it, which is exciting.

Also, if you happen to have extra money that you don’t know what to do with and you’d like to donate it to a charity of sorts, Michelle and Peter would welcome donations. They have a website, too: http://www.vula-amehlo.org.uk/pastval.htm and apparently their organization is a registered charity, which means that donations may be tax-deductible. They really run a tight ship at Pasture Valley (as I’ve written about before) and I know that 100% of donations would go to the children. For more information on the children’s home and the McCubbins, please see my July 17 Blog titled “Things I’ll Never Understand and People I Love.”

My work at Pasture Valley has inspired me to ask my chief if I could also maybe paint the pre-school near my house with a similar design, or at least with the alphabet, some numbers, shapes and colors. Right now, the pre-school at my NCP (neighborhood care point—where orphans and other malnourished kids in the community go for one meal a day, provided by NGOs and the government) currently has a two-tone wall that is brown on the bottom and light yellow on the top and burned in places from cooking over an open fire indoors. Not exactly a prime learning environment. It’s a community initiative and several bomake (women) in the community take week-long turns running the pre-school, which means that the children just stand in lines according to age, sing a song they’ve learned in church and are rewarded with a bowl of food, after which they are asked to leave so the woman of the week can sweep the building and get home to her children. It’s a great idea and there’s plenty of food (rare for an NCP), but nobody is really teaching pre-school. So maybe I’ll do that. Thanks to a new change to PEPFAR funds, I COULD, too. Now, instead of just getting funding for HIV education projects, we can get money for any initiative aimed at improving the quality of life of orphans or other children affected by HIV/AIDS, which includes every child served by an NCP. Thanks President Obama!

In addition to providing a good example of development work in Swaziland and letting me play with kids all the time, Michelle and Peter have offered me a cat to solve my latest problem: a rat infestation in my tiny little hut. (I hope that everyone who’s coming to visit me in November is reading this…)

It started with a few bites out of a ripe tomato, a hole chewed in a Corn Flakes box and a bit of broom-induced scurrying in the middle of the day, but in the past month my rat problem has multiplied to (what I consider) epic proportions. Every night, as soon as I turn off the light, four gigantic rats scurry into my hut through an unreachably high hole in my wall, climb down the cords connecting my house to the electricity wired in next door, and into my “kitchen.” They proceed to climb all over my stuff, knock over dishes, urinate and defecate without discrimination (on my peanut butter lid), fight loudly with each other, rip open bags of previously edible dry goods, eat my books and clothes, eat all of the superfluous straps on my backpack (maybe I should thank them for that, actually), gnaw on my furniture, steal towels and underwear to build nests in inconvenient places (inside my exercise bike, for example) and generally ruin my life. Every night they wake me up by turning on my exercise bike, which makes a really loud beeping sound that inevitably gives me nightmares about flat-lining (I’ve been watching hospital shows like Scrubs and Gray’s Anatomy). And it’s getting worse, too. Sometimes they don’t even wait until I turn off the light, or I find myself chasing them out in the middle of the day, screaming things like “You’re nocturnal, stupid!” One morning I woke up at 3:45am because my bed was full of wood chips, which some kind rat had dragged up from the growing hole in the dresser I use as a nightstand…while I was in the bed. They’re not afraid of me anymore.

And they’re smart enough that they’ve thwarted each of my attempts to kill them. I started with the classic catch-a-rodent method where I used books to build stairs into a baited 5-gallon bucket. Except, these rats are like small, beady-eyed cats with hairless tails and the only one dumb enough to climb into the bucket just jumped right back out. Then I tried the glue traps my grandmother sent a while ago, which they chewed the corners of as to mock me. I DID manage to catch one that way, purely by chance. I was talking on the phone to the Parentals when, out of nowhere, a little guy started running across the floor. So, naturally, I got my critter-hitting-stick to shoo him out of the house. On his way out, though, he accidentally stepped on the glue trap and I started screaming into the phone (I’m sure my parents remember this) until my Gogo (grandmother) came and killed it for me. Then I bought some expanding foam (the same foam that solved my bat problem) to fill the holes where I’d seen them come in, which worked for a whole day. First, they found other places to come in; then they chewed through the dried foam over their preferred entrance. So, finally, I resorted to traps, which are surprisingly hard to find in this country because Swazis either have cats or just ignore the rats (my family does the latter). I baited them with the peanut butter and popcorn they already ruined and was careful not to touch them with my bare hands so that the rats wouldn’t be deterred by my scent (the man at the hardware store said this was important). But so far the only thing my 3 traps have killed is a pencil, which I used to make sure they worked after several days of disappointingly empty traps every morning, and the ring finger on my right hand, which I slaughtered while trying to set the traps. (These are no normal traps, either. The whole thing is made of metal and the bar that snaps down to catch them has metal teeth on it, which means I have a huge gash in my finger and, theoretically, so would the rats it is meant to catch.)

But I have to win eventually, right? I still have a few options at my disposal: (1) I could mix cement powder with maize meal, flour, sugar or other tasty treat, then place it next to a bowl of water so that when they drink the water their insides harden and they die. Sounds good, except the only small bag of cement you can buy is tile cement and it’s super expensive. (2) There’s a wide variety of rat poison available in Swaziland, except I’m afraid that my dogs will either eat it directly (they’re not very smart) or eat the rat after it dies. Everyone says that dogs don’t eat rats, but I have yet to find something Eliza won’t eat and I happen to like my dog more than I hate the rats, so that’s not a risk I’m willing to take. (3) I could bring in the heavy artillery: a cat. Michelle and Peter’s cat just had 3 kittens and they have offered me my choice of the 2 they don’t want. And, since they’re farm cats, they’re used to hunting and good at catching rats, apparently. And Michelle says they don’t even need to be fed because they can find enough to sustain them around the homestead. I just don’t know how my family and my current dogs would react to a new addition to the homestead.


Perhaps a more pressing issue at this point in my life is what I’m going to do with the rest of my life. Taking the GRE really made me think about my future after the Peace Corps, and the anniversary of my swearing-in (August 28) was a reminder that I’ll eventually have to leave here and figure out what to do with myself. I’m considering a few options.

First, since I’ve taken the GRE already, I’m applying to some graduate programs in Public Health. I really like the program at George Washington because it has an HIV/AIDS focus, but Tulane’s program has a study abroad opportunity in Nairobi and Columbia’s School of Public Health runs a huge organization (ICAP) that I work with here in Swaziland that I would love to have an opportunity to work with more. Johns Hopkins offers LOTS of Peace Corps Fellowships (government- and institute- co-sponsored scholarships for RPCVs) and has a great program on health in crisis situations. So far, I think I’m applying to Columbia (NY), Tulane (LA), George Washington (DC), Johns Hopkins (MD) and maybe a few others. I’m excited to see what kind of cool information they send me all the way in Swaziland.

My second option is extending Peace Corps for a third year here in Swaziland. I’ve talked to Michelle about working for a year on her farm/at the orphanage/with an HIV-related organization that she’s on the board for. The organization, NATICC, does HIV testing, education and training of trainers throughout the Shiselweni Region, which is an area I’m already familiar with, and they’re desperately seeking long-term volunteers. It would be a great resume-building opportunity, plus I’d get some real experience in public health and I’d get to spend another year working with the kids at Pasture Valley.

My final and, at this point leading, option is to finish here in August and go back to Nairobi for a while. I’d like to work on my Kiswahili language skills and work with urban poverty and health issues, which is a completely different beast than rural poverty in Swaziland. It would be a great opportunity to get some experience, plus I’d get the whole Kenya thing out of my system. (It’s common with people who have studied there, I think. Everybody can’t wait to get back.) Plus, a few of the schools I’m interested in require “limited working proficiency” in a modern language other than English, and siSwati doesn’t count. The only problem is that I need to find a job or a volunteer organization that will provide housing. Do you know of anything like that?

No matter what, I’m planning on going to grad school as soon as I get back to the US. It’s just a matter of when that is.


I think that’s all for now. This week I’m in Mbabane for my mid-service medical exams and teeth cleaning (I’m excited!), as well as for the going away party of our beloved Assistant Peace Corps Director who guides us through the whole process of getting money from the government, connects us with valuable resources and teaches us everything else we need to know to do our job effectively. And he’ll be replaced by someone who will, undoubtedly, be inferior. Then, hopefully next week, school will start again and I’ll have something to do all the time. I’m crossing my fingers because I’m all out of TV series to watch.

Love from the Swaz!

(and I promise I won’t go another whole month without writing…)

His Majesty King Mswati III.

G is for Giraffe. Or orange llamas with brown spots. I never claimed to be a GOOD artist.

Swaziland loves wrestling. This is the sign inside the kombi (mini-bus) that I always take. Batista (I think that's who that is...) is going to enforce the "Don't Drink and Drive" rule.

Jenn, the cherry tree and the kids at Pasture Valley Children's Home.

The alphabet and the kids from Pasture Valley.

My sisi Sibongile and the rat she killed while I screamed about it.

Mkelo, Mathedi and Sisi outside the chicken coop. The adults were busy slaughtering a pig while I was taking these photos.

Me with two girls (Anele and Image) from Pasture Valley.

Me and Mpendulo, the baby. He's 9 weeks old now!

Sisi and Eliza (now 5 months) outside the pit latrine.

Me and Charlotte enjoying our free meal at Umhlanga. This photo is me bragging about it.

My favorite part of Umhlanga (other than the meal) was the girl in the foreground carrying toilet paper. They were all carrying something, but mostly sticks. I guess that girl just wanted to be prepared!

All the girls at Umhlanga.

The whole Shiselweni Crew!!! Me, Jenn, Barry and Jaci. We're awesome.


Erin said...

1. you should get 2 cats!
2. you should go to Tulane, so you'll be close to me and I can come visit you for Mardi Gras
3. you look funny with brown hair!

60 days!!!!!!!!!!!

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