Friday, September 18, 2009

White girls don't like to be loved.

Perhaps this is obvious, but Swaziland is a small country. So small, in fact, that when one of the Group 7 volunteers was introduced to her community in a meeting last week, a couple of (male) teachers from my school decided to go. After her brief, practiced introduction (in Siswati), the chief issued a stern warning to all potentially annoying men that they are prohibited from proposing love to, hollering at, visiting without invitation, touching or otherwise coming on to the volunteer. This prompted a number of questions from the audience: “Am I allowed to propose love if I actually DO love her?” “What if she falls in love with my son, is he allowed to marry her?” “If she looks very beautiful on a certain day, can I tell her that she is very beautiful?” “Am I allowed to have sex with her if she wants to?” and my personal favorite: “Why don’t white women want to be loved?” (The funniest part of this exchange is that the volunteer was still standing at the front of the meeting, completely oblivious to the ongoing discussion about her romantic prospects.)

Even after all those questions, my male co-workers didn’t understand why they couldn’t hit on the poor girl. So, naturally, they confronted me about it at school this week. After 45 minutes of explaining the concepts of “dating” (a completely foreign concept—where would a man take me on a date in Swaziland? KFC?), “boyfriend” (in Swaziland, a boyfriend or girlfriend is someone you’ve had sex with) and “love,” I’m proud to say that I think I can finally stop being irritated by the relentless sexual harassment that is part of my everyday life in Swaziland. During training, they told us not to be annoyed by the advances, that we shouldn’t take it seriously, that we shouldn’t feel threatened…but that’s easier said than done. They said that it’s just how Swazi men interact with Swazi women and that if we’re treated that way, it means they’re comfortable enough to joke with us. But it’s more than that. In Swaziland, telling a girl she is beautiful, or proposing marriage to her is a means of flattery, but it’s not usually because the guy is actually interested in making the girl his wife/baby mama. In a society where people don’t really have a lot other than themselves—where you can’t congratulate someone on their new apartment or promotion or compliment their cute new shoes—it’s customary to compliment women as a way of being friendly. And women feel slighted if men DON’T constantly tell them they are beautiful or worth marrying (which is why men and women both are confused by my irritation at being hit on). Maybe it’s like the equivalent of buying a drink for a girl in a bar (except that women don’t go to bars here, only alcoholics). It’s just a friendly gesture, but if it goes somewhere that’s cool too. This means that when guys follow me from the school, show up at my door, sit next to me on an otherwise empty bus and call me at all hours of the day to confess their love to me, etc., they are probably just trying to make me feel welcome.

The concept of “love” is completely different, too. It’s based largely on looks, on family name and convenience, which doesn’t require time-wasting things like “dating” or “courting.” After all, marriage is just a partnership for creating children and feeding men. To illustrate the point, one teacher told me the story of how he met his wife. Early one morning he boarded the bus en route to Nhlangano and saw a pretty girl seated in one of the back rows. So, naturally, he sat down next to her, told her she was beautiful, asked her last name (to make sure they weren’t related), and began confessing his love to her. By the time they got to Nhlangano, he had proposed marriage and arranged a time and place to meet her parents for the lobola (bride price) negotiations. And then they were married.

This kind of “love” works—at least in the rural areas—because of the consistency of culture. There’s no arguing over whether they’ll have kids (they will) or how many (nature determines that) or where they’ll live (at his parents’ house) or about their jobs (he may work, she won’t) or finishing school (there aren’t any jobs, so why is school important?) or about their respective responsibilities around the house, because all of those things have already been determined by their parents and their parents’ parents. The kids will be raised Christian. He can take a second wife if he wants, or at least have mistresses. The family will eat liphalishi, spinach and boiled chicken for dinner every night and porridge for breakfast every morning. Pre-marital children will be abandoned (if they’re hers) or adopted (if they’re his and he wants them), no questions asked. The only thing they have to figure out is how well-trained the woman is to be a wife and, accordingly, how many cattle/goats/enamel dishes/blankets her family deserves for raising her. In America, where there is no set of unified cultural values or expectations, the couple has to figure these things out; in Swaziland, the arguments have already been decided by hundreds of years of tradition.

So, the moral of the story is that, from now on, when a random man on the street/bus tells me he loves me, instead of calling him a liar or other variation of being annoyed/offensive, I’m going to ignore it. Well, I’ll try at least.

I tried out this new-found tolerance for sexual harassment at the 75th Anniversary celebration of Our Lady of Sorrows school on Thursday. OLOS, as it’s called, was established in 1934 as a school for “colored” (bi-racial) children banned from “white” schools in South Africa during Apartheid. It was established by a bunch of Roman Catholic nuns, integrated in 1961 and, today, schools about 800 kids between kindergarten and 12th grade. (And runs the clinic where I work.) And despite the fact that “housewifery” is one of the subjects currently taught, it’s one of the best schools in the country. Thus, the 75th was such a big deal both that His Majesty King Mswati III and I decided to show up (not together). It was a pretty standard Swazi event, and conducted entirely in Siswati, so I spent my time making a list titled…

You Know You’re at a Swazi Public Event When:
1. The event starts 2 hours and 20 minutes late because the keynote speaker (the King) hasn’t showed up yet, and then proceeds out of the designated order on the program.
2. It’s 71 degrees outside and the babies are bundled like there’s snow on the ground and the adults are wearing gigantic puffy coats with fur-trimmed hoods.
3. You couldn’t possibly quantify the bare breasts/bottoms exposed to the audience, or the amount of booty-shaking done directly in front of the head of state.
4. You, alone, comprise exactly 50% of the white population of the audience (the other 50% was the Italian Ambassador).
5. The time between speakers is filled with blaring, unedited versions of Akon, Ne-Yo and the occasional gospel song.
6. There are two random men camped outside the entrance, charging a E10 (about $1.30) entrance fee for anyone dumb enough to think you have to pay.
7. The color of the feathers in your hair is directly related to the amount of padding on your seat (red feathers mean royalty and padded leather seats, black means armed forces and slightly less padded seats, no feathers means hard plastic chairs).
8. The place is full of men in traditional attire (leopard or impala skins) that has been altered to include cell phone pockets or gun holsters (for the security guards).
9. The number of attendees triples in the last 15 minutes in anticipation of a free meal afterwards.
10. Not one of the speakers is wearing pants. And the keynote speaker (the King) is wearing Tevas.
11. Women in the audience are selling candy and chips out of their purses for 50 cents each.
12. Kids show up in their school uniforms, despite school being cancelled for the day, just to get the 50% discount on the bus fare.
13. The bottled water served to the VIPs, including the King and Prime Minister, is imported from South Africa.
14. Each speech begins with an entire page of personal addresses: “Your Majesty King Mswati III Ngwenyama of Swaziland, Emakhosikati (royal wives), members of the royal household, His Excellency the Right Honorable Prime Minister, the Honorable Deputy Prime Minister, Bishop Ndlovu, Members of Parliament, Ministers, cabinet members, local chiefs and their inner council members, Tindvuna (like county commissioners),the Chief Justice of Swaziland, members of the diplomatic corps including the Italian Ambassador, sisters and other members of the Catholic family, members of the Swaziland National Council, the Regional Administrator for Rural Development, Head Teachers, members of the local school committee (like the PTA/PTO), former students, parents of current and former students, senior students, primary students, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.” Every speech. And there were enough speeches that I had the opportunity to write it down, revise it and check it for accuracy. (The whole event would have been an hour shorter had it not been for this ridiculous requirement anytime anyone stood up to speak.)

All things considered, once the event started it was pretty cool. My favorite part was when the King had just stood up to speak and a big furry (but well taken care of) dog ran up to the podium and a bunch of his security guards started chasing him with sticks and trying to tackle him (the dog, not the King) and the King laughed it off and said, “I would even like to thank this dog for coming out today, as he seems pretty excited to be here.” Wow, Mswati has a sense of humor! My least favorite part was a song performed by a bunch of 2nd graders from OLOS. The song began with “My body is mine to do as I choose and you should not touch me if I say no.” It’s a good message, I guess, but sad that it has to be said. (But it needs to be said…) Also, I'm stupid and forgot my camera (it was charging and I took an empty case to the event), so I don't have any pictures. Whoops.

In other news, everything I thought I knew about baby Mpendulo is completely wrong, mostly because of the language barrier between myself and his mother. He was apparently born on June 2, not July 2, which means that he IS small for his age. According to his medical chart (which she showed me Thursday morning), his weight is in the 3rd percentile, which is not a good sign. And he’s been treated for “severe thrush” several times in his short life, which is also an indication of HIV. But she’s not sure if he is actually HIV-positive because, although they run the test for free in South Africa, she doesn’t have enough money to make the trip back to the hospital to get the results. And he is apparently her THIRD, not second, son. The second one died of AIDS in 2006 because, when he was born, HIV testing for pregnant women was not standard practice and she didn’t know she was positive. He was 3. (That probably explains why the family hasn’t been so excited about this baby, and why Swazis usually don’t name babies until they’re 6 months old.)

But there IS good news. (1) She’s been receiving counseling on preventing mother to child transmission (PMTCT) and the counselor recorded that she’s been very receptive to the information. (2) Mpendulo and I have an appointment with a doctor from Baylor University to have his blood drawn for an HIV test, so we’ll know his status by the end of next week. (3) All things considered, the baby is doing pretty well. He’s eating normally, growing at a steady rate (maybe he’ll be in a higher percentile?) and acting like a normal, happy, healthy baby. (4) His mother’s CD4 count (the measure of the strength of her immune system) is steadily increasing, too, which means that she’s responding well to ARVs and he MAY not have been exposed to HIV during pregnancy. Anyway, I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

Despite the uncertainty about his status, some doctor somewhere (it’s not in his chart?) gave his mother infant ARVs and immune boosters for him to start, just in case, because his mother’s CD4 count was so low before birth. This is good because it can possibly reverse HIV infection if it occurs during labor (very common), and can give his immune system a boost if he was infected during pregnancy. But it’s bad because, as my family learned this week, infant ARV syrup attracts rats. They like the sugary syrup so much that they dug a hole through the stick-and-mud house’s wall, chewed through the Tupperware container the bottles were stored in, chewed through the bottle and then dragged it all the way across the sticky floor back to the hole in the wall, where it was abandoned after becoming wedged in the hole. After that was done, they went back for his mother’s ARV pills and nibbled off the sugar coating, leaving them strewn about the house. Rats are a problem.

And to make things worse (as if something is worse than a rat eating a woman’s life-saving medication?), it’s now snake season. And big rats attract big snakes. Like the one whose skin I found hanging from the wooden rafters in my pit latrine on Wednesday night. (If I had to make a list of “Things I Don’t Want to Find in My Pit Latrine at Night,” I think “big snake skin” would be number two, right after “big snake.”) So, Saturday night I’m coming home with a fierce rat-killing, snake-scaring, allergy-provoking and totally worth it kitty from Pasture Valley Children’s Home. They have a surplus and I have a need, so I’ve offered an afternoon of myself to the farm’s Open House day in exchange for a cat.

That’s all for now. If you want to read a completely frustrating (the writer seems like an arrogant jerk), but really educational, well-written and thought-provoking book, check out “Dark Star Safari” by Paul Thoreux. (Or “Mosquito Coast,” which is supposed to be good.) He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi from 1963-65, then worked in Uganda for a while and traveled through Africa a bit. The book chronicles his overland trip from Cairo to Cape Town, complete with first-hand accounts of the juxtaposition between unsustainable international aid and self-sufficient, authentic traditional societies throughout Africa. I’m glad I read it and I recommend it, but I don’t really have much tolerance for travelers who say that wildlife-viewing is a shameless tourist activity, then stay at $350-per-night hotels where they spend time in the company of expensive hookers as inspiration for the “erotic novella” they spend their evenings writing.

Anyway, I’ll update again next week when I’m in town for the monthly Support Group meeting. Until then…

Love from the Swaz!

The boys (my bhutis and the neighbors) coming home from school. For some stupid reason, the primary school only does half-days, so all the kids come home at noon.

Me and the rat (I call all of them Templeton, from Charlotte's Web) I found under my kitchen cabinet thing a couple of days ago. Even after being caught in the trap, he managed to drag his broken self and the heavy metal trap under my kitchen cabinet, which I had to move to get his nasty little body out. And then I took pictures of him and my family thought I was crazy. (They might be right.)

Me and baby Mpendulo, who was born on June 2. That makes him 14 weeks in this photo.

World Food Programme (WFP) came to distribute food to my community the other day--maize meal, cooking oil, etc. And I could tell from a mile away (well, like a quarter mile) that food distribution was going on because there was a huge crowd of Swazis pushing and shoving and yelling for no apparent reason. This means there's free food to be had. I am continually frustrated by the culture of dependency on foreign aid that has developed in Swaziland, but I think I'll save that rant for another time. But, as I've mentioned before, why are poorer countries like Malawi and Malaysia donating food to Swaziland, which has perfectly fertile soil?

A closeup of me and baby Mpendulo. My family thinks I'm nuts for taking so many photos of that baby, which I guess I understand because in Swaziland when someone dies they have to destroy all the photos of that person. So if the baby DOES end up dying (God I hope not), I'll have to take down all these photos and delete them. Reality stinks sometimes.

This is the kind of "shop" that people sell chips, candy, fried dough ("fatties") and fruit from throughout the community. Sadly, most of the fruits and vegetables they sell are actually imported from South Africa and not grown by the women who sell them, but it's still pretty convenient to have these little shops set up in easy walking distance. This one is set up right outside the school where I teach, but usually the women selling just set up camp in the bus station because there's a place to sit.


Erin said...

Snake season? Really? Why did you have to tell me about snake season? This season ends in about 50 days right?

50 days!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Casey Frazee said...

Hey Justine - I ran across your blog while doing some PC-related research. I'm an RPCV who was in South Africa. Your post content ties into an initiative I'm starting w/ PC, you can check it out at I would have emailed you this instead of posting a comment, but your profile didn't have your email, so sorry for such a public comment about this! My email is on the blog, I'd love to talk to you about how it is in Swaziland for PCVs. I hope you're doing well and I hope to hear from you soon!