Thursday, October 1, 2009

A Success Story...

As I’ve mentioned before, it’s not often that I see any sort of progress being made as a result of my being in Swaziland. My role as an HIV educator is part of a long-term plan (hopefully a solution) to the HIV epidemic in Swaziland, and my primary focus here is combating the spread of the virus, but that’s not the only reason I’m here. Peace Corps has three goals and 2 of them are about cultural exchange. Again, it’s difficult to measure cultural influence, but sometimes I’m pleasantly reminded that I’m an example to other people and that, sometimes, they actually listen to me when I talk.

This is a success story.

Early Tuesday morning I went through my usual routine: a rude awakening by Patrick the Cat at 6am, a bucket bath, last-minute revisions of my lesson plans and an 80-minute walk to the local clinic, to be followed by two classes at the high school. As I passed the bus shelter on the main road, about 20 minutes into my walk, I gained an admirer. He told me I was beautiful, asked me who I was, what I was doing, where I lived, if I was married, the usual. And when I told him I was in a hurry and started to walk off, he joined me.

As we walked the rest of the way to the clinic, he asked me what made me come to Swaziland if I wasn’t getting paid. People ask me this question all the time because, in Swaziland, nobody does anything for free. In fact, that was the first thing our programming director told us when we arrived: “Don’t expect a Swazi to do something for nothing.” My usual answer is that, because I was given so many opportunities in life, I feel like it’s my responsibility to use my skills and knowledge to help people who maybe weren’t given the same opportunities as me. I say that a good Christian does things to help out other people who are in need, that if everyone gave back a little more to their communities that we would all be better off. I mention that, even if you’re not getting paid, that it makes people respect you and gives you a feeling of accomplishment. And that everything I do can and should be done by Swazis, helping each other simply for the sake of doing good. He seemed to get it, so I changed the subject.

Remembering my primary purpose in Swaziland, I asked him if he’d ever been tested for HIV. Like most people I ask, the answer was “no.” He said was too afraid of the result, but he would test if he felt sick. (Not knowing doesn’t make you any less HIV-positive!) I explained to him that HIV was so common in Swaziland that being HIV-positive was just like having any other chronic illness, like diabetes, and that HIV is easily managed if diagnosed early, but if someone waits until he is sick to get tested it will probably be too late. Since he was walking with me to the clinic anyway, I invited him to come in for free testing by the visiting nurse from MSF. He shook his head and asked me a few basic questions about HIV until we reached the clinic, at which point he turned around to make the trip back to his bus shelter hangout.

An hour later, after counting out 2000 co-trimoxazole tablets into individual packets, I left the clinic en route to the high school. On my way, I passed my friend from the bus shelter working in the mission’s community garden. He put down his hoe and motioned me over to the fence, where he proudly told me that he had made an appointment for an HIV test in the afternoon. Until then, though, he was helping a bunch of bomake (older women) working in the community garden. He wasn’t getting paid; he had volunteered to do it just because he could. Because he didn’t have anything else to do. Because if everyone gave just a little more to their community, everyone would be better off. (Because he listened when I talked!)

What had started out as a bit of a nuisance (a man following me, as usual) turned into a great teaching opportunity, both about HIV and about cultural norms (ie, not doing anything unless you’re getting paid). No matter what he’ll know his status, and maybe he’ll go on to talk to other people about getting tested, or live to be an example of selfless giving back to the community.

It was a reminder, to me, that every moment in Swaziland is an opportunity for me to learn, to teach and to live by example. If I measure my success by personal exchanges rather than by the change in the HIV prevalence 20 years down the road, it’s easy to remember why I’m here.

In other news, there’s a bit of a public health emergency going on in Swaziland. Besides HIV, I mean. On Saturday, Jaclyn called me in a panic, asking for the phone number of the on-call doctor from the hospital (he’s a friend of mine) because her bhuti (host family brother) was seizing uncontrollably and having difficulty breathing. Then, Tuesday, the head teacher mentioned to me that 4 high school students had been taken to the hospital after seizing during class, and that many more had reported seizures and muscle spasms that impaired breathing while at home. Apparently it’s not just in Shiselweni region, either—the Mbabane newspaper apparently covered something over the weekend about medication-induced seizure fits affecting public school students throughout the country. Apparently, the Ministry of Health provided every public school in the country with de-worming medicine for the students this past week. The medicine is either in tablet form (for high schools) or is a sticky pink syrup, both of which are administered by teachers to the students at school to kill intestinal worms. It’s a worthy cause because intestinal worms can cause dangerous weight fluctuations and malnourishment, especially in a population that is largely malnourished and underweight, many with compromised immune systems. But, for the kids suffering from seizures, the de-worming medicine given to schools may be doing more harm than good, and nobody knows how long the affected kids will continue to have seizures.

They’re not really sure why this medicine, which has been used for years, is suddenly causing so many problems. It could have been a bad batch or medicine, or maybe the teachers didn’t pay enough attention to ensure that children were administered the proper amount according to their weight, or maybe this is just the first time it’s been widely reported. Regardless of why, it’s scary.

Finally, after mostly sitting around and watching DVDs for the last few months, I’ve decided I really want to get in better shape. As motivation, I’ve made arrangements with my high school to start teaching an after school exercise and health club every week. (I’m really hoping they are all in worse shape than me…I can GUARANTEE I’m more flexible and have better balance, so we’ll start with yoga.) On Wednesdays, school gets out in the late morning so that sports teams can practice. Unfortunately, because there are only 5 sports teams total (soccer, volleyball and netball for girls; soccer and volleyball for boys), that means that the great majority of the school either watches sports or goes to the bus shelter to hang out (hang out means “eat junk food, create mischief, avoid doing chores at home, get pregnant, etc.”). The school has given me a suitable space, so I’ll be teaching two classes a week—one for boys, one for girls—on exercise, nutrition and various health topics. I have DVDs for yoga, Tae-bo, cardio dance, aerobics, abs, legs, upper body exercises and proper stretching, but it I’m teaching a weekly class I want to be sure I have plenty of variety. Thus, if you have anything (DVDs, books, magazine clippings, good websites, etc.) on exercise physiology, basic nutrition or anything I could teach to my class (including other exercise routines, even if it’s just written descriptions), please send them my way ( I will be typing up some handouts for my classes on the different exercises so they can do them at home and hopefully teach other people the importance of exercise, so I don’t even need the DVDs, just an idea how to do the exercises. Ngiyabonga kakhulu! (Thank you very much!)

That’s all for now. No KFC today. That seems counterproductive if I’m trying to get in better shape.

Love from the Swaz!

1 comment:

David Tyers said...

Has anyone considered neurocysticercosis for the odd worming reaction? Pork tapeworm causes cysts in central nervous system/brain/muscles - common cause of epilepsy in developing world. Worming tablets may cause sudden breakdown of cysts and seizure activity/muscle pains. Worth speaking to Baylor? Wiki link for basics: David (Friend of McCubbins)