Monday, May 17, 2010

The beginning of the end...

I first had the realization that I’d be leaving Swaziland while ringing in the New Year at House on Fire. I saw people running around with funny “2010” hats and thought to myself, “Man, that’s the year I leave Swaziland!” Since then, I’ve tried in earnest to suppress that realization, and I’ve been pretty successful. Until, of course, Peace Corps decided to host a conference all about how we have to leave Swaziland and go back to the scary world where people don’t consider playing with children and making paper beads actual work. So now it’s official: I’m leaving (in a few months).  

I don’t know why, but I’m surprised by this. When I first arrived in Swaziland almost 2 years ago, 26 months seemed like a lifetime. Now, 22 months later, I can’t decide if it’s been the slowest or fastest 22 months of my life. In some ways, it seems like I’ve only just arrived: I haven’t accomplished as much as I thought I would during my time, I still have a lot of siSwati I’d like to learn, I find out new things about my community/neighbors/Swaziland every day, and I still quite vividly remember my last mango margarita in Philly the night before I left the US. (Yes, I had margaritas with my last dinner in the US. Surprised?) But in some ways, it feels like I’ve been here forever: I feel at home in my little hut, I have a wonderful host family that I’m very close to and an adorable dog, I’ve seen babies born and students graduate high school, and I’ve completed several worthwhile projects in the community. And now that I have worked so hard to establish relationships and a role and “roots” in the community, I have to pack up and leave to go on to the rest of my life. And, since this time I’m not blinded by the excitement of the adventure of Peace Corps, I think leaving Swaziland will be a lot more difficult than leaving the US was.

The biggest worry for me is leaving my host family. When I left the US, I knew that my friends and family would be fine without me. I planned to talk to them on the phone, they promised to send care packages, some planned to visit, and I knew that I would still have them when I returned to the US. But now, as I prepare to leave Swaziland, I don’t have that. What if, after I leave, baby Mpendulo gets sick and nobody has E5 ($0.75) to take him to the clinic and he ends up with pneumonia? If Mkhulu dies, what happens to all of the kids on the homestead? Who will be around to answer Gogo’s questions when the nurses at the clinic change her ARV medication and she doesn’t understand the new dosage instructions? Who will feed Eliza and douse her in flea powder every week and call the vet if she gets sick? How will I know if the people I love are sick or hungry or can’t afford to pay for school? Even if I DO know, what can I possibly do about it from half a world away?

Sometimes when I’m particularly frustrated with some aspect of life in Swaziland—gender inequality, apathetic teachers, limited access to medical care, etc.—I remind myself that I’m only here for 2 years and that the whole experience is kind of temporary. When I’ve needed money in the past 22 months, I’ve tapped into my bank account in the US, and I’ve always known that I have my parents as a financial safety net. When I’ve run out of food, I’ve gone to town to buy more so I didn’t have to go to bed hungry. Peace Corps has always been a phone call away for medical or safety-related emergencies, ready to send a car for me. And I’ve always known that if it got really bad, I could just quit and go back to the US where things were more normal. 

But for the people I’m leaving behind here, Swaziland IS their normal. It’s all they know, and there’s no escaping it. For the kids on my homestead, poor quality education and untrained teachers IS their normal. Prohibitively expensive emergency services that only operate Monday through Friday ARE normal in Swaziland. The girls on my homestead will be the targets of sexual harassment their whole lives, and the boys will probably grow up to be perpetually unemployed. While I’m busy studying at Tulane and traveling through Africa, the 25-year-old women in my community will be taking care of their 4 children and hoping that their husbands don’t bring HIV home from their other girlfriends/wives. While I’m buying new clothes and eating at all-you-can-eat buffets in the US, my host bhutis and sisis will be mending their old school uniforms and eating the same porridge-and-veggie mixture they eat every night. How do I leave Swaziland and return to “normal” life in the US without being overwhelmed by guilt and worry?

This, essentially, is what we talked about at our Close of Service (COS) conference: what we’ve done, what we’ve learned, how we’ve changed, and all of the emotional and logistical things we have to deal with when we leave and attempt to re-establish a life back in the US. In addition to forcing me to think about all the anxiety associated with leaving Swaziland, COS conference also made me realize just how much I’ve changed over the past 2 years. There are all the obvious things like learning a new language and finding a passion for public health, but there’s a whole slue of more subtle things, too. I’ve become more confident in an ‘I can do anything’ slash ‘Don’t mind me, I’m just singing in public’ kind of way. I’ve learned how to be alone without being lonely. I’ve developed a tea-and-biscuits habit and have actually come to see it as a necessary part of a productive day. I’ve re-defined concepts like “walking distance” and “keep refrigerated.” I’ve learned to be less wasteful, to make the most of what I have without wanting more, and to take quick water-saving showers (which is a pretty amazing feat for me). I’ve gotten over my fear of fire and I’ve caught myself saying things like, “Oh good, it’s just a bat.” And that’s just what I see. 

The past two years have been an incredible journey for me, both personally and professionally—an experience I wouldn’t trade for all the running water and reliable public transportation in the world. And, even though my Peace Corps service is coming to an end, I know that I’m not done with Swaziland. I’ll definitely come back to visit my host family (and Eliza) and to check up on the sustainability of my projects. Maybe I’ll end up doing research for my Master’s thesis in Swaziland (it IS a pretty good place to do HIV-related research), or I’ll come back as a volunteer. Or maybe after graduate school I’ll come back as a public health professional so I have more to give. 

But, for now, I’m focusing on finishing up projects and tying up loose ends before I leave. With that and all the paperwork I have to do for Peace Corps, it’s going to be a busy final three and a half months! So here’s what’s going on in the Swaz:

1. My partnership project (the community garden and water project that many of you helped to fund) is FINALLY getting off the ground. The support group has harvested all of the maize they planted last year, and after a good burn we’ll be ready to extend the fence and put in the new poles (hopefully starting this week). Meanwhile, the borehole-digging company has agreed to do a new survey for free (it usually costs about $1500), which is fantastic money-saving news but, unfortunately, means that they will be surveying at their leisure. I’ll keep you all updated on the progress of the project in the coming weeks.

2. Our jewelry-making project, Bambanani, is gearing up for its first big exhibition at Bushfire Music Festival at the end of the month. So far, our group of ladies (with the help of the older girls at Pasture Valley) have made 82 necklaces, 64 pairs of earrings, 3 bracelets, and a whole bunch of cloth bags and preserves. We’re trying to incorporate all sorts of found or recycled art, including acorns and other seeds we find in the bush and rolled paper beads, to create unique “wearable art” items. Bushfire will be our first big test of our market and our product, and we’re frantically trying to get everything—the display, the brochures, the signs, etc.—done before the 28th of the month!

3.  I've spent the past couple of weeks gathering brochures and things about TB, HIV, breastfeeding, nutrition, diabetes, and other health issues in SiSwati so that I can better design billboards about health-related topics for my bus stop art project. Hopefully this week I'll get started on the actual painting, and I'll definitely post lots of pretty pictures of my work on my Blog. The only challenge will be getting a 20L (5 gallon) bucket of paint up a hill to the main road so I can actually use it! It will be a chore, but I'm definitely looking forward to the painting part. Plus it will be nice to feel like I've left behind something TANGIBLE!

4. This past week, I got African Tick Bite Fever. It sounds like a joke, but it's totally not. Basically, at some point (probably in my sleep...I blame Eliza) I got bit by a tick on my arm. 72 hours later, I started feeling like death. Fever, vomiting, dizziness, muscle aches, etc. It was terrible. Peace Corps came down and picked me up from Pasture Valley (that's where I was) and drove me up to Mbabane and gave me lots of antibiotics and pain killers and anti-nausea medication, so I spent the next 4 days half-conscious at a B&B where I had the best food in Swaziland for 3 meals a day. It would have been fantastic if I hadn't felt so much like death. But I'm fine now, aside from the antibiotic-induced nausea that I am still experiencing, and I know to be more careful about ticks. I'll post photos next week when I'm on a computer that allows me to compress files (otherwise they take HOURS to upload...).

That's all for today, methinks. I have a fun story for you all, but I'll post that on Thursday so check back then!

Until then, salani kahle! 

Love from the Swaz.


Another PCV, Darryn, came to visit a couple of weeks ago and we spent an afternoon painting the swingset my parents and I built in March (and ruining children's clothes). We distracted about 10 of them from preschool and painted their hands, then had them do handprints all over the posts and poles and planks. They learned colors while they were doing it, plus they got to get all messy with paint (despite our best efforts to keep it off their clothes!). Win, win. 


Dad said...

I love the idea of the painted handprints on the swingset. The kids will be able to point at their print and say "I did that!" for years to come. That is, as long as the playset remains upright! Knowing the builder's skill...... Post more pictures when you can.

Radka said...

Beautiful blog and photos. Have a nice day Radka.

Sophia's going to Swaziland! said...

Hi Justine, thank you for sharing your experience. I have loved reading about your journey in Swaziland. I will be leaving on June 22nd and hopefully will be meeting you during pre-service training! You have done some brilliant work in Swaziland!