Thursday, May 20, 2010

Just Another Friday in the Swaz...

Crossing the lawn in front of the volunteers’ cottage at Pasture Valley, Jenn and I were spooked by a sudden rustling in the bushes on the edge of the nearby woods. We stopped dead in our tracks, took a moment to convince ourselves that there was a stray cow or dog or goat in the dark woods behind the cottage, then resumed our discussion of the sweet potato soup we had planned for dinner. By the light of our cell phones, we made our way onto the cottage’s little porch and juggled our bags to get the key in the door.

In the dim light from the children’s home that came in through the door we could see something lying on the floor in the hallway—something black and lumpy and very out of place. Cautiously I flipped on the breakers and turned on the lights.

Lying in the hallway was a black fleece blanket—the black fleece blanket that was SUPPOSED to be on my bed—and two pillows, also from my bed. Confused, I looked into my bedroom. The bed had been stripped, and Jenn’s blankets were all gone, too. Immediately, we assumed that the kids or the house mothers at the children’s home had decided to wash our linens, which seemed strange but not impossible. And then, after a couple moments of confusion, I realized that my big bag full of clothes was gone. Jenn’s shoes were gone. My backpack, a foam mattress, several spare comforters, gone. We’d been robbed!

Jenn and I stepped out onto the porch to figure out how they’d gotten in (chisel and screwdriver) and to decide what to do next when, to our horror, we heard voices coming from a tree about 30 meters from where we were standing. Whispering, rustling leaves, people. They were still in the woods, watching us! (I took the opportunity to remind them that they were violating a Commandment, which seemed the most logical thing to do at the time.)

Immediately we called Michelle and Peter for help. Peter jumped into his bakkie (small pick-up) and came down with a flashlight and a pistol to sort things out, and the neighbor was dispatched to block off the most likely escape route with his truck. After 15 minutes of fruitless searching, Peter fired a shot into the air to see if he could SCARE the burglars out of their hiding place. It did.

Immediately the burglars (3 of them?) stood up from their hiding place under a big jacaranda tree, turned on their phone flashlights (cell phones here often have flashlights on the top), and came running towards the cottage en route to the main road behind the house. Meanwhile, Jenn and I were freaking out: we’d heard a gunshot from a gun we could only HOPE was Peter’s, criminals were running straight towards us in a panic, and our only refuge from the madness was a house without a locking door. The closest thing to a weapon we could find in the house was an 8-inch bread knife, which didn’t offer us much peace of mind.

Long story short, they got away. We spent the whole evening giving statements to the police (who kept asking really inappropriate and irrelevant questions about my marital status and sexual preferences) and trying to piece together what had happened and what was missing.

Apparently, after forcing their way into the house and discovering that the electricity was turned off, they found their way around the house using the bulk of a box of matches, which we found strewn around the floor in the cottage. This means that they were obviously there in the dark, which is scary because it had only been dark about 15 minutes when we got home, so they had JUST been there. They made off with my big clothing bag (the contents of which they left behind, thankfully), and rooted through all the kitchen cabinets in search of…something. (The only thing they took from the kitchen was a bag full of plastic grocery bags, which we later found in the woods.) From the bedrooms they took Jenn’s flip-flops, three duvets, a set of sheets, three wool blankets, a foam mattress, the daypack that matches my big backpack, and my new scarf. We (and the police) think that they probably broke into the house earlier that day or the previous night, but had come back for more. Fortunately (because they didn’t get more) or unfortunately (because we were scared to death), we interrupted their second attempt.

It could have been worse, though. We could have been there when they broke in, or walked in on them robbing us and had to deal with them when they were cornered and defensive. We could have dropped our bags off there in the afternoon, like we normally do, and I could have had my computer or external hard drive or money stolen. They could have taken more essential or expensive things like the countertop oven unit or the DVDs. They could have been armed and stood up to Peter, or they could have come back. (They did actually come back that night because one of them dropped a cell phone. We could hear it but didn’t think it was smart to go rooting through the woods in search of a burglar’s cell phone. By morning it was gone, which means they came back for it later that night. Creepy.) All things considered, it was a pretty pathetic robbery on their part, which is lucky for us. (It could have been better though…had we brought the dog with us like we normally do, had we put the padlock on the burglar door, had we left the outside lights on…)

The only thing I’m really upset about (aside from the whole feeling like my space and privacy were violated and being suspicious of every man I see on the road around the cottage) is that they got away with the fantastic wool blanket I bought in Lesotho. Remember the one I raved about for a full paragraph in Blog about Lesotho? Yeah, the superblanket that got me through one of the coldest and wettest nights of my life, and my only souvenir of Lesotho: gone. Jenn’s too. The frustrating thing is that last week I literally had it in my bag to take it home but then decided that I was sick and didn’t feel like carrying it. The good news, though, is that the blanket is really distinctive and I have a photo of it to prove that it’s mine so there’s a very very slim chance of finding it hanging on someone’s laundry line or something. In all likelihood, though, the only thing that’s going to come out of having reported this to the police is the daily phone calls and text messages I keep getting to remind me that I’m beautiful and that various officers would like to marry/procreate with me. (Sexual harassment in Swaziland knows no boundaries.) But if I see anyone wearing my scarf or carrying my backpack, I’m going to seriously consider punching them in the face.

HOPEFULLY this was a one-time thing, but I’m still going to be more cautious in the future. The scary part about having interrupted them in their robbery is that there’s obviously something in the house they still want, which means that maybe they’ll come back. But we’re trying our best to prevent that. Michelle and Peter are beefing up security around the cottage (the electric fence had been shorted out so they’re going to fix it and try to prevent it in the future), keeping the outside lights on at the cottage, doing nightly checks of the property. There’s also the burglar door (which we stupidly had left unlocked), bars over all the windows, and a new handle/lock and deadbolt on the door, which should hopefully deter future attempts to break in. And in the future I’ll insist on having Ted, the farm’s 150-pound dog, escort me to the cottage. And I’ve ordered some pepper spray, which I think is more for my psychological well-being than anything. (It’s never fun to feel unsafe where you live/work, and this ordeal has made me super paranoid.)

[Note for Group 8 volunteers coming next month: Don’t be freaked out by this! It really is rare in Swaziland, and basically unheard of on our homesteads because of our houses’ proximity to other houses and people and dogs. BUT, that said, I would recommend two things: (1) bring a key-entry padlock (Master lock) because all the ones you buy here have similar keys, rust shut, and are easily opened with methylated spirits or other chemicals, and (2) ALWAYS lock your burglar door, especially at night, so that you don’t kick yourself later if you DO get robbed. If our burglar door had been locked, this probably never would have happened.]

In OTHER news…

Compared to the weekend, my week has been pretty uneventful. (Maybe that’s because it’s only been 4 days since my last Blog post…)

I DID have a couple more meetings with the Support Group and the head nurse at Our Lady of Sorrows clinic in an attempt to get started with my partnership project. I’m a little discouraged because I thought the project would take off right after getting funded, but, as usual, Swaziland has delayed progress unnecessarily. A couple of weeks ago, the executive committee sat through a couple of meetings to get official permission from the chief to do the project, then to get permission from the inkhundla (county) committee. (I didn’t take part in this because the meetings are like 6 hours long and 100% in SiSwati.) Today, three of the Support Group members headed out to the existing garden to decide if they want to expand it or not, to count the number of holes we need to dig, and to draw up a work schedule so that all the Support Group’s members are included in the project. Yeah, it’s finally almost starting to happen.

And then yesterday I got some very unexpected news. For almost 2 years the clinic’s head nurse and the Support Group’s executive committee have been submitting monthly proposals to the inkhundla (county) to get poles, fence, and tools for the garden. For almost 2 years, the committee has either ignored these proposals or outright rejected them…until I went off and secured funding from another source. Apparently when the Support Group’s Chairperson asked for permission to do the project it reminded the inkhundla that the other proposal existed, and now they’re offering to help with the project. They have “promised” (I won’t believe it until I see it!) to purchase and deliver the poles and fencing for the project with money provided by the government for rural development projects, and they’ve said that we will have the supplies by mid-June. This is fantastic because (1) it gets the local community involved in the project and gives them ownership of the final product, and (2) it frees up more money from MY budget to expand the garden or buy fruit trees or host a larger nutrition workshop or put more taps in to distribute water from the borehole. But it’s also annoying because it shouldn’t take ME raising funds for the inkhundla committee to do its job! (According to government, hundreds of thousands of Emalangeni in rural development funds remain unspent every year because “people don’t apply for the grants.” Really, it’s because the inkhundla doesn’t bother to distribute the funds because they don’t want to oversee the projects. Frustrating.) Plus, now we can’t buy any supplies until we find out what they’re planning on paying for. Another delay, but hopefully it will be worth our while.

Meanwhile, I’m focusing on the Bambanani project. We have a week to roll, varnish, and string hundreds of beads, put together some mobiles, make at least 40 more pairs of earrings, figure out packaging for all our products, design and build a display table of sorts, create a new business card and product tag, decide on prices, and organize ourselves for what will hopefully be a successful weekend of sales at Bushfire Music Festival. And, considering that most of our products are made of paper, we’re crossing our fingers that there won’t be a torrential downpour at the concert like there was last year…

That’s all for now. I have a fabulous afternoon full of movies and paper bead rolling ahead of me. I love my job.

Love from the Swaz!

(P.S. If any Group 8 volunteer has questions in the next month, feel free to contact me at If not, I’ll see you in July!)

These are the fantastic flowers that many of the aloe plants in Swaziland grow this time of year. Sometimes, if the aloe plants are very old, there are HUNDREDS of them in a big bunch, one on top of each other, each with a bright orange and yellow flower thing. This one is probably about 10 inches tall and 6 inches in circumference.

Some of the earrings made by the older girls at Pasture Valley Children's Home. The green and orange one on the right uses some of the seeds we gathered last week from a tree next to the building where we have our workshops. We gathered hundreds of seed pods, each with about 15 seeds inside, and drilled holes through each individual seed. We also use acorns (which we varnish to a nice shine) and the seeds from an indigenous melon that look kind of like red watermelon seeds.

Two of the boys at Pasture Valley Children's Home preparing melon for our melon and ginger preserves. The melon they use is called something like "beca" (the c is a click) and looks and tastes like an unripe watermelon. (You know the part between the pink of the melon and the rind? Yeah, the whole melon tastes like that.) Swazis usually chop and boil it down into a porridge-like consistency, then eat it as a dessert with lots of sugar. Or feed it to pigs. It grows wild in most areas.

Three of our women from the Dwaleni group showing off the necklaces they made. We've been working with the women since mid-March and so far have produced 82 necklaces, which is pretty amazing. Every week the quality and creativity is improving, and we're really optimistic about the future of the project. (Which is good because right now we're financing it 100% out of pocket...)

Day 4 of African Tick Bite Fever. I don't think this photo adequately conveys the nastiness that was (and still is) this sore. After this stage, it formed a gross little blister thing in the middle, which burst, and then the whole thing started rotting away. Unfortunately I don't have photos of that stage of the sickness because the antibiotic cream I put on it made it extremely reflective so none of the photos came out. But, trust me, it was gross.

Two of the girls at Pasture Valley and Gogo Constance (one of the house mothers) making earrings and necklaces for the Bushfire Music Festival. Each of the kids who wants to help us make jewelry gets paid for their creations, and the two who are the most involved with the project get to come to the music festival to sell with us. Gogo mostly just makes earrings for herself.

This is about how many beads I can make in a particularly productive evening of movies and paper bead rolling. I tend to go for the bright colors, but lately I've also been making beads that are just white with black print on them and I've been stringing them with brightly colored glass beads. I've also been making some out of newspaper and then painting them with designs before varnishing them, which is a pretty unique look. I also made the bowl they're in out of paper mache one day when I was bored and had some excess newspaper and glue.

1 comment:

Erin said...

the beads look fantastic! you're going to sell out for sure!