Friday, June 11, 2010

A tale of two cities.

Sometimes I am amazed at the range of extremes in my life. On one hand there’s the little earwig-infested hut I live in, the HIV epidemic that affects every facet of life in my community, the tiny plastic dish I call a bathtub, the mono-diet of various flavors of porridge that I subsist on, and all the other frustrations of my life as a Peace Corps Volunteer. On the other hand, there’s…well, House on Fire.

House on Fire ( is a sort of whimsical, artsy, eclectic concert/performance venue that hosts Swazi, South African and international bands, jazz musicians, poets, magicians (seriously), and all sorts of other performers in the Ezulwini Valley. On normal Friday/Saturday nights (when it’s open after more cultured performances), it’s a night club sort of place with DJs spinning hip-hop or kwaito (African techno) music, a lively dance floor, a full-service bar, and an interesting crowd of basically every expat/tourist/South African/white Swazi in the country. It’s basically the only place in Swaziland that is a guaranteed GOOD time EVERY time. And the Bushfire International Festival of the Arts, a 3-day music festival benefitting a local NGO called Young Heroes, is House on Fire at its finest. For 72 straight hours.

Last year’s Bushfire, if you remember, was a pretty memorable experience for me. Armed robbery, Johnny Clegg, zero sleep, torrential downpour, etc. It was a great time. And this year was no different.

Jenn and I kicked off our Bushfire weekend on Thursday afternoon with a 21-minute battle versus the Bambanani tent (24 minutes faster than the previous attempt!), but the actual fun started Friday evening when gates opened to the general public. In preparation for Bambanani’s debut on the Swazi "handicrafts made by disadvantaged women" scene, Jenn and I had spent the whole week preparing our craft stall, designing our business cards and packaging (with the help of my sister Erin who is a brilliant logo designer), making signs, and doing countless last-minute stock/quality control/inventory-related things. And then, Friday night and all day Saturday, we actually SOLD things. Maybe more important, we handed out business cards with info about the organization on it, we did an interview about the project with a local magazine, we talked to potential funders, and we just got our name out there. Amazing.

And then, after the craft stalls closed for the night, there was the music. Friday night’s headliner was the Parlotones, a South African rock band that that "fuses alternative rock with deftly crafted and darkly romantic lyrics" (according to the program). I’ve been listening to the Parlotones for the past 2 years on East Coast Radio, and I have to say that I was SUPER excited to see them in concert despite being made fun of by all the other PCVs for knowing all the songs. (They’re just jealous that they don’t get East Coast Radio. I’m slightly obsessed with the song "Push me to the floor," which you should probably download.) Then, Saturday night, Freshly Ground was back for the second time in 2 months, which was fine by me. Freshly Ground is a fantastic afro-pop-rock band made up of musicians from South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, and features the usual instruments plus an electric violin, a flute, a saxophone, and amazing lyrics in Zulu and English. Yeah, they're fantastic.

Other memorable acts included Lira, who is performing at the opening ceremony of the World Cup as I write this, Swazi musician Bholoja, American poet Coleman Barks, the Temaswati Project, and the ridiculous hip hop trifecta of KRTC, Mozaik and Akhona who rap lyrics like "God made this man, this man made money, and money made this man rich." (I remember those lyrics because I’ve seen them perform twice and they did that song twice at each performance. And those are pretty much the only words to that song.)

Anyway, it was an amazing experience that went off mostly without a hitch for me. I still lost my wallet like last year, but I’m pretty sure it was my own stupid fault and it was empty except for my driver’s license, which was actually returned to me. It still rained like last year, but I had a brand new Bushfire hoodie to keep me warm. And, even though I spent most of the daylight hours selling things for Bambanani, I had a blast. By Sunday I was so ridiculously exhausted from lack of sleep (I didn’t get more than 3 hours of sleep on Friday or Saturday nights) and so cold and wet that I checked out in the afternoon in favor of a hot shower and a warm bed. The terrible cold and mixed up days and nights I’ve been fighting since that weekend was TOTALLY worth it.

So now I’m 90 miles and a world away in my little hut, far removed from foreigners and running water and overpriced plastic cups of boxed wine. Seeing how the other 95% live.

I had an interesting conversation today with Mkhulu (grandfather) about Swaziland and poverty and development that underscored the disconnect between Mbabane/Manzini and the rest of the country. If only the Members of Parliament and the Ministers and everyone else in government knew what it was like in the rural areas, he says, life would improve for the majority of Swazis who live outside of Mbabane/Manzini. Maybe if the Minister of Education sent his kids to an understaffed rural school , he says, the government would fund the expansion of teachers training colleges or update the national curriculum. Maybe if the Regional Development Officer had to fetch his water from the river, improving access to clean water would be a higher priority for rural communities…(and that's all I can say on the topic without getting in trouble with Peace Corps for being "too political.") 

Anyway, it’s food for thought. The developmental disparity and cultural differences between the urban and rural areas of Swaziland have amazed me for the past 2 years, but Bushfire is so much like a weekend in America that, juxtaposed with my everyday life in Swaziland, it seems all the more ridiculous.

Not that my daily life is ALL filth, poverty and misery. In fact, these past weeks have been pretty fabulous. In brief:

My ongoing water and garden project with the support group is SLOWLY getting started. (Thanks, Swaziland, for making everything more difficult than it needs to be.) The support group submitted a new proposal to the inkhundla (county) to see if they’re serious about providing the fence, poles and seedlings for the garden, and we should either have a rejection letter or our supplies in the next week so that we can move forward with my part of the project. (I can’t start my part of the project unless I know what the inkhundla is paying for because their participation changes my budget entirely. Unfortunately, their slowness changes my timeline entirely as well…) Also, this coming week I was planning on meeting with the borehole company in Mbabane, but there’s been an outbreak of politically-motivated violence in Mbabane and surrounds, so Peace Corps has mandated that I put off my trip for another week. (Check out the Swazi Times online for more info.) But, for those of you who donated to the project, rest assured knowing that Peace Corps won’t even let me leave until it’s done, so it WILL happen. Soon.

I HAVE been making progress on the JA Company at Jericho High School. Twelve weeks after starting the 11-week program, we’re finally ready for week number 6, thanks to poor attendance and holidays and general apathy. But, for now, it’s going well. I’ve taught all the introductory lessons on entrepreneurship and business ethics and whatnot, we’ve elected our managers, we’ve written our business plan, and now we’re starting production of paper beads and necklaces (and I’m kind of kicking myself for contributing to the group’s brainstorming exercises). They FINALLY seem excited about spending their Saturday mornings in classes, and I’m trying my best to match their enthusiasm, despite the hellish endeavor that is transportation between my house and the school. (Seriously, after last week’s class I waited over 3 hours for a kombi going in the direction of my house, all the while being sexually harassed by the local soccer team and reflecting on how much better my life would be if only I had a car.)
Then again, if I had a car I would forfeit the opportunity to push 30 liters of paint around my community in a wheelbarrow. Why? Because the bus shelters I’m FINALLY getting around to painting are approximately half a mile away from my house and I can only fit 9 liters of paint in my backpack (which I sometimes do). After nearly 40 faxes (1 a week since late November) I FINALLY secured a letter of permission from the Ministry of Public Works and Transport and can paint the bus shelters without fear of it being deemed vandalism. My goal is to get 9 of them painted, which means I have to do about one a week for the rest of my time in Swaziland. It’s doable on my own, probably, but I’m still trying to recruit help from various NGOs, other volunteers and random strangers with artistic abilities. Until then, it’s just me and my "Where there is no Artist" book, which is both clever (a play on the classic village health care guidebook "Where there is no Doctor") and basic enough to be useful to someone as unskilled as me. (Please see photos below…)

And finally, after having had it rescheduled twice by the Peace Corps office, I managed to complete my Language Proficiency Interview to evaluate how much SiSwati I’ve learned in Swaziland. It’s an oral examination that’s recorded and then marked by a panel of linguists. And it’s nerve-wracking. On a scale from "novice low" to "advanced high," I scored a whopping ADVANCED LOW, which was super exciting for me (my goal was intermediate high) and means that I don’t have to take a foreign language as part of my MPH. Woohoo!

Plus, now I can start studying Kiswahili without fear of it compromising my SiSwati. So, for now…

Tutaonana! (That’s Swahili for "goodbye")

The fabulous Bambanani sign, hand painted by yours truly. We put it up as the background behind the craft stall at Bushfire and, luckily, nobody complained about my butchering of the African continent.

The preserved guavas and wild melon and ginger preserves made by the kids at Pasture Valley. They're both delicious and very very Swazi.

The craft stall at Bushfire. We had necklaces and earrings from Bambanani, macadamia nuts and pottery from Michelle's mother, greeting cards made by the kids at Pasture Valley, the preserves, bags made by the girls at Pasture Valley, and some grass mats with shiny foil chip bags woven in that were made by Gogo Constance from Pasture Valley.

Jenn varnishing necklaces and me standing around for moral support. I hate varnishing them when they're already made! (I like to varnish the individual beads because then I don't get it all over my hands.)

Baby Mpendulo Siyabonga is almost a year old! He's an active crawler and is ALMOST walking, which is scary because nobody watches him closely during the day. In a span of just a couple of hours, he fell down the cement steps in front of the main house, he crawled into the road by the house, he ate a handful of goat poop, and he dumped over the pig's feed bucket while the pigs were trying to eat. Danger! I wonder how much of the infant mortality rate in Swaziland can be attributed to inattentive babysitters...

Is it sad that the highlight of my week was when I accidentally bought 2-ply toilet paper? 2-ply toilet paper is EXPENSIVE in Swaziland, and I managed to find it for the same price as 1-ply! Also, the package says: "We have leen innauating and Dmpvauing" and "2 Dly Extra Saft." I don't even know what that first part is SUPPOSED to say.

The bus stop pre-makeover.

My backpack full of paint. It's a good idea until I accidentally forget to completely close a container and end up with a backpack full of paint, but until then it's a great alternative to pushing around a wheelbarrow.

Bus stop post-makeover. It says "Batali~ Kusheshe nisihlole ingati yetfu kukosenta siphile kadze! Bantfwana bangahlolwa iHIV kusukela banemaviki lasitfupha." Translated: "Parents ~ The sooner you test our blood, the longer we will live! Children can be tested for HIV 6 weeks after birth." I got the SiSwati from a brochure from Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, but turns out there was a typo and I had to scratch off "bangahlowa" and make it "bangahlolwa," which was super fun and took a ridiculously long time. Also, I'm aware that my girl has no feet. She WILL, she just has to wait until next week when I feel like drawing feet.

A close-up on that excellent baby. I pretty much rock. (I will paint the whites of his eyes next week when I finish the girl's feet.)

I walked my sisi Xolile and her friend Kwandile (our neighbor) home from school the other day. They're 5 and 4, respectively, and walk 7 kilometers one way to preschool every day. We took the "shortcut" home through the woods and over a fence and through a river and back up a really steep hill, and they kicked my butt. I'm so out of shape.

The dried out old river bed between the school and my house, plus the forest by my house from the OTHER side. I didn't realize it was so dense because I only see the other side of it where people are constantly cutting down trees for firewood.

Xolile and Kwandile filling up their water bottles in what's left of the "river." Water-bourne diseases, anyone?

My sisi Tsakasile carrying a bundle of wood on her head. She had me help her load it onto her head and I almost fell over just trying to lift it, but she managed to go hiking and climb over a fence (there's a bit of a ladder) with the bundle on her head. Amazing.

Finally, Eliza. I haven't posted a picture of my adorable puppy in a while, so I thought I should. Everyone in my community thinks I'm crazy for putting a bandana on the dog and they come to me saying that they want one too. Luckily, it says "Simply Dog" on the tag so I can prove to them that they're meant for dogs. Eliza loves it.


Dad said...

LOL! You really crack me up. And yes, you DO rock! The image of you pushing a wheelbarrow around, full of paint, is stuck in my mind. Funny!

Prestige5 said...

Hello! I just read about 1/5 of your entire blog and its epic. My name is Mzwakithi Shongwe and I am currently doing the IB at Armand Hammer United World College in the US. Your stories are truly inspiring and I would love to talk about your work in Swaziland with some of my friends. Are you still there or you've already left, seeing as to your blog does say "post" Swazi adventure?