Tuesday, June 22, 2010

This is my life.

There have been countless times in the last two years when, overwhelmed or disappointed by Swaziland, I’ve taken a critical look at my life and asked myself “What the hell am I doing here?” Sometimes, when I can’t feel my toes as I’m trying to fall asleep, I kick myself for giving up my cozy little temperature-controlled apartment in DC. When I’m making popcorn for dinner for the fifth consecutive night, I obsess about seafood chimichangas and lime-raspberry swirl margaritas from Guapo’s that I could be eating if only I had chosen a different course in life. But just when I’m beginning to get discouraged, or when I’m starting to wish that I hadn’t come here in the first place, some seemingly insignificant event brings me back to reality and reminds me that I couldn’t be happier anywhere else.

This week, after a particularly terrible class at Jericho High School and nearly 3 hours sitting on a dusty road waiting for public transport, it was Bob Marley that brought me back. As I hurled my 30-pound backpack into the front seat of the long-awaited kombi, disappointed with my apathetic class, frustrated with the cold and windy weather, and angry at the high-decibel sermon blaring from the kombi’s speakers, I planned to wallow in self-pity for the duration of the trip home. Until, perhaps sensing my foul mood, the kombi driver put in a Bob Marley CD and cranked up the volume. Almost instantly, the driver and the kombi’s 10 other passengers started belting out the lyrics to “Is This Love” and “I Shot the Sheriff” and, suddenly, I remembered why I was in Swaziland: because nowhere else in the world would I find myself traveling down a winding dirt road in a mini-bus full of singing strangers…and call it “work.”

All in all it’s been a pretty good week, and I have high hopes for the foreseeable future. I’m making progress on my bus shelter billboard painting campaign and presenting my progress thus far to Peace Corps at a meeting on Thursday. I’m meeting this week with the borehole company that will hopefully be doing the water project in my community, and the clinic should know by the end of the week when we’ll get started on the garden part of the project. I’m representing the Bambanani project at a big event about recycling and attending a workshop about marketing Swazi handicrafts overseas. Plus I’m getting a long overdue haircut, which always makes for a good week. Amazing.

And now, for a change of format, here’s my week in photos:

I’ve become pretty well-acquainted with the bus rank in Nhlangano. Seriously, I spend a couple of hours there every week and, being the only white girl who frequents the place, I’ve gotten to know most of the pushy bus conductors, the men who offer to carry heavy bags for a couple of coins, the woman with the pronounced limp who sells oversized rolls of toilet paper and suspicious little bags of traditional herbs, the obnoxious kombi drivers who fight with each other and flirt shamelessly with me. I’ve even gotten to know the “schedules” of the kombis I take most frequently. Nothing is exact, but I’ve noticed that the kombi to Jericho High School usually fills between 8:15 and 8:30 in the morning, and that the kombi to Hluti hardly ever leaves between 11:15 and 2:00. And it only took me 2 years of sitting around in the bus rank to figure it out! Success, I say.

I think I’ve mentioned before the ridiculous importance that Swazi public schools place on sports. I know I’ve complained about my classes being cancelled for “sports day,” when schools are closed so that 15 soccer players from each school can meet in town for a day-long tournament without having make-up work to do. I’ve even attended the sports days to watch my students put 1000% more effort into their netball games than their English homework, but this is just too much. It’s the official crest of Jericho High School, which reads “Knowledge is power. Sport is life.” Really? I was pretty sure that sport was just a hobby for those of us not gifted enough to make a profession of it. For LeBron James, yes, sport is life. But for the rest of us, sport is less important than knowledge. (It’s supposed to be, at least.)

I’m continually impressed with the ingenuity of Swazi women, and my host family’s make (mother) Sibongile is no exception. Here, she’s weaving a grass mat using a homemade loom of sorts that’s made from a tree trunk with notches cut in it, white plastic fibers unwoven from a feed sack, and a bunch of C-sized batteries that she’s collected over the years. She wraps the fibers from the feed sacks around the batteries, which are attached to the loom, and then wraps the batteries around the pieces of grass to connect each piece of grass to the one before it. I sat and watched her do this for 20 minutes and still couldn’t figure out exactly how it worked, but she’s quite the grass mat-making professional and makes quite a business of selling them in the community, since these kinds of grass mats are what most people in the community (my host family included) sleep on. This particular one in the photo she was making for her niece Lindiwe who came to stay with us for most of the week.

On Tuesday, while sitting in the kombi at the Nhlangano bus rank, I realized that I didn’t have a photo of PSI’s “A Man Knows” logo and slogan, which I planned to paint on a billboard the following day. I guess I could’ve gone back to the internet cafe and printed one out, but instead I found one of my kombi conductor friends and asked him to find me one that I could photograph. PSI (an American NGO that does HIV-related work in Swaziland) started this campaign to get men to test for HIV that basically says that a REAL man knows his HIV status, and they’d been putting stickers with the logo and whatnot on kombis in Manzini and Mbabane. So all I had to do was find one of the stickers. Feeling lazy, I sent my friend off to find me a kombi with a sticker on it, which he did. But even after I’d gotten my photos, other kombi drivers kept coming up and wanting me to take photos of THEIR stickers, which they were obviously very proud of. It started an interesting conversation, among the kombi drivers and myself, about the campaign and the importance of testing and who had been tested and who hadn’t yet and what sorts of behaviors put men at risk for HIV. It’s so funny to see what sorts of educational endeavors actually STICK in Swaziland and which ones are completely ignored, and I was impressed with the effectiveness of this particular campaign. Kudos, PSI!

So on Wednesday, after finding my “thumbs up” logo in the bus rank, I set out to Hluti with fellow PCVs Darryn, Brandon, and Laura, to beautify the bus shelters with messages about the importance of HIV testing. We used the “A Man Knows” logo and whatnot from PSI, and also another of PSI’s campaigns about the importance of couples testing for HIV together. It was a fantasticly productive morning/afternoon, and I am VERY impressed with the outcome. I still have a few finishing touches to put on this week (like the hours that the clinic offers free testing), but I think we did a great job. We certainly attracted a lot of attention! In this photo is the “thumbs up” logo expertly drawn by Darryn and Brandon using the grid method that makes drawing possible for the artistically challenged.

The full sign reads “A Man Knows he is not a man until he tests.” There’s a bright yellow box on the far left where I’ll write “FREE TESTING” and then have the hours for free HIV testing at both Hluti Clinic and OLOS Clinic, but I need to confirm those things with the clinic staff before I make them public and somewhat permanent.

Our second billboard, which Laura and I primarily worked on, has a picture of a man and woman on it, then says “Tell her something that no one has told her before: Baby, let’s have that test!” (Beautiful lettering done by me! I'm getting pretty good at block letters, if I may say so myself.) It’s part of a campaign funded by Lusweti, PSI, USAID, the Swaziland Ministry of Health, and several other organizations, and I like the message. Although I’m still not convinced that there’s anything particularly romantic about having an HIV test…

Laura concentrating on her man’s hands. In the poster (which I actually posted a photo of about a year ago…it was my inspiration for the whole bus stop painting project), the man’s arms go up into a big heart shape around the woman’s face, and I think she captured the image perfectly. She says it’s her masterpiece and that she’s retiring from art.

While Laura was busy having actual artistic ability, I drew and painted this part of the billboard. It says “It’s not just an HIV test, it’s a love test.” Which I think is pretty catchy. We weren’t sure if the black parts on the top and upper right were supposed to be JUST a broken arrow or if they were also supposed to represent, in an abstract and somewhat implied way, the symbols for male and female. If so, brilliant. The part in the middle, where it says “The Love Test,” is supposed to be filled in with red, but I ran out of red paint and then decided that I like it this way anyway. (And, yes, the letters are supposed to be all irregular and uneven and whatnot, I'm not an idiot.)

My friend Shaun came down from Mbabane to help us put the finishing touches on the billboard, and then spent the evening hanging out with my host family and watching the Bafana Bafana versus Uruguay game. (Bafana Bafana is South Africa’s team.) Bafana Bafana, sadly, lost 3-0, but it was still fun to watch the game with the family. Plus he got to experience the madness that is my house full of children every night.

I’ve been trying to turn the World Cup fever (seriously, it’s everywhere) into a geography lesson for the kids on my homestead. And since the lesson involves trashing my floor with paint and gigantic pieces of paper left over from when I was teaching last year, they don’t even realize they’re learning! Here, my sisi (sister) Londiwe is painting the American flag. Obviously.

Kwanele likes to draw the South African flag. Most Swazi kids do, actually. It’s kind of sad. If you give a Swazi kid a piece of paper and crayons, he’ll either draw a soccer player, a WWE wrestler (John Cena or Batista), or the South African flag. It’s a skewed kind of patriotism, I think. And what does that say about their identity as Swazis? Wouldn’t you think it was weird if every time you gave an American kid a piece of paper they drew the Canadian flag? Hm.

This evil chicken bit me at precisely the moment this photo was taken. I was out at Pasture Valley visiting the kids and inspecting their new temporary chicken coop (which Uncle Chris, another PCV, is renovating and relocating) when this jerk decided that my left index finger was food. I was like 8 inches away from her cage! Apparently, she has a seriously long neck when she wants to. And then all of the kids laughed at me while I complained about my booboo.

Me and Buhle from Pasture Valley Children’s Home. The kids at PV had a fun time messing up my hair, which they always do. But this time it was so bad that I actually had to cut a little of my hair to get my hair tie out. It’s just hair; it’ll grow back, I say.

Auntie Jenny, another PCV, teaching the Grade 1 students to read and write. I’m sure they learn SOMETHING at school (actually, from what I’ve seen of Swazi schools I’m not entirely certain of that), but then they come home for an hour of after school tutoring in the preschool. They’re using the site reading cards that my parents sent me in a care package to practice sounding out words, then writing them in the handwriting books I ALSO got in a care package. Meanwhile, I’m just sitting in the back of the classroom taking pictures. (Later I did help with the writing portion of the lesson so I’m not completely useless.)

Finally, after what seems like forever, the JA Company at Jericho High School is producing! We spent several weeks making paper beads, then spent a week varnishing them, and then we spent this last week stringing them into necklaces. Theoretically, they’ll be selling them this week so that we can make more next week (and so I can get paid back the several hundred rand I’ve spend on buying them supplies to make their product), or whenever the students decide to show up again. My frustration with the program isn’t so much the students in these photos, it’s the drunk ones standing outside the classroom saying sexually inappropriate things to me through the broken windows and the ones who didn’t bother to show up to class that day. I have a pretty solid attendance of 12 for a class where 32 students are registered. I guess I shouldn’t be offended, though…that’s about the average attendance of my classes as UKZN (where I studied abroad in South Africa), so I don’t blame myself.

In our first actual production session, we produced 32 necklaces. Our plan was to make 80, but with so many kids absent 80 was a pretty unrealistic goal. Despite my frustrations, it was a proud moment for the group to finally see what they’ve been working on for weeks coming together. Hopefully now the product doesn’t get stolen (like many of the raw materials have…scissors, magazines, glue, more scissors, etc.) before they have a chance to sell it. But if it does, I guess I’ll just turn it into a lesson about good business practices in Swaziland?

After 2 years of staring longingly at it, I FINALLY conquered the mountain (really a big hill) behind my house! Several times in the past year I’ve set off to walk up to the top, but I’m always turned away by Mkhulu (grandpa) who tells stories of the 4-meter-long black mambas and the deadly puff adders that live in the rocks on the mountain or my bhuti (brother) Kwanele who emphasizes the importance of carrying a snake-whacking stick. But this time, Mkhulu was at church and everybody else was busy plowing the garden, so Eliza and I set out on an adventure. She’s been up the mountain hundreds of times because she goes up most evenings to round up the family’s cattle, so she was kind of like my guide. And we did find ONE snake, a brownish-looking thing that ran away as soon as Eliza barked at it and jumped in its general direction. I choose to believe that it was non-venomous.

As usual, I tried to make Eliza sit still for some photos. And failed. But look at that tongue!

And, 40 attempts later, a nice portrait of a girl and her dog. Awwww...

From the top of the mountain, you can see EVERYTHING in my community. It’s always interesting to see the community from a new perspective, including my own homestead. This is the view of my homestead from the base of the mountain (much zoomed and edited). The red arrow points to my house, the yellow arrow points to the house of my sister Monica/Tsakasile and her kids Zakhele and Mpendulo Siyabonga (the baby), the blue arrow is Mkhulu and Gogo’s house (and also where Melusi and Sisi Xolile live), and the green arrow points to the little rondavel where Sibongile, Zandile, Londiwe, Kwanele and Samkelo live. I felt a bit like a spy because I just sat up on top of the mountain and watched my family doing their daily chores.

The mountain top is covered with aloe plants, complete with bright orange flower things. Gorgeous.

Another big accomplishment of my week is having learned the proper method of eating sugar cane. Sugar cane is widely grown here in Swaziland, and about half of it is bought by the stalk by Swazis who can’t afford actual sweets. I’ve always refused it when offered, partly because it is terrible for your teeth and partly because I didn’t know the proper way to eat it. So my friend Lungelo Mthobisi gave me a step-by-step lesson. Step 1: using your molars, bite off the hard outer layer of the stalk and pull to strip it off the outside, exposing the somewhat softer white fibers in the middle. Step 2: keep doing that until all of the green hard outer shell is removed from the plant over an entire section (sugar cane is kind of like bamboo, so you attack one section at a time, down to the little knot in the stalk). Step 3: minimizing the amount of cane syrup you get on your clothes (this is hard for me), bite the white fibrous substance from the inside of the stalk into bite-sized pieces using your molars to break the thick fibers. Step 4: chew on the white fibrous substance in your mouth to squeeze out all of the cane syrup inside, much like a sponge. Step 5: remove the white fibrous stuff, now dry, with your hand and throw it on the floor/ground/in a designated bucket. And then repeat. I was surprised at how delicious the stuff is. (Maybe I shouldn’t have been…it’s cane syrup, which is basically like sugary water. And what’s not to love about sugar water?)

My neighbor Lindo playing a recorder sent to me in a care package. There are 5 of them left (the rest have been stolen), which means that on some days I have a 5-man recorder band playing in my house. It makes me admire my parents for not strangling me in 4th grade when I was learning to play (and therefore practicing) the recorder. Thanks, guys.

And that’s all for today! I’m off to Pasture Valley, then to Manzini for a workshop, then to Mbabane for a few meetings, a haircut (and color?), and another workshop. It’s an exciting life I lead.

Love from the Swaz!

(And also, congrats to the new group who will be leaving for Swaziland in a matter of hours! It’s the beginning of quite an adventure and, honestly, I’m a little jealous that they’re right at the beginning. Swaziland’s the place to be!)


Erin said...

What a sweet Eliza dog. I kinda miss that dirty, ticky, fleabag sleeping on my backpack full of clean clothes. :) Nice blonde hair, too!

Justine said...

I bet she really misses you freaking out when she tries to snuggle with your stuff. And I'm re-coloring my hair today so it will hopefully be ALL blonde. Hopefully.