Friday, July 2, 2010

A first and the fourth.

Sometimes, the biggest triumphs we have as Peace Corps Volunteers fall well outside the definition of our role as “HIV educators.” For me, my biggest accomplishments in the past two years—the ones I will remember most fondly when I’m recounting tales of Peace Corps to my hypothetical future grandchildren—are in my interactions with my host family. Three examples from this past week:

1.In my first months, I thought my host bhuti (brother) Kwanele was the most annoying 8-year-old punk I’d ever met. When my friends Chad and Orion came to visit, they agreed with me 100%. But now that he’s grown up a bit and learned how to behave (that’s not because of me), he’s become one of my trusty evening-time companions and I’ve realized just how bright he is. Every night for the past year I’ve sat at the table (or more often my floor because my table is usually piled high with crap) and helped him with his Grade 4 and Grade 5 homework. Last week I taught him long division, and on Monday night we finished up all his math homework for the week. And yet, on Tuesday night he came to me, math book in hand, and asked if we could work ahead of the rest of the class. The kid was giving HIMSELF homework, just for practice! How completely un-Swazi (and yet so very Justine-esque) of him!

2.Since I let kids and neighbors and everyone else in the world into my hut, pocket-sized things are constantly going missing. Like in many cultures of poverty, Swazis place very little value on material possessions and, as such, they often steal from each other. And since I have more THINGS than others in my community, they don’t even feel bad about stealing from me (and often I don’t notice for days or weeks at a time, after which point I can’t hunt down the culprit). Anyway, on Tuesday night I had my usual brood of children warming up my hut (seriously, it’s a perk) and was entertaining two of the neighbor ladies (who insisted on watching over my shoulder as I typed) while their phones charged themselves with my electricity. Focused on my work, I ignored them. Until I heard my sister, Londi, yelling at them in SiSwati about stealing and being thieves. I turned around to see her unloading several little bottles of nail polish from the ladies’ pockets. She unplugged their phones, handed them their chargers, and escorted them out of the house to face the wrath of Mkhulu (Grandfather). Two years ago, that NEVER would have happened, but either (1) the kids are learning the value of honesty from me, or (2) they like me enough as a sister that they’re willing to stick up for me. Either way, success.

3.Like every other child in Swaziland my mshana (nephew) Mpendulo is constantly sick, so I was the only one who thought it strange when my sisi (sister) Tsakasile wanted to take him to the clinic on Wednesday morning. For once, there wasn’t a river of snot running down his face and there was no chest rattling involved in his breathing, so I was confused. And then, after all the other women on the homestead had gone to the garden to plow, Tsakasile came into my house and excitedly told me that Mpendulo was in perfect health and that she ACTUALLY wanted to go to the clinic to talk to a nurse about family planning. Birth control isn’t such a revolutionary idea to me, but in rural Swaziland it’s basically unheard of. I’d talked to her about it last year as a way to prevent another unwanted pregnancy, but she just got all shy and basically told me that she was the Virgin Mary and baby Mpendulo was Jesus. Lies, but I didn’t push it. Turns out she actually listened! So Wednesday morning we talked about it a little more and I gave her money for transport and the clinic’s fee, and off she went. A couple hours later, she came back with a year’s worth of birth control pills (they only cost E3.50 or about $0.50 per month) and a million questions, which led to a very sisterly discussion of “safe” sex.

In somewhat related news, baby Mpendulo celebrated his first birthday on Wednesday! In preparation, I bought a ridiculously expensive Bar One (like a Milky Way) chocolate cake from Nhlangano, and then successfully restrained myself from eating it while it sat, right next to my computer, smelling delicious for 24 hours. Then I dug out all of my Happy Birthday banners and such, which the whole family was excited about, in preparation for the most festive birthday celebration I could convince my host family to partake in. Basically, we worked for an hour on the “happy birthday” song, sang some approximation of it after several false starts, and then ate cake with our hands while we watched the evening soap operas. Nothing too fancy, but memorable enough to sufficiently mark the occasion. It’s been a long year with that kid, what with the drama of regular HIV testing and minor freak-outs every time he got the sniffles and the time the family tried to make me his legal guardian, but he’s healthy and happy and QUITE adorable. He’ll be a heartbreaker, for sure. (Starting with my heart when I have to leave him in August…)

So, in honor of Mpendulo’s first birthday, his year (and birthday party) in photos:

Me and baby Mpendulo Siyabonga Khumalo the day he came home from the hospital. His name means, roughly, "Thank you, God, for this answer/blessing." It seemed a bit much until he tested negative for HIV, after which it seemed appropriate (despite my misgivings about the God part). At school, he'll go by his "Christian" name, Noah. (Please also note my dark brown hair...)

My sisi Xolile nibbling on baby's hand.

I love taking awkward pictures with this kid! (And with pretty much anyone else.) I especially love his face in this one, though.

My bhutis Samkelo and Kwanele and my sisi Xolile with baby Mpendulo. They babysit him while my sisi Tsakasile (his mother) is off collecting firewood, washing laundry, cooking, etc. Seems a little scary to me to leave a 6-year-old in charge of a baby, but that's just how it's done in Swaziland.


I had Happy Birthday banners, but no tape, so Gogo put it on him like a sash. He did NOT appreciate it. (Mostly he hates the little red light on my camera. It makes him cry, so if I want to use my flash I have to take the picture REALLY quickly before he can get upset.)

Baby did NOT want to sit on the table and he did NOT want cake. Until he tasted it, at which point he was completely okay with being woken up from his nap to eat cake. (Sounds like a dream come true, to me.)

My sisi Tsakasile (his mom) stuffing Mpendulo's face with cake. Happy birthday, little guy!

Finally, I’m in town today en route to the north of the country for Peace Corps’ annual 4th of July slash Welcome the New Group (Group 8!!!) celebration. I spent my last 4th of July with a bunch of Brits and Germans who cared more about the hamburgers and potato salad I made for dinner than the holiday itself, so this year promises to be much more festive. I’m pretty sure the planned BBQ is actually a Swazi-style braai featuring flame-burnt pork chops, mashed pumpkin, and maize meal porridge, but I’ll think about hamburgers and fireworks hard enough to celebrate the occasion. Maybe next year I’ll celebrate properly with popsicles, hamburgers, beer, and evening fireworks at the lake…

Until then,
Love from the Swaz!

And since no blog is complete without a picture of my dog...Please note the gigantic rotten cow femur she found not 20 minutes after she had her SECOND bath of the week. Somewhere there's a rotting cow and she keeps finding pieces of it and rolling in the stink. I'm not a fan.


Mindy said...

Justine, I SERIOUSLY just love reading your blog!!

Erin said...

Wow, he's huge! What a great birthday! I think we need to plan annual birthday trips to Swaziland. :)

Dad said...

Always great reading and the photos are super. No offense, but your dog looks like an alien to me. I think its the eyes.