Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Update On Sponsoring A Child

Once again, this is Justine's mom. She wanted me to mention (she forgot in her last blog)that she is still working on getting children in her community signed up for Young Heroes so they can be sponsored. Since this is the Christmas season many of the people she needs to meet with have left the country to visit their families, but this will be one of her top priorities in January when the holidays are over, and she will keep us updated.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Things I don't understand about Swaziland/Life

Every day I experience things I absolutely do not understand. For example, why are all the spoons at KFC pink with silver sparkles in them and the forks are just plain white? How do all these ladies with umbrellas know it’s going to rain today? Why are you giving your baby Coca-Cola when it’s still young enough to be breastfeeding? How come my cucumber seeds never germinate? (They did, my family just kept pulling them up because they thought they were weeds…we got that problem fixed now and I have 4 healthy cucumber plants.)

There are some bigger things that continue to baffle/frustrate me that I thought I’d share. This is NOT me complaining so much as expressing my frustration with things I could not possibly understand/get used to in Swaziland. Sorry Peace Corps, but sometimes cultural adjustment is just not possible.

Heat. So these past 2 weeks or so it’s been a consistent 85 degrees daily, which is fine since I know it could be worse (as in I could live in the Lubombo region where it’s often over 100 degrees) and because when I get too hot I can just lay on my cement floor and sweat because I’m my own boss. I manage by wearing skirts and a tank top and by having my hair tied up in a bun and drinking lots of water. And then I look around the room at the meeting I’m melting in and there’s a lady wearing a hoodie that says “Maine” on the front of it, and another lady in a coat with a fur-lined hood, and all the babies are bundled up like it’s the dead of winter in Saskatchewan, complete with knit caps with little tassel things on them. How are you not melting? And then they criticize me for not wearing long sleeves and a hat (and they mean a ski cap-type hat, not the wide-brimmed straw hat that would actually be helpful). Apparently they stay cool by not letting the sun touch them. I could see doing that with linen, but you look like you’re ready to go skiing!

Kombi etiquette. Imagine that it’s 90 degrees outside and you’re stuck in the back seat of a mini-bus, 4 people wedged into 3 seats, for a 45-minute ride. The man to your left has a giant bag of rancid meat and the 300-pound-woman to your right, whose left thigh is on top of yours, is sweating so profusely that she’s dripping on you. If you were anywhere else in the world, I bet somebody would open a window so that y’all could breathe, right? Not in Swaziland! If I’m sitting by the window, which I try to do whenever possible, I play a fun game where I open the window a crack and gasp for air until some Gogo (grandmother) reaches over and slams it shut and gives me the stink eye. And then I proceed to sneak the window back open little by little until Gogo notices again. You’d think that Gogo, in her leather jacket and ski cap, would WANT the window open, but you’d be wrong.

Withholding information. In my Cross-Cultural Communication class in college we talked about high-context and low-context cultures and I don’t really remember what that means but I’m pretty sure it explains the things Swazis don’t tell me. For example, my chief is apparently the regional Something Important for NERCHA (National Emergency Response Committee for HIV/AIDS) and is so important that he was asked to speak at the biggest World AIDS Day event in the country. Does he tell me this? No. But he may have denied it even if I had specifically asked…it’s what one of the Baylor doctors jokingly called the “Swazi no.” It doesn’t actually mean “no,” it means ask again with slightly different words. Or maybe the same exact words. I understand getting a “Swazi no” to questions like “Are you sexually active?” (that’s actually just lying) but I don’t understand how there is confusion when I ask something like “Are there peer educators in the community?” There are. And the woman I asked had, in fact, trained them. And she told me “no.”

Like/Love. In siSwati there is no distinction between the words “like” and “love,” which I think is closely related to the me-getting-hit-on-all-the-time problem. Last week I was sitting on a bus next to a man with no legs (yes, this is true) who asked my name and then promptly began confessing his love to me. As usual, I tried explaining the difference between love and lust, and telling him that I didn’t love him. I don’t know how to explain the difference to someone who “tsandzas” carrots in the same way that he “tsandzas” his wife since there’s no such thing as love in siSwati. (Really, though, I think the root of the inappropriate sexual comments and marriage proposals that I get constantly on the bus, etc., is that women in Swaziland don’t go to bars. In America bars are designated places to say inappropriate things to women, but since there’s no designated place to hit on women in Swaziland men just do it everywhere.)

Flies. You know when you see those Save the Children commercials with starving Ethiopian children and there are flies crawling all over their faces and you wonder why they don’t swat them away? It’s because African flies are exceptionally fearless and I could spend all day swatting them away from my face. It’s so bad that sometimes one will land on my spoonful of food on the short journey between the bowl and my mouth, and I don’t notice until it’s in my mouth. They also really like my headlamp, which is fun when I use the latrine at night and I end up with dead flies in my hair. (Hey, I never said Peace Corps was sexy.)

Destruction of property. Perhaps this comes from never owning anything nice, but Swazis don’t seem to be able to take care of anything. For example, when I hang my clothes over the barbed wire fence and it gets a little hole in it from flapping in the wind, I take a needle and thread and fix it before it turns into a big hole. My family thinks I’m crazy. They prefer to just ignore it until the hole is so large that they can breastfeed through it. Or how when I made a cute dog bowl for Bokhi with glitter glue pens (Secret Santa gift) and a peanut butter tub and it was destroyed within 10 minutes of being put outside. Not just the glitter glue scraped off, they had stabbed a hole in it. A water bowl with a hole in it serves no purpose, even if it says “Bokhi” in purple and blue glitter.

Concept of work. This morning I got up at 5:45 and went running, washed all my laundry from the past 2 weeks (by hand), planted green beans, watered my garden, visited the NCP (neighborhood care point) and studied for the GRE. At 6pm my Make comes to my door as I’m reading a novel and says “you are always resting!” What? Nothing I ever do is considered “work” to the women on my homestead because laundry/cooking/gardening are all the expected duties of women and they don’t really understand the exercise or reading part so they ignore it. As far as I’m concerned this has been a busy day, but to them I’m lazy unless I spend 5 hours with a hoe in the ill-fated maize field (hello, drought…all that maize is going to die anyway). And they don’t think I cook, either, because I don’t prepare porridge over an open fire twice a day. On multiple occasions they have come to my house at 6 or 7pm and asked why I’m not preparing dinner. Since they always have porridge for dinner, which takes a few hours to prepare, they don’t understand that a PB&J only takes about 2 minutes of “work.”

Water consumption. Swazis don’t drink water. Ever. When they see me with my Nalgene full of water, they always ask if they can have some juice (“juice” here is flavored sugar water, like Kool-Aid but about 10 times as unhealthy and always orange) and I have to go to great lengths to explain to them that it’s water and, no, I’m not drinking it because I’m out of juice. It’s healthy! One of the American nurses who sometimes works at my clinic said that American blood is actually thinner than Swazi blood (and that of other cultures that don’t drink water) because Americans put so much more fluid in their bodies every day. (I’m supposed to recognize this as a “difference” not as something that Americans do right and Swazis do wrong, but then I’d have to ignore how many babies/children die of dehydration in this country…)

Latrine etiquette/use. Since Swazis never drink water, they hardly ever pee. Even when they do, most people just go on the side of the road or on the side of the house or something, so the only people who ever use the latrine to pee are Gogos and Mkhulus (grandparents), Peace Corps volunteers, and people with TB (frequent urination is a symptom). And when they DO use the latrine for other business, they don’t close the door. If there IS a door. On my homestead there is a crocheted blanket thing hanging over the door of the family’s latrine (I have my own and it has a door) and they will physically hold it open while sitting on the latrine so that they can see out, which is really awkward when I walk by the latrine on the way to my own and my Make insists on having a conversation with me.

Holiday declaration and event planning. Last Monday was a holiday (Incwala), which meant that I had to cancel my meeting for that day and that public transportation wasn’t running as usual. It was a problem for me. It’s easy to not plan things for, say, Christmas day because you know when it is. The Incwala holiday, which is usually the first week of January, came early this year because the king decided to declare it the previous Thursday. And somehow Swaziland managed to put together a big event in the 4 days it had to plan. I don’t get it. But I guess this is how things like our World AIDS Day event happened…Us Americans thought that Friday was too late to start planning an event for Monday, but Swazis are used to it since they have to throw together events whenever the king feels like having a holiday on short notice. I wonder how significant a holiday can really be if it doesn’t commemorate a significant day or at least have something to do with the phases of the moon… (Incwala is actually pretty interesting. It has something to do with the initiation of boys as men and they have to go to Mozambique and get branches from a sacred bush and if it wilts on the journey back then they’re not virgins and then the boys with the unwilted branches have to beat a cow to death with their fists and then they can be in the army. And the king is in seclusion. Or something. Somehow that celebrates men and the first maize harvest.)

Subject-verb agreement. In high school (and in life) I was taught that if the subject of a sentence is plural that the verb needs to be plural, but I don’t think Swazis or South Africans got the message. For example, I hear this on the radio a million times a day: “Your family are celebrating the holidays early this year with the pre-Christmas sale at The Hub.” Or “Mattress Warehouse are having a big sale this weekend.” Or on the sports part of the news they always say things like “The Kaiser Chiefs won its first test match in cricket this afternoon in Durban.” I understand “Kaiser Chiefs” (a soccer team) is a collective noun and technically I guess it’s correct, it just sounds so wrong. (I won’t even get started on how Swazis don’t understand gender-specific pronouns, so “he” and “she” and “him” and “her” are completely interchangeable.)

I think that’s all I have to vent about for now. Things here are going well even though I’m doing basically nothing. This past week we had a going away party for our Country Director, who’s moving to Ethiopia, and I watched a million movies thanks to a sneakily-packed package from my sister Erin. On Tuesday (the 23rd) about half of the group is going to Mozambique for Christmas/New Years, so maybe I’ll have something ridiculous to write about when I get back. (I’m hoping for ridiculous in a good way, not in the “we got escorted to the embassy by a crazy man with an AK-47” way like the group that went last year…but in the defense of the crazy man with the AK-47, he was a cop and just didn’t speak English so he couldn’t explain that they couldn’t take photos of the police station, so he took them to the embassy for translation.) I made 3 dozen chocolate chip cookies for the trip, but of course I had to make a test batch (or 3) to figure out how to use my oven so I’ve basically eaten nothing but cookies for 3 days. That’s a great choice right before the beach…

Anyway, Merry Christmas, etc. and lots of love from the Swaz (Mozambique, actually)!

PS: If you’re looking for something delicious to drink for the holidays you should try “Flirtinis.” Mix equal parts vodka, pineapple juice and pink champagne over ice. It’s delicious, but unless you want to spend the next 2 days removing temporary tattoos from your neck (they said “bling bling” and “balla shot calla”) you should only have one. At least they were temporary.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

If You Would Like to Sponsor a Family

First off, this is Justine's mom writing this blog. I just read her latest post about sponsoring families in her region, but then when I tried to find her community (like she suggested) the Shisizwel/HhoHho Emuva community, it was not listed.
I called Justine and asked her about this and she said her community is currently in the process of completing the paperwork to be signed up and it should be complete soon. She will be talking to the person in charge of it tomorrow (12-11-08) to find out more and then either she or I will post more info on how you can sponsor a specific family in her community.
In the meantime, please feel free to sponsor any of the other families who are greatly in need. Young Heros is a fantastic organization that truly helps the children.

Guess Who's Pregnant!

NOT ME. But didn’t you think for just a second that it was me? Okay, not funny. But add this to the list of Things I’ve learned in Swaziland: dog’s don’t have menopause. At least Swazi dogs don’t because Bokhi, who is approximately 9 years old, is pregnant. That’s like a 60-year-old woman getting pregnant. (Which I guess is not that outrageous since this week a 70-year-old woman in India gave birth.) Also, several times I have seen Gogos (grandmothers) breastfeeding babies that are obviously not theirs (great way to spread HIV, ladies) and according to the Baylor doctors it’s a fairly common practice when a baby’s mother dies or abandons the baby. How does that work? Is Swaziland just a magical land of fertility? Somebody please tell me.

Anyway, the anticipation of new furry friends is pretty much the highlight of my life. A volunteer came to visit this weekend, which was nice and gave me an excuse to make some delicious apple crisp. (It wasn’t really crispy, but I think that’s because he got impatient and made me turn up the temperature so it just burned instead of crisping. Not my fault.) and two other volunteers are coming to visit in the next week to distract me from boredom (and to “do work,” but mostly to distract me). I put up my mosquito net, which I already hate because it disrupts air circulation, but if it keeps me from being awakened by flies crawling on my face in the morning I will keep it up. Work-wise, this week I visited the NCP (neighborhood care point) to play with children (they found a 2 meter long snake outside the NCP shortly before I arrived so all our playing was done inside), attended a meeting conducted entirely in siSwati that I think had something to do with cows and counted thousands of pills (Cotrimoxizole) at the clinic until I was nauseous and covered in a thin white powder. We also have a Youth Conference in Nhlangano, which is essentially a party for youth active in HIV/AIDS-related activities in their communities, but the extent of my participation in that event is that I’m showing up on time and bringing the Rihanna CD for entertainment (thanks Ben!).

Yeah, since school is out I have nothing to do with myself. I guess now I’m finally experiencing the level of boredom that all the other, non-teaching volunteers have been dealing with for the last 6 months. Who knew? But I fill my days with reading, cleaning, talking to the dog and laying on my floor in a swimsuit in an attempt to tan my legs before we go to Mozambique for Christmas. Seriously, I have nothing to do.

In my boredom, I did happen to stumble upon (in a stack of papers in my room) a 2007 report about the status of HIV/AIDS and related efforts in Swaziland. It’s titled “Reviewing ‘Emergencies’ for Swaziland: Shifting the Paradigm in a New Era” and it’s probably available on Google Scholar if you’re interested (by Whiteside, Whalley and Naysmith). The whole thing essentially provides the grim statistics to support the really depressing fact that the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Swaziland has become a normal part of life and therefore isn’t being treated like an “emergency.” When you see the abnormal as normal, you don’t see the problem. Welcome to Swaziland. Here are some facts for you:
· 7,671 people in the world die of AIDS-related infections each DAY and there are currently 38.6 million people worldwide living with HIV; 225,600 of them live in Swaziland
· In Swaziland, HIV prevalence in antenatal clinics increased from 3.9% in 1992 to 42.6% in 2004 (est.), which is the highest prevalence in the world (and it’s increasing)
· Life expectancy in Swaziland has decreased from 60 years (1997) to 31.3 years (2004), and the crude death rate has doubled since the early 1990s
· 47% of children who die under the age of 5 die of HIV/AIDS; 10% die of diarrhea, which is entirely preventable and curable; 12% die of pneumonia
· Shiselweni Region (where I live) has a daily mortality of approximately 1.8/10,000; anything over .85/10,000 is considered an “emergency” by the WHO
· There are 130,000 OVCs (Orphans or Vulnerable Children, includes single and double orphans and those living in households with HIV-positive parents) in Swaziland and 48% of all households are hosting children orphaned by HIV/AIDS (mine hosts 7)
· In 2007, over 400,000 people in Swaziland required emergency food aid (that’s 40% of the population) due to drought or AIDS-related interruptions in agricultural production
· In 2007, 35% of Swazi families reported that they sometimes had to skip meals for an entire day to cope with food shortages; 58% of families reported reducing the number of meals consumed daily and even more said they have reduced portion sizes
· Due to drought and decreased agricultural production, the cattle population of Swaziland has fallen 11% in the last decade with the herds of AIDS-affected families decreasing by 30% (they often have to sell cows to pay for other things like transport to hospital)
· There are approximately 440,000 goats in Swaziland, 15 of which live on my homestead
· There are only 160 licensed doctors in Swaziland (population 1.2 million) and 49% of them work in private practices, making them inaccessible to the majority of the population. Why? Swaziland lacks the technical capacity to train doctors, so 100% of doctors are trained abroad and most never return to Swaziland. (Do you blame them?)

The paper essentially concludes that in Swaziland the HIV/AIDS epidemic has become “normal” and is being accepted as such both within the country and from international agencies, which are primarily designed to respond to short-term emergencies (ie, tsunamis, SARS). It argues that a new international strategy needs to be created to address problems like the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Swaziland, where the virus has effectively reversed all developmental progress made in the past few decades. The economy is collapsing, the age structure is being altered, hundreds of thousands of children are orphaned (and most are now being taken care of by grandparents, who won’t live forever), the workforce has been gutted, the drought is literally starving the country…The UN says it’s a “triple threat” of “a lethal epidemic, deepening food insecurity and a hollowing out of government capacity.” So what do you do?

In reality, there is nothing “normal” about it at all, but the government and other sectors working to fight HIV/AIDS have become overwhelmed with just relieving the symptoms of the epidemic (providing care for people with HIV to prolong their lives so they don’t orphan their children, supporting the orphaned children, providing enough maize meal to fill their bellies) and other short-term goals that they’re just hoping it will get better in the future. There are no concerted efforts aimed at relieving the underlying causes of the epidemic (cultural customs that give girls no choice in sexual relations, economic conditions that force some into prostitution, lack of support from prominent people in the country to get tested for HIV, stigma, the fact that concurrent multiple sexual partners are not only accepted but expected of young men, the high birth rate). And, in fact, I’m part of that effort at alleviating the symptomatic impact of HIV/AIDS (support group, providing food at the NCP, refilling ARVs at the clinic) because where do you even begin to change the big stuff? And do you really let a little boy starve because you want to use the money previously spent on his CSB (Corn-Soya Blend, the most commonly distributed food by the WFP) on some long-term plan to change sexual behavior? But eventually the WFP will stop giving out CSB. Then what? When do we start worrying about that?

On that depressing note, if you’re looking for a good way to spend your money this month (or ever), check out http://youngheroes.org.sz . Young Heroes is an organization started by former Peace Corps Volunteers in Swaziland that provides HIV/AIDS orphans and child-headed households with food, clothing and sponsorship for school fees. Sponsoring a family costs as little as $19.95 per month and I can promise that the money actually goes where they say it does. (And if you decide to sign up, you should comment that you’d like to sponsor a family in Shisizwe/HhoHho Emuva because that’s my community and we’re trying to get them involved here.) And if you’re doing last-minute Christmas shopping, check out Swazi Market (you’ll have to Google that because I lost their business card). They teach various skills (basket-weaving, soap-making, wood carving, fabric dying, jewelry-making, etc.) to widows and others affected by HIV/AIDS and then sell the crafts at international craft fairs and things. And they have some amazingly beautiful things, too.

Or if you want to contribute to the Justine’s Mozambique Vacation Fund, you can do that too. Just kidding. (Kidding on the square, if you will. Al Franken jokes amuse me.)

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Great Trek(s)

So after a whopping 2 days back at my site (during which I ate only bran flakes with raisins, popcorn and spoonfuls of peanut butter and did nothing productive other than walk aimlessly and sweat) I decided I deserved a break. A break from what, I’m not sure, but a break nonetheless.

I began the trek early Wednesday morning with my 50L backpack full of clothes, toiletries, computer, books, DVDs, sleeping bag, etc., and a “bomake bag” (a plastic bag thing with a zipper on it that I use for carrying groceries…like the bags Trader Joe’s sells…but brown with pink and orange paisley on it) with 2 grocery bags of green beans and 4 heads of lettuce from my garden. Despite feeling like a mule, I made it all the way to the PC office in Mbabane by 10am (an impressive feat by all measures) and picked up my very first mini-VAST money (money from PEPFAR) for the support group Saturday. See, I WAS actually working. But that’s where it stops, really. (I DID take a shower at the Peace Corps office, which was the best decision I’ve made in a long time.)

I stayed the night at Brittany’s where we watched Man vs. Wild (the African Savannah episode) so now we know that if we’re ever stranded and really thirsty that we can drink water from elephant dung. I hope I never need to know that. Unfortunately the part about how to avoid being bit by a puff adder might be useful.

The next morning begins my real adventure. We made it to Mbabane by 7 and I got into Manzini even before the Shoprite (grocery store) and the internet cafĂ© opened, so I had plenty of time to stand in the mall and sweat excessively because, turns out, it’s summer here now. I needed to get on a 9am bus to the Jacksons’ house, where us Shiselweni folks (that’s our region) were meeting for Thanksgiving. So it’s 8:45 and I’m sitting on the bus (still sweating…this is a common theme for the day) when the driver kindly informs me and the other people on the bus that he has decided not to drive the bus that day because there aren’t enough people, so could we please get off. Um, okay.

Time for Plan B. I hopped on my usual bus down to Nhlangano so I could meet up with the other girls heading to Jackson’s or at least be stranded closer to home. Since I had so much stuff with me, I decided to ditch the produce in the bomake bag in the storage space under the bus and keep my computer, etc., with me so I wouldn’t be packed into my seat like a big sweaty sardine. And it would have been quite comfortable except that the whole ride down the conductor (aka “tout,” the guy who takes the money and tells the bus driver when and where to stop) sat next to me and pestered me for my phone number. As usual. I was pretty annoyed after 90 minutes of this, so when Mr. Conductor “couldn’t find” my bomake bag under the bus in Nhlangano I just about lost it. He almost had me convinced that someone else had taken it by mistake until he offered his solution: “Just give me your number and I’ll call you when I find it.” So not only was he being shady to get my number, he was also planning on stealing my produce! I got American-style angry and got the driver involved and we finally “found” the bag in a compartment on the other side of the bus, much to the “surprise” of Mr. Conductor. But the real surprise, for me anyway, was that my bag was in the storage compartment with a bird. A large, brown, slightly flattened but not yet smelly, obviously roadkill bird. And I was so relieved to get my bag back that I didn’t really realize until later how weird that was. I would ask him about it next time if I didn’t fear it would be the beginning of 90 minutes of him asking me for my phone number.

Anyway, I made it to Nhlangano with all my produce intact, met up with the other girls and 2.5 extremely dusty hours later we made it to Beth’s. Aside from the fact that I was crunching dirt between my teeth the whole time, the ride wasn’t so terrible. For one it made me appreciate how not desolate-looking my site is. And I guess I’m lucky to never feel like I’m going to puke while driving down my nicely paved road. And there was an extremely drunk guy who was pretty entertaining. First he sat down next to me and asked for 38R to buy a bag of fertilizer for his corn. I told him that maybe next month he should spend his money on fertilizer instead of booze, which he accepted. Then onto “phase two,” as he called it, which was the 10 minute conversation about how he needs a second wife and how he would be choosing one of us to go home with him. At least the harassment has become predictable.

The three of us met up with Beth at her siteshi (bus stop) in the middle of nowhere (where she was waiting with her sisi who was wearing a bathing suit and tights), and she informed us that the “walk” to the Jacksons’ we thought took 45 minutes was actually a “hike” of about 2 hours. Please note that, at this point, I’m wearing a skirt and flip-flops and carrying a really heavy backpack with my computer and a small DVD library in it, and a bomake bag full of lettuce and green beans. Oh, and it’s like 80 degrees outside and really humid and the sun is ridiculous. To make a long, miserable, whiney story short, I have never hiked with a bag of produce before and I would like to never do it ever again. In hindsight I guess I should have just ditched the produce when it became obvious that the lettuce had liquefied (it was running down my legs as I was walking), but I was too stubborn to do that and Beth kept assuring us we were almost there. She also assured us that it was all downhill. Which was true, except for the last 50% which was all uphill. We were so tired we tried to hitch a ride in a truck full of pigs. We probably wouldn’t have smelled any worse than we already did.

Anyway, about 7 hours after I had planned on being there, we finally arrived at the Jacksons’ for Thanksgiving. My lettuce had died and oozed all over the tomatoes. My mangoes had slightly fermented and exploded all over my fancy supposedly mildew-resistant (but not) pillow, and my hand was so bruised and swollen from carrying that stupid bag of produce that I couldn’t get my ring off my finger for 2 days. [Insert more complaining here. Beth was about to kill us.]

And it was totally worth it.

The Jacksons had prepared an absolute feast for us and their host family (16 people total). We had a turkey (they even killed it!), sweet potato casserole with pineapple in it, baked zucchini, corn succotash, stuffing/dressing, black-eyed peas (complete with hambone), spinach, monkey bread, mashed potatoes, deviled eggs, green beans (they were salvageable once we wiped the tomato mush off of them), apple pie, carrot cake, cream cheese pound cake and Grape-o-saurus Kool-Aid. It was delicious. After dinner (which we ate sitting on grass mats outside the house because it was so hot) we hung out in their house with a box of cabernet sauvignon and 150 flies while the Jacksons sang duets to the guitar and we all laughed hysterically at jokes that weren’t really funny. It wasn’t as good as the classic family Thanksgiving at Grandma’s house, but it was a nice approximation of a normal American holiday. Except that I had to hike there in a skirt with 4 heads of lettuce.

After a short night (we stayed up debating the political affiliation of assorted Disney characters and shooting a documentary about the creepy abandoned house we were staying in because Peace Corps makes people crazy) we caught the bus to Nhlangano for a meeting with NERCHA, the National Emergency Response Committee on HIV/AIDS. It was about an event for World AIDS Day, which until the morning of the 28th of November was going to be held on the 6th of December. But this is Swaziland so at the last minute they decided to do it on the 1st (which is actually World AIDS Day) instead of on the 6th, so they were desperate for volunteers (3 days notice) to lead assorted events. I volunteered to be part of the 15k walk from Mahamba border post to the King Sobuza II Memorial Stadium in Nhlangano, which means that after spending IST and half of last week away from my site, I volunteered to be gone for another 3 nights.

After the Saturday morning Shiselweni Regional Youth HIV/AIDS Support Group (for which I wrote the mini-VAST) where we talked about how to deal with stress and then made balloon and flour stress balls without a funnel (which made me think of Maria Full of Grace), me and the other 4 girls spent the entire night in front of the TV at some woman’s house watching American music videos (that new TI and Rihanna video is epic) and, though I am embarrassed to admit it, some Mary Kate and Ashley movie from 2004 about the Salt Lake Olympics or something. But hey, at this point TV is TV and I’ll take what I can get.

Sunday morning Team Shis (that’s me and the other Shiselweni group 6 volunteers) decided to go to church, mostly because the church had been nice enough to let us use their grassy area the previous day for the support group. I don’t go to church back home and I’d only been once in Swaziland so I really didn’t know what to expect, but I actually really enjoyed it. The whole service was in English and there were only about 25 people in the congregation total, including only 2 men. (I think the other men were all at the bar at this point because it’s just after payday.) The first 45 minutes was singing, then there was about 20 minutes of preaching about something or other, then another 15 minutes of singing. Somewhere in there they collected money, and asked people to come forward for “testimony,” where we heard some woman talk about how the devil was calling her to do evil. Overall it was a good experience—I really enjoyed the singing and the hugs after church!—but I couldn’t help but be angry with all the men of Swaziland for not being there. I would really like to work with the churches as a means of disseminating information on HIV/AIDS and decreasing stigma in the communities, but even that seems unlikely when working through the churches would only reach women. How do I reach the men in the community since they have all the real power to change behaviors? It’s so difficult as a woman…

Monday was the main event for World AIDS Day, which involved two separate marches to the stadium in Nhlangano and an afternoon of speakers from various NGOs and government agencies. We spent all of Sunday evening peeling carrots and potatoes with a butter knife (yes, butter knife) for the hundreds of expected walkers the following day, for which we were rewarded with endless hours of music videos and Oprah’s E! True Hollywood Story and other sleep-depriving things at the NERCHA regional director’s house (we have an odd relationship, it seems). The late night made for a rough morning on Monday at 5am when we rolled out of bed and put on our best camp counselor outfits (khaki capris, hiking boots and matching t-shirts), our uniform for the day.

The march was an incredible experience! We started at Mahamba border post (border to South Africa) and marched 15 kilometers (that’s 9.3 miles!) to the stadium, which actually seems more difficult than it was. We started at 8am (we were supposed to start at 7, but it’s Swaziland) and marched until about 11:30, at which point we joined up with the other march (it was only about 3 kilometers) and entered the stadium. The whole time we were led by the Swazi Army’s marching band, which made for some fantastic dancing and some amazing photos (I’ll post them when I get to Mbabane) and an all-around good time. Monday night my legs were ridiculously sore, but it was nice to be a part of such a vocal group of people who believe in HIV/AIDS education and activism. There were about 300 people who marched with us from Mahamba, and over 2000 who attended the event at the stadium, though I’m sure many of them were only there for the free food at the end. The day’s event was pretty standard for Swaziland: speakers, dramas, singing, lots of impatience in the crowd. The usual. It was all in siSwati so it wasn’t very useful to me, but I was amazed to see that the VCT (voluntary counseling and testing) mobile units had lines hundreds of people long, which is really encouraging. And also discouraging, I guess, because so many people wanted to be tested but instead spent the whole day waiting in lines. But, in the end, I walked away with a nice farmer tan, sore legs, and a CD of breastfeeding-inspired songs courtesy of the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation and UNICEF, which I’m pretty excited to listen to.

So, for the Cliff’s Notes version: it’s summer in the Swaz so it’s hot, I walk a lot, Thanksgiving was amazing, lettuce does not survive a 2 hour hike in a bomake bag, only women go to church, I’ll gladly peel endless carrots in exchange for a cold bath, music videos are amazing and it takes about 3.5 hours to cover 15 kilometers of road on foot when led by the Swazi Army’s marching band.

That's all. Happy belated World AIDS Day.