Thursday, July 30, 2009

Billboard at the Bus Rank

At the Manzini bus rank there is a billboard that says "Thinking about raping a child today? Think twice of the consequences." And I think it's terrible, because what if somebody wasn't actually thinking of raping a child but they were inspired by this sign? More seriously, it's terrible because it even has to be said.

And I almost got arrested for taking this picture because apparently there was a policeman watching me do it and he came over and questioned me about it and thought I was some kind of terrorist. That's likely.

Losing friends and painting things

You know how you can tell when you’re halfway through your Peace Corps service? Half of your friends will be replaced with complete strangers. It’s kind of traumatic, really. Some people use alcohol to cope with such losses. I paint.

Here’s a brief summary of my life since the 17th:
--My closest Group 5 volunteer, Deja, completed her Peace Corps service and returned to the US, leaving a giant hole in my life. We had a big going away night out for her, but didn’t end up going to the place with the lights under the floor because somebody had gotten stabbed there the previous night and for some reason nobody else wanted to go. Instead we went to this club called Café de Flore, which I really like except that nobody can pronounce it properly. There’s an accent on the last “e,” meaning that it should be pronounced “Floor-ay.” But everyone calls it “Café de Floor,” which is not correct. If you’re going to ignore accents, at least be consistent and call it “Caff de Floor” because you might as well be completely wrong. Anyway, it was fun.

--I also lost my Norwegian friend, Linda, to the great beyond. She was only here for 5 weeks, but hopefully she’ll be coming back at least to visit before I leave. She introduced me to Michele and Peter at Pasture Valley Farm/Children’s Home, which I’m very grateful for, and agreed with me wholeheartedly about the pronunciation of Café de Flore.

--On the 25th, we had the July meeting of the Shiselweni Region Youth Support group. The topic for the month was “finding your talent,” which was a lesson on how not everyone is good at everything, but everyone is good at something. We put it in the context of how you shouldn’t drop out of school just because you’re bad at math, but you should try harder in the subjects you ARE good at. To demonstrate, each of the facilitators (me, Jaclyn and Jenn) picked two talents to demonstrate and to have each of the kids try. Jenn taught them two yoga poses and a headstand, which I can’t do. Jaclyn showed them how good she is at drawing and dancing, but I was the only one to join in with the dancing and everyone else just stared at us. Then I taught them how to sing “I Like to Eat Apples and Bananas” and made them all sing with me and then I showed off how strong I was by lifting 8 of them at the same time (two on my legs, one on my shoulders, one on my back, two on my hips and two I lifted with my arms). And then I was sore for days. Then we took the papers from our drawing and made paper airplanes, which we raced. Nobody really won because it was really windy and the planes kept going behind us, but it was a good time.

--I’ve been hanging out at Pasture Valley a bit these past few weeks. Michele and Peter have opened the new orphanage and taken in the first four boys, but there are plans to remodel and clean up the house before it reaches its full capacity of ten. We’re also turning one of the previous bedrooms into a pre-school, which will serve the handful of kids who aren’t yet in school. So far, Linda, Jenn and I have stripped the wallpaper off the walls and painted three of the walls yellow. Then we ran out of paint, so I’m going to do the last wall a light blue color, despite Linda objecting to the use of the colors of Sweden. Then we’ll be painting the letters of the alphabet with a corresponding picture (A for apple, B for banana, etc, as inspired by the preschool we visited in Lamu, which I would post a photo of except my computer crashed and I lost those photos) and the numbers 1-10 and colors and shapes. Then, hopefully, we can get a small chalkboard or dry erase board or something. I’m pretty excited about it.

--After I finish the maps at Florence (they’re almost done, I just need a new marker to finish the borders between countries!), I’ll also be painting a world map and Swazi map at Pasture Valley because, well, I like painting. I find it relaxing. Except the part where I have a crowd of Swazi school children standing a foot behind me, keeping a running commentary on my every move.

--In other news, I’m getting increasingly irritated by two conversations I am CONSTANTLY having with Swazis. (1) When I sit on the ground or put my bag on the ground or do anything related to the ground, people tell me I’m getting dirty. Duh. I know that. If I’m sitting in the dirt, I expect to get dirty. I obviously just don’t care. Dirt brushes off, people. Much more easily, in fact, than the irritation caused by you telling me something that is so obvious. (2) Today a man told me that I was so fat I had to be at least 35. A few weeks ago, a woman told me I was getting so fat even my nose was getting bigger. Really, Swaziland? First of all, weight is not an indication of age. Second, on any given kombi I am NOT the fattest person. Third, I’ve LOST weight since I’ve been here. Seriously though, I get comments all the time like “you are so big, I guess you don’t share your food” or “you must be eating well because you are so fat.” Yes, I know I’m not malnourished. Thanks.

--Also, my school has already dismissed for the term. Three weeks early. They’re supposed to be in session until the 14th of August, but they dismissed last week, which means I have nothing to do. But last term they dismissed a whole month early, so I guess this is an improvement. It’s not just my school, though, which is the frightening part. I honestly don’t know when Swazi school children learn things.

And, because my brain isn’t really up to making cohesive thoughts, here’s a look at my future:

--This weekend is Bushfire Music Festival, which is an annual music event held at House on Fire to benefit a local organization. This year, proceeds will go to Young Heroes, an organization that I have TRIED to work with in the past to get scholarships for primary students whose parents can’t afford school fees. Hopefully after Bushfire they’ll have more resources to work with and they can sponsor a few kids in my community. Either way, it should be a good time. But it’s also my last opportunity to party with Nicole in the Swaz, which is pretty sad. Monday there will be yet another hole in my world.

--Despite the fact that I’ve been excited for Bushfire for the past year, I still couldn’t find the guts to say “no” to my boss when she asked me to take part in an event in the very north of the country on Saturday morning. After 7 or so weeks of training, the new trainees are FINALLY getting their permanent site placements on Saturday morning, and me and two other volunteers will be presenting their sites to them. It’s supposed to be creative (last year, we were given boarding passes and fake passports for the places where we were going and then escorted to our destinations on a giant map by a volunteer dressed as a flight attendant), so we’re giving out “free trips” to an “exotic destination” within Swaziland. We’re making a brochure with info from the Lonely Planet and then including photos of homesteads and stuff and then tailoring each one to the name of the community and the region. Then, I think we’ll make them luggage tags that list their permanent residence in the community where they’re going. It’s kind of frightening, though, to think of my Peace Corps service as 730 days and 729 nights in Shisizwe, Swaziland.

--It might actually be scarier to think that I’m more than half-way through those 730 days, though. The GRE is rapidly approaching on the 19th of August, which is forcing me to think about my future in the real world. Grad school! Ahhhhhhhhh!

--Also, Bokhi is in heat again and, short of barricading her inside my house while I’m gone, I’m not sure how to prevent her from getting pregnant. Not good. I see more puppies in my future. But this time I’m NOT keeping any of them. One devil dog is enough.

That’s all for now. I have an article to write for the Peace Corps journal for Swaziland, which is due tomorrow and I haven’t started yet. And I have to pack for my impending journey to Pasture Valley/the office/training/Bushfire/town. It’s going to be a fantastic week.

Love from the Swaz!

My family! Baby Mpendulo, Make Sibongile and my bosisi (sisters) Zandile and Londiwe. They were all camping out on the grass mat to avoid cooking dinner.

The paper airplane contest at the Support Group meeting. Our attendance this month was only 11 because we don't have money to reimburse transport, but we're submitting all sorts of proposals to try to get our funding back. (Except that I have now lost the most recent copy of the proposal because my computer sucks.)

This is what happens to anything left on the floor in my house.

My sisi Londiwe braiding my Gogo's (Grandma's) hair outside the kitchen. She has really short dreads, but she always keeps her hair covered up because she's married so this is basically the first time I've ever seen her hair.

Image and Anele watched me from their seats on the ladder. Every time I accidentally chipped away some cement instead of the wallpaper, they said "oooh, make will beat you!" But she didn't. So ha.

Image and Sandile (one of the new boys) were trying to help me remove the wallpaper from the wall. They did a surprisingly good job, too, and managed not to chop their fingers off with the putty knife.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Things I'll Never Understand, People Who Restore My Faith in Humanity

In one of my classes this week we were discussing the sources of support for people living with HIV. I was fishing for the answer “church” so I gave the hint “your family probably does this every Sunday.” Aside from the one that responded with “bath,” the class shouted “funerals!” Not what I was looking for, but that’s probably true. In the Shiselweni Region (where I live), there are approximately 5 deaths per 1000 PER DAY, giving Shiselweni the highest HIV-related death rate of any place in the world, according to the WHO. After a while, it’s hard to ignore.

But, for some people in Swaziland, it’s not only ignored, but denied. This past week, a man who I’ll call “David” died. As usual, I asked those who knew him what he died from. It’s always interesting to hear how people decide to dance around the actual culprit, HIV. And this was no exception.

First, I talked to his brother, who I work with at one school. His brother told me that he had been sick for many years but, even though his wife was on ARVs, he refused to test for HIV because he was a Christian and thought that God would protect him. Then, after he became so weak he could not walk, he finally went to the hospital for testing. He tested positive for HIV, but it was YEARS too late for help, so the nurses sent him home to die. Which he did. (Incidentally, I was leaving the clinic when he showed up so I know that this version of the story is true.)

Then, I talked to his cousin, who I teach with at another school. She said that he died of “muti,” which is a kind of pseudo-witchcraft or voodoo-type black magic that people use to speed up karma for people they feel have wronged them. It’s usually a powder that is cursed in a certain way by a sangoma, or witch-doctor, and then placed over the doorway to the victim’s house or over the path where the victim walks frequently, and it brings bad fortune to only that person for whom it is intended. But it takes a long time to work so it’s kind of a long-term investment. Anyway, apparently David left his wife about 8 years ago for a girlfriend, leaving his wife with children to feed and no income. To win over the girlfriend, he also took a lot of things from his first wife (money, cattle, food, etc.). So, naturally, the wife was angry. After David made it clear that he wasn’t coming back, the wife went to a sangoma—and most likely paid a ridiculous fee—to put a curse on him with “muti.” Thus, he fell ill about 5 years ago and finally, this week, succumbed to the “muti.”

So, I asked her if David had been tested for HIV. She said she knew that he didn’t have HIV, but then when they took him to the hospital right before he died, he did test positive for HIV.

“So he had HIV, then?” I asked.

“No,” she answered, “it was a special curse in the muti that made him test positive so that nobody would blame the wife.” She continued to tell me about how somebody cursed her with muti, too, and she was sick for 7 years and now she is fine because she found God. She said that the people at the hospital told her she had HIV, but she knows that she has never done anything to get HIV so she knows it was just the muti. Now that she is a Christian she doesn’t have HIV, but she hasn’t tested to be sure because that would be equivalent to doubting her faith. “But if I had HIV, my blood would be thick and black, and it’s not.”

What??? OR he died of AIDS and the girlfriend and their children should also be tested. I’m frustrated by several of the details in this story. (1) He didn’t get tested for HIV because he was a good Christian and assumed that God would protect him. First of all, good Christians don’t commit adultery, which is a pretty big sin as far as the Commandments are concerned. Second, it’s ignorant to believe that God will protect even the most devout of Christians. God has nothing to do with HIV. (2) His wife is HIV-positive and on ARVs, and she’s being blamed for cursing him with muti! He probably GAVE her HIV! (3) It’s not uncommon for men to wait until the last possible moment to visit the clinic, but this man had undoubtedly visited a traditional healer or two to sort out his 5 years of illness. When I was studying in Durban, there was an initiative in Zululand to educate traditional healers on the symptoms of HIV and to encourage traditional healers to refer patients to the clinic, or even for them to be provided with expertise and materials to test for HIV. I think this should be done in Swaziland as well. (4) The woman telling me about the muti is a well-educated woman who went to nursing school in the US (before becoming a teacher) who preaches to me the gospel of the Book of Mormon every time I see her. I’m pretty sure Mormons don’t believe in witchcraft. And I’m pretty sure a nurse should understand the concept of a virus and the fact that it can’t be put into your blood by a witch-doctor and that it wouldn’t change the color or consistency of her blood. And, oh yeah, if you test positive for HIV, it means you HAVE HIV. And the only thing you have to do to get HIV is have sex, and she has two kids so she’s obviously had sex. (5) I’m angry at whatever crackpot pastor she undoubtedly paid to “cure” her of her HIV with his “faith” because he’s not only cheating naïve people out of their money, he’s also telling people that it’s un-Christian to test for HIV. Thanks, jerk, for giving me material for an entire lesson about false promises and fake cures!

I just can’t get over the fact that in a place where HIV-related death is so common, and where nearly half the population of the community is infected with HIV, people are still making excuses and ignoring the fact that people are dying of AIDS. I just hope that, by the end of my service, all of my students understand that HIV is a virus without a cure and that if you get HIV you will die of AIDS. And I hope they also realize that there are ways to prevent HIV infection that they should be mindful of, but if they DO end up with HIV that it’s not the end of the world and they can still lead productive lives. What seemed so simple a year ago, turns out, is NOT.

Anyway, my life is not ALL frustration. Remember those three kids who were living alone in the neighboring community who I was trying to help out with food, sanitation, shelter, etc.? Well through a friend of a friend, I think I found them three spots in an orphanage! (Nothing is DEFINITE yet, but I’m certainly optimistic.) The orphanage, called Pasture Valley (I think), is run by a woman named Michelle and her husband Peter on their farm near Nhlangano. They currently have 14 kids (including one TINY baby) in one house, but they’re about to open another house for 10 more. Last Thursday, Michelle and a police officer/social worker (and this Norwegian named Linda who is staying on the farm for a few weeks) came out and interviewed the oldest girl about moving to the orphanage, and if the mother is successfully tracked down (she disappeared and nobody knows where her new homestead is) and agrees to consent to the move, the kids will have a fantastic future full of food, shelter, love and school. Quite a change from their current situation.

On Saturday, I went out to Michelle and Peter’s farm to hang out with Linda, visit the orphanage and take a shower, and I was overwhelmingly impressed with the whole operation (the shower included). When I arrived in the late morning, all of the kids—Michelle and Peter’s kids included—were busy doing their daily chores on the farm, which is the source of funding for the kids school fees and other costs associated with the orphanage. (I don’t mean for it to sound like slave labor…the chores the kids do are probably less than would be expected of them living on the average Swazi homestead, and those kids who have too much homework to do their chores are excused during the week.) After taking their horse, Blitz, out for a ride, Linda and I stopped into the orphanage, where all of the kids live with a house mother named Constance. While Make Constance bottle-fed 2-week-old Grace, we talked about how the orphanage is run, where the kids come from (three from my community, apparently) and how much she loves all of the kids. Having been before in some pretty institutional orphanages, I was amazed to see how much of a HOME that house was to those kids, and how much everyone on the farm treated them like family. Because that’s what they are, really.

In the afternoon, we had a birthday party for one of the little boys, Bonkhosi, who was turning 6 (but looked like he was 3). Michelle had planned a party more extravagant than any I’ve attended in Swaziland, but that doesn’t mean much. (And, remember, she has to do this 16 times a year.) After a fabulous rendition of “Happy Birthday,” Bonkhosi opened presents (a Ken doll, Frisbee, toy cell phone and a new sweater) and all the kids pigged out on popcorn, cake, cookies, Twizzlers, sweets and apples. Then, to burn all of that off, we had orange-on-the-spoon races and played duck-duck-goose and then settled in for a double feature of “Open Season 2” and some romantic comedy intended for 9-year-olds. Then, after the 6-hour birthday party, we had a FEAST of a braai (sausage, steak, cole slaw, salad, stir fry, and a million other things, with wine!), followed by a session of guitar-accompanied performances of songs like “Bye, Bye Love” and “Norwegian Wood,” which is the strangest song ever. Good clean fun for the whole family! And hopefully the three kids I’ve been working with will be added to that family.

It was a fabulous weekend and I can’t wait to spend more time at the farm. Michelle invited me to come out and paint a world map on the side of the second orphanage house, which I eagerly agreed to do. And she agreed to help pay school fees for my neighbor, Hlengiwe, when she starts school next year if her family is still unable to pay for it (because despite my begging, the school said it’s too late to register a new student this year). It’s so refreshing to meet genuinely NICE people who actually CARE about others and DO something about it! Amazing.

In other news, Mpendulo/Noah is doing well. I don’t really know much about him except that he sleeps a lot and dirties a lot of nappies (diapers) that his mother spends all day washing in rotation since she only has 4. And he’s always bundled up like a snowman with TWO hats on, which makes him look about 6 times his actual size. And sometimes he cries in the middle of the night and I wake up even though he’s in the next house, which is strange because I’m not a mother. Maybe next week I’ll get to know him better.

Also, I have a new roommate. Every night this week, after I turned off the light and the radio (after the top 9 at 9, of course) I thought I heard scurrying about, but, after repeated missions with the flashlight, I convinced myself that I was imagining it. Until Thursday morning when I woke up to find dainty little nibbles taken out of each of my 4 tomatoes that were specially designated for my Thursday morning omelet. Further investigation revealed nibbles in my lone moldy onion and a small nest of nibbled-off and relocated coloring book in the corner behind my leftover paint bucket. So, naturally, I grabbed my vermin-killing stick (previously the black-mamba-whacking-stick) and a flashlight and set about turning my house upside down to scare out all nibbling, coloring book stealing creatures of the night. Much to my surprise, I found him with my very first poke of the stick and he came leaping out towards me in an attempt to escape. At which point, obviously, I screamed and the whole family gathered outside my hut to witness the stupid white person with the headlamp and stick running around her house like a crazy person, mumbling about “ingundwane lenkhulu” (big rat)! Finally, Mkhulu (Grandpa) came to my rescue and somehow, despite his hysterical laughter, was able to find the critter and chase him out of the house. He ran into a hole in the side of the kitchen hut, which was immediately filled with mud. I thought that would kill him, but no. Thursday night, again, I was kept awake by the rummaging and squeaking and general rustling of the rat. Friday morning I tried, to no avail, to chase him out of my house. I even tried trapping him in a bucket with a tub of peanut butter as bait. But he lives on. My family thinks I'm crazy for caring, though, because complaining about a rat in your house is about like complaining about the dirt on the floor.

This weekend, Linda and I are heading up to Mbabane to send off my nearest and dearest volunteer, Deja, to re-join the real world in the United States of America. We’ll be going to this new dance club where they have a glass dance floor with lights under it, which I’m pretty excited about. (The only thing that could make the place more exciting would be A&W root beer on tap or a jumping castle.) Then next week I’m skipping actual work to teach the new volunteers how to teach in Swazi schools, which I hope I’m not too cynical about. Then next Saturday is the July meeting of the Shiselweni Region Youth Support Group, then Bushfire music festival and sending off Nicole. Then I will retreat to my hut for the next year because my two favorite people in Swaziland will have left me for the great beyond.

Anyway, that’s all. I leave you with the few photos I happened to have on my camera when my evil computer spontaneously erased its hard drive last week. Including photos of my new and improved brown hair. Everyone says I look better as a brunette, which makes me sad for the previous 22 years of my hair. Oh well.

Love from the Swaz!

Mkelo and Hle wearing my clothes. I rolled up Mkelo's one pantleg and then told him he was a gangster and he went around the house saying "I'm a gangster," which was pretty hilarious. This is what happens when I leave my dirty clothes on my floor.

Me (with brown hair) and baby Mpendulo. He's about a week old here. I have also learned that 2800 grams is about 6 pounds, so he's about 6 pounds here.

The neighbor boy and Hlenigwe with my bags. They fill them up with pillows and papers and things and then head out on a trip around the homestead. When they get back, they tell me in siSwati all about their trip and bring me back "gifts" like rocks and pieces of paper they found. And then Gogo yells at them for dirtying up my bags, but I don't really care.

My exercise bike. Yeah, how hardcorps of me.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

My bhuti Mkelo using my computer. Or rather pretending to use my computer. Or rather typing random words like e;lkupoiu into the middle of important documents that I'm writing. I've taught most of the kids the basics of typing, limited mostly to typing their own names. But it's a start.

Recently, paper airplane-making has been replaced with mask-making, which is really amusing except that then there are lots of eye-hole scraps to sweep up off my floor. The dog particularly loves the masks.

The girls at our June support group meeting having their oranges after the lesson.

Bokhi and her 3D mask from Glamour. I'm not sure what a 3D mask does for a one-eyed dog.

Mshana Wami!!

On Tuesday afternoon, after a lovely day filled with thwarted attempts at teaching, I came home to finish “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien and, of course, promptly fell asleep. Three hours later, my dream (nightmare?) about Christmas shopping with Lil Wayne was rudely interrupted by a bunch of children jumping on me screaming about “umfana” (boy). Yes, after LITERALLY a month of waiting, the much-anticipated Mpendulo Noah Khumalo has FINALLY come home! And he’s adorable!!
He was apparently born by cesarean at 9:00am on 30 June and weighed 2800 grams, which doesn’t make any sense to me but that’s what his little card says. (To me, that means he weighs as much as 2800 paper clips because we were always told that a paper clip weighed a gram, but I can’t fathom 2800 paper clips so I don’t know.) Though there’s still a chance that he contracted HIV in the first few months of the pregnancy before his mom started taking ARVs, he appears to be healthy. And he’s definitely well-loved.

I talked to his mother, Tsakisile Monica, for a little bit while I fed Mpendulo and I was SO happy to learn that she has been fully-educated on ways to reduce the risk of HIV transmission to the baby. Apparently, in South Africa (where the baby was born), an HIV-positive mother gets a free 6-month supply of baby formula if she sits through a counseling session on the importance of proper breastfeeding or formula feeding to reduce the risk of HIV transmission. We talked about how she’s going to face stigma from the community because she’s chosen to bottle-feed Mpendulo (it’s un-Swazi!), but she said that his life is more important to her than what her community thinks of her. Besides, she and everyone else in my family are fairly open about their HIV-positive status so the stigma will be nothing new.

Right now, if he was tested for HIV, Mpendulo would definitely test positive because his mother is positive, but that doesn’t mean that he actually has HIV. Basically, the normal test for HIV (“rapid test”) only tests for HIV-related antibodies in the blood, essentially measuring the body’s immune response to the virus. Thus, because immunity is passed from mother to child in the womb, Mpendulo was born with the same antibodies that are currently fighting off the virus in his mother’s body. On the rapid test, babies test false positive for about 18 months after birth, but there’s another test, called a “DBS” (dry blood spot) that they can do to determine before then. The DBS tests for “viral load,” or the number of viruses in the body per microliter of blood, and is considered reliably accurate from one month after birth. Mpendulo will have a DBS test on 4 August, but until then all we can do is wait. While we’re obviously hoping for a negative test, if it happens to be positive the baby could start ARVs as early as August and he’ll take them for the rest of his life. I’ll keep you posted.

In other news, I spent Thursday afternoon in Nsingizini with a social worker, police officer and a woman who is opening an orphanage near Nhlangano. We were interviewing the child-headed household I’d worked with previously (three kids, ages 13, 7 and 4) to see if they would be a good fit for the last 3 spots in the orphanage. I’m not sure EXACTLY what was determined, but the police have been sent out to find the children’s mother (she’s still alive, just abandoned them) so that she can give consent to move them, which is promising. Today (Saturday) I’m going to stay the night at the farm where the orphanage is, so hopefully I’ll know more.
In the meantime, I think that’s all. My hard drive died last week, so I don’t have any photos to post besides those already on my flash drive, but most of the others are backed up on my external (which I forgot to bring today).

Advice for anyone joining the Peace Corps: bring an external hard drive. Even if you are bringing a computer. Maybe ESPECIALLY if you’re bringing a computer. Traveling mysteriously kills hard drives. That’s twice now for me. Excellent.
Anyway, that’s all for now. I have a 9am date with fried chicken and a farm full of kids. Dream come true.
Love from the Swaz!!

Friday, July 3, 2009

The Great Exercise Bike Adventure and Other Stories Involving Meat

Nothing about my life in Swaziland is “normal” as I would have defined it a year ago, but every once in a while I experience something that is so extraordinarily abnormal that it surprises even me. It all started on Friday afternoon with a delicious frozen shrimp cocktail (which I plan to repeat this weekend), fully-clothed swimming in an unheated pool and an intense game of 30 Seconds (like Taboo) in a house full of more shiny things than I’d ever seen in my whole life. Saturday I witnessed the tattooing of my friend’s entire arm, watched the Springbok-Lions game (Springboks won, of course), ate cold Big Macs brought to me from Durban by some friends, learned how to play snooker (in theory), got rear-ended by a drunk driver (nobody but the car was hurt) and got to spend the evening in the freezing cold police station filing witness reports and listening to a drunk man rant about how in 2010 all white people are going to die and black people will take over the world. (What about brown people?)

Then came the Great Exercise Bike Adventure. On Saturday, I’d met this 46-year-old Afrikaner guy named Peter who was a friend of a friend (Stephen) and was planning a trip down to my neck of the woods to finalize the purchase of a large farm first thing Monday morning. Jokingly, I asked if he wanted to transport me and my exercise bike down to Hluti on his trip. And he agreed. (Note: I usually wouldn’t agree to go on an adventure with a complete stranger, but the guy who introduced us owns the school I work at and knows me pretty well, if mostly by reputation, and I have his nephews in my classes. All the white people in this country know each other.) So, after an initial adventure trying to find the office with my limited navigational skills (I only know the kombi routes), me, Peter and Stephen loaded the bike into the back of an American-made steering-wheel-on-the-left Chevy pick-up (oddity #1) and began the journey down South. We made a pit stop at a glass factory. Then at Peter’s house in Matsapha to exchange vehicles to ANOTHER Chevy pick-up, this one with a really awesome 4x4 (a Polaris Ranger if you know what that is) loaded into the back. Then to get some breakfast. Then, because I’d never been to Matata before, we took the scenic route through the Lubombo region so that I could experience the strange but magnificent shopping center in the middle of nowhere, complete with the only WiFi coffee shop in Swaziland. Then, because it was just past 10am, it was time for another meal. And what do you eat at 10am in Swaziland? Meat, of course! We went to Nisela Game Reserve and, after a brief trip in the 4x4, had gigantic T-bone steaks for breakfast #2 (and another for take-away because I liked it so much). Then, to make a long story short, I spent the afternoon at Maloma coal mine checking diesel pumps for accurate output (they were charging for 2.8L when they only put out 2.0L) while wearing a really awesome orange vest with reflectors on it. Then, after the Chevy truck broke down repeatedly we took the 4x4 through the sites of long-lost Group 6 volunteers (I wasn’t driving and I WAS wearing a seatbelt and there were roll-bars), and through the grounds of the farm Peter was buying. After meeting up with a bunch of senior citizens, we knocked down a small forest with the 4x4 and a machete, then went on a hike through an acacia forest (BIG thorns!) for the sole purpose of destroying my jeans, flip-flops and forearms. Then, about 5 kilometers from the farm house, we broke a fan belt and had to make a lengthy hike through the mountains to fetch the previously-broken-down truck to haul the 4x4, which we had to LIFT into the back of the truck because it wouldn’t move. (Did I mention it was like 80 degrees that day?) Then Peter and Stephen drove my much-deserved exercise bike to my house, bringing to an end what was perhaps the most random day of my life.

After taking a day to recover from the aftermath of the hike through the acacia forest, the exercise bike began to transform my life. Now, I can spend my whole day watching episode after episode of Grey’s Anatomy while cycling at a very slow pace and not feel lazy! And that’s exactly what I did for most of the week. On Tuesday and Wednesday (after teaching in the mornings) I watched the first two complete seasons of Grey’s and cycled about 50 kilometers. Then I watched “The Excruciatingly Boring Case of Benjamin Button” (maybe that’s not what it’s called…) and “The Reader” and “Flashdance” and “Surf’s Up” and a bunch of other movies, averaging about 20 kilometers a day. This week I’ve cut back to a more reasonable 15k a day, but MAN I’m happy to have something to do with myself for all the hours I previously spent sitting around listening to East Coast Radio and feeling useless. Meanwhile, my family thinks I’m crazy for putting all this energy into pedaling a bike that doesn’t move. And maybe I am.

In other news, we had our June meeting of the Shiselweni Region Youth Support Group, where we focused on Flu/Cold Season. Because our translator didn’t show up, I put on a rather dramatic one-man-show about proper and improper sneezing and coughing, which involved lots of me fake-sneezing on Deja’s face. Then all the kids, with a rather scared look in their eyes, demonstrated their understanding of my lesson. Cool! Then we dragged a lady out of the pre-school to translate for us and we taught a lesson on proper nutrients to “protect the body,” including oranges and other sources of Vitamin C. Finally, I did a great demonstration on the transfer of germs by covering my hands in cooking oil and cinnamon (to represent the germs) and then shaking hands with people. Then I demonstrated how to properly wash hands (warm water and soap for at least 30 seconds), complete with a lesson on “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” so that they could sing it while they were washing. After they all demonstrated proper hand washing (and were all convinced of my insanity), we gave them oranges for a snack and played some games like duck-duck-goose, which they translate as “da-da-goosh.” A good time was had by all. And, for the first time since not having funding, we had a pretty normal turn-out of 35 kids. Maybe they’re in it for the education, after all! Funding for the Support Group is still pending, but until then all snacks are purchased by the Justine Foundation.

After the Support Group meeting, we all headed back to Make Simelane’s house on the outskirts of Nhlangano for a braai, which is where people get together and drink beer and eat meat. Except Make Simelane and her husband are both pastors, so we drank Crystal Light instead. All of the volunteers in the Shiselweni Region were invited, and we spent the afternoon preparing a million fantastic side dishes: potato salad, pasta salad, cole slaw, vegetable platter with ranch dip, homemade tortilla chips, guacamole, Doritos, homemade salsa, peanut butter cookies, apple crisp, fudge, etc. Then, thanks to my one prior meat grilling experience, I was nominated to be in charge of the meat, which had been soaking up sweet chili sauce all day in the fridge. We had a million chicken pieces, 7 huge steaks and a large quantity of boerwors (like bratwurst except 4 feet long), all of which I cooked to perfection while everyone else sat on the warm couch and watched the Springboks beat the British and Irish Lions (rugby). And let me say, nothing ruins a plan to wear the same clothes for 3 days like the strong scent of wood smoke. Haha. All things considered, it was a pretty fantastic feast. Almost of Thanksgiving proportions. And then, since I spent my weekly budget on meat, I spent the rest of the week eating things like hardboiled eggs, cinnamon toast and mayonnaise sandwiches. I think I might have a heart attack.

But, have no fear: I have every intention of single-handedly consuming 60 previously frozen shrimp on Friday evening to compensate. I may even dip them in the cheese sauce the “shrimp cocktail” includes. Seriously, cheese sauce.

This weekend should be pretty fantastic, though. Friday afternoon I’m heading to Manzini for a meeting, then to Mbabane for the evening. After I’m finished with my shrimp, we’ll be going out for one last hurrah with Deja before she leaves us for the real world. Then Saturday morning we’re heading up to Pigg’s Peak, Home of All Africa Poker (that’s their slogan), to meet all the new Group 7 Volunteers. From the few volunteers who have met them I’ve learned a few details. There are 33 of them, including 7 married couples and lots of people who are retired and in their mid-60s. Apparently they’re really experienced in health, really motivated to help people and really excited about being in Swaziland. And that’s about the extent of what I know until the braai on Saturday. It seems kind of wrong to have a Swazi-style braai to celebrate American Independence Day. Maybe if I opt out of the maize meal porridge I can convince myself that I’m in America.

Other than that, my work continues as usual. This week I taught my Form 2 and Form 4 students about the “Holistic Approach to HIV Treatment,” which includes spiritual, physical, general, social and psychological health. First, we looked through newspaper classifieds for traditional healers, herbalists, Chinese healers and various other ads promising a “treatment” or “cure” for HIV. In the three classes I taught, only one boy was adamant that traditional healers could “cure” HIV, but by the end he conceded that they could only provide “treatment,” and that ARVs are still important even if you’re visiting a traditional healer. It helped that on Monday there was an article published in the Swazi Times talking about how a number of traditional healers promising treatment or cures for HIV were actually crushing up ARV tablets and mixing them with their concoctions, potentially causing ARV-resistance among those infected with HIV in Swaziland. Not a good thing. We also talked about how false promises of “cures” for HIV may cause people who have been “cured” to engage in high-risk behavior. Now if, during HIV Jeopardy next month, anyone says that there IS a cure for HIV, I’ll be disappointed.

Lastly, I want to respond to a comment made on a previous entry asking about my qualifications for teaching in Swaziland, which is a question that people here ask me all the time. The situation involving teachers in Swazi schools is pretty complex, as there is both a surplus of teachers in the country and a shortage of them teaching in schools. As the comment stated, there ARE hundreds of out-of-work teachers in this country who could benefit from teaching in the schools where I teach. But the other side of that argument is that there are shortages of teachers in most rural schools, including both Florence Christian Academy and Hluti Central High School, because the schools and the Ministry of Education can’t afford to hire enough teachers to fill the gaps. If I didn’t teach the classes I teach, they wouldn’t be taught at all. My classes at Florence are taught during a period previously belonging to a woman who is on maternity leave until further notice (at least until next school year), but because the school already paid her for the whole year they can’t afford to hire anyone else to take her classes. Right now her Form 1 literature class isn’t being taught at all, and if I wasn’t there to teach the students would have one more open period in the week. At Hluti Central High School, I teach a business studies program that I’ve been specially trained to facilitate by an organization called School Aged Youth Entrepreneurship, or SAYE, and the majority of it is team-taught with another teacher from the school. My Life Skills classes, which focus on HIV/AIDS and health education, I have also been trained to teach. During my 3-month Peace Corps training I had intensive classes on teaching methodology, classroom management and lesson planning, as well as content-specific and Swazi schools-specific things, and I did teaching practicals at two different Nhlangano-area schools with a trained teacher sitting in the back criticizing my instruction. I also have had all my lesson plans pre-approved by the school’s administration so that they know what I’m teaching and I know that they approve of my teaching methods. I understand the frustration that comes from me teaching classes at schools in Swaziland when I’m not technically a “teacher,” but I’m trained as a “HIV/AIDS educator” (which is what I do in my Life Skills class) and as a “SAYE Facilitator” (which is what I do in my business studies classes). Sometimes, people ask me things like “don’t you think that Swazi students deserve REAL teachers?” And I absolutely do. But in the absence of a “real” teacher, I think an HIV/AIDS educator is a suitable option.

Anyway, I think that’s all for now. I have a large quantity of other things to do today, assuming my electricity stays on (not likely).

Love from the Swaz!!

Happy New Year!!

June 26 marked the first anniversary of my arrival in Swaziland, forcing me to ask myself, “What the heck have I been doing for the last year?” I mean, I know I’ve been doing some work, but that takes about 4 hours a day at the most, so what have I really been doing? Here’s my year in review.

In the first year of my Peace Corps service, I have…

…survived Pre-Service Training, including basic Survival SiSwati, the addition of 35 friends to my life and 2 months living in a strange family’s living room.

…become accustomed to living in a hut with no running water and unreliable electricity, where it’s like an oven in the summer and a freezer in the winter and I’m constantly being bombarded by bats/lizards/insects. And I call it “home.”

…redefined my concept of “walking distance” to include anything costing E10 or less on a kombi (about 15 kilometers).

…taught 48 lessons on HIV/AIDS and Life Skills at Florence Christian Academy and a handful of Form 4 and 5 English Language classes.

…spent approximately 170 hours on public transportation, not counting the time spent on the side of the road waiting for the broken-down bus/kombi/sprinter to be repaired.

…counted over 50,000 co-trimoxizole (CTX) tablets at Our Lady of Sorrows Clinic and assisted in one TB Day presentation.

…facilitated 9 monthly meetings of the Shiselweni Region Youth Support Group, including all the paperwork involved, PEPFAR funding applications and 1 grant proposal that is still in the works.

…taught the Junior Achievement Company (Forms 4-5) and Economics for Success (Form 3) programs at Hluti Central High School, certifying 52 students total for their competency in business studies.

…painted a world map and a Swazi map in the courtyard of Florence Christian Academy (though not all the countries are labeled because I need to buy a new marker!).

…built a fence, planted vegetables, harvested for one season and then watched my garden be destroyed by a tractor, cow and goat who were obviously in cahoots.

…had exactly one shot of Stroh Rum, which was the first and will be the last in my life.

…been proposed to so frequently that if someone ever proposes to me for real I’ll probably ignore him, and if he says he loves me I’ll probably call him a liar (“unemanga”).

…washed approximately 192 loads of laundry by hand (about 4 basins of laundry each week) and then dried them on the barbed wire fence.

…consumed 3.5 huge bottles of hand sanitizer and countless purse-sized ones, yet only 2 bottles of shampoo (hygiene is not a big concern here).

…lost and then promptly re-gained 7 kilos (15 pounds).

…completed 12 practice GRE tests (though not for a few months and I’m taking it for real in August…oh man).

…mourned the loss of 9 of my fellow Group 6 volunteers, including Beth who left the Shis Crew eternally incomplete.

…entertained 7 children in my house on a regular basis with coloring books, crayons, chalk, paper airplanes, masks, music and my silly American habits.

…been struck by lightening once.

…witnessed the birth of 4 goat kids, 13 piglets, 2 puppies and 1 calf.

...participated directly or indirectly in the deaths of 3 chickens, 3 bats, 2 black mambas and countless spiders and cockroaches, and witnessed the death of 1 unfortunate baby goat.

…consumed over 20 liters of peanut butter, about 40 loaves of bread and countless bags of popcorn.

…gone swimming twice while fully clothed, once in the winter.

…painted/redecorated the interior of my hut on 3 separate occasions.

…read over 50 books and every magazine sent to me, watched the first 4 seasons of The Office, the first 2 seasons of Grey’s Anatomy, most of Sex & the City and too many movies to remember (many of them multiple times).

…written 43 blogs, not counting this one, and three trimester reports for Peace Corps.

Somehow, over the last year, my life has started to seem boring. It doesn’t even seem odd to me that the first thing I do in the morning, after waking up to the incessant crowing of the rooster, is sweep out the night’s worth of dirt on the floor while I boil the water for my bath. Or that I walk 2 hours a day just to get to work, which may or may not be cancelled. Or that my electricity decides to cut off any time I’m hungry and planning to make dinner. Or that everywhere I go, everyone knows my name even if I’ve never seen them before. That’s just how it is. It’s my life.

All things considered, it’s been a good year and, even though I’ve spent more time with myself than I’d like, I’m excited for the coming year. I have more lessons to teach, more maps to paint, more children to entertain, more movies to watch, more books to read, more talking to myself to do and lots more awkwardness to endure thanks to the language and cultural barriers. And I’ve got lots more East Coast Radio to listen to, mostly because Jane Lindley-Thomas is my hero.

And I have 33 new friends to meet tomorrow! (Wow, I’m lame.)

In another year I’m going to have the most abnormal social skills ever.