Monday, September 28, 2009

It's a small world, after all

Last Friday, after spending the entire day killing time in Nhlangano (investigating vacation plans online) while waiting for my paycheck to be deposited into my account (it never happened, that’s why I’m back today), I boarded the last possible kombi back to my community around 4:45pm. Unfortunately—this is how public transportation works in Swaziland—it didn’t leave until the last passenger boarded at around 6:15. Now, it’s spring in Swaziland, which means it gets dark around 6pm, and I’m supposed to always be HOME before dark. And it wasn’t just dark, there was a fine, blowing mist, and it was so foggy that the driver (who I was seated next to) couldn’t see more than 2 feet in front of the kombi. Add to that the fact that the kombi had exactly 1 headlight (and a dim one at that), 0 defrosters and 0 seatbelts, and both window cranks were broken off so we couldn’t even open the windows. And the MTN cell phone network had been down for about 24 hours, which means that if we had an accident there was no way to contact anyone. As the passenger sitting closest to the driver, it was my job to periodically wipe the fog off the inside of the window with the driver’s hat, which made the situation only marginally better.

Naturally, because I kept reaching over him to wipe the windows, the driver and I got to talking. He introduced himself as Siyabonga (“Thank you God”) and asked me why I was in Swaziland, how I like it, if I’m married…all the usual questions. And then he asked me if I’d ever lived in Durban, which was a surprising deviation from the usual interrogation. I told him that yes, in 2007 I went to the University of KwaZulu-Natal for a term as part of a study abroad program, but that I hadn’t been back since. And then he asked me if I liked Amarula, which is a creamy, Bailey’s-type South African drink made from marula fruit. I guess I looked at him strangely, because he explained himself. Apparently, he used to work at The Cellar, a wine store where I used to buy wine frequently. On my last day in Durban, I went in and bought a bunch of little bottles of Amarula to give as gifts, and apparently he was working that day. And remembered me. And then ended up driving my kombi in rural Swaziland 2 years later. It’s a small world.

Anyway, the 45 minute drive to my bus stop took nearly twice that long. Usually, when I don’t get to my community until after dark, I just call one of the teachers at my school and they meet me at the bus stop and drive me home (it’s a 15-20 minute walk down a dirty/mud road), but the cell phone network was still down. And there was no way I was walking home that night. Plan B: I asked Siyabonga if he could possibly drive me home, which he agreed to do. After we dropped the rest of the passengers off in Hluti, we turned around and headed back in the direction of my bus stop…which we drove past twice (once in either direction) because the visibility was so bad.

Finally, 2 hours after nightfall, I made it home. And Siyabonga got stuck in the mud, which Eliza quickly splattered all over my dress. But at least I have a new (old?) friend in my community. And he has a car.

If you’ve been reading my blog regularly you know that this story is not that ridiculous in the scheme of public transportation horrors in Swaziland. Most kombis (public mini-buses) would be deemed un-roadworthy in the US for one or more reasons. First, they’re supposed to seat 14 people but kombi drivers usually put 18 passengers, a driver and a conductor and maybe some extra kids on them, which means that you’re one of 4 people sitting on a 3 person bench seat (this is why I try to sit in the front). They all have 3 doors—two up front and a sliding door on the side—but most doors only open from the insider OR the outside, not both. (Not like child locks, they’re just broken.) Often, sliding doors are tied on with rope and sometimes they fall off while driving or, more often, when you try to open them. Windows in the front are usually stuck open or closed because the window cranks are broken off and it takes someone with a pair of pliers to change the window’s position at all. If you’re lucky, one of the back windows is completely missing and has been covered with a plastic trash bag or packing tape, which means that it makes a terrible noise when we’re cruising down the highway. There are usually two big speakers (like from a home theater system) hung from the interior roof of the kombi, which serve only to blast gospel music and rip the back of your shirt as you try to get on or off. The maximum number of seatbelts I’ve ever seen in a kombi is 2—the driver and the passenger—but even those seatbelts didn’t have working seatbelt latch things, so when kombis go through police checkpoints the driver and passenger put the seatbelt across themselves like normal but just sit on the buckle because there’s nowhere to buckle it. If the police notice this, they make the driver give them a bribe—usually half of the trip’s total revenue. (This bribery system is also how these faulty vehicles get licensed in the first place…) Most of them have to be push-started at the beginning and a few times along the way when they stop to drop off passengers, and many break down without reason a time or two during the trip. Oh, and at the end of the month (pay time) most of the men, sometimes including the driver, are not only drunk, but drinking on the kombi. Kombis are also the scene of a lot of strange behavior, including incessant sexual harassment, drunken brawls, the beating of children, transportation of farm animals, etc. One volunteer told me about a kombi she was on where the driver stuffed a live cat into the glove box so he wouldn’t scratch the other passengers.

But, rest assured, it’s worse in Mozambique. (Erin, Jess and Brittney, I hope you’re reading this!)

Also I still don’t have Swine Flu, which is both good and amazing because everyone else (including people on my homestead) seems to be getting sick. I’ve set up a hand-washing station in my house and I’m avoiding sick little kids in general and snot in particular, which is really difficult because I think they’ve been in various stages of sick and snot-faced since I arrived. Oh Swaziland.

Anyway, that’s all. Hopefully I’ll get my camera, which I loaned to a fellow volunteer, back sometime soon so I can post some photos again. But now it’s Famous Bowl time.

Love from the Swaz!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Optimism, blood tests and rat skins.

This week and last I’ve been doing a sort of Jeopardy-style review game with my high school students to assess how well they’ve actually listened to my lessons this past year. And, unfortunately, even though we spent the last 8 months talking specifically about HIV, they still don’t understand BASIC things. For example, I asked them “Name the three ways a mother can pass the HIV virus to her baby” (something we covered in the Mother to Child Transmission lesson). They answered, “Being circumcised makes it harder to get HIV.” What? That doesn’t answer the question at all! And they didn’t know the answer to basic questions like “What does HIV stand for?” I would hope that, in a country where almost half the population is infected with HIV, they would know the most basic things about the virus. And, upon first impression, it SEEMS like they DO know the info. But they’re just repeating what all the HIV educators before me have said to them. Instead, of actually learning the material, they learn how to regurgitate things like “you must abstain from sex” and “always use a condom” and “all men should get circumcised.” But do they really know what that means or have any idea how to actually avoid HIV in their own lives? I don’t think so.

So how do you make the lessons translate into actual behavior change? How do you make memorized phrases like “always use a condom” actually influence a 15-year-old boy when he decides to have sex? Make him actually USE a condom? When it really comes down to it, the kids I’m teaching need to make the choice to change their own behavior, and nothing I can say—no matter how scary I make HIV seem—can change their minds or their behaviors.

It’s a challenge, that’s for sure, and because of that it’s sometimes difficult to see any sort of progress in this job. If the kids I’m teaching now actually listen, it means that in 30 years they will still be HIV-negative, or that the women will know how to protect their babies from getting HIV. How do I measure that? For now, it’s just a matter of having a small impact on at least one person. In training, they told us that a “teach one, reach one” attitude would keep us going…that if we have made a positive impact on at least one person that our time here isn’t wasted, that we’ve left the community better than when we came. So it’s all about reaching individuals, and hoping that those individuals go on to reach other individuals.

And I know I’ve reached individuals, particularly on my homestead. On Tuesday, my sisi (she insists on being called “Monica”) and I made the trip to Nhlangano to have baby Mpendulo tested for HIV at the clinic run by Baylor University. We arrived just before 9am, after an hour of trudging through the pouring rain, and obediently made our way through line after line at the Nhlangano Health Center. E7.50 later (that’s about $1), I found myself in a room full of babies waiting patiently for their HIV tests. Presumably because I was white and they didn’t want to keep me waiting, baby Mpendulo got to go first.

The test for babies is called a Dry Blood Spot, or DBS, and, unlike the rapid test for adults, actually checks for the presence of the HIV virus in the blood. (The adult rapid test looks only for the presence of HIV-related antibodies, which are always present in the blood of a baby born of an HIV-positive mother, at least for the first 18 months. For adults, the Western Blot test looks for the virus, but it’s super expensive.) For the DBS, the nurse draws blood from the baby’s big toe and, on a little paper card, fills 5 quarter-sized circles with the baby’s blood. Then they send it to Pretoria, South Africa, for testing because there isn’t a laboratory capable of running the test in Swaziland. And in 4-6 weeks, we’ll know.

The biggest confusion of the whole day, for me, was how the baby was registered. On his birth certificate, his name is Mpendulo Khumalo, but when Monica registered him, she wrote Mpendulo Mkhulisi. Which doesn’t make any sense, since his mother’s surname is Masuku, and Mkhulisi is Gogo’s (grandmother’s) last name. I’ve found that names here often don’t make sense. For example, my sisi Londiwe goes by Thobile at school, which isn’t even her middle name. So her school certificates will be issued in a name that is not legally hers, so if she goes to college or applies for a job that requires her high school diploma, they’ll be issued for a different name. Likewise, my bhuti Kwanele goes by Nkhosinathi, which also is not his name. I don’t understand why there’s all this unnecessary confusion. Every day in the newspaper, there are announcements of name changes that say things like “Phindile Simelane will now assume the name of Phindile Dlamini, the reason being that it is my natural surname.” For one, the grammar is incorrect, but mostly I don’t understand why mothers can’t just name their kids what they want to call them.

Speaking of other things I don’t understand, I’ve been watching “The Wire” (an HBO series that’s like a really long episode of Law & Order, but mostly about drugs), and on the WARNING screen at the beginning of the DVD it says that it is licensed for home use only. “The definition of home use excludes the use of this DVD at locations such as clubs, coaches, hospitals, hotels, oil rigs, prisons or schools.” Oil rigs? Do people commonly watch movies on oil rigs? So commonly that it needs to be stated in the warning? It also says that the soundtrack can’t be publicly broadcast in nursing homes or railway stations. Hm…

In other news, my new roommate Patrick is pretty much the most useful pet I’ve ever had. Wednesday night, after about an hour of hunting flies in the house, I got sick of kitty knocking over my stuff and coaxed him out the window to the great beyond. Not 10 minutes later, Patrick came waltzing back into the house with a mouth full of monster rat, still alive but scared out of its mind. He proceeded to play with his food for the next 20 minutes, leaving the rat playing dead in one corner of the room, then pouncing on the poor rodent every time he tried to make his escape. And nothing made me more proud then when Patrick finally made the kill, leaving a streak of rat blood across the middle of my floor. A year ago, this definitely would have bothered me. Instead, I video-taped him skinning and eating it. Swaziland has changed me.

The other highlight of my week is that KFC has FINALLY introduced the Famous Bowl in Swaziland. Since I arrived, the napkins have been advertising “The KFC Famous Bowl: The home-style meal you don’t have to go home for.” And, a year later, it has arrived. In case you don’t know, the Famous Bowl is mashed potatoes and gravy, corn, chicken strips and cheese mixed together in a bowl, served (in Swaziland at least) with a pink sparkly spoon. Judge me if you will, but, since my first Famous Bowl on Tuesday, I’d say I’ve spent about 15 minutes each day fantasizing about it. Nhlangano, my shopping town, just keeps getting better.

Anyway, that’s all I’ve got for now. I’m supposed to be in town this weekend for last Shiselweni Region Youth Support Group meeting of 2009, but because of the Swine Flu outbreak in southern Swaziland (13 volunteers, 3 staff members and our doctor are all sick), the meeting is cancelled. Instead I’ve come to town to eat another Famous Bowl, buy cat food and finalize vacation plans for November when Erin, Jess and Brittney come to visit. 44 days!!!!

Love from the Swaz!

(Oh, and I’m sparing you the disgusting photos of Patrick eating a rat only because I took them on my video camera and I haven’t figured out yet how to transfer still photos from my video camera to my computer. Unless the internet cafĂ© knows how to do it, in which case I’ll post them later. I assure you it was glorious.)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Introducing my new roommate, Patrick.

We’ve all heard the saying “don’t let the cat out of the bag,” which is a useful bit of advice if you’re walking around with a canvas shopping bag full of un-sedated cat. But the advice I really needed on Saturday morning, when I was trying to stuff my new kitty into a box in anticipation of a 45 minute bus ride, was “don’t try to stuff a fully conscious cat into a box.” Particularly if you value NOT bleeding.

This whole adventure started Friday afternoon, after a particularly productive meeting with MSF (seriously, I’m not being sarcastic), when my fellow Shis girls and I made the trek out to Pasture Valley Children’s Home. (Actually, they made the trek on public transport and I hitched a ride with Peter, who was transporting 90 plastic chairs in a pick-up the size of a Ford Ranger, which was basically a miracle.) We spent the afternoon/evening gathering fresh vegetables from the farm and then making mass quantities of cole slaw, lettuce/tomato/carrot/green pepper salad, spicy boiled cabbage, spinach, cheesy broccoli and cauliflower bake, Swazi porridge, egg sandwiches, brisket stew and stir fry, all in anticipation of Saturday’s Open Day on the farm.

The Open Day was the official grand opening of the second children’s home at Michelle and Peter’s farm, Pasture Valley. All sorts of important people—Peter and Michelle’s family and friends, people from various NGOs, the nuns from Our Lady of Sorrows, members of the McCubbins’ congregation in South Africa, representatives of government, officers from SOS Children’s Village, etc.—came to celebrate 6 years of replacing bleak futures and neglect with safe homes and loving family. Something worth celebrating, no doubt. After a brief tea/homemade lemonade time, everyone shuffled into the “tunnel” (greenhouse) for the scheduled program. Each of the kids recited a bible verse from memory, then they sung songs in English and Siswati about Jesus, etc. Peter also told the story of how it all started 6 years ago, basically because they recognized a need for such a children’s home and the fact that they could, possibly, find the resources to make it work. And they have.

After a wonderful lunch and about 3 servings of Michelle’s incredible gooseberry custard, the three of us gathered our things and headed back to town to catch public transport home before dark. And thus began the great quest to transport the solution to my rat problem back to my house—a 45 minute drive and 20 minute walk with a fully-conscious and fully-clawed cat. Kirk, a volunteer from the US, was nice enough to drive the four of us (I’m counting Patrick the Cat) to Nhlangano in the Pasture Valley kombi, a 10 minute drive. By the time we got to town, I had a huge rip in my brand new dress, shredded skin on my fingers and a pretty steady stream of blood running from my knee to my ankle. And that was just the beginning.

We decided that, like Swazis do, I should find a box to transport my critter in, so we drove around Nhlangano searching for a Patrick-sized box. We settled on a Simba Chips (like Lays) box from the Caltex station, and borrowed a big roll of packing tape from the curious Indian shopkeeper. Then, for the next 10 minutes, me, Jenn and Kirk wrestled with Patrick to get him safely and securely into the box while all the passer-by stopped to watch the spectacle from outside the kombi. Suffice it to say that Patrick won. Then, I remembered that I had a reusable shopping bag in my backpack. And, magically, Patrick was fine with it. This must be why the saying is about cats in bags, not cats in boxes.

After returning a shredded box to the Caltex station and neglecting the entirety of the shopping list I’d brought to town (I wasn’t about to brave a grocery store with a bag full of scared cat), I boarded the kombi for the trip home. After the kombi door was closed, I let Patrick out of the bag to look around and, hopefully, calm down a bit. Which he did. Then, as we were pulling out of the bus rank, my lap started to get very, very warm. And wet. Excellent! But, the way I figured, it was so hot that day that, if I didn’t mention that he had peed on me, it would probably be dry before anybody else noticed, and you couldn’t smell it over the constant stench of diesel exhaust seeping up through holes in the floorboards. So I just ignored it for the 45 drive to my bus stop. And, sure enough, we didn’t leave behind a wet spot, nobody mentioned the incident, and I didn’t have to pay the driver extra for the mess. By the time we got off the kombi, Patrick was so resigned to his fate that he slept most of the 20 minute walk back to my house, even when Eliza (my dog) greeted us at the driveway by barking and jumping up on me.

Patrick and I spent the rest of the weekend hiding in my house, me reading “Water for Elephants” (an excellent book) and him prowling around and meowing at the various rat hangouts in my house. Finally on Monday morning, after winning a battle with Eliza, he began exploring the rest of the homestead—a veritable goldmine of tasty rodents. Everyone on the homestead (except Eliza) is excited to have him around, especially me. He’s super cuddly and I haven’t seen a rat since Thursday night!

I think that’s all I have time for now. I’m simultaneously writing this and trying to entertain a sick baby, which is pretty much impossible. I don’t know how people get anything done when they have babies. Maybe that’s why nothing ever gets done in Swaziland—everyone is too busy taking care of their flocks. But I’ll save my commentary on family planning and child care for another time.

Love from the Swaz!

The "braai" at the Pasture Valley Open Day. "Braai" is Swazi (Afrikaans?) for "cook-out," or any other variety of cooking meat with fire. Most braais, like this one, are made out of old oil drums and a section of heavy-duty metal fence, which serves as the grill. And then stuff is cooked over straight wood, no coals. Usually.

The Pasture Valley kids all dancing and singing about Jesus.

Patrick likes to crawl under my blankets on my bed, which means that every time I come into my house and throw my stuff on my bed he's in danger of being squished. I don't know why he does that.

Patrick the Rat-Killing Cat. He's more ferocious than he looks, I promise.

Lunch at the Open Day.

Jaclyn, Bonkhosi (a boy from the children's home) and Jenn enjoying lunch. Bonkhosi thought we were crazy because we basically followed him around all day and took pictures of him, but he's just so darned cute!

Image on the jumping castle. In Swaziland, you know it's a real party when there's a jumping castle.

Michelle's fantastic gooseberry custard. I don't know if gooseberries exist in the US, but if not I'm going to smuggle some seeds home and make them exist in the US.

Eliza being Eliza. That dog is crazy. But since Patrick is around she's been behaving more. I think she feels replaced.

Gogo Constance and Make Nellie (Gogo=grandmother, Make=mother), the house mothers at Pasture Valley Children's Home. They do SO MUCH to take care of those kids, and they love them just like they're their own kids.

Friday, September 18, 2009

White girls don't like to be loved.

Perhaps this is obvious, but Swaziland is a small country. So small, in fact, that when one of the Group 7 volunteers was introduced to her community in a meeting last week, a couple of (male) teachers from my school decided to go. After her brief, practiced introduction (in Siswati), the chief issued a stern warning to all potentially annoying men that they are prohibited from proposing love to, hollering at, visiting without invitation, touching or otherwise coming on to the volunteer. This prompted a number of questions from the audience: “Am I allowed to propose love if I actually DO love her?” “What if she falls in love with my son, is he allowed to marry her?” “If she looks very beautiful on a certain day, can I tell her that she is very beautiful?” “Am I allowed to have sex with her if she wants to?” and my personal favorite: “Why don’t white women want to be loved?” (The funniest part of this exchange is that the volunteer was still standing at the front of the meeting, completely oblivious to the ongoing discussion about her romantic prospects.)

Even after all those questions, my male co-workers didn’t understand why they couldn’t hit on the poor girl. So, naturally, they confronted me about it at school this week. After 45 minutes of explaining the concepts of “dating” (a completely foreign concept—where would a man take me on a date in Swaziland? KFC?), “boyfriend” (in Swaziland, a boyfriend or girlfriend is someone you’ve had sex with) and “love,” I’m proud to say that I think I can finally stop being irritated by the relentless sexual harassment that is part of my everyday life in Swaziland. During training, they told us not to be annoyed by the advances, that we shouldn’t take it seriously, that we shouldn’t feel threatened…but that’s easier said than done. They said that it’s just how Swazi men interact with Swazi women and that if we’re treated that way, it means they’re comfortable enough to joke with us. But it’s more than that. In Swaziland, telling a girl she is beautiful, or proposing marriage to her is a means of flattery, but it’s not usually because the guy is actually interested in making the girl his wife/baby mama. In a society where people don’t really have a lot other than themselves—where you can’t congratulate someone on their new apartment or promotion or compliment their cute new shoes—it’s customary to compliment women as a way of being friendly. And women feel slighted if men DON’T constantly tell them they are beautiful or worth marrying (which is why men and women both are confused by my irritation at being hit on). Maybe it’s like the equivalent of buying a drink for a girl in a bar (except that women don’t go to bars here, only alcoholics). It’s just a friendly gesture, but if it goes somewhere that’s cool too. This means that when guys follow me from the school, show up at my door, sit next to me on an otherwise empty bus and call me at all hours of the day to confess their love to me, etc., they are probably just trying to make me feel welcome.

The concept of “love” is completely different, too. It’s based largely on looks, on family name and convenience, which doesn’t require time-wasting things like “dating” or “courting.” After all, marriage is just a partnership for creating children and feeding men. To illustrate the point, one teacher told me the story of how he met his wife. Early one morning he boarded the bus en route to Nhlangano and saw a pretty girl seated in one of the back rows. So, naturally, he sat down next to her, told her she was beautiful, asked her last name (to make sure they weren’t related), and began confessing his love to her. By the time they got to Nhlangano, he had proposed marriage and arranged a time and place to meet her parents for the lobola (bride price) negotiations. And then they were married.

This kind of “love” works—at least in the rural areas—because of the consistency of culture. There’s no arguing over whether they’ll have kids (they will) or how many (nature determines that) or where they’ll live (at his parents’ house) or about their jobs (he may work, she won’t) or finishing school (there aren’t any jobs, so why is school important?) or about their respective responsibilities around the house, because all of those things have already been determined by their parents and their parents’ parents. The kids will be raised Christian. He can take a second wife if he wants, or at least have mistresses. The family will eat liphalishi, spinach and boiled chicken for dinner every night and porridge for breakfast every morning. Pre-marital children will be abandoned (if they’re hers) or adopted (if they’re his and he wants them), no questions asked. The only thing they have to figure out is how well-trained the woman is to be a wife and, accordingly, how many cattle/goats/enamel dishes/blankets her family deserves for raising her. In America, where there is no set of unified cultural values or expectations, the couple has to figure these things out; in Swaziland, the arguments have already been decided by hundreds of years of tradition.

So, the moral of the story is that, from now on, when a random man on the street/bus tells me he loves me, instead of calling him a liar or other variation of being annoyed/offensive, I’m going to ignore it. Well, I’ll try at least.

I tried out this new-found tolerance for sexual harassment at the 75th Anniversary celebration of Our Lady of Sorrows school on Thursday. OLOS, as it’s called, was established in 1934 as a school for “colored” (bi-racial) children banned from “white” schools in South Africa during Apartheid. It was established by a bunch of Roman Catholic nuns, integrated in 1961 and, today, schools about 800 kids between kindergarten and 12th grade. (And runs the clinic where I work.) And despite the fact that “housewifery” is one of the subjects currently taught, it’s one of the best schools in the country. Thus, the 75th was such a big deal both that His Majesty King Mswati III and I decided to show up (not together). It was a pretty standard Swazi event, and conducted entirely in Siswati, so I spent my time making a list titled…

You Know You’re at a Swazi Public Event When:
1. The event starts 2 hours and 20 minutes late because the keynote speaker (the King) hasn’t showed up yet, and then proceeds out of the designated order on the program.
2. It’s 71 degrees outside and the babies are bundled like there’s snow on the ground and the adults are wearing gigantic puffy coats with fur-trimmed hoods.
3. You couldn’t possibly quantify the bare breasts/bottoms exposed to the audience, or the amount of booty-shaking done directly in front of the head of state.
4. You, alone, comprise exactly 50% of the white population of the audience (the other 50% was the Italian Ambassador).
5. The time between speakers is filled with blaring, unedited versions of Akon, Ne-Yo and the occasional gospel song.
6. There are two random men camped outside the entrance, charging a E10 (about $1.30) entrance fee for anyone dumb enough to think you have to pay.
7. The color of the feathers in your hair is directly related to the amount of padding on your seat (red feathers mean royalty and padded leather seats, black means armed forces and slightly less padded seats, no feathers means hard plastic chairs).
8. The place is full of men in traditional attire (leopard or impala skins) that has been altered to include cell phone pockets or gun holsters (for the security guards).
9. The number of attendees triples in the last 15 minutes in anticipation of a free meal afterwards.
10. Not one of the speakers is wearing pants. And the keynote speaker (the King) is wearing Tevas.
11. Women in the audience are selling candy and chips out of their purses for 50 cents each.
12. Kids show up in their school uniforms, despite school being cancelled for the day, just to get the 50% discount on the bus fare.
13. The bottled water served to the VIPs, including the King and Prime Minister, is imported from South Africa.
14. Each speech begins with an entire page of personal addresses: “Your Majesty King Mswati III Ngwenyama of Swaziland, Emakhosikati (royal wives), members of the royal household, His Excellency the Right Honorable Prime Minister, the Honorable Deputy Prime Minister, Bishop Ndlovu, Members of Parliament, Ministers, cabinet members, local chiefs and their inner council members, Tindvuna (like county commissioners),the Chief Justice of Swaziland, members of the diplomatic corps including the Italian Ambassador, sisters and other members of the Catholic family, members of the Swaziland National Council, the Regional Administrator for Rural Development, Head Teachers, members of the local school committee (like the PTA/PTO), former students, parents of current and former students, senior students, primary students, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.” Every speech. And there were enough speeches that I had the opportunity to write it down, revise it and check it for accuracy. (The whole event would have been an hour shorter had it not been for this ridiculous requirement anytime anyone stood up to speak.)

All things considered, once the event started it was pretty cool. My favorite part was when the King had just stood up to speak and a big furry (but well taken care of) dog ran up to the podium and a bunch of his security guards started chasing him with sticks and trying to tackle him (the dog, not the King) and the King laughed it off and said, “I would even like to thank this dog for coming out today, as he seems pretty excited to be here.” Wow, Mswati has a sense of humor! My least favorite part was a song performed by a bunch of 2nd graders from OLOS. The song began with “My body is mine to do as I choose and you should not touch me if I say no.” It’s a good message, I guess, but sad that it has to be said. (But it needs to be said…) Also, I'm stupid and forgot my camera (it was charging and I took an empty case to the event), so I don't have any pictures. Whoops.

In other news, everything I thought I knew about baby Mpendulo is completely wrong, mostly because of the language barrier between myself and his mother. He was apparently born on June 2, not July 2, which means that he IS small for his age. According to his medical chart (which she showed me Thursday morning), his weight is in the 3rd percentile, which is not a good sign. And he’s been treated for “severe thrush” several times in his short life, which is also an indication of HIV. But she’s not sure if he is actually HIV-positive because, although they run the test for free in South Africa, she doesn’t have enough money to make the trip back to the hospital to get the results. And he is apparently her THIRD, not second, son. The second one died of AIDS in 2006 because, when he was born, HIV testing for pregnant women was not standard practice and she didn’t know she was positive. He was 3. (That probably explains why the family hasn’t been so excited about this baby, and why Swazis usually don’t name babies until they’re 6 months old.)

But there IS good news. (1) She’s been receiving counseling on preventing mother to child transmission (PMTCT) and the counselor recorded that she’s been very receptive to the information. (2) Mpendulo and I have an appointment with a doctor from Baylor University to have his blood drawn for an HIV test, so we’ll know his status by the end of next week. (3) All things considered, the baby is doing pretty well. He’s eating normally, growing at a steady rate (maybe he’ll be in a higher percentile?) and acting like a normal, happy, healthy baby. (4) His mother’s CD4 count (the measure of the strength of her immune system) is steadily increasing, too, which means that she’s responding well to ARVs and he MAY not have been exposed to HIV during pregnancy. Anyway, I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

Despite the uncertainty about his status, some doctor somewhere (it’s not in his chart?) gave his mother infant ARVs and immune boosters for him to start, just in case, because his mother’s CD4 count was so low before birth. This is good because it can possibly reverse HIV infection if it occurs during labor (very common), and can give his immune system a boost if he was infected during pregnancy. But it’s bad because, as my family learned this week, infant ARV syrup attracts rats. They like the sugary syrup so much that they dug a hole through the stick-and-mud house’s wall, chewed through the Tupperware container the bottles were stored in, chewed through the bottle and then dragged it all the way across the sticky floor back to the hole in the wall, where it was abandoned after becoming wedged in the hole. After that was done, they went back for his mother’s ARV pills and nibbled off the sugar coating, leaving them strewn about the house. Rats are a problem.

And to make things worse (as if something is worse than a rat eating a woman’s life-saving medication?), it’s now snake season. And big rats attract big snakes. Like the one whose skin I found hanging from the wooden rafters in my pit latrine on Wednesday night. (If I had to make a list of “Things I Don’t Want to Find in My Pit Latrine at Night,” I think “big snake skin” would be number two, right after “big snake.”) So, Saturday night I’m coming home with a fierce rat-killing, snake-scaring, allergy-provoking and totally worth it kitty from Pasture Valley Children’s Home. They have a surplus and I have a need, so I’ve offered an afternoon of myself to the farm’s Open House day in exchange for a cat.

That’s all for now. If you want to read a completely frustrating (the writer seems like an arrogant jerk), but really educational, well-written and thought-provoking book, check out “Dark Star Safari” by Paul Thoreux. (Or “Mosquito Coast,” which is supposed to be good.) He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi from 1963-65, then worked in Uganda for a while and traveled through Africa a bit. The book chronicles his overland trip from Cairo to Cape Town, complete with first-hand accounts of the juxtaposition between unsustainable international aid and self-sufficient, authentic traditional societies throughout Africa. I’m glad I read it and I recommend it, but I don’t really have much tolerance for travelers who say that wildlife-viewing is a shameless tourist activity, then stay at $350-per-night hotels where they spend time in the company of expensive hookers as inspiration for the “erotic novella” they spend their evenings writing.

Anyway, I’ll update again next week when I’m in town for the monthly Support Group meeting. Until then…

Love from the Swaz!

The boys (my bhutis and the neighbors) coming home from school. For some stupid reason, the primary school only does half-days, so all the kids come home at noon.

Me and the rat (I call all of them Templeton, from Charlotte's Web) I found under my kitchen cabinet thing a couple of days ago. Even after being caught in the trap, he managed to drag his broken self and the heavy metal trap under my kitchen cabinet, which I had to move to get his nasty little body out. And then I took pictures of him and my family thought I was crazy. (They might be right.)

Me and baby Mpendulo, who was born on June 2. That makes him 14 weeks in this photo.

World Food Programme (WFP) came to distribute food to my community the other day--maize meal, cooking oil, etc. And I could tell from a mile away (well, like a quarter mile) that food distribution was going on because there was a huge crowd of Swazis pushing and shoving and yelling for no apparent reason. This means there's free food to be had. I am continually frustrated by the culture of dependency on foreign aid that has developed in Swaziland, but I think I'll save that rant for another time. But, as I've mentioned before, why are poorer countries like Malawi and Malaysia donating food to Swaziland, which has perfectly fertile soil?

A closeup of me and baby Mpendulo. My family thinks I'm nuts for taking so many photos of that baby, which I guess I understand because in Swaziland when someone dies they have to destroy all the photos of that person. So if the baby DOES end up dying (God I hope not), I'll have to take down all these photos and delete them. Reality stinks sometimes.

This is the kind of "shop" that people sell chips, candy, fried dough ("fatties") and fruit from throughout the community. Sadly, most of the fruits and vegetables they sell are actually imported from South Africa and not grown by the women who sell them, but it's still pretty convenient to have these little shops set up in easy walking distance. This one is set up right outside the school where I teach, but usually the women selling just set up camp in the bus station because there's a place to sit.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Pasture Valley Childrens' Home Newsletter

(This is the newsletter from the orphanage I've been working at.)

2 Timothy 4:2 “ Preach the Word, be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage- with great patience and careful instruction.

Greetings from Pasture Valley!
These last 2 months have been a season of much change and activity. Like a farmer prepares his land for the rain, we have had much to prepare.

Welcome to our new housemother- Nelly
After much prayer, we put word out that we needed a new housemother for our home. We received many applications mainly from young candidates who wanted better salaries. We finally narrowed the candidates down to 3 and asked that they come to a final interview. Peter then prayed that the one that God wanted to be our housemother was the only one to arrive. To my surprise, only Nelly arrived. The decision was final. Nelly has been with us for a month now and she is hardworking and shows great pride in her home. She is always cheerful and helpful.

New members of the family arrive!!
I had the great priviledge of going out with an experienced social worker from SOS Childrens Village and together we visited homesteads doing case studies of children that were in need of care referred by the local clinic. We travelled through rocky river beds and to areas I have never been to before. Since it had been 7 years since I was last involved with social case studies, what really left a lasting impression was the devastating effect AIDS has had on the communities. All the cases were either directly or indirectly results of this epidemic. Once the studies were done, then decisions had to be made as to which children needed help the most. This is very difficult. Once word had gone out that we had spaces open, we had requests from many organizations and the Child Protection Unit.

In one of the homesteads we had been supporting with food and clothes, the old grandmother passed away. She left four boys behind. The boy’s were passed on to an Aunt to take care of but she abused the children and burnt their clothes. The great uncle reluctantly took them in but felt very burdened as he had a number of other children he was supporting as well. When we arrived to consult with the great uncle we found that he had arranged to have the children packed and ready with their little packages to go with us. My heart was really sore as we were not ready for them or did not even have a housemother yet. We collected them 2 weeks later. Sandile, Siphelele, Sibusiso and Thabiso have settled into their new room and the rest of the family welcomed them. Neliswa jumped in to show them how to fold clothes and learn the ropes. For a few days the preschool doubled in size.

A week ago we had a call from the Child Protection Unit of a child that had been abandoned that needed help. Little Buhle had been dumped at a persons house by the young mother. The father of the child is in prison. She child was brought to us for safekeeping until the police were able to locate the mother. Peter and I were called to the police station to meet the mother. We needed to establish the reason why she drugged her child and dumped her so frequently. The mother said that she did not have a job or food and she did not want the child because the child was a “mistake”. My reply was that it is not the child’s fault and she was no mistake.

We have agreed to take care of Buhle for a period of 6 months giving time for the father to be released from prison and also time for the mother to possibly find a job and learn to love her child. We promised to pray for her. Buhle is malnourished and will need time to recover. And so the family has expanded….

Kirk and Callie- volunteering at Pasture Valley
Kirk and Callie Carson arrived one month ago being referred by Operation Mobilization (OM) to us. We are so grateful to our Lord for their serving hearts as they came at a time when there was so much going on. They have been such a blessing to us in so many ways. Kirk has finished putting up kitchen units, pantry shelves, curtain rails and has helped on the farm and with the kids sports activities. Callie has helped with running bible and school lessons in the mornings and craft activities in the afternoons. Callie has also started a weekly dance lesson for the girls which has been a lot of fun for all.

Kirk and Callie joined me on a trip to visit the Bosco Training Centre where we learnt how crafts were made and how people were encouraged to develop skills. They also run an orphanage and have an indoor soccer stadium. An arrangement was made to bring our kids to the Centre to compete in a soccer match with the other kids. Our kids arrived to find another 150 children around the stadium. A small match was arranged as to allow the children to all have a chance to play and Lindani gave the winning penalty kick for the Pasture Valley team. The kids loved the outing and came back rather exhausted.

Gogo Constance has once again been very ill and was admitted to the clinic for treatment for a week. Her blood pressure needed to be stabilized. She returned back to Pasture Valley and last week her foot swelled up so badly that she was unable to walk for a number of days. Once again she was taken to the clinic. The children took care of her. She has not been well and our fears are that her health may deteriorate more if she does not take more rest as she gets older. Please pray for God’s wisdom in the coming months.

Believe it or not but one of our girls will be turning 18 in December! As our commitment is to take care of our children until they are 18 years old, they will need to fly and leave the nest. We will have to make a decision in the next few months as to how we can help Nontobeko to be independent and give her the best opportunities possible in the big wide world. Her interim report will be coming out in a few days and it will give us an indication on whether she can continue schooling or will need to find a job or could be put into a vocational skills programme. We have a huge task ahead of teaching her to be independent and along with it will come all the emotions of saying good-bye.

This last year the four small children were blessed by the dedication of Aunty Jeanette and Teacher Jabu who faithfully taught them 3 days a week. They learnt how to count, how to say the National anthem and say the Lords Prayer and so many things besides. It instilled a sense of pride in them and has been invaluable to their preparation for primary school next year. Sadly, Aunty Jeanette has been called to an even greater task- to take care of a person she loves and whom is in great need at the moment. Thank you to you and to Jabu for your sacrifice and love for the little children.

A big thank you to the three “J- musketeers” who painted the preschool so beautifully. Justine, Jaclyn and Jennifer did a wonderful job in painting shapes, letters and numbers on the wall to make it a real fun room to learn in.

A fence is in the process of being put around the childrens’ home. Some plants were dug up from mom’s garden and were planted as a small beginning of a garden. The first 5 trees were planted yesterday! A lot of rubble was left by the builders so there is much work to be done to clear it away and landscape the lawn. A washing line still has be put up too. We would also love to put up a jungle gym- but all in good time.

Upcoming events
On the 5th of September, Bongiwe will join us in selling the beautiful cards that was made during craft afternoons by all the children at a Spring craft day in Piet Retief.

We have been so grateful to our Lord for providing for the building of the second home and will be having a thanksgiving opening day on the Saturday 19th September starting at 10h00, ending in lunch. This invitation is open to you all.

Thank you to you all for your support. “The Lord be with your spirit. Grace be with you.” 2 Timothy 4:22

Peter and Michelle and the children of Pasture Valley

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


This is a short clip of the procession of "maidens" at the annual Umhlanga, or Reed Dance.

Here's what Lonely Planet has to say about Umhlanga:

"The Umhlanga (Reed Dance) serves to draw the nation together and remind the people of their relationshp to the king. It is something like a weeklong debutante ball for marriageable young Swazi women, who journey from all over the kingdom to help repair the queen mother's home at Lobamba.

After arriving at Lobamba, they spend a day resting, then set off in search of reeds, some not returning until the fourth night. On the sixth day the reed dance is performed as they carry their reeds to the queen mother. The dance is repeated the next day. Those carrying torches (flashlights) have searched for reeds by night; those with red feathers in their hair are princesses.

As the Swazi queen mother must not be of the royal clan, the reed dance is also a showase of potential wives for the kind...There are signs that identify the unchaste--an incentive to avoid premarital sex."

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Johnny Clegg, Public Nudity and The War on Rats

If you haven’t noticed, I accidentally took a month-long vacation from blog-writing. (Well, schools were out…) I’m going to blame it on the fact that I had 8 seasons of Scrubs, 3 seasons of Arrested Development, 6 seasons of Sex & The City, both seasons of Flight of the Concords and 5 seasons of The Wire to watch. And Beauty and the Beast, which my host family LOVES. It’s been a real struggle to use my computer for anything but TV-watching. Disgusting, I know. But somehow, despite the seemingly endless entertainment options in my hut, I DID actually do things this month, including: Bushfire Music Festival, site announcement and swearing-in of Group 7, a trip to Jo’burg to take the GRE, Umhlanga (Reed Dance), the painting of the pre-school at Pasture Valley and a seemingly endless battle against the largest, loudest and most evil rats ever. Just your typical August in Swaziland…

I started the month off with a bang by wasting/losing the entirety of my August stipend at the third annual Bushfire Music Festival at “House on Fire” bar/club/outdoor concert venue in Malkerns. After setting up our tents at my friend Ian’s house on Friday afternoon, me and the other 15 people camping on his lawn walked the half mile to House on Fire and weaseled our way into a free VIP badge (that was me), free drinks, dark-chocolate-almond brownies and two mock-traditional Zulu beer pots made out of blue plastic (also me). It was a strangely feels-like-home experience, complete with LOTS of other Americans and tourists from all over the world who had come to see Johnny Clegg, Hip Hop Pantsula, Nana, Bolotja and other well-known artists from Southern Africa (which you should definitely check out, especially Bolotja).

The party was just getting started when, at 12:30 Saturday morning, Ian received a phone call from his previously-armed guard reporting a robbery at the house. Before we’d left the house, we had all locked our valuables—cameras, money, credit cards, iPods and laptop computers—inside his double-locked, burglar-barred, electric-fence-surrounded, pit-bull-guarded house, and hired an armed guard just in case. (This is normal for Swaziland.) Anyway, none of that mattered. The dog was sedated, the gate snuck through, the guard tied up in a clothesline and the house broken into by four men with a gun and bolt-cutters. While everyone was at the festival, they ransacked the entire house looking for cash and cameras, both of which they got from me. I had left behind about E1500 (80% of my pay for the month) in my wallet at the house along with my fancy Nikon camera, which I didn’t take to Bushfire for fear of getting it stolen. Several people lost their cameras, everyone lost their cash and a girl who had just returned from the US with a large quantity of duty-free cigarettes lost those, but they left behind all credit cards, laptops and other valuables too big to carry inconspicuously. (But, mysteriously, they opened the computers, turned them on and left them outside in the bushes…) So, we filed a report with the police and, because we couldn’t let it ruin our all-night party, went back to House on Fire, where we continued our weekend. No sense in letting a little thing like robbery ruin a perfectly paid-for weekend festival…

The official party went until 4am on both Friday and Saturday nights, and all day Saturday and Sunday (except for the Saturday morning I spent at site announcement, which I write about later). The highlight of the whole festival was Johnny Clegg’s ridiculously enthusiastic (in a good way) performance on Saturday, followed promptly by torrential rains that ruined my shoes and drove several hundred people onto the tiny indoor dance floor. All things considered, it was an extremely expensive weekend (there were also lots of hand-made earrings for sale, too, which we all know I can’t resist) but completely worth it. Anybody want to join me next August for Bushfire 4? (I’m serious.)

Despite the unfortunate events of that first night at Bushfire, I surprised everyone else who closed down the dance floor and successfully made it to work by 6am on Saturday morning, after about 20 minutes of sleep and a quick shower. I had volunteered myself to help out with site announcement for the new volunteers, which is the big event where they find out where they will be working in for the next 2 years. We made up brochures that said “Congratulations! You’ve won a free 730 day, 729 night stay in Shisizwe in the Shiselweni Region of Swaziland!” and described the country, the life, the job and “must see” recommendations like the value-for-money Streetwise 2 Meal at KFC (I obviously made the brochure…) and made them hard-laminated luggage tags with their photo, site and Peace Corps contact info for their “trip.” Then we used yarn and rocks to make a HUGE horizontal map of Swaziland on the ground so that, after we announced their destination, we could escort them to their sites.

A few days later, they went to their REAL sites for a 5-day visit, after which they were paired up with their closest Group 6 volunteer (that’s my group) for a day or two of shadowing/mentoring. Because I’m all alone out here in the Shis, I was the closest G6er for 3 of the new volunteers, so we met up in Hluti and had a day-long gab-fest and spaghetti slumber party at my house. It happened to be my birthday, so it was nice to spend it with someone other than myself. We went for a hike, played with Eliza and had an intense Q&A session about everything Peace Corps/Swaziland, which helped me remind myself about everything I love about this job and this country. Then, on the 28th, I journeyed up to Mbabane for Group 7’s swearing-in ceremony, where they officially became volunteers. After the ceremony, they were given one night of freedom before moving to their permanent sites on Friday, so, naturally, we took them out to the shadiest night club in Swaziland (Portugalia) as their introduction to Swazi night life. Portugalia, though it’s exceptionally shady, is a blast if you have a big enough entourage to fill the dance floor and influence the DJ—otherwise it’s just full of drunk old men with sneaky hands (sexual harassment and robbery both) and overly-perfumed prostitutes. Last year, when Group 5 took us there the night of our swear-in, we thought they were nuts for thinking it was so fun, but after a year of Swaziland’s version of night life, I completely understand. And, for the record, it WAS fun.

The GRE, however, was NOT such a good time. The GRE, or Graduate Record Exam, is the exam you have to take to attend grad school in the US, and I have been studying for it pretty consistently since November in anticipation of doing a Masters in Public Health program after my two years here. Unfortunately, the closest testing center is in Johannesburg, South Africa, which is approximately 7 sweaty hours in the back of a mini-bus away from my house. Without much else to do (my brain was DONE studying), I made the trek early Monday morning. I’m sure everyone else on the kombi thought I was nuts to be so giddy about the golden arches and other reminders of home, but Jo’burg was like a completely different world from Swaziland. After checking in at the most castle-like backpackers I’ve ever stayed at (Brown Sugar Backpackers, which I 100% recommend to anyone renting a car, but cabs are expensive if you don’t have your own car), I walked to a MALL—a real mall—where I ate McDonald’s and bought a recent Economist and perused a Barnes & Noble-sized book store and hung out at a coffee shop. It was incredible. I even found a store, Stuttaford’s, that sells J.Crew, Banana Republic and Gap clothes, including my fantastic brown flower dress from graduation last year (they’re a season behind). I’ve never been so happy in a dressing room. I spent most of Tuesday doing last-minute panicking about the test, which I actually took on Wednesday morning. The exam went well and my score is good enough to get into any of the schools I’m looking at, but that was by no means the highlight of the trip. I think it’s a three-way tie between the Banana Republic, the Big Mac meal and the sailor costume I bought for E5 (about $0.50). Jo’burg is the land of plenty.

In stark contrast to the surreal experience that was Jo’burg, on the 30th and 31st I attended the very traditional Umhlanga, or Reed Dance, held every August in Lobamba, Swaziland. If you Google “Swaziland” and you see photos of topless pre-pubescent girls dancing with sticks, etc., they’re probably from the Umhlanga. Umhlanga is an annual ceremony that Lonely Planet describes as a “weeklong debutante ball for marriageable young Swazi women, who journey from all over the kingdom to help repair the queen mother’s home at Lobamba.” Basically, every virgin (most between 10 and 18 years old) in the country (a minimum of 4 per chiefdom) are sent to cut one reed each from a designated location of Swaziland and then bring the reeds back to Lobamba, the traditional home of the royal family, to help repair the wall around the home of the queen mother (the king’s mother). After the reeds have been presented (on day 6), the king comes to watch all the girls dance. They come into the Eludzidzini Stadium in a grand procession while chanting, then pass in small groups in front of the stands where the royal family is seated on their way to a single-file line that wraps many times around the stadium grounds. After all the girls have passed, the king, close male relatives, designated high-ranking officers in the “regiment” (army) and a handful of armed security guards make a slow procession through the winding line to “inspect” the girls and, potentially, to choose a wife. In reality, if the king were to decide to take another wife, he would have chosen her and discussed the marriage with her family prior to announcing it at the ceremony, but nobody outside the royal family would know of the arrangement before to the ceremony. This year, though, he didn’t take a wife—not surprising considering the scandal surrounding his last choice of wife, who dropped out of high school to become wife number 13 in 2006. (See Wikipedia for more information…)

Honestly, though, if the king wants you to marry him, you don’t say “no.” I’d probably consent. (This is a big decision that has taken much consideration, but after meeting one of the king’s brothers at Umhlanga and seeing how beautiful his wives and daughters are, I would consider it a great honor to marry the king. I told his brother to let him know. (joking!) Then Peace Corps Volunteers would hate me way more than they hate Brenda Kunene, the topless white woman on the front page of the newspaper a few months back.)

Anyway, it was a pretty awesome experience. I showed up early (nobody was sure what time it started, so we got there at 8 even though the gates didn’t open until 1:45…I don’t know why we expected the king to get up early) and got a fantastic seat in the “VIP” section (because there weren’t enough VIPs), so I was sitting right next to a prince and, because I was in a special red seat, I got a complementary meal and bottled water, not to mention a fantastic view of His Majesty climbing the stairs and, because I was sitting directly below the king’s seat, a front-row seat to all the best dance moves. (If you’re planning on going in the future, I would also advise sitting down LOW, meaning second, third or fourth rows, but no higher. We all argued about this and everyone else went up high, but I stayed down low and got all the best photos even though other people had better cameras.) It was pretty incredible. Apparently there’s an even cooler part after the actual ceremony where women and men split up and the men go with the king and his soldiers and do some dance, and the women go with the princesses and queens and do some other ceremony, but it went late into the night and I wasn’t in love with the idea of paying for a cab to drive us all the way back to Mbabane. Maybe next year (if anyone wants to come visit me in August and go to Bushfire, stay the whole month and go to Umhlanga, that would be fabulous. And I’m still serious).

The one qualm I DID have with the whole ordeal was the intrusive photographers. I mean, I understand that it’s important for National Geographic to have fabulously up-close documentation of the whole thing so that Americans can judge the backward traditionalism of Swazis, but this was just extreme. For example, when the king was making his slow jog procession around the line of maidens, there was a gigantic video camera in his face, surrounded by a cluster of telescopic lens-wielding photographers running backwards so they could catch every drop of sweat glistening on the king’s forehead. Their polo shirts and khakis kind of ruined the atmosphere and took some of the “tradition” out of the traditional ceremony. And then, when the king and his entourage stopped and lined up for a quick photo shoot (which, for the record, he had never done before), half of the white tourists (including a large number of Peace Corps Volunteers) stampeded the group to get their own photo in. It was ridiculous. (I actually took more photos of the stampede than the actual object of the stampede because of the absurdity of the whole ordeal.) There were also a number of presumably Japanese (I don’t mean to be racist, but I was there with a Vietnamese girl who identified them as Japanese) tourists who kept stopping the girls as they were passing by to take photos or jumping into the middle of their procession and making a peace sign to have photos taken. (It was reminiscent of an episode of South Park.) Now, don’t get me wrong, I took photos too. Several hundred of them, in fact. But from the comfort of my own seat, not 6 inches from the girls’ faces. And I don’t even have a very powerful zoom on my new replacement camera (though for the record, Sony cameras are fantastic), as you’ll see below.

In other news, I DID do some work this month. If you can call it that. After the complicated transfer of 14 liters of paint from my school to Nhlangano, Jenn, Jaci and I finally finished the pre-school at Pasture Valley Children’s Home. The Children’s Home, which is run by Michelle and Peter McCubbin, is now housing 23 boys and girls between 9 weeks and 17 years old, many of whom are newly arrived. For the kids too young for Grade 1, the Children’s Home has an English-medium pre-school where kids learn the basics of the alphabet, numbers, months, colors, shapes and the Bible (it’s a Christian children’s home). Anyway, the three of us girls in the Shiselweni Region have been painting the walls of the pre-school bit by bit over the last few weeks, and we finally finished on Friday. There are photos below, but the basic theme is an apple orchard (that bright blue sign now says “Pasture Valley Orchard”), where there’s an apple tree full of numbered apples, a basket of apples on the ground, the sign and lots of grass and flowers. And of course, a fully-illustrated alphabet. It’s super cute and the kids seemed to love it, which is exciting.

Also, if you happen to have extra money that you don’t know what to do with and you’d like to donate it to a charity of sorts, Michelle and Peter would welcome donations. They have a website, too: and apparently their organization is a registered charity, which means that donations may be tax-deductible. They really run a tight ship at Pasture Valley (as I’ve written about before) and I know that 100% of donations would go to the children. For more information on the children’s home and the McCubbins, please see my July 17 Blog titled “Things I’ll Never Understand and People I Love.”

My work at Pasture Valley has inspired me to ask my chief if I could also maybe paint the pre-school near my house with a similar design, or at least with the alphabet, some numbers, shapes and colors. Right now, the pre-school at my NCP (neighborhood care point—where orphans and other malnourished kids in the community go for one meal a day, provided by NGOs and the government) currently has a two-tone wall that is brown on the bottom and light yellow on the top and burned in places from cooking over an open fire indoors. Not exactly a prime learning environment. It’s a community initiative and several bomake (women) in the community take week-long turns running the pre-school, which means that the children just stand in lines according to age, sing a song they’ve learned in church and are rewarded with a bowl of food, after which they are asked to leave so the woman of the week can sweep the building and get home to her children. It’s a great idea and there’s plenty of food (rare for an NCP), but nobody is really teaching pre-school. So maybe I’ll do that. Thanks to a new change to PEPFAR funds, I COULD, too. Now, instead of just getting funding for HIV education projects, we can get money for any initiative aimed at improving the quality of life of orphans or other children affected by HIV/AIDS, which includes every child served by an NCP. Thanks President Obama!

In addition to providing a good example of development work in Swaziland and letting me play with kids all the time, Michelle and Peter have offered me a cat to solve my latest problem: a rat infestation in my tiny little hut. (I hope that everyone who’s coming to visit me in November is reading this…)

It started with a few bites out of a ripe tomato, a hole chewed in a Corn Flakes box and a bit of broom-induced scurrying in the middle of the day, but in the past month my rat problem has multiplied to (what I consider) epic proportions. Every night, as soon as I turn off the light, four gigantic rats scurry into my hut through an unreachably high hole in my wall, climb down the cords connecting my house to the electricity wired in next door, and into my “kitchen.” They proceed to climb all over my stuff, knock over dishes, urinate and defecate without discrimination (on my peanut butter lid), fight loudly with each other, rip open bags of previously edible dry goods, eat my books and clothes, eat all of the superfluous straps on my backpack (maybe I should thank them for that, actually), gnaw on my furniture, steal towels and underwear to build nests in inconvenient places (inside my exercise bike, for example) and generally ruin my life. Every night they wake me up by turning on my exercise bike, which makes a really loud beeping sound that inevitably gives me nightmares about flat-lining (I’ve been watching hospital shows like Scrubs and Gray’s Anatomy). And it’s getting worse, too. Sometimes they don’t even wait until I turn off the light, or I find myself chasing them out in the middle of the day, screaming things like “You’re nocturnal, stupid!” One morning I woke up at 3:45am because my bed was full of wood chips, which some kind rat had dragged up from the growing hole in the dresser I use as a nightstand…while I was in the bed. They’re not afraid of me anymore.

And they’re smart enough that they’ve thwarted each of my attempts to kill them. I started with the classic catch-a-rodent method where I used books to build stairs into a baited 5-gallon bucket. Except, these rats are like small, beady-eyed cats with hairless tails and the only one dumb enough to climb into the bucket just jumped right back out. Then I tried the glue traps my grandmother sent a while ago, which they chewed the corners of as to mock me. I DID manage to catch one that way, purely by chance. I was talking on the phone to the Parentals when, out of nowhere, a little guy started running across the floor. So, naturally, I got my critter-hitting-stick to shoo him out of the house. On his way out, though, he accidentally stepped on the glue trap and I started screaming into the phone (I’m sure my parents remember this) until my Gogo (grandmother) came and killed it for me. Then I bought some expanding foam (the same foam that solved my bat problem) to fill the holes where I’d seen them come in, which worked for a whole day. First, they found other places to come in; then they chewed through the dried foam over their preferred entrance. So, finally, I resorted to traps, which are surprisingly hard to find in this country because Swazis either have cats or just ignore the rats (my family does the latter). I baited them with the peanut butter and popcorn they already ruined and was careful not to touch them with my bare hands so that the rats wouldn’t be deterred by my scent (the man at the hardware store said this was important). But so far the only thing my 3 traps have killed is a pencil, which I used to make sure they worked after several days of disappointingly empty traps every morning, and the ring finger on my right hand, which I slaughtered while trying to set the traps. (These are no normal traps, either. The whole thing is made of metal and the bar that snaps down to catch them has metal teeth on it, which means I have a huge gash in my finger and, theoretically, so would the rats it is meant to catch.)

But I have to win eventually, right? I still have a few options at my disposal: (1) I could mix cement powder with maize meal, flour, sugar or other tasty treat, then place it next to a bowl of water so that when they drink the water their insides harden and they die. Sounds good, except the only small bag of cement you can buy is tile cement and it’s super expensive. (2) There’s a wide variety of rat poison available in Swaziland, except I’m afraid that my dogs will either eat it directly (they’re not very smart) or eat the rat after it dies. Everyone says that dogs don’t eat rats, but I have yet to find something Eliza won’t eat and I happen to like my dog more than I hate the rats, so that’s not a risk I’m willing to take. (3) I could bring in the heavy artillery: a cat. Michelle and Peter’s cat just had 3 kittens and they have offered me my choice of the 2 they don’t want. And, since they’re farm cats, they’re used to hunting and good at catching rats, apparently. And Michelle says they don’t even need to be fed because they can find enough to sustain them around the homestead. I just don’t know how my family and my current dogs would react to a new addition to the homestead.


Perhaps a more pressing issue at this point in my life is what I’m going to do with the rest of my life. Taking the GRE really made me think about my future after the Peace Corps, and the anniversary of my swearing-in (August 28) was a reminder that I’ll eventually have to leave here and figure out what to do with myself. I’m considering a few options.

First, since I’ve taken the GRE already, I’m applying to some graduate programs in Public Health. I really like the program at George Washington because it has an HIV/AIDS focus, but Tulane’s program has a study abroad opportunity in Nairobi and Columbia’s School of Public Health runs a huge organization (ICAP) that I work with here in Swaziland that I would love to have an opportunity to work with more. Johns Hopkins offers LOTS of Peace Corps Fellowships (government- and institute- co-sponsored scholarships for RPCVs) and has a great program on health in crisis situations. So far, I think I’m applying to Columbia (NY), Tulane (LA), George Washington (DC), Johns Hopkins (MD) and maybe a few others. I’m excited to see what kind of cool information they send me all the way in Swaziland.

My second option is extending Peace Corps for a third year here in Swaziland. I’ve talked to Michelle about working for a year on her farm/at the orphanage/with an HIV-related organization that she’s on the board for. The organization, NATICC, does HIV testing, education and training of trainers throughout the Shiselweni Region, which is an area I’m already familiar with, and they’re desperately seeking long-term volunteers. It would be a great resume-building opportunity, plus I’d get some real experience in public health and I’d get to spend another year working with the kids at Pasture Valley.

My final and, at this point leading, option is to finish here in August and go back to Nairobi for a while. I’d like to work on my Kiswahili language skills and work with urban poverty and health issues, which is a completely different beast than rural poverty in Swaziland. It would be a great opportunity to get some experience, plus I’d get the whole Kenya thing out of my system. (It’s common with people who have studied there, I think. Everybody can’t wait to get back.) Plus, a few of the schools I’m interested in require “limited working proficiency” in a modern language other than English, and siSwati doesn’t count. The only problem is that I need to find a job or a volunteer organization that will provide housing. Do you know of anything like that?

No matter what, I’m planning on going to grad school as soon as I get back to the US. It’s just a matter of when that is.


I think that’s all for now. This week I’m in Mbabane for my mid-service medical exams and teeth cleaning (I’m excited!), as well as for the going away party of our beloved Assistant Peace Corps Director who guides us through the whole process of getting money from the government, connects us with valuable resources and teaches us everything else we need to know to do our job effectively. And he’ll be replaced by someone who will, undoubtedly, be inferior. Then, hopefully next week, school will start again and I’ll have something to do all the time. I’m crossing my fingers because I’m all out of TV series to watch.

Love from the Swaz!

(and I promise I won’t go another whole month without writing…)

His Majesty King Mswati III.

G is for Giraffe. Or orange llamas with brown spots. I never claimed to be a GOOD artist.

Swaziland loves wrestling. This is the sign inside the kombi (mini-bus) that I always take. Batista (I think that's who that is...) is going to enforce the "Don't Drink and Drive" rule.

Jenn, the cherry tree and the kids at Pasture Valley Children's Home.

The alphabet and the kids from Pasture Valley.

My sisi Sibongile and the rat she killed while I screamed about it.

Mkelo, Mathedi and Sisi outside the chicken coop. The adults were busy slaughtering a pig while I was taking these photos.

Me with two girls (Anele and Image) from Pasture Valley.

Me and Mpendulo, the baby. He's 9 weeks old now!

Sisi and Eliza (now 5 months) outside the pit latrine.

Me and Charlotte enjoying our free meal at Umhlanga. This photo is me bragging about it.

My favorite part of Umhlanga (other than the meal) was the girl in the foreground carrying toilet paper. They were all carrying something, but mostly sticks. I guess that girl just wanted to be prepared!

All the girls at Umhlanga.

The whole Shiselweni Crew!!! Me, Jenn, Barry and Jaci. We're awesome.