Thursday, May 20, 2010

The internet is really slow today.

I tried to upload a video to Blogger and it took 3 hours and then gave me an error message, so instead I uploaded it to YouTube and you should check it out:

Rain on the roof of my hut

Just Another Friday in the Swaz...

Crossing the lawn in front of the volunteers’ cottage at Pasture Valley, Jenn and I were spooked by a sudden rustling in the bushes on the edge of the nearby woods. We stopped dead in our tracks, took a moment to convince ourselves that there was a stray cow or dog or goat in the dark woods behind the cottage, then resumed our discussion of the sweet potato soup we had planned for dinner. By the light of our cell phones, we made our way onto the cottage’s little porch and juggled our bags to get the key in the door.

In the dim light from the children’s home that came in through the door we could see something lying on the floor in the hallway—something black and lumpy and very out of place. Cautiously I flipped on the breakers and turned on the lights.

Lying in the hallway was a black fleece blanket—the black fleece blanket that was SUPPOSED to be on my bed—and two pillows, also from my bed. Confused, I looked into my bedroom. The bed had been stripped, and Jenn’s blankets were all gone, too. Immediately, we assumed that the kids or the house mothers at the children’s home had decided to wash our linens, which seemed strange but not impossible. And then, after a couple moments of confusion, I realized that my big bag full of clothes was gone. Jenn’s shoes were gone. My backpack, a foam mattress, several spare comforters, gone. We’d been robbed!

Jenn and I stepped out onto the porch to figure out how they’d gotten in (chisel and screwdriver) and to decide what to do next when, to our horror, we heard voices coming from a tree about 30 meters from where we were standing. Whispering, rustling leaves, people. They were still in the woods, watching us! (I took the opportunity to remind them that they were violating a Commandment, which seemed the most logical thing to do at the time.)

Immediately we called Michelle and Peter for help. Peter jumped into his bakkie (small pick-up) and came down with a flashlight and a pistol to sort things out, and the neighbor was dispatched to block off the most likely escape route with his truck. After 15 minutes of fruitless searching, Peter fired a shot into the air to see if he could SCARE the burglars out of their hiding place. It did.

Immediately the burglars (3 of them?) stood up from their hiding place under a big jacaranda tree, turned on their phone flashlights (cell phones here often have flashlights on the top), and came running towards the cottage en route to the main road behind the house. Meanwhile, Jenn and I were freaking out: we’d heard a gunshot from a gun we could only HOPE was Peter’s, criminals were running straight towards us in a panic, and our only refuge from the madness was a house without a locking door. The closest thing to a weapon we could find in the house was an 8-inch bread knife, which didn’t offer us much peace of mind.

Long story short, they got away. We spent the whole evening giving statements to the police (who kept asking really inappropriate and irrelevant questions about my marital status and sexual preferences) and trying to piece together what had happened and what was missing.

Apparently, after forcing their way into the house and discovering that the electricity was turned off, they found their way around the house using the bulk of a box of matches, which we found strewn around the floor in the cottage. This means that they were obviously there in the dark, which is scary because it had only been dark about 15 minutes when we got home, so they had JUST been there. They made off with my big clothing bag (the contents of which they left behind, thankfully), and rooted through all the kitchen cabinets in search of…something. (The only thing they took from the kitchen was a bag full of plastic grocery bags, which we later found in the woods.) From the bedrooms they took Jenn’s flip-flops, three duvets, a set of sheets, three wool blankets, a foam mattress, the daypack that matches my big backpack, and my new scarf. We (and the police) think that they probably broke into the house earlier that day or the previous night, but had come back for more. Fortunately (because they didn’t get more) or unfortunately (because we were scared to death), we interrupted their second attempt.

It could have been worse, though. We could have been there when they broke in, or walked in on them robbing us and had to deal with them when they were cornered and defensive. We could have dropped our bags off there in the afternoon, like we normally do, and I could have had my computer or external hard drive or money stolen. They could have taken more essential or expensive things like the countertop oven unit or the DVDs. They could have been armed and stood up to Peter, or they could have come back. (They did actually come back that night because one of them dropped a cell phone. We could hear it but didn’t think it was smart to go rooting through the woods in search of a burglar’s cell phone. By morning it was gone, which means they came back for it later that night. Creepy.) All things considered, it was a pretty pathetic robbery on their part, which is lucky for us. (It could have been better though…had we brought the dog with us like we normally do, had we put the padlock on the burglar door, had we left the outside lights on…)

The only thing I’m really upset about (aside from the whole feeling like my space and privacy were violated and being suspicious of every man I see on the road around the cottage) is that they got away with the fantastic wool blanket I bought in Lesotho. Remember the one I raved about for a full paragraph in Blog about Lesotho? Yeah, the superblanket that got me through one of the coldest and wettest nights of my life, and my only souvenir of Lesotho: gone. Jenn’s too. The frustrating thing is that last week I literally had it in my bag to take it home but then decided that I was sick and didn’t feel like carrying it. The good news, though, is that the blanket is really distinctive and I have a photo of it to prove that it’s mine so there’s a very very slim chance of finding it hanging on someone’s laundry line or something. In all likelihood, though, the only thing that’s going to come out of having reported this to the police is the daily phone calls and text messages I keep getting to remind me that I’m beautiful and that various officers would like to marry/procreate with me. (Sexual harassment in Swaziland knows no boundaries.) But if I see anyone wearing my scarf or carrying my backpack, I’m going to seriously consider punching them in the face.

HOPEFULLY this was a one-time thing, but I’m still going to be more cautious in the future. The scary part about having interrupted them in their robbery is that there’s obviously something in the house they still want, which means that maybe they’ll come back. But we’re trying our best to prevent that. Michelle and Peter are beefing up security around the cottage (the electric fence had been shorted out so they’re going to fix it and try to prevent it in the future), keeping the outside lights on at the cottage, doing nightly checks of the property. There’s also the burglar door (which we stupidly had left unlocked), bars over all the windows, and a new handle/lock and deadbolt on the door, which should hopefully deter future attempts to break in. And in the future I’ll insist on having Ted, the farm’s 150-pound dog, escort me to the cottage. And I’ve ordered some pepper spray, which I think is more for my psychological well-being than anything. (It’s never fun to feel unsafe where you live/work, and this ordeal has made me super paranoid.)

[Note for Group 8 volunteers coming next month: Don’t be freaked out by this! It really is rare in Swaziland, and basically unheard of on our homesteads because of our houses’ proximity to other houses and people and dogs. BUT, that said, I would recommend two things: (1) bring a key-entry padlock (Master lock) because all the ones you buy here have similar keys, rust shut, and are easily opened with methylated spirits or other chemicals, and (2) ALWAYS lock your burglar door, especially at night, so that you don’t kick yourself later if you DO get robbed. If our burglar door had been locked, this probably never would have happened.]

In OTHER news…

Compared to the weekend, my week has been pretty uneventful. (Maybe that’s because it’s only been 4 days since my last Blog post…)

I DID have a couple more meetings with the Support Group and the head nurse at Our Lady of Sorrows clinic in an attempt to get started with my partnership project. I’m a little discouraged because I thought the project would take off right after getting funded, but, as usual, Swaziland has delayed progress unnecessarily. A couple of weeks ago, the executive committee sat through a couple of meetings to get official permission from the chief to do the project, then to get permission from the inkhundla (county) committee. (I didn’t take part in this because the meetings are like 6 hours long and 100% in SiSwati.) Today, three of the Support Group members headed out to the existing garden to decide if they want to expand it or not, to count the number of holes we need to dig, and to draw up a work schedule so that all the Support Group’s members are included in the project. Yeah, it’s finally almost starting to happen.

And then yesterday I got some very unexpected news. For almost 2 years the clinic’s head nurse and the Support Group’s executive committee have been submitting monthly proposals to the inkhundla (county) to get poles, fence, and tools for the garden. For almost 2 years, the committee has either ignored these proposals or outright rejected them…until I went off and secured funding from another source. Apparently when the Support Group’s Chairperson asked for permission to do the project it reminded the inkhundla that the other proposal existed, and now they’re offering to help with the project. They have “promised” (I won’t believe it until I see it!) to purchase and deliver the poles and fencing for the project with money provided by the government for rural development projects, and they’ve said that we will have the supplies by mid-June. This is fantastic because (1) it gets the local community involved in the project and gives them ownership of the final product, and (2) it frees up more money from MY budget to expand the garden or buy fruit trees or host a larger nutrition workshop or put more taps in to distribute water from the borehole. But it’s also annoying because it shouldn’t take ME raising funds for the inkhundla committee to do its job! (According to government, hundreds of thousands of Emalangeni in rural development funds remain unspent every year because “people don’t apply for the grants.” Really, it’s because the inkhundla doesn’t bother to distribute the funds because they don’t want to oversee the projects. Frustrating.) Plus, now we can’t buy any supplies until we find out what they’re planning on paying for. Another delay, but hopefully it will be worth our while.

Meanwhile, I’m focusing on the Bambanani project. We have a week to roll, varnish, and string hundreds of beads, put together some mobiles, make at least 40 more pairs of earrings, figure out packaging for all our products, design and build a display table of sorts, create a new business card and product tag, decide on prices, and organize ourselves for what will hopefully be a successful weekend of sales at Bushfire Music Festival. And, considering that most of our products are made of paper, we’re crossing our fingers that there won’t be a torrential downpour at the concert like there was last year…

That’s all for now. I have a fabulous afternoon full of movies and paper bead rolling ahead of me. I love my job.

Love from the Swaz!

(P.S. If any Group 8 volunteer has questions in the next month, feel free to contact me at If not, I’ll see you in July!)

These are the fantastic flowers that many of the aloe plants in Swaziland grow this time of year. Sometimes, if the aloe plants are very old, there are HUNDREDS of them in a big bunch, one on top of each other, each with a bright orange and yellow flower thing. This one is probably about 10 inches tall and 6 inches in circumference.

Some of the earrings made by the older girls at Pasture Valley Children's Home. The green and orange one on the right uses some of the seeds we gathered last week from a tree next to the building where we have our workshops. We gathered hundreds of seed pods, each with about 15 seeds inside, and drilled holes through each individual seed. We also use acorns (which we varnish to a nice shine) and the seeds from an indigenous melon that look kind of like red watermelon seeds.

Two of the boys at Pasture Valley Children's Home preparing melon for our melon and ginger preserves. The melon they use is called something like "beca" (the c is a click) and looks and tastes like an unripe watermelon. (You know the part between the pink of the melon and the rind? Yeah, the whole melon tastes like that.) Swazis usually chop and boil it down into a porridge-like consistency, then eat it as a dessert with lots of sugar. Or feed it to pigs. It grows wild in most areas.

Three of our women from the Dwaleni group showing off the necklaces they made. We've been working with the women since mid-March and so far have produced 82 necklaces, which is pretty amazing. Every week the quality and creativity is improving, and we're really optimistic about the future of the project. (Which is good because right now we're financing it 100% out of pocket...)

Day 4 of African Tick Bite Fever. I don't think this photo adequately conveys the nastiness that was (and still is) this sore. After this stage, it formed a gross little blister thing in the middle, which burst, and then the whole thing started rotting away. Unfortunately I don't have photos of that stage of the sickness because the antibiotic cream I put on it made it extremely reflective so none of the photos came out. But, trust me, it was gross.

Two of the girls at Pasture Valley and Gogo Constance (one of the house mothers) making earrings and necklaces for the Bushfire Music Festival. Each of the kids who wants to help us make jewelry gets paid for their creations, and the two who are the most involved with the project get to come to the music festival to sell with us. Gogo mostly just makes earrings for herself.

This is about how many beads I can make in a particularly productive evening of movies and paper bead rolling. I tend to go for the bright colors, but lately I've also been making beads that are just white with black print on them and I've been stringing them with brightly colored glass beads. I've also been making some out of newspaper and then painting them with designs before varnishing them, which is a pretty unique look. I also made the bowl they're in out of paper mache one day when I was bored and had some excess newspaper and glue.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The beginning of the end...

I first had the realization that I’d be leaving Swaziland while ringing in the New Year at House on Fire. I saw people running around with funny “2010” hats and thought to myself, “Man, that’s the year I leave Swaziland!” Since then, I’ve tried in earnest to suppress that realization, and I’ve been pretty successful. Until, of course, Peace Corps decided to host a conference all about how we have to leave Swaziland and go back to the scary world where people don’t consider playing with children and making paper beads actual work. So now it’s official: I’m leaving (in a few months).  

I don’t know why, but I’m surprised by this. When I first arrived in Swaziland almost 2 years ago, 26 months seemed like a lifetime. Now, 22 months later, I can’t decide if it’s been the slowest or fastest 22 months of my life. In some ways, it seems like I’ve only just arrived: I haven’t accomplished as much as I thought I would during my time, I still have a lot of siSwati I’d like to learn, I find out new things about my community/neighbors/Swaziland every day, and I still quite vividly remember my last mango margarita in Philly the night before I left the US. (Yes, I had margaritas with my last dinner in the US. Surprised?) But in some ways, it feels like I’ve been here forever: I feel at home in my little hut, I have a wonderful host family that I’m very close to and an adorable dog, I’ve seen babies born and students graduate high school, and I’ve completed several worthwhile projects in the community. And now that I have worked so hard to establish relationships and a role and “roots” in the community, I have to pack up and leave to go on to the rest of my life. And, since this time I’m not blinded by the excitement of the adventure of Peace Corps, I think leaving Swaziland will be a lot more difficult than leaving the US was.

The biggest worry for me is leaving my host family. When I left the US, I knew that my friends and family would be fine without me. I planned to talk to them on the phone, they promised to send care packages, some planned to visit, and I knew that I would still have them when I returned to the US. But now, as I prepare to leave Swaziland, I don’t have that. What if, after I leave, baby Mpendulo gets sick and nobody has E5 ($0.75) to take him to the clinic and he ends up with pneumonia? If Mkhulu dies, what happens to all of the kids on the homestead? Who will be around to answer Gogo’s questions when the nurses at the clinic change her ARV medication and she doesn’t understand the new dosage instructions? Who will feed Eliza and douse her in flea powder every week and call the vet if she gets sick? How will I know if the people I love are sick or hungry or can’t afford to pay for school? Even if I DO know, what can I possibly do about it from half a world away?

Sometimes when I’m particularly frustrated with some aspect of life in Swaziland—gender inequality, apathetic teachers, limited access to medical care, etc.—I remind myself that I’m only here for 2 years and that the whole experience is kind of temporary. When I’ve needed money in the past 22 months, I’ve tapped into my bank account in the US, and I’ve always known that I have my parents as a financial safety net. When I’ve run out of food, I’ve gone to town to buy more so I didn’t have to go to bed hungry. Peace Corps has always been a phone call away for medical or safety-related emergencies, ready to send a car for me. And I’ve always known that if it got really bad, I could just quit and go back to the US where things were more normal. 

But for the people I’m leaving behind here, Swaziland IS their normal. It’s all they know, and there’s no escaping it. For the kids on my homestead, poor quality education and untrained teachers IS their normal. Prohibitively expensive emergency services that only operate Monday through Friday ARE normal in Swaziland. The girls on my homestead will be the targets of sexual harassment their whole lives, and the boys will probably grow up to be perpetually unemployed. While I’m busy studying at Tulane and traveling through Africa, the 25-year-old women in my community will be taking care of their 4 children and hoping that their husbands don’t bring HIV home from their other girlfriends/wives. While I’m buying new clothes and eating at all-you-can-eat buffets in the US, my host bhutis and sisis will be mending their old school uniforms and eating the same porridge-and-veggie mixture they eat every night. How do I leave Swaziland and return to “normal” life in the US without being overwhelmed by guilt and worry?

This, essentially, is what we talked about at our Close of Service (COS) conference: what we’ve done, what we’ve learned, how we’ve changed, and all of the emotional and logistical things we have to deal with when we leave and attempt to re-establish a life back in the US. In addition to forcing me to think about all the anxiety associated with leaving Swaziland, COS conference also made me realize just how much I’ve changed over the past 2 years. There are all the obvious things like learning a new language and finding a passion for public health, but there’s a whole slue of more subtle things, too. I’ve become more confident in an ‘I can do anything’ slash ‘Don’t mind me, I’m just singing in public’ kind of way. I’ve learned how to be alone without being lonely. I’ve developed a tea-and-biscuits habit and have actually come to see it as a necessary part of a productive day. I’ve re-defined concepts like “walking distance” and “keep refrigerated.” I’ve learned to be less wasteful, to make the most of what I have without wanting more, and to take quick water-saving showers (which is a pretty amazing feat for me). I’ve gotten over my fear of fire and I’ve caught myself saying things like, “Oh good, it’s just a bat.” And that’s just what I see. 

The past two years have been an incredible journey for me, both personally and professionally—an experience I wouldn’t trade for all the running water and reliable public transportation in the world. And, even though my Peace Corps service is coming to an end, I know that I’m not done with Swaziland. I’ll definitely come back to visit my host family (and Eliza) and to check up on the sustainability of my projects. Maybe I’ll end up doing research for my Master’s thesis in Swaziland (it IS a pretty good place to do HIV-related research), or I’ll come back as a volunteer. Or maybe after graduate school I’ll come back as a public health professional so I have more to give. 

But, for now, I’m focusing on finishing up projects and tying up loose ends before I leave. With that and all the paperwork I have to do for Peace Corps, it’s going to be a busy final three and a half months! So here’s what’s going on in the Swaz:

1. My partnership project (the community garden and water project that many of you helped to fund) is FINALLY getting off the ground. The support group has harvested all of the maize they planted last year, and after a good burn we’ll be ready to extend the fence and put in the new poles (hopefully starting this week). Meanwhile, the borehole-digging company has agreed to do a new survey for free (it usually costs about $1500), which is fantastic money-saving news but, unfortunately, means that they will be surveying at their leisure. I’ll keep you all updated on the progress of the project in the coming weeks.

2. Our jewelry-making project, Bambanani, is gearing up for its first big exhibition at Bushfire Music Festival at the end of the month. So far, our group of ladies (with the help of the older girls at Pasture Valley) have made 82 necklaces, 64 pairs of earrings, 3 bracelets, and a whole bunch of cloth bags and preserves. We’re trying to incorporate all sorts of found or recycled art, including acorns and other seeds we find in the bush and rolled paper beads, to create unique “wearable art” items. Bushfire will be our first big test of our market and our product, and we’re frantically trying to get everything—the display, the brochures, the signs, etc.—done before the 28th of the month!

3.  I've spent the past couple of weeks gathering brochures and things about TB, HIV, breastfeeding, nutrition, diabetes, and other health issues in SiSwati so that I can better design billboards about health-related topics for my bus stop art project. Hopefully this week I'll get started on the actual painting, and I'll definitely post lots of pretty pictures of my work on my Blog. The only challenge will be getting a 20L (5 gallon) bucket of paint up a hill to the main road so I can actually use it! It will be a chore, but I'm definitely looking forward to the painting part. Plus it will be nice to feel like I've left behind something TANGIBLE!

4. This past week, I got African Tick Bite Fever. It sounds like a joke, but it's totally not. Basically, at some point (probably in my sleep...I blame Eliza) I got bit by a tick on my arm. 72 hours later, I started feeling like death. Fever, vomiting, dizziness, muscle aches, etc. It was terrible. Peace Corps came down and picked me up from Pasture Valley (that's where I was) and drove me up to Mbabane and gave me lots of antibiotics and pain killers and anti-nausea medication, so I spent the next 4 days half-conscious at a B&B where I had the best food in Swaziland for 3 meals a day. It would have been fantastic if I hadn't felt so much like death. But I'm fine now, aside from the antibiotic-induced nausea that I am still experiencing, and I know to be more careful about ticks. I'll post photos next week when I'm on a computer that allows me to compress files (otherwise they take HOURS to upload...).

That's all for today, methinks. I have a fun story for you all, but I'll post that on Thursday so check back then!

Until then, salani kahle! 

Love from the Swaz.


Another PCV, Darryn, came to visit a couple of weeks ago and we spent an afternoon painting the swingset my parents and I built in March (and ruining children's clothes). We distracted about 10 of them from preschool and painted their hands, then had them do handprints all over the posts and poles and planks. They learned colors while they were doing it, plus they got to get all messy with paint (despite our best efforts to keep it off their clothes!). Win, win.