Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Happy Swaziversary to me.

(That's "Swaziland" and "anniversary" smushed together. I laughed out loud in public when I thought of that. For serious.)

Two years and 4 days ago I stepped off a sleepless 23-hour trans-Atlantic flight into the familiar diesel fumes and hot metal smell of Africa and, drunk with excitement (and maybe a couple mini-bottles of red wine), boarded a luxury coach bound for the Kingdom of Swaziland. Thus began the two-year countdown leading up to…well, last Friday. Though the celebration was non-existent (I had far superior alternative plans), the self-reflection was hard to avoid. So here it is: The Second Annual Laundry List of Things I’ve Done in Swaziland.

In the past 734 days, I have…

…survived Pre-Service Training, including basic instruction in SiSwati, the addition of 35 friends to my life, and 2 months living in the living room of a family with no concept of “privacy.”

…made a reasonably comfortable home of an earwig- and bat- and rat-infested cement hut with no running water, no insulation from the weather, and unreliable electricity, and become completely accustomed to bucket baths and my pit latrine.

…survived an electrical fire, two lightening strikes, 2 minor car/kombi accidents, 1 encounter with African tick bite fever, and 2 terrible bouts of food poisoning.

…taught 62 lessons on HIV/AIDS and Life Skills, 25 English language classes, and 24 business studies classes at various high schools, plus an entrepreneurship skills workshop for sex workers and sex ed workshops to several populations of post-pubescent girls.

...celebrated 3 birthdays, 2 Christmases, 2 Thanksgivings, 2 New Years (how do I make that plural?), and at least 2 of every other holiday either alone in my hut or with relative strangers.

…redefined my concept of “walking distance” to include anywhere I can walk before finishing the liter of water in my Nalgene (roughly 15 kilometers), and my definition of “dinner” to include things like popcorn dipped in mashed avocado.

…lost count of the number of men I have seen urinating in public.

...re-learned several elementary-level skills like long division, fractions, and sentence diagramming while helping my host brothers and sisters with their homework.

…learned to read, write, speak, and understand one of the most useless and obscure languages ever with what the Peace Corps deems “advanced proficiency.”

…hosted 7 visitors from home, 15 other volunteers, and 2 friends from Mbabane in my little hovel.

...become a very experienced hitch-hiker (so far without consequences like kidnapping or death).

…spent approximately 340 hours on public transportation, not including the countless hours spent sitting in the bus rank waiting for the kombi/bus/sprinter to leave or the time spent on the side of the road waiting for the broken-down bus/kombi/sprinter to be repaired or replaced.

…counseled my pregnant host sister on the prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV and adherence to anti-retroviral treatment, and then cried tears of joy with her when baby Mpendulo tested negative. (Undoubtedly the single happiest moment of my life.)

…sent 28 rather expensive faxes to the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, each of which was neatly filed away in a file labeled “Justine Amos” and then ignored.

…spent (mostly) relaxing weeks in St.Lucia, Maputo, Tofo, Jo’burg, Cape Town, Lesotho, and countless places of interest throughout Swaziland.

…developed a completely unnatural obsession with East Coast Radio, the Big Breakfast morning show, and the evening show’s host Jane Linley-Thomas, and a fondness for the mix Top 40 crap and obscure songs from the 80’s and 90’s that ECR plays.

…facilitated 9 monthly meetings of a regional support group for HIV-positive youth and assisted in the organization of another support group for HIV-positive adults.

…counted over 100,000 co-trimoxizole (CTX), anti-retroviral therapy, ibuprofen, folic acid, and erythromycin tablets at Our Lady of Sorrows Clinic in the absence of their usual pharmacist.

…written (and had successfully funded) 3 PEPFAR grants, 1 Peace Corps Partnership proposal, and 2 other grant proposals that have been submitted to the Global Fund, UNDP, and other organizations, plus 4 newspaper articles and 1 Columns feature article on Peace Corps/Swaziland, 1 updated Life Skills manual, 2 websites, several graduate school applications, 6 trimester reports for Peace Corps, and over 100 blogs.

…been robbed on 3 separate and equally inconvenient occasions.

…painted two wall-sized world maps, 1 map of Swaziland, 4 billboards about HIV prevention and testing (so far), 2 pre-schools, and 3 versions of my hut’s interior because of mold problems (and OCD).

…developed such an automatic response to marriage proposals that if someone ever proposes to me for real I’m bound to roll my eyes and call him a liar.

…washed approximately 280 loads of laundry by hand (about 4 basins of laundry each week) and then dried them on the barbed wire fence.

…consumed 4 huge bottles of hand sanitizer and countless purse-sized ones, yet only 4 bottles of shampoo/conditioner 2-in-1 (hygiene is not a big concern here).

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

…broken/lost/had stolen 3 cameras and 3 cell phones.

…mourned the loss of friends from Group 5 and Group 6 when they completed their contracts or decided to leave early.

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

…witnessed the birth of 4 goat kids, 13 piglets, 4 puppies and 1 calf, and the deaths of several more goats, piglets, puppies, and calves, and participated in the deaths of 3 chickens, 3 bats, 2 black mambas and countless spiders and cockroaches.

…consumed over 40 liters of peanut butter, 90 loaves of bread, 300 rooibos tea bags, 3 pounds of Jolly Ranchers, 750 Tootsie Rolls, several lifetimes worth of beef jerky, and countless bags of popcorn.

…read nearly 200 books and watched about as many movies, plus many seasons of Grey’s Anatomy, Scrubs, The Office, Sex & the City, Weeds, Heroes, The Wire, Arrested Development, Greek, Psych, 30 Rock, Flight of the Conchords, and others…some of them several times.

…come to call Swaziland “home,” to love my homestead as my “family,” and to see my site as my “community.”

And thousands of other things. Every day in Swaziland I have triumphs and failures, frustrations and minor epiphanies. I’ve grown as a person, figured out what it is I want to do with my life (to a greater degree than before, at least), and experienced something so unique and amazing that I am certain it will shape me for the rest of my life.

There’s a philosophy of Peace Corps that we all joke about that goes something like this: "Volunteers in Asia come back spiritually enlightened. Volunteers from South America come back politically aware. Volunteers from Africa come back drunk and laughing." And I think that's just about right.

(Another PCV joke: The optimist sees the glass as half full, the pessimist as half empty. The PCV looks at half a glass of water and says "Hey, I could bathe in that!" Hilarious, methinks, in a sad but very, very true way.)

Anyway, I've still got a few things to do before I can consider my Swazi experience complete. I have various work-related things to do (my partnership, painting waiting rooms), lots of paperwork and medical stuff for Peace Corps, and some exploring (namely Sibebe and Malalotja, but also a possible birthday trip to Durban?) left to do. And then I'll move somewhere else (Tanzania, USA, etc.) and begin some elaborate plan to return to this wonderful country I have come to love as my own.

For those of you wondering about my partnership project, I'm making ACTUAL progress this week. I had a meeting this morning with the big, scary head nun at Our Lady of Sorrows Mission (turns out she's really nice and I should've just talked to her ages ago), and while I was sitting in her office we made calls to borehole-drilling companies and scheduled a meeting for later in the week to do the survey and figure everything out. We're trying to finagle the budget so we can fix an old borehole (we need to change out the lead pipes for PVC pipes), dig a new borehole, set up a solar/electric water pump, build a large raised water tank out of metal, run a series of taps through the garden space, and build a stronger and more permanent fence around the garden. Some dietician just came down from Italy with her gynaecologist husband to volunteer in my community for two years (it's strange because I'M supposed to be the token white girl in the community...) and she wants to do a series of workshops on nutrition with the support group, so I guess I don't have to pay for that! And the mission is willing to cover any extra costs the project ends up having because they've kind of changed the game plan a bit, but they PROMISE we'll get moving on it this weekend. Hopefully next week I'll have some work-related photos to post.

But until then, it seems I only take pictures of signs...

The view from my bus window on my long trip back home from Mbabane. This is a typical Swazi roadside market, complete with water jugs and 50-cent haircuts and fresh produce and welders. And a "spaza phone." I'm not entirely sure what the word "spaza" means, but contextually I've decided it means "public" or "rented" because a Spaza Phone is a landline phone you pay by the minute to use. This particular one is called "Zak's Spaza Phone," which always makes me think of my brother (Zak) when I drive past it.

A sign in the Manzini bus rank. Apparently, 21 May 2011 is Judgment Day. There have already been a couple of Judgment Days in Swaziland since I've been here, but this is the best advertized.

Walking back from a workshop last week, I passed a bunch of light poles each with a little bit of permanent marker graffiti on it. Curious, I went back to the beginning of the sidewalk and started reading them in order, and they put together some sort of poem. This is the first one. "Feel it, it's here" is the slogan of the local TV station that is showing the World Cup games, and the poem was kind of a rant about how everyone thinks the World Cup is so important but even after it's gone there are still things that need to be done, things that need to be developed, things that need to be the focus of global attention. I guess it was one of those American Beauty-esque "there's so much beauty in the world" moments for me and I found something very amusing, charming even, in the writing. I took pictures of a few I passed when nobody was around to see me.

This is the last of the poles. "Ayoba" (pronounced eye-OH-buh) is a South African slang term that roughly translates as "awesome." It's used as an interjection, kind of. But for the World Cup, it's used in advertizing for the phone company MTN. My favorite use of the word is "ayobaness," but I also appreciate the phrase "it's ayoba time."

The sign at the main intersection on the edge of Manzini. The "robots" have been "faulty" for a couple of weeks now, I think. I also think that The Faulty Robots would be a great name for a punk band.

Baby Mpendulo turns 1 on Wednesday! I can't believe it! I'm in town today to buy a cake so that he can get frosting all over his face and I can take pictures like a proud first-time mom, even though technically he's not my child. I have the "Happy Birthday" streamers and hats and everything, courtesy of a care package from my parentals, ready and I fully intend to celebrate this kid's birthday with an excess of enthusiasm completely foreign to my host family. It's pretty incredible that he's still alive, honestly, and that he's still HIV-negative, and after losing two other kids before their first birthdays I think my sisi (sister) will appreciate the celebration.

Finally, the sad state of my socks. This is what happens when rats invade your house and take up residence in your sock drawer. Granted, I haven't had a rat problem since I got Patrick (the cat), but Patrick came into my life a little late to spare my favorite pair of wool socks. Sucks, too because this sock's mate is completely un-gnawed on. So I wear them anyway. It's Swaziland, nobody cares.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Stories about penises

Yesterday, I was on a Sprinter mini-bus heading to Manzini when a man in his mid-30s got on and sat down next to me. He laughed at my SiSwati name, asked me if I had a boyfriend, and then asked me if he could put his jackhammer between my legs. I rolled my eyes and looked away, staring blankly out the window, preoccupied with hateful thoughts about inappropriate Swazi men.

"Sisi! Sisi!" He kept trying to get my attention. I finally gave in and glared back in his general direction. There, standing in the aisle between the seats, was the conductor (the person who takes the money), trying to find a place to store a jackhammer for the rest of the ride. And then I felt like a jerk.

But seriously, how was I supposed to know the man had an actual jackhammer? And how was my singleness in any way relevant to the storage of his jackhammer? What would YOU have assumed? I guess if there's a moral to this story, it's that I shouldn't assume that every random word a Swazi man says to me is a euphemism for a sex organ/act. (Though most of the time, my assumption WOULD be correct.)

On a somewhat related note, the Prime Minister of Swaziland, Mr. Sibusiso Barnabas Dlamini, recently called for all Members of Parliament (MPs) to be circumcised. Circumcision has been shown to decrease a man's susceptibility to HIV infection (the foreskin is naturally porous and is a great entry point for the virus into the body, so removing it makes it more difficult for the virus to enter the body), and he said that MPs should lead by example and encourage Swazi men to circumcise. The Swazi Times, the biggest newspaper in the country, interviewed 6 MPs about the issue, asking them if they were circumcised and if they supported the idea. My favorite response is from MP Peter Ngwenya-Ntontozi:

"Ngwenya said he did not know if he was circumcised or not. 'I am not too supportive of the idea because what if in future things go wrong and then there are calls for the stopping of circumcision? Where would I then get my foreskin from?'"

'Nuff said.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

This is my life.

There have been countless times in the last two years when, overwhelmed or disappointed by Swaziland, I’ve taken a critical look at my life and asked myself “What the hell am I doing here?” Sometimes, when I can’t feel my toes as I’m trying to fall asleep, I kick myself for giving up my cozy little temperature-controlled apartment in DC. When I’m making popcorn for dinner for the fifth consecutive night, I obsess about seafood chimichangas and lime-raspberry swirl margaritas from Guapo’s that I could be eating if only I had chosen a different course in life. But just when I’m beginning to get discouraged, or when I’m starting to wish that I hadn’t come here in the first place, some seemingly insignificant event brings me back to reality and reminds me that I couldn’t be happier anywhere else.

This week, after a particularly terrible class at Jericho High School and nearly 3 hours sitting on a dusty road waiting for public transport, it was Bob Marley that brought me back. As I hurled my 30-pound backpack into the front seat of the long-awaited kombi, disappointed with my apathetic class, frustrated with the cold and windy weather, and angry at the high-decibel sermon blaring from the kombi’s speakers, I planned to wallow in self-pity for the duration of the trip home. Until, perhaps sensing my foul mood, the kombi driver put in a Bob Marley CD and cranked up the volume. Almost instantly, the driver and the kombi’s 10 other passengers started belting out the lyrics to “Is This Love” and “I Shot the Sheriff” and, suddenly, I remembered why I was in Swaziland: because nowhere else in the world would I find myself traveling down a winding dirt road in a mini-bus full of singing strangers…and call it “work.”

All in all it’s been a pretty good week, and I have high hopes for the foreseeable future. I’m making progress on my bus shelter billboard painting campaign and presenting my progress thus far to Peace Corps at a meeting on Thursday. I’m meeting this week with the borehole company that will hopefully be doing the water project in my community, and the clinic should know by the end of the week when we’ll get started on the garden part of the project. I’m representing the Bambanani project at a big event about recycling and attending a workshop about marketing Swazi handicrafts overseas. Plus I’m getting a long overdue haircut, which always makes for a good week. Amazing.

And now, for a change of format, here’s my week in photos:

I’ve become pretty well-acquainted with the bus rank in Nhlangano. Seriously, I spend a couple of hours there every week and, being the only white girl who frequents the place, I’ve gotten to know most of the pushy bus conductors, the men who offer to carry heavy bags for a couple of coins, the woman with the pronounced limp who sells oversized rolls of toilet paper and suspicious little bags of traditional herbs, the obnoxious kombi drivers who fight with each other and flirt shamelessly with me. I’ve even gotten to know the “schedules” of the kombis I take most frequently. Nothing is exact, but I’ve noticed that the kombi to Jericho High School usually fills between 8:15 and 8:30 in the morning, and that the kombi to Hluti hardly ever leaves between 11:15 and 2:00. And it only took me 2 years of sitting around in the bus rank to figure it out! Success, I say.

I think I’ve mentioned before the ridiculous importance that Swazi public schools place on sports. I know I’ve complained about my classes being cancelled for “sports day,” when schools are closed so that 15 soccer players from each school can meet in town for a day-long tournament without having make-up work to do. I’ve even attended the sports days to watch my students put 1000% more effort into their netball games than their English homework, but this is just too much. It’s the official crest of Jericho High School, which reads “Knowledge is power. Sport is life.” Really? I was pretty sure that sport was just a hobby for those of us not gifted enough to make a profession of it. For LeBron James, yes, sport is life. But for the rest of us, sport is less important than knowledge. (It’s supposed to be, at least.)

I’m continually impressed with the ingenuity of Swazi women, and my host family’s make (mother) Sibongile is no exception. Here, she’s weaving a grass mat using a homemade loom of sorts that’s made from a tree trunk with notches cut in it, white plastic fibers unwoven from a feed sack, and a bunch of C-sized batteries that she’s collected over the years. She wraps the fibers from the feed sacks around the batteries, which are attached to the loom, and then wraps the batteries around the pieces of grass to connect each piece of grass to the one before it. I sat and watched her do this for 20 minutes and still couldn’t figure out exactly how it worked, but she’s quite the grass mat-making professional and makes quite a business of selling them in the community, since these kinds of grass mats are what most people in the community (my host family included) sleep on. This particular one in the photo she was making for her niece Lindiwe who came to stay with us for most of the week.

On Tuesday, while sitting in the kombi at the Nhlangano bus rank, I realized that I didn’t have a photo of PSI’s “A Man Knows” logo and slogan, which I planned to paint on a billboard the following day. I guess I could’ve gone back to the internet cafe and printed one out, but instead I found one of my kombi conductor friends and asked him to find me one that I could photograph. PSI (an American NGO that does HIV-related work in Swaziland) started this campaign to get men to test for HIV that basically says that a REAL man knows his HIV status, and they’d been putting stickers with the logo and whatnot on kombis in Manzini and Mbabane. So all I had to do was find one of the stickers. Feeling lazy, I sent my friend off to find me a kombi with a sticker on it, which he did. But even after I’d gotten my photos, other kombi drivers kept coming up and wanting me to take photos of THEIR stickers, which they were obviously very proud of. It started an interesting conversation, among the kombi drivers and myself, about the campaign and the importance of testing and who had been tested and who hadn’t yet and what sorts of behaviors put men at risk for HIV. It’s so funny to see what sorts of educational endeavors actually STICK in Swaziland and which ones are completely ignored, and I was impressed with the effectiveness of this particular campaign. Kudos, PSI!

So on Wednesday, after finding my “thumbs up” logo in the bus rank, I set out to Hluti with fellow PCVs Darryn, Brandon, and Laura, to beautify the bus shelters with messages about the importance of HIV testing. We used the “A Man Knows” logo and whatnot from PSI, and also another of PSI’s campaigns about the importance of couples testing for HIV together. It was a fantasticly productive morning/afternoon, and I am VERY impressed with the outcome. I still have a few finishing touches to put on this week (like the hours that the clinic offers free testing), but I think we did a great job. We certainly attracted a lot of attention! In this photo is the “thumbs up” logo expertly drawn by Darryn and Brandon using the grid method that makes drawing possible for the artistically challenged.

The full sign reads “A Man Knows he is not a man until he tests.” There’s a bright yellow box on the far left where I’ll write “FREE TESTING” and then have the hours for free HIV testing at both Hluti Clinic and OLOS Clinic, but I need to confirm those things with the clinic staff before I make them public and somewhat permanent.

Our second billboard, which Laura and I primarily worked on, has a picture of a man and woman on it, then says “Tell her something that no one has told her before: Baby, let’s have that test!” (Beautiful lettering done by me! I'm getting pretty good at block letters, if I may say so myself.) It’s part of a campaign funded by Lusweti, PSI, USAID, the Swaziland Ministry of Health, and several other organizations, and I like the message. Although I’m still not convinced that there’s anything particularly romantic about having an HIV test…

Laura concentrating on her man’s hands. In the poster (which I actually posted a photo of about a year ago…it was my inspiration for the whole bus stop painting project), the man’s arms go up into a big heart shape around the woman’s face, and I think she captured the image perfectly. She says it’s her masterpiece and that she’s retiring from art.

While Laura was busy having actual artistic ability, I drew and painted this part of the billboard. It says “It’s not just an HIV test, it’s a love test.” Which I think is pretty catchy. We weren’t sure if the black parts on the top and upper right were supposed to be JUST a broken arrow or if they were also supposed to represent, in an abstract and somewhat implied way, the symbols for male and female. If so, brilliant. The part in the middle, where it says “The Love Test,” is supposed to be filled in with red, but I ran out of red paint and then decided that I like it this way anyway. (And, yes, the letters are supposed to be all irregular and uneven and whatnot, I'm not an idiot.)

My friend Shaun came down from Mbabane to help us put the finishing touches on the billboard, and then spent the evening hanging out with my host family and watching the Bafana Bafana versus Uruguay game. (Bafana Bafana is South Africa’s team.) Bafana Bafana, sadly, lost 3-0, but it was still fun to watch the game with the family. Plus he got to experience the madness that is my house full of children every night.

I’ve been trying to turn the World Cup fever (seriously, it’s everywhere) into a geography lesson for the kids on my homestead. And since the lesson involves trashing my floor with paint and gigantic pieces of paper left over from when I was teaching last year, they don’t even realize they’re learning! Here, my sisi (sister) Londiwe is painting the American flag. Obviously.

Kwanele likes to draw the South African flag. Most Swazi kids do, actually. It’s kind of sad. If you give a Swazi kid a piece of paper and crayons, he’ll either draw a soccer player, a WWE wrestler (John Cena or Batista), or the South African flag. It’s a skewed kind of patriotism, I think. And what does that say about their identity as Swazis? Wouldn’t you think it was weird if every time you gave an American kid a piece of paper they drew the Canadian flag? Hm.

This evil chicken bit me at precisely the moment this photo was taken. I was out at Pasture Valley visiting the kids and inspecting their new temporary chicken coop (which Uncle Chris, another PCV, is renovating and relocating) when this jerk decided that my left index finger was food. I was like 8 inches away from her cage! Apparently, she has a seriously long neck when she wants to. And then all of the kids laughed at me while I complained about my booboo.

Me and Buhle from Pasture Valley Children’s Home. The kids at PV had a fun time messing up my hair, which they always do. But this time it was so bad that I actually had to cut a little of my hair to get my hair tie out. It’s just hair; it’ll grow back, I say.

Auntie Jenny, another PCV, teaching the Grade 1 students to read and write. I’m sure they learn SOMETHING at school (actually, from what I’ve seen of Swazi schools I’m not entirely certain of that), but then they come home for an hour of after school tutoring in the preschool. They’re using the site reading cards that my parents sent me in a care package to practice sounding out words, then writing them in the handwriting books I ALSO got in a care package. Meanwhile, I’m just sitting in the back of the classroom taking pictures. (Later I did help with the writing portion of the lesson so I’m not completely useless.)

Finally, after what seems like forever, the JA Company at Jericho High School is producing! We spent several weeks making paper beads, then spent a week varnishing them, and then we spent this last week stringing them into necklaces. Theoretically, they’ll be selling them this week so that we can make more next week (and so I can get paid back the several hundred rand I’ve spend on buying them supplies to make their product), or whenever the students decide to show up again. My frustration with the program isn’t so much the students in these photos, it’s the drunk ones standing outside the classroom saying sexually inappropriate things to me through the broken windows and the ones who didn’t bother to show up to class that day. I have a pretty solid attendance of 12 for a class where 32 students are registered. I guess I shouldn’t be offended, though…that’s about the average attendance of my classes as UKZN (where I studied abroad in South Africa), so I don’t blame myself.

In our first actual production session, we produced 32 necklaces. Our plan was to make 80, but with so many kids absent 80 was a pretty unrealistic goal. Despite my frustrations, it was a proud moment for the group to finally see what they’ve been working on for weeks coming together. Hopefully now the product doesn’t get stolen (like many of the raw materials have…scissors, magazines, glue, more scissors, etc.) before they have a chance to sell it. But if it does, I guess I’ll just turn it into a lesson about good business practices in Swaziland?

After 2 years of staring longingly at it, I FINALLY conquered the mountain (really a big hill) behind my house! Several times in the past year I’ve set off to walk up to the top, but I’m always turned away by Mkhulu (grandpa) who tells stories of the 4-meter-long black mambas and the deadly puff adders that live in the rocks on the mountain or my bhuti (brother) Kwanele who emphasizes the importance of carrying a snake-whacking stick. But this time, Mkhulu was at church and everybody else was busy plowing the garden, so Eliza and I set out on an adventure. She’s been up the mountain hundreds of times because she goes up most evenings to round up the family’s cattle, so she was kind of like my guide. And we did find ONE snake, a brownish-looking thing that ran away as soon as Eliza barked at it and jumped in its general direction. I choose to believe that it was non-venomous.

As usual, I tried to make Eliza sit still for some photos. And failed. But look at that tongue!

And, 40 attempts later, a nice portrait of a girl and her dog. Awwww...

From the top of the mountain, you can see EVERYTHING in my community. It’s always interesting to see the community from a new perspective, including my own homestead. This is the view of my homestead from the base of the mountain (much zoomed and edited). The red arrow points to my house, the yellow arrow points to the house of my sister Monica/Tsakasile and her kids Zakhele and Mpendulo Siyabonga (the baby), the blue arrow is Mkhulu and Gogo’s house (and also where Melusi and Sisi Xolile live), and the green arrow points to the little rondavel where Sibongile, Zandile, Londiwe, Kwanele and Samkelo live. I felt a bit like a spy because I just sat up on top of the mountain and watched my family doing their daily chores.

The mountain top is covered with aloe plants, complete with bright orange flower things. Gorgeous.

Another big accomplishment of my week is having learned the proper method of eating sugar cane. Sugar cane is widely grown here in Swaziland, and about half of it is bought by the stalk by Swazis who can’t afford actual sweets. I’ve always refused it when offered, partly because it is terrible for your teeth and partly because I didn’t know the proper way to eat it. So my friend Lungelo Mthobisi gave me a step-by-step lesson. Step 1: using your molars, bite off the hard outer layer of the stalk and pull to strip it off the outside, exposing the somewhat softer white fibers in the middle. Step 2: keep doing that until all of the green hard outer shell is removed from the plant over an entire section (sugar cane is kind of like bamboo, so you attack one section at a time, down to the little knot in the stalk). Step 3: minimizing the amount of cane syrup you get on your clothes (this is hard for me), bite the white fibrous substance from the inside of the stalk into bite-sized pieces using your molars to break the thick fibers. Step 4: chew on the white fibrous substance in your mouth to squeeze out all of the cane syrup inside, much like a sponge. Step 5: remove the white fibrous stuff, now dry, with your hand and throw it on the floor/ground/in a designated bucket. And then repeat. I was surprised at how delicious the stuff is. (Maybe I shouldn’t have been…it’s cane syrup, which is basically like sugary water. And what’s not to love about sugar water?)

My neighbor Lindo playing a recorder sent to me in a care package. There are 5 of them left (the rest have been stolen), which means that on some days I have a 5-man recorder band playing in my house. It makes me admire my parents for not strangling me in 4th grade when I was learning to play (and therefore practicing) the recorder. Thanks, guys.

And that’s all for today! I’m off to Pasture Valley, then to Manzini for a workshop, then to Mbabane for a few meetings, a haircut (and color?), and another workshop. It’s an exciting life I lead.

Love from the Swaz!

(And also, congrats to the new group who will be leaving for Swaziland in a matter of hours! It’s the beginning of quite an adventure and, honestly, I’m a little jealous that they’re right at the beginning. Swaziland’s the place to be!)

Saturday, June 12, 2010


Also, check out the new website of the Bambanani project:


For now it's really basic, but it will be running full force by the end of next week with more information about Caring for Shiselweni and the women and men involved in the project, as well as more photos of our products, the project, our workshops, and everyone involved.

(Also, if you happen to know of any one or any organization that would like to help fund the project, you should contact the project at bambananiswaziland@gmail.com!)

And I'd like to say THANKS to my sister, Erin, who not only designed that logo (the orange handprint), but also set up the website for me. Siyabonga kakhulu!


Friday, June 11, 2010

A tale of two cities.

Sometimes I am amazed at the range of extremes in my life. On one hand there’s the little earwig-infested hut I live in, the HIV epidemic that affects every facet of life in my community, the tiny plastic dish I call a bathtub, the mono-diet of various flavors of porridge that I subsist on, and all the other frustrations of my life as a Peace Corps Volunteer. On the other hand, there’s…well, House on Fire.

House on Fire (www.house-on-fire.com) is a sort of whimsical, artsy, eclectic concert/performance venue that hosts Swazi, South African and international bands, jazz musicians, poets, magicians (seriously), and all sorts of other performers in the Ezulwini Valley. On normal Friday/Saturday nights (when it’s open after more cultured performances), it’s a night club sort of place with DJs spinning hip-hop or kwaito (African techno) music, a lively dance floor, a full-service bar, and an interesting crowd of basically every expat/tourist/South African/white Swazi in the country. It’s basically the only place in Swaziland that is a guaranteed GOOD time EVERY time. And the Bushfire International Festival of the Arts, a 3-day music festival benefitting a local NGO called Young Heroes, is House on Fire at its finest. For 72 straight hours.

Last year’s Bushfire, if you remember, was a pretty memorable experience for me. Armed robbery, Johnny Clegg, zero sleep, torrential downpour, etc. It was a great time. And this year was no different.

Jenn and I kicked off our Bushfire weekend on Thursday afternoon with a 21-minute battle versus the Bambanani tent (24 minutes faster than the previous attempt!), but the actual fun started Friday evening when gates opened to the general public. In preparation for Bambanani’s debut on the Swazi "handicrafts made by disadvantaged women" scene, Jenn and I had spent the whole week preparing our craft stall, designing our business cards and packaging (with the help of my sister Erin who is a brilliant logo designer), making signs, and doing countless last-minute stock/quality control/inventory-related things. And then, Friday night and all day Saturday, we actually SOLD things. Maybe more important, we handed out business cards with info about the organization on it, we did an interview about the project with a local magazine, we talked to potential funders, and we just got our name out there. Amazing.

And then, after the craft stalls closed for the night, there was the music. Friday night’s headliner was the Parlotones, a South African rock band that that "fuses alternative rock with deftly crafted and darkly romantic lyrics" (according to the program). I’ve been listening to the Parlotones for the past 2 years on East Coast Radio, and I have to say that I was SUPER excited to see them in concert despite being made fun of by all the other PCVs for knowing all the songs. (They’re just jealous that they don’t get East Coast Radio. I’m slightly obsessed with the song "Push me to the floor," which you should probably download.) Then, Saturday night, Freshly Ground was back for the second time in 2 months, which was fine by me. Freshly Ground is a fantastic afro-pop-rock band made up of musicians from South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, and features the usual instruments plus an electric violin, a flute, a saxophone, and amazing lyrics in Zulu and English. Yeah, they're fantastic.

Other memorable acts included Lira, who is performing at the opening ceremony of the World Cup as I write this, Swazi musician Bholoja, American poet Coleman Barks, the Temaswati Project, and the ridiculous hip hop trifecta of KRTC, Mozaik and Akhona who rap lyrics like "God made this man, this man made money, and money made this man rich." (I remember those lyrics because I’ve seen them perform twice and they did that song twice at each performance. And those are pretty much the only words to that song.)

Anyway, it was an amazing experience that went off mostly without a hitch for me. I still lost my wallet like last year, but I’m pretty sure it was my own stupid fault and it was empty except for my driver’s license, which was actually returned to me. It still rained like last year, but I had a brand new Bushfire hoodie to keep me warm. And, even though I spent most of the daylight hours selling things for Bambanani, I had a blast. By Sunday I was so ridiculously exhausted from lack of sleep (I didn’t get more than 3 hours of sleep on Friday or Saturday nights) and so cold and wet that I checked out in the afternoon in favor of a hot shower and a warm bed. The terrible cold and mixed up days and nights I’ve been fighting since that weekend was TOTALLY worth it.

So now I’m 90 miles and a world away in my little hut, far removed from foreigners and running water and overpriced plastic cups of boxed wine. Seeing how the other 95% live.

I had an interesting conversation today with Mkhulu (grandfather) about Swaziland and poverty and development that underscored the disconnect between Mbabane/Manzini and the rest of the country. If only the Members of Parliament and the Ministers and everyone else in government knew what it was like in the rural areas, he says, life would improve for the majority of Swazis who live outside of Mbabane/Manzini. Maybe if the Minister of Education sent his kids to an understaffed rural school , he says, the government would fund the expansion of teachers training colleges or update the national curriculum. Maybe if the Regional Development Officer had to fetch his water from the river, improving access to clean water would be a higher priority for rural communities…(and that's all I can say on the topic without getting in trouble with Peace Corps for being "too political.") 

Anyway, it’s food for thought. The developmental disparity and cultural differences between the urban and rural areas of Swaziland have amazed me for the past 2 years, but Bushfire is so much like a weekend in America that, juxtaposed with my everyday life in Swaziland, it seems all the more ridiculous.

Not that my daily life is ALL filth, poverty and misery. In fact, these past weeks have been pretty fabulous. In brief:

My ongoing water and garden project with the support group is SLOWLY getting started. (Thanks, Swaziland, for making everything more difficult than it needs to be.) The support group submitted a new proposal to the inkhundla (county) to see if they’re serious about providing the fence, poles and seedlings for the garden, and we should either have a rejection letter or our supplies in the next week so that we can move forward with my part of the project. (I can’t start my part of the project unless I know what the inkhundla is paying for because their participation changes my budget entirely. Unfortunately, their slowness changes my timeline entirely as well…) Also, this coming week I was planning on meeting with the borehole company in Mbabane, but there’s been an outbreak of politically-motivated violence in Mbabane and surrounds, so Peace Corps has mandated that I put off my trip for another week. (Check out the Swazi Times online for more info.) But, for those of you who donated to the project, rest assured knowing that Peace Corps won’t even let me leave until it’s done, so it WILL happen. Soon.

I HAVE been making progress on the JA Company at Jericho High School. Twelve weeks after starting the 11-week program, we’re finally ready for week number 6, thanks to poor attendance and holidays and general apathy. But, for now, it’s going well. I’ve taught all the introductory lessons on entrepreneurship and business ethics and whatnot, we’ve elected our managers, we’ve written our business plan, and now we’re starting production of paper beads and necklaces (and I’m kind of kicking myself for contributing to the group’s brainstorming exercises). They FINALLY seem excited about spending their Saturday mornings in classes, and I’m trying my best to match their enthusiasm, despite the hellish endeavor that is transportation between my house and the school. (Seriously, after last week’s class I waited over 3 hours for a kombi going in the direction of my house, all the while being sexually harassed by the local soccer team and reflecting on how much better my life would be if only I had a car.)
Then again, if I had a car I would forfeit the opportunity to push 30 liters of paint around my community in a wheelbarrow. Why? Because the bus shelters I’m FINALLY getting around to painting are approximately half a mile away from my house and I can only fit 9 liters of paint in my backpack (which I sometimes do). After nearly 40 faxes (1 a week since late November) I FINALLY secured a letter of permission from the Ministry of Public Works and Transport and can paint the bus shelters without fear of it being deemed vandalism. My goal is to get 9 of them painted, which means I have to do about one a week for the rest of my time in Swaziland. It’s doable on my own, probably, but I’m still trying to recruit help from various NGOs, other volunteers and random strangers with artistic abilities. Until then, it’s just me and my "Where there is no Artist" book, which is both clever (a play on the classic village health care guidebook "Where there is no Doctor") and basic enough to be useful to someone as unskilled as me. (Please see photos below…)

And finally, after having had it rescheduled twice by the Peace Corps office, I managed to complete my Language Proficiency Interview to evaluate how much SiSwati I’ve learned in Swaziland. It’s an oral examination that’s recorded and then marked by a panel of linguists. And it’s nerve-wracking. On a scale from "novice low" to "advanced high," I scored a whopping ADVANCED LOW, which was super exciting for me (my goal was intermediate high) and means that I don’t have to take a foreign language as part of my MPH. Woohoo!

Plus, now I can start studying Kiswahili without fear of it compromising my SiSwati. So, for now…

Tutaonana! (That’s Swahili for "goodbye")

The fabulous Bambanani sign, hand painted by yours truly. We put it up as the background behind the craft stall at Bushfire and, luckily, nobody complained about my butchering of the African continent.

The preserved guavas and wild melon and ginger preserves made by the kids at Pasture Valley. They're both delicious and very very Swazi.

The craft stall at Bushfire. We had necklaces and earrings from Bambanani, macadamia nuts and pottery from Michelle's mother, greeting cards made by the kids at Pasture Valley, the preserves, bags made by the girls at Pasture Valley, and some grass mats with shiny foil chip bags woven in that were made by Gogo Constance from Pasture Valley.

Jenn varnishing necklaces and me standing around for moral support. I hate varnishing them when they're already made! (I like to varnish the individual beads because then I don't get it all over my hands.)

Baby Mpendulo Siyabonga is almost a year old! He's an active crawler and is ALMOST walking, which is scary because nobody watches him closely during the day. In a span of just a couple of hours, he fell down the cement steps in front of the main house, he crawled into the road by the house, he ate a handful of goat poop, and he dumped over the pig's feed bucket while the pigs were trying to eat. Danger! I wonder how much of the infant mortality rate in Swaziland can be attributed to inattentive babysitters...

Is it sad that the highlight of my week was when I accidentally bought 2-ply toilet paper? 2-ply toilet paper is EXPENSIVE in Swaziland, and I managed to find it for the same price as 1-ply! Also, the package says: "We have leen innauating and Dmpvauing" and "2 Dly Extra Saft." I don't even know what that first part is SUPPOSED to say.

The bus stop pre-makeover.

My backpack full of paint. It's a good idea until I accidentally forget to completely close a container and end up with a backpack full of paint, but until then it's a great alternative to pushing around a wheelbarrow.

Bus stop post-makeover. It says "Batali~ Kusheshe nisihlole ingati yetfu kukosenta siphile kadze! Bantfwana bangahlolwa iHIV kusukela banemaviki lasitfupha." Translated: "Parents ~ The sooner you test our blood, the longer we will live! Children can be tested for HIV 6 weeks after birth." I got the SiSwati from a brochure from Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, but turns out there was a typo and I had to scratch off "bangahlowa" and make it "bangahlolwa," which was super fun and took a ridiculously long time. Also, I'm aware that my girl has no feet. She WILL, she just has to wait until next week when I feel like drawing feet.

A close-up on that excellent baby. I pretty much rock. (I will paint the whites of his eyes next week when I finish the girl's feet.)

I walked my sisi Xolile and her friend Kwandile (our neighbor) home from school the other day. They're 5 and 4, respectively, and walk 7 kilometers one way to preschool every day. We took the "shortcut" home through the woods and over a fence and through a river and back up a really steep hill, and they kicked my butt. I'm so out of shape.

The dried out old river bed between the school and my house, plus the forest by my house from the OTHER side. I didn't realize it was so dense because I only see the other side of it where people are constantly cutting down trees for firewood.

Xolile and Kwandile filling up their water bottles in what's left of the "river." Water-bourne diseases, anyone?

My sisi Tsakasile carrying a bundle of wood on her head. She had me help her load it onto her head and I almost fell over just trying to lift it, but she managed to go hiking and climb over a fence (there's a bit of a ladder) with the bundle on her head. Amazing.

Finally, Eliza. I haven't posted a picture of my adorable puppy in a while, so I thought I should. Everyone in my community thinks I'm crazy for putting a bandana on the dog and they come to me saying that they want one too. Luckily, it says "Simply Dog" on the tag so I can prove to them that they're meant for dogs. Eliza loves it.