Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Holy Snake Skin!

Inspired by a Charlie Brown cartoon sent in a care package about 10 months ago, I decided to build Eliza a Snoopy-style dog house. Having never built anything in my life, I drew up an approximate building plan and headed to the hardware store for lumber, nails, a hammer, and paint. Then I realized that I only had a hack saw and, more importantly, that I had no idea how to actually build a dog house, so I let the wood sit in the corner of my house for 10 months. Until this week when I learned a very valuable lesson:

All wood piles, even those indoors, attract snakes.

While doing a thorough cleaning of my hut in preparation for leaving, I found this under my bed:

(Well, there was more to it--almost a foot long--but that was the only intact part.) Anyway, it's a snake skin. From a suspiciously black mamba-looking snake that clearly hung out in my house long enough to shed its skin. Gross AND scary. What if it was under there while I was sleeping?

So, I decided to finally build Eliza her house. I started on Saturday afternoon and I'm ALMOST done. It was quite the learning experience and I had some pretty horrible flashbacks to high school geometry class when trying to figure out how to get 90-degree angles and whatnot. It's not perfect, but it's sturdy and will protect my poor puppy from the wind and the rain after I leave and she's forced to sleep outside like an animal. To finish it off, I'm going to be painting it a glossy red (the white is just primer) and stenciling "Eliza" in block letters over the door. But, for now, this is what it looks like:

Assorted frustrations aside (ie, lack of a claw hammer, the cheap wood splitting, having no power tools, etc.), I think it was a good experience. The kids on my homestead seemed to have fun helping me (and I totally exploited their extensive experience in cutting wood!), and I enjoyed having them around. Plus I spent Sunday afternoon building in front of a bunch of old men, all of whom stared in disbelief at the crazy white girl in the skirt (yes, I was wearing a skirt) who knew how to build a house.

At the end of day one, the older boys really wanted to help with something so I let them paint a coat of primer even though the roof frame wasn't technically done. When it's finished, the inside will stay white and the outside will be red with black lettering.

My host family brothers Samkelo (l) and Kwanele (c) and our neighbor Mathedi (r) helping me cut wood. The whole operation was extremely OHSA non-compliant, but the worst injury was due to my own lack of depth perception with the hammer (I whacked my hand really hard), but there appears to be no permanent damage.

In other manual labor-related news, I also helped two women at the local neighborhood care point (NCP) plant vegetable gardens. The NCP provides lunch to orphans and vulnerable children in the community who may not otherwise have a balanced meal, and does a couple hours of pre-school each day for 20-30 kids. Understanding the need for vegetables as part of a balanced meal for these kids, the head pre-school teacher, Julia, asked if there was any way I could help them start a garden. So, last year I bought lettuce, cabbage, beetroot, spinach, onion, green pepper, and tomato plant seedlings to plant on the land around the NCP building itself, and the 5 women who rotate teaching/cooking duties made up a work schedule to ensure that the plants got watered and weeded every day. It worked alright, but this year they decided to have five individual plots so that each woman would be in charge of one specific plot. They think this will force everyone to put in an equal amount of work because if one woman is slacking, they'll be able to tell by the state of her plot. On Sunday, I helped to plow (by hand! for many hours!) one of the ladies' plots while she was busy finishing up her 30 days of post-partum forced seclusion. Then, just before sundown, we planted cabbage, beetroot, green peppers, and onions. Next week the tomatoes, lettuce, and spinach seedlings will be ready, and I'm also trying to get some fruit trees (oranges, guavas, mangoes, avocados, peaches, litchis, etc.) to start an orchard. Hopefully when I come back in December the plots will be well-tended and fruitful!

This is one of the women, Make Lushaba, planting her cabbage seedlings. They kept going on and on about how I was such a hard worker and how I was doing such a good job with the plowing, but truth be told they put me to shame. Both of the women I was working with are in their mid-30's, HIV-positive, and somewhat malnourished, and yet they kicked my butt when it came to plowing the plots. Seriously, it took me like an hour to do what they did in 20 minutes. But I kept on plowing until sundown. And I've got the blisters on my hands to prove it.

Some of the chief's kids and my fellow gardeners' kids watching me work. They were particularly amused when Eliza, my dog, helped out by digging some holes in the plot where I was working. She got tired quickly, though, and decided after a couple of holes that she'd just lay down in one and whine until I took her home. Yeah, she's spoiled.

Now I'm in Mbabane for 3 days of Close of Service medical clearance, basically to make sure that I don't leave Swaziland with any weird African diseases that Peace Corps will later be liable for. I've already had my dental appointment (no cavities!) and filled out a stack of paperwork, so now I'm waiting patiently for my doctor's appointment. Fun, fun.

So that's all for today. The garden/borehole project is coming along nicely, though I can't give any updates until Friday when I get back to my community. Sister Teresita said she'd call me if there were any problems, and so far I haven't heard from her. No news is good news, right? Here's hoping...

Love (and a few more photos) from the Swaz!

When I came to Swaziland, I was afraid of cows. Especially those with horns. Swazis made fun of me for giving them a wide berth, but I was too afraid of being kicked and/or gouged by horns to care. Two years later, I can walk through a herd of cattle without fear. In fact, that's exactly what I did after taking this photo.

The neighbor Mathedi racing his homemade wire and tin can car down the road. This is a pretty standard Swazi toy, and, honestly, it's genius. The "steering" is controlled by the stick he's holding, which is connected to a rubber band that turns the front axle, and the wheels themselves are made of old Coke cans that have been cut in half and then shoved inside each other for reinforcement. The body is made of bailing wire, I think, and sometimes they put extra decorations on them like plastic bags or playing cards. And then they race them.

And I just thought this picture was cool. Can you guess what it is? (Correct answer: the outside shells of passion fruits, quartered, floating in water I washed a paintbrush in.) It's because I take pictures like these that I end up with a thousand pictures on my camera at the end of each month, but that's the beauty of digital cameras.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Pharyngitis and photos

And for my FOURTH blog post of the week, photos. I think these pretty well sum up the last 2 weeks of my life.

The only thing missing is a picture of the white pockets of nasty all over my throat, courtesy of a stubbornly persistent case of Strep throat ("non-group A bilateral streptococcal pharyngitis") that took 3 (yes, THREE) courses of antibiotics to get rid of. And then the doctor thought it was mono and took a bunch of my blood for testing, but turns out it was just Strep. And now, as of a doctor's visit this afternoon, I am Strep-free but still have a cold. Curses to African winter.

In other news...

This is one of the bus waiting rooms I painted with Andres Alfonso "Medico" Mendez Medina (Colombians apparently have LOTS of names), a graffiti artist from Colombia who fellow PCV Darryn met in Cape Town. He came to help her with her bus stop art projects, but his painting style (splatter painting, drippings, throwing handfuls of paint at the intended surface, etc.) appealed more to my style of art than hers, so I became his painting partner for a couple of days. This one says "Keep your country beautiful" and then on the yellow part (which I think looks like caution tape) "Don't throw your trash on the ground." We consider it an "environmental health" message, since everything we do has to be health-related. (Oh yeah, Medico is also a doctor. He was in Cape Town doing his surgical residency and just stopped by the Swaz en route to Jo'burg to fly back home.)

Medico painting the hands of random school children who had been standing around watching us for several hours. We did a few handprints on this bus stop, which the kids LOVE. And I think we managed to keep all the paint off their school uniforms...hopefully. Please note, however, Medico's pants...amazing. And if you look at the splatter-painted background, you'll understand why. (My right shoe also looks like that because, well, I'm right-handed and therefore throw paint with my right hand. My left shoe escaped the paint.)

The "dripping" technique that we used to add some color to the outside of the bus stops. When Medico explained to me what we'd be doing that morning, I had my reservations. I'm a very neat painter, and I measure EVERYTHING before I draw or paint it, so this was completely new to me. But I LOVED it.

The final product. I think it's fairly obvious what it says... I like the splatter painting effect because (1) it utilizes the whole space, and (2) it's impossible to vandalize. Go ahead, Swazi children, write your name on this bus stop. Nobody will see it!

"Kulapha Umsheko Ekhaya..." This is one of the two bus stops I painted on my own this week. It roughly translates to: "To treat diarrhea at home: Mix 1 liter of clean water that has been boiled and cooled with half a spoon of salt and 8 spoons sugar." That's the recipe for what we call "oral rehydration solution," which is basically like a nasty version of Gatorade. In this picture, it's not completely done--I had to figure out how to draw a spoon (well, 9 of them) before I could finish, and then I forgot to take photos of the final product. Also, please note the lettering that I drew free-hand rather than measuring out to be exactly uniform. I think I'm becoming increasingly confident in my artistic abilities...thanks to Medico!

Jorge from the borehole-digging company, support group chairman Justice Lukhele, and another support group member checked the existing borehole for depth and water while Sisters Teresita and Ada and I speculated about the presence of snakes in the tall grass surrounding us. The borehole was 55 meters deep, with water at 29 meters from ground level. Good news!

My favorite bus stop so far! "Sebentisa iCondom" means "Use a condom," which I'm sure you could have guessed. Technically, I should've used the word "lijazi," which means sweater, instead of "icondom," but I'm going for a more direct approach. SiSwati is full of euphemisms, which I think complicates discussion of sex and HIV-related topics. For example, the Swazi version of "Always use a condom when you have sex," ("Uma ulalana nabani sebentisa lijazi") actually translates as "Wear a sweater when you sleep next to someone." Sometimes they call a condom a "penis sweater," which I just think is hilarious.

The other day, I stumbled upon a mass slaughtering of pigs and, naturally, decided to take a picture. (I also took a video, only to realize while editing it that it was REALLY disturbing!) One by one, these guys dragged the pigs out of their pens by their back legs, whacked them over the head with a club to knock them unconscious, then slit their throats to kill them and drain some of the blood. Then, after the pig stopped convulsing, they poured boiling water over its body and scraped its bristly hairs off with a razor blade before stacking it on top of the other cleaned pig bodies in the back of a pick-up truck. I stood there for like 15 minutes watching, mezmerized by the sound of the club hitting the pigs' hard skulls and the demon-like screaming of the pigs who knew they were next. Disgusting, I know.

Jorge and the Sisters measuring the distance between the borehole site and the garden, where we'll dig the trench to lay the underground water pipes. The sisters have each been here over 30 years and, in talking with them about their work in the community, I find comfort in the fact that they see the same problems and have the same frustrations and feel taken advantage of in the same ways that I do. I'm wishing I would've worked more closely with them throughout my service, but I guess that's a good thing for the next volunteer to know?? Also, I love this picture. Something about the contrast between their whites (which are the whitest whites I've seen in years) and the dirt road, or the landscape and the sky, or something.

Support group members beginning to clear a path through the forest so we can lay 850 meters of pipes from the borehole to the various taps. I feel bad cutting down all these trees, but then I remind myself that they're all non-indigenous invasive species and they'd be cut down for firewood anyway. I seemed to be the only one concerned about the possibility of snakes in the brush.

Support group chairman Justice clearing the small branches off a tree so it can be carried home as firewood. Mostly the men cut stuff down and the ladies dragged it places and tied it into bundles for firewood. And I just stood and took pictures, using my sandals as an excuse for not helping.

So there it is. The project is coming along nicely, I think. This morning (Friday), I went with the Sisters to talk to Babe Gcina, the Indvuna (head of the chief's advisory council) about the project. He gave his blessing for the project, but said that we should talk to the whole council about the project, and get the chief's blessing on Monday before we start doing actual work. We agreed, then kept doing work anyway. So, Monday morning, I will sit through yet ANOTHER meeting where I understand about 10% of what's being said, and will continue doing exactly what I'm doing now regardless of the outcome. By the end of next week we'll start digging the trench, and by the end of the following week we'll have Jorge and his guys come out to start laying the pipes and installing the water pump and whatnot. They've PROMISED me that it will all be done by 13 August, but I'll keep you all posted on our progress.

Next week, I'll be in Mbabane Tuesday through Friday doing my Close of Service medical exams. I'll have a dental exam, a full physical, TB test, and blood, urine, and stool sample tests to make sure that I don't leave Swaziland with any weird African diseases for doctors in the US to misdiagnose. Strangely enough, the part I hate the most (even more than the stool samples!) is the TB skin test. I just can't handle watching that needle moving around under my skin. Gross.

And on that note, I'm off to sleep another consecutive 14 hours in an attempt to kick this cold. What an exciting Friday night...

Love from the Swaz!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Leaving on a jet plane (but I DO know when I'll be back again)

Yes, I know this is my THIRD photo-less post of the day, but it's important.

I FINALLY bought my plane ticket. Here's the plan:

I leave Jo'burg for Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) at 2:55pm on Thursday September 2. (Then I go to Zanzibar the next day!!!) Then, 110 days and 109 nights later, I leave Dar headed for Jo'burg at 7:25am on Monday December 20. I arrive in Jo'burg at 10:05am on the 20th, then promptly take public transport to Mbabane, Swaziland.

So if you want to visit me, I will be in:
Stone Town, Unguja Island, Zanzibar: September 3-23
Iringa, Tanzania: September 25-December 18
Swaziland: December 20-???? (Prob the first week of January)

Now I'm going to go eat the king size Crunch bar that was my reward for finally buying my plane ticket. Booya!

[Next day update: The ticket I bought yesterday is half price today. Seriously. I waited and waited and waited to buy that ticket, and then this happens. The universe hates me, apparently.]

And [Jorge] said "Let there be [water]" and there was [water]

Remember that gigantic project that, seemingly ages ago, I raised $8591.69 for? The one to fence in my local clinic's support group garden and dig a borehole (well) for the community, etc.? The one that I'm sure many of you donated to, then thought I'd forgotten about?

Well, I haven't forgotten. I've just come up against the brick wall that impedes project implementation in Swaziland.

One of the concepts that Peace Corps drills into us as volunteers is "sustainability." With everything we do, we have to consider how it builds the capacity of local individuals or organizations to do similar projects in the future, how it increases the knowledge of community members, and how the benefits of the project can be sustained even after we complete our service. We're told to ensure that the community has "ownership" of projects so that they have a vested interest in maintaining, protecting, and continuing the project.

So that's what I've been TRYING to do with my silly project for the last 3 months.

In Swaziland, it's also important (if VERY frustrating) to go through all the "proper" channels in the community before doing ANYTHING. So, for this project, step one was getting permission from the inkhundla (county) to do the project. We'd talked to the inkhundla committee about the project hypothetically, so getting permission should have been more of a formality than anything. Except that it wasn't. They refused us permission, saying that they wanted to be involved in the project and that, if we re-worked our budget to include them, they would help support the project AND give us permission to do it. Good news, right?

Wrong. After re-working the budget, re-pricing everything, re-evaluating the materials we need for the project, the inkhundla decided that they didn't want to help after all. Or didn't have the money. Or didn't care anymore. So, 6 weeks and several boring meetings later, we were back at square one.

Then, we encountered problems trying to get everything cleared with the community. There are basically 4 neighborhoods in the community, and 3 of them have boreholes. The people from the 4th neighborhood, jealous of those in neighborhood 3, have repeatedly broken the hand pump of their neighbors in the middle of the night by stuffing them with mud and cement and stealing various necessary parts, so we have THAT to deal with. How to implement a project that benefits only part of the community without fueling the ongoing politics of neighborhood jealousy? The only way to be sure that the project isn't sabootaged is to make sure that it benefits EVERYONE and that EVERYONE feels included in the planning and implementation of the project.

So, in an attempt to move forward, I had several meetings with the head nun (Sister Teresita) at Our Lady of Sorrows and together we contacted the contractor who dug the previous failed borehole (they only found white ash-like rock, even 80 meters down). Feeling like he owed the mission some free services, he promised to come down and do his survey and estimates for free, a savings of E15,000. Great! Except that, since we weren't paying, he didn't feel the need to make a special trip all the way down to my neck of the woods--a full 3 or 3.5 hour drive from his office. So, we waited.

Finally, last week I lost my patience and decided that having the project COMPLETED was a little more important than all the sustainability and capacity-building and blah blah blah. So this week, we've started in earnest. Monday morning, I had a meeting with Sister Teresita, the clinic's head nurse Juckie, and the support group's executive committe. We made up a work schedule for the support group's members, and set deadlines for the completion of various stages of the project. The first work shift starts Friday at 8am, when a force of 30 machete-clad support group members will descend on the forest around the borehole site to destroy any an all water-consuming vegetation.

Then, this morning (Wednesday) the sisters and I met with Jorge from the borehole company, and he left all of us feeling quite optimistic about the project! We discovered an old borehole, dug the same month I was born (August 1986), that has been out of service for almost 20 years. The mission has had it cleaned (cleared of tree roots) every couple of years just in case they ever wanted to use it for anything, which works out perfectly for us. It's kind of rusty, so we'll have to re-line it with fresh PVC pipes, but the water table is only 29 meters below the surface, and the hole itself is at least 55 meters deep. An amazing discovery!

So, here's the plan as it stands:

1. This Friday (as in 2 days from now), Sister Teresita, Nurse Juckie, and I will be meeting with the Chief's "spiritual adviser" and the inkhundla committee to secure written permision to use the land, to do the project, and to maintain ownership of all the benefits of the project. If we don't get permission, we're doing it anyway because the land we're using was TECHNICALLY given to the mission by the King and therefore any dispute would be resolved by the King, who happens to very much like Sister Teresita.

2. This Friday and all of next week, the support group members will work in shifts to clear the forest upstream from the borehole, to dig 124 fence post holes and put up the fence, and to burn the future garden area to get it ready for planting. Meanwhile, a hired force of 3-5 men will dig a meter-deep trench the total distance of approximately 845 meters from the borehole site to future site of the public tap and then on to the garden site.

3. Tuesday morning, Jorge will come down with a generator and electric pump to test the water pressure in the existing borehole. It's an additional expense, but we want to be sure that there's enough water to fill our 30,000L tank without affecting the water pressure at the mission and the local school. (Remember, our goal is to help NOT anger the community.)

4. As soon as the brush is cleared and the trench is dug, Jorge and his team will come down and lay the pipes, line the existing borehole with PVC, and connect three taps: one for the community (around which we'll build a fence and hire an operator who will fill jugs 2 hours each day), one for the high school agriculture class's garden, and one for the support group's garden. Then they'll install the electric pump. All of this should take about 2 days, they say, and the mission has offered them room and board so they don't have to make the trip to and from Matsapha every day.

5. Finally, we'll put up a 30,000L tank. Yes, 30,000L is HUGE, but that's the goal. Right now, as the project stands, all labor and materials are running at about 80% of my budget, so we'll see what we can afford. The mission has also volunteered to help with the funding of the project since we've included the high school's agriculture class as beneficiaries. So we'll see...

I kept emphasizing the fact that the whole project needs to be done by 13 August, which is when I need to have all my paperwork turned in to Peace Corps, and they keep laughing and saying that it will be done and I need to calm down. (And then they gave me some delicious apple and cinnamon cookies, presumably because they were tired of my "But what if...?" scenarios.) This is Swaziland, which means that everything takes FOREVER to get started, then magically comes together at the last minute. I'm hoping.

And, if nothing else, I'm learning how to implement a project in an African country. I'm busy building MY capacity to be patient and understanding and trusting and flexible. That's sustainable, right?

Anyway, this project promises to consume about 50% of the next 5 weeks of my life. The other 50% will be filled with a whole bunch of Close of Service formalities for Peace Corps (medical and dental check-ups, paperwork, interviews with senior staff, etc.), finishing up my bus shelter painting project (it's ongoing, I just can't find my memory card reader to post photos!), spending time with the people who have been my friends and family and more for the last 2 years, and preparing for Tanzania (including finishing my Swahili Rosetta Stone). It's not so bad a life.

(I'll post some amazing photos of my increasingly artistic artwork at SOME point this week as soon as I recover my memory card reader from the black hole that is my house. You'll be impressed, I promise.)

Love from the Swaz!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

New batteries, same old existential crises.

[This blog I wrote last week and then accidentally saved as a draft instead of posting!]

I always get a little freaked out when I buy a new pack of batteries because I'm forced to contemplate what I'll be doing in, say, 08/2017 when they expire. When the AAA's I bought yesterday expire, I'll hopefully have completed my Master's Degree, become fluent in Swahili, learned how to drive a Vespa and/or dance salsa, traveled through Asia, gained several years of actual (paid) work experience, and maybe I'll even be married. (I also sincerely hope that I'll be completely unemployable because scientists will have found a cure for HIV/AIDS and the world won't need public health professionals with my speciality...) In a way, it's kind of nice to look at that bigger picture/timeline and realize that no matter how hard it is to get through the day/week/month/last 6 weeks of Peace Corps service, that the future is basically inevitable. Except when you're approaching a HUGE life change, in which case the inevitability of the future is just plain overwhelming.

This week, Peace Corps gave me money to buy a plane ticket home. And it hit me like a ton of bricks. (You'd think I would've stopped being shocked by the whole LEAVING thing by now, but I'm still completely in denial, I think.) I've spent the last 2 afternoons at the Peace Corps office browsing various flight options and, though I'm excited about Tanzania and going back to the US and graduate school, I'm also freaking out about how much different my life will be in 6 very very short weeks. And everything I have to do between now and September 3, which is the day I plan to leave Swaziland. Here's my list:

1. Build Eliza a dog house.
2. Put together a photo album for my host family.
3. Make gifts (jewelry) for the kids on my homestead.
4. Finish my Partnership Project (it's coming along!).
5. Paint 4 bus shelters with health messages.
6. Finish the JA Company program at Jericho High School.
7. Buy lots of dog food to keep Eliza until December when I come back.
8. Pack and prepare my home for a new volunteer.
9. Complete lots of medical and administrative paperwork for Peace Corps.
10. Say good-byes.

The list is pretty attainable, I guess, but that doesn't mean it's going to be easy. Especially the last one.

This week I had to say goodbye to my friend and former language tutor, Sam, who went off to Durban in hopes of finding a job to support her late brother's orphaned children and widow. (She's an extremely bright 21-year-old and the whole family is pinning their hopes on her being able to find a job and send back money, which is exactly how girls end up working as prostitutes.) I knew we'd have to say goodbye eventually, but I didn't realize just how HARD it was going to be until she started crying and then, because I'm a sympathetic crier, I started crying. Then there were hugs, and promises to keep in contact, and I gave her a couple of skirts and a sweater and a pair of handmade earrings as a gift. And then she was gone, walking 12k to the border under cover of darkness in hopes of sneaking into South Africa without a passport.

Meanwhile, my life goes on. I cross days off the calendar and items off my "To Do" list and think about how MY life is about to change. I wonder if I would be happier sleeping in a sand-filled bunk bed at a backpackers in sunny Zanzibar or curled up in my bed with Eliza in my very own bat infested and refrigerator-like hut. And, honestly, I'm not sure...

My plan for the next couple of weeks is to just bury myself in work so that, when I leave, I can do so feeling accomplished and knowing that my host family and my community are better off than when I arrived 2 years ago. I know I certainly am...

But enough of that. I have a plane ticket to buy! (And, for some reason, tickets are $656 every day of September except the one day I want to fly, when they're $759. Does this make sense to you??) Maybe if I figure out everything for Zanzibar (like how I'm getting there, where I'm staying, etc.) I'll feel more ready to leave the Swaz.

Still, for 6 more weeks, love from the Swaz!

Friday, July 2, 2010

A first and the fourth.

Sometimes, the biggest triumphs we have as Peace Corps Volunteers fall well outside the definition of our role as “HIV educators.” For me, my biggest accomplishments in the past two years—the ones I will remember most fondly when I’m recounting tales of Peace Corps to my hypothetical future grandchildren—are in my interactions with my host family. Three examples from this past week:

1.In my first months, I thought my host bhuti (brother) Kwanele was the most annoying 8-year-old punk I’d ever met. When my friends Chad and Orion came to visit, they agreed with me 100%. But now that he’s grown up a bit and learned how to behave (that’s not because of me), he’s become one of my trusty evening-time companions and I’ve realized just how bright he is. Every night for the past year I’ve sat at the table (or more often my floor because my table is usually piled high with crap) and helped him with his Grade 4 and Grade 5 homework. Last week I taught him long division, and on Monday night we finished up all his math homework for the week. And yet, on Tuesday night he came to me, math book in hand, and asked if we could work ahead of the rest of the class. The kid was giving HIMSELF homework, just for practice! How completely un-Swazi (and yet so very Justine-esque) of him!

2.Since I let kids and neighbors and everyone else in the world into my hut, pocket-sized things are constantly going missing. Like in many cultures of poverty, Swazis place very little value on material possessions and, as such, they often steal from each other. And since I have more THINGS than others in my community, they don’t even feel bad about stealing from me (and often I don’t notice for days or weeks at a time, after which point I can’t hunt down the culprit). Anyway, on Tuesday night I had my usual brood of children warming up my hut (seriously, it’s a perk) and was entertaining two of the neighbor ladies (who insisted on watching over my shoulder as I typed) while their phones charged themselves with my electricity. Focused on my work, I ignored them. Until I heard my sister, Londi, yelling at them in SiSwati about stealing and being thieves. I turned around to see her unloading several little bottles of nail polish from the ladies’ pockets. She unplugged their phones, handed them their chargers, and escorted them out of the house to face the wrath of Mkhulu (Grandfather). Two years ago, that NEVER would have happened, but either (1) the kids are learning the value of honesty from me, or (2) they like me enough as a sister that they’re willing to stick up for me. Either way, success.

3.Like every other child in Swaziland my mshana (nephew) Mpendulo is constantly sick, so I was the only one who thought it strange when my sisi (sister) Tsakasile wanted to take him to the clinic on Wednesday morning. For once, there wasn’t a river of snot running down his face and there was no chest rattling involved in his breathing, so I was confused. And then, after all the other women on the homestead had gone to the garden to plow, Tsakasile came into my house and excitedly told me that Mpendulo was in perfect health and that she ACTUALLY wanted to go to the clinic to talk to a nurse about family planning. Birth control isn’t such a revolutionary idea to me, but in rural Swaziland it’s basically unheard of. I’d talked to her about it last year as a way to prevent another unwanted pregnancy, but she just got all shy and basically told me that she was the Virgin Mary and baby Mpendulo was Jesus. Lies, but I didn’t push it. Turns out she actually listened! So Wednesday morning we talked about it a little more and I gave her money for transport and the clinic’s fee, and off she went. A couple hours later, she came back with a year’s worth of birth control pills (they only cost E3.50 or about $0.50 per month) and a million questions, which led to a very sisterly discussion of “safe” sex.

In somewhat related news, baby Mpendulo celebrated his first birthday on Wednesday! In preparation, I bought a ridiculously expensive Bar One (like a Milky Way) chocolate cake from Nhlangano, and then successfully restrained myself from eating it while it sat, right next to my computer, smelling delicious for 24 hours. Then I dug out all of my Happy Birthday banners and such, which the whole family was excited about, in preparation for the most festive birthday celebration I could convince my host family to partake in. Basically, we worked for an hour on the “happy birthday” song, sang some approximation of it after several false starts, and then ate cake with our hands while we watched the evening soap operas. Nothing too fancy, but memorable enough to sufficiently mark the occasion. It’s been a long year with that kid, what with the drama of regular HIV testing and minor freak-outs every time he got the sniffles and the time the family tried to make me his legal guardian, but he’s healthy and happy and QUITE adorable. He’ll be a heartbreaker, for sure. (Starting with my heart when I have to leave him in August…)

So, in honor of Mpendulo’s first birthday, his year (and birthday party) in photos:

Me and baby Mpendulo Siyabonga Khumalo the day he came home from the hospital. His name means, roughly, "Thank you, God, for this answer/blessing." It seemed a bit much until he tested negative for HIV, after which it seemed appropriate (despite my misgivings about the God part). At school, he'll go by his "Christian" name, Noah. (Please also note my dark brown hair...)

My sisi Xolile nibbling on baby's hand.

I love taking awkward pictures with this kid! (And with pretty much anyone else.) I especially love his face in this one, though.

My bhutis Samkelo and Kwanele and my sisi Xolile with baby Mpendulo. They babysit him while my sisi Tsakasile (his mother) is off collecting firewood, washing laundry, cooking, etc. Seems a little scary to me to leave a 6-year-old in charge of a baby, but that's just how it's done in Swaziland.


I had Happy Birthday banners, but no tape, so Gogo put it on him like a sash. He did NOT appreciate it. (Mostly he hates the little red light on my camera. It makes him cry, so if I want to use my flash I have to take the picture REALLY quickly before he can get upset.)

Baby did NOT want to sit on the table and he did NOT want cake. Until he tasted it, at which point he was completely okay with being woken up from his nap to eat cake. (Sounds like a dream come true, to me.)

My sisi Tsakasile (his mom) stuffing Mpendulo's face with cake. Happy birthday, little guy!

Finally, I’m in town today en route to the north of the country for Peace Corps’ annual 4th of July slash Welcome the New Group (Group 8!!!) celebration. I spent my last 4th of July with a bunch of Brits and Germans who cared more about the hamburgers and potato salad I made for dinner than the holiday itself, so this year promises to be much more festive. I’m pretty sure the planned BBQ is actually a Swazi-style braai featuring flame-burnt pork chops, mashed pumpkin, and maize meal porridge, but I’ll think about hamburgers and fireworks hard enough to celebrate the occasion. Maybe next year I’ll celebrate properly with popsicles, hamburgers, beer, and evening fireworks at the lake…

Until then,
Love from the Swaz!

And since no blog is complete without a picture of my dog...Please note the gigantic rotten cow femur she found not 20 minutes after she had her SECOND bath of the week. Somewhere there's a rotting cow and she keeps finding pieces of it and rolling in the stink. I'm not a fan.