Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Life as the Community Figurehead

I’ve been going to a lot of events lately. I’ve sat through presentations on everything from the benefits of male circumcision (MC) to a celebration of World AIDS Day to a Swazi rapper singing about the responsibility of the country’s youth to combat the HIV epidemic. I’ve eaten more rice than a person should consume in a lifetime and my tolerance for hours of non-stop siSwati as gone through the roof.

All of these events tend to operate along similar lines. They always start at least an hour late, if not two, an African must. Take the MC awareness event put on by World Vision, the NGO in my community. I was told to arrive at 8, so being the American that I am, I’m promptly there at 7:55. I walk into the clearing of the inkhudla (government buildings) as discreetly as possible, greet people I recognize though whose names I’ve forgotten and try to figure out what to do with myself. There’s no one around except the cooking crew, so I join them and peel every single carrot for the next two hours while making awkward small talk with a number of NGO representatives in attendance. I’m now an expert at being awkward and forcing conversation. Talk about resume builder. I should add that my hands turned an eerie shade of orange, much to the delight of the bomake (women).

Next the actual festivities actually start. I’m usually led to the front, even though I have no presentation or speech prepared, and told to sit with the other dignitaries (ranging from community leaders, honored guests and people who actually organized the event). For the next four hours I try to listen attentively while everything is said in siSwati, relying on the few translation tidbits I receive from my neighbors, and try desperately not to fall asleep in front of my community. Since that probably is bad form. Plus the majority of the audience tends to stare bemusedly at my sweaty self. The best moment was when one of them came up afterward at the MC event and wiped away my dripping sunscreen. I’m hoping that means I’m starting to become integrated.

The actual presentations and performances at these events can be entertaining. Mostly I look forward to the traditional dancing since it requires no translation and I get to soak in some culture. During the dramas I amuse myself by guessing what the storyline is, only to be told that I completely missed the punch line. But I think my favorite part is the music that is played in between each act. It’s usually techno and I like to glance at the bomake to watch for their reactions to such non-Swazi music. The DJ’s blast it within an inch of destroying everyone’s eardrum. It’s fun.

At the close of the events always comes a massive level of refreshments. I’ve been told to expect this by my veteran volunteers, that Swazis take their food seriously at events, but seeing is truly believing. As with my seat placement, I’m always handpicked to join the important folks in the conference rooms to eat the prepared meal. Not by choice, might I add. Picture a room full of mostly older Swazi men eating from heaping foam containers of rice, three kinds of chicken and beef, boiled carrots, cabbage, beets, beans and sipping soda and then me, trying to eat chicken off the bone without looking completely foolish and praying silently that I won’t get sick from this food. I did make some social head way the other day when I became the official bottle opener (Mom, that bottle opener/carabineer was a great find).

During one of these nerve-racking meals I met my chief. Quick culture lesson – in Swaziland, the role of the chief in the rural communities still carries a great deal of weight. So it would be expected that I would have met him already at a prearranged time and have announced what I will be doing in the community for the next two years. Problem: my MIA counterpart, who I’ve begged repeatedly to furnish such a meeting, has failed to do so. Thus when this solemn man dressed in traditional garb approached me as I was crouching down to set up the foam plates and plastic spoons I wanted to disappear into the floorboards. He held out his hand, said my Swazi name and we exchanged the proper greetings. Hours later I made a frantic phone call to one of the Swazi staff members at the PC office, who assured me I did everything right. Nevertheless, this memory still gives me shivers.

Another lovely aspect of events and my presence at them: my impromptu and terrible speeches in siSwati. So far I’ve only been forced to speak publicly at one of these, the World AIDS day at the primary school. Not only did they think I was from World Vision but that I had brought presents to the children who performed. The microphone was then thrust into my face and I had to basically scream over the noise of hundreds of schoolchildren rushing to the stage for the candy being thrown at them that I was a Peace Corps Volunteer and an HIV Educator. Pretty sure they still don’t have a clue why I’m here.

Yet for as uncomfortable and out-of-place I feel most of the time at this things, I’ve walked away each time incredibly happy I went. Not only does it give me the opportunity to be very much visible to my community, but I’ve made incredible contacts. It’s worth the marathon of siSwati, pounds of rice and endless handshaking to meet some of the most motivated people with whom there’s a real chance of collaborating on projects.

Additionally, these events have shown me what my community is already capable of and it has been one of most promising and encouraging discoveries of my service so far. Take the youth awareness event. This youth group has been together for two years, includes kids from all the surrounding chiefdoms and is led by a young man who pays for most of their fees out-of-pocket. I sat in that dilapidated hall silent as they did my job for me: speaking about the importance of getting tested, demanding mothers educate their daughters about PMTCT, encouraging young men to get circumcised and promoting the idea that HIV positive people can lead a normal life and that stigma hurts everyone. And for that, I’m willing to give up even more of my already nonexistent dignity.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Clinic

I'm running an hour late. Four months and I'm already functioning on APT (African People's Time). I get out of the khombi after taking a roundabout way back from visiting a friend in a nearby town and run/walk to my hut. Roughly ten minutes later I'm sweating. It is not yet 10 in the morning. Awesome.

I find my host bobhuti (brothers) and our carpenter friend, essentially an uncle, planting mango and orange trees behind my hut. Make (Mother) is sweeping the yard. I come bolting through the gate and yell a rushed greeting. They humor my hurried and broken siSwati with knowing smiles and return to their tasks.

As I hastily change, throw my notebook into my book bag, grab my last, lonely orange - taking a mental note that soon all I’ll have to eat are a few slices of bread and soy sauce - I run through my head all the questions I need to be prepared to ask. I’m going to my community’s clinic today and as the most non-medical human being on the planet, I’m obviously well-versed in the correct comments to make in such an establishment. Great, I’m screwed.

When I arrive to the clinic, already I’m getting the same feeling I did on previous visits: they are busy and incredulous at my seemingly constant presence asking inane questions about staff size, their services and how many people on average they see. But today I persevere and stand my ground; I made this appointment weeks ago and I intend on staying the entire day to observe, shadow and learn.

One of the nurses reluctantly shuffles me into the first examining room, bringing me a chair. This is the family planning room and today the head nurse, a midwife, is in charge of consultations. Patients are seen according to the numbered slip they paid 2 rand for at the booth down the road at the inkhudla (government offices). Since today is a Friday, the wait isn’t terribly long and the clinic will probably see 30 or so people. Unlike Tuesdays when the patient load can be upwards of a 100 or more.

Woman after baby-clad woman enters the small, cramped space, each here for a variety of prenatal, postnatal and birth control needs. The majority are here for the injection to prevent pregnancy. The first patient, a young woman seemingly no older than myself, is pregnant with her fourth child and is HIV positive. The nurse explains the procedure for PMTCT (Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission), examines her and gives her a follow up appointment. Most sessions last only ten minutes and in about two hours time we’ve seen a dozen women.

They completely avoid my gaze, which I can only surmise must appear cold and clinical as I sit in the background taking occasional notes. No matter how hard I try to catch their eyes to offer an encouraging word or inquire about their child, they ignore all my attempts. They are painfully shy, speaking barely above a whisper. I feel the colonizer and they the colonized, only instead of land, I’m occupying the most private area of their lives. It’s a strange new feeling and at this moment, I’ve never been more aware of my skin color and the privileges it has afforded me.

I’m moved to the curative room where the nurse practitioner is stationed. This is the catch-all room and gets everything from STI’s, some admitted and others posed as bath water burns, to a 29-year old woman who has symptoms of stroke. I ask the nurse how common this is; she remarks that due to the high rate of HIV they see this more often than would be normal. As I sit, I notice an ostentatious sticker on the filing cabinet: US AID: From the American People. It’s bizarre to see it here in this cramped room; I feel disconnected from something that could easily be stuck on any undergrads Mac Book. And yet here I am, with both this sticker and a never-ending stream of ill, poverty-stricken people who are barely kept afloat by the mounds of outside aid this country receives.

I’m still trying to conceptualize this apparent contradiction when a woman in her 50’s walks in. She has a sculpted face, no wrinkles and kind yet scared eyes. She is waiting on the results of her HIV test. As the nurse talks to her, the lab technician comes in carrying a slip of paper ripped out of a notebook. I see a name written and the word “positive.” Apparently the woman had tested before, but in denial had “clinic shopped,” a common enough practice the nurse tells me where those who are positive take multiple tests in hopes that there was a mix up in the lab or a badly administered test. Mostly, they are not ready to come to terms with their status.

Normally the woman would be counseled, but as the expert client (an HIV-positive individual who works at the clinic and helps the newly positive cope with a their changed existence) is out that day, she is merely told to come back Tuesday to get her CD4 count taken. As she gets up to leave, the nurse reminds her to bring her partner with her so he can be tested. By the look on her face, that’s highly unlikely.

It only took a few moments, but I had just witnessed someone’s life change in a way I can hardly understand. Yet it was all so normal, so routine. I feel numb, unable to understand how it could get to this point. This is the beginning of my real education, my real exposure to a pandemic that has up until this point been articles in news magazines and the topic of conferences in far-off, well-lit, air conditioned auditoriums.

I’ve never been so close to the reality, and there is nothing dramatic or momentous about it. Only another victim added, disappearing into the nameless mob of those who just happened to be born in a country and continent where the combination of colonialism, poverty, gender inequality, corruption and a whole host of factors contributed to their likelihood of infection.

I could have easily been her, but instead I’m sitting on this side of history, disgustingly healthy, obscenely well-educated and most importantly, transient. In two years I can escape this, I can get on a plane and fly back to the safety of suburban comforts, away from constant strain of heat, poverty and disease. It’s a strange knowledge to have, well-understood by the patients: they look at me and see only a voyeur, someone who has come to get a “life experience” and then return to tell of my valiant trials and tribulations in this strange African land.

I would have left dejected, defeated and useless had it not been for the nurses. I’ve heard much about the lack of training, professionalism and humanity of nurses and other medical staff in this country. Perhaps I’m no judge of how to run a clinic, but the women I met that day instilled in me a shred of hope for this community, for this country. They were well-spoken, compassionate and thoughtful about a disease whose collateral damage they are barely able to stem.

Perched on a stool in the back room, eating a shared lunch of Pap, beef and curry, I listen intently as they impart their war stories to me. They are not blind to the odds, yet they keep showing up every day. I’m told that I am welcome anytime and my help is greatly appreciated. That help will most likely be pill counting with other volunteers. But I relish the thought of even such a menial task as that.

As the afternoon winds down, I walk home, in deep thought about my day. I cross the main road and start down my gravel one. I hear the familiar cries of my Swazi name from neighbors. The women at the grinding mill are still there – and they shout their usual greeting my way. I enter my homestead and see my family bustling around: Make is feeding the chickens, the kids are preparing dinner over the open fire and the goats are wandering back from their daily adventures.

I fetch my book and take a seat on my front stoop. It is by far my favorite place to sit – I can watch the dying light and feel the forgiving breeze. The nearby Lubombo plateau frames a picture of budding acacia trees and Swazi women with bundles on their heads on their way to their respective homesteads. Often, one of my host sisters brings over a mat for me to sit on so I don’t get my skirt dirty.

It is in this place that I find solace, that I can make sense of what I’ve seen each day. Sometimes I don’t even read, just gaze around at my surroundings. In effect, just exist in this strange, new environment. I must look bizarre to passerby and my host family, but I chuckle to myself upon realizing this, since I’m sure my pale complexion among other strange habits already elicits such thoughts. Can’t get much weirder when you are already plenty weird.

I stand up and enter my hut, noticing the huge spider web around my door. Looks like I will have some visitors tonight. I start dinner, only to discover the power is out. Looks like it’s a bread supper and bath-by-candlelight kind of evening. 

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Visual Evidence

The homestead. Notice the tree that blooms despite no rain.

Chaco tan lines are the best.

Moving in continues...

My awesome "bathroom."

The permanent hut.

The surrounding area.

Fellow PCVs.


My first attempt at hanging a mosquito net.

My training hut.

Training homestead.

View of the South African mountains from my training homestead.

As promised, some pictures to satisfy your curiosity of what I see every day.
Again, some logistics (get used to this sure-to-be recurring blog feature. I’m an organizational freak):

I’ve added a literary feature to my blog. It is entitled “Swazi Read Along”. It’s basically my own personal African book club that all are invited to join. I will try to update as often as possible and if anyone out there in that strange cyber world actually is reading in tandem with me, feel free to send me a note (snail mail or electronically), I’d love to have some rousing intellectual banter. When one lives in a hut, options for stimulating discourse are limited to one’s own subconscious.

Here’s what I’ve read so far, and if it seems like a paltry number, I concede to the fact a) Ayn Rand was read during training when making it through 10 pages felt like an accomplishment before falling into a dead slumber at 8:30 b) new hut + electricity = enjoying the wonders of my netbook a little too much.

The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
What is the What by Dave Eggers (highly, highly recommend – Incredibly compelling story about one of the Lost Boys of Sudan)
The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follet
A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah
I’m currently reading: Infections and Inequalities: The Modern Plague by Paul Farmer (Thanks to Jack for this book – very relevant to my work here)
On deck:
The Ugly American by William J. Lederer & Eugene Burdick
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

Another note on my reading habit. I love magazines and have found that addiction to not be satisfied by my Peace Corps budget. So if you are looking for something to send me, interesting articles are greatly appreciated. The Economist, Time, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, New Yorker, New York Times Magazine – all fantastic places to look. Also, anything that strikes your fancy from the New York Times; I’m sorely missing my daily fix. Anything and everything Middle East is always a good bet.

Other non-literary care package ideas include:
-Trail mix
-Cliff/Luna/granola bars – I’m a big fan of anything combining chocolate and peanut butter. Also dried cranberries.
-anything and everything Burt’s Bees
-Lindt chocolate – the milk chocolate bars with raspberry filling are my favorite (and yes I concede to the fact that these will most likely perish in the African heat. I don't care. I'll drink them out of their packaging.)
-Pictures of you. I hastily put together an album before I left but I’m definitely lacking in visual memories to put on my wall. I want to see all your smiling faces when I wake up to my roosters every morning.
-Practical surprises that fit into a flat rate box

Also, to my fellow recent college grads out there, I have a request to make of you. Since I know every single one of you check your email ad nauseum, I’d ask that any of you whose school emails are either defunct, soon to be defunct, or for all intensive purposes, defunct by default of your own doing, PLEASE send me the email addresses that you are using permanently. Feel free to include a nice note. No pressure.

Love from khombi land

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The African adventure is under way...

Since I’ve been awful at updating this, I’ve included three entries all at once for your reading pleasure, dated according to completion. I advise starting at the bottom and working your way up. Cheers!

August 29, 2010

Kancane, kancane.
My favorite expression in siSwati has a click. Figures. The “k” really sounds like a “g” and the “c” is where my English-trained tongue performs acrobatics in order to correctly (or not so correctly) apply enough pressure on the roof of my mouth to create said-clicking sound.

It’s English translation, roughly “step by step” or “bit by bit,” happens to be one of the wisest sentiments I’ve heard since arriving in Swaziland. All throughout training, my host bhuti (brother) liked to repeat this to me, applying it to everything from building a house to learning a new language. And when it comes to spending two years in Africa teaching behavior change to help stem the spread of HIV, I’d say this expression is especially pertinent.

At this very moment, I am sitting in my permanent hut, complete with thatched roofing, in the flat, dry lowlands of the Lubombo region of Swaziland. Training has officially ended and I am now a full-fledged PCV (Peace Corps Volunteer – I swear, that acronym list is on its way), having been sworn-in August 23rd.

I’m surrounded by my suitcases, way too many buckets and basins of various sizes and bomake bags (reusable plastic shopping bags that come in a multitude of designs – some more garish than others). Not to mention my awesome new electric stove (woo for electricity!), which is sitting on the cement floor since I’m sans furniture. My parmesan cheese that will be going on my pasta tonight is in my improvised fridge (pot + cement floor = cold enough).

I’ve spent the past two days playing a variety of games with the children on my homestead that involves a lot of creativity on their part. Shoelaces tied together create a game they call 3 square: this involves jumping in between the rope and back and tends to illicit a lot of laughter on their part at my pathetic attempts. Crumpled plastic into a ball-like shape, a can and a rock create a fast-paced sport that has the middle person tapping the rock on the can as many times before the outside players can pelt them with the ball.

Then of course you have the standards: keep-away and hide-and-seek. Though these classics have quite the twist when you are trying not to trip over a chicken or run into barbed wire that is lying in the dirt. I have made my mark on their games: they absolutely loved learning the limbo and could barely contain themselves when I demonstrated.

And then there are my nightly card games of crazy 8’s. One of the kids usually come to my door, whispers “knock knock” and then sheepishly asks if I will be coming to play that night. We play tournament style and my favorite part of it is when they shout “dlala” (play) at me since I’m too slow. And as a testament to how comfortable they are getting with me, they’ve even started lightly hitting my leg to insist I put down a card immediately. This is all while sitting on a licasi (grass mat) in my family’s living room, watching WWE and trying to sit in a culturally appropriate manner, legs out straight – no crossed legs allowed, which always leads to all my lower appendages falling asleep.

As I settle in over the next couple weeks, I will begin the process of “integration.” This period of my service lasts three months and will entail making myself known to the community as their resource for all things HIV-related all the while doing an extensive assessment of their needs. I’d be lying if I said it is not a daunting task, yet I can’t help but be excited for the hot, dusty days of trudging down dirt roads towards faraway homesteads to conduct interviews. For me, this is the beginning of the real adventure.

I’m also in the process of making my hut into a home. I’m absolutely determined to paint the entire interior, which my host bhuti informs me will require 20 liters of paint. The actual painting promises to be interesting, especially given the fact that I’m positive at some point one of my lizard roommates will disturb the wet paint with the pitter patter of their tiny feet. Of course, this could be an ingenious decorating technique.

Some logistics:

-Here is my new address:

Katelyn McBurney, PCV
P.O. Box 1074
Siteki L300

I’ve also amended my contact information on the right side of the page. Don’t worry if you’ve sent something to the old addresses, they are still valid. This new P.O. box is in a town closer to my site, thus easier for me to check on a more regular basis.

-I now have internet on my phone. Message me for the number and feel free to send emails. Oddly enough, it’s incredibly easy for me to check gmail in my hut. Wonders never cease. It’s the replying that is more difficult, so don’t worry if it takes me awhile.

Love from the Swaz

July 28th, 2010

A typical morning at my training host family’s homestead:

6:45 am, somewhere in rural Swaziland.

“Thandiwe, Thandiwe!” (My siSwati name – means to be loved or beloved one)

“Yebo, make!” (Yes, mother!)

Scramble out of my bed after spending the last hour contemplating leaving its safety and warmth and lunge for the key to open the door. Fumble for a good five minutes. Finally succeed. Open door to my make who’s wearing the widest grin, most likely in response to my disheveled appearance.

“Thandiwe, I have baked you scones and fatis.”

Holds up large Tupperware full of Swazi baked goods, numbering close to 10. Fatis, or emafati, are fried dough balls and the bane of PCT’s waistlines.

“Make, too many! I will sell some at school.”

Booming laughter.

“Okay, Thandiwe. Ngyibonga sisi! (Thank you, sister!) I give you more.” Leaves and brings back 9 more. Now I have 19. And a huge Tupperware to carry on the khombi.

Another day begins in Africa.

July 18th, 2010

First lie of Peace Corps: you will need an alarm clock. First fun fact about rural Swaziland: There are a lot of roosters. They begin their ongoing death-like wail anywhere from the moment I choose to burrow into my sleeping bag (9 is now late) until the moment I struggle out of the folds of my ill-hung mosquito net to greet my cockroach roommates (6 is standard). Lesson: I will never be late for class and I now scowl at the Corn Flakes box with its smiling rooster mascot as I endeavor to eat enough so that my malaria meds don’t play havoc on my insides. Welcome to Africa.

Training has been a whirlwind of trying to keep up with everything from siSwati homework to figuring out a system of life lived out of buckets. Bucket bathing. Dish buckets. Clean water buckets. Small buckets. Large buckets. Basins. Bane of my existence. It’s all about a system. And learning how to reconsider cleanliness, a common discussion amongst my fellow PCT’s (Peace Corps Trainees. Note on the acronyms: look for an upcoming list since I now apparently talk in coded government speak). Pretty sure my feet will always have a small film of red dirt on them after two years of walking around in African dust, despite my new feet soaking nightly routine.

I still wake up every morning and have to remind myself where I am. The nearby road sounds as if I could be back in my apartment on East Main in Canton. And then I open my eyes and see my one-room concrete house with a corrugated tin roof that serves as the occasional running track for rats. Or least that’s what I believe wakes me up at all hours of the night. I’m waiting for the day their incessant scratching gets through the tin and concrete and my cockroaches have new friends.

My homestead is by the road, so my walk to the khombi stop in the morning is barely 10 minutes. Of course it’s a total toss up when a khombi will actually pass. The transportation in Swaziland entails these large vans (khombis) that can fit usually around 15 people. Though that number is negotiable and can often include feathered passengers. There’s generally no set schedule and it’s an art to pick the right spot, otherwise you and your groceries may be squished into the far back. The fun part comes when you yell “Stash” and have to maneuver yourself out of these sardine cans on wheels.

I'm still learning how to exit without a) hitting my head on the speakers that blare everything from techno to Michael Jackson to gospel, b) tripping over my long, flowing peasant skirts (I’m discovering my inner flower child), or c) hitting my fellow passengers with my always over packed backpack. As with everything here, it’s a learning process.

Every day I can’t help but appreciate the small reminders of why I’m being infected with a growing love of this place. Whether it is taking a moment to breath in the morning mist as I make the morning trip to the latrine or standing next to my host sisi (sister) as we watch the rubbish pile smolder while the last rays of sun disappear over the nearby South African mountains. It can be as simple as my host make’s (mother’s) incredible booming laugh while she is kindly, but quite firmly, telling my fellow PCT friend to get home before “the Swazi boys” emerge to cause trouble.

I even love how confusing a seemingly simple conversation about dinner can be when trying to bridge the English-siSwati barrier. How Swazis burst into good-hearted laughter at my attempts to greet and introduce myself in a language that, by my count, has far too many words that require that elusive click. I’ve determined that Chaco and watch tan lines compliment an already dubious fashion statement of hippie skirts and mismatched T-shirts. And lo and behold, Swazis have an equivalent to “oy vey” – the always humorous “ish.”

For even though it has been just over a month, I’m already growing sad to leave my training host family for the newness of my permanent site. At the end of August I will move to the hottest, driest part of Swaziland to begin the three month process of integration. No longer will I exist in this bubble of training, but I will be thrust into the reality of living alone in a culture I am only just beginning to grasp.

I will be faced, more than ever, with the challenges that will be sure to test me during this two year-long odyssey: the gender disparity in Swaziland and its impact on my ability to work as a Western female in a male-dominated, semi-traditional society. And of course, the ever-present scrooge of HIV/AIDS, whose insidious nature infects all aspects of life here.

But I know that there is room for laughter. In fact, there has to be. The doubt and uncertainty that goes with the territory of development work is and has to be counteracted by the hilarity of those moments of trial-and-error so far that have made me wish for a witness: my first bucket bathing experience (fail), my first can-opening attempt with a knife by candlelight (success), and my first run-in with a herd of cattle blocking my gate (frustrating – especially after I clapped at them to move and they barely acknowledged my presence).

Stay tuned.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The beginning

18 days. That's how long I have until I fly to Atlanta for staging. 19 days. That's how long I have until I fly to Johannesburg, South Africa. 21 days, that's how long I have until I step foot on Swazi soil to begin 2 months of intensive training. Then 2 years of service. Needless to say, I'm busy.

I named this blog after a book I had growing up.
Learning to Swim in Swaziland by Nila K. Leigh tells the story of Swaziland through the eyes of an 8-year old girl. It was one of my favorite books as a kid and was one of the first things I thought of when I received my Peace Corps invitation. While I don't necessarily see it as a coincidence, I take it as a good luck charm that my impending adventure was always out there, waiting for me to plunge into headfirst.

I look forward to sharing my daily joys and tribulations as I navigate a completely new existence in Swaziland. I will most likely not be posting any new blogs while I'm in training, but look forward to updates once I've settled. Probably sometime in late August or September.

I'll end with a quote from my blog's namesake: "You should not be afraid of what you have never done. You can do all kinds of things you never dreamed you could do. Just like swimming. Just like writing a book (or a blog, in my case). Just like living in Africa."