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.

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