Friday, October 14, 2011

More Visual Evidence

Peace Corps family gathering.

Bo Kaap neighborhood in Cape Town, South Africa.

Preschool graduation in my community last April.

My high school friend Leire and I enjoying ourselves
on a wine tour near Stellenbosch, South Africa.

Goofing off with bosisi bami (my sisters) in my hut.

Leire and I on top of Table Mountain in Cape Town.

A neighboring homestead in the backdrop of the Lubombo plateau.

Traditional wedding held on my homestead this past August;
My host father is the one on the far right.

Where the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet.

The kiddo holding the yellow balloon is the infamous little bhuti.

My favorite street in Swaziland, located in Siteki.

Young girls in my community.

Join the Peace Corps and you too can walk down dusty roads carrying a heavy backpack.

Sunset in my community

Celebrating my host brother's birthday.

Not so Much the Dog’s Life

There are days when living in a southern African country is mundane. I’ve gotten used to it. 15 months will do that to a person.

I’ve forgotten a lot about the United States. Like the taste of Gatorade. I know this might sound stupid to most of you, but the Swazi (well actually South African version, since all our products come from our neighbor to the north, south and west. I coincidently live in the one part of the country, the eastern side, that neighbors Mozambique, so whoop for me) version leaves much to be desired in taste. I’ve only started purchasing it as an alternative to ORS (Oral Rehydration Salts), the remedy PCVs resort to when we have tummy problems. And by tummy problems, I mean loss stools.

ORS is basically like drinking sea water. But it is a life saving recipe (8 tbsp sugar, 1 tbsp salt, 1 liter treated and filtered water) that is a necessity in this part of the world. In my time here, my number one first aid tip to my host family, community members and counterparts has been to impart my knowledge of this recipe. There are far too many deaths due to dehydration caused by diarrhea in this country, especially children, that could be easily prevented from such a simple mixture.

The reason I mention this is because I recently got a package (an awesome, amazing package. Thanks Mom and co, you guys always manage to outdo yourselves) with a container of real Gatorade powder. I immediately made myself some with cold water from my fridge (just because I could) and thought I would die of happiness. Over a year of trying to quench my thirst with lukewarm, sterile tasting water from a tank just doesn’t cut it in comparison to that first sip of paradise.

Another thing that has eluded me has been the sight of a happy and healthy dog. For me, the sight of skeletor dogs and puppies, like the 20+ that run around my homestead every day, is normal. The idea of petting them, giving them treats, playing ball or merely offering some sort of kind acknowledgement of their existence is not my first thought. Rather I must cautiously avoid them, reprimand them in siSwati (“suka” or “go away” – which is in fact a much nicer word than what most of my host family uses) when they rummage through the trash, or just stare past them in order not to remember how much I in fact adore dogs.

In the beginning there were less of them. When I could, I’d give them any food I could think to provide. Since for the first year I was sans refrigeration (yes, exciting update, I now am a proud member of the Soft Corps club with my recent purchase of a fridge. This impending summer just got a whole lot easier to manage), that meant bread, hard boiled eggs, even tuna once. But food is expensive, especially the kind they need. And with their ever-multiplying numbers, it became less feasible for me to even try and make a dent in their nutrition.

I also used to try and befriend them. The older dogs still like me. They know me and I’ve even treated them to a pet or two. But these are not house pets. And many are crawling with fleas, get “bathed” only when they are trying to avoid the literal downpours during the rainy season and are none too friendly to strangers.

In Swaziland, dogs are owned for one reason. Security. And boy, if I don’t have the most secure homestead on the block. The running commentary between myself and our Peace Corps Safety and Security Officer is mostly about the current tally of new litters I’ve got running underfoot. I’m pretty certain I have the most canines on my homestead of any PCV in Swaziland. So go me.

It seems lately that I find a new batch of already doomed runts every couple of weeks. For the first couple days after they have been weaned off their emaciated mother, they appear almost healthy. The outline of their ribs are barely noticeably at this point. I take advantage of these precious days, before most of them develop a disease that leaves their skin patchy, to play with them. I pick them up, sometimes I give them silly names and in general I just try to enjoy their new, though in all likelihood, short lease on life.

Why are the male dogs not neutered, might you ask? To a rural Swazi, that’s not a practical question. With a significant portion of the population living on barely 400 emalangeni a month (that’s roughly $57), the expense of such a procedure on an essentially living and breathing piece of protection is not really a priority. Plus, my host family at least occasionally sells off some of the offspring before they get too pathetic looking. So to them, that’s the answer to keeping their numbers somewhat manageable.

For me, the best coping mechanism has been to block them out. Whenever I stop and look just a little longer at one of them, I can’t take it. The way they huddle against the wall of the main house together. How they take every kick from my 9 year old sisi (sister) with an every-enduring resignation to their fate. This is a challenge in not just cross culture, but in reevaluating perspective.

The thing is that as much as you are probably bemoaning these dogs fate, they are better off than a lot of their compatriots. My host family will at least feed them from time to time, albeit the offerings are mostly gruel-looking slop, but hey, it’s something.

And honestly, most of the time, one’s attention is more taken with the skeleton-looking human being walking by, pushing the empty wheelbarrow, wearing the threadbare clothing. And that’s when that perspective thing comes in handy.

I tell you things not to make you think that this place is depressing every moment of every day. But in fact that it is a reality for not just Swazis, but so many people around the world. I know that this refrain is like a broken record, but being here one has almost an obligation to say these things. I could talk about the developed part of the country, like Ezulwini Valley with its luxury hotels, movie theater and nice restaurants. Or I could mention the fact that I can buy taco seasoning at the grocery store in the capital, which also has running water a person can actually drink (a fact certified by the US embassy in Mbabane). But that’s not the real Swaziland. That’s not where I live.

There are happy moments for sure. Like when I walked home from school the other day with my 5 year old little bhuti/nephew (family relations can be confusing), the son of my older bhuti. We decided to exchange backpacks, mine having 25 notebooks in it that I had intended to dispense to my students.

Alas that didn’t happen as they decided not to assemble for club that day. Or the next day. But that’s neither here nor there. The point is, I got to walk hand in hand with one of the funniest kids I’ve ever met and try to keep from laughing while he desperately tried to drag my heavy bag all the way back home in order to show his Gogo (grandmother), my Make (mother), that he was strong.

And though he rebuffed every attempt I made to hold the bag up off his shoulders, ordering me to just take care of his green and plastic Power Ranger backpack, he nevertheless kept grabbing for my hand to steady his balance.

So in all his glory, he made it, walking triumphantly through the gate until he reached the veranda, calling out for Gogo. He then showed us his drawing he made at school of his hands and his number sheet up of 1 to 10. His Gogo and I just laughed, shaking our heads and letting him ramble on in his nonstop jabber of English and siSwati.

So you ask me how I make myself feel better? What I do when I feel like the world is closing in on me and my attempts at “development” are like throwing pebbles at an iron cast door?

I walk down my dusty road holding hands with that cute, little rascal.

Friday, June 24, 2011

A Bike Ride to Remember

They’ve been asking for weeks. Begging, pleading, staring at me with those big, round African child eyes, knowing those National Geographic-worthy expressions will somehow wear me down.

Today is the day. The weather is perfect. A sentence so rarely uttered in this part of the country. It is now winter in the lowveld, a fleeting, pleasant 3-month period of time when the days are warm and breezy and the nights cool enough for maybe a duvet cover. I wear pants and a T-shirt to bed and have never slept better.

I slowly roll my bicycle from its resting place beside the wall to the wall outside, careful to not get the wheels stuck on the fly-away makeshift screen on my burglar bars that I really need to fix one of these days. The older girl is sitting on the ledge of the smaller verandah at the main house, observing me. She sees the bike and immediately bounds over, breathless and excited. The youngest boy is right behind her. They look up at me with wonderment in their eyes, knowing that I’m finally giving into their request. They ask me to wait while they collect the younger girl, which I happily allow as I need to fill the tires with air anyway.

As I push my bike out of the gate, I reiterate my rules to them: no running directly ahead of the bike, watch for cars on the main dirt road and no grabbing at my seat or tire from behind. I adjust my helmet, swing my leg over and start to pedal. They squeal and start sprinting alongside me, egging me on, screaming “Faster, faster, faster!” I indulge them, grinning as I gather speed and start to pull away from them, their skinny legs a blur as they try to keep up.

I look behind to see three grinning faces, all intent on catching me. I yell to them that I’m going to take a left onto the dirt path up ahead. I am intent on finding one of the back roads we had taken on a firewood-gathering expedition. This path is easier for them, since it requires me to go slower to avoid the numerous hurdles in my way.

The scenery is as I remember from last August when I first arrived. Winter has decimated the once lush greenery that only a few months ago had covered this flat and seemingly endless savannah. Now the earth is brown and dusty, the only plants are the ever-present thorn bushes.

The little boy signals us to stop, as he sees a family of sparrows in the nearby field. He has brought his slingshot, a past time he has become obsessed with over the past two weeks as he tries to hit every bird he sees on the homestead. I slow down and we wait as he prepares his shot. It goes long, so we continue on, coming to an opening of the path. I’ve found the road I wanted, so I let the kids decide our direction.

They lead me into the forest, not exactly bike-able territory. I realize as we go deeper I should’ve requested the other, more traveled path. No matter, the high grasses are no longer so foreboding and there is a small foot path I can follow. We veer to the right, towards some scattered homesteads and in the direction of one of my counterpart’s houses. While I had only been once during her house blessing ceremony back in October, I know the general area where she lives.

As we come out of the forest, the terrain appears rougher. Bumpy, rocky and full of the scattered thorn bushes. I steer clear as best as I can, though my exposed calves get a bit scratched up. The kids run ahead, happy to be able to beat me as I struggle to navigate this ill-advised path.

We stop at my counterpart’s house to inquire whether she is home. Only her children are, the youngest yelling a greeting to me. He recognizes me as he often accompanies his mother to support group meetings. A patient and happy child, I can see he is helping his siblings with household chores. I wave goodbye and tell them to inform their mother I stopped by.

We journey on, the first signs of the kids’ fatigue starting to set in. I jump off the bike, walking it so as to allow them to catch their breath. But soon the path flattens out and I can’t help myself. We must be on a slight hill because I can see the rest of the valley positioned slightly below us. Homesteads dot the landscape, which is alternatively lit up by the dying afternoon sun and darkened by huge, towering clouds above. It looks like a piecemeal quilt, some of the land light shades of brown and green and some of it dark. All of this set in the backdrop of the Lubombo plateau, a mammoth piece of topography.

I ride along a fence overlooking a maize field that has long been harvested. It stretches away from us, its seemingly dead-looking appearance hiding the sleeping life it will once again give next planting season. The days of fresh maize have tapered off; now most Swazis have set aside their crop to dry and take to the grinding mill. My own family has constructed a holding area. I’ve seen various other contraptions in my community, similar is design to my Babe’s (Father’s), made of recycled wire, netting and scrap wood.

The path widens as we approach the main dirt road to Ngcina. It’s my road. I look back at the kids, the youngest girl clearly starting to get bored. I ask them if they’d like to go home, knowing it is relatively close by. They insist we continue onto the next chiefdom, a not-so-close destination that is farther into the bush.

I compromise, saying we’ll go as far as the top of the hill that leads to that community. As we pass homesteads situated along the road, people wave and gape at the spectacle we make.

A group of schoolchildren pass, eyeing us blankly, until I greet them and unleash tiny grins on their faces. Some men are lounging around a large tree as I screech past, racing the kids towards a farther tree. I yell a hurried greeting, their response lost in the wind.

We stop for a rest, all three of them clearly spent. I turn the bike around and announce it is time to return home. They protest, they want to keep going, but I can see in their eyes they are ready for their dinner and baths. I walk the bike most of the way back, stopping to greet some of my community members, including the counterpart who I tried to visit earlier. The kids patiently wait for me as I converse with her about a meeting next week and connecting with another community member on a girls’ empowerment project.

Finally we arrive home, dirty, tired and hungry. The littlest is wearing my helmet proudly, marching around the yard. My host parents sit on grass mats on the smaller veranda with some guests, laughing as we roll through the gate. My Babe announces in siSwati that we have arrived, a wide grin on his face. The kids and I say our goodnights and head our separate ways. The timing is perfect; the sun as all but set, its dying orange light barely peaking over the horizon.

As I close up for the night, ready for my own bath and dinner, I sigh in satisfaction in a day well spent. I know I must cherish these fleeting moments and memories. Of kids running alongside my bike on paths long traveled by generations of Swazis. Of nature barely touched by mankind, whose only sign of intervention are small walkways deep in the forest. It is a world of shared livelihood, a balanced relationship between the wild and human beings. As close to each other as can be possible.

While it all seems so normal and routine now, too soon will I be back in the world of concrete and road signs and stop lights. Of manicured lawns and street lights and brick walkways. But for the time being, I love the anarchy of the bush. No rules, no time, endless dirt paths and laughing children. I will hold on to this existence until I must leave this place. But not yet. Not yet.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Greetings future PCVs, a word...

So you are in Group 9. I bet right now you have a stack of lists next to your laptop, a pile of newly purchased gadgets and are reading this blog with the hope that I will reveal all to you.

First order of business. I want you to sit back, take a HUGE breath and relax. Good, you are ready to go.
But if that did not help, perhaps I can impart some knowledge that I wish I had known/listened to pre-departure to this lovely kingdom of ours.

Packing (the essentials):

-Headlamp. Bring this. I think that my first week of training was the beginning of a love affair with this particular device. If you don’t have electricity, you will especially curse your existence if you are without one of these. Also, bring tons of AAA batteries to accompany your new illuminating friend.

-Tent and compact sleeping bag: I know it seems like this would be a hassle, but trust me it will be worth it. During training you will freeze and desperately wish you had a sleeping bag. And having a tent means half-off at the backpackers in Mbabane and most other places. Forget clothes, bring these.

-Duct tape: Fixes everything and will make your host bhuti think you are super cool.

-Water bottle cleaning tablets: You are going to use your Nalgenes on a constant basis and since dust is prevalent in every crevice of your hut, you will want to clean them. A lot.

-Laptop and an external hard drive that is at least 500 GB: Don’t fool yourself into thinking you will be “roughing it” without technology. You will want to escape occasionally and watch Glee. Plus then you can have movie nights in your hut with the kiddos and make popcorn. It’s awesome.

-Couple decks of cards: BEST integration tool with your permanent host family. They will teach you Crazy 8’s (aka Uno), Sisu and if you have the skill, Casino (I have yet to master this ridiculously confusing game). Bring multiple decks if you are like me and have mischievous, albeit adorable, children on your homestead that “borrow” your cards and return them in a state of destruction.

-NO MEDICATION: Okay bring prescriptions but DO NOT listen to the packing list suggestion of carting the entire CVS store to Swaziland. You will get a med kit with all kinds of awesome goodies and the Med Unit is always there to satisfy your medicinal needs.

-Couple books for training: If you are like me and are sans electricity during training, bring one or two really long books to get through the 2 months of mind-numbing err informative sessions. I brought The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand (no judgments please) and it lasted me the entire two months. Mostly because I would fall asleep by 7:30.

-Lighters: Better than the crap matches you can buy in bulk here and will make lighting your gas stove much easier. You will also swear less.

-Clothes that don’t make you feel like a grandma: You will sometimes have the luxury of feeling like a normal person while in town and having clothes that make you look like yourself will do wonders. A pair of jeans and a cute shirt are worth not bringing one more peasant skirt.

-Perfume: Same concept as above. Sometimes you will want to smell less like the dirty PCV that you are to become.

-Small, compact umbrella: BRING THIS. If you live in Dante’s Inferno aka the lowveld, this is much better than a wide-brimmed hat. They sell umbrellas here but they are crap and bulky. Bring one that you can stick in your backpack. This will also aid in integration, since your community will love you for this.

-2 knives, peeler and can opener of good quality: Nothing you can buy here will match the amazingness of American-bought, Chinese-made products. Also, don’t be that person who stupidly packs the can opener in the bag that will be stored during training, otherwise you will learn how to open a can with your Leatherman by candlelight and risk death every time.

-Travel size toiletries and toiletry bag: You will live as a nomad here, so pack as if you will be camping/backpacking for two years. Travel-size everything is advisable.

-For the ladies, leave-in conditioner: Water is scarce in many of the places we inhabit and washing conditioner out of your hair can be a hassle. Saves time, water and sanity.

-Normal bathing suit: That whole “conservative bathing suit for women” tip is a farce. Bring a bikini if that’s your bag, because being the only one on the beach in Mozambique with a one-piece won’t be fun.

-Sticky tack: No brainer here. Bostick is god awful.

-Extra pens and pencils: These things disappear faster than rice at a community event. Do not, under any circumstance, lend these to children. You will never see them again.

-Treats and media for your future BFF’s aka G8. We are tired, hungry and dirty. Take pity on us and please bring sustenance in the form of new movies and candy. We will love you for it. Peanut butter M&M’s are my favorite, so take note.

-Clothing: Okay this topic is much too extensive and I’m getting hungry, so here’s a few hints. You don’t need that much. The important thing is to have range and choice. Easy-to-wash, high quality and comfortable is your best bet. Ladies, dresses over skirts means less laundry.

Bring what makes you happy and know that you have wonderful parents, siblings and friends who you can guilt-trip into sending you whatever your heart desires by using the simple phrase “Well I’m living in a hut in Africa.” Works every time. Uh I should take this opportunity to thank all MY friends and family for the awesome goodies they’ve sent me over the past 10ish months. You guys rock.

Before you leave the bright and clean land of Amurika:

-Stop reading blogs. Right now. Okay well after you finish this one. I know it feels like you have to soak in every parcel of information before you get here, but the truth is, nothing will prepare you for this experience. You’ve got to get here first. So please, go outside and enjoy your last weeks in the familiar. Go on a walk with your dog. Spend as much time as possible with friends and family. You are not going to see them for a very long time. Go to your favorite restaurants and stuff yourself silly. Eat lots of Thai food, there is none here. Go for a long drive with the windows down and music blaring and just enjoy the moment.

-Enjoy your dignity while you can. You will be spending the next two years waving and grinning at every person in your community in hopes that you are “integrating.” You will be peeing in buckets (don’t think you won’t). You will walk by your entire host family with said pee in said bucket. You will not bathe as regularly as you used to. You will be instantly recognizable as a PCV by everyone as you lug your overstuffed backpack and bomake bag around Manzini and Mbabane. You will get embarrassingly happy and grateful when offered rides, showers and candy by wary expats. So embrace what little self-respect you have left, because it is going to be long time until you no longer excitedly exclaim “Yes Yes Yes!” to a waiter’s question about whether you want ice cubes in your water. Shit’s about to get real fun.

-Take lots of long, hot showers. Enjoy them. Cherish them. Then, say goodbye.
These next two years are going to be amazing. Don’t sweat it, you will be fine. We are here to help ease you along and to show you where all the bathrooms are in town. Hambini kahle bangami bami.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Sometimes I nap, sometimes I work

It has come to my attention that I’m not blogging enough. Or responding to emails in a timely fashion. Nor writing letters or taking pictures at a rate that is acceptable to documenting this whole life-changing-Peace-Corps-experience thing.

I could give a whole bunch of excuses. It’s been a hellishly hot past couple of months (I started counting in October, so let’s go with six). A hot that I don’t think I will ever be able to describe adequately in words, despite my love of thesauruses. While I surprisingly survived, nonetheless my creative juices were sapped and replaced by a lot of floor napping. And bed napping. And now hammock napping (thanks Mom).

I really like naps. I think I’m making up for four years of college where I never indulged in this awesome habit. Oh what I have been missing. I can’t believe people actually have real jobs and can’t do this every day. Returning to America is going to be tough.

I’ve also realized that I haven’t written at all about my actual job here. I suppose it is because I loathe reading other blogs that are just a laundry list of “So I did this, then I went there and met these people and it was super cool.” But I suppose there’s a way of imaginatively describing what the American government is expecting of me here in the magical Kingdom of Swaz. So here goes.

When I was first nominated for the Peace Corps, my original assignment was in the At-Risk Youth Development sector. Throughout my time at St. Lawrence University I had participated in numerous activities and mentorships working with the youth in the North Country*. In particular, my time spent with SLU Buddies during which I was paired with a middle school student was possibly the most eye-opening of my experiences. I was exposed to a world so removed from my own in safe, cookie-cutter suburbia. So being given the opportunity to expand on this type of volunteer work in another part of the world highly appealed to me.

In early May 2010 I received a call from my Placement Officer offering me a slightly altered job track, focusing heavily on HIV education though still incorporating work with at-risk youth. I decided to take it and about a year later, here I am in Swaziland, living in a hut that is sometimes infiltrated by sparrows.

In mid-February this year I officially started two new clubs at my secondary school. Throughout the past fall (or I guess spring, since this is the Southern Hemisphere. Apparently water drains the opposite way here. I wouldn’t know, latrines don’t really flush) I have been in talks with numerous teachers about starting a health club and tutoring students in English. What came out of that is a Health Club and a Writers Club. Both meet afterschool once a week for an hour and contain a range of students in both age and ability. Membership is voluntary and neither club numbers over 20. Which is good, since large groups of people staring at me freaks me out.

I never in a million years saw myself as a teacher. And still I see myself as nothing but an imposter. The Swazi school year is broken up into three terms and we recently finished the first term, with the second starting the first week of May. My first term was a bit, oh let’s say, bumpy. Scheduling conflicts/confusions, holidays, my cluelessness, the students’ shyness all contributed to a haphazard couple of weeks. Despite the difficulties, I have found that I absolutely love these kids. They are sharp, funny and incredibly eager. And they are constantly surprising me with probing questions and honest perspectives.

One of the activities we do in Writers Club is to discuss topics, sometimes controversial, that appeal to the students who then go home and write one to two page compositions responding to the discussions and backing up their opinions. During a meeting early on in the term, one conversation in particular was very captivating.

We had been discussing the students’ opinion of race relations in Swaziland and my own concerning the United States. For most Swazis, outsiders of European descent represent colonialism and missionary work. I myself am often confused as a whole host of other nationalities: German, English, Afrikaans, etc. And many think I work for a religious organization, which is understandably given the high prevalence of Christian-based NGO’s here (including a regional office of World Vision that is situated right in my community).

At first my students were quite hesitant to say anything, sticking to acceptable answers straight out of their history lessons. Getting exasperated as only an impatient American can, I asked them what the problem was, why they were not being honest with me. A Form 4 boy finally said what we all knew was the issue: I was white and they didn’t want to offend me.

It’s one thing to all be aware of the elephant in the room, quite another for someone to finally say it. I acknowledged his reservations but encouraged them to proceed without fear of hurting my feelings. Surprisingly the floodgates opened a smidge.

They started to recount a much too common scenario. In Swaziland (and one can probably surmise, most of Africa), when a white man walks into a room full of black men, the former is always given a comfortable chair. Even if the other men in the room are by traditional hierarchical standards of higher rank and importance (such as a chief or member of the inner council). The students used this issue of the “chair” as a jumping off point to represent the multitude of inequalities due to race that still exist in this country.

I then began to tell them of my experiences during homestead visits that I made throughout my period of integration to gather census data. That no matter what I did, the moment I walked on to a homestead I was given the best seat, which sometimes was just the most intact water container. Now some of this has to do with Swazi hospitality and the treatment of guests and visitors. However, it was made clear that I was to be taken care of before that of my Swazi counterpart. At homesteads where they literally had one chair, I was always given preferential treatment. And no matter my reservations or protestations, refusing was out of the questions for both cultural and historical reasons.

I can’t be sure how exactly this entire lesson was received. At the end most of the students left in quiet and reflective moods. Which was a vast improvement I suppose over previous meetings where they just looked lost and bored.

The first term was an important learning experience for me. I discovered how to hold their attention, what kinds of topics they need and want to discuss and how to push them in the right ways. I’m positive I will still screw up royally during my second crack at this, but at least I have a better foundation. And now I know that what they really want to debate is whether WWE is real or fake means my first lesson for the Writers Club is planned. So I’m feeling much less stressed.

I try to go into these sessions hoping to somehow impart a level of confidence to these students. No matter the topic, be it decision-making, peer pressure, creative writing, George W. Bush*, at some point during the lesson I attempt to encourage them to express themselves as individuals. Of course, capacity building is easier said than done. What I’ve discovered is that it is less about the content and more about the increased time I spend with these kids. I’m starting to see that perhaps my biggest impact is not going to be my words, but just the very fact of my presence.

This is especially true when it comes to the young women in the group. I’ve realized the opportunity I have to show these impressionably girls that there is a life beyond the second class treatment they’ve grown up with. That they are capable of taking charge of their sexual rights and choosing who, when and how. The challenge is convincing them that they are deserving of the same level of respect that their male counterparts enjoy.

I know that in the end, the key to having any kind of impact on HIV prevalence is empowering women to take charge of their bodies and minds. These are not at-risk youth in the conventional sense, rather they live in a place rife with risk. It is by no means fair. Thus my opportunity to teach, to act by example, to inspire is so fragile, so easily thwarted by numerous factors working against me.

But they keep showing up, so I will too. And that’s the best any of us can do.

*North Country: I have found that what has best prepared me for dealing with the incredibly level of poverty I’ve seen and experienced in Swaziland was my time spent in the northern most part of New York state. St. Lawrence exists in this bizarre bubble of wealth and opportunity whereas the surrounding area represents much of what has happened to rural America. High unemployment, domestic violence, drug usage, dying industry and a general sense of futility. I count myself lucky to have met and become friends with a lot of people, both at SLU and from the surrounding Canton-area, who are North Country born and bred. They represent a wide range of experiences and backgrounds and gave me incredible insight into what it means to live and work in a rural setting.

*George W. Bush: One day the students wanted me to explain my feelings about our most recent former president versus our current one. While I was not going to reveal my opinions regarding Swazi politics during class, I’m completely at liberty to go to town on the American political game. Basically it was child’s play.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The little things

Dusk is my favorite time of the day. The sun has finally set, the heat has begun to dissipate and my front stoop is the perfect place to soak in the cool breeze that dries my sweaty skin. I think that one of the most enduring images of my service will be the scene I see before me: the dirt road, the scraggly trees, high grasses all set in the backdrop of the Lubombo plateau. Even as the seasons have changed, winter to spring to summer, the picture has remained stunning in its ever-changing form.

My family has learned that I will sit for at least an hour before I head in to cook dinner. I read, I write in my journal or date book, I wave hello to neighbors and friends passing by on their way home. Often my older bhuti (brother) will come over to discuss some important matter, like my electricity bill or to inquire about my day. Babe (Father) will shout his greetings, flashing his dashing smile my way. Make (Mother) will remark on the weather, always in siSwati and we will struggle through our conversation, which always ends in good hearted giggles on both sides.

And then bosisi bami (my sisters) will show up. Without fail I watch for their evening arrival, bringing in the goats from their off-site grazing. First the timbuti (goats) will thunder through the gates and begin attacking the grass and shrubs around my hut. Then I will see the girls. One, age 12 or so, is the picture of an African princess. Slender limbs, tall neck and high cheek bones. Sometimes I see her standing still on the road, her stance proud and regal. Then she will bound towards me, her ethereal smile and gangly strides revealing her youth.

Next is my drama queen, age 9 and just full of it. Always the show off, she will do her silly dances down the dirt drive way and giggle like a fiend. Small for her age, her stunted growth most likely due to a lack of nutrients in her diet during early development (a much too common ailment she shares with many Swazi youth), she nevertheless has energy matched by no American child I’ve ever met. Her eyes sparkle, her smile electrifies and I can’t help but fall madly in love.

The two of them can turn around any terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. Whether it’s the way they throw down their cards during Crazy 8’s with such flourish that the deck pile often shatters. Or when we have spontaneous photo shoots with my phone and they dance and sing with reckless abandon in the dying light. They will knock on my door and bring me maize they’ve cooked for me and shout joyous “good nights!” as they saunter back to the main house.

It is these moments at the end of the day that I must compare with those at the beginning.

There are mornings when I don’t want to get out of bed. When it’s 5:30 and I can feel the sun’s heat already infiltrating my hut and my day promises little more than frustration and stagnation. When even the whirl of my fan cannot keep me cool and the thought of doing my chores makes me turn around and pray for sleep once more, chores that with running water would take mere minutes. Sometimes just the knowledge that I have to trudge through perilous grasses to reach a dark, damp latrine full of over-sized lizards and infested with flies gives me pause to contemplate my sanity in signing up for two years of this. What was once a morning adventure against the elements has turned into a burden from which I garner little satisfaction in achieving.

And yet, after dealing with the mundane necessities required of living in the conditions of a hut in rural Swaziland, I still have to steel myself for “doing my job.” For putting on a dress and sandals, packing my shoulder bag and setting off in the dirt towards dilapidated buildings where I will wait for meetings to start hours late, for counterparts to cancel on me without even a phone call and to witness a poverty that I had once only seen in news magazines. And to realize that I’m increasingly able to pick out community members who are obviously ill with AIDS. Their gauntness too extreme; their hollow eyes too desperate.

Everything is extreme here. The highs are unbelievably high, the lows are incredibly low. Yet what amazes me is that they are brought on by such small human acts and conditions. I can feel my faith in humanity crashing on top of me and then my sisi (sister) will run up with her English homework and I feel lifted. I’ll be watching an episode of Entourage, my mind completely monopolized by images of American wealth and excess, and then I hit the stop button, walk out my door and watch teenagers wearing threadbare clothing amble by pushing wheelbarrows with sacks of donated maize from the local NGO. It can all be so jarring.

But what makes it all worth it are the relationships. My host family, who are some of the most gentle and welcoming people I’ve ever met. The countless community members who want to help their neighbors and friends, giving up time and energy for little or no pay. The young people who meet every Saturday to practice skits and dances they will perform at schools and functions to raise awareness about HIV, poverty and inequality. The counterpart who walked me home, speaking of his dreams for his drama club and his work to spread the word about male circumcision. It is these people who make me get out of bed every day. It is their struggles that make me remember that my physical and mental discomfort is only temporary; theirs have lasted a lifetime.

These past couple months have been no doubt trying. I’ve strained to turn project ideas into reality, to secure my role in the schools and to find an overriding purpose in my work here. I’ve been cancelled on, been disappointed by meetings and counterparts and sweated more in two months than probably my entire life. I’ve spent countless hours in my hut, stewing over daily failures and relentless heat. But I cherish the tiny, fleeting successes. I’ve sensed the painfully slow progress I’ve made: to integrate, to “make a difference,” to learn, to exist.

I can see how a passerby would deem this area as desolate. Daily I see white South Africans drive by in their SUVs, puzzled by the appearance of a sweaty American among so many Swazis, registering for a moment this community along the tar road, its ramshackle buildings and huts, its bowlegged children, its punishing temperatures appearing as flickering waves of heat rising from the horizon.

But they do not know this place as I do. They do not know what it is like to walk in a sea of Swazi children on their way to school. Or the warm greetings of a member of the inner council, dressed in a colorful print, brandishing a walking stick and a wearing the widest grin when he spots me at the stash. They do not know the joy of a simple hello from a friend screeching by on his used, fluorescent green bicycle. Or the shared relief of an evening rain in the lowveld.

I’ve begun to realize why two years are necessary to make sense of it all. To understand how to deal with the intense feelings of both joy and pain. To accept that the world is and will always be imperfect. And to discover my role amidst all of this. “This” being the journey. Not the object. Never the object.