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.


  1. Katie, it's Jenny You! Your blog is wonderful. I'll be applying to be a PCV myself in about a year and it's so great to read about your experiences! Your words make me feel like I'm right there.

  2. Katie, you are a beautiful writer. I just came back from only 6 days in rural El Salvador with high school kids. Our village had no running water and latrines with frogs/flies and it was in the 90's so I can relate in a very small way. The kids got sick and diarrhea was a challenge without hot water! As a nurse, it is hard to imagine end of life care/HIV maintenance care there.

    I will pray for your physical/emotional/spiritual strength and well being each day. You are right, it is the little things, the barely imperceptible progresses, the smiles, the relationships. I am glad to hear your host family love you as you love/admire them. Keep writing and posting. I figured out how to follow. Peace and Love to you, Dianne Rizzo

  3. Jenny, it is wonderful to hear that you are planning on becoming a PCV! I'm glad my blog can be of some help. If you ever have any questions, please don't hesitate to write. Letters, emails, FB all work.

    Dianne, thanks for the words of support. Sounds like the trip to El Salvador was very eye opening for everyone. My experience here has definitely been challenging but incredibly rewarding. Say hello to your family for me.