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.

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