I know that little else I do in my life will be as unique and rewarding as those two years. Living outside of my comfort zone for such an extended period of time was a challenge in both obvious and not-so-obvious ways. And yet, as I make the slow, steady transition back into American life, I am realizing that Swaziland became my new normal. That my perspective has changed in irreversible ways.
I am grateful for all that Peace Corps and Swaziland gave me and I hope that I can retain that sense of appreciation for as long as I live.
I cannot imagine how I would have survived those two years without the kind emails, letters, and care packages I received. My blog is but an attempt to show my appreciation to those who took the time to read it and support me. It has been a privilege to share my experience with all of you. I hope I was able to give you but a glimpse of this so-often forgotten country.
Below are a few highlights from my blog; entries I believe encapsulate my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Swaziland:
I’m running an hour late. Four months and I’m already functioning on APT (African People’s Time – a legitimate phenomenon that’s been confirmed by a fellow Kenyan PCV). I get out of the khombi after taking a roundabout route 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.
Originally published on Oct. 29, 2010
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 cheekbones. 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.
Originally published Feb. 18, 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 are 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 footpath 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 stoplights. 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.
Originally published June 24, 2011