Thursday, March 5, 2009

Life in February

February 3, 2009- Propositioned for Sex: I usually walk to Baylor Clinic from the center of town, about a 15 minute walk if I’m moving quickly. On my way this morning a man offered me a ride. I noticed a block earlier he was parked on the side of the road, relieving himself; everyone here does that—even women—so I don’t give it a second thought anymore. As I drew near he greeted me warmly, and asked if I was American Then he asked where I was going. He offered me a ride to the clinic, and considering the heat and the amount of sweat I was already perspiring, I quickly accepted. He was curious about my work at the clinic, so I told him I am working with Peace Corps. He said he knew I was Peace Corps. Okay. I inquired if he worked at the clinic b/c he told me he was just there. Nope; he’s a business man in town. The next question was about my community, then if I was married. And since I’m not, he believed it gave him license to offer himself when I get lonely. He said he would love an American wife, but we wouldn’t have to get married unless we fell in love. He has family in California, and always wanted to visit but was afraid he would meet someone like me and never want to leave America. So we could just have fun but if we fell in love he would marry me after my close of service. We could move anywhere we wanted and he would take care of all my needs. Then he told me he was from India, his grandfather was from Afghanistan; he became a Swazi citizen several years ago but isn’t inclined to stay in Swaziland forever. All of this in the span of 5 minutes. I even got his name and cell number. What a flatterer! Perhaps if I didn’t hear this or something similar (like, I love you) from random strangers (men) on a weekly basis, I wouldn’t be so put off by an invitation from a man who wants to enjoy my company, conversation, dinner. Not even remotely a possibility in this country. Those kinds of invitations are either for sex or marriage, no in-between!

February 4, 2009- Umlungu means Foreigner: In siSwati the word for anyone who in not Swazi is umlungu. More often than not, it’s said when referring to a white person. It’s not a complementary word, usually uttered as an insult or to mock. My teacher and nurse friends tell me it is just the word they use to describe a person who is not Swazi, someone who is white. However during training, when we were accosted by the word daily, our Language and Cultural Facilitators clued us in to the real meaning; if said sarcastically it is an insult.
On my first day of school at Edwaleni High School I greeted a group of girls with the obligatory salutations. Their response to my “Sanibonani” (Hello aka I see you all) was yebo, umlungu (yes, foreigner) in a tone reminiscent of my high school days, S N O T T Y! I whipped around, pointing my finger at them, and very calmly but sternly said, “Don’t call me that. You know my name.” As I turned to leave I heard them say, in the same snotty tone, yebo, Thandeka. And so began my first day of school, remembering, all too readily, my painfully awful high school days of catty girls, clicks, he said/she said, desires to be popular, and crushes. What did I get myself into? How did I think teaching high school students were a good idea? Culture does not cancel biology. Teenagers seem to be the same, the world over, which I am now blatantly aware.
So how is teaching them? Stressful! I teach Career Guidance to Form 2’s; the equivalent to freshman in America. They’re way too chatty. I have to repeat myself constantly—partly b/c of the language barrier and partly b/c they don’t listen or pay attention. They ask condescendingly, “what’s the point of this class?” and “why is that important?” No one likes or understands participation or speaking up. They aren’t asked to participate in class; most schools in Swaziland believe lecture classes are best. And only a handful seems ready to learn and eager to tackle the projects. Granted, Career Guidance is a completely new class, not to mention new concept for them. Most students don’t know they have the option of going to college, much less that they can graduate from high school. Generally speaking once they graduate from high school, boys stay at home, living off their parents until marriage; many girls get pregnant at alarmingly young ages (a 15 year old came to the clinic last week for a prenatal visit), and usually drop out of school. This has been their future; it’s what they have observed from the previous generation. Additionally, this new class is being taught by an umlungu, a greenback, and they are testing their limits as only teenagers can. So I must remember that patience I’m trying to cultivate, and trudge slowly onward.
My sixth graders are a whole other story. I am teaching Life Skills this term to two sixth grade classes. I honestly believe the rise and fall of barometric pressure affects their moods and activity level on any given day. They are overly chatty, rambunctious, and beginning the snotty phase. I’ve bribed them with a party at the end of the term if they are good. Five marks against them and no party. Currently one class has one mark against them. They seem eager to learn the material, eager to be adults, yet they pass notes, play games, and trade secrets during class time. I’ve had to raise my voice several times, which I hate! But I’ve taken to walking around the room during lecture, standing by those who are being naughty or too chatty. It stops the behavior, but only while I’m standing there. Once, I made a boy who was fighting with another boy stand at an empty desk at the front of class, facing forward for five minutes. Shaming does work, sorta. I’m not proud of my discipline tactics but at least I don’t beat my students. Every primary and secondary teacher carries a switch with them to class. Capital punishment in school is perfectly acceptable. The high school teachers told me I needed to take one to class on my first day. They laughed when I said I wouldn’t. They chided me, saying it is the only way to discipline these children. I adamantly refused, saying I neither agreed nor believed in beating children to make them behave. They stopped laughing, giving me wide-eyed looks of either surprise or bewilderment; I’m not sure but thankfully they haven’t mentioned it again. I’ve been witness to several beatings unable to remove myself, partly because it shocks me so and partly because I’m not sure where to go without drawing more attention to the situation. It’s awful. It fees awful.
Each region has an action group against abuse focusing on human rights and gender-based violence. But how much is too much? Where do you draw the line in a country where beatings in school and at home are perfectly acceptable?

February 7, 2009- Umlungu Tekaed by Zionist…Headlines of the Swazi News: I’m retyping, word for word (including their grammar mistakes) an article from the February 7th Swazi News regarding a former Peace Corps volunteer. No worries…I’m not planning to follow her example! Enjoy the sensationalized reporting, and notice whom they interviewed.
Umlungu From America Tekaed by Shy Zionist, reports by Lucky Tsabedze. Manzini- A Zionist construction worker tekaed an American woman. The Zionist met Brenda Emelia Grabau at Bhawyini area, near Mankayane in 2006. Calvin Kunene was at Bhawyini as a labourer for Anzo Constructions, a Matsapha based company. “We were at Bhawyini as the construction company I worked for was building a house at Nysatsini Secondary School. I worked as a ‘bhucundaka,’ my duty was to make concrete mixture,” said the shy Kunene. Kunene said he wanted to talk to Brenda when his eyes fell on her but he was scared to convey his feelings, something he described as part of the courting process. Apart from that, he says the skin colour sent shivers down his spine. Kunene said he made acquaintance with Brenda, but the intention to ask Brenda out was not strong though he secretly harboured the thought. “It happens that a male will want to talk to a girl about dating her but fear holds you back. It was the same thing with me,” said Kunene. “Then I took chances this one time when we met, it was more like a joke when I said it (I love you). She was friendly so that made it easy to talk to her. We begun to be friends and that is how we grew closer to each other,” said Kunene. Kunene said the friendship continued until a stage when Brenda’s commitment made him believe they were more than friends. Brenda pleasantly surprised him when she visited Kunene’s sick father at the Mankayane Government Hospital where he was admitted. “That took me by surprise,” said Kunene. “I could see that the friendship between us was strong, and was in fact getting even stronger. It got to point when my father died, that proved to be a turning point for me and Brenda. She travelled to my home, and was with me throughout the time of bereavement. She was cooking, and that must have been a shock to some mourner’s because they didn’t partake in the cooking. She was the busiest,” said the proud husband. The relationship has brought to life a child.
….They are leaving for USA. The Kunenes are on their way to the United States of America. The Swazi News caught up with the busy Kunenes in Manzini, and they disclosed that they were preparing documents that would enable Calvin Kunene to visit the USA for the first time. Since Brenda Grabau returned to Swaziland, the family has embarked on trips to the Republic of South Africa where they are working on the documents that are needed to make Kunene’s intended visit to the USA come true. “I can’t say for sure that I am leaving Swaziland and my parents for good. It will depend on what I find in America. For now it is just a visit, I have never been there so I don’t know how I will find the country and the culture,” said Kunene. The couple have a baby who is almost two years old. The couple hosted a prayer session at Ludzeludze where their pastor Reverend Bheki Shongwe was in charge. Shongwe is the leader of Entokozweni Church in Zion under Boyane area.

A little PC Swaziland gossip: Brenda hid her pregnancy from Peace Corps until her groups COS (close of service) conference where it was fairly obvious she was several months along. She was immediately Medically Separated, and sent to America. Her prenatal and postnatal care was completely paid for by the US Government. Sweet deal? Hmmmm?! Lots of trade-offs for that deal, in my opinion!

February 15, 2009- Teka means what?: To teka a woman means to marry her, a man taking a woman as his wife. The ceremony is continued by some Swazi families; others are tossing it aside for more western styles of marriage. The process of teka follows: When a man is ready to marry his girlfriend, he asks her to spend the night. After several overnight visits, he tells his women relatives on the homestead he is ready to teka his girlfriend. That night, he wakes between 2 and 3 am, excusing himself to use the umthoyi (outhouse). This is the signal to the female relatives; they enter his room and wake the girlfriend by shouting her name, announcing her marriage to their son. They strip her of her night clothes, and dress her only in a special skirt (sidvwaba) made of animal skin. The teka-ed woman is expected to cry all night inside the kraal, and her new female relatives cry with her (or make her cry by shouting insults if she cannot cry). Crying is a signal to the ancestors of the family; it means a new person is joining the family. She is also expected to sing the following song: ‘I came from death and I went into death. I left those of my age group asleep. My family come and save me.’ This song refers to the death of her old life and the birth of her new life that will continue until physical death. This is the only time a woman is expected to cry. Once married, she is not allowed to cry over trivial little problems; she cries in advance for problems later. After this night women may only cry about difficult situations or at a funeral. At sunrise, the bride is bathed (kumekeza) and a special song is sung, marking the end of the crying. Neighbors and people in the area sharing the bride’s last name come to serve as her family. The groom’s family asks the bride and her ‘family’ permission to kill a goat. If she says yes, she is smeared with red ochre; this (libovu) seals the marriage deal and serves as the wedding ring. If she says no, everyone pleads with her to say yes. Her groom begs and pleads until he convinces her to agree to marriage. Then a hind leg of the goat is taken to the bride’s homestead by a groom’s relative to symbolize she is married. Her brothers usually chase, catch and beat the messenger unless he is a really fast runner. They do this to symbolize they are upset about the marriage taking place without their consent. While the goat meat is cooking, the bride is instructed on how to be a good wife, and how to treat her husband and in-laws. Then the groom takes the bile of the goat to spray on his bride’s tongue and all her joints; the bride does the same to her groom. The family instructs the groom on how to treat his wife. This is the final seal of the marriage. The celebration may commence; everyone eats meat, traditional beer is served and traditional dances are performed. Lobola or bride price is expected to be paid to the bride’s family before the bride dies. Lobola is paid when a woman’s in-laws are convinced their daughter-in-law’s conduct befits a wife. When lobola is paid, it signifies they are satisfied with her behavior and are sure she will be a member of their family for a long time. It’s a way to show appreciation to the woman’s family for raising a good woman.

February 21, 2009- Shiselweni Youth Support Group: Once a month the Shiselweni region volunteers hold a support group for children and young adults who are in some way affected by HIV, either personally, or through a family member. The group, started by a Group 4 volunteer, plans life skills and HIV lessons each month to present at the meeting. We also lead the children in exercise, games, and end the morning with treats. Each volunteer takes turns writing a mini-vast (small grant) every 3 months to fund the support group. The money, which comes from PC Headquarters in Washington, DC through PEPFAR funding, helps us buy teaching supplies and treats, and allows us to reimburse the children transport costs to get to and from the meeting. PC Headquarters recently got picky about which mini-vasts they are choosing to fund, declaring they will no longer fund on-going projects like our support group. Their rationale: mini-vasts should be for innovative and creative projects. Our funding was immediately cut; we were informed on February 6th. The office said if our support group wants to continue drawing money from mini-vasts, each volunteer with children from their community at the support group should take out a mini-vast to fund only the children they bring, or we should each have support groups in our own communities. The vision for this support group, as designed by the Group 4 volunteer, was support in numbers, a neutral and safe place for children to feel comfortable talking about HIV, and help from fellow volunteers to teach lessons. When Group 5 asked us to be involved, be began brainstorming ways to free ourselves from constant PC funding; attendance for the meetings was increasing and more children were becoming consistent participants. Given this growth, we discussed the possibility of writing a constitution, a mission statement, and statement of purpose in order to seek funding from an outside organization to permanently support our group. We would give ourselves 4 to 6 months to plan for and arrange working with a non-profit organization. Now outside funding is imminent. Today we were forced to tell the children we couldn’t reimburse them for their trip to town; luckily there were people who could transport all children home via personal vehicles. A bit of a liability we were forced to take. Four of us pooled our money to buy 80 bananas so the children had a treat. And after the disheartening announcement about transport, Jaclyn and I tried to lighten the mood by having a banana eating contest…her idea. Who could eat a banana the fastest, and whose team could cheer their volunteer on the loudest? I was nominated to take part in a pie eating contest in high school. I’ve never been one to eat quickly. I didn’t do well at the pie eating contest. And I didn’t do well at the banana eating contest. Jaclyn won, by two bites. We made the kids laugh, though. They thought we were a little crazy, but they laughed.
In two weeks, we meet with PC staff to brainstorm solutions, and hopefully identify a few non-profits that might be willing to fund our support group. My fellow Shiselweni volunteers and I believe this support group is too vital to terminate. Group 4 and 5 put too much blood and sweat into getting the group started. And Group 6…right now it’s our one constant activity, something to look forward to each month, and way to feel like we were actually doing something. We enjoy teaching needed information. The children have so much learning to play new games. I help another volunteer lead exercise, and I end with simple yoga poses and stretches. We get as much satisfaction out of the morning as the children who attend. It’s worth the time to everyone involved.

February 28, 2009- Pioneer Woman: Today marks 8 months in Swaziland. Is that possible? In 3 short months my parents and sister are visiting. (If I went off on how excited I am about their visit and what I have planned, you’d never hear any of my other tales between now and their arrival.) The end of June marks one year here. WOW! It doesn’t seem real that I’ve been here close to a year. Hallelujah.
Another volunteer is leaving next week. During her Christmas vacation she was assaulted; I cannot say more because it is her story to tell, not mine. Suffice it to say, she’s having a hard time here, especially when men in this country constantly barrage white women with marriage proposals, offers of sex, and “hello madam, you are beautiful.” She is in my region, Shiselweni; we are down to 2 married couples and 3 single Group 6’ers. There are two Group 5’ers, but they are leaving in July. PC staff is estimating 38 new volunteers in June. Let’s hope at least 10 are placed in Shiselweni. It’s the poorest of all 4 regions, has little resources (ie, NGO’s), and is the hardest hit by HIV because of it has the highest rate of poverty in the nation. And it’s too sparsely populated by volunteers!

On Thursday, I cut my grass in a dress and sandals with a very dull field hoe. Due to all the rain, the grass around my fire pit, clothesline and pit latrine is knee high. Make’s lawnmower wasn’t working, and bobhuti didn’t seem interested in cutting the grass with their machetes. Everyone walking past my homestead was curious about what I was doing. They laughed when I told them I was cutting my grass. They must have thought me mad, cutting my grass with a field hoe. But I couldn’t find a machete, so what was I gonna do? Maybe I should own one. You never know when one will come in handy.

Today, bobhuti began cut grass with their machetes; it hasn’t rained in 2 days so the grass was mostly dry. Mid-morning, the neighbor’s cow were brought in to graze on the cut grass, eliminating most the raking process. Make got the mower fixed, and bobhuti finished their job by mid-afternoon.

My friend Jaclyn and I play a game sometimes to amuse ourselves, and pass the time. It’s called, Would you rather…? Once, one of us mentioned pioneer life. We both adamantly agree that we’d have no problem living the life of a pioneer woman. We are living the life already. Fetching water. Chopping wood. Hand washing laundry, hanging it to dry, and then ironing it for hours. Collecting rain water for washing dishes. Boiling water to take a bath. Performing chores in skirts/dresses. Surviving crazy thunder and lightening storms under a tin roof. Not being able to make it to town because the bridge is out. Going to town to shop, get mail, or catch transport to the office. Cooking with stove/oven the size of a microwave. Working, reading or writing by candlelight when the electricity decides it doesn’t want to cooperate. Cutting grass with a dull field hoe in a dress and sandals. Feeling my energy drain as light fades, and waking when day begins to break over my mountain. We tease each other about our “new” life, asking ourselves who have we become.
I watched a show on PBS once about 4 families who lived for 3 or 4 months on the plains of Montana as pioneer families. They were challenging themselves, trying to see if they could prepare their homesteads for winter as pioneers would have done in the 1880’s. At the time I was intrigued by the challenge but not sure if I could pull it off. After this experience I wouldn’t have problems living on the open range in a little shack preparing for winter, cooking over a wood fire and collecting water and firewood. And I could do it all in a dress.
I have a new found appreciation for pioneer women, toiling through life’s tribulations, running a household, creating new ways to feed and clothe their families. The pioneer spirit, shared with me by my grandmothers, my mother, my aunts and my sisters, as well as the many women I’ve encountered in my life—bosses, co-workers, friends, instructors, teachers—whom I admire. I am honored with such a legacy.

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