Monday, March 30, 2009

March Happenings

March 8, 2009- Playing Anthropologist in the Swaz: A fellow volunteer and friend, Jenn, gave me the book “Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World” by Tracy Kidder. Paul Farmer, a medical anthropologist and infectious disease doctor, devotes most of his time working in a Haitian clinic providing medical care to the poorest of the poor. His philosophy “the only nation is humanity.” I’m retyping a passage I just read that I have literally been mulling over since I arrived in Swaziland.
“In an essay which he titled ‘The Anthropologist Within,’ Farmer wrote that, in the aftermath of that case (a case involving someone dying from malaria he felt he could have saved), he’s wondered obsessively about the role anthropology should assume in his life. He’d been taught that an ethnographer should observe, not try to change what was being observed. But practiced in that way, anthropology seemed ‘impotent’ in the face of ‘everyday problems of adequate nutrition, clean water, and illness prevention.’ It’s clear by the end of the essay that anthropology now interested him less as a discipline unto itself than as a tool for what he called ‘intervention.’ He had settled not for a synthesis between observing and acting, but for doctoring and public health work that would be partly guided by anthropology.”
I’ve been trying to figure out how to combine anthropological theory and practice with my development work here. How do I equally observe and participate? Is that even possible? How do I avoid becoming someone who just gives; someone who fulfills the Santa Claus syndrome and exacerbates the take, take, take mentality this culture has accepted as normal? How can I idly stand by, just observing and not help someone who hasn’t eaten for 3 days, or someone who is ignorant about HIV transmission and believes having sex with a virgin will cure them, or someone who is only capable of worrying about basic living, like how to feed or clothe their children from day to day?
This is why I struggle with teaching high school. Most students are resigned to the status quo; it is so ingrained into their psyche. How do I teach them about career guidance when they have already decided they cannot go to college? How do I teach them that their feelings, ideas, concerns and passions are legitimate when over the years their family and teachers have disregarded those areas of their development? How could I possibly just observe, yet how do I effectively participate?

March 9, 2009- Just another day with Black Mamba: Yes, folks, another snake graced my hut tonight. I have no idea how it got in but I’m guessing my door wasn’t closed well enough when I stepped out to talk to Make. I’ve been so careful, but snakes, they are cunning creatures. I found it under my mop; good thing I needed to mop up some spilt water or it would have been roaming around my hut all night. Yikes! I don’t even want to think about that. I swept it out. Thankfully it was small but either my hands were shaking too much or it was more squirmy than the last one because it took several attempts to sweep him out. Then he wouldn’t leave. He curled up in a ball near my door. I called my bhuti, Machawe, to kill it. I know. But I didn’t want to chance it coming back in later. Machawe said, “Oh that little thing.” He bashed it with a cow jaw that’s been sitting in front on my door for weeks. The pigs, having drug the jaw all over the yard, finally deposited it in front on my door. Does that mean it’s a gift? When Machawe left, with the dead snake dangling from the cow’s jaw, I bawled. Then I checked each corner of my hut and behind my bed for other intruders, finding only spiders which seem trivial in comparison. Then I cried again and ate some chocolate. Thank God for Trader Joe’s Belgium Dark Chocolate with almonds, and to my brother for sending it my way! I needed it tonight. I could have used a few beers with friends at my favorite pub too, to commiserate about what just happened and to be away from my abysmal hut for a few hours, after dark, I may add. It made me feel angry but then sad and frustrated, so I cried again. Seems to me being here is forcing me to face fears, demons that I’ve avoided, or cause me anxiety, or have haunted me for some time….or things I’m downright frickin’ scared to confront. How did the early anthropologists live to tell the tale?

I’m slowly weather and animal/bug/insect/reptile/everything proofing this place in which I dwell; this place I call a “house”. My hovel. My hut. My home sweet home. It’s like living in an unfinished basement, really…musty, damp, leaking and infested. I really chose this? You must all think I’m mad. I think I’m mad! And with another volunteer gone, I’ve been wondering what in the hell I’m doing here because every time someone leaves I think about home and what I left. Why did I think this was a good idea? But going down that road is self-destructive. Instead I’m off to bed, hoping that tomorrow brings sunshine and clarity and no snakes. (Incidentally, Make has snake crystals guaranteed to keep snakes away for up to two weeks. I sprinkled some at each corner of the house and in front of my door. I’m keeping my fingers crossed but I’m not holding my breath.)

March 11, 2009- Fluids and Doorways: My lesson in Grade 6 today was ‘Fluids and Doorways’ or ways HIV is transmitted, the four fluids that transmit HIV, and ways a person can and cannot contract HIV. We talked about the fluids that transmit HIV: blood, semen, vaginal fluids and breast milk; and those that do not transmit HIV: tears, sweat, saliva, urine, mucus, and feces. I explained that a doorway is a way into or out of the body, an opening or exit. And when engaging in certain activities, involving one of the transmittable fluids and access to a doorway into the body, HIV could be transmitted. Then we went through a list of activities, naming the doorway, the fluid involved and the level of risk. The chart below shows what I presented today.

Activity Doorway Fluid Level of Risk
Kissing Mouth Saliva/No Fluid No Risk
Sharing Needles Open Skin/needle site Blood High Risk
Pregnancy Uterus Blood Medium Risk
Vaginal Sex-Women Vagina Semen High Risk
Vaginal Sex- Men Penis Vaginal fluids High Risk
Eating Mouth Saliva/No Fluid No Risk
Hugging No Doorway/skin contact only No Fluid No Risk
Oral Sex Mouth Semen & Vaginal Secretions Low Risk
Birth Vagina Blood & Vaginal Fluids High Risk
Breastfeeding Mouth Breast Milk Medium Risk
Anal Sex Anus Semen High Risk
Sharing Razors Open Skin/Cuts Blood High Risk
Sex, using condom Penis and Vagina No fluids (if condom do not break) Some risk

Imagine trying to explain oral and anal sex to 6th Graders. I thought I’d have a harder time than I did. I’ve never taught health or sex education or biology before; I anticipated getting hung up on the terminology and laughing. But it’s pretty easy when strictly using technical and medical terms. Of course my entire class laughed. Penis and vagina and anus are funny words to 6th Graders. On the other hand, they were grossed out by oral sex. Go figure!
I enjoyed teaching today’s lesson, even with all the taboo words, medical terminology and laughing. My students need this information, and they seemed eager to learn it. So that made it fun to teach, and helped me feel like I accomplished something, if only for an hour.

March 13, 2009- Tooth Fairy Legends: My sister teaches 1st grade at St. Mary’s in Bellevue. Her children are reading a book about tooth fairy folklore in cultures around the globe. Swaziland wasn’t in their book, and they wondered aloud to my sister what children in Swaziland did when they lost their teeth. So she asked me to ask my friends in the community. This is what they told me: When a child in Swaziland loses a tooth they take it outside to a place where ash is deposited. They turn their back to the spot, and say, “Kholwa kholwane. I am giving you my old tooth. Give me a new one.” Then they throw the tooth over their shoulder into the ash and walk away without looking back. They said a ‘kholwa kholwane’ is a being that is not seen. My friends weren’t able to define exactly who this being is, but they thought it was an angel or an ancestor, someone no longer living. In my siSwati dictionary, kholwa, as a noun, means Christianity; as a verb it means be satisfied, believe in. Kholwane, in siSwati means red-billed hornbill, as well as July. “Christian red-billed hornbill! I am giving you my tooth. Give me a new one!”
One of the nurses at the clinic is from Zambia. She said in Zambian culture they have a tooth fairy, sometimes called an angel or tooth angel. When a child loses a tooth, the child goes outside and throws the tooth on top of the roof. The tooth angel, after finding the tooth on the roof, leaves a coin in the child’s shoe the next morning.
I thought both legends were interesting, and wanted to share.

March 25, 2009- Teacher Woes: My freshman classes are shits! They don’t care. They are apathetic. I don’t give a grade in Career Guidance. They know it. I don’t beat them with a switch. That seems the only way they behave. Shaming only works half the time. Stopping mid-sentence to glare at a student being disruptive only works half the time. Walking toward a group being too chatty during lecture to standing near them only works half the time. Form 2A never cared to listen from the beginning; Form 2B began as eager participants, and now they are less willing to share.
Is it my material? Possibly. This is new territory for them, talking about feelings, values, work ethic, how to make decisions. Is it my delivery? Possibly. I repeat myself and my instructions over and over, and yet students are confused about how to proceed. I’m guessing it’s partly my accent, partly they have a difficult time with abstract concepts, and partly they are not paying attention in the first place.
I left Form 2A’s class nearly in tears this morning. I was frustrated; I don’t know how to control them, and I was disappointed that they just don’t care. I left Form 2B’s class feeling deflated. A student handed me a note on the way out of class—I’ve given them the option to anonymously ask questions—which I read on the way home. He asked: 1.) What is the importance or purpose of learning Career Guidance? 2.) Is this a helpful subject? If so, why; if no, why are we learning it? 3.) Do you believe in beating people if they are wrong? I think this is the same student who last class period asked how he could make money if he dropped out of high school.
What about the system? It’s absolutely messy. Students have told me that teachers don’t care, that they are only concerned with beating their students. The schedule is constantly changing. Students are only expected to regurgitate information, rather than remembering or tangibly using what they learn. Indifference is ingrained into their psyche. I want to be a positive influence. I want to help them recognize they have potential, and how to use it. I want them to succeed. But they have to want it more; and that’s the only way they will feel empowered no matter how much I want it for them.
I don’t think I’ll teach high school next term. That might seem like giving up. But I feel it is fruitless to fight a losing battle. Better to put my time and energy toward productive projects. I’m hoping by next term my health club will be ready to start. I’d like to offer Career Guidance as an after-school club/class for students who are truly interested, and be able to offer it to all grades. I feel these are more positive modes for influencing these students.

Saturday (March 28th) marks my ninth month in Swaziland. Yippee! And at the same time, really?! Some days it seems my time is moving quickly, and other days like is it dragging along. Time is elusive to me here. Very elusive.


superbigmuch said...


WOW. And we teachers here think we have it tough. That sounds soooo frustrating.

Is it at all helpful to show them what life could be like if they went to college? I know I'm oversimplifying and probably sounding quite naive, but if presented with models of what life might look like if one doesn't quit school, get pregnant/sick at 15....?

Little wonder you feel so frustrated. Can't change culture overnight, and even then -- as you ask --- SHOULD you?

I really, really enjoy reading your posts. I know it's difficult and I can understand the tears. So thank you for sharing in such detail, and with such thoughtfulness of your self in relation to this experience and this culture.

You are a strong woman, m'lady.

Take good care!

Here's a squeeze:


Claire Berman said...

Hello - we don't know each other, but I came across your blog as I was searching for information about Swaziland. I'm scheduled to come there for 2 months (June - August) to work for Save the Children in Mbabane, and I was wondering if you could please write me at to tell me more about living there. My family is kind of worried about my safety b/c I'm traveling there alone. I'd really appreciate it if you could write to me!

Claire Berman