Tuesday, July 7, 2009

My life in June

June 6, 2009- Mid-Service Conference: Monday to Friday my group attended two conferences, one with our counterparts as a way to build capacity and plan activities for the upcoming year. The other session with the Medical Officer dealt with grief and loss. During one of the Grief and Loss sessions, an “assignment” was to draw a picture depicting some aspect of grief or loss we’ve experienced since our arrival. I drew a picture of a lotus flower emerging from a lake alongside the OM symbol. A lotus flower symbolizes death of the old in order to gain something better, something new. It begins at the bottom of a murky lake as a mass of nothing special. As it makes it way to the surface, it slowly sheds its dark layers, gradually revealing brighter layers. Finally it surfaces as a beautiful lotus flower.

It takes time to let go of the things that weigh us down. It takes time to emerge from darkness or sadness or disappointment to reveal a renewed, happier self; a self who is not afraid to be. This self no longer wants to hide from the light; she wants to live. A lose of the old self, but a gain of a changed self, one of quality and substance.

The OM symbol represents what was, what is and what will be. The past, the present and the future. An understanding of self from the beginning and an understanding of self at the present moment are all necessary for growth for in the future.

I experienced a significant transformation shortly before I left for Peace Corps. I’ve experienced several smaller ones since my arrival in Swaziland. These transformations are essential adjustments for a self to emerge a healthier self. They aren’t easy, but I’m told nothing in life worth learning is ever easy. Even though at times they are hell to weather, and hell to face alone, I could not be where I am today without going through. I’ve weathered the storms. I am still standing, stronger and more certain of myself.

June 7, 2009- Baking Crackers: I made a version of Wheat Thins today. A fellow volunteer told me how good the recipe was so I decided to try them. I made crackers! Who’da though that was possible? Somehow it only seems possible in Africa! I didn’t have wheat flour so I substituted oatmeal and white flour; I also added ground pepper and basil. Surprisingly they taste close to the really thing. While I was baking them I thought about how wild it was to be baking crackers in Africa. Why didn’t I think to do it in America where the process would have been much easier with a real kitchen? Instead I try them for the first time in Africa where I bake with a mini stove the size of a microwave, use the top of my dorm fridge as a countertop, and put things on the cement floor to cool. Sometimes I have to laugh at my situation. There are many things I do here that I couldn’t even dream about doing in America. Some things I never want to do when I go back to America, for instance living without a kitchen or bathroom. However, most things I do here—taking time to read, baking and cooking more from scratch, walking to my destination, writing letters, taking time to enjoy listening to music, finding a moment of Zen in each day—are things I never want to overlook, ever, no matter what direction life may take me.

June 9-22, 2009- The Gaspers Go to Africa: My mom, dad, and sisters, Sharon and Annette arrived in Matsapha, Swaziland on 9 June, 2009 for their African venture. We spend the first night in Mbabane so they could have a bath/shower with hot, running water before being thrust into the ‘wilderness’ where the only available bath involved a bucket and heated water if anyone was so inclined. No one was inclined. We spent Wednesday and Thursday in my community. They saw the schools where I teach, and met my health club students. They met the teachers I am tutoring as well as my exercise club. They accompanied me on my trek to collect water. They toured the clinic and met the nurses I work with daily. They visited the sitolo (local store) and bomake market I frequent weekly. They helped me prepare a lunch for my friends and my Swazi family. Dad grilled, which Swazis call braii-ing. It’s a woman’s job, as well as sawing branches to start a fire. My Swazi friends learned that my dad is not afraid to work and that in America most men grill. My dad learned to accept help from my Swazi friends. I learned that grilling chicken over a wood fire takes a lot longer than I anticipated.

They mastered using the pit latrine at night, while holding a flash light and calling off the dogs. My sisters slept in my very springy bed, and my parents slept in a nearby rondovol (round hut) that up until 2 weeks ago held baby chicks. I slept on a sponge on the floor. Everyone eagerly anticipated Friday morning, and our destination, St Lucia, South Africa, where we hoped for a nice hotel with a bathroom. I stumbled on a B&B called African Ambience through an internet search. It was the nicest place any of us ever stayed. Ever. And because there was so much to do in the area, we stayed until Tuesday morning. Our itinerary in South Africa is as follows: Friday- to the beach to see the Indian Ocean after settling in at the B&B; Saturday- tour of an functioning Zulu village and to a different section of the beach to walk in the ocean and watch the sun begin to set; Sunday- Camp Vidal Nature Reserve where we came very up-close and personal with 3 white rhinos in the rental car, saw many zebra, warthogs, impala, hippos, and a very rocky section of the ocean; Monday- hired a private tour guide to view Imfolozi Game Reserve, the oldest game reserve in Africa. We saw every animal expect leopard, which are apparently very elusive. We got really close to a group of 30 elephant, which was the highlight of the day for me. To be near such powerful and poised animals was humbling. In total we saw close to 20 different types of animals, including giraffe, elephant, hyena, zebra, a lion, nyala, impala, white and black rhino—which are so named because the of the side of the Imfolozi river they would frequent not because of color, although they have different face structures and back postures to differentiate them—crocodile, and banded orb spider, as well as marula trees and aloe plants.

Tuesday morning we headed back to Swaziland and spent the evening in Mbabane, the official capitol. Wednesday we spent touring the Ezulweni Valley, which means the Valley of the Gods. There are many local artisans as well as rural groups working on development projects that train and support women- Baobab Batiks, Swazi Candles, Gone Rural, Rosecraft and Tintsaba. On Thursday, my family ventured to the National Museum and Mantenga Crafts solo. I had been chosen by our Country Director, along with another volunteer the week before, to join her in meeting Make Inkhosikati Matsebula, the first wife of the King. Since our Country Director is new, this was her first official meeting w/ Inkhosikati, and she wanted volunteers from my group to help represent Group 6. Inkhosikati Matsebula just finished her second year of college; she’s studying International Relations. She’s smart, a free thinker, and is as progressive as the wife of the King can be. It was an honor to be in her presence. I wanted to bring my mom with me, thinking it would be a great cultural exchange for both parties. At the last minute, the invitation was limited to Peace Corps members only. But I’m glad my mom didn’t miss the cultural village and National Museum even though meeting the King’s first wife would have been a once in a lifetime event. On Friday, we toured Ngwenya Mines, recorded as the oldest ore mines in the world, Ngwenya Glass workshop and store, which uses recycled glass to make each piece, and Maguga Dam. Saturday we hiked through Phophonyane Nature Reserve to see the waterfalls, and visited the Tintsaba shop near Piggs Peak. In Swaziland, basket-weaving skills are handed down from mother to daughter with every generation. That is the philosophy of Tintsaba. They established a development project in 1985 to train master weavers to work with sisal grass to make jewelry and baskets. The project currently works with 750 Swazi women. All steps of production are carried out by hand including cleaning the sisal, dyeing and spinning. A 17cm diameter basket takes 30 hours to weave, so the work is quite time consuming. Social and environmental topics are integrated into the training sessions. The environmental focus of the company is reflected in the many animal and bird designs in their products. You can order their products online at www.tintsaba.com. It’s worth your time to peruse their site. The other places I mentioned—Ngwenya Glass, Gone Rural, Swazi Candles, Rosecraft and Baobab Batiks—also sell their products online. These companies all focus on sustainable production and products, providing a fair living wage for artisans, healthcare for artisans, and social, environmental, health and HIV education to their employees. Something is working in this country, and it’s mostly the women. Sunday we drove the Tea Road after enjoying a father’s day brunch at Sambane Tea House. The Tea Road is so named after a failed bid by Swaziland in the 70’s to begin a tea plantation in the area. The road is rugged and mountainous but boasts beautiful, breathtaking views and is good for a languid Sunday drive. Monday was a lazy day; we didn’t plan anything since we needed to get the rental car back to the airport by 3pm. We had coffee and tea at my favorite organic shop in the mall, then lunch at a cafe most frequently visited by volunteers where the staff knows I always order an Americano and greet volunteers even if we are just passing by. I’ve found my coffee shop that knows me; funny how that works. My mom and dad said they most enjoyed meeting volunteers and PC staff I talk about the most; they met about 7 volunteers and ten PC staff members. I think my sisters enjoyed the beautiful craftsmanship of the artists we encountered as well as the landscape. But Swaziland’s landscape is hard to beat; I cannot imagine anyone visiting and not falling in love with the splendor of the countryside.

My parents celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary next August. They took an adventure to Africa to celebrate. They visited a continent they didn’t expect to ever explore. And they visited their daughter in Peace Corps. It was a successfully rewarding journey for them, I believe. For me, their visit, their presence, was the best gift they could ever give me.

Side note: Everyone thought my mother was the sweetest and kindest woman they had ever met, that her smile was lovely, and that she looked very young. They thought my sisters were friendly and non-judgmental, that Sharon was the youngest and Annette the oldest b/c of height. They believed my father to be stern and wise, as they thought he was a pastor

June 30, 2009- Frost on the Fields: This morning I woke to find frost on the fields and the grass around my hut. I noticed a light smattering of white all along the ground as I rode the bus to town. The low last night was 2 degrees Celsius; the high yesterday was maybe 12 degrees. That’s pretty cold for Swaziland, and didn’t allow my cement hut to retain many of the sun’s rays. Given that I could see my breath last night, I filled my thermos with hot water and took it to bed with me; it kept my hands warm. The high today was around 18 degrees but my hut is fairly chilly tonight. I bought gloves in town since I lost mine on the Imfolozi safari. I’ve been wearing them most of the evening and will probably wear them to bed; even so I think I’ll repeat that thermos process tonight. Added insurance in case the temps drop lower over night.

On June 26th, I celebrated my 1 year anniversary. I’ve been here one year, and it seems quite hard to fathom. I helped another volunteer and two PC staff members pick up the new volunteers—Group 7—on the 25th. Meeting them and being at the airport was surreal. I was trying to wrap my head around the fact that I’ve been in country for a year and that it really has gone quickly, as well as wading through the plethora of questions being thrown at me by the excited and nervous newbies. It makes me question, what have I learned in 12 months of PC life and service? Good question. I’ve learned: 1.) Frustrations are the result of expectations; 2.) To have really good friends in my community means I’ve integrated, and if that’s the only thing I accomplish in my time here, then I’ve been successful; 3.) With all honestly, I have 28 PC friends that I truly care about and look forward to spending time with each time I’m in their company; 4.) Swaziland never seizes to amaze me- some people in my community act like they’ve never seen me before, some call me by name; the weather is freezing one day, and balmy the next; my Swazi friends are always happy to see me just because I’m me; the winter landscape is a gorgeous deep burnt red and the summer shows 7 shades of green; 5.) My hut is my home- I hate my pit latrine and I wish I had a real kitchen and bathroom but I feel comfortable in my little hovel; 6.) I know how much I can live without, and I know how to get by with what I have…it’s a nice feeling to not need material things; 7.) I know what I don’t want to live without- the freedom to speak my mind, the freedom to be a woman with equal rights, good healthcare, equal pay…oh and a kitchen and bathroom with running water; 8.) Life is constantly throwing obstacles in my path….do I duck or do I try to catch them? The answer is different each day, and that’s okay; 9.) Love without rules; and 10.) Only by jumping in without restraint can you have the full experience available to you.

It’s taken many long months to learn these valuable lessons, ones I need to learn for my life journey. I came to Africa to learn these lessons, which might seem crazy to some but I couldn’t fully appreciate and comprehend them any other place but here.

No comments: