August 9, 2009- Spring Cleaning: After living at my site for almost a year I finally acquired a table. Deja, from Group 5, left me her table and having it has changed my life! As a welcome to the new-to-me table, I decided to spring clean my hut. I rearranged the book shelf, and now have a ‘library’ area. I rearranged the mini stove, fridge and carts, and now have a galley ‘kitchen and dining area’. I rearranged my ‘bathroom/closet’, which helped me take my suitcase-turned-dresser off the cement floor. I swept then mopped the floor. I purged unused papers. And I dusted fallen wall off surfaces. Now I sit at my table to eat. I can do school work at the table. I can put my laptop on my table instead of on a box on the floor to watch movies, which makes viewing eye level and much more enjoyable. I think I’m in heaven! And I feel rich.
The weather is following suit. Nights are less cold. Days are gradually warming. The sun is rising earlier and slowly setting later and later, which makes me happy because night isn’t so long. The landscape is a juxtaposition of colors and cyclical changes. The evergreens are mingling among coppery red deciduous trees (not all deciduous trees here completely loose their leaves). Greens sprouts of grass are shooting up through tufts of brown. Frogs began croaking last week along both rivers that embrace my community.
A support group formed at my clinic a few weeks ago. It’s led by an expert client trained by MSF (Doctors w/out Borders) in supporting people living with HIV who take ARV’s (anti-retrovirals). Wanting to help with this group, I offered my services to the expert client. Since most of the group’s English is limited, I decided leading exercises after their meeting would be my contribution. They love it. One of the older ladies, a traditional dancer, really gets into the side-stepping. She shakes her hips, almost putting me to shame. Even the oldest Mkhulu (a.k.a. grandfather/old man) stands up to move. On the first day, I told them whatever movement they were able to do is okay. I explained that any movement they do that gets blood and oxygen flowing to the muscles is healthier than no movement. Last week I was sick, but I stopped by the clinic to greet the nurses and ask the expert client to lead exercises. She was apprehensive. I tried to quell her fears by saying she could copy what I did, something simple like raising arms overhead several times and slowing lowering them or marching in place. She promised to try.
Today she informed me that she led the group in several of the exercises I taught her. She was proud that she remembered. I suddenly had an awe moment. This was my first glimpse of sustainable development work in action in my community! Since my arrival, I’ve been thinking sustainable work was something of a myth or at best rarely attainable and only in extreme circumstances. I am proved wrong by my own actions! I taught someone something they remembered, and they felt motivated and confident enough to share with others. I did something sustainable! One small step for Mahlalini. One giant leap for me and my faith in what I’m doing here. Making true connections by forging relationships with others has always been part of my philosophy, and I am more acutely aware than ever that I cannot be an occupant of this earth without being an active participant. I cannot just exist, I must dynamically be.
August 8 - 31, 2009- Painting a Preschool: Justine, Jaclyn and I met the couple, Michelle and Peter McCubbin, who run Pasture Valley Children’s Home on the edge of Nhlangano through Make Simelane. We sometimes stay with Make when we’re in town for the youth support group; she works at NATICC—an AIDS testing and counseling center—where Michelle is on the Board of Directors. A completely self-sustaining orphanage, the McCubbin’s grow fruits and vegetables, operate a tree nursery, and raise dairy cows and pigs, allowing the 20 children who reside at Pasture Valley home-grown foods each day. The older children go to school nearby while the preschool-aged children are taught at a preschool on site. Two Swazi mothers live between two houses, each caring for half the children; they honor traditional Swazi living while teaching the children how to cook, clean, wash clothes and play together. The children range in age from two months to 16 years. Considering the trauma each child brings, living in this new home is life-saving for them. As terrible as it is to separate them from family, sometimes a home away from biological family is better for their well-being than being in an unhealthy environment. And this new family wants them.
Eager to help, we offered out services with whatever needed to be done. Michelle needed the inside of the preschool painted. We set to painting the 3 main walls and the storage cabinet doors. One wall was dedicated to the alphabet and an object associated with each letter. The second wall turned into an apple tree with numbers 1 – 20 painted on each apple. The other wall had shapes around the window. On the cabinet doors we created flowers. We finished the room with grass growing up out of the floor. The children gladly helped us each time we came to paint by dancing with us to music, handing us paint brushes, posing in pictures and eating our snacks. We frequently took breaks to play with them, getting to know names and personalities.
Wanting to know their stories, Michelle told us heart-wrenching stories about how some children came to live at Pasture Valley. One child, who just celebrated his sixth birthday, looks like he’s two. His mother, too sick to work, barely had enough food to feed him much less herself. Once Michelle was alerted to the situation she took him to the hospital where he spent several weeks recuperating due to severe dehydration and malnutrition. While in the hospital his mother died, and Michelle was allowed to take him to Pasture Valley. He’s the sweetest boy; smart, very polite and always with a smile on his face. I want to take him with me every time I go. Him, and a little girl who’s name means beautiful, whose mother was too young to care for her; she told Michelle the child was a mistake which made Michelle livid. The girl didn’t smile for a long time, nor did she talk, only staring listlessly when someone talked her. The first day we met her, my heart went to her immediately and I tried to engage her as much as possible, talking directly to her, smiling, looking her in the eye. When we went back two weeks later, she was beginning to smile and interact with other children but she was still guarded. She became my shadow, though; each time I left the room she followed me. The last time we were there, she was laughing and playing with the other children. She let me tickle her, hold her, and play with her. She’s beginning to allow herself to be a child, to have fun, to open up. There are two other darling girls that also tug at my heart strings. I have to say I’ve honestly considered adoption. One things for sure; I plan to spend more time at Pasture Valley, especially after the new year since I won’t be teaching in the new term. I feel working there would definitely be sustainable, but more importantly beneficial to those wonderful little persons and personally rewarding.
August 11, 2009- Bus Rides Home: I got on the 2 o’clock bus, which primarily transports elementary students home. It gets crowded, really quickly, with 30 + children whirring around, not to mention the throng of adults heading back home with their weekly supplies and things to sell. The children are consistently a buzz of activity, and I frequently watch them since they are entertaining; although, admittedly, I try to avoid this bus. I generally get asked for sweets or money and/or get laughed at by one child which leads to all the children in the vicinity laughing at me. Being laughed at is my own fault, in all honesty; I tend to smile at them a lot, make funny faces, wave, stare or try to translate what they are saying, which I don’t consider eaves dropping since they usually talk too quickly for me to make out more than a word or two. Today a primary school girl was knitting a scarf for school. I learned from my sisi knitting is taught in Home Economics class, along with how to cook, how to wash clothes and how to clean the homestead. My sisi is lucky enough to use Make’s knitting needles. The girl on the bus was knitting with a plastic sucker handle and the ink cartridge from a disposable pen. The stitches were small, but she was making a scarf, and it was taking shape quite nicely. She seemed very proud of herself, and kept checking to make sure I continued to watch her so I gave into her vanity and told her the scarf was buhle, beautiful.
The week before, I barely caught my half-past three bus. I struggled to get on the first step with 3 bags, a yoga bag and my purse; Jaclyn, Justine and I joke that we are really pack mules. I try to travel lighter and lighter each time I go to Mbabane but inevitably I bring something back from the office and load down the bus. Today I wasn’t the only thing loading the bus down. The official capacity for most standard-sized buses (think big yellow school bus) in Swaziland is 65 seated and 18 standing. I stood on the first step, barely inside the door, for the first 5 minutes until the bus conductor shifted enough children to allow me to step up to the landing. There were at least 100 people on bus. The PC Safety and Security Officer’s warning about the link between overcrowded buses and high accident rates briefly ran through my head, and I should have taken the next bus. But it wouldn’t come for another hour and that would get me home at 5:30. I just wanted to be home, and before dark. So I stood on the landing, with my bags wondering how to balance myself against the lurching starts and stops of the bus. The bus conductor, noticing my inability to hold onto the railing, grabbed my bags and stowed them near the driver and on the dash board. I stood for the better part of an hour holding onto one bag and my purse, having to exit each time the bus stopped to let patrons off. A seat finally opened on the last 10 minutes of the ride, and I gladly took it since my arms and legs were tired of bracing. I’ve been on buses that crowded before but I’ve always gotten on soon enough that I had a seat, and inevitably felt pity for the smooched people in the aisle.
My transportation woes are much improved from those riding public transport in Mocambique. Bus conductors will force 3 times the recommended limit of people onto a khombi (passenger van). People are literally hanging out the windows and sitting three-deep with the side door wide open because it cannot be closed.
It makes me think about the short time I took public transport in the States while going to graduate school. People are bound to the bus’ schedule but I found it enjoyable because I didn’t have to worry about traffic or putting petrol in my car and I could read or study along the way. But I remember people passing along their sympathy to me when they heard I rode the bus. I remember not understanding those comments. I realize, at the time, most people who took the bus were low-income people, students, or elderly persons. I never believed myself below taking the bus, but I’m sure that is why I received sympathy. In Swaziland, throughout Africa and in most developing countries, public transport is the only option, and sadly, not true, for some who walk great distances to get to a clinic or buy groceries. Rarely do people find they have the luxury of owning a car much less the funds to fill it with petrol. Learning to drive for most women here is a grand extravagance, and transpires only because the husband can afford driving school or has the time to teach his wife; few single women learn to drive. Then there’s insurance, licensing, maintenance, oil changes, and border crossing fees to consider.
Never once did I think that learning to drive was not an option for me; I always knew someone would teach me regardless, and gender never entered into it. There was no question about going to college. I think I knew at a young age it was a non-negotiable, which was fine with me because I wanted to go to college. I’m discovering how many things I, and so many others, take for granted every single day. And really, what a luxurious problem to be able to take things for granted. I make decisions and come to things on my own terms, and yet I take it for granted because I often forget how many wonderful things I really do have and how lucky I am to have the station I do.
So I try to appreciate every bus ride home, grateful for the scenery I pass, for the time to read the paper or a letter, interaction with neighbors, peek-a-boo with children, or the carefree lifestyle I’ve begun to embrace as normal; but if for nothing else then for the simple gratitude for what I’ve been given by the universe. Sometimes all the awakening I need is a simple 45-minute bus ride home.
August 12, 2009- The Trainees Come for a Visit: I met two Group 7 volunteers in Nhlangano during their OJT (on-the-job training). The Morgan’s are a married couple from Missouri, and they were eager to learn about their new shopping town. We covered a great deal of the town including the best place to buy a bed, furniture stores, the hardware store, the paint store, the grocery store, the internet café, library, police station, local Ministry offices, NERCHA, and the post office. I also pointed out the really important things: cleanest bathroom in town- KFC—coincidently KFC also plays music videos and has ice cream and moderately tasty chicken; the best chicken place in town- Richfield’s Butchery, which also has great chips and biryani, plus you get to see the butchers in action…if you’re lucky they carry a whole hog or two through the restaurant to the butcher block; the best ice cream bars and moderately clean restrooms- Engen gas station near Builders; the best fresh chips (fries) and fat cakes- kiosk behind shopping mall owned and operated by 2 really friendly Pakistani guys who cook the chips a little longer for PCV’s because they know we like our chips crispy; freshest fruits and veggies: the lower and upper boMake markets…sometimes the upper market sells live chickens and it’s near the public restrooms; and the best bran muffins- Builder’s Supermarket, which also sells grocery items in bulk. (Yes, it is all about getting good food!) They rode back with me to my site, and I introduced them to the clinic staff, my boMake marketers, and my exercise club. They helped me make no-bake cookies with my exercise club; the club has been begging me to teach them since I’d brought them each a cookie the week before. I made them pizza for supper, which they were really excited to eat since they hadn’t had it since before them left America. Both are grand story tellers; the husband especially. He reminds me of a combination of my father and 2 of my uncles—they love to tell a story, pull your leg and make you laugh. They regaled me with stories of their children, their work, and how they met. It was a wonderful evening, and I loved having company, as well as people happy to share a meal. They will be a great addition to the Shiselweni family. Jaclyn believes they were automatically a great couple; any man who wears suspenders with a Garfield shirt and any wife who still chooses to be seen with her husband wearing suspenders with a Garfield shirt have to be cool.
August 18, 2009- Hickory-Dickory Dock, A Mouse Ran Up…..: Something ran in front of my door Sunday morning. Only half paying attention, I thought it was a baby chick and paid it no mind. About 30 minutes later, nature called, and on my way out the door something ran over my foot. It was a baby rat. I screamed. Luckily the church-goers had already passed by on their way to church. No one witnessed my freak-out. The rat ran up the hill toward the rondoval, around the corner of the hut and then out of site. I stood there for a moment, collecting myself. I could still feel his feet on my foot. Gross!
Today Make greeted me by saying she had trapped something in the 100 gallon rain barrel. She was drowning them. She was talking so excitedly about capturing 20, it took a few minutes to figure out she was talking about rats. She said she was determined to kill all the rats on the homestead because they were getting into her corn bin. She parted me by saying I must take a look before going to the clinic. She counted 20 and I must count them. Only half believing her method of disposal and the high trespasser count, I asked my bhuti if there were rats in the barrel. He said there were 20 rats in the barrel, drowning in boiling water. I peeked in enough to see two; one struggling to swim, the other succumbed to his demise. I’m assuming the one I saw on Sunday was among the non-survivors because I don’t want to think about more than 20 rats living on the homestead. I’m hoping the rest got the message about Make’s mass execution, packed their bags and vacated the premises.
August 19, 2009- Delivering First Aid Kits: World Vision finally came through with four first aid kits for my NCP’s (Neighborhood Care Points). With a little help from an anonymous donor, I was able to buy more first aid supplies to add to the basic kits. Emily Thebo, a nurse from my clinic, and I visited the Mhlaba NCP today. I explained the contents of the kits and how to use each item; Emily translated what I said into siSwati, as well as elaborating each item’s use. I also assessed other needs of this particular NCP. They have been in operation for a year; MicroProjects helped them build the structure. However they have not been able to secure funding from their inter-council. Every chiefdom within the inkhunhla (group of chiefdoms) has an inter-council working to identify and solve problems in each community within that particular chiefdom. They are supposed to give aid to NCP’s. I’m not sure where the breakdown happened, so the boMake at this NCP were asking me for help with incoming generating projects, food, clothes, shoes, toys and teaching materials. I gave them ideas for food—start a garden to supplement the rations they receive —and for income generating projects—ask the Rural Development Association to teach them to make Vaseline. I told them to talk to their inter-council again since they are the ones responsible for supplying money for these kinds of projects. Emily and I offered to put a box at the clinic asking people to drop off unwanted items like clothes, shoes and toys. I also told them to ask for donations from their church members. I began looking for basic teaching materials through the Peace Corps office’s resources. My sister, Sharon, brought me kindergarten-level flash cards, and I will give each NCP a set. So far, no one has dropped off unwanted items at the clinic but it’s a new concept so I’m trying to be patient. If all else fails, I can apply for funds from Peace Corps. A new funding source has opened up that is specifically for aiding NCP’s. I’d rather the communities pulled together and helped each other because I won’t be here forever and I don’t want to add to the dependency they have on outside aid organizations.
August 24, 2009- Sharing Orange Marmalade: The really good jams in the store are too expensive for me to buy, and even if I had the extra money, I can only purchase them in Mbabane. So I made orange marmalade over the weekend. Having made extra entirely on accident, I shared a jar with Make. She asked me why I was sharing with her; I said because I wanted to. She thanked me profusely, kissing my hand, and uttering comments about how happy her daughter makes her. Then she said she was going to buy me a baboon to have for my very own; I could ride it anytime I wanted, and no one else would be able to ride it. A baboon?! I have no idea what that means or the implications of riding a baboon. I’m going to assume that it’s a grand gesture, and leave it at that.
August 28, 2009- 1 year in my hut: A year ago today I arrived at my permanent site with my belongings to an empty hut and an eerily silent homestead. I remember my abhorrence at the state of filth and amount of bugs around my room. Now only the really large spiders bother me. I remember after cleaning up what I could with a broom, I rolled out my yoga mat and took a nap, feeling unable to do much else. I still love naps, and take them when I can but not because I feel unable to do anything else. I just enjoy while I can. I remember making a list of all the things I thought I needed to establish my home. Now I try to get by on as little as possible. It’s quite possible, simply easy to accomplish and very satisfying.
I reread my blog entry from last year at this time; I was wondering what I’d gotten myself into, and why I came. I questioned myself for nine months. Clarity seems only to come after seeking patience and being open to receive the messages one needs to hear. I have a better understanding of why I came, even though some days it doesn’t make sense, and some days I feel I came for the wrong reasons. What I know for sure is that I’m glad I came. No regrets. I can honestly say I am happy, and I’ve been happy for several months. Yes, there are frustrations, and road blocks, and things that just do not make sense. And at times, I still feel like I’m on a rollercoaster of emotions for days on end. But I can only control my own actions, thoughts, and feelings. So I am the one who decides when to be happy. And I’ve decided it’s better to be happy with who I am today, and to do what I can with each day, whatever that may be. It’s better than the alternative.
The new volunteers took to their permanent sites today. There are seven Group 7’s in the Shiselweni region. Amen! We needed more bodies down south.
August 31, 2009- Umhlanga Dance: About half my group attended the Umhlanga or Reed Dance festival, an annual event held to honor coming-of-age maidens. In the eight-day ceremony, girls cut reeds and present them to the Queen Mother who uses the reeds to reinforce her traditional homestead; in recent times, it’s done more to honor ceremony. Only childless, unmarried, chaste girls may take part. The aims of the ceremony are to preserve girls’ chastity, provide tribute labor for the Queen Mother, and produce solidarity by working together. After presenting the reeds, the girls dance for two day. Traditionally, during the second day of dancing, the King chooses a wife among the dancers but he has not taken a wife since 2006. There was quite a bit on controversy after he took his wife in 2006. Apparently, the year before he put a law into place making it illegal for any man to take a wife under the age of 18. He temporarily lifted the law in order to take his wife in 2006; she was 16 at the time. Then he reinstated the law. Needless to say, there were many angry people, and his actions caught the attention of many overseas officials and newspapers.
My sisi, Zandele danced for the first time at the Royal Kraal. She usually dances at the Shiselweni regional Umhlanga which is held at the region’s kraal. I wanted to see her dance, but 80,000 girls were registered to dance and she was lost in the sea of color. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting event to witness. Girls of each chiefdom try to distinguish themselves from other chiefdoms by wearing similar regalia and dancing a little differently than the group before them. The girls are honored among the nation, their communities and families. It’s an immense compliment for them, and a memorable experience, I’m told.