Friday, October 9, 2009

Sept Joys and Woes

September 2, 2009- My First Blanket: I began crocheting a blanket the January before I left for Swaziland. I finished it today, 1 year and 8 months later. I call it my chakra blanket as it represents each chakra color, which also happens to correspond to the colors of the rainbow. It’s about 3 ½ feet wide and 6-ish feet long. So it’s basically a lap blanket; but it is pretty, and sweet, and coincidently, warm for those evenings when chill sets in and no amount of tea will warm the body. Many thanks to family and friends—mostly mom and dad—for sending me yarn to finish it. Little did they know they were contributing to my new addiction but crocheting is probably the healthiest obsession I could acquire here. I’ve made several scarves and a few hats/berets. My next project is another blanket consisting of granny squares and daisies. It will be multi-colored as well. I found a sewing shop in Mbabane; they have a small but nice selection of yarn. I visit each time I’m in town.

September 8 -10, 2009- Mid-Service Physicals: One year into service and volunteers are required to visit their friendly PCMO (PC Medical Officer) for an annual exam. I discovered that due to chronic rhinitis, which I cannot seem to shake here, I need to take a daily allergy tab and use a nasal spray. Oh Joy. It’s probably due mostly to the dusty road I walk daily, which I cannot break from, and partly to all the animals I live with. So hopefully once I get back to America, I will be able to wean myself from the tabs and spray. We were treated to the dentist, which was a pleasant and unpleasant surprise. Pleasant because didn’t think I get to see a dentist, so I was glad to have my teeth cleaned. But unpleasant because I was afraid I’d have a cavity or two. No cavities, just many comments about my receding gums (WHAT?!) and a fitting for a bite plate (REALLY?!). He said my TMJ muscles were too tight. I admit I clench my jaw at night but I didn’t think it was a big problem. So now I have to wear a bite plate while I sleep. Good God! I’m not sure it’s helping. I think I clench just as much with or without it.
We were also tested for TB. My test was negative but I have to say I am slightly surprised. For all the TB patients at my clinic and all the coughing on buses by people/kids who don’t cover their mouth, I thought I’d have TB for sure. I’m glad I don’t because the treatment is lengthy and the medication can cause liver damage.
The most enjoyable parts of the 3-day experience were: 1.) I might, eventually, get an MRI on my foot. It’s still bothering me so no running…but I’m dying to run. And confession…sometimes I sneak in a mile here and there just to release; 2.) Hanging with the 7 other volunteers in my mid-service physicals group, enjoying many philosophical (and not so philosophical) discussions to all hours of the morning, some enhanced by good wine and yummy beers; 3.) Cooking with other volunteers. It seems living here has enhanced my love to cook, and appreciation of the cooking process, when I have someone to share a meal with, or three or four awesome someones; 4.) Watching seasons one and two of 30 Rock. Brilliant! Tina Fey is fabulous, and who knew Alex Baldwin was so damn funny?!; 5.) Playing Scrabble; 6.) Singing 80’s songs via karaoke. I had just finished my legwarmers. I was wearing leggings, legwarmers and an oversized sweatshirt…all by chance, but totally fitting for singing 80’s songs!; and 7.) Devoting time to figure out some all important life issues, continually ongoing but ever necessary.

September 11, 2009- Saying Farewell to our APCD: Chad Fleck, our Assistant Programming Country Director for almost three years, was a former PCV in Nepal. He was tough on us but he led with compassion because he understood well the life of a volunteer. A few months ago, he began sending our group quotes to help keep us motivated. For his going-away party we each wrote him our favorite quote and a short note, and assembled them in a book from the lounge’s library aptly named “Passage to India”, which he’s read. It was meant to represent the past, present and future—a book from his past, from volunteers that he impacted, and memories of Swaziland for years to come.
Chad was great at recognizing and giving perspective, especially when it came to host country nationals. He would always say, “Well have you thought about it this way…” He also reminded us about the art and psychology of sitting during PC service, as in Sitting with a capital S as opposed to sitting with a lower-case s. “Small-s sitting is sitting on your haunches waiting for something else to happen. It’s sitting with a future-orientation, an intention that you’d rather be somewhere else. Sitting—with a capital S—is about having a now-orientation. It’s being present, with intention. And what is intention? It is intention of cultivating social relations with the people around you at the moment, regardless of whether you are busy or still, talking or silent. Your intention is that moment changes everything.” –Chad Fleck
He also quoted Andreas Fuglesang as saying, “People in Western civilization no longer have time for each other, they have no time together, they do not share the experience of time. This explains why Westerners are incapable of understanding the psychology of sitting. In villages all over the world, sitting is an important social activity. Sitting is not a ‘waste of time’ nor is it a manifestation of laziness. Sitting is having time together, time to cultivate social relations.”
I am reminded of my parents’ card clubs or entertaining relatives and visitors in their home. There was always time for Sitting. News was shared, stories told, food eaten, and many laughs shared. They learned it from their parents who watched their own parents Sit with others. It’s something that used to happen in America, especially rural American communities. It’s a lost art, something I wish people would revive, and something I wish to revive when I return.
So, thank you, Chad Fleck, for teaching me many important lessons about patience, expectations, perception of things, asking the right questions, and the art of Sitting. Your presence will be greatly missed.

September 15, 2009- The Rollercoaster of Inadequacy: Shadowing the Baylor doctors was emotional today. One of their patients was a 12 year old girl in heart failure due to complications of HIV, previous and current TB bouts, malnutrition and who knows what else her body is fighting against. She was retaining about 4 kgs (approx. 8.8 lbs) of fluid in her abdomen. The plan was to admit her to Hlatikhulu Hospital but before transport arrived, she collapsed and staff admitted her to Nhlangano Health Center wards. I’m unaware of her current status, but asked the doctors to keep me posted.
Her face haunted my thoughts all day, but my helplessness of the situation plagues me more. I feel like I could do much more for the Swazi nation if I were capable of treating them. I curse my selfishness and the fearfulness I felt for pre-med in undergraduate school. I’ve thought about medicine off-and-on since then. I was afraid of the math and advanced science courses required; I told myself I wasn’t smart enough to pass and so I didn’t even try. In massage school I learned that a fear is simply a fantasy endeavoring to appear real. So what’s holding me back?

After I told a fellow volunteer about my day, he gave the obligatory, ‘damn that’s rough’ speech, and how he also has feelings of wanting to do more. But then he said something really prophetic. “Quite the experience this is, huh? Trying and growing, and understanding human life.” Yes, human life. And I’m caught between several notions about human life: in some places life is transient; in some places it’s disposable; and in some places people try so hard to destroy it where others fight to save it. But what I’ve noticed most is that in too many places, and for too many people, it’s taken for granted.
I want to see a world where people see life as beautiful, where life is valued, respected, and not taken for granted. Where all we need is a little time for Sitting, a little time to be compassionate in order to build on the love we should readily share with others. For those skeptics, this probably sounds Pollyanna-esque, highly unattainable, head-in-the-clouds dream-like, idealistic, or perhaps even impossible. But I want the impossible! I want it to be possible.

Update on the 12-year old: Once stable, she was transferred to Hlatikhulu Hospital where they drained the fluid from her belly. She was ambulatory, and feeling better after several days of bed rest. She’s still in the hospital, and when I saw the Baylor doctors yesterday (22 September) they said there was no change in her condition expect that she was in less pain. Her liver, however, is compromised, and they are working to find a solution.

September 16, 23 & 30, 2009- Teaching 6th Graders: I began my Environmental/Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle class today. The curriculum, from the EPA’s website, is geared for 1st to 4th graders, but my students are struggling. I’m not sure if it’s because the 3 R’s concept is new or because they are always doing other work in my class but I will soldier on and define terms as I go. I’m trying to incorporate as many hands-on projects as possible to keep them engaged. The 2nd week of class we talked about reusing materials to make something else. I showed them how to cut and roll paper into beads. Everyone started out well, and then the boys began making cigarettes, of course. In a few weeks I’ll take the beads back to class and allow them to make necklaces or bracelets. The 3rd week of class we talked about reducing waste. I asked them to get into groups of 5 to write letters to my World Wise School matches (my sister Sharon’s 1st graders and my cousin Christine’s 2nd graders). They claimed they had written letters before but I don’t think they’ve ever written letters without being directed on what to write, line by line. So I wrote on the board, and they copied. I did ask them to fill in certain blanks, for instance, “What are you learning in this class?” and “Why are we using paper that has already been use?” For the first question, I read sentences that talked about all they classes they were taking and some about Life Skills, which is what my class is officially titled. For the second question, students began writing that they were using used paper because they didn’t have new paper. I had to reiterate many, many times the purpose of reduce and reuse. I can hardly fault them. The school system allows them to only memorize and regurgitate information, never allowing for questioning content, for critical thinking, or for analysis. So far the only positive thing that’s come from the class is making paper beads. My sisi, Zandele, loves it. And now I love it. It’s my new obsession. I’m making beads out of everything: magazines, newspapers, candy wrappers, chip bags. And I have a small mound beginning to form. Many of you will receive a beaded paper jewelry item, don’t you worry! I’m thinking of a way to make in into an income-generating project for my youth group. The only issue is to find someone who can teach them about correctly using jewelry findings and how to run a business. A project for when the term ends. In the meantime, bead making has become a wonderful stress reliever, and hopefully a few 6th graders will keep it up.

September 24, 2009- Swine Flu Hits Hard: From today until 6 October, volunteers are on semi-lockdown. Due to several volunteers tested for H1N1, and many others w/ H1N1-like symptoms, volunteers are not allowed to stay at any backpackers in town or congregate in large groups until adequate treatment time has lapsed. So far 13 volunteers and 3 staff people were infected. Luckily Peace Corps has the medication to treat avian flu and H1N1 but no clinic in Swaziland has Tamiflu tabs. H1N1 severely affects those with low immune systems, and the very young and the very old. Nonetheless, with a 39% HIV infection rate among those 18 – 35 and an increasing TB rate, most people in this country are highly susceptible to contracting flu. I’m glad we have the medication to treat ourselves, but it hardly seems fair.
(At the date of this blog, 19 volunteers and 5 staff either had or suffered from symptoms relating to H1N1. Yikes!)

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