Sunday, January 30, 2011

November & December 2010

3 November 2010- A new line: I was in town today to get a few groceries, as well as walk Gail to and from her language tutoring. We’re not allowed to walk the road to town alone and seeing as I needed a few things and wanted the exercise, it was the perfect opportunity. As I waited for Gail to finish her study session, I encountered a young man with a line for me; it was new, nothing I’ve heard since arriving in Swaziland yet a cliché line men use in bars. He said, “I lost my phone number. Will you give me yours?” I immediately laughed, and continued my uncontrollable laughing as I passed him and continued down the street. I just couldn’t help myself. To use my mom’s terminology, it tickled me, and continued to tickle me for the next five minutes. I appreciate his brazen bravado, not something I’d have appreciated some two years ago. Yet, there’s something about Swazi machismo that is unlike any other place I’ve visited. Men here really put their ego on the line; they swallow their pride and ask a girl almost anything. To their credit, at least they try. Some days it is annoying, but some days it makes me realize how much my appearance pleases them or the sideways glance from a white girl. Mine or theirs, what’s a little ego boost now and again?!
6 November 2010- And The Rains Came: It’s the rainy season. It’s come early this year; earlier and more frequent than last year or the year before last but I’m told it use to come in October. With the rains comes the heat, which I welcome like the open arms of a mother for her child. But when it rains it is cold, the kind of cold you feel on a drizzling spring day in the Midwest; it settles into your bones and no amount of tea will warm you. The cycle with which the rain comes is generally the same. Temperatures rise a little day by day for several days, with one day warmer than the next. Then one morning you wake to a temperate day with a light breeze, and by mid-morning, like clockwork, the clouds begin to build on the horizon and slowly roll in by mid- to late afternoon. The sky unleashes its torrent, and for close to thirty minutes the outpouring is immense, crashing on my tin roof cabin in waves, bringing tree branches booming down. It generally eases to a light rain, giving some reprieve, but always with the possibility of unleashing again at least one more time throughout the day or evening. Clouds continue their low hang in the sky the rest of the day, cutting off the sun’s chances of shining through the haze. If I’m at home, I scramble to find socks, a sweater and a cup of tea to stay warm. If I’m at my office, I dream of cozying up on the couch under a blanket with a cup of tea and a good book.
Yet, with the rain comes the greening of the land, and my seven shades of green gradually appear, one after the other, until complete transformation of the landscape in December. And I’m filled with a sense of joy and contentment and lightness one only feels when they are entirely calmed, utterly peaceful, and quite satisfied.
13 November 2010- Turning jeans into a skirt: I’ve always wanted to try making a skirt from a pair of jeans. I had the perfect pair- full of rips and a hole where I could start a hem. They were not my jeans; they were a pair I found in the Peace Corps lounge, abandoned by a previous volunteer. I knew I wouldn’t feel too sad if the experiment didn’t work since I wouldn’t spend any money, just time.
All the years of watching my sisters and mom cut out patterns, sew pieces together, create a beautiful product and manage errors paid off. Having lost weight since obtaining the jeans, I didn’t need to add additional fabric to make the skirt fit, which made the fitting easier. The hardest part was getting the original leg seaming turned back seam to lay flat. After dulling my needle quite a bit with the jean material, I took to hand sewing part of the back seam. In so doing, the seam lay flatter. The final product is super cute. A well worn pair of jeans makes a comfortable jean skirt that I can dress up or down, which I think is fantastic!
Having successfully doing this on my own, I quickly grabbed other items in my wardrobe that needed help. I have several shirts with holes from my previous barbed-wire fence clothesline. On a few shirts I cut a circle or triangle around the holes then filled in the space with contrasting fabric scrapes. On a few t-shirts, I embroidered shapes around the holes in varying colors to enhance the colors to make the holes seem like part of the shirt.
I’m really enjoying reconstruction. And I’m thinking about all the clothes I had from high school and college that are still in a closet in my Mom’s basement. Looks like I’ll have a new wardrobe to reconstruct when I return, which means I can buy a fabulous and ridiculously expensive couture piece in Paris and not feel guilty. Smile.

23 – 26 November 2010- All Volunteer Conference & Thanksgiving: One session during the All Vol conference was directed toward the economic status of Swaziland. Although the information was interesting and good to know, the outlook for this country is bleak. Seventy percent of the population (around 1 million) is living at less than $1/day. The unemployment rate is at 40%, and government revenues are down by 60%. Eighteen percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) goes to civil service positions, of which 40% are security-related positions. Most countries have a GDP of 8% going to civil service positions. After investigating the high rate in Swaziland, the International Monetary Fund (IMF)—a division of World Bank—discovered that most of the 18% are former civil servants still collecting payment, as well as dead servant’s families who continue to collect because they neglected to tell the government that their loved one died. A pension or retirement plan is not part of this civil servant payment; pension plans that families can live on after a loved one dies are just now being obtained through funeral plans that are generally separate from employment benefits.
The IMF considers this a long-term crisis for Swaziland; they arrived in March to determine if companies in Swaziland could qualify for bail-out loans. They are recommending the government lay off 7,000 – 10,000 civil servants. The Swazi government has three options for increasing revenue. They are considering raising the sin tax—taxes on fuel, gambling, alcohol and cigarettes will likely go up in the near future. Secondly, they have discussed bringing in other vendors, for phone coverage and electricity, to increase competition. Finally, they are thinking of requiring everyone to pay income tax. Currently, collecting income tax is not enforced; people who comply pay 32% to income tax annually.
Other than this session, most of the conference didn’t pertain to me since I’m leaving soon. I did however enjoy my time with Victoria, Nancy and Allie. Nancy taught me to knit, and I’m starting with a very basic item—a scarf. Danielle sent me a package full of yoga and crochet magazines, a Time magazine and chocolates. She seems well in New Orleans. I led a best practices session, allowing the new volunteers to glean project ideas from Group 6 and 7 volunteers. I brought Bambanani Project product, and it was well received. I sold close to E1, 000. Thanksgiving was once again held at the Ambassador’s house. Many volunteers utilized the pool, but Victoria and I were happy sipping our wine poolside.
3 - 5 December 2010- Learning to Use a Pattern: I offered Gail an hour massage in exchange for helping me learn to use a pattern; no one in there right mind refuses that kind of offer. I wanted to make a pair of lounge pants from some beautiful high-quality black linen I found in Manzini for E39.99/meter ($7/yard)—a good deal considering linen in the states is over $11/yard. We started Friday evening with reading and understanding pattern-ese. Then we laid out the material, put the pattern over the top, pinned it in place, and I anxiously made my first cut into the material. I imagined it would be difficult, and we’d only have time to cut the pattern out, waiting to sew until the next day. But once I finished cutting, Gail cheerfully said, “Let’s start sewing.” I was worried about it being too late to start since Mike had already gone to bed and it was nearing 8pm. She assured me that Mike slept through anything, and that 8pm wasn’t too late, in her estimation, to begin. The only sewing machine she has at her house is the one we use for the Bambanani Project, a Singer hand-powered sewing machine. Yes, a non-electric sewing machine! Not only was I learning to sew two pieces together correctly from a pattern, I also was learning on a hand-crank machine, using one hand to hold the material while the other turned the wheel. Surprisingly, it went rather well, and rather quickly. In 30 minutes I had the pants together, and began ironing the waistband down, preparing it for the elastic. My first mistake of the evening came when I sewed the waistband with little allowance for the elastic width. I decided that was the signal for a break. I finished the waistband the following morning after devoting about an hour to ripping out the seam, and then began the process of hemming. Since I don’t have an iron I used the flat iron I use for my hair to make a nice crease, and it worked rather well. I finished hemming in short order, and then tried on the pants to see how well they fit. They were enormous, a size too large. But since I don’t know my pattern size and I’d bought extra material, we cut the pattern larger just in case. Gail assured me it was an easy fix; but it involved more seam ripping and then matching up seams correctly, which proved difficult because the leg seams were still together and keeping the material from puckering was challenging. I cut it down a size and in the end reinforced the seams which is good considering linen—I’ve come to understand—frays easily. After another fitting, I declared the pants done, and my first sewing project with a pattern, a victory. I’m really pleased with the results; they look great on and will travel well. YAH!
10 December 2010- Branding the Bambanani Project: In an effort to finish my project goals and get the Bambanani product ready for sales in the States, Michelle and I thought it a good idea to brand our product—make it recognizable and distinct from other hand-crafted jewelry. We decided that having a clasp on each necklace would ensure proper fitting, a more secure tying method and that something different. One of the members of the Dwaleni Group is a woodworker. Occasionally in his necklace designs, he incorporates wooden pieces with paper beads. It’s stunning. Today I asked him how difficult it would be to make a little wooden button to be used as a clasp. He promised to try. I didn’t give the group a choice in the branding process. I told them if we were going to be successful and compete in American markets, it was essential to having a distinct, signature piece to each item—something that says Bambanani. Gail promised to purchase a stamp with the Bambanani logo on it in order to stamp the buttons; on buttons too small for the stamp an orange “b” for Bambanani would be painted on the surface. Luckily, everyone agreed. I’m anxious to see the samples; Babe has promised to have them ready after the New Year.
18 December 2010- The Children's Christmas Play: With the efforts of Mike, Gail and I, Michelle put together a Christmas play starring the children of Pasture Valley, as well as her children. The play was a spin on the traditional Biblical Christmas story but from the perspective of the Innkeeper. Each child had a part, playing shepherds, angels, Mary & Joseph, and the Wise Men. Even the preschoolers were involved. Gail helped the preschoolers sing the opening songs, Mike ran the music and I was behind the scenes sending actors out at the right times. Michelle stood behind the audience giving cues and helping with actions for songs. Only a few people attended. It was a great dress rehearsal, though, as they were putting on the play the next day for their church and the following week on Christmas Eve for Peter’s family.
19 December 2010- My Birthday:
A few thoughts on this my 35th birthday:
-I woke this morning to find a pimple on my cheek much to my chagrin. The sign I am still “youthful” or just stress due to my week of managing children and anticipating my milestone birthday? I’m no longer an adolescent. Shouldn’t it follow that the signs of adolescence leave me by now?
-I’d been thinking about this day for several weeks—well several months, actually. In all honestly, I’ve been dreading it. Throughout my 20’s I hyped up this birthday as the one of all knowing, my epiphany. I’d be successful, with a great career, and I’d be well on my way, at the pinnacle of life where everything else gives ways to ease and happiness, and life is good. Whatever all that means to a 20-something mind, I cannot recall. What does successful mean? What does on my way mean? What does happiness look like? Those are questions that seemed much easier to answer in my 20’s. In my thirties, it feel less clear, yet I’m less concerned with them.
As I moved through my late twenties and sailed into my thirties, it’s become quite apparent that my 20-something idea of life was so very wrong. Life doesn’t suddenly become great or successful or happier. I either make it happen along the way or I don’t. The ups and downs of life will continue whether I’ve had a “successful” life event or not. It’s riding the waves that matters; it’s getting out of bed and living each that makes you alive. Unfortunately I think that silly notion of success and having it all, and being at my prime by 35 stayed in the back of my mind, slowly poisoning any possibility of enjoying my 35th without trepidation. At least until today.
Up until today I didn’t wish to celebrate my birthday. It’s not that I feel old, and I certainly don’t believe I look old. It’s not the age part but the accomplishments part that I think was bothering me. I really did think I’d have done more things by now. I’m not sure what it was I thought I should have done by now. Perhaps it’s American society’s idea of what a 30-something should have that seeped into my brain the last few months and years, and clouded my judgment. Perhaps it’s just the anxiety of leaving Swaziland and Peace Corps, and deciding the ‘what next’ I’ve been asked so often. Perhaps it’s begin okay with not knowing what I want to do next or where I want to go and being able to explain it to loved ones. Perhaps it’s a combination of everything.
Michelle’s dad asked me how old I was turning today after Michelle said we were celebrating my birthday later, and I happily replied 35 with a smile. My roommate, shockingly asked, “You’re telling people?!” And I said, yes, I’m not afraid to tell my age. Several hours later as I’m thinking about that exchange, I’m finally having my epiphany. It’s my birthday, and I’m in celebrating it in Africa. I have the world at my fingertips. I can go anywhere from here. I am who I am and I’m free to be that woman without hesitation. And what better birthday present than to enjoy cake and ice cream with considerate co-workers and volunteers, caring employers and twenty-three beautiful smiling children. Today is the first day of the rest of my life. How lucky am I?
21 - 23 December, 2010- Hiking in Malolotja: I met Victoria and Allie about an hour’s walk into the nature reserve at one of the viewpoints. Walking in, I passed solitary blesbok eager to alert me of their presence. They would stamp their front legs, snorting in my direction several times, and then turn their backs to me, as if to say, I could care less you are here. I saw several herds of blesbok further in, a lone giraffe among a small herd of wildebeest, and birds in numbers.
After meeting up with Victoria and Allie, they took me to their campsite, another hour and a half hike into the park. We saw baboons on the way, a rare citing since baboons usually stay hidden but call out as you pass their territory. This group was playing in the trees and on the rocks of the side hill we passed. It was a joy to watch them manipulate the rough landscape in such a way that living there was easy for them. The was mostly downhill, and the day was overcast, so it was a fairly easy hike in. Their campsite was near the base of Silotfwane Mountain by the river. I set up my tent, which I borrowed from another volunteer, on a sandy patch. After we ate some lunch, we jump in the water to cool off. Victoria had a swimsuit; Allie and I, sans swimsuits, chose the bra and panty route as there was no one camping near us. The water felt refreshing and eased the sunburn I was developing on the back on my legs, arms and neck. Later Victoria and I made a little campfire to keep mosquitoes as bay, and chatted as evening approached. We went to bed early, though, as the plan was to hike Silotfwane early the next morning, a peak about 1400 meters high. I was sick during the night; I’m not sure why, so I was feeling quite lethargic in the morning. I got up anyway and started the hike with the girls. I made it to about 1200 meters, a two hour hike from camp. Once there I found a shady spot under a gnarly bush to rest; I had no energy to finish. Victoria and Allie trekked on and I took an hour nap. They yelled down from the top, “We made it!”, and I was able to capture tiny bodies with my camera. I waited another forty minutes for them to descend, listening to a herd of wildebeest call out their territory. As Victoria and Allie approached, the herd began stampeding our direction. The stampede ended as quickly as it began as the herd approached a small rise in the landscape. They turned their direction running along the grassy plateau, and then stopped, stamping and snorting until we were out of sight. Two hours later we were back at camp and I was feeling somewhat better. The river called our names and we jumped in, once again in our skivvies, to wash off the day’s dirt and sweat. We made supper early and quickly as rain threatened. By 7:30 we were in our tents to keep dry from the rain.
My tent remained surprisingly dry on the inside with only a small leak in one corner. The next morning was beautiful and sunny, the land washed clean from the all-night rain. It took two hours for the sun’s light to dry my tent and the clothes I washed the day before. I hiked out in two hours, with Victoria and Allie helping me find my way through the first 30-minute trail. I’ve never hiked into a campsite, set up camp for a few days, and then hike back out—something I’ve always wanted to do. I’m glad I had the opportunity in Swaziland with good company.
24 - 25 December 2010- Christmas: Justine was visiting Swaziland, a stopover from Tanzania on her way back to the States. She stayed with Renae and me, enjoying Christmas at Pasture Valley. Michelle and Peter hosted a braii on Christmas Eve, inviting us, Mike and Gail, the children and housemothers to enjoy with Peter’s family. After the children performed the Christmas play for everyone, Peter’s family handed out presents, and Renae and I gave the children the presents we made—crocheted bookmarks for the siSwati Bibles that were donated a few weeks ago. I also passed out the candy canes my mom sent. The children quickly opened the treats, happily sucking on the sugary sweetness, some with rivers rolling down their chins.
I gave Michelle and Peter and Gail and Mike homemade toffee and peanut clusters, grass mats to Renae and handmade jewelry to Justine. I love how quick and easy homemade and handmade become great gifts, much more personal and heartfelt than the commercial Christmas I once knew. Justine and I watched a movie in the afternoon, baking from the heat in my cabin. In the evening, we shared a bottle of wine with Mike and Gail and chatted about Peace Corps life, past and present, travel and Justine’s Swahili language training in Tanzania.
On Christmas day, Justine headed to her former homestead to spend a few days with her host family. Following more presents at Michelle and Peter’s, the children headed to church and Renae and I rushed to our cabin to make Christmas brunch. Renae made curried scrambled eggs with cheddar cheese and I made cinnamon French toast topped with honey and the lemon-kumquat curd Renae made as a present for Michelle and Peter and Gail and Mike. As we ate we talked about how we normally spend Christmas, and what relatives we visit on Christmas day. I spent the entire afternoon reading. Around early evening, Renae and I went to Gail and Mike’s for an evening appetizers and card playing. I hadn’t played cards since early in my service, and I thoroughly enjoyed Hearts. I discovered I’m a much greater risk-taker now in how I play than I did growing up or even in my twenties. It doesn’t matter as long as you try, and have fun. Gail is an avid card player, and schooled Renae in the art playing cards at the right time. Playing cards and games is a family tradition with my family, especially at the holidays. It was nice to share that with one on my many Swazi families.
31 December 2010- New Year’s Eve: I met Justine in Nhlangano and we took the bus to the Valley. We were staying with a friend of hers who lives near House on Fire, always a great venue for New Year’s Eve fun. Our first stop in the itinerary was The Gables. An upper-class shopping center in the Ezulweni Valley, it now boasts a 4-screen movie theater. My first movie since beginning service, it was mediocre. However, the experience was fabulous. The too cold theater had stadium seating. The tickets were only E28 (less than $4) and small popcorn was E9 ($1.20). Such a steal compared to movie-going in the States. Afterward we joined her friend and his friends at a braii, and then headed to House on Fire for the evening’s festivities. The night’s theme was “A Ring of Fire”, a combination cowboy and circus theme, which I didn’t really understand since the night’s décor was more cowboy than circus. Clowns Without Borders performed before the opening musical group; this troupe was entirely Swazi men, and they were quite entertaining. The main band was from Durban, and they were fun to listen and dance to as well. The solo woman of the group played an amplified violin. Incredible. The DJ following the band was less than average, playing a few good songs with a mix of terrible house music. I danced, nonetheless, but ended the night early by New Year’s Eve standards. There’s only so much bad house and hip hop music I can tolerate.

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