Overcoming Disappointment

As I have started working more, I should not have been surprised when I had my first work disappointment. My primary school was approved for the Books for Africa project to get a library at a significantly reduced cost, and they have to pay a small portion of the fees to make sure they are invested in the project. I had suggested we fundraise for the cost, but my head teacher assured me he could pay the fee out of the school fees. Well, as the deadline approached I went to the school repeatedly trying to get the check, and they did not have it. Since the deadline is not something I control, when the school missed the deadline they are no longer qualified for the project. It is disappointing for any number of reasons, but not at all unusual.

Any development work here, especially following the Peace Corps approach is sometimes frustratingly slow.  Besides the differences culturally in definitions such as “on time” or “professional”, there are other barriers as well. The reason my school did not have money from school fees yet is because the government, which now covers fees for grades 1-6, had not yet paid the schools. For the first couple weeks of the term there was no electricity in the school. Obviously, paying teachers salaries takes priority over creating a library.

While this is a problem, there is an underlying problem I noticed the day before the check was due. When I explained, for the umpteenth time, that if the check were late there would be no books, my head teacher seemed slightly skeptical if that would hold true. There is little accountability from some development organizations so it is not entirely surprising our deadline seemed flexible. Secondly, the community having to put in any effort to receive aid is rare, especially in Swaziland. That is not to say they do not need or deserve the assistance, but rather they rarely have to work for it. My head teacher asked me why the US government could not just pay the fee for them when I said we would not have a library this year. While I was annoyed because I had explained repeatedly it’s not so much about the money as making sure the community is committed to the project; I also understand where they are coming from. When other organizations will give away assistance for free, there is little incentive to work with an organization that requires buy-in for the same or similar services.

While I firmly believe in Peace Corps’ approach to development; that combined with a legacy of other organizations in the community can make it much harder to do my job. I was disappointed the project I was most excited for is not going to happen, and sometimes it makes it very hard to feel accomplished. During training the medical unit showed us a chart of the average PCV’s emotions during service. We are currently in a low period according to the chart, and a lot of my friends’ texts, and it is easy to see why. Now that we are starting to do real work we are also starting to see real failures.

I thought I’d post a random picture of me and my friends hiking since my project didn’t work out!

Hiking with the gals

Hiking with the gals

A Day in the Life

A Day In the Life Since most of my days are unremarkable, I decided to document one. This is my average Tuesday; 4:00 wake up from the roosters, roll over and go back to sleep 6:00 actually wake up 6:15 get out of bed, boil water, and add water to the filter for drinking water for the day 6:30 eat breakfast of oatmeal, green tea, and an apple 7:00 yoga 8:10 take my 20l bucket to fill at the tap for water 8:30 heat water on the stove for a bath, brush teeth, wash face etc then take a bath-by bath I mean kneeling over a basin while splashing lukewarm water around 8:50 walk to charge my computer 9:00 2 more trips for water 9:15 laundry-hand wash with a bar of lye, dump the water, rinse, and hang to dry outside, repeat until everything is clean 11:00 cook lunch of rice and lentils 11:30 eat lunch and read for a little 12:00 wash dishes 12:30 walk to get my computer back 12:45 read prep material for a workshop on Friday 13:00 sit outside with my host siblings 14:00 visit my neighbor who had a baby last week 15:00 prep and pack for grass root soccer practice tomorrow 16:30 make and eat dinner of instant soup and popcorn 17:00 read in my hammock until the sun sets 17:30 suns down-in for the night 18:00 put on a movie and knit until bedtime captions: sunset on the hammock typical lunch

Some of my Swazi Family

Some of my Swazi Family

3 of my Swazi moms

2 of my Swazi moms

Swaziland Families

Gogo-grandmother

Mkhulu-grandfather

Babe-father

Make-mother

Sisi-sister

Bhuti-brother

The list above can define just about every one of the fifty some people who I live with here. I have been trying for 6 months now to figure out how I am related to some of the people on my homestead, and still have not been able to. While at home we have siblings, cousins, stepparents, adoptive parents, neighbors, and friends here the lines are much more blurred. Swazi culture in general, is much more inclusive to all relations. Your parents’ siblings’ children are your bosisi and bobhuti. The adult who takes care of you is your babe or make no matter if you are related or not. Your father’s brother is your babe too, and any woman old enough is your gogo. The culture here is less worried about how you are related and more worried that you are taken care of.

I was talking to another volunteer about my friend who takes care of her kids and her husband’s kids, who were born during his marriage to another woman. My friend’s first question was if the kids that are not biologically the woman’s children are treated differently. It’s a fair question, but I never even knew they were not all her children until I met the other woman, and was told afterwards that she was the mom of a boy I had thought was my friend’s.

Some of the kids in my Swazi family

Some of the kids in my Swazi family

Many young men and women here are dating two, three, or four people simultaneously, the traditional marriages mean the brothers and sisters you grow up with could easily be from a different wife, and cheating while married is common, while divorce is unheard of. The other factor is so many people who had children died before ARV’s were introduced here or have died since, and their children have been adopted into their neighbors’, aunts’, or cousins’ families.  These different mores mean when I ask how I’m related to a person who I know did not come from my babe or either of my makes I am still told it is my bhuti. In some ways this is the best outcome for all of these blended families. If you really take the time it is possible to figure out who was born to whom, but in Swaziland no one but myself and the other foreigners care.

Books for Africa

We have an annual partnership with Books for Africa, an organization that ships books to start or improve libraries around the continent. As I wrote about earlier, my school did not get books this year, but as I am on the board for my group I still got to help out in other ways. Instead of just handing out books we include a librarian workshop to train our Swazi counterparts on how to start, manage, and maintain a library. I completely took for granted the education we get at a young age not only just having a library at school, but having someone to explain fiction and nonfiction, the parts of a book, and how to find books in the library.

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Our first day of sessions the room we had reserved for 8am had a church service in it that did not end until 8:20, and by the time we set up everything were already running behind. After that snafu, everything went much smoother. We had two days on everything from cataloguing to mending spines, and at the end of it got a lot of positive feedback. It was interesting, though, our speaker spent an entire session on library rules highlighting all the way kids will mess up the library. He suggested checking backpacks for weapons before they enter the library, and ensuring girls are dressed appropriately so they don’t encourage harassment. The relationship between book borrowers here versus at home is clearly going to be different.

After our last session I ran to Mbabane where we had an embassy versus Peace Corps volleyball tournament. We did not do so well, but had a fun time. It felt like home being around Americans and playing a sport other than soccer.

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Election Time in Swaziland

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It is election time in Swaziland. We are thoroughly counseled not to get involved in politics here, but since it is also a cultural learning experience I allow myself to go to the community meeting where campaign speeches will be held. I will try to explain my limited knowledge of government here. There is the traditional government; the king, inner council, indvuna (chief) who all are important, but work within their own structure. There is also a parliament and locally elected positions somewhat equivalent to alderman-but for a larger geographic area. I got to see the speeches for bucopho which is a paid government position and covers a couple communities. After 2 hours of sitting on the ground in the sun the speeches started, and I understood exactly none of it. I could tell some of the candidates went for humor while others acted more serious, but beyond that I think I heard the words “water” and “”cow?”.  I also got my official introduction to the community at this meeting. After 4 hours of sitting on the hard ground in the African sun, I am sure it was a great first impression. Luckily, Sonia tried her hardest to coach me on what to do. Women are not allowed to stand during meetings (which I did NOT want to respect) so I had to kneel when speaking. They introduced me and I waved with my left hand (a new no no for me to learn), but otherwise I did not make any big cultural gaffes for once.

Since we all were given kindles, and there is a large collection of shared digital books, we have started a swaz-ebook club. Considering my current pace of reading we could probably meet every week, but for some reason others are not so enthusiastic about that idea. I have my schedule pretty set now. Wake up, work out, bucket bathe(which I am still no better at), play guitar, cook lunch, read and then spend time with my family especially the little kids. I joke Peace Corps is basically training me to be a stay at home mom, but I am not sure how much of a joke it is when it is one hundred percent true.

This week I went to the clinic, and get to start helping out there two days a week. As great as I am at my new hermit lifestyle I am very excited to have something to do again. I also dug my garden this week. Because I wanted to double dig (for better root growth) and dig swales and berms (for water catchment), digging takes 2 days before it is done. I had a nice crowd watching me who have no idea why I am digging in this weird way, but I am hoping to lead by example and try to explain all my weird hippie gardening ways.

Supply closet at the clinic

Supply closet at the clinic

Most importantly I got approval to move the burglar bars to my new house and found someone to do it! I am beyond excited, but still have to let the family pick a  way to do it.

Two days worth of digging

Two days worth of digging

My Goat Proof Garden

The Quiet Life

Swazi campaign posters

Swazi campaign posters

My next couple days were spent moving furniture in my house, then moving it again, and moving it again. I have no concept of space and could not figure out the best place for things just by looking. My babe’s sister (so my host aunt?) was visiting the homestead so I got to spend one of the cold days inside with everyone ,drinking Swazi tea, different from other tea because it is so saturated with sugar there’s a good inch of un-dissolved granules when you finish, and nodding vigorously whenever I heard my name. I figured out later the event was to bless the new house my family is building, I had assumed it was a birthday. It was quite the production for a strip of land; later in the day a large group of men from the community came over to see the land, or maybe help bless it, I am clearly soaking in the culture here.

I got to see sorghum being ground by hand when I went to sit with my family. Both of my makes had large flat stones they were using to grind the grain into a powder, and somehow the whole process gives off the smell of freshly baked bread. When I am not playing Tetris with my furniture or sitting with my family I read, a lot. I’m not entirely sure if it’s possible to read too much, but if it has not been achieved yet I may be the first to over-read.

The hours drag by here, but the days fly. I stopped wearing my watch in my house because I check it too frequently, but every time I look at the date I cannot believe how quickly it is going. Day 1, week 1, month 1 have all snuck past without fanfare. I started a compost pile and quickly learned mountains of thorns will not detract hungry goats. Throwing rocks does, but only temporarily.

Side note: I was able to switch houses on the same homestead.  While my new house still has its bugs and other “minor” issues, it is certainly an upgrade!

Old House

Old House

New House

New House

I got to go on another shopping trip and bought supplies for further home improvement. I may have hand sized tarantulas and hoards of ants in my room, but I am determined to make it homey. I managed to gerry-rig a makeshift closet from a plank I sawed (by hand!) and some rope hanging from the rafters. Along with my new found adult qualities I now wake up between 4-4:30 am…without an alarm. I understand for most people that is not impressive, but considering I have a propensity to sleep in as late as possible at home, even with an alarm, I consider it an achievement. I’ve started using this time to workout which is nice, but when it’s only 6am and babe sees me red faced and sweaty I have to learn a new vocab word-exercising. As in, I am not sick, I am exercising, in my house, which swazis have never heard of. They may think I am just naturally the color of a beet in the morning.

This is my handcrafted closet contraption.  I am very proud of my skills. My handcrafted closet

Training week pre-family move in

At the King's Game Reserve in Swaziland

At the King’s Game Reserve in Swaziland

We are a couple days in now. We have had a lot of cultural training and safety training…A LOT. However, I will meet someone from my PST host family tomorrow and still can only say hello how are you in Swati, so I am hoping we cover a lot in the language lesson tomorrow. We have heard a lot of negative cultural differences like sexual relationship differences( cross generational, multiple partners at one time, etc…), gender equality differences (it is unacceptable for women to smoke in public but not men, must address the male head of household first), and drinking (frowned upon heavily for us to, but relatively common among Swazis). I am excited to get to know some of the positive things to as we move into a community and get to speak to people one on one and see the positive things too. Also, learning the language should help a lot because they may know no English and I know next to know Swati. Apparently, we are too direct compared to their culture. You must say hi hello how are you, how’s your mom sister etc before talking to them, which is unnatural in English if you’ve just seen them an hour ago, it’s unusual to regret someone 5 times  a day, but maybe having it ingrained in a different language and mindset will help.

Me and some other PCV at King's Tomb

Me and some other PCV at King’s Tomb

We have also had our briefing on HIV in general and our safety from it. Definitely the most depressing day I’ve had in a long time. The prevalence rate here is the highest in the world, but hearing the statistics paired with stories at the same time is very sobering. Many households have no adult in the family so girls and boys of 14 or younger are heads of households. At that age prostitution may be the easiest or only way to feed your younger siblings. Further, often older men in a family or neighborhood are the first sexual encounter a younger girl has, not often by choice.
It’s crazy to me that in a culture that is so conservative on the surface, that frowns upon multiple sex partners, drinking, smoking, and is largely Christian there is such a persistent problem with HIV transmission. It’s even crazier to me that with such a  high prevalence those that are sexually active do not take necessary precautions always.

We’ve been told that when we meet our families tomorrow they may ask about our religion and push on the subject so I am nervous because I do not know what to say, and there will be a language barrier. Similarly we’ve been told people with ask for money often and literally the clothes off your back, but it is rude to say no…..So there’s that to figure out. I expect a lot of cultural learning in the next days and weeks and am just trying my hardest to not offend anyone.