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.

Rainy Season

I don’t have electricity in my house, but I am able to charge my electronics at a different house nearby. Usually, this is not much of a hassle, but during the rainy season their electricity is knocked out multiple times a week and can be out for a couple days at a time. Because of this my use of my computer, phone, etc. became a lot more selective in case I could not charge it for a while. The good thing about this was I caught up on a lot of reading; the bad thing was I couldn’t blog much. However, now the rains are done and I should be back on track.

In March I took a weekend trip for my friend Patty’s birthday. Eight of us were supposed to leave for our much-anticipated break early in the morning to make sure we all got seats on the khumbi to Durban. It had been raining hard for 3 days prior and I was worried my bus would not be running because of the roads. Luckily, it still was-albeit it 2 ½ hours late. I am pretty far out there so there is only the one road in and out of my community. Of course, on the day I was supposed to leave for a much-needed vacation, that road decided to flood. There is a bridge a couple feet high that runs over a trickle of a river 20 minutes from my community, but somehow with all the rain that bridge was completely covered in rushing water. I did not notice this until the bus started going towards the river and other passengers all stood up to watch. It is probably a good thing I didn’t notice though because I would have gotten off the bus and missed my trip. I genuinely thought the bus would hydroplane or get pushed off the bridge, the driver couldn’t see to begin with, by the rushing water, or somehow lead to the bus in the rapids that had formed around boulders that were usually dry except their bottom 2 inches. It was the scariest thing I have gone through in Swaziland so far, but luckily we made it across and no one was hurt, although the bus did stall one minute later. There was a large crowd on the other side of the new river because no one had been crazy enough to try and cross it, and school ended up being cancelled that day because no one could safely get to it.

Rainy Road

The “road” during rainy season

After that adrenaline filled start to my vacation, it was a relaxing weekend. The things I miss most from home are not running water or the lack of hand-sized bugs. I had missed really simple things like Thai food and spending a day window shopping. We were only there3 days so I spent my time doing everything I can’t do in Swaziland; walking around at night, shopping, meeting people who are not volunteers, and getting my haircut. We had a fun couple of days with lots of things I’d missed -tapas, Mexican, sushi,  my first margarita in 9 months, and good company too.

Tequilla, how I've missed you.

Tequila, how I’ve missed you.

On the last day some of the other girls went to the beach. None of us had phone signal so when my friend Janae and I did not see them all day we did not think much of it. We got back to the hostel and I connected to wifi to get whatsapp messages telling us they got robbed. They were at the beach and although they never left their bags alone someone managed to grab a purse with phone, ipod, glasses, rx sunglasses, credit cards, and clothes. The police were less than helpful because it happens often and the thieves are professionals who unload the stuff they can’t sell immediately. The police drove my friends home and it was a good thing we were leaving anyway. I think we all learned to leave valuables at the hostel when possible, and I will not forget to renew my travellers insurance this year.

Me and the birthday girl

Me and the birthday girl

Election Time in Swaziland

Image

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

An American Girl With a New Years Resolution

I never thought my most meaningful relationship would be with someone born in 1961. Yet, Thursday I happily celebrated my six-month anniversary with the Peace Corps. I hit the quarter mark of my service and the new year, prompting the question “what will you resolve this year?” I find myself looking back instead of forward. The obligatory lists of resolutions and goals have been circulated across my Facebook newsfeed and for once they do not make me feel inadequate. I did not make any resolutions last year, and yet seem to have hit many common resolutions that show up on a number of lists.

2013: Live abroad-check, quit your job-check, keep a journal-checl, adopt a pet-check, change your hair-check (I tried and failed to go blonde), start working out more-check, make new friends-check, learn a new language-check, allow yourself to be selfish-check, write a real letter – check, face a fear – check, and the lists go on. Somehow, without really trying, Peace Corps has helped me accomplish a healthy portion of common goals. The past half a year (and really the months of preparation leading up to it) has given me the time to better myself that I would never have had working a 9 to 5 job in the US. This year instead of looking at deficiencies in my life I am happy to instead appreciate my accomplishments thus far. I have finally learned to focus on the check marks rather than the empty boxes.

With new friends celebrating an early Christmas

With new friends celebrating an early Christmas

If there is one lesson I have learned that I can share for the New Year; notice your own envy. When I saw everyone getting jobs after college and settling down with new relationships and apartments it made me more panicked than covetous. Instead, it was the people who had taken a year off, moved to a new country, not worrying about what people expected their career to look like that made that little pang of jealousy resonate. The most telling emotion I have found is the little green flash when you hear good news from someone. What part of what they said appeals to you, and how can you learn from that? So my resolution for this coming year is simple: be jealous. Notice what you are jealous of, congratulate that person, and learn from them. Channeling this emotion has led me to find what makes me truly happy, and appreciating people doing great things rather than resenting them has allowed me to benefit from their success. While you are doing that, help those who have a reason to be envious of you.

While I miss my family and friends at home, I could not be happier to greet 2014 here in Swaziland. So my simple advice for the new year for all of my fellow Americans back home is, if you are feeling a little jealous of those around you as the ball drops, resolve to ask how they do it.

Thankful for all the packages and letters I get from my loved ones back home

Thankful for all the packages and letters I get from my loved ones back home

Being a "deviled egg" for halloween

Being a “deviled egg” for halloween

 

P.S. If you want to ring in the New Year by helping create a library for my grade school to be proud of (and maybe inspire other schools jealousy?), please see the link below. We are raising money to create 30 libraries across Swaziland to promote literacy, English proficiency, and all the wonderful benefits literature has to offer. https://donate.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=donate.contribute.projDetail&projdesc=14-645-001

 

One of the kids I live with who will get to use the library you can help build.

One of the kids I live with who will get to use the library you can help build.

The Training Wheels Off

 

I expected moving to our training sites all on the same day with our poorly packed things to be mayhem, but was pleasantly surprised that it all went off without a hitch. We all had to have our things ready in the respective cars by 8am. They split us up geographically so I was with my friends Becca and Rachel in one car with a Peace Corps driver, a second car with most of our luggage followed behind us caravan style. We said our goodbyes which were not that sad since the country is so small geographically it is relatively easy to see friends, but there was definite anxiety in the air about moving to our sites for good. We stopped to get groceries and waited in traffic for a while since our moving day also happened to be concurrent with the reed dance, one of Swaziland’s largest events.

Home sweet home

Home sweet home

My site is furthest geographically so we started by dropping me off first. I was really anxious because there had been some confusion on which house I would be living in on the homestead, and because I was getting dropped off in the middle of a foreign country to live with people I could barely communicate with, the latter probably contributed more to the anxiety. We pulled up to the homestead and immediately the PC car was surrounded by a hoard of young children all clearly very excited to see us. My host father and some of the older sisters came and with all the helping hands my things were placed into my new house in no time. The house I was staying in was a bit of an adjustment from what I am used to from the US, sunlight coming through places other than windows was unexpected. Standing there with no bed, furniture, water, or anything else a house I am used to has was incredibly overwhelming. I said goodbye to Rachel and Becca a little teary eyed at the prospect of them driving away and leaving me alone for the night. Luckily, my host family was all there so I did not have time to feel sorry for myself.

My first night was spent settling in, unpacking, organizing, and trying to find the essentials from the bulk of my luggage. Since I did not have a bed, my family lent me a foam mat to sleep on where I was able to commune with all the bugs in my house on their level of the floor that first night. I draped cloth over the bars on my windows for make shift curtains since, not shockingly, all of the little kids were very interested in the new white girl on the homestead, and even when I closed the door picked up the habit of peering through my windows and not understanding my siswati when I asked them to stop. The next day I literally sat watching the kids watch me for over an hour. It quickly became clear I need to think of things to fill my time. I have never had 24 hours in a day completely unplanned, seven days a week.

After waking up sore Saturday I decided the first priority was to buy a bed. I planned to take a bus to the nearest town, buy a bed, and hire someone to drive myself and the bed back. I walked to the bus stop only getting lost once, which I was pretty proud of, and waited. An hour later the bus still had not arrived. I tried to ask the two women also standing waiting if the bus was coming, but even if they understood my broken siswati, I could not understand their answer. Finally a car passed down the road and they ran out to hitchhike motioning for me to come with, getting out in English “no busses”. I later learned it was because of the holiday there were no busses. That was a bit of a predicament as Peace Corps forbids us from hitchhiking. After an hour of waiting in the sweltering sun I had to walk back to my house, and since there is never transport on Sundays and Monday was a holiday, to wait until Tuesday to buy a bed. Dropping us lacking the essentials on a Friday afternoon with no transport for three days was not the best laid planned.

Feeling a little dejected, I walked to my ssa’s house to say hello and speak to someone in English. After a lot of confusion I figured out the housing situation was that the house I wanted to move into had not been approved by Peace Corps, although my family wanted me in it, so I was in the current house until something changed. That at least was a glimmer of hope that it was still possible to move. My current house hosted a number of lovely tarantulas that allowed me to bond  with my host sister by asking her to help me kill. I spent the next couple days settling in, cleaning, starting a compost pile, and waiting to be able to leave to buy furniture.

My homestead for the next two years.

My homestead for the next two years.

Another picture of my homestead

Another picture of my homestead

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.