Swaziland Families







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.


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.


Teaching Life Lessons to 7th Graders

One of the most enlightening activities during PST was teaching life skills at the local primary school. The teaching style in many Swazi schools is very different than in America. First, corporal punishment is still used. Second, students are taught to repeat back what the teacher says, not think for themselves. For example; if there is a lesson on bacteria the teacher would say (very simplified)“bacteria are small organisms” The children will repeat “bacteria are small organism”. Then, the teacher will say “bacteria are small _____” and the children will respond “organisms”. In some schools children are hit for wrong answers which can not be encouraging to try and answer. All of this leads to a lack of children feeling as free to express themselves or their opinions as we are used to in America.

Peace Corps once again split the volunteers into small groups and let us design a lesson plan, this time at least the subject was not puberty. We could choose from any of the lessons in our “life skills” manuals-a series of lessons designed to foster self esteem, healthy relationships, good decision making, and ultimately hopes these tools will prevent bad decisions later on. The book is about 150 pages, at least, and a comprehensive tool which emphasizes all the lessons are needed to have healthy children in all aspects of their lives. We were given 1 hour with the kids.

My group chose to do a decision making exercise because it can help in so many aspects of life and teaches about consequences as well as taking responsibility for your choices. I thought this would be a pretty easy self explanatory lesson, but, as always, I quickly realized I know nothing. We started with our explanation of ways to make a decision, people that are good to ask advice, not ignoring a problem etc… then did a big group example of a decision and had the class talk out what they would do. So far, so good. After, we split into smaller groups to do the same exercise with more difficult scenarios. I had nine 7th graders in my group and our scenario was; you are waiting to have sex until marriage. Your boyfriend says you will get married, but wants to have sex now. Okay group, what do you do? (keep in mind we’d spent 40 mins discussing how to consider consequences, ask advice, think of different options, and make good decision). One of the boys says “I’d just have sex”. I take him as a smart alec, and ask how he came to the decision.

“everyone does it.”

“Did you consider possible consequences?”


“Do you think it might effect your relationship?”


“Do you think some people only SAY they want to get married so you’ll have sex?”


I decided the kid was trying to look cool and back tracked to have the group think over the steps to making the decision. The group came up with possible consequences of pregnancy, stis, HIV, your boyfriend leaving you after, you not being ready emotionally(that one was my suggestion because no one considered it). The pros list was “it feels good, and you love your boyfriend.” The group decided you could consult a friend, sibling, pastor, or parent for advice. I was feeling way better that the rest of the group understood the activity; they all comprehended you have to think through big decisions like this, right? Apparently not. Just to be clear, I asked “So, now that we’ve thought through everything-who would have sex in this situation?” Every. Single. Group. Member. raised their hand. In my little group of SEVENTH graders 100% would choose to have sex. I asked if their answer would change if I said the situation was not talking about the future, but at their current age; no defectors. I then asked if they would at least wear a condom? All said yes, so there’s that at least. At this point one of our LCFs (Peace Corps teachers of siSwati and Swazi culture) had wandered over and was listening to me, looking a little amused and horrified. I wondered if it was a language thing, so I had him translate the question as a last ditch effort, they still maintained unanimity.

Unsure of how to proceed, I tried to decipher why they all felt it was ok to have sex so early and hoped I’d be able to dissuade at least one of them. The students blamed the media for making them want to have sex, and Generations. Quick sidebar: Generations is a show without an equivalent in the US. It is a nightly soap opera that is watched by almost anyone with a tv. In America, there may be 2 or 3 shows competing for viewing in primetime, and some households have multiple tvs so as to avoid the conflict of missing someone’s’ show. Not here. Young and old, anyone with a tv can tell you the current story line of Generations-it is an absolute phenomenon. I asked if people on Generations ever have consequences?


“really? Do they ever have babies they did not plan?”


“Do people ever fight or break up because of sex?”


“Do you want a baby?”


“So is that a good or a bad thing?”


I was feeling a little better, at least they were not arguing sex does not have drawbacks. I asked why their generation is different, did they think their parents had sex at their age?. I went on talking about pregnancy, and efficacy of condoms not being 100%, emotional toll of sex too young, and had Mandla translate just to be sure. They were all nodding and I finally felt that they understood what I was saying. I asked again if anyone wanted to rethink their answers, and knew I’d changed 9 young lives forever….nope. They all would still have sex. After everything I had just said, one boys response to my exasperation was “but it just looks fun”. Touché, you horny delinquent, touché. ,

I guess you really do need all the life skills lessons together for them to work. I hope the idea of thinking about you actions sunk in at least a little bit, but who knows. Another failed attempt at teaching down, and I continue to learn from my mistakes.

Kindle by Candlelight

All the days are beginning to blend together. Last week we had a lot
of hub days aka lectures and training, nothing exciting. We did,
however, get to observe a class on Tuesday and talk to students, which
was very enlightening. They split us into 3 different age groups and
groups within that. I went to the high school that one of my sisters
goes to and observed a form 4 (Junior year) with Josh who is Health
sector as well and two youth development girls. It was very different
from the states. We got there later than planned because the transport
Peace Corps hired never came (TIA). They start the morning with a
school assembly that is just all the students standing in the yard
listening to the principal, there’s no sound system or chairs.
Further, most of the information was things in America that would be
written down and given to the parents, not said once and expected to
be relayed by the kids.  We all had to stand in front of the whole
school and introduce ourselves to the students.
The principal was supposed to explain that we were there to observe
and everything should continue as normal, but that did not happen.
Instead, he told the kids to be on their best behavior because you
never know one of us might see something they like and give out a
scholarship or two or have something else to give the students….It was
really inappropriate and uncomfortable. Peace Corps is very clear on
not giving out money, gifts, etc. because of their plan for
development. It’s very different from a lot of charities that come
build a well or give some computers and leave. I felt it put us in a
weird position that the students now expected something from us when
we had nothing. It also just illustrates the mindset so many people
have that when foreigners come into the country they always come with
a gift, which creates a lack of motivation to develop the country
itself and also creates dependency. It’s frustrating that’s the
precedent here and really across Africa because it makes it harder to
help people help themselves when they’d rather you do it for them. I
guess it is good we had a chance to experience that now and start
thinking about how to respond than being singled out once we are alone
in our permanent sites.
Anyways, we observed a geography class and I will list some
observations/differences than what Americans are used to. The kids did
not respect the teacher at all, people were copying homework, texting,
talking, and otherwise not paying attention and the teacher did not
care one bit he clearly was not there to put in any effort. Only 2/3
of the class had desks, even less had books. 1 of the 42 kids had
glasses (more probably needed them but cannot afford them). There were
no supplementary materials or anything on the wall. You could pay to
not wear your uniform so it was very obvious who the wealthy kids
were. There’s a 3 or 5-year age gap within the class; some of them
were literally my age. It’s not encouraged to think outside the box.
You are taught at, not interacted with. The school uses corporal
punishment. There are no counselors for college or otherwise. There is
no trust between teachers and students so they would never confide in
a teacher. Some of the teachers just do not show up for class if they
do not feel like it.
After the lesson we got a chance split the class up boys and girls and
ask about what their average day entails. Josh and I talked to the
boys and got to hear their routines. A lot of them do chores after
school for the family(drive a khumbi, sell things, herd cattle, feed
chickens) , some play sports, watch tv, help with dishes, and study.
It’s funny because the girls schedule is way more packed because of
gender inequality they share a large burden of the household tasks,
but I would never call the boys lazy. Although they do significantly
less than the girls do, they still do way more than American students.
We also went to the umpagatsi (royal krall-think village center) and
got a chance to interview the village chief. The chief is born and
passed down through families, but it is not the oldest brother. The
family’s oldest brother becomes a counselor automatically and the
extended family elects from the remaining males who should be chief.
The chief is approved by the king and acts as his representative. Land
here is not owned but rather given by the chief of a village for use
by a family. It is all Swazi land  or owned by the kingdom
technically. Because of this, a person who wants land must ask the
chief in a rather long process if he can find him a piece of land in
the village, you don’t have to pay for the land, but you are also not
guaranteed land if trying to move to a new village. Women are not
allowed to own land because they think a single woman near married men
will be propositioned and cause strife within the village….not going
to go on a tangent but you can imagine a lot of the females in our
group challenged that idea.
Saturday we had a birthday cookout for me which was great because we
ate something other than porridge, had a half day off, got to
socialize without our bosses there, spent time outside, and had a
cider for the first time since we got here. It was really great to get
to know some of the people I hadn’t had a chance to talk to yet, and
really fun. Sunday I did laundry, cleaned my room, read a lot, and did
homework all before 11am. It’s amazing how different my schedule is
here, but even on a weekend sleeping in means 7am. I went to church
with my family because I wanted to see what it was like, and it’s such
a big part of Swazi culture I thought I should experience it. Most of
my family goes to the Apostolic church that Peace Corps uses as our
meeting place. My make went 2 hours before the rest of the family. I
went with my sisis around 11:30. The congregation sits divided by
gender. It was all in SiSwati so I just listened to the singing, which
was beautiful, and observed. Within the gender groups people also sit
according to age, except the munchkins. The gogos (grandmas) sit
together, the makes (moms) together, and then the sisis together in
the front, but the little tiny ones sit with their moms.
This week has been more uneventful training so nothing to report, but
we are going back to a school tomorrow and I’m teaching 7th graders
about puberty and hygiene…I’m terrified. I also get a phone Friday
which I’m pretty stoked about. Thursday we have our round robin
interviews, which include language and skills tests. It’s our halfway
testing and the last thing before they determine our permanent sites.
A note: my life is full of dichotomies here. Sunday we watched the
video about how awful the rap industry is and my family all thought it
was awful and, no joke, when it was done my sisters turned on a lil
wayne music video. We have satellite tv but no running water or
bathroom. Peace Corps gave us a kindle with our manuals but the
electricity was out today so I had to read it by candlelight. I feel
like I’m awash in irony.