Friday, January 16, 2015

Vacations and the New Year

January 15, 2015

It’s been over two months since my last blog post about what’s going on in Swaziland. December and January are not only the hottest months in Swaziland but also the most boring. The country shuts down for the holidays and on top of Christmas, Boxing day, and New Year’s Day there is also Incwala which is similar to what the reed dance is for the women. But here’s the highlights of what’s been going on for me:

Books for Africa:
I want to send a big thank you to everyone who supported our Books for Swaziland/Books for Africa project. We raised just over $7600 in less than a month! I’m very excited to get the project moving so we can receive our books hopefully by late April. Thank you thank you thank you to all of you that donated or spread the word.

Christmas isn’t a huge holiday for Swazis and I was away last year. This year I left on Christmas but I made sure to give each of the kids something small on Christmas eve. They were very excited. I spent Christmas at a hostel/backpackers where the owners know us and take care of us PCVs. They had food, music, and punch to make for a nice holiday party.

Obviously the most exciting part of the last two month is the two weeks I spent on vacation! I went to St. Lucia, Durban, and Drakensberg which are all in South Africa.

St. Lucia is a small little one-street town that sits along a huge estuary. I only stayed two nights so I didn’t get to explore it fully. I did get to see some hippos up close and personal. The first night I was pretty tired from travel so I ate, watched TV, and went to bed early. The second night I was joined by a group of PCVs from Swaziland and we had a nice lunch out and grilled cheese dinner in while we debated outfits for New Year’s Eve.

Durban was next. I stayed there the longest. The first night I got there I stayed at a different backpackers than the PCVs from Swaziland since it was full. Happy Hippo in Durban is really nice it’s just not the best location. It’s next to Ushaka Marine World which is pretty cool and it’s near the beach, but other than that there wasn’t much around. The next three nights I stayed at Tekweni’s near Florida Rd. Both Tekweni’s and Florida Rd. have a reputation of being the party place. Florida Rd. has more food options than Swaziland as a country. There was even a restaurant that served good Mexican food…still not real salsa though. I went to the beach, Victoria Street market, the botanical gardens, and a really amazing resort with an infinity pool and amazing views.

Drakensberg was the last stop on the trip and my favorite for sheer beauty alone. It’s no secret that I miss home a lot. The mountains in Drakensberg are very different than the ones in Vermont but it still felt like a small piece of home. We did a four night three day inclusive package. We went up the Sani pass to see Lesotho and get a view from the top. The highest pub in South Africa was a neat little place with money and signatures all over the walls. The next day was a hike to see the bushman paintings on the rock faces…a somewhat grueling hike I might add. We went over a partially broken bridge, up the mountain, and back down what was basically a very steep goat path. It ended at a beautiful waterfall but we did get a little rushed by a group of Germans who were trying to leave for Lesotho which was a bummer. I got the first real sunburn I’ve ever gotten here which was a bummer but hey the views were worth it.

The final day resulted in a very long and somewhat concerning car ride that took 10 hours from Drakensberg back to Swaziland. Low and behold we chose a janky little border post that actually checks for Ebola. And by checks I mean they take your temperature so let’s face it that could me anything from a mild cold to the flu to Ebola. Not a very sophisticated system. My favorite part of the drive was when my friend’s boyfriend who was visiting from the State said: they don’t even have a real gate; the guy just pushes it up to let cars through. Even better is we drove right around that gate after we got our passports stamped. Despite the drive, it all ended on a high note with dinner and drinks at Malandela’s with a bunch of friends.

I know I’m missing a lot of parts of the story like the gay bar I went to for New Year’s Eve and the crazy little children that drank my friends tea at Happy Hippo without invitation, but it would take a small novella to tell all those stories so I’ll just save those happy tidbits for when I come home.

What 2015 holds for my future:
I’ve talked to some friends and family, but I want everyone who is curious to know: I will be home by August 8th of this year. One of my best friends from high school will be getting married in Maine and I fully intend to be there. So come April and May Peace Corps works with volunteers to choose a Close of Service (COS) date. I’ve also been accepted to Tufts University to their Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy program which was my top choice. I’m still waiting to hear from the other six schools I applied to so hopefully by April I’ll be able to tell everyone my decision. So weddings and grad school here I come! I’ll be sad to leave my home of two years here in Swaziland, but I also can’t wait to be back state-side!

Book: The White Man’s Burden by William Easterly
Show: Weeds (Season 4)

Monday, December 1, 2014

Books for Swaziland needs your help!

Hey everyone!

As many of you know already from e-mails and Facebook, it’s the time of year that Books for Swaziland is fundraising to bring 30 new libraries to Swaziland. Last year, I was starting a library with one of my primary schools. Now we have a beautiful library that will be used by over 350 students and 15 teachers at my school. I am very passionate about this project so I joined the Books for Africa planning team which writes the grant we are fundraising for.

I wrote this last year and I think it is a powerful image:
Imagine for a moment that someone came in and removed all the books from your house. How would you help kids learn to read? If you thought about writing, imagine that paper is so expensive you couldn’t use it. Newspapers? Imagine all the newspapers are written in English, a language you understand, but you have to pass all your school tests, exams, etc. in a foreign language. You go to school where textbooks are written in foreign language and your tests are also expected to be written in that foreign language. Those textbooks are the only books you or your child has access to.

It may seem extreme for those of us who had books all our life, but it’s a very real reality here in Swaziland. 

So here’s what I’m asking:

Books for Swaziland (a partnership between Peace Corps and an organization called Books for Africa) is a nation-wide project that will bring enough books to start 30 new school and community libraries all across Swaziland. The books will be free, high-quality books from United States donors, and each organization receiving the books will be responsible to raise 1,500 rand (about $150 USD – a big amount for our schools!) to help ship the books, in addition to providing a library room, shelves, labeling supplies, and a designated librarian.

Through these 30 new libraries, Books for Swaziland will reach approximately 60,000 students in the next ten years. This is nearly 6% of the total country population! Books for Swaziland will train a librarian for each school, approve a library program plan, and deliver over 1,000 quality children’s, young adult, and information books to participating organization. The result of this project will be an increase in literacy and English proficiency among students, as well as increased chances for students to obtain university admission or gainful employment. One library at a time, Books for Swaziland hopes to bring students out of poverty for a brighter, HIV-free future.

Each school/community is making a huge commitment by providing part of the shipping costs, a furnished room, and a staff member to serve as librarian. However, the Peace Corps volunteers in Swaziland still need to raise $7616 (the rest to be covered by Peace Corps) to cover half of the cost of shipping the books to Swaziland. That’s where you come in – can you help raise money to support education in Swaziland?

I am asking family members and friends to commit to donating monetarily to this project (if you’d like to send books, I can give you the shipping address for the organization in America). If you feel strongly about helping improve the quality of education and opportunity for Swaziland students, or if you just love me and want to help me out, here are a few ideas for making donating fun and easy:

-Just go online and donate. Easy-peasy. Click here to find out about donating.

-Ask a class at school or church to fundraise. ‘Loose Change for Literacy’ is a great theme and you can compete between classrooms or between guys and girls. The winners get bragging rights, and if you are feeling generous, a party.

-Make donating to this project your end-of-year, tax deductable donation.

-Host a small event with friends and ask everyone to chip in. Maybe you bake homemade lasagna or make dozens of pancakes and charge $15 a plate, or maybe you throw a Vegas-themed party where all winnings go to libraries.

-Simply spread the word where you work, where you worship, or anywhere else you have an audience.

As always, thank you for your encouragement and support of our work in Swaziland.  Thank you for helping make that happen!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Beginning of the End

November 9, 2014

It has been a little over a month since my parents came to visit and I really thought that time would slow to a crawl. Instead it seems like time is slipping away. I have nine months left in Swaziland. For those of you who are looking for an exact date, I can’t give one but one of my best friends is getting married in Maine on August 8th and you can bet I’ll be home for that. Nine months feels like so much time but it really isn’t any time at all.

Reusable Sanitary Pads

Some may remember I wrote about this reusable sanitary project in some previous posts. I had great success with the adult women in my community. Most of them told others about this new type of pad and even taught another person how to make them. Fortunately and unfortunately, I only used about half of my grant money for the four workshops so I had to find a way to spend the rest. I thought teaching about these cloth pads at my primary schools would be the perfect addition to the project. So I taught over 200 grade six and grade seven students how to sew these pads. I even taught the boys. It was mildly infuriating to hear some of the boys say we were making them dumber by teaching them how to sew a product for women, but for the most part the boys didn’t mind. I haven’t done any follow up to see if the girls use the pads so I can’t speak to its successfulness. News about that will be coming soon. Either way it is my most successful project and it feels great to be finished with it.

Library Project

My first library project is taking far longer than it should. We are so close to opening it is disappointing I can’t get any help. I had high hopes because when I was on vacation with my parents in September the teachers made a huge push and got almost all the books registered and stamped. They began labeling the books with stickers but got confused. But that was the last help I’ve gotten beside one hour two weeks ago.

I really wanted this project to be finished so the grade seven students could at least see the library up and running before they move on to high school next year. It doesn’t look like that will happen. It’s pretty disappointing because it should have been finished two weeks ago. We are at the point where students can help us. The grade sevens left at 10:30am one morning after exams. With six or seven of those students, we could have finished in three or four days. Despite many disappointments about the delayed openings, I’m very happy to report that an additional grant from Peace Corps got us 12 beautiful shelving units. There is potential for this to be an excellent library. Once it’s open we will get a real sense of how well it’ll be utilized.

And it’ll open just in time for me to start library number two with my far school…

Being a Resource

I felt really great a couple weeks ago when one of my teachers asked me to help her with an assignment. She was asked to get people’s views on how allowing abortion has affected the youth in South Africa. I couldn’t offer any insight into South Africa’s situation but I offered some insights about abortion in the United States. It’s a sensitive subject so I had to tread carefully, but I’m really touched my teacher thought of me. It’s one of those important times where I get to share something about culture in the United States and I learn about cultural reactions to sensitive topics here in Swaziland.

A Wedding

I got a chance to attend a traditional Swazi wedding last weekend and it was an interesting ceremony. The wedding took place at the umphakatsi (chief’s homestead) because it was one of his sons getting married. Weddings here are a whole weekend event. Friday night, my bhuti (brother) stayed up with the family until the bridal party arrived at midnight. He didn’t get to bed until about 5am Saturday morning. Once the bridal party is welcomed Friday night, they rest and then Saturday is day of dancing! I went to the umphakatsi around 1pm with my sisi (sister) and two bhutis. My make (mother) was already there because she helped cook and prepare all morning. Around 2:30pm the women in the bridal party began dancing. Eventually the women from the groom’s family began dancing. The dances have meanings and I understood some of them. One of the most interesting was towards the end when the women from the bride’s family did a dance that was a way of saying goodbye to the bride as they give her to the groom’s family. It’s hard to explain here but I have many photos and videos. I guess that’s also how I became the unofficial photographer! I took photos for people and they asked me to print them in Manzini to sell. I ended up heading home around 6pm since the dancing was done and the amount of drunk men were becoming increasingly obnoxious.

Sunday was sort of a bust unfortunately. My host siblings and I walked over at 10am. Again my make was already there helping cook and prepare. The kids and I found a place to sit and play Uno (Thanks for the cards Dad and Vikki!). There was a small group of young guys who started hovering and asking questions. They wouldn’t leave me alone. Luckily my 10 year old sisi is so much smarter than I give her credit for. Make asked her to get something from the house so she had me walk back with her. We returned to the umphakatsi and found a new place to hang out for a little while but the ceremony was starting so luckily we didn’t have to wait long.

This ceremony is the bride’s family presenting blankets and grass mats to the groom’s family. It’s a long process and it was hot. My make brought an umbrella to block the sun. As I was holding it to protect her and the baby from the sun, one of the guys from before pushed his way in to hold the umbrella and tried to use that as an excuse to stand literally up against my body. Gross. So I moved away. My sisi (again so much smarter than I gave her credit for) told him she wanted the umbrella. He wasn’t going to give it to her so I told him it’s her umbrella so give it to her. Then they proceeded to sit behind me and take pictures of me with their cell phones as if I were a zoo specimen. I didn’t really pay attention but my sisi again told them to stop pictures. They said they would beat her (I should clarify they say that a lot here usually it’s just a joke). I’m so glad I didn’t hear that because joking or not I would have lost my patience entirely. Regardless, I watched the second part of the ceremony where they make up the new bed for the married couple and they lay in it (yes it’s as awkward as it sounds). Then I left. I’m disappointed that a group of 19 and 20 something guys ruined this cultural event for me, but I love my sisi for defending my honor so fiercely all day.

Graduate School

I’ve successfully completed three graduate school applications for programs in International Development. I’ve applied to Tufts University, George Washington University, and Johns Hopkins SAIS program. I have four more schools to apply to. By December I will have word from Tufts and Johns Hopkins. I’m excited and anxious to hear back from schools so I can begin planning my return to the states. Keep an eye out for updates.

Book: Seven Habits of Highly Effective People
Show: Gilmore Girls (Season 7)

Monday, September 22, 2014

Another Big Vacation and a New Term

I should be sad that my parents just left last week after two amazing week of vacation, but I’m also very happy to be back in my own bed and to my old routines (except for the hand-sized spider I found inside the pit latrine door this morning of course). On Sept. 2nd, I headed to Pretoria, South Africa to meet up with my parents when they arrived on the morning of Sept 4th. The day I had in between was spent exploring some of Johannesburg which is somewhat off limits to volunteers. We can visit but we have to sign a waiver…I feel like that alone tells you it’s not the safest of cities. That being said, I thought it was pretty cool. Me and two of my fellow volunteers did a hop-on-hop-off tour and saw the tallest building in Africa as well as the apartheid museum.

I guess I should take a step back and explain that the week before I left for Pretoria I was out of my site as well. The last Tuesday in August I helped with a presentation to the new group of volunteers and then stayed in town for their swearing in ceremony on Thursday. We went out that night to celebrate with them and I only had one night at my homestead before I was off to town again. For those of you counting, that’s three weeks away from home save for the one night. It’s by far the longest stretch I’ve had away from my hut.

Vacation officially began September 4th when my parents landed in the morning. They were tired but who can blame them. That 15 hour plane ride is the worst! So we went to a hotel in Pretoria and while they napped some I caught up on my reading. The next day we were off to Kruger Park for three nights. We had to drive 7 hours and we were almost too late to make it in! Apparently the park gates and the camp site gates both close at 6pm. We got to the outside gates at 5:40pm and made a mad dash to the camp gates. Not solid advertising on Kruger’s part. But we made it. Letaba camp was really amazing because we got a view right out over the river. On our second night there we got to watch the elephants by moonlight! We did a lot of self drives and on our third night we did a night drive from Mopani park. We didn’t see too much that night but we got to see a leopard and I hear that’s pretty rare so I was thrilled! We still never saw any lions but we heard some. I’m convinced we passed them but I was holding one of the big headlights and as many of you know I don’t have the best vision in the world.

Kruger was full of cool animals but Big Bend is apparently home to the loudest little frogs you’ve ever heard/seen! We stayed in Big Bend so my parents could visit the schools where I work, the community I live in, and do dinner with my host family. It’s not a long drive but with the pot holes it’s a stressful drive. Either way, the place in BB had a pool with a serious frog problem. I’ve never heard frogs so loud in my life. Lord knows I don’t have enough water at my homestead to have a frog problem. Dinner with my host family stressed me out a little bit. I’m not sure my Dad and Vikki knew that but it did. I felt like I was the wobbly bridge between the two worlds and that seemed stressful. I shouldn’t have stressed at all because my host family speaks English very well and everything went great. My host family is still asking how my parents trip was and saying how wonderful dinner was with them.

Finally, after three nights in Big Bend, we moved on to stay at Sundowners in Ezulwini. Backpackers are an entirely new concept to my parents but for about $100 USD they got to stay four nights and see another common hangout for me as a volunteer. A bigger bonus still is that they got to meet some of my friends here in Swaziland. The coolest part our Swaziland leg of the trip was definitely zip-lining in Malolotja. Every volunteer I’ve talked to said they were very impressed my parents were up for that ( It’s a little scary to start but once you get about half way through the course you can enjoy the views and look around. It’s build into a canyon between two mountains so instead of tree to tree it’s more like rock to rock. We also went to the cultural village, the Ngwenya glass factory, and lots of the shops and restaurants around the valley.

Finally, on Monday the 15th, my parents headed back to Pretoria for some down time before the big flight back. I asked them to drop me off at the Peace Corps office and my dad took some photos of me heading in. Of course, the guard watched my dad take all three photos and waited for me to walk in before he informed me he had to talk to my father. I have many strong words to say about the lack of competence of certain people in that situation, but best to leave that unsaid. Like the saying goes: if you have nothing nice to say its best not to say it at all. Moral of the story: don’t take pictures of U.S. government buildings in other countries…Either way it was tearful goodbye. I’m not sure my parents could see it because I was raging about the picture incident but once they left and I got inside the office it took a little while to get myself together.

It seems surreal that they were even here now that I’m back in my hut living the day-to-day in rural Swaziland. July and August were some of the longest months in my service. There was nothing bad about them, but as I crossed the days off on my calendar they seemed like the never ending months. September was the tipping point. I got to share all the hard work I’ve been doing with two of the most important people rooting for me back at home. I know there are many more people at home who are rooting for me too! I realize now that I have 11 months until I leave next August and a long list of things I want to accomplish. I may spend 4 out of seven days of the week sitting in my hut, but those three days out of the week at my schools and planning projects mean a lot. You may ask: well Sammy if you sit around 4 days out of the week clearly you could be spending your time better? I say to that, we work on Swazi time. Nothing in Swaziland is ever rushed unless you’re fighting for a seat on the kombi/bus. (And grad school applications take more time than you might imagine!)

Well you’ve made it to the end! I shortened the story considerably so hopefully you at least got the highlights. Until next time….

Book: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
Show: The West Wing (Season 2)

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Big Vacations and Bunches of Projects

Whew I have a lot to update here in my blog. It’s been a busy two months since my last post!

First, I’ll start with the events and vacations:

-Bushfire Festival – In the last days of May, Swaziland held the Bushfire Festival which is a big three day music festival. The music was a big mix of traditional music from different African countries to local hip hop artists. There was even a group from the U.S. that preformed. The non-musical highlight for me was all the food vendors! They had tacos, sandwiches, pizza. It was all very tempting and I definitely went over my budget for the event mainly because I bought food. There were a lot of Peace Corps volunteers from countries around Swaziland including PC South Africa, Lesotho, Mozambique. It was interesting to hear about their PC experiences. Sunday of course came too quickly and I packed up my tent and headed home.

-Cape Town – I know I went to Mozambique in January but that didn’t feel like a very big vacation since it’s so close to Swaziland. Cape Town, on the other hand, was amazing. My friend Josh and I flew into Cape Town on Friday and headed out the following Friday. Saturday we went to Robben Island. It was a great, well-organized tour. Then we went out drinking that night which was a lot of fun because we could actually go to different bars and walk home, unlike Swaziland. We planned our trip out pretty meticulously but weather screwed up our Table Mountain plans on Sunday so instead we just slept off our hangovers, ate pizza, and went to the aquarium. Tuesday was test day. I took the GRE and I didn’t do as well as I had hoped but I’m glad it’s over. My birthday, the day after the GRE, we went on a day long tour of the peninsula below the city. It was beautiful. We got to see penguins at Boulder Beach, bike through Cape of Good Hope park, go to the most southwestern point of the African continent. It was a great way to spend my birthday. Thursday we finally got to Table Mountain nice and early so we could also visit Stellenbosch to visit Warwick winery. It was a bit of a whirlwind week and we got to visit a lot of other things like the District 6 museum, Green Market Sq., and walked a lot! Cape Town is an awesome city and it was nice to feel a little more at home seeing as it feels a lot more like a western city than an African one.

-Christmas in June – Christmas in June was the week after we got back from Cape Town. I felt kind of bad leaving my community again so soon, but it’s an important Peace Corps “holiday.” Each year it is an unofficial tradition that the junior group organizes a party at the backpackers in town as a sort of going away party for the senior group. We had superlatives and a big family style meal. Group 10 started leaving in June/July to head back to the States so for some folks this is the last time we get to see them in Swaziland. It was a bit of an overwhelming task to organize. I helped with people cooking food and it was a hectic mess, but people were fed and people got drunk. It was a fun night.

-Fourth of July – Fourth of July is my absolute favorite holiday when I’m at home. I love walking around Hinesburg watching the parade with my family, hanging out and eating with my friends, and watching the fireworks. I’m pretty disappointed I haven’t been able to celebrate at home since 2010, but our Country Director tries to make up for the fact that we can’t be home. He throws a party at his house in Mbabane with a big BBQ. It was also our first chance to meet the new group of volunteers that arrived this year. There is a new group that arrived on June 27th and there are 40 new faces to learn. I think it was overwhelming for PCVs to learn the new folks names and faces just as much as it was overwhelming for them to try and learn our names and faces.

Second, I’ll tell you what’s been happening in my community:

-Culture Day - This is an event held in Simunye each year where schools perform traditional dancing for boys and for the girls as wells as some other types of performances at the high school level that seems a lot like a mix of marching band without the instruments and cheerleading. The girls from our school didn’t do so well unfortunately, but the boys got fourth place so they qualified to go to finals at an even bigger event in Ezulwini. I didn’t go to finals because I was working with my other school, but I heard the boys did a great job. Culture day was overwhelming because there were about 1,000 people or more by my estimates at the small stadium. I got to see three other volunteers and see their schools perform. The event was a big deal and my school didn’t go last year so I’m glad I got to see it at least once. Even if it meant riding home on the loudest bus ride I’ve ever endured with a bunch of screaming children.

-Vision Testing – In the end of May, the Ministry of Health did a training and handed out kits to PCVs and their schools to test students’ eye sight. Unfortunately, Peace Corps agreed to partner with them on this project because they promised free glasses and increased access to eye care. It turns out we can test our students and write a referral card for their parents to go to the hospital, but they still have to pay for transport, a small entrance fee to the hospital, and eventually they have to pay for the glasses too. Despite that bad news, I’ve been doing vision screening with my second school. I’m hoping we can have a meeting with the parents that need to bring their children in for glasses and find a way they can come up with some financial support. This testing is not easy though. The kids wiggle, the teachers rush, and kids have short attention spans. I’m hoping I can write an instruction list so that teams of teachers can lead this testing once I leave, but it doesn’t look so promising. No matter what, this year I will try to test all the students at both of my schools so the students know whether they need to be sitting towards the front of the class or make other arrangements to do well in class. 

-Library work – My main school applied and received books from Books for Africa in May. They held a workshop and everyone seemed really excited to start working on the library. Unfortunately, I think they’ve lost steam. I offered to register the majority of the books because I know we don’t have the extra staff and our staff don’t have the extra time to register such a large batch of books. That being said, all the books need the school stamp and now I’m starting to put stickers on the spine that indicate which section the books can go in. I’ve only gotten one teachers’ help with that and I’ve become a bit frustrated. I’m hoping in the next few weeks I can re-energize the staff by giving them specific ways to help me out.

-Reusable, Cloth Sanitary Pads – As you may have read in my blog in May, I finally completed my first grant! The money for the grant came in while I was in Cape Town so my project got a late start. Not to worry because I have some great women helping me on this project. Throughout July, I held four (I only planned three but we had extra materials) workshops in four different areas of my community. The local Rural Health Motivators (RHMs) lead the groups after I taught them so for most of these sessions I was just helping hand out supplies and clean up. It was a great feeling to see the women talking and laughing about their new “accessory.” We trained 59 women in all! I’m really excited about how the project progressed. I was disappointed I did have to miss the fourth training session, but my lead RHM was a huge help and took over the training for me. At the end of August, I want to follow up on my project by asking the 59 women if they shared their new skill with other women, if they actually used the pad they made, and other questions to understand the impact of the project. For all my other slow-moving and frustrating projects, this one makes up for all those frustrations.

Well that’s a lot to take in! It’s definitely the cliff notes version of my life in Swaziland. The last two weeks I’ve had a hard time keeping my spirits up because I miss home, but after a year away I expected that. I’ve been cheered up by care packages from my mom and by looking forward to a very exciting visit from my dad and my step-mom. They will be coming in September and I can’t wait!! The countdown to their visit is on my calendar and whenever I get a little down I just look at that.

Book: The Invisible Cure by Helen Epstein
Show: Grey’s Anatomy Season 4

Saturday, May 24, 2014

May Madness

I woke up today thrilled that I could sleep in and wouldn’t have to socialize with anyone. Instead I’ve become increasingly grumpy and annoyed by a lot of little things. It may not be the best mood to write a blog in, but I’m hoping by writing out what I’ve done lately I’ll feel a little happier and more excited about the projects that are going well.

April came and went. The only notable thing I did was visit Vusumnotfo, the place where I was for Christmas, to help a school in Piggs Peak with a computer science curriculum. Kathy, the woman who runs Vusumnotfo, started a school to send her daughter to. Now her daughter is going to college in the fall, but the school is still running strong. It has a Raspberry Pi computer lab. Originally, she wanted someone to help teach but since I live way too far away I agreed to help develop a day by day lesson plan that any teacher or volunteer could step into.

Besides the visit up north, it was a pretty boring month because school let out on the 17th just in time for a huge string of holidays. The week of Easter Sunday/Monday my host father didn’t go to work and I assume the majority of Swaziland didn’t. That Friday was flag day…apparently that’s a holiday worthy of time off. It worked in my favor because I got to spend a decent amount of time studying for the GRE (the exam you need to apply to grad schools). It’s been far too long since I’ve had to figure out the area of a circle or calculate ratios.

May has been the complete opposite of April. Of the last three weeks, I’ve spent about half of that in town doing work for Books for Africa and attending mid-service training. The Books for Africa program ships one shipping container from the U.S. to Durban, South Africa. Our BFA team expected the books to come in the last two weeks of April. We has no word as of May 1st about the shipping container. I was happily celebrating Cinco de Mayo (a Monday) with a group of volunteers in my area when we got the call that the books were in Swaziland. The tricky part about BFA is that the shipping container needs to be unloaded and books need to be distributed to schools within a three day period so we avoid late fees for returning the container and paying for extra days at the warehouse. So me and my friend Maggie, who was also helping with BFA, rushed to town Tuesday morning with only a change of clothes and the few other things we brought for our one night Cinco de Mayo celebration. It was less than ideal. Even worse, we are on our way to the warehouse when our lead BFA person calls and says we can’t unload the books because the container hasn’t been unloaded off the train. So swazi … It turned out for the better  because I got to buy my Bushfire Festival tickets (keep reading to find out more about that) and we got to go eat lunch/hang out in town. Wednesday and Thursday went pretty smoothly. We unpacked the container on Wednesday and organized the warehouse with piles of boxes by school/volunteer. Thursday all the schools picked up their books and, since my school was one of the last pick-ups, I got a free ride home! A slightly awkward one because it was the teacher who I had a slight texting problem with last year, the driver, and me squeezed in the middle, but a free ride is a free ride. Beats some of the bus rides I’ve suffered.

I arrived home bruised but happy around 6pm Thursday night. I was exhausted but I only got one day (Friday) to do my laundry and pack up for town again. Mid-service training isn’t mandatory but I signed up for two out of the three training Peace Corps offered. I didn’t have to be in town until Sunday, but I had a lot of things to get done on the internet so I went to town bright and early Saturday morning. Saturday night I had the great fortune of meeting two volunteers (although not with PC) from Pretoria in South Africa. It was nice to meet some people outside of Peace Corps and it turns out their coming back to Swaziland next weekend for the Bushfire Festival (keep reading!). Sunday through Saturday was training at the site where we spent so much time during July and August. Monday – Wednesday I had a teacher from each of my schools to learn about Grassroot Soccer. It’s a really cool program out of Cape Town that teaches about HIV using games and physical activity. Then Thursday – Friday, I had two teachers from my nearest school come to a training about positive discipline. It was a really interesting workshop. The idea of beating children in school makes many volunteers uncomfortable, but it’s what Swazis grew up with so it’s the only system they really know that “works.” The discussions about how we can change or the challenges we face in changing it were really enlightening. Finally, after breakfast on Saturday, I spent a little time in Manzini and then headed home. It felt great to be back in my own bed after two weeks of craziness!

This past week seemed just as busy as the first two, but this time I got to be in my own hut each night. Monday I went to the school to find out that the head teacher wants a library workshop on Wednesday. That stressed me out a lot. Tuesday I went to help another volunteer install programs on the computers at her school, then I got a package and some groceries in Siteki. Thanks for the care package Mom!! That afternoon, me and my counterpart were scrambling to get our schedule and topics together. Luckily, and this is the only time I’ll refer to this as lucky, World Vision had a training on Wednesday too! Imagine that, another meeting rescheduled due to World Vision. Instead, my counterpart and I used some time on Wednesday to plan our accession register for the library books! It’s a big first step towards opening!

Another exciting thing happened this week: I got my first grant proposal approved! Peace Corps, being run by the U.S. government, makes nothing easy when it comes to money for projects. It’s a somewhat cumbersome excel sheet set up. Even for only $150 USD, the smallest grant, we still have to describe every little step and detail of the project. What is this project you ask? I’m doing three small sewing circles to teach women how to make reusable/cloth sanitary pads. This is a really exciting project because it doesn’t take a lot of money and I think it has a chance of being sustainable in my community. I turned the paperwork in Friday (yesterday) when I had to go to town AGAIN for training. This training was to teach PCVs and their counterparts at the schools how to screen children for vision problems. Unfortunately, PCVs were mislead to believe that children would have access to free pairs of glasses, but that is absolutely not the case. At least with screening, children can be referred to government hospitals and have a chance at getting the help they need. And if not glasses, teachers can help students by moving them to the front of the class or in other ways.

Yesterday was my dad’s 50th birthday! I was sad I couldn’t be there to celebrate the big milestone with him but I know he understands. If it weren’t for his encouragement and support, I wouldn’t be in Swaziland at all. Instead of being sad, I look forward to him and my stepmom visiting in September!

Also, he now has a swazi birthday buddy because my host mom had a new baby boy last night! I know this is surprising to everyone stateside, but you know how if you ask a woman in the states if she’s pregnant and she’s actually not? I guess that’s just one of those cultural things. My make didn’t tell me she was pregnant and I didn’t ask because I thought she was just gaining weight. It was very clear when I came back from training that it was baby weight but before that it wasn’t so clear.

Things to watch out for in my next blog:

--Bushfire festival: this is a music festival held each year in Swaziland. It’s pretty popular from what I understand, so next weekend I’ll be sleeping in a freezing cold tent when I’m not rocking out to some cool music or shopping for souvenirs/crafts.

--TWO WEEKS TO CAPE TOWN! As you may be able to tell from the all-caps, I cannot wait to get out of Swaziland for a while. Cape Town sounds so amazing and I can actually go out after dark! There will be mountain climbing, wine drinking, island visiting, and lots more.

I suppose this helped me feel a little better about my day. My homestead is out of water in the jojo tank and I’m drinking, bathing, and washing my clothes using the filthy rain water I caught in these big 100L barrels. I pay each month to pay over a quarter of the cost so that’s why it bums me out. Many volunteers carry water from far distances, but it’s a matter of money management and feeling taken advantage of even though I know that's not my family's intent. Fingers crossed we get our jojo tank filled soon! In the meantime, I have lots of great things to look forward to. Keep reading to find out about Bushfire and Cape Town!

Book: The Invisible Man

Show: House of Cards, Season 2

Friday, April 4, 2014

While I was away ... Term One Came and Went

It seems like as soon as I made a New Years’ resolution to update my blog more fate told me I had to give up my computer for a month. The first week of February, as I finished watching Star Wars IV, I noticed my laptop cord wasn’t actually charging anymore. So I scoured all of Mbabane (the capital) in search of an adapter or a universal adapter set I could use. Lucky me, my netbook has an incredibly small charging pin and the charger runs on a higher voltage than the typical laptop charger. Thus began a month without a computer and I can honestly say it wasn’t as bad as I imagined.

The months of February and March have been “busy” in a way. I’ve settled into a solid routine and I’ve met more and more people to work with. Here’s a glimpse into my average week for Term 1 of school here in Swaziland (which closes April 17th).

Monday – I work with the preschool nearest to my homestead. I don’t actually do much to change their routine but I try and bring one new song or game to teach them each week. There are only seven students so I like that I can learn all their names and that each student gets the attention s/he needs. However, if it rains the preschool tends not to meet. The mud gets pretty intense along the roads.

Tuesdays – This is Health Club day for the primary school closest to my homestead. This is a group of students from grades 1-7 who come and participate in activities relating to their health. Before I came, I think this largely meant learning about oral hygiene, washing your school uniforms, early pregnancy, and alcohol abuse. These are all important topics but I’m trying to introduce the cause of most teenage issues: peer pressure and self-esteem. Slowly but surely, we are including different lessons that show students how to respond to those problems.

Wednesdays – This is Health Club day for a new school I’ve discovered. In early February, I was introduced to a primary school and a preschool that are about 5km from my homestead. When I first started going there I walked both ways, but now that I have the transport schedule down I’m less inclined to walk 10km for obvious reasons. This school was a little late in starting up their health club and is significantly less organized about it. This makes it difficult for me to plan and it has caused some serious frustration, but the teachers are all young and very nice so it’ll get better over time.

Thursdays – This is a day that I generally keep open for meetings although that doesn’t always work out. There is an HIV support group I’ve been trying to meet with but they meet on Tuesdays when I have health club.
Fridays – These past two months it feels like I’ve been in Mbabane nearly every weekend. On one hand, this is fantastic because I get showers and all the pizza and ice cream a girl could ask for but, on the other hand,  I also spend all my living allowance on food and lodging. Now Fridays have become my GRE study days. Yikes….

In other news:

I’ve planned a trip to Cape Town, South Africa for June during the week of my birthday. I’m so excited for the trip despite the fact that I take the GRE the day before my birthday. Mozambique was a good vacation, but Cape Town is a whole new type of vacation. There are tons of museums, beaches, markets, sports games, botanical gardens, and hikes up table mountain.

I’m working with a young man in my area to put together a business planning workshop. When I came to Swaziland, I expected people to ask me for money and food. I still face that question, but even more difficult is when people ask “What can you help me with?” That is hard to answer because Swazi people do have good ideas and some are willing to work hard to start a business or seek out education to reach their goals. I joined Peace Corps because they don’t just hand money out and leave, so I’m hoping over time I can work with all the people that have asked for help starting their chicken farming business or their car wash by doing this workshop.

Libraries galore! Another project most of you are aware of (and some of you helped fund) is the library projects at both my primary schools. Unfortunately, I didn’t apply for Books for Africa with the primary school furthest from my homestead because I didn’t know they existed. The good news is they have already started a building a library building. They’re about halfway finished. Which is interesting because they have no books and no sources for books. Meanwhile, my closest school will be receiving ~1000 books in the first week of May and still has no proper shelving for the project. It isn’t that the headteacher doesn’t care about the library. In fact, the four teachers on my library planning team and the headteacher are all very serious about making this library functional. They want to do a full day of training with all the teachers and come up with a solid system for using the books effectively.

Something I didn’t know in January when I wrote to update you all is how long it would take for schools to simply get paid. Free education is a new concept here in Swaziland. Over the past decade they have been cutting school fees for grades 1 through 6. This year grade six became free, last year it was up to grade five. So instead of families paying fees on day one, the school has to wait for a check from the government. This has taken until the final week of March for my schools. That’s a whole term in which teachers’ contracts weren’t finalized so they couldn’t teach, the school couldn’t afford their electricity, and feeding programs were cut so the poorest of students came to school without breakfast and didn’t get the one meal that got them through their school day. That being said, the government somehow finagled a way to provide new desks for our school. How does this related to the library you ask? Well the old desks will now become our new, temporary shelving. This is all the headteacher’s idea and I think she does really well working with what she has. Am I mildly disappointed we don’t have a more permanent structure? Of course, but at least the books won’t sit in a box until the end of time.

There’s a lot of people I’ve met and meetings I’ve held and frustrations I’ve faced that I didn’t write about here because y’all don’t want to read a novel every time you visit my blog, but hopefully you enjoy a little glimpse into what I’ve been doing for the past two months when my blog went silent.

Books: A gazillion books….because I had no computer to watch tv on for a month.
Currently it is: The Shackled Continent: Africa’s Past, Present and Future by Robert Guest (I highly recommend this book for anyone who considers Africa a lost cause)

Show: Homeland Season 2, Suits Season 3 (finally!)