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(Note: this was written nine days ago but just got around to posting it now.)

During two years in Swaziland, I have been exceptionally lucky, given the high death rate, to be spared the death of someone I was close to. However, at the end of my service, my luck ran out.

Despite our differences (me=young and agnostic, her=elderly and devoutly religious), my Gogo (“grandmother” in siSwati) made me feel at home on my homestead. She was the sweetest woman to me, to my visiting family and to other volunteers who would come to the homestead. She didn’t just provide a home for me, she took me in as a member of the family.
About a month ago, Gogo suffered a heart attack, which she survived. She spent a week in the hospital and was brought home. She was still quite weak, not even getting out of bed most days. Then she started going downhill again. On Thursday, she was taken back to the hospital and died shortly after arrival.

I had been at the school, working on the library all day Thursday. I stopped home briefly because I was planning to go to town for a goodbye party for departing volunteers in my group. I found out that Gogo had gone back to the hospital, but she had not died yet. I decided there was nothing I could do for her by staying on the homestead, so I decided to go to the party. She must have died shortly after I left.

I knew that she might not survive that night, but when I returned to the homestead the next day and found out, it was still a shock. I guess I was in denial. I noticed strange cars at the homestead and I knew that was a bad sign (when there is a death in Swaziland, family and friends descend on the homestead to pay respects). But I was still hoping until a family friend broke the news. I started sobbing and he led me inside so I could see the family. Someone tried to make me drink a glass of soda; my hands were shaking so badly that I could barely hold it. I called the Peace Corps office, who decided to take me to the capital for a week (its procedure when someone in the host family dies, to both give the family space and to provide the volunteer with grief counseling.) I also called Zama, my counterpart and best friend, who was in town but hopped on a khumbi and went straight to my homestead to give me a hug and a shoulder to cry on. Two members of the office arrived and they came into the house and paid respects to the family. Then they took my things and took me up to the capital.
It’s also procedure for the office to take the volunteer to a really nice guesthouse to stay at during this time. I was at first not cool with that idea because I didn’t want to be alone, but the guesthouse owners are really sweet and have let me talk about it. One office member took me to a children’s reading group, which got my mind off things. Another office member took me out to dinner. I went on an outing with friends. I’ve been keeping busy enough. Most of the volunteers in my group have closed their service and left Swaziland, so I can’t see them, but there are two third-year volunteers in the capital and I’ve been spending time with them. They’ve been great.
One happy coincidence—my Mkhulu (grandfather) is a retired Angelican pastor and both he and Gogo were very active and well-known in the Angelican community. Despite my lack of religious background, I have gone to the community church with Gogo since my arrival (first in an attempt to integrate and then because I enjoyed the close-knit community feel of the church). I was very sad I couldn’t go this Sunday and honor Gogo. However, the guesthouse owners both go to an Angelican church in the capital and they took me there. Because Gogo was so well-known among Swazi Angelicans, quite a few people at that church knew her well. So it turned out to be the second-best way to honor her.
I’m still struggling a bit. I have regrets. In the last week before her death, I didn’t spend enough time with Gogo. My plan was to work extra-hard on the library and packing/cleaning and then hopefully have the rest of the time to spend with my family and community. It was like, I knew that Gogo might die at any time, but I refused to truly believe it and I kept assuming she would be around at the end of my service. I was also nervous about visiting her and disturbing her and I was intimidated about asking the family if I could.

The very last time I saw her was two days before she died. I went into her room to visit and she was kind of twisted up on the bed, so I helped her get right and covered her with blankets. As soon as I did that she was asleep. We didn’t even talk.

Here’s the other thing I’m struggling with: Gogo was old, but she wasn’t that old. She was mid-70s? There’s plenty of crappy people in this world who live until 85, 90 and beyond. Why do they get to live 10, 15 years longer than Gogo? (I know 10 or 15 years is nothing when comparing the situation to people who die really young—like the teenagers in Norway—but this is how I feel right now).

The third thing is anger. I wonder why Gogo didn’t take better care of herself, why she didn’t lose weight. She was a nurse (what’s going to happen to the health care needs of people in the community now that she’s gone is something I don’t even want to think about) and she had the information available.

During my stay here, I’ve learned another piece of terrible news. A little two-year old girl from my community, who I was very close to, died. Her parents are HIV-positive so she probably died of AIDS, although the family will not admit that. To respect the family’s privacy, I’ll talk very little about her and be deliberately vague here. But I’m shocked. Most kids who are infected show signs a few months after birth. It didn’t occur to me that she could be HIV-positive, because she was a healthy, happy, energetic, loving child for two years. Now I feel guilty about not being more aware and wondering if I could’ve given more advice and saved that little girl’s life.

So, my last few weeks in Swaziland are sad. I have good friends, both in my community and outside that are helping me through it though.

(This was long so I'll talk about the funeral and closing my service in the next post.)

pickup lines


`I’m on a bus enroute back to Manzini after my glorious Mozambican vacation. I score a window seat on the side of the bus that’s out of the sun and I pray as the people pile onto the bus, that I would get a female seatmate, instead of a male.

My prayers are not answered. A man, with bad breath, to top it off, scoots in besides me. He cozies up next to me and tells me that he wants to be my “special friend.” I stick my ipod buds into my ears and pull out my GRE flashcards. In America, most men would get the hint and leave me alone. That is not the case in Swaziland. Every few minutes, the man pokes me to get my attention and I switch off my ipod, turn away from my flashcards and listen to his questions and comments. It’s not threatening or anything, he just won’t take the hint. I eventually end up switching seats to a windowless seat in the sun, where I roast all the way back to Manzini.

I have been lucky that the male attention I’ve received has not, with a few exceptions, involved touching or obscene comments. However, the hardest thing I had to get used to was the persistence’s of the men. Over the past two years, I’ve tried various arguments to shut them down, and they always come back with counterarguments, ranging from the whiny to the brilliant.

The most common pickup lines we female volunteers get are 1) “I want to marry you.” 2) “I love you.” and 3) “I want your number.” Of course there’s variations—like the pickup lines that use race—“I wish to marry a white woman” (golddigger much?) or my favorite “Hey umlumgu (derogatory term for “white person”), I love you so much.” Because, insulting someone and treating them as a skin color and not a person is the way to a girl’s heart.

One of my most common comebacks, in response to the never-ending stream of marriage proposals is angifuni indvodza (siSwati for “I don’t want a husband”). This leads to laugher and Leni? (Why?) I explain that I am not ready to be married yet, and the men ask me my age. When I tell them, they tell me that I’m EXTREMELY old and that I MUST be married IMMEDIATELY. Which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, because there’s plenty of Swazi women in their mid-20s who are still unmarried.

Some of the volunteers invent a husband. I don’t do this because a) I feel like I’d be saying that married women have more right to not be bothered than single women, and, b) it doesn’t work. Married volunteers get hit on all the time and even Mkhulu and Gogo’s daughter-in-law says that the men who know she is married still propose love.
Another comeback I use is that I don’t want a Swazi husband because Swazi men are unfaithful and bring home HIV to their wives (I know, blanket statement). Although this does not deter the men, it always prompts murmurs of agreement and shouts of “Right on!” from any women who might be listening.

I thought I had the perfect comeback when I decided to play on the traditional gender roles. In Swazi culture, women are expected to keep a clean and orderly house. Anyone who has ever had the misfortune of sharing living space with me will testify under oath, that I’m quite possibly the worst housekeeper ever. So my argument was “I can’t be a Swazi wife because I hate cleaning.” The response I would normally get was “I’ll clean for you” (right, I’ll believe it when I see it). The one that took the cake, though, was the guy who looked puzzled for a second and then declared “You can just be my sex mate instead!” (thanks, but I think I’ll take a pass on that).

My lovely friend Darryn came up with a response that I thought was unshakable. This particular response incorporated four aspects of male behavior change that would drastically reduce the HIV prevalence rate. The gist is, “I can only be with a man if he 1) gets tested for HIV 2) gets circumcised* 3) uses a condom every time he has sex 4) is faithful to me.” Then the guy would either be so embarrassed that he would stop the one-sided flirting or he would start asking questions, prompting an opportunity to educate. It was genius. I decided to steal it from Darryn.
I was on the bus one day and I had the opportunity to use this response. The guy considered carefully, looked back and me and said…
“Well then I must have your number so I can call you when I have done all those things.”
ARRRRGGGGHHHH.

The most infuriating response I tend to get is “You refuse to love a black man because you are racist.” Actually no, I tend to not love anyone who is rude and pushy.
It’s not like white Swazi men have had any better luck with me, since the few encounters I’ve had with them tend to go like this…
WSM: We have the same skin color, therefore we should have sex.
Me: No thanks.
WSM: I have a REALLY NICE CAR. I can take you out in my REALLY NICE CAR. Have I mentioned that I have a REALLY NICE CAR?
Me: Not impressed.

Of course, while many of these encounters are annoying, some are just plain amusing. Highlights include…
1) “I’m very romantic because my birthday is February 13th, the day before Valentine’s Day.” (One could easily poke a hole into that argument by pointing out that 13 is also an unlucky number...as I did.)
2) The guy who dropped down on his knee and presented me with a ring fashioned from a blade of grass.
3) The drunk on transport who, after hearing that I didn’t like drunks, proceeded to make out with his empty beer bottle and say to it “I loved you so much…but I love this lady more! Goodbye forever!”
4) “I love you very quickly.” (Considering that he didn’t even know my name, I would say that’s true.)
5) “I love you so much, I love you more than my new school shoes.” (The funniest part is a friend of mine had received that EXACT same line a year and a half earlier.)

I should say that this blog does not mean to insult the several fantastic male friends and co-workers I’ve had, who have shown me respect, NOT proposed love/marriage and have been some of the kindest, smartest and funniest people I’ve ever met. You’ll find both assholes and good men, no matter what country you go to and there are some good men in Swaziland.

Mozambique


My last Peace Corps vacation was up to Mozambique for a few days. I had used up all but five of my vacation days, so I couldn’t go too far from home. Fortunately, one of my friends from my group had the exact number of vacation days, and one of the girls from Group 8 decided to join us. We decided to start out in Maputo, the capital, and then take a ferry to a tropical island just a few hours off the mainland.

The three of us headed up to Maputo with two girls who had more vacation days and were heading on to a further part of Mozambique. We crossed the border and realized that there was no further transport. We ended up hitching a ride in the back of a truck, which was pleasant because the weather was warm and the views were stunning. Despite much poverty and years of war, Mozambique is a beautiful country.

When we got to Maputo, I found that the city was not really what I had expected. It has a very African feel to it, which is a nice contrast to places like Cape Town, but it seemed difficult/expensive to get around. We couldn’t find good restaurants within walking distance and ended up spending a lot on cabs. It wasn’t as cheap as I thought it would be, the prices were comparable to South Africa. Maybe if we had more time to explore we would have found cool areas of the city, but as it was, I was happy to get on the ferry to go to Inhaca Island.

Inhaca did not disappoint. I had been sad that I had not been able to make it up to Tofo, an apparently perfect stretch of coastline somewhat north, but Inhaca had the whole white sand, blue-green ocean thing going on and it did not take an entire day to get there. I don’t know what it’s like in season (it’s winter in Southern Africa), but the island seemed more like a local island and less of a place that catered to tourist, which I liked. We stayed at Cool Runnings Backpackers, which had OK amenities, but was really cheap—for three nights we paid about 250 rand for a three people in two rooms. We hung out on the beach, swam in the ocean, went snorkeling on a coral reef (AMAZING and my favorite part of the trip), drank beer and ate some good food. Mozambique is close enough to the equator that the weather was pleasant enough even at the beginning of winter—we only had one cool, rainy day and the rest were hot without being muggy and uncomfortable. I was sad to leave, especially going back to Maputo where we were back to going everywhere by cab and spending way too much again (although we did have Thai food. Score. )

Most of the trips I’ve taken here have involved being busy DOING stuff (which I like) but it was nice to just have a good, old-fashioned, lying on a tropical beach and doing nothing vacation. A great way to use up the rest of my vacation days.

update


The heat has finally broken and my last African summer is (more or less) over, much to my rejoicing. There are many things I will miss about Swaziland. The blazing African summer sun is NOT one of them. With the impending winter, I find myself much more productive and much happier. I don’t hide out in my hut all day anymore! I enjoy long walks through my community again! I can no longer smell myself 20 minutes after I bathe! Some mornings I can even sit on my front step, wearing cozy sweats and sipping hot tea! It’s fantastic.*
This heightened sense of productivity has finally pushed me to launch my final project at site. I’m working with Zama and the president of the community youth group (who I just met for the first time a few weeks ago. Why of why did it take me so long to discover him? He’s great.) on a job skills workshop for the youth. One of the most common complaints I hear is that there’s not enough jobs and that no one is working. The job market is tight and those who have been through the rural school system are at a significant disadvantage compared to their “townie” counterparts. I remember looking at one of Zama’s application letters at one point and thinking, “this incredibly intelligent and motivated guy has no idea how to sell himself.”
During my long and fruitless job search before Peace Corps, I was the recipient of much advice and criticism. I’m going to apply this advice to the workshop—application and CV writing, interview skills, networking and small business skills. I’m usually somewhat skeptical about workshops, but I think this one has the potential to be helpful.
The library project is moving along, but a little too slowly for my tastes. At the beginning of last school term, I was told that there was going to be a delay in getting the library room, which is currently teacher’s housing, ready. The teacher couldn’t move out until the new housing was finished and the school ran out of money to finish the new housing. Fortunately, an NGO donated the rest of the supplies to finish the housing—but that took forever. Which was just as well, because the books kept getting held up on their journey from America to Swaziland and just arrived recently, a good month after they were anticipated to arrive.
But they’re here now and there’s going to be lots of work to do if the library has a chance of being up and running by the time I leave. I anticipate my trips to the schools increasing, which is always an adventure—hitch ride with teachers in the morning—meeting at school—walk two hours home. It’s going to be a lot of work and I just hope the enthusiasm of the schools don’t wane after realizing how much work it will be.
At the end of June, I’m going to Johannesburg to take the GRE. After much pondering, I decided to pursue a career path along the lines of public history, instead of international public health. I realized that the only reason I was interested in public health was because it would allow me to work abroad again. As much as I would like to work abroad in the future, it didn’t seem like a good enough reason to pursue a career. I also can’t see myself doing international development long-term because eventually I do want a family and I don’t want to be moving my kids all over the world. That’s not to say I’m not still interested in going abroad again, but I could always do Peace Corps again.
Host family update—the baby, Petunia, who is now walking, turned one a few weeks ago. The fact that a baby that was born nine months into my service is now a year old shows me how long I’ve been here. She’s the most loving baby—always with kisses and cuddles for me. Lenhle is almost three. She alternates between being a complete sweetheart and a complete terror. She’s adorable enough to get away with being naughty though. I’ve dubbed them “the cutest baby and the cutest toddler in Swaziland.” I’m going to miss them so much when I Ieave.
And I’m off to site before it gets dark!
*My apologies to any lowveld people who might be reading this. My 95 degree days had nothing on your 120+ degree days. If I had been in your shoes, I probably would’ve ETed. You have my utmost admiration.

You know you're a PCV in Swaziland when...


1. You learned minimal siSwati during the course of two years, but you are absolutely fluent in talking about how hot it is and telling hopeful suitors that you don’t love them and don’t want a husband.
2. When your family sends you magazines and newspapers from home, you only glance at the articles and instead gaze wistfully and salivate over the food ads.
3. You celebrate Christmas in 90-120 degree temperatures and the 4th of July in 40 degree temperatures.
4. You’re so used to power outages, that when the electricity goes out at a backpackers, everyone just continues their conversation without a pause.
5. When your home football team makes it to the Super Bowl, you watch the game at two in the morning without enough beer because all liquor stores are closed on Sundays.
6. You gain a ridiculous amount of weight whenever you go on vacation to a place that has decent food.
7. People tell you that you are fat as a compliment and that you are losing weight as an insult.
8. When you eat at a restaurant, it’s a toss-up as to whether they will have the food you order.
9. You are woken up in the morning by a chorus of roosters, cows, dogs, goats and pigs.
10. People are shocked that you are the advanced age of 25 and still childless.
11. You are regularly chided for having left your parents.
12. Deadly snakes routinely pop of up on your homestead.
13. You’re ready to go to bed at 8:30.
14. You know all the characters, backstories and love triangles on Rhythm City.
15. You mostly can’t stand Swazi food, but find the mangos, avocados, oranges and guavas absolutely heavenly.
16. You arrive an hour late for a meeting and find that you’re the first one there.
17. Whenever you’re at a bar, you find yourself constantly scanning the crowd for photographers who will publish a picture of your jeans-wearing, beer-swigging self in the paper for your whole community to see.
18. Your clothes get so dirty that they turn the wash water puke brown.
19. Pretending to be married (or actually being married) does nothing to deter prospective suitors. Neither does telling them they are ugly, smelly or old.
20. Showers are an out-of-the-world experience.
21. You read the national newspaper, not for the news but for the amusement factor.
22. You fear death every time you take the public transport.
23. You make lists like these because you have nothing else to do during the evenings.

Update time


I haven’t updated in a LONG time. Here’s what’s been happening.
As I said, my computer got stolen. I don’t really want to talk about it.
I know that you may have heard about the 20/20 report on safety in the Peace Corps. While in the particular case of the volunteer in Benin who was killed, the particular country office displayed gross incompetence, I don’t feel that her story is representative of Peace Corps in general. My office is quite diligent about safety and security and our Safety and Security officer is excellent (as in, the guy has actually received awards for his work). Furthermore, for whatever reason, I seem to receive very little sexual harassment compared with other female Peace Corps Volunteers. I’ve only had only really creepy experience and that was at a backpackers in South Africa and the guy was Portuguese. On the very rare occasion when men have tried to cross the line from marriage proposals to touching (and seriously, I can probably count on one hand the number of times that has happened in 21 months) someone usually comes to my rescue and then refuses to let any men near me for months afterwards. I know I’ve complained about harassment before, but it’s out of annoyance (because repeating “I don’t love you” gets pretty old after 15 times or so) instead of feeling threatened.
So what have I been up to? Working on several projects, most of them not too successful, but one that has been very successful. For the second year in a row, Peace Corps Swaziland has taken part in Books for Africa, a program that helps bring used books from the US to schools in developing countries. Since I’m a big reader and I love books, I really wanted to do this project. I also had quite a few schools to choose from, since there are three high schools and four primary schools in my community. But I also considered carefully what factors prevent people from accessing books and information in Swaziland.
These thoughts led me a two-hour walk down the dirt road, where I found a primary and high school on the same complex. Unlike the other schools in my community that are situated right on the tar road, the area had a lack of transport to get to the tar road. This made it difficult for residents of the area to get to Manzini, where there is a public library. I also liked that the primary and high school were right next to each other, which allowed for the possibility of doing a joint library project.
Since I had connections with two of the teachers at the primary school, I approached the headmaster there first. I was a bit apprehensive, since I had tried to work with other schools in my community and had gotten a less than enthusiastic response. However the headmaster loved the idea and the next week, at a community meeting, the high school headmaster approached me and gave his full-hearted support for a joint library. They both agreed to put in the amount of work needed to bring libraries to their school.
So, what work did they have to do? Well, for starters, each school had to write an application to a committee. The application asked them to detail a plan for preparing a library room, shelving, library policies, an ongoing budget, as well as choosing a teacher-librarian and a library committee. In addition, they had to fundraise 1500 Rand for shipment of the books from South Africa to Swaziland (Peace Corps funding brought the books from the US to SA).
I started making the trip to the school once a week to check in on the progress of the application. I read and re-read the application, suggested revisions, corrected grammar and pushed for more details. However, that was the extent of my work on the application.
After weeks of meeting and edits, we turned in the application. Shortly after, we received word that not only had the school’s application been accepted, also, the selection committee was very impressed and said that my school’s application was the best. That was a good moment.
Now, we are working on preparing the library room for the arrival of books that will be coming in a few weeks. After that, we will process the books and hopefully get the library up and running quickly—I would like to see it functioning before I leave.
One of my favorite things about this project has been making connections with people at the school. As I said before, I hadn’t worked much with the schools because they haven’t seemed to care to work with me. The teachers at this school are different. They are fantastic to work with, especially the two headmasters. Not only have they become my co-workers, they are also my friends. During our planning meetings, we have gotten to know each other on a more personal basis (they even took me on a road trip around the country during Christmas break). They’re great guys and a lot of fun to be around.
I’ve also had some visits from home and been on some fun vacations recently. Right after Christmas, I went to South Africa to meet a good friend of mine, who is a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) from Thailand. We spent about five days in South Africa. We first went to St. Lucia, on the Eastern coast, where we swam and snorkeled in the Indian Ocean, saw wildlife, grilled fresh fish and generally had a great relaxing time. Then it was off to Durban to celebrate New Year’s Eve and for me to get a taste of city life. I have to say, I underestimated the appeal Durban would have for someone who actually LIVES in the US. If I had to do it over again, I would have spent the time taking my friend on a more lengthy safari and gone to Durban with other PCVs. Things like tall buildings, awesome Indian food and the ability to party without fear of getting your picture in the newspaper are just not that thrilling for someone who lives outside of Swaziland. Nevertheless, I had a good time.
After a few days, we headed to Swaziland for a week spending time in my community and traveling around the country. My friend got a taste of Swaziland PCV life, which is apparently quite different (aka, more hard-core) from Thailand PCV life. She really enjoyed though, meeting different people around my community and hanging out with my little sisters. We also made a few trips around the country—to a game reserve where we saw rhinos and elephants, but sadly, no lions, and to another game reserve, where we shopped for crafts, rode horses and saw a lot of beautiful scenery.
The other visit/vacation I’ve had recently was only a few weeks ago when my cousin came to visit. We spent the first week in Swaziland, doing most of the same things we did when my friend visited, but getting to do even more because my cousin rented a car. We also hung out in my community a fair amount and he met a bunch of different people—he got along particularly well with my counterpart. But we did get to have a country club swim and pizza with couple friends of mine, visited my training family (which I hadn’t done in a year and I realized how much I’d missed them) and drinks with another friend of mine and her boyfriend who was visiting. We even got to stay in an apartment for a night because the guesthouse messed up our reservation—we each got our own room and bathroom and I haven’t had that much comfort and privacy in well over a year. Funny the things I used to take for granted…
Then, we headed for Cape Town. I had been wanting to go back pretty much since I had left and the city did not disappoint. Ate too much, drank too much and spent way too much of my birthday money, but I had a great time doing it. I finally got to do a wine tour and between the four bottles I brought that day and the four bottles of microbrew I brought back, I pretty much filled my suitcase with booze. Went shark-cage diving (something I hadn’t even considered due to the price, but my cousin wanted to do it and paid for it) and saw so many sharks—super cool, despite embarrassingly puking off the side of the boat. Never going on a boat without motion sickness medication again. Went to my favorite restaurant from the first visit and sadly, they did not have pots of mussels this time—the beer was still good though. Hiked up Table Mountain in the blazing heat and didn’t have the energy to hike back down. Thank god for cable cars. Gorged myself on food at the weekly food market. Gorged myself on food in general—Thai, Ethiopian, Greek, sushi. Spent some time just hanging out at the backpackers—they had an awesome staff and cheap beer (Big Blue Backpackers, in case anyone is looking for a recommendation—a free airport pick-up, good deals of tours, helpful staff, clean bathrooms, great location and the aforementioned cheap beer).
I feel like with both visits, I achieved a better balance of Swaziland/vacation time then I did when my parents and Matthew visited. My big regret was that I did not plan enough time in Swaziland with them (four days, as opposed to two weeks in SA) and with both of my subsequent visitors, I planned a week, which was perfect. My advice to any Group 9ers who may be reading this, when planning family and friend visits, plan for about a week in Swaziland—it gives you time to introduce your visitor to the community and also do fun, touristy things in-country. You save money that way too.
And yes, I am winding down my service—only four months to go. But since this entry has become a bit of a monster already, I’ll save my combination excitement/terror/happiness/sadness about closing my service for a later date. I’ll just say that I cannot believe that two years are almost up. Where did the time go?

Questions I commonly get asked in Swaziland


Who are you? Who gave you this name? Where do come from? Can I go to America with you? Where are you coming from? Where are you going to? What are you doing here? Where is your boyfriend? Where is your husband? Where is your baby? Why do you not have a boyfriend/husband/baby? When will you have a boyfriend/husband/baby? Can I be your husband? Can I have your number? Can I visit you at your home? Why not? WHYYY NOOOOTTT??? Will you marry my brother? If you don’t have a boyfriend, what do you do about sex? Are you a virgin? Why do you walk so far? Where is your car? Why do you not buy one? Can you buy me a car? Can you buy me sweets? Can you give me money? Can you give me a job? Can you give me food? Do you eat Swazi food? Are your parents still alive? Don’t you miss them? Why do they let you come here? Do you know Obama? Do you like Obama? Do you know [insert name of any popular African-American rap artist here]

Finally finished the SA narrative


Our second day of safari was quite chilly, but we still had a great time, seeing the usual lions and elephants and also a leopard. Between drives, my mom and I took a village tour in a neighboring community and it was interesting to see the similarities and differences between a rural Swazi community and a South African one. The local language, Xangan, had some similarities to siSwati too.
Third day, saw more of the array of animals I was starting to get accustomed to.
With our safari adventure behind us, we took off for Pretoria to catch the Rovos train that would take us to Cape Town. We had hoped to meander through some of the beautiful scenery between Kruger and Pretoria, but we found out that the drive took all day. We rolled into Pretoria as it was getting dark and found our guesthouse. We were shown to our house and found out that it was F.W. De Klerk’s house. (Sidenote: I was a lot more impressed by this when I thought De Klerk was a white liberal who fought for rights of black South Africans, not a guy who eventually did the right thing, but only after being under much pressure. I don’t understand why he got the Nobel Peace Prize. End sidenote.) Anyway, the next day, I was hoping we would have some time to walk around Pretoria before we had to go to the train station-it is a lovely city-but as usual, we ran out of time. Oh well, maybe someday I’ll get sick enough that I’ll get to go there for medical care on the US government’s dime.
The Rovos train station was a bit overwhelming for someone who had been living in the Swazi bush for the past 14 months. As I sipped my complimentary champagne and snacked on little tea sandwiches, I thought about how old school colonial South African this was. Aboard the train, Matthew and I explored our cabin-it was small, but amazingly comfortable. We ordered sodas (for him) and whiskey (for me) and settled down for some reading and relaxation until dinner.
If we were already a bit bloated after eating five meals a day at Kruger, it was clear this trip wasn’t going to help us lose the extra pounds. We sat down to a three-course dinner, complete with any wine we wanted, and the food was absolutely amazing. During those few days, I had mozzarella and tomato tarts (upscale comfort food), lobster tails with butter sauce, chocolate mousse and cheese and cake to snack on every tea time. Formal attire was required for dinner, and it was really fun to put on a pretty dress and heels and feel all glam again.
Our two days on the train included two excursions, family game time in the observation car during the afternoon, getting to reread my favorite books from childhood that I mooched off Matthew, and of course, cocktails and champagne all day. It was very relaxing in beautiful settings and it was great to have some uninterrupted family time.
We got into Cape Town late at night, and my family ordered out a pizza for dinner. I, however, couldn’t even look at it, after stuffing my face at both Kruger and on the train. I had to leave the room. I think my stomach had shrunk since being in Swaziland. I did manage to recover, however, and eat plenty in the next week, which I will discuss in excruciating detail in the paragraphs coming up.*
Our guesthouse was great, in a beautiful setting on the slopes of Table Mountain. The staff organized tours for us, the rooms were large and comfortable and most importantly, a cooked-to-order breakfast was included every morning. So yeah, if you’re going to Cape Town and you can afford it, I recommend the Four Rosemead Guesthouse.
Our first day was really beautiful, so we decided to do our Table Mountain visit when the weather was still good. We took the cable car up the Mountain and then took all the typical touristy pictures on top. We walked around the top, oohing and ahhhing over the views for a few hours and then we headed back to our guesthouse to get ready for dinner. We had booked for what many people call the best steakhouse in Cape Town. Not having had a nice, juicy steak since November 2009, I was quite happy.
The next day, my mom wasn’t feeling well, so we didn’t do too much. Matthew and I went to a really good aquarium on the waterfront and then came back. My dad and Matthew stayed at the guesthouse and relaxed while I went exploring. I wandered down Kloof and Long streets, which I would liken to State Street in Madison. Lots of restaurants, bars, and quirky shops. My favorite find was a store that sold products made from community projects in the townships and rural areas-really beautiful stuff. It was just fun to walk down a street like that again and just browse. Then I returned to the guesthouse and took a swim with Matthew. We ordered out dinner that night and Matthew and I got Chinese food and sushi-both things you can’t find much of in Swaziland.
The next day, my mom was feeling better, which was good because we had a full schedule. We got picked out early for a township tour. The first part took us to the District 6 museum, which depicts the historical of the multiracial District 6, which was declared a whites-only area under apartheid and razed to the ground. Now, let me mention that I LOVE museums, especially historical museums, so I got a lot out of this particular museum. It was well curated and told the stories of the former residents of District 6 well.
The township part of the tour took us to the deprived black townships east of the city. There were some shocking parts, like the squatter camps where people were stuffed into madeshift shacks fashioned from cardboard boxes and scraps of tin. I actually feel that the poverty in Swaziland is worse than the poverty in those areas-at least in the townships they have toilets and water, even if they have to share facilities with many other people-but in Swaziland, people have their space. They might be poor, but at least they can be poor on a decent plot of land with fresh air.
But it wasn’t all like that. There were some pretty nice home, with yards, and the infrastructure wasn’t that bad-stores and what looked like decent transport.
After the tour, we headed for the waterfront, where we stopped for lunch at a German restaurant and I got to have a glass of really delicious beer. Yum. Then we boarded the ferry for our tour of Robben Island, which is the prison where Nelson Mandela was held for 18 of his 27 years as a political prisoner. The first part of the tour was a bus tour of the island itself, where our tour guide (who, by the way, was really smart and cute, I fell a little in love) talked about not just the history of the island, but about what it’s like to live as a young person in the first generation of post-apartheid South Africa.
The second part of the tour was the tour of the prison itself. All the tour guides on Robben Island are former political prisoners, which is obviously quite interesting to hear firsthand about prison life. We saw the cell Mandela was held in and also the cells of other political prisoners.
Then came dinner, which turned out to be my favorite meal of the trip. We went to a Belgium restaurant, where I ate goat’s cheese wrapped in bacon, a pot of fresh mussels with frites and chocolate mousse** and I sampled several kinds of fabulous beer and an Irish coffee, which was better than Irish coffee that I have had in Ireland. (My mom looked at me when I ordered double whiskey*** and asked if I would be able to bring myself to return to Swaziland. I said I wasn’t sure.)
The next day was a beautiful, blue sky day and since Matthew was beginning to lag with all the grown-up activities, we decided to go to the Castle of Good Hope, a centuries-old fort. The fort didn’t hold that much of interest to me, but it was fun to see my nephew having a great time running around, pretending to shoot off cannons and playing make believe. Later that afternoon, my mom and I sent the boys back to the hotel and wandered around Greenmarket Square, stopping to have a drink (margaritas, yum!) and soak up the atmosphere.
The following day was another beautiful day, so we took advantage of it and headed for Boulders Beach to see some penguins. There’s a huge colony of jackass penguins there and they of course provide for much amusement and photo opps. Then we headed for the swimming beach. The Atlantic Ocean at Cape Town is pretty frigid under the best of circumstances and this was still winter. Needless to say, my mom, Matthew and I FROZE. (My father did not participate and waited, fully clothed while pondering that his family had gone insane.) Despite the cold, it was nice to splash around in the ocean again, and it was certainly an invigorating experience.
On our last day in Cape Town, we finally ran into bad luck with weather—it was rainy and cold all day. Despite that, my mom and I walked down to the National Gallery, which had a great collection of classic and contemporary art, including some pretty disturbing piece pertaining to Apartheid. We couldn’t linger too long though, since Matthew had his heart set on a sushi lunch. The restaurant served some fabulous fresh sushi and I savored it—since I knew I would not be getting it in Swaziland.
The next morning, my flight back to Swaziland left early, with my family leaving for the long journey back to the US a few hours later. It was an emotional goodbye, since I’m not sure when I’ll see them again. On the drive to the airport, Matthew snuggled up next to me, and I just sat still, breathing in the last of the little boyness. He’ll be 12 when I’m back in the US permanently, and far too old for snuggles from his aunt. Kids are the hardest to leave. They change so much in a short period of time.

Overall, a fantastic trip. I would recommend cape Town to anyone.


*I realize that these entries probably make me sound like I belong in Overeaters Anonymous, but really, I’d just been horribly deprived and I was making up for it. Especially since it was on Ma and Pa de Fiebre’s tab.
**Then again, maybe I’ll become a travel writer whose entire experience is defined by food. A female Anthony Boudion, if you will.
***I also realize that these entries make me sound like a raging alcoholic, but you try drinking Castle Stout beer for a year and see if you don’t try to indulge when you have the chance.

South Africa Synopsis


...over two months late. I don't have a computer anymore. Deal.

We crossed the border into South Africa, via Kruger. The drive was generally long and boring, the scenery not very interesting. What was interesting (and kinda sad) was to see the extreme wealth gap. We drove past areas that could have come out from the wealthier parts of the United States and areas that could have been in the poorer parts of Swaziland. Subsistence farm exisited side-by-side with massive commercial farming operations. Crumbling shacks stood next to big, modern houses. We drove through developed, Westernized towns, with their McDonalds and car dealerships and towns that looked exactly like the small towns I live by in Swaziland.

We arrived at the game park lodge in early evening. I was pretty astonded by all their was to offer. Gorgeous rooms with massive bathrooms. Private decks and plunge pools. Fully stocked minibars. We sipped cocktails with the other lodge guests and then sat down to a delicious three-course meal. However, our meal was interrupted by some excitement-lions took down a water buffalo only about 100 yards from where we were eating. We proceeded to pile into safari vehicles and have a look. There were about three or four lions enjoying the feast. A leopard tried to join and was promptly chased off by the lions. All in all, it was an eventful first night.

To be continued...

family visit


Posting from my sojo article. My computer was stolen, so it's been difficult to update. Enjoy!

What do you get when you take an older couple, one half of which never wanted to come to Africa, and a 10-year old boy and you plop them down in the middle of Swaziland?

One might think you would get a screwball comedy, filled with hijinks and hilarity. And yes, parts of my parent’s and nephew, Matthew’s visit to Swaziland was pretty funny. But the best part was to see Swaziland through their eyes-to see what I love about Swaziland, my community and the people in it reflected back.

The adventure started a sunny Wednesday morning. My family had just arrived in Swaziland the night before, after a long drive in from South Africa. After a refreshing night’s sleep, breakfast and shower (!) we headed for my community, in hopes of A) meeting my host family, B) getting my gas tank refilled, C) picking up Sophia, my Group 8 mentee and D) attending a support group meeting.

We did not accomplish any of the above.

At some point during the drive to my site, I realized that although I know how to get around the country by public transport, I have no idea how to get around by car. But no problem, because we had a GPS. Except that the GPS kept getting us lost.

After several wrong turns, we finally made it to my community, deciding to put off meeting my family and getting my gas until tomorrow. We rolled into town in our white SUV and piled out to say hello to Make at the produce stand. Make sells produce, speaks excellent English and chases away drunks who try to harass me. “The men love her, but I don’t let them near her!” Make declares to my mother. “Thank you SO MUCH,” my mother says. Make apologizes for her English, saying that she is not well-educated. My father, whose language skills probably include about five words of a second language, shakes his head. “I’ve met many people who are well educate, who have multiple degrees, and let me tell you, they are not as smart as you,” he tells Make.

After a short visit, we pile back into the car to pick up Sophia and head to my support group meeting. Before we can roll out, there’s a knock on the car window. A man points to one of our back tires, which is completely flat. We don’t know what the do, so I call my counterpart. He shows up in a matter of minutes, takes us to an auto shop and takes care of pretty much everything. I’m running late for my support group meeting, so we send a cab for Sophia and I bid goodbye to my family and take off walking.

The next day, my family gets to meet a few Group 7 volunteers and a whole slew of Group 8 volunteers in Manzini. Then, we head back, with Sophia, to my homestead. My American and Swazi families finally meet and it’s better than I could have ever expected. I leave them alone to take Sophia to the stesh. I get her on the right bus and come back to the sounds of giggling children. Matthew is playing with Lenhle, my two-year old sisi, and she is clearly quite enthralled with him. My father is holding my other little sisi, four-month old Petunia. He’s enjoying it so much, that I feel compelled to remind him that more grandchildren are NOT in the near future. He gets along just as well with my Mkhulu, the two of them chatting it up all afternoon.
Day 3 of the visit, and I decide to take my family to the church I attend with my family to meet the pastor. There’s an NCP at the church, so I tell Matthew to bring along his little football, in case some of the children want to play. The kids look at him warily and he looks disappointed. “It’s all girls,” he complains. I locate one of the few boys there and gesture to Matthew to toss me his football. I toss it to the boy and indicate that he should throw it to Matthew. He does, and the other children perk up with interest. Before long, my nephew is engaged in a full-fledged game of catch with the children at the NCP. It is one of the coolest things I’ve experienced in Swaziland. He can’t communicate with the kids, but no words are needed.

Later that day, we visit a neighboring homestead, one that is undeniably poor, but not destitute. We have a great time and, as always, everyone hits it off. When we’re leaving, my father asks me if this is the poorest family in my community. I’m shocked by the question, of how different our perceptions of poverty are, of how MY perception has changed so much in this past year.

Day 4 is spent with my host family, who cooks for all of us, even though I’ve told them that they don’t have to. When we are ready to depart, I ask my little sisi for a hug. She shakes her head and runs straight to Matthew, with open arms. I’d been replaced, but the scene in front of me is too cute for me to care.

We stop again at the produce market to say goodbye to Make. Matthew helps Make package produce for her customers and she chats with my mother. They realize they both have big feet. My mother offers to send her old shoes to Make.

The whole time, my family can’t stop talking about how friendly and welcoming and kind everyone is. I agree with them-the wonderful people in my community are what make me love Swaziland, but it’s nice to see that reaffirmed.

The day of our departure from Swaziland. We go through customs and cross the border into South Africa. “Goodbye Swaziland,” my mother says. “I liked you.”

As excited as I am for South Africa, my first real Peace Corps vacation, I’m sad to leave too. There was something so wonderful about seeing my two worlds-my American and my Swazi-blend together so well.

Here, it’s easy to get depressed and discouraged. Apathy, harassment and lack of motivation all can make me wonder why I chose to do this. But my family’s visit and seeing how much they enjoyed Swaziland, how much they, just like me, fell in love with the wonderful, friendly people, re-energized me and reminded me that the good outweighs the bad.

As Peace Corps volunteers we can’t change Swaziland during our two years here. We can’t solve all the problems. But we can build relationship, both with Swazis ourselves and also building a bridge between cultures. My family’s visit made me think that slowly, the bridge is being built.