Thursday, January 19, 2012

Nov. 30: I had 100% attendance at my first peer education meeting and everyone completed all of their surveys targeting out-of-school youth! Woo hoo!

Dec. 4-8: Today marks my last Peace Corps conference and is a time to reflect on our past two years and start to process everything we’ve seen and done. It was so validating to set aside four days to pat each other on the back for surviving and (sometimes) thriving. I honestly came away so invigorated I wanted to extend my service! Don’t worry it was short lived haha.

Dec. 11-18: My friend Ashley just finished her Peace Corps service in Madagascar and came to visit me for a little while in SA. We spent some time marveling at all the commercialism in the capitol then came back to my village where I had a World AIDS Day Girls Fun Day event a few days later. We did some of the most successful sessions from my peer education training not to mention tons of crafts and topped it off with a movie. It was a big hit.

Dec. 22-29: We then joined Leah and headed out to Mozambique. We started our journey at 4:30am when we woke up after only a handful of hours asleep the night before and quickly got ready to catch the bus. Well my host mom told me the bus leaves at 5:30 but we saw it zoom down the dirt road at 5:00 and I was ready to throw in the towel when my host sister screamed to run. I left my friends in the dust as I had packed light and screamed for the bus to stop. Running half a mile was half a mile longer than I’ve run in a long time so between gasps I pleaded with the bus driver to wait for my friends and pointed to where they were on the path. He refused but I insisted saying that first I needed to pay, right? He agreed and I made a big show out of not knowing the price, not finding money, batting my eyelashes, whatever I could so that he would wait for the slow pokes. The next bus came in three hours which would really mess up our travel plans so my charm had to work. Luckily, it did and we made it to Vryheid, the next white town over which in Afrikaans means freedom (from black people). We arrived at 6:00am in a bus packed with black people and set out to find some breakfast before the car rental place opened. Once satiated, we went to Europcar where we had to wait an hour as they lost our reservation. Once in the rental car, the air conditioning broke as soon as we hit the highway but fortunately I brought Christmas cds to lighten the mood. (Not that any of us were accustomed to air conditioning in the first place). When we got to Nelspruit, about five hours away, the Europcar we booked to return our car to was out of business. We then drove two hours out of our way to the airport location but eventually we made it onto a bush taxi to Maputo, the capitol of Mozambique.

Though slow moving it was smooth sailing until we reached the border where we drove through what looked like a refugee camp. This seemingly endless array of tents and women and children in dirty rags is where we sat for six hours while waiting to cross the border. It wasn’t the heat that got me as I soaked through my clothes 16 hours ago but the hoards of young boys that would open the door and windows and thrust things at you, beg you, grab you, plead with you to buy something. Empathy turned into irritation and worse as I grew more and more exhausted, flabbergasted that a passport stamp could take so long to administer. It was quickly apparent that in addition to the official stamp the bush taxis were shuffled into many other stopping points where the police made no attempt to hide the bribes they asked for and always received, their pockets bulging with money of many currencies. Once in Maputo we were determined to make it to our destination, Quissico, though it was already almost midnight. I had misunderstood the owner while en route to Maputo and we waited in vain for her arrival for several minutes before I thought to confirm our carpool. She snickered at my naïveté. Panicked, I called around to the local hostels and found one with three available beds and we headed out at dawn for our trip to Quissico.

I don’t quite know what we would have done if our private taxi driver we hired to take us from the hostel to the bus station didn’t walk us up to the appropriate bus. Not only do none of us speak Portuguese but it was a mob scene unlike anything I or my two friends had ever experienced. Kids were getting pulled under, people were getting more and more aggressive as the seats started filling up, the men taking full advantage of the onslaught of desperate women. I don’t know how many times I felt someone reach their hand into my purse whose zipper broke a few minutes before but luckily I learned long ago not to keep anything of value easily accessible. Somehow we made it on the bus without any blood and all with legitimate seats. This was all to the taxi driver’s credit who begged for twenty minutes on our behalf. The bus driver literally had to pull us onboard as people were trying to drag us back off. Once moving, the six hour long journey was uneventful.

When we arrived we waited another three hours for the owners to take us the 10 km to the lodge. Auspiciously, we all had two years of experience in painful and entertaining transport fiascos so though frustrating and comical, didn’t ruin our trip. An ongoing frustrating and comical aspect of the trip was the owners of the lodge we stayed at. Wow. The man’s about my age, very tan, perpetually dirty, never wearing a shirt or shoes, always high and oftentimes drunk. Because of the copious amounts of pot he smoked fairly openly he was always running, literally running, from task to task but never managing to get anything done. I’m sure the fact that he got any task completed at all was considered a victory in his book. His girlfriend, on the other hand, was at least ten years his senior, had an adopted three year old child and was so by the book it was a detriment to their business and sometimes beyond logic. It became evident early on in our stay at this small lodge that we were watching the demise of their relationship in real time.

The lodge itself was beautiful. It was in the middle of a rural village, on a lagoon that felt like swimming in a large bath tub in a setting fitting the epitome of the clichéd postcard. It was an eco-lodge which meant no electricity but there were lanterns everywhere which made it very picturesque. The open floor plan of minimalist earth tones and African art reminded me of how I want my own home to be decorated one day.

After an awfully stressful week leading up to this trip, I was more than happy to vegetate on the lagoon, reading profuse amounts of mindless magazines and gossiping about the owners with my girlfriends. Also, since the lodge was so small we became fast friends with the other patrons, all of whom made interesting company. Because we were hours away from any tourist attraction, restaurant or grocery store, Christmas was a low-key affair but wonderful nonetheless.

But after a week’s worth of beach R&R it was time to head back to my South African reality. After a fortuitous meeting with a good PCV friend, Farah, Ashley and I decided to head down to Durban, the third largest South African city, for
New Years. There we ate amazing food and danced the night away before I headed back to my village.

1/1-1/19: Towards the end of my vacation, I started to long for village life and was more than happy to get back to the slow pace of life. I missed my ungrounded hot plate, my pee bucket, the mangy dogs, not to mention my wonderful host family and projects. Everything except perhaps the flies which I’m sure have it in for me. I feel like Pig Pen in the Charlie Brown cartoon. And there is absolutely no evolutionary need for them to constantly be dive-bombing my face! They’re full of spite those flies!

Well other than the flies taking what’s left of my sanity, the past few weeks have been pretty uneventful. My org has only opened its doors a few times as nobody’s gotten paid in a long time and they’re fed up with going to work without any real hope of a paycheck. I don’t blame them. I’ve been working on paperwork tied to the grants I was awarded and job hunting. It’s been keeping me pretty busy.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Nov. 15-17: Today signaled the beginning of my much anticipated peer education training. I spent all day yesterday (and most of the night) in last minute preparations most of which were unnecessary as I’ve been preparing for weeks. But it was just as well as I wouldn’t be able to sleep at a reasonable hour anyway. Not only do I love facilitating trainings but I really believe in this program. The three day training went even better than expected. Everyone who committed to come did and all were early (a point I emphasized to show respect towards yours truly). I handed out two playing cards a day to each participant who in turn returned one each time they participated in a session. It was a great way to get everyone involved. One of the most memorable sessions for me was one where I asked them to get into pairs. I then gave each pair three index cards that said no risk, low risk and high risk respectively. I followed that by reading a statement or action and they had to decide the risk of HIV transmission. Because they would turn in their index cards face down I was able to get everyone’s genuine opinion rather than one dominant person confident in their HIV knowledge answering every question. There was not one statement I read that all the pairs answered correctly. It was really quite shocking and sparked many healthy debates. Whether or not you can transmit HIV by means of a toilet seat or kissing were some of the most highly contested. It was so empowering to see the wheels of change in progress and to know I was a part of starting those wheels to turn. I really tried to stress to the participants that they can be in the driver’s seat of their own lives. What so often happens here is a mindset of hopelessness and self-defeat that winds up being a self-fulfilling prophesy. But if you feel like you have the power to make choices about your own life and you take back some small sense of power and control over your future you are more likely to lead a healthy life. To put it even simpler, if you believe you have choices than you’re more likely to make healthy ones. With a culture of fear, silence and stigma surrounding AIDS I needed them to really hear me. I said over and over again, “I am empowering you with facts so that you can pass them along to your friends and family and save their lives. Your former president said many things that counter what I’ve told you and now I’m sure you don’t know who to believe. I’m begging you to choose me. If taking traditional medicine or bathing after sex prevented HIV everyone in the world would be doing it! Everyone.” I could see people start to nod their heads. They were getting it. I’m addicted to that feeling, the feeling of understanding, it’s a high better than any drug. Nov. 20-28: I spent a week in Cape Town of which I spent the majority trying to find a way to stay longer in Cape Town. I absolutely fell in love with that city. Leah and I rented a car and started in Hermanus which is a sleepy coastal town known for whale watching. Hermanus, like Stellenbosch our next stop, looks like you just walked off a movie set it’s so quaint and charming. We found this great local bar our first night with awesome live music and then met up with friends we made the night before to tour a facility whose goal is to curb poaching. Sadly, the Chinese and Japanese are willing to pay South Africans ten times what they would make as day laborers so there is no shortage of interested applicants. We then kayaked with whales and headed over to Stellenbosch where we went on an all day wine tour. We made friends with a wonderful British couple whose contact information I accidentally threw away as they wrote it on my take-away box. We were sad to leave picturesque Stellenbosch but I was determined to go to Seal Island which, you guessed it, is an island full of seals. It was really quite magical. We then took Chapman’s Peak Drive, a beautiful coastal highway, down to the Cape of Good Hope where we woke up early on Thanksgiving morning and hiked around. We somehow beat the crowds and had the trails to ourselves at the southern most point in Africa. Next, we drove to Simon’s Town to see the penguin colony and then it was off to Cape Town proper for a lavish meal and a sunset sailboat cruise. We worked off our un-traditional Thanksgiving feast the next day by hiking Table Mountain and picnicking at the top. We then treated ourselves to a day of gluttonous shopping and more amazing food and live music before our final day which we spent at Robben Island where they kept political prisoners from the apartheid era including Nelson Mandela. Both of our tour guides were former inmates who explained their life in this work camp/prison in a way that is impossible to forget.

Friday, December 9, 2011

10/17-28: I translated for One Sight these past two weeks which is the philanthropic arm of Lens Optica which owns Lens Crafters, Pearle Vision and Sunglass Hut. It sends eye doctors to developing countries to run eye health exams and give away glasses. They also found a South African doctor that would do any surgeries they found needed to be done for free. We saw a thousand people a day. I was translating in the eye health room and we saw patient after patient with horrible stories of untreated infections, corneal damage from five decades worth of work outside, many, many burns and glazed over blue, rheumy eyes from untreated cataracts. Sadly, many of those patients were beyond treatment but it was so wonderful to see so many people who before were unable to read the big ‘E’ on the eye charts now seeing 20/20. I’ve been feeling a bit burnt out lately and it was exactly what I needed to have that instant gratification and to feel truly needed every minute of the day. Amazing. 11/8: Today in girls club we talked about a woman’s body: menstruation, puberty, that kind of thing. The girls seemed really engaged though they wouldn’t dare ask questions let alone make eye contact with me. I know they were listening though. We then made necklaces and they were a huge hit. 11/9: I was shocked to see so many women I didn’t recognize at my org today seeing as though I’m usually sitting with just two or three other women. When I asked around I discovered that all 21 of these women were here for the support group for women living with AIDS. Now to back up, last year around this time I taught a series of workshops to the caregivers the last of which was an all-day session on how to form a support group. It was the last workshop in the series and I didn’t think too much of the seemingly apathetic stares I was receiving. I tried in vain to encourage interest in forming a support group especially because they were lying about having four functional support groups on their monthly reports. Nobody cared about all the untruths as most if not all of their reports are fabricated and everyone dismissed the idea of a support group claiming it would be impossible to find interested people as the stigma here is so high. But against all odds, they had been coordinating a group slowly but surely all this time and today was their first meeting. They’re even planning on coming back tomorrow to start a community garden! It is part of life here in Africa that your emotions are always on a rollercoaster ride. After the realization that some of my words might have actually resonated with someone I went back home with a bounce in my step to shoot the breeze with Thobi on my front stoop. As the hours passed with UNO and cloud watching, she went into the hut where her brother and cousin were hanging out. Her cousin ran her out and took off his belt and beat her bloody. With no explanation. I was screaming at him to stop which he eventually did and I used all of my White power in the hierarchy to make sure he didn’t come around for a while. My exact words were: “Does this make you feel powerful?! Beating up little girls until they’re crying hysterically in a pool of blood?! Do you feel like a man?! You need to leave and don’t come back for a very long time. I will never forget you did this.” Before that horrible incident, Thobi and I were listening to Beyonce’s new album, her favorite artist, and she was still sobbing when the last track played a girls empowerment anthem. She didn’t want to talk about what happened insisting she was fine probably assuming they’d just blend in with all her previous scars from men taking out their anger at the world on someone less powerful. As the CD played several versions of the last song the lyrics stayed the same, “Who will run the world? Girls. Girls.” I closed my door and cried. 11/10: I came early for girls club and I tried to talk to one of the teachers about a possible World AIDS Day event at his school. Though interested in the concept, he said he just found out that his brother and best friend just died ‘after being sick’ which is often code for living with AIDS. He must have been looking for a listening ear because he went on to say that both of his parents and now all four of his brothers have passed away. He was an orphan at 30. More difficult than that he says was this brother was the only one who called him, his best friend, not to mention his only friend. “I am so alone. Lost, I feel a bit lost.” He said he’s going to go home to raise his brother’s kids with his kids. “Why does everyone keep having kids when so many people are dying? Everyone’s dead. I have no one. What’s the point? My brother, my brother…is dead….and I’ll never talk to him again. Everyone is dying in this place. Everyone. My whole family is dead Lindelwa!!” “I don’t know what to say,” I said, “but maybe his kids will give you hope for a better tomorrow.” Silently I was wondering if that were true. After talking about alcohol abuse today in girls club, instead of doing the craft one of the girls made me a card that said, “You are the woman I admire.” My heart melted. 11/11: It has been two weeks since we’ve served food with our daily hot meal program. The staff explained that the company selling cooking gas was on strike. This seemed more than plausible as there was always someone on strike. But when I vented to my PCV friends in the area they had never heard about it. I then asked around and people just looked at me quizzically. After several days worth of investigation, I bluffed my way through a tense discussion with Tshengie. But it wasn’t enough. Time for drastic measures. I read her and the Management Committee the Riot Act, eliciting graphic if not a bit exaggerated images of our food program’s saddest clients and how their greed is leaving these children with empty stomachs. But in the end it wasn’t their guilt or empathy that broke them down but the fact that I rocked the boat and they wanted to steady it again. They knew I meant business. There was a tank full of cooking gas the very next day. 11/12: Today I put up the four foot tall Christmas tree complete with lights and garland that I got in the mail from my family in March. I love everything Christmas and I don’t care that its weeks before Thanksgiving, I’ve already listened to Mariah Carey’s Christmas album three times through. Thobi peeked her head in looking for some sweets but when she saw this bizarre thing in my room she was a bit unconcern. She knew it was a Christmas tree but had never seen one up close and didn’t know what to make of it. She gathered the half dozen kids milling about our compound and I turned the lights on. Everyone screamed then started jumping up and down and hugging each other. Thobi said she’d never seen something so beautiful. I told her she could touch it but she was scared. She hadn’t stopped smiling. After everyone took their spots under the tree to stare in a more comfortable position with their necks craned and their eyes like saucers Thobi got up the courage to ask as casually as she could if I was planning on bringing the tree back with me to America. I said no. Everyone started hugging again. A little girl I’d never met was crying. The Christmas season never ceases to amaze me.

Monday, October 10, 2011

9/12: I went to an event that I thought was an awareness campaign and was encouraged to dress in traditional dress only to find out it was a micro-credit group’s monthly meeting. Duped again.

9/14: Today in GLOW club was Part 2 Honoring Your Body: Exercise. After my lesson we played some goofy relay race games and then I taught them this fun game I thought my youth group leader made up called Spud. The girls let me finish the instructions before they said they play this game all the time. Small world.

9/15: Today was a soul-crushing day for after spending an embarrassingly large amount of time planning this peer educator training I talked about on 9/9 only five people came to my informational meeting. I went so far as to submit an extremely long proposal to a group back home interested in funding this project so this basically can’t fail. To make matters worse, I gave this long, drawn-out, impassioned, soapbox worthy speech last week to the Caregivers who were delegated with bringing 1-3 charismatic youth today. Apparently, this rallying cry was met with complete and utter apathy. I usually can get at least a dozen people to show up if not just to humor me then out of pity but today was quite the exception. Will drown my sorrows in copious amounts of chocolate.

9/17: Thobi, my 11 year old host sister has been talking about her school trip to Durban, the provincial capital, for months. She had a rough week because when she went to Vryheid, the nearest White town, a few days ago, a young White girl about her age who was walking with her mother pointed to her and said, “Look Mom, that girl looks like a monkey.” Not only does Thobi not look like a monkey but is, in fact, in the running to win her elementary school’s beauty pageant this year (yes, the local elementary schools have beauty pageants).

It was her first time to experience a city and she got her hair braided and bought ‘new’ shoes off the side of the street for the occasion. When she came back today I asked her to tell me all about it. She talked about her first time in an aquarium, how there were fish that looked like snakes and bubbles and rainbows. I remember her whispering to me when I saw her off on Thursday morning that her mom gave her some pocket money so I asked what she spent it on. She started crying and said that she was mugged and the wallet her mom lent her was stolen. Now that criminal must either have no soul or just be that desperate to rob a village girl on a school trip by knife point. May his karma forever be affected.

9/20-22: I went to a fellow PCV’s site for a few days to observe her vision screening program. She’s trained people in her community to perform a basic vision test and she’s in the middle of facilitating these vision drives for 35 schools in her area. She will then refer the children with poor vision to a group of Western doctors who will come next month. Now her organization has far more resources than mine with three illiterate grannies but I still feel confident that I could replicate the basic screening she does and refer the necessary children to the local optometrist who’s agreed to see them for free. I’m excited!

9/25: Thobi, my 11 year old host sister, and I were playing cards when she asked me:
Thobi: Why do white people hate black people?
Me: Why do you think they do?
Thobi: I really don’t know.
Me: Well, I don’t think all white people hate black people. What about me, do you think I hate black people?
Thobi: Yes.
Me: Really, why do you think that, honey?
Thobi: Because you’re white.
Me: Well, do you think I hate you, you’re black?
Thobi: No. (Laughs).
Me: We don’t hate each other because we’re not looking on the outside; we’re looking on the inside.
Thobi: I’m glad that you don’t hate black people.
Me: I am too. Then we couldn’t be friends which would be sad.

9/27: So many people came to the second attempt at an informational meeting for my peer educational training that we ran out of chairs! And I gave my impassioned speech about an HIV free generation and people were engaged and excited. Yes!

9/29: I was asked to teach 9th grade math which is comical in and of itself seeing as though I can barely remember how to do long division, but it got even better when I talked to the math teacher and he suggested I teach during the afternoons which are designated as 'free study time,' when I inquired about a textbook and syllabus he said he doesn't use a textbook, just his brain, and the 'syllabus' is the rubric for the government's quarterly standardized test. Oh and he doesn't bother teaching anything that's worth less than 30% on the standardized test...that leaves five concepts. So when I gave them a pre-test on those five concepts they've apparently been learning since January I was mildly surprised that the average was about a 20%.

10/3: I was genuinely shocked when one of the teachers suggested they come in during their school break this week to study math and even more shocked when they agreed. So today I went there in the rain thinking optimistically that maybe 3 people would show. All but five students came and walked an average of an hour each way in the rain to come. Oh and they asked if I'd please come back tomorrow. Seriously.

10/4: My host siblings and I literally danced around my room for two hours Stepmom style, Kodak would be proud.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

9/1: Today I had my best GLOW club meeting yet. When I was home I heard Beyonce’s latest single, “Run the World (Girls)” and regardless of your affinity for the Top 40 (or lack thereof) I think you’d appreciate her attempt at a girl’s anthem. The girls in my village worship her and for her to say lyrics like, “Who runs the world? Girls,” was incredibly empowering. I played it for them today and one of the girls said, “I always think girls are just good for cooking and cleaning but Beyonce just said that girls can run the world. Maybe they can.” We talked about what the women in our lives taught us about school, careers, our appearance, marriage and children. We then made collages out of old magazines I got in care packages and the girls chose pictures of women and girls they admired and then presented them. Many of the girls wrote, “Girls run the world” in crayon on their papers. It was one of those days where I could just see the pieces of the puzzle clicking together in many of the girls’ heads. Awesome. It was just awesome. It also didn't hurt that I was able to download the latest Beyonce and Rihanna albums while I was at home which we blasted while crafting. : )

9/2: So I’m currently cooped up in my hut because gale force winds have turned my village into a dust bowl. Unfortunately, I learned just how severe the winds were the hard way. So I was attempting to hang dry my wash and not only was I getting whipped by wet clothes (and quickly soaked) but soon enough I would have to chase after the newly dirty item after it got torn from the line…again. There was really no going back for if I let my wet clothes sit in a bucket overnight (or until the wind died down, who knows how long that could take?) they could get moldy. So I trekked ahead. It was pretty humorous actually. Gotta love Africa.

9/5: My family donated backpacks and school supplies to all 22 of the girls I took to Camp GLOW so I had a blast playing Santa this week. I told the girls that these bright pink backpacks were symbols that they were strong, beautiful, intelligent young women, passionate about bringing change to their community. So that when they wear these backpacks not only are they representing all the GLOW girls but they’re telling the world that they’re a leader and a change maker. It could be in my head but I could swear when they walked out of that room with their backpacks on they walked a little taller.

9/8: So I prepared all day for a rockin’ girls club lesson on nutrition that was equal parts fun and stimulating when I went to the storage area that houses our art supplies donated to us by a Dutch youth group. And the cupboards were bare. I was fuming. Not only do I regularly use those supplies for art lessons with the orphans on our feeding scheme but they were a part of the lesson I had planned for right then. Thankfully I had a few packages of crayons that were donated by my family but I wanted to give those packages away as gifs. Sadly, none of my co-workers could look me in the eye or give me a straight answer about yet another incident of theft at our organization. Trust me, I understand that they probably just wanted to give a little joy to their own children who most likely have never had art supplies but there has to be a line somewhere.

I am happy to report that my girls club, as always, was a cure to my frustration. We had a great discussion about the challenges to eating a healthy diet (fruit and vegetables are expensive, they aren’t commonplace in Zulu diets so are deemed strange and there are very limited options in the market or store). We also reviewed the concept of a food pyramid which I was shocked had changed shape since I last checked and the idea of putting good food into your body to give it vitamins and energy not just to feel full.

9/9: I am so excited about this new training I’m planning on doing for out-of-school youth. I hope to give them a three day training on HIV/AIDS so that they could become peer educators in our community. Once trained, they’ll be asked to go on a pre-determined amount of home visits. During the home visit they’ll first give another youth a pre-test. Once completed, the educator will then talk to the youth about AIDS and review any answers that were incorrect. Then the youth will take the post-test. Not only do I feel this is a measurable, tangible way to educate my community about specific points concerning AIDS but I also think it’ll be incredibly empowering for the peer educators who currently sit at home all day but I know many of them see the ravages of AIDS and want to make a change.

I’ve discussed this idea with a fellow PCV who did this training in the past, informed the local municipality (as a formality) and have had several meetings with Tshengie to discuss logistics. Today Tshengie and I introduced the idea to the caregivers who will be asked to bring 1-3 candidates to our informational meeting next week.

I mentioned in passing that refreshments will be served during the training and Tshengie balked. She deferred to the Management Committee which is ironic because a typical meeting ends in a screaming match with no decision ever being made. The one male in the group, Mpostol, decided that the trainees couldn’t eat off the feeding scheme as per usual, but would need to bring lunch boxes. Of course the room was full of women; none of whom dared to challenge him. This, in effect, rendered the training DOA. Sounds dramatic, but trust me, after a year and a half here I know what incentives are necessary to entice people to come to a training and they are: printing an attendance certificate at the end and food. Take one or the other away and you’ll be lucky if three people show.

They said we wouldn’t have enough food for 20 adults when there are 20-25 adults that come for weekly reporting and eat off the feeding scheme twice a week. Every week. I let go a long time ago about trying to help people who don’t want to change but it’s one thing to not do anything to support my work but it’s quite another to sabotage it.

9/10: My host mom called me this morning and asked me to come to the neighbors (my host cousins). When I walked into their compound I realized immediately that there was a ceremony going on and there wasn’t some lazy Saturday morning chit chat or card playing like I’d assumed. Now even though being a slave for a day is exhausting I love ceremonies and would normally be thrilled to stumble upon one but today I was wearing capris and was immediately self-conscious as to how grossly taboo my pants were. I felt that I would have made an even bigger scene if I went home and changed so I decided to play it cool. Well the father of the house later pulled me aside and said, “I know you’re from a different culture but you’re in my culture now and I don’t ever want to see you at a ceremony at my compound in pants again, disrespecting my culture.” I was appropriately shamed. With that incident aside, the ceremony helped remind me why I’m here in the first place after a rough couple of days. I felt a part of the family, I had a place with the young women and connected with the culture even with my fashion faux pas. In short, it was exactly what I needed.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

8/3-4: Today I started my trek back to the land of milk and honey. It is really a testament to my overall absentmindedness that it took me as long as it did to realize my culture shock started at the airport. Let me back up. So I had already been travelling for ten hours when I got to the airport. In my overwhelmed daze I circled the terminals not once or twice but three times. And let me tell you it’s not a small circle. It involves multiple elevators and a seemingly endless stretch of ramps. I was so distracted by being plunged back into a sea of white faces and neon lights that I literally couldn’t concentrate. I’m known to not be too directionally savvy so if my problems ended there it wouldn’t have been anything out of the ordinary. But they didn’t. Shockingly nobody in my village owns a scale so it was only at the check in desk (in my second time through the line around the corner) that I realized my bag was overweight. I walked into the airport already soaked in sweat from being crammed into someone’s armpit for a full day but I was now a walking circus act. I literally saw people pointing. I ended up carrying on a down coat, large grass mat, and two bulging bags filled with books that got booted from my checked bag. How they let me on the plane is anyone’s guess. I somehow made it to London carrying my body weight in books and went through immigration twice when I never really had to go in the first place. I then cried to the baggage guy that I couldn’t find my bag and he politely steered me to the right baggage pick up area. I needed to re-check my bags in London because I failed to tell the check-in lady in SA my final destination. It was a genuine miracle I made it back here relatively in one piece (I looked like a homeless person) and with all 27 of my bags.

8/4-24: Being home was amazing. I blocked out all thoughts of SA which allowed me to enjoy my time guilt-free though only prolonging the inevitable culture shock later. I saw almost everyone I wanted to see and gained at least my goal of five pounds in greasy food. It was perfect.

8/25: So I purposefully scheduled a 12 hour layover in London so I could enjoy a day there. It was only when I got off the tube carrying my carry-on luggage that I realized it was pouring down rain. So I made it my first order of business to buy a glamorous plastic poncho. Bizarrely enough it took me three people before I found someone who spoke English. This involved a lot of circling because not many people were on the streets due to the monsoon. Once I was thoroughly soaked to the bone I found what I was looking for. Though cold and wet I was determined to sight see. I asked several more people where Kensington Palace was only to find they too didn’t understand me. Doesn’t anyone in London speak English anymore?! I finally asked a tourist with a map and he pointed me in what turned out to be the wrong direction. I found that out after about 20 minutes when I realized I was surrounded by houses. Thoroughly shivering, I had already tried to wait out the rain in a coffee shop and there were no signs it was letting up. I finally resigned myself to failure and went back to the airport where I wrung out my skirt and hair and slept for several hours.

8/26-30: By some miracle I was able to find an airport shuttle from Jo-burg to Mbabane, the capitol of Swaziland, so I took that when I went to the Umhlanga Reeds Festival. This is an annual event where 60,000 half-naked virgins parade in front of the King in traditional dress carrying 10 foot high bundles of reeds in the hopes he will pick them as his next bride. (He currently has 13). It was really quite beautiful.

There were four very different types of dress worn signifying the four regions or tribes of Swaziland. Dress varied from poufs of brightly colored yarn worn around the waist and shoulders to the more demure cloth tied across the shoulder in a toga-esque style. The elderly women perform ‘checks’ on the girls before they’re able to participate in the two week ceremony to confirm they are indeed a virgin. (These ‘checks’ are also done periodically in my village by the female elders). If they pass, their virginity could be held in question once again if one of the reeds they’re holding breaks or falls.

The members of the royal family are identified by the red feathers in their hair. The closer your relation to the king the more feathers you have. So there were several girls with a full ring around their face which means they are daughters of the King with his first born pinning two full rings of feathers in her hair. If the King is more of a distant cousin you might have only one or two feathers.
The first day the girls are divided into groups of about 50 and are singing while carrying their reeds. After several hours all 60,000 girls have made it into the clearing where they will give the Queen Mother their bundle of reeds. The reeds are saved until December when the male teenaged virgins have a ceremony of their own of equal if not greater size where they use the reeds to repair the King’s large compound.

The next day the girls are all gathered in the arena where they are singing and dancing all day. There was even a Zulu group there from South Africa who danced individually. The Zulu dancing with large drums and tons of high kicks was a huge crowd pleaser and made me incredibly proud to be considered one of them.
All in all it was the perfect way to transition back to life in Africa.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

7/16-17: Today I noticed several old women I hadn’t seen before deep cleaning our compound. This could mean only one thing, we’re preparing for a ceremony. I was so excited. Though I’ve been to countless ceremonies this would be the first at my home. So I was shocked when I asked around and nobody could give me a straight answer as to why we’re having a ceremony. You’re spending thousands of rand and dozens of hours sweeping the dirt around our huts and dusting our glass dog collection and you don’t even know why?!

Well I finally discovered the reason for all the hub bub was my host mom and sister both dreamt that our family would come into money. Zulus believe that dreams are a way for their ancestors to communicate with them. To insure this would come true we performed a ceremony and sacrificed a goat. The goat’s blood, along with a ceramic vase filled with sorghum beer, a grass mat, a loaf of bread and some traditional medicine were left at what could be described as an alter.

Sunday is the day during a ceremony I call Slave Day. Since it was a small ceremony the only young women were my host sister GuGu, my host cousin Sindi and myself. We proceeded to be at the beck and call to everyone who entered our compound until well into the night. Fortunately for me, we ran out of goat meat and since the women eat last I was served only a small portion of goat intestines and was spared the far worse pancreas, bladder and boiled skin.

After we ate, my host siblings all showed me their izinpandlas which are bracelets of goat skin signifying your family has just performed a ceremony. I wanted one too and something changed when everyone in my family went together to cut a slice of skin from the goat to show we honored our ancestors. It was really special. We’re all connected now.

Well my luck ran out about mid-afternoon when both Sindi and GuGu left leaving me to tend to a few dozen drunken men and elderly women all by my lonesome. Just as I was falling asleep standing up they came sauntering back in wondering why I looked like death. They were unimpressed. “Oh you’re tired,” they scoffed. “Please, we do this every day.”

7/18: I had another great day when I finished the world map I’ve been working on with the middle school. We then had an assembly where I talked about being a global citizen and how a lot more unites us than divides us. They were really proud.

7/19: After asking Tshengie a month ago if she knew of anyone to teach my girls clubs beadwork she finally came up with someone. This woman had recently taught a group for free and when I asked if she would do the same for us she snickered. When I then asked how much it would cost she responded, “It depends if you’re asking or requesting.” I had woken up on the wrong side of the bed and was in no mood for games. “Whichever is cheaper,” I snapped. “Asking,” she said matter-of-factly. Instead of naming a price she fell into this sudden shyness and it took quite a while to agree to an absurd price.

Though I had a bad feeling about her I had some money allotted in my PEPFAR grant for girls clubs so I agreed. Well let’s just say nobody will be drawing comparisons between her and Mary Poppins anytime soon. It was quickly apparent that the beadwork was too difficult for the girls. Now would it have been possible if she was a bit more patient and whole lot less critical? Yes. But sadly she wasn’t. She was easily frustrated and when the girls would ask for help she would patronize them for wasting her time. I had music going and definitely made light of the situation but I really didn’t want this woman to drive these girls away. So I asked a few of them after club how they thought it went. They didn’t have anything negative to say. But I asked if they thought perhaps the teacher was a bit strict. They agreed but they said she’s just like all of their other teachers. Now it’s sad that none of their teachers can be bothered to help them, are highly critical of their work and treat them badly but at least I know their first beadwork experience wasn’t a total wash.

7/21: Learning from Tuesday’s mistake I politely declined beadwork lady’s second slated appearance with my other girls club and went into town to buy some yarn. Instead I taught them how to make friendship bracelets. It was a huge success. Great relaxed atmosphere, fun music and company. Two thumbs up.

7/23-24: This weekend I helped organize a 30th birthday extravaganza for my closest Peace Corps friend. Such fun.

7/25-29: This week I’ve been teaching a financial literacy course back to back first to the caregivers at my organization and then to grade 12 students at the local high school. The booklets were donated by Operation HOPE, an American NGO, and they supplied me with lesson plans so all I had to do was facilitate which is the fun part. It was such a success. We had great discussions on how easy it is for desperate people to turn to loan sharks and how impossible it seems to get out of debt. We talked about budgeting your money and starting your own small business. About checking accounts and savings accounts. About how if you have money you have options. It was very empowering.

7/29: Today I facilitated a training on permaculture gardening techniques. I went to a training last year to learn this method and I used the facilitator’s tagline: Feeding the world: one family a time; Saving the world: one garden at a time. The idea is to teach the importance of kitchen gardens to improve the nutrition of families and to increase yield by using practices similar to bio-intensive gardening. Demonstrating how to garden was my first time actually gardening. It wasn’t an exactly ideal situation but it somehow worked out pretty well.

8/1: The chickens ate every single one of our seedlings. Sigh.