A flower in the desert

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The past months have been a whirlwind. Project work swirls around me, and the gusts from changing seasons push me forward. Rain has arrived in Swaziland, and with it comes tremendous growth, change, and mangoes; hope is revivified. In the last year and a half, I have never seen this country so green and lush. But, several weeks of rain do not cancel the damage caused by the drought- a drought so bad that Swazis lament, “even the donkeys are dying” (this is remarkable because donkeys are notoriously resilient animals). While farmers sow, and branches of trees stoop with the burden of their heavy fruit, summer sneaks upon us. The temperature rises with the sun and rain falls with the night. Fat drops are mellifluously accompanied by the bass and tenor of thunder and lightning. Flowers of every color bloom.

After a solid month of regular rain, it suddenly ceased once more. The maize planted by hopeful families began to wilt and burn under the unforgiving sun. Once thick stalks withered and browned, and the tops began to bear their tassels of maturity while the plant was still short and thin. Growing corn is a game of timing, it must have the right amount of water at the right growing stage, or else it will be stunted. Farming certainly takes luck. Thankfully, cyclone Dineo interrupted the drought at a perfect time for my family, and our maize has recovered. This, in addition to 15 freshly born piglets, gives hope to us again.

My project work is exciting and humbling. A passion for food and sustainable agriculture fits perfectly in my community, where I work with a community garden farmer co-op to help them sustain themselves through better business practices and connections to local NGOs. I have a wonderful counterpart, and together we facilitate food preservation workshops to make value-added items such as jams, canned fruit, and a delicious spicy relish called “achar”. Recently, we started teaching women in our HIV support groups how to produce, package, and profit from peanut butter. This has been one of my favorite projects, it is my wish that these women can empower themselves to a better financial position by using the skills we are teaching.

I also have been spending time at an all-girl orphanage, one of only a few orphanages in Swaziland. Because of how deep family ties are, there are very few homeless people. Most of the time, people will be able to find comfort in extended family, and rarely are children completely abandoned. Official adoption of a child is quite rare, and the girls who stay at the orphanage are there until they are old enough to leave. I have been acting as a connection point between the home and international donors, we have added electricity and also improved their kitchen. Soon, the home will also be receiving three laptops and they will be able to improve their technology skills.

Of course, there are also many project struggles. I don’t have much time left, and my community really wants my help in building a preschool. Such an undertaking would certainly make a difference for many young children, but gathering the resources so late in the game is going to be difficult, yet it can be done.

I am very fortunate. My support at home in West Virginia in unparalleled. This support brought me back to the States for Thanksgiving, where I reveled in the decadence of American “staple food” (donuts, pizza, nachos, burgers, etc.) in addition to a delicious spatchcocked turkey prepared by the gifted hands of my brother. Embracing my family and friends again was as sweet as the rain in the dry season. The joy I gained from hearing my toddler niece speaking delightfully defiant sentences in person was invaluable. In my short visit, I was surprised by how much about home remained the exact same and also how different everything felt despite that continuity. Being home brought much-needed clarity to my desires for the future as well as closure to the prolonged ending of my long-distance relationship, for which I am so grateful.

But I was very happy to return to Swaziland. Visiting America cemented the fact that I am not meant to be there now, despite how much I miss danishes at the bakery, book stores, house shows, and the local food movement. I spent Christmas with my host family, and for New Year’s I went to a local music venue that had an Alice in Wonderland themed event. I enjoyed it tremendously, and was even offered a job after I spent some time ribbon dancing. Good to know that if nothing else works out, I can move to Johannesburg and join a carnival!

So, why was I happy to return? What is special about this country? To me, it boils down to my drive to do and see more here, and the beauty I recognize surrounding me everywhere. This is the pulchritude of Swaziland:

  • The pronounced cheekbones and copious generosity of Swazi women.
  • Trees that bear the most delicious fruit I have ever tasted.
  • An openness that invites reciprocity- people are keenly interested in greeting you & learning how you are.
  • Happy children that are covered in dirt and toddle and play and sing and scream.
  • The mountains are frames, meticulously carved by the elements, which surround a complex and abstract picture of poverty. Poverty is not beautiful, but out of necessity it enables a beautiful reaction- unrelenting hospitality, and the embracing of “simple pleasures” like sitting and chatting on grass mats, dancing in front of the cooking fire, and pulling a potato from the ground that you nurtured to maturity.

Any description I give of my experiences here in the tiny Kingdom, however verbose, are not an apt portrayal. Pictures help, so I’ve included some below. Yet, photos show very little. I encourage you, with my whole heart, to find a way to save some cash and prioritize traveling. Whether it be to visit me here in Swaziland, or someplace you’ve always fantasized about, there is no better remedy for a closed-mind or an ego than to take yourself out of your comfort zone and truly experience how other people around the world live.

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At the top of a mountain hike, we peeked over the edge and saw a few kids enjoying the view just as we were.

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Swaziland is full of natural wonders, but it is important to keep your eyes open for crocodiles when enjoying the environment pictured above.

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Ever ask yourself, “How did I get here?”… I think that’s what this cow was asking itself when I found it very near the top of another mountain hike.

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Home to some of the oldest mines in the world, such as the Lion Cavern near the Ngwenya mine. This quarry is directly next to the path that takes you to the cavern. Swaziland carries an incredible history of ancestors, magic, and peace during times of war.

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Did I mention how fantastic the fruit here is? Delightful  papaya, mango, avocado, and banana can be found nearly everywhere. The taste is incomparable to the produce imported to West Virginia.

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Dilapidation and unfinished structures are commonly found. People build structures very slowly, buying only the materials they can afford at the time. Little by little, homes and businesses are built without ever taking a loan. But, if the person investing the money into building happens to die before completing the structure, it may be a very long time before it is finished.

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I’m not sure what kind of flower this is, but I thought it was beautiful.

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A great aspect of eating meat here is that nearly all of it is “free range”! Also, many farm animals have very interesting colorful coats.

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A rainbow above the bus rank in the capital city of Mbabane. The bus rank is the beating heart of the large public transport system. You can get many places in Swaziland without a personal vehicle by taking a bus or a kombi. But everything stops at about 6 pm, so you have to reach your destination before then!

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This is one component of a playground we built at my local neighborhood care point.

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Children thoroughly enjoy playing on the swings and climbing the tower structure!

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An outdoor kitchen is instrumental in cooking large portions of food in the three-legged pots commonly found in most homes here.

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One of the most common dishes is chicken stew, as seen above.

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My counterpart, Phephile, is standing in front of the chalkboard and discussing business practices with the women of our HIV support groups. Check out the way the woman in the yellow shirt is carrying the baby on her back- she has simply wrapped a towel around the child tying her to her back, that is the common and hands-free method for carrying children.

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Another one of my favorite things to do is help other volunteers with their painting projects. This is just one of the preschools I’ve helped liven up.

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The DREAMERS! These lovely young women are my buddies at the orphanage.

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When the new group was ready to move to their permanent sites, it was our job as the senior volunteers to introduce them to their sites in the most fun way possible. So with rhymes and some funny outfits, we announced their individual communities with a Dr. Seuss theme!

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I love pasta. Especially after hiking a long hike. This is Mount Emlembe, the highest point in Swaziland!

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I’m so lucky to be living in a beautiful mountainous community, with great hiking and even monkeys! I went to go find the water source in the mountain, and in this picture I was pretty close to it.

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I’m also lucky to have really really really great friends, even some who are willing to come all the way here just to visit me!

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The top of Sibebe Rock, the second largest monolith in the world, and apparently the largest exposed granite pluton.

The following pictures are how I do my laundry!

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First step in doing laundry: Collect the necessary items. These are my necessities: multiple basins, a slab of “Green Bar” soap, a container for water, and a recent addition and fantastic gift- a washing board! Oh, and filthy clothing of course.

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Next, we fetch water from the big green “Jojo” tank! Children help me out by turning the water on and off, and offering a myriad of wisdom and insights such as how to properly eat mangoes and how to make a game from thin air.

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Scrubba-dubbin’ is next, this is where the elbow grease is very important.

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After a rinse, they are ready to be strung up and dried by the elements. As you can see, laundry is a multiple hour, hands-on activity.

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This is a delightful meal a friend and I made when I visited her farm. From scratch jumbo ravioli stuffed with spinach and butternut, pesto made from macadamia nuts that I cracked open with a hammer, gooseberries, fresh squeezed orange juice, and the only thing that wasn’t grown in the permagarden- cheese. 🙂 ah, and the flour for the ravioli.

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Pictured here and framed by the beautiful purple blooms of a jacaranda tree is Execution Rock, a hike I have yet to do, but hope to ascend soon!

Sala kahle, till next time.

One year in.

Explorers are we,

Five days ago marked the one year of arriving in Johannesburg, expectation-less and ready for change. I think of my community in West Virginia often, especially when I hear about the devastating floods, but I still have so much to do with my community here.

Winter is upon us “eSwatini” (in Swaziland), rendering remarkably cold temperatures. I think my fellow West Virginians would laugh at me when they learn I am shivering and bundled under two blankets as my house plummets to a frosty 60 F in the evening. Week by week, my house is becoming more cozy; I have completed my palette couch, recently purchased a refrigerator, and have settled on a furniture layout that presents minimal sharp edges which attract my shins like magnets.

Projects are taking off- I’ve focused on facilitating business skills and financial literacy workshops for young mothers who care for HIV positive youth. We also do food preservation workshops, making treats such as marula jam, guava jam, and spicy mango & veggie chutney. The culmination of this will be a peanut butter workshop, where we will all learn how to make delicious home made, nutritionally rich PB. Honestly, local peanut butter puts the organic stuff you find at kroger to shame- I’m hooked. I’ve also been fairly busy as an elected Peer Support Network member welcoming the new group to Swaziland! I truly can’t believe how fast time is going.

Now, allow me to pose a question. What do you do when you’ve spent all of your time, money and energy on planting maize during a drought,  and after exhausting all form of prayer to every deity you know, and it still doesn’t grow? You rip it all up and plant “bhatata” (sweet potato) instead! That has been the theme of the last several months- sowing seeds (literally & figuratively), crossing fingers & creating callouses, then hoping for the best. When there is nothing to reap due to uncontrollable variables (such as drought), we continue to plow forward and try something different. The bhatata is growing well, and my family is extremely grateful to their God for blessing them with this fortune. I feel the soil beneath my hoe alongside them, watch as they sow each carefully manicured vine of the bhatata plant, and hear the rhythmic “thunk… thunk…” of my sisters weeding the field early in the morning. Perhaps it is not the fortune of God that is creating the success of this crop, but their diligent efforts.

I am so incredibly, magnificently, superbly fortunate and privileged. When I feel the drought dust settling in my lungs, when I no longer am amused by the marriage proposals, when I feel helpless and powerless, I am able to take a break. And that is just what six friends and I did- we embarked on a fun 12 day holiday in Madagascar! This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me, and I am so glad we did it. Although the days were full with long  drives (the island is HUGE and there’s so much to see!), the scenery made it worth the copious hours of driving we logged. Below are some shots from my time in the island country, with a description of the picture below.

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Sorry about the immediate creepy-crawlies! I couldn’t resist showcasing this picture I took of a millipede (or centipede?) and a giant pill bug that look like the word “so”.

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The northern coast of Madagascar. After we had a fun 14 hour layover in Nairobi, seeing this delta took my breath away.

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The intricate system of terraces were amazing!

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Malagasy people buy their food fresh, nearly every day. Including meat! We passed many meat stalls like this one.

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Rice is what’s for dinner in Madagascar. And breakfast, and lunch. These are the first rice paddies I’ve ever seen!

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The cars on the island are adorable. The french colonization is evident every where you look! From baguettes and “Bonjour!”s, to tiny cars and interesting architecture.

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But what do you do if you don’t have one of those fun tiny cars? Just strap up your zebu (the local cow) and go for a ride!

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A beautiful sunset & baobabs in Morondava, which is on the west coast.

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Vary Amin’anana, one of the classic breakfast staples. It is a rice soup, with a simple broth and meatballs or meat strips on the side. Or vegetarian if you prefer! This delicious meal was less than $1.

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Do you see the delightful treat in this woman’s hand? You are looking at the best pineapple I’ve ever eaten.

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We tried some fois gras, quite a morally questionable dish due to the method of fattening the duck to engorge the liver. Crossed that one off my bucket list..

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Persimmons! The exterior feels like a ripe tomato, the inside is luscious and creamy- somewhat like a papaya, but juicier.

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As we were visiting the Kirindy rainforest, a cyclone arrived. We got the real rain forest experience! Many beautiful sights emerged in the rain.

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Madagascar has some GIANT spiders (I don’t use those caps lightheartedly). You could see them hanging meters above you, their webs draped across the tree canopies.

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The only wild orchid I had the pleasure of seeing. A beauty, indeed. I’m unsure of what kind it is, if you know please reach out to me!

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One of the most surprising features of Madagascar was the amount of water everywhere. Going from drought stricken Swaziland to an island nation was an interesting shock.

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One of my favorite experiences: Seeing a baobab in real life, with some great friends. I think it truly says something about people when you can spend two straight weeks with the same people 24-7 and not get sick of ’em!

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And here we found a wild Jojo! Heheh. The magnitude of these old trees are not well captured with film, but we tried! Thanks for the pic, Sam.

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The Volcanic Lake of Tritriva. No life exists in this emerald green lake that fills a volcano cone due to the sulfurous water, except a pair of ducks. The malagasy version of Romeo & Juliet is a legend that ends in a young couple leaping to their death in this lake.

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The iconic baobab love tree.

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We were excited to encounter local wildlife at a lemur sanctuary. We canoed around the island, hoping to catch a peak at the many different lemurs.

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And we did! This is a curious ring-tailed lemur, who came over to check out our boat.

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This guy was a hoot, he seemed to be playing peek-a-boo.

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I believe the sole defense mechanism of this lemur is how dang cute it is.

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A rare day sighting of this nocturnal lemur peaking out of his home-hole.

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The impressive and giant Comet Moth! It only lives out of it’s cocoon for about week, and doesn’t eat or drink anything for that time. It is huge.

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This snake has been telling fibs! Yes, that is its nose…

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An amazing chameleon encounter! The wide variety of reptiles in madagascar is amazing, and they’re so beautiful.

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Another magnificent chameleon.

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After spending countless hours on the road, we spent a solid three days at the beach near Mahambo, on the eastern coast. The black volcanic sand is so interesting!

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The indian ocean has a special place in my heart, after spending time in Mozambique, South Africa, and now Madagascar.

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Just enjoying the view of the avenue of baobabs. Thanks for this pic, Ally-Bo-Bally!

So, Madagascar was April. Then my long distance partner, Sam, came to visit at the end of May! It was so wonderful having him here, so that he could finally put a picture to what I’m always telling him about. We spent a while at my site, then went to a huge music festival in Swaziland- Bushfire! Unfortunately, that is where my camera was stolen… So, these may be the last high quality pictures I’m able to post for a while. 😦

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After Bushfire and a few more days around Swaziland, we rented a car (yes, I was spoiled while he was here) and cruised over to the Hlane game reserve. We enjoyed our time there very much, and saw some great animals!

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We booked a sunrise game drive and saw lions, elephants, and we were slightly too close for comfort to these rhinos.

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Then we cruised down to St. Lucia, South Africa. We took a lovely sunset cruise on the estuary and saw countless hippos, crocodiles, and even a bull shark!

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Relaxing and playing at the beach with Sam was another highlight. Although we’ve been together for more than 3 years, we’ve never been to the beach with each other- so we fixed that.

Then, just as fast as he arrived, he was gone. I needed some distractions from my sadness, and spent a little time with some friends visiting sites. Here in Swaziland, we have a small competition between volunteers- we are racing to see who can visit the most other volunteer sites, and I’m in the lead with more than 20 sites! It helps that Swaziland is a very tiny place.

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Although the country is small, it is full of diverse geography, and rich in culture. In one of my friend’s communities, there exists 4000 year old cave paintings! As an anthropology nerd, this was one of my favorite sites to visit thus far.

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A close up of some of the art. It has been preserved from the rain and sun, and is well hidden.

I also visited another volunteer’s site to offer my artistic assistance! Together, we repainted her preschool.

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The finished outside featured a tree, giraffes, a watering hole, and elephants. She called my art “representative”, which I find an apt descriptor.

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The elephants are my favorite.

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But the giraffes are cute too!

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I also did a papaya tree inside! As well as lots of grass and flowers around the trim, an alphabet, and two chalkboards.

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I’m proud of how comfortable I’ve made my home with minimal materials. Both the couch and the table are made from upcycled palettes, and the sculpture in the center of the table is just a twig with yarn and LED lights wrapped around it. Notice the West Virginia state flag hanging above my couch… I’m devastated that I can’t help with the cleanup of the terrible floods that ravaged my home state, and I hate that the only time West Virginia gets publicity is when terrible things happen! However, I have a funny feeling about the impact my generation will have on the wild and wonderful state… I think great things are coming.

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So I will continue forward, trying to find my balance in the tiny kingdom, trying to share wonders untold, and most importantly- trying to do no harm.

Some pictures & a few words about em

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The view from Shiba’s Breast

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The view from the top of the hike

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Obligatory photo of myself from the top of the hike. Check out that sweet tie dye!

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GLOW girls shouting out against gender based violence. A march in downtown Manzini!

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Lubombo, the low veld and driest region of swaziland.

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Freya, a kitty pal of a fellow PCV

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On the border of Swaziland, gazing into a tree farm in South Africa

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Cheese and wine from Galentine’s Day!

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Hannah and I holding mangoes we picked in our neighbor Nick’s fruit orchard. Check out those banana plants!

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The banana pod. Not sure what you actually call this part of the banana plant, but it seems pretty spacey to me.

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This is what bananas look like before they’re born.

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The neat nest of a weaving bird that enjoys inhabiting banana plants.

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The teacher and students at my community’s preschool

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The corn is dying from drought. Eish.

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The sunflowers are doing okay though!

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Don’t these seeds look like chocolate covered candy corn?

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A table full of seeds at the Guba permaculture NGO

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House on Fire, the venue for Swaziland’s biggest attraction: Bushfire music festival

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The weirdest looking ducks I’ve ever seen

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Bingo, the hiking dog.

A few words on my experience with NCPs

I apologize for the lack of pictures to accompany this post. I’m currently in the library of my shopping town. Maybe my next post will be only pictures. 😉

Yesterday, I hiked for an hour up a mountain to visit one of the three Neighborhood Care Points (NCPs) in my community. Supported by UNICEF, World Vision, and several other national and international NGOs, NCPs serve the orphans and vulnerable children within the community by offering a breakfast snack & lunch in addition to a school lesson of some kind. Most have at least one teacher who has received some training from  World Vision, and typically between 20-30 children are served.

After hiking the mountain (and stopping along the way to pick up some of the beautiful crystals that litter the path), my counter part and I finally reached the cinder block building. Nestled on the mountainside high above the main road, and doubling as a church on Sundays, the dilapidated building barely provides shelter from the rain. Two large window holes (where exactly is the line between a hole in a wall and a window?) frame the busted front door, and illuminate the grass mats covering the crumbling concrete floor.

We arrived at 10, the time that was agreed upon last week when I visited, and found no one. Unsurprisingly, they had forgotten I was coming and we’re tending the fields. But, one by one, eight women showed up as well as two men, and about 20 children. At 11, the front door was finally unlocked. The kids sang a few songs, then I opened my backpack and distributed some toys, books, and teaching materials graciously sent to me from friends in America. (Thanks Morgantown Wine Club & Brandee McCoy!)

The kids were very happy to receive the toys, and I was happy to help. Still, there is so much work to be done… Although I haven’t yet been able to help the NCP acquire the chairs or tables they have requested for the kids, I’m working on persuading the community leadership to donate the children sized chairs currently sitting in a storage room collecting dust (“but who will replace them when they break?” Sigh).

A very important fact, and the reason no one was there when I initially arrived, is that they have no food.  Food aid is typically provided by the World Food Programme and I attempted to call them, but no one answered. Then the email I sent was returned. Double sigh. This system is not sustainable. When the food rations run out, they simply have to close the doors, which unfortunately means the kids miss meals and the cycle of stunted, sick children continues.

I am hopeful to make an impact by teaching about and helping build water efficient permagardens for the NCPs. Although we still have very little water reserves, the terrible drought that has plagued us for months and months seems to be ending. Rain fell several days last week, and even this morning the ground was wet- it’s a good sign. Oh how happy I would be to see cute hungry faces eating carrots and beans they grew themselves. I believe I can help, and I want to do it the right way.

So what is the wrong way? I will share a story that happened a few months ago. As I mentioned earlier, there are three NCPs in my community. One of them is a very nice, new building that was built by a volunteer 6 years ago. My counterpart and I toured the building, and sat in for a few minutes as the children played. There was only one small set of blocks on the ground for the kids, which I didn’t think anything of…. until we were shown the storage room. Inside this room, three trunks contain a multitude of toys, puzzles, clay, teaching tools, even a soccer net and little jerseys….. all of them still in original plastic. Nearly all the toys had not been touched in the past 6 years. The teacher told me, “You see? We are rich!” and the blatant disconnect between receiving aid and utilizing aforementioned aid smacked me in the face, hard. I’m disappointed that the kids didn’t get to use a majority of the resources in those trunks, but I believe its mostly because the teachers don’t know how. So, that will be my next undertaking… show these teachers how to use this stuff!

Peace Corps Cribs: Swazi Edition

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For some, the word “hut” is synonymous with a round, single room house that is hand crafted from mud and sticks, and topped with a thatch roof. In Swaziland, you will find these rondavals alongside modern huts made from cinder blocks. I am fortunate to reside in the latter, a large two-room hut with plenty of room for activities.  I’m still settling in, and need to hang more art (and buy a few chairs), but I feel very comfortable in my new home. Let me show you my crib!

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This is the entrance, and one of the three windows. This area is my water station where all the water filtration magic happens. I fetch water from a large tank on my homestead. Below the window is my table, which is a large PC-issued water barrel with a piece of wood (that I begged for at the hardware store in town, it was not initially for saleÖ) on top. This table is where I do most things, like preparing food or washing my face. The collection of colorful paper making up the big heart next to my door may be familiar to some of you. At my going away party, I asked all the attendees to write a piece of advice or note of encouragement on the paper, then I mailed it to myself. I then posted all the wonderful words of my friends on my wall, and love reading it every time I pass through the door or get some water.

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Moving around the room to the eastern wall are the PC-issued trunks that I use as benches, my  dishwashing area, and my halloween costume hanging next to the window. I was a slice of pizza. I’m very proud of that costume because I designed it to be collapsible, so I could transport it on a khumbi easily, and I succeeded. It was pretty cheesy.

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On the southern wall is my kitchen area. The far right is my handigas leading to my gas stoven (hidden below the fabric). I also prioritized purchasing a stoven (stove/oven combo) because baking decadent pastries keeps me sane. I “built” the shelf that my dishes and veggies are resting on by placing two boards across the stoven box and a bucket. According to my make, covering it with fabric to hide the misc. pots and pans makes it very “lookable”, I agree.

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Next to my makeshift shelf is my pantry, which is actually just a pallet with nothing done to it. I have dubbed myself the spice queen of shiselweni! Sometimes volunteers can find really great deals on household items when a group is COSing, as I did with the spices. When I first moved in, the chalkboard wall was a bare cream. I splurged on some chalkboard paint, and being able to quickly write out lists or recipes is super handy. My bosisi and bobhuti also enjoy hanging out and doing self-assigned homework on the chalk board, like multiplication tables or english compositions.

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Now we are entering my bedroom/bathroom/library/closet! Following the southern wall, you can see my catch-all/bookshelf and my shrine to my family & friends back home.

Before I posted the collage on the wall, I had a hammock hanging from the rafters. One day, shortly after moving in, I grabbed a few cookies and lowered myself onto the hammock. To my shock, after a loud crack, my bum hit the floor. Yes, my hammock broke the one time I sat on it with cookies in hand. As I laid on the floor, contemplating the irony, I checked myself for injuries…. Only after finishing the cookies. .

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Taking up most of the room is my big comfy bed. Since childhood, I’ve thought canopy beds are really neat, and now I have one! Seeing the bugs collected in the top makes me extremely thankful for my netting. Next to my bed is my “bathroom”, or two buckets. One for bathing, one is a toilet. It took me a solid three months of living here before I was comfortable pooping in a bucket, but now I’ll probably never go back to a toilet (just kidding).

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Lastly, my closet! Pretty self explanatory. Find a stick (or bribe your bobhuti with candy to find one for you), attach it to the ceiling rafter with p-cord. Purchase hangers, and enjoy your new closet! Not pictured is my giant pile of dirty clothes, because hand washing is difficult.

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Thanks for checking out my spot. It is very basic, but it is mine! This is my view looking out my front door.

I hope to have some visitors soon. I had the pleasure of visiting my friend Heather waaaaaaay up in northern Swaziland, it was really neat to visit another volunteer’s home and family. I am also hoarding my care package savory foods to treat whoever visits with a decadent meal!

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Feelings & Food

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Sometimes, when I spend time examining the great need of Swaziland, I feel the heavy weight of helplessness resting on my shoulders like a poorly-fitted backpack full of groceries after a trip in to town.

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I feel helpless when I have discussions on the economics of the tiny kingdom and realize the food aid that feeds hungry kiddos is also one of the factors that decreases the demand for local entrepreneurship. The economy of this country is agriculturally based, meaning more than 90% of the population relies on the growing, manufacturing or selling of food products to gain income.  What happens when an agency arrives in a country with an economy based on food, and floods communities with free product that the local people are attempting to sell at a profit? The demand decreases, the market plummets, and people stop growing as much food as they become more dependent on free handouts. That doesn’t mean people should stop giving away food, because the children will still be hungry. But, doesn’t it make sense to buy food from the local people and redistribute it within the country to areas that need it, instead of using aid money to purchase and import food from already developed countries?

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I feel helpless when I see people not growing food, because we are experiencing the worst drought in more than twenty years. Perhaps long ago, Swazis knew how to grow food in drought conditions, but that is no longer the case. Everyone is waiting. The fields are plowed, the fences are up, but there are no seeds in the ground. Maize, the staple food, is a thirsty plant. Cows, a form of currency and sign of wealth in Swaziland, are dying in massive numbers because there is no water and therefore, no grass.

I feel helpless knowing the coming months will bring famine, extreme malnutrition, and more illnesses from the few water sources available being contaminated.

I have to remind myself to start very small, and that I am not helpless. I am strong, I am empowered, and I can show others they are too. I can bring small income generating projects to homebound women, and provide resources for maintaining small businesses. I can help young women find their voices and confidence, and foster their hopes. I can teach people what healthy relationships look like, and how to communicate effectively. Although I can not do a cartwheel or juggle (yet), I can do all the above and so much more. And, I will. Actually, I already am.

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Last week, I attended IST (In-Service Training) with my cohort, and I feel rejuvenated. We learned about the resources available to us in-country by networking with other NGOs, and best of all we learned from each other by sharing our project ideas and gleaning the skills of our colleagues. We are a close group of 45 amazing people, all with varying backgrounds and experiences. From PhDs and veterans, to fresh graduates and social workers, there is always someone with the skills and experience to guide ideas. I have never met a more mindful, awesome group of people. I know that these amazing folk have my back, no matter what.

Things at my permanent site are going well. I have been spending time intentionally bonding with my neighbors through cooking. I truly enjoy baking treats and sharing food, and I have used the experience of cooking alongside the women of the community to intentionally build relationships. Recently, the primary school held a graduation party for the grade 7 students. Anytime there is a gathering of people in Swaziland for more than 2 hours, you must serve food. I jumped on the chance to see what goes into cooking traditional food for hundreds of people, and showed up early to join in on the prep work. The bomake joked with me saying, “Gugulethu awudlali!” meaning “Johnna, you’re not playing!” when I was extremely focused on peeling and chopping hundreds of carrots. The  bomake really appreciated my help, and were a bit surprised to learn I not only have experience cooking, but enjoy it! Throughout the day we chatted in both SiSwati and English, and I was able to have a constructive conversation on gender norms regarding cooking and cleaning. It was a great day.

Here are some pictures from the party:

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A Sweaty Month at Site

The First Sweaty N

In this post, I have included some pictures I’ve taken over the past 4 months. Some are random, and do not tie in to the theme, but I feel that they should be shared.

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It is hot and dry in Swaziland.

As I sit in my family’s main house, barely using any energy except to type these words, beads of sweat are following the curve of my cheek, trickling down to my chin, and dripping like a leaky faucet onto my already saturated chest. It is gross. When the days are hot like today, I enjoy closing my eyes and remembering the sweat lodges I participated in during summer festivals, hoping my current perspiration is expelling the toxins left behind by the cookies and Swazi fat cakes I so enjoy. But, instead of deeply inhaling the aroma of charred herbs on red-hot stones, I am smelling a combination of chicken cooking and the lingering odor of paraffin in the home made floor polish my make has just applied. Although Swazi life is different and, for many, difficult, I’ve noticed many pleasures transcend cultural values. What omnivore doesn’t enjoy chicken soup and clean floors?
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If you’re a lover of all things decadent and gluten-based, such as myself, you may have noticed I mentioned “fat cakes” in the previous passage and thought “hmm, what are those?” In SiSwati, these treats are called “emafati” (sounds strikingly similar to ‘I’m a fatty’, which is how you feel after you eat a few) or sometimes just “fats”. Made by bomake (mothers) and sold in front of the school or in the local shops, fat cakes are an income generating staple you can find basically anywhere. After allowing a bucket of yeast dough to rise, bomake then portion balls of dough into roughly the size of a tennis ball and fry them in a pot of oil. Fats are basically just donuts shaped like balls without frosting, and are sold at 1 lilangeni a piece, which makes them delightful AND affordable. I purchased one to take a picture and share with you all, but I ended up eating the subject before remembering the original intent…. Sorry. Pictured below is a Make who sells sweets in the makeshift market in front of the primary school.

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I’ve now entered month two of the “integration” phase of service, and have begun working on collecting data to assess the assets and needs of the community. To accomplish this, Peace Corps has given us a “toolbox” of quantitative and qualitative data collection methods, such as surveys and interviewing techniques. I am currently working on visiting every homestead in my community (there are more than 100!) and taking a census. I am counting the number of adults and children living at each homestead, as well as determining whether they have electricity, a garden, toilet, access to water, and technology such as a car and cellphone. I finish the visit by asking “what do you think would make the community better?” Over and over again, the gogo (grandmother) bouncing a young child on her lap (the parents are away, either trying to find work in South Africa or have passed away due to illness) or the sisi (young woman) preparing a chicken for the family’s sole meal of the day tells me the same thing- “Sidzinga emanti”, or “We need water”.

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I joined the Peace Corps because I wanted to see how other people in the world live, and I am sad to report that life is very difficult for a majority of Swazi people.  The needs of Swaziland I’ve read and been told about become real when I am physically seeing it. There is a drought causing a devastating and immediate impact. Spring is upon us, and with the rising temperatures should come rain.

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But, the rains have not come.

Emaciated cows stand in the middle of a barren plain, too tired to move, mere days from death. There is no grass to graze. Fields that should be sprouting with freshly sown maize are scattered with the brittle skeletons of last year’s harvest- only brown, hardened stems that act as a mulch remain. Through my census, I am learning nearly all homesteads have a garden area that is supposed to provide the staples of the family diet, but the leaves of the stunted tomato plants are droopy and wilted, and the lettuce lies flat and lifeless against the hard, dry soil. Others have not sown seeds yet, because of the drought.

“It is a problem”, tells the gogo lying on the ground next to her infant grandchildren.

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And yet life, however difficult, continues on. Calves are born (such as the skull-faced one pictured above), resilient (sometimes scary- see picture below) seedlings grow,  and every Sunday (and many days during the week), Swazis have their faith renewed by attending church services.

Religion is an integral part of Swazi culture. When being introduced, a common question asked is “are you Christian?” Gospel is the leading musical genre. I have a friend who is in a hard situation. She and her family receive merely 240e a month (A little over $2 USD), and “sometimes, we go to bed with no food in our stomachs” she recalls. When I have inquired- “Where do you find happiness?” the response is, “I am happy at church.”

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While I have chosen to opt out of religion and instead strive to live my life being the best, most kind and helpful person I can be every day, I sometimes attend church in my community to meet new people. Also, there are sometimes special occasions that take place at church. (And I enjoy participating in the dancing and singing.) Last Sunday was an engagement service (In America, a couple usually is becomes engaged in private, in Swaziland there is an entire church service and celebration devoted to the act) and during one particularly upbeat song I joined a group of women jivving to the front of the chapel.

We shuffled into a circle and, each moving forward and following the person ahead. At some point, a cue was given (the cue is still unknown to me) and everyone began shuffling backwards. Swazis have really small feet, and my feet are like oars in comparison. They shuffled backwards with ease, while I tripped over my own feet and fell backwards into the waves of children behind the group. It was very embarrassing to fall down in front of the entire congregation, and for a moment I debated what to do- “should I get up and run away in shame?!” I chose to pop up and rejoin the shuffling circle, this time paying careful attention to where my feet landed. For the days following the service, many of the bomake I ran into in the community complemented me on my dancing, and only a few commented on my fall.
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(Lemon trees grow all over Swaziland, but retrieving them is not always easy.. Notice the outrageous thorns on this branch?)

One of the largest culture shocks of Swaziland, for me, is transportation.

I live in a rural community in the southern region of the middle veld. I am surrounded by beautiful mountains and there is marvelous hiking. I have found several beautiful crystals while romping through the woods, and only one snake. Sometimes when I tell Swazis I like “kuncanca tinsaba” (to climb mountains), they are a bit surprised and ask, “aren’t you scared?!” I then learn that many people in my community are afraid of the ancestors that live in the caves of the mountains. I usually respond that I am not afraid of them, and that if I come across any ancestors I will simply run away. They scoff.

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Although my scenery is breathtaking, transportation in these rural areas can be frustrating. Very few people have personal vehicles, most rely on khumbis which are typically 15-seat vans, or buses to take them in to town to buy groceries. The closest town that has one grocery store is 1 hour away. These public modes are usually very full of people, (once I counted 22 people in one 15-seat van) especially when it is the end of the month and everyone has been paid, or when there is only one bus covering an entire area for the day. My area has one regular khumbi that travels to town and back several times a day, and one ridiculously slow bus. This bus is my main source of frustration, as it is very very old, and very very slow. It seems like it is a repurposed school bus, because the seats are so close together I know it must have been designed for children. Aside from my knees being jammed into the seat in front of me, a trip to town that should only take one hour on a khumbi will take double that on the bus. A few Saturdays ago, I met up with some other volunteers for lunch in the closest major town, about 2 hours away from me. That day, I spent a combined 9 hours on or waiting for transport. I learned while I was waiting that the khumbi that typically serviced my area was stopped by the police, who said it was unfit for the road and should be fixed before transporting any more people. This left only the bus to transport the well over 100 people waiting for hours to get home.

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(Swaziland has monkeys!)

When waiting at the bus rank, it is standard procedure for a somewhat organized line to form.. Until the transport arrives, then everyone just rushes toward the door and tries to push on at the same time. The conductor pushes people in, until the door can barely close, and usually a few are left behind to wait for the next one.

The chaos that ensued when the only bus of the day arrived was unlike anything I’ve seen. For the first time, the conductors were enforcing a line to board the bus, and the line stretched through the bus rank. Many people tried to revert to the swazi way and push through the line to board, but they were chastised and cast to the back of the line (or in front of a sympathetic make). I boarded and thought, surely they won’t fit all these people onto this bus. I found a seat next to a window, and felt appreciative for the fresh air as more and more people filed onto the bus. When all the seats were filled, the aisle filled also. People stood tightly together, bums and breasts everywhere. Personal space is a foreign concept here. It was so hot, babies were crying, and still more and more people filled the bus.
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Swazis are outrageously patient. I know if the transportation in America was like it is here, there would be daily fights and riots and people would go nuts. Here, the transport builds some comoradrarie. I was “that girl” and tried to incite applause after we finally got moving again after someone at the back of the bus reached their stesh (station) which meant everyone had to exit the bus to allow this person off, then reboard the bus. I was also the only one outwardly complaining that I could probably run faster than this bus was crawling. It wasn’t my best moment.

Yet, I was fortunate to sit next to a young woman who was also going to my town and made the trip bearable. This woman is amazing. She works 60 hours a week at a pizza restaurant in one of the cities, and has to leave her 18 month old son with the father’s family (in my town). She only can see him once a month, and while she works so hard, she is paid far too little. She is on a waiting list to attend university next term, and I really hope it works out for her. Another highlight of the miserable bus ride was seeing a breathtaking sunset shine golden rays over a valley while the bus chugged up the mountain side.

After several detours and many stops, I got home at 8 pm. Never did my humble abode (pictured below) feel so comfy. The ants that come marching through the holes in my walls will agree, that my house is beginning to feel like a home. Look forward to more pictures of how I have transformed this concrete building into a home in future posts!

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Where official public transport falls short, hitchhiking fills in. Last Saturday another neighboring PCV and I planned to visit one of my PCV pals in a neighboring community to help with her permagarden. I had a feeling I should just start walking, and hope that transport would pick me up along the way. Transport never came, and I walked for two straight hours to reach her community. In Swaziland, I walk very far to avoid paying transport costs (PCVs are known for being cheap, and I fit that stereotype) or simply because there is “kute transport” (no transport).

On the way back from visiting the neighboring PCV, we decided we didn’t want to walk the entirety back (especially after spending the morning digging in the hard dirt), so we decided to try hitching. After a few short minutes, we were in the back of a pickup truck heading to our respective destinations. I do not recommend attempting to hitch alone, but in some instances, there are no other options than to hitch or “hamba nge tinyawo” (go by foot). I enjoy the experience of meeting new people, and sharing a tiny piece of American life with them., and practicing my minimal but growing SiSwati.

The exercise I’m getting here is pretty fantastic, I feel like I could walk all day… and sometimes I do! A few days ago I visited 25 homesteads while conducting my census. I am thinking I could walk pretty much anywhere as long as I have adequate water, snacks, and sunscreen.

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Technology during integration has been immensely useful in communicating with other PCVs and back home. I miss my buds, and it is a welcome albeit far too brief reprieve when I am able to meet up with my friends in town.

While I do feel homesick occasionally, and certainly my patience is tested with transport, I have been thoroughly enjoying my time at site. I love making my own schedule, which includes hours of daily reading. Currently working on Nelson Mandela’s memoir, A Long Walk to Freedom. I also enjoy getting creative by cooking tasty treats such as flatbreads and stews. I received a gift of a large branch of bananas, and my neighbors were very appreciative when they all ripened at once and I baked dozens of banana oatmeal cookies to share. I just opened some care packages from home, and am so happy to have some yarn and crafting materials which will enable my creativity.

All in all, life in the tiny kingdom is good. Being is a Peace Corps Volunteer has ups and downs, sometimes a memory will come over me and the pain of missing America hits me like a punch in the gut. But more often than not, I feel very happy to be here. I feel I have already grown in many ways in the short 3.5 months I’ve lived in Swaziland. Although I miss my friends and loved ones, and I long to watch the landscape turn ablaze with the sunset hues of autumn in my home in West Virginia, I am gaining an immeasurable perspective in Swaziland that I am excited to share.

If you’re reading this and are interested in keeping touch more frequently, send me an email to johnna.bailey@gmail.com!

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