The First 87 Days in Swaziland

When I created this blog, it was with the hope of sharing my application process, packing tips, and overall experience with hopeful future volunteers while giving my mother, boyfriend, and friends at home peace of mind through pictures and funny or thought provoking anecdotes. Alas, the application changed, and I ended up packing nearly all 44 pounds of luggage in the late hours of the night before I boarded the flight to staging in Philadelphia (the most valuable tip I can share regarding packing- don’t do what I did), leaving only experience through photos and stories to share- of which I have gained plenty over the blur of the past 87 days. Eating strange (yet delicious) new foods such as fat cakes, corn porridge, chicken intestine, and chunky sour milk, crossing haphazard makeshift bridges and attempting to speak the syllabic slurry that is SiSiwati turned Pre-Service Training (PST) into a time warp that allowed the weeks to pass too fast.

Although some volunteers truly disdain the strict schedule of PST, I tried to appreciate the structure while I had it. During training, I lived with a wonderful family (The Dlaminis) in a village with the other several dozen Community Health trainees. While we did not have electricity or indoor plumbing, I truly felt at home there and spent many evenings reading kindle by candle or kicking around a soccer ball up-cycled from plastic bags under the bright light of the moon. The Dlamini family treated me like a daughter and sister. Although the initial encounters were a bit awkward (especially when they wanted a detailed history of my religious beliefs), after a few days we were all much more comfortable and they quickly came to appreciate the modern conveniences I brought with me, such as the ever-useful can opener. I loved making them laugh by talking to the animals (am now fluent in goat-speak) and telling lame jokes most people don’t think are as funny as I. Contagious laughter filled the small cinder-block room when my make (SiSwati for mother or madame, pronounced mah-gay) told me she regularly practices fasting to purify her body, and I commented that I also fast, every day!… After I eat dinner… and before I eat breakfast the next day, haha.

An average day of training looked something like this:
5 am or earlier- woke up to the music of roosters boasting and goats bleating, flopped around for another hour.
6 am- got out of bed, concocted a breakfast blend of sliced banana a la peanut butter & rice cake, or something a bit more fancy- chopped apple with cinnamon and hot cereal. Then, I donned my ground sweeping skirt and wide brimmed hat and I was ready to face the day.
7:30am- I traversed a large field scattered with boulders that range in size from skipping stones to several larger than the hut which housed me. After following a cow trail through the rocky expanse, laden with a blanket of fog- the moisture of which clung to the tips of the tall grass and saturated our skirts, I and 4 other trainees would reach the hut of our SiSwati Language & Culture Facilitator, Lucky. We initiated the appropriate greetings (“Sawubona!” “Yebo!” “Unjani?!” “Ngiyaphilia!”), and then worked through vocabulary and verb conjugation between sips of tea and mouthfuls of cookies (aka, biscuits).


(Swazi Kitchen)

Allow me a brief digression, as cookies were and are of utmost importance during PST and beyond. I never was much of a cookie dipper in America, but in Swaziland I gain immeasurable joy from a perfectly chewy shortbread. I am not alone, either. Engaging conversations occured in the tea room at our training center when I prompted various trainees with: “How long do you dip a cookie?” The answer: it depends. The shortbreads need at least 5 seconds, but the thin tennis cookies and lemon cremes require only a hasty dip- any longer and your tea is quickly soiled with unappetizing buoys of mushy cookie. Cookies were the glue that held training together, and in my opinion, tea was served only as a complement to the cookies. At tea time, camaraderie went out the window when a rare cookie made an appearance (“HEY YA’LL, THEY’RE PUTTING OUT CHOCOLATE COOKIES”– cue a flock of vulturous trainees flying into the tea room and picking apart the trays, leaving only the normal coconut wafers and some chocolate crumbs for those who missed the memo).

I digress.

9:00am- we walked to the bus station, hopped aboard, and arrived at our training center just in time for more cookies. It is no surprise that many female volunteers gain weight during PST (I gained around 10lbs.), I blame the cookies.
10am- a morning session took place, with topics ranging from permagardening to the history of Swaziland.
Noon- Lunch! Some frequented the Swazi version of a fast food stand called Chicken Dust. For a mere 18 emalangeni (about $1.50 USD), one could dine on a quarter of a grilled chicken with a helping of pap (corn porridge) and salad on the side. I, being too cheap most days, typically brown-bagged my lunch- usually a PB&J, fruit and boiled egg. Once fetching food, a large group of trainees typically sat outside in a big circle to absorb the sun and thaw from the morning session. If time permitted, some also played frisbee or soccer after.
1pm- Back to sessions, flip charts, and usually an interactive or group activity.
3:30pm- We hopped aboard the bus once more to head back to our humble communities.
4:30pm- After walking home, I usually greeted my family and relaxed for a short while. Occasionally I visited the homesteads of neighboring volunteers to jump rope with their young bosisi (sisters).
*picture of homestead*
5:30pm- Time to do various chores. I washed my clothes by hand, or cleaned the bucket I peed in the night before (walkng to the latrine late at night is scary and we were advised to avoid doing so as a safety precaution), or walked a long distance with my make to a far away garden to buy a cabbage for my family to enjoy. Along the way, we crossed a very crooked bridge pictured below. This is one of the more sturdy bridges I have encountered in the time in rural Swaziland.
resize5(My make, and the church)

7:30pm- I shared a meal with my family. In typical Swazi culture, it is the women who prepare the food and dish to the rest of the family. In my training family, the youngest boys cooked the food most of the time, which is unusual and progressive. I enjoyed sitting in the kitchen hut with them, discussing school and various aspects of Swazi culture while they churned the pap with a long wooden spoon. One of the first phrases they taught me was- “Entfutfu endladleni” meaning “There is smoke in the kitchen!” Most of the time we ate pap with beans and a stewed vegetable like spinach or cabbage, but on the weekend when babe (pronouned bah-bay, meaning father) came home from work we had meat with rice and various salads. The Dlamini family referred to basically everything that was not a starch or a meat as a salad. We had beet root salads, cabbage salads, and on two occasions I shared boxed mac n cheese from my care package with them (spinkled with crushed cheez-its to make it really decadent), after which they said, “Oh Gugulethu! (my Swazi name) This is a very nice salad!”
8:30pm- After dinner, my family and I usually sat for a little while, opined on the meal we shared (“kudla lokumnanzi”- “delicious food!” and “ngesutsi, ngiyabonga”- “I’m satisfied, thank you”) and when they asked, I told them stories of America. Then I excused myself to my hut where I studied until I fell asleep. I woke up and did it all again.

resize9(My bhuti [brother] and I)

Over the course of the 10 weeks, we took various official and unofficial excursions. My favorite were the impromptu hikes to the top of the mountain upon which the training village was settled. A few pictures below show some of the beautiful views we enjoyed. On a few of our hikes traversing sacred waterfalls where rumors of a 7 headed snake originated, we witnessed headless chickens floating in the water and dozens upon dozens of empty milk cartons amassed in the crevasses of various waterfalls. We also bore witness to candles that were already lit as we climbed the boulders surrounding the flow of water. It was clear from the layers of colorful wax that the area we hiked through was ritualized by the local “Jericho” sect. It felt pretty ominous.

Getting to know my fellow volunteers has been my favorite experience of my time thus far. 45 of us make up the 13th (and largest) group of volunteers to serve in Swaziland since His Majesty invited us back and there are around 40 volunteers who have been in country for at least a year already. We all carry a unique skill set. It is a good feeling, to be humbled by the scientists, consultants, and academics that surround me, and to know we are all in this together.


Now that I have recalled a few highlights from the past 87 days, I want to touch on why I am here. Swaziland is rich with a very interesting culture, and I encourage you to do some independent research to learn more. I can not begin to explain the complex traditions that shape the culture, but I can attempt to describe what I see.

resize4(My training home)

Swaziland is a tiny kingdom in south Africa, slightly smaller than the state of New Jersey and one of the few true remaining monarchies (a dual monarchy, in technicality alone- It is true, the queen mother has her own army of willing soldiers, and a week long festival devoted to the traditional repair of her royal homestead. Yet, in any establishment containing the framed pictures of His Majesty and the Queen Mother, the King is always hung slightly higher on the wall. The difference, however slight, serves as a physical representation of the gender inequality that looms over Swaziland, trickling down from the top.)

The general population is Christian, and upon meeting a stranger will nearly immediately ask about your religious beliefs. While most Swazis attend church regularly, there is still very much present an element of traditional magic. Earlier this week, I had the fortune of being invited on a field trip with the local preschool. 49 kiddos piled onto the bus, while 6 teachers formed a small circle outside the vehicle and all began fervently praying out loud (as is typical of swazi prayer). Then they began walking around the bus, continuing to chant and pray. After a few minutes, they were satisfied with the level of safety they had prayed into our journey and climbed back onto the bus, breathless and slightly sweaty. If I had not heard them calling out the name of Jesus, based on actions alone, I would not have known they were Christians. It seems that the elements of traditional culture combine with the beliefs drawn from the Bible, and it is very interesting to behold.


Christianity is not the only hybrid combination of values in Swaziland, there exists both traditional laws that allow for polygamy and a paternal hierarchy, as well as a legal constitution completed in 2005 with laws that aim to protect women and children. Unfortunately, the traditional laws are not codified. This leads to situations where individuals who commit crimes outlined under the modern constitution may be able to avoid penalty by employing traditional laws. This is a country in transition.

So, why am I here? A quick web search of Swaziland will bring up jaw-dropping statistics. The following numbers come from the Baylor University clinic, that operates from several satellite clinics throughout Swaziland. With the highest prevalence rate in the world, more than 25% of the entire population is HIV positive, and more than 50% of the pregnant population is infected. Of 1.1 million people, there are more than 123,000 orphans and vulnerable youth. The life expectancy is a harrowing 50 years. Of children, 29% are stunted, 10% are malnourished, and 3% are severely malnourished. TB (including it’s ugly multi-drug resistant form) preys upon the immunodeficient population. HIV has taken the center stage for many years now, leaving diabetes and heart disease fighting for resources. These are the cold facts. But cold, Swazis are not. They are friendly and welcoming and love to laugh and are romantic to the core. Swazis are people trying to survive every day just like the rest of the world, but the destiny of geography is working against them. These hardships can not be quantified into inhumane statistics.

In order to begin to try to understand what is happening and how we can help, we must learn their stories and we must share them. Today, I joined my youngest sisi while playing with my other bosisi’s children and the neighbor kids. I found them “playing cooking” by a pile of burning trash. Next to the trash, there was a mound of old, pecked to pieces, bitter spinach my babe weeded from the garden earlier that day. I watched my young, beautiful sisi create cakes and scones from pieces of mud and put them on the fire to “cook”. While she played, a young boy had found an small rusty tin that once contained fish in a sauce. I watched as he took pieces of the bitter spinach and put them into the tin, then spat on top and smashed it down with a filthy fork that he found in the winter remains of what once was corn field, now covered in dung and trash. He set this tin next to the mud scones on the fire, and I thought to myself, “surely, this is part of the game they are playing”. After playing various games with the children involving hand holding and running around, we returned to the fire to warm ourselves (it is currently 55 degrees and it drizzled all day). I watched the young boy remove the tin from the fire, and set it on top of the chicken coop out of the reach of the young toddlers. This boy take a high interest in my attention- my focus was on giving all the children hugs, taking them all on piggy-back rides, and trying my hardest to show every child some love. The boy was stricken with grief when my attention was not on him. He cried when I played with the other children, and his arms were glued to the side of my legs. Then, when the play time was winding down, before I could realize what was happening, the boy retrieved the tin and the children were eating the composted greens that were cooked with saliva in an old pilchard tin. I shuddered. I was so surprised, I did not know what to do or how to approach this situation. I still don’t, really.


But, maybe that is why I am here- to experience, and learn, and try to understand while in turn, bringing the complexities of Swaziland to public attention. To bring light to the hundreds of thousands of people suffering and dying from diseases that are preventable and curable, because they can not afford to travel to the clinics. To show young girls and boys what is possible, and how to grasp opportunities when they arise. To expand the capacity of the local leaders, so that Swazis can help themselves. To, in the words of my Country Director, build human spirit. To carry the weight of these stories, and to share them with anyone willing to care.

Above all, I aim to do no harm.




2 thoughts on “The First 87 Days in Swaziland

  1. What an amazing story you are living Johnna. I loved the lengthy digression about cookies, and I was shocked when reading about the kids cooking with trash. I’m excited for your next post to see your adventure in Swaziland unfold. Much love for you.


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