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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2 thoughts on “A Sweaty Month at Site

  1. Wooooah! That is so cool that there are monkeys in Swaziland! I totally want to try a fat cake now that you talked it up so well. Your photos (and you) look beautiful and I enjoy your detailed and lighthearted writing style. Looking forward to your next post 🙂

    Like

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