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.
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?
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.
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: