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.


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”.


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


The intricate system of terraces were amazing!


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


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


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.


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!


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


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.


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


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..


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


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


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.


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!


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.


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!


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.


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.


The iconic baobab love tree.


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.


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


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


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


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


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.


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


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


Another magnificent chameleon.

black sand

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!

beach sunset

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


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. 😦

image3 (1)

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!


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


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!


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.


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.

rock art

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.


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


The elephants are my favorite.


But the giraffes are cute too!


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


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.


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.


4 thoughts on “One year in.

  1. Johanna,
    You need to think about a career in journalism or creative writing when you get home! Interesting, informative and very well written… Can’t wait for the next installment!


  2. Amazing pictures and words Johnna. I remember when you said you struggled with writing and now your words leap off the page just as your pictures do. Your bold and adventurous actions have inspired me. I’m sorry it’s taken me this long to read this! I miss you.


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