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.

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