“You’re a Swazi now” and my role as an ambassador, otherwise known as life as a PCV

I am regularly surprised when I surprise siSwati and isiZulu speakers with what I think are my poor language skills.

Speaking a few words of the local language has always been important to me. I have spent many hours learning a few phrases in French, Twi, kiSwahili, and Turkish before traveling to locations where these languages are spoken. I studied German for eight years, including a summer and a school year studying abroad in Austria. I have been traveling since 2006 and have learned how important it is to be able to greet or thank the locals you encounter on travels.

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For old time’s sake, a photo of me in Salzburg nearly nine years ago. 

It has only been in Africa, though, where the locals have been surprised by my minimal language skills.

On my first trip to Ghana, where I did research in small communities surrounding Kumasi, I thoroughly enjoyed walking through markets greeting the salespeople as I perused their wares. Their surprise at my few words of Twi made these journeys entertaining, but I never thought about why the locals were surprised.

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I spoke Twi with these two women (above and below) in order to take their pictures. These will always be some of my favorite photos. 

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Here in Swaziland, the surprise is common enough that I have begun thinking about it.

To me, this surprise shows how little respect the Swazi language, culture, and traditions have received from all of the previous foreigners to live in, work in, and visit Swaziland.

Swazis shouldn’t have to be surprised that I can greet in siSwati, can dress and behave appropriately and as my status as council member’s daughter requires, and correctly tie the knot of my lihiya when I am traditionally dressed.

Swazis shouldn’t have to think they need to greet me in English and they shouldn’t have to laugh in surprise when they hear me ask to squeeze past someone on a khumbi in siSwati.

The bar shouldn’t be set so low that they call me a Swazi when I correctly do any of these things.

While I appreciate being called a Swazi, especially because it shows how much my presence is accepted and respected, I wish it wasn’t this way.

I wish that this country and its people and heritage were respected enough that the people who come to work, live, and vacation here learned appropriate greetings and behavior before coming.

I am also in a position to teach the people who come to work, live, and vacation here what respect of tradition and culture means as my role as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and I relish this role.

While Peace Corps Volunteers are expected to do work in the form of teaching and training locals, that is only one-third of our responsibilities. The other two are to share the local culture with Americans and to share America with locals, both of which are so easily achieved, leave a lasting impression, and can offer so many benefits and respect.

I see this as all PCVs, including all the 230,000 RPCVS and future recruits, have the opportunity to be brand ambassadors. Our brand is both America and our country of service. Instead of wearing some brand’s clothing at a reduced price and speaking its benefits to those around us, we will forever be able to speak fondly of our service and our second homes and families around the world, and we might even wear their clothing, too.

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Me traditionally dressed dancing for the king, who is approaching from my left. 

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Wednesday photo: Clothing design

I have so much fabric and have had so little clothing made. I even bought more fabric last week. Whoops.

Part of the problem has been finding a tailor who will do what I ask, make clothes that fit, and not charge me an arm and a leg. I didn’t think finding someone who could do all three would be so hard!

I dropped off two pieces of fabric at a tailor in Mbabane, asking for two simple skirts. If these go well, then I will happily drop off more fabric. Her business card says she specializes in a variety of fancy dress styles, so I have high hopes!

In the meantime, I’ve searched the Internet for many designs. I’ve liked so many, that I have at least 50 on my phone. Here’s my most recent inspiration binge.

And me, wearing some of my outfits, just for fun.

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This one is a bit of a tease because I bought it made, but it’s from a store called Bow Afrika that specializes in dresses from traditional fabric.

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This one is fabric from Zambia. I have a lot left because I only had the top made. I’m thinking about having shorts made, which could actually be worn in my future townie life.

My plan is to be fashionably dressed in only locally-made outfits for our upcoming Close of Service conference. It will be hosted at a reserve with beautiful views, so I am looking forward to a bit of a photo shoot!

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Saturday gratitude: Work assignments, showers, packages, and quiet mornings

This week was better, as I managed to stay much busier. I went to Mbabane twice, once for an HIV Committee meeting and once for a meeting with PSI. Fellow HIV Committee member and G14 extender Blake spent Sunday night at my homestead because we had planned to go for a hike but then stayed inside because of a threat of lightning. Instead I killed a chicken for a chicken pot pie, and then we discussed future travel plans and played a game of Settlers of Catan.

Both of my meetings were productive, with tasks assigned for future work. Yay for work! And my GLOW Club and English Club had productive meetings this week (our last of the term), which included an early morning trip to school for assembly to watch three of my students recite poems at assembly. They were a hit!

Book Club met today, and this is the first time I didn’t read the book (only because I didn’t like it). It should be a fruitful discussion even so. After the meeting I am looking to catch up with a few of the members about their recent travels and to have a shower. I haven’t washed my hair at home (in a bucket) for almost a month, so it’s now a challenge to see how long I can keep my shower streak going.

This week I also picked up a package that spent nearly two months in Manzini for no apparent reason. I immediately broke into the snacks. Thanks, mom!

And lastly, the music on my homestead was relatively quiet in the early a.m. every day this past week. I was trying to go to sleep just as my eldest bhuti got home last night, and I was extremely grateful he wasn’t playing anything loud. After a horrible night of sleep even without the loud music, I continued to be grateful that the music didn’t start until after I was awake this morning. After a few religious tunes, he played Mariah Carey for about an hour.

Baking for the week

  • I made a yellow cake for Blake’s visit.

Media consumption for the week

  • I’m still working on Nine African Stories and the Alexander Hamilton biography.
  • I read the BGSU magazine and the children’s books my mom sent in a package.
  • My bhuti and I watched The Martian.
  • I watched an episode of Outlander.
  • I’m listening to my music on shuffle, although it is hard to hear over my eldest bhuti’s loud tunes. He’s currently on a country kick, with “Country Roads” playing.
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Wednesday photo: Avocado

Oh, to live in a place where you can afford to eat all of a giant avocado in one sitting. 

 

I was so excited to eat this avocado that I forgot to take a photo before I ate it!

 
Giant is a bit of an exaggeration, only because this avocado is average sized. 

I was overcharged for this one because I was in town and avocado season isn’t in full swing yet. I greatly look forward to its arrival. 

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Saturday gratitude: Extension and other wonderful things

I have been in a funk lately over the ever-continuing disappointment in my site and staff not following up on my requests for help. I have spent so much time reading in my hut recently that even one of my elder host brothers who never talks to me asked if I was hiding from the family.

So I am reusing my PCV blogger friend April’s idea (check out her awesome blog at Hello from Kosovo) for a weekly gratitude post as a way to get my mind back into a more positive mindset, especially when I do have exciting news.

In February I applied to extend my Peace Corps service in Swaziland with an NGO in town. I found out last week that my application was approved, so I will be working on behavior change communications at PSI in Mbabane. You can check out PSI Swaziland’s website here, and I will post more about what my extension will be like later. I should start work in August or September.

Also this week I finally had two successful English club lessons. We have been discussing poetry for nearly two months, and this week we started writing our own poems. A handful of my 40 students finished their poems on Thursday and they did a spectacular job. I cannot wait to write more about this project once we are finished!

If you remember me writing about one of my students last year who was struggling to pay his school fees, he missed about a month of this first term while he was in South Africa organizing money. He’s been back at school for three weeks, and he was just awarded the position of head boy! Each grade has a male and female prefect who are responsible for attendance, behavior, and cleanliness of the students in their grade. The head boy and head girl are responsible for all of the students and prefects. There’s no class president here, so these are the highest positions available to students.

Baking for the week

  • I took a chocolate cake to a meeting about the upcoming GLOW camp.
  • Today I made carrot cake and gingerbread cookies for two birthdays on my homestead.

Media consumption for the week

  • Among Flowers, a short travel narrative about a trip to Nepal to collect seeds by Jamaica Kincaid.
  • Felicity by Mary Oliver, which is one of this month’s book club books and is a short collection of poems. I really enjoyed this collection.
  • The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh is our other book club book. I read a quarter of this play and disliked it so much I can’t finish it.
  • I started Nine African Stories by Doris Lessing. This was recommended to me, and I found it in my school’s library. Its title is a misnomer. It should be called Nine Colonizer Stories (that take place in Southern Rhodesia). I thought these stories would be more like Cry, the Beloved Country (a book written by a white man about a Xhosa story that is well regarded), but they are patriarchal stories about the English settlers in what is now Zimbabwe. Race issues brought on by colonization are exploding right now in South Africa and Zimbabwe, and I don’t have a taste for these stories that make no apology. I will finish them anyway.
  • I also started Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton. I bought the music from the musical Hamilton a few months ago. Like many Americans, I knew little about this founding father, and this musical made me want to learn more.
  • My younger bhuti and I watched How to Train Your Dragon 2. We started Mrs. Doubtfire and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, but he had seen those before. We tried 42-The Jackie Robinson Story, which he didn’t like, and finally settled on Puss in Boots.
  • I watched a few episodes of Outlander and The Handmaid’s Tale and a German movie called Liebe mich!.
  • I am listening to Sands and Bholoja, two of Swaziland’s more famous musicians, as I write this.
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Wednesday photo: Congratulations cake

My tutor just got a real job at a neighboring community’s clinic as an HIV counselor, so a cake was in order! 
 

It is an extra special occassion when I use both icing and sprinkles.


She very nicely shared a slice with me and her sister-in-law and then she saved the rest for herself.  

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If hyenas could talk

Hyenas are usually on the move, never lingering for long at one spot, unless you find a mother with her cubs. For this reason, my photos of hyenas usually show only their backside moving away.

On my latest trip to Kruger, we spied two hyenas leaving a watering hole on the trail of something. We later saw some zebra and giraffe in the area, but our vehicle brought a new smell to the area, the smell of two hamburgers brought along as snacks by some of my fellow safari goers. The hyenas spent a whole five minutes near us, with one intensely smelling us, as my photos show.

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Cruncher: Snickers, hurry up! I smell something tasty!

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Cruncher: I can’t tell if it is dead or alive, but it smells like buffalo.

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Snickers: Oh yeah, Cruncher, I’ve got the smell. It was right here. 

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Snickers: Cruncher! Something is watching us! Cruncher: That’s not food. There’s more scent here. 

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Cruncher: I smell live zebra. I’m gonna check it out. Snickers: I’ve still got the buffalo you smelled. I need to figure out what’s going on here with this big box on the path.

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Snickers: There’s something moving inside. And, oh, the smell!

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Snickers: Cruncher, I’m going up close. The smell is here. It’s inside the box.

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Snickers: Mmmmm.

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Snickers: Cruncher, I’ve got it. You want some?

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Cruncher: Give it up, Snickers. I said that’s not food. There’s some better looking zebra right here. Let’s kill one.

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Snickers: But Cruncher, there’s meat right there. I can still smell it. Cruncher: C’mon, Snickers. Let’s go get this zebra and have a feast. 

Special thanks to Taylor for the hyena names!

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Wednesday photo: Newborn calf

My family grew by one with the birth of a calf. He arrived on early Sunday morning, born into a muddy, post-rain kraal, which gave him his name: Ngumdagga. He is “of the mud.”

 

Baby Ngumdagga


Of course, I want to befriend this baby, but I am not friends with his mother Madiba or brother White Spot (I always forget the siSwati), so it’s a challenge. 

Today I watched Lentjisi, the son of the other mother cow Pineapple (these cows are part of the dowry my bhuti is paying for his second wife), play fight with the baby and it was hysterical, watching them both bounce around on wobbly knees. 

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Wednesday photo: Poetry

I had a mostly hate relationship with poetry until a few weeks ago. My English club kids asked for poetry lessons, which meant lots of research on my end. I spent hours and hours perusing middle school and high school poetry lessons and suggestions posted on the internet. I had not realized I was entering a black hole I would find happiness in.

As I spent more and more time looking for the perfect poems for Swazi students who I expected also had not had an always-positive experience with poetry, I found a new favorite poem. I have always loved Nikki Giovanni’s “Ego-Tripping,” and now it has some competition: Jimmy Santiago Baca’s “I Am Offering this Poem.”

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I tried to take a photo of my piles of handwritten poems that I am using for school, but it didn’t turn out well. Instead, here’s an excerpt from “I Am Offering this Poem.”

I have not found a way to work this poem into my poetry lessons yet, because we are talking about heritage, but I will keep it on the back burner until the time is right.

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A moment in my life: Three hot

So many entertaining things happen in my life in Swaziland. These are the moments I will want to remember because they make me laugh, and they show insight into my daily routine. These moments are often hard to photograph and usually last only a minute or two. I will start sharing them with you in this occasional series. 

It’s three hot today, for the ninth (at least!) day in a row.

Three hot is when it is hotter than too hot.

It’s when:

  • I have turned my fan up to the third speed, but that really just means the already hot air is just blown at me faster.
  • It is cooler outside than inside.
  • I take a cold bath in the middle of the day to cool off.
  • I wake up sweaty.
  • I lay on my cement floor in my underwear.
  • I eat yogurt for dinner so I do not have to turn on my stove.
  • Standing up from my spot on the floor to do anything else breaks a sweat.
  • I will need another bath after my walk to the stesh, yet I have to go to school via an overcrowded khumbi with the windows closed.
  • My chocolate is melting.

How how is three hot? I’ve decided anything above 90*F, because it’s hard for me to notice a difference in temperature when it is 90* or hotter.

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