Living allowance: April

I spent a lot on transport and lodging, along with fabric and one of my tailors during the month of April. I managed to keep the other areas in check and not go too far over. 

  

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Gratitude, even when crying

Explaining my life here is hard. I have three weeks left in my community, I am crazy busy, and packing is stressful. In short, I am a mess.

I revisited the blog post that best sums up my Peace Corps experience this past week to attempt to explain Peace Corps to a friend. I couldn’t get more than a few lines without crying.

I did not write this post; an RPCV from Ethiopia did. Rather than write more words trying to explain how I feel, just read Michael’s post.

The Real Peace Corps

I feel as though I have done somewhat of a disservice throughout this blog, painting a picture that is not precisely accurate. I am an emotional person, romantic, optimistic to a fault. I like extremes and superlatives, exaggerating in an attempt to draw my audience in, and to make sense of things that I can’t make sense of.

I romanticize this experience as a function of my personality but also as a coping mechanism. Simply put, life in the Peace Corps is hard.

I want to write about the real Ethiopia, and the real Peace Corps experience. It is a defensive approach, protection for when a future volunteer reads about my experiences. Hopefully as a result, he or she will understand what to expect, and will not mock me for only showing pictures of sunsets and kids holding hands.

So what should you expect?

Nothing is the best answer. Expect nothing and you will be pleasantly surprised because every experience is different. My friend Jon lives 80 miles away. His house has no floor save for the mud it was built on, and he may go weeks without any source of electricity.  My site mate Dave lives 200 meters from my house and our experiences are similar only in the cultural and physical climate that we share. Peace Corps volunteers live in rural places, in cities, on the beach and in the mountains. We live in peaceful towns and difficult towns besieged by alcoholism. Some live in nice houses with bad toilets and others in bad houses with nice toilets. Our homes, failures, successes and environments differ, and yet a few common themes unite us. We are lonely yet connected as a fraternity of like minded people. We are frustrated and enthralled. We are celebrated and studied and gossiped about. We are discouraged and resilient and everywhere in between.

Peace Corps is defined by a strange dichotomy. Freedom and containment. I wake up every day with a blank slate. I can do anything. I can do nothing. And while the possibilities are only limited by my own imagination, the ability to do as I please is corrupted by a number of social, political, and cultural practices.

Case in point: Most volunteers assume they will run to let off steam in their new country. However, running here is a cause of stress more so than a release. You are stared at as a foreigner here, stares that know no shame. Stares that you can not only see, but also feel. They are honest and curious stares, but can crack even the kindest of spirits. A foreigner in shorts – Running? That is, to their credit, quite hilarious.  Running here means being followed by hordes of children, the last thing you need when trying to let off steam.

I want to export coffee to benefit local farmers and provide an organic alternative to the Starbucks mess we have back home. The bureaucratic structure and corruption here has destroyed those dreams. Disappointment — and the inability to enact change in your community is part of the PC experience.

Doing something like the Peace Corps will be your lowest of lows and your highest of highs. Highs that shatter your previous world views.  You will feel refreshed, walk in a forest and quote Thoreau. The lows can last so long that you need a fleeting moment of existentialism just to make it through the rainy season. That, and a ton of books. You will consider going home. You will count down the days until you leave. You will count up from the day you arrived.

“I can’t believe we have been here for a year!”

“I can’t believe we’ll be here another year!”

You will understand yourself, question yourself and compare where you came from to where you are. I have days when I miss America. I have days when I loathe it. Why do people care about Charlie Sheen? How many kids in the horn of Africa died of hunger yesterday and does anyone care? I can’t even imagine dying of hunger. When I’m hungry, I eat.

But I eat strange food. Ethiopian food is unlike anything else in the world, and I have come to absolutely love it. I consider myself extremely lucky to be in a country with such diverse and delicious food. However at times the food is quite mediocre and will often lead to three days of stomach cramps. Other times, the food is so incredibly bad that I consider burning down every plant that grows whatever the hell is in ‘Gunfo’

Don’t try Gunfo.

Universally, Peace Corps volunteers crave food. I have dreams about it, vivid dreams where I belly flop into a bowl of ice cream off of a hot-fudge brownie diving board. I have a long distance relationship with Sushi and we are not communicating well. We miss the diversity and develop a strange passion for nostalgic food.

As volunteers, we love to complain. We joke about our poop and our pooping locations. We laugh about smelling bad.

We smell bad.

We yearn for hot showers, however I think it is just for show. Any volunteer, more so than food or showers, miss people and places. You will miss friends and seasons. During your service, you will be alone on the Fourth of July, Halloween, Thanksgiving. You will miss your family, your really hot girlfriend, and the contextual clues you associate with fond memories. I know what the Chesapeake bay feels like on thanksgiving. I can feel the football, and taste the sweet potato pie.

You will be stared at 24/7 365. I understand what it’s like to be a good-looking girl at a fraternity party. Stay strong ladies. I also have so much respect and admiration for the women across Peace Corps, who tolerate a level of staring and harassment, that I can barely fathom.

One of the great things about Peace Corps is you have a massive amount of time to become a better person. The best advice I can give is to try and do something everyday to improve upon yourself. For some people this is writing or reading. For others it is teaching English or working out. Learn an instrument or paint — do whatever works for you, but know this: You will stare at the wall. I stare at the wall a lot. I’ve had every thought someone can have. Probably twice.

You will develop an eerie sense of calm. I’ve spent 75 hours in the last two weeks on a bus. The DMV will be a breeze now. I’ve found new and embarrassing ways to entertain myself. I could watch paint dry and be perfectly happy.

Transportation completely sucks.

I just got out of a bus with 12 seats on it. There were 25 people on it. There were two chickens and probably 20 kilograms of rancid butter. Here is a letter:

Dear Ethiopia,

It’s ok to open the windows on the bus. I promise you won’t die from the wind. I promise it’s not that cold. Currently, sweat is running down my lower back and into the danger zone. My sweat is sweating. Fresh air is nothing to be scared of but tuberculosis is. As much as I like saunas and the smell of chicken feces, can we please crack the window’s for 2 minutes? I will love you forever.

Yours truly,

Michael

There is no average day.

Last week, my Tuesday was perfect. I had a meeting with the tourism office about making them a website. I taught a man how to make guacemole and tortillas which he will sell in his store. I played basketball, added a layer to a clay oven and worked on the newsletter I am writing for Peace Corps.

The next day? I slept in, watched a silly amount of the show ‘Dexter’  and checked in on my fantasy baseball team. Yeah, I’m cool.

There will be times when, despite your pictures of you hugging little kids, you just want to tackle one of them and scream, my name is NOT,

“you you you!!!!!, give me money!!!!!!”

In America we ask for the time. Here, we ask for the month. It’s the most obvious difference. The pace of life here is slow, methodical, cyclical. Everything takes a long time. If you aren’t a patient person you will become one.

Life here is completely different. It is another world, lost in space and time. It is hard, and the little annoyances can manifest themselves into a black cloud. They certainly will, but it is important to make note of the small victories and the little moments. When I open my eyes I am reminded of why I am here. Just when I think a kid is running up to me to ask me for money, she tells me that she loves me and blows a kiss. Then I remember that I am on a bus and I start crying. I’m stuck in the middle of nowhere with a busted engine. It is getting dark, I have a chicken in my lap and personal space at this point is a distant memory. People are yelling into their cell phones, begging me to speak to them and take them to America. The only food in the town by the road is Gunfo.

Remember in times like this to take a deep breath. Peace Corps really is a roller coaster. An exhilarating and scary ride that completely sucks and totally kicks ass.

And when you are feeling down, just remember to go outside and let Africa save you.

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Gratitude: Work to do

I was worried I would have a hard time filling my last few weeks at site; instead, the opposite is happening. I have a variety of paperwork and projects to tie up before I move, plus I am leading the planning of a large Independence Day celebration, and all these things are becoming a daunting task.

I am grateful for work, a desk, and a functioning computer, and the relatively reliable electricity on my homestead.

I am grateful to have the money for the fabric and jacket shopping I did over the weekend for future outfits.

I am grateful for having the chance to say goodbye to departing Peace Corps friends who are departing on their own schedules. PCVs in both South Africa and Mozambique have recently had their service prematurely ended due to internal, political conflict. Let eSwatini stay peaceful as November elections quickly approach.

I am grateful for the upcoming work changes and I hope for a smooth transition from life in the community to life in town.

Baking for the week

  • Lemon muffins with a crumb topping and lemon glaze.
  • Lemon cake with raspberry filling.

Media for the week

  • I have been watching two episodes of Avatar daily with my kids.
  • I watched Madagascar with my littlest bhuti who was visiting.
  • I watched Lady Bird.
  • I finished Blue Highways: A Journey into America by William Least Heat-Moon. This was a beautiful depiction of the back roads of America. I appreciate the author’s beliefs and quest for answers about history. I even learned where Salem, Ohio, got its name: from Zadock Street, a New Jerseyan who moved west from Salem, New Jersey, and created Salem, Ohio; Salem, Indiana; and Salem, Iowa.
  • I have been listening to Swazi, Nigerian, and South African artists.
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Two years in the Peace Corps in numbers

Today is my second anniversary of arriving in Swaziland. Now I live in a country called eSwatini. Like the name of this country, many other things have changed. Or been broken, disappeared, or accumulated.

When I first started thinking about this post, I was doing laundry. I started thinking about how many times I have done laundry by hand here. I have only had my clothes washed in a machine twice in the past two years (once on vacation in Kruger and once on vacation with my parents in St. Lucia), and neither of those loads were big. In fact, they were small.

Trying to quantify laundry days got me going. I started thinking of everything else I could count. Here’s my list.

Clothing

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Laundry day

  • Worn out one skirt, two pairs of underwear, one shirt, and one pair of sneakers.
  • Had five skirts, one pair of shorts, one dress, four sweaters, and five shirts mailed.
  • Took four shirts, one dress, and seven pairs of socks from my mom when she visited.
  • Bought two pre-made dresses and three skirts from stores.
  • Had four dresses, four skirts, one shirt, and one suit jacket tailor-made.
  • Washed clothes approximately 48 times for about two hours each time.
  • Washed my blankets three times.

Food

  • Ate oatmeal with raisins, peanut butter, cinnamon, and sugar for breakfast about 700 times.
  • Used 700 eggs.
  • Ate 24 kg of peanut butter.
  • Ate 100 kg of yogurt.
  • Baked 30 birthday cakes.
  • Filtered 3500 liters of water.
  • Chipped one mug, one plate, and one bowl.
  • Completely broke one mug.
  • Lost one spoon.
  • Missed saag paneer, my favorite mole dish from Red Iguana, and good ice cream the most.

Leisure

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Extra close to white rhinos with my parents at Hlane.

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Oh hi there, fierce-looking lion.

  • Read 74 books, with two in progress.
  • Attended every book club meeting, which I think is nine meetings.
  • Traveled to eight countries (Botswana, eSwatini, Lesotho, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, and Zambia).
  • Viewed so many new animals. Highlights include pronking springbok, oryx, black rhino, wild dogs, approaching white rhinos on foot, so many lions up close and personal, hundred-head herds of elephants, and flamingos.
  • Fell in love with birds (especially king fishers) and wild dogs. Ngiyabonga kakhulu Phelile and kea leboga KB.
  • Used 40 vacation days.
  • Visited the homes of six PCVs and six GHSP volunteers.
  • Hosted 25 visitors at my homestead.
  • Received 29 cards, 63 postcards, and five multi-page letters. Mom, I did not mean to slight you; I also received easily 100 envelopes of notes and news from home from my mother.
  • One package is currently lost in transit. 
  • Wrote 220 blog posts before this one about my service, clocking in at a total of 70,131 words.
  • Watched 89 movies with my bhuti.

Culture

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The group of timbali who took me under their wings for the week of Umhlanga.

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My aunt at her umtsimba wedding.

  • Attended eSwatini’s three largest cultural events: Umhlanga, Incwala, and Buganu.
  • Participated in a full week of Umhlanga and danced for the king.
  • Attended one traditional umtsimba wedding and one white wedding.
  • Learned 40 traditional siSwati songs.
  • Learned all the words to all of the songs on Sands’ Sands of Time album and to Mafikizolo’s Love Potion.
  • Spent 250 hours in siSwati lessons between PST and my community tutor.
  • Bought two chickens that have had more offspring than I can count.
  • Slaughtered three chickens.
  • I was legitimately in the newspaper three times: once for Umhlanga and twice for Buganu. Part of my arm and my head appeared in other newspaper photos.
  • I was on the news three times: twice for Umhlanga and once for singing along to Sands at Bushfire.

Sickness

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Tick bite no. 2.

  • Came down with a few coughs and colds.
  • Two unexplained instances of vomiting.
  • Two bouts of tick bite fever.
  • Got salmonella from undercooked chicken. 

Programming in my community

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One of my English Club students reciting an original poem during morning assembly.

  • Created an English Club at a local high school. It probably won’t continue after I leave, but without it, I would have had zero work to do in my community and surrounds.
  • Created a GLOW Club at the same high school. While this could be sustainable because a former student leads it, she has become extremely unreliable and has stopped communicating with me.
  • Created a health education program with the incentive of skipping rope at my primary school. It was a disaster. My counterpart quit halfway through and then moved to SA. I never found a replacement.
  • Created a community service club when I arrived at site. The young people stopped coming when we discussed fundraising to support the projects they had in mind.

Programming out of my community

  • Worked on nine issues of the SOJO during 2017.
  • Attended four meetings of the HIV Committee.
  • Planned one HIV Boot Camp for G15’s PST.
  • Met at least 10 times with Nicole to update the CHAT manual for G15. We’ve already had our first meeting for updates for G16.
  • Led a permagardening session for G15 with Patrick.
  • Attended eight Peace Corps trainings: PST, IST, PDM, VRF 2017, Boot Camp in Zambia, MST, VRF 2018, and COS.
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Wednesday photo: Drama

It turns out my students in English club love acting in skits. 

We did some gender-themed skits last week, then again yesterday, and now today. 

  
Yesterday’s skits were created after each student received a word and that word had to be in the skit. 

For today, they asked for song lyrics that could be used to create the skit. It was tricky coming up with songs they would know. I chose Taylor Swift’s Blank Page, Sia’s Chandelier, and Shekinah’s Suited. Shekinah is from South Africa and sings in English; this song is currently getting lots of airtime. Let’s hope I chose well! 

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Wednesday photo: Chicken words

While flipping through the dictionary last night I found two new-to-me and exciting words about chickens: kukekela and kelukelwane

  
Kukekela means to cackle, specifically the noise a hen makes after laying an egg. I know from living with so many chickens how in-depth this song can be. 

A kelukelwane is a bird without feathers on its neck. I thought something was wrong with my family’s chickens when I first saw their hairless necks, but I know now that they are a normal, traditional variety. I even have a few like this. 

 

Of all my chickens, this bare-necked rooster may love me the most.

 
 

Thandi’s day old babies. You can see the bare neck of the baby on the right.

 

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Gratitude: Resting while sick

I have had a cold since Bushfire, and it has controlled my life. Fortunately I have been able to sleep in more than usual because my bobhuti have been playing less music. I did not get much of anything else done because I was coughing and blowing my nose frequently, and I had a lot of sinus pressure causing a headache. Instead, I slept, read, and did the bare minimum of work. I was grateful for the flexibility to have an easy week, because my life will have a much stricter schedule very soon when I move to the capital for work.

Baking for the week

  • For Bushfire I made a chocolate babka. It’s an eastern European brioche dough with chocolate filling. I still have a portion of it unbaked in the fridge that I need to put in the oven.
  • My kids and I made lemon bars with giant lemons from our lemon tree. Make and babe really liked them, but the kids preferred the cookie part to the lemon filling.

Media for the week

  • I read The Love Poems of Rumi, edited by Deepak Chopra, and Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War by Mary Roach, a book club book. I’m also partway through Blue Highways: A Journey into America by William Least Heat-Moon and Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex. Roach’s books are fantastic, but I need to move on from her science writing.
  • My bhuti and I have been watching Avatar: The Last Airbender, a children’s series from Nickelodeon.
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Wednesday photo: Euphorbia

In Salt Lake, one of the many plants we had was a euphorbia. I named her Euphie. She got a sunburn and recovered. We picked her branches and grew baby euphorbias. Then she got too cold and mostly died. I hope she’s still alive. 

But I digress. The euphorbias here in their native land are intense. They’ve been growing for so long they are trees. 

   
At the botanical garden at Reilly’s Rock at Mlilwane many plants were wonderfully labled, including this euphorbia. 

 
This sign tells a fascinating story of how every all-black cow belongs to the king (sorry Lenjisi, one of our calves. I’ll have to get some euphorbia juice to change your color). I’ll definitely have to ask my family and tutor about this practice. 

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Gratitude: Bushfire

This past week was a whirlwind. I hardly remember what happened before Bushfire, eSwatini’s incredible music festival.

Before Bushfire, I spent three lessons at school preparing for a debate. My students chose an incredibly difficult topic that I believe they are underestimating. However it turns out, it is a learning experience for these kids. For a handful of them, Thursday was the first time they had ever touched a computer, let alone use the internet. Sending them off into the internet to do research on assisted suicide couldn’t even begin until we had a crash course in computer basics.

eSwatini is humbling on days like that. I receive daily reflections from a company called Holstee, and I have recently received a few about gratitude. In one of these reflections, the author paused to think about how grateful he is for running water. I don’t think he was ever a Peace Corps Volunteer, but if he really wants a lesson in gratitude, Peace Corps is the place. It is a headfirst dive into minimalist living and a place to learn what you really need in life.

Running water makes life easy. What I have appreciated more is the electricity and internet I have. I used a lot of both this past week as I spent the mornings memorizing the siSwati and isiZulu words to a handful of songs I expected would be played at Bushfire.

The ones I already knew paid off the most, though. I was nearly moved to tears of joy during Velemseni’s performance of her new song “Shisa” that was a perfectly-timed release in the weeks approaching Bushfire and her performance of “Hey Mamma” with a surprise addition of Bholoja, who sang only in siSwati that I 100 percent understood.

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Velemseni

On Saturday I experienced another chunk of my 15 minutes of eSwatini fame. When your skin color makes you stick out, people watch. I was in the front row, ready to scream and dance and sing along with all of the other women of eSwatini who love Sands. I was regularly shown on the big screen during his performance as I knew all the words to his already-released songs, and I can understand his siSwati even when I don’t understand the words, so singing along to the choruses of his new songs was easy.

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Sands down on one knee singing “Vuma,” which means to accept. It is used to asked someone to marry you.

My actions were noticed enough that I was approached after the show by the keys player from the group about how much I obviously loved the performance. And then when I got home on Monday, make told me I was shown singing along to Sands during Bushfire clips on both news channels on Sunday night.

Then on Sunday I went to an incredibly intimate performance by Bholoja who honored my request for him to sing my favorite song of his.

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Thanking Bholoja for playing my favorite song. 

During the weekend I appreciated the music of so many varied performers. I miss the music scene of Salt Lake City, and Bushfire has overfilled that gap. I wouldn’t buy a ticket to see a band I had never heard of in SLC, but at Bushfire the weekend is largely filled with performers whose music I do not know. Their Bushfire performances turn me into fans. I am grateful for a weekend filled with friends and music both new and old. I am also grateful to have a year to recover before the next one.

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Wednesday photo: I ❤️ Swaziland

My love for this place hasn’t changed, even though its name has. 

 

This is one of my newly-made outfits.

 
There were a variety of photo shoots at our close of service conference earlier this month, including one with photo booth props. 

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