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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Saturday gratitude: Hanging out with friends

I started the week with multiple productive days at home followed by two productive days in Mbabane. 

Now, as I write this, I am waiting to be picked up to start a day with friends, old and new. 

First, I’m off to Mlilwane, the local nature reserve, with the students I occasionally teach at school. Such an adventure is happening because students from America are visiting. I don’t have the relationship figured out yet, because the NGO that runs the program the Swazi students participate in is from Oregon, and the students are from Utah State. We will walk some trails, see some wildlife (maybe I will finally see a hippo there; I’ve only ever heard them), and braai for lunch. 

Then I’ll head to Ezulwini to drop my bags, meet more friends, dress for winter, and head back to Malkerns. A friend from my Kruger trip is returning home to Germany next week, and this is our last time to hang out. A group of us are going to House on Fire to see the Swazi premier of the movie Liyana, a story about a Swazi child and her adventures that showed at many international festivals the last few months. I’ll be meeting other new and old friends at the movie, which is in an open-air theater that fortunately has a roof–hence the dressing for winter. Then after a late dinner, I’ll finally be able to call  it a day. 

Baking for the week

  • I finished the cinnamon rolls I made the week before. 

Media for the week

  • My bhuti and I watched The Fantastic Mr. Fox and Astro Boy
  • I read Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach for book club. I started our second selection, too, and also by Roach, which is about military research. 
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Winning PC Swaziland’s Blog it Home contest

I had told my friends in Salt Lake City they would see me next when I won Blog it Home and earned a prize of a inclusive trip to Washington, D.C., for a week of sessions on culture and blogging.

I did end up winning this contest, albeit it was offered in a very different fashion and did not include a trip to the motherland.

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Me and Ambassador Peterson

Blog it Home is a Peace Corps sponsored contest that supports Goal 3, which is all about Peace Corps Volunteers sharing the culture and community they lived with, with Americans. A perfect example of this is a blog. Anyone with a blog could submit and Peace Corps would choose about 20 blogs. From there, online voting would occur to choose the seven or eight winners.

Another PCV here in eSwatini and I really wanted to compete in this contest. We had been talking about it for months, and when June arrived and there was no contest announcement, we were concerned. There had been a lot of cuts to Peace Corps programs thanks to Trump, and we feared this was one of them.

The large-scale Blog it Home contest was canceled. In October, Peace Corps HQ announced that country directors could choose to hold their own local contests and choose their own prizes. Fortunately our CD did choose to hold a contest for Swaziland PCVs. We learned that others did not when Kirby and I started asking around for the prizes being offered in other countries. (Sorry, April! I would have loved to meet you in D.C. if things hadn’t changed this year!)

Long story short, I won Swaziland’s 2017 Blog it Home contest. I won lunch with the ambassador, which I had in March, and two additional vacation days, and the certificate finally arrived a few weeks ago. Staff was able to coordinate a presentation of the certificate at our Close of Service conference. All in all, it was very nice. Apparently my prize also included a night out at a hostel, but this wasn’t made clear to me. Instead, I received a door-to-door ride in a Peace Corps car from the office to my homestead. This was an even better prize than a night out with a shower.

Maybe this year the international contest will occur and I will get to try my luck once again.

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Wednesday photo: Language test

I try not to brag about most things. Especially here in eSwatini, I have had so few successes that there hasn’t been much to brag about anyway.

So today I am going to brag about my language test results.

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The role play was awful. I was asked to have a conversation with my landlord about breaking my lease. Everything else did go pretty well.


I spent 200 hours in tutoring sessions since I moved to my community. My tutor is my best friend in my community and I thoroughly enjoy meeting with her. She has taught me so much and we spent so much time preparing for the Close of Service language exam that we both knew I would pass.

I did not expect such a high score though. But it shows what confidence and feeling prepared does during a language test. It took those 200 hours of lessons and all the other times I have stumbled through siSwati conversations. It took dancing at Umhlanga and being interested in Swazi traditions and culture. It took singing in public to prove to strangers I did dance at Umhlanga. It also took trying to stop comparisons to how I learned German.

The extenders were told that we could retake language exams again next year, but I am worried my siSwati skills will decrease while working at an office in town. And I don’t want to give up my stellar test score.

 

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