Learning about my community and the art of saying no

It took just three months — and moving to my permanent site — for the Peace Corps life to get real, and difficult.

I have spent the last week living an easy life while meeting people at church and the community council meetings. I had a language lesson, met the chief and was officially announced as a citizen of my community, and toured the community with my mother, an ugcugcuteli, a rural health motivator and another of her colleagues.

My mother told me a few things during that tour that I have mulled over for a few days. She pointed out a few households without any living elders, she introduced me to a mentally disabled man she shared fruit with, and she stopped to buy chicken dust from a younger man she likes to support because he’s kute make na kute babe — without mother and without father.

On Saturday after I was introduced to the community by the chief and was walking home with my sisi, I met a woman on the street who was asking me about my work here. She specifically asked if I would help children without parents, to which I answered yes. She then asked if I would help her because her children do not have a father. She did not ask for anything specific, so I told her that I would be interviewing the community to determine its greatest needs. She seemed satisfied enough.

Her question, though, started my thoughts on how to say no to people asking me for something.

A few hours later, I was returning home again, this time from exchanging my empty propane tank for a full one in the closest town. I had made arrangements with one of my bobhuti to let him know when I was close to home on the public transportation, and he would start toward my stesh, or bus stop, to help carry the heavy tank home.

I exited the khumbi and was immediately offered help from two nearby young men. Their offer of help was followed up by asking for sodas in exchange for their help. I told them no thank you, that my bhuti was coming to help me. And then they reprimanded me for turning down their help. They said because I was living in their community in order to help them, that they needed to help me, which is a thought I hope many community members have.

I said I wasn’t buying them sodas to help me when my bhuti was already on his way. They followed that up with asking me for my phone number, so that they could contact me when they needed help. I said no, knowing that it was not safe for me to give my phone number to unfamiliar young men, and I also assumed that everyone in the community knows which family I live with. If someone needs me, they can easily find my family.

They finally moved onward, and I was able to cross the road and head toward home to wait for my bhuti.

Then the chicken dust salesman, the one make told me about a few days earlier, comes to take the propane tank from me. I try to stop him, telling him that Mancoba is coming to help me, that he does not need to leave his stand. He insists, and hefts the tank on his shoulders, walking it toward my home. He introduces himself to me, saying he is doing the job of women, cooking chicken on the side of the road just to earn some money. Won’t I support him sometime?

I answer of course as he passes off the propane tank to my brothers, because two of them came so that they could carry the whole weight of the tank.

I had decided that I would have to support his chicken dust business after knowing his story. I was already taking turns buying from the different fruit and vegetable sellers, and I was also happy to have such a nice general store, which would be easy to support.

I pinch pennies, but I also have a heart. My mothers have taught me well.

This brings me to wondering again, how do I say no to people? How hard will it be to say no to people while working as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Swaziland once I know them?

I had a taste of this during Pre-Service Training when I was asked for food from various members of my training family, sometimes when they needed it and sometimes when they did not. Some of these moments were awkward, but life always continued to move forward regardless of my answer.

Here, things will be different. Soon, the people in my community will no longer be strangers. I will learn people’s stories. Soon, we will have expectations about each other. I know my community is a bit hesitant about their newest community member, and at the same time, I also know they expect great things from me.

I know my community will ask me for things I cannot provide. I cannot bring piped water to every home in the village. It will be hard enough to get one borehole drilled for a water source, let alone the four or five I know my community would like.

How do I get them to start small, for both our sakes? How do I not disappoint them? How do I avoid making their lives worse, as I know project failures can sometimes do? How do I get them to participate if they think they have too much to lose or if they do not trust me? How do I stay within the project goals Peace Corps requires of me?

These are just some of the questions I will have to think about each day. These questions are what will keep me learning and looking for ideas and suggestions on how to bring the knowledge and skills and improved health my community wants to them. These are the questions that will form my next two years here and the relationships that I build.
Reading: In the Company of Cheerful Ladies by Alexander McCall Smith

This entry was posted in Africa, Life, Peace Corps, Swaziland and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Learning about my community and the art of saying no

  1. Jenny says:

    Wow! This sounds like a tough situation. I hope you will be able to find the right way to say No without offending people (in the new culture), and earn respect from the community members as you find your niche. Best wishes to you!

  2. I hear you! I have this experience every time I’m in Egypt, and I imagine any “rich western tourist” faces similar expectations when traveling in a poorer country. In the view of the “locals,” the primary function of tourists is to give them money. Fortunately you are in a better position to explain that, as a PCV, you are helping in other ways. Stand firm that they cannot expect money from you unless you have specifically CHOSEN to purchase their goods and services.

    • (Not intending to deny that the local needs are very real, sometimes dire, and that “we” are indeed rich by comparison. But our individual pocketbooks cannot solve structural problems; erasing that expectation not just in their minds, but in your own, is a good first step.)

      • elliewick says:

        Surprisingly, no one has straight-out asked me for money although there have been occasional asking for “things.” But I have also been asked at least twice if I am being paid for my work as a volunteer. Some people understand and I hope they will share with others.

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