Reflections on life after a year as a PCV in Swaziland

I wasn’t sure that I was going to write something in honor of being in Swaziland for one year until I sat down and the words came out of my fingers. Why have a countdown when I am content and happy to be here?

Saying that my time here has been hard would be unfair. I came to Swaziland extremely well prepared for having only about three weeks between final medical clearance and departure, and I have many people and experiences to thank for being ready for this.

Having a huge desire to learn about and experience other people and places than the ones I grew up with really made me want to join the Peace Corps. Combine that with a love of working outside of an office, talking to people, and learning about their problems, and Peace Corps is the perfect place to be.

Learning to love and live more in tune with nature and wild spaces during my time in Salt Lake City has made rural living easier.

Having traveled to Ghana to study the storage and disposal of poisons during my MPH made me feel like a journalist again and that has continued here.

I was excited to live with a family in Swaziland for two years. My moms in Salzburg, Romania, and Kenya all gave me excellent trial runs for an epically fantastic homestay.

What has been hard has been being oddly alone but surrounded by so many people who are always watching and do not want to get to know me, but they do want to marry me.

Thinking about HIV is hard here too. Its scars are everywhere. Some days I wish I did not know the statistics so that I did not have to think about all the young women who engage in transactional sex because they need money for their bus fares or because they would like airtime for their cell phones. It is also jarring to think about how one-third of these same young women have been forced to have sex by the time they finish high school. And then half, yes, HALF, of females my age in Swaziland are HIV positive.

Learning siSwati has been its own challenge as well, but that’s more of a personal problem. To say I have failed at siSwati is an understatement, but it is how I feel most days. There are many things I can blame for this failure such as extremely limited practice resources, a teaching style that was not my learning style, and too fast of a pace too early, but they all still come down to me not being able to remember vocab words. It was hard enough in high school practicing German vocab with an extremely patient mother, and here I floundered.

On a happier note, it does seem that the year mark is a turning point in my community. It has been hard finding willing counterparts, but I have two projects moving forward nicely (English Club and an empowerment club for girls), and I think I have found someone as excited about a jump rope exercise program as me. The foundation has also been laid for expanding a water system but a lack of individual contributions (everyone was out of money from contributing to the chief’s wedding fund) has currently halted the project. Other projects are in limbo, too, including gardening trainings (we need land from the traditional council) and financial training (there’s no manual in siSwati).

My accomplishments this past year include growing at least 100 pounds of butternut and baking more in the past nine months than I likely did in the previous three years. I have more or less integrated into my community, gained a few friends and allies, and improved the English of my family members. I have a few favorite songs in siSwati and have learned so much about Swazi culture.

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My harvest. I had already given a roughly equal amount away straight from the vine.

Make (mother) always tells me that I force her to think differently about the world and its ways, which I think is an accomplishment, too.

Make also has me in training to be a perfect Swazi wife. There are plenty of Swazis who want to marry me to varying degrees of seriousness. Fortunately, babe (father) set a ridiculously high lobola, or bride price (140 cows; the average is 13), and I added two elephants just to be safe. It is entertaining to play along and tell these men that I do not cook incwancwa, a sour porridge; I will not wash their clothes; and that I loathe washing dishes so he better have a dishwasher. Those three points scare most men away.

But just in case, make has me learning the responsibilities of a Swazi wife, like gardening, butchering chickens, planting maize, and traditional dancing. I am even planning to dance at Umhlanga (the Reed Festival) this year, like all young women in Swaziland do. And before that, I should be participating in a teka, the first step of a traditional wedding. My eldest bhuti (brother) is planning to marry the mother of his children, and the teka makes her part of our family and his official wife.

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Umhlanga, the Reed Dance

This has also been a year of many firsts:

  • I can talk to myself in a jumble of three or four languages now. I can’t decide on the number because my brain doesn’t do such a great job at distinguishing Austrian from German any more.
  • I have my first pseudo-pets (my chickens).
  • I have been an active accomplice to the death of chickens.
  • I pee in a bucket almost daily. It’s either that or using the cockroach infested toilet at night, and I never again need another cockroach to walk on me.
  • I regularly get up at 5:30 a.m. to go to the office. But don’t worry, I still hate the morning.
  • I have not seen snow, but I’m taking care of that (I hope) in Lesotho next month.
  • This is the first summer in 28 years or so that I won’t go for a swim in Lake Erie. I look at a photo of a lake sunset every day, though.
  • This is the longest stretch of time I have been away from the U.S.

And finally, has Swaziland and Peace Corps been what I expected? First, let me say that I really tried to form as few expectations as possible. I was lucky in that I had experienced a few corners of Africa before coming to Swaziland by having completed schoolwork in Ghana and been a tourist in Kenya. I was prepared for a much more physically demanding life where I would have to bike or ride in a definitely non-road-worthy van for hours to buy rice and beans, collect water from a disgusting cesspool, and live in a mud and stick home with a grass roof with no electricity.

My life is more or less none of those things. PCVs in Swaziland are not assigned bicycles, although I just requested one to cut down on some transport costs and to get more exercise. Sometimes the khumbis (transport vans) are not road worthy (I rode one where the breaks failed as we were going downhill a couple months ago. Fortunately it was Sunday and there wasn’t much traffic.), but generally the khumbis are well functioning.

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The view from the front row of the khumbi just outside Manzini.

I buy 98 percent of my food at a grocery store with refrigerated and freezer aisles. Almost everything I could need is available within a reasonable distance from my home. I can even go to the big shopping plaza called Gables that is straight from America – or in this case, South Africa – and has two large grocery stores, a movie theater, restaurants, and a variety of other home goods and clothing shops, and can be back at my house in a couple hours unless I stop to use the free internet at the Embassy, in which case my trip is an all-day affair. This means that I eat nearly the same food as I did in Salt Lake minus most of the bad stuff. I make even more from scratch than I did there. And I never cook rice and beans after a failed bean cooking that could have burnt my house down. Now, I give beans to make and she cooks them for me.

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I have even impressed myself a few times with some of the food I have prepared here, such as this cinnamon apple custard pie. Two other dishes that have blown me away are chocolate babkha bread and a chicken pot pie.

Water was a challenge during my training period, but now I have water in my yard. It ran 100 percent from the start of the rains until a couple weeks ago. It will be more hit and miss until it rains again, but I never hurt for water.

My house was constructed from bricks, has a sometimes-leaky corrugated metal roof, and regular electricity for one light bulb and outlets to charge my electronics and plug in my stoven and fridge and fan in the hot months. I have windows on three sides (yay cross-breeze!).

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My house is the square beige one in the middle.

I couldn’t ask for anything else when it comes to my living experience. On the other hand, I could and do ask for many things from Peace Corps. There are many things that could be improved here.

Let’s take the reason why we are here in Swaziland: 28 percent of the population has HIV. Sure, that might be only about 300,000 people, but 28 percent of people living in one tiny area are HIV positive! This is a problem.

I think about HIV projects in two ways. You can do something that directly helps reduce the spread of HIV such as condom demonstrations, linking people who are positive to care, or working with young men to change how they treat women, or you can do something that secondarily could reduce the spread of HIV such as building a library so children can be more proficient at English and stay in school.

Peace Corps Swaziland promotes the secondary projects more than the primary ones. Volunteers want to do the primary projects, but we receive little training on them in Swaziland. Health volunteers also are not paired with any organization such as a clinic, health post, or NGO operating in our communities. We are left to make our own connections and find out what is (or is not) happening in our communities, which makes doing those primary projects even more difficult.

Making changes here is hard, but there are a few of us trying. Another PCV and I are rewriting the community assessment manual. A newly formed HIV committee I am a member of is pushing for more trainings and practical take-home activities for volunteers. Additionally, the program’s five-year review is this year, where many of our comments will be heard in order to improve Peace Corps Swaziland.

So, that has been the last year. It has generally moved quite fast and I often wonder where the time has gone. I look forward to an even better second year in my community (that starts September 1).

Thank you all for your thoughts, support, cards, packages, and messages. It means so much to me to know that you are thinking about me. If you have questions, please ask!

Salani kahle (all of you stay well),

Alison noma Hloniphile

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9 Responses to Reflections on life after a year as a PCV in Swaziland

  1. Marie says:

    Alison, Wonderful story. You have done a great job. We are all proud of you. Aunt Marie

  2. cwhiteweb says:

    Hahaha they have even given you a local name. A beautiful name it is, the meaning. How long are you going to be in Swaziland though? But don’t beat yourself up for not learning the language. Bantu languages aren’t the easiest, plus all the sounds that may be foreign to you 😊

  3. Beth says:

    Alison, I loved reading these reflections on your first year in Swaziland. Your journalism skills have done you proud. Had a good laugh while reading the paragraph about your would-be husbands, and I so admire your efforts to bring positive change for the people of your community. I sincerely hope you’ll feel an enormous sense of accomplishment when your PCV time in Swaziland ends next year. Good luck making some primary HIV projects possible. Even though you may not be able to make all the improvements happen that you wish you could, I have no doubt you’ve been a great asset to your community (and I’m pretty sure the Swazis agree!)

  4. kuhnlm says:

    So much of this resonates with my life in PCSA! I’m sorry to hear that you guys don’t get paired with NGOs though- I’m really grateful for my CBO. It would be ten times harder to do projects without their support. I hope that’s something PC Swaziland will adjust based on your evals!

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