Recently, there’s been time to reflect. Next month, I’ll be leaving the my home of the past two years for the next chapter. I’ve reflected on my service and time here in eSwatini. I’ve reflected on the Peace Corps experience, and the interactions that I’ve been privileged to have. It would be extremely difficult to reduce this experience to a few words. I’m not sure I would have the words to describe the multitude of everything. Some months back, I stumbled upon this post from a RPCV (Peru). A service playlist. I thought it was a nifty idea, so I’m borrowing it.
The following songs have varied significance to my time here. Some have reminded me of my purpose. Others have allowed me to daydream and wander. All of them are pretty awesome. Be forewarned–some songs do include NSFW language. I have included some lyrics that spoke to me from each song.
“what’s the move?/
Can I tell the truth?/
If I was doing this for you, then there’d be nothing left to prove./
Nah. This for me tho./
I’m just trying to stay alive, and take of my people.”
- There are no gold stars for Peace Corps service. No medals. Sometimes, there may be an “attaboy”, but don’t count on it. A large part of this experience has been becoming a part of the community. These are my folks. As such, I genuinely want to see my folks thrive because if they thrive, I thrive.
“girl, I bet ya mama named you Good Looking, cuz you sho look good to me”
- This entire album takes me back to Christmas 2016 when I was headed on vacation. The lyrics. The music. The everything. Hearing this made me (and still makes me) wish I was on somebody’s dance floor. I remember the joy of being on the beaches in Madagascar surrounded by beautiful people and sights.
“always gonna be a bigger house somewhere, but n*gga feel me/
long as the people in that motherf*cker love you dearly”
- When we were assigned to our permanent communities, staff and more seasoned PCVs told us not to compare. Of course, some of us did. There are many things that could have been. There will always be things that are bigger, faster, more efficient, etc. It’s a choice to surround yourself with love and appreciate what you have. It’s a struggle to keep this mindset though. Jealousy is real. FOMO is real. For me, it has taken regular reminders of the song lyrics, “…no such thing as a life that’s better than yours…”
“yeah we were broke, but that life was simple/
besides food is food, water is water, air is air. The rest is mental.”
- There is certain joy ever present in my little sisi‘s (pronounced see-see), or sister’s laugh. Seeing her reminds me of my childhood: changing into our play clothes after school, exploring the small part of the community we were allowed to explore, inventing or altering games for our friend group to play. She (and many children around eSwatini) reminds me to enjoy the simple things in life. In my community and around eSwatini, I’m somewhat of a celebrity. Sometimes, it’s because I’m an American. Other times, it’s because I look like the urban poet Rick Ross. It’s easy to get caught up in the hype sometimes. Reminder to self: the hype is only hype.
“udlala kabi um’udlalangehlitiyo” (you play bad; you playing with my heart)
- This song has been popular during my entire service. On any eSwatini dance floor, the beginning of the song is a signal to everyone in the area to make their way to the dance floor. I’ve been to several party/club/pub nights when this song has been played several times without loss of enthusiasm. Because of the song’s popularity, I used it in my classes to teach some of the nuances of language. Students translated this song into English and translated John Legend’s All of Me into siSwati.
“I’m not racist. But I cry a lot/
you don’t know what it’s like to be in the frying pot./
You don’t know what it’s like to be minding your own business, and get stopped by the cops/
and not know if you bout to die or not.”
- It’s safe to say that the America we left in June 2016 is different. Hearing about the assaults and murders of Black folks across America took me back to 2004/5 when news outlets reported on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There have been times during my service when America seems like a literal war zone for Black folks. As a burly Black man, I’m less than excited to return. I’m not excited to have encounters with law enforcement that may result in death. I’m not excited to face overt racism and prejudice that may result in the aforementioned encounters with law enforcement and/or death. In fact, I’m borderline terrified.
“I was rolling around–in my mind, it occurred/
what if God was a her?/
Would I treat her the same?/
Would I still be running game—on her?
In what type of ways would I want her?”
- God is a big deal in eSwatini. There are churches throughout eSwatini. I’ve learned that the majority of Swazis identify as Christians. I’ve also seen massive inequalities concerning the treatment of women and girls. It makes me wonder if the patriarchy would be as strong if things were different. It introduces a new dynamic. If women and girls were held in the same reverence as God, would there be cause for debate and legislation about keeping women and girls safe?
“tem tem tem gobisiqolo”
- This song has been a party favorite for my entire service. If there’s a dance floor (or general space to dance), dancing is all but guaranteed to start with this track. While I don’t know the exact translation for “Gobisiqolo”, it’s a dance that involves popping your back. Like “Tigi” by Sands, I don’t know if it’s possible to hear this jam and not dance. It was also cool to hear this song used in the Black Panther movie. #WakandaForever
“there are kinks in my past/
things no one could be proud of/
but I stand in the light I’ve cast/
and turn away from any lack of love/
when I walk through that door/
I say “here I go”/
You see me, and nothing more, I’m singing what I know”
- I’ve grown tremendously since coming to the kingdom of eSwatini. I realized about a year into my service that I was in the right place for me at this time in my life. I started an application for Peace Corps when I was finishing grad school in 2008. Because of the length of application and other excitement in my life, I didn’t finish the application. Entering service at that point in my life would not have been as beneficial. Experiencing my life, as is, has been crucial. The bumps and bruises have taught me. The missteps and failures have added to the man that I am today.
“there’s no way I could pay you back; but the plan is to show you that I understand.”
- You are appreciated. I’ve had two host mothers in the kingdom. My host mothers took me in and taught me the ways of eSwatini. When people ask me questions about the kingdom and I know the answer, much of that is attributable to my host mothers and their teachings (both direct and indirect). Being in a new place can be scary. Add to that different language and cultural norms. My host mothers balanced being firm, fair, and kind. My life is definitely better for having them in it.
“My sons look at me these days, and think I’m certified/
preparing them for a world they’ll be deserted by/
Black man, if you get a teaspoon of compassion, that’s more than double the serving size”
- This spoke to me. While I don’t have any children, I hope to join the ranks of parenthood some day. As a teacher and long time mentor, I’m often looked to for answers. This has been especially true being the American face in the community. It’s strange to be in a space of offering whatever guidance I have, but still needing guidance and counsel. I suspect that this will always be the case.
I’m a mess/
But I’m blessed to stuck with you.”
- We enter Peace Corps service as a part of a cohort. My cohort, group 14, is an amazing group of humans. Often, I have to remind myself that although things may not always be pretty, I’m thankful to have these government issued friends. I’ve grown because of them, and for that, I’m grateful.
Be kind to yourself.
In January 2018, I was excited. The new school year was on the horizon. I was coming into a stride in my service. I was ready to introduce Wikipedia Offline to our students at the high school. As I was sharing this excitement with other PCVs and our Country Director, I mentioned the idea of a writing contest. I was trying to figure out how to gather prizes for the contest. In my mind, we would teach the students how to research and use Wikipedia Offline before they demonstrated mastery by writing brief research reports. Someone suggested a field trip. “Why not write a small grant to take the winning students to the (U.S.) embassy’s resource center and lunch?”, our director asked. Commence grant writing.
While the timeline was delayed, the essence of the project was able to shine through. In May, we announced the contest. All students were invited to use the Wikipedia Offline to write a one page report concerning the topic, “Strong Women”. Our students submitted reports about strong women that have inspired them and the world including Winnie Mandela, Jane Austen, and Oprah Winfrey.
Last month, we took that field trip to the U.S. Embassy in Ezulwini. The students were excited as it was their first time visiting the embassy. The head librarian prepared a presentation discussing what the resource center offers. He even spoke to the students about the importance of self-directed and self-motivated learning. Some students have expressed interest in getting membership cards and spending portions of the school breaks in the embassy’s resource center. The students being inspired has inspired me. I’ve very excited to see what the future holds for students who understand that they can do and become anything. The above picture was taken by embassy staff as I discussed some of the features of the resource center with my students.
Be kind to yourself.
There is no shortage of instagram imagery to keep us busy. Some R/PCVs and friends joined in on the fun. The following is a list of Instagram accounts featuring various aspects of Peace Corps life. None of these accounts are representative of or affiliated with the United States government, any host country government, or the United States Peace Corps. Be sure to follow, like, and interact with these folks. And if you’re inspired to undertake your own project (or if I’ve missed any), be sure to comment so that I can add the account. Accounts are listed in alphabetical order.
– Beards of Peace Corps (@beardsofpeacecorps) – R/PCVs show off their beards and mustaches
– Black PCV (@blackpcv) – folks from across the diaspora currently serving (and who have served)
– Hey PCV Boy (@hey_pcv_boy) – jokes and memes because you deserve a laugh
– Hey PCV Boy (@heypcvboy) – not sure if this account is related to the above account, but more jokes and memes because you deserve a laugh
– Hey PCV Girl (@heypcvgirl) – jokes and memes because you deserve a laugh
– How a PCV puts it gently (@howapcvputsitgently) – gifs that R/PCVs can relate to
– Jaded Corps (@jadedcorps) – taking PCV pictures and making amazing memes, also because you deserve a laugh
– Melanin of Peace Corps (@melanin_of_peace_corps) – a showcase of melanated R/PCVs and their work
– My Peace Corps Story (@mypeacecorpsstory) – an RPCV decided to do a podcast. This is the accompanying instagram.
– Overheard PCV (@overheardpcv) – bits and pieces of conversations overheard by PCVs
– Peace Corps Eats (@pcv_eats) – the food PCVs eat
– Peace Corps Eats (@pcveats) – not sure if this is affiliated with the above account, but more of the food PCVs eat
– Peace Corps Transportation (@pcvtransportation) – taking a look at how PCVs get around
– Peace Cats (@peace_cats1) – the cats of Peace Corps
– Peace Corps Cats (@peacecorpscats) – not sure if this is affiliated with the above account, but more cats of Peace Corps
– Peace Corps Food (@peacecorpsfood) – a foodie journey through Peace Corps
– Peace Corps Life (@peacecorpslife) – a look at life in Peace Corps
– Peace Corps Noire (@peacecorpsnoire) – Black/African American PCVs living their best lives
– Peace Corps Potential (@peacecorpspotential) – pictures that could possibly be from someone’s service
– Peace Corps Problems (@peacecorpsproblems) – commiserate together with you fellow R/PCV family
– Peace Corps Style (@peacecorpsstyle) – the PCV fashion
– Peace Corps Travels (@peacecorpstravels) – images from the vast travels of R/PCVs
– Peace Corps True Life (@peacecorpstruelife) – capturing the
struggle essence of PCV life
– Peace Corps Whole 30 (@peacecorpswhole30) – a PCV does the whole 30 diet
– Peace Doors (@peacedoors) – based in Guatemala, a PCV set out to photograph doors
– Peaceful Curls of Peace Corps (@peacefulcurlsofpeacecorps) – PCVs share hair care tips and tricks
– Peas Corps (@peascorps) – healthy food and ideas for PCVs
– Woah Insecto (@woahinsecto) – highlighting some of the cool bugs and critters PCVs see during service
Be kind to yourself.
Peace Corps service can be challenging by itself. Intersections of our identities can exacerbate those challenges. Luckily, these challenges are not new. Peace Corps Volunteers, currently serving and returned, have worked to create networks of support for the Peace Corps curious, applicants, invitees, trainees, and volunteers.
Below are various Facebook groups with descriptions. For those who don’t use Facebook, some of these communities a web presence elsewhere. Also, some of the communities require that you request access. I should note that none of these groups or pages are officially run by Peace Corps, and do not reflect the views of the organization.
Black Peace Corps Volunteers – “As Black people, we have a unique story to tell and this group will allow us to further the networking, fellowship, information-sharing, and service with all potential Peace Corps Volunteers, current PeaceCorps Volunteers, and Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs).” There is also an associated Whatsapp group chat. You can get ask to be added in the Facebook group.
Divine 9 PCVs – “group serves as a forum to support Peace Corps Volunteers and RPCVs who are also a member of one of the 9 historically African American Greek Lettered Fraternities and Sororities.”
Southern Association of Black Peace Corps Volunteers – “…individual African American Returned Peace Corps Volunteers and supporters coming together to make a difference at home in our communities as well aboard in other communities.”
Minority Peace Corps Association – “Through partnerships, special events and outreach activities MPCA strives to strengthen Americans’ understanding about the world and its peoples, while promoting the mission of MPCA.”
Latino Peace Corps Volunteers – group for Latino R/PCVs. Has an affiliated Whatsapp chat group chat. You can get ask to be added in the Facebook group.
Asian American Pacific Islander Peace Corps Volunteers – “open group for PC applicants, current PCVs, RPCVs, and friends who are interested in AAPI issues related to Peace Corps.”
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Returned Peace Corps Association – “an organization of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and other people who are Peace Corps volunteer alumni, current volunteers, former and current staff members and friends.” There is also a website.
Deaf/HH Peace Corps Volunteers – “Open to any deaf/hard of hearing returned Peace Corps Volunteer who wants to keep up with fellow deaf/hard of hearing RPCVs! Also open to any Deaf/hard of hearing future PCVs who have been invited to serve in the PC!! Also open to any interested friends and supporters!”
Native American Peace Corps Volunteers – “As people of Native American descent, we have a unique story to tell and this group will allow us to further the networking, fellowship, information-sharing, and service with all potential Peace CorpsVolunteers, current Peace Corps Volunteers, and Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs).”
Shalom Corps – “a group to support Jewish PCVs, RPCVs, future PCVs and anyone interested in the Jewish Peace Corps connection. We aim to foster cultural exchange and fellowship, and be a resource to the Peace Corps community on Jewish issues and connect Peace Corps with the Jewish community.”
Peace Corps Christians – “a place for encouragement, motivation, and to record and remember God’s everyday miracles.”
Veteran Peace Corps Volunteers – “for United States Military Veterans that have also served, are currently serving or are interested in serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer.”
Muslim Peace Corps Volunteers – “a safe place for Muslim PCVs to connect and share experiences. Every type of Muslim is welcome here without restriction or judgement.”
Be kind to yourself.
For the second (or third, depending on how you count) time this year, I have been the main subject of a write-up in the Times of Swaziland. In January, there was an article about Parkrun, in which I was briefly interviewed. In February, the Times of Swaziland featured an article about the excitement I caused (among older women) as a super hairy umbutfo (pronounced oom-boot-foe), or warrior. Last Thursday (5 July 2018), the article pictured above was featured in the Times of Swaziland. In all instances, I received messages (from Peace Corps affiliated folks) alerting me to the write-ups. Unlike the other instances, I didn’t talk anyone from the newspaper so I wasn’t expecting this. The article did come after a post about my work was published on the Peace Corps eSwatini stories page on 3 July 2018.
My hope is that Wikipedia Offline (and Kiwix) get the much deserved attention, and that more schools, NGOs, and other organizations begin to use these products to unlock untapped potential.
Be kind to yourself.
Some months back, a fellow PCV began planning a commemoration event called Walk The Nation. In 2008, a PCV in eSwatini organized a 200 kilometre walk to bring attention to the high HIV incidence in the country. The commemoration event was designed to look at how far the fight has come, and how much more needs to be done. Several PCVs participated in the commemoration of Walk The Nation by having events in their respective communities. Some volunteers showed documentaries while other marched and had discussions about where we go from here. Some volunteers were given paint to complete mural projects. Luckily, my community was given paint and associated supplies.
At my local high school, I spoke with students about HIV incidence and how far eSwatini has come. When I introduced the mural possibility, several students were excited and began working on concepts and drawings. Last week, our students (and a few recent alumni) completed the mural project. My hope is that as the student body sees this image, they will remember that education can lead them to any and all places.
Be kind to yourself.
Sex is a very personal subject. Some people get uncomfortable at the mention or discussion of sexual acts. This is especially true of public spaces. The decision to write this post was an internal struggle. Two things pushed me to write this. First, I consider myself a sex positive person. Second, I would have liked a post like this two years when I was preparing for my service. I’ve seen a few threads on the topic on the Peace Corps subreddit, including one while I was writing this post. Most of the Google searches show results relating to sexual assault in Peace Corps.
Recently, I was reflecting on my service with another volunteer. The conversation shifted as we discussed some of the more challenging parts of service. It’s difficult to learn a new language and customs. But Peace Corps prepared us for that. Several PCV blogs chronicle the process of language learning and navigating new cultures. The other PCV and I agreed that one of the most difficult things about service in eSwatini is the lack of sex and intimacy.
Sex and intimacy happen in Peace Corps. Sex and intimacy happen in eSwatini. Things just may be a bit more rare. For me (and other PCVs here), there are a few different options. There’s the possibility of finding sex and intimacy by dating another PCV. There’s the possibility of finding sex and intimacy by dating someone local. There’s also the possibility of finding sex and intimacy by random sexual encounters with other PCVs and/or locals. Of course, there are advantages and disadvantages to each of these options.
Dating another PCV is great because you can commiserate with this person. Also, there are things that they will probably understand because they’re going through similar things. The not-so-great side about this relationship/situationship/arrangement is that the distance between you and your PCV bae may be long. You may not be able to see them as often, and in the times that you do see your PCV bae, there may be group gatherings. There’s also the fact that PCVs are a relatively small community. In eSwatini, there are about 80 of us. Sometimes when PCV relationships go awry, group dynamics shift and it’s not always pretty.
Dating a local can be great for several reasons. Many times, local bae is local meaning that you can see them more often. There are also the aspects of integration. Circumstances may dictate learning the language, culture, and customs at an accelerated rate. However, there is a personal teacher with a vested interest in your learning. On the flip side, there are challenges. Dating in eSwatini, especially in rural communities, looks different from the dating I’m used to. Casual dating isn’t really a thing. Dating is marriage-focused courtship.
While most people here take no interest in my love life, some Swazis, like my host mother, want me to date and find a wife here in eSwatini. Make wami (pronounced mah-gay wah-me), or my mother, says that I should stay here in southwest eSwatini, marry, build a home, and have many children (little Sibusisos, she calls them). Some Swazis don’t want me to date in the kingdom. A respected elder in my community cautioned, “Sibusiso, you can’t date any of the women here (in the community)”. When I asked if there was a reason, she stated that HIV and other STI rates were extremely high in our community. She also asked what I’d be doing with my girlfriend or wife when I left for America. She explained that I would ruin that wife or girlfriend if I didn’t take her with me. She further explained that such (in)actions would sour the relationship that our community/chiefdom has with Peace Corps. While I have taken the community elder’s advice about not dating in the local community, I have been on some individual dates with a few Swazis outside of my chiefdom. For reasons that I won’t get into here, things didn’t work out.
There are some PCVs who abstain during their service. Similar to folks stateside, PCVs abstain for religious, self development, or other personal reasons. There are also PCVs who choose to maintain long(er) distance relationships with significant others outside of eSwatini. Like various other relationship structures, some succeed while others fail. There is the very real stress that Peace Corps service places on a relationship, romantic or otherwise.
Earlier, I mentioned random sexual encounters. This happens from time to time among PCVs, and to a lesser extent with locals. Of course, there’s always masturbation. While every Peace Corps experience is different, I would recommend packing any toys and masturbatory aids that tickle your fancy. If you enjoy watching porn, I’d also recommend loading some of your favorite on your phone/computer/external hard drive/etc. Your future self will thank you.
My hope is that this post (and this blog, in general) serves to answer some of questions left unanswered (and often unasked) before I began service (for invitees, Peace Corps curious, and other interested parties). Of course, everyone’s experience varies and these are my musings from the kingdom of eSwatini.
Be kind to yourself.
#Photo cred: @loco.ocho