Every year, in Peace Corps eSwatini, the junior cohort plans a see-you-later party for the senior, outgoing cohort. In years past, it’s been referred to as Christmas in June. This year, the theme changed to Vikings. It’s typical for superlatives to be given to the senior, outgoing cohort.
After voting and deliberation, superlatives were announced and distributed. The above picture is me with my superlative. The members of G14 (my cohort) voted me….most likely to never return to the U.S. I don’t know how this happened, but never is a strong word. The above picture is of me with my superlative. Someone even drew my red shorts and beard, while I chill on a beach lounger.
Be kind to yourself.
Last Monday, I arrived at school like I always do. I noticed the head teacher talking to another teacher. It looked as though they were discussing important matters, so I acknowledged them and proceeded to lock up my bike. The head teacher approached me and told me that one of our students was killed in a car accident the previous Friday. The student was also a fellow teacher’s son.
In Swazi culture, it’s proper for the bereaved family to receive delegations from varied aspects of the deceased and their lives as people offer condolences. On Monday afternoon, we travelled, as a delegation of teachers, to the bereaved family’s homestead to offer condolences. This is done in one of the homes on the homestead that has been cleared out to receive guests. Songs were sung. Prayers were uttered. Tears were cried.
In rural eSwatini, the memorial services start either Friday or Saturday night with a night vigil. This past Saturday, several students and teachers travelled to the bereaved family’s homestead for the night vigil. There’s a very large tent set up for this occasion. Starting around 9 pm, the night vigil is like an extended church service/praise and worship session. There’s singing and dancing followed by sermon-like messages from people in attendance. It’s a joyous celebration. Around 3 am, there was a tea break. Hot tea and refreshments were served. After the break, there were more songs and prayers before speakers from various delegations offer condolences. The obituary was also read during this time. Singing and praying continued.
Around day break, services wrap up in the tent. Shortly after first light, there is a processional (behind the pallbearers) from the tent to family’s graveyard. This is usually on the homestead or relatively close. At the grave site, there are prayers before the body is lowered into the ground. The family then proceeds to fill the hole with the recently excavated dirt. After the hole is completely filled, there are prayers of thanks and benediction before people disperse. The above picture is of the processional to the grave site at first light.
Be kind to yourself.
Just over a month ago, I was fortunate to return to
Karoo National Park the Stonehenge Private Reserve in the Northern Cape of South Africa. The occasion? AfrikaBurn. AfrikaBurn is a regional event of the Burning Man network. It’s the largest of the regional events and the first on the continent of Africa.
When I first received my invitation to serve in eSwatini, I was overjoyed because attending AfrikaBurn went from “possible” to “highly probable”. On occasion, AfrikaBurn or Burning Man would come up in conversations with fellow PCVs. One question kept surfacing. What is AfrikaBurn? Before April 2017, I could only give the textbook answer: “AfrikaBurn is a regional event of the Burning Man network” . Some people would delve further. What is Burning Man? My response was almost always the same. “What I’m about to say won’t make sense, but Burning Man is everything.” Most people agreed. My comments made no sense.
When the theme for the twelfth AfrikaBurn was released, I was indifferent. The theme was “Working Title”. While reading about how this theme was chosen, I got more excited. Working Title is a name given to something still being created. Because that thing is still being created, it can be anything. There can also be collaborations with co-creators. “Working Title” made perfect sense! AfrikaBurn, Burning Man, and other similar events are works in progress. We get to collaborate to make it what we want.
I had an idea. I designed stickers to look like movie slates. On the sticker, the open ended sentence started, “AfrikaBurn is”. Participants were asked to complete the sentence. Afterwards, I asked to snap a photo of the sticker.
So, what is AfrikaBurn?
AfrikaBurn is fuzzy.
AfrikaBurn is freedom.
AfrikaBurn is freeing.
AfrikaBurn is the best experience of your life.
AfrikaBurn is Radio Free Tankwa.
AfrikaBurn is 37 24 16 V M 27 Clap 37.
AfrikaBurn is stepping into your true self.
AfrikaBurn is unicorn exposure.
These were some of responses. AfrikaBurn, like life, is different for everyone. The idea that we get to co-create the experience is magical. Ask any of the 7 billion human inhabitants of Earth what life is. You’re bound to get different answers. The answers may even change with time. None of them are wrong. AfrikaBurn is similar. Everyone has their own unique experience. Everyone is the director, screenwriter, and leading actor. It’s a beautiful thing. So, what is AfrikaBurn? You decide.
Be kind to yourself.
eSwatini is home to the Bushfire Festival, a three day music-focused event that attracts people from all over. This past weekend, the 12th edition of the festival happened. There were thoughtful conversations around warm fires. There were high energy performances that made me remove my sweat-soaked shirt.
The Bushfire Festival invites participants to bring their fire as a call to action. Artists from all over the world perform on four different stages. The live music selection included rap, soul, country, instrumental and traditional. The photo above features Sands, a native son of the kingdom, serenading us with his soulful music. There was also an amazing array of DJs that kept the party going until the early morning hours. Personally, I was elated to see my favorite DJ in eSwatini, DJ Mkay.
Another cool thing about the festival was the plethora of PCVs who visited from other southern Africa posts. It’s nice to meet and chat with people who are having similar, yet vastly different, experiences. It was also great to promote Beards of Peace Corps and take new photos for the project.
Be kind to yourself.
Guest post note: Fortunately, I haven’t had to take any trips to the medical unit for an overnight stay. But it is reality for many PCVs. Today, we have this guest post from G15 volunteer and sarcasm expert Christine Paquette sharing her experience.
The med hut. The place where PCVs go when they aren’t their 100% jaded healthy self. At the beginning of November 2017, I had the pleasure of being there. I wish I could say that it was due to recovery from a stomach virus, a fractured something or another, or not bring able to make it back to site. Something ‘normal’.
I was there because I had an abscess (a painful skin infection where fluid gets between the layers of the skin making a deep red color) conveniently located in my ass area, specifically my butt crack. Getting to the office on public transport with a painful butt is the worse. Thankfully after having the fluid drained, taking antibiotics, and recovering out of site for about one week, my butt was healed. Since then, I have been counting my blessing and praying that my butt will never again be the reason I seek medical help. So far, so good.
The above picture features the inside of the med hut in Peace Corps Swaziland.
Be kind to yourself.
Recently, I’ve had time to reflect. We had our COS conference last week. Three weeks ago, I was galavanting in the Karoo desert during the experience that is AfrikaBurn. Last month marked eight years since my mother died after a long illness.
As I’ve been reflecting, some things became clearer to me. These are five recurring themes that I’ve learned from burns, service, and life.
There’s a saying that there is no time like the present. Strike while the iron is hot. While it’s true that no moment lasts forever, it’s also true that life and all the things in it (including AfrikaBurn and Peace Corps) are mere moments. Admitting to ourselves that nothing is permanent (including us) allows us to fully engage in the now. Now is all we have. Why not love now? Forgive now. Embrace now. AfrikaBurn is seven days in a desert. Peace Corps is more than two years in an foreign community. While those moments won’t last, the memories do.
For the first time since I’ve started going to burns, I was ready to depart from the burn last month. AfrikaBurn was still magical. And it still left me high on life and the awesomeness of humanity. But while the high might be long lasting, it isn’t permanent. The need for a constant, permanent high is addiction.
Don’t try to recreate experiences
I remember discussing my first year at Burning Man with a friend of mine. He was excited as I recounted fond memories. I remember him expressing his desire to recreate my Burning Man experience for himself. When I was doing research on Peace Corps before I joined, I saw many volunteers doing amazing work. I arrived in Swaziland, and thought of replicating the work being done by the previous group. It makes sense. They are successful. I want to be successful. I need to do what they’re doing. I believe that the experience we have is heavily influenced by many factors including where we are in life at that time. The factors that made my first year at Burning Man so amazing might not be present in your life at this time. And that’s okay. I believe inspiration and aspirations are powerful, but they don’t have to dictate our path and experience. You are the creator of your own experience. Which leads me to…
It’s all made up
Everything that we see, hear, do and experience is all made up. JFK made up the Peace Corps. Larry Harvey made up Burning Man. Al Gore made up the internet. When wild imaginations are left in childhood, we try to create a better today instead innovating an exciting tomorrow. Life, like AfrikaBurn and Peace Corps, encourages experimentation and innovation. There’s even a camp at Burning Man called, “It’s All Made Up”. Shouts to the IAMU crew. Again, it’s up to us to create and co-create this thing called life.
Sit face to face with people
We live in a world with many things competing for our attention. Partially because of that, sensationalism abounds. We end up with strong opinions of people we’ve never met and know very little about. Real life people become the nameless, faceless “them” or “they”. This changes when we sit with someone, formerly known as strange(r), and experience their humaness through interactions. Suddenly, Burners aren’t a bunch of naked hippies doing drugs in a desert and Swazis (and by extension, Africans) aren’t a bunch of unintelligent, poor people living in mud huts. When we meet face to face, there is often some common ground. We get to deconstruct the single story bestowed on those who want to share their own stories. Even without common language, interests, and/or ideologies, we’re all humans sharing this planet.
One of the principles of Burning Man culture is “participation”. To me, a large part of that participation is done through interacting with the space and the people in it. Through interaction, we co-create the life experience. In Peace Corps, I’ve found that magic happens when I am a participant in my community. Interacting with the community promotes growth and gets things done. Interaction also promotes relationships and seeing people as more than simple mediums if transaction.
Be kind to yourself.
Last week, my cohort (group 14) came together for one last Peace Corps sponsored training. We assembled in the Lubumbo region of eSwatini for our Close of Service (COS) conference. This conference signals the beginning of the end. It’s held about three months before a group is set to leave.
We had our COS conference at a secluded nature reserve with beautiful views and spacious chalets. This was also the last time that we had to take a language proficiency test, which assessed how our language skills have grown throughout our service. We discussed the paperwork and conversations that need to be completed before we leave. We gave three stool samples to ensure that we aren’t leaving with parasitic friends in our respective bowels. We reflected on the work that we’ve done. We began to prepare for the adjustment and reverse culture shock that likely awaits us in America. We discussed how to best represent our service as we seek move on to careers, school or retirement. It was a full week.
While I’ll greatly miss eSwatini and emaswati (pronounced eh-mah-swah-tee), or Swazi people, I am excited for life after Peace Corps. The picture above was taken by PCV Nate during a session with a panel of RPCVs.
Be kind to yourself.