Indlovukazi, or YAASSS QUEEN

I’ve written many times here about how confusing the siSwati language can be. This post isn’t entirely about that. (I should note that my students frequently remind me that English is extremely difficult, and I agree.) One example of siSwati’s confusion is any number of ways to refer to males and females. Umfana (pronounced oom-fa-nah) and lijaha (pronounced lee-jah-ha) both refer to an individual boy. Bhuti wami (pronounced boo-tee wah-me) and mnaketfu (pronounced oom-nah-gate-foo) both mean “my brother”. Make (pronounced mah-gay) means “mother”, but it’s also used at times to mean “woman”. Umfati (pronounced oom-fah-tee) means “wife”, but is also used to mean “woman” at times. Dzadzewetfu (pronounced zah-zay-wait-foo) and sisi wami (pronounced see-see wah-me) both mean “my sister”.

On my homestead, my host family consists of my host mother and sister. Others may come back at certain times of the year. One of the people who comes back often is my host brother, who lives and works in South Africa. He speaks many languages including Zulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans, and English. Sometimes, I understand the Zulu and very small pieces of Sesotho. When my brother speaks to our little sister, I try to follow the conversation. Luckily, most times it’s siSwati or Zulu. I noticed that whenever he addressed her, he always started “Indlovukazi…”. That’s not her given name (which no one uses) or her nickname (which everyone, including our make, uses). I kept hearing it.

Indlovukazi, ufunani kudla (what do you want to eat)?

Indlovukazi, ufundze njani (how was school)?

Indlovukazi…

Indlovukazi…

One day, I decided to ask him what Indlovukazi meant. He chuckled, and explained that Indlovukazi (pronounced en-jlo-voo-gah-zee) means “queen” in Zulu. (In siSwati, it’s Indlovukati). He went on to explain that he wants her to grow up knowing that she’s a queen and demand to be treated accordingly. He explained that it’s his responsibility as an older brother to demonstrate how the world should regard her. It’s true. Our little sister might have a few names and be called many things in her lifetime. I can only hope that she remembers she is Indlovukazi.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

P.S. – I would like to publicly thank my students who make sure I rise to the challenge of learning and speaking siSwati.

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Rolling siSwati and toddler fluency

A few weeks ago, I was leaving school to go home. As I pass the gate and say bye to the students, I hear “c’ombole” as one of the students points to my bike. The confused look on my face lets them know that I don’t understand. “Cela boleke“, they clarify. I’m understanding a little better now.

One of the students explains c’ombole is the shortened version of cela boleke (pronounced click c-eh-la bo-lay-gay) meaning “please borrow me…/may I borrow…”. In this instance, the student was asking to borrow my bike. The student who explained the shortened siSwati went on to entertain my lamenting about how siSwati changes whenever I feel like I have a handle on it. She explained the concept of rolling siSwati by comparing it to English contractions and various stylistic preferences (that are present when speaking any language).

In English, “How are you doing?” becomes “How you?”; “cannot” becomes “can’t”; and “Where are you?” becomes “Where you at?” In siSwati, “uyakuphi” (pronounced oo-ya-goo-pee) becomes “uyaku” (pronounced oo-ya-goo) or “uya” (pronounced oo-yah). No meaning is lost, and the listener understands you want to know where s/he is going. This is not to be confused with “ukuphi…” (pronounced oo-goo-pee) meaning “Where is (a person)?” Sometimes, this gets rolled into “uku…” (pronounced oo-goo) or “uphi…” (pronounced oo-pee). Take for example the phrase, “ufuna ini ku wati” (pronounced oo-foo-nah ee-knee goo wah-tee). In everyday siSwati, this phrase becomes “ufunani kwati” (pronounced oo-foo-nah-knee gwah-tee). Both phrases are asking what you want to know.

With these realizations, I decided that I would focus on speaking and listening rather than reading and writing. One of the things that has helped me with this focus is a mobile voice recording app. When I hear a word or phrase I don’t understand, I record myself enunciating the word or phrase several times in siSwati with its English meaning. From time to time, I go back and listen to the recordings to refresh my memory. In that vain, I’d suspect that I’m around the fluency of an average toddler. Maybe a slightly below average toddler. Like toddlers, my subjects don’t always agree with my verbs. Sometimes, I mispronounce things. It’s possible that I might need something explained repeatedly. But eventually, we all understand. My conversations with toddlers and preschoolers are awesome, as everyone understands what’s being said. Sometimes, I can manage a conversation with my gogo, or grandmother.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

Me. As a feminist. 

A few years ago, I was hanging out with a friend after happy hour. Somehow, we got on the topic of feminism. She identified as a feminist. I did not. I viewed feminists as anti-male, and I couldn’t see why I would advocate for the antithesis of my identity. My friend tried to explain to me that my view of feminism greatly differed from what it is. She explained that feminism was about equality. That made sense. I support equality. The problem was that I didn’t see inequalities. I still resisted the term, “feminist”. My friend was patient with me. 

The following year, I moved to Swaziland to begin my service in the Peace Corps. I was reminded throughout my first year in Swaziland that part of privilege is being able to not notice (or not pay attention to) something because it doesn’t adversely affect you. I have no doubt that parts of my experience are correlated to me being a man. During my time here, there have been several instances of gender inequality. Some have been shared or pointed out to me. Others have been blatant. There’s a point when not noticing becomes negligence. It’s possible that the point for me was explaining to various men that I cannot give you any of my women colleagues or friends. Sometimes, discussions ensue regarding me wanting to “keep all the women for myself”. I try to explain that women are not property or rewards, and that women aren’t owned. At some point during my service, something from the past finally made sense. Years ago, a different friend described feminism as “the radical idea that women are human beings.” 

During my service, I’ve had the opportunity to read some of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s books. Most recently, I finished “We Should All Be Feminists”, which was an expanded version of a TED talk by the same name. I saw myself in some of the stories she told. I heard pieces of my story in her descriptive tales of folks with singular viewpoints on feminism, or the ‘single story’, as Adichie calls it. I was reminded of those micro-aggressions toward women that I’ve seen at home and abroad. I was reminded of many earlier conversations explaining that Black people in America are savages, and that not all Americans have great financial wealth. I still refer to myself as a Black American despite the negative images conjured in the minds of some people. For years, I’ve understood that Blackness eschews monoculturalism and the single story. There’s no definitive way to be Black. Letting go of some old thoughts has pushed me to the idea that feminism isn’t a single story. It is many things to many people. For me, it’s “the radical idea that women are human beings”. 

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

Trees

When a tree falls
in the forest, 
it always makes a sound. 
Unless it’s primadonna
as fuck. 

Showing off
for the hearing. 
Putting on
an auditory show. 
That tree doesn’t
need you to know
how loud it can be. 

Falling trees
go boom
like boa constrictors
wrap tight. 
That tree ain’t sounding off
for likes. 
for follows. 
for friends
for applause. 
The tree just falls, 
and makes whatever sound
falling trees make. 
Whatever sound
trunks make
when reunited with roots. 

Boom! 

When a tree falls
in the forest, 
it always makes a sound. 

2017 – A Photo Reflection

I thought about trying to select twelve pictures to represent this year, but it isn’t happening. Also, the months tend to run together after a while. I’ve tried to select things that represent the journey this year. I’ve also tried to select photos that haven’t been previously shared here. If you see repeats, it’s because my mind is forgetful and my eyes liked the photo very much. 

Thank you for sharing in this experience with me. I don’t take it lightly that you take time to journey with me. I look forward to continuing to share my life in Peace Corps Swaziland in 2018.

This year began with me deciding that if I was going to teach people how to make permagardens, I need to know how to do one. 
I made it to my 27th country. Ethiopia! Ate delicious food. Did other stuff. Ate more delicious food.
All work and no play isn’t for me. Work hard, play hard, see Chakalaka perform at House on Fire.
The universe decided I should have a penpal. I’m thankful for the art, kind words, and visiting a mailbox that’s not empty.
Teaching a full academic year has brought out many feelings and emotions. These students (and the rest of them not pictured) make it worth everything!
I was fortunate to be a part of the media pool for the Umhlanga festivities this year. I’ve also been able to practice the craft of photography. This may be the picture I’m proudest of this year.
AfrikaBurn 2017. Yeah.
My mother always taught us that if you can help someone, you should. Even if it’s in the middle of a bike ride. Photo credit: Nozie N.
There’s a Latin dance community that’s full of amazing people who remind me to just dance.
I don’t know what this is. But the little creature decided to hang out during hammock time one day.
Shoutout to Angelo and this involtini!
It’s cool to witness progress. This year, the first monolingual siSwati dictionary was published. It’s a big deal!
My counterpart is amazing. Now she can be amazing faster with this Ethiopian coffee.
At Thanksgiving, we gather at our country director’s home for lunch. I’m forever thankful for that!
My students have a sense of humor. Smile.
Our dog gave birth again. Puppies need a lot of rest.
There is no Thanksgiving in Swaziland. But there is Black Friday. And Black Friday sales.
Sunsets. They happen everyday, yet they’re still pretty awesome.

Be kind to yourself. 
Be kind to others. 
Onward. 

Does Any of This Matter? 

Peace Corps service is often shrouded in mystery. This is true for family and friends of the PCV, as well as the PCV. The question often gets asked what do PCVs do. The answer to that differs from post to post, and amongst volunteers serving in the same post. 

Peace Corps boasts three goals. 

  1. To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
  2. To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
  3. To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

Before my service, I thought of Peace Corps mainly in terms of goal one. I thought about the tangible work. I thought about the data driven outcomes and evidence-based practices. While all of those things are extremely important, they are not of sole importance. In the 18 months that I’ve called Swaziland home, I have known many volunteers who struggled with the idea of “not doing enough”. At times, I have wrestled with the question of whether or not I’m doing meaningful work. In ten years, will it matter that I taught that Life Skills class? In seven years, will it matter that I co-facilitated that permagarden workshop? That’s the Goal One lens of Peace Corps. 

Some time ago, I was perusing Reddit when I was reminded of something salient. Not only does Peace Corps have more than one goal, Peace Corps service is as much about diplomacy as it is capacity building. It’s important to build community spaces. It’s important to build the community’s capacity for effective and sustainable change. It’s also important to build and foster friendships. It’s also important to show America as more than the often told single story of rich white people living lives of great abundance. 

There are times when the presence of a PCV leads to valuable conversations about America and the world. This is not to suggest that PCVs or America have “figured it out”. I don’t believe that we have; however, I believe that magic happens when diverse voices, ideas and perspectives get to sit at the proverbial table and speak freely. The metrics don’t exactly capture that. Similarly, they don’t capture the newfound excitement of the Form 4 student who tells me that he’s looking forward to my class tomorrow. They don’t capture the conversation with the young lady who expressed her excitement that her community gets to host a Black volunteer. 

On the other side of that diplomacy coin is (hopefully) the eradication of the single story that (insert host country/region/continent here) is only one thing. Previously obscure places become more than names on maps. With personal stories and experiences, Africa becomes more than a singular, monocultural place made of brown and bush. 

As I start to wrap things up here in Swaziland, I’ve pondered more on what it means to have had a successful service. My reflection has shifted my focus from making monuments to making memories. I haven’t built or renovated any structures in my community. However, I have taken my students on a world tour (including my home in DC) using Google Maps Street View. That probably won’t be in any annual report, but seeing the faces of my students as we explored the streets of Abuja, Paris, and Cairo makes up for any lack of metrics. 

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

To be seen, or the visibility of Black PCVs

Some of the greatest advice I’ve ever received is to “be who you needed when you were younger”. This can apply to many things. Today, I’ll apply it to Peace Corps prep work. When preparing for Peace Corps service, many people search tirelessly for information. What will it be like? What do I pack? Where will I live? What will I be doing? Do I have enough snacks? Many times, this search leads to blogs and social media allowing soon-to-be/hopeful PCVs a vast information buffet. 

During my own search, I found a lot of information about Swaziland including blogs and social media accounts of PCVs preceding me. Despite the wealth of information available, I struggled to find written accounts of Black PCVs. This was especially true of Black men. That gap was part of the impetus for starting this blog. In FY 2016 (when I started service), Black PCVs made up 7.8% of the 10000 plus volunteers in service. In the interest of sharing the Black PCV experience around the world, I have linked the blogs of Black PCVs here, under other PCV blogs of interest on this blog. My hope is that potential PCVs and other interested folks find this page resourceful in their quest to gather information about Peace Corps. 

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

This Ain’t Easy: Difficulties in Service

Peace Corps service is difficult. I often get asked if/what I miss about America. My answer is always food, and the variety of it. In fact, I have a list of places to eat when I return to DC. This question is often followed up by some variation of “isn’t it difficult being away from your family for so long?” Technology seems to shorten the distance. However, if I had to single out one thing, I’ve found the most difficult part of my service, this far, has been being “always on”. 

I’ve had jobs where I participated in on-call rotations. This is different. There’s a certain brain drain even when apparently doing nothing. One of the core expectations of Peace Corps is:

“Recognize that you are responsible 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for your personal conduct and professional performance.”

That professional performance item doesn’t end when the work day does. In fact, the “work day” is never over. Off days are non-existent. Off days are work days. While it’s true that I’m not teaching 24 hours daily, there’s still work to be done. There’s still siSwati to be learned, improved, and perfected. There’s still Swazi English to be deciphered. Relationship building and maintenance is work. Active listening and mindful presence is work. Waking up and walking from my house to the latrine means that I have to be ready to interact. My actions (or lack thereof) are highly visible. All day, everyday, I am the face of America. I am the face of all Americans. I am the face of Black Americans. I am the face of American men. If I eat ice cream with a fork, Americans do that. If I’m loud, boisterous, and use lots of profanity, Americans do that. 

Months ago, I was speaking with a musician in Swaziland. Somehow, the conversation turned to drug use among musicians. The musician said something that would stick with me. When discussing musicians and heavy drug use, the musician stated that drugs were prevalent because it’s not natural for a person to be in a near constant state of performance entertainer mode. Day after day. Night after night. Show after show. The musician explained that they are expected to continually perform at the highest levels. Otherwise, they are replaced by someone who can perform at those high levels. In no way am I suggesting that PCVs do or should indulge in drug use. I am offering that anyone considering Peace Corps service might want to develop healthy (read: non destructive) coping mechanisms and vices.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

A Personal Touch

Recently, I was in the Peace Corps Swaziland office for a meeting with both local staff and staff from Peace Corps Headquarters in Washington. As myself and other PCVs were introducing ourselves, an HQ staffer mentioned that I looked familiar. I asked where she hung out in DC thinking that we might have run in the same circles. She said that we didn’t know each other from DC. That it was Peace Corps related. She asked if I had been to any of the regional trainings. I told her that I hadn’t. I asked if she possibly knew my twin brother, explaining that we often get mistaken for each other. She was certain that she hadn’t met him. Finally, it clicked. She said, “you have a blog, don’t you?” I proudly responded that I was the human behind whatisKirbydoing.com. We were both satisfied with that solution. 

Hours later as I was reflecting on that interaction, my exchange with the Peace Corps staffer morphed meaning. She felt that she knew me. My blog allowed her to feel like we had connected before. It was in this moment of reflection that I realized that this blog is serving its intended purpose. I wanted this blog project to allow readers to join me on my journey through Peace Corps. This interaction was confirmation of the fulfillment of that purpose. 

I am reminded of a similar interaction from many months ago. A friend from DC mentioned that she enjoyed the blog because she felt like she was here with me. I’m thankful and delighted that this blog has fostered that connection. 

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

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