“Oh…you went to the real [insert place name here]”

Last week, I made my way to southern Cambodia. Kampot, to be specific. I had been told about the pepper farms and caves nearby. I also has heard about the crab market in the nearby town of Kep and the surrounding parks. I wanted to get out and see all of the things, so I rented a motorbike for the day.

After an exciting day eating and riding through the Kampot and Kep provinces, I made my way back to the guesthouse. During happy hour, various people were talking about their day’s events. The conversation turned to me. I talked about seeing the sites and eating delicious food. Someone remarked, “oh, you saw the real Cambodia today”. I’ve heard similar remarks several times before. While living in rural in rural eSwatini, some said that I was living in the real eSwatini. Wandering around Salvador Bahia and beyond inspired comments about seeing the real Brazil. But during the happy hour conversation, something clicked.

Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, is just as Cambodian as rural communities in the Kampot and Kep provinces. Even with its high rise buildings and KFC, it’s real Cambodia. Rio de Janeiro is as much Brazil as other Brazilian cities, towns, and villages without a picturesque Copacabana Beach. Furthermore, Copacabana Beach is as much of real Brazil as the favelas around the city. Manzini, the most populous city in eSwatini, is just as authentically Swazi with its busyness and amenities as Lushikishini (the rural community where I served).

It’s rural Cambodia. But it’s giving me memories of rural eSwatini.

I’ve never heard anyone describe the U.S. with similar language and sentiment. If someone visits Manhattan in New York and doesn’t leave Midtown, they have visited the real America. If someone visits Manhattan in Kansas and doesn’t leave the Kansas State University campus, they have also visited the real America. America, and by extension – Americans, is allowed to be more than one thing. At the same time. America can be simultaneously rich and poor, urban and rural, animal loving carnivores and animal loving vegetarians. All of this is the real America. This has been normalized. But Cambodia can’t be the urban sprawl of Phnom Penh and the rural fishing village of Chamcar Bei? Why can’t both Manzini and Lushikishini be viewed as real eSwatini?

I believe that the fuel behind this idea is the same one that fuels ideas of white supremacist racism and sexist chauvinism. It’s the idea that says if you’re non white, you can only be one thing. The same idea suggests that if you’re non (cis) male, again you can only be one thing. You want to be a Black man pursuing a PhD, and freestyle rap over beats you produce? Nah. Pick one. You want to be a woman who’s career focused and sexual liberated, or a woman who’s strong and nurturing? No can do. In a similar vein, you want to be a developing country with fanciful urban areas and abundant agricultural lands? Nope. It’s a single story, and as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reminds us-it’s dangerous.

The motorbike was full of petrol, and this guy was ready to explore.

The truth is, we are much more alike than we like to admit. Sure, our cities, suburbs, and rural communities may look different. We may cook things in different ways, but we tend to cook similar things. We may speak different languages, but we’re all simply seeking to communicate and be heard. Regardless of what stage of development a country is in, that country is allowed to be multiple things. At the same time. Just like its residents.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

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Yo Taxi!

There’s a running joke truth that a Black man (in America) can’t get a cab. For me, that’s rarely the experience but friends and other Black folks have experienced this first-hand, on a regular basis. I’ve been in Mumbai for a few days now. It’s a culture shock in many ways. There are around 18 million people in this city. It’s the most populous city in India, and one of the most populous in the world. There are many languages being spoken including Hindi (a national language) and Marathi (the state language for Maharashtra, where Mumbai is). The food is jumping with various spices and flavors. The traffic is busy. Crossing the street is an exercise in physics calculations and wishful thinking. Nevertheless, I digress.

To get around everywhere in Mumbai (outside of South Mumbai), many people use rickshaws. They get you where you need to be relatively quickly. More of them can fit on the congested streets. They’re perfect for city travel around Mumbai. On a few occasions now, I’ve approached a rickshaw driver to get transport to my destination. Some drivers shake their head to say no, while others verbally say the same. I don’t know if it’s more of the same “Black man can’t get a cab” type racism or if people would rather not deal with a foreigner who doesn’t really know the city nor the language(s). In the mean time, I’m trying to learn some of the local languages, so that I can communicate with drivers. We shall see.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

COS: A Reflection on Service

Today is my last day of service in the United States Peace Corps in eSwatini. More than two years ago, I packed up my home in DC and left with four bags heading to Swaziland via Philadelphia and New York. In these past two years, I have laughed and cried. Sometimes for no reason. I have taught and learned. I have gained a handle on some parts of the siSwati language, while completely butchering others. I have had a tremendous amount of time alone with myself and my thoughts. In addition to capacity building and diplomacy, my Peace Corps experience has been a radical experiment in getting to know myself and the surrounding world.

A few days ago, I met some young men while waiting for transport with another PCV. The conversation was similar to several others I’ve had around the kingdom. I talked a bit about my life here as did the young men. One of the young men spoke of his frustrations with school and home life. When he asked what he should do, I offered the advice that I could. Coincidentally, it was very similar to things that my mother and other wise folks have told me. As the other PCV and I made it to our destination, we talked about how the advice was a poignant reminder for us. My advice to the young man was, in many ways, guidance from my former self to the present and future versions of me.

Being here for the past two years has reminded me to embrace the idea of being who you needed when you were younger or in that situation. It may be offering a listening ear or a fresh perspective. It may be sharing some of the mistakes made to help those following not to make the same missteps. In many ways, that’s what I have strived for this blog to be. When I was in the process of applying for Peace Corps, I searched for blogs that reflected the Black PCV experience and, in particular, the Black male PCV experience. It was a difficult task. I remember finding a Black man serving in Indonesia on Instagram. I promptly began following him. I found a Black lady who had served in Georgia. She had an Instagram page connected to her blog, which chronicled her Peace Corps service and travels. I began following her. Their inspiration is part of what led to this blog.

Throughout the life of this blog, I have received feedback on how the blog has helped folks in various ways. Family and friends have learned about eSwatini as I have shared about this experience. Currently serving PCVs in other posts have shared how similar (or different) their host countries are. RPCVs have taken the opportunity to look back and reflect on their own service and life. Swazis have (mostly) appreciated reading about the Swazi culture from an outsider’s view. Prospective PCVs have reached out to ask questions in preparing for their own journey. I am thankful that this blog has served whatever purpose you needed it to serve.

My service has taught me many things. It has opened up new worlds, and allowed me to explore those worlds. I’ve realized that to some folks, I’m their eyes into eSwatini. The eSwatini that I see and speak of is the eSwatini that they know. To realize this power is humbling. To be an authoritative voice of a country (and at times, a continent) and the human experience there is an amazingly tall task. It’s a privilege that I don’t feel that I’ve earned. But that is the crux of privilege. These unearned advantages. Being here has definitely highlighted my own privilege. Being here has highlighted the effects of years of colonialism and imperialism on those colonized. I’ve had students question if they could learn something because, according to them, difficult subjects are for white people. I’ve heard adults questioning whether or not young people from rural Swazi communities were capable of learning certain things.

I knew very little about international development prior to Peace Corps. Admittedly, I still don’t know much. What I can say, after my limited experience, is that I believe that part of the work must be dismantling generations of imperialist thought. For example, I’ve had interactions that started in siSwati. Upon hearing me struggle with speaking siSwati, my conversation partner(s) may start speaking English. The imperialist thought being that “I would rather struggle speaking your language in my country for your comfort.” I noticed several of my students doing this. For this reason, I tried to learn siSwati as best I could. To me, it was the least that I could do to signal that the people and culture here matter.

I have been honored to serve in eSwatini for the past 26 months. I would like to thank all of those who have contributed to this journey. Thank you for the phone calls, letters, postcards, messages, conversations, good vibes, positive energy, and everything else. The journey was made a bit easier because of you.

To my host families. Thank you for welcoming me into your homes and families. For accepting and loving me as your son, brother, brother-in-law, cousin, uncle, nephew and friend. For teaching me about Swazi culture and language. For forcing me to actually speak siSwati.

To my students. Thank you for trusting me. For keeping me on my toes and teaching me the nuances of siSwati. For laughing with me, and at me. For the intentional (and unintentional) laughs at your expense. You are brilliant. Keep being brilliant, and pushing yourselves to be better. I look forward to you doing amazing things in the future for emaswati and the world. Always remember that there is a guy somewhere in the world who believes in you and your greatness.

To my teaching colleagues. Thank you for allowing me to join you on the quest to educate and empower the leaders of eSwatini’s tomorrow. For indulging me in trying out some new, weird (and, at times, uncomfortable) things. For challenging and checking me to ensure that there was substance behind the radical ideas, instead of tightly compressed hot air.

To the people of Lushikishini, Mankayane. Thank you working, laughing, and fellowshiping with me. For the memories. For welcoming me as one of your own. For the time spent on a porch, in a field, or under a tree. For teaching me to slow down and enjoy the day. I once heard that there is a big difference between being still and doing nothing. Thank you for showing me how to appreciate being still.

To emaswati all around the kingdom. Thank you for welcoming me with open arms and warm smiles. For inviting me into your homes, places of worship, and your lives. For teaching me your language and culture. For adopting me into your culture.

To the Peace Corps eSwatini staff. Thank you for supporting me and all of #G14Strong. For the leeway to explore. For listening. For keeping me healthy. For assisting me with navigating the intricacies of the Swazi life, language and culture. For guidance when direction wasn’t apparent.

To my fellow Peace Corps eSwatini volunteers. Thank you for serving with me. For teaching and inspiring me. For bringing your best self. For being supportive in times of struggle. For being celebratory when the need arose. For, at times, being a cadre of cheerleaders reminding me (and all of us) that small victories, like all victories, deserve to be celebrated.

To my family and friends at home. Thank you for keeping in touch. For the phone calls, emails, Whatsapp massages, etc that seemed to lessen the distance. For everything that you’ve done to support me during my service.

To the prospective PCVs. Thank you for reaching out. For reminding me that representation matters. For freely asking questions. For sharing your fears, concerns, and discomforts.

To the followers and readers of whatisKirbydoing on this blog and on Instagram. Thank you for taking this ride with me. For sharing the project with your friends and family. For keeping me engaged. For asking questions. For your likes, comments, and follows.

I know that some are wondering what’s next. I’ll be heading to India soon. The loose plan is to continue eastward until I end up back in DC. During the trek eastward, I’ll be job searching. So if you or someone you know is hiring, please let me know. I’m primarily interested in analyst, IT, or technical writing positions in the public sector although I’m open to other things.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

The Service Soundtrack

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.

Trophies – Drake

“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.

Straight Up and Down – Bruno Mars

“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.

Love Yourz – J. Cole

“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…”

Price of Fame – Big K.R.I.T

“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.

Tigi – Sands

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 – Joyner Lucas

“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.

Faithful – Common ft. Bilal

“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?

Gobisiqolo – Bhizer

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

I Know Better – John Legend

“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.

Dear Mama – Tupac Shakur

“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.

Cry No More – Phonte

“My sons look at me these days, and think I’m certified/
preparing them for a world they’ll be deserted by/
internalize/
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.

Blessed – Daniel Caesar

“Yes/
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.
Onward.

InstaPeace Projects

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.
Onward.

You Are Not Alone

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.
Onward.

Reflections on AfrikaBurn, Peace Corps service, and life

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.

Embrace impermanence

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.

Community Interaction

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.
Onward.

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.

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.