An Appreciation

There are some things that I have really come to enjoy and appreciate since arriving in Swaziland almost two months ago. And host family appreciation day is quickly approaching.

For starters, my host family is pretty amazing. They are super kind and considerate. For the first week that I spent in the homestead experience, one of the children brought me hot water for my bath every morning at 6 AM. Like clockwork. With that being said, I appreciate the family culture here. There is also a big community culture here. The community takes care of its own. Family is important. That includes those with and without blood relation.

My family has avocado trees in the yard. I think I’ve eaten more avocados and things made with avocado in the past seven weeks than I have in my entire life. The avocados are abundant and delicious. As I looked at the avocado trees one day, it dawned on me that whoever planned these trees probably never enjoyed these avocados as I am. For that person, and all tree planters around the world, I thank you. Some families in my community have farms. This means that I’m able to walk down the road and find fresh broccoli, carrots, spinach, cauliflower and more. I get to practice my siSwati, support local business, and get high quality produce.

It’s winter in Swaziland right now. Despite this, I am able to walk around my homestead in shorts and a long sleeve shirt most days. On clear nights, I can look up to the sky and see many stars. One of the members of my cohort pointed out Mars one night. I have a newfound appreciation for the galaxy beyond this planet. There’s a certain serene-ness that I experience on those really clear, quiet nights.

I’m thankful for all of these things, and for the amazement yet to be seen.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward. 

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Let’s play a little game

One of the ways that I have been hanging out with my bobhuti na bosisi (brothers and sisters) is playing games at home. I bought a deck of playing cards, and learned a few tricks to share with my bobhuti na bosisi. The tricks were well received, and met with faces of wonder and amazement.

Some of my bobhuti decided to teach me some of the card games they play here. The first game they taught me was called, “Casino”. I still don’t understand how exactly it works. I do remember a few things about the game and its rules. Each card has a value. All numbered cards are that number’s value. Jacks are worth 11. Queens are worth 12. Kings are worth 13. Aces are worth either 14 or 1. To win, you have to build a home, which is a stack of cards. Whoever has the most spades in their home wins.

One of my bhuti taught me how to play a card game called, “AK-47”. Each player is dealt four cards. Each player begins her/his turn by picking up a card from the deck, which is face down, and discarding one card face up. A player can also pick up one card from the discarded pile. The goal of the game is to get an ace, a king, a four, and a seven. These cards do not have to be the same suit. This game was really simple to grasp. Because of that, I really enjoyed it.

Another game that my bobhuti taught me was called, “Stomach”. The cards are spread in a circle face down. Each player begins his/her turn by picking up any card in the circle and placing it face up in the center of the circle. When the next player starts her/his turn, s/he cannot repeat the suit on top of the face up pile. If the suit does repeat, that player must pick up the entire pile of face up cards. S/he will then turn over a new card to start a new face up pile. Once all of the cards in the face down circle are gone, the next player will play a card in the face up pile. Whatever card is played cannot repeat the suit of the card on top of the discard pile. If the suit is repeated, that player must pick up the entire pile. When a player has no more cards, that player wins. I asked one of the boys why the game was called, “Stomach”. He told me that towards the end of the game when a player has to pick up a large pile of cards, it looks like that person is pregnant or has a large stomach.

I’ll close by saying that while I have enjoyed playing with the children and learning about them through play, I am oft times amazed at the ingenuity of the children around the village. One boy made a model car with scrap metal rods and plastic bottle caps. He is able to steer the car with a metal rod that he pushes. Another boy has made several soccer balls using plastic grocery bags packed with the trash of the homestead. It’s pretty amazing.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

I am America

Last week, we found out where we would live over the next two years. This week, we traveled to our respective sites for something called, On The Job training, or OJT. I was able to stay a few days with my permanent host family. They are pretty awesome, in addition to being some of the most hospitable people on this side of the Sun. Before traveling to our sites, we met our site support agent (SSA). The SSA is a respected member of the community who introduces us to key stakeholders. Typically, the SSA works in the same sector that the volunteer will work in. The SSA/PCV relationship is one that is initiated by the local community and the local Peace Corps office.

I also had the opportunity to meet the principal (called the head teacher here), staff, and students at the high school in my community. The principal was happy that I was in the community. He phoned the chief of the village to inform the chief of my arrival. An impromptu meeting was called at the umphakatsi (pronounced oohm-pa-got-see), or chief’s house. I was accompanied by the principal, vice principal (called the deputy head teacher here), and my SSA to the meeting. I introduced myself (in siSwati), and met some of the residents of the Lushikishini. I noticed that the people in my village greatly appreciated my efforts to speak siSwati, even if my grammar is off or I confuse similar sounding words.

During my full day in Lushikishini, I was introduced to students and staff at the high school. The children laughed as I introduced myself (again, in siSwati). I was able to ask them, uhlekani (pronounced ou-sshlay-gah-knee), or why are you laughing? They just laughed more. The principal mentioned during my introduction to students and staff that I am here to help solve problems. He then emphasized one of the other reasons that I am here. He told the students that I am here to provide them with a firsthand look at life in America. From the perspective of a real life American.

As the day went on, I spoke to various heads of departments in the school about their role in the school community and what they thought my role might be in the school community. We discussed challenges that students are having, as well as challenges that staff is having with students. As the students finished their lunch, I was able to speak with some of them. A small group of 4 students grew to about 15 students as they asked me all kinds of questions about America. Some were interested in the presidential election. Some were interested in the school calendar, and asked if I could help them get summers off like American children. Some were interested in the American economy and job market, as they wanted to go to America to work. One student even asked me how many rooms are in the White House. I asked my friend, Google, and told them that there are 132 rooms in the White House. Many students were amazed that a family of four would need so much space. I explained that the White House is also an office building and museum of sorts.

The principal came to take me away from the children so that I could have lunch. He invited me to his home (there’s teacher housing on the premises) where his wife made us pork and rice with salad. We discussed my talk with the children. He informed that many of the children have always dreamed of going to America because of the image of prosperity and wealth. He also discussed the reality of America as a global power and how most nations try to remain on friendly terms with the USA. He then said that there was a saying when he was growing up as a young boy in Swaziland. “When America sneezes, the whole world catches the flu.” This struck a special chord within me. Not only am I part of the diplomatic mission to Swaziland known as Peace Corps, I get to share my unique American experience with rural Swaziland. It’s possible that the things I do and say may be taken as definitively American. There’s a great interest in America, and by extension, me as an American. The principal’s comments gave me a fresh perspective on what I am doing here. I have realized that, in some ways, I am America. I’m excited!

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

Oh, the places you’ll go!

This post is written in two parts, and discusses the site placement process. The first post was written on the Wednesday before the site announcement ceremony, and talks about my feelings leading up to Saturday. The second part was written on Saturday, and talks about the site announcement ceremony and my reactions to my future home. Warning! This post is long.

Wednesday July 20th, 2016

Last week, we had our Language Proficiency Interview (LPI), which assesses our language and conversation abilities this far. We also completed other assessments that tested how well we are learning safety and security, and cultural sensitivities.

One of the meetings was designed to state my personal preferences for my permanent site. People can request anything, from the vaguely general to the uber specific. This includes things like the region of the country you would like to be placed in, whether or not you would like electricity, and what kind of features you would like at your site (e.g., family size, animals, fruit trees). Some of my preferences included a warmer region of the country, electricity, and someplace that I can bike. PC staff will meet this week to decide on placements for everyone. We will find out our placements on Saturday, at a site announcement ceremony. I currently feel like a standout college athlete prior to the draft. I’m just waiting for that announcement.

“With the first pick in the Peace Corps Swaziland permanent placement draft, this wonderful family with electricity in an excellent community for biking selects Kirby P. from the Nkamandzi village!”

I have stated my preferences to any staff who would listen, done well on the LPI, and prepared myself to go anywhere. The suspense is building. For now, we wait.

Saturday July 23rd, 2016

This morning, we got to find out where we will spend the next two years! Several members from group 13, or G13, (the group of PCVs who came to Swaziland in June 2015) were on hand to assist with the announcement. We sat in a semi-circle as G13 began their antics. There were large puzzle pieces on the floor in the middle of the semi-circle. These puzzle pieces, 35 in total, made a map of Swaziland. The theme was Dr. Seuss, and there was a lorax and a grinch along with several other characters. The ceremony started with nursery rhymes to get us ready. Then, with all of the anticipation of an NBA or NFL draft, the placements were announced one by one in nursery rhyme. I was extremely excited with a touch of nervousness. There was no particular order to announcing everyone. I knew it was my turn to be unveiled as the nursery rhyme started with:

“I want to hug him,
Like I hugged my Furby.
Stand on up, Mr. Kirby.”

At this point, I am standing with one other person who will be in my region. (Of note: Swaziland is divided into four regions. They are Hhohho, Manzini, Lubombo, and Shiselweni.) We know our respective regions, but nothing about our respective sites yet. There are 28 more announcements to go. One by one, trainees in G14 find out where they will spend the next two years. The number of people in my region grows until the last person has been announced. Then, we are instructed to go outside to find one of the aforementioned puzzle pieces that has our name on it. I excitedly run outside around the building to find someone holding my puzzle piece and yelling my name. I take the puzzle piece inside so that we can work to put the puzzle together. Little by little, we see where we are in relation to each other. Our new homes are represented by a dot on our puzzle piece. All of G14 stands on the map (at the same time). Some folks are really close. Others are kind of far. Then, the G13 folks present stand on the map to show where they live. The excitement is still running high. As some people are getting off of the map, I notice yellow folders being handed out. I track down the person with mine. As I open it, I find a map of Swaziland showing my site, a fact sheet about the community and host family, and the host family profile.

I am excited to announce that I will be living in the Manzini region close to the border of South Africa. I will have a small host family with only one child. The site has one dog and two cats, along with a jojo tank for water. I will have electricity in my hut. Speaking of my hut, I have been told that it is a pretty spacious roundavel. There is even a sewing group in the community that I can join. I scoured the information given for the bike friendliness of my community. I didn’t find it. So, I asked one of the PC staff who had been out to the site. I was told that the site and community are very conducive to biking. I was also told that I am not in a malarial zone of the country, and that I am the first volunteer to be placed in this community.

I’m extremely happy right now, even as I write this post hours after the announcements. I was given everything that I wanted and asked for. I will get to travel to my site some time in the coming week. The excitement continues.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

PS – is there anything that you would like see on whatisKirbydoing.com? Let me know!

Yummy Yummy Yums

One of the things that my Aunt Nae always wants to know is, “how’s the food?” With that in mind, let’s talk about food.

I need to preface this post by saying that although Swaziland is a very small country, I have only been to a very small fraction of the places in the country. Much of my culinary experience in Swaziland comes from my homestead experience. My sikhoni (sister in law, in case you forgot) typically cooks breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I am typically only around for dinner. Sometimes, I cook for myself. Sometimes, I eat with the family.

Breakfast for me usually consists of oatmeal and/or fruit. It’s easy and difficult to mess up for non morning people, like myself. Breakfast for my family is usually sour porridge. It’s made from fermented mealie meal. In case you we wondering, mealie meal is a maize based thick flour. It’s a flavor that I had to get used to, but with some sugar, it’s perfect. I can’t really describe the flavor. As far as its appearance, it looks a lot like grits (which I haven’t seen here).

Lunchtime brings about different things. Sour porridge can be had for lunch as well. Porridge (as in not fermented or sour) can be enjoyed for lunch. Porridge is mealie meal that is added to boiling water and stirred/mixed until it’s very thick. Porridge is typically made in large quantities and serves as a base for lunch and/or dinner. As it’s very thick, it is eaten with the hands and used to pick up meat or whatever else is served with it. My lunch typically consists of a chicken salad sandwich. Canned chicken is readily available and refrigeration is not a concern. Add a bit of bbq garlic seasoning and it’s my own piece of midday paradise between two slices of bread.

For dinner, porridge is the sustaining puzzle piece. I believe that porridge here is the same as pap in South Africa. With our porridge, we’ve had stewed chicken or spinach, sometimes with a butternut squash mash. The porridge really doesn’t have a flavor, so it goes well with anything. We’ve also had rice and beans for dinner. I think the rice and (kidney) beans may be among my favorite meals in the country. It’s definitely my favorite meal at the homestead! One thing to note is that the portions are huge. I have attempted to clear my plate several times, and failed. The food is very filling.

I’ll close with snacks and some of the things that I’ve enjoyed outside of the homestead experience. First, chicken dust. The chicken is grilled on the side of the road, and served with some porridge and salad. The chicken is super flavorful and delicious. Next, there’s fat cakes. One of the other trainees told me about these. I’m forever thankful. Some of the women sell these fat cakes on the side of the road, in addition to other goods. What is a fat cake, you ask? It’s a fried ball of dough. It’s very similar to a funnel cake or beignet, but heavier and without powdered sugar. Talk about next level delicious. Next, one of the folks in my cohort introduced me to sugar cane. Pure succulent sugar cane. I don’t have it as much as I would like, and that’s a good thing. The cane juice is perfect for a refreshing pick me up in the midday’s hot sun. Lastly, there are these lemon cream cookies that we have during tea breaks (former British colony). They are also next level delicious. They may, or may not, be the reason I look forward to going to class. I think I might have a bit of a sweet tooth.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

I killed a chicken today

Trigger warning – The following post details my voluntary participation in the slaughter of a chicken. Some of the details included may make some people uncomfortable. There are no pictures included in this post.

Today is July 1st, 2016. This day started like many others. A short walk to class. Greeting my teacher in sis-Swati. Eating some breakfast before the language lesson starts.

Today is different though. Today, we are doing a combined cooking and language lesson. We met with another class for this lesson. We are cooking traditional Swazi food with our teachers. A group of us walked to another homestead to get some chickens. Two to be exact. These were live chickens.

We carried them back to the class, where we slaughtered them. I volunteered to kill one of the chickens. One of the teachers held the chicken while I cut the chicken’s neck. At first, I thought that the knife wasn’t working. That’s when I saw the first blood spill of the chicken. I kept cutting as the chicken squirmed. Eventually, the head was separated from the body and blood poured from the neck as all of the life left the chicken’s body. I had killed my first chicken. I volunteered to hold the second chicken as one of the teachers cut its neck. He was very quick and efficient. I held it down as the last bit of life left its body.

Then, it was time to remove the feathers. This was done by hand after dipping the chicken in hot water. Removing the feathers revealed the chicken that I’m used to seeing at grocery stores. I believe that removing the feathers was a far more tedious process than the actual killing.

I appreciate being able to participate in the farm to table process. It’s a very humbling experience. The only downside is that now my pants have small speckles of chicken blood. A small price to pay for the experience.

Onward.

Different different, but same.

There are certainly some things that definitely remind me of home here. There are some gender roles and expectations that I’ve seen before.

Typically, I am not involved in the cooking process. I suspect that this is because I am a man. Women and children, usually girls, prepare and serve meals. Here, at my training home site, my sikhoni takes the lead on most of the cooking. This past weekend, she sent in one of the children with sour porridge for breakfast. This was followed by an egg scramble and porridge some hours later for lunch.

As I was doing my laundry this past weekend, I was nudged to give it to one of the children for them to do it. I resisted the temptation. I decided that it would be best for me to learn hand washing, and perfect my technique. There was a compromise that I would let one of the children assist me. I was very thankful because laundry takes much more time and energy than it ever did in DC. After completing my laundry, I asked one of the children if there was a nap culture in Swaziland. With a confused look, he asked what a nap was. I explained that it was a period of rest in the middle of the day. He promptly replied that they don’t do that. I told them that I would sleep for one hour, and then come back out to continue the day.

Upon returning from one of the PST sessions this week, my sisi (pronounced see-see), or sister, asked for my dishes, so that she could wash them. I told her that I had already washed them. She asked if I was sure. I told her that I just had my lunch dish from today. She asked for it. I told her not to worry about it, and I would take care of it. She relented.

While patriarchy is prevalent in both the United States and Swaziland, I can see that it certainly more pronounced here.

This just reminds me of the idea that we are more the same than we are different. Babe (pronounced bah-bay), or father Sheba is one of the training staff in PC Swaziland. He has said several times that we are all going to the same place. It’s just that some of us get there before others. I believe this to be true. It’s all same same, but different.

Of note, in Swazi culture, any father/married man/man old enough to be your father is referred to as babe. This is done out of respect. The same applies for any mother/married woman/woman old enough to be your mother. She is referred to as make. Anyone who is your age, regardless of relation, is referred to as bhuti or sisi. The Swazi culture is a very communal one. Because of this, I feel very welcomed.

I feel the presence of my aunt Nae when I’m at home with my make. We often sit in make’s house and watch the news (in sis-Swati). Whenever King Mswati III is discussed and/or appears on television, she speaks of him very highly. She sounds like a mother who is proud of her son’s accomplishments. This is super similar to some weekday evenings spent with Aunt Nae watching the evening news. Aunt Nae’s version of King Mswati III is President Obama. She absolutely loves him. (Side note: if this post ever makes it to Mr. President, she would love a visit from you – and it doesn’t matter if you’re still in office)

It’s quite often that I feel that the Swazi people have accepted me as one of their own. One evening, while showing my training host family pictures of my family in America, my bhuti looks at my Uncle Pat and says that there is no way that Pat could be in America because he saw him last week in Matsapha (a town in Swaziland). I laughed. Though, it is completely possible that my uncle could just show up.

Onward.

This is Africa.

Hello from the kingdom of Swaziland! I have been safely in country for just over one week now. We are now in the midst of a process called Pre Service Training (PST). This is cultural, language, safety, security, and policy training that takes place in the local community.

On this past Wednesday, I moved in with my host family. I was greeted by my sikhoni (pronounced si-koh-nee), or sister in law. When we got to the homestead, I met my make (pronounced mah-gay), or mother; and my bobhuti (boh-boo-tee), or brothers, along with their children and several cousins. They, like many of the Swazi people I have met, were super welcoming and helpful with me as I learn sis-Swati. My training host family welcomed me in by giving me a new name, Sibusiso (pronounced see-boo-see-so). Sikhoni told me that my name means blessing. They have also bestowed me with their surname as I integrate into the community.

To those wondering, I have a nice home with electricity. I don’t have to go far for water. My make even has a television and stereo. We watch the local news over dinner. The food is pretty tasty. The weather is nice and mild, especially for it to be winter.

Because I am short and time and bandwidth, I will go over some highlights of the past week and a half.

– We flew from New York to Johannesburg on the Wednesday before last. It was a very long flight, and we shared the flight with another Peace Corps training class headed to Malawi.

– I’m not sure who was more excited. Us, the Peace Corps Swaziland staff who greeted us at the airport, or all of the Peace Corps Swaziland folks who greeted us when we got to the training facility. Let’s call it a tie.

– Peace Corps believes in early mornings. This is certainly an adjustment.

– We have language and cross cultural facilitators (LCFs) who teach us sis-Swati and Swazi cultural norms. My thishela (pronounced tee-shay-la), or teacher, is amazing. She’s taught sis-Swati to various US ambassadors and our country director.

– Speaking of US ambassadors, the current US ambassador came to visit our training class last week. We will be attending the official opening of the US embassy in Swaziland.

– On our way home today, our khombi (pronounced koom-bi), or mini taxi, broke down. We walked a good distance before stopping to take in a football (soccer) game/practice. It was great bonding time.

– I think that I can get used to the serene quiet and stars at night. I’m still getting used to going to bed by 9pm and bucket baths.

Onward.

First day on the job!

This morning started bright and early at 4am. It was much earlier than any morning in recent history. I had set my alarm for 4:35am so that I could leave for the airport at 5am. The excitement woke me up.

Today, I left Washington, DC for staging in Philadelphia. My bags were slightly overweight, but I knew exactly what it was. The snacks! I packed ten pounds of snacks. I think they’ll be worth the effort. The flight was delayed. As I browsed the interwebs, I was overcome with emotion. Tears feel heavily as I waited for the plane to board. It finally hit me. I was about to leave the very familiar for a things unknown. When it did take off, I was fast asleep.

I made it to Philly, and to my hotel. I recognized some of the folks from my group from the Facebook group chat. We were able to talk and joke around before the staging event officially began.

Today was the first day on the job. Today was staging. Staging is an official introduction to Peace Corps, the Peace Corps family, expectations, and paperwork. The most impactful event of staging for me was the discussion that surrounded various scenarios. We got to know the people we would be serving with. We were given Peace Corps t-shirts, and took a group photo. We are officially Peace Corps trainees.

Tomorrow morning, we will board a plane headed to Johannesburg, South Africa. We will meet our training staff, and take a bus ride to Swaziland, our home for the next 27 months.

The next post will be from somewhere in Swaziland.

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      Peace Corps Swaziland – Group 14