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.

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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.

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. 

Monday in a Picture – Seasoned with Experience

​Last week, I was fortunate to co-facilitate a session during PST for G15. It was the second session I’ve co-facilitated for the new group. Shortly after the session, I came to the realization that I’m now a part of the seasoned group of volunteers in Peace Corps Swaziland. I’m a part of the group of volunteers with a year of experience. At times, training staff will ask volunteers to assist with sessions for trainees. 

To date, I have co-facilitated a session on Diversity and Inclusion, and another session on Being Black in Swaziland. Feedback has been generally positive. The above photo was taken by Karlene. 

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

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