Monday in a Picture – School Assembly 

I spend most of my time at the high school. There are classes to be taught and conversations to be had. In addition, I genuinely enjoy being at the school. The students are engaging while challenging me to speak more siSwati. Fellow teachers bounce ideas around with me, and also encourage me to speak more siSwati. 

Most days, the school day begins and ends with an assembly. When the bell rings, all students come together and stand in line with their respective grade level. A teacher or administrator stands in front to lead the learners through the assembly. 

One of the older students will start to sing a song. The other students join in the singing at appropriate times. After the song, the students will recite a prayer. The song is always in siSwati or isiZulu. The prayers and prayer languages vary, and are sometimes recited in English. After the prayer, the staff person facilitating the assembly will say “good morning/afternoon, students”. In unison, the students reply “good morning/afternoon sir/ma’am. Good morning/afternoon teachers. Good morning/afternoon sisters. Good morning/afternoon brothers.” At this point in the assembly, staff make any announcements pertaining to the students (i.e., remind your parents about the meeting tomorrow, etc.) The assembly ends after announcements are made, and students go either to class or home. 

The above picture is of the students lined up for afternoon assembly at the high school. 

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward.

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Monday in a Picture – Cutting Grass

It was the summer of 2006. This was the summer before my senior year of college, and I was spending it with my uncle and his family in Fayette County, Georgia. All of the single family homes seemed to have perfectly manicured lawns. There wasn’t a blade of grass out of place. On one Saturday morning, my cousin, uncle, and I got up early. It was time to cut the grass at our house. 

This was a new experience for me. I had never cut grass, or done any yard work. My cousin and uncle taught me how to start and use the gas powered lawnmower. It was hard work. I wasn’t able to achieve that perfectly manicured look that I saw at the neighbors’ homes, but I got the job done. 

Almost eleven years later, I am responsible for maintaining the grassy area around my home on the homestead. My host mom reminds me of this when my grass grows too high. She warns me that high grass gives snakes places to hide. 

Lawnmowers are a rarity in Swaziland. They are practically non-existent in the rural community. There are two options for cutting grass. There’s an older pair of garden shears, and there’s something called a siheshe (pronounced see-heh-shay), or slasher. It’s smaller than a bush knife and has a modest handle with a thin, long metal blade. When my host brother was home for the Christmas holidays, I saw him using the siheshe to cut grass. I asked him how one cut grass with it. He responded simply, “just beat the hell out of it”. I remembered that on one weekday afternoon as I attempted to cut my grass, Swazi style. Eventually, I found a rhythm. I also found a new appreciation for lawnmowers. The slasher gets the job done and gives you a workout. Luckily, I only have to cut the grass twice a month. 

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

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So, what exactly do you do? – a day in the life of a Peace Corps Swaziland volunteer extraordinaire

This question gets asked by many people. Community members and other Swazis are interested. Friends and family in America want to know. Friends that I haven’t met yet are curious. Of course, potential Peace Corps volunteers want a glimpse into what is potentially ahead of them. 

For starters, I’m a Youth Development volunteer in Swaziland. Unlike some Peace Corps sectors, like Education, we don’t have a preset schedule. We also don’t have a specific job description. We are given the opportunity to make our own daily itinerary and work within our framework. In Swaziland, we aren’t assigned to work with a particular organization or person. We’re assigned to an entire rural community. 

Though the days vary, I would like to present what a typical day for myself is like. 

I wake up between 0530 and 0630 during the week, and sometimes on weekends. I boil a kettle of water (to shower) while I do other morning tasks. After showering, I make breakfast (typically oatmeal with cinnamon and brown sugar) and get dressed. 

I try to leave my house by 0700, if I’m going to walk to the high school. I can leave at 0710 if I am going to bike. The school is just under two kilometers from my homestead. At school, I teach life skills. The school administration has also given me some class periods to teach “youth development”. While there is a full grade-specific curriculum for the life skills classes from the Ministry of Education, the youth development time is up to me and my creativity. 

I have taught lessons on resiliency, confidence, and leadership from various curriculums floating around Peace Corps. I have lead the students on team building and trust exercises. We tried to play some improv games, but that wasn’t successful. We have played a life skills board game designed by some PCVs who came before my time. I have discussed debatable topics before having students take positions and debate in class. There are also times when the students have vast questions about America. Being the resident American, I get to answer these questions. Sometimes, these question and answer sessions will last for an entire period. 

When I’m not teaching (which is often), I hang out in the staff workroom. Sometimes, I’m chatting with other teachers and trying to pick up more siSwati, or discussing life and ideas. Most times, I’m reading a book on the kindle. I bring my lunch to school everyday. It’s almost always leftovers from whatever I made the previous evening. I should mention that there are many impromptu conversations with students, teachers, administration and other community members that happen regarding possible activities, projects, and grants. Some of it pans out. Some of it doesn’t. Impromptu conversation is partly responsible for me teaching a class.

School dismisses at 1535. After school, I ride or walk home. I change into some kind of lounge wear and sit on my porch or go for a late afternoon bike ride. I’ll typically try to find my host mom to greet her, especially if I didn’t see her in the morning. Sometimes, neighbors or friends will stop by to chat. Sometimes, I read a book until the sun sets. This is also when I do my chores, like watering and weeding my garden, sweeping my house and porch, cutting grass or washing dishes. 

Around 1800, I start the process of cooking dinner. I am often distracted by a television show or movie, so I usually end up eating around 1900. After eating dinner and finishing whatever I’m watching, it’s time to go to bed (which is typically between 2030 and 2100). 

There are other things sprinkled in throughout the day. For example, I might hang out on Instagram looking for bearded PCVs to feature on @BeardsOfPeaceCorps. Sometimes, I’m asked to co-teach a class that relates to my interests, like economics or technology. My students have taught me how to play various card games. I’ve also led permagardening trainings in the community. In the interest of transparency, there are some days that I do nothing and thoroughly enjoy it. 

It is both daunting and freeing to be able to do whatever you want (within reason). You want to introduce baseball or ultimate frisbee? Go for it. You want to trick children into analyzing English by studying and listening to the music of Drake and Jay Z? Why not! I’m fortunate to be hosted by a community open to trying new ideas. Thankfully, most days are incredibly freeing. 

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

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​Monday in a Picture – Grow Your Own Food: the Garden

Last week, I finished my garden. I used the techniques that we learned in a training session last month. Read about that training here. Building this garden was a great way to test my own knowledge and skill before leading trainings in my community. I’m still planning the community demonstration gardens with community leadership.

Double digging to depths of 30+ centimeters is hard, tedious work. The Swazi sun made the task even more unappealing. I hyped myself up by watching Ron Finley’s TED talk about guerrilla gardening. While the entire video is extremely motivational and inspiring, one quote stuck out to me.

“Growing your own food is like printing your own money.” – Ron Finley

I like money. I like food. Challenge accepted! It took four days to complete. I’m happy to announce that it’s done. Some of my neighbors came over to learn and help. It felt great to actually understand permagardening well enough to explain it to others. 

I’m sure that I didn’t do everything perfectly. There were measurements that I forgot to take. My idea (and practice) of companion planting is definitely not what we learned. I didn’t add ash or charcoal to the soil because we didn’t have any available. 

For those who may be wondering what I am hoping to grow, I planted seedlings of lettuce, red cabbage, Chinese cabbage, butternut squash, onions, okra, basil, something called rocket (which the sales associate told me is like spinach), broccoli, cauliflower, and eggplant. I planted seeds of chamomile, flowers, tomatoes, and spinach. Now, I’m just hoping that the seeds and seedlings turn into food.

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

P.S. – This is what the space looked like before it became a garden. 

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​Monday in a Picture – Community Shop

Grocery shopping is an all day task for me from my rural community. It involves taking public transportation to a town that’s approximately 25 kilometers away. Because it’s such a time intensive activity, I try to limit my trips to once or twice a month. I have also started using a grocery list to make sure I get everything that I need. 

Inevitably, there is something that I forgot while on my grocery shopping excursion. For anything that I did forget or didn’t put on my list, there’s the sitolo (pronounced see-toe-low), or shop. At a community shop, you can find essential items like bread, rice, cooking oil, and beans among other things. My community has at least four shops. The shops vary in size. They also vary in their offerings. At least one of the shops in my community sells various cuts of meat and margarine. 

The prices at the community shops are a tad more expensive than prices at larger grocers. Even in Swaziland, stores that are convenient have a price for that convenience. And it’s very convenient to spend a rand or two more for a few items instead of spending an entire day (plus transportation money) to get those same items. 

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

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​Monday in a Picture – The Head

When a cow, or inkhomo (pronounced inn-co-moe), is slaughtered, there is a lot of meat. The meaty goodness is a carnivore’s dream. After everyone has had some meat, rice or porridge, and cabbage, bobabe (pronounced bo-bah-bay), or men, gather around dishes filled with more meat.

This past weekend when this happened, one of the men invited me to join them as they prepared to eat from the meat filled dishes. On these dishes was something of a Swazi delicacy. It was the cow’s head. The picture above is only half of the cow head meat. 

I had heard stories about the sacredness of the  cow head, how delicious it was, and how women are discouraged from consuming it. According to some beliefs, fertility problems might come to women who eat the cow’s head. I’ve also been told that eating cow head meat increases intelligence and virility in men. 

I sat down with the men and we started to eat. There were no plates, no cutlery, and no napkins. There was a beautiful sense of community as we ate or half of the cow’s head. It I couldn’t tell you if I ate the cheek, tongue, neck, or other part of the cow head. I can guess that most of the meat was grilled, while some was boiled. What I can tell you (with certainty) is that whatever I ate, it was delicious. It was juicy and full of flavor. The cow head is probably the most flavorful and tender meat I’ve tasted since arriving in Swaziland. It did have a slight garlicky aftertaste, but it was nothing compared to the deliciousness. 

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

Monday in a Picture – Sibhimbi

Recently, I was fortunate to attend an event in my community known as Sibhimbi (pronounced see-bim-bee). This is the installation ceremony of a new chief. It’s a really big deal. Most of the people in my chiefdom (community) were there, and people even came from far away for the all day event. The king sends a representative from the royal family. It’s huge.

The week leading up to the Sibhimbi, I noticed that infrastructure was being arranged for something big. Large trucks worked to ensure that the gravel roads were level. School children took time away from school to remove trash from the side of the road. I was urged by community elders to make sure I was present at this event. One of the teachers at the high school explained all of the fanfare surrounding this event. He told me that these events rarely happen. He shared that he had never been to one in his life. He’s almost 40 years old!

He explained that once a chief dies, the position of chief typically passes to the eldest son. While the new chief may govern the chiefdom (unofficially) for years, it isn’t until the Sibhimbi that the new chief becomes official. Because there are so many people and resources involved, it can take years to organize. It is at this event that the new chief gets his late father’s shield, among other items. The Sibhimbi involves much singing, dancing and eating. For this occasion, at least 18 cows were slaughtered. This is in addition to all of chickens.

In the picture above, several men from my community sing and dance in full traditional dress to celebrate the installation of the new chief.

Be kind to yourself. 

Onward. 

In the lonely hour

​On one of my first runs in my community, I was greeted by several people who were out completing morning tasks. I stopped to exchange pleasantries in siSwati before continuing with the run. Some of the community members wanted to know who I was, and what I was doing in their community. This included a group of men hanging out at the local store.

As I ran past the store, one man yelled, “Uyagijima!”, which means “You are running!” I decided that I would stop to introduce myself to the group. Because my community is on the border with South Africa, it’s not uncommon for people to have business in both Swaziland and South Africa. I explained that I’m from the Washington, DC in the US, and that I’m a Peace Corps volunteer. We discussed my adjustment to the community and Swaziland, and how I was settling in.

After a few minutes of pleasantries, one of the men asked if I had a girlfriend or wife here. I informed them that I did not. They inquired as to why I hadn’t found a wife or girlfriend here. I told them that I wanted to get to know the community and focus on that. One of the men objected saying that I could not spend my time here alone. He explained that I needed the company of a woman at least a few times a month, and that he could assist me with finding a woman. I laughed, and restated that I wanted to focus on the community. Another man asked if the Peace Corps was a Christian organization, and if that was the reason I declined the gracious offer. I told them that the Peace Corps is not a religious organization, and that I really wanted to focus on getting to know the community.

In contrast to that conversation, I’ve found that my time in the community can be isolating. There’s quite a bit of time to be with yourself. There is time to think. There is time to ponder. After the encounter with the gentlemen at the store, I thought it would be nice to have some company. However, it’s also nice to discover new things in my community while meeting new people. I’m also thankful to have the support and friendship of other volunteers and others in Swaziland, and abroad.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.