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.

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Monday in a Picture – School Farewell

Today, I moved out of my home in a rural southwestern nook in eSwatini. Later this week, I will officially finish my service to the kingdom of eSwatini. Similar to entering service, there will be meetings and paperwork

At school last week, I gave a farewell speech to the student body. Following my speech, one of our senior students spoke on behalf of the learners to thank me for all that I’ve done at the school. Some students gave written notes of gratitude. It’s amazing to know that the students are always listening, watching, and learning.

On my final day at the school, my school co-workers organized a farewell lunch for me. There were speeches as we enjoyed one of my favorite Swazi street foods, chicken dust. The staff presented a t-shirt they had made for me. On the front is a black and white photo of me eating a piece of meat. I was told that the reasoning for this was because I have introduced myself around the community on numerous occasions saying, “Nginu Sibusiso. Ngiyatsandza inyama”, which means “I am Sibusiso. I like meat”. On the back of the shirt, it has my Swazi name (Sibusiso) at the top, “eSwatini KuseKaya” meaning “eSwatini is home” in the middle, and my blog signature at the bottom.

I am thankful to have joined such an amazing core of teachers. The above picture was taken by one of our students after the farewell luncheon and features many of the teachers from our local high school.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

Monday in a Picture – COS (the conference)

Last week, my cohort (group 14) came together for one last Peace Corps sponsored training. We assembled in the Lubumbo region of eSwatini for our Close of Service (COS) conference. This conference signals the beginning of the end. It’s held about three months before a group is set to leave.

We had our COS conference at a secluded nature reserve with beautiful views and spacious chalets. This was also the last time that we had to take a language proficiency test, which assessed how our language skills have grown throughout our service. We discussed the paperwork and conversations that need to be completed before we leave. We gave three stool samples to ensure that we aren’t leaving with parasitic friends in our respective bowels. We reflected on the work that we’ve done. We began to prepare for the adjustment and reverse culture shock that likely awaits us in America. We discussed how to best represent our service as we seek move on to careers, school or retirement. It was a full week.

While I’ll greatly miss eSwatini and emaswati (pronounced eh-mah-swah-tee), or Swazi people, I am excited for life after Peace Corps. The picture above was taken by PCV Nate during a session with a panel of RPCVs.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

Monday in a Picture – The Night Sky

I have come to appreciate many things about Swaziland. The flora and fauna are quite awesome. Living in a rural part of Swaziland, I get to see beautiful birds and fantastic flowers. I also get to see stars in a way that I’ve never seen them in the US. It’s no secret that I’ve spent most of my life in cities. In a world filled with city lights, the light pollution isn’t as evident. It’s normal.

Rural Swaziland introduced a new normal. I don’t know the names of various stars. I’ve never studied constellations or astronomy. My community doesn’t have street lights. Instead, the community is lit by lights on homesteads that have electricity. The rest of the light is provided by the moon and stars. The views are definitely one of the perks of being here. The above picture is of the night sky as seen above the electricity pole across from my house.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

Monday in a Picture – A Bug’s Life

Swaziland has opened my eyes to many new things. I have a newfound love of ice water and mangoes. Learning siSwati has introduced a culture of depth and tradition. I have also taken a special interest in the small critters I see in the rural community.

Apparently, this is a thing for PCVs in many countries. A PCV in Mozambique organizes and curates an Instagram account (@woahinsecto) featuring insects from all over the world. Growing up in an urban environment, I found insects to be a nuisance. When I did journey to more rural places on family vacations, the insects were huge and had stingers that left itchy bumps. The only insect that had redeeming qualities was the firefly because it lit up the summer sky.

I’ve seen creatures here that are truly stunning. Some of the tiny critters are extremely hairy. Other critters are incredibly colourful. A couple of weeks ago, I was at school heading to class when I saw the critter pictured above. I thought it might jump when I got close, but it didn’t. It did start walking away. Luckily, I was able to get close enough to snap this picture.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

P.S. – According to @woahinsecto, the creature above is the Pygromorphidae and their colors are a warning to predators that they are chemically protected!

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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