Getting naked in Cape Town (SFW)

It was Sunday evening. I had returned to Swaziland to attend training. I was on cloud nine after having the most amazing weekend in Cape Town. I had started the weekend with two goals. Eat great food and ride bikes while naked. Cape Town is known for some exquisite cuisine. The World Naked Bike Ride happened to be on the same weekend. Both of my goals were exceedingly accomplished! I ate amazing Thai food and sushi. Other PCVs at the training commented on how refreshed I looked as I shared highlights of the weekend. I smiled. I was extremely rejuvenated. 

One PCV friend asked when I would be writing about this experience on my blog. I responded that I wouldn’t be writing about the naked bike ride weekend. I had reasoned that the weekend was not related to my Peace Corps service, and that this blog was singularly about my service. I had reasoned that I wanted to be a “good” volunteer, and not attract bad publicity or attention to the Peace Corps. 

The World Naked Bike Ride (WNBR) is a clothing optional bike ride that takes place in more than 70 cities around the world. People from all walks of life join in to celebrate people powered transportation. Most ride bikes. Some ride longboards. Some participate in roller skates. Others choose to run. 

The reasons that people choose to participate, like the participants themselves, are diverse. Some people want to bring attention to our global dependence on non-renewable energy. Others want to highlight the vulnerability of cyclists and remind motorists to share the road. There are naturists, and naturism activists, who use the ride to promote a clothes-free lifestyle and remind the world that nakedness does not equal sex or lewd behavior. 

My first WNBR was 2012 in Philadelphia. A big reason for my participation, at the time, was to be part of an exciting counter-culture. It was thrilling to be around 2500 people in various states of undress. 

To date, I have done the WNBR in six cities on three continents. While it’s still exciting to be naked and ride bikes through the city, I have added to the reasons that I ride. Having struggled with body image issues at various points in my life, I try to fully embrace body positivity, both in practice and thinking. People with all kinds of body types participate in the ride, and all are welcomed and embraced by fellow ride participants and most onlookers. Cape Town was no different. As we rode through the city, people lined the streets to cheer for us. The smiles were plenty. The weather was perfect. I was even gifted some delicious pizza after the 7.5 km ride. I even posed for pictures, and completed some interviews (one of which ended up on Japanese news). Body shaming has been normalized and is commonplace in far too many places. Simply stated, I ride because I refuse to embrace a culture of shame. 

After much internal debate on whether or not I should write about my experience at the Cape Town WNBR, I decided that it was necessary. Yes, this is a blog about my Peace Corps experience. However, that experience isn’t limited to teaching classes, building gardens, and writing grants. Also, I believe in the importance of fully representing the great expanse known as the US of A. Some day, someone will read this while wondering if there is space in Peace Corps for them with all of their unique intricacies. Let this post be a resounding yes! 

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

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​Monday in a Picture – My Pit Latrine 

I thought about titling this, “My Poopy Place”. Alas, I resisted. Everyone poops. As such, everyone needs some a method and a place to relieve themselves of fecal matter. While some rural homesteads and urban businesses have bathrooms furnished with flushing toilets, many of the homesteads in my community utilize some kind of pit latrine when handling bathroom business. My homestead falls into this category. The above picture is our pit latrine. 

There’s a toilet-like structure that sits over a very large deep hole (pit). All of the waste goes into that hole. Around the toilet-like structure, there are four walls (including one with a door). In my latrine, I have enough space to sit comfortably while handling my business. The door’s lock is a wire that wraps around a nail on the door frame. My latrine also has a ventilation pipe to help mitigate the smell of decomposing waste. 

I’ve never seen a latrine filled. However, I’ve been told that the latrine is considered full when the waste is between 1.5 and 2 meters away from the top of the hole. After a latrine is full, a tree of some variety is planted in that space as the space is now very fertile. Another hole will be dug so that there can still be a place for using the toilet. 

Because there is no light in my latrine, I tend not to use the latrine after dark. I’ve heard stories of crafty, stealthy creatures biting butts in the dark. While I realize that my concern is probably irrational and could be alleviated with a headlamp, I’ll stick to the safety of my pee bucket. 

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

P.S. – Here’s a picture of the inside of my latrine. 

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Monday in a Picture – Marula and Buganu

This past weekend, Swazis and friends in the northern region of the country celebrated the marula festival. The festival celebrates the harvest of the marula fruit, its resiliency, and the resiliency that it symbolizes for all of Swaziland. The tree produces delicious fruit, even in drought stricken summers. The festival happens at one of the royal residences, and the king and queen mother attend along with hundreds of Swazis. 

Swazis celebrate the marula fruit by home brewing buganu (pronounced boo-ga-new), which is a beer made from the fruit. One PCV, who lives in northern Swaziland, agreed (with his host family) to host a number of PCVs so that we could experience the fruit, the beer, and the festival. He and his host family spent considerable time brewing many liters of buganu for this weekend. The inner council of the community leadership came to his homestead to sit and share buganu with the volunteers. They talked about the fruit and beer before explaining how the beer is made. Then, there was a live, hands-on tutorial of home brewing buganu. The picture above is of the hosting host mom preparing to start the buganu brewing process. 

The fruit is removed from its skin, and placed in clean water. After three days, the seeds are removed from the fruit. Then, the mixture sits for another day. At this point, the beer is ready to be enjoyed. We learned that women typically brew the buganu for her husband and the family. Some women also sell buganu. A 25 liter container sells for between 50 and 100 emalangeni (pronounced emma-lan-gay-knee), which is the currency of Swaziland (on par with the South African rand). 

There will be another marula festival in a few weeks in a different region of the country. This is due to the marula fruit ripening at different times in different parts of the country. We learned that the fruit is not to be picked from the tree, as it is not yet ripe. The fruit should be picked up from the ground once it has fallen. 

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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Reflections from Madagascar

Recently, I vacationed in Madagascar to celebrate the New Year. Here are five quick reflections from Madagascar

  1. ​Yes, I went all the way to Madagascar and managed not to see one lemur. I didn’t make it to any of the national parks. I guess I have a reason to return, in addition to the beach and tasty stuff. A day on the beach is never wasted. 
  2. Speaking French could be  an (unofficial) prerequisite of visiting the island nation. There are two languages: French and Malagasy. English isn’t spoken with any regularity.  Luckily, a few people who did speak English were there to help me when I needed it. I’m extremely grateful to these language champions! (Side note: After speaking and hearing so much siSwati for the past six and a half months, I found myself greeting and responding in siSwati. Yebo babe would be uttered only to realize that I meant to say Bonjour Monsieur.)
  3. Madagascar is big. It’s the fourth largest island in the world. Navigating the island takes considerable time. I traveled on a taxi-brousse (intercity public transport) from Antananarivo to Tamatave. The journey of about 320 kilometers lasted 8 hours on relatively good roads. 
  4. The food was quite delightful. I enjoyed delicious seafood from traditional restaurants and traditional Malagasy hotelys. I sat in an ice cream parlour and had some peach ice cream that made my taste buds say “thank you”. I was fortunate to try several natural juices. I’m happy to report that they were all refreshing and delicious. There was even good Mexican food at a hostel in the capital. 
  5. During my trip, I was fortunate to meet some PCVs currently serving in Madagascar. They were all wonderful folks. We shared laughs, played games, and ate good food together. I learned that while the Peace Corps experience has some similarities wherever you go, it is just as unique the people who serve. 

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

​Monday in a Picture – Grow Your Own Food: The Training

Last week, Peace Corps Swaziland hosted Peter Jensen, a permagardening specialist based out of Peace Corps Ethiopia, to facilitate two workshops on his specialty. Volunteers were invited to participate in the workshop with a counterpart (community-based colleague), with the expectation that the volunteer and counterpart would take what they learned to train others in the local community. 

For those wondering what exactly permagardening is, allow me to share my understanding. Permagardening is a permanent garden that focuses on strict natural water management, double digging, and using locally accessible materials to keep the garden and soil healthy and productive.

I attended one of the workshops with a counselor from my community. She’s an agriculture friendly person who grows various things on her homestead. In contrast, the only plant I’ve managed to grow with any success is ivy, which is extremely difficult to kill. Peter presented permagardens in a way that was accessible and interesting to novices, like myself, and experienced folk, like my counterpart. He made me believe that even I can build a fruitful garden using the permagardening techniques and principles. The workshop inspired a conversation between me and my counterpart about how to take these techniques back to the community. Currently, we are planning on building three demonstration gardens around the community. 

When I returned to my home, I talked with my host mom about the possibility of me building a garden. She excitedly pointed me to a fenced area on the homestead and told me that I could use that space. Now, I have the space, some tools, and the training to practice before co-facilitating a community training. The only thing left to do is the work of actually building the garden. Wish me luck! 

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

​Monday in a Picture – Bomake Market 

All around Swaziland this week, schools are closing for the year. The academic year here is divided into three terms. The school day is typically divided into different lessons with two breaks. The first break is mid-morning, and lasts approximately 30 minutes. The second break is a lunch break, and lasts approximately 50 minutes. 

During these breaks, 2-4 bomake (pronounced bow-mah-gay), or women set up a snack market on the school grounds. The schools don’t have vending machines. In fact, I haven’t seen any vending machines in the kingdom, that I can remember. The bomake sell all kinds of goodies. These goodies include naks (a maize based snack similar to Cheetos that comes in different flavors), lollipops, popcorn, rolls (called buns here), and fatcakes. On really hot days, there are even ice blocks (a flavored, sweetened frozen slushy solid). 

I’ve noticed that the prices for snacks at the bomake market are pretty standardized. For instance, the going rate for a fatcake or an ice block is one lilangeni, pronounced lee-lan-gay-knee (the currency of Swaziland). The prices remain the same at most, if not all, of the school bomake markets in Swaziland. The homemade snacks (i.e., fatcakes) taste very similar all around the country as well. 

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

​Monday in a Picture – Plowing and Planting 

Everything in life has seasons. Election season in the US is over. American football season is in its prime, while basketball season is just starting. Right now, Swaziland is heading into summer, which is the rainy season. Warm temperatures and rain mean that it’s time to plow and plant. 
The staple crop in Swaziland is umbila (pronounced om-bee-la), or maize. The staple food is liphaleshi (pronounced lee-pa-lee-she), or porridge, which is made from ground maize meal. In my community, all homesteads have some land set aside for crop farming. Many of these families will grow substantial portions of their needed maize during the summer months. Some families may even have extra to sell. But before any growing can be done, the fields have to be readied. This includes plowing the field(s), which is sometimes done by hand with a hoe, shovel, or pick. It can also be done with a tractor pulled plow (as seen in the picture above). 

I spoke with these guys for a bit. They told me that this was a prime season to make money for their respective families. You can hire these guys to plow your field (assuming you live close by). I learned that they work all day, literally. They start working around 4:00 a.m., and work until 7 or 8:00 p.m. That’s a laborious workday that starts before the sun rises, and ends after it sets. They told me not to worry because they had a light on the tractor for working in the dark.  The conversation was brief because there were fields to be plowed and money to be made. Before they left, the driver asked if I could take his picture. Wish granted. 

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

​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. 

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.