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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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.

InstaPeace Projects

There is no shortage of instagram imagery to keep us busy. Some R/PCVs and friends joined in on the fun. The following is a list of Instagram accounts featuring various aspects of Peace Corps life. None of these accounts are representative of or affiliated with the United States government, any host country government, or the United States Peace Corps. Be sure to follow, like, and interact with these folks. And if you’re inspired to undertake your own project (or if I’ve missed any), be sure to comment so that I can add the account. Accounts are listed in alphabetical order.

– Beards of Peace Corps (@beardsofpeacecorps) – R/PCVs show off their beards and mustaches

– Black PCV (@blackpcv) – folks from across the diaspora currently serving (and who have served)

– Hey PCV Boy (@hey_pcv_boy) – jokes and memes because you deserve a laugh

– Hey PCV Boy (@heypcvboy) – not sure if this account is related to the above account, but more jokes and memes because you deserve a laugh

– Hey PCV Girl (@heypcvgirl) – jokes and memes because you deserve a laugh

– How a PCV puts it gently (@howapcvputsitgently) – gifs that R/PCVs can relate to

– Jaded Corps (@jadedcorps) – taking PCV pictures and making amazing memes, also because you deserve a laugh

– Melanin of Peace Corps (@melanin_of_peace_corps) – a showcase of melanated R/PCVs and their work

– My Peace Corps Story (@mypeacecorpsstory) – an RPCV decided to do a podcast. This is the accompanying instagram.

– Overheard PCV (@overheardpcv) – bits and pieces of conversations overheard by PCVs

– Peace Corps Eats (@pcv_eats) – the food PCVs eat

– Peace Corps Eats (@pcveats) – not sure if this is affiliated with the above account, but more of the food PCVs eat

– Peace Corps Transportation (@pcvtransportation) – taking a look at how PCVs get around

– Peace Cats (@peace_cats1) – the cats of Peace Corps

– Peace Corps Cats (@peacecorpscats) – not sure if this is affiliated with the above account, but more cats of Peace Corps

– Peace Corps Food (@peacecorpsfood) – a foodie journey through Peace Corps

– Peace Corps Life (@peacecorpslife) – a look at life in Peace Corps

– Peace Corps Noire (@peacecorpsnoire) – Black/African American PCVs living their best lives

– Peace Corps Potential (@peacecorpspotential) – pictures that could possibly be from someone’s service

– Peace Corps Problems (@peacecorpsproblems) – commiserate together with you fellow R/PCV family

– Peace Corps Style (@peacecorpsstyle) – the PCV fashion

– Peace Corps Travels (@peacecorpstravels) – images from the vast travels of R/PCVs

– Peace Corps True Life (@peacecorpstruelife) – capturing the struggle essence of PCV life

– Peace Corps Whole 30 (@peacecorpswhole30) – a PCV does the whole 30 diet

– Peace Doors (@peacedoors) – based in Guatemala, a PCV set out to photograph doors

– Peaceful Curls of Peace Corps (@peacefulcurlsofpeacecorps) – PCVs share hair care tips and tricks

– Peas Corps (@peascorps) – healthy food and ideas for PCVs

– Woah Insecto (@woahinsecto) – highlighting some of the cool bugs and critters PCVs see during service

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

You Are Not Alone

Peace Corps service can be challenging by itself. Intersections of our identities can exacerbate those challenges. Luckily, these challenges are not new. Peace Corps Volunteers, currently serving and returned, have worked to create networks of support for the Peace Corps curious, applicants, invitees, trainees, and volunteers.

Below are various Facebook groups with descriptions. For those who don’t use Facebook, some of these communities a web presence elsewhere. Also, some of the communities require that you request access. I should note that none of these groups or pages are officially run by Peace Corps, and do not reflect the views of the organization.

Black Peace Corps Volunteers – “As Black people, we have a unique story to tell and this group will allow us to further the networking, fellowship, information-sharing, and service with all potential Peace Corps Volunteers, current PeaceCorps Volunteers, and Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs).” There is also an associated Whatsapp group chat. You can get ask to be added in the Facebook group.

Divine 9 PCVs – “group serves as a forum to support Peace Corps Volunteers and RPCVs who are also a member of one of the 9 historically African American Greek Lettered Fraternities and Sororities.”

Southern Association of Black Peace Corps Volunteers – “…individual African American Returned Peace Corps Volunteers and supporters coming together to make a difference at home in our communities as well aboard in other communities.”

Minority Peace Corps Association – “Through partnerships, special events and outreach activities MPCA strives to strengthen Americans’ understanding about the world and its peoples, while promoting the mission of MPCA.”

Latino Peace Corps Volunteers – group for Latino R/PCVs. Has an affiliated Whatsapp chat group chat. You can get ask to be added in the Facebook group.

Asian American Pacific Islander Peace Corps Volunteers – “open group for PC applicants, current PCVs, RPCVs, and friends who are interested in AAPI issues related to Peace Corps.”

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Returned Peace Corps Association – “an organization of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and other people who are Peace Corps volunteer alumni, current volunteers, former and current staff members and friends.” There is also a website.

Deaf/HH Peace Corps Volunteers – “Open to any deaf/hard of hearing returned Peace Corps Volunteer who wants to keep up with fellow deaf/hard of hearing RPCVs! Also open to any Deaf/hard of hearing future PCVs who have been invited to serve in the PC!! Also open to any interested friends and supporters!”

Native American Peace Corps Volunteers – “As people of Native American descent, we have a unique story to tell and this group will allow us to further the networking, fellowship, information-sharing, and service with all potential Peace CorpsVolunteers, current Peace Corps Volunteers, and Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs).”

Shalom Corps – “a group to support Jewish PCVs, RPCVs, future PCVs and anyone interested in the Jewish Peace Corps connection. We aim to foster cultural exchange and fellowship, and be a resource to the Peace Corps community on Jewish issues and connect Peace Corps with the Jewish community.”

Peace Corps Christians – “a place for encouragement, motivation, and to record and remember God’s everyday miracles.”

Veteran Peace Corps Volunteers – “for United States Military Veterans that have also served, are currently serving or are interested in serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer.”

Muslim Peace Corps Volunteers – “a safe place for Muslim PCVs to connect and share experiences. Every type of Muslim is welcome here without restriction or judgement.”

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

Let’s Talk About Sex

Sex is a very personal subject. Some people get uncomfortable at the mention or discussion of sexual acts. This is especially true of public spaces. The decision to write this post was an internal struggle. Two things pushed me to write this. First, I consider myself a sex positive person. Second, I would have liked a post like this two years when I was preparing for my service. I’ve seen a few threads on the topic on the Peace Corps subreddit, including one while I was writing this post. Most of the Google searches show results relating to sexual assault in Peace Corps.

Recently, I was reflecting on my service with another volunteer. The conversation shifted as we discussed some of the more challenging parts of service. It’s difficult to learn a new language and customs. But Peace Corps prepared us for that. Several PCV blogs chronicle the process of language learning and navigating new cultures. The other PCV and I agreed that one of the most difficult things about service in eSwatini is the lack of sex and intimacy.

Sex and intimacy happen in Peace Corps. Sex and intimacy happen in eSwatini. Things just may be a bit more rare. For me (and other PCVs here), there are a few different options. There’s the possibility of finding sex and intimacy by dating another PCV. There’s the possibility of finding sex and intimacy by dating someone local. There’s also the possibility of finding sex and intimacy by random sexual encounters with other PCVs and/or locals. Of course, there are advantages and disadvantages to each of these options.

Dating another PCV is great because you can commiserate with this person. Also, there are things that they will probably understand because they’re going through similar things. The not-so-great side about this relationship/situationship/arrangement is that the distance between you and your PCV bae may be long. You may not be able to see them as often, and in the times that you do see your PCV bae, there may be group gatherings. There’s also the fact that PCVs are a relatively small community. In eSwatini, there are about 80 of us. Sometimes when PCV relationships go awry, group dynamics shift and it’s not always pretty.

Dating a local can be great for several reasons. Many times, local bae is local meaning that you can see them more often. There are also the aspects of integration. Circumstances may dictate learning the language, culture, and customs at an accelerated rate. However, there is a personal teacher with a vested interest in your learning. On the flip side, there are challenges. Dating in eSwatini, especially in rural communities, looks different from the dating I’m used to. Casual dating isn’t really a thing. Dating is marriage-focused courtship.

While most people here take no interest in my love life, some Swazis, like my host mother, want me to date and find a wife here in eSwatini. Make wami (pronounced mah-gay wah-me), or my mother, says that I should stay here in southwest eSwatini, marry, build a home, and have many children (little Sibusisos, she calls them). Some Swazis don’t want me to date in the kingdom. A respected elder in my community cautioned, “Sibusiso, you can’t date any of the women here (in the community)”. When I asked if there was a reason, she stated that HIV and other STI rates were extremely high in our community. She also asked what I’d be doing with my girlfriend or wife when I left for America. She explained that I would ruin that wife or girlfriend if I didn’t take her with me. She further explained that such (in)actions would sour the relationship that our community/chiefdom has with Peace Corps. While I have taken the community elder’s advice about not dating in the local community, I have been on some individual dates with a few Swazis outside of my chiefdom. For reasons that I won’t get into here, things didn’t work out.

There are some PCVs who abstain during their service. Similar to folks stateside, PCVs abstain for religious, self development, or other personal reasons. There are also PCVs who choose to maintain long(er) distance relationships with significant others outside of eSwatini. Like various other relationship structures, some succeed while others fail. There is the very real stress that Peace Corps service places on a relationship, romantic or otherwise.

Earlier, I mentioned random sexual encounters. This happens from time to time among PCVs, and to a lesser extent with locals. Of course, there’s always masturbation. While every Peace Corps experience is different, I would recommend packing any toys and masturbatory aids that tickle your fancy. If you enjoy watching porn, I’d also recommend loading some of your favorite on your phone/computer/external hard drive/etc. Your future self will thank you.

My hope is that this post (and this blog, in general) serves to answer some of questions left unanswered (and often unasked) before I began service (for invitees, Peace Corps curious, and other interested parties). Of course, everyone’s experience varies and these are my musings from the kingdom of eSwatini.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

Monday in a Picture – What is AfrikaBurn?

Just over a month ago, I was fortunate to return to Karoo National Park the Stonehenge Private Reserve in the Northern Cape of South Africa. The occasion? AfrikaBurn. AfrikaBurn is a regional event of the Burning Man network. It’s the largest of the regional events and the first on the continent of Africa.

When I first received my invitation to serve in eSwatini, I was overjoyed because attending AfrikaBurn went from “possible” to “highly probable”. On occasion, AfrikaBurn or Burning Man would come up in conversations with fellow PCVs. One question kept surfacing. What is AfrikaBurn? Before April 2017, I could only give the textbook answer: “AfrikaBurn is a regional event of the Burning Man network” . Some people would delve further. What is Burning Man? My response was almost always the same. “What I’m about to say won’t make sense, but Burning Man is everything.” Most people agreed. My comments made no sense.

When the theme for the twelfth AfrikaBurn was released, I was indifferent. The theme was “Working Title”. While reading about how this theme was chosen, I got more excited. Working Title is a name given to something still being created. Because that thing is still being created, it can be anything. There can also be collaborations with co-creators. “Working Title” made perfect sense! AfrikaBurn, Burning Man, and other similar events are works in progress. We get to collaborate to make it what we want.

I had an idea. I designed stickers to look like movie slates. On the sticker, the open ended sentence started, “AfrikaBurn is”. Participants were asked to complete the sentence. Afterwards, I asked to snap a photo of the sticker.

So, what is AfrikaBurn?
AfrikaBurn is fuzzy.
AfrikaBurn is freedom.
AfrikaBurn is freeing.
AfrikaBurn is the best experience of your life.
AfrikaBurn is Radio Free Tankwa.
AfrikaBurn is 37 24 16 V M 27 Clap 37.
AfrikaBurn is stepping into your true self.
AfrikaBurn is unicorn exposure.

These were some of responses. AfrikaBurn, like life, is different for everyone. The idea that we get to co-create the experience is magical. Ask any of the 7 billion human inhabitants of Earth what life is. You’re bound to get different answers. The answers may even change with time. None of them are wrong. AfrikaBurn is similar. Everyone has their own unique experience. Everyone is the director, screenwriter, and leading actor. It’s a beautiful thing. So, what is AfrikaBurn? You decide.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

Monday in a Picture – Bushfire

eSwatini is home to the Bushfire Festival, a three day music-focused event that attracts people from all over. This past weekend, the 12th edition of the festival happened. There were thoughtful conversations around warm fires. There were high energy performances that made me remove my sweat-soaked shirt.

The Bushfire Festival invites participants to bring their fire as a call to action. Artists from all over the world perform on four different stages. The live music selection included rap, soul, country, instrumental and traditional. The photo above features Sands, a native son of the kingdom, serenading us with his soulful music. There was also an amazing array of DJs that kept the party going until the early morning hours. Personally, I was elated to see my favorite DJ in eSwatini, DJ Mkay.

Another cool thing about the festival was the plethora of PCVs who visited from other southern Africa posts. It’s nice to meet and chat with people who are having similar, yet vastly different, experiences. It was also great to promote Beards of Peace Corps and take new photos for the project.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

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.

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 – Lobola

This past Saturday, I was present for an important part of the marriage process in eSwatini. The lobola (pronounced la-bow-lah), or bride price, ceremony. In Swazi culture, a man (and his family) must compensate his bride-to-be’s family. This bride price is usually paid in cattle, though modern times have seen some families paid in cash.

Like many other things in eSwatini, the community is present as the two families join to discuss how much lobola should be paid. These negotiations are closed to everyone except family. The lobola rates are pretty standardized, but they can vary depending on some factors. Typically, the first born and last born girl will garner 17 cows. Other girls in the birth order usually garner 15 cows. The groom must bring a number of cattle to the negotiations to show that he is serious about marrying. My counterpart and friend, also known as the greatest Peace Corps counterpart in the world, is getting married! After the negotiations are complete, the people gather under a tent for brief praise and worship, and to give thanks for the joining of families in the union of marriage. Following the praise and worship, everyone enjoys food and fellowship.

Congratulations to Nozie and her beau (pictured above) for taking the next step in their life together. May the joy of the lobola ceremony fill their marriage.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.