Monday in a Picture – Girls Got Game

This past weekend, a fellow PCV, Deacon, hosted a camp to introduce computer programming to girls from twenty communities around Swaziland. The camp began with a basic overview of what a computer is and various related TED Talks. Each community, represented by two girl students and one adult mentor, received one laptop computer with a variety of programs. Many of the students admitted that it was their first time touching a computer. 

The students learned programming through an interactive graphic language program known as Scratch. They followed tutorials to create games while learning what various commands did. It was amazing to see the students try different variables attempting to achieve desired results. In one instance, a pair of students and mentor asked for assistance with a variable that wasn’t working. I directed the students to the help section of the tutorial. Before I could go through it with them, they were searching for the solution to their variable problem. I watched as they found the solution, and adjusted their program accordingly. It was impossible to contain my excitement as students with limited computer knowledge in the morning were developing and troubleshooting interactive games by late afternoon. 

The next step for the students is to return to their respective communities where they will design unique games that tackle a social issue in Swaziland. In early 2018, the students and mentors will reconvene to showcase their games in a competition. 

The above picture was taken as pairs and small groups worked together to develop their games. 

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

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Does Any of This Matter? 

Peace Corps service is often shrouded in mystery. This is true for family and friends of the PCV, as well as the PCV. The question often gets asked what do PCVs do. The answer to that differs from post to post, and amongst volunteers serving in the same post. 

Peace Corps boasts three goals. 

  1. To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
  2. To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
  3. To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

Before my service, I thought of Peace Corps mainly in terms of goal one. I thought about the tangible work. I thought about the data driven outcomes and evidence-based practices. While all of those things are extremely important, they are not of sole importance. In the 18 months that I’ve called Swaziland home, I have known many volunteers who struggled with the idea of “not doing enough”. At times, I have wrestled with the question of whether or not I’m doing meaningful work. In ten years, will it matter that I taught that Life Skills class? In seven years, will it matter that I co-facilitated that permagarden workshop? That’s the Goal One lens of Peace Corps. 

Some time ago, I was perusing Reddit when I was reminded of something salient. Not only does Peace Corps have more than one goal, Peace Corps service is as much about diplomacy as it is capacity building. It’s important to build community spaces. It’s important to build the community’s capacity for effective and sustainable change. It’s also important to build and foster friendships. It’s also important to show America as more than the often told single story of rich white people living lives of great abundance. 

There are times when the presence of a PCV leads to valuable conversations about America and the world. This is not to suggest that PCVs or America have “figured it out”. I don’t believe that we have; however, I believe that magic happens when diverse voices, ideas and perspectives get to sit at the proverbial table and speak freely. The metrics don’t exactly capture that. Similarly, they don’t capture the newfound excitement of the Form 4 student who tells me that he’s looking forward to my class tomorrow. They don’t capture the conversation with the young lady who expressed her excitement that her community gets to host a Black volunteer. 

On the other side of that diplomacy coin is (hopefully) the eradication of the single story that (insert host country/region/continent here) is only one thing. Previously obscure places become more than names on maps. With personal stories and experiences, Africa becomes more than a singular, monocultural place made of brown and bush. 

As I start to wrap things up here in Swaziland, I’ve pondered more on what it means to have had a successful service. My reflection has shifted my focus from making monuments to making memories. I haven’t built or renovated any structures in my community. However, I have taken my students on a world tour (including my home in DC) using Google Maps Street View. That probably won’t be in any annual report, but seeing the faces of my students as we explored the streets of Abuja, Paris, and Cairo makes up for any lack of metrics. 

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

Monday in a Picture – Fresh

Swaziland has a huge agricultural society. In the rural community, almost every family has a field or two for the purpose of growing food. If you happen to live in a more urban setting and/or lack agricultural savvy but still want fresh fruits and veggies, you’re in luck. 

At bus ranks and other places where many people congregate, there’s likely many bomake (pronounced bo-mah-gay), or women who have set up temporary stalls with an abundance of whatever fruits and vegetables are in season. The prices are typically very reasonable and it presents the opportunity to support small business projects. The above photo was taken outside of the Mbabane bus rank last week. As you may see, mangos are now in season! This is reason to celebrate. 

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

Monday in a Picture – Tempting Ten Kilos of Fate

There’s a certain feeling that overcomes me as I’m about to finish something that I previously thought was impossible. I experienced that feeling again this past Saturday morning as I approached the final stretch of the ten kilometer race known as the Simunye International Friendship Run. 

I had been toying with the idea of trying a 10K recently. When I tried to register for one at the beginning of October, I was told that registration was closed. I was secretly relieved. Last week, I informed some running enthusiast PCVs that I was thinking about the 10K coming up. The response was positive, and the idea grew more prominent. I finally asked another PCV to check on registration and deadlines. A few hours later, I received a message that I had been registered. Cue the uneasiness and terror. I was sure that I wasn’t ready. I was wondering when I had acquired masochistic tendencies. In case you’re wondering, I hadn’t actually been training to run ten kilometers (or any distance). I started googling 10K advice. I had some slight concerns that I might actually die on the course. I tried calming myself. Another running PCV offered the advice, “just keep moving”.  

On race day, we arrived early and were shuttled from Manzini to a rural community in central Swaziland to begin the race. Most of the race was on gravel and dirt roads. Luckily, I had put together a 10K playlist. The music pushed me through the rough points and hills. Other runners helped as well, giving thumbs up as they raced past me. After more than nine kilometers, the end was in sight. Seeing the finish line gave me extra energy. Surprising myself, I finished. I ran ten kilometers! 

My legs will be taking a much deserved break over the next week or so. Who knows what my low barrier for suggestion can lead to next? 

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

P.S. – As you can see, I received a medal. This was the wrong medal (for the 21KM race). I exchanged it for the proper one. I did not run a half marathon. 

Monday in a Picture – Swazi Girls Believe

Last Wednesday, we celebrated International Day of the Girl Child. All around the world, girls live with varying degrees of inequality. Peace Corps volunteers try combat this inequality in various ways. One of the Peace Corps initiatives supporting girls’ empowerment is Girls Leading Our World (GLOW), which are community or school based clubs with curriculums on issues surrounding girls’ empowerment. Today, I’d like to highlight a fellow Swaziland PCV who took girls’ empowerment to new levels. 

Dawnita organized and hosted the inaugural Swazi Girls Believe conference to celebrate International Day of the Girl Child. More than 90 girls from a primary school in her community took part in the day’s activities. The activities included a reflection exercise on mind, body, and soul well-being, as well as panel discussions and other speakers. 

There was a photo booth and giveaways. The day ended with a hands-on workshop teaching the girls how to make reusable menstrual pads. 

The girls enjoyed themselves. Knowledge and wisdom was shared, and hopefully the girls feel more empowered because Swazi girls who believe are those who achieve. Congratulations Dawnita! The picture above was taken during the panel discussion. 

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

Monday in a Picture – VRF

Each Peace Corps post hosts one or more sectors. Each sector operates within a unique program framework, which outlines the work to be done by PCVs in that country. Twice a year, we (PCVs) have to submit a standardized report on the work that we have done, and are doing. That standardized report is known as the Volunteer Reporting Form (or the VRF). It’s the report that literally seeks to answer the query, what is Kirby doing?

There are general descriptors of activities or projects that the PCV has done (or is doing) along with specified indicators linking projects to targets within the framework. For example, co-facilitating a training on permagardens would be linked to health and nutrition indicators. This would target goals in the framework that deal with food security and access. The VRF also asks PCVs to report on cultural exchange activities of note. After the VRF is submitted to local supervisors, it eventually ends up in Peace Corps headquarters. From there, aggregate data can be generated about how Peace Corps is doing (locally and globally) on each specific target. 

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

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Monday in a Picture – To Be Wed

A few weeks ago, I was finally able to attend a traditional wedding in Swaziland. This had been on my to-do list, but I knew of no upcoming ceremonies. Another PCV told me that there was a traditional wedding happening soon in her community, and invited me to join the festivities. I accepted. 

Typically, weddings in Swaziland are either traditional weddings (like this one) or white weddings (which are western style weddings done in a church). This traditional Swazi wedding began on Friday evening. The bride’s family gathered and ate at one homestead while the groom’s family gathered and ate at another. I was told that Friday is typically the day that the groom’s family uses to travel to the bride’s family homestead. After feasting, the groom’s family arrived at the bride’s family homestead just after midnight. The wife-to-be danced and sang with other married women. This continued until around 0100. 

The next day, guests started to arrive at the bride’s family homestead in the early afternoon. There was food, traditional home brew beer, and fellowship. By mid afternoon, guests were finding seats under the event tent as the bride and her party began marching in. There were several songs sung accompanied by traditional dances. At times, the bride danced with her entire party. At times, she danced alone. 

After some time, the groom and his party marched in. His party wasn’t as large, and they didn’t do as many traditional dances. At one point, the bride is dancing alone as everyone watches. This was the point in the ceremony where people could pin money onto the bride’s head covering. The singing and dancing continued. At another point, the groom joined the bride for a small, traditional dance. After the bride and groom had finished dancing, others did traditional dances as the bride and groom watched separately. The actual wedding ceremony took about ninety minutes to complete. There were still other things to be done, but the main event was over. 

Swazi marriages represent the beginning and cultivation of a long term relationship between two families. The families (and friends) are there to support this relationship and to enjoy the ceremony was filled with food, fellowship, and merriment. In the picture above, the wedding couple is joined by a member of the groom’s party during a traditional dance. 

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

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A Personal Touch

Recently, I was in the Peace Corps Swaziland office for a meeting with both local staff and staff from Peace Corps Headquarters in Washington. As myself and other PCVs were introducing ourselves, an HQ staffer mentioned that I looked familiar. I asked where she hung out in DC thinking that we might have run in the same circles. She said that we didn’t know each other from DC. That it was Peace Corps related. She asked if I had been to any of the regional trainings. I told her that I hadn’t. I asked if she possibly knew my twin brother, explaining that we often get mistaken for each other. She was certain that she hadn’t met him. Finally, it clicked. She said, “you have a blog, don’t you?” I proudly responded that I was the human behind whatisKirbydoing.com. We were both satisfied with that solution. 

Hours later as I was reflecting on that interaction, my exchange with the Peace Corps staffer morphed meaning. She felt that she knew me. My blog allowed her to feel like we had connected before. It was in this moment of reflection that I realized that this blog is serving its intended purpose. I wanted this blog project to allow readers to join me on my journey through Peace Corps. This interaction was confirmation of the fulfillment of that purpose. 

I am reminded of a similar interaction from many months ago. A friend from DC mentioned that she enjoyed the blog because she felt like she was here with me. I’m thankful and delighted that this blog has fostered that connection. 

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

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Monday in a Picture – Umhlanga

While today is Labor Day in the US, we’re celebrating a different public holiday in Swaziland. Today is the public holiday of Umhlanga (pronounced oom-shlan-ga), which directly translates into reeds. The cultural event is also known as the Reed Dance. 

While today is the public holiday, the event started last week with the participants registering on Tuesday. Participation is only open to girls and young women who are unmarried and childless. A friend and fellow volunteer here in Swaziland is participating in Umhlanga. You can read more about her participation on her blog. I have learned more about the history, tradition, and logistics of the event as I have documented her participation. 

Last Thursday, the timbali (pronounced tim-bah-lee), which means maidens (and flowers), went to two specified places in Swaziland to cut reeds. Several princesses from the royal residences (who are also timbali) led tens of thousands on a march to the reeds before cutting the first reeds. The reeds were delivered to the queen mother yesterday. Today, the king and general public will watch 80000 maidens do a traditional dance meant to showcase their chastity. 

The above picture was taken as the timbali were preparing to march after cutting the reeds on Thursday. 

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

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Monday in a Picture – The Origin of Coffee

I stopped drinking coffee regularly years ago. As I got older, my digestive system grew less tolerant. I decided to limit my intake to special occasions. Being in Ethiopia qualifies as a special occasion. 

There are two things many Ethiopians were happy to tell me. First, Ethiopia is the only country on the African continent to never be colonized. Second, coffee’s origins and the best coffee is found in Ethiopia. 

There are big coffee shops that reminded me of Starbucks, aesthetically. There are small coffee shops that were described to me as micro enterprises. In both coffee shop experiences, the raw coffee beans are roasted and grinded on site. There is incense burning. The coffee is typically made over a wood burning fire in a black clay pot. There have also been instances where I’ve been offered coffee when visiting someone’s residence. 

I am happy to report that my digestive system handled the delicious coffee very well. I haven’t tasted coffee from the various coffee regions around the world, so I can’t say if Ethiopian coffee is the best in the world. I can definitively say that I have enjoyed every cup during my time in Ethiopia. 

The above picture is of a small enterprise entrepreneur named Desta pouring a cup of coffee at her street side coffee shop. 

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

P.S. – Last week, I learned that Hawaii is the only US state that grows. 

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