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 – A Made Bed

This is my bed. There are probably several around Swaziland and southern Africa that look like it. But, this one is mine. This is not a post about the impeccable fashion sense of my blanket or the sound sleep experienced in said bed. This is about a morning ritual that started just over a year ago and continues to this day. 

It was September or October 2016. I was new to my community and still finding my groove in Peace Corps Swaziland. While perusing Reddit one day, I came across a thread with many folks offering life advice. A person affiliated with US military offered the seemingly simple advice: “make your bed everyday”. The person went on to explain that making your bed is a relatively easy way to start off your day with an accomplishment. The post reasoned that beginning the day with a success made it more likely to have a day marked with successes. It continued that even if the day wasn’t successful, you would return to a nicely made bed that evening. I figured I’d try it. In case you’re wondering, this was not a part of my morning routine prior to Swaziland. 

Now, it’s been more than a year of making my bed everyday. It’s one of the first things I do every morning. My bed gets made before my morning trip to the latrine and breakfast. I’ve found that the Reddit commenter was correct. It is nice to start the day off with a success. One of the unanticipated benefits is that I’m forced to actually start my day, as opposed to climbing back in bed. This has been huge for me. Not wanting to reverse the work I’ve done, I don’t jump back into bed for additional slumber. Instead I’m up. It’s the renewing of that social contract between the world and me that I’ll at least attempt productivity today. Making my bed signifies to the world (and me) that I’m officially joining the day that has started. Some days are more successful than others. But at the very least, I get to come back to a made bed at the day’s end. 

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

Monday in a Picture – PCIT

During our service in Peace Corps Swaziland, PCVs are encouraged to serve on one of the national committees. The various committees serve different purposes. For example, there is a committee that’s responsible for the editing and publishing of our monthly newsletter, while another committee is tasked with advocating on behalf of volunteers with senior staff. After speaking with some volunteers from previous groups, I decided that I wanted to serve on a committee known as Peace Corps Information Technology, or PCIT. 

PCIT is a three member committee tasked with IT support (for PCVs), social media content creation, and PCV project documentation. While I’m not the most tech savvy person I know, my Google-fu is decent enough to find whatever information I need. This helps when fellow PCVs ask tech related questions. My favorite aspect of working on the committee is PCV project documentation. Whenever a PCV hosts trainings, conferences, or other events, a member of PCIT attends to take photos and/or videos. This media is used in Peace Corps Swaziland social media ventures, multimedia, and other projects. 

Being a PCIT committee member has afforded me the opportunity to see many nooks and crannies of Swaziland with a fancy camera in tow. I’ve been fortunate to capture various aspects of life in Swaziland while honing my photog skills. Maybe Nat Geo will (finally) call me one day to request my services. 

The above picture features myself with the other PCIT members as we were discussing PCIT with other PCVs. This photo was taken by Elise A. 

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

Monday in a Picture – Of Legos and Robots

Recently, primary and high school students from all around Swaziland gathered at the University of Swaziland – Kwaluseni to compete with robots. The competition, which promotes science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) in Swaziland, was sponsored in part by the U.S. Embassy, the STEM Foundation, and the Royal Swazi Sugar Corporation. More than thirty student teams competed. 

The students were tasked with using legos and a small computer to build and program an autonomous robot that could navigate a course and compete various missions. Some missions included delivering one structure to a specified location in the course, and retrieving an item from a location in the course. The students in the picture above are completing final checks before their robot attempts the missions on the course. 

In the end, a team from U-Tech High School in Big Bend won the competition, and will be journeying to compete in Johannesburg. 

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

Monday in a Picture – The Tee Shirts of (Almost) Champions 

If you hang out on the internet long enough, you’re probably going to see memes mentioning championship tee shirts of American sports teams who lost the championship. The memes typically exclaim excitement about the second place team’s locker room shirts arriving in Africa. 

I wasn’t sure if the memes were based in truth or not. However, while out and about in Swaziland, I started seeing various championship tee shirts. The meme was confirmed. I’m not sure about the details of how the shirts reach their final destination. I’ve been told that the shirts are frequently donated to international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who may use the shirts as incentives in various programming. While fans of the second place team experience heartbreak and wonder what if, someone a world away gets a shirt. 

The above picture was taken last week in mid-sized town in central Swaziland. The 2015 Cleveland Cavaliers didn’t win. But this lady (who graciously agreed to be photographed) did, and has the shirt to prove it. 

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

Monday in a Picture – Testing

We are currently in the third and final term of the academic year in Swaziland. The biggest focus of term three is exams. Earlier this month, Form 3 (equivalent to grade 10) and Form 5 (equivalent to grade 12) students started writing their external exams. Think standardized testing with the highest of stakes. 

All other high school students will begin writing internal exams in November as schools prepare to close in early December. While internal exams are designed by a school’s teachers and vary from school to school, external exams are designed and written by the Examinations Council of Swaziland. Schools typically bring in external moderators, called invigilators, for the external exams while a school’s teachers will serve as invigilators for that school’s internal exams. 

Upon successful completion of the Form 3 exams, students earn a Junior Certificate. For this reason, the Form 3 exams are sometimes referred to as the JC exams. With a Junior Certificate, students can apply to various vocational schools around Swaziland. Upon successful completion of the Form 5 exams, students earn an ‘O’ level certificate. This is equivalent to a high school diploma, and is needed to attend university. In the picture above, the required notices are posted outside of one of the classrooms being used for external exams. Students are not allowed to bring extra materials into the exam room, and typically leave their bags lined up outside of the room. 

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.