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.

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Monday in a Picture – Wikipedia

In late 2017, I was at home browsing Reddit as I had done many evenings prior. I’m not sure what I had searched or what sequence of clicking had landed me on this page. At first glance, I thought it was one of the internet’s jokes. One thread read “…Wikipedia offline…”. My interest piqued, I decided to take a look.

The Wikimedia Foundation decided years ago that they would make the entire Wikipedia database available to the public. In other words, someone could now download the entirety of Wikipedia’s content and have access to it without internet connectivity. Various programmers and organizations developed offline browsers that could be used with the database files. One such organization is Kiwix. The Kiwix platform uses .zim files and features many products from the Wikimedia Foundation including WikiVoyage, Wikitionary, and Wikiversity.

With knowledge of this possibility, I immediately thought about conversations at the school during the past year. Our students were trying to keep up in the information age without reliable access to information. We had a computer lab, but no internet connectivity. I spoke to my head teacher and counterpart about the possibility of equipping the computer lab with offline Wikipedia. They agreed, but wanted to see something in action. I decided that I would put together a proof of concept presentation. I downloaded Kiwix for Windows and the Simple English .zim file. When I showed my colleagues how the program worked, they began to share my excitement. My head teacher requested that we move forward with the larger Wikipedia files. I spent half of November and all of December downloading Wikipedia for Schools, Wikipedia (in English) without pictures or videos, and other wikis.

Now, the 2018 academic year is under way. The computers in our lab are now equipped with the offline Wikipedia resources, and I am teaching students and colleagues how to use the software. Many of my colleagues and students are very excited. The software is being used by teachers to brush up on some subjects. Students are using the software to better understand the topics covered in class and to prepare for their external exams in term three. Throughout this term, students have stayed after school to study and print Wikipedia articles to use at home.

Last week, I was invited to another volunteer’s school to present on the Wikipedia resources to their students and staff. Apparently, their students really enjoyed the presentation. On the day following the presentation, they convinced their teacher to take them to the computer lab. Once there, they debated advantages and disadvantages of social media use. One of the teachers at their school also took her students to the computer lab to better understand iodine and its properties.

I’m beyond excited to see this project taking shape. In my vision for Swaziland, all schools would be using Wikipedia offline if they don’t have internet access. I’m also excited about chipping away at the digital divide. The picture above (taken by one of my students) is of me teaching my Form 4 students about the various wikis.

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 – Yebo Thishela

I teach. My school and community have been very welcoming and receptive to my teaching. My students ask questions and engage in discussions. While some classes have lessons prescribed and guided by the Ministry of Education, I’ve been given much freedom to adjust to meet the needs of the students. 

Lessons have included drugs, love, and consent among other things. The phrase, yebo thishela (pronounced yay-bow tee-shay-la), is one that I hear often. It’s direct translation is “yes teacher”. This picture was taken during a lesson with Form 1 students. 

This week, my students will start taking their internal exams on various academic subjects to showcase what they’ve learned so far in the school year.

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

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Monday in a Picture – Operation Smell Good

Bathing is super important. Work hard. Play hard. Get smelly. Bathe and smell better. During my first six months in Swaziland, I took bucket baths. For those of you who may be wondering what a bucket bath is, worry not. Boiled water is mixed with cool water in a bucket or small basin. I stand in a large basin and use the warm water from the bucket to wash myself. Just add a washcloth and soap. 

While bucket baths get the job done, they can be messy and leave water on the floor outside of the basin. I knew that there must be a better way. While in the PCV lounge, I saw a solar shower in the free box. I decided to grab it. After trying to figure out how to rig it, I finally decided on a setup. Two concrete nails hold up the solar shower. Four tree branches are suspended from the rafters and tied together to make a shower stall frame. Used flour sacks maneuvered around the frame direct water into the basin. 

With this setup, I use less water and have less cleanup. Also, bucket showers take less time than bucket baths. 

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

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Monday in a Picture – Inspiration from Mother and others

​Everyday before I leave my house, this is what I see. It’s important to stay motivated and inspired while serving. People have sent postcards, greeting cards, and letters from all over the world during my time in Swaziland. I’m extremely grateful to all of those who have taken the time to write kind words and send them to me. 

To make my house feel more homey, I added pictures of those responsible for my being to the inspiration wall. They include my great grandfather, his daughter (my grandmother), and her daughter (my mother). It was on this day seven years ago that my mother passed away. She’s actually (partially) responsible for my serving in the Peace Corps. She pushed us to serve others with compassion. She instilled a sense of exploration. She made sure that we respected and embraced those who might be different from us.

Having these visual reminders has been great for keeping me motivated in the rural community. It makes my service feel a little less lonely. 

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 – The Kraal

Over the course of several weeks, I have featured my homestead and pit latrine. Another integral part of the Swazi homestead dynamic and structure is the kraal (pronounced crawl). The kraal is where a family’s cattle are kept. The kraal is also a symbol in signifying that family’s wealth.

In rural communities, personal bank accounts are less common. It’s not that the money isn’t there. The money takes on a different form. Cows are money. A family with a lot of cows is considered a wealthy family. Some families also invest in cows. When baby calves are born, wealth is increased.

Cows are very much intertwined into Swazi culture. If I want to build a home for myself and my family in a rural community, I am expected to give a certain number of cows to the umphakatsi (pronounced oom-pa-got-see), or local community leadership. If I want to marry, I must pay lobola (low-bow-la), or bride price, to the bride’s family. The lobola is traditionally negotiated between the families, and paid in cattle. For major events in a family or community, a cow may be slaughtered in honor of the occasion.

The cows are released from the kraal daily and taken to graze by a cattle herder. Amazingly, the cows know exactly where their respective kraal is and the cattle herder knows exactly which cows belong in that kraal.

In addition to wealth and food, the kraal also provides plenty of cow manure for to be used as fertilizer during ploughing and planting season.

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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