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. 

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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 – Mother Bear

There are numerous organizations that offer aid to people around Swaziland. Some of these organizations are based here in the kingdom. Some organizations offer financial support while others inkind support and supplies. 

One such organization is The Mother Bear Project. Based in Minnesota, the organization sends hand knit (or crocheted) bears to young children in developing nations affected by HIV. Volunteer knitters are asked to either hand knit or crochet a bear from a given pattern. The knitted bears are a labor of love project seeks to comfort affected children. 

Last week, I completed a distribution of Mother Bears at one of the primary schools in my community. The students were very excited with big smiles as they received the bears. The above picture is a selfie of me with some of the children after receiving the bears. 

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

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Sweet Dreams – Waiting for POTUS

Because I am posted in a country where I might contract malaria, I have been given an antimalarial medication called, “Mefloquine”. One of the side effects of this medication is lucid dreaming. The following is what I dreamt last night (as best I can remember). 

Somehow, the church that I grew up in was now a school as well. For some reason, I was back there. I think I was working in some capacity in the office. I was infamous for denying the students whatever they wanted. I was the “no” guy. 

There came a time when the pastor of the church/school announced that the President of the US would be visiting the church/school. There were no classes that day, but everyone still came to work because the president was coming. There was a grand entrance hall that had been cleared of everything, presumably by US Secret Service. There were two rooms, one on each side of the grand entrance hall. The church/school staff was in the room on the right. I was in that room. We were all waiting for the president to arrive. The doors to our room were open and we could see the grand entrance hall. 

All of a sudden, the Peace Corps Swaziland Safety and Security Manager comes in to advise us that the president is coming, and closes the doors as people are running up to the doors to get a glimpse of the president. Eventually, everyone makes it out into the grand entrance hall to form a receiving line. I’m on that receiving line on the right. A Secret Service agent is definitely standing beside me. My pastor, who may also be the headmaster now, comes up to me and tells me that I’m being assigned to the Secret Service as a liaison between the church/school and the president’s people. We start arguing about how that’s not what I want to do. He ends up giving me a special lapel pin and a communications radio, while I thought why don’t I get a gun like they do. 

Onward. 
Be kind to yourself. 

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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 – Ummiso and Sabaca (NSFW)

Last week, I was fortunate to attend a school dance competition. Schools from all over the Manzini region gathered to showcase their skills. 

Ummiso (pronounced oo-me-see) is a Swazi traditional dance performed by young unmarried girls. This tradition is rooted in the grand Swazi tradition of Umhlanga (pronounced oom-shlan-ga).

Sabaca (pronounced sah-bah-click c-ah) is a Swazi traditional warrior dance performed by boys and men. In each ummiso or sabaca performance, there is singing. Occasionally, there are drums. A fellow teacher explained that Swazis communicate and tell stories through songs. The songs sung during the competition are no different. 

I’m very proud of our students, and all of the hard work that they did to prepare for the event. They represented the school and the community very well.

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

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Monday in a Picture – School Lunch

The schools in Swaziland serve lunch every school day. The daily menu is minimally varied. Some days, the students are treated to soupy beans with rice. On other days, the afternoon delight is non-soupy beans with rice. 

School lunch costs are included in the annual school fees assessed to secondary school students. All primary school students and some secondary school students are fully funded by government. 

At lunch time, students line up outside of the kitchen with her/his dish and eating utensil. Four or five older students are responsible for serving their classmates. They set up a table with at least two basins filled with rice and at least two basins or buckets filled with beans. After being served, students sit around the school grounds while enjoying lunch. Students can supplement their lunch with snacks from the bomake market. 

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

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Monday in a Picture – Sports Day

The school year in Swaziland is divided into three terms. During the first term (which we’re currently in), high school students participate in sports. There is special time set aside for athletics. Some schools compete against other schools. At my school, the students compete against other grade levels. The students compete in soccer, volleyball, and netball. 

Recently, our school hosted a series of sports days. The teaching schedules were pushed aside in favor sporting event schedules. When students and fellow teachers asked if I would be playing, I told them that I was unsure. On the actual day, there was tremendous encouragement for me to play netball. The teachers’ team needed players. I informed them that I didn’t know how to play. In true Swazi fashion, several teachers responded that it wasn’t a problem and that I would learn. 

I was told that netball is very similar to basketball. That’s true, as there is a ball and a basket. Imagine ultimate frisbee played on a basketball court. You have to put the ball in the basket (no backboard included) instead of putting it in the endzone. There are distinct positions on a netball team. 

In our first match, I played the position of Wing Defender. This position plays opposite of the Wing Attacker. I was responsible for stopping the advancement of the ball. I had to learn that netball is not supposed to be a contact sport. Old habits die hard. In our second match, I played the position of Goal Scorer. This position plays opposite of the Goal Keeper. As a Goal Scorer, I was responsible for scoring the goals (i.e, putting the ball in the basket). I learned that I’m not really good at this position. We lost both games. 

Be kind to yourself.
Onward. 

P.S. – Last week, Peace Corps Stories featured one of my blog posts! Tell your friends.  

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Monday in a Picture – School Assembly 

I spend most of my time at the high school. There are classes to be taught and conversations to be had. In addition, I genuinely enjoy being at the school. The students are engaging while challenging me to speak more siSwati. Fellow teachers bounce ideas around with me, and also encourage me to speak more siSwati. 

Most days, the school day begins and ends with an assembly. When the bell rings, all students come together and stand in line with their respective grade level. A teacher or administrator stands in front to lead the learners through the assembly. 

One of the older students will start to sing a song. The other students join in the singing at appropriate times. After the song, the students will recite a prayer. The song is always in siSwati or isiZulu. The prayers and prayer languages vary, and are sometimes recited in English. After the prayer, the staff person facilitating the assembly will say “good morning/afternoon, students”. In unison, the students reply “good morning/afternoon sir/ma’am. Good morning/afternoon teachers. Good morning/afternoon sisters. Good morning/afternoon brothers.” At this point in the assembly, staff make any announcements pertaining to the students (i.e., remind your parents about the meeting tomorrow, etc.) The assembly ends after announcements are made, and students go either to class or home. 

The above picture is of the students lined up for afternoon assembly at the high school. 

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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