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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Monday in a Picture – School Farewell

Today, I moved out of my home in a rural southwestern nook in eSwatini. Later this week, I will officially finish my service to the kingdom of eSwatini. Similar to entering service, there will be meetings and paperwork

At school last week, I gave a farewell speech to the student body. Following my speech, one of our senior students spoke on behalf of the learners to thank me for all that I’ve done at the school. Some students gave written notes of gratitude. It’s amazing to know that the students are always listening, watching, and learning.

On my final day at the school, my school co-workers organized a farewell lunch for me. There were speeches as we enjoyed one of my favorite Swazi street foods, chicken dust. The staff presented a t-shirt they had made for me. On the front is a black and white photo of me eating a piece of meat. I was told that the reasoning for this was because I have introduced myself around the community on numerous occasions saying, “Nginu Sibusiso. Ngiyatsandza inyama”, which means “I am Sibusiso. I like meat”. On the back of the shirt, it has my Swazi name (Sibusiso) at the top, “eSwatini KuseKaya” meaning “eSwatini is home” in the middle, and my blog signature at the bottom.

I am thankful to have joined such an amazing core of teachers. The above picture was taken by one of our students after the farewell luncheon and features many of the teachers from our local high school.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

Monday in a Picture – That Time We Took a Field Trip

In January 2018, I was excited. The new school year was on the horizon. I was coming into a stride in my service. I was ready to introduce Wikipedia Offline to our students at the high school. As I was sharing this excitement with other PCVs and our Country Director, I mentioned the idea of a writing contest. I was trying to figure out how to gather prizes for the contest. In my mind, we would teach the students how to research and use Wikipedia Offline before they demonstrated mastery by writing brief research reports. Someone suggested a field trip. “Why not write a small grant to take the winning students to the (U.S.) embassy’s resource center and lunch?”, our director asked. Commence grant writing.

While the timeline was delayed, the essence of the project was able to shine through. In May, we announced the contest. All students were invited to use the Wikipedia Offline to write a one page report concerning the topic, “Strong Women”. Our students submitted reports about strong women that have inspired them and the world including Winnie Mandela, Jane Austen, and Oprah Winfrey.

Last month, we took that field trip to the U.S. Embassy in Ezulwini. The students were excited as it was their first time visiting the embassy. The head librarian prepared a presentation discussing what the resource center offers. He even spoke to the students about the importance of self-directed and self-motivated learning. Some students have expressed interest in getting membership cards and spending portions of the school breaks in the embassy’s resource center. The students being inspired has inspired me. I’ve very excited to see what the future holds for students who understand that they can do and become anything. The above picture was taken by embassy staff as I discussed some of the features of the resource center with my students.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

Monday in a Picture – The Staff Room

As you may know, I spend most days at a local high school. You can read about my adventures as a teacher here. However, I don’t teach all day, everyday. While some teachers here have dedicated spaces (think specialities like computers, wood shop, etc), many other teachers complete non-teaching duties in the room pictured above. It’s our staff room.

The staff room is also where I spend most my time when not teaching. I have a desk and a chair that I usually sit in. This is where I read, prepare lessons, and have lunch. At times, the staff room is host to all staff meetings and other trainings. The staff room is also where many student textbooks are stored when not in use. Students will visit the staff room to find teachers for extra assistance or to turn in assignments for grading. Sometimes, teachers will grade assignments (known as marking here) in the staff room. The stacks of notebooks seen above have student work from various student classes. Once the marking is done, one or two students will pick the stack to return to her/his classmates if students don’t retrieve their own notebooks.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

Sweet Dreams – Shoe Guy

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).

There were some students visiting eSwatini. They were either law students or pre-law. I wasn’t sure what they what doing around the kingdom, but that didn’t matter. I started talking to one of the guys from the group. He had really puffy cheeks. It was like he was a puffer fish that was always puffed up. Anyways, he told me that they were collecting shoes. I thought that they were collecting shoes to give away to people locally. I had some shoes with lots of life left that I didn’t use anymore, so I donated those. Fast forward a week or two. Puffy cheek guy has started selling the shoes at really, really high prices. Almost no one can afford the shoes. The rest of the students in his group are chastising him. He responds that no one told him that he couldn’t do it. “There’s no law against it”, he says. His group of fellow students abandons him. He doesn’t care. He’s selling shoes.

A few weeks later, there’s some kind of sporting event going on. I decide to wear a nice black suit to the event. There’s only one problem. I only have brown shoes. I’m looking all over for black shoes. There are none. I’m not going to go to puffy cheek guy to buy some black shoes. I decide to go to the sporting event in black sandals, and it’s okay.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

Monday in a Picture – Bereavement

Last Monday, I arrived at school like I always do. I noticed the head teacher talking to another teacher. It looked as though they were discussing important matters, so I acknowledged them and proceeded to lock up my bike. The head teacher approached me and told me that one of our students was killed in a car accident the previous Friday. The student was also a fellow teacher’s son.

In Swazi culture, it’s proper for the bereaved family to receive delegations from varied aspects of the deceased and their lives as people offer condolences. On Monday afternoon, we travelled, as a delegation of teachers, to the bereaved family’s homestead to offer condolences. This is done in one of the homes on the homestead that has been cleared out to receive guests. Songs were sung. Prayers were uttered. Tears were cried.

In rural eSwatini, the memorial services start either Friday or Saturday night with a night vigil. This past Saturday, several students and teachers travelled to the bereaved family’s homestead for the night vigil. There’s a very large tent set up for this occasion. Starting around 9 pm, the night vigil is like an extended church service/praise and worship session. There’s singing and dancing followed by sermon-like messages from people in attendance. It’s a joyous celebration. Around 3 am, there was a tea break. Hot tea and refreshments were served. After the break, there were more songs and prayers before speakers from various delegations offer condolences. The obituary was also read during this time. Singing and praying continued.

Around day break, services wrap up in the tent. Shortly after first light, there is a processional (behind the pallbearers) from the tent to family’s graveyard. This is usually on the homestead or relatively close. At the grave site, there are prayers before the body is lowered into the ground. The family then proceeds to fill the hole with the recently excavated dirt. After the hole is completely filled, there are prayers of thanks and benediction before people disperse. The above picture is of the processional to the grave site at first light.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

Rolling siSwati and toddler fluency

A few weeks ago, I was leaving school to go home. As I pass the gate and say bye to the students, I hear “c’ombole” as one of the students points to my bike. The confused look on my face lets them know that I don’t understand. “Cela boleke“, they clarify. I’m understanding a little better now.

One of the students explains c’ombole is the shortened version of cela boleke (pronounced click c-eh-la bo-lay-gay) meaning “please borrow me…/may I borrow…”. In this instance, the student was asking to borrow my bike. The student who explained the shortened siSwati went on to entertain my lamenting about how siSwati changes whenever I feel like I have a handle on it. She explained the concept of rolling siSwati by comparing it to English contractions and various stylistic preferences (that are present when speaking any language).

In English, “How are you doing?” becomes “How you?”; “cannot” becomes “can’t”; and “Where are you?” becomes “Where you at?” In siSwati, “uyakuphi” (pronounced oo-ya-goo-pee) becomes “uyaku” (pronounced oo-ya-goo) or “uya” (pronounced oo-yah). No meaning is lost, and the listener understands you want to know where s/he is going. This is not to be confused with “ukuphi…” (pronounced oo-goo-pee) meaning “Where is (a person)?” Sometimes, this gets rolled into “uku…” (pronounced oo-goo) or “uphi…” (pronounced oo-pee). Take for example the phrase, “ufuna ini ku wati” (pronounced oo-foo-nah ee-knee goo wah-tee). In everyday siSwati, this phrase becomes “ufunani kwati” (pronounced oo-foo-nah-knee gwah-tee). Both phrases are asking what you want to know.

With these realizations, I decided that I would focus on speaking and listening rather than reading and writing. One of the things that has helped me with this focus is a mobile voice recording app. When I hear a word or phrase I don’t understand, I record myself enunciating the word or phrase several times in siSwati with its English meaning. From time to time, I go back and listen to the recordings to refresh my memory. In that vain, I’d suspect that I’m around the fluency of an average toddler. Maybe a slightly below average toddler. Like toddlers, my subjects don’t always agree with my verbs. Sometimes, I mispronounce things. It’s possible that I might need something explained repeatedly. But eventually, we all understand. My conversations with toddlers and preschoolers are awesome, as everyone understands what’s being said. Sometimes, I can manage a conversation with my gogo, or grandmother.

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 – 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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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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