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.

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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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Monday in a Picture – Coming to America

Photo credit: U.S. embassy (Swaziland)

One of the things that I hear often around my community is a desire to go to the United States. Some people want to study in the U.S. Some want to travel and see the sights. 

In December, our country director sent all current Swaziland PCVs an email announcing recruitment for the Pan Africa Youth Leadership Program (PAYLP). The exchange program is sponsored and funded by the U.S. State Department, and coordinated locally through the American embassy and other partners. 

The school term had already finished, so I sent the message to a few teachers at my community high school to see if they wanted to nominate anyone. A teaching colleague wanted to nominate her son. He completed the application and motivation statements, and I submitted his application. 

In early February, we received notice that my teaching colleague’s son was one of five Swazi students accepted into the program and would be going to America in April. This started a busy month of obtaining passports and other documents. Then, there was the visa application process (which reminded me of the extreme privilege that comes simply with being born in America). Finally, there was the pre-departure orientation at the U.S. embassy in Swaziland. The students were able to meet the rest of the cohort, attend visa interviews, and allay some fears and worries about the trip. 

There was a video conference with representatives from the State Department, other partners, and participants from all PAYLP countries (10 nations in total, including Swaziland). The students were all very excited. This month, their collective excitement becomes reality when they arrive in the United States. They will meet with various American officials, study at local universities, and have homestay experiences with American families. The only thing left to do is get on the plane. 

In the picture above, the Public Affairs Officer (middle) poses with the students and their adult mentor.

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

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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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Uyasikhuluma singisi?, or 50 Shades of SiSwati

I’m happy to announce that PST is quickly approaching its end. We are less than one week away from officially swearing in as Peace Corps volunteers. I am very excited to move to my permanent site, and start settling in. This past week, my training cohort and I completed another series of interviews to assess our readiness to serve as Peace Corps volunteers. One of those interviews was the Language Proficiency Interview, or LPI. It’s a special feeling to be sitting across from the tester, and not knowing what is being said.

We have been going to language lessons between four to six times per week since mid-June. Learning siSwati has presented various challenges for me. I am not fluent in any language other than English. I know some pleasantries in Spanish, and bit less in French and Russian. One of the things that initially scared me about siSwati is that it’s a tonal language with clicks. The language has many more complexities than I initially thought. There’s the subject-verb agreement, which I am used to. Then, there’s something called the subject concord, which also has to agree. I won’t get into that.

While I find siSwati challenging, I also find it intriguing. Like many languages, there are words that don’t translate directly. For example, there is no direct translation for “respiratory therapy” in siSwati. Instead, a siSwati speaker would say “one who helps with illnesses of the chest”. Contrast this with the word, “divorce”. There is no translation, direct or otherwise, for “divorce”. I have also learned that there is no direct or indirect translation for “affair” (as in the extramarital type) or “orgasm”. Then, there’s a siSwati word, tsandza. Tsandza means “like”, as in “I like chicken”. But tsandza also means love, because there is no proper siSwati word for love. So, ngitsandza inkhukhu could mean “I like chicken”, or “I love chicken”.

It was also a transition to get used to how words are made into plurals. In English, there is one dog, but two dogs. In siSwati, there is one inja, but two tinja. In English, you have one sister, and two brothers. In siSwati, you have one sisi, and two bobhuti.

Overall, it’s been great learning the language. Everyone has been very kind and patient with my language learning struggles and triumphs. This includes the lady who didn’t get angry or upset when I insisted on her giving me a wife, when I thought I was trying to order a fatcake (a delicious, fried doughy pastry).

Thank you very much, or Ngiyabonga kakhulu.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

P.s. – Uyasikhuluma singisi? translates into “do you speak English?”