Monday in a Picture – The G3 Summit, or eSwatini Scratch Day

In December 2017, fellow eSwatini PCV Deacon hosted a camp to teach girls and young women how to code using Scratch, the visual programming language. This past Saturday, he hosted a Scratch Day competition. The students returned to central eSwatini to showcase their cartoons and video games in competition. The theme given for the competition was solving a problem in eSwatini.

More than thirty students represented GLOW clubs from all over the country. While the cartoons and video games weren’t being judged by panels from Women in Engineering (of eSwatini), students participated in discussions about women and girls in STEM after watching a TED talk from Dr. Knatokie Ford. In another room, students were invited to explore electric circuits in unconventional ways among other things. The students also has the opportunity to participate in a typing competition.

I am happy to report that our students placed third in cartoon design, and won the video game design competition. Their video game featured a girl catching falling good advice and avoiding falling bad advice. Catching good advice granted the player one point while catching bad advice subtracted a point from the player’s score. For their efforts, they won a tablet, backpacks, and a laptop. The above picture shows Deacon (the man behind G3 and Scratch Day), my Scratch-coding students (from our local high school), Mike (the Deputy Chief of Mission to eSwatini), and me.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

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Monday in a Picture – Spotlight

For the second (or third, depending on how you count) time this year, I have been the main subject of a write-up in the Times of Swaziland. In January, there was an article about Parkrun, in which I was briefly interviewed. In February, the Times of Swaziland featured an article about the excitement I caused (among older women) as a super hairy umbutfo (pronounced oom-boot-foe), or warrior. Last Thursday (5 July 2018), the article pictured above was featured in the Times of Swaziland. In all instances, I received messages (from Peace Corps affiliated folks) alerting me to the write-ups. Unlike the other instances, I didn’t talk anyone from the newspaper so I wasn’t expecting this. The article did come after a post about my work was published on the Peace Corps eSwatini stories page on 3 July 2018.

My hope is that Wikipedia Offline (and Kiwix) get the much deserved attention, and that more schools, NGOs, and other organizations begin to use these products to unlock untapped potential.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

Monday in a Picture – The Mural

Some months back, a fellow PCV began planning a commemoration event called Walk The Nation. In 2008, a PCV in eSwatini organized a 200 kilometre walk to bring attention to the high HIV incidence in the country. The commemoration event was designed to look at how far the fight has come, and how much more needs to be done. Several PCVs participated in the commemoration of Walk The Nation by having events in their respective communities. Some volunteers showed documentaries while other marched and had discussions about where we go from here. Some volunteers were given paint to complete mural projects. Luckily, my community was given paint and associated supplies.

At my local high school, I spoke with students about HIV incidence and how far eSwatini has come. When I introduced the mural possibility, several students were excited and began working on concepts and drawings. Last week, our students (and a few recent alumni) completed the mural project. My hope is that as the student body sees this image, they will remember that education can lead them to any and all places.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

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 – Sihambile eWakanda

Warning: This post does have some spoilers regarding Black Panther.

I’m writing this on Wednesday 21 February. Today, students from 14 different communities across Swaziland came together to journey to Wakanda. Some students and chaperones traveled for hours to Swaziland’s only movie theatre. As I journey back to school with my students, I’m tired and happy. My heart is full.

For many students, this was their first trip to the cinema. They were excited. I was excited. Everyone was excited. The students were able to meet and fellowship with other students from around the kingdom. And as an added bonus, they got treated to the cinematic experience that is Black Panther. After the movie, several students gave a Wakandan salute and two thumbs up. I was able to speak with some of my students after the film about their thoughts and reactions. One student said that he enjoyed the film overall, but that he was really appreciative of how the ancestors were intertwined into the story. To see T‘Challa consulting his late father in the ancestral plane was powerful. Another student was enthralled with the relationship between Africans and Black Americans as he sought to understand why Killmonger wanted to destroy Wakanda.

I must say that I have a newfound appreciation for the teachers and other responsible adults who chaperone field trips regularly. If you haven’t experienced this film yet, I’d highly recommend it. It’s a cinematic delight.

The above picture was taken just before the students went into the theatre to see Black Panther. On a related note, I never knew how difficult it was to get 70+ school children to stay still long enough to take a picture.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

P.S. – Sihambile eWakanda means “We went to Wakanda”.

P.P.S – Here’s a picture of me, my counterpart, and our top students (per last year’s results).

2017 – A Photo Reflection

I thought about trying to select twelve pictures to represent this year, but it isn’t happening. Also, the months tend to run together after a while. I’ve tried to select things that represent the journey this year. I’ve also tried to select photos that haven’t been previously shared here. If you see repeats, it’s because my mind is forgetful and my eyes liked the photo very much. 

Thank you for sharing in this experience with me. I don’t take it lightly that you take time to journey with me. I look forward to continuing to share my life in Peace Corps Swaziland in 2018.

This year began with me deciding that if I was going to teach people how to make permagardens, I need to know how to do one. 
I made it to my 27th country. Ethiopia! Ate delicious food. Did other stuff. Ate more delicious food.
All work and no play isn’t for me. Work hard, play hard, see Chakalaka perform at House on Fire.
The universe decided I should have a penpal. I’m thankful for the art, kind words, and visiting a mailbox that’s not empty.
Teaching a full academic year has brought out many feelings and emotions. These students (and the rest of them not pictured) make it worth everything!
I was fortunate to be a part of the media pool for the Umhlanga festivities this year. I’ve also been able to practice the craft of photography. This may be the picture I’m proudest of this year.
AfrikaBurn 2017. Yeah.
My mother always taught us that if you can help someone, you should. Even if it’s in the middle of a bike ride. Photo credit: Nozie N.
There’s a Latin dance community that’s full of amazing people who remind me to just dance.
I don’t know what this is. But the little creature decided to hang out during hammock time one day.
Shoutout to Angelo and this involtini!
It’s cool to witness progress. This year, the first monolingual siSwati dictionary was published. It’s a big deal!
My counterpart is amazing. Now she can be amazing faster with this Ethiopian coffee.
At Thanksgiving, we gather at our country director’s home for lunch. I’m forever thankful for that!
My students have a sense of humor. Smile.
Our dog gave birth again. Puppies need a lot of rest.
There is no Thanksgiving in Swaziland. But there is Black Friday. And Black Friday sales.
Sunsets. They happen everyday, yet they’re still pretty awesome.

Be kind to yourself. 
Be kind to others. 
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 – 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 – 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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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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