The Service Soundtrack

Recently, there’s been time to reflect. Next month, I’ll be leaving the my home of the past two years for the next chapter. I’ve reflected on my service and time here in eSwatini. I’ve reflected on the Peace Corps experience, and the interactions that I’ve been privileged to have. It would be extremely difficult to reduce this experience to a few words. I’m not sure I would have the words to describe the multitude of everything. Some months back, I stumbled upon this post from a RPCV (Peru). A service playlist. I thought it was a nifty idea, so I’m borrowing it.

The following songs have varied significance to my time here. Some have reminded me of my purpose. Others have allowed me to daydream and wander. All of them are pretty awesome. Be forewarned–some songs do include NSFW language. I have included some lyrics that spoke to me from each song.

Trophies – Drake

“what’s the move?/
Can I tell the truth?/
If I was doing this for you, then there’d be nothing left to prove./
Nah. This for me tho./
I’m just trying to stay alive, and take of my people.”

  • There are no gold stars for Peace Corps service. No medals. Sometimes, there may be an “attaboy”, but don’t count on it. A large part of this experience has been becoming a part of the community. These are my folks. As such, I genuinely want to see my folks thrive because if they thrive, I thrive.

Straight Up and Down – Bruno Mars

“girl, I bet ya mama named you Good Looking, cuz you sho look good to me”

  • This entire album takes me back to Christmas 2016 when I was headed on vacation. The lyrics. The music. The everything. Hearing this made me (and still makes me) wish I was on somebody’s dance floor. I remember the joy of being on the beaches in Madagascar surrounded by beautiful people and sights.

Love Yourz – J. Cole

“always gonna be a bigger house somewhere, but n*gga feel me/
long as the people in that motherf*cker love you dearly”

  • When we were assigned to our permanent communities, staff and more seasoned PCVs told us not to compare. Of course, some of us did. There are many things that could have been. There will always be things that are bigger, faster, more efficient, etc. It’s a choice to surround yourself with love and appreciate what you have. It’s a struggle to keep this mindset though. Jealousy is real. FOMO is real. For me, it has taken regular reminders of the song lyrics, “…no such thing as a life that’s better than yours…”

Price of Fame – Big K.R.I.T

“yeah we were broke, but that life was simple/
besides food is food, water is water, air is air. The rest is mental.”

  • There is certain joy ever present in my little sisi‘s (pronounced see-see), or sister’s laugh. Seeing her reminds me of my childhood: changing into our play clothes after school, exploring the small part of the community we were allowed to explore, inventing or altering games for our friend group to play. She (and many children around eSwatini) reminds me to enjoy the simple things in life. In my community and around eSwatini, I’m somewhat of a celebrity. Sometimes, it’s because I’m an American. Other times, it’s because I look like the urban poet Rick Ross. It’s easy to get caught up in the hype sometimes. Reminder to self: the hype is only hype.

Tigi – Sands

udlala kabi um’udlalangehlitiyo” (you play bad; you playing with my heart)

  • This song has been popular during my entire service. On any eSwatini dance floor, the beginning of the song is a signal to everyone in the area to make their way to the dance floor. I’ve been to several party/club/pub nights when this song has been played several times without loss of enthusiasm. Because of the song’s popularity, I used it in my classes to teach some of the nuances of language. Students translated this song into English and translated John Legend’s All of Me into siSwati.

I’m Not Racist – Joyner Lucas

“I’m not racist. But I cry a lot/
you don’t know what it’s like to be in the frying pot./
You don’t know what it’s like to be minding your own business, and get stopped by the cops/
and not know if you bout to die or not.”

  • It’s safe to say that the America we left in June 2016 is different. Hearing about the assaults and murders of Black folks across America took me back to 2004/5 when news outlets reported on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There have been times during my service when America seems like a literal war zone for Black folks. As a burly Black man, I’m less than excited to return. I’m not excited to have encounters with law enforcement that may result in death. I’m not excited to face overt racism and prejudice that may result in the aforementioned encounters with law enforcement and/or death. In fact, I’m borderline terrified.

Faithful – Common ft. Bilal

“I was rolling around–in my mind, it occurred/
what if God was a her?/
Would I treat her the same?/
Would I still be running game—on her?
In what type of ways would I want her?”

  • God is a big deal in eSwatini. There are churches throughout eSwatini. I’ve learned that the majority of Swazis identify as Christians. I’ve also seen massive inequalities concerning the treatment of women and girls. It makes me wonder if the patriarchy would be as strong if things were different. It introduces a new dynamic. If women and girls were held in the same reverence as God, would there be cause for debate and legislation about keeping women and girls safe?

Gobisiqolo – Bhizer

tem tem tem gobisiqolo

  • This song has been a party favorite for my entire service. If there’s a dance floor (or general space to dance), dancing is all but guaranteed to start with this track. While I don’t know the exact translation for “Gobisiqolo”, it’s a dance that involves popping your back. Like “Tigi” by Sands, I don’t know if it’s possible to hear this jam and not dance. It was also cool to hear this song used in the Black Panther movie. #WakandaForever

I Know Better – John Legend

“there are kinks in my past/
things no one could be proud of/
but I stand in the light I’ve cast/
and turn away from any lack of love/
when I walk through that door/
I say “here I go”/
You see me, and nothing more, I’m singing what I know”

  • I’ve grown tremendously since coming to the kingdom of eSwatini. I realized about a year into my service that I was in the right place for me at this time in my life. I started an application for Peace Corps when I was finishing grad school in 2008. Because of the length of application and other excitement in my life, I didn’t finish the application. Entering service at that point in my life would not have been as beneficial. Experiencing my life, as is, has been crucial. The bumps and bruises have taught me. The missteps and failures have added to the man that I am today.

Dear Mama – Tupac Shakur

“there’s no way I could pay you back; but the plan is to show you that I understand.”

  • You are appreciated. I’ve had two host mothers in the kingdom. My host mothers took me in and taught me the ways of eSwatini. When people ask me questions about the kingdom and I know the answer, much of that is attributable to my host mothers and their teachings (both direct and indirect). Being in a new place can be scary. Add to that different language and cultural norms. My host mothers balanced being firm, fair, and kind. My life is definitely better for having them in it.

Cry No More – Phonte

“My sons look at me these days, and think I’m certified/
preparing them for a world they’ll be deserted by/
internalize/
Black man, if you get a teaspoon of compassion, that’s more than double the serving size”

  • This spoke to me. While I don’t have any children, I hope to join the ranks of parenthood some day. As a teacher and long time mentor, I’m often looked to for answers. This has been especially true being the American face in the community. It’s strange to be in a space of offering whatever guidance I have, but still needing guidance and counsel. I suspect that this will always be the case.

Blessed – Daniel Caesar

“Yes/
I’m a mess/
But I’m blessed to stuck with you.”

  • We enter Peace Corps service as a part of a cohort. My cohort, group 14, is an amazing group of humans. Often, I have to remind myself that although things may not always be pretty, I’m thankful to have these government issued friends. I’ve grown because of them, and for that, I’m grateful.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

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Monday in a Picture – Bushfire

eSwatini is home to the Bushfire Festival, a three day music-focused event that attracts people from all over. This past weekend, the 12th edition of the festival happened. There were thoughtful conversations around warm fires. There were high energy performances that made me remove my sweat-soaked shirt.

The Bushfire Festival invites participants to bring their fire as a call to action. Artists from all over the world perform on four different stages. The live music selection included rap, soul, country, instrumental and traditional. The photo above features Sands, a native son of the kingdom, serenading us with his soulful music. There was also an amazing array of DJs that kept the party going until the early morning hours. Personally, I was elated to see my favorite DJ in eSwatini, DJ Mkay.

Another cool thing about the festival was the plethora of PCVs who visited from other southern Africa posts. It’s nice to meet and chat with people who are having similar, yet vastly different, experiences. It was also great to promote Beards of Peace Corps and take new photos for the project.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

Monday in a Picture – Cape Town

One of the greatest things about eSwatini is its prime location. Depending on where you are in the country, Maputo in Mozambique is a couple of hours away as is Durban in South Africa. The metropolis of Johannesburg is about four hours away, as is its massive airport known as OR Tambo. OR Tambo is one of the few airports in the world that has non-stop flights to every continent (excluding Antarctica). This connectivity is awesome for those wishing to explore the region. It’s also awesome because there are frequent flights to one of my favorite cities: Cape Town.

My host make (pronounced mah-gay), or mother, thinks I might have a wife and family in Cape Town because of my affinity for the city. Spoiler alert: I don’t. It just offers many things that I enjoy: beaches, outdoor activities (like hiking and biking), and food. I’ve enjoyed delicious ceviche and tacos. I’ve delighted over succulent Thai curries and sushi. I’ve participated in the city’s version of the World Naked Bike Ride (WNBR) and hiked Table Mountain. I’m currently in Cape Town decompressing post-AfrikaBurn. Although this post is being written well in advance of you reading it, it’s safe to assume that I’m relaxing somewhere in the city with good food and good vibes. The above picture was taken from a rooftop deck on Long Street in Cape Town.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

Monday in a Picture – Black Girls Global Exchange

Last week, the dreams and desires of a fellow PCV were actualized. In Swazi Spring 2017 (August-September), Dawnita saw a documentary about a girls step team from Baltimore, Maryland. She was moved by documentary, and shared that she wanted to do a documentary screening for the girls in her community.

She had conversations with folks from Baltimore, her hometown. They assembled a team and began working on bringing an idea to fruition. What if Black girls from this step team in Baltimore could connect with Black girls from South Africa and Swaziland? What if the image of their international contemporaries was formed by more than the media? Black Girls Global Exchange (BGGE) was born. More than fifteen high school girls and chaperones from Baltimore journeyed to South Africa and met up with high school girls from Manzini (Swaziland) and Soweto (South Africa). Together, they explored Soweto (and shared dance moves). The girls enjoyed a week of intercultural exchange as they tried new cuisine, shared stories, and completed service projects side by side. I was fortunate to be one of many photographers capturing the events.

On Thursday, girls from all over Swaziland joined the BGGE participants in central Swaziland for a screening of the documentary and a symposium. It was beautiful and emotional. It was surreal at times watching the girls truly and fully embrace the sentiment that we are much more alike than we are different. As the BGGE participants marched into the conference room for symposium, they were indistinguishable. Girls from Manzini and Baltimore wore matching outfits as they led chants of “B-G-G-E”. The energy was electrifying.

During the symposium, a light lunch was served. Two BGGE mentors from Baltimore, who are professional chefs, joined Swazi chefs in the kitchen to prepare a delightful experience highlighting American and Swazi foods. Shrimp and grits (an American favorite) was served alongside chicken feet, pap, and Swazi cornbread (all Swazi favorites).

While the symposium featured many powerful moments, I’d like to highlight two. During the panel discussion (pictured above), BGGE participants from Baltimore and Manzini discussed what they had learned from nearly a week of intentional cultural exchange. The girls shared how they connected on the challenges they face in their respective homes. Gender based violence and inequality is problem in Swaziland and America. HIV plagues both nations with so many infected and affected. At another point in the symposium, the participants from Manzini closed a presentation with a beautiful song. The lyrics hit me as tears fell. “Shine your light–Be the light–We, Black girls; we gotta stick together”. As the lyrics repeated, the stage began to fill with the BGGE participants from Baltimore and other girls. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen during my time in Swaziland. The Black Girls Global Exchange is the epitome of Black girl magic.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

P.S. – Below are more pictures highlighting the Black Girls Global Exchange.

Correction (8 April 2018): There were 4 middle school girls from Baltimore, Maryland, in addition to the high school participants.

The lyrics from the moving song (during the symposium) were: “Show the light…give them life…we black girls…let’s work together.” It was written and arranged by BGGE Swazi Ambassador Nosfiso Magagula, 17 years old.

Monday in a Picture – 33

Later this week, I’ll get to celebrate 33 years on this planet. In November, I started perusing the internet for possible vacations to gift to myself. I noticed Victoria Falls was reasonably priced. I had heard wonderful things about falls, so I decided to book it. 

Last week, I journeyed to Livingstone in Zambia. (As a side note, Livingstone is named for David Livingstone, who noticed the falls almost 200 years ago. My alma mater, Livingstone College, is named after the same man.) The falls are quite magnificent. The sheer power and size of falls leaves me in awe of nature and its power. The picture above was taken after a day of cycling around the town of Livingstone as I look forward to a wonderful 33. 

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

Monday in a Picture – Bringing in 2018

Around August 2017, I was trying to decide how I was going to bring in the new year. At first, I was pretty set on going to the Vic Falls Fest at Victoria Falls. In case you don’t know, it’s a multi-day music festival. When I started looking at logistics and pricing, I decided that it wasn’t for me. Back to the drawing board. 

I decided that I wanted three things. Amazing, delicious food; beautiful beaches; and a country that I hadn’t been to before. Some folks suggested that I check out Zanzibar in Tanzania. I did, and decided that I wanted to ring in 2018 there. 

My initial plans were foiled by an Airbnb snafu, but I resolved that and ended up staying on a different part of the island (Pajé) than I initially intended (Nungwi). It was pretty great. Many days were spent reading and resting on the beach. I was able to finish Kevin Hart’s book. I was able to eat several delectable delights. I met some friendly PCVs currently serving in Zambia. The new year was celebrated at a party on the beach complete with fireworks. 

If you ever have the chance, I’d highly recommend getting to Zanzibar. The above pictures are (top) the walkway to the beach, (bottom right) red curry prawns with a mango smoothie-and a view, and (bottom left) me eating a traditional Zanzibari soup. 

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

Monday in a Picture – The Origin of Coffee

I stopped drinking coffee regularly years ago. As I got older, my digestive system grew less tolerant. I decided to limit my intake to special occasions. Being in Ethiopia qualifies as a special occasion. 

There are two things many Ethiopians were happy to tell me. First, Ethiopia is the only country on the African continent to never be colonized. Second, coffee’s origins and the best coffee is found in Ethiopia. 

There are big coffee shops that reminded me of Starbucks, aesthetically. There are small coffee shops that were described to me as micro enterprises. In both coffee shop experiences, the raw coffee beans are roasted and grinded on site. There is incense burning. The coffee is typically made over a wood burning fire in a black clay pot. There have also been instances where I’ve been offered coffee when visiting someone’s residence. 

I am happy to report that my digestive system handled the delicious coffee very well. I haven’t tasted coffee from the various coffee regions around the world, so I can’t say if Ethiopian coffee is the best in the world. I can definitively say that I have enjoyed every cup during my time in Ethiopia. 

The above picture is of a small enterprise entrepreneur named Desta pouring a cup of coffee at her street side coffee shop. 

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

P.S. – Last week, I learned that Hawaii is the only US state that grows. 

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Sweet Dreams – New Money in London

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). 

​I had landed in London. I was on vacation there. One of the first things that I noticed if that they had changed the money. It was still the sterling pound but it wasn’t paper. It was a thick matte plastic. And it was tablet size. The notes were different colors but all the same size. The denomination was only on the back of the note. One of the strangest things was that there was a 34 pound note and a 35 pound note. British people told me that this new system was a security measure. 

Anyway, I checked into my hotel. I paid with the tablet notes. The hotel room was nothing special. I started exploring London. I called a friend of mine who lives in London. She wasn’t there. 

I did some more exploring. Later in the week, it was time for me to go. It was a Friday. As I was walking around, I noticed a neon sign in the daylight. It said something about Friday being rib night and there being live nude girls. I tried to go there for lunch but the place wasn’t open yet. I thought about changing my plans to attend rib night at the strip club, but I went to the airport instead. 

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

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Getting naked in Cape Town (SFW)

It was Sunday evening. I had returned to Swaziland to attend training. I was on cloud nine after having the most amazing weekend in Cape Town. I had started the weekend with two goals. Eat great food and ride bikes while naked. Cape Town is known for some exquisite cuisine. The World Naked Bike Ride happened to be on the same weekend. Both of my goals were exceedingly accomplished! I ate amazing Thai food and sushi. Other PCVs at the training commented on how refreshed I looked as I shared highlights of the weekend. I smiled. I was extremely rejuvenated. 

One PCV friend asked when I would be writing about this experience on my blog. I responded that I wouldn’t be writing about the naked bike ride weekend. I had reasoned that the weekend was not related to my Peace Corps service, and that this blog was singularly about my service. I had reasoned that I wanted to be a “good” volunteer, and not attract bad publicity or attention to the Peace Corps. 

The World Naked Bike Ride (WNBR) is a clothing optional bike ride that takes place in more than 70 cities around the world. People from all walks of life join in to celebrate people powered transportation. Most ride bikes. Some ride longboards. Some participate in roller skates. Others choose to run. 

The reasons that people choose to participate, like the participants themselves, are diverse. Some people want to bring attention to our global dependence on non-renewable energy. Others want to highlight the vulnerability of cyclists and remind motorists to share the road. There are naturists, and naturism activists, who use the ride to promote a clothes-free lifestyle and remind the world that nakedness does not equal sex or lewd behavior. 

My first WNBR was 2012 in Philadelphia. A big reason for my participation, at the time, was to be part of an exciting counter-culture. It was thrilling to be around 2500 people in various states of undress. 

To date, I have done the WNBR in six cities on three continents. While it’s still exciting to be naked and ride bikes through the city, I have added to the reasons that I ride. Having struggled with body image issues at various points in my life, I try to fully embrace body positivity, both in practice and thinking. People with all kinds of body types participate in the ride, and all are welcomed and embraced by fellow ride participants and most onlookers. Cape Town was no different. As we rode through the city, people lined the streets to cheer for us. The smiles were plenty. The weather was perfect. I was even gifted some delicious pizza after the 7.5 km ride. I even posed for pictures, and completed some interviews (one of which ended up on Japanese news). Body shaming has been normalized and is commonplace in far too many places. Simply stated, I ride because I refuse to embrace a culture of shame. 

After much internal debate on whether or not I should write about my experience at the Cape Town WNBR, I decided that it was necessary. Yes, this is a blog about my Peace Corps experience. However, that experience isn’t limited to teaching classes, building gardens, and writing grants. Also, I believe in the importance of fully representing the great expanse known as the US of A. Some day, someone will read this while wondering if there is space in Peace Corps for them with all of their unique intricacies. Let this post be a resounding yes! 

Be kind to yourself. 
Onward. 

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