Sunday, June 29, 2014

Mind the Gap


**This was something I wrote for our monthly newsletter thingy "The Swazi Sojournal" or more fondly referred to as "the Sojo". Although some of the stories in here are not new news, I thought it might be nice to share. 

To begin, I’d like to introduce a few phrases that sort of sum up my tactics when approaching projects at site.
1.     Bloom where you are planted
2.     Keep your heart open
3.     Before the beginning of great brilliance, there must be chaos
4.     That is not my responsibility
5.     Master the art of Positive Hijacking
6.     “Be open to outcome, not attached to outcome”
7.     The more you put out into the Universe, the more you’ll get in return

In truth, I could talk about my site all day because I’m not sure I’ve enjoyed working anywhere as much as this.  That is not to say that my experience has been all rainbows and butterflies. I’ve experienced heartache, frustration, disappointment, resentment, beaming pride, and happiness… often all in the same day (and I’m sure I’m not alone here). I’ve also struggled with the notion of sustainability. First, how do I understand it? And second, how do I implement it? So, I offer you a few anecdotes on my experiences here.

I had arrived a few days before the start of the third term, and I was anxious to see where things would go. Using the divine wisdom that people generally love food, I made some chocolate cupcakes and went door to door. Hi, I’m Bongiwe, please take pity on me and be my friend. Much like those sitcoms where neighbors bring over weird jello moulds… minus the weird jello moulds.  Unsurprisingly, it worked. So I happily spent that first week sharing pleasant conversations over cake.  Like they say, conversations are the gateway drug to good working relationships… Yeah, I know… that’s a stretch. BUT, it led me to an essential conclusion: get to know my Head Teacher.[1]

When the first week of school rolled around I approached my Head Teacher and asked if we could have a meeting about expectations, and if she would suggest a good place for me to start.  She didn’t hesitate a moment before stating, “The volunteer always works in the library.” Cue emergency sirens. Danger! Danger! We have a code 5 violation, I repeat, a code 5 violation!  Abort, abort, abort! The red flags were waving like it was the Fourth of July and I was thinking to myself ANGIFUNI, as the keys plunked into my hand. I grinned and bore it for about a week before deciding this was the exact embodiment of what I didn’t want my Peace Corps service to be like: prancing around exuberantly like the good little placeholder they thought I was destined to be. This was not the time for a “When I say jump, you yell ‘How high?!’” reflex. 

While quasi-working in the library was extremely beneficial in strengthening my SSL skills, and getting to know the students, it is unproductive to force a person to work where they have a deflated sense of motivation (and that goes for anyone, not just PCVs). Besides, if life has taught me anything, the solution for the library is forthcoming.[2] There’s a gap, but I’m not the person to fill it.

Where were we?... Right, expectations… Having a clear idea of what I absolutely did not want functioned marvelously as a springboard into discovering where I felt passionate, and feel like the handful of skills I actually have could be put to good use.  So, I spent integration minding the gap: where were the missing links? What work was already being done, and by whom? What areas interested the teachers and what activities could they commit to? What were the biggest challenges my school faced? What was going well? That’s right folks, I did several needs assessments.

Which brings me to the second best thing I [accidentally… stumbled upon… unintentionally] did to build rapport within my school; the Wellness Workshops. 

There was this crazy philosophy running victory laps in my head, but it suited my disinterest in slamming into that wall over and over again, (because you know, it wasn’t a wall made out of chocolate, or ice cream, or pizza). So I took out my trusty PC toolkit (aka my brain before the mefloquin had really sunk in), and decided that the best way to work sustainably within my community was to meet both groups (teachers and students) halfway[3]. It seemed counterproductive to throw my focus solely on the students, if the teachers were not likely to accept the students’ empowerment, or support their development in the fields I wanted to engage in, i.e. leadership, lifeskills, place a PC indicator here.  So, my masterplan was to first test the waters, and see what attitudes the teachers had towards the students, their abilities, and what support they’d be willing to give.

The topic of mental health came up in an early meeting during the start of the third term (only two weeks into my integration), and I timidly mentioned to the head teacher that I knew a bit about mental health and could post information weekly, on say, Wednesdays and have “Wellness Wednesdays”, cute, right? Well, before I could complete my thought process the head teacher exclaimed that posting information wouldn’t ensure anyone has read it, and  “Why don’t you do a twenty-minute workshop every day.” Well, that escalated quickly. This new me was still an unfamiliar being… Will the real Bongiwe please stand up? But I thought it would be a good way to integrate myself, and learn about the people I was working with. So I ended up leading about twenty-five “Wellness Workshops” during that term, which despite the stress, were extremely worthwhile, as they also functioned as daily cross-cultural lessons, as well as letting me into the minds of the teachers, helped me establish support within the school, and simultaneously gave me the platform to slowly introduce ideas.  Additionally, it would later be brought to my attention that the workshops also served as a means through which teachers could have safe discussions on their thoughts and address their concerns for the school, while working to generate possible solutions, which is something I hadn’t even considered. Moreover, it paved the way for creating a school development plan, which has been a critical piece in initiating the projects I am working on. The workshops also functioned as a means through which “volunteer” was redefined. I’ve been struggling with my role within the community, it’s tiresome to feel objectified, and like the ugly duckling, feeling like you belong, while everyone else capitalizes on your differences.  So these past few months, I’ve carved a new meaning for myself through seeing everything as a potential opportunity for collaboration and movement. If you want people to place faith in you, and take a risk, you have to be willing to do the same. 

I’ve done a lot of thinking on sustainability theory, I understand that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. I think there are certain Dos & Don’ts, however, I am not going to address those here. Yes, my goal was, and remains, to work myself out of my job. However, cave hic dragones… at the core of this ideology is an inherent flaw; we (you, me, cousin Bob… community members) are irreplacable. We find our niche, and fill that gap, which was meant just for us. The ideal of 100% sustainability is just that, ideal. Let’s place sustainability aside for a moment… what do we have left? People. However transient and temporary, when brought together, people have the potential to do what we alone cannot; perpetuate large-scale change and influence this notably unbalanced system. We each have a role that we play in good faith, and we’re lucky when we find it. Maybe you’re the person who rocks that clown costume around your community. Maybe you are a caring listener, or are gifted in saying the right thing to those who need it most. Maybe you introduced Swaziland to No-bake cookies… Regardless, I think there are elements of our work that all-to-easily overshadow the fact that, at the end of the day, we’re people doing what we love. And the same applies to our counterparts, host families and community members. The most detrimental thing I can do to impede progress on something is not taking the time to listen. It’s in those moments that I miss something I may never have a chance to obtain again, respect, trust and understanding.

One of the most formidible aspects of this whole experience has been releasing the notion that things will indefinitely continue, because that’s unrealistic, no matter where you are. So instead, I’ve spent hours discussing other people’s visions, and working to bring them together to create cohesive goals and missions. My sustainability is learning how to fill the gap, to shrink the abyss, limiting the ideas, creativity, motivation and passion that all to often tumbles down there never to be seen again, because the gap was too wide, and no one was paying attention or ready to listen on the other side. 

When I look back years from now on my service, there are several project-related aspects that I know I am going to be proud of, but more importantly, I can feel satisfied in knowing that I met a need only Bongiwe could, and worked to help key players in my community do the same. And now, I challenge all of you to mind the gap.


[1] I took a course in grad school titled “Leadership, Communities and Coalition Building”. A facet of this course that stuck with me the most was the notion of locating the “Target”, as in, understanding who has influence, and who can influence those who have influence. I’m looking at you, Saul Alinsky. Essentially, an important part of understanding a community is being able to identify the key players and assessing who has power and control over certain events people, and resources. (in PC terms this is best identified as “Intential Relationship Building”…) I also fervently believe in transparency and don’t like feeling like I’m sneaking around, unless you know, I’m pretending to be a ninja.
[2] I would like to happily announce that literally a day after writing this I serendipitously met our new librarian. It took some negotiating and maneuvuring, but I’m kind of still in the “pinch me” state of reality, because I can’t believe life right now.
[3] I’ve since grown to realize there are many other groups within my community that need equal voice and inclusion to creating a positive living environment, but this was an excellent starting place.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

I'm at a point where I can't stop smiling...


Whatever doldrums I resided in last term are now completely vacated. I’m feeling a lot more positive about things again, and like March, much of what I wasn’t sure would happen is slowly coming together. I am really excited (and perhaps a tinsy bit overwhelmed) for all of the projects coming up.  I am at a point in my service, and feeling comfortable enough in my community where I feel like the process of bringing the right pieces together to make things happen are becoming second nature. Stealing an observation from another volunteer—I’m realizing that over-planning can be just as detrimental and frustrating as under-planning may be. Sometimes it is really good to dot your Is and cross your Ts, however, I think sometimes it’s equally acceptable to leave a little question hanging in the air and let things fall into place as they will. For example, although the idea has been present since January, I started planning a first aid training for 7 houseparents and 3 teachers last week. The training starts on Monday and is a four-day course. Sure, there was definitely an unavoidable sensation that “this could very well be a disaster”… as much as there was this pleasant sense of bemusement that “this could very well work”.  We’ll see on Monday, but another beautiful thing about not over-planning is your stress levels significantly decrease the less you have at stake. I also don’t feel as much on my own as I did previously, because I know now who to ask for support for certain things.

Sometimes, it’s easy to get preoccupied by the fact that sometimes no matter how much you do, it never feels like enough. When you start thinking that way, you might begin to believe you’re a hero. That you have all the answers are you’re the only one trying to address the issues you perceive. Instead, this term, I wanted to put the joy back into my work, and not house unnessary anxiety on things I honestly could not control, and was not my responsibility.  Focusing on fun has also decreased my stress levels significantly because it doesn’t feel like life and death of something does or doesn’t happen.

I am especially proud of my students.  While I do have an incredible amount of support from the teachers, my students never cease to surprise me. School let out early this past Wednesday, and due to a public holiday, there was no school on Thursday or Friday. I was a little disgruntled about this, and sort of let myself get frustrated. I felt like I needed to fill the time-gap… but how? So I thought, why not do some drama activities in the hall. I approached the older students and presented them a pretty intense task: help me. I think my panic and frustrated expression made them pity me, and they quickly took charge (to illustrate… it was me and the WHOLE school. ME. Just ME.) They took several groups of students and trained them in dramas and then after they put on a show. I thought we could do something similar again on Friday, so I asked the same students if they’d be interested in taking a group of students and doing dramas again. They accepted, but not only that, they gave it 110%.  They took maybe 40 or so students, and broke them into 11 groups… dances (traditional and modern—holla at cha Michael Jackson impersonation), comedies, stories, miming… you name it. I think one of the things that a language barrier (although it is ever closing), can benefit you with, is the fact that it’s more challenging to give percise directions… meaning there’s room for interpretation, and that’s where creativity is born. 

I got a little ahead of myself. After discussing the plan for Friday with the students who were “coaching” the other students, I retired to my house for the afternoon (or so I thought).  I hear the lunch bell and the sound of hungry children moving towards the cafeteria. I sit on my couch, contemplate a nap, and what to have for lunch. *knock knock knock* Hmmm. I think to myself. Maybe they want the library key. *internal grumblings* I open the door. Before I can say anything, Scarlet tells me that James wants to have drama practice now. Did I miscommunicate? What did we actually decide? I clarified. Now. Drama now? *Yebo* Well, I appreciate their motivation… Head to the Hall to varify what I’m seeing. There really is no time like the present. We then spent two hours “rehearsing” in the hall, preparing for the show to be held the next day. It was really neat to see the energy and creativity the students put into their performances—the themes and ideas they crafted into each activity.  Later, Charlie came over to me with a notebook. He has created a program for the drama show, with very creative titles. I am really impressed by the leadership he’s been showing and how caring and thoughtful he is towards the other students. I feel like he’s grown a lot in these past few months, and I’m really proud of him. 

I am also just proud to be a part of this community

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Positive Hijacking: My new approach to life.


I exited March much like a zombie might have with staggering strides haphazardly tramping forwards. Say that five times fast.

So, I understand why you might have a brainfreeze. I sure do. On a sidenote, I could not be happier that these last few days have invited me to cozy up in my favourite flannels.

I digress. Amidst the swirl of languages whirling inside my brain and chaotic thoughts of the ever-growing complexities surrounding my work here, it’s quite remarkable that this month reached a relatively tranquil denouemont.  Clinging to the last glimmers of wisdom I’d carried throughout training, I decided it was high time I re-check my attitude at the door. Sometimes there’s no better cure than a positive change in attitude. Like I sort of alluded to in my last post, I think it’s easy to forget the things that matter most, when the big picture is being overshadowed by the demons of yore.

Having a friend outside of Peace Corps stay with me for a couple weeks provided fantastic perspective, and although I was not quite ready for it, invited a revitalization and addition of a word that I’d like to henceforth reclaim. Hijacking. And let me just start by saying, it always comes down to intention. The verb connotes the illegal seizing (of [countless means of transport]) in transit and force it to go to a different destination or use it for one’s own purposes. Thus, I think there’s plenty of room to rewrite it’s meaning to match my intentions. 

Positive Hijacking: |paw-sa-tiv ­ hai-g-ak-ng| verb: to create or cause a change of course with jedi-like ease resulting in a more favorable outcome. To, on one’s own accord, reframe or reappropriate the relative instructions given to ensure a better outcome with the least amount of negative consequences.
 
I know what you’re thinking… Great scots! Pam could be the next Webster… her definitions are boss. Hahaha… Just kidding.

I think one of the hardest things to do in another culture is to strike the perfect balance of assimilation and acceptance while also feeling satisfied with your social identity.  If you’re not careful, nuances can dig their way to the forefront of your mind, and make it practically impossible to focus on anything other than what makes something different. If I were to focus on all of the little things that would be handled differently in the U.S. I would actually go crazy, feel completely out of control, and my bloodpressure would constantly be through the roof. There’s a doily on my wall that sums it up nicely, “you can do anything, just not everything”.  This is crucial. To live successfully somewhere other than the environment you grew up in, you have to be able to look at the differences not in fear or repulsion but with modest amusement and a casual “hmmm”.  There is no other way. However, there are times when bringing aspects of your culture into the discussion can be extremely valuable, and not intrusive or patronizing.

Cue positive hijacking.

The thing is, while I do a pretty admirable job of absorbing cultures and languages like a sponge, I am who I am.  And sometimes it is perfectly okay to share my me-ness unapologetically. End of story. Thus, I’m shedding some of the anxiety I’ve been carrying around, constantly feeling like I’m walking on eggshells. I am not saying to completely disregard the world around you, by all means, flexibility is probably one of the most valuable traits a person can have in this particular context. However, I am telling you that it is also perfectly acceptable to be you in all of your wonderful you-ness. I’ve been struggling with this for a while because the gray line can often be misinterpreted as a complete disreard for someone else’s feelings. This is not necessarily true. And once you start peeling back the layers, you start seeing things for what they really are (at least in that moment).  Man, this is the most roundabout way I could have gone to address this new beloved definition.

Utsini? Basically… I decided that so much of my time gets hijacked (most often positively) that it was acceptable for me to take equal part in hijacking things as well.  This isn’t a perfect system… and the resulting consequences cannot always be known at the commencement of said hijacking. But, generally, things tend to work out in the longrun.

A perfect example of this was back when Lindiwe was visiting. (In fact, the birth of this fine terminology was this very event).  The sports teacher had been planning an inter-houses competition… for a while, and because of the amount of rain that poured down in March, it kept being pushed back. Finally, the eve of this competition, and we’re having a staff meeting to prepare for the following day.  This is when Lindiwe and I learn that we have been deemed the “Information Centre” and in charge of the “Records Committee”.  News to us. That’s fine. See, hijacked. The ironic thing was, besides that, the so-called Information Centre had no information about what was going to happen… aside from knowning that there were Xnumber of events, and 8 runners per event.  So we made up our own system. Positive hijacking.  And I’d say we rocked at being the Information Centre.

I think what made this feel so empowering… per say… stems back to my earlier ramblings, about that fine gray line that we’re constantly teetering on.  And I wonder if that line really needs to be there. When I first arrived at my site my outsider-ness was very evident.  But now, I feel as much a part of this community as anyone else. I am a part of this fabulous team. It’s just a very comforting feeling because if you focus too much on the non-permance of your work/presence as a volunteer, then I think that gives way to over-thinking too much. I’m not saying to ignore making conscious and thoughtful decisions based on what things you introduce and work towards, but at the end of the day, life is uncertain whether you intend to stay somewhere one year or ten.  I think I found myself stressing so much on the impact I might be having on the community, which created a lot of unnecessary stress, and made things much less enjoyable, and that’s what led me spiraling into a disgruntled existence.

This goes back to rule number four on the flipchart paper on my wall. “Be open to outcome, not attached to outcome”.  Which might be one of the most crucial mentalities to have here. One of the biggest changes in myself (and perhaps evidence that I’ve adjusted to the Swazi culture even a little bit) is the fact that I do not need all of the ity-bity details to feel like things will work out just fine.

I organized a “basic therapy/counseling” training for my teachers, and the teachers at the high school this past week.  I had to prepare food, organize the hall, and send out an invitation, as well as establish a date for the person running the workshop.  But when it came down to actually “preparing” for it, I found myself thinking “well, it’s either going to work, or it isn’t”. Which, I think could be misconstrued as apathy. On the other hand, I feel like it’s just a more realistic acknowledgment of how much any one person can really control. I did all of the things I could do to ensure things would go off without a hitch, the rest wasn’t on me, and that’s fine.

In other news, the term is officially over, and I have a month before the students return. It felt a little bit like the last day of camp, waiting for the parents to arrive and take their children home. We decided to have one final movie night in the hall on Thursday, I showed “The Goonies”.  I tend to dwell a lot on contemplating “who am I to these people?” and I think sometimes it’s easy to let doubt and uncertainty cloud the fact that you actually do belong. Both boys and girls rushed into the hall, pushing each other, and fighting over where they were going to sit. Once they were relatively settled, I put an annoyed look on my face. You know you have respect when you can get every student to stand up, file out of the hall, line up again and nicely re-enter the room.  I’ve come a long way since those confusing days in the library. 

Sign language may actually be my new favorite language (which is saying a lot… I see that look of shock on your face, Jack Angriff).  To capture perfectly the powers of sign language, I present a meme:

How I feel while using Swazi Sign Language…

Because I can successfully convey a message to anyone, anywhere, like a walk-talkie version of “telephone”, without even leaving the comfort of my doorstep.

   
And on that note, I think you’ve suffered through enough jibberjabber for one day.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

So... This is happening


I’d first like to begin with a meme that pretty much encapsulates my work as a PCV.



It dawned on me that meetings (and sometimes decision-making in general) here are sort of like Ent Moots.  It took a long time for me to orientate myself this way, and while Lindiwe was visiting (person to be identified in following paragraphs) it became apparent that I’ve adapted to this meeting style… after her conclusion “that was the worst meeting EVER” led to a relatively bemused response from me… “and I was just thinking…  that meeting went pretty well”…

Moving on…

I’ve been spending a lot of time with the older girls, and thought It’d be good to give some attention to the boys and avoid accusations of favouritism.  To reconcile this, (and with on-point suggestions from the lovely Lindiwe) I thought it’d be fun to make some more boardgames out of cardboard and flipchart paper. And why not do it on a Thursday night (especially given that the new trend is to watch movies on Friday nights). So I approached two of the boys (here-to-fore known as Evan and Charlie—since I’ve given all PCVs their Swazi alias, why not change it up and give “American” names to my Swazi friends) that I know best and mentioned that I thought it would be fun to make boardgames tonight so more people could play, etc. (or so I thought…).  I didn’t really think anything of it as the day continued, as I was busy organizing things, while simultaneously trying to tone down the new level of disgruntledness I strolled into and have been wading through on and off over the past few weeks (my life has been a walking “trigger warning” of late… nine months in, I’m surprised it took this long for things to seem less rosey).

Fast forward a few hours.  Charlie presents me with a sheet of paper, glowing with evident enthusiasm.  It turns out, that I had actually communicated that we should have a checkers tournament that night. And Charlie had taken it upon himself to organize EVERYTHING. *Insert moment of beaming pride here* I recollect asking him to gather names/gauge interest of those who’d enjoy [a checkers tournament] making boardgames. He had gone above and beyond that. Neatly printed on a sleeve of loose-leaf paper was a list of boys and girls’ names, the age group, the time, and location of the event, and he had even gone so far as to find and write the name of an adult who would be responsible… which was NOT me. The amount of initiative he took in planning and organizing (in a matter of hours) was really cool to watch, and see how the event unfolded. Save for the creation of another checkerboard (Shoutout to the incredible colouring skills of Lindiwe), and a bracket (created from the gifted mind of Lindiwe), he pretty much singlehandedly ran a tournament of twenty people. 

(I bet you’re now thinking I made Lindiwe my slave for two weeks… That is probably an accurate summation. Apologies in retrospect Ms. Dlamini!).

It’s hard to explain why this seems so remarkable or noteworthy, but the fact is, one of my biggest goals/ideas for the school is to provide more opportunities for students to feel like they have room to organize and implement things that they find interest in (the word I'm looking for here is empowered). To encourage them to follow through and feel supported in the activities and events they want to see happening on a regular basis, and then go through the steps for planning and seeing those plans through. I can’t really take credit for anything that happened that day, other than accidentally giving the greenlight to what turned out to be a really fun evening.

It was also just comforting to see something like this come together. It gets tedious to feel like the only person who is interested in seeing things through, and being expected to do the legwork. I have also had a pretty rocky first term, largely due to having perhaps too high of expectations on how things would transpire. C’est la vie.

Also, I have yet to directly mention that I had a terrifically awesome (superbly wonderous) friend from home visit over the past three-ish weeks. She was swiftly given the name “Lindiwe Dlamini” which was pretty fitting. “Lindiwe” means something along the lines of “we’ve been waiting for you”. Because I’m actually insane, I put her to work for most of the time she was here… (still 1 million times grateful), and despite the fact that I left no time for fun (mostly true), it was actually the best visit I could hope for (you’ve got some big shoes to fill, mom). 

I had a lot of anxiety around her visiting, especially because it felt like literally everything was crumbling right before she landed in the Kingdom. I had reached a new level of disgruntledness that I didn’t know could be achieved, the weather had been pretty icky… essentially I had my own version of “March Madness”.  However, her visit ignitied an urgency to accomplish things that I honestly wasn’t sure existed here. All of a sudden, we had to do this and that “before Lindiwe leaves us.” Thus, sparked the consistent use of the phrase “so… this is happening” because that was the best way that I (perhaps we) could describe the events that unfolded. One minute I’d go from saying “I’m really sorry… I don’t think xyz will be possible.” To being instantly contradicted. You can ask her sometime… After a while I stopped pretending like I knew the answer.

It was also just really validating to have someone from home see my life practically through my eyes. The frustrations and confusion were also shared, and made me feel less like I was struggling more than necessary.  

Because despite my relatively hectic schedule, I still find solace in quiet reflection...

I can’t deny the fact that I experienced a significant amount of growth my first 6 or so months here. However, I think this term provided me several learning opportunities, and unanticipated challenges.

For one, it was amazing to have a friend from home visit. It provided comfort, reassurance and plenty of moments I’ve been missing over the past several months, like pop culture references that provided familiarity, chocolate kakhulu and the familiarity of home. At the same time, it highlighted, then somehow magnified who Bongiwe is. And would the real Bongiwe please stand up? Because I think, while she’s not really an alter ego, she’s definitely a more tenacious and intrepid Pam that boarded a plane all those months ago.

You’d think it’d be hard to misplace yourself when there’s two of you floating around, but February into March was rough. I got ugly.  Disgruntled, cantankerous, bitter, and perhaps even a tad jaded. Woof. With help from Lindiwe, I added a new rule to my list. “It is NOT my responsibility.” Which is a simplified explanation for why things went so sour. The little things that I had not adjusted to so well (forms of communication, overzealous gregariousity in shared living and working space, etc.) tipped me over the edge, and I felt increasing anxiety that things were spiraling out of control, and that everything I’d put my energy towards was no longer valued or relevant. It was a gargantuan bucket of suckiness. In retrospect, the contributing factors to this overflowing bucket, were temporarily forgeting my role, and job description, AND that one of the biggest aspects of being a volunteer is centering your experience on relationship building. Which, honestly, should just be the centripetal force of life. (Fun fact, “petere” is Latin for “seek”). So here I am rambling on as I seek my center. 

How's that for a zen-like conclusion?

And on that note... Here's a flowchart I've been crafting...



 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

I just spent 6 days in an alternate reality


Despite the geographical closeness, and practically daily use of the South African Rand, it’s been easy to forget that Swaziland is nearly surrounded by another country. 

To be honest, I harbored a lot of anxiety for my trip pretty much until I arrived miraculously at the King Shaka Airport where I met one of my dearest friends.  I had planned literally all I could plan. There’s no phone book, directory or any sort of established timetable for Khumbis. It is the pefect example of organized chaos. There isn’t an ounce of predictability in the system, except for the fact that khumbis always return to the same place. Khumbis: The boomerang of public transport. With that in mind, I knew that all I needed to do was to place one foot in the Manzini Busrank and the rest would simply fall into place.  It’s essentially impossible for you to end up on the wrong khumbi/headed to the wrong place. I’ll try to paint a picture for you.

The Manzini busrank was the most dreded and terrifying, nearly mythical place during PST.  Mainly because Manzini is the most heavily trodden city in Swaziland (okay… I may be speculating, but am 99.9% sure of that truth). The rank is probably the size of 4 or 5 football fields strewn across a mass of overcrowded parkinglots.  Organized because the buses are in one area, khumbis are arranged by location being traveled to, and there’s even a section for international transport. Chaotic because if you blink any number of things could happen… such as potentially being run over, or finding yourself snared into a 5 minute cameo in Let’s hit on her! Swazilands most popular reality TV series, (which would actually be rather interesting to watch… if the show were created ironically…). After a few trips you’ll become a pro at weaving through buses, khumbis, vendors and people, allthewhile handling the rank with as much grace as movie characters in NYC hailing a cab. Completely effortless, cue the perfect breeze to gently play with wisps of your hair, and superbly functioning breakpads. Pro status achieved when you arrive at your vehicle of choice with some fruit swiftly purchased from a Make. There’s always time for a snack. Always.

The process is either made easier or difficult by the number of men dispersed throughout the rank who’s sole purpose for being there is getting people where they need to be. Beyond the honking, and relative noises of being in a city, your ears will be filed with a chorus of “MbabaneMbabaneMbabane! Mbabane?” interspersed with whistles and the names of dozens of other places that one might be traveling to. Given my paler complextion[1], it tends to be assumed that Mbabane is my destination. Having moved past being an amateur, however, it takes a second of eye contact and blurting out where I’m going to redirect all enthusiasm away from Mbabane.  That is how I found the khumbis headed to Durban. So far, so planned. (We have reached the end of all I could plan for).

Having been in my Swazi bubble now for nearly 8 months, a quick trip outside the country pinpointed the things I had become used to.  It did not occur to me, that two hours away in South Africa, my hopping on a khumbi (or public transport---essentially the ONLY means of getting around Swaziland) would cause utmost panic in the people I was staying with in Durban. It also didn’t occur to me that what I find to be the most reliable and easiest form of transport would so shock someone that a free planeride home was offered to me instead. Oh no, I was not in Kansas anymore. I would just like to note that this is merely a synopsis of the challenges I ran into while on my brief but incredible vacation. The focus on public transport is because that was the one thing I was absolutely sure of, which also turned out to be my biggest cross-cultural obstacle. I pretty much was in a dream the entire time I was in Durban. The food, the imagry, amazing company… It was much needed and there is no good way to express my gratitude for such magnificent hospitality. The transport situation merely provided a glimpse of a larger reality that isn’t necessarily relevant (prevelant?) in such a homogenous country like Swaziland. I will say, it was the first time in 8 months that I went a day (and then days!) without being hit on, proposed to or feeling like 30 sets of eyes were on me at any one time. I was temporarily displaced from my fishbowl, and it was refreshing. 

My mini-vacation consisted of consuming waaay to much food, attending a rugby match, GO SHARKS! Eating finger sandwiches and drink tea in a decadent hall, dipping my feet in the ocean and not feeling like I had to rush through everything to make it home before dark.  It was much needed after the slightly rough start to the term. 

I had a less dramatic trip home (thankfully), and it was comforting to reach the border post and return home to Swaziland. 

This term is already shaping to be much different than last term, and it's really exciting. There's a different atmosphere and I think we're putting people's passions to better use.  I continue to frequently reflect on my role here, but for now it's fun to feel part of the team, and not some awkward outsider floating around trying to find my place. I'm working to better respect people's needs and not be as demanding, although the consensus seems to be that people appreciate being held accountable. I've realized a lot about things here as well. While I am a new set of eyes, my ideas and visions are not all that different. It's clear that the teachers here are knowledge, passionate and dedicated to their work here, and that they've been fighting the same fight (so to speak) for years now. I think in some ways I initially lacked empathy in understanding the struggles they've been through to have what they do today, and that there was never really an absence of trying. It's good to be humbled like that everyone in a while. At the same time, I am happy that the skills I do have, and the things I am interested in seem to fit seamlessly with what I can do here.  

Oops, duty calls!


[1] I’m in the process of collecting my thoughts on race and priviledge and how that is a part of my experience here. There’s a lot that can be explored, and I want to dissect it carefully. It’s been interesting to hear the varying experiences of other PCVs in Swaziland regarding these topics, and I want to note that the feeling of constantly being in a “fishbowl” is linked closely to this, and while it is easy to make light of it, I think it’s crucial to contemplate what my experience would be like if race was socially constructed differently, (or less visible due to a more hetereogenous population), and how the priviledges associated with my upbringing were not so easily pronounced here. In sum, I’d like us all to take a moment and contemplate, “How does our cultural worldview influence and inform our perception of people from other cultures?”, whereby “cultural worldview” can be exchanged with “priviledge in association with race or class” as an additional food for thought. End soliloquy 1.0