Thursday, May 14, 2015

Between a rock and a hard place.

I know you’ve all probably been wondering where I have been over the past few months (perhaps most of you didn’t actually realize my long-standing disappearance). I’m not entirely sure I have an answer. December to May transpired so quickly I’m still catching my bearings and glancing at calendars confused why it’s not still April. Despite the days changing from humid and sweaty to chilly and breezy, with the hours of daylight slowly diminishing.

I took a much-needed trip to London and Edinburgh in December/January where I got to catch up with old friends and take long puffs of fresh air. It was amazing. It reminded me of why I first left the north-eastern coast of North America, for the south-eastern coast of Africa. I missed my friends and adoptive families from Swaziland, and I felt rejuvenated and reinvigorated to continue what I had started; projects that had quickly raveled themselves into a mess, tangled and interwined, inextricably linked, one of the biggest puzzles I have ever come across.

January was a fit of emotions. There was massive uncertainty regarding how events would unfold. Without an official head teacher or deputy head teacher it felt like everything was just hanging in the wind, there wasn’t much keeping any of us grounded. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so helpless before. I felt alone in my vision and goals for the students and my school. I used every ounce of fire I had to keep the slightest of sparks going. I spent days enfuriated by the circumstances that I was forced to live in, further exasperated that this was a small fraction of my life, while it was the majority of the lives of those whom I had come to care for most. I felt heartbroken and betrayed in ways I never thought I would, while simultaneously battling internally, whether my feelings were justified at all. I’ll try to explain.

There are several teachers at my school pursuing their bachelor’s and master’s degrees. This is great, fantastic even. However, the aspect of this knowledge that has been cutting into me for over a year, is the lack of practical application of what they’re learning, particularly for those studying “Special Educational Needs”. More and more, the pursuit of these degrees appears more to be about self-advancement –at the stake of the students—than actually seek to improve the conditions and experiences of the very people they have promised to serve. This is extremely painful. Kubuhlungu kakhulu. Perhaps because I have become exremely protective over the students, and feel that they are being exploited as test subjects for a means that does not impact their end. While they are still stagnated in their education, their teachers are expanding their educational experience exponentially. I am still uncertain how to feel about all of this. I’ve felt raw, jaded and infuriated. But perhaps bearing the most impression on my soul; disappointed. Given the circumstances, it would take a small miracle for any of my students to even come close to applying to university within the next 10 years. This is if they overcome the already prevelant barriers that leave them with a less than satsifactory education.

This has been our reality:

My school is a primary school with students enrolled in pre-school through grade 7. This is fabulous. However, on average, most students begin pre-school at the age of 9. One of the new students this year was 16. This is mainly because there are no programmes in Swaziland that seek to address early identification or family intervention of Deaf children and their families. So when babies are born, they do not receive a hearing test, and beyond that, even when parents see signs of deafness, the lack of awareness on what to do is so inadequate, it may take years for parents to realize that there is even a school for the Deaf in Swaziland.

To add another layer to that, teachers are not required to learn or know Swazi Sign Language in order to work at the school. Therefore, the 40 years of existence, only 1 teacher has sought SSL lessons (and employment) before joining the school. All other teachers have been randomly placed here, lacking passion for adapting their teaching methods to meet the needs of the students (which I will simplify as: Shut Your Piehole—I feel like we tend to overcomplicate issues that aren’t all that complicated). Beyond that, teachers will not be reprimanded for not becoming fluent or conversant in SSL. Thus, there are several teachers who have been at the school for more than 5 years and still can barely hold a conversation in SSL. No matter, it’s super easy to teach information to people have no idea what you’re saying.

The government is far from knowing the solution to all of this, even though we have enough opinions on the matter that would probably take a year just to summarize. With that said, there are no interpreting services in Swaziland, and while there are 2-3 SSL teaching facilities, they are not standardized or in support of each other, and the employment of interpreters—if there were (m)any, has yet to become a common train of thought at institutions such as the courts, police stations, hospitals or even schools.

Although the High School for the Deaf was constructed and opened in 2010(ish) –(although this is even under dispute), no exit strategies were concieved. Moreover, the schools have been in a feud since the high schools’ inception. Fun fun fun.  In the 5-8 years of its existence, no students have passed the external examiniations or junior certificate, the vocational programme was never opened (no qualified teachers were ever hired), and it only reaches 38 students, aged 18-35, which leaves room for a whole host of other issues. Even if the students did pass, Swazi Universities are far from being ready to support and include a Deaf student in their courses, without an interpreting service, people available to construct and adjust hearing aids, etc.

As part of my old HT’s crusade… to “kill the black mamba which is the high school”… we sought cooperation with the location technical school, Siteki Industrial Training College, which offers vocational training in metal work, motor mechanics, sewing, building, agriculture and carpentry. Six students who completed grade 7 opted to take this route. It’s been great, but they could really use more support than the ample amount of time I have been spending with them. They need a full time interpreter. We also need a career guidance teacher who can help finagle more opportunities for them. Woof.

So this has been weighing on my conscious for quite some time now, as I’ve been wracking my brain for any possible solution to this tangled web of awfullness. The hardest part has been leaving behind the notion that you need to know the root of the problem in order to fix it. I suppose it all ties back to SSL, but even then, there are so many things that need to be or should be, rather, in place before more doors can open that it’s practically unfathomable to picture a time when this isn’t such a clusterfuck. Please excuse my plain English.

The above leaves me simultaneously motivated to solve this massive puzzle, and overwhelmed at all that needs to be done to even make a fraction of a difference. I am without words… signs really, to even advise my students on the decision they should make…what actions will impact their lives most positively and help them achieve their goals. If I were in their shoes, I feel like I’d be terribly lost too. I now know the real meaning of being in between a rock and a hard place. There is literally no room to budge, and either side looks just as enormous, unpleasant and challenging as the other. There is no clear solution, I’m just witlessly chipping away, hoping that eventually one side will give.

I am excited about little things that I’ve been working to set into motion. Here are some highlights:

-I interpret 1-2 times a week at SITC, the vocational school, and I have been working with the teachers there to develop teaching aids and strategies to create a more inclusive environment.
-I am working on organizing an Adult Education programme for the Deaf adults working at my school, with the end goal hopefully resulting in them passing their Junior Certificate and receiving a High School diploma.
-I am still plugging away at my Sign Language Reference book
-My third year project *fingers crossed* will hopefully be linked to the creation and implementation of an early identification and family intervention programme
-I absolutely love Swazi Sign Language, and feel so blessed to be surrounded by such amazing, inspiring and resilient people. Despite all of this, they keep marching on.

My heart may be heavy, but it’s also full.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Have you seen Tom’s Shoes?

 “Life in a fishbowl” Thought of the day: To change what things mean, re-describe them.

I’ve been fumbling with this topic for months.

We discussed it briefly as a group during a bonfire at IST. “What is our role in development?”

Sometimes, the daily reminders that I am an outsider cut deeply. Sometimes, it’s easier to acknowledge it is as truth. Regardless of how many months I’ve been here, this isn’t my home, at some point I will leave, and even if I have mastered the art of hand washing my clothes, it doesn’t mean I know what it means to be a Swazi, or understand all there is to know about living in Swaziland. It cuts so deeply because I am a double-outsider to some capacity. Not only was I not born, or raised here, but I can also hear. It hurts sometimes to realize that, no matter how hard I try to understand, I never fully will.

Perspective is an excellent tool, but it’s also extremely limiting. Our opinions regarding something may change, but they will continue to be influenced by the way in which we perceive (to take in entirely) the world, which is nestled in our own personal experiences in how we relate to what goes on around us. You can try to live in someone else’s shoes, but even if you try them on for size and walk along the same path, you will never see through their eyes, feel what they feel, or experience the interactions they share with others in the same way.

So where am I going with this?

Well, there’s this word that tends to send people scurrying away in all directions, like bedbugs fleeing the light. Privilege. And now that I’ve deviously drawn you in, I hope you won’t experience the same inherent reaction.

So we’re all on the same page, here’s a little definition: Privilege: “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people” Now. Before you begin inching slowly away, I would first like to acknowledge several facts.

1.     It’s important to also consider the intersectionality of all privileges associated with our social identities
2.     Acknowledging your own privilege is not geared at invalidating your lived experiences or feelings
3.     Guilt suggests you’ve committed an offense or crime. It’s a natural response, but, Guilt helps no one.
4.     A part of being human is being human.

I took an intro to Sociology course in High School. One of my favorite articles I ever read was “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema” and I’m sure many of you have also read it. But I thought I’d share a few lines from it before spoiling the surprise (and I’d be happy to e-mail it to anyone who would like to read it). I think it provides the perfect opportunity to demonstrate the power of perspective, assumptions and interpretation. 

            The ritual of the Nacirema was first brought to the attention of anthropologists twenty years                   ago, but the culture of this people is still very poorly understood…Little is known of their                   origin, although tradition states that they came from the east. Nacirema culture is                   characterized by a highly developed market economy, which has evolved in a rich natural                   habitat. While much of the people’s time is devoted to economic pursuits, a considerable                   portion of their day is spent on ritual activity. The focus of this activity is the human body, the                   appearance and health of which appear as a main concern in the people’s belief. While such a                   concern is certainly not unusual, its ceremonial aspects and associated philosophy are                   unique… Our review of the ritual life of the Nacirema has certainly shown them to be a magic-                  ridden people. It is hard to understand how they have managed to exist so long under the                   burdens which they have imposed upon themselves.

We all write our own ethnographies[1], whether we mean to or not, that is how our brains process our experiences, and understand the world around us. However, there is an inherent danger in continuously viewing another group of people as constantly, and unstoppably “other”. So, who are the Nacriema? Maybe it’s more obvious to you than it was to me several years ago. “Nacirema” is “American” spelled backwards. Even objectivity gives way to classifying a group of people in a way that may not be appropriate, or pleasing to how they might perceive themselves. This is very important.

Social Identity theory suggests that our Social Identities are actually comprised of three layers. The first is how you perceive yourself—the inner you, your secrets, hopes, fears. Perhaps your most genuine and authentic self. The second is related to your awareness of how others might perceive you, or how you allow others to see yourself… the hats you choose to wear around the different people you interact with (i.e. your subconscious and conscious decisions that formulate your behavior in public and private settings). Finally, the third layer is how society perceives you (and therefore renders what you are capable of…) in relation to your various human characteristics: male, female, ethnicity, age, etc.  The tension lies in how well we are able to balance all of these selves, especially when how you feel about a particular characteristic of yourself doesn’t necessarily match up with the other two layers. I’ve felt relatively at home here since I first moved to site, despite the fact that I was surrounded by over a hundred strangers. I felt comfortable in my own skin, and after a few months more than a label. That, of course was while I was inside my little bubble. Aspects of my identity that I don’t necessarily value or consider important facets of my character were instantly thrown in my face the second I left the school gate. “UMLUNGU! NCELA EMASWEDI! NGILAAAMBILLEEE”[2] squealed hoards of school children as I carried my groceries home… “HEY WHITEY!” three gregarious youth hollered from across the field while I walked apathetically through the bus rank. I wasn’t Bongiwe, I wasn’t Pam, I was none of the Me’s I appreciated. I was the one attribute I am perhaps least proud of. While frustrating, finding ways to defuse the feelings that began to lurch and creep inside of me whenever I was first seen as a color and not a person became my new focus. After all, it’s hard to determine whether something is said with malice, or if rather, it’s a mere reflection on centuries of a truth where the other people with similar outward identities to my own, set a precedence for those gut, perhaps even subconscious reactions.

I think this statement from Peggy McIntosh’s “What Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” really gets at what I’m trying to say…

“To redesign social systems we need first to acknowledge their colossal unseen dimensions. The silences and denials surrounding privilege are the key political tool here. They keep the thinking about equality or equity incomplete, protecting unearned advantage and conferred dominance by making these taboo subjects”

It’s uncomfortable to talk about the conscious or subconscious reactions we have to people who are different from ourselves, physically, or who choose to go against the grain in terms of social behavior. Regardless, it’s crucial to reflect why it is, you feel uncomfortable. The secret lies in what is most painfully said.

McIntosh continues, “I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks… Describing white privilege makes one newly accountable…For this reason, the word “privilege” now seems to be misleading. We usually think of privilege as being a favored state, whether earned or conferred by birth or luck. Yet some of the conditions I have described here work to systematically over empower certain groups.”

Why is “Umlungu” so grating? Perhaps it is because it goes against how I see myself and the work I’m doing here. It might be because I’m not used to have my skin color be acknowledged—led astray by the toxic ideology of colorblindness. What if it’s a reaction to the underlying guilt I have in knowing that when passive, I play a role in the systemized oppression that should so badly be eradicated. This naturally, makes me feel more guilty, because then I feel like I expect myself to be a hero… “Whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work which will allow ‘them’ to be more like ‘us’”…

I had knots in my stomach throughout PST. I have never appreciated the banking theory of education. That’s not how I envisioned my role as a volunteer, yet that’s exactly how training felt… as if the issues we would encounter in our communities were prevalent due to lack of education, and we, somehow, were qualified to guide people in the right direction… Like missionaries singing to a different tune. That being said, I appreciate that Peace Corps strives to, and focuses on capacity building, I’ve seen first hand how effective it can be when done correctly. This means that you’re working with people to enhance the skills, knowledge, ideas, and so on that they already have, honoring their talents. I have been fortunate enough to have an incredible amount of learning opportunities while here… the chance to learn two languages, and be engaged in a community… in projects that I could never have dreamed of, but I’ve also felt guilty that my lack of experience in this field has never been questioned… because it’s so natural that I should be the one leading. That I’m qualified to give advice and recommendations. This is can be dangerous if not checked.  Months of reflecting hasn’t brought me any closer to the answers I’ve been seeking, but they have helped me see my experiences in a new light and I think that’s a crucial starting point.

So, here are some reflection questions:
1.     How does our cultural worldview influence and inform our perceptions of people from other cultures?
2.     How can we be aware of and change our assumptions?
3.     How can we benefit from understanding our own cultural worldview and how it affects our relationship with other cultures?

[1] Scientific descriptions of the customs of individual peoples and cultures.
[2] Even here, I cringe at acknowledging this part of my experience in Swaziland, while true, it nonetheless paints an image of such a small fraction of what happens in my life here. Mainly, I just want to indicate how it feels, less than criticize the behaviors I encounter. I’ve met so many wonderful people here, that they outshine any negative interactions I have had.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Experiences captured in Meme-form

After watching the last season of HIMYM, I began to categorize much of my actions as a volunteer as either "You chose WISELY" or "You chose POORLY", to add a healthy dose of comedy to my life. So, below are some gems that I think sum up aspects of this experience rather well.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Flying by the seat of my Lihiya

Reflective Summations:

1.           Keep several project ideas situated at the “back burner” of your mind.
2.          Don’t despair at the absurd, go with it.
3.          Don’t hold too tightly to one vision, leave room for growth and change.
4.        Let things happen on their own time, at their own pace.

A year ago I was sitting in the Staff Room at my school. It was integration, and I was trying hopelessly to follow along, my ears wanting desperately to tune out to the intricate discussions in siSwati, and my eyes feeling heavy, drooping as I tried to absorb as much Swazi Sign Language as possible. However, my ears and eyes perked up when my Head Teacher mentioned something about a Sign Language book… My mind drifted back to PST, to when Megan and I had began receiving Swazi Sign Language lessons. Thobile, our teacher, was explaining some of the challenges that the Deaf Community faced in Swaziland, and one of the major issues was the language barrier. This was the first time the idea of creating a SSL manual had emerged, and it seemed like it would be a rather significant project…

So, after the meeting was finished, I meandered into my Header Teacher’s office and asked her about the book. I then learned that a group of teachers and support teachers had been working to assemble a SSL book, the very first of its kind.  This included painstakingly hand-drawing hundreds of signs, complete with arrows directing motion.  Upon mentioning my interest in helping with the project, my HT’s face lit up, and so I became a member of the school’s Sign Language Committee. 

The following week, the committee came together and began to draft a plan for the project, who is the book being produced for? What is the goal of the book? How will it be paid for? How are we creating it? And so on. We sat and discussed the next steps, which included putting together a proposal to submit to the Ministry of Education & Training. It was also quickly established, that although, they had worked so hard to hand-draw all those images, taking pictures would be a much easier and faster way to go. We established a time-line and in bold writing, we set the bar high: Have the book completed by Oct. 1, 2014. We gave ourselves one year. I remember thinking Yeah right.

Despite our plan, none of us were exactly certain what the best approach or process was to creating such a book. We had several examples from Uganda, South Africa, and even the United States to give us some guidance and inspiration. I began to spend hours pouring over the content, and compiling a list of topics that might be important to include in a Sign Language book. When we first started drafting this project, we had a list of roughly 2,000 words that we might want to include… as a base. The vision was originally to create a full dictionary. I think this illustrates perfectly how projects change and adapt overtime, adjusting to better meet the visions we layout for ourselves. As there was no foundation for a project of this type, we were establishing the base, while a much larger dictionary is necessary, and will hopefully be created in the future; it became evident that a “beginners” guide was crucial. A means through which pertinent building blocks could be placed in order to support future development of Swazi Sign Language, and address some of the over-arching challenges facing the community.

As the months ticked on by, the Sign Language Committee continued to meet and assemble speculated pieces of what was going to be our book. We continued working on the proposal, and contacted printing companies throughout Swaziland to get quotations. The only printing company that responded was Print Pak (located in Mbabane), and they gladly met us at the school in order to discuss the details. By the time March rolled around, little real progress had been made. The proposal, expanded to “Sign Language Development” at the schools for the Deaf, had been submitted, critiqued, re-submitted and approved. Yet, nothing seemed certain, or even likely, for that matter.  My friend, Lindiwe arrived for her two week “vacation” (She had offered graciously to help out with some projects while visiting, specifically making god use of her super swanky camera), and thus began the “So… this is happening” Era of my service.

So we rolled up our sleeves and dove on in. We drafted a plan of attack, and got started. I had a list of words we thought would be appropriate for a “beginner” volume (dropping the original list of 2,000 down to about 500). The words were grouped in categories. We used a divider from the Library, and a well-ironed blue sheet as our backdrop. I would sit in front of Phumzile or Anthony and sign or fingerspell the word we wanted a picture of, and Lindiwe would work like crazy to capture what unfolded before her. This was definitely a rocky process, but quickly became routine. We spent about two hours a day for two weeks taking images, discussing the history of specific signs, and working our best to do the language justice. By the time she flew home, Lindiwe had taken over 3,000 images. We were all in awe. Up until that point, I had very low expectations that this whole thing would come together. But then it did. So that happened.  

Over the school break, I began to compile a massive word document that was the lo-tech, blasé version of the book. Again, I’d like to point out that I had really no idea what I was doing. It was around this time that Print Pak emerged from the woodwork, following up on the progress we had made. (Honestly, if it weren’t for Print Pak, the book would probably still be a black-and-white word document putzing around on my computer, while I tediously, and angrily tooled around with the formatting). They came and met us at the school again, and collected all of the images, with the expectation that I would come by the office and drop off the word document when it was more or less finished. I had carefully labeled each image, so that expedited the process a little bit, but the fact remained, no one at the office new SSL, thus had no idea what it would look like in printed form.

I felt a new sense of excitement for this project, and it started to feel real. I printed off a list of the English words used in the book and my Head Teacher gave each teacher 5 pages, in order to fill in the siSwati words. They actually enjoyed this… and came back requesting for more. Mostly, we were all elated by the fact that it was slowly coming together.  One thing that I never waivered on was ensuring that the book represented the community. I met with several key stakeholders such as Swaziland’s National Association for the Deaf (SNAD), which gave the book a sense of authenticity that would otherwise have been lost.[1]

 I may have been the one assembling the information, but it wasn’t my story to tell.  In one of many conversations with my Head Teacher, I realized something rather powerful. She had wanted to create a Sign Language manual for over ten years, but had consistenly been told such a project was impossible.  She had met several barriers that immobilized her, and needed someone or something to help her move past those obstacles (and more obstacles emerge everyday). A similar sentiment was shared by SNAD, it had been in operation for twenty-five years, but nothing like this had ever been done.  However, this made me realize that they trusted me with their dreams, and that motivated me even more.

It is important to note that my role in (and attitude towards) the project changed over time. I came into integration with little intention to lead anything. Motivate, encourage, interrogate, sure, but lead. NO. However, what became clear to (drawing back to my last article) is how significant it is to be comfortable filling a gap, but remaining concious on the gaps you may leave behind. As the project continued to unfold (with many unexpected twists and turns), I began to see things very differently. But it became evident that one of the major setbacks… the reason that there had never been a SSL book before, was not due to lack of interest, but rather, lack of hands who were able to dedicate a signficant portion of their time to such a project. I think this is a crucial aspect of being a volunteer, providing support where otherwise, there may be none.

Eventually, I more or less finished compiling the information into the word document, and made my way to Mbabane to drop off the file at Print Pak. I was clueless as to how the book would come together. I thought that I would primarily be in charge of designing, editing, and compiling the book. I soon learned that they had a team of designers , and that one had been assigned to this particular project (Praise be to Beyonce and may she sing and dance un-interrupted). They called him down, and I began explaining the book; it’s vision, the layout, etc. Un-phased, he collected all of the materials and that was that. A week later, the first draft was finished, and my eyeballs nearly fell out of my sockets. Most of the signs were incorrectly placed, and there was a sufficient amount of editing that needed to be done… but it looked like a bonafide book. Upon receiving it, I danced around school for a good two hours, showing it the students, the teachers, and support staff.  Then the serious editing began, but I’ve been lucky that Print Pak has been so flexible. With each meeting, new ideas were exchanged, and the pieces slowly began to come together to complete the product I proudly hold in my hands today. 

So where are we now? Good question.  The downside to being the first is it often means that there are no systems in place or specific protocols to follow. Thus, even if the book is only used internally as a resource for our community, there is debate about the larger impact the book may have in Swaziland. There is even more debate about what that would mean in terms of completing the book.  So once again, I’m floating in ambiguity, but none-the-less confident that the solution will emerge in due time. The book may have taken a year to come together, but it never felt rushed.  I was being trusted with people’s dreams, their culture and their language, and that was not something to take lightly.

[1]During a meeting with the Director of SNAD I had a rather intense conversation around approaching words that there weren’t signs for (especially science and social studies). This gave way to the Deaf Association organizing a Sign Language Development meeting, whereby prominent members of the Deaf community came together and discussed in relative depth, the use of certain signs, as a way to begin standardizing the language. One of the biggest challenges that is attached to a project like this, is that SSL varies immensely depending on which Deaf community you are interacting with. Signs between the primary and high school are noticeably different, and then there’s village sign. As the first printed manual for SSL, it was understood that there was some obvious leniency when it came to the pictures chosen to represent certain signs that may be under dispute. Luckily, all parties agreed upon the fact that this was a starting point, and hopefully the beginning of a long process to enhance and develop the language

Being invited to the Sign Language Development meeting was amazing. I had already been aware that when the school first opened, the use of SSL was banned, and if caught, students would be beaten. Thus, the only time sign was spoken was at night in the dorms, and this was the only chance the students had to develop their language. I learned that certain places in Swaziland were given sign names, not as literal translations of their siSwati meaning, but because a classmate was from near there, so it was associated with their Sign names, and so on. I learned that the sign for “shoe” developed in response to how teachers emphasized certain words as they taught. As the teachers would enunciate “SSSSHHH—OOOOUUUU” they would slide their right hand under their mouth and across their chin. The more stories I learned, the more anxiety I felt around producing something that would accurately represent something that not only acted as a mode of communication, but was an important aspect of a rich history, that had long been ignored and undermined (It’s okay to ask what the meaning behind a sign is, but it isn’t okay to tell someone that the way in which they interact with the world around them is wrong. This is a common occurrence in Sign Language lessons at the school, when teachers perplexed by the sign for a word, protest, gesturing what they think the sign should be).

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

“What you are doing is building memories that you will carry in your heart forever. It’s what we all do.” --Lomaswati

The past few days have stayed consistent with the roller-coaster ride that is this whole experience. I went through a whirlwind of emotions last Thursday that left me deflated and nearly ready to throw in the towel. Expressing my exasperation, Zinhle passed on a bit of advice that really put things into perspective, “Everything is temporary”. The frustration and anxiety that I was feeling wouldn’t last forever, and today’s disaster might not be relevant or on my radar tomorrow. For not even making it past 7:30am before all-out internal panic had taken force, to doing a complete 180º by the afternoon, I was back on track and ready to push on to the next mountain.  I am also very fortunate to have very supportive friends here, both PCVs and Swazis. Comments like “You are a power animal with your ability to bulldoze things into action. I hope you realize how valued and special you are and how badly needed you are in this world” don’t hurt either. Cue all of the feelings. 

Today was a public holiday in honor of the late King Sibuzo II’s birthday. I went up to visit the girl’s in the hostel and visited for a little while.  They were watching another Nigerian Soap, something I think we all need to experience at least once in our lives… and I encourage you to youtube some Nigerian movies right now. After a while I decided I wanted to return to my house and work on a few things.  I excused myself, and Holly said she wanted to join me, which was fine, but I figured it would be pretty boring, but whatever. *sidenote* [Holly is an incredible student. She has an ability to light up the room, and despite trying, is a role model to many of the students, and someone everyone wants to pay attention to and finds interesting. I feel very lucky to have her as a friend and mentee.] Once back at my house she went over to my armchair and moved it away from the window. It then dawned on me, that when I said “I am going to go do work in my house”, to her that meant “house work” a.k.a. the great cleaning extravaganza of 2014. Without bothering to state my misscommunication I grabbed a broom and started sweeping. This is the second time that a miscommunication has led to something wonderful and surprising. Holly cleaned with an intensity and fervor I never knew existed, and as I cleaned places I never felt motivated to clean before, she managed to clean three rooms in the time I cleaned just one. Oops. That’s okay, I never really wanted to claim “Has mastered the art of domesticity” anyways. I think it helped though, that Holly actually enjoyed what she was doing. I was sort of speechless though, and kept telling her how wonderful she was for just taking force. Not that my house was a hazardous wasteland or anything… far from it, but all the same, she helped on her own accord.

So I made her cupcakes. But I hadn’t finished baking them during the lunch hour before I went to the hall to set up the projector to show Planet Earth. *side note #2* [This is a public service announcement that I am horrible at telling stories in the traditional beginning-middle-end sequence].

Later, Holly came back with me to collect her cupcakes. Since I hadn’t finished making all of them, I had her help me with the rest. The batter made an additional 11, which meant that only 1 of the 6 cupcake molds were empty. So, using that old trick (trusting that it is actually effective), I went to put water in the empty spot to help balance the cooking. Too bad Holly had bent down to mop up some batter that had fell on the just-cleaned floor right as I went to pour the water in. She stood up, bumping my arm, sending the cup of water flying. Luckily, the cup and most of the water landed in the empty spot… Unluckily the rest of the water landed in one of the cupcake batters. We both found this absolutely hilarious and couldn’t stop laughing for the next ten minutes. I later used this story to explain the meaning of “despair”, and how we have a choice in life on how we react to things… either with laughter, or with tears and frustration.

I think one of the hardest parts of any situation you might find yourself in… be it your job, at home, etc. it is often hard to know or even understand the impact you have on other people and how they perceive you. I’ve been struggling with this since I got here. Sometimes, it’s easy to get consumed with all of the things that aren’t functioning at the level they could be, and so is therefore difficult to prioritize certain things, and know where to focus. Should I be spending my time teaching life skills? Literacy? Boosting creativity? Teacher training? It’s easy then to lose track on the fact that how you see things and how others see things may not be the same or even close in comparison. It’s a beautiful moment, however, when what you’re striving to do, and trying to represent aligns exactly with what others see your true actions to be.

The new librarian has been incredibly motivating. It’s like meeting the Bongiwe that first arrived at the school. Full of questions, begging for action, ready to make a difference. She has a lot of interesting insights and motivation to really make a difference in the school and I feel so fortunate to have her to work with.  She is really passionate about literacy and sparked the idea to seriously work with the students on improving their reading and writing skills. Something which, I’ve long since wanted to tackle but felt super unequipped. But having another person to lean on and draw support from really makes a difference. I gave the grade 5, 6 and 7 students exercise books to act as writing composition journals. I instructed them to spend maybe five minutes a day working on a composition that they will then turn in at the end of the week for me and Julia to look over and offer comments. Not long after I gave out the exercise books, I returned to class five to ask a student something unrelated. One of the student’s faces lights up and immediately tells me that their hearts are all happy to be writing. Sure enough, every student had their book open and pencils busy scribbling words on it’s empty pages. Fastforward to today, when I walk into the girl’s hostel. A grade 7 student waved me over with much excitement. She had written a letter as her first composition. I read through it and was very impressed, not only with the spelling, grammar and creativity, but with her enthusiasm.  Every day I tell myself how amazing it is to have so many students who genuinely want to improve their skills and learn.

That morning Melissa had also come to me wanting help on her composition. It’s honestly incredible to be almost a year into working at the school, and see how far I have come, and be where I was hoping to be, but also knowing that while my students feel comfortable coming to me, I am also building bridges for them to feel comfortable approaching other adults. 

This roundabout segue brings me back to Holly. As we’re standing in my kitchen, post water-juggling incident she drops a bomb. Not the damaging kind of bomb, but life-altering non-the-less. She said that she really appreciates how I don’t just stand and let things happen, but how I go up to the source and work to find a solution. That she values my strength and confidence and willingness to fight for her and the other students, and the deaf community. She then went on to tell me that Melissa admires these qualities too, and wants to have them herself, and that is why she enjoys spending so much time with me.

Somedays you really need to hear that what you’re putting energy in is worth it and has value to someone else. Moreover, to have someone as strong and caring as Holly see the same qualities in me, ones that I also recognize and truly admire in her, is something special. I can also slowly see the walls coming down on many of my students, who understandable and rightfully have built them very high and very thick.

Holly’s dad said his dream one day is to hear his daughter speak. Completely ignoring the fact that she speaks so vibrantly everyday.

Sophia’s new favorite activity is interpreting whatever I say in her own words, which has proven to be hilarious. Especially when I can get her to tell other people that she’s crazy.

Evan gives me spinach and lettuce from his garden, and is never shy to be himself.

Charlie is a fountain of creativity and ever-flowing ideas.

I feel honored to be seen as worthy of being privvy to these bits and pieces of their lives. It also makes me wonder how much is missed depending on how you perceive what’s standing right in front of you. A broken glass is still a glass. It may not even be broken. It’s your fault if you don’t know how to recognize and accept it for what it is, and still see it as valuable even if it wasn’t what you expected it to be.

How many stories do we leave untold because we aren’t prepared to listen? This is what perpetuates my eagerness to dive head-first into this language because all stories deserve to be told.

Confession: I start to tear up when I think about leaving this place and these people. And that’s a year from now.

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.