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.

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.