Archive for August, 2009

Springtime in Swaziland

August 26, 2009

August 25, 2009

Dear Friends,

John and I completed Peace Corps pre-service training today. What a relief!

I’m thrilled that PC has accepted us as volunteers and look forward to being an official Peace Corps volunteer. Swearing in will be Thursday, and PC will move us and 31 other volunteers to our respective permanent sites on Friday, Aug. 28. All PCVs in Swaziland are in rural communities (including the 29 PCVs from group 6). Through Friday morning we’ll stay at the cushy conference center where I am now plugged into electricity and Internet services. The crisp linens and glass sink, running water and tile floor all seem a bit foreign.

It was only two months ago that John and I arrived in Swaziland, yet being here feels timeless. Maybe I’m fooling myself, but it seems the transition to our new culture has gone extremely well. We have lots of things in our favor, particularly the support of PC. PC provides training and resources, identifies communities and counterparts (individuals who introduce us to and educate us about our community), arranges homestays and provides us with a stipend that easily meets our basic needs. Also, the majority of Swazis speak some English, many fluently. So we definitely have good support and good things going for us.

The first three months at site are devoted to integration. PC asks that we get to know our community thoroughly before becoming involved in or developing projects. I’m pleased with this thorough approach, which is very much in-line with social work principles and approaches I learned at USF. John and I are excited to get started on our community assessment, a tool that will inform our work the next two years. It was also cool to learn that while many NGOs are in Swaziland, PC is unique in having its volunteers live in the rural communities where volunteers serve. Our blog must sometimes sound like a plug for Peace Corps, but John and I experienced the contrast between being in Peru and Ecuador on our own, where we tried to establish ourselves in meaning volunteer work, and in Africa where we have had PC support, a marked contrast in experiences.

We do know our permanent site. Two weeks ago trainees met counterparts and spent about four days at site. John and I were warmly welcomed. The site and homestay family feels like a good fit. We’ll live in a new house about 20 yards from our host family. Babe ba-bay) and Make (Ma-gay), meaning the mother and father, built the home for Babe’s mother, who lives in her own home on the extended family’s homestead about 50 yards away. Gogo (grandmother) ultimately decided she couldn’t leave the home where she married and raised her children, and so the house has sat empty. It has electricity, not uncommon in Swaziland, and running water, which is highly uncommon. My take on our new home is that its conveniences will allow us to be more efficient. Time and energy required for carrying water, frequently purchasing food, and linking up with out-of-home electricity sources for charging batteries and computers can be better channeled into community development work. While we’ll still need to heat water, walk to kumbi stations, and layer up in the colder seasons, our time in Swaziland may be less about roughing it and more about contributing our skills and knowledge toward benefiting our new community.

There is so much about Swazi culture I look forward to sharing with you. Already I see that the significance of family, for example, is tremendous. While the HIV pandemic means there are thousands of orphans in the country, there are few orphanages. Almost universally, the extended family, uncles and aunties, takes in children who have lost one or both parents. The government attempts to assist families, but resources are being taxed by the scope of the pandemic.

Also, elders, especially grandmothers and grandfathers, are revered here. On homesteads Gogo’s house is a safe haven. It’s like a free zone other adults do not enter. And I can’t tell you how different it feels being a middle-aged adult in Swaziland. I don’t sense the disregard for older adults or the strong focus on youth that I sensed in the U.S.

Our PC group held an appreciation luncheon for our host training families on Saturday. John complied photos to put together a nice 15-minute slideshow for families and then cut it down to five minutes for the blog.

The photo of the mauve and teal outhouse offers a view from our homestead.  Make is later in a blue dress and a white headscarf. The photos of the chicken, and Make and I defeathering it are from my first experience around slaughtering a chicken. The process was a practice of mindfulness that included prayer and an attitude of gratitude and compassion. The folks around the campfire are PC trainees at a nature reserve we visited at mid-service training. You’ll see some wildlife shots from that trip, and another group photo of volunteers and our language and culture trainers at our training facility. The picture of John and I in our traditional Swazi attire and the half dozen shots that follow are from a farewell party Make held for us. We hope you enjoy a few of the faces of Swaziland.

With love and appreciation,

Jordan

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Just a Few Minor Adjustments

August 8, 2009

Dear Friends and Family,

(this was written on 25 July) We trust this note finds you and yours well and peaceful. We’d like to share a few photos of our host family home during our 9 weeks of training and update you on how it’s going for us in Swaziland.

This picture was taken from our front stoop. As you can see, we’re still tied into some good-view karma. It’s not the Andes but it’s not bad.

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Jordan dressing her first chicken with Make.

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This is our on-the-corner convenience store where we buy brown bread and a few other items to carry us over between weekend trips to the grocery, a 20- to 60-minute kumbi ride away (travel time depends upon the condition of the kumbi, how many stops it makes along the way and how many people have to pile out to let others off… sometimes it’s a complicated process). The store is a converted shipping container. Pretty creative and a cool color, huh?

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Things are going well for us. We’re confident that we are indeed just where spirit wants us to be. The Peace Corps is treating us well and we continue to be impressed by the professionalism, personal warmth and openness of the staff and our trainers. We can also see that the honeymoon phase of this experience is drawing to a close. As more of the reality of HIV/AIDS situation in this country reveals itself, some of the personal and spiritual challenges are becoming more obvious. Keeping the heart open to the level of pain, loss and confusion of which we are now being offered only glimpses, will be a significant test of ourselves and our practice.

It’s a perfect situation for growth as we are being invited to the edge of our capacities. We are being asked to remain nonjudgmental and open in the face of cultural practices, attitudes and behaviors that are fueling the HIV pandemic in Swaziland. For example, we struggle to remain curious regarding practices of older men that are infecting youth, remain nonjudgmental in the face of gender inequality that places a disproportionate burden on women and girls. And there seems to be a high level of denial regarding HIV. We are only beginning to scratch the surface of understanding the cultural, social and economic variables that are in play.

This experience has encouraged us to move closer to spirit, a movement that encourages less attachment to our preconceptions and related judgments. We are some time to meditate and are finding our sits helpful as they bring us back to stillness and moments of freedom and peace. With our Make we share nightly prayers before our meal.  We’re finding the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm grounding and comforting as they connect with our deep childhood conditioning. This is a strongly Christian country and perhaps it’s the energy of this place that is moving us toward this perspective of Truth. Or perhaps it’s a way we can feel a little closer to our roots and to the friends and family we left behind.

I, John, am looking forward to more exposure to the native Spiritist practices, which involve interacting with disincarnated spirits, primarily one’s ancestors in the African system but they can also include some that are “dark” and/or “evil.” Spiritism is the foundation of the work of John of God whom I experienced in Brazil. In that case, the spirits were all benevolent, doctors and healers that would use John as a vessel so that their knowledge and skill could be used to heal a great variety of aliments. I am learning that it’s not necessarily the case here in Africa that spirits are benevolent. This is both interesting and troubling but it doesn’t lessen my interest in learning more, just may need to be a bit more careful upon whom I place my trust.

These Spiritist beliefs and practices are imbedded in the country’s Christian Church and I am told that they will always be the dominant force among the Swazis. It’s an area I am anxious to explore further both from a personal interest and practice standpoint but also as a promising route of intervention in the AIDS crisis. Perhaps we can work with native healers and pastors to help bring about the behavioral changes that will be needed if this country is to survive. I feel myself being pulled into the culture in this regard and along with Christian prayers, I find that I am naturally returning to the prayers I associate with Shamanism and those rich times in Brazil and more recently in Peru. Whatever the words or images that may be used in this attempt to connect with Spirit, it is clear that the only appropriate attitude in this situation is that of surrender to the Great Mystery and to the guidance of that comes via the still quiet voice within. The conditioned mind with all of its knowledge, experiences and their associated prejudices are a hindrance and must be observed patiently but not allowed to run the show. The Beginner’s Mind will be of greater use in seeing into the workings of this culture and hopefully finding a way to offer something meaningful to the mix.

On a lighter note, at the midpoint of our training PC gave us a break and took us on an overnight excursion to a nearby wildlife park. We felt like we were finally in Africa when we saw the zebras, wildebeest and the gazelles hanging out in the tall grasses with the mountains colored by the sunrise for a background. Here’s a couple of shots from the trip.

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(written 7 August) We have had little access to the internet so this posting is from a couple of weeks ago. Tomorrow morning we will leave for a 5-day visit in the community where we’ll spend the next 2 years. The village is called Mhlangeni (um-slha-na-nee) and is about an hour bus ride south of the capital city of Mbabane where the PC office is located and hopefully, we will be posting this blog… gotta wait and see how the technogods are feeling towards us tomorrow. Mhlangeni is in the same general area as the wildlife preserve we visited and near the King’s main compound so we’re expecting it to be an interesting part of the country.

We hope to have some interesting material to write about after we complete our five days of on-the-job training in Mhlangeni. We are traveling with our counterpart, Thabsile, a warmhearted Swazi woman who will be introducing us to the community and helping us get settled into some meaningful work. Our first project following swearing at the end of the month will be a thorough community assessment. We’ll undertake this during our 3-month  integration period that will allow us to get a good feel for the community, its resources and its needs. We expect to find a few niches along the way that will provide a focus for our energy and skills.

We’re feeling ready to be set free from our strict training schedule and look forward integrating into our new community, like Peace Corps volunteers… it feels great!

This photo was taken near a little block church that our Make attends… a perspective of the situation here in Swaziland.

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With love and appreciation,

John (aka mDumduzi, “mm dah doo ze”) and
Jordan (aka Nonhlanhla, “non slan sla”)