Archive for December, 2009

Our First Thanksgiving in Swaziland

December 22, 2009

Jordan and I trust that everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving and are looking forward to a relaxing or at least a not-too-stressful Christmas. Our Thanksgiving dinner was quite an event. About 60 or so fellow Peace Corps Volunteers, our PC staff and a few other American Expats involved in one of the international aid programs, gathered at the U.S. Ambassador’s home and enjoyed an amazing spread the likes of which we have never seen. We were well stuffed and warmed by our host’s hospitality and the sweetness of sharing it all with our fellow PCVs. Of course, it wasn’t as sweet as being at home with our families but after several months of our own cooking, it wasn’t bad! Here are a couple of pictures from the gathering. Pretty neat digs these Ambassador guys have, huh?

Swaziland is in the middle of her rainy season and we are welcoming the fresh water. Here I am collecting our drinking and bathing water from basins at the edge of our front stoop. During an usually heavy rain, we collected about 200 liters just from about 2 meters of drip line. We are in the process of setting up a more efficient gutter and large storage tank system with our host Babe (father in siSwati) and are looking forward to having fresh rainwater on a more reliable basis. It is indeed the little things, like fresh clean water, that make life a joy!

Some interesting cloud formations drift through our little valley. This shot was taken from our desk looking out our window and preceded a storm. It’s like the clouds are crawling over the mountains. Over the past few years we have been in situations where we were struck by the beauty of clouds and find them comforting in some way that we don’t quite understand.

Jordan bought herself a simple Singer sewing machine. She is finishing sheers from issued misquito netting. Screens are unheard of in our community and though misquitos aren’t a problem (yet), flies have sent Jordan over the edge. After deliberating for a while she got fly swatter. Here she is with her newest tool for moving us further into a more self-sufficient mode of living.

We have it pretty soft for PCVs given that many of our fellows don’t even have electricity not to mention running water. We feel a bit spoiled but figure that having the basics allows us to focus more of our energy on our work and less on the basic tasks of hauling water and fetching firewood. We have just completed a storage unit for our back room, now officially known as “Jordan’s sewing room.” It’s been an interesting challenge building stuff here. We have a very limited variety of finished lumber that is available to us. It consists of several boards glued together to form planks 2.1 meters long and of 31, 53 and 64cm in width. We take these boards and cut them apart to make everything we’re made so far: shelves for our bookcase, countertops and a small sideboard for the kitchen.

We do it all with a small dull handsaw, an electric drill and a screwdriver. The pieces turn out to be what I consider “grade B barn work” but we have learned that we really don’t need anything better. It works! I suspect if we had a truck we could find other sources of wood but it’s been an interesting challenge just using what’s available. I find myself dreaming of what having a well-equipped woodshop and a stack of high grade lumber would be like. Maybe in my next life?? Here’s Jordan working away on our latest, and likely last piece of furniture.

This is a shot of our house.

There is certainly a lot of work to do in our community and we are enjoying making connections with the existing leaders and mentoring a few potential leaders. Our task here with the PC as “Health Educators” is “education, mitigation and care” related to HIV/AIDS pandemic. Much of our work so far has been around promoting various development projects in addressing the “mitigation” component of our agenda. With so many of the “productive” age group aged 16 to 55, either sick, dead or dying, the need for economic support is obvious. There are a number of initiatives targeting youth (18 to 35 years old) and those who are HIV+ that are aimed at encouraging small business development and we are actively learning about them and promoting them to the community members. We continue to meet bright, motivated and engaged community members who are working hard to help their most needy neighbors. Just the other day we connected with a young man who has taken on the project of building a decent house for a middle-aged man who appears to be affected by polio. The construction has already begun with a group of young men contributing their labor to fetch sand and water from the creek some 150 yards away and mixing the cement (some of which was donated by other neighbors) for making the blocks and then after they have dried, laying them to form a small two room house. We are still figuring out the best way to support this project not only for its face value of putting a solid roof over this man’s head but more importantly, to support this group of young men who have formed their own version of Habitat for Humanity. This is the very kind of empowerment and capacity building that we are here to do. Find someone who is already working and finding a way to make a difference despite the obstacles and find a sustainable way to get him the tools and materials he needs to further his work. Here is a photo of the current house, a common construction of sticks, rocks and mud that we see around our community. This one is just in very poor condition and appears to be on the brink of collapse. The roof is held in place by wire, rocks and old tires. You can see the new house coming up from the ground on the right.

In the area of “care,” we are working toward the construction of neighborhood care points (NCPs). These are centers where orphans and vulnerable children can access food and other basic necessities of life. Once an NCP has been established, a variety of NGOs shift into action and provide food, clothing and basic health care. The long-term view of the Swazi government is to make these “early education centers” which is right on target with our goal of starting the change process with the very young (see below). There are as yet, no NCPs in our community and only a few in our neighboring chiefdoms. Our goal is to have at least 2 built in our chiefdom before we leave in August of 2011 and we will support the building of others in the neighboring areas in whatever way we can. The level of interest we have found among some of the leaders of the community has been encouraging and we have been pleased to see that our involvement in this process is valued. We can see that our different perspectives and “the American way of doing things” are helpful to this situation as we are good at thinking out of the box and at expecting things to happen in a more timely manner. We have to keep our expectations in line with the reality of the situation while at the same time being role models of hard workers who expect others to follow through on their commitments to community projects, not being deterred by resistance from government officials, etc. The “education” component is still rather sketchy as school is out for the summer, but we expect that we will find a niche in the local primary school and possibly in some of the pre-schools and/or some version of parenting classes. We have been reading about the well-established research on the importance of proper stimulation during the first 3 years of life and are invested in trying to help transform some of this knowledge into practical application. We just have to start young if we are to expect any meaningful improvement in the overall situation in countries with extreme levels of poverty and disease. I am reading an interesting book on this subject now that is encouraging us along this path. It is: “Whatever it Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America” and is about an aggressive approach to changing the education and community support system. I recommend it! There is an interview on “This American Life” with this guy called “Going Big” that we found intriguing. You can Google the NPR archives if you’re interested.

We have a couple of trips planned to visit game parks and see some of the “real Africa.” The first is a day trip on the 21st to a Swaziland park a couple of hours kumbi ride away for our site in the drier region of the country, the “lowveld.” In January we have a 5-day safari/camping in the bush experience in Kruger National Park in South Africa on the books. Kruger is one of the premier game parks in southern Africa and is only a few hours bus ride north of us. We are looking forward to being “on the road again” and taking in some new sights after being under some rather strict travel restrictions during our first few months in country. We are also looking forward to more travel in 2010 with some adventures in the planning stages that include safari and camping experiences in the wild as well as some first-rate scuba/snorkeling time in the Indian Ocean, again, all of this is just a few hours away from us. We really lucked out and landed in a very neat part of the world!

Here’s a bit of a teaser from our day trip on December 21 to Mkaya Game Preserve where we saw an amazing collection of rhinos (both white and black), elephants, hippos, zebras, giraffes, impalas, warthogs, and other members of Africa’s finest. Here is a family of black rhinos. While a bit smaller than their common cousins the whites (misnamed long ago from the original “wide” mouthed), they are still impressive and have the neater horns. Check ‘em out! No wonder they have the reputation of being an aphrodisiac! At one point, we had a pair of whites come at our truck because it seemed we had parked in their piece of shade. Our guide wasted no time debating the finer points of etiquette and beamed us out of there pronto!

In the short video below, we were parked under a tree watching this group of elephants cooling off in the pond for several minutes before the point where this video starts. Our guide, Sabelo, explained that they had not taken notice of us until they began coming out of the water. At that point, one of the adults felt threatened by our “sudden appearance” and let out an alarm thereby upsetting the rest. A few gathered together and then charged our truck. You’ll hear the engine cranking and the truck racing away. It was grand fun!!

We are learning a lot and expect that we will continue to grow as we move through these coming 2 years. It is going by very fast! Already we are in our 6th month of the 28-month commitment and it seems like we just got here. If we keep dressing out for the game and showing up, we are convinced that who and what we need will be made available to us. We see this process happening over and over again and it’s becoming commonplace yet no less encouraging of our Spiritual practice. Wishing you all a Merry Christmas and a wonderful holiday season! We expect to share ours with Swazi friends who are planning a braii (Swazi BBQ/picnic) for Christmas day. It promises to be a unique Christmas and an interesting cross-cultural experience for sure! We’ll be sure to take some photos to share and hope that you will do the same and share them with us. With Love, John and Jordan

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