Saturday, February 23, 2013


            The little 4-year-old boy threw another tantrum today (he’s thrown one or two in the past couple days, especially when he’s getting tired and cranky). Natalie, the other volunteer, sagely commented how it’s telling that he’s getting more comfortable here, that he is throwing these tantrums. And it’s so true. Sometimes when the baby is having a particularly bad day, I have the terrible thought that she was easier to deal with before she had a personality. I constantly have to remind myself to be thankful for the tears and tantrums. Our greatest blessing in disguise is that our 2-year-old and 4-year-old are behaving like normal kids, which includes occasional screaming, tantrums, and throwing of things.
            Yesterday morning the water wasn’t running and I had just gone for a run, so I was badly in need of a shower. However, I was able to collect a bucket-full of water dribbling out from different taps for a bucket bath—the RPCV in me got to shine for a moment.
            This afternoon during the educational activities we heard thunder rolling across the valley, coming steadily toward us. As the black clouds quickly approached, I finally made the executive decision to end activities 15 minutes early. I’m glad I did because two minutes later a dust blizzard attacked us. My distant memories of snow and blizzards tell me they aren’t too fun, but dust is infinitely worse. Getting pelted in the face, eyes, and mouth by dust is painful, uncomfortable and horrible. I made a beeline for my house to immediately plug in my phone and computer, then sprinted to the shower—in anticipation that the power and water would go out and I didn’t want to have another showerless morning. 


            Last Friday Sister Diane stopped by the volunteer house to tell the three of us that we would be temporarily receiving two new kids, and asking us to give them extra love and attention. These kids have no parents (they are either gone or dead) and were being raised by their grandfather. At one point the grandfather’s cousin had taken them in, but she is already taking care of a ton of other grandchildren and barely has the means to feed them. (With the HIV/AIDS epidemic primarily targeting and wiping out the generation of people 20-50 years old, suddenly all these elderly people find themselves taking care of tons of orphaned grandchildren.) Last Friday a home visit was paid to these kids’—four and seven years old—home and they were found chained to a tree. Apparently this is how the alcoholic grandfather took care of them when he left to drink. They were taken immediately and we will be taking care of them until they can be put into a proper orphanage (since they are not from our catchment area). Since they are not in school, from 8am-2pm they wander around on their own, so we have taken them in—giving them special attention and love. Someone jokingly referred to the guest house, where the three of us volunteers are living and where we entertain these two kids and the baby each day, as a halfway house, which it really has become.
            A few times with the baby I felt conflicted with how I should treat her. For example, sometimes she demands to be carried, but I worried that if I always pick her up, she will be in for a rude awakening when she arrives at an orphanage and nobody there picks her up. But with these three kids I have come to the conclusion that they have had pretty shitty lives, so I really should spoil them as much as possible in the short time I have with them. So I make them special snacks like pudding and peanut butter crackers and leftover cheesecake and I hold the baby as much as she demands it.
            Today all three kids were in the living room/kitchen area where we always hang out. I was preparing pudding when suddenly the little 4-year-old boy ran outside and his 7-year-old sister ran after him. I thought it was strange because I know they like pudding, but then I saw them out the window. At some point between our front door and the window, the older sister had gotten him out of his pants. A good thing because he started to pee shortly after. Then he started to squat, but she apparently told him not to go there, and she led him behind the latrines (most homesteads don’t have latrines or toilets, so when kids first arrive they are accustomed to, and best at, just pooping on the ground. Afterwards they came back, we washed hands with soap, and they thoroughly enjoyed their pudding. 


            The baby continues to thrive. No words yet, but in every other way she exactly resembles a normal 2-year-old. We got a new Peace Corps Volunteer here, Christine, and it has been great fun for me to be back around a PCV and that mentality. It’s hard explaining to her what the baby was like when she first arrived, Christine probably thinks we are exaggerating. But she went from almost an inanimate object to a toddler who knows what she wants and adamantly demands it. When her food is too hot to feed her, so the older children pause to blow on it, she gets angry that she’s not receiving her food immediately. When she’s happy, everyone knows, she hums and makes motorboat sounds to herself and dances to the song playing in her head. And more evidence that she is always secretly watching: the other day she was flipping through my grade 7 English book, and she kept licking her finger before she turned the page.
            Last night we hosted dinner at our house for the two Rwandan priests, Swazi sister, American sister, new Swazi employee at the clinic, and five American volunteers here on the mission. We had the traditional Swazi starch, which is the same as in Mozambique, but has a different name (the white cornmeal flour that is stirred into boiling water until it forms a solid. A little like solidified grits). We had normal dishes, some roasted chickens and a salad. Sister Diane asked us to each bring something, if possible, from our respective countries. Christine’s parents are Haitian, so she made a Caribbean rice-and-beans dish.  Beth made a blueberry crumble for dessert. I made sweet coconut rice and chicken satay with peanut sauce. I didn’t have kebab skewers so I used chopsticks, but they turned out really well and everyone liked them. It was a nice night and I really enjoyed getting to meet the priests outside the church for the first time. I find one of the priests a little intimidating, and last Sunday when the baby was happily humming and dancing on my lap I was terrified he would be annoyed and tell her to be quiet. But instead last night he kept asking where “my baby” was and commenting how happy it makes him to see me with her, because it’s obvious how much love we have for each other.
            A lot of people have asked how my time on PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) is treating me. I have heard it’s pretty terrible from the few friends I had go on it while in Mozambique. My personal experience is that it is neither terrible, nor fun. I generally feel exhausted all the time, and if I don’t eat enough I feel incredibly nauseas. The nausea I can deal with, but the constant exhaustion is really debilitating. It has certainly given me a new appreciation and sympathy for the many children in the hostel who are on ARVs and are constantly falling asleep during afternoon activities and mass. 


            On Saturday morning we held the second meeting of our educational outreach program at a school a few miles from the mission. Last Saturday had just been introductions—of people and of the program we would be running. In a typically African long-winded fashion, we took the whole three hours to do this, then at the end every kid received a two sandwiches and a cup of juice. This is honestly probably why a majority of the kids participate, and it is also probably one of the best things we can do for these kids. The program is only for grades 5, 6, and 7 (we just don’t have the staff numbers to do additional grades). Last week only three kids outside these grades showed up, but this Saturday about 10 of them did. We let them participate for the day, but then explained they couldn’t come back again. This is the hardest thing—turning away kids who have gone out of their way to learn. The Americanism of the mission means that we are requiring all participating children turn in a guardian permission slip. This is a difficult concept to get across, both to the kids and to the staff who are supposed to be mandating it. Some kids want to fill it out themselves because they assure us that their guardians said it was okay. Some kids participated last year and turned in a form then. In both cases, everyone (staff included) thinks I am crazy for being so strict about the permission slips.
            I work with the 7th graders and enjoyed it immensely. They are a very outgoing group and I was pleasantly surprised by the level of their English. As is pretty typical for Africa, some of the kids have failed grades in the past or perhaps of missed a year of school at some point, so the average age is probably around 14.  At the end, one of the older boys (17) asked me if I know his sister—I do, she is one of my best high school students in the evenings. Interestingly, at the “aunties meeting” today one of the aunties mentioned that they had recently discovered she had an older brother (with people here having multiple wives and partners, all half-siblings are considering siblings, so families can be large and people don’t always know all their siblings), so they were thrilled to hear I had met him.
            I am getting to the point in working with kids that I love most—I have started to win over the kids who initially hated me/being there/learning. It’s my favorite part because they never see it coming, and I always do. This is only in the mandatory afternoon activities and evening studies for the hostel kids. I didn’t have to work as hard to win over my eleven wonderful bridge school students. 

Friday, February 8, 2013


            I have been asked to work with one particularly bright first-grader. As one of the Sisters said, “our smartest kids are the ones we fail the most.” A place like this is aimed at rescuing kids from terrible situations in a society/culture that has been decimated by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Some of these kids have the most tragic histories I’ve ever heard, so all the resources are put into re-nourishing them physically, rehabilitating them for school, and re-nourishing them psychologically. But everyone is so busy saving the lives of these incredibly high-risk kids, that people hardly ever have the time to give extra attention to the few kids who show real potential.
            I found out today that a nurse visited the baby’s mother’s house again and was finally able to find her birth certificate. According to the birth certificate, she was born in October 2010 (this may not be 100% accurate, but it’s the best we’ve got). So that means she’s not as old as I thought. So perhaps it also means she’s not as developmentally delayed as I was afraid!
            Today one of the men who works in Child Care came in to talk to me while the baby was dancing on the counter with a big smile on her face. He said “you know, when she first came I thought she was mentally slow because she never reacted to anything. But she is so healthy and beautiful now! We really are restoring life.” Restoring Life is the catchphrase for this mission. Anyone who has lived in the area over the past 15 years knows this is true, because back before the clinic and ARVs, people were dying on a daily basis; entire families were being wiped out. So rarely do you get to witness such a tangible example of the good, life-restoring work that is done here on a daily basis—but the baby is proof. 


            Now time for me to confess to having been incredibly stupid. I have worked in a high-HIV country for 3.5 years, so I am pretty familiar with the drill, I really should have known better. The baby eats nonstop, so I feel like most of my time spent with her, she’s eating. She loves to surprise me by stuffing a bite of her food or her spoon in my mouth when I don’t see it coming. The four bodily fluids that have been known to transmit HIV are blood, semen, vaginal fluids, and breast milk. Technically the saliva of an HIV+ person has virus in it, but the count is so low it’s negligible (and saliva has never been known to transmit HIV). My main concern in these moments was tuberculosis, which she has tested positive for. But, other the past few weeks I have been stressed about deciding which grad school to go to, so (second stupidest thing I have done recently) I stress-chewed on my cheek until I chewed a big hole in it. So now I have this huge gaping wound on the inside of my lip. I talked to two nurses and we decided that it would be better to be safe than sorry, so I have started on Post-Exposure Prophylaxis for HIV and will take it for a month.
            The baby is doing really well. She is a completely different person now. She has a personality, she smiles, she loves to dance, she loves to eat. It’s clear that even in her life before when she wasn’t interacting with anyone, she was still watching, because she can’t have learned everything she does now. She waves to people when I wave and say “bye-bye.” More than that, she knows what it means—yesterday I dropped her off with some of the aunties and hung out for a few minutes talking to them. She sat contentedly on the ground during this time. But when I said “bye-bye” to her and waved she instantly started screaming, fully aware of what that meant. When she’s eating, she’s obsessed with wiping her face and hands, so if I forget to give her a paper towel she will point to them and grunt loudly. Sometimes she likes to pick my phone up and hold it to her ear like she’s talking on it, and today she picked up my iPhone and began tapping the screen with her thumbs—then she looked at me and grinned. The one thing I can’t get her to do is anything related to talking. She’ll imitate my facial expressions and movements, but not sounds. I’ve never tried to teach a baby to speak before…I have no idea what I’m doing. But I talk to her constantly, so I’m hoping one day it will click. 


            On Sunday we (the Americans on the mission) made plans to watch the Super Bowl. We all took naps and went to bed in various forms, then set our alarms to gather back together for kickoff at 1:30am. I woke up at 1:00am and realized there was a ferocious thunderstorm going on outside. I texted the others and told them I wasn’t going anywhere (we live about 1/3mile from them) in that weather. Ben replied that it was probably only a matter of time before the power went out anyhow. Within 30 seconds the power went out. So we all made a pact to avoid checking the news or Facebook until the game would re-air Monday at 7pm.
            On Monday morning I asked a friend in America if the game had been a good one (but NOT the score). When I was told the power had gone out in the middle of the game I thought it was a you’re-in-Africa joke (that I didn’t appreciate!). By nighttime almost all of us had stuck to the agreement, which made for an interesting game. We bet on the outcome and the teams happened to be girls vs. guys, so the boys (who bet on the 49ers) have to cook us dinner now! 

Wednesday, February 6, 2013


            Today Ben, Beth, and Joe, the other Americans on the mission, took Natalie (the other volunteer) and me out for the day in Swaziland. It’s funny being in such a small country after Mozambique, which was both huge and additionally very hard to travel. Having a private car also changes things. Without too much trouble we went to both major cities, a famous glass-blowing and craft place on the far border, a game park, and another craft and candle place before hitting a grocery store and then heading home. Pictures below.
When we got back the baby was sitting on the ground by all the aunties who were sitting and talking in the shade. As I walked up one of them nodded toward the baby and said, “I want to see this.” When the baby turned her head and saw me coming her face lit up and she broke into a grin, much to the delight of everyone watching.

This peak is known as Execution Rock

The double-peaks are referred to as Sheba's Breasts. They look remarkably like breast from farther away and a different angle.

To the left of me (my right), far, far in the distance beyond the mountains lie Mozambique and the ocean. 


            I’ve taken on the task of playing mom to the baby until she moves on to a proper orphanage (the mission where I am only takes school-aged kids. And part of the reason I have taken on this responsibility is because there is nobody really doing it, she mostly gets put on the ground next to the cook or an auntie working and is left to entertain herself). She’s gotten really comfortable around me and visibly relaxes when she comes into our house. I think she gets really overwhelmed by all the other kids who are constantly in her face cooing and tickling her outside. The diet at the hostel is very Swazi, so quite heavy on the carbs and light on the veggies, fruit, and protein. Some of her hairs are blonde, a sign of nutrient deficiency, so I have started feeding her and including lots of protein and veggies. This girl eats so much! She’ll eat an entire chicken breast over rice for one meal--she’s clearly making up for time lost.
            Over the past few days she’s really come to life, and one thing became very clear—she’s older than we thought before. She could easily be an incredibly developmentally-stunted three-year-old. She is baby-sized and looks like a baby, so it was easy to see her as a baby. But now she walks and dances and speaks baby gibberish and has decent dexterity. She likes to hold the phone to her head, and insert things into bags and holders. When she’s eating she always demands a napkin with which she wipes her face and folds up after. Before, she was completely emotionless, she even cried silently, the only indication she was upset was the tears in her eyes. Each time she cries and screams now I have to remind myself to be thankful. It’s better than before, and a baby who doesn’t cry isn’t really a baby.
            Her mom came today to visit and say goodbye. She was so excited to see her mom again, but she’s been really out of sorts for the rest of the day which is stressful for everyone else. I just learned that she only started ARVs when we took her in, so a little over a week ago. There are moments when suddenly she’s in excruciating pain, for no apparent reason. One possibility is that she has intestinal issues and/or is reacting to the new medication. It’s so horrible because during those two minutes there is nothing I can do to help her. 


            Today the baby smiled! For a while I got her close to smiling, but it was obvious that she was trying her best not to let the smile actually show, and in those moments I got scared it might never happen. But she was clearly getting more comfortable with me over the past few days, and today it finally happened!
            Today while walking around in bridge school I got to witness one of the students explaining a math process to another student. Anyone who has ever taught knows this is one of the most wonderful, yet indescribable, emotions you can experience. After we had worked through a few math problems together on the board, I asked the students to copy the work. As I walked around I got to see another student trying to work through the problems on his own, then checking his answers against the ones on the board. This is a remedial program for kids who are a few years behind where they should be, so the staff here see the kids in this way. But if they would only see the conditions I taught in the past two years, they would know why this is such a breeze and a pleasure for me