Thursday, March 28, 2013


            Today all the kids are going back to their homesteads for the holiday weekend and won’t return until Monday. This means two things: baby D will spend the weekend with me and people get rightfully nervous about the girls getting pregnant. In the history of the hostel (I believe around 10 years), they have only had three girls finish high school. With few exceptions, this is due to girls falling pregnant. In a country where the HIV prevalence rate is around 33%, nobody can deny that sex is part of the society. One of the great things about this hostel is that they strive to maintain relationships between the kids and their homesteads, familial lines, and lands. This is crucial in a culture/society where everything—land rights, community rights, etc—is tied to the family and family name. This is why kids spend as much time at their homes as possible. One of the downsides to this is the fact that they are at the hostel because their homes weren’t deemed suitable originally. For many, going home means a child-headed homestead, less supervision and structure, and poorer nutrition. And then about three months later it’s discovered that girls are pregnant. On Monday we just learned that one of the high school girls is about three months pregnant. I don’t think I will ever be able to get used to receiving this news. Each time it feels like someone is stepping on my chest. What should be such a wonderful thing is shameful and painful for the girl, and to me it feels like a death sentence for the life she could have had. I was relieved by the general staff reaction though—it was not one of punishment or teaching lessons, that ship sailed. But instead we discussed ways we could support her during the pregnancy.
            With this in mind, Christine and I took the opportunity to talk to the girls about sex and birth control in our weekly meeting with them Tuesday night. We asked them how they could prevent pregnancy, and like well-trained Swazis they all responded “abstinence!” Well clearly that’s not working for the country or you guys, so let’s try a more realistic approach. We reminded them that condoms protect them against HIV, STIs, and pregnancy, and that birth control is available for free at clinics. We answered a few great questions about these contraceptive methods, and although a lot of the girls got giggly and embarrassed, hopefully we got through to a few of them.
            D is with me for the weekend, which will be great fun. She was super disoriented and upset to be put down for her nap in a new room, but now she’s sleeping peacefully. Probably much more peacefully than in a dorm with 60 other girls. I’m looking forward to feeding her all sorts of delicious, yet nutritious, foods this weekend! 


            After a long application process, many interviews, nerve-wracking hours waiting, and even more hours of second-guessing myself, I have officially enrolled at Emory University for the fall of 2013 for an MPH/MBA dual degree. I had many fantastic options and it was not an easy decision, but I am incredibly happy about my decision and looking forward to starting at Emory in July!
            On Saturday I had printed out an Easter wordsearch to do with my educational outreach grade 7 kids. I don’t know if they had ever done a wordsearch before, but I think they really enjoyed it, and they certainly got into competing with each other, which was fun to watch. 


            Let’s call the baby “D” from now on. I just found out that D was born an identical twin, and her twin died sometime around 7 months ago. This would have been really nice to know two months ago when she arrived and was so emotionally and psychologically stunted. Not only was she incredibly sick and emotionally closed off from lack of consistent affection—she was missing her other half.
            Bad news on the baby front. The orphanage that had “promised” to take her (she had already been turned down by two orphanages, because they only take kids under two years and she is 2 years 4 months) has now communicated that they won’t take her. Their policy is that, once a kid enters, they have no further contact with the outside, including family. They don’t want to take D because her mom has stated she would like to visit her. This is frustrating because we are running out of options and I would like to see her placed in a good situation before I leave. It doesn’t make much sense because her mother already signed away her legal rights as a guardian, so it’s not like she could show up to reclaim the baby. Plus her mother is mentally unstable, incredibly poor, and lives 3-5 hours from the capital city by public transport—I really don’t think they need to be worried about her visiting too often. 

Thursday, March 21, 2013


            I read “The Little Engine That Could” with my afternoon education group yesterday. I didn’t know or had forgotten that the little engine that could was a SHE-engine. Love it!
            Many mornings when I’m teaching become take-your-daughter-to-work day, as the baby comes to play right outside the door to the classroom/dining hall, and occasionally decides to come in with her bow-legged waddle. Yesterday I was giving a test, so I wasn’t actually teaching, just patrolling the classroom. The baby came in with her arms stretched out wide and sort of fell onto my legs hugging them. She grabbed my skirt and pulled down, expecting me to pick her up, and pulled my elastic-waist skirt down a good 5 inches before I was able to react and grab it. Luckily all of my students were engrossed in their tests and I don’t think anyone noticed.
            After reading “The Little Engine That Could,” the kiddies (all 4-7 years old) did puzzles. One of the puzzles is a Winnie-the-Pooh puzzle which is great for the littler kids because it has fewer and large pieces. Unfortunately it’s missing one piece—the one with the majority of Piglet. One of the little boys who was working on that puzzle isn’t one you would label as the brightest kid and his English isn’t that great. Which was why I was so proud and impressed when he marched over to me with the picture of how the puzzle should turn out and demanded, “teacher! Where is the pig?!?” 


            This morning on my run I was a million miles away in my mind when suddenly I felt something snap against me. It was like I had run through the banner at the end of marathon. Dread and panic hit me as I realized that it was a spider’s thread, and I spun around to find the beast. Only an impossibly huge monstrosity could have spun a thread that strong. Not seeing the spider around the path, I thoroughly checked myself to be sure. Things I won’t miss about running in Africa. If I don’t get out early enough, the flies on the path are unbearable. The flies are attracted to the huge, fresh piles of cow poop along the path that I hop over and around while I’m running. And every time I go through areas where the grass is high I wonder if this is going to be the day I startle a deadly poisonous snake.
            I had to go down to the office to make some copies today, so I brought the baby—my baby, as everyone refers to her—down with me. I let her walk back by herself, transforming the 5-minute walk into a 25-minute one, but a wonderful one. Now that it seems she may actually be leaving any day, I’m cherishing these moments I have left with her. At one point she tripped and fell over a huge pile of dried cow poop. Only in Africa.
            There is a “library” here that is a huge closet full of great resources that have been largely forgotten. The past week I have been excavating puzzles, finding them to be a great educational activity to do with my grade 1s and 2s. Anytime I lift something in this room where things have been sitting for months, maybe years, I do it slowly and cautiously, ready to jump away, depending on what I might find underneath. The good news is that in all my cautious rummaging I haven’t yet come across any moulted snake skins. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013


            A little health update. I tested negative for HIV, which is good news. As I’ve been teaching people here for 3+ years, you can never be 100% sure of a negative test (only a positive one), but there is little reason to worry and I will retest myself in a few months. They also tested my blood, since a side effect of the medication I was on is lowering hemoglobin levels. I’ve always been almost anemic, but we learned today that while normal hemoglobin levels are 12-18, mine is 7.6. Well at least that helps explain why I’ve been so exhausted! I’m taking iron supplements now and trying to adjust my diet accordingly.
            This past weekend I finally made it back to Mozambique. I work the education outreach on Saturday mornings, and we had to be back Sunday evening, so it was a quick trip. But nice to be back. Saturday on the way into town we stopped at a capulana shop where I got to replenish my supply of those beautifully-patterned cloths I love so much. Then in the evening we hung out with friends and enjoyed unlimited fast internet. Sunday morning we visited Café Sol, a wonderful café that is struggling right now because of road construction. Then we went to the craft market where I did some serious damage. I have always gotten gifts for other people throughout the past three years, but I avoided that kind of shopping when possible, since I hated being labeled as a tourist. But lately I’ve realized that I need to stock up on my African paraphernalia before I leave for good in a month.
Last stop before heading back to Swaziland, we went to the infamous Maputo fish market. Think the stereotype of a third-world market area—chaotic, smelly, overwhelming, pickpockets, and people scheming ways to get your money. We parked the car and chatted with a super sketchy guy who resembled something between a pirate and a gangbanger who promised to keep watch over our car and offered to wash it. Then three people immediately tried to take us to their restaurants, but I told them we wanted to talk around a bit. Then we walked through the narrow aisles between wooden tables where piles of fresh fish dripped water onto your feet as you squeezed past. Extremely fresh crabs threatened to escape from their crates and equally fresh clams squirted water into the air from their tubs. Back through the market is the restaurant area, where each row of tables belongs to a different “restaurant,” so all these people are trying to get you to sit at their table. We settled on a woman we liked, so we walked back out to the market area with her. I bought some squid and she took the bag, Joe bought some fish. Then she walked us back to our table and she took our newly purchased seafood back to the kitchen where they cooked it. It was delicious! I hadn’t been to the fish market in over three years. I had avoided going back because I had found it so overwhelming, stressful, and “touristy” the first time, but I am glad I went back, because it was a fun experience. And I was pleasantly surprised to find that on this Sunday afternoon, most the people eating in the fish market were Mozambicans, so it made for a nice environment. 

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Learning colors, developing motor skills, and practicing the thumbs-up in Scooter's daycare

Friday, March 15, 2013


            The baby continues to develop in all sorts of wonderful ways and along a seemingly normal trajectory. She looks awkward when she does it, but she walks all over the mission. She hums to herself often and can’t resist dancing when she hears music. She waves to almost every person or car she sees and recently learned to give a thumbs-up, so recently she’s been charming everyone with a thumbs-up and a big smile. She understands the words “no,” “hello,” “bye-bye,” “dance,” “come here” and the Swazi word for thumbs-up. This morning as I was leaving my house to go teach, I told her to get her shoes. Whether she understood me or saw where I was pointing and put two and two together, she walked over the picked up her shoes. She blows her food with me when it’s too hot and in church when she’s humming, she’ll gleefully put one finger to her lips and “sh” back at the people trying to tell her to be quiet. She also understands many Siswati words and phrases. But she—willfully it seems—refuses to talk or even imitate sounds. She imitates my movements, my facial expressions, and my singing, but not any sounds I make. She seems utterly uninterested in speaking for the moment, I’m just waiting for when her “first words” are a complete sentence. 


            On Sunday night some of us had dinner and conversation turned, not surprisingly, to the kids. We talked about a number of them, which is helpful for me because I come in blind to their history before I arrived in January. It helps guide and explain my interactions with them knowing one is HIV+ and basically deaf, due to chronic ear infections, or knowing that one girl is really old for her grade not because she failed many times (often times the oldest students are the worst, because they’ve failed the most times), but because she only recently came to us and started school. There is one girl who is particularly needy for attention. Every time I see her, she will express this strong need for attention, but sometimes it’s through hugging me or holding my hand, other times it’s in a way she knows will provoke me (hitting another child when she knows I’m watching, or grabbing my phone when she knows she shouldn’t). She also really loves the baby, which is great for the baby to get that attention, but when I’m around the baby usually only wants to be with me, so when other children come in close while I’m holding her, it only provokes and upsets her. I asked about this girl and learned that her 3-year-old brother, who many people say the baby reminds them of, died in January when their house collapsed on him during a storm. When you really take a moment and think, it’s impossible to ever be mad at any of these children, because they all have pretty horrible life stories like this. It’s hard to remember in the heat of the moment when they are being little shits, but their nastiness comes from hurt inside them that I can’t even begin to imagine. You just wonder if you could ever give them enough love to make up for all the hurt. But hopefully the little bit you give helps. 

Friday, March 8, 2013


            Scooter’s daycare continues to operate almost every day for the baby and the two siblings who we found chained to the tree and are with us for an interim period. The hostel kitchen is great, but very African in its methods, so more white carbs and fewer vegetables and fruits than I would prefer, so often I cook for them. I try to get as many vegetables and as much protein into them as possible, and of course sometimes we splurge with a little pudding. Some days I have too much work to really give them attention, but they still come in to hang out and play inside our house. The poor kids spend most of the day fairly bored to death until all the other kids come home around 2pm.
            A few days ago it was rainy and gross, so after I finished teaching in the morning I went and found the kids camped out in the kitchen. I brought them back to our house where I set up my laptop and projector for them to watch a movie. I cannot describe how ecstatic they were about this. They both kept yelling “TV! TV!” repeatedly and the girl (7 years old) was bouncing up and down on the couch. Her 4 year old little brother, on the other hand, would jump off the couch shrieking and run around, then jump back onto the couch, then jump off shrieking and run around again before returning to the couch. The enthusiasm was adorable and infectious, but after a few minutes my ears began to ring from the shrieking, so I had to plead with him to calm down a little.
            This was something that bothered me in Mozambique where they do it too—Swaziland writes their own textbooks for primary and secondary school for all disciplines. A lot of other countries have been producing decent textbooks for learning English as a second language or the basics of Algebra for many years. I certainly understand the appeal of students reading about references to local people or landmarks in their studies, and certainly examples in a textbook from the states might not make sense to students here. But these are two countries that have two of the highest HIV/AIDS rates in the world, and consistently rank toward the bottom of human rights and gender equality indexes. You have bigger fish to fry—let someone else write your textbooks for you.
            There was a Swazi woman living in the volunteer house for the past month, she had been brought in on a short-term assignment at the clinic. She works at the hospital in the city where we refer our patients when they have exhausted the local resources. It was interesting hearing her reaction to coming out to us—we are a tiny “village” (that is essentially the primary school, secondary school, clinic, and mission. Not the group of houses and shops that usually comprise a town) way way out in the bush. It’s easy for me to see how bad things are around here, but chalk it up to being “Africa.” But she seemed pretty surprised by just how bush and desolate things are out here. She was surprised by how less-educated people are here about HIV and their attitudes toward seeking real medical help. She was surprised by how poor people are here, how they can literally have nothing on their homesteads. She said there seems to be much more domestic violence out here. And we know that the HIV rates are higher. She worked here for 22 days. During that time, 10 clients of our clinic died, and all 10 were under 35 years old.  

Tuesday, March 5, 2013


            I just killed a baby Black Mamba. I had just woken up from a nap and had started doing some lesson planning when I heard Christine yell, “there’s a snake in the hallway!” I had taken off my dress to nap, so I wrapped myself in a towel and went to investigate. “What are we going to do?” asked Natalie. “Let’s go get a man to deal with it!” said Christine. I hadn’t exactly woken up this morning hoping to kill a snake, but at this point in my life I basically bristle at any mention of a man, so I responded “F--- that, I’ll take care of it.” I grabbed a push broom (for the large piece of wood where the bristles attach) and followed the snake into the bathroom where it had hidden behind the door. I scared it out into the hallway where Natalie could see it (not intended but a nice addition because she hadn’t seen a live snake yet) and beat it until I was extremely sure it was dead. Then I carried it outside on the end of an umbrella to ask my colleague to verify that it was indeed a baby Black Mamba (about 18” long) before tossing it far into the bush. 

Saturday, March 2, 2013


            On Saturday mornings we go to a nearby primary school for our educational outreach program, where I work with the grade sevens. We sing warm-up songs (my many years as a camp counselor paying off), play math games, study the world map, have dictionary races, and read, basically anything that is both fun/interactive and educational. We have a rule that we speak only English during our group time, which I constantly have to remind them about. We were doing a math game in which only two people are playing at a given time, so I let the others chat quietly as long as it’s in English. I saw a few of the girls giggling and writing something, but after I had ensured they were speaking and writing in English I let them continue. Eventually they passed the note to me (picture below) asking me if we could play musical chairs. I obviously couldn’t say no when they had asked like this, and in English, so we ended today with a lively game of musical chairs.

            One thing that is remarkable about this note is that they described the game, since they couldn’t remember the name. This may not seem like a big deal, but this is actually a skill that needs to be learned, and it’s not something that many people here can do. Last year I was reading an article in the Peace Corps office when I came across a word I didn’t know: fecundidade. I asked the Peace Corps employees in the office (Mozambicans, but highly educated Mozambicans) what the word meant. Well fecundity, obviously. I didn’t know what that meant, so I asked them to explain the concept. None of them could, they just kept repeating fecundity as if I was a moron, so I finally unearthed a dictionary. It meant fertility. I was blown away that none of my highly educated and intelligent colleagues could say something along the lines of “it’s the number of children a woman has.” There are some things I have always thought of as being inherent, not a skill to be learned. But being here has taught me that instead so many of these things are incredibly rooted in culture and the way people in a society are expected to think. So this is why I was doubly pleased by this note from my students. 


            My one-on-one tutoring is going well, the girl is bright and fun to work with when she wants to be. There is a girl who is now 12 who was a lot like her when she was younger—bright, dynamic, energetic—but now is having major behavioral and academic problems, we think largely due to this potential and energy going unused. We do some academic things—identification of letters and sounds, making the connection between written numbers and a corresponding quantity of objects—but I’ve also been trying to get her to expand her mind in ways that she never gets to in school. We have an activity book in which she colors or cut-and-pastes according to instructions. I just received a Lego set in a package, so we’ve been working with that. She’s never before had to follow instructions and look at pictures to identify the right pieces and properly assemble them. I have no idea what kind of learning that is, but it’s pretty fun to watch her in this process.
            Thanks to a new hire and the 7th graders being kept in school longer, we were able to re-divide our afternoon educational enhancement groups, making them smaller and more manageable. I have a new group and enjoy working with them, but yesterday afternoon my former group cornered me and demanded to know why I had abandoned them and begged me to come back.
            A few weeks ago I was shadowing another woman’s group and for that lesson she brought a large stack of books and the kids had individual reading time for the hour. “Looks like someone forgot to lesson plan” I chuckled to myself. But as the hour passed I realized that this is one of the best activities with the kids I had witnessed. As a kid some of my favorite times were when our class would go down to the elementary school library for a period and I would work my way through the Beverly Cleary shelf. Or tagging along with my parents to the public library and going down to the basement, the kids’ section, and plopping down on the floor next to my favorite shelf, where the Archie comics and Sweet Valley High books were. Sure, they weren’t Shakespeare, but the most important thing happened during these times, I came to think of reading as fun and I fell in love with it. Kids here (and in Mozambique) never get this opportunity. The only time they read is aloud in front of a class, stumbling over the words, or from a textbook while they’re studying. They never get to shake their heads and ponder how Gufus and Gallant could possibly be brothers; think it’s funny that Brother and Sister Berestain never changed their clothes or had names, even though their friends did; wonder why Betty and Veronica were even friends; imagine what they would do if they had a magic crayon; giggle at the idea of a helmeted mouse riding a motorcycle; marvel at the possibility of a swan learning how to play the trumpet; or wish that they had a troupe of penguins that followed them around and did tricks. To me, for people like me, this is what reading is about. But for people who don’t have books like this, reading is only a dreaded chore they do in school, from textbooks. Yesterday I mimicked my colleague and brought a huge stack of books for our afternoon hour. One of the boys made a face “we have to just read the whole time?” But by the end a few of the kids had really gotten into their stories. Three of the boys stayed to finish their books, even after the bell rang and the other children left, and one of my more shy and taciturn kids stayed an extra five minutes until he had finished his book. 


            Since a few people have asked, I am not going to post the baby’s name or any pictures of her, since I disclosed her status. But if I know you and you want to see her beautiful smile, please email me. She continues to do wonderfully, even more so now that we have implemented a nap schedule for her. After weeks of politely suggesting and asking, I went to a supervisor and pushed for naptime to be officially implemented for the baby. Not only is she a baby, but she is an incredibly sick baby (TB and HIV), so her body needs these recovery periods, especially since she lives in a dorm with 60 other girls, so waking late and sleeping early just aren’t possible most days. And for some reason this particular child hates sleeping. Until we started her nap schedule, when I could tell she was tired I would take her to her crib and gently hold her down as she screamed for about five minutes until she passed out. I get that this isn’t a fun process, but it’s a necessary one and with a schedule in place her body will become accustomed to falling asleep even quicker. I got into a bit of a blow-up with one of the aunties about this whole nap idea, but I think we’ve gotten past it finally. A few of the aunties smilingly told me that in Swaziland children don’t need to be put down for naps, they just fall asleep where they’re playing when they are tired. Luckily I have the support of our supervisor, so we smile and remind them that we aren’t telling them how to raise their own children, but this is an officially mandated policy now.
            Almost three years ago I wrote a post about my bewilderment at discovering that in Mozambique, only five continents are taught (Europe, Africa, Asia, Antarctica, and America). I had never thought this was a debatable thing. I was relieved when I pulled my map out for the first time this Saturday and learned that in Swaziland they have seven continents: North America, South America, Europe, Africa, Antarctica, Asia, and Oceania. Wait, what? But this is, of course, one of the joys of living in a foreign culture—you learn that so many of the things you took for granted as immutable, unarguable facts simply aren’t.