Last week, at one of the Days of the African Child, I sat on one of the only tables still assembled at the end of the day, feet dangling, and as Sandile (a work colleague) walked by, he asked me who I was riding back to Mbabane with, and I answered that I was going back with Ncamsile. And then I realized that the exchange took place in siSwati. It was a simple exchange consisting of two sentences, but still….I was proud. I finally managed to locate and purchase a siSwati lesson book at a bookstore in town this week. It’s called “Say it in siSwati” and was originally aimed at training Voluntary Service Overseas volunteers. It’s got pages of grammar exercises, which is what my brain has been needing.
I showed it to Mandla during the ride in to work this morning, and he said, “Ach, you are already fluent, you don’t need a book!” I said that even though I do have every Swazi I know helping me learn the language, it still helps me to have a written guide, and the conversation turned to Swazi hospitality again. “In Europe,” said Mandla, “the people are so cold. I think it’s because of their weather, you know. But they don’t make you feel welcome like the Swazis do.” I said that the Swazis are the warmest and friendliest people I’ve yet had the good fortune to meet, and Mandla considered this and said, “You know, we Swazis have a common saying. We say, the foot – it does not have nostrils.” He stopped there, looking very pleased with the poignancy of this proverb. I cocked my head and tried to understand – I’m usually pretty good at understanding proverbs with even the most cloaked meaning – but after a minute passed and I just couldn’t make it fit, I asked him what it meant. He said, “It means that we understand that we might someday have to walk in someone else’s shoes, so we should treat everyone with great care.” I still didn’t quite understand the proverb, so I waited until Ncamsile and I got into the truck at work, and then I asked her to clarify. At first when I told her how the proverb went, she said, “What? I’ve never heard of this before.” But when I explained the context, she said that she did know this saying after all, and that it means that Swazis are always aware of the fluidity of luck and fortune, and that they could be in anyone’s shoes tomorrow, no matter how good their situation is today. “You never know – you may find yourself tomorrow in the company of the family of a person you treat badly today, and then your behavior will come back to you. We are brought up to treat everyone like our family – if someone needs a place to sleep, I will find a bed for them in my home, even if I don’t know them. I may be the one needing a bed tomorrow.” Sounds a lot like karma to me. I’m not sure I get the nostrils thing – my best guess is that even if someone "smells bad" to you today and you treat them badly, it doesn’t matter to your feet tomorrow if you’re standing in their shoes. Other suggestions for the meaning of the saying are very welcome.
On Monday, I went to a meeting at the Ministry of Education with a colleague who works in Monitoring and Evaluation to hear about a project that an organization called CIET (Community Information for Empowerment and Transparency). Hlobi invited me to come at 10:15, and I asked her when the meeting started, and she replied nonchalantly, “At 10.” Right. So we got there at about 10:40 and the meeting, of course, hadn’t started yet. I’m still getting used to time here. My instinct is always to be punctual, even early, but here, that seems only to earn you lots of alone time while you wait for the others to show up. In any case, the meeting was very interesting. CIET is doing an extensive study on how various types of community interventions to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS work across communities in Botswana, Namibia, and Swaziland, including gender-based violence workshops, empowerment focus groups, and male circumcision. Their focus is specifically on the “choice-disabled,” meaning those people who do not really have a choice in whether they transmit HIV; for instance, a wife that she can’t insist on her husband wearing a condom and can’t refuse him sex, putting the choice to protect herself beyond her reach. The data they showed indicated strongly that, while education is still a need in many areas, there does appear to be a high level of knowledge of HIV and how it is transmitted, but many people rationalize the information or feel that they still have no choice but to act in certain ways, even though they know the risk is present, and thus driving the epidemic even further. It adds an entirely different dimension of how to prevent the spread of HIV; many efforts thus far have often concentrated on education, or condom use, etc., but what CIET hopes to do is come at it from different angles to meet people where they’re at, including empowerment, male circumcision, and gender-based violence trainings that will target some of the seemingly secondary issues surrounding HIV that affect the decision-making process of those at risk.
After the meeting, Hlobi and I went to wait outside to be picked up, and we talked about her family. She has a new baby, a 3-month old, who is adorable. She asked me how old I was, and I told her I’ll be turning 26 next month, at which she looked truly shocked. She said that when I first came to the office 2 weeks ago, someone came to her and whispered, “There’s a teenager in the office!” Ha. She’s only 27 herself, and I will say that I think that she, too, looks very young. The rest of the day was spent in the office. Being in the office is both good and bad for me. It gives me a chance to catch my breath from being out in the field all the time, but it often happens that there’s not a lot for me to do there, either.
I returned home and came into the kitchen to cook myself some dinner; I had curry paste and vegetables, so I threw together a nice vegetable curry. Thomas, one of the men who works in the kitchen, greeted me. “Sawubona!” he said. “Yebo,” I replied, and he asked me in siSwati what I was cooking, which I could half answer in siSwati (except for the “vegetable curry” part). Everything I reached for, he would anticipate and hand to me; I went for an onion, and he immediately started peeling one for me and chopped it before I could even say anything. Then I started dumping vegetables into the pot, and he stood by the stove and watched me cook, smiling at me, and we chatted as the vegetables softened and the sauce simmered and thickened. I took out a spoon for a taste test, and offered him a taste, and he spooned the hot sauce directly on to his palm, licked it, and said “Salt!” He was right, of course, and when he tasted it again, he decided it was much better. As my dinner cooked, he got out a huge pot, a large wooden spoon, and began making mealie meal for him and the other staff’s dinner. This is done by adding boiling water to the maize meal, stirring with just the right frequency, and letting it boil and thicken over a powerful flame until a sort of mashed-potato-like consistency is achieved. It ends up being so thick that you’re able to eat it with your hands, and the mealie meal is used to scoop up the meat that accompanies it. I came into the kitchen later and found the whole staff sitting around the counter eating their dinner this way, and they invited me over to try some of it. The meat, beef or chicken, is typically just boiled with onions, maybe some carrots and potatoes, and some spices. Most of the full meals that I’ve been served have included mealie meal or rice, a meat stew like the one I just described, a serving of beets, some sort of potato salad or squash, and a salad or coleslaw. I find it to be very delicious, although I am a little wary of these meals since becoming sick last week. It’s inevitably way too much food for me, but it’s very filling. “Mealie meal makes you strong,” explained Thomas. “You can do lots of hard work after eating some mealie meal, or walk long distances. Rice just makes you fat," he said, holding out his arms to demonstrate.
On Tuesday, the first stop with Ncamsile was to the home of a family we are working with to resolve some allegations of child abuse that have been made. On the way, we stopped to pick up a colleague in an office closer to where the family lives, and when he got in the car, he said something in siSwati that caused Ncamsile to burst into laughter and said, “The first Zumbu of the day for you, Siphiwe! Benji wants to marry you!” His name is Benjamin – Benji for short – and the first several minutes of the car ride were spent trying to convince me of why I should marry him, the main reason being that I would get to stay in Swaziland. Before we went to the family’s house, we stopped to talk to another client, someone Benji was working with. We took a turn off the main road to go onto a side street that didn’t look like it got much travel, and we pulled up to a group of men who were sitting around off the side of the road, smoking and laughing together. One of the men came to the car and climbed in with us (but not before another guy standing there waved at me furiously through the car window and “Zumbu-ed” me. “Ha – number two!” laughed Ncamsile), and Benji and Ncamsile had an extensive conversation with him in siSwati, which I found out later was a discussion about another alleged case of child abuse. The whole thing took place in the backseat of the Save the Children truck, which was perhaps the most efficient way to conduct the counseling considering the likelihood of the man being able to make it in to the office during work hours. We then went to the family’s home and Ncamsile and Benji spent about an hour and a half listening to and counseling the woman (again, all in siSwati).
After that, I went with Ncamsile to a workshop for educators on counseling and its importance in a school setting. She was presenting a segment about child abuse and child rights using a curriculum called “Journey of Life,” and what was supposed to be a 2 hour presentation ended up lasting about 3 ½ hours. Most of this was in siSwati as well, with bits in English, so I didn’t catch everything that went on. It seems to be a very good curriculum, one that is very conducive to getting people to open up, and it creates good and productive conversations. There was even a “testimonial” type section, in which two teachers volunteered to stand up and share some of their own challenges in life and how they have been shaped by them. Later, they began discussing corporal punishment in schools and how the Conventions on the Rights of the Child (CRC) wants to ban it as a method of punishment, but the group needed help understanding what forms of discipline would be available to them now.
I arrived home around 6 and left again to meet up with a girl named Mallory who is doing a Fulbright here in Swaziland. I contacted her when I found her blog online before arriving here. Ashook, the older gentleman from South Africa who stays here long-term as well, was kind enough to drive me into town. In fact, he insisted on it when I stopped into the kitchen to ask if the kombis were still running even though it was after 6. He looked troubled and said, “I’ll not have you taking a kombi; come, I will drive you there,” and before I knew it, he had pulled his car around to the lot. I met up with Mallory and her roommate Jonathan, and we had dinner and chatted for a bit before heading to game night at Veky and Dave’s house. Veky and Dave own a guest house in the city, and they live in a house that is perched on top of a huge hill with a gorgeous view over Mbabane, and as Mallory put it, are the “social captains” of expats from all over who are living in the area. There were quite a few people there who were volunteering at the Baylor clinic for a few weeks, two Fulbrighters, and various other assorted guests from Europe. We played a game of combination Taboo/Charades in which everyone wrote down and pooled the names of 5 famous people on pieces of paper, and then each person took turns trying to get their teammates to guess as many names as possible in 30 seconds. In the first round, you could describe the person any way you liked, but in the second round, you could only use one word to get your teammates to guess, and in the third round, you had to act them out. Our team kind of sucked, but it was still pretty fun. After the game was over, people stayed and chatted for a long time, and I ended up on the side of the room that got into a big debate about religion and spirituality. I kept my mouth shut and just listened a lot, and there were at least some interesting points (as in, at least it wasn’t the same exact old argument I’ve heard a hundred times before). We left around 11:30 and I got a ride from one of the Fulbrighters. One surprise for me is that all of these people have cars here. Mallory, for example, has this really nice Fiat station wagon that looks practically new, and she says it only cost $2,000. If I were staying here for a year, I’d definitely look into buying one, too. It definitely beats having to deal with the hassle and danger of kombis.