I’m sitting on a khombi in the bustling new bus rank of Siteki. Sweat is streaming down my face, as the sun glares relentlessly through the window. Its only 8am, and already the African sun is beating down, warning all of us, what is coming. My ipod is on shuffle, the khombi is taking its time filling up, and I am watching the runway precession of swazi fashion outside my window. The woman in front of me is wearing a leather jacket and a wool scarf tied securely around her head; I’m memorized that not one bead of sweat can be seen on her body. Then I realize she is probably just over compensating for her fuzzy, bright hot pink, open toed house slippers. These slippers are often worn as shoes here- I can’t complain about this fashion. I fully support a trend that makes comfy slippers acceptable out of the hut wear.
A young mother enters the khombi and sits across from me. She is unwrapping the series of blankets, to revel a small baby sleeping on her back. First a thick fleece blanket, then a thin bathroom towel, followed by a brightly printed laheya. These layers of blanket unpeel like an onion, until 5 tiny toes can be seen poking out the side of the last wrap. I am bewildered how such a thick fleece blanket can be tied in a knot that would support a child- or even stay wrapped around an active person without slipping. I am confounded that neither of them show signs of overheating either, as I continue to drip in my seat. Whenever I see mothers with infants in Swaziland, I can’t help feeling sorry for their abused, overworked breasts. If there isn’t a child suckling, then a child is strapped around them, pulling, and flattening them like undercooked pancakes. Since puberty I have spent my life devoted to pushing mine UP; Swazi women don’t seem to know about the war on gravity.
There is an old man sitting a few rows up in traditional swazi garb. His naked leg is hanging out in the aisle, and from here it doesn’t look like its only his leg thats naked. The traditional dress for men consists of a knee length of square fabric tied at the waist, covered by a small animal hide of some kind. The right side, with the tie, is facing me, so only about ¼ of an inch of this old man’s waist is covered by the knot, leaving the rest exposed to the elements. For some reason, whenever I see traditionally dressed men, all I can think is “nice legs!” Since this is a muhkulu, I’m not quite ready to go there yet, but I am enjoying the hot pink ostrich feather quietly blowing in the breeze over his head.
There is woman from my community boarding the khombi now, taking a seat in front. Her foot lingers long enough on the top step for me to see her 5 inch heels. I know she walked at least a mile to get to the stesh this morning, down a gravel, mud road. How her ankles are not swollen with broken bones is a mystery to me. As she changes seats, and moves towards the back of the bus, I realize her heels are just the beginning of this epic ensemble. A barely, knee-lenth leopard print skirt, fitted tightly over her voluptuous behind, the spots stretching into strips to compensate the excessive junk in her trunk. On top a sheer, brightly printed floral sleeveless blouse. The fabric is transparent, showing through to the bra, I am happy she is wearing. Her bra is at least 3 sizes to small and pushes up the cleavage on her back, between her shoulder blades, almost as impressively as the mountainous boulders pouring helplessly out of the top of her blouse in the front. I fear for the small pearl, top button, as it struggles to fight a loosing battle. This outfit is inappropriate for children’s eyes in my opinion, but as modest as the Swazi culture is, she is adhering to the requirements. Her skirt IS knee length. Boobs, and snugness, (or clashing prints) just don’t matter.
I notice a young man sitting near the back of the bus. He is sporting the swazi favorite, bucket hat- you know like a fishing hat, minus the lours. The top part of the hat has been cut, or more seemingly gutted and ripped off, leaving a tattered carcus of remains on top of his shaved head. His popular fashion continues to his black and yellow Kaiser Chiefs jersey that I’m nearly certain every swazi male between the ages of 3-99 own. His jeans are fitted, and the bejeweled pockets and semi-pleated pockets make me curious if these were accidentally slipped into the male clarence bin where he fished them out. The shoes are my favorite part. Italian style, EXTREMLY pointed toe, shinny, brown, “leather” loafers. So many jems in this outfit to choose from, yet none of them seem to fit together very well.
The engine begins to shutter, and the khombi pulls forward. The conductor is approaching. I feel like he is walking down the red carpet of the academy awards, and then I realize why. This handsome young man is dressed in a full tuxedo. Satin stripes down the lengths of his trousers, white, starched, button down dress shirt, with small ruffles framing each side, topped off with a small black bow tie; like a cherry on a whipped cream, hot fudge, sundae. I am in awe as he struts in my direction. His brown, worn out cowboy boots, click on the vinyl floor, and the sun glares off his freshly shaven head, like a spot light. I don’t know whether I should laugh, or ask what the occasion is- but I know I should probably return my lower jaw to its usual location. I could inquire, but I kind of love the idea that all of these looks somehow fit on the same bus. And I’m beginning to feel a little underdressed in my black tank top and skinny jeans.
its been an exhausting two weeks since I last wrote, I’m not even sure where to start. I can tell you I am reading the “posionwood bible”, and the descriptions of africa are amazing, and I have realized I have only painted a quarter of the picture of what life LOOKS like in Swaziland- so I am working on it 🙂
last week we had our mid-service training for Peace Corps. It’s just shy of my first year anniversary in SD, which is hard to believe. The training was a 3-part workshop. For the first part of the week, counterparts we are working with in the community were invited for a project development workshop. I brought along my friend Shorty. I haven’t worked with Shorty on a professional level in the community yet, but we have talked about a lot of ideas, and he is one of the most driven young adults I have met, so I thought it would be a good training for him to have on his CV (resume), a place for him to network, and a little encouragement to keep him trying to make a difference in what is ultimately his community.
The second bit was a lot of admin updates and relearning how to fill out our trimester reports. This is often a cause of stress for me. Trying to gather 3 months of conversations, interactions, small activities etc and then sort them into boxes, and be able to count and keep track of who learned something, who applied the learned skills etc. I understand the need for this info, since Peace Corps is a government funded program, and they need to see the impact of what we are doing with our time here however it somehow feels like it belittles all of my positive memories into “work”. I’ve also felt the strain of loosing several of my community projects in the last week. The Peace Corps is about reaching the rural areas, and to do that by spending 80% of your time in the community you are placed in and 20% elsewhere if needed. Since the December disappearance of virtually all of my counterparts, I have been working more and more in the urban areas on income generating projects and helping to start businesses. Its frustrating that these equally important things don’t fit in the right boxes, and I feel guilty for helping the “wrong people”. I am still waiting to hear about the WFP project based out of Good Shepard Hospital, once it begins, I know it will help relieve some of my stress. Also, Babe Gwebu (the HIV counselor I was working with at my clinic) has returned to Tikhuba! He has a new role, working mainly with blood samples. The clinic will now be able to test for CD4 counts, TB, Malaria etc, but it also means there is no longer “time” for HIV counseling to be done at the same time as the rapid test. Small step forward…HUGE step back. We will have to work on that…
the last part of the week was a grief and loss seminar, which was really more like group therapy. After an emotionally taxing week, crying with candles while sitting in a circle was nearly enough to push me over the edge. There were positives to the seminar and it was yet another chance to become closer to the other peace corps volunteers I work so closely with. However, on the last day we took a test to chart our “compassion fatigue”, “burn out risk” and “compassion satisfaction”, and I nearly failed. I attribute this to the fact that I’m a virgo- throughly so.
If you don’t know about Virgos, here is the foot notes: Virgos are workaholics. They throw themselves into their work, similarly to a circus performer who dives off a steep ledge and into a cup of water, vanishing completely. They are also highly critical of their work performance, and are rarely able to give themselves a 5 out of 5 because “there is always room for improvement”. They do not fail. Even when they fail, they continue until there is some small thing they can call a success.
Stateside I was also like this, and the remedy for impending burnout was to go on a trip or move apartments. I cant switch huts, so I have decided to take a little vacation. The weekend after Easter I am going on a little get-a-way with a few of my local friends to St. Lucia. You may remember this beautiful beach-side town from the Bachelor on the season when they went to South Africa. I’m pretty excited about getting away, and hoping the white sand beaches will be enough of a boost so I will ace the test when I retake it in 3 months.
Despite the described two weeks above, I am in good spirits. Although I am often frustrated with the “work” aspect of my time in SD, I know I am having a positive role in my community, on my homestead, in swaziland in general and in my own life. Even when I don’t love the “work” part of my job, I love what I do, and I know this is what I was meant to be doing with my life. Despite the test, I really do get satisfaction out of my small projects and interactions with Swazi’s. Its hard work, but the rewards are bountiful. Sometimes I think all of these challenges are just to keep me on my toes and make me realize how much I really love it when things go right, and I can see the change happen. Although it wouldn’t hurt to have a bigger “box” sometimes.