Saturday, July 30, 2011

Widow's Ceremony

The time to swear in as Peace Corps Volunteers, move to our permanent site and actually start on the work that we will spend the next two years of our lives on is inching steadily closer. Today is the end of our last full week as Trainees, next week we will spend in a High School teaching a life skills class and our final LPI (Language Proficiency Interview) test. Although we are ecstatic to move on we are more than a little bummed to leave our Make and our homestead (plus our TV and our sweet digs). Training was integral because mostly because we made our first (and hopefully only major) cultural faux-pas and got over most of our culture shock while in a temporary setting. Next stop is a clean slate with a little more experience and SiSwati under our belt.

With all of the challenges that came with integration came some of the most endearing life lessons and discoveries that come with diving head first into a new culture. Last week was one such occasion. As we have mentioned before, Make is a widow whose husband died last year. As part of traditional Swazi custom Make has been wearing a black shawl and black clothing for the past year. Friday (coincidently the observed holiday of Lilanga Lisilo, King’s Day), was the one year anniversary of her husband’s death. This occasion was a huge deal for Make, one that she had been planning for and talking about ever since we met her. I will try and go through it step-by-step, knowing there is a lot that I am unaware of or that was lost in translation.

Sunday: The Khumalo clan arrives from Johannesburg, S.A. Make has six children who are all, quite possibly, the most stand-up people we have ever met. Each looks like and shares similar quirks and expressions similar to Make. We had so much fun spending time with them and working side by side with them in preparation for the ceremony.

Monday-Wednesday: The Homestead was a hive of activity. As soon as we got home from class we were put to work chopping down trees to make tent poles for the extended awning that acted as a tent for visitors, killing chickens for dinner and baking hundreds of scones for all the tea that out of town visitors were about to consume.

Thursday: While we were at school Ctello and various Khumalos/neighbors slaughtered a cow. By the time we got back the cow was splayed out in the krall (pen) with its intestines and organs on full display. As disgusting as it sounds it was actually a pretty cool anatomy lesson. Most of the massive cavity of a cow is made up of its four stomachs. Who knew? One thing about Swazi’s is that they let nothing go to waste. I helped bring in kidneys, intestines and various other unnamed organs that were eaten throughout the ceremony. Keeping with my animal slaughtering streak, I helped kill and skin a goat. That is a little more intense than killing a chicken.

That night Make went with a group of bomake and bogogo to the krall to sing and pay respects to the ancestors (who according to Swazi culture live and hang out there). At some point, and this is where I get fuzzy on the details because we didn’t see any of it, Make bathed in a mixture of water, cow and goat blood, burned the shawl she was wearing and put on civilian (non-black) clothes.

Friday: The Khumalo Homestead was hopping! People from all over Swaziland/S.Africa showed up to pay their respects to Make and Babe Khumalo. Make had been making “King’s Brew” all week and Friday it was passed around and consumed in massive quantities. Everything we heard about Swaziland being a largely non-drinking country were thrown out the window with every drunk bobhuti, bogogo, bobabe, bomakulu and bo-everyone throwing down in heroic capacities. Being a non-drinker, something stuck out to me. There was a clear bifurcation between those who drank and those who didn’t. Those who did drank to absolute obliteration and those who didn’t, didn’t even touch a drop. Suddenly, Peace Corp’s alcohol stance made a lot of sense.

To contrast the revelry outside, the night vigil inside was a solemn contrast. Around 11PM things got rolling inside. The house was packed with bomake, two preachers and a group of youth from a local congregation that served as a sort of hired spiritual muscle that sang and rounded out the worshippers inside. I thought Swazi church was long, with three hours of preaching and singing in a language I don’t understand, the Night Vigil was a marathon. The service went from 11PM to 7AM when they left to uncover Babe’s grave and pay final respects. We went to bed around 2:00 AM.

As the revelry went on outside, the festivities continued outside and party-goers did not stop until Saturday night. Unfortunately, we missed the feast that happened during the day, but the amount of beef we have consumed in the past two weeks is a testament to how much food was prepared.

We count ourselves very lucky to witness such an important part of our Make’s life and be there for a traditional Swazi ceremony. Although, the party aspect made us scratch our heads at times, everyone was incredibly friendly and I had mock LPI’s with countless drunk bobabe and bobhuti who loved the fact that I was trying to speak their language.

In our next post we may be writing as full-fledged Peace Corps Volunteers writing from our permanent site in Mpaka!

Friday, July 22, 2011



Although Mpaka might not mean anything out of context, Mpaka means the next two years for Ryan and I, and we are very pleased! On Friday we received our site placement for the next two years, and we are being placed in the town of Mpaka.  (Yes, it is an actual town on the map of Swaziland!) We are also spoiled enough to have yet another volunteer in our town, which is extremely rare.  We do not have all the information yet, but what we do know is that we will be moving into a multi-room hut with electricity, which is placed right on the main road (which means good things for transportation), and we also have a better understanding of what our jobs are going to be. 

Ryan is being placed at Mpaka Primary School teaching Life Skills and English, he will also be working on improving the library and the computer lab. We have heard only good things about the school where he is being placed; including that it is a fully functioning, semi-private school, and it’s always nice to work at a school that is actually functional.  Where Ryan, as an education volunteer, is being placed at a school, myself being a health volunteer, my job site is the community! Although I am excited to see exactly what that means, I have plenty of options to work with.  The first option is to work with the schools, as there is a Primary School, Junior School and High School where I can work with Ryan and Phylicia, the other volunteer placed in Mpaka.  There is also a clinic and what Swaziland calls a National Care Point, which is a center provided by the community where orphaned and vulnerable children go to get food and basic care.  Finally, and what I am most excited about, there is a refugee camp and a vocational school, and I hope to work closely with both.

Although Ryan and I have not been to Mpaka, and I do not know really what to expect, I am happy that we are in a town, close to a shopping town (Siteki), and only a half an hour away from Manzini, the biggest city in Swaziland.  If you look at the map we are just right of the center of the country, which is perfect location.  Close to all the big cities, and close to Mozambique!  We are also extremely close to a game park, which is rumored to hold lions! Mpaka is in the region of Lubombo, which means its going to be hotter than hell, but considering that we have discovered in the last 2 months that it can actually be really cold in Africa (who knew?) we are welcoming the hot weather. 

Besides receiving our site placement, we have spent this last week in the Hhoho region of Swaziland training about perma-culture. We hope to have an extensive garden of our own at our homestead, but that really depends on how our family feels about giving us a plot of their land.  (Although that sounds like a big favor to American ears, Swazi’s are surprisingly very liberal with their land.) We are starting out small with some basil and lavender pots, and hope to add on rosemary, thyme, tomatoes and garlic in the near future.  (Feel free to send us some seeds!) Once we move to our permanent site we will then negotiate with our host family about the size of our garden.

In other news, Ryan and I took our language proficiency test last week, and we are officially at the novice high level! Although it might not sound that impressive, that is actually right where we were suppose to score, so we are happy to be reaching that goal.  I have to remind myself that we have only been here 5 weeks, and that before we received our invite to serve in Swaziland I did not know that the language SiSwati even existed.  Cool thing about SiSwati is that it is actually extremely similar to SiZulu, which is a prominent language spoken in South Africa, so really it’s like two in one! We have another proficiency test during week 8, where we have to hit Intermediate Low. I am confident that with some hard work we will reach it.   We will also arrange to have a tutor continue to help us with Siswati even after training, because we are far from even being conversational, which is definitely a goal we both have. 

(PS – EMMA’s DAD – I heard that you have been reading our blog, and I am happy to report that Emma received the highest language score in our group! She is amazing! Also, she is doing well, and I am encouraging her to post more!)

Lastly, I am happy to report that our host family dog Sibi finally brought her new pup around for us all to love, and Make Joyce let us name him! We have named his Sidududu, which means motorcyle in SiSwati.  Mainly, it’s just a really fun word to say. She is free to rename him once we leave!

We also received our phones, so Mom, Dad, Chris and Loni, please call me soon!

Hope all is well in the land of the free.


Saturday, July 9, 2011

Ngibalale inkhukhu

RMH - 7/9/2011

I have blood on my hands. Literally. As many of you know I have been a vegetarian for the past five years of my life. Some of you know the story as to why I made this decision like the back of your hand, I can recall your eyes rolling as I would  re-hash it over and over again at parties, dinners and other social events in response to the inevitable question of why I became a vegetarian. The question of why I became a vegetarian is much less exciting than why I stopped being a vegetarian.

One of the reasons why I stopped being a vegetarian was completely logistical. I couldn’t imagine explaining to my host-family in my extremely limited SiSwati that in my country we have the luxury of choosing our diets and what soy/gluten based alternatives to use to supplement the existential longing of having a protein as part of a full and balanced diet. I just didn’t feel like full integration meant opting out of a very important part of Swazi culture. Seriously important, livestock is a direct expression of livelihood and status among Swazis.

The main philosophical/spiritual/political/environmental thrust behind the decision to eat meat comes from the fact that (I thought) eating meat in Swaziland would not come with the same philosophical/spiritual/political/environmental baggage that eating meat in the States brings with it. For the most part I was right, most of the meat is raised locally on the homestead, and if not on the homestead at least 200 or so miles from the purchase point.

I believe deeply that every creature on earth is a sentient being worthy of our acknowledgement and respect. The act of taking another life for your own sustenance has long been viewed as a one-to-one transferal from life to life that came along with the appropriate reverence and respect for that transaction. Most indigenous peoples have built communal and spiritual practices built on this reverence for life. My unique sect of Christianity teaches a similar doctrine, that every life is sacred and that meat should only be eaten in moderation (in times of famine or winter specifically, a sadly overlooked tenant) and with thanksgiving. With the advent of industrialized agriculture in Western culture, we have seen that one-for-one transference eroded to a commodity-based transaction where the life of an animal is reduced to how cheap you can get it at the super market. Not only does this harm our overall spiritual worldview, but also it has consolidated mass amounts of capitol in the hands of the few corporations whose only objective is to acquire more capitol. This drive for the bottom line has introduced horrendous, institutionalized and wholesale disregard for the life and well being of the animal as well as a mind-boggling amount of chemicals, steroids and antibiotics required to keep an animal alive in such squalid and hellish conditions. The environmental considerations of converting most of our pasturelands to feed lots, most of our nation’s corn harvest to feed and shipping meat from slaughterhouses in Ohio to Whole Foods in California are staggering to say the least.

This separation from the process of growing, feeding and slaughter to brightly wrapped, pink meat-product in your chain grocer’s “butcher” section allows us to eat meat without even considering the animal it came from (in some products like hot dogs this rings even more true). So, that is why I felt like I had to kill a chicken. If I am going to continue eating meat I needed to know what it felt like to take a life. And so I did.

MDuduzi and I selected a chicken that was old, no chicks and past egg laying age. He held it by its feet and wings. It lay prone and motionless. I said a little prayer of thanksgiving, audibly thanked the Chicken for its life and then took a knife to its trachea and with about 30 seconds of sawing I cut through its neck. It flapped its wings for a few seconds, and then with all its life expelled in a glinting flash of red, it was over.

It was over. I didn’t feel any sort of sorrow or regret. I was nervous, but that eventually gave way to focus on the task at hand. I really didn’t feel anything. Comfortably numb is a good way to describe it. If you have ever carved a turkey it is not much of a different experience.

Killing something (or witnessing something being killed) and then eating it is a necessary experience if you are comfortable making the decision to eat meat. If the process horrifies you, or fills you with an overwhelming amount of pathos, maybe you should reconsider your decision to eat meat. Industrialized agriculture is ubiquitously evil, but there is a better way. Look for ways to buy and eat locally from local farmers and ranchers. Farmers markets and food co-ops are great places to start. If these are not available to you, remember, you can always opt out entirely. It is incredibly easy. 

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Notes on Swazi Culture #1: Gender Roles


Seeing that we are about four weeks into Pre-Service Training and only have one blog post to show for it, this one will be a little more comprehensive than usual. First, it is important to know that we are doing great here. Learning SiSwati is difficult, as to be expected, but we are trying our hardest to be at least mildly proficient by the end of our two years. Luckily, almost everyone is fairly fluent in English here and can usually carry on a conversation in our native tongue after our obligatory three-four sentence baby-talk in SiSwati.

A recent change has taken place in our training. For the first two weeks in our Community-Based Training we cooked with our host-family, trying to learn how to cook traditional Swazi food, which usually consists of at least three starches and a protein (corn as the base ingredient in at least two of those starches.) Cooking with Make Joyce on a wood-burning stove with no ventilation was an experience, to say the least. During this time Make definitely took to Addy (Bongiwe), teaching her all of the responsibilities and trials of being an Umfati (wife), while I was relegated to maaaybe peeling a potato or squash. You can tell the faith she had in the ability for an invodza (husband) to tackle roles that are traditionally “woman’s work”. In fact, this strict bifurcation of gender roles and responsibilities has been one of the most difficult things for us to overcome in integrating into the Swazi culture.

In our relationship, Addy and I prize our ability to be “equally yoked” in our roles and responsibilities. We both worked full time and divided chores equally in our apartment in SLC. Needless to say moving to a country that not only divides the roles of men and women, but generally puts the sexes on unequal ground was going to be a difficult transition. So far, we have managed to create a minor scandal by a neighbor “catching” me doing laundry outside when our Make was gone, and Make “catching” me sweeping our front porch one morning before class. What is difficult about this is not trying to hide the fact that we split up chores evenly but finding an abundance of man’s work on the homestead that keeps me occupied, while Addy assists Make in the umfati chores. So far I have managed to keep busy helping neighbors set controlled brush fires around their property and helping MDuduzi valella (herd) tinkhomo (cows) into the kraal (pen) in the evening.

To extend this further into our purpose as Peace Corps Trainees we have learned that one of the reasons why Swaziland owns the dubious title of having the highest HIV/AIDS rate of infection in the world is because of gender inequality. If a woman does not feel empowered to ask her husband to help with the dishes, how much less empowered would she feel to ask her partner to wear a condom during sex or ask her husband to stop having “multiple concurrent partners” with women who run a very high risk of being HIV positive?

While we realize that this is a traditional role that does not extend to all households, this has been the first major hurdle we have had to overcome in terms of Swazi culture. This past week, however, we have been cooking for ourselves and are more easily able to divide chores in the privacy of our own hut. We hope that our somewhat clumsy attempt to show and explain our philosophy of equality in our relationship reflects positively on our American culture.


(Just adding on to Ryan’s previous thought, and some thoughts of my own.)

Although there have been hurdles to overcome (and will continue to come), Swaziland is showing us some short-comings of our own.  Swaziland is a communal country, and puts the community before the individual.  Although this can be frustrating at times, it is refreshing to see neighbors actually being neighborly, and extending a hand, food, etc. whenever possible. On our homestead you will see several neighbors daily coming in and out trying to help our Make (Mom) with random tasks that she and Mdu cannot do on their own.  Make and Mdu are in charge of a considerable amount of land for only two people, (and us coming into the picture is not much of help considering we have no idea what we are doing i.e. No, I do not know how to slaughter a chicken, YET!), and it is refreshing to find that neighbors nearby extend a hand whenever possible. 

Speaking of slaughtering animals, I witnessed a pig slaughtering today.  I will not go into details yet, because I have not fully processed the horror that I witnessed, but, to say the least, it was…educational.  The pig was being slaughtered for a two-day wedding ceremony that will take place tomorrow and Saturday.  They have killed one pig, and will kill two cows for the celebration.  I have always had a soft spot for animals, but talked myself into witnessing the event based on moral principals (If I am okay with eating pork, I should be willing to witness the process from beginning to end.) To that I say – I do not think I will be witnessing the cow slaughtering.

I have to put in a short word for our “Mom” here in Swaziland.  She has taken us under her wing as she would her own children.  She watches out for us daily.  She makes sure we are up and going at the right time, that we are dressed properly, that we have eaten, etc.  Not only does she watch out for us, she has taught us many things even in the short time we have been here.  I spent two weeks in her kitchen cooking dinners with her, which gave Ryan and I a lot of time to talk to her and learn about Swazi culture and traditions.  Most importantly, however, she has taught me the true strength of a Swazi woman.  Being a woman here is a challenge for many reasons.  Women are expected to be purely homemakers, but due to shortcomings in income, you will find many women working outside of the home.  Although women work outside of the home, that does not dismiss their duties to their families at home. Men take care of the cattle and other farm animals, and build the homestead, while women are expected to carry on chores on the homestead, including cleaning, cooking, taking care of the children, etc.  It is exhausting. My Make was laughing at me one day because I refused to take the pot off the wood stove with my bare hands.  That is right.  She grabs the pot full on with her bare hands, even at the base of the pot.  She says her hands are made of stone, and I believe her. 

Things that I do miss about the USA:

-          Family and friends
-          Showers
-          Running water
-          Fridges
-          Toilets that flush
-          Heaters
-          Jeans
-          Youtube Videos