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Protected: Departure

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Returning to Africa

After three years back in the U.S., mostly spent working on my Master’s degree, I am headed back to Africa at the end of the month. I will be completing an internship in South Sudan to complete my final degree requirements.

The experience will undoubtedly be entirely different from my time in Swaziland. Yet I find myself remembering back to the strategies that served me well during my Peace Corps service. Limit expectations, maximize flexibility, allow yourself to feel and experience, then reflect. I truly have no expectations — it’s difficult for me to imagine what I will be walking into. I’m sure after several years back in a structured lifestyle, the flexibility will cause me a few headaches but I consider myself highly adaptable and look forward to stretching myself again. More than ever before, I am attuned with the emotions evoked by my experiences.

I anticipate that writing will be one of the ways in which I make sense of my time in South Sudan. Coming back to this blog feels like the right thing to do. This time, however, I plan to password protect my posts. Given the context, this seems like the most appropriate thing to do.

To see more about the work I’ll be doing, and to see how you can support me and gain access to my blog posts, click here.

Living in a “lazy” nation

Today one of the newspaper posters that are plastered along the streets caught my eye. It said: Swazis laziest in the world. My curiosity was definitely piqued.

It turns out the local reporting of research findings by the Lancet was slightly inaccurate — Swaziland has, in fact, been ranked the 2nd Laziest Country in the world, with an overwhelming 69% of the population falling short of recommended activity levels. ( For more on this, check out: http://forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2012/07/18/the-laziest-countries-in-the-world-u-s-not-even-close/ )This is somewhat surprising, given that the country is still very much a part of the developing world, with most people living in rural areas without a ton of modern conveniences. However, I can’t say I’m too surprised.

When I first moved to my rural community, I was surprised by how few people I saw walking around. The transportation options in my area were awful, often requiring you to wait 2+ hours, and with most places you’re interested in going within the community being less than a 60 minute walk, it always seemed silly to me to wait around for a mini-bus that would cost you money. So I walked. Almost exclusively (exceptions being when I had a lot of stuff to carry or a khumbi happened to be passing and it was over 105 degrees). For the first 6 months, nearly everyone I passed would make some quizzical comment, then talk amongst themselves about the strange white girl who walked too much. Even when I didn’t have anywhere to go, I sometimes felt like being outside and going exploring — a concept that my host family and friends in the community just didn’t understand. I also ran, and even had an exercise bike (one of the best gifts my dad has ever purchased for me) so that I could stay fit — and therefore sane, as exercise is a huge stress reliever for me. People didn’t get it, but they eventually stopped commenting on it and came to expect to see me on early morning runs or afternoon walks. I wasn’t in good shape, by any means, but I did make an effort to stay active.

The population in my area was one of extreme contrasts — obese or undernourished. When I came here, I had anticipated seeing the undernourished (I mean, in a country where about 2/3 of the population lives on about a dollar a day, what can you expect?!), but I wasn’t prepared for how obvious the issues of obesity would be. I later learned that diabetes and blood pressure problems are growing as well. It’s a combination of factors, really, mostly stemming from the popular diet and complete lack of active lifestyles. The staple food here is a thick porridge made from maize meal (ground up dried corn), which is filling but has almost no nutritional value, essentially being empty carbs and calories. This is usually garnished with vegetables or beans or meat, when available. Still, I wish I had a photo of a typical plate full of food to explain the heaping mound of porridge that I’m talking about. It’s something I confront every time someone dishes me up, because I actually do like the porridge, but I only need a cup or so, whereas I wouldn’t be surprised if a typical serving size here is 4 or 5. The macronutrient distribution is all out of whack, with far too many simple carbs and not enough protein or nutritional fruits and veggies. On top of that, I think there’s some social aspects to the lack of activity. As the country has developed, it seems that an attitude about physical activity or manual labor has accompanied it. Transportation, even if expensive and unreliable, is considered a sign of development and prestige, so people want to make use of it. Sure, 50 years ago they would have had to walk to that community meeting, but it’s no longer necessary, so why do it?! Livelihoods have developed in a similar way. Most people used to be involved in subsistence farming and obviously got a lot of activity from working the land. My area of the country receives very little rainfall, making it difficult to effectively cultivate crops (though some still try), so few people in my area are involved with this. More generally, though, families rely on one or two people who are able to find gainful employment to purchase food for the household. It seems like buying food somehow gives the family status, and so long as it’s possible, families do it. Sure, I’ve seen people have to resort to gathering and eating the indigenous plants, but rarely do they choose this if store-bought food is available. Career choices also avoid anything involving much manual labor (as I would say is true of much of the developed world); once people achieve a certain level of education, they believe this physical labor is beneath them.

My experience living in the city has been slightly different — I at least see a spectrum of activity levels. When I go running in the morning, I’m not the only one on the road. There is a gym near my apartment that has a decent number of members, although few of them utilize it on a regular basis. It was encouraging to see some active people and feel that I wasn’t so different after all! Of course, a few days later I notice a woman getting off a khumbi less than a 5 minute walk from town… which means she waited 5-15 minutes for the khumbi to fill in town rather than walking 5 minutes. I saw the same woman do this every morning for a couple of weeks, and it saddened me greatly. Simple things like walking to and from the store, or to work, when possible just aren’t thought of much.

I’ll be interested to see how things are moving forward, because I think more attention is being paid to these issues. There’s a lot more information being made available about diabetes and the importance of living a healthy lifestyle, and the schools recently began offering physical education as a class. Still, there are conflicting opinions regarding an ideal weight — with some of the more “Westernized” people living/working in town ascribing to a more Western ideal of being thin, while a more traditional opinion exists that says having a belly shows that you’re doing well financially (something that caused me a LOT of stress when I gained weight and had people constantly commenting “you’re getting fat!”). On top of all of that, some stigma still exists with regards to certain body types being attached to idea of HIV or being on ART treatment for HIV.

Personally, I wish that physical activity could be somewhat disassociated with standards of beauty or ideal bodies… because even if you want to keep your belly, it would be healthy to go for a brisk watch each day! I’ve recently noticed these issues emerging in children as well, and think that child obesity is so preventable yet so hard to overcome. I hope that the new activities at school will help, but I know that it will take time and a lot of concerted effort to get people moving and leading healthier lives.

Although the study on inactivity of country’s populations was the catalyst for this post, it’s not something I’m presenting as an end-all-be-all. I’m a little curious about the methodologies and how it classified activity… since I know that in the rural areas a lot of people still have to walk to fetch water and fire wood, and anyone who has ever done laundry by hand can attest to the fact that it is some serious activity! I hope that circumstances will improve, and the life expectancy and quality of life here can continue to return to levels from before the HIV epidemic broke out. All of the health problems plaguing this country are intertwined; some are easy to prevent and respond to, while others are significantly more challenging. Kancane kancane it can be done, and it all starts by doing what you can, when you can.

Gender Equity… Where are the men?!

What do you think of when you hear the word “gender”?  Or more specifically, what comes to mind when you hear about initiatives to promote “gender equity”?

My guess is that you think about the millions of girls and women around the world who don’t seem to be afforded the same opportunities as their male counterparts.  Having lived in Swaziland for two and a half years now, I can definitely conjure up mental images – and recollections of personal experiences – that are related to the restraints that sometimes face women.

But increasingly I’ve been feeling like a huge component is missing from these initiatives: males.  Gender doesn’t equal female, right?  Although I’m remembering back to college during one of the first lectures of my Sociology of Gender classes, when my professor addressed this very fact in that the vast majority of gender related literature focuses on women.  On “the other”.  As if it’s normal to be male, and if you’re female you have gender issues.  The same way she pointed out the importance of understanding masculinity and the constraints that men face, I think it’s important to think about the men in the societies of developing countries.

I’ve struggled with the concept of women’s empowerment projects here in Swaziland.  Not because I don’t think things need to change, because I do.  I have a hard time with these types of programs because I came here as an “empowered” woman, and yet I haven’t necessarily been able to live an “empowered” lifestyle.  The life you lead is influenced by the social norms and pressures within which you live.  That reality doesn’t disappear.  So my question is… where is the component of these gender initiatives and women’s empowerment programs that deal with men?  Why are we forgetting the crucial role they play in these efforts?  The thing about gender is it’s a social construct; the way we understand and display our gender depends largely on our socio-cultural environment.  To “empower” women with new attitudes and skills and then send them back to the same villages where they are faced with the same old norms and values is almost cruel – sometimes those “empowered” women will face ridicule, abuse, or abandonment to set an example for other women in the community.  Until the attitudes and norms of a critical mass within the community change, women will have to adjust their words and actions accordingly, or risk the consequences of living their rights.

I also think it’s important not to forget that by focusing efforts on girls and women, we may be leaving boys and men to flounder.  In my current position, I’ve been analysing data from Swazi schools from a gender perspective, and truthfully I was surprised by some of the findings.  Boys have a significantly higher repetition rate throughout the educational system, their survival rate of primary school (percent who complete all 7 grades) is 10% lower than girls, and they have a higher drop out rate if you remove the factor of pregnancy (which leads to a much higher proportion of females dropping out, especially in secondary school).  I’m sure these results are quite different than the situation 10 years ago, which leads me to wonder… have we been focusing on improving the circumstances for girls at the expense of boys?  Has extra attention to female students led to a neglect of male students?  Don’t get me wrong, in many ways I feel like the girls and women here are deprived, and as a part of a community here I often felt that way myself. 

Can we focus on gender equity though, instead of girls’ rights or women’s empowerment?

I feel like instead of simply trying to raise women up, we should try to harmonize relations between the genders and ensure equal opportunities to all.  Most initiatives would argue that this is their aim, but if you look at the implementation models, the focus is almost exclusively on programs involving girls only.  I think that gender equity will only ever be achieved in an environment where everyone feels supported and encouraged, whereas an environment that is flooded with programs designed to give special attention and privileges to females may actually foster disdain from the male perspective.  Certainly this approach will not foster the appreciation and respect for female contributions that we speak of when we refer to gender equity.

Let’s do rigorous analysis to find out in what aspects each gender is lagging behind, and find ways to boost their opportunities and achievements in those forums.  Instead of trying to give a leg-up to anyone, let’s set goals of achieving equality.  The truth about gender relations is that males and females have a lot more in common than divides them, but society likes to drive a wedge between them.  Perhaps in fostering solidarity, males and females will be better equipped to address the challenges they face in a unified way.  Let’s involve boys and girls in promoting and respecting the human rights of all.  Opening up educational and career prospects and creating income generating opportunities is important for all impoverished people, not just girls and women. 

Females account for half the population and therefore should not be forgotten and deserve to realize their rights, but let’s not neglect the other half of the population either.  The socio-cultural factors that present challenges to the lives of individuals are much broader than gender alone.  It’s important to analyse situations according to gender, but let that be one of many lenses from which we view things.  The goals are happy, healthy, productive lives for all individuals; sustainable community development that improves circumstances of life and ensures a viable future for community members; opportunities for people to actively participate in setting and accomplishing goals and creating their own future.  We dream of these things for all people, irrespective of their gender.  We need to start acting like it.

Back to the Grind

The morning of my first day back to work was slow.  Since then it’s been go-go-go! 

Surprisingly, the adjustment back to the daily grind came pretty naturally.  I was excited to get started on my upcoming projects, and happy to be doing something productive.  It didn’t hurt that I was given a warm welcome back from all of my colleagues, and almost immediately was offered more responsibility and tasks of my own.

Since being back, I had my first opportunity to facilitate at a workshop as a member of my organization.  That was both nerve-wracking and thrilling.  It was more of facilitating discussions and group works than presenting anything formally, but I still scrutinized my introductory powerpoint presentation more than I needed to.  I chose every word of my handout carefully and altered the format of it several times.  Of course in the end none of that made much difference.  What made it a successful session was the way I fostered discussion and guided the participants through the work that needed to be done.  A small, tiny, everyday success, but I’m celebrating it. 

Now I’m on to bigger, better things… I hope that also reads more nervousness.

My colleagues and I are assisting a partner to host a series of dialogues on issues of violence against children in and around schools.  This issue is a major one here in Swaziland, as several studies have shown that there are high rates of violence against children and that home and schools are the two most common locations for such violence to occur.  Action has been taken as a result of these findings, and there are now many organizations working to combat the problem, but there remains a large need for more awareness to be raised and a solid strategy to be formulated on how to improve the situation.  These dialogues hope to move in that direction.  Various groups of stakeholders will come together for dialogues with their peers to discuss violence against children and formulate some action points that can be taken to better prevent and respond to it.  Representatives from each of the five dialogues will come together at a national dialogue to discuss their action points and demonstrate their commitment to improving the situation for children.  My job is to develop the facilitation guides for each dialogue, a task that is exciting and I’m enjoying undertaking, but am also worried that I will somehow negatively impact the output of the dialogues themselves.  This is unlikely, since I am, of course, consulting with my colleagues as well as our partners.  Still, I’m still getting the new-at-the-job-and-lacking-confidence jitters.

It’s amazing to me how different the work I’m doing now is from what I did last year, and yet I’m finding it rewarding in similar ways.  Not every day, that’s for sure… but when I’m able to sit back and consider the impact that some of my work may be having, it’s pretty fulfilling.  With each passing day, I become more and more convinced that this year is going to provide a lot of personal and professional growth while also helping me clarify my interests and career aspirations.  My attitude and perspective towards helping people and making a difference haven’t changed much, although I’m beginning to rethink what it really means to do those things.

Even if it’s absurd to think you can change things, it’s even more absurd to believe that it is foolish and unimportant to try.               ~Peter C. Newman

America Revisited

I spent last month in America.

It seems strange to say that – somehow it feels like that month was a dream that I had long, long ago.  The four weeks I had in Minnesota with family and friends seemed to last a good long time, yet now that I’m back at work and settled into my routine here in Swaziland, it’s almost as if it didn’t happen.

The 36 hour trip left something to be desired, but the Chipotle burrito-bol that was my first meal made up for it.  Yum.  And the fact that I got hardly any sleep at all worked to my advantage in overcoming jet lag and changing my sleep schedule.  My, I sound quite glass-half-full.

My visit to America included lots of delicious food, good times with family and friends, and even a couple of road trips.  It also included almost daily workouts and outdoor runs in shorts.  Pampering by way of a new hairdo, manicure and pedicure were also in order.  Out-fished my dad, saw my littlest brother start walking, skipped rocks with my other brothers, and did lots of giggling with my sister.  All in all, it was a great trip.

I’d be lying if I said it was easy though.  Being called out for my Swazi voice embarrassed me.  The way I interacted with waitresses was awkward.  Too many choices at the store (or even in the pantry or refrigerator) left me unable to make a decision about what I wanted to eat.  The things they make TV shows about nowadays stunned me, although I have to admit I enjoyed ridiculing the parents on Toddlers in Tiaras.  Consumerism/materialism was so in my face, sometimes I had to take a step back.  I had a very short fuse for listening to people complain about everyday inconveniences because in my head all I could do was compare them to the troubles I saw/heard about/experienced here over the past two years.  During a trip to the Mall of America I broke down crying for no obvious reason.  I just didn’t fit, entirely.

I just don’t quite fit the way I used to.  Maybe it’s like misplacing a piece to a jigsaw puzzle and having it go through many seasons beneath the couch… where it gets wet, expands, warps, and when you do spring cleaning and find it again, you find it doesn’t quite fit into the puzzle anymore.

I’m glad I had the opportunity to see so many people that I care about.  But I’m glad to be back, also.  I know that in some ways it will be hard to be away for another year, but in other ways it’s so much easier.  The month in Minnesota opened my eyes to all of the adjustments that are in store for me when I complete my service, and while I know they’re inevitable, I’m glad that I don’t have to go through them quite yet.

For now, this is home.  As strange as it seemed when I first arrived, life here is normal and it’s what I compare everything against.  I love my job, I love my boyfriend, I love my friends, and I’m loving my life.  It doesn’t get much better than that.

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