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.

City life

Almost a month ago, I packed up my cute little hut and said goodbye to my loving family.  It was a surreal experience and one of the most emotional of my service thus far.  I lived in my  hut longer than I’ve lived anywhere since high school.  It truly felt like home, even without electricity or running water.  The Ngcamphalalas were not my host family, they were simply family.

After parting gifts, hugs, and lots of tears, I set out for my new life in town.  Halfway there I was able to start feeling the excitement and anxiety drowning out the sadness.

That excitement turned into frustration when I arrived at my apartment only to be told that it was a disaster due to a toilet blockage that had overflowed and hadn’t been cleaned up.  I was starting work the next day, and had no choice but to make it work somehow.  Eventually the mess was cleaned up, and I got all of my stuff moved in.

The whole next week was a stressful time when nothing seemed to go right.  That first night I had no electricity, the kitchen sink didn’t work, one toilet was completely out of order while the other one leaked water all over the floor any time I flushed it.  When I finally was able to get electricity connected, the water heater still was stubborn.  The kitchen cupboards and bedroom closets needed work.  It was hell.

Finally the property manager realized the full extent of disaster in the apartment, and suggested that I move to another unit.  I picked one out and they fixed it up, and a week and a half later I got to move (again) into my new home.

I’m beginning to settle in, but it’s not been an easy transition.  The first few nights, I couldn’t fall asleep because I was hearing cars outside and seeing the faint outline of streetlights through the fabric I fashioned into curtains.  Then a cold front came through and I realized that my apartment is such a big space that it’s almost impossible to have any of it warm (there’s no heat).  There’s a fireplace, which is fabulous, but I haven’t been able to find any wood that will actually burn.  So I have an ornamental fireplace.  My bedroom feels like an ice box, but by the middle of the night after I’ve been snuggled up for a few hours, I sleep peacefully.  The daily showers are amazing.  As is having cold milk and fresh veggies.

My work routine was easy enough to fall into, but I’m exhausted every night when I get home and I thoroughly appreciate my weekends.

Town is convenient in that I can go get stuff for pizza if I feel like pizza, and can buy ice cream if I feel like ice cream.

I’m sure in time I will come to love city life and it will feel like home, but the truth is, right now, I miss the quiet of my community and the comfort of my hut. 

A taste of failure

I had decided that my last hoorah at site would be a fun, engaging project that I’d wanted to do for a while and that my colleagues at the NGO were finally enthusiastic about: a world map.

Planning started back in March or April, talking about where we wanted the map, how big it should be, etc.  After much deliberation, we decided that the best idea was to have sheets of metal welded together to make a big billboard type thing, and install it onto the side of a trailer storage container that was out in the yard.  The materials were ordered and it was assembled and installed before I knew it.  Surprising!

The world map is a common project for Peace Corps volunteers, so most of the instructions and materials were already compiled.  I color coded our instruction sheets and did research to ensure that the map was up to date, but besides that there wasn’t much preparation I could do.  The bulk of the project was to be the implementation.

The plan was to spend one weekend with the children drawing the grid and the map itself.  The following weekend we were to paint.

Kris came to help me, which turned out to be vital because at 5’1, there was a lot of the drawing of the grid that I simply can’t do.  At 6’4, he probably could have done it without me.  The grid itself (which you draw because the map is gridded, so the idea is to enlarge the drawing grid by grid) took us an entire day to complete.  There was no transport the following day, so nothing else was accomplished that weekend.

I committed myself to staying late at the NGO so I could work on the map with the kids in the afternoons after they finished school and chores.  The weather — and it seemed like the world, at the time — were against me, and we had bizarre winter thunderstorms that rained out my plans of drawing.  It was nearly the weekend before we were able to even get started.  As the weekend approached, I tried to fix my perspective and be positive that we’d be able to get the drawing done by the end of Sunday.

Of course that didn’t happen either (if it did, this post probably wouldn’t have the word “failure” in it).  Since I’m not usually at the NGO on weekends, I didn’t realize how busy the kids are with chores and activities.  First it was fetching fire wood from the bush.  That took over an hour.  Next they had to do their washing.  Then it was time for the fun activities they arrange — like teaching the kids to do crochet, beading, cultural dancing, drumming, etc.  Eventually I was able to get just a couple of kids to join me and we really went at the drawing.  The day was too short, darn winter, and soon it was time to call it quits.  Sunday morning is Church time, followed by a snack and fetching more fire wood.  Needless to say only a couple of hours of drawing ensued.

It wasn’t all bad though — I found out just how amazingly talented some of the children were.  And watching their faces light up as they saw what they could accomplish was a beautiful experience.

But the reality of being behind schedule, and seeing the number of days I had left at site quickly diminishing, I felt it was inevitable that this wasn’t going to finish.

I pushed on, and tried to get my colleagues to support me by giving me time with some of the kids even during other scheduled activities.  They weren’t opposed, but never did it on their own.  This meant I often arrived to work on the map only to find that all of the children were off doing something else, the staff saying “hawu” and realizing that more hours were wasted.

Finally, finally, we finished the drawing.  It looked great, and everyone was excited to get started on the painting.

My last week at site, there was a public holiday that meant the children would be off school.  We picked that day as the painting day, figuring we could utilize the whole day and make the map look beautiful, and it would be a nice way for me to say goodbye. 

Again, it didn’t go this way (see “failure” in the post title).

I arrived bright and early, but it was 11 by the time we were able to actually get started.  It was slow going in the beginning, but eventually we had six kids painting and it was starting to really look wonderful.  Then it came time to start mixing paints, and they weren’t mixing well.  The white paint was cheaper, or a different consistency, or something, and anything we mixed with it ended up looking terrible.  We weren’t able to get through all of it, leaving two colors (and all their corresponding countries) to be painted.  I was really disappointed, but I knew I’d done what I could.  I’d committed myself to more time there than ever before, even at the expense of spending quality time with my family before leaving site.  I tried to come to terms with the reality, but my emotions were high strung and I was stressed out, and it was difficult.

While we were painting, some of the younger children came to watch, and a discussion about geography began.  They started calling out the names of countries they knew, and tried to figure out where they were.  They started asking questions about different parts of the world.  They were in awe at the size of some countries.  They complimented their friends, who’d done such a nice job creating the map. 

Only then did I realize just what a success the process had been. 

Yes, the project failed.  The map wasn’t completed, there are no labels to show them which country is which, they can’t use it for after school activities or homework help.  At least not yet.  But the thing I need to focus on is the fact that that map has sparked a curiosity I never saw before.  Staff and children alike were drawn to it to consider the world, realize how small a part of the world they knew about, and thirst for an expansion of knowledge.

It was very difficult to come to terms with the fact that my first failure was my last project at site.  But now that I’ve had a month to reflect on the experience, I can see beyond the end result.  I can see how those days working on the map gave me an opportunity to bond with the children who worked on it in a way I’d never done before.  I helped to boost their self esteem and gave them attention that made them feel special.  All of the children and staff have something to look at and remember me (even if it is incomplete… or even if someone else finishes it).  And it’s a lesson that sometimes no matter how much you want something and how hard you work, it just doesn’t work out.  That’s life, and that’s ok. So now instead of having a mouth full of failure, I have just a taste.  A taste to remind me that sometimes things just don’t work out, but it makes it sweeter when they do.

Family Ties

Life on the homestead has become increasingly tight-knit.  I’m a welcomed part of the family, and frequently hang out with my family in their house.  We watch movies, play cards (I taught them Rummy and they taught me some Swazi games – AK47 and Sisu), and chat.  It’s a nice thing to come home to, but it makes it hard to imagining leaving them soon.

The little boy, Machawe, 2011 Feb - March 401

who I’ve come to know and love over the past year and a half is no longer staying with us.  I came home from a meeting to find that he’d left to visit his mother… and he’s never come back.  He’s now staying with his mother’s family in a different rural area.  It breaks my heart that I won’t get the chance to say goodbye and to give him the book and photographs that I’d intended on him having.  But that’s the way life goes sometimes, and especially here.  It’s common for children to be moved around to various homesteads within their family network.  The commonality of it doesn’t make it easier for me to deal with though.  My life is a little quieter and a lot more empty without him.

I worry about my bhuti’s health almost every day.  The TB and HIV treatment did wonders for him, but the affect was temporary.  Not because the medications only work for a short time, but rather because of lifestyle choices he’s been making.  We don’t think he’s taking his pills consistently, if at all.  He’s drinking a lot (bad, bad idea with ARVs).  Additionally, I’ve seen the traditional healer with him on the homestead several times in the past few months.  It’s sad for me to think about what will happen if he continues on this path, but I know the decision is his and he must make it for himself.

On a much happier note, my sisi gave birth last Friday!  I’m now mother to a beautiful little girl named Luleka (I say mother because in Swaziland, your mother’s sisters are also your mother… I’m an older mother – Make Lomdzala).  I haven’t had a chance to take any pictures of her yet, but she’s a sweetheart. 

My other sisi is staying in town doing a program to learn catering and hotel management, which she finishes very soon.  She hopes to find employment to support herself and the family, and I wholeheartedly hope she’s able to secure a good job.

Every time my departure comes up in conversation, tears come into our eyes and we end up changing the topic.  In a number of ways, I’m very excited about the change and am looking forward to starting my third year work… but every day my appreciation for my community, family, and friends grows, and I know it will be difficult to say goodbye to all of that.  I’ve got about a month left to wrap things up at site, which hardly seems like enough.  But would it ever be enough?  Probably not.

I can only hope that I have touched their hearts as deeply as they’ve touched mine.  Zinhle Ngcamphalala will forever be a part of me, and so will her family.

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