My favorite items during PST

Everyone who knows me knows that I like to be prepared. I scoured PCV blogs for months looking for items other Volunteers found useful. Sometimes Volunteers would update packing lists for the next-arriving cohort, and sometimes I could find lists of favorite items. No one was writing about what they used during PST, though. The training part of service in Swaziland occurs with only one of your checked bags, and we received little advice on what would be needed. So that leaves me to write the blog post I always wanted and I hope it helps a future Volunteer. 

I arrived in Swaziland in July in the depths of winter. I knew winter here wasn’t anything like winter in Ohio or Utah, but I brought just enough warm clothes for the Manzini region. I would need more to live in the mountains of Hhohho. On the coldest days or nights, I wear long yoga pants underneath a long skirt. I also have a light Patagonia puffy that has kept me warm, especially when sleeping in my sleeping bag under my two Peace-Corps-issued blankets. I sleep in flannel pjs every night with heavy Smartwool socks. I’ve even worn my winter headband to keep my ears warm on a few nights. I have loved having my slippers here as well. Prepare for about one week of the coldest temperatures with layers. It was cold again last weekend because it rained. 

You may say that you don’t need winter wear because you want to be placed in the warmest region, but there are no guarantees when it comes to site placements. And Swaziland is such a tiny country that you can easily travel anywhere, and you do not want cold temperatures to stop you. Plus, who wants to be cold for nine weeks of training? 

Cold weather gear I have loved:

  • A 30-degree sleeping bag
  • Winter pajamas
  • Heavy socks
  • Long yoga pants
  • Hat or headband
  • Puffy
  • Lightweight gloves
  • Slippers

I love cooking and baking so I also came prepared with kitchen gadgets and many other items:

  • Measuring cups (dry)
  • Measuring cup (liquid) that I use for pouring water from big buckets into my large kettle and to pour water on myself while bathing
  • Oven mit and pot holder
  • Wash cloths
  • Toiletries organizer from LLBean that I’ve hung above my “bath tub”
  • Wire clothespins
  • Salt and pepper
  • Cordage
  • Highlighters
  • Good pens
  • Kitchen shears
  • Pairing knife

Things I wish I had brought:

  • A mirror 
  • A suit jacket
  • Food storage containers
  • A hoodie
  • A vegetable steamer

When I am reunited with my second checked bag I hope to write about everything I brought. Please let me know if there is anything you want to know about! 

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Wednesday photo: Language class

  
My language group. These are the people I spend the most time with and share most of my problems with (usually because I need them decoded by our teacher). Robert lives next door, so we walk together to language class every morning. Our teacher is awesome and answers all of our questions patiently no matter how many times we ask about exceptions to rules. We have regular farm animal visits during lesson time (the goats really do want to learn siSwati!) that entertain us immensely. Thishela also has an excellent latrine. It’s better than the flushing toilets at school. Maybe it deserves its own post! 

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Lessons learned in the first month as a Peace Corps Trainee

One month down! There has been so much to learn this month that I knew I needed to record my thoughts on the first month with the Peace Corps here. It has been challenging and frustrating at times, but I have always been enjoying myself.

  • Going three weeks without a phone really was not that hard.
  • What Swazis think is cold is not that cold. Waking up to a 35- or 40-degree room is cold, though. It is like a desert here, with 30 to 40 degree temperature swings during the day. On the coldest day so far I wore heavy socks, slippers, yoga pants, a maxi skirt, a shirt, a sweater, a coat, a winter scarf, and a winter headband. I sat under my sleeping bag on my bed. It was not so cold during the daylight hours, though.
  • Make (mother) cares about my health and she tries her best to keep me warm. This involves forcing me to wear shoes in her house when only babe (father) is allowed to do that. She scolded me for not wearing socks with sandals. She scolded me for sitting outside in the sun without a hat or long sleeves. She also scolded me for not wearing tights with my skirt, when I knew it would not be cool. She even threw me under the bus and told babe during dinner that I had the gall to dress like that. One of our medical officers said she sometimes receives phone calls from our bomake saying we are not taking good enough care of ourselves. I anticipate my make doing this.
  • Babe now knows I love avocados and it just so happens to be avocado season here! They cost about 15 U.S. cents each for a regular size, which happens to be the small size here. Yes, I have started eating the avocado with a spoon. Avocados are also delicious with chicken stew with rice or pap/liphalishi (corn meal prepared like boxed mashed potatoes). I plan on posing with our avocado tree while wearing my avocado earrings once our tree is ripe.
  • Swazis dress very nicely/professionally. This is something our group underestimated. Nearly everyone wishes they brought fancier clothes.
  • You can buy just about everything here for a price, of course. Many people would have packed differently knowing that they could easily withdraw money from an ATM and buy the products here.
  • Boiling a large kettle full of water takes about 30 minutes. Boiling more than two of these kettles per day makes my ceiling rain.
  • It is fatiguing always being at work every minute of every day. Do not underestimate this. When you get home from a long day of school and you want to hide in your room, remember that you are supposed to be making connections with your family by playing with the children, practicing siSwati, or helping with chores.
  • You have no privacy. Everyone is watching you all of the time. In my case, my younger brothers and sisters are also always looking to see what food I have so that they can ask me for some.
  • My water is so dirty I broke my filter. Remember that my family uses this water every day of their lives.
  • Flexibility and patience key. Spend some time somewhere other than the United States before joining the Peace Corps so that you can learn about and experience a slower pace of life. Live is lived differently here and you have to adapt in order to be respectful.
  • Read and understand the Trainee rules. Ask for clarification when you do not understand. No one wants to be sent home so soon after arriving after such a long application process.
  • Your concrete floor will be your refrigerator. There’s no reason to not buy that yogurt after all.
  • Be nice to your fellow Trainees. These are the people who will keep you going through all of the good times and the bad.
  • Allow yourself to speak bad siSwati. This is how you will learn good siSwati.
  • Do not worry so much about the first language test. I felt confident taking the test (although I failed miserably apparently). The likelihood of being sent home over a non-passing test score at the end of the nine weeks seems slim here. Peace Corps will also reimburse us for hiring a tutor at our permanent site, meaning there is time and resources available to redeem our language scores between the end of Pre-Service Training and In-Service Training.
  • You may love your training family and want to help them however you can, but they survived with their current way of life and without you for many, many years. They will continue without you for years to come. Give them knowledge and not your money.
  • And be nice to yourself. On all the long days of Pre-Service Training, remember to take a moment and practice some self-care. Listen to music, read a book, or try to bake a cake on your stove (I have had varying degrees of success so far). You want to have fun memories of PST too, not just ones where you were stressed.

 

Size of G14: 37

Reading: (well, rereading) A Game of Thrones

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Wednesday photo: Sangoma

DSCF3206

Yesterday we visited the sangoma, a traditional health practitioner who works with herbs and consultations with the ancestors to provide advice and treatment to visitors. The sangoma danced for us to the tune of a single drum. His dance expressed his consultation with his ancestors and their pleasure with our visit.

I live close to the sangoma and could return for my own consultation for a fee of E100, about $8, if I wished to discuss a health or life problem with him. I hear his drum regularly, usually on Friday nights, and wonder what is happening.

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Wednesday photo: Dirty water filter

Water is my biggest concern at my site, because I have to either go to the river and carry water uphill and back to my house or take the wheelbarrow across the street to a tap about five minutes away. The river water looks clean. The pump water is visibly dirty. Which would you choose? 

Yes, that pump is a WASH failure because my bosisi still choose the river. I choose the pump because I can’t carry 20 liters of water on my head from the river. I do sometimes get to use the cleaner-looking water depending on what my family has stored and whether or not they allow me to work for my water. 

Hence my dirty water filter. All volunteers and trainees in Swaziland have a water filter that is usually plastic and has clean water storage on the bottom and unfiltered on the top. There are two ceramic “candles” that are filled with charcoal that do the cleaning. The ceramic is porous and collects the dirt from the water on its outside, and then after passing through the charcoal, the water drips into the storage space. We were told to clean the candles once they were dirty to speed up the filtering process. I expected this to occur every couple of weeks or so. 

I decided to take apart my filter on Saturday after eight days of use because it was smelly. I discovered this:  

   
My family uses this dirty water for everything, including cooking the food I eat with them. This is how people live here, and this is why I am here. 

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My first day as Ntombi

I was anxious and excited at the same time waiting to meet Babe. I can easily say the main parts to a siSwati greeting at this point, which is the extent of my confident siSwati. I think Babe was anxious too, because he did not say much during our first meeting other than my new name, which I could not pronounce.

Ntombi.

Two days later (June 24) and I am still having a hard time.

Ntombi, pronounced in-tome-bee.

The first afternoon, night, and morning were tense. I felt so much like an outsider. The children did not want to play with me. I could not figure out the family structure (still haven’t). I did not know where I was in relation to all but one of the other trainees in my village. And I definitely did not know what was for dinner.

Ntombi, meaning girl.

I watched how to hand wash clothes. I rinsed the suds off clean dishes. I had rice and beans for dinner. I counted 10 bowls filled with dinner. I was able to serve myself. I watched a couple hours of TV with the children and young adults. I mesmerized the infant with my glasses and shiny earrings. I organized my room and went to bed proud to have survived my first day but with anguish over my lackluster interactions with my host family. The morning was rough because it took 45 minutes to hard boil and cool two eggs for lunch. My smallest pot is very wide, so it required lots of water, which took a long time to boil. I managed to cool the eggs without wasting any water. I ran out of time, so I had a spoonful of peanut butter for breakfast.

Ntombi, pronounced properly when I said goodbye to my sisi (sister) the next morning.

I headed to the end of the driveway to wait for the school bus. Sisi called me back, saying she would wait with me for the bus, so we walked to the stop together. When I looked up to watch for the bus, a beautiful sight was before me.

  
What a beautiful welcome in Swaziland.

 

Reading: Game of Thrones

Trainee count: 38

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Impressions of Swaziland

We have just started our first full week in Swaziland as Peace Corps Trainees. This is the week where we move in with our training host families for about 65 days. Everyone is anxiously awaiting our first meeting tomorrow afternoon, which is Wednesday, June 22.

  • The roads, so far, have been excellent. It sounds like the roads in our training villages are more of what I expected.
  • There really are some mountains here. The one I am looking at now reminds me of the Untersberg in Salzburg. The sun sets just to the south of the mountain, which creates a very beautiful view.
  • Sunset is early. For as far south as we are, there is only about 12 hours of daylight year round. Currently, sunrise is at 6:45 a.m. and sunset is at 5:15 p.m. It is dark before it is time for dinner.
  • Our training facility is very developed. There is hot water and constant electricity. The lights have flickered only once or twice. I had read about some baboon incidents at the training facility in past years, and fortunately, the location was changed a couple years ago and there are no baboons!
  • For it being winter, there is almost no green to be seen. The rains should come in the next few months, which will definitely be needed. All the grass is golden and there has been no apparent hurry to collect the bales. They are still sitting in fields.
  • We have not yet had much corn, even though it is the most widely grown crop here (Babe gave me a roasted ear today, 6/24, for a snack!). We have mainly eaten rice and potatoes with salad, carrots or butternut squash, and stews – a vegetarian stew with baked beans and veggies and another stew with chicken or ground beef (known here as mince meat). There have been frequent bananas and apples, too. Breakfast has included oatmeal, dry cereals and milk; lettuce and tomatoes; chicken, pork, or ham; fried or hardboiled eggs, and toast. There is plentiful tea, coffee, and other hot drinks, too.
  • We have left the training center compound only once for a quick shopping trip, and the walk was much more pleasant than I anticipated. There were limited stares, catcalls, and trash. Yes, there was trash on the side of the road, but nothing like what I have encountered in other places.
  • The grocery store is just like an American store. We went to a Pick and Pay that had everything I looked for. Baking products are easily available and not terribly expensive. There is a full refrigerated and frozen section as well. In addition to food there were also other household items available, such as cleaning, bath and beauty, and paper products. It seems that all manner of clothing is available somewhere in country as well, although it may be out of our price range.
  • My money went reasonably far. I spent E138 (about $10) on tissues, tea, laundry soap, clothespins, hangers, and crackers. This would have cost closer to $20 at home. We have since had a second shopping day E330 (about $22) to get additional products after moving in with our families. I purchased a broom, 20L bucket, four food storage containers, tablecloth, pineapple, pasta, lentils, baking soda, baking powder, bread flour, yeast, cleaning cloths, half a loaf of bread, and a yogurt.
  • The language has a lot of syllable repetition and alliteration. Words are deceivably long because the subject, verb tense, and verb combine to make one work (for instance, ngiyabonga, which means thank you/I am thanking you). Every siSwati word ends in a vowel, which makes a very sign-song-y language. The click has been mostly mastered.  The letters x and q also make clicks from further back in the mouth. These sounds are from the Zulu and Xhosa languages. It’s the dl sound that is the most complicated for me. To make this sound, curl the tip of your tongue up behind your front teeth, open your mouth and keep a straight face, blow air out of your mouth (this gets you to the hl sound), and add some buzzing to get the sound to change.
  • I have yet to encounter screaming children excited to see a white person. I am intrigued to meet my family tomorrow because there are eight young children on my homestead. (Preview: my homestead’s children have become the running and screaming children excited to see me!)

 

I will be setting a second post to post in a few days because I am not sure when I will next have internet. We receive our phones on July 4, so it may be until then!

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Leaving the USA

I woke up on the bus to JFK as we passed the Brooklyn Bridge and dawn was breaking. We have been at the airport since 5 a.m. and our flight leaves at 11:15 a.m. 

It finally feels real. 

Staging was yesterday, where we spent five hours getting to know each other and learning about the Peace Corps and our future roles as volunteers. We were given money to cover our lunch, dinner, and transportation from the Philadelphia airport to our hotel. 

Now the waiting begins. Contact is to be unexpected for three weeks as we adjust to our new surroundings. By that point I will be living with my host family and have many stories to tell. 

After making it through a problematic checkin, it was rewarding to talk to staff and other flyers who were very excited for my volunteer service. 

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Q&A Session: Pre-Departure

As I have been preparing for my departure to Swaziland, I have been asked many questions about my future with the Peace Corps. I will provide below many of these questions and their answers so that you too can know what will happen over the next 27 months.

Where is Swaziland?

It is a small country in southern Africa bordering South Africa and Mozambique.

How long will you be there?

My service includes three months of training and 24 months at my permanent site.

Where will you be living?

For training, I will be living in a small community outside the capitol Mbabane. I do not know where I will be moving to.

What are your living accommodations?

I will be living in a one- or two-room building on a family compound. I will have a lockable door and an outhouse. My training family will provide a bed.

What happens during training?

We will have daily language lessons and then sessions on everything else we will need to know (health, travel, safety, program planning, etc.).

What will be your work assignment?

Our first assignment at our permanent site is to complete a needs assessment. This will determine what the community wants and needs. Projects should be based off these results.

What are you packing? How much room do you have?

As I have not yet packed (yes, I leave in 24 hours), I cannot answer. Suffice to say, my living room floor is covered in items I would like to take. I have to contain my checked bags to 50 pounds each. This will be hard. I am not worried about space.

What do the next couple days look like?

The group is meeting in Philadelphia for an afternoon training before heading to JFK to fly to Johannesburg. Then, we will take a bus to Swaziland. We will stay at a training facility for almost a week before moving in with our training family. There will be lots of learning and studying for a few tests that need to be passed to be sworn in as a full Peace Corps Volunteer at the end of August.

How big is the group?

There are usually about 40 people in a Swaziland training class. There are around 100 Volunteers already working in country.

Can you come home? Do you get vacation?

Yes, I can. Will I come home? Probably not. There are too many sights to see. I will accrue 42 days of vacation time.

What can we send you?

I made a list here: Mail and Visits. It explains everything you need to know about sending me mail or a package, including my address.

How will you be able to communicate?

Most internet access will be via phone through a pay-as-you-go data plan. Data is expensive. There’s an app called WhatsApp that will save me money on texting, so we can communicate with it. We can also be pen pals and write each other letters.

What is the food like?

I cannot say for sure until I have tried it, but the main food is pap, a corn porridge. I will let you know how it is soon.

Will your host family cook for you?

Our training family will cook for us for the first three weeks. Then we will be on our own. I anticipate other arrangements could be made with the family if desired.

What are you looking forward to?

Learning how to properly cut a mango. Also, learning siSwati, making friends, and sharing knowledge back and forth with the locals.

What am I worried about?

Being served chicken feet at my first meal with my training family. (I would happily accept a goat liver as the unusual organ or body part offered.) And what if my families and community do not like me?

Where do you want to travel? 

If there are elephants, I will go. Fortunately, I should not have to go too far.

You look so calm and sound excited. How are you keeping it together?

I know this is the next step in my life and I very deeply want to succeed. It’s my last day in Utah today. Today will be hard.

 

Please let me know if you have any other questions!

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Yes, I’m moving to Swaziland!

Some of you know this, but to the rest of you: I am moving to Swaziland as a community health worker with the Peace Corps! Departure is approaching soon (Monday, the 13th), and packing is in full swing.

Many of you know how much I love to travel and learn from the world. Those of you who have known me in Utah know how much traveling to Ghana to lead a research project as part of my Master of Public Health degree changed my outlook on life. Everywhere I have traveled to and lived has helped make me who I am today, and my travels in the summer of 2014 to Ghana and Kenya opened my eyes to a whole different world.

I had seen rural, underserved parts of the United States before (think the Navajo reservation in southern Utah, where people drink contaminated water on a daily basis) that moved me enough to know that I wanted to do something about their water. I wrote about my first time on the reservation for my application to the public health program at the University of Utah and that visit has stayed with me.

The Mittens

The Mittens, Monument Valley on the Navajo Nation

 

Flash forward another two years and I am leading a study of the storage and disposal of poisons in central Ghana, and for the first time in a long time, I felt like a journalist again. I knew that working in a rural community to help the community members help themselves with community-based participatory research was how I wanted to spend my life. Throw in the love I received from the people I worked with and a handful of incredible elephant experiences, and I was hooked.

Ashaka, my first adopted elephant orphan

Ashaka, my first adopted elephant orphan

As an "obroni" or "white person," I was a magnet for children anywhere I went.

As an “obroni” or “white person,” I was a magnet for children anywhere I went.

Returning to both Ghana and Kenya again the next year where I spent a week testing water and then traveled to a Maasai village where I discussed the benefits of hand washing and a latrine to the family I was staying with, I knew I had found my element.

All dressed up with my Maasai family

All dressed up with my Maasai family

After finishing my degree and half-heartedly applying for a few office jobs in Salt Lake City, I knew I needed to seriously apply to the Peace Corps. I was offered a position as a community health worker in Swaziland in September, but I was not sure that I would pass medical clearance. I spent December through May checking off the Peace Corp’s never-ending list of medical tasks. Departure was finally real when I received notification from my doctor’s office that my last lab was excellent.

I have spent the last three weeks wrapping up my life in Utah and preparing for 27 months in Swaziland. I will update here as often as internet access permits in Swaziland, and expect a few more posts before I depart. Check out the tabs above for more information on Swaziland and mail, and I will post again this week with answers to the most common questions I have been receiving. If you have any questions, please post below.

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