THINGS WE WILL MISS
100s of school children (bafundzi) waving, smiling and saying good morning to us on the way to school
When we arrive at a school or the Refugee Camp, having our special friends run up to us with big smiles, news and questions, maybe a new journal entry or other "homework" we've suggested for them, or just to say hi and be with us
Every day a new adventure: dependably different and challenging, and usually rewarding
African sunrises and sunsets, the moon rising in the fields beyond the clothes lines and going down behind the latrine, both sun and moon always red with dust when near the horizon
Hlane Game Reserve and Mabuda Farm, both within 30 kilometers - each a little piece of heaven (and with heavenly hot showers!)
The possibility of a brightly-colored bird perched on every bush - maybe even a new one!
Simba salt and vinegar flavored potato chips, the kind we urge the kids not to buy for their morning snack, or even their lunch. But at 5:15 on a hot afternoon, particularly with a precious cold Sibebe or Windhoek beer laboriously biked in from the crossroads: . . . . ahhh!
Produce: tiny sweet apples (US8₵ each); potatoes that get sweet and fluffy when baked in our little electric oven; avocados; oranges; sometimes mangosa, granadilla or papaya.
Riding over to the Camp in time for Church Practice Friday afternoon, hearing the drum and singing as we pull in, seeing the pleased smiles as they see us, having someone make room on a bench or go get a chair for me, shy sidelong smiles during the singing to see if we like it, smiles and sometimes laughter as I try to clap or even sing along a little. (My Iruwanda is weak, but the refrains are repetitive, so I try.) One of the kids keeps a steady beat with the stick in his left hand on the taut cowhide across the section of oil drum and riffing a wild staccato with his right - that's for church?! Little 14-year-old (but so determined!) Edither, elected to lead the "juniors" in church practice, explaining a song where they had marched around the room: "Then Musa led the Israelites . . . "; "Little David fought the giant man . . ."; and "On the Judgment Day, there will be a list . . . ."
The diurnal rhythm of sounds of our community: tinkling of cow bells in the predawn dark on the way to the required weekly dip tank Tuesday mornings; neighbors calling to each other across fields from one homestead to another as dawn comes on; the female soloists and chorus of all students singing hymns at High School morning assembly; the primary school students at the "poorer" school starting the Lord's Prayer all together and the Grade 1s and 2s always finishing a whole line ahead, so proud; traditional dance practice from the schools and, sometimes, the homesteads after the school day with drums, whistles and singing; children playing and calling to each other as twilight comes on.
Seeing Katherine encounter a group of our children, calling each by name and their most recent encounter ("Did you re-write that essay?" "Good brave answers in class last week." "Feeling better?"), bringing delighted smiles and making these kids feel valued and capable, making suggestions for our next meeting, making connections with needs, resources, interests and opportunities, There has never been a better Peace Corps Volunteer. Even on 4 hours sleep and a bad tummy.
When we bring the "'box library" (books included in the donation to the High School, but too young for them, that Katherine persuaded the High School Principal to let her take to the "poorer" primary school) into a classroom and the kids uncontrollably swarm and then will not willingly let go of a book they haven't finished even when the period has ended and the next teacher is trying to start.
THINGS WE WILL NOT MISS
89 paces to the outhouse, and when we get there, Oh the cockroaches, flies, biting centipedes and mosquitoes! and the stench on a hot afternoon.
Living in a barnyard. There is poop everywhere, and one moment of inattention can lead to unpleasantness. First thing in the morning opening the door, with the tight gasket fastened to the bottom to discourage critters from crawling in, and smearing fresh wet stinking chicken poop across the porch.
Litter everywhere; when a Swazi is through with a tin foil bag of chips, a plastic bag, or a Styrofoam "take-away" box, he drops it on the ground!
The total absence of personal privacy, for even the most intimate functions
Getting everywhere by walking, public transport or hitching. You have to build an extra 1/3rd or so of driving time into the schedule to allow for waiting time, although we are very successful hitch-hiking - few can pass the frail elderly white couple tottering forlornly beside the road, bent nearly double under their backpacks ("Wait, did I really see that?" Screeeeech! Rrrrreverse.)
Always being someone else's guest: living on someone else's homestead, who dumps or builds wherever he wants, and having to ask permission to put a nail in the wall or to use his shovel, ladder, - it's his. And asking for a ride wherever we go, then waiting. "I'm leaving just now." 2 hours later, still there.
The view from our kitchen/cooking table: construction the whole time, trash (though frequently good birds (sunbirds!) in a distant tree)
As soon as we get into a car that has stopped to give us a ride, being asked: "Are you Christian?" or "What church do you attend?"
Barnyard noises all through the night. Couldn't the roosters wait past 1 a.m. before they start mounting the hens and bragging about it, in animated detail, to the adjacent homesteads like boys in a high school locker room on Monday? But the dogs baying at night is actually comforting, in a sense - no one comes on the homestead after dark without an escort from those who live here.
Grime. Everywhere. On a piece of paper left on a table overnight. On your pillow. The shower tiles. And tiny black lizard poop, with the white urine tip at one end, on the kitchen table, utensils, your pillow. And the dank smell things stored on the floor acquire.
Sitting in a bus in the Manzini bus rank on a sweltering summer afternoon, with every seat already filled and the aisle packed with people standing, while the umholeli (conductor) waits to summon the driver till the bus is really full. Squeezed into 1/3rd of a seat by the 250 lb 5' woman sitting beside you holding a coughing baby.
Being passed by a speeding lorry kicking up billows of dust. Just after you've glopped on sunscreen. (I see why people tried to avoid being tarred and feathered.)
Misjudging the temperature of the solar shower late on a winter afternoon and not adding boiled water to it, and then a stiff north wind blowing through the cracks of our outdoor shower just as we're all lathered up and ready to rinse off.
Toilets without paper or seats on the stool.
Taking nothing for granted when we teach a class, starting with having to find a vacant, unlocked room; then get chairs; find chalk and an eraser; get the kids hanging around outside to quiet down - on game days to put away their vuvuzela; get the chickens out and keeping the goats from wandering into the classroom, especially at the Refugee Camp.
Continual requests to donate, becoming more intense as our time here dwindles. We'll be having a nice conversation with someone, saying goodbye to them, and then they ask us for something we're wearing or carrying or using, or for a "sponsorship" (tuition) or, most frequently now, to take them with us to America. Except to the refugee kids, never seeming to have given enough, especially as we were winding down and passing on clothes, equipment, or flavorings we hadn't used up. We'd ask someone if they want an item, they would say yes they would, then say their child can't go to school next year and could we pay their school fees. or take the whole family to America. and, inevitably, our bikes. People come up and say "Where is my present?" It takes a lot of the pleasure out of it. I suppose if I had as little chance of providing a future for my kids as many of these people have, I'd be a little aggressive as a possibility seems to arise.
AND FINALLY, WAS IT WORTH IT?
When China's Premier, Chou En Lai was asked in 1972 whether he thought the French Revolution had been a good thing or not, he is said to have mused for a few moments and then replied "It's too early to tell." We think we can say we personally have benefitted; whether others have . . . we hope so, but maybe it's too early to tell.
Is the world better?
We taught a lot of classes on topics that are important here: nutrition; hygiene; sexually transmitted diseases, especially HIV. We think the demonstrations of condom use we taught each year to every student in the high school probably had impact, although we cannot discern that the number of pregnancy dropouts has diminished. In terms of behavior change, however, classroom time is probably not the most effective approach.
We think we did some good, but it's really hard to measure on an overall basis. We feel a little more confident about some individuals. We feel very good about the prospects for our African son John, but on a strict net improvement analysis, all we did was help him get into a slot that was already available; we did not create the position that he took, and had he not been admitted, it would have been offered to someone else, so we benefited him, but created no net improvement in the world. And it was his talents and qualities that have enabled him to succeed so well; we urged him and provided some timely assistance, but he probably would have done about as well without us.
Some of our students and young friends may have been inspired to study harder, take charge of their education and lives, think creatively rather than reciting memorized responses, and treat each other better. I think some feel better about themselves, having been warmly greeted, listened to and sometimes advised by someone older. Whether the lives of any have improved by our efforts is hard to measure, especially because we are resigned to losing track of nearly all of these special young friends; telecommunications is primitive here and, although a few have cell phones (and sometimes they also have air time!) and we've set most of our young friends up with email addresses for themselves and for us, getting internet access will be a challenge for them, and so we're reconciled we'll never hear from most of them again.
In addition, this is a country with zero or negative economic growth, 40 to 60% unemployment (no one really knows) and tens of thousands of young people trying to enter the workforce every year. For what have we trained them? We know some fine students who graduated a year or 2 ago, who have no jobs, no prospects, and nothing to do. Prospects for refugees are even more discouraging, despite their resilience and drive.
Was this the best use of resources?
I don't know. Rather than the roughly US$110,000 the PC spent to bring and keep us here (Yup. That's around US$ 150 per day; there have been days when we were not sure we'd felt the full benefit of all of that.), would that money have been better spent building a school, or just passing out 200 Emalengeni (about US$18) bills at random? I dunno.
Would the world be a better place if we'd stayed in Denver, I'd kept doing what I was supposed to be good at, and made big donations to targeted NGOs? Maybe, but that's not the point - we personally needed to be involved in this adventure, and working another 2 years in Denver was not part of that.
We were blessed with a window few others have: we had health; stability in our immediate family (but we missed some never-to-be-repeated gatherings); and some financial security (we hope! Chou En Lai was onto something about not counting chickens too soon!)
We think meeting some of the challenges and savoring some of the rewards here developed parts of ourselves that we like. We've loved our visits with our young friends in our community, and becoming part of the PC group, all less than half our age, who have been through this together.
As we hear, however, of the number of our friends back home who are dealing now with serious illnesses or surgeries, and as we consider the toll the last 2 years have taken on all of us, it would be too bad if we have spent our final healthy years doing this. We certainly hope that is not the case, but we know we have aged. Certainly we have lost a little more of our dwindling supply of energy. We see pictures of ourselves, and our friends here, when we first arrived, and I fear we've all left behind little pieces of our erstwhile immortality.
We certainly learned a lot about ourselves and each other. We've lived together in really close quarters, depending on each other for backup when an idea or recall ("What is his name? We just spke yesterday!") or phone fails or something doesn't work, or we're frustrated, angry, short of sleep, or having tummy trouble. We've also done most of our work together, which few married couples do, and mostly we've really liked it. As regular readers of this blog know, since we landed I've been in awe of Katherine's ideal match of skills for this task: manifest warmth, interest in and affection for people; memory of names and prior connections; cleverness in spotting opportunities; fortitude; energy; cheerfulness. And thank God she's resourceful cooking with limited ingredients.
We learned a lot about the world, even though we've lived in only a small corner of it, and vacationed only in southern Africa. It's hard to explain, but I've often thought that sometimes you learn just as much from drilling deeply into a little patch, as you do from visiting many sites. Kind of the reverse of the 80/20 rule, where you get 80% of the value out of your first 20% of effort on a project. Sometimes, however, the 2 years in this dusty little village seemed very long.
Part of our satisfaction, having made it now nearly to the end, is simply the joy of attempting something hard and doing it - not so different from paying good money to be dumped at the top of a steep bumpy slope of snow, or starting off up a mountain. We did it!
Have we engendered fonder feelings for Americans? In this absolute monarchy where the will of the people is of little consequence, and especially the needs of the poor people among whom we have been living, what difference does that make?
So, in the end - ? We're glad we did it. We're proud we stuck it out to the end, although there have been times when it wasn't clear if we would. We think some of our young friends are better for our efforts; we certainly gained a lot. And we're really glad to be coming home.
Now, because "What's a book without pictures . . . ?" I close with a picture of 2 of our special friends, Grade 7s, who had never been to our homestead but walked over after church, the day after the farewell at the Camp, to say their own goodbyes. Smart, determined, resilient, hardy, (mostly) self-confident. Have I mentioned, I love these kids?
PS: We just had an emotional lunch with our African son John at a lovely restaurant near the capitol (where the Bushfire music festival is held). He leaves for Germany in 2 weeks. We are at HQ with 15 of our group for a final dinner at a US staff members house. Then a 7 a.m. khumbi tomorrow morning to Jozie and up to Frankfurt tomorrow night for the direct flight to Denver Friday. This is our last night in Swaziland.