Saturday, September 26, 2015

...turns 26.

"Keep calm and be crazy, laugh, love and live it up because this is the oldest you've  been and the youngest you'll ever be again."

I turned 26 on Thursday. Actually, I turned 26 in Swaziland, Africa on Thursday. While plenty has happened since you last heard from us 12 days ago, I am choosing to only focus on turning 26, well because it is most certainly worth talking about. Sean planned the most amazing weekend with friends, starting with a full house cleaning, breakfast, and lunch in Manzini. This my friends was only the beginning! After lunch on Thursday we picked up two friends and hitched a ride back to our Dlamini homestead with our Sisi, picking up one more friend on the way. After cookies, storytelling and a Swazi dance lesson on the porch with our family Sean cooked an amazing dinner of salad, bruschetta and sangria. My family from our training site called around 7:30 singing Happy Birthday – it puts a smile on my face just thinking about it! After opening my sweet friends' homemade gifts we talked and laughed for hours until we realized it was late and we had to wake up at 5:30 to catch the bus for another full day of birthday celebration. I know what you are thinking – can it get any better? I am here to say that yes it can! 

Friday morning Sean cooked banana pancakes and we caught the bus to Mlilwane Park to hike Execution Rock. We arrived around 10:30, set up camp and began our journey through African wildlife up the mountain! It was mighty mighty hot, but we had a blast learning about each other's strengths, weaknesses, and fears in the wild. One of our friends posted some fun videos on our Facebook page – check them out if you want a live feed of our adventure! The top view was beautiful and we could see for miles and miles, able to pick out different cities and landmarks. Swaziland is so small it seemed as if we could see the entire country! You would think a day hike with friends would top off a birthday celebration- you are wrong my friends, it still continues.

After showers (real ones) we took off to an area called Malendlas. It is worth a Google, it is definitely a neat place. We ate the most amazing dinner, had some cold beers (well deserved after a 5 hour hike) and laughed way too loud and long. Back at camp we settle down to a starry starry night and decided that birthdays in Africa are the best.

Thank you all for the cards, presents, well wishes, and prayers on my birthday. I know I am so loved and I can't imagine being more blessed than I am in my life. I turned 26 on Thursday and I am excited and honored to spend the rest of 26 in Swaziland with your support, amazing friends, and a loving husband.

Monday, September 14, 2015

...waits for the next stop.

I feel like we have done all of you a great disservice. Today I realized that we have not yet given a full account of public transportation in Swaziland. A true exposé of sorts. Well, might I attempt to right that wrong following today’s travel from Siteki to Mbabane and back because today we accomplished a somewhat rare feat. We rode all of the big three. That's right the big three, not the big five. Everybody keeps talking about the big five and I still can't get that right. Lions, tigers, and bears oh my, or something or other. No, today we tackled the big three. Khumbi, ibhasi, sprinter, and with that let me begin my exposé.

First, the khumbi. The khumbi, barring the elusive taxi, is the most expensive means of overland travel in Swaziland. We’re not talking America expensive though people we’re talking PCV expensive so like 5 emalangeni (50¢ USD) more than the least expensive means of overland travel. Now, while that's a major drawback to many PCVs and Swazis alike, the khumbi has its advantages. It is, without a doubt, the fastest means of overland transport, and commonly the most entertaining. Depending on your driver conductor duo, in-khumbi entertainment includes the talents of The Band Perry, Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, various rappers I don't know, and/or (note the and/or because a combination of all is entirely possible) Swazi Christian music. Perhaps the most positive aspect of khumbi travel however, is that it is decidedly exhilarating. There's nothing that gets the ol’ nerves on edge quite like rocketing down the highway at 150km/hr in an old Volkswagen with rusted out wheel wells and tired suspension. Especially, when the speed limit is 120km/hr, the road is worthy of about 80km/hr, and the Volkswagen probably shouldn't top 100km/hr, but it's ok because the speed wobbles of the Volkswagen are disguised by the potholes in the road and the potholes are ok because the speed limit is posted and they put in speed bumps but the khumbi driver doesn't give a damn because it's just as easy to go around the bumps in the dirt beside the road and once he gets going fast enough the potholes start feeling smooth and all he has to do is hang on to the steering wheel for dear life and keep his foot to the floor…trust me I know these things. 

Secondly, the ibhasi. The ibhasi is by far the slowest means of overland transport in Swaziland. Consequently, it is also the cheapest because nobody with the opportunity to  experience the adrenaline of the khumbi would ever pay the same for the dull ride of the ibhasi. However, what the ibhasi lacks in speed it usually makes up for in comfort. The ibhasi is a spacious, quiet ride that invokes memories of floating down a lazy river just enjoying the view as you slowly float by. On occasion though, the ibhasi hits that section of water where you lose your comfortable tube and start thinking your last thoughts as you struggle to gain a breath above the water. Such are the occasions when you need to take an ibhasi because it's 6pm and all of the khumbis are clocked out, and it's the end of the month so everybody in the whole country that came into town for their paycheck now want to go home, and the ibhasi conductors know it's their last run for the night and really want the 20 emalangeni in your pocket, so…they start putting people on the ibhasi. They keep putting people on the ibhasi. They don't stop putting people on the ibhasi. Now, in your haze of “what the hell is going on here”, you realize that you still need to get on that ibhasi, so the conductor puts you on that ibhasi and you’re sandwiched in the aisle doing all you can to avoid playing human dominoes and keep your butt out of the poor make’s face beside you, and don't even get me started on what happens when the conductor needs to come up and down the aisle to distribute tickets and then when he comes back to collect that 20 emalangeni you got in your pocket. No, I shan’t start. This is the ibhasi, but lest we forget the grandest spectacle of all when it comes to this giant, engineering marvel (but no seriously they cut up the metal floor of the bus so much to get to everything underneath I don't have the slightest clue how all the subsequent patchwork pieces of medal stay welded together)…the breakdown. The breakdown is truly a grand spectacle. It usually happens something like the finale of a great play. The hero (our ibhasi) has effortlessly defied all of his minor foes (potholes, speed bumps, fines for having too many people on board) but, with a terrifying entrance the protagonist appears (usually a loud bang, a shudder, and a cloud of smoke). The protagonist seizes our hero (remember it's the ibhasi) and evil triumphs over good for what feels like eternity (about an hour give or take) before our hero’s sidekick (some random Swazi kid hitching a ride) emerges. Together they duke it out with the protagonist with several moments of near victory (engine starts, bus shudders forward and dies again) then, miraculously, though nothing has changed and seems like the antagonist is doing just fine on his own, he is cast down defeated (the bus roars to life with random Swazi kid emerging from the bowels of the ibhasi). The curtains close to thunderous applause (everyone claps for the kid and the bus). Nothing it seems, can stop the slow and steady movement of the ibhasi.

Third, the sprinter. The sprinter is the odd crossbreed of the fast khumbi and the steady yet stubborn ibhasi, much the same as the mule is the crossbreed of the horse and the donkey. It appears as either a pudgy khumbi or a sleek ibhasi, neither giving a clear picture of the ride to be expected. It may be a perfect combination of all the positive aspects of overland travel in Swaziland. Just enough speed, just enough comfort, at just the right price. However, like today, it may also be an all too perfect combination of all the negative aspects of overland travel in Swaziland. You find yourself almost home after making a short stop to run an errand, but when you return to the siteshi the khumbis don’t stop (they're going to fast) and the ibhasi don't stop (they're all full), so you flag down a sprinter who rolls to a stop just up ahead. You greet the conductor, tell him where you're goin, and then step up into the sprinter where a horrific sight unfolds before your eyes. The door closes behind you as you process what's front, a sprinter full save two seats. You may think to yourself where's this horrific sight he’s talking about there’s two perfectly good seats left, but no my friend, these seats are the unwanted. One lies to the rear, an aisle seat seemingly okay from the onset. The other is just ahead, an aisle seat once again but surrounded on all sides by the biggest Swazis one can imagine. You sit in the seat surrounded by giant Swazis, your backpack loaded with groceries hugged to your chest with one cheek in the seat and the other hinging over the aisle with the the behemoth next to you. Then, to your continued horror, the sprinter stops. On step three more passengers. They move to flank the seat in the rear but alas all the seats are full so they crowd the aisle in the middle making it impossible for any aisle seat to so much as turn their head. Your siteshi comes up and you shout “stesh” as you feel yourself slowly being pulled down into the mass of flesh and body odor that consumes the sprinter. But no, the conductor can't hear you, the sprinter passes your siteshi, and dumps you further down the road. What a small mercy though. The walk home lets you stretch your legs, breathe in the fresh air, and laugh away the inexplicable absurdities of public transportation in Swaziland. 

The Mbabane bus rank proudly showing off the big three, can you spot them?

Wednesday, September 9, 2015


"In Africa it is always five minutes to twelve." - Anonymous 

Hello all, it's me again, Grace. If you have been paying close attention you would have noticed that Sean and I usually take turns writing the blog post. Sean is obviously slacking on his obligation at this moment. During the time I am here drinking wine, listening to Dispatch, and writing this post, Sean has installed a “shower”, cut down a tree in order to make our rods for hanging our clothes, drawn (semi to scale) the map of our community and responded to 5 other volunteers on DIY home projects. I mean seriously, why can't he write his blog post? 

We have been slowly busy the past few days. We managed to make it to church Sunday and met two missionaries from Oklahoma City. Monday (it was a Swazi holiday) we dug out the beginning of our permagarden (I promise I really did work then). Tuesday was a big day in Manzini. We hitched a ride with a man from the United Kingdom who is doing a public health rotation at the largest hospital in Swaziland. We bought electricity for our house and Sean was able to fit 3 bags of compost in his backpack. What says success like that?! Today, being Wednesday, we attempted to introduce ourselves at the school but were told by the head teacher to come back tomorrow. Since we obviously couldn't count that as our “one thing” we tried our luck at the SOS Clinic, and oh what luck we had! We had a fantastic meeting with the director and financial director and have scheduled a follow up meeting on Friday. Did you read that right...scheduled! We would have clicked our heels on the way home if it wasn't so muddy. Our afternoon concluded with a nap (Sean), some baking (Grace), and some good conversation via text with friends. 

I should probably go try and help my husband but before I go, I want to give a shout out to Make Collins – I made banana bread and gave a loaf to our family. Babe and one of our Sisi ate it in one sitting, they did not share. Best success of the day for sure! 

Saturday, September 5, 2015

...has officially moved.

Well ladies and gents, it's the moment we have been waiting for (maybe you too), we have made our move to our official place of residence for the next 2 years, Ka-Langa. A few things have happened between this moment and last Sunday, so here are the highlights. Everyone moved back to SIMPA so we were not lonely anymore, we both passed our language proficiency test, Grace squeaking by while Sean passed with flying colors, and we received our bank cards, so we are a little less poor than before. The day before the big move (last Thursday) we had our swearing in ceremony. Now, if Sean was writing this post you would have loads of detail about the entire process, who all spoke, what was said, what we wore, and why we worn it. Unfortunately for you this is Grace speaking who rarely gets caught up in the details and only on occasion has a good joke. So bummer for you. But the event was very nice, lots of pictures were taken, we ate too much and we are now officially Peace Corps Volunteers!! The day was followed by a party at a local pub. Many partied like it was their last chance, and I guess it kind of was for a while. The morning after (Friday) we were taken in groups by Peace Corps staff to our new homes, some more enthusiastically than others, probably due to the previous night. 

We arrived at the Dlamini’s around 10:00 am and piled our stuff into the house. Sean and I decided we wanted to purchase as much as we could the first day. Luckily Babe had no problem with our American mentality and told his daughter to drive us to Siteki. Within 2 hours we had purchased our bed, small fridge, portable oven, and sleeping pads (to build our couch). We bought lunch and waited for our Sisi to come pick us back up. At 1:00 pm we were back home, and from then until 4:00 we literally just shifted stuff around in circles in our home. We still have plenty to do but it is coming together. Make arrived around 5:00. She is a lovely women who works very hard for her family. Her English is perfect and one of her first questions was if our parents were coming to visit her. We said yes, pressure is on folks! 

Today we woke to cold weather. And then it rained! Cold and rain were not what we expected in our area of this very small country. Our friends living near us told us to enjoy it while it lasts. Babe wanted to take us to the umphakatsi today. We were told we would be introduced at 11:00. Around 12:45 Babe introduced us and that was that. Sean understood what Babe said in siSwati and we agreed he introduced us very well. Our goal (and what other volunteers have promoted doing) is to do one thing a day. Much of our time structure will be a complete failure here, thus one thing a day is a win. Today was a win, starting off strong in Ka-Langa! We arrived back home and I put on long johns and gloves – for real this 60 degree weather is nothing to joke around with! After more shuffling of our stuff we took a walk in the rain to the store to purchase more stuff to shuffle. It was obviously successful because over the last 2 hours we have baked cookies, banana bread, and pancakes. 

Tomorrow the only thing on our agenda is to go see our Sisi sing in church. We are counting it as our one thing, no judging. Hope all is well with you, we love you. Pictures attached are from the swearing in ceremony, pub party, and part of our home.

Thursday, September 3, 2015 culturally enriched.

This weekend, we had the great privilege of attending Umhlanga – The Reed Dance festival of Swaziland. Umhlanga is a 7 day long festival that culminates in thousands of girls and women dancing before the King in groups associated with their umphakatsi. The Reed Dance is largely misinterpreted by foreigners who see it as a half-naked dance before the King so that he may choose another wife. While that isn't entirely untrue (the girls typically wear garb that exposes their breasts and the King may choose a wife from amongst them) it misses the cultural significance of the ceremony. Let me do my best to explain the Reed Dance festival as we have learned and experienced it. 

Day 1-5: Women and young girls from all over Swaziland form groups based on the umphakatsi that governs there village. Each umphakatsi assigns two men to escort the girls to large camps near Lobamba and the Queen Mother’s home at Ludziludzini where they stay for the week and practice their songs and dances. Every group has different color attire as well as different dances and songs to perfect before the 6th and 7th day where they will dance and sing for the royal family. The girls are ferried to the camps via trucks/lorries in a very long caravan of happy, singing girls. As a side note, this year’s Umhlanga has been overshadowed by a very terrible crash on the highway through Mahhala involving two trucks carrying girls. Due to governmental censorship it is hard to know how bad the accident was, but independent reports put the death toll at about 36 girls with many more critically wounded. It was a very sad tragedy for the country as a whole, and there is pressure to reform transportation laws and methods before next year's ceremony, but due to the lack of clarity and censorship it's hard to know what will happen. Back to the events though, during the week the girls also go in their groups to the local reed beds in Lobamba to cut reeds for the ceremony, the taller and straighter the better. Each girl bundles her reeds together and carries them back to the camp.

Day 6: The first day of dancing! We, as a Peace Corps group, attended this day of Umhlanga. Basically, day 6 kicks off the first day of dancing but more importantly, it is when the reeds are presented to the Queen Mother. We showed up to the Queen Mother’s royal residence around 12pm but we learned that the dancing on the parade grounds wouldn't start until 4pm, the same time we were scheduled to leave. Bummer, right? We walked around for a bit and watched some groups of girls go by as they headed to what was essentially the start line. There was a food court tent set up they we thoroughly enjoyed, but we were a little frustrated because we thought that may be the highlight of our experience. Babe Steve, our country director, came to the rescue though. He invited us all to come further into the Queen Mother’s homestead and witness the start of the ceremony from a VIP’s perspective! We knew we were VIP when we could see where the Queen Mother sat, and when the president of Ghana showed up with his entourage. Next came the official start of the dancing with the royal princesses presenting their reeds to the Queen Mother and dancing their way toward the stadium. Each girl brings forth her bundle of reeds and stacks it next to a small building opposite of the Queen Mother. Then the dancing begins!. The royal princesses, those with red feathers in their hair, present their reeds first and then begin the dancing, leading approximately 90,000 other girls and young women to do the same. Each umphakatsi, or village, of girls has a different song and dance, and the royal regiments of the Queen Mother join in too. All of the important groups are acknowledged by the military leaders of Swaziland who run up and bow, thanking the girls. Every group dances through the Queen Mother’s homestead and then marches to the stadium to regroup and prepare to go before the King. Unfortunately, we had to leave before we saw the girls dance for the King, but we were very privileged to have witnessed the true essence of the Reed Dance, the presentation of the reeds. 

Day 7: The final and largest day of dancing! The 7th day is all about the King. Much like the night before, the groups of girls arrange themselves in order in a field just next to the parade grounds. Once again the princesses start and each group performs its very best for the King. This is also the day that most of the public comes to see, and it is capped by a solo dance by one of the royal princesses, this year it was the King’s oldest daughter, and apparently she did the moonwalk…the Swazis loved it. 

That is Umhlanga in a nutshell for you! If you want to come see us around the end of August we’ll take you to next year’s dance! Despite what anyone says, the dancing is beautiful and the pride of the girls when they present their reeds to the Queen Mother and dance for her and the King is a phenomenal thing to witness. Hope to see you next year!