Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Letting God Lead 2017


            I recently returned back to Swaziland from spending 5 weeks back in the US on what Peace Corps calls my “Home Leave.”  It is a time whereby Peace Corps gives us 30 days off and a plane ticket home to spend time with friends and family before starting our 3rd year extension.  We are allowed to take it any time during our 3rd year but all 4 of us choose to go home over the holidays.  Lucky for me I was able to fit Thanksgiving, my 28th Birthday and Christmas in while I was home.  It was the perfect trip home especially since I have not been back in the USA since I left for Swaziland in June of 2014. 

Quick trip to St. Lucia SA before starting work again
            The trip started with 4-hour drive to Johannesburg on the morning of November 20th where I would spend the night and prepare for my flights the next day.  It took an evening flight to Frankfurt, Germany the next day, followed by a flight across the pond to Chicago where it was a short trip to Portland, Oregon arriving the evening of November 23rd.  After 4 full days I was finally on US soil and greeted by my parents and aunt in arrivals.  It was great to see them was looking forward to the next 5 weeks at home, but first needed to end the journey with a 4 hour drive over the hill to Bend, Oregon in the snow.  First time seeing snow for over 2 years also, my body was missing the warmth of Swaziland already.

            The next few weeks flew by with Thanksgiving at home and a visit from my cousin from Portland and her roommate followed by a day of skiing at Mt. Bachelor, then a presentation of my Peace Corps experience in Swaziland so far at Central Oregon Community College.  After that it was off for my week long adventure up to Seattle, Winter Park, Denver, back to Seattle then finally down to Portland and back home.  It was a quick trip to celebrate my birthday with my best friend from University up in Seattle then I was able to meet another Peace Corps volunteer I served with in Swaziland in Winter Park where we spent a few days enjoying the snow.  After that spent a day in Denver visiting another good friend from the college days before back to Seattle and home to Bend.  It was a blessing to have the opportunity to visit my friends and do the things I got to do while I was home.  Friends will come in and out of our lives I have realized and the true friends are the ones who after 2 years you can reunite like you just saw them yesterday.  This trip was full of blessings and God beginning to shape this next year for me and bring me back to the person he had intended.  The last few weeks at home was spent relaxing and enjoying the time with family, eating as much Mexican food as I could and drinking as much good beer as I could (I did return to Swaziland with a little extra weight then I left, but that will change real fast), downloading new movies and shows to keep me going for the next 9 months in Swaziland and appreciating the support of my family around me.  I was able to attend a gathering of RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteers) in Portland and share with them Swaziland and what Peace Corps is doing there just before Christmas.  Christmas was then spent low key with my grandparents visiting from Arizona, some bowling and billiards, and church time.  It was the perfect Christmas and so lucky to have been able to spend it at home surrounded by family for the first time in a few years.  The trip went by way to fast and before I knew it I was preparing for the journey back to Swaziland again.  The packing this time was much easier as the majority of my newly acquired extra bag consisted of tortillas, hot sauce, shoes and sweets for back in Swaziland.  Goodbyes are always hard and yet another goodbye to my parents and brother but knowing I will see them much sooner this time still didn’t make it much easier.  My brother will be starting his 3 month long journey to Peru and over to South Africa and Swaziland so I will be expecting him for a month in March here in Swaziland.  My contract will be ending in September so wherever God leads me next I know I will be able to have a visit home again in November.  So be expecting me then everyone who I missed this last trip home.  The leg home started early in the morning on December 27th with a shuttle to Portland in the snow yet again.  There was snow on the ground for the entirety of my time home except for the first few days I arrived in Oregon.  It even snowed in Seattle!  With that it was a flight from Portland to San Francisco followed by another overnight to London this time.  Arrived in London then a long flight down to Johannesburg arriving on the morning of December 29th where I caught a shuttle back to Swaziland, which was stopped for 4 hours in South Africa because they did not have the proper papers, welcome back to South Africa.  Finally arriving in Swaziland in the evening I was greeted by my friends again and brought home where we proceeded to catch up for a bit before I was passed out in my bed again back in Swaziland.  It felt like I just left Swaziland yesterday.

Family at Christmas time with the new selfie stick
               The next few weeks were filled with adjustment, rest, a new beginning and my routine here in Swaziland.  I was able to refresh and refocus on the year ahead while I was home and come back to Swaziland looking forward to what 2017 will have in store.  The past year in Swaziland was filled with highs and lows from changing relationships, to transitioning into new work positions, leaving my family here in Swaziland and saying goodbye to volunteers.  It was certainly not the easiest year but without challenges we cannot grow and I know God has a purpose for every person and event in our lives.  This year ahead will be filled with new friendships forged, starting the next chapter of my life come November and completing this life-changing journey with Peace Corps Swaziland.  It is time to let God lead, touch, heal and love us as was spoken at church this last Sunday.

Morning sunrise back in Swaziland


  

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Homeward Bound


          It is just under 2 weeks now until I will be making my way to Johannesburg for the grueling 24 hours on a plane and some 10 hours in airports before I touch ground in Portland, Oregon for the first time since I left on June 24th, 2014.  It will be the first time being back in the United States since I left also that 2 ½ years ago give or take a few weeks.  I am not sure what to expect in these upcoming days and it really hasn’t begun to sink in that I will be traveling home to see friends and family for the first time in a long time.  I have been trying to reflect on how it will be like, how I will feel or act when I am home and how have I changed in my time here in Swaziland and the Peace Corps.  Some of me is nervous for how I will survive, excited to be home with friends and family and all the good food and drinks, how will my stomach survive that change, excited to be able to share Swaziland with everyone, but nervous if they really care and how long I can actually hold their attention before they get bored or sick of me talking about Swaziland.  I know all these things are real life and will happen but I am thankful and grateful for the support of my friends and family in the United States and my ones here in Swaziland.

         Some things I am most looking forward to when getting home is having Mexican food waiting for me at the airport, not that Chipotle want to be Mexican food, but the authentic stuff you find on the West Coast and in Oregon.  I can’t wait to have a beer that does not taste like Keystone or Coors light, but something with that dark rich taste of chocolate and pumpkin spices.  Being able to get in a car and run to the grocery store, not worrying about how you will carry everything home and having the AC going.  Since it will be winter that won’t be happening, so being able to turn the heater on or have a warm fire going while home.  The smell of Thanksgiving food and Christmas food and pumpkin pies and all those holiday smells including the real Christmas tree.  I can’t forget the pumpkin spice lattes and having actual coffee at home or on the run in a cup that is not Styrofoam and spilling all over you.  Being able to use my phone and not worry about how much data I will be slaying by using Instagram and the ability to download and watch all the shows and movies I have missed since being here.  I will be bringing them back to Swaziland so don’t worry about that.  Most of all it will be being home with my family and seeing friends and being together for a full 5-weeks.  It is time for me to recharge and prepare for the last 9 months I will be spending in Swaziland.  Or that is how the plan goes for now.  We all know my 2-years has now turned into 3-years so who knows where the 3-year plan will go.

            What am I nervous about?  One is the fact of being back on the other side of the road and all the traffic that will be happening.  I have gotten used to the slower pace of life here and not having to drive anywhere, or being allowed for that matter in Swaziland to drive.  Good thing I have a younger brother who can drive me everywhere, even pick me up when we are out with friends.  I am nervous about the richness of the food and drinks and my stomach adjusting to that cause I know it will not like it at first.  I am nervous about my patience with people when they complain about something so “First World Problem” and not wanting to jump down their throat.  Life has gone by since I have been here and people have moved, gotten married, had children and started new jobs.  Will it be the same and coming home and expecting everyone to be the same and to pick up where we left off?  We all have our own lives and the World continues to turn no matter what we are off doing.  It will be exciting to hear about all the change but will be difficult at first adjusting and getting back into the life back home.

         Some people ask how has the Peace Corps changed you and it has been difficult for me to answer that sometimes.  I want to say it hasn’t changed me much but I know it has and it can be easier for others to see that but more difficult for the individual to notice their change.  They can be little changes in your mannerism from the way you stand or sit to just little things you say that have picked up from Swaziland.  I do know “Yebo” and “Eish” will be a common phrase my friends will hear when I am home and will give my strange looks.  It can also be the bigger things from my patience to how I can get more frustrated now with the actions and the things other people choose to talk about.  Are you really upset because they put whole milk in your latte instead of non-fat milk?  I can’t tell you all the ways I have changed and how the Peace Corps changes your outlook on life but I can tell you it has been one of the best decisions I have ever made to join the Peace Corps and have been extremely lucky to be blessed with living in a Country like Swaziland.

         My time home will be filled with traveling to Seattle to see a best friend then flying to Colorado to ski and be reunited with my best friend from the Peace Corps to back to Seattle then down to Portland for some Peace Corps events and talks then home for the last few weeks for Christmas.  It makes me tired just reading that sentence.  The time will be great and packed full of adventure and activities but will go by too fast in the end.  It is important to make time to rest and just enjoy the time home and not look forward too much to coming back to Swaziland.  Our time with friends and family must not be taken for granted and we need to enjoy all the time we have with them from the talks that go late into the evening over drinks to speeding down the slopes for the first time in a long time.  I have a life here in Swaziland, I have a life there in the United States, and I am looking forward to sharing all our lives together and hopefully one day bringing them both together.

 
One of the first sunsets in Swaziland

Our first taste of Swaziland




Things I miss from the United States                  Things I will miss from Swaziland



1. Friends and Family                                                1. Friends and new Family

2. Coffee and Beer                                                       2. Chicken Dust and school beans

3. Mexican Food                                                          3. Buying a meal for $1.50

4. Driving in a Car                                                     4. Not worrying about a car

5. Snow and Skiing                                                    5. All the soccer played

6. Football Games                                                      6. The simplicity of life

7. Fast Internet and data                                        7. Not worrying about my phone

8. Snow Storms                                                          8. Thunderstorms

Saturday, October 8, 2016

A Place I Call Home


It has been a little over one month now since I started my new role with Peace Corps Swaziland and Young Heroes.  Almost two months since I left the place I knew as home here in Swaziland and the people I called my family.  It is still home to me though here and they are still my Swazi family.  Life in the capital city of Mbabane has been completely different than the last two years of my time here in Swaziland.  I miss the lazy days of being around the homestead, watching the animals and just staring at the world around me.  The quiet times in the evening where all you hear is the sound of a nearby dog and off in the distance the songs from some church service or all night vigil going on.  I also took pleasure of spending the entire day doing my laundry outside in the warm sun and then waving to the kids as they walk home from school as I hang my laundry to dry.  I think one of the things I miss most though are the times of sitting and talking with my “make”, host mother, and visiting with the teachers from the schools.  The people in my community and my host family are what really made me connect with my community and make it a place to call home.  I remember during the first three months in my community, known as Integration, there was a moment of doubt and thinking “What am I doing here?” and “I don’t know if I can do this.”  I am sure most, if not all Peace Corps Volunteers have a similar thought at some point in their service.  Mine came towards the beginning.  Sitting here now in my 3rd year with Peace Corps Swaziland, after all my fellow volunteers have gone home and completed the “required” two years, I am thinking about what changed.  The people are what changed.  I came to love Swaziland, my family here, and the friends I have made here in Swaziland, and just the culture and way of life of being a Swazi.  My family here is what kept me going and not wanting to give up on my time with Peace Corps Swaziland as well as the connections and relationships I built with the people here.  It wasn’t the projects, or the traveling, being in Africa, or even my fellow Peace Corps volunteers.  It was Swaziland.


Photo of my family during the Braai on my last week

I won’t say though that I am not enjoying what I am doing now in my 3rd year, because I really am.  What I am most looking forward to though is the continued cultivation of the relationships I have currently as well as the new ones that will develop in my workplace and city.  Life is much different as I get up early in the morning, go to either the Peace Corps Office or the NERCHA (National Emergency Response Council on HIV and AIDS) Office where Young Heroes is located, and then get home just before dark every Monday to Friday.  Unless of course there is a Swazi or American national holiday, then I get to celebrate a three, four or five day weekend.  Most of my weekends consist of just being at home and relaxing or spending time with friends.  Sometimes if there is an event going on like a show, festival or concert I will attend, which is another benefit of living in the city now is the access to these things with ease.  The downside though is the limited funds; I after all am still a volunteer.  It has been nice though to wake up and take a warm shower, cook a meal using an oven, keep food in a fridge and be able to walk around barefoot not worrying about what bug you will step on next or washing your feet before getting into bed.  I have learned to appreciate the simple things in life more.  My new home does have a full bathroom now, a bedroom with closet and larger bed, kitchen with a sink, stove and fridge plus living room with couch and a desk to work at.  I feel like I am living in a palace now.  Plus running water and electricity that is constant.  One the sunny days I am able to lie in my hammock on the porch and read a book while gazing at the mountains nearby.  Almost every weekend though lately has been cold and rainy, a change from the hot and hotter weekends in my community.  City life isn’t that half bad after all.  No more 5-hour bus rides on a long, dusty and bumpy road hoping that my bread doesn’t get smashed or eggs break along the way.  No more carrying around a 2-ton backpack with everything I own just to go away for a weekend.  I can actually blend in around town now and not be worrying about how I am going to get this thing on transport, or where will I store this while doing errands in town and then slinging two more bags of groceries on my arms.  I came, I saw, I conquered.

View from my hammock in my new place in Mbabane
 Currently I am a Peace Corps Volunteer Leadership position with Peace Corps Swaziland in the Communications and IT field.  We are working on finding better methods to communicate with volunteers in the field as well as beefing up our public image of Peace Corps Swaziland.  I get to sit in the office most days and play around on social media and our website along with editing photos, movies and other media to showcase all the work the volunteers are doing to the world.  That is what I have been doing as of lately while also assisting with any other projects volunteers may have, finding resources for them and helping staff with trainings and workshops for the volunteers.  My other position is with Young Heroes in the communications and marketing field also.  I work with their marketing officer and we plan strategies to obtain more donors and sponsors for the programs that Young Heroes offers.  A large part of work will be getting ready for Bushfire 2017 since it is one of the largest events and donors to Young Heroes here in Swaziland.  It is a 3-day music festival featuring music from all over the world along with food and arts.  Its theme is centered around creativity and expressing oneself.  Will be the third time attending this year, only this time will be supporting and working with Young Heroes at the festival.  It has been a 360-degree turn from what I was doing in my community but everything that I have been learning while with Peace Corps has been invaluable and I take everything as it comes.  I never would have thought that joining the Peace Corps would bring me to where I am now.

       
I am thrilled to see where this will take me as well as the opportunities that will come from the work and knowledge I have gained.  I would like to continue in this field and working for Non-Profits, specifically here in Swaziland.  I will be taking home leave over the holidays this year and get to spend a Thanksgiving, my 28th birthday and Christmas all stateside back home.  I am looking forward to being home and seeing some snow, eating Mexican food, drinking good beer and catching up on ALL the movies and shows I have missed while being here.  There is such a thing as reverse culture shock and I know after being away for two and a half years that I will experience some of this.  I know that when I step off that plane in Portland I will be filled with a mixture of emotions, but it is like they say, “If you’re not uncomfortable, you’re not growing,” or something along those lines.  I am looking forward to this next opportunity, this next adventure here in Swaziland, and this next “short” chapter in my life.
Umhlanga/Reed Dance 2016

Friday, May 6, 2016

The next 3 years!


            I know this is long and overdue and maybe a long read but please take the time to go over it all and see what all your support, prayers and thoughts have accomplished here in Swaziland.  This could not have been possible without my family and friends behind me…

So…Swazi Time: Where you believe that if something can get done today at a certain time then it most certainly can get done at the same time the next day, or even the next day.

            That is what I have been on when sending out updates and letting all my friends and family know how appreciated their support is.  Along with Swazi time, the limited access to Internet, transportation never coming, and the ever-busy life of a Peace Corps Volunteer does not help get this accomplished.  What does help is all the support that everyone has given me over the past almost 2 years here in Swaziland.  In just under a month I will have been here in Swaziland for 2 years, and August 28th will be the end of my Peace Corps Swaziland service.  A lot has happened over the last 2 years here in Swaziland, in Southern Africa and in my small community in southern Swaziland.  I would like to try and express my gratitude and a brief update of all that has been accomplished here and where I will be going come August 2016.


GLOW Camp 2016 at the Flash Mob with my counterpart and the girls from the high school

            In March I was blessed with a visit from my family here in South Africa and Swaziland that I will never forget and will be one of the best family vacations we have been able to spend together.  When they arrived we got to spend 4 days in Cape Town, South Africa enjoying some real coffee, great food, flushing toilets and a washer and dryer.  Yep that was my favorite thing!  We went to the wine country, the penguins of South Africa, Cape of Good Hope and Table Mountain.  After leaving Cape Town we got to spend the rest of the trip in Swaziland traveling around and enjoying a great meal with my host family.  I took them on game drives in Hlane Royal Game Reserve, went zip lining through Malolotja Park, watched traditional Swazi dances and a visit to the cultural village, lots of shopping and great food, and finally a visit to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg before they left.  It was such a great trip and the highlight was my family getting to meet my host family here in Swaziland and them getting to see my community I have spent the last 2 years in.  We visited many of my projects, had an amazing home cooked meal from my “make”, met some of my students and teachers I work with and experienced “real” Swaziland.

My Swazi family meeting my family for the first time

            The preschool is moving forward with new projects being completed all the time and kids being able to attend school for the first time.  All of this could not be accomplished without all your support through prayers, letters and financial contributions.  We recently completed a garden at the school to provide nutritional food for the kids and their families.  There are tomatoes, butternut squash, spinach, cabbage, carrots, beetroot, and onions planted.  A new veranda was built to provide shade for the kids and provide a place for morning meetings.  New tables along with cubbies and bookshelves were built and the kids love being able to have a place to put their bags every morning when they arrive.  We also put in a tippy-tap which is a hand washing station near the toilets to promote good hygiene and sanitation practices.  In December we graduated the first class of 22 students and in our second year there is almost 40 kids in attendance.  I was blessed to hear from one of the parents how her child who graduated from the preschool was able to attend a good primary school because of his education he received.  The small success stories like those and people coming up to me expressing how they have changed and benefited are what keep me going in the hard times and why I love what I am doing currently.  The next stages for the school will be to build a kitchen and playground for the kids once we are able to collect enough funds and donations.  This will allow the school to eventually be recognized by the Ministry of Education here in Swaziland and have them support the school for sustainability.  It will provide a salary for our teacher and hopefully hire another teacher, provide food for the kids and allow them to attend the school for free.  Currently the parents pay E50 a month or E150 a term, which is about $10.00 or $30.00 for the entire year.  Many parents cannot afford this so they volunteer at the school with projects like gardening, cleaning up the yard, cooking or any other help needed around the school.  I am looking forward to seeing the development and future of the preschool and so proud of my teacher, the parents and community for all they have accomplished.

Preschool graduation in December 2015 with our teacher and Pasture Valley

            Another project nearing completion is the new library at the Primary School.  This month we will be receiving 1000 books from Books for Africa to put in the library and give the kids their first opportunity to explore the culture of reading.  Books for Africa could not have happened without your donations and now 30 new libraries in Swaziland will be opening at various primary schools, high schools, preschools and communities with 1000 new books each.  The primary school I work with is very excited for the new books and to see the children immerse themselves in a new world.  We have recently completed the painting in the new room all Dr. Seuss themed.  The new tables and chairs look amazing in the room allowing seating for 45 students.  We also purchased a new computer for the library as well as a television for movies and presentations in the library.  All of the material and renovations were done from a grant that myself and my counterpart at the school proposed with Peace Corps Swaziland.  The new library will serve over 350 students from ages 6 up to 15 at the primary school.  It will be the first time most of them have had access to books and been able to experience and see oceans, planes, Dr. Seuss, Harry Potter and all the World has to offer using the television and computer.  This will be the first library my community has had access to and will help the youth of my community gain a better education, progress their English and have a chance to see a brighter future.

Primary School Library painting before the shelves are installed

            The final projects I have been able to work on are developing BRO (Boys Reaching Out) and GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) clubs at the high school in my community.  Currently the boys club has around 20 members attending, while the girls have almost 30 girls in attendance.  We meet every few weeks and discuss topics such as HIV/AIDS, SRH (Sexual Reproductive Health), Self-Esteem, and other various life skills relevant to the youth of Swaziland.  One of the main goals of the clubs is to promote gender equality and educate the youth to make healthy life choices for their future.  Some of the things we do at clubs are grassroots soccer games, art and crafts, skits, drama, songs and other hands on activities to teach them.  Recently 3 girls from the GLOW club attended the annual GLOW camp in the capital city of Mbabane.  They spent a week over their school break along with 60 other girls from various clubs and communities in Swaziland learning more about how to be a leader in their communities and Swaziland and what it means to be an empowered women in today’s society.  A flash mob was organized promoting female empowerment and taking a stand by the girls, skits were done and guest speakers were brought to the camp as well as college and career support and advice for the girls.  It is an annual camp similar to the BRO camp each year that is organized and put on by Peace Corps Volunteers here in Swaziland.  My boys club has been able to send 6 boys so far to the BRO camps, which address similar issues and teach the boys how to be strong supportive men here in Swaziland.  The GLOW and BRO camps have been highly successful camps since they started here in Swaziland.  I have had the privilege to see the inauguration of the first ever BRO camp here in Swaziland in May of 2015 and helped put together a manual for all the BRO clubs around Swaziland to use as an aid for their clubs.  The boys and girls I work with in the clubs have become very important to me and seeing their future success is very rewarding.  I have been blessed with seeing a few of the older members in the clubs take leadership positions, improve in their schooling and be able to work towards a brighter future.

BRO Camp in December 2016, the 2nd annual camp in Swaziland

            Finally, the big announcement is that I am privileged to be extending my stay here in Swaziland for another year of service.  When I started the Peace Corps process I couldn’t imagine being away for 2 years in a developing country and if I could even accomplish it.  When I arrived in Swaziland and moved to my community I was ready to be done and was thinking 2 years is way to long, I will not make it.  Time passed slowly at first and before I knew it I was having my parents visit Africa, projects coming to a completion and thinking about our COS (Close of Service).  So, I will be working with a NGO here in Swaziland in the capital city of Mbabane called Young Heroes.  I will also be taking a PCVL (Peace Corps Volunteer Leader) position in Communications for Peace Corps Swaziland.  This opportunity came about from the relationships I have been able to form, my passion for working here and seeing all that is still yet undone.  I studied International Relations in college in the hopes of one day working with a NGO (Non-governmental organization) and international development including non-profit work.  This opportunity is huge in helping me see my goals and continue doing what I love.  A little about Young Heroes is that it is a small NGO started by a former Peace Corps volunteer here in Swaziland.  They focus on providing sponsors for OVCs and Child headed households including food, clothes and schools fees.  They also do leadership and life skills camps for youth and provide technical training for out of school youth and children who are between high school and college who cannot afford university but have skills in demand.  My position with them will be marketing, fundraising and social media presence as well as program development.  MTN Bushfire is one of the largest music festivals here in Africa and is put on by House on Fire here in Swaziland.  It is a major fundraiser each year for Young Heroes so I will be working with them as well on developing more of their presence at Bushfire.  I am looking forward to this new opportunity and seeing how we can improve and develop more of Young Heroes programs.  My position with Peace Corps will be to serve as a Communications liaison with volunteers, staff and improve our online presence.  I will work with Peace Corps Swaziland on managing the new website and other social media.  It will also allow me to help with updating trainings for volunteers and improve the working relationships with volunteers and staff.  All of these opportunities will allow me to continue to improve programs and success here in Swaziland on our goal to eliminate HIV/AIDS and give the children a brighter future.  I don’t know my next step and what will happen after this year but I do know that I am where I am supposed to be and doing what God has in store for me.  In the words of JFK, “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”  I want to thank you again for all your support through prayers, letters, care packages, messages, monetary and most of all just showing your care.

“All my life I have seen where you’ve taken me.  Beyond all I have hoped and there’s more left unseen.  There’s not much I can do to repay all you’ve done so I give my hands to use.” –Jeremy Camp

Family together at Mantenga Falls in Swaziland

Here are some links and resources to help with donations and future projects here in Swaziland as well as learn more about my work and Swaziland.  We continue to need support with library projects, boys and girls camps, various education funds and just overall Peace Corps work here in Swaziland.

 http://swaziland.peacecorps.gov/

https://www.gofundme.com/cjkamhb8 (Help fund a friend in my community attend university)

https://www.gofundme.com/swazilandpreschool (Support the preschool project here in my community)

http://www.youngheroes.org.sz/index_home.php

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Last 500 Days


Sawubona “Greetings” from Swaziland.  I hope all is well back state side and just wanted to give all my wonderful friends and family and update on how the last 500 days have gone in one email.  That is going to be hard to do but I wanted to highlight some of the things I have been able to experiences, places I have seen, projects I am doing and just try and capture a little bit of what it is like to be serving as a US Peace Corps volunteer here in the small Kingdom of Swaziland.

One of the first projects I started when I arrived was starting a boys club, BRO (Boys Reaching Out) and a girls club, GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) at the high school.  We would meet about every 2 weeks during school terms at the end of the day.  The main focus of these clubs is to educate the young men and women here in Swaziland about HIV/AIDS and how to make a difference and avoid the virus.  In order to do that we have to address other issues surround the culture here and some of that is gender equality, women empowerment, fatherhood, sexual and reproductive health, self-esteem and building a future.  My boys club has around 12 boys who attend regularly and the girls club is upwards of 25 girls who attend.  I have been able to build a relationship with many of the members in both clubs and have been able to see an improvement in many of there lives in the short year and a half I have been here already.  Some of the things we do are games, dramas, play sports, arts and various crafts, music and movies and lessons teaching various life skills.  Each year there is a camp for BRO and GLOW where the clubs around Swaziland bring 2 to 3 members plus their local Swazi counterpart to a weeklong camp.  At the camp the kids get to interact with other kids from around Swaziland and discuss some of these issues more in-depth, have guest speakers, play sports and activities with each other and enjoy a camp like environment.  Not to mention many of them it is there first time leaving their communities, seeing the larger cities, riding in a bus, and getting all the food they could want, plus showers.  As Peace Corps volunteers we organize this camp each year for all the clubs to come together and it is one of the highlights of our service seeing the kids grow and learn together.

Another project I began was to develop libraries at both the primary and high school in my community.  The primary school has around 350 students from grade 1 up to grade 7.  The high school has just over 200 students from Form 1 up to From 5, ranging in ages from 14 years old to 24 years old.  The school systems are all managed under the ministry of education here in Swaziland allowing students to attend school for free with fees being paid by the government up to grade 7.  A fund has been set up to allow OVC (Orphaned and Vulnerable Children) to attend high school and the government will pay those children’s school fees for them at a set rate.  The high school I work at is comprised of over 90% of the students are OVC, meaning they have lost 1 or both parents.  Most have died from the HIV/AIDS epidemic that hit Swaziland hard leaving 33% of the population living with HIV and 100% of the 1.2 million people living in Swaziland affected in some way or another by HIV/AIDS.  The library projects will allow the kids access to 1000s of new books in the schools enabling them with a greater future.  It will allow students to escape this world and get lost in a good book and discover the joy and culture of reading.  In Swaziland, English is a pass/fail subject and kids need to pass English with a good proficiency if they even want to consider furthering their education here in Swaziland.  All high schools are English mediums but in the rural schools the students lack motivation and the drive to pursue their studies.  They continue to see their fellow peers and community members drop out of school, get in trouble, make poor choices, and they believe this is their only option as well.  The libraries at the schools will give students a place to go where it is safe and help give them a brighter future.  As Peace Corps volunteers we have a program we organize every year called Books for Africa/Swaziland where we are able to provide 1000 new books to 30 school libraries each year.  We also provide training for the teachers and librarians of these new libraries and continue to monitor and help sustain these school libraries long after we depart.  Through grants, donations, community contributions and volunteer work one library at the primary school is coming to completion and a library at the high school is waiting on a grant approval through the US Embassy here in Swaziland.  It is very exciting to see the teachers and students get involved in this project and the joy on their faces when they open a new book.

One of my last big projects here has been the development of a preschool in my community.  There was no preschool when I arrived and many parents expressed the need and importance of a preschool for their children here.  We were able to secure an old building near the schools to renovate and turn into a school.  I was lucky enough to get partnered with a group of individuals from Canada and the United States to help with this project.  They have been a huge support with funding and donating material needed for the school to succeed.  We started with 4 walls and a leaky roof and now are able to provide schooling for over 40 students.  It has been a huge project and one I am very proud of here for my community.  Some work we have done is put a new roof on, build a 3 stall latrine, provide tables and chairs for the students, school supplies and toys, new glass in the windows, fresh paint and artwork on the school, and new fencing.  The parents and community have come together to help with the labor and making this school function.  I have also been working with Megan’s preschool that she currently works at in Vancouver, WA doing cultural exchange with their students and they have also been able to provide financial support for further renovations and needs for the school.  We are still working on getting a water tank and rain gutters for rain water harvesting, building a kitchen so the children can have food at the school, and building a playground for the children.  The school has already made a huge impact in the children and their education.  It will help them be prepared for primary school and help with their English.  We will be having our first graduation ceremony for the school on December 3rd where 22 students will move on to Grade 1 in January.  It will be an exciting event and the community will come out to celebrate this achievement of the students and community for all their hard work.

All of these projects would also not be possible without the support of friends and family back home.  There are some links you can look at to learn more about these projects and support them financially if able.  Other ways you can support is just to pray for these projects and their success and share them with other friends and family.  The Kingdom of Swaziland is a beautiful place with people who care and love one another; it is the hidden gem of Africa as many like to call it.

I have also been able to do a little traveling while here and get to enjoy all that Swaziland has to offer during my free time and holidays.  I was able to go to Durban, South Africa for New Years last year and recently was in St. Lucia in South Africa for a week.  I am planning to go to Lesotho for New Years this year with another volunteer and do some hiking and camping.  Another trip in the works is visiting Mozambique and the beaches there.  My girlfriend Megan is going to be here in February for a few weeks then shortly after her visit my family will be arriving in March.  I am looking forward to my last 8 months here and getting to see my projects come to a completion and the success of them, some more beautiful places that Africa has to offer, and being able to share my experience with Megan and my family when they visit.  In Swaziland I went on a game drive at one of the largest game reserves here called Hlalne Royal Game Park and we saw Lions, Elephants, Rhinos, Giraffes, Hippos, Impala, Water Buffalo, Warthogs, pretty much The Lion King.  Have dome some great hikes around Swaziland, attended the Marula Festival, went to Bushfire Festival and been able to visit other volunteers around Swaziland.  In my community I have been to traditional weddings, all night church services, school cultural days with traditional dancing, and helped slaughter chickens, pigs and cows.  It is hard to explain all that I have been able to experience and put into words some of the things but it has been a life changing experience already.  They say the Peace Corps is the toughest job you will ever love and they are correct in so many different ways.  I want to thank you all for the support and prayers during this time and I cannot wait to share this experience with you more through my photos, blogs and stories.

Here are some links to our fundraising efforts and please take some time to read through them and pray for all our work here in Swaziland.

GLOW Camp 2015


BFA (Books for Africa)


Preschool


My Blog


The children at the preschool


Sunday, July 26, 2015

Year in Review by Photos

My home away from home for 9 weeks in Swaziland
Christmas morning in Swaziland
The beach front in Durban South Africa, which is on the Indian Ocean about 4 hours south of the Swaziland border into South Africa.  Spent 5 days over New Years in Durban with other Volunteers from South Africa, Botswana, and Swaziland.  Toured the city , hung out on the beach and got some 1st world amenities for a little bit.
I lived with a family during my 9-weeks of training in a community near Matsapha, which was where we have classes and trainings most days.  The other days we staying in the community and had hands on trainings.  My family was made up of a Bhuti “Brother”, Skoni “Sister-in-law”, my brother’s wife, and Make “Mother”.  Most days during school there was a younger Sisi “sister” who was on the homestead, she was 12 years old.  I lived in a small rondaval hut, which was one room with a small veranda and electricity!
My host family during family appreciation day at the end of our PST.

The current G12 group after swearing in, we are now officially PCVs in Swaziland.  All of us with the Prime Minister of Swaziland, our Country Director for PC Swaziland and the current US Ambassador of Swaziland.  We learned about HIV/AIDS in Swaziland, how to create and sustain projects we will start, experienced traditional cultural dances and dress, went to a game reserve, and learned the local SiSwati language.

Traditional Men Dancing

I currently live with a family on a homestead made up of a Make “Mother”, Babe “Father”, Bhuti “Brother, and Sisi “Sister” where I will work for the next 2 years in my community.  It is a house with 2 rooms which I made one room into a bedroom with a bed, camping shower and my clothes.  The other room has my kitchen area, a desk and my hammock.  It’s the PCV life.

This was the first Briee “BBQ” on the homestead where men from the community came and we butchered a pig that was raised and cooked it up for the day.  We hung out and BBQ, talked and shared food with other members of the community and a near by volunteer came to share the day with us.

This was one of the first gatherings we had a PCV in Swaziland after swearing in and it was around Halloween time.  Great time with great people.  Jeremy Loops is a local South African musician who came to Swaziland, check him out, great music and does all his own tracks, hence “Loops”.

This was the end of Term 3 in December and it was a farewell function celebrating all the Form 3 and Form 5 graduating from school, the accomplishments made and was celebrated with food, dance and skits from all the students.

Traditional Dance from some of the students

We spent Thanksgiving in Mbabane at our Country Directors house where a feast was prepared for us by the staff and G11 volunteers.  Our turn this year to prepare and cook.

Spent the day with by bhuti taking the cattle to the dip tank where all the cattle from the community must go every 2 weeks or once a month depending on the season to be washed of all bugs and dirt.  This is mainly the role of the younger boys in the community to watch the cattle and make sure they don’t get into other peoples homesteads and fields and keep track of their cattle.

Mantenga Falls and swimming in Swaziland to wrap up the New Years Vacation

The Pre-School I am currently working on before we started the renovation of the building in January 2015.

Currently we have 35 students attending the school with 1 teacher.  We are working on building a new latrine, a new roof and putting a fence up around the premises.  This has been one of my main projects and has been very rewarding seeing the progress and growth in the community and with the children.

This is the annual marula festival in Swaziland, which celebrates the traditional drink and fruit of Swaziland.  Swazis from all over collect the fruit and make their own homebrewed marula drink from this fruit and all come together each year to present it to the King of Swaziland and this festival.  It is wrapped up with dancing from the mother’s of Swaziland and presenting the drink to the King.  It is pretty much a large party in Swaziland.

The dance at the marula festival

Spent the night at the Hlalne Royal National Park in Swaziland with some fellow PCVs.  We went on a sunrise game drive and saw lions, rhinos, elephants, giraffes, water buffalo, impala, hippos, and a turtle.

This was our first ever BRO (Boys Reaching Out) Camp that we put on for boys to attend from all over Swaziland.  We had 28 boys attend from 10 different schools all over Swaziland.  We discussed male identity, gender equality, self-expression, SRH (Sexual Reproductive Health), Fatherhood, and HIV/AIDS education and prevention.  We also played soccer, had a talent show, roasted smores, and played lots of other games with the boys.  Check out the video on YouTube soon.  It will be on our Peace Corps Swaziland YouTube Channel.

The group who recently participated in a Grassroots soccer training, which we hope to implement into our schools and community. It is a way to use soccer to reach the youth and educate them about HIV/AIDS.

Me hiking Sibebe Rock near Mbabne, which is one of the largest granite rocks in the world.  It was about an hour and a half to the top and I was able to hike all around the rock and view Swaziland from afar.  The local beer is named after Sibebe so I enjoyed a cold one at the top.

This is one of the most recent projects I have undertaken and we are developing a library at the high school for the students to get excited about reading and the English language.  We have over 1000 books to sort and organize and then implement into the school and English department.

And finally my current PC beard I am working on growing for my last year of service.  Who am I trying to impress, really? Taken at a local reserve near my community I went to stay one night to relax.  Got to sit outside and watch the thunderstorm roll in while it was raining and listen to Phil Collins’ Tarzen theme song.  This is Africa!

       So since I failed at keeping posts up and running each month I though I would do a double header and make this post all about photos.  I tried to choose the best photos I could about some of my Peace Corps Swaziland experience with short captions explaining them all briefly.  Mindful though that photos can never truly capture this experience or Swaziland 100 percent.  Enjoy!  (Also, I am not the best photographer sometimes, it has only been a year and I have almost 5000 pictures already on my computer.)