Monday, December 27, 2010

: Two lessons: Geography and Birding

I’m writing this on the solstice; summer for us, winter for our readers (both of you). As I recall, that means the sun is 23 ½ degrees below the equator, and because we are about 26 degrees below the equator, at noon I will have to look between my feet to see my shadow. And living this close to the equator means we don’t get much variation in the length of our days. Sunrise is roughly 4:30 a.m. and sunset is around 7 p.m. today, and this is the longest day of the year. I do miss the late summer evenings of the Pacific NW.
This is being written by the non-birder. We have a nest of black collared barbetts (I’m told) right out our front door. We watch them come and go all the time. What makes it interesting is their call. Each bird has a short call of a single note, but they are sung antiphonally so it sounds like one bird, one tone about four notes below the other, kind of like a European siren, but higher, quicker and more musical. It makes me wonder, if they both chose the same tone, would it sound like _________ instead of -_-_-_-_-_.
During the mating season, the male of another bird grows very long tail feathers. It makes him a handsome fellow but upsets his flight characteristics so that he is nose high and the wings are working very hard. It reminds me of a student pilot who has seriously miscalculated his weight and balance.
We hear another bird which I think of as ‘the Swazi bird’. His call seems to wander aimlessly, never hitting or maintaining a pure tone, but smearing from tone to tone, like a drunken whistler. If you’re not sure why I call it the Swazi bird, read my blog on writing Swazi music.
Finally, I make frequent sightings of full-breasted mattress-thrashers; the African variety is darker than the American but is less shy about ‘displaying’.
This is being written by the birder. The birds here are plentiful, colorful and in general have pretty calls. I have forty plus birds on my Swaziland list and about thirty new birds on my life list without having had much time to go out in the “field” yet. The poor “flyer” that Gary mentions above is glossy black with a bright red collar during mating season. Non-mating season he is just a brown non-descript bird with a short tail. We have multiple bright yellow canaries that vie with the barbetts to wake us up in the morning. The ‘Swazi bird’ is elusive and has not yet been identified. I am making no comment about the Swazi mattress-thrasher.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


A few days ago, we had the opportunity to play Santa’s Helpers, arranged by Kathleen who volunteers at Good Shepherd in Home Based Care. We drove down to the MR3, going under the clouds on the plateau. Following our recent rains, everything was lush and verdant green, but after leaving the MR3, the roads were as slippery as an Olympic slalom run. We drove far back into the bush—45 minutes—to get to our first NCP (neighborhood care point) and were greeted by a few boGogo and about 35+ OVC (orphaned and vulnerable children). Some little ones started crying when they recognized Kathleen, thinking it was shot time. The NCP, which is their “pre-school”, was a shed or “classroom” with walls you could see through. We had a good time playing with them, kicking/throwing balls & balloons and ‘dancing’. Then we handed out food and drinks and finally gave out little black plastic bags with simple gifts in them: dollies for the girls, trucks for the boys, and a little candy. Most of them quietly walked away carrying the bag—unopened. We had to show them that they could open the gift, and what was inside was theirs to keep. It was quite an experience! We also gave the boGogo emahiya (traditional over-scarf) knowing that if we gave them food, it would go to the kids. We drove another 25 minutes to get to the second NCP site and repeated the experience. It was a great day.
A great big ‘thank you’ to those of you whose wonderful contributions made this experience possible for us. It was one of the most meaningful and cheerful Christmas experiences that we have ever had. Many of these children have never experienced getting a gift and it was most humbling for us who come from a world of such plenty. Their eyes told the whole story. When we white people drove up in our big 4-wheel drives, they were apprehensive and scared. Their eyes looked so sad and old. Then one of the Swazis told them the simple story of Christmas and why we were there. By the time we had to leave, their eyes were all smiling and happy, just like children’s eyes should be at this joyous time of year. We so enjoyed playing and dancing with them and watching them enjoy their Christmas sweets.
So here is a sampling of pictures we took which need few captions. Kathleen is the other mlungu; she is from New York and has been volunteering here, off and on, for over ten years. If the kids seem well dressed, it’s because they were expecting us and it’s in our honor. We hope this captures the feeling and meaning of the season- - -and we hope that you, too, will be visited by Santa and that it will always be said of you, that you know how to keep Christmas well. And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One.

Sunday, December 19, 2010


This is an attempt to update you on our recent activities, but we’re not sure when you’ll read it because we are unable to connect to the internet. (This is Swaziland, after all.) Attached are pictures of our adventure which need no captions. We took a different road down the valley to Big Bend, hooked back to Phuzumoya to meet our friends, Fred and Florence, for a game tour of Mkhaya game reserve in the bushveld. We saw 15 species of land animals and 30 species of birds in the 24 hrs we were there. (Of the four of us, three of THEM were birders.) The weather was overcast which made a pleasant visit and with our recent rains, the bush was very green. Our first drive was late afternoon in a topless Range Rover. Back in camp, we enjoyed a meal including breaded ‘shrooms, jewel squash soup, breaded impala, chicken, mixed veggies, and fried bananas in a cream sauce dusted with chocolate. We had our own stone hut with a high thatched roof, but open to the jungle sounds—the only thing surrounding our bed was one thin mosquito net. An early morning drive followed by a good breakfast, a late morning drive followed by lunch and, finally, our last drive which took us back outside the park in a heavy downpour—in the open Land Rover. We all returned to our place—in wet clothes—via a transfer in Manzini in time for Happy Hour.

This is an experiment: trying to load more pictures in a smaller format. We think you can enlarge them by clicking on them (I haven’t tried this myself).

Sunday, December 12, 2010


Mo and I have suffered culture shock on different occasions, but today’s lesson will be Music Appreciation, Swazi style. Swazi music is very simple. Think nothing more complex than four quarter notes in 4/4 time and a key signature of more-or-less C.
First of all, we’ll work on the rhythm line. This will be carried by a few Swazi males, at least one of which is tone deaf and another is in rapture or experiencing some sort of high. Put down four quarter notes of the same tone for the first measure; second measure is four quarter notes two thirds lower; now come up one third and another four quarter notes; finally, come up to the original tone and four quarter notes. Repeat. Repeat again. Repeat ad nauseum. The words aren’t significant at this point—they’re mumbled in siSwati.
Now we’re ready for the soloist. The soloist will have a range of up to four or five notes—not necessarily in the same key as the bass line. Find a Swati who is suffering from a very sour stomach. It would help if he has recently lost his job and just learned of his HIV status. Tell him to start shouting. If he comes close to being on key or feeling the rhythm, poke him with a sharp stick. That’s about it except for dynamics: Everything is SD is fortissimo con brio.
If you perform your music in public, you’ll need to know the Swazi dance step. That means you will shift your weight from one foot to the other every other beat. The foot doesn’t have to leave the floor, but for high energy pieces might be lifted knee high. But keep it simple.
Now you have an understanding of Swazi music. In practice, this is found everywhere. You’ve read my complaint about khumbis; and at any public gathering, the music is always present at conversation-limiting volume and the guy on the PA system will jack the volume up, in that pause when the speaker takes a breath between sentences, so that there is never a moment to let the ear drum relax. Yesterday, we were at a function with a live combo. It was simply unbelievable, their lack of lyricism and tonality. By comparison, it made the River City Boys’ Band sound like the New York Symphony. So we rely on our i-pod with regularity to keep in touch with more western music. Debbie has been listening to Christmas music at this time of year and I have my usual favorites. (…and since my birthday, I still have The Music Man in my head. Ah, that’s what Sd needs, Professor Harold Hill!). Seeing no questions or comments, you're dismissed. We’ll talk more, later.

Friday, December 10, 2010


Happy birthday to: Jim (70 isn’t so bad, but don’t try it in Africa); Brad (hope you got the message 12 time zones away); Dave (father-to-be); and Laura (a BIG one). We hope they were all happy occasions—but indubitably won’t compare to mine.
You’ve seen my first birthday cake (at Gloria’s). My second cake (thanks to Sandy) was shared with nine other PCVs here at home. The occasion: a Hanukkah party arranged by Katie, one of our frequent visitors. We had latkes with sour cream and Mo’s home-made applesauce, kugel, fruit salad, and my cake was decorated with a miniature menorah. They all spent the night with us because some came from clear across the kingdom. I’ll let some pictures tell the story.

Some were first-time guests, so we heard some familiar comments which I think we haven’t shared with you. Upon entering our palace, they look around and say, “Wow, this is like a real house…and has a ceiling”. A couple of times, we’ve heard, “I don’t mind doing the dishes when there’s a real sink”. “I can’t believe I just flushed…and I’m still inside”. Katie is known to open our pantry door and simply stare, lustfully. A favorite comment of mine was when we were asking for some technical assistance from the younger set, apologetically, and Anna Mae said, “That’s okay, I have parents, too”.
(That's Katie in the kitchen. Kyra, our other frequent visitor, is in the back row, wearing green.) I had a happy birthday. We'll talk more, later.

Monday, November 29, 2010


(Sorry, the pictures got entered in reverse order. Go from bottom to top.)

So we’re back home after In Service Training and Thanksgiving in Mbabane, and because a picture is worth a thousand words, I’ll let a few pictures describe our trip. But first, a few updated facts about the Kingdom—the reason we’re here. Revenues are down 60%; the unemployment rate is 40%; 70% are living on <$1.00/day. (In contrast, Mo just calculated we are living on roughly $20/day.) 18% of the Swaziland GDP is from civil service (the highest in Africa), and 40% of that is security related. So of 35,000 civil servants, the IMF is recommending cuts up to 10,000. The incidence of HIV is unchanged at 26% (in the general population), but in the “productive” years, that translates to about 49%, so almost every other person we encounter between the ages of 15 to 49 is HIV +. With those stats, Thanksgiving had significant new meanings this year.
Most days we were so tired after classes we didn’t even go out but watched a movie in the conference room. One day was an exception when Mo went to the CD’s house (which is near the embassy) and shared some pre-Thanksgiving baking with a few other PCVs, while I found brunch with PCVs downtown. We even had classes Thursday morning, so it was a real treat to board a chartered bus to go to the Ambassador’s house. The last picture shows me standing on American soil. Typical Mbabane weather was cool and threatening in the morning (it felt like Thanksgiving), but it cleared when we got to the embassy.

The sixth picture is the back yard of the embassy. Notice a few did get in the pool, but the weather was cool and the water was cold.

Picture 5: Ambassador Irving consults with his chief aide-de-camp. Notice nobody else is around, suggesting a very high security conference.

Pic 4: We enjoyed hors devours and drinks before dinner. (Drinks provided by PCV contributions. PCV and drinks: a natural combination.) Around 130 of the American community in Mbabane (about 70 PCV, the remainder from the embassy) were present and we shared nine turkeys and all the typical dishes that go with Thanksgiving. AMERICAN FOOD! It was great!

Pic 3: There were three groaning boards for the main course, but this is a picture of the dessert table. Our usual dessert at home, when we have it, is out of a package of cookies.

Pic 2: Our last classes were Friday morning. After a shopping trip to pick up some things we can’t get in Siteki, Mo had arranged a night at Gloria’s B&B in observation of my birthday. (We last visited Gloria for Mo’s birthday.) We were so tired, each of us was leaving three tracks, so we collapsed upon our arrival.

Pic 1: Happy Birthday to Me from Gloria. (Coincidence: We learned that her daughter-in-law works for the Gates Foundation.) (Following tradition, after returning home, we watched “The Music Man” on our laptop.)

I’m writing this off-line (Sunday afternoon) while another storm passes through. It was very hot and humid today, so we’re hoping the storm will bring us a cooler night. The lightning and thunder here are MOST impressive. We always eat dinner by candle-light. Romantic? Well, actually we expect the power to go out at any moment. …and I just tried to connect to the internet and failed, so I don’t know when you’ll read this.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving

We finished writing our report, submitted it electronically, and tomorrow morning we're off to IST and ten days in Mbabane. Some got the message that we would have Thanksgiving at the CD's residence but that has changed. We've been invited to have Thanksgiving at the Ambassador's residence which has a pool. The catch is that we've been having cool, stormy weather--in fact we were without water again today after terrific winds last night--hardly conducive for a pool party. Never-the-less, we are looking forward to a good American meal (and with the variations in weather here, it might be extremely hot by then). So this will be the last post until we return home after Thanksgiving and we wanted to offer a few thoughts of thanks.
We are thankful for:
running water (and an indoor, flush-toilet to use it in);
hot running water (and a shower to use it in, and the friends who use it);
double-ply toilet paper (you would be too, once you've done without);
our health (we work hard at it);
electricity (when we get it);
finding ourselves in Posh Corps (We are living better than 80% of the natives.)
and our family and friends back home (that's you).

Have a Happy American holiday. We'll talk more when we return.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Celebrating our anniversary with a South African wine in the garden of Gloria's, MBabane.

The grounds of Gloria's.

This is a picture of the hospital taken from above the campus. Buildings in the lower right are Good Shepherd schools (both primary and secondary). The reason for taking it is to show you the blue blossoms of jacaranda which have been blooming for the last several weeks--recently knocked down by the heavy rains and terrific winds.

Mo inside of Gloria's where we celebrated our anniversary in MBabane.

Sunday, November 7, 2010


Technical difficulties have prevented posting (this is Swaziland), so I’m behind the times and need to bring you up to date on our travels.
In an effort to not become site rats, we’ve ventured out away from our palace for some trips. The first was to celebrate Mo’s birthday with a day trip to Manzini which included a new experience: We traveled by bus rather than Khumbi. Buses are scheduled, and if two people find a seat for two, you’re pretty sure nobody else will sit with you because the excess will stand in the aisle. So as the bus filled up, I did have a chicken riding next to my elbow for a while. And BONUS: There was no painfully loud music. (Did the driver forget or was the system broken?) Everyone was well-dressed, the kids were well behaved and got up to offer their seats to adults when necessary, just like in the 1940s. (Some of you might remember that.) Mo and I were comfortably dressed in tech running shirts, while numerous people were in winter coats, wool caps, scarves, etc. But spring is coming, and the fields were turning green and the jacaranda were in bloom. (Never mind the guys relieving themselves along side of the road.) Our excuse for going to Manzini (justifying the birthday trip) was to broaden our shopping experience with things we can’t find here. We were rewarded by finding spices, mixes, condiments, and pastries. And with a celebratory lunch, it was a pleasant day. (I’ll tell you about travelling and Swazi music in another post: part 2.)
We had an NGO meeting to attend in Mbabane, so we tacked on an over-night and celebrated our anniversary at a B&B known as Gloria’s. The PC uses Gloria’s for PCVs on medical leave so we met two from Group 8 who were staying there and we all shared Happy Hour. (I finally found a RSA wine that was decent—perhaps suggesting that you need to spend a little more than $3 to get a pleasant wine. We splurged for the occasion on our PC budget.) Gloria has a beautiful house and garden (reminiscent of southern California) and I took lots of pictures which I promise you will see eventually if they aren’t attached to this posting. The road between Mbabane and Manzini is through the Ezulwini valley and is very scenic. I can’t promise pictures of that, though, because it’s not possible from the bus. We enjoyed the trip, and it was good to get away.
A week ago, we were invited by two other PCV couples to join them at the Country Club in Simunye for lunch and a swim. Entry is free for PCVs. It was a warm, clear day and only a 45 minute Khumbi ride away, so we had another pleasant day off site. Simunye is a clean, modern, plaza-type shopping center created by sugar cane money—a nice divergence from Siteki. We enjoyed the day so much (and the best pizza we’ve had in five months) that we plan on returning to use the pool during the next few months of summer.
By the way, realize that we are at least twice as old as some of the PCVs and much older than most. It is very gratifying to be invited and visited by them. I’m sure they value our warmth, wit, and wisdom (or could it be our shower, pantry and kitchen?)
We will now be burning this keyboard by preparing our community assessment report, so there is the possibility that you will not hear from us again for the next three weeks. Duty calls.
I wrote the above a couple of days ago. Since then we have been without electricity, without water, and without ‘phone connection. Life in Swaziland. We’ll talk more later.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Left: View of our sitting room w/ new paint, new furniture. L: Our bedroom, large enough to hold a bed w/ mosquito netting; R: looking past dinner table to office/guest room, bathroom on left; L: the campus from our front door; R: Mo pointing to Siteki. No doors have thresholds (allowing the Sahara to blow in), rooms have only a single elec outlet (except bath which has none); bath now has a 12" mirror which replaces a triangular shard of about 10". This is our palace.