Thursday, August 11, 2011

What I learned in Africa

This blog is being written by guest writer, Debbie, and is an attempt to explain why we are returning to the states before we have completed our two years of service. I am writing it because it is upon my request that we leave the PC after 14 months of volunteering.
So what have I learned in Africa?
1. The problems in Africa are multi-faceted and extremely complex. Now that I have experienced Africa it seems somewhat arrogant that I thought I could make a real difference, particularly with few resources. The easy stuff, the Swazis can do for themselves. Perhaps I picked the wrong organization to affiliate with given my personality and need “to do” something specific and concrete. Realistically, my help with quality improvement at the hospital, particularly the western model being pushed on the Swazis by the Government of Swaziland, is not very relevant. I have struggled with the enormity of the issues at the hospital and my inadequacy to provide meaningful solutions. What they need is a proper building, equipment, trained staff, ventilation in the TB wards, etc. The PC would not allow me to provide direct patient care as it is not “sustainable”. For reasons that I don’t understand myself, I have been unable to put aside the enormous sadness that I see in the hospital and be content with few, tiny successes.
2. I don’t believe the opportunity cost of being away from children, grand-children, family and friends is offset by what I can accomplish in Swaziland in another year. In this first year Chris has dealt with the fog of Alzheimer’s, Zoe changed from a toddler to a little girl, Rudy grew from a pre-schooler to a scholar (Lego engineer), Evelyn was born, and Leonard turned 80. Whatever next year will bring, I want to personally live the experience. We are also aware that nothing is guaranteed in life. We would like to think that we have many, many years to enjoy family, volunteer and travel, but if in fact our time is short, we want to spend it with the people that are dearest to us. I would like to think that I always knew the value of family and friends, but there is nothing like time away to make it very real.
3. I can volunteer in the states and at the same time experience my family and friends; a win/win. It may not be as dramatic but can be as helpful and rewarding. My experience in Africa has changed my priorities. AIDS in Africa and women’s inequality will be two areas that I will explore for volunteer opportunities. I am grateful to my African experience for helping me understand these issues better. It is my hope that I can provide more value to Swaziland from the states than I could “on the ground.”
I am very grateful for this last year. I have learned things I like about myself (I can adjust to a different culture and experience) and that I don’t like about myself (big problems that I have little control over paralyze me). I have learned things I like about Swaziland (the people, Swazi smiles, beautiful country) and I don’t like about Swaziland (corrupt government, ticks, “Africa time”). The School for the Deaf has been a great place to live with amenities few PCVs have, including the positive experience of having children all around us. Gary has received a lot of satisfaction being the school librarian, learning sign language (mostly from the kids), a map project, and working with the children on a one to one basis. I am grateful for being welcomed and becoming friends with the locals and being accepted as friends by fellow, much younger, PC volunteers. I am grateful for all the love and support from family and friends back in the states (great packages too!) that made this past year possible. Mostly I am grateful for my husband, who shared this experience with me and even though he can stay in Swaziland to finish his service, has chosen to return to the states with me. It has been one hell of an adventure!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Debbie’s Shopping Day In Siteki

Any trip to town here takes careful planning. So I start my day with a hot cup of tea and make a list of what I need that I can carry back home in a backpack plus a bag on each arm. I also want to plan my route so I am taking the shortest trip back with said groceries. So off I go to the electricity store first as it is the farthest away and my hands are empty. I get there and they can’t take my money because the electricity has gone out and the computer will not work—at the electricity store (note the irony here). Okay, next stop is the gas station on the other side of town to get some cash from the one ATM in Siteki that will take the PC debit card. The ATM gives me Emalangeni. I don’t want Emalangeni; the country is falling apart and there is talk about “de-coupling” the South African Rand from the Swaziland Emalangeni. For a year this machine has given out Rands as we live so close to the border. Okay, I will use this money first and keep what Rands I do have. On to the liquor store to get a wine that Gary asked me to purchase for company tomorrow. Out of stock. I call Gary to find out what he wants to substitute. The call will not go through and my cell phone tells me the call is “out of range.” The school is less than a 30 minute walk from where I am standing. Okay, I do my best and move on to the grocery store. I really want three things, lettuce, eggplant and chicken. You guessed it, they have none of these, unless you count the chicken that comes cut up into un-identifiable pieces and often has feathers stuck on it. Okay, I will cook something else and when I leave ShopRite I go behind the bus rank and buy lettuce from the Make vegetable market. I tried to buy eggplant, too, but couldn’t remember the Swazi name for eggplant. I gave up after seeing none and neither pantomime nor English worked. We got close as they wanted to sell me a butternut squash. I go back home the long way, with groceries, and I am in luck as the electricity company now has a working computer. I take this all in stride as it is the norm here. Flexibility has become my middle name. Did you ever believe you would see the day?