Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Power of the Pen: What really happened to my blog

Monday I was up with the sun, dressed in my wrap dress, loafers and blazer, waiting for Stella and the Peace Corps Isuzu.  I didn’t know when to expect them so I was ready by 6.  At 10, the car pulled up in front of my homestead in Swaziland with the country director in tow. 

We were halfway to Nsongweni High School, where I taught English as a Peace Corps volunteer, before I asked if we had a plan.  Swazis are always referring to ‘having a plan.’

“We will meet with the principal first,” Stella instructed, clutching my gray blanket around her tiny shoulders.  “Then we will meet with the teachers.  Ruth will not apologize until they have voiced their concerns.  It is best they talk and get it all out in the air.  At the end she will apologize and promise to keep her nose out of their business.”

We had hardly taken one step into the principal’s office before students were summoned to move chairs across the hall to the staff room for my trial. 

I sat on one of the backless chairs in the middle of the room as the director and the principal stood, hovering over me like gargoyles.

I glanced around the room.  The deputy principal stood directly across from me, in front of cubbies holding the occasional broken stapler, box of chalk or dirty rag.  At one end of the room, a dozen younger teachers lined the walls.  At the other, behind an imposing desks piled high with exam booklets, five senior teachers held court, glum and dour as executioners.

Stella began in her small pinched voice, her eyes only occasionally rising from the floor.

“We are here today because Ruth wrote something on her website about the school,” she began.  “And we are here so that you can share your concerns.”  She spoke slowly, enunciating each syllable, rounding out all of the ohs and stretching her lips wide for eeees.

One teacher shifted in his seat.  The gregarious agriculture teacher, who liked chatting about America, sat with his back to me.  Zipho, my Facebook friend, with whom I had shared the address of the blog in question, kept her eyes cast down.

After a few moments of silence, the deputy principal – a thin man in his forties - cleared his throat.  Stuffing his hands in his trousers and straightening his back to appear larger, he started from the top.

“She writes something --- I don’t know it exactly but --- but if you go to Asia, you become spiritual,” he waved his hand for effect. “But if you go to Africa, you are drunk and laughing.”  He continued.

“It has been written that one teacher smelled of alcohol, that one teacher is near retirement, that some teachers don’t go to class, “ and then, that “our beans look like vomit.”

At the mention of such heresy, poor Mrs. MS Dlamini, the mild mannered head of the English department, let out a gasp.

“We love our beans,” she murmured.  “And this has wounded us very deeply.”

I wanted to explain I had written about another’s dried beans, not the baked beans served at school, but I remembered the admonishment to remain silent.

Ms. Mohammed said the cleaning lady had been terribly hurt when she heard I had written how her bristled brush hit the baseboards.  The deputy principal said I was two-faced, especially when I had told him I understood corporal punishment but then wrote that ‘he was like a child with ice cream cone’ when he inflicted student beatings.

The agriculture teacher, his back still turned, referred to his notes.

“She says she is trained as a journalist,” he sneered, “but she lies. She is writing that only a few teachers go to morning assembly and students ask her to come to their classes.”

Again I kept silent, tears starting to dribble down my cheeks.  The country director handed me a starched handkerchief.

The principal seemed most concerned about the state of the school buildings.  “She says there are broken window,” she said pointing to the cracked staff room windows.  “These windows are not broken.”

And then pointing to the linoleum floor, she said, “These floor tiles are not cracked, like she says.”  My eyes fixated in front of my chair where the tiles by the door were worn through and blackened.

Couldn’t the heart of the matter be a cultural misunderstanding, suggested Stella.  “It is like saying someone’s shoes are looking like your grandmother’s shoes,” she smiled. “The same thing mean different things in different places.”

The principal told how on a recent visit to the Cultural Center, she had been deeply offended to overhear a tourist asking someone to take her picture next to a statute of the ‘broke king.’

I racked my brain before it dawned on me that the tourist must have been referring to Swaziland’s king, one of the richest men in the world, who was pleading for a government loan from its neighbor South Africa. “It may be true, but he is my king. He is my king.”

After a moment of reflection, Stella nodded.  It was time for my apology.

“I am so very sorry if I have offended anyone,” I blubbered.  “It was not my intention to hurt anyone.  I was just trying to tell my friends and family what it was like here.  I have taken down everything from the Internet.  I will not write any more about the school.  I hope you will forgive me.”

Mr. Nhlabatsa, an English teacher who moonlights as an evangelical minister, suggested the teachers mull over my fate during the holidays and vote on the matter in January.  Stella’s eyes must have widened, thinking how impractical it would be to wait a month if the Peace Corps must move me to another site – or fire me.

Then Old Mr. Twala slowly rose from his chair.  “She has done a great many good things at the school,” he said.  “And I think she should be forgiven.”

I burrowed my head into my borrowed handkerchief.  Mr. Twala, who appeared to have a bad smell under his nose whenever I entered the room, had come to my defense and with only a few words had completely changed the course of the proceedings.  Old Mr. Twala, of all people.

“Who here has never sinned?  Who has not made a mistake?  Would we all be thrown into a pit --- be burned in hell for our sins?” chimed in a history teacher.  A small sermon on forgiveness ensued.

And so it was decided, without show of hands or a vote,  that I should be allowed to return to school in the New Year.  No doubt the Peace Corps considered it a victory and I suppose it was a relief.
But the teachers never extended themselves to me again.  Though I had never been warmly welcomed, the teachers’ reception was even frostier after that.  They were wary of me, and rarely -- if ever --- spoke to me. And never in English.  I had always been an outsider, but now I was a trespasser.  I lasted another term, but after a few months of solitary confinement, I decided to terminate my Peace Corps service and return home.

Another Peace Corps volunteer, who taught in Boston’s inner city, said that American teachers would have had the same reaction.  She said any school, like any company, would be just as unaccepting of criticism.  Especially if it’s true.

But what I wrote on my blog had not been meant as criticism.  A dissertation on the woes of Swaziland’s education system would have looked very different.  My blog was intended to be a snap shot of my life, living and working as a Peace Corps volunteer in Swaziland.  I had truly only wanted to paint a picture.

“What can I write that will give people a flavor of this place?” I wrote in my journal days before posting that entry.  “I have hesitated to write until now – wondering where to begin, anxious for it not to sound too negative.  Writing is not as easy as it looks.  All words have connotations, are gray with each reader’s meaning.  I want to describe the people and the place with clarity.  Unfortunately language is a primitive tool in my hands.”

But hard as I had tried not to offend, I still ended up wounding good people and ruining any chance I might have had to affect change during my service in Swaziland.  In retrospect, I should not have written that blog post.  Or at least, I should not have offered up its address. 

Perhaps I should have been quicker to describe the children’s enthusiasm for learning or the good work that many of the teachers do.  And I definitely should have been more forgiving of the teacher’s reticence to have me there and their fear I would do --- just what I ended up doing – telling the world their educational system is a failure.

I don’t know whether a more rosy depiction would have changed anything.  But I do know that I am more grateful than ever to live in a country where I can express myself freely and where most everyone is respected for a paragraph well written or an opinion well-informed.  That, I will never take for granted again.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Give and Take

Seated on a rock waiting for the kombi near my homestead in Swaziland, a young man approached to ask for money.  I shrugged, pretending not to understand, returning to my paperback.  But he was insistent.

“You like Swaziland? You think America is being better than Swaziland?” he said, peppering me with questions like gunshots, tapping my shoulder to illustrate the point.

Finally I murmured something about liking Swaziland.  That both countries were wonderful.  They were both good in their own ways.  You know, the usual Peace Corps public relations stuff. I even smiled slightly, hoping that would satisfy him, but he didn’t go away.
Instead he leaned over me, trying to wedge his head between mine and the pages of my book.  It was no doubt difficult to lasso my attention with my eyes lowered on the page.

“I want.  You give me,” he snarled, pointing at the blue Uniball Vision Elite pen in my hand.  “You give me.  I want!”

Not surprisingly, he had no interest in my book.  In the year I had spent living in a hut in the back of the Simelane homestead as a Peace Corps volunteer, I had never seen a person engrossed in a book.  Not even in the Nhlangano Public Library where the candy jar was far more popular than the written word.

“You know that ol’ Swazi saying,” quipped one of my teacher friends.  “If you want to hide something, put it in a book.”
I looked up at the man’s aggressive face, feeling my eyebrows tense together.  The sun warmed the back of my neck.  A cow called from the pasture behind me.  I could even make out the rumble of the Nhlangano kombi in the distance.

“Why not? Why you no give me?” he argued, more sharply this time.

“Because it’s mine,” I told him simply. 

Living in the tiny kingdom of Swaziland --- without running water, cooking meals on a single gas burner and teaching high school English --- had made me bold.  I looked the young man straight in the eye, suddenly feeling no need to elaborate on the little respected concept of ownership. 

I could have explained that I was a writer and I had a great affinity for some pens.  That this one was one of the few remaining from my original stash brought from home.

But I didn’t.  Why explain myself, I thought.  Why should I?

When I arrived in the southern province of Shiselweni, I had been embarrassed of my wealth – by my well-made American shoes, my healthy straightened teeth, and by my $200 a month Peace Corps salary.  But no longer.

I felt bombarded by open hands, by people for whom begging seemed perfectly acceptable.

“Emasweeties?  Emasweeties?” the children asked on my walk to school.

“You give me money? Give me money,” they demanded in town.

Even on the Simelane homestead, if Gogo was not home, young mothers often wandered up to me as I pinned clothes on the line.  Some were even so bold as to slink up to my partially opened door and ask for a handout. I didn’t often understand their words, but it didn’t matter.  Their mournful eyes, the sideways glances to the their docile toddlers standing beside them, an hand outstretched. Their intent was clear. 

“You must not spoil them, Thembi,” my host mother used to warn. “It’s no good!” 

She knows that something given rather than earned breeds dependency here.  When her grandson forgot to put the weekly bag of maize on the gatepost in front of the to be picked up and I suggested various ways we could get the corn to the grain middleman but she wanted to hear none of it.

“Let them starve then,” she told me matter of factly, swatting away my words as if they were gnats buzzing around her ears.

“You feed the cats, they will not hunt for rats. You feed the dogs, they will not get up to bark,” she instructed.  “They must be disciplined, but you cannot.”

Africa does not need your help. 

She doesn’t need another handout.  She needs a dose of tough love, a swift kick in the butt and an admonition to fix her own problems.  Much blame has been given to our colonial ancestors but what was done is over now.  Africa must stop her begging and quit relying on the West to bail her out when she gets in a bind.

Our charity may assuage our own guilt but I believe it undermines Africa’s already shaky self-esteem, affirming what she already suspects – that she is not capable of taking care of herself.

Let her stand or topple on her own.  Walk away, NGOs and missionaries and aid agencies. Let the Swazi people learn to demand fair government, free expression and education, and a decent wage for a day’s work.  They are quite capable of standing on their own two feet.  All they need now is a dose of tough love.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Africa for Beginners

As my husband and I headed to San Diego’s Lindberg Field’s Terminal 1 with my two massive suitcases, rolling computer bag, and overstuffed backpack, I missed the step onto the first escalator.  As he easily ascended to the Sky Bridge with the largest bags, I tried to right my computer bag, nearly falling in the process.

“You alright, M’am?” a worried Marine asked as I successfully stepped onto the escalator.  I smiled sheepishly and followed my husband to the kiosk where I was to print my boarding pass and check in my luggage.

“How are you going to manage everything – all this traveling – without me?” he asked as he hovered over my shoulder, directing me as to what button to push and leaning over to unlock the TSA locks dangling from my carry-on.

“I don’t know,” I whispered. 

But in my heart I felt strong. After all, I was no stranger to hardship, I had lived in Europe when women didn’t shave their armpits and clothes dryers were considered gadgets. Finally on my way to serve two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in the tiny African country of Swaziland.

No one knew where Swaziland was when the invitation packet arrived on our doorstep.  Almost immediately, I Googled it.  It is the Kingdom of Swaziland, more accurately, as it has a king --- the only reigning absolute monarch in Africa.  I read how Mswati III had thirteen wives, each of whom have a palace and a BMW or two.  Formerly ruled by the British, the Internet said, people drink tea.  There was even some diamond mining.  Johannesburg, in South Africa, is directly west and takes about an hour by bush plane.  To the east lies Mozambique with its pristine archipelagoes and unspoiled beaches.

I watched endless hours of You Tube videos in which volunteers talked about their favorite foods and SiSwati phrases.  I read every Peace Corps memoir and blog I could unearth.  And with every word, I felt more certain of my decision to step out of my comfort zone and my privileged life as a San Diego ‘tennis mom.’ I was ready for an adventure.

Once installed in the local college dorms for training, our new Country Director referred to Swaziland as ‘Africa for Beginners.’ It seemed certain I had been sent to the right place.  We were told most of us would enjoy an electrical plug and maybe a Jojo water tank at our permanent sites.  I had even seen a handful of KFCs and the countryside, with its rolling hills and fertile valleys, looked remarkably like the south of France, from a distance.

Even as I sat in a dilapidated classroom at the local teachers college, listening to a Power Point training sessions, I felt sure all that talk of diarrhea, filtering river water, HIV and poisonous snakes, were somehow meant for the other thirty-nine earnest volunteers, with their wide eyes and nervous smiles.  But not me. Their experience might be like that, but mine, I felt certain, would not be so decidedly Third World.

One week later Peace Corps staff dropped each of us off at our host family’s homestead, the place we would call home for our two months of training.

Perched on an upside down bucket in the kitchen of the Masuku’s tiny cement bunker of a house --- the Masuku’s seven children squatted on the floor around my feet --- all I could think was that in those hours of training, someone could have at least tried to prepare me for this.

Mr. Masuku, a huge man wearing a bright magenta Ohio State sweatshirt and an insincere grin, was seated on the only chair.  He watched under hooded eyes as the eldest daughter, 14-year old Notobeko, carefully offered me the biggest rusty, metal plate piled high with rice and red beans.  I set it on my lap, as she continued to solemnly hand out each of the other metal mismatched plates, each one corresponding in size to the size of its recipient.

First was the Make (pronounced ma-gay) Masuku, who could have easily started as a NFL linebacker. Then doe-eyed Apinda who crouched behind the wood-burning stove. Thin, athletic Ayanda was next, followed by shy Bernet.  Then came the young man of the house named Ben.  Next was three-year old Nlolipo in his dirty tee shirt boasting ‘I’m kind of a big deal around here’ and finally eight-month old, completely naked, Benele.

After a short SiSwati prayer, the family dived in, eagerly scooping grains of rice and beans in their dirty hands and shoving them into their mouths in complete silence.   
Dinner was late that night as there was not a morsel of food in the house until the door to my room was unlocked.  Instantly, the provisions the Peace Corps had sent: bags of chicken, cornflakes, powdered milk, rice, juice and cans of sardines and tuna fish, scurried into their desperate hands.  Only the British water filter, gas tank and burners, two blankets and a mosquito net remained in my room beside the garage.

As I sat gingerly eating my rice and beans, wondering whether it would make me sick, I was pleased to think that at least I had put food in these children’s stomachs and I was grateful for that.

Conversation was impossible with only three SiSwati words at my command and the father’s halting English but the basics were communicated. 

Father Masuku was getting ready to leave for Johannesburg to work in the mines.  The family is Jehovah Witness and Banele’s name literally means ‘the last one,’ though there are many children in Swaziland named Banele with younger brothers and sisters.

Shy and fearful at first, the children painstakeningly summoned enough courage to steal glances at me, marveling at the strange white woman seated in their kitchen.  I smiled as I tried to describe my family and where California is, just in time to catch a glance of a huge slimy turd as it slid down Banele’s leg and puddled on the floor in front of Ayanda’s empty plate.

The boys stifled an embarrassed giggle and Make leaned over to retrieve a wad of toilet paper from one of the rolls included in the Peace Corps care package.  Then scooping it up, she handed the smelly mess to Apinda who appeared from behind the stove and took it outside where the two emaciated mutts, one blind, howled by the half-opened door for their nightly gruel.

So this is what abject poverty really looks and feels and smells and tastes like, I thought.  Television stories scanning a line of hungry African women and children waiting for a bite to eat, or a celebrity leaning over to pick up a listless child don’t do it justice. No training manual or guidebook can prepare anyone for poverty like this.