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.

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