Yini iHIV?

The most rewarding project that I worked on while in Swaziland was an HIV awareness video. I was approached by Dr. Ekta Elston of Good Sheppard Hospital, the Swaziland Department of Health and the Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI) to produce a series of videos to address the prevention, transmission and treatment of HIV. The videos will be eventually be available, in clinics and hospitals throughout the entire country. Swaziland currently has the highest HIV rate in the world, approximately one in four. With distribution being so wide, hopefully these videos will influence people to consider safe health practices.

One of the main factors that continues the proliferation of HIV is Swaziland is disclosure. People who have disclosed their HIV status have been treated with prejudiced and alienation. This social pressure creates fear, so people refuse to get tested. If the population doesn’t know their status, the virus spreads.  What people need to realize is that, HIV is not a death sentence. Especially in Swaziland where people have access to free universal antiretroviral treatment (ART), funded largely by PEPFAR. Knowing your status is simply the first step. If you know your status, you can begin treating it with medication and start family planning to stop the spread of the virus to your partner.

The interviewees in the videos are representatives from the Swaziland National Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS (SWANNEPHA). SWANNEPHA is a wonderful organization that offers emotional support to HIV positive clients throughout the country. They are fighting disclosure head-on by appearing in these videos, openly discussing their experiences living with HIV. I hope that viewers will take this example and take control of their health and their future by taking the first step and getting tested, Hamba Uyohloa!

This stop-motion explains how the immune system works, how HIV enters the body and how antiretroviral treatment can revive your immune system so that even if you have HIV you can fight off disease. The whole movie is in Siswati so here is a brief explanation of the icons:

Buffaloes=CD4 Cells, responsible for activating the immune system.

Shields=White Blood Cells, defends the body against sickness.

Little Green Slugs=Germs, enters the body through open wounds.

Pink Circles=HIV Virus, invades white blood cells and CD4 cells debilitating the immune system.

Blue Pills=Antiretroviral Medication, stops HIV replication and restores the immune system.

The entire movie is available on the the Peace Corps Swaziland YouTube channel:


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Rural World

Memory fades over time. I produced this series of short videos detailing life as a volunteer in Swaziland so that I will always remember. This was our life.

Check out the rest of the videos on the Peace Corps Swaziland YouTube channel: http://www.youtube.com/PeaceCorpsSwaziland

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The Treadmill

I get to the restaurant around 7:30am. I’m always the first one to arrive; it sets the standard for the other employees. My hands shiver as I fumble for the keys to the backdoor. I’m standing ankle deep in snow, hidden in a dark alley, the catacombs of the food service industry. Frost billows from my mouth. I open the door and turn the lights on. The florescent bulbs flicker, exposing the pale green walls, crusted with grime.

First, I unlock the door to the office and storage room. Next, I focus on everything that is temperature sensitive. I grab the doors to the sushi fridges from the drying rack and bring them up front. It takes about 35 minutes for each fridge to get below 40°F which is required by the USDA. Then I turn on the hot sake machine. There is always some dude who wants to take the edge off with a shot of hot sake before his 10:00am midterm. Next, I turn on the deep fryer, this is the kitchen chef’s job but he hasn’t arrived yet. He better get here before 8:00am. In my restaurant, if you’re on time–you’re late. I notice that the oil in the fryer is getting dark; I have to remember to tell Ernesto to change it out at the end his shift. Next, I fill the ice trays. As I bring buckets of ice to the soda machine, I carry bus tubs with my free hand to save trips to the back. 

Then, I grab the floor mats that are piled up in some forgotten corner of the restaurant. The mats are so old that they’re ripped into small shreds and they stink of old fish and bleach. My hands are stained black as I carry the grease-drenched mats. When I get to the front of the restaurant, I see Kelsey knocking at the door. She looks hung over. She better not give any customers shit today. I let her in.

Next, I prep my sushi station. I need cutting boards, wash buckets, bar towels and trashcans. Ernesto strolls in at 7:52am, cutting it close buddy. I am very particular with how I set up my station. Even with my eyes closed, I want to know exactly where everything is. My hands operate by reflex not by thought. My knife is always on my left; in front of my knife is a small 6-pan of water to clean my knife after plating each dish. My bar towel is folded and placed on the right side of the cutting board. The trashcan is to my right, behind my foot. In the sushi fridge, the fish is on the left; the veggies are on the right. The fish lay in display trays, salmon, yellowtail, tuna and shrimp. The vegetables include, cucumbers, carrots, green onions and bean sprouts. The items on the left are used more often. The doors open from the left-hand side so the items on the left are easier to reach. All of these items are prepped before hand and backups are in a refrigerator below the bar. 

Being a chef is all about seconds. If something is not in the right place, I will have to turn my focus away from the food to find what I need. God forbid, I would have to run to the back of the house for something. Seconds could easily turn in to minutes, when I’m drowning in tickets every second is precious. I need to send out each order in under 15 minutes no matter how big the ticket is or how far behind I am. I turn the outside lights on, the Sushi Spot sign flickers and the restaurant is officially open.

Living as a Peace Corps volunteer in Swaziland, my daily routine has changed considerably. The roosters wake me up around 6:00am. The sound of the roosters crying one after another, echoes through the valley, deep and droning like meditative ohms. It is soothing. There is no alarm that I nervously wake up to minutes before it rings. The fog slowly rolls up the side of the mountains as the heat of the day falls. I go back to sleep. I wake up around 8:00am.

What do I have to do today?

I have class at 3:00pm. I am discussing condom usage. Condoms are latex coverings that males wear over their penis during sex to prevent from ejaculating inside of a woman’s vagina. I hope that the students will use condoms to keep themselves safe from HIV, STIs and pregnancy. Swaziland has the highest HIV rate in the world. Most likely, very few of the students will actually change their sexual behavior. I still have to prepare my presentation for class.

I reach for my laptop, which is conveniently located next to my bed. I was watching the Showtime series ‘Homeland’ the night before. The show is frustratingly addictive. I watch an episode. Then I watch another episode. Then another. I wish I could be a spy. The dangerous and secretive lifestyle excites me. It’s 11:00am. I should eat something.

I make myself some scrambled eggs and coffee. I drink way too much coffee, about 4 or 5 cups a day. I need to prepare for my lecture. I write down a simple outline of the items that I want to discuss on a pad of paper made from a recycled Cheez-Its box. I miss Cheez-Its.

Next, I prepare a bath. It’s too hot outside so I just bathe in cold water. I’ve been told that I bucket bathe incorrectly. I haven’t taken a bath in a couple of days. I put on my clothes. Everything that I put on is dirty. My shirt has dirt around the collar and white deodorant stains at the pits. It’s a dark shirt so it’s barely noticeable. My pants are wrinkled and there are red dirt marks around the pockets and up the pant legs. They get like this after one wear; I’ve given up trying to wash them every time.

I have an hour till class. I sit on the cold concrete steps in front of my rondoval hut. Make (ma•ge: mother) is sleeping on a woven mat, under the shade of a tree. She holds my young sister in her arms. Babe (ba•bay: father) is standing by the kraal gazing at the mountains, like a lion watching over his pride. I wonder what he is thinking about. I am envious of his serenity. He doesn’t speak any English. I don’t speak enough SiSwati.

I walk to class. It doesn’t take me more than 10 minutes to get there. I have about 60 students and I always get a little nervous before I begin. As I speak, I look around the room at all of the faces looking back at me. Each face is different. Some are bored. Some are confused. But others look back at me with this intensity. As if they understand what I’m trying to convey. My whole day is dedicated to seeing that face, that intensity. My job is not to change the world but to maybe influence one choice.

The two stories above describe my perception of time and how it has changed since I have become a volunteer. The first story took place over one hour, the hour before my restaurant opened. My mind and actions were mechanical and exact. I didn’t move an inch without a purpose; I performed tasks in sequence to increase efficiency and to reduce mistakes. I was productive. The preparation I did during this first hour directly correlated to my performance as a chef when the restaurant was in full-swing. I measured the success in minutes, seconds and profit margins. 

Here in Swaziland, my days have no such organization. On the particular day of the story, I had something to do. Many days, I don’t have anything. Sometimes, I just watch movies all day. I never read as much as I say I do. Sometimes, I spend the whole day, waiting for khumbis (koom•be: mini-bus) to and from town, just to buy groceries. Progress with my mission here as a volunteer is slow and the impact is small. Meetings never accomplish what I hope for and things never happen when they are supposed to. One day, when I was stressed about a project; a friend calmly told me not to worry, “There is always time”.

Coming from my previous life, this was a hard transition to make. I felt like I was wasting my time while not accomplishing enough. Wasting time. What does that even mean? We have, however long on this Earth, as the events in our life allow. We are born into cultures that perceive the pace of life differently. Back home life is fast. And life in many other parts of the world is slower. One is not better than the other. It is difficult however, to switch from one pace to another. I call this the ‘Treadmill Effect’.

When you’re running on a treadmill, you’re burning calories; the endorphins in your brain make your body feel good. You’re tightening up that ass. You’re accomplishing something. When you step off, for the first couple of seconds, there is a phantom feeling in your legs. You feel like you’re still running. It’s uncomfortable for a while but eventually you gain your footing and you adjust to the slower pace of walking. This is what happens to many of us experiencers of foreign cultures. We become accustomed to that pace of life. In both our bodies and minds. We let the pressure of the sexy-fast-paced American lifestyle fade away. It’s quieting.

Stepping back on the treadmill is also a challenge. The treadmill continues to run despite how long we’ve been off it. Imagine having to jump on a quickly moving treadmill. You have to prepare yourself and wait for just the right time to jump. Most likely, it will catch you off guard, you will stumble. You might have to grab on the railings until you’ve adjusted to the speed. This is what it feels like when we go back home. Our ‘world’ hasn’t stopped because you decided to find yourself in Africa. Most likely, it’s gotten faster. We adjust to the speed because we have to, its home. But for many of us, there is this empty feeling, the memory of that slowed pace of life. It’s hard to adequately share this feeling with people who have never experienced it for themselves. This is isolating because we are often in the minority of people who have. So we bury it away in order to re-assimilate. But it will always be a part of who we are.

I believe that, other than being consumed by a foreign culture and the well-intentioned work that we do as volunteers, it is this feeling that bonds us. It is our secret. It is our burden. We cannot blame those who do not understand, for it was our privilege. I only wish that more people can experience this for themselves.

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Black and white= Intense.

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Wild Coast

My family came to visit me and we drove from Capetown, SA to Swaziland along the scenic Wild Coast. Along the drive, we really got to see the diversity of Southern Africa. We then spent a few days at Kruger National Park.

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Umhlanga is the SiSwati word for the traditional reed dance ceremony. This ceremony is held every year to celebrate the young women of Swaziland.

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An umtsimba is a traditional Swazi wedding ceremony.

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As a child, I would look through cases of dusty slides that my father kept of his volunteer days in Samoa and travels throughout Asia with an idealistic longing. I thought to myself, when I’m old enough, I want to go on an adventure just like him. It was going to be my pilgrimage into the depths of the foreign. I would daydream about being the lonely, weary traveler getting lost in an obscure part of the world. Living and breathing the dirt, and grime of real culture.

More recently, as I looked at the grainy, faded photographs I came to a depressing realization- is the time of genuine cultural exploration over? Has all culture, been diluted to some globalized version of Coca-Cola, McDonalds, knock-off Levis and Marlboro cigarettes? You can travel for hours up the Mekong River in Laos and still buy the same pack of cigs you can get at any corner store back home. Does this mean that everywhere, everything is like everything else? Is there nothing new to explore? I felt my childhood dreams fading away to the melody of a corporate jingle. I was wrong…

The drive to the village took about two hours on a dusty mountain road. I was tickled with excitement. I had no idea where I was going, Make (my host mother) just asked me if I wanted to see a dance and then she shoved me in to a rickety black Toyota pickup with eight other unknown passengers. I was given the front seat and gazed at the beautiful mountain pass as we drove deeper and deeper into to the valley. I felt like Marlow traveling into the darkness of the Congo.

We arrived at our destination early in the afternoon, the warm sun beat down my neck. The homestead was perched high on the ridge of a plateau and consisted of half a dozen mud and concrete huts with thatched roofs. We were ushered to the far side of the homestead where a line of intimidating older men sat. I was presented to a large man with a red feather in his hair. He looked at me with a wide-eyed bewilderment. I was wearing traditional Swazi clothes and carried a knobkerrie. His gaze then fell to my camera. He proceeded to argue with the rest of the group, yelling and making big hand gestures. I wish my SiSwati was better so I could understand what they were saying. He turned to me and asked me why I was there and why I brought a camera. He asked me if I was a reporter for a newspaper or an American spy. Nervously, I sat and listened to them discuss my fate for another ten minutes. Finally, he turned to me and said, “You are welcome here, you use your camera, you go to the river now.”

Relieved, I thanked the man and the rest of the group and made my way down the mountain following a boy who pranced his way down like a goat. As we walked, we ran into two men carrying what looked to be a whole cross section of a cow. I had no idea then about the festival of meat that was about to ensue. When we got to the river the whole picture began to unravel. Women clustered on the side of the mountain, seeking shade under the trees and braiding each other’s hair. The men were on the other side of the valley, stumbling around drinking Swazi traditional brew. Everyone was scurrying around like busy worker bees getting ready for the ceremony. When I arrived at the base of the mountain, everything became quiet as people began to notice me. The sea of gazes washed over me making me feel very uncomfortable. All of a sudden, I was rushed by a swarm of people saying, “shoot me, shoot me!” I tried to take pictures of people as they grabbed at my camera. Soon after, I noticed someone waving, motioning me to come over, it was Menzi my counterpart. Thankful to see a familiar face I joined him on the side of the mountain sitting with bomake (group of mothers). After endless introductions and complements of my traditional attire I was able to sit back and weave myself into the fabric of the day’s routine. I was consumed. Everywhere I looked was something unfamiliar, the sounds and the language inaudible. I had finally arrived, this is what I had been looking for my whole life and was afraid that I would never find. Real culture. And they allowed me to be there, to share this experience, this secret with them.

The women who we sat with wore bright red dresses; their breasts exposed as they weaved string in each other’s hair. They laughed and chitchatted. After some time, I asked Menzi if we could go over to the men’s side to see what was going on. Immediately upon our arrival, we were handed traditional brew which tasted like rotten, chunky, apple juice mixed with battery acid. It burned going down and left me with a slight, dizzied buzz. Gross. Other men, sober men, were preparing their loincloths and folding their traditional dresses. They pointed out the mistakes in my attire and proceeded to fix them. Soon after, we were fed. I was given a heaping pile of steaming, unknown, squiggly, bits of cow parts and lipalishi (maize meal porridge). The meat, if you can call it that, had the texture of a rubber shoe sole and tasted just as interesting. I was given a much larger helping than others so I thought it would be rude to refuse my portion. I’m not emotionally or digestively stable enough to relive the experience by going into the details, just know that I finished it…

The day passed, the heat of the sun became less noticeable as it receded behind a mountain. The whole day nothing had really happened, people seemed like they were getting ready for something but that something never really came. A couple hours later once the sun had gone completely down Menzi and I were led back up the mountain, the ceremony was about to begin… A couple hours later, I heard the faint sound of singing. It grew louder, louder like a crescendo building with power. The procession appeared at the top of the mountain and spilled over the plateau like a volcano erupting. First, the men arrived waving their knobkerries in the air, followed by the women chanting something low and droning. Slowly, they slugged in formation towards a bonfire burning at the center of the homestead. Lines were formed as they began to sing and dance. The song was led by one person, which was then echoed by the rest of the precession; this was repeated over and over and over. The same line, over and over again. I was memorized, grasped by the mantra. The sound must have carried for miles though the valley as if the valley herself was belting the song. The stomping of their feet, thumping in a rhythmic pattern provided a low bass beat that reverberated the ground and crushed through my body. It was beautiful. I do not have the expressive ability in my hand or my heart to fully explain that power that I felt that evening- I was alive.

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