Cultural Crumbles

Hello!

I hope you can easily forgive my absence of posts this last month, it’s been busy! I’ve been at my permanent site for over a month now, and it’s starting to feel like home. I’ve cleaned, bought furniture, and decorated my hut. I’ve walked many miles to and from different parts of my community and met a lot of people! For the next few months I’ll continue to integrate into my new Swazi life. 

With a valiant effort to flow into a new culture there are bound to be some flops. I’ve had a fair amount and love to share laughs with family, friends, and Swazis alike regarding these silly screw ups. This blog post is going to share three short stories meant for both learning and laughter. 

In the land of snakes, spiders, and scorpions natives and visitors are bound to react differently to the presence of these critters. I realized that my debilitating fear of spiders was going to gain me no sympathy at my first day in site when I spotted probably the biggest spider I’ve ever seen casually hanging out on my wall.  Naturally I called my 9 year old sisi over to hand me a shoe and instead she gave me a surprised look, walked over to the wall, killed it with her hand, wiped it on her skirt, and continued sweeping without speaking a word. Like a boss. Since then I’ve only been able to draw inspiration from her when facing terrifying creatures on my own. Many weeks after my my move in date is where this story begins. It had been over 100 degrees and the power had been out for over 8 hours. It was a full moon that night so we all brought chairs outside while Make cooked dinner over the fire. After our bellies were full and we were enjoying each other’s company in the moonlight one of the adults came over to me and as if she were saying nothing more important than, “what time is it” she told me in siSwati there was a snake behind me. I initially didn’t react because of course I must have understood the language wrong. But nonetheless I knew I couldn’t have mistaken the word for snake or “inyoga”. So, of course I turn and look behind me when sure enough there was a small snake chillin’ right behind me. Obviously, I jumped, screamed, and ran very far away. When I turned around Make had a stick and with one swift swipe WHAM the snake was dead. I slowly and sweatily walked back to the gathering where I was trying to pull myself back together. When I got to the fire Make gave me one look, one laugh, and continued conversation as usual. I don’t think I’ll ever get use to that. 

A couple of days after my arrival things started to settle down and I began to have some free time. My Make (mother) oddly has TLC channel, the only U.S. station, on her TV. Normally we watch Swazi soap operas, the news, or cartoons. Today, however, I was free and my auntie decided to watch the TLC channel so I could listen to a program in English.  Randomly, we were watching My 600 Pound Life. Approximately 0.002 seconds into the show one of the children excitedly tapped me on the arm and smiling she whispers, “Sisi! She is just like you!” Trying to ignore the obviously rude statement I continued to watch the show. Only minutes later another grandchild turns and says to me, “Sisi! She is just like you!” At this point my confusion skyrockets and my self esteem has taken a blow. Then about 20 minutes later the loudest and most outgoing host brother comes into the room, greets us, looks at the TV, looks at me and bellows, “SISI, SHE IS JUST LIKE YOU!” The entire room breaks out into laughter and excited chatter in siSwati. Internally I’m questioning every slice of pizza or ice cream cone I’ve ever eaten when finally I’m relieved of the show with a commercial break. Not even truly watching the TV at this point, the child who first got my attention points and announces, “Look, Sisi, she is just like you too!” Bracing myself to see a promo for next week’s episode of My 600 Pound Life I look up and instead see an ad for Say Yes to the Dress where a tall blonde is parading around in her dress that she will presumably say yes to. With a furrowed brow I look around the room and those paying attention are nodding in agreement. It took me roughly 45 minutes to figure out that they were saying she is like me because I’m white, not because I have a 600 pound life.

Thank God. 

My last blunder happened only a few days ago when I went to shadow a first grade teacher at the local primary school. As we all know, first graders are inherently curious so when I stepped foot into the room all eyes were on me and they were hanging on every word that came out of my mouth. The entire class period goes by with nothing more notable than children’s darting eyes and waving hands being directed towards me. In the last 10 minutes of class the teacher asks me to come up to the front of the classroom to talk about myself. We get only as far as my name and occupation when she asks me where I’m from. Now, to me this is always a loaded question because, let’s face it, even some Americans think Idaho is in the Midwest conveniently crammed somewhere between Indiana and Iowa. I’ve learned to just reply with a simple, “America”. But unfortunately for me this answer did not suffice today and the teacher asks me to share which state. Of course I replied, “Idaho”. Not hearing me properly she asks me to repeat. Again, I say Idaho. She (and the class) look extremely confused so I say, “Do you know Idaho?” This back and forth continues for many minutes. Idaho, Idaho, Idaho. What, what, what? I try to explain geographically where I’m from, which also doesn’t go over well. Finally, the teacher has had enough and exhaustedly says, “How could you not know where you’re from?” At this point I realize that she, and the entire class, thought that instead of saying ‘Idaho’ I’d been saying ‘I don’t know’ over and over and over again. I turn to grab a piece of chalk so I can write the name and even possibly draw out my state as a feeble attempt to redeem myself from the damaged I’ve caused it. Unfortunately, to this day there are still about 50 students and one teacher who think I don’t know where I live because before my chalk could even finish the “I” the bell rang and the classroom was immediately empty. 

Sadly (ha), I don’t have photos of any of these stories. So instead I’ll share a beautiful sunset taken from the front porch of my Make’s house. Love hearing from you all, and as always I’m missing everyone from home! 

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What Kind Of People Are These? 

The big day is finally here: Today I am swearing in as a United States Peace Corps Volunteer! The last ten weeks here in country have been a mixture of emotions. Although I’ve experienced both highs and lows I feel so proud to be making the transition from Peace Corps Trainee to Peace Corps Volunteer. Over the last two or so months we’ve undergone 6-days-a-week classroom sessions, practical application sessions, intensive language learning, and what seems like days worth of oral exams and interviews. In addition to this type of work, we have been learning to live with no running water or indoor plumbing, how to cook and eat well using a handy-gas stove, washing clothes by hand, all while learning to cope with being away from our friends and family back in the United States. In the last 10 weeks many of us have undergone our own transformations and I am happy

From this point looking forward, I’ve got a lot of hard work ahead of me. We move into our permanent sites tomorrow and begin the “integration” phase of Peace Corps service. During integration we are expected to get to know our host families, find and start to tutor in siSwati, identify potential counterparts for possible future projects, and build rapor and trust with every member of our community. Once again I’m very nervous. I want to be successful and do my best to become a present part of my new community. I hope to make connections with the chief, his inner council, the nurses at the clinic, the teachers at the schools, the “brain” of the community (otherwise known as a community developer), and many others. It’s important to me to reach out to the most rural residents in the community and assess their needs. We have many assignments to complete which will help me do that very thing. It’s largely self directed which is something that I’m both worried and excited about. I am glad I will be able to settle down and stop living out of my suitcase. 

Although I’m excited for the future, I must say I find great value on reflecting on the past. Pre-Service Training has offered a weath of information–most of which came from outside of the classroom setting. I made donkey sounds until my Make and I both fell on the floor from laugher, I slaughtered a pig with the help of my Babe, and my Sisi and I had an ongoing battle of who could scare who the worst (she won). I remember my first week at my training site I offered to go to church with my family so I could see what type of religion they practiced. I learned that they were Zionist Christians, a branch of Christianity I’d never heard of before. The sermon was given in complete siSwati. Pastor Joseph welcomed me warmly before the service and extended his gratitude for my willingness to come. 

A laughing fit strikes in the name of donkey sounds.


During the service I felt like an outsider. I was being stared at in an inquisitive manner. This didn’t bother me, but made me far more aware of what I was doing and how I must look. As a welcomed relief one of my host sisters, who’s name I didn’t even know at the time, came and gave me a big toothless grin and took my hand. She proceeded to hold my hand and smile and giggle with me for the next three hours during church. Without even having to ask I had a physical support system who I appreciated more than I could ever tell her.  In the next 10 weeks this 6 year old sisi would turn out to become my biggest fan and my best friend in Swaziland. 

My darling sister, Nogwe.


About 3/4 of the way into the sermon I noticed all eyes on me. My sweet sister matter-of-factly told me that Pastor Joseph was talking to me. I hadn’t the faintest idea because I couldn’t speak the language. I blankly smiled back at at him when he began speaking to the congregation in English. He said, “When [Taylor] is visiting our homestead she will ask, ‘What kind of people are these?’, when she is passing you on the street she will ask, ‘What kind of people are these?’, when she is shopping in town she will ask, ‘What kind of people are these?’. Wherever she goes, whatever she does, and whoever she meets she will ask, ‘What kind of people are these?'”. At first I didn’t understand, but, he continued. He spoke to us by saying we need to be accountable for our actions. Just like they are watching me, I am watching them (and ultimately, God is watching us all). He went on to encourage us all to be the kind of people that when this question is asked the answer is resoundingly positive. 

Maybe this stuck with me so strongly because I was put on the spot, but I found this advice extremely useful. It’s helped me to be mindful in my own day to day actions which is something I strive for constantly. As I write this and look back on my experience during PST I ask myself, “What kind of people are these?” my answer is overwhelming. I’ve been given lovely gifts by relative strangers, people have let me live in their house for absolutely free, people are consistently trying to get to know me and make me feel welcomed. When I ask, “What kind of people are these?”, the answer is that the people of Swaziland are wonderful. And wonderful isn’t  even enough to describe it properly. I’m filled with gratitude to be in a place where the host contry nationals live their life in such a way that I am welcomed. I’m filled with gratitude that when I’m lost in a foreign bus rank I can ask for help and get it immediately. I’m filled with gratitude that when I ask, “What kind of people are these?”, I can’t help but answer that they are the type of people I myself aspire to be. 

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The Real America

I’ve now been in Swaziland for six weeks and am officially one month away from being sworn in as a United States Peace Corps Volunteer! So much has happened over the last few weeks that I can hardly wrap my head around it. I’ll do my best to summarize. 

We visited a primary school called Ludzeludze and observed an English class being taught. Prior to the observation we were flooded by hundreds of children looking for hugs, high fives, or just some type of interactions with the alien Americans. The children were adorably cute and amazingly well behaved. This was one of my very favorite experiences here and I enjoyed it far more than I expected to. The teacher was dedicated and kind, but observing the class raised a call for action inside of me. As I watched I realized how much help the educational system in Swaziland needs. This experience caused me to ask for a primary school within close proximity to my permanent site, which I was thankfully given. 

On another occasion we visited the homestead of a Swaziland traditional healer. The healer had to call upon his ancestors through prayer, song, dance, and drumming to ask our permission to observe. The ancestors granted and welcomed our presence. It was quite an eye opening event. I learned that if you are sick you can visit the homestead of the healer for a consultation. He uses the knowledge of his ancestors to assess your health problems and once diagnosed he moves forward with various types of traditional treatment. He can treat any type of illness or ailment and will refer you to a western practitioner only if his ancestors are unaware of treatment for your illness. While I can appreciate the cultural significance of these healers, I also believe they are part of the problem when it comes to the spread and death rates due to HIV in the country. As a western trained registered nurse I believe that while spiritual healing is very real and very important western medicine is the only way to successfully combat this world wide problem. The experience helped me understand what types of hurdles I may face as a volunteer. 

We took 8 mid-training exams/interviews (all of which went well) and as a celebration of completing them PC took us for a weekend of fun. My favorite part of the weekend was a Swaziland cultural village where we watched many traditional dances and visited a cultural homestead. The accapella music is always full of soul and touches you right down to your bones. At the village there were tons of small wild monkeys and we walked to a beautiful waterfall. 


After the village we went to an awesome game reserve and ate dinner. When I say we ate dinner I mean we ate A LOT of delicious dinner. There were even warthogs who joined in for the fun around the fire afterwards. That night we stayed at a nice backpackers and in the morning went hiking. We saw zebras, a crocodile, and many species of antelope. The scenery was beautiful and the company was good. 

Since then we have continued with training and learning siSwati. This past Saturday we learned about our permanent sites. I will be living in a village named Macetjeni in the Lumbombo region of Swaziland. I will have electricity and water available from a pump. Today we met our Site Specific Agents (SSAs) who were selected from each of our individual communities as people who are motivated and willing to take us around the community and potentially help with projects in the future. My SSA will be introducing me to my permanent host family who I will be staying with the next two days and for the next two years beginning at the end of August. I’m nervous to meet the community members who I’ll be serving with, nervous to navigate public transportation on my own, and nervous to use my limited siSwati. Though, overall, I can say I’m really exited to do it. 

To end this blog post there is a special thought I’d like to share. During our training with our SSAs today there was one moment that particularly stuck with me. Our program manager had just finished up some of her final recommendations for meeting our families and community members and asked if there was anything else. One SSA, a Swazi native, raised his hand and just wanted to say thank you. He graciously thanked us all for being here and for committing ourselves to the betterment of Swaziland and wanted us to know his gratitude. When our program manager, another Swazi native, summarized, she agreed. She said, “What you’re doing is important. This is not the America that we are used to seeing on TV. What you’re doing is the real America”. Everyday I am reminded of why I came to Swaziland with the Peace Corps. I feel honored to be a small representative of the kind hearted, willing to help, well intentioned America I know and love. I am happy to be The Real America. 

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Sawubona! 

Hello from Swaziland! 

I’m writing this entry long before I’ll have the chance to post it, but I wanted to take the chance to get all my thoughts out accurately. 

As of today I’ve been living in country for just over two weeks. After the 15 hour plane ride (not as bad as I anticipated) we started our service by living at the Simpa Complex with all 38 new Peace Corps Trainees (PCTs). The complex had running water for showers, flushing toilets, and electricity. Three meals and one snack a day were catered for us. We had full days of classes and plenty of time in the evening to start getting to know one another and this new culture. 

My fellow PCTs are great and have hearts of gold. It’s been fun getting to know other Americans from different walks of life who have been brought together for the same cause. There are two married couples, teachers, social workers, people who are returning for their second Peace Corps mission, big city kids, rural dwellers, and that’s only to name a few. All in all, I fit right in. Over the next two years these people will certainly be my biggest support system, and I theirs, and for that reason I believe that we are all making big efforts to become fast friends!

After one week at the complex and hours of training I met my host family and moved to my new homestead in Sihhohhweni. I was given my new Swazi name, Sipho Sethu, which means “our perfect gift”.  My Make (pronounced mah-gay, meaning mother) is really great. She’s only two years older than me but our lives couldn’t be more different. She’s married to Babe (pronounced bah-bay, meaning father), she has three children (my host brothers and sisters) whose ages are 15, 12, and 10. She’s a stay at home mother, takes care the children, household duties, shopping, etc. while babe works as a plumber during the week. The children are all enrolled in school. There are two other families on my homestead, each with their own dynamics and children, but I rarely see them. 

Now that I have an idea of what life on the homestead is like I’d like to share: 

Monday-Friday

At 6:00 AM my alarm sounds. I’m usually already awake because I have two roosters that live right outside of my hut window. They typically start crowing at midnight and somehow continue that perfectly every hour or so throughout the night. As the sun begins to rise the crowing both intensifys in frequency and loudness. When I’m finally up and having coherent thoughts I enjoy thinking about enjoying them for dinner at some point in my future. After my murderous thoughts pass I begin boiling water for the day. The drinking water here is not safe so I follow Peace Corps guidelines and rapidly boil it for 3 minutes then filter it through a ceramic filter that they have provided us with. It takes all day for roughly 1 1/2 gallons to go through the filter so I start that process early. (By the end of the day the water should be safe to drink but I’ve been using my steripen for additional safety–so far no stomach problems, so I’m going to keep it up!) After that’s done I start to cook breakfast and a lunch to go. We’ve been given a nice table-top gas burning stove which we do all of our cooking on. In the morning I typically have fried eggs, bread with peanut butter, or unsweetened cornflakes with powdered milk. After eating I like to slap a little make up on, get dressed, pack my book bag,  and begin walking to school. 

At 7:30 AM language lessons begin. My instructor’s name is Sibonelo, or Sibo for short. Her official title is “Language and Cultural Facilitator” so she’s responsible for teaching us the language, helping us integrate on our homestead, taking us to town for shopping, and answering any questions we have about our experiences in Swaziland. The language is very hard. It’s difficult to change your entire way of thinking about letters to make a different sound. For example, the letter “c” never makes the noise we know it to make in English. Rather, the noise “c” makes is a dental click. Thankfully, classes are only three students each and we have the opportunity to ask many questions and have personalized teaching. 

By 9:30 AM we are on a Peace Corps bus headed back to the Simpa Complex for classes. Our trainings consider a wide variety of topics. So far topics have ranged from medical emergencies, to cultural trainings, to permagardening and nutrition. Over the duration of Pre-Service Training (PST) we will continue to have these types of classes. 

At 1:00 PM we are all hungry for lunch. Lunch breaks are an hour and we all are required to bring our own food. So far I’ve been eating things like tuna fish sandwiches with mayo and avacodo, egg salad, baked beans, peanut butter and banana sandwiches, and fresh fruit for lunch. Besides for the lack in variety, I really can’t complain. My host family grows a lot of our own food. We have avacodo  tree, banana tree, grape vines, guava tree, and mango tree. Although not all of the food is currently in harvest it has been fun to eat foods grown right outside of our front door. Hopefully this is a habit I can bring home with me to The States. 

After lunch we continue on with lessons until 4:30 PM when we are back on a bus to our respective villages. When I get home I immediately collect enough water for the night and next day and haul it back to my hut. After this I have a little bit of free time so I’ve spent it doing a number of things. Sometimes I like watching the pigs, goats, dogs, cats, chickens, and cows we have being silly. Sometimes (but not as often as I should) I study siSwati with my host sister who speaks pretty fluent English. But so far the most comforting pastime is watching an episode or two of The Big Bang Theory off of my hard drive. It’s been providing me with just the right amount of familiarity from home and laughter to decompress from long and information filled days. Thankfully, we have one outlet for electricity on my homestead so I’ve been able to charge my computer. 

Around 5:30 PM I head over to the main home where I spend the rest of the evening cooking with Make. We’ve primarily been eating rice with potatoes, curry, and a small piece of either chicken, beef, or pork. It is my understanding not all families are as fortunate to eat meat every night, but with our little farm we eat pretty well. While cooking I’m definitely practicing language and learning as much as I can from my family. At 6:30 PM we sit down together and watch the news on the South African Broadcasting Channel on Swazi TV. I really can’t understand a word of it, but sometimes there are English subtitles. 

By 8:00 PM I’m back in my hut warming water on the stove for a bucket bath. This has easily been the hardest adjustment to my new environment, but my solar shower is undoubtedly the best thing I’ve brought with me to Swaziland. 

At long last (both referring to my long day and your endurance of reading this long blog post) I go to bed around 9:30 PM, or whenever my hair has dried. 

A Sunday night BBQ with part of my host family.


The weekend typically consists of most of the same activities during the weekday. Saturdays we still have language lessons, but are otherwise free. I like to play soccer with the kids for at least a couple of hours, but the main priority is washing my laundry by hand. 

Overall I’ve learned so much already and I’m sure I will just keep on learning! I’ve never been more proud to be an American  but am loving this new Swazi way of life! 

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I’m Leaving On A Jet Plane

After months of discussions, logistics, endless questions, and planning… I depart for Peace Corps service tomorrow. The last couple of months have flown by faster than I thought time could tick and have really given me a new perspective on, well, life. I expect it to be just the first challenge in a saga of transformation to come over the next 27 months.

When applying for PC service I had no idea the emotional hardships that relocating would cause. It’s an interesting place to be: at the end of a debilitatingly sad journey of leaving comfort, those you love, and everything you’ve ever known, but being at the beginning of the most wonderful adventure of my life. I’ve been on a rollercoaster with tears, laughs, excitement, and nervousness. I believe my Dad said it best when I overheard him talking to someone saying, “This week is going to be harder than when she’s actually in Africa”.  Since I heard him saying that it has stuck with me because it is just so true.

Recently I was in California for my best friend’s law school graduation where the keynote speaker focused heavily on her gratitude for her mother. As I understood it she grew up in a single parent household, was living in poverty, and faced hardships I could have never even understood as a child. It triggered a personal reflection within me of all that my parents have done for Trystann and me. I think back on the days when my Mom was a stay at home mother and my Dad worked graveyard shifts. I think back on the days where Mom and Dad made weekly budgets and meal plans. I think back on the days when Mom went back to work and our household became a two-income home. At the time I had no idea what this meant to them, because for me it’s just what they did. They probably went through struggles I’ve never even caught wind of just for the sake of our family. As a child Christmases were indulgent– we always got just what we wished for and more. School clothes shopping was fun and we were always stylish. In high school we always had gas money and the money to participate in extracurriculars.

Mom and Dad, thank you.

Thank you for raising Trystann and I into women who are independent and know how to stand up for ourselves. Thank you for instilling in us the power of an education and where that will take us in life.  Thank you for loving us unconditionally and teaching us that we should not settle for a man who will not do the same. I could list a minimum of at least 10,000 more things, but alas, please just know that words on a blog could never express my huge love and devotion for you both. If it weren’t for you two I wouldn’t be able to follow through with any of my dreams– past, present, or future.

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Family photo taken by selfie stick.

Tomorrow at 5:45 AM when I step onto that plane there will be no looking back. I will be looking forward to the future but thankful for my past. I promise to keep this blog and other forms of social media updated as often as possible. I am so lucky to have so many people that make saying goodbye so hard. So for now I’ll sign off by saying… until next time!

 

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Packing Mule

At long last the packing battle has begun! And believe me, a battle it has been! Never once did I think that packing for a two year expedition would be easy, but boy oh boy I didn’t know it would be so hard!

IMG_0127.JPGMy best advice for future Peace Corps volunteers is start early! To get myself started I had to lay everything out and get my eyes on it. This picture shows almost everything I packed with the exception of my clothes, toiletries, and incidentals. From left to right some of the notable items are: two collapsible totes, one insulated, collapsible cooler, a U.S. flag, Idaho flag, Swazi flag, and two tapestries to decorate my hut. I’ve got a sleeping bag, tent, hiking backpack, solar shower, solar panel, solar lantern, steripen, water filter and two 40 oz. water bottles for general survival. One pair of Chacos, one pair of Keen’s, one pair of Nike’s, one pair of Tom’s, and one pair of dress sandals for fashionable, yet practical footwear. For my own peace of mind I packed (probably useless) spider traps, Raid, insect repellant, and 90% pure deet. I packed plenty of Para Cord, some carabiners, duct tape, a Leatherman multitool, binoculars, superglue and a travel sewing kit. I have an umbrella, two sets of collapsible hanging shelves, command hooks, my stethoscope and BP cuff, a portable speaker, a 2TB hard drive with media, three quick dry towels, three kitchen knives, a journal, and headlamp. For some comfort items I packed many MioFit water enhancement packs and two canisters of powdered chai tea. One kid in my group has packed what seems like nearly an entire suitcase of snacks (Chris, I’m lookin’ at you) so, when I pack my carry on hopefully I can add some yummy treats from home. As for host family gifts I got a jar of huckleberry jam, a jar of huckleberry syrup, huckleberry hard candies, numerous Idaho post cards, and a book on the history of Idaho. Other random things I got were a Harry Potter coloring book, colored pencils, a selfie stick, kite, Pokemon cards, and Harry Potter Uno cards.

Aside from all of this nonsense I packed an unreasonably large amount of clothes. Seriously. I’m taking way too many clothes. I’m okay with this decision because, unabashedly, I like to look and feel nice. This feeling also led me to buy the most ridiculous of all the ridiculous things: a rechargeable straightener for my bangs. Don’t judge. It’s difficult packing for all four seasons, business professional, casual, and vacation wear. As one woman in my group said, “I’ve accepted how excessive I am”….me too, girl, me too. At this point I’m sure I’ve even forgotten to write half of the things I actually packed on here, but heck, I’m sure I’ll get there, unpack, and shake my head like, “Why the devil did I bring a selfie stick….” Oh well, if nothing else it’s myself giving my future self a good laugh.

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Mid packing fiasco photo. 

My Mom and I started on Tuesday (one week before departure) and it was an all day ordeal. After about 6 hours of trying over and over and over again we still weren’t done. One thing that has been extremely helpful and highly recommended is vacuum sealed bags to compress your clothes. Eventually, I had to call upon the knowledge and expertise of Andrew to help me fit everything. He’s got an engineer’s brain and had to pack for his mission many years ago so he was the perfect packing companion. Literally perfect because he fit everything within weight limits AND made room for my pillow. What a stud.

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Final product. 

The moral of my story here is pack what makes you feel comfortable and happy. I’m glad to be done and ready to jet. Let’s just hope I don’t get over there and realize I’ve forgotten something really essential! And if I have let’s hope I have the strength to adapt! My mom said it best when she said, “It seems like packing well has nothing to do with being organized” and I’ve really had to take that advice and run with it!

 

 

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Time To Go Public

Just over a month ago I put in my official resignation at the prison. My boss and colleagues took the news well and proved to be very supportive of me moving on to the next big adventure. Since I wanted my work to hear the news directly from me, after I put in my resignation I felt like it was appropriate to let the whole world know.

Since then, I have been overwhelmed with calls and well wishes from tons of family and friends. Most people have extended their support to me, have had numerous questions, and have provided welcomed advice. Don’t get me wrong here, many people have questioned my overall sanity and have seriously laughed at the idea of me getting ebola. Overall, it has been easy to let their negativity roll right off my shoulders.

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An ad by Peace Corps that rang very powerfully with me.

With no one hesitating to give me their welcomed words of wisdom I have noticed one theme in their words: nearly every person has given me some variation of story stating that they wish they’d have done “something like that” when they were my age. I’ve found their messages to be quite powerful. A woman in the grocery store expressed how brave she thought I was and confessed that she always wanted to travel, but was too scared. Some have divulged their desire to volunteer abroad, but put their plans on hold for other things and then life got in the way. A relative stranger actually had tears brought to her eyes and revealed that her biggest regret in life is not executing a similar plan because she didn’t want to scare her parents (a worry I hold in my heart on a daily basis). I cherish all of their words and hold them as a confirmation that the adventure I’m about to head out on is exactly the right choice for me.

Furthermore, when it came down to thinking about the application and follow through for PC it got to a point where I knew that if I didn’t I would absolutely regret it later in life. As cliche as it might be, becoming a Peace Corps volunteer actually feels like a calling I was meant to fulfill. It almost feels like if I don’t bring it to completion, I won’t be completing a task that the magic of the world wants me to experience. Let’s be honest here, anyone who knows me surely knows that I believe in magic. Now, I don’t think that what I’m doing is inherently impressive, but I do think that what I’m doing is a dream I’ve been working towards for a very long time. Therefore, what is most impressive is that I’m actually taking steps to complete this goal.

With all of this being said, if I complete nothing else I hope that I stand as an example to those who come after me and want to do similar things. For those who came before me and could not, I hope that I am successful. In my group there are volunteers that range in age from early twenties to late sixties. Heed my words and know that it is never too late to pursue your goals, dreams, and aspirations.

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Some of my fellow nurses at my surprise African-themed going away party.

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Peace Corps Medical Clearance

When  I applied for PC I was well aware that my invitation was contingent upon medical clearance. Now, besides for having a booty that Jason Derulo could write an entire album about, I consider myself a pretty healthy person. Even though I seemed to have had a relatively quick and straight forward clearance process, I still feel like it was a complete run around. Here’s some info for future invitees looking to learn more about what’s to come.

Exactly 200 days before our tentative departure date tasks generated in the medical applicant portal (MAP) for us to begin working on. The tasks are generated based on you age, gender, and your answers that you fill out after accepting your invitation on your health history form (HHF). The link to the HHF is sent immediately after you accept your invitation, so, before answering immediately (like I did) I would recommend sitting down and really thinking about how your going to answer the questions. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the answers you give on the HHF will affect your future more than any other aspect of the application.

Some of the general tasks I was expected to complete were:

  1. Provide birth control related documents
  2. Provide a PAP smear cytology report
  3. Sign the health history positive response form
  4. Reported medication verification form
  5. Have your physician complete the physical examination form
  6. Have your dentist complete the dental exam form
  7. Copy of vaccine records
  8. Complete your signed medical care compliance form
  9. Complete and provide varicella proof of immunity form
  10. Complete and provide the MMR proof of immunity form
  11. Provide the lab work as outlined in your physical examination form
  12. Provide dental x-rays as outlined in your dental examination
  13. Complete and provide the tetanus and diphtheria proof of immunity form
  14. Complete and provide the yellow fever proof of immunity form
  15. Complete and provide proof of polio immunity
  16. G6PD lab test
  17. Mental health personal statement

When I first looked at this I almost had a heart attack because it was a lot to take in. I recommend printing off everything (an entire rainforest) so you have a hard copy to take with you to the provider and you can see what you’re working with. Make appointments early. There are so many fine details that your provider has to fill out perfectly before PC will accept the form for review. I was meticulous in looking things over before, during, and after my visits, but I still had to make a couple of trips back. Upload your documents as they’re completed.

You will be assigned one nurse specific to you who will help you get through your tasks. Some people in my group had their nurse immediately and he or she cleared tasks as they were uploaded. I didn’t receive a nurse until many days after everything was uploaded. Some people didn’t get a nurse until weeks afterwards. Don’t get impatient. There seems to be little consistency in how medical clearance is completed, so a positive attitude will make all the difference. Your nurse will be your point of contact for any medical questions from that point on.

For me, getting my nurse marked the beginning of the waiting game. Waiting for medical clearance took months, and made me sick. People in my group began getting clearances, some began getting turned away, and some of us received task after task after task to complete for follow up evaluation. For those of you searching for information as to what will disqualify you for service, I am no expert. However, the people in our group overwhelmingly seemed to get denied if they had mental health treatment within the last two years. This even includes well-being counseling. We do know that you are required to show a period of stability for 2 or more years. Many of us found this to be very frustrating because mental health is so subjective. As for advice, I would recommend only putting the absolutely crucial and required points of interest on your HHF. When you’re completing your tasks, I promise you’ll thank me. The good news is if you are denied you can appeal, however, only one girl in my group was able to successfully appeal.

 

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Eventually, and anticlimactically, I got my clearance that I was fit to serve for Peace Corps!

 

 

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Applying for the Peace Corps

When I sat down to complete the Peace Corps application I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I had read over and over again that PC had changed their application process and now you were able to apply within less than an hour. This post is primarily for future PCVs who are looking to learn more, or for super-fans of myself.

I started my application on September 11, 2015 and quickly got it going. It’s a lot like what you would expect out of any applications asking questions like, “Are you a U.S. citizen (by birth or by naturalization)?”, “Have you ever applied to be a Peace Corps Volunteer?”, “What is the highest level of education you have achieved, or will have achieved prior to Peace Corps service?”. Be prepared to answer specific questions about your educational background. These types of questions took about half an hour to answer and required almost no effort on my part.

At this point of the application I came across a short-answer style question. I wasn’t really expecting this so I saved my application so I could come back to it after giving the questions some thought. The motivation statement needed to be 500 words or less and mine came in at 481 words. The specific prompt (and my answer) is as follows:

Motivation Statement- Peace Corps service presents major physical, emotional, and intellectual challenges. In the space below, please provide a few paragraphs explaining your reasons for wanting to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer and how you plan to overcome the various challenges.

“I first heard of the Peace Corps as a junior in high school when my debate coach shared his experience serving in Niger. His stories had such an impact on me that I spent the following months daydreaming of joining the Peace Corps. I imagined traveling, participating in rich cultural activities, and meeting a broad spectrum of new and interesting people. As I have grown up my desire to serve in the Peace Corps has remained the same, but the reasons for wanting to join have changed as much as I have.

Public health, including the education necessary for its actualization, is a cause that I am extremely dedicated to and is the reason I became a nurse. I developed this passion at a young age while volunteering for a program in which children read to a group of low-income, sick, elderly citizens. Even in my young age I could see the need for better public health in my community. As I grew up and expanded my knowledge of healthcare and its disparities, I knew I needed to take action.  I am proud to be working toward fulfilling this goal on a day-to-day basis by providing quality care as a registered nurse at a women’s correctional center. I find it very rewarding to work with an underserved population that traditionally has had poor access to healthcare and health education.  Working with this diverse cross section of the community has given me insight into the unique struggles of marginalized populations. I believe that in joining the Peace Corps I can continue to expand and share my understanding of health on a global scale with a large variety of deserving communities.

Although I expect this experience to be highly rewarding, I do not anticipate that serving in the Peace Corps will be easy in any sense of the word.  Working within a new set of cultures, enduring complex physical and mental strains, leaving behind my comfortable lifestyle all while being away from my family will undoubtedly be huge a undertaking.  During times of hardship I will draw on my deeply rooted passion for healthcare, which will allow me to complete the full 27 month term.  I can rely on my experience living and working with different populations and cultures to ease my integration into a new environment. Finally, I have a strong support system at home, which, along with my new Peace Corps family, will get me through difficult times.

As I have grown and evolved from my high school daydreams, my sense of social awareness has progressed alongside my abilities and knowledge of community health. I have learned the significance and the need for capable people to provide service around the world, and I am eager to fill that role. The Peace Corps marks a new adventure, one that will allow me to play a small part in uniting humanity as one.”

I went though several drafts of my motivation statement and had a couple of friends read over it to make sure there were no grammatical errors. I definitely recommend that. I submitted my final application on September 14, 2015.

Immediately following my submission I received an email detailing what was going to happen over the next couple of days. This included receiving a candidate reference number, information on completing a health history form (HHF), and that my application was now under official review. In the email I learned that if my application met PC standards I would be contacted for an interview. I was confused about why I wasn’t able to put my country choice in my initial application. After you complete the HHF, PC creates an automated list of countries you are eligible for based on your medical conditions. At this point you are able to fill out a form with your top three choices for placement.

I plan on doing an entirely different post in regards to the HHF and the medical clearance process since that was a beast all on its own.

About a week after all of this I was contacted by a recruiter for an interview. When I went to sign up for an interview time I actually couldn’t make any of them. Thankfully when I emailed her about this she was extremely easy to work with and we scheduled an interview about another week or two out. In preparing for my interview I went to the PC Wikipedia page where it had an extensive list of questions that have been asked. I’m extremely thankful that I did that because all of my questions came from that page. I went through and picked about five different experiences that I’ve had in my life and came up with answers to almost all of these questions based on these five experiences. This worked out extremely well for me because I felt like I didn’t have to do tons of preparation, but still had answers for every question.

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My computer, with notes, minutes prior to my video interview.

I felt like the interview went completely well and really did feel like the PC says it will be: like a chat with an old friend. And evidentially it must have gone well because three days later (November 2, 2016) I got my official invitation to serve! When I sent back my official acceptance I got a daunting lists of tasks that I needed to get started on, but more on that later!

 

 

 

 

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The Kingdom of Swaziland

I’ve always been drawn to Africa and have wanted to visit since I was very young. I believe my infatuation is partially due to my Uncle Ridge working in Tanzania for practically as long as I can remember up until my early college years. The other reason I felt and feel so close to the continent is the widespread opportunity for improvement, especially in the health sector.

In 2014 the Peace Corps implemented huge application and recruitment reforms expediting the application process and allowing the applicant to choose his or her country of service. This played a big role in my decision to apply and I launched my own research campaign on the 54 countries located within Africa’s borders. I knew I wanted to serve in the south and in a safe, peaceful country. I quickly had it narrowed down to Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Lesotho, and Tanzania. Due to Peace Corps time frames, job descriptions, my HHF (health history form), and endless hours of research, Swaziland became my first country choice. If you’re a future volunteer looking to find out more about the application process, fear not! I’ll upload another post on that in the near future.

So, after a rain forest worth of paperwork, interviews, and begging for great letters of recommendation I found myself with an invitation to serve as a Community Health Extension Volunteer in the small country of Swaziland. If you are anything like me you probably know little to nothing about this small country. Let me sum up some of the best tidbits of knowledge I’ve learned.

 

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Flag of Swaziland

 

The Kingdom of Swaziland is a landlocked country primarily bordering South Africa but also borders  Mozambique on its most northeastern side. It is the smallest country in Africa and as a comparison is slightly smaller than the U.S. state of New Jersey. Swaziland gained its independence from the U.K on September 6, 1986. It is considered a true monarchy ruled by King Mswati III. The currency used in Swaziland is the South African Rand and the country relies heavily on South Africa for imports. English and siSwati are the official languages of the country and I will be undergoing an extensive language program to learn siSwati. PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers) in Swaziland are expected to learn and use siSwati on a day-to-day basis within their communities.

Although I loved learning all of the basic facts that will eventually just become common knowledge to me, it was the facts on health that floored me. Swaziland has the highest rate of HIV/AIDS in the entire world with 31% of their population having the condition. Life expectancy is approximately 52 years of age, water conditions are less than desirable, and access to health care is bleak. As a RN I hope that I can educate with the intent to make better lives for the Swazi people. Education is power, especially when it comes to preventable illnesses.

I am beyond excited to experience the new and completely different culture of Swaziland. I think it’s going to be shocking, educational, and just what I need in my life right now.

 

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