Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Baskets! My Peace Corps mission continues in Syracuse!

And the journey continues at the Syracuse Downtown Arts and Crafts Festival at Plymouth Church this weekend!! It is my one year anniversary of closing my Peace Corps Service and returning to America.  The work I did and the experiences I have from serving in the Peace Corps are memories that are still very present in my life and I am very proud of the work I did with women’s empowerment and business development while I served, but in no way did I solve the problem of poverty caused by the HIV epidemic and so I am continuing that work here in Syracuse.  I made such a connection with the women basket weavers in my community and I fell in love with the way they are working to provide a better life for themselves and their family through their exquisite basketry hand work.

Swazi Sisal basket.

I have been home from Swaziland for one year and now is the time for me to figure out how I can continue to be an asset to my community even from a distance.  I fell in love with their baskets and I think you will too, so I have started my own small business dedicated to selling hand-made, fair-trade baskets from the country I served in; Swaziland, and from a few other countries around Africa.  Each basket is uniquely hand-woven, made of natural materials, and would be perfect for your home, your office, or as gifts.

Check out the baskets and support African weavers this Friday-Sunday, *7/25-7/27* at the Syracuse Downtown Arts and Crafts Festival inside Plymouth Church.
I will be selling the baskets at the Syracuse Downtown Arts & Crafts Festival this Friday-Sunday, 25th-27th.  My table will be located inside Plymouth Church along with several other vendors in the church basement.  I hope you come check out the baskets and help me to continue my support for the women I worked with while I was a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Sharing PC Language Material

A message from an RPCV about sharing language learning material:
Good afternoon Kelly,
My name is Ray Blakney and I am a RPCV from Mexico (06-08). I am working on a 3rd goal project with the PC regional offices and the main office in DC to try to create an online archive to keep the language training material made all over the world from getting lost. I have created a sub-section on my website with all the information I have been able to get to date (from over the web and sent to me directly by PC staff and PCV's). I currently have close to 100 languages with ebooks, audios and even some videos.
The next step for this project is that I am trying to get the world out about this resource so that it can not only be used by PCV's or those accepted into the Peace Corps, but also so that when people run across material that is not on the site they can send it to me and I can get it up for everybody to use. I was hoping that you could help getting the word out by putting a link on this on your site at:

so that people know it is there. There should be something there for almost everybody. It is all 100% free to use and share. Here is the page:

Thanks for any help you can provide in making this 3rd goal project a success. And if anybody in your group has some old material they can scan or already have in digital form, and want to add to the archive, please don't hesitate to pass them my email. Thanks and have a great day.

Saturday, May 18, 2013


I am on such a high after a successful week at GLOW.  For over a year a group of 14 female PCVs in my group have been working together to create the 2nd Annual Camp Glow.  With GLOW (Girls Leading Our World we are working to encourage female empowerment in our rural communities here in Swaziland.  In order to make GLOW possible we fundraised using a PCPP (Peace Corps Partnership Program) Grant where we asked family and friends in America to support our project to improve the lives of people in Swaziland.  With that grant money we organized a workshop called TOT (Training of Trainers) which took place in January and was hugely successful.  The other portion of the money was allocated for Camp GLOW.  Camp GLOW was a week-long Camp which brought together 49 girls ages 13-19, 21 Swazi counselors from the January workshop, and 17 PCVs.  Each PCV brought 1 counselor from their community and 3 girls to participate in Camp which means that that this camp was able to bring  girls from every corner of the country, including the most rural and disconnected corners of the country.

Kelly R, co-director of GLOW and I at Mabuda Farms 
I am so thankful for the support of everyone back home who made GLOW possible.  GLOW is the hot fudge and the cherry on top of my Peace Corps Service.  It is the culmination of all the work I have done throughout the last 2 years.  The most special thing about working with GLOW in Swaziland is that overcoming gender roles, encouraging female empowerment and health education is so needed here and through girls clubs and Camp GLOW I am really able to see an immediate impact of the work with the girls I invited to Camp.

Clerisse Lemke, GLOW Director with one of her campers
Camp was awesome! On the first full day of Camp was all about sexual and reproductive health, an important topic since many young girls in Swaziland don’t have an option to make decisions about their own bodies or the knowledge about how to make decisions if they are given the opportunity.  We talked about anatomy, hygiene, STIs, contraceptives, abstinence and alternatives to sex, having a child by choice, and healthy relationships.  It was a day heavy with information, and throughout the week we worked on giving the girls the confidence to be able to use this information to benefit their own lives.

The second day was a lot of fun as we explored the girls’ creativity.  A Swazi art gallery, Yebo! Art has an Art Outreach Program that we were able to benefit from for the second year running.  With Yebo! The girls were able to express their creativity through painting, poetry, and decorating their t-shirts with their own unique screen prints.  It was great to see the girls really get into the sessions on art day since they don’t have art classes in school and creativity and ingenuity isn’t celebrated in this culture.

Some of the artwork created by campers on Art Day.
The last two days were all about leadership, teamwork, goal setting, and looking to the future.  On the last night, the girls participated in a talent show where they were able to display the courage and confidence they have been working on all week.  The girls really had talent!  We watched cultural dancing, hip hop and gum-boot dancing, singing, skits, and poetry.  One of the best moments of the week happened during the talent show one of the deaf girls concluded her group dance with a solo and the crowd erupted with sign language applause!
Sizakele participating in the leadership activity while Bandzile looks on.

There were many other great moments from camp that I will always remember.  I was so proud of the counselors we trained in January who came to camp and really stepped up into the leadership roles.  They were expected to lead the health sessions we taught them three months ago, and with only little preparation they did a fantastic job.  We really relied on the counselors for leading sessions and translating because some of the campers were young and all of them came from really rural areas where the standard of English is below average.  Also, during the poetry session I enjoyed watching one of my campers perform a poem about how HIV affects her life.  I enjoyed washable sanitary pad making, as a sustainable and less expensive option for a girl’s time-of-the-month.  I enjoyed the open and honest conversations and questions the girls asked of us about health, sex, and relationships.  It showed success in creating a safe and welcome environment.  I enjoyed watching campers try to learn sign language and engage the two deaf campers.  I enjoyed watching my shy campers gain confidence throughout the week and come out of their shells.  I enjoyed the camaraderie and enthusiasm that was built throughout the week. And lastly, I enjoyed working with otherPCVs on the GLOW Organizing Committee.  We did such a great and comprehensive job planning the camp that there were no major setbacks or incidents. Everything went according to plan, more or less.  Together, we have set a high bar for next year’s Committee.
My girls and I - From the left:  Counselor: Fisiwe Dlamin, Campers: Siphiwe Shongwe, Bandzile Ngenethwa, me, and Sizakele Dlamini

Close of Service Conference
The day after GLOW Camp finished the GLOW Organizing Committee along with the other remaining members of my group came together in the capitol city for our Close of Service Conference.  We all met two years ago as strangers in a hotel in Philadelphia, and now we are preparing to finish our service in two short months.  This was our last conference together.  It was designed as an opportunity to debrief our service, to talk about all the good things we did and skills we gained and to start planning our next steps as we prepare to re-enter America.  The conference was held at a beautiful hotel south of the capitol city called Forester’s Arms.  It was such a treat, decorated in country-chic with such comfortable beds, delicious food, and beautiful views the week was beyond any expectation.

The last day we were honored by a visit from the Deputy Director of the Peace Corps.  She traveled all the way from Washington DC.  As we sat in the conference room, she was so genuine and told stories from her Peace Corps Service.  She asked us all to introduce ourselves and our favorite part of our service.  When it was my time to speak, I motioned to all of us on the GLOW organizing committee.  We were all wearing the GLOW t-shirts my dad had made for us which made a huge impression on the Director.  She could really see how proud we were of the work we have done. I also mentioned my work I have done with hand crafts in my community.  Afterward she bought 3 baskets from me that I was selling for the women in my community.  It is so cool to know that the work from the women in my community will be displayed in the office of such a powerful woman in Washington!

What a great two weeks!  What a way to end these two years of service and so proud to have had the experience.  Only 9 weeks left in Swaziland.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Meet my GLOW Girls

I want to introduce you to my GLOW girls, to the girls whose lives you helped.
Siphiwe Shongwe is a Form 4 (11th Grade) student, 18 years old.  She has 5 sisters, no brothers, and is the second youngest.  She really looks up to her sisters as role models.  Siphiwe lives with her mother and father.  Her mother is a seasonal agriculture worker in the sugarcane fields and the fruit season.  Her father abandoned them as a young child, but has since come back and supports his family by wood working, carving wooden spoons and other kitchen utensils.  Siphiwe wants to go into nursing or social work for a career.  If she pursues these career paths she will be the first to attend university in her family. 

Siphiwe is a quiet girl, but very thoughtful.  She soaks up all the information we give her and she comes ready and willing to participate in every activity.  Her favorite session at camp was the abstinence session.  During that session, they role-played ways to say ‘No’ and postpose sex.  They also had an open conversation where they asked any question about sex, relationships, and boys; a topic too taboo to talk about in their home life.

Siphiwe Shongwe after dinner on night 3
Siphiwe was always willing to participate and usually the first to participate.  She knows what she wants and goes for it.  During camp, Siphiwe was one of the first campers and most enthusiastic to learn how to make washable sanitary pads, she was one of the first to share her poem during the poetry session where she chose to write about HIV and how it affects her life, and she did a wonderful job in the talent show as she portrayed the grandmother of a girl who was to be married during a short drama/play.

Sizakele Dlamini, my second camper is 17 years old and in Form 2 (9th Grade).  She is the 3rd eldest of nine children.   Most of her siblings are only half siblings as her mother was traditionally married to another man after her father passes away.  Sizakele only knows her father from pictures that people have shown to her.  When her mother was married, that woman must move to the parental homestead of the husband.  Sizakele now lives with her aunt and uncle while her mom lives far away near the north-east border of the country.  Sizakele sees her mother over school breaks.

Sizakele Dlamini at Mabuda Farms Day Trip
Sizakele told me about life at her home with her aunt and uncle.  She says she wakes up at 6am, then she makes her bed, washes dishes, sweeps the house and yard, and polishes her school shoes.  She makes breakfast which usually consists of sour porridge, a dish that I could never get used to.  At 7:00 she starts her 30 minute walk to school.  School starts at 7:45 and goes until 3:15.  At school, 
Sizakele is responsible for looking after the toilets.  She has to make sure they are clean at the end of the day and supplied with newspaper (toilet paper… ouch!).  After school, she goes home.  Wednesday is laundry day.  She must wash her school uniforms.  Dinner is usually porridge mixed with emasi (sour milk.. yuck!), but she ensures me that she actually likes it and the other girls agree that they also like it even though its curdled milk.  After dinner is over, Sizakele makes a point to tell me that is when she studies.  Her favorite subjects in school are science and English.  She wants to be a doctor when she grows up.

Sizakele’s favorite sessions at camp were the abstinence and the STI lessons.  She is looking forward to teaching girls in our community about the things she learned while at Camp this year.  She even mentioned wanting to be a counselor one day.
Sizakele is always smiling and laughing.  She is a very talented dancer.  She won ‘Best Solo Dance’ at the talent show with her crazy moves.  At school she is the leader of the Girls Dance Group.  Sizakele choreographs the dances with one of the other girls in the class and then teaches the dance to the rest of the girls.  It is pretty impressive.

My last camper is Bandzile Ngenethwa  .  She is 14 years old and in Form 1 (8th Grade).  She is the 3rd eldest among seven children.  She lives with her mom who is a math teacher about 45 minute bus ride from Bandzile’s school.  Bandzile must leave home at 6am to get to school on time.   Her father passed away in 2009.

Bandzile is such a thoughtful and responsible girl.  Her teachers really respect her and recommended her without a doubt.  At school, Bandzile is a prefect.  She is tasked with writing up any student who speaks siSwati in class and responsible to set a good example for the other students in class.  She favorite subjects are math and science and she wants to be a doctor when she grows up.
Bandzile reading the poem she composed on Art Day
Banzile really enjoyed Art Day at camp.  She particularly liked painting and the poetry and performance session.  Bandzile also shined during the talent show during a group dance.  The dance was memorably capped off by one of the deaf girls who took center stage for a hip-hop dance solo.  The crowd went wild with sign language applause.

There were two girls from the School for the Deaf this year.  It was great to watch their interactions with the rest of the girls throughout the week, from how nervous they were at the beginning to how well they integrated into the rest of the group by the end.  My girls were part of their group throughout the week, going from session to session and together with them in the dorms.  I was proud at how well they included the deaf girls in their activities and even tried to learn some sign language.
With the two deaf girls who did an awesome job at camp!

Last but not least, my counselor, a young woman we trained during the January Training of Trainers.  Her name is FisiweDlamini, 20 years old, she finished high school last year.  She came to camp this year as one of the youngest counselors.  I was so proud of her in the way she stepped up to be a leader among the counselors and always with the biggest smile on her face.  She taught a lesson on STIs, and participated in a variety of other lessons, she oversaw the camper in their chore responsibilities throughout the week, and she could always be counted on to be doing her job.
At home, Fisiwe lives with her mother, father, little sister, and her grandmother.  She has other sister who have married and moved out.  Her father is a police officer in town.  He comes home on weekends.  Her mother works as a cleaner at the high school she graduated from, the school where Siphiwe attends.  Her mother also sells flavored ice blocks to the students during lunch break.
Fisiwe is very active at her church teaching Sunday School. She wants to continue her education so she can become a nurse.

Fisiwe in a session during Careers Day

Sunday, April 28, 2013

HIV Workshop complete.. Up next: Camp GLOW!

Whew… It feels so good to be finished with the HIV Workshop I planned
for one of the HIV Support groups in my community. This project
started many months ago when my community counterpart and I started
the grant writing process. I know now that I really dislike writing
grants because of the wordiness and formulating proper goals,
objectives, and monitoring and evaluation techniques… ugh, it hurts my
head just remembering.

Since then, when the grant was accepted, I sought the help of the
nurses at my local clinic to facilitate the sessions during the
workshop. They were the perfect people to help me since they know the
question people are wanting answered, the myths that need dispelling,
and most importantly, they can speak siSwati.

The Workshop took place on Friday, so my week was full of buying food,
coordinating final details for the event, and overcoming any of the
setbacks that presented themselves. When Friday came, the big day, I
was up early in order to prepare everything. Of course, nothing ever
happens without its complications. I was so happy to see the women,
who had arrived early to cook our lunch, were already busy cooking
when I arrived and the nurses showed up right on time. The problem
was that the Support Group we had been preparing to present to were
nowhere to be found!! Even my counterpart hadn't arrived on time! I
was so embarrassed and stressed because my guest speakers who took
time out of their regular jobs were just sitting there, what a waste
of their time. This stress I was feeling is an American character
trait that I have not seemed to lose in my two years of being here…
timeliness and respect for other's time.

Two hours late, the participants arrived, and we finally began. The
nurses spoke about HIV transmission, tuberculosis co-infection, the
importance of taking ARVs properly, diabetes, hypertension, and
nutrition. The workshop was done completely in siSwati therefore I am
not exactly sure what was being said but the participants were really
involved and asking a lot of questions. I suggested that the nurses
each talk for 30 minutes, but Swazis know how to talk and each nurse
spoke for at least 45 minutes or more (which really surprised me
because of our late start). At the end of the day, the participants
were really happy and glad to have heard new information. I think
they were really pleased to hear new topics about diseases that aren't
just HIV because although HIV is a huge killer here in Swaziland,
people are tired of hearing about it time and time again.

Thankful that the workshop is over and generally successful, I am now
looking forward to a week full of GLOW! My next blog post will be
about Camp GLOW which is finally here! I leave my community tomorrow
with one of the counselors we trained in January and 3 girls. The
camp is a week long and I look forward to letting you all know how it
went at the end of the week. Once again, thanks to everyone who
supported GLOW and helped make it possible! GLOW is sure to be a
highlight of my Peace Corps Service.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Malolotja Easter Camping Trip

It was only one year ago that my mom and sister were here in Swaziland visiting me.  Whoever said time goes fast lied.  Last year seems like a distant memory with everything else going on.  Last year I spent my Easter weekend on a game reserve searching for elephants, rhinos, and giraffes, then a night in my hut, and another night in the beautiful Mountain Inn resort.
This year was a bit different.  I spent my weekend with 11 other Peace Corps Volunteers hiking and camping in the mountains of the Malolotja Nature Reserve, a nature reserve northwest of the capitol city.  In preparation for the trip, I knew that this was going to be the toughest camping trip I have ever done, the type of camping where you have to carry everything for the weekend in your backpack: tent, sleeping bag, food, pots, pans, water purifiers, toilet paper.  Where we were going there was no kitchen, we would cook on an open fire; no shelter, we must bring our own tents; and no toilet, we must dig our own hole.

The group hiking in to Malolotja

Upon arriving to Malolotja, the scenery is breathtakingly beautiful, rolling mountain covered in grass dotted with small trees and bushes and small rock outcroppings.  We were excited, but nervously anticipating the hike to the bottom.  Our packs were heavy with food and supplies. 
The hike took 4 ½ hours.  I was sore in places I haven’t felt since soccer tryouts back in high school.  Our campsite was a small clearing next to a river with a sheer rock face on the opposite river bank.  We popped our tents, started a fire, and took time to relax after such a long hike.  At this point I was very thankful for my Girl Scout training.  Popping tents and cooking on open fires seems like no big deal to me anymore.
My Girl Scout training at work: starting the fire to make coffee for everyone.
The next day we spent at the waterfall that was a 10-minute walk down river.  I wish I knew more adjectives for breathtaking, but everything was just so beautiful.  A few of us climbed down the rock face to go swimming.  I swam under the waterfall.  There was space between the rock and the water.  We could look up and see the sun shining through.  The water falling down sparkled like diamonds.

At the top of the waterfall.

There was a scary part when another group of hikers came long.  They were on their way down to come swimming.  One girl was overconfident, walking too fast, and too close to the edge.  She slipped and fell off the edge into the waterfall.  She was a bit shaken but completely uninjured when she emerged.
Huge bonfire!
We left the next morning, a day early, scared of the changing weather conditions.  It was another 4 ½ hour hike up to get out.  It was as tiring mentally as it was physically.  I kept doubting myself whether I could finish.  My lungs were burning, my muscles were sore, and my pack although lighter than before still felt heavy.
Exhausted on the hike out
The trip, although very difficult, was a very good experience.  I really enjoyed spending time with my fellow Volunteers.  With just over 100 days left in Swaziland I am trying to take in every experience and memory I can, making every moment count.  And now as the pain in my muscles fades away, so does the memory of the how difficult the hike was making me believe that I could do it again if I wanted.  Now what is left is the memory of the good times I shared down in that valley with my friends.
Update:  Last month, I wrote that I wanted to extend my service for another year, but the opportunity I was looking for has not presented itself.  So I have made the decision to not extend.  I will finish my service with the rest of my group and I will be home by August.  At that point I will work on what my next step will be.
Also, Camp GLOW preparations are in full effect.  Camp will begin April 29.  I am also preparing for an HIV workshop in my community to benefit HIV positive members of my community to help them live a healthier Positive lifestyle.  So here I am wrapping up my projects and not taking any day for granted.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Poster Competition Winners

 I am so proud of my students.  During the last term I had the students at my local high school participate in a nation-wide art competition.  The competition was hosted by the US Embassy and PEPFAR (President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief).  The students were asked to draw posters with a theme "Working Together for an AIDS-Free Generation."  The long awaited results finally came in and to my surprise, two my students were selected as the top two posters in the entire country!  There were thrree age groups, and the top three from each age group were invited to the award ceremony.   My students competed in the oldest age group (16-20).  Both boys are currently in Form 2, which is equivalent to 9th grade.

From the left- Siboniso (1st Place), Mrs. Msibi (English Teacher), Mfundo (2nd Place), Me

The awards ceremony was an exciting event for all included.  I traveled with my two students to Manzini where we met with their English teacher.  The boys were excited because not only were they allowed to miss a day of school, they were also about to visit the capitol city for their first time, visit the new mall complete with escalators, meet the US Ambassador, and have a nice lunch.  It was also a day of firsts for me too, as it was the first time I was able to visit the US Embassy in Swaziland.

All the winners, PCVs, US Ambassador (in the back with an orange shirt), PC Director (far left)
 The students were all presented with a prize of school bags with school supplies.  The following day after the award ceremony, I brought the prizes with me to the school and presented them to the boys in front of the whole school and their head teacher.  They had their picture and an article in the newspaper and their names were announced in the evening radio broadcast.

This was a fantastic accomplishment for this school.  They have come so far considering that last year they were learning under a tree, sitting in the grass with a broken chalkboard leaning against the tree, and fig fruits falling on their heads during lessons.  The students and teachers alike were proud of the two winners for overcoming obstacles and having put their new school on the map!