If you had asked me what eSwatini would be like, and what kinds of experiences our students from the College of Education at the University of Iowa would have, I would have given you a well-rehearsed and planned itinerary using words like orphans, child-headed home, children’s long term care facility, schools, and the like. And all of those things would be true. But I would have no way of truly being able to describe the magnitude and complexity of what those terms would bear out in real life here in eSwatini (formerly Swaziland). Indeed Annie and I developed a well-planned visit to this country, well, I told Annie what kind of experience I was hoping to plan for our students and she was the genius and the on-the-ground person here who has masterfully coordinated a visit that has been beyond meaningful for our students.
Today began by loading the small SUV with a 120lb bag of beans and another 120lb bag of rice to take as a symbol of gratitude for allowing our teachers to visit and work with the students in the rural care point. The call that went out to the community was that University students would be there on Saturday to conduct a few lessons and games in English. We were told that the primary group of students who were invited were the villages drop-outs – a mislabeling of these kids whose only reason for not attending school is their inability to pay. When we arrived, it was clear that word had quickly spread as there were many, many more on the preschool grounds than just school “dropouts”. We quickly divided into three groups. Rachel took the 10-13 year-olds, Jordan took the preschoolers with our colleague Katy – an elementary teacher in Austin – and I took the older kids.
My group started with a funny game of charades. All of the kids took turns picking words and acting them out and then passing the duty onto someone else. Some of the charades that got the biggest laughs were “drinking straw,” “goat,” and my rendition of “body builder” which apparently looked more like a gorilla than a body builder. True story, the kids asked me if American body builders act like gorillas and I may have answered, “kind of.” We moved on from charades to a few other language learning games, one which reminded them of a Swazi game that they taught me. We then played a game that involved chanting and singing and tug of rope, except no rope, only grabbing an opponent and pulling them over the line. Jordan and Rachel were so adeptly teaching the other children through play. I was so proud of them.
I then got a tour of the classroom from Make Dlanini – the head of the preschool. While the school was well-outfitted, thanks to Annie’s organization, I couldn’t help but notice a single poster on the wall – The Contamination Cycle – a pictorial guide to child outdoor defecation. I later debriefed with Annie and learned that outdoor defecation is a leading cause of death among children. How wild that we in the States create bulletin boards about math, science, English, student birthdays, this classroom is adorned with life-saving imagery about poop.
This incredible juxtaposition is my shadow on this trip. How incredibly similar are the needs of the children of this planet, yet due to a variety of circumstances, their life-experiences, realities, threats to safety, and well-being are so incredibly different. This morning was powerful. We left the village preschool realizing all the incredible needs of the community, just to provide basic schooling and food, not to mention the complete lack of water, and a need to use donkeys to fetch water from the river a half a kilometer away. That’s right, no clean water available at this preschool. Our hearts ached as we pulled away and said goodbye to the kids.
Our afternoon took us to the Mantegna Cultural Village where we toured a traditional historic Swazi village, and watched some amazing traditional dancing and singing. Afterwards, the Iowa team hiked to the Mantegna waterfall for some pictures. The entire walk was a conversation about our Swazi experience – about the contradictions, juxtapositions and challenges in this country. And we talked about everything about this place that is beautiful – the resiliency of the children and families, the incredible bonds of community that put some of our best efforts in the States to shame, and the wonderment and hope that an education can provide. Everyday we’ve been here, we’ve seen some hard things, had to hold back a tear or two, or slowly swallow in silence as we’ve seen tough things that no child should have to experience. Today, however was a little different for me. As I talked to the “dropouts” it was clear the one thing they wanted more than anything was to be back in school. To know that may not be a reality for many Swazi children is a bitter pill to swallow. Educational access and equity is an issue that persists in the US, but I can’t shake this heartache seeing how this issue manifests here. This is why we are doing this work. I hope our students leave here with a sense of purpose and conviction to change this issue not only in their own communities, but also right here in Swaziland. I know I’ll be scheming once I return to the States on how I can help some of these kids get back to school.www.ifightpoverty.org