Our Daily Routine

rou·tine /ro͞oˈtēn/
noun

  1. a sequence of actions regularly followed; a fixed program

When people ask us how we’re doing we say “things are going well, we’re starting to settle into our routine”. Which is true, we’re already fairly accustomed to a daily schedule and while it seems almost banal when you’re in the midst of it, a good friend reminded me that she actually has no idea what daily life in Swazi might look like so I thought I’d share:

The sun rises early here. Today our room started to lighten at 5:48am. We have beautifully woven curtains that effectively block out light but much to Jon’s vexation, I enjoy slowly waking up with the sunlight rather than to an alarm in a dark room. To keep on schedule, we have an alarm set for 7am and the first action of every day is to tie up our mosquito net. There’s some famous quote about the best way to ensure a productive life is to make your bed every morning and while we rarely do that at home, it’s become part of our routine here.

Once out of bed, whoever makes it to the kitchen first puts on the kettle and the water boils as we get ready. Getting dressed takes mere minutes as it’s consistently too hot for pants, so I select one of the three day dresses or two skirts I brought and only have to decide if it’s a flats or sandals kind of shoe day. Breakfast consists of yogurt with muesli and fresh fruit (lately I’ve been jiving on passion fruit) with tea (black for me, rooibos for Jon).

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Work starts at 8am on week days but since our commute takes 2 minutes (literally: we timed it, from door to desk was 2 minutes 3 seconds), we’re able to move at a fairly leisurely pace. To get to our office, we walk through the weavery and are greeted every morning by the friendly faces of the women who are starting their day as well. Before even stepping inside, we see the women at the dye station who are prepping the fires to heat the pots of dye, which will be used to create beautifully vibrant fibers in a whole array of colors. Then we step inside the workshop and it’s already quite a hive of activity. The radio has been turned up and there are women at the wheels spinning threads, winding them around bobbins. The looms are often already manned and as the shuttles shoot back and forth beautiful patterns start to form, well on their ways to becoming scarfs or shawls or blankets (or other things!) We hike our way up a flight of stairs to the lofted admin offices, open the windows, and start the work day.

I think everybody says “there’s no such thing as a usual day here” but it’s true here, there’s no such thing as a usual work day here. There are ongoing projects, sure, and each Monday we have a staff meeting to discuss updates and the plan for the week, but there are also a variety of activities or diversions that pop up each day. Sometimes it’s a new small project that needs to be tackled in a particular afternoon, or a visitor coming to help out or train the women. Sometimes the power just goes out for no real reason (that happened today… and yesterday). It’s unpredictable but that’s kind of what makes it fun, right? Sometimes my nine year old pal Khetti comes up and we take a break from work to play games, practice math, or learn origami. She’s bright, and fun, and eager to learn new things – this week she completed my homemade times table chart and learned to play the game Risk (on Jon’s phone)

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At 4pm the bell rings to signal the end of the work day on the manufacturing floor and all the women pile into one truck to be driven home. I’d say it’s precarious but they pack in pretty tightly and somehow they all seem secure. The building becomes quiet save for the radio which stays on, turned down, so that Spooks Cat doesn’t get lonely overnight. Since it’s spring here, the days are starting to lengthen but currently the sun is already lowering by 5pm and it casts a really lovely glow across the vacant workshop as we leave for the evening.

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Once home, we lounge. I don’t think Jon has napped in over a week, which amazes me, but he’s found a handful of books that keep him enthralled and most days after work, he settles in to read (lately, it’s been so hot that he immediately takes refuge in the coolest room, our bedroom, with the curtains drawn to keep the heat out). Aspirationally, I brought a thin mat with the goal of doing yoga in my down time but have only managed a few sun salutations. Instead, I more often find myself in the hammock on the porch, reading a book or playing a game while watching out for birds and bugs I haven’t seen before. On cooler days, we occasionally venture down to the river to climb around on the rocks and soak in the beauty of place, and to get an ever so slight cardio burst on the trek back up hill to home.

 

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The sun finally sets just before 6pm and the bugs come out in force, which usually drives me inside. It works out well though because then it’s time to prepare dinner. As Jon mentioned before, we’ve been pleasantly surprised by the offerings of the local supermarkets and it’s practically been business as usual when it comes to dinner. We also recently signed up for a farm produce delivery box that comes once a week we’ve had a bounty of leafy greens, fresh herbs, and local fruits and veg.

 

Dinner is often accompanied by a game. We brought a few of our favorites with us and I don’t think we’ve made it through an entire day without playing cribbage at least once. We have a few Netflix shows downloaded but are running out pretty quickly, so we try to spread them out (although we pretty much burned through the second season of Ozarks, which we downloaded the day it was released, while in the Dubai airport). We have plenty to read and use BookBub to get new books when we run out. With the sun setting so early, by 9pm it’s been dark for 3 hours and we’re usually pretty beat so we turn in.

Unexpected Challenges

In speaking to our hosts and past Fischer Fellows, and doing research online about what to expect working abroad for the first time, I tried to prepare a realistic picture of how work would be, knowing I’d need to keep an open-mind once arrived.

However, after two weeks here in Swaziland, I’ve found myself slightly over-prepared in some areas. For example: the quality of paved roads has exceeded my expectations, and the design of local supermarkets practically matches those in Seattle.

But, there are challenges I didn’t anticipate:

  • Constraints not only on internet speed, which I did expect, but also on total capacity: specific amounts of GB are procured for download/upload each month for land-based home and business connections. This causes otherwise easy solutions to common business problems, such as file sharing or server backups storage, to be exorbitant or flatly unworkable.
    • So-crazy-it’s-almost-funny-side-note: the internet was out our first days onsite because thieves had stolen an entire transmission pole nearby – wires, cables, the literal pole!
  • Limited merchant/commercial banking options. I’d read a lot about the popularity/success of personal mobile money in Africa but, from a business point of view things are different. PayPal for Business (for example) and affordable wire transfer services are not available in the country, so international payments are difficult/expensive to process. It’s even challenging to work with the banks to secure an easy method to receive credit card transactions. Some small businesses here utilize an out of country bank account (UK, South Africa, etc) to process payments.
    • Personal note: to book a $100 shuttlebus into Swaziland, the only payment option available was international wire, a service for which our bank charges $40. ☹
  • Lack of transport outside the main cities. I (wrongly) assumed that people who lived rurally would depend on cars. But it turns out, often the rural poor can’t afford vehicles. Although Tsandza is in a rural location (intentionally, since the mission is to provide jobs for rural women), they provide transportation for their artisans to/from the workshop each day. This brings major business risk. Recently the large vehicle used for this purpose seized up due to lack of oil – leadership had to scramble to find alternate methods since this jeopardized their production schedule and customers.  A proverbial “for want of a nail” scenario!
  • Labor laws: employees are on a (sometimes perpetual) contract – not an “at-will” employment scenario. While I’m sure the rules are well-intended to protect worker rights, in practice this means it can be a challenge to keep staff motivated and focused.

These challenges limit the number of tools you have to deal with a specific problem, including many default “tools” to which I’m accustomed. To put it another way, I’m used to seeing a nail and reaching for a hammer; but what if you only have a screwdriver?

Coming up with creative yet straightforward solutions seems to be huge requirement for success here.  I’ll let you know how we do.

Week One(ish)

While I had the best of intentions to share a Week One update on the one week anniversary of our departure from the US (I even had a witty intro written up) I was thwarted Thursday evening by an invitation to happy hour, followed by an extended weekend away from the office/wifi and now here we are, day 12 – the time seems to be flying by.

Our first week was quite a busy one. When booking our travel, we didn’t realize that we would be arriving in Eswatini (Swaziland was renamed by King Mswatii III earlier this year – apparently they were tired of being confused with Switzerland) during the annual Umhlanga Reed Dance*, a cultural event lasting eight days where young ‘maidens’ from across the country come together to honor the Queen Mother and to dance for the King – and possibly for the King to pick a new wife, although the particulars of that component are a bit unclear to me. We missed the first few days, but were fortunate enough to be tipped off for the seventh day, which is open to the public and hosted near where we’re staying, so we took the opportunity to attend.

Day Seven is one of the actual days of dancing during the Reed Dance festivities. By day seven, the participating young women (of which they said there were around 100,000!) have already come together, gathering at the royal residences. They’ve already make their 30k trek to the river to cut reeds and presented them to the Queen Mother, and they’ve finalized preparations for their hair and attire in anticipation of the seventh day. On Day Seven, the King and his family welcome dignitaries and representatives from all over the world, along with public spectators who crowd the seats of a stadium, to watch the young women dance.

During the ceremony, the ‘maidens’ assemble in groups based off age and region, dressed in beautiful, colorful, celebratory attire and parade across a large field in formation, dancing and singing as they pass by the King.

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The sheer number of women participating was staggering – taking well over an hour for the seemingly never-ending line of dancers to finally conclude. After their initial pass in front of the stands, they assemble in the field, where some groups continued to sing and dance, filling the field with movement and noise. We took video but apparently we’re not paying enough to WordPress for our blog to support video so… I’ll have to figure something else out.

Once all the young women were gathered in the field, a small group of women stepped up to a microphone and began to sing. At this time, the King, brandishing a solid gold axe, and his entourage came out on to the field and greeted each group, dancing with them one at a time. With SO many groups participating, the King had to hustle to get to each group, and even then still, it was bound to be a long process!

In the end, I’m told that often the King announces his new bride near the conclusion of the Umhlanga ceremony, pulling her forward from one of the dancing groups, but with the sun setting and the evening growing chilly – and a large field of maidens still to meet – our little group decided to depart early.

The following day was our first day of work. Our small but mighty team is captained by our host, Kerry, who owns and operates Tsandza weaving. Temphilo, Tsandza’s Office Manager has made us feel quite at home, and we’re also joined by Katrina, a volunteer through the Australian Government Funded Volunteer Program (AVI) – and of course Spooks, the office cat. Our office is located on the second story of the weavery and there’s a constant hum of conversation from the women downstairs, combined with the methodical click of the shuttle shooting brightly colored fibers back and forth across the looms. While working on getting our bearings this first week, Jon was able to successfully sort out an IT issue and I’ve been getting familiar with other social enterprises in Swazi to see what guidance we might glean from their experiences.

This week we’ve also been thoroughly enjoying the vibrant nature that surrounds us daily. My binoculars hardly see the inside of their case and I’m constantly on the porch looking for birds and creatures. To date, from our own little porch, we’ve spotted colorful birds like black-collared barbets, brown-hooded kingfisher, and scarlet-chested sunbirds. We’ve also seen blue-headed lizards, countless geckos and even one monkey, climbing through a nearby tree. At night, we enjoy a chorus of frog calls combined with the cheerful chirp of bats. The days range from temperate to hot, and the evenings have been cool. We’re entering the rainy season and for the last few nights have been thrilled with rolling thunderstorms that light up the sky, shake the house and fill the river that we can now hear flowing rapidly just down the hill.

All in all, we’re settling in well, enjoying our surroundings and slowly getting acclimated and acquainted. I’d call it a successful first week.

*Please note: I, by no means, am any expert on the history/rules/traditions of Umhlanga so if you’re interested in learning more, the Kingdom of Eswatini’s tourism site provides a more thorough overview: http://www.thekingdomofeswatini.com/eswatini-experiences/events/umhlanga-reed-dance/

10,405 Miles Away

A car, a ferry, a taxi [that rear-ended a Porsche so we got…], an Uber, a shuttle, an airplane, another shuttle, another airplane, a bus, and a car. By land, air and sea, it took us just over 40 hours of travel to arrive in Swazi, and by the end, I asked the question: did we pick the single furthest destination possible?

At 10,405 miles from home, the answer is: essentially, yes. While it would be possible to add a few hundred kilometers by heading to the coast or even a few more by jumping over to Madagascar or Reunion, once you hit Mauritius, you’re technically headed closer to home once again.

And with so many miles between here and home, there’s bound to be a number of differences. Looking out my window now, I see only a handful of trees large enough to climb when I’m used to forests filled with trees so tall you can’t even see the tops. There are no squirrels bouncing around, just lizards climbing up my walls. The outlets still have three prongs, but they’re all three round and gigantic!

But there are also similarities and we’ve found ourselves settling in comfortably to our new home. We live on the property of Tsandza Weaving, just downhill from the home of our hosts, and only a few steps along the road from the weaving workshop, in a cozy outbuilding that was recently updated for us.

Home

Nestled just south of the Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary and southwest of the city of Manzini, we’re perched on the slope of a hill and the view from our deck looks out over a valley carved out by a stream, then up steeply towards the mountains of the Ngwempisi Wilderness Area.

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A large wall of windows with French doors marks the entry way and keeps a pleasant breeze flowing through, so even the 95° spring days don’t feel as hot as you’d imagine. Inside we have a comfy living space and a fully equipped kitchen, divided by a large countertop/peninsula/breakfast bar. Under the counter is shelving for food storage and we were pleasantly surprised during our first trip to the grocery store that many of our usual staples were readily available and we’ve been cooking dinner every night.

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Down the hallway is our bedroom beautifully decorated with pillows, curtains and a throw from the weavers (we actually got to meet the women who made them!), along with a mosquito net over the bed to keep the creepies out at night. Beyond our bedroom is a bathroom and additional bedroom with a single bed, more than enough space for the two of us.

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In the coming weeks, I’ll post more about the property and the nature around us, as well as about life in Swazi. This morning Jon and I joked that if we were a newspaper, he’d write the Business section and I’d be in charge of Lifestyle, Travel and Culture, so keep an eye out for additional updates coming shortly!