December 7th, 2012
My life in Swaziland has gotten to a point where I feel really comfortable with my surroundings and myself. This is a blessing and a curse at the same time. I am happy that I am comfortable in living with my host family and working in my community, however with comfort comes a certain expectation of control. At home in America I can be fairly in control of almost any situation I find myself in and with my increasing comfort here in Swaziland I have begun to let my guard down assuming that I have any sort of control. I’ve learned that I still have none and my biggest struggle at this point in my service is dealing with this feeling of no control. I have worked so hard to figure out how to live here, found happiness and every single day things still go wrong. I know deep down its my problem for not being flexible or accepting the fact that I have no control over my life once I walk outside of my hut. I guess I naively thought that as I figured out how to live, life would stop feeling foreign; that I would discover that things work just the same as home just in a different language and at a slower speed, but yet be done with the same integrity. I’m found the exact opposite and am having a really hard time accepting that what has always been right to me is wrong here. “There are some laws and customs in this empire very peculiar, and if they were not so directly contrary to those of my own dear country, I should be tempted to say a little in their justification. It is only to be wished, that they were as well executed.” (Gulliver’s Travels, Swift, 65). I feel as if instead of expanding my world-view and opening my mind, I am actually closing it.
Here is an example of a frustrating moment when my “American senses” were completely opposite from what I encountered.
A few days ago I met some PCVs in town for a mini town-cation. We hung around Ezulwini Valley, which is the touristy area of Swaziland and because of that it feels like an American suburb – a really great escape. At least that’s what I assume, I see what looks like America and expect it to act like America and then it doesn’t. We went to the one and only movie-theater in Swaziland. Its brand new, yet has the movie projection quality of the budget, one-room, vintage movie theater in River Falls, WI. Aside from the movie sometimes being unfocused, the sound mixing being off balance, and occasional un-intended intermissions when something goes wrong up in the projection box, seeing a movie is such a nice option when us PCVs need a break from PC life.
So we buy our tickets and try to go into the theater. We of course are hauling backpacks and bags of food for our stay in town (essential parts of the PC uniform) and are told we can’t bring our bags in the theater, but the employee taking our tickets lets us put them in an office. We were really surprised and thankful for the employee to help us like that, so we went and bought her a chocolate bar to say thank you. Then we went in to watch the movie. When we got out the theater was closed, and there was one employee left. We soon realized our bags were now locked into the office and the one employee still there didn’t have the key. He kindly called someone with a key then picked up his bag and left. We let out a shock of distress that he would just leave us unsupervised in his place of work as well as leave us unhappy customers to solve a problem the theater created. As he walked away we said “wait, you are just going to leave?” and all he said was “oh you wanted me to wait with you?” We let him go on his way but got the number of the employee coming, unsure if we would ever get our bags back. Half an hour later, just as the mall security guard was about to harass us for loitering, a khumbi pulls up and the employee, who we quickly learned was the manager, got out. At this point my American expectation was that he would apologize profusely for the carelessness of his employees, perhaps offer us a discount on a movie for the inconvenience the theaters caused us, or less preferably but acceptable a mild scolding for leaving our bags there. Nope, upon approach and without being greeted he immediately went into a tirade about how we inconvenienced him, and made him turn around 30 minutes ago. He accused us of being over-privileged for using the office as a coat check, not once asking how our bags got there in the first place. I, having lost my patience somewhere in the African bushveld, launched right back in our defense, but didn’t get far as my PC pals told me to cool-it. Not a single sorry for the trouble or miscommunication, but we got our bags back!
I know its my problem that I can’t accept the lack of customer service here, or that things always go wrong, or that as a customer I am always wrong but isn’t it also wrong of me not try and correct these things. Swaziland desperately wants to be a developed country, and they have a lot of influence from South Africa that they mimic. Sometimes I feel as if it’s all role-play here. Swaziland sees what it wants to be and tries to be it before it really knows what its doing. Its like I am playing house with a five-year-old; they so want to be an adult yet can’t quite get it right. They get the basics, but when it comes to the details, things get lost; like customer service. In my fiver-year old scenario, the five-year old has years to watch and grown and has adults in their lives to fill in the blanks. Where is Swaziland’s adults? Is it the International Community? And if so isn’t it my job as a representative from a developed country to guide and fill in the blanks. Am I wrong to get mad when I confront a problem someone has caused me and am told that it’s my problem in the end? Or do I just smile and accept that things don’t work here and that it’s just part of the culture and just how things operate here? I used to accept these things quite well. I shook them off because everything was foreign and uncomfortable to deal with. But now I am comfortable here, I know things don’t have to be difficult and yet they still are.