Sunday, June 29, 2008


Mkhululi, a Business Advisor at the TechnoServe office, invited a bunch of the volunteers out to a cultural event this afternoon. We went to a school about 30 minutes outside of Mbabane to watch members of the nearby villages perform a series of Swazi dances.

It was the type of thing off the beaten path that only a local would have known about and which isn’t listed in the guidebooks or the weekly email that’s circulated to the expat population. Indeed, our group was the only non-Swazi contingent there, and – apart from one other guy, Jan, the President of the Swaziland 4x4 Club (let me know if you’re planning an overland pan-continent trip, I’ll put you in touch) – the only white people in the crowd. It was great to experience an authentic local event, and I think that Mkhululi was proud to show us the dancing (which was fantastic) and have us sample the local maize-based bathtub brew (not as fantastic).

The event started slowly, and fortunately we were warned to show up a couple of hours after the announced starting time of 10am. A bit after noon, the crowd slowly gathered into a semi-circle in a courtyard formed by the school’s buildings, a loudspeaker system was set up, and the elder women of the village kicked off the dancing. Each woman was wearing traditional Swazi garb – usually a skirt and a colorful top fashioned with the symbol of the flag. They wore ankle bracelets of reeds and trinkets which formed the beat as they stepped.

The women came out with a lot of spirit, and were followed by a group of high school girls, high school boys, primary school boys, and then the older women again. Each group had their own dance and their own costume – a spear-like stick or shield, some colorful pants or skirt, and –depending on whether or not they were married – a shirt or top. While the older men didn’t have their own dance, they would often join in the other acts, rhythmically running between the dancers with their walking sticks in the air. As each group danced, members of the village would run up to the performance and present tokens of appreciation – often fruit such as oranges, mangos, or avocados; or coins or small notes – to the dancers.

I didn’t fully grasp exactly what the occasion was, but my sense is that the whole afternoon was a practice session for an inter-village dance sometime soon. Not many of the villagers spoke English (those who did spoke just a bit), but despite the language barrier, we were welcomed both through Mkhululi’s introductions and the warmth of the villagers.

There were a ton of very young children watching the dancing, and Esther (a fellow TNS volunteer) and I made friends with some of them, who loved seeing their face in my digital camera and wearing Esther’s sunglasses.

The afternoon was festive, but it was hard not to notice some of the elements of poverty and disease that I’ve read about and have seen in films about the country. Jan was at the school with his 4x4 to make a donation of about twenty 25-pound bags of rice to the soup kitchen there. I stepped into a classroom at the schoolhouse to check it out and couldn’t imagine much formidable learning in the dilapidated building. And –most noticeably – you couldn’t help but notice the sheer number of young children watching the performance, and the unfathomably high ratio of children to adults. I’ve noticed that there are very few older people in Mbabane, and it was hard to find someone over the age of 50 at the schoolhouse.

Outside of the dancing, it’s been a busy weekend here. The weekend was kicked off with a 3pm Friday Happy Hour at the office with a screening of Without the King, a documentary about King Mswati III and Swaziland. (The DVD will be out in the U.S. in July – check it out on Amazon or NetFlix.)

Friday evening I went with a bunch of TNS people and other expats to check out Napalma, a Brazilian and Mozambique-an band at a unique outdoor concert space called House on Fire. Both House on Fire and the band were interesting – the club is outdoors and has bonfires in areas surrounding the stage, and Napalma was a mix of Afro-Cuban rhythmic percussion and electronica, and they were pretty fun.

Yesterday I drove out to Malotoja National Park, which borders South Africa, with Nick and Rob (both from TNS) and Maaya (who runs the Clinton Foundation’s office in Mbabane). The park was beautiful, with rolling hills and some small peaks, and a river running through a valley. Maaya’s small SUV made it down some precarious roads to a trail-head, and the four of us hiked down into the valley and followed a small river to The Potholes, a series of waterfalls separating small swimming holes. The water was pretty frigid, but Nick, Rob, and I did our best with a quick swim before we had lunch and hiked the 90 minutes back up to the car.

We climbed quite a bit to make it back to our parking space, and by the end my legs were feeling it and my body was happily exhausted. I was thirsty, and I caught myself having an urge for a 20-ounce bottle of Lemon-Lime Gatorade, which is most definitely not available in Swaziland. After only 2 weeks, it’s a bit early for me to be having urges like that, which worries me a bit for what September and October will be like.

At work, things are moving forward slowly. I had a couple of good meetings this past week, including a trip out to Ubombo Mill in Big Bend, in the southeast part of the country, to meet with a team member from Illovo, a large sugar company with offices there. This week I’ll be traveling to Alexandra and Jo’burg – either Tuesday evening for an overnight or a long day there and back on Wednesday – to check out some of The Business Place offices and meet with their management.

I’ve gotten a bunch of requests for my mailing address in Mbabane. While I don’t have any expectations for packages from home, here it is: TechnoServe / Attn: Marc Bush / P.O. Box 663 / Ezulwini H106, SWAZILAND.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A Good Walk Ruined

Ducked out of the office at 3:30 today to play nine holes with volunteers Neil and Toby at the Mbabane Golf Club. (Greens fee of $6.25, caddy $3.75.) I had been to a driving range a number of times, but this was my second time out on the course and I was happy with the (generously calculated) 57 that I shot.

Life is good in Swaziland.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Sawabona Mkhulu / Mkhaya

I started Siswati lessons at work this afternoon. TechnoServe is sponsoring a class for the staff, which will be held in our conference room twice a week. Learning the language seems a step below impossible right now, but the class itself was fun and it’ll be helpful to at least pick up the basics, like “sawabona mkhulu,” or hello.

This past Saturday I went on an overnight to Mkhaya, a game reserve about 90 minutes southeast of Mbabane. There was a group of eight going in two cars – mainly TechnoServe folks, and two others – and we timed the drive to coincide with the Swaziland World Cup qualifier soccer match. Kick-off was at 2pm, and we were expected at the park by 4. The plan was to drive to a small town about 10km away from the park to watch the second half. We’d be able to watch the second half of the game and get to the reserve on time.

The plan was working beautifully until about 3:30, when we were all at a bar and I stuck my hands into my pockets and couldn’t find the key for the TNS car we were using. (I’ve moved from novice to pro driver in a matter of days.) I looked all over before realizing that I must have accidentally put them in the trunk in place of my apartment keys, which were still in my jeans. We were due at the park at 4pm sharp, and this wasn’t exactly the type of town that a tow truck could get to in 15 minutes. Neil, a TNS volunteer who had put down a non-refundable deposit on his credit card, was starting to get nervous.

The bar that we had stopped at was in a small mall on the side of the road. We weren’t thrilled about leaving our car there while we went inside the bar to watch the soccer game, and I definitely wasn’t excited about leaving the car there –with all of our bags locked in the trunk – overnight. I asked for someone’s help at the mall, and very quickly about a dozen Swazis had surrounded the car.

My group and I found some wire hangers, a mop stick, some metal rods and a few other things lying around the parking lot and got to work. It took a while for the Swazis to grasp the situation. About six times I was asked how come I wouldn’t just use the keys to get inside, or I was asked where the keys were. Everyone seemed genuinely interested in helping, but – albeit rather comfortingly – after 15 minutes nobody was able to get close to unlocking the car. The effort was not lacking, but nobody seemed to know what to do.

I remembered being in the same situation about 4 years ago, when I locked myself out of the car while going to the U.S. Open in Queens with my friend Nathaniel, and I had watched AAA open my dad’s station wagon in about thirty seconds. I found a crowbar at the mall, and Paul located a bendable metal stick, and – while we weren’t as quick as AAA – we got in fast enough to get to the game park only five minutes late. The worst part – besides for a couple of small crowbar dents on the car – was that Swaziland lost the match on a penalty kick goal in the 89th minute.

I got a couple of jokes that night (on being late for dinner, “What the matter, Marc? Locked out of your open air tent?”), but nothing that I couldn’t handle. It’s a much better story being the new guy in town and everything working out, than being the new guy, ruining everyone’s trip. and blowing their deposit from being a bit absentminded.

The park itself was pretty fantastic. We dropped our cars at the entrance and drove out to our camp in open-air vehicles driven by a ranger. Along the way we stopped to watch giraffes (my favorite), rhinos, and impala (a type of antelope). The zebras and hippos would have to wait until the next morning, and the elephants (only 15 of them in a 5000 hectacre park) unfortunately weren’t to be found.

Got back into town in the early afternoon and spent the afternoon running some errands before an ultimate game and a viewing of a Swaziland documentary that someone had rummaged up. The film, Today the Hawk Took One from the Nest, was about the HIV situation in a rural part of Swaziland and painted an ugly picture of the crisis, it’s affect on the homesteads and families, and the efforts to educate the population and get people tested. It was really sad and interesting, and gave some insight into the Swaziland I’ve yet to see.

The coming week should be fun. I’m travelling out to one of the big sugarcane mills this Friday, there’s a concert this weekend for some Brazilian band at the biggest club in town, and then on Sunday I was invited by a local Swazi at TNS to head out into the countryside with him to watch some traditional dances.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Actually, it's "Bah-bahn"

It’s been five days since getting into Mbabane, and there’s a lot to tell. I’ve gotten situated at work, am settling into my apartment, and have been adjusting slowly to Swazi life.

At the office, I’ve been thrown into it, and have started to take over The Business Place project from my manager, Liz. Wednesday morning I met with a number of the groups that I’ll be working with and started to map out what the next four months will be like. I’ll write more details about the work sometime later, but essentially my job will be to start an organization that will provide services and training to small farmers (mainly sugarcane) who currently don’t have access to them. The project has been in conception for a long time, and we’re adopting a model that has worked in South Africa for a similar center.

Liz will likely be leaving in August – at which point I should be the expert on the project – and I’m trying to take over as much as possible as quickly. I have a laundry list of things to do and to get up to speed with (registering the entity, opening a bank account, collecting funding, hiring staff, setting up an accounting and control system, performing a needs analysis, aligning the operation and strategy of partner organizations, identifying service providers, setting up monitoring and evaluation procedures, preparing the physical office space, etc.). There’s been a lot of consensus building and planning over the past year before I’ve arrived, but operationally we’re starting from scratch right now, and essentially this project will be to start a new organization.

It’s nice to have been entrusted with so much so quickly, and exciting to feel like I’ll be driving this project. The job seems familiar enough from my work with Bike & Build, though I don’t know how easy or hard it will be to get things done in Africa.

One thing that’s been a challenge is setting up the bank account, which is a priority because that needs to be in place before we could collect pledged funding, and contract with employees. One of the papers we need to open the account is the company’s registration documents, which are issued by government ministries. The registration forms were submitted a while back and have been being processed for about a month and a half. Each ministry has something to review and some document that they must stamp. (Requesting government stamps, waiting to have things stamped, reviewing stamped documents, looking at unstamped documents and shaking your head, are all very popular activities here.)

I checked up on the status with the Ministry of Enterprise & Employment and was told that the documents were still with the Ministry of Justice. When I called Justice, a lady told me that the documents were with Enterprise & Employment. You get the idea. Anyhow, I came to a solution with the bank that if I couldn’t produce the registration documents, I could provide a (stamped) letter from one of the ministries stating that the registration was in process. I got the letter within a day.

It took a little while longer to gather the other documentation, and Liz and I went down to the bank branch to present it all. We were missing passport photos for the bank (we had stopped on the way to have them taken, but the printer was broken – I’ll get them Monday), and as requested, brought our passports and photocopies (sorry, but the copies need to be stamped by the police department). Needless to say, the bank account hasn’t quite been established, but I feel like it’s close.

Over the phone it’s been difficult to get the right information and get things done, but each time I’ve gone out to meet with someone (the bank, the ministries, the police station, the Wednesday meeting), they seem genuinely interested in the project and willing to help. Building relationships here is important to making things happen as email isn’t widely used and voicemail is virtually non-existent. (I made the mistake of asking to leave a voicemail for someone my first day and after having a difficult time with the request was told sternly, “Why don’t you call her back in the morning.”) It’s been fun to get out of the office, and I look forward to getting out of the city and meeting with the sugar mill and farmers.

As for settling in, there are a bunch of NGO’s operating out of Mbabane, and there’s a small but close community of expats stationed here or rotating through whom I’ve been starting to meet. Besides the volunteers from TNS, the group has a few people from the Clinton Foundation, some HIV researchers, and two doctors working for a Baylor University out program, and a couple of local Swazis born abroad. It seems that every few weeks someone comes or goes (Thursday night I went to a going away dinner for a TNS volunteer who’s headed home), besides for a few long-term (year plus) workers who form the core.

People often meet for lunch, there’s a twice-weekly ultimate Frisbee game (Wednesdays and Sundays), and the trip I’m going on to Mkhaya Game Reserve later today was organized by one of the expats. It’s great to have a welcoming community to walk into and help introduce me here.

Some other things… I had my first experience driving on the left side of the road yesterday (think “stay left, stay left”) and did admirably... My roommate, Rob, is working on a project within horticulture. He went into the field on Thursday and came back with a big box of fresh vegetables which we plan on cooking up for dinner tomorrow… I’m having a difficult time understanding the accent and pronouncing African names (for instance Mbabane, which I thought was “Mah-bah-ben-nay” is pronounced “Bah-bahn”), but am learning… And what I thought was skim milk from the supermarket (almost as well-stocked as a local Gristede’s) turned out to be sour milk, and doesn’t go well with corn flakes.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

BA #55, Seat 44J, at 34,000 Feet

The rear cabin of this British Airways 747 to Johannesburg is an interesting place. Once you make your way past the suits and the families in business and premium economy, you get to the back of the plane with a bunch of young people with backpacks instead of suitcases. They’re mostly Americans, (a lot of them Christian,) and they’re all on their way to Africa to do humanitarian work for a couple of months. This flight will drop everyone in Jo’burg, where smaller planes will disperse us all to destinations across southern Africa.

While boarding, I spoke quickly with two women going to Zambia (to help build a school) and I’m sitting next to two guys from Atlanta on their way to Malawi (work in an orphanage). I met someone who used to live in Mbabane – the first local I have known –doing missionary work. And there are a bunch more young people on similar trips. It’s very cool to think of this British Airways plane depositing people throughout Africa this summer to do their best to help people pick themselves up.

And strangely, unless they’re traveling together in pairs, almost every one of these young folks is sitting in the middle seat. This flight is jam-packed and I pulled 44J (“It’s a window seat,” I was told at JFK), sitting between my friend off to Malawi and an older gentleman who was lucky enough to get the window. (Maybe this is part of the terms of the ‘humanitarian fare’ ticket, which was purchased for me.) My legs are a bit long and my shoulders a bit broad for a middle seat on a ten and a half hour flight, but I was expecting to be uncomfortable in many ways when I signed up to go to Africa, so why not start now?

My stop in London was shorter than I expected, but I made good time of it. The flight out of JFK left late, and we were delayed landing at Heathrow. Air Force One was on the runway and they closed the airfield for about a half hour, jamming up the works and putting my flight into a holding pattern. All told I had about 2 hours less than planned in London, but still made it into the city for a quick visit at the Tate Modern and a short walk along the Thames. (Thanks, W, for cutting short my cultural experience. We were also delayed on the way out of Heathrow tonight as they were still working out the backlog from the President.)

Arriving late into London, I thought about cutting out the museum visit and just staying at the airport, but was glad to have made it to the Tate. It set the trip off on the right tone – getting out to see some good art and to explore a bit sure beat sitting at the airport.

Being on my second consecutive overnight flight, the whole TNS/Swaziland project hasn’t quite sunken in yet. The week before I left NYC I was busy taking care of housekeeping tasks and saying goodbye to family and friends. I didn’t have the time to think too much about what my work and life in Swaziland will be like for the next few months. It still hasn’t hit. I’ve been reading up while on the plane, but I expect to really start to feel it when I get on my next flight, or – more likely – when I get into a car at the airport in Manzini, and head to my apartment or the TechnoServe office. By the time I walk into my Wednesday morning meeting with all the players for TBP, I think I’ll start to get a feel for what it will really mean to be in Swaziland.

For choosing to spend five months somewhere, I asked remarkably few questions and had little information to go on before diving in. I felt really comfortable with my friend’s TNS experience, the organization’s reputation, and their on-boarding process. I think I’ve strayed away from asking too many questions so I could come with a very open mind.

(Live update from the flight… my tray table didn’t work and I was able to move to 49H, an aisle seat, and life is now much, much better. So much for living with discomfort.)

As I get closer, I’ve also been starting to feel and recognize the pull of Swaziland as somewhere exotic that I would never otherwise have the chance to get to know. I’ve read some, and have spoken with a few people who have been there, and have a limited knowledge about the country (it’s the smallest country in the southern hemisphere, the last absolute monarchy in Africa, sugarcane is responsible for 17% of the GDP, they are ranked 161st in the world in soccer – thanks, Matt! – have an extremely high HIV rate – 39% among adults, and it gets cold at night), but these facts don’t get me a sense of what the daily day-to-day will be like.

There’s a lot I will figure out as I move along, but I have set some expectations. I expect the work to be challenging and engaging, and I expect to stretch myself mentally in a way that I haven’t in quite awhile. I expect to see a ton of poverty and problems, and am not sure how I will react to that. I expect to work with very some sharp people, and learn a lot from them. I expect to have a hard time remembering and pronouncing the African names of some of the people I’ll be partnering with. And I also expect to have difficult and lonely moments, and to get through them.

I’m a little bit sad that my time for telling people, “I’m going to Swaziland," is coming to a close. I’ll still get to say, “I’m in Swaziland,” or, “I was in Swaziland,” but “I’m going to Swaziland’ had a nice ring to it and was always the start of an interesting conversation. It’s such a mysterious place to those in NY, and the US. In my brief conversations with folks on the flight to London and during my time in town, it has seemed a little less foreign for those in the UK. And once I get to Johannesburg, it may seem merely pedestrian.

So, for the last time, I’m on my way to Swaziland.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

It's funny how quickly plans could change

About a month ago I made the decision to move on from my job as a recruiter with Accent. A week later, on May 21st, I got an email from Elizabeth, in TechnoServe’s Swaziland office, about a project they thought I could help with. Elizabeth and I spoke that Friday, I spent the weekend reading some orientation materials and guidebooks on Swaziland, and the next Tuesday I was committed to the project. I leave for Africa this Sunday, and will spend four months working for TechnoServe (TNS) and then spend some time traveling around the region before returning to New York this November.

I'm going to Mbabane, Swaziland to help establish a business center that will help sugarcane farmers access resources and services to improve the quality and yield of their crop, and gain access to markets for their products. My job will be to launch an office - called The Business Place - that will provide a suite of services under one roof where small farmers could walk in and get the help they need. The Business Place (TBP) exists in urban areas in other southern African countries – namely South Africa and Botswana; this will be the first franchise in Swaziland and the first rural-oriented TBP office. If it's successful, the rural model will be rolled out to other locations; it has the potential to have a very large impact on addressing poverty in the region. The goal is to help turn these sustenance farmers into commercial farmers.

My work will be through TechnoServe -, a US-based nonprofit organization that works in developing countries to provide business solutions to foster economic growth and combat poverty. TechnoServe is the largest development agency working in Swaziland and has a five year contract with USAID to launch a number of initiatives in the country. (More on their work and approach in the country in a future post.) I'll be working with their employees and members of a bunch of other local groups to help get TBP up and running. Elizabeth – my manager for the project – has been in Swaziland for over a year to set the groundwork for launching TBP and she’s been bringing me up to date through calls and emails, and starting to introduce me to a number of the people and organizations that I’ll be working with.

The whole thing is fantastic. The work sounds interesting and challenging, and the opportunity to spend some time living, working, and traveling in Southern Africa seems exotic and exciting.

While very different, in two big ways the work with TNS has a lot of what I’m looking to do, and the organization reminds me of Bike & Build.

First, there’s the dual mission of providing service opportunities to volunteers through a unique experience, coupled with the social/humanitarian impact of the programming. I think that the both of these elements were what attracted me to start Bike & Build, and the foremost element that sustains the involvement and commitment of everyone who’s involved now. It’s one thing to be doing socially worthwhile things or having fun, and it’s fantastic to be doing both at once.

Second, the people involved in TNS have seemed pretty dynamic. In my limited contact with them so far (and with the DC TNS office), everyone’s been sharp, energetic, welcoming, and committed to their work and the charitable development mission. In fact, the lady who told me about TNS is a two-time Bike & Build alum who worked with TNS on a three-month project in Rwanda. I’m excited to meet and work with the staff and other volunteers.

(A bit of background… there are 16 full-time employees in the Swaziland office – both locals and expats, plus around a half dozen volunteers at any given time. Most of the business staff and volunteers come out of the big management consulting firms like Bain and McKinsey, and I think that there’s a lot that I’ll be able to learn from them in the next four months.)

It’s been great to have the well wishes and support of friends and family. My boss at Accent gave me a chain of beads that have traveled to a number of very spiritual places in India and have been blessed by quite a few holy people, which will keep me safe and protected. Members of loan operations departments at a number of foreign bank branches in Manhattan have said prayers on my behalf. Friends have been supportive with excitement and kind words, and those who have traveled extensively have emailed tips regarding the pros and cons of different malaria medications. And despite multiple requests by my parents to pack extra sunscreen and take an extra tetanus shot (just in case… you never know when you could use it), I could tell that they’re excited for me and, maybe, even a bit jealous.

Sunday night I fly out of JFK. I have a long layover in London, and hope to make a quick stop at the Tate Modern, before another overnight flight to Johannesburg. From there, it’s a quick flight to Manzini, Swaziland, where I’ll arrive mid-day on Tuesday. Wednesday morning I’ll hit the ground running; I have an 8:30 meeting with members of the groups I’ll be working with to lay out plans for the next four months.

I can’t say that I ever thought I’d be in Swaziland, but after ramping up on the project, reading about the country, and talking with a few people who have been there, it sounds like a great place to be. I plan on keeping this page updated with stories and photos from Africa. Keep checking in!

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Leaving for Mbabane

I leave for Swaziland on June 15th and will update this blog while I travel. Please check in as the 15th approaches.

More to follow.