• Local woman recalls African Peace Corps experience
     | September 30,2012
    Provided Photo

    Peace Corps volunteer Emily Swint of Chittenden, far right, sits with her host family — Siphie, Vuyokuzi, Mhlonishwa, Sebe and Thobile, left to right — at their homestead in Swaziland, Africa.

    For two years, Emily Swint could see the border into South Africa from the front door of her octagon-shaped house in southwestern Swaziland.

    “I really missed right angles,” the 27-year-old Chittenden resident said recently, about a month after returning from a two-year stint in the small African country. “I was about 3 to 4 kilometers (about 2 miles) from the border. I would walk there to meet up with friends.”

    Swint, who graduated from the University of Vermont in 2007, was a Peace Corps volunteer focusing on HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis education in the small community of Dlovunga beginning in June 2010. This was her second time in Africa.

    “I always wanted to do it (become a Peace Corps volunteer),” Swint said. “Why not? It’s a great opportunity. I want to work in international development, so I saw it as a stepping stone.”

    She added, “I am fascinated with that continent. It’s a continent full of strife. I wanted to prove the pictures wrong.”

    And she did — for the most part.

    “Everyday life proved me wrong, but the poverty and the need is still there,” Swint said. “It’s not as cut and dried as how the media portrays it.”

    During her time in Dlovunga, Swint stayed at a homestead with a host family that included her host mother and father — known as make and babe in Swazi — and six siblings. Her family would call her sisi, meaning sister or an unmarried girl in Swazi.

    “It took time for them to get used to me,” she said.

    Swint said she was the first Peace Corps volunteer in her community and as such her main goals were to create networks among the key people and organizations. She was also charged with looking at how to de-stigmatize HIV/AIDS with a male circumcision campaign.

    “Studies are showing that men who are circumcised have less chance of transmitting the disease,” she said. “It’s a tall order. ...It’s pretty hard to talk about. It’s pretty taboo.”

    Although her main focus was HIV/AIDS education, Swint teamed up with a local priest to start a preschool at a church that sat empty for most of the week. She also volunteered at a local medical clinic doing basic pharmaceutical work.

    “Thirty minutes one way on foot,” Swint said. “If you went on the road (by car) it was two hours.”

    The cultural exchange was key for her. Swint said her time in Dlovunga was never about her, but about learning about the people of Swaziland and understanding their needs.

    “I didn’t make sense there,” she said. “Even though I know the community, I think there is still a disconnect. It was a hard pill to swallow … finding peace in that disconnection was the point.”

    Some culutural behavior — such as shaking hands in a specific way and avoiding eye contact with elder males — she had to learn to cope with.

    “Greeting people is of utmost importance,” she said. “It puts people on a level playing field.”

    “It’s little tiny things and you want to fit in,” Swint said. “If you are willing to get laughed at, that is where you learn. … It took some getting used to. It’s part of being flexible.”

    She added, “I went in with tempered expectations of myself. It was not easy. I definitely recommend it to people.”

    Since returning to Vermont earlier this summer, Swint has been going back to school as she plans to get a graduate degree in public health, ideally working in an international capacity. She wants to continue to work with issues of HIV/AIDS in Africa and nationally as well.

    “I will get back to Africa at some point,” she said.

    lucia.suarez@ rutlandherald.com

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