Diversity and cross-cultural issues in Swaziland

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In fulfilling the Peace Corps’ mandate to share the face of America with our host countries, we are making special efforts to see that all of America’s richness is reflected in the Volunteer corps. More Americans of color are serving in today’s Peace Corps than at any time in recent years. Differences in race, ethnic background, age, religion, and sexual orientation are expected and welcomed among our Volunteers. Part of the Peace Corps’ mission is to help dispel any notion that Americans are all of one origin or race and to establish that each of us is as thoroughly American as the other despite our many differences.

Our diversity helps us accomplish that goal. In other ways, however, it poses challenges. In Swaziland, as in other Peace Corps host countries, Volunteers’ behavior, lifestyle, background, and beliefs are judged in a cultural context very different from their own. Certain personal perspectives or characteristics commonly accepted in the United States may be quite uncommon, unacceptable, or even repressed in Swaziland.

Outside of Swaziland’s capital, residents of rural communities have had relatively little direct exposure to other cultures, races, religions, and lifestyles. What people view as typical American behavior or norms may be a misconception, such as the belief that all Americans are rich and have blond hair and blue eyes. The people of Swaziland are justly known for their generous hospitality to foreigners; however, members of the community in which you will live may display a range of reactions to cultural differences that you present.

To ease the transition and adapt to life in Swaziland, you may need to make some temporary, yet fundamental compromises in how you present yourself as an American and as an individual. For example, female trainees and Volunteers may not be able to exercise the independence available to them in the United States; political discussions need to be handled with great care; and some of your personal beliefs may best remain undisclosed. You will need to develop techniques and personal strategies for coping with these and other limitations. The Peace Corps staff will lead diversity and sensitivity discussions during your pre-service training and will be on call to provide support, but the challenge ultimately will be your own.

Peace Corps/Swaziland has an active diversity committee consisting of Volunteers interested in promoting diversity and assisting fellow Volunteers with diversity challenges.

Overview of Diversity in Swaziland

The Peace Corps staff in Swaziland recognizes adjustment issues that come with diversity and will endeavor to provide support and guidance. During pre-service training, several sessions will be held to discuss diversity and coping mechanisms. We look forward to having male and female Volunteers from a variety of races, religions, ethnic groups, ages, religions, and sexual orientations, and hope that you will become part of a diverse group of Americans who take pride in supporting one another and demonstrating the richness of American culture.

What Might a Volunteer Face?

Possible Issues for Female Volunteers

Men and women are expected to fulfill distinct roles and responsibilities in Swazi culture, and women are traditionally regarded as members of a legal minority. In rural areas especially, female Volunteers may find extremely conservative attitudes regarding gender equality. Likewise, the behavior of female Volunteers is scrutinized or criticized more often than is the behavior of male Volunteers. Although the Peace Corps encourages understanding of and sensitivity toward other cultures, it may occasionally be necessary to explain or defend why you believe something or behave a certain way. In addition, you may often be asked about your marital status and receive marriage proposals, professions of love, and other unwanted attention from men.

Possible Issues for Volunteers of Color

Most Swazis in cities and towns are aware of the different racial and ethnic groups that exist in the United States, but people in rural areas are not likely to have this level of awareness. Volunteers who are African, Asian, or Hispanic American may not be recognized as Americans. African Americans may be expected to learn local languages more quickly and may be more readily accepted into the culture than other Volunteers; on the other hand, they may be less readily accepted because of their Western cultural heritage. Asian Americans may be expected to exhibit stereotypical behavior Swazis have observed in films, which is sometimes referred to as the “kung fu syndrome.” In addition, the presence of Asian merchants in the country may have an impact on how Asian-American Volunteers are perceived or treated.

Possible Issues for Senior Volunteers

In Swaziland, older members of society are viewed and treated with a great deal of respect. Younger Volunteers may have to work harder than their older colleagues to be accepted as professionals. Swazi counterparts may be surprised by the amount of energy and physical fitness demonstrated by senior Volunteers. They may also be curious or puzzled about why a senior female Volunteer seems to have no spouse or children, even if she has the pictures to prove otherwise. Because most Volunteers are under 30, it may be difficult for older Volunteers to find friends and support among the most accessible group—other Peace Corps Volunteers.

Possible Issues for Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual Volunteers

Gay, lesbian, and bisexual Volunteers should know that Swaziland has a very conservative society. Homosexuality certainly exists in Swaziland but not with the same level of acceptance as in the United States. Local media frequently portrays homosexuality in a very negative light. Most Swazi homosexuals and bisexuals are likely to have migrated to the larger cities, while most Volunteers are posted in rural sites. Because of Swazi cultural norms, you will not be able to be open about your sexual orientation in your community. You may serve for two years without meeting another homosexual or bisexual Volunteer, and there may be little support for your sexual orientation within the Volunteer social scene. Lesbians, like all American women, may have to deal with constant questions about boyfriends, marriage, and sex, while gay men may have to deal with machismo: talk of sexual conquests, girl watching, and dirty jokes.

See also: Articles about Swaziland on the National Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Peace Corps Alumni Association website at http://www.lgbrpcv.org/articles.htm

Possible Religious Issues for Volunteers

The vast majority of Swazis have some religious affiliation and attend church regularly. Both Christian and non-Christian Volunteers may be expected to attend church with members of their community. You may be asked if you are Christian or why you do not belong to a certain Christian denomination, if you have been “saved,” and other questions you may consider to be a personal matter. Although this behavior may take some getting used to, you are sure to find effective ways to cope with these challenges and gain a deeper understanding of the Swazi people.

Possible Issues for Volunteers With Disabilities

There is very little infrastructure in Swaziland to accommodate individuals with disabilities. Disabled Volunteers may find living in rural communities particularly challenging. Nevertheless, the Peace Corps’ Office of Medical Services determined that you were physically and emotionally capable of performing a full tour of Volunteer service in Swaziland without unreasonable risk to yourself or interruption of your service. Peace Corps/Swaziland staff will work with disabled Volunteers to make reasonable accommodations in projects, training, housing, job sites, and other areas to enable them to serve safely and effectively.

Possible Issues for Married Volunteers

Married couples who serve together in the Peace Corps are in a unique situation. While they benefit from having a constant companion to provide support, they may have differing expectations of service. One spouse may be more enthusiastic, homesick, or adaptable than the other. Spouses often experience differing levels of language ability, acceptance by their community, or job satisfaction. A wife may be expected by Swazis to perform certain domestic chores and may find herself in a less independent role than she is accustomed to. A husband may feel cultural pressure to act as the dominant member in the relationship and to make decisions without considering his wife’s views.