We Were Just Two Sisters, Joking About Death

Photo: Courtesy of Blythe Terrell.
I settled into my one-room hut. It was hexagonal, with yellow cinder-block walls, a red concrete floor, and a black tile roof. I had electricity but no running water. Termites ate through the walls in summer, and a noisy family of bats nested in the peak of the roof, but aside from the occasional scorpion, the co-habitating pests never really bothered me. And I did have one true luxury: a flush toilet, although I felt guilty about the precious water it wasted.

Welcome to the Peace Corps. A year earlier, I had been living in Colorado, working for a small newspaper, and dabbling in volunteer work related to women and girls. I started to think that maybe I wanted to “do more,” whatever that might mean. My curiosity took me to the Peace Corps website, where, after fits and starts, I eventually filled out the application form. Then, in early 2012, a fat, blue envelope arrived. I huddled around it with a few friends and tore it open to learn my fate: I was about to become a community health educator in Swaziland, a tiny country in southern Africa.

There was almost no time to be nervous. This was happening, and it was happening now. I scooped up long skirts and dresses (required wear for women in rural Swaziland), took advantage of a Peace Corps volunteer discount on Chacos sandals, and stuffed two years into the two bags I was permitted to take. Leatherman, headlamp, and a fat-banded wristwatch to hide a taboo tattoo. Then, it was time for the red-eyed goodbyes, and Mom, with soapy hands in the kitchen sink, telling me to listen to fear if I felt it in my gut. On June 26 — just after getting engaged — I was on a plane from St. Louis to Swaziland.

After two months of training (language, culture, how to avoid getting sick, more language) I was deposited at my new home in the north-central part of the country. The land was dry and dusty, and a river ran through my village. It was a 20-minute walk to the regional health center where I would work, mainly with HIV-positive people. Swaziland has the highest HIV prevalence in the world: More than a quarter of adults there are HIV-positive.

The health center was also where I met Ncobile Hlophe. She was cooking in the kitchen, hairnetted and aproned for the job. We shook hands — always the right hand, supported by the left. She grinned and asked when I would come to her support group. "Anytime," I said. That was the beginning. I got back from Swaziland more than a year ago, and Ncobile and I still talk several times a week, discussing our families, sorrows, successes. She still calls me by my Swazi name, Nonhlanhla, which means "fortunate." We have both learned so much from each other, and I hope we will continue to do so for many years to come. Ahead, the story of our incredible friendship.

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