Just thank him for his Zumbu

June 16, 2009

Zumbu. That’s my new word for today. It apparently is an exclamation uttered only by men and is an all-in-one, one-word proposal towards a woman (esp. to one he doesn’t know). I was walking around the festivities today and an older police officer said it to me, and of course, I didn’t know what it meant; he just told me it meant that I am a lucky and chosen one. I suppose that, given the real meaning of the word, that would be a matter of subjectivity. I asked Justice about it tonight back at the guest house, and he explained some of the etiquette surrounding “Zumbu.” He said that it’s what a man says to a woman to compliment her, and that it is something that a woman would not utter towards a man – only vice versa. He said the proper way to react is not to ignore a man if he says it to you; you should “thank him for his Zumbu” and politely decline the invitation. Oops – definitely not how I handled the Zumbu I received today. Just add that to my list of cultural faux pas.

Today started very early, and unfortunately, without coffee. Supposedly the kitchen and dining area at the guest house open at 6 (I even reconfirmed last night with the staff), but I am guessing this is on Swazi time as much as anything else, because no one from the kitchen showed up this morning. I was ready and waiting at the door at 6 to slurp down some coffee before going out for the day, though. And no one came before Ncamsile pulled up in a white truck to get me at 6:25. So sadly, no coffee, but luckily there was black tea once we got to the high school, so I slurped down a small cup when I got there. We arrived very early and helped set everything up, which for me included making butter sandwiches for the breakfast and helping to wipe the dust off all the plastic chairs (which turned out to be an omen of the dust that wouldn’t settle for the rest of the day). I then went to join the ranks of the march to the school, which included all of the children and various UNICEF representatives marching from maybe 1 or 2 kilometers away to arrive at the stage. There was a lot of energy in that march, despite the delay in starting. One of the women from UNICEF, Vopile, had a microphone and she was shouting things to the children and then letting them speak into it as we marched. Some of the kids apparently thought it was a live radio broadcast and started shouting out hellos to people at home. It was really cute and funny once I realized what was going on.

I spent the majority of the day under a tent at our Save the Children table watching the performances as best I could through the crowd. The space today was way too cramped, and there were a lot more children there than there were at yesterday’s performances, so they were literally pressing up against us at our stand, which was making me a little claustrophobic, to be honest. But when I went to walk around to get a breather from the cramped space under the tent, I found myself the object of some very blatant and unabashed ogling. One guy dressed in traditional red and black Swazi toga-style outfit tried to follow me (I have no idea how old he was), but I pretended not to see and walked away very quickly. In doing so, I walked past a large tree with about a dozen police officers sitting under the branches in the shade. One of them, a police officer who was eating one of the makeshift popsicles that were being sold (a bright pink one, by the way) cornered me and got me to take a picture with him (my only consolation is that he looks ridiculous in the picture holding his pink popsicle), and then another police officer started talking to me and that’s when I flashed my ring and began weaving a web of lies about my fictional husband. We got married last year and he’s in the States now while I volunteer for 2 months, just so everyone knows the story. So after that brief venture outside the tent, which was even more overwhelming than being inside the tent, I returned and spent the rest of the time sitting at the table.

The day’s program started very late (not surprisingly), so it didn’t end until about 3 p.m., and after it was over, I went in search of Ncamsile, whom I found in one of the main buildings. I saw her disappear into a door, and I waited outside for her until I was literally pulled into the room by Elizabeth (another work colleague), who asked me in a hushed and urgent voice if I could come take a picture of her with someone. Well, that someone turned out to be the first wife of the King, Lamatsebula! When I was yanked into the room, I felt very out of place – I was sweaty and very dusty and not at all put together, and all of a sudden, I was literally in a room filled with some of the royalty of Swaziland. It was the King’s first wife and several of his sisters sitting in traditional dress, and then a lot of other older women. I watched as various women around the room came to talk to the queen (although I’m not sure that’s what she’s called since she’s one of 13 wives…?); they all dropped to their knees, supporting themselves with their hands on the floor, and talked to her with their heads dropped, sometimes looking up, but mostly keeping their eyes and heads down with reverence for her. And here I was, sitting two seats away from her, and not at all sure how to act or what to do. She and her entourage left before I had a chance to interact with her, but I did manage to snap the picture of her and Elizabeth together, which delighted Elizabeth to no end. I am still not sure how I ended up sitting two seats away from one of the queens, but at least I can say that I was in the same room with her!

When I was dropped off to march with the children today, I spent a little time chatting with some of the UNICEF people at their van, who are pretty cool. There’s a woman named Fran from the UK who has been walking around doing surveys of the NGOs represented this week, and then a girl named Alma who is from Philly, and several women from Swaziland. Alma and I chatted for a while, and it turns out she went to Penn and is here as an intern for a year and is living with her parents near Mbabane. She invited me (tentatively) on a trip to Johannesburg in 2 weeks; I’m very tempted, because I really want to see South Africa while I’m here. I also chatted with a woman named Nokuthula, who invited me to come to a support group for HIV positive children she helps run once a month, and the next meeting is this Saturday! I am definitely going to try to go to that. I’m not sure at all what the process is for getting an internship with UNICEF, but I’m going to look into it and see what might be available. Probably it’s not possible at this late time, but you never know.

On the way home, we took the road north to Pigg’s Peak and dropped off another woman named Nelly, who is a police officer for the department of domestic violence and child abuse, and I had a lovely chat with her. I was interested to find out more about the legal side of proceedings in cases of child abuse, and our talk was really enlightening for me. As we passed through the beautiful mountainous region lined with man-made forests, she pointed out to me various places from her childhood, including her family’s homestead (which is just outside of Pigg’s Peak right next to the road). I told her about the foster care system in America and how it works (from my own limited understanding), and it doesn’t sound like they have anything like that here in Swaziland in a formal sense. She told me two heartbreaking stories of abuse that she had dealt with a few years back; cases that were just awful, of repeated rapes and beatings by a father and the resulting attempted suicide by the 12 year old girl, and then of a girl who was raped repeatedly by a family acquaintance, contracted an STI, and was then told to keep it quiet by her parents. Nelly has been in this job for 9 years, she said, and 8 in this department. I imagine it’s very difficult to maintain that kind of job with the time and effort it requires, and the emotional toll that it takes. As we were talking, she showed me the bracelet she was wearing, and I told her it was very beautiful. She immediately removed it and said, “Here, it’s for you then, my friend.” I looked at her in surprise, and told her that I didn’t mean for her to give it to me. “Oh, you don’t like it then really?” was her answer, as she replaced it on her wrist. “No, no, I really do like it – it’s very pretty,” I said, unsure of how to answer, and she said, “Then take it; I have another one at home and you should have this one so you’ll think of your car ride with Nelly when you look at it.”

Our final stop of the day was the child-headed household again to drop off something for one of the older boys. I got to meet the other two children, Gabi and Tulani, and I chatted for a while with Sipho and Papa (I don’t know his real name, and neither does Ncamsile; he’s just known as Papa). My heart warms when I talk to Papa; he is soft-spoken and has a thoughtful, intelligent, and penetrating gaze, and he just emanates a “good person” vibe (emphasized by the fact that he is taking care of these 4 kids while completing the 9th grade himself at age 23). He showed me their tiny library of books, which were in small piles on their big desk (they had a copy of “Black Beauty” and a few others), and his history book (pointing out his favorite chapter so far, Chapter 4: American History), and we talked more about his wanting to become a lawyer. He told me he needs help achieving his goals, but that he really wants to be a lawyer and that he’d like any help I can give him. I’m going to help him compile a list of schools to look into, and maybe I can connect him with a friend who is in law school who could offer some advice…I haven’t figured out how I will be able to help substantially, but he deserves every chance he can get for what he’s doing for his niece and nephews.

We pulled away from the house as the sun disappeared behind the mountains, and we navigated around the tiny boys playing a makeshift game of soccer in the small clearing in front of the house and made our way down the bumpy dirt road to the main highway. A few lights started sparkling in the distance, but for the most part, the mountains were dark and were illuminated only by the fading twilight and the occasional bonfire. We arrived in Mbabane later than usual, at around 6:30 p.m., but it didn’t feel like a 12-hour workday. As we turned off the highway to pull into the Eden Guest House parking lot, Ncamsile and Nomzamo said (like they always do when we turn onto the drive leading to Eden), “Home sweet home!” and “Home far away from home!” and I smiled to myself and climbed out of the car and headed for the kitchen for another siSwati lesson before going to bed.

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0 Responses to Just thank him for his Zumbu

  1. Nana says:

    Well, Claire, I just realized this blog was another one I had not been aware of. If I go back further, who knows what I might find! This is a beautiful and grace-full response by fate or the God of all goodness, to your need right at that moment in the rain and after being in such a ‘strange place’ when you began this blog. I feel so honored to share in your experiences and feelings both up and down, and when you write, you bring all of us who read you right into your presence and amidst your Swazi brothers and sisters. Thank you so much! I love you! Nana

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