The King owes me a pilot’s license

June 25, 2009

I have gotten myself into a little fake love triangle here at the guest house. It all started when I asked Celiwe if a girl can ever say “Zumbu” to a man (Zumbu, you may remember, is the one-word proposal that men can say to women here), and she started laughing and said, “I think you should say that to Jose in the morning and see what he says.” And then she added, “Antonio is in the other room right now – try it on him.” I went into one of the guest rooms (where the staff routinely kick back and watch soccer games if the rooms are empty, which is pretty often) and found Antonio glued to the TV for the US vs. Spain game. “Zumbu!” I said with an expectant smile, and he looked at me, laughed, and turned back to the game. Kind of a flippant rejection, I thought. The next morning, as Celiwe directed me, I came into the kitchen and said it to Jose as promised expecting to get a laugh out of him, but he just looked confused and smiled politely.

Then last night, as I was making myself some rice for dinner and spooning my vegetable curry over it, Antonio asked me, “Do you want to try what I am eating, Mrs. Fumu?” I looked at him with a half-smile, half-confused look on my face and he said, “What – now you don’t want to be Mrs. Fumu? I accept your Zumbu!” I burst into laughter and asked him why he would wait a whole day to acknowledge a Zumbu like that, and he said, “Eesh! A man needs time to process a Zumbu from a woman. Now I am telling you that I accept. If you are taking your Zumbu back, I think you should ask one of your friends from America if they want to marry me.” Later, as he was washing dishes, he called over to me, “Siphiwe, you see how good of a husband I would be? Tell the girl you recruit for me that I will do all the dishes, I will clean, AND I will cook for her.” And he grinned at me and went back to doing the dishes. So who knows what Jose is thinking about my Zumbu.

Ncamsile, Mandla and I set off early this morning to drive north into the Hhohho region of Swaziland for the second Journey of Life workshop. Every time Ncamsile and I drive out of Mbabane, we seem to take a different hidden dirt road out of the city. Today we went up the hill by Save the Children and then, without warning, turned off onto another dirt road that sloped perilously downward over huge ruts, bumps, and rocks. Ncamsile is an expert truck driver, though, and I have not once felt afraid with her at the wheel, even the time the truck got stuck coming up a steep dirt road and had to gas it and pray to get out of there. I felt like I should brace myself against the windshield on this particular drive – that’s how steep this road was. On the way to the workshop today, Ncamsile said, “Oh! I forgot to get the stones!” and started surveying the passing scenery for concentrations of rocks, and then she pulled the car over so we could collect them. She had wanted to stop on the way home yesterday to get some, but we didn’t find any good rocks on the way home; she needed stones for the workshop to symbolize the struggles and challenges that children face. So we went on a rock hunt by the side of the road as cows wandered by and the wind blew in violent gusts. I picked up one and Mandla looked at it and said, “Ach! That would be a very small challenge.” I threw it back down on the ground and he said, “No, put it in the sack; maybe one of the children can talk about some tiny challenges they had.” We collected about 20 large stones, heaved them into the back of the truck, and climbed back in. Ncamsile turned the ignition and…nothing. She tried over and over again, but the truck’s clock just blinked once in response before flickering and dying. 5 cows drifted over to us and arranged themselves directly in front of the truck, looking mildly concerned for us as Ncamsile turned the key again in the ignition, then they lost interest and strolled past the truck. Finally, after about 30 tries, she got the truck to start, and we took off again, winding the rest of the way down, down, down the dirt road, over a small stream, and then climbing back up. We turned onto another, even more remote road obscured by tall grasses and finally arrived at a cement building perched on a hill behind the house of the community’s chief (Mandla said you can tell by the type of kraal the house has which is the chief’s). We needn’t have worried about being late; not one child had shown up yet, despite it being an hour after the appointed start time. After a confusing series of phone calls, it was determined that there had been a mix-up, and the children had been told to meet in a building at the other end of the community. The workshop was scheduled for 8:30, and at 11:15, we got started. In the end, it was a group of 10 teenagers from 13 – 19, and they were all pretty shy at first. They drew pictures of their obstacles and achievements and shared them with the group, and then they drew their dreams and goals. I got to teach them “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands,” which they totally loved, and they sang it over and over again together. By the time we finished the workshop, it was almost 3:30.

We had a lot of down time today, what with waiting 2 ½ hours for the children to arrive, and Mandla and I spent most of this time sitting in the sun on a big stack of new cement bricks, chatting. I told him that I had been in the same room as (and taken a picture of) the first wife of the King, Lamatsebula, and he looked impressed and said, “That is something that not many Swazis will ever get to do, you know.” He then started telling me about the significance of each wife of the King, and how the traditions have changed with each King. The first two wives are very involved in the Incwala festival, which happens in December around Christmas, and telling me about that festival turned into a greater discussion about the history of the Swazi kings. The thing I love most about these stories is that they include tales of the different clans, which all correspond to the surnames of people I know here. “The Mnisi clan was known for its magical powers and ability to control the weather, you see; that is why the Swazi King needed to conquer them. He needed to use those powers to help conquer the other clans,” said Mandla. “Mnisi, as in, Mr. Mnisi, the director of Save the Children?” I asked. “Yebo, sisi, that’s the one. And Ncamsile’s clan had the power to create a fog that only they could see through, but which would immobilize their enemies. The King used them for his conquests, too. Ncamsile’s clan – eesh! They’re good ones.”

Later, while the children were eating lunch, we stepped outside for some air and flattened ourselves against the building to avoid the wind as much as possible, he told me what he had told the children in the workshop when we all discussed challenges we had faced in life (everyone spoke in siSwati; I said mine in English and Mandla translated for the children). When he was very young, around 5 years old, he was removed from Grade 1 and was told by the chief of his community that the King had requested that he go work in the royal palace. At that time, the King would recruit young boys to work in the palaces to look after his wives because he didn’t trust the men to behave themselves with the women. These young boys would work there until they reached puberty, at which point they were also considered to be a sexual threat to the wives. They would then be returned to school to complete their education, were recruited into the army upon completing 12th grade, and they could then choose to be part of the airforce if they so chose. Mandla went to work in the palace for only a few days before the King declared that he was too young to stay, and he was sent back home to Egebeni to rejoin his Grade 1 class. He looks at this as the biggest missed opportunity of his life because he wants so desperately to be a pilot, but has never had the money to get his license. So the fact that he was sent back home from the King’s palace when he was 5 is, to him, tantamount to the destruction of his dream of becoming a pilot. “Someday when I meet our current King, King Mswati III, I will tell him what his father did, and that he now owes me the money to earn a pilot’s license to make up for it,” he decided.

We packed up our things, and some of the children piled into the back of our truck and we let them off at various points as we wound our way back on the long road through Dlangeni. After we dropped off all of the kids, we took another turn onto what were simply wear marks in the grass next to a fenced-in field, and the truck climbed again, rocking back and forth the whole way from the bad road, chugging along past several homesteads as the sun was setting behind them. We passed one home where several children who knew Ncamsile ran up to the car to greet us. One of them saw me and shouted, “Good morning! Good afternoon! Goodnight!” We kept going until we reached a big fence, and we pulled through into Ncamsile’s marital homestead (where she spends most weekends). She got out of the car (leaving it running, since we didn’t want to take any chances with it stalling again) and found her mother-in-law in one of the buildings, who emerged smiling at us with a big plate of boiled pumpkin slices. Mandla and I took a slice and ate it in the car, the juice running through our fingers. It was deliciously sweet. Ncamsile returned to the truck carrying a huge pumpkin and two big trays of eggs, and she placed the eggs in my lap for the ride back to the office. She introduced me to her husband and mother-in-law as Siphiwe Mazibuko, at which they laughed and greeted me (I don’t know why, but every Swazi I tell my full Swazi name to finds it to be completely hilarious and dissolves into laughter at the thought of me being Siphiwe Mazibuko. It’s quite funny). We pulled away, me clutching the 60 eggs and holding them up so they wouldn’t be destroyed by the bumpy road, and we arrived back at the office in one piece (even the eggs).

Later that night, I was eating my dinner and laughing with Thomas about the Zumbu situation with Jose and Antonio (Thomas is someone who always seems to be laughing about something, which makes him great fun to be around), and I asked him if he is married. The big grin on his face froze all of a sudden, then turned into a sad smile and downcast eyes, and then he said softly that yes, he is married, but his wife died last month. I froze as well in the middle of taking a bite of my dinner and said I was very sorry to hear that, and he said that she died of breast cancer. I said again how sorry I was for his loss, and he smiled and said, “Eesh, it’s life, you know? It’s ok,” and he changed the subject. I had a very similar conversation with Celiwe the other night. She and I were standing in the kitchen in the late evening, sipping hot lemon water, and she asked me if I was married. I told her I am not, but noticed that she had a ring on and said, “Ah, but you are married.” She said, “Yes, I am married.” And she took a sip of her hot water and then said, “But my husband is dead since 2004. But you know, that is life. People aren’t here to stay forever. It’s ok.” She said it without much emotion; just matter-of-fact. Last week, when I was in the kitchen with several of the staff, someone asked me if both of my parents are still alive. I said that yes, they are, and several of them looked surprised and said, “Wow, Siphiwe, you are a lucky one!” If that doesn’t tell you something powerful about life here, I don’t know what does.

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