You’re at home here, sisi

June 28, 2009

The concept of time is gradually reforming itself in my head. Things are slower and happen when they happen, no matter how well-laid your plans or intentions may be. You often find yourself waiting for all sorts of things: for meetings to start, for a kombi to take pity and stop to pick you up, or for someone to come back to you after running an errand. And people seem to take it all in stride because “Swazi time,” as it is called, is very different from the frenzied notion of time we have in the US, and our fear of losing too much of it.

But for me, time is flying at an alarming rate, and it is hard to believe that I am beginning my fourth full week in Swaziland. It feels simultaneously as if I arrived just yesterday and at the same time, have been here for 6 months already.

Last week was a flurry of activity, and I hardly had time to catch my breath once at the office from being in the field every day. On Friday, instead of the quiet I’ve come to expect in the office after 3 p.m., one of the girls we are working with in an abuse case (a 16 year-old) showed up at the office and told me that the orphanage she was staying at was kicking her out that evening, and that she had nowhere to go. I had been at the office waiting for the girl to show up for her counseling session with me, but Ncamsile was out of the office conducting a workshop until after 3. The director of the orphanage was going to leave at 4 p.m. , so we rushed over there together and met the woman as she was walking up the path to the road. After the mandatory Swazi greetings, we pleaded with her to give us one more week, but she told us very firmly that there was nothing we could say to change her mind – that the girl would have to go immediately. And this at 4 o’clock on a Friday afternoon. Ncamsile and I looked at each other, feeling discouraged and without any idea of where we were going to send this girl for the weekend. Reunifying her with her family has been a very delicate process involving a string of individual counseling sessions with the child and her parents, and at that moment it looked like the only option we faced was to send her back to her family right then and there, without warning to her or the family, and without us there to facilitate the discussion.

Miraculously, we spotted the girl as she was coming back from school – no easy feat at 4:30 p.m. when the streets are flooded with schoolchildren wearing identical uniforms – and I ran after her down the street like a madwoman and brought her to our office, where we explained the situation to her. Her face was almost scraping the floor, she looked so dejected, and with her eyes cast down, she said she wasn’t ready to go home and that she’d just go back to the orphanage to try and negotiate another few nights with them. Ncamsile and I exchanged dubious looks, and then I handed her some money and we gave her a list of phone numbers, including mine, to call if (and really, it wasn’t a matter of if, but when) the orphanage wouldn’t take her back. I didn’t hear from her all weekend, but on Monday morning when I got to work, two of her teachers were waiting for us in the reception area. The girl had called one of them and spent the weekend with her because the orphanage turned her away, and they had come to implore us to resolve the situation that day. Less than an hour later, Ncamsile, the two teachers, the girl and I squeezed into the truck and went to her parents’ house. It was a bitterly cold day, and when we arrived and settled into the armchairs and sofas in the living room, that coldness only seemed to intensify and settle right into us as we sat there in the shadowy cement room. We were served tea, which we eagerly poured into cups that we wrapped our cold hands around, and then we proceeded to wait for about an hour and a half for the girl’s father to get home. We sat sipping our tea and chatting (well, I listened and felt a ripple of pride every time I recognized a siSwati word while the others chatted). Every few minutes or so, we’d look at each other and one of us would remind the rest, “Kumakata kakhulu!” (It’s very cold!).

Finally, the father came home, and it was like a scene change in a play had taken place. The atmosphere went from friendly chatter and companionable shivering to a formal counseling session in an instant. The girl squeezed next to me on the armchair wearing an expression on her face that I couldn’t quite read, and I patted her on the back, at which she gave me a small smile. I kept looking at her father, who was seated next to me, and I could see a vein pulsing rapidly in his forehead, although the rest of his exterior appeared to be calm. The discussion seemed to go fairly smoothly, and after it was over, the father thanked me profusely for counseling his daughter while I am here. He seemed genuine, but still, I felt a sudden surge of protective instinct for the girl. We left the girl there, standing in the front yard waving at us as chickens and dogs dashed around her feet. But Ncamsile and I were thinking about her for the rest of the day.

The thing is, working on these cases is difficult for me because I do not agree with the way they are handled here. Of course, I realize that the way child abuse is dealt with is not a result of a decision that Ncamsile made, or one that any other individual child protection officer made. But I am struck by so many gaps in services for children here in Swaziland that I just feel deflated at the enormity of the challenges that face them. I don’t know all of the alternatives available, and it’s certainly possible that there are some exceptions to what I’ve experienced. But what I’ve learned from my extensive conversations with Ncamsile is that there are no alternative care facilities here, which means that a child must be orphaned in order to go to an orphanage or group home, and otherwise, they must be returned home. The goal in child abuse cases here is ALWAYS reunification with the family. These cases don’t even always have to be reported to the government; NGOs or other social service organizations can actually handle them internally at their discretion unless it’s a very extreme case. If it is a very severe case, the police will be called and it will go to high court, where the parents will be tried and sentenced. I told Ncamsile that in America, if a parent abuses a child, the child will be removed from the home and put into foster care, and in the cases in which the parents’ rights are terminated, will eventually be put up for adoption. I told her that it’s often used as a threat to the parents; that if they don’t act according to the law, they’ll be threatened with losing their children. Ncamsile looked at me in disbelief and said, “No, that is not the case here. They must go back to their families. That is where they come from, their roots; it’s where they belong. Who will pay her school fees? Who will marry her if she has no family?” The thought of becoming disconnected from the family is a very serious and awful one here. While informal adoption into a relative’s house happens very often here, the process of adoption as we know it is comparatively rare.

This means that in cases of alleged child abuse, there is no third party that will take these children while the case against their caretaker is being resolved. Ncamsile knows of two orphanages in the whole country that will sometimes accept child protection cases, but they are in remote locations and would prevent the child from attending school, and it is a lengthy process just to get them there. So usually, the children are stuck right where they are. The girl in this case I just mentioned was actually staying at that orphanage illegally because she ran away with nowhere to go, and the maid there felt sorry for her. But that was an exception to the norm. It’s why they ended up kicking her out, and why we were at a complete loss for where to take her next. I spent a whole week here attending events at which thousands of children put on skits, sang songs, and wrote poems pleading with the politicians, ministers, royalty, NGO representatives, and parents present for an end to child abuse. Ncamsile routinely gives presentations and workshops about child abuse and child rights to teachers and community leaders. The awareness seems to be there on many important levels, although the idea of “abuse” still challenges many cultural norms here. But there is only so much that these individuals can do without a basic infrastructure in place; without a place for these children to seek refuge from abusive parents, stepparents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents, I feel that things will remain the same as they are because there will be no impetus for behavior change. A colleague of mine did mention a forum on alternative care that is coming up in July and encouraged me to attend to hear more of the current dialogue on this issue. I’m glad to know that, at the very least, people are talking about ways to change the system.

I asked Ncamsile in the car later to debrief me on what had been said at the meeting with the girl’s parents, and she said, “Oh, it was fine. The girl apologized to her father, and he said that he would accept her back into his home. They asked her some questions about where she had been staying, and she just answered them.” I asked if the father was going to stop beating her, and she said, “No; he told us that he would still beat her as a punishment if she misbehaves.” My heart sank, and I felt once again that it was wrong of us to put her back into such an environment. My face must have shown it because Ncamsile glanced at me and then back at the road and said, “But what can I say to him? It is his house, and we have nowhere else for her to go, Siphiwe. I can’t take her; you can’t take her; there is nowhere else for her.” She’s right, of course. Even if she went to live with another relative, her father would then likely stop paying her school fees, and she would just end up deprived in a different way.

I’ve now reached the point here where I am seeing people around that I’ve met before, and today, that person was Benji. Benji is the representative from AMICAALL, a national organization working with HIV positive people and promoting education and social services on a local level in communities, and he will be monitoring this girl’s family now that she is back with her parents. Also of distinction, Benji counts himself among the many “Zumbus” I have received here. Although as he puts it, “Siphiwe has only received one really serious Zumbu, so please stop using the plural.” When he got into the backseat of the truck with us yesterday, Ncamsile turned around in the driver’s seat, looked at me with a sly smile and said, “Siphiwe, your Zumbu has arrived!” and laughed riotously. Benji greeted everyone and then looked at me, winked, and said, “Unjani, my future wife?” The rest of the time with him was sprinkled with little gems like that, my favorite being, “Don’t worry, Siphiwe, once we have children, you’ll be fluent in siSwati before you know it.” I said that the more likely scenario is that I would just become very depressed at how much better the child would speak the language. Later, he mentioned a big work project he has coming up in July, and then he turned to me and asked how long I will be here. He said, “Ah! I must plan a date with Siphiwe very soon then if we’re going to get married by August 6th.” “Yes, it’s better to concentrate on Siphiwe first,” the women agreed, nodding. There was an intense discussion at one point among the three ladies about how many cattle I would be worth (15 or 17 – not bad), and they exclaimed over the money that would be spent on airfare for Benji’s family to visit my parents in Illiois (to deliver said cows personally, of course) and then for my family to come to Swaziland to visit his family (to deliver the gifts from the bride’s family – this was news to me. Apparently my parents should be stockpiling blankets and bowls to offer up as gifts to my future Swazi marital family). “It will be a very expensive wedding,” commented Ncamsile. And then she burst into laughter. I wonder sometimes what she’ll do when I leave and there is no one for her to tease about getting Zumbus.

On Friday night, I arrived back at the guest house and was pleasantly surprised by a phone call from a woman I had met at a workshop earlier that week at a guest house just down the road from me. She was still in town and wanted to know if she could stop by to see me again, and she came with a friend of hers, and we chatted over tea with sugar until they had to be on their way. They are lovely women, both teachers, who invited me to come visit them in the eastern region some weekend before I leave. I hope very much that it will actually happen. They left blowing kisses to me and waving, and I walked back inside with a smile on my face.

I came into the kitchen carrying our empty teapot and glasses and was bringing them to the sink when I noticed that one of kitchen staff was talking to another employee in a rather agitated tone about something, and I asked him what was wrong. He looked at me for a second, looking slightly startled, before telling me that he was upset about a situation that some of his friends are having at work; they were recently physically beaten by their employers as a punishment for something that was trivial to begin with, but was an offense that they hadn’t even committed in the first place. He said, “This – this is like slavery, Siphiwe. It’s like it was in South Africa with apartheid." Then he held out his arm next to mine and said, "Just because we have the black skin and they have white like yours, it doesn’t mean that we are not people like them. How can we work for people like that?" I don’t think I’ll ever forget the image of him staring at me with the expression he wore at that moment, looking indignant, beseeching, and very sad all at the same time.

Sometimes I can’t help but wonder how my friends here at the guest house think of me. Even though I consider them to be my friends, it’s a bit of an awkward situation in which to form a friendship since I am a guest at the place where they work (even though I have successfully stood my ground with washing my own dishes and cooking for myself recently). But if I needed any reassurance, it came the next night when they were all sitting around the kitchen eating their mealie meal and beef, and one of them looked up and said with authority, “Siphiwe, go and bring me the tomato sauce from the refrigerator,” and continued eating. I looked at her in surprise, and then I went and got it for her, and no sooner had I done that when Justice said, “And Siphiwe, bring me the chili sauce as well.” As I brought it to him, I smiled to myself because they were ordering me around as if I were a Swazi; as the youngest person there, they explained, I was obligated to be the one fetching things for the others. I wasn’t just a guest at the hotel anymore. “U la kaya, sisi,” said Jose – “You’re at home here, sister. You are one of us now.”

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0 Responses to You’re at home here, sisi

  1. Nana says:

    I wonder myself what if I paid a mythical snake 50 cents for rain–how would you give it to a seven-headed snake, which mouth it would open to take it, or if you would just throw it at its feet from a safe distance. Guess I’ll never know, but it surely was fun reading this. Thanks, Claire. Love, Nana

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