The Swazis will make you “strong”

“You know, Siphiwe, I think I will just call you Zumbu from now on,” Jose informed me yesterday as he walked by me in the kitchen, whisking something in a bowl. Make Busi, Sindi, and Justice laughed and said in a chorus, “Zumbu Mazibuko!” It’s now reached the point at which some of them automatically say “Zumbu” and wink at me in unison when I walk into a room. I had come into the kitchen to make myself some dinner, and as I assembled ingredients on the counter (chicken, a potato, onion, and bags of spices), Busi, Sindi, Justice, and Thomas formed a little circle around the counter and craned their necks to see what I was going to make. I told them I was making a stew, and then I heard a flurry of siSwati, picking out only the words “Siphiwe” and “stew.” Every time someone walked into the kitchen, Sindi announced to them, “Siphiwe is making a stew!” And of course, after all that, it ended up turning into a chicken curry instead. I offered it up for a taste test, and they all shook their heads politely but continued to watch me with some interest. Justice said, “We Swazis just like plain food. Too much spice makes your life shorter,” and then he watched me with some concern as I dumped several teaspoons of turmeric, chili powder, and masala powder into the pot. “Oh, Siphiwe. That is a lot of spice there,” he said sorrowfully.

Ashook is a man who stays at this guest house long-term; he is a manager for a grocery chain called ShopRite and has stores here and in South Africa, where he is originally from. So for the last 2 ½ years, he has alternated two weeks at the guest house, then a weekend home, then two weeks back here, and so on. He has a wife and two grown-up sons in Ladysmith, South Africa, and it is quite obvious that he misses them very much when he is away. Which may be part of why he has taken it upon himself to adopt me. Ever since that night two weeks ago when we bonded over a simmering pot of curry in the kitchen (curry will do that for people, you know), he has gone out of his way to help me and spend time with me. He offers me rides into town, has promised to take me around Swaziland in his car the next weekend that he’s here, and he is teaching me the secrets of making authentic curries. So far we’ve made chicken and vegetable curries, and he’s promised a lamb curry the next weekend he is back.

On Monday night, I was just coming into the kitchen to heat up some of my leftover chicken curry (his recipe, of course, but not as good as when he made it) when he showed up and said, “Come, Claire, we are going out for dinner.” I hastily replaced the leftovers in the fridge and caught up with him as he was unlocking the car. He took me first to see the casinos in eZulwini Valley, and we walked through one of them together and watched the spattering of people there at that early evening hour stare at the slot machines as they spun around and around, the machine’s lights flashing florescent, and we walked past the empty roulette and blackjack tables. Casinos kind of creep me out, actually. I don’t like the glazed look people get when they’re there, and so I was glad when we wandered away from it after making one round of the room. We saw the rest of the hotel, which is incredibly high-end, and ended up sitting outside at a bar by the pool. We sipped soft drinks in the dark night air and Ashook remarked that it wasn’t cold here like it was at the guest house, and I smiled politely, shivering in between sips of my iced Schweppes Dry Lemon. As we drove to the restaurant, Ashook said, “I told my family in South Africa about you. I told them I have my sons in South Africa, but I have a new daughter in Swaziland.” I get the feeling that he is lonely here; his days in Swaziland consist of driving all over the country to visit the stores he manages, and he spends his evenings at the guest house, usually in his room. I think he enjoyed having some company for dinner.

We ate dinner at a restaurant called Calabash, a German-themed restaurant in the same upscale area. I actually heard two gentlemen across from us speaking German and had a little jolt when I remembered that there is at least one language besides English I speak fluently. There were (not shockingly) limited options for me there, as every single sauce they made contained flour, so they ended up grilling me a trout (head and all) and arranging little piles of steamed vegetables around it; sliced turnips and carrots, a tiny heap of delicious butternut squash, and crisp green beans. Ashook tried the chicken curry and asked for the hottest chilies they had, and he ate heaping spoonfuls of them while the waiters looked on incredulously. Our waiter was a very friendly young Swazi man, but Ashook kept things very formal and didn’t smile or make small talk with him. Later, when Ashook was away from the table on a phone call, the waiter came back to clear a plate and I looked up at him and said, almost surreptitiously, “Ngiyabonga kakhulu” (Thank you very much). He looked up in delight and said, “Hey, you know siSwati, sisi?” I replied, “Ngiya fundza siSwati, ne ngiya khuluma kancane siSwati” (I’m learning siSwati and speak a little), and he grinned and shook my hand, and then Ashook returned to the table and our conversation ended. As we were leaving, he grinned and said to me in a low voice, “Hamba kahle, sisi.” (Go well.) “Sala kahle,” I whispered back, and smiled back at him.

We got back to the guest house around 8:30 and found everyone in the kitchen in a flurry of activity, which was unusual considering the late hour and lack of guests to cook dinner for, but then I saw stacks of jars, and a huge pot filled with something that was dark velvety purple. Antonio was scooping it into jars that Jose was holding out to him, which were then quickly sealed and flipped upside down on the counter. “They’re making jam!” I thought at first, and my heart swelled with a renewed sense of comradery, but then I looked closer and saw that it was actually a giant vat of beets. Beet chutney, to be more exact.

I didn’t realize that I liked beets until I got here, but I have grown rather fond of them, which s a good thing since they seem to show up in every traditional Swazi meal I’ve encountered so far. Whenever a meeting is catered, or when there is a big event where lots of people need to be fed, you can count on being served a big plate of corn porridge (which has the consistency of stiff mashed potatoes) or rice, some sort of boiled chicken or beef stew with onions and carrots, potato salad, a squash of some kind, and a heaping serving of a sweet and slightly tangy beet chutney. And, being the recipe hound that I am, I promptly fetched a pencil and paper and copied down the instructions for beet chutney that were taped to one of the shelves as Antonio and Jose filled the last jars to the brim with the rich purple chutney.

The next night, I came into the kitchen with my arms full of flour, vanilla extract, shredded coconut, and a big dark chocolate bar, and found Celiwe standing by the stove, steaming sweet potatoes in a large pot (while they were still in the plastic grocery bag, I might add). She saw that I was carrying flour and turned away from the stove with a smile, clapped her hands once and said “Siphiwe is baking a cake!!” I have missed baking dearly since being here, and I decided to pick a very simple recipe that wouldn’t require many ingredients and that wouldn’t be too expensive to make: a sheet of crumbly and delicious coconut dark chocolate bars. I was shocked but thrilled to find an Australian brand of gluten-free flour in one of the supermarkets here a few weeks ago, and out of sheer delight, bought a box of the self-rising flour. Even though I bought the cheapest baking margarine available for about $1.50, Jose saw it and immediately exclaimed how expensive that must have been. I often feel very self-conscious about the groceries I buy because as soon as I bring them to the kitchen, they are immediately subjected to an inspection of the price and then a discussion of how I paid too much and where I could have gotten it cheaper. But sometimes, a girl needs a gluten-free cookie, darnit, and that’s worth $1.50 to me. Jose found the one measuring cup that exists in that kitchen – a ½ cup one – and I started measuring out raw brown sugar granules, cracking eggs into a large bowl, softening the margarine and whipping it together with the sugar. A comforting wave of familiarity washed over me as I spooned vanilla extract over the crests of whipped margarine and beat the dough until it was silky smooth. Celiwe was obviously torn between going to bed and staying to observe me bake an American cake (I tried to explain that it was really a cookie recipe that would just look like a cake, but in the end, I have to say that it did turn out more like a cake than anything else, so my explanations were moot), and in the end, the prospect of baking an American treat won out and she stayed in the kitchen. As I started adding the flour, she stepped forward and started mixing for me, stirring the dough with great care and targeting any clump of flour that dared threaten the consistency of the batter. I pressed the remaining chunks of dark chocolate into the pan, and we put it in the oven. It baked up with a beautiful brown crust, and we all tried some for dessert later. ‘Kumnandzi kakhulu!” they all agreed – “very delicious!” Justice took one bite and said, “Oh! If I could have this for Christmas, I would just be happy.” Nanile took her piece and it was gone within minutes, and she said, “It was very nice, sisi, thank you!” Someone said, “That’s why Nanile is so fat, you know – she just eats everything she sees.” Shocked, my eyes flew to Nanile, who shrugged, grinned, and rubbed her stomach and agreed that she was pretty fat.

This brings me to a point of cultural difference that has been both an adjustment and an amusement since I arrived here: the bluntness of people in offering unsolicited, brutally honest commentaries on your physical appearance. “Siphiwe, have you met Make Busi yet?” “Which one is she, Jose?” “She is the fat one. Very big,” he explained. Later that week, I was sipping hot lemon water with Celiwe, and Antonio asked me, “Are you trying to slim, Siphiwe? You don’t want to be fat like this one,” and he pointed to Celiwe, who was sitting right next to him and smiled mildly, whether in agreement or not, I don’t know. The other night, Nanile walked by our table as Ashook and I were eating dinner. She greeted us, we greeted her back, and then as she was walking away, Ashook called after her, “You know you’re getting really fat, Nanile! Why is that?” Sometimes the word “strong” is often used to describe women, but I’ve discovered that this is simply a thinly veiled euphemism for fat. As I made myself some corn porridge one morning, Make Busi surveyed my breakfast and said, “Siphiwe, if you eat all that mealie meal, you will get very strong” – she ballooned out her arms to demonstrate just how “strong” I would get – “and your friends and family will see you get off the plane and will ask you, where is Claire? And you’ll just tell them that the Swazis made you strong with their mealie meal.” And it’s not just matters of weight. I have a few scars on my chest that are visible if I wear any shirt that isn’t a turtleneck, and several of the men at the guest house have seen it and asked me about it right away. “Hi, Siphiwe – oh – what is this stuff right here on your chest? See it? It’s right there, on your chest (pointing). What kind of what-what is that?” Or, “Siphiwe, your face doesn’t look normal today. What is wrong with your face?” I find great amusement in this, but I think this is one part of the culture here that I will never be able to reciprocate. I can’t imagine myself ever getting to the point where I approach someone, greet them cheerily and then inquire about the reason they look so awful and have gotten so fat.

The other morning, I took a kombi into town because Mandla had a meeting in Manzini and couldn’t come collect me at the guest house. I got out at the bus rank (a chaotic, confusing place that always warrants a little prayer for your safety) and was making my way to the main street via the Mall when I saw the flash of a familiar face standing at the top of the stairs. It was Mandla’s sister Hlobi, the one who gave me the name “Siphiwe” all those weeks ago when I first arrived here! We both broke into a smile and waved, and I came up and hugged her. “You still recognize me, Siphiwe!” she said. Then, “Sisi, I’ll walk with you to your work,” and she took one of the bags I was carrying and started walking down the big hill with me towards Save the Children. It turns out that she works a little outside of town, and she was just on her way to have her hair done. “Next time you see me, I won’t be wearing this hat,” she said, pointing at the wig perched on her head. “You know, last weekend, everyone was asking Mandla, where is Siphiwe? Where is Siphiwe?” She looked at me and asked, “When are you coming back to Egebeni, sisi?” When I answered, “I want to come back as soon as possible,” sprinkling my answer with as much siSwati as I knew how to use, she gaped at me and then whipped out her phone, called her sister right then and there, and said, “I am here in town with Siphiwe and she is speaking siSwati, sisi! Yebo, she is fluent!” Everyone that hears me speak anything in siSwati immediately calls me very clever or brilliant, and every time, it serves as a reminder of how few visitors learn a little bit of the language here.

I find that the nights here are quiet and peaceful, often spent sipping tea with Ashook, Justice, or Celiwe, peeking in on the guys watching soccer, cooking whatever I happen to have in the fridge, and writing my journal entries in my room. There’s not much I can do here after it gets dark at 5:30; it’s not safe for me to go anywhere alone with public transport, and I don’t have a car. But I don’t mind. During the months leading up to my departure, I felt like every single second of my life was claimed for one thing or another, and it is a welcome relief to have time again. Time to think, time to write, time to take a walk, time to stand in the kitchen and chat with the people I know here. Since I released my maniacal grip on time, I suddenly find myself swimming in it, and I am okay with that.

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0 Responses to The Swazis will make you “strong”

  1. Nana says:

    This one reminds me of your earlier one about being white (and feeling black as one of the Swazis). Reading this I can put myself inside that truck and inside the chiefdom center and back inside the truck and home. I can almost taste the dust that is blowing in and see the long mountain in the distance. And best of all, I just naturally like your two companions in the truck. I wish I could have been with you. <br> Love, Nana

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