This man is “The Brain”

“You know, Siphiwe,” began Ncamsile as we bounced down the road, “I tried some of your food this weekend.” “What food do you mean?” I asked as she deftly switched gears and swerved the truck to avoid a giant rock protruding from the dirt ahead of us. “I tried some peanut butter on a piece of a rice cake, like you always eat for lunch,” she replied. “And you know what? It is really, REALLY delicious. I think I can’t buy this food anymore because it is too delicious. I ate and ate and ate, and then I had to discipline myself not to eat it anymore. I won’t be able to afford to buy it if I start eating it too often. I had to put it away.” I grinned and said, “See? I told you it was amazing,” and she nodded earnestly and said, “You were right, Siphiwe. You were right.” But even as I laughed with her, I was thinking about how what is a very inexpensive meal for me – a jar of peanut butter and some rice cakes, which together costs about $4 and will last me many meals – is too expensive for Ncamsile to indulge in.

We were on our way up to a tiny little community called Ndzingeni. We drove first through Pigg’s Peak and then turned onto another road that quickly disappeared and became a dirt road. And when I say dirt road, I guess I should clarify that there was technically dirt on the “road,” but that it had mostly washed away from the uneven stones that were underneath it. Ncamsile had warned me that it would be a rough ride, though, so I was at least prepared to be oft airborne as we drove. We were driving out to this particular community to see if we could catch the town council after their morning meeting was over. Ncamsile needed to get some data about the number of households and orphans in the three communities in their area, and she had been unable to reach them by phone because the cell phone reception up there wouldn’t allow it. So instead of calling or emailing, we were driving an hour each way on the chance that we might meet them in person.

We pulled through a gate and into a large yard where there were many men milling about, dressed fairly casually and standing in small clusters with their arms folded in front of them. I also was surprised to notice three old women sitting on a bench outside the office building as well, wearing typical outfits consisting of pieces of cloth tied around their waists as skirts, a bulky t-shirt, and a headscarf wrapped tightly around their heads. They were sitting with their heads bent in together and appeared to be deep in discussion about something. The men were standing apart from them, and as we got out of the car, I surveyed the group of them. I’m not sure if it was surprise at our arrival, or if it was a look of wariness towards us, but I found it very difficult to read the emotion behind their reserved expressions. Ncamsile’s body language was very deferential; she held her hands clasped under her chin, looking almost pleading, and kept her head partially lowered. We were shown into the building and introduced to a man who came out of the main office.< Ncamsile said, “Siphiwe, this man is The Brain,” and tapped her head with her finger, looking at me expectantly. “Oh….” I faltered, unsure of what she meant exactly.  I held out my hand to shake his and smiled in what I hoped was a reverent fashion. I found out later that the siSwati word for a director in the context of a community council translates literally to  “brain.” The man who had brought us inside said something to “The Brain” in siSwati, and they both laughed, and then “The Brain” invited us into his office, smiling. I smiled back politely and stood next to Ncamsile as she spoke to them in siSwati. (I heard from Ncamsile later that the first man had just offered me to “The Brain” as his wife. Cattle negotiations are pending.) Ncamsile explained the information that we needed to them – a monthly report for the surrounding communities, and the number of households and orphans there. We spent a total of 10 minutes at that office after driving for 2 hours round-trip to get there, but at least we were able to meet with them.

After that, we got back on the road, stopping along the way first at a grocery store to get some lunch for Ncamsile, and then to get some firewood from a man on the side of the road. Ncamsile told me we’d just be stopping for a few minutes while she got 40 emalangeni worth of wood, and as we pulled over, I saw a little girl wearing a very strange outfit made of bright green leaves tied together in strings, one draped over her chest and several strapped to her legs. She stood on the side of the road next to a drum, swaying absentmindedly as she watched the passing cars. Her gaze followed us as our truck stopped, and I asked Ncamsile about her. “She is dancing for money and to get people to stop to buy from her father,” she explained. I looked at the girl again, and while Ncamsile was talking with the man about the firewood, I hopped out of the car and gave the girl some money and the only food I had with me – a sweet potato wrapped in foil. I asked her what her name was, and she whispered, “Lungile.” “U funa patata?” I asked (“Do you want a sweet potato?”). She nodded silently, cupped her hands and held them out to me. I stood there for a minute longer, wanting to say something more to her, but then I saw Ncamsile beckoning to me to return to the car. I looked back at the girl and smiled, and I thought I saw the tiniest hint of a smile on her lips penetrating the seriousness of her expression (although it could have been wishful thinking on my part).  As we drove away, I looked back and saw that she had already peeled the potato and was throwing the skin to the side of the road before taking a big bite, the leaves on her costume rustling in a sudden breeze. I  turned back around as Ncamsile said, “He wouldn’t let me give him any money for the firewood.” When I asked why, she said, “I’m helping to pay the school fees for some of his children, and they are staying with me sometimes, so he gives me what he can – firewood.”

At that point, we were rushing to get back to the office so I could have a counseling session with the girl I’ve been working with. We flew down the highway and arrived in Mbabane with only a few minutes to spare before I had to be back in the office.  We drove through Mbabane and were just about to turn onto the main road back to Save the Children when a familiar face flashed in the window as we drove by. “Hey – wasn’t that her? Walking in the opposite direction?” I asked, pointing. Ncamsile had seen her, too.<“That was her! And she was with a boy. I wonder what she is doing with that boy, Siphiwe,” she said. We looped around in the truck, and Ncamsile said, “I think I know where she is going. She is going to watch the football game with the other children,” and we took off down the road leading to the soccer pitch. I scoured the throngs of uniformed schoolchildren with my eyes and managed to locate her, and we pulled over to talk to her. We ended up talking to her for a while by the side of the road, and she told us that she couldn’t come to counseling because she was going to the orphanage she’d stayed at to return the school uniform she had borrowed. She claimed that she didn’t know that boy and that he had followed her home, that he was just someone who kept following her around, saying he loved her, and that he wouldn’t leave her alone. Ncamsile looked like she didn’t believe that story for a second, but based on my own experience with Swazi men thus far, I wasn’t quite as skeptical as she was, although I didn’t think that the girl was telling us the whole truth, either. Ncamsile confronted her point blank about it, and after a lot of talking on our side and a lot of silence on hers, we let her go and returned to the office. But all I could think about for the rest of the day was the expression on her face as we’d driven away. She looked hurt, mostly, and like her heart had split in half right in her chest. She looked like I feel in those moments when it seems like nothing will ever be right again, and I hated to think that we had been part of that. I know that tough love is part of the job, and that sometimes boundaries need to be set, but at the same time, I hesitate to be too harsh with a kid who feels like no one is on her side. You just never know what your actions can push someone to do, no matter how well they were meant.

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