As I walk through the streets of Mbabane on my daily walk into town, I usually try to avoid eye contact with men and forge straight ahead, waving away any attempts to talk to me from men I don’t know. It is strongly against my nature to do wave anyone away, but I’ve learned the hard way that once a man attaches himself to you here, you need a lot of luck to get rid of him again. (Actually, that has held true no matter which country I’ve flashed my innocent smile in.) As I climbed the hill to town the other day, I noticed a man sidling up to me slowly, and suddenly he was walking next to me amicably as if we had already been chatting for several minutes. “Hello, madame, what is your name?” Taken aback, and feeling cornered, I said, “Siphiwe,” and kept walking. “Siphiwe what?” he pressed further, quickening his step to keep pace with me. “Mazibuko,” I answered shortly, and he laughed. “Well, my name is Wisdom,” he said, and paused before going on. “Siphiwe Mazibuko, I only have known you for about a minute, but you should know that I have come to love you very dearly.” He glanced over at me and quickly added, “And madly!” I bit my lip to hold back a smile and didn’t offer any remarks on the subject, keeping my pace up the street. He continued on, asking, “So…will you marry me?” I held up my left hand in response, showing him the ring on my finger, and he said, “You know, I know this trick, Siphiwe. Sometimes women put rings on their hands so men won’t ask them to get married to them.” I looked at him and said, “Well, if that were the case with me, it would still mean that I didn’t want to marry you, wouldn’t it?” He laughed uncertainly and then said, “But Siphiwe, I love you….” and trailed off. “Yes, well. Which direction are you heading right now?” I asked him. “To the bus rank, right over there,” he said. “Oh! That’s too bad; I have to turn here. Goodbye!” I said, and cut across the street, zigzagging through the crowd and dodging a turning car in my haste to get away. “Call me!” Wisdom shouted after me.
It’s even worse in Manzini, where there are clusters of men on every corner, in front of every shop, milling around the bus rank and at the market. Every time I go there alone, I stare at the ground and don’t dare make eye contact with anyone for fear of inviting an unwanted conversation. “Hello!” they call at me. If I so much as acknowledge them, even with a quick glance in their general direction to see where the voice came from, they press further. “Sisi, I looooove youuuu – come over here and talk to me!” “Sisi, please let me become your husband. Please, sisi.”
This is why I was so relieved that Andile came to pick me up from the bus rank before a meeting Save the Children was hosting in Manzini last week. I waited in front of the KFC at the bus rank, looking straight ahead and ignoring the unabashed stares of the passing men, and then suddenly, Andile appeared out of the crowd as he made his way towards me, and I broke into a smile. “I’m so glad you’re walking with me!” I said as we strolled down the street, noting with delight the distinct lack of male attention now that I had a chaperone. “Well, it is the job that Ncamsile gave me on my first day with Save the Children – to protect you from all the Zumbus, remember?” he said. “I like this job. I can finally fulfill my promise to her.” We chatted the rest of the way to Greater Alpha, the restaurant where the meeting was being held.
I’ve been to Greater Alpha many times now over the last few weeks for a series of meetings with Save the Children. Not only did we use it for a series of meetings with stakeholders for a study Save the Children is helping to conduct, called the “Right to Know; Right to Education,” but there was also a National Dialogue on Alternative Care held there, hosted by Save the Children and other NGOs. Both have been very interesting dialogues to be present for, although only the Alternative Care dialogue was in English. That one was of particular interest to me after working on that abuse case with the girl who had nowhere to stay while we were resolving the case with her parents. She stayed in an orphanage illegally for several weeks, and then when the orphanage had to send her away, she was forced to return to her home despite the fact that the case had not yet been resolved. I was shocked to discover the severe lack of alternative care facilities through my involvement in that case, so I had a very keen interest in hearing more on this issue. The dialogue on alternative care facilities was attended by all kinds of stakeholders, including government, NGOs, and educators. Three different models of alternative care were presented, one from government and two from NGOs. The government model is essentially based on the ONE alternative care facility that government operates here; it is located in the northern part of the country and can accommodate up to 20 children at one time for short stays while abuse cases are being resolved. If the house is full, which of course it normally is, there are no other options for children whose caretakers are being investigated on allegations of abuse. There are so many problems with this model; children are taken away from their community and have no access to education during their time there, which can extend into many months because there aren’t enough government social workers to resolve abuse cases quickly. The model and funding seem to be based on some law passed in 1979, which has not been amended since then. The model has not been replicated anywhere else in Swaziland because government wants to perfect it before trying it in other parts of the country, but of course, this means that only 20 children in the entire country at a time have access to such a facility. Even if they replicated it now, their plan for replication appears to be to create one identical facility for each of the four regions, extending the government’s reach to a total of 80 children at a time. Drop in the bucket.
Then two of the NGOs present explained their own models of alternative care after that. One of these is SOS Children, a village model of care in which orphaned and vulnerable children (OVCs) are taken into family-like structures (“houses”) which then make up a larger community (“village”). They run primary and secondary schools at three different locations that are open to the community, health clinics, and HIV/AIDS outreach programs. Then, one of the Sisters from Cabrini Ministries told us about their facilities in the rural Lobombo region, where they provide comprehensive care to about 150 local orphans. It’s a totally voluntary program that is available to families that are either supporting OVCs and can’t afford to, or to children who are totally without family. One thing I’ve learned is that the term “orphan” can mean a child who has lost one or both parents (single or double orphan, respectively), so it doesn’t always indicate a child who is totally without parental support. Cabrini Ministries caters to both, providing food, shelter, social services, educational services, and psychosocial support to all eligible children, whether they are living at the hostel or are in the community. With this model, it’s essential that the hostel facility be within the community so that the children staying there can maintain ties to their families. The children go home for funerals and weddings, and for school vacations, but they can stay at the hostel the rest of the time to relieve the financial burden on the relatives who had been taking care of them. That particular model is extremely appealing because it keeps the children where they are familiar with their surroundings and where they can still see their families, but it also removes them from environments in which they may have faced neglect or would have had to fend totally for themselves or head a household of other children.
So even though these three models do exist in Swaziland, they are present on a minute scale compared to the vast reach of the problem. By next year, it is estimated that there will be 200,000 orphans in Swaziland (which the Sister from Cabrini actually felt was an underestimate). And that is in a country of under 1.2 million people. The meeting was intended as a beginning to a dialogue around alternative care, and it was both encouraging and disheartening to hear the conversation there. I was glad that there is an awareness of the dire need for alternative care facilities for orphans and for abuse victims, but I also left feeling like we had chipped away only the tiniest ice shaving at the tip of the an iceberg of issues surrounding alternative care. Many problems lurked underneath the water at that meeting and weren’t even mentioned; in a way, it was ridiculous to plan a meeting like that, attended by over 50 people from such different backgrounds, to last only four hours. We spent four hours on the first half of the day’s program alone. I observed the proceedings from the back of the room, watching the line-up of government officials and NGO representatives present their perspectives and occasionally fling passive-aggressive accusations at each other. I watched as the question/answer sessions went on longer than the presentations themselves. The idea to create a task force to work with social welfare only sparked another hour of debate. I remain hopeful, though, because even through the disorganized and erratic discussion, I could see that most of those who were present are passionate about finding a way to make this happen in Swaziland, and at least it was a step in the direction of collaboration. And every step counts in a place where you are starting almost from scratch.