To Rejection and Back on Halloween

“Are you going home this weekend?” I asked Ncamsile as she stood by my desk eating a piece of chicken from Nando’s (a regional chain) with a grimace on her face.

“What?” she said, distracted with tearing open a packet of hot sauce and putting it on her chicken. “You know, I don’t want to eat this chicken, Siphiwe. It’s not nice. But I am just so hungry, I think I have no choice…” she broke off and frowned as she took another bite.

It was 3:00 p.m. and we had just (finally) been released for lunch from an torturously endless staff meeting on how to handle our personal finances. It was a 6-hour seminar, at least half of which was held in Siswati. The parts that were in English focused mainly on how women are more irresponsible with money than men. In our manuals, there was actually a paragraph explaining matter-of-factly that men have simply evolved with more logical brains than women, making them more careful planners when it comes to money. Women tend to disrupt otherwise stable family life with their erratic spending habits as a result of their primary duties historically being split among children, food, and other domestic cost-incurring activities, the manual explained. This information was reinforced with dozens of “real-life” examples of how various female acquaintances/wives of the men present had tried to do such horrifying things as buy 3 different kinds of cheese at the supermarket, costing the family, at the very least, an extra 40 rand (about $5). This is not to minimize what 40 rand could mean for a family. But this story came just before the facilitator bragged about how he had gotten the shirt he was wearing on sale for a mere 525 rand – $70 – in South Africa.

Needless to say, it was a long, long day, and there had been only one 5 minute break for tea and cookies (which I couldn’t eat). By 3:00 that afternoon, I had already been mentally checked out of the workshop for several hours (although the men who happened to glance at me probably just thought I was devising new ways to waste my money).

“What were you asking me, Siphiwe?” asked Ncamsile. “Oh, about going home. No, not this weekend. My aunt is turning 70, so we’re having a birthday party for her in the rural area.”

“Ah, that sounds nice,” I said. “I hope you enjoy it.”

“Why do you ask?” Ncamsile said. “Do you want to come with me?” She gave me a sideways look over her chicken.

Which is how I found myself sitting in the back of Ncamsile’s car with Shari (a recently arrived friend from the US who is volunteering here for a few months), once again traveling down the road towards Lobamba and Malkerns. Since I’ve been working on grants and proposals at Save the Children over the last three months, I have missed being able to get out of the office and into the rural areas.

I felt a sense of familiarity wash over me as we passed through Ezulwini, Lobamba, past the royal residence where I had watched the two reed dances, and past the University of Swaziland’s agriculture campus on our left. We turned onto a dirt road and started winding our way up a mountain, swerving around messy patches of mud, and veering to avoid the large rocks that jutted up into the road. Ncamsile’s son, Nqoba, was driving, but he barely said a word as he steered us towards the party. The car occasionally dipped into a pocket of “sbof,” or “red dirt,” and we spent a fair amount of time driving aimlessly down various dirt roads, only to turn back upon discovering that we were on the wrong path.

I couldn’t imagine how one could give accurate directions to get to a place like Ncamsile’s aunt’s home, which was buried at the end of a long dirt road that led us through a forest and up and down a large hill, with dozens of opportunities to take a wrong turn (it seemed we were taking advantage of most of these opportunities). Finally, after stopping at another homestead in the area (the old man there who gave Ncamsile directions waved earnestly at the “belungu” in the car– the white people – telling Ncamsile, “You have brought me white people! You have made my day by bringing me these belungu!”), we found the right house, the barbeque smoke billowing over the house telling us we were in the right place before the smiling faces were close enough to do so.

Ncamsile had said the party would start around noon and that we’d start heading back to Mbabane by three, but I had had enough experience with Swazi parties to have serious doubts about this. I estimated that we would be the first guests there when we arrived at noon, would wait around until at least 2 p.m. for all the other guests to arrive, and that the food would not be served until 5:30 or 6 p.m. at the earliest. Ncamsile just laughed when I told her this and said, “We’ll see, Siphiwe. Maybe you are right.”

We climbed out of the car and walked into the homestead through a gate made of upright tree branches and went first into one of the main houses, removing our shoes and padding with our bare feet into a sitting room where three older relatives of Ncamsile were sitting on couches around a coffee table. We greeted each of them, beginning with an older man sitting nearest to us. Ncamsile whispered to me, “Tell him your name and give him a little bow,” so I introduced myself as Siphiwe and gave him an awkward curtsy before moving on to the older woman sitting next to him, and then to Ncamsile’s aunt (the one whose birthday we were celebrating).

After the introductions were made, Ncamsile decided she wanted to take me and Shari for a walk, and so we excused ourselves and started down one of the dirt roads. On our way out, we met a woman in the kitchen who was mopping up some spilled soup. We greeted each other and I told her my Swazi name, and she opened her mouth in surprise and said, “Ah, but I am Siphiwe, too, sisi!” and enveloped me in a warm hug.

Shari, Ncamsile and I walked for a while in one direction before turning back and taking a different route through a grassy field with goats grazing in little clusters and a small group of people making their way up a dirt path in the distance. A police car drove by and Ncamsile shouted out a greeting to the driver. We returned to the homestead about 45 minutes later to find that most of the guests had still not arrived (I gave Ncamsile a pointed look), so we lingered on the lawn and Ncamsile introduced us to some of her relatives. I have been making some decent strides with my Siswati recently, especially since beginning a series of private tutoring sessions, and I was actually able to communicate on a basic level. Everyone seemed to be completely tickled that I could say at least a few things in their language, grasping my hand and grinning encouragingly at me every time I said something comprehensible in Siswati.

Finally, one of Ncamsile’s cousins came around and began ushering people towards the tent to sit around tables that were decked all in white, with beautiful pieces of pottery as centerpieces. We took our seats and waited while the rest of the tables filled up slowly with people wandering over to the tent as the praise band’s opening music filled the speakers and surrounded us. Voices all around us joined in their song. Small folded programs were distributed to each table; the program was laid out in a fancy script and went something like this: “Word of God; A brief history of the family; Who is she?; Word of God; Her children and grandchildren speak; Word of God; Cutting of the cake; She speaks; Word of God.”

During the service, some of the older girls in the family walked carefully to and from the house to the tent, carrying trays of napkins and glasses, which they first set in front of the guests at two tables towards the center of the tent. At one of the tables sat the elder female members of Ncamsile’s family, including her aunt, and I found out that the other table had at least one member of the royal family at it – the son of the first queen. Ncamsile leaned over to me and said, “That’s why we saw that police car earlier – they were checking to make sure it was safe for him to come here.” Later, glasses were set in front of the rest of the guests, along with big plates stacked with apple slices that were passed around the table.

One of the men stood up to give us the “brief” history of the family; I understood very little of what he said, but I knew that his story was not going to deliver the promised brevity when, after 10 minutes of his speech, I heard him say the year “1879.” Ncamsile leaned over to me and said, “Siphiwe, I just learned something new from this man. Apparently this community – Macudvulwini – got its name from something one of the queens said when she had her first child. According to tradition, she was supposed to put on a certain type of necklace made out of little sticks while she was breastfeeding her child – but she refused to do so. The name of this community means “rejection,” and it comes from that act of rejection and the Siswati phrase that she used to reject the tradition.”

Two hours later, the praise songs were still going strong, and so was the cold wind that whipped under the tent, chilling us from the bottom up. People around us were wrapping themselves in blankets to stay warm, and we looked longingly at their wraps as we shivered in our light clothes. Finally, Ncamsile, Shari and I retreated to the car to warm up for a little bit. By this time, it was almost 4:30 p.m., and we still had not eaten, so while we were in the car, we inhaled some snacks before bracing ourselves for the return to the freezing tent.

We returned just as they were cutting the cake, and by the time we rejoined the crowd, it was time for the final “Word of God” on the program. The crowd broke and headed for the buffet of food, and we each got a little plate of samp (soft corn kernels that were mashed with beans), pureed butternut squash, rice, and beetroot and stood on the lawn, eating and chatting. A few of the boys waiting in line near us began to speak rapidly (and perhaps slightly drunkenly?) at me and Shari in Siswati just as Ncamsile had stepped away for a moment, gesturing wildly and cackling with each other, and all I could catch was that they were proposing to us. Ncamsile reappeared, laughing and pointing at us, saying that these boys were looking forward to being our husbands. We smiled politely and turned pointedly away to say goodbye to Ncamsile’s family in the tent. Her aunts grasped my hands and I thanked them for welcoming me to their home, and they thanked us for coming and said we should come back to see them again soon.

We walked back to the car after taking our leave, and Ncamsile said, “You know, we wanted to throw a nice party like this for my father, but he died before he turned 70, so we spent the money on his funeral instead.” I looked at her as we continued to walk, the dark clouds gathering over us and threatening to burst. I thought of how surprised some of my Swazi friends were when I told them I was going to a birthday party for someone turning seventy (“Ah, she is a lucky one to be turning seventy!”), and it struck me once again what a rare gift it is to experience old age in this part of the world – at least, old age as we know it. We climbed into the car and began the long ride back to town, passing first back through the maze of dirt roads we had taken to get there and then back through Lobamba, the car finally climbing the big hill to Mbabane. We had just been to Rejection and back, and suddenly I remembered that it was Halloween. Not the most traditional way I’ve ever spent the holiday, but it was definitely the most unusual.

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