“Please, listen to what I am trying to say!” I said, struggling to be heard over the din in the room. A surprisingly loud din considering that there were only six people sitting around the table. Even more surprising considering that only two of them were talking. Strings of Siswati came at me, winding around each other and hovering above me as I struggled to pick out any familiar pieces. It’s too bad no one is telling me their name or where they are from, I thought to myself. If they had, I could have understood what was going on, as I had just learned all the variations of how to do that in my Siswati lesson the previous evening.
“So then, why, Siphiwe?” one of the field officers said to me after completing an extended monologue in Siswati. “Why? Answer our questions! Why isn’t there room in the budget for the things we’re talking about?!” she continued with a tone of indignance and with a look on her face like she knew exactly how I would respond. I could tell that she was already angry at me before I had even opened my mouth.
I looked helplessly around at the rest of the faces that were staring at me with that same look that told me their expectations of my reply were low. I didn’t know exactly which complaint had just been lodged, but I could hazard a guess that it was one of the many that had already been voiced in these meetings a million times before. And even more likely, it was one of the complaints about some aspect of the project that I myself had had absolutely no control over. “I’m sorry; I don’t understand what you are saying to me,” I reminded them, as I do several times during each of these meetings. “You said all of that in Siswati.”
Several people clicked their tongues in disapproval and rolled their eyes in a way that I recognized. I used to be in their position; I used to be the one rolling my eyes during meetings with difficult managers. These coordination meetings make me want to curl into a ball and hide from these people forever, no matter how nice they are to me on a personal level. After perhaps thirty seconds of English, they quickly revert to speaking entirely in Siswati, excluding me completely from the discussion, yet holding me accountable for everything they bring up. (And it should be noted that they are all completely fluent in English, and that nearly all other meetings like this in Swaziland are held in English.) As they speak in Siswati, they hurl accusations across the table at each other and at me, and each person is playing the game like a defensive pro. Tempers flare at the slightest hint of perceived change, criticism, or something new. People threaten to walk out as the atmosphere gets nastier and nastier. And I am not just talking about field officers; my own supervisor has threatened to walk out before simply because some people were disagreeing with him.
“Siphiwe,” said the field officer again with an air of exaggerated patience, as if she were explaining this to me for the twentieth time, even though it was the first time I was hearing it in my own language. “We are saying that doing your project is just like doing voluntary work. You don’t give us money for lunch, you don’t pay us any extra, and you are asking us to work too hard when we don’t get anything in return!” The other mumbled in agreement and all eyes once again reverted to me. I looked across the table at my boss, who was sitting with his hands cupped around his mouth, looking back at me. As always happens in these meetings, I was being accused of something that I actually had not decided – and had no power to change – yet was forced by my superiors to take credit for time and time again.
While they had been the ones to formulate these aspects of the program and budget, they quickly retreated back into their offices when it came time to implement our project, leaving me to attempt justifications of their decisions. This even happens in their presence, like now, with no one coming to my defense. For a moment, no one spoke. “Ok,” I began, after it became clear that my boss would not be helping me. “Let me try to explain —”
“SIPHIWE, DON’T COMMIT TO SOMETHING YOU CAN’T FOLLOW THROUGH ON!” shouted one of the other field officers, her voice barreling over mine, leaving my thought trampled, lying motionless on the side of the road. “I’m not—“ I tried to protest, but before I could say anything further, the field officer continued shouting over my voice, and after a minute, the others joined in. The rest of the exchange took place in Siswati.
“Hey hey, Obama, Obama,” sang one of the officers in a sarcastic voice (the money for this project is coming from USAID). “Look everyone, it’s Mr. and Mrs. Obama telling us what we have to do!” She pointed at me and my project officer as she said it. I took a deep breath to calm myself and looked at them all. Despite everything, I couldn’t help laughing inwardly at that last one. Or maybe it was just relief that for at least those few seconds, the blame was shifted away from me to the President.
“….so you see, Siphiwe, what we are saying to you, isn’t it? What you are proposing is not feasible; these targets are too high. You don’t understand how complicated it is to go into a community like this – you have to write a letter to the head of the constituency, then you have to visit the Inner Council, and then you have to go present the project to them….it doesn’t make sense,” she concluded. “But I do know all of that,” I said to them. “But please listen to what I’m trying to say to you—”
“It just doesn’t make sense!” she said to me again, her voice rising above mine, putting mine into the red. “And we don’t want to do this project. We are not motivated to do this project. We aren’t getting any money for it, yet you want us to work weekends to finish all of this work. You want us to work all the time in the field, but management doesn’t work weekends!” Once again, the faces around the room snapped towards me, all wearing the same stony expression. All of them were angry at me before I could even react.
I wanted to shout at her, “I work all the time; I get here at 7 in the morning, before anyone else but the cleaning lady is here, and I stay until 6 pm, after everyone has gone home, and then I go home and work some more. And I work at least part of every single weekend!” But I thought better of it and kept quiet, waiting for her to finish. “Obama, Obama,” sang the field officer again with a snicker. I looked at her in silence. A moment later, I turned back to the other field officer and said, “I understand that that is frustrating. But I’m not asking you to work on weekends—”
“When are we supposed to do these activities then, Siphiwe?” she interrupted me forcefully, pointing at the implementation plan I had handed out moments earlier. “We can’t go on a weekday to a social center when all the kids are in school!” The other murmured again in agreement. I looked again at my boss, who had approved the implementation plan I had formulated for the field officers without any mention of any of these things. I had consulted him and asked specifically if these things were feasible to do during the week, to which he had replied in the affirmative. “We can get the children on a weekday,” he had said then. “No problem.” Now, he said nothing. He simply joined the ranks of those whose eyes were gazing at me, waiting for an explanation.
“Ok, then we’ll have to find another plan,” I said, looking away from my boss at the rest of them. “We can go to the Neighborhood Care Points in these communities and do activities with the younger kids who aren’t in school yet, then. Right?” Another ripple of murmurs as they acknowledged that this was true. “But anyway, Siphiwe, this project is just too much work. How can we have time to go to do all of these activities? It doesn’t make sense!” At this, the other officers joined in and chimed in with their own opinions, the whole thing becoming a dense cloud of angry Siswati which quickly broke into a full-on storm. I looked up at the ceiling and tried to will myself out of that room, to anywhere else.
It didn’t work. I looked at my watch, which told me that we had now been in this meeting for over three hours. Rather naively, I had only anticipated that it would take only one hour for this meeting, and because of this, had not asked for tea to be served. I should have known that it would turn into what it now was: a long, drawn-out mess in which I came out the bad guy. “And did you even order lunch for us?” one of the field officers demanded, also noticing the time. “We’re hungry now, and USAID can’t even buy us some cookies and tea? Yet you want us to go and implement this project? Hey, hey, Obama, Obama,” she finished, smirking at the other officers.
I left the meeting and came back to my desk, relishing in the relative silence of my work area compared to the meeting room. I sat there and pondered, as I seem to do on a daily basis these days: why was I still here? Why did I remain in this position, despite the seeming impossibility of the task I was given? Was I really making a difference to anyone, or was I just climbing this steep, painful, uphill battle for nothing?
Unsure of the answer, I packed my things slowly, locked up the office as the first shadows of dusk were starting to fall, and trudged up the hill to climb into my kombi home. I sat motionless in the seat next to the window and watched the busy bus rank from behind the window as I waited for the kombi to fill up. The shouts of the young men calling out names of destinations mingled with the softer intonations of the women shuffling from kombi to kombi with baskets of fruit to sell. When the last person finally wandered over to the kombi and climbed in, it roared to life and, in practically the same motion, sped out of the bus rank and started to fly off to Thembelihle, the area around Mbabane where I live.
My hair fluttered up into my face as a rush of wind whipped through the cracked window. I looked over at the seat next to me, suddenly reminded of where I was, and saw a little girl who was staring up at me with an expression of ambivalence on her face. I stared back for a few seconds and then cracked a smile. She smiled shyly back at me, and we continued to smile at each other for the next minute or so, before someone called out for the kombi to stop. The sudden noise caused a break in the spell, and we both looked away and out the window again as the kombi pulled back onto the road. But a faint trace of the smile remained on both our faces as we continued down the road, even as the horizon darkened, and I walked home from the kombi stop feeling that my uphill battle was maybe just a little less steep in that moment.