I stood near the entrance to Save the Children, waiting outside the finance office, and surveyed the empty room. The rows of cubicles stood in the pale shadows next to empty chairs, and only a few voices remained, floating into the deepening darkness. They were coming from the manager’s office, where some end-of-the-day meeting was taking place. I glanced up at the clock to find that it was 5:54 p.m. It was Friday evening, and I was getting ready to leave the office.
Mbuyiseni, a new staff member on my project, came out of the finance office and joined me under the digital clock. We were waiting for Bheki to finish his work; I was hoping to catch a ride to the bus station, and Mbuyiseni wanted to ride with him to his home in Manzini.
“So, where do you stay here in Mbabane?” Mbuyiseni asked me, turning to me. His eyes have a remarkably constant solemnity in their expression, which gives his overall appearance a look of kind graveness.
“I stay in Thembelihle – do you know it?” I replied.
“I know it,” he said, nodding. “It’s by the Worship Center. Is that your church?”
“Er, no, it’s not,” I said, bracing myself to disappoint yet another churchgoing Swazi.
“So how do you go to Thembelihle every day? You take your car?” he asked, changing the subject.
Thankful that he was not pursuing the topic of religion any further, I answered, “No, I actually don’t have a car here. I take a kombi to and from work.”
His eyes widened and he said, “But aren’t you afraid of thugs when you’re walking to your house?”
“I’m not, really,” I answered, suppressing a smile. Swazis love to warn me about thugs no matter where I am going. Thugs, or “tsotsis,” appear to be a ubiquitous problem in their minds, although I have yet to encounter one myself, thankfully.
“Ah, but you should be afraid of ghosts there, I think,” he said, his eyes gazing steadily out at me.
My first impulse was to play along with a joking reply, but when I looked at him, I found the sober expression in his eyes unchanged from the one he wore when issuing the warning about thugs. They were still wide and serious with no hint of sarcasm.
“Ah, no, I’m not afraid of ghosts there,” I said cautiously, still studying his face for any trace of a joke.
“But you believe in ghosts,” he said, the finality in his tone telling me that he felt it was a silly thing even to say out loud because it was so obviously true.
Now I was becoming a little more uncomfortable and unsure of which answer I could give him that would not insult him, yet would also not be a lie.
“Ehhhhm, I don’t really know, I guess,” I stalled. I looked at the clock again. 5:56. “What do you think about ghosts?”
He suddenly broke into a smile. “I don’t believe…” he paused for a second. For a moment, I thought to myself, Ok, he got me; he doesn’t really believe in ghosts.
Then he completed his thought. “…that ghosts can find me and do me any harm.”
“Ah,” I said, feeling a little misled. I recovered quickly and asked, “Why can’t they harm you?”
“Well, I’m a man of God,” he said. “Ghosts shouldn’t be able to do anything to me. By 6 p.m. every day, I am in church.”
“So, how do you know ghosts exist?” I pressed further, my curiosity aroused. “Have you ever seen one?”
“I’ve read about them in stories, and I’ve seen them in movies,” he answered. “And I just know they exist. Other people I know have encountered them before, so I know they are there,” he finished, the matter-of-fact look on his face closing the subject.
Sentiments like these go a long way to explain the looks of mixed horror and terror that I elicited from people when I tried to explain Halloween this year. Pictures of the common decorations Americans put on their homes drew even stronger reactions. When I showed a co-worker a picture of a haunted house, her eyes grew wide and she gasped audibly as she averted her eyes from the computer screen. I, on the other hand, was able to look at the house, which was surrounded by ghosts and stood behind a shadowy graveyard draped in cobwebs. But my colleague was truly horrified, not only that she had seen this disturbing image, but that people in America actually took pleasure in making their homes look like this once a year.
When I asked a friend of mine here about ghosts and what they symbolize to Swazis, he thought for a moment, and then said, “A ghost might be someone you did something bad to, and he is coming back to haunt you. Or it might be your ancestors telling you something.”
When I relayed this to another Swazi friend and asked for his thoughts, he looked at me incredulously and asked, “Are you telling me that you really believe in ghosts?”
“No,” I said, smiling at the irony of his shock at the thought of me believing in ghosts.”I was just wondering what it would mean to a Swazi to encounter one.”
“So you think that Swazi ghosts do different things from American ghosts?” he said, teasing me. “No, I think it depends on the Swazi. Some of us, we don’t believe in these things. But others, I don’t know – maybe you’d have to ask them. But it could be the ancestors trying to tell you something through that ghost.”
Mbuyiseni and I never really finished our discussion about ghosts and thugs. But now, whenever I am walking on the trampled path towards my house after the kombi drops me off in the evening, I think about the ancestral beings that could descend on me at any moment with a message from beyond, whom I picture as wispy shadowy versions of their former selves. Here in Swaziland, your ancestors are part of who you are at every moment, just as you will someday be a part of your descendants. You consult your ancestors on a regular basis, and they provide you with guidance (whether solicited or otherwise). Your family – your whole family, since the beginning of your family – is around you at all times. As a result (or perhaps as a cause), the recognition of generational and familial continuity – and the role that one generation plays in the lives of the others – is very strong. I’ve always felt very connected to my family as far back as the people I actually met, but when I really think about it, we in America tend to think of ourselves as more independent units, able to break free from our histories if we so choose; to start a new life. Here in Swaziland, if a person does not know their true last name, then it means that they do not know their ancestors. And that is considered to be a terrible fate – that person has a hole in their life that cannot be filled in until the bridge with the past has been rebuilt.
In the end, I think Mbuyiseni was right. It is a chilling prospect to think about meeting a ghost, even if the ghost were just a courier ghost for your ancestors. What would my ancestors want to tell me if they met me on the road there, as I walk towards the sun taking its last peek at the world before disappearing behind the mountains? Would they reprimand me for the mistakes I’ve made, or congratulate me for my successes? Would they tell me their stories, or listen to mine? Would they understand the world the way that I see it?
And I guess the question I wonder most is: would my mind be open enough to believe it was really them?