Every morning, I walk out the gate in front of my cottage, up a dirt/gravel path that takes me past a Baptist church, where I turn right and walk on a beaten dirt path littered with trash. This path takes me along the edge of a large field next to the main road near my home. At the end of the path, a piece of weathered plywood serves as a makeshift bridge over a small ditch, and I walk across it, balancing my weight on the heels of my sandals. Each time, an image of me toppling into the ditch flashes across my mind, and I breathe a small sigh of relief each time I successfully navigate my way over the ditch without ending up in it. I stop when I reach the road and wait, craning my neck every few minutes and straining my ears for any sign of a kombi (minibus). After waiting anywhere between 2 and 40 minutes, one finally comes barreling around the corner; I hold out my hand and flick my wrist, and the kombi pulls over to let me in. I heave the door open, climb in, and try to find a seat while I close the door and balance myself as the kombi lurches away from the curb. Some drivers are kind and wait for me to sit down before pulling away, but others begin to gun the engine as soon as one foot is in the door. I wedge myself into whatever spot is open, sometimes clutching the seat in front of me as we fly over speedbumps in the road and weave around the enormous and frequent potholes. When I reach town, I hop out somewhere along the way to the bus station, calling out, “Stesh!” (sounds like the beginning of “station”) and reaching through the people crowded into the kombi to hand my 4-rand fare to the driver (which is about fifty US cents).
Every evening after work, I walk up the big hill from Save the Children into town. Sometimes I walk with a co-worker, but more often, I’m alone when I leave. I greet the familiar faces along the way – Dudu, Rosy, and Ntombi, three women who sell airtime on the street (minutes for pre-paid cell phones), and two women who sit along the fence next to the bus rank and sell small bags of jugo beans, cassava flakes, and fresh produce. We greet each other every day and make small talk in Siswati, and they teach me new phrases which I try desperately to retain in my memory once I have left them. I reach the bus rank (station) and walk through the sea of people and vehicles going in every direction. Kombis hurtle around other kombis, honk at people who linger in their way, and young men throughout the lot try desperately to recruit passengers for their kombis. The drivers of the larger buses sit in their buses with the engines running and honk unendingly and inexplicably. They inch forward, horns blaring, as passengers scramble into their seats; they inch forward even though they will not actually pull out of the bus rank until perhaps 30 or 45 minutes later, which gives a hectic sense of urgency to their idleness. It all seems to be some sort of game that no one can win.
The first time I came to the bus rank, I was completely overwhelmed, but now I maneuver my way through the maze of activity like an expert. I walk past the men who sometimes swarm around me and shout over and over again the name of a town I do not want to visit, perhaps in the hopes that the repetition of the name will make me want to go there. They hold out their hands sometimes in an attempt to physically put me into their kombi, but I break free and continue through the crowd. The boys who stand near my kombi shout the name of the destination in auction–like voices (Hey, Thembelihle, Thembelihle, Thembelihle, HEY) know me by now, and they smile and wave at me, gesturing towards the kombi marked “Thembelihle,” and I either join the line or climb in. The driver waits until the whole kombi fills up – that is, until 15 people decide they want to go to Thembelihle, and then we take off. At rush hour on a weekday, it doesn’t take long for the kombi to fill up, but on a Sunday afternoon, we might sit in the kombi for 45 minutes or more before the last person finally climbs in and the kombi shoves off.
The most interesting part of riding a kombi for me is the people I seem to befriend on the short trips between town to Thembelihle, the suburb of Mbabane where I live. One day I climbed in and sat down all the way in the back next to a little girl of about seven or eight years old. She gazed up at me, averting her eyes whenever I peeked over and smiled at her, and then focusing them on me again as soon as I looked away. After this happened several times, I finally turned to her and greeted her with a smile: “Sawubona, sisi.” She mouthed the traditional response of “Yebo” back at me. “Unjani?” I asked her. (“How are you?”) “Ngiyaphila,” she said in an audible whisper this time (“I’m fine”), and smiling up at me. The kombi revved to life just then, and we took off into the stream of kombis heading for the bus rank exit.
As we were turning onto the road to Thembilihle, she worked up the courage to ask me my name, speaking to me in English this time. “My name is Siphiwe,” I said, looking at her with a little smile on my face. She gaped at me in disbelief as a smile crept over her face. “Siphiwe?!” she repeated. “Where are you from?”
“I’m from America,” I told her.
“Eesh! But your name is Siphiwe?” she looked shocked, her mouth slightly open. Then she thought for a moment and said, “So your president is Barack Obama?” she asked eagerly.
“That’s right,” I said. “Do you like him?”
She nodded earnestly. “Why do you like him?” I asked.
She sat still for a minute, the landscape rushing by in the window behind her and the last of the sun’s glow disappearing behind the mountains and framing her head. Finally she looked over at me and said, “He’s just a really cute president.” I smiled and agreed with her, and we rode on amicably until she got off the kombi a short while later.
Another time, I climbed into the kombi and found myself, once again, wedged into the very back of the vehicle, squashed in with three young men who looked like they were in their early twenties. I pushed myself by the people already seated in front, excusing myself in Siswati, and squeezed into the small space that was left. I tucked my umbrella underneath the seat and piled my bags on top of me. The two boys to my right looked first at each other, and then over at me and asked me if I spoke Siswati. I replied in Siswati that I do speak a little and that I am trying to learn more. They looked at each other and grinned, and as the kombi took off, they started asking me various questions in Siswati. “Where do you stay?”; “Where do you work?”; “Where are you from?”; “Who do you live with?” I was able to answer and reciprocate the questions, and I found out that they were Lindo and Sifiso, and that they lived a “good walk” up the mountain from where the kombi would drop them off in Thembelihle, my neighborhood. “You should come visit us there sometime,” Lindo said. “We can take you to see the seven-headed snake.” Sifiso nodded in agreement and looked over at me as if he were expecting me to pull out my planner and schedule a time right then and there for this visit.
“Ehm, the seven-headed snake?” I asked. “Where does this snake live?”
“Oh, it lives up by us in the forest.” Sifiso replied nonchalantly.
“I see,” I said. Unsure of the protocol for small talk about mythical snakes, I ventured, “S o…how often do you go to visit this snake?” I said.
Lindo leaned in and said, “This is the time of year to go and visit the seven-headed snake, because sometimes there is drought while we are ploughing. You go to visit the seven-headed snake in order to bring rain.”
Intrigued, I asked what they did to bring the rain once they actually visited the snake.
“Well, you bring it some small change,” Sifiso explained. “And then you give it to the snake.”
“How much money do you have to give the snake in exchange for the rain?” I asked.
“Maybe a fifty-cent coin, something like that,” Sifiso said.
“That’s not a bad price to pay for rain,” I commented.
“No, it’s cheap,” agreed Lindo, grinning.
<p class=”MsoNormal”>“I can’t believe no one has taken you to see the seven-headed snake yet,” Sifiso said, shaking his head as the kombi surged ahead up the hill, coughing and sputtering with each gear shift. <span style=”"> </span>
I climbed out of the kombi when we reached my stop and began walking to my house, squinting in the orange glow of the setting sun. A soft breeze came and gently pushed away some of the heat of the dying day, and as I passed the hill leading up to the forest, I threw a long look in its direction. In my pocket was a fifty-cent coin, and I reached inside and fingered it as I went, thinking of the new perspective I had on its worth. Perhaps someday I would go and make my own plea for rain to the seven-headed snake, but for that evening, I decided instead to turn left and go home.