“Ngi funa kuya eEden Guest House,” I said to the boy in the bus rank. I want to go to Eden Guest House. “Ah!” he said, turning and eyeing me. “This man, this man right here can help you, my sista,” he said, guiding me by the arm to another young man standing nearby. He was leaning with his elbows against the railing, his hat tilted jauntily on his head as he observed the chaos of the bus rank calmly. He leaned his head towards mine as I repeated my destination, and then he instructed me to climb into his kombi; that he would drop me where I needed to go,
As the kombi navigated the now-familiar curves of the notorious Malagwane Hill (the curvy, hilly, slick road that is famous for the horrific car accidents that take place there), I called out to the driver, “Stesh!” and held out my four rand to him. I climbed out of the kombi, closing my purse as it sped off and merged back into traffic. I crossed the highway and followed the cement gutter until I reached the slightly hidden, lopsided stairs that would take me down the hill to the guest house. At the bottom, I picked my way over some slippery weeds, trash, and a puddle of mud until I reached the paved road that took me up to Eden. Everything had become overgrown since I had last been there.
I walked a short distance until I reached the familiar sight of the guest house. I stopped for a moment and gazed at it, remembering my first months in Swaziland that were spent there. Those first months seemed so far away now; I live on the other side of town now, and I don’t get to see my friends there as often as I would like. Now, almost twelve months to the day after I first arrived in Swaziland, going back to Eden is like going back to the house you grew up in years later. It seems smaller than you remember it, somehow a bit deflated, and it is simultaneously familiar and foreign. It is separated from you now by a gulf of experiences, yet unshakeably close by the roots it maintains in you.
I walked up the cobblestone path to the front door, and before I had even reached the door, I heard two voices exclaiming from within. How! It’s Siphiwe!”
I grinned and waved to John and Jethro, who were standing together in the dining room, smiling at me and waving. “Sisi, it has been a long time!” said Jethro.
“It has been a long time,” I agreed, shaking his hand Swazi-style (which involves three shakes, first grabbing the hand, then the wrist, and then the hand again). “And I’m very happy to see you.”
“I’m happy to see you too,” he said. “Come and sit down.”
I gave John a hug before taking a seat by the reception. It had been months since I had actually seen him, and he and I fell into easy conversation. I told him that I had passed his homestead near Siphofaneni a few weeks before on a trip into the field, to a tiny community called Nkonjwa, about an hour further down the bumpy gravel road beyond John’s house. I had been to John’s homestead only once before, for the funeral of his father some months back. He smiled and said that was nice that I had been down there, and that he himself had just returned from tending to the hundred or so chickens he had recently bought to raise and sell. He told me about how much of a profit he was expecting to make from selling those chickens, and that hopefully, if he made enough over the next year by doing this, he could quit working at Eden.
A few moments later, Jethro came back to ask if I wanted any coffee. When I had lived at Eden, I would make coffee for myself every morning using their small French Press. “I remember you like your coffee made with the plunger, sisi,” said Jethro. “Would you like some now?”
Touched that he remembered that detail, I accepted the offer, and he set to work boiling water and placing a cup on a tray. When it was ready, he came and set it on the desk near me. Thanking him, I poured myself a cup and sat back, holding the mug and warming my hands as we continued our conversation.
Suddenly, John looked over at Jethro, who was back in the kitchen making himself a cup of tea and opening a muffin wrapped in plastic. “Hey you,” said John, “too much muffins!! Those muffins will kill you!” He turned to me then and said in a hushed tone, “That his fourth glass of tea this morning, and who knows how many muffins he’s had. It’s too much muffins,” he said, shaking his head. Under the ruse of taking another sip of my coffee, I nodded and hid my laughter in my cup.
A few moments later, Thomas (one of the chefs) entered the guest house to fetch something from the kitchen. He had been working at the restaurant next door, and when he saw me, he rushed over and held out his hand to shake mine. Lamazibuko!” he said with a huge smile on his face, shaking my hand over and over again. Lamazibuko is a play on my Swazi surname, a sort of term of respect. “Unjani, Lamazibuko?” How are you, Mazibuko? We exchanged greetings with huge grins on our faces.
“Some new faces you see here, sisi,” said John. “Over there, that is my sister, who has come to work here. And that one there is Margaret,” he whispered, pointing to a woman in her thirties standing at the sink, washing dishes. “She is Justice’s wife, sisi.”
For a moment, everything stopped. I had never met Justice’s wife before then, although I had thought about her very often after his death. I had heard she gave birth to twins about one month after Justice died, and that she had been forced to take a job at Eden to earn money. I can’t imagine how awful it would be to work in the place, and for the same people, who had caused her husband’s death. I gazed at her as she wiped the counter; she was a fairly tall woman with a sad face, her eyes a bit misty and her mouth turned down. She folded the rag over and over to catch all the crumbs on the counter, her brow wrinkled in concentration.
I left John and Thomas talking for a moment and approached Margaret as she was turning back to the sink. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say to her, but I wanted to have said something to her. I introduced myself and said that I had known Justice from when I lived at Eden last year. I asked how her family was doing and whether her children were able to attend school now. I asked how the twins were doing.
“Ah, I have two babies at first, but one of them leave me,” she said, her eyes turned down.
Sympathy bubbled up in me again as disbelief from this new misfortune hit me. “One of your twins passed away?” I asked.
“Yes, one of the girls is gone now. I only have one left,” she answered she said very softly. She looked up at me and I could see her eyes filling with tears, but then she lowered them again, staring at the floor.
“I am so sorry to hear that,” I said to her, and reached out to touch her arm. “You must have a lot of pain right now. I wish I could help somehow. Your husband was a very good man, and I just wanted to let you know that his friendship meant a lot to me. And that I am very sorry for your loss.” And I’m sorry that after all you’ve been through, you have to work here for the same awful people who killed your husband, I continued silently in my head, and had to blink several times to clear my own eyes.
”Ah, sisi, it’s ok – siyabonga kakhulu,” (Thank you very much) she said, giving me a watery smile. “It is nice to meet you,” she said as she continued to smile. She started wiping the counter again, seemingly out of a need to do something with her hands.
I looked at her smile and became even sadder, as I saw it for what it was: a garish mask for her pain that she probably wore most of the time. And I recognized this mask, because it is one that many Swazis wear; a smile that covers up the pain of loss, of grief, of death, of poverty, and worst of all, of resignation.