There is no hurry in Swaziland

I stepped out onto Gwamile Street in Mbabane, pressing two two-rand coins into the kombi driver’s hands and looking behind me before stepping across the road. I narrowly dodged another kombi driver who was flying wildly down the road, slamming on the brakes every few seconds and revving the engine whenever he was not moving. It was a cold and damp day, with a practically undetectable mist. “This is Mbabane,” my coworkers would say. “It’s too cold in this place.” I shifted my purse on my shoulder and pulled my scarf tighter around my neck.

I reached the sidewalk and started to walk in the direction of the Save the Children offices, about a ten-minute walk from where I get out of the kombi. A group of three women were ambling in front of me, in no apparent hurry; I tried to go around them, but they fanned out, covering the entire sidewalk as they strolled together in animated conversation. I took a deep breath for patience and crept along at what felt like a snail’s pace behind them. An old man was walking toward us, and the women moved over to make room for him; after he had passed, I moved over to try to pass them again in the newly available sidewalk space, but they immediately fanned out again in a neat flank, completely blocking the way. “Ncesini,” I said, (Excuse me, sisters), and squeezed through their group, smiling apologetically but inwardly, feeling a bit irked. I was reminded of what my colleague Hlobi always says: “There is no hurry in Swaziland, sisi.”

I continued down the sidewalk, busy at this time of morning. Shop owners were opening their doors and carrying their street banners onto the sidewalk to prop up. Women were sitting on small stools against buildings next to tables stacked high with the two main newspapers, The Times of Swaziland and The Swazi Observer, selling them for 3 rand each. The fruit vendors were unpacking boxes of apples, pears, papayas, bananas, and oranges, and arranging small plastic bags of roasted peanuts in attractive stacks. “SISI,” shouted one old man as he brandished his cane at me, waving it in the air. “I love you and want to marry you!” It is too early for this, I thought to myself as I gave him an awkward smile and picked up my pace. As I did so, I noticed a woman coming in the opposite direction who was swaying from one end of the sidewalk to the other as she walked. She was staring intently at something to her left, yet continued to walk. It turned into a slow-motion game of dodgeball, with this woman playing the part of the ball; I would move in one direction, and she would shift the same way. I attempted to go around her the other way, and somehow, although her eyes never once so much as flickered to the path ahead of her, she would move the same way. I tried standing still to wait for her to pass; but then she also kept a straight path, heading directly for me. Finally, when she had almost reached me, I shifted to my left and managed to escape the encounter with only a nudge on the shoulder as she passed. She turned her head slowly and gazed at me expectantly. “Ncesi,” I said, apologizing unenthusiastically, and she nodded at me and drifted along on her circuitous path, no doubt about to close in on her next pedestrian victim.

I moved over to the left side of the sidewalk (I’m never sure if traffic rules apply to pedestrians here; should we walk on the left or right?) and tried to stay as close to the buildings as possible, out of everyone’s way. I noticed then that heading towards me were two more chatting friends taking up more than two-thirds of the sidewalk, bobbing back and forth in sluggish boxing fashion, and this time, they were staring right at me. I moved over to the other side of the sidewalk to clear their path; now I found myself in a strange tightrope-type of position as I teetered on the curb, the pedestrian traffic bumping me closer to the passing cars as they avoided those same women. Then an unexpected twist happened: the two friends reappeared in front of me suddenly, still walking towards me, but this time repositioned inches from the curb I was balancing on. They continued towards me, looking right at me yet not budging one inch to their right to allow space for me, and thus ended up forcing me into the street. I stopped and looked at them incredulously, and they looked back at me, their eyes dreamlike. Suddenly, one of them offered a shy smile and said, “Oh, sorry sisi.”

Silent screams of frustration echoed in my head. I was beginning to feel seriously annoyed kow, and it was too early in the morning to be feeling that way. It was not because of just these three encounters; it was a cumulative matter of hundreds of such moments that I have had while walking in Swaziland. And the more I think about it, the more I view each of these encounters as a mini-metaphor for the struggles of development in Swaziland.

Everyone is moving in a dreamlike state, not paying too much attention to what is in front of them, around them, or behind them. They are just there, where they are right in that moment, and they are taking uncalculated steps that cause them to sway to the side or even stagger and lag behind. Seemingly, there is no concern over who they might be blocking or delaying. They are moving sluggishly, slowly, chatting with the friend beside them rather than looking towards their destination and planning their next move.Openings or opportunities to move faster are quickly closed up as flanks of people fan out to block the path. The people are distracted, looking off to the side into the distance instead of in front of them, causing them to run unnecessarily into obstacles that could easily have been anticipated had they kept their eyes focused in front of them. Yet when they start walking again, they turn their head once again to the side instead of learning from that mistake. Progress is thus painstakingly slow and difficult to detect.

To me, this metaphor is not a stretch; and besides, finding some greater meaning in these moments of frustration keeps me from having a hysterical breakdown on the sidewalk and pushing everyone out of my way.

“Who will stand up in Swaziland to make sure that things change?” a friend had asked a group of youth just a few days before. “Show me a Swazi who cares enough to actually stand up and do something - something different. You have to find a direction. But Swazis don’t care about HIV,” she had said, looking around at the group expectantly. She waited a few moments and then said, “You know, should all be very angry with me right now for saying that Swazis don’t care. You should be jumping up and shouting at me. Why aren’t you angry with me?” No one said anything, and their eyes remained fixed on the ground.

Certainly this is not true for every person or every NGO. There are many dedicated, innovative, and intelligent people, Swazis and expats alike, working towards developing this country, who are trying every way they can to break out of this cycle. These people want to look beyond what has happened to find the possibilities of what could happen. These people care. These people are in a hurry.

My personal theory is that when pedestrian etiquette in Swaziland has improved, so will have the overall status of the country.

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