We are already old men here

“Ngicela kukhuluma naPhesheya,” I said as I poked my head into Phesheya’s office, grinning. I want to speak with Phesheya.

“Ah, unjani sisi?” said Phesheya, grinning back. How are you?

I took a seat and laid down my stack of papers on his desk. He pushed himself away from his computer and sat directly across from me, giving me his attention. I was there for a quick meeting with our project donor.

“I see you’re enjoying some umbile,” I said, flicking my eyes in the direction of the half-eaten piece of roasted corn sitting on his desk.

Phesheya leaned over, picked up the corn, and handed it to me. “Here you go – for the American! Because you don’t have maize in America, you have to eat a lot of it while you’re here.”

I took the piece of corn from him with an indignant look and said, “We have lots of maize in America! We eat it all the time,” I said, taking a bite of umbile. The fat, white kernels of corn were bulging, and the blackened pieces were giving off the smoky smell of the fire that had roasted it. This particular type of roasted corn is one of my favorite things to eat in Swaziland.

“No, you don’t,” countered Phesheya. “You have corn, not maize, and it’s not like this maize. It’s that small, yellow, sweet kind,” he said, his face barely disguising the disgust he apparently felt towards yellow corn. “This one is far better.”

I decided to leave the argument; after all, the umbile really was delicious and I couldn’t offer any counterarguments to what was basically a matter of taste. I chewed thoughtfully for a moment before we got down to business.

Our meeting only lasted a short time, and after a few minutes, my project finance officer, Mbuyiseni, joined us, taking a seat quietly at the table. But by that time, we had finished discussing the project issues and were just chatting.

I held up the umbile to Mbuyiseni and said, “If you had arrived earlier, you could have gotten a snack like me!” He grinned as I took another bite of the umbile. Phesheya smiled as well, but suddenly reached over and took the piece of corn out of my hands.

“You know, people like me and Mbuyiseni are already old men here in Swaziland,” said Phesheya. He leaned back in his chair and took a bite of maize, ruminating, and I watched him, wondering what had just happened and whether he remembered giving me the corn only moments earlier.

Mbuyiseni turned to me and asked if I still have my grandparents. I replied that I was lucky to have my Nana still in my life, and that I also still had both of my parents. He looked at Phesheya with a look of disbelief on his face, shaking his head in wonder.

Phesheya looked back at him and said, “You see? These people will still be alive in fifty years, when you and I will be long gone, no longer even memories. You and I should have died by now anyway. We’re both already past the life expectancy for Swaziland,” he said, taking another bite of corn. The life expectancy for men in Swaziland as of 2007 was somewhere in the early thirties, he told me.

“But why is it that people live so much longer in America?” inquired Mbuyiseni.

Phesheya replied, “They have better health care. And they have Obama.”

Yes, the medicinal and quality-of-life-enhancing properties of Obama are many, I thought to myself with a smile. “And besides that,” I added, “there is access to better nutrition and more food in general, better access to information about health, better sanitation systems – that kind of thing. But most importantly,” I said, “the HIV rate is much, much lower there.”

Mbuyiseni nodded his understanding. “So we’ll be gone but you’ll still be alive with your grandchildren,” he said, smiling sorrowfully.

Those words hit me like an ocean of sadness, with waves of unfairness and inequity and LACK lapping at the shore.

“I guess I might,” I said. “But you never know. Maybe we’ll both get to see our grandchildren.” I searched his face.

“Maybe,” he said. But I wasn’t sure if either of us believed it.

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