Papa was waiting by the side of the road for me as always as I hopped out of the car and onto the craterous dirt road. “Siphiwe,” he greeted me, calling me by my Swazi name, and held out his hand for me to shake. “You are welcome.”
He immediately reached out and took my bag from me and carried it as we walked together down the path and turned off onto the vaguely carved dirt driveway to the house, which was overgrown with long blades of tall grass that leaned into the road until they were finally trampled into the ground. Stray corn husks and other discarded items (a torn, dirty shirt crumpled into the path; a left shoe with the flap dangling like a numb lower lip; and a twisted plastic bag) littered the path, and the field in front of the house stood lonely and barren now that the peanuts and maize had been harvested.
Papa removed his shoes and stepped onto the stoop, opening the door for me. We walked across the cold cement of the floor into the living room, passing Thulani – the youngest in the house – in the kitchen chopping vegetables. “We take turns making dinner,” Papa explained. “Tonight is Thulani’s night.” I asked if he enjoyed cooking, and he scrunched up his face and said, “No, I don’t like it at all. I hate when it is my night to cook.” I looked at Thulani, who was now using a large, sharp-looking kitchen knife to wedge open a can of vegetable curry, and made a mental note to ask for a can opener for them. Papa read my thoughts and said, “Oh, Siphiwe, our can opener is up there with my grandmother because she needed it. But we’ll have it back soon.” He stepped over, took the knife from Thulani, and took over cutting open the can for him, putting his weight behind the serrated edges of the knife as it sliced through the top of the tin can.
I asked Papa if he had any homework he’d like me to help him with, and he told me that he was giving a presentation in class the next day, and could I help him prepare for it? The class had been divided into two opposing sides of a controversial argument, and he was to argue for why schools should distribute condoms in schools.
“So what do you think would be the advantages to giving students condoms in schools?” I prompted him.
He thought for a moment, flicking his eyes up to the ceiling and tapping his fingers on the arm of the chair.
“I think….” he began tentatively. I nodded encouragingly. “I think that a lot of people at my school are having sex, so maybe we should give them something that will help protect them,” he finished, searching my face for validation.
“That’s a great reason,” I agreed. “What else?”
He considered carefully again and then said, “I think it can also prevent more abortions, because not as many girls will get pregnant if they use condoms.”
“What else would the students be protected against besides getting pregnant?” I asked.
“HIV,” he said right away. I nodded and continued to look at him expectantly. “…and some other sexual diseases?” he asked, again with hesitation.
I nodded. “Do you think that many people in your school have sex with more than one person at a time?”
“A lot,” he said right away, nodding.
“That is a big problem, because it puts them at higher risk for passing on HIV,” I said.“You see, if I am sleeping with someone – maybe his name is Wandile – and Wandile is also sleeping with Sibongile, and Sibongile is also sleeping with Vusi, and he is also sleeping with someone else, and if even just one of us has HIV—-“
“It’s a chain, and you will get it also,” finished Papa, shaking his head.
“Yes, I could get it too, in that case,” I said, watching his thoughts pass over his face.
He paused and ruminated for a moment. “For me, if I can just have only one partner someday, that would make me happy,” he said after a moment. I looked at him and felt a glimmer of hope at hearing this.
“Anyway, I think I have to marry someone from another country, Siphiwe. Here, people just want money – they don’t want love,” he continued. “I know this place very well, and I know the people here. I don’t want that. A woman will only marry a man that is rich, with a fancy car. So who will marry me? I don’t have money.”
I was not sure how to respond to this one, not wanting to give false hope but also not wanting to cosign the idea of love in Swaziland being reduced to such materialistic pessimism. We sat in silence for a moment, thinking about this, before I decided to change the subject.
“Can I ask you, since you are talking about poverty – do you think that most people really love the King?” I asked him, watching his face closely as he answered.
He contemplated for a moment and then said, “No, I think most people don’t really love him. But when you have a King like us, Siphiwe, there is no freedom of expression. No one can say anything bad about him or maybe the police would come and lock you up.”
“Did you know that Swaziland is not poor?” I asked him. He looked at me for a moment, unsure of how to respond. “It’s true,” I continued. “If you look at how much money is actually in the country, it is not as poor as you would think.”
“But most of us who live here, we are poor,” he protested. “Exactly,” I replied, looking at him. “What do you think about that?”
“I think most of that money, it must be with the King,” concluded Papa after a moment.
“What do you think about the way the King spends his money?” I asked.
“Ah, for me, it is not good,” he said, twirling his cell phone in his hand as he replied. “You see, he has something like thirteen wives, and he spends a lot of money on them. Most of his wives don’t love him really, but they just wanted money and that’s why they married him, I think. They wanted fancy cars and big houses.”
Or they didn’t have a choice, I thought to myself. The King chooses his wives; they don’t choose him.
“Siphiwe, when you leave in July…” started Papa, abruptly changing the subject.
“Yes?” I encouraged him.
“When you leave in July…when will you come back?” asked Papa, his eyes avoiding my face.
I looked down at my hands. “I don’t know, exactly,” I replied truthfully, looking up and searching his face. “I hope I can come back someday to Swaziland. For now, I just know that I will be going to school for the next few years in the U.S.” I continued to look at him as he digested this.
Papa continued to look down at his hands, at his cell phone, at the chair. I felt helpless to make the situation better. It had been my choice to leave and to go back to school, and I could see that this was a painful decision for him to swallow.
“I will write you a letter when I’m back there, and send you pictures of where I am living. Would you like that?” I asked.
A small smile formed on Papa’s face. “Yes, sisi, please do that,” he said as he started twirling his cell phone again. “But we will miss you,” he added softly, finally looking up directly into my eyes, the bill of the tilted baseball cap on his head casting a shadow over his eyes and face.
For the next moment, we were both silent. I thought, how strange to live both in the moment and the future, and to be missing a person or a place before you’ve left. And how lonely to be with someone you already miss.