The air in Swaziland these days has a duality about it.
On the one hand, it is suggestive of the winter months that are ahead, hinting that colder days are coming. There is a nearly-tangible crispness, and chilly intimations that we are on the brink of something new. The mornings are blanketed in frost, frost which stubbornly clings to the grass even after the first sunlight has climbed the mountain and has finally reached Mbabane. The sun, which in the summer invites one only to sweat and suffer in its unrelenting, penetrating rays, now offers welcome relief from the cold. And just as the frost blankets the ground, the people here have begun to blanket themselves in layers of multi-colored sweaters and coats. “Eesh, this cold!” they exclaim, shaking their heads, as they huddle into themselves, arms crossed and heads down. The old women tie an extra cloth around their waists and wear blankets like capes as they sit at the market, selling avocados, pineapples, sweet potatoes, apples, and oranges to morning commuters. There is a sense of imminent ending in autumn, and an atmosphere of nostalgia – of warmer, better days that are now gone.
On the other hand, that warmth which we recall is still lurking under the surface somewhere here. It hibernates most of the time, sleeping unseen and unknown. But every so often, it wakes up. I feel it in a passing breeze, and as I breathe in that particular gust of wind, I sense that summer – that warmth - has not yet completely relinquished its hold. It will not quite release its grip on us yet, and it evokes a rush of a renewed sense of beginning; a renewed sense of hope.
I feel myself torn into two pieces – pieces which I hope I can reconcile somehow within myself as I return to America. Although I have had moments, days, and weeks where my feelings of frustration, sadness, and loneliness have soared to unprecedented levels here in Swaziland, I find myself almost on the brink of tears at the mere thought of leaving this place. Swaziland has burrowed deep inside of me now, and I shudder to think of what might shatter within me as I depart.
So there I sat, feeling both renewed and discharged, warm and cold, not really needing my coat but unwilling to free it from my hand’s grip. Unwilling to let it go. I was squeezed into the back corner of the kombi to Thembelihle (my neighborhood in Mbabane), and the sliding window next to me stood slightly ajar, inviting part of the noisy bus rank into the already-jammed backseat with me. And all at once, everything surrounding me seemed to magnify so intensely that tears almost escaped my eyes in that of all places: the back of a dirty, crowded kombi in the middle of the dirty, crowded bus rank. As the smallest of breezes hinted at me through the window beside me, a sense of overwhelming beauty swept over me along with it. I closed my eyes and felt the warmth in that breeze even as I shivered from the physical chill in it. I heard a voice from outside the kombi shouting “airtime! airtime!” and without opening my eyes, saw who it was: the familiar young boy wearing a faded yellow vest and jauntily perched hat on his head who wanders from kombi to kombi in the hope of a sale. The cries of the young men indicating various kombi destinations rang out around me, overpowered only by the softer chatter within the kombi itself. I opened my eyes and saw the late afternoon sunlight lighting up the faded colors in the cloth wrapped around the head of a very old Gogo (grandmother) who was sitting in front of me. As I focused my eyes on her head, she turned her head around and looked me straight in the eyes, smiling curiously at me. Over and over, she turned around to sneak another glance at me, always with a smile on her lips and in her eyes. A schoolchild climbed silently into the kombi, surveying the available seats. Pursing her lips, she unfolded the seat in front of me and propped herself in it and then remained perfectly still. The people sat in silence, waiting patiently for the kombi to fill up so we could leave the bus rank.
Time left me, and it seemed like only moments later that the last person was climbing into the kombi, and the driver revved the engine and shocked the kombi into instant life. We pulled out of the parking spot around a seemingly impossible corner, which the kombi driver navigated with ease, and then we barged out of the parking lot ahead of a long line of kombis and onto the main road to Thembelihle. The sunlight, once stationary, now danced across all the other passengers sitting in front of me, and the window allowed the tiniest of cool breezes in to rush at my face. The others sitting around me shifted silently in their seats, no one speaking as we sailed out of town.
“Stesh!” called out passengers along the way, and the kombi ducked to the side of the road as they climbed their way to the front, holding out their payment of four rand. “Stesh!” Stop! Another four passengers climbed out of the vehicle as we pulled over next to a large church.
“Stesh!” I thought to myself. I need a more metaphorical stesh right now, as I feel my departure barreling towards me at an alarming speed. I do not feel ready for it. Stesh! This place has not yet let me go, even as my future is taking a firmer hold on me. I am making plans for when I go back, people I will see, apartments I could rent, classes I will take, new friends to meet. But I am not done with this place yet, my subconscious screams at me. I am still here, now. I am pre-empting myself. A simultaneous mood of nostalgia and anticipation, of wistfulness and excitement, hangs over me like a bright cloud, shielding me from the sun yet threatening rain at the same time.
All emotions are inside of me right now. I am sad to leave, and excited to leave. I am nervous to leave, and confident to leave. I am happy at the thought of seeing all the family and friends I have missed so much, but afraid of how I will relate to them, and my culture. I am ready for a change, but feel a sense of enormous loss at what I am leaving behind.
In all honesty, I do not know quite what to do with myself. I feel stuck at the middle of the rope in an equal match of tug-of-war.
I suppose that seasons are like that, though. We relish the last waves of warmth even as we know another season is upon us. We long for the heat of summer in the dead of winter, and on the hottest days of summer, wish only for cooler weather again. We look up one day to find that it has suddenly become an entirely different season without our noticing.
To think that we can climb onto a giant metal bird, watch several movies and eat several meals, and find ourselves in an entirely different world, never ceases to amaze me. In a matter of one day, I can be back where I started from, even though I now feel worlds apart from that place in so many ways. But that place will always be a part of my journey; a part of what brought me to where I am now. Places can loop back into your life like that, just as people can. The story of a place, or a person, or a time, can crop itself in and out of the picture as you move ever forward.
This transition is a painful one, with many goodbyes – goodbyes that could easily be forever. But I hope that that underlying warmth from this season, soon to be a past one, will still come to me in a passing breeze every so often, and I will remember another time, and another place.