I stared at the changing scenes in front of me, fixated and unable to move. A brilliantly blue sky glowed behind a craggy, breathtaking row of mountains, the bright green grass stubble butting up against the sheets of dark rock that lined them. The colored houses that dotted those hills looked like rare gems, shining in the sun.
Next, I saw Siphokazi, the little girl who lived near the children I visited. She tugged at my hand, and I looked down at her. Her wide-set eyes gazed at me steadily, expressing a kind of unspoken wisdom and knowledge despite their few years. She squinted in the sun and crinkled her face into a smile that melted my heart. I could almost hear her voice telling me many stories in Siswati, and felt my head nodding along, pretending to understand what this tiny child was explaining to me. Next to us, a cow shifted lazily to another patch of grass to graze. I breathed in the warm air, savoring the occasional soft rush of wind, and carried Siphokazi around the homestead, her young ramblings filling my ears.
Suddenly, thousands of women were lined up in front of me, wearing brightly colored emahiya (traditional outfits). They stomped their feet in unison, and their voices rang out into the air, chanting ancient songs. The breeze carried their voices up to me and noise surrounded me, pushing me down and lifting me up at the same time, as they sang to the King, who was seated mere rows away from me and looked on at the festivities stoically.
And then, without warning, I was standing in the kitchen of the guest house with Sandra, Sindi, and Celiwe. The three of them shrieked with laughter at a private joke, and I smiled even though I could not understand what had been said in Siswati. Justice was there, and he grinned as he used a long, slender lighter to light the two tea candles that sat atop my birthday cake. They sang unintentional rounds of ‘Happy Birthday’ in an effort to take a perfect video of the moment with my camera. We sat around after the singing, the sound of forks scraping against the glass plates the only sound as we savored our cake. Justice laughed hard at something that Thomas said, and the mere sound of his contagious and cheerful laugh sucked us all in, one by one, until we were all almost rolling on the floor, rocking with laughter. And we had no idea why.
“Hey umlungu!” I heard a small voice say from far away. It was a boy who went to school at the preschool next to my house, his face pressed up against the grates of the fence as his hands gripped the bars. He was often there early and stayed late because his mother was a teacher at the school. He grinned up at me silently, his face scrunched unnaturally to fit into the small frame of the diamond-shaped grate, and he waved furiously at me as I made my way down the dirt path to catch my kombi, moving further and further away from him. I turned just before I crossed the field to the road and waved back at him and could make out – just barely – the movement of his own tiny arm.
I turned my eyes back to the road and found myself instead sitting in the back of one of the Save the Children trucks on the way to Nkonjwa, a fairly remote community about one hour from Siphofaneni. All around us were plants struggling to survive in the drought. They had taken on a sort of faded, but desperately defiant, green color, as if they’d been put through the washer too many times. The unpaved road was perpetually bumpy, and I grasped the door and seat next to me with both hands to keep from shifting right off the seat along with our belongings. No music accompanied me and my colleagues; our companions were merely the rush of wind past our windows, the sounds of disgruntled cows in the road, and our occasional, unforced conversation. I looked out the window as we crossed a narrow dam to see a group of women washing clothes, the water around them catching the sun and illuminating their laughter as they stood wearing only underwear, the river gliding gently around their ankles. A young boy, completely naked, glided silently through the water along the rocky riverbank.
The women’s laughter morphed into a long, slow song, and the faces of the women in the water drew nearer to me and changed. I was standing in the cement kaGogo center (main administrative building in a community), watching the opening to a community training I had helped organize. The people in attendance – mostly women – were swaying softly, many of them with their eyes closed and brows furrowed in concentration, as they sang a song from their ancestral memory. Their voices ebbed and flowed together in unison, swelling and then becoming softer, a joyous yet sober sound. My colleague Bonkhe nudged me and whispered something in my ear. I laughed softly.
I laughed softly at something that Papa said, a gentle joke meant only for my ears as we stood in the kitchen watching Thulani cook dinner for the rest of the family. “Siphiwe, are you eating with us?” asked Papa. “Tonight we are having rice and some beef mixed with soup.” My heart squeezed painfully as I thought of the selfless generosity of these young people, living alone without parents and offering me some of their precious and very limited store of food. It would mean them having smaller portions that night, or running out a bit earlier at the end of the month. I politely declined, and sat in aching awe of the sacrifices people are willing to make for others in the face of having next to nothing to give.
“Hey, what are you looking at?” my friend asked me, leaning over to see the pictures which were flashing across my camera screen.
I jolted and looked around, feeling a bit dazed to have been so suddenly ripped from my thoughts. No longer was I in the mountains of Hhohho, or with Papa and the kids. Instead, I sat in a hard metal chair in a dingy, damp room with many others who were waiting for the last train back into Beijing. People sat drowsily in their chairs, some nodding off and others looking bleary-eyed after a day of sight-seeing and traveling. A few children ran around the room, weaving in and out of the rows of chairs and squealing while the adults looked on wearily Grayness and humidity permeated the air. The colorful scenes from moments before were nowhere to be found.
“Just some pictures of Swaziland,” I said. “Do you want to see?” I asked, holding out the camera to him.
“Oh, maybe later!” he replied.
I looked around. I felt misplaced.