“You see those mountains over there, sisi?” said Khulekani, raising his voice so it would reach me in the back seat. “That’s where my home is. You know the Lubombo Plateau?”
I shook my head, and he continued, “It’s a very long mountain that stretches such a long distance, and beyond it is South Africa. A lot of people who sneak into Swaziland from South Africa go that way so they won’t be found.” Bonkhe, our colleague who was driving, nodded his head in agreement.
The sound of the wind whipping through the cab of the truck sometimes overpowered his voice as he spoke, as did the loud rattling sound of some piece of the truck in the back as we drove down the bumpy dirt road. Our destination, a tiny community in the Lubombo region called Nkonjwa, was still far away, and I settled back into my seat and watched the passing scenes through my open window. The landscape was green, but in a dusty, faded way, and it was obvious that this was one of the areas that suffered from the persistent drought that plagues the Lubombo region.
Cows grazed lazily along the way, sometimes walking sluggishly across the road and stopping right in the middle in front of our car. Khulekani and Bonkhe leaned out the window and whistled loudly at them when they did this, but this did not seem to create any sense of urgency in our lethargic bovine friends. Small homesteads dotted the landscape, surrounded by fences made of large upright tree branches tied together sparsely with barbed wire. The houses – some of them made from cement, and others made from stones or mud – glowed brilliantly in the bright sunny day. The occasional person also dotted the landscape, walking along the road or sitting on top of a huge rock under the shade of a jacaranda tree. We passed through the occasional “town,” which consisted of a supermarket and butchery, and sometimes a health clinic.
We had turned off of the paved road at Siphofaneni, which lies one and a half hours southeast from Mbabane, and the dirt road was becoming worse and worse as we went further. It became impossible to do anything but look out the window as I bounced around in the backseat of the car, all of my belongings shifting constantly around me. We came to a small dam with a one-lane bridge and waited our turn to cross it. As we waited, I gazed out at the water, patches of sunlight catching on the slow ripples, and saw a group of women stripped down to their underwear doing laundry in the stream. Bits of their laughter reached my ears and I saw them beating and wringing their clothes, bending and then standing, bending and then standing. On the other side of the bridge, I saw a small group of men bathing together in the water, some of them also stripped down to nothing but a hat.
We stopped at a primary school along the way to drop off some materials for a program Save the Children runs there, and while we were stopped, two little girls who had their arms around each other came around the corner of the building, smiling at me and waving furiously. I waved back with a grin. “You know we are famous now because we are here with you, Siphiwe,” said Khulekani.
“Yes,” agreed Bonkhe. “But you know what I tell people when they make any comment about being with a white lady? I tell them, that is Mrs. Obama, and she is my boss!”
I laughed and said, “You appreciate fully how ironic that particular comparison is, right?” He grinned and nodded and said, “I do. That’s what makes it funny.”
We pulled back onto the dirt road after leaving the primary school and resumed our bumpy journey, clouds of dust billowing behind us as we drove. Each time another car passed us going the opposite direction, we all rushed to roll up our windows to avoid being covered in the trail of dust that followed it.
“You know, Siphiwe, I know this area very, very well, even though my home is on that mountain I showed you,” said Khulekani.
“Why is that?” I asked.
“When I was young, maybe not even eight years old, my brother quit school and ran away to somewhere in this area. I came with my father to look everywhere for him, so I know all of these places.”
“Did you find your brother?” I asked. “Where was he?”
“Yes, we found him,” said Khulekani. “He was hiding on some farm, but we brought him home with us. Now he is a policeman somewhere near my home.”
We continued down the road, the truck and its contents lurching forward as we crossed over huge dips. The direct sunlight became unbearably penetrating, and I shifted around in the backseat to find some shade. Khulekani turned around in his seat to observe me and said, “You are not very good at dodging the sun, sisi. You should get better at that.”
“Ok, thank you, I will,” I said as I grinned and shoved our supplies to the other side of the seat.
“You know, I used to be white, sisi,” he continued as he held up his hand to block the sun from his face. “But then the sun scorched me, and I started thinking too much, and now you see how I look – my skin is black now.”
“Even me, I used to be white,” chipped in Bonkhe from the driver’s seat. “But in my case, it was different. I was in a plane crash when I arrived in Swaziland from England, and the dust and smoke from that crash turned me into a black man.”
“Oh, yes, I see,” I said. “Well, maybe I used to be black!”
They laughed from the front seat and Bonkhe said, “Oh, then what happened to you that you are now so white?”
Khulekani answered for me, “Maybe you used to work in a big bakery where they make bleached flour, and after so many years working there with all the white dust, this is what happened to you.” I nodded and displayed my pale arm for them in support of the plausibility of that story.
When we finally arrived in the tiny community of Nkonjwa after about an hour on the dirt road, we stopped and asked for directions to the chiefdom center from a woman walking alongside the road. We were going there to hand out the daily money allowances for the Child Protectors who were being trained there by one of our field officers, Nondumiso. “You see, Claire? This is a Swazi GPS,” said Bonkhe, pointing at the community member who had given us directions. “We don’t need those fancy electronic systems here in Swaziland.”
We pulled off onto another dirt road and parked the truck in front of the cement building. Nondumiso waved at us and came outside, calling out to us in greeting. We went into the building, which was crowded wall-to-wall with the newly trained volunteers, and Nondumiso introduced the three of us newcomers. The crowd gasped and laughed when she introduced me as Siphiwe Mazibuko, and smiled even more widely when I greeted them in Siswati. As their names were called, each volunteer came up to us and received a small allowance to compensate for their transport and food during training. We thanked each of them and spent another half hour there with them before turning back around and beginning the long trip back to Mbabane.
The sun continued to shine brilliantly, and the breeze continued to blow gently, and the combination of the two felt blissful and beautiful. As I sat in the backseat with the wind whipping around me, I became lost once again in the passing landscape. It was now afternoon, and the road became crowded with children walking home from school, chasing each other, their laughter trailing behind us like the cloud of dust behind our truck. They were waving tree branches in the air like swords, but stopped when they saw us coming, some of them looking up in surprise as our arrival interrupted their game. Some of them pointed at me and shouted “Umlungu!” (“white person!”) while others waved and smiled shyly at me.
We drove and drove, finally reaching the paved road again and turning left towards Manzini. As often happens in Swaziland, someone had asked that we make a stop along the way to pick something up for her since we were going in the same general direction as her errand, telling us it was “right on the way.” The detour ended up taking us the better part of an hour, and as we finally rolled into Mbabane near 5 p.m., I thought to myself about something a friend from Zimbabwe had told me recently. This friend spent the better part of her childhood in Swaziland and still lives here. She said that after a while, you just accept some of these delays, you give in to “Swazi time,” and the generally slow pace of life and work overpowers your objections, and all you can do is simply say: TIS. This Is Swaziland.
Well, TIS, I thought to myself as we pulled into town, and I hopped out of the car and started off to the bus rank. No matter the late hour, it had still been a beautiful day and a chance to see a different, more elusive part of the country.