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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There is no hurry in Swaziland

I stepped out onto Gwamile Street in Mbabane, pressing two two-rand coins into the kombi driver’s hands and looking behind me before stepping across the road. I narrowly dodged another kombi driver who was flying wildly down the road, slamming on the brakes every few seconds and revving the engine whenever he was not moving. It was a cold and damp day, with a practically undetectable mist. “This is Mbabane,” my coworkers would say. “It’s too cold in this place.” I shifted my purse on my shoulder and pulled my scarf tighter around my neck.

I reached the sidewalk and started to walk in the direction of the Save the Children offices, about a ten-minute walk from where I get out of the kombi. A group of three women were ambling in front of me, in no apparent hurry; I tried to go around them, but they fanned out, covering the entire sidewalk as they strolled together in animated conversation. I took a deep breath for patience and crept along at what felt like a snail’s pace behind them. An old man was walking toward us, and the women moved over to make room for him; after he had passed, I moved over to try to pass them again in the newly available sidewalk space, but they immediately fanned out again in a neat flank, completely blocking the way. “Ncesini,” I said, (Excuse me, sisters), and squeezed through their group, smiling apologetically but inwardly, feeling a bit irked. I was reminded of what my colleague Hlobi always says: “There is no hurry in Swaziland, sisi.”

I continued down the sidewalk, busy at this time of morning. Shop owners were opening their doors and carrying their street banners onto the sidewalk to prop up. Women were sitting on small stools against buildings next to tables stacked high with the two main newspapers, The Times of Swaziland and The Swazi Observer, selling them for 3 rand each. The fruit vendors were unpacking boxes of apples, pears, papayas, bananas, and oranges, and arranging small plastic bags of roasted peanuts in attractive stacks. “SISI,” shouted one old man as he brandished his cane at me, waving it in the air. “I love you and want to marry you!” It is too early for this, I thought to myself as I gave him an awkward smile and picked up my pace. As I did so, I noticed a woman coming in the opposite direction who was swaying from one end of the sidewalk to the other as she walked. She was staring intently at something to her left, yet continued to walk. It turned into a slow-motion game of dodgeball, with this woman playing the part of the ball; I would move in one direction, and she would shift the same way. I attempted to go around her the other way, and somehow, although her eyes never once so much as flickered to the path ahead of her, she would move the same way. I tried standing still to wait for her to pass; but then she also kept a straight path, heading directly for me. Finally, when she had almost reached me, I shifted to my left and managed to escape the encounter with only a nudge on the shoulder as she passed. She turned her head slowly and gazed at me expectantly. “Ncesi,” I said, apologizing unenthusiastically, and she nodded at me and drifted along on her circuitous path, no doubt about to close in on her next pedestrian victim.

I moved over to the left side of the sidewalk (I’m never sure if traffic rules apply to pedestrians here; should we walk on the left or right?) and tried to stay as close to the buildings as possible, out of everyone’s way. I noticed then that heading towards me were two more chatting friends taking up more than two-thirds of the sidewalk, bobbing back and forth in sluggish boxing fashion, and this time, they were staring right at me. I moved over to the other side of the sidewalk to clear their path; now I found myself in a strange tightrope-type of position as I teetered on the curb, the pedestrian traffic bumping me closer to the passing cars as they avoided those same women. Then an unexpected twist happened: the two friends reappeared in front of me suddenly, still walking towards me, but this time repositioned inches from the curb I was balancing on. They continued towards me, looking right at me yet not budging one inch to their right to allow space for me, and thus ended up forcing me into the street. I stopped and looked at them incredulously, and they looked back at me, their eyes dreamlike. Suddenly, one of them offered a shy smile and said, “Oh, sorry sisi.”

Silent screams of frustration echoed in my head. I was beginning to feel seriously annoyed kow, and it was too early in the morning to be feeling that way. It was not because of just these three encounters; it was a cumulative matter of hundreds of such moments that I have had while walking in Swaziland. And the more I think about it, the more I view each of these encounters as a mini-metaphor for the struggles of development in Swaziland.

Everyone is moving in a dreamlike state, not paying too much attention to what is in front of them, around them, or behind them. They are just there, where they are right in that moment, and they are taking uncalculated steps that cause them to sway to the side or even stagger and lag behind. Seemingly, there is no concern over who they might be blocking or delaying. They are moving sluggishly, slowly, chatting with the friend beside them rather than looking towards their destination and planning their next move.Openings or opportunities to move faster are quickly closed up as flanks of people fan out to block the path. The people are distracted, looking off to the side into the distance instead of in front of them, causing them to run unnecessarily into obstacles that could easily have been anticipated had they kept their eyes focused in front of them. Yet when they start walking again, they turn their head once again to the side instead of learning from that mistake. Progress is thus painstakingly slow and difficult to detect.

To me, this metaphor is not a stretch; and besides, finding some greater meaning in these moments of frustration keeps me from having a hysterical breakdown on the sidewalk and pushing everyone out of my way.

“Who will stand up in Swaziland to make sure that things change?” a friend had asked a group of youth just a few days before. “Show me a Swazi who cares enough to actually stand up and do something - something different. You have to find a direction. But Swazis don’t care about HIV,” she had said, looking around at the group expectantly. She waited a few moments and then said, “You know, should all be very angry with me right now for saying that Swazis don’t care. You should be jumping up and shouting at me. Why aren’t you angry with me?” No one said anything, and their eyes remained fixed on the ground.

Certainly this is not true for every person or every NGO. There are many dedicated, innovative, and intelligent people, Swazis and expats alike, working towards developing this country, who are trying every way they can to break out of this cycle. These people want to look beyond what has happened to find the possibilities of what could happen. These people care. These people are in a hurry.

My personal theory is that when pedestrian etiquette in Swaziland has improved, so will have the overall status of the country.

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Too much muffins!!

“Ngi funa kuya eEden Guest House,” I said to the boy in the bus rank. I want to go to Eden Guest House. “Ah!” he said, turning and eyeing me. “This man, this man right here can help you, my sista,” he said, guiding me by the arm to another young man standing nearby. He was leaning with his elbows against the railing, his hat tilted jauntily on his head as he observed the chaos of the bus rank calmly. He leaned his head towards mine as I repeated my destination, and then he instructed me to climb into his kombi; that he would drop me where I needed to go,

As the kombi navigated the now-familiar curves of the notorious Malagwane Hill (the curvy, hilly, slick road that is famous for the horrific car accidents that take place there), I called out to the driver, “Stesh!” and held out my four rand to him. I climbed out of the kombi, closing my purse as it sped off and merged back into traffic. I crossed the highway and followed the cement gutter until I reached the slightly hidden, lopsided stairs that would take me down the hill to the guest house. At the bottom, I picked my way over some slippery weeds, trash, and a puddle of mud until I reached the paved road that took me up to Eden. Everything had become overgrown since I had last been there.

I walked a short distance until I reached the familiar sight of the guest house. I stopped for a moment and gazed at it, remembering my first months in Swaziland that were spent there. Those first months seemed so far away now; I live on the other side of town now, and I don’t get to see my friends there as often as I would like. Now, almost twelve months to the day after I first arrived in Swaziland, going back to Eden is like going back to the house you grew up in years later. It seems smaller than you remember it, somehow a bit deflated, and it is simultaneously familiar and foreign. It is separated from you now by a gulf of experiences, yet unshakeably close by the roots it maintains in you.

I walked up the cobblestone path to the front door, and before I had even reached the door, I heard two voices exclaiming from within. How! It’s Siphiwe!”

I grinned and waved to John and Jethro, who were standing together in the dining room, smiling at me and waving. “Sisi, it has been a long time!” said Jethro.

“It has been a long time,” I agreed, shaking his hand Swazi-style (which involves three shakes, first grabbing the hand, then the wrist, and then the hand again). “And I’m very happy to see you.”

“I’m happy to see you too,” he said. “Come and sit down.”

I gave John a hug before taking a seat by the reception. It had been months since I had actually seen him, and he and I fell into easy conversation. I told him that I had passed his homestead near Siphofaneni a few weeks before on a trip into the field, to a tiny community called Nkonjwa, about an hour further down the bumpy gravel road beyond John’s house. I had been to John’s homestead only once before, for the funeral of his father some months back. He smiled and said that was nice that I had been down there, and that he himself had just returned from tending to the hundred or so chickens he had recently bought to raise and sell. He told me about how much of a profit he was expecting to make from selling those chickens, and that hopefully, if he made enough over the next year by doing this, he could quit working at Eden.

A few moments later, Jethro came back to ask if I wanted any coffee. When I had lived at Eden, I would make coffee for myself every morning using their small French Press. “I remember you like your coffee made with the plunger, sisi,” said Jethro. “Would you like some now?”

Touched that he remembered that detail, I accepted the offer, and he set to work boiling water and placing a cup on a tray. When it was ready, he came and set it on the desk near me. Thanking him, I poured myself a cup and sat back, holding the mug and warming my hands as we continued our conversation.

Suddenly, John looked over at Jethro, who was back in the kitchen making himself a cup of tea and opening a muffin wrapped in plastic. “Hey you,” said John, “too much muffins!! Those muffins will kill you!” He turned to me then and said in a hushed tone, “That his fourth glass of tea this morning, and who knows how many muffins he’s had. It’s too much muffins,” he said, shaking his head. Under the ruse of taking another sip of my coffee, I nodded and hid my laughter in my cup.

A few moments later, Thomas (one of the chefs) entered the guest house to fetch something from the kitchen. He had been working at the restaurant next door, and when he saw me, he rushed over and held out his hand to shake mine. Lamazibuko!” he said with a huge smile on his face, shaking my hand over and over again. Lamazibuko is a play on my Swazi surname, a sort of term of respect. “Unjani, Lamazibuko?” How are you, Mazibuko? We exchanged greetings with huge grins on our faces.

“Some new faces you see here, sisi,” said John. “Over there, that is my sister, who has come to work here. And that one there is Margaret,” he whispered, pointing to a woman in her thirties standing at the sink, washing dishes. “She is Justice’s wife, sisi.”

For a moment, everything stopped. I had never met Justice’s wife before then, although I had thought about her very often after his death. I had heard she gave birth to twins about one month after Justice died, and that she had been forced to take a job at Eden to earn money. I can’t imagine how awful it would be to work in the place, and for the same people, who had caused her husband’s death. I gazed at her as she wiped the counter; she was a fairly tall woman with a sad face, her eyes a bit misty and her mouth turned down. She folded the rag over and over to catch all the crumbs on the counter, her brow wrinkled in concentration.

I left John and Thomas talking for a moment and approached Margaret as she was turning back to the sink. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say to her, but I wanted to have said something to her. I introduced myself and said that I had known Justice from when I lived at Eden last year. I asked how her family was doing and whether her children were able to attend school now. I asked how the twins were doing.

“Ah, I have two babies at first, but one of them leave me,” she said, her eyes turned down.

Sympathy bubbled up in me again as disbelief from this new misfortune hit me. “One of your twins passed away?” I asked.

“Yes, one of the girls is gone now. I only have one left,” she answered she said very softly. She looked up at me and I could see her eyes filling with tears, but then she lowered them again, staring at the floor.

“I am so sorry to hear that,” I said to her, and reached out to touch her arm. “You must have a lot of pain right now. I wish I could help somehow. Your husband was a very good man, and I just wanted to let you know that his friendship meant a lot to me. And that I am very sorry for your loss.” And I’m sorry that after all you’ve been through, you have to work here for the same awful people who killed your husband, I continued silently in my head, and had to blink several times to clear my own eyes.

”Ah, sisi, it’s ok – siyabonga kakhulu,” (Thank you very much) she said, giving me a watery smile. “It is nice to meet you,” she said as she continued to smile. She started wiping the counter again, seemingly out of a need to do something with her hands.

I looked at her smile and became even sadder, as I saw it for what it was: a garish mask for her pain that she probably wore most of the time. And I recognized this mask, because it is one that many Swazis wear; a smile that covers up the pain of loss, of grief, of death, of poverty, and worst of all, of resignation.

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Who wants a future for Swaziland?

“Who here wants a future for Swaziland?” asked Lisa to a small crowd of Swazi youth. Several of them raised their hands tentatively.

“Why aren’t more of you raising your hands?” she asked them, looking around the circle. “Who here wants a future for Swaziland?” she asked with more emphasis. This time, every hand went up – although still cautiously. Swazi children have a tendency to be afraid of giving the wrong answer, and I was reminded of this as I watched their hesitant participation.

“Well, I have news for you,” she said. “It’s up to  you to create that future.”

I stood on the fringe of the crowd, watching her speak. Lisa is a Peace Corps volunteer based in a small community near Luve, about 35 minutes from Manzini. She and a few other volunteers had organized this event, an anti-HIV stigma community dialogue. The day had begun (much later than planned, in classic Swazi style) with some speeches from various community members, followed by a short film about HIV stigma, and was now concluding with small break-out sessions where community members were able to dialogue with each other. This group was comprised mainly of teenaged girls, with a few adults mixed in as well. They were sitting on a few benches that had been pulled together, and some were sitting on the laps of their friends as they listened to Lisa. Not all of them were looking at her; some were looking off to the side, some at the ground, and some at the other participants.

“You are all going to be mothers someday, bosisi,” she said, addressing the young women in the group. “Someday you might have son, isn’t it?” she asked. The young women turned their heads and nodded, now keeping their eyes fixed on her. “When you raise your son, raise him to love women,” Lisa said, her voice ringing out over the murmur of the crowd. “Raise him to love women enough to wear a condom.” The young women continued to look at her with wide eyes.

“And,  bosisi,” Lisa continued, “you all have the responsibility now to insist on condoms. Are you strong enough to bring condoms into your relationships?” she asked. No one responded, and their eyes wandered once again.

“You,  sisi , are you strong enough to insist on a condom?” Lisa asked one young woman.

“I don’t know,” the girl responded in a soft voice. “Sometimes, the boys, they usually don’t like to use a condom.” The other girls nodded at this. A soft breeze came along, fluttering the bottoms of their skirts in the bright sun.

Lisa paused a moment, looking around at the group with serious eyes. “Then that boy does not love you,” she said. “That boy  does not love you  if he won’t wear a condom with you.”

She looked around. “We have to talk about these things in order to change them,” she said, eyeing the children. “Someone has to stand up and  fight if we are going to beat HIV. And if we don’t beat HIV, then Swaziland will die. Do you understand?” she asked, pausing to look at each of the children. “Your country will die if you don’t fight this.”

I looked around at the group. Combating societal norms is quite an ambitious goal, but in the context of Swaziland’s soaring HIV rate, it is an absolutely necessary one. I wondered if Lisa’s words were having an impact on these youth. I thought to myself that if even one of the hundreds of people here today changed the way they acted and avoided contracting HIV, that it was worth it; that it was at least a start.

Earlier, I had walked around with Ozi, another Peace Corps volunteer, handing out condoms to the participants who were standing chatting in small groups as they waited for the next event to start. Many of them stared at us as we approached, their eyes revealing a certain wariness. As we got closer, their eyes widened in disbelief, and some of them clapped their hands over their mouths and laughed when they saw what we were carrying. It wasn’t just the condoms we had in our hands. It was the large, plastic model of a penis I was holding that had caught their eye.

“Do you know how to use a condom?” we asked as we handed the men handfuls of cheerfully decorated packages of condoms. “Can we demonstrate for you how to use it?”

They accepted the condoms, eyeing us with some suspicion as they looked first at us, then the large penis we were holding, and then back at us. It was a mixed group, with mostly young men in their twenties, but with a few very old  bomkhuli, or grandfathers, holding canes and standing proudly in front of us, their gray hair reflecting the sun. A few of the men gave us a practically unperceivable nod, their eyes half-fixed on us and half on the soccer game that was taking place behind us. I thought to myself how strange and unnatural it must feel for these Swazi men, so unaccustomed to talking about anything related to sexuality (especially with women), to be approached by two young American women in this way.

“Wonderful,” I said. I asked one of the men to hold the penis for me as I demonstrated how to use the condom. I showed them how to open it to avoid tearing the condom itself; how to put the condom on and take it off; and how to avoid contact with the fluids that carry HIV. I told them never to use two condoms, and to start afresh if they somehow made a mistake with the first one. “Niyeva?” I asked them. “Do you all understand?” They nodded in unison. “Siyabonga, sisi,” one of them said. Thank you.

“This is your weapon against HIV,” Lisa had said in another condom demonstration. “This is what will protect you if you use it – but only if you use it every time you have sex, and only if you use it the right way.”

We wandered around some more, approaching smaller groups with the condoms and doing demonstrations. One young boy approached Ozi and asked for her advice on being tested for HIV. Other community members approached volunteers and asked about male circumcision, and about HIV transmission, and about sex.

Later, as I stood listening to Lisa’s speech to these young people, I was thinking about all of their questions. All of these questions which, in Swaziland, typically have no forum in which to be discussed. As a rule, Swazi culture prescribes silence for many of these issues, which is what makes it so terribly difficult for those committed to the fight against HIV. Sexuality is rarely discussed – not even among close friends – and strict gender roles (especially in the rural areas) often preclude such conversations within relationships. Even dating is something that is usually kept hidden. If a boy and girl (or man and woman, for that matter) are seen walking together, the community will assume that they are having sex. This leads most young people to date each other covertly, giving the whole idea of a romantic relationship an atmosphere of secrecy, mystery, and repression.  This means that role models or confidantes in matters of dating and sex are rather scarce.

This was a dialogue in one community; with one group of young people. Maybe for some of them, it was just like any other day, or it was a way to get a free meal. But maybe not. Perhaps it was the start of something bigger for those in attendance: a new thought process, and a culture slightly more open from the one their parents experienced.

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I used to be white, sisi

“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.

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