I’ll give you fifty cents for some rain

Every morning, I walk out the gate in front of my cottage, up a dirt/gravel path that takes me past a Baptist church, where I turn right and walk on a beaten dirt path littered with trash. This path takes me along the edge of a large field next to the main road near my home. At the end of the path, a piece of weathered plywood serves as a makeshift bridge over a small ditch, and I walk across it, balancing my weight on the heels of my sandals. Each time, an image of me toppling into the ditch flashes across my mind, and I breathe a small sigh of relief each time I successfully navigate my way over the ditch without ending up in it. I stop when I reach the road and wait, craning my neck every few minutes and straining my ears for any sign of a kombi (minibus). After waiting anywhere between 2 and 40 minutes, one finally comes barreling around the corner; I hold out my hand and flick my wrist, and the kombi pulls over to let me in. I heave the door open, climb in, and try to find a seat while I close the door and balance myself as the kombi lurches away from the curb. Some drivers are kind and wait for me to sit down before pulling away, but others begin to gun the engine as soon as one foot is in the door. I wedge myself into whatever spot is open, sometimes clutching the seat in front of me as we fly over speedbumps in the road and weave around the enormous and frequent potholes. When I reach town, I hop out somewhere along the way to the bus station, calling out, “Stesh!” (sounds like the beginning of “station”) and reaching through the people crowded into the kombi to hand my 4-rand fare to the driver (which is about fifty US cents).

Every evening after work, I walk up the big hill from Save the Children into town. Sometimes I walk with a co-worker, but more often, I’m alone when I leave. I greet the familiar faces along the way – Dudu, Rosy, and Ntombi, three women who sell airtime on the street (minutes for pre-paid cell phones), and two women who sit along the fence next to the bus rank and sell small bags of jugo beans, cassava flakes, and fresh produce. We greet each other every day and make small talk in Siswati, and they teach me new phrases which I try desperately to retain in my memory once I have left them. I reach the bus rank (station) and walk through the sea of people and vehicles going in every direction. Kombis hurtle around other kombis, honk at people who linger in their way, and young men throughout the lot try desperately to recruit passengers for their kombis. The drivers of the larger buses sit in their buses with the engines running and honk unendingly and inexplicably. They inch forward, horns blaring, as passengers scramble into their seats; they inch forward even though they will not actually pull out of the bus rank until perhaps 30 or 45 minutes later, which gives a hectic sense of urgency to their idleness. It all seems to be some sort of game that no one can win.

The first time I came to the bus rank, I was completely overwhelmed, but now I maneuver my way through the maze of activity like an expert. I walk past the men who sometimes swarm around me and shout over and over again the name of a town I do not want to visit, perhaps in the hopes that the repetition of the name will make me want to go there. They hold out their hands sometimes in an attempt to physically put me into their kombi, but I break free and continue through the crowd. The boys who stand near my kombi shout the name of the destination in auction–like voices (Hey, Thembelihle, Thembelihle, Thembelihle, HEY) know me by now, and they smile and wave at me, gesturing towards the kombi marked “Thembelihle,” and I either join the line or climb in. The driver waits until the whole kombi fills up – that is, until 15 people decide they want to go to Thembelihle, and then we take off. At rush hour on a weekday, it doesn’t take long for the kombi to fill up, but on a Sunday afternoon, we might sit in the kombi for 45 minutes or more before the last person finally climbs in and the kombi shoves off.

The most interesting part of riding a kombi for me is the people I seem to befriend on the short trips between town to Thembelihle, the suburb of Mbabane where I live. One day I climbed in and sat down all the way in the back next to a little girl of about seven or eight years old. She gazed up at me, averting her eyes whenever I peeked over and smiled at her, and then focusing them on me again as soon as I looked away. After this happened several times, I finally turned to her and greeted her with a smile: “Sawubona, sisi.” She mouthed the traditional response of “Yebo” back at me. “Unjani?” I asked her. (“How are you?”) “Ngiyaphila,” she said in an audible whisper this time (“I’m fine”), and smiling up at me. The kombi revved to life just then, and we took off into the stream of kombis heading for the bus rank exit.

As we were turning onto the road to Thembilihle, she worked up the courage to ask me my name, speaking to me in English this time. “My name is Siphiwe,” I said, looking at her with a little smile on my face. She gaped at me in disbelief as a smile crept over her face. “Siphiwe?!” she repeated. “Where are you from?”

“I’m from America,” I told her.

“Eesh! But your name is Siphiwe?” she looked shocked, her mouth slightly open. Then she thought for a moment and said, “So your president is Barack Obama?” she asked eagerly.

“That’s right,” I said. “Do you like him?”

She nodded earnestly. “Why do you like him?” I asked.

She sat still for a minute, the landscape rushing by in the window behind her and the last of the sun’s glow disappearing behind the mountains and framing her head. Finally she looked over at me and said, “He’s just a really cute president.” I smiled and agreed with her, and we rode on amicably until she got off the kombi a short while later.

Another time, I climbed into the kombi and found myself, once again, wedged into the very back of the vehicle, squashed in with three young men who looked like they were in their early twenties. I pushed myself by the people already seated in front, excusing myself in Siswati, and squeezed into the small space that was left. I tucked my umbrella underneath the seat and piled my bags on top of me. The two boys to my right looked first at each other, and then over at me and asked me if I spoke Siswati. I replied in Siswati that I do speak a little and that I am trying to learn more. They looked at each other and grinned, and as the kombi took off, they started asking me various questions in Siswati. “Where do you stay?”; “Where do you work?”; “Where are you from?”; “Who do you live with?” I was able to answer and reciprocate the questions, and I found out that they were Lindo and Sifiso, and that they lived a “good walk” up the mountain from where the kombi would drop them off in Thembelihle, my neighborhood. “You should come visit us there sometime,” Lindo said. “We can take you to see the seven-headed snake.” Sifiso nodded in agreement and looked over at me as if he were expecting me to pull out my planner and schedule a time right then and there for this visit.

“Ehm, the seven-headed snake?” I asked. “Where does this snake live?”

“Oh, it lives up by us in the forest.” Sifiso replied nonchalantly.

“I see,” I said. Unsure of the protocol for small talk about mythical snakes, I ventured, “S o…how often do you go to visit this snake?” I said.

Lindo leaned in and said, “This is the time of year to go and visit the seven-headed snake, because sometimes there is drought while we are ploughing. You go to visit the seven-headed snake in order to bring rain.”

Intrigued, I asked what they did to bring the rain once they actually visited the snake.

“Well, you bring it some small change,” Sifiso explained. “And then you give it to the snake.”

“How much money do you have to give the snake in exchange for the rain?” I asked.

“Maybe a fifty-cent coin, something like that,” Sifiso said.

“That’s not a bad price to pay for rain,” I commented.

“No, it’s cheap,” agreed Lindo, grinning.

<p class=”MsoNormal”>“I can’t believe no one has taken you to see the seven-headed snake yet,” Sifiso said, shaking his head as the kombi surged ahead up the hill, coughing and sputtering with each gear shift. <span style=”">&#160;</span>

I climbed out of the kombi when we reached my stop and began walking to my house, squinting in the orange glow of the setting sun. A soft breeze came and gently pushed away some of the heat of the dying day, and as I passed the hill leading up to the forest, I threw a long look in its direction. In my pocket was a fifty-cent coin, and I reached inside and fingered it as I went, thinking of the new perspective I had on its worth. Perhaps someday I would go and make my own plea for rain to the seven-headed snake, but for that evening, I decided instead to turn left and go home.

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An Ancestral Visit on the Road Home

I stood near the entrance to Save the Children, waiting outside the finance office, and surveyed the empty room. The rows of cubicles stood in the pale shadows next to empty chairs, and only a few voices remained, floating into the deepening darkness. They were coming from the manager’s office, where some end-of-the-day meeting was taking place. I glanced up at the clock to find that it was 5:54 p.m. It was Friday evening, and I was getting ready to leave the office.

Mbuyiseni, a new staff member on my project, came out of the finance office and joined me under the digital clock. We were waiting for Bheki to finish his work; I was hoping to catch a ride to the bus station, and Mbuyiseni wanted to ride with him to his home in Manzini.

“So, where do you stay here in Mbabane?” Mbuyiseni asked me, turning to me. His eyes have a remarkably constant solemnity in their expression, which gives his overall appearance a look of kind graveness.

“I stay in Thembelihle – do you know it?” I replied.

“I know it,” he said, nodding. “It’s by the Worship Center. Is that your church?”

“Er, no, it’s not,” I said, bracing myself to disappoint yet another churchgoing Swazi.

“So how do you go to Thembelihle every day? You take your car?” he asked, changing the subject.

Thankful that he was not pursuing the topic of religion any further, I answered, “No, I actually don’t have a car here.  I take a kombi to and from work.”

His eyes widened and he said, “But aren’t you afraid of thugs when you’re walking to your house?”

“I’m not, really,” I answered, suppressing a smile. Swazis love to warn me about thugs no matter where I am going. Thugs, or “tsotsis,” appear to be a ubiquitous problem in their minds, although I have yet to encounter one myself, thankfully.

“Ah, but you should be afraid of ghosts there, I think,” he said, his eyes gazing steadily out at me.

My first impulse was to play along with a joking reply, but when I looked at him, I found the sober expression in his eyes unchanged from the one he wore when issuing the warning about thugs. They were still wide and serious with no hint of sarcasm.

“Ah, no, I’m not afraid of ghosts there,” I said cautiously, still studying his face for any trace of a joke.

“But you believe in ghosts,” he said, the finality in his tone telling me that he felt it was a silly thing even to say out loud because it was so obviously true.

Now I was becoming a little more uncomfortable and unsure of which answer I could give him that would not insult him, yet would also not be a lie.

“Ehhhhm, I don’t really know, I guess,” I stalled. I looked at the clock again. 5:56. “What do you think about ghosts?”

He suddenly broke into a smile. “I don’t believe…” he paused for a second. For a moment, I thought to myself,  Ok, he got me; he doesn’t really believe in ghosts. 

Then he completed his thought. “…that ghosts can find me and do me any harm.”

“Ah,” I said, feeling a little misled. I recovered quickly and asked, “Why can’t they harm you?”

“Well, I’m a man of God,” he said. “Ghosts shouldn’t be able to do anything to me. By 6 p.m. every day, I am in church.”

“So, how do you know ghosts exist?” I pressed further, my curiosity aroused. “Have you ever seen one?”

“I’ve read about them in stories, and I’ve seen them in movies,” he answered. “And I just know they exist. Other people I know have encountered them before, so I  know they are there,” he finished, the matter-of-fact look on his face closing the subject.

Sentiments like these go a long way to explain the looks of mixed horror and terror that I elicited from people when I tried to explain Halloween this year. Pictures of the common decorations Americans put on their homes drew even stronger reactions. When I showed a co-worker a picture of a haunted house, her eyes grew wide and she gasped audibly as she averted her eyes from the computer screen. I, on the other hand, was able to look at the house, which was surrounded by ghosts and stood behind a shadowy graveyard draped in cobwebs. But my colleague was truly horrified, not only that she had seen this disturbing image, but that people in America actually took pleasure in making their homes look like this once a year.

When I asked a friend of mine here about ghosts and what they symbolize to Swazis, he thought for a moment, and then said, “A ghost might be someone you did something bad to, and he is coming back to haunt you. Or it might be your ancestors telling you something.”

When I relayed this to another Swazi friend and asked for his thoughts, he looked at me incredulously and asked, “Are you telling me that you really believe in ghosts?”

“No,” I said, smiling at the irony of his shock at the thought of me believing in ghosts.”I was just wondering what it would mean to a Swazi to encounter one.”

“So you think that Swazi ghosts do different things from American ghosts?” he said, teasing me. “No, I think it depends on the Swazi. Some of us, we don’t believe in these things. But others, I don’t know – maybe you’d have to ask them. But it could be the ancestors trying to tell you something through that ghost.”

Mbuyiseni and I never really finished our discussion about ghosts and thugs. But now, whenever I am walking on the trampled path towards my house after the kombi drops me off in the evening, I think about the ancestral beings that could descend on me at any moment with a message from beyond, whom I picture as wispy shadowy versions of their former selves. Here in Swaziland, your ancestors are part of who you are at every moment, just as you will someday be a part of your descendants.  You consult your ancestors on a regular basis, and they provide you with guidance (whether solicited or otherwise). Your family – your whole family, since the beginning of your family – is around you at all times. As a result (or perhaps as a cause), the recognition of generational and familial continuity – and the role that one generation plays in the lives of the others – is very strong. I’ve always felt very connected to my family as far back as the people I actually met, but when I really think about it, we in America tend to think of ourselves as more independent units, able to break free from our histories if we so choose; to start a new life. Here in Swaziland, if a person does not know their true last name, then it means that they do not know their ancestors. And that is considered to be a terrible fate – that person has a hole in their life that cannot be filled in until the bridge with the past has been rebuilt.

In the end, I think Mbuyiseni was right. It is a chilling prospect to think about meeting a ghost, even if the ghost were just a courier ghost for your ancestors. What would my ancestors want to tell me if they met me on the road there, as I walk towards the sun taking its last peek at the world before disappearing behind the mountains? Would they reprimand me for the mistakes I’ve made, or congratulate me for my successes? Would they tell me their stories, or listen to mine? Would they understand the world the way that I see it?

And I guess the question I wonder most is: would my mind be open enough to believe it was really them?

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Yemlungu ubobhalela ekhaya, or “Hey you, white person – write home.”

“Can you sing it with me?” asked Bheki, who stood in front of my desk with his hands poised in mid-air. He had just been teaching me the lyrics to a Swazi song. On his way through my office, he had seen a letter I was about to send to the U.S. poking out of my bag, the stamps freshly applied. This had prompted him to stop walking and break into a soft Siswati chanting melody.

I looked at him; he had sung me the string of Siswati words two times already and I was still struggling to break it apart. There was something in there about writing home, but I had not understood everything he had said. “Can you repeat the first part again?” I asked him. My hands rested on the keyboard of my laptop, and the cursor on the screen stood blinking in mid-sentence. I looked up at Bheki with my head tilted slightly to the side to maximize my ear’s exposure to his low voice. The expression on his face is often one of an anticipated smile – one that is not yet completely formed, but stands ready at a moment’s notice to appear.

Today was no exception. Bheki began to sing softly again, but the fact that he was singing did not in any way mitigate the mumbling quality of his voice. This makes him hard to understand in English, and nearly impossible for me to understand in Siswati. Bheki, for his part, finds it incredibly difficult to see why I have any trouble at all understanding the long and low rumblings of Siswati that erupt from his mouth in rapid fire, rumblings which cleverly dodge my comprehension.

“Yemakoti ubobhalela ekhaya, yemakoti ubobhalela ekhaya” he sang, his hand fluttering up and down along with his voice. He smiled expectantly at me again. “Uyabona?” he asked. “You see?” “Ehhm,” I stalled, my mind trying desperately to match the words he had sung with anything I had heard before. I thought to myself,  ‘bhalameans ‘to write,’ and ‘khaya’ means ‘home.’ So far, not awful. So I could identify fifty percent of the random words he had thrown at me. Unfortunately, this sample is not representative of my overall comprehension abilities in Siswati.

I told Bheki the words I had managed to identify. “But what does yemakoti ubo mean?” I asked him. Whenever I ask Bheki to define the random phrases and words he likes to fling at me as he walks past my desk or sees me from across the office, he tends to fall back on a single teaching strategy to mitigate my confusion. He repeats himself over and over again in Siswati, evidently thinking that if I just hear the string of foreign sounds enough times, I will miraculously understand their meaning in English. “Yemakoti ubobhalela ekhaya, yemakoti ubobhalela ekhaya,” he sang again now, gesturing his hand with more emphasis on each syllable, as if this extra bit of energy he was expending would somehow force the meaning into my head.

“Bheki, ich verstehe gar nichts davon,” I replied. Bheki, I don’t understand any of that. Becoming less amused each time he has taken this approach with me over the last months, I have, in response, taken to responding to him in German, hoping he’ll get the point. Undeterred, his voice became slightly louder as he sang again, “Ye-ma-ko-ti u-bo-bha-le-la e-kha-ya!

A soft chuckle came from the corner, and I looked over to see Sifiso, one of our colleagues, looking rather amused at our exchange. I threw him a pleading look and asked him, “Sifiso, what does yemakoti mean?” “It means bride, sisi,” he said as he turned back to his work, grinning as his eyes flickered over to us and then back to his computer screen. I turned to Bheki, whose grin was now even wider. “So the song is about brides who are writing home to their families?” I asked him. He nodded. “Because they have to go and live with their husband’s family once they are married,” I stated, looking at him again for confirmation.

“Yemakoti ubobhalela ekhaya,” he sang again in response, his eyes crinkling at me as he chanted through a grin.&#160;I took it as confirmation. “But why is it yemakoti and not just emakoti?” I inquired further. “What is the ye?” Bheki’s smile froze for a moment on his face as he looked at the ceiling, thinking. After a moment, he looked at me and said, “Ok, if you say yemakoti, you’re saying yemakoti, but if you say emakoti, you’re saying emakoti.”

I stared back at him, unsure of how best to react to this grammatical explanation, which had fallen far short of my expectations. But I could see that grammar was a difficult thing for him to explain, so I just said, “Oh, ok – I see,” and smiled politely at him. “It’s like the singer is telling the brides to write home with the ye,” he said. “Like this: Hey, you brides, write home.” A moment passed as I digested this, and then I said to him, “So, applying that same principle – since I’m not a bride – could you say to me, yumlungu ubobhalela ekhaya?”

Bheki calls me umlungu wami, which means (and there is no good way to translate this into English) my white person. I was asking him if he could say  Hey you, white person – write home. As I said it, I glanced back over to the letter that was still peeking out of my bag at our conversation. The letter that started it all. He looked at me, shaking his head as laughter took him over. “Hey, umlungu wami, don’t say that to anyone else,” he said, still shaking with laughter. I grinned back at him, his amusement contagious, and he walked away, his singsong “Yemakoti ubobhalela ekhaya….” floating back to me from his retreating form.

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Obama, Obama

“Please, listen to what I am trying to say!” I said, struggling to be heard over the din in the room. A surprisingly loud din considering that there were only six people sitting around the table. Even more surprising considering that only two of them were talking. Strings of Siswati came at me, winding around each other and hovering above me as I struggled to pick out any familiar pieces. It’s too bad no one is telling me their name or where they are from, I thought to myself. If they had, I could have understood what was going on, as I had just learned all the variations of how to do that in my Siswati lesson the previous evening.

“So then, why, Siphiwe?” one of the field officers said to me after completing an extended monologue in Siswati. “Why? Answer our questions! Why isn’t there room in the budget for the things we’re talking about?!” she continued with a tone of indignance and with a look on her face like she knew exactly how I would respond. I could tell that she was already angry at me before I had even opened my mouth.

I looked helplessly around at the rest of the faces that were staring at me with that same look that told me their expectations of my reply were low. I didn’t know exactly which complaint had just been lodged, but I could hazard a guess that it was one of the many that had already been voiced in these meetings a million times before. And even more likely, it was one of the complaints about some aspect of the project that I myself had had absolutely no control over. “I’m sorry; I don’t understand what you are saying to me,” I reminded them, as I do several times during each of these meetings. “You said all of that in Siswati.”

Several people clicked their tongues in disapproval and rolled their eyes in a way that I recognized. I used to be in their position; I used to be the one rolling my eyes during meetings with difficult managers. These coordination meetings make me want to curl into a ball and hide from these people forever, no matter how nice they are to me on a personal level. After perhaps thirty seconds of English, they quickly revert to speaking entirely in Siswati, excluding me completely from the discussion, yet holding me accountable for everything they bring up. (And it should be noted that they are all completely fluent in English, and that nearly all other meetings like this in Swaziland are held in English.) As they speak in Siswati, they hurl accusations across the table at each other and at me, and each person is playing the game like a defensive pro. Tempers flare at the slightest hint of perceived change, criticism, or something new. People threaten to walk out as the atmosphere gets nastier and nastier. And I am not just talking about field officers; my own supervisor has threatened to walk out before simply because some people were disagreeing with him.

“Siphiwe,” said the field officer again with an air of exaggerated patience, as if she were explaining this to me for the twentieth time, even though it was the first time I was hearing it in my own language. “We are saying that doing your project is just like doing voluntary work. You don’t give us money for lunch, you don’t pay us any extra, and you are asking us to work too hard when we don’t get anything in return!” The other mumbled in agreement and all eyes once again reverted to me. I looked across the table at my boss, who was sitting with his hands cupped around his mouth, looking back at me. As always happens in these meetings, I was being accused of something that I actually had not decided – and had no power to change – yet was forced by my superiors to take credit for time and time again.

While they had been the ones to formulate these aspects of the program and budget, they quickly retreated back into their offices when it came time to implement our project, leaving me to attempt justifications of their decisions. This even happens in their presence, like now, with no one coming to my defense. For a moment, no one spoke. “Ok,” I began, after it became clear that my boss would not be helping me. “Let me try to explain —”

“SIPHIWE, DON’T COMMIT TO SOMETHING YOU CAN’T FOLLOW THROUGH ON!” shouted one of the other field officers, her voice barreling over mine, leaving my thought trampled, lying motionless on the side of the road. “I’m not—“ I tried to protest, but before I could say anything further, the field officer continued shouting over my voice, and after a minute, the others joined in. The rest of the exchange took place in Siswati.

“Hey hey, Obama, Obama,” sang one of the officers in a sarcastic voice (the money for this project is coming from USAID). “Look everyone, it’s Mr. and Mrs. Obama telling us what we have to do!” She pointed at me and my project officer as she said it. I took a deep breath to calm myself and looked at them all. Despite everything, I couldn’t help laughing inwardly at that last one. Or maybe it was just relief that for at least those few seconds, the blame was shifted away from me to the President.

“….so you see, Siphiwe, what we are saying to you, isn’t it? What you are proposing is not feasible; these targets are too high. You don’t understand how complicated it is to go into a community like this – you have to write a letter to the head of the constituency, then you have to visit the Inner Council, and then you have to go present the project to them….it doesn’t make sense,” she concluded. “But I do know all of that,” I said to them. “But please listen to what I’m trying to say to you—”

“It just doesn’t make sense!” she said to me again, her voice rising above mine, putting mine into the red. “And we don’t want to do this project. We are not motivated to do this project. We aren’t getting any money for it, yet you want us to work weekends to finish all of this work. You want us to work all the time in the field, but management doesn’t work weekends!” Once again, the faces around the room snapped towards me, all wearing the same stony expression. All of them were angry at me before I could even react.

I wanted to shout at her, “I work all the time; I get here at 7 in the morning, before anyone else but the cleaning lady is here, and I stay until 6 pm, after everyone has gone home, and then I go home and work some more. And I work at least part of every single weekend!” But I thought better of it and kept quiet, waiting for her to finish. “Obama, Obama,” sang the field officer again with a snicker. I looked at her in silence. A moment later, I turned back to the other field officer and said, “I understand that that is frustrating. But I’m not asking you to work on weekends—”

“When are we supposed to do these activities then, Siphiwe?” she interrupted me forcefully, pointing at the implementation plan I had handed out moments earlier. “We can’t go on a weekday to a social center when all the kids are in school!” The other murmured again in agreement. I looked again at my boss, who had approved the implementation plan I had formulated for the field officers without any mention of any of these things. I had consulted him and asked specifically if these things were feasible to do during the week, to which he had replied in the affirmative. “We can get the children on a weekday,” he had said then. “No problem.” Now, he said nothing. He simply joined the ranks of those whose eyes were gazing at me, waiting for an explanation.

“Ok, then we’ll have to find another plan,” I said, looking away from my boss at the rest of them. “We can go to the Neighborhood Care Points in these communities and do activities with the younger kids who aren’t in school yet, then. Right?” Another ripple of murmurs as they acknowledged that this was true. “But anyway, Siphiwe, this project is just too much work. How can we have time to go to do all of these activities? It doesn’t make sense!” At this, the other officers joined in and chimed in with their own opinions, the whole thing becoming a dense cloud of angry Siswati which quickly broke into a full-on storm. I looked up at the ceiling and tried to will myself out of that room, to anywhere else.

It didn’t work. I looked at my watch, which told me that we had now been in this meeting for over three hours. Rather naively, I had only anticipated that it would take only one hour for this meeting, and because of this, had not asked for tea to be served. I should have known that it would turn into what it now was: a long, drawn-out mess in which I came out the bad guy. “And did you even order lunch for us?” one of the field officers demanded, also noticing the time. “We’re hungry now, and USAID can’t even buy us some cookies and tea? Yet you want us to go and implement this project? Hey, hey, Obama, Obama,” she finished, smirking at the other officers.

I left the meeting and came back to my desk, relishing in the relative silence of my work area compared to the meeting room. I sat there and pondered, as I seem to do on a daily basis these days: why was I still here? Why did I remain in this position, despite the seeming impossibility of the task I was given? Was I really making a difference to anyone, or was I just climbing this steep, painful, uphill battle for nothing?

Unsure of the answer, I packed my things slowly, locked up the office as the first shadows of dusk were starting to fall, and trudged up the hill to climb into my kombi home. I sat motionless in the seat next to the window and watched the busy bus rank from behind the window as I waited for the kombi to fill up. The shouts of the young men calling out names of destinations mingled with the softer intonations of the women shuffling from kombi to kombi with baskets of fruit to sell. When the last person finally wandered over to the kombi and climbed in, it roared to life and, in practically the same motion, sped out of the bus rank and started to fly off to Thembelihle, the area around Mbabane where I live.

My hair fluttered up into my face as a rush of wind whipped through the cracked window. I looked over at the seat next to me, suddenly reminded of where I was, and saw a little girl who was staring up at me with an expression of ambivalence on her face. I stared back for a few seconds and then cracked a smile. She smiled shyly back at me, and we continued to smile at each other for the next minute or so, before someone called out for the kombi to stop. The sudden noise caused a break in the spell, and we both looked away and out the window again as the kombi pulled back onto the road. But a faint trace of the smile remained on both our faces as we continued down the road, even as the horizon darkened, and I walked home from the kombi stop feeling that my uphill battle was maybe just a little less steep in that moment.

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Hope is scary

“The problem with Swaziland is that we are not a democracy,” the man said to me as the rain fell softly behind his frame in the doorway. “Our government goes to other countries and signs all these papers that are supposed to protect us. Then those very same people come home and violate human rights themselves. You must have political parties to challenge each other to do the right thing, I think,” he mused.

We were sitting in a Neighborhood Care Point, known here as an NCP, and I was there to help supervise the first day of a baseline study for the PEPFAR project I am managing. Our research teams were visiting NCPs and Gogo Centers all week to collect information about the challenges facing children and the services they are able to access. “Gogo Center,” literally translated, is a “Grandmother Center,” where the community grannies care for and feed local children who have been orphaned or are vulnerable in other ways.&#160;In order to collect our information, we were holding focus group discussions with parents, children, caregivers and leaders in the community. “I am the bucopho for this area (“the Brain,” or the highest ranking member of the Chief’s Inner Council), a Child Protector, and a Home Caregiver here,” the man told me, ticking each one off on his fingers. I looked at him, impressed. Each of those positions is enough to create nearly full-time work for a community volunteer, and to take on all three at once would be a rather daunting task.

“So why do you think these human rights violations that you are talking about happen?” I asked him. He looked out the window at the falling rain for a moment before replying. “I don’t know, exactly,” he said. “But you see the King, if you say something bad against him or the government, they say you’re a terrorist and put you in the stocks We have a Parliament, and they are supposed to represent the people. But even though Parliament is elected by the people, the members still answer to the King, you see? They do not answer to the people who elected them. A Parliament should answer to the people, not the head of state,” he said. “So you see, there is no one to regulate what they are doing to us.” “True leaders represent people,” I agreed. “Otherwise, they are just people who have power, which is something different. He looked at me and nodded slowly in agreement.

For a moment, we both sank withdrew silently back into our thoughts. “Do you think the King has any idea what life is like for a child living here in Moneni?” I asked, pulling us back to the sound of the rain coming down more steadily. Once again, he paused before he answered. “I don’t think he does,” he decided. “If he understood this, he would do more to help the people of Swaziland, and there wouldn’t be so many human rights violations. We see so many girls getting pregnant so young – twelve, thirteen year-old girls.”

“Why is that happening here?” I asked him. “Do you think that some of these girls are having sex with older men in exchange for food for their family? Maybe they are taking care of siblings and don’t know how else to provide for them.” “Yes, that is often the case,” he said to me, an intensely regretful look in his eyes. “Sometimes you find that these girls are maturing but they don’t really understand what is happening to their bodies, and they don’t feel that they have any choice in the matter. Maybe they are just looking for a short-term way to find food for their family.”

“The people here are so poor, and they don’t have much – not even education. What will happen to the future generation if these children don’t go to school? Their children won’t go to school, then. And what can anyone expect to do without going to school?” he said, looking at me with a hint of resigned desperation in his eyes as he spoke. “It is Government’s responsibility to provide free education for children. But they are failing.”

I looked past the bucopho and out into the playground, which sat under an overcast sky and was soaking up the huge raindrops like a sponge, appearing dry even in the pouring rain. I pondered this and thought about his words. Despite the weather’s nasty turn, some of the children were still sitting on the swings as if it were still the dry weather of fifteen minutes ago. They swung listlessly back and forth, back and forth as the rain fell around them. It was the middle of the day, and here were children who should be in preschool , at the very least. Swaziland was failing these children, and dooming its own future. Who knows what some of these children would grow up to be if given the right tools to do so, or if they had been born in a different part of the world?

Later that afternoon, one of the staff members at the care point, Nkwalaza, sat and talked with me and the research assistants during one of our breaks. We had just finished a focus group discussion with a group of fathers from the community and were sitting in the main room, waiting for school to let out so we could conduct our next sessions with the children who would come for an after-school meal. We sat around the bare table on plastic chairs, the others munching on bologna sandwiches and sipping cups of coke. “You know, most of the children in this area don’t progress further than Standard 5 in school,” he informed us as he waved half of his bologna sandwich in the air and held his soda in the other hand. Standard 5 is equivalent to Grade 7. “The most that anyone around here has is a Form 5 certificate (note: this is equivalent to a high school diploma) It is unheard of for someone from Moneni to go to university. Unheard of. It just does not happen. So then, what happens to the future generations?” he asked us, echoing what the bucopho had just expressed to me earlier that day. “What hope do these children have for anything in life with such a grim prognosis?” The other research assistants and I looked at each other and then down at the ground, murmuring our agreement thoughtfully.

I was painfully aware of the non-monetary wealth I have been blessed with as I listened to this man speak. I have a family who supports and encourages me, and wonderful friends who do the same. I’ve gotten to travel outside the community where I grew up. I got to go to 8th grade.

“And this problem of older men having sex with young girls… You heard what those men said in that focus group discussion just now,” he said. “If they see a young girl who is ready to mate, they will just go after her without a thought. That’s just what happens here; it’s what has always happened here. And when something like that happens so often, it becomes ‘normal,’ and people don’t think of it as something to be outraged about. If they see an old man taking a young girl like that, it is just accepted, whereas they should be saying, ‘Get away from that little girl’ and protecting her.”

Outside, I noticed that more children were gathering, standing in small groups and chatting. Occasionally, a ripple of laughter met our ears, and their shouts to each other across the yard echoed around us. The Gogos (grannies) trudged slowly back and forth from the main building to a small outdoor cooking area that was partially covered with some planks of wood and corrugated iron. They wore hats and scarves to protect their heads from the elements, and they wore looks of concentration and exhaustion on their wrinkled faces. Every once in a while, I caught one of them smiling at the children as they carried enormous pots filled with thick, white porridge to and from the building. The colors on the long pieces of cloth they wrapped around themselves as skirts spoke louder than any of them did as they carried out their work to care for these children.

“But that’s the danger of letting abuse happen over and over again,” said Nkwalaza, and I snapped my attention back to the conversation. “If child abuse is considered to be ‘normal,’ then you just have no hope of fighting against it. We need to raise a lot of awareness about these issues, but NGOs also need to really commit to a community and make follow-ups on reported cases of abuse. If we report a case of abuse now, we will find the perpetrator back on the streets after only two weeks in jail, grinning and holding a beer and on the loose again. What will motivate a community member, then, to report another case of abuse if that’s the outcome? What will motivate a Child Protector to report if the effort is worth nothing in the end? There has to be some sort of community response to these things, and if there is none, then nothing will stop it from happening over and over again.”

“So you see,” he said, looking around at us with sadness etched into the lines around his eyes and mouth, “the children here are very, very vulnerable.”

As I looked at him and drank in his words, I wondered about his own story. Where was he from, and how had he ended up working in this place? “I can try to talk to these kids myself and try to motivate them to try to make something out of their lives, but they won’t listen to me. They’ll say, ‘Sure, maybe all of that is possible in your world. Our world is different, and what you are saying is not possible for us.’” He paused a moment and took another bite of his sandwich. “These are kids who are used to digging in the trash for scraps of food that someone else has thrown away. How can they listen to me as if I know what their life is like?” he asked us with imploring eyes.

“What they really need is for someone from their own community to motivate them that way, to give them hope. But the very, very few people who escape this poverty never come back. You see, people think of poverty as quicksand, and if you can get away, you stay as far away from it as possible because you are afraid that it will suck you back in. You run away and never, ever come back. So the people who can’t get away are stuck here by themselves.”

“I guess hope can be a scary thing to allow yourself,” I commented. “Maybe they don’t want to set themselves up for bigger disappointments.” “Yes, hope can be very scary,” he said. “Sometimes it’s safer to expect to stay just where you are.”

By this time, the care point was full of children who had filled the scantily furnished playground, crowding onto the swings in fours and wrestling with each other.&#160;From the inside of the building, they sounded like children from any other part of the world playing. Screams of laughter assaulted our ears as they chased each other around the playground. But as we handed out the sandwiches we had leftover from our focus group discussions to them, the atmosphere on the playground turned serious. They lined up immediately in a neat row with hungry expressions on their faces, and each of them came forward silently to accept their sandwich (two pieces of dry bread with one piece of bologna between them), waiting until they had turned away to start eating. For many of them, this would be their only meal of the day. I surveyed the playground with its broken equipment and dying grass, and at the children themselves, wearing dirty clothes with huge gashes and tears in them, many of them either several sizes too big or small. Could I blame them for not having much hope, or for feeling resigned to where they were? Their screams of laughter could only carry them so far, after all. They would not transport them from this place, and nor would their odds. “I’m hopeful for these children,” Nkwalaza said as he came up behind me and gazed out at the playground. “I think it’s good that organizations like yours are coming in to help the communities. Maybe someday this place will look different.”I smiled at him and hoped with all my heart that that was true.

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