My high school friend Leire and I enjoying ourselves
on a wine tour near Stellenbosch, South Africa.
Traditional wedding held on my homestead this past August;
My host father is the one on the far right.
They’ve been asking for weeks. Begging, pleading, staring at me with those big, round African child eyes, knowing those National Geographic-worthy expressions will somehow wear me down.
Today is the day. The weather is perfect. A sentence so rarely uttered in this part of the country. It is now winter in the lowveld, a fleeting, pleasant 3-month period of time when the days are warm and breezy and the nights cool enough for maybe a duvet cover. I wear pants and a T-shirt to bed and have never slept better.
I slowly roll my bicycle from its resting place beside the wall to the wall outside, careful to not get the wheels stuck on the fly-away makeshift screen on my burglar bars that I really need to fix one of these days. The older girl is sitting on the ledge of the smaller verandah at the main house, observing me. She sees the bike and immediately bounds over, breathless and excited. The youngest boy is right behind her. They look up at me with wonderment in their eyes, knowing that I’m finally giving into their request. They ask me to wait while they collect the younger girl, which I happily allow as I need to fill the tires with air anyway.
As I push my bike out of the gate, I reiterate my rules to them: no running directly ahead of the bike, watch for cars on the main dirt road and no grabbing at my seat or tire from behind. I adjust my helmet, swing my leg over and start to pedal. They squeal and start sprinting alongside me, egging me on, screaming “Faster, faster, faster!” I indulge them, grinning as I gather speed and start to pull away from them, their skinny legs a blur as they try to keep up.
I look behind to see three grinning faces, all intent on catching me. I yell to them that I’m going to take a left onto the dirt path up ahead. I am intent on finding one of the back roads we had taken on a firewood-gathering expedition. This path is easier for them, since it requires me to go slower to avoid the numerous hurdles in my way.
The scenery is as I remember from last August when I first arrived. Winter has decimated the once lush greenery that only a few months ago had covered this flat and seemingly endless savannah. Now the earth is brown and dusty, the only plants are the ever-present thorn bushes.
The little boy signals us to stop, as he sees a family of sparrows in the nearby field. He has brought his slingshot, a past time he has become obsessed with over the past two weeks as he tries to hit every bird he sees on the homestead. I slow down and we wait as he prepares his shot. It goes long, so we continue on, coming to an opening of the path. I’ve found the road I wanted, so I let the kids decide our direction.
They lead me into the forest, not exactly bike-able territory. I realize as we go deeper I should’ve requested the other, more traveled path. No matter, the high grasses are no longer so foreboding and there is a small foot path I can follow. We veer to the right, towards some scattered homesteads and in the direction of one of my counterpart’s houses. While I had only been once during her house blessing ceremony back in October, I know the general area where she lives.
As we come out of the forest, the terrain appears rougher. Bumpy, rocky and full of the scattered thorn bushes. I steer clear as best as I can, though my exposed calves get a bit scratched up. The kids run ahead, happy to be able to beat me as I struggle to navigate this ill-advised path.
We stop at my counterpart’s house to inquire whether she is home. Only her children are, the youngest yelling a greeting to me. He recognizes me as he often accompanies his mother to support group meetings. A patient and happy child, I can see he is helping his siblings with household chores. I wave goodbye and tell them to inform their mother I stopped by.
We journey on, the first signs of the kids’ fatigue starting to set in. I jump off the bike, walking it so as to allow them to catch their breath. But soon the path flattens out and I can’t help myself. We must be on a slight hill because I can see the rest of the valley positioned slightly below us. Homesteads dot the landscape, which is alternatively lit up by the dying afternoon sun and darkened by huge, towering clouds above. It looks like a piecemeal quilt, some of the land light shades of brown and green and some of it dark. All of this set in the backdrop of the Lubombo plateau, a mammoth piece of topography.
I ride along a fence overlooking a maize field that has long been harvested. It stretches away from us, its seemingly dead-looking appearance hiding the sleeping life it will once again give next planting season. The days of fresh maize have tapered off; now most Swazis have set aside their crop to dry and take to the grinding mill. My own family has constructed a holding area. I’ve seen various other contraptions in my community, similar is design to my Babe’s (Father’s), made of recycled wire, netting and scrap wood.
The path widens as we approach the main dirt road to Ngcina. It’s my road. I look back at the kids, the youngest girl clearly starting to get bored. I ask them if they’d like to go home, knowing it is relatively close by. They insist we continue onto the next chiefdom, a not-so-close destination that is farther into the bush.
I compromise, saying we’ll go as far as the top of the hill that leads to that community. As we pass homesteads situated along the road, people wave and gape at the spectacle we make.
A group of schoolchildren pass, eyeing us blankly, until I greet them and unleash tiny grins on their faces. Some men are lounging around a large tree as I screech past, racing the kids towards a farther tree. I yell a hurried greeting, their response lost in the wind.
We stop for a rest, all three of them clearly spent. I turn the bike around and announce it is time to return home. They protest, they want to keep going, but I can see in their eyes they are ready for their dinner and baths. I walk the bike most of the way back, stopping to greet some of my community members, including the counterpart who I tried to visit earlier. The kids patiently wait for me as I converse with her about a meeting next week and connecting with another community member on a girls’ empowerment project.
Finally we arrive home, dirty, tired and hungry. The littlest is wearing my helmet proudly, marching around the yard. My host parents sit on grass mats on the smaller veranda with some guests, laughing as we roll through the gate. My Babe announces in siSwati that we have arrived, a wide grin on his face. The kids and I say our goodnights and head our separate ways. The timing is perfect; the sun as all but set, its dying orange light barely peaking over the horizon.
As I close up for the night, ready for my own bath and dinner, I sigh in satisfaction in a day well spent. I know I must cherish these fleeting moments and memories. Of kids running alongside my bike on paths long traveled by generations of Swazis. Of nature barely touched by mankind, whose only sign of intervention are small walkways deep in the forest. It is a world of shared livelihood, a balanced relationship between the wild and human beings. As close to each other as can be possible.
While it all seems so normal and routine now, too soon will I be back in the world of concrete and road signs and stop lights. Of manicured lawns and street lights and brick walkways. But for the time being, I love the anarchy of the bush. No rules, no time, endless dirt paths and laughing children. I will hold on to this existence until I must leave this place. But not yet. Not yet.
Dusk is my favorite time of the day. The sun has finally set, the heat has begun to dissipate and my front stoop is the perfect place to soak in the cool breeze that dries my sweaty skin. I think that one of the most enduring images of my service will be the scene I see before me: the dirt road, the scraggly trees, high grasses all set in the backdrop of the Lubombo plateau. Even as the seasons have changed, winter to spring to summer, the picture has remained stunning in its ever-changing form.
My family has learned that I will sit for at least an hour before I head in to cook dinner. I read, I write in my journal or date book, I wave hello to neighbors and friends passing by on their way home. Often my older bhuti (brother) will come over to discuss some important matter, like my electricity bill or to inquire about my day. Babe (Father) will shout his greetings, flashing his dashing smile my way. Make (Mother) will remark on the weather, always in siSwati and we will struggle through our conversation, which always ends in good hearted giggles on both sides.
And then bosisi bami (my sisters) will show up. Without fail I watch for their evening arrival, bringing in the goats from their off-site grazing. First the timbuti (goats) will thunder through the gates and begin attacking the grass and shrubs around my hut. Then I will see the girls. One, age 12 or so, is the picture of an African princess. Slender limbs, tall neck and high cheek bones. Sometimes I see her standing still on the road, her stance proud and regal. Then she will bound towards me, her ethereal smile and gangly strides revealing her youth.
Next is my drama queen, age 9 and just full of it. Always the show off, she will do her silly dances down the dirt drive way and giggle like a fiend. Small for her age, her stunted growth most likely due to a lack of nutrients in her diet during early development (a much too common ailment she shares with many Swazi youth), she nevertheless has energy matched by no American child I’ve ever met. Her eyes sparkle, her smile electrifies and I can’t help but fall madly in love.
The two of them can turn around any terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. Whether it’s the way they throw down their cards during Crazy 8’s with such flourish that the deck pile often shatters. Or when we have spontaneous photo shoots with my phone and they dance and sing with reckless abandon in the dying light. They will knock on my door and bring me maize they’ve cooked for me and shout joyous “good nights!” as they saunter back to the main house.
It is these moments at the end of the day that I must compare with those at the beginning.
There are mornings when I don’t want to get out of bed. When it’s 5:30 and I can feel the sun’s heat already infiltrating my hut and my day promises little more than frustration and stagnation. When even the whirl of my fan cannot keep me cool and the thought of doing my chores makes me turn around and pray for sleep once more, chores that with running water would take mere minutes. Sometimes just the knowledge that I have to trudge through perilous grasses to reach a dark, damp latrine full of over-sized lizards and infested with flies gives me pause to contemplate my sanity in signing up for two years of this. What was once a morning adventure against the elements has turned into a burden from which I garner little satisfaction in achieving.
And yet, after dealing with the mundane necessities required of living in the conditions of a hut in rural Swaziland, I still have to steel myself for “doing my job.” For putting on a dress and sandals, packing my shoulder bag and setting off in the dirt towards dilapidated buildings where I will wait for meetings to start hours late, for counterparts to cancel on me without even a phone call and to witness a poverty that I had once only seen in news magazines. And to realize that I’m increasingly able to pick out community members who are obviously ill with AIDS. Their gauntness too extreme; their hollow eyes too desperate.
Everything is extreme here. The highs are unbelievably high, the lows are incredibly low. Yet what amazes me is that they are brought on by such small human acts and conditions. I can feel my faith in humanity crashing on top of me and then my sisi (sister) will run up with her English homework and I feel lifted. I’ll be watching an episode of Entourage, my mind completely monopolized by images of American wealth and excess, and then I hit the stop button, walk out my door and watch teenagers wearing threadbare clothing amble by pushing wheelbarrows with sacks of donated maize from the local NGO. It can all be so jarring.
But what makes it all worth it are the relationships. My host family, who are some of the most gentle and welcoming people I’ve ever met. The countless community members who want to help their neighbors and friends, giving up time and energy for little or no pay. The young people who meet every Saturday to practice skits and dances they will perform at schools and functions to raise awareness about HIV, poverty and inequality. The counterpart who walked me home, speaking of his dreams for his drama club and his work to spread the word about male circumcision. It is these people who make me get out of bed every day. It is their struggles that make me remember that my physical and mental discomfort is only temporary; theirs have lasted a lifetime.
These past couple months have been no doubt trying. I’ve strained to turn project ideas into reality, to secure my role in the schools and to find an overriding purpose in my work here. I’ve been cancelled on, been disappointed by meetings and counterparts and sweated more in two months than probably my entire life. I’ve spent countless hours in my hut, stewing over daily failures and relentless heat. But I cherish the tiny, fleeting successes. I’ve sensed the painfully slow progress I’ve made: to integrate, to “make a difference,” to learn, to exist.
I can see how a passerby would deem this area as desolate. Daily I see white South Africans drive by in their SUVs, puzzled by the appearance of a sweaty American among so many Swazis, registering for a moment this community along the tar road, its ramshackle buildings and huts, its bowlegged children, its punishing temperatures appearing as flickering waves of heat rising from the horizon.
But they do not know this place as I do. They do not know what it is like to walk in a sea of Swazi children on their way to school. Or the warm greetings of a member of the inner council, dressed in a colorful print, brandishing a walking stick and a wearing the widest grin when he spots me at the stash. They do not know the joy of a simple hello from a friend screeching by on his used, fluorescent green bicycle. Or the shared relief of an evening rain in the lowveld.
I’ve begun to realize why two years are necessary to make sense of it all. To understand how to deal with the intense feelings of both joy and pain. To accept that the world is and will always be imperfect. And to discover my role amidst all of this. “This” being the journey. Not the object. Never the object.
My Own Country by Abraham Verghese
Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers by Robert M. Sapolsky
Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz
Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville (rereading)
Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton