It’s 6 a.m. and my alarm beckons for me to wake up and witness a view that makes me wonder if I am still dreaming. The sun rises over the massive expanse of lush mountains surrounding my home and the rushing sound of the two rivers running through my backyard accompanied by the aroma of newly cut grass immediately puts a smile on my face. I step into some fresh clothes that have been line-dried by my caretaker, Bonsile, and carry a plate of breakfast outside to enjoy the rest of the sunrise. The backyard is like a small island circumvented by the two small rivers that are connected by way of a bridge which leads out to a deck. I am so fortunate to live in such an amazing country!
My driver, David, arrives and I am excited to hear his stories regarding his weekend. I live in an area called Pine Valley which is located about fifteen minutes from where I work in Mbabane allowing us plenty of time to talk and invest in one another’s lives. The drive to work also gives me a chance to observe the many facets of African ways of life such as the hundreds of children walking miles to school dressed in their hand-me-down maroon colored uniforms. The holes in their shirts and shoeless feet ensure a cold walk in the crisp winter air along the high elevation of Sibebe Mountain. As we approach Mbabane, it’s difficult to ignore the sharp contrast between the wealthy and the poor who populate the area. To the left of us is the Mbabane Golf and Tennis Club, already filling with large body BMWs and Mercedes Benz and on the right are hundreds of spazas selling fresh fruits and vegetables. Many of the Swazi women have several cases of goods balanced perfectly on their heads as they walk along the street. This unique transportation method continuously amazes me. The streets of Mbabane are filled with vendors selling the newest edition of the Swazi Times whose front page is usually filled with articles about the King, education, or the most recent scandals. A chorus of car horns fill the air as we pass the kombi yard in the city centre where thousands of locals wait to fill hundreds of vehicles. Each of these vehicles are equipped with massive sound systems that pump music throughout the city. There is a colorful array of attire ranging from business suits to westernized styles of clothing worn by the youth, even traditional Swazi garbs which include a Swazi flag designed wrap covering the upper body and a leopard skin covering the bottom part.
I say goodbye to David and walk to my favorite shop to buy some bottled water and granola bars. Ninety-eight percent of the people who live here are native Swazis which means I receive many stares, thoughtful greetings, and several handshakes. I’ve never felt threatened during the day, and I barely notice the attention of fellow pedestrians as we pass each other on the street. Ntando, the MTN cell phone minutes salesperson, is familiar with me and greets me with a big smile as I walk up the steps to my office building. In Swaziland most people buy prepaid minutes. I’d hazard to guess that I keep this woman in business with the many calls I make since it costs eighty cents per minute to call the States. Once I am inside the building, I work my way into a crammed elevator car made for twelve people but transporting at least twenty. During the overcrowded ride stories about family and the day’s headlines unfold unlike elevator rides in American culture where everyone waits quietly and awkwardly until they reach their floor. Although my agenda varies on a daily basis I typically leave the office around 7:30 p.m. making for a long and tiring thirteen hours. David picks me up and we head to a local chicken restaurant called Nando’s to eat and share stories about our day. Hearing about his struggles to feed his family is not for the faint of heart. I hope I brighten his day even half as much as he brightens mine.
Because of the many work holidays in Swaziland I’ve had the opportunity over the past few weekends to travel to several different countries in Southern Africa. Although I enjoy seeing the touristy areas I prefer the path less traveled. One such path lead me through a village in Zimbabwe which really opened my eyes to the complexity behind the problems binding that country. As I rode down the broken highway I saw kindergarten-aged children filling the potholes in the street with dirt in hopes of receiving money from appreciative drivers. As we passed them, the children chased us yelling “Sweets! Sweets!” They are used to receiving candy from people in passing vehicles and they often stick their little hands in the car window in hopes of selling a carved giraffe or elephant. It’s difficult not to get your heart ripped out when you see these desperate kids or when you see women and children sleeping under trash to keep warm and sniffing glue to forget about their hunger pains. It causes me to reflect upon all the problems I’ve observed within the culture however, I have a tough time formulating a solution when such complex issues exist. At the core of these issues is a lack of basic needs such as food, shelter, and healthcare. The good news is there are hundreds of NGOs whose statistics show they are making progress to remedy those problems. Most of the time I feel like we are making significant strides though there are some days, as I am watched by the eyes of people passing me on the street, that I am keenly aware of their difficult past and the long road they have ahead of them. At times I feel guilty for having so much in a country that has so little. No one should be comfortable with the poverty that exists in this world yet it is ubiquitous and has a tendency to feel like a normality. I have to remind my self constantly that these conditions have been this way for hundreds of years. I have to rewire my westernized brain to understand that the solution is going to take time to develop.