A Village in the Hills

Nkomanzi Village,

Swaziland

August 8, 2016

The sun had set and the sky was a bluish-gray with clouds rolling in. At the tail end of twilight, we got on a combi headed to Mbabane. By the time we got there it was completely dark and under the streetlights in the chaotic bus station the touts were at their usual chore – yelling out destinations, trying to outshout each other, hustling passengers onto their minibus. I might not have ventured onto to a bus after dark on my own but I was with Jabu and it was to her village that we were headed. While Jabu dashed to a shop I stood there with a large backpack strapped on and numerous bundles at my feet. I had brought with me a large sack of mealie meal – the maize flour that is used for pap, a bag of sugar, salt, some bread and some cooking oil. It was a token gift for the family. Jabu herself had a couple of bags as well. But there was no tell-tale feeling in my gut warning of danger. People dashed back and forth and some spared me a faintly curious look but none spoke to me let alone pestered me. The nape hairs lay supine, not bothering to send any signals let alone stand to attention.

Jabu lives in the village of Nkomanzi a few kilometers from Piggs Peak, in the far north of Swaziland. While in Ezulwini valley, I had been talking to people at the market, at the guesthouse, at travel agencies and had almost given up on visiting a village when I met her. At first unbelieving, still unsure, she eventually acquiesced. This was the first time they had ever had a foreigner in their village. As on all combi rides, in typical Swazi fashion, the bus was soon humming with half a dozen conversations with jokes exchanged and bursts of laughter. A particularly loud burst greeted one of the of the women’s comment that Jabu should take me to the cattle byre. I had not understood the implications but it was explained to me later.

An old custom in Swaziland, it is still in vogue in remote areas. Sometimes the women in the household burst into the room of a female visitor in the middle of the night and take her to the cattle byre, sometimes forcibly. She is then married off to a man from the family, the decision taken by the family. Many are the women who escape by running away, even jumping out of windows they said. Something nagged in my memory – where had I heard of bride snatching? Not too long ago I remember hearing about something like this. And then it came to me. In Kyrgyzstan sometimes a woman is kidnapped and taken off on horseback to be married. These days though it is more with her assent than otherwise and usually to avoid paying a steep bride price.

The combi followed the winding road through the mountains and about an hour and half later Jabu asked the driver to stop apparently in the middle of nowhere. We unloaded our multitude of bundles and bags and soon a pair of women materialized out of the dark on the opposite side of the road. They were two of Jabu’s daughters, come to meet us and help carry the bags. I was profoundly thankful that they were there to help carry it all. I have no idea how they manage to make their way in the complete dark on the rough dirt trail that led to their house. It was three kilometers or more and I would have gone sprawling at least a few dozen times had I not had my headlamp on.  In spite of the headlamp I stumbled along trying not to fall flat on my face while the others picked their way unerringly. They must have the eyesight of a cat!

Her family was waiting in the house. It is not so much one house but three separate ones each boasting a couple of rooms. They are made of mud but have been cemented over, painted and boast corrugated iron roofs. Electricity is a recent addition; it has been only three weeks since they could afford to have a pole and wires installed in one of the houses. There is no plumbing, nor any running water. A neighbor has access to water that is piped in from far away and lets Jabu’s family fill a big blue plastic drum each day. This is used for cooking and cleaning and much to the delight of the kids rarely wasted on baths. Their faces show a healthy horror at the very mention of baths; an occasional one is bad enough they say but a daily one? Only for the demented they grandly inform me.

The kitchen is a wood and wattle shack with a mostly disintegrated thatch roof on the far side of the yard. Food is cooked on a wood fire, the firewood collected from the surroundings. A short walk from the yard is the toilet. It is a long drop, in a small square shack made of plastic tarp and tin. A big drum with a hole in the top acts as the seat. I prudently went for long walks and made use of the bush. When unavoidable, my acrobatics in trying to avoid touching any surface would have put many a contortionist to shame. These not-usually-talked-about-but-crucial skills are a direct result of past practice with those horrors that used to be Chinese public toilets.

I had not known quite what to expect – whether I was pitching my tent in the yard or spreading out my mattress and sleeping bag on a floor. The family vehemently vetoed the idea of my tent and proudly led me to a room. The walls were painted an eye-popping lurid pink and the room had obviously been swept and cleaned for my visit. It was furnished with a bed sporting a thick comfortable mattress, a small table with a candle stub and even a reed mat on the floor. It belongs to Jabu’s oldest son who is away in another part of Swaziland, working as a police officer. As we sat, I was offered a glass of what they called sour porridge and the entire family trooped in to satisfy their curiosity. Jabu’s youngest grandchild had never seen a foreigner before and stared at me with an apprehensive look bordering on abject fear. He cowered behind his father yet couldn’t resist occasional peeks at the strange spectacle. The older members were curious as well and hesitatingly asked some questions. But over the next couple of days with the shyness gone, they treated me to a barrage of questions. And baffled me with some ideas that they seem to have of life in the US or Europe.

“In America, when you turn eighteen”, said one of her sons, “your parents give you millions and billions of dollars. He stated in a matter of fact manner “to start your life, build a house, buy a car”.

“What?” I squeaked. “Where on earth did you hear that?”

“People say so” he nodded sagely, hinting that I simply was not sufficiently aware of social norms.

Equally firmly entrenched is the idea that every photograph a tourist takes is sold many times over and a source of unending wealth once the tourist goes back to their home countries.

“So,” said one of her daughters, “we ask for some of the money whenever someone wants to take our photo”.

This is a tale I have heard before but strangely enough, I heard it only in sub-Saharan Africa, never anywhere else in the world.

Jabu’s story is one that is echoed innumerable times not only in Swaziland but in many of the neighbouring countries. In a society where a man is allowed as many wives as he wants, it is a tale told all too often. Her husband and father to her six children no longer lives with them but with his new wife. Nor does he support them in any way. Two of her sons are married at barely twenty and they, their wives and their children live with Jabu. They farm their land but with the recent drought there is no work for them and nor do they wish to look for work elsewhere, however temporary. The only earning members of this family of seven adults and four children are Jabu herself who cleans hotels and her oldest son. The second youngest daughter, Thembekile is at the university studying to be a teacher. She, more than anyone else in the family seems to have a vision of her future beyond the traditional one. She  alone appears to have desire to start earning a living and contributing to the household.

Thembekile and her sister were my self-appointed guides in the village and the surroundings. We spent one morning hiking up to the top of the nearby mountain with its sweeping views. The lack of rains may have turned the fields into a graveyard of crops, but the cacti are thriving with their spears of brilliantly coloured blossoms. Rolling hills and valleys lie in all directions with scattered houses and fields and cattle wander by grazing on the stubbles in the fields. The bare mountains tell their own tales of continuing deforestation on a massive scale. The gray ribbon of tarmac winds down the valley, over a modern bridge and heads up the pass toward Piggs Peak. There is a glint of silver – sunlight on the river. The biggest river in Swaziland, it now has a fraction of the volume it usually carries. In the far distance to the west are yet more mountains, their blue-purple silhouettes stacked like cardboard cut-outs. Down below us I can see the village, the road we came on and the dirt trail leading to Jabu’s house.

Nkomanzi is not so much a cluster of buildings but scattered homesteads, each set amid its fields. Among all the brown and beige dried-out fields are a couple of green fields. These families have access to water to irrigate their fields and grow cabbages. Some others grow a variety of marijuana in small plots in the dwindling forest. Called dagga or Swazi gold, quite a few people grow them and make huge profits despite the threat of a stiff penalty. It is profitable enough for the owners to hire villagers to work on these fields for more wages than they can earn elsewhere. In an area where there is little or no employment it is hardly surprising that these jobs are eagerly sought and grasped.

We spent the mornings going to the edge of the mountain to collect firewood. They were adept at carrying the stack on their heads but predictably I failed. As they walked daintily down the slope I clomped my way down holding bundles under my arms and dragging the larger branches, unwittingly providing a spectacle worthy of applause. The afternoons were spent chatting lazily on mats spread under the avocado tree in the yard. They took me to the nearby river – one that they all splash in in the summer. For the first time in over twenty years it is bone dry; only a few stagnant pools remain, choked with leaves. Only the cattle deign to come drink here.

In our walks through the village, I saw the neighbours peering at us, curious enough to stare but not enough to ask. “Sanibona” we called out, greeting each other but nobody seemed inclined to chat. This reticence and reserve is perhaps a Swazi trait, strangely at odds with the chatting and comments that fly back and forth in all the combis. Or perhaps it reflects a lack of curiosity. The flip side of this reticence is the singular lack of that phrase that has nagged me this summer. The whine of “give me money” that has followed me through Zambia and Malawi is blissfully absent here.

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