The Trip of a Lifetime

Karen Radford Treanor 

 

© Copyright 2015  by Karen Radford Treanor

2015 Travel Nonfiction Winner

Photo of an African woman with a baby on her back.


An updraft seized the plane and I clutched the baby closer. She seemed to have adhered to me by sweat, which was just as well, as there was no safe baby harness or cot aboard the DC-3 that was the flagship of Swazi Air.

Across the aisle almost-three-year-old Bethany sat beside her father, giving him a running commentary about the passing weather, of which there seemed to be entirely too much. Every now and then she threw up into an inadequately waxed paper bag.


I tried to distract my twitching nerves by remembering Osa Johnson's "I Married Adventure," one of my favourite books. She’d married a man with an itchy foot and gone travelling the world with him when she was only 16. Surely a mature 28-year-old mother of two would be able to survive whatever Africa had to offer.
 
Lightning flashed in the clouds ahead. Wondering what I had let myself in for, I shut my eyes and pretended I was at the Topsfield Fair on the roller coaster. Now if only I could pretend that I had enjoyed that experience, perhaps I'd live through this one….

The summer of 1970 was long and hot. Hugely pregnant, I took some comfort in the notion that I'd be more uncomfortable were I in, say, Africa.

Four months later, I was.

One morning my husband telephoned home from work. He asked me to look up something in the weekend classifieds. The Sunday paper was at the bottom of the trash bin and would be a real problem to retrieve, given my increasing girth. I briefly considered saying, "Sorry, the rubbish truck has come already."

Instead, I rummaged through the bin and found the paper and gave Gene the phone number from the unassuming classified ad that read "Woodworker wanted; apply Peace Corps, Atlantic Avenue." Gene made enquiries and filled in a form or two, but we really didn’t expect anything to come of it. Several weeks went by.

Two days after I’d given birth to our second daughter, Gene said he’d had a call from someone about an interview. Three weeks later we were talking about a potential job with Bill Armstrong, Peace Corps Director for Swaziland, a tiny African Kingdom I had never heard of. Bill came to our house to save us a trip to Boston with a new baby, a characteristically thoughtful gesture.

Four weeks after that we were being interviewed in Peace Corps Headquarters, Washington, in what was called a ‘pre-invitational staging’ where both sides look each other over and decide if they want to go through with it. Shortly thereafter we had a formal invitation to join the American Peace Corps, and were told we had slightly over a month to sell our house and car and store all our worldly goods and get to Philadelphia for our final briefing.

Breaking the news to our families was the hardest part of the preparations for departure. My mother had ferreted out the secret and helped prepare my father for the news. Armed with a pitcher full of White Russians, we softened Dad up a bit and then told him the news. For a long while he just sat in his chair and said “Jee-zus” over and over in a hushed voice. I think it was a sort of prayer. Or maybe not.

Wanting to get the shocks out of the way all at once, we went over to Gene’s parents’ house. Unfortunately Uncle Lewis had turned up for a visit. He was far from the brightest of my father-in-law’s ten brothers. After we told Gene’s parents our plans, Lewis said in a strained voice “Africa? But it’s full of black people! Why don’t you go to Ireland instead?” From there the day went downhill. Gene’s mother tearfully kept repeating that she supposed we were doing the Lord’s work, and his father harrumphed a lot and said he guessed he shouldn’t be surprised at any tom-fool thing his youngest did.

The little blue house in South Lowell went on the market and sold very quickly. Barely-used wedding presents were carefully and sometimes tearfully packed for storage. Somehow everything that needed doing got done and we headed for Philadelphia where we met the rest of the new volunteers. There were two families in our group of twenty-odd. Sue and Paul Nieblas had a boy and girl of primary school age, and we had Bethany, not quite three and Erin, three months.

Having families in the Peace Corps was an experiment that nobody was certain would work out. In these early days they were still taking young, single, BA generalists and trying to train them in practical skills such as bricklaying in a short period of time. This practice had had limited success. When it came to providing volunteers who could teach their trades to others to an international standard, the briefly-trained generalists were up the creek. Eventually some practical person saw that it might be better to take tradesmen who already knew their trades well, and run them through a training course in the language and culture of the host nation.

Also in the group were three retirees, surprisingly spry and enthusiastic. There was a young married couple, both teachers. All the others were young singles, most with shiny new BA's or BSc's. Only Gene and Paul had any experience in building things.

In Philadelphia we had several days of orientation sessions and a lot of shots. I can’t really recommend yellow fever, small pox and typhoid injections as preparations for a very long flight, but the people in charge insisted. I immediately ran a fever, but would have lied to God himself rather than admit it. We’d come too far and burnt too many bridges to back out now.

On Halloween day 1970 we were flying over the Atlantic in a 907 Starstream, headed for Frankfurt, Johannesburg and the unknown.

Due to a mix-up by the airline we had a very long layover in Frankfurt. TWA put us up in a rather flash hotel where I saw my first bath sheet. I was amazed by the half-acre of terry towelling, and opted for a hot bath rather than sightseeing. Late that night we returned to the airport, where the security was as tight as a rubber glove—and there were a disconcerting number of those visible. (This was the time of the initial Baader-Meinhof terror, and the Germans were very suspicious of almost everyone.) The staff searched the baby and her carry cot and then searched the rest of us before letting us aboard the plane for the flight down Africa. A grim and gloved female searched all the women in our party and discomforting images from old black and white newsreels flickered briefly through my mind.

We had one stop at Accra in the early hours of the morning. The landing was rough; a few people could be heard wondering aloud if the pilot might be an old Luftwaffe veteran. The plane sat on the tarmac for over an hour, with no air conditioning. It was like being in a giant oven bag. It’s probable that the German authorities preferred to take no chance that a passenger might make contact with a terrorist if they allowed us off the plane, but at the time it made no sense.

Eventually we arrived at Jan Smuts Airport in Johannesburg, which was undergoing major reconstruction. There was no food to be had; only a selection of unfamiliar fruit drinks such as guava, which seemed to have sand in the bottom of the bottle. We later learned this was natural fruit grit, just one of hundreds of small discoveries made over the next few months.

The airport staff were suffering the national paranoia about foreign do-gooders. We were sequestered and guarded and given what amounted to the bum's rush onto our Swazi Air connection. Later I understood that this treatment was just a brief sample of what most black southern Africans experienced every day of their lives.

These were the days of white South African suspicion of almost everything outside their borders. They were convinced that any Peace Corps volunteer, missionary, W.H.O. worker, or humanitarian aid person had a hidden agenda of espionage and sedition. Nelson Mandela had not that long ago been sentenced to life imprisonment, and Sharpsville was still a barely scabbed sore. Foreigners were dangerous, and best kept in quarantine. For the next two and a half years we never again set foot in South Africa.

Swooping out of the clouds, the small plane landed at Matsapha Airport. Excited at being the first off the plane, Bethany galloped down the stairs and fell full-length on the tarmac, thereby collecting the pathogens that brought out her first, but by no means last, veldt sore.

Our oddly assorted troop assembled on the runway and looked around. Large green hills rose from the flat plain around us. The sky was a deep bluey purple, filled with roiling grey clouds to the east, behind which thunder muttered. The quality of light was indescribable, as if someone had dipped everything in a gold leaf rinse. The beauty was transient: very soon a grey damp drizzle descended upon us. We were all bone-weary, and all wondering what we’d let ourselves in for.

So this is Swaziland…” someone said.

But I bet the crops grow wonderfully with all this rain!” exclaimed Jan, who could normally cheer up the nearly-dead. As we were all well past that stage, she quickly subsided.

We were ferried from the airport on the outskirts of Manzini, the industrial centre, to Mbabane, the capital, in a fleet of land rovers and a borrowed small bus. On that first trip up Malegwane Hill, part of which bore the sobriquet "Dead Man's Curve", ears popped and re-popped, and engines laboured in second gear to make the grade.
At the top of the hill we were taken to Sebenta, the Adult Literacy Institute. Here the singles and couples were dropped off at the dormitory.

Bill Armstrong apologetically explained that our house wasn’t open, and left the two families with his wife while he, Gene and Paul went in search of the key. Gloria Armstrong dispensed tea and cheer and tried to put the best gloss possible on the situation. The situation was a bit worse than expected: there was in fact only one house with three bedrooms for the families, not one house each. Susan and I exchanged a despairing look: she no doubt thinking of my infant yowling at 4 a.m. and I thinking of her four-year-old racketing around at nap time. “Gentlemen, we must all hang together or we shall most assuredly hang separately,” I quoted, trying to smile bravely. Sue’s answering smile was nearly as successful.

The men returned with assurances that the house would be ready shortly. Meanwhile, a lavish supper had been laid on to welcome us at Sebenta. One of the host teachers said it was real American food to make us feel at home. It was nice and would have been even nicer if someone had explained to the cook that pasta has to be boiled before being baked in tomato sauce. We were all very aware of our status as guests, and tried our best to munch through the dinner that had been made with such good intentions.

Erin was pounced upon at once by the women teachers who were to be our tutors and guides as we learned our place in Swazi society. She was named "Njabuliso", the bringer of happiness, and for the entire time of her stay had no other name, even within the family. Bethany was called "Nobuhle", the pretty one.

I eventually retrieved my infant and found a room in which to feed her away from the general hubbub. Having foolishly worn a back-zip dress, I had to half-strip to feed the baby. I was thus occupied when Daniel Dlamini, one of the senior staff at Sebenta, came into the conference room to get some papers. He stood chatting for a few minutes before leaving and I realised that while I may have been nonplussed, Daniel, the father of four, saw nothing odd or immodest about the situation.

Women fed babies on buses, in markets, in stores, at the bank while standing in line and on the side of the road. Before long I was as comfortable feeding the baby in company as I would formerly have been uncomfortable. Properly managed, breast-feeding need not be a political or feminist issue. If required, a baby blanket thrown over the shoulder deals with modesty needs adequately, and unless you feel compelled to make a big deal of it, most people don't notice what you're doing.

After supper it began to rain. It was also very dark. The young singles began drifting off towards their dormitories at the Centre. We sat around for a while and eventually begged a plastic garbage bag from the last staff member in the kitchen and wrapped the baby in it and set off towards where we thought our house was. Everyone except the baby quickly became quite damp. After a while a Land Rover screeched to a stop beside us. “Oops, sorry,” one of the program organisers said and bundled us all into the vehicle. I wondered if they’d been to the pub and forgotten about us, but was too tired to care by this point.

The two families were taken to Gilfillan Street and shown the home they would share for the next two weeks. Three bedrooms, five beds, one crib, one bathroom. How could the sleeping arrangements be sorted out? We considered the possible permutations and decided the only solution was for us to take over the master bedroom, put Bethany in the crib, and tuck Erin in with me. Paul and Sue got the larger of the two remaining bedrooms and their two children got the small room on the other side of ours. Due to the unaccustomed altitude and the long walk to and from Sebenta each day, we were all so tired every night that there was never a problem falling asleep. Sharing a sleeping bag with a sweaty baby who snores turned out to be about 12 days longer than was funny, but we both survived.

For two weeks we went to Sebenta every day for language lessons. The first day we learned to say “hello”, “how are you?” and “My name is not Mamba”. (“Agnisie waga Mamba”) The unlikelihood of ever using this phrase struck all of us as so funny that it became our rallying cry. I fully expect some day many years hence to hear “Agnisie waga Mamba” ring out through whatever plane terminal, church or graveyard I happen to be in when spotted by a former colleague. The phrase is right up there with “Hark, our postillion is being eaten by tigers,” as a practical application of a language.

SiSwati is a language very close to siZulu, but we were warned against falling into Zulu-isms, and scolded if we came to class speaking phrases of fanagalo, what the teachers termed "Kitchen Swazi". Fanagalo was the equivalent of pidgin siSwati, corrupted with bits of other Bantu languages and English.

If you can learn fanagalo, you can take the trouble to learn proper siSwati, said Sonile Mdluli, doyenne of the teaching staff. Sonile held a position of some weight in Swazi society, being a teacher for the royal family as well being a teacher at Sebenta. The king's children called her "Gogo", grandmother, even though she was still in her thirties.

After we had mastered the basics of siSwati we were sent to the south of the country to the rural area of Mlindazwe near the town of Gege to be taught more language by the total immersion method, the system in which if you can't ask for something, you don't get it. It's surprisingly effective.

The single volunteers were assigned to local families and went to live with them. The two families were given teachers' houses, tiny concrete four room buildings with no furnishing except a couple of stretcher cots and, in our case, a baby's crib. After two weeks of sharing digs in Mbabane, Sue and I were ready to have our own houses, however humble. Two women in one kitchen, and four children in one bathroom was a bit more intimacy than we had expected on the basis of a 22-hour acquaintance on an airplane, but we had managed.

During the day, we moved one of the stretcher cots to the main room where it became a couch. At night it returned to the master bedroom where it became a bed again.

Gene rapidly made friends with the local woodworking teacher and borrowed a table and two chairs from the workshop, which made life a little easier. We had breakfast and lunch at the school, and supper at home. Thinking up meals that could be fabricated from whatever was on offer in the grocery storeroom proved to be a challenge. I eventually managed an apple pie, which took 3 hours to bake in the tiny cast iron wood stove in our house.

We acquired a house guest the first night in Gege. Stepping outside to shake out a blanket, I heard someone stumbling around and muttering.

"U bani lo?" I called, proud of my language skills, but wondering what I'd do if a complex answer came back from the darkness.

"It is I, Clara," said a voice. A pair of glasses caught the feeble light of our kerosene lamp.

"What are you doing out here in the dark?" I asked in English, my siSwati not adequate for this question.

"I think they must have forgotten about me, there does not seem to be a house for me," she said.

"Well that's easily fixed, we have a spare room. Come in."

And so thanks to the forgetfulness of the organising staff, we acquired a live-in language teacher, an auntie for the girls, and a friend for the rest of our time in Africa.

The live-in language and cultural training program had been organised by two Peace Corp staff members from Washington and several local experts, all quite young. It can't have been an easy job, but would have been better done if more experienced people had been employed. One of the Washington staff, a young man of mixed ancestry, decided to adopt local customs. He began wearing red feathers in his afro, three of them at the back of the head. When I asked Sonile about the wisdom of this, she said that it was not very polite, as only the royal clan had the right to wear three red feathers, but that allowances were made for foreigners who apparently didn’t know any better.

The person we found most helpful was the local Peace Corps Volunteer teacher John Rodrigues, who was endlessly patient and helpful and had been through the very first training program in the country and knew firsthand the trials to be faced by both sides of the cultural divide.

It doesn't take long in a place like Gege to discover the basics. Clean water was at a premium; you never knew when you turned on a tap what you'd get, if anything. We filled pitchers when the water looked clean and added a few drops of iodine to kill or at least slow down the microscopic wildlife. This may sound pretty slap-dash, but we never had any gastric upheavals all the time we were in Swaziland. The only time I ever got dysentery was when staying at a five-star resort in Kenya.

Bathing was primitive. There was a shower with one tap. The trick was to get your shower in the late afternoon, when the barely-buried water pipes were warmed by the sun and you had a few minutes of warm water. Bethany got her bath in a tin tub on the porch, often with an admiring audience of local children. She came in crying one day with a red mark on her arm. One of the local kids had tried to remove the paint to see what colour brown she was underneath.

The shade of brown you were was important in Swazi society. There were all sorts of words to describe brownness, the ultimate being the statement "He's as green as river grass", used of someone who was very dark brown. Although Swazis are quite a homogenous group, there are colour differences, from honey brown all the way to almost black. Occasionally an albino is born, and such people lead hard lives, almost guaranteed to get skin cancer in adulthood, if they live that long. Some of the lighter Swazis also had slightly slanted eyes. One of our teachers bore the soubriquet machiina, “the Chinese” because of his almond-shaped eyes. Local legend told of a Chinese princess once shipwrecked on the coast of East Africa. At the time we nodded politely but didn’t believe a word of it. Years later the revelations about the great Chinese adventure fleet of Zheng He made the folk tale seem very plausible.

Part of our training was learning about Swazi culture. It was the first time most of us had been exposed to anything different from middle class Middle America. Our one black volunteer came from a prosperous Christian home in Texas and he found getting used to Swaziland particularly hard partly because his accent was so heavy that Swazis had a hard time understanding him in any language. "What is he saying?" a neighbour once asked me.

"I don't know, I don’t talk Texan," I had to reply.

None of us were prepared for poverty, polygamy and polytheism, and some of us found the contrast between our former lives and the new one very hard to handle. An Afro-American had to cope with having a foot in two worlds, neither of which was his normal milieu. Just being black was not enough to help him fit in to black Africa. And being the only black in a group of mostly northern white people desperately keen not to appear racially prejudiced made for a less than perfect fit as well.
 
The phrase ‘token nigger’ was all too real in the 1970’s, and the weight the token had to shoulder was considerable. It was cruelly unfair to expect that because somebody is black, he’d have an affinity for black Africa, its languages and its cultures. As well expect that someone would have an affinity for Norwegian because her skin was white and her name was Petersen. The young man went home after a few weeks, leaving some of us feeling obscurely guilty for not having done more to help him fit in, but unsure what we should have done. From a vantage point of age, I can see that rather than pretend he was ‘just like us’, I might have learned much and helped more by saying “Hey, I don’t know anything about being black or being Texan, but I do know about feeling homesick and swamped by all this language and culture stuff, do you want to talk?”

I came to Swaziland as a nascent feminist, and was initially quite appalled by the idea of multiple wives. It didn't take long living in Gege to come around to the realization that having a second or third wife to help with the work made sense.

As we were living in a separate house and not with a local family, we had no adoptive Swazi family as the single volunteers did, but arrangements were made for us to meet and visit several Swazi families in nearby kraals. Drinking tea from English bone china while seated on a grass mat on a dried cow dung floor and talking with the women, I learned how the multiple wife system worked. It was based on equity to a certain extent--if the man gave one wife a new cooking pot, he had to give the others the same. He had to spend equal amounts of time with each wife. He had to treat the children of all the wives impartially. The wives were quite capable to ganging up on the husband if he stepped out of line, and if being nagged by one woman is unpleasant, imagine what it is to have three all having a go at once.

To address our lack of a family, Sonile said she would be our adoptive family; we would be honorary members of the Mdluli clan, and by association, also the Lukhele clan. Amos Lukhele was another of our language teachers, and he and Sonile attempted to explain to us the intricate connections of their respective families, most of which went over our heads. Apparently they were something like cousins.
 
Swaziland had few villages as such. People lived in their own family settlements, which were scattered about the countryside. On their land Swazi families built a collection of round, thatched, mud huts and fences, the settlement being called a kraal, an Afrikaans word not unlike the English ‘corral’. Each wife had a hut of her own; grandmother had a hut, where she lived with the older children, and there would be one larger hut where guests were received. The kraals were swept daily with twig brooms to keep dust and trash under control, and discourage snakes and other creatures from coming near the houses.
 
Every family had a dog or two, but cats were rare. Without trees to climb or barns to hide in, cats would have had a very short life in Swazi kraals, given the number of dogs.

Besides the family home, there would be one or more parcels of farmland under each family's control. This was allocated by the local chief, so it paid to be on the right side of the man who held such power. The chiefs in turn looked to the King, who controlled all the crown land and expected the chiefs to act as his viceroys. There were a number of shadowy but powerful figures known as the Eyes of the King and the Ears of the King, and through this network of agents, the King generally knew what was going on in his kingdom long before anything appeared in the newspapers.

The training schedule was demanding. We got up with the sun and walked to school, ¾ of a mile away. We studied language for two hours, then walked back home and collected the children from whoever was minding them, walked back to school for breakfast, then returned the children to the house to play while we walked back to class. Sometime during the hour’s break I found time to feed the baby, sometimes on the hoof between home and school. At 1:00 p.m. we had a lunch break, which entailed walking back home, collecting the kids, and returning to school and then going home for the day. In the late afternoon we went back to the school storeroom and scavenged supplies to make an evening meal at home and were abed, exhausted, by 8 p.m. We all got very fit with this regimen.

In the afternoons we could do what we wanted. For the young singles who were living with families, this usually meant chores such as helping with the gardening, or perhaps more language tutorials from the granny of the family. The old ladies took to the newcomers enthusiastically: here was a brand-new audience for all the old stories, the family histories, and the old crafts.

Gene and I used to hike up the hill directly behind the school. I named it “Paradise Hill”. It was the closest thing I had seen to paradise in some time, after five years of living in a city apartment or a small suburban home. The view was spectacular from all sides. The rainy season had just begun, so everything was frosted over with a haze of green things growing. An outcropping of rock at the crown of the hill sheltered a few gum trees. We could lie under them and listen to the wind soughing and watch the brightly coloured beetles going about their mysterious business among the crevices of the rocks.

At night there might be a party at a neighbouring kraal. Because of the newness of our baby, the organisers of the program had decided she’d be safer not being exposed to too many people, so we weren’t allowed to take her visiting. It was a ludicrous notion, because it was a rare day we didn’t come home to find half a dozen people being entertained by laDlamini, the nanny we shared with the Nieblases, passing our baby around.
 
On the occasions when we did go visiting it was a treat. The warmth and genuine welcome of the Swazis amazed me at first. They had no ulterior motives; expected no presents, received any small gift you brought along with huge delight, and made us feel right at home.

One night we were invited to Angelo’s family kraal. He was living with the Twala family only half a mile from the school, so we felt it was safe enough to leave the children with LaDlamini for a few hours. We arrived and were all placed in the spot of honour on the right hand side of the grandmother’s hut, where guests were entertained. I expected to be sent to sit with the women and children on the opposite side, but was told not to: although a woman, I was a guest.

Among the guests was George Gaboo. George was Gege’s nearest approximation to an intellectual. Very well spoken, George was a Coloured man, a distinct racial classification. Coloured people had hard lives, accepted by neither whites nor blacks. George had courtly manners, even when he had been taking refuge in a bottle, which wasn’t unknown.

After we had all chatted a bit, three huge enamel plates were brought out and set before us, heaped with curried potatoes, fried cabbage, and a great mound of boiled mealie meal. “Angelo, I can’t eat all this,” I hissed to our host.
 
Don’t worry, eat what you can and then put it down and watch,” he replied. I munched my way through as much as I could, uncomfortably aware of being watched by lots of shiny brown eyes from across the room. Angelo and the other adult males of the family ate, quite unconcerned by the audience.

When I was done, I hesitantly pushed the plate forwards towards the fire pit. Gene, who had been desperately hoping he wouldn’t be forced to eat all those potatoes, did the same. Four little children converged on the plates like starving puppies, and in five minutes there was not a crumb of anything left. This was the custom: men and guests ate first, then the women and children. “Nothing is ever wasted; the kids clean it all up,” Angelo explained.

After we were done feasting at the Twala kraal, an unusual incident occurred. We were standing outside in the moonlight, talking, when I was suddenly grabbed from behind and pushed to one side by George. About to be offended, I noticed that a stranger had entered the family compound. This was unusual, as one does not come by stealth into a kraal at night, but stands well back and calls for attention and permission to enter.

The intruder was a notorious troublemaker from across the nearby border with South Africa, a man who’d been a problem for the Twalas for some time. “He hoped Mr Twala was away and came looking for a fight. Probably hopped up on dagga,” Angelo explained.

Encouraged by Angelo and Gene who had picked up a lingedla each (club-headed walking stick that works as a weapon at need), the older Twala sons moved in and chased off the intruder. He was later jailed for being a public nuisance, but only after he stepped on the Twala’s baby and hurt her.

No sooner had we returned inside the hut for tea than Lukhele turned up. After about 15 minutes of the usual Swazi small talk, he said casually to Gene, “I think there is something strange going on at your house…much noise…hmm.” Gene insisted I stay put while he went to investigate. He did not come back for a long time and I began to worry about my children. Despite attempts by my hosts to detain me, I ran back to our house, ripping the fringe on my poncho as I scrambled through the barbed wire fence that divided the school property from the countryside. (46 years later that garment, still with a chunk of fringe missing, now belongs to Njabuliso, who used it to shelter her own small daughter.)

Puffing hard, I ran up to our house. Gene and Paul were sipping bush tea in the kitchen; from the house next door came muffled voices and laughter.

As soon as I checked on my babies, I asked Gene what was going on. “You didn’t come back and I worried something bad had happened!” I accused.

Do you really think I’d let any harm come to the children?” he asked. I was too angry to see his side of the picture at this point, and demanded to know what had happened.

Paul, ever the peacemaker, stepped into the conversation. “We were just about to come and fill you in,” he said. “One of the young cooks had too much to drink and got rowdy, so her friends locked her in the shower room. She managed to rip off the door handle and someone had to free her. It was a case of--”

Get the volunteers to do it!” I snorted.
 
Yes. So while her friends yelled advice, Gene managed to unscrew the external door fittings and get the girl out. It took three grown men to hog-tie her, and she’s now cooling off in the wood store over there.”
 
I sat down, shaking a bit from all the unnecessary adrenaline racing around my veins. Gene went back to the Twala kraal to make our apologies and explain the events of the last hour.

Next morning there wasn’t a sorrier sight in Mlindawze than the young cook. The first hangover of one’s life is a shattering experience, all the more so for its being so public. I made some tea and offered dry biscuits to the morose youngster. Her supervisor, less forgiving, set her to potato peeling for the morning. We all thought that she probably had learned not to mix vodka, wine, beer and brandy again.
The children had come through the night’s alarums and excursions unscathed. Erin had slept through and Bethany merely remarked “Dey was havin’ a party next door last night.”

The four children in our group settled in faster and easier than the rest of us. Njabuliso was a great drawcard and source of status for LaDlamini, who displayed her like the Infant of Prague to the gathered populace. This was the first white baby who had lived in this remote area, but that was only a small part of the fascination. John Rodrigues said, “If you listen, you’ll hear that most of the comments are about how petite and pretty she is.” Compared to the large Swazi babies, Njabuliso was indeed unusual.
 
I was breastfeeding her for two reasons: I hadn’t been sure about the availability of safe milk in this new country, and it was much more convenient to have milk on tap. I also thought that breastfeeding my baby would help me fit in better. Cut to a snapshot of me sitting over a cup of tea, breastfeeding the baby, and my Swazi guest sitting on the other side of the table feeding her baby from an Even-Flo bottle. “I find it much more convenient not to be tied down to a nursing schedule,” she explained to me in a pitying tone.

The neighbourhood ladies were amused and pleased by my interest in Swazi customs. They tried to teach me how to carry the baby Swazi-style on my back, tied on with a blanket. I did not have the Junoesque bosom my new friends did, and after fixing the baby in place, they would dissolve in mirth as the blanket slipped off my inadequate bust and the baby sagged from a bag at my waist. Eventually we contrived a shoulder sling with the blanket that kept it from slipping. Pleased, I wore my baby and blanket to class one day. The toothless mite babbled and gurgled happily at the instructor, who said “For shame; Njabuliso speaks better siSwati that the rest of you already.”

The weeks we spent in Gege went quickly, and it was with some regret that we packed up to return to Mbabane and our new jobs. Friendly interactions in the neighbourhood had done little to prepare us for the real world of Swazi and English bureaucracy, and the lowly position which we were soon to discover was reserved for emavoluntiya.


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