Trip of a Lifetime|
2015 by Karen Radford Treanor
2015 Travel Nonfiction Winner
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
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
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.
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.
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….
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,
months later, I was.
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."
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.
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.
weeks after that we were being interviewed in Peace Corps
Headquarters, Washington, in what was called a
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.
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”
and over in a hushed voice. I think it was a sort of prayer. Or
to get the shocks out of the way all at once, we went over to
parents’ house. Unfortunately Uncle Lewis had turned up for a
visit. He was far from the brightest of my father-in-law’s
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,
his father harrumphed a lot and said he guessed he shouldn’t
surprised at any tom-fool thing his youngest did.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Halloween day 1970 we were flying over the Atlantic in a 907
Starstream, headed for Frankfurt, Johannesburg and the unknown.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
this is Swaziland…” someone said.
I bet the crops grow wonderfully with all this rain!”
Jan, who could normally cheer up the nearly-dead. As we were all
well past that stage, she quickly subsided.
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.
the top of the hill we were taken to Sebenta, the Adult Literacy
Institute. Here the singles and couples were dropped off at the
Armstrong apologetically explained that our house wasn’t
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
trying to smile bravely. Sue’s answering smile was nearly as
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
two weeks we went to Sebenta every day for language lessons. The
first day we learned to say “hello”, “how
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
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
practical application of a language.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
acquired a house guest the first night in Gege. Stepping outside to
shake out a blanket, I heard someone stumbling around and muttering.
bani lo?" I
called, proud of my
language skills, but wondering what I'd do if a complex answer came
back from the darkness.
is I, Clara," said a voice. A pair of glasses caught the feeble
light of our kerosene lamp.
are you doing out here in the dark?" I asked in English, my
siSwati not adequate for this question.
think they must have forgotten about me, there does not seem to be a
house for me," she said.
that's easily fixed, we have a spare room. Come in."
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
legend told of a Chinese princess once shipwrecked on the coast of
East Africa. At the time we nodded politely but didn’t
a word of it. Years later the revelations about the great Chinese
adventure fleet of Zheng He made the folk tale seem very plausible.
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.
don't know, I don’t talk Texan," I had to reply.
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.
phrase ‘token nigger’ was all too real in the
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
learned much and helped more by saying “Hey, I
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
and I used to hike up the hill directly behind the school. I named
it “Paradise Hill”. It was the closest thing I had
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.
night there might be a party at a neighbouring kraal. Because of the
newness of our baby, the organisers of the program had decided
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
being entertained by laDlamini, the nanny we shared with the
Nieblases, passing our baby around.
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.
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.
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.
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
all this,” I hissed to our host.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
at your house…much noise…hmm.” Gene
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.)
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
soon as I checked on my babies, I asked Gene what was going on.
didn’t come back and I worried something bad had
you really think I’d let any harm come to the
he asked. I was too angry to see his side of the picture at this
point, and demanded to know what had happened.
ever the peacemaker, stepped into the conversation. “We were
just about to come and fill you in,” he said. “One
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--”
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
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.
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.
children had come through the night’s alarums and excursions
unscathed. Erin had slept through and Bethany merely remarked
was havin’ a party next door last night.”
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
most of the comments are about how petite and pretty she is.”
Compared to the large Swazi babies, Njabuliso was indeed unusual.
was breastfeeding her for two reasons: I hadn’t been sure
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
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
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
were one of the first two families to be recruited in the summer of
1970. We had a three month old and a three year old. The
Nieblas family from California had a pair of primary school kids. By
1970 the Peace Corps brass had realised that it made more sense to
recruit skilled tradesmen and run them through a cross cultural
training and language course than to try and make BA generalists into
tradesmen. And since skilled tradies are usually grown men with
families, they had to accept that concept in Washington. I am
sure there were many nervous nellies in Foggy Bottom worried about
sending American children to the Third World, but in fact our kids
had a wonderful life in several parts of Africa—one of them was
born there—and never came to any harm. None of my
children ever got shot “by accident” as seems to be all
too common in the modern USA. We often joked about having
infected the younger Peace Corps Volunteers with the baby bug,
because there were quite a few babies born to young couples after we
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