all the feel good business involved with starting up the Peace Corps,
Washington discovered that if you wanted to send out useful
volunteers to the developing world, they had to have some experience
in development. An English Literature graduate might be useful in a
high school but he probably wasn’t going to know much about
plumbing or building or farming. Sargent Shriver sent out word that
tradesmen were wanted, and that a few families would be accepted as
an experiment. We were among the first of the families in the Peace
Corps, and we worked out pretty well—largely due to the support
and assistance of our housekeeper, Mrs Zwane. (ZWA-nee)
Zwane was no ordinary housekeeper and babysitter. Having seven
living children of her own, she was far more expert than I at the
mothering game. I could go out to my daily work at the handcraft
cooperative knowing that my girls were being well looked after.
relationship was far more than a simple employer-employee one, which
was normal for most Peace Corps volunteers. Initially, we all
thought we were just hiring a housekeeper but ended up deeply
involved in the entire family's lives and problems.
Zwane had two teenage daughters and three little boys living with
her. The two middle children were living with relatives elsewhere. I
found myself in the role of Auntie to the children. As my clothes
shrank under the merciless sun-drying and hot ironing, Phumzile and
Sindisiwe inherited them. Tee-shirts and shorts that Beth outgrew
went to the littlest boys, and because I felt guilty about having
nothing for the eldest boy, I often found a little something for him,
such as a pencil or notebook for school, or a pair of socks. You had
to be careful not to appear to play favourites, so it was safest to
give whatever it was to Mrs. Zwane with only a suggestion as to whom
it might suit, and let her sort things out.
Zwane ran our household with an iron hand. She diagnosed medical
problems, advised on discipline, supervised the yard boy, and
generally treated me like a grown-up daughter. Rarely did I get up
nerve enough to act the part of mistress of the house and thanks to
Mrs. Zwane's expertise, I rarely had to.
night there was a terrible storm. Short of a New England hurricane
in full cry, I have never seen storms as spectacular as those in
Swaziland. They come out of nowhere, massive banks of roiling black
and green clouds, covering the earth with weird light, and expelling
gouts of lightning towards the iron-rich earth. Thunder reverberates
in your bones, and the wind tears up anything it can pry loose.
the midst of one of these storms one night, we were reading the
children a story, because both had gotten out of bed saying they
couldn't sleep because of the noise.
way through the huffing and puffing at the Second Little Pig's house,
there was a noise at the door. I thought it was the cat, and eased
the door open a few inches. In came a large soggy bundle, which sat
on the floor and said "I know it's late, but I had no one else
to come to."
Zwane! What are you doing out in this weather? Why aren't you home?"
home has gone away," said Mrs. Zwane, bursting into tears. "And
Maliabongwe has been burned."
where?" I asked, completely mystified, “Burned how?”
wind has taken my roof and part of my wall and turned a lamp over on
Maliabongwe and burnt his leg. Oh, dear, what shall I do?" wept
daughters were horrified. They had never seen Mrs. Zwane break down.
Neither had I. We had to do something, but what?
said obviously the first thing to do was to get Mr. Zwane. This was
no simple act, as he lived elsewhere with a new wife and had shown
himself singularly uninterested in helping his old wife on previous
occasions of difficulty.
wrapped up Mrs. Zwane and Bethany in blankets and hustled them into
the Volkswagen. I have no idea now why he took Beth along but it
seemed the right thing at the time. Neighbours were caring for the
Zwane children temporarily, and someone had found the village nurse
to tend the burned leg, so the most urgent task was to find Mr. Zwane
and get him working on the problem of the damaged house.
stoked up the fireplace and the coffeepot and prepared to wait out
the storm with Erin-called-Njabuliso, who was still wide awake,
trotting up and down the hall yelling, "Whee" every time
the thunder rolled. A falling barometer always made her hyperactive.
was a particularly bright flash of light and a roll of thunder right
atop the house, followed by the unmistakable smell of burning wood.
over my shoulder and flashlight in my hand, I toured the house,
sniffing deeply. The hatchway in the ceiling was too far away to
reach without an extension ladder, so I couldn't check what might be
happening in the roof space. Putting out the lights, which
miraculously hadn't gone out of their own accord yet, I went from
window to window, seeking signs of fire.
I discovered a large branch hanging from a white, raw wound on the
tree at the end of the driveway. This was what the lightning had
hit, and the source of the smell of burning wood.
the storm abated and Erin ran aground on the dining room table with
her head in the centerpiece. I carefully transferred her to her bed
and sat down with a book to await Gene and Beth's return. At this
point the lights went out. I was an old hand by now, and had
prepared candles and matches as soon as the storm began. I lit
enough to give a decent reading light and put another log on the
the darkness at the end of the hall came a slithering noise. Thoughts
of snakes seeking shelter from the storm passed through my
mind; then I got hold of myself: what snake in its right mind would
be out on a night like this? Shining the torch down the hall I saw
the cat, unhappily trying to rid itself of a doll blanket that a
little girl had fastened around its neck. I removed the blanket,
making a mental note to speak to Beth about the dangers of tying
anything around anyone's neck.
that the wind had died down somewhat, one could hear other noises. The
roof timbers of the house creaked, the lid of the ashbin
clattered, and the stove chimney, which we had been meaning to fix,
moved uneasily on its moorings. The wind found every unchinked
cranny, and small cold breaths whistled through the house.
was all rather spooky, so I took the decorative Swazi spear down from
the wall and kept it beside me.
cat was asleep by the fire when I again heard slithering noises from
the dark hall. Just then a puff of air put out the candles near my
chair, leaving only the glow of the fireplace for light. The
flashlight seemed to be losing its power: I remembered meaning to buy
clutched the spear and fumbled with the matches. To relight the
candles, I had to put down the spear, but I couldn't seem to get my
fingers to uncurl. It took a lot of juggling in the dark before I
finally had the candles going again. I edged down the hall with the
faltering flashlight under my arm, a wavering candle in my hand and
the spear thrust before me. From the dark a little voice said, "Want
the spear against the bookcase, I escorted Erin to the kitchen, got
her a drink, and tucked her in again. I returned to the kitchen and
made some jerry-rigged hurricane lamps with candle stumps and water
then there was a pounding at the back door, which I had bolted after
Gene had left.
there?" I quavered.
Chamberlain, who do you think? Open up, it's wet out here."
telling me his mother's maiden name and our anniversary date to
establish his bona fides, Gene got in, bringing a damp and sleepy
Bethany with him. After she had been dried and put to bed, I poured
a couple of drinks and settled down to hear of their adventures.
Zwane had been run to earth 26 miles away after a long search which
had included negotiating Malagwane Hill twice (scene of most of the
fatal accidents in the kingdom), and searching most of the beer halls
Mrs. Zwane finally remembered it was the night before pay day and
therefore her husband would be at home, broke," said Gene,
towelling his hair and setting his shoes by the fire. "We found
the place after four or five wrong turns. We more or less kidnapped
him and took him back to Mrs. Zwane's place. I felt like a traitor
leaving her there with him, but there's nothing that can be done
until daylight, and I had the handy excuse of Bethany, who was
getting very tired."
suppose Zwane will give her a hard time, but it is his responsibility
to at least keep a roof over his family's heads," I said.
said roof is presently floating down the Umbeluzi River," said
Gene. "I'll stop by tomorrow and see what we can do to help."
ended up buying a sack of spikes and a lot of baling wire, and
instructing Mr. Zwane and some of his friends in the technique of
holding a roof down, gleaned from the Peace Corps "Village
Technology Handbook", one of the most useful DIY books ever
Zwane was soon rehoused. A lot of the new mud and cow dung
plastering she had done was destroyed by the storm, but Gene obtained
some white paint which enabled her to redecorate in style.
a good man to spend so much time and money helping the Zwane family,"
I told him.
decency aside, I knew that if I didn't do something to get them back
in their own home by Christmas, you'd have them here, and the thought
of all those children plus our own two fighting over two drumsticks
was more than I could have taken, volunteer or no volunteer."
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