Yesterday in Swaziland

Charleine Sell

© Copyright 2019 by Charleine Sell

Photo of table with pig's head..

I stared at the decapitated head of a pig lying on the table in front of me. Its stubby chin, dead eyes and apple clenched in its sharp, yellow teeth made me all but certain I would vomit on my wedding dress.

Jack’s bachelor party the night before was reported to be a success, but our friend Gene, my prearranged chauffeur and also our best man, was hung over and overslept on My Big Day. Rushing up to my apartment two steps at a time, a bit blurry-eyed but dressed in a dark suit, white shirt and tie, he arrived just a few minutes before the civil ceremony was scheduled to begin at the local District Commissioner’s office in Mbabane. It was raining gently as I gathered the skirt of my wedding dress close to my legs and jumped into the muddy white Datsun that Gene had borrowed for the occasion.

Anxiety gripped me as the only stoplight in the country turned red, because I realized it would delay the wedding ceremony start-time even more. At a little shop, Gene grabbed a small bouquet of daisies, and we finally arrived at the District Commissioner’s office half an hour late, although perfect timing for those on ‘Swazi time’. Gene’s wife, Karen, my matron of honor, at the last minute was unable to attend our brief ceremony, because she had delivered their baby at the local hospital the day before. As a Peace Corps volunteer in 1972, I was not surprised our wedding day would prove to be predictably unconventional.

Swaziland, today eSwatini, is a small kingdom in southern Africa landlocked between South Africa and Mozambique. King Sobhuza, the longest reigning monarch in the world at that time, was known to have over 100 wives. Thankfully, Jack was committed to only me! He chuckled, “I couldn’t handle more than one wife. You, my dear, are all I want.” I wondered what he meant by that but wisely decided not to ask him on our wedding day. We had been in the country since 1970; Jack worked water projects, and I treated eye patients throughout the country in a Mobile Eye Clinic.

There was very little western-style fabric available in Swaziland, and I was not happy that the only fabric I could find was lemon yellow. The shopkeeper ordered several yards of white polka dotted Swiss from South Africa for me, and layering it on top helped camouflage the yellow. Surprisingly, a volunteer, Shirley, found a Vogue pattern in a small shop in Mbabane, and spent many hours sewing the dress for me. It was floor length and flaunted enormous puffy long sleeves ending in 4-inch cuffs, and an empire waist with a large bow tied in the back. I sewed a chain of fabric daisies along the scooped neck of the pale yellow/white dress, and even had a pair of small clip-on daisy earrings. My straight, long hair was braided on each side and swooped back with real daisies tucked in. I looked like a Happy Hippie for sure and fit right in with the fashion of the day. I still have that dress, hanging in the closet 46 years later.

In keeping with the style of the times, Jack wore grey, bell-bottom flannel slacks with a grey herringbone jacket that sported a wide fancy herringbone belt across the back. To complete the outfit, he wore his favorite cowboy boots, purchased at Sears and Roebucks several years earlier. They had a permanent stain on them caused by horse sweat and dirt from when he went horseback riding in his junior year of college while visiting friends in eastern Washington. They were his favorite boots. Only the best for our wedding, of course.

A couple of weeks earlier we went together to a small shop where we picked out our matching wedding bands. They cost 9Rand, about $11 each, and all we could afford. Our base salary from Peace Corps was 88Rand per month, about $112US. Although we were in a prime diamond-producing area of the world, there would be no engagement ring for me.

Entering the one-story brick government building, we were led into a side room where we nervously waited while the Swazi clerk pecked on his manual typewriter our answers to the required official Swaziland civil marriage form. My nose was a little out of joint when I saw he had typed ‘spinster’ after my name.
Peace Corps advised us to have someone from the American consulate witness the ceremony, so Dennis and his wife, Sue, attended. We wondered, but we never knew for sure if the CIA paid his salary. Sadly, a few years later, he was killed in Namibia in a mysterious explosion at a gas station. Mack, another Peace Corps friend, managed to take a few photos of the event, while Joey recorded the ceremony on cassette tape (which was promptly lost), and his wife, Jeannie, filled in for Karen as matron of honor.
The clerk lifted the receiver of his phone to let the District Commissioner know we were ready and then ushered us into a small conference room. There followed the briefest of ceremonies. My heart was pounding in my chest as we each solemnly swore that we knew no reason why we should not marry. Jack put a ring on my finger and said ‘With this ring, I wed you’, and then it was my turn to do the same, except the ring got stuck on his knuckle. As hard as I pushed, I couldn’t get it on. Although a serious ceremony, an unexpected chuckle bubbled up inside me, but then, with one good push, the ring slipped on. The District Commissioner said, “In the eyes of the law, you are married.” We squeezed each other’s hands so hard the blood stopped flowing. We were now starry-eyed and full of joy.
Photo of couple leaving civil ceremony.

A steady rain was falling as we crammed into the Datsun once again and dashed up to the hospital to visit Karen and the baby. The relief of having the morning ceremony behind us created a party atmosphere, and we celebrated a spontaneous mini-Honeymoon. We had a bottle of champagne, and everyone toasted Karen, Gene, the baby, Peace Corps, our families, King Sobhuza, the good old USA, Swaziland, our marriage, and anything else we could think of. Gene was on emotional overload that day; a new baby, a bachelor party, and also being our chauffeur and best man. All had taken its toll on him, and he was more than ready to sample the champagne.

Saying goodbye to Karen, we drove to the Swazi Inn. It overlooked Ezulwini Valley just outside of Mbabane, where a champagne brunch had been organized. As starry-eyed as we were, we still paused a moment to appreciate the magnificent view from the dining room. The deep valley, flanked on the east and west by craggy mountains, faded into the distant low veldt. Some of our Peace Corps friends had organized the lavish brunch, but to my horror, right in front of me was the pig head on a platter. My stomach churned as I stared at those pig eyes. It would not settle down, and I was barely able to eat.

The rest of the day was spent preparing for the Party of All Parties planned for that evening. All of the 70 plus Peace Corps and British volunteers in the country were invited, plus more than 40 Swazi government officials, including the Minister of Finance, along with the Peace Corps Director, Deputy Director and other staff. Jack spent the afternoon rushing around picking up supplies for the party. He had organized for someone to make a CD of popular music of the time such as Crosby Stills and Nash, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Mamas and the Papas, Creedence Clearwater, and the Rolling Stones. The party was in Mbabane, the capital, at the very nice home of Stacy, the local American A.I.D. (Agency for International Development). One of the volunteers had been a professional cake decorator in the States, and she made us a beautiful three-layered wedding cake. Some of the Swazis arrived in traditional Swazi dress while others wore western style clothing. Many Peace Corps women wore long dresses. This was, after all, the Biggest Party in Swaziland.Photo of Charleine and Jack at reception.

We cut the cake and 100+ people gave us a toast for happiness. To our surprise, right in the center of the table stood a money tree. Swazi Rand were folded into fans and pinned to the globe. Contributions from all the volunteers totaled about $82, a goldmine to us.

Jack took over the bar after he sent the Swazi bartender home around 2:30 A.M. The party lasted until 4 in the morning, when the last person finally left. Jack and I locked the door of Stacy’s house and slowly walked the few blocks to my apartment in the silent pre-dawn darkness. At home, we spent time talking about the day and, apart from the pig head, its perfection.

As we lay there I said, “Jack, look, there is the sun.”

No, Char, that’s a streetlight.”

No, Jack, it’s dawn. Can you believe it? We got married yesterday!”


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