A Cultural Awakening in Swaziland

Daniel Stantus

© Copyright 2019 by Daniel Stantus


Photo of a man digging a hole.

I was a Peace Corps Volunteer from 1970 to 1974. It was a dream come true for me ever since my hero John F. Kennedy introduced the program in the early 60’s. The thought of travel to a foreign country, living and working with the people, and raising the standards of living for a third world people was so appealing to me. I came from a family that had barely travelled to the next State, let alone overseas. In fact I had never even been in a plane before.

After teaching one year in Washington State I applied to the PC as a teacher with a preferred location in Central America mainly because it wasn’t too far from the USA. I remember eagerly opening my assignment packet and seeing the name of the country I was assigned to - SWITZERLAND. I put the packet down, was puzzled, and wondered, “I didn’t know the PC had volunteers in Switzerland”. I picked up the packet again and looked more closely and saw the name - SWAZILAND. My head spun and I said to myself , “I’m going to Swaziland”! After collecting my thoughts, I then asked myself another question, “Where is Swaziland”? I found an atlas and quickly fumbled through it to find Swaziland - a small, land-locked country in southeastern Africa. My family greeted the news with a grimace, my friends with a laugh and a head shake. Things moved quickly after that. I took my first plane trip to Philadelphia for pre-training followed by the long plane trip to Johannesburg via Frankfurt, and then on to Matsapha Airport near Manzini, Swaziland. The world was opening up to me.

I was with a group of teachers who were to be assigned to different schools around the country. The first couple of weeks of training we had orientation classes, instruction about the Swazi school curriculum, and si-Swati language instruction. This was done by Swazi professionals working for the PC who were fluent in English and guided us through the training period. The final part of our training was a live-in with a Swazi family which we all looked forward to with excitement and anticipation.

A bus was used to transport us to the little village of Gege in southern Swaziland for our live-in. Our bus strained as it climbed up the steep hills, and flew down them followed by a cloud of red dust and screams from the passengers . The crowded bus was full of young, eager volunteers who were happy to be released from the tedious days of instructions, lecture, and learning. We were going to be living with the real Swazil people, eating dinner with the families, and sleeping in their houses. A chorus of “And it’s one, two, three, what are we fighting for - I don’t give a damn, next stop is Vietnam …. -a popular Country Joe anthem of Vietnam War protest reverberated through the bus as we merrily rolled along.

As we arrived at Gege we were greeted by a group of villagers. They brought us to the local school for a small ceremony. We sat in a group on chairs while we were brought cold drinks which were a relief after a long, hot, dusty trip. The village head then gave a lengthy speech in si-Swati interspaced by a series of hand clapping and laughter by the villagers. After the ceremony we asked the Swazi staff what the village head said. The head staff member told us that the village head was very happy to open their homes to us and in exchange we would develop his village. He said that he knew that Americans had walked on the moon, so they could surely develop his village. And to start with we could build the village a “spring box” (which is a concrete water collection tank to collect ground and spring water for purification). This greatly disturbed us because none of us even knew what a spring box was let alone how to build one. “We’re teachers, not engineers”, one volunteer complained.

We were to live with our families for 3 weeks - attending a local school for language instruction during the day, and then returning in the evenings for sleep. During our free time we would help with the chores, play with the children, or practice our si-Swati. My family was the Kunene family. There was Jacob, the son, who was a student who spoke some English and was my translator.. He had a two younger sister , the mage (mother) and Luke, the father. Luke was an older man who was a rural carpenter by trade. The skin on his hands and bare feet was tight, hardened, cracked from years of physical labor. We were

Kunene Family

Kunene Home
reminded by the staff of our promise to help develop the village. As I couldn’t build them a spring box, I decided to build my family a proper toilet. The one presently being used was just a shallow hole in the ground behind the house surrounded by walls and door of wattle (tree branches) tied together with strips of bark. When the hole filled up they just dug another hole and surrounded it with wattle walls and a door. I considered this and found it unsatisfactory and unsanitary. I would build them a better toilet and fully sanitary. I assumed that the first thing needed was a hole in the ground. So Jacob and I started digging. I surmised that the deeper it was, the more sanitary it would be. We used a pick to loosen up the red, sticky soil, and then shovel it out of the deepening hole. When it got too deep to shovel out we used a bucket and rope to collect the loosened soil and someone above to pull It up and out. Down we went deeper and deeper until Jacob could no long be seen from the top in the darkening evening. Finally darkness forced us to stop. I was pleased with my hole which was over 3 times Jacob’s height - or about 20 ft. deep. It then occurred to me, “How is Jacob going to get out of this hole? The thought of me trying to explain to his parents in my rudimentary si-Swat that their son is in a 20-foot deep hole, and may have to spend the night there was very unsettling. A ladder was out of the question, because there were no ladders in rural Swaziland. Jacob yelled up to me, “Get me a long, thick tree branch”. I wondered how a branch could possibly help him, but I followed his advice and found a long, thick one among a pile of wattle branches and lowered it down to him. Jacob quickly shimmied up it and emerged with a large grin and I knew he found the whole incident very amusing. I counted my luck for me not being the one in the hole instead of him as I could not even chin myself and would most certainly have had to spend the night in the hole. The next morning was a new day and while remembering the night before, I was excited to show our hole to Luke. As Luke and I walked to the hole I noticed him eyeing the huge pile of red dirt which was taller than him next to the hole. We reached the edge of the hole and he peered down into the black pit. Luke’s eyebrows lifted up and wrinkled his bald forehead. His eyes widened and bulged while staring into the deepest hole he had ever seen in his life.. He stepped back as if to prevent himself from falling in. But then he approached it again, and this time leaning over the hole and trying to see the bottom which was not possible. Luke looked up, turned to Jacob and I, smiled and spoke in si-Swati to Jacob which Jacob did not translate for me. For the next few days Luke would walk out to the hole and stare into it. Now that the hole was finished I had Jacob order a slab of concrete with a hole in it delivered to cover the hole in the earth. Luke built the walls and door of wattle with the skill of a rural carpenter. Other than digging the hole, I played little in the actual construction. However, I felt proud that I had instituted the construction and now the Kunene family had a very good and sanitary toilet. The next day we packed our bags and attended the final meeting with the village people. Long speeches in si-Swati followed about the great things that we had done in spite of the fact that the spring box was never completed. A short translation followed. We were satisfied with the relationships we formed with our families and the cross cultural understanding which ensued. Many of us kept in touch with our families and visited them on a regular basis. I visited the Kunene family after 6 months time, and they were happy to see me. That evening I “felt the call of nature” and decided to use my creation. The flashlight led the way to the wooden structure that dark night. I shone the light down the dark, deep hole which I helped dig. Cobwebs stretched across that useless pit, and I smiled and thought, “I should have known”.

I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Swaziland from 1970 to 1974. After that I was an international teacher working in Turkey, Oman, and lastly in Thailand where I lived for over 20 years. I am retired now, living in Seattle with my wife and son.

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