Shakespeare and the Zulu

Daniel Stantus

© Copyright 2019 by Daniel Stantus

Photo of Daniel's Nsongweni house.
My house in Nsongweni.

Recently, I was browsing a Peace Corps website about the present living conditions for volunteers in Eswatini a small country in southeastern Africa. It was mainly nostalgia that brought me to this site. I was a PC volunteer in Swaziland (recently renamed Eswatini) from 1970 to 1974. While most volunteers there today could expect to be living in adequate housing with electricity, running water, and indoor plumbing. However, in the more rural areas volunteers could still be expected to live in more primitive conditions without the luxury of these conveniences just as I did 50 years ago. But with the introduction of cell phones and the internet communication and visual access to the net may have made life a bit more comfortable. My teaching assignment in those early days was at Nsongweni School, a small Methodist primary and secondary school in southern Swaziland where I lived and taught. It was located a few miles outside of the town of Nhangano where there was a market selling local fruits and vegetables and I could buy imported canned products from the Republic of South Africa at a grocery store there. For meat I went to a local butchery above the school where slabs of beef and goat meat from the previous day’s slaughter hung in the open air. On occasion I would cull a fowl from my tiny brood to make a skinny chicken stew. A tiny garden of mostly spinach, carrots, and corn supplemented my diet. So in the food category I was well set up. Cell phones and internet were beyond the imagination in those days. A hand-cranked phone was available in the school office for local calls. Television was not available in those days as the Republic, where it would have been broadcast from, did not allow TV, as it was thought to be too subversive by the then apartheid government. That left the portable radio as the main connection to the outside. There were lots of Zulu township jazz stations available, but a single station in Lorenzo Marques, Mozambique was the only source for BBC news and Aretha Franklin music. Of course we volunteers usually had a portable tape deck run on large telephone batteries hooked up in parallel to listen to Crosby, Stills, and Nash. To rewind a tape cassette we used a pencil to hand-spin them to save on the batteries. My accommodation was a small concrete block house on the school grounds. It had basically only 2 rooms - a bedroom and a kitchen. The outhouse was outside. There was no bath or shower which necessitated a hygienic procedure called a “bird bath” with a bowl of warm water, soap, and towel. The kitchen was the living room, too. The central feature was the wood stove where most activity was performed - cooking the meals, baking the cakes, boiling the water for tea, heating the bird-bath water, and warming the house on those cold July nights. Water I obtained from a spring box which collected it from a natural spring. Heavy 5-gallon buckets had to be hauled up a hill to the house. My student helper, Petros, would do this for me as he could balance the bucket on his head which was much easier than carrying it by hand. The lamps for light burned kerosine and gave off a flickering illumination and dancing shadows around the room. Many of the conveniences of living in the States were missing, but I had all the requirements for a relatively comfortable lifestyle. The silence at night was striking, and only occasionally would the drums from a distant African Christian Zionist ceremony or the rumblings of a thunderstorm permeate this solitude. Often I would sit alone at night reading in complete silence and have an almost spiritual experience. Never since have I had this feeling. It was the most peaceful place that I had ever lived ….. usually!
Petros delivers water.
                       Petros carrying water up the hill.
Simple living
Simple living in Nsongweni.
Solomon M’Guni was his name and he was the substitute teacher who arrived at Nsongweni School to replace the secondary school English teacher who had suddenly quit in the middle of the term. It was an awkward situation, but not uncommon in Swaziland. M’Guni was Zulu and from KwaZulu a semi-independent homeland for the Zulu people in the Republic of South Africa and sometimes referred to as Zululand. It was located just south of the Swazi border near Nhlangano. Swaziland was a desired location to teach for black African teachers who wanted to escape the repressive atmosphere of the Republic where even talking to a white person made you suspect. A poor school like Nsongweni was fortunate to get a teacher with M’Guni’s credentials. He had a teaching and master’s degree from a good university in the Republic with a major in Shakespearian Literature. M’Guni was a curious-looking little man. The suit jacket which he wore for teaching hung loosely on his tiny frame. He wore a wide-brim hat to cover his completely bald head. He had narrow-slit eyes which seemed to dart back and forth and never really meet yours. When I first met him I could sense his unease of talking freely with a white person. On his first day of teaching he strode through the yard in front of the school and into his classroom with long, gangly strides. The students in his class burst out laughing upon seeing this funny-looking little man, but that was immediately quelled with a loud and sharp slap on his desktop with a not-so-thin wooden stick. In the ensuing days I could hear lengthy, eloquent passages emanating from that simple classroom:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage ….”

These were not just readings from a book, but the passionate recitations from M’Guni’s memory.

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end ….”

The student reaction was one of awe. The students did not understand most of the words, but were mesmerized by his emotional display. I thought that they should be learning more English conversation not Shakespearian drama, but he did hold their attention.

One quiet evening I was reading by lantern light and listening only to the crackling of the fire in the wood stove when I heard what was shouting in si-Zulu. I opened my front door and looked out to see nothing. I closed the door and turned around to see a face pressed against my kitchen window. I jumped back quickly and recognized the face of M’Guni. It disappeared but I could hear someone circling my house. This time I walked out of my house and stood outside. There stood M’Guni in his full warrior attire: baggy boxer shorts, sleeveless undershirt, wide-brimmed hat, and armed with a small hatchet in one hand. He shouted out Zulu war chants while stamping his feet against the ground and making intimidating mock weapons thrusts in true Zulu dance fashion. He would then dance to another location and repeat the display. There were a few other teachers’ houses in the school complex and their window shades were closed and the doors probably locked from the inside. I went back inside my house and closed the door hoping this would all end soon as I figured that M’Guni meant no harm and had probably just drank too much, and then I went to bed. It continued on for some time but got quieter as it got later in the evening and finally stopped. I did’t want to go back outside to see if he had passed out or simply gone to bed.
The next morning M’Guni appeared in the staff room where he avoided looking or speaking to the other teachers, and he retreated to his classroom which was quiet from both him and his students.

A few normal weeks passed and one weekend I was visited by a pair of new volunteers who had just arrived from the States. It is typical that one of the first things that new volunteers do is to visit a site where a veteran volunteer has been working. The volunteers were a married couple who had just arrived from pre-training on the east coast. It was good to talk with them and get the latest political news and trends that were now happening in the States. They exhibited the same enthusiasm and innocent nativity that I had when I first arrived in Swaziland. They were concerned about the relative safety in country, poisonous snakes, and the indigenous foods. They were scheduled for a sleep-over at my house, and I announced that I wouldn’t be with them as I had an appointment scheduled with the PC doctor early the next morning and I had to take the bus into Mbabane that afternoon. I gave them the keys to my house and showed them how to get water, where the outhouse was, and how to start my wood stove for their meals. They seemed anxious to experience their first real test in rural Africa. I left on the bus that afternoon confident that they would enjoy their stay and benefit from their experience. I returned by bus the following morning after my appointment expecting to see the couple and for them to relate their impressions of staying at Nsongweni. When I got to my house I noticed that the door was unlocked and there was evidence of a fast exit as some clothes were left behind and general dishevel. I asked the teachers in the residence nearest to me about what happened. They said the couple left in a hurry on the 5:00 am bus back to Mbabane, the capital They said that M’Guni was out the previous night and this time he was carrying a machete. He danced and shouted around my house for most of the night. It was only in the early morning before 5 am that he finally stopped. The couple were seen leaving my house and running to the bus stop along the road above the school with bags in hand. The peace at Nsongweni was shattered that night, and I was sorry that I wasn’t there to help them get through the night as I knew that they were never in real danger. The east coast couple recovered from their night of terror and I’m sure had a great story about their experience in letters to family and friends. Solomon M’Guni quietly left Nsongweni School the following day and went back to his home in KwaZulu leaving another vacancy to be filled in the perpetual line of replacement teachers. With my peace restored I settled into another year at Nsongweni. 

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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