Borders that Burn: Or, What I Learned From Spending a Night Inside a Giant Egg

Imagine that you’re wandering a desert in South Africa in the middle of a cold, windy night. You don’t know what time it is, but judging by the position of the moon it seems to be around midnight. Or maybe 2ish? It’s hard to tell time from the moon.

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World AIDS Day: Swaziland Edition

I arrived at the Baylor clinic at 9:00 in the morning, knowing full well that although the event was supposed to start at 8:30, it would be at least half an hour until it started. We had set up the giant tent the day before to protect the attendees from the hot summer sun, but it turned out to be a Seattle day- cold and damp, with a dark overcast. The problem with mountain climates is that you can never trust the weather forecast.

I was there for the World AIDS day commemoration event. Even though World AIDS day wasn’t until next Tuesday, there are so many NGOs that work with health that they have to space their events throughout the week to avoid conflicting with each other. The audience for our event was a good mix of Baylor patients, including the youth who participated in the Teen Club support groups, and the doctors, board members, and other stakeholders within Baylor College of Medicine – Swaziland.

The commemoration started with a prayer and a church hymnal from the master of ceremonies, which I’ve come to expect at any public ceremony in Swaziland. Next, the formidable executive director Ms. Hlatshwayo gave the opening remarks. She celebrated Baylor’s role in reducing the mother to child transmission rate to 2 percent, while emphasizing the importance of talking about HIV with peers to reduce stigma.

Then, the Teens from the Teen Clubs gathered in the front to perform an instructional skit about HIV, told from the perspective of the HIV virus itself. “My name is HIV. The only thing I’m afraid of is people who take care of themselves,” said the plucky Swazi youngster who played the role of the virus. Following the skit, a group of Swazi women wearing traditional Swazi dress danced and chanted in siSwati.

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The next couple of hours continued in the same way, with speeches about the state of HIV in Swaziland interposed by various performances from Teen Club youth. While the speeches were optimistic, they also emphasized the enormous scale of the problem. And with good reason: The HIV/AIDS crisis is one of the most significant facts of life in Swaziland today. The disease has ravaged the population, dropping the life expectancy from 63 years at the beginning of the epidemic to 48 years at its height in 2008.

Even worse, the most socially disadvantaged populations within Swaziland have been at the highest risk of the disease. The percentage of women living with HIV/AIDS today is around 31 percent, compared with 20 percent of men, and this disparity becomes more pronounced in lower socio-economic brackets. While the mother to child transmission has dropped to below 2% today, before the intervention of NGOs percent of the child population infected through mother to child transmission was startlingly high. A particularly tragic result of the epidemic is that nearly half of Swazi children now fall into the Orphans and Vulnerable Children category, a significant portion themselves infected.

These are immediate, tragic human impacts. Often overlooked, however, is the less quantifiable damage the disease has dealt to the social fabric of Swazi society. One of the staples of Swazi society has been its traditionalism, largely due to the fact that Swaziland is a tiny, homogenous country (84% of its population are ethnic Swazi) that reverted to absolute monarchy during its decolonial transition in the late 1960s. Along with other powerful social institutions such as Zionist churches (which blend Christianity and indigenous worship), the monarchy has strategically maintained its stronghold by reinstating old rituals of Swazi society as performances of national solidarity.

The Umhlanga ceremony, which features a Reed Dance performed by a parade of (topless) Swazi girls, is probably the most well-known of these rituals. The true origins of Umhlanga are speculative, because they rely heavily on oral accounts, but African historians believe that Umhlanga became a much more central Swazi tradition after the resurgence of the monarchy. The ceremony is widely understood to be a celebration of virginity since only childless, unmarried girls can take part; more dubiously, it has been speculated to be a market for the King to choose his next wife from (in truth, this has probably only happened with two of the kings 14 wives).

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The Princess at Umhlanga

While chastity has become a central theme of the ceremony in recent years, Umhlanga was originally designed to provide tribute labor to the Queen mother. But, as with many other institutions, the ceremony has been forced to contend with the presence of HIV/AIDS. By 2001, the force of HIV/AIDS in Swaziland was too concussive to ignore. In response, King Mswati III issued a call for Umcwasho, a full ban on sex among unmarried virgins for 5 years. This policy was consistent with the traditional values of older Swazis, and therefore was met apparently without opposition from the public institutions (though it was considerably less popular among the Swazi teens).

Highly visible and well-attended, the Umhlanga ceremony became one of the public battlegrounds for the fight against HIV/AIDS, where the young women were trained to be the soldiers for the cause. An HIV/AIDS education campaign began within the ceremony itself, and the girls were taught new chants about the dangers of HIV/AIDS. Like the chant reproduced below, many of these chants reinforced conservative ideologies of sexuality and gender.

(Lead singer)Inyandzaleyo Malangeni!
(Chorus) Nawe ingakutfola iAIDS
(Lead singer) Hlala ngentfombi Ntfombatana!
(Chorus) Nawe ingakutfola iAIDS
(Lead singer) i- AIDS ibhokile lonyaka.
(Chorus) Nawe ingakutfola iAIDS

(Lead singer) Beware Malangeni!
(Chorus) You too will be caught by AIDS
(Lead singer) Sit like a lady, girl!
(Chorus) You too will be caught by AIDS
(Lead singer) AIDS is widespread this year

(Chorus) You too will be caught by AIDS

Of course, while abstinence campaigns work in a perfect world, in practice they have very little positive effect on sexual habits, and actually tend to be detrimental because they deter the use of condoms and other low-risk sexual practices. More damningly, since girls in gender unequal societies tend to have very little bargaining power (and Swaziland is no exception), the decision to have sex, and the way to have it, largely resides with the man in heterosexual relationships. Accordingly, abstinence programs aimed at women usually fail to target the root of the problem.

This became apparent in Swaziland when the rates of HIV/AIDS continued to climb during the Umcwasho period, and by the end of Umcwasho in late 2005, government policy was starting to become more responsive to public health campaigns. It is unclear what caused the change in policy- I suspect a combination of conditional development/aid dollars and the obvious failures of the abstinence programs- but the fact remains the government allowed a variety of non-state actors to implement HIV/AIDS responses.

The period between 2006 and 2008 saw the implementation of the second phase of the National Emergency Response Council for HIV and AIDS (NERCHA), the umbrella organization of the national response to HIV/AIDS. This phase was much more proactive than the previous phase, and funneled UNAIDS money towards UNAIDS approved health care sectors.

Meanwhile, prominent NGOs had begun to work within Swaziland. Notable among these are Young Heroes, ICAP, and BIPAI (the organization I’ve been working with). I have trouble keeping track of the alphabet soup of NGOs working in Swaziland today, and I have no doubt that the influx of white expats (like myself?) and their (our) Western values is another part of the disruptive core of HIV/AIDS.

Abstinence is still a large part of the social response to AIDS, especially in the churches which most Swazis attend on a weekly basis, but contraceptive use, free public testing, and other public health approaches are widely acceptable practices, albeit with considerable variance in urban vs. rural areas. This protean response is exemplified by the ABC (“Abstain, Be faithful, Condomize”) slogan that is widely advertised in Swaziland.

All in all, it is hard to overstate the impact of HIV/AIDS in Swaziland. For now, it is a defining feature of life in Swaziland, as recognizable as minibuses, chicken and pap restaurants, and colorful ceremonial dress. And it has redefined how Swazis view their relationship with their significant others, with their friends, with their bodies, with their king, and with God.

I’ll conclude with a quote from the keynote speaker at the world AIDS day event that sums my article up quite beautifully. “Because of AIDS we have a new relationship with God. We are discovering that we are kind, confident, empowered, and spiritual.”

 

 

 

Arrival, part 2. The Poetry Slam

We left for the poetry slam at the Mbabane Theatre Club soon after the sunset- Qihbo, Lindz, a popular Swazi rapper who introduced himself as “Psycho-lution,” and myself. Mbabane is only half an hour away from the campus, but since none of the students had cars, we had to walk off campus to catch a kombi.

Kombis, the Swaziland name for the buses that cover much of Sub-Saharan Africa, are about the most African thing I’ve encountered so far. They seat 12 people comfortably, but most kombi drivers wait until their vehicles are jammed with 16 people to maximize profits. This means that a kombi doesn’t leave at a scheduled time, and when they do depart, you’re pretty much sitting in someone else’s lap. It doesn’t help that most kombi drivers are young men who seem to enjoy driving as fast as the vehicles allow down the inconsistently paved roads of Swaziland.

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It’s not all bad, though. You can flag a kombi down anytime they pass you, and there are so many kombis going to the major cities that you usually only have to wait for minutes to get one with space. And the rides only cost between 5 and 20 rand (about $.30 to $1.50) for distances up to one hour away.

On our way to the kombi stop, I had my first hard look at Swaziland gender norms. The guys were loose and rowdy as we walked the mile or so to the kombi stop, and they made sure to notice every attractive Swazi woman (really, any Swazi woman) that we passed. “Waooow! Exe, look at that mammie over there!” The boys would say when a suitable woman passed. They made no attempt to be discreet, pointing at the target of their attention and beckoning her to come over.

“Do you know her?” I asked Lindz, the first time this happened.
“Nooo!”
“Oh, ok.”
Qibho smiled. “American girls don’t like that, right?”
“Yeah, it’s pretty rude.”
“What!” Lindz said. “This is how men show their appreciation for women!”
“So it’s acceptable here?”
“Of course! They love it!”

I looked back at the woman he called out to. She certainly seemed to enjoy the attention: her head was held high and she was beaming. Her friends next to her were giggling and looking back at us admiringly. It was bizarre. I found myself wondering how these practices, benign though they seemed, contributed to the stark social differences between men and women in Swaziland.

After a few more encounters like this, we reached the kombi stop, got on the first kombi that had space for all of us, and headed towards the capital. The ride was pretty uneventful, although I did have the dubious pleasure of being jammed against the window by a very large woman’s breast.

It was dark when we got off the kombi, but we only had to walk for a few minutes before we arrived at the Theatre Club, a gaudy, old-timey theater that had clearly seen better days. On the facade, large rounded bulbs illuminated a headliner act from a bygone era; below it was an out-of-use ticket booth with half peeled posters on the sides. Inside, there was the true ticket counter, which had a respectable line in front of it; to the right of the counter was the theatre, and to the left, the bar.

While we waited in line, the guys introduced me to everybody they knew, which was everybody in the theatre. Qibho was clearly a VIP in this arena, and I would later find out that he was one of the original members of the slam poetry society, five years ago. After many Swazi handshakes (subtly different from American handshakes) and failed attempts to remember names, I got my tickets and sat down for the show.

Finally, a good 40 minutes after the scheduled start time, the lights went out and the emcee took center stage. In the typical blend of English and siSwati, the emcee, a hip 20-something with glasses and a feminine manner, welcomed the audience. The theme, he said, was “Date Night or Data Night”. If you don’t have dates, he explained, then you can “find your date through free Internet data!” (Apparently, they were doing some kind of promotion. Getting internet access here is a nightmare- more on that later.)

He then introduced the first poet, a nondescript Swazi teen who read off his poems in English. He was probably a first-timer, because his hands shook and his delivery was monotone as he read off his first poem. This poem, titled “For my Future Wife,” was basically a praise poem for an ideal woman who shows her steadfast devotion to him (and only him). I noticed that men and women in the audience made noises of agreement during some of the lines that I found uncomfortable, such as a bit about how “my woman will stand with me as I make the mistakes only a man will make.”

The next poet was more composed, but he also chose to focus his art on the beautiful women in his life, and how he hopes they have the sense to avoid HIV/AIDS. Again, a warm audience reception during the bits that I found most offensive.

I was feeling the cultural dissonance pretty hard at this point, and it was definitely uncomfortable. The poetry slams that I’m familiar with, in America, are progressive places. Theres a strong emphasis on speaking “your truth,” which usually means that poets from dominant backgrounds (e.g., straight, white males) are careful not to impose their perspective on oppressed people (e.g., queer and non-white). It seemed that this sensitivity was not a norm here.

Qibho was fourth in the lineup, so after another underwhelming poet (thankfully, this one avoided gender issues), Qibho took the stand. I wondered why I was feeling tense, and then I realized how much I wanted Qibho to be a “good” poet. After the troubling performances of the previous speakers, I found myself already writing off the poetry scene in Swaziland. A premature judgement, of course, but this was more of an emotional call than a rational one. And Qibho had showed himself to be such an interesting thinker in our first encounter that I had high expectations for him. Could I really be friends with him if he was a blatant mysogynist? I didn’t really want to find out.

But the tensions released within seconds of his performance. His experience was evident. His body was completely fluid as he spit in quick, clear English, in the provocatively abstract style of successful slam poets. I couldn’t reproduce his phrasings here, but I was able to follow along as he railed against global apathy, smartly covering globalization and the West, traditionalism in Africa, and the dumbing down of the media. He would have been right at home in a slam in America.

And the audience loved it. They paid rapt attention to his poetry and snapped and whooped throughout the performance. By comparison, the appreciation they showed for the previous poets seemed to be mere politeness. Lindz and I stood up with most of the audience to give him a standing ovation when he finished.

After the show, we went to congratulate Qibho on the porch in the back. The older people were filtering out the front, which left about half the audience milling around the congested porch. When I finally reached Qibho I paid him several complements, but I toned it down when I noticed that he was feeling awkward.

It was only 11:30, and everyone seemed to have a lot of energy, so we went inside the bar and got drinks. From there, people stood around smoking on the porch, flirting over drinks, and playing semi-serious games of pool. You know, bar things. For me, though, my alcoholic beverage (Sibebe beer) combined with several days without proper sleep put me in an exhausted stupor. I no longer had the energy to meet new people. So I ignored the stares of the curious Swazis I hadn’t met yet and slumped on a couch next to the pool table. I made some light conversation with the players and even played a couple of games, but my heart wasn’t in it. I just wanted to go home.

When the bar closed at 1:00 am, we filed outside. I had a feeling the boys were hoping to continue the festivities someplace else, but they were respectful to my need for sleep and flagged down a van headed in the direction of the school (they knew the driver). The ride back was a blur. I vaguely recall being given the Swazi nickname “Rontsontso” by the guys, and listening to them attempt a rap battle.

I’m not sure how I found my way back to my apartment, but I awoke in the middle of the afternoon the next day. Exhausted but happy.

There’s no such thing as a shameless study abroad blog

There was a time when we believed that a young white man with a journal and a healthy sense of adventure could change the world. Dissatisfied with the Western world, the intrepid explorer journeys into the World of the Other to find an existence unfettered by civilization. He is Kipling in India, Thoreau at the Pond, Kerouac on the Road. He is an ambassador in wild lands, giving to the native populations his god, his goods, and his goodwill. In exchange, he cultivates the finest seeds of his spirituality. He finds himself. When he returns, he shares his cultivated wisdom within society, and the seeds of enlightenment begin to sprout. 

These stories are at the core of much of Western ideology, with the obvious example of Manifest Destiny. But somewhere along the way we’ve given up on the travel writer. Maybe the reverberating aftershocks of colonialism have dispelled our exotic ambitions once and for all. Or, more likely, the travel writer is just another victim of millennial capitalism, swallowed up, like other print journalists, by the demands to produce new content in a world of seemingly limitless information.

But, he hasn’t completely gone away. His legacy lives on in the study abroad blogger, usually a college educated twenty-something with enough capital to travel to foreign lands “just for the experience.” Like their forefather, the blogger (I refuse to use the portmanteau “study a-blogger”) is motivated by a desire to find the real in life. The study abroad blog, however, is painstakingly effortless, a breezy take-it-or-leave-it rumination on the excitement and mundanity of traveling. Ever-careful to avoid producing content that can be critically evaluated, the blogger hides their cultural prejudices behind their stated disdain for tourism and self-deprecating remarks about their unfamiliarity with the culture. The savvier among them will remember their discredited forefathers and attempt to articulate their truths as a plural with a lowercase t, and it will be not for you but for them alone that they write their blog. Or so they claim, in a witty quip about how “only mom and dad are reading this!” So when they do inevitably post their blog updates, they do so with the ironically self-aware “shameless self-promotion” posts, a tongue-in-cheek admission of guilt.

Make no mistake: there’s no such thing as a shameless study abroad blog. Irony is a comfortable way to express our thoughts behind the safety of ambiguity, but it is a thin veneer for the shame we feel when we realize that our ability to travel freely into a foreign country, document our travels, and couch the whole thing as a journey of self-discovery, is the result of a colonial tradition.

I am really uncomfortable writing publicly in the first person because I don’t want to accept my part in a tradition that has misrepresented people and cultures for hundreds of years, forming the cultural basis for oppression. But if this blog is to have any social value whatsoever, I have to accept my role in this cycle. From this point on, this blog is about me. I am going to spend the next nine months in Africa. I am shamelessly/shamefully blogging about my experiences.

The difference, I hope, is that my blog posts can be personal while still being socially conscious. My implicit responsibility, as a study abroad blogger (not to mention anthropology researcher) is to confront the post-colonial legacy whenever I see it, in myself and others. Shameful as it may be, I’d rather take on my privilege as a white traveller than perpetuate cultural silences by producing another socially unconscious study abroad blog.