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.
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.
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.