Arrival, 1. The Initiation

I met Satoshi late in the morning, outside the lodge where I had spent my first night. Satoshi is a consultant for some international company with an office in Swaziland, where he’s been working for several months (7? Maybe 8?). This was about the only thing I knew about him at the time. When I first found out that I would be going to Swaziland, back in April, a mutual friend of ours connected us on Facebook, and Satoshi graciously offered to be my ambassador in Swaziland.

Satoshi greeted me, and introduced me to three of his friends he met in Swaziland, Korean immigrants teaching Science and Math in rural villages. I was pretty apprehensive when he suggested that we go paint-balling. I had never been paint-balling before, and I didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of him, or his friends. But my inexperience was the least of our problems: it was 90 degrees without a cloud in the sky, and we were sweltering in our heavy protective gear. We only got a couple of games in before we submitted to exhaustion.

Afterwards, the Koreans departed, and Satoshi and I went out to lunch at the resort next to the paintball place. We ate on the outdoor balcony that overlooks the beautiful Ezulwini Valley, apparently translated as the “Valley of Heaven.” Ezulwini, one of the biggest tourist destinations in Swaziland, has struck an appealing balance between upscale development, and local agriculture. There is a mall and several lifestyle resorts, but the valley itself is dotted by family farms.

Ezulwini at sunrise
Ezulwini at sunrise

We were just finishing up our main course when a wave of chattering elderly tourists on an “African Safari” bus came through and disrupted the tranquility we were enjoying, so we cut the conversation short and went to the mall for coffee.

Our next stop was the Manzini region, where I would be living for the foreseeable future. Manzini is the largest city in Swaziland, but it does not have much of the comforts of an American city. Most expats in Swaziland live in Mbabane, the capital, because its the most developed part of the country, is close to the South African border, and also, I suspect, because it’s a good 10-15 degrees cooler (Fahrenheit) than the other regions, due to its elevation. For these reasons, I had arranged to live in a comfortable flat in Mbabane for about $400 USD a month.

However, when I arrived in Swaziland, I was informed that I could take free accommodation with the University of Swaziland (UNISWA) on the Social Sciences campus. I had hesitated, since the campus is about 30 minutes from the Baylor clinic where I will be doing research, but Satoshi assured me that it would be easy to get from the campus to the capital through public transportation. And it’s hard to turn down free housing. So I said goodbye to Ezulwini and headed for the saltier Manzini region.

The UNISWA campus deserves its own blog post, which I’ll get to eventually, so I’ll be brief here. The thing you should know is that UNISWA is the largest and most reputable university system in Swaziland. It is run by the government, ostensibly with close oversight, so it follows that many of the, um, peculiarities of Swaziland are mimicked in the physical, administrative, academic, and social landscape of the campus. It is a vibrant place, though, and the students seem to like it. Oh, and I’m pretty sure that I’m the only white person on campus.

Bad pictures of UNISWA campus.
Bad pictures of UNISWA campus.

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When Satoshi and I arrived, we realized we had a problem: we didn’t know which apartment was mine. We parked near the student dorms in the back of campus, wandered around aimlessly for a few minutes, and eventually spotted a trio of bored security guards.

“Sabona! We’re looking for apartment 21.”
“Sabona. Which apartment 21?”

Um. It didn’t occur to me that there might be more than one apartment 21. As it turns out, there are in fact 12 apartment blocks, each with an apartment 21. So we had our work cut out for us. We were about to call my US embassy liaison for assistance when we were approached by a student who overheard us talking to the guards.

“Sabona. You need help finding your apartment, yes?”

I hesitated. I felt bashful about inviting another person on this goose chase. But, given our visible confusion, I couldn’t really lie, either.

“Well yeah, but we can probably find it.”
“No, I will help you. I am Leendela, but you can call me Lindz.”

Lindz then began talking in rapid Siswati to the Security guards, one of whom seemed genuinely angry that we could arrive on campus without knowing exactly where we were supposed to be going. Eventually, the guard calmed down, and suggested we try checking near the faculty apartments. Lindz turned back to us.

“Take me to your car. Let me help you look for this place.”

So Lindz, Satoshi, and I began to drive around the residences, stopping at every apartment block to see if they had an unoccupied apartment 21. As you can imagine, this was a tedious and awkward task. I don’t want to get into the details of how many confused and annoyed Swazi faculty and staff we bothered, but let’s just say that I didn’t make any new friends.

As luck would have it, my apartment was in the farthest block from campus. So by the time we arrived it was late afternoon and Lindz and I were acquainted. Lindz, it turned out, is a fifth year law student at UNISWA. He is 23 and has 1 daughter. He speaks English with a heavy slur, so I have to him to repeat himself nearly every sentence. To his credit, he doesn’t seem to mind.

After we dropped my suitcases off, Satoshi took us to Lindz’s apartment, said goodbye, and then left for his house in Mbabane. I wanted to go take a nap because I was still feeling very jet-lagged, but Lindz insisted that I should come into his block and meet his friends. I obliged, not wanting to disappoint a guy who just spent an hour or so helping a complete stranger find his apartment. And so, we headed into the block.

There’s very little that could have prepared me for what followed. Have you ever accidentally walked into the wrong classroom as a kid and had the entire room stare at you in silence? That’s pretty much what it felt like to walk into the block and have 10 Swazi dudes, gathered in a circle, turn to stare at me with apprehension and suspicion.

“Sa-Sabona,” I croaked.
“Yebo,” they murmured.
“This is Rod,” Lindz said. “He’s a student on scholarship.” He then said something in Siswati.
“I’m Qibho,” (t-click-bo) said a lanky guy with a distinct yellow and red beret. He reached out to shake my hand.

One by one, everybody in the circle introduced themselves to me, though I could hardly pronounce, let alone remember, any of their names. Most of the students had some drink in front of them, either Coke or Sibebe beer, and a couple were passing around spliffs. There was a security guard next to them, and although alcohol is prohibited on the UNISWA campus (and weed is illegal), he evidently didn’t have any objections.

The guy in the beret spoke up. “What brought you to Swaziland?” I noticed that I could easily understand him despite his accent, and I would later find out that he has an almost flawless command of English. I told him about the Fulbright, and how I wanted to study HIV support groups.

“But why Swaziland?”

This was harder to answer- I didn’t want to tell him that Swaziland was the first country to approve my research, and that I knew almost nothing about the country when I applied. Instead, I told him that I had a long-standing interest in the monarchy, and that I had heard that the country was more developed than most countries in Southern Africa, and… But I kept stuttering over my words, so I was sure I didn’t sound too convincing.

“And what do Americans think  of Swaziland?”
“Well… most don’t really know anything about it. They- I mean, we- tend to lump all of Sub-Saharan Africa together. I mean, not all of us, but some of us.”
“Did you expect there to be monkeys and rhinos in the streets when you got here?” “Uh… no… but I did pass some cows and goats in the streets.”
“Hmm. So what are we to you? Species or human?”
“What?”

“Qibho, chill out,” Lindz cautioned.
“Hold on!” Qibho said impatiently. “I just want to know. Do you think of us as animals?”
“No!” I said emphatically, then immediately worried that my insistence might come across as insincere.

But Qibho seemed to relax. “And would you take a Swazi girl, if she was clean?”
“Clean?”
“If she didn’t have AIDS,” Lindz explained.

A pause. I responded, “I mean… if she was cute…”

Everyone in the group laughed. “My man!” Qibho said, and reached out to fist bump me. Lindz put his arm around my shoulder. “You passed the initiation!” I grinned, relieved. I’m still not sure how serious Qibho was, but he was clearly one of the leaders of the pack, so I was glad to have his approval.

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Qibho (left) and Lindz

Then, the rest of them started opening up to me. We shared some considerably lighter banter, mostly about women and plans for the evening- not so different from back in college. While I was very interested in hearing about Swaziland, they weren’t nearly as interested in hearing about America. Most of them watch the same American movies and TV shows we watch (Last Week Tonight is big here) and follow our news media, so they all seemed to have a good idea of American culture, and they were all law students, so they seemed to know a lot about American politics.

When the sun started setting, people began to disperse, on various missions to set up for the evening happenings. I was fixing to go back to my room for a nap when Qibho and Lindz motioned to me. I got closer. They then asked me the last thing I was expecting. “Do you want to come to a poetry slam with us?”

So that’s the story of how my cluelessness led to my apparent induction into an informal society of Swazi law students. What adventures befall our hero? Will I discover an underworld of Swazi artists and intellectuals? Will I emerge as a major player in the Swaziland poetry scene? Or will the whole thing be a disappointing and trite affair? The suspense! The intrigue! Tune in next time to find out!

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