Swaziland trip revives surreal memories

Bobby Macaulay continues his travels in southern Africa amid the thrills of the World Cup which is set to come to an end on Sunday with the final between the Netherlands and Spain.

After the excitement and hysteria of my first World Cup match and the mission of a two-day bus journey from Port Elizabeth (via Durban), I finally arrived back in Swaziland after an absence of three-and-a-half years. My two years of schooling here was an often surreal experience but one I enjoyed immensely and that instilled knowledge through experiences which I could not have received in any other way.

What was very plain from the outset was that the problems suffered by Swaziland had not changed much in my absence. The country boasts the highest HIV-AIDS rate in the world, one of the highest poverty rates in the world and the lowest average life expectancy in the world at only 34 years. The all-powerful King Mswati III claims human rights, political integration and pov­erty eradication have improved since the enactment of a new consti­tu­tion in 2005, but the story on the ground appears not to confirm that claim.

Swaziland’s capital Mbabane is a bizarre contrast of women selling fruit and vegetables on the pavement and beggars being moved on by the police, with expensive cafes and res­taurants serving imported food and beer to their mainly white clientele. As in many African cities, KFC dominates the main shopping area, although catering to local tastes, bread is available with every fast-food meal.

The poverty in the city pales in comparison to rural poverty with images of hunger and desperation that the makers of Oxfam adverts would be proud of. Aid often does not reach this section of the popu­lation due to the difficulties in locating the needy and the adverse and often unpredictable political situ­ation. Recent government legis­lation requires all aid agencies to register their intentions, progress and future plans on a regular basis, purportedly for quality control pur­poses. This extra complication, as well as the possibility of being ejected from the country if standards are not met, may drive more aid agencies away from being able to provide help where its needed most.

Political parties are banned in Swaziland and freedom of speech, press and association are severely curbed. Democratic opposition to His Majesty has long been present in the illegal group People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO) and its affiliate youth, international and paramilitary wings. A recent spate of targeted bombings in the country of police, government and royal targets has intensified restric­tions on human rights but also turned a lot of people against the rebels. As we were hitching into Mbabane one morning, the lady giving us a lift explained the view taken by a maj­ority of Swazis about the bombings. “Swazis are peaceful people. Maybe things are not great here and there needs to be change but bombings are not the way. These people must find another way of finding democracy because now they are losing the support of the country.”

Swazis are polygamists, seeing the number of wives a man has as a status symbol. The King currently has 14 wives with the chosen women becoming younger for every new wedding. The late King Sobhuza II had 70 wives when he died in 1982, bearing 210 children. This mentality, coupled with vicious rumours about the heresy of contraception, does nothing to combat the level of HIV prevalence within the country.

Waterford Kamhlaba United World College of Southern Africa (Waterford for short) stands at the top of a hill, a 10 minute drive from Mbabane. It is attended by around 400 students ranging from Primary 7 to Secondary 6, most of whom board on campus. There is a large diversity of nationalities and indeed ages with students from countries affected by civil war tending to be a lot older due to fragmented educa­tion. My time at Waterford was characterised by a large workload, huge social opportunites with people from across the world and the ability to study, travel and work in southern Africa.

The reunion consisted mainly of eating, drinking, socialising and the compulsory seven-a-side football tournament. My year, the class of 2006, was one of the best represented with a large Mozambican contingent, South Africans and Swazis making the journey and a couple of overseas students, such as myself, turning up too. Our team, “Pedro’s Party”, was the skeleton of our school team which won the questionably honour­able title of runner-up in the Swazi­land National Schools Tournament 2006. We boasted five different nationalities in the team but due to various reasons, including collect­ively bulking up while enjoying the student life, we could only make the semis. The final was contested in true World Cup style between the all-Ethiopian team of current Water­ford students and the all-Swazi team of the school maintenance workers with the latter showing the students and graduates how it is done by dominating the final as they did the entire tournament. Their captain, Bongani, a short smiley man who I knew well when I was at school, asked if he could borrow my boots for the final as up until then he had only been wearing sandals. I hadn’t noticed his footwear previously and it made me even more embarrassed that Bongani had scored both goals in our 2-0 defeat to the maintenance guys in the group stages.

The World Cup atmosphere is more diluted after crossing the bor­der into Swaziland but still exists in certain pockets. The school assembly hall shows every game to an impres­sively large audience and certain pubs show matches on televisions of varying modernity. We watched the England v Germany game in one such pub where a large majority of the locals were supporting England due to their colonial connections with the country; the small number of the mainly elderly black male clientele supporting Germany were doing so for exactly the same reason.

On Monday we travelled to Moz­am­bique. Swaziland holds many memories of school and friends but will always be inferior to the Moz­ambican capital Maputo in terms of entertainment, atmosphere and inter­esting places to be. We intended to travel by kombi, a small minibus which is widely used throughout sub-saharan Africa for public trans­port, both short and long journeys. The advantage was the cheapness, the disadvantages were the lack of absolute safety, the uncertainty of departure time and the lack of legal accountability should anything go wrong – which it didn’t.

We took the short kombi ride from Mbabane to the financial cap­ital Manzini around lunch time, arriving to find a relatively empty bus destined for Maputo at about 1.30pm. The bus was slightly bigger than a kombi. Like many others in Mozambique it was an import from China, a former communist ally, and still bore Chinese figures, I assume safety instructions, on the inside. In Swaziland, as in most of Africa, buses leave when they are full, and very rarely before. As this was the last bus of the day it was taking its time and it only became financially viable to run the journey at around 3.30pm. The passengers on the bus were mostly black Mozambicans, of varying displays of wealth. One man advised me on the best exchange rate for my money and translated some of what was being said in both Portuguese and SiSwati. There were a couple of UN geographers on their holidays from the Democratic Rep­ublic of Congo and one woman who appeared to be eating chicken for the majority of the journey who insisted on transporting large quantities of large heavy boxes wrapped in black bags. The weight of these bags in the trailer, the lack of power in the aging bus and the multiple police stops encountered made the journey an awful lot longer than it should have been.

Much is said about police in Africa and I’m sorry to say that many of the criticisms of corruption, bribery and preferential treatment have been confirmed in encounters I have had with them. We were stopped at two police checkpoints in Swaziland, both of which examined every aspect of the bus’s functions and facilities. Even the fire exting­uisher was inspected and much deliberation occurred between the driver and the policeman behind the back of the trailer, hidden from view from the bus and passing traffic. The first policeman found some kind of fault and a bribe was paid to satisfy his qualms. The second policeman wasn’t aware we had already been stopped but the driver wasn’t able to tell him as there was understandably no paper-trail leading back to the first stop. This man didn’t appear to find the same, or any other fault with the bus and smiled smugly as he let us away with no charge and only another half hour delay to our journey.

The Goba Border Post is open 24 hours and is as entertaining as it is infuriating. “Thank you for visiting Swaziland. Please come back soon” is posted in happy red and yellow lettering above the mandatory photo­graphs of His Majesty, the Queen Mother and the Prime Minister Barnabas Dlamini on the Swazi side of the border. Then there is the short walk, or jog, across no man’s land to the Mozambican side. There is a mad rush to fill in immi­gration forms and throw passports to the very relaxed border staff on the other side of the desk to get stamped and return to driving. Me, Celisse and the UN couple needed visas and so held up the bus for a further 20 minutes while a sour-faced woman with a very large behind sauntered off with our passports. The building was large and airy with wooden desks and a variety of little rooms. There was a line of office chairs in front of a small TV, blaring out in Portugese with the final result of the Holland v Slovakia game and we could see one short bald official on the other side of the room playing Connect 4 on his computer.

An hour and a half later we were in Maputo and were picked up by Ricardo and Alicia, another two friends from school and who had also been at the reunion. We are staying at Alicia’s house, a large detached structure close to the heavily guarded American embassy. The atmosphere and feel of Maputo is very different to other parts of southern Africa. Its wide, straight boulevards and latin architecture accentuate the colonial style and its communist history has given those boulevards the unforgettable names of Mao Tse Tung St, Karl Marx Avenue and Vladamir Lenin Rd. Although I speak next to no Portu­gese I feel relatively safe and content in Mozambique, being able to com­municate in a similar way to how I spoke French in school – the com­bin­ation of infinitive verbs and large hand gestures.

Today I find myself at a loss as for the first time in three weeks as there isn’t any football on TV. I’ve tried to balance my football watching with various other activities to make the most of this trip but it is always pleasing to know that there will never be a dull moment. This coming week will probably be spent travel­ling somewhere in Mozambique, out of the comfort of our Mozambican friends who act as both taxi drivers and translators. As my most advan­ced Portuguese allows me to count to 10 and say “potato peeler”, I am excited, if a little apprehensive, about the trip.


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