Cultural immersion

Now that I have been in Swaziland for three months and have a general understanding of the lay of the land, I decided it was high time I immersed myself in some real cultural experiences.

As a result, I decided to head to the local netball competition a couple of weeks ago with Julie, a fellow Australian and netball fanatic.  From what we had heard, netball is huge in Swaziland, particularly among the men, so we were looking forward to some high quality sporting entertainment.  Okay, so Swaziland has no hope of beating Australia anytime soon (or anytime this decade), yet the experience did provide some entertainment.  What I enjoyed most was seeing their laissez-faire manner, which Australia seems to have lost under a blanket of OH&S policies.  I mean, why bother with shoes when bare feet can do the job perfectly well?  And what happens when, in the country with the highest HIV rates in the world, you graze yourself and start bleeding after slipping on a pile of sand that made its way onto the court? Just chuck some water on it (while on the court) and keep going.  No First Aiders here.  This attitude isn’t restricted to netball, though.  Right next to us was the local soccer competition where even fewer players donned foot apparel, Goalies wore nothing more than a shirt and pair of shorts, and yet the entire pitch was made of sand.  Injury is clearly an insignificant obstacle for a poor country.

Soccer, Swazi style

The next Swazi experience was an unintentional, and a slightly embarrassing one:  being caught speeding.  Oops.  As I knew that I had done the wrong thing, by driving at 90km/h in a 60 zone (it was a highway, with no houses, on the downhill!), I was prepared to pay my dues.  Sixty emalangeni (~AUD$7.50) and a smile from the policeman later, I was back on the road.  Without a doubt, the best speeding experience ever, although probably not a very effective one.

Last weekend I dragged Julie along to a Church dinner fundraiser for the local Neighbourhood Care Point.  NCPs are voluntary-run services that provide day care and pre-school education (plus the luxury of a basic meal) for orphans and vulnerable children (OVCs).  An African Evangelical Church experience combined with a good cause – what’s not to get excited about?  We arrived late, which I discovered was early by Swazi standards and sat down at the beautifully decorated church.  The entertainment for the evening consisted of gospel music which, in reality, resembled muffled din thanks to the singers’ and the sound systems’ aim (I assume) to belt out God’s praises at maximum decibels (I also assume God is now suffering the same acute deafness as me). The music was punctuated by an angry-sounding and equally loud sermon, and lots of raised arms accompanied by “Hallelujah” and “Thank you Jesus”.  I would have happily accepted all of this as “part of the experience” if I had witnessed it on a full (or even slightly less than empty) stomach.  However, for some reason, the sit-down meal, while delicious, wasn’t served until after midnight!   By 11pm, I was so hungry I thought I would pass out (ignore the fact that the fundraiser was for kids who rarely get one meal a day), and Julie was so tired she thought she would pass out (although later admitted she used the bowed heads of prayer to catch a quick 2-minute nap).  We were desperate to leave, yet thanks to our late/early arrival, our car was blocked in.  So, after five hours of enforced gospel, prayers and fasting, Julie and I left there exasperated, yet certain we were on the highway to heaven.

Perhaps the most satisfying cultural experience for me over the last few weeks, however, has been getting away from the cappuccinos and comfort, and heading rural to visit some of our Gone Rural groups.  Using my basic knowledge of siSwati, I managed to introduce myself to our women, which led to overwhelming applause, the high-pitched lalalalala sound, and about 40 women offering me their sons (and one old Grandfather kindly offering me himself…in front of his wife.  Awkward).   We were also delivering certificates for Peer Educators, winter blankets and cheap school bags for recipients of our school bursary program.  The simplest, and cheapest, of items yet you would think they had the won the lotto:  Singing, dancing and hugs…lots and lots of hugs.

Very happy hugs

Dancing with joy at receiving a Peer Educator certificate

Finally, we also used the trips to visit some NCP volunteers whom we had trained on “how to grow children straight and strong”. I don’t think I will ever forget the small 3m x 3m mud room that has two bits of cardboard placed on the bare earth to seat 23 OVCs.  Or the “door” to the NCP creatively made out a big, bare, spiky branch to keep kids out (or in?).

An NCP showing the creative branch-door

Inside an NCP that supports 23 orphans and vulnerable children

What people manage to do with so little seems so amazing to me, yet when I break it down, makes perfect sense.  Water, food, shelter and love: basic human needs and all that’s required to be content.  It is such a humbling, and refreshing change to witness this reality and the sheer beauty of simplicity.   It is these moments that make upending my Australian life to be here, completely and utterly worthwhile.

NCP volunteer demonstrating how to be so happy with so little


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