It’s days like these that make me happy. It’s also days like these that make my heart break into a million little pieces. In just over a week, I will be home. In attempting to make the most of what time remains, my last week been a roller coaster ride of smiles, goosebumps, and overworked tear ducts.
It began last Friday. Swaziland goes crazy for beauty pageants –Miss Swaziland, Miss Tourism Swaziland, Miss Teen Swaziland, Miss Deaf Swaziland, Miss UNISA – and, to my delight, Mr Swaziland. I made sure to secure myself some front row seats for the finals of this male beauty competition. While the evening’s rain, offensive MC, and a lack of alcohol at the event (possibly due to the previous Mr Swaziland being discredited for several drink driving charges) left some people complaining, I was too overcome with excitement to notice.
All my senses were focused on the 10 finalists, as they kicked off the evening in traditional wear which, for those that don’t know, is little more than a piece of cloth and animal skin tied around the waste. Oh yes. This was followed up by the outdoor wear section, complete with choreographed dance, then the underwear section (!), before finishing off with the suits. Once the pool was reduced to five, the Q&A session led the judges to choose 21-year old Bonalelwe Makhanya as Mr Swaziland 2014. I abandoned all tact (if, indeed, I ever had any) to jump on the stage and grab a photo with the reigning king. Best. Day. Ever!
The following day, I joined my fellow adventure buddies, Liz and Helene, for an expedition to the annual Bugano Festival. I first heard about this festival last year, when I opened the paper to see pictures of grandmothers in traditional dress passed out, drunk, on the grass at the Queen Mother’s residence. The festival celebrates Swaziland’s indigenous marula / bugano fruit, which is traditionally brewed into a foul-tasting, extraordinarily sour, and extremely alcoholic, opaque spirit. In essence, the festival is a time for the grannies to let loose and get wasted, in a cheap and culturally sanctioned manner. To put it in perspective, when I told my colleague where I was going she looked genuinely concerned: “Be careful. I hear that lots of women go there and have unprotected sex”. I assured her that I’d be fine.
The festival itself felt much like music festivals in Australia: A mass of of tents were pitched in a nearby field, little food and drink stalls jostled for patronage, people sat on eskies under the trees taking communal swigs from plastic jugs of alcohol, and drunken men tried in vain to get lucky with drunk girls. Perhaps the only difference was the entertainment, which comprised thousands of matching grandmothers dancing and singing all day in the main arena as they gradually got drunker and drunker.
To round off the weekend in a totally surreal and splendid manner, I attended the launch of the Sunday Lunch Events at the country’s foremost traditional food restaurant, eDladleni. With the sun shining perfectly in the sky, we sat sipping bugano under the trees, tucking into a buffet of tasty local fare, then splashing around in the Mvubu creek, all while listening to the divine voice of Swaziland’s Nana Magagula covering Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Angelique Kidjo etc. Did I mention surreal and splendid?
The eating continued during the week: dinner on Tuesday at the exquisite Summerfields Gardens with the beautiful Fundzisile; traditional Swazi dinner on Wednesday at eDladleni with the monthly Meat Free Ladies social eating group (which incidentally wasn’t meat free, as that idea is too confusing for a Swazi cook); then dinner on Thursday with my French conversation crew at a new Indian restaurant where, three times, I tried to order food only to find out after (three) extended periods of time that they did not have what I ordered. I went drinking instead.
The highlight of Thursday, though, happened at work. When I’m in the work zone, I truly am oblivious to the world around me. I had no idea that my colleagues had planned a surprise farewell for me, and still didn’t click when I was called outside to where tables of food were set up with all my colleagues gathered around. The reality came when the Shelley and Julie uttered the kindest of words that promptly undermined all my attempts to pretend that this phenomenal journey was coming to an end. Then when Nomvula, Zandi and Zinhle led the group in singing to me, my skin lit up with goosebumps. There was no holding back the tears. Fortunately, I had lots of savoury snacks, chocolate cake, homemade trifle, and wine to drown my sorrows in. Then, in what Swazis would only describe as auspicious, the heavens opened and cried with me.
Needing a break from these exhausting emotions, I teamed up with Louise and Helene to spend Friday night chilling in the cabins at Malolotja. We arrived in the late afternoon, as a blanket of mist spread out across the countryside. Helene lit the fire, while Louise cooked and ensured glasses remained full. It wasn’t long before the serenity of the surroundings whisked me into a much-needed slumber. We took our time leaving the next morning, making sure these astounding vistas were permanently captured in my mind and my soul.
The end to this amazing week came Saturday afternoon, as Helene and I grabbed the mat and lounged on the Malandela’s grass watching the sun setting over the fields of sugar cane, while a movie played in the foreground, and people played in the background.
Swaziland. Still surprising. Sensational. Soulful.