I lived in the beautiful mountainous Kingdom of Swaziland from 1987 to 2002 and have returned six times since — the need to “come home” has been, and still is, strong.
I arrived in Swaziland on November 12 with excitement and anticipation to see family, old friends, and all the children Canadians sponsor through the not-for-profit organization Swaziland Educational Trust Society (SETS), which incorporated in the Yukon in 2004.
But I also arrived with some apprehension: who wouldn’t I find? Death is always at Swaziland’s door with HIV and AIDS.
It was important for me to make a courtesy call on my Swazi bishop and to greet Prince Sobandla, my sister-in-law’s husband. But I also have an overwhelming need to identify with the ordinary folks I knew, and always pray for, as they struggle to survive.
I found the blind gogo, still standing in front of Standard Bank all day, begging; and the man with the amputated legs, his stumps covered with leather caps, still crawling around the city, his hands in leather gloves; and the dear crippled gogo sitting in front of King Pie selling candies — thankfully receiving more than each candy’s value.
Their struggles to exist go on, but what touched my heart, no matter who I reconnected with, was that they, too, seemed to be happy to see this old mkhulu from Canada.
A visit to an African country is an experience in deception. When you visit a city like Manzini there is an appearance of affluence. The city is bustling with activity, people are buying plenty of things, late model cars are driven, and there are shopping malls like ours in Canada.
Most people are well groomed and well-but-not-expensively dressed. New buildings are going up in the two major cities and new businesses are opening. New infrastructure can be seen everywhere in both the government and private sectors.
But drive in any direction to a rural area where you find thousands of homesteads of subsistent farmers and poverty is there; it is a reality.
Like my visit with Auntie Siphiwe.
I visit her homestead each time I am here and every time I find that there is little or no food, and that another mud and stick thatched roof house has fallen to the ground.
On another occasion the Gilgal Primary School headteacher took me to visit another homestead — the home of a man with two wives and 19 children.
Five naked pre-schoolers greeted us in the yard as we arrived to speak with the man. We wanted to speak to him about sponsoring his daughter, who is in Grade 7.
She is both bright and athletically gifted — one of the best 3,000 metre runners in the country. In Swaziland all students have to pay school fees and the headteacher and I know she will need sponsorship when she enters high school in 2014.
Every year the students write to SETS expressing their heartfelt thanks that they have sponsors in Canada, without that support they would not get an education.
SETS is not solely about identifying gifted children; we identify children who otherwise would not get an education if they didn’t get sponsorship from Canadians. The girl at Gilgal is a bit of an exception, but deserving, in my mind.
I don’t decide who receives sponsorship, but will be making recommendations to our board of directors in Whitehorse before school starts up again at the end of January in 2014.
Politically, the support for the King of Swaziland is still very high; he is very much in control. When it comes to the government and elected members of parliament and the senate, there is less trust and favour.
Corruption and mismanagement of funds in both government and the private sector is still a reality and a major stumbling block to achieving the King’s goal of first world status by 2022.
With the abundance of rain over the past weeks the country-side is so beautiful and green — a garden paradise. In spite of all the changes and progress in Swaziland, it is still very much the country of contrasts and contradictions that I found back in 1987.
And the talk of the town springing forth from every media outlet is, of course, about Madiba; the death of Nelson Mandela, the icon.
In my view, he is the greatest humanitarian of our time, a lover of the truth, of peace and justice. I was here when he was released from Robben Island, I was here when he became president of South Africa, and I am here for his recent death, memorial services, and funeral.
I will shed a tear.