Sunday, June 29, 2008


Mkhululi, a Business Advisor at the TechnoServe office, invited a bunch of the volunteers out to a cultural event this afternoon. We went to a school about 30 minutes outside of Mbabane to watch members of the nearby villages perform a series of Swazi dances.

It was the type of thing off the beaten path that only a local would have known about and which isn’t listed in the guidebooks or the weekly email that’s circulated to the expat population. Indeed, our group was the only non-Swazi contingent there, and – apart from one other guy, Jan, the President of the Swaziland 4x4 Club (let me know if you’re planning an overland pan-continent trip, I’ll put you in touch) – the only white people in the crowd. It was great to experience an authentic local event, and I think that Mkhululi was proud to show us the dancing (which was fantastic) and have us sample the local maize-based bathtub brew (not as fantastic).

The event started slowly, and fortunately we were warned to show up a couple of hours after the announced starting time of 10am. A bit after noon, the crowd slowly gathered into a semi-circle in a courtyard formed by the school’s buildings, a loudspeaker system was set up, and the elder women of the village kicked off the dancing. Each woman was wearing traditional Swazi garb – usually a skirt and a colorful top fashioned with the symbol of the flag. They wore ankle bracelets of reeds and trinkets which formed the beat as they stepped.

The women came out with a lot of spirit, and were followed by a group of high school girls, high school boys, primary school boys, and then the older women again. Each group had their own dance and their own costume – a spear-like stick or shield, some colorful pants or skirt, and –depending on whether or not they were married – a shirt or top. While the older men didn’t have their own dance, they would often join in the other acts, rhythmically running between the dancers with their walking sticks in the air. As each group danced, members of the village would run up to the performance and present tokens of appreciation – often fruit such as oranges, mangos, or avocados; or coins or small notes – to the dancers.

I didn’t fully grasp exactly what the occasion was, but my sense is that the whole afternoon was a practice session for an inter-village dance sometime soon. Not many of the villagers spoke English (those who did spoke just a bit), but despite the language barrier, we were welcomed both through Mkhululi’s introductions and the warmth of the villagers.

There were a ton of very young children watching the dancing, and Esther (a fellow TNS volunteer) and I made friends with some of them, who loved seeing their face in my digital camera and wearing Esther’s sunglasses.

The afternoon was festive, but it was hard not to notice some of the elements of poverty and disease that I’ve read about and have seen in films about the country. Jan was at the school with his 4x4 to make a donation of about twenty 25-pound bags of rice to the soup kitchen there. I stepped into a classroom at the schoolhouse to check it out and couldn’t imagine much formidable learning in the dilapidated building. And –most noticeably – you couldn’t help but notice the sheer number of young children watching the performance, and the unfathomably high ratio of children to adults. I’ve noticed that there are very few older people in Mbabane, and it was hard to find someone over the age of 50 at the schoolhouse.

Outside of the dancing, it’s been a busy weekend here. The weekend was kicked off with a 3pm Friday Happy Hour at the office with a screening of Without the King, a documentary about King Mswati III and Swaziland. (The DVD will be out in the U.S. in July – check it out on Amazon or NetFlix.)

Friday evening I went with a bunch of TNS people and other expats to check out Napalma, a Brazilian and Mozambique-an band at a unique outdoor concert space called House on Fire. Both House on Fire and the band were interesting – the club is outdoors and has bonfires in areas surrounding the stage, and Napalma was a mix of Afro-Cuban rhythmic percussion and electronica, and they were pretty fun.

Yesterday I drove out to Malotoja National Park, which borders South Africa, with Nick and Rob (both from TNS) and Maaya (who runs the Clinton Foundation’s office in Mbabane). The park was beautiful, with rolling hills and some small peaks, and a river running through a valley. Maaya’s small SUV made it down some precarious roads to a trail-head, and the four of us hiked down into the valley and followed a small river to The Potholes, a series of waterfalls separating small swimming holes. The water was pretty frigid, but Nick, Rob, and I did our best with a quick swim before we had lunch and hiked the 90 minutes back up to the car.

We climbed quite a bit to make it back to our parking space, and by the end my legs were feeling it and my body was happily exhausted. I was thirsty, and I caught myself having an urge for a 20-ounce bottle of Lemon-Lime Gatorade, which is most definitely not available in Swaziland. After only 2 weeks, it’s a bit early for me to be having urges like that, which worries me a bit for what September and October will be like.

At work, things are moving forward slowly. I had a couple of good meetings this past week, including a trip out to Ubombo Mill in Big Bend, in the southeast part of the country, to meet with a team member from Illovo, a large sugar company with offices there. This week I’ll be traveling to Alexandra and Jo’burg – either Tuesday evening for an overnight or a long day there and back on Wednesday – to check out some of The Business Place offices and meet with their management.

I’ve gotten a bunch of requests for my mailing address in Mbabane. While I don’t have any expectations for packages from home, here it is: TechnoServe / Attn: Marc Bush / P.O. Box 663 / Ezulwini H106, SWAZILAND.

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