At a 3-star lodge in the western hills of Eswatini, the receptionist pushed back my haphazardly filled out check-in form. She pointed at the boxes next to the titles all of which I had left unchecked. I’m a patient traveler except when it comes to hotel check-ins. After all, do they really need my zip code (which we don’t have in Abu Dhabi), or me to designate whether I’m a Mr or Ms. On a whim – and a bit annoyed – I put a checkmark next to Dr, a title I don’t usually use outside of academia. Without thinking much of it I pushed the form back with an impatient gesture.
I had arrived in Swaziland just a day before. I had splurged on a taxi from Ponta D’ouro, Mozambique close to the South African border because a bus would have required an early morning wake-up, a transfer and hours of waiting. The taxi driver who spoke only a few words of English suggested a border crossing but I insisted on another one, though I hadn’t done a lot of research into it. Insisting was a mistake: the driver dropped me off at the Mozambique side of the border and I wheeled my bag across to the quiet Swazi passport office to the surprise of the ladies working there. “Where are you going?” one of them asked. “I came to visit Eswatini,” I said smiling, using the new official name for the country since 2018. “Do you have a car?” “No, I was thinking of taking the bus from here.” “There are no buses at this border crossing.”
I had chosen the wrong crossing with no buses and no money exchange. “You have no car or South African currency,” the woman shook her head. “Ok, let me ask if this gentleman can help you,” she nodded at someone approaching the passport booth in the otherwise dead border crossing. Luckily he did; he gave me a ride to the closest town, dropped me off at the bus station, found the right bus to the nearest bigger city called Mazini and paid for my ticket since I had no currency on me that was accepted in the country. I thanked my travel karma but also cursed my carelessness; things could have turned out much worse.
Before I got annoyed about the check-in form at the Mantenga Lodge check-in, I noticed a flier for a village tour, which included a hot spring visit. The receptionist warned me that I might not be able to bathe in it as there might be women washing clothes but I still wanted to do it. I signed up for the same afternoon but had to pay a bit extra for transportation as I didn’t have a car and neither did the tour guide.
Samuel, a young man of about 30 years, picked me up at 3PM and made sure I had a hat: it was scorching hot. His friend in Adidas sweatpants drove a tiny old car that smelled of grease and dirt, which the Wunderbaum dangling on the rearview mirror didn’t help cover. He dropped us at a village soccer field about 20 minutes from the hotel. There was a game at full swing and the young men didn’t seem to mind the heat running after the soccer ball.
Samuel and I walked through a lush, green path to the village with chickens, dogs and simple concrete houses. Samuel explained that some people still built their houses from clay but if it rains for a week in a row, there’s nothing left of the house. He showed me the foundation of one such flushed out house, but also pointed out that they stayed much cooler than the modern houses.
Little children came running to say hello, giving me high fives or to simply clinging to my legs. One little girl wearing a dirty pink shirt kept holding onto my leg even as I tried to awkwardly move along carrying her with me. Samuel paid no attention to my discomfort: “Everybody is really friendly here. They know the fee you paid will partly go to the community.” Samuel walked in front of me and continued explaining that often there were problems with electricity as the whole village was serviced by just one center; if something went wrong there, the electricity died in the whole village, sometimes for weeks. Finally I figured I should try to high five the girl to make her let go of my leg. The trick worked and while Samuel had turned around to see whether I was still with him, he paid no attention to the struggle I had with the girl.
We continued our walk through the peaceful village surrounded by rolling, green hills. But its concrete, half finished huts and the languid atmosphere revealed there was more to it than beauty and serenity.
Suddenly Samuel said: “I hear you’re a doctor. I hope you don’t mind taking a look at a little girl, who is 3 years old but doesn’t walk. She only crawls. In Swaziland, children usually walk at one year old. Perhaps you can help her.” My heart dropped. I tried to explain I’m not a medical doctor but my explanation didn’t seem to register. I retried with simpler and more direct language. “I’m a professor at a university. I teach books. Literature. Novels, you know? I don’t know about medicine.” Samuel looked at me silently, either because he didn’t understand or believe me. But I had the same problem often in Swaziland: no matter how slow and simple I talked, people didn’t seem to understand me while they seemed to speak good English. I assumed it was because of my strange Finnish-American accent combined with the native Swazi language.
I assumed the conversation took care of what Samuel had suggested and we continued the tour.
First we stopped at the village pub, called shabeen all over Southern Africa. The pub wasn’t really a building but a small opening between houses with a few benches. Though it didn’t look like one, it had music and drunken merriment like any other pub.
Samuel guided me to a traditional hut where an elderly lady showed how she made beer in huge plastic buckets. The main ingredient is selgum and the beer she makes involves a double brewing process. In the middle of proudly explaining how she makes the beer, she jumped to another topic: “See how cool it is inside? Our parents prefer such huts over modern apartments and refuse to move.” It was easy to see how the mud hut would be cooler than the newer, cement ones. It looked prettier, too.
When we stepped outside, the merry group of people spoke and laughed loudly, revealing the potency of the homebrew. I joined a row of drinkers and we took turns to take sips out of a big plastic bucket. The cloudy brew tasted of yeast more so than anything else. One drunken young man wiggled his tongue at me between his index and middle finger. I did my best to ignore him as his crude gesture, which seemed out of place with the others’ friendliness and genuine seeming excitement that I was visiting the village.
The scene reminded me of a similar roadside pub I had visited in Usambara mountains in Northern Tanzania where the midday drunkenness had seemed to teeter between fun and desperation. So it did in the Swazi village: unemployment is high and as Samuel mentioned, the autocratic king owns half the village and collects taxes from the little the people who have jobs make. In the context, the relief the cheap homebrew provides makes unfortunate sense.
Eswatini is the only African kingdom that survived colonial rule. Unlike most postcolonial African countries, King Sobhuza II refused to adapt the British laws and reinstated the Swazi way of governing after independence. He was a benevolent king so the autocratic system posed no problems, until his son came to power, who didn’t show as much goodwill.
“It cannot last for much longer,” said George, a Cypriot restaurant and store owner who has lived in Eswatini for more than 30 years. Those years show wear and tear: he has a big beer belly, knocked out front teeth and a greasy mullet fashionable at the time he had moved to the kingdom.
I had heard before coming that Swaziland has one of the biggest percentage of HIV in the world, at about 27%. Close to the lodge I was staying at, there’s a disproportionately huge US embassy on a prime real estate location. Samuel pointed out that the king had given the land to the Americans because of their efforts at fighting HIV in the country and their NGO work. “But they won’t let things continue like this for long.” Saying this, he sounded ominous and hopeful at the same time.
HIV education seemed to have worked on some level at least: a taxi driver bringing me to my lodge asked, bellowing from his stomach, if I wanted to try a Swazi man. “Don’t worry, I’ll use a condom.” He did take no for an answer but was utterly confused about me traveling alone. “You don’t have any friends. You are all alone.” I like to think it was a question that somehow just came out as a statement.
George continued to criticize his country of residence: “If a local woman gets pregnant, she cannot have an abortion. It’s illegal.” I had seen a lot of churches of different denominations and assumed it was a Christian thing. “No, abortion is illegal because the king says so.” The king himself has 13 wives and counts his children in dozens. Perhaps he wants to keep his country’s headcount up: the nation has only a bit more than a million people while HIV and lack of proper healthcare take their toll.
After passing by a butcher, which seemed to have been closed for a while and some kids buying unhealthy American snacks at a kiosk, Samuel took me to see some people. A young, strikingly beautiful woman with a supermodel figure and symmetrical face was standing in a courtyard between huts not unlike the space where the pub was. She nodded instead of saying hello. “This is the child I mentioned,” Samuel said, pointing at a small girl sitting on a bench. The child was quietly staring at the ground. Samuel picked her up and gave her to me to hold. It all happened so quickly it took me a few seconds to understand he still thought I was a real doctor. My earlier protest had not gone through.
I assumed the child was scared of me but if she was, she expressed it with a silent apathy. We stared at each other, her not returning my smile or reacting to my feeble attempts at playfulness. Finally I handed her to her mother saying she must be scared and the mother agreed. Samuel still tried: “She’s not walking and doesn’t talk either.” The beautiful mother nodded melancholically.
I felt useless, leaving them behind, without having been able to help in any way,. A useless, privileged doctor of literature. Eswatini left me thinking about Western academic degrees and the privilege of studying literature. While I think art is important to the well-being of any society, dedicating one’s life to its study suddenly seemed unimportant in the bigger picture. It made sense Samuel thought I just didn’t want to help; who would study to be a useless doctor?
Samuel and I walked towards the hot spring in silence. The spring, contained by concrete edges, glistened in the middle of fields and meadows. The late afternoon sun didn’t offend anymore and yet painted the surrounding hills in gold. Two women washed clothes in the spring while a child played next to them, humming to herself and playing with a doll. Foam from the soap floated at one end of the pool. I asked the women if it was OK if I dipped in, eyeing the end of the concrete pool where the washing water didn’t reach. They shrugged and must have thought I was not of my right mind.