When you travel a lot you become impatient with hotel check-in forms: I play the game of how little information I can get away with. After all, do they really need my address?
At a midrange lodge in the western hills of Swaziland, now called Eswatini, the receptionist returned my form. She insisted I should pick my title: Mr, Mrs, Ms or Dr. “Strange,” I thought, “couldn’t she just have ticked Mrs or Ms.” A bit annoyed, on a whim I ticked Dr., which I don’t usually use when I travel but didn’t think much of it and handed the form back.
As the check-in was happening I noticed a flier for a village tour, which included a hot spring visit. The receptionist said that there might be women washing clothes in the hot spring but I had to see 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 picked me up at 3PM and made sure I had a hat: it was scorching hot. His friend in Adidas sweatpants dropped us at a village soccer field. The players didn’t seem to mind the heat.
We walked through the village with chickens, dogs and simple concrete houses. 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. Samuel showed me the foundation of one such house.
Children came running to say hello or to hug me. One little girl kept holding onto me even as I tried to move along. “Everybody is really friendly here. They know your fee will partly go to the community.”
There were problems with electricity sometimes as the whole village was serviced by one center.
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 it didn’t seem to register. I retried with more simple and direct language. “I’m a professor at a university. I teach books. I don’t know medicine.” Samuel looked incredulous 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 I understood their English without problems.
First we stopped at the village pub, which was part of the tour. The pub was just an opening between houses but it had music and drunken merriment like any other pub. Like in South Africa, it’s called a shabeen.
One drunken young man made a sexual gesture at me, which seemed out of place with the rest of people who were friendly. An elderly lady in a traditional hut showed how the beer was made. It’s made of selgum and involved a double brewing process. “See how cool it is? Our parents prefer such huts over modern apartments.” I drank the yeasty beer out of a bucket with the merry group of people.
I’ve been to a similar pub in the mountains of Tanzania where the drinking also seemed to teeter between fun and desperation. So it did in Swaziland: unemployment is really high and as Samuel mentioned, the autocratic king owns half the village and collects taxes from the little the people make.
Swaziland is a rare case of a one tribe nation in Africa. Most others have many ethnic groups and often colonialist drawn arbitrary borders. But the tribal system can also seem like an archaic system of kingdom, which isn’t well suited to modernity.
“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 percentages 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, Samuel sounded ominous and hopeful at the same time.
HIV education seemed to have worked on some level at least: a taxi driver asked, bellowing form his stomach, if I wanted to try a Swazi man. “Don’t worry, I’ll use a condom.” He did take no as 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 but somehow it came out as a statement.
George continues 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’s a Christian thing but still asked. “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.
When Samuel and I finally reach the hut of the mysteriously sick child, I’m struck by the beauty of her mother. She’s young with a supermodel figure and symmetrical face. The child is quiet and seems a bit apathetic. She’s sitting on a bench and doesn’t make a sound. Samuel picks her up and immediately gives her to me to hold. I can only assume the child is scared but she expresses it too with a silent apathy. We stare at each other, her not returning my smile or reacting to my feeble attempts at playfulness. Finally I hand her to her mother saying she must be scared and the mother agrees.
Leaving them behind, without having been able to help in any way, I feel useless. A useless, privileged doctor of literature. I ask Samuel if the child talks and he says yes, it’s only the walking that’s abnormal. I cannot help but think what a difficult life the poor child has ahead of her. She would have in any country, but especially in Swaziland. I vouch never to fill in the title of Dr. anywhere.