Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Driving in Swaziland

I’ve coined a new phrase (although I’m probably not the first to make this observation): If you can drive in Swaziland, you can drive anywhere. Someone once told me that traffic accidents are the leading cause of death to travelers in Southern Africa. I’m not sure if this is true, but I could certainly see how one would come to this conclusion. That every time I get behind the wheel of my Fiat Station Wagon in Swaziland I risk death (don’t worry Mom), but it certainly is an adventure.

In order to get a license to drive in Swaziland you first must take driving lessons. Driving schools are sprinkled around the capital city where I live in Mbabane and other regional cities across the country. They usually consist of a wood shack or in swanky cases an old shipping container, on which rudimentary road signs are painted and the word’s “Lola’s Driving School” or “Sipo’s Driving School” or “Whoever’s Driving School This Is.” Each driving school usually has access to a learners car, distinguishable by a large sign on its roof that proclaims which driving school it belongs to, a large red “L” on the back of the car, and the fact that it stalls repeatedly at every stop sign, traffic light, intersection, and cow and the road.

One driving school I’ve noticed is situated in a dirt lot next to the Anglican Church outside of the city center. Although this school does not have a shack or a sign, its students can usually be found congregating under a large tree in the center of the lot. Next to the tree are a series of tall, thin sticks wedged into the dry dirt or sludgy mud, depending on the time of year. The sticks are set up in two rows and often there is a car, sputtering and jerking slowly between them. I’m not sure if the sticks are there to help drivers practice staying in their lane, but I would encourage this idea.

The main peril of driving in Swaziland is that people often don’t stay in their lane. It’s not that they swerve dangerously from side to side, but it seems that in Swaziland lane markers are more of loose guidelines to be followed at will. When driving up the main highway between Manzini and Mbabane it is imperative that you cut every corner. The person in the lane next to you certainly is going to, so if you stay in your lane, you’ll get hit.

Additionally, the main highway has two lanes, and only two speeds at which it is acceptable to drive. In the slow lane you have huge, black smoke spewing trucks inching their way up the infamous highway to Mbabane or overloaded minibuses making the same trek packed full of commuters. In the fast lane you have flashy BMWs and Mercedes, often belonging to government officials flying by at 150 km/h with their police escorts. Those of us who drive at normal speeds face a conundrum. Usually I drive in the slow lane until I need to pass one of the incredibly slow trucks so as to not lose my own speed and having to down shift and overheat my poor Fiat. But switching into the fast lane is perilous as I must already be going dangerously fast in order to avoid being obnoxiously tailgated. Inevitably I piss someone off on my way up to Mbabane, and about twelve other drivers piss me off.

Add to this the added excitement of winding mountain roads leading past the park up to Piggs Peak. And the cows and chickens and goats crossing the road at will. And the tiny uniformed first graders playing around on the road’s shoulder. And the all encompassing fog that reduces visibility to a few feet. And the sheer amount of pot holes on the roads. And the inability of many drivers to maintain the brake lights on their cars. And driving a shitty stick shift Fiat on the opposite side of the road than I am used to.

But with all this said, Southern Africa does have an endearing set of rules for road etiquette: When you want to pass someone, tailgate them. They will pull over and you can fly by. To say thank you, the passing driving will turn on their hazard lights for a quick “Thank you” blink to which the passed driver will respond “You’re welcome” with a quick flash of his lights. Often slower drivers or trucks will pull over to the shoulder to facilitate passing, which is highly appreciated on a winding two lane road. My favorite part about driving in Swaziland, however, aside from the adventure aspect of it all, is the frequency with which have reason to use my horn. I’ve been driving for about eight years and I think in my seven years in driving in the US I honked the horn a quarter of the times I’ve honked it in my year in Swaziland.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Into the Field

The absence of blog posts can only mean one thing: I’ve been working hard! As the third and final phase of my research project I have been going out to “the field” and surveying local communities. With my trusty research assistant, Nonhlahla, in toe, I set out in my barely functioning Fiat criss-crossing the back roads of Swaziland with a folder full of surveys translated to siSwati and a box of pens. Here is the survey of what happened in Luve.

Luve is about an hour’s drive from the Swazi capital of Mbabane, where I live. A satellite of the larger town of Mliba (which itself is too small to have its own traditional court and is serviced once a week by the Manzini circuit court), Luve is small and lovely. Luve is on the edge of the low-veld, so its sprawling farmland played perfect compliment to the Mario-Cart clouds floating overhead.

When we arrived in Luve, we picked up the community organizer we had been in contact with from the main bus rank. Then we left the paved road for good. We arrived at the Chief’s homestead about 30 minutes later. We were led inside the compound and made to sit under the tree with the community elders while we waited for the Chief. Nonhlahla showed me how to sit with my ankles crossed and feet off the edge of the reed mat we were given. Then the chief arrived.

We spoke with the chief and explained why we had come to Luve. The elders debated and I sat nervously on the reed mat, uncomfortable in the skirt I was wearing and hoping Nonhlahla could hold her own against some seemingly ornery elders. After what seemed liked ages, we were granted permission by the chief to survey the community who would be meeting shortly to bring their grievances to the Imphakatsi or Chiefdom level conflict arbitration (for example, if you impregnate an unmarried girl, you must pay a fine in cattle – or – cash, and these types of issues would be decided upon at the Imphakatsi).

As the community gathered in the wall-less concrete structure, Nonhlahla distributed our survey and assisted the illiterate Gogos (grandmothers) in completing the survey. I stood by quietly, handing out pens and collecting completed surveys and staring out across Swaziland’s low-veld on the beautiful blustery day. I feel incredibly grateful that my “day at the office” involves sitting under trees with Chiefs!

When the surveys were completed, we had left some biscuits and juice as a “Thank you” gift and the more serious matters of the day got underway, including a child-support battle in which a father was ordered to buy milk for his ‘baby momma.’ We stood outside, speaking with the community organizer and the Chief’s assistant talking. We did the obligatory promises of marriage and phone number exchanges and then we were on our way, back to Mbabane, to input the survey into our Excel spreadsheet. Another great day in Swaziland!

Monday, October 5, 2009

The New Ambassador

Recently a new US Ambassador arrived in Swaziland. The State Department held a reception for him at the Royal Villas, an extravagant housing complex officially owned by the King which as previously hosted the recently ousted President of Madagascar as well as Robert Mugabe. The dress code was “business casual” so I threw a dress I’d bought five years ago at a thrift store in LA on over my jeans and put on some earrings. I arrived late and underdressed.

Once at the site of the reception, I had to present my invitation, a gold embossed and calligraphied piece of card stock that granted my entrance. They offered us pens with “US Embassy Mbabane” written on the side. I took two. Then my bag was searched and I passed through the metal detector without it going off. After the metal detector welcome arches, a line had formed to shake the new Ambassador’s hand. I was waiting in line with my fellow Fulbrighter, Sarah, when our pseudo-supervisor at the Embassy found us and declared that she would introduce us to the Ambassador.

I’m not sure if this happened to everyone, but it certainly made me feel important. We approached the Ambassador, Sarah looking poised and professional, and me terribly underdressed. Our supervisor introduced us and our research projects and then, as a way to make a lasting first impression, I interrupted the Ambassador, mid sentence, to exclaim, “I heard you’re also a Cal grad; right on!”

The Ambassador laughed awkwardly. I stood there awkwardly. A terrible silence descended. Our supervisor finally took pity on my social inappropriateness and shuffled us along. I was oblivious to my misstep and headed to the open bar in the reception room.

Once inside, I bumped into a group of Embassy staff members I had just met the previous weekend. I had spent the weekend in Ponta do Oro in southern Mozambique surfing, building sand castles and barbecuing prawns. A few Embassy staff members were part of our colossal twenty-five person caravan and I had enjoyed drinking beers around the fire and jumping into the blown out Indian Ocean waves with them. But here they were, not in their red and white striped beach trunks but in crisp white shirts and suit jackets and stripped ties.

Its weird how when you meet someone for the first time you associate so much about where you met them, or how you met them, with who they are. I met my friend Michelle at a costume party seven months ago and to this day she calls me Wonder Woman.

Thursday, September 24, 2009


Its impossible to be in Swaziland during this time of year and fail to mention the Umhlanga. The Umhlanga, or Reed Dance, is one of the most important events on the Swazi calendar. Traditionally, the Reed Dance is a time when Swazi's virginal maidens pay homage to the Queen. In this week long event, the maidens gather at the traditional capital of Swaziland in Lobamba at the Ludzidzini royal residence. Historically they gather on foot, but these days huge flat-bed lorries assist in the process. The maidens make their way down to the rive to gather reeds for the Queen Mother. Then they walk, singing in their traditional garb, to the Queen Mother's residence in order to reinforce her kraal walls with the freshly plucked reeds. What follows is two days of singing and dancing before the King and the Queen Mother.

Despite some jaded ex-pats telling me I would get bored as soon as I arrived, I decided to attend both days of dancing. Although both days were essentially the same, they were an incredible spectacle. This is what I saw:

Tens of thousands of maidens, bare breasted except for thick yarn sashes with pom-poms draped over one shoulder, standing in a neat semi-circle around the stadium's field. The King arrived, preceded and flanked by a troop of warriors in traditional dress. Some of his protective escort carried guns on the belts and spears in the hands. The maidens were organized in groups, some more polished than others, and each group made its way around the field singing. They danced in unison, the hallow seed pods tied to their feet beating to the music.

The procession went on forever, there were so many girls. The voices and the beat and the colors and the sea of maidens all blended into one. When each group had paraded in front of the King, he and his warriors took to the field. They jumped and pranced across the field in order to lower their sticks in front of particularly admirable females to show their appreciation. Often the King chooses a new wife from the assembled girls so anticipation was high.

I sat on the field, inadvertently among a group of warriors whose bleary eyes and enthusiasm indicated they'd been enjoying themselves. The girls paraded past, from barely walking to questionably virginal. It was an incredible experience to see so many people come together to celebrate their culture and put on a magnificent aesthetics experience.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Fading Suntan

Tofo (pronounced like the meat substitute) is a beautiful stretch of crescent sand along the Indian Ocean. Its only a few hundred kilometers north of the Mozambican capital Maputo, but the treacherous potholed road between the two ensures that those who are willing to put in the effort will be rewarded. So, after a 12 hour cashew filled journey we bumped along the sand road into town. In Tofo, the sand extends from the beach throughout the entire town, the roads, the market, the bathtubs of Tofo, are full of sand.

Tofo is hemmed in by dunes on the north and south (which offer wonderful vantage points to watch the breaching humpback whales or to build a sand tree house of sorts, away from it all). To the west is a marsh and, to the east is, of course, the clear and warm blue waters of the Indian Ocean. Most people go to Tofo to see what's in those warm blue waters and Tofo doesn't disappoint: Humpback whales, coral reefs, manta rays, other types of rays whose name escapes me, but they are the biggest in the world, and of course, the whale sharks.

Tofo was simply too incredible to tell you all about it, so rather I'll tell you about the whale sharks:
We took a tiny boat, which, to me, was barely a step up from the inflatable rafts we use to float down the rivers of Northern California in July. After fumbling over the waves, we broke into stride over the sea, with one man perched above the boat in a lifeguard type chair which ironically came equipped with a seat belt, to keep him from plummeting into the ocean as the wind-swept waves rocked our little boat.

A few times during this adventure, the calm of drifting over the swells was mixed into a frenzy. A whale shark would be spotted; we would don our masks and snorkels and our over sized flippers and hurl ourselves awkwardly into the water, much like beached whales ourselves. Then there would be a frantic swim toward the shark and flippers would flip and expensive underwater cameras would snap and bubbles would blow. But the shark would swim on.

His extreme length (16 meters-ish, I hear, although I don't use that crazy metric system) and subtle movements dwarfed the frantic limps which clambered above and beside him. He was truly a majestic sight, with the power to destroy you with one slap of his tail, but not the desire for destruction. His peace and serenity was matched only by the deep blue depths of the water he would dive to, when the flipping and the snapping and the blowing were enough. Then we tourists would sit awestruck in the churning sea. A little bob on the horizon of Tofo, meaningless to those depths below that hide so much more life.

And somewhere between the life-size humpback whale sand castle and watching the sunrise and dinners of heaps of rice and fish and birthdays and new friends and white sand and waves and surfing and mosquito zappers and houses in the dunes and walks on the beach I fell in love with Mozambique.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009


Today, soccer practice was canceled. So instead of running around for an hour, I sat in my Fiat station wagon and talked with Simphiwe. Simphiwe is the "first born" (read, "oldest") in her family. And, as the saying goes, its her job to chase away the thunder storms. Some Swazis believe that:

When it is raining, the First Born can chase away the storm. To do this, he or she must strip naked and go outside into the rain. Then, he or she must bend over, sticking his or her bum into the air. As the rain falls, the First Born waits for a drop to fall either "into her butt hole", as my friend explained, or "onto the anus" as an informative pamphlet explained. Then the storm will go away.

And Swazis have lots of great superstitions, at least according to what I've learned. Like if you jump over a fire, you'll pee blood. Or, if you eat directly from the cooking pot, it will rain on your wedding day.

A few months ago, I went out to rural Swaziland for a community school fundraiser. A group of us, part Swazi, part American, sat around a fire that evening at the school sharing different superstitions. The Swazi men had lots of great examples, like the ones above. When asked to share ours, we Americans just sort of looked at each other. Of course we have the old seven years bad sex -- or whatever it is -- for breaking a mirror, or walking under a ladder, but compared to pissing blood, they all seemed so meek. The only example I could come up with was the tooth fairy, which seemed to do more to confuse my new Swazi friends, than bridge cultural divides.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Article Published on

In case anyone is interested, I've had an article published on National Geographic's The article is accompanied by a wonderfully cheesey picture of me and my friend Jose. The article is called: "I Finally Met a Swazi Guy Who Didn't Hit on Me." Feel free to comment on the article on the site, it makes me look popular!

Thanks faithful reader,