Sunday 12 February 2012

Traffic - brought to you by Hasbro

Before we left for Swaziland, the risk assessment provided by Skillshare International listed the probability of being involved in a car accident as the most severe threat that we would encounter. At the time this seemed bizarre - it doesn't any more.

While the crime rate is low in the context of Southern Africa, both the road systems and the public transport are based a lot more on negotiation than a flawless adherence to the rules. We have learnt the hard way that the 'green man' at pedestrian crossings signifies one of the worst times to cross the road, as cars coming from around the corner either ignore their newly-red light or are directed, by means of a filter, into the path of the crossing even where we have a green light aswell. Only trial and error has taught us instead: cross when you see the 'flashing red man' (itself a pretty ambiguous signal), as fast as you can, whilst making eye contact with the drivers of the cars and even putting your hand up in a 'stop' sign to be clear that you are crossing.

Our first ride in the privately-owned kombi minibuses in our orientation week was a terrifying experience, as has been almost every use of them since. If you are boarding at a station, all that is required is to walk down into the busy area in the centre of the grounds, where you will be intercepted by any number of people shouting destinations and asking you where you are going. Tell them your intended destination, and you begin to be treated something like a particularly small marble in a game of Hungry Hungry Hippos. Whoever hears you first will take you (grabbing you by the clothes and pulling you towards the right one, at times), to the kombi and will place you on board. If you are one of the first people to be caught, as a prize, you get the choice of a seat, which allows you to drop yourself, by then dripping with sweat (if you're me), next to a window, which when the bus moves creates one of the coldest temperatures I have experienced in Swaziland. The bad news is that the kombi won't move until the driver has collected all fourteen marbles.

When you're actually being driven, there is plenty of rapid acceleration, horn honking, undertaking and pulling over to get petrol, among other things. They are not a means of transport to use if you are in a hurry. Yet what somewhat redeems the whole process is a complete lack of anger or road rage. A car that goes around a corner to find you in the middle of the road may nearly kill you, but you will look up to find the driver giving a genuine smile or self-deprecating laugh. Putting your hand up to say 'stop, I'm crossing' would be construed as rude in the UK, as if you were telling the driver that they did not know the road rules, or that you were more important than the Highway Code - but here, to my knowledge, it is not remotely offensive.

On one level, the whole thing seems like a serious and dangerous problem, masked only by the customary friendliness that we have experienced, almost without exception, throughout our time in Swaziland. But on another, I can't help but feel that by removing the sense of complacency that UK pedestrians have, and enforcing a constant vigilance when using the roads, they can in some senses be safer. The comparison can come from Bury St Edmunds, where there was once a single roundabout at the bottom of a hill, and there were many crashes in a short space of time. They introduced a ludicrous double roundabout system, where some drivers need to give way twice within three metres, and a year later on I was told there were no crashes since - as the people had had caution forced upon them. At any rate, comparative statistics would be interesting to see.

Monday 6 February 2012

First Impressions, Revisited

With a great sigh of relief that my laptop is breathing again, and we are settling down into office life, I can now flesh out my description of the orientation week, and our transition into life as ICS volunteers in Manzini, Swaziland a little more. To no great disappointment, I am sure, I will start with my arrival in Johannesburg, as despite the rumours of a partial evacuation of our Heathrow terminal an hour before we arrived, the long and mundane nature of security queues, a two-hour stop in Nairobi, and a lack of choice on the in-flight TV will never make too interesting reading. It should be said, however, we saw Kilimanjaro and a Kenyan sunrise, and chatted about our plans to a friendly Zambian woman during the long flight, which helped to pass the time nicely.

We had been advised of breathtaking views on the five-hour drive across the border and into the capital Mbabane, and of course we weren't disappointed. The miles of flat greenery and pasture, while not dissimilar to a Suffolk village, soon broke off into dustier and busier landscape as we reached the giant stone gates at the border. We were told to step out to register our laptops and display our passports, and I was surprised, not for the first time, at the weather that would meet us on our arrival: not a wall of heat, as we felt seeping through vents into the Kenyan airport, and which often greets a traveller as they step out of their plane in the Mediterranean; the warmth, while highly conspicuous, was entirely bearable, and even pleasant at this stage.

The second surprise was the Skillshare guesthouse, where nine of the thirteen of us would be spending our first week: in an enclosed and guarded compound, it is also spacious and comfortable (with only a minimal leakage problem in heavy rains). Hot water and slow internet were readily available. I applied a disproportionate amount of mosquito repellent and went straight to bed, taking a while to sleep because of the angry-sounding stray dogs barking outside.


When we weren't in safety, security, and logistics talks in the boardroom, or attending SiSwati lessons in the living room, we were shown around Mbabane and its surrounding area in the next few days, which started with a tour of the Parliament. As the legislature were in recess, we were ushered straight into the gallery used by advisors to the Senators, and were told some of my (somewhat worryingly) favourite information about the countries – the means of the passage of bills, and accountability mechanisms that were in place. The two houses were a mix - some legislators were directly elected in constituencies, and some were directly appointed by the King. Any bills required the assent of both houses as well as His Majesty to become law. Initially told by a guard that I was not allowed to take a picture inside or outside of the Parliament building, I instead settled for a shot of the Prime Minister's parking space, which is perhaps not as informative as I had hoped.

The market

The next day we all clambered into our van and went on the short drive to Ezulwini market, which sold, in wooden huts topped with corrugated iron, a selection of wall hangings, and wooden and stone carved objects. Feeling confident about it all, I walked up to one of the stalls with the intention of working my way around all thirty.

Sawabona! I cried. Hello!

The seller seemed very pleased to see us all browsing, and I was so taken in with all of the lovely handmade items that I stayed there until the rest of the group had moved on, and I was in there alone.

'You choose, anything you like' she said, standing what seemed awfully like between me and the exit – 'you choose, and I'll give you a special price'.

I looked around helplessly, muttering about how perhaps I'd like to look around the other places first at a volume that only I could hear, before letting my eyes settle momentarily on a small, decorated wooden giraffe at one side of the room. She picked it up and held it at eye-level.

I faltered at once. 'That looks lovely (and it did) – how much is it?'

'A special price! For you, 35...25!'.

There was a drawn-out pause as I feebly considered my responses. I handed over the money, thanked her profusely, and scuttled off along to the next vendor holding the giraffe by the neck in my hand.

The second lady stood up, immediately blocked my path, and ushered me inside. 'You choose, anything you like!' She said. 'And I'll give you a special price!'.

About half an hour later, I had also acquired a patterned stone turtle, and a picture or some traditional African huts handmade, I was told, with some kind of banana remnant over the course of an entire day. Already over budget, I decided to neglect the remaining two-thirds of the huts and skulk in the middle of the grounds until the bus arrived.

Mantenga Cultural Village and nature reserve

We later arrived at a famous, preserved traditional village, where we saw a traditional dance, involving classical African music and costume. To my simultaneous regret and relief, when the time came for the dancers to teach several of us moves, I wasn't picked; but was more than happy to watch the others getting into it. Removing somewhat from the original traditional effect was the availability of CDs of the performance afterwards, which I wish I could say stopped me from buying one.

The village itself relied on a traditional polygamous family structure. The head of the community and three wives had sets of three thatched huts, which constituted a sleeping hut, a hut for indoors food preparation, and one for the brewing of beer (I am sadly yet to find any of this beer for sale). The more recent wife had quarters closest to the man, we were told so he could provide guidance in the ways of the community. There were also huts housing the boys and the girls from the age of six until their marriage, a small hut where the community head traditionally smoked marijuana and contemplated (until this was outlawed by the British colonial administration), and one belonging to a traditional Swazi healer. We were informed about some of the different gender roles with a smile – in particular, men were to leave the huts before women, to fend off any intruders (women were, however, placed close to the entrance to the community, as attackers often did not seek to kill them), and why women were prohibited from eating the head and feet of any animals cooked: were they to eat the brain, they would become as intelligent as a man; the tongue, and they would never stop talking; the feet, and they would leave their husbands for good.

Our guide at the village told us all the origin of his name (which I have since forgotten): his father had left his mother to go to work while she was heavily pregnant, and then came back to find that a nearby river had flooded, blocking off his route home. Wading all of the way across the dangerous river, he arrived safe to find that the mother had given birth, and in jubilation named his son after the river.

On the other hand, we were reassured that we could also call him Paul.

As another highlight, in the distance, Paul pointed out Swaziland's 'Execution Rock', which stuck out boldly from its surrounding hills (see below). We were told that it was historically the means of executing convicted murderers. The method was like walking the plank, but on land. The journey up and down is also an organised national trail, and so we plan to walk it before we leave as a group in April.

Move to Manzini

While Mbabane is the political and official capital city in Swaziland, Manzini, our home for the rest of the placement, is by far to be the busier and most industrialised centre. One thing that jumps out at you is that, even only half an hour's drive from Mbabane, it is noteably hotter and stickier (this effect is repeated throughout the country: volunteers living near Siteki, at the far east of the country, have already noticed this the most, with temperatures sometimes hitting 40C). In fact, the comparative coolness of Mbabane and the British predisposition to complain about weather are some of the main reasons why the colonial administration situated the capital in Mbabane in the first place.

First driving from the guesthouse into the city we could see a large number of shops, varying from traditional fruit and vegetable marketing Nando's and KFC, which we had been forewarned about but still came as something of a shock. Our block of flats is in the city centre, a five minute walk from our placement's offices, and is again guarded day and night by a team of people. Barred windows and a lockable metal gate across our front door reinforce both the sense of protection inside and our awareness of the dangers of the city at night. Other than that, the flat is typical and in many senses nicer than student accommodation we had been exposed to in the UK before. Six days without hot water, attributed by us to the nature of African life, were ended when a maintenance man pointed out a secondary switch behind the water tank that none of us had noticed. Desk fans and a kettle from the city centre were also good investments, minding the limited electricity supplies provided by Skillshare and the need to stay within the modest budgets we were provided to help us assimilate in the community.

Within five minutes a man knocked on our door and said he had seen us moving in, and was wondering if we would be interested in being sponsors for a children's football team that he was setting up. We have since been warned by several Swazis that, while many of these claims are in fact legitimate, it is easy to build up a reputation as 'good sponsors' in the community, which could lead to us giving away more than we could afford to.

As a final note, and amidst horror stories against squashed cockroaches releasing piles of eggs in their death throes, and mine and Nazia's vegetarianism and general dislike of killing things, we have developed a two-person mechanism to get all unhygenic bugs onto a dustpan and over the balcony. It has to be said that despite this strategisation, and Hannah's investment (and liberal use) of 'Doom' spray, we are losing the battle against them: and as if by magic, each one displaced seems to create two in our food cupboard.

Saturday 21 January 2012

First Impressions

After a week in the Skillshare International Guesthouse in Mbabane, Hannah, Nazia, and I have now settled down in our flat in Manzini - have had the first induction day at our placement, and are now tasking ourselves with finding our way around the city and attempting to stay within the allowance that we are provided with before starting work properly on Monday. The guesthouse is spacious and fairly modern, and well beyond anything that we could possibly have been expecting as we approached and prepared for it. On the outskirts of Mbabane, it is either an hour's walk or a short combi ride to the centre (await a separate post on the experience of combis later on), and we went into the centre several times throughout. Manzini, where we are now, is much louder and more bustling, but still goes incredibly quiet at night and it is best to stay inside.

Now we are settled, I should be in a position to post more on our time here and different aspects of what we have discovered. Characteristically, my laptop has broken now that we have found a ready source of wifi (a pizza place, apparently the 'fastest wifi in Manzini') and so I'll have to go for now.

Best wishes to everyone :)

Friday 6 January 2012


Have you heard of the International Citizen Service? Backed by DFID, and conducted with six partner organisations, it is currently in its pilot year sending young British people on three and six-month development projects in poorer countries. Having successfully gained a place on the scheme, undergone a three-day residential training placement and had my arm treated like a pin-cushion, next Wednesday I'm going off to Manzini, Swaziland, to work for twelve weeks with SWAGAA, an NGO which seeks to 'decrease abuse, particularly physical and sexual abuse against women and children by implementing education, counselling and advocacy activities'.

I'm writing this short-term blog for two reasons. First, before I applied for my placement with Skillshare International, one of the first things that I did was to scour the Internet for information about what my time abroad may be like, and what other volunteers feel they have contributed, and gained themselves, from the experience. Because the scheme is in its early steps, and on the assumption that I will manage to keep it better than any diary I've ever attempted, I hope that this record will be of use to people thinking of applying in future, or to people interested in Swaziland generally. The second reason is, for my friends and family, to avoid repeated Facebook statuses along the lines of 'in Swaziland now, yaay!' or essays that appear in News Feeds whether people would like them to or not.

Therefore, in time, I'll blog about the training days that passed, my preparations, placement and accommodation in Manzini. I hope it's of some use and interest.

For anyone curious, the 'Asambeni' part of the blog's title is SiSwati for 'Let's Go!', which now, five days before I leave, makes up one of four phrases that I know.