Sunday, November 13, 2011

Swaziland - How Many Kids On Your Block Have Been There?

How many kids on your block have heard of, let alone been to, Swaziland? The only American I know who didn't flinch and say "huh" when I mentioned my desire to travel to Swaziland was a bible thumper who went there for a week with her church group. Her trip was a "mission" to build housing in some village. All Bonnie could tell me was that they did good deeds in their limited time in the country and that "the people were so nice."

Who wouldn't be nice if someone was building your house for free?

I wanted to go to Swaziland simply because it was there and I had never been. I also wanted to go there to see if I could understand why this tiny nation in the southeastern corner of Africa has an HIV/AIDS infection rate of 38 percent (or at least it did in 2005).

The Swazis settled in the area that is now Swaziland about 1820 after being expelled from land to the south by the Zulus. Conflict between the groups continued until mid-century, when the British, at the request of the Swazi king, helped establish peaceful relations. About this time the first white settlers came to Swaziland. With the discovery of gold in 1879, settlers and prospectors poured into the area, obtaining extensive land concessions from the Swazi king. During the 1890's the British in Cape Colony and the Boers in Transvaal exercised varying degrees of control over Swaziland. In 1903, after the Boer War, it became a British protectorate.

Though South Africa made numerous requests to annex Swaziland during the next 50 years, Britain began preparing the protectorate for independence after World War II. Swaziland achieved internal self-government in 1967. The following year, it became an independent constitutional monarchy within the British Commonwealth. In 1973 King Sobhuza II repealed the 1968 constitution and assumed all governing powers himself. He died in 1982. Following rule under a regency, Sobhuza's son Makhosetive was crowned King Mswati III in 1986. In the 1990's, popular unrest forced the government to consider political reforms. In 2005, King Mswati approved a new constitution for Swaziland but maintained his hold on power
The mountainous northwest of Swaziland has some breathtaking scenery

Duncan McEwen, the expatriated Rhodesian who owned the Komati River Chalets in Komatipoort told me almost everything I needt to know about going there. "Just keep your door locked and don't let anyone walk up behind you" Duncan said with authority. Duncan's recommendation was fresh on my mind as I drove south to the Mananga Border Control post on the South African side of the border.

I chose September 16 2011 for my day trip to Swaziland. The morning broke hot and brilliantly bright as I drove south from Komatipoort South Africa for 60 kilometers to the Mananga border crossing with Swaziland. This drive was a rude awakening for me after being lulled into complacency by the endless untrammeled natural habitats of Kruger National Park. Here, outside the boundary fence the reality of too many people slammed home as it would on a drive along Interstate 80 from Omaha to Grand Island, Nebraska. There the destruction of nature was caused by corn. Here in South Africa the culprit is sugar cane. Endless sugar cane.
Endless sugar cane south of Komatipoort, South Africa

I passed through two villages that were packed wall to wall with people and along the road I met several buses that were each filled to overflowing with people. It was quickly apparent why natural habitats here had been converted to other uses.

About 20 kilometers from the border crossing I was stopped by the South African National Police at a roadside checkpoint. Here, unlike their despicable and corrupt breathern in Nicaragua, the police wanted to make sure that I was safe, check that I had my seat belt fastened, and to make sure I was enjoying my time in South Africa. Maybe the Nicaraguan and South African police forces need to do an employee exchange so Nicaragua can learn how to be kind to visitors?

An officious South African Customs officer barked orders at me as I drove up to the South African exit point.
The Mananga border control post in the Republic of South Africa

"This is your receipt for your vehicle" he barked as he pointed at a small brick building. "Take it there to get your passport stamped then to the next building to declare your camera and anything else you are taking out of the country." Intoxicated with his perceived power he then said "When you return you will give me that same slip of paper so you can bring the car back into South Africa."

I was tempted to give him a nazi salute and say "Sieg heil mein Fuehrer" but thought that it would be wiser to merely play along.

Inside the first building South African immigration bade me farewell and urged me to "return soon." Customs could have cared less about the form for my car or for my binoculars or my camera. I asked the Customs officer about the guy giving me instructions and wondered if I had not completed everything I was supposed to so. When I pointed out the person who had barked orders, the Customs officer apologized and said "oh, him. He thinks he owns this place and he never will." I love dealing with self-important people especially when their facade crashes down.
Welcome to Swaziland

Swaziland Immigration and Customs was much more simple. "Go in dare sir. Take your passport and get it stamped. Then walk next door to Customs and declare anything you have. When you are done there bring me the back of this form and enjoy your stay in the Kingdom of Swaziland." A 180 degree change in attitude by walking 100 feet south of the border into Swaziland.
The Swaziland entrance and exit stamps in my passport

Before traveling here Duncan told me that on arrival at the border post I should ask for a copy of "The Paper" which contains a road map of Swaziland. "The Paper" is a tourist publication not unlike any of a zillion of them produced in every coastal town in Florida. One of the Swazi customs agents went inside his building and retrieved the paper for me. He then stood next to me as I looked at the map. I wanted to travel west to near Pigg's Peak and then east to near the Mozambique border. Pointing at the eastern route I asked how long it would take to drive that route from where we stood on the border.

"Going dare" he said pointing to the east, "will take you a three hour drive." I was now glad that I had left early for the trip. However on actually making the drive to the eastern point I found it was only a 22 minute jaunt.

Long ago in Latin America I learned that there is an art and science to asking for directions when you're in alleged "third world" countries. The technique is simple. Ask five people for directions to the exact same place. Take the predictably five different answers, figure out the average of all responses, and drive toward the average. Apparently the same philosophy holds true for travel to Swaziland.

All sorts of theories abound regarding why Swazialand has such a high rate of HIV/AIDS infection. One huge contributing factor is ignorance. For instance many Swazi men believe that AIDS can be "cured" by having sex with virgins so Swazi men regularly are having sex with six to eight year old girls. Of course this doesn't "cure" anything - it only spreads the virus to little children and makes the infection rate continue to climb.

As soon as I left the border post I could feel that I was in a different country and a different world. There was still plenty of sugar cane and in fact there were two huge sugar mills in the first 20 kilometers of the country. However it just felt different. Large Australian pines lined the roadside and the springtime fragrance of jasmine filled the air. My first Swazi bird was a Brubru calling from dense vegetation along the road. As I drove further south I found Lilac-breasted Roller, Square-tailed Drongo, Cattle Egret, Dark-eyed Bulbul, Cut-throat and several other now-familiar birds seen earlier in South Africa.

To get a feel for Swaziland, I did exactly what Duncan warned me not to do. I stopped by the side of the road and talked with two Swazi men. Then I pulled into a bus stop and chatted with two women who told me what they thought of men and AIDS and life in general.

Chia, a stunningly attractive twenty-something said she started having sex at 11 years old. "It was just the thing to do," she said. "All of my friends gave their virginity before me so I wanted to find out what it was all about."

She had sex with two boys and two grown men when by the time she was 12 years old. "All of them were the same. I didn't see what the big deal was about."

When I asked if this was all safe sex she said "At first I didn't do that by my friends all told me to start so I did." A used condom lay flaccid on the ground on the road beside her.

The Swazi government had signs in their Immigration office titled "Condocan" complete with an image of a condom as a way to "heightening HIV/AIDS awareness. In the case of the woman I was talking with it was Condo Cant.

Can you imagine the uproar that would ensue by the religious right if the US government began an advertisement campaign like this to make more people aware of the HIV/AIDS virus? All through the Bush Administration those same self-righteous people were clammoring to get rid of aid to countries for HIV/AIDS prevention. In their myopic view it was more important to teach abstinence than to deal with the reality of the issue. Abstinence training didn't work for Chia.

"The medical practicioner told me I was HIV positive when I was 14. I'm 20 now but it not become AIDS yet."

I asked if she was still active despite having HIV.

"Of course I am," she exclaimed with a smile. "I have three children already and I'm pregnant with my fourth one right now." The last thing I wanted to know was if any of her children were HIV positive and not wanting to become more depressed I wished her good luck and drove away.

Hal Kantrud, my office partner at the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center, once said that "AIDS is the only hope for the large mammals of the African savanna." With 38 percent of the Swazi population infected with HIV and with women like Chia pumping out children who could likely be HIV positive it wont be long before Hal's comment might be proven correct. At least in Swaziland.

I traveled east under the shadow of the Lebombo Mountains in Mozambique just to the north. Not far from the crossing to Maputo I turned south and visited the Mbuluzi Game Reserve. The entrance / reception building held several artifacts of wildlife parts including the molted skin of a large narrow snake. When I asked what it was the resident biologist told me about the Mozambique Spitting Cobra the most common species of cobra in southern Africa. Great! Just what I need - to be spit on by a damned cobra!
"We have giraffe, impala, kudu and other grazers here," Mfume told me at the reception office. "Not to worry though. We have nothing here that will eat you like the leopard you saw in Kruger." That was a relief. Now I just needed to keep from being spit on by a snake.

I spent the early afternoon driving the rough trails in the veld of the preserve but the only grazers I saw was a troop of Savanna Baboons. One of them, a very large male, was sitting by the side of the road masturbating.
Grassland and veld at the Game Reserve in Swaziland. The hill in the background is in Mozambique

After a productive afternoon in the Reserve adding Striped Kingfisher, Black Crake, and Cape Scrub-Robin to my life list I departed the Game Reserve and slowly worked my way back to the Mananga border crossing. I followed a different road on my return and along it found this burned out car planted in a roadside ditch.

Its burned out and helpless shell seemed to symbolize what I was learning about Africa.

The process of returning to the Republic of South Africa was the same but in reverse from this morning. The Immigration officer wished me a quick return to the Kingdom and the Customs officer who took my car registration information in the morning told me that I hadn't stayed long enough. He reminded me of a Customs officer on the Caribbean island of Anguilla who told me, before I could say how long I was staying on the island, that I wasn't staying long enough.

Returning through the Komati River valley I traversed this morning I was even more overwhelmed by the masses of people I saw passing time along the roadside. As I watched these people, many of whom live in what is best described as a shack, I started to wonder about all of the foreign aid money that is pumped daily into Africa. Its been arriving there for more than one hundred years however when you look at the life of many black Africans including the rampant spread of AIDS you have to start wondering if any or all of that aid is actually doing any good.

I mentioned this to Ros and her daughter Jean when I returned to the Komati River Chalets in Komatipoort that evening.

Jean began by saying "I'm not prejudiced but....." Experience has taught me that anyone who says they are not prejudiced "but" is likely prejudiced. I once was in a training course on Capitol Hill in Washington DC. One of our instructors was the Dean of a prestigous university in DC. She began her presentation that day by saying "In any sentence that contains the word "but" everything before the but is bullshit."

I thought of that person when Jean said she wasn't prejudiced "but."

I mentioned to Ros and Jean what author Paul Theroux said in his excellent book "Dark Star Safari" about African countries and foreign aid. In Theroux' estimation most developing African countries feed at the trough provided by good deed doers and then become totally dependant on that aid for their existence. Eventually they believe it is their right to hold their hands out to receive aid they "deserve" simply by being poor. Why would they want to improve things? Some person in the United States or Great Britain or Germany will feel sorry for them, throw money at the problem, and feel they have absolved themselves of their white guilt as they move on.

Doing so does nothing to motivate anyone or any country to actually improve their existence. Why should they? If things get better all the free money is going to dry up.

Jean confirmed Theroux' hypothesis saying "It really has nothing to do with being white or prejudiced. It's a matter of fact."

And so it goes with the Kingdom of Swaziland. Right now 69 percent of Swazi residents live in poverty. As an analysis of economic aid in sub-Saharan Africa states, "Even though the donor community has been providing huge aid amount to this region, its economic performance is still very poor. Obviously, the question lies not in the quantity of aid but in its effectiveness, which remains ambiguous."

Ambiguous seems to be an ineffective word for it.

An old Chinese proverb nicely sums up the issue of aid in African countries. The proverb goes "Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach him how to fish and he will eat for a lifetime."

It seems that much if not almost all of our aid to countries like Swaziland has fed them for a day but nobody seems to take the time to teach them how to feed themselves for a lifetime.

Bible thumper Bonnie went to Swaziland to build homes for people thinking she was doing them a favor. Perhaps its time the Swazi's built houses for themselves.


  1. I've never been to Swaziland, but I had the privilege of working with Dlamini Kuzwandle for awhile. He was the geologist on my Studies and Observations crew in Europe in the mid 70s. He was also the son of the King Mswati (but his mother was not the King's No. 1 wife, so he was not heir to the throne, but his station did guarantee him a nice, high-paying government job).

    He told me a story of the days when the Soviet Union and the United States were in fierce competition to curry the favor of King Mswati with the goal of exploiting the mineral wealth of Swaziland. Our Air Force flew people and supplies into Swaziland on a C5A Galaxy on some type of a diplomatic mission. They offered to take the Royal Family for a ride in the giant aircraft. King Mswati declined the offer for himself, and would only let half of his wives (he reportedly had 39) and children go at a time so he would have some left if the plane crashed.

    I could never persuade 'Kuzy' to tell me how many wives he had, although he admitted to having way more than one.