Yesterday in Swaziland

(Re-posted from July 2010)

There are some days when the images and circumstances I see here seem to stand out in my mind more than others. Yesterday was one of those days. I’m going to try and walk you through it. I know this is going to be long, but hopefully some of you will find it interesting, and well, for me, sometimes it’s just good to get my thoughts written out. So that’s probably more what this is about than anything.

After the usual mad rush to get Ellie to school on time (it’s a block away, but we still manage to barely get there on time most days!), I was off to buy fabric and supplies for the Timbali women. It was cool (60’s) and cloudy, so everyone on the streets was either wearing big poofy winter coats or had a blanket wrapped around them for warmth (if they’d only visit Iowa!). I stopped at two fabric stores and the open market, where I was continually referred to as “Makewa Nosipho” (mother of Nosipho, Ellie’s Swazi name). Fortunately, after about 4 years of at least weekly fabric shopping trips, I still get excited when I find a new print I like. Zanele, one of the women I frequently buy fabric from at the market, had called me earlier in the week that she’d gotten some new pieces I would like. She was right. She’s learned my taste. She’s also been able to purchase a small car because I give her so much business!

While in the market area I saw a woman carrying a large plastic bag full of baskets on her head, which while very light, together they were probably about 3 times the size of the small woman. Headlines from the day’s paper are posted on light poles around town. These days most of them are centered around the World Cup (although there was one today that said a lion that has been on the loose in the country for a while killed 5 cows!). Thursdays are the biggest market day so people are everywhere selling everything from girdles, to batteries, to home décor items so covered in lace you can’t quite tell what they are.

Next I was off to the rural area to meet with the Timbali women. For most the way the road is paved. As usual, I got caught behind a large, slow moving truck carrying something most likely related to the sugar cane industry here. The last few kilometers are a dirt road, where in some parts you just have to choose the section of the road that looks like it will scrape the bottom of your car the least. I stopped to pick up three of the Timbali women walking to the center where we do our work (some of them walk a couple hours). It started raining just after they piled into my car.

As we pull into the care point there were people from the community working on a new school going up nearby. The women were carrying concrete blocks back and forth on top of their heads (the head is a useful appendage here!!). Most of the Timbali women were gathered around the fire where big pots of water were on to boil, in preparation for feeding about 120 children their mid-day meal later on. Slowly they made their way into the building where we work. We’re working on some new jewelery products these days. After months of creatingpaper beads off and on, yesterday was the first day the ladies actually got to see some finished products. I think they turned out pretty well for a first try.

I don’t understand nearly enough Siswatti, but it still makes me smile to hear the ladies bantering back and forth as they work. One will tease another for working slow, as she proudly holds up her finished necklace, only to find that she’s made a few mistakes on her’s and has to start over. My “swazi mom” Ruby thought it was great to find out that I had to have a tooth pulled last week, and at 80 years she still has a mouth full. As they worked one of the ladies was gathering money from all the women to give to the family of one of the women, Sibongile Nketjane, who passed away on Sunday. We make a few necklaces, paint and varnish some beads… 4 hours later we finish up. I’d hoped to start teaching the women how to make a new style of bag (just a big tote/shopping bag) but we wrapped things up early so we could go and visit Sibongile’s homestead.

After carefully packing up my car (one lady stood there patiently with a sewing machine on her head while I tried to make a space for it) to make room for the maximum number of passengers, about 12-15 ladies pile into two vehicles. It’s a bit of a drive out to Sibongile’s homestead. The last 10 minutes was basically just a dirt path that winds and splits off a million times. I always wonder how people ever find their way home. Eventually we just have to park and walk the last little bit. Some of the ladies scramble to get their heads covered, which is appropriate when visiting a grieving family. I asked if I needed to cover my head, but they said I was fine…it was one of many situations I find myself in here where I don’t totally understand what’s going on, and just smile and say ‘okay.’

Sibongile is the third Timbali woman to pass away in the last couple of months. As our group walked together I thought about how, as much as I’m still an outsider and even though there are plenty of frustrations in my work here, I really do feel like a part of these women and I care for them so much. Sibongile was fairly new to Timbali, so I honestly didn’t know her that well, but I am of course still sad to hear of her sudden death, and grieved for her children that she leaves behind. It’s also a sobering reminder of the fact that many of the women I work with are sick, and Sibongile won’t be the last one we lose.

Snagged my skirt on a few thorn bushes, narrowly missed stepping in a few cow pies, and then we were there. The homestead is pretty run down…just a few one room thatch roof buildings. One of the women, Nomsa, started singing and everyone joined in as we slipped off our shoes and crowded into the small room where Sibongile’s sister and mother and other relatives were.

The closest female relatives were on a grass mat on the floor sitting Swazi-style with their legs straight out in front of them. There are probably 20 of us sitting on the floor in a 6′ x 6′ room. After the song is finished and we pray (everyone out-loud at one time), Nomsa shares Isaiah 40:10 and presents the money the women had collected for the family. They’d each donated at least two Emalangeni (about 30 cents) and had over 100E to give. I hadn’t seen them do this before and was so proud and a little in awe of their generousity and thoughtfulness. After a long silence someone poked me and said I should say something (yet another situation where I’m not sure what’s going on!). I talked a little bit about Psalm 46:1, “God is our refuge and strength, a ever present help in times of trouble.” I also shared about how God was so honored by the work Sibongile did with the orphans and vulnerable children at her church’s care point. The sister thanked us for coming. There were tears, hugs, and handshakes. Then we left.

We shuttled the ladies to their homes and on the way back we saw Sibongile’s Pastor along the road, so I stop to talk with them. We talked about Timbali donating some money to the family and how it could best be used, either to buy a casket or for the needs of the children. The Pastor will make sure it goes where the need is greatest.

By the time I arrived back home I was exhausted and the sun was starting to set. Our friend, Makhosi, had been with Ellie at home all afternoon…a little longer than usual. As I pull into our yard Ellie jumped up and down and waves her arms. She is the best at welcoming me home from a long day. After a little dinner and hangout time with Ellie, we are both in bed by 8:30pm. Good night!


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