Over December I had the privilege of sharing my life as a PCV in Swaziland with one of my incredible friends from the states who came to visit me for two weeks. It was special on so many levels. For one, he was the first person from my life back home to visit me; first person from my life in America that I saw in person in 1 ½ years. That alone made it incredible. Even though we didn’t have the chance to smash some bike pedals like we did back in our days racing together on the University of Cincinnati Cycling Club, we did plenty of other epic things. Best of all, over the two week visit, we were able to do it spending next to nothing, making it one of the cheapest vacations you could take (besides the flight costs). Besides renting the car and buying the plane tickets, my friend ended up spending a total of $150 USD over two weeks of vacation which included food, gas, visiting tourist attractions, camping, hiking, going to wildlife parks, buying souvenirs, and going out to eat. I know because his bank cards didn’t work here so I took it out of my own bank account! Good luck being able to do that in any of your other vacations.
Here are the highlights of having my friend spend two weeks with me.
Spending Time with My Host Family
Could my friend stay at hostels for two weeks…sure. But I’m glad we didn’t. Staying in a hostel or hotel can be expensive at least on a PC budget. You also aren’t given a Swazi name like my friend was given by kiddos from my community who decided his name is Sipho meaning “gift.” Besides sleeping in tents a couple nights and one night at a hostel, we slept at my homestead in my hut, allowing us to spend many days of trip in my community participating in my day-to-day life activities. This is the best way of experiencing Swaziland, or any foreign country and its culture for that matter. I’ll be honest, if you come to see a foreign country and you spend most it on a tour bus…you’re doing it wrong. Save some money and get on Google Streetview instead as it will get you about the same experience. If I have saved you money by this simple trick…feel free to send me some of your saved money via paypal.😊
So what did Sipho do with my family? Each day he spent a bit of time playing soccer with my brother and nephew in our homestead while I was busy with other things or playing frisbee with neighbor kids. Sipho and I also spent time talking to my Make (mother). My make was so happy to share as much about Swazi culture as she could with Sipho, talking about and getting his and my opinion on countless topics ranging from traditional Swazi beliefs, things Swazis consider sacred, religion. We had genuine conversations, ones that I would normally like to enjoy in a quiet bar over a beer. We talked about things like whether it’s good or bad to be in a relationship with someone who has different hobbies and interests than you, whether we think it is or isn’t Christian to talk to people who are deceased like ancestors or loved ones (this is a controversial topic in Swazi Christianity vs. traditional Swazi believes). It was incredible to have conversations like this with Sipho and my Make.
Spending Time with Kids From My Community
Besides spending time with my host family, Sipho and I spent a lot of time with kids from my community who have become close to me over the past 1 ½ years. Over the course of his visit, we often would invite kids to join us. Not only was this a way to have Sipho get to know Swazis better but also gave Swazi kids the chance to spend time with the 2nd non-Southern African person they ever met.
As Sipho and I enjoyed going for long hikes, we asked the kids to come with us, who were more than happy to come. In total, the kids joined us for a total of about 20 miles of hiking, listening and singing their favorite music from my iPod the entire time, finding and identifying wild fruits growing on trees that neither Sipho or I knew about.
Since I work at the local school and we just recently established the library, I wanted to give students the opportunity to spend time in the library over Summer vacation (December and January) to either read books or just spend time with me to keep out of trouble. This was fun for so many reasons. For one, because the students were the DJ of music in the library, they controlled the music. I can say happily that, if nothing else, I introduced Swazi youth to early punk rock, indie, ska, and Irish music since coming here. One of the kids decided he loves listening to the traditional Irish band the Chieftans and would play one of their songs on repeat until someone took the iPod from him. Swazi youth, being no stranger to dancing and singing, multiple occasions when an impromptu miniature flash-mob would begin in the library, when someone threw on a popular Southern African Hip Hop song.
Going for Hikes and Camping
As mentioned earlier, we hiked a lot. Sipho and I are very physically active people, that’s how we know each other after all, we spent a lot of time exploring Swaziland on foot by doing lots of long hikes and camping. Most of the hikes were done around my community. Besides the local hikes, we also did a two-day hiking trip to the beautiful Malalotja Nature Reserve. This 20+ mile outing was incredible to see such a large beautiful area that has so little indicators of human life. Instead, we found extremely remote and gigantic waterfalls, wild zebra, wildabeast, impala, and baboons. We decided to sleep on top of a large hillside that overlooked three waterfalls, as well as within ear-shot of wild baboons who made sure we knew they were watching us. Being able to walk just a stone’s throw from wildabeast and zebra was something I don’t think Sipho expected he would be doing in Swaziland prior to his arrival.
Hikes around my community gave Sipho a chance to see some beautiful landscapes and get a better sense of rural Swaziland. Additionally, because we went on the local hikes with my cousins, who had control of the music playing during the hike, Sipho quickly learned which songs were popular amongst youth here.
Belief it or not, until Sipho’s visit, I hadn’t yet visited a game park besides one that only had grazing wildlife like zebra, impala, and wildabeast. In a compact VW Polo rental, we decided to venture through Hlane Game Reserve to see as much wildlife as we could without taking a safari game drive. Although we were terrified of getting the car stuck on the muddy pothole riddled routes, we still managed to get real close to see wild elephants, rhinos, hippo, giraffe, zebra, and impala. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any lions or other big cats but that’s just fine. Of the animals we did see, it was really special to see them walking around so freely, so different from a zoo experience.
There are three main cultural celebrations in Swaziland that are great opportunities for non-Swazis to experience something unique. Sipho lucked out that he was here for the beginning part of the Incwala celebrations. As such, he attended and participated in the local activities of singing and dancing traditional Swazi songs. Even if you’re a tourist, you are not allowed to simply stand and watch, they give you a stick and you dance alongside everyone else.
I’ll admit that Incwala was a total stressor when it came to planning activities to do while hosting a guest simply because Incwala doesn’t occur on a specific date each year, we only know that it will occur between December and January. Since the start of Incwala doesn’t get announced until a couple days before it begins, we were left completely guessing and making plans that could be adjusted in case Incwala began. Once they did finally announce the start of Incwala, planning became much easier yet no less busy.
Since I was expected to spend Incwala with other warriors, I didn’t want Sipho to be by himself so I asked the kids in my community who came hiking and went to the library with us to accompany him during the activities. Sipho spent one afternoon and the evening with my students without me at Incwala; they loved spending the day with Sipho and still talk to me about it. By being at just one small part of Incwala, Sipho gained a glimpse of insight to traditional Swazi culture, something I doubt most other tourists could say they have done. This was furthered by the fact that the regiment invited Sipho and my community kiddos into the traditional barracks where the warriors stay (see previous post about Umbutfo) and didn’t refuse the offer to taste test traditionally brewed alcohol with the warriors.
Eating…so much eating
Besides eating the nine pizzas that he and I made for Christmas for my family, Sipho and I ate so much good traditional Swazi food. It might have been his favorite part of coming honestly. Traditional food eaten included homemade cornbread (my favorite), cooked pumpkin leaves (also delicious and seemingly unknown by most Americans that you can actually do this) which became something he and I ended up cooking for ourselves basically every dinner, lots of chicken, ligusha (an okra based dish), and other dishes made of plants you find growing in fields that would normally be considered weeds by American standards yet are delicious. It might not sound like anything fancy but he was extremely impressed by how good all of the dishes tasted that Make cooked for us. During our hikes, we made sure to find all types of native fruits and eat our fill along the way. It is also safe to say that Sipho ate more mangos in those two weeks than he probably ever has during his life or will again. He also realized that cooked Swazi maize is so big that one cob can act as an entire meal and take half an hour to eat because they are so large. We also stuck to the PCV diet I have acquired of having at least one meal a day consisting of popcorn with hot sauce.
Bushman Paintings and Typical Attractions
Something that is incredible about Swaziland is how much stuff there is in such a small country. A short two hour drive can get you anywhere in the country basically, including to either of the two cities, incredible craft markets, or to bushman paintings that consist of paintings 400 years old and others 4,000 years old. This was something we both were very happy to visit and were shocked by just how big a display these bushman paintings were.
One of the most special moments of Sipho being here in Swaziland, with those people who have played such a huge role in my life who I truly consider my family, was the day he left. Before Sipho got in the car to head towards the airport, my Make (mother) and Babe (father) sat us down under a tree to talk. As Babe doesn’t know English well, he spoke in siSwati and either Make or I would translate what he said to Sipho. My parents told Sipho ‘how genuinely happy and blessed they were to have him visit and stay with them, someone who came all the way from America to spend two weeks with simple Swazis who don’t have much of anything.’ They told him that he, just like me, are now considered part of their family, and are forever welcome to visit his Swazi home whenever he is able.
This conversation demonstrated to me the true hospitality my family and many Swazis show towards their guests, it takes the term Southern Hospitality to a whole new level. I did and still do have a problem with the way in which my parents talked about themselves in such terms, “simple,” “don’t have much of anything.” I know this family in a way I never could have imagined I would get to know a family other than my family state-side. I can say with certainty those two descriptors don’t apply to them. Money isn’t everything…talk about being a cliché saying, but I have never believed it more than I do since becoming a PCV. This family shows it to me daily through their humbleness, love, and compassion they show towards complete strangers and has shown to me every day for the past 20 months. What they possess and so willing to share with anyone will forever be worth more than monetary wealth.
Even a month after he has left, my 7 year old nephew asks me in siSwati, “Where is Uncle Sipho?” or when I say I am going away for a day to the city to celebrate my friend’s birthday he will ask “Is Sipho back from America??” The kids we spent many days going on hikes with or spending time with in the school library were genuinely sad when he left and still talk about him as well.
If you find yourself wanting to get an eye opening experience, to meet some of the most wonderful people out there who live in some stunningly beautiful areas while eating some delicious food…come to Swaziland.