Emehlo Madzala “old eyes” (long time no see)
Yes, even though I completely went off the grid on this page it isn’t because I returned for good to America even though I did for a month. Nor is it that I moved into a rural community so isolated that I lost access to modern technology and amenities like the internet. Actually, it is the exact opposite. Since September of last year, I have been living in the capital city of eSwatini, Mbabane, where I have been doing my 3rd year as a PCV Extender, working at one of the few schools in the country that is oriented towards educating children with special needs. I’ll talk more about what I do in the next post.
This blog is to give an update on my life living in the city after having lived two-years with my Swazi family. As my readers know, living with my Swazi family was perhaps the greatest part of my first two years in eSwatini. I genuinely view them as my 2nd family, when someone asks me what my surname (last name) is, I say with pride “Magagula.” I’m proud to have become part of such an amazing family. My family were the people I turned to when I was having a tough day; I knew my dog was going to be waiting at home to greet me after I came home from school and to be my running and hiking partner, even though this essentially just meant she would chase after any and every goat, cow, chicken, pig, or terrified child we encountered along the way. My leaving of the life I built over those two years was undoubtedly the most difficult experience of my service in the PC. It literally shows even today, 7 months later. The doctor attributes the stress of this transition in the acquirement of a condition where my facial hair has stopped growing in giant patches, which began exactly the same time I was saying my farewells to my students, my community, and to my family. that haven’t grown since I August of last year.
Even though I can’t have my scruffy facial hair that I so love having due to this condition, it’s not all bad since moving to the city. Since moving to Mbabane, I have dramatically changed how I present myself in public, I pretty well gave up the typical “PCV-look,” I wear clothing that is appropriate for young adults here, I dress business casual most days to work, I even put gel in my hair again for the first time since 2016. Part of this is due to the fact that I have grown tired of the stereotypical PCV wardrobe. Part of it is simply because I have access to running water that doesn’t require I carry a wheelbarrow full of water jugs 1/2 a mile. I don’t take bucket baths any more, I even have returned to my biking ways of having shaved legs (mostly attributed to access to running water). When I see people in Mbabane who knew me from my old community they immediately refer to me as a “cheese boy” which is a term used here to describe a typically young adult guy who lives an easy life in the city.
My degree is in Urban Planning, I love cities. I love the conveniences afforded people who are in the city. I love that I can walk or ride a bike everywhere I need to go. Or I can take a khumbi (our form of public transportation), spending almost no money to go anywhere. As a planner, I really love the efficiency of eSwatini’s public transportation system, it isn’t without problems but it is 100x better at getting you from point A to B than any public transportation system I have experienced in the US especially given the resources available and invested here compared to America.
I love that I have modern and generally well-stocked grocery stores only a 15 minute walk away from my house. Or that I can get an espresso any time I want one or to go out for lunch with someone with only a short heads up. I love that the PC office is a 10 minute bike ride away instead of 3 hour bus ride, and the bike shop is a 5 minute ride away. I love that I can bike to the world’s 2nd largest exposed rock in 20 minutes (Sibebe Rock). I love that I can see friends with ease and I can have people over any time I want. I love that I have a mini-oven/stove and a microwave; that I have a sink, toilet, and shower all with running (hot) water. I love that I haven’t had to hand wash my clothing more than a handful of times since September.
In many ways, living in Mbabane has been so much like living in America that I have to remind myself I am half a world away from my friends and family and life in the US. Perhaps that’s why I haven’t posted in so long, because living in the city isn’t nearly as inspiring to me as my life in my old community.
There aren’t cows and goats for me to herd here, I don’t have meaningful conversations with my Make and Babe like I had on a daily basis, I don’t have my dog Pogues by my side everywhere I go. I don’t have the ability of seeing the milky way at night on my way to the toilet completely unimpeded from light pollution. In the city I don’t have the ability to go on hikes with my students into the mountains to fetch native fruits, mxm many of those in the city know less about fruits native to Eswatini than I do. I don’t feel as comfortable wearing Swazi cultural regalia here since many people in the city don’t appreciate Swazi culture.
I don’t experience the random conversations with strangers in which you inevitably find yourself in the rural community. I don’t see children playing outside with friends like they do so carefree in the rural community, instead they are expected to play inside. In general, people are much more Westernized – much more private – here than in the rural communities…something that makes me miss the rural community lifestyle even more and miss the American lifestyle even less.
In the community I was reminded daily of the privilege I had coming from a middle class American lifestyle where my family never had to worry about whether or not we would have access to water that day or week. Electricity going out for multiple days at a time was something that I don’t think I could even imagine as being possible. Food was pretty much guaranteed to always be in the house, just maybe not what my picky taste buds desired. I was able to have my first job as a paper boy in Grade 6, instilling in me good work ethic as well as allowing me to generate more income as many adults here make, even though I only worked 3 hours after school instead of their 40+ hours a week, and even though an American teenager has literally zero bills or expenses they are expected to pay. These were all things that I was reminded of on a daily basis living in the community.
In the city, my exposure and daily reminders of my privilege take a very different form. In contrast to being the only white person in my community, I now live in a city where I see white people all the time. With this, I am exposed to seeing just how much being white is a privilege living in Eswatini, I (and basically any other white person) am treated very different than someone of color, even if that person is an American. I see how I am often shown a greater level of respect and friendliness when I go into restaurants or grocery stores. I know that I could easily walk into a grocery store with a giant backpack without anyone saying a word and leave without anyone even considering to ask to look in my bag as I leave. If I were to be a person of color I most likely would be told to leave my bag at the parcel counter before entering the store, or if not I know the employee at the door would want to look through my bag as I left to make sure I didn’t steal anything. I still haven’t found a white person in the city who relies on public transportation besides other PCVs and tourists.
I am so grateful to still be in eSwatini, the place that has become my home. I am grateful that I am able to talk to and see my Swazi family when possible, I am grateful that I am still doing work in a way that brings a sense of meaning and purpose to my life. Regardless if I am living in the rural community or in the city I love this place and the people I am surrounded by.
My next blog post will be about the work that I am actually doing here in the city, where I work at a school that focuses on children with disabilities.