Swaziland

Out of nowhere in October 2019, I was asked to join a friend and former classmate on a trip to Swaziland and Mozambique to document her organization's efforts to create sustainable agriculture, and promote an education for the children there. I was warned ahead of time that we would be visiting homesteads and villages that were impoverished, and that many of the children were raised by a single parent, or a Gogo. If I'm being honest, I was expecting my photography to be a collection of starving, hopeless children. I was worried that at times I might not be able to point a camera at something that really saddened me. When I asked my friend, who's been visiting this region for over 10 years, what the saddest thing she'd seen is, she told me about a mother who tried to place a lifeless child into her arms. While I certainly saw my share of sadness, I would like to think that Swaziland and Mozambique are for the most part filled with happiness, even when faced with disease and hunger. For this reason, I want to start with a collection of smiles

Stories

While I hope my photos capture part of what I experienced, it wouldn't be complete without some of the individual stories of the amazing people I met. 

Linda runs the farm we stayed on, and was with us for everything we did. His English is perfect, and he's funny as hell. When someone in our group came out in gloves and knee pads to pull up weeds, he said she looked ready for war. The fact that Linda is also an English name is just a coincidence. In Siswati, it means 'To Wait'. When his mother was pregnant with him, his grandmother was dying, but she promised she'd wait until the baby was born before dying, and she kept true to her promise. 

Despite his great English, Linda refused to call us by our American names. He said he'd think of Siswati names for each of us as he got to know us. On Day 3, he named me Jabulani, which means 'Be Happy', like a command. He said it's because I seem like someone who's always telling others to be happy

I loved staying up late with Linda because he was a fantastic story teller. Most of his stories were biblical, but one night he told me what it was like growing up with 11 siblings and no parents. It went as follows: Every night, his Gogo, or grandmother, would start a fire and set a large pot of water to boil. She'd cover the pot so that none of the kids could see what was cooking inside, so they would all gather around and wait. As the water boiled away, she'd slip the cover off and add more. One by one, as they sat around waiting, the kids would fall asleep, and as the last kid went down, she'd pour out the water, put out the fire, and go to sleep herself. Linda said they were fed hope to keep from starving each night. 


Piti is 9, and the best big sister I've ever met. The baby she's carrying is her little sister Nana. That name is just a placeholder for a real one, as babies aren't given a name until they turn 1. This is sadly because too many babies die before then, and naming them only makes it harder. 

They have an 11 year old brother Fiso, but I couldn't ever get a photo of the three of them together. My goal isn't to make these stories sad, but I have to include that both of their parents have HIV, and there's a strong suspicion that all three children likely contracted it at birth, not that there's any tests to be sure. From what I was told, the most visible sign is that the retina isn't a sharp circle, the line around it starts to get fuzzy, and you could clearly see that in Piti's eyes. 

Even more noticeable was that Nana had worms in her legs, because she was playing in the muddy water without pants. The medication to treat it was something like $0.10 equivalent, and we picked it up the next time we were out, but something that was explained to me early on is that you can't try to fix every issue. When the 30 day supply of medication ran out, and we were back in the US, Nana would be right back to playing in the mud. Education is at the base of everything, just like at home. 

To end on a happier note, my favorite part of every day was driving down the long dirt path that led to the farm, and seeing Piti and Fiso waiting to open the gates for us and close them behind us. Then they'd hop on someone's lap in the front seat of the jeep to get a minute of AC in their faces before we all went back inside for the night. 

Sunday was for church, and only church. I thought I was getting off easy, a whole day's break from chopping at weeds with a sharpened crowbar lovingly called a Slasher, but even if you attend church every Sunday (I do not), you aren't prepared for a 5 hour Swazi service. It was actually nice, with everyone getting up and testifying their love for Jesus. There was an English translator so I could follow along. At the end of the day, it was just a community sharing what they were grateful for, which is a much nicer message than what I heard later on in Mozambique, but we'll get to that. 

I made it a whole hour or so before I went to go hang out with the kids outside. The three little boys in the top photo played hide and seek with me for pretty much the whole time, and kept striking poses for the camera. The area we were in was significantly more developed than a lot of the areas we had been to, many of the people there were in suits, and the pastor's family came in matching blue and white suits / dresses. Apparently they pick a different color scheme each week. But these three boys had holes in their clothes and wandered over to church alone, and when it ended, they wandered off alone. I was told that they knew where they were going, probably back to a grandparent. 

Underneath them is a photo of Jami having her hair braided by every kid there.  Most of them had never touched a white person's hair before, so Jami sat there until her head hurt too badly. 

I love this little girl in her pink dress. If I remember correctly, she was the Pastor's daughter or niece, and she came in her Sunday best. 

This one made me angry. The photo is of the Pastor's car, his Mercedes, with the congregation around it blessing it before he drives off. Everywhere we went, the pastors were the wealthiest person in the community. To me, I felt like the pastor should have been crouched over those three little boys with holes in their shirts, blessing them. But this was not my community, and not my way of life. I would say that it's not my place to judge, but I can't leave out my own opinions.

Consider this my forewarning: I am not an unbiased reporter. 

In the front is Luazi, I think she's 17. For the week that we stayed on the farm, she helped with all the chores. She  probably thought we were crazy, choosing to pay someone else rather than wash our own clothes. I had another photo of her on Polaroid, but when she saw it, she asked if she could keep it, and I wasn't going to say no! 

Luazi is trying to go to college for accounting, but the price is enormous. The total cost for all four years is $2,000, and while that seems like nothing compared to the 120k we pay in the U.S, it's just not attainable there. Those who go to college are sponsored from outside the country. 

On one of our first days there, someone in our group casually said to Luazi's mom "Your daughter is so sweet, I want to bring her home with me!"... As you might imagine, her mother took it quite literally. She was so happy, thanking her for bringing her daughter to America and giving her a better life, and it took some delicate explaining to smooth that out.

The pepper harvest took all morning and most of the afternoon one day. We had a rough start when a Black Mamba slithered out of the peppers about a foot from my foot. I was wearing flip flops, and a bite kills you in about 3 minutes. There's no anti-venom in the entire country at the moment because the snake hunters haven't been too successful in catching them, and you can't make anti-venom without venom. 

After making sure the snake was long gone, we filled up 10 Gallon buckets, sorted them, and Linda drove them over to the market. One bucket sells for about 80 lilangeni, or $5.50. The red peppers got thrown out, apparently they don't sell. 


Maga Theresa: Mother Theresa. 

I have to say that if someone was deserving of that name, it's probably her. This was the first care point that we visited, and there was just too much to take in. The first thing is that there's no funding, no school district to make sure the kids are learning or fed or that they even show up. Theresa is doing this entirely volunteer, and from what I learned, it seems to be her whole life. At home she grows a garden and uses what she grows to feed the kids and herself. She reads to them, teaches them shapes and colors, and at the end of the day they wander off to wherever home is for them. 


There are whole organizations devoted to teaching kids to wash their hands and brush their teeth. 

I just like this photo







One thing that I thought a lot about as I was editing these pictures is how much control a photographer has over the story that's told. 

By picking out a child standing alone, taking the photo from a lower angle, and converting it to black and white, the whole feeling of the photo becomes bleak. 


And then 30 seconds later I can turn around and take the happiest photo.






Even without the editing. Even with the exact same subject. The feeling can be so different. 






Something I don'd do very often is put the camera down and let someone else capture the moment with me in it. I wish I knew the name of this game, but I wasn't great with it. 



Oh, and every kid I met wanted to see my tattoos. I asked Maga Theresa if it was so uncommon to have tattoos and immediately I got some odd looks from everyone. Jami whispered that she'd tell me later. Turns out that there's still a large following of paganism, Zionism, and witchcraft, and some of the groups use tattoos to mark themselves. Pretty much everyone I met was Born Again Christian, but we did encounter one Witch Doctor's assistant. 

The assistant was wearing very vibrant robes, and probably would have made for a great photo. I didn't even get a chance to lift the camera because Jami saw what I was about to do and stopped me. My warning was that if I took a photo of her, she'd come over and chop off my hands. You'll just have to picture what a Witch Doctor's assistant looks like. 



One spot that I didn't get to visit, and thus have no photos of, is the Swaziland School for the Deaf. I'm learning a bit of Sign Language, so it would have been interesting to see. Unfortunately it has a dual purpose outside of being a school. I don't know enough about the local religions to say exactly who I'm referring to, but there are groups in the region that view being born Deaf as deserving of death. It's far from unheard of for a child born deaf to be sacrificed, so the school also serves as a safe haven. 




People jokingly ask me if this trip was an eye opening experience, because that's what everyone says when they travel abroad in college. 

I tend to say no, if only to shut down the teasing, however I will forever say that meeting Comfort was life changing. When he showed up to our new years braai in his undershirt and jeans, he brought with him an air of pure happiness. As it started to get late, and he was still grilling, he whispered to me that he was afraid of the dark. I thought he was joking, but I went and got all the candles we had inside and made a little circle around him. He must have thanked me a hundred times for 'saving him from the darkness.' We talked for a few minutes and I thought, I'm going to need a Polaroid of Comfort, I want to remember this. When I asked for the photo, he puffed out his chest and sucked in his stomach and flexed, even more than the photo to the right, but when the photo came out he laughed and said to take another, he didn't want me remembering him like that, so I took another. 


When he was leaving, he came to find me and thank me again for the candles, and I told him he should keep one of the polaroids as a memory of the night. He said he'd like the goofy one, again because he didn't want me remembering him that way. And then he gave me the biggest bear hug, didn't let go for a whole minute. He told me he loved me, and that I had to promise I'd come back to visit. And that's why meeting him was life changing. I have always been very reserved with the concept of love, I felt like it should be saved for the people you care the most about and nobody else. But here was someone I just met, who had a seemingly endless amount of love to give. I decided that Love is not a resource to save, it doesn't have to be reserved. 


I don't have a photo that captures this next story, so these cows will have to do. You couldn't drive 10 feet without a cow, or a speed bump. Apparently the king had them installed, but the're not like American 25 MPH ones, these required almost a complete stop or you'd catch some air. It made a 20 minute drive into an hour...


Anyway, this next story has to be the low of the trip. The plan was as follows: We were driving from Swaziland to a very southern area of Mozambique, and it was going to take 7 hours total, not including the two border checkpoint stops. Joseph, our host who was going to be joining us in Mozambique, had a friend with a van to take us halfway there to an Airport in Maputo, where we'd rent our own Van and drive the rest of the way. 


We made it to the airport with no issue... until they told us there was no van waiting. In fact, there were almost no cars in the whole parking lot. Jami turned to EJ, who had supposedly reserved a van that morning, and he confessed that rather than renting a van, he had used a chunk of our data plan to stream the Liverpool match. 

So then we were stranded. Luckily there was someone at the airport who spoke perfect English, and ended up being our saving grace. He first offered to call us taxis, but between the 6 of us, and all of our luggage, it just wasn't feasible, plus we still had 9 days left of the trip, and we needed to get around in Mozambique. 

We took turns sitting and pacing the airport for about 2 hours trying to figure out what to do, until eventually Jami figured she'd call the hotel and let them know we'd be arriving very late. Well, the number didn't go through. It didn't even exist. So she called the booking agency, and the interaction went like this:


     "Hi, the number you gave  me for the hotel is a dead line, how were you able to reach them?"

     "Oh, we weren't able to."

     "But you sent me a confirmation email for the reservation."

     "Yes, to confirm that we received your payment." 


And at that moment we were no longer stranded. To be stranded, you need a destination. We were now lost.