My trip through South Africa included a two-day adventure in Swaziland, a tiny, mountainous kingdom wedged in between South Africa and Mozambique. Unfortunately, Swaziland is best known internationally for having the highest HIV infection rate in the world and one of the lowest life expectancy rates in the world. The country is very poor, and faces challenges almost beyond comprehension for someone from the Western world. Especially when their King appears on Forbes’ list of the world’s wealthiest royals.
Despite the harsh reality of life in Swaziland, it is a beautiful, fascinating country, which is easy to see once you meet some of its people. While staying at the lovely Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, I had the opportunity to visit a neighbouring village for the Umphakatsi Cultural Experience. A cultural village tour is part educational, part touristy, part local economic development and employment, and my favourite part, part make-the-tourists-do-things. Our visit to Umphakatsi incorporated so many things under this umbrella, it merited its own post. Sorry, dear readers, no pictures of animals today.
Before arriving, our guide gave us an impromptu language lesson, where we could learn the essential phrases in SiSwati to get us in the door. Then, we had to cover our pants with sarongs made of cloth printed with the King’s face.
Upon arrival, a few adults and a large group of children in traditional garb lined up to shake our hands and practice our SiSwati phrases. The children took to this task with great enthusiasm and were only too happy to help when we stumbled over the pronunciation. Then, we sat in a circle and learned about the customs and traditions of the community.
After the formalities, our first task was to learn some songs and practice dancing. Much of the evidence of my participation is still living on the cameras of my fellow travelers, but I did get an a shot of my ineptness balancing a water gourd on my head.
We learned mostly about women’s lives in the village, their daily tasks and undertook some light home repair by braiding fibres to shore up a protective wall. One of the kids checked my handiwork and was not terribly impressed with my braiding skills.
Then, we danced some more. I wasn’t getting off easy, and there was no way I was saying no to either of these faces.
When the time came for us to go, the children put on a short concert for us, dancing and singing some more while insisting we high-five them, individually and repeatedly, before leaving.
I’ve thought a lot about that visit since I left and what life is going to be like for the children in the village. There were over 200 orphans being cared for by the community, many/most of whom had lost their parents to AIDS and HIV-related illnesses. Despite the difficult lives they face, they are still children and I hope they found some enjoyment in our visit, if only to watch a slightly sunburnt Canadian dance around clumsily and mangle their language.
Siyabonga (thank you), new Swazi friends!
Have you ever done a “cultural tour?” How did you feel about it?