Part 3 of 4: A Swazi Reunion

by | Dec 2, 2010 | Swaziland | 4 comments

We awoke, soggy and groggy, on the morning after the flood (see Part 2). It was still raining.

We picked up Zandi, our Swazi colleague from the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, and headed out of town.

We were going to see Zanele and her two-year-old daughter, Phiwa. Zanele has HIV, but Phiwa is HIV-negative because Zanele received medicines that prevented her from transmitting HIV to her daughter.

Joe and I visited Zanele at this same time last year as part of a World AIDS Day story we worked on. Zanele has been through a lot since then – her husband died, she was kicked out of her home, and she went to live with her mother in another part of Swaziland. We’d also heard that Zanele had another baby but we didn’t know any details. We were worried.

Driving over a dam on our way to Zanele’s place.

A quick aside about HIV/AIDS in Swaziland. Swaziland, a tiny country squeezed between South Africa and Mozambique, has the highest HIV prevalence in the world. About 26% of Swazi adults have HIV. There are lots of explanations for this (starting with the king of Swaziland, who has 13 wives), but I won’t go into that here. Suffice to say that the country is suffering from an epidemic of epic proportions, and no one has suffered more than Zanele and her family.

We drove for 90 minutes, much of it on unpaved roads, to get to Zanele’s village. We reached the local health clinic and Zanele was there waiting for us.

We jumped out of the truck to greet her and saw a little bundle in her arms – her two-month-old son, Nkosingphile. His name means “Gift from God.”

We learned later that Zanele, despite all the terrible things that happened, kept up her HIV treatment while she was pregnant. Nkosingphile, born three months after his father died of AIDS, is HIV-negative as a result.

We rode together to Zanele’s home. Zanele’s mother, Alice, was waiting for us at the gate, waving her hands in the air and laughing. Alice exudes strength and beauty and honesty – I took one look at her and knew that Zanele was in a good place. Alice is also HIV-positive and very outspoken about it.

(Zanele and Alice both gave us legal permission to tell their story. They are proudly open about their HIV status and want to do whatever they can to educate the world about HIV/AIDS.)

We spent the day with the family, which also includes Zanele’s teenage sister and three nieces. Joe shot pictures and I conducted interviews. We gave Alice and Zanele the food that we’d bought the night before, which they accepted with gracious enthusiasm. We talked (thanks to Zandile, who translated between English and siSwati), laughed, played, and ate trail mix. Phiwa, who didn’t remember us from last year, cried and ran away at first whenever Joe got too close. But by the end of the afternoon she was dancing for the camera.

Joe photographs the family outside their house. Alice is on the far left, holding Phiwa. Zanele is on the right, holding Nkosingphile.

One of Alice’s ducks saunters into the kitchen hut, where the family cooks. (They cook over an open fire so they have to have a separate building for it, because of the smoke.) The duck seems unaware that he will someday meet his demise in this hut.

Hanging out by the kitchen hut.

I have no idea where the fish came from — the girls just suddenly had it.

It was hard to say goodbye.

Back to Mantenga, where it was raining again. We went for an early dinner at the lodge’s restaurant. We knew from experience that the food there is not good, but the manager offered us a free meal to compensate for the previous night’s flood. (We’d expected him to comp us a free night, but whatever.)

Except for the staff and two drunk guys in the corner, we were the only ones in the restaurant. As we were finishing, a rat cruised out from under the table. We jumped up. The waitress came over.

“Are you alright?” she asked.

“There was a rat under the table,” I said.

“Oh yes, there is a rat living here. But it is okay. He doesn’t bite.”

We went back to our room and I turned on the tap to brush my teeth. No water came out. Oh, the irony: A deluge of water one night, none the next.

We were too tired to do anything about it so we went to bed. I think we both dreamt of Utopia.

Next up: The journey home.


  1. Todd

    Touching story; one of love and family in light of tragedy. I also love ducks, especially exotic species I have never seen! Keep up the great work of bringing such inspiring stories to us!

  2. 2summers

    I was fascinated by those ducks. I unfortunately didn’t ask what species they were, but I did learn that Alice sells them for their meat…unless the dogs get to them first.

  3. one poor woman

    Wow! What an adventure–and not in a good way. Am looking forward to reading more of your work here. Really sad, tho’, about the HIV prevalence over there. I wonder what becomes of HIV negative kids with positive parents whose health may suddenly take a nosedive. Please tell me there are national agencies ready to handle such a problem.

    • 2summers

      Hi there,

      The HIV situation in Swaziland (and in many other countries in Southern Africa) is really sad. Your question (“What happens to the HIV-negative kids with HIV-positive parents?”) is a good one. No one was really asking that question until a few years ago, when organizations like the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (who I used to work for) realized that you can’t help children without helping their parents too. Today, EGPAF and other orgs like it take a more holistic approach. They implement prevention services to help make sure the babies are born HIV-negative (and stay that way), and they also provide counseling, care, and treatment to the mom and dad, so they can stay healthy and provide for their children.

      Are there national agencies within Swaziland to handle this problem? Hmm, that’s a tough one. The bottom line is that the government of Swaziland is not equipped to handle the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the country. There are countless non-profit organizations, as well as the governments of countries like the U.S. and UK, working to change that. But they have a long way to go. In the meantime, women like Zanele and Alice are doing what they need to do to survive, through sheer force of will and love for their families.

      Thanks so much for reading and for caring about the issue.



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