Swaziland is my second home in Africa. I knew Swaziland long before I knew South Africa, and long before I decided to move to Johannesburg. I’ve been to Swaziland six times in the last six years. Swaziland always has been, and always will be, a life-changing place for me. Every time I go there I experience some kind of emotional transformation. No matter how short the visit, I leave Swaziland a different person than I was when I arrived. My most recent Swazi visit, this past week, was no exception. I went there to do a job for the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, which in itself carries a load of significance. I worked for the Foundation from 2005 to 2010. That job initially led me to Africa, and led me to meet Jon. Almost exactly two years ago, soon after Jon died, I said my last goodbye to him on top of a mountain in Swaziland.
Swaziland grabbed me a few years ago. It won’t let go. My first visit to the Swazi Kingdom, in 2008, was an emotional earthquake. I was blindsided by the realization that I wasn’t the person I thought I was. So I went back to the United States and spent the next 18 months trying to deny my discovery. I thought maybe I could keep this scary new person — who I called “Africa Heather” — under wraps, and live happily ever after as “U.S. Heather”. I was wrong. Two years after that first Swazi trip, I gave in to Africa Heather and started a new life.
Before this past weekend, the last music festival I attended was the legendary HFStival — sometime around the turn of the millennium in a grimy, beer-sodden stadium in southeast Washington D.C. It was oppressively humid and there were more than 70,000 attendees, mostly suburban kids aged 14 to 25. There was moshing. With the exception of my favorite ska/punk band, Goldfinger, I don’t remember who played. The Bushfire festival is as far from the HFSTival as a music festival can get, but equally awesome. Bushfire is a laid-back affair, held in an otherworldly creative compound in semi-rural Swaziland called House on Fire. The performers are diverse, as is the audience. I saw my share of stoned teenagers and 20-somethings, but the crowd was also filled with young families, 30- and 40-something development workers, and a smattering of retirees. Accents were primarily South African, American, and Swazi. Skin colors were black, white, and everything in between.
I’ve just returned from a weekend in Swaziland, my second-favorite African country. The main reason for my trip was Bushfire 2012, a huge music and arts festival at Swaziland’s House on Fire. I saw and did a lot of other stuff though — too much for one post. I’m too tired for even one full-length post at the moment, but I can’t sleep tonight without posting at least a couple of photos from the weekend. Here are three of my favorites.
I’ve never been a big shopper, and my inclination to shop has dropped even lower since I left the United States. But I do enjoy one type of shopping in Africa: craft-shopping. Especially craft-shopping in Swaziland. Beautifully back-lit penguin and owl candles, for sale at Swazi Candles. Swaziland is a really great place to shop for crafts. Don’t get me wrong — you can get amazing crafts all over this continent. (Check out my posts on the weaving women in Lesotho and the bead guys in Joburg.) But Swaziland is special. There are several unique craft centres there, selling locally made products at exceptionally reasonable prices. Every time I go to Swaziland, I set aside time to craft-shop.
Last week I went to Swaziland for a freelance assignment. The assignment was with Samaritan’s Purse UK, a charitable organization that does disaster relief and community development projects around the world. I went to Swaziland to take photos and write stories about the work Samaritan’s Purse is doing in a remote mountain community called Kaphunga. This assignment meant a lot to me. I love taking pictures, I love telling stories about people doing inspiring work, and I love Swaziland. Basically this was my dream job. If I could do this kind of work every day of the year for the rest of my life, I would happily do it. I’m still emotionally exhausted after writing my last post so I’m going to keep this one short. I really just want to show you the pictures.
There was a time when I didn’t believe in fate. I used to think life was one big coincidence. Then I came to Africa and changed my tune. Five years ago, if I had visited a psychic and she had predicted where I would be today, I would have laughed in her face and walked out without paying. The life I’m leading now is so extraordinary — so utterly impossible — that I don’t believe it could be a coincidence. There must be some reason, some explanation. There must be some plan, of which I’m not yet aware. A month ago, I wrote a blog post called ‘Land Rover on a Swazi Mountaintop‘. The post was about a photo I took three years ago in Swaziland’s Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, at the top of Nyonyane Mountain. I visited Mlilwane with Jon in June 2008, and it was a very special place for us.
Periodically, “awards” (otherwise known as chain letters) circulate through the blogosphere. One blogger nominates another for, say, “The Most Fabulous Blogger” award. That blogger writes a post accepting the award, says a few witty things about how honored she is to be considered fabulous, then nominates a number of other bloggers for the same award. The nominees are “encouraged” to respond, usually with threats of low traffic and bad juju for those who abstain (all in good fun, of course). I’ve been nominated for such awards a couple of times, but never formally accepted my nominations. I certainly appreciated the recognition, but felt that my acceptance posts would be boring and incomprehensible to my non-blogging readers.
We woke up on our last morning in Swaziland and it had finally stopped raining. I put on some clothes and went to complain to the manager about the water being off. He had it turned back on. Don’t ask me why it was off. I was just glad we could brush our teeth. After a mediocre breakfast, we said goodbye and good riddance to the Mantenga non-Tented Camp. (In case you missed Part 2, Mantenga dismantled their lovely tents to build luxurious but leaky safari-chic huts. We won’t stay there again.) On our way out of Swaziland we stopped at a souvenir place called Swazi Candles – one of our favorite hangouts in Swaziland. Swazi Candles is a quirky, artsy tourist trap. It consists of a complex of buildings, one of which is the candle workshop/studio. Then there are several other shops, a small café, and an outdoor area filled with artisans selling a local crafts.
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.
I was ambitious in thinking I could tell this story in three parts. I’m expanding it to four.
Our stay in Swaziland began peacefully. We crossed the border at Bulembu, a tiny town northeast of the busier border crossing at Oshoek. Rather than jostling around in long lines and dealing with surly immigration officials, we sauntered into a one-room building and chatted with the three women behind the counter. They crochet lace to pass the time – I bought a piece for R100. They stamped our passports with a smile (no paperwork required) and we were off.