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.

I’ve been back to Swaziland four times since then. It’s not a big country, so each time I wind up at the same places, accosted by memories and blindsided again by how beautiful Swaziland is. My most recent trip was no exception.

Swaziland.

Last Sunday I found myself at Swaziland’s Mantenga Cultural Village and Nature Reserve. I wasn’t keen to be there. I’d been to Mantenga several times before, always with Jon. Jon and I stayed at the Mantenga Lodge in 2010, and barely lived to tell the tale when our cabin flooded during a torrential thunderstorm.

Anyway, I have a lot of memories from Mantenga and wasn’t in the mood to relive them on Sunday. I wasn’t particularly excited to tour the “cultural village” and watch a traditional Swazi dance, either. I’ve visited many real Swazi villages and watched real Swazi dances. The Mantenga set-up seemed contrived, and the tour expensive (R100, or $12). But my friends had never seen Swazi dancing and really wanted to do the tour. I didn’t want to let them down, so I coughed up the 100 bucks and settled in to enjoy the performance as best I could.

Swazi dancers begin their performance at the Mantenga Cultural Village. Jon and I used to make fun of these tourists. Now I was one of them. Ha.

I had forgotten that Swazi dances start slowly. The dancers didn’t do much at first, hanging in a pack, singing quietly, and shuffling their feet a bit. I felt sullen. I looked up at Nyonyane Mountain, where I said a final goodbye to Jon four months ago. Mantenga sits right at the base of that mountain.

 A single female dancer separated herself from the pack and began to move in earnest. The singing and the pounding drums grew louder. The girl took purposeful strides, rattling her traditional seed-pod anklets. Then she kicked.

She kicked her foot all the way above her head. I didn’t get a good shot though, because I was crying too hard.

When I saw that girl do the traditional Swazi kick, something cracked inside. I remembered my first trip to Swaziland when I watched a troupe of schoolkids dance outside a health clinic, Jon crouching in front with his shutter clicking. The intensity on those children’s faces, which I later saw reflected in Jon’s photographs, pierced my heart. I remembered.

When I finished crying, I suddenly felt glad to be at the Mantenga Cultural Village, watching a Swazi dance with a bunch of other camera-clad tourists. Where else would I rather be?

After the girl soloists finished, the boys took center stage. I was ready for the kicks this time.

Airborne.

Male soloist.

I spoke to the girl on the left after the performance. “Swazis are born knowing how to dance,” she told me. I believe it.

Half-way through the dance, a toddler in the front row started to get fussy. A dancer sashayed up to the boy, swept him from the arms of his mother (who was more than willing to relinquish him), and carried him to the middle of the dancer pack. The boy quieted and settled into the arms of his new friend. She held him for the rest of the dance. He loved it.

This moment made every cent of my R100 worth it.

Only in Swaziland.

The cultural village was about what I expected. The only person inside the village was a granny selling souvenirs. There were lots of hungry monkeys though.

Monkey mascot of the Mantenga Cultural Village.

After the tour, my friends and I walked down to the Mantenga Waterfalls. I had admired the falls from afar on my previous visits to Mantenga but never managed to hike down to the river for a close look, either due to rain or shortage of time.

I thought of Jon as I took pictures of sunlight bouncing off the cascading water. I’m sure he’s happy I finally made it.

Mantenga Waterfalls.

Despite my initial sullenness, obviously I was meant to visit Mantenga on Sunday. I’m sure I’ll be back again soon.

There’s just something about Swaziland.

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