Tag Archives: Culture

The Things I Love and the Things that Drive Me Crazy in Swaziland


1)    People’s names: Innocent, Sunshine, Lucky, Fortunate

2)    Warm greetings from people you don’t know. It is common, polite practice to say hello to everyone you meet on the street. Big smiles from strangers are also common.

3)    Mangos the size of my head.

4)    Avocados creamy and heavenly.

5)    The way women carry babies on their backs, tied in place with a kanga (cloth), towel or blanket. The children put their arms around mom’s neck while she ties them into place. You always know a woman is carring a baby when she walks towards you and see the knotted blanket and two tiny feet sticking out.

6)    Well-behaved children. I have not heard one tantrum in the grocery store!

Green beauty on the way to Pigg’s Peak.

Swazis, not Hobbits, live here.

A stunning lodge — Maguga Lodge, near the dam, in northern Swaziland.

7)    The beautiful lush, green, hilly landscape.

8)    Price of South African wine – very decent bottles for $5 Cdn.

9)    Spring…cool evenings for sleeping and warm sunny days.

10)                  Braai culture: parties consist of BYOB and BYOM (meat) – all year round.

Cows are money in the bank for Swazi people.

11)                   Cows and goats on the road – so non-Canadian!

12)                   Beautiful butterflies and moths.

A beautiful moth who alighted on my locker at the gym.




1)    Swazi time. I went to an International Women’s Day event on Friday, scheduled for an 8 am start. It began at 11:30 am.

2)    Kombis. This mode of public transport, mini-vans, legally hold around 15 people. Often they get packed with around 25. Perfect TB incubators.

3)    Drivers. Either they think they are on the Autobahn (100 in a 40 mph zone), or they’re afraid they’ll lose control if they go more than 1/2 the speed limit.

4)    Cows and goats on the road – one of the main causes of car accidents. Often owners let them wander freely, grazing by the side of the road, but they also tend to pop out in front of vehicles.

5)    The phone system. There are new networks – one is for cell phones, the other for landlines, and never the twain shall meet. Both are government owned, but the cell-phone company prevails (MTN). If you try to call one from the other, it is VERY expensive. Actually all calls are quite expensive. Texts cost around 10 cents (Cdn) each and a 10-minute cell call will cost around $1 (Cdn). Ouch!

6)    Government process…Lots of talking, but little action. Activists have been pushing for the Sexual Offences and Domestic Violence law to be passed for more than 10 years. The judicial system must rely on laws that are very out of date and perpetrators are often given light sentences.

7)    The belief in demons and witchcraft. Very disturbing and very prevalent.

8)    Reading announcements of police officers getting 30% pay increases, while teachers (who make very small salaries) can’t get a 4.5% increase. (Teachers went on strike last year, were fired by the Prime Minister, then pardoned by the King but still can’t get their 4.5%.)

9)    Polygamy.

10)                   The fact that women have constitutional rights, but many don’t know it. They continue to suffer gender-based violence and just figure that’s a woman’s lot in life – some even think it means the man is still interested in her.

11)                   Yucky giant bugs.

A dead giant being devoured by ants.



1)    The Sunday Time’s editor is named Innocent. He jumps at every opportunity to publish scandal, often based on rumor. One instance was publishing a nude photo of a Swazi embassy employee in the UK provided by her angry ex who was blackmailing her for reneging on a financial agreement. Not really news, and not so innocent.

2)    A man was chewed up by machinery in the sugar mills. The only way they could identify him was by testing for DNA in the sugar. His name was Lucky.

Stalking in the Name of Culture

In light of my last posting, I thought this update on the Senate’s defense of so called “customs” that are harmful to women in Swaziland was very interesting….


Courtesy: The Centre for Human Rights and Development


The plight of women in Swaziland is far from over as parliamentarians opposed the protection of women from stalking. Senators were discussing the longstanding Sexual Offences and Domestic Violence Bill of 2000 yesterday. The proposed law seeks to protect among others women from unlawful stalking.

The senators argued that stalking was part of social cultural norms hence proscribing it will violate the culture of Swazis. According to the Times of Swaziland (8 November at page 5) one senator decried the criminalization of forced marriages saying that such custom was more important as it ensured that a girl’s father was able to benefit from his daughter’s marriage since the girl would be given to a man who has cattle to pay lobola.

Culture has continued to be used as a shield to condone the violation of human rights in Swaziland. During this time of the year a group of men identifying themselves as members of the”water party,”( a group of men who are commissioned by royalty to traverse the country ahead of the annual incwala ceremony), go around the country harassing and imposing fine on women who are not properly dressed according to Swazi cultural norms.

This is despite the Constitution guaranteeing the protection of women from deleterious customs. The Swazi Constitution also contains equality and non-discrimination clauses which ought to serve as a yardstick for the treatment of women.

Swaziland is party to the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and other regional and international human rights instruments having a bearing on women, hence the continued violation of women rights on the basis of culture demonstrates the country’ failure to comply to its international obligations. During Swaziland’s human rights review session in March this year, several recommendations were made regarding the protection of women which Swaziland accepted and undertook to take action. It is disheartening to see parliamentarians openly condoning discriminatory customs as one would have hoped to see positive action being taken to eliminate such practices.

Human Rights, Respect and Tradition in Swaziland

Swazi women performers at the cultural village in Ezulweni.

The words “traditional culture” come up again and again when I read the newspaper and speak with Swazi friends. Usually it’s a point of pride, but occasionally the phrase becomes a catch-all excuse for behaviour that doesn’t really jibe with 21st century norms. For instance, a man accused of beating a child or abusing a woman will quite often defend himself, saying “this is my traditional culture.” Plus, there is quite a lot of confusion about “Human Rights” versus “Respect.” My colleagues at SWAGAA who go out to the rural communities have told me time and time again that male leaders are very suspicious about the promotion of human rights because they believe human rights allow women and children to disrespect their traditional laws and customs. Ahh. It other words they fear losing their absolute grip on authority.

Swaziland’s version of Pioneer Village.

Swaziland is a country full of contradictions, just like any place. To get a little insight on the “traditions,” I visited a cultural village in Ezulweni. Built for tourists on a lovely piece of forested land with frothing rapids, the village demonstrates what Swazi life was like 100 years ago, and some of it still holds true today.

Checking out one of the compound’s beehive huts. These aren’t used very much anymore, but the traditional social norms from these times are alive and well.

Swaziland’s social structure is based on clans that intermingle through marriage. In a “traditional” marriage the bridgroom’s family pays “lobola” a dowry, in the form of cattle, in keeping with the status of the bride’s family. Our guide noted the usual bride price was 17 head of cattle for a virgin. At a party I attended recently, a well lubricated Swazi guest noted he’d pay 24 cattle for my Australian friend Isabel. She said she’d cost way more.

Lead male dancer at the cultural village.

When a groom pays lobola, any child born of the union belongs to the father’s family. This can get quite complicated if the father dies and the mother wants to remarry. In fact, widows often have a really difficult time here since “traditionally” the deceased husband’s land, belongings etc. revert to his side of the family and a widow will find her home cleared of possessions if she leaves it unprotected. Although constitutionally women have rights and can own land, traditionally they are treated like minors. Patriarchy is very much the norm in Swaziland and women often have a difficult time enacting their constitutional rights.

Traditional male group dancing demonstration at the cultural village.

I’ve written about the Umhlanga Dance, where girls don tiny skirts and sashes and perform before the King and Queen Mother. The men’s equivalent celebration and right of passage is the Incwala ceremony, which is held in December. “Bemanti” (people of the water”) go to the Indian Ocean to collect water, a symbolic act connected to the king’s power, and return to the royal kraal in Lobamba (the King’s spiritual home). On the full moon, youths from all over the kingdom travel to collect scared branches of the “lusekwane” shrub (a species of acacia). On the third day of the ceremony a bull is ritually slaughtered by the youths to instill solidarity. I have read various salacious pieces on the Internet about this practice, which involves the King. Not going to comment here. On the fourth day the King dons his ceremonial garb and joins his “warriors” in a traditional dance. Boys in Swazi culture are part of regiments that perform dances together during Incwala. The ceremony concludes with rituals involving the harvest and blessings of the ancestors. This year the Incwala ceremony will be around the end of December. That’s one way to ring in the new year.

Rapids running through the cultural village property. Gorgeous.

Swazi Rural to Ramp Fashion Show

Unbelievable creativity -- Alice in Africaland!


Last weekend I attended the Mustard Seed Africa Rural to Ramp fashion show at House on Fire, a popular live music venue on the way to Malkerns. The event was a stunner, highlighting the creativity of handcraft producers in the area, including Gone Rural, Quazi Design, Giraffe, Golden Hands, Imvelo Eswatini, Baobab Batik, Pachimana, Zuwa, Priestess and Lillian Jane Jewelry. Many of these organizations work with impoverished women, employing their handcraft skills and paying them fair trade wages. Even though Swaziland has been rated a  “lower-middle-income” country by the World Bank, poverty is rampant, and women are especially vulnerable in this patriarchal society (traditional social systems say they can’t own land, and access to education is poor.). According to the International Fund for Agricultural Development, IFAD, the wealthiest 10 per cent of the country account for nearly half of total consumption while 43 per cent of the population live in chronic poverty. What you see on the surface, good roads, shopping centres and grocery stores in the urban areas, is not the rural reality – where 84 per cent of the population lives.

House on Fire reminded me of an African House of Blues, full of whimsical decorations and devoted to good sounds. Last Saturday it was sound and sights.

Who knew that woven grass mats could be so chic.

A lovely Swazi train.

Looks like candy!

Gone Rural, where my friends Camille, Isabel and Becky work, specializes in woven grass tableware – placemats, floor rugs, coasters and the like — available at 10,000 Villages in Canada. I was very curious what they would do at a fashion show. It was amazing. The placemats were folded, cut, and layered to create Alice in Africaland fantasy gowns. Not that you could ever really wear any of these get-ups – I imagine they’d be a tad scratchy, but what eye candy…and so chic!

My friend Haley works for Quazi Designs. This dress is accentuated with gold beads made of recycled paper.

Other participants designs included lacy crocheted shawls, dresses dangling with golden beads made of recycled paper, and head gear that looked like it came from another planet.

The showcase pushed boundaries that I didn’t know could be pushed. It was African, but otherworldly, and all for a good cause. Not only did it raise the profile of some of Swaziland’s finest designers, it raised money for the Mustard Seed Africa Health and Wellness Day for Handcraft Artisans, which benefits at least 300 women (urban and rural) from the participating organizations. The money will go to medical checkups for them, plus education on breast cancer and HIV/AIDS.



International Day of the Girl Child Event a Success!

Deputy Prime Minister Themba Masuku with winners of the essay competion at International Day of the Girl Child festivities on Oct. 11, 2012.


After two months of planning, the Swaziland International Day of the Girl Child was a smash success! Three weeks of media were a great lead up to the actual day. Representatives from SWAGAA (including me) and various NGOs spoke on radio and TV about the dangers of teen pregnancy, early sexual debut and the reality of sexual abuse in this country. The statistics are shocking, but at least there are prevention measures such as education and awareness campaigns in place.

On the actual day, Oct. 11th, there was a commemorative event at Happy Valley Casino and resort, where the winners of the essay contest were able to read their essays. It was enlightening, upsetting and heartwarming all at the same time. Beautiful 10-year-old girl children telling their stories and warning perpetrators to stop abusing girls. I cried, and I laughed with joy watching them do dances, songs and poems that blew the rest of the house away as well. Deputy Prime Minister Themba Masuku attended, as did U.S. Ambassador Makila James, and top represetatives from the UNFPA and the UNDP offices.

Having attended all the planning meetings, and having coordinated the essay contest, it was a big day for me and all the girl children of Swaziland.


1st place essay competion winner in the 14-18-year-old category.

The DPM presents the winner in the under-13 category with her prize.

A beautiful song from the Lusoti Primary School girls.

Dancing Maidens at Umhlanga

Royal maidens leading the regiments.

Ever since I got to Swaziland, people have been talking about Umhlanga. Gina, a German volunteer in our office was incredulous when I admitted not knowing what it was. “Have you been living under a rock? Umhlanga is Swaziland’s biggest event. Every year we always see pictures of it in the newspaper in Germany.” Smirks and smiles accompanied every mention of this event, especially by the guys. “All the Swazi maidens dance before the king, and they’re almost naked,” Gina explained. Wow. How could I not know about this? I started to do a little digging on the Internet and couldn’t actually find that much. Even Wikipedia’s listing was lacking citations. What I was able to piece together was that Umhlanga, also known in English as the Reed Dance, happens every year over eight days, usually the end of August, early September, when reeds are ready for harvest.

Sings and dancing (more like marching) round the stadium.

Thousands of Swazi maidens (reports state anywhere from 20,000 to 60,000) pay honour to the Queen Mother, marching to fields of reeds, chopping them down, bundling them up and then presenting them to the Queen Mother as windbreakers for her residence. Over beers at the local hotel, I found out from various Swazi men that the King was known to choose a wife from the maidens occasionally. Some people even thought the whole exercise was for the King.

The costumes were the big attraction for onlookers — a bead necklace, wool sash, rattling anklets made from cocoons, and skirt (actually more of a belt). Many maidens carry a machete, which they use to cut the reeds.

The maidens make their own skirts. Good thing it was warm that day.

Cocoon anklets.When did this all begin? The Internet sources were fuzzy. Maybe the 1940s, maybe more recently. It seems the official purpose of the annual ceremony is actually about virginity. When I arrived at the big event, I was given a pamphlet that noted, “This tradition is focused on encouraging young Swazi women to abstain from intimate relations and keep their virginity intact until they are considered old enough to be married. The second main objective is to provide tribute labour for the Queen Mother.” The age of participants ranged from toddlers to young women in their twenties. Apparently there is random virgin testing. A Swazi woman pointed out a young woman with a fantastic, blingy hair arrangement. “That’s the King’s girlfriend,” she whispered. Humm. My guess is she managed to avoid the testing. At the head of the regiments of girls were lineups of young women with red feathers in their hair. A sign of royalty, I was told. There were a lot of red feathers, which makes sense since the King has 14 wives (and many children) and his father had 70 wives and around 1,000 grandchildren. Lots and lots of royalty in Swaziland, I’ve found. I missed the presentation of the reeds to the Queen Mum, but I got there for the King’s appearance.

I missed getting a photo of the King, but this guy's rear view was more interesting anyway.

A red carpet was rolled out onto the stadium grounds and out trotted a group of around 50 men, all in traditional Swazi attire – a long cloth tied around the waist, topped with a leopard skin. Apparently Nelson Mandela’s grandson was amidst the throng. The group ran around the maidens, stopping to pay tribute by bending before the ones that caught the King’s eye. When they were finished and back up in their stadium seating, assistants handed out Styrofoam boxes to select guests. Gina had somehow made it into a VIP area. “I was sitting near the King,” she told me the next day. Thus, she got a Styrofoam box. “What was in there?” I asked. “Samosas and pizza slices.”  At the end of last day of the ceremony, the sun slipped down behind the mountains flanking the stadium and Ludzidzini Royal Village and one of the King’s daughters came out to do a dance. Singing and shaking, she proudly proclaimed, “I am a virgin and I am not afraid to be tested.” As if daring an inspection, she promptly did a back bend. Nervous laughs could be heard amongst the audience. My Swazi friend noted, “She did this once before and was spoken to about it.”  Royals and controversy. Doesn’t matter what country you’re in. Wonder if she’s met Prince Harry?

Luckily we didn't meet maiden requirements, so we didn't have to wear maiden attire.

All Tabloids Are Alike!

The Swazi News had the most captivating cover today.

Every day I try and read the newspaper. There are two main papers, the Swazi Times and the Swaziland Observer. Plus there are others like the one pictured – Swazi News. They are all quite similar, but the Observer is run by the government and tends to be a little more conservative. Part of my job at SWAGAA is to go through the newspapers and circle stories of gender-based violence. But on the weekend, I’m free to ponder over all the journalistic wonders I can devour. There’s no denying the Swazi News gets thumbs up for most captivating cover this weekend. The young lady pictured is no other than Princess Sikhanyiso, King Mswati’s daughter. She recently announced the dates for this year’s Reed Dance, or Umhulanga. The picture is from last year’s Reed Dance. What the heck is a Reed Dance? It’s a huge celebration, where thousands of young Swazi “maidens” gather for three days to cut reeds that are given to the Queen Mother for her roof, and later they dance for the King. It’s very traditional, and one year the King picked one of the maidens for his wife (he has  14, but rumor has it one or two may have left the royal household). The Reed Dance celebration starts on September the 1st and I am going. SWAGAA actually does some outreach work with some of the girls. I can’t wait. It is supposed to be beautiful. And you can bet all the guys love it.                                                         Here are some other bits from the news:

A typical caption under photos: “The people in this picture have nothing to do with the story.”

Canada got in the news today! We are one of the countries around the world that allow inmates conjugal rights.  The story was about the fact that prisoners will be allowed two hours of free time to enjoy conjugal rights with their spouses. Here’s an excerpt:  The house will be called a guesthouse and inmates will have to make bookings in advance to use it. Warders who normally guard them would stand outside the house and only knock when time was up for the cozy couple. Bedding which includes sheets and pillow covers will be changed after each use of the facility.”

Some of the day’s headlines…


NO REFUNDS FOR WORM-INFESTED MEALIE-MEAL (a course flour made from corn used to make a porridge that is similar to grits)

DRIVERS SHOULD PRAY BEFORE DRIVING – As a means of reducing the number of accidents on the country’s roads drivers of public transports have been urged to pray before driving. “Drivers should pray before touching the steering wheel so that God could protect them during the journey.”

WHEN WOMEN VOTE FOR MEN – Velisizwe Mhlanga, 33 of Ebenezer stated categorically that she did not have trust in women candidature, but was however, not forthcoming with the reason for her stance…..She preferred younger candidates because she believed a lot could be achieved by young energetic blood. “Once a person gets older chances are whatever they do could be inspired by selfish tendencies,” she said.

A small paraphrased slice from a complicated story about a teachers’ strike….The Swaziland National Association of Teachers went to Ludzidzini with two cows to thank His Majesty for his directive in solving their impass with government. (The teachers have been on strke and the Minister of Education fired all the striking teachers.) It has been quite a row. At a big meeting with the nation last week, the King said the teachers must go back to work. But the minister had fired them…It was quite a bruhaha. Now the government (Cabinet) is saying the King’s word is final. But last week it sure didn’t look that way. Hence the cows.


Lalibela: Rock-Hewn Marvels

The area's most amazing church, carved out of sheer rock in 4th century AD.

The next morning, we traveled 300 km on gravel back roads to get to Lalibela, the country’s best-known site for rock-hewn churches. Tamrat, our driver, managed to get us safely up and down a myriad of hair-raising switchback roads. Between hairpin turns I managed to enjoy stunning scenery, patchwork quilts of green and golden fields, forests and jutting rock. The sun had been down for more than an hour when we arrived and checked into our hotel.

Lalibela’s churches were carved from massive rock formations around 4th century AD. Local legend has it that angels helped King Lalibela complete the task in record time. The churches are still used for services and we spotted many ancient men on pilgrimages, sitting outside the huge wooden doors. Unfortunately we didn’t get a chance to see the churches up on the mountain, but the ones in town were spectacular.


Butcher shop delivery on a non fasting day!

Addis Ababa is a diplomatic hub, swimming with white UN vehicles and trucks emblazoned with NGO emblems. The home of the Organization of African Unity and the headquarters of the UN Economic Commission for Africa,  Addis is also one quirky town. Here are a few things I’ve noticed so far…

• Only a few streets have names, and most people don’t know them. You have to give cab drivers landmarks to get where you need to go.

• Open sewers are everywhere, so is the fragrance. Sidewalks (where there are some) have stone slabs covering the sewers, and sometimes a slab is missing. It’s a 4 foot drop. You don’t want to fall in.

• Wednesdays and Fridays are fasting days. That means no animal products available on the menu. These are great days for vegetarians – the shared platter known as ye som megeb, or fasting beyainatu, is a portion of injera (a flat spongy pancake made from teff) covered with helpings of lentils, chickpea mash, cooked spinach and whole vegetables like beans, carrots and potatoes. You eat with your right hand. Restaurants are all equipped with sinks to wash after you’ve eaten.

• Beef/goat/lamb is super popular (on non-fast days). The city is filled with Christian butcher shops, identified by the red cross on the outside.

• The population is about 60/40 Christian/Muslim.

• The beer is delicious. I love two brands, St. George’s and Harar. Cost is 12-15 birr (80 cents). Only Christians drink alcohol. Muslim cafes are good for juice, chai and coffee. Some places serve a drink that is a mixture of chai and coffee.

• Average salary for a middle class person is around 1500 birr per month (a little under $100). Lowest wage is around 30 birr per day (the average for a shoe shiner, and there are lots of them).

• Many diplomats live in an area called Washington. The large houses rent for around 40,000 birr per month.

• Elevation is 2,408 meters – thin air mixed with dust and diesel fumes makes breathing difficult. I walked up Entoto Mountain, which looks over the city and has an elevation of 3,000 meters. Gasp!

• Call to prayer – Christian and Muslim — starts around 5 am. Sleeping in is not an option.

•  Cabbies all drive blue and white Ladas. You have to negotiate a price before getting in. The ferengi price is always double. State of repair varies. Push start? Hanging wires? Door won’t close? Teddy bear in the back? You never know.

• Main traumas in hospitals are from traffic accidents. Ethiopia has the 2nd highest traffic accident fatality rate in Africa.

• When Manchester United plays, most of the city shuts down and TV cafes are packed. Bring on the St. George’s!

• St. George is the patron saint of Ethiopia.


Ethiopia Today!

Just a quick note to let everyone know my CUSO-VSO posting begins today! I head to Ethiopia tonight and will get there on the 16th. Long flights and longer wait at Heathrow. Oh well. My itinerary includes visiting the Bisrat Development and Aid Organization, Hiwot Ethiopia, WeSMECO and Dawn of Hope in Addis Ababa. Later in the month we go to Dessie (400 km from Addis) to the College of Teachers Education, to Woldia (120 km from Dessie), and to Alamata (130 km from Woldia. We’ll also go to the Maychew Technical College in the Tigray Region. Below is a shot we took at CUSO-VSO headquarters in Ottawa after our training session. At the time I didn’t know where I was going to be posted, hence the ? in my hands. Now I know and I’m pretty excited. Will post once I get there!