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Tag Archives: Swaziland
Terri Marshall at Travel Writing 2.0 wrote this profile of me that covers what I’ve been doing for the past few years. Thanks Terri!
Following is a link to a podcast I did with Michael McCarthy, a writer and radio personality who lives in Vancouver. I met Michael on a trip to Louisiana and was really impressed with his travels and his efforts to make changes in the world. Where ever he goes, he contributes to communities through labour, services or goods.
Little did I know I’d be returning to Swaziland in less than a year! Crossroads sent me back in March for two weeks. It was great to get out of the polar vortex of Canada, but Swaziland was Noah’s Arc. Fourteen solid days of rain. I can’t help but think Mother Nature is trying to detox herself of all the pollutants humans have forced on her.
My assignment was to interview a number of members of the Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse (SWAGAA) Girls Empowerment Clubs. The first couple of days I tried writing up a schedule, but the rain kept getting in the way, along with other activities. We were to drive to schools throughout the country and many times the roads were just too bad.
After one week I had three stories. Not enough to go home with. It was very frustrating. Plus, I had a very sore face from walking into my bathroom wall one night when the power was off. Thank god for makeup. The other Crossroads volunteer, Laura Dowling, went back to Canada after my first week. Staff was stretched thin between having to attend training workshops and having to sensitize 26 schools for new clubs. By the end of this year there will be 46 Girls Empowerment Clubs throughout the country. With an average of 30 members each, that totals 1,380 girls reached. Fantastic.
My last week was the final push and I ended up with 15 interviews. Many of the girls were orphans. Some had had to leave school because they got pregnant. Others had tough tales of rape and incidences of HIV/AIDS. Swaziland is not an easy place if you are female. However, the clubs give these girls hope. They told me they wanted to become nurses, doctors, accountants and geologists. Since joining the clubs their marks had improved. In some cases they finally received the medical attention they required because someone at the club made sure a teacher took them to the clinic. Some of the most impoverished said they were glad to feel equal to their “sisters” and they wanted to help others who were even worse off than themselves.
What an uplifting trip. The stories have been written and submitted and now we’ll put them into a booklet that SWAGAA can use during advocacy campaigns such as the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, or International Day of the Girl Child. The stories, with all names changed to protect the innocent, will hopefully pull on the heartstrings of potential donors and trigger financing for more prevention education. Hopefully they will also come across a politician’s desk and trigger political will for law enforcement and proper punishment of perpetrators.
Despite their tough situations, the girls I met in Swaziland had warm smiles and were filled with sunny optimism. Looking at their faces, I had hope for their futures. God bless the girls of Swaziland.
Yesterday I took a kombi to Swaziland National Museum in Lobamba to see the Women’s Voices exhibit. Organized by Aleta Armstrong, owner of Yebo Gallery, the exhibit was a combination of creativity and community women’s voices. “I invited rural women with no previous art training to take part. The idea was to tap into their creativity and also explore issues that were important to them,” Aleta explained. She noted that 80 percent of the artwork’s listed price would go to the artist and 20 percent would go to her non-profit organization ArtReach for follow-up classes.
Swaziland, a patriarchal society, does not usually have much space for women’s voices and around 20 women from all regions of the country eagerly embraced Aleta’s initiative.
Walking through the show, I was struck by the vibrant colours and raw talent.
A call for self-love and sisterhood were common themes –lots of pictures of flowers and upraised hands–but the strongest works were anguished cries against inequality and abuse.
Phumaphi Dlamini’s “The Left Hand” was of a donkey with a woman’s head, crying. Below was inscribed, “Why thank me for what I have done for the family? I am a donkey, the damned left hand.” Thabsile Vilane’s “Hope” also showed a woman crying. “Rocks of oppression weigh on my shoulders, tears fill my stomach but doves of hope set me free,” said her written description.
Zanele Buthelezi had two canvases lined up. The first was of a tortoise with a human foot on top of it. “Women are like trapped tortoises,” she explained. Next to it was a painting of a cabbage. “Men are like cabbages. They sit in the fields and do nothing,” she said.
Many powerful pieces were responding to the horrendous amount of abuse that women and girls suffer in Swaziland–a report by Unicef in 2007 found that one in three women have been sexually assaulted before the age of 18. Dumsile Mthupha’s stark red canvas shone with a single item, a cleaver. It was titled “Cut off the rapist’s penis.”
My two favorites were by Rose Mamba and Nonzwakezi Dlamini. Mamba’s image was a horned woman on a blood red background. “I am not a cow and I am not for sale. My love is not for sale. My hand in marriage is not for sale. I have no price tag. I will not love you because you paid for me,” read her description. Mamba was responding to the Swazi traditional marriage, where the groom pays the bride’s parents a dowry called Lobola, comprising a negotiated number of cows. Once the cows are paid, the woman is often treated as chattel with no voice or rights within the household.
Tapping into the inner strength that so many Swazi women, despite difficult home situations, Nonzwakezi Dlamini’s painting was of a shimmering woman holding a lamb and simply titled “Powerful Woman.”
The Swazi National Museum is located next door to the Swazi Parliament building. One can only hope that some of those ministers (almost all male) take in the exhibit and understand that it is time to address the concerns of half of their constituents and make Swaziland a safer and more equitable nation.
Coming back from an overseas mandate is challenging. Experiencing the abundance of North American society, the waste, the seemingly petty concerns (TTC stalled, grocery store out of my brand of coffee) versus the hard reality of Swaziland (poverty, HIV/AIDS, rampant gender-based violence) I find myself floating. Some days I feel trivial, fluffy and nonessential whereas when I was working with the Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse every day I felt I was doing work that was serious, solid, and helpful in the world.
At a recent debriefing workshop at the Crossroads office in Montreal, I found I wasn’t alone. Twelve volunteers gathered to share their reactions to coming home. The exercises were revealing and cathartic. Many people disclosed how difficult it was to speak with friends about their overseas experiences. Friends got bored and often didn’t understand the roller coaster of emotions many of us faced. We outlined our achievements and challenges in a line graph chart. Mine started high with the excitement of a new position, dipped low as I faced isolation and loneliness, and finally climbed back up high as progress (legislative change, positive media response, the organization’s raised profile) was made in my mandate. Other volunteers faced many peaks and valleys. We drew silhouettes of our personal learning, one half of our stick figures were ‘Before’ and the other was ‘After.’ Mine focused on learning patience and new skills such as radio production.
The most important section of the workshop for me was Understanding the Four Phases of Transition. The four phases are Refusal, Resistance, Exploration and Engagement. When I came home I was extremely busy with freelance work – no time to process the prior year. Some days it felt like I had never been away. My subconscious was talking to me, demanding attention, but I consciously ignored it. Lately, I think I have entered the Exploration phase. I am searching for the next steps, the next chapter of my life. But I realize I must process what I’ve been through before I’ll be able to move forward. I’m meeting with old friends and business acquaintances. I’m setting small goals, such as writing certain freelance stories or keeping up my blog. And I’m relieved at something the workshop taught me: Don’t worry about the march of time…remember goals and real interests, don’t feel panicked into accepting a situation that betrays those interests. Slowly, creativity will bubble inside me. The final phase of Engagement is on the horizon. I’m looking into volunteer opportunities locally, I’m searching for new markets for my writing, I’m getting ready to reposition myself to honour the many lessons I’ve learned on this compelling journey.
Letting these feelings out, sharing in a safe space, and contemplating next steps with a group of like-minded people has been very helpful for me emotionally and psychologically. Most importantly, the workshop gave me license to be patient and gentle on myself.
These are a few snippets, taken from visits to the Girls Empowerment Clubs with SWAGAA’s Doreen Ngwenya, GEC coordinator, a few weeks ago….
Mabheleni Primary School is off a dirt road winding far into the countryside north of Mbabane. We were going there with girls from Waterford School, a private institution populated with the children of diplomats and expats. Nelson Mandela sent his children to school there during apartheid. After pulling into the schoolyard, we met the Mabheleni School head teacher, a passionate woman who explained that most of her students were orphans, from the same clan. “It is very difficult. We need books, supplies, everything!) she told us. The teenaged girls from Waterford were hoping to start some fundraising activities to help them out, but they wanted to meet the Mabheleni girls first. We all introduced ourselves and some of the club members got up and recited poetry. The Waterford girls then got up and told them what their career dreams were: teacher, lawyer, doctor, artist.
The Mabheleni girls sat quietly, listening, and learned they had a chance to attend Waterford on a scholarship if they applied themselves. Although the Mabheleni girls were wearing worn uniforms, their eyes shone like new pennies. We distributed some snacks, fruit, bread and lollipops. I couldn’t believe it as the club members patiently waited to be given the go ahead to eat. At home kids would have torn into the food in a nanosecond. This is something I have seen time and time again: Gracious, good behaviour from the girls at the clubs.
At Mhlanghya School, Doreen asked the club members “What have you gained from the club?” The answers came fast and furious…”Confidence!” “I learned how to bathe myself and stay away from boys,” “How to help abused people,” “I learned how to conduct myself and respect myself as a girl,” “You shouldn’t keep quiet when you are abused,” “information on child trafficking.”
Doreen stood at the front of the class, smiling. “Good. Now, do this,” she said, clapping her hands and repeating the rat-at-tat pattern the girls knew so well. “Doooo this,” she said as they put their hands together in a final thunderous smack.
She invited three of the pre-teen girls to demonstrate one of the abuse prevention songs they had learned in the club. Giggling, the girls put their hands over their breasts. “This is a bad touch.” Moving down to their private parts, they continued. “This is a bad touch.” Next came the buttocks…”and this is a bad touch.” As they repeated the motions, all the girls joined in. BAAAD TOUCHHHH!
Mpaka Primary School is an institution where SWAGAA is just starting to establish a club. Sensitizing the whole school to the purpose of the club, Doreen demonstrated the “Good Touch, Bad Touch” and the kids squealed with delight and joined in.
I felt so privileged to have spent a year in Swaziland, watching the clubs grow. Some of these girls may be from impoverished or abused backgrounds, but they now have a chance to survive and flourish. With the help of the clubs, they are putting their hearts and souls into becoming stronger, more confident young women. And we all know women hold up the sky!
“This day is about young girls in Swaziland. This day about you!” said SWAGAA Director Cebile Manzini-Henwood to a captive audience of around 300 girls. It was a Saturday, 9 a.m. and the hall at Swazi National High in Matsapha was packed. “Enough is enough. We refuse to be vulnerable. We are going to take back the power, stand up and take back the power,” Cebile continued, her voice rising until all the girls joined in the chant. “Take back our power,” they shouted.
The audience comprised girls from many other high school girls clubs, out to support the new venture. By the end of the year, Manzini-Henwood noted, there would be a total of 25 clubs throughout the country.
The clubs provide a special, dedicated place where girls can explore their dreams, have fun and also tackle serious subjects. “The Girls Empowerment Club saves lives,” Manzini-Henwood told the crowd, explaining, “Some young girls are on the verge of committing suicide. They need somewhere to go and feel safe. We are all different but we all need to have a place to go and be loved and feel safe. At the club you can dig deep into your own potential, so you can share and help others. It equips you to go out and help others. There was a girl who shared her journal with a friend. In it she wrote about how she was being abused by her brother. The friend took her to the club and helped her report the situation. It saved her life because she had been feeling helpless and overpowered and didn’t want to live anymore. By reporting the situation, her parents were notified and the abuse stopped.”
The program was full of wise words from inspirational women, as well as song and dance performances from club members. St. Paul’s High School girls did a rousing African dance, scientist Thabile Ndlovu spoke about the importance of education and Swazi poet Black Note presented a moving piece about abuse and protecting the spirit.
The launch also featured motivational speaker, Gciniwe Fakudze, CEO of Matsapha Town Council. At 34, Gciniwe manages the administration of one of Swaziland’s most important industrial hubs. She is constantly interviewed in the newspaper and as a successful, single businesswoman, she is proud to declare she achieved her goals solely under her own steam. “When I was in high school, I was not someone my teachers thought would succeed. I was never in the top 10. But at one point after high school I decided, ‘I can do this. I don’t want a mediocre life.’ I made a few decisions, and I realized I could be the greatness I wanted to be. I just had to work hard. Here’s what I did…
- Changed my friends. People who speak into your head and heart are important. I found I didn’t work well in groups where everyone did the same thing. I had to hang with people who wanted greatness in life like me.
- Stopped trying to impress boys. They are always going to be there. If you are competing you go nowhere. Boys just want to play with you…and older men just want to abuse you. So I didn’t worry about them.
- Raised myself up as a package. When you go shopping in a high-end boutique, you might feel a little uncomfortable and say, “I’m just looking.” But the higher you raise yourself up to feel comfortable in elevated situations, the more elevated people you attract.”
Gciniwe was not finished with her advice. “I’m not married and society says when you are single you are incomplete. But I say, ‘Don’t rush into it.’ There is no better feeling that waking up and saying ‘Let me buy myself a ticket to Dubai or New York. I have a good job, I own my own car I can make my own decisions. I don’t have to rely on a man. You need to have power in society and that is based on money. Men will abuse you by tempting you with money or gifts. You have to be strong and eventually you will make your own money.”
Reaching out to her young listeners, Gciniwe left them with these final thoughts, “The good thing about the club is that it is a place where girls support each other. We understand what each other are going through. I had known what greatness I had inside, I would have started working on myself a lot earlier. You need to do the work, make a difference and don’t let anything get in your way. Including yourself!”
As the event wrapped up, I turned over my printed program and read SWAGAA’s message for month of the African Child: “Take pride in yourself. You are Swaziland’s future. Live with joy, but also take care. Don’t accept gifts, rides or invitations from strangers. Be safe, make friends, share information and make sure you report any incidences of abuse.”
Judging from the bright energy in the room, the message had found its targets. Girl power!
Listen to my interview with David Peck on his podcast, Face2Face. This was done via Skype, and luckily a huge rainstorm had just ended.
This year, the international theme for Day of the African Child, celebrated June 16th, is “Eliminating harmful social and cultural practices affecting children: Our collective responsibility.” Swaziland has taken the commemorative day a step further and the entire month of June has become Children’s Month: “Kukhulisa umntfwana yinsayeya yetfu sonkhe.”
SWAGAA, prides itself on its services and programs for children, including the Girls Empowerment Clubs which are in 33 schools in the four regions and have a total of 1320 members. Children are the lifeblood of the nation and consequently the organization has adopted two messages for this special month. Aimed at children, the first message is “Take pride in yourself. You are Swaziland’s future. Live with joy, but also take care. Don’t accept gifts, rides or invitations from strangers. Be safe, make friends, share information and make sure you report any incidences of abuse.”
The adult message is “Our children are our future. Protect, love and nurture them and they will grow up healthy and strong and be positive influences in our lives. Harm them and you harm yourself, and the nation.”
At the Children’s Month launch at Esibayeni Lodge on 10 June, the entire audience was in tears after a young girl spoke. Lungile Shongwe, a 16-year-old student at Mplume High School, is a Girls Empowerment Club member and a shining example of confidence and poise. And yet, half way through her speech she broke down. She was speaking out about social ills that children experience. Referring to polygamy, she talked abut competition among wives to gain favour and financial assistance from a husband, how children are neglected when money is not forthcoming, and how, when the father/husband dies, there is vicious fighting among the family for inheritance. “I know, I am a product of a polygamous family,” she disclosed. Turning away from the audience, Shongwe tried to hide her tears.
The audience was silent as she composed herself. Taking a deep breath she continued, speaking of young girls forced to marry men the age of their fathers, and how their lives are a risk because their bodies are not mature enough to carry children. When a teenage girl is married by a boyfriend by surprise and the red ochre is smeared on her forehead, Shongwe noted, “Her wings are cut off, she can no longer fly.” Education, career, and opportunities are not in her future. Other practices with negative effects that she mentioned were Kulamuta (molestation) and Kuhlanta (when a husband can marry his wife’s younger sister if his wife cannot conceive). She also talked of the degrading of Swazi culture, when men rape their own children, and parents give away their offspring for financial gain. A solution, she noted, was activating the culture of Umchwasho where young women are respected and not attacked sexually.
When Shongwe was finished, she received a standing ovation. Her performance was noted by the rest of the speakers at the launch, including Deputy Prime Minister Thembe Masuku. “She spoke from the heart, turning negatives into positives,” he said, adding “The Children’s Protection and Welfare Act states that it is the duty of every community member to report abuse. They must inform the chief, the police or a social worker if a child is abused in any way. I’m asking you to report these vultures who prey on children, our most precious asset.”
SWAGAA counselors see many cases of child abuse, covering all the situations Shongwe mentioned in her speech and more. For instance, relatives will sponsor a child so she can attend school. The family then turns a blind eye when it becomes apparent the child is being sexually abused by the sponsor. The Children’s Protection and Welfare Act must be put into operation to deter these perpetrators. Swaziland needs to become a safe place for children. Young people are this country’s future. Anyone who harms a child is harming the nation.