Soldotna women discover unique culture in Swaziland

Worlds away

Posted: Sunday, November 12, 2000

It's a rugged, remote country, where rusting Land Rovers crashing over rut-lined roads mark the journeys of intrepid travelers through a strange and hostile environment.

Great distances separate the sparsely populated villages spread across this sprawling, wild land. It's so dark at night you can't see the ground under your feet.

Sound familiar?

To Alaskans, perhaps. But as two Soldotna women recently discovered, the small nation state of Swaziland is a very different and wholly unique place, full of all the wonders and horrors of a slowly developing African country facing myriad challenges with the quiet enthusiasm of its people.

JoAnne Meckstroth and Renee Duncan visited Swaziland's cities and countryside during their appearance as keynote speakers at the National Women's Conference and while teaching at the Swaziland College of Theology. They were in the country, halfway around the world and a 16-hour flight from John F. Kennedy International Airport, from Aug. 21 to Sept. 17.

Among the most amazing wonders of the country, they said, are the people.

"The Swazi people are very giving, very respectful, very honorable," Duncan said.

They're also quiet.

"We realized how loud we Americans really are," she said.

The Swazi people, comprised of Swazis, Zulus, Tsonga-Shangaans and Europeans, are mostly farmers, and many of them live and work at the subsistence level.

A common handshake is shared by the people, who also curtsy when they want to show great respect. They're a soft-spoken, considerate lot, and their outlook on life is markedly different from the one popular among Westerners.

Swazis who have visited America find it impossible to describe to their friends and relatives. Notions of abundance and self-absorption are completely foreign; Swazis have no context for understanding them.

"Is it true you don't take time for each other?" one exasperated woman asked them. Duncan said she had to tell her it was.

The Swazis take plenty of time for each other, and every visit, whether to an acquaintance or an old friend, typically takes at least 20 minutes.

"You don't say hi and turn away," Duncan said.

Meckstroth said the Swazi's lives are not measured in chronomatic increments but by experiences and events.

"Our whole goal in being there was to make an impact that would make an event for them," she said.

"We had the potential of changing the course of someone's life," she added.

They had plenty of opportunities. The Swazi people face many problems, and are especially beleaguered by poverty and AIDS. Meckstroth and Duncan welcomed the opportunity to reach out to as many people as they could.

The pervasive AIDS crisis that has ravaged subSaharan Africa has been as unkind to Swaziland as it has to the rest of the region. United Nations research shows that 25.25 percent of the Swaziland population has HIV or AIDS. 3,800 of those victims are children. Mothers give birth to their unfortunate progeny, knowing they'll be leaving them alone.

"To live with that is very difficult," Meckstroth said.

Compounding the misery of Swazi AIDS victims is the treatment they receive from those around them. AIDS education lags far behind the furious advance of the disease, and victims often languish in poor hospitals without comfort or human contact.

"If they're found out to have AIDS, they're shunned," Duncan said. "It's a silent issue."

As a result, she said, many Swazis refuse to be tested for AIDS.

Meckstroth said she met a student who had open sores and who was clearly afflicted with AIDS. He told people he had cancer. Meckstroth said many AIDS patients are told and tell others they have cancer. It's a way of living among the healthy as the body advertises its inevitable decay.

Once the disease takes its toll on the body and the victim succumbs to the effects, there's no hiding the truth, and the victim usually faces death alone.

Meckstroth and Duncan accompanied another Alaska missionary, Michael Pratt of Anchorage, to rural clinics, where they met several AIDS patients. The patients had never been held.

"So we held them," said Duncan.

She held a woman who cried so much "it was as if someone had poured a glass of water on my arm," she said.

Normally the AIDS patients don't bother to cry: no one will help or hold them anyway. But during one visit to a clinic as Duncan and Meckstroth were holding the sick patients an AIDS patient began to wail and beat her chest, they said, because no one would hold her child, also ailing from AIDS. The patients only cry when they see a show of sympathy, said Meckstroth.

AIDS is one example of how modern realities are changing a culture based on community living. Swazis traditionally live in close-knit communities consisting of a few huts that serve different purposes and which house extended families. Some huts are for sleeping, Duncan and Meckstroth said; others are for cooking. Concrete buildings stand next to some huts.

The women had a chance to see village life up close when they helped Pratt deliver straw thatching to a woman who was building a hut. The pictures they took show small thatch structures set amid brush and curious villagers carrying vegetables on their heads. (One picture shows Duncan with what looks like a cabbage balanced rather precariously on her head.)

Although the village is the traditional home of the Swazi people, many are moving to the cities to find work. Crime is rampant in some places, especially in Swaziland's largest city and industrial center, Manzini.

Meckstroth visited an organization that houses street people. There she met children as young as her 11-year-old grandson as well as many adults. The shelter gives these people a place to stay and offers drug rehabilitation.

Crime, unemployment, poverty and AIDS are 20th and 21st century hardships Meckstroth and Duncan witnessed. But they also caught a glimpse of other problems facing the Swazis, especially the Swazi women.

Polygamy is practiced at all levels of society, from the king, Mswati III, down to his humblest subjects. For Swazis who adopt the Christian faith, as approximately 60 percent of them have, the multiple family issue presents a real challenge.

Some Christians view polygamy as a clear moral wrong; others view it in its cultural context, as Meckstroth and Duncan both said they do. They said that a man has a responsibility to each of his families, regardless of his faith.

"You have to be responsible, you created that family," Duncan said.

Both found it difficult to take positions on the situation, they said, having never lived that way themselves.

Duncan said that among other things, they taught conflict resolution at the conference, an important skill for Swazi women.

At the theological college, they focused on helping the people help their communities, they said.

"Our main purpose in being there was to equip the nationals to go out in their countries and meet the needs of their people," Meckstroth said.

The conference was sponsored by two Christian organizations, Empower Africa and Women With A Mission. The theme was "Women Afire," which Meckstroth said empowers women "to face what they have to face."

Swaziland's queens also have taken active roles in helping the Swazi people. Meckstroth and Duncan met four of them.

They also were supposed to meet King Mswati III, but he was departing for a meeting with U.S. President Bill Clinton. They noted that the king could have met with them for a brief handshake, but chose not to, as he would have considered it rude. Like Duncan said, no one in Swaziland says hello and then turns away.

The queens, called Emak-hosikati, once lived in separation from the people. Today, Duncan and Meckstroth said, several of them are publicly and actively helping the Swazi people. Queen LaNgangaza, for instance, is a patron of Swaziland Hospice at Home and Fundzis' Umtfwana. The latter organization promotes education.

Queen LaMbikiza supports Lusito Charity Organization, which provides assistance to sick children who must travel to South Africa for treatment. She asked Duncan, who sang at the conference, to sing for her.

"That was quite a hoot," Duncan said. "That was quite an honor."

With each visit, the women had to follow the traditional protocol for meeting a queen. They usually waited for hours at the palace entrances until a small child appeared to lead them inside. Then they would finally meet the queens.

Queen Matsebula was the last queen they met. Like the others, she had heard about letters Meckstroth and Duncan were carrying that Borough Mayor Dale Bagley and Soldotna Mayor Ken Lancaster had written for each queen. She was so impressed that they found her waiting for them.

"Who am I, that you would think of me halfway around the world?" she asked them.

The women said they wanted to meet the queens because they were women standing up for their country and the needs of their people.

Each queen was excited to receive the mayoral correspondence.

"You could see the looks on their faces when we presented the letters of the mayors to them," Duncan said. "You could see ... surprise ... they were honored that a mayor of a city and two women would want to deliver a letter of honor to them."

Meckstroth and Duncan were animated and enthusiastic when describing their meetings with the queens.

"All four of them were lovely, beautiful women," Duncan said.

However, the two were very emotional when they spoke about the other people they met. They took turns reaching for tissues and wiping their eyes as they described encounters with AIDS patients and the other people whose lives they had touched.

One man approached them and said, "You've changed my life because of what you've done," Meckstroth said.

They also said that on their departing flight, a stewardess learned that they were the speakers at the conference, which her mother had attended. The stewardess said her mother was still talking about the event, two weeks after it had ended.

These are the rewards the two women reap from their work, which has taken them all over the world.

In mid-October, Meckstroth went to Japan, where she has spoken for a Christian women's group, Aglow International, before. She also has been to the Philippines.

Duncan has been traveling and ministering to women for 20 years, she said. She has visited Greece, Russia, Israel, Scotland, Peru, Paraguay, Venezuela and Amster-dam.

Asked if they would consider returning to Swaziland, both responded with enthusiasm.

"Yes, absolutely," Meckstroth said.

Duncan said she would go back "without hesitation."

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