Materialism in Mbabane, Swaziland
Lessons from an outpost in Swaziland: volunteering with orphans from Mbabane.
Following considerable preparation and anticipation, the trip to Swaziland was finally upon us. However, being completely honest, I was nowhere near ready. After all, how could I be? In hindsight nothing could have rendered me truly prepared for my time in Africa. Before I knew it, we were jetting half way across the world to Swaziland – a location that was an impromptu substitute for Mozambique, which had to be scrapped due to political unsettlement there. We first flew to Heathrow from Edinburgh, and managed to pick up some last minute supplies there during the 2-hour transit before Johannesburg, South Africa. The 11-hour flight to Jo’berg was not too rough as we all managed get some shut-eye. Upon arrival we took a bus directly to Mbabane, the capital of Swaziland. It was a three and a half hour drive to the border and another twenty-three kilometers to the capital. I could not believe that in what seemed like a blink of an eye, we had gone from Edinburgh to bussing it through Southern Africa.
The drive was somewhat unreal; the miles and miles of uncharted African desert placed us right in the middle spread of a National Geographic issue. We stopped for a quick lunch at a large petrol station in, quite literally, the middle of nowhere. To the right of it was a small farm where we saw some animals, and to the left was endless road. We managed to get through the South African border and into Swaziland right before sundown. It was important for us to get there before dark because we were informed of the dangers and risks we faced when traveling after dark. It was a beautiful day, slightly colder than expected but filled with blue skies and sun nonetheless. In the bus, the driver had an endless mix playing—deep house with rhythmic throbs of African drums—perfect for the present time. We arrived at the camp lodge at around half six, although already dark. The lodge was fairly decent; there was a small pool table and some benches around the back where we shared a few beers and played cards. There were clean toilets but cold showers, but it worked out fine.
The next day, we drove from our lodge to the project site. Before this, we had a meeting with Roland, a representative of All Out Africa (the charity organization we were working with). He told us that our mission was to build a shelter for the children at the community church. These children are orphans that were mostly HIV positive between 4 and 16 years old. We drove to the church later that day where we were to set up camp. It was a 20-minute drive from the lodge, and as I neared the compound, around 20-odd children started running and chasing the van we were in, bearing smiles that stretched from cheek to cheek. They jumped all over me, screaming and shouting with their arms out, waiting to be carried. The church was a small blue building, not much bigger than the size of an average classroom. There was a small toilet on the corner of the compound along the crumbling fence. Unpainted, un-plastered, an unfinished job really, much like the shower area or the kitchen area. The toilet was in fact just a long drop and the shower was practically just an area that was sheltered by a yellow sheet of cloth. We cooked using a massive pot over a fire we made. Firewood would have to be cut and collected from the mountains nearby almost every other day, which was quite the trek.
The project was extremely hard work, especially (and shamefully) because of how I wasn’t accustomed to manual labour. From the cement mixing to the plastering, it was all a hurdle I had to get past. We did, however, get a fair bit of help from the locals and this made a huge difference. The working days were long, often until dark. We used some of the money we raised to buy some essential items that we thought the locals might need, such as rubbish bins, paint and some paintbrushes. We also used the money raised to repair their fence and re-net the goal posts from the football pitch nearby. All these little things made quite the difference. We had time to finish building the kitchen and make them a blackboard that would be later used for teaching.
Regarding the children and the community, saying goodbye was hard; it was probably the hardest part of the trip. If I were to single out what I had gained the most from the trip, it was the heightened awareness that these people had nothing in comparison to our material possessions. We live in a community where our happiness relies so much on wealth and money. When can I get that next handbag? When can I buy that new pair of Sunglasses? When can I get that new iPad? These are often the questions and concerns we have, and unfortunately materialism plays a big part in our lives. It is something we cannot deny and I now see its grotesque quality. The community and people we were working with have none of this, and would not be able to even fathom the concept. They probably have no idea what any of those items are but what struck me was their ability to find happiness in the little that they had. They smiled and laughed and most of all, they loved. I caught a couple of the children fighting over a piece of chicken that had been in the rubbish been for about three days. Not only that, it was covered with ants. The image of it remains in my head so vividly and I do not think it will ever go away. We were due to travel to Mozambique for a bit of rest and relaxation. But before we left, I felt guilty. Guilty about how we were leaving them to live in luxury. Which is why I do not think the second part of the trip needs explaining. No one wants to hear about how I stayed in a comfortable lodge in Mozambique and spent days catching the surf by the beach. After all, it was a trip for service and on that note, I am fairly certain that I will be back. In Swaziland or somewhere else where I can make a difference.