It’s hard to believe this is true, but I have already been living in Manzini for 3 weeks! I keep saying that I am in my Swaziland honeymoon phase because I am loving every second of my time here. January is the height of summer here in the Southern Hemisphere, so it is nice and toasty. It’s also mango season; I have eaten more mangos in the last three weeks than in the rest of my life combined.
My very first impression of the girls was something that I’ll never forget, I came to the house with some serious butterflies in my stomach. I felt nervous about meeting them, and I had no idea what to expect and what their personalities were going to be like. They greeted me with big and excited hugs, and then they all shared something that they love to help me to get to know them. Every single girl shared that they love either dancing, singing, loudly laughing, learning, eating, or napping. I instantly fell in love, and I knew that I found my people.
My first two weeks in Swazi looked a little bit different than the rest of my year will be because I arrived the same day as a team of short term missionaries. We all met up in South Africa and drove together to Swaziland. We arrived toward the end of summer vacation, so we got to spend every day together with the girls. We led Bible study each morning doing an in-depth study of the fruits of the Spirit, and then in the afternoons we got to lead all sorts of different activities.
We did team building exercises to promote unity among the girls, and I thought back to my years as a camp counselor to bust out all of the group games that I could think of. One day we took the girls to Hope House which is the Swazi version of a hospice center. The girls prepared songs to sing to each of the residents and went in to visit and pray for the people who did not have any visitors. I was in awe of their faith and boldness and the ways that they prayed for healing and freedom among these people who tend to be forgotten. I have been blown away by their spiritual maturity and knowledge about Jesus, but they are still teenage girls and have a lot to learn. I hope to see them grow in unity, gratitude, and humbleness this year.
My first impression of the culture has been that it could not be any different from what I am used to. I feel a real sense of community and unity in this country that is very special. The culture is loud and has so many traditional songs that always come with a dance, and I feel like I could easily spend all of my time watching these girls dance and sing. I have also had so much fun trying to learn the local language, Siswati. Everyone here is eager to teach me and laugh with me as I try to attempt sounds that I have never attempted before. The language is very difficult, but I’m trying. There is also something here called “Swazi time” which means anything can happen at any time. Someone can say that they will meet you at a certain time, and culturally it’s not rude at all if they show up several hours later. So every time I am arranging any sort of meeting it is important to clarify if we are operating on American or Swazi time. This is all to say, that I am definitely growing in patience.
It has been unique to experience this culture as an outsider and a as a minority in this country. Before this, I hadn’t experienced being the first white person that someone has seen in their life, and feeling like I am being treated differently because of the color of my skin. As I walk down the streets people stare, and they yell, and I feel like I am wearing my skin tone as a target on my back. There are many places here that it is not safe to go for me as a white woman. This experience, while very different, has given me a new appreciation and understanding about what different minority groups are experiencing back home.
As a woman, I feel deeply hurt and upset by the gender relations here. Women are pushed aside and degraded in a way that I have never seen before. As I have been driving around with my new Swazi friend Johannes, it is a minute by minute occurrence that men will ask him if they can have me as one of their wives. It is as if I have no voice or say in the matter, as if I am no more than a stick of gum to them. Girls here are not entitled to an education, and if they decide they want to be educated they are forced to fight like hell. There are places here where young girls are still forced to miss a week of school every month while they are menstruating which makes them fall further and further behind.
It seems like men here tend to see women and their own wives as a symbol of status and nothing more. These cultural forces and the deep deep poverty that is prevalent in this country are leading so many women feeling like they have no other option than to sell their bodies and to prostitute themselves. It’s overwhelming and breaking my heart to drive around at night and to see a growing number of women on each corner. It makes me want to scream. They are worth so much more than the pennies they are selling themselves for because they are beloved and cherished daughters of Christ. I am really going to need prayer to not let this overwhelmed and helpless feeling consume me, and to instead take it one step at a time, and try to make a difference one woman at a time.
I have fallen in love with Swaziland. I feel so honored and blessed that I get to live here; and the darkness that I see gives me hope that it will be an incredible opportunity for God to reveal his strength and glory as He brings about real change.