I awoke the morning of November 26th in Johannesburg, South Africa, surprised to see that the sun had already risen. It was 04:45, and I had to remind myself that I was near the bottom of the southern hemisphere. I peaked outside the hotel window and took in my first look at this multi-interpreted continent that I can now say I’ve been to. Well, technically that’s not true; I first glimpsed the east coast of Africa from the plane before the sun went down, but I won’t count that. Somewhere in my evening flight, the terrain below me turned from a vast, beige desert into a lush and balmy plain that caught me off guard. The golden haze seemed magical in the early light. I repacked the few things I’d needed to shower during my brief layover at a surprisingly classy hotel and joined the others outside. I took a moment to breathe in the new scent of a foreign land. It smelled vaguely of leather and dusty florals. When I travel, there is nothing like scent to remind me, in case I’d forgotten, that I was no longer in America. We piled into a taxi van and headed to the O.R. Tambo International Airport once more.
“We” is a group of nine people, myself included. I’d flown from LA to Dallas to meet up with Allie so we could fly the rest of the way together. I’m privileged to accompany her on her first out-of-country visit as an adult. I love witnessing the moment when the travel bug bites and all of the sudden an individual is flooded with wonder and an insatiable itch to see more. Allie and I are joined by Seth, the inspirational and love-filled founder of Thirst Project, which is the reason we are here; Jason, whom we’d met before and who brings a generous dose of charming entertainment and heart to the group; Katie, a delightfully frank photojournalist and Seth’s other half in a professional sense; Amber, a multi-talented midwest girl who works for Thirst Project and is new to Africa like Allie and I; Sam, Thirst Project’s world-traveled videographer and easy-going group diplomat; Deborah, the proud-to-be-British sister of one of Thirst Project’s other donors who shares my passion for helping women; and Sibu, our local driver/interpreter/caretaker who has worked with Thirst for a while now. We’d be hopeless without his caring, enchanting self. We are all on this particular trip to Swaziland to document the implementation of wells in rural villages, past, present, and future. I’m operating on little sleep at this point, and I notice my writing is therefore more succinct than I’d like it to be. But maybe that’s a good thing, to just let flow and worry about editing and elaborating later.
My first impressions… It’s hard to put into words all that I’ve taken in today. It’s nothing too overwhelming, nothing unlike what I was mentally prepared for. We went to a very small village called a homestead, where there were five, maybe six, buildings, if you could call them that. Some had roofs, some didn’t.
The people of this particular homestead got their water from a near-stagnant stream. I expected there to be more mosquitos, but I didn’t see one.Tomorrow I begin taking my malaria pills just in case, as this was apparently one of the nicer and safer homesteads we’ll be visiting. The stream was blueish gray, and in Allie’s words, “I wouldn’t even wash my hands in that water.” I watched with my very own eyes as the village man leading our way dipped a once-white plastic bucket into the murk and raised it to his lips, drinking as he does every day. “The taste is good,” he said matter-of-factly. He offered a sip to Seth, who said with kindness after the slightest hesistation, “Thank you, but I have a sensitive stomach.” I wondered if the man would be offended, but he appeared nonchalant, acknowledging that some stomachs were indeed sensitive. I was relieved that he didn’t proceed to offer me a sip, though I was mentally trying to prepare an answer. “I have a sensitive stomach, too?” “Thank you, but my digestive system is used to a different set of minerals and I can’t risk upsetting it on this trip?” I continued to stare at the stream, imagining making my morning oatmeal with its contents. A good-sized crab scuttled across the sand in the water. I hadn’t known there were freshwater crabs.
Seth asked Sam to capture some footage of me and Allie sharing our thoughts and impressions. Allie spoke fluidly of how she was thinking of all the water she used on a daily basis at home: drinking half her body weight in ounces a day, dish washing, laundering, grass-watering… I tried to think of comments, but all I had were questions. For how many people did this one stream provide? (One local woman said ten homesteads; another in our group said between 200-300 people.) Did they boil the water before drinking it? (No.) Then there were the questions I dared not ask: Why did the Swazis continue having children? Were the women forced into marriage or raped or both? Why would they, knowing it’s fairly safe to assume that they are or might be HIV positive, inflict upon themselves a lifetime of grieving for babies that very well might not make it into adulthood? How could they bear marrying and bringing more lives into their world to suffer and die? That last question is one I can’t help wondering on a daily basis no matter where I am, whether in my comfortable home in Los Angeles or in the slums of New Delhi, and I wonder it about every single person who wants to be a biological parent. But I’ve already blogged about that. Suffice it to say, that cry in my heart seems especially poignant here.
We met our village guide’s mother, a beautiful 61-year-old woman named Juliet. Her skin was so black it looked the color of a plum. Her husband, five of her sons, and all of their wives died of AIDS. She currently works a farm, an impressive mini-field of maize occassionally interrupted by mango trees, and with it she feeds herself and eight children who are not hers. Her smile was magnetic, joyous, and from it came the kind of laugh I have never heard in the West: a laugh heart-dense with celebration, gratitude, and generosity. Her arms encircled anyone within a six-foot radius of her, her tiny body almost knocking you over with her drunk-like embrace. But she was sober. Her eyes were glimmering orbs of sapphire, shocking me. I later learned it was a side effect of AIDS. She, too, was ridden with the disease, and I inwardly gaped at the fact that somehow she was still alive, thinking in that moment that surely she must be the oldest woman in the region. I’m curious to see if I’ll meet any others older than her. “Think about us,” she told Seth as we made our goodbyes. He assured her he always did, telling her that her picture was even hung on the walls of Thirst Project’s office.
I learned the girls here begin marrying at age fifteen and upwards. They manage their periods with wads of cloth, foam donated from Royal Residents (more on them in a second), and occasionally pads. No woman I spoke to had access to tampons or Advil, two things I can hardly imagine menstruating without. For cramps, they brew a tea made from an indiginous plant. I learned that Swaziland is one of the last remaining monarchies, and that the king has thirteen wives scattered throughout the country. We passed a couple of palaces belonging to what are called the Royal Residents: offspring of the king and their mothers. These “palaces” look about as impressive as a run-down, broken-windowed, shitty resemblance of a Spanish villa in the worst part of south central LA. Each year, the king has an event where local virgins are paraded topless in front of him, and he can choose whomever he wants to fuck or marry next. I wonder if the girls feel anxious about this or if they would consider it an honor to be chosen, not to mention incredibly relieved for then they too would have the apparent privilege of becoming Royal Residents. I suppose it might be a mix of both dread and desire, a win-win or a lose-lose.
Right now as I am processing all of this, I am sitting in the grass with a stunning mountain view in front of me. The sun has just set, staining the cloud-streaked sky with coral and lavender hues. I am on the lawn of Malandela’s Bed and Breakfast, just outside the city of Manzini, a true gem of a property. It makes this trip feel more like a vacation than a mission with its meandering, well-manicured trails that lead from hand-crafted abode to artist café to abode. Allie and I share a double room in a tiny A-frame whose cement spackling is embedded with mosaic tiles and bottle caps. The gardens are lush and the air smells heady with flowers and smokey with campfire. Crickets chirp, birds trill, children laugh. There are only natural sounds in my ears at the moment, no traffic, sirens, electrical hums, or cell phones. It’s deeply peaceful here, reminding me of both Hawaii and Ireland. The hills are green, the trees thick with leaves. It’s springtime here, in all its glory. This is half the poverty-stricken Africa I imagined, half another planet whose beauty has gone underpraised.
Because internet is extremely limited, I can’t post as much as I’d like. Just wanted to share what I’ve been experiencing thus far. Much more to come.