Swaziland: an education in expectations

3/11/11 Friday

I have stepped back in time.  I am sitting in one of 9 anorandak chairs under a cypress tree, overlooking a vast view of trees, gardens, mid-20th century buildings and enjoying the cool breeze…oh, and a young man, whose name I cannot pronounce, just brought to me the tallest and largest stemmed glass of iced water.

This stunning place, which we woke up to this morning, was worth the 15-hour drive that it took to get here.  We arrived at 9:45pm last night.  The last 20km was up the side of a very steep mountain and on a very rough road.  I was thankful that it was pitch black dark (a sweet gift from God) so that I did  not have to face the cliffs on what was a very narrow road.

But first things first.

We got up about 6:00 on Thursday in Lesotho to begin what we thought was going to be a 9 hour drive.  We told Maba that we didn’t want breakfast, as we would get a “quick bite” on the road.  We bid our farewells and were out of her driveway by 6:40am.

We were out of Lesotho pretty quickly (customs, etc.) and on the road.  The trip was yet another stunning feast for the eyes.  The panoramic views change quickly, each possessing their own unique characteristics, yet each breathtaking. Pictures will never do it justice.

We finally found a little place to stop and eat called Ionia.  It just happened to be Africa’s LARGEST cherry plantation.  It was quaint and cute and good.  The owner insisted that we taste the cherry liqueur before our meal (it was de-lish) and then we purchased many cherry type foods: chutney, jam, shortbreads, candies, etc.  It truly was a memorable experience…but, it took 2 hours (not our fault: they were slow!)  The sweet lady looked at our map and gave us an alternate route for our trip for which we were thankful.

Finally, we were back on the road again and, before we knew it, we were headed into the Golden Gate National Park.  Of all the views that we have seen, this was the most spectacular.  Peter sped thru it like a racecar driver, as the roads were good for that!  We gasped, exclaimed, praised and oooohed and aaaaahed.  That only took about 30 minutes and was the highlight of that very long journey.

The rest of the journey was consumed by MANY stops for road construction, some lasting up to 20 minutes each.  As we got closer to the South African boarder we were relieved but realized that we still had quite a bit of the trip left.  Customs was an experience (had to dig out computers and cameras and record serial numbers!?!) and some of the folks just weren’t nice!  Swaziland customs was crowded and not as progressive, but when we told the lady that it was our FIRST time in her country and on her continent, she rose to the occasion and was a bit nicer.

We had to stop along the way to get final directions to Bulembu and the only place open was a bar.  The gentleman knew exactly where we were going so he gave us good directions.  I have already written about our last leg of the journey so I will begin with our arrival.

When we finally got to the top of the mountain, the whole village was asleep.  We followed the signs to the Lodge (where we had reservations) but it was locked.  Suddenly (!) a gentleman with a flashlight appeared and he fetched another man who checked us in and took us to our villa.

Our villa (circa 1960ish) was filled with windows.  It has 4 bedrooms, 2 baths, a kitchen, separate living room and a dining room as well as a laundry room with 3 very-much-used sinks. The people who managed the mines originally used these villas.  The whole thing possessed a plantation-like feel.  We all headed to our respective bedrooms and slept very soundly.

The next morning Peter rose early to look for Dennis, our contact person.  He found him and he (and Vernon) sent word back that they would wait breakfast on us.  We hurried and to get dressed and went to the Lodge dining room.  The pictures will have to describe it but it was nothing short of charming.  The doors of the restaurant opened up onto a veranda, surrounded by a garden.  We ate inside on nicely set tables.  Everything looked pristine and perfect.  They had a wonderful coffee bar and our hosts offered us some before we began chatting.

Dennis and Vernon took the time to explain how this former thriving mining town with 10,000 people had dwindled to a couple hundred when the mine closed in the early 90’s.

Bulembu was an old mining town and was, evidently, “hopping” in the mid-1900’s.  It was set up like a plantation complete with a plantation estate, a private country club, cricket field, soccer field, volleyball court, tennis courts, pool and stunning gardens.  There are mature trees everywhere: avocado, cypress, blue gums, pines, as well as climbing flowering vines, birds of paradise, hibiscus, daisies, huge multi-colored hydrangeas, butterfly bushes hostas and many other varieties that I have never seen.  When you have your windows open you can hear the birds but I only saw a few of them. I was told that there are monkeys in the trees but they escaped our view as well.

Anyhow, to make a very long story short, some investors purchased the town (about 2005, I think) after several babies began to show up when word got around that they would be taken care of here.  These businessmen have it set up to be self-sustaining.  They produce and sell honey, bread, bottled water, timber, and arts and crafts.  People are busy working everywhere: builders, bricklayers, road-repairmen, aunties (caring for children), managers (managing the various parts of the village and its unique purpose) as well as cooks, waiters, waitresses, maids, etc.

They have 130 babies now, the large majority that was found in garbage or toilets.  Then there are toddlers, preschoolers and children of all ages, all who are cared for in facilities that are set up like homes.  The ratio for preschooler care is 2-1/2 child to one caretaker.  Pretty impressive.  As they get older and are set up in homes, with the care-ration being one “aunty” to six kids.  As they get older (18) they are set up in transition type homes.   The mothers of most of these children had AIDS and have died or are unable to care for their children.  Some were simply abandoned or unwanted.  They are, however, most wanted here.

After talking a bit about the set up it was time to meet some people.  Our first was our unofficial tour guide, Allison.  Allison’s family is from Houston so we was, needless to say, quite glad to see some Americans.  She was a teacher here for a few years but now she strictly works with the youth.  She runs the Royal Rangers program (which is why Peter wanted to visit) as well as the youth group for her church.  So, she was assigned to us to give us a tour.

First she took us to Robin’s home.  Robin and her husband have been in the area for over 15 years.  They are founded ABC (Aids Baby Center?) when people figured out that they would take care of these babies.  She led us into one of the toddler facilities and as we walked in, I reached down and picked up one of the children.  Robin quickly asked me to put him down.  I did.  I glanced over at Tim and Peter and they looked as stunned as I did.

She was very professional and detailed with her tour.  Tho I was still a bit shocked at her rebuff, I was still quite impressed as we went from house to house looking at the children and the facilities. None of us, not even Allison, touched the children.  Finally, after some tour/time passed, Peter asked her, very politely, why they preferred us not to hold the children.

Robin explained that their desire is that this place be as much like home as possible.  They have many visitors and a pattern can be set that if one child gets held, ALL of them want to be held and it, quite frankly, disrupts their routine.  Basically, “we” are just passing through, and do not really contribute to making their environment stable.  (PLUS, some of the younger children are fearful of white faces.)

Robin finally began warming up to us as we entered the baby house.  The 3 year old son of one of the Aunties came and sat in my lap.  As she shared some of the stories of finding some of the babies, Peter asked if it was ok for him to hold Ernest, a sweet baby boy who was restless in his walker.  She said yes.  Ernest was found in a garbage dump.  The mother had wrapped him (placenta and all) in a plastic bag and put him in her trash.  The truck had picked up the trash and brought it to the dump.  A person digging thru the trash had found the baby, alive, and brought it to Robin.  He was covered with skin infections that had also made it’s way internally.  They nursed him back to health, and here he was, a thriving and much loved baby!  This was only one of several similar stories.

Robin has quite a heart after ministering children and provides a very structured, sound and loving environment for them.  She is protective of the children and the aunties and my feelings of being “slighted” subsided the more she shared.  These children were her charges and I was simply a visitor.  Once again, my expectations must take alter according to reality.

Robin also told a story of how her and her husband were going into a nearby township, known for its violence, to feed children.  They did this daily for 8 years.  One day, they had absolutely no food to take to the children. She said that she actually thanked God for the day off.  But, alas, God wanted the children fed: she had heard a knock at the door and, upon answering it, found  a Muslim woman who had peanut butter.  LOTS of peanut butter.  She just said that she “sensed that she must do this” and she had learned a long time ago to do what she sensed she must do.

All things serve God (Psalm 119:91)

There were other bits of glory that she shared, but I took notes and will wait to expound upon those at the ladies salad supper in April.

Then we went to the high school and explored the different level classes from grades 7-12.  We met the self-proclaimed “cool kids” and the sleepy kids and the mischievous kids (they are all everywhere, aren’t they?)  They emphasized, as does the rest of this unique village of Bulemu, that they are raising the next generation of Swaziland leaders.  You can feel future strength rising in the air.  Allison was connected to many of these kids through the Royal Rangers and her church and the relationship showed.

After this meeting, we met Candice, the rather young principal at the preschool.  It was a stunning organization complete with a sensory garden that Candice had just completed for the children.

Then onto the Doozy (sp?) homes where we met Jenny. These are home where the ratio is 1 adult (an aunty) to each six teenagers.  The aunty has 3 weeks on and one week off (to go visit her children) and then they have one aunty who travels from house to house filling in the gaps (sounds like an organizational task for Patricia Watts!)

Jenny is from Boston and, again, was glad to see some folks for the USA.  She, too, was young and in love with Bulemu.  She basically manages the Aunties and the homes.  We were, again, impressed.

Then onto the art room where we met a YOUNG German teacher who had just finished a nice hands on class with the kids.  The kids were a bit rowdy as it was the end of class and they had glitter everywhere, but it was fun.

Then we went to the arts and crafts building.  A beautiful tall woman, whose name I cannot recall, came to Bulemu to teach the women, many who had no job prior to this, how to make crafts in order to sell.  I chatted with them for a while and though they were hesitant to allow me to take their pictures, they finally let me do so.  The needlework they did was beautiful and it was obvious that they were proud of it.

AH, the needlework!  They incorporated this handwork into bags, wall hangings, cards, and blankets (one of which Tim purchased).  They also had had made beaded necklaces, brooches, Christmas ornaments, and many other fun and unique items.

Then on to lunch at the Lodge.  They had already prepared for us to dine on the Veranda (it was well after the lunch hour) were we were served Spaghetti and a salad and tap water.  It was de-lish and it was so fun to sit outside under the umbrellas and enjoy the cool air.

Allison had to run prepare for her youth meeting and so we went back to our villa.  I needed to wash some clothes in the sink (yes, they had clothes lines outside) and then we hurried back for the Royal Ranger meeting.   Several dozen kids (age 7-12ish) were outside on the soccer field.  Allison had prepared for them to do a 3-legged race, which they all loved. She used the Vuvuzwella to announce the start of the games, as well as to just get their attention.

During the games, we met Callie from Connecticut.  She graduated a few years ago and has serving in Bulembu as well.  Again, she loved it but was only doing a 2 year stint…as far as she knew.  She was a happy and engaging young lady and we were thrilled to be able to give her a taste of the old USA, as well.

Then, on to the theater, where the Royal Ranger meeting was held.  The theater is on the list of buildings to be repaired but it was in bad shape.  Yet, you could tell that, in its time, it was a beautiful facility.

Six young girls led the worship, with only a jimbe as their accompaniment.  It was very nice.  Since there were no lights in the facility, it made it a rather calming experience.  And we were able to worship even though we didn’t know the words to some of the songs.  Allison had all of us to get on our knees and spend some time before the Lord.  It was quite moving to be on your knees with a lot of children.  The Lord speaks.

Allison shared about the weapons of our warfare, and broke the kids into groups for their study (they are doing some sort of competition and had to come up with a war cry.  It was very fun to be a part of.

Then everyone, but me, went down the mountain to view the Royal Ranger camp.  THAT is why I ‘was’ sitting under the trees sipping my iced water.

NOW, much time has passed and I am so far behind in my blogging.  It has been not only fast, but jam packed with activity…YES, I wish I had continued to blog every night but it has been nearly impossible, so I will try to finish Swaziland and post it and then blog later on KRUGER, which is where we are now.

SO after my little hiatus under the tree I walked alone back to the villa.  The stroll was so nice..and it truly was as if tie had stood still (tho well maintained!)  The flowers are plentiful and varied ad the mountain-view background just added to the allure.  I got back to the room and re-organized my poorly packed luggage.  About that time, Tim came in and we sat down for a cup of Rooibos.  I am getting quite use to that tea and will continue to drink it when we get home.

Then, off to the next meeting.  This one was the youth group from the church (they have no pastor at the present time but are hoping to get a new one, soon.)  We went to the former country club where a lot of teenagers were kind of awkwardly sitting around.  Allison got their attention and “encouraged” them to play games, talk, drink tea…because she was NOT going to do this for them!  They all began to move and play table games, play musical instruments and drink tea or coffee.

I spent some time talking to Temple. (Her nickname is Temple because that is what her African name, that I cannot pronounce, means!)  Beautiful young Swaziland woman (about 21, I believe).  She and I both shared quite a bit and we both enjoyed the time that we had.

Then Allison called us all back and we had some worship.  Three girls sang (led) while 3 guys played the drums, the electric guitar and the keyboard.  Most of the music was popular Christian music and it was a sweet time.  Then Allison spoke. She was beginning a series on being warriors in the kingdom, as most of the kids had just rededicated their lives.  The leadership (mostly from different countries) did a cute play and then Allison led the lesson.  We also spent a long time praying individually for the filling of his spirit and Allison spent some time praying with the youth individually.  She called Tim and me up front and prayed for us as well.

When we got back to the villa we heated up our meat pies that we had purchased earlier (meat pies are very popular “take away” here in Africa).  They were de-lish! Then off to bed.

We were up bright and early for we were about to begin the KRUGER part of our adventure.

When we got up we stopped by and purchased some of the Bolembo honey.  Tim bought three pint jars.   Peter purchase a 5 gallon BUCKET!  It was so funny.  I asked, “Peter, what are you going to do with all that honey??”  He grinned and turned his face towards me and said very matter of factly: “I don’t know.”  (I guess you had to be there….)

We made it safe and sound thru the Swaziland border check and then got to the South African border.  Now this border was rarely used and all the workers were sitting under a tree when we arrived.  One of them got up and then sauntered into the building.  He took a LOOOONG time looking thru Tim and mine’s passports.  He just sort of turned the pages back and forth, and asked us some unrelated questions.  It all seemed very curious and it wasn’t until we arrived here in Komatipoort and Ermine, our hostess, explained that we was waiting for a bribe in order to hurry us along.  Since we were clueless, he received no bribe money and we lost 4-5 minutes.  No biggy, just interesting.

NEXT STOP:  KRUUUUUUUGEEEEER!!

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