Letter 4: Dec. 1, 2005

Dear Friends:

We have just returned from four days in Kaphunga, Swaziland.
The program has ended and the students are now slowly
scattering: some returning to the US and Canada, others
taking time to see Cape Town and the magnificent Garden
Route along South Africa‚s southern coast, or to travel
elsewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa.

As I told the students during our pre-trip briefing, until
Swaziland we had largely seen „the new Africa‰: the emerging
developing states in this region. But Kaphunga (and
Swaziland generally) is „traditional Africa‰: rural, very
poor, vulnerable to the vagaries of weather and disease. A
five-year drought has brought hunger to the country, and
white, dusty World Food Programme tents that house emergency
food aid dot the villages. This is the „Africa‰ we see in
the evening news. But that image is incomplete.

The Dartmouth program has visited Kaphunga each year since
2001. For Kathleen and me, this is our third stay in the
village, but our first in November. Previously, we had gone
in early October. The difference is profound. October in
Kaphunga is dry, very hot (100 F. +), a time of thatching
roofs, painting the primary school, manuring fields,
constructing huts. Late November is supposed to be the time
of rains.

We rode together to Swaziland in a bus with two graduate
students, Craig and Trina, in an accompanying vehicle. The
students are now experienced in border crossings and we went
from South Africa to Swaziland quickly. On the Swazi side we
found women in stalls selling vegetables, goats and sheep on
the road, and World Vision posters warning about AIDS. (All
of southern Africa has a very high HIV infection rate and,
for example, passing through Witbank, South Africa on this
journey we counted 30 funerals in one large cemetery on
Saturday morning alone.)

Manzini, our first stop, is the Africa I first knew. Busy
streets, noisy traffic, Africans selling good everywhere,
lots of cattle and goats. There is a smell and cacophony
that is both compelling and repellant. Our host, Myxo
(pronounced „meet-tso‰) met us at a hotel and introduced us
to his staff: Bongiwe, his wife, and „Sbali,‰ his
brother-in-law, an old acquaintance. („Sbali‰ actually means
brother-in-law in Swazi; his full name is Sbali Mandla Dlamini.)

We turned the students loose in the Manzini market, one of
the best in this part of Africa, for an hour. We suggest
that they „shop, don‚t buy‰, since we will return for
breakfast in the market on Wednesday as we depart and they
would have another hour to shop and bargain. Like most
developing world markets, Mazini is a bargaining market with
it own pace and language. If you see something you like and
pause in front of a stall, you are quickly greeted („Hello
my friend‰). An engaging back-and-forth takes place about
the object, and by now the opening gambit („For you special
price‰) has become a source of humor among our group.

(Indeed, the students breakfasted at the Manzini market on
Wednesday morning in a traditional shop with long tables and
African women cooking and waiting on them. The African
ladies got the students to sing Dartmouth‚s Alma Mater, both
verses, for them and then „Happy Birthday‰ for Amy Linn. In
a big surprise, the African women than sang „How old are you
now?‰ back to Amy!)

With our gear piled high on the back of Myxo‚s pickup truck,
we slowly wind our way out of Manzini. Just beyond the
town, the road turns to gravel and then to clay, and Myxo
and I comment that we are glad it is dry. These clay roads
turn slippery in the rains and I remember once driving on
them after a hard rain and thinking, in an idle way, how
much they reminded me of icy conditions in New England.

Kaphunga is about 55 km in the mountains to the southeast of
Manzini, at about 3,700 feet. The drive is slow. We
downshift to gain some crests. As we rise, we begin to look
back on the patched fields of sugarcane and vegetable farms
in the valleys below us. We are very fortunate: It is cool,
and last week the rains started in patches around the
country. Avocados, mangoes, bananas, tomatoes, and other
vegetables are for sale in small stalls along the way. We
pass the Kaphunga secondary school, where a soccer game has
attracted some 100 villagers, who are silhouetted along a
small hill above the field. The World Food Programme‚s
emergency food storage tent, white and smart-looking two
years ago, is now dusty with red clay made sticky by the new

We downgear out of our last rise and find small farms
scattered across a shoulder of mountain. These are clusters
of mud and dung huts with conical thatched roofs that reach
an ornamental crown. We are on top of a dramatic, grass-
and-boulder hilltop. Three small farms dot green fields
that slope for a mile or more to our left. Beyond them the
ridge falls dramatically and we can see almost across the
width of Swaziland over cane fields and villages to the
distance Lumbombo Mountains along the edge of Mozambique.
Far below us, the evening lights of small villages twinkle ˆ
and that‚s the only word for it ˆ as evening spreads across
this part of Africa.

Myxo‚s compound is constructed to blend into this setting.
There are three square huts, a larger rectangular hut, three
circular beehive huts, all made of mud-and-dung with
thatched roofing. At the far end, smoke rises from an
open-sided cooking hut. Just beyond is a small hut with a
straight-drop toilet and to the right of that, nestled into
the large boulders, a bucket shower ˆ both with magnificent
views across a wide valley to four distant ranges of
mountains. The whole compound is enclosed by branch and
wire fencing. Goats, chickens, dogs and occasionally cattle
find the gate and wander in ˆ along with the welcoming
villagers. The students roll out their sleeping mats and
bags in two of the square huts and two of the beehives.

Kathleen and I are revered grandparents in these traditional
African societies. „Gogo‰ (grandmother) and „Mkulu‰
(grandfather) become our honorific. Kathleen is greeted:
„Siabonga, Gogo.‰. We are therefore assigned by Myxo to the
new beehive hut and happily move in with our backpacks,
sleeping bags and mats. These huts are a thatched dome set
on a circular floor about 20-feet in diameter. A center post
supports the roof, which is thatched all the way to the
ground. One enters through a very low (3-foot) arched door,
which always faces east.

We find bending a bit of a task, and therefore humbly crawl
in on all fours, dragging our gear. We exit the same way,
ignominiously. Our granddaughter would love this. We place
our sleeping mats to the left of the center post as one
enters, with our feet facing the door. Using the open door
for light, and stretched out on my mat, I can see the
intricate pattern of interlacing branches that rise in
concentric arches from the floor to the roof peak above the
supporting log.. Behind these branches, the thatch forms the
outside cover with overlapping circles that match the
circular floor and rise to meet at the dome top. The pattern
is intricate and lovely, a series of curves and circles that
remind me of the arches and supports that form the inside
roof of King‚s College Chapel at the University of Cambridge.

Our days in Kaphunga are leisurely, shaped by sunrise and
sunset, school gatherings and farming. We soon find
ourselves in a very slowed pace. Sunrise brightens the
doorway of our hut, and we rise easily at 5 AM. We discover
that there are two days in our one: a full day from sunrise
to late morning, and another from noon to evening. Without
electricity, we go to bed around 8 PM, awed once again by
the clarity of Africa‚s skies and the uncountable stars and
two Magellanic galaxies that we cannot see back home. One
evening we gather in the square hut for our final plenary of
the term, and we share images and impressions of Africa and,
with gentle humor, of each other.

Some of the students join in the slaughtering of a goat and
the community gathers for „nyama mbusi‰ (roasted goat) and
maize beer. A Peace Corp volunteer, Anna McCrerey
(pronounced „an uh mac crayer e‰; I‚m making a soft joke
here) visits with Mrs. „Make‰ La Malaza (Dlamini), the
Agriculture Extension Worker for Kaphunga. We fill the
afternoon with discussions about small-holder farming, the
drought, AIDS, etc. Anna tells us that while Kaphunga has
had some rain, her village just down the slope has little,
„and 70 percent are on World Food Programme food aid‰. (This
aid, by the way, is corn-soya blend and fed primarily to the
communities‚ children at breakfast and lunch in the
schools.) Mrs. Dlamini patiently explains her work. She
deals largely with women, who are the principal farmers of
this region (as in many African areas), and with the
planting seasons, irrigation, and other farm issues here.
But she holds all of our attention when she explains how, as
an educated woman in her early forties, she is the third
wife of another agricultural extension worker.

On Tuesday, I was awakened at 0400 by whistles, shouts,
bellowing oxen, the snapping of harness and yoke. James,
the elderly farmer of the next compound, had arrived with
six oxen yoked into two teams, and two drivers and another
plowman, to turn over Myxo‚s field. The scene is from
Breughel and medieval Europe. Mist swirling over the
shoulder of the hill, conicals of thatched huts sihouletted
against the sunrise, drivers snapping rope whips at the end
of long, heavy poles. The other plowman and James, in high
rubber boots and a trench coat that swirls behind him, skid
along using every muscle to guide their high-handled plows.
They shout to each ox by name; their drivers repeat the
call. Two women and four children glean straw and seeds from
the field before the plows. They carefully set aside some
new greens, to be eaten later. This is rural Africa today,
where a farmer, oxen and wide-handled plow struggle to make
a straight furrow.

The air soon fills with the smell of turned earth. Dartmouth
students begin gathering sleepily for photos and to take a
turn being yanked swiftly down a serpentine furrow behind
six oxen. This is mighty and hard work; they careen around
the field, to African laughter. Watching, I realize two
things. I do not hear the steel plow hit any rocks at all.
This is not New England‚s soil. And, you plow when the
plowman comes. Today, that was 4 AM, and by 6:30 AM, with
the field almost plowed, the sun is already very warm. James
and his crew stop and sit on a small patch of unplowed
grass. The women bring bread and tea in a large metal pot
to them, and gather themselves on the ground. Two dogs
stretch out on the damp plowed earth. Misty rain falls to
the east.

Our final afternoon in Kaphunga ˆ indeed, for some of us,
our final moment in rural Africa ˆ is hot, still. Myxo and
Sbali pile all of us into two vehicles and we inch our way
down eroded dirt roads to a remote mountain stream, which
slips and tumbles over smooth, wide rocks. We all strip to
our bathing suits and find pools and slides. The water is
warm, but flowing well, and refreshing. We dry in the late
afternoon sun before returning to our compound and dinner
served in three-legged pots on the ground.

In this dry climate, water has been a unifying theme. There
was that false promise of the early rains when the students
first arrived. Then the discussions of bore holes and
wildlife destruction, of isolated desert communities where
water is brought in by truck, of drought and irrigation and
food security.

We return from Kaphunga humbled. Those who listened learned
much. But the blessings of understanding, as of rain, do not
fall equally on everyone. We acknowledge the lessons taken
from Kaphunga‚s good fortune and consider the suffering of
her neighbors down the slope. We return to Pretoria filled
with hope for Africa, in a softly falling rain.

Jack and Kathleen