When I first put my hand up to volunteer in eSwatini a few years ago, I had no idea where the small, land-locked country was located. Going to Africa for a year to volunteer with a local non profit focused on combating gender-based violence taught me a lot, the least of which was a lesson in geography.
Tucked between Mozambique and South Africa, eSwatini (the country’s name changed from Swaziland in 2018) is one of the world’s last absolute monarchies. The smallest country in the southern hemishere, at 17,000 sq km, it is half the size of Vancouver Island and home to a population of 1.2 million. Despite its size, it was big on culture and outdoor activities – explorations of which helped calm and revitalize me on my days off.
Seeing wildlife has always been a passion of mine and I got my fix at Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, Hlane Royal National Park, Mkhaya Game Reserve and Mbuluzi Wildlife Reserve. All offered accommodation, from camping, to traditional beehive-style huts or self-catering cottages.
Exploring the nature trails at Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, I strolled with antelope and zebras and kept my distance from a massive crocodile sunning himself by the lake. On my way to the Hippo Haunt, the sanctuary’s open-air restaurant, I was confronted with another enormous fellow. He was quietly wandering around the campfire area, his back covered in bloody scratches. “He got in a fight with another hippo,” a ranger explained. I had read in the local newspaper about hippos, who are territorial, charging and trampling people. Giving him a wide berth, I hurried into the restaurant.
Hlane Royal National Park is the only eSwatini park with lions. Getting up early one morning, I joined a safari group to track the majestic beasts. The pre-sunrise wakeup call paid off and I was thrilled when we glimpsed a pride of jungle royalty. The park was also home to a number of rhinos. Sitting by the watering hole at sunset, I held my breath as a mama white rhino and her baby came down for a drink.
Although landlocked, eSwatini is filled with rushing rivers, so I signed up with a local outfit offering white water rafting on the Great Usuthu River. We were a group of six, two per raft. At first the water moved at an easy burble, but it picked up speed and soon we were facing a wall of churning water. My partner, a hearty Aussie named Isabel, and I paddled hard but the rapids won. Bobbing about in the rushing water, we were glad for our life jackets and helmets.
Scaling Sibebe Rock was my next challenge. The rock, or pluton, is a formation somewhat like Australia’s Uluru (Ayers) Rock. More than three billion years old, it was 350 meters high. Some people like to climb straight up, but the smooth, steep rock can be slippery. Instead, I took the longer roundabout trail and was rewarded with fascinating views of lichen-covered rock formations and fields of long, waving grasses..
An annual event that all of eSwatini eagerly anticipates, Umhlanga is also known as the Reed Dance. Occurring in late August, it is the culmination of eight days of honouring the Queen Mother. Young women march to fields of reeds, chop them down, bundle them up, and present them as windbreaks for the Queen Mother’s residence. At the ceremony’s finale, I watched as 10,000 “maidens” (young, unmarried, childless) danced in front of the Queen Mother and her son, King Mswati III. Wearing brightly coloured sashes over bare breasts and the smallest of skirts (really more of a belt), they were magnificent. I was told by a local that the king, who has 15 wives, chose many of his brides after seeing them at Umhlanga. Polygamy is legal in eSwatini (the king’s father had 70 wives), but unless you are royalty it is rare due to high dowry prices – meaning the number of cows necessary to pay the bride-to-be’s family.
For a hit of history and a glimpse of everyday life, I took a tour of Lobamba village. Beki, my guide, led me down a leafy lane lined with mud houses to a small courtyard filled with low benches. “Are you thirsty?” he asked. I nodded and a woman brought us a large pickle jar filled with what looked like grey dish water. “Sorghum beer,” explained Beki, taking a swig. I took a small sip from the communal jar. It was sour and I made a face. Beki disappeared into the hut and came out with a clay bowl filled with a thick white liquid. “Maize drink, non-fermented,” he explained. This time I smiled. It was cool, sweet and delicious.
Lunch was at a local butchery. After picking out some chicken, we placed it on the shop’s smouldering grill. Along with the chicken, we settled down to mouth-watering plates of coleslaw, boiled pumpkin leaves, tomato-avocado salad, and pap (made from cornmeal, it resembled grits). All eaten with our hands.
Fair Trade Souvenirs
At the Gone Rural shop in the town of Malkerns I picked up some placemats and baskets woven from local plant materials. Available in a rainbow of colours, the items merged traditional patterns with high-end design. The boutique was supplied by around 800 rural women who worked from their home communities and received 40 per cent of the wholesale price. I also learned that Gone Rural exports its products around the world, including to 10,000 Villages outlets in Canada.
The country has some immense problems including high rates of HIV/AIDS, domestic violence, and unemployment. Buying hand-made souvenirs wouldn’t correct these problems, but hopefully my purchases contributed in a small way to someone’s livelihood.
Volunteering in a developing nation was eye-opening. Navigating unfamiliar territory was daunting and humbling, but gaining an appreciation for a culture so different from my own was a reward I will treasure for the rest of my life.
If you are thinking about volunteering overseas once the pandemic is over, just do it.
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