Swaziland is a shithole. With more than 28% of its population positive, it has the highest prevalence of HIV in the world. (Male) homosexuality is illegal (LGBT+ does not exist in the Swazi lexicon). The king is currently trying to ban divorce. He would also like everyone to just forgive Zuma for Nkandla. He currently has 13 wives (don’t scoff – his father had 70).
It’s also the country I grew up in, and from the age of 5 to 18, I had no idea it was such a shithole. Not (I like to think) because I was stupid, but because it was a wonderful place to be a child. It’s beautiful, with rolling hills and majestic mountains, and people who seemed cool about everything. My parents’ friends lived in cool houses built into the mountains, and on Sundays when we came to visit they’d pad around in kikois smoking joints, and then we’d go swim in a river. My parents wore kikois too, and when we had people round, they would assemble around a big fireplace my father had fashioned out of an old tractor tire rim in the garden, and my mother provided roasted peanuts, marinated fillet for the braai, and Keith Jarrett or Dave Brubeck booming through the speakers perched on window sills inside the house. (They also had a live recording of then Dollar Brand playing piano at another house they lived in down the valley before I was born.)
Life was good. And of course we all went to Waterford Kamhlaba, which Richard E. Grant attended in the 70s, and where much later, Mandla Mandela was in the year below me (what a dick!). It was all apparently so unique that one day I was walking down the road with a friend of mine and we were stopped by a South African who was so surprised to see a whitey and a coloured girl walking around together that he asked to take a picture of us (#selfies or #othersies?🤷♀️).
The local newspapers, as you could imagine, were always very entertaining. And so they continue to be, with this week’s big story about an “Umlungu” who was busted for growing and selling marijuana. (Did I mention that part of my childhood? Best not to go there.)
My problem later in life, when I did start to understand a bit more about how shitty this beautiful little country is, was realising the measure of madness required to (continue to) live in that shithole. I don’t mean to sound rude. My mother and sister both live there, and many other people whom I have deep affection for. But true madness does abide in places where the CIA fact file should just read “fucked up”, and this “umlungu” is a prime example. I know, because he caught me smoking once as a teenager in his house, and the 20 minutes I spent in his bedroom with him scolding me was one of the scariest episodes of my life.
I was in his house a lot (yes, *that* house, but then it was full of people rather than marijuana plants), because one of his many children is one of my oldest and dearest friends, and his late wife, my surrogate mother for many a swimming gala when my own was off attending to patients in a rural clinic many hours (and thousands of degrees hotter) away.
So I see things like this and have a good laugh, because not only is it perfectly Swaziland in all its miserable glory (there’s an anecdote which probably is data that Swazi cops love drug raids because they set dagga fields alight and stand around for quite a while, ahem, *enjoying* their victory), but also because it reminds me that growing up in one of the shittiest places in the world was an exceptional privilege. It doesn’t actually get much better than roasted peanuts and Keith Jarrett, and a friend whose father is a batshit crazy drug dealer. Say no more.