"South & East Africa 2011" story # 17

Nzameya, Swaziland           June 6, 2011

In the quiet countryside setting of an orphanage, a boy was out collecting guavas.
     He was thirteen but small for his age. He had a big head and seemed to thirst for love and friendship. He began walking and chatting with Julie. She asked, what was his favorite subject to study? He said, "English." He also liked drawing. She asked, what was his favorite thing to draw? I thought, I'll bet he says a cow. First, he said, "Anything," but then he said, "a cow." Ah ha!
     He introduced himself to me as Tempkos, "Temby" for short. He came from Julie's host family's village. Now, along with thirty-five other orphans, he was being taken care of by a middle-aged American couple and six Swazi "foster moms". The American couple saddened Julie by saying Temby often felt depressed and missed his grandma.
     Julie and I got back in our car to continue driving towards her home village, Nzameya.
     Julie said she'd come across Temby one day in Nzameya. She learned his parents were dead, and she could see that seven-year-old Temby had tuberculosis. And if his parents had died, then he probably had HIV too. He needed to be treated for tuberculosis right away, so that he could then go on ARVs for AIDS. She told Temby's "grandma" (an old woman of the family, who didn't seem to like Temby much) to bring him to the hospital in the morning.
     The next morning, Julie saw Temby waiting at the bus stop by himself. This poor, traumatized kid could barely speak, let alone find his way to the hospital. Julie frowned. "Okay. Let's go, kid!" She took him to the hospital. He was terrified of her.
     But, after a few trips to the hospital, he started calling Julie "Mom", and showing up at her house when he was lonely. "Oh, great. What am I going to do now?" thought Julie. She considered adopting him. But, she didn't even have a job; how could she take care of a kid?
     Luckily, a quiet countryside orphanage said it would make room for him.
     We reached the village of Nzameya.
     Julie's host family lived in a complex that included several square houses and two round huts. In the center of their courtyard, a tremendously tall avocado tree grew.
     It was in this courtyard where Julie had witnessed a traditional wedding between her host father and his third wife. As part of the ceremony, the man poured urine out of a goat pancreas onto his wife, and then he drank the rest himself. Ew!
     Since Julie had last visited Swaziland, however, her host father had passed away. She spoke about this solemnly, in the SeSwati language that had many "click" sounds like Zulu, with her first two host moms.
     And she learned that her first host mom - a plump and mean-looking woman - was banishing her second, kind host mom from the housing complex. The second, older-looking mom was going to have to go collect grass in the morning, so she could build herself a house somewhere.
     I didn't know if I would've been tough enough to handle everything Julie had had to go through.
     But, I was hungry enough to eat the food her host family gave us. In the evening, we ate tasty, moist chicken plus homemade, nutrient-rich "papa" (corn mash) with chicken broth on it. In the morning, we ate fresh, smashed avocado on bread.
     Before leaving Nzameya, we said good-bye to two of Julie's best friends: Bumi, a young girl who'd assisted Julie's volunteer work, and whom Julie had helped to find a job; and Doris Zebra, who'd given us a chicken to slaughter the night before. Wrinkled Doris Zebra happily hugged us good-bye.
     Julie and I would each be leaving Swaziland today, though we'd each be going in different directions. We drove down from the hills, in the eastern direction of Mozambique.
     We passed one village, and Julie told me of a PC volunteer named Alexandra who'd stayed there. Alexandra had played on a men's soccer team while she was in the village. On the day before she was set to leave Swaziland, she attended the funeral of one of the guys on the team. While she was at the funeral, other guys from the team broke into her home and stole her possessions.
     I asked Julie my final question: How had she come to accompany so many HIV/AIDS patients to the hospital? She said it hadn't always been this way.
     Once, she was performing a census in her village. She asked one young woman, "Has anyone in your household been tested for HIV?" The woman started bawling. She said she was sick but had no one to go to the doctor with her. Julie said, "I'll go with you." Other people saw this, and they started coming to and trusting her.
     When she'd arrived in Nzameya, almost no one had been tested for AIDS. By the time she left, almost everyone had.
     Wow, Julie was a brave girl! It made me proud to be, like her, an alumnus of Eckerd College in Florida.
     Here in Swaziland, we descended to the low, eastern valley which was full of spiky sugar-cane plants. Across this flat and humid valley, the Lebombo Mountains towered like tropical marshmallows.
     And Julie told me one final story.
     Because she spoke SeSwati so well, she was invited on a radio show to tell Swaziland what the Peace Corps was doing here. She ended up ranting on about how Swazi men mistreated their wives by sleeping around and then giving them diseases. This radio interview brought her fame within the country. People would see her on the bus after that, and they'd debate the men's treatment of women with her.
     Good job, Julie!
     We reached the point where we'd say good-bye. Julie would go north to catch a flight to London so she could meet with the Gates Fund. I'd go south back to South Africa.
     She thanked me for coming for her birthday. I thanked her for showing me Swaziland. And she was off!
     I sat on the side of the road, beneath the Lebombo Mountains, and ate the chicken which Doris Zebra had given us and Julie's host family had cooked.

Modern Oddyseus

Much thanks to Julie's host family for the place to stay!

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