Esitjeni, Swaziland

Happy Mandela Day!


So it turns out, South Africa really knows what’s up, and has dedicated an entire day (in the form of a legit national holiday) to being selfless and loving others and dancing like Nelson Mandela did in his heyday.


Hence, in honor of our very first Mandela Day, we will of course be dancing, but more importantly, we will be visiting a small village in Swaziland to get a taste of traditional Swazi culture and then will be spending some time at a children’s orphanage next door, volunteering and playing with the kids for a little while.



A dog relaxes in the sun by the house of the village’s chief


The village visit is incredible, right off the bat. We unload off the bus to see the village’s center: a circle of perfectly crafted beehive huts enclosed in a tall, hand-made reed rod fence. We have a Swazi guide along with us, and before we enter into the village center, he helps us wrap scarves with the King of Swaziland’s face on them around our waists over our pants (because modesty) and teaches us to respectfully shake hands according to the local Swazi culture. I cannot for the life of me tell you how to spell it, but the cordial response to a “hello” that we are to say while shaking hands is a word that sounds a bit like “yeahbowhabootsi.”




Fully armed with our new cultural knowledge, we file through the reed fence one at a time and are greeted with the warmest of welcomes. A line of children—boys and girls aged two to ten, most smiling, but the older boys doing their best to look very grown-up—stand waiting to greet us. We shake each of their hands in turn, returning their hellos with our new word along with our fancy new handshake. We all beam at each other in awe and excitement.


We also get the distinct honor, truly, of shaking hands with the chief of the whole village: an older woman who may very well be the happiest and most genuine person I have ever had the pleasure of meeting in my entire life. She speaks about as much English as we speak Swati, but we can just tell by the way her face lights up: seeing us here learning about her culture is the greatest thing to her, and she beams at us all and speaks warmly to us in Swati (which our guide kindly translates). She welcomes us to Esitjeni and to her village and encourages us to take as many pictures as our hearts desire. In addition to allowing us to remember our day here in Esitjeni, she tells us, it will also help bring more visitors here to visit and support the local community.



The chief


The chief gives us a tour of the village center and teaches us how to weave baskets, roofs, ropes, and fences out of reeds. We also receive a brief lesson in grinding grain on a stone grindstone (just like the Pedi culture does at Masebe). We get to try out weaving, too, but no matter how hard I try—and despite the large amount experience I’ve had braiding my hair these past two weeks—I cannot get my reed braids as tight as the ones they show us as an example. I guess practice will make perfect…



Just grinding some grain for dinner… PC: Jazmyne Johnson


The youngest of the Swazi villagers watches us curiously from behind some unwoven reeds as we learn about the Swazi culture


We also learn how to do the reed song and dance. It’s different for boys and girls, but incredibly fun regardless of the differences.



Not everyone can say they’ve balanced a gourd on their head while doing the Mandela Shuffle… PC: Jake Wagner


The girls’ reed dance PC: Daniel Dodero


The Masebe boys learning from the pros


Reed dance in action


Jake is REALLY enjoying himself…



After our reed dance, we learn a bit more about the traditional cultural practices in the village and then get the opportunity to buy some hand-crafted goods from some of the local women. There’s jewelry and hand carved wooden plates and woven bowls, and despite my dwindling supply of Rand, I grab a few things and then allow myself to get distracted by a puppy before I spend every last cent on the incredible hand made products.



A puppy romps in the sun next to the grain grindstone


Before long, it’s time to go and we head right across the dirt road to the orphanage/primary school where we’ll spend the rest of our afternoon. Before the children arrive, we organize all of the supplies that ISV brought, sorting the toys, clothes, and books into piles based off of size and toy type.


I know I’ve been doing nothing but singing ISV praises since I signed up for this trip, but I can’t help it on this one: for every participant (there’s over thirty of us), ISV donated 100 Rand to this orphanage in the form of fruit and cookies. So between all of this fresh produce and the toys, books, and clothes that were the product of our excitement over our day today, there is a lot of stuff to sort through. Before long, though, we’re ready, and we take up our positions at the toy piles and food tables.


When the kids arrive, it’s mayhem. We stand behind the tables of food and hand out oranges, bananas, and cookies as quickly as possible—smiling at all of these sweet little faces in the chaos that always erupts when adults try to keep excited small children in single file lines.


Once every child has been given some fruit, a cookie or two, and a toy of their choosing, everyone scatters, and we’re free to mill about with the kids.


I have always been unfortunately awkward around little kids (except for at Haddenloch Horse Camp, which I really don’t think counts, since we both have a horse to distract us). Lucky for me, though, an angel comes to my rescue.


It’s a lazy play-on-words, but after a few minutes of me roaming around—torn between picking up a small child like my fearless peers, and overthinking the small children’s right to autonomy and whether they’d even want to be picked up—a young girl named Angel walks up to me and asks me softly if we can be friends.


Grateful beyond words to meet this incredible little girl, I say yes, absolutely, and we walk together through the yard. We hoola hoop for a while, chat a bit, and even take a picture or two on my phone.


I ask her about herself and she says she loves to dance and sing. She’s too shy to show me her dance moves, but she sings a few bars of “You Are My Sunshine” for me and her voice is so sweet and pure I can’t stop smiling. She beams and tells me she also likes to write, and might want to be a writer someday. I can tell she’ll be phenomenal at whatever she puts her mind to, and tell her to follow her dreams no matter what.


I know this all sounds like a series of bad clichés from a poorly written teen novel but it really is true. Angel—and all of the kids here, for that matter—are so unbelievable and every second I spend here with them makes me wish I had a hundred more.


Angel sees some of her classmates braiding Jill’s hair in the middle of the yard and asks timidly if she can braid my hair, too. I smile hugely and say of course, happy to have something to offer her other than some cheesy cliché about “following your dreams.” Beaming, she gets to work, and within seconds I have a beautiful crown of braids that I know I’ll never want to take down.


This entire experience has been unbelievable, and my heart aches as I look at all of these amazing, smiling faces in the packed clay schoolyard. Most of these children are either single or double orphans (a result of the still prevalent HIV/AIDS problem in Africa), and the orphanage is well above capacity. They do the best they can, but it’s obviously rough on all of them.




I’ll never, for as long as I live, forget Angel and how unbelievably bright and kind and talented she is. I’ve only been able to get to know her for an hour, and yet I can’t stand to have to hug her goodbye and load back on the bus with the others. I hope one day I’ll find her again and somehow let her know that I’m still here, that I still think of her and care about her and love her so much more than I would ever think is possible for someone I met only minutes ago.


If you would like to help support the Esitjeni community, consider visiting Milwane Nature Reserve during your next trip abroad. If you would like to support Esitjeni Primary School directly, please contact the headteacher by mail here: Esitjeni Primary School | PO Box 21 |Lobamba | SWAZILAND (Southern Africa)


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