When I was but a child, recently weaned from my mother’s breast, running around the yard, half nude, tugging at the mongrel dog’s tail and terrorising the chickens, I knew not a thing about countries. But, because the sun keeps rising and we keep growing, I had to be roused out of a comfortable slumber one morning, bathed, apparelled in khaki shorts, battered miniature veldskoens and maroon socks, then sent to a school where the teacher told us to repeat after him: “Our country is Swaziland, and our continent Africa.”
When you are a child, I have come to believe, the world remains what you know. What the teacher shouts out and scribbles on the board is new and exciting, as learning and discovery often is, but it soon finds a home in the imagination, to stay there as something merely imagined. The child is told, for example, that there are animals called tigers that live in India. This the child takes to be true, on trust. But the tiger, so long as the child has not seen it, remains a mystery. India, the country, remains a story. The knowledge, then, from the teacher’s mouth, that our country was Swaziland and that Africa was our continent impressed me. It was new knowledge. But, since I could neither touch nor properly ‘see’ these countries, this new knowledge remained a mystery to me, like the old lie about how babies fell out of aeroplanes. The universe, then, was what I knew – the wattle trees that adorned the hillocks, the gum trees growing towards heaven and dancing in the wind, the Motjane River, smooth-flowing in winter and violently creeping into floodplains in summer. The world of chickens scratching the hard earth for worms, and dogs that yawned during the day and barked at night.
But the earth keeps revolving around the sun, the chickens keep climbing up their perch, and we grow older. A bright child, I did well in the first grade and was promoted to grade two, then grade three, and we were soon taking school trips to all corners of the country. And once in a while we were made to memorise the names of kings who died a long time ago, and the praise names of the current one. In August and September, when schools closed, our sisters went down to the royal kraal in Lobamba to take part in the Umhlanga ceremony; in December it was their turn to watch as the lads went down too to take part in the Incwala ceremony. The country – Swaziland – became something palpable then, something I loved, and to which I belonged.
But then there was soon map-reading. And there was South Africa, a land so vast extending all the way to the Cape. With Swaziland inside, the size of a full-stop, and Lesotho towards her belly, the size of a comma.
It is well-nigh impossible to grow up in Swaziland and not see South Africa as the giant under whose shadow your country exists. The television channels we watch, and relate to, are South African. The Kwaito songs, radio stations and popular songs, the tsotsitaal, and the television soap operas all came to us from South Africa’s Johannesburg. Also, there are not many people in Swaziland who cannot sing the South African national anthem with ease. The writers of the literary stories we were assessed on were South African, as were the poets, and the famous politicians. We wore our shoes and went to the neighbour’s house one night and watched Sarafina, and we cried throughout, for the characters spoke a language like our own, and their pain was ours. We sang along, with feeling, when they sang ‘Freedom is Coming Tomorrow’ and forgot, but for a moment, that we were citizens of Swaziland.
And, anyway, our uncles were in South Africa’s many mines, sending money home at the end of the month. They returned home every December, their pockets heavy with their end of year bonus. Distant relatives came to visit too, cousins who were at South African universities – sophisticates. Thus a longing begins. A yearning for that which, upon comparison, seems better.
It would have stayed like this – a yearning and nothing more – had it not been for my uncle, twenty-six years old at the time, who declared that he was tired of his poverty, and, one morning, woke up, bathed, jumped over the boundary fence separating Swaziland from South Africa, a stone’s throw away from home, then disappeared for three years and came back driving a brand-new VW Citi Golf. It was then that I resolved that a week after writing my exams I would wake up at cockcrow, get my bundle, disappear into the fog and retrace my uncle’s footsteps of many years ago.
But here is the conundrum: some disappear into the fog and emerge with fortunes, while some wander off and fall into a kind of nothingness; and some embrace their native lands and make their fortunes there, while some, though they stay, end up failing and drifting into a kind of nothingness too.