An Unexpected Trip to eSwatini (Swaziland)

Part 1: The Journey to Ezulwini

After a hectic 36 hours in Malawi and the Johannesburg Airport, I was on a four-hour minibus ride to eSwatini (formerly known as Swaziland).

The bus was surprisingly comfortable and even had WiFi. At the halfway mark, we stopped at a large travel plaza with restaurants. In the back of the rest stop, there was a bathroom. Above the urinals, there was a glass window where you could look out into the savannah. There, I saw none other than five RHINOS!! Peeing while looking at rhinos and zebras was definitely a peak experience of the trip.

Continuing on, the scenery changed from plains to forests and mountain valleys. At the 3 ½ hour mark, we reached the border. After clearing South Africa exit immigration, we drove over to the eSwatini side. Here, we didn’t even need to leave the bus. Our driver walked into the immigration building and processed our passports. Save crossing to/from Mexico with a SENTRI card, this was without a doubt the easiest border crossing I’ve ever done. Just like that I entered my 53rd country!

The hideous Swaziland passport stamps

The other passengers on bus told me that I made the right move. They said South Africa is dangerous but Swaziland is safe.

I asked my driver why the country was renamed eSwatini in April 2018. He said that eSwatini is what locals call their land and that Swaziland is a British name. While the name change is official, not everything has switched over yet. It turns out it is expensive to change every sign in the country. The money and passport stamps still say Swaziland. Some government buildings have new signs, but most still say Swaziland. Most importantly, the majority of the people still call it Swaziland when speaking in English. Eventually, the new name will stick.

The roads in eSwatini were very nice. It took about 15 minutes to reach the bus company’s office in Mbabane, the capital city. There, I paid for the bus fare…with a credit card. This was very exciting because I was worried about possibly running out of cash.

The driver then took me to my hostel in the Ezulwini Valley. The hostel was super nice- it was part of a larger resort called Lidwala. The only other guests were a single Peace Corps volunteer, a super cool Japanese teacher who spent the last two years teaching English in South Africa, and a young adult tour group called All Out Africa. Except for the Japanese teacher, they were not friendly and hogged all the WiFi data. This was in stark contrast to the incredibly friendly and adventurous travelers I met in Malawi.

My hostel was not in a populated area and did not have a restaurant. The nearest place to get food was a mall called The Gables about 2 km away. It is apparently the swankiest place to be in all of eSwatini. I took a taxi and ended up in what looked like a typical American strip mall. There was a KFC, a grocery store and what looked to be South African chain restaurants. Interestingly, one place was Native American themed and served steak and Mexican food.

The Gables Shopping Centre

I settled on the Portuguese restaurant where I ordered a steak and beer combo meal for $6. It was delicious.

Back at the hostel, I drank a local Sabebe beer by myself  since nobody else would drink with me and then went to bed. It was a weird start, but I had the feeling that tomorrow was going to be fantastic.

Part 2: Lobamba and the Cultural Village

The next morning, I made breakfast and organized a half-day tour of the nearby village of Lobamba. While Lobamba is home to the King and Parliament, it is not considered the capital. Instead that title goes to Mbabane. Why? I don’t know.

We started the tour by taking a minibus for about two miles. We walked by parliament and learned about the unique government structure of eSwatini. It is an absolute monarchy- the only one in Africa. The name of the ruler is King Mswati III.

There is a Parliament, which is run by the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is appointed by the King every 5 years. While Parliament can pass laws, the king must sign them into law. Otherwise, the law does not go into effect and is essentially vetoed. I am not sure exactly how power is shared, but the king’s mom also has a lot of power. She actually ruled the country for 4 years while Mswati III was in college. This Queen Regent situation has happened numerous times in the country’s history.

The King, Queen Mother, and Prime Minister. Notice the height of the portraits.

We then walked past the National Stadium. In addition to soccer matches, the stadium is host to a major weeklong holiday called the Umhlanga Reed Dance. All the single and childless women (including the King’s daughters) dance for the Queen Mother for four days. On the fourth day, the King will be present and will sometimes pick out a new wife. Yes, polygamy is legal. I will get into that later.

Next to Parliament is the National Museum where I learned about the unique history of eSwatini. In the 1700’s the Ngwane people moved in from Mozambique and conquered the land. They became known as the Swazi or Swati. The first Swazi king was Sobhuza I.

The National Museum. The eSwatini sign hasn’t come in yet.

The British conquered much of southern Africa in the late 1800’s. Originally there was hope for Swazi independence when the Swazis helped the British win the Boer Wars. While the people did not gain independence, the land was declared its own British Protectorate. Had this not happened, eSwatini would have probably become part of South Africa. The British partitioned the land so that Whites controlled 2/3 of the country, and the Swazis only got 1/3. The British also built the new capital of Mbabane in the White sector. During this period, the King was still around and wielded political power.

British rule lasted until 1968. The British desired to leave Swaziland with a parliamentary democracy. Elections were held in 1967 and King Sobhuza II (father of the current king) won all the seats in Parliament. In 1973, a second series of elections were held and this time the opposition won 25% of the vote giving them representation in parliament. Not liking this, Sobhuza then suspended the constitution and restored the monarchy.

The current king. Mswati III assumed power in 1986. On April 19, 2018, Mswati changed the name of the country from Swaziland to eSwatini.

The museum also mentioned an interesting fact: eSwatini is the only country in Africa to be inhabited by only one tribe. That is why the monarchy is (at least perceived as) well-liked and perhaps that is why there is less crime and violence than its neighbors.

Across the street from the National Museum is a park dedicated to the old king, Sobhuza II. In the park, there was an eternal flame that wasn’t working. Behind the flame was a mausoleum. My guide told me that the mausoleum is sacred and forbid me from taking pictures of it. The weird thing about the mausoleum is that Sobhuza’s body isn’t actually there. His body is stored in a cave high in the mountains 10 miles away where all the Swazi kings are buried.

Sobhuza II statue

There was also a large statue of Sobhuza II. He was flanked by lions. In order to become king, you have to kill a lion so lions are the symbol of the king. There was also a quote that translated to “I have no enemy”. Sobhuza credits his friendliness for enabling Swaziland to stay an independent and peaceful country.

Along those lines, you may be wondering how a new king is chosen. The king simply picks one of his sons to become the new king. Traditionally, the new king will be a son who does not have any full-brothers becomes the king. In other words, the lucky wife can only have one son. This is to ensure that there is no jealousy or competition among brothers for the throne.

The residential part of Lobamba is about 200 yards from the palace compound. This area looks like a typical African village or township in South Africa. The roads are dirt, the houses are made from mud brick.

Lobamba

The old king’s surprisingly ordinary residence sat in the middle of the village. Tradition says that when the king dies, the home cannot be occupied by anyone else. The home is still there slowly decaying into ruin.

Decaying home of Sobhuza II.

The king’s mother lives in a large compound on the outskirts of the village.

We kept walking and eventually found a local bar serving homemade beer. Making beer is a big deal in Swaziland. Every woman is supposed to learn this. I ordered some beer and was given a plastic paint bucket of cloudy yellow liquid. This unfiltered beer was made from a local fruit called marula. It tasted like a sour style beer and was delicious! I would totally drink it if it existed in the US.

Sipping homemade marula beer.

Our final stop on the tour was at a butcher shop. My guide purchased some beef and pork and took it over to a nearby public grill. We ate the meat, a side of cornmeal mash called ugali, and some chopped tomatoes with our hands. It was so so good.

My guide grilling the brai.

After that, I got dropped back off at the hostel. I then decided to hike to a large rock called Sheba’s Breast. It turns out that the trail to the rock starts right behind the hostel. I was told it would take an hour. Continuing down the backside of the mountain, I would reach a cultural village.

Sheba’s Breast

The uphill was brutal, but eventually I reached the top. The view was far better than I could have imagined: 360 degrees of green. On one side, I could see the lush Ezulwini valley and the village of Lobamba. On the other side was untouched green mountains. This was probably the best view I have had since hiking Guatape in Colombia.

The trail down the backside of the mountain was faint. I wasn’t really sure I was even on a trail for the first 10 minutes.  Near the bottom, I heard drums. This was the start of the 3pm dance performance and was an epic soundtrack to the end of the hike.

I walked over and caught the final 30 minutes of the dance performance, which was incredible! My favorite part was seeing the women kick high in the air.

Traditional Swazi dancers

I then got a small group tour of a fake traditional Swazi village. This boma-enclosed compound was set up for a man with two wives. While this setup would not exist in Lobamba, 80% of eSwatini lives in rural areas in this setup. Our guide was a woman and she grinned heavily when explaining some of unusual facets of Swazi culture, many of which would be considered extremely inappropriate and ridiculous in Western society. She was in on the joke – except it’s not a joke.

My guide in the fake village. There are many real villages that look just like this. 

As mentioned before, polygamy is legal in eSwatini. Men can marry as many women as they want, but women can only marry one man. In order for a husband to take on a wife (or another wife), he has to pay her father 15 cows. If she is not a virgin, that number is negotiable down to 11 cows. The husband also has to build the wife three huts and must financially support her and her children. Each wife gets her own three huts; there is no sharing. One hut is for the wife and her young children to sleep. One hut is for the wife to cook. The final hut is for the wife to make homemade beer.

The husband will set his own hut up next to the newest wife. He can choose to sleep in any of the wives’ huts or he can sleep in his own hut. The husband is also free to bring a girlfriend home to his hut should he choose.

While polygamy is a catchy subject to talk about, realistically there are few men in Swaziland who can afford to have multiple wives. Supporting multiple families and having to give away 30+ cows is not easy in a country with a GPD per capita of about $3,200 USD. Besides the royal family, the only men who really can make this situation work are politicians, businessmen, and traditional healers. There is a movement to ban polygamy, but I doubt it will go anywhere since the absolute monarch practices it.

Boys older than six live in their own hut. The girls older than six, live at the main entrance of the boma (wooden fence). The idea is that their beauty is to be used as bait to distract would-be attackers. Perhaps they would get raped or proposed to by someone less than ideal, but this action would buy time and potentially save the lives of everyone else in the compound.

Although the women cook most of the food, the men have their own cooking area. Here they would cook special men’s items: animal heads and animal feet. There is a traditional belief that if women ate the head of an animal, they would gain brains and leave the man. If they ate the foot of the animal, they would run away. A Kenyan women also in the group said that this was true in Kenya as well.

While men have considerably more authority over women, the ultimate authority in the compound actually belongs to the man’s mother aka the grandmother. She is the arbitrator in all disputes and can overrule the man in certain cases. Her house is the meeting place for the family and her kitchen is a place of refuge for all her children and grandchildren. This is why the King’s mother has such an important role in the Swazi government.

After the tour, I walked over to a large waterfall. It was close to a mountain called the execution mountain. In colonial times and pre-colonial times when someone committed a terrible crime, they would be forced to jump off a huge cliff on the backside of the mountain. Yikes.

I ended up hitching a ride back into town from the Kenyan lady and her Swazi friend. We laughed at some of the ridiculous, but probably true, things said on the tour. I got some dinner at a seafood restaurant in the same shopping center as the Portuguese place. Then, I walked home.

Royal cows

It was a very long day, but also a very fun and informative day.

After a farewell Sabebe, I fell asleep and took the morning shuttle back to Johannesburg.

 

Conclusions:

eSwatini is a unique destination. The government, culture, and general attitude of the people are different than any other African country I have visited.

The tourist industry is quite developed and the areas where tourists generally go are just as developed as South Africa. Additionally, the low levels of crime and the beautiful landscapes make this a very pleasant place to visit. Everything in the country, plus the world famous Kruger National Park in South Africa is within day trip distance. For these reasons, I would highly recommend a stopover in eSwatini to any Southern Africa tourist.

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