I would walk 500 miles…

17 August 2012

“You will realize over the first few months that each site has its unique challenges and unique benefits.”

I’ve said this line dozens of times over the past few weeks while helping out at the Pre-Service Training of the newest group of volunteers here in Swaziland. In addition to helping me remember the excitement and anxiety of being a newly placed volunteer, these more frequent trips into town to help with training sessions has forced me to confront one of our site’s biggest challenges—transportation.

What makes our site unique is that the dirt road to our community is slated to become a major high-way to the international airport that has been under construction for over 10 years. This construction has relocated the majority of homesteads to places outside of our community. With movement of such a large portion of the population, there is little incentive for transport operators to make the trip down our road.

Being the first Peace Corps Volunteers down our corridor and with no real shops around, we spent the first few months of our service just trying to find a way into town to stock up on much needed supplies. It was an exercise in trial and error—we would try and gather as much information as possible from members of our community only to find that a combination of misinformation and simple unpredictability left us stranded almost every time we tried to head out. Those times when the fabled 5:30am bus never showed, we would take a big chug from our water bottle and begin the 17km hike to the paved road.

On our first day out – we were able to catch a ride to town with our principal, but had to try and make out way home on our own (with our newly purchased bed in tow). We hired a guy with a truck and even drew a map in the dust on his hood to make sure we were clear where we needed him to drop us. The trip included interrogation at a police road block about where we were going and the driver threatening to drop us in the middle of nowhere about 7km away from our school if we didn’t pony up some more money.

Through it all, we have learned to cope with this challenge – relying on rides from a whole host of characters in our community and sometimes simply avoiding trips to town for weeks at a time. There are times when neither is an option and rather than sit and wait for something that may never come, I’ve learned to really appreciate the walk home.

I had this opportunity most recently on our 4th Anniversary (August 10). I was making my way home from helping out at training the day before. After boarding the usual public transport in Mbabane and then Manzini, I found nothing at the junction where our dirt road meets the paved MR-3. I looked around, and tried my best to ask the ladies selling fruit if any khumbis were running that day. It looked like I was out of luck, so I began the walk. After walking about a kilometer, I passed the main construction office for the work being done on the road. I looked around to see if I could tell if any construction vehicles would be emerging anytime soon – kute (nothing). I continued walking. About a half-hour into the walk I heard the rumble of a vehicle coming over the hill behind me. I quickly assumed the Swazi equivalent to sticking your thumb out (which is a sort of awkward hand-flap). The car sped by at well over 100km/hour and left me in a cloud of dust. I continued on, passing and greeting construction workers and children along the way.

About an hour into the walk (an estimated 5km) another rumbling vehicle was approaching. I waved, this time including the especially eager ‘bow and wrist grasp’ motion. The truck blew past me, but then…the brake lights lit up and I ran to catch up. The driver was a construction worker ferrying some tools to the site of a broken down machine. Though he was only going a short distance, the 5km that he would shave off the trip was a huge morale booster. I gave him the equivalent khumbi fare (about $0.50) and hopped out to finish out the remaining 7km of my journey on foot. No vehicles passed except two dump-trucks that were making only short runs up and down a 1km strip of road. As I began to enter into our community, I was greeted by typically shocked Swazis exclaiming how far I had walked and how hot of a day it was. A little over two hours since I left the paved road and a total of about 4 hours and 30 minutes since leaving the capital, I arrived home in time to celebrate 4 years with Becca.

Though it is sometimes exhausting, the walk is always full of interesting sights and sounds. Workers digging, blasting, leveling, and simply chilling out and children playing, fetching water, and walking to and from school. Stranger sightings have included a camera crew shooting footage of two donkeys carrying water (besides this staged occurrence, I’ve never actually seen a Swazi donkey put to work like that) or a couple of guys with a decapitated impala head heading to work.

In addition, these times we walk have helped us build a report with the variety of people that use this road and have their own means of transport up and down. We’ve arranged rides in trucks and cars of all shapes and sizes with all sorts of people. Even though very few get us all the way down to our community, the combination of two or three short rides along the route really lifts our spirits and hastens our return home.

I guess, a year in, I am really starting to appreciate even the challenges we face here at site.

-Oliver

Rebecca is Reading: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
Oliver is Reading: The Collectors
We are Watching: Glee, Season 1

P.S. I snapped a few pictures from my walk on August 10 of the walk home with my phone. Apologies for the quality…

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One thought on “I would walk 500 miles…

  1. Oliver n Becca… I love ready these accounts of your life in Africa. GOD surly has His angels encamped around you.

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