One of the hardest part of living so far from everything we once knew is knowing that we have missed almost two years of family get-togethers. From Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter to birthdays and impromptu Packer parties—Rebecca and I have struggled to adjust to life far from home without such occasions. Most volunteers have host-families here in country with which they can replace at least the ritual of these family interactions, but we call school home and it is during holidays and special occasions we find ourselves alone as teachers and students pack their things and go to be with their families.
The closest thing we have to a host family is our Principal. He is around and takes it as his responsibility to look after us (during those times when he is not around and we are alone at school, the police travel over 30 km from the station several times a week just to check on us – I am certain he has at least something to do with this).
This past weekend, our Principal invited us to join him at his parental homestead to celebrate the final payment of cows from a man who fathered a child with his sister years ago (dependent on the circumstances such a payment ranges from 2-5 cows, where as full marriage can run as high as 13-15 cows). At such a ceremony the entire family is invited and one is slaughtered and served. This is definitely not an occasion we would ever run across with our families back in Wisconsin, but we both found ourselves amazed at just how many similarities there were to this family gathering and those we’ve missed so much since leaving home.
Immediately upon arriving at the homestead after a somewhat treacherous 30-minute drive through the rain-soaked, dirt road we began noticing similarities. An abundance of vehicles parked around the house resembled the car-lined streets that help you know you are in the right place when arriving at a family gathering in the US. There was tent pitched and some folding tables with plastic chairs in the yard. A long table along the side of the tent was quickly filling up with food being brought from the kitchen and various relatives were milling around talking. When someone new arrived there was an abundance of hugs and excitement. A couple young guys were huddled around the speakers playing music.
Fred introduced us to one of his brothers from another mother (his father was a polygamous and Fred estimates having at least 46 siblings though no one wsa certain on this figure) and a close cousin who were to be our chaperones for the event. They both had excellent English and Fred, as the senior male in his family, had to attend to his responsibilities at the event. We were introduced to the elders and a few important members of the family before taking our seats.
There was a short service which included some church songs and then a brief message by the pastor from their catholic church and a prayer. The closing song got several people to their feet and an over-exuberant uncle got everyone laughing as he tried to take center-stage while struggling to maintain the proper beat.
There was opportunity given for the senior-ranking family members to say a few words and then it was time to eat. What looked so familiar quickly began to fade. At first the selection of beverages which were located at the end of the buffet table were divvied up among the tables, a woman went around with a bucket of water washing people’s hands and everything was done by rank. [I fall in with the other married men (just below the elders) and because we’re non-Swazi, Rebecca gets the same treatment.]
After that, what looked like a buffet table was quickly surrounded by the hardest working segment of the Swazi population – the married women—and was converted into a rapid assembly line. (Fred told us on our drive in that we would likely not see much of his wife because she would be filling in the role as a house-wife, and he was quite right—this was the only time she emerged from the kitchen was with the rest of the women for this task). Rather than each person standing and getting their own food each person was dished and served. First the elders, married men, and senior women at the tables and then to the scores of people seated on the ground – children, unmarried adults, and more distant relatives/neighbors. After we received our plates with a hunk of the slaughtered cow, rice, samp and beans, and beetroot, a plate containing intestines and other much-sought after internal organs was placed in the center of the table to be quickly divided up.
After the meal, we talked for a while and then people began to head home. Our table was served wine and even a bottle of sparkling wine was brought out. One man asked me if I took red wine, because it was healthy for me and I responded that one glass was, in fact, healthy. He said what happens if you drink more, I said you start to get silly. This, combined with one uncles fulfillment of my prediction, provided the conversation topic as we waited for Fred to finish up his conversations with the remaining important guests. After he came to let us know it was time to go, we said our good-byes and thanked our hosts and just like back home were handed a plastic container of left over food which we couldn’t refuse. Fred drove us back to school before returning home to finish out the weekend with his family.
We were very grateful to be included in this celebration and enjoy the time we have with our Swazi friends, but are looking forward to returning to our own families and traditions in just a few months.
Rebecca is reading: The Magicians
Oliver is reading:The Story of Nations: Southern Africa (1894)