Cover Image: Entrance to the Mtombazani [Little Woman] Valley in North Central Swaziland
Swaziland was most characteristically grass covered mountains with traditional homesteads scattered across them. At the same time the country was rapidly ‘modernizing’ with growing urban and industrial centers, such as Manzini where I lived and taught. To see motorized vehicles parked at a homestead while rare was not a surprise.
Traditional "Beehive" houses are seen to the right in the homestead below. The interiors are cozy with the sweet smell of dried grass from their thatch and shiny smooth hard floors made, remarkably, from a mortar of earth and cattle dung. The cattle pen [aka kraal] behind the beehives is not only typical of a homestead, but also a central feature of Swazi social order. It is deep subject, far beyond the scope of this story, but for those interested I would highly recommend Hilda Kuper's landmark work The Swazi: A South African Kingdom.
Yeah that's me. Safari Suits, as these loose-fitting shorts and jacket combinations were called, may appear awkward looking but they are extremely comfortable in hot weather At the time they were accepted as business attire equal to suit and tie. They were a heavy fabric that did not cling to the skin and allowed air to circulate.
Salesian School was an all-boys Catholic school operated by the Salesian Order and managed by mostly Irish priests and brothers. It was located on the SW edge of Manzini, a city of about 25000 considered the commercial hub of Swaziland. The core of Salesian School was a square of buildings surrounding a grassy parade ground that was surrounded by wide fine gravel walkway. In the picture above one of the buildings had had its metal roof blown off in a recent thunderstorm. It had occurred at night and the roof landed behind the building. No one was hurt. The land is lush green indicating that it is a couple of months into rainy season. Across the green meadow on the right lay the house where I first lived. I crossed the meadow to school each day.
The nonclerical teacher’s staff room was on the left end second floor of the damaged building. I remember it most for the card game called ‘Viet Cong Casino’. I played this lively partner game with other teachers during tea breaks and lunch times from start to finish of my tenure, which also drew me close them personally. The staff was predominately South African-educated teachers of African descent. At least two were refugees from the Apartheid regime and, as I learned later, important figures in the movement who were quietly recruiting Salesian students into the rising anti-Apartheid resistance movement. Despite its peaceful setting history would later reveal that Salesian was a hotbed of the movement and Manzini a center of operations.
Very soon after arriving I attended Incwala, the biggest event on the Swazi calendar. Traditional and modern Swazi from the entire country don warrior attire and gather at the Royal Kraal of King Sobhuza where a sequence of events occur. Dressed in traditional Swazi warrior attire, the warriors form battle lines, dance and chant before the Royal Family.
This picture below taken by a Swazi free-lance photographer who was kind enough to send it to me, typical of the generosity I would receive from Swazis during my entire stay. I had a shirt fashioned from a Swazi print. In its center can be seen the shield and spear symbol that is on the Swazi flag and represents those carried by the Swazi’s in warrior attire to my sides.
Table football was immensely popular and played with vigor and passion. One of my first tasks at Salesian was to repair the school’s broken down tables and repaint the field and lines, an act that earned me some early student appreciation.
Student ages varied from 13 to sometimes 20 and were mostly from Swaziland. There were many from South Africa who se parents were living in Swaziland as professionals and businesspersons.
One student would became a life-long friend, Themba Mbewu [aka Russell] Sukumane. He was never a student of mine as he was in his last year at Salesian during my first year and my students were all first and second year. He would become my guide to the subtleties of Swazi culture, politics and manners. We would meet up again when he came to the US for post graduate studies. Coincidentally, on the day of Themba's visit, King Sobhuza II, whose nominal reign lasted 82 years, would pass away.
Themba obtained a job with the US Consulate as chauffeur among other tasks.
Lorenzo Marques, renamed Maputo after liberation from Portuguese colonial rule, had a prosperous core with broad avenues and slow-paced sidewalk cafes, such as the one in the island of this boulevard.
The beaches of the Indian Ocean spread for miles from the north end of Lorenzo Marques. The waves were gentle and its tides created long tidal flats pushing the water’s edge back as much as a half mile. The white specks in the center of the picture above and to the left are people probing for shell fish in the low tide.
To my right below is Ambrose “Cooper” Khumalo who was a student at Salesian and also tutored me in siSwati. Swazi student often had three names, their siSwati name, an English [often Biblical] name assigned to them by the missionary schools and a ‘street’ name. Ambrose’s street name Cooper derived from the English boxer Henry Cooper.
When I arrived at Salesian, the woodwork shop was newly built and heralded as the country’s first woodworking program for Swazi students. The shop was stocked with a full set of hand tools neatly hung on the walls, one for each student. I had been drawn into the position after a qualified volunteer declined to show up for training. With only two years of high school woodworking in my background I found myself in the situation of, “In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” No one would know my inadequacies and in the end all worked out well. Seen here are the blue shirt, khaki shorts uniforms of the Salesian students. In the center background are benches that were being built for the Salesian’s rural elementary schools that we produced in off hours.
The table saw and jointer shown here were part of the power tool set I obtained from the US AID grant. When I arrived to find a shop of only hand tools, my first thought was, “Hand tool skillsets are essential but understanding of powered tools was in the long term is even more important”. The metal working shop, built across the courtyard had power tools and the technical studies students naturally preferred that course. The arrival of the power tools leveled that appeal. In the background right to left is the entrance to the shop, the door to the storage room, storage shelves with student projects on top of the, the chalkboard and my desk.
Steve Hank, a rural development volunteer who evolved into film making while in Swaziland and created a training film for successive Peace Corps volunteers, recently posted the following on YouTube that includes a clip from the Salesian School woodworking shop where I appear. Also see in are PC volunteers Sue Gray and Ron Pierce. My wordwork shop and I appear around 7:16 in the piece.
My 3rd year students are taking the JC exam in this picture, making a variety of joints from a blueprint. While we had machine tools, the British-influenced syllabus required all testing in hand tools only, a restriction of which I thought unrealistic terms of real world preparation, but was obliged to follow. I wrote the first JC exam which, as I learned years later, became the model for the country.
Compared to the stereotypical Peace Corps experience of the volunteer laboring alone in the bush, my experience was very comfortable. I had hot showers, flush toilets and electricity. Additionally Salesian School had a lovely swimming pool that was refreshing after hot summer classroom days. The always generous Salesians made it available to visiting volunteers. In this picture, my housemate Phil Peters pops up from underwater. In the background can be seen the dormitories of for the live-in students. The Salesian priests and brothers quarters were in the attached 3-story structure on the right.
True to my expectations a moon landing display arrived in Swaziland as the US did its utmost to politically leverage the triumph. This picture shows the display at the Show Grounds in Manzini during independence celebrations. To the right of the astronaut manikin is my friend Themba Sukumane who was employed by the Consulate and who provided this picture. A picture of Richard Nixon and King Sobhuza II can be seen on the wall.
This cafe was my favorite hang out in Lorenzo Marques. I relaxed my holiday hours away drinking excellent latte coffee while I read, wrote or took in the passing scene. All seemed right in the world, but surrounding the port city was a two mile deep ring of urban slums where hundreds of thousands of impoverished people lived. The slow comfortable pace of life in the well-dressed and prosperous center of Lorenzo Marques was a false reality that history would overtaken by 1975 when Frelimo rebels would succeed in liberating Mozambique from the Portuguese Colonial government.
In this view across the central lawn of Salesian School, students play table football and mug for the camera. Several were my students. Some are out of uniform indicating that this is probably a weekend day. Purple blossoms adorn the jacaranda trees to the right and left indicating that rainy season has begun. Often jacarandas and other trees would suddenly begin to blossom at the end of the long dusty, dry season often prior to the rains.
Parents, staff and students gather for an 'open day' in the center of the Salesian School compound. Brother Hugh leads a tumbling exhibition.
Salesian School was academically the most highly regarded as well as best equipped school for African students in the country, Consequently it was the school of choice for the children of the country’s small but growing middle class and members of the royal family who consequently would have constituted most of those in attendance shown here. About a third of the students were from comfortable means and many boarded at the school. However the Salesians took steps to insure that qualified students regardless of means were also included in the student body. Some had to walk several miles daily doing the trek barefoot so as to preserve their school shoes.
In an Open Day entertainment event, students perform a “Gum Boot” dance, a dance routine created by the African miners who worked in the gold mines of Johannesburg that featured wearing of knee-high rubber [gum] boots. Many Salesian students were from South Africa, their parents coming to Swaziland for the freedom and opportunities denied them by the Apartheid police state they left behind. Swaziland, a small country about the size of Connecticut, was surrounded on three sides by South Africa and a significant number of the Swazi tribe lived in the areas adjacent to the western border of the country.
During the picnic that followed the hike, a yo-yo competition was held. Chris Lackey, who would be my closest friend and house mate during my stay, disqualifies a class clown in an amusing moment.
At the time of my visit the reigns of power in Rhodesia [Zimbabwe after liberation] had been seized by a small but powerful European settler faction which was not recognized by the UN, the US and almost all countries of the world. It was economically sanctioned and isolated. However with support of the Apartheid regime in adjacent South Africa it was surviving and thriving. It’s rebel opposition was weak and militarily outclassed. Its independence was ten years and many battles away. Recently independent Zambia, the former Northern Rhodesia, was ostensibly opposed to the settler regime, so there was no cross border bus, which is one of the reasons I walked the bridge. However one can see in this view of the bridge from the falls, why I would have walked, bus or no bus. You would have done the same!
Victoria Falls thunder into the Zambezi gorge in a mile long series of cataracts. During rainy season, when I was there, the huge volume of water crashing 360 feet down into the narrow gorge produced large clouds of mist that make viewing the falls difficult and the bottom of the gorge impossible.
Atop the Ruins of Zimbabwe. Following liberation the new nation would adopt the name of this site as the country’s name.
The Salesian priests and brothers, four shown here with the church in the background, who operated the high school and outlying elementary schools alternately wore white robes and street clothes. Father Summers, foremost above, was the priest with whom I had the most contact and conversation. Almost all were Irish and had a tolerant spirit that kept their eye on quality education. When I told them I could not in all honesty lead prayers as was the tradition for teachers in the first class of the day, they did not blink and arranged for one of the students to do so. They were hard-working, dedicated, and patient with my sometimes youthful impetuosities all for which they earned my utmost respect.
My little trial bike motorcycle freed me up to explore the back roads of Swaziland. This view looks from the ‘high veldt’ elevations near the capitol Mbabane down into the ‘middle veldt’ where Manzini lies. The twin prominences on the right were dubbed ‘Sheba’s Breasts’. Swaziland was a series of geographic steps called veldts, from Afrikaans for field. The elevation range from over 6000 feet to near sea level in the low veldt, making for a wide range of climatic and biological diversity for such a small country.
Along this tour I paused to take this picture of Sibebe Rock, purportedly the largest rock in the world after Ayers Rock in Australia. In 1996 a created a early web tour of a ride I was to repeat. It was titled “Manzini to Mbabane the Hard Way” and can be viewed at www.bhere.com/swazi.
Before coming to Swaziland I had been in school continually for nineteen years. Knowledge poured in but little time remained to put it together and understand it. My tiny motorcycle gave me the opportunity to escape into distant countrysides where I discovered several ‘contemplation stations’, places where I sat and contemplated, overlooking dramatic vistas that inspired ideas and provided peace of mind. At the time I wrote these letters I was unaware of the change my experiences were bringing within me. My full intention was to return to the academic life and my plans for that aim dot these letters. Yet, after returning, I would toss away a full graduate school scholarship and, as I would say to myself, ‘Quit school forever and be an artist.’
My favorite contemplation stations were atop those background rocks. They crowned a high point called Malendela. From there I could see 40 miles or more in any direction and gaze down into the idyllic Mtombazani (Little Woman) Valley shown in the cover image.
We were a part of the 50 member Swaziland 1, the first Peace Corps contingent in Swaziland but not the first volunteers or volunteer organization. When we arrived in the country it was with typical American grandness and we more than doubled the existing volunteer population. However we quickly became friends and colleagues with volunteers from other countries.
Swaziland 1 volunteers at reunion May 2013 Manasota Key, Florida.
L-R Kneeling: Phil Peters and Jennifer Gill.
First Row: Tom Wentzel, John Underwood, Steve Hank, Fred O'Regan, Lowell Boileau, John Catanese.
Back Row: Bob Spigel, Cliff Sears, Jim Morphy, Chris Matthews, Mike Ascolese, Sue [Gray] Spigel.
In Memoriam Fred Schwartz
One of our group would not survive Swaziland. Fred Schwartz, a warm and affable volunteer, was tragically killed in a motor vehicle accident. The break from academics allowed me the opportunity to follow my passion for art. I started painting. Fred sat for this portrait with his thick red beard and green army surplus shirt shorty before his passing. Swaziland 1 Tribute site for Fred.
I sold my motorcycle to Jennifer Gill, one of our volunteers who decided to extend her service. She is seen here viewing pre-historic rock paintings in Rhodesia. I had taken the train from Lorenzo Marques to Bulawayo with her and fellow volunteer John Cantanese during Christmas holiday break in 1969-70. Like almost all us volunteers she was passionate about travel and discovery. We became friends during our training days outside Baton Rouge, LA and hitched hiked together to New Orleans on a couple of occasions.
I wish I had taken more pictures of more of volunteers. They were brilliant and kind and have gone on to do much good in their lives and made a better world.
John Catanese was one of the few in our contingent who became fluent in siSwati do to his isolation in the Grand Valley where. When I visited him, he knew all the beautiful spots and vistas. John had great rapport with the locals where he was posted. In the following fabulous film clip by Steve Hanks [packed with great shots of Swazi traditional culture] John can be seen sharing a bowl of tshwala [traditional beer] about six minutes in.
Our most famous alumnae was Chris Matthews who would go on to be a speech writer for Jimmy Carter and an advisor to Tip O'Neil before becoming the long-running rapid-fire host of CNBC's "Hardball" show.[He spoke just as rapidly back then, if not more.] Chris served as a small business consultant and was captured in this clip by Steve Hanks.
There even were South African volunteers. They were anti-Apartheid youth from non-governmental agencies in Cape Town, which was the center of a small but active white opposition to the regime. One of these was Ingrid Hulscher, shown below, who worked with rural nurses. Thanks to Ingrid I learned much about the politics and culture of South Africa, from which we Peace Corps volunteers were regrettably banned by the Apartheid regime. She even taught me how to cuss in Afrikaans. The volunteers of all countries intermingled in our tasks and outside. All were adventurous and creative which made for great fun, great parties and great memories.
A group of my upper class students. This was taken the year after I departed and sent to me by Simon Ngonyane, sitting left most in the front row. To his right are Solomon Dube, Isaac Mabila, Absalom Hlanze, and Rupert Khumalo [the student who put the chisel through his finger]. Back row left to right are Shadrack Gwebu, Father O’Dea, Isaac Dlamini, Humphrey Mkhwanazi, Andrew Dlamini, ?, Daniel Thwala, ?, Isiah Zulu, Petros Nsini, Simon Myeni, and Idesbald Dlamini.
The nonclerical staff of Salesian School. Photo from the year prior to my arrival. Source the Salesian School website. I cannot speak highly enough him and the staff and priests who taught at Salesian and feel honored just to have been a minor player among them.
Ken Ngengebule, back row second from left, became a good friend over daily staff room card games and chess. He taught me the exciting 'Viet Cong' Casino card game, patiently mentored me in dealing with the Salesian culture, was a brilliant chess player and a good natured, always helpful person. 'Rams' Ramokgopa, not shown above, was another teacher with whom I became well acquainted. He was my card partner, also a good chess player and friend.
I only learned the extent of the political activities at Salesian years later with the publication of Number 43 Trelawny Park - Kwa Magogo where Stan Mabizela, Rosette Nziba, Humphrey Mkwanazi and other Salesian students and staff are mentioned and where the school is described as a hotbed. It made me very happy to learn of the roles Salesian students and staff played in the liberation of South Africa.
Swaziland was quiet and bucolic during my days there. The liberation of South Africa, like the Berlin Wall falling, seemed like an impossibility in our lifetimes and Nelson Mandela doomed to die on Robben Island. The violent events of raids by South African commando death squads, bombings and assassinations as the liberation war spilled over into Swaziland were still a decade away but the seeds of the resistance were well-planted and growing.
Stan Mabizela was in political exile from Apartheid South Africa and an ANC member. Rosette 'Hlube' Nziba, also an exilé, was a key figure in the ANC's rival liberation organization the PAC. According to 43 Trelawny they were friendly as they were both focused on the common foe. Nziba was my next door neighbor in our row of teacher houses. Next to him was Mabizela’s house and they got along well. As I was both highly interested and sympathetic their cause Mabizela and Nziba shared stories with me about their political imprisonments in South Africa. Understandably they did not and could not tell me about their recruiting activities in Swaziland.
Personality-wise they were opposites. Nziba was energetic and thundering. He looked, acted and exuded the aspects of leadership. He. could be both fierce and understanding. If you ever had to go into battle he’d be the person you would want in charge. He was a very popular mathematics teacher. Sadly he died a few years after my stay and never got to see the promised land for which he had fought and suffered.
Mabizela was gentle and professorial and judicious, quietly smoking his pipe, seemingly immersed in thought. He told me how, instead being victimized by the notorious prison gangs, he became respected and protected once they learned for what he had been unjustly imprisoned. His character was such that he would be chosen to adjudicate inter-gang disputes. As 43 Trelawny cites these skills came into play to settle disputes that would later arise among resistance factions.
Mabizela would play a major role in ANC activities in Swaziland along with future South African Presidents Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma. He would negotiate their release when arrested by Swazi police following a confused shootout between the ANC and Swazi Police in 1980. When the ANC was expelled from Swaziland following an accord with the Apartheid regime in 1982, he continued the struggle from Tanzania and Zimbabwe. He passed away in 2003 while serving as liberated South Africa’s first High Commissioner to Namibia. One of my fond memories was his darling son Vusi shown below sitting on the stoop in front of my house.
Humphrey Mkhwanazi [Xolani Humphrey Mkhwanazi], shown in student group above, was a brilliant student of mine who would be recruited into the ANC resistance by Stan Mabizela. He would graduate from Salesian, go on to obtain a PhD from the University of Lancaster in Britain and then return and risk it all by playing a dangerous and key role as a courier for ANC operations emanating from Swaziland. Today he is a renowned mining industry CEO.
I can’t say enough about Chris Lackey, shown here attending machines in his metal-working shop that was across a courtyard from my woodworking shop. As a mountain climber, thinker, artist, avid reader and adventurer we hit it off immediately. He was British volunteer with a slow deliberate Lancashire accent. He was my closest friend, confidant, house mate and partner in technical studies filling in the gaps in my knowledge. He was immensely popular with his students due to his patience and humility.
Swaziland would transform him along similar lines it did me. He took up painting there and would go on to be a highly regarded art instructor. We would meet up again in the Yorkshire Dales decades later. read more ». Sadly Chris passed away in 2011, a victim of cancer. We had several phone conversations and email exchanges during his final days.
Another British volunteer at our school was Martin Higgs who served as a science teacher during my first year after which he went on to his university studies and an illustrious career with Shell Oil. We shared many good times together while at Salesian. We met up again in London on my way home and again when he and his wife visited me in Detroit years later. We remain good friends.
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