Swaziland: Hope in a Deserted Place

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The journey in itself is exhausting: twenty plus hours on an airplane followed by a six hour car ride more. Yet, driving from the Johannesburg airport through South Africa to the tiny, land-locked country of Swaziland, you can’t sleep no matter how badly you may need the rest. Your eyes are locked out the window, taking in the magnificent landscape. You drive through plains, lush mountains, forests of tall green trees, and then, all of the sudden, desert. The van kicks up clouds of dust as you bump around in your seat on the rocky dirt road. Out your widow you pass dry, thorny acacia tress and shrubs. Then, finally, after what feels like eternity, the van stops and you step out. And the moment your feet touch the rich, red clay dirt you sense that something special is happening.

The first time that I traveled to Swaziland was in the summer of 2009. Trite as it may sound, I’ve never quite been the same. I’ve been back twice since. There I work with 150-200 children, so many of them orphaned by the AIDS pandemic that has devastated the country. While each time I am confronted and broken by many of the images of extreme poverty, what impacts me the most deeply isn’t the great need, but rather, the great hope that I find there.

Swaziland’s children love without holding back. They crawl all over you, teasing, tickling and laughing with abandon. You first sense the hope in their smiles, and in the way that they love and look after one another. They understand the concept of extended family and community in the most profound of ways. Then, you hear them sing, and your heart feels like it just might explode. You clap and dance along, all the while choking back tears, but despite your best effort they stream down your face because the sound is just too beautiful.

They understand the concept of extended family and community in the most profound of ways. Then, you hear them sing, and your heart feels like it just might explode.

The mages (mothers) and gogos (grandmothers) look on, occasionally joining in. We are only there for weeks at a time, but these women are there caring for the children day in and day out. These women convey a sense of beauty, pride and dignity unlike any I’ve ever before known. They have weathered many storms, and like the great tree that shades them, they have stood strong and resilient.

I never knew I could love and admire strangers with so much intensity, but then again, as your time in Swaziland goes on, they are no longer strangers. They are now a part of you that you will carry for the rest of your life. The trip is made up of these little moments filled with beauty, hope, and special, unique connections. Building relationships. Becoming a family.

A bridge has been built. Status and culture mean nothing in these special moments. Differences in race and age and experience melt away. A trip to Swaziland helps you realize that children are children everywhere. They love to sing and dance. They love to joke and make silly faces. They run around with their best friends and laugh until their bellies hurt. And when you see this you realize that there is no “other.” There is no “us” and “them.” There is just love. You sense it in the land and in the songs, in the community and their love for one another. You sense it in the smiles and laughs. So often we think of Africa as a poor and war-torn land, rather than looking for all the good that it has to offer. Africa is a continent of great need, yes. But much more so, it is a continent brimming with beauty, strength and hope.

Have you been to Swaziland or another country in Africa? Tell us about your experience.

Image via Jadyn Noelle Photography

Erin Willis-McNeely is a currently a Masters student in the School of Intercultural Studies at Fuller Theologically Seminary. When she is not a slave to the schoolbooks, she is a newlywed, a nanny, a music lover and a mama to one crazy puppy.

4 COMMENTS
  • Jessie April 28, 2016

    Oh my dear Swaziland! I was there summer of 2014 with an organization called Advocates for Africa’s Children. The Swazi people are so incredible. My husband and I sponsoring 2 kids over there and hope to go back and visit soon!

  • Tameka December 3, 2014

    Great article and incredible insight! I was in Swaziland in this year from late June to early July. It was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. While doing a educational-school ministry there, playing and singing with the kids at recess will remain my favourite moment of the missions trip. I broke when they offered the only snack they had. They taught me about God’s unconditional love and challenged me in more ways than one.

  • Lily B. June 26, 2014

    I went to Zambia (and also Zimbabwe) a few years ago and I’ll never forget the kids I met, especially the Congolese refugees who could not even communicate with the Zambian orphans they were housed with. It definitely altered the path of my life, though perhaps not in an easily-explainable, cause-effect way.

  • Amanda June 11, 2014

    While I have never been to Africa, I have traveled to Haiti numerous times and now live and work there alongside my husband. I know both countries are drastically different but I believe the beauty amidst the brokenness is something that is shared between them both. I’m daily amazed by the beauty here. The people, the hearts, the landscapes. It is so encouraging to see that others are recognizing the beauty in places that are not their own country and growing to love it so much that it can be called “home”.

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