Ok, Mother Teresa. I get it now.

“May God so break my heart that the whole world falls in.” – Mother Teresa

Ok, Mother Teresa. I get it now.

Swaziland, I love you.

Breathtaking beauty of Swaziland's high veld.
Breathtaking beauty of Swaziland’s high veld.

Everywhere I look the view is breathtaking. Around every corner the scenery defies the stereotypical Africa. Rather than a dry, cracked earth, Swaziland is a thousand shades of green contrasted with iron-rich red soil. Gentle rolling hills fade into the distance until they are hazy and purple; massive boulders look like they fell out of God’s pocket; mystical orange sunsets almost bring me to tears.

Your people are your best asset. Their smiles, laughter and ready hugs steal the hearts of all who visit. Even world travelers find your spirit unique and inviting. Maybe it’s because first-world television and media aren’t common, but there’s an innocence here that’s been lost in western culture. Nobody is telling me how much to weigh or what to wear. There is a lot less noise, and more time for conversation and old-fashioned visiting.

Sharing stories during a homestead visit.
Sharing stories and songs during a visit.

I admit to being in a ‘bubble’; my time is almost entirely spent with people involved with the ministry. Overall, though, interactions are just more gentle than other places. All conversations start with ‘Unjani’ (‘How are you’), and even strangers call me ‘sisi’ (sister) or ‘make’ (mother). Drivers may be erratic but I haven’t experienced road rage – just respect the slow lane/fast lane, and know that the kombi (taxi/bus) drivers are going to speed and change lanes without checking.

Visiting a rural Gogo (grandmother) usually includes some singing. Her face lights up and it’s easy to picture her as a little girl; her sweet voice joining her mother or her sisters as they fetch water or gather wood. She grabs my hand and thanks me for coming; grateful that for today someone has remembered her. Another Gogo thanks us for our prayers over her painful feet and jumps up to dance where just moments before she could barely walk. She offers us a cup of Marula nuts that she has been shelling all morning – originally intended as a gift for the Queen Mother to be used in lotion for her skin. She apologizes that she can’t give us a chicken, but thugs have just robbed her homestead the night before.

And your children. Oh, your children.

Oh, your precious children.
Oh, your precious children.

Little ones quick to grab a hand or climb up onto a lap. Whose whole day is brightened by a sweetie or a silly dance. Who don’t care about the latest toy or fashion fad; who are proud to be Swazi. Life is simple in many ways and a future of marriage, children and family is likely to unfold on the same homestead where they are born. For now they are too young to know that their future may also include chronic poverty, endless unemployment and the unavoidable loss of loved ones to HIV/AIDS and Tuberculosis.

Because, Swaziland, you break my heart.

Your people are dying. And they are hungry. Rural churches are burdened with communities in crisis, and it seems that every worldwide NGO is here to help. Renting tents and plastic chairs is a thriving business because funerals and night vigils take place every week across the country. A mysterious flu bug can kill dozens of children in just a week, and there is no vaccine, no antibiotic, no medical mobilization. The cause is chalked up to heavy rains which stir up the waste from cows wading in the river, combined with malnutrition and a weak immune system in the children.

I was sure the baby I held was six months or so. Turns out she was almost two years old but underdeveloped due to malnourishment and HIV.

Driving on the highway I see two ladies riding in the back of a bakkie (pick-up truck), huddled in blankets and sitting with a small coffin. Just a plain box holding a body which has likely not been embalmed and is on its way back to a homestead; possibly of a child who has never had a birth certificate.

One day in the southern area of the country we pulled off to the side of the road to check our tires. Almost immediately four small children ran to the car begging for food – patting their tummies and pleading with clouded, heavily lidded eyes. Our apples and peaches were snatched up by grimy hands; the fruit was quickly devoured. Down the road, from where the children had come, two men walked out of the stick-and-mud house and somehow we just knew those children would be beaten for eating the food without bringing it back first. From their sidelong glances, it seemed the children knew it too. My friend and I drove in silence for a long while.

Swaziland your women are hurting. I know that each one I meet has likely been raped; even those who are very young. I’m told that the primary school girls wear tights under their school uniforms not only to keep warm, but also to slow down the men who are trying to rape them. Witch doctors still prescribe intercourse with a virgin as a cure for HIV/AIDS. When a man dies, his wives and children can be tossed off the homestead with absolutely nothing. There is an estimated 70% unemployment, and many of those are women.

I love the faces of Swaziland, and the hearts that lie behind them.
I love the faces of Swaziland, and the hearts that lie behind them. I often joke that I couldn’t possibly keep up with a Swazi woman.

I marvel at the schoolchildren in their clean uniforms, polished shoes and crisp shirts. I see them at the river on Saturdays, washing clothes on the rocks. Much of the country lives without indoor plumbing or even a tap at the house, and landlords make the water available only at scheduled times. Parts of the nation are still waiting for electricity to reach their area. A Swazi friend, who is educated and employed, once asked me to explain how the washing machine got the clothes clean.

And still, there is hope. There is love and there is beauty. I know people who have been given a ‘turning point’ by being part of a ministry or NGO, and over time there will be more victories. Their magnificent stories of transformation and new beginnings can inspire even the most downtrodden, jaded heart.

Sometimes I feel like my heart is on the outside of my body.
Sometimes I feel like my heart is on the outside of my body.

Of course, the greatest hope comes from relying on God’s promises. I’ve heard it asked whether there are more miracles here. I’ve certainly experienced more of God’s presence and His power here than ever before. Perhaps it is because in Swaziland they don’t take their problems to the bank or the boss or the government. They take them to God, and they expect him to answer.

It is hard to explain how exquisitely painful it is to live with that tension. To know that, despite being uncomfortable, I am being used in a plan bigger than myself. Often I can’t explain or write about my experiences – I expect people to say “well, if it’s not perfect you should just come home”. But home isn’t perfect either, so for now I’ll live with the unease and keep my eyes on the One who brought me here.

So, yes, Mother Teresa, I get it. Yes, my heart is broken wide open – wide enough that this entire country
has fallen in. It’s not the whole world, but it is as much as I can take for now.