The first day in this country I explored the city of Mbabane. I happened upon the office for the Swazi Observer and went in. Their main room was filled with old desks and computers with lots of people working on stories. I asked a reporter if I could talk with whomever had covered the albino killings in Swaziland, and they gave me that reporter’s phone number. I called him and arranged to see him the next day.
My driver, Sandeline, picked me up at 7:30 am to head out into the countryside to meet the reporter who has been covering the murder and dismemberment of two albino girls, both eleven years old. The reporter had told us that he would be able to bring us to meet with the two families. We stopped at a grocery store so I could get food to bring as gifts. I bought for each family (with Sandeline’s advice) two loaves of bread, candles, matches, rice and peanut butter.
We drove for an hour and a half. A beautiful drive and I learned a lot about the country along the way. The landscape is very lush and green, tangled with giant euphobia cacti, marula trees whose fruit makes liquor and beer, kiat, waterberry, red ivory, tamboti, watle, blue gum and pine trees.
The roads are incredibly alive. It is not just the trees which are loaded with birds, it is everyone and everything walking alongside the roads. We passed stray dogs trotting along (Sandeline said they were looking for scraps of KFC). There were women carrying bags of rice, large bunches of branches, water and other staples on their heads, always wearing bright colors, purples and crimsons, golds and greens that punctuate the landscape. There were long, lean men walking in pairs usually in darker clothes. There were many children, mostly in groups, but sometimes surprisingly walking alone. Every single person we passed when they heard the car coming turned to look who it was. The look in their eyes is something I’m trying to find the words to describe. It was an expression from all the walkers that was the same, it seemed purposeful. It was as if their eyes were saying, “I’ve been walking a long time and I have a long way to go. I am in the midst of a physical mantra and curious to know if the vehicle coming up behind me is something of which I should take note.” We saw skinny cows being herded (why are they skinny? there’s plenty of grass. I don’t get it.) because it was “dipping tank day” so they were being taken to dipping tanks to remove ticks and parasites. We saw people working in banana and papaya fields. Everywhere were rondavels, round houses with roofs made of grass, sides of sticks and mud or brick. Some roofs had corrugated metal. Every now and then there would be a tall flag near one and Sandeline said a single red flag means someone has slaughtered a cow and there is meat for sale. A single white flag means that there is traditional beer for sale. The pinkish Lantuna flower is not indigenous to the country and though it is beautiful and everywhere, the government is encouraging people to destroy it as it damages crops. Oh, and I forgot to mention the goats and chickens wandering about.
We passed over the Great Usutu River and many small brown rivers winding through the misty Kapunga mountains.
We passed some interesting billboards promoting condom-use, including one that read “Bekhi says, ‘Man is a hunter, the fun is in the chase!’ and Bekhi got AIDS!” Swaziland has the highest AIDS rate in the world.
We picked up the reporter at his office. His name is Starsky. And yes he’s heard of Starsky and Hutch. He got into the car and we started heading into the really rural land toward the homesteads of the families of the murdered girls. Starsky told me that each year around elections time, there are murdered people sometimes found with missing parts. It is believed that some of the people running for Parliament are having potions created that they believe will give them power.
We came to the first homestead. Very small mud and stick homes, chickens wandering in and out, a tethered goat and a little black pig. No electricity, no running water. This was the home of Banele Kwenzi Nxumalo, who was eleven years old when she was shot and beheaded in August. There was a group of girls and two shy boys who gathered to meet us. Banele’s grandmother welcomes me in. She was grateful for the food as if it was Christmas, and was very honored to be visited in her grief. She didn’t speak English so I spoke with her through Starsky and Sandeline. She talked about how hard-working her granddaughter was. Her granddaughter had been a motherless child, her mother had left the family. The grandmother showed me the little bedroom they had shared together. She talked about not being able to return to church. She said that her other granddaughter is also albino and was currently in hiding. She then showed me Banele’s grave which was very pretty. She was buried alone, away from the family graveyard because it is a Swazi tradition that if one dies of something bad, they should be buried separately, otherwise it brings bad luck. Still, her grave was very close to the family homestead by a garden so she didn’t seem alone to me.
The girls who were hanging around had been Banele’s friends and neighbors. Most of them were there when the killing happened. They took me to the place that it happened and told me the story. They were returning from the river with water for their families when a car drove up. The men in the car were taking advantage of the fact that the men don’t fetch water, and it would only be women and children. This day, it was in fact only one woman and several girls. A man wearing a mask jumped out of the car and shot Banele. Kicking the other girls away he threw Banele over his shoulder and ran down the slope and up the mountain where he disappeared with her. Her headless body was found there.
The next homestead had been the home of Siphesihle Mtshali. Her grandfather was there. She had lived with her grandfather as both of her parents had died of either TB or AIDS. There was a little boy there as well whose parents had dropped him off and never returned, so the grandfather was raising him as well. Siphesihle had been in the company of a male friend when she was attacked. Her leg was chopped off, and the thug swung a knife at the friend to keep him from helping. The friend is still in the hospital. Siphesihle was the first albino person killed in Swaziland for ritual use of her body parts, Banele had been the second. The grandfather is not married and was raising the children alone. His granddaughter had been in charge of all the cooking.
It was interesting to me in both families that along with the grief, there was also the insurmountable financial loss when a child died. In the West, our children’s responsibility is just to learn and grow. But here, the children are vital contributors to the family’s survival. With Banele’s death, someone else now had to fetch the water which costs the family many hours of time and is a great difficulty. With Siphesihle’s death, the grandfather and the orphan he is raising have to now do the cooking.