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It's interesting how ritualized siSwati is. (Perhaps English is too and I'm merely accustomed?) When one passes another in the road, one always, always greets. Most of the time, even if you don't know the other person at all, you greet. "Sawubona," to one person, "Sani bonani," to more than one (or a particularly respectable one). They answer, "Yebo," ("yes") and you say "Unjani?" or "Ninjani?" ("how are you?"). To which they always say "Ngikhona / sikhona," or "Ngiyaphila / siyaphila," ("I'm here" or "I'm healthy"). If you choose to continue then you ask, "Uyaphi?" ("where are you going?"). If you choose to continue past that then you can say "Liyashisa," ("it's hot") in summer or "Makata," ("it's cold") in winter. To which the polite response is "Yebo, liyashisa kakhulu!" ("it sure is!") even if it's not particularly hot at all (or cold).

I have this conversation at least ten times every day. It is in fact offensive not to greet someone; I've gotten in trouble for it. Because I'm impatient, I often skip straight to "Unjani?" Less formal, but it does the job, and won't offend unless it's the chief or something.

...

It was slow in my community today, so slow; even slower than is usual, here, partly because of the holidays. At least it wasn't terribly hot. I took a nap in the late afternoon and woke up around 6.30, took my daily malaria prophylactic. I wanted to go for a walk, but in Peace Corps we're trained to be terrified of that kind of thing. Never go anywhere alone, unless you know the route well and there are lots of people. Never, ever go out after dark. I spend so much time sitting still; the Swazis say, "ukhuluphele" -- "you're doing well, you're getting fat." Not quite fat, and maybe they're exaggerating out of politeness (fat's a Good Thing), but I'm certainly too sedentary. I had to walk. It wasn't dark yet. And the community knows me pretty well, now, so how dangerous can it be to walk in a new direction from my homestead? Just for twenty minutes? As long as I'm back by dark?

The earth here is red -- deep red -- brick-red. The dirt roads are all red, practically glowing in contrast against the dusty yellow-green fields and scrubby small trees. My area is bounded in distant romantic cliffs and mountains. The wind was strong today; it wasn't even close to hot, by 6.45; my hair blew across my face and streamed behind me. I went in a direction a host sister once told me was dangerous. "The last Volunteer used to walk along that road, in the fields," she said. "But it's dangerous."
"How?" I asked.
She shrugged.
"What do you mean?" I persisted.
"I don't know, it's just dangerous," she said.
"So I shouldn't go there, then?" I asked. She shrugged again.
Conversations with Swazis often go like that.

At a crossroads I saw a boy with a wheelbarrow twenty feet away, accompanied by a small sisi (girl), and waved. He waved back, asked how I was.
"Ngiyaphila."
He shouted something I couldn't hear.
"Angiva," I shouted back. ("I don't understand.")
"You look like an angel," he cried. The girl was hopping on one foot, giggling.
"Ngiyabonga," I shouted. ("Thank you.")
"I love you!" he said, which is normal; at least this one didn't ask me to marry him.
"Ncesi," I called back. ("Sorry.")
The girl was in paroxysms of laughter.

I was reminded of another man who mistook me for an angel. I was reminded of the song "Nobody Needs to Know," from the musical The Last Five Years; a betrayal, that song -- dislikable lyrics, but the melody's so beautiful.

The fields are very empty along that road. That's probably why my host sister said it was dangerous -- there'd be no one to hear me scream. I passed three Swazis walking abreast. "Ninjani?"
"Siyaphila,"
they chorused.
One turned to watch me and asked, "Uyaphi?"
I smiled. "Just walking."
They laughed and shrugged me off.

Over a year ago I talked to one of my oldest friends, Ed, about whether I should come to Africa when the Peace Corps called -- that, or try to hold out for a region I actually wanted, like Asia. I already knew Africa was the place they intended to send me, and I knew it would be risky to hold out for someplace I really wanted, because PC disdains such preferences and judges applicants negatively for having them. I remember that I was drunk. I was on the edge of crying. Ed said, "I think you should go to Africa," and I said, "Why?"
He said, "Because I think Africa will make you a better person."

An orange-legged round insect the size of my palm darted into the road, dug, darted back into the bush. I passed one of the skeletal bushes with white wooden thorns several inches long and paused, touching the thorns, pushing my fingers gently against the points.

Singani sami -- my boyfriend -- Rob and I trade text messages every day. Last night, in one flurry, I noted how much I appreciate it that "I always feel sure that you listen to what I say & interpret charitably." He wrote back: "If I ever felt anyone deserved a charitable interpretation, it's you, a creature of love and madness, even desperation." And tears came to my eyes.

I'm falling in love. With the many-shaded red road, with the dusky mountains and white thorns. With slowness and ritual greetings and text messages thrown into the ether, like messages in tiny bottles. This love doesn't quite feel -- natural? It doesn't feel unavoidable; it doesn't feel like lightning or an avalanche or an inferno. I am not overwhelmed. I'm walking into it slowly.

I joked to all my friends before I left that within six months I'd either develop Stockholm Syndrome or go home. I've got it now; I'm falling in love; I have no choice. But I wouldn't have come here if I wanted a choice.

Comments

( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
foxfour
Dec. 29th, 2009 07:16 pm (UTC)
Africa gets hooks in one. I can't wait to go back and see more of Tanzania. I think I agree with Ed.
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )

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