Meeting the locals - Swaziland

Posted on: Thursday, July 11, 2013
Blog Category: Culture & Society

By Marinda Louw, Elefant Tours

Road signs in Swaziland?
Not much to say. There are no road signs in Swaziland.
Turn right at the large chicken.
Take a left at the petrol station on the hill.

Ask and you shall findeth the way. We asked and we driveth. We did not get lost.

The Swazi people are big on crafts. And keen participants as well. They make reed mats and braid intricate edges with coloured grass onto clay pots. They blow glass, make candles and cell phone stands with wax and paint wooden animals. They carve jacaranda wood into figures, weave cotton and wool yarns and create intricate batik fabrics. Soaps are boiled and cooked and shaped into exquisite bricks with warnings printed on the labels: Do Not Eat. Natural oils and glycerine and delicate perfumes permeates the skin and mind.

Swazis make clothes of bright stiff shweshwe fabric. The cloth softens and moulds on the body and becomes smooth and pliable with wearing. They weave grocery baskets with plastic ribbons and build perfectly round grass nests for little nesting birds to lay their eggs. What bird? No-one could explain for which bird these ball-shaped nests are intended but, “she is not a chicken.”

The locals’ market in Manzini is a hive of activity, buzzing craftsmen and traders are organised as per their craft. In small rooms, the size of single garages seamstresses are at work, their laughter rising over the buzzing of the hand or electric sewing machines. Ready-made clothes hang on railings outside. In a section further on, a couple of girls are folding, weaving and knotting long strips of stiff plastic. A half-made blue and white basket lies on the floor, its loose ends like the feathers of an exploded plastic chicken.

Small woven mats and baskets hang brightly from the frame of their stall.
Upstairs on an open platform, the curio traders sell their wares. One woman is trying to explain the origin of a selection of loin cloths. ‘Jackal, daasie.’ I see leopard as well. The small furry pelts hanging on display are apparently worn on traditional days.

A man wearing a springbok skin walks past carrying his shopping in a Checkers bag. He is adorned with beaded necklaces. He stops to look at carved key rings.

Nooooooooo I am not pretty, don’t take my picture, protests an elderly woman as she sits on the cement floor. Ice cream containers surrounding her are filled with tiny beads of different colours. As she continues threading them onto a needle, onto a string she looks on the camera at the photo I have just taken. OK, she confirms with a huge grin, yes it is me.

Around the corner, cobblers are hammering, tearing and plying away at leather, mending and making shoes while a small radio squeezes gospel music through the leathery air of skin and rubber. The cloth ladies are nearby. Chattering like colourful birds in colourful cages, women are folding sheets of fabric while some lounge on top of their wares, offering advice to passing clients.
King Mswati III’s black and white face printed on red cotton hangs limp in the hot air. A woman bites into a piece of chicken, puts the rest down in the foamalite take-away container on top of a stack of materials and carries on chewing and explaining loudly to her neighbour in the opposite stall. A client runs her hand over fabric, stroking designs, unfolding some.
You like this one sisi? A huge woman whips open a turquoise and brown design and lets it billow towards me like a large sail.
I do like it.

I like the stifling heat, the bright colourful sun and the heaps of seeds, herbs and spices.
I like wooden bangles and plastic mats knitted with recycled plastic bags. I like fabric and key rings and beaded chokers. I like the madness of colour and textures and the deafening traffic. I like the waxy sticky handmade candles and the smell of white curls of wood as a new sculpture takes shape from a piece of jacaranda tree.

In Swaziland, I like.

Blog by Marinda Louw, Elefant Tours

Elefant-Tours speak Afrikaans, English, German and French and do private and group safaris and self-drive trips through SA and neighbouring countries.

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