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Fruit stalls in Ezulwini Valley

We’d had a long day’s driving yesterday and both felt in need of a bit of a lie in. I was engrossed in my book (Labyrinth by Kate Mosse) and reached that tantalising stage where I couldn’t put it down until I had finished it, but regretted it coming to an end! Having had a lie in we were late for breakfast and I think the last ones in. At a table in the corner a couple of other chaps sat eating but they were soon joined by a (British?) couple.

They seemed to be connected in some way for work but we couldn’t really work out how and why. The man promptly got out a couple of sheets of A4 paper and started giving the other guys a really tough time. Complaint number one was that they had been booked into a hotel where work was going on. Having queried whether the other guys had ever actually seen that hotel he then went on to say “I wouldn’t even send my servant there”. That really set the tone of the conversation and when we left about half an hour later he was still going strong. It’s a long time since I’ve heard such pompous arrogance and I doubt very much that the problems, whatever they were, will have been resolved by his attitude.

Reception had provided us with a local what’s on style paper which seems to promote every hotel, restaurant and tourist site in Swaziland. It had a useful map in the middle of the Ezulwini Valley which we have come to explore. They told us that at 11:15am there was a Swazi dance performance at the cultural village so we probably had time to see a “sight” before then. We drove up to the main road through the valley and went to take a look at the roadside craft stalls. Having passed quite a few already yesterday we knew pretty much what to expect so we just drove past in the car to see if there was something different. There wasn’t.

From here we carried on down the valley towards the Baobab Batik factory and shop. Time was short so we doubled back before we got there, knowing that we could come back this afternoon, and headed for the Swazi cultural village. On the way we stopped at the local fruit market housed in a brick building on the side of the road. I don’t think many tourists stop here because as soon as we pulled up three of four men appeared laden with different types of fruit trying to get our money. We hopped out and had a wander around, buying the most juicy and sweet pineapple I can remember eating, as well as grapes and oranges. For the first time in quite a while we came across people here who were shy of having their photo taken.

The Swazi cultural village was designed as a tourism site but it is an accurate representation of a typical Swazi village. To pass the entry to the village you have to shout “Ekaya, enkosi” very loudly to announce your presence. Someone from the village then comes to greet you. Our guide, Albert, told us that people did live here but there were not really any signs that it was an active village. We had made it in time for the dance show. There were only five other people watching it this morning and I am sure that in other countries they would have cancelled the show. As with the village it has been created totally for a tourist experience, giving some of the background to Swazi culture and weaving a short storyline through the dances. The dances themselves though looked as if they were still true traditional styles and methods.

In total there were 22 people involved in the performance, with a couple of narrators who explained what was happening as we went along. The “theatre” was an open air circle, designed to look like a traditional enclosure. The “stage” was just the dirt floor and the dancers were all barefoot. They came onto the stage in a single file procession singing as they danced. The sound they made was incredible, filling the space around them and resonating off the trees and the walls of the “theatre”. It wasn’t so much that the sound was loud but more that it had a density behind it. The songs seemed to reverberate around them and rumbled up from inside them almost as if each person was a separate speaker in a good quality stereo system.

The songs weren’t just words though. Throughout different noises and sounds came through which I think mirrored and echoed the sounds of birds and wildlife that were central to the life of the Swazi people. Regrettably, I forgot to check that theory before we left the village. The dances were fun to watch with great displays of agility and fabulous facial expressions. The storyline was one of boy saves girl from a lion and they fall in love. Someone makes false accusations about them and the village witchdoctor is called upon to decide their fate. He declares them innocent, sentences the false accuser to death by being thrown off the hillside but the girl shows mercy and saves his life. In the end they have a big wedding ceremony and I suppose lived happily ever after.

If you go to see the show be prepared to be an active visitor. When they are dancing at the wedding ceremony we were all gently coerced into taking part with the performers quietly explaining to us what steps to take. At the end of the show we also had to join in with a “conga” style dance. It was done in such a polite way that everyone joined in and another member of the team took photos for us all.

After the performance we were given a tour of the village. This too was an interactive experience with Albert decreeing that Stef was the grandfather, another lady the grandmother, me and an Aussie lady were first and second wife respectively and a Scottish chap was the eldest son, our husband. As the eldest in the village the grandparents weren’t expected to do anything for themselves including carrying our luggage. On bended knees and with eyes lowered the Aussie girl and I, in our role of wives, had to take the grandparents luggage from them and carry it for the duration of the tour.

The village is enclosed within a large circular fence made of tree trunks. Inside there are quite a few round huts, some of which also had their own protective walls. Young girls and boys led separate lives with the boys in one house well inside the compound while the girl’s house was right next to the compound entrance. The theory is that anyone coming to the village meaning harm would see the girls first and become besotted with them. If that didn’t work, the screams and shouts of the girls would alert the men inside that trouble was at hand.

Each of the houses were made of tree branches and thatched with grass. Inside you could see the frame structure that was used. Instead of it being walls with a separate roof on top the frame ran from the floor and domed round the hut in arch formation so that it was a single structure inside, a bit like a wooden igloo. The construction is very clever and is deigned to provide maximum protection to the people inside. A spear can penetrate from inside to out to kill an invader but someone on the outside cannot get a spear through to the inside. There is a very low hole for a doorway and a separate piece of “woven” wood that is used for a door. This allows those inside to see out but those outside cannot see in. Very clever stuff.

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At the Swazi cultural village

There seemed to be separate houses for the grandfather, grandmother, eldest son, youngest son (the middle sons married and started up their own new villages), the boys and the girls. Each house had two kitchens – one for cooking food and one for brewing alcohol, a type of beer made from fruit. Certain areas were out of bounds to men and others were out of bounds to the women of the village. Skills and stories were passed down through the generations but the society was very male dominated. A dead cows head could only be cooked and eaten by the boys as eating the brains might make the girls too clever!

As grandfather of the village, Stef had the privilege of being dressed up in traditional Swazi garb first. He looked quite happy in his new outfit but I think we would have trouble getting the sword and shield back through customs. His “wife” also had to pose with him for photos and, as Stef was not to do anything for himself, she also had to button up his shirt when he got back into his own clothes. It was quite funny to watch!

After touring the village we walked on to the Mantenga falls a short way along the road. Another one of the “brothers” from the village, Charles, kept us company in his official role as a tourism guide. The falls are small compared to other ones we have seen but they are the widest in Swaziland, the tallest are higher up in the mountains. Once quite a torrent crashed over the falls but Charles explained that a new dam has now limited the water tumbling over them. Even so they are majestic and beautiful to look at.

We spent a while there enjoying the view before Charles took us back to the village, this time leading us through the woods rather than along the road. On the way he and Stef chatted about how the cultural and political life in Swaziland is changing with the role of the monarchy coming under increasing scrutiny and challenge, just as it is in many other countries. Along the way we passed the tented chalets that you can hire here. They looked pretty cosy with their own ensuite, open air bathrooms and a balcony to sit and enjoy the view.

Back at the village we stopped at the restaurant for a drink and a bit of monkey watching before carrying on. We made our way to the Swaziland National Museum which was very small but an interesting place to go and see. The first two rooms are devoted to old black and white photos, mainly of the previous king and his mother. Some dated back to the 1890’s and there was a mix of photos of the king in traditional dress and in Western dress. He looked very uncomfortable in top hat and starched white collar but totally at ease in his full tribal regalia.

I haven’t yet read the history section to find out about Swaziland’s past and was surprised to see that it was yet another British colony. Many of the photos were based around the independence ceremonies, an event that took place in the 1960’s. The lack of photos about the current king left me with a distinct impression that the last one was warmly liked and loved and that his successor has not won over the hearts of his people.

There were some small displays explaining about the Swazi dress, jewellery and way of life and another small national history exhibition with some stuffed animals and a few information panels. The museum was rounded off with a final room housing the King’s cars. There were two Cadillac’s and another car the type of which I have never heard of before (and can’t remember). They were all looking rather sorry for themselves, being slightly worse for wear, but they must have made quite a statement with the King driving around in them.

We did a quick stop at the SwaziPost for some stamps before making out way to the Baobab Batik factory. We had expected to find it in a Baobab farm but none of these magnificent trees were in sight. We had a quick demonstration of the batik process and of how they use wax to trace onto a piece of cotton the required pattern and then die the material. The die only holds on the unwaxed sections. The more colours involved in the final design the more complex it is and the longer it takes. We had a look in the attached shop fully expecting to come away with something. Most of it was not really to our taste but we did find a tablecloth that came close. The price tag was hefty though so we parted without buying anything.

By the hotel there is another craft centre set up in two parallel rows of tin roofed buildings. The central aisle is almost designed to resemble a village street. We ambled up and down the shops but again came away empty handed, apart from some postcards and a Namibia flag patch. We were back in our room by around 4:30 and spent the next hour or so making the most of the view we had paid extra to enjoy. It is a very tranquil spot and, apart from a couple of kids who briefly braved the pool, all you can hear is the rustle of leaves and the calling of birds and monkeys.