Sunday, 4 August 2013

Tourists & Missionaries

Here are two little stories.

Homestead above the Nkomati Valley
Some time ago I was an observer at a community meeting. I was the only mulungu there, sitting at the rear of the meeting with a staff member whispering translations in my ear. The details of the meeting are not material, nor the reason for me being there, but suffice to say my entirely passive presence was accepted and deemed to be necessary.

This was an important gathering, held at the edge of the grounds of a rural school set high in the mountains commanding views across the deep Nkomati Valley in the Swaziland high/middle veldt towards the distant blue mountains surrounding Piggs Peak. Like many such meetings the participants were spread around, sitting on the flattened grass and sheltering where possible from the relentless sun under the inadequate shade of the few stunted high veldt acacia trees; traditionally men to one side and the women to the other. Matters of great import were being discussed and recorded, and as I have observed before and since at similar gatherings, everyone had the opportunity of a polite and respectful hearing.

Some way into the meeting I became aware of a minibus edging its way along the rural track and drawing up a little way away from the meeting area. From this vehicle issued forth a dozen or so tourists sporting white and cherry red limbs protruding from safari khaki shorts and many pocketed waist-coats, liberally slung about with expensive camera equipment and topped to a man and a woman with floppy safari hats with “Kruger Park” emblazoned on them.

Some of the visitors floated around the periphery of the gathering taking photographs of the scenery – both topographic and social. Some even strayed into the seated crowd of community members seemingly oblivious of the geography of this gathering of people. Ever courteous, senior members of the gathering rose to their feet and politely greeted the newcomers. After perhaps ten or fifteen minutes of pleasantries and further photographs (portraits and scenes) the intruders retreated to their vehicle and the meeting proceedings re-commenced as the mini-bus lurched down the dusty and potholed rural road.

The second story also occurs in a generic rural setting.  

Another homestead in the Nkomati Valley
On each rural homestead significant areas of land are under cultivation (on average about 1.4ha per homestead according to a study we did in the Nkomati Valley) with a mix of maize (which is the staple), cabbage, groundnuts, sweet potatoes, cassava, rarely sorghum, various other commonly recognised vegetables produce, and in more secluded areas, dagga (yes - cannabis sativa! - or weed if you prefer). Surplus produce is hawked at the side of the road, or in town, or is sold into the formal market mechanism run by the National Agricultural Marketing Board (Namboard).

Cattle are pastured on open commonage, chickens scratch for food around the homestead yard area and goats graze and browse in the vicinity. Interestingly pigs are a rarity. Cows are a vitally important store of wealth and are used for Lobola (bride price) and other exchanges, and for slaughter in celebration of special events. Surplus beasts are sold at formal auctions.

A very well ordered homestead showing the extent of cultivation
Not so long ago there descended into this setting a group of missionaries whose avowed intent was to teach the rural Swazi’s how to plant and manage vegetable gardens. These were folk who were I assume moved by some thought or spiritual impetus to temporarily up-sticks from their comfortable western existence and move to Swaziland for a short period of time to, yes, to teach rural Swazi’s how to plant and manage vegetable gardens. This endeavour took place in an agrarian economy where 70% or so of the population is rural and engaged in animal husbandry and the production of food-stuffs at a subsistence level.

I still remain open mouthed at the memory of the event at the community meeting; for two reasons.
Firstly I am aghast at the sheer bare faced intrusion of foreigners into a community forum. For that there can be no excuse. Did the tourists not think that a group of 70 or so folk gathered together in the veldt are not there for some private and meaningful reason? Did they think that the gathering was being held for their benefit and perhaps they left hugely disappointed that there was no impromptu show of sibhaca or gumboot dancing, or perhaps a rousing choiristic rendition of a Michael Jackson number?  Or worse – as I think is the case – did they did not even see the folk on the ground as sentient beings.

Hand operated maize mill
Secondly I remain astonished by the equanimity and tolerance of the people at the meeting when faced with what I would regard, do regard as being a most intolerable intrusion.

With regards to the second story, at the time I felt that it does not take much insight to be able to observe something fundamentally wrong about a bunch of foreigners intent on imparting knowledge on market gardening descending on an environment that is redolent with generations of farming and local environmental experience. This I felt could not even be characterised as misdirected well intentioned efforts. It was paternalism at its worst and at its most crass. And once again I found my jaw dropping at the patience, tolerance and ineffable politeness of rural Swazi folk in the face of such intrusion.

You may care to indulge in a little bit of cultural readjustment and re-frame both premises –
Imagine if you will that you are sitting in your favourite pub, bar, cafe, restaurant or community hall watching an important nail biting national soccer final when the door bangs open and in troop a small but noisy group of Swazi warriors clad in traditional dress and brandishing “cultural” weapons. They interrupt the sport for between ten to fifteen minutes by performing various well rehearsed warrior dance moves and then depart leaving behind only the heady smell of sweat and wood-smoke. Bemused, amused, angered perhaps, you return home after the match only to find a small group of smiling ululating Swazi women who are there, at the express invitation of your local priest, to show you how to use your washing machine, how to iron your socks, and how to cook your Sunday Roast (with Yorkshire Puddings).

Yet another homestead set against the kopje behind

Now I would hate for this to be taken as an anecdotal illustration of foreign crassness measured against noble native tolerance; that would be too twee by half! That would be to assign some ridiculous level of cultural symmetry and typecasting.  

In a way however I wish it were that simple, a laughable clash of misunderstanding and cultural disjuncture. But it is not, and it is far more serious – and I believe that my simple anecdotes illustrate scenarios where the potential damage is grave and long lasting . . . . .

Well I thinks it's all pretty funny . . . . . .
 . . . . and there is more discussion on this to follow!


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