Summer Stories-Esther Hsu, Swaziland

“But what is a gooseberry?” A few short weeks earlier I had resorted to old faithful Wikipedia and Google Images before embarking on a mission to build a viable business plan around these little orange berries. Now, our pilot group of rural Swazi farmers, having already committed their precious land to the berries, pondered the same question. Despite having little information about the crop, Thabitha, Caiphus, Nora, and Sibongile, the leaders of our farmers’ group, had already rallied their communities’ best farmers to take part in Swaziland’s entry into the gooseberry export market. As a horticulture consultant for TechnoServe, a U.S.-funded and headquartered NGO, I pulled together a business plan and financials in preparation for raising funds and launching the gooseberries. But more than the figures and projections, I will remember the visits to homesteads in the Swazi bush. Here I met the farmers that would benefit from the gooseberries, and their faces and families brought to life for me the multitude of challenges facing Swaziland.

TechnoServe Swaziland (TNS) seeks to identify sustainable business solutions to rural poverty. At this moment the office is investing resources in building such markets as chili peppers, vegetables, honey, and goats and in developing local entrepreneurs through the national business plan competition, handicrafts, and educational programs for school age youth. The mandate for the Swazi office is to develop solutions that will serve the nation long after TNS’ charter is through. There are countless barriers to achieving this type of idealistic success. On a daily basis, TNS must scour the tiny nation for talent and leadership, for resources to fund potential projects, and ideas worthy of development. On the plus side, I believe in TNS’ model of viewing development through a business lens. Besides highlighting sustainability, this approach attracts individuals striving for the type of progress that complements the aid that arrives in the form of charitable donations. Located in the same building that houses all the foreign aid organizations, our small office was a cornucopia of cultures- I worked with native Swazis and Americans, shared an office with a German and reported to a Zimbabwean supervisor. Despite diverse working styles and experiences, most of the office shared the sense of humor and flexibility that are necessary when working in Africa.

Swaziland is a land of contrasts. Its capital city, Mbabane, is a manicured, modern metropolis with a supermarket better stocked than any in New York City, two shopping malls, Kentucky Fried Chicken and a health club among other amenities. During my winter stay, it was an idyllic 75 degrees and sunny every day with few exceptions. Swaziland is far safer than its neighboring countries. The roads are perfectly paved, and not just by African standards. But these luxurious roads swiftly lead to villages and homesteads where Swaziland’s many challenges are painfully evident. The New Jersey-sized kingdom currently boasts the world’s highest HIV incidence (officially 43%), the lowest life expectancy (31 years) and the highest percentage of orphaned children (~10% of the population). Due to income disparity, 70% of the country lives on less than US$1 per day yet the overall GDP per capita is one of the highest in Africa. There is a Parliament but the King rules with absolute power, boasting 14 wives, multiple royal residences and a private jet. In my last days in Swaziland, hundreds of Swazi women staged a march to protest the royal family’s extravagant spending on international travel. At the same time, the government also poured millions into preparations for the legendary 40-40 celebration. To be held this September, the 40-40 will be a landmark holiday for Swaziland, signifying the King’s 40th birthday and also 40 years of Swaziland’s independence. Juxtaposed with the nation’s poverty and shortage of ARV drugs to treat HIV, the purchase of fleets of BMWs for these festivities seems rather incongruous. But despite its shortcomings and criticisms, the monarchy is the root of Swazi culture and has been able to sustain Swaziland as arguably the most secure of the Southern African nations.

My life in Swaziland can be described as regular, comfortable, and carefree. In all honesty, I had prepared myself for quite the opposite- roughing it in Africa, my guard up constantly, and ready for unexpected difficulties. Instead, I had the comforts of housing set up by TechnoServe, camaraderie with other volunteers, and the luxury of traveling throughout Southern Africa. While I did spend time in the field and saw the challenges of development in Swaziland, my gooseberries project was straightforward and smoother to execute than many others. Although frustrated by the government offices’ inefficiency in reporting data I needed for a crop insurance study, they eventually did come through with a little extra urging. In comparison with security risks and limited amenities in other neighboring countries, Swaziland’s quality of life far exceeded expectations.

The contrast of this life with Swaziland’s actual reality caused me to constantly reexamine my perspective, struggling to grasp the gravity of the nation’s situation. On a daily basis, I lived quietly in Mbabane, went to work like the rest of my classmates, and spent time with new friends. But underlying this peace was the troubled reality of Swaziland, and I struggled to reconcile the two. In an attempt to sort through the chaos, I had to learn from the residents of Swaziland, native and expatriate alike. I met diplomats, Big Pharma-sponsored HIV doctors, various aid and development volunteers, colleagues at TechnoServe, caretakers of orphans, farmers, Peace Corps volunteers past and present, and teachers at rural schools. By cobbling together their views and my interpretations, I constructed a patchwork of impressions that mark both victories and tragedies of human spirit here in this landlocked kingdom. This patchwork stretches over the jagged mountains, winter deserts, lush river valleys and the Swazi people- all sewn together with hope for a brighter future. Perhaps hope incarnate in handfuls of fresh gooseberries.

Now that I have left the African continent, I miss the easygoing Swazi style, fresh avocados, calling traffic lights “robots”, speaking my bits of siSwati, weekend adventures, and moments where the people of Swaziland showed me kindness, welcome, and understanding. I went to Africa to learn and I now have some understanding of how development works in this region. It was a privilege to spend my summer in Swaziland and I will always be rooting for this tiny nation, hoping to see it progress in building a solid foundation for a healthy future.

September 2, 2008
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