HIV & AIDS: What I learned While Living in Swaziland (Eswatini)
The Swazi people are resilient in the face of death.
Photo credit: Ian Macharia
In 2011 my curiosity led me to volunteer at a non-profit organization that focused on educating and eradicating HIV/AIDS in Swaziland.
At the time, Swaziland had the highest HIV/AIDS rate in the world. To this day the country has the highest HIV rate among adults aged 15 - 49 years (at 27.1%).
Although my time there was short-lived (just 3 months), I learned a LOT about the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the beautiful Swazi culture and what it was like to live under an absolute monarchy.
Most of all, I witnessed first-hand the resilience of the Swazi people in the face of death.
***Swaziland is now called “Eswatini”, or officially “the Kingdom of Eswatini”. Although it’s a different name now, and likely a bit somewhat of a different country too, I will still refer to it as Swaziland because that’s how I experienced it.
Living in Swaziland with My Host Mother
I arrived at Mbabane (the capital) on a Friday. I spent that weekend at a lodge with six other students from the University of British Columbia (UBC). For two days, we got to know each other, learn about Swaziland and go horse-back riding for five hours.
…Ooohhh!! And how can I forget the INFAMOUS hike.
We got stuck in the dark on our way down the hike. Because there were hippopotamus roaming the area, a few guides came searching for us with flashlights and guns (just in case we ran into a hippo) and walked us back to the lodge.
As it turns out, hippos are the most dangerous animal as they cause the most deaths in Africa - after mosquitoes. Who knew!? Definitely not me.
After Mbabane, a student who I shall name Vera, and myself headed to Siteki where we would spend the rest of our three months.
That’s when I met my host mother. We called her “Make” (pronounced mag-hé) meaning mother in Siswati.
Make was FULL of love. She was bright, fun and selfless. She was the kindest woman I knew.
In her 42 years of living, she’d out-survived her three husbands who’d died from HIV/AIDs and cancer. She had an adult daughter and a teenage son. She worked at a retail shop but dreamt of becoming a female pastor.
She was COOL.
For three months, she was my safe haven. My go-to when I had a rough day, when I was homesick or didn’t know how to maneuver my way in this world.
I’ll never forget the day she came home excited to announce my new name.
“I will call you, Dumsile. You will do big things and one day you will be praised. Ah yes! Dumsile!”
Every night, Make and I spent hours talking while cooking in the dark. Trying to reconcile between my privileged world in Canada, her world at the brink of collapse here in Swaziland and what it meant to be a woman of faith and love.
The Devastating HIV/AIDS Epidemic in Swaziland
The goal of my trip was to learn about the HIV/AIDS epidemic and to help where needed (without imposing on my ideas of “helping.”)
Vera and I volunteered with the Swaziland National Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS (SWANNEPHA). Sadly, I am not sure the NGO is still around.
Together, Vera and I:
Picked up blood samples from various villages and drove them to the main hospital so they could be tested for HIV/AIDS. (At times we passed through local safari parks!)
Visited pre-schools for vulnerable and orphaned children by HIV/AIDS. The children were the happiest and most liveliest children I have ever seen.
Attended training sessions for sex violence and trafficking. Swaziland has a large vulnerable, marginalized and neglected population. They needed the support and resources to live with and manage HIV/AIDS.
While I was there, there was a short supply of HIV/AIDS medication (known as antiretroviral drugs; ARV for short). Not only that, but a person must eat food while taking their ARVs.
But, the poverty level in Swaziland is so high that some people, unable to afford food, were eating cow poop just to be able to take medication.
I honestly could not believe that a human being could be so degraded.
Having done an internship with the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) months before, I decided to take Vera and myself back to the capital, meet with the WFP team and let them know why they should partner up with SWANNEPHA.
“The Swazi people need food AND medicine. You should partner up. The two organizations working separately will achieve nothing of significance.”
At 21 years of age, I had some major balls…
Lucky for everyone, WFP and SWANNEPHA (with Vera and I) began discussing partnership opportunities. Sadly, I’m not sure if the relationship lasted after we left.
Living Under an Absolute Monarchy
Swaziland is a kingdom ruled by King Mswati III. Since 1986, he’s been known for his corruption and self-indulgence habits.
Like having a net worth of $100 million and trusteeship of a $10 billion fund in a country where over 70% of the population live on less than one dollar a day. Truly king-like.
In 2011, the Swazi government ordered a 10% cut in the salaries of civil servants while at the same time approving a larger annual allowance for the King – from $24 million to $30 million.
Here’s the thing: talking about such issues would be difficult to do. Journalists know very well the dangers of speaking out against the royal family. They know they could be kidnapped, face violence and harassment for practicing their freedom of speech.
The Swazi know they cannot simply replace their governments or overthrow the monarch.
In September 2008 parliamentary elections were held, the first since the constitution went into effect in 2006; the king appointed a government in October 2008. International observers concluded the elections did not meet international standards. Political parties were not allowed to register or sponsor candidates of their choice. Ballots were cast in secrecy but could be traced by registration number to voters; some ballot boxes were not properly protected. Accusations of bribery were reported. There were widespread reports that citizens were advised if they did not register to vote, they would no longer receive government services. (source)
At the time, the king was also the commander in chief of the Umbutfo Swaziland Defense Force (USDF). What that meant is that he held the position of Minister of Defense, and was the commander of the police and Correctional Services.
Think about that. A king with absolute authority also in charge of the police. How fucking dangerous.
Now, if I’m going to add more fire to the fuel and talk about how terrible the police can be, then I will share the story of an 18-year old, pregnant girl.
The police beat her after her father brought her in believing she’d previously had an abortion.
According to the girl, she was interviewed by the Center for Human Rights and Development, a Swazi nongovernmental organization (NGO). She was forced to get naked in front of a male police officer. And then two officers assaulted her with a knife. One police officer sat on her stomach and the other covered her face with a plastic bag.
Women continue to suffer and die from the actions of malicious monsters in power. Particularly, in a country plagued with three main human rights abuses like:
the use of excessive police force (torture, beatings)
the collapse of the judiciary system
abuse against women and children
As hard as this is to read, it is important for me to bring these atrocities to life. Because if they’re not front and centre, then they remain hidden in the shadows and the perpetrators can continue to commit their crimes.
One Final Word
I attended a march that was protesting the shortage of ARVs alongside support group members. The march was nothing like I’d ever seen…
Siteki residents walked to the outside of government offices with signs while singing, dancing and praying.
Sure, you could take their medication from them and their opportunities to survive, but you could not take their spirit of resilience and faith away from them. That’s what made the Swazi people a remarkable and unbreakable group of people.
That gave me hope.
… Because I was struggling to reconcile meeting orphaned children, girls who were sexually exploited and the devastating of HIV/AIDS epidemic with the fact that a King was benefitting and getting wealthy amongst such extreme poverty.
To this day, I still struggle to make sense of all this but thank my lucky stars for the invention of bitcoin.
Bitcoin would allow the Swazi people to own their money and buy the ARVs without the permission of their almighty King.
They could buy bitcoin as a “fuck you” to a king who has expropriated some much of the nation’s wealth and done more harm than good to the Swazi people.
"Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come." Victor Hugo