By Tom Churchyard
I moved to Swaziland in 2010, making a deliberate disconnect from the quiet cloisters of Cambridge University and full of boyish enthusiasm for a country I had never visited and a culture I knew nothing about. The region did not disappoint my naive fantasies of the African wild, and in the last years I have survived closecalls with fire, flood, break-in, break-up and a brace of car accidents.
But hiking in South Africa last year, friends and I were suddenly introduced to the true extent of southern Africa’s dangers and I realized, as if I had never known it, that they are not those of Mother Nature. In the most unequal country on the planet, where the central banking district and slum roll into one another, where the education segregates as much as any law once did, and where the “rainbow nation’s” pot of gold is reserved for the few, it is hardly surprising that the most dangerous things in South Africa are men.
After a monster 23km hike, the final leg of three, we jumped into sleeping bags in our shared chalet with quiet anticipation of a straighteight.
About four hours later, halfway through the night, each of us woke to a balaclava- ed figure, the finger of one hand raised to the hole where their lips should have been and the other around the trigger of a gun. God knows how they got in.
Being a notoriously active dreamer, I rolled out of bed and the situation only really hit me when the floor did. Our hands and feet were tied behind our backs and my bootlaces bit into my wrists. Lying there, bound and blindfolded, my trousers around my ankles, my friends and I shared a moment of joint realization. This is it. Men like this don’t leave witnesses to later haunt them in courts of law.
Maybe it was my ego, naïveté, or the marvel that is the human mind’s capacity to block out unsavory experiences, but the next hour was spent, cheek to concrete, in hazy contemplation rather than blind panic. Occasionally my irrational meditation would be interrupted by a brief word from my captors as to the whereabouts of my car keys or the value of my iPod, but otherwise, in the confusion, I had time to think. Family and friends, my girlfriend, the guilt of having organized the trip all shoved and pushed for attention behind my closed eyes.
Eventually, and miraculously, after repeated shushing sounds made hastily into the dark, there was peace in our ransacked chalet. Only the faint sound of my little 1.3 litre Opel Corsa, struggling to life under the weight of five men and four people’s worldly possessions, confirmed they had, in fact, left us alive. Later, talking the experience through with a psychologist, I realized that there was not a single positive I could draw from the experience. Try as I might, there was nothing to learn, no new wideeyed appreciation of life, no epiphany. Life was good to me before and would continue to be so afterward. It was a void, a nothing; a desperate act, made by desperate men who lost life’s lottery and responded violently to the injustice and indifference of it all. And here’s the irony: everyone kept telling us how lucky we were. South Africa is the rape capital of the world, with over a third of men in its capital region Gauteng anonymously admitting to the crime.
Hijacking, armed robbery and subsequent murder are commonplace, and all who can afford it live behind bars and barriers and barbed wire.
Back in Swaziland, five months to the day from that awful attack, a man comes at me with a knife and a knowing smile on his face. I know this man though and he offers me the handle, not the point. He is here to give, not to take. Mduduzi Beethoven Dlamini, or MBD: writer, restaurateur and my friend is dressed traditionally, in Lihiya, and has invited me and some friends to his house to bestow upon me a Swazi name.
The knife, as I was shortly to discover, was to be used on his gift to me. Leading me by the hand, Mduduzi ushered us toward the corner of his garden where, tethered to a tree, lay a small, unsuspecting goat.
I knew what this meant. It meant slaughter: a great honor, a recognition of manhood and, for anyone who has grown up in a sterilized Western environment, a distant myth. Animals, for me, even with my culinary upbringing, were frozen and packaged and tasty. Or else fresh and served with chips, and tasty. Not hairy and smelly and breathing. Mduduzi was smiling as he measured my reaction. There was no malice in his face, just an enjoyment in sharing Swazi custom with a white Englishman, rather than the other way around.
Breathe. I told myself. Just breathe…The time was approaching. I’m the kind of person who reaches for a cup and a piece of paper when I see a spider in the house. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to do it and had visions of a half-dead, crying goat trotting after me around the small garden. Make it quick, do it right.
It didn’t make a sound and died in seconds with, I am now convinced, as close to dignity as any living thing may muster to such a fate. Afterward, having learned how to skin and gut the animal and having cleaned it, we lit fires and I took a knife to the pink carcass, cutting at the joints so that it could fit into the giant cast-iron pot that appeared for the meat. Goat, onions and stock bubbling away, Mduduzi and the assembly warmly but solemnly gave me the name Sibonelo Hlope and embraced me as bhuti lamncane, their little brother. And standing there to the smiles of well-wishers, rabbit-skin around my waist, rolling my new name over my tongue, I felt a little of the pride of being a strong, unapologetic African man.
With the justifiable focus of the last two decades on women’s education, employment and empowerment in the region, men are often left to ill-education, unemployment and social threat. In patriarchal societies such as these, where a majority of politicians, most of the school drop-outs and nearly all of the violent criminals are male, we cannot ignore them on the journey toward more equal communities and fairer societies. You can tell a woman not to allow herself to be abused, yet without educating the men, both as perpetrators and as lawmakers, abuse will continue.
This is the philosophy of Kwakha Indvodza, a male mentoring project that friends and I founded in 2012. Kwakha Indvodza which means “building a man” mentors over 80 youths from the Mahlanya and Mbuluzi areas of Swaziland, teaching them skills, positive attitude and the value of hard work and community service. The boys involved in the project and countless others in Swaziland all have begun their lives without regular interaction with a positive male role model. Swaziland has one of the youngest demographics in the world: nearly 60 percent of the population are under 25 and the median age is just 20. One in 10 children has lost both parents and one in three lives without a male. The parenting generation, particularly fathers, who should be there to guide these young men, are lost to us or struggling under the sheer weight of responsibility.
Kwakha Indvodza offers a positive “third space” away from the home and the school where, every week, these young men meet several of our wide variety of volunteer male mentors, who give their time and energy to promoting positive masculinity. We paint schools and organize Community Fun Days; we teach about drink and drugs, sexual health and basic first aid; we cook for the needy. Kwakha Indvodza, Swaziland’s only male mentoring project, has been running nearly two years now and the results have been extraordinary. Male mentoring, complementing the focus on the girl-child, presents a whole new, unexplored avenue of community development. Our boys pursue the Renaissance man’s values of respect, dignity and honor and no longer see themselves as having lost any lottery.
“Our culture is powerful, but it needs to be dragged out from under the rock and polished,” says Dolores, a venerable, bombastic Swazi woman and perhaps my future godmother-in-law. This is no truer than with African masculinity and the masculine ideal, which is increasingly challenging to define in any society. Our views on gender and gender expectations, along with race, have formed one of the biggest and most defining social shifts in the last 50 years of global progress. However, these prejudices are ones with which most cultures still battle. Southern Africa has been the frontline of one of these conflicts in the past. It has been 20 years since the fall of Apartheid, but this part of the world may once again become the vanguard in this century’s fight for understanding and equality. Here, in a country whose national newspaper claims to have identified only “324 gay men” among its 1.2 million people, we need to readdress our own visions and expectations of masculinity and allow the traditional to be challenged, as well as revered, to be questioned and yet respected. Only then will we stop giving out losing lottery tickets to violent boys and asking them to become good men. Only then will tomorrow’s girl (and boy) child be truly empowered.
Tom Churchyard (MPhil, Cantab.) is a teacher, writer and the founding director of Kwakha Indvodza, an innovative male mentoring organization based in Swaziland. He also is a director of Young Heroes, an HIV relief charity feeding more than 1200 orphans, and the manager of the popular bands Qibho and Sands. In his spare time he reads, writes and coaches a rugby team. He lives with his girlfriend in a small cottage on a river in Swaziland. More information on Kwakha Indvodza can be found at www.kwakhaindvodza.com or contact firstname.lastname@example.org. To reach Tom, write email@example.com.