The Toilet Paper Affair by pengxiang


									                         The Toilet Paper Affair

                             By Emmay Mah
                            (Canadian, age 25)

      Swaziland is picturesque, even from the air. As we descended in the
miniature, 3-seat-wide plane, I felt the emerald green mountains reaching
towards me, drawing me into the tiny kingdom. Even after traveling for 48
hours, I was anxious to immerse myself in all things Swazi, land, language
and culture.

       The Swazi people are proud of their cultural traditions, and have
earned the right to be, after centuries of surviving dominant forces from
South Africa, which surrounds them on all sides, except for a small border
shared with Mozambique. This, and many other things about Swaziland,
intrigued me, and I was enthusiastic about the work placement I was about
to undertake there. I had come to work for the local association of an
international NGO, which cares for orphaned and abandoned children in

       My first, and most memorable, encounter with “real” Swazi culture
came only a week after I arrived. At the time, the whole country was
buzzing with the news that his royal majesty, King Mswati III of Swaziland,
was about to announce the name of the new Prime Minister, as is customary
in the Swazi government. Now anyone who has heard of Swaziland has
probably heard of its notorious king, who has upheld the tradition of
polygamous marriage with flying colours. Last time I checked, his wives
numbered an even dozen. Anyway, the King had summoned his subjects (all
Swazies) to the Royal Crawl in the Valley of the Kings, Ezulwini Valley, to
hear the announcement.

        When I asked one of my colleagues about this event on the morning it
was supposed to take place, his eyes lit up. “This would be a great
opportunity for you to see the place,” he said. Although he had not intended
to go initially, he quickly arranged a vehicle for us to travel to Ezulwini.
Within a few moments we drove off, accompanied by one of the “mothers”
in our organization, an older lady who is employed as a caregiver to look
after the children that our organization supports.
        Along the way, we saw many people all making their way to
Ezulwini; the government had provided free transport for the occasion.
Eludizini, Royal Crawl area, is a large open space surrounded by dramatic
mountain landscape. As we arrived it was filling with thousands of people,
many of whom were dressed in traditional costume. We parked the vehicle
with the others on the grass outside of the official area. As we stepped out of
the vehicle, I had the sense that something was making the mother somewhat
uneasy. I realized then that I had forgotten to change out my pants and wear
a skirt, which is usually required of Swazi women at official functions.
Regardless of whether or not I approved of the tradition, I berated myself
silently, as I pride myself in being culturally observant. I voiced my
concerns to my companions, and my male colleague shrugged, “They
probably won’t trouble you about it, since you’re a foreigner.” The mother
looked less convinced. She held up the turquoise-and-purple checkered
tablecloth she had brought to sit on. “You can use this,” she suggested. She
proceeded to wrap it around my waist and tuck it into the top of my pants --
it looked like I was wearing sarong.

       Walking toward the entrance area I felt a bit self-conscious about
being clothed in a tablec loth, but many of the other women also had cloth
wrappers around their waists, so I figured I would not attract too much
attention. We went through two security checkpoints and a metal detector, at
which point the men and the women were separated to go through two
different entrances. We said “so long” to our male colleague and headed
towards the entrance of the enclosure where the announcement would be
delivered. The area was perfectly flat and the enclosure had been built with a
circular wall of young tree branches and trunks that were wedged firmly into
the ground.

       We lined up at the entrance with all the other women, who were being
checked by policewomen. Just as we were about to go inside, I was stopped
by a policewoman who said something to me in SiSwati. The mother
translated, “She’s asking if you are a Swazi.” The mother replied that I
wasn’t and then policewoman spoke to me, sternly, in English: “Don’t you
know that you need to cover your hair!” I looked around me, all the older
women were wearing hats or headscarves and the younger women had
strings of beads or just plane string tied across their foreheads. “Great,” I
thought, “why didn’t anyone mention this before we left?” I fumbled
through my bag looking for something to cover my head, although I already
knew I had nothing of the sort. The policewoman began to feel sorry for me.
“Anything,” she said, “even a handkerchief.” I shook my head; I was starting
to feel bad about holding up the line. By that time, the women around me
realized what the problem was but no one offered any assistance. Finally,
one woman reached into her bag and pulled out a role of toilet paper and
offered it to me. I was a bit baffled. The mother said “Here wrap this around
your head.” She doubled the toilet paper and held it out to me in a long strip.
Feeling completely ridiculous, I wrapped it around my forehead and tied it at
the back of my head. As we entered, the irony was not lost on me that here I
was wearing toilet paper on my head and a tablecloth around my waist, in
order to respect Swazi custom and honour the King!

       Just to make me feel more self-conscious, I discovered I was the only
foreigner in the sea of people, as far as the eye could see. All the foreign
dignitaries were way at the front of the crowd; so far away we couldn’t even
see them. The most pleasant surprise of the day was that no one made any
fuss -- there were no giggles, snickers or any sort of mocking at all. A few
people gave me slightly inquisitive glances, which seemed to ask: “why is a
foreigner sitting here with the rest of us in the blazing heat?” I was very

       The rest of the event was fairly “uneventful”. The King arrived
fashionably 6 hours late -- he was supposed to arrive at 8am and came at
2pm -- luckily we had only arrived ourselves at 12pm. There were too many
people in front of us to see him, and after teasing the crowd for 5 minutes, he
announced the Prime Minister’s name. Then it was finished. On the way
back in the car, my male colleague couldn’t stop laughing when we told him
what happened. I decided to tell all my colleagues at work, and for weeks
afterwards people would show up at my office with their friends and give me
a gentle nudge: “Tell so-and-so about when you went to see the King.”


EMMAY MAH (age 25, Canadian) writes: “I am a twenty-five year old,
Canadian development worker. My first overseas work experience was an
internship in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, with the Foundation for Sustainable
Development, where I worked for a local NGO that provided educational
support to AIDS orphans. Since then, I have returned twice and continue to
have a close relationship with my Tanzanian host family.
“My most recent work has been in Swaziland and South Africa, addressing
the HIV/AIDS epidemic’s impact on families and children. This kind of
work can be heart-wrenching, especially when you encounter children who
have been orphaned or infected by the virus. Nonetheless, I have drawn
inspiration from my local colleagues, who fight for these children day-in
day-out without losing their positive outlook while they also grapple with
the affects of HIV/AIDS in their personal lives.

“If this submission makes the top five, the prize will be used to purchase
anti-retroviral drugs for an HIV-positive Tanzanian widow, who supports a
family of ten children. This money will purchase over half a year’s supply of
the medicine, which doesn’t come cheaply at $150 US per month. This
woman caries an enormous burden on her shoulders, and the wellbeing of
her children depends greatly on her survival.”

Emmay Mah and young Swazi friends

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