As I write this column I am seated in my hotel room at the Royal Swazi Spar in the Ezulwini Valley in Swaziland. Ezulwini means heaven; so I am in the Valley of Heaven.
Yes, it is the closest one can get to the Pearly Gates or the Garden of Eden. The scenic valley, according to the tourist brochure, lies at the bottom of the Malagwane Hill. I can see the hill through my window. The Valley of Heaven is the Swaziland kingdom's main tourist area, the hotels and restaurants are excellent.
As one opens the brochure, Swaziland Discovery, Swaziland's official tourist guide for 2012, one is greeted by the beautiful face of a young Swazi girl, five years old perhaps, dressed in traditional garb with two bobs of hair and the symbolic red feathers planted in the hair. They are the feathers of the lourie, which I suppose is their national bird. It is described as a clever and cunning bird in the tourist guide, so its red wing feather symbolises intelligence and royalty.
The king wears three red feathers as a crown. The red feather is also a symbol of excellence and a royal welcome the Swazis extend to their visitors.
Tourist guides are nice pieces of literature. Nowhere have I gone and seen one that does not extol the virtues of the people of the country visited. In the one I am holding now, Swaziland is described as a tiny country with a big heart and warm, friendly people. The kingdom is said to embrace and uphold its "unique" and "ancient traditions" "similar to Scotland".
The Swazi people are "peaceful, friendly and kind and visitors are ensured (sic) of a warm welcome that they will always remember."
The guide continues: "Good manners, taking time to greet people correctly and enquiring after their wellbeing are an integral part of Swazi culture."
But of all the good sentences in the guide, the following takes the cake in the level of its deceit: "You may find that some Swazis will not make eye contact but this is a sign of respect, not bad manners."
The little girl in the guide stares you directly in the eyes and the eyes sparkle. Photographers say if one wishes to see the status of a people, one need only look into the eyes of the children. In a healthy nation the children's eyes glint with laughter and good health. In bad situations the children's eyes are dull and without life; they avoid eye contact and quickly slink away from strangers.
I experienced this first hand in Zimbabwe at the height of our political and economic crisis; the children no longer ran to visitors shouting "Mawuya" (Welcome), instead they hid in their mothers' skirts and ran away at the earliest opportunity. The elders too avoided eye contact because they could not live with the shame of the poverty that had been visited upon them by the crisis.
The people of Swaziland don't look you directly in the eyes not because they think doing so would be a sign of disrespect; they do so because they have been belittled by their circumstances and view all foreigners as scornful of them. This is so because the potbellied members of the aristocracy that you meet at the beautiful restaurants of the Valley of Heaven look you directly in the eyes and are regal as they sit in their golf carts before teeing off another round.
Forget about heavenly and Scottish references, Swaziland is an African country led by a sex maniac of a king who would rather enjoy another bunga-bunga party with half-dressed maidens than officially open a regional conference to which he was invited more than a year earlier and accepted the invitation.
The real Swaziland is not the Swaziland of the tourist guides but that of the areas where the common people live. Besides the houses and the streets devoid of flowers, the real story is told in the little tabloid newspapers one buys in the morning. On Thursday the Swazi Observer clearly reminded the Swazis of their economic situation when it reported about its people who work at the Lonmin platinum mine at Marikana in South Africa. That is where 34 miners were killed by the South African police in scenes reminiscent of the worst excesses of apartheid.
One Swazi was confirmed killed in the violence. Swaziland is one of South Africa's catchment countries for cheap labour, the others are Lesotho and Mozambique; and of course recently Zimbabwe. (Two million Zimbabweans are said to work in South Africa; it would be surprising if there was not one of our compatriots murdered at Marikana!)
How do the wives and children of migrant labourers look you in the eyes without feeling ashamed?
The same newspapers led with the story of 76 teachers struck off the payroll because they had engaged in a strike. What a way to deal with labour disputes! A court of the kingdom ruled that striking the teachers off the payroll was illegal but the government ignored the ruling.
The overturning of court rulings by the state sounded eerily familiar to me.
What is interesting about the dismissal of the teachers is the effect it has had on the children. It's examination time and most children will be writing their promotion and school-leaving tests. Cognisant of this, some of the sacked teachers went back to work anyway saying they were ready to prepare their students for the vital examinations even without the government's filthy lucre. One of the teachers who returned to work was quoted saying: "The reason we took the decision is because of the love and the money parents pay for taking their children to learn. That we were removed from the payroll is no shock to us as we kind of expected it. It is typical of this cruel and stubborn government that even has the guts to defy the highest authority in the land."
When the teachers returned to work the vindictive government locked the school gates leaving the children to learn in the open. One Grade 4 pupil pleaded with the authorities thus: "Whoever has the keys, for our sake let him or her release them. We are suffering and apart from failure to concentrate, we are finding ourselves exposed to bad weather conditions ... What have we done to deserve this?"
Acting-Prime Minister Themba Masuku confirmed that the teachers had been removed from the payroll as part of the dismissal process and the schools would remain locked.
Welcome to Swaziland!