“I like our God” – Make Shabangu
There is a restaurant somewhere between Mbabane and Matsapha, and not too far off of the main road called MR3, named Mugg and Bean. Experts estimate that if a person were to make their way to that particular Mugg and Bean, which happens to be the only one in Swaziland, they would have about a seventy-five percent chance of running into a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV). PCVs come for the coffee and the food and the WiFi. And just maybe, they also come because seventy-five percent is a pretty good chance. Printed on the paper coasters at Mugg and Bean, there is a saying. The saying goes: “You can do anything, but not everything”. CeeGee and I had the honor, privilege, and blessing of visiting Grace and Sean over the past couple of weeks. In a word, the visit was extraordinary. It’s still sinking in. But I suspect that it is the sort of visit that will change us. It will make us better. It can’t help but do so, because we witnessed two people who truly lived the wisdom of that Mugg and Bean saying. What follows will be sort of a chronology of events. It won’t be everything for sure. My memory is not that good. But hopefully it will be enough to provide a sense of the visit CeeGee and I had and the life that Grace and Sean lead. By the way, my name is Jeff McCord(Grace’s Dad), and I will be your guest blogger for this edition of This Life of Ours…
“Turn right and stay left…” that was the mantra after we picked up the Corolla Quest at the car rental place in Mbabane. I had never driven on the left side of the road in a foreign country, but PCVs are not permitted to drive in-country, so I was the choice. Sean rode shot-gun, which was on the left side of the vehicle, because he has the uncanny ability to find his way around. It’s truly remarkable. And I needed all the help I could get. Before we got started, I told Sean that I also needed him not to be nice. He needed to speak up in a non-polite way should I drift to the right or approach a cow too fast on the left. He just needed to conquer his innate goodness. Grace emphasized the point, and CeeGee moved to the seat directly behind me so that she couldn’t see what was happening. So, with Sean re-programmed to be mean and CeeGee intentionally in the dark, we headed off both on and in a Quest.
We had arrived a few days before, braved the hike and the heights of Table Mountain, ran a half-marathon in Cape Town,ate a lot of good food, and spent time with two other PCVs by the names of Shar and Hannah. They are Grace’s and Sean’s good friends and some of the highest quality people you’d ever hope to know. By the way, it’s easy to pick out the PCVs after a road race. They are the ones who don’t waste their food. There is no careless toss of a half-eaten apple into the trash can or just a few sips from a soft drink. Everything is accounted for and everything is used, or it’s kept for the later. They possess an awareness that is unusual. It probably has something to do with gratefulness. Later, we made the border crossing from South Africa into Swaziland after a long shuttle drive from Johannesburg, which brings us back to the Quest.
Our first stop was the Shabangus, which is the family that Grace and Sean lived with during their training period. Babe Shabangu (the homestead’s patriarch) passed away near the end of that period. So, we didn’t get to know him, but his presence was there. We visited for a long while with conversation coming and going like the wind. Just being together spoke more than any tongue or turn of phrase ever could. Presence is a universal language, immune from the nuance of culture or custom. The Shabangu family was recently asked to host another PCV this year, but they didn’t understand the question. How could they host another PCV when their children were still in the country? Maybe after Grace and Sean went back to America, but for now their children needed to feel welcome to return home any time. The Shabangus have that kind of homestead, and Swaziland is that kind of country. Grace and Sean are also those kinds of people. When we stood up to leave, CeeGee kissed and hugged Make Shabangu with a loving fierceness - a combination that few people besides my wife are capable of. Then she did it again, and once again. No words were spoken. No words were needed. All of us knew it was a raw and heartfelt thank you for being her daughter’s mother, while she was so far away.
We hiked up another very tall mountain. This one is called Sheba’s Breast. Sheba has a very big breast (just saying). I sort of blame Grace for all the hiking. If she wasn’t so interested in being good to her mother, I’m pretty sure we would have stayed a lot more stationary. But I suppose that’s just her nature. On the way up the mountain, a Swazi lady was coming down. The lady had a few stray sticks and leaves in her hair. It’s a tough hike. Grace greeted her and without really thinking about it picked the debris from her new friend’s scalp. Down the lady went and up we went, never exchanging names only kindness. Over the next few days, we took the Quest on a couple self-directed game drives where we saw Zebras, Warthogs, Crocodiles, a very large lizard looking thing, Elephants, Hippos, all manner of deer-like gazelle looking animals, and Rhinos. We took the Quest where the Quest had no business going. But the Quest went anyway. And when we came across a very large mama Rhino with her very small baby Rhino, the Quest backed away slowly and took us to safety. I don’t know if the Corolla Quest is sold in the States. But I highly recommend going in on one.
We hiked another very tall mountain. This one is called Execution Rock, because they used to throw criminals off of it as a form of capital punishment. By the time we got to the top, I thought about committing a crime so I that I could just take the quick way down. When the Swazi’s are incredulous about something they say, “How?” With eyes wide open and a bemused look on their faces, they ask this most basic question. I like that. I like that a lot. I think I’ll start saying it. And as I looked out from Execution Rock and back toward CeeGee, Grace, and Sean, I asked it to myself. “How?” Heights and I are not friends, but the views from Table Mountain, Sheba’s Breast, and Execution Rock were breathtaking. I am glad for the climbs and most especially for the company. Whether you are going to this side or that side, there is something about going together that is just better than going alone. How indeed. After we got off of Execution Rock, it was time to head to the homestead.
Grace and Sean have Swazi names. They are Siphiwe and Sipho. They mean “gifted” and “gift”, respectively. They live as members of the family on the Dlamini homestead. They have sisters and a brother, and a mother and a father, who worry for them, laugh with them, and ask after them. It’s a family. They live in a small home with no running water. They divide chores, cook great dinners, conserve water, make epic journeys via public transportation, and worship in a church just a little way down a dirt road. They serve their community through projects like permagardening training, a primary school library restoration, and the development of a women’s chicken co-op to bring much needed economic development to this poor dry region. Their life is hard and beautiful. And they don’t seem to have even the smallest inclination just how amazing they are. We stayed at their home for three days or so. We watched them work, saw them serve, and broke bread with their Swazi family. It’s not fair to ask words to describe the days we spent with them. Words just don’t stretch that far. So, it’s best just to say that it was a blessing – a true blessing.
In the market places or on walks down dirt roads, Grace or Sean would greet people in SiSwati. And CeeGee and I could watch the surprise on the faces of those people. It seemed they couldn’t believe that Westerners would take the time to learn their language. It changed the entire energy of each and every interaction. It was a show or respect, an expression of love. It communicated something very deep, and it was visible to the eye of even the casual observer. I’m left wishing that I could learn some sort of language that would communicate that same respect and that same love for Grace and Sean. But I have only the language I know. So hopefully, it is enough to say that where there is great love there is great sacrifice. And on the Dlamini homestead, the house of Siphiwe and Sipho radiates great love. It’s not the box of chocolate, shiny red card sort of love. It’s more the dusty, I haven’t taken an actual shower in two weeks, hardworking, sort of love. It’s real love, the kind in the Bible that comes before God and your neighbor.
Sean and I returned the Quest to the rental car agency. We sort of stood back and crossed our fingers while the large man in the short tie inspected the vehicle. He said we were good to go, so we went quickly. Our transportation to the airport came. And we all said our goodbyes. I don’t want to write much about that. It was hard. It’s still hard. But only until we begin making plans to return. On the plane on the way home, I watched a documentary about the Pope. It was in Italian, or it could have been Spanish. But at the end, there were quotations that scrolled across the screen in English. One of those quotations was from St. Francis of Assisi. It read, “Start by doing what's necessary; then do what's possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” If St. Francis were ever to show up at the Mugg and Bean, somewhere between Mbabane and Matsapha, not too far off of the main road called MR3, and happened to run into Grace and Sean, I have no doubt that he would tell the rest of the world, “See, I told you so.”