Eswatini is a tiny landlocked country nestled between South Africa and Mozambique. It’s really quick and easy to travel between Eswatini and South Africa, definitely the speediest land border crossings we’ve ever used. At the Jeppes Reef/Malolotja crossing, we had our passports stamped efficiently, paid a small fee and then our car was sort of searched, however the policeman was far more interested in Premier League chitchat and in joking about whether or not we had a human head in our suitcase! Amusingly, despite the country’s new name, even on entry, the signs still said Swaziland.
I’d read there’d be a noticeable difference between Eswatini and its neighbours but I was dubious: it’s just a few metres along the same road, how different could it be? But it’s true! The moment we crossed the border, the dry, flat grasslands were replaced by soaring lush, green mountains, some natural, some miles and miles of tree farms. Schools and churches were signposted everywhere but there were lots and lots more children about, evidently not in school but perhaps it was the holidays. Progress on the country’s main roads was slowed by an inordinate number of speed bumps and lots of roaming herds of cows.
After a short while, we arrived at our destination – Mantenga Cultural Village and Nature Reserve. It was an oasis of calm, a forested paradise. We settled into our large log cabin which was crowded by chunky wooden furniture and animal skin rugs with a balcony looking out at the trees.
Pleased to be out of the car, we decided to take a wander, clambering up to some waterfall viewpoints before returning to the cabin to watch the sun go down from our balcony. As the only guests, we ate in the otherwise empty restaurant then turned in for the night.
The next morning, we took a tour of the cultural village with our lovely – and very knowledgeable – guide Nsigi. Unlike some cultural experiences we’ve participated in in the past, this one seemed very honest. It was clear the village had been created for educational/tourism purposes and there was no pretence that anyone was still living in the traditional way. I got the impression that possibly some of the performers (more about them later) may have slept in the huts but, if they did, then those ones were off limits to guests.
I found the tour fascinating. On arrival at the family compound, visitors would shout a greeting and wait for an answer inviting them to proceed to the family members of their gender. Each compound was constructed in the same way. Every family had a male chief and he would have at least two wives. The man’s mother and his wives had three huts each – one for cooking, one for sleeping and a ‘bar’ for brewing alcohol – plus an outside cooking area. Fences around each hut signified which hut was which to their guests – four horizontal braces on the bedroom implying security, three around the kitchen and none around the bar. Visitors who arrived and found the compound empty could easily navigate their way to a bar, have a drink and stay the night there! The husband could split his time between the wives. They’d initially sleep on separate sides of the hut if children were present but, once they’d gone to sleep, he would bang on a wooden roof support to summon his wife over if the mood took him!
There was also a hut for the oldest son (who inherited from the father) and a hut for the youngest son (who inherited from the wives). All other sons would be expected to move out upon adulthood and start their own compounds. Daughters would be expected to marry and leave but, prior to that, there was a girls’ hut; once girls were 6 (or could reach over their head to touch their opposite ear), they’d move in with the other daughters.
The grandmother was the head of the family and if a family member came to visit, they’d first go and see her so she could fill them in on all the latest news. Her bedroom was the family meeting place. Women would sit on one side in order of importance with the grandmother nearest the door for ventilation, and men mirrored on the other side. It would have been very hot with a fire in the centre and no chimney; smoke filtered out through the thatch to a degree but otherwise it gathered on the ceiling, staining it but also keeping insects out.
When entering or exiting a hut, the men would always go first to check for danger. Doorways were very low, for security reasons and to cause a show of respect. I don’t think they were designed with people of Dean’s height in mind!
Some families had a medicine man who anyone could visit. He would grow medicinal plants outside his hut like this one.
There was a corral for the cattle made of rough branches. It was one of the most important areas since cattle showed wealth and it’s where the ancestors are said to reside and where a girl about to marry into the family would be taken to learn the family’s rules.
Nearby, there was a boys’ hut (above – with its fence made of the same rough branches as the cattle corral to make them tough), a men’s area and a small fenced off section for the chief to have private meetings. Women weren’t permitted in the men’s area but could approach the doorway with food. Some foods were only allowed to be cooked and eaten here by the men: animal feet so women wouldn’t run away; animal heads containing the brain so women wouldn’t become clever; and animal eyes for a reason I can’t recall!
In the distance loomed a hill referred to as ‘executioner’s rock’ where, for crimes like murder, people went to the top and were forced to jump to their death. Families weren’t allowed to collect the bodies; instead they had to wait for the animals to eat them!
After that cheerful end to the tour, we cooled down with a refreshing Sprite on the terrace before settling down to watch the second part of the cultural experience. It was a fantastically high-quality show of a selection of traditional songs and dances performed by a choir with beautiful harmonies, beaming smiles, extreme high-kick skills and boundless energy! Here are far too many photos!
Eswatini – it was short but oh so sweet!
I’ll finish with a gratuitous photo of my handsome husband 😉
Next time it’s back into South Africa for some big cats.