Project Canterbury

Dawn in Swaziland

By Christopher Charles Watts, M.A.
Archdeacon of Swaziland

London: The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, 1922.

Chapter I. A land of contrasts

"AH! Swaziland, I know, one of those turbulent little republics in South America," remarked a lady during a voyage from Cape Town to England. As a matter of fact, Swaziland is a part of the British Empire, and is situated in South Africa. It is a Crown colony the size of Wales, and has a population of about 100,000 Swazis and 2,000 Europeans. Few people know anything about it, for it lies far from railways, and is well out of the beaten track of commerce, or of travelers. Imagine a country shaped somewhat like a saucer, the rim being mountains, and the flat part on which the cup should stand a vast wooded plain, with but a sparse population of very primitive natives, and a few European traders and cattle-ranchers. Place this about ninety miles south of Delagoa Bay, cut off from the sea by a narrow strip of native country called Tongaland, and in the angle where the boundaries of Zululand, Natal, the Transvaal, and Portuguese East Africa all draw together, and you have an idea of the position of Swaziland on the map.

It is the country described in Jock of the Bushveld,--one of those immortal books which never fail to charm all generations of men, for it has caught the real spirit of the people and of the animals of the place--and it is easy to understand the charm and spell that the land casts over all who know it. In olden days it used to be said that once a man had drunk of the sweet water of the Nile, the remembrance of it would remain with him all his life, however many years might pass, or to whatever distance he might wander, and that the spell would draw him back to drink again and again. "Once a Swazilander, always a Swazilander," is a saying amongst the European pioneers, and it is a fact that few men who have entered into Swaziland life care afterwards for any other. They may leave the country for a time, but they almost invariably return.

One reason for this is undoubtedly the beauty of the place. Swaziland has been called the Switzerland of South Africa, and the grandeur of its rugged mountain heights gives it a claim to the title.

As one enters the country from the Transvaal at dawn of day, when the mists roll off and the rising sun dyes their black peaks a rosy red, and as one sees a panorama of mountain heights, the solemn glory of the "Everlasting Hills "sinks into the soul as it did into that of the Psalmist. At the foot of the hills may be seen the deep blue stream of the Komati, winding its way down a deep and fertile valley, and giving the touch of gentle quiet beauty which is needed in such a scene.

The road keeps along a highland ridge, and passing through a neck in the mountain-chain descends many hundred feet, amidst granite boulders, past gorges and ravines full of bright semi-tropical vegetation and cascades of falling waters, which leap from rock to rock, and with their spray water a dense growth of maidenhair and ferns; past level patches of country clothed with bright green grass on which sheep and cattle graze.

At length one sees, on a shoulder of the mountain side, large plantations of trees, and here and there the white roof of a European house. This is Mbabane, the capital of the country, and its seat of government. As we enter its clean and well-kept street with trees planted on each side, we notice the "Union Jack of Old England" floating from a lofty flagstaff outside the Government offices, and as we have entered the country from the Transvaal, this unfamiliar sight gives great pleasure. The town itself is a mere hamlet consisting of 200 European residents, and contains six little stores or shops. In these stores are to be found a miscellaneous collection of articles of all kinds, some of which have strayed outside and stand upon the wide verandahs: clothing, tinned foods, tools, furniture, and ploughs for Europeans; Kaffir-corn, beads, blankets, looking- glasses, and gewgaws of all kinds for natives. The traveller from England will be struck by the extra ordinary contrasts which the place presents. A high civilisation and a most primitive form of barbarism are to be seen here side by side. The traveller has hardly had time to notice that the streets and houses are lighted by electric light, and that the post and Government offices are good substantial buildings, when some native wedding-party, or a group of raw savages come dancing and singing down the street. The men are naked, save for a wild-cat or other skin worn as a loin-cloth, and bunches of twisted, brightly coloured wools about their persons. They have also great mops of untrained hair upon their heads, for all the world like some child's big golliwog. In their hands are little battle-axes, triangular in shape, spears and knob-kerries of Swazi fashion, i.e., cut from the roots of trees with the knob on one side and sharpened to an edge. Some have shields made of ox-skin. The women who are married have their woolly hair built up upon a foundation of clay in a great pile, above the head, and wear a sort of blackened and well-greased leather apron. The girls have their hair twisted into rat-tails, and are decorated with gaudy strings of beads. Stout and well set-up (the practice of carrying weights upon the head gives to the women a grace and ease of carriage unknown to Europeans), shining with health, good nature, and bursting with animal spirits, they pass upon their way leaping and shouting in very joy of life! But "toot, toot down the road comes the big modern motor of some Government official. Inside is seated a European lady, dressed in the latest Paris fashions. She will call at the Government office to get the latest news from Europe by Reuter's wire, and to take her hus band off to tennis. In the evening they will sit round the fire, for the nights are often very cold with severe frost, and will read the London papers and the latest books sent out by the Times' Book Club at home.

A land of contrasts! Such is Swaziland. One can leave Mbabane on horseback and in an hour leave all traces of civilisation behind. Following native tracks, crossing streams at shallow places, or even having to swim, passing but a few small native kraals en route, seeing no white face or sign of their presence in the country, the traveller might be Livingstone journeying out into the unknown, for all that he can see. But should he direct his course rightly, and be capable of riding some fifty miles a day, evening will bring him to a cattle ranch with good stone buildings and bulls of pedigree English stock. The writer has often ridden all day in pouring rain, swum a river, passed through grand, though desolate, mountain scenery without seeing either man or beast; and then, in the evening, been regaled with strawberries and cream, listened to the latest music on the gramaphone, and enjoyed all the luxuries of a white man's well-appointed house. On such occasion it is hardly possible to conceive the keenness of the contrast. A high civilisation and absolute barbarism side by side; a high standard of European life and comfort maintained in the midst of a native people who are still living in primitive ways, and in a country for the most part quite undeveloped. Here, too, we find great contrasts in the minds and outlook of the people. We find Europeans of the highest character and education, just, honourable, and brave--those who are the real builders of the British Empire at its best; men who think of life as a trust from God not to be selfishly or foolishly expended, and who give freely of themselves to guide and teach the degraded heathen by whom they are surrounded. We find others who have been pushed out of more civilised places because they wish to do as little work as possible, and to live in a country where immorality of the grossest kind and drunkenness are easy, and are not followed by such swift retribution as in other places. All these mix more or less freely together under the conditions of good-fellowship that exist when the white men are few in the land.

Amongst the natives, too, a similar contrast is found. The old father, sitting in the sun, wrapped in a dirty blanket (watching his sons herd his cattle, and his wives hoe their little patches of mealies) will be visited by his son who is working in Johannesburg. He has arrived on a bicycle, and is dressed in the most exaggerated form of white men's fashions. And many are the tales of the wonderful machinery on the mines, of the trains, of the trams; yes, and of the strikes and the life in the European underworld in a great town, that he can tell. No wonder the old Swazis say that they no longer know if they are "standing on their heads or on their feet; the world is upside down." As one old man put it to the writer: "You white people have taken our land, you have destroyed all our old customs and put us under your laws, you have made us pay taxes, you have altered all the ways of our young men and girls, and now you want to teach us about your God also."

The Swazi nation is in the melting-pot, indeed. The metal boils, and bubbles of every kind come to the surface and explode.

Even in the scenery of the land it is the contrasts that add much to its beauty. We see rugged and sombre mountains covered with huge granite boulders that have been thrown and tossed by now extinct volcanic forces, and blackened by the passing of the ages. Range after range they stretch away into the farthest distance, while at their feet lie little fertile valleys, each with its crystal stream. Here and there a little kloof is filled with tree-ferns and rich growth of many kinds, while over its moss-grown rocks leap down the waters of a silvery cascade. On the foot hills are to be seen slopes of grass dotted here and there with cattle, and with the wood-fire smoke of many native kraals curling lazily into the clear air. The country is for the most part open and undulating, broken only by tracks and dongas.

As the traveller makes his way across the flat bushveld, he may sometimes imagine he is crossing an English park, and that at any moment he may come upon an ancient manor-house or a keeper's cottage. At other times he is confronted by an arid patch of yellow thorn-bush, and has to travel a quarter of a mile to avoid a huge clump of scarlet-flowering shrub. The aromatic smell of the bush veld is in his nostrils, he hears the scream and whistles of many bright-plumaged birds, and at times he catches a glimpse of an antelope bounding over the bushes or feeding on a recent grass-burn. Here and there flights of large butterflies play lazily in the hot air on the banks of a stream. The very life of joy and colour, and of the gratification of the senses, steals over him, and he realises that call of the bushveld which is in the marrow of every old Swazilander's bones.

The climate is sub-tropical, and displays violent contrasts. What could be more beautiful than a bright summer morning in the wet season, with a cloudless sky overhead. But see! A little cloud, fleecy and white, appears on the horizon, and grows rapidly in size and depth. The traveller must hurry on and seek shelter for man and horse, for in .a moment the storm may be upon him and may bring hailstones as large as pigeons' eggs. Soon the sky is black with clouds, while the wind increases to a gale, and flashes of lightning play round the mountain-tops. Down comes the rain--not in drops, but in torrents, with one continuous roar, and the little streams are turned into raging floods. The traveller stands drenched to the skin as the lightning plays on the rocks around, and the wind drives the water into his every pore. Should the hail come, too, he must take off his saddle and use it as a protection for his head. Fortunately, hailstones of a dangerous size are not common, though in Swaziland they have been known to be as large as cricket balls, and to go through corrugated iron. Let us hope that the traveller has not to cross a river in order to complete his journey, for swimming with a horse in boiling flood needs some courage and skill. But now the storm is over, and as the sun looks through the clouds, Swaziland is in good humour again, and more beautiful than ever.

In the cloudless days of winter, when the Boer sheep come in in their thousands to graze on the hills, the nights are cool and the days are warm, but when Swaziland winter rains come, and for several days a cold driving mist chills to the very bones, the new-born lambs die in their hundreds, and travel becomes almost impossible, as even the best-known tracks are obscured. A visitor to Swaziland, after jogging along slowly on the slippery road, mile after mile, wet and cold and very tired, turned to the writer with inexpressible disgust and exclaimed, "This is sunny Swaziland!"

The same traveller, however, two days after, could not say enough in its praise. It is a land of contrasts!

A longer visit but confirms his first impressions. In the court-house next day he finds this case on trial: A middle-aged Swazi, naked but for his skin loin-cloth, is being tried for the murder of a man at a neighbouring kraal. And this is the tale he tells with dramatic power and feeling: "I was married to two wives, and lived happily enough with them and my little son at my kraal--interfering with no one and at peace. But the fact that my first wife had no children had always made me suspect some neighbour, and that some evil-minded witch had cast a spell upon her. I wished to take no active steps as yet, and lived in peace; but there came a time when this first wife got very sick and I feared might die. I sent for a witch-doctor, and he con firmed me in what I feared. The woman was be witched, and a neighbour two miles off had cast the spell. The man the witch-doctor had smelt out was the man I always feared. I did not like his looks at any time, and lately especially he had seemed to bear me malice. But I did not at this time wish to kill him, but only if possible to turn him from his evil purpose. I went to see him and to reason with him. I .said I had never been his enemy or wished him harm--why would he not let me and mine alone? But the man answered me in anger and railed upon me, and I went home with a sad heart. After a few days my wife died and my heart was heavy with grief and with the anger I bore that wicked man who had cast the spell upon her. For some months the evil man did me no further harm, and we lived happily together, my second wife, my child and I. But the cattle and the crops did not flourish, and my mind was uneasy, for I felt the evil spells of my enemy were still working around my home. A few months passed away, and then my second wife fell sick. Again I appealed to my enemy, again I told him my only desire was to live and let him live in peace, and I besought him to spare my wife. He drove me away with evil words and sour looks. A few days later my wife died. I was now a lonely man, and all that was left me was the boy. I dearly loved him, but every day I feared some evil spell of my enemy would fall upon him. Dread and hatred of this wicked, cruel man filled my mind. At last I could bear the anxiety no longer. I went out at night and set fire to his hut. As he crept out through the little door I speared him in the back and killed him. Now at last I could rest in peace. The wicked sorcerer was dead. I know that I killed him, but it was done to save my child."

But let us listen to another case. A child has been brought with all its fingers burned away with hot stones, and injured in other barbarous ways. It seems it had been born an idiot, and in spite of all threats would creep out and steal the mealies in a neighbour's gardens. A witch-doctor's advice had been sought, and he had advised these terrible cruelties to drive out the evil spirits that possessed the child. A case of poisoning is the next--one that might serve as the plot for some novel of the middle ages. And these cases are tried by English magistrates and English law. Some of the witnesses in these cases are natives dressed in the most exaggerated of the English fashions--servants or dependents of the white people who have been in Johannesburg at work--and some are old women in a single and very dirty old skin native apron. Here, again, are to be seen striking contrasts

If he travel but a few miles on horseback from Mbabane, the stranger might easily imagine that he was journeying out into the unknown. He must find his way across country as best he may, for there are no traces of civilisation to guide him on his way. He must find the crossings of the rivers as best he may. But if he is fortunate the evening may find him at some white man's house enjoying full European hospitality and discussing the latest problems of the day.

The scenery is full of contrast, too--there are great treeless, barren mountains covered with huge black boulders--valleys, each one with its little stream, and then mile after mile of bushveld, for all the world like some vast park at home. He can see many species of big game living as wild as ever in their native home, and huge imported bulls of the last European breed on some ranch----all in the course of one day's ride.

The effect upon the native mind and character of this complete civilisation so suddenly thrust upon them is, as would be expected, of a very complicated kind. We see social, moral and mental indigestion, with symptoms, sometimes painful and alarming, and sometimes ludicrous. When the native remains in his own country the process is probably to the good; when he goes to work on the mines in Johannesburg-- "the University of crime for the native," as Mr. John X. Merriman, the oldest statesman of South Africa, described it--it is frankly to the bad. But in either case the process is inevitable, and is becoming more so from day to day.

The native indunas, or headmen of the nation, about two years ago petitioned the Resident Commissioner to open a good school for their sons. They offered that each native in the country should pay an extra 2s. per head on his tax for this purpose. "Since the coming of the white people they did not know if they were standing on their head or their feet. Too old to learn themselves, they wished their sons trained in good paths." And now, within a mile of the Royal kraal--the centre of the old dark heathen influence in the country and of the organised immorality of native customs--stands a school under a capable and strong native headmaster, who was trained in the diocese of St. John's, Kaffraria, and was sent up as a missionary to this country.

In Swaziland the field is indeed white for the harvest. Will civilisation bring good or evil to these virile, good-natured, and impressionable natives? The answer depends upon the work that the Christian Church can do there in the next few years. Christianity, and a disciplined, orderly Christianity, can alone supply the light to guide the native race in its dangerous progress. The large Church European boarding school at Mbabane, the coloured boarding school at Empolonjeli, the native schools dotted about the country, are an attempt to answer the problem. "The educational work of the Church amongst the European, the coloured, and the native is the best and most promising thing I have seen in the country," said Lord Buxton, formerly Governor-General of South Africa.

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