Before I learned my first siSwati word, I learned how the sunset lights Malkerns’ sky on fire, painting the air maroon and casting dark shadows over marula trees. I heard water drip and flow from the hose in my Gogo’s backyard, and then again down a stream at Mantenga Falls, and then again from the clouds in the sky. I felt dry grass graze the back of my knees and the roughness of marula bark on my fingertips. And I learned the way our curly black hair glows like gold springs under the gleam of the sun. Memories, before words, were the first love letters eSwatini sent to me, inscribed on the joys and mysteries of early childhood.
Kwasukasukela (Once upon a time)
My mother taught me my first siSwati words and my first English words. I began to search for language––the right words, and how to say them–– as my world began to expand and then enclose over Coquitlam, British Columbia, a city where I have never met another Swazi outside of my family. In the classroom, seeking siSwati was impossible. In books, on chalkboards, and in conversations, French and English were all I could find. English cast its veil over almost everything.
My search for the right words has failed many times. It failed the first time I tried to order a meal on my own, explain “where I’m really from,” and answer the question “tell me about yourself”. It failed almost every class discussion and during many awkward introductions. Lost in my own jumbled silence, I’d wish I were someplace else. Somewhere between Malkerns, my imagination, and the boundless evergreen forest behind my childhood home. In this place of dreams, my voice wavered seamlessly between the languages of my ancestors and my classmates. Back in Coquitlam, I felt eSwatini receding further and further away. The feeling of Gogo’s flowers on my fingertips was thwarted by that of pointing out a tiny unlabeled country on a laminated map and saying I’m ‘from there’ and not being able to go back there for 16 years and counting. No one around me knew what eSwatini was and began to wonder if I really knew either.
eSwatini came back to me in small ways. At first, in a neon yellow polyethylene bag, littered with perfectly spaced magenta squares that converge at the center. Inside lay wrinkled corn puffs in a fluorescent orange, covered in millions of cheese dust particles. Every time my mom or my Gogo visited Eswatini, they brought back the popular South African snack Nik Naks. They were my absolute favorite chip, the perfect balance of maize, cheese, and crunch. And they were the perfect way to share something Swazi with my classmates. “Like Cheetos but better” was my opening line. Tasty and tangible. I found comfort in Nik Naks’ explicit, Swazi-imported existence. I hoped to transfer some of this clarity into my own Swazi identity.
Ngikukhumbulile (I miss you)
siSwati echoed through the air when my mother spoke to relatives on the phone or to my Gogo when she visited us every few years. Besides a word here and there, I couldn’t understand most Swati conversations. But I could still listen to the sound of the language: the way my mothers’ voice shifted tone many times in a single word, the sharp release of the ‘c’ click in ngiyacabanga (I think) and lucingo (telephone). The rhythmic dance between short and long syllables. How the interjections of English words in Swati conversation sounded like the British actors in Pride and Prejudice. If I listened close enough, I felt love breathed into every sound. Lutsandvo that reached far beyond the Atlantic Ocean, the phrases I couldn’t understand, and the two-thousand dollar plane ticket back to Mbabane.
I found more of Eswatini over dinner. Once a week, we’d eat baked chicken, mashed potatoes, and peas that I’d push to the sides of my plate. Sometimes, stories from her childhood accompanied my favorite meals. As I bit into spicy chicken, she’d be in the Swazi countryside on the weekends, helping tend to her grandfather’s dairy farm in Malkerns. The farm’s vast plain of green doubled as a stage she’d sing her favorite songs on, with the animals, the grass, and her cousins as the only audience. In the farm fields existed a portal to an infinite number of worlds. In the fields, she could be in Mbabane. Or she could be the newest member of the Fantastic Four, using the power of invisibility to defeat humanity’s greatest enemy yet. For the both of us, the outdoors was a place of childhood dreams, where tall branches and leaves of various shades of green shielded us from the confines of worldly realities. For years at a time, memories and our imaginations were the only way back home. By the time I finished my mashed potatoes, my mother had moved across the world at 19 to pursue an education and new opportunities in Canada.
Nosizwe (Mother of Nations)
In Coquitlam, in Philadelphia, and in every state or province in between, I’ve still never met another Swazi outside of my family. I can’t say most things I want to say in the language of my ancestors and sometimes, I still can’t find the right words to say what I want to say in English.
But I’ve found stories and memories that I hold deep in my heart, irrespective of time or distance. I can hold photographs or Nik Naks or dictionaries between my fingertips and I can hear my Mom and my Gogo speak in siSwati. And I have myself. I am a Swazi of the Ndwandwe clan in Canada, in the United States, during my childhood, and in my dreams. What I’ve lost and found has always been with me. And will remain when I once again watch the sunset light Malkerns sky on fire.