Crossing the Oshoek Border Post from South Africa to Swaziland, I was excited to be visiting the realm of Africa’s last absolute monarchy. Not realizing that it was the Easter weekend, I got caught standing alongside Swazis trying to re-enter their country for the holidays.
I also realized that I was entering a country with the highest incidence of HIV in Africa with a stabilized number reported at up to 30% of the population. While this is not the subject of this article, I must satisfy the curiosity of the reader nevertheless. Social scientists have determined that the itinerant workers with whom I was lining up were one of the major reasons for this scourge.
Being away from home and working in the mines and timber industries of South Africa, these men infect their many wives in a polygamous society, along with their girlfriends. In addition, traditions such as the inheritance of widows from a deceased brother, does not help HIV’s continuing spread.
The border crossing was smooth confirming my notion that the Swazis were a relaxed and nice people. Though lacking in size, this interesting country makes up for it with its rich culture. While the monarchy has its critics, the history of Swazi resistance to the British, Boers and the Zulus has fostered national pride. As a result, local culture is flourishing along with Christianity.
Many Swazis combine Christianity with indigenous beliefs, and religious freedoms are written into the country’s 2005 constitution. However in January, the education ministry instructed all head teachers to ensure that the syllabus would not mention any religion other than Christianity, including Islam and Judaism.
Driving into Mbabane, the capital city, I found it to be an attractive and functional place perched in the cool highveld (4,000ft) of the Dlangeni Hills. Swaziland with its population of 1.5 million is a low middle income country where most citizens are ethnic Swazis. The official languages are both Swati and English.
Its ruler, King Mswati III, is one of the world’s last absolute monarchs, and a man who is not too keen on handing his throne over entirely to parliament. The Borgen Project, a nonprofit organization, reports that about half of Swazis live in poverty. Forty percent of Swazis are unemployed and 70% of the workforce is employed in sustenance farming. But it’s not all bad news. Roads are well-paved and far-reaching. The literacy rate is over 91%, which might be expected when 8.3% of the GDP is spent on education; which is why I saw the entire city swarming with nicely-uniformed schoolchildren in the afternoon.
In order to find the old Swaziland, which has rapidly modernized itself, I went in search of old villages and cultural events. More than 70% of Swaziland’s population is of ethnic roots, which means that all the traditions and beliefs are upheld throughout the year and are evident in daily life through dress and other activities.
I soon arrived in Mantetenga Swazi Cultural Village, a living museum of old traditions and representing a classic Swazi lifestyle during the 1850s. The village is a large family homestead of 16 huts, each with its own specific purpose as well as kraals for cattle and goats, reed fences that serve as windbreaks and various other structures. The building material is strictly traditional: poles, grass, reeds, leather stripes, earth and dried cow dung. The adjacent 725-acre Mantenga Nature Reserve is made of a combination of middle and highveld habitat, and more than a third of the reserve is covered by eucalyptus (gum) forest. I explored the reserve by foot, with two walking trails leading up the mountain towards the summit of Sheba’s Breast, made famous by the book King Solomon’s Mines written by Sir Rider Haggard, a Victorian adventure writer in 1885. Birdlife in the reserve was good, with wildlife such as baboons, vervet monkeys, nyala, duiker and mongoose regularly seen.
After visiting the village, I patiently waited for a large contingent of dancers to perform the Umhlanga followed by the Incwala dance. There are two main kinds of dances, each done by women and men respectively and done at most of the celebrations and gatherings throughout the year, but predominantly at the two most popular events: Umhlanga in August and Incwala in December. The spectacle I enjoyed seemed to be a hybrid version of both.
Umhlanga attracts thousands or women from near and far and once the entire group has concluded dancing and singing, different villages take center stage and put on a display as a sign of respect for the Queen mother. The different villages are distinguishable by their beaded outfits and jewelry. Even the king’s daughters are involved and distinguishable by the bright red feathers they wear in their hair. The king will usually pick his new wife from the crowd of dancers.
Incwala, which means first fruits, is probably the most important and significant of the two. Dancing plays a prominent role here as men gather at the Royal Kraal at Ludzidzini and dance for a few days. Known to be the most honorable on the Swazi events calendar, the Incwala dates are determined by the phases of the moon and begins with a journey to the Indian Ocean to collect water. The third day sees the men slaughter a bull with the fourth day welcoming the arrival of the king who dons his traditional dress and joins in on dances with the other men before returning to his hut to enjoy the first fruit of the season.
However, these aren’t the only dances in Swaziland; other events boast their own dances such as the Sibhaca dance performed by groups of men throughout the country at any opportunity. One cannot but appreciate this gentle land with its handsome men and women and their penchant for dance.
Executive Travel: Reneilwe Letsholonyane’s Manchester
The 37-year-old South African soccer midfielder says he could move to the English city for its sense of serenity and calm.
South Africa’s former national football player Reneilwe ‘Yeye’ Letsholonyane started playing in the streets of Soweto but his fame has often taken him beyond the soccer pitches of South Africa.
Also a fashion entrepreneur and co-founder of the newly-established ShaYe lounge, the veteran midfielder recounts the indelible memories of his most recent holiday to Manchester with his wife, sports presenter Mpho Letsholonyane.
“In the off season of 2018, I had just gotten married. I personally love Jay-Z and my wife loves Beyoncé; and they were having their On The Run 2 tour in Manchester; a major city in the northwest of England.”
READ MORE | Executive Travel: Mpho Popps’ Ghana
Letsholonyane had also always wanted to go to Paris, a major European city and global center for art, fashion, food and culture, so flew to Manchester via the French capital.
The newly-weds spent a few days in Paris and thereon proceeded to Manchester for the concert, flying Air France on both sectors.
“Funnily enough, the economy class on Air France is not as squashed as the economy class on South African Airlines. You’d expect an uncomfortable flight, but that wasn’t the case. There was enough room to stretch your legs and recline your seat,” says the footballer.
Upon landing and clearing customs, a shuttle was waiting for the two to be chauffeured through the city to their hotel. The 40-minute drive was what the 37-year-old says he enjoyed the most. It made him reflect and draw comparisons between his home country and Europe.
At the age of 23, Letsholonyane’s professional career had kicked-started, but it was in 2008 that he joined one of South Africa’s biggest teams, the Kaizer Chiefs Football Club, for an eight-year stint.
READ MORE | Executive Travel: NaakMusiQ’s Dubai
Receiving the call to represent Bafana Bafana for the 2010 World Cup was a moment he recalls vividly.
“We were at camp, and told to check out from the hotel and go home. We were to find out from the media, like other citizens, if we had been selected to play. I remember I was in the streets and didn’t want to focus on the media because I was nervous, panicking and excited.
“My parents broke the news to me, but there was more cheering in my hometown and outside my parent’s home. A soccer pitch and jersey with my number and surname were painted in the streets.”
It was a moment that led to fame and more travels. He flips back to Manchester, gushing about the city’s architecture as he was equally captivated by the serenity of the city and its mild-mannered people.
“The standalone houses are the kind you see on television, with no walls. People that side don’t seem to be worried about burglaries. It seems like the crime rate is low. It’s quiet and it’s the quiet that I like. I remember saying to my wife, ‘I could stay here’.”
Letsholonyane admits to seeking alone time to think and ruminate.
Ironically, for the footballer, the Beyoncé and Jay-Z concert was in the home of a football club.
Like all tourists, the couple traveled to Etihad Stadium, the home of Manchester City Football Club, where the musical extravaganza was to take place.
“We were told to use the train; luckily, it was a five-minute walk to the station. We got there but the people around us showed us what to do and where to go. We got off at a station, only to find out we had to wait for another train and it was packed. Then I started thinking about the hassle of getting into the stadium,” he says.
Letsholonyane and his wife dribbled their way through busy subways in Manchester to watch their favorite musicians on stage.
“Getting to Etihad Stadium was a pain-free experience. We got there early and people were idling outside. We went straight in and got seats in the front. There was no opening act, just the artists’ music playing.
Then the lights went dimmer and dimmer.
“It was time, we were about 10 meters away, and we saw them closely. Then it started raining. You’d think people would run for cover but no, people were just enjoying themselves. It was two and half hours of Beyoncé and Jay-Z and an experience never to be forgotten,” he says.
It was well after 1AM when the couple reached their hotel. “There was nothing that made us uncomfortable about walking the streets of Manchester at night. It felt like day.”
The night ended with rain, rounding off a day so different from playing under the hot African sun in the soccer fields of South Africa.
No Longer In The Wilderness
Meet the women challenging stereotypes deep in the bush in Botswana’s tourism capital Maun, filling roles conventionally held by men.
For 10 years, until 2018, Botswana had no First Lady, as President Ian Khama was unmarried. Botswana’s first First Lady, Ruth Williams Khama, the wife of Botswana’s first president Sir Seretse Khama, was recognized for her charitable work with women, and the current First Lady, Neo Masisi, is a champion for these causes too.
However, Masisi is also an accountant by profession with an MBA and an impressive resume (United Nations Headquarters in New York, United Nations Economic Commission for Africa and United Nations Integrated Peacebuilding Office in the Central African Republic).
But not just on the frontlines, in the deeper realms of this southern African country and acclaimed tourism destination, there are more women defying stereotypes, especially in its famed safari industry.
In the country’s tourism capital of Maun, at Kwando Safaris, guests visiting the iconic Okavango Delta waterways and predator plains of the Central Kalahari might be surprised to discover that for over a decade, a majority team of women have been behind the operation.
“Having so many women work in the company was never a policy; it just happened that way. I guess that women were just more capable,” says Sue Smart in her office in Maun.
She talks about her role as the Director of Kwando Safaris for 12 years as an accidental occupation, but a gutsy corporate background primed her for the head position.
“Coming to Gaborone as a volunteer, I worked with children impacted by HIV/AIDS. Then I visited the Okavango Delta on holiday. A chain of life events eventually led to me working at Kwando Safaris’ Kwara Camp, volunteering back of house, in the kitchen, with housekeeping – anywhere they needed it.”
Formerly a Director at PricewaterhouseCoopers, with a background in environmental biology, it was a chance meeting with the owner that saw her grow from volunteer to boss in just three months. “In many ways, I was not a conventional fit for this role. I’m not African, a pilot, a guide, or a man, but my background in other areas meant I could run a business – even in the bush.”
Having a woman at the helm has had significant side effects for the company. Many women at Kwando Safaris hold high positions, from the general manager to operations manager to those in reservations to sales and marketing. This unofficial head office policy also extends into the camps in a formal staff management plan, where each lodge has a male and a female camp manager always on duty.
Looking at the origins of tourism in Botswana, it’s perhaps not surprising that (generally speaking) travel in southern Africa has been a male-dominated industry. After all, the very first visitors to Botswana’s wild spaces were rough and tough gun-slinging, trophy-seeking tourists.
The current CEO of Botswana Tourism is a woman and, attesting to the country’s progressiveness, she’s not the first either. Myra Sekgororoane is encouraging about women in the industry saying, “I have not encountered any significant challenges because of my gender. Perhaps, I have been lucky in that the hospitality and tourism industry tends to have a high predominance of females globally.”
According to National Geographic, research shows working women in developing countries invest 90% of their income in their families, compared to the 35% generally contributed by men.
Tumie Matlhware and Ruth Stewart, managers for Travel For Impact, wholeheartedly agree. The Maun-based NGO aims to spread the wealth generated from tourism activities into the community, providing a direct and tangible link between conservation and its benefits.
“We want tourism dollars working beyond the traditional tourism world,” says Stewart, when we meet for coffee at the charming Tshilli Farmstall, another female-run establishment in Maun.
Travel For Impact has a powerful goal, with the slogan of “If every tourist who slept in our beautiful country paid 1 USD for every night they spent here, we would raise in excess of 300,000 USD per year”.
By partnering with exclusive lodges, camps, tour operators and hotels in Botswana, funds generated are put into local community partners, such as support for basket-weaving cooperatives. Looking at the company profile, the NGO funds many projects that support women.
Stewart shares the scientific standpoint endorsed by National Geographic, saying: “Women are the backbone of the community. If you support women, it gets passed down. They buy food, school supplies and more. They are the pillars of society.”
The corporate social responsibility choice at Kwando Safaris concurs. Smart believes that “the ultimate saviors of animals are people, which is why we sponsor the grassroots initiative, Mummy’s Angels, instead of a more usual conservation project”.
Mummy’s Angels started in April 2018, spearheaded by three women in Maun, to empower mothers with newborns who have little by way of financial support.
“We had second-hand clothes and other baby items in good condition and wanted to donate somewhere it would make a difference,” says one founder, Rochelle Katz.
Executive Travel: Mpho Popps’ Ghana
The 32-year-old South African comedian traveled to the West African country for some eye-opening experiences.
South African comedian, actor and entrepreneur, Mpho ‘Popps’ Modikoane, is a frequent traveler but ask him about his happy place and he says it’s a little corner of Africa named Ghana.
He has traveled overseas before, but it was his travels within Africa that opened his eyes to the magic of the continent, and made him realize that all Africans have the same stories and are essentially the same.
“It’s just these borders we were brought up [in that] we don’t take the time to learn about each other’s cultures and share each other’s stories,” says Modikoane.
“I’ve traveled to a lot of countries over the years and early on in my career, I was in the US. A few years ago, I went to Canada for the annual Just For Laughs international comedy festival and these places are amazing, but traveling in Africa has been the most eye-opening for me.”
Modikoane’s career kick-started in 2009 on the reality TV show, So You Think You’re Funny? His growing audiences haven’t stopped laughing since.
With fame, came the chances to travel. His very first trip to West Africa was to Nigeria on Arik Air two years ago, when he flew business class.
“I don’t know what it is about us [black people], but when we don’t have things, we don’t see why it’s necessary – we don’t understand why we have to pay R30,000 ($2,000) for a seat, a leather seat,” he says, chuckling.
He goes on to elaborate with his trademark wit: “The seat is reclined all the way, we are drinking champagne in glasses; I didn’t even know there were glasses on planes…. Even forks and knives. And in business class, you don’t get shouted at by the attendants for reclining your seat four centimeters back, never! Even the magazines are not the same – we get business magazines and informative magazines. We even have a food menu with pages.”
That was his trip to Nigeria when on the ground, he was impressed by the hard work of the locals, the hustle and bustle of the streets and everything from bikes and Maybachs driving past him.
However, Ghana was his most memorable destination where he stayed five days.
“Ghana just looks beautiful and is next to Nigeria and they have this feud going on about who makes the best jollof rice and after tasting both, I have to give it up to Ghana,” says the comedian.
What he also loved about Ghana was its orderliness, and the warmth of the people.
What impressed Modikoane was that the people did not wait for the government to give them handouts and opportunities; the locals were willing to work hard to find them.
“The people there work outside of their work, have a business outside of their job and that’s the one thing I’ve come to realize about traveling in Africa. We [South Africans] are sitting in the land of opportunity but we are not working as hard as those from other parts of Africa. That is the magic of going to these places and spending time with other artists or musicians who also may have [on the side] their own clothing store, a restaurant, a barber shop…”
Modikoane juxtaposes his experiences in Ghana and South Africa, making various comparisons in the ways people conduct their lives. “When you go outside of South Africa, you see the Africanness of our continent. We South Africans have the modern, western element and live with white people in our communities and our country is not fully ours, but there, it’s theirs. Their heritage is rich, their culture is rich.”
And the most important part about visiting the rest of Africa for Modikoane?
“They make you feel like a celebrity,” he chuckles again.
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