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The voice of the poor and oppressed in Swaziland

Friday 3 April 2015

A review of ‘Phoenix Mysteries: Memoirs of a Born Oppressed’

Peter Kenworthy

2015-04-02, Issue 720

Besides giving a good general description of what it is like to grow up in a mud hut in the rural African countryside, with barely enough money to eat or to attend school, the book also describes the unique culture and political setting of Swaziland, Africa’s last absolute monarchy. Are you tired of reading books, reports or articles by middle-aged, middle-class professors, authors, NGO-employees or journalists (like me) about how poverty-stricken Africans feel about, or should react to, their poverty?

Are you tired of seeing these Africans (who after all live in over 50 different countries and speak over 1000 languages) represented in a generalized way or in a way where we subconsciously (but falsely) come to believe the fact idea that they are silent, helpless victims that need our help and guidance?

Then you ought to read Mkhonzeni Dlamini’s “Phoenix Mysteries –Memoirs of a Born Oppressed”, about what it is like to grow up in abject poverty in Swaziland – and succeed against all odds.

UNDERSTANDING THE REAL SWAZI, NOT THE STATISTICAL ONE

Apart from giving a good general description of what it is like to grow up in a mud hut in the rural African countryside, with barely enough money to eat or to attend school, the book also describes the unique culture and political setting of Swaziland, Africa’s last absolute monarchy - a “truth that is stranger than fiction”, as Dlamini puts it.

Since literature from Swaziland is relatively scarce, especially literature that criticizes the government and challenges the status quo; and since those who attempt to do so are routinely harassed by the police, Mkhonzeni Dlamini’s book is particularly interesting.

Also because even though there are many statistics, reports and articles about Swaziland, understanding Swaziland (or any other country for that matter) also means understanding the individual Swazi and his or her mental set-up.

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

Mkhonzeni grew up in stick-and-mud hut with cow dung-smeared floors in an impoverished village outside Nhlangano, a town in Southern Swaziland with a population of about 10,000. His mother was a house-maid, his father an alcoholic ex-miner who, as many other Swazi men, had worked in the South African mines.

His parents were too poor to afford luxuries such as electricity or running water, let alone a washing machine. So Mkhonzeni had to cook, fetch bilharzia-infested drinking water from the local river, and wash his clothes by hand.

From time to time he and his family had to sell marijuana (that had accidentally germinated in their yard), walk to town to buy packets of biscuits and other snacks to sell in the village, and rear and sell piglets and pork to survive. This was more common when the yield from their small maize field was poor, or when local thugs had stolen the honey from his bee-hives.

EDUCATION, EDUCATION, EDUCATION

Somehow, despite of these adverse conditions, Mkhonzeni managed to get himself a university degree, and the main argument Mkhonzeni Dlamini makes in his book is that education is a way of transcending both physical and intellectual poverty, and that it is therefore a precondition for both personal and political change.

However: getting a proper education in Swaziland, especially when one belongs to the 70 percent of the population that survive on less than a dollar a day, is an uphill battle.

Mkhonzeni describes how he had to bend his right hand over his head and touch his left ear, to be admitted in to primary school (which he failed to do the first two years); how he had to go to school on an empty stomach with no writing utensils; how corporal punishment was “rampant” in a school that had no running water and only eleven geography text books; and how he was expelled several times for owing school fees.

Indeed, most of his classmates dropped out of school due to a lack of money. But Mkhonzeni rose to the challenge, studying hard, reading newspaper scraps before his father used them to roll cigarettes, writing articles for newspaper competitions, making toy cars out of wire, tins and pieces of wood, and playing with disposed electronic equipment as a creative precursor to his engineering studies later in life.

TEAR-GASSED AT UNIVERSITY

By way of his excellent grades, and the financial aid of private benefactors, he was able to enroll at the University of Swaziland and complete a bachelor’s degree in engineering, whilst avoiding most of the pitfalls and restrictions of Swazi traditionalist culture.

Mkhonzeni also successfully navigated the pitfalls of being a poor student, such as ensuring he was able to afford accommodation and food, or making sure he did not fail an exam, as the extra cost of retaking it would mean the end of an academic career for many poor university students. This was done by adopting an “affordable lifestyle” that excluded alcohol, clubbing and smartphones, sacrificing other “luxuries” such as girlfriends and movies, and studying hard to make sure he passed his exams. He was not able to avoid the police brutality that is a regular part of the life of any university student at the University of Swaziland who questions the status quo, however. Police used tear gas, rubber bullets, whips and batons to disperse the student demonstrations or attempts to deliver petitions to the Minister of Education, to complain about low student allowances or the postponement of exams, in which Mkhonzeni took part.

CHANGE YOURSELF AND CHANGE THE SYSTEM

It is forbidden to question the status quo in the current regime’s version of a Swazi traditionalist culture: one that is built on corruption and nepotism and used to oppress and exploit the poor, as well as to promote child and woman abuse.

And if you want to receive a scholarship, or after graduating, a position as a civil servant, you need to participate in the cultural events of the king, pay bribes, vote in the sham elections, and generally keep your head down, according to Mkhonzeni. “Everything is owned by the king and respect for him is paramount to living a smooth life. All land in rural areas is under the chiefs’ control on his behalf”.

In the book, he likens Swaziland, with its dictatorial leader, lack of freedom of expression, ideological coercion, and wholesale detention of dissidents, to Orwell’s Animal Farm. “I had once thought Orwell was an ordinary Swazi”, he says.

UNDERSTAND US, HELP US

At the age of 26, Mkhonzeni Dlamini seems rather young to be writing his memoirs. But we don’t question Wayne Rooney or Lionel Messi when they write their memoirs about a more trivial matter, football, at a similar age.

Mkhonzeni has said that releasing the book now means that he is still relevant to the situations he is describing, and that he believes that “releasing a memoir in old age when you are happily married, employed and financially stable is an act of cowardice”.

He also told me that he wrote the book as an inspiration to his fellow poor, young Swazis, but that he also had also written it for the rest of the world.

“I want the world to know the reality of life for ordinary citizens in the Swazi countryside. I want the world to know that our government is like an uncaring and abusive stepmother, and I want the world to help us pressure our government to introduce democratic reforms, so we can all have access to equal opportunities in life”, he said.

And having read Mkhonzeni Dlamini’s book, is seems obvious that any true and meaningful opposition to the present Swazi regime, and any true democratization that is to follow, will have to be an educational and cultural revolution, as well as a political one.

Mkhonzeni Dlamini had been unemployed since graduating from University in October 2014. Swaziland currently has an unemployment figure of over 40 percent.

Buy the book from Amazon here: http://www.amazon.com/Phoenix-Myste...

* Peter Kenworthy is a journalist with Afrika Contakt.

* THE VIEWS OF THE ABOVE ARTICLE ARE THOSE OF THE AUTHOR/S AND DO NOT NECESSARILY REFLECT THE VIEWS OF THE PAMBAZUKA NEWS EDITORIAL TEAM

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