Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Kingdom of Swaziland

About a month ago I received a big blue envelope in the mail containing an invitation to serve in the Peace Corps. Perhaps in another post I will explain the infamous application process or what exactly happens when I get off the plane, but now, I am focused on the journey before me and the country I will be living in for the next 2 years: Swaziland.

No, not Switzerland. Yes, it is a real place. To be fair, Swaziland was not on my radar and I knew very little about it when I was accepted. So friends, I am going to tell y'all a little bit about my future home.

The Kingdom of Swaziland is a small, land-locked nation located in Southern Africa. It is bordered to the North, West and South by South Africa and by Mozambique to the East. Swaziland is roughly the size of New Jersey (dear Jersey shore cast, don't get any ideas for season 4).

Geographically, Swaziland is diverse. The extreme West is known as the Highveld, a high-altitude region (average 1200 meters above sea level) where Mbabane, the capital, is located. Plentiful rainfall as well as temperate weather year round makes this region rich in natural resources.

The center of the country is primarily the Middleveld (700 m). This is the most densely populated region of the country and also where Manzini, the commercial capital, is located. The eastern portion of the country is known as the Lowveld (250 m) and is both the most arid and hot region of the country. Malaria is endemic to this region making it inhabitable in the early days of settlement. Today, it is the most financially stressed region. Along the extreme Northeast is the Lubombo, a mountain range between Swaziland and Mozambique, which is broken up by canyons, rivers and is known for being cattle-ranching country, bet you didn't expect that.

Evidently, human activity in Swaziland has been recorded as early as 200,000 years ago. Pretty impressive. After the Bantu migrations, the region was formally settled via iron-working and farming colonies in the 1300's. After centuries of partial British and South African control, Swaziland became officially independent in 1963. Ethnically, the people are mainly Swazi with a small percentage of Zulu and Afrikaner peoples. The national languages are English and SiSwati (which I will be learning). Since 1986, Swaziland has been governed by King Mswati III, making Swaziland the last absolute monarchy in Africa. Swaziland is very peaceful despite recent pressure from pro-democracy activists. However, I am not at liberty to talk about the politics of Swaziland (but don't think you will be spared of my liberal leanings in U.S affairs).

Culture & Economics
The Swazi economy is bound to South Africa's, both in hard currency and by trade. It is also diversified, between agriculture, mining, manufacturing and forestry. However, most of the population (over 75%) is employed by subsistence agriculture. The Swazi social unit is known as a homestead, and likely consists of huts, farm area and livestock. Despite modernization, Swazi culture remains firmly intact and is a source of great pride for the Swazi people. The Headman, central to the homestead's survival and affairs, is often polygamous and each wife has her own separate hut and quarters. Homesteads vary greatly in size, and there is a good chance I will be living on one.

PC Legacy
Swaziland has been ravaged by HIV/AIDS. According to the CIA World Factbook 2009, the infection rate is the highest in the world (26% of all adults) and life expectancy is the lowest at 32 years compared to the global average of 69.4 years. Swazi Prime Minister Themba Dlalamini declared a humanitarian crisis in 2004 and the country has since acknowledged the severity of the virus and has begun fighting new infections. I will be an HIV/AIDS Educator for the next two years, so I think the Peace Corps did a good job of placing me "where I am most needed", one of their goals.

Notable Swaziland RPCV's include host of NBC's Hardball, Chris Matthews, and Reed Hastings, co-founder of Netflix.

Well, there you have it. The most basic facts on a place I have yet to go and yet to fully understand. Can't wait.

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