Seeing with new eyes– Dynamics of family in Swazi tradition, Patience Dlamini

patience.jpgMy story will reflect on growing up and also raising a family having to consider the two aspects of tradition and religion across the borders. For all the modernisation that has come to Swaziland the people have their old age culture and traditional ceremonies. While other countries in Africa have readily accepted western ways of life, Swaziland has protected its traditional values. Tradition according to the African Bible is a means by which beliefs, customs, stories, laws, religious practices and other cultural phenomena are handed down from one generation to the next. The bible is in part a record of traditions.

A family is the foundation or basis of society and the shape of society reflect the character of individual families. The prevailing of order in society, the success of churches and even the well-being of a nation ultimately depends on the health of families. The centrality and importance of family is illustrated in the life of Christ, who became human to be our role model and teacher and belonged to a family in Nazareth. He lived like the rest of us obeying his family, doing his duty as a family member and taking part in family matters.

A family is where we start our life journey. That little girl is the second born child of four children born of teacher parents. My dad was the first principal of the newly built national primary school to teach the royal household children in Lobamba, the resident home of the King and Queen mother. This is where my parents met and when they married both moved to an Anglican mission school. Various Christian missions in Swaziland established the first schools which provided a traditionally British – style formal education system and of a non–racial society. ,

The first five years of my life were with my parents,  when my dad decided to answer God’s call to priesthood. My dad went to the theological seminary in Alice in the Eastern Cape and at that time my brother had started school where my parents were teaching and I would be starting school the following year. My mother remained at the mission school where she was a teacher, also quite aware that when my dad finished his studies she would relocate. My mother was expecting at the time and my sister who comes after me was two. A decision was made that my brother and I be taken to stay with our maternal grandmother at Lobamba, the traditional royal capital. Least to say that my grandmother’s home was one of the royal traditional rural homes in the area. Both my mom and dad’s families were consulted about us going to live with my maternal grandmother, but most all my dad had to go and notify King Sobhuza 11 of his decision to go into priesthood. He also had to report to him that he was leaving two of his children with our maternal grandmother and to plead with the king to instruct my uncles to exclude us from the traditional ritual practises especially those done during the royal funerals. (I have mentioned that this was a royal home and honestly speaking we were not Dlaminis)  My dad had spoken to my brother who was a little older to look after me and get me away from all these ritual activities, as and when they happened, which he did with distinction.

Now, the school that we were to attend was a national school and the cultures of such schools were very different from the mission schools. These schools had to accommodate some royal traditional activities, although the education system was the same as other schools. School extra mural activities included going to weed the royal  fields or going to clean the queen mothers homestead or the girls going to the mountain to collect grass for making brooms, table mats and the boys cutting the logs for woodwork & carvings. From an early age, the Swazi child’s job is already gender defined. In the home as a girl, I would help with the “female” duties, fetching water from the river (of course using a smaller bucket), getting firewood and going to the mill for mealie meal whilst the boys would have to help our uncles ploughing the fields and help with gardening and after school have to water the garden. On weekends they had to clean the grounds of the homestead. My grandmother was a very religious woman in the midst of a very traditional family that she had married into. She made sure that every evening we prayed together as a family and every morning she also prayed with us kids who shared her sleeping hut. She also made sure that we all attended Sunday services in our different church denominations (Mind you we were not the only grandkids there).

Traditional dances and ceremonies are the distinctive feature of the Swazi culture. Old Swazi traditions are guarded and colourful ceremonies which regularly take place to mark special occasions. Some of these cultural events involved the king and the queen mother. These events bring the nation and families together. As a child brought up in a Christian family, we were grounded in the traditional practices of the Swazi culture, especially those that did not clash with our Christian values. This is where I also started going to the umhlanga reed dance which takes place end of August or early September. This ceremony is a national duty event where unmarried and childless girls attend to collect reeds which are used as wind breakers for the Queen mothers hut. This tradition is focused at encouraging young Swazi women to keep their virginity intact until they are considered old enough to marry and it’s also aimed at promoting a sense of unity among the girls by making them work together. The dancing is just enjoyment fun for ending the ceremony and yes the king does choose a wife but that is not the main purpose of this ceremony. I would have loved my girls to attend until they were older but unfortunately schools were always open in SA at this time.  The boys attend the collecting of the branches, lusekwane ceremony which builds the kings sacred private enclosure in the royal cattle kraal where the royal rituals during the incwala ceremony take place. No young man with a child or who has impregnated a girl at the time can take part in this ceremony and yes my brother attended a few of these. This is one of the biggest events as it marks the end of and a start of another year.

When my dad was ordained as priest he first worked in Vryheid in KwaZulu Natal and it was only when the Diocese of Swaziland was established in 1967 that he returned to the country and that’s when we moved back with them as a family. My dad would on a Sunday do more than three services in different places that were not close by and had to walk to all these places with my mother as he did not own a car at the time and that meant he left us with some parishioner families who eventually became our extended families. Life with our parents meant moving from one place to another as my dad would be transferred from parish to parish which were in different towns or villages. Church work became a part of our lives, no servers available for a service, we had to do it, no sacristans- we helped our mom, nobody came to clean the church we had to do it, no choir we sang and loved it. I must say though that for my brother all this was pure abuse of the first order. When we started high school my brother and I went to Anglican boarding schools, a boys and girls school, I only spent two years and went back home. We still visited our grandmother’s home on holidays, which actually was more our home than the church environment life. We shared that home with all that needed food, shelter, care. So we learnt that if you cooked, it must be a lot of food because as you sit down to eat, someone was bound to walk in and you must share. Wherever we found ourselves living, a vegetable garden was a must so all would have food. That rubbed to all of us siblings, as in all our homes we do have vegetable patches and fruit trees which we have planted. In the early eighties my parents moved to the Diocese of Pretoria, in a parish in Soshanguve & Mamelodi in Pretoria, Middleburg and finally in Bushbuckridge when my dad retired and returned to Swaziland in 1993. During their absence their families played a part in our lives, even though we were now working adults we still needed parental figures in our lives. I must mention that my mom and dad have also played a very important role in the life of my children;most school holidays were spent with them.

In Swazi tradition when a child is born, the child belongs to the entire family and community where one resides. The family has to make sure that the child is properly introduced so he/she can have a sense of belonging. This is done at the naming ceremony where a goat is slaughtered and the elders ask the ancestors to accept, guide and protect the child. This signifies that the child is now part of the family and is introduced to the forefathers. This is all done after three months after the child is born. A senior male in the family maintains communication with the ancestors. A senior family in the Motsa family was my dad – naming ceremonies for us were done as a family gathering and a small prayer service would be done. Did this mean he did not believe in ancestors, not at all, ancestors are those family members who have gone before us that we still respect and remember but do not worship. We have a living ancestor the Lord Jesus Christ. Despite the fact that all four of us were born in hospitals around the country, we never had birth certificates, and when we went to register for school we used baptismal certificates. I only acquired my birth certificate when I was already at tertiary.

Marriage in Swazi tradition is a permanent bond between the families of the bride and groom and their communities. The chief of both the bride’s and groom’s area are informed of the union. The first step is the lobolo negotiations which are basically to thank the bride’s family for their efforts in the upbringing of their daughter in a manner that simultaneously unites two families. I said permanent bond because even if the two divorced, as long as there are children in the union, both families continue to play a role together in the children’s’ well-being. Yes, lobolo was paid for me and yes I will ask for lobolo for my girls, even if they marry across cultures or race because that will not change who they are.

Death is a community affair, the deceased belonged to a family in a community and therefore friends and relatives attend an all-night vigil held the night before burial and during the night vigil, prayers and remembrance of events in the life of the deceased are recalled. This is also a way of introduction of the newcomer to the ancestors in the next world, a true celebration of life.

My story summarises the meaning of Ubuntu, “humanity”. Humanity to others and also that I am what I am because of who we all are. No one can exist as a human being in isolation. We are all connected somehow and family is the greater unit of relations, of living together. My story sums it all. My parents always had other people assisting them with their children. Indeed it takes a village to raise a child and it is simply that.

My family has been great and supportive of everything I have ever done. When I look at my childhood, there is for the most part nothing but good memories. I have understood from my upbringing that my environment has clearly shaped my entire adult life.


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