As a child, I BANGED the piano keys when I played poorly. Once when I botched the Minuet in G, my father left the room, wincing at the discrepancy between noise and true notes. Off-key discrepancies taught me to listen. I believe in discrepancy—the discordance of what is and what is supposed to be.
Lately, I am attentive to an end-all of discrepancies: a culture of death in a beautiful land. Swaziland, where my young daughter and I recently visited, is a tiny nation geographically swallowed by South Africa and slightly bordering Mozambique. Her mountain vistas, game reserves, dusty villages and lush gardens charm, as does the beauty of Swazi women, prized for their looks outside their homeland. But treasure would be stolen, and HIV mines a priceless cache, leaving generations of few.
Swaziland’s flora and fauna flourish among a blighted population, declining by 60,000 a year. With her 46% HIV rate, the world’s highest, the common Zulu greeting, “Hamba Kahle,” “Go well,” rings hollow. Life expectancy, about 30 years, means orphans live in crowded households, 10% headed by children.
Women, many with balanced bundles on their heads, have the same legal status as children and struggle with most Swazis living on less than a dollar a day. Polygamy, infidelity, abuse, and early teen sex set cultural rhythm, like a dirge.
In our car, Jack Johnson’s unlikely melodies played through the iPod as we passed thatched rondavels, like hobbit-houses, and roadside markets spilling crafts. I thought, “This is the Africa of my third grade social studies book.” Stopping for cows in the road (“Swazi speed-bumps”), a late-model Mercedes whirred past—harmless anachronism.
In the world’s last absolute monarchy, King Mswati of Swaziland parades virgin, half-naked girls in a yearly “reed dance” to choose his next wife. He rules with a $100 million dollar fortune and fourteen wives, palaces and luxury vehicles to match.
NGO’s work in the tribal Swazi culture to slow the death march of HIV. I met a Texas woman who houses twenty-eight orphans in group homes. She dreams of children, famished in body and soul, becoming seeds of new life.
In an American HIV clinic, Rihanna’s music video blared. I imagined myself pregnant, abandoned, thankful for anti-retroviral drugs to save my baby, but grieving other loved ones. I couldn’t think long about the sick children. Rihanna’s refrain played: “Mama say, mama sa; ma ma coo sa…” The “possible candidate” of her “naughty” dance may be HIV positive. Her inability to refuse the exploding passion may compromise the next generation. Her “private show” is a public, life-and-death matter. “Mama say, mama sa; ma ma coo sa.” 1
Sometimes discrepancies die down, flatten.
In the West, death has boundaries. In Swaziland, life is getting pushed out of the way. But healing does happen, so disease cannot be all there is in store. I know we were meant for life, and that the long, low moan gives way eventually to songs of deliverance.
1 Rihanna, “Please Don’t Stop the Music”.
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