Community on a high
Swaziland’s wildlife is the big draw for most travellers, but its people can make an equal impact. One of the country’s most traditional communities is Shewula in the far north-east, an hour from Mkhaya, on the border with Mozambique.
We set off. The rains had brought people rushing to the roadside fields. Bent over, they worked quickly, picking sprouting umbhiduo, a spinach-like vegetable eaten with porridge. Women walked along the verge, heavy buckets filled with cow dung on their heads. Sat atop the Lubombo Plateau, 1,000m above sea level, Shewula soon appeared .
Once a place best avoided, the sort that attracted looks of pity from other Swazis, the tide has turned for Shewula. “People used to be ashamed of coming from Shewula,” said lifelong resident December Bladla. “But now we’re proud.”
But what sparked such a turnaround? “The Shewula Mountain Camp changed everything,” said December, referring to the seven circular huts that opened in 2000. Rooms are basic, the food rustic, but views over the Malolotja Mountains and Mbuluzi River are worth a million dollars.
The camp has revolutionised this remote and once impoverished community of 10,000. It was run by volunteers – including December – for the first six years until it started making money; now, staff receive a wage. It’s gone on to help fund and support significant social projects: schools, an orphanage and an HIV clinic offering free testing and counselling.
Grey slushy clouds rolled in during lunch. It seemed fitting, given that Shewula is named after the king of the rainmaking Sifundza clan. The tribe was forced out in the 18th century by a rival clan desperate to acquire their powers and the region went without rainfall for two long years. The Sifundza were begged to return with an apology and the offering of the other king’s daughter; they did, and so did the rain.