From Katie: I met Greg my first week at work when he walked into his office and I was sitting behind his desk. This week he’s taking us to Swaziland, the last standing kingdom in Africa, where he has his family served for two years. As always, if you’ve got a story to tell, I’d love to hear it. KatieAxelson[at]gmail[dot]com. <>< Katie
Swaziland is a small kingdom in southern Africa ruled by King Mswati III who is considered one of the top ten worst rules in the world. Really he’s a fairly decent guy who rules by Swazi culture. For example, he rules a highly impoverished country but bought 13 Mercedes. Polygamy is legal and according to Swazi culture, what he does for one wife he has to do for all of them, so when one wife is given a Mercedes, all 13 (at the time) must be given Mercedes.
Swaziland is about the size of Connecticut with a population of 1.1 million people and proportionally the highest HIV/AIDS percentage rating in the world. When we began our work there in 2005, the life expectancy was 55. When we left two years later it had dropped to the mid-30s due to the number of babies and young people dying from AIDS.
Part of Swazi culture is to have funerals on the weekends. It’s a family event and all of Swaziland is invited but typically only local people come. When they come, the family feeds them. It’s an all-night vigil where the people stay up to visit with the family and pray to the ancestors. Well, there were so many deaths that the Swazi nation decided they couldn’t keep up with all of the funerals and they had to change their culture. They buried adults on the weekends and children during the week, going from a week-long funeral to just the overnight vigil because there were so many deaths.
What we learned had happened was that Swaziland, being a third world country, did not have a lot of jobs. Western culture invaded Africa and the people wanted money, so they went to South Africa to work in the mines. The men did inappropriate things, caught the disease, and took it home to their families, and that’s how it spread.
What we found was that there were 26 Baptist churches that wanted to reach out into the community but weren’t sure how to do it. As a human needs coordinator, my job was to help the churches come up with strategies to reach lost and dying communities. I tried not to take American preconceptions as to what works here but rather let them determine what works. It took them through the process of learning what a five-year plan is because they previously had no concept of long-range planning. They hold the mindset that they may not be alive tomorrow so why plan next week?
As we started talking about what to do to reach out to the community, we saw the biggest need was to feed and give clean drinking water to the orphans and widows. Most of the widows were what they call “Go-Gos” or grandmothers, older women caring for babies. To provide food, the church would take a plot of land and create a garden. For water, they’d install a well. While we were there we put in three large gardens and two wells.
Some of the churches got sewing machines and would sew uniforms for AIDS orphans to go to school. Each school has a different uniform. The churches felt they could provide uniforms for the orphans, and they could make extra to sell in order to buy more material and make more uniforms. That was quite successful. In Swaziland you have to pay to go to school, and school fees for children range anywhere from $50-$1,000/year. When you think of somebody who might make 10 cents a day, $50/year is impossible. The government says they’ll pay for schooling for orphans but logistically that doesn’t happen. Orphans get kicked out of school first, and teachers have no mercy towards them.
When we moved over, the government said they didn’t have a problem with orphans or AIDS because people don’t die from AIDS. AIDS weakens their immune system but they die from tuberculosis, the flu, or something else. They’ve come to realize that they do have a problem, and they’re seeking ways to change culture but what they’re doing isn’t very effective.
We kept saying that we have a cure for AIDS. They were all excited about that until we told them our cure for AIDS is abstinence. Our message fell upon deaf ears. There were a lot of young people who did buy into the message, and church youth groups were growing quite a bit. Originally churches had been working a lot with adults, trying to get this message to adults. Well, that was ineffective. Soon they started working with the youth, and they had more success but not a lot. So they started working with the children feeling if they can train up a responsible generation then they can change culture. True Love Waits actually began in that area of Africa and comes in every six months or so.
Christianity in Swaziland
About 95 percent of the people consider themselves Christian. Baptist studies showed the really about 3 percent are evangelical Christian. There’s an animistic religion (ancestor worship), so it’s very easy for them to incorporate Jesus as just another ancestor and label themselves Christians. We found a lot of people claiming to be Christian because they realized they could get something from it.
It’s the same with Islam. When we left, Islam was the fastest-growing religion in Swaziland. They were building mosques everywhere and were offering families free health care and free education if one family member converted to Islam. People were converting in droves for the education and health care. That’s the wrong reason to convert but their motive was no different than ours. They’ve got the right idea: offer to people what they need the most and then they’ll be willing to hear your spiritual message. That was the reason we took the job we did, that was our goal. The Muslims were doing it so much better because they had more influence and more resources.
Christian churches in Swaziland are fairly strong. We lose a lot of pastors. Some die of AIDS, others go to South Africa or somewhere else for employment because there’s not a lot of money. There always has to be a new crop of pastors being trained up. I would venture to say that the average age of a pastor is between 20 and 30. They were young, what we could consider college kids or youth. A lot of youth led churches.
The people are the most gracious, loving people you’ll ever meet. They will do anything in the world for you. It would upset us when we went to someone’s poor home and they offered us the only seat, the only plate, the only food, or the only spoon and we couldn’t turn it down. Here we are, we have more than we need, and they’re giving us all that they have. They knew God was going to provide the next meal for them. It’s an amazing, life-changing experience to sit down in front of somebody who has absolutely nothing yet he’s one of the happiest people you’ll ever meet.
There’s joy in simplicity, there truly is. We saw that so much. It’s definitely something we can learn from them. We can learn humility and relationships. Their whole culture is based on relationships with one another. They know how heavily they rely on other people and they know that’s why God created them, to be in a relationship not only with God but with other people. As Americans, we are so disconnected from other people. We can learn how to be in relationships with other people, how to give generously, how to pray, how to worship. They truly lay everything before God, and they communicate with God in such a beautiful way. Their prayers are powerful in that they’re heartfelt and sincere. When they’re giving thanks or a blessing for food, they know it was through God’s hands. He provided not their paycheck or the grocery store, it was God. When they worship, it’s a sense of genuine, heartfelt connection to God. A good part of their worship service is testimony. They’ll sing songs and people go up as they feel led to tell about what God is doing in their life that week and what they’re learning from God.
For us, God broke us completely while we were there. He taught us how important it was to be connected with other people in order to truly see God in community. Together we are the hands and feet as different people have different gifts and abilities. He taught us how to serve, not that we were serving but in how they served us. He showed us examples of that daily. He taught us faith that He is in control of everything and all things do come to good to fulfill His purposes. We broke down after a couple of months of being there. It was just so hard. I remember standing in the shower crying because I hated it there and at the point in time I said, “Ok, You want us here so You’re going to have to take control” and He did. From that point on, it was wonderful. He taught us that we have to give Him control even though we think we know what’s right; we don’t, we have to rely on Him for that guidance and judgment.
Pray for Swaziland
Pray for their spiritual healing. Pray for a change in culture because that’s the only way society is going to live. They would be considered the first country to become extinct because of a disease. We know the only way that’s going to change is through a heartfelt relationship with Jesus. They’re going to have to practice abstinence. We need to pray that they can wait, that the young people will wait so that when they’re married, they’re both HIV-free and can live in a monogamous relationship without having to worry about disease.