when I first moved to my new site, near the town of Siteki I noticed beautiful colonial style houses dotted along the dirt road heading out of town. They stand out among the small, square, stucco houses more common to Swaziland. I have often tried to glimpse over the high fences of these lavish homes to get a better idea of what they are and maybe where they had come from, but for the last 3 months they have remained a beautiful mystery that no one could seem to shed any light on.
It was through a random conversation during my trip to the London Bus Camp that the curtain began to open—just a peek. I was later given a small history book on the Lobombo region of Swaziland that included the stories of the old houses. It was fascinating, and I finished the book in one sitting. I know now that I will never look at these old house, or the streets of Siteki, our little “tiny town” on the plateau, the same again.
Swaziland has a rich, diverse history. Being a tiny landlocked nation within South Africa, it could not escape the colonization from the europe when land all over Africa was being dived amongst the “civilized people” of the west. As it turns out, Siteki was the first colonized town in Swaziland. Europeans from all over the globe came to settle here on top of the plateau to enjoy the generous ocean breeze sweeping over the mountains from the Indian Ocean, while they farmed the land in the lower veld areas which were known for their extreme heat. The plateau also provided a direct route to Mozambique, on which they exported Gin down a long dirt road stretching the length of the plateau and across the border. This passage came to be known as the “Gin Road” to all the settlers of the area, and happens to be the road I now live on.
The first to settle in this area was a man named Charles Dupoint- he built a beautiful home just outside current day Siteki, which is now, unfortunately in ruins- only a few remaining walls remain, and evidence of a grand brick fireplace. Dupoint was rumored to have as many as 30 wives, and 40 odd children. He owned several acres of Swaziland’s first sugar cane fields, and basically owned the town- which is probably why he thought he could get away with murder. Dupoint had a bad habit of making the people around him disappear. His wives, his ranchers, his slaves; all turned up dead. Eventually when he was around 80 years old the locals were tired of their families mysteriously going missing, and the police claiming they could do nothing to prove the allegations; Dupoint was chased out of town, and across the border by an angry mob.
During the early 1900’s Siteki was recognized as one of the first official towns of Swaziland, predating mbabane the present day capital and manzini which is now the largest city. It was comprised of a few scattered homesteads, and nearly every european settler in Swaziland. Because of the wealthy crowd, it also became the epicenter for aristocratic entertainment. Large, lawn parties serving all the gin you could drink- I can’t help but to picture a scene from “The Great Gatsby” (my favorite book). Yes the plateau was a raging socialite hotspot complete with the first hotel (still currently ran by the same family), the first and still largest golf course (although no longer operational), and the first government animal reserve (even though they killed off all the wild animals for game- and had to close the park (some of the stuffed game is currently on display at the hotel)), in Swaziland.
The town continued its grand parties and lavish lifestyle for decades; that is until the new border post was opened several miles away at Lomahasha. The new border post offered a quicker route to the beaches of Mozambique, and didn’t require the rough roads across the plateau to get there. Siteki instantly went downhill, losing all of its luster. Business that depended on travelers heading across the border closed down. Settlers that came to Siteki as a hub to export their goods were moving closer to the more convient post. It seems that nearly overnight Siteki realized the party had moved on, and with it all of the colonial party goers found new places to call home, leaving behind only a few pieces of evidence they were ever here.
As you wander around Siteki now it is hard to imagine the streets bustling with wealthy aristocrats, strolling the sidewalks with their corsets and parasols. The city has been built up in the last few decades, to be a modern, typical Swazi town. The hollers and whistles from the busy bus rank echo down the one small stretch of road, and sidewalks are riddled with bomake selling fruits or airtime for cellphones. Plastic bags and debris blow and collect in every corner. The magic of Siteki’s early era is long gone.
I have still only seen glimpses of these houses as I drive by on the khombi, but now that I know the rich history that surrounds them I am eager to see them up close. I have spent the last 24 hours, since starting and finishing this book, telling every poor unfortunate PCV that graced my path the adventures of Siteki in it’s heyday (not everyone is a nerd like me). I think, although most looked at me with blank stares as I excitingly recounted my tales, a few fellow lobombo volunteers are interested in a day of exploration soon. When that day arrives, I will try and post some photos, so you can see the mystery too.