There is a large cliff at Mantegna Falls, a steep and rocky climb. My fingers barely grip in each small crevice, and my toes cling to every small overhang as I pull my body up the face of massive rock. At the top, I am too out of breath and too dizzy from the steep drop to remember why I have put forth so much effort. I only pause for a moment to take in the grand view of mountains divided by this river pushing through between the rocks, and the top of all of these old trees staring up at me. The waterfall is just to the right, sill towering over me, blessing me with mist as it falls 20 meters below. Its urgency to continue on its broken path is loud, and distracts my thoughts of the task at hand. I step out to on the ledge; shaking as a few small pebbles roll past my white knuckled toes and tumble down, vanishing into the cloud of mist. There is no turning back, for there is no other way to get down off this ledge but to jump. Every second spent looking into the depths below make it 100 times more difficult to rationalize this daring fete. Eyes closed tight, lips pressed tightly together as if not to let a word of good reason to slip out. I push off the rock until there is nothing but air and drops of mist pushing back at the souls of my feet. I am suspended for what feels like hours, feeling heavy as I fall, feeling as if I will never reach the pool of water that awaits me. Screams cannot escape my lips. There is no time for fear, only to fall. When I finally hit the water, it is like hitting a brick wall, but the sensation is euphoric. Blissful happiness and relief fight through feelings of exhaustion and terrifying apprehension. This mix of emotion, this level of complete and utter exhaustion, is how I can best describe the weekend of my Teka.
Preparations have been made for months. It has all been a checklist of things to do and things to bring to our rural homestead in Mankayane. We have made endless trips to the far west side of Swaziland, winding around mountains, and through forests, down a long and rocky gravel road to the homestead of George’s deceased uncle. This homestead has become our second home in recent months, an hour away from the lights, and busy roads of Mbabane, where cellphone reception happily disappears for a few hours. As we make our way there, on the way to my teka, the air in the mountain seems thinner. My fingernails are feeling the gravity of my nerves, and the dust in my lungs won’t settle, making me forget to breath. What normally feels like a long drive is passing in seconds today; and within one long blink we are entering the long grassy driveway of the homestead.
The yard is busy with people; although it is still afternoon and the festivities do not begin until the early hours of morning. We unload our supplies, build a fire and wait as more and more people arrive. I felt like a statue watching the fire, as people shift and move around me, the clock completing it’s circles in fast forward. There was no sleeping, my eyes were too nervous to blink. By 2am, I was forced to retire, as tradition with the teka requires an early morning rising. Although with a true teka, the bride-to-be in completely unaware of the events in store, and the wake up in the morning is suppose to take you by surprise; my suspense of knowing, but waiting is far worse. I lay in bed, listening to the bustle outside my door for what seemed like eternity. Fighting between wishful thoughts of them to just begin already, and longing for sleep to come so I can postpone the events for just a little while longer.
I lay there for hours, staring at the corrugated iron ceiling, until finally I heard the words that would set the teka in motion, like a gun firing to begin a marathon. The pounding on the door was almost mistaken for the beats of my heart, that I thought would certainly leap from my chest. Three people entered the small room and grabbed me from my bed. A crowd was outside signing traditional teka songs. They wrapped a heavy, black terry-cloth skirt around my waist, removed my shirt so I was left with only a sports-bra to cover my nakedness as I was marched out into the cold winter night. I followed a procession of woman to a make-shift kraal which was thankfully empty of cows. They placed me in the middle of their circle, and gave me a spear to hold. This spear would represent my eternal marriage to George; if he were to die before me, I would be able to fend for myself, and these same women would come to me upon his death and shave my head with this very spear to mourn his passing; I am bound to this spear for the day as I am bound to George in life. I stand gripping the shaft tightly, fighting the cold, and the confusion of people surrounding me, who are signing loudly. I am supposed to cry now, but nerves stunt the tears. George’s sisters, to encourage the tears, sling a few words in my direction– it is their sole duty to make me cry until sunrise. I must shed tears to mourn the family I am leaving behind and to honor the family I am joining. It is also a test, as is the entire ceremony, of how great my love is for their brother- how much can I take from them willingly, before I give up and if I give up, the test has been failed and I am not worthy of him.
I laugh to hid my feelings, knowing that George’s family isn’t one to purposely hurt anyone without cause- I am failing to take them seriously. I try and fake cry as George’s mom had instructed me. I close my eyes tight, and block out the many voices circling the air. I think of everything that has ever made me sad: Sally Fields screaming in the graveyard in the movie Steel Magnolias. The dog Hackio waiting for his dead owner to get off the train. My family at home who I haven’t seen in over two years. Letters from my Grandmother about birds and the weather. Then without warning, something happened, tears began to roll down my cheeks. Their cold, wet trail caught me by surprise, but their flow was unstoppable. I looked up at the early morning sky, which was unbelievably bright and full of stars. Little puffs of white breath floated above the heads of those around me as they sang, creating one large smoke ring above our heads, with myself in the center. It was beautiful. I cried at its beauty. I cried feeling tiny under this massive sky of spot lit stars and planets looking down at me. I cried until their was no sound; the sobbing escaping from the depths of my belly were canceled by the voices joint in song, and the songs were muffled by the waves of my heaving cries. Although I was standing among a crowd, I felt alone; but not abandoned. I felt as if I was watching everything from above- seeing my body among these people, on this homestead. Watching the men by the braai peek around the corner- stealing glances at the ceremony. Seeing glimpses of George’s parents walking by, holding back cries of their own for me. Watching the women sing and dance in unison. Feeling the neighbors smile in their beds in their own homes, knowing that a special union was taking place today. It was a strange sensation. I felt the love and warmth of those around me. I felt the guidance of loved ones I have lost in my life. It was a truly spiritual experience; a graditude of which I have never experienced in my lifetime.
For 3 hours I cried, but time didn’t feel like seconds, minutes or hours… just space. Every few songs, one of the woman in the group would stop their singing and make crying sounds for me, so I could take a break. The auntie leading the ceremony would nudge me and say, “hey, don’t cry now. When someone cries for you, you must rest.” But the tears wouldn’t listen, they just kept coming. I would sob quietly and watch the mesmerizing shuffle of the girl with the sequence mustaches on her shoes, waiting for the next opportunity to release. It was a very transcending experience. I felt closer to God somehow. I felt lighter. I felt as if my Grandmother was there guiding me, and encouraging me—she would’ve been so intrigued by this adventerous life I am living.
The sun rose from behind the mountain, and warmed my tear-streaked face. I felt so happy. Happy this part- the part I had dreaded the most- was over, but also just happy. When George’s parents are satisfied with my mourning and it was time to leave the kraal, the Ngozolo, who represents George’s family, runs to the gate, chasing the woman away with a branch. The women scatter like livestock, and I run as well. I’m confused, tired and light headed but I run in every direction my feet will carry me, like a chicken just let out of cage. He catches me and I push him away, unsure if I am suppose to be caught. He grabs me again and whispers in my ear, “It’s ok, come with me.” I am still trying to catch my breath from the running, and convince my lungs to slow their convulsions from my crying as he calms me down, leading me to a far corner of the homestead with the other woman, where we sit on reed mats and make a fire.
I’m left with these woman for a few hours, warming ourselves from the cold of the early morning by the fire. They bring tea and bread, and then boil water for bathing. We take turns washing in a bucket, preparing for the introduction to the elders.
The night before, George’s mom, whom I adore greatly, told me she was no longer my friend during this ceremony. Her role is to dislike me, and show all those around us that I am not worthy of her son. As she walked toward the small group of woman sitting in the corner, with 2 Bogogo (grandmothers), I could see her sympathy lingering in her eyes, and a small smirk on her face that screamed to me, without words, of her pride in me. It was hard to play my role of submissive mourner as she approached, her presence alone warmed my heart, and I had to hold myself back from leaping from my seat and wrapping my arms around her in embrace.
I sat quietly as the elders talked to the group of us in SiSwati, and tried desperately to train my ears to understand the words. They passed around a pitcher of Umcombotsi (traditional homemade wine) and Mahewu (fermented pourage), which we shared as they talked about why I was brought to this homestead, what my intentions were, and why I thought I was good enough to be here. The conversation, although very important, was short and warm in question and the responses given by the woman next to me.
It was a short time later that I was instructed to stand; a welcome task, as my back was burning in pain from sitting in the Swazi traditional way with legs stretched in front, and hands folded in my lap. We stood in a line, with myself leading, head down, walking slowing like a captive in a chain gang. The woman sang behind me, gathering the chaos of people in the homestead as they stopped and watch the procession return to the kraal. We did not enter this time, only stood by the gate, with the woman to my back as they sang, and I bowed my head, holding my spear. George’s niece, Jade, had been chosen by his family to be my Inhlanti, which is a child that is given to the new couple to help them in their new life together, in Swazi culture we become this child’s second parents. Children in Swaziland are very important in the roles and responsibilities of the home, helping with the cleaning, cooking etc; traditionally this child would be sent to live with us to lessen the burdens of our daily lives. Jade is sitting nearby, playing with a blade of grass, confused by the day’s events, and I can see she is longing to come a stand by me. She has always been my shadow, since my arrival in Swaziland. She gets her opportunity when the Ngozolo comes running back to the group of woman, and chases us away. I grab my Inhlanti’s tiny little hand and we run to the gate of the homestead. We run, as they chase us, until George’s mother screams “BUYA!” (come back) when we have run far enough. This is my official acceptance by his family, and the first words George’s mother has spoken to me. They have allowed me to stay, but my test is not over.
I am ushered back to the homestead by a mighty sea of people, and made to sit on another reed mat in the dusty yard in front of the house- the first time I have been allowed in the main areas of the homestead. I sit with Jade who is confused, and staring at me with big wondering eyes, as a hundred eyes and camera phones stare back at us above. A Gogo comes to us with Libovu (red mud) in an old beer tin that has been cut in half, and begins to paint my face. One quick mark on my forehead, each check, nose, chin, each shoulder, inner elbow and one on the top of each foot. Then the tin is handed to me to paint jade in the same manner. This mud is made from the red African soil of Swaziland, shared by the soles of all Swazi’s including my family, who is being represented by the family I stayed with when I first came to this little Kingdom as a Peace Corps Volunteer. The soil is sacred and shared, and as I paint it on George’s niece, our families are also shared together.
We are then led into the house where we again sit on another reed mat. Legs stretched, back paining, and a never-ending crowd of people entering and exiting the house around me, taking pictures of our freshly painted faces. After a while, the Ngozolo enters holding a large white goat by the horns, a gift to the teka by his father, George’s uncle. The goat will be slaughtered in our honor, although I am not allowed to eat it. The head will be eaten by George, which is a great honor reserved for dignified members of his family- today he becomes a man in the eyes of his community and the men of his family. The forehead of the goat will be skinned and made into a bracelet that represents my wedding ring. It is cut and twisted onto my wrist and then covered by a handkerchief that is tied tightly on top, until the fresh leather hardens. In a month I will be allowed to cut through the leather and remove it, until another traditional event of importance arises. The meat will be delivered to my family in Tikuba on Sunday, as a gift in return for the Lobola (dowery) that was paid to them, in return for the bride they have provided (me). Because my true family is an ocean away, my Tikuba family will be offered 1 pregnant cow for representing my family during the teka ceremony, the remainder of my Lobola, 14 cows will be paid to my father in the USA, but will remain in Swaziland on our homestead.
The waiting continues inside the house. Michelle (George’s sister) comes to visit with me, which is a welcome distraction. She brings me food, the first meal I’ve eaten in 48 hours. She keeps me awake with conversation, and finds excuses for me to escape and have a few seconds for myself outside of the small, crowded room. When the goat is slaughtered and divided, it is time to fetch water for the men who will be cooking the honorary parts. A large crowd of women gather inside the house, and out– singing me to the car that will bring us to the river that flows 3 km’s away. I am so thrilled that we are cheating, instead of walking the long distance. As I get into the car, ready to escape, for just a moment to anywhere outside the homestead, the auntie’s face appears through the tinted glass of the truck. The Ngozolo is by her side, carrying a thick, freshly fired hunk of meat. I my rumbling stomach screams in excitement for just a split second until I remember where I am, and this meat is most likely not meant to cure my hunger. I am instructed to take a bite, chew and spit out. The goat’s heart is tough like taffy, and tastes of iron. I do it quickly like ripping off a Band-Aid, but the taste remains. This goat is a gift to me directly, and the heart is the most sacred part. I am not allowed to eat the goat because it is mine, but no one else may eat the heart. My quick taste is my acceptance of this gift, and my understanding of its cultural significance.
The back of the truck is standing room only, as we drive slowly down the rocky gravel road. Songs echo off the surrounding mountains as we pass, alerting the entire community that a teka has and is taking place. We arrive at the river and I am given soap to wash myself and Jade as the crowd looks on, never ceasing their song. When I am clean, I am undressed, and adorned with a new dress, Sidziya, a traditional outfit of the bomake (mothers) in the rural areas, and includes a Liduku, a small piece of matching fabric that covers my hair. I am now a Make, a wife, and most wear this Liduku and a skirt whenever I enter a Swazi homestead- a way to show my ranking to other community members wherever I may be in Swaziland. It is stiff, hot fabric, and the fatigue is beginning to set in.
We drive to the turn-off to the homestead and file out of the car with two buckets of water. I take one 10-liter jug on my head, carrying my spear in my left hand and gripping tightly to the top of the jug with my right hand, willing the water inside to stop slushing against the sides. My steps are even and slow, but the water continues to pound against the side of the container, digging into the top of my skull and increasing the nagging headache I’ve suffered from since morning. The crowd of women follows me, singing as usual, and the sun allows me no mercy from its burning rays, that are trapped in this stiff dress. A crowd gathers on the homestead, I can see people dancing in the yard as we approach. As I get closer, the camera phones, are out and I am poparozied near tears. A cousin takes the jug from my head and as soon as the soothing feelings of relief are felt they are drowned in the water being spilt on the ground, as George’s family dances with misguided joy around the puddle. I knew this was part of the test, and I expected the water to be spilt as I walked with it on my head to the homestead, but watching it happen sent a stabbing sadness to my core. I turned away quickly so no one could see my tears, and began walking to fetch the second bucket. I cried silently, with the crowd’s song in toe, covering any sign of a whimper that escaped and keeping my cover safe. By the time I reached the second bucket I had convinced myself to stay strong and finish. I rose the bucket to my head and marched. It was a much easier journey, although this bucket was open at the top and I was expecting to be wet with water by the time I reached my destination, I was somehow able to avoid it. I walked into the yard, and the crowd had grown. People were stopping in front of me to take photos, therefore stopping my determined march. I could feel the frustration rising faster then I could keep it in check. I reached what I thought was my finish line, but the crowd urged me to continue. Arms shaking, neck breaking under the weight of the water. Finally another cousin removed the bucket from my head, and I felt no sympathy as is a little spilled on him, when my knees gave out and turned to jelly. The procession that had followed me for the last hour danced around me in a clostrophobic circle, whistling and singing at the top of their lungs and then led me out again into the yard. I must bring back firewood, and I am happy that Jade is by my side again, distracting my thoughts for just a moment or two. The Ngozolo has prepared a bundle of small branches, so small I laugh, but am relieved that again they are allowing me to cheat just a little. The parade continues back to the house, as cameras click, click, click around us. We unload and voices rejoice that I am done. I have finished all of my tasks.
I am so overwhelmed with happiness and relief that I have to fight back tears. Then a hand grabs my arm and begins leading me away. What now, I think to myself as I see another empty reed mat laid out on the lawn in front of the house. My back stabs with pain before I am even instructed to sit. I look for George’s face among the crowd, but cannot find him. Just eyes staring back at me, and cameras reflecting my own distraught face back at me through their lens. I have an overwhelming feeling to run away and I begin looking for a break in the crowd, but find none. My breathing quickens, and the claustrophobia sets in, I have to go. My emotions of joy, happiness, fear, fatigue, anger, frustration, sadness are colliding and are about to explode. I get up quickly and run to the backside of the house, passing whispering voices as I go. The open air of my hiding spot is a welcome sensation, and within moments George appears, dressed for the first time ever in full traditional attire. He is a sight for sore eyes, and for the first time all day I am able to hug him. I relish in his company. I am happy to have someone else dressed up traditionally, and it somehow gives me the strength to go back to my reed mat, in the middle of the crowd.
I do not sit for long before the Gogo returns to me and beckons me to follow her into the house. My arm gripped tightly in her fist, and George’s arm in the other. We are led to yet another reed mat on the cold cement floor of the house and instructed to sit next to each other, with our new daughter between us. The Ngozolo appears, holding what appears to be a blood covered, brown balloon. I am not phased, and before I am educated to what this grotesque thing is, I know this next task will not be pleasant. The Gogo says a few things in SiSwati, I am grateful I do not understand until George says “open your mouth”. The Ngozolo holds the thing over my head, purposely dripping a few drops of the putrid liquid on my forehead before I taste the bitter, sour landing upon my tongue. The Gogo kneels down and puts a few drops on my right shoulder, inner elbow, and the top of my foot. Swallowing is hard, and I fight the urge to return this thing filling my mouth back to them. George receives next, and I am secretly happy that at least this time he has had a taste of my days ordeal. He looks at me with big sad eyes, as he too struggles to swallow, but I know his look says he is grateful for my strength throughout the day. It is only after I was able to wash down the powerful lingering bitterness from my lips, that I could ask what this substance was. Bilal from the goat’s stomach, to represent the long hard, and sometimes, bitter road of marriage. Opposed to the sharing of a single slice of wedding cake, this tradition prepares the new couple for a true and realistic life together, it is not always sweet, and if we can share in the bitterness and fight the urge from the deepest part of our bellies to give up, then we can make it through our marriage together.
The day ends with songs and traditional dancing. I sit with Jade and George’s mother, clapping, laughing and smiling despite my eyes that are heavy with the day’s exhaustion. I greet my new family, share a drink to seal the ceremony’s events, and converse with a few friends who have joined us late to witness and celebrate our union. When every ounce of energy has been spent, every last word my few remaining brain cells can collectively combine to create speech has been utilized, I am struck by the most desperate and demanding urge to sleep. I sneak off to my little mattress, in the dark and welcoming cold room where it all started. I remove my traditional dress with a stifling relief and redress myself in jeans and a t-shirt, despite my desire to sleep, I am unbelievable happy to have a little piece of my former life on my person- I feel at home. I lie down and sleep comes easily; I smile as I go over the day’s events briefly in my head. I’m proud. I have made George and his family proud. I hear the whisper of voices through the wall, praising my commitment to Swazi culture and welcoming me, through conversations between others, into the family. For everyone this has been a once in a lifetime event, and my commitment to this traditional ceremony, as a non-swazi, has left behind something of a legacy to those who where there to witness. As my head becomes heavy with sleep, I don’t dream, I don’t stir, I just sleep… the most peaceful, blissful, fulfilling sleep of my life; my first as a Swazi wife.