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One Year in Swaziland: Lessons in Intercultural Communication

This essay was written for a special project in Modern Languages & Linguistics (MLL) under the supervision of Dr. Stanley McCray of the Department of MLL at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) May 19, 2004.

The summer after my sophomore year at UMBC I was preparing for an adventure unlike any I had ever known. That August, instead of the usual plunge into the fall semester, I was planning to participate in a one-year program called SALT (Serving and Learning Together) through an international relief and peace organization called the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC - Akron, PA) in conjunction with the UMBC Shriver Center. My assignment was to work with a local faith based HIV/AIDS education initiative in the Kingdom of Swaziland.

Swaziland is a small country of about a million people nestled between southern Mozambique and the eastern part of the Republic of South Africa. Although Swaziland is not a large country, nearly forty percent of the adult population is HIV positive, ranking this small kingdom with nearby Botswana as having the highest rate of HIV infection in the world (Whiteside 12). Swaziland is a largely homogenous country with the majority of its population consisting of ethnic Swazis who share a history with the Bantu peoples who migrated to southern Africa and more specifically with the Nguni people including the Xhosa, and Zulu people who make up a considerable portion of neighboring South Africa’s population.

Swaziland is the sole surviving monarchy in Africa and is currently under the rule of King Mswati III. A parliament and high court of elected and appointed officials does exist as an artifact of Afrikaner and British influence and government. However, democracy has been stifled and political parties banned by the rulings of the King and the strong influence of Swazi tradition despite growing dissatisfaction with Mswati’s performance as leader of the Swazi people.

A unique aspect of the SALT program is the emphasis on being immersed in the culture in which participants are living and serving. To facilitate this, participants are generally assigned to live with a host-family. I lived with a Swazi family located in a semi-rural area a few miles away from the principle city, Manzini (population: roughly 55,000), commonly called the “hub” of Swaziland.

My first few days and weeks in Swaziland went by fairly smoothly. Everything was fresh and new; I was enjoying the adventure of my new home and was excited about the new sights, sounds and people I was meeting. Having known numerous people with overseas living and travel experience, I was familiar with the term “culture shock.” However, until I experienced it for myself, I thought of it simply as the experience of being in a new and unfamiliar place and an unfamiliar culture. As I learned, culture shock is not only the initial surprise and wonder along with feelings of dislocation and homesickness that accompany a visitor to a new culture, but can be a journey through which the visitor can become at least partially assimilated into the host culture.

Culture shock was a long process for me that lasted several months. After the honeymoon stage of the first few weeks wore off, I was forced to deal with the reality of being in a culture that operated on different principles than my own. Perhaps more importantly I had to deal with the fact that, regardless of the cultural differences, I was in a place that was not mine from the beginning. In mid November, about three months after I had left home, I was really struggling to find my niche in Swaziland. In a journal entry dated November 15, I wrote, “I just want to be away from here. … I hold so tightly to home. Am I afraid to really be here?”

I was at a crossroads, a place where my way of doing things was smacked up against the Swazi way. The values of my culture, such as punctuality, setting goals, hard work, performance and directness in communication, I learned, were emphasized differently in Swaziland. I am not trying to say that these values are absent or that Swazis are lazy—I know many hard-working Swazis—however, these are not the most important things. Who you are is more important than what you accomplish in Swaziland. What is your surname, where is your home, who are your parents and family?

Based on these observations, the authors Everett Rogers and Thomas Steinfatt would characterize Swazi culture as a collectivistic culture where the community is esteemed more than the individual (86-87). The value of the individual is only as good as the value of the community. According to Rogers and Steinfatt, the United States is an example of an individualistic culture where independence and individual goals are of greater value than interdependence and collectivism (86-87).

Despite the difficulties I faced as I adjusted to life and work in Swaziland, I consider myself fortunate that my host-sister, Sithembile, was also the coordinator of the HIV/AIDS education project I was working for. She had considerable experience working with and relating to North Americans and had even spent a year living in the U.S. in a program of MCC similar to SALT that brings international visitors volunteers to North America for a year. The degree to which Sithembile and I were different, our heterophily, was balanced by the common ground or homophily that we shared (Rogers and Steinfatt 45-46). Though our backgrounds and experiences were vastly different, we had a certain amount of mutual understanding on which to base our communication. Sithembile was my usher into her culture. She knew where I had come from and had an idea of what my culture was like and was therefore able to help me understand her culture better. She was acquainted with many of the differences in our two cultures and was able to answer my questions and helped me deal with my frustrations as I became more at home in Swaziland. My relationship with Sithembile prepared me for interactions with Swazis who were less familiar with North America and North Americans and served as a guide for communication with whomever I met.

Edward T. Hall described two culture classifications based on the comparison of the amount of information stated explicitly, as opposed to being implied in the context of conversation (Rogers and Steinfatt 90). In high-context cultures, to a greater extent than in low-context cultures, the communication depends on the relationship between the communicators, and the situation in which they are found (Rogers and Steinfatt, 90-92).

While adjusting to life in the high-context culture of Swaziland, one practice I found difficult to adjust to at first was the indirect approach to maintaining friendship through promises. I found that it was not uncommon for someone to promise to do something, or to meet somewhere sometime with no real intentions of following through. Sometimes someone would even request or suggest that I do something (as opposed to promising themselves) with them or come to see them somewhere. Sometimes these promises and suggestions were carried out, but other times I gathered that they were merely a formality, a way to uphold a friendship without the burden of being or doing more than you really could, and perhaps more importantly, without saying, “No.” I remember one instance when on a trip to the store with Sithembile to buy bread, we met a neighbor who suggested I come and help him with his maize (corn) harvest. I stumbled with my words for a bit, wanting to say what I meant and mean what I said, but essentially agreed that it would be a nice thing. On our way back home I expressed how I felt to Sithembile, who replied to the effect of, “Bhuti (brother), you know he wasn’t really expecting you to come.” Perhaps some of my experience with this was exaggerated due to the fact that I was an outsider in Swaziland and to have me as a guest would have been an honor, but it still taught me to be mindful of the way I interpreted and understood the culture in which I was living.

This experience, a year of life in a host-culture as a part of a host-family has been the most important thing I have done since finishing high school. By forcing myself to engage in intercultural communication in this way, I learned not only about a new culture and a new way of doing things, but I gained a new perspective on my own culture, the world, and myself. I went to Swaziland with the notion that perhaps I would serve or give back at least as much as I would learn, but I left confident that I could never repay my Swazi friends and family for their investment in my life and my experience in their country.

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References:

Rogers, E.M., and Steinfatt, T.M. Intercultural Communication. Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press, 1999.

Whiteside, Alan, et al. What is Driving the HIV/AIDS Epidemic In Swaziland and What More Can We Do About It? April 2003. Accessed online at www.nercha.org.sz September 25, 2003.

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