Stories: Injustice Meets Empowerment in the Kingdom of Swaziland

For some reason Wednesday was a rough morning. There wasn’t any particular reason it should have been. It was a beautiful sunny day in Johannesburg. I was barefoot (mostly because the scent from my shoes could kill a full grown bear, but the fact remains.) We were even going out to lunch later. I should have  been in a great mood. Inexplicably, however, I couldn’t shake the overwhelming feeling of a nearly supernatural weight. Even after two cups of coffee I couldn’t make my way out of the fog.

After I sulked around quite noticeably all morning, Laura suggested I head to the chapel for a few quiet minutes alone. I obliged and sat down, attempting to strike up a supernatural conversation. As I sat in the presence of God in the Eucharist I began to quiet myself. I repeated a couple of simple prayers over and over. This narrow focus seemed to help my ADD mind, and I think I got a little insight into my sour mood.

I am overwhelmed. It’s not anyone’s fault. We’ve been treated very well. It is, however, incredibly difficult to reconcile the difficulties the children in our province are facing. Take Malkerns, Swaziland for an example. In Swaziland, there are no formal policies against partner rape and no central policies for child protection. The HIV infection rate, by some estimates, is over 35%, the highest in the world. Corporal punishment is commonly accepted in schools and in some cases children have been beaten to death at the hands of their teachers. Violence is prevalent and it often comes to a head in the areas which Salesians live and work.

On June 5, 2016 Fr. Martin McCormack was alerted to a horrific discovery made by a group of young boys. In the bushes around the soccer field at St. Anne’s School they found the deceased body of Nobantu Sukati, a teacher and favorite of many of the girls at St. Anne’s primary school in Malkerns. Aside from being a beloved teacher and mentor, Nobantu was a graduate and teacher of the leadership program started by Father Martin. Nobantu had been stabbed five times before her body was dragged across the soccer field by a man who was said to be her boyfriend. The Swazi times reported that her 26 year old partner is suspected of luring her to her death “after they had a short argument over the previous weekend.” Her distraught pastor stayed with the body through the night and talked with police to lead them in the right direction in finding her killer. Nobantu was 23 years old and in her second year of university studies.

The next part of the story is what helped pull me out of my funk.

Two pupils of St. Anne's, the school where Nobantu Sukati taught

Two pupils of St. Anne's, the school where Nobantu Sukati taught

The community was outraged. The conversation around gender based violence had been brewing for a long time, and it now simmered to a boiling point. Determined not to let this tragedy occur in vain, Father Martin mobilized local leadership and sprang into action. A march was organized, the national press caught wind and police and local officials signed up to lead the demonstration. T-shirts were printed, articles were written and social media buzz built around the event. In the end, 3,000 people marched through the streets of Swaziland demanding concrete measures be taken against gender based violence. Though Father Martin gained notoriety for his efforts in organizing the march, his primary concern remains equipping the young men and women of Malkerns for effective leadership. He knows that the long term success of initiatives begun by the Salesians will only be ensured if the work continues after he is gone. Empowerment of the local people is not optional for sustainability, it’s essential.

Marchers, lead by local police, swell to over 3,000 strong as they call for substantial legislation on gender based violence.

Marchers, lead by local police, swell to over 3,000 strong as they call for substantial legislation on gender based violence.

Not coincidentally, the aforementioned Leadership Program in Malkerns is doing just that. In the last year alone, over 500 young people completed the training and are now able to equip their peers with tools for empowerment. Young people of both genders receive training on how to avoid gender based violence, and the dialogue around the issue continues to grow in effectiveness. In the shadows of violence, a peaceful light shines in the young men and women of Malkerns.

Father Martin McCormack, in his element, training trainers for the Leadership program in Malkerns, Swaziland.

Father Martin McCormack, in his element, training trainers for the Leadership program in Malkerns, Swaziland.

As I left the chapel I felt a renewed sense of purpose. When I got back into the office Laura was already making big strides on some overdue reporting that could help Father Martin and the Salesians in Malkerns gain access to future training to expand their leadership training.

I was done with my pitiful mood and good riddance. There’s no time for sulking in Southern Africa.

 

For more information on gender based violence and the challenges facing young people in Swaziland, check out Tibi Tendlu on Facebook, They've created a powerful documentary on the subject.