Family Matters

Karen Radford Treanor 


Copyright 2022  by Karen Radford Treanor

Photo of Mrs. Zwane.
Photo of Mrs. Zwane.    

After all the feel good business involved with starting up the Peace Corps, Washington discovered that if you wanted to send out useful volunteers to the developing world, they had to have some experience in development. An English Literature graduate might be useful in a high school but he probably wasn’t going to know much about plumbing or building or farming. Sargent Shriver sent out word that tradesmen were wanted, and that a few families would be accepted as an experiment. We were among the first of the families in the Peace Corps, and we worked out pretty well—largely due to the support and assistance of our housekeeper, Mrs Zwane. (ZWA-nee)

Mrs. Zwane was no ordinary housekeeper and babysitter. Having seven living children of her own, she was far more expert than I at the mothering game. I could go out to my daily work at the handcraft cooperative knowing that my girls were being well looked after.

Our relationship was far more than a simple employer-employee one, which was normal for most Peace Corps volunteers. Initially, we all thought we were just hiring a housekeeper but ended up deeply involved in the entire family's lives and problems.

Mrs. Zwane had two teenage daughters and three little boys living with her. The two middle children were living with relatives elsewhere. I found myself in the role of Auntie to the children. As my clothes shrank under the merciless sun-drying and hot ironing, Phumzile and Sindisiwe inherited them. Tee-shirts and shorts that Beth outgrew went to the littlest boys, and because I felt guilty about having nothing for the eldest boy, I often found a little something for him, such as a pencil or notebook for school, or a pair of socks. You had to be careful not to appear to play favourites, so it was safest to give whatever it was to Mrs. Zwane with only a suggestion as to whom it might suit, and let her sort things out.

Mrs. Zwane ran our household with an iron hand. She diagnosed medical problems, advised on discipline, supervised the yard boy, and generally treated me like a grown-up daughter. Rarely did I get up nerve enough to act the part of mistress of the house and thanks to Mrs. Zwane's expertise, I rarely had to.

One night there was a terrible storm. Short of a New England hurricane in full cry, I have never seen storms as spectacular as those in Swaziland. They come out of nowhere, massive banks of roiling black and green clouds, covering the earth with weird light, and expelling gouts of lightning towards the iron-rich earth. Thunder reverberates in your bones, and the wind tears up anything it can pry loose.

In the midst of one of these storms one night, we were reading the children a story, because both had gotten out of bed saying they couldn't sleep because of the noise.

Half way through the huffing and puffing at the Second Little Pig's house, there was a noise at the door. I thought it was the cat, and eased the door open a few inches. In came a large soggy bundle, which sat on the floor and said "I know it's late, but I had no one else to come to."

"Mrs. Zwane! What are you doing out in this weather? Why aren't you home?"

"My home has gone away," said Mrs. Zwane, bursting into tears. "And Maliabongwe has been burned."

"Gone where?" I asked, completely mystified, “Burned how?”

"The wind has taken my roof and part of my wall and turned a lamp over on Maliabongwe and burnt his leg. Oh, dear, what shall I do?" wept Mrs. Zwane.

My daughters were horrified. They had never seen Mrs. Zwane break down. Neither had I. We had to do something, but what?

Gene said obviously the first thing to do was to get Mr. Zwane. This was no simple act, as he lived elsewhere with a new wife and had shown himself singularly uninterested in helping his old wife on previous occasions of difficulty.

Gene wrapped up Mrs. Zwane and Bethany in blankets and hustled them into the Volkswagen. I have no idea now why he took Beth along but it seemed the right thing at the time. Neighbours were caring for the Zwane children temporarily, and someone had found the village nurse to tend the burned leg, so the most urgent task was to find Mr. Zwane and get him working on the problem of the damaged house.

I stoked up the fireplace and the coffeepot and prepared to wait out the storm with Erin-called-Njabuliso, who was still wide awake, trotting up and down the hall yelling, "Whee" every time the thunder rolled. A falling barometer always made her hyperactive.

There was a particularly bright flash of light and a roll of thunder right atop the house, followed by the unmistakable smell of burning wood. Uh-oh.

Baby over my shoulder and flashlight in my hand, I toured the house, sniffing deeply. The hatchway in the ceiling was too far away to reach without an extension ladder, so I couldn't check what might be happening in the roof space. Putting out the lights, which miraculously hadn't gone out of their own accord yet, I went from window to window, seeking signs of fire.

Finally I discovered a large branch hanging from a white, raw wound on the tree at the end of the driveway. This was what the lightning had hit, and the source of the smell of burning wood.

Eventually the storm abated and Erin ran aground on the dining room table with her head in the centerpiece. I carefully transferred her to her bed and sat down with a book to await Gene and Beth's return. At this point the lights went out. I was an old hand by now, and had prepared candles and matches as soon as the storm began. I lit enough to give a decent reading light and put another log on the fire.

From the darkness at the end of the hall came a slithering noise. Thoughts of snakes seeking shelter from the storm passed through my mind; then I got hold of myself: what snake in its right mind would be out on a night like this? Shining the torch down the hall I saw the cat, unhappily trying to rid itself of a doll blanket that a little girl had fastened around its neck. I removed the blanket, making a mental note to speak to Beth about the dangers of tying anything around anyone's neck.

Now that the wind had died down somewhat, one could hear other noises. The roof timbers of the house creaked, the lid of the ashbin clattered, and the stove chimney, which we had been meaning to fix, moved uneasily on its moorings. The wind found every unchinked cranny, and small cold breaths whistled through the house.

It was all rather spooky, so I took the decorative Swazi spear down from the wall and kept it beside me.

The cat was asleep by the fire when I again heard slithering noises from the dark hall. Just then a puff of air put out the candles near my chair, leaving only the glow of the fireplace for light. The flashlight seemed to be losing its power: I remembered meaning to buy new batteries.

I clutched the spear and fumbled with the matches. To relight the candles, I had to put down the spear, but I couldn't seem to get my fingers to uncurl. It took a lot of juggling in the dark before I finally had the candles going again. I edged down the hall with the faltering flashlight under my arm, a wavering candle in my hand and the spear thrust before me. From the dark a little voice said, "Want water."

Propping the spear against the bookcase, I escorted Erin to the kitchen, got her a drink, and tucked her in again. I returned to the kitchen and made some jerry-rigged hurricane lamps with candle stumps and water glasses.

Just then there was a pounding at the back door, which I had bolted after Gene had left.

"Who's there?" I quavered.

"Neville Chamberlain, who do you think? Open up, it's wet out here."

After telling me his mother's maiden name and our anniversary date to establish his bona fides, Gene got in, bringing a damp and sleepy Bethany with him. After she had been dried and put to bed, I poured a couple of drinks and settled down to hear of their adventures.

Mr. Zwane had been run to earth 26 miles away after a long search which had included negotiating Malagwane Hill twice (scene of most of the fatal accidents in the kingdom), and searching most of the beer halls in town.

"Luckily, Mrs. Zwane finally remembered it was the night before pay day and therefore her husband would be at home, broke," said Gene, towelling his hair and setting his shoes by the fire. "We found the place after four or five wrong turns. We more or less kidnapped him and took him back to Mrs. Zwane's place. I felt like a traitor leaving her there with him, but there's nothing that can be done until daylight, and I had the handy excuse of Bethany, who was getting very tired."

"I suppose Zwane will give her a hard time, but it is his responsibility to at least keep a roof over his family's heads," I said.

"Well, said roof is presently floating down the Umbeluzi River," said Gene. "I'll stop by tomorrow and see what we can do to help."

Gene ended up buying a sack of spikes and a lot of baling wire, and instructing Mr. Zwane and some of his friends in the technique of holding a roof down, gleaned from the Peace Corps "Village Technology Handbook", one of the most useful DIY books ever published..

Mrs. Zwane was soon rehoused. A lot of the new mud and cow dung plastering she had done was destroyed by the storm, but Gene obtained some white paint which enabled her to redecorate in style.

"You're a good man to spend so much time and money helping the Zwane family," I told him.

"Common decency aside, I knew that if I didn't do something to get them back in their own home by Christmas, you'd have them here, and the thought of all those children plus our own two fighting over two drumsticks was more than I could have taken, volunteer or no volunteer."

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