Monday I was up with the sun, dressed in my wrap dress, loafers and blazer, waiting for Stella and the Peace Corps Isuzu. I didn’t know when to expect them so I was ready by 6. At 10, the car pulled up in front of my homestead in Swaziland with the country director in tow.
We were halfway to Nsongweni High School, where I taught English as a Peace Corps volunteer, before I asked if we had a plan. Swazis are always referring to ‘having a plan.’
“We will meet with the principal first,” Stella instructed, clutching my gray blanket around her tiny shoulders. “Then we will meet with the teachers. Ruth will not apologize until they have voiced their concerns. It is best they talk and get it all out in the air. At the end she will apologize and promise to keep her nose out of their business.”
We had hardly taken one step into the principal’s office before students were summoned to move chairs across the hall to the staff room for my trial.
I sat on one of the backless chairs in the middle of the room as the director and the principal stood, hovering over me like gargoyles.
I glanced around the room. The deputy principal stood directly across from me, in front of cubbies holding the occasional broken stapler, box of chalk or dirty rag. At one end of the room, a dozen younger teachers lined the walls. At the other, behind an imposing desks piled high with exam booklets, five senior teachers held court, glum and dour as executioners.
Stella began in her small pinched voice, her eyes only occasionally rising from the floor.
“We are here today because Ruth wrote something on her website about the school,” she began. “And we are here so that you can share your concerns.” She spoke slowly, enunciating each syllable, rounding out all of the ohs and stretching her lips wide for eeees.
One teacher shifted in his seat. The gregarious agriculture teacher, who liked chatting about America, sat with his back to me. Zipho, my Facebook friend, with whom I had shared the address of the blog in question, kept her eyes cast down.
After a few moments of silence, the deputy principal – a thin man in his forties - cleared his throat. Stuffing his hands in his trousers and straightening his back to appear larger, he started from the top.
“She writes something --- I don’t know it exactly but --- but if you go to Asia, you become spiritual,” he waved his hand for effect. “But if you go to Africa, you are drunk and laughing.” He continued.
“It has been written that one teacher smelled of alcohol, that one teacher is near retirement, that some teachers don’t go to class, “ and then, that “our beans look like vomit.”
At the mention of such heresy, poor Mrs. MS Dlamini, the mild mannered head of the English department, let out a gasp.
“We love our beans,” she murmured. “And this has wounded us very deeply.”
I wanted to explain I had written about another’s dried beans, not the baked beans served at school, but I remembered the admonishment to remain silent.
Ms. Mohammed said the cleaning lady had been terribly hurt when she heard I had written how her bristled brush hit the baseboards. The deputy principal said I was two-faced, especially when I had told him I understood corporal punishment but then wrote that ‘he was like a child with ice cream cone’ when he inflicted student beatings.
The agriculture teacher, his back still turned, referred to his notes.
“She says she is trained as a journalist,” he sneered, “but she lies. She is writing that only a few teachers go to morning assembly and students ask her to come to their classes.”
Again I kept silent, tears starting to dribble down my cheeks. The country director handed me a starched handkerchief.
The principal seemed most concerned about the state of the school buildings. “She says there are broken window,” she said pointing to the cracked staff room windows. “These windows are not broken.”
And then pointing to the linoleum floor, she said, “These floor tiles are not cracked, like she says.” My eyes fixated in front of my chair where the tiles by the door were worn through and blackened.
Couldn’t the heart of the matter be a cultural misunderstanding, suggested Stella. “It is like saying someone’s shoes are looking like your grandmother’s shoes,” she smiled. “The same thing mean different things in different places.”
The principal told how on a recent visit to the Cultural Center, she had been deeply offended to overhear a tourist asking someone to take her picture next to a statute of the ‘broke king.’
I racked my brain before it dawned on me that the tourist must have been referring to Swaziland’s king, one of the richest men in the world, who was pleading for a government loan from its neighbor South Africa. “It may be true, but he is my king. He is my king.”
After a moment of reflection, Stella nodded. It was time for my apology.
“I am so very sorry if I have offended anyone,” I blubbered. “It was not my intention to hurt anyone. I was just trying to tell my friends and family what it was like here. I have taken down everything from the Internet. I will not write any more about the school. I hope you will forgive me.”
Mr. Nhlabatsa, an English teacher who moonlights as an evangelical minister, suggested the teachers mull over my fate during the holidays and vote on the matter in January. Stella’s eyes must have widened, thinking how impractical it would be to wait a month if the Peace Corps must move me to another site – or fire me.
Then Old Mr. Twala slowly rose from his chair. “She has done a great many good things at the school,” he said. “And I think she should be forgiven.”
I burrowed my head into my borrowed handkerchief. Mr. Twala, who appeared to have a bad smell under his nose whenever I entered the room, had come to my defense and with only a few words had completely changed the course of the proceedings. Old Mr. Twala, of all people.
“Who here has never sinned? Who has not made a mistake? Would we all be thrown into a pit --- be burned in hell for our sins?” chimed in a history teacher. A small sermon on forgiveness ensued.
And so it was decided, without show of hands or a vote, that I should be allowed to return to school in the New Year. No doubt the Peace Corps considered it a victory and I suppose it was a relief.
But the teachers never extended themselves to me again. Though I had never been warmly welcomed, the teachers’ reception was even frostier after that. They were wary of me, and rarely -- if ever --- spoke to me. And never in English. I had always been an outsider, but now I was a trespasser. I lasted another term, but after a few months of solitary confinement, I decided to terminate my Peace Corps service and return home.
Another Peace Corps volunteer, who taught in Boston’s inner city, said that American teachers would have had the same reaction. She said any school, like any company, would be just as unaccepting of criticism. Especially if it’s true.
But what I wrote on my blog had not been meant as criticism. A dissertation on the woes of Swaziland’s education system would have looked very different. My blog was intended to be a snap shot of my life, living and working as a Peace Corps volunteer in Swaziland. I had truly only wanted to paint a picture.
“What can I write that will give people a flavor of this place?” I wrote in my journal days before posting that entry. “I have hesitated to write until now – wondering where to begin, anxious for it not to sound too negative. Writing is not as easy as it looks. All words have connotations, are gray with each reader’s meaning. I want to describe the people and the place with clarity. Unfortunately language is a primitive tool in my hands.”
But hard as I had tried not to offend, I still ended up wounding good people and ruining any chance I might have had to affect change during my service in Swaziland. In retrospect, I should not have written that blog post. Or at least, I should not have offered up its address.
Perhaps I should have been quicker to describe the children’s enthusiasm for learning or the good work that many of the teachers do. And I definitely should have been more forgiving of the teacher’s reticence to have me there and their fear I would do --- just what I ended up doing – telling the world their educational system is a failure.
I don’t know whether a more rosy depiction would have changed anything. But I do know that I am more grateful than ever to live in a country where I can express myself freely and where most everyone is respected for a paragraph well written or an opinion well-informed. That, I will never take for granted again.