The cultural heart of Swaziland is at Lobamba. This is where 10,000 virgins dance for the King at the Reed Ceremony in August. The National Stadium is there, across the road from the Houses of Parliament and the National Records Office. It is possible to visit Parliament when it is in session, but you must be suitably dressed (I have a wacky animal print tie, but I need a jacket). No such formality is required to visit the National Museum. Ascension Day is a public holiday here, and we were the only visitors in the museum.
The receptionist saw that I was driving an MSF car and charged us local admission rates. I think she was so grateful to see us that she left her cubicle and showed us into the main exhibition hall, pointing out the most interesting displays. I liked the montages of everyday household items, such as three-legged milking stools, porridge stirrers, pots, drums and woven baskets. Even the backdrop was excellent – beautiful line drawings of people using the implements.
I also enjoyed the mannequins dressed in traditional clothing. There were no undergarments on display. I saw a chap wearing a traditional cloak, wrap and furry animal skin in the clinic today. Like a true Scot wearing a kilt, this man had no difficulty showing me what was wrong just by hitching up his loincloth. All was revealed.
There were a few pieces of art created by modern Swazi artists, which were excellent. I was taken by the embroidery: “Women wearing pointy shoes, never do any work, just sit and wait for payday.”
No museum in Africa would be complete without a few dusty dioramas, a stuffed buffalo being chased by a moth-eaten lioness. But there were some witty touches regarding the origins of man and the development of tools.
The strangest exhibit was a stone statue of Krishna which had been found in Swaziland fifty years ago. No one seems to know how it got there from India. One theory has it that the gilded image was brought across the Indian Ocean from Portuguese colonies (Goa, Daman & Diu) to Lourenco Marques (now Maputo, capital of Mozambique) as a totem to be traded for goods in the hinterland.
My favourite area was a marvellous display of sepia photographs of Swaziland dating from the late 19th century. A collection of ladies posing for the camera wearing ill-fitting brassieres, recently distributed by missionaries, no doubt. King Sobuza II, as a little boy, standing in front of a beehive hut with his mum. In his tribal and British regalia. The post and telegraph office set up by the British in a tent at Mbabane. A poor Boer family of sheep farmers. A Catholic priest’s altar set up on a Norton motorbike. A group of priests resembling the Rasputin Brothers.
Swaziland is a small country, so people tend to know one another. But it was by sheer chance that last weekend, I went game counting with Bob Forrester, the only archaeologist in the country. I found out that he designed the museum, virtually from scratch. He was pleased I noted all the humorous touches. Bob was born in Swaziland and has put together an amazing collection of photographs of the history of the nation. All these pictures can be seen in the digital archive. I think you’ll agree, he has done a wonderful job.