While it may be a bit far-fetched (we should, after all, hope that our elected officials are using a correct map of the continent!) the clip does point to a larger problem: the dearth of even general knowledge about African countries, to the point that even those people who should probably know the most about issues in Africa (good – yes, there are successes – and bad) have gaps in their information.
Yet education is power in the struggle to place African issues on an even playing field with more, well-known regions of the world. To that end, this post will introduce the first of several spotlights on African countries, which will provide brief background and recent developments in countries whose stories are not necessarily in major newspapers, or on television, and whose images you may not be familiar with. Nevertheless, the people of these countries are a part of the approximately 1 billion Africans living across 53 countries on the continent – and learning about them can help bring you one country closer to knowing all about Africa!
With a population of about 1.1 million people, The Kingdom of Swaziland is a small, land-locked country – bordered in the north, west, and south by South Africa, and in the east by Mozambique. It is one of the world’s last remaining absolute monarchies. Despite Swaziland’s size (about that of New Jersey), it is divided into four regions – Hhohho, Lubombo, Manzini, and Shiselweni - each with administrators appointed by the King, and further governed by traditional chiefs.
With a long history of inhabitation pre-dating the colonial period, the Swazil Nation came under British rule of southern Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries. Following the Second Boer War, the country was named a British protectorate remained so until it achieved its independence in 1968. A delicate –and at times tenuous – balance between the monarchy and parliament currently governs the country, while activists who seek more democratic change in Swazi politics, continually call for improvements. However, King Mswati III has served as the nation’s king since 1986, and is noted to uphold the traditions of his father, including retaining firm control of power in the country. While student and labor activists in the 1990s, were able to exert pressure on the monarch to introduce political reforms, the long anticipated, new constitution – introduced in 2006 – left the status of political parties, previously banned, at best unclear.
Swaziland’s economy is fairly diversified, though it is primarily composed of services industry, manufacturing (particularly textiles and sugar), agriculture, and subsistence farming. While the government is seeking to improve the economic atmosphere in the country for foreign investment, as the country has ties to Taiwan, its economy remains closely linked to the South African economy, which imports about 70% of its products. Other key trading partners include the U.S. and the EU. As a member of the southern African Customs Union (SACU), Swaziland has also benefited from increased revenues and its external debt has declined significantly in the last 20 years.
Unfortunately, overgrazing, soil depletion, drought, and occasional floods pose problems for Swazi agriculture programs. At the same time, growth has been stymied by the effects of HIV/AIDS, as Swaziland is the country with the highest prevalence in the world of approximately 26.1%. Average life expectancy is just 31 years of age, according to the AVERT AIDS charity. Since the declaration of AIDS as a “national disaster” by the King in 1999, campaigns have been initiated through media, schools, and workplaces, and targeting vulnerable groups, such as orphans. Overall trends in 2009 indicated that HIV prevalence in the country is stabilizing; however, there is still much to be done – including more open debate on HIV issues and increased funding for prevention programs – to tackle the challenges of the disease.
The majority of Swazi people live in rural areas and continue to engage in a variety of traditional practices. Traditional Foods include sishwala, a thick porridge normally served with meat or vegetables, sitfubi, fresh milk cooked and mixed with cornmeal, and siphuphe setindlubu, a thick porridge made of mashed groundnuts. Christian and indigenous beliefs are the major religions in the nation and the official languages of the country are English and SiSwati. One of most well-known Swazi customs is the annual Reed Dance
an 8-day ceremony held in late August or early September, where girls cut reeds which are then presented to the queen mother, and then perform a dance. Traditionally, only unmarried women without children may take part. The ceremony signifies the importance of preserving girls’ chastity, pays tribute to the Queen Mother, and encourages solidarity by working together.
Swaziland is a fascinating, if little known, country in Africa, whose stability is inevitably entwined with that of other, southern African countries. Keep reading Just Africa for more spotlights in the coming weeks. For additional information on HIV/AIDS in the region, check out resources on Africa Action’s website, including our latest press releases and talking points!