Watching the World Cup in Swaziland

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Shaun Raviv


An hour before the game starts, the kids want to paint, so we unroll the drawing paper and bring out the buckets. It's a cold night in the midveld of Swaziland, and Bafana Bafana, the South African national team, is about to play an overdog Uruguay squad in the World Cup.

On the map, the kingdoms of Swaziland and nearby Lesotho look like teardrops, tiny nations landlocked by South Africa and Mozambique. Nearly 25 percent of adults in Swaziland are HIV positive, which means the orphanages are full. Today, the kids and I are doing an art project.

The only colors we need are black, green, blue, and yellow because the kids want to paint the South African flag. They like the South African flag because the horizontal Y is easier to paint than the spears and shield of the Swazi flag. While they paint, the kids listen to South Africa's East Coast Radio and sing the 1990s songs I grew up on, like "Nothing Compares 2 U" and "Wonderwall."

By the time we move to the main house, the TV is on and the Uruguayan national anthem is being sung. The kids have created four South African flags and spilled a puddle of black paint on the floor. The homesteads where they live are located off a dirt road 12 kilometers from the South African border. Before going inside, the kids kick around a homemade soccer ball made of dozens of plastic bags wrapped into a dense sphere.

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Shaun Raviv

The man who owns this house is addressed by all with the respectful title Umkhulu, which means "Grandfather." He is HIV positive, as are all the adults on the homestead. This remote area of Swaziland has the highest prevalence in the country. None of the children here are positive, but one of their six-year-old sisters is. She was negative at age four, so it is clear she is being sexually abused. Nobody on the homestead will reveal who the culprit is.

Umkhulu's property is one of just a handful with electricity in this community of 300 homesteads, each home to about 20 people. His house has a corrugated metal roof with cement walls covered in mud. There is no running water, but he does have a giant JoJo tank and doesn't have to make the daily walk to the community pump up the road. He once owned 18 goats, but last year all but two got sick and died. Today, his small living room is packed with a dozen people eager to watch South Africa play.

This is an African World Cup and Africans are hoping for a local victory this year, as unlikely as it is. The powerhouse teams come from South America and Europe and the idea of South Africa, the host country, pulling an upset is increasingly in doubt as we watch Uruguay score its second goal off a questionable penalty call on the Bafana Bafana keeper.

The game ends with a Uruguayan 3-0 victory and I never get a chance to hear the homestead erupt in cheers. Not a vuvuzela in sight, the room is mostly quiet the whole game, except for the kids giggling and whispering to each other in siSwati, a language mutually understood by the Zulus in South Africa.

A week ago, I watched the World Cup opener on a big screen in city of Mbabane with 2,000 Swazis. When South Africa drew 1-1 with a strong Mexico squad, the country seemed more alive than I'd ever seen it. But tonight, the team cannot reclaim the magic. Its last hope lies in an unlikely victory over France tomorrow morning. Whatever the outcome, in the rural homesteads of South Africa's little brother country, thousands of overlooked Bafana fans will be watching.

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Shaun Raviv is a freelance writer based in Accra, Ghana.

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