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Wood-looking

Swaziland

It was 4:30 a.m. and I was sitting at the “bus station,” which is, in fact, a large boulder at the side of the dirt road about a five-minute walk from my house. The moon was bright enough for me to write in my notebook, and the sun was still an hour from rising. I knew that I was at the correct boulder because it was the one that says “Jesus Is Coming” on the side. When I first saw the message glowing dimly in the moonlight, I wondered if He would get here before the bus, and if so, how much He would charge for a lift to Manzini. There was not a soul in sight, and only the crowing of a rooster drowned out the whispers of the wind in a lone pine tree across the road. The boulder was uncomfortable to sit on while trying to write. I could see about a mile down the road, where the bus would be coming from.

Suddenly, I heard voices nearby and then, faintly, the growling sound of the bus, grinding through the gears as it labored up the hill just out of sight. I saw its two glowing eyes as it crested the hill. About fifteen people arrived to board it. I could see the cloud of dust following the bus in the moonlight, looking like a long, sinuous snake.

The ride into town was strenuous and dusty. Whenever the bus stopped, the dust caught up and whooshed in the open windows. Someone had tied a goat on top, and it bleated constantly. The large lady sitting next to me was clutching a chicken in a plastic grocery bag with its head sticking out. Every once in a while it would cluck loudly and struggle to escape the bag, flapping and squawking for a minute before it settled down. The woman paid no attention to it.

In Mbabane, I got my pay—the modest living allowance that all Peace Corps Volunteers receive—did some quick shopping, and arrived at the Peace Corps office at about 9:45 a.m. The transport driver was waiting. It was Bongmusa, the same man who had taken me out to my school when I first arrived in Swaziland. We loaded up and drove to Piggs Peak and on to Mondi Timber. I had written to the manager of Mondi Timber explaining that it was difficult to teach woodworking without wood and asking if he could donate some scraps.

The drive from Mbabane to Piggs Peak was about sixty kilometers. It was a beautifully scenic route. I had started the day at sea level, in a scrub desert climate, and traveled through the middle veld, where the fruit trees and major grain crops were grown, and three hours later I was at 3,500 feet above sea level, driving through towering eucalyptus and pine forests. It was much cooler in the mountains, and the streams were clear, fast, tumbling water, instead of the muddy and sluggish trickles that I was used to.

Mondi Timber was a huge lumber operation with a large sawmill. I found the yard manager and followed him to his office. I introduced myself and explained what I needed. He took me back to the yard and pointed out some piles of rough-sawed, slightly weather-beaten planks, and told me to take what I wanted. I thanked him warmly.

I got the driver to bring the truck around, and we started loading the planks, stacking them neatly in the bed. When the load reached the level of the sides, I was ready to call a halt. Bongmusa disagreed. He explained that since the Peace Corps would let me have the truck only once during the school year, I should get as much lumber as I could. We went back to stacking wood. Bongmusa poked some one-by-twelve planks into the sides, standing on end, and before long, the wood was about a foot higher than the cab. The truck was squatting down in back from the weight of the wood.

Finally, Bongmusa was satisfied. We tied the load down as securely as we could. I have never seen a truck so overloaded. I asked Bongmusa if he was sure that we would make it all the way to Elulakeni without breaking down. He assured me that he had carried heavier loads.

As we rolled slowly out the gate of the lumberyard, I felt like Jed Clampett of the Beverly Hillbillies. So strong was the feeling that I broke into the theme song. “Well, let me tell y’all a story ’bout a man named Jed, a poor mountaineer, barely kep’ his fam’ly fed . . . .”

Bongmusa listened carefully. When I finished, he asked, “Is that a traditional song in America, Sam?”

“Yes, Bongmusa, it is a song that we sing when we have a load that is very large on our trucks,” I replied. How else was I going to explain it?

“Was the man named Jed your king? And do your mountains have ears?” He was seriously trying to make sense of the song.

I spent a half-hour trying to explain the premise of the Beverly Hillbillies show. It didn’t translate that well between our cultures.

Only the first hundred or so miles back to school were on a paved road. As soon as we hit dirt road some of the wood slid off the truck. We stopped and reloaded it and retied it. We did this six times before we reached the school. The rough road made the overloaded truck seem to waddle like a duck. More than once, I thought that we would tip over completely. There was no electricity at Elulakeni, so we unloaded the lumber in darkness, throwing it through the open back door of my woodworking shop, into a huge jumble.

I was extremely happy to have it. There was more than enough wood for all my classes for the next year or more. Some of the wood was going to make benches for my classroom so the boys would have the luxury of sitting.

What a useful thing wood is for a woodworking class. But so far I only had the means to teach “wood-looking.” Now all I needed was some tools.

Sam Birchall (Swaziland)

Sam was a woodworking and technical drawing teacher in the kingdom of Swaziland. He has a B.A. in economics and management from Wilmington College, Ohio, and lives now in Austin, Texas.

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