My eyes settled on the New Testament in my room at Mountain Inn, provided somewhat stereotypically by the Gideons. I expected it here, a place that sometimes feels more safari than Swazi. But as the weeks have gone on, I have started to see faith reveal itself throughout the country.
As we snacked on lady fingers and rooibos tea in the cramped kitchen of the clinic we visited with Thembi, an elderly nun in a white veil introduced herself as the head of the school across the street. She explained that she is originally from Italy but has been in Swaziland for forty years, the dregs of an accent still fermenting in her speech like an old wineskin. In almost Hollywood fashion, her eyes fell as she lamented how the children these days have started to lose their way.
Sinzo, our driver for the past week, asked us to open the car ride to Nhlangano with a prayer. Both Expert Clients we met with for the CDC project expressed the importance of their Christian faith in their experiences living with HIV. On the way back to Mountain Inn from Manzini, there is an enormous sign for the “Eden Guest House,” showing a light-skinned Adam and Eve in leafy loincloths. Each emalangeni bill reads, “God is our source.”
These are, undoubtedly, legacies of colonialism.
There is a story that King Sobhuza I had a dream that white-skinned people would come bringing a book, the Bible, for him and his people to be saved. In response to the king’s subsequent call, and according to its own history, the Methodist church sent missionaries to bring Sobhuza the book he sought. But not all Swazi kings were as accepting of Christianity. After generations of persistence through persecution, missionaries ultimately succeeded, and now almost 90% of Swazis are Christian, including King Mswati III, the great-great-great-grandson of Sobhuza I.
I cannot ignore the bloody history of colonialism in general and of religious evangelism in particular, of family separation, discrimination, and cultural genocide around the world. As a Christian, especially a white American Christian, I cannot forgive the evils that have been done here and elsewhere in the name of my God. But I also cannot deny the genuine faith of the Swazis I have met.
It would be easy to discount Swazi Christianity as an artifact of colonialism, poisoned fruit of a poisoned tree, but I cannot stop thinking of the religious experiences I have had here. I think of Tyson Mkoko, eldest son of the family who hosted us in KaShoba, standing up in a church made of mud and testifying that God had healed his father of multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis. I think of Thembi, who proclaimed in front of a second church that Jesus loved her as an HIV-positive woman even after her first rejected her for the same testimony. I think of Sinzo, who did not care if we were late to our meeting so long as we got to see the oldest church in Swaziland, built by the Methodists sent in response to King Sobhuza, which happened to be nearby. From the simply profound to the profoundly simple, they live their testimonies.
While part of me aches for the pain I know religious colonialism has caused, another part sings with the joy they have found for themselves in faith. It is an admittedly uncomfortable position in which I find myself, and I don’t think I will ever reach a satisfying resolution. But it is up to all of us, especially Christians, to continue the conversation about the colonial nature of evangelism while resisting oversimplification, and ultimately to trust the lived experiences of the people we meet, regardless of whether or not they worship the same God, different gods, or no god at all. We just might be surprised by what we find.