By the end of our stay at Zulu Nyala Country Manor, we had learned a few names. Petros made the best eggs, and Prince made sure we never ran out of coffee, and Molalu cleared our dishes with a smile. We knew Jodi, the aging brown Labrador who liked to play fetch with lemons, and Sunny, the shaggy mutt who showed us to our rooms and never stopped running. As he was packing our luggage onto the trailer to Swaziland, Petros told us the names of two of the other dogs we had seen around: Watson the dachshund and Skippy the collie.
But I never learned the names of the women who cleaned our rooms, the ones who collected our towels, who pushed our beds back together and neatly folded even our piles of dirty laundry. The women who greeted us in English with smiles as we passed before melting back into their conversations in Zulu or Xhosa or another language I didn’t recognize. The men who trucked wheelbarrows of paving stones and carried buckets of construction debris through the hallways, straining under their weight but always letting us pass in front. The woman who found us a bundle of firewood to make s’mores when everyone else told us there wasn’t enough. The guards who opened and closed the gates as we waited for Ubers.
As we sat in our new room at Mountain Inn in Mbabane last night, watching videos for inspiration for our film project, I couldn’t help but notice that everyone in the videos seemed similarly nameless. They had names, of course, but even when they were listed, they passed in a blur. Like the unnamed staff at Zulu Nyala, their lives and labor washed out in the broader story. They might have lived and died in silence had no one decided to point a camera at them. And these acts, the pointing of a camera and the “telling of their story” is supposed to be empowerment. And yet, we do not know their names.
We talked about this air of namelessness as a group, considering the ethics of naming individuals in situations where the information they divulge in their interviews might be dangerous or stigmatized. Even so, we decided we wanted to steer our project in a direction that would allow us to center and truly empower the names of the individual or individuals we choose to highlight in our film.
If we are to show the “Faces from the Frontlines” in our film, I want to know the names of the fighters. And I want you to know them too, lest they become merely faces of a faceless disease. We hope to build a project around a powerful individual, more than just a face but a whole person, with a real life, real challenges, and real joy, without diminishing their real pain but without focusing on it either. A name has meaning, has intention, has a connection to the past and allows connection to the future. History remembers names, not faces. And in that sense I hope we can make a little bit of history here.