Passing the Torch—Swazi Volunteers

Seventy percent of the 1.1 million people in Swaziland, an absolute monarchy in Africa, live under the poverty line. Tzu Chi volunteers from South Africa have worked there since 2012 and have inspired many local people to join their ranks.

People wait beside a billboard in the Manzini region for the bus to take them to work.


The heat wave was in its second week on the day the Durban international volunteers, photographer Hsiao Yiu-hwa, and I arrived in Swaziland. The 40°C (104°F) heat reddened everyone’s faces, and we even saw animals killed by the heat on the roadside.

In 2007, Tzu Chi joined force with the Philani Maswati Charity Organization and Tex-Ray Industrial Co., Ltd., a subsidiary of a Taiwanese company, to distribute rice in Swaziland. That rice distribution became an annual event. However, a single aid distribution each year provided only brief and temporary benefits to the recipients. Tzu Chi wanted to do more for the needy there. In 2012, volunteers finally opened the door to regular and long-term aid to the needy in Swaziland.

Initial trip

The Durban international volunteers first set foot in Swaziland, a totally strange land for them, in March 2012. Their first stop was Manzini, where Tex-Ray was located.

The volunteers talked about Tzu Chi to anyone they happened to meet. In the village of Mhobozweni, they met Sibusiso Simelane, who apparently had had too much to drink and kept saying that he had a pitiful life. Volunteer Michael Pan asked him to take them to the family in the village that most needed help. Simelane took the group to the Sithole household, consisting of two members: Thabitha Sithole, 70, and Thandeka Sithole, 26. The elder woman had been bedridden for three years due to diabetes and a stroke, and her granddaughter was disabled by severe skeletal deformities.

Neither of the two women could care for themselves. Their home was filthy and disorderly beyond imagination; even their crumbling beds were soiled by their waste. Feeling for the family, the volunteers set out to clean the place up. They heated water to bathe the two women. They put clean clothes on them and took them outside to get some sunshine. They sang for them. The two of them smiled under the bright sun. “This is the first time I’ve seen them smile since I met them,” Sibusiso Simelane said.

On their second trip to Swaziland, Tzu Chi volunteers saw the Sitholes lying comfortably on mattresses donated by local volunteers. On their third trip, they discovered that another granddaughter of Thabitha’s had come over to care for the two of them. They also noted that the house and its surroundings appeared clean and neat. On their fourth trip, the volunteers arrived at an empty house. They discovered that Thandeka, the granddaughter, had died and that Thabitha had moved in with her family elsewhere. On their fifth trip, they learned that the grandmother had passed on as well.

“The experience with the two of them left a deep impression on our Swazi volunteers. We were all saddened,” said Durban volunteer Gladys Ngema. “But the whole thing also clearly illustrated that what Tzu Chi wanted to do was to go into communities to help poor families and inspire love in people.”

According to statistics released by the World Health Organization in 2015, the life expectancy of Swazi people in 2013 was 53, just seven years longer than that of the people of the Republic of Sierra Leone, which ranked last in the world. Swaziland is one of only a few remaining absolute monarchies in the world. The king and the royal family live lavishly while most of the country’s population live in poverty.

Visits to local villages and communities have revealed to volunteers that many adults die young of AIDS, leaving their orphans to be raised by the elderly. They live in poverty, in dilapidated accommodations, lacking food and necessities. “People’s lives here are harder than ours in Durban,” volunteer Tholokele Mkhize declared.

Swazi volunteers have learned from their counterparts in South Africa to cultivate vegetable gardens to feed the needy in their communities.

Swazi volunteers have been able to provide food for 1,500 orphans in their communities using rice donated by the Taiwanese government and vegetables they grow themselves.

The Swazi trio

The Durban team followed their initial trip with regular visits. Again and again they have visited Swazi communities, some familiar and some new, to help the needy and motivate people to join in their work. Over the last four years, their example has led the ranks of Swazi volunteers to swell to more than 1,500. Through their work with Tzu Chi, these Swazi volunteers have helped advance the foundation’s missions in their country and at the same time changed the course of their own lives.

Mumsy Simeland lives in Manzini, the second largest urban center in Swaziland. Raised by her grandmother, she rarely saw her mother when she was growing up. Even though they lived in the same community, the two of them seldom met or talked to each other. They remained that way for 22 years.

While she could smile warmly to others, Mumsy had difficulties being pleasant to her own mother. “After I joined Tzu Chi, I didn’t want our relationship to continue like that, so I worked up enough courage and talked to her.”

Mumsy successfully thawed her icy relationship with her mom by inviting her to a Tzu Chi activity in 2015. “Mom was surprised at first, but she later began volunteering with me,” Mumsy observed. “With Tzu Chi as a common subject, we’ve been able to talk to each other.”

Thembie Vilakati, 52, had always felt excluded from her parents’ love when she was growing up. Although all her siblings went to school, she did not even finish elementary school. “I can’t read or write, and I often feel inadequate as a result,” she said.

After her husband and older sister both passed away, she was left with the responsibility of raising the 12 children of the two families. She did not have a steady job, and she was often stressed out by having to put food on the table.

Despite that, “When I saw the Durban volunteers patiently wash filthy, sick people and clean up their homes, I realized that I, too, can give a helping hand by doing Tzu Chi work.” Her income was as unstable as ever, but she began dedicating one day a week to cooking for orphans in her village. The joy from helping others gradually rekindled her love for life.

Mumsy and Thembie often visit needy people in other communities together. To save on bus fare, they ride the bus only part of the way and walk the rest of the way, usually five to ten kilometers (3 to 6 miles). Though that tires them, they see a benefit in it: It is easier to meet people and introduce them to Tzu Chi when they walk.

Mumsy is well aware of Thembie’s financial situation, so she often brings her clothes or food. Thembie gratefully accepts the gifts and then transforms her gratitude into altruistic actions of her own. “It’s true that I’m very poor, and my life has been tough,” she said. “But when I see people in need, I still feel the need to reach out to them. Being able to give others a hand makes me really happy.”

Pastor Gcinumuzi Mbingo used to accept offerings from his congregation to supplement his income. “Though I was never greedy, I didn’t feel anything wrong about accepting offerings.” After he joined Tzu Chi, he began incorporating Tzu Chi ideals into his sermons. Some of his parishioners have as a result joined him in volunteering for their communities. Mbingo found in the process that instead of taking donations, he should be giving to others. “I regretted having accepted offerings over the years. They didn’t belong to me.” Now, when his parishioners give him things or money that he cannot decline, he simply turns around and gives the offerings to poor people, or donates the money to the funds that support the Tzu Chi soup kitchens for orphans.

After volunteering for the foundation for more than three years, Gcinumuzi Mbingo, Thembie Vilakati, and Mumsy Simeland visited Taiwan in November 2015 to receive their certification as Tzu Chi volunteers. They were the first three certified Tzu Chi volunteers in Swazi­land. With their efforts and those of other volunteers, the Tzu Chi missions are spreading and taking root in that African country.

Durban volunteers and Swazi volunteers have been able to work better together after learning to accommodate each other along the way.

Working together

The Durban team has visited Swaziland over 40 times since their first trip. They have worked closely with local volunteers and passed on their experiences to them. They have been through many firsts together.

Preparing for their first winter distribution, the Swazi volunteers, in the company of the Durban team, knocked on one door after another, visiting homes and establishing a roster of recipients for the distribution. In the first volunteer training course that the Swazi volunteers held, Durban volunteers taught the classes. For the first Buddha Day ceremony in Swaziland, the two teams together looked for a venue, overcame transportation problems, and brought the event to a successful conclusion. They took to the streets for the first time and asked for donations to feed orphans in their communities. The Swazi volunteers learned from their Durban counterparts how to run vegetable gardens, the produce of which is used in their soup kitchens. And the Swazis participated in their first online conference call during which they, in Swaziland, discussed matters and made decisions with Michael Pan and Yuan Ya-qi in South Africa.

This list of firsts would not be complete without a first disagreement between the two teams. It happened about the 20th time the Durban team had visited Swaziland.

One evening, after having worked all day, the teams gathered under a big tree for a meeting. Some Swazi volunteers spoke up during the meeting and said that they wanted to quit Tzu Chi because they felt that the Durban team had asked too much of them. They felt that their hard work was not being appreciated.

Michael Pan intervened. First he praised the Swazi volunteers for being quick learners. Then he beseeched them to put themselves in the shoes of the Durban team. He said that most of the Durban volunteers were getting on in years, but they still worked alongside them all day long without ever complaining of being tired. “They do that not for their own interests, but to spread love and goodness to more corners of Africa.”

He then turned to the Durban team and reminded them to be more appreciative of the hard work of their Swazi sisters and brothers. He pointed out that during the first three years after they joined Tzu Chi, he never forgot to praise them for the work that they had done, even when their performance had been less than stellar. He did that because he wanted them to stay on in Tzu Chi, and also because he genuinely believed that they would get better with time.

“On the one hand, I implored the Swazi volunteers to be more understanding of the Durban team,” Pan recalled. “On the other hand, I asked the Durban team to rein in their criticisms of the Swazi team and to instead accompany them with thoughtfulness and care.”

Cold winds blew that night as Pan tried to win the Swazi team over with reason and affection. Some cried, some repented. Both sides dropped their guards, and they felt warmth and a renewed confidence.

After that incident, the chemistry between the two teams got better. The host volunteers have become more appreciative of the hard work of the visitors, and they show more care and concern for them. Mumsy Simeland is more familiar with word processing and computers, so she often compiles the home visit files to ease the burden of the Durban team. “The more I do, the more I learn,” she said.

By the same token, the Durban team has become more humble, patient, and accommodating as they guide and mentor the Swazi volunteers. “The future of Swaziland is theirs to shape—I believe that they will do a better job than us,” Durban volunteer Tholokele Mkhize declared. “It’s been an honor for us to accompany them on their journey.”

Mission possible

By 2015, Swazi Tzu Chi volunteers had established their presence in 50 communities. They began to try to run things on their own, such as volunteer training courses and Buddha Day ceremonies. They knew that the Durban team would be behind them if there was a need.

The Swazi volunteers usually stay in their own communities to spread Tzu Chi ideals and do work for the foundation. They do not usually hold inter-community meetings because they cannot afford the cost of transportation. Volunteers from different communities usually meet only once a month when the Durban team visits.

A Tzu Chi vehicle ferries local volunteers to the meeting venue, which is wherever the visitors are staying. Because they may stay at different places from one visit to the next, local volunteers go to different places to meet with them. That does not matter to the locals, who look forward to the meetings in which they can share and learn from each other’s experiences.

In 2015, the Durban team skipped one of their monthly trips to Swaziland so that the Swazi volunteers could plan and execute a winter distribution all by themselves. The event called for motor vehicles, which they did not have. They talked to government officials about Tzu Chi and requested their assistance. They also appealed to community residents to loan their vehicles for the event. They tallied up the quantities of rice needed for the distribution. They planned out the sequence of the event and the setup of the venue. They took photos and videos of the event, wrote meeting minutes and reports, and completed a full accounting of the rice.

Mumsy then sent all this information electronically to Yuan Ya-qi in Durban. “Because of my job, I work with the Internet more often than the other volunteers, so I often take care of sending documents and contacting people,” Mumsy explained. Her supervisor at work knows that she volunteers for Tzu Chi. He allows her to take time off to volunteer or work on Tzu Chi matters during lunch breaks, so long as such activities do not interfere with her job.

Once, a miscommunication caused a little scare. Two cargo containers of rice from Taiwan destined for a Tzu Chi distribution arrived at Swazi customs earlier than planned. That really caught the Swazi and Durban volunteers by surprise. They had to quickly find people to unload the rice, vehicles to transport it, and space to store the rice.

“If there were any delay in unloading, we’d be charged with hefty delinquent fees,” Yuan explained. “So I made a lot of calls and thought about ways to resolve the problem.” While she was racking her brain 600 kilometers (375 miles) away in Durban for a solution, Mumsy suddenly called and told her they had found a way out.

Swazi volunteers had spread the word about needing help to unload the rice. In response to their call, many community volunteers showed up and quickly unloaded the rice, all 2,000 bags of it. Some volunteers had experience borrowing motor vehicles, and that experience came in handy this time. They quickly got the vehicles needed to transport the rice.

Now, where could they take the rice for storage?

The king of the nation gives land to tribal chiefs, who have the power to determine how the land is used. Volunteers talked to different chiefs about Tzu Chi and the issue at hand, and they asked them to allow them to store the rice on their land until it was time for distribution.

“With everyone’s combined efforts, 2,000 bags of rice were sent to various communities in just one day for storage,” Mumsy said. This incident clearly showed the wisdom and versatility of the Swazi volunteers in tackling unexpected situations.

Several winter distributions, big and small, went smoothly. But even when things went well, there were still issues. Some volunteers were unhappy that a few volunteers dominated the decision-making process. They vented their displeasure during a meeting with the Durban team. At the crucial moment, core volunteers Mbingo and Mumsy stepped forward and apologized for not having done a better job in this respect.

That round of frank exchanges dissolved the disgruntled volunteers’ grudges and opened up channels of communication. The whole process was civil, not a shouting match. “We’ve learned not to talk behind people’s backs,” one Swazi volunteer said. “If we have any fault to find with anyone, we speak to them personally and clear up any misunderstanding directly.”

Michael Pan and Yuan Ya-qi have accompanied the Swazi volunteers over the years, and they have been impressed by their unity, purity of heart, and broad-mindedness. “The Swazi volunteers have learned and grown very quickly,” Yuan said. “They speak out when they are not happy, and, once out in the open and discussed candidly, their grievances are resolved. They hold no grudges. That’s purity at heart.”

In 2015, Swazi volunteers identified an ideal tract of land in Mhlane, Manzini, for a Tzu Chi office. Gcinumuzi Mbingo told the land-holder, the chief of Mhlane, about the things that the volunteers had done for the needy in Mhlane. The chief was so impressed that he gave Tzu Chi the use of that piece of land. “It’s situated in the middle of the nation,” explained the usually taciturn Mbingo, “so volunteers can get there without having to travel very far.”

Now the growing ranks of Swazi volunteers can look forward to a new home, a base from which to spread love and goodness to more of their countrymen.

A volunteer visits the home of a care recipient. Three hundred families in Swaziland now receive regular care from the foundation.


Summer 2016