It seemed like it was only yesterday that Tom and I had attended our last morning assembly and heard the student choir's singing that accompanied it, yet it had been more than a half dozen years. Much had remained the same in those intervening years, most notably the utter beauty of the Swazi countryside, but there were indeed signs of change as I drove along that same muddy red Luve-Manzini road that I frequently used to bicycle on my black "Flying Pigeon." What had changed? The bottle store, the butchery, as well as a number of homesteads close to the road now had electricity! It had only been a distant dream during our service, until one day during that last term when we actually witnessed electric board crews putting up the poles that carried with them the promise of a completely different lifestyle. Nonetheless, it was a promise Tom and I never saw realized. Today, however, late in January 1994, that dream had become a reality ... not unlike the reality Tom and I helped bring to the community during our final months, thanks to our secondary project ---a 25,000 liter water reservoir system, still visible on the distant hillside, built with the help of our students and neighbors.
Ekukhanyeni High School from nearby hillside
Ekukhanyeni's Super Market
Now, as I walked excitedly up the damp red clay path that leads into the fenced-in high school grounds, I noticed not only an impressive new classroom near the gate, but two new agricultural buildings beside the school's fields in the distance. Ekukhanyeni was now more of an actual campus than it ever had been. As I asked myself where the school could have obtained the funding for these projects, I began to hear the chatter of the students (in SiSwati, of course). For all I knew, these khaki-clad boys and black tunic-ed girls may not have seen an Umlungu take these same steps for nearly seven years. (Though in former years, I might have heard "If I were you ..." parroting me and one of my most widely known classroom expressions.) A look of surprise and wonderment came upon most of their curious young faces. But I soon disappeared into the Headmaster's office before the word had time to fully circulate. I then witnessed a scene that might have taken place in April of 1987, rather than this January. The same T.S. Dlamini and R.S. Hlatshwako were crouched over a notebook discussing how they would conduct the day's staff meeting and handle the emahiya-wrapped mothers who were already lining up to pay fees for the new school year. Smiles instantly appeared on both of their faces as they looked up to see what amounted to a long lost colleague returning to his former home.
'Mats' Class at Ekukhanyeni High School
Traditional Swazi Couple
"Mr. Conrad ... Mr. Vilakati ... I mean, Mr. Conrad ... you have returned!"
"Yes, Mr. Dlamini, Mr. Hlatshwako, I have indeed returned, and it is truly good to see you!"
Headmaster Dlamini, Deputy Headmaster Hlatshwako and I had minutes to catch up on years' worth of happenings, revealing them with only a few broad but intense strokes. During our short conversation, I couldn't help but notice the huge AIDS poster that now hung on the wall behind Mr. Dlamini's desk (printed by the Zimbabwe Ministry of Health, it said). I was soon asked if I would like to have a word with the students at the morning assembly.
"Certainly," I responded, "After all, I've come a long way to be here with you today."
"Alright" was Mr. Dlamini's reply.
By this time, a number of the current staff, those with whom Tom and I had worked most closely, were well aware of "Mr. Vilakati's return." One by one, they approached the Headmaster's office from the staff room and peered in through the cracked window to see if it were indeed so. Big bright smiles appeared on Zeph Mavundla's and Mrs. Shongwe's faces, two of the friendliest teachers we had known. "Jack, are you really back?" a voice floating in through the opening inquired. I smiled too. The sight of such familiar faces, the scent of fresh air following a Swazi cloudburst, the sound of the assembly bell---the BELL!--- ringing just outside ... It was so good to be back to the place where I had felt I belonged in that former life, a life that had carried with it so much meaning and so much contentment. Nothing I had done since, I now realized, had carried with it nearly as much.
Within minutes, Mr. Dlamini, Mr. Hlatshwako, and I were standing before the fully assembled student body in front of the science lab we had known so well. The assembly bell had just stopped ringing. Before I knew it, Mr. Dlamini was telling the students that a former volunteer had returned to visit them. He asked how many could remember him. No response. Then he asked how many had attended Ekukhanyeni Primary School. To my surprise, little more than a third raised their hands. He then asked those students if they could remember the volunteers who had helped with the construction of "ema-tanks" up on the hill behind the Cash Store.
"Yes," came a timid reply.
"Then do you remember this volunteer who was here then?" he continued.
"Yes," came the reply, stronger this time.
"And what was his name?"
"Mr. Bridgeman," they uttered.
In that one innocent and incorrect answer, a thousand memories, and a thousand more emotions came swelling back to me---ah, it was truly good to be back at Ekukhanyeni, place of the shining, the place of our initiation and enlightenment.