Thursday, May 31, 2012


Last weekend was the world famous Bushfire Music Festival. I was lucky enough to attend as a "Guest Writer" for the Swazi Observer, Swaziland's National paper. I used this as an in to enjoy a weekend full of music, great friends, food (pizza by the slice!!! Get outta town) and not a lot of sleep. Below is my contribution to the Observer. It was published as a two page spread on Monday.

Bushfire – Day One, 5/26/12

The theme of the 6th annual Bushfire Music Festival sponsored by MTN was “Bring Your Fire”. An apt statement as the first night's acts heated up and the temperatures outside dropped. Swaziland has been my home for the past year. Even though I am technically a foreigner in the Kingdom, I couldn't help but feel a sense of pride as my country played host to a renowned cast of local and international musicians and artists from Africa and beyond. As the emcees reminded the concert patrons that the theme “Bring Your Fire” referred to more than simply warming yourself; “Bring the Fire” was a call for social responsibility and giving back to the community. This fire radiates out; out into Swaziland as 100% of the proceeds from Bushfire went to support the Young Heroes Orphan Scholarship Program.

With so many Swazis living hand-to-mouth it is sometimes easy to forget how much creativity, honest exploration of art and talent Swais possess. Friday night was a perfect example of this; and it started with a bang. Although the crowds didn't arrive en masse until late in the evening, Swaziland's own poetry troupe Rooted Soulz opened with a multimedia performance that fused poetry, music and art. The Swazi spoken word artist/poet ,Qibho tha Intellektual was backed by a live band as he poured out some of his soul rending verses against the steady groove of bass line and some beautiful tremolo picked guitar. Qibho's verses were treading a thin line between poetry and hip-hop as he was joined in a beautiful duet on the poem/song “You”. During the performance two artists flanked the stage creating mixed-media art pieces as a direct response to the music and words coming from the stage.

House on Fire hosted two stages which staggered acts between the outdoor main stage and the smaller, more intimate (and warmer) amphitheater. The first main stage act was the popular South African jazz fusion act Mango Groove. Consisting of a three piece brass ensemble, three dancers, a steady rhythm section and led by commanding voice of Claire Johnston, Mango Groove took the stage playing some of their radio favorites including “Special Star” and covers of “Give Peace a Chance” and an extended jam on “In the Jungle” riling the early crowd up to near boiling point. While the three dancers onstage moved to music in precise timing, the fire dancer on top of the venue drew most attention early in the show.

Moving back into the cozier amphitheater Doster and Engle meets Dusty and Stones, was an inexplicably great collaboration between the American country/folk duo Doster and Engle and the Swazi country group Dusty and Stones. I am not sure how many country bands there are in Swaziland, but I am pretty confident we heard the crème de la crème Friday night. The set started with a tribute to Nelson Mandela complete with a full youth choir from the SOS Village. In the prelude to the song Greg Engle stated that what most people in the West hear about Africa is famine and war, when in reality  Africa “means optimism and opportunity”. Doster and Dusty traded off between original songs before the group ended on a particularly rousing rendition of Johnny Cash's “Ring of Fire” that got the patrons out of their seats and onto the dance floor.

As Doster & Engle meets Dusty and Stones were wrapping up, Nancy G. & The Human Family were getting to work on the main stage. Nancy G. was by far the most inspiring Swazi-born artist I saw that night. Commanding the stage with her rich tenor and incredible guitar playing, Nancy G. reminded me of a female Live From Mars-era Ben Harper. Unlike most African guitar playing I have heard which relies on light, upbeat arpeggios and clean riffs, Nancy G. played angular and jagged power chords and wasn't afraid of letting some feedback and distortion ride out her ringing chords. My jaw was on the floor well into her acoustic set where she unplugged and opened up a bit. Her backing band rocked out on some tight grooves while her drummer moved between powerful rock drumming and more jazzy time signatures during the calmer songs.

The next main stage act to whip the crowd into a frenzy was the internationally acclaimed jazz/hip-hop fusion act MXO which took the crowd by storm. MXO delivered with a high energy performance with astoundingly tight choreographed dance moves. MXO's main vocalist's reedy baritone moved freely between singing and rapping, and earnestly conjured Bob Marley during their extended jam of “Wait in Vain”. Joe Nina, the impulsive and energizing singer, joined MXO for the last stretch of their set. Joe Nina boasted an impressive set of pipes and even more impressive dance moves. It was difficult to tell whether the crowd's reaction to Nina had to do more with his high-energy performance or blindingly bright red suit.

Quite possibly the most surprising and exciting group to rock Friday night was the internationally scattered group Napalma which boasts group members from Mozambique, Brazil and South Africa. Drawing a large crowd of Portuguese speakers who sang and danced along emphatically to every song, Napalma brought audience participation and a sound that was unmatched by any group that night. Consisting of three percussionists, one vocalist and an electronic musician playing accompanying percussion through his laptop, Napalma filled the stage not only with the immensity of their set-up but their unmatched energy and enthusiasm. The vocalist could not keep still during the percussion heavy numbers, constantly bounding across stage or calling for more audience participation which the capacity crowd was more than willing to give. The three percussionists wove beats around each other like smoke rings through fog, each filling in for the other and shaking the small amphitheater with a massive all-percussion sound. Napalma was the most welcome surprise of the entire evening. I wouldn't be surprised to find myself traveling to Mozambique to catch another one of their sets.

Running concurrently with Napalma's set was the legendary twin-brother DJ group Revolution who kept the crowd moving well past midnight with classic and cutting edge house cuts that didn't allow dancers any break as they moved from one hit to another under striking violet colored lights. George and Joseph Mothiba must share some kind of spooky ESP between them as they traded DJ'ing duties and chose the set-list without any break in the music. Their performance legitimizes the hype they receive as revolutionary DJ's.

Local Swazi DJ's took the party going late into the night (or early into the next morning) playing some classic hip-hop cuts (I think I heard Kriss Kross in there) and R&B tracks along with House favorites. As patrons stumbled out into the chilly night, sweat soaked and rapidly losing body temperature, everyone had the same look on their face. This was a good night. A great start.

Bushfire Day Two

Day two of the legendary Bushfire Music Festival was going to be epic. The evening line up was stacked with big names making waves in the Southern Africa and International music scene and the day was filled with thought provoking lectures and poetry. When someone studies Africa in the west we learn all about Africa's great oral tradition of stories and wisdom passed from generation to generation by the means of talented storytellers. If there was a common motif for the sixth year of Bushfire it was the power of the spoken word. The festival opened with a spoken word performance by Rooted Soulz, then dedicated ample time for local and international poets and played host to Saul Williams, arguably one of the biggest performing poet in the world.
While the day, night and well into the next morning were filled with rich messages embedded within the rhythm of speech. Day two began with the wordless delight of the Giant Puppets of Mozambique who returned to Bushfire. The festival did a great job of providing family-centered activities throughout the day for young children. Not only did the giant puppets delight, but the Kids Zone with its art activities, blow up slides and mini-quad racing satisfied bantfwana all day long.

One great addition to Bushfire this year was the construction of The Barn, a converted barn that housed artwork from Yebo Art gallery, sculptures and a giant chalk wall for patrons to add their own messages and artwork. The Barn, however, functioned as a public space where vigorous discussions of some of the most pressing issues in Swaziland were heard. The first guest speaker was Dolores Godeffroy owner of eDladaleni restaurant in Mbabane which specializes in local, indigenous food. She addressed food security and argued pointedly against the introduction of mono-cropping cash crops while so many of our citizens are going hungry every day. The spirited lecture inspired equally spirited questions and debate during the question and answer period on topics ranging from GMO foods to mismanagement of arable land.

Later that afternoon Joy Ndwandwe a.k.a Prophet Ndwandwe gave a fascinating lecture on African Relational Humanism, or more basically, an examination of the traditional values of Swazis. Using King Sobhouza as a model, Ndwandwe described the Swazi worldview as, “I am because we are”; a fascinating idea coming from such an individualist culture that I come from.

The Barn hosted not only discussion groups and invigorating lectures, but it also was the place to hear some of the most soul-searing, inspiring, heartbreaking and hilarious poets this side of the Atlantic. Nomfundo a.k.a Mocats gave a voice to the silent pain of a country as she recited several heartfelt poems that centered around the loss of her mother. She was followed by the provocative South African poet Phillippa Yaa De Villiers whose poems focused on the politics of language, race and sexuality in post-apartheid South Africa. Her observations of the silent gaps between two people, two races and two classes ranged from intentionally hilarious to devastatingly accurate.

The Barn's morning programme featured women from a variety of disciplines whose words all seemed to focus on their and their country's place in a changing world. Kudos should go to the progrmming director for putting together an enlightening and cohesive line up.

One of the things that Bushfire does well is displaying local talent from an incredibly wide range of styles and disciplines. The 100% Seriously Swazi Programme was no exception. While local Swazi DJ's such as DJ Toxik, DJ Chuidy, DJ Muscle and DJ Mfundo rocked the party on both stages, the House on Fire Amphitheater played host an eclectic cross-section of Swazi artists. Acts ranged from the blues influenced +268 to the reggae group Swaziloution and others. I was proud to have my new country represented by such talented and diverse musicians.
As the afternoon wore on and the sun began beat down relentlessly, I was grateful that Bushfire provided so many great options of spoken word and music outside off the main stage. It was the main stage, however, that really began to heat up as the shadows of the afternoon began to lengthen.

Jika Nelanga is an innovative jazz-fusion group that featured impressive flamenco guitars and tabla percussion, giving the patrons, who now began arriving in numbers, a funky groove to dance to.

 Around 4:00 as the sun began sinking behind the hills Jeremy Loop gave a performance few would ever forget. Loop, as his moniker suggests, incorporates a deft use of a loop and effect pedals to loop his instruments, voice and even kid's toys to create full-fledged compositions using only guitar and vocal chords. While a virtual one man band for most of the set, Loops was joined by saxophonist Jamie Faull during some of the more rousing numbers and was later joined by rapper M.O Lecko who whipped the crowd into a frenzy.

While Jeremy received a warm welcome to Swaziland, nothing would compare to the fervor and adoration eSwatini has for its local legend Bholoja. Bholoja is a fixture at Bushfire and his appearance was welcomed by every Swazi who had his songs memorized and could belt them at the top of their lungs. Although his set was disappointingly short due to a lengthy interlude, his impact was palpable. At first, the vocalist Velemseni warmed up the crowd with some laid back numbers before Bholoja took the stage. As the sun set, Bholoja and his extremely talented band took the crowd through some of the stand out tracks in his catalogue including his well known track “Zero to Hero” that was warmly received by this mixed audience of internationals and locals.

Ayo took the stage next. Moving freely between guitar and piano, Ayo held a commanding stage presence in front of the building crowd. By her accounts, however, she would have preferred a more intimate setting. To make up for this she climbed the fence and concluded her cover of Bob Marley's “Three Little Birds” walking amongst the adoring crowd with her resonant voice and lyrics.

The main stage acts had been wonderful and extremely talented; however, nothing prepared me for the sheer mayhem of what was going to come next. The Brother Moves On is a young group from Johannesberg who play blistering rock music with an embattled punk spirit, free-wheeling psychedelia and strong roots in traditional African music. After hearing their work on a Spoek Mathambo mixtape earlier this year, my expectations were high for this group and they delivered on every front. By the end of the intense soloing, the lead singer's frenzied calls for peace amidst a swirling cacophony of well constructed destruction, the crowd came together in a sweaty mass of positivity and admiration. Did I mention that each member wore skintight, gold, lame tights? It was over the top and amazing.

I had been looking forward to seeing Saul Williams perform ever since it was announced that he would be coming to Swaziland. I have followed William's career from his 2001 release of the album Amethyst Rock Star, his movie Slam and his various collaborations with artists as diverse as Blackalicious, Janelle Monae and Nine Inch Nails. My expectations were met on every level. Backed by a full band, William's poetry weaved in and out of his soulful crooning, undergirded by the politics of punk rock and the vocal chords of a soul legend. While most of his set focused on recent releases, such as his 2011 release Volcanic Sunligh,t that steer more towards a punk-blues direction, Williams treated the audience with a few impassioned recitations of some of his most well known poems. For those who came to hear Saul Williams for the first time were lucky to hear him in such an inspiring context.

The stage was set for the biggest name in the festival, Mi Casa, to take the stage. Before the got underway, however, the Mozambican reggae star Ras Haitrm took the stage to the delight of the Mozambique contingent in the audience and avid reggae lovers.

Mi Casa, the award winning South African trio (rounded out to a quartet for Bushfire) played through a medley of original songs and genre-spanning interludes. Mi Casa is a fascinating combination of jazz, kwaito, house and latin influenced sounds that come together in a style completely their own. At this point, as the clock chimed past midnight, the crowd was packed to overflowing, giving Mo-T's trumpet and J’Something's soaring falsetto love on their most well known tracks and dancing without reserve throughout their entire set as each track effortlessly blended into each other under the deft hand of beatmaster Dr. Duda.

There is a phrase in English to express extreme fatigue. That phrase is being “bushed”. I have no idea where it came from but by the end of the festival, I was 100% bushed. I was exhausted but I had never been happier in my time here in Swaziland. The spectacle and amazing sounds I heard were second only to overwhelming feeling of positivity radiating through the international crowd that shared different languages and culture, but each bringing something indispensible to the event. They brought their fire. –Ryan Hall

Wednesday, May 16, 2012


We are on the last bus out of Maputo towards the border town of Naamahasha. The man next to me who is about 1/3 into his bottle of rum tells me, in very, very broken English, that we will be there in 45 minutes. I look down at my watch. If all goes according to plan we will be at the border gate at 7:30-7:45, giving us just enough time to rush through the customs and be on the last bus leaving Lomahasha around 8 and be back to Mpaka around 9.

I am sitting on top of the increasingly hot radiator in a 15-passenger bus, which is currently holding about 19, wondering if it is true what they say about holding a laptop in your lap. This isn’t even packed for Mozambique standards. In fact, this is downright spacious compared to the clown car theatrics of the conductor hanging out the door we experienced in Maputo. After a lengthy argument at a filling station between the driver and passengers, plus an unplanned pee break by the side of the road, our precious 15-minute window of time is slowly dwindling. We have been in the khumbi for about 30 minutes when we approach a sign saying 37 Kilometers to Naamahasha. “You see! 45 minutes!” the man next to me says. I shoot a furtive look back to Addy sitting a row behind me. This could be the most awesome, or stupidest thing we have ever done in our three years of marriage.

Arriving in Naamahsha the crowds are so thick that our driver has to lay on the horn and swerve around people to reach any sort of clear road. It is 7:55. I slip the driver a 50 Metacais tip and he floors it to the border post. We jump out, grab all of our stuff and get through the Mozambiquan side (to the protest of the staff) by 7:58. A guard lets us through the gate and we approach a darkened building on the other side of the razor wire adorned fence. The Swaziland border has decided to knock off a few minutes early. No one answers our calls through the fence. We are stuck in limbo between Mozambique and Swaziland. The guard locks us in and slowly walks away.  After some serious protesting, he lets us back into Mozambique and walk dejectedly into the fray of religious worshipers and revelers. It is Dios de Santa Maria. The biggest Catholic holiday in Southern Mozambique. There must be 10,000 people in this small Colonial town. The devout are walking around with candles with icons of the Virgin Mary, while car speakers are blaring out Pantsula and Top 40 Hip Hop.  All the hotels are booked. We looked at each other and without vocalizing it say, “Ok, what now?” 

 And that is how we spent the last night of our three year wedding anniversary get-away to Mozambique. That is how we spent the best vacation of our lives.

Let’s backtrack.

We have been planning a trip to Inhaca Island, a small island off the coast of Maputo, Mozambique, for close to a year. After GLOW, counterpart trainings, etc…We were finally ready to go. We left Tuesday morning and rolled into the coastal city of Maputo, Mozambique’s capital and biggest city, around mid-day. Maputo is a big city with a distinctly African, yet charmingly European feel. Colonial forts, parks and cafes mingle with slums and sprawling markets of hawkers selling knock off clothes brands, crafts and gadgets. Maputo is, so far, my favorite city in Africa. We had two days to explore its streets, museums, cafes, jazz clubs and fish markets. We originally planned on staying a night at the local backpackers, but after hearing inflated quotations on how pricy it was, and reports of bed bugs, we decided to stick to the city. We found a nice, old hotel in the heart of downtown, which charged us about the same price as the backpackers, but with much better location. The hotel is called Hotel Tamariz for anyone looking to travel to Maputo. Fair warning – the shower water is cold. 

We only planned on spending one day in Maputo. Ferries run to Inhaca Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday only. We had heard that you could charter a private boat to the island any day of the week. We were wrong. The only option to take us there on Wednesday would have cost 6,000 Mets. The extra day was a blessing in disguise. We took along 50 $ USD and were able - after spending two hours running around the black market trying to find someone to change it into a crisp 50 dollar bill – to pay for the extra night with money my grandmother sent us. Thanks Grammy!

Our first day in Maputo we took a trip to the Fish Market on the South side of town. An absolute must for anyone traveling there. It works like this. You get out of the cab and about 5 people rush up to you offering to take you through the market. Each owns a restaurant and will cook the fish for you on demand. We were able to hook up with a very friendly and amazing cook named Gaspar. With his help we picked out clams, rock fish and prawns for a pretty reasonable price. He brought us the meal in courses. It was, by far, the best seafood experience of my life. The fish were fresh – we saw the fishermen bring them off their boats across the street – and the experience is unforgettable. 

The next day, after learning the sad fact that we would not be going to Inhaca that day, decided to explore the city. We experienced everything from street side gelato shops and cafes to bustling madness of the hawkers markets. Explored a surprisingly well maintained and beautiful park in the city center all the while eating our way through street vendors selling delicious baguette-style rolls filled with potato latke type things, wors, or prego steak.

Thursday we were finally on our way to Inhaca. The Government ferry there and back is a necessary experience. While not exactly in the best condition cosmetically, it is a sea-worthy vessel, except when it isn’t. Lucky for us it had just been fixed. 

Inhaca island is beautiful beyond words. I will let the pictures do most of the talking. Miles of uninhabited beaches, fishermen catching today’s catch and small restaurants offering mountains of prawns for 300 metacais. We stayed at a backpackers on the island in a tent. It wasn’t the most luxurious of accommodations but it had everything we needed and the staff was very friendly. We spent most of our time exploring the coastline, looking at the marine life through the crystal clear, green Indian Ocean.

On Friday we woke up early and set out on a 10K walk to the lighthouse on the Eastern tip of the island. We hiked the entire thing in bare feet through ankle deep sand. A wrong turn turned a 2 hour walk into a 4 hour walk to the lighthouse. Reaching it was totally worth it.

Inhaca is almost totally surrounded by a coral reef and when the tide is out it is possible to wade out forever until you find water deep enough to at least wade in. Most people on the island try to charge you 800 mets to take you to a small island a few hundred meters off the coast of Inhaca or to the tourist beach on the other side of the island.  Beneath the lighthouse, however, was a perfect stretch of beach, totally uninhabited and perfect for swimming and body surfing. We were fortunate to trust our gut and sense of adventure and explore the island for ourselves.

Our sense of adventure didn’t always work in our favor. On our way back to our campsite, we decided to find a shortcut and walk along the coast.  What we find was seashell/sea urchin/sea monsters covered in mud, and decided to backtrack from whence we came.  This is not the only wrong turn we made during this trip.

We discovered that on Saturday, the day we were planning to leave the island and return to Swaziland, the ferry arrived at 10am but didn’t leave for Maputo until 3pm. Everyone we talked to was doubtful that we could make it to the Swaziland border gate in two hours. We were determined to prove them wrong. Turns out they knew what they were talking about.

It is about 9:00 and we have been wandering around Naamasha trying to find a hotel that has any vacancy. No such luck. As we get closer to the Santa Maria cathedral in the town’s center we are drawn by liturgical chants of the Ave Maria. We witness a ceremony in which the Virgin Mary’s statue is paraded through the town and laid to rest in the cathedral. As we are sucked into the crowd we start to notice tents pitched up all around the town center. Then a crazy thought popped into our heads, “when in Rome, do as the Roman (Catholics)”. We declared ourselves Catholic for the night and pitched our tent near some other campers/pilgrims and slept the night underneath a giant water cistern in the middle of the town center while several thousand Mozambiquan Catholics worshipped and partied around us. It was a fitting conclusion to a celebration of an adventure we started on three years ago. We certainly did not see this as the way we would celebrate. But most everything in our life has been unexpected and amazing. I hope we can many more years of exploring and taking risks.

We crossed the boarder the next morning at 7am and as the relief washed over us once we saw the “Welcome to Swaziland” sign, we declared ourselves home.

Thursday, May 3, 2012


Sitting with my back against the Taiwanese Embassy watching a soccer game of boys from the Kasi (ghetto) side in a vacant lot amongst million dollar estates of MP’s and NGO CEO’s. I am staying the night with my host bhuti who lived with us in Mpaka but who now stays in the Fonteyn neighborhood in Mbabane where mud and tin roofed huts are nestled into ravines beneath ostentatious mansions. In many ways this wrenching divide has defined our (almost) one year of Peace Corps service. As Peace Corps Volunteers we move in between the worlds of those who make a living trying to help and those who they try and help. There is some cognitive dissonance moving between the two worlds at which the gap between can be miles apart. Being caught between the development world and the developing world, to say my service is nothing like what I expected would be an understatement. There are some things that never factored into my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I never thought I would find a riding community and go out on morning mountain and road rides with Swazi and South African cycling enthusiasts. I never thought I would write music reviews for a national publication and be put on VIP lists and all that. I never thought that most of my friends in Swaziland would be Somalian refugees. I never thought we would celebrate our third wedding anniversary on an island off the coast of Mozambique. These things are fun. But leaning back watching a bunch of Swazi boys play soccer against the as the African sunset dips behind mountains in a swan song of red and orange; these are things I hope I never forget when look back on my service.

A lot has happened since you may have checked in with the Halls. Addy returned from a week + long GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) Camp in Siteki. This event took months of planning and preparation and by all accounts was a fantastic success. GLOW was a week camp for girls from all over Swaziland. The camp focused on self-image, positive examples of femininity, empowerment and skills cultivation. They also included practical workshops like screen printing (our friends the Potters would be proud), hikes and a nature walk through Hlane Royal Game Preserve. Addy facilitated a workshop on grief and loss. Some of the stories she shared of what these girls have lost be it family members or the innocence of youth at such a young age paint a very sobering, but very real picture, of conditions for Women in Swaziland. Addy came back proud and exhausted. A lot of work but a lot of pay off. Here are some pictures from the week:

Addy’s Counterpart Zande from the Mpaka Railway Pre-School was a rock star. She won Ms. GLOW 2012.


This break has afforded some ample time to reflect on how our projects are going and projects we want to begin in the future. In fact we are in Mbabane right now attending a TEFL training with four of our counterparts from the camp. We are discussing the direction we want our class to take and learning invaluable skills on how to teach multi-level proficiency classes. This is coming just on the heels of a 10 week teacher training course that I taught at the camp to those who will be co-facilitators for these upcoming terms. We are excited to see our counterparts take a more active role in the teaching of the English classes so we get to see more scenes like this:

In other news the homestead has turned into a virtual construction site. Having some time off between terms I have been on the homestead a lot more and have been able to help in the construction of Patrick and Andile’s house. I learned how to pour a foundation, mix mortar and construct a house out of cement blocks.

We are in the middle of a major redesign of our place. Our host bhuti Dora built us a table and shelving and we are in the middle of constructing a showering area directly behind our house. Before that I had to dig this: 7x5 baby! with just a pick axe and shovel. This is a septic system for the excess water.

We have replanted our garden and it is taking off like crazy. We are already harvesting spinach and lettuce.