Ten years ago, Emma Granville, 36, never would have imagined running a sustainable farm in Swaziland, a small nation nestled between the borders of South Africa and Mozambique. “I was totally ignorant of this place, I had to look it up,” she says. “It feels like the rest of the world still doesn’t know about it. Our post often comes via Switzerland.”
Granville moved to Swaziland in 2006 from Edinburgh, Scotland. “My partner Sam was born in Swaziland while his parents were aid workers. When we met at Edinburgh University in 1995, he had just returned from a year there and was raving about it. When he returned 10 years later, he asked me to come out and I did.”
In 2009, Granville and her partner established Guba, a grassroots training organisation founded on the principles of Permaculture. Guba, which means “to dig” in SiSwati, aims to help tackle the country’s Aids pandemic by alleviating poverty and offering training in sustainable farming, natural building and resource management.
In Swaziland 26 per cent of the population aged 15 to 49 are HIV positive. This, coupled with staggering rates of poverty and illiteracy, has had a devastating effect on the country.
“Permaculture made so much sense to us,” says Granville. “Because the one thing that people really have in Swaziland is beautiful land. If you can get people to work with that, to increase the quality of life, then other things fall into place: health, education, etc. That’s what we believe – and we feel it’s really working.”
In spite of their success, Granville acknowledges that it is important to have realistic expectations. “I wasn’t idealistic when I came out here,” says Granville. “In fact, I felt the exact opposite. When I arrived, a seasoned volunteer gave me some great advice: halve your expectations and then halve them again. That to me was realistic. You need a lot of patience here.”
Granville lives just outside Malkerns, a small village mostly inhabited by Swazis, but with a small white Swazi, English and South African presence. “There is a lot of integration here; people don’t build big walls and close themselves off as is the trend in a lot of South Africa,” says Granville. “When we step out of our front door we really feel a part of the country and we can just take off and roam where we please.”
Swaziland’s peaceful history is largely attributed to the fact it is made up of only one clan, led by an absolute monarchy that is regarded by the majority of its people as God-given rulers. The experience of living under a monarchy has its drawbacks, says Granville. “There is simply no politics with a capital ‘P’ – and I find this very challenging coming from a city like London. The state of the country simply cannot be questioned or discussed, partly because patriotism is tied up with cultural traditions steeped in the mystical. What I’ve learnt is patience: if you can’t talk then you listen and encourage others to speak, so you can learn. It’s been a wonderful lesson.” Luckily for Granville, the country has two official languages, SiSwati and English, which allows her to participate in many sectors of Swazi society.
As Guba has gained profile, it has allowed Granville to speak more frankly with various local chiefs who make up the backbone of power in the country. Despite this, she says, these community leaders still have a tendency to talk to her partner first. “It’s a patriarchal society, and on a professional level that still really frustrates me. Within Guba, we try to keep things as equal as we can; we have 50:50 male to female graduates this year.”
Last August Guba celebrated the graduation of its 22 participants, who completed a one-year course in food production, land management and biodiversity. Finding suitable candidates is a challenging task, with a rigorous selection process. “It took us eight months to find our participants. It’s really important to know people are in it for the right reasons.” Granville is aware of the way in which aid can feed a culture of dependency. “We encourage the Swazi people’s historical tendency to barter in order to set up a relationship of exchange rather than reliance.”
Granville and her partner live on a small farm with a community of Swazis, Europeans and Americans. Once a packing shed, the house is now furbished with a combination of local crafts and furniture passed down by departing residents. “For the first few years we only had two chairs. It’s difficult to get furniture out here. Over time, as expats leave, you acquire more. Gradually we’ve built up a collection. I long for Ikea; I never thought I’d say that.”
The farm has a shared swimming pool at its centre and the gardens are dotted with red-flowering Coral trees. Surrounding the enclosure are several fields, one of which is the site for the Guba headquarters. Malkerns lies nestled in a fertile valley surrounded by mountains. “It’s just so beautiful here. One thing we love to do is get out into the wild – the beauty and space which we feel so incredibly lucky to enjoy. I learnt to drive out here, and now I love to take out a 4x4. You can go wherever you want: down little tracks, into homesteads, out into the mountains. That’s how we’ve got to know our communities.”
Granville recently gave birth to a daughter. “When I got pregnant, I felt that we’d have to leave Swaziland in five years – to give our child a diverse education. But now I realise we just have to see how it goes. If we’re happy, we’ll make it work. There’s an international school in Mbabane [Swaziland’s capital], or we could tutor our daughter from home.”
Despite the idyllic landscape and the community that Granville has built around Guba, she misses the diversity of Europe. “I never realised until I left my hometown, London, that people are afraid of difference. I miss the diversity of food, culture, music and art.”
There is some solace in the fact Swaziland is a port of call for many of Africa’s World Music stars and is home to international music festival Bushfire, says Granville. “There’s a great local haunt called House on Fire with live music and theatre every week. This is where the Bushfire music and arts festival is based. We’re so lucky to have it just next door.”
● The Swazi people – their inclusiveness and genuine warmth
● Natural beauty and wildlife on your doorstep
● English is widely spoken
● The HIV/Aids pandemic continues to plague the country
● Swaziland is still a very traditional, patriarchal society
● There is little variety when it comes to arts and culture
What you can buy for …
£100,000 A three-bedroom house in the city of Manzini
£1m A 26-hectare farm in Malkerns