Bahai News -- Sioux City Journal - Faith journey teaches Sioux Cityan plenty about need for global spirituality, morality

Faith journey teaches Sioux Cityan plenty about need for global spirituality, morality

By Joanne Fox, Journal staff writer

Mark Scheffer talks about his almost one-year stay in Swaziland showing off some memorabilia from his stay in Piggs Peak. (Staff photo by Tim Hynds)

Mark Scheffer signed up to spend about a year of his life in Africa, based on the romanticism associated with the Dark Continent.

After an 11-month stay, the Sioux City native doesn't regret his time spent in Swaziland; he's just older and wiser about Africa as well as his native North American continent.

Scheffer pursued his African visit as a member of the Baha'i Faith. At the heart of this religion's belief is the conviction that humanity is a single people with a common destiny. However, their sense of unity goes beyond a shared theology. It is expressed in an abiding commitment to a global program for moral, spiritual and social progress.

"We're encouraged to devote some time to evangelization and most young people will do that between high school and college," the 24-year-old explained. "I chose to wait until after I earned my college degree."

After sending out letters to the national Baha'i office, Scheffer started leaning toward the African opportunities.

"Africa seemed so romantic," he mused, "and Swaziland sounded interesting."

The country also seemed interested in him, because once Scheffer sent in the application, they responded with, "We'll take 'em!" he said with a grin.

Swaziland is an independent monarchy in southeastern Africa, bounded on the east by Mozambique and on the southeast, south, west, and north by South Africa. By all measurements, it's a small country; just a tad larger in size than the state of Connecticut, with a population (2003 estimate) of 1,161,219. That's about two million folks less than the Constitution State.

Scheffer left on June 26, 2002, for almost two straight days of flying. His journey to Africa was via Minneapolis, Amsterdam, Johannesburg and finally landing at the Matsapha International Airport, just north of the city of Manzini.

"The sign announcing this international airport was made of plywood, " Scheffer said of the first dashing of his romantic African dreams. "I wondered at that point what I was getting myself into."

Scheffer stayed briefly in the capital city of Mbabane with members of the Baha'i Faith before venturing on his one and a half hour drive to the village of Piggs Peak.

"In retrospect, it was kind of nice just getting there," he said of the trip which wasn't the most comfortable one he had ever experienced.

Scheffer was scheduled to teach at a preschool for kids ages 3 to 6. Preschool is structured a bit differently in Swaziland than in the U.S. Scheffer said it was typical for children to attend preschool from two to three years instead of a one-year stint many U.S. youngsters will experience.

Since he was a music major at the University of Northern Iowa, Scheffer had brought his guitar along to teach the children some songs. Luckily music is a universal language, since Scheffer was not fluent in the country's official language, siSwati, a Bantu (ethnic) language. Luckily, English is the next most popular language.

Scheffer's hours at the Piggs Peak preschool were 7:30 a.m. to noon, but only Monday, Wednesday and Friday. To keep busy, he offered his services to another preschool in a nearby, smaller village on Tuesday and Thursdays.

"I still wasn't feeling worthwhile so I approached the high school and offered to help with their music program," he said.

They were more than happy to put him to work with the choir and tutoring students in English. He was even able to teach an Intro to Music class, thanks to his bachelor's of music education degree, awarded by UNI in 2002. Again, the guitar came in quite handy, as well as his college certification in instrumental music.

Evenings were an eye-opener.

"There were some Baha'i activities, prayer meetings, and teaching others about the Baha'i Faith," he related, "but it's not like being in Sioux City."

Even though Piggs Peak sported 8,000 in population, it's not even the same as living in Le Mars, Iowa, which is just a bit bigger in people numbers. Scheffer said it was difficult to explain how the community was laid out, because it is not typical of an American city's approach to community design.

"Piggs Peak is much more like a village," he explained. "The center of the community has concrete houses, but it is surrounded by a village-like area, with thatched houses."

Scheffer, just a 1997 East High School graduate himself, had the opportunity to visit a high school student in one of the "mini-villages."

"That was my 'Africa' experience," he said. "That was much more like one sees in National Geographic or in the movie 'The African Queen;' more of the thatched-roof village look, set in the clay hills."

What struck Scheffer was the "community" aspect of the village.

"There is one commercial water pump, in the central square," he noted. "Everybody would congregate there, because without electricity or running water, there was no reason to be in your hut."

Another aspect of "community" was the villagers' traditional dress, as well as the way they interacted with each another, walking, talking and/or singing at will.

"That was quite in contrast to the sewage out in the open," he added wryly.

But he was quick to clarify that the people were healthy and happy.

"I'd say it was a Christian country in their beliefs," Scheffer observed. "A lot of the folks were Zionists, a blend of Christianity and indigenous ancestral worship and tribal healers."

Most were able to subsist on their own with their gardens and were able to market their wares in the open air marketplace.

"It was not quite a farmer's market, because it included all types of merchandise," Scheffer said; "but it definitely was not a tourist market, selling trinkets, because it's the way these people buy their merchandise."

The lack of television didn't bother Scheffer much and he admitted he didn't even miss it.

"The television I did see consisted of dubbed soap operas and Kung Fu shows," he chuckled. "'Sesame Street' was the best thing at times."

A yearly highlight was a national celebration, Umhlanga, which Scheffer was able to experience.

Umhlanga is a Zula name, meaning "Place of Reeds." In particular, the Umhlanga (or Reed Dance) typically takes place in August or early September each year. It is a dance which attracts young maidens from every area and provides the occasion for them to honor and pay homage to the Queen Mother (iNdlovukazi). Most of the maidens who participate are in their teens, although some may be younger. As a single man, Scheffer could have had his choice of about 20,000 young girls who participated in Umhlanga.

"According to tradition, the king of the village is supposed to choose a wife during the celebration," he said of his missed opportunity.

The girls wear short beaded skirts decorated with fringes and buttons; together with anklets, bracelets and necklaces, and colorful sashes.

"Yes, that's all they wear," Scheffer said with a grin. "They are topless, which isn't unusual at all for the women. Even a graduation ceremony I attended was topless. It's just part of the traditional dress."

On a somewhat depressing note, one form of entertainment for him was Friday and Saturday night funeral services. He noted that "death was a big deal" in the Piggs Peak community. The pandemic of AIDS is apparent in Swaziland which has a 35 percent adult prevalence rate.

"There's a high prevalence of AIDS and therefore, many deaths," Scheffer explained. "There would be all-night vigils and then funerals before burials, which would include songs, sermons, dancing, revelry and processions just going on and on."

Certainly a different lifestyle for the Midwestern-born son of Alan and Marie Scheffer. The somewhat slower-paced lifestyle in Africa was "nice in one way, but also grates on your nerves," he admitted. This was particularly true when he had to take a one and a half hour bus ride to the capital city, Mbabane, to access his e-mail.

Perhaps more than his realization of what African culture meant was Scheffer's insight into the American way of life.

"I realized that in this country we are proud of all of the choices we have and the many opportunities available to us," he mused. "On the one hand, that's a good thing."

There's a downside, too, he acknowledged.

"We have such a VAST amount of choices," he noted; "that I realized was the flip side."

From food to entertainment to the way Americans spend their spare time, "we have such a variety of things to choose from as opposed to the Swazis whose choices are limited or nonexistent."

In addition to that new comprehension, Scheffer felt an obligation to make good use of the choices.

"We should worry that we are doing the best we can to make positive choices," he felt. "Sometimes, I think we're hardly ever satisfied, because the choices are so varied and there's so many of them."

Imagine choosing dessert for the evening, Scheffer offered as an example.

"You go to the grocery store and you have everything imaginable on the shelves," he pointed out. "Dessert for the Swazis was ONE kind of cookie, if that; not a variety. It made me realize how 'unsatisfied' we are in this country."

Scheffer returned to his Sioux City roots on May 26. Now, he is a typical out-of-work college student looking for a job. He has been sharing his African stories and pictures with those interested in hearing about his visit.

"I like to speak to groups of young people to give them a 'world' view," Scheffer said; "I'd like to give them an idea of what life is like outside of the United States."

Would he return, knowing what he does now?

"Possibly," he replied, with a bit of hesitation, "but not for a visit. Nineteen hours on a plane is too long a trip for just a visit."

He added thoughtfully, "I would consider living over there again, maybe in a different area like Western Africa. No, I don't think I would mind it."

©Copyright 2003, Sioux City Journal (IA, USA)

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