Sibusiso Emmanuel Vilane grew up along the border of South Africa and Swaziland. Now 37, Sibu is from the Swazi tribe, a Bantu-speaking people culturally similar to Zulus. Swaziland remains an independent tribal homeland of 1.5 million people, surrounded on three sides by South Africa, and on the east by Mozambique. The climate is subtropical. Seventy percent of the population lives on less than a dollar a day. Thirty-eight percent of the population is HIV positive. Life expectancy at birth is a tad over 32 years, the shortest among all 250 countries listed in the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2007 International Database.
Sibu’s childhood in rural Mpumalanga Province was rocky even by local standards. His first memory: asking his mother where he should hide when his father came home drunk. When Sibu was 5 years old, his dad stuck a spear through the hut door trying to get at her. She ran off, so Sibu moved in with his paternal grandmother, who hired him out as a goat herder. But the money wasn’t enough for board, so she sent him to tend cattle with an uncle who lived in the compound of a Swazi chief.
It was a traditional kraal: The chief and his five wives had their huts in one walled area; the men and boys lived separately. Sibu wore a calfskin skirt, no shirt or shoes, and slept on a dirt floor with the other boys. “We had one meal a day, usually in the evening, mealy pap [stiff corn meal] with a little tomato or spinach,” Sibu explains. As one of the kraal’s youngest residents, he got beaten up a lot, and the men were often sadistic. He leans out of his bag to show me his earlobes, pierced with slits, not round holes. “Normally getting pierced ears would be a happy event,” he explains, “but my uncle just woke me up one night and did this with a knife.”
When Sibu was 6, he ran away, abandoning his cattle in the hills and running back to his grandmother’s. He ran all day and part of a night, 16 miles. “I was terrified,” he recalls. “It was bush veldt, so there were hyenas and lions, and people had been stealing children for ritual purposes.”
Listening to Sibu’s tale in this frigid setting is surreal. His words hover in the air as frozen puffs of condensation. I try to imagine making such a journey–as a hungry, barefoot first grader–and fail completely. It’s equally hard to imagine how that abandoned 6-year-old became the quiet, genial, smiling man huddled across the tent from me: an author, charity fundraiser, motivational speaker, Everest summiteer, polar explorer, and hero in his native land, literally knighted with South Africa’s Order of Ikhamanga.