Learning to Swim in Swaziland

by Nila K. Leigh


Nila K. Leigh's Learning to Swim in Swaziland: A Child’s-Eye View of a South African Country

Book review by Monica Friedman

Ages 5-9


A Little Girl Spends a Year Abroad, Learning about the People, Customs, and Culture

When Nila K. Leigh was eight years old, her parents took her to live in the very small nation of Swaziland, a tiny kingdom, “smaller than New Jersey” and “surrounded by South Africa on three sides and by Mozambique on one side.”

The girl wrote letters to her class back home to share the details of her journey, and these letters were turned into a delightful book, illustrated with Nila’s crayon drawings, charming photographs, and other small artifacts of her experience.

map inset added, cover image from Learning to Swim in Swaziland

Very little of the culture in Swaziland translates to the American experience. Electricity and running water are rarities, “there is hardly any television and there aren’t really any toy stores,” and polygamy is considered the norm, facts which the author explains without judgment or evaluation. Instead, she explains the reality of life for children, who make their own toys (wire cars for boys and grass jump ropes for girls) and are often raised by their grandmothers or “gogos”, in large compounds, with their siblings and half-siblings.

Nila begins with basic geographical facts, including what happens when you cross the equator: “Winter is in June and July. Summer is in December and January,” “The night sky is different. The stars are brighter,” and “Bathtub water goes down the drain different.” She also explains the language differences, the clicks of the native Siswati tongue, and the South African accent of the English.

Her drawings of the native costumes are detailed. The real heart of the book, of course, is Nila’s observation of the lives of Swazi children, who are “very nice. (The minutes they see you they will want to be friends.)” Nila, we get the sense, is a versatile child who will make friends wherever she goes, but her observations open a nice window into the life of the kids she meets. They all shave their heads and wear bits of straw in their pierced ears. They all, “help their parents a lot,” and they all walk to school.

Nila explains how to carry a baby in the Swazi way (wrap it in cloth and carry it on your back), and how to carry a pencil (cut it “in three small pieces. Take one piece of pencil and wear it on a string around your neck.”)

Her remarkable adaptability and her sense of humor are demonstrated in her list of “funny African foods that I have eaten. Crocodile (not really very tasty). Warthog (roasted, it’s the best!) Worms (okay). Ostrich (I can’t remember except it was tough). Kudu, wildebeest and impala (dried up raw into biltong—my favorite.)” She remembers small details—a Swazi folktale, what to feed a pet giraffe, how toads get inside your shoes—that bring her experience to life.

The moral of Learning to Swim in Swaziland: A Child's-Eye View of a Southern African Country is spelled out on the final page. While Nila experience and attitude might seem remarkable, she encourages all children to open their minds to new experiences. “You should not be afraid of what you have never done,” she advises. “You can do all kinds of things you never dreamed you could. Just like swimming. Just like writing a book. Just like living in Africa.”

More children's books about living in other places.

Read more of Monica's reviews.

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