Shy city of Mbabane

Aerial view of CBD at night looking north, Mbabane, Swaziland

I was born and raised in Mbabane, the capital city of Eswatini. Mbabane is a sprawling small town with little to spellbound visitors. Truth is, it’s a place for business. It’s a small town comparatively, clean and was most likely be the 1st town of Eswatini. It’s a quiet and laid back town occupied by a Nguni tribe known for their humble character. Or rather peaceful nature. Not sure if the gender based violence stastics would agree though about Emaswati being peaceful.  General, life in Mbabane moves as slow as the changes in African political landscape. It can take a decade to make one decision. Internet connectivity is the same.

Before you remove your undies, i call it a small/medium sized town because on record the town is occupied by 95 000 residents. Mbabane has a magnificent setting, ringed by the craggy backdrop of the Dlangeni Hills. With an average height of 1243m, it sits firmly in the Highveld, its temperate climate offering some relief during the hot season. Though only a medium-sized town by western standards with a population of some 95,000, it is nonetheless Eswatinis largest, and received ‘city’ status in 1992.

I must admit that the town is blunt or should i say dreary. Mbabane is so shy or inadequate, depending on which sideyou find yourself in. I always say its some achingly drab territory. We’re talking a place where the average age is higher than the speed limit, where most of the citizens are married (with kids!), and where the number of restaurants and venues can be counted on your fingers. Now, that’s not to say there’s nothing to do in a town like Mbabane of course, every place has its charms.  But there are some spots where you can count on having very, very little to do and i must admit Mbabane is one of them. I mean…..

Mbabane

  Let’s face it, Mbabane is a byword for tedious urban sprawl. It’s a roundabout of expanses of concrete and uninspiring brick colored in grey white or any dull colour you can imagine. The whole town is concentrated in one area. There is a litany of government offices with hundreds of Asian shops and restaurants in between offering nothing in the way of Swazi life. It’s like urban development unchecked. So, unless visiting government offices is your ideal kind of tour, there really isn’t much to the place.

Even the main bus rank lacks that noisy energy found in most bus ranks across Africa. That raw energy one gets from most informal markets and bus ranks in Africa. Try the Manzini bus rank for flavor. In Mbabane, the informal traders are in neatly organized rows with their blue umbrellas. Crime is limited and there is none of that usual hustling and bustling. To me, the Mbabane market looks like a “mini Europe”. Maybe this is the crux of development, clean organized and neat. Some probably praise that Mbabane doesn’t have that colorful African madness you find elsewhere on the continent, but many find it downright boring. No matter how you look at it, Mbabane is a one-day town. Or maybe that’s the problem from a tourism angle. How do you get tourists to see such a place?

Don’t mistake the neat rows of informal traders for good driving from the 14 seater quantum kombis that ferry commuters to and from their destinations. In Eswatini, all kombi drivers are taken to a “special school” to learn their driving. Part of the driving lessons include overtaking in blind rises, not stopping at traffic lights, driving like a maniac and general not following any traffic law ever created.

Apart from the Hilton Hotel in the CBD which has a quaky design, there is not that much of magnificent architecture and stunning attractions. The deputy prime ministers office is the only remaining structure with colonial architecture. There is visible absence of colonial architecture. It’s like the British were exhausted from keeping their tiny colonial territories shiny or maybe the high commissioner of Swaziland was a lazy bastard who couldn’t be bothered. It’s like, colonial rule never existed. Even after colonialism, things have not turned better. Mbabane architecture is brutal concrete, with no eco-friendly guesses type of construction. It’s a one way concrete shop. There is even an eye sore of a concrete tall structure imposing on Mbabane that has lay idle for years now. Its concrete gone wrong. It’s like someone airlifted a slightly down-at-heel valleys mining town and just dumped it in the middle of a town and left it there.

Mbabane Bus Rank

Shopping can be done in the plaza or mall with hundreds of Indian shops in between. For the real deal of Swazi clothing, traditional wear and goods, you need to visit the Mbabane market though Ezulwini has a better range. For local designers, you need to ask around if you support locally and most of them don’t have shops or locations.

Mbabane park (natural park) is an attraction though because they have not yet constructed a four cornered glass concrete monstrosity over the park. Some overzealous bureaucrat did approve of a construction of offices over the park, not sure what happened to that idea. Along roads and in every lot stand shady trees, making Mbabane a very green place. 

The Entertainment is a flat line. It is just that Static or maybe, it’s me. While there isn’t too much to keep the casual visitor in Mbabane, the city is a good base for a number of nearby attractions, such as the Sibebe rock or Mantenga cultural village. The many bars around town do their best for the city to keep this alive but musical, there is no diversity and expert to be senarated with Amapiano or Gqom, the music of choice for the many areas offering a spot to chill and enjoy the local beer Sibebe. On any given night, it is very rare to find live music playing at, at least, on one of the town’s venues and on weekends it’s just impossible. Live bands are not a big thing in Eswatini. On any given night, it is rare that you’d listen to a blend of local music blended with other genres. Apart from Bholoja and Sandzi, we have that challenge of severe malnutrition on the local music scene. The deejays are spread across and have really kept it going.

As a Swazi, it always pains me to admit that there is no cinema in our capital city. And we have no theater performances daily or during weekends. There is an art gallery, or is there? The place long gave up on the literal arts. Photography seems to be on the rise but with no formal exhibitions taking place, i am going on a limp here and merely guessing. Strangely the inhabitants of Mbabane do have an “air of sophistication” with them. But that’s the problem when dealing with air, you can neither see nor touch it.

When you close in on Mbabane, it seems to be your standard village community with an urban feel.  Mbabane is an air of defeated majesty, like a corpse with its best suit on, no colour or rhythm. Just your regular 9 to 5 Joe off the mill next door neighbor. The town is a charmless labyrinth of crumbling edifices, which bring to mind the shanty towns, ghettos surrounding the town where there is plenty of action. Msunduza, Mvakwelitje, Mahwalala, Mangwaneni, Mgababa, Dark city, Makholokholo etc. Funniest thing is that all the roads lead away from Mbabane….

FUN FACT:  The City grew after the nation’s administrative center moved from Bremersdorp (now Manzini) in 1902. It derives its name from Chief, Mbabane Kunene, who lived in the area when British settlers arrived. No recorded photos of Mbabane Kunene and i believe i am yet to see a monument named or celebrating, strapping fella whom the city is named after….

Mbabane
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