Some years ago, when I was working for a congregation of Catholic sisters, I visited their mission in Swaziland, a landlocked country in southern Africa. Swaziland is ruled by a king who has been known to make Parade Magazine’s list of “world’s worst dictators.”
St. Philip’s Mission is far removed from any city and most of the nearby homesteads had no running water or electricity. Rural Swaziland only began to get pit toilets in the 1990’s. St. Philip’s has a school, medical clinic, and orphanage that houses 130 children whose parents died from HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, or other diseases that are all too common in the region.
I had gotten to know some of the children in the orphanage during previous visits, and a girl named Fortunate was one of my favorites. She was 11 years old at the time of this particular visit, and she had a sincerity about her that touched me deeply. Fortunate was one of five children in her family, and all of them had come to the mission to live after their mother died.
One day in the yard near the orphanage, Fortunate and a friend approached me, and Fortunate asked, “Please sing your country’s national anthem for us.” I am not a good singer, so her request caused me a bit of panic. “Why don’t you sing your country’s national anthem for me first,” I replied, “and then I will sing mine.” I was hoping to buy some time and make my escape before I actually had to sing.
Fortunate’s friend moved to her side; they threw back their shoulders, stood tall, and began to sing the national anthem of Swaziland. As soon as the sound of their voices filled the air, other children ran to join them. Each child assumed a similar stance, shoulders back, head high, standing straight. More and more joined in the singing of the anthem — until there was a large choir making beautiful music. I was stunned that children from such an isolated, backwoods area not only knew their national anthem, but showed such respect and pride while singing it.
I wondered if I could go to any school in the United States and find children so eager and proud to sing our national anthem. Could I find this many children in any one place in the States who would even know all the words of “The Star-Spangled Banner”? But there in rural Swaziland were children who had lost their parents and homes, who had no possessions, and whose king cared very little about them, and yet they were so proud to be Swazis and to sing about their homeland.
When they finished, Fortunate again asked me to sing my national anthem. I could not refuse and asked a fellow visitor to join me. We sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” and, at the end, I spontaneously did a fist-pump and hooted. I then explained to the Swazi children that I only sing our national anthem at sporting events and always cheer at the end of it. They laughed, but I nearly cried.