Two boomers move from Silicon Valley to Swaziland

When you see a book entitled “From Silicon Valley to Swaziland,” you’re going to pay attention. Especially when it’s about a pair of baby boomers who did a u-turn in their lives to volunteer their skills overseas. That’s what Wendy and Rick Walleigh did, turning their backs on careers in high tech to what they call “an encore career.” Wendy says she only placed four restrictions on where they’d go and how they’d live: “No flying bullets, no countries with “-stan” in their names and both flush toilets and hot showers were required.” That’s what they found in Swaziland, a small nation surrounded by South Africa and Mozambique. Here is an excerpt about the trip to get there, a journey from San Francisco in one world to Mbabane in another.

As the twin-engine turboprop climbed out of Oliver Tambo airport, we could see the densely packed slums surrounding Johannesburg, but the urban landscape quickly disappeared. It was winter in the southern hemisphere, and the flat terrain below was dry and brown. The land was chopped up into tiny plots for farming, most of them fallow. They looked rather sad, as farmland does when nothing is growing. The flight from Johannesburg to Matsapha Airport near Manzini, Swaziland, takes less than an hour, but this was our fourth flight since leaving San Francisco. We had been traveling for thirty-six hours, including two overnight legs.

Wendy and Rick Walleigh at an overlook to the Little Karoo Desert in Swaziland.

Wendy and Rick Walleigh at an overlook to the Little Karoo Desert in Swaziland.

The journey from San Francisco to Manzini, Swaziland, is just about the longest possible trip on earth. In addition to contending with the long flights, we had to manage our carry-on luggage through the multiple airport transits. Since we were staying for nearly six months, we brought a lot of luggage. The airlines allow you to check two bags per person, so we had four large suitcases weighing the maximum of fifty pounds each. In packing, we had allocated them fairly—that is, three for Wendy and one for me. She wasn’t going to Africa without a sufficient wardrobe and a six-month supply of her favorite beauty aids and toiletries.

Wedding ceremony in Swaziland

Wedding ceremony in Swaziland

However, throughout the trip, Wendy was a real trouper. Since two hundred pounds of luggage was not a sufficient allowance for all of our stuff, we also maximized our carry-ons. For carry-ons, the airline allowances are by size, not weight. Consequently, we each carried a thirty-five-pound duffel and a fifteen-pound computer bag. These were heavy for me, and my shoulders ached, but as we slogged through our last transit, I wasn’t sure Wendy was going to make it. Going through the terminal at Oliver Tambo, she looked as if she was about ready to drop. I helped some, and she pulled through bravely. Later, we saw the rough, red welts she had from the shoulder straps, but they cleared up in a few days.

[“From Silicon Valley to Swaziland” is available here at]

As our flight approached Swaziland, the topography changed again. We began to see a few small mountains. They looked like the foothills in California, but craggier. In California, it rains in the winter, and the foothills are covered with green grass. In late spring, the rains stop and the land turns light brown as the vegetation dies. In California PR terms, the hills turn “golden.” They’re really dead brown, like straw, but can still be beautiful in a rugged natural way. In Swaziland, it rains in the summer and the winters are dry. The approaching hills looked comfortably familiar, like California with the dry, straw-brown grass contrasting with the black rock and the red dirt.

Rick Walleigh gets help from a Swazi dresser so he doesn't improperly wear his garb.

Rick Walleigh gets help from a Swazi dresser so he doesn’t improperly wear his garb.

As we approached Matsapha International Airport, I wasn’t nervous or even excited. I was mostly curious and definitely fatigued. On landing and deplaning, the airport felt welcoming and comfortable in a cute and informal way. Since Matsapha has the only paved runway in Swaziland, it is an international airport by default. It had the smallest commercial airline terminal I had ever seen, particularly at an international airport. The terminal had one door for arrivals and one door for departures. Separating the two doors was a pleasant little garden, about ten feet square, of local flora surrounded by carefully positioned rocks. Someone had taken time and effort to make it attractive, and it worked. We entered the arrivals door and passed through immigration and customs in a space the size of our living room at home.

Swaziland-front-cover-high-resOutside the terminal, Kiki, the driver from TechnoServe, was waiting for us with a warm, smiling face, and we were very glad to see him. With very few people awaiting the arrival of our flight, it wasn’t hard for us to pick out Kiki. And as we were the only non-Africans on the flight, it wasn’t hard for him to identify us.

We loaded up our luggage and set off for Mbabane (pronounced by humming the m and then saying “buh-bahn”), the capital of Swaziland and our home for the next six months, about a half hour away. Our first destination was the TechnoServe office where we would be working. The office was on the second floor of a small, modern shopping mall in the center of Mbabane (population 90,000). The TechnoServe office had been open only since February, but was already becoming crowded.

We met fourteen people, but there were nearly twenty names on a whiteboard that showed everyone’s location throughout the day. Among our future colleagues, only Leslie, our country director and boss, plus three other volunteers had come from the United States. Leslie had worked for TechnoServe in Mozambique for several years prior to Swaziland. Everyone else was from Swaziland. Some were full-time employees and some were interns, but everyone was young, most of them younger than our two children. After we met our coworkers, we got local cell phones and then bought a few groceries so we could exist until Monday.


Wendy and Rick Walleigh with a new friend at Blue Nile Falls in Ethiopia.

Having spent two overnights on airplanes and having endured a nine-hour time change, we got tired very quickly, so we were driven to our lodgings about four miles outside of Mbabane. We were delighted to see the quaint little cottage where we would be living. Our cottage and several others were located on the grounds of a Christian retreat center along with a small conference facility and a chapel. The cottages were widely spaced and surrounded by large eucalyptus trees. Our front door exited to a patio overlooking a deep valley with mostly forest on the opposite side. Once again, we could imagine we were in the foothills of California, except for the thatched roofs on the cottages.

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