Earlier this week Muhle and I spoke about his childhood in Swaziland and his family’s transition from the lower class to the wealthy, upper class. Muhle named the distribution of wealth as “one of Swaziland’s biggest problems.” He told me “most of the wealth is with a certain group of people. You are either poor or well off. There is very little in between stuff. “ Growing up, Muhle was considered to be poor. His mother was unemployed and his dad was attempting to work his way through the ranks of a sugar company while, at the same time, going to school. When Muhle was 6 or 7 he lived in a single room with his cousins while his parents lived a room next to them. They did not own a house, just one room housing units that they had built so that the majority of their extended family could live in the same general vicinity.
Muhle told me a story about a group of kids at his elementary school that he resented called “cheese boys.” The cheese boys were rich kids who brought grilled cheese sandwiches in their lunch tins while Muhle and his cousins ate only “brown bread and water.” But as Muhle’s father continued to go to school and receive degrees, he began to achieve promotions in the sugar company. Soon Muhle transitioned from lower class to “well off.” He described to me he difficulty of “living those two separate lives” around his family. Muhle was now a cheese boy himself and Muhle’s father was the wealthiest of the adults in his family. They were able to move out of their rooms and into a “real house” that housed only their immediate family. Muhle was could now afford to attend a very expensive, private high school and work toward achieving his dream of attending college in America.
This new class change put pressure on Muhle around his many cousins. His aunt, his cousins’ mother, is, like most people in Swaziland, a subsistence farmer and brought home little money. His cousins still live “pretty badly” and Muhle struggles with seeing their hardship. Around them he feels as if he “cannot live the life that he normally lives because it would not be fair.” He knows that if he brought “cool stuff” around his cousins that he would be obligated to share or risk upsetting his family members who could not afford such luxuries. But, after talking to Muhle, I do not believe that his transition from lower class to a “cheese boy” affected his relationship with his family. His father now assists his family financially and helps with manual labor when needed.
The economic distribution in Swaziland is a bit more drastic that that of the United States. America has a larger middle class than Swaziland and a less severe distinction between middle class and lower class. The distribution of wealth in America makes class transition more common compared to Swaziland where Muhle’s transformation into a “cheese boy” would be rare.