Every year in the month of September, leaders from around the world converge on New York City to attend the United Nations General Assembly. Presidents, prime ministers, kings and queens, flood New York City during this time. This is a very taxing time for the Secret Service because all foreign heads of countries and heads of state fall under Secret Service protection when on American soil. If a foreign leader is accompanied by his/her spouse, then the spouse also receives Secret Service protection.
I was driving motorcade routes with my counterpart in preparation for the visit of the first family to Palo Alto, California. The Clintons would be arriving in less than a week with their daughter Chelsea who would be starting her freshman year at Stanford University. As we were running our routes, I received a phone call from the Secret Service Duty Agent. He informed me that reporting instructions had just come out for United Nations Assembly and that I had been picked up on a detail and would be traveling to New York after the Clinton visit. I asked which detail I had been assigned and he said, “The King of Swaziland.” I said, “Swaziland? Where the heck is Swaziland? Sounds like a bad amusement park.” (King Mswatii has since changed the country’s name to Eswatini).
When I hung up, my counterpart was laughing. “No way, you’re on the King of Swaziland detail at the U.N.?” he chuckled.
I told him I was and asked what was so funny.
“I was on that detail last year. It was a trip,” he said. “The King has like seven or eight wives, his guards carry spears, and he has a chanter.”
“A chanter?” I asked.
“Yeah, I was posted at his hotel room door and here comes this guy from his entourage down the hall. He gets to about six inches from the King’s door and just stands there. Then, while facing the door, he starts chanting in Swazi. After a few minutes he turned and walked away. This happened every day,” he explained.
“Really?”, I asked. “What about the guards and spears?”
“So,” he said, “the King’s guards travelled with him from Swaziland. They were all dressed in traditional clothing like loincloths, beads, and sandals, and they all carried ceremonial spears everywhere. It was the craziest protection detail I’ve ever seen. From the beginning of the visit, one of his guards had an attitude and kept butting heads with our guys and would not follow procedures. When this got back to the King, he was embarrassed and had the guard removed from his detail.” Then in a more serious tone, he added, “The word is that when they returned to Swaziland, the King had the guy beheaded.”
“You’ve got to be kidding. No way.” I was shocked. to hear this. This harsh reality would weigh on my mind throughout the assignment and invoke sympathy for the guards with each encounter.
I arrived in New York the day before the King and attended our detail briefing that night at the hotel. There I met the Detail Leader, Shift Supervisors, and rest of the Secret Service team. Amongst other things, we were briefed on information pertaining to the King, his health, his staff, his guards, Swazi traditions, protocols, and the political environment in Swaziland. We were also informed that there was no known adverse intelligence, political opposition, groups or persons of interest, regarding the King, in the United States. Emergency procedures, tactics, and assets were also discussed in case of an incident. I learned that my assignment for this detail would be the Suite Security Agent (like my Clinton motorcade counterpart had been the year before). This meant I would be posted outside the door of the King’s hotel suite, ensuring only authorized personnel entered the suite.
I reported for duty the following morning at our Command Post. After our Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) team completed their bomb sweep of the King’s suite, I took my position outside the suite door to maintain the integrity of the suite. The King would arrive at JFK Airport in a few hours and motorcade directly to the hotel.
When the King, one of his many wives, and his entourage arrived and made their way down the hall towards his suite (and me), one of the first things that struck me was that the Swazi security guards were not wearing the traditional garb that my former counterpart had described. Gone were the loin clothes, bead necklaces, sandals, and ceremonial spears. They had been replaced by suits, ties, and dress shoes. But instead of dark blue or black suits like our agents were wearing, the Swazi’s suits were an array of colors from turquoise to purple, not your basic Men’s Wearhouse variety. They looked like jazz musicians right out of a New Orleans night club.
Every day, at a designated time, the Chanter would come down the hall, stand next to me, face the King’s door, and loudly chant for a minute-or-two before leaving.
This was an interesting tradition as was the routine that whenever anyone entered the King’s suite, they did so on their hands and knees, which seemed very odd to me.
I learned that this was a cultural tradition and a sign of respect by always being lower than the King when entering his dwelling. I always found it fascinating to observe the rituals and traditions of other cultures and the unique ways they interacted with their leaders.
One of the Swazi guards spoke English fairly well. He and I had interesting conversations regarding his homeland and culture.
On one of the days that we had some down time, I had asked if he had ever been to the Empire State Building. He said he had not. So, I had him grab his camera and along with two of his counterparts, the four of us took a cab to the Empire State Building.
When we arrived, security allowed us to bypass the line of tourists by putting us on a VIP elevator taking us straight to the open-air observation deck on the 86th floor. It was interesting to see the looks of amazement on the Swazi guards faces as they looked over the panoramic views of New York City from atop one of the world’s most famous skyscrapers. It was a fascinating experience for me…I can only imagine the awe they must have felt.
Regarding the beheading of the guard the previous year, I have since learned that was just a rumor circulating amongst agents and it was determined that it DID NOT happen.
Several weeks after the visit I received a letter from my new friend from Swaziland. In the letter he reflected on our conversations and thanked me for taking he and his counterparts to the Empire State Building. He closed by saying he hoped that our paths would cross again someday. I had several other UN assignments in the years that followed, but none with Swaziland. I’ve often wondered how he was doing. Maybe I’ll drop him a line.