Circumcised Statues In Oslo

Over the past ten days my destinations have been Olso, Stockholm, Uppsala and Liverpool. I was invited to take part in an interesting conference in Uppsala on “HIV and AIDS, Political Mobilization and Democracy?” This was organised by Forumsyd a Swedish NGO (forum south in English); SIDA, the Swedish Development Agency and Uppsala University. Given that I had to go to Scandinavia I decided to visit HEARD’s supporters in Oslo and Stockholm.

I flew over to Oslo on Sunday 10th May. Or at least I thought I was flying to Oslo but on getting to Amsterdam I looked at the departure board and saw that there was a plane to Oslo and then mine to Sandefjord Airport. This airport does indeed serve Oslo but is nearly 120 kilometres south! On arrival I had to work out how to get to Oslo – The choices were bus (nearly 2 hours); train but this required taking a shuttle bus to the station; or taxi which would have been impossibly expensive. I asked the driver of the rail shuttle bus which he thought would be my best option and he charmingly and honestly said: “Train of course, it is much nicer”, but then added “but not today we are using buses because there is a problem on the line”. I took the express bus!

I had looked at the weather forecast and it had seemed to be unrelentingly wet and cool, but this was not the case, it was sunny and pleasant the whole time and everywhere! What was striking was the extra daylight. I went to bed at 10 pm it was light; I woke up at 3 am and it was light again! This would take some getting used to if one lived there. In addition the size of the rooms and beds in the cheaper (but still expensive) hotels required a mental adjustment. In all three locations there was only a shower in the room and two had very small single beds.

I had a very useful day and a half in Oslo. Unfortunately my last appointment was in a slightly run down part of the city. Try as we might neither the taxi driver nor I could find the office, so I had to miss that meeting. The driver having taken money for the  trip to the location hung around and helped me look then took me back to my hotel so I could head for the airport without charging for the additional time, which was really decent. I felt so guilty about it though.

I was taken out to a really nice restaurant and told by my host that if I did only one thing in Oslo, I had to go to Frogner Park and look at the Vigeland Sculpture. She kindly put on the right tram to get there. It was a really beautiful evening so this was not a hardship. The sculptures are amazing, the website I found is and it is worth a look. The sculptures consist mainly of large naked men, with fewer women and some children and animals. They were sculpted in clay and caste in bronze or carved from granite. My favourite was the Wheel of Life. It was also clear that his male models were not circumcised! I walked back to the city and hotel, easy because it was all down hill, enjoying the evening.

From there it was off to Stockholm. This time I went from Oslo airport, but it was still a 65 minute trip on the bus from the city centre! The flight was 50 minutes, the plane was packed and the cabin crew still managed to serve drinks, a meal and tea and coffee in this time, while remaining calm, amazing. Arlanda airport is well seved by an efficient train that runs into Stockholm and I then headed to my hotel for my one night in the city..

Over the course of the trip I gave two presentations in Oslo and one each in Uppsala and Stockholm. The conference was interesting, there were new ideas and a number of people I had not met. It was particularly pleasing to have a chance to talk to a PhD candidate who is looking at the role of media in the response to the epidemic in Lesotho and Namibia. It it is clear to me that we, in Southern Africa and at HEARD, are ahead in our thinking, and that kind of affirmation is much appreciated.

Oslo is a beautiful small city. It was good to finally get there as I have never visited it. Stockholm is much busier. I had a city map for both locations and was amused to do a little analysis of the avertisments in the boxes around the central plan. They have about the same number of boxed adverts. On the Oslo map five of the 23 were for shops selling sweaters or other knitted goods, the balance were for resturants and sightseeing. The Swedes by contrast are more into general shopping including jewelery, there was not a single sweater shop.

Uppsala is a bucolic small town a forty minute train ride from Stockholm. We were housed is quite odd little hotel called the Muttern with only 26 rooms. Their website is The wardrobe was on a swivel stand, one side the mirror the other the opening for clothes and hanging jackets. It smacked of Ikea! The cathedral which was begun in 1287 is an amazing brick building.

The town itself is centred around the University, and so had all the standard features of such towns. These included hordes of students riding bicycles; cheap eating places and lots of pubs; and in the evening students staggering through the streets with open bottles and tins in their hands. They lined up at the pedestrian crossings and then eratically weaved the way across. I have not seen men urinating in public in the northern hemishere (except next to roads, and then with the car door as concealment), well in Uppsala brought that experience as well. The other striking feature was the largen numbers of Goths, who seemed to congregate like crows in the open spaces, sitting in circles and passing joints and booze.

I took a taxi from the hotel to the airport, it was driven by a melancholic Swede in his 40s, who unusually, did not speak English. It is, of course, possible that he choose not to speak though. As I  sat in the front I had ample opportunity to study his picture on the licence, and learn his name, Kenneth Lars Lindstrom. I could not decide if he looked shifty or sad, and eventually concluded he was carrying the weight of being Swedish on his shoulders. The driver from the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine by contrast did not stop talking. He said he really enjoys his job because he gets to meet all these interesting people. Quite how he knows they are interesting was unclear as he does all the talking. He has collected me a few times and I know a lot about him, but he does not remember this.

The visit to Liverpool was to attend a meeting on “Strengthening the research to policy and practice interface: Exploring strategies used by research organisations working on Sexual and Reproductive Health and HIV and AIDS”. We had three HEARD, two by Tim Quinlan and one co-authored by myself and Fiona Henry on Swaziland, Fiona gave the presentation which was excellent. It is clear we are punching above our weight.

And my reading:The Virus, Vitamins and Vegatables: The South African HIV/AIDS Mystery, eds Kerry Cullinan and Anso Thom, Jacana media, Aukland Park, 2009, 211 page.
In their foreword, the editors write: “This book is an attempt to document some of the madness, sheer weirdness and despair of a decade with Mbeki and Tshabalala-Msimang. We are doing so to safeguard the future. We want to present this book as evidence to citizens of this country and the world and say, ‘This is what happened and we need to ensure that it never happens again.'”  Worth reading? Absolutely! 9 out of 10 for content; 8 for perception and 7 for writing style, this last because it is an edited collection it is a bit uneven.
Sexuality: A Very Short Introduction, Veronique Mottier, Oxford University Press Oxford, 2008, 160 pages.
This looks at how sexuality is determined, our genes or is it shaped by the social norms and expectations. It claims to provide an accessible, thoughtful and thought-provoking introduction to major debates around sexuality in the modern world, highlighting the social and political aspects of sexuality. It also looks at how governments have tried to regulate sexualities. It finishes by discussing political activism around sexuality. I found it useful however am not convinced of the perspective that she takes at the end. I think there is too much on gay politics. Worth reading? Yes because it is a VSI! 7 out of 10 for content; 7 for perception and 7 for writing style.
Dead aid: why aid is not working and how there is a better way for Africa, Dambisa Moyo, Farrar, Straus and Giroux,, New York, 2009 188 pages
This is a short but powerful book. The author, a Zambian woman, grew up in Lusaka but left to study in the US. She has worked for the World Bank and Goldman Sachs and has a PhD from Oxford. Her credentials are impeccable. Moyo argues the problem with Africa, the reason it is not developing, is the trillions of dollars in aid that has been poured into the continent. Her critique of aid in the first part of this little book is damning in the second part she has policy prescriptions.  Worth reading? Yes because if you are interested in Africa and development aid, otherwise probably not! 8 out of 10 for content; 7 for perception and 6 for writing style.