Wakes and Waterford Weekend February 2012

Wakes and Waterford Weekend February 2012

This past weekend I was in Swaziland. I went for two reasons: first to spend some time – Waterford Kamhlaba at my school, second to look at the current AIDS epidemic situation. On Saturday we celebrated the United World College (UWC) day. This was organised by students and consisted of entertainment in the wonderful amphitheater, then a food fair in the Newton-Thompson Multi-purpose Hall and on the field. Representatives of each country presented themselves and their countries, wearing their national costumes. Following the parade of nations there were a number of music and dance items. For food fair the groups of students cooked and sold food from their national cuisines. The South Africans did boerewors rolls and meat! I sampled the Chinese, Scandinavian and Indian stalls. The Chinese kids showed, in practice, what it means to be responsive to market forces – at the beginning of the fair a plate of food cost E20, by the end they were walking around selling it for E5 to any takers. The Scandinavian stall was mostly sweet food. The Indian meal was excellent!

I was flattered to be invited to give a short talk about what the UWC means for me and Waterford. The amphitheater is acoustically fantastic because if you stand at a certain spot then everyone can hear you and you do not have to raise your voice too much. It is the only facility that will seat the entire school. Currently there are just over 600 students, and it is bursting at the seams. There are photographs in the gallery on this site. The one of me speaking shows a number of students behind me. I invited the Kenyans, where I was born; the Swazis for obvious reasons; and the British, Batswana and South Africans as these are all countries where I have lived. I think the most touching group was the Burundians, who are mostly on scholarships, and have battled enormous odds to get to the College.

The second reason for the visit was to spend time with the staff of NERCHA and to try get a feel of what is going on with the AIDS epidemic in Swaziland. It is a confusing picture: on the one hand the numbers are horrible, on the other treatment, prevention of mother to child transmission and certain social services are getting through. One initiative I am very excited by is to try to get a Swazi special interest group at the Washington AIDS conference. We would like to ensure that everyone who is presenting work about or from the country is linked, and hopefully all who have an interest in Swaziland can join in.

I spent a night in Johannesburg on the way back. The flight was rather fun because I knew two of the three crew on the flight from Manzini to Joburg. The reason for this stopover was to meet my colleague Jonathan Gunthorp of the Southern African AIDS Trust.

I neglected to take my book out off my bag before boarding in Manzini and as it is a small plane, the bags get taken away and put in the hold. I looked at the in-flight magazine in particular the timetable for Airlink. I noted that during the week the first flight of the day is from Johannesburg just before seven o’clock in the morning. At the weekend it is much later. I asked the cabin crew member why this was.

“Yes,” she said, “at the weekend the airplane sleeps in Johannesburg.”

What a lovely image, it is also accurate because the crews will not necessarily stay over in South Africa. I wish I had had a bit more time as the flying school was having an open day, but sadly that was not to be.

I was back in Durban by midday on Tuesday but we were unable to get onto the university campus because the students were rioting. On Wednesday I went in really early and got on to the campus without too much trouble. Most other people were not able to get to work despite a heavy police presence. As I sat in my office we could hear the sound of tear gas canisters being fired near the residences. Because we are on the top floor with a very good view across the campus we also end up playing host to people who want to simply come and look at what is going on. By Thursday peace had returned. There are five campuses for this university, it was only Westville that saw these violent protests, I don’t understand why this was the case.

The week before the trip to Swaziland, on Saturday afternoon I went to the wake of my friend Mark Colvin. He died of a heart attack at the age of 54 years and four days. We gathered at his house on Durban’s Bluff to remember a friend and a remarkable man. Mark was a medical doctor, a surfer, an activist, a father and husband, and a person who knew how to live life to the full. Our community was and is quite devastated by his death. A year ago he wrote an articulate and moving e-mail describing what happened to him during and after his first heart attack. It is a classic of thoughtful introspective and useful writing. I asked him what this had meant for him and his comment was to the effect that it shows how transient life is.

The Colvin home overlooks the Indian Ocean. From the house it is possible to walk down through the thick bush to the beach. Golden sand and crashing white breakers, and then nothing but ocean for thousands of miles, the next land is the west coast of Australia. It is the ideal location for someone who loved nature, that sea, and surfing. The fly in the ointment is that it is also close to the oil refineries and industrial area of Durban so air pollution is an issue. Mark was involved in tackling this.

It is always a time of reflection when we lose friends. I was asked: ‘Was he a close friend”. The honest answer: “Not terribly close, but someone I had known a very long time”.

He was one of the first touch rugby players I knew. A group of us used to gather on a university field and play long and arduous games on a Monday evening. They could last for two hours or more. Years of doing that and you get to know your colleagues.

A while ago I realized that I am increasingly unsupple and stiff so decided to take up yoga. There is a yoga studio about 20 minutes walk away from my flat. With their advice I am doing one of the basic levels. It is hard and makes me realise how little flexibility I have. There are signs of improvement. As with most things I like being at the back. (When I get on a bus I tend to head for the last row of seats). It is no different in the yoga class and this was something for which I was very grateful. The back story is I am running out off gym shorts, I have only three pairs and I was therefore wearing shorts I do not normally use for sport or yoga. As we went in to the pose ‘Warrior 1’, which involves lunging with legs straddled, I became aware that there was a breeze where there should not be one. This presented a real dilemma, what to do? What is the etiquette? The one certain consequence is I am going to buy more shorts and make sure I use the appropriate ones.

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Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Harper Perennial, London 2000, 639pp

This book begins in 1939 and takes us through the Second World War into the 1950s. It is primarily the story of two men, Josef Kavelier and his cousin Samuel Clay. Joseph is the only member of his family to escape the persecution of the Jews in Czechoslovakia. In New York he works with his cousin to create a successful comic strip called The Escapist. As this is happening, Josef is waiting for his brother to escape from the Nazi programme in Prague. His lover Rosa falls pregnant, but before she can tell him, he learns that his brother was on a ship that was torpedoed in the Atlantic. Josef joined the forces ‘to kill Germans’, but ends up operating a radio in the Antarctic, without knowing Rosa is pregnant, partly because he stubbornly won’t open any of the letters Samuel and Rosa send him.

He is one of only two survivors when the team is wiped out by carbon monoxide poisoning. He and the pilot of the plane based at the station fly over to the German radio station, although on the way the pilot dies of appendicitis. Josef kills the sole surviving German radio operator, gets rescued and returns to New York. Samuel has married Rosa but at the end he leaves, so Josef is alone with Rosa and his son.

It is a complicated book, there are many themes and sub themes in it. Loneliness and being on one’s own are explored, the importance of family and Jewishness are constant. Samuel is gay but marries Rosa in order to give the child a father. The meaning of being gay in the 1940s is touched on. The book won the Pulitzer prize for fiction in 2001. There are some sub themes which are not fully developed for example, the Golem – a cultural icon which I don’t fully understand, is exported from Prague and ends up in New York years later by which time it has turned to dust, the mud of the river it was made from. This bit was far-fetched, and did not mean much to me. The theme of magic is in the background, Josef has been taught by a master magician in Prague.

David Guterson, The Other, Bloomsbury, London, 2008, 256 pp

In the beginning there was a race, 800 metres, not a particularly fashionable distance. The time is 1972, the place Seattle and the two boys who compete (with each other – not even for one of the first three places) are Neil Countryman from a working-class background and John William Barry, an only child from a professional family. The book covers the first years of the young men’s relationship in detail. It ends in 2006 and as I do not want to spoil the story I won’t give away much of the plot.

I really enjoyed this book. This is the story of an unhappy marriage and a long battle between John’s parents and the consequence is an upbringing that emphasises many underlying characteristics he has. It is the story of a happy marriage between Neil and his wife and the successful rearing of their two sons. John is present throughout the book and it is in part told through flash backs. Many of the sentences in this book are fiendishly complicated and it is beautifully written. I will certainly look out for more books by this author. When I have finished a book I usually reread the last few chapters a few times in order to cement the story in my head. I have done this with both the books reviewed above.