On The Road and Looking Back

It has been busy. I left Waterloo at the end of June heading back to the unexpected UK Brexit vote. It was quite unbelievable, this means Scotland will certainly seek independence and I would not be surprised if Wales and Northern Ireland don’t follow suit. The reason for being in England was the first ever Whiteside family gathering, organised in North Walsham, the town where my father was born on the 27th July 1899. The initiative to have this gathering came from my 82 year old half-sister Pat de Pury.

The ‘reunion’ was a remarkable event. We, a group of 20 people ranging in age from 82 to 4, met at a hotel in North Walsham. Apart from the children of Walter Jack Whiteside (four of the five were there) it included grandchildren, numerous cousins, second cousins and families and spouses. After the lunch some of us took a stroll to the cemetery in the town. My grandmother, who died in childbirth in 1907, is buried there. My father was the eldest of five children. As I type this I realise he too had five children. My immediate family did us proud, there was a ‘three line whip’ on attending and Ailsa, Rowan and Douglas were there along with my brother Derek, his wife Lynn and Emily, Sarah and Kate.

The day prior to the lunch, we went to the school he attended in the town. Paston Grammar, as it was in those days. It is over 400 years old and the most famous Alumni was Admiral Nelson. They had copies of the school magazine and we were excited to find my father’s name in there. In 1912, 1913 and 1914 he was mentioned for his sporting activities; from 1915 the reason he appears is that he had joined up. There were actually pictures of him in army uniform. This was made all the more poignant by the fact that, in early July, the news media in the UK were covering the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, and there were so many mentions of old Pastonians who had been killed. I am going to have to go back to the school and look carefully at the archives.

On the 6th of July I flew to Durban. Initially it felt really strange to be back. The flat was grimy – dust and black sooty pollution, a visit and 6 hours hard work by Zandi, the delightful lady who was the cleaner at HEARD, made a huge difference. On Sunday I drove to Swaziland, leaving Durban at 9.30 in the morning which was a little late. It meant I was driving into the setting sun for the last couple of hours and did not get to my favourite Southern African hotel, the Mountain Inn until 6pm.

Monday was spent on the organisation of the conference: “From AIDS Crisis to Opportunities”, held on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at the Royal Swazi Spa Conference Centre. It was a great success, the quality of papers was excellent. I was delighted to be part of it and gave a very brief presentation which went down very well. Of course it was not surprise that the first day began about an hour later than hoped. The Prime Minister was scheduled to open it and Tuesday is Cabinet Day. To his credit he found time; came down; and did the honours. The intention is to take the best papers and produce a special issue of the African Journal of AIDS Research.

The meeting was scheduled to end at lunch time on Thursday, but as I knew I had to be functional in Durban first thing on Friday, I decided to skip the last part and drive back. I left the Mountain Inn by 08.00 and had a really good journey, there was little traffic and it was a beautiful day. I was back in Durban by 2.30 and able to go and do some critical banking, so it felt like a win all round.

The International AIDS Conference was in Durban from Monday 18th to Friday 22nd of July. Ahead of it we had the International AIDS Economics Network (IAEN) meeting on Friday and Saturday at the Suncoast Casino. This was attended by about 130 people, all of whom had at least a nodding acquaintance with the issues of AIDS and economics. I chaired a session but otherwise had no formal function as part of the meeting for the first time in a long time. This was just as well because by Saturday I knew I was coming down with a cold. Early on Wednesday I did some shopping, then went back to the flat and spent the morning fast asleep, much needed. It was a big meeting but I did not feel involved or engaged. I regret missing the Swaziland AIDS Research Network informal gathering.

On Thursday I headed for Swaziland with a PhD student from Waterloo. The third trip for me in 10 days. This time I was early enough not to have setting sun issues, instead there was major roadwork and traffic outside Manzini. To put this into perspective, this is not of the scale of the 401 from Toronto to Waterloo, but none-the-less was very annoying and made the journey longer.

My Saturday was spent at Waterford for the Governing Council meeting. It was a marathon, beginning at 8 am and not finishing until after 4pm. The first two hours were, unusually, spent on reserved business. The previous evening was the Art Exhibition opening. The guest speaker was noted South African artist Judith Mason. At the end of the meeting I was feeling really exhausted and this was not helped by the cold which was at the ripe and productive stage.

There were a number of alumni there, including one of my class mates Yunus Peer. He now lives and teaches in Hawaii, having been prevented from coming back to finish school in 1973, by the apartheid government who confiscated his passport. I was finally able to tell him that 14 or more years ago I found a copy of a text book “The Choice of Poets” at a car boot sale in Hellesdon, Norwich. In the front cover were two names I knew and one was his along with our class designation ‘IIIA’. The story went round the gathering like wild fire, everyone being very taken with it. I will post pictures in due course.

The early part of the week was spent in meetings with organisations and government in Mbabane. I presented the work I had undertaken through the Evidence for HIV Prevention in Southern Africa (EHPSA) project. This is funded by the UK through the Department for International Development (DfID) and Sweden development assistance and managed by Mott MacDonald. My ‘handler’, Josee Koch, is based in Pretoria and may have been the index case for the cold poor women.

The question I was asked to look at was: how big a problem are school drop-outs and what should be done about this? I was really surprised, as indeed were my Swazi colleagues, to find that, according to the Ministry of Education data, the numbers are small and decreasing. That is not to say there are not problems in the system: huge numbers of repeaters and orphans and vulnerable children are recorded; the quality of education and the infrastructure leaves a great deal to be desired; and the question of education for what is pertinent since there are so few formal sector jobs.

I got back to Durban on Thursday and was very amused to walk into the arrivals section of the King Shaka International Airport to be greeted by one of the Avis Drivers. He was not there to collect me but recognised me. That sort of continuity is really nice to experience. The car hire people offered me a choice of vehicle and so I drove a Renault for the rest of July the visit, an interesting and pleasant car.

The theme of this trip was definitely Swaziland and the HIV response. I spent far too long driving, which is now necessary as the new airport in Swaziland is two hours away from Mbabane in the Lowveld. Given that the only air route is connecting via Johannesburg it is probably quicker to drive, although it is quite exhausting. On the plus side the quality of the work from the country and researchers is exceptional. It is clear they are on top of the epidemic, but prevention is still not working, a real worry.