Film, Books and Blogs: December 2009

This will be the last posting for 2009. I will begin by wishing everyone a happy end of 2009 and a good 2010. This is not going to be a reflective post; that will be the first one of the New Year, when I have had a chance to get my head around the events of 2009. In this I will mainly reflect on the films I have seen and the books read over the past few months. I travelled from Durban to Vancouver and then back to the UK in mid-November which meant I saw quite a number of films.

The reflection to end the year is that I can fly but landing is still beyond me. I have had two lessons in the last week and have to say this landing business is more difficult than I thought it would be. After going round a few times and managing to touch down and have one ‘go-around’ which is when one aborts the landing without touching the tarmac, I was really battling. David, the instructor, took over and showed how easy it is for him while I was left feeling really frustrated. I can manage most of the landing – the turning, lining up and approach; it is the last 50 feet that I am finding really tough. The idea is that a point you fly above the runway taking off the power and holding the nose up until the plane gently touches down, and I am just not able to judge it. David says that everyone finds this and then it will suddenly come right. I hope this is true.

Perhaps the only thing I want to put in is that I am in the UK for Christmas and New Year. On 11th January I get back to Durban which is where I will be staying for the next few months. There is a great deal of management that needs to be done, and I also have the political economy of Swaziland which needs to be completed. I have finally returned to this and am enjoying getting my head around Swaziland and what a unique little nation it is. There will have to be some time spent up there doing fieldwork as well.

Films

“Departures”. This Japanese film, made in 2008, is the winner of a number of prizes including the Academy Award as Best Foreign Language film. It is the story of a cellist, whose orchestra closes. He and his wife move to a house that his mother left him and he begins looking for work. He sees an advertisement to work with ‘departures’, and thinking it is something to do with travel agent, applies and get the job. He discovers he is to be a “nokanshi” or professional who prepares bodies for burial and ‘encoffins’ them. The nokanshi carries rituals in front of the family: kneeling on one side, with the family is on the other; they carefully wash and prepare the body for burial or cremation.

The story is moving. It is about the relation between the hero, his somewhat irascible boss, and the deceased. I felt, were someone to have to do these rituals for me, then he is the sort of sensitive person one wants. The characters are deep and the music excellent.

“Taking Woodstock”. This is as told by Elliot Teichberg. As a young man he was working at his parent’s motel in Bethel, New York, involved in the local Chamber of Commerce, and had organized a number of cultural events. He was in charge of issuing public events’ permits and when he discovered that the organizers of the Woodstock Festival had been denied authority to hold the event in the village of Walkill, he issued them a permit. The Festival was held on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm, the rest is history.

It was a touching film, gentle in its approach to the event and, while probably not historically accurate, it was good fun. The film did not have any of the music, just covering events in the run-up to the Festival. Teichberg’s parents appear as two failing Jewish business people, out of place and time. All characters are parodied including the ‘earth-life’ acting troupe.

South African Airways shows South African films, and I have seen two.

“My Secret Sky” was made by Madoda Ncayiyana with Julie Fredrickse (co-producer and writer). I’ve known about this film for some time as Julie came to talk to me as she was developing it. I hope I was helpful in giving her background and thoughts. It is the story is of two children, 10-year old Thembe and her 8-year old brother, Kwezi. They are orphaned in a rural area outside Durban when their mother dies (implicitly of AIDS). The family gathers to bury the mother and the children are left in the care of an aunt who sells all their possessions and is portrayed as a drunken, grasping woman.

The children take a woven mat that their mother has made, (she was hoping to enter it in a competition), and set off for the city of Durban. Here they become involved with street children, in particular one called ‘Chili-bite’ who tries to sell the girl to a taxi-driver involved with pedophilia. There are gaps in the story line which I forgive because it is set in Durban. We see the steam train that, on a Sunday takes tourists from Pinetown to the Valley of a Thousand Hills; look at Warwick Junction with its hustle and bustle; see the Durban city streets the Embankment, a fantastic view across the bay and the sleazy underpass where the children live; finally there is the Musgrave road Anglican church.

The film tells of children being left on their own and facing great adversity. It is, for me, best a film that portrays areas and people I know as well as the real issues faced by growing numbers of children as a result of HIV/AIDS. It is an accurate picture of a thriving port city and how people, especially youngsters may fall through the cracks in this setting. I will certainly look for it on DVD.

“White Wedding”. This is fun. It tells of the journey of Elvis, by Greyhound bus from Johannesburg to Durban, to meet up with his best friend Tumi. Together they travel on to Cape Town for his wedding. Tumi is to be his best man and Elvis is to marry Ayanda in the Cape at a fancy hotel at Camps Bay.

The story is set in various locations. Ayanda is in Cape Town, the city and a township; we see Tumi and Elvis in Durban and the Eastern Cape. Their journey involves borrowing a car after Tumi’s girl friend wrecks his BMW. As they travel through the Eastern Cape they pick up a young English doctor who is hitchhiking (very unwisely all the South Africans would think). They wreck the car and end up in a rightwing, white stronghold in the Cape. Through charm and good manners they get a ride to Cape Town from one of the real Afrikaners.

This is “appealing feel good movie about love, commitment, intimacy and friendships and the host of maddening obstacles that can get in the way of a happy ending”. The writer/director is Jaan Turner, the daughter of Rick Turner who was assassinated in Durban. The executive producer is Ken Follet the author. They have done an excellent job in making this film, picking up on South Africa and what goes on there and making a thoroughly enjoyable film. The beauty of the landscape is well portrayed but I sincerely hope that no one tries hitchhiking through South Africa as the young doctor does.

I am not going to review it but want to say I really enjoyed the latest Coen brothers’ offering ‘Serious Man’. It has not been out very long and I found it very dark. There is humour in it, and I would say it does for small town Jewish communities what ‘District Nine’ did for apartheid South Africa and the bureaucracy.

Books 

Over the past nine months or so I have read the new series of the Millennium Trilogy written by Swedish author Stieg Larsson. There are three books in the series “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”, “The Girl Who Played With Fire”, and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest”. These are a publishing sensation, numbers 3, 8 and 12 on the Amazon best seller list (my “HIV/AIDS Very Short Introduction” has been as low as 15000 and currently is 135 000). The English version is by published by Maclehose Press. The key characters in the books are Lisbet Salanader and Mikael Blomkvist. Salander is a faintly autistic young woman, excellent with computers in the first book as a hacker she finds her way into a range of databases and saves the skin of the main character; in the last she is charged with attempted murder. There are other characters who are well developed. The Swedish detective, the editor of Millennium Magazine and in the final book Blomkvist’s sister. These three books are a monumental achievement and have been extremely well translated. Sadly the author Steve Larsson died after delivering them to the publisher and before they were published which means he never saw the outcome of his work. They are recommended as good holiday reading.

In the weekly Mail and Guardian of a few weeks ago there was a very interesting article about South African crime writing. The one author described well was Margie Orford who’s first book was called “Like Clockwork”. The book is published by Jonathon Ball Publishers and is set in Cape Town particularly around Green Point and Sea Point. It is the story of a serial killer who’s also involved in the trafficking of women. Orford describes Cape Town evocatively. Her main character is a psychologist/documentary filmmaker called Clare Hart but there are a range of other characters from the new South Africa who are well described in this book. The second in the series is “Blood Rose” and is set in Namibia in Walvis Bay. These are edgy books and they reflect the society well including AIDS and its consequences. The shady characters, especially the street children are particularly well described.

Cessna’s In Durban

I wrote something for my Website and decided that it was not good enough. I may use what I wrote in another format and somewhere else, but it means that I am rather behind in my news.
There was an interesting experience a few weeks ago. Coming from London the plane left a bit late. Just before the cabin doors closed the person sitting next to me took out a cell phone and proceeded to have a long conversation. We were asked to switch our phones off, she carried on talking. The steward walked passed and said, “Madam please will you put your phone off?” As we taxied she talked. The cabin-crew member came and asked her to switch it off. She said, “of course” but carried on talking! The steward came back and again saying: “if you don’t switch it off we will have to stand until you have”. She finished her conversation, reached into her voluminous bag, and took out four other cell phones, which she proceeded to switch off one after the other. His eyebrows rose into his hairline.

I returned to South Africa via a meeting in Brussels. This was on global health governance and the right to health, organized by Gorik Ooms, an interesting Belgian trained as a lawyer and now an academic after heading MSF in Belgium. The one slight downer for me was that on the Monday night I was violently ill. I would like to think it was the seafood I had but suspect that the alcohol combined with homeopathic sleeping pills may have had something to do with it. It is an uncomfortable feeling to be crouched over a toilet bowl and the number of stars the hotel has makes little difference.

The time in Durban has comprised one full week in the office and two where I made side visits. The first was to attend a Medecins Sans Frontieres meeting in Swaziland. The discussion was around TB and AIDS and particularly the new multi-drug resistant (MDR) and extra-drug resistant (XDR) TBs that are emerging in the region. What was particularly troubling was to learn that having no treatment is better for avoiding drug resistance than having treatment that is not adequate. This makes sense, of course, you have to have some form of treatment for drug resistance to develop and that is what is being seen in Southern Africa. The meeting was organized by Medecins Sans Frontieres and what also became clear to me is that is an uneasy alliance between Government and this organization: they are doing what Government should be doing but doesn’t have the resources to do. Additionally there are issues around the sustainability of such interventions and what will happen when MSF goes. The philosophy underlying MSF activities is to get involved for a medium-term period when there are no options and this is what they have done.

I have done rather more flying that I should and guess that getting on an airplane on the 15th and going to Vancouver will not help my global climate change karma. So some thoughts about Durban. I managed to get one flying lesson here. We flew from Virginia Airport which is a small strip mainly handling light aircraft, in the northern part of the city, and right next to the beach. The aircraft was a Cessna 152. I handled it reasonably well but unfortunately it is the windy season here in Durban and the gusts were too strong for me to land.

It is very different flying from Virginia than it was from Norwich, oddly this airport is far busier; does not have a radar system for them to know where you are; and has a tighter circuit than Norwich. All this means that flying here is actually more challenging than it has been in the UK. I plan to will mix and match my lessons although I suspect that going solo will be easier in the UK than it is here because the runway is so much bigger. In addition there are lights to guide you in in Norwich, Durban does not have this.

One of the interesting things about telling people I am learning to fly is discovering how many others have either done some lessons, have friends who have learnt, or who want to. My optician took 24 lessons and was just about to go solo before he gave up. He said it was because two of the instructors at the flying school had crashes.

My major busyness in Durban has centered round responding to the HEARD mid-term review, which was carried between June and September. This is absolutely critical for ensuring that we obtain funding going into the future and was a 64-page document with 15 recommendations to responded to. I was delighted by the way the HEARD team came together to assist in the response. They were truly remarkable. The first part of the response was drafted by one and another five read and re-read the document to get it exactly right. I finished reading it in the dentist’s waiting room and it has gone off. What a relief. It doesn’t mean that we are out of the woods as far as work and busyness goes; that will carry on into the New Year as we prepare new memoranda, a work plan and think about the long-term strategy. Nonetheless it is an important milestone and a big step forward.

So I got back to Durban. What is it like being back? Well I had forgotten the noise of the traffic on Moore Road (which has been renamed as Che Guevara Road). This is very loud in my bedroom. I had to go to sleep with earplugs. Mind you this is not as bad as the first night I moved in. On that evening there was burst water main about 100 meters from my bedroom and the entire night was spent to the sound of drills and excavators as the city corporation set about fixing it. It was a nightmare.

In the morning there are the birds that start chirping at 4.00 in the trees outside, the sun begins to rise at about 4.30 and when I get up at 5.30 and looked out of my window I could see my jacaranda tree is full bloom. There have been a mixture of rainy and wet, and beautiful sunny days. Spring is wonderful.

I was driving back from town the other day when I really took notice of the evangelical marquee used by an evangelical church in Albert Park in the city. Having just been in other capitals it is striking how evangelical preacher’s tents are springing up like mushrooms on waste ground across the cities of southern Africa.

A Response to ‘Experts want African aid funds channelled away from HIV’

I was quoted in a recent article which appeared in the Observer and published on guardian.co.uk However, the news article bears little resemblance to the headline, which I find sensational and does not reflect my views as I emphasised that AIDS spending is crucial “for those already on or requiring treatment”.

Click here to read the news story and here for my official response.

Desperate In Durban

I am back in the UK after about three weeks away. It was generally a good trip. The other day I was listening to the news and was hugely amused by a very South African item. A road block was set up in the Cape in the run-up to National Woman’s Day. This is a public holiday and is taken very seriously. The initiative was taken by women: female police officers, community leaders and so on – powerful women one and all. They were, it seems, effective; catching vehicles without road tax or that that were not roadworthy and arresting drunk drivers. I had to smile when the (female) announcer ended the piece by saying: “the roadblock was ‘manned’ by…”.

There is much going on in South Africa and some of it is really good. Last week President Zuma made a surprise visit to the little town of Balfour in Mpumalanga where there have been protests over non-delivery of services. It was so unexpected that the ANC mayor, who goes by the delightful name of Lefty Tsotetsi, had already knocked off the day. The press reported that his secretary dropped her lunch at the sight of the President walking into the council offices. It was 3.30 in the afternoon which begs the question as to why the mayor had gone and what was the secretary doing eating lunch at that time of day.

The Mayor was hastily summoned back to the office. The Mail and Guardian interviewed him and his municipal manager and got a lot of prevarication and banality. To quote: “The function of the municipality is contained in the constitution. It focuses more on basic services, so issues that pertain to health, education, safety and security are not in the competency of the municipal offices”. There are many challenges over service delivery and growing frustration about the slow pace, so it is good to see the politicians taking this seriously. Indeed one of the other senior ANC leaders Tokyo Sexwale, spent a night in an informal settlement.

During the two weeks I was in Durban HEARD hosted a number of meetings that I was able to attend. One interesting meeting was on HIV/AIDS in cities. A striking statistic bandied about was that there are more HIV infected people in Durban than there are in the whole of Brazil. Having checked the numbers and found that in 2003 there were 660 000 infections in Brazil I suspect this may not be true and it is being thrown about as a good sound bite. However what is certain is in Southern Africa AIDS is an urban epidemic. Ironically this may be a good thing because it allows us to put service delivery in place. I was not the first to suggest that the project we develop be called “Sex in the Cities”. The agenda is being driven by UNAIDS, Southern Africa AIDS Trust and HEARD.

The cities meeting was held at the Balmoral Hotel on the Durban beachfront. If the room had a window then we could have seen the surf, but it was an internal dungeon. Although the sun was shining and it was a beautiful day we sat in a dark room. The air-conditioning had two settings: freezing cold and airless and stuffy.

There was also a small meeting on designing interventions for schools. It is clear that older female children (or learners, as we call them in South Africa) are very vulnerable to infection. I think that with the right environment in schools it will be possible to begin making changes, because educational establishments can do so much. They can be places of safety, pick up on social issues and provide food. In Swaziland school and early childhood development are core policy areas needing attention.

The one issue that I want to work on is the role of faith based interventions. It seems to me that there are real issues about religious organizations being involved in prevention because of the nature of sex, sexuality and what they are prepared to accept as norms. Perhaps only the Catholics – who have the possibility of forgiveness on earth – can deal with this, and as we all know their view of condoms is unhelpful. So here is my thought, it is a P x problem. P is the probability of something being ‘wrong’. So having sex before marriage is wrong, using a condom is wrong. P x P= P2 which is of course worse that P + P=2P. Add additional issues and the P value goes up exponentially P x P x P=P3. This is really something we need to consider in our messaging and perhaps in who does the interventions!

One initiative I had not heard of before has a catchy slogan: “Fifty/fifteen”. The goal of this would be to halve the number of infections by 2015, the year of the Millennium Development goals. That would be a significant achievement, although would still not stop the epidemic.

When I am in Durban I support local theatre. I got tickets for three shows and went to two. The first was a stand-up comedian at a theatre called The Rumbelow. This is an odd place in a former white working class suburb called Umbilo. The theatre is in an old M.O.T.H. hall – this stands as the Memorable Order of the Tin Hats. It is an organization that was set up after the First World War for ex-servicemen. It was, of course, a totally white organization and was a source of social cohesion and halls for this particular group! The hall and grounds are quite substantial and patrons are encouraged to come and braai in the grounds before the show, and are seated at tables rather than in rows in the theatre.
The comedian, Mark Banks, had a go at various sectors of society – from poor white beggars, who always start off with ‘let me tell you my story”, to the ANC women’s’ league via politicians and budget airlines (people who travel on these should be taking the bus!!). He did a good routine on geckoes and how to get rid of them. There were four of us in the group. None of us knew quite what to expect and we had not eaten. At the end of the evening (9pm) we tried to find a restaurant but all their kitchens were closed! We ended up with take-away pizzas and even then ours were the last pizzas out of the oven.

The second show was also at a supper theatre the Barnyard at Gateway shopping centre. Gateway is a monument to mammon. Durban has beaches aplenty with great surf. Gateway has a mechanical wave! You can ride a board while looking at the real thing less than a kilometer away. The show was called ‘LM Radio’ – the first ‘pirate’ radio to broadcast into South Africa. This was based in Lourenco Marques as Maputo was known under Portuguese rule. Apart from the old tunes they played the jingles and adverts. The station closed in 1975, one of the side effects of the Portuguese revolution that brought down the Salazar and lead to the independence of Mozambique and Angola. A scan of the audience showed that most of us had listened to the station in our youth. Older white people! The music was great.

The show I did not go to was an Athol Fugard play ‘Master Harold and the Boys’. The reason is that it is a serious and rather depressing play about the relationship between a youngish white boy and two middle aged black men who work for his father. I think it would have been difficult, but I do need to see it.

Durban was incredibly beautiful. It is a magnificent time of year. One of my colleagues described it as: “the time of year when I want to kiss the sky”. Soon it will be spring and the jacaranda trees will begin to blossom.

I left Durban and flew to Johannesburg where I met with one of the people who is conducting the mid-term review of HEARD. She needed to interview me ‘formally’, and it was good to be asked some searching questions. I then hopped on the plane from Joburg to London, an SAA flight which does not have the range of movies that I expected. The purser commented, “I am really sorry we have a rubbish video system on the airbus 200’s, most people (that is people in business class I think) catch the earlier flight to London because of this”.

This ticket was bought with air miles. I have been a member of the SAA Voyager programme for many years and had never succeeded in spending miles. I was determined to manage this time, with about 460 000 miles it seemed silly not to. So I went to the SAA office and it was extremely simple and they could not have been more helpful. The payment required was for the airport taxes and this came for R5000. However my last trip to London on SAA was marked by a non-functional video system and a strong letter of complaint was duly sent off to them. They responded by sending a voucher worth £150 for future travel, so I only had to pay R3000.

Books

Sadly most of my reading over the past couple of weeks has been work related. I bought myself a copy of Lord of the Rings. On the bookshelf in Durban are the first two books of the trilogy but not the third. This story is my comfort reading, which means that if I don’t know what to read I will pick it up. However missing book three was proving to be increasingly frustrating.

There is an excellent report by the British All Parliamentary Group on HIV/AIDS called “The Treatment Time bomb” which asks some of the difficult questions about how we are going to manage to provide treatment to the many millions of people who need it.