Flying In Swaziland And Boisterous Thunderstorms: November 2010

I have been flying in Swaziland. What a wonderful experience. There is a picture on website. This came after a week of intense travel. I had been in Lusaka for a reference group meeting, then flew down to Johannesburg for a night and spoke at a conference. On the Friday afternoon I was on the Airlink plane to Matsapha. Traveling, and unusually, as a passenger was Derek Harrington, who I had taught St Marks School in 1975. He flies for Airlink so I expect to see him in the cockpit. He had been in Johannesburg to study for his captaincy, and he passed. Of all the people I taught he is the one I envy most: living in Swaziland and flying.

I have been flying in Swaziland. What a wonderful experience. There is a picture on website. This came after a week of intense travel. I had been in Lusaka for a reference group meeting, then flew down to Johannesburg for a night and spoke at a conference. On the Friday afternoon I was on the Airlink plane to Matsapha. Traveling, and unusually, as a passenger was Derek Harrington, who I had taught St Marks School in 1975. He flies for Airlink so I expect to see him in the cockpit. He had been in Johannesburg to study for his captaincy, and he passed. Of all the people I taught he is the one I envy most: living in Swaziland and flying.

My schedule had me at a Waterford school Governing Council meeting all day on Saturday, but Sunday was free. I had been wondering if there was any chance of flying. Seeing Derek was perfect as I asked him if there was a flying school. He pointed across the runway to a Cessna 172 belonging to the Swaziland Aeronautical Academy and suggested I go and talk to the owner Mike Rantf.

I had to wait as Mike was just doing a circuit of the airfield. This gave me a chance to meet his two trainee instructors. Both are females and as with all young instructors, are trying to build their hours. They seemed terribly young. I was glad, in the end, that Mike gave me the lesson. His pupils said he is one of the best teachers in the region.

It is clear that learning in Swaziland has many advantages. The airport does not charge a landing fee for student pilots, there is virtually no traffic, and it is a nice long runway. Mike is a big jovial man. In addition to his captain’s bars he wears the insignia of the Swaziland Defense Force and explained that he does instruction for them and also flies helicopters. Amazing. He was quite happy to arrange the lesson.

So on Sunday morning I went flying. I was at the school by eight fifteen and, after the briefing we took off at about nine. It was amazing. This is the fourth airplane I have flown, both the Cessna and the Piper two seaters are insubstantial; the four seaters are heavier and possibly easier to fly. The controls are different between the Piper and the Cessna: in the former it is a lever one pushes forward and back; on the later it is a knob sticking out of the dashboard. All the principles are the same though.

Once we had taxied down to the end of the runway Mike gave me instructions on the takeoff. Basically at 55 knots I pulled back and off we went. Once airborne he told me to fly along the runway for a few hundred meters to build airspeed and then we were up and off. It was a stunningly beautiful day, the air was clear, the countryside was green, and one could see for miles.

I have now flown from three different airfields and this was the most fantastic experience. It is the first time I have flown in hills. We flew up Ezulwini Valley to Mbabane, then circled Waterford school a couple of times. This was funny because next day, when I saw the headmaster, he asked: ‘where you in that plane that circled us today’. I had to admit that it was me.

From there we flew over the house I grew up in and then down at Pine Valley. How amazing to be flying in a valley with mountains on either side. At the end of the valley we turned back towards the airport flying between and over the mountains. At one point we cleared a ridge by less than 100 feet it was an astounding feeling. Mike also pointed out dagga plantation which was hidden away in a side of valley, quite inaccessible. I think however they will be having a visit from the police helicopter.

Once we had returned to the airport we came in and did one touch and go and then a proper landing. I could have gone on flying for hours, but the plane had to go to Johannesburg for its service and the pilots wanted to get away before the thunder clouds build up too much. This was a sensible point of view because there had been some amazing thunderstorms.

All is well at Waterford, unfortunately we had to begin the Saturday by convening a Governing Council sub-committee to hear an appeal against the expulsion of one of our students. When students are expelled they have the right to appeal to the GC and a number of us hear the appeal. There are some few rules which are strictly adhered to on the campus. Most important is the zero tolerance for drugs policy. If students feel they may be developing a problem they are allowed to enter a contract with the school to try to avoid this. However if they are caught they are out. We do not allow use of alcohol but it is possible to get a warning for a first offense. The third area where there have been recent expulsions is around students having sexual relations on campus. Of course we operate in a complex world and we have to be realistic. There are condoms available on the campus but we should not catch students using them.

The storms have been fierce. On Friday I drove from the airport to meet my colleague Derek von Wissell the head of NERCHA in the Malkerns Valley at the restaurant Marandelas which is next to the amazing venueHouse on Fire. We sat out on the grass overlooking the pineapple fields and watched a storm brewing in the hills towards Hlatikulu. It started to thunder and lightning at the restaurant and we left hurriedly.

I drove up towards the hotel with the storm chasing me up the valley. The dark clouds were roiling and writhing behind me. I got to the hotel, checked in and got to my room just before the storm broke. It was incredibly dramatic. Thunder, lightning and a cloudburst of rain. On Sunday when I went to collect Given and Ilaria from the airport there were storms all around, and I was surprised to see the plane had arrived. Before we went to the restaurant at the hotel I dashed to my room to unplug my computer. Not a good idea to leave it plugged in as fried computers are common in thunderstorms

I desperately wanted to get some exercise, and on Sunday after flying decided to go to the gym. The one at theMountain Inn, where I always stay, is pathetic. One bicycle, one treadmill and a few weights. It is worth going to this website though because it has a view on the valley that I flew up and on the left-hand side are the mountains we flew over.

I decided to go down the hill to the Royal Swazi spa. It too was disappointing: three pre-treadmills, two bicycles and some weights stop. However I spent a happy hour cycling and reading and then went up the hill to watch the students doing their end of year dance show. This was billed as ‘short and sweet’, but lasted approximately an hour and 15 minutes.

There is no doubt that this weekend was amazing and I feel very lucky to have had it. Flying in mountains and with a different instructor was most interesting and has been quite inspiring. I think my next posting will only be in the New Year, so if you are looking at this before then I send greetings for the holiday period.

Football Mad: Mid-June 2010

I got back to South Africa on Thursday 3rd June having spent over a month in Norwich, where Douglas was preparing for his GCSE examinations. He worked really hard, and I left feeling proud of him. I travelled on the 06.20 flight out of Norwich to Amsterdam, then took the daylight flight to Johannesburg. It is an arduous journey, but I made good use of the time, marking a PhD, and watching two films, (which are reviewed at the end of the posting). The theme is sport though.

The World Cup kicked off on the 11th June. South Africa held Mexico to a one all draw in the opening match. The mood in the country has been just amazing. The previous Saturday there was a rugby test between Wales and South Africa at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. I played squash with my friend Jeremy Grest. After the game we had tea and watched the first 20 minutes of the game. I took his gardener to the bus stop and, on the way home, drove past my local shopping mall. There is, beside the road, a rather seedy bar behind massive steel burglar guards. The clientele are mainly older white people some with missing teeth and most with uncombed hair. I have been there twice and find it a bit odd. In order sit in the bar and watch the television you need to be buy drinks. There on the pavement was a group of, mainly black, car guards, delivery people and security staff, all peering in and cheering wildly as South Africa took the lead. It was truly an astonishing moment to see this engagement around what was, and still is largely, a white sport.

I had the good fortune to be invited by SAB Miller to attend the game between South Africa and the United States in Rustenberg. I spent three nights in an idyllic cottage in Magaliesberg mountains to the east of Pretoria, flying up on the Thursday evening and back on the Sunday. It was a real privilege and very intense. Let me try and bring these events together.

The first theme has to be distances, traffic and infrastructure. Everywhere seemed a ‘long way’, and the traffic made it even longer. My airport pick-up was organised by SAB and we were driven around by a team of older black entrepreneurs. They have set up a co-operative company to provide shuttles and chauffeur drive services. It was a pleasure to be driven by people who are working together. It means, among other things, that all the drivers get a decent salary and most have an investment in the organisation. I have been quite shocked by the salaries paid by the big companies, who, through out-sourcing, totally exploit their drivers.

The traffic generally was quite appalling; on Friday the itinerary had us visiting a project, going to the Indaba Hotel in Sandton for lunch and then dispersing to our various hotels to watch the opening game. We left the project site late, and on reaching Johannesburg, the traffic slowed to a crawl. It took two hours to do 10 kilometers. We abandoned the idea of lunch, bought sandwiches from a shopping centre and went into a bar to see the game. Two outstanding features were the great good humour of everyone we interacted with and the good South Africa response of “we will make a plan”. South Africa came to a standstill on Friday. Most offices and places of employment closed at 12.00 and I gave my staff the whole day off on the grounds that it was not really worth coming in just for four or five hours.

The great achievement of the World Cup (apart from the mood) is the new infrastructure, including the public transport system which is working extraordinarily well. The problem is that South Africans don’t trust it and so clog the roads with their cars. This will be a legacy for a long time.

My cottage was at Phefumula (see www.Phefumula.co.za). The site is well worth looking at. They describe it as: “Against the slopes of the Magaliesberg range is an escape from the hectic Highveld rush, a place of peace and quiet romance. A place to breathe, or just take a deep breath”. It is indeed right up in the mountains at the end of a truly appalling dirt road. Driving the three kilometers from the main road to cottages took 20 minutes in the saloon cars run by the shuttle service, and the undercarriages of the cars kept hitting the ground. It only took five minutes in a 4×4.

The second theme is the amazing feeling in South Africa. It is hard to describe the vibe in the country at the moment. Fans everywhere, the constant blast of the vuvuzelas. I traveled down from Johanesburg on Sunday and the plane, a large Airbus, was jam packed with German fans, all very good humored with occasional football chants being heard about the plane. The announcement is: “passengers are requested not to blow vuvuzela’s on the plane”.

South Africans have put their hearts and souls into making this work. Our crime problem is being addressed by very visible policing and swift justice. Near where I was staying is a lodge where Portuguese journalists were accomodated. They were held up by armed robbers and relieved of cash, laptops and valuables. The police acted incredibly swiftly: the men were arrested, tried and sentenced all within four days. The media, or at least the South African media, made a point of telling us that two of the culprits were Zimbabwean and one was Nigerian. The reason for the speed of the justice is we will only have our visitors in the country for a month and so could not ask them to return for trials. As long as this is real justice I don’t have a problem with it.

We visited two SAB Miller projects. On the Friday a bar in Duduza Township which is part of the “Men in Taverns” project. The goal is to develop responsible drinking and we sat and talked to a number of the participants who are involved in this initiative. The question is whether or not it is possible to have responsible drinking. I believe this is achievable but it is the whole culture that must be changed. I found it most encouraging project.

The second field trip was to the Masakhane Village outside of Magaliesberg. This village of 55 households and approximate 700 people comprises of farm workers who were evicted from their land in 1994. They were allocated land and built their village of corrugated iron shacks. What is unique about this is that they own title to the land and it is run as a form of cooperative. SAB has supported them in a number of ways. We sat in their brand new community hall and walked around the village. What was striking was that this is a community led initiative with SAB and other partners responding to community needs. They have water, a community center and an investment in training people in areas of empowerment and health (a first aid course but wow, it works and people feel empowered). The Masakhane Project website is: themasakhaneproject.blogspot.com.

Each household in this community has a small plot of land and on it, with one or two exceptions were shacks, made of leftover bits of corrugated iron. While what there is available seems minimal and the community poverty stricken we found this community is moving forward in substantial and substantive ways. The young men who were appointed as our guides were articulate and confident.

Nonetheless South Africa is a land of contrasts and from there we went to have lunch in a 5-star luxury hotel called De Hoek http://www.dehoek.com . What a contrast and how unjust it seems that there can be so much wealth and so much poverty right next to each other. We sat in a superb dining room; were fed a world class meal, incredibly meticulously prepared and served with aplomb and dignity by staff whom probably spends time in poverty stricken surroundings not dissimilar to those of Masakhane.

We drove from Masakhane straight to Rustenberg for the game. It was amazing. The streets were well patrolled and our movement into the stadium area went very smoothly. Of course we had parking available right next to the stadium which made life very much easier. The English supporters were out in full force with St George flags, face paints and enthusiasm. I made the mistake of saying use my forehead as a canvass and the picture is in the gallery! There were some Americans but they were in a minority. We arrived on schedule at 4.30 and discovered that the hospitality area did not open until 5.30. We waited outside, but it was all very good humored; people standing around chatting and enjoying the vibe and the environment. Once in the hospitality area we had drinks and yet more food before going in to take our seats. The Royal Bafokeng stadium holds about 42 000 people and was almost full. I suspect the empty seats were those people who had been unable to get tickets to travel to South Africa. It was a sea of colour and wave of noise. I can’t even begin to describe it. We had been very well provided for and this included earplugs. They were most necessary as the vuvuzelas are quite deafening. I was absolutely amazed by the volume. Our seats towards the middle of the pitch and just nine rows back. The game itself was scrappy as there are high levels of nerves among the teams. Nonetheless everyone was out of their seats when England took the lead and again when the USA scored an equalizer.

Traveling back afterwards was a lengthy process. The roads were clogged but it turned out that this was due to a motor accident, something that one cannot plan for. My World Cup experience has begun with a bang and I really feel that we, in South Africa, should be proud and pleased with what we have achieved to date. It is remarkable.

A few striking things. For some reason there were real glass bottles available in the stadium. This has been banned at rugby matches in South Africa and I believe in most other settings. It meant that trying to move down the row was treacherous as it was like walking on ball bearings. I cannot believe that they will allow these to be sold at future matches. The way the game is supposed to work is when the ball goes out of play one of the six or seven strategically placed ball holders around the field will throw a new one in for a quick continuation of the game. Clearly this experience was not one that the staff had had and as a result it was very funny to see a ball being kicked into the crowd and the man almost pleading that it be returned as soon as possible. The teams are transported to and from the matches in coaches and these are provided with a police escort. I’m not certain that I altogether approve of this blue light cavalcade as it disrupts traffic for everybody else.

Films

“Crazy Heart” is the story of a moderately successful country and western singer. It is similar to “Walk the Line” the Johnny Cash story. The key character is played by Jeff Bridges, who sympathetically portrays an older man, with a serious drinking problem, battling to make his way in an unforgiving world. The film ends with him having cleaned up his act, but not making it with the woman he falls in love with. It is an unusual but touching ending.

“Invictus” directed by Clint Eastwood, tells the story of the Rugby World Cup won by South Africa in 1995. It describes the astute politics of Nelson Mandela in allowing the Springboks to keep their name and their colours, in the face of opposition from the new Government. The story covers the period from the release of Mandela up to the when Francois Pienaar played by Matt Damon accepts the Cup at Ellis Park after beating the All Blacks. It is a remarkable story in terms of rugby and the politics around it

Mandela is sympathetically portrayed by Morgan Freeman. There are some little twists in the story that make it intriguing. For example there is mention of the danger of an attack on Mandela at the rugby game. A few seconds later we see a white male looking at the stadium through binoculars, but nothing comes of it. It also showed the jumbo jet flying low over the stadium at the opening match. I wonder how legal this was. This film proved to me how much altitude and wine heighten emotions. I sobbed my way through it.

“Where the Wild Things Are” is based on a children’s book. I found the film to be gloomy, odd and quite unpleasant so only watched 20 minutes.

Swaziland: Trouble In Paradise

Since the beginning of 2010 I have made three trips to Swaziland, twice flying in and once driving up. The reason is, primarily, that I am desperate to write my book The Political Economy of Swaziland. Although I know the country well, am a regular visitor, and try to stay in touch I need to collect data, do research and check facts.

There is also the Waterford connection as one of the trips coincided with the School Governing Council meeting. We have a new development officer in post and have great expectations going forward. Do visit the website at www.waterford.sz.

 

Swaziland is such a beautiful country, at the end of this summer it seems to be exceptionally green and lush. I drove from the airport to Mbabane in the late evening on my last trip. There had been rain and the sky was overcast and quite ominous. We had dodged thunderstorms en route from Johannesburg to Matsapha. There was a band of cloud halfway up the Mdimba mountains on the side of the Ezulwini valley. The contrast between the black glistening rock, the green of the grass and vegetation and the pure white of the cloud was remarkable. I wished I had a camera because words can not begin to capture the scene.

The story of Swaziland is being written slowly. I have divided the book into four key periods. The first the history up to independence in 1968; second the reign of King Sobhuza over the independent nation from 1968 to his death in 1983; then the time up to 1994, a defining moment when South Africa gained independence and Swaziland began to slip off the international radar screens; and finally the story to 2010. This last part is dominated by two themes, the change in South Africa and the inability of Swaziland to adapt to it; and the HIV/AIDS epidemic. As with many activities this book is so clear in my head, but then I sit down to write and it slips away like water between my fingers.

There are also distractions that mean I literally loose the plot. The big diversions have been the HEARD board and donor meetings and international travel. We gathered with our key donors in Durban on the 17th March and on the 18th we held the first board meeting of 2010. The good news is that the organization will continue to be funded; it seems that we will have support for the next four years. This means we can plan serious work, and I can continue to put time and resources into Swaziland, one of the themes of this letter. These meetings need a great deal of work, thought, preparation and co-ordination and are ‘core business’.

The most recent international travel involved going to British Department of International Development organized ‘High Level Meeting on HIV/AIDS’ which was held in the House of Lords. My word it was interesting, the setting alone was amazing. The Houses of Parliament must be among the most majestic gilded buildings of any national assembly anywhere in the world. The meeting was held in a committee room called ‘The Moses Room’ because of the huge painting on the back wall. This is of Moses bringing tablets of stone (the commandments) down from the mountain to the people of Israel. I suppose one could make a link between these tablets and anti-retroviral therapy – but it would be a stretch!

The purpose of the meeting was to assess how we, the global community, are doing in achieving the targets for 2010. It was attended by the core international leaders of the HIV response and I was invited to give the opening remarks and set the scene. Of course the power point presentation I had prepared was not on the projector and so I had to start without the pictures. Despite this it was a good presentation and a great meeting.

I flew from London to New York for the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative’s Policy Advisory Committee meeting and was there from Wednesday to Saturday when I was scheduled to fly back to Durban. The hotel in New York was at the end of the Island of Manhattan just off Wall Street. The weather was uniformly windy and miserably wet, so walking back to the hotel I ducked into a stationary office supply shop that had a most unlikely selection of secondhand books. One of these was called “How we die” and the details are at the end of this letter.

The highlights of New York were having dinner with Stephen Lewis and Paula Donavan of AIDS Free World (www.aidsfreeworld.org), this was really fun; and sitting at JFK Airport with no flights taking off or landing because of strong wind which was not fun. A key theme of the dinner was what is going on in Swaziland. Among Stephen’s many activities has been mobilizing grandmothers primarily in Canada to work with their African counterparts. The details of this remarkable initiative can be found on the Stephen Lewis Foundation website at http://www.stephenlewisfoundation.org . There will be a “Grandmother’s Gathering” in Swaziland in early May. One of the big questions is how to reach the political leadership in Swaziland and, specifically, the King. There is so much misuse of money that it becomes hard to argue for continued support without real changes at the top. This, importantly, does not mean change of leadership, but rather change of heart and style.

I expected to leave New York at six o’clock on Saturday and be back in Durban early on Monday having slept overnight in Johannesburg. It was a filthy day so I took the taxi to the airport well ahead of time, checked in and went to the lounge. The wind was incredibly strong, gusting across the airport, making the building shake and the luggage containers dance. There was no activity at all out on the apron. The boarding time came and went. We were informed that the airport was closed, flights were being diverted or cancelled and we just had to be patient. I know I had missed my connection and that there was nothing I could do so I just chilled out.

At ten pm that evening the flight was boarded and the captain came on the public address system and said something like: “Welcome aboard ladies and gentlemen, you all understand the reason for the delay. We have been told a lull in the wind is forecast, so we will taxi down to the end of the runway, and if it is safe we will take off. But don’t worry if it is not safe we won’t. I am afraid the wind was so strong that there has been no baggage or food loaded onto the plane. However we did bring cookies on through the front door”.

We duly taxied to the end of the runway. I could see from the windsock that the wind was blowing straight down the runway (which was good), and the lights of two other planes landing. I was reasonably confident that we would be able to leave. The crew put on full power and, after the shortest take off run, I have ever experienced we were in the air and on our way.

There was a small degree of chaos in Amsterdam, but eventually I got to the front of the queue to see what my options were. The ground staff had already booked me on a flight from Amsterdam to Cape Town the next morning, which was a rather a long way round so we looked at other routes. In the end the best option was to fly to Paris then go overnight on the Air France flight to Johannesburg. I only looked at my boarding card when I was in Paris – and then saw that I was in seat 68F. After a moment of bafflement I realized that this was the new airbus, the biggest plane in the world. I walked to the gate to look at it and it is amazingly huge! It does not feel that different inside. As I boarded I asked the steward where my seat was.

“Hang on”, he said with a delightful French accent, “I will have a look at the map”.

They are having teething problems, in the case of this flight the entertainment system did not work. Oh well what can you say. At least I got back to Durban and having been there a couple of days had the donor meeting then drove up to Swaziland with a colleagues from the SIDA team in Lusaka. Then back to Durban to welcome Rowan my daughter and her boyfriend for their ‘South African holiday’. They arrived and went to a party this evening so I headed for the cinema. The film that was on when I got there was called “It’s complicated”. With Steve Martin, Meryl Streep and Jack Baldwin. I found it both touching and though provoking.

I will in my next posting, describe going on a canopy tour , which basically meant being terrified, the pictures are on the website. They say: “The canopy tour involves traversing from one platform to another along a steel cable suspended up to 30m above the forest floor. The tour comprises seven platforms and eight slides that zig-zag down a pristine forested valley”. Nothing about the fear and horror and getting stuck!

Books

Thirteen Moons; by William Frazier Random House 2007 432 pages

About 12 or so years ago William Frazier published his first novel called “Cold Mountain” set in the American Civil War. He has not published anything since. A couple of weeks ago I was passing though the airport in Durban and Exclusive Books had a sale on. In among the piles of books I spotted “Thirteen Moons”. It is an excellent and thought provoking book. It tells of an indentured boy who is sent to manage a trading post in the Cherokee nation. The main characters are the boy, Will Cooper; his adoptive father Bear, a Cherokee Chief; Claire with whom he has a complicated sporadic relationship, but who the wife to an aristocratic Indian called Featherstone. The love story is between Claire and Will, but there is also a deep relationship between him, Bear and in complex ways, with Featherstone.

The Cherokee Nation and indeed all the Indians in the East of the United States were forced to move to ‘beyond the Mississippi’, something I did not know and which resonates with South Africa. Will and Bear fight to keep land for the Cherokee Nation and succeed in doing so. Will ends up re-meeting with Claire at a Spa towards the end of the book and the end of his life. According to Wikapedia again the book is loosely based on the life of William Holden Thomas who was the principal chief of the eastern band of Cherokee Indians and served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War who lived from 1805 to 1893. Charles Frazier was given an advance payment of over 8 million dollars for the proposal and of its initial print run of 750 000 only half were sold so the publisher may lost money on the advance. It deserves to do better. I learnt a huge amount from the book about the United States, the removals of the Indians and was surprised to learn that it was set in North Carolina. It is clear that this part of the world had a bloody history of which I know only a small part. I find myself wondering why we are so slow to learn from experience.

Perhaps the most poignant is the way in which the book is written as an older man sitting and reliving his life. He is perceptive but desperately alone, and I have to say I found it to be most moving especially as I have aged (although I am certainly not in my 90’s, I sometimes just feel it). I wonder if this is sort of thing that my father and others went through as they moved through their lives. I hope it is more widely read, it certainly is a classic and is deeply moving.

“How We Die: Reflections of Life’s Final Chapter” by Sherwin B. Nuland (Vintage 1995, 304 pages).

Nuland examines what death means to the doctor, patient, nurse, and family. It was thought provoking and humane. He draws on his own experiences with various people close to him: the deaths of his aunt, his older brother, and a longtime patient. Disease, not death, is the real enemy. However there is not much comfort as he warns most deaths are unpleasant, and painful. It is an excellent book and certainly one we should all read. I found myself thinking of it as the South African Deputy Health Minister Sefularo died in a car accident last week. I had met him some months ago and was so impressed, what an excellent man and what a loss

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.

Lions In Lusaka And Down In Durban

Mercifully planes usually leave on time, so I am feeling slightly hard done by at the moment. I travelled from Norwich to Amsterdam on Sunday 31st May. The check-in for the flight from Norwich is at 05h10 in the morning, a brutal time to have to be awake and functioning. The plane leaving Amsterdam was about an hour late, a pain because we only got to Joburg at 10pm. Although I was spending the night at the Intercontinental Hotel right next to the terminal,I had to be up again the next morning at 05h00, the Monday flight to Lusaka was at 06h30!

Then coming travelling back to Joburg and Durban two days later we had to leave the hotel at 06h45, so I had my share of early mornings.

All the other flights were on time, and so when I left Durban a few days ago on Sunday I felt quite good.  I need to keep my Gold frequent flyer card on South African Airways so decided I would travel with them, instead of the usual KLM flight to Amsterdam followed by the short hop to Norwich. It means taking a trains and tubes from Heathrow to Norwich.

The trip back did not start well. I worked at the University in the morning, up to about 11h30 and then went home to pack. I was booked on the 16h55 flight to Joburg. As I had arranged to meet the Principal of Waterford School for dinner, at 17h00, I knew I had to get an earlier flight – and decided the 15h40 would work. My planned steady, measured packing, with a shower at the end and a reasonably early arrival at the airport to change my ticket was thrown into complete disarray. I know, to deal with failing memory and the fact I travel so much, have a checklist of things I must take. Running through it I realised I had left my flash disk with all the documents I was working on, at the office. Under normal circumstances it is a 35 minute round trip. I did it in 22 minutes. I left the flat in a cab at 14h45. I made it, albeit drenched in sweat!

However things really deteriorated in Joburg. Laurence and I had our meeting, and very useful it was too. He drove from Swaziland just for this, although we also had a meal, which turned out, with hindsight, to be a good decision. I then wandered through to the departures lounge in our magnificent new airport.

For the past three years, or more, O. R. Tambo airport has been undergoing massive renovations and expansion. This is in part to cater for the 2010 soccer cup. It has been amazing, and impressive as the airport has continued to function without too many hitches, albeit a degree of dust, noise and inconvenience. It has been worth it, the new facilities are magnificent. The arrivals halls are huge, clean, airy, and efficient. This has had a knock on effect on the staff. They are friendly, helpful, smiling, and happy, so unlike any airport I have been to in the last few years. Normally the attitude is that you have done something wrong until proven otherwise.

“Why do you’, said with contempt, “want to come into our country. How are you going to exploit us and misuse us?”  We seem to have a virtuous circle developing in South Africa, long may it continue. There is still work to be done, in particular there is a temporary international Business Class lounge, which is crowded and has no toilets on site.

The boarding time for the London flight was scheduled for 19h35. I did some shopping and wandered to the gate. A great deal of nothing was happening. After half an hour I went up to the First Class lounge and asked the receptionist if she knew what was going on, explaining at the same time that the business lounge was not particularly pleasant.

“That is OK, sir “, she said understandingly, “We are not busy you can sit here”.

And that is where I was until we boarded at 23h00. The problem was a ‘relay’ controlling power to the business class cabin and it meant there was no in-flight entertainment, nor would the seats recline. It was finally fixed for almost all the seats but not 5D or 5E. I, of course, was in 5D!!

So what were the good things? Well I normally travel on KLM and I was cursing my decision to go on SAA, until looking at the screens, I saw that KLM’s flight had been cancelled. If I had been doing my normal route I would have had a 24 hour delay! I was in business class and that meant that I slept on a fully reclining seat. I was not travelling with babies or rug rats, although there was a small infestation at the front of the cabin. There are such swings and roundabouts in travel and most of it is not anything one can control.  One has to grab what pleasure you can, and the fact that my bag was among the first off the plane at both Joburg and Heathrow was a small victory!

The Swedish International Development Agency reference group meeting was held at Chimanuka lodge about  30 minutes drive from Lusaka http://www.chimanuka.com . It is a delightful spot. The owners have excellent rooms and conference facilities. They have farm land in the area, but the lodge is centred in a game farm. On the property there is also a cheese factory. It is possible to have a game drive and a tours of the cheese factory. They also have, in a separate, and one hopes, very secure enclosure.

I have to digress here and tell of an event that happened when I was about four years old. We lived on a cattle farm outside Nairobi in an areas close to game reserves. One of the lions developed a taste for, easy to catch cattle, and so the young British farmers decided that said lion had to be shot. The story goes that they sat in a hide near the carcase of the last kill all night. Just before dawn, at the time the first birds start clearing their throats, they gave up. Walking along the road they were swinging the torch and suddenly, caught in the light, was the lion, eyes and teeth gleaming. Somehow one of the chaps managed to get his rifle up, and with a lucky shot, killed the lion stone dead.

There was much excitement in the community. The staff of the little pre-primary school I was at, decided that it would be fun if we were taken to see the dead lion. Indeed I recall being placed on its back and having my photograph taken. I would like to think I was an unusually sensitive child, but that may not be the case, just my wistful thinking. This outing made a deep impression on me. When I have nightmares involving animals it is always lions that feature prominently.

So back to events in Zambia. After a day of meetings we decided to go for a walk. It was dusk, a beautiful African evening. We walked down toward the lion enclosure – and I could hear them roaring quietly in the distance. We got as far as the dam and watched the dying sun. It was idyllic, thorn trees and clouds reflected in the water, standing listening to the chirp and croak of the frogs and the various noise of the African night. Suddenly the lion roared about 20 metres away on the other side of the fence. I leapt two metres into the air and my pulse was racing. I managed to play cool, and we nonchalantly walked back, with me taking comfort from the knowledge that while I could not outrun a lion, I was pretty confident that I was faster than at least two of our party.

It was really good to be back in Southern Africa and I felt so comfortable, which is probably a bad sign I need a challenge and a change.