Back In Durban January – February 2010

A quick look at my Website tells me that I haven’t posting anything for nearly two months. So let me bring you up to date with what I’ve been doing. Christmas and New Year were spent with the family in Norwich. It was cold but a lot of fun and generally enjoyed by all. My sister came up from London for the Christmas period but we were on our own for New Year.

Douglas and I spent a great deal of time working on various essays, reviews and other pieces of course work for his GCSE exams. This was productive and, I hope, bonding.

“Read it aloud, and if you have take a breath, it needs a comma or a full stop”, I kept repeating as we went through essays. I am afraid that the HEARD staff are getting the same treatment as I review their work.

Douglas and I also went to the gym together, and although he is not yet 16, we went to the exercise room instead of just the pool, sauna and steam room as we have done in the past. It was deeply interesting to sit beside him on the rowing machine and look in the mirror and see the similarities and differences. Would that I were his weight.

I returned to South Africa on 11th January. I actually delaying my journey by 24 hours as there was heavy snow and major disruptions on the Saturday and I thought it was not worth risking traveling by rail, (services are always disrupted on a Sunday anyway), and getting frustrated. The journey was quite straightforward, I got to Heathrow Airport at 5.15pm and asked the check-in staff if they could get me on the earlier flight, at 6.00 p.m. rather than at 8.30pm.

The lady asked me, “can you run”.

“Yes” I said.

I made it plane with plenty time although I didn’t stop to buy anything to read which was a bit of a pity.

It was good to get back to Durban, especially since winter has been unrelenting in the UK. My flat was spick and span courtesy of Madeline who acts as my personal PA and Angel the domestic worker; the office was set for me. I spent about week in the Durban before going to Cape Town for a Council for Foreign Relations meeting on “Rolling out treatment across South Africa”.

I now have more relatives in Cape Town as Derek my brother his wife Lynn and their three children, Emily, Sarah and Katie have emigrated to South Africa and are living in Hout Bay. I spent two nights in central Cape Town, went and had lunch with my uncle and aunt and then spent the Friday night with Derek. He is currently negotiating having teenage children who want to go to nightclubs in central Cape Town. I do not envy him. The family has a magnificent house in the valley in Hout Bay with a beautiful view of the mountains.

The main task in HEARD has been to get our new strategy document ready. This along with a business plan, budget and logframe (I really hate logframes and am glad we have an expert to prepare it) will form the basis of our request for funding for the next few years. We have had positive indications so I am confident that HEARD will continue at until 2014, and given the HIV prevalence rates in this part of world, it certainly should. Beyond that I would like to see more emphasis on health issues and not just HIV.

In the third week of January it was back to the UK, leaving Durban on a Friday and returning to it on the following Wednesday. The purpose of this meeting was to review five special papers from the aids2031 Project that are being prepared for publication in The Lancet. The meeting was organized by The Imperial College Group. It was extremely interesting and I was privileged to be part of a small high-powered group. My task was to look at the “drivers of the epidemic” paper written by a colleague, Justin Pathurst, at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. I liked reviewing it as I was able to have some fun with it.

I spent the weekend in Norwich with the family and, apart from being rather tired, enjoyed it greatly. I went to London on the Monday back to Norwich on the Tuesday and flew to South Africa on the Wednesday.

One irritation was that on the way over I had watched a film “Secondhand Lions” with Michael Caine and Robert Duval. It was made in 2003 and is described as a ‘coming of age’ movie. The story is set in the mid-West and tells of a boy who is sent to live with his uncles by his rather scatty mother. These old men have led amazing lives the film is about their developing relationship. It is well worth watching and I thought I was going to enjoy it. However an hour and nine minutes into the film the picture and sound went out of synchronization. It was impossible to watch. Having had a sufficiency of wine I decided quite simply to go to sleep as it seemed pointless despite numerous attempts at resetting the seat to watch it.

I was delighted, on the return trip, to see that the in-flight entertainment system was showing the same films and looked forward to now watching this movie through to the end. I got a glass of wine, fast-forwarded the video and at the appropriate time pressed play. You can imagine my dismay when the same thing happened.

I think I was on the same aeroplane. This makes sense, it would have taken me over on the Friday, returned to South Africa on Saturday, to England on the Sunday, to South Africa on the Monday, to London on the Tuesday and then been there on the Wednesday to bring me back. I watched another film, a mindless thriller called “The Whole Nine Yards”. On Saturday I went to the local DVD store and got a copy of the video took it home and watched the last half hour.

Since getting back to Durban I have been extremely busy with HEARD management. This is the third weekend in a row that I have worked. Being here lends itself to physical activity and I have been engaged in squash and going to the gym. My gym is curious place because it is mainly inhabited by serious fitness people who do not look at each other, other than to correct posture or weight lifting. We collectively feel this is a place to get fit not to pose. Their website is http://www.fitnesscompany.co.za/FC_home.php I have had a trainer at the gym, (yes a personal trainer), for some years now and when I work in a sustained manner with him I do see the weight and inches falling off. His name is Wade and being weighed by Wade is always an interesting process. He is only allowed to train out of hours or at lunch time. He does train me on a Sunday afternoon with permission from the owners. The gym is officially open from 4.30 to 6.30pm but we meet at 3.15 and I have the entire place to myself. I realized the other day that this is pretty cool, and I can choose the music. I think I am going to a Dolly Parton CD in to train to!

It is the height of summer in Durban and the temperature has been 30 degrees and more during the day. The flat is on the top floor and as a result it tends to be rather warmer than the ones below. Fortunately it has air-conditioning units in the lounge and bedroom. We recently had a power failure. This was a real pain as it meant that I was unable work or run the air-conditioner. I also discovered I did not have any matches to light my candles. I had to go to one of few smokers in the block to get a light.

Summer also means that the sun rises at about 5.00am. One morning I woke at 4.30 and despite trying to go back to sleep could not. I got up at 5.00 put on my running shorts and shoes and ran for 40 minutes. I go straight up the hill along and then down and then gradually back. I know I am not running fit because the route that normally takes me 35 minutes took me 38 this morning. I had to walk up the steepest hill at the end which was a blow to my pride.

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.