Swaziland: Day 5

Friday, 6.40 am: Well, we’ve got off to a not-very-good start today: my iPod appears to be (thinks of even more unpleasant words for “screwed”, then settles for) broken. Let’s see how the rest of today pans out, shall we?

The team’s done all its distributions now; today the homestead and project visits start. Hoping more stories come out of this

6.05pm:Well, today seems to have turned out rather well, despite the shaky start. As for the iPod… well, leaving as it was seems to have sorted its problem out (and drained all its battery power in the process). Maybe I should buy a proper iPod charger for journeys like this. At least I’ve got a minidisc machine and 5 hours of salsa for the trip home. Or I might just watch Mamma Mia instead. But enough about that…

Today was harrowing in places, sad in others, yet with odd glimpses of joy and hope occasionally poking through the sadness (tell me I did not just write that!).

The team split into three groups and each spent time in a different homestead. I was with Val and Heather, and for some reason we seemed to get all the homesteads with no man in sight. At the first one, all the husbands were away working as drivers (one as a teacher), and only made one monthly visit back home after they’d earned enough money to keep their families going. At the other, we found an old lady looking after four great-grandchildren whose mothers had all died (no mention of dads there). Only one of her granddaughters was still alive. She grew her own corn and wove mats for a living. It takes three weeks to make one mat, which sells for 40 Rand (about three quid). Heather and I bought a mat each.

On the way to the homesteads this morning, we stopped off at the post office in Pigg’s Peak for stamps and phonecards. A few people came up to us, smiled, greeted us very warmly and thanked us for choosing to visit their country. I’m definitely not in London…


Swaziland: Day 4

The team’s done a very full day today, with four distributions in Bulembu – further north from Pigg’s Peak.

The Specials obviously didn’t have Bulembu in mind when they wrote the words “This town is coming like a ghost town.” But that song offers the most apt description of the place. Years ago, the whole life of Bulembu revolved around the asbestos mine situated there. The mine closed in 2001 – and that, combined with the onslaught of HIV, led to Bulembu becoming deserted very quickly. Even today, there are loads of buildings lying empty. But then a handful of entrepreneurs and social developers (led by a Christian businessman) started buying properties there and setting up various income-generating projects. The gift shop next door to Virginia’s restaurant proudly sells jars of honey with the Bulembu logo on; a product of one of the small businesses that have sprung up there and are helping give the place a new lease of life (and which, at this very moment, I’m having with some lemon and ginger, in an attempt to get rid of the stupid sore throat I seem to have picked up this week).

The Bulembu Christian Academy (another of these regeneration projects) is easily the most advanced and well resourced of all the schools we’ve seen so far on this trip. Jon Skinner (the school’s head teacher, who’s originally from England) gave us a guided tour, then explained to the assembled children who we were and what we were doing. The team left the gifts for the staff to distribute later, rather than do the whole handing out thing.

Just next door to the Bulembu Academy was the location of Gift Drop 2: a nursery school with lots of toddlers. We were told that 18 of the kids who usually attend weren’t there today because their fees had not yet been paid. No reason why they should be left out of receiving gifts, so 18 boxes were kept aside for when they come back.

Drop 3 was another nearby school. But this time, the kids came to us, as their school is situated up a rather treacherous hill that our vehicle would have had problems getting up. It must have been really bad; the ones we did drive up to get here were tough enough as it is!

After the schools, the team were driven to a royal kraal, where the most shambolic distribution we’ve had took place. Again there were little kids who associate white faces with injections (cue lots of screaming – not the nice kind). One lad tried to nick a box and got a beatdown from the Royal Runners for his troubles. Yours Truly got yelled at for leaning on a flagpole. The usual…

A lady wearing black was turned away when she tried to collect a parcel for her child. Bish Zakes explained to us later that in Swazi culture, women in mourning are not allowed near royal residences, and have to keep some distance from public places generally. One or two team members were a bit put off at the thought of someone missing out – especially someone who was bereaved. But Zakes promised to find the lady and make sure she received something. He’s good like that…

Swaziland: Day 3

Wednesday, late: It’s gone a little differently today. Originally the team was meant to do three or four distributions. That got cut to two – and since the locations were close to each other, it was then decided to do them both in succession, rather than have a lunch break in between.

First one was for another set of schoolkids, in what looked like a giant playground. Probably around 500 kids – from pre-school to around 14 years of age. Once Bish Zakes got them going, they were pretty loud. It was fun just recording what sounded like one long, continuous scream of joy. A lovely sound (bear with me here; I’m a radio person, so I’m into sounds. I like working with ‘em and I enjoy playing with ‘em. Well actually, playing with ‘em is my job, so…).

Second one was in a kraal belonging to royalty. I actually got to meet a chief and have my pic taken with him! Mostly little toddlers on this one. It must have been a bit overwhelming for them, because lots of them cried like mad – and it wasn’t the joyous screaming we’d had at the first distribution. We were told later that in that area, little children associate white people with injections, and that’s what caused all the tears. Hmm – seems “Dr. No Shot” in Scrubs had a point…

A couple of bits of feedback from yesterday’s distributions came out of the blue this afternoon. We stopped for lunch at a restaurant near the site of yesterday’s big distribution. Virginia, the lady who runs the place, was overjoyed to see the team. She told us about a couple of women she employs, whose kids received gifts yesterday. School fees were due in February, and so these women had to forgo buying certain things their kids needed, just so that their wages could stretch to paying their fees. All the things they hadn’t been able to buy for their kids that month were in the boxes they were given!

After lunch, we went for a walk though a market area in Pigg’s Peak. Mike and I were approached by a lady who shook our hands and proceeded to thank us for coming. “The children are very grateful for their gifts. They’ve taken things out of their boxes to give as gifts to their parents!”

The rest of the day has been good for chilling and reflection – not to mention a nice dip in the lodge’s swimming pool. Turns out Clement is also a swimming teacher, so he gave me a few pointers on how to improve my forward crawl!

Swaziland: Day 2

Tuesday, just after 3pm: Back at Maguga Lodge for a lunch break before heading off to the local hospital in Pigg’s Peak.

Distribution no. 1 was this morning; it took place in an open field in Pigg’s Peak, and it was awesome. About 1,000 kids, all ages. Did a lot of field recording with the Zoom machine. Boy, those kids were bloody loud! Fantastic. I interviewed one of them: a young girl who wants to be a journalist when she leaves school. Gave her a few tips (I just hope I haven’t put her off the job!).

Beginning to learn a bit more about how the shoeboxes get put together back in the UK before being sent out to these far-flung corners of the world. Need to get into that a bit more with Trevor.

Tuesday again, later in the evening: The hospital trip in the afternoon was a much smaller, yet more intense, affair than the morning’s big gift dish-out. Big or small, these visits are all moving in their own way. This one gave a glimpse into some of the challenges women here go through sometimes. The mother of one kid in the ward we visited told of how her husband and her sisters-in-law would often gang up on her. Her son had both legs in slings (broke them while taking a dive off some stairs) and was going to be in hospital for about a month. She was particularly grateful for the toy cars he received, as he now had something to keep him occupied whilst recuperating.

I’m learning a bit more about OCC and its long-term strategy, re. mission work and social justice internationally. Also about the volunteers in the UK who put these gift packages together, and how much it means to them. And getting real tight with my bros Clement and Blessing, two of the four interpreters assigned to the team. They are awesome dudes.

According to Clement, “Swaziland is a country that has just one of everything.” One language, one tribe, one mobile phone company (which takes full advantage of its monopoly status in its tariffs), and up until recently one television channel. They now have two of those – but there’s really not much difference between them. Not that any of us are watching telly on this trip, anyway…

Swaziland: Day 1

Well, it’s now close to two weeks since I flew off to Johannesburg en route to Swaziland, on a work trip covering the activities of Samaritan’s Purse/Operation Christmas Child in Africa.

Every year, thousands of schoolkids across the UK fill shoeboxes up with toys and various other bits and bobs. OCC distributes those shoeboxes to needy children in parts of Africa and Eastern Europe.  I was asked to go along with this team (made up of 12 people from over here who are usually involved in getting the shoeboxes together), and report on what happened as they saw the gifts being distributed in Swaziland.

I’ve now been through the photographs I took (all 724 of them), downloaded over six hours of interviews and actuality I recorded, and made some attempt at getting my thoughts together. I’m in the process of writing articles about the trip for a couple of magazines. Here, though, is the diary I kept on the road – starting the day we arrived…

Monday 16 Feb, 5pm-ish: Boy, I’s shattered. We landed in Jo’burg just after seven this morning, having endured a 10-hour plane ride in sardine class (Virgin, what the heck?). That was followed by a seven-hour bus ride… and we crossed the border sometime around 3pm-ish. Must. Have. Sleep…

Now for a brief diversion as George reviews his in-flight movies:

BURN AFTER READING: John Malkovich says the F-word repeatedly and Brad Pitt behaves like an ass. And just when you thought Batman & Robin was the low point of George Clooney’s acting career…

ROCKNROLLA: I’ve come to the conclusion that Guy Ritchie has only got one script. He just changes the valuable thing that goes missing and everybody wants to get their hands on. In Lock, Stock… it was dope; in Snatch it was a diamond; this time round, it’s a painting. I’m guessing it’s not ‘The Fallen Madonna With the Big Boobies’.

GET SMART:Loved the 60s sitcom and was hoping they hadn’t messed up on the film version. Can’t tell you how good a job they did, because I fell asleep shortly after it started and woke up just before the closing credits. But before I dozed off, I saw a scene that was exactly the same as a key event in Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay. A very, very bad omen…

Anyway, back to what I’m meant to be telling you about…

We landed just after seven, and breezed through Immigration and Customs with all our baggage intact. Clement (one of our translators) was waiting in Arrivals, having stayed overnight in Jo’burg (the border closes at 7pm, so you have to stay in SA overnight if you’re going to meet someone that early in the morning).

From what little I saw of Johannesburg, it appears that South Africa has got a bit of a combined UK/USA thing going for it. We went into a Spar supermarket in Bethel (a ‘Superspar’, as it was called), which looked just like a Wal-Mart or some other American supermarket. The shopping precincts also reminded me of America – but they drive on the left hand side of the road, which is where the US similarities end. Seeing Tom Jones Street raised a few smiles on board our minibus – as did the ‘Beware of Hippos and Crocs’ sign that greeted us when we finally arrived at the Maguga Lodge, our home for the first part of our trip to Swaziland.

Our base for the first five days is the Hhohho region in the north of the country. The team will be visiting schools and a hospital in the town of Pigg’s Peak. We’re staying close to the Maguga Dam, one of this area’s main tourist spots. The dam looks really spectacular, like a water slide for mental extreme sports fans (you’d probably break your neck if you tried sliding down it though, I reckon).

The Maguga Lodge is beautiful – but then, from what little I’ve seen so far, so is Swaziland. We had some serious African rain for much of the bus ride. I mean serious African rain. The kind of warm downpour we used to have in my schooldays back in Freetown. Boy, that brings back memories…

Today’s mostly the chill-to-get-your-bodies-back-in-sync day. The team hits the ground running tomorrow with a big distribution at Pigg’s Peak. They’re expecting around a thousand kids – plus the Mayor and a couple of Swazi Government representatives. Also looking forward to chatting some more with Clement and the rest of our translators, Blessing, Tiny and Sosanda (I think that’s how she spells it). And of course there’s Bishop Zakes Nxumalo, our host here in Swaziland. He’s already given us a comprehensive intro to Swazi culture, of which the only thing I can remember right now is that when you offer to shake someone’s hand, you give them one hand supported by the other; kind of what The Todd in Scrubs would call an “assisted five!” And “yebo” means “yes”. Apparently that word crops up a lot in interactions with people here…

Anyway, it’s time for a rest. Big day ahead…

Team Leader              Trevor Hammond
Assistant Team Leader        Roger Fenton
Team Pastor            Mike Wildsmith
Team Host            Bishop Zakes Nxumalo
Team Photographer        me

Rest of the team: Fiona Baxter, Andrea Clews, Margaret Griffin, Val Loach, Joan Pygott, Rob Stacey, Heather Young

MIDEM ’09: Day 2 – afternoon

Monday again – later in the afternoon:

It’s been a good day so far. I went back to the South Africa stand, and had a more fruitful time meeting people. The American guy’s “just go up and talk to ‘em” advice from this morning clearly worked! I visited a stand where a new French rapper called Poison was being plugged. I had a chat with his producer and gave him one of the Ground Level mixtape CDs I’d been asked to give to people. As we spoke, his producer explained that Poison was originally Congolese, and played me a track he’d done rapping in Lingala as well as French. A possible Sounds of Africa candidate, I thought.

I’ve also managed to make a lot of Latin/Spanish music contacts. Ferran Perez is from Spain, staying in the same hotel as me. He used to play accordion in a Mediterranean Celtic band called Dealan; now he’s gone into management and is representing them at MIDEM (which, he tells me, he’d never heard about until a couple of months ago). We both took the bus in to Cannes this morning, and he gave me an invite for a cocktail party organised by the Catalan music contingent. We chatted over drinks and Catalan food (various types of sausage/ham/chorizo thingies, cheese and ‘pan tomate’ – bread with tomato – really nice!). He said going into management and even coming to MIDEM were all risks for him, but he’d learned in life that you need to take risks – otherwise “you just stay at home and end up doing nothing.” Life is like standing on a travolator that’s moving in the opposite direction, he reckons. “You might think you’re standing still, but you’re actually going backwards and being left behind.”

The unexpected fun bit of today was when I was walking up to the Press Club and passed by a bloke walking in the opposite direction. I glimpsed his badge very briefly and thought I saw the name Oliver Cheatham. Was it? I went back to get another look… and it was! He was a brilliant sport. He agreed to an impromptu interview (which needed two takes, thanks to you-know-who forgetting to release the pause on the recording machine), and then took a picture with me. For the rest of today, I’ll be singing “I like to party, everybody does…”

The Freed Bird Sings

 I haven’t been as prompt with my updates on here as I’d like to. But I should share a really heart-warming moment from a couple of weeks ago with you.

 Actually, I’ll go back further – back a few years to when I was hosting my World Beat radio show on UCB, and I first heard about an Eritrean gospel singer who was serving a prison sentence inside a freight container.

 Helen Berhane was a member of an Evangelical church in Eritrea – one of the many religious groups deemed ‘illegal’ by the Eritrean Government. When she refused to renounce her faith, she was arrested.

 Torture and imprisonment followed; Helen was held in a freight container in sweltering heat, with a mentally ill woman who’d tried to assassinate a Government official as a cellmate (probably in the hope that the mad woman would try to kill her too).

 Helen’s plight caught the attention of several people outside her homeland. Amnesty International joined Christian groups such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide and Release International in campaigning for her release. Celebrities such as Angelina Jolie took up her cause. As well as give her album T’kebaeku airplay on my show, I also lent a hand in remastering the only available cassette of it for a CD release.

 In November 2006, we received the news that Helen had been released after spending two years in her makeshift cell. The following year, she was granted asylum in Denmark, where she now lives. And that brings us to Saturday before last, when she was a guest speaker at CSW’s annual conference in London.

 She couldn’t come to the conference in person, due to the terms of her asylum status (if she leaves Denmark within her first three years there, she loses all her benefits). But thanks to the power of Skype, we were able to see and chat with her, and have her sing for us. I don’t mind telling you it’s been ages since a singer’s voice made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end…

 Helen is free. But there are still hundreds more Eritrean Christians facing heavy persecution in their homeland. As long as that’s the case, the fight continues.