Another blog about Michael Jackson…

The past 72 hours have been rather surreal, I don’t mind telling you.

For me, it started with a text message late Thursday night. I was in bed with a glass of wine, alternating between Question Time and My Name is Earl on telly when I received it.

“Switch on the news,” it shrieked. “MJ is dead according to reports!”

So I did. Sky News had already pronounced him dead by then; other news channels seemed to be trying to have their cake and eat it, saying that the LA Times had reported him dead but they couldn’t confirm it. And that was it. What was meant to have been an early night (by my standards) turned into a news marathon.

Figuring that the most reliable news source would be the one closest to the subject, I turned over to CNN and stayed there until midnight, when it abruptly turned into a gambling channel (yes, I’m one of those cheapskates who has Freeview instead of paying for Virgin or Sky). I then turned over to BBC News and stayed there for another hour or so before deciding that my need for sleep was greater than my need to know every detail of how it had happened.

The craziness continued after I woke up on Friday morning and settled down to do some work. After reading one Facebook status update too many quoting the “what does it profit a man if he lose his soul?” scripture (and even a few which very authoritatively claimed that Michael was now in Hell), I’d had enough. I’m not the rabid sort of MJ fan who thought he could never do any wrong, but the insensitivity was too much. So I fired back, saying, “Allow people some time to mourn before throwing all your ‘sound doctrine’ at us!” That in turn led to some interesting private conversations and a few very touching personal emails.

And then the big one happened. A producer for Radio 4’s Sunday morning programme rang me up and said they were looking for a music journalist who had knowledge of religious issues to talk about whatever faith Michael Jackson may have had, and how that faith was reflected in his music.

The call wasn’t totally unexpected; my friend Bernard who also works for the BBC had pre-warned me that it was coming. I had a few initial apprehensions; what made me qualified enough to talk about such a subject? Yes, I had looked into some of those issues when I wrote the chapter on Michael in the Rough Guide to Rock book – but that was years ago. But when the call finally came, all those fears disappeared.

The producer fired questions at me; I answered. We discussed all sorts of things: Michael’s upbringing as a Jehovah’s Witness; how he’d put a disclaimer at the start of the Thriller video when its horror movie theme upset the JW leadership; other religious figures who’d influenced him; the various (and in my opinion, ludicrous) Internet rumours linking him with everything from radical Islam to devil worship… Eventually, the producer made arrangements for me to come in to Radio 4 to be interviewed for the show.

Now I had to do my homework. I’m usually the person doing the interviewing and I’m fine with that. Being interviewed, on the other hand, still makes me nervous. I went for a swim and used the time in the pool to do some more thinking about how Michael “did God” in his music.

There’s no doubt that some of Michael’s work had an element to it that could be considered spiritual, or at the very least ‘positive’ (if he was a reggae singer, I’d say ‘conscious’). The most obvious example would be ‘Man in the Mirror’. So yes, there was a spiritual side to some of MJ’s music.

What Michael didn’t do, though, was anchor the message in his songs to one specific faith. Whereas you’d have Prince sing “Don’t die without knowing the cross” (an obvious reference to Christianity), Michael on the other hand would sing “Keep the faith” but leave it up to you to decide which faith it was you were meant to be keeping. And the “be the change you want to see” message in ‘Man in the Mirror’ is one that is embraced by people of all faiths – and even by a few of us who claim not to have any.

That’s not to say that people with a specific faith didn’t influence Michael’s music. Various Christians in particular made a huge contribution. Seawind, the horn section on the Quincy Jones-produced albums, were a gospel group in their own right. Scan the credits on the albums, and you’ll find several others. The most notable is the legendary gospel singer Andrae Crouch, who did the vocal arrangements on ‘Man in the Mirror’ and on ‘Will You Be There’ and ‘Keep the Faith’ on the Dangerous album (in the last couple of days, Andrae has had to refute rumours now doing the rounds in some Evangelical circles, claiming that he and his twin sister Sandra converted Michael to Christianity a week or two before he died).

In the end, I never got to share any of this on air. A few hours after the first phone call, the producer called again to say they’d found someone in America who had been in the same JW fellowship as Michael, and would be having him on the show instead. A pity; I was really looking forward to having a go at being a Nelson George or even a Stuart Maconie.

Rest easy, Jacko. And thanks for all the tunes (though I’m not so sure I want to thank you for my mid-80s Jehri curl phase)…

Africa Oyé ‘09

oyelogoMany music fans who visit Liverpool do so on pilgrimages to the Cavern Club. My now annual pilgrimage to Scouseland is music related, but has nothing to do with the Beatles. The thing that’s brought me up here again this year is Africa Oyé – the UK’s biggest free African music event. It’s usually held (at least, since I’ve been going) over a weekend in June.

Miserable grey clouds hung over Sefton Park all weekend. Thankfully, though, the worst that happened was the odd drizzle. I turned up on Saturday afternoon and dutifully waited at the fence by the mainstage for Ali the Press office guy to give me my pass (I was there mainly with my Sounds of Africa producer’s hat on).

It was whilst waiting for Ali that I met Maya. She had come in the place of a friend of hers; an Irish radio presenter who couldn’t make it because he was ill. Throughout the weekend we worked together, pooling our equipment and oyebirdinterviewing artists (and Paul Duhaney, the festival organiser) together.

Africa Oyé aims to bring the best in African music free to the Liverpool public. That’s ‘African’ in the broadest sense of the word; this year’s two headliners were both reggae artists (Freddie McGregor on Saturday and Carol Thompson on Sunday). The lineup also usually features Latin music – though sadly there were no salsa bands there this year. Kasaï Masaï kicked off the festival with a blend of Congolese sounds and high energy dancing.

Next on were a Senegalese trio called Groupe Lolou. I managed to miss much of their set – but only because Maya and I spent so much time talking to their manager in the press/hospitality tent backstage. Turns out that back down in London (where they all live), I’d been to one of their friends’ houses to interview another Senegalese musician! I even managed a brief conversation in Wolof (well, ‘how are you?’ ‘Fine thanks.’ Counts as a conversation to me). I should meet with them again once their album’s out.

Up till this weekend, I’d never seen Daby Touré perform live – even though he’s played Greenbelt twice, and I’d interviewed him in person a couple of years ago. He recognised me the moment he saw me, and was as thought provoking, amiable and funny throughout the interview as he’d been the last time we’d chatted – in an Arabian-style parlour in Momo’s in London. He played both days, and was a monster onstage. Fantastic.

In between sets, I had a wander around and tried to set up interviews – including one with Kwame Kwei-Armah, who was there as ambassador for the Foreign Office’s Know Before You Go campaign, aimed at getting people to ensure they’re covered for every eventuality before they go off travelling.

I only stayed long enough to hear Freddie McGregor sing ‘When Push Comes to Shove’, then I set off home (tiredness had got to me, and the clouds looked threatening). Didn’t think much of Chino (Freddie’s son) who was one of his special guests. A reggae song about ganja – very original… The little I heard of Freddie sounded great, though.

The Congolese singer Gordon Masiala kicked things off on Sunday, and provided one of my most hilarious interview moments ever. Whilst onstage, Gordon had made a point of informing us that he was wearing Versace. I’d heard a lot about Congo’s Sapeurs before (and had met the king of them, Papa Wemba, once), so I asked Gordon about the significance of high fashion in Congolese music and culture. That was his cue to give Maya and me a close-up inspection of all his designer ‘garms’. He then went off on one about how he was the best-dressed Congolese musician ever. For a minute, he sounded just like the ‘Rolex Sweep’ song: “Papa Wemba can’t dress like me; Koffi Olomide can’t dress like me; Awilo Longomba can’t dress like me. One glass of champagne for me…” at least I can now say I’ve seen the inside label of a Versace jacket…

My best new discovery on Sunday (and a slightly more level-headed interviewee than Gordon) was the Cameroonian singer Muntu Valdo. With just his guitar and a harmonica, Muntu rocked. He had a Digitech Jam Man (gadget that allows musos to create loops whilst playing live, so they can make up their own accompaniment) which he used not only to create complex backing rhythms and music, but also to provide backing vocals for himself! That gizmo has really revolutionised acoustic music.

Kanda Bongo Man had a sore throat and so delegated most of the lead vocals in his set to his two backing vocalists. Despite the throat, he and his band rocked. Is it me, or are the girl dancers in Congolese bands getting really young these days?

Final act of the festival was Carol Thompson. I really hadn’t been that interested in seeing her sing, to be honest. I vaguely remembered her from back in the 80s, but thought that putting on mellow lovers rock tunes after all the bouncing about we’d done to Kanda’s soukous jamfest would be a major anticlimax. So it was rather reluctantly that I took my position by the stage.

“I’m only going to hear one song, than home,” I told myself. In the end, she won me over. A medley of her old hits morphed into a cover of the Commodores’ ‘Easy’. She followed that with a Gospel-flavoured song based largely on Psalm 23 (“In the times we’re living in, we need to be more spiritual,” she told us). Rather than do the usual ‘say goodbye, walk off the stage and do an encore’ thing, she just sang right through, ending with a medley of old ska songs that had the entire audience screaming along (I have all the screams on tape!).

“Everybody in Liverpool is a performer,” Maya informed me as we enjoyed a post-festival drink. I certainly met a few: the old bloke with no front teeth who kept rallying other people in the crowd to dance; the guy in a cowboy hat who managed to outdance Kanda Bongo Man and his entire band; and of course the women in the front row who got louder and louder whenever they saw my Zoom recording machine pointed at them!

And that was Africa Oyé 2009: a weekend in which I heard some brilliant music, made a new friend, got a few contacts and ate way too much Chinese food for one person. Looking forward to next year’s already…

GMA: Is This the End?

Another GMA week ended for me about an hour ago. As I sit here in the Panera Bread restaurant in downtown Nashville that has been my satellite office this week (the day these guys set up shop in the UK, my days of using Starbucks as my ‘office away from home’ are over – or at least numbered), I can’t help but wonder where it all went wrong.

I’d already written my post-GMA blog/note in my head months ago, back when I had the initial signs that this GMA was going to be a bit of a problem. It was to be an open letter to John W. Styll, the President of the Gospel Music Association. I was going to ask him if he remembered me, the British reporter who’d interviewed him the previous year – an interview that was heard across London and the rest of the UK on Premier Radio.

Then I’d point out to him that I’d been unable to do the same thing this year because he and his crew had come to the conclusion that us reporters weren’t covering their precious convention and so were now charging us something in the region of $200 for the privilege of doing our jobs (jobs which don’t pay a great deal, to be honest). By charging us to work (in the midst of a credit crunch), the GMA were, in my mind, cutting off their noses to spite their faces.

Well, there’s no need to publish that letter now. Turns out us journo scum weren’t the only people getting short shrift from the Association – or the only people voting with our feet/wallets. Attendance figures here were down to about a third of the usual figure. Only 40 media outlets paid for press passes (I’m told). There were journalists here – but like myself, they’d all refused to buy passes, and simply contacted publicists directly and set up their own interviews, completely bypassing GMA in the process.

Independent labels turned up, found an empty space in the lobby at either the Renaissance or the Hilton, and networked as usual. Like us journalists, the other industry people discovered that they could make things happen for themselves without GMA’s help. In trying to milk us for money, GMA just showed us that we really didn’t need them in order to do business. On the “Disastrous Own Goal” scale, only Andres Escobar at the 1994 World Cup could possibly rank higher. And like Escobar’s, this own goal has probably cost the GMA its life.

But I don’t want to bury the GMA just yet. All week, there have been rumours flying around that this is going to be the last GMA ever. It would be a shame if that were the case. Yes, we all now know we can do business with or without them (in an age where just about every contact or business tip you need is freely available on the Internet, how did it take us this long to figure that out?), but one thing GMA has consistently done is provide a space where we can all meet. Not via email, Skype, phone or video conferencing (or whatever), but in person. And it would be a shame if we lost that.

Call me old-fashioned if you must, but I still believe there’s a place for in-person, face-to-face, smell-the-other-guy’s-breath-on-your-face meetings; for human contact. As someone who could easily do most of his work without ever setting foot outside his flat, I for one do appreciate those times when I can combine work with a little socialising. If that’s the only function GMA ends up serving, then so be it. But the organisation definitely needs a re-think of its purpose. If it doesn’t learn that from this year’s abysmal turnout, then maybe it does deserve to die.

India: last week’s news

Media junkie that I am, I couldn’t spend ten days in a media-heavy country like India and not sample the local press, telly and radio. Here are a few of the stories that caught my eye while I was out there.

On the day we arrived, the Hindustan Times had a story on its front page which seemed to disprove the old saying that beggars can’t be choosers. “Playing God in caste-crazy Bihar” said the headline to a piece telling how many childless couples in Bihar are demanding to know what caste their potential sperm donors come from. Sad…

The story that dominated the week’s news agenda happened on Wednesday, when Jarnail Singh (a Sikh journalist) threw a shoe at India’s Home Minister during a press conference.

The incident was another chapter in a story that goes back all the way to 1984 when Indira Gandhi’s assassination sparked off anti-Sikh riots which left over 3,000 Sikhs dead. Jagdish Tytler – a former minister and member of India’s Congress Party – had been accused of being involved in those riots, but had been cleared in 2007… and again last week. But this was all too much for Jarnail Singh, who decided on hurling footwear at the Home Minister as an effective means of protest.

Tytler had been running as a candidate in the elections currently taking place in India. But by the end of the week, he’d announced his decision to withdraw from the race. He said he didn’t think he should fight as “a lot of embarrassment has been caused to the (Congress) party.” I’m thinking the Congress top brass figured it was more expedient to lose one troublesome candidate, rather than millions of Sikh voters…

Bollywood shuffle #1. An almighty row is brewing between India’s filmmakers and the owners of the multiplexes that screen their films, over how big a share of the takings the film producers should receive.

The producers asked for 50% of all ticket sales from multiplexes. Predictably, the multiplex owners told them to get lost. The producers responded to that by refusing to release any new films after the 4th of April. And so Bollywood is now locked in its own equivalent of the writers’ strike that hit Hollywood last year. Two top Bollywood stars, Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan, have tried to mediate between the two sides – so far with not much success.

Bollywood shuffle #2. Meanwhile, there’s been a less-than-warm response to a new reality TV show featuring Bollywood actress Rakhi Sawant. Rakhi ka Swayamvar follows Ms. Sawant as she searches for a husband.

As you may guess, this hasn’t gone down too well in a society which still values the institution of marriage very highly. But I have another reason for not liking it. Anyone who’s seen a few Bollywood movies knows that they occasionally “borrow” ideas from Western films, telly shows, etc. (just go to Youtube and type the words “Indian thriller” into the search engine. You’ll soon see what I mean). We know that and accept it as part of the charm of Bollywood. However, you have to be seriously desperate to nick programme ideas from Jodie Marsh!

Real Girl Power. My favourite story of the week appeared in the Hindustan Times on Sunday; the story of Rekha Kalindi. 12-year-old Rekha lives in a small village in West Bengal – a village with the lowest female literacy rate in India. Amongst her tribe, girls traditionally get married at the age of 12. However, when Rekha turned 12 last November, she put her foot down and refused to be hitched – standing firm even when her dad cut off her supply of food, water and soap.

Rekha’s act of rebellion inspired other girls in her village to do the same, and there haven’t been any child marriages there ever since – something the Indian Government had been trying to achieve for years without much success.

According to Rekha, she decided not to get married so young because she wanted to go to school and get an education. Seeing her older sister Jyotsna must have helped too. Jyotsna did get married at 12; by the time she’d turned 15, she’d already lost four babies.

Rekha was in the papers again yesterday. The president of India heard her story and has now invited her over to visit the Rashtrapati Bhawan (the Presidential palace). Not bad for a young bidi-roller…

Sadly, the expression “You go, girl!” hasn’t been translated in my English-to-Hindi phrasebook. Neither have “Gwaan!”, “Respect!”, “Brap brap!”, “Way to go!” or “Booyaka!” So I guess I’ll just have to settle for “Congratulations!” and throw in a “Namaste” for good measure. Here’s to Rekha – proof that it just takes one individual to start a revolution.

Delhi: It’s All About the Boom-boom

Well, I’ve now been in Delhi four days. And I’m pleased to report that I’ve had no tummy problems at all so far – despite the fact that I’ve been deliberately eating the spiciest food on offer in an attempt to shift the cold symptoms that have bugged me since I landed here.

It’s an interesting time to be in India – and especially in Delhi. The country goes to the polls on the 7th of May, so there’s a lot of electioneering going on. Meanwhile, Delhi is preparing to host the Commonwealth games next year, and so huge chunks of the city are under construction. It’s kind of disconcerting when you can see the massive amount of work being done to extend the Delhi Metro, just across from the squalid slum you’re standing in the middle of. That aside, Delhi is a vibrant, lovely place, full of zindagi (life).

On Tuesday, we started painting Asha’s community centre in Zakhira – under the watchful eye of Claire, who works in an art gallery back home. We did a little more painting on Wednesday, but in the morning I had my first up-close look at slum life when five of us visited Zakhira. Ranee (the lady who runs things in the centre) showed five of us round.

One of Ranee’s many jobs is training up CHV’s (community health volunteers) who then pass on their knowledge of hygiene and basic health care on to the slum dwellers. Asha’s achievements here have been amazing. For example, the number of TB sufferers in Zakhira is now just three, as opposed to 35 when they set up shop here. Asha also does a lot of advocacy on behalf of slum dwellers, and on many occasions have prevented them from losing their homes.

On Wednesday afternoon, there was a prayer meeting at the community centre. After it finished, I got to have a go at Indian drumming. I think I handled the drum okay; I was channelling every bhangra track or Bollywood tune I’ve ever heard! In Indian drumming, it’s all about the “Boom-boom”. That’s the base. Boom-boom. A-boom-boom. Boom-boom, taka-taka, boom-boom. Acha!

Well, we’re busy painting the centre’s IT Room today – which means I’ll have to unplug this computer in a minute so we can get to the walls. So I’ll sign off for now – and will most likely be back at some point during our Easter break.

Swaziland: Days 7 & 8

Monday, late-ish: it rained buckets today! Dunno whether someone is trying to get us acclimatised back into life in Blighty, or something…

Yesterday was fun. We drove to Manzini in the morning for a service at Zakes’ church. He used to pastor it until his workload became too big; his son’s now the senior pastor there.  It was a very ‘African’ service (trust me – I know what I mean by that. I just can’t explain it too well). A choir made up of young blind people sang a few songs and talked about their recent trip to the UK – then Zakes told us how the choir had recently survived an accident when their new minibus’s handbrake went kaput, sending them down a hill backwards. Scary stuff…

Zakes introduced the OCC team, jokingly referring to Clement, Tiny and the others as our “interrupters – sorry, I mean interpreters”. When it was our turn to introduce ourselves, I just said, “I’m George and I’m a writer from London and Sierra Leone,” then immediately thought to myself, “That’s a bit vague, innit? Haven’t really said much.” It turned out to be quite enough; after the service, Zakes’ son came up to me and said, “I was really blessed when you said you were a writer. Africa needs more Christian writers! Pray that we get more people like you!” Be careful what you pray for, bro…

I thoroughly enjoyed the afternoon visit to the culture centre, but it made me realise I really need to get a digital camera that’s a bit more responsive than the one I’m currently using. Or at least one that doesn’t have such a long wait time between takes. It would help a lot when taking pictures in fast-moving situations. I did manage to get one or two pictures of the dancers just as they were doing their high kicks – but it was a lot of work getting them.

As for today… well, we started by going to Teen Challenge’s office in Mbabane to meet Kevin Ward (Director of Teen Challenge Swaziland) and Wandile Shongwe (SP’s Partnership Liaison Manager). Kevin’s family owns the hotel we’re currently staying in. But he’d quit the family business years ago when he felt he was meant to be working with street children. That led to him getting to see first hand the damage HIV has done to lives here, as well as the nastier side of life on the streets. He gave us a run-down of his work and hard insights into the issues the country faces (as well as illustrating how some well-meaning Westerners’ attempts to ‘help’ end up doing more harm than good). The Teen Challenge office isn’t that far from our hotel. But some things are universal – stinking Monday morning rush-hour traffic jams being one of them. It took us about an hour to get to the office!

After meeting Kevin, Wandile and the rest of the Teen Challenge staff, we were off to our big meeting for today. Luvumisa is at the southernmost point of Swaziland. It was one of the areas hardest hit by the droughts Swaziland suffered five years ago (which is why I’m convinced that the bucketing rain we had all throughout our time there was God having an ironic joke with us). Again, people with nothing welcomed us and shared what little they had with us. And I finally got to see a crocodile!

Well, this is it. Tomorrow we’re off home the same way we got here: travelling by minibus to SA, and then flying from Johannesburg Airport. I hope we drop by Bethel on the way and have lunch at the Wimpy again…

Here’s a short list of a few random things I’ve learnt as a result of going on this trip:

  1. It’s good to know your culture and where you’re from, and to be proud of it. It’s even better to be big enough to admit when certain aspects of your culture are just plain wrong.
  2. You can never have enough spares when you’re on the road – whether that’s batteries, film for your camera, or tyres for your vehicle. So always carry loads of spares!
  3. “Don’t harsh my mellow.”
  4. We’ll never solve the HIV/Aids problem simply by throwing tons of condoms at it.
  5. The true way to make friends and influence people is to give gifts. Genuinely and lovingly.
  6. No matter how great a king you are, you can’t stop birds from pooing on your statue’s head.

Swaziland: Day 6

Saturday, sometime…

We checked out of Maguga Lodge this morning and headed south to Mbabane, the capital of Swaziland. Tomorrow we’ll be in Manzini, not too far away, where Zakes’ church is situated. For the rest of our stay, we’ll be based at the Emafini Conference Centre, a hotel/conference facility owned by a Christian family who’ve been in the hotel business a long time.

On the way to Mbabane, we passed by Teen Challenge’s Hawane Life Skills Centre and HIV/Aids care facility. Teen Challenge is one of SP’s partners in Swaziland; the centre has a set of homes in which children affected by HIV/Aids live in a ‘normal’ family setup (i.e. in a home with house parents). There’s a clinic and hospital and lots of other stuff.

After visiting the Teen Challenge place, we stopped in Mbabane’s town centre and had a look around two enormous malls facing each other from opposite ends of the street. The new one may have been more flash, but we reckoned the older one had more character.  I bought a few touristy things in the mall; it had a shop called African Fantasy, which sold some interesting stuff. I also located several music shops and bought a few CDs. Couldn’t find a decent Kwaito compilation, though; maybe I wasn’t looking hard enough. But I did find a CD by a South African artist I’d never heard of before with yet another cover of ‘Here I Am to Worship’ on it. I didn’t buy it. I love Tim Hughes to bits, but do we really need another cover of that song? In Africa, of all places??

After the shopping trip and lunch, we visited Swaziland’s national museum and the Memorial to King Sobhuza II. It was interesting seeing King Sobhuza’s cars: a couple of Cadillacs and a Buick. The Caddies looked really dated; thankfully, they weren’t as tastelessly ‘pimped’ as the last Caddy I saw in a museum (Isaac Hayes’ shiny blue, sheepskin-carpeted, golden-rimmed jobbie in the Stax Museum of Soul Music, that was. That car is the reason for the phrase “too bloody much!”).

I have to say I felt a bit sorry for the guard who has to spend hours in the blazing heat guarding the mausoleum the King was laid in state in when he died. He’s not there anymore (buried in the sacred mountain nearby, along with all the other previous Swazi kings), which made standing for hours in the sweltering heat seem even more pointless. It’s a culture thing, I guess…

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 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…