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

Dead Set & Match

Halloween’s nearly here – and as is their custom, all our telly channels have dusted off their old horror movies to ‘entertain’ those of us too old for trick-or-treating.

Well, all but one. E4 have actually gone to the trouble of creating an original gore-filled miniseries for our delectation. Dead Set is a five-parter in which zombies attack the Big Brother house. In a way, it’s the sort of programme that could only have come from the Channel 4 family.

Not being a big fan of mindless bloody violence perpetrated by (or on) the undead, I’ll be giving Dead Set a miss. The closest I’ve come to watching this sort of thing is Shaun of the Dead – and that’s as far as I wish to go (yep, I’m a wuss. A big girl’s blouse. I don’t care; nightmares are no fun).

But there’s one reason I do find Dead Set of interest: it’s on our screens just two weeks after Peter Kay’s Britain’s Got the… (you know the rest). In the space of a fortnight, two channels who’ve made a considerable fortune from ‘reality’ TV formats will have put on shows mocking those very programmes (or in the case of Dead Set, brutally murdering them). You can’t help but wonder if this is a sign that the often-predicted reality TV backlash has started for real. Somehow, I think not.

Bad Quality: A Worthy Price for a Good Message?

Back in April, I met two of the guys responsible for one of the biggest surprises Hollywood has had in recent years.

Jim McBride and Stephen Kendrick are members of Sherwood Baptist in Albany, a small town in Georgia. This is the church that’s rattled the movie industry by racking up huge box office and DVD figures for their films Flywheel and Facing the Giants – films made entirely using volunteers with no experience of either acting or filmmaking. Last week, Sherwood Baptist hit the headlines again; their latest film, Fireproof, took over $6m in its opening weekend and debuted at Number 4 in the US Box Office Top 10.

When I met them in April, Jim (Sherwood’s ‘Executive Pastor’ – whatever that means – and executive producer of their films) and Steve (who co-writes the films with his brother Alex, who also directs them) explained to me that their aim with their films was “to love on people and give them a good message”, and that their instruction to their amateur cast whilst filming is “Don’t aim for an Oscar or try to be professional; just be yourself.”

The general sentiment I’m getting from friends in the US who’ve seen Fireproof is that it’s okay but not great – but that anyway, that shouldn’t matter because “the message is good.” They’ll complain about the film’s acting and writing being bad, but then say it’s still worth seeing because of what it has to say about marriage.

This is the bit that bothers me. As a kid, it was kind of implied that the more horrible food tasted, the better it was for me, and in the Christian circle, a similar logic seems to apply to works of art: “It’s not great, but it’s got a good message.” Well, similar but different. The food wasn’t bad; I just didn’t like it – although as an adult, I actually quite like green vegetables now. But a lot of so-called “Christian” art is simply just bad – and we’re meant to overlook that because of what it has to say. I’ve wasted enough of my life listening to awful music, reading crappy books and getting chronic bum-ache sitting through terrible plays, films or whatever, then being told to suck it up because “the message is good” (every Gospel singer who’s ever said “Don’t listen to my voice; listen to the words” – I’m talking about you!). Is it too much to ask to have both good quality and a good message?

I’m not saying any of this to have a go at Sherwood. Jim and Steve proved to be really nice blokes when I met them (they even prayed for me – not everyone I interview does that!) and the indie kid within me jumps up and down with unbridled joy whenever some maverick becomes successful without Babylon’s permission (yes, I know Sherwood’s films are distributed by Sony. But Sony came to them, rather than the other way round). When I spoke to Jim and Steve, they complained about the poor quality of other Christian films, and one comment that’s been made by many critics about theirs is that the quality has improved with each new one they’ve made. So maybe there’s hope. Just don’t mention Sunday School Musical to me…