Baaba Maal: the Man on the Telly

baabamaal_television_211pxTelevision, Baaba Maal’s new album, has had tons of plays since I put it on my iPod a few weeks ago. I got to chat with the Senegalese singer recently (with my Sounds of Africa producer’s hat on), when he was in London performing at the Meltdown music festival. Here’s how the interview went:

Your last album came out eight years ago. Why has it taken you this long to record a follow-up?

Baaba: I had a lot of things to do back in Africa. One of them is to put on a festival called ‘the Blues of the River’. It really took a lot of my time putting it on. It’s a festival which belongs to the community I come from, and I wanted people to discover them and their culture; to show what they have to offer the world. There are a lot of musicians there; they’d like to do things but haven’t had the opportunities I’ve had.

The festival was also a platform to support my work with the UNDP; to talk about the Millennium Development Goals. It’s a music festival, but at the same time we use the days to let people who do lectures visit exhibitions, and we get together to discuss education and other issues. It was a very important festival.

At the same time, I was doing other things. I worked on a few productions that were released in Africa. Also, I was taking my time with this album. I knew that after Missing U, which was made in a very acoustic and simple way, I had to come out with something different. I didn’t want to rush it.

So tell us about Television, then; what about the telly intrigues you so much that you’ve made it the focus of your new album?

It’s all connected with new forms of communication. When you go back to Africa, you see people using television a lot. It’s not just something you sit down to watch in your front room. It’s very fascinating in Africa – especially for young people.

Since we have this fascination, I discussed it with the people I worked with in writing the album. I wanted to explore the kind of effect television has. What role can it play in the mind of a young kid from Africa? And how can this instrument be used to educate people, since we no longer have that place in the middle of the village where people go to get information. And how do governments – or individuals – who own TV channels use them to educate and influence people?

Sometimes I feel very happy, because in Senegal – the country I know most – when I see people watching TV, waiting for a programme in their native language; they see their dancing, their clothes, their culture, and they see people discussing all the issues that are important to us. But at the same time, I can see the danger if governments, say, start using television to sway public opinion, or to get people to think a certain way.

Television is a new thing and a fascinating thing for Africa. We should use it to educate people and lift them to a higher level from where they are now. Four years ago, I went to South Africa to participate in the African version of Big Brother. I know people say it’s a silly programme, but for one month, we used it to come to visit the kids in the house, and to talk to them. We talked to them about the Millennium Goals; we talked about education… all sorts of things.

I was a surprise guest for the housemates. I basically said to them, ‘When you go back to your home countries, you’ll be famous. People will want to talk to you. Use those moments to talk to them about education. Tell them how important it is.’ For the two days that I was in the Big Brother House, I saw all the text messages the show received. People were talking about how great it was that we could use the programme to educate and touch a large number of people.

There’s a track on the album titled ‘A Song for Women’. What’s that about?

For the past 10 years or so, when I look at all the elections that have taken place on the African continent, I see much more influential women are becoming. They’ve come together; some have formed parties… they’re just taking that power and bringing it into politics, and into the economy.

African women know that the place of women isn’t just in the house or the kitchen. Yes, it’s still good that someone takes care of the family; families are important in Africa. But at the same time, women are able now to go outside; to raise their voices and say ‘This is what we want’ – whether in politics – and they are sometimes at the front of the line. And we’re seeing the impact of this in politics.

We look around us and we see that women are now very powerful. Sometimes I think we forget that. But I believe that if we give them all the support they need, maybe changes will take place in Africa. I think women are sometimes more concerned about future generations, because they are close to their kids and want the best for them.

My favourite track on the album is ‘Dakar Moon’. What’s that about?

‘Dakar Moon’ has a double meaning. On the one hand, it’s just a love song. When you sit down with someone you love, and you just take the time to look at all that’s around you – especially the moon, or the sky or the ocean or nature… sometimes people forget to focus on these things. We’re all so preoccupied with looking for money or our jobs, we forget about our environment – which is meaning number two. I’m singing about the beauty of the environment. People need to be more connected with the environment and take care of it.

You’ve been in the music business now for 30 years. When you started out, did you ever imagine your career would last this long?

No, I did not [laughs]. I never imagined that I’d maybe some day travel with my voice and my music with Mansour (Seck). We were just musicians everyone knew from our home town. If you grew up there in the north of Senegal, you are a Fulani and you’re on your boat, just doing your fishing, you just sing. It could be just you, or you and some friends; you’d sit down, maybe have a little instrument, and you’d just sing. This was how we became famous – and we didn’t plan anything! It was just our community who said ‘you can entertain us’ and that became our job.

I was doing pretty well in school; I thought maybe one day I’d be a teacher, a lawyer or something else, who would always be playing music for his friends and family. That was my plan, and that was Mansour’s plan. Then we started to travel, to discover and get excited – and learnt about the business of making music. We began to see the opportunity that travelling with this kind of music could offer. But neither of us expected this when we started out.

The last time I saw you on stage, it was up in Liverpool at an Africa Express show, where you were jamming alongside Franz Ferdinand, the Magic Numbers, Hard-Fi, and of course Damon Albarn. A lot’s been said – both positive and negative – about Africa Express. But in your opinion, what good has it done for African music?

That’s a good question! And this was one of the reasons why I didn’t rush the making of the new album. The idea for Africa Express came from the fact that sometimes when people talk about Africa and use music – such as in Live Aid/Live8, for example – you don’t see many Africans taking part. And concerts like that should be used as an opportunity to showcase African musicians. Who knows; maybe if African musicians became famous as a result of being seen on such shows, they’d sell more records, bring more money back home and be able to employ more people and in so doing, fight poverty in some small way.

With Africa Express, the good thing is that musicians who come from different environments come together and just talk music. The fact that the projects take the time to travel back to Africa, meet people there and form links – I think for the business itself, it can bring forth new combinations. Audiences do get tired of the same old thing. People are waiting to see some new, fresh combinations and collaborations; different musicians working together, bringing about fresh new things, create new songs – new bands, even – and give the industry some fresh new material for the public that buys music. That’s often been missing.

I believe Africa Express gave us ideas; things we could do together. Very old musicians and very young ones; people who do hip hop and R&B… they all got together. Tony Allen teamed up with the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, for example. Here at Meltdown, I’m doing something with Kano and Bashy. They come from a different environment to me. But thanks to Africa Express, we met; we appreciated each other’s work and made plans for things we could do together in the future, be that on stage or in the studio.

As African musicians, we don’t struggle to fit ourselves into what we know from the Western side. We’ve been listening to the West for centuries. Everything from the West came to us, but the West didn’t get everything we were doing. So it’s much easier for me to fit into what Franz Ferdinand do. It’s not difficult for an African musician. And I think that opens doors for African musicians; it opens a window for people to see us and see that we’re not just in so-called ‘World Music’. We are just musicians like any other musicians are. We can play any kind of music because we have those references – sometimes even in our own traditional music.

You work with the UN as an emissary for young people in West Africa. From your dealings with them, what would you say is big on the minds of young Africans today?

I think young people in Africa are more concerned about their leaders; about their parents – about the people who have power to make decisions; to take care of their issues, and their ability to do things.

People seem to forget that these young kids know exactly that they are a part of the world now. They’re not just African children; they are children of the world. Everything is global now.

I think that sometimes our leaders – parents too – don’t take time to sit down with the kids and talk to them, and to try to understand what they want to do with their lives, which is what happens in the West. You see a child going in a certain direction and you help them achieve what they want to achieve. There is a really big gap between the parents and the children, or between the leaders and the new generation. And I think something is there. The energy is there. They might be very poor sometimes, but at the same time, when they wake up in the morning, even with very small menial jobs, they try to achieve something. They run from east to west in the cities and villages; they try many, many things. So at least the energy is there. And I think it would be a waste if we don’t try to harness this energy, and to give them an opportunity to be at the front. Women and young people are the future of Africa.

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.

Delhi: first thoughts

Landed at Indira Gandhi Airport just after 11pm on Sunday night. By the time we’d negotiated Immigration and Baggage reclaim, it was midnight. But even on a Sunday night/early Monday morning, the area outside the airport was buzzing with activity.

We’re here (a team of 10 from my church in Peckham) to do a bit o work with Asha – a community health project which operates in some of the slums in the city. The driver from Asha was waiting to pick us up, and the drive to the Blue Triangle YWCA on Ashoka Road just about prepared us for the madness that is the India driving experience. Don’t think bumper-to-bumper as much as side mirror to side mirror, nose-on-tail (yes, I know the phrase is nose-to-tail. Well I’m talking closer than that!), and so much continuous beeping of horns, you’d think you were at a Carnival (the “use horn” message plastered on the back of large lorries obviously carries more weight than the “no honking” signs the Government have put up on the roadside).

There’s a nice vibe to the Y where we’re staying. From my room window I can see the Gurdwara situated a few blocks away, which we’re planning to visit at some point. I’m still working out what switch powers what appliance in my room (apart from the telly), and how best to squeeze in time writing and posting stuff on the internet around time I’m meant to spend painting walls and playing with kids. Tough call…

Acha, I have to run off now and have a proper look at Zakhira, the slum we’re working in. Be back when I can…

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 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…

THE TEAM
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