Crimea: Day 2

Breakfast at seven? Flippin’ ‘eck! I thought this was a… oh yes, I get it: we’re abroad, but it’s not a holiday. It’s work. Alrighty then, 7.00am breakfast it is…

Today, the action’s taking place in Saki – a town in the north of Crimea. We’d originally been scheduled to depart at 8.00am to make the first distribution (in a school) on time. But yesterday, we’d received a phone call asking if we could arrive half an hour early, as the school was being a bit inflexible with their timetable – which meant that we had to do breakfast half an hour earlier. And so we did… only to receive a phone call as we were driving up to Saki, informing us that the school had now decided to go with our original time slot. These people – don’t they realise that us writers need our beauty sleep if we’re going to do our jobs properly?

The morning started off just wet back down in Simferopol. The further north we drove, however, the colder it got – and when we arrived in Saki, it was freezing. We pulled up in front of the ‘school for Christ’ church where we were warmly welcomed by Alexander, the pastor (who’s coordinating the gift distributions in this area).

Once indoors, we gathered round a huge table. Alexander wasted no time giving us the lowdown on the area and the work the church was doing there. His youth pastor sat in a corner, strumming away at his guitar. We were served tea, coffee and chunky biscuits by an older blonde lady who, we were told, had been a drug addict for 20 years before she joined the church. She popped her head in from the kitchen and said “hello” and “I love you” to us, whilst the youth pastor laid down some Nile Rodgers grooves in the background. It’s real coffee – hot, strong and made without the use of a filter or cafetiere. I let all the grainy stuff settle before I drink it, occasionally wiping it away from the edge of the mug before taking a swig. It’s good coffee, though.

Alexander used the extra time to fill us in a bit more on the history of the area, and we got given a longer history of the place as we drove round. Saki is home to 30,000 people, including many Tatar people who had returned from forced exile (In 1944, 200,000 Crimean Tatars were forcibly exiled in 24 hours, after Stalin accused them of collaborating with the Nazis. 46% of them perished on their way to Central Asia). Saki is famous for its lake, which has an extremely high salt content. People from all over the former Soviet Union come here for its spas and mud treatments – as do people generally who have orthopaedic problems they need treatment for. “In the summer, it’s not uncommon to see more people in wheelchairs than walking normally,” our guide tells us. Nearly all the shops have wheelchair access, and there are over 100 health resorts in the area.

Our first distribution is in the imaginatively named Secondary School No. 4. This school is 300 years old and is the oldest school in the Crimea (which makes you wonder why it isn’t Secondary School No. 1 – but hey, I don’t make the names). I amble about the school’s reception area and am immediately accosted by a handful of girls who want to have their picture taken with me. We take pictures, the school bell rings, and we’re all carted off into a classroom where a handful of kids are given pressies.

I had a brief interview with one girl who loves skipping has found a skipping rope in her shoe box. She told me her name was Lyuda (pronounced “loo-dah”), which immediately reminded me of “Ludachristmas”. But I’m sure she won’t get the 30 Rock reference, so I don’t share the joke. I interview another girl who’s been learning English for a few years and wants to have a practise. That went well… Before we leave, we are warmly thanked by the school principal.

On our way to our next visit, we stopped for a brief wander around the market. An elderly lady in a purple coat sat behind one stall selling stuff; she stopped me and asked where I was from. Thankfully, Marina was close by to help me communicate with her.

“Where are you from?” she enquired.
“Oh – so you’re not Nigerian, then?”

She asked if I went to church, and told me proudly that she was a Protestant. Marina explained to her what we were doing in Saki, and she gave us a brief… well, she basically gave us a sermon.

“If you’re doing this for God, and you’re doing it with love, it will be great for this place,” she said. “Do it in God’s honour – not your own. It’s not enough just to give people things; you have to tell them about God’s son and what he did for all of us. You need to tell people that they need to have salvation through Jesus Christ. People need to see Jesus in your lives.”

Sermon over, we got into the van and headed to where the second distribution of the day was due to take place. On this leg of the journey, we had the honour of having the head of the village as our guide. He got into our van and gave us guided tour as we drove – very slowly – through the winding roads of the village. He told us about the slave markets there used to be in this part of the Crimea, and of the various people groups who lived here, including the Karaim and the Tatars.

We had to drive slowly; the Tatars who had built the old town had deliberately constructed the roads in such a way that any invading enemies couldn’t just go charging through them, especially if they were in big vehicles (a strategy which, in my opinion, is a lot more effective than speed bumps). En route to the second distribution (due to take place in the village’s cultural centre), we stopped for lunch and visited a couple of kids and their families: a little girl who has Down’s Syndrome, and another who’s being treated for leukaemia.

Only a couple of us did those visits, as we figured it would be too overwhelming for the girls if the whole team walked in on them. While the rest of us waited outside the girls’ homes, the village head talked excitedly about some new developments due to happen in the village. It’s been chosen as the site for a new Formula 1 track – complete with a little airport to accommodate all the rich people who will be flying in on private jets to watch the races that will be held there when it’s done. He told us to take some ‘before’ pictures of the place as it is now, especially of the road in the potholes.

We arrived at the cultural centre to find a flamboyant Technicolour massive waiting to greet us. School children were dressed in their respective ethnic group’s traditional costumes: Tatars, Gypsies, and several others. A large, round, sugary loaf of bread is presented to us – a Crimean custom for welcoming guests. The loaf is passed round and we all break off a piece and eat it, some choosing to dip it in the little bowl of salt that accompanies it. The loaf is the same sort of bread Sierra Leoneans commonly refer to as “sweet bread” (that is, until they move to England and get a nasty shock when they discover what “sweet bread” means over there. Ew!).

The very schoolmarmy-looking lady who welcomed us at the door MC’ed the reception that followed, at which we were treated to traditional dances from the various people groups present in the village (and Brazil, for some weird, unexplained reason – unless someone can prove to me that Samba has Ukrainian roots!). It’s a great atmosphere; I had a particularly fun time playing with one kid who took a shine to my specs (as babies often do). With so many people packed into a not-very-large venue, this distribution felt a bit shambolic – but still went well.

With two distributions and a couple of home visits done, there was still more work to do before wrapping up today’s packed schedule. On to another internat we went. Again, the sweet bread got passed round as we watched some more singing and dancing… and then off to our fourth and final distribution of the day, in another orphanage nearby. This one looked as if it had recently had some work done on it. We sat in the library/IT room and met with a group of kids there; another group of kids from another orphanage close by were bussed in to meet with us and receive gifts. Today’s “Aww” moment came when one little girl who had always dreamt of having her own Slinky spring opened up her shoebox and found one inside.

We ended an extremely full day with dinner back down at our home base in Simferopol. On the way home from dinner, we bumped into some blokes who thought I was Mike Tyson, for some unfathomable reason. Is it cos I is black, I ask myself?

Pictures taken by David Lund. Check out his official website here.


Crimea: Day 1

Oh crap, it’s cold…

When Operation Christmas Child (the charity that mobilises schoolkids across the UK to fill shoeboxes with gifts for kids in poorer countries) asked me to accompany a team of theirs on a trip abroad, I jumped at the chance. Well, why wouldn’t I? The last time they did, I’d ended up spending ten days in Swaziland, so what’s not to like? Well, maybe the fact that this time round, we weren’t going to Africa but somewhere distinctly less sunny: Ukraine.

Well, at least I got some sunshine on the way here, thanks to the 20-minute change of plane in Istanbul. But as soon as we touched down in Simferopol (in Crimea), it was back to brass monkeys again.

Anyway, that was yesterday. It’s now Monday – the first day of a short trip for which I’m on story-gathering duty. From our base in Simferopol, we headed south to Bahchisaray – the six of us who flew in from London the day before, plus Sergei, Irina (Ira for short) and Marina, our three translators.

It got less snowy (but not necessarily warmer) the further we drove out of Simferopol. The first thing that caught my attention as we neared Bahchisaray was the huge mountain range in front of us: a stunning row of what looked like enormous limestone cliffs, on which several centuries’ worth of erosion had done some awesome sculpting.

Our first stop was Sakalina, a village on the road that leads to Bahchisaray, and further on to Yalta (where Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin famously met in 1945 to discuss Germany’s fate post-World War 2). ”It’s the last village in this area,” says Igor, the church pastor who’s coordinating the gift distributions we’re observing today. “Many years ago, there were a lot of different nations living here.

“People are very poor here. On the way here, you see lots of empty fields, all bare. As far as prospects for young people go, in this village there’s probably tourism – that is, if young people are prepared to stay here and work at it. There’s a great canyon that you can see as you travel on your way here; there’s also a waterfall and other mountains. These are all places we could bring tourists to; young people could earn money that way. For the most part, young people here tend to stay here. Those who have rich parents who can pay for them to be educated in big cities leave and go to either Sevastopol or Simferopol to be educated.”

In Sakalina we visited an ‘internat’ (a sort of cross between a boarding school and an orphanage) which caters for both orphans and children from dysfunctional families. On arrival, we were greeted by Alexandria (the assistant director of the internat) and Sergei, the student president. Alexandria’s been working here 20 years (“We don’t work here,” she informs us. “We live here.”). The school celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. The kids are very hands-on in the running of the place.

Out in the playground, David (our photographer) and I are accosted by a handful of young lads aged between 11 and 15. they’re all keen on footy; some support local Crimean teams, a few of them like Dynamo Kiev – but as far as Premiership teams go, there’s a lone Arsenal fan and not much else (in fact, there’s a big thumbs down when Man U is mentioned!). They’re also big fans of hip hop music. Eminem gets quite a few name checks.

The assembly hall resembles a small cinema (folding cinema seats tend to crop up in all the places we visit). We’ve brought 19 big boxes with us – each of which contains 10 shoeboxes. In the assembly hall, Alexandra introduces us, Trevor talks about why we’re here, and then Igor addresses the kids, and they’re shown a puppet show telling the Christmas story. Then the gifts are handed out, to much jubilation. A couple of kids are up for chatting after getting their shoeboxes, so we chat.

Kirill (left) is twelve and loves Dynamo Kiev and Barcelona. He’ll be leaving school in four years time, and ultimately wants to study medicine. “I want to be the man who gives presents like these to other children.” he says.

I then made friends with 14-year-old Gena (pronounced “gee-yana”). He’d opened his shoebox and found a set of juggling balls inside – and, it turns out, was quite a skilled juggler! “My big brother taught me,” he said, then proceeded to help me brush up on my nonexistent juggling skills. “It’s all in the hands. Put two of them in one hand and just start throwing – like this.”

It’s kind of a cliché for people who travel a lot to say “Aw, people in poor countries; they don’t have much, but they’re so giving.” But it’s a cliché because it’s true… and I was about to get a reminder of that from Gena. After spending a few minutes trying unsuccessfully to get me to juggle properly, he handed me the balls and said they were his gift to me. He then disappeared for a few minutes and returned with a notebook. Since he’d already told me earlier that he liked writing poems, I reckoned that it was his poetry notebook and he wanted my autograph. Wrong – he was giving it to me as another gift! Part of me felt like I was robbing the kid!

After lunch, then set off for the second distribution of the day, in a village called Verhorechye (“the village on the end of the line”). This is one of many places in Eastern Europe that got left behind when Glasnost happened. In the days of the old regime, the village thrived. It was a huge tobacco growing area; it also produced lots of fruit and a thriving bee-keeping industry. All that went into steady decline from 1991 onwards. (“We were okay for about nine years after that, but now there’s nothing here.”) These days, the village’s only employer is a military storage centre. The mum in the last house we visit works there as a book keeper – but, she tells us, the word is that centre is set to close soon.

The apartment buildings we visit resemble a run-down council estate. An extremely manky run-down council estate (that’s “the projects” for any Americans reading this). The apartments have back gardens, but even these look bleak. I see a watering can tree in one of the back gardens; two floors up, I can see an old bathtub abandoned in someone’s veranda. The place looks grim. Later on, I ask Igor why he chooses to stay and work in such a place with no prospects. His answer is simple: “God has called me to be here.”

We visited a couple of homes and met a few of the families whose kids will receive shoeboxes when they’re handed out in the nearby cultural centre later in the afternoon. Yaroslava (“Call me Slava; everyone does”) invited us into her home and introduced us to her three kids: Maxim (14), Natasha (10) and Andrez (12).

Slava and her family only moved into their two-bedroom flat a month ago. Her husband Nikolai made all their furniture (he works as a security guard, and was at work during our visit). In the kitchen, one burner on the gas cooker had been left on to help warm the flat up a bit. An accordion and a balalaika took pride of place in the front room – along with Kesha, a beautiful karella (a bird similar to a cockatoo) with a yellow head, a grey back, and a little orange blob on either side of her little face. Kesha sat quietly in her cage, not saying a word. I wasn’t sure whether that was because she doesn’t talk to strangers, or if there was some beef between her and Murchik, the family’s rather enormous grey cat.

The second distribution of the day takes place in the cultural centre, which was built in 1984 and is used for a variety of community events. Nikolai (the director of the centre) gives me a guided tour of the centre, which kind of symbolises the village’s decline. On the wall there are pictures of what it was like in the old days, and of the orchards, tobacco plantations and bee-keepers who once lived and worked here. When I visit the gents’, I find that they’re using old books as loo paper. I can’t read Russian, so I don’t know how important the books are. But all the same, something about that level of desperation just felt wrong.

The guys give out 240 shoeboxes this visit. After they’re done, I chat with a couple of young mums, including Marina (one of about 500 Marinas I encounter on this trip – including the Marina who’s been translating for me). She’s married to a fireman and brought her 18-month-old baby girl along (“She’s always hungry, my little girl. She’s the first child in our family.”)

“You know,” Marina says with a smile, “it’s very important for our village that you people came, because our children here don’t get to meet many people, and don’t get much from people round here. This is a big support for us. It’s a big help. It shows our kids that there’s something more than what they have here.”

Photographs here were taken by David Lund. Check out his art an’ ting here.

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…

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