"For what it’s worth: it’s never too late or, in my case, too early to be whomever you want to be. There’s no time limit, start whenever you want. You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people who have a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of, and if you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again."
Benjamin in a letter to his daughter,
from “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” screenplay,
inspired by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s eponymous 1921 short story
Pan is the boisterous, Arcadian-born, goat-footed Greek god of the wild, of mountains, of shepherds and flocks. He is a capable musician, having invented the eponymous panpipes. He leads nymphs in dance. He instigates panic.
We left Mbabane, Hhohho, Swaziland on Friday afternoon for Johannesburg, Gauteng ("Place of Gold"), South Africa. Sparsely populated with rolling plains and pines -- were it not for left-hand traffic and grassland fires, you could have been driving through Alberta. We arrived in five hours despite moderate border volume, a roadside "cash transfer", and directions to the wrong hotel.
The right hotel was in Sandton, "Africa's richest square mile" in which taxis take on the form of white Mercedes. Bordering on the East is Alexandra, one of the poorest urban areas in the entire country. Subtle. This about captures the essence of my weekend.
Sprawling, shiny, indistinct architecture fed by a circulatory system of freeways -- were it not for completely deserted streets (Why 'ask for it'?) and nice neighbourhoods towering with walls topped with barbed wire, you could have been driving through Dallas. But Jo'burg didn't start out this way.
The surrounding region was inhabited by San tribes, adding Bantu-speaking people by the 13th century, and Dutch-speaking settlers by the 19th. Then there was gold. And with it an exploding hodgepodge of ethnicities and means. Picture European mining magnates, skilled white labour, unskilled black labour, imported Chinese labour, unemployed Afrikaners, South Asian shop owners, African female beer brewers, every shade of gangster and prostitute... all but those few wealthy Europeans lived together in shantytowns. And then there were diamonds. Subsequent warring Britons and Boers introduced 'concentration camps' to the world decades before WWII. After WWII, South Africa institutionalised apartheid.
Within five years, the apartheid state passed dozens of laws to ensure the segregation of reality. The Population Registration Act classified that hodgepodge into White, Native, Coloured, and Asian (and later on Indian, Malay, etc.). The Group Areas Act mandated segregated living areas, leading to forced removals in those longstanding, integrated shantytowns. The Reservation of Separate Amenities Act even segregated 'public' spaces (ie; the only blacks on a white beach would be the family's maids). The Bantu Education Act arbitrarily yet systematically withheld opportunities from certain children. The Immorality Act outlawed interracial relations, and police spied on couples in the act of intercourse.
As Nelson Mandela remains in critical condition in a nearby hospital in Pretoria, I spent the weekend indulging my way through Neighbourgoods Market in Braamfontein (Brooklyn, basically), Melville (still Brooklyn), Arts on Main in Maboneng (Hipsters, you are mainstream), and clubs reminiscent of M2 and G+ in Shanghai. I had plenty fun (I mean you're hard pressed to find uncanned fish or non-instant coffee in Swaziland, never mind seared tuna steak, perfect cappuccinos, mango mojitos, and Zara), but... all that is gold does not glitter.
I am manoeuvring in the space between. I memorised my mobile number, but I have a singular, borrowed bowl. I can employ visual or tactile differentiation between emalangeni coinage, but I rely on pitied benevolence as currency for transport. I held a productive working session with the Accounts Officer of the National Malaria Control Programme (NMCP), but I stammered through a presentation before all the programme implementers. I tend not to fare well during periods in limbo (self-doubt, self-doubt), yet... I feel okay. Is that okay?
On Saturday, we ventured past the world's oldest mine, Ngwenya, to Swaziland's mountainous NW border with South Africa, Malolotja, for a morning hike that rapidly descended into five hours of pushing past parched brush, through thorny tangles, rappelling sans rope, engineering river crossings, crawling up loose earth, and not seeing any elephants. Our water ran dry, both my knees bled, I lost my iPhone, I found my iPhone, apparently we dropped 1.5 Empire State Buildings before climbing back up. It was awesome. I am still sore.
In the evening, we went to a friend's new house in Ezulwini (an exquisite Spanish villa of sorts) to warm it with our presence and to bid farewell to two of the Baylor doctors and a TechnoServe volunteer. I started with four glasses of sangria, ended with four servings of homemade Italian cheesecake, and all the while attempted French. You know what it means when I think I can speak French...
The next morning, I attended a double-birthday potluck brunch (this time, think luxury cabin in Canmore). It appears every expat in Swaziland is the Barefoot Contessa. The made-from-scratch spread: sesame bagels, maple bread pudding, apple crumble, oatmeal strawberry squares, salted chocolate chip cookies, buttermilk pancakes, zucchini muffins, eggplant parmesan, shakshouka, mushroom frittata, Bloody Mary's, pineapple citrus champagne punch, and Mardi Gras king cake. Swaziland Sixteen is my new Freshman Fifteen; meanwhile, two-thirds of Swazis live on less than $2/day. I struggle to make sense of this.
I also struggled during afternoon frisbee with the kids. We threw in this additional session, because it would be one of the Baylor doctor's last. Waterford Kamhlaba UWC's pitch looks rather different by daylight. As usual, my couple decent catches were followed by flubbed passes. The older boys are good coaches though, and I am confident I will leave Swaziland with one decent throw to my name.
Yesterday, I tagged along with an NMCP officer for data collection. The programme is conducting a survey of the country's private health facilities, investigating the extent to which they comply with national diagnosis (ie; clinical presentation must be confirmed by RDT and microscopy), treatment (ie; artemether lumefantrine, not chloroquine), and reporting (ie; immediate SMS to facilitate case detection around the patient's homestead) guidelines. Public health facilities are generally compliant, but achieving WHO elimination certification (ie; no locally acquired cases for 3 consecutive years) requires comprehensive coverage.
We drove to two mission clinics past Mankayane near the W border with South Africa and then to one closer to Manzini. The first with a portable laboratory sponsored by ICAP and USAID was hosting a TB screening with MSF, the second was lined with primarily HIV/AIDS patients and surrounded by livestock. All three are located in the non-endemic highveld region. As such, the first two have diagnostic capabilities only and refer the rare confirmed case to the nearest government clinic. A febrile, nauseous, jaundiced patient who traversed mountains to receive this diagnosis may not traverse farther for (hopefully non-counterfeit) Coartem. So, rare? Yes. But should such a case go unreported, rendering follow-up impossible, onward transmission may occur, rendering elimination intangible. That is not okay.