Friday, 23 February 2007

Another world

It is Monday morning, early. I have been driving for 3 hours and have entered a different world from that I inhabited when I awoke. I am following the motorway from Durban northwards up the coast. Buildings, shopping malls, casinos and rush hour traffic have given way to rolling green hills peppered with small settlements and round, thatched huts. To my right, when gaps in the hills allow I catch intermittent, tantalising glimpses of the Indian ocean sparkling on the horizon. Soon the hills give way to vast Eucalyptus tree plantations which line the road for mile after mile. The motorway drops from 3, to 2, to 1 lane and finally a sign admits that it has now become merely a road. I turn off the air-con and open the window – the air is dry and hot, at least 30 degrees. It feels good.

The frequency of huts and informal settlements increases rapidly and I know I must be approaching my turnoff. Sitting somewhat incongruously among them is an upmarket hotel. A sign advertises the room price: R450 a night. A sign for the Hluhluwhe-iMfolozi game park indicates my route. People throng the road sides, school children on break, people waiting for taxis, people just hanging out. I drive slowly. A sign indicates a clinic – one of those linked to the hospital – several people are trudging up the dusty track that leads to it. I close the window and turn on the air-con, examining my now badly burned right arm.

The road enters the game park – a large cattle grid and red triangle sign with an elephant in it warning of the potentially novel hazards ahead. The people and huts have vanished – the rolling hills are covered with low trees and scrub. The park has big cats and only park employees live within it. I pass a water buffalo scratching its head on a “60kph”sign. Shortly after I slow for a vervet monkey as it crosses the road, its child clinging to its back.

Leaving the park the road goes steeply up hill and then enters Hlabisa, the small village in which the hospital was built, initially as a clinic by Lutheran missionaries in the 1930s. It has grown recently – there is a Spar, and a builders merchants and perhaps most startlingly, a “Kentucky Fried Chicken”. There is not much else – the habitations are scattered all over the hills and there is little in the way of a residential “district”. The hospital dominates the town – it is the biggest employer – and I find it easily. A guard asks me to open the boot before he opens to gate, “to check for firearms.”

I have arrived.

Sunday, 18 February 2007


As I push my trolley through Johannesburg airport customs the duty official calls me over. He gives my bags a cursory poke.

“So what are you doing in South Africa?” he asks, looking over my shoulder at the crowds behind.

“I’m coming to work here.” He looks at me for the first time, interested.

“What are you doing?”

“I am a doctor. I’m going to work in a hospital in rural KwaZulu-Natal.” His attitude changes completely.

“Hey, we need you.” He breaks into a broad grin. “Thank you for coming. We need you. You take good care of those people. You look after those people up there.” He offers his hand, bags forgotten, and we perform the classic handshake widespread among, particularly, black South Africans: Western-style grip, shifting to a arm-wrestle style grasp, returning to standard grip. “Have a great time!”

A timely shot of encouragement. The hours of conversation with the pleasant white South African lady I sat next to on the plane had been a little demoralising. Returning from a reconnoitre of Canada for the purpose of locating both a job and a location in which to settle with her family she had little uplifting to say about her country. Crime, potential political instability, limited job opportunities for whites, corruption in government. “I don’t want my daughters to be trapped here and I need to move before they finish school.”

“Why before then finish? Why not after?”

“Well, if we leave too late they won’t want to come because they will have all their friends and want to go to Varsity in South Africa.”


It is now Thursday. I have been in the country two days. I am looking for a car, and hey there are expensive. Few people can afford new so the second hand market is extremely robust. £5000 gets you near nothing. £6000 gets you a 4 year old Corsa, which despite myself I cannot stop thinking of as a girl’s car. I have found a dealer owned by a car rental company that sells on their old stock. Musa, a young Zulu is showing me the only car on their forecourt in my price range: a 2 year old Toyota Tazz. He asks what I am doing in the country. I tell him and tt turns out that his family are from the region in which I will be working.

“But we moved down to Newcastle for the work when I was a little boy. But we go there to visit from time to time. Hey those people! They never change!”

“What do you mean?”

“Those people. They show too much respect.”

“To white people you mean?”

“Yes! They never change.”

“You mean, like apartheid never ended?”

“Yes! In the city, we are different but up there it is the same as always.”

He asks where I am working. I have been practicing my pronunciation. “Hlabisa” with the “Hla” in your cheeks like the Welsh. Many white South Africans pronounce it “Shlabisa”. He graciously congratulates me on my efforts.

“These other people,” he says, gesturing to the city of Pietermaritzburg as a whole, “they don’t even try!”


Another day, another dealership. I am paying a second visit to Pattie, a lovely white South African in the second-hand sales department. It is my second visit. She tells me with a grin that the receptionist, with whom I have spent some time talking whilst waiting, has been referring to me as “her English Gentleman.”

“She phoned me whilst I was out with a client, and said ‘Pattie, your English Gentleman is here.’ I felt like the Madame of some exclusive House of Ill Repute.” She laughs at the thought. This town is known locally as “God’s waiting room” being a prime location for well-heeled retirees. Such a House would have to demand medicals of the majority of its clients before allowing them beyond reception.

We are test driving a Toyota. I pull out of the dealer forecourt and onto the road. “Drive up the hill,” she directs me, “and mind the Africans.” I look. Three people are crossing the road up ahead of me. The car is good, although I precipitate an involuntary shriek from Pattie when I inadvertently drive through a red light so involved am I in our conversation. I take it.

Whilst it is being prepared I nip over the road to the barber. He is stocky fellow in the unofficial white South African uniform: white short-sleeved shirt, tan shorts and socks pulled up to the knee. As I enter is shaving the head of a boy who looks around 7 or 8. His mother is standing by him as he squirms under the clippers. She speaks English with a strong Afrikaans accent.
"You are so brave! You look so cool! You are going to look like one of those American Army soldiers. What do they call that haircut?” She addresses her friend, sat by the window immersed in a gossip magazine.

“A crewcut.”

“A crewcut! So cool.” The boy is whimpering and crying now. I think that a crewcut leaves considerably more hair than will remain after this boys’s encounter with these naked clippers.

“Ach, shame man,” says the friend absently, turning the page of the magazine.

The boy’s torture is soon over. He looks at himself in the mirror, shocked into silence by the stranger looking back at him. “10 rand,” says the barber.

It is my turn. I sit in the chair and ask for a grade 2 back and sides, “and short on top but not so short I look like Tintin.” He starts cutting. I look in the mirror and wonder whether grades are different in South Africa. It is looking like a pretty severe cut. The barber pauses after one side.

“I can’t charge you for this.”

“Why not?”

“Because I forgot to put the grade on the clippers.” He has been cutting with the same setting he used on the boy. I make polite noises and he has to extensively “debulk” the hair on the top of my head in order to prevent my face appearing even longer and thinner than it is. He doesn’t talk very much. I leave feeling rather bald and spikey.


It is Sunday night. I have been here 5 days. Tomorrow I leave at 6am to drive the 5 hours to the hospital in the car I have just purchased. Lucky, the gate guard at the complex in which I have been staying and with whom I have struck up a polite banter, has just phoned the house to wish me good luck. “You enjoy Hlabisa. Get to that hospital and look after those people. I will see you soon.” I thank him and hang up very in touch with my inner sap, feeling as I do, slightly misty eyed.

Wednesday, 7 February 2007

Ed is moving

I will be working for a year at Hlabisa Hospital in KwaZulu-Natal. Come back in a couple of weeks if you would care to - something will have happened.