A different pace of life

Some better informed or more observant readers will know that I have links with the Isle of Man – the small and extremely beautiful lump of rock in the middle of the Irish Sea. In fact, that little red and white thing in your address bar just up there [points] is not just the symbol of 6000 miles… website, but also the symbol of the island: the three legs of Man.

While I am Sheffield born and bred, I spent a lot of my childhood on the Isle of Man, I have a lot of family there and even more family history. Thus, it’s always good to keep up with what’s happening on “my island”.
Before I continue, perhaps I should explain that while the IoM is now a technologically-progressive, global financial hub, there remains a far slower pace of life over there. If you’ve ever watched Father Ted – think of it as a slightly larger Craggy Island: same wild beauty, same fierce national pride, same bizarre local traditions and characters. After all, this is the place where in February 1990 (yes, nineteen-NINETY!), locals queued up to stare in wonder at the “moving stairs” at the new Strand Shopping Centre in Douglas: the first public escalator on the island. Thus, the IoM is often mocked as being a bit backward – caught in the past – by many in the UK. Well, vive le difference, I say (when I’m in that sort of mood).

Catching up on the the latest goings-on via the BBC website, I was distressed and distraught to learn that the Isle of Man seems to have lost out to Southern Lebanon in possessing the world’s heaviest potato.

The 3.5kg (7lb 13oz) potato was bought by Greens restaurant owner Nigel Kermode in Douglas after it became the official world record holder more than 10 years ago. But on Monday, it emerged that a farmer in southern Lebanon had grown a potato weighing in at 11.3kg (24.9lbs).

Lebanese farmer Khalil Semhat hopes the monster spud from his farm near Tyre, 85km (50 miles) south of Beirut, will take the crown. But according to the Guinness Book of Records, the current record is till held by the Manx potato.

And Mr Kermode said there was still a local interest in the original, more than a decade after it was found: “It’s not on display at the moment. We’ve had it out periodically because, to be honest, it doesn’t look very nice,” he said. “It’s gone all sort of grey and brown and it doesn’t look very appetising.”

Yes. That’s what passses for news on the Isle of Man. A big, 10-year-old, mouldy root vegetable.

I’m heading back there next year for a few weeks of relaxation and I can’t wait. Because life is different there: the rat-race doesn’t exist, the outside world doesn’t matter and no-one really cares how big your potato is.
I’ll leave the closing remarks to Nigel Kermode – because he sums it up so well:

We’re still a world champion – we’ll call it the second biggest potato in the world.

Perfect.

More great publicity for SA

There’s no such thing as bad publicity? Really?

From the front page of the BBC News website: some more negative stories about South Africa.


Negative perceptions

I’m not saying they’re not true stories. Just that I’m fed up of having to dig deeper for the good news, while the bad stuff is repeatedly thrust into my face.

Crossing borders: South Africa hit by Zimbabwe’s cholera crisis 
HIV drug high: South African teenagers smoking anti-retrovirals

Anthrax – the bug that keeps on giving

So, in addition to all the other problems that Zimbabwe faces, which are too many, too varied and far too well-documented to even think about listing here, and following hot on the heels of the recent cholera outbreaks, anthrax has now reared its ugly head.

Anthrax can kill when infected meat is touched, or eaten or when infected spores are inhaled. A quarantine zone has been declared in the affected areas of Matebeleland North, but because of the desperate hunger in the region some families are still eating infected meat. Traders have also been seen taking potentially infected carcasses out of the restricted zones to trade in Victoria Falls, which risks the disease spreading across Zimbabwe and even over the border into neighbouring Zambia. 

An emergency assessment by the Save the Children and the Ministry of Health found 32 cases of human anthrax in Binga district. Anthrax infections have also killed 160 livestock, as well as two elephants, 70 hippo and 50 buffalo. But with symptoms lying dormant for up to 21 days or more and no communications in the region, the death toll could already be higher.

In all likelihood, this outbreak is due to the breakdown in veterinary services and the routine vaccination of livestock – a similar effect was seen with diphtheria in the independent states formed when the Soviet Union fell apart in the early 1990’s. And while the lack of vaccination is probably the main reason behind this new threat to Zim and its people, it is ably assisted by a general lack of medical resources including antibiotics, a shortage of food and no decent communication network throughout the country.

This isn’t Zimbabwe’s first anthrax outbreak. In fact, the country holds the dubious record of the largest ever human anthrax outbreak, which occurred during the civil war in 1979/80, with close on 11,000 human cases and 182 deaths. The spores of Bacillus anthracis from that episode almost 30 years ago are the little buggers responsible for this new outbreak. What I didn’t know until recently was that there is evidence, albeit nothing concrete, that the 79/80 outbreak was probably caused by deliberate release (i.e. biowarfare) as part of the bitter conflict which was taking place at that time.
Much like landmines once the war is over, the spores don’t just disappear once the epidemic has passed. Vaccination of livestock has kept the disease at bay since independence, but the spores have just been hanging around, waiting for their moment in the spotlight.
Thanks to Mr Mugabe, it’s now turned into a talent contest for bugs. Pop Die-dol. Strictly Come Dying. Whatever. I’m not sure Zimbabwe can take any more. Microbiologically, it’s pretty interesting though.

UPDATE: Nice piece by Rowan Philp in the Sunday Times on what life is actually like in Zim right now.

Telegraph confusion

Following the recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai, The Telegraph newspaper (more specifically, hack Francisca Kellett) has helpfully put together a list of the twenty most dangerous places on earth to visit. And there, right behind Afghanistan, Iraq and Chechnya and just missing out on a medal is our dear own South Africa, although, as Kellett admits, seemingly almost with an air of disappointment:

 …most visits to the country are trouble-free.

which doesn’t sound ever so dangerous, now does it?
South Africa beats some tough competition to finish so high up the list though, including the DRC, Sudan and world homocide leader, Columbia. Iran is apparently fine, while Somalia doesn’t even warrant a mention, so I assume it’s safe to go there too. I wouldn’t advise arriving by boat though.

Indeed, it seems that something of a dichotomy exists within the ranks of The Telegraph, since it was less than 6 months ago that they were giving away 90 tickets to travel to South Africa. And it was less than 6 days ago that Cape Town, in… er… South Africa won the award for Readers’ Favourite World City from… er… The Telegraph. Doesn’t seem quite right, does it?

Look further into the Telegraph’s extensive Travel section and you will find Jeremy Vine‘s verdict of Cape Town:

I realised it was the perfect place to be in the middle of the British winter: you leave a damp, grey Britain, and 12 hours later you’re in a sunny Cape Town. Fantastic!

Or Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ “Heaven on earth“:

I have an abiding love for the area – known as Cape Province when I was a boy – and I go back as often as possible. All in all, the Western Cape is just a fabulous part of the world and will always have a special place in my heart.

All of which makes Kellett’s rating of 4th most dangerous place on the planet seem slightly lonely, slightly foolish, slightly… well… bewildering, really.

I could stop there, but – hey, they don’t – so neither will I.

  • Novelist John Fullerton loves Cape Town for its laid-back atmosphere, beautiful setting and rich mix of cultures.
  • Douglas Rogers returns to South Africa’s Karoo to find it transformed into a hip new tourist destination.
  • Katie Derham: South Africa. You’ve got to go there. The beaches, the food, the vineyards, the animals.
  • When you’ve done the Big Five, hunt for mementos in Cape Town’s great craft shops, says Lisa Grainger.
  • Ant’s Nest, a private game reserve three hours north of Johannesburg, is the perfect place to stay with a child, writes Clover Stroud.

I’m not denying that SA has a crime problem – that would be simply foolish. However, I don’t think that it rates as being more dangerous for a tourist than, for example, Iran or Somalia. 

Francisca Kellett knows better, of course. Her winter break this year will be in safe and sunny Mogadishu.

SA’s HIV policies revisited

Since Thabo Mbeki’s resignation and the big cabinet clearout in honour of my birthday in September (who can even guess what the ANC may get me next year?), we have been blessed with a new Minister of Heath, Barbara Hogan. Babs (as she may or may not be known to her friends) has paradoxically inherited one of the easiest and most difficult jobs on the planet.  
Easiest because there’s absolutely no way she could do a worse job that her predecessor. Like managing England after Steve McClaren; becoming PM after Gordon Brown; presenting You’ve Been Framed after Lisa Riley.
Manto Tshabalala-Msimang was just rotten – perhaps almost as bad as Riley. Indeed, it has since been suggested that her (Manto, not Riley) and Mbeki’s outrageous denial of the link between HIV and AIDS and their subsequent (lack of) policies were responsible for the deaths of 330,000 people between 2000 and 2005. Barbara is going to have to be pretty ropey to even come close to matching that unfortunate legacy.

But on a (far) more serious note, South Africa is facing a massive crisis regarding HIV, exacerbated by those delays in implementing ARV drug rollout and adequate prevention policies since 1999. Hogan must now turn that around. Tomorrow – World AIDS Day – is her first big day and her plans have already been given the boost of £15million from the UK, something that was unthinkable under Mbeki and Manto:

On Monday, World Aids Day, she is to announce a return to the National Aids plan, dropped under Mr Mbeki’s rule, at a stadium event designed to mobilise the nation in the fight against the epidemic. The high-profile media campaign to raise awareness is planned, including persuading famous people to have themselves tested for HIV.

UK International Development minister Ivan Lewis said it was vital that Ms Hogan succeed in overturning myths about HIV/Aids. He said: “For too long, South Africa has been fighting Aids with its hands tied behind its back. Those ties have now been removed and the country has a fantastic opportunity to finally turn the tide in its struggle against this epidemic. Barbara Hogan has set a bold and exciting vision on HIV and Aids and that is why the UK is fully committed to working with her as she embarks on this new approach.”

Further good news in the fight against HIV is the Violari et al paper [PDF] mentioned in that BBC article, suggesting that early HIV diagnosis and implementation of antiretroviral therapy in neonates reduced early infant mortality by 76% and HIV progression by 75%. Startling.
One of the first tests of Hogan’s intentions and ability will be how quickly and effectively she is able to implement these sort of findings in her policies in order to start saving lives and redressing the appalling recent record of the SA Government on HIV.

Everyone is this country is affected in some way – directly or indirectly – by the scourge of HIV and AIDS. I think that because of that, together with the hope of a new dawn of availability of ARV drugs, HIV prevention, better education and care under Hogan, tomorrow will be probably the most marked and most optimistic recognition of World AIDS Day here in South Africa for many years.