Gathering of the Clans

Her Excellency, Mrs Judith Macgregor CMG LVO, High Commissioner to the Republic of South Africa, and Mr Frank Pettit, Honorary Consul to Swaziland, held a reception last night for all Britons living in Swaziland at the Malkerns Country Club.

I was keen to go and broaden my social horizons. Social life in Manzini is not sparkling and I thought I might meet some interesting people. It is pleasant to chat with folks who will probably understand the subtleties of humour, cynicism, banter and references to “Blighty” (for example, Microsoft Word has underlined “Blighty” with a wavy red line, showing it has no idea what it means).

The reception was scheduled to start at 6pm. In Swaziland, this could mean as late as 7:30pm, but we Brits are sticklers for punctuality. I set off from Manzini at 5:30pm for a trip which should have taken 30 minutes. But it was raining, with poor visibility, and on the dual carriageway the out of town the rush hour traffic ground to a halt. There were three separate multi-vehicle pile ups, all in the fast lane. The speed limit on this stretch of road is 100 kph, but drivers rarely compensate for poor road conditions by slowing down. It is a holiday weekend (King Mswati III is 47 years old tomorrow and Monday is a Bank Holiday), so people were probably hurrying to get home.

I arrived at the Country Club an hour late. The speeches were over, the aluminium foil-lined trays of cucumber sandwiches (crusts still adherent), cocktail sausages, outsize vol-au-vents, cheese and cucumber strips and home-made paté with Ritz biscuits, had been plundered. But there was a tureen of delicious, hot, viscous vegetable soup, which I ladled out into a mug and sipped from a spoon.

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After work, I had changed into a fresh, white, short-sleeved shirt worn with a post-modern animal print tie, so I was feeling chilly. After warming up in front of the blazing log fire, set in a huge stone fireplace, I looked around and recognised no one among the seventy Brits.

Small talk isn’t my forté, and, apart from blogging, I don’t gossip. But I set out to get to know some people. Most of the group were semi-retired farmers living in and around the village of Malkerns. The village is named after Malcolm Kerns Stuart, who ran a trading store here in the early 1900s. The country club is the spiritual home of the British community and until recently, all the members had to “club in” and contribute to the running of the establishment.

I was impressed with these friendly people who arrived in Southern Africa almost half a century ago to live and have made Swaziland their home. Most were jacks-of-all-trades – farmers, mechanics, accountants – who bought a bit of land and built their houses in the hinterland. They are here for the duration. They talked to me about their lives, their families, local notables whom I should meet and invited me to the club amateur dramatic night next month, or to pop in one Sunday when I was feeling in need of good company.

I suppose they could be called “immigrants” rather than “expats”. Most had no intention of going back to UK (unless it was something special, such as to see their grandchildren singing in a choir in Canterbury Cathedral). I warmed to them while they got steadily plastered drinking Windhoek draft beer. Unfortunately, I missed the 70 year old resident GP, who left just before I arrived, who works half days in a private clinic close to MSF’s Matsapha Comprehensive Health Care Clinic. He sounded like a friendly, old fashioned GP who would really put himself out for his loyal patients.

I didn’t speak much to the younger Brits, some of whom had young children. They had ordered pizza on the verandah. I didn’t like to intrude on family groups.

Looking resplendent in viridian green, Her Excellency, the High Commissioner, worked the room, canvassing opinions. I was too busy collecting stories of the “olden days” to go and speak to her, but she was accessible and seemed interested. Following the closure of the British Consulate in Swaziland (Foreign Office efficiency savings), there had been delays in renewing passports, which had to be sent to Pretoria. This had now been sorted out, with the turnaround time falling from three months to three weeks. It seems odd that the Honorary Consul had no register of resident British citizens in Swaziland.

By 8:15pm, there were only a score of Brits left in the club. The couple I was talking to left, so I decided to call for a driver to pick me up. The cell phone reception wasn’t good, so I walked over to the fireplace and held my phone up to get a better signal. I sent a text and got a reply from the driver, accompanied by a religious text from the phone company, MTN.

I wandered over to join a garrulous group sitting around a table in the corner. I introduced myself and they all laughed. Apparently, they had noticed my strange behaviour holding up a cell phone (trying to get a signal) which they interpreted as my photographing the stragglers at the reception. One lady was trying to hum the James Bond theme tune (I think).

“With your white shirt and tie, we thought you were with the High Commission, security or something, taking pictures, casing the joint,” said one of the group. “Are you with MI5?”

“Not MI5, but MSF,” I quipped.

They all laughed uproariously, but I didn’t think it was that funny. There was a call for another round of beers, and soon the driver had arrived to take me home.

They seem like a good crowd. I’m definitely going to the amateur dramatics (“Gas, Giggle & Grub”) next month. Probably not nitrous oxide.

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