Saturday, August 30, 2008

What a Wonderful Trip!

I wrapped up my reporting today with the Phambili Soweto AIDS vaccine volunteers at a Sports Day jamboree in a dusty field just down the road from Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital -- a great end to a great trip!

I showed up at the Phambili clinic at Baragwanath at the appointed time of 10 a.m., and found the counselors and other Phambili staff busy in the kitchen with huge vats of baked beans, the chopped tomato salad known as "chakalaka" and mounds of fluffy "Pap"..a sort of cornmeal porridge. Lucky I was there as we needed all hands to transport the food down to the athletic field. The organizers had hoped that more than 300 of the Phambili volunteers would show up, but in the end it was the hard core "Soccer Boys" (some pictured above as Team Phambili) who turned out, ready to have fun.

It was a fantastic day. The guys, most of whom clearly didn't have much, had somehow rustled up full soccer uniforms complete with golden boots and they ended up playing a ferocious game against some of the male staff at the Perinatal HIV Research Unit. Women were underepresented (especially since more than half of the Phambili volunteers were women) but those that showed were also kitted out and eventually took to the field, amid great gusty blasts of wind and dust that seemed to deter no-one. Dr. Mkhize, the medical officer for the trials, was stationed at the braai (barbecue) and the DJ pumped out booming tracks of Kwaito (local hip hop) music. In the distance, the signature cooling towers of the Soweto power plant loomed through the haze.

I can't believe the trip is over. It has been amazing -- I've been met at every turn with hospitality, cooperation and patience. I have no history as a science reporter, and often I felt very at sea with the technical details of what these volunteers and the scientists and researchers behind them are trying to achieve. But as I watched the game today -- young South Africans who stepped up to try to contribute to ending the AIDS pandemic -- I was both moved and humbled.

I head back to Washington tomorrow. I'll write more over the next couple of weeks as I begin to synthesize the experience and get down to the work of writing it up. But today was not a day for "issues" or journalistic head-scratching. It was just a great day in an unexpected place with people I admired. I'm full of thanks to them, and to the many, many people who have helped me along the way in South Africa, Kenya and Tanzania. And, of course, most thanks go to the Nieman Foundation and especially the foundation's global health supremo Stefanie Friedhoff for taking a chance on me with this wonderful opportunity.