I suppose it’s a compliment to be asked if you’re a member of the pop group Westlife but I certainly didn’t see that one coming when I checked in to my hotel in Mbabane, the capital of Swaziland. The lady’s reason for asking was because my name is Mark and there is/was someone in Westlife also called Mark. I can only assume from her question that Marks are very few and far between in this part of the world!
Anyway, after letting the lady down with the truth I checked into my room at the Mountain Inn and opened the curtains. I wouldn’t normally mention something as mundane as this but I have to say the view was the best I’ve had from a hotel room – and I’ve probably stayed in over 500 different hotels in my time. Mbabane is high up in the hills and the Mountain Inn looks down on the Ezulwini Valley – a lush hinterland, home to nature reserves, wildlife sanctuaries and wilderness areas, and the odd the supermarket or two! I arrived at the only airport in the country (possibly the tiniest I’ve ever seen), at the ‘lower’ end of the Ezulwini Valley and hired a car, driving up through the valley on a surprisingly very well tarmacked highway. At points I felt I could have been driving in the Surrey hills in England back home (they drive on the same side of the road too), and not 9000 km away in Southern Africa.
With a population of just over 100,000, Mbabane is even smaller than Maseru in Lesotho, from where I flew. I’ve always lumped Swaziland and Lesotho in the same boat because if you look at a map of Southern Africa you can see that both are similarly sized, small, circular(ish) countries surrounded by South Africa, although Swaziland does also share a 105 km long border with Mozambique. In fact, I would say they are also similar in terms of life for expats, with the same choice of South African chain shops and similar levels of development and security. Swaziland, however, has the Ezulwini Valley and within the valley are all sorts of draws for foreigners living there – not least the expansive greenery and opulence of the Royal Swazi Spa Hotel and Country Club with an 18 hole golf course and stupendous views.
So it was with some surprise that I learned of the health issues affecting much of the Swazi population. According to a 2013 report by the Central Intelligence Agency, Swaziland is ranked 220 out of 223 countries in the world in terms of life expectancy – averaging just 50 years. The overwhelming health issue is the prevalence of HIV and AIDS infections. Swaziland has the highest adult prevalence rate of HIV/AIDS of any country in the world at a staggering 26%! This is not an anomaly of the region: the neighbouring countries of Lesotho, Botswana and South Africa all follow in the list with rates above 15%. This map illustrates the dire situation facing Africa.
I moved on from Swaziland to another of these countries – Botswana. It’s a sparsely populated country made up of 70% desert but underneath the ground there is, quite literally, a wealth of mineral resources. It is these resources which have been the linchpin of the economy since independence in 1966, helping the country to its current enviable position within Africa. From 1966 to 1999 Botswana had the highest average economic growth rate of any country in the world, averaging around 9% a year. It is the third largest producer of diamonds in the world (behind the behemoths of Canada and Russia) and is the leading producer of diamonds by value. In 2013 the Orapa diamond mine (the largest in the world) produced over USD 1.6 billion of the precious gems. Not bad for a country with a population of only two million.
I’ve written before about the stain of corruption which pervades many facets of everyday life all over Africa but, according to Transparency International, Botswana is the least corrupt nation in the continent. It ranks 30th out of 175 and is ahead of the likes of Portugal, Spain, Italy and South Korea. It is this lack of corruption, combined with its mineral wealth, which has helped create a rare success story in Africa.
The capital, Gaborone, is a safe and functional city, serving as the political and commercial centre of the country. It’s a fairly quiet place and not particularly exciting but, in terms of living there, it’s safe and stress-free. In fact, the most exciting thing I noticed during my two days were the massive ant hills dotted along at the sides of the road!
To round off my blog posts from Southern Africa let me leave you with a couple more not necessarily related yet interesting facts:
- The River Thames in England is 346 km long and has 214 bridges crossing it. The Amazon River in South America is 6437 km long but doesn’t have a single bridge spanning it.
- Botswana and Zambia share the shortest land border in the world – a mere 150 metres!
I’m off to a very different place soon so please come back for my next report from the far east of Asia – Japan.