Shades of Separation

Mpumalanga district,

South Africa

August 20, 2016

“How should I put it?” said the owner of a guesthouse in Graskop. I had asked her about the minibus combi to Nelspruit. She started out saying how they weren’t ‘official’, followed by a long winded explanation of how they lacked ‘papers’. She took pains to explain that she would not recommend it and certainly not take it herself.  A member of her staff standing nearby nodded sagely. And then she dropped her voice a few notches and whispered “It is for black people”.

You could have knocked me down with a feather but for the fact that I had been hearing the same tone and sentiment in every town in this area from well-meaning white owners of lodges. I had not rented a car as was the norm but was riding around in minibuses.

In Nelspruit, the owners cautioned me against walking anywhere and recommended taxis that they had on call. “They will slash at you with a knife” she said. And continued “Easy access you see, and then they run”. They helpfully added other choice dire prophesies for my benefit. There is probably more than a little truth to it, given that every house is surrounded by high walls, barbed wire atop the walls and as if that were not enough, electrified fence on top. Prominently displayed on the fences are placards of security companies that warn of twenty-four hour monitoring and armed responses.

In Hazyview at yet another guesthouse I was subjected to a long-winded dissertation on the impossibility of travelling without a car. Small towns like Hazyview, Sabie and Graskop lack taxi service and I had asked the owner about means of getting to the bus station.  At the end of some twenty minutes of oft-repeated sentences he suggested I ask other travelers for a ride. Yet, with the bus station a mere four kilometers away, it did not once occur to him to provide a ride on one of their vehicles that routinely go to town for supplies.

In Sabie I asked a couple of men who stood talking outside the supermarket about transport to Graskop. I got the response “You really need a car to travel here”. “Oh no,” they continued, “we never get on the minibus taxis”. With that pronouncement they turned and walked away toward their cars in the parking lot.

And yet, it is those much maligned people who were kind to a lone traveler. Asking around at one bus station, a local man led me to the owner of a dilapidated pick-up truck. A conversation commenced where several of the people nearby joined in.  An occasional helpful hint was sprinkled in among a host of not-so-helpful suggestions. Despite not knowing the whereabouts of the lodge, the old man agreed to give me a ride for a few rands.  The young man who had led me to the truck promptly got in as well and we drove off sardine-like in the cab of the truck. It was the kind of truck where you have to beat on the door to get it to open. Once open, you have to cling to it like a limpet to hold it shut for the duration of the ride.

I have not travelled extensively in South Africa but in the areas that I have, I received help each time I needed it from the passerby on the street and more often in minibuses. On more than one occasion when I got myself hopelessly lost in town, it was the driver or the conductor who helped, once even driving a bit out of the way to drop me off at the correct bus stop.

Was I simply lucky? Or had I not taken enough rides? Perhaps as a grungy traveler hauling an even more grungy backpack, I was not a promising enough target? Then again, perhaps this is a continually perpetuating attitude because those others never bother to take these forms of transport.

I have no answers but this stark separation extends to every sphere of life here. In buses, in the choice of neighbourhoods, in the cafes and restaurants, in supermarkets and in the workplace; it appears to be inextricably entwined into the very fabric of this country. Two different worlds that continue along separate lines rarely if ever spilling onto each other. It seems unutterably sad that apartheid may be over in principle, but remains very much a way of life.

Bland River Canyon

Graskop,

South Africa,

August 18, 2016

The tarmac road winds through the highveld with vast stretches of woodland on either side. But these are not old growth forests, nor are they natural woods. Stretching across the rounded tops of the shallow hills and across valleys, these are pine plantations, entirely manmade solely for the purpose of the timber industry. In each field the trees stand like silent sentinels, at the same height equal distances apart. Occasionally I see a red dirt road that leads off through the trees signposted with the name of the farm. Immense logging trucks carrying huge loads crawl along the road holding up traffic.

Roadside signs point out the attractions and long lines of cars and the occasional tour bus pulls up next to the strings of stalls selling souvenirs. People wander over to lookout points, peer over the edges and pose for the mandatory photographs.

The sights bear exotic names like “God’s Window” and “Wonder View” and “Potholes” firing my imagination. But the actuality feels more than a little anticlimactic. The Potholes are a series of shallow pools where small waterfalls cascade from one pool to another. Teeming with screaming groups of school children out on a field trip and hordes of families complete with baby carriages, it is the quintessential day trip for windscreen visitors. Negotiating this part of South Africa via public transport had been an adventure in itself and I found myself wondering if it really had been worth the effort. A couple of tourists who had a car had kindly given me a ride to these sights, not reachable by public transport. We came to the long narrow gorge called the Blyde River Canyon. And gazed out at the gorge from the paved walking path above. Bluish-gray mountains recede into the hazy distance like cardboard cutouts and far below the waters of the river sparkle. Pretty enough I suppose, but underwhelmed at the sight I mentally rename it Bland River Canyon.

What Are the Odds?

Mlilwane National Park,

Swaziland

August 14, 2016

There is space aplenty in Mlilwane and the lack of big game means walking in it is a rare pleasure not easily found in other national parks. Today I had decided to go for a walk along a trail ambitiously called the Hippo Trail. If the park has a hippo, it has stayed in hiding but the walk was pleasant as I rambled along the red dirt trail past a few grazing kudu and the odd warthog napping in the shade.

I had just crossed the bridge next to the Hippo Pool when I saw three men walking down the trail heading in the opposite direction, chatting together. We said hello as we passed and walked on. I had gone barely a couple of meters when a question followed me.

“Excuse me?” said the tallest of the trio I had passed a moment ago.

“Yes?” I turned.

He called out “Were you in Iran?”

“Yes” I replied squinting at them.

He continued his questions as we began to walk toward each other.

“You were in Shiraz?”

“You live in New York?”

“Yes, I replied, “Yes“

By this time we had come close enough for me to see their faces clearly.

“We met in Shiraz” he said grinning broadly now.

And then it hit me.

“Ohhh”, I exclaimed “You’re that crazy Dutch guy!”

One of the others had taken off his hat and I recognized him as well. He was the Italian with that special knack of saying the most ordinary of things in a way that had us convulsing in laughter. Three years ago when I was travelling through Iran, we had met in Shiraz. Olav, Vincento, a few other memorable characters and I had spent more than one evening on the takht in the fountain-sprinkled courtyard of the guesthouse. We traded stories and jokes and writhed in helpless fits of laughter. Oh how this took me back! A far cry from Africa in country, culture, the people I met, both locals as well the other travelers. How heartsick it makes me for such places and peoples.

We hugged and laughing uproariously, marveled at meeting like this out of the blue. What are the odds that we should do so with no planning, no contact, in a completely different part of the world?

Coming across people I’ve met before on the same trip is something that happens often enough and not really surprising since we are wandering more or less around the same countries, across the same borders, in the same places. But this? This blows me away!

But even as I write that, I think of the many times this has happened to me. More than half a dozen times I have come across someone I had met years before in some part of the world. A chance encounter on the street, in a café, on the stairs of some guesthouse begins with a quizzical look as they begin asking questions. They remember that I was travelling by myself and sometimes describe a memorable incident. Sometimes they describe my tent in meticulous detail. My memory usually does a commendable imitation of a sieve and such times are no exception. But once prompted, I remember them too. Clearly.

Walking down the stairs in a hostel in Beijing, China I met again a man whom I had met on the Inca Trail in Peru seven years before.

On the rocking boat to the Gili Islands in Indonesia, a fellow passenger was a young woman,  whom I had met on the Annapurna circuit in Nepal four years before.

Over dinner in a guesthouse in Leh, India I ran across someone whom I’d met on the Tiger Leaping Gorge in China three years before.

Walking into a guesthouse in Gondar in Ethiopia I ran across a man I had met in Leh in India thirteen years before.

And so it goes. And now this, the latest in a long list of such meetings. What are the odds? As miniscule as the statistical probability must be, it happens again and again. Incredible, amazing and so utterly delightful that I have a silly grin pasted on my face. I strongly suspect the grin is here to stay for a while.

A Park by Any Other Name

Mlilwane National Park,

Swaziland

August 12, 2016

‘Where you camp surrounded by roaming game’ is how the brochure for Mlilwane National Park reads. It is scenic enough and idyllic in the sense that it is a quiet retreat with a pace that is even slower than the usual slow paced life in Swaziland. An excellent place to chill and while away a few days, but the so called game consists of about half a dozen zebras, a dozen or so wildebeests and perhaps a couple dozen antelopes. They graze in the company of some three dozen cows but while the cows plod on paying no heed to the two-legged intruders, the other animals are far more skittish of humans.

This is a park that started life as a farm and still rubs shoulders with existing farms. There are patches of fields within the park boundaries as well. Tractors bearing hay rumble their way down rutted lanes past the grazing animals and just on the opposite of the fence are vast fields of crops. Their virulent green must be an intolerable lure to the animals, limited as they are to the dried-out stubbles within the fence. There are a couple of crocodiles that sunbathe at certain points along a trail, posing motionless for the benefit of tourists. Of the hippos there is no sight.

The place runs amok with families out for the day or the weekend. There are bicycles and horses for rent and there is a faint carnival-like feeling with the air spiced with the smell of popcorn. The restaurant at the main camp hums with customers and the open-air braai pits send up smoke signals. Huge logs are burned in the fire pits regardless of whether or not anyone needs to braai.

There are several areas set with the traditional Swazi beehive shaped huts but these are custom built purely for tourists. They have an interior awash with modern comforts of beds, bedside lamps and overhead fans. There is even an attached bath with cemented floors, tiled walls, modern fixtures and plumbing. The only hut I have come across that is used as a shelter is the guardhouse. The sentry at the gate uses this. Smaller than the usual ones, he has enough space for a log fire inside for the chilly nights, some boxes and tools, and a squawking two-way radio on the table that crackles from time to time. There is no bed; he is on guard he says when I ask.

“It is not for sleeping”, he laughs as he poses for a photograph.

The Bones Tell Me All I Need

Nkomanzi Village,

Swaziland

August 9, 2016

“There are some others in the village but they are not proper ones” said the old man. “They have not studied but have just set up a business” he said. “People go to them for doing bad things. I don’t do that; if I use my power for bad things, the power goes away” he told us with a smile.

I was torturing an old man who is a Sangoma or traditional healer of this village with my atrocious Siswati as I asked him questions.  He had been reticent at first to let me take photographs or even to peer inside the hut but something must have made him change his mind. There is only so much of my brand of siswati aka ear-bashing he could take! Thembekile and I were invited in and taking off our shoes we stepped inside the cool dim interior.

There are two mud and wattle huts with thatched roofs in his plot of land. One is where he practices his medicine and the other where he lives. Next to them is a fenced-in corral for his goats. The hut we entered was about four square meters, the walls and floor of packed mud. A couple of nails driven into the walls had rope strung between them and on this hung a number of folded cloths –  the printed ones that are wrapped around the waist or about the shoulders. On yet more nails hung a pair of matted hairpieces decorated with cowrie shells. Some odd shaped woven baskets hung next to them. In one corner were sticks, some with knobby ends, some with beads, some with carved ends. A couple of long necklaces and one of those anklets with rattles were draped next to them. A short table stood in front of us holding stubs of candles and burnt matches. At least half the floor was taken up with bottles, jars and cans of all sizes and – they contained the herbs, potions and medicines that he doles out.

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An entire side of the hut was crammed with bags of all sizes and shapes – plastic, canvas and cloth covered bundles of I knew not what. On the floor next to me were a couple of earthen bowls converted into drums with goatskins stretched tight over them. These he used sometimes to summon spirits he said. The memory of a shaman I had met in Mongolia sprang to mind. And that of a Tibetan healer as well. The shapes of the drums may be different but the way they are used are the same as is the purpose. I had that tell-tale feeling of amazement when encountering similar practices in places that were half a world away.

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With Thembekile acting as interpreter I continued my questioning. He had a half smile on his face as he patiently answered my host of questions.

“How many patients do you normally have?”

“With what kind of problems do patients come to you?”

“What medicines do you give them?”

“Where do you get the medicines from?”

“Can you inflict harm as well?”

That was when he told me about the other fake sangomas, the ones that do harm. He uses only herbs that collects from the forest to make his medicines. How did he become a sangoma, I asked. Where had he learned how to be one?

He had had dreams as a teenager and this is usually a sign he said. But he had ignored them, had married, had a family and even worked in South Africa in the mines. But in his late thirties, the dreams had come again with greater frequency and finally at age forty he had given up that other life and become a sangoma. He had gone to learn, he wouldn’t divulge where, and studied. Then he had come to this village and has been practicing for the past twenty years. But it is hard he said; people go to hospitals and rarely come here nowadays. Or they go to those others who claim they can cause harm to one’s enemies.

How did he diagnose his patients, I asked. I wondered whether he read the pulse like I have seen in other parts of the world. Or did he divine the problem and diagnosis laying his palm on the head?

“I’ll show you” he said.

He spread out a rush mat on the floor and took a pouch from one corner. Crouching on the floor, on his knees, he rested his hands in front, facing the mat. Blowing on the bag once, he shook the it and then threw them onto the mat. Out of the bag dribbled chicken bones, a few knuckle bones from probably a pig, some large and small cowrie shells, a pair of dice, some mahjong tiles, some bits of torn plastic and a pair of plastic bottle caps.

“The bones tell me all I need” he said. The way each piece lay told him the problem and then he could treat the patient. Looking at the spread out pieces, I asked him if he saw anything.

“Oh yes” he said with a twinkle in his eye. But he wouldn’t tell me what he saw.

“When you come back again” he said. “I will tell you”.

But he had unbent enough to let me take a single photograph.

A Village in the Hills

Nkomanzi Village,

Swaziland

August 8, 2016

The sun had set and the sky was a bluish-gray with clouds rolling in. At the tail end of twilight, we got on a combi headed to Mbabane. By the time we got there it was completely dark and under the streetlights in the chaotic bus station the touts were at their usual chore – yelling out destinations, trying to outshout each other, hustling passengers onto their minibus. I might not have ventured onto to a bus after dark on my own but I was with Jabu and it was to her village that we were headed. While Jabu dashed to a shop I stood there with a large backpack strapped on and numerous bundles at my feet. I had brought with me a large sack of mealie meal – the maize flour that is used for pap, a bag of sugar, salt, some bread and some cooking oil. It was a token gift for the family. Jabu herself had a couple of bags as well. But there was no tell-tale feeling in my gut warning of danger. People dashed back and forth and some spared me a faintly curious look but none spoke to me let alone pestered me. The nape hairs lay supine, not bothering to send any signals let alone stand to attention.

Jabu lives in the village of Nkomanzi a few kilometers from Piggs Peak, in the far north of Swaziland. While in Ezulwini valley, I had been talking to people at the market, at the guesthouse, at travel agencies and had almost given up on visiting a village when I met her. At first unbelieving, still unsure, she eventually acquiesced. This was the first time they had ever had a foreigner in their village. As on all combi rides, in typical Swazi fashion, the bus was soon humming with half a dozen conversations with jokes exchanged and bursts of laughter. A particularly loud burst greeted one of the of the women’s comment that Jabu should take me to the cattle byre. I had not understood the implications but it was explained to me later.

An old custom in Swaziland, it is still in vogue in remote areas. Sometimes the women in the household burst into the room of a female visitor in the middle of the night and take her to the cattle byre, sometimes forcibly. She is then married off to a man from the family, the decision taken by the family. Many are the women who escape by running away, even jumping out of windows they said. Something nagged in my memory – where had I heard of bride snatching? Not too long ago I remember hearing about something like this. And then it came to me. In Kyrgyzstan sometimes a woman is kidnapped and taken off on horseback to be married. These days though it is more with her assent than otherwise and usually to avoid paying a steep bride price.

The combi followed the winding road through the mountains and about an hour and half later Jabu asked the driver to stop apparently in the middle of nowhere. We unloaded our multitude of bundles and bags and soon a pair of women materialized out of the dark on the opposite side of the road. They were two of Jabu’s daughters, come to meet us and help carry the bags. I was profoundly thankful that they were there to help carry it all. I have no idea how they manage to make their way in the complete dark on the rough dirt trail that led to their house. It was three kilometers or more and I would have gone sprawling at least a few dozen times had I not had my headlamp on. In spite of the headlamp I stumbled along trying not to fall flat on my face while the others picked their way unerringly. They must have the eyesight of a cat!

Her family was waiting in the house. It is not so much one house but three separate ones each boasting a couple of rooms. They are made of mud but have been cemented over, painted and boast corrugated iron roofs. Electricity is a recent addition; it has been only three weeks since they could afford to have a pole and wires installed in one of the houses. There is no plumbing, nor any running water. A neighbor has access to water that is piped in from far away and lets Jabu’s family fill a big blue plastic drum each day. This is used for cooking and cleaning and much to the delight of the kids rarely wasted on baths. Their faces show a healthy horror at the very mention of baths; an occasional one is bad enough they say but a daily one? Only for the demented they grandly inform me.

The kitchen is a wood and wattle shack with a mostly disintegrated thatch roof on the far side of the yard. Food is cooked on a wood fire, the firewood collected from the surroundings. A short walk from the yard is the toilet. It is a long drop, in a small square shack made of plastic tarp and tin. A big drum with a hole in the top acts as the seat. I prudently went for long walks and made use of the bush. When unavoidable, my acrobatics in trying to avoid touching any surface would have put many a contortionist to shame. These not-usually-talked-about-but-crucial skills are a direct result of past practice with those horrors that used to be Chinese public toilets.

I had not known quite what to expect – whether I was pitching my tent in the yard or spreading out my mattress and sleeping bag on a floor. The family vehemently vetoed the idea of my tent and proudly led me to a room. The walls were painted an eye-popping lurid pink and the room had obviously been swept and cleaned for my visit. It was furnished with a bed sporting a thick comfortable mattress, a small table with a candle stub and even a reed mat on the floor. It belongs to Jabu’s oldest son who is away in another part of Swaziland, working as a police officer. As we sat, I was offered a glass of what they called sour porridge and the entire family trooped in to satisfy their curiosity. Jabu’s youngest grandchild had never seen a foreigner before and stared at me with an apprehensive look bordering on abject fear. He cowered behind his father yet couldn’t resist occasional peeks at the strange spectacle. The older members were curious as well and hesitatingly asked some questions. But over the next couple of days with the shyness gone, they treated me to a barrage of questions. And baffled me with some ideas that they seem to have of life in the US or Europe.

“In America, when you turn eighteen”, said one of her sons, “your parents give you millions and billions of dollars. He stated in a matter of fact manner “to start your life, build a house, buy a car”.

“What?” I squeaked. “Where on earth did you hear that?”

“People say so” he nodded sagely, hinting that I simply was not sufficiently aware of social norms.

Equally firmly entrenched is the idea that every photograph a tourist takes is sold many times over and a source of unending wealth once the tourist goes back to their home countries.

“So,” said one of her daughters, “we ask for some of the money whenever someone wants to take our photo”.

This is a tale I have heard before but strangely enough, I heard it only in sub-Saharan Africa, never anywhere else in the world.

Jabu’s story is one that is echoed innumerable times not only in Swaziland but in many of the neighbouring countries. In a society where a man is allowed as many wives as he wants, it is a tale told all too often. Her husband and father to her six children no longer lives with them but with his new wife. Nor does he support them in any way. Two of her sons are married at barely twenty and they, their wives and their children live with Jabu. They farm their land but with the recent drought there is no work for them and nor do they wish to look for work elsewhere, however temporary. The only earning members of this family of seven adults and four children are Jabu herself who cleans hotels and her oldest son. The second youngest daughter, Thembekile is at the university studying to be a teacher. She, more than anyone else in the family seems to have a vision of her future beyond the traditional one. She alone appears to have desire to start earning a living and contributing to the household.

Thembekile and her sister were my self-appointed guides in the village and the surroundings. We spent one morning hiking up to the top of the nearby mountain with its sweeping views. The lack of rains may have turned the fields into a graveyard of crops, but the cacti are thriving with their spears of brilliantly coloured blossoms. Rolling hills and valleys lie in all directions with scattered houses and fields and cattle wander by grazing on the stubbles in the fields. The bare mountains tell their own tales of continuing deforestation on a massive scale. The gray ribbon of tarmac winds down the valley, over a modern bridge and heads up the pass toward Piggs Peak. There is a glint of silver – sunlight on the river. The biggest river in Swaziland, it now has a fraction of the volume it usually carries. In the far distance to the west are yet more mountains, their blue-purple silhouettes stacked like cardboard cut-outs. Down below us I can see the village, the road we came on and the dirt trail leading to Jabu’s house.

Nkomanzi is not so much a cluster of buildings but scattered homesteads, each set amid its fields. Among all the brown and beige dried-out fields are a couple of green fields. These families have access to water to irrigate their fields and grow cabbages. Some others grow a variety of marijuana in small plots in the dwindling forest. Called dagga or Swazi gold, quite a few people grow them and make huge profits despite the threat of a stiff penalty. It is profitable enough for the owners to hire villagers to work on these fields for more wages than they can earn elsewhere. In an area where there is little or no employment it is hardly surprising that these jobs are eagerly sought and grasped.

We spent the mornings going to the edge of the mountain to collect firewood. They were adept at carrying the stack on their heads but predictably I failed. As they walked daintily down the slope I clomped my way down holding bundles under my arms and dragging the larger branches, unwittingly providing a spectacle worthy of applause. The afternoons were spent chatting lazily on mats spread under the avocado tree in the yard. They took me to the nearby river – one that they all splash in in the summer. For the first time in over twenty years it is bone dry; only a few stagnant pools remain, choked with leaves. Only the cattle deign to come drink here.

In our walks through the village, I saw the neighbours peering at us, curious enough to stare but not enough to ask. “Sanibona” we called out, greeting each other but nobody seemed inclined to chat. This reticence and reserve is perhaps a Swazi trait, strangely at odds with the chatting and comments that fly back and forth in all the combis. Or perhaps it reflects a lack of curiosity. The flip side of this reticence is the singular lack of that phrase that has nagged me this summer. The whine of “give me money” that has followed me through Zambia and Malawi is blissfully absent here.

A Land of Bizarre Contrasts

Ezulwini Valley,

Swaziland

August 6, 2016

The center of town in Mbabane is chock-a-block with modern glass and chrome buildings, shopping malls and KFC featuring prominently. Yet a bare five minutes on the road I see sheep grazing on the hillsides next to small huts, their tin roofs held down with piles of bricks and stones. The roads are modern tarmacked ones but just beyond are dirt roads leading off to small huts in the valley. Along the length of Ezulwini valley are cranes lining the single highway and men in hardhats busy bringing up slick new buildings. And next to the highway a man walks by dressed traditionally with cloth wrapped around his waist, an animal skin headband and beads criss-crossing his bare torso. In a bar in the modern shopping complex among other patrons dressed in the usual western wear is another man dressed traditionally nursing a beer and poring over his  iphone. Not far away in Manzini an open air market is frantically busy, humming with people pawing through piles of clothes send by donation organizations like Goodwill and the like.

Looming over the valley is the Execution Rock, traditionally a place where wrong-doers were put to death by pushing them over the edge. It was used in the not-too-distant past and according to some may well be used again. Down the road barely a couple of kilometers away is a (supposedly) five-star resort complete with spas and Jacuzzis and masseuse. At the other end of the valley is a brand new shopping mall lined with stores, mannequins and clothing that have virtually no difference from others in any part of the developed world.

The contrast is even more marked judging by the articles printed in the in newspapers. The Times of Swaziland reports on the four-day Sibaya, or the People’s Parliament with stories that could well have been published in Ripley’s Believe it or Not. Making headlines, a priest of a village is accused of cutting out photos of the King, piercing the photos with needles and putting them in a pot while muttering spells. Severe punishment is a certainty even death penalty according to some commenters. Another story taking center-page is of an upstanding member of the community reporting that the drought experienced by the country is a direct result of the disrespect shown by Swazis toward their King. Two half pages are devoted to the story of a sacred rock from the Mdzimba mountains, propitiated with ancestor worship that is moved, to be placed prominently on the main road in front of the Royal Palace. Other articles are devoted to the status of trade relations with the neighbouring countries and efforts to boost them. Of the failed one-room houses that was the scheme of one of the ministers. Of how thugs harass and rob the tenants of yet another development complex.

 

The Royal Palace is a building which bears an uncanny resemblance to a Soviet weapons silo and is likely the only royal palace in the world to boast a cattle byre on its grounds. It is here that the four-day Sibaya is held. People stream to it dressed in both western as well as traditional clothes. There are no seats, tables or podiums. Nor are there any facilities. People sit on the dry stubbly ground, their legs decorously outstretched in front of them. Some lean on the woodpile next to the byre. Those speaking do so sitting on the ground as well, holding forth over a microphone. This is no small gathering; there are reportedly a couple of thousand or more attendees. There are locals, people from distant villages, members of the parliament and diplomats from a scattering of foreign consulates.