Monday, December 11, 2006

Joy to the world – A holiday wish list

I keep this blog for a few reasons. I enjoy putting my thoughts into words, for one. I also like to keep family and friends up-to-date, and phone calls across the ocean can cut deeply into the small salary of a Swaziland-based pediatrician. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I want to generate interest in this type of work. I want people to better understand HIV in Africa, and I want them to sincerely believe, as I do, that there is much we can do to alter the epidemic's destructive course.

I have been thinking a lot about this blog of late. You see, the internet here is Swaziland is abysmal, and postings can take hours, if the connection is available at all. Moreover, I sometimes do not know what to write about, or, better said, what people want to read about.

Also, I am a terrible typist. At times, I have wondered if the time hunting and pecking on my laptop keyboard is time well-spent.


When in Africa during the holiday season, I have noticed that time seems to drag a little. Maybe it is because the days are longer, maybe because there is less “holiday activity”.

Some time soon, my father will hang up enough lights to put Clark Griswold to shame, and I will not be there to operate the staple gun. My mother will hang the tree ornaments that I made in kindergarten, back when HIV was killing Africans but not Westerners and therefore did yet not have a name. I will not be there to help Mom untangle the hooks, to reminisce.

Over the next three weeks, I will not be there to film an amateur holiday video with my cousins. I will not participate in the "white elephant" gift exchange or the informal touch football game. I will not sing holiday songs as my brother strums the guitar, sitar, ukulele, mandolin, steel guitar, banjo or whatever other stringed instrument he has recently mastered. I will not be able to sit with my sister and brother-in-law and ask them how medical school is going. I will not make cookies, venison sausage, pecan pies, pumpkin pies, eggnog or cider. I will not participate in the holiday poker tournament, talent show or pizza contest. I will not dress up as Santa Claus and ask the under-fives what they want from the North Pole.

I will not get to hug anybody that occupies my family tree and say “Merry Christmas”. Not one.

You see, over the next three weeks, I will for the first time in my life experience the holiday season without seeing any of my lifelong family.

This is an inescapable part of my job, to be far away from home.

I have accepted that.


For most readers of this blog, faraway-ness and HIV are going to be forever coupled, for thousands of miles separate you from this imperiled population.

This brings me back to my third and final reason for maintaining this website in the first place: I want to tell candid, interesting stories about what I am seeing, to share my joys and frustrations. I want to offer reading that helps the tragedy of this disease to seem closer, more real, so that you will better understand why I am afraid for the future southern Africa, why I am giving up the living-room fireside of my childhood home on Christmas morning.

There is no place more sacred, more meaningful, to me than that place early on December 25th. I can assure you of that.

I want this blog to help readers realize how much you can do from afar, even from your very living-rooms. I want you to believe that distance does not disqualify anybody from being part of what I see as the most pressing challenge of our new century—to mitigate and turn back this most un-merry epidemic.

I keep this blog because I believe that, if we are to deck the halls (and we should deck 'em), we need to also work hard to ensure that “faraway” people do not die by the millions from a treatable disease. If we are to celebrate (and we should celebrate), let us also celebrate our collective refusal to allow a preventable, treatable virus to conquer a subcontinent.

After all, what does the nativity scene mean in a world where thousands of newborns are contracting a disease when we know very well that maternal to child transmission can be prevented?

As someone who still believes in the promise of a benevolent Santa Claus, let me ask this: Who is this modern-day, pudgy Nordic fella who delivers thousands of virtual reality video games to wealthy kids while thousands of Africans die? Can his elves not be taught to make AZT instead of X-boxes?

I am not saying that nice presents are not nice to give and nice to receive. They are nice.

And, I am not saying that Nintendo is bad, that such games do not help children develop hand-eye coordination. They certainly do.

It’s the heart-mind coordination that I worry about. What gift, I wonder, nurtures that essential axis?

I don’t know the answer to this question, but I expect that is hard to find at your local electronics store.

So, though I am distant from most of you, please allow me the following holiday wish list. It contains but three wishes:

(1) The holiday season is considered a time for charity. Most nonprofit organizations receive >50% of their donations during this time. If the oft-cited spirit of the season catches you, please visit the website for “Young Heroes” ( It is a no-nonsense local NGO that puts resources directly into the hands of Swazi families supporting one or more of Swaziland’s 70,000 orphans. Your entire donation will be utilized on the household level, and will be closely monitored. Please do give if you are so inclined. Click on the website or the logo below for more information.

(2) Please send me comments or emails to guide me as I write about my experiences here. If you have ideas as to how to make this blog more poignant, I would really like to hear them. Have a look at what I have been writing so far, and please be blunt and up-front. I am new to blogging and highly adaptable.

(3) May the year 2007 bring you and yours joy and health, that you may resolve to share it with others, to spread it near and far.

From Swaziland, with love and hope, Ryan


At 7:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read and appreciate your blogs, Ryan; thanks for taking the time to write and post. Used you and your work (and a picture or two from the blog) in a sermon recently as I was preaching this fall on loving our neighbors and questions of social justice. As for your questions about how to connect heart and mind and the meaning of the nativity, I've got a few thoughts on that...:)

Look forward to reading more, and you and your work continue to be in my prayers. Peace, Paul

At 7:46 AM, Blogger Ryan said...

I know you do friend. I consider you an authority, as a matter of fact. -Ryan

At 4:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Christmas will not be the same without you this year. We are so proud of you and the work that you are doing and so we accept your absence around the tree this year, albeit relunctantly. We will be sending a donation to Young Heroes on your recommendation. We love you!! Janie, Joe, Julie and Jeremy

At 8:40 PM, Blogger Joe said...

Hi Ryan,

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! My name is Joe, and I happened to see your blog when I was searching for something related to Swaziland.

Nice to read your ponderings! I lived in Swaziland from 1980 to 1983. I was a teacher in the U.S. Peace Corps, and I lived down at Mahamba. I spent time in Mbabane and Manzini of course. What a different place it was back then! The population was about half of what it is now, there was no Internet (not one that regular people even in the West knew of), and we didn't know what HIV was.

So even though it was the same place, it was really different.

I hope the people are the same though. They were the kindest people I ever knew. I hope you get a chance to get out in the countryside, and to enjoy the hospitality of people out there.

Back when I lived there, I used to hitch hike around. I don't know if it's as common as it was then. But what characters I met doing that! Government ministers, expatriots, clergy, farmers, businessmen, etc. It was great.

It was a struggle for a young Westerner to try to live like the Swazis lived, and to attempt to get them rolling in formal education. I don't know if I did any lasting good for them, but I hope something helped. A little learning, a little understanding, who knows, maybe it was all worth it.

I often thought of going back to visit, but I haven't. I think the place could never live up to my memories of it: using shards of blackboard for instruction, fetching water, making fire on which to cook, seeing God in the nighttime sky awash with stars, seeing God's face in the beautiful faces around me.

You are surely changing lives there. Discouragement is easy to find, but you should be satisfied and proud with the great effort you are supporting. It must seem overwhelming, huh? I'm sure it can exhaust you sometimes, and maybe you feel lonely even though you're surrounded by people.

As for what I'd find interesting in your blog, I'd say narratives of daily living that strike you as different than how we live. How does relating to Swazis differ from dealing with Westerners? What strangely-worded stories did you read in the newspaper? Is Swaziburger still there? Tell about your visit to a rural homestead teeming with kids and wives and farm animals. What do you learn about the views of Swazis concerning their place in the world, what they think of America, HIV, Hollywood movies, music, etc.?

Good luck to you doctor! Thanks for your good work, and try by all means to get out of town often!

At 8:41 PM, Blogger Joe said...

Oh, I forgot one more thing.

Though I am currently a Utahn, I'm originally from New Jersey. I caught that crack about the Garden State!



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