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The African king and I

What makes someone give up a good job and comfy lifestyle for a tiny flat in Swaziland. Portstewart's Stephen Donaghy explains all to Jane Hardy

Published 24/04/2008

Stephen Donaghy moved from Portstewart to Swaziland
Stephen Donaghy moved from Portstewart to Swaziland

Many people's understanding of life in southern Africa comes from the slightly saccharine works of Alexander McCall Smith. But there is another Africa, a continent beset by HIV-Aids and less than democratic political systems, with countries which retain tribal loyalties and supportive family groupings while suffering shockingly high levels of child sexual abuse.

One such country is Swaziland, the place where Stephen Donaghy from Portstewart decided to go and do his bit by working for a civil rights organisation.

Stephen, who features in BBC Northern Ireland's Distant Horizons programme tonight (10.40pm), had reached the age of 41, was in a comfortable job as a management consultant with an equally comfortable lifestyle when he decided he needed, as he puts it, "to find out that life doesn't stop at the border". So he signed up for two years via Skill Share International.

First impressions of Swaziland were surprising and not exactly what Stephen had expected.

"I spent my first night huddled by an electric fire and with my fleece on, as I'd arrived in June, Swaziland's mid-winter," he says. " That was the first shock. My second impression was how Westernised it was in this part of the capital, with a large Spar shop nearby selling Kerrygold and Heineken beer. It wasn't mud huts."

His work is highly sensitive in a country ruled by King Mswati III, who has " a special place in the hearts of the people and a lot of power which he doesn't use properly".

We had to speak on a South African phone as Stephen's telephone calls are monitored, like his emails. "So we use heavy encryption."

He wanted change, and from day one in his job working for the Swaziland Coalition of Concerned Civic Organisations (SCCCO), he got it.

A month in, Stephen was involved with the sort of case he would not have encountered at home.

"We work on three levels, the highest of which is advocacy of basic human rights," he says.

"There was a criminal called Ntokozo Ngozo, who was accused of shooting at police officers. The police then rang his cell phone and said, 'We don't know where you are but when we find you, we'll kill you.'

"He was naturally scared and rang a journalist on The Times of Swaziland, thinking that if they ran the story, it would save him. But while the presses were rolling, the police shot him. He'd stripped to his waist and come out with his hands up when he heard them coming, but they questioned him, left him to bleed for four hours and he was dead on arrival in hospital."

SCCCO paid for an independent pathologist who established that, contrary to the official story which claimed the man was armed and had fired at the police, he had been shot at a distance of 35 centimetres. Also, the holes on his clothes didn't match the bullet holes, so evidence had been tampered with.

To top it all, there was never an official investigation. Stephen says: " Another aspect of our work is civic education with various groups. In 1973, the king took away all civil political rights, so there was no free speech, no right of assembly. You could be locked up without trial, just on the say-so of the executive."

He adds that people in Swaziland think they'll be in the same situation as Zimbabwe in a few years' time.

It's important work and Stephen has the perfect background, with a law degree from Newcastle on Tyne and a CV charting a career in management, primarily in the public sector. "I ended up advising local councils and small charities on their strategic and policy directions."

Asked what he misses from home, Stephen answers without hesitation "my girlfriend, but also Radio 4 and good quality media". He adds that, covering one of the regular stories of child abuse, the Times of Swaziland produced the unfortunate headline 'Teacher fingered in child abuse probe'.

Stephen describes living in Swaziland as being "an abnormal normality, the way we used to describe Northern Irish life".

This is partly to do with the prevalence of HIV/Aids — "but you hug people, share cups with them and accept it". It also, however, relates to the stark statistics which sum up this country and which Stephen has at his fingertips.

"Some 70% of the country lives on less than two dollars a day, and there's a massive disparity here with the top 20% owning 80% of the disposable income."

Plus, there are proportionately more orphans than in Darfur.

He lives on £80 per week and home is a flat in a block of about 60 in economic centre Manzini, with one disadvantage. "Because these flats are designed to let heat out, they let noise in."

Swaziland is fundamentalist Christian, and there's a lot of music to be heard on a Sunday morning.

"It starts at 6am, and if you're in a good mood, you call it atmospheric.

"If you're in a bad mood you think 'What an eff-ing racket'."

However, Stephen has no regrets and particularly enjoys socialising at barbecues — braii — with local beer and delicious, fatty, heart-stopping meat. He adds: "Life here is colourful, noisy, joyous and depressing. What it isn't, is bland."

Distant Horizons, BBC Northern Ireland, tonight, 10.40pm

Belfast Telegraph

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