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6 September 2019

Gwyneth Williams’s Diary: Quitting the BBC, butterflies in Madagascar and fighting Aids in Zimbabwe

By Gwyneth Williams

It turned out to be a fine week to leave the BBC. I called my old friend, Helen Jackson, who was stuck on the Botswana border en route to Mauritius, discombobulated. Her husband Ian, whom I have known for years from South Africa where I grew up, was about to vanish into Madagascar in pursuit of butterflies. As we talked I realised that I was free. I have been controller for eight years and it’s hard to think of myself as separate from Radio 4. Only a week or so earlier the newsroom boss, Richard Clarke, called me at home. Usually that means trouble. But this time he just wanted to bid goodbye. I found myself saying to Helen, “I’ll come and see you.”

A pioneer country

I arrive to bright, early winter heat: jagged mountains frame the horizon, purple bougainvilleas shimmer beyond the deep gutters of the road. Helen drives and we talk. I have been reading a science book on the flight – I am a judge for the Royal Society Science Book Prize this year. It mentioned, en passant, the impact of calculus on HIV treatment. I tell Helen; she represented the United Nations Population Fund in southern Africa on HIV for years before moving to UNAids as a regional adviser for 21 countries in southern and eastern Africa.

She has had a lifelong association with the disease since a lucky escape in Zimbabwe in the 1980s, when she was given blood just before screening began. Zimbabwe then was a pioneer – the third country in the world to start HIV screening, ahead of the UK. We reminisce. “By the 1990s, if you hadn’t seen someone for a year,” she said, “you would not assume they were still alive…”

No end to a life’s work

I strip off after the night flight and we walk through the shade of the filao trees to the beach at Flic en Flac for a late-afternoon dip in the Indian Ocean, taking care not to cut our feet on broken coral. The sunset is deep, striping the sky with pinks and oranges, calming me as I follow the familiar rhythm of the fast-falling tropical night. Later, over Stellenbosch Chardonnay, I ask Helen how it feels to see your life’s work, begun during an epidemic in Zimbabwe, escalate into a global health crisis, and reach the point where now it is considered to be under control.

She is not so sanguine, explaining that the cost of antiretroviral drugs and lifelong support for those who need it is huge. “How will countries afford this as donors pull out? We are talking about more than 25 million people in sub-Saharan Africa. And the epidemic is not over, but prevention still lags behind treatment. For example, male circumcision [a key strategy for HIV prevention] took a decade to be approved.” It’s a global world but where you happen to be marks out which issues you have to live with.

Croissants in Mauritius

We drive past salt pans on the way to Le Morne Brabant in search of Helen’s favourite snorkelling beach. She sees 51 types of fish. While the coral near the beach has died, a little further out, there it is, reviving as conservation becomes better understood.

We stop at La Gaulette and eat mines frites – noodles with chicken and prawns. This is the best on the island, in Helen’s view, and for the first time we are silenced as we eat. On the way back there’s a downpour, hard drops scudding across the windshield. Then a full rainbow lights up the sky. In this laid-back place it makes a good symbol for a mix of cultures – Muslim, Hindu, Christian predominantly. Mauritius has been colonised by the Dutch, pirates and before the British, the French. I’m grateful, as fresh baguettes and croissants are a daily treat.

A flight of 9,000 miles

Ian returns from following in his father’s footsteps – Ivan Bampton was a well-known butterfly collector. He works with Colin Congdon and Steve Collins (who founded and runs Africa’s leading butterfly research institute, and is known for his photographic memory). Over the years they have found many new species, one of which is named after Helen. It is a deep, gorgeous blue, the Iolaus (Epamera) helenae. I have a gift for him from Brian Hackland, a friend who followed me from South Africa to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship in the 1970s. He has painted, gloriously, a collection of English butterflies from his garden. Ian points out the Painted Lady, which he saw the previous week in Madagascar. This most cosmopolitan of butterflies migrates, in stages over generations, from northern Europe to southern Africa, covering an astonishing distance of 9,000 miles. When they were first spotted on radar they were mistaken for migrating birds.

Rum and politics

We sip Mauritian rum, slice up delicate smoked marlin and talk politics. The last president of Mauritius was a biochemist who left under a cloud of corruption. We have some slight hope for Ramaphosa and his somewhat reduced cabinet, and we laud the impressive chief justice of South Africa, Mogoeng Mogoeng, for deploying the law positively. This chimes with the theme of my current Reith Lecture series, with Jonathan Sumption, the former UK Supreme Court judge, who highlights the decline of politics and the rise of the law. Zimbabwe rather silences us. So Ian tells us about Madagascar and the butterfly survey. The roads, he says, are like farm tracks and the country desperately poor. It has around 350 species of butterfly and he thinks they may have found four or five new ones. His collecting method is relaxed: “I like to let the butterflies come to me,” he says, raising his glass.

I wander over to the small lemon tree. A large, shapely black and yellow butterfly flutters around me. “The Citrus Swallowtail,” Ian says. “She is choosing a tree to lay her eggs.” She follows her path, intent on survival. We are incidental observers, awed by her strength and beauty. 

Gwyneth Williams was controller of BBC Radio 4. She is a trustee of the South African Aids charity Topsy

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This article appears in the 19 Jun 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Bad news