Visit to the South Africa  April 2008

In April 2007 Hilary decided to make a return visit to South Africa with a choir drawn from across her three UK choirs. A group of 23 choir members were brought together to form a single performing choir with a good repertoire.

The purpose of the visit was very much a cultural exchange, rather than a fund raising or concert tour. The aims were:

•  To build lasting friendships between the choirs.

•  To experience the joy of singing together,

    sharing songs and performing.

•  To learn more about each others lives and


•  To learn more about the needs in the Cullinan


•   To help raise the profile of the Diamond Choir

     in and around their area,

•  To support them in their work of raising

    awareness of HIV/AIDS issues and supporting

    local projects.

•  To learn to sing and dance at the same time!!

We arrived at Johannesburg Airport on March 5th, to a rapturous and joyful welcome by the Diamond Choir! We were taken to our accommodation in the small mining town of Cullinan, to comfortable, pretty colonial-style ex miner’s cottages, surrounded by gardens that had been turned into an Inn. Most members of the Diamond Choir live in the near by township of Refilwe. They had wanted to put us up in their homes but it had proved impractical for the fortnight.

It was not so much a holiday, more an experience of a lifetime. We had an agreed itinerary of shared visits, rehearsals and concerts, but we could not have imagined the impact of being welcomed into the black community as quickly and warmly as we were.

It was not so much a holiday, more an experience of a lifetime. We had an agreed itinerary of shared visits, rehearsals and concerts, but we could not have imagined the impact of being welcomed into the black community as quickly and warmly as we were.

As the fortnight went on, we got used to very active audience participation, they particularly reacted to changes in dynamics and songs with a strong message. We had learned a moving version of ‘Something inside so strong’ by Labi Sifre, arranged by Dee Jarlett, and it really brought the house down every time we sang it.  Concerts tended to end with joint songs with the Diamond Choir, and then the whole audience would come to the front and join in, finishing with what became our favourite farewell song,  “Think of me, forget me not, remember me where ever you go”, complete with hugs and genuine affection between strangers. At the end of one concert, when at least 200 people were crammed on and around the stage, one of the region’s frequent power cuts plunged us into darkness. In the UK, chaos would have erupted: here, the room was immediately lit up with countless mobile phone lights and the last song, the usual thanks and the final prayers ended proceedings as though nothing had happened.

We were taken to visit community projects that had received money raised by the Diamond Choir and UK choirs during their UK visit in 2006. Agricultural workers whooped with delight when they were given a simple wind-up lantern – their night watchman would no longer have to buy batteries.

Two local schools laid on dancing and singing performances and treated us like royalty, and we sang with a large group of elderly women at a feeding station accompanied on a red bucket and plate and spoon.  

However, the concern which moved us most was the lack of HIV/AIDS provision, and we returned from one visit a superbly-managed, expensive and very beautiful hospice full of conflicting feelings. It was situated too far from Refilwe and provided too few beds (16 adults, 4 children) to help any of our friends, against the stark message from local AIDS workers that they couldn’t even afford to give out rubber gloves to protect people who were caring for dying relatives at home.

The scale of HIV/AIDS in South Africa is overwhelming: 60% of the population is infected, and the combination of poverty and lack of facilities means it will continue to be a scourge for many years to come.

 The first 24 hours, saw us visiting the local radio station, singing informally with a wonderfully energetic church youth choir, and ending up at a township party, where beers were pressed into our hands and rather inebriated locals were keen to dance with us. During the fortnight, we were overwhelmed by the hospitality in the township, and enjoyed strolling round the dusty red streets chatting to smiling children and neighbours leaning over fences.

The African response to our singing was at first muted, although the Diamonds were always kindly appreciative - the audiences could not understand our unmoving stance when singing European songs, let alone the songs themselves. Their response to our singing South African songs was entirely different; we were greeted with dancing in the aisles, ululating and whooping though our early attempts at dancing at the same time were met with helpless laughter, but true appreciation of our efforts.

 Singing was our main point of contact with the Diamonds, but over the days existing friendships were cemented and new ones blossomed. We shared outings, visiting the Cullinan mine itself, Pretoria Zoo and the Parliament buildings. We ate together both in Cullinan and at Diamond’s homes in the township. We were honoured by being invited to share personal grief when one member’s adopted daughter (30) died of AIDS in our first week, and the whole group was invited to the funeral.