Needs Must

July 27, 2014


I say to Hat, ‘this is good shit’.

Hat groans, almost inaudibly.

We are on a walk , Pili disobediently strays ahead and vanishes into rows of pruned tea, all we can see of her is her yellow tail wagging furiously above the trimmed green, a submarine’s periscope, an antenna.

And we are collecting shit. We do this regularly. A basket between us, my hand gloved in plastic so that I can stoop to scoop.

Cattle manure. Conveniently dropped in pats the length of our route.

For the garden that I am trying to cultivate on a chilly, exposed hillside.

My children are used to my eccentricities. This is the lady who sat on an Outpost airstrip waiting to clear a bag of grass (the mowable variety as opposed to the smokable kind) through the airport because she hankered for a lawn.

They barely bat eyelids when I ask them to come on a shit run. Hat doesn’t object to the principle per se, she doesn’t even mind lugging a basket of dung; she objects to the stopping and starting, ‘it takes so long to go on a walk with you when you’re shit gathering’, she says.

Sometimes I wonder if the quirkiness that we – their father and I – exhibit will mean they will adopt a less conventional approach to life or whether it will drive them to conform? Or will I foist a useful ‘needs must’ discipline upon them?

I need a garden ergo I must collect shit.

And they must help.


New Chapters

July 26, 2014

If I had logged my life as religiously as I did in the Outpost, would the past 2 ½ years have been easier? Would they feel less like lost time? As if I were running across marbles, slipping, sliding, losing my footing? Had I been able to capture them tidily in properly punctuated paragraphs, would I remember it all as less a blur? Would it have been more manageable?

Oh, I kept a journal. Privately scrawled. The madness and the misery too ragged, too raw, too untidy, to hold up to the light. I can’t bear to read back those scribbled lines which run diagonally across page after page as I sought to make sense of our lives; lives which seemed to be spiraling out of control as we lurched from one crisis to another. Two years. Three countries. Seven homes. Our possessions as battered as us with every unpacking. Night after sleepless night, by day a host of butterflies lived in my chest as I anticipated the next catastrophe. I tried to articulate my relentless what’sgoingtohappennext anxiety to a doctor. I sat opposite him in a tiny surgery and tried, vainly, to describe how it feels when your life runs amok, out of control, waving sticks and screeching and kicking your legs out from beneath you. He nodded sagely but his whole demeanour, his desk, smacked of an ordered existence (my desk, by comparison with drawers graunched by so much travelling, was strewn with months old paperwork and bills and letters that should have been dealt with weeks and weeks ago). ‘Use Rescue Remedy’, he advised.

How reassuring life would be if the tiniest sip of an organic tincture could set an upset world straight on its axis.

I don’t know how, now, after the fact, to describe the fallout. I can’t look back.

So this, this latest, feels as I have stepped into a small boat on rough waters and I am still waiting for the little hull to stop its slightly unnerving rocking so that I can sit and settle.

You see, when change batters as it did us, you lose your sense of self. My identify was carved neatly of my role as wifemotherwriter (and sometimes glass artist). The order, the peace, the predictability of my life was the backdrop upon which I interpreted those roles. There was time and space for each. But circumstances picked us up and tossed us hither and thither, like a souvenir Parisian snow fall in a globe. Except the blizzard was relentless; you crawl out dazed and bruised and confused. You’re still a wife. (And you wonder if your marriage is better for the experience or worse? Can I believe that because we survived the storm, it’s a good marriage?). You’re still a mother (though you know that because you were so busy trying to clutch at the flotsam and jetsam of your life as it floated by, you haven’t always been a good mother). But the writing has gone to pot; I could not organise my thoughts, the words, when they rarely came, danced about taunting and disobedient . And as for the glass …

I am apparently emerged from the crises. But I am not unscathed. I feel potholed. The urge to patch up bits of myself so that I might be whole again is enormous.  But it is hard to know where to begin. Returning regularly to my blog seemed like a good place to start?  If I can string a sentence, I tell myself, beads scattered upon a floor carefully collected and rethreaded, will I be able to gather up the rest of myself?

So I shall aspire to find my seat in this little boat. I shall nervously try to settle myself and I shall look determinedly ahead.

the view

Where the Grass is Greener

April 8, 2014



morning walk


Miranda Hart said it in Call The Midwife, ‘I have acres and acres of time’.

Like me.

I know I should be grateful for all the open-ended hours, should use them wisely. But I’m overwhelmed by them; they loom and taunt, ‘What are you going to do with us all then, hey, hey, c’mon, make a plan?!’.

And I’m tired of change and loneliness. I want to have a home. In a city. Where I can drink capuccino with my best friend and go to her yoga classes and eat lunch from a menu and giggle.

I want to stamp my feet and shout, ‘enough, enough, I’ve had enough‘.

Instead I walk solitarily across a vast empty space (where the  grass really is greener than in my old dusty Outpost home. So why does it feel more intimidating?).

And have ethereal conversations to fill big silent gaps.


And I skulk on Facebook and see barefaced friends. And scour cyberspace for conversation and inspiration.  And I thought this was clever.

Why This is Home

April 3, 2014

My daughter, writing her dissertation, ‘Never Complete. Never whole. White Skin and an African Soul’, asks me for a quote, ‘Why do you think you’re African’.

I tell her, I feel African because everything about this place is familiar from the light, to the seasons, to the rains, the colours, the insects, the birdcalls, the dust. And especially the people and the language around me and that colourful chaos that permeates and gets right under my skin.

I don’t feel at home in the same way anywhere else. I don’t feel a part of the easy fabric of a place like I do here.
I don’t know if that makes me African.

But I know it makes Africa home.

To belong to a place it needs to feel as if it fits. This does.

And so does this.


I’ve moved …

February 25, 2014

I’ve moved.

From Tanzania to Kenya to Zambia to Kenya and back to Tanzania.

It seems pertinent, given all that moving and shape changing, that this blog morph in empathy.

I’m here now.

And here.

Adventures. With Teeth

January 12, 2014



Every time I walk past their box, the little quail call greedily. It didn’t take them long to learn I equated with food. Despite securing their home with chicken wire, wound taught so that I cut my hands as I wrapped it, there is still the occasional Houdini so that I’m suddenly aware of a shrill and louder chirping. I scoop the escapee up, astonishingly sooner that somnolent cats or dogs do, and replace it amongst the others where I imagine their clamouring questions, ‘what’s it like out there? Who did you meet? What did you do? Find anything more interesting go eat?  Why don’t’ you blog about your adventures …?’


Which is really why this blog started. When I come to think about it. The prospect of adventure.  One that sustained for five years in the Outpost and culminated in two years of chaos where change, with some irony, became our constant.  Another huge change looms now, a new adventure. I hope it will bring calm.

I need to drive south to find it.

I’m trying not to think about the journey, on my own, with two dogs, two cats, one a wild street rescue with killer instincts that match his gangstastyle beginnings, and those ten tiny quail. Indubitably somebody is going to get eaten …

Adventures. With Teeth.



The last of my three children left yesterday to go back to her English University.

I walk into her room as soon as I return from the airport.  Where I can still smell her.   She wears Chloe and is such an aficionado of body spray that I feel anxiously certain she must be personally responsible for that  hole in the ozone layer.

Last weekend I punished myself similarly by walking into her brother and her sister’s rooms just after they’d gone, and gathering discarded  clothes from the floor, noticing rumpled sheets from their last night at home.

And I am struck by the familiar, tangible ache that accompanies my children’s departures: it sits somewhere between my heart and my navel.  A sinking. A gap.  A lump in your throat that’s got dislodged.

Arms full of clothes, heavy with the scent of children, I leave the room and close the door.

They’ll be home, I tell myself, even if I don’t know what that home looks like  yet.


A Timeline

October 4, 2013

An editor once described my works as ‘elliptical and impressionistic’. She meant I meandered and could not pin the facts to the page.
I have left kind readers baffled as to my whereabouts. I have even led some to believe that I had been abandoned by Ant. No. Not yet. As I said: it could be worse.
So let me try to articulate withoput the waffle and the smoke and mirrors. Why do I do that? Because sometimes it’s hard to articulate with precision especially when the mess we find ourselves in is essentially wrought of our own making … one bad decision and the whole thing implodes.
In December 2011 I left the Outpost ahead of Ant to pursue a new dream. (That was the single bad decision with precipitated ensuing turmoil). One we’d talked about for years. He joined me three months later. And three months after that the dream went sour and we left it behind and moved to Zambia.
That didn’t work for lots of reasons and so we found a job Back Home, in Kenya, where we were both born, where my father was born. Where we have always felt as if we belonged. We drove there from Zambia, a road trip full of anticipation and excitement accompanied by two dogs and a cat. We’d only just got over the border when the investors told us that the money had dried up. We arrived anyway. Shellshocked. And limped along until it really was apparent there was no money for anything, least of all luxuries like salaries.
So we spent some fraught weeks (as our home-for-the-summer-holidays children tried not worry) looking for new jobs from our borrowed home near the beach (It Could Be Worse; we could have had nowhere to go. Kind M). And Ant was invited to London to interview for a new job. I was a little anxious about that. It tasted a little of Outpost remoteness but time has taught me that It Could be Worse and I’d go back to the Outpost in a heartbeat now, better a home and security than whirling dervish chaos. But to Ant it was a dream, doing what he does best and in a place he knows well. His exuberance and optimism carried me along, ‘It’s going to be good for us’, he said.
Then less than a week before he was to leave, and I to join him later, the employers-to-be admitted that there mightn’t be a job at all. Just a short term consultancy. Whilst we see if this works. When we’ve done the Business Plan. Shiny New Projects and Eager Investors; you’d think we’d learned our lesson by now.
So Ant has departed for the short term consultancy because we have bills to pay. And I am here. In the borrowed house (thank you M) with the animals, scouring the internet for jobs, tweaking CVs, trying hard to concentrate on something, anything, else and failing miserably, wondering why we recklessly abandoned what was safe, worrying about when we’ll have a home and stablity again. Trying, as my dear friend J does too, for different reasons (and here I steal her words) ’to leave it all behind in the dust… I have to keep reminding myself of this and not succumb to my inner nay sayer…to this practical mind which catastrophises in the dark hours of the early mornings when I can’t sleep. I sometimes get so afraid of what lies ahead’. I try not to check emails at 3am in the hope some glorious new and secure venture beckons. I try to remember to eat (Good Lord: 4pm. Did I forgetlunch?). I try to remember to laugh (and I did yesterday, when an over enthusiastic O’Malley-the-alley-cat plunged into the pool whilst stalking me as I swam).
And I remind myself, it could be worse.

It Could Be Worse

October 3, 2013

I keep telling myself. It could be worse. It could be worse. It could be.

I didn’t think it could be when it ended in tears here.

I didn’t’ think it could be when we got here.

But it did. It got worse.

So now. Now. As I write. With a cold beer at my side. A dog at my feet. A kitten called O Malley the Alley Cat purring hotly on my lap because he presumptuously invited himself onto my lap as I ate a pizza in Malindi one night as the tuktuks sputtered and rattled by and he came home with us and the leftovers. His marmalade smudged coat is smooth now not standing on end as it was then, a roll of fat at his neck, his tummy no longer worm-blown.

Now. I say, even though it’s not great, because there is no certainty, because apart from this furry menagerie I am alone, it could be worse. Because if I don’t fate might laugh loud again and turn her knife so that my life is split apart a little further.

It could be worse.

My children are not with me. But they are well. My student son asks if I need a loan. We talked about this Mum, he says sternly. And I laugh. My eldest daughter is doling out good advice and condoms during freshers week as welfare officer. Hat is bravely soldiering through the first term of Lower Sixth, still not feeling as if she belongs entirely. She tells me the story of a girl whose prose in creative writing class describes her mother as a lioness. Her father is ill; her mum must hold the fort. The girl’s words describes how she wants to be like her mother; brave. A lioness, she writes. Later Hat tells her her writing is beautiful and moving. That she thinks she is a lioness already and I cry a little at my daughter’s grace. I tell her she is lionesslike too. For her titian curls, her amber eyes, her courage.
For we have dragged her and her siblings in our chaotic wake these past two years. And still the chaos swirls so that I do not know where home is. Where home will be. Where will I lay my hat which is scuffed and red and old with a drooping suede brim and beads. A dust-devil, a whirly gig we called them when we were little, that twists relentlessly, throwing up everything in its path and dustily obliterating views and horizons. Blurring clarity.
My Hat says ‘aw mum’ when I tell her she is a lioness, and gives me a Skype smiley face.
And my Ant is a thousand miles away where I cannot be because we have bills to pay and because you have to put your head down and you have to keep going.
It could be worse. I know that now.

What is Failure anyway?

August 3, 2013

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By the end of this year I’ll have moved again.

That’ll make my fourth trans-Africa move in less than 24 months: Tanzania to Kenya, Kenya to Zambia, Zambia to Kenya and Kenya back to Tanzania. I’ll have called six, or is it seven? eight even? different houses Home.

Such movement, such apparently overwhelming change, seems as an insurmountable disappointment; something must have gone horribly wrong to have necessitated – instigated – such drama. And it did, of course it did. There has been a lot of betrayal in the past – almost – two years. But – ultimately – the betrayals that initiated the chain of catastrophe, this black comedy of errors, were the product of our error: A Bad Decision on Our Part.

A Failure then?

Diana Athill – and six other writers write of Failure in the Guardian (oh and there’s another one whilst we’re on the subject of Writing and Failing: my agent has shuffled off from one agency to another, she doesn’t want to take my book with her and the agency doesn’t want to keep it, Thank You Very Much All The Same). Of her own perceived failing, which precipitated a broken heart, Athill says, it’s imperative ‘to digest it, make use of it and forget it. Which is something to remember if you happen to be experiencing it’ Margaret Atwood holds more succinct and cynical views: Failure is just another name for much of real life’, she declares.

And real Life is sometimes about disappointment and betrayals and misunderstandings and interrupted dreams. We’ve just had a lot of that concertina’d into a briefer time. The dramas queuing so tightly to fell us that they sometimes seemed to topple one another over; that’s why failure can feel like crashing dominoes.

But Real Life is heady stuff. Potent. Intoxicating. It drags you up close and personal to smell the scent of what it’s all about. What matters in all this we ask ourselves? You have to. You have to Count Your Blessings. You have to separate what’s Real from what’s Really Important. I have Ant. He has me. We have our children. They have their health. The rest is White Noise. It’s as well I’m not the sort of person who harbours a desire for perfectly arranged scatter cushions and designer sunglasses given the chaos, and need for fiscal leanness, that has descended.

And there is little point in going through life totting up the failures (I don’t have enough fingers anyway). Its much more liberating to consider the skills we acquire in inching past them relatively intact (if you discount the fact tangled time has etched my complexion,  created a greater need for a good colourist, slightly elevated blood pressure and left my filing in disarray).

And who says failure is the opposite of success anyway? I would not deem my recent years to be unsuccessful. Certainly the plan, if there ever was one, went slightly awry. But I will probably, when the dust settles, when I unpack boxes that have stood packed for 24 months, when I get to that filing and tidy documents dated November 2011, look back on this bumpy journey, taking in the Big Picture, a broader view where the black days are blurred to the dust of distant memories, with hippy-ish affection.

In the end, I will take more from it than it will from me. And that doesn’t sound like a failing?

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July 9, 2013


Dearest A

The girls have left to do another interview. I feel safer allowing Amelia go because she is with older, wiser P who speak Swahili with such an easy fluency; she gently chivvies my own daughter along with encouragement and patience.   I don’t know how she drags the necessary vocabulary – given their touchy subject – forth but she does.

Yesterday, over supper, they regaled us with tales of an afternoon with a Crack Whore. Literally said P: A Crack Whore. Veiled in head scarf and 8 months pregnant, a prostitute whose been working the streets for 15 years and using for as long.   She asked for money. P said, ‘I’m not giving you a cent; I know you’re going to use it on drugs’. But they relented when the lady cast her eyes down, ‘but the baby …’, she said.

Amelia is doing her dissertation. She’s not sure the focus, but something based upon the juxtaposition of women raised in a staunchly patriarchal Muslim society where they are swathed in the billowing black attire that we call bui- bui, against the backdrop of a seaside town awash with punters of all shades; Malindi is teeming with fat middle-aged white men upon whose arms trip glossed, polished, braided, precipitously-heeled African women. Ought anybody to be judged here? In the end it boils down to supply and demand: he needs what she can offer. She needs his money. Badly. For the babies. For crack. Sometimes, hopefully, for an education.

Last week the two girls spent time with Marie Stopes who tried in vain to arrange a meeting with a bevy of prostitutes who weren’t prepared to divulge their tales for nothing. ‘I’ll buy you a soda’, suggested Amelia. ‘We want beer’ they insisted. Amelia would have acquiesced but they wanted to meet later than the curfew Amelia’s mother had imposed.

Sometimes P parks her car and they take a tuktuk together, across town, to some alley strangled clinic that they have not been able to find. A tuktuk ride costs 50 shillings irrespective of where you’re going in town. Amelia mightn’t remember that or she may be intimidated to pay over the going rate. Not P though. ‘It’s 50 bob’, she tells the driver who tries to charge her four times that’, ‘I know that for a fact, just because I’m a mzungu, don’t’ try to charge me more, it makes me cross’. When she related the story later, I could just hear her, in her neat tones and perfect Swahili’. She sounds like you.

And she looks like you too: fine boned and small. Though, unlike you, taller than I.

P and I cooked glass this morning, I taught her how to slice shards and break stringers and cap as caught colour. She is neat and quick and her eye excellent. Her slender brown arms jangle with the silver bangles she has crafted herself – she gave me one, a snake that gently twists – and as we work I remember our afternoons on my verandah as I was hobbled by two toddlers and you patiently worked on your decoupage.  And it struck me: she is the age now that I was then, on my verandah, with you, head down and busy with your cutting and glue.

So you see P is far more than Amelia’s translator and driver and minder. Increasingly she is a big sister to all  three of mine so that I feel even more splendidly mother-hennish than ever with four to feed and a fridge of food the contents of which vanish as if locusts have descended.  It’s feels fullfat and greedy and it makes me happy. And she is my confidant in art – she settles in my studio with interest where my own wander through and say in distracted manner, ‘that’s nice, mum’ where the ‘nice’ could be a finished piece of work or a bucket of suds to clean my worktops down.

You must be proud of her.


P is the daughter of one of my dearest friends A.

A died ten years ago on Saturday.



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