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.
An editor once described my works as ‘elliptical and impressionistic’. She meant I meandered and could not pin the facts to the page.
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.
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?
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.
A friend has lent me a home.
I lent him one. A long, long time ago when I was just a new-mum-to-one. Him. His girlfriend. Their mongoose, called Pepper. And a pig. Which snuffled in the veg patch and feasted on parsley. A friend says, ‘that’s karma for you’. I think she means what goes around comes around. It doesn’t always. You’re usually lucky when it does.
I remember when they came to stay. In my insalubrious – and tiny – guest house. He says we came to his rescue.
As he has me. The little mango farm cottage is far grander than the ramshackle and cramped home I offered them.
But I don’t remember how long for now. I wish I did. How long can I nudge such generosity I worry?
I sit and the world has stopped whirring momentarily. Fleeting peace. I can almost feel things come to rest. An inertia startling stop. My shoulders slump in quiet relief. The weight of the world lifted briefly. Headaches of weeks retreat. I can breathe. Last night I slept as the dead in the inky dark which breathed quietly with crickets and fruit bats. The garden – when I last looked before my head touched the pillow – was luminous beneath a full moon . Did I dream that fairies danced there, a secret midnight ball attended by goblins and elves and sage eyed swivel headed old owls?
Another friend says, when I describe the three countries, four jobs, seven houses, 18 months malarkey, ‘ I couldn’t do what you have done; I abhor change’.
I do too. I did. Now I understand I must clutch the time-standing-still as it does now so that I sit and listen to music and drink wine and cook in a kitchen that feels, for now, like mine, as I register the dogs spread-eagled on the cool cement floor as if they too can finally relax. They must know it smells like home. We are agreed then; it feels good. For the first time in ten weeks I am living beyond the constraints of a car and a case.
Good except for the absence of Ant who is back on the farm and trying to salvage something from the mess. He must be there. And I must be here. It’s just, we say, the way it has to be for now. It won’t be for long, we say. We do not do absences well. Ant and I. It’s why I ended up in an Outpost at the beginning of this six year long story.
The same friend who professes allergy to change says she and her partner grow fractious if together too long. ‘we need regular breaks from one another’ she says so that I feel mildly feeble. Ought I, I wonder, hanker independence, autonomy, a room of my own? I don’t. I am one half of a pair. When my other half is not with me, there is a gap. A shadow. Silence. Too much space in a bed the other side of which looks cooly unrumpled come dawn because there has not been a reassuring tussle over who has the greatest share of the sheets during the night.
And I have to make my own early morning tea.
Which never tastes as good.
Tomorrow morning early we will leave the ranch.
‘Odd how quickly it can all change so much’, observes Ant, ‘how fast it can go wrong’.
He means The Dream.
That’ll teach us, I think, to let our Hearts rule our Heads.
When I first arrived, just four weeks ago, four weeks, I felt intimidated
Here. It seems huge and overwhelming. Mid morning and the sky, ballooning with the abortive promise of rain –will any come to extinguish this stifling heat – merges with the sage grey of the bush which reaches as far as the eye can see. Miles of it, to a dart straight far away horizon. There’s nothing between me and that. The flatness of the scrub a featureless blanket. Few hills to interrupt never endingly stretched space nor behind which one can imagine a pocket of civilisation that I cannot see but which mightn’t be far away. A market? A mall? A party? People?
I wondered whether I’d bitten off more than I could chew? Thought about my marriage, whether I was right to acquiesce this time, considered I always seem to say yes and wondered whether that made me less of a person, a failure to the feminist cause?
But the thing is about tandem living, you need to be peddling in the same direction or you won’t get anywhere. With his support and his balanced approach to most things, I’ll learn how to peddle in the same direction that he wants to go. I usually do. Without mine he might have been miserable. If this makes him happy, I reason, it will me too. In time.
Not for one moment then, just four weeks ago, did I imagine the ‘in time’ would concertina as just days. I did as my wise mum suggested: I kept a diary …
I ask Ant, as I observe my fatly happy Labradors explore their new home, ‘what do I need to worry about here, for the dogs I mean’. I expect him to shrug and say, ‘not much’. Instead he says, ‘tick bite fever … tsetse fly …. Oh, and snakes of course, this is real puff adder country’.
I swallow. At least I don’t have to worry about them being run over I suppose?
In the evening, after dark, we load the dogs into the car. I am in my pajamas. The night is velvet black and dense. A thick blanket of cloud shrouds the sky so that there are no stars and the moon, the slendercheeseslice that it is, has been obliterated. We drive down the airstrip. I sit on the roof, in the wind, holding a spotlight which I sweep from side to side so that it illuminates the bush either side of the road. I feel incredibly young with the dust I can’t see in the dark whipping in my hair; I am cast back decades to a thousand similar occasions when, as children, we did exactly this with dad, who died at the age I am now. I had never considered how cruelly young he was until this year.
A small herd of impala are settling for the night on the strip, where they can see what’s coming and where the sand still bears some of the day’s warmth. My beam picks out their eyes as bright marbles. They skip fretfully about, momentary panic splitting their party. I drop the glare and we leave them be. A dikdik dances away into the scrub. An owl. Nightjars. A rabbit. And then we spy a genet cat, small and lean, with his spotted torso reminiscent of a leopard, his striped tail a tiger. He is intent on hunting for insects for his supper and is quite oblivious of the car or the light or our soft voices as he steps daintily and carefully, picking his way through grass keeping his nose to the ground. We watch him for a full five minutes until his foraging takes him too far into the undergrowth.
‘I’d like to see an elephant’, I tell Ant as I slide from the roof and back into my seat. ‘You will’, he smiles, ‘I’ve seen the evidence; they’re around’.
The house which we must mould as home sits behind the farm offices on a small incline. Its position and the scrub mean that from the verandah you are not aware of any other buildings, indeed any civilisation at all. From where I stand, gingerly balancing on a short wall which looks as if it could give way at any moment, palm shielding my brow, I can see nothing but an ocean of bush spread in every direction and for as far as I can see. In the distance the Lali Hills, small and neat and stark for their elevation against the flatness of the surrounding, spilling savannah, are bruised purple by the leaning dusk. The airstrip suggests it might once have been a busier place. Perhaps it will be again.
Ant and I both knew the residents of this house. Friends of my parents, they left here 30 years go. I wonder what it looked like as Shirley’s home? A whisper of a curtain remains at a broken window; did she hang it I wonder? The house has no roof now. Or ceilings. The smell of bat guano has been allowed to escape. The rooms seem very small. The bathrooms miniscule so that the doors bang up against the loo when you open them. There are almost no sockets, ‘just think’, I observe, ‘a time when it wasn’t important to charge a phone or an iPod or a laptop …?’ Perhaps all the rare power points were used for then were the odd lamp, the occasional box of Carmen Heated Rollers?
‘When do you think this was built?, I ask Ant.
He doesn’t know. I think it was built in the seventies I tell the bush. It has all the architectural, aesthetic imagination of the same decade. Precisely none. Square. Grey bricked. Paradoxically small and suburban against the swallowing wilderness that surrounds it; it is its location that charms.
We pick our way through what was a garden, a desert rose is in furious bloom, as if to prove there was beauty here once, a young baobab festooned with creepers, a saffron orange bounanvillea cruelly pruned but with a base as thick as my calf so I know it is old; there is something comforting in thinking I knew the woman who planted it. I will keep that I tell myself. I will nurture it and take from it cuttings to spawn a whole fence full of orange blossom which will drip as confetti onto the lawn I plan to cultivate.
We push open the door to what must have been a store. It swarms with bats and the stench is overbearing. A jaundiced looking monitor lizard is hunkered on a decaying bookshelf. I think he must be dead until I discover he’s vanished a few minutes later. ‘How long do you think he’d been in there’, I ask Ant? Ant doesn’t know but given that his colour had leached almost right out of him, it must have been a while. ‘Since the door was locked’, I worry? But Ant’s too busy pushing more doors in to hear me.
I send the children pictures of what will be their new bedrooms. They post them on their Facebook pages; they think I’m joking.
A week ago I battled to find cool refuge, wore shorts and sleeveless tops, longed for cold showers. Today I’m in jeans, socks, a jumper and wish I could soak in a hot bath. The rain has come and brought with it low bellied cloud that sinks all the way to touch the scrub and scribble on my horizon so that it’s not nearly as dart straight or visible as it was. All night the rain fell softly and brought with it squadrons of insects that crowded clattering into the brightly lit kitchen so that I could hear their beating wings as they swarmed in a final brilliantly illuminated dance. They’d all fallen deadly by dawn so that the little counter top was carpeted in gossamer wings and tiny blackly curled thoraxes and I had to tip the toaster upside down before I put the bread in. If I were to turn the lights off, the bats would seek refuge.
I think I prefer the dudus which don’t dive bomb with such blind fury. And which have all obligingly expired by morning so can be swept up and out. Unlike the bats which hang from the pelmets and have to be shooed away with a broom.
The herdsman who looks after a straggling, bedraggled collection of cattle so skinny ribbed I can count every bone – 13 a side – complains that a lion is harassing his herd. Thirty years ago lion were more of a problem than they are today; when Ant ranched next door they culled 60 lion a year, ‘it’s all we really did’, he remembers, ‘keep lion out of the cattle’. He hated it. So did Dad who was obliged to dispatch of troublesome lions regularly on the farm when I was a child.
We have no intention of dispatching the alleged culprit in this case; we don’t have the means to do it anyway. But we do go up to the farm gate and track the spore, heavy indentations in the soft damp soil. ‘why didn’t we hear him?’, I want to know. Ant shrugs, ‘they’ve probably learned to keep quiet to avoid being shot’, he says. We don’t hear him that night either, but we hear hyena, their whoopwhooping comes hauntingly across the bush from up near the airstrip where earlier in the evening we watched a pair of protective plovers frantically trying to distract us from their two little ones. We’ve watched the adults birds on the strip often in recent days, trying to divert us and the dogs away from a nest. Today must have been the first time their young were on the move, tiny, slightly fluffy mirror images of their parents.
In the late afternoon Ant and I head towards Sala gate which is the easterly most entrance to Tsavo National Park and only fifteen minutes from the farm. My memories of the place are childish ones, a welcome exit from hours of Keeping your Eyes Peeled as we drove through the park towards the beach. I remember the road went on eternally, miles and miles of ribbon trailing through the scrub, mounting each tiny elevation and collapsing the other side so that , disappointingly, I could see its length before it unravelled behind us. I’m astonished at the speed at which we cover ground now. Everything must shrink as you get older; the proportions of old homes, the distances of once taken, apparently interminable, journeys, the quantity of time left …
We don’t have the necessary paperwork for park entry. We need a Smartcard which we can only acquire in town says warden Henry in his most officious tone. We plead with Henry whose initial insistence on the right protocol begins to crack quite quickly, ‘I think he’s weakening’, whispers Ant. Ten bucks later and his resolve gives way entirely altogether and we are happily through the gate and watching a herd of elephants daubed blood red from a dust bath.
We follow the Galana River west. Evidence of recent heavy rain upcountry is witnessed in high banks and trees as debris and the river still rushes with urgency. We stop the car under the colossal shade of tall whispering borassus palms and walk along the beach. I measure my small size five foot against the enormous print of an elephant. I watch the bush closely in case a herd is coming in for an evening drink; I can see the path they clearly take regularly, the bank collapsing between their accumulated considerable weight. ‘What would you do if an elephant appeared?’ I ask Ant. ‘I’d move quietly towards the river, slide into the water, be carried away to safety on that current’. I don’t pursue the conversation, I don’t’ want to remind him about the hippo we’ve just seen or the crocs which are bound to be lurking. My dad used to tell us that the Galana crocodiles all waited downstream with their jaws agape waiting for reckless tourists or herdsboys or women collecting water to carelessly fall in. I don’t’ want to think about my husband lodged firmly in a croc’s jaws. I especially don’t want to think about myself in similar predicament so I just shuffle along quietly and watch the bush and don’t talk anymore.
Just before exiting the park a huge herd of buffalo surges across the road in front of the car. Hooves and horns and dust so that the plains swarm blackly. Then they brake and stand stock still, dust settling so that they appear as visions from obscurity, and observe us with cross beady stares. Disdainfully, then, they toss their enormous heads and trot off.
Every evening we walk for miles through the bush. I five paces behind Ant. He jokes that this is because I am a respectful African wife. In fact it’s to allow him the task of battling a way through the wait-a-bit thorn which snags on skin and clothing in mean pinches sometimes drawing blood. Ant whacks it with a stick and it coils upwards so that its barbs cling to one another velcrolike. Dad would have called this bundu-bashing. As a child, when we drove past this ranch on the way to the beach, the scrub landscape seemed eternal and unchanging, as if there was nothing there but the spiteful wait-a-bit. But we walk and a whole quiet otherworld reveals itself, tiny plucky wild flowers pop brave heads above an arid earth and we often startle game.
A troop of mongoose who chatter furiously as Pili dashes in their direction, they take cover in the nearest anthill; sweetly paired dikdik; impala and last evening a herd of water buck on the airstrip, who let us walk with 100m of them, Pili restrained on a leash, before they fled. Far away we can hear the high pitched cackle of jackals. And all the while I watch the sky as the sun drops and drags the colour with it so that the horizon is aflame with saffron and tangerine and the Lali Hills are bruised lilac with the weight of the collapsing day and the underbelly of clouds burned baconpink. The moon hangs like a Chinese lantern, papery and pale, and is lit with the fires of sundown in a darkening sky. And the light that ignites the scrub is distilled to the colour of whisky. It is heartbreakingly beautiful.
And then we head home for a beer by the campfire.
So tomorrow morning we will load the few mobile possessions we have with us, the dogs, the cat, into the car and we’ll drive out, away from this huge spilling generous place and we’ll leave the bush and the skies behind, we won’t see the monitor we’ve nicknamed Sid who lives in the anthill behind the kitchen again, we won’t drink tea to the clamour of starlings and sparrow weavers. And I am quite likely to cry.
The brevity of dreams.
Either they don’t last or they morph as nightmares.
That we will be on the move again is inevitable. I rail against the thought of more unsettledness, more uncertainty, more bloody racketing around. But I rail more against our employers. (Can they be employers even when they don’t’ honour Employment contracts?).
They have made the mistake so many Investors in Africa make – listen to the Lion’s Roar says the Sunday Times, make your money here, reads the sign: they think they can impose their western ideals and ideas upon this vast wild place and assume they will stick profitably. So they build proposals around the healthandsafety surety of more predictable nations. And when it fails, as it often does, they throw up their hands in despair and blame Bad Governance and Corruption and Africa.
I watch the swift fragmentation of this particular project and know that none of that is to blame. The problem here is that dislocated London-based investment bankers in suits and shiny shoes (who have never stood beneath a shower cold as ice and brown with silt, never tried to forge a swollen river with their hearts in their mouths, never pushed a car out of the mud) have distilled their money making scheme to a generic, glossy proposal of lines and digits and sums and projected what-it-will-look-like-if-it-works images: academic assumptions). They don’t know the rules here. They don’t know that when it rains on the farm we can’t get out, which means, by extension, their produce – the one that will never come – won’t get out either. They don’t know that the equipment they bought isn’t Built For Africa. That their Logistics Man (in Essex …) got it wrong.
So it begins to collapse and they call midnight meetings and wipe the white board clean and write down some more numbers. The money-shufflers. Meantime, on the farm, the fuel for generators has almost run out, when it does we will be in darkness without water. They know us, the little team here, merely as more lines of figures, perhaps we come under the column that says Management or Personnel or Admin?
We’re certainly not identified as Flora, in the farm office, who dresses beautifully and I wonder how on earth she manages it? I wear badly laundered shorts day after day. I’ve never seen her wear the same outfit twice; an Audrey Hepburn two piece accessorised with a clutch purse and kitten heels, she minces to the office, an incongruous and heartening sight against a sprawling, dust-laced savannah. One day she wore a shirt printed with bold, gold daises and lime green flares, her hair teased into a glorious Afro and she looks for all the world like one of the Three Degrees, ‘Flora, you look lovely!’, I told her and she giggled but was unable to return the compliment, her eyes darting over my unironed attire and flipflop clad feet. And our number crunchers don’t know Joshua, the mechanic, whose eyesight astonished me: far older than I, I watch him read the tiniest calibrations, ‘with no glasses?’, I hiss at Ant. Joshua was spot on though. And they’ve never met Saidi, the askari, who opens the gate with a flamboyance that makes me smile every time. He throws back his shoulders and offers a flourish of a salute and the broadest grin.
Bottom lines don’t replace reality. Digits are no substitute for personalities. You have to really understand a thing to know it; you have to get right under it’s skin.
This is Africa. And it isn’t always her fault.
I walk a wide, wide beach the colour of a perfect capuccino. The sea is cleaner now – last weekend a swathe of water like coffee stained the deepblue ; evidence of recent heavy, heavy rain so that the river to the north spat debris for weeks: the roots of borassus palms; bits of driftwood bigger than me; flipflops. The beach is getting broader with each year, every Rains. My generous friend C, whose eyrietop oceanview flat in which I sit to write, tells me that once the sea touched the steps at the bottom of the garden. Now it takes me ten minutes to walk out there.
My parents honeymooned here, in Malindi. The hotel they stayed at is still standing, spruced and chromed and shinypolished now in the way all refurbs must be. They only honeymooned there because dad still didn’t have a passport – he’d never had need of one, he said – so they couldn’t avail of the free tickets to anywhereintheworld that mum’s employers at East African Airways offered as a wedding gift. Instead they stayed at Eden Rock and thought that was perfectly splendid enough.
So I walk the wide beach, duned and high and wind stoked on the inland side so that the sand whips across its surface like a mist. Compact and caramel by the water’s edge so that I watch the waves, moccafrothed, ebb and flow and see the beach shiver as if in delight at the ocean’s caress and I marvel at the architecture wrought of wind and water and think, ‘we could never mimic this’; the bone bleached beach higher up whipped as icecream to toppling peacks, the damp sand by the sea darker and shot silver with mica.
It’s a long time since I was in Malindi. The ‘Mafiosi’ have been and – mostly – gone, though Roman evidence abounds. Some people hate it. I like the coffee and the colour they have left behind and the delis which sell parmigiano and palma and plump glossy olives and fat stippled salami. The totos shout ‘ciao, ciao’. ‘Come stai?’ enquire the bodaboda drivers, ‘salama’, I reply and they laugh at this Italian imposter who thinks she can speak Swahili. We eat anchovy salty spaghetti at a fairylight festooned restaurant and the next evening impossibly thin pizza heavy with rocket and smoked sailfish.
And I think, is it irresponsible to feel this recklessy happy when life is swiftly bellying to pearshaped unmanageability all over again? We expected this brand new adventure to sustain. That this one, with its huge skies and spreading savannahs and hyenas whoopwhooping at dawn and lion spore in the soft rainsoakedbloodred earth and crocodiles in a river and impossibly lovely sunsets to be the one that settled us. We loved the place so much it would have done. But some things, as I keep remembering, are out of our control. Some things are probably too storybookperfect to last, too good to be true.
I am reading Sonali Deraniyagala Wave. I lie all afternoon foetal curled on my bed whilst an ocean squall taps on the window. Tears prick my eyes. Sometimes I think my heart might stop.
Later on the beach I look out to a dart straight horizon, a sea fanned by wind, white horses dance across its surface but there are no looming tsunamis here.
No. I’m not afraid that the sea will come in and swallow me up (but then, nor was she). I’m not afraid of much.
But I am terrified of losing the people I love most in the world.
So we left.
And it was easier than I imagined. You bung all your stuff into a 40 ft container and you close the doors and you hand over the house keys and you get into the car with 2 dogs and a cat and you drive away and suddenly there’s this glorious detachment.
We drove over the border and out of Zambia, into Malawi where we spent a night on a lake that looks like the sea.
And on into familiar Tanzania where we drove upwards and through the Southern Highlands all the way to the east coast, where we spent two days by the Indian Ocean so that the unfamiliar roar of a real sea interrupted our sleep.
And then we were in Kenya and there was incredible surge of homecoming joy. After the hurly burly of recent months, after the upheaval and the unhappiness this suddenly feels recklessly right. The fun isn’t over. The unsettledness remains. We aren’t sure where our adventure’s going to take us next.
But for now there are new views.
Our children dismiss us as irresponsible hippies; ‘I suppose’, sniffs Amelia, ‘that you two are going to find the most impossible bush flung location that you can?’
For now though, we’re just happy to be here, breathing in the scent of home and rain.
And after five days on the roads, the animals are quite pleased to have arrived too.
I have been where I am now before. Not long ago. Twice.
The smell of boxes is familiar and the sound of the hiss and strip of tape as those boxes are sealed is a noise that conjures recent memory. This is the third time in 13 months. Third time lucky. That’s what I say. We have covered thousands of miles in huge trans Africa moves. Now comes another.
We flew north. Collected the car. And drove south. Five days we zigzagged across Tanzania and into Zambia and we battled our way through the knotted mess that is Tunduma border, a flybitten, dustblown place where the trucks tail back five miles. A week it takes us, they told me, to pass through. It took us, with nothing on board but ourselves and our sandwiches, an hour and a half and two fixers.
Tomorrow, or the next day, we’ll turn around and head north again. Back through the flybitten, dustblown, heat sapped Hades that is the border, this time there’ll be more on board. And we’ll go further. Into Kenya, with the dogs, the cat. They are anxious and hunker nervously near me. The scent of boxes, the hiss and strip of tape, it all unsettles them. Do they remember what comes next I wonder. So often over the past year and through these moves, it has just been me and them. And so they follow me from room to room. Waiting patiently whilst I bath, watching whilst I swim, sleeping at my feet as I work and retiring to the bedroom when I do, arranging themselves in habitual patterns: Pili on the rug beside my bed, Scal curled a few feet away, the cat spooned into whichever warm crevice she can find around my sleeping body.