A Strike out of the Blue

October 2, 2015

Dublin’s 40 shades of green are swiftly and softy warming to myriad shades of mellowness; the virigina creeper that clings to and clambers up dozens of the city’s elegant buildings morphs at one end from saffron yellow to chilli red at the other. We’re having an indian summer, the Irish say, and they laugh, ‘we’ll take all the summer we can get’.

I am here because Mum has had a stroke. Each day I drive through this warm city wallowing in the kaleidoscope of mid season tones, I notice its coat of many colours has changed again, subtly, but changed; the green less acid, the yellow deeper, the red burnished.

So many emotions flow. Deep sadness that mum is ill. Determination that we get her well. Fury, indignation, outrage that one monster sickness should barge its way in just as another steps aside. Depression had ranted, nagged, niggled for almost two years. Was the interior blow to her brain too big to give depression the space to stay. I would like to think as much. But the same strike (I did not know where the word, in its context of cerebrovascular health came from: a strike out of the blue; a stroke) has stolen so much.

Mum sits obediently by her bed in the rehab ward when I arrive. Only when I get there can she move with greater independence, our arms linked. Heads bowed to gossip and whisper and laugh. She is not allowed to walk without help – but she can walk. To all intents and purposes she looks well, pale and thin certainly, but less ill than many of the other patients in this rehab facility for people whose brains have been broken by trauma. Many are wheel chair bound, some cannot articulate to speak, a few battle to eat and swallow safely.

Mum’s stroke has manifested with an extraordinary subtlety and exquisite cruelty; she can no longer read. Not because she cannot see – though her vision is impaired post stroke – but because the injury has blown a hole, the consultant said, in the bit of her brain that correlates to language and reading. And memory. Yesterday he said, ‘she will not read as well again. Ever’. It’s the first time I’ve been grateful for mum’s short term memory loss; I hope by today she has forgotten what he said – with necessary, professional terseness, none of his words dressed up to look less bald.

Words, books, have always been mum’s salvation and especially as a buffer to the worst days of a depression. She was able to step into somebody’s else’s story when her own became too difficult to bear. When she just had to put it down for a bit.

But I will not believe mum won’t’ read again. I have watched her improvement over ten days; her quickening of letter recognition, and once the letters are strung together her swift retrieval of the pattern’s attendant word. And she can – bizarrely – still write, beautifully.

I have to be able to read again, she says, imploring.

The doctor says she won’t.

I want to weep. But I set my jaw and I tell mum, we can fashion crutches, we can set up props, we will have you reading again, perhaps not as fast, perhaps not War and Peace, but reading so that you can lose yourself happily when you need to.

Mum smiles at me and then she gestures to the lady in the bed next to her, who can read but who cannot speak or walk, ‘I feel so sorry for that lady, whose name I cannot remember’.

And I gaze at mum, stoic, outward looking, courteous, kind and I think, ‘this is my well mum’.

This is my well-sick mum.

Looking for Joe

August 2, 2015

Find Joe 2 The face of an unknown child smiles from the pages of newspapers or a television screen. They’re missing. You gaze upon that face and you think, ‘God, their poor parents, that poor, poor kid’. And then the face vanishes and the next news item is highlighted and you get up to make a cup of tea or let the cat out or fix supper. It’s awful. But you move on.

And perhaps tomorrow that unknown face may smile again – an alien person in some distant place, a name you have never heard before – and will likely quickly forget – even though your heart squeezes and your eyes well  because the family is pleading for information that will help lead them to their lost child; their desperation is palpable.

I met Joe almost five years ago, he would not remember me and I would not have recognized him: suddenly a boychild is a young man. My children got to know him a little better than I; they and Joe have a convoluted cousin’s relationship and a shared heritage. I don’t know if they are first cousins once removed or second cousins. It’s easier to just remember that they share a great grandmother that none of them ever knew.

Joe is six months older than my youngest and the Christmas holidays that they all spent together, assorted cousins and aunts and uncles, was passed on neutral ground, neither in Tennessee – where Joe lives – nor Tanzania, my children’s home. Rather in an old family home on an African beach. I remember watching them from my verandah – a clutch of kids, as they wallowed in shallow low-tide pools, timidly getting to know one another and then laughing more raucously, more confident in each other’s company as every day passed. They ate mandazi, drank madafu, carefully turned starfish over near the reef to see the colours beneath and swam and snorkeled so that they returned home for lunch salted and sunburned. Joe, one of the older, naturally led the group. Hattie remembers he was kind and cool.

Ten days ago 19 year old Joe went missing whilst out on a run near a ranch in Colorado where he was visiting family. I reeled when I read his name, on Facebook: I did not recognize the smiling, grown up young man, but that familiar name sprung from my screen.

I have never thought to look at the numbers. How many children – and young people – go missing each year? Since last Thursday, I have. The scaremongers would have us believe it’s hundreds each day – every 40 seconds in the States a person is reported missing one site says. But the FBI asserts that of the thousands that disappear – sometimes recorded missing simply as a consequence of miscommunication – more than 90% are found. Most within hours.

I am only on the very, very distant periphery of this. The farway, safe edge of the deep, swallowing pain and fear and anguish that Joe’s parents and his immediate family and close friends must feel: the anxiety and sleeplessness and the eternal questions and options and what-to-do-nexts.

I never considered that I would recognize  a Missing Person’s name – certainly not that there may be a familial connection with my own children, however tangled and untidy and tenuous – I don’t suppose many of us do.  It’s why we think, ‘how awful’. And then we move on.

I’m a million miles away from where Joe has apparently vanished without trace. I do not understand the terrain or the topography, the geography or the country; I have never visited the States in my life. But the experts tell us that the more the message gets out there, the greater the chances of locating that person. That ‘sharing’ in the syrupy ether of the wide reaching World Wide Web might help prompt clues, nudge important memories, prod a useful suggestion.

So please share this link – especially if you’re State-side.

And the next time you see a Missing Persons notification, linger a little on the face, remember their name, consider what you could do. No matter how futile the doing may seem.

Find Joe

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words Pt 2

June 27, 2015

There are children everywhere. More than half of the 60 000 refugees who have flooded into this camp in recent weeks are children. Some have come alone; some as young as five.

They scamper after us. Intrigued by the camera crew – the videographer is tall, towers above the rest of us, he wears a panama which elevates his presence further. He engages with the children with grace, stooping to their height when he speaks to them. They trail him excitedly; a Pied Piper line straggled behind him.

Later he instructs me on how to interview two small boys to camera.

Stick to my side, he says, so that they don’t need to work to watch your face.

And get down, he urges, get down to your knees so that you are level with their faces. I sink and kneel on red dust and begin my questioning.

This is the hardest bit. Untangling untold trauma. I battle to maintain professional dry-eyed poise when they tell me about the loss of their parents, murdered by militia.

I struggle almost as much when they tell about their aspirations, to be doctors, teachers, journalists, to go to London, New York, to see the world.

I expected to fight tears as they recounted nightmares. I didn’t expect to have to do so when they told me of their dreams.

I say to the crew, ‘that’s enough now, they’ve done well, that’s enough now’.

Where is this resilience grown? I see it in smiles and hear in voices that question me in Kiswahili, French, English as the children try to find some common ground to connect. I watch it in toys they have fashioned from nothing: a truck created from wire with little wooden wheels, ‘did you make that?’ I ask the child towing it. He nods bashfully.  It’s a perfect piece of engineering, observed to tiniest detail. A little boy, his hair patchy and his scalp scaled from malnutrition, clutches an almost perfectly round football made from paper and string. Another holds a kite cast of scraps of plastic sheeting. When the wind tosses it skywards, his head tips back and he laughs up into the blue.

Where is this resilience born? And what sustains it in the face of such horror?

We interview a young mother. Her toddler objects to our intrusion and howls. The crew tells me that sometimes long lenses frighten small children – for they prompt terrifying recent memories of the barrels of brandished guns. The mother is torn, needing to tell her story and wanting to shush her child. A little girl of 8 or 9 steps calmly in and scoops the crying baby up. He is hushed immediately. I turn to motion thanks and she smiles, a beatific smile, white, white teeth, a smile that touches her eyes. I give her a thumbs up and mouth, ‘asante’. She returns the gesture.  And I smile back.

But inside I weep.

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words Pt 1

June 21, 2015

I ought to be in bed.  I have been up at five every day for a week.

I readied myself. Soaked in a bath up to my chin, so that the suds blushed pinkly as the water rinsed deeply engrained red, red earth from my skin, my hair, beneath my nails.

I tried to watch mindless television. Eat a bowl of pasta, post prandial carb high guaranteed to have me nodding off on the sofa in no time. Normally.

But my week hasn’t been normal. Thoughts jangle and nag and tug and pull. I cannot settle. I haul my laptop from my desk and sit on the floor in front of the fire where the dogs normally curl. They’re briefly indignant to be ousted but return to rest heads upon my lap as I tap.

We debated this in the car one day on the way to the camp – the boys with their cameras and I: which tells the better story – an image or a narrative? A picture is worth a thousand words, they said. I concurred. Because I was outnumbered. But now, now home, I still struggle to find the right ones. The right words to do justice to a big story.

Can I paint the scene with language?  Select each word – a thousand of them – as the artist does his colours? Carefully. Pause. Stand back. Consider my work?

The camp is in the middle of nowhere. A three hour drive on a dirt road from a town flung so far to the west of Tanzania that it almost drops off the map into the great lake that spills all around.  An aid official tells me, ‘governments are not known for granting the best land to those that seek refuge from violence in their own countries. They must make do with what they’re given’.

So we drive towards the middle of nowhere where the skinny earth is ribbed with gullies gouged by rushing rain during the wet,  and where the miombo forests dwindle because humanity has needed to swarm through here before and people need food and fuel and the wood was there.

The land cruiser we are in kicks up dust.  Great suffocating plumes of it. We are tightly packed. Six of us in all, with filming paraphernalia for the boys piled high, cameras, tripods, reflectors, lights. And a satchel, a Dictaphone, and a hat for the pretendwriter.  Vehicles drive with their lights on. It’s two hours past dawn but the dust chokes visibility dangerously.

We know where to turn off for the camp. It’s well marked, this place, this home to 100 000 homeless; signs jostle for attention, as if pushing the other out of the way to be first in line. I read only Nyarugusu Refugee Camp UNHCR.

Five miles later and you encounter row upon row upon row of tents, once – and so recently – they were white and emblazoned with the logos of humanitarian rescue agencies. Now they are dredged with ochre dust, like sieved cinnamon powder.  It is quieter than you imagine, normal Africa wakingup sounds; I cannot hear despair. I think I can hear laughter.

Wood smoke from hundreds of cooking fires rises softly to kiss an early morning haze and they embrace as a pall that hangs low and smudges the ends of my view.

And it is as if the ranks of tents march unto eternity.

When the Words are too Small

June 20, 2015

Sometimes the words you need are too small for the story you have to tell.

I’ll try.

We arrived, the crew and I, on the far western edge of Tanzania on a morning brittle with justgone dawn air. Smoke from woodfires rose to mix with low cloud and the two conspired to smudge the edge of a great lake. We only knew it was below us as the aircraft swung in low to land.

We ate chapatis and drank masala chai whilst we waited for our vehicle. It broke the ice. I’d never met any of them before. We recognized one another only because each of us that bundled off that plane seemed prepared for a similar mission. Cameramen are easy to spot; they come with hefty paraphernalia. The pretendwriter only bore a satchel and a hat.

We were headed, once we got going, to Nyarugusu. Because there were stories to tell, films to make, pictures to take.

It is an enormous sprawl of humanity – the Congolese have been here for two decades, the Burundians less than two months, they number more than 100 000 now. There is despair and sadness and untold trauma. And there is happiness and hope and, astonishingly, lives are picked up so that among the dozens and dozens and dozens of tents, there are small businesses being pitched: a tailor, a barber, a sugar cane vendor.

So I asked my questions and I considered story telling strategies with the crew and I slept in alien beds with cheap linen and rock hard pillows, and bathed in a bucket of cold water. (And amongst the delicious chapatis and mugs of masala chai, I ate something bad enough to have me heaving into a plastic bag for an entire afternoon).

I am on my way home now. Tonight in a big, wide, white, soft bed after a steaming power shower. I am returning unscathed.

But for the scar that has seared my soul; the experience that has branded me.

As I said. Sometimes the words are too small for the story you need to tell.

In time I will find better ones.


June 15, 2015

Not long ago I stood on my verandah and screamed. I opened my mouth and howled. Out loud. To the forest and the sky and the silence and the mildly, briefly, astonished dogs. And then I burst into tears.  So much time, so many hours, slipping through my fingers.

I said to Ant, ‘sometimes’ I said, ‘I feel as if my life is passing me by? As if I ought to have more to show for this, for all my time’. Sorry he said. I’m not sure why. It’s not his fault. But I suppose it was a safe thing to say: Sorry. Later, after supper and wine and telly in front of the fire with a contented cat stretched, purring, on my lap and two still faintly nervous dogs at my feet, I said to Ant, ‘is it enough?’ Is what enough? He asked, ‘is it enough?’  I said again, ‘to just be married and raise children?’ What else is there, he asked, his brow creased with bewildered concern. And I smiled, ‘nothing, there’s nothing else’.

But I still worried, worry, that my time weighs too heavily, that I wantonly waste hours which will slide by and into oblivion. I do. God, do I do. I write remotely, for deadlines that help to punctuate weeks, I organize my children. Remotely. Student loans, applications, flights – nagging in the ether dilutes the urgency, ‘I haven’t done it yet, mama, I will though …’ I cook supper. I walk the dogs. I mark time. I make jam. I am afraid to sit still though I cannot articulate why? That I be deemed lazy? useless?  that I think too much? that I go mad.

“We must not think too much,” cries Euripides’ Medea. “People go mad if they think too much.”

But be careful what you wish for. ‘I want to be useful’, I screamed at the sky that day, to the dogs’ alarm as the cat skittered for cover.

A pitch I had forgotten about entirely. Could you do with a writer, I asked, as I ask any number of people in the syrupy anonymity of the ether where it is easy to bluff and feign confidence, never imagining that somebody will demand much more of me than a bit of research, a few words here and there.

And so today – because last week somebody said, ‘actually, yes, we could do – with a writer’ – I found myself bidding Ant and my son, home post grad, goodbye as I was bundled onto a small plane. Normally we’d be sardine-squished in a 12 seater bound for the city and big smoke and sea. Today we were only four; ‘today’, said the pilot, ‘you’re travelling business class’. I smiled nervously. Small plane travelling is not unfamiliar given my dislocated geography of recent years, but it remains uncomfortable; I am not a happy flier. Business class or otherwise. I hunkered down in my seat and dug a distracting podcast deep into my ears and closed my eyes for 90 minutes until shortly before landing so that I mostly missed the wide white empty sky where horizons were dredged with longgonerain dust. Until the sea shore and the city rose to meet us and I hurtled through traffic with a kamikaze taxi driver as the sun collapsed so that buildings were daubed pinkly and street lights began to sputter to life.

A week at work in the Real World.  This is what you wanted; Ant says, but kindly, ‘to be busy, useful, engaged’. But now that I’m here, ready to write, to travel, to accompany professional teams on tough assignments, I’m not so sure. I’m a wife and mum. I know how to cook, to nag, to worry about children who don’t Skype when they promised to. I know how to walk dogs, to tell myself stories in my head, to fill ballooning hours with dreams.

Do I know how to be a Professional? To work with a crew who are my son’s age? Who are used to the harrowing turbulence we must face? It would have been so easy to say, ‘no, sorry, would have loved to but I’m busy that week’ (walking dogs, telling myself stories in my head, dreaming, marking time, making jam …) but this feels like a challenge. I must do this. I must grow and learn and lean and stretch.

I’m more afraid of staying still than not.

I tell my daughters of my assignment. Hat says, ‘oh man Ma, my dream job’. Amelia says, ‘cool man mama’. And later, when I confide in her that I am afraid. Nervous. So far out of my comfort zone as to be utterly alien (except for the words, i keep telling myself, the words will be not be strangers).

She says, ‘we are always afraid before, Mum, never during’. So I will hold onto that for now.

Reasons to Fly

March 18, 2015

photo (5) Istanbul. The airport a hub – a conduit, funneling people of every creed and colour to all four corners of the world. Mixed tongues are white noise here; I can recognize some languages by the lilt, the odd word, but many are too alien. A fellow passenger wonders at the tighter security; ‘I don’t remember having to go through security between connections last time’, he observes, ‘are you sure you’re right’. I point to the sign which clearly indicates, ‘international transfers’ and I remind him that Turkey has been placed upon the map and dragged into the news for reasons that might well put a noose around the security in this huge airport. I must pull off every single one of the dozen silver bangles on my wrist before I walk through the machine; at home I always make a show of trying to tug them off and explain that they are tighter in the heat and please can’t they let me off and – depending on their mood – the airport staff either laugh and wave me through or snort and roll their eyes and let me through anyway. I daren’t try that here. I wonder, as I always wonder when I travel, what presses people to move such vast distances. I thought nobody had any money anymore? Is long distance travel a luxury. Or a necessity? A bit of both for me this time. Is it necessary that I see my children? Or am I just lucky enough to luxuriate in their presence for a few precious days? Where are all these people going? Why? Business? Pleasure? Love? Life? Death? I have flown expectant with child, heavy and round, and nervous to drag a suitcase from a carousel in case my waters broke.  I have flown thin and haggard with a daughter that needed urgent medical attention in London. I have flown home brimming with tears and sadness – on the news of my dad’s death. I fell into deep slumber on the flight, exhausted by days of too little sleep, too much crying, and woke over Africa as the early light stole into the cabin. For the briefest moment I was elated at homecoming. Until I remembered why. I have flown as a new bride. On the cusp of adventure as I feigned grownupness and confidence. I’m in ubiquitous Costas as I write. Harshly lit so that the fluorescent light washes complexions of the tans we may have collected as souvenirs. Not me, of course, tans are old hat when you’ve always lived in the sun. SPF 50 for me. A slightly laughable case of closing the stable door long, long after the horse has bolted. When I was eighteen and travelling between home and college, I flew back to januarynipped London the colour of toast and my skin crumbed on the way so that even as I arrived I was miserably paler than when I left home. I am in toohot, washed of colour Costas for tea. Because I’m English. Or masquerading as English for the purposes of travel. That’s what it says in my passport; it’s what I must be. Despite what my taxi driver in Dar es Salaam said as I transited through a city breathing heavily and hotly close to rain. The parking attendant in the domestic terminal – for I had bounced through the sky from my highland home to this sultry, seaside capital in a tiny plane, as an empty Coke can caught in a wind so that we were buffeted and tipped and I, an exceedingly nervous flyer, was white knuckled with fear and focusing on the podcast I had dug into my ears at volume 10 – gave my driver lip, I interjected in Swahili, please don’t hold us up, I have a plane to catch from international. Laughter all round. They weren’t expecting that: impatient Kiswahili, ‘Really mama, you are an African!’ Memoirist Alexandra Fuller doesn’t believe we can be African if we have white skins, if our heritage is muddied and smudged by the movements of itinerant grandparents. But if I’m not African, if I’m not African when my family has called this continent Home for 111 years, what am I? English today. It is as an unfamiliar and slightly ill-fitting overcoat that I wriggle into from time to time. I know it doesn’t suit me. Drinking tea because I’m masquerading as English and because it seems the decorous thing to do at 10 in the morning. Ten in the morning where though? Where I’m headed – it’s ten in the morning in England. Where I am as I sit to write and sip my tea, it’s past noon – at home it’s after lunch – but it seems impolite to ask for a beer. Reckless. I wonder – by others’ orders – what time it is for them. Eclectic tastes and scrambled time zones – that’s the essence of airports isn’t it: lives suspended, between one world and the next. A bubble. My world is greenfieldtea and mist and dogs and my darling, darling Ant and filling hours the fullest I can with whatever I can find to hand. For the next two weeks, time will be tight. I won’t be able to amble through its wide corridors awash with silence and space so that I can hear myself think. I already anticipate the hurly-burly of the next fortnight with some trepidation. Except for the weekend with my children. That will be as a pillow beneath my head. I have rented a cottage so that I can scoop them up, cook them generous meals, listen to their stories, hear their laughter, reassure, hug, hold, kiss, scold. And there, in the cocoon that we will carve of a stranger’s home for a precious few days, we can be whoever we feel we really are.

Darkness Visible

March 3, 2015

Depression is a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self—to the mediating intellect—as to verge close to being beyond description.
William Styron, Darkness Visible


Mum has been mired in this episode of depression for fourteen months.

I nag her with Skyped texts.


Have not seen you today. hope you are ok?


Or I issue stern warnings:

If you are idle, be not solitary;

If you are solitary, be not idle.

you can have one or the other ma. not both

She describes feeling fearful and I try to calm her by instructing her how to breath deep and slow, to stop her heart from beating so quickly, butterfly wings trapped in a chest , to bring back into  line the rogue chemicals in her system that are exacerbating such disabling panic.

I copy pages of text from sites that may help and paste them into messages to her. I don’t know if they help. I don’t know how much of it she reads.

The madness of depression is, generally speaking, the antithesis of violence. It is a storm indeed, but a storm of murk. Soon evident are the slowed-down responses, near paralysis, psychic energy throttled back close to zero. Ultimately, the body is affected and feels sapped, drained.

I try to discover new ways that she might learn to cope,  I want to unearth an innovative, novel weapon in the arsenal she has deployed over the years in battling this demon Depression, but Google doesn’t tell me anything I don’t already know: there is no silver bullet.

I type the same question into a dozen search engines ‘how to get get going out of a depression?’

And I get 222 000 000 hits.

Everybody has an opinion. But nobody has the answer.

Some of the suggestions are sound: walk, eat, sleep, breathe, read.

At any rate, during the few hours when the depressive state itself eased off long enough to permit the luxury of concentration, I had recently filled this vacuum with fairly extensive reading and I had absorbed many fascinating and troubling facts.

Some are facile and patronizing: “make yourself a fancy dinner, maybe invite somebody over; take a perfumed bubble bath; rent comedy videos.”

If only you could shoo a stubborn Black Dog from your door because you ate asparagus for supper, or smelt prettily of Lily of the Valley or watched 100 minutes of Friends?

If only it were that easy.

It has to be emphasized that if the pain were readily describable most of the countless sufferers from this ancient affliction would have been able to confidently depict for their friends and loved ones (even their physicians) some of the actual dimensions of their torment, and perhaps elicit a comprehension that has been generally lacking; such incomprehension has usually been due not to a failure of sympathy but to the basic inability of healthy people to imagine a form of torment so alien to everyday experience.

Nothing that I say, nothing that I do will alleviate mum’s pain. I have learned this over time.

In the end I resort to Styron. And in his beautiful anguished words there is, oddly, comfort. I am reminded that though I, mercifully, cannot comprehend the measure of this horrid illness, it is enormous, nontheless.  It is real and all the more awful for its intangibility.

Perhaps in understanding that, in endorsing Mum’s illess as appalling and all-consuming, that is the best I can do.

Perhaps it is all she needs me to do?



What Would you Choose?

March 1, 2015

A week ago I returned from a four day writing gig in Dar es Salaam; the remit, to highlight areas of need for a large UK charity. I loved the work – I learned so much, I spoke to so many different people. I interviewed an albino woman, her albino child, a snowwhite baby boy, strapped to her back. I learned about her mothers’ fears to keep her safe in a country where albino body parts are prized in black magic and voodoo. I met newly successful entrepreneurs. I marveled at a man who volunteered in protecting his – and his community’s – environment. And then I came home and scribbled for days, submitting my commissioned case studies, articulating my reflections.

And I thought that for the horror, for the disappointment, for the poverty and the disease,  Africa never fails to amaze me with her ability to unfurl her palm and reveal the brightest gems.  That even in the godforsaken slum I describe below,  I met hope in the volunteer and I met humour.


The valley is strewn with rubbish. Feet deep. I can smell it. Fetid and warm in temperatures that rise above 30 degrees.

It’s not bad yet though. Not as bad as it could be. When the rains come – as they will, in March and April when tropical storms sweep in and out and lash so that mud slides and corrugated iron roofs clatter with the downpour – the humidity will sweatily, steadily soar and the garbage will ease upwards and down the valley towards the single source of water that this community relies upon.

And flies will rise as steam.

I contemplate, as I walk and watch and witness conversations: there’s a lethal cocktail here, waiting for the shaker that the wet weather will be.

I don’t know what’s in these bags of rubbish, some have split open to reveal seeping innards – I’m not about to delve too deeply. I pick my way gingerly through the tip (in closed shoes:’ wear your trainers’, urged my partner on the gig, ‘not Birkenstocks’) as we make our way carefully down the incline towards the water. But I can imagine. I can imagine what’s in these bags.  There are no recycling bins here. No safe, monitored, managed, tidy system of rubbish collection and disposal. No modern sanitation. There will be bags of rotting food. Bags of plastic bags, bags of newsprint that will be picked up by the wind and tossed as confetti to add to the sea of litter that swims the streets.

Bags of shit.

If you wonder why disease is rife in places like this you only need to picture the ‘dumpo’ – its Kiswahili name translates, literally, as Valley of Water. An appalling misnomer. It’s not the shaded glades and dappled brooks and streams that its name conjures. It’s a place where the earth has been gouged by erosion so that it sinks, where ramshackle buildings teeter precariously, their shallow foundations visible, like the roots of old men’s toolong teeth.   Loosened. Accidents waiting to happen: like the structures that collapsed last year. Including two latrines, which toppled as rain fell, to be washed up the valley. Taking their toxic cargo with them.

Everything about this place seems precarious. Not just the houses. The proximity of water to waste.  Life to death. Skinny kids, unshod, snotty nosed, yellow eyed, huddle to eavesdrop on conversations they don’t understand; they are intrigued by our hair. Our shoes.   Healthy children in Africa – children whose skin shines glossily (the children here have lost their lustre) often scamper after palefaces and shout ‘mzungu, mzungu’. Not here.  Here they can’t be bothered. Don’t have the energy. Here the air is oppressive with apathy and exhaustion.

I’m dying for a drink. I think of the cool box in the car, full to the brim with Coke and cold water. They need some Coke-Adds-Life here I think. They need water. I’ll wait to slake my thirst. Swigging from a bottle as I walk seems impossibly, unbearably, tauntingly, cruel. I must drink 2 litres, 3, maybe 4, in this enervating heat. These kids won’t be drinking enough. Their pee will be jaundiced too. And what they  do drink won’t be Evian-safe.   When they get sick, sicker, when their tummies begin to run they won’t have the reserves of fat, or fluid, to sustain them for long.

I think about that for a long time. I think about the thoughtless way I turn on a tap to wash my hands and run it as I lather my palms lavishly.  I remember the local doctor’s words, ‘we tell them to wash their hands, the mothers, we tell them to wash their children’s hands’. How? How will they do that when there is no tap? How will a child remember – as we have urged our own children since they were little – to wash their hands after they’ve been to the loo. How would our children remember if there was no tap in evidence to nudge a reminder? How will a safe habit develop?  The doctor says, ‘these mothers, they are ignorant’. But prompts – like taps beside a loo that always obligingly deliver water – are a luxury. Would we remember – would we bother – to wash our hands, rinse our fruit clean, wipe our children’s faces down if the water wasn’t there. If we had to clamber over hundreds, thousands, of kilos of suppurating bags of rubbish to get it to it. And if when we got to it, it was foul and spoiled anyway.

I know I wouldn’t go to the trouble.

At the bottom of the valley, where the waste and the water reach out to touch one another so that you just know there is a noxious leaching, you don’t need the water to be analyzed to tell you that, and I know I wouldn’t touch it in a million years, there is a young boy scooping handfuls to drink from a pond dammed with a truck tyre.  His palm is cupped, his head thrown back. He drinks thirstily. It doesn’t matter if he didn’t wash his hands before he put them to his mouth; the water’s filthy. I can discern a smell. In the rains it will rise to a stench.

It dribbles from a spring and the further it gets from the source, the shallower it becomes. In the dry weather, now, people dig to get water. A gaggle of girls have mined a basin in the sand and are doing their laundry. Bubbles of detergent rise and pop.  A sick man is supported up the valley, his feet only just touch the ground, his arms are slung over the shoulders of a young girl and her father, he’s too weak to bear his own weight. The sick man’s flip-flopped feet trail in the water all the way down the thinning stream.

I wonder where they’ll take him – when they’ve dragged him up the steep sided valley and to the main road. They’ll flag down a boda-boda, a motorbike, they’ll grapple about for some change to cover the fare.  The nearest hospital to this community is a Mother and Baby unit. Not much use if you’re a man with malaria or cholera or dysentery or a bit of everything. But they’ll shore him up for a few hours. Until he stabilizes, when he’ll be ferried across to the district hospital.

Or until he dies.

The doctor tells me, ‘sometimes the mothers leave it too late’.  They do. Small bodies desiccate with speed, and dangerously.  An ill-educated African woman from the ‘valley’, on a dollar a day, if she’s lucky (and the boda-boda fare to the hospital is half that at least) is going to leave it as long as she dares. And whilst daring she won’t know to examine the child’s fontanel, is it sunken? Won’t gently pinch the skin to check for elasticity, wont’ sweep the inside of her baby’s mouth with a (clean) finger to register how wet – or dry – it is. She will not notice when the child cries that there is no longer enough liquid within to create tears to fall. She doesn’t know about electrolytes. She is unlikely to have a sterilized mug or bottle to hand filled with rehydrate to coax the child to sip.  She may heave a sigh of relief when her child falls asleep. She won’t know that it may never wake up.

More than 2 million children die every year from dehydration.  Most of them in Africa.

I have water at home – there’s no excuse not to wash my hands – and an education.

The women I met had neither.

If you had to choose – had to – what would be your choice?

And then remind yourself that the women I met had none.

Water. Education. Choice.


February 13, 2015

Somebody remarks, in response to a brief bio that I must deliver, in which I refer to growing up children, Ant and his veg garden, ducks and bantams, ‘what an abundant life’. I re read the message. Over and over. Abundant? And try the word out on my tongue. It fills my mouth. Appropriately.

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I have considered the comment often since.  Tried out the word for size again and again.

What constitutes abundance, I wonder?  In so many ways my life is lean: strung taut with isolation so that every sound rings louder, every occasion is more deliciously wrung for a last lingering drop , every rare guest celebrated.

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Can you call my life abundant when time lies so weightily upon my hands that I must eke it out into manageable chunks and plot my days so that there are no idle hours. When for so much of the time I am not doing anything important or urgent?

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I remind mum, who is battling a depression, of Samuel Johnson’s words: If you are idle, be not solitary; If you are solitary, be not idle. You can’t have both. You can’t Have It All.  In my necessarily lonely life (I would not chose this), I dare not lounge, unoccupied. I would ruminate and fret and stamp my feet and weep (as I have done). And allow demons the space to clamber in. So I work – mostly to futile end in reality – feverishly. Busily. On nothing of any significance. Paddling to propel myself from one end of the day to the other.

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But it is into those solitary, silent hours that the abundance creeps.

My children remain connected via the intangible, invisible umbilical cord of the ether. They are worried. They are tired. They are sick. They need an opinion.They are elated. I am happy to be the first to be alerted, to be asked, sometimes several times a day, with little electronic ticks and bleats and beeps. Even when they are broke. For it amplifies a quietening role. I am still their mother. I can still offer advice, salve, reassure, praise. And yes, inevitably, put money into their accounts.

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And it is in the acceptance of my role of wife that abundance presents again: come and look at the veggie garden with me, Ant will say in the evening when he gets home and I will walk admiringly through neat, greening rows, my bare ankles tickled as I brush past lacy parsley bursting enthusiastically from its bed.   I could not do this: grow things well. And if he could not – If Ant could not – we would not dine so lavishly: broccoli, plumply podded broad beans, big headed, snow-white cauliflower, tiny yellow pear tomatoes, huge purplebruised artichokes which we eat with buttery fingers. And when the vegetable garden is done I must usher my bantam hens to their pen and I always laugh loudly when I do, for their scuttle in feathered harem pant legs is so comical. We gather quail eggs – forty of them, tiny greyandwhite and pebble-like with yolks of smilingsunshine yellow; they look for all the world like sugar coated mini Marks and Spencer Easter eggs.

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We sit by a roaring fire to eat a chive omelette for supper, with peppery rocket salad pinked with red Swiss chard stems.

And I roll that fat word around my mouth again, trying it out for size. Abundant. It makes me think of adventure and simplicity, fatsalted tears and love, and loud, loud unladylike laughter.

Is it the perfect word. To describe my life as it is now? I don’t know. There is abundance. And satiety. Certainly.

And when there is not, it’s what I must strive for.  It is a word I must remember.


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