Bushwhackers

January 29, 2016

Serengetti

The Serengeti is soft, veiled like a new bride in a lacy haze, worn so low that it’s not until we tip to land that I see the airstrip, a length of dust, bone white and straight as it cuts through newgreen plains.

I tumble out of the plane, the only passenger, as royalty, wings of my own, the pilot is young – he could be my son – but he wears Old Gent’s manners and insists on carrying my suitcase to the makeshift ‘arrivals’ hall – a scrap of shade, dirt floored, three faded blue plastic chairs – and checks that I have a lift to camp. I do, I say, but I am waiting for my friend and partner in crime, E. She arrives shortly after me – the airstrip in this busy, busy national park is a veritable hive, small aircraft buzz in and out as bees. E is tall and blonde, one stride to two of my steps so that I am permanently trotting in her wake. Ours is a long friendship and an old working relationship. She glides from her plane, glamorous in hat and scarf, toting kilos of camera equipment.

We bump our way across acres of Africa, which spills wildly all around us, such reckless, careless, arms-thrown-wide abandonment, three lioness, bored of being papped roadside, wander nonchalantly off so that soon all we can see are the tops of their ears and the tips of their tails flicking in irritation above the grass, which is high and softly feathered after generous rain that has left the roads pockmarked with slivers of puddles and slicks of chocolate-mousse mud.

The work, three days of it, is exacting but rewarding, E gets her pictures, I get my stories and we try not to be distracted by the family of warthog who come to graze in camp and the comical troupe of mongoose that tear up to the mess where we are working, amidst tripods and trailing leads and open laptops, stand up on their rear legs and gaze in astonishment at the unusual and faintly absurd scene of two girls squinting into screens and then scamper off tut-tutting loudly.

The relative peace of this picture is shattered with the arrival of guests, a honeymooning couple – and Africa Virgins – from Miami, full of their recent nuptials and travels to date. I eavesdrop on the groom as he regales his father with tales of their adventures; ‘You can keep Europe’, he says, ‘Spain, France, Italy, all the Eiffel Towers in the world, none of that comes close to this, to Africa’.

And at night I lie in my tent and listen to the droll laughter of hyenas and the bark of skittish zebra and I think how lucky; how lucky I am to be an African.

serengeti3

?

Winging my Way

January 11, 2016
winging my way

Arriving on the Emerald Isle

I arrived on a glorious winter’s evening; the sky was blue but last night’s snow was still on the ground, ice-white and cold.

My team and I are straggled around the globe – Ant in East Africa, two of my children, as I landed in Ireland, headed back to London via Dubai and the third at work near Cambridge. A bigwideworld made tinier, less intimidating, by the worldwideweb. Thankfully.

I am here to collect Mum – to escort her back to African sunshine and sounds.

A whistle-stop tour. I write to the sound of a gale that is picking up over the hills, a leaden sky, skeletal trees. And I am snug in a well-warmed, brightly-lit kitchen. In a week I will be peeled down to shorts and bare feet listening to the crows shout obscenities at the dogs as the sun leans on her horizon and the fat shade of mango trees stretches long and low.

And there, against that backdrop, I will teach Mum to read.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/anthea-rowan/why-i-must-teach-my-mom-t_b_8916858.html

 

 

Gaps. Again.

January 5, 2016

And then almost as soon as it begun, it’s over.

Christmas.

Decorations are packed away; fairy lights taken down and hastily wound so that they will be a bugger to unpick next December.

And the children begin to leave.

I dread their going in the same way I dreaded the return to boarding school when I was little; I awake with the same sinking, sickening, base-of-belly feeling that I woke up with back then. Always a Sunday; we always went back to school on a Sunday. And a Sunday it was this time too.

I promised her I would not cry. And I remained stoic as I nagged about tickets and passports and telephone chargers and remember-to-calls, as I bundled her into the  car and strapped her in – she’s 22 for God’s sake, but she was too kind to remind me that day. I had helped her pack the night before and made her egg sandwiches for the road. And I held her close in a hug and breathed deep and held on.

And then I let go. And I waved bravely as the car went through the gates and onto the road away.

And then I cried. Sitting on the edge of the loo, seat down, her cast off pajamas in my hands, my face buried so that I could inhale deeply the last of her scent, Chloe, door closed. Great shuddering sobs.

It is not that I am unhappy, not that she is so that I must fear her leaving, it is not that I have failed to learn how to stop the gaps that my departing children create, bigger as they grow up and carve out their own, seprate lives.

It is simply that for so long my children, mothering, has comfortably defined me, a default into which I slip with happy, unconscious ease so that each leaving reminds me it is time to begin to recast a little of myself.

I blow my nose, tip her pajamas into the laundry basket, scold myself for being a baby, wash my face and walk onto the verandah .

Ant has made a fresh pot of coffee, ‘come’, he says, ‘sit beside me’, and he pats the chair next to him as he drags it closer. He pours me a mug, puts his arm around my shoulder.

I sip. I sigh, ragged from sobbing. And I smile.

It keeps going – life; you have to keep up.

Homecomings

December 15, 2015

As I write my now university-going Hat is winging her way home for the Christmas holidays –  London – Amsterdam – Dar es Salaam and tomorrow a flight to the Outpost. She will be followed at the weekend by her older siblings. And then we will be a fullfatfive and life will be glorious and loud and greedily voluptuous, salted with laughter and too long lunches and too late nights as we all catch up.

She sent me this picture en route – I’m posting it for all those mums out there who are deliciously anticipating the arrival home of children.

Revel in the feeling.

RM x

 

IMG-20151215-WA0000

Back Again …

December 14, 2015

Back in the Outpost.

Who’d have thought? As much has changed as has stayed the same. You still can’t get a cappuccino, a head of highlights or a pedicure. But you can buy butter, water is shunted down the pipes and out of taps more frequently and there are more like me. Expat wives. A small clutch – myself included – are full time residents, more are of the lesser spotted migratory species, winging in and winging out, their roots newly done, their wardrobes a little less shabby.

When I first got here, trailing children and a bad attitude, I was the only permanent one. Steadfastly hanging on, grimly, through gritted teeth and crossly-slit eyes. Partly in my determination that I could bloody well do this. Partly for a lack of choice. Largely because alternatives didn’t make economic sense. Mostly because I said I would; I did.

It’s easier second time around. I know what I’ve let myself in for, my children are bigger, there is no Hat to teach – and, granted, keep me glorious, joyous company – but nor is there a small person present that I am compelled to worry about endlessly, is she lonely/sufficiently well stimulated/getting enough greens to eat ? I miss her sunshine and smiles company, and the missing is spiked every time I do something second time around that I did first time around with her.

 

I have thought hard about picking my blog up since I returned here – it was in anticipation of Outpost living that I began it. I miss the writing. Stringing words along sentences as beads on a thread so that I might coherently record my time here, with a modicum of articulateness and a lot less swearing. I considered abandoning it and starting again, in a bid to reinstate some anonymity. One or two people have noted, since I returned, ‘we read your blog, you know’; and it sounds like an accusation not admiration. I’m appalled to have been found out.

 

But then I thought, nah, this blog will be nine years old in March, I’ve posted 512 times since then. That’s a lot of years, and more than a quarter of a million words. I’m not going to abandon it – it was a lifeline back then.

 

I think it may be now.

Leaving Home

October 30, 2015
?

?

I find myself, again, surrounded by a collapsing home. It’s winding itself round with corrugated brown paper, mummified,  it tips itself into boxes, disappears into a mountain of cartons. Walls are suddenly naked of paintings, the plaster pockmarked. Rooms echo back at me when I speak, gone are the curtains and the fabrics and the fat cushions that absorbed the sounds.

The practicalities of moving are easy now – this is my sixth big move in 8 years – I parcel up glass, fold away my workshop, inhale deeply in my children’s rooms and bundle up too-small clothes and pictures they drew in primary school. But despite the necessary brevity of so many recent homes – 7 or 8 in less than four years – leaving a house is always hard; it marks us with a bit of itself and we inevitably leave a part of ourselves behind.

Each home has – as we hung those paintings, positioned tatty, dog-eared, precious-only-for-its-sentimental-history furniture – revealed some of its soul; you can’t help but be moved as you leave.

My outpost home was fashioned from a leftover of colonial times, a suburban box that we peeled open with a huge verandah, that we let the light and the air into by knocking its innards out into big flung-wide-welcoming arches. Children came home regularly then; we spilled outwards into a garden over which stood as sentinel the most beautiful flamboyant which, just before the rains, bled red into the pool. My outpost home grew necessarily fat. My beach-side homes, two of them, were loved for their very geography; Ant’s childhood home briefly our children’s, bushbabies that screeched outside my window at night, the push and pull of tide which – when high – woke me from deep sleep, when low kissed the beach gently so that I barely heard it. My two Zambian city homes had characters of such disparity it was small wonder one made me feel at home, one didn’t; the first an austere town house with high ceilings and an unseemly proportion of chrome to wood, ‘this isn’t you, it it’, said Ant sadly when he first brought me back to it. No, I admitted, just as sadly, it’s not. So we moved to one which was as impractical as it was unconventional, but which was much more Me (and Ant); it sat squatly amidst ten acres of bush so – within a spit of the capital – I could wake to the sound of guinea fowl cackling and gossiping at dawn. The little thatched cottage I spent six months in on a mango farm revealed itself as a sanctuary during a time of aloneness and confusion. You could have clambered over the walls, kicked the doors in, friends feared for my safety – security was questionable – but I never felt afraid. I felt cocooned. I sat up too late drinking beer, listening to the palms whisper secrets to the moon as I tried to find the answers to too many dilemmas.

And now here. This house. This house in the tea deep in the misty moist mountainous southern reaches of Tanzania, perched above the oldest forests in Africa, from which, at this time of year, comes the gabbling throaty call of the turaco which I see when I walk, flashes of crimson wing. I sit on this last evening on my own by the fire I have lit, as I have so often lit one, to while away lonely hours, to warm the room.  To watch the flames. Jip snores at my feet. She came here a puppy. Pili has journeyed to every one of those homes with us; the sight of boxes alarms her less. In the garden, beneath the plum trees lies Scally who faithfully curled at my feet, beneath desks in dozens of homes, for fourteen  years. Not far away, I buried another faithful old friend, Orlanda; she’s under the roses. I don’t remember how old she was when she went but she knew even more homes than Scally. She purred contentedly in every one of them.

Apart from Jip’s snoring, and the hiss and pop of the fire, the house is quiet. When I go to bed, turn off lights, I know precisely how each switch will give beneath my fingers, I know which doors need a little more encouragement to close, I know how to push the latch of my bedroom window so that it opens wide and the chill of the night settles upon my room so that curling beneath my duvet is especially delicious. Every home is possessed of quirks and whimsy, taps the drip, pipes that gurgle, a floorboard the speaks, a step whose unevenness you have learned to navigate.

And I will sleep and the house will breathe and sigh familiar sounds that will be lost soon until I recognize the nighttime noises of my new home.

Another colonial relic, another suburban box, which we have hammered open wide and hewn to fit this family and all the boxes that will spill bits of ourselves all over it when they arrive, and all the tired treasures we have insisted in dragging with us on our nomadic adventure; we have added a huge verandah which we know we will live on, we have knocked wide arches  through walls to let in the light and air.

I never, ever thought that we’d be heading back to the Outpost – how funny that we are?

Even funnier, I think, that the prospect delivers not a sense of dread, but a deep peacefulness.

Why Having It All isn’t Worth Aspiring To

October 16, 2015

This conversation is an old one. And contentious.

We are supposed to believe women can Have It All because that’s the dictate of modern feminism, the battle cry of today’s contemporary women; you can have a career, a marriage, children. You can keep all the balls you’re juggling safely up in the air and at evenly spaced distances so you can manage them with predicable and assured tempo. Never dropping a single one.

I have never been in any doubt that I’d let at least one slip through my fingers, probably two and quite possibly all three at the same time. Because life isn’t like that, it’s not an easy game squared away with numbers and precision. Having It All means much more than managing your children, your career, your partnership. It means remembering to have a leg wax, plucking your eyebrows, buying dog food. It means not forgetting a friend’s birthday and making note to self to pay health/house/car insurance. It means making a choice: nativity play or conference call? It might mean, at some point, assuming some responsibility for a parent. You can’t be sure how many balls you’re going to need to keep up in the air at any one time, another can easily be chucked in, quite unexpectedly.

In the past month, my husband has started a new job, we are obliged to renovate a new home (which was gutted and the roof ripped off), two of my children began at new universities, I had a magazine to edit. And then my mum had a stroke.

Had I had a real career (as opposed to a part time job I can do in my pajamas, from bed, at 2am if needs be – a job I can farm bits of out to a budding journalist daughter) I’d have dropped balls, for sure. As it was I had to run my eye down a pressing list of priorities, each jostling for attention. And I had to acknowledge that not only could I not Have It All, I could only have a really small bit of it.

And so my husband embarked on a new job without my presence or any support from me bar the very rare text, hope all going well, love you; the renovation has taken – sometimes – an interesting and unexpected shape, squat loos for western style ones (I did manage to effect a turnaround there), peppermint green exterior walls instead of off-white (that we’ll have to live with). My son began his fourth year at a new university in London and had to secure a place to live. I could lend no support, only solace when he miserably called to tell me he had been shown yet another London broom cupboard at hundreds of pounds a month – all I could offer were spareroom.co.uk links to the next broom cupboard. Hat began university and I could not be there to take her, to help her unpack, to admire her new room. Instead I funded her big sister to accompany her, unpack her, tell her it would all be alright.  And – as I say –  I farmed out much of the editing to the same new student who leapt at the chance to supplement her allowance.

And whilst they all got on – mostly perfectly well – without me (bar those loos, of course), I sat in a rehab facility in a beautiful city and coaxed my mum to break down short words, letter by letter, and celebrated with her when she managed to link them up as language.  That, then,  for those weeks, was the most important thing to do, the thing on my list that demanded the most urgent attention. And it was all I could do; there just wasn’t enough of me to go around.  Spread thinly, that’s the best I could manage.

And that might be a kinder, more forgiving mantra to live by; do the best you can do with whatever you do do.

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.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 82 other followers