Know When You’re Lucky

June 27, 2016



So a friend asked me, ‘The outpost?! Why on earth are you going back to the outpost?’

She’s right to ask; I wasn’t always very gracious about outpost living (though a little older now, it’s lost some of its teeth).

It’s a long story.

When we left, first time around, it was in a bid to follow a dream, which had sustained us latterly in the Outpost as we’d plotted and planned late into the night over too much wine, but which was hastily and rudely unpicked. By family.  Relations beyond repair, it rendered a situation so untenable we were forced to look for another job. We were invited to start a project in Zambia. That sounded like an exciting distraction after the sadness wrought of broken dreams. But the project in Zambia that we moved to (two truckloads, two dogs, one cat) didn’t manifest.   That happens in Africa. Projects, even the best intentioned,  even the best laid plans, often don’t come to fruition.  So we were on the hunt for an income and a home again.

One year after leaving the Outpost, we tracked back north from Zambia to Kenya, two trucks, two dogs (one getting frail and old) and a cat (frail and old) to start another project.  In every sense it sounded ideal: bush living in a familiar part of the country with the beach and a town where we could enjoy Pizza and cappuccinos just an hour’s drive away. Easy-peasy. Except that as we crossed the Tanzanian border into Kenya, having driven through Zambia and Malawi, we received a telephone call. ‘The funding is looking precarious’. It was becoming farcical.  The project failed before we even arrived.

For five months we had no income and three children in full time education in the UK. A friend lent us a home.  Ant was losing confidence. I lost a stone. Those were the darkest hours in a long night.  I remember sinking to the floor in the supermarket one day, overwhelmed, exhausted. Ant was offered a short term consultancy in the furthest, deepest southern reaches of Tanzania. He took it. No choice. Bills to pay. I stayed on in the borrowed home, living on Xanax and adrenaline and scouring the internet for hours each day for jobs. We saw each other for two weeks in four months.  We spent time deliberating our future in the hotel where Ant was living when I visited briefly. I cried a lot.

It was a relief, after two years as nomads, to secure a position on a remote tea farm in the mist. It was lonely. But we were together, at home, able to pay bills, take stock. Our children were able to return to the same house for consecutive holidays. But there was much about the position, on every level, that didn’t work for us. We took it because we were desperate, and a position of desperation does not lend an even playing field for big decision-making. I felt isolated in the mist, hated the drawing in of fog bound days which isolated me further, I was almost an hour’s drive from my nearest neighbour, three hours from a supermarket. I walked a lot. The old dog died, the old cat followed suit soon after.

So when, a  year ago, employers from old Outpost days came calling and asked if we’d be prepared to return, we knew we would. The Outpost wasn’t, isn’t, an easy place to live. But nor was it an alien entity, the option seemed to present a case of ‘better the devil you know’.

And so we came back. And it’s busier and noisier and it’s less dislocated than it was – the roads in and out are tarred now, there are regular commercial flights four days a week – there weren’t in my day.   If I thought the Outpost was tough first time around, the hiatus between leaving and returning was much, much tougher.  I never want to feel so adrift again. Ever.

I learned a lot during those bleak years of moving and then moving on, I learned that laying blame wasn’t sustainable or useful, I learned, in case I hadn’t already been aware, the importance of ‘home’. Especially in Africa where, as Brits and despite a century old history here, our residency is a precarious thing, dependent on work permits.  I learned how to make lampshades. I learned to design fabric. I learned, and this is the really important bit, to know when you’re lucky.

I know I am. Now.

Africa Expat Wives Club



This Incongruous Life

June 22, 2016

So much seems incongruous. Not least that I am back in the Outpost. Is life really a circle? Or a game of Snakes and Ladders? You made a reckless mistake that you need to learn from: back to square one you go. And so we are here. Back. It’s a different place this time around. The Outpost. Bigger. Busier. Noisier; the soundtrack to my day the persistent agitated buzz of bodabodas as they go to and from, up and down the road where I live, touting for business or relaying the business they already have from one end of this dusty little town to the other.

I’m in a different house. Two doors down. Another home to create, another garden to grow. And all of that is a very good thing for I am back here, victim to the Outpost’s unrelenting glare without the protective shield of my Hat and all the distracting guises came in. When we first arrived she was ten and tiny with a head of tousled titian curls. Now she is willowy tall and twenty. And far away at university.

In the troubled hiatus between leaving the Outpost and returning, I tried myriad ways to keep busy, to retain a focus but every time I got my feet under the table, wherever the table had most recently been relocated and unpacked to, I found myself moving again. I lost as much of myself as I did possessions that were shed across four countries, nine homes, countless moves …

But this desk where I sit now has been here long enough to gather a reassuring film of dust beneath it. So there has been time to breath deep and take stock. There has been time to gather about me the things that sustain in the sometime face of loneliness. The perennial gap gouged of children leaving home even though you had insisted all along that you were a stayathomemum. As if the insistence might keep them loyally at your side?

I am putting roots down. A task that, this morning, the gardener is assisting with as we create a rockery. He thinks I am as absurd as I imagine my life to be. He especially thinks that because I am urging him to move stones from one end of the garden to the other, to bury them in topsoil in order that succulents can take hold. He does not question my madness. He patiently accepts the explanation that I need to ‘make a little hill’ in the garden and then plant a large rock squarely upon it.


Hat sent me this picture yesterday and I am flung toward memories.

Sometimes the gap between nurturing your children so that they might fly, and the point at which they are big enough to unfurl their wings presents itself with such suddenness that you are at once tripped up and winded.

It is important, then, I have found, to be able to reach out a hand and grab onto something to steady yourself. It is nine years since I bought my heels as I tried to buy back time.

At last I think I have found a crutch to steady myself.

On Being a Mum: what we did right, what we did wrong

April 23, 2016

I’d love your input, and your friends’ input and your husbands’ and partners’ input and your kids’ input. Especially your kids’ input.

I’m working on a big writing project to which end I’m asking the question, ‘What did you (or your mum, to all those kids) do right? And – and this is just as important – what did she do wrong?’

As a mum to three – big now – kids, I’ve done – do – lots wrong. I nag. I stress. I sweat the small stuff. My nagging meant my son unfriended me on Facebook.

His status that day read something like, ‘Holy crap, in trouble with university accommodation officer for jumping out of first floor window, may be evicted’. I ought to have ignored it. He was 21 at the time. I did not. I called him. He in London. I in Africa. I called and he curtly told me he was busy. I called back. Again and again and again and finally he conceded to converse with me. Our conversation went something like this.

Ben, why are you in trouble with the accommodation officer?

Because I jumped out of a first floor window

How did you get caught?


Why did you jump?

Because it seemed like a good idea at the time (in tones beginning to sweat sarcasm that suggest I am beginning to push my luck)

Were you sober?

What do you think mum?!

I drone on and on about the importance of responsible drinking, not incurring the wrath of accommodation officer, how much his father and I fork out for him to be at uni and then I condescendingly ask, ‘So, Ben, did you learn anything from the experience?’.

Yes Mum

I wait smugly, expectantly, glad that my ticking off has paid off.

I learned that the next time I jump out of the first floor window, I must wear a balaclava.

I deserved that. And I deserved the unfriending.  It took three years for him to trust me not to nag via the ether again and nervously send a friend request. It took me precisely five minutes to realize I’d cocked up and how. I treat my son’s virtual friendship with silent respect now.

But – like all mums – I’ve done the odd thing right. It’s never about being the best. It’s only ever about doing the best you can. The speed bumps are inevitable.

Please write to me at Your voices and thoughts and anecdotes are important. Anonymity guaranteed.

Please share this with your friends, your friends’ friends and your kids and their friends.

Thank you x


When the Rain Came. And When it Went.

March 10, 2016


We are mid rains. That means it can lash cats and dogs and the sky be slung so fatbellied low that you wonder if it will ever, ever lift so that you can see the horizon again, wonder if the rain will ever stop. The lights sputter as the power lines swing dangerously in high winds, skeletal trees drop skinny limbs too weak to hang on, you have to rig a tarpaulin on the verandah to stop your house flooding, shuffle furniture around, shroud the telly in a towel. And the flying ants pop out of the sodden earth and party briefly only to drop deadly hours later so that the lawn is littered with this gossamer wings. If, that is, they are’t snaffled up by the dogs first.   I have watched, in the past, in another long ago Africa garden, two dogs, a cat and a pair of geese feasting on these airborne snacks.

But then, between storms, there is the heat. When the sky is pulled taut whiteblue at all its corners so that clouds, the few that hang high, are stretched onionskin thin and you imagine it will never, ever rain again. I pour water onto gasping plants late in the evening, at seven, when it’s still bright enough to see but a lowering sun is too low now to pinch hotly, meanly, with fiery fingers.  I swim in a pool the temperature of just leftover soup, I shower in cold water that’s been uncomfortably warmed in the pipes so that it isn’t nearly as refreshing as I hoped it would be. I sleep as a starfish, on my back, beneath a fan. I say, ‘god it’s so hot’. I say that a lot.

We are always either wondering, at this of year, when the rain will end. Or when it will begin.


Cat Biscuits and Courage

March 4, 2016

My little sister is here from her Zambian home. Also an outpost, but better populated than mine. She has a supermarket with more than one trolley which is all our Amory sports because there’s never more than one of us who require it at any one time.


She brought me cat biscuits and chilli flakes per my shopping request. Because she came via big cities which I have not seen for more than a month. The chilli flakes for me; the cat biscuits for the feral little thing I’ve adopted and who traipses after me all day, every day, getting fatter by the week for who could ignore the Oliver plaintive mews for more, please.

My sister, C, and I have had time to swim together, up and down, up and down, lap after lap, more exhausted from the chat than the exercise. We have had time to dissect things we’ve never had the time to. Six years my junior, there was a gap – a gap when she was a child and I a teen, when she was a student and I a new mother . The years have narrowed the gap – our common ground has grown. We have laughed loud and long. We have shared cold beers. We have touched lightly on the tougher stuff ; we do not want to cloud precious days of sunshine.

And we have put heads together over mum: her future, her fragility, her reading. Sometimes it seems a lot to grapple with, it has been good to sound ideas out. It is only recently – and with some startled, delighted surprise – that I discover my sister bears a wisdom and a common sense that I sometimes lack as I flail in panic wondering what to do next. As the eldest I assumed a mantle of responsibility when Dad died. Before that: when mum got sick. When I was 13 and C barely seven.

C bears a graceful privacy. Does not wear her heart so untidily on her sleeve as I. Her approach is one of warm pragmatism. I remember her as that 7 year old, trotting along beside me as Dad hauled us into the psych ward to see mum in hospital. C was more interested in the chocolates beside Mum’s bed than I, who was consumed with useless fear and confusion. Her lightness then helped to brighten the darkness. Six years later, when Dad died, she was the small hand that slid itself into my clammy nineteen year old one, ‘it will be ok, A’, she said, and smiled, bravely dry eyed in the face of this enormous, life shattering loss.

And now, a new chapter in our lives, a new big change, new big decisions, new fears and she wings her way up.

And she brings me cat biscuits and chilli flakes.

And courage. Again. She brings me courage.


Princess Smartypants

February 26, 2016

I see Mum gazing at my books, my house is stuffed full of them – from mum, from my grandmother – a nine foot tall bookshelf teeters in a hallway, dredged in memories and dust (and happily too high to reach it’s summit to do any cleaning). Her fingers lightly trace spines, as if she might suddenly pluck a title to read. But she won’t. Because she can’t.

It is a peculiar thing, teaching an adult to read. More peculiar still when the adult you’re teaching is the one that taught you.

I watch her staring at her iPad, struggling to make sense of an email. I register the concentration in a creased brow and occasional clucks of irritation.  She could resort to the text to speech option but she won’t. She may have forgotten it’s there to use, but more likely she doesn’t like the robotic voice which has no comprehension of grammar so that sentences run confusingly on and long. And it hasn’t got a clue about African pronunciation; nothing sounds right. Every place sounds even more alien.

I have downloaded Apps to learn but they deliver dryasdust lessons, the images are repetitive. Peter and Jane all over again. So we mostly avoid those.

Instead we do crosswords, one every day. And I print off pages of letter combinations, sh, th, ch, pl, br, sq, in a bid to help mum shortcut her words.

I speak to Dr L at UCL, a preeminent doctor in Mum’s condition. He explains that we – readers –  don’t have to break down words, we see the word CAT as a visual object  so that our recognition of it is swift and whole and automatic, but mum’s condition has robbed her of the ability to see it as a visual which is why she has to break it down into its component parts – C-A-T.   He tells me he sees one patient a year with Mum’s Pure Alexia – being able to write but not read; it’s rare, he says.

Tired of the Apps, I dig down low and deep in that nine foot bookshelf, crouched on the floor, and I unearth Babette Cole’s Princess Smartypants.  It is one of hundreds of books Mum sent to my children when they were small. And curled up on a sofa with tea, she reads it to me, faltering over long words and laughing.

Because Princess Smartypants in the end, beats off all the suitors her parents have lined up, gives the last a kiss and turns him into a toad and proudly retains her status as a Ms.

Reading, no matter what you read, ought always be a thing of joy. It’s important to remember that. It’s especially important now.


Lessons Learned

February 17, 2016

Today Hattie is 19.  I remember her arrival as if it were yesterday.

A 9 am admission to Kettering General – to be induced – on a brittle English winter’s morning.

‘Walk to get it going’, advised my consultant.

So I did. Up and down the hospital corridors, up and down, hearing the arrivals of other new babies, witnessing the race to get early twins to Special Care, a boy and a girl, their mother’s first.

At 4 there was movement, by 4.10 there was a rush. Midwives strapped the foetal heart monitor to my belly, my baby was coming so quickly they used a marker pen to draw crosses on my tummy to keep up with her descent. Though, I didn’t at that stage know it was a Her.

There was a shout for extra hands, no time for pain relief other than gas and air, I clutched the mask to my face and pressed hard, so that the next day my eyes were black, in the other hand I gripped a midwives fingers (I felt mildly ashamed when I considered my reflection the following morning).

Hattie arrived 50 minutes after the first twinges, the cord wrapped around her neck, twice, her small face black with contusion, like a tiny cross boxer.

The speed of it all left me astonished – ‘oh boy’, I kept gasping, ‘oh boy’, no, no urged the midwives, a girl, a girl – and my little daughter traumatised; she was bundled off to Special Care, with the tiny twins, to warm her up, pump her tiny system of meconium, help her breathe.

I stared at her in her incubator. She looked too big to be here: a full termer against prems dressed in dolls’ clothes. Recovering, hours later, I slipped down to SCBU again and sat amongst the clicks and winks of monitors and the whispers of Special Care nurses and fed my daughter, I watched the deftness with which those nurses handled newborns, born too new, and an incredible peace washed over me.

I was 31 when I had Hat, my third. 25 when I had my first, my son, I had imagined that motherhood would play out as I had read in textbooks, the piles and piles that teetered on my bedside table, I had imagined, really imagined, he would only need to be fed every four hours. I perceived there ought to be Routine. There was not. There was only tears and hunger and not enough sleep: for either of us. At his three month check up, my paediatrician, a glorious old man sized us both up and said, ‘you’re both too skinny, give him a bottle’. I did.  He ate, slept, smiled, so did I.

When my eldest daughter was born, two year later, I told myself, I’ll get it right this time, I’ll Relax into motherhood. I tried but at less than six weeks my daughter grew so gravely ill that we were evacuated from home in Africa to hospital in London, her diagnosis a broad, but dangerous ‘failure to thrive’, she was unable to tolerate either my milk or formula. We spent four months in and out of the best children’s hospitals in London, her on a specialised, prescription diet until she began to gain weight, tolerate soya and then we flew home.

So Hat’s arrival was met with trepidation,  would it be ‘Third time never like the rest’, I wondered, worried.

And despite a distressing start, it was. Within days her facial contusion had subsided, she was feeding with the relaxed contentedness that I had read about but never witnessed in either of my other children’s early days. She slept, she ate, she found her thumb. She gazed with wide eyes around her and considered the world with a careful wisdom that has sustained.  And she delivered this extraordinary calm. I’d done this before, I followed my instinct, did what felt right, fed her on demand so that it no longer felt demanding, ate bread and jam and drank a Guinness before I went to bed to keep us both going overnight, kept her in a crib beside me so that I could reach out a hand to sooth her or a foot to jiggle her back to sleep.

Being a mother has taught me many, many things. With Hat’s arrival I had the confidence to understand that Routine really meant whatever worked for you and your baby and wasn’t a timetable prescribed in the pages of an Expert’s tome.  I threw the books away.

And I learned a new lesson: in the end, there’s no right and wrong in this job, there’s only the right way for you.


hat and I 2001


January 29, 2016


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.



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.



Gaps. Again.

January 5, 2016

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


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.