Archive for March, 2007

Mind where you walk

March 31, 2007

Glorious walk tramping across farm which was once scored with productive ranks of baby carrots, baby corn and baby leeks, all growing under halos of water cast by overhead sprinklers and destined for the shelves of Tesco (has anybody questioned British preference for juvenile vegetables, btw?). Not like that anymore: it’s 1,500 acres of debt-ridden, abandoned, tangle of weeds now.

Omo Bright dogs no longer just Bright; thanks to the thick undergrowth we – they, Anthony and I – were forced to battle our way through – they are now cheerfully bedecked with burrs, like a pair of fat blondes who have over-accessorized. Anthony walks barefoot. I – shod – high step like a dressage pony fearful that I may step on a snake. I probably look quite silly.

Snakes are not uncommon here and walking through weeds as high as an elephant’s eye is – frankly – to foolishly tempt fate. I walk behind Anthony (five paces – in manner of good African wife, but not out of respect, rather as a result of theory that he will either chase reptiles from our path or stand on them before I do). I have met cobra often on my walks and I always afford them courteous space. Some Africans suggest that to witness a snake cross your path is an omen of good luck. Some suggest it’s exactly the opposite. I think it’s largely a question of where your feet fall.

Birds, Baths and Failure

March 31, 2007

Just caught the tiniest kingfisher trapped in my office (grandly named lean-to in which I wrote the book that brought me to literary recognition, i.e. rejection letters from 50 editors on both sides of the Pond). It had flown in through wide open door (courtesy of Anthony who is hoping that if I can see the mess therein, I will do something about it: I won’t; I’ll just shut the door) and kept bashing its pretty little head on the closed windows every time it tried to escape. I scooped it up in the palm of my hand, its sharp orange beak all that could be seen then, safe in a loosely closed fist so that it wouldn’t struggle and break a wing, its fast-beating breast palpable against my fingers, and let it go outside. It only sat for a micro-second upon my outstretched hand before taking flight and soaring to the top of an acacia. I felt like Sir David Attenborough in my proximity to nature and my valiant conservation effort.

A quiet Saturday, which has given me the opportunity to reflect on what a thoroughly hopeless ‘memsahib’ I am. The last few days have seen visits to friends who run beautiful homes in proverbial clockwork fashion. They call for tea and uniformed staff deliver it upon trays dressed with silver and delicate linen. One had to call twice before tea appeared, she looked sternly at her watch when the tray arrived and scolded the cook for taking too long a lunch break, ‘I told him to have tea here for four’, she explained (it was 4.20) noticing how embarrassed I looked (not because tea was late – it always is in my house, if it happens at all – but because witnessing anybody’s dressing down is discomfiting). The luxury of affordable home help here is tempered by the politically incorrect elements of having ‘servants’. That I should even be concerned to analyze this is suggestion that I’m too liberal to be a proper ‘memsahib’. My contemporaries, with their uniformed ranks of staff and homes that run to timetables, regard me as something of a failure and a disappointment; after all, my colonial heritage suggests I ought to know how to do this better. But I never learned, happily, for neither my grandmother nor my mother were especially keen to lock up the sugar and wear bunches of keys at their waist like county jailers.

The dogs have had a bath. Regularly – because we walk in long grass in Africa – we must pick ticks from their coats which we toss into the wood-burning stove that heats water for our own baths (the dogs enjoy no such luxury – they’re washed in cold from the garden tap) and submerge them in noxious smelling ‘dip’. Otherwise they will get tickbite fever and die. Like Marmite did. Marmite was Hattie’s dog, and is buried at the bottom of the garden. Today – too late, the dogs were already damp – I discovered we’d run out of ‘dip’ (further evidence of my poor house-keeping skills) and so the dogs were washed in the local laundry detergent, Omo, which, according to the tub, ‘washes brighter’.

I mightn’t manage my home with regiments of unformed staff but I shall unquestionably have the brightest dogs in the district.

So there.

On the Road Again

March 30, 2007

Got a lift into town to collect my car from the garage where it has been languishing for past two days.

Went via ATM to draw the necessary to pay for car’s equivalent spa-experience. I approach ATM with some trepidation – not only because last time it swallowed card whole but because current predicament means financial health somewhat compromised and so I live in perpetual fear that my request for $20, $50 or – on rash days – $100 may be denied. If I were an adrenaline junkie, and I’m not, I’d be very happy with the predictable, quiet life I do not have, a visit to the ATM would bring on same rush that bungee jumping, parachuting, swimming with sharks and white water rafting apparently does.

Anyhow, ATM obviously not yet aware of dire financial straits and sweetly obliged by proffering precisely what I’d asked for and giving my card back.

On to garage which is owned by charming Sikh gentleman with whom – on account of my very regular visits, not because I fancy him but because my car is lazy cow who seems determined to spend more time dossing in his workshop than on the road – I am on first name terms.

Morning Koga

Morning Anthea

I pay my money and make for a hasty retreat lest I get a lecture about state of my car. Am not fast enough, Koga’s faster.

‘We had to weld the whole of the underside of the chassis’, he tells me sternly, ‘the whole of the rear end of your car is cracked and buggered’.

Buggered! Unfortunate turn of phrase I feel, but I don’t say anything.

Instead I smile sweetly, ‘she’s very old I explain, 16 this year’ (which, on reflection, makes me sound like sick, mad old bat who holds annual birthday parties for a set of wheels).

Hmm, mutters Koga sternly, he is not pleased that I seem to find his discovery amusing: I ought to be taking warning of car about to fall to bits very seriously and I would – really I would – were I not so excited at prospect of getting behind the steering and being mobile again.

Not that I’m going anywhere – just home. Bouncing down the 12 klms of potholed dirt rejoicing that the banging in the back isn’t quite as bad as it was a few days ago.

****************************

Last night I bumped into somebody I knew years ago. In the interim his beautiful teenage daughter has died of malaria. He was a news photographer once and has recorded hundreds of images portraying every angle of Africa’s tortured face. He said he though that perhaps Africa prepared us for tragedy. I don’t think anything can prepare us for the death of a child; I don’t really think he thought so either.

Guinea Pig Funeral

March 29, 2007

Hattie had to write a composition for an assessment by tutors for home school which she and I anticipate beginning mid year when we relocate to a very isolated part of Tanzania.

She opted to write about pets. Which reminded me how many we’ve had over the years: hamsters, cats (which ate the hamsters when, presumably, the hypnotic meals on wheels grew unbearable), guinea pigs, one of which was eaten by neighbour’s dog during a lunch I was aspiring to host for company guest. Amelia was distraught and insisted on wrapping dead guinea pig in a shroud of mosquito net and presenting it to me on verandah where I sat with collection of horrified guests. As I took shroud from her, GP fell to floor with leaden thud, I tried to stifle nervous giggles and Amelia was convulsed by yet another paroxysm of noisy grief. I persuaded her to bury it, which she did. But later – by which time we were on coffee – she decided to exhume the grave having unearthed a wine box to masquerade as a coffin. And then, dressed head to toe in black, with her brother and sister as part of funeral cortege, she led a solemn march around the garden to a new grave site, all in view of utterly stupefied guests, bearing wine box/coffin complete with stiff, cold, muddy rodent. By then sense of humour and patience was wearing thin. I banned guinea pigs after that.

We are down to a relatively safe two dogs and two cats.

Antics in advance of Anthony’s adjourned court case on Monday continue; more and more evidence comes to light that would suggest he’s the Fall Guy for the big boys. Another employee, who is still in the employment of the company and who assisted with his bail last weekend, has been asked to resign as a result.

Distractions: dentists and eggs

March 28, 2007

Ben and Hattie have an appointment with the dentist – odd how that normality can be so distracting; indeed never has a dentist appointment been so welcome.

The dentist’s surgery, which is in a local hospital sponsored by the Indian community, is one of several down a narrow wooden corridor. Waiting patients sit on the slender benches that line each side of the tongue and groove walls and stare into space or at each other, or, especially, when we visit, at us; it is not usual to see wazungu down here. The missionaries are about the only ones to have the courage to patronize this clinic but that has largely more to do with finance than anything else.

Various doors lead off the alley-like corridor and above each door protrudes a sign to indicate the resident doctor’s area of expertise, ‘Dr Mumbi, Gynnacologie’. Presumably Dr Mumbi can find his way around the complicated intricacy of the female reproductive system even if he can’t navigate a dictionary to find the correct spelling of his particular specialty?

The kids and I take a seat beneath a fan which is secured at ceiling level and lethargically (on account of the power which fluctuates between low and off altogether) stirs the air trapped into this narrow artery which smells of body odour and methylated spirits. An African lady sits opposite us. She is wearing impossibly tight jeans and has taken the weight off her feet which are uncomfortably strapped into impossibly high red patent heels. The constrictions of her clothes prevent her ample derriere from spilling over the edges of the skinny bench on which she is precariously balanced. She is feeding a large baby at her enormous black bosom.

Ben is fascinated and horrified in equal measure. The woman’s proximity and the narrowness of the corridor mean that her knees almost touch ours and Ben’s vision has been tunneled so that her swollen bust consumes his restricted view. He spends a lot of time looking at his hands; his face registers the anxiety that he harbours about both the bare-chested woman opposite him and the impending dentist appointment.

The breast-feeding baby has clearly just had a blood test at the laboratory which is at the end of the corridor, a hatch through which you post your specimens of pee or shit (which you will deliver in a jam jar wrapped modestly in newspaper). If you are having a blood test, you simply thrust your arm over the counter and the technician does the necessary and the loud cries that ensue (in the case of a child) will be channelled effectively up the passageway so that none of the volume escapes until it reaches the door and can spill into the car park.

The child’s mother dabs at his pricked finger with a graying piece of cotton wool, spotted with blood and – when she is satisfied that she has stemmed the flow and her child is reasonably calm again – she staggers to her feet to deposit the cotton wool is the plastic bin beneath the lab’s counter. Crab like she shuffles towards the bin, her bosom still spilling forth from her blouse, her child still clamped determinedly to it, she gets rid of the litter and then she stumbles, bent double, back to her seat. Ben looks as if he’d like to flee.

Trying desperately to ignore her, Ben tips his head back and shifts his focus to the posters fixed to the wall above the row of waiting heads. One graphically describes the life-cycle of the anopheles mosquito, the other that of amoebic dysentery. It shows a crude drawing of a naked man squatting in a maize field to relieve himself. The same man, having evacuated his bowels as crop fertilizer, is then depicted enjoying a banana.

‘Where’s the bathroom?’ asks Hattie

‘Oh God, love, you don’t need a wee do you?’ I ask in alarm, I have no idea where the toilet is and my imagination tells me it wouldn’t be very nice even if I could find it.

‘No, no, where’s the bathroom in the picture?’ she says impatiently, ‘so the man can wash his hands’.

‘That’s the point, Silly’, sneers her brother, ‘he didn’t wash his hands did he, so now he’s going to get Anaemic Dysentery’

‘Amoebic’

‘What’, Ben looks at me blankly

‘It’s Amoebic Dysentery, not Anaemic’, I point out, ‘you’re quite right, you get it if you don’t wash your hands after you’ve been to the loo’

‘Ben never does’, says Hattie crossly, who does not like to be called Silly by anybody. ‘It’s why he’s always on the toilet’ she adds.

I can’t believe we’re about to have a row about sibling bowel activity. Not here, not when there are fifty Africans to witness my mortification.

‘Shut up’, I snap.

Surprisingly, for they don’t often oblige when asked to shutup, they do. They don’t want to invite the interest they’re stirring any more than I do.

Instead they glower at each other and at a 3rd poster, the only one that is too far from the window to be faded by even the longest-reaching and last of the sun’s low afternoon rays. Consequently it is still bright and the black letters boldly state, ‘Anyone for a Smile’. Each psychedelic character in the grinning crowd jostles for front position leering suggestively. Oddly they are all missing their top front teeth.

‘They all look like you’ hisses Ben to his little sister.

Imminent outbreak of war is aborted, thank God, as we are ushered into the dentist’s room by his assistant who is dressed in a lurid Fanta coloured uniform, only her veil is white.

**********************************

Hattie found a weaver’s nest in the garden, tossed out of its tree by the wind, complete with resident tiny blue speckled egg. She gathered up the egg and swaddled it in cotton wool. She was, she told us, going to incubate it herself so that she could have a weaver chick as a pet.
Hmmm.

In order to keep the egg moist – as instructed by her father who knows more about birds than I do, clearly – she wet the cotton wool. In order to keep it warm, she bent her bed side lamp such that the bulb shone brightly – and hotly – just inches from the egg for several days and several nights.

I think she cooked the egg. And then I think – judging by the nasty sulphur smell emanating from her room – that the egg went bad.

Thankfully she conceded to abandon plans of a hatchery and has, this morning, solemnly buried the egg in the garden where she found it.

Ignoring the car

March 26, 2007

To add insult to serious injury, I think my car may be in need of urgent attention; she is old (not unlike me) and complaining loudly about the abuse she is presently being subjected to (also not unlike me) as I bounce to town and back (between court, cop shop, lawyer and kind, obliging money changer) with scant regard for her ancient bodywork which creaks rheumatically at every bump (and there are a lot of those).

Concern for her welfare does – at least – offer brief distraction from my numerous other woes. But – despite the fact the air-conditioning has gone – again – and it is hot – in the run up to the Long Rains – I do my driving with the windows up because I find her whining tiresome, not to say worrying. Having paid legal fees, I don’t have the wherewithal for a new suspension so car will just have to manage on arthritic chassis.

You see: I was not joking when I said that in my next life I want to come back as an African lawyer: it will mean I shall be able to afford a car that I do not have to listen to whining, and nor for that matter does every body else in the vicinity, often long before I appears over the horizon.

We are expecting a visit from a neighbour; indeed he has just pulled into the drive. I only know he’s arrived because I can see his headlights: he drives a shiny new 4×4 which you cannot hear coming, it does not grumble loudly like my car, it whispers in subtly contented fashion. He is rich and likes to crow about his own (many) successes whilst being prophet of perpetual doom as to our (many) failures. Anthony and I have taken bets that he will tell us – on account of own recent debacle – to skip the country.

Watch this space!

The importance of an enduring sense of humour

March 26, 2007

Well. The Fat Cats had their spies out and copped onto what was happening; they got their expensively-heeled foot in the door just before Anthony and managed to get the case adjourned until next week. Anthony, who spent a miserable morning in a cell, is out on bail but his life has been hijacked until the hearing. The company paid somebody off and bought themselves some time. They won’t crash and begin to burn – at least not yet –which is what would have happened had they not greased a palm or two because, based on Anthony’s statement, the claimant would have filed a criminal suit against them and attached assets. Incredible what a bit of cash and knowing the right people will do. We don’t know the right people and the little cash we had is fast being eroded; our legal fees were a staggering $2,000.

In my next life I want to come back as a lawyer in Africa. And drive a top of the range Toyota with DVD, air-con and blacked out windows which he has bought with fees paid by penniless farmers who don’t understand the system.

But as fearful as we might have been over the weekend, I witnessed many Africans in both the police station and the court who looked even more afraid, wringing hands and shifting nervously from one foot to another. Corruption is rife in the African justice (oh what an irony!) system, and police brutality not uncommon. The merits or otherwise of your case mean nothing, what makes a difference is how much you can afford to pay – either in bribes or legal fees – and your understanding that there is a system in place that is supposed to protect civilians. Many Africans have neither the funds nor the education to make that difference and suffer as a consequence. I have heard stories of African women who have been incarcerated in prisons in Tanzania for years and years, accused of the murders of abusive husbands. They are there awaiting trial.

I maintain that you cannot survive Africa without an enduring sense of humour.

Mine is being tested this week.

Sleepless on a sunday night

March 25, 2007

A weekend consumed by anxiety and meetings with lawyers; Anthony is to appear before the magistrate tomorrow morning at 8. He is charged with signing a company cheque which subsequently bounced. He signed the post-dated cheque in good faith on his Directors’ orders a year ago whilst still an employee. They stopped paying us three months later, when their funds dried up. It was only after that they presented the cheque Anthony had put his signature to. The lawyer gave us two options: that Anthony admit liability, ‘yes, that’s my signature on the cheque, I signed it in my capacity of manager believing it would be honoured’, or go for an adjournment and buy the company time to rustle up the necessary funds.

Why on earth would we opt to buy time for a company we no longer work for that has failed to pay its staff or acknowledge pleas for payment from creditors?

We are to be at the village police station at 7 to collect a police escort to accompany us to the courthouse in town. What’s the betting there will be nobody there and we will have to wait, trying to be graciously patient and then, once somebody appears, we will have to drive the 25 klms to town like maniacs, hoping we are not stopped for speeding en route in which case we’d risk another arrest, in order not to be late for our 8am appointment with Madam Magistrate?

Amelia left for France last night – a school trip. She was beside herself with excitement and packed, amongst other things, 15 long chiffon scarves as Madame Curley, her French teacher, had told her that women in France were chic, and aspiring to chic meant wearing, apparently, a lot of flowing scarves.

Why all the scarves I wanted to know

Because I need to be cheek

Cheek?

Yes, cheek, Madame says French women are cheek because they wear scarves

Oh, I say, you mean chic?

No, cheek, she repeats adamantly. Clearly she does not believe I am – chic, that is – for I don’t even know how to pronounce the word.

So. She has gone armed with suitcase full of brilliantly coloured scarves and plans to wear them ‘around my neck and my waist’. I hope she does look ‘cheek’, and doesn’t look like a washing line.

She didn’t when I kissed her goodbye at the airport last night; she looked radiant and happy. And beautiful, yes. And there were no signs of the tragic Railway Children expressions she bore as her father was borne away by the police on Friday. Thank God.

I am going to bed now. I won’t sleep. I am now an expert on insomnia. Which is a bit of a waste since on account of silly small-minded Oz editor, I’m not going to be able to air my quite considerable experience of sleeplessness to an Australian readership.

Arm-twisting Africa Style

March 25, 2007

Friday 23rd – in the evening

If I thought the morning started badly, the day got considerably worse.

Attempting to overcome fact I don’t look a bit like stunner daughter and trying to reconcile self to unwelcome ageing process which means wrinkles and saggy bottom, in contrast to daughter’s unlined complexion and pert derriere, I am sulking upstairs with book.

A car appears in the drive. Afraid of going out of the house again today without a bag over my head, I insist husband Anthony tends to the visitors.

Who happen, as luck would have it, to be a couple of Labour Union officials and assorted uniformed policemen. They have come armed with a warrant for Anthony’s arrest. The crowd (dodgy, as it transpired) that we worked for until the end of last year has not paid farm laborers for months. That Anthony was once an employee and unsuspecting of looming trouble (unlike remaining management and the financial controller who – we subsequently discover – have gone into hiding) means he’s in the wrong place (still squatting on the farm, hanging out in the hope of recouping some of our own unpaid salary) at the wrong time. The Fall Guy.

Arresting innocents at 5pm on a Friday afternoon is a popular intimidation tactic here: nobody wants to spend a weekend in the cells. Problem is – and unluckily for the hundreds of poor Africans who haven’t been paid for weeks – ex employers, Americans and South Africans doing their grubby African deals from the safety of far-flung addresses where the local cops can’t touch them, couldn’t care less if Anthony rots in jail. As an arm twisting exercise, this is a waste of time.

A fairly unpleasant six hours ensues. As Anthony is carted off to the local police station, I field three distraught children who are convinced their father is about to be given a life sentence. I try to secure the necessary for bail as well as some legal representation. We buy some time when local cop shop admits to their cells being full; Anthony must be escorted to the central police station in town by which time I have availed of the services of a lawyer who is prepared to take on a case at 5.45 on a Friday evening.

By night fall we are back in the village police station where we started, bail has been posted (Anthony’s British passport surrendered and a substantial bribe paid: bail isn’t enough: we need to lubricate the justice procedure Africa fashion).

By ten we are home – having retrieved tired children with tear-stained faced – and I am collecting evidence for the lawyer to prove Anthony has not worked for the company in question since last year. And the reason he resigned was because people weren’t getting paid.

That I look really, really old and really, really tired no longer matters: Anthony isn’t in a cell somewhere and my babies are safe.

We’re in court Monday, if this farcical case isn’t thrown out before then.

The downsides of beautiful daughters

March 25, 2007

Friday 23rd – in the morning

End of term, hooray! Means that for the next two weeks I do not have to get out of bed at ungodly hour of 6am and stub toes en route to kitchen, because I cannot see the step I have stubbed it on every morning for the past five years as sun not up and power not on. School holidays means I can drink coffee in bed whilst I read and my toe has a chance to mend.

Particularly exhausted this end of term since last week included, in no particular order, three evenings of school production of Grease (Amelia was Frenchie which, she insisted, necessitated having blonde highlights which means she now has a head of hair her mates would die for whilst their mothers regard me with obvious disdain for I have indulged my 13 year old daughter with expensive hair treatment); a swimming gala (Hattie); Parent/teacher meetings to discuss success or otherwise of children’s performance this term (I shall not reveal what was said about own trio but I will comment on how diplomatic I think teachers are: imagine trying to present parents with the fact their child is thick beyond hope without offending?); a dentist appointment for all three and inevitable twice daily school runs, most of it on dirt roads dodging chickens, goats, cyclists, pedestrians who are clearly deaf or blind for can neither see nor hear approaching car and – obviously – potholes you could lose your car in.

Is it any wonder, then, that I get confused about school run on this – the last morning of the term. Means I am forced to beg, with some embarrassment, for a lift for kids from a neighbour whom I do not know well and who has never met my children.

As I bundle kids into her car she comments ‘how beautiful’ Amelia is. But she doesn’t just comment the once. No. She asks about three times whether I’m sure Amelia is actually my daughter. I’d like to think that because she’s foreign, and English not her first language, she has trouble understanding my response, in the affirmative, the first time that, yes, believe it or not, the beauty I have just parked on her back seat is – in fact – spawn of harried, lined, old bat who is now madly nodding and gritting her teeth (the few she has left in her really ancient, ugly head) bundling children crossly into car.

If I had had as much sleep as Amelia in recent weeks and if I’d had enough money to indulge self in same expensive hair treatments (rather than sporting a high tide mark where greying roots show through 3 month old highlights) my apperance might at least bear passing resemblance to that of my daughter and silly woman in front of car my daughter is now sitting smugly in would shut her mouth, drag her chin off the floor and stop saying, stupidly, ‘Really? Your daughter hey? Beautiful, no?’