Archive for April, 2007

Conversations with a Stranger

April 30, 2007

During flight home from Mwanza the young African man sitting beside me struck up a conversation. He wanted to know what I was scribbling in my diary; was I researching for a thesis he asked? No, I said, “I’m a journalist, I’m trying to piece together a story that I have to submit tomorrow”. He was an engineer he told me, en route home to Kenya having spent time on the goldmines near Lake Victoria.

I am intrigued to know what he thought of Tanzania, this being his first visit. He found it very different to his home across the border, he confided.

‘Nobody here speaks English’, he said, ‘Kiswahili is their first language; in Kenya it is English. And in Tanzania’ – he adds – ‘everybody refers to their president as Ndugu (brother); in Kenya it is Your Excellency’. I cannot tell which he thinks is more people-friendly. But by his tone I guessed he didn’t approve of anybody being assumed Excellent merely because of status.

He wants to know where I am from. When I tell him my grandfather came to Kenya from Scotland over a hundred years ago he suggests I ought to watch Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, ‘in order to understand something of your history’.

As we talk I divulge that my husband once worked for Lord Delamere on the beleaguered Soysambu Estate in Kenya where Delamere’s son, Tom, is accused of shooting a trespasser a year ago. ‘It has been very controversial’, says my neighbour, ‘I am not sure what to think, but the press has reported both sides of the story’. That’s encouraging I say, sign of a healthy media, ‘Yes’, he agrees, ‘I believe the accused must be tried on the merits of his case, not on the colour of his skin; there is too much racism against the whites in Kenya now’.

When I disembark at Kilimanjaro I wish him a safe onward journey – he was a visibly nervous passenger (more nervous than I who had diluted my anxiety with a beer not the abstemious Fanta he drank). He shakes my hand warmly and tells me to say hello to my husband and children.


Only in Africa Moments Vol 2

April 29, 2007

En route to Outpost we touched down in Zanzibar. We were joined for the onward flight by ex President of Tanzania Benjamin Mkapa and his entourage of two fat and suited bodyguards. One carried Mkapa’s cane, the other his cushion. If I am ever in the position where I need a bodyguard, I want him to be lean and carry a gun.
Every time the pilot spoke to the passengers subsequent to Mr Mkapa clambering aboard, he began by addressing the Honourable Ex President Mkapa, Ladies and Gentlemen. Except that his pronunciation means that he said ‘On-Horrible Ex President …’ which made me giggle which wasn’t prudent since bodyguard armed with cane was in seat directly in front of me.
Anthony and I eat lunch in dodgy dive in Outpost. We select from a menu which includes ‘Paper Stake’, ‘Bony Fish’ and ‘Bony Finger of Beef’. I opt for Chicken Stu and wonder whether it had a brother called Bill.
On the way to Outpost I also flew via Dar es Salaam where I was obliged to change planes which involved boarding a bus to take me from the terminal 50 meters across the runway. This seemed mildly absurd. By contract, and perhaps because the Tanzania Aviation Authority imposes less stringent rules the further one is from the capital, en route home I boarded a plane in Mwanza by walking 150m down the runway and directly beneath the wings of another plane which was being refuelled at the time. The stench of aviation fuel was thick in the hot air. I wondered what Western Health and Safety standards would make of that.

To Do List

April 29, 2007

This is my To Do list for the seven days ahead. Generally my To Do lists get buried under the mountains of things I meant to do but never got around to.

With what lies ahead, however, I will not be able to ignore the To Do’s; circumstance denies me the luxury.

Uproot as much of the orchard as I can in order to relocate to Outpost
Uproot as much of the lawn as I can in order to relocate to Outpost
File four outstanding commissions which are due within next seven days
Strategize with lawyer regards a plan of action against errant bastard ex employers
Collect my mum from the airport who is visiting from England. She thinks she is coming on holiday. I think she is in for a shock.
Pack entire house into a 40ft container and dispatch to Outpost by weekend
Sell three cows; two if sick one dies
Try to remember to feed children and get them to and from school roughly on time
Stay calm

Home again

April 29, 2007

Home, to:

A car that must go directly back to Mr Koga’s to languish for another three days despite having spent the best part of the past week languishing in same;

a powercut in it’s 36th hour;

a pile of stinking laundry (four of us away from home for five days equates to same amount of smelly washing as one person over almost three weeks) on account of still broken washing machine;

a sick cow.

So why do I feel so deliriously happy, so overwhelmed with gratitude and relief?

Because we have a chance to start again.

We found a house in the Outpost. Along with wine and olive oil. It belongs to the local Bishop. It’s not ideal. But it will become an Ideal Home once filled with our kids, clutter and noise.

The Bishop and we held lengthy negotiations about the significant improvements we proposed making to his property – at our own expense. And – having grudgingly agreed – he promptly put the rent up. Further negotiations followed as regards the price of the tray of eggs that we also bought from him at a vastly inflated price. The Bishop clearly has God on his side.

And then, because I had to get back to the children and because my husband likes scrambled egg on hot buttered toast we piled into the car and drove five hours to Mwanza, a sprawling city on the shores of Lake Victoria, so that husband could buy butter and I could board a plane and fly home.

Home to a broken car, a sick cow, piles of dirty washing and no power but ironically a light at the end of what’s been a long and very dark tunnel.

Post from an Outpost

April 27, 2007

Well. I’m here. In the Outpost.

I arrived on Wednesday evening; a(nother) crisis on the farm on Tuesday – when mine and the children’s safety was threatened – left me vulnerable, defeated and black eyed after a sleepless night. The upside of all that meant I was beyond feeling afraid of flying, too tired, too overwhelmed. I drank beer at 21,000 ft and was awash with relief at forging some distance between me and the apparently endless disappointments of the farm.

 As we landed I watched the airstrip loom out of the bush. Nothing but bush. No urban sprawl, no highways, no corrugated iron roofs winking malevolently.  Nothing. Nobody. Just unadultered Africa.

We touched down on a dirt runway, baggage was taken off in a wheelbarrow and dragged towards the airport building, low slung and shuttered, newly painted green and white, a relic of the German and British history that permeates every shabby corner of this tiny place.

And since then, since arriving almost tearful with relief at seeing Anthony, I have explored the small Swahili town, busy with bicycles and men dressed in kanzus. I have heard the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer and listened to the endless monotonous conversation of crows. I have walked the market to establish that I can feed my family. I have unearthed a tiny, windowless grocery store where tins of Heinz Baked Beans are packed to ceiling height and dusted as they are taken off shelves for customers. I have spotted most of what I may need. Including olive oil. I have held my nose in the local butchery and learned that if I want fresh beef fillet – 90 pence a piece – I must be there before 9 in the morning. I have even sourced a duka that sells wine. At twice the price it is in Arusha. But I can get it. That’s what counts.

And when we tired of understanding where things were, Anthony and I, we took to the bush and within five minutes drive of town, down a dusty road shaded by an avenue of tall mango trees (an abiding reminder of the caravans of slavers that trod a path through this place to the sea, tossing mango stones as they walked) we found a glorious lake tucked into a basin beneath a row of hilly outcrops, kopjes. The reeds were busy with communes of quelia and weaver birds all talking at once, the tops of acacias were heavy with egrets coming in to roost for the night so that their branches looked snowywhite. We opened a bottle of wine, the one I’d brought with from home – just in case – and drank it as the sky grew dark and tiny stars sputtered to life.

I think – perhaps – that the dearth of a social life, the absence of anywhere to drink a capuccino, the fact I cannot get my hair cut will not matter. Not when I have traded them for a space, for now, in a part of world that seems so unspoiled. So at peace wtih itself. So that we may find some of our own again.

Perhaps this funny little place will be the glue that helps to cement our fractured faith in Africa.

 I hope so.

In the end, I didn’t need to wear a brave face. Indeed, I have felt safe enough to drop my guard.

I am not entirely certain my teenagers will be as enamoured of this place as their mother is; I will encourage them to approach it as a adventure, I will remind them that, thanks to great grandparents with itchy feet, they have settler blood coursing through their veins.

And if that doesn’t work, I shall endeavour to bribe them to like it.  We are in Africa, after all.

Off to an Outpost …

April 24, 2007

Tomorrow I am going to visit my husband for five days.

Kind friends have offered to have the children and they are delirious at the idea of spending time with families who have copious – and interesting – ‘snacks’ on hand; if what Amelia tells me is anything to go by, every family in Arusha is popping the lids off (expensive, imported) Pringles with regular abandon, tucking into tins full of (expensive, imported) chocolate chip cookies and sloshing down buckets full of (expensive, imported) fruit juice. ‘All we have to eat in this house is bread’, she complained. I should have added ‘And water’, but instead I whined plaintively about the importance of not eating between meals and if she was hungry there was always fruit, ‘Ug, no thanks’, she said. (Note to reader: please don’t automatically assume that because we live in a place where there is – happily for me, tragically for my children apparently – a dearth of fast food and a plethora of fresh fruit that eating healthily is an easy policy to foist on one’s offspring. It’s not)

Anyhow. Children are off to friends and I am off to husband. I am going to join him – in the outpost where he is currently based – to consider whether I could live in said outpost. And if I can, whether we can find a suitable home. But outpost is so far flung that I must fly. And I have a pathological fear of flying. I cannot articulate why or explain when this fear manifested itself. Since I had children? (perhaps an over zealous sense of self preservation kicks in with motherhood?) Certainly my fear of heights has been, well, heightened, since I became a mother; I absolutely cannot sit by the window in a plane. Unless I close my eyes. Or wear those eye thingies. And then, with my earphones plugged firmly into my ears, I am rendered both deaf and blind and won’t notice the drinks trolley. Which is a shame, because at 27,000 ft I will really, really need a drink.

Tomorrow’s flying time will be four hours. With a change in the middle. 

I will be very pleased to land in outpost. So I can get off plane. I will be very pleased to see husband, once have removed attractive eye patches of course.

I have spoken to him several times since he left home and as a result of long conversations, I have slowly imbibed something of where our future may lie.

It is, by all accounts, a quiet place. And a lonely one.

‘That’s OK’, I say merrily, ‘I can do quiet’.

‘And the shopping isn’t great’.

That’s OK’, I say (bit less merrily), ‘I don’t need shops’. And I laugh. Just to keep the mood elevated.  Even if I’m beginning to feel a bit scared, ‘So long as I can run a home’, I say (pretending that’s what I’ve been doing for the past 18 years).


‘What does Um mean?’ I enquire

‘Well – grocery shopping is going to be tricky’.

‘What do you mean, ‘tricky’?’

‘You can’t get butter, cheese, fish, wine, sausages, bacon, cream, anything dairy actually, any luxurious goods like breakfast cereal or olive oil …”

Wine!? I can’t get wine? How am I supposed to stay sane if I can’t get wine?!

And olive oil, a luxury ingredient? I fry eggs in olive oil. Because as an aspirant domestic goddess that’s what you do. Even if eggs look like shit when they’re done.

‘What can you get then?’ I ask, trying to keep my voice level to disguise rising panic. 

‘Flour. Um. Errr. Sugar? Chickens. I think. A few veggies in the market’.

If I am to stay sane, if we are to live there, I am clearly going to have to get over my flying hang-up just to go grocery shopping.

I don’t know what to pack for five days in an outpost.  

But I know what to wear: a brave face. 


Body Odour

April 23, 2007

A search engine looking for the words ‘sulphur smell’ and ‘body odour’ has directed somebody to my blog.

Are stinky results of a broken washing machine and regurgitating laundry basket detectable in cyberspace?

It would seem so.

Must locate silicone gun and mend machine today.

Bloody, bloody cat

April 23, 2007

Bloody cat has killed the sunbird that has entertained me for months. He would hop about on the window above the desk where I write, admiring his reflection in the glass for hours and providing inspiration – or happy distraction – when the words wouldn’t come.

I think perhaps he felt like a different venue this morning, some place new to parade. And went too close to the ground from where horrid, horrid Moshi could launch an attack.

I knew she’d killed something for I could hear her growl. And something told me before I saw her that it would be the sunbird. I grabbed her – by the tail – as she whipped by me and prised the little bird from her jaws. Too late.

Already the sheen was disappearing from his feathers.

I wrapped him in tissue and buried him in the garden beneath the tuber roses.

I wanted to weep.

Moshi looks not in the least remorseful and is presently cleaning herself. I am going to ignore her all day.

On Being a Successful Tooth Fairy

April 23, 2007

Last night I was a tooth fairy. Hat, who is ten and whom I know absolutely does not believe in fairies but is too mercenary to admit it, has lost three teeth in alarmingly quick succession. I hope this is normal; I hope that her teeth are not all falling out because I don’t feed her properly or something.

Last night there was also a power cut. You’d think this would be a hindrance, but not at all. It meant that instead of either waiting up until Hat had fallen asleep to leave the necessary or risk forgetting, falling asleep myself and waking to a disappointed wail this morning, I could deposit cash in the dark whilst she still wide awake because she couldn’t see what I was doing. (And because I forgot to buy batteries for her torch, she wasn’t able to check later).

Hat – for reasons I cannot fathom – likes to keep her teeth. The ones that have fallen out, obviously. (And the new ones she has in her head, I hope?). She stores them in a jam jar where they rattle about a bit morbidly. Perhaps she thinks I’ll forget which ones have been paid for by the fairies and she can recycle them, really – she’s that mercenary. The upside, though, is that I don’t have to grapple about in the dark, drop bloody tooth, grope around on floor trying to find it, bang head on top bunk, swear and risk waking Hat up. Hat knows all this and in a bid to make life as easy as possible for the tooth fairy (which is how I know she knows) she leaves a note for the fairies, conveniently placed on chest of drawers, explaining that she wants to keep her tooth so could they just leave the money instead. And bugger off without waking her up.

Last night she only left one tooth out – she’s saving the other two for another time, she says, it’s all part of her budgeting plan. And I carried out role of tooth fairy with consummate ease and felt very smug this morning when I woke because I was able to ask, ‘how much did the tooth fairy leave you Hat?’, rather than have Hat weep, ‘the tooth fairy didn’t come’ which would – of course – have made me feel like the world’s worst mother.


Only in Africa Moments Vol 1

April 22, 2007

Somebody once told me that once you stop noticing Africa, it’s time to go home. Since I’m not sure where home is, I’d best keep noticing.

These are my Only in Africa Moments this week

Hat and I are in the chemist. Outside there is an old woman sitting awkwardly on the pavement, as if her legs have buckled underneath her. She is begging, beating an empty tin on the ground to gain the attention of passers-by and she is chattering in an incomprehensible way. Hat wants to give her some money so I fish out a 500 shilling note – equivalent to about 20 pence, enough for a loaf of bread and a cup of tea. As we walk back to the car, Hat drops the note into the tin. The woman looks up at her and clutches her arm, smiling broadly. And then she begins to sing.

Look Mum I made her happy.

Yes, Hat. You did.

I’m driving the children home from school. The sun is setting behind me and the air is thick with sun-spangled-dust. There is a woman walking in the opposite direction, fast. On her hip is strapped a baby whom she is feeding from her breast as she walks. Africa has no time for coy modesty; needs must. I think it’s a clever plan; she’ll get home before it gets dark and her baby will be quiet.


I’m having a cup of coffee at a friend’s house. Another friend of hers calls by – with a tin of Quality Streets. They’re a gift. ‘I almost got you loo paper instead’ she said, ‘Pick and Pay has the fattest softest rolls of loo paper you’ve ever seen’. I don’t think I’ve lived in the West long enough to miss quilted toilet tissue; I think I’ll always opt for chocolate over expensive loo paper.


Rehema and I are having a conversation in the kitchen. I want to know whether the farm labourers have been paid yet. No, they haven’t, says Rehema, and they’re not likely to be either, she adds. Why don’t they go to the Labour Union then, I want to know. Because the Directors – according to Rehema – are paying the Union ‘chai’ to keep the labourers off their backs.