Archive for May, 2007

A Last Walk

May 28, 2007

A last walk

Was it my imagination of were the mountains more beautiful? The evening light more syrupy? The birds more vociferous? I don’t think so. It’s months and months since Kilimanjaro was as clear; it had tossed aside its habitual cloak of cloud so that it was adorned with only wisps, like tulle. It wore a crown of snow, heavier, far heavier than in recent weeks and its every valley, every nuance of its shape, drawn out by shade and sun. Even Mawenzi, the little peak, had bravely stepped forward where it normally hides in its big brother’s shadow. Meru, not to be outdone, stood tall against a blue, blue sky (one that for most of the day had been heavy with mist and rain). About its circumference was a perfectly level frill of cloud, like a tutu. Even the distant Masai Steppe, to the south, was clear. The sun, spilt low through bottom branches and ignited the tops of the star grass so that it looked like so many blushing heads.

I don’t remember such a heartbreakingly beautiful evening. I like to think the mountains were out to say goodbye. And the birds – the pigeons called, the Hadada ibis sounded uncharacteristically mournful and even the guinea fowl’s giggle was subdued. Will they miss me? No. Of course not. But they may miss teasing the dogs.

And will I miss this? Yes. I can already feel the ache of sadness at goodbye.

But another part of Africa will be home now, different vistas will imprint upon my mind so that memories move over as new affections take hold.  The dogs will appreciate new smells. I will walk them to the evensong of different birds.

I will be still be beneath the same enormous African sky. The evening light will be unchanged.

And my beer will always be as cold.




And the point of khaki is what, precisely?

May 25, 2007

I have a question: why do tourists to Africa wear khaki? 

I mean, I can understand the theory of khaki (so that you can creep through the undergrowth undetected, or render yourself invisible in the desert in a sort of khaki/sand blur if you’re member of poor allied forces in the Middle East).  I just can’t fathom why American and Italian and Japanese visitors going ‘on safari’ need wear it? 

Yesterday Mum and I – enjoying a sandwich in tourist hangout which is en route to school so handy place to enjoy a sandwich if you find yourself early for pick up but in time for lunch – witnessed the arrival of dozens and dozens of khaki coloured land cruisers which were disgorging dozens and dozens of matching khaki clad Americans, most quite fat and all talking – loudly – at the same time. If they purchased khaki garments in which they were attired for camouflage purposes, their strident tones – and acres of blindingly white flesh – was something of a give away. One of the fattest and loudest was wearing a khaki mini skirt. She’d have scared away the most daring of buffaloes; indeed she almost put me off my lunch. One of her companions was on the wrong continent altogether: she was sporting tiger stripes. 

See here’s a thing: if tourists believe that wearing khaki trousers/shorts/shirts/faintly ridiculous multi-pocketed/zipped waistcoats will mean they’ll see larger numbers of elusive game, they won’t – not only will the sound of a dozen voices all shrilly emanating from matching khaki coloured land cruisers at once scare any lurking game away, but also – like khaki coloured tourists – khaki coloured land cruisers are rather inclined to stick together and the roar of 17 4x4s and the dust they combine to throw heavenwards (not to mention energetic conversational outpouring) is a dead giveaway to a family of cheetah, say.  ‘Oh bugger’, that cats will grumble crossly, just as they’ve found a nice acacia for a siesta, ‘those bloody tourists who think we can’t see them are on the approach again. Sod it’. And they’ll push off. Occasionally, of course, they’re a little slow off the mark and are copped mid-escape to be exposed to khaki-clad paparazzi who still think they can’t be seen despite all popping out of roof hatches like meercats out of holes, wielding cameras that buzz and whirr and flash irritatingly. Every cheetah in Africa knows precisely how Kate Moss feels, believe me. 

And I can’t help wondering, when they get home, the tourists, to Loughborough or Slough or Colorado or Tokyo, what they do with safari ensemble. Once they’ve ticked off the Big Five will they feel compelled to return to Africa (which would give khaki pants the chance for a second outing)? Or will it be relegated to back of wardrobe along with all the clothes that used to fit them when they were 19 and which they – somewhat optimistically – believe they’ll get back into one day, despite being in their fifties.  I know it never gets worn ‘back home’: I mean have you ever seen a khaki attired shopper wearing a bush hat and sporting a pair of binoculars around his neck stalking the aisles of Tesco, pushing a trolley?

Tagged! Goody!

May 24, 2007

I have been – and as a result am hugely flattered – tagged by a Good Woman In return I must reveal 8 things about myself and tag another five bloggers … here goes:  

I was born a week late in the Mater hospital in Nairobi three years after Kenya got it’s Independence; mum forced to take copious amounts of cod liver oil and orange juice to prompt my arrival. I’m the eldest of three. 

I abhor snobbery. And one-upmanship. If you really, truly like what Mrs Jones is wearing/driving/

reproducing in her kitchen, by all means emulate her; if you’re doing it to keep up, or impress, it’ll show and you’ll look silly and sad. I am irked by people that wear $600 sunglasses simply because they bear the name Chanel or Versace. I could never bring myself to do same, not least because I am very clumsy and would sit on them in first week of ownership. 

I am passionate about raising awareness of mental illness; my mum has suffered from crippling episodes of clinical Depression since I was 13. My energy to get the word out is born of my infuriation at people’s responses to my explaining Mum has Depression – they look at their shoes – and the yawning disparity between ‘I’m depressed’ (Monday morning; jeans too tight; empty InBox at Outlook Express) and Depression (n.b. the capital D): a potentially fatal condition. I have written about depression in capacity of journalist in UK, Ireland, Australia, South Africa and Kenya. As a result an editor at the Daily Telegraph once commented on a CV I copied to a number of editors, ‘does this bloody woman write about anything other than depression’. Problem was he hit the Reply All button which gave me the opportunity to repond – with alacrity – that ‘yes, actually, she does’.  Needless to say, he was acutely embarrassed and I was highly entertained.  

I am frequently paralyzed by shyness which seems at odds with my uninhibited blabbing in cyberspace. I am far more comfortable with the written word – when I can consider what I’m saying, at leisure, with reference to thesaurus, dictionary or spell-check – than the spoken, when I trip over my tongue, stutter, stumble, say what I don’t mean and don’t say what I do. I am married to a man who is extraordinarily at ease in company and as a result far more sociable than I.   

A friend has described me as too black and white; I’m unable – often – to see the grey, to compromise, she says. I think she means I’m a loyal friend and an unforgiving and fairly foul enemy. I like to think of myself as principled.   And non-conformist. Whether by design or the example of my maternal grandmother, I don’t know. She was an Irish woman who – indignant at being left behind in Dublin shortly after she and my grandfather married – followed him to India across a Europe ravaged by war. She loved India and the Indians. Africa was more interesting than going ‘home’ but I don’t think it ever matched India for majesty, history, colour or culture as far as Gran was concerned. She wore chaplis (leather sandals), trousers, bold tops and beads. She smoked a hubbley bubbley pipe then long More cigarettes (which she let me bum off her). She never drove a car, instead using the bus (which in newly independent Kenya when white people had long stopped going to town by bus was frowned upon). She loved books, halva and arguments about religion in which she engaged vociferously until a stern look from Grandad shut her up. 

The worst thing that’s ever happened to me was losing my dad in a car accident when I was 19 and he 47. The best thing that’s ever happened to me? Lots. An idyllic African childhood, growing up on a farm, surrounded by family; my husband, our three children and the fact I have had the opportunity to steal back some of my own happy childhood by raising them in Africa too.   I enjoy simple things: laughing, walking, a cold beer, a good book, tea in the bush, breakfast on safari, the unique quality of light on an African evening, the scent of rain on dust. 

I’d like to know more about problemchildbride; innerminx; japingape; pinkukulele; equianos and – one for luck (because there’s lots more I’d like to more about since am very nosy) turnthepage-roberta … 

My Upwardly Mobile Geese

May 24, 2007

The geese are gone. And I miss them already; the garden is too quiet without their scolding the Hadada ibis and chiding the dogs, and the lawn too large without interruption afforded by their comical pit-pat waddle. I packed them into a laundry basket yesterday morning and drove them to my friend. She lives on a hill which is inhabited by a crowd rumoured to be too posh to mingle with other common or garden Arusha residents. But I suspect geography has a bigger part to play in their isolation than any conscious social act on their part. 

But her own two geese rather endorse what the rumour mongers suggest. They regard my three, which look a bit grubby and disheveled when I unload them from laundry baskets, with undiluted disdain. Then they toss their snow white heads and stalk off. 

A while later, and as I’m leaving my friend’s after a cup of coffee, I notice my geese wandering off in vague direction of home, several miles away, looking lost and a bit deflated.  I stop the car, leap out and herd them back in general direction of friend’s stables where her own geese live. And then I call her to explain.  She is as concerned as I that my geese are made to feel at home. She has since assured me they are holed up in clean, dry chicken house with buckets of feed. ‘If I give them enough to eat’, she says, ‘they’ll begin to feel at home and stay put’. So the gossips are wrong: it is geography and not snobbery that separates this community from everybody else – my friend’s geese just don’t see enough of others to know how to behave, for their owner certainly does, as demonstrated by her graceful and warm hospitality.

Moving Mango Trees

May 24, 2007

James, shamba boy, or gardener, young and keen and planning to accompany us to the Outpost calls me whilst I am on the school run. ‘Mama’, (he is young enough – or has been sufficiently infused with socialist tradition courtesy of parents who grew up in Nyerere’s days –  not to call me Memsahib, thankfully), ‘the lorry driver has called to say he needs money for fuel’. 

The lorry driver in question – Ali – works for the transport company which is employed to transport last load – mainly mango trees – to Outpost. He left my house two days ago and assured me he’d be in Outpost by Wednesday evening, which it is now; but he is still in Arusha; less than 10 miles from my house. I call Ali’s employer in Outpost – a talkative Indian called Navinda who speaks in quick and heavily accented tones.  

‘Bloody locals’, he says, ‘he is just trying it on, he has plenty plenty money for fuel, ignore him. Please do not pay him anything’. Which I wasn’t planning to do, just thought it prudent to alert Navinda as to whereabouts of his truck in case he thought it was me holding up proceedings. Besides quite keen to get my mango trees to Outpost before they all die. Coals to Newcastle or not. 

On cue, James calls again, driver has called a second time to say that unless I get him some money – and quickly – all the mango trees will die. I call Navinda again. 

‘Please, please’, he instructs with comical urgency, ‘do not give this man any money, he is just pulling a wool over your eyes’. I assure him I knew that anyway since I’ve lived here all my life. But please could driver water my plants. Navinda gruffly agrees to relay my message, it is clear he is left in little doubt as to my state of mind: mad white woman. 

Half an hour later poor James calls again, ‘the driver says he is very sorry, Mama, but he has just seen his boss who has given him money for fuel so he can proceed with his journey’. Funny that: his boss is 650 klms and a two day drive away.

What do you want to be when you grow up? And what does your mother want you to be …

May 22, 2007

Ben is on work experience this week, at a school. He told me a while ago –clearly feeling embarrassed – that he might consider teaching as a career. 

“But I thought you wanted to play cricket for England”, said a surprised Hattie, who is already planning her Lord’s Groupie outfits. 

‘Well’, replied Ben, nonchalantly, ‘just in case I don’t make the team, I thought I’d better have another plan’.  Wise boy. 

He didn’t want me to tell anybody, though, about his aspirations to become a teacher; I suppose when you’re a boy, and 15, such a career choice – given that your street cred depends on hating all your own teachers – is a bad image move. But I did. Tell people. Because I’m a big mouth. And because I am very proud of him for having any idea at all of what he might like to do when he leaves school; I had no idea at all what I wanted to do – write – until I was nearly 40 (so whilst waiting for inspiration to strike I got married and had 3 kids in the hope people wouldn’t ask me what I did because it’d be quite obvious given the trio of small people, nappy bags and pushchairs attached to me; they did anyway). Ben thinks he may want to teach, I told a friend.  

Oh, she said (as in Oh – you must be so disappointed, not as in, Oh, how simply fabulous, you must be so proud of him – and yourself for producing a son with motivation and direction).  Silly cow. Needless to say she has far loftier ambitions for her own son: he will be a doctor, a lawyer or an Indian Chief when he grows up. Not a chemistry teacher.  How can some parents be so dismissive of the people to whom they entrust their children’s intellectual growth; the people who help shape kids as adults? 

I don’t really know why Ben wants to be a teacher, he hasn’t articulated his reasons to me: he likes people, he likes science, he likes cricket – perhaps he hopes to combine all three in the role of teacher. But sneaking a peek at his work experience diary, I gain a little more insight:  I spent my first PE session on the hard-court – and just so everybody knows, the kids here call me MR. R which I believe suits me – training teams for a football tournament tomorrow. We divided the class into three teams, I was in charge of the green team, and we drew all of our two matches, which is not bad for a “first day on the job”.  Year 2’s were my next victims, and I wasn’t only in control of a team but the whistle too! Yup, that’s right, I was going to ref the match – something that I have not done in my short life but I guess we all have to take risks, so I took charge of the games, and didn’t do that badly, as a result my team won both their matches. Well done Mr. R! 

Well done indeed. Mr R; my son. 

The Importance of Company … any company

May 22, 2007

The cats have arrived safely in Outpost. I locked them in a room together the night before they flew. That way, by dawn, when I had to load them, they’d said all they needed to loudly say to one another: had hurled so much abuse, thrown so many punches that they were spent and complained only softly and briefly, peering in worried confusion out of the bars of the cage in which they were incarcerated to travel. Husband assures me they are now locked up in new house, with bowls of food, saucers of milk and buttered paws (cleaning themselves prompt necessary surge of happy hormones so that they begin to settle. And stop them skidding gracelessly across cement floors). 

Relating cat dispatching experience to fellow mother in school car park and describing what I planned to do with geese (since you ask: a friend will baby sit them until I am sufficiently well organized with lawn and pond of which there is neither yet, just dust and an expectant hole) and dogs (drive to Outpost with me when I go in a week), she told me I sounded Sad. I told her she needed to understand more about Outpost before she dismissed me as Sad; in Outpost you’d be wise to welcome all the company you can get whether it’s a cat rubbing up against your foot as your sit writing, a goose bossing a Hadada ibis outside or a Labrador pleading to be taken for a walk.  With the cats gone I was free to load the last lorry. Not a removals van or a sealed truck. No, a shaky sided, open-to-the-elements, affair which was packed in haphazard fashion with – amongst other things – half a dozen trees which I have carefully uprooted, including mango trees (if there was ever a case of coals to Newcastle, this was it: where I am going is Mango Tree capital of the world).  

Are you sure my trees are going to be OK? I asked the driver, Ali, anxiously. Of course, he said, wearing what I suppose he must have imagined was an expression of kindly reassurance but was in fact an impatient smirk that said, ‘listen lady, I generally have far more important things to transport than half an orchard and several pots of lemon grass, so wind your silly white neck in’. 

His cargo also included my desk, a double bed in bits and the fireplace from the verandah, wrought of aluminum and protruding from the rear end of his truck like a short, fat tail.   The house is now even more cavernously bare than ever.  But my Sally Worm indicates I only have to endure 6 more sleeps here.

Call of the Wild

May 21, 2007

Escaped the farm over the weekend; went to a game park. Sat in camp, high on a bluff above a river, and watched a hundred-head herd of buffalo meander – like a black stain slowly spreading – through the bush below me, a lone male elephant in their midst.

Drinking tea at dawn outside my tent I listened to the starlings squabble, watched squirrels and mongoose scamper through the dust in search of breakfast and later laughed as the children gathered baby frogs and grasshoppers from the edge of the swimming pool to toss into the centre so that the kingfisher, perched high above – watchful – in an acacia, was granted easier access to lunch.

This is where Africa is kindest: where the peace is all pervading, where the sky is largest, where sun-up, sun-down and moon rise are more beautiful, for the canvas on which they are reflected is neither muddied by smog nor polluted by synthesized light. This is where the silence rings loud in your ears for it is full of birdsong and the call of wild animals (the help!-I’m-being-murdered shriek of bush-babies; the comical honk of a gnu).

This is where – for all the trills and barks and chirruping – peace is found.

This is where souls mend. Because they can commune with nature? Perhaps. But I think it’s more likely some restoration is afforded simply because you can be far from the rattle of voices, the incessant jangle of Nokia, the roar of traffic, the madding crowd. So that you can hear your thoughts again, to know where they are to round them up.

I slept the one night we were away – under canvas – more deeply than I have done in months. If I needed reminding why I cannot leave Africa, this was it.

Daylight Robbery

May 18, 2007

I am reminded today, as I trawl town pleading with various shop owners to give me old boxes to pack my computer in since am hoping to persuade pilot to allow hard drive to travel with cats, of the many occassions I have had my car broken into whilst here. Outpost is – husband assures me – less fraught with petty theft.  I hope he’s right.

My first experience of a theft from my car whilst shopping occurred when Ben was tiny. I darted into the central fruit and veg market in town armed with a basket, leaving Ben in the car with the ‘ayah’ (nanny). On my return the ayah was standing outside the car looking somewhat distraught.

What’s happened? I asked her.

Somebody has stolen your bag, she said on the verge of tears. It wasn’t a special bag, it wasn’t a Prada, it didn’t even have any money in it: it was my nappy bag and held only a change of nappy and bottle of juice for Ben.

How could it have been stolen, I wanted to know, with both you and Ben sitting in the car with it.

Well, she explained, a man came to the car (I was driving Anthony’s very large, heavy Landcruiser) and told me we had a puncture. So I got out. He got in. And stole the bag and ran away.

Quite what the ayah planned to do if we had had a puncture (we didn’t, needless to say), I’m not sure.  Certainly not change it.

No matter. I was furious. Not with her, but at the cheek of it. I stomped back into the market, rallying support and by infecting stall holders with my indignation – ‘how dare somebody steal from the mouth of my babe’ – I had soon gathered quite a crowd.

Amongst them was somebody who had seen the thief (who must have been terribly disappionted to discover his efforts yielded only a Pampers and a baby’s bottle full of apple juice) duck into a shop. And even more astonishingly, the bag was retrieved, Ben’s thirst quenched and the ayah stopped her hand-wringing.

More recently, and just before Christmas one year, I was double parking and diving in and out of shops in haste leaving the (by now) much older Ben and his two sisters in the car since did not want them to witness what ‘Santa’ was buying (not sure why I bothered, I knew that they knew that no such thing but seems important to preserve some magic?).

 As I raced out of one shop back to the car, the kids calmly told me that the man had come to get Dad’s beers (I had a crate in the back which I had just bought).

What man?

That man, they said, and pointed across the street to a man who had been nonchalantly striding along with my crate of beer on his head but who began to run when he noticed me.

Are you all completely stupid, I roared at the kids, how could you let somebody get into the car and help himself to my shopping?

But he said Dad had sent him to collect his beers, they said tearfully.

I went mad, not with the kids (I was hugely relieved nobody had touched them) but at the blatant theft. And – I suppose – at the plausible story.

I drove around the block four times hoping to catch the culprit and retrieve my beers. To no avail. To alleviate my frustration and anger, I roared and screamed and swore at every pedestrian I encountered – whilst simultaneously holding hand on horn – who all stared back in utter disbelief at mad white woman with three children cringing in back of her car.

Identity Crisis

May 17, 2007

On route home from school yesterday I asked kids if they knew the words to God Save the Queen (a back seat scrap was brewing; singing offered a distraction). 

What’s that? they asked.  The English national anthem I said. Your national anthem (they were all born in England, and all hold British passports with coveted Right of Abode). 

‘Oh yes’, says Amelia, confidently, ‘I know it’, and proceeds to launch into ‘God save the Queen of England … For she is good and royal …. Blah blah la, la’ Mum and I, sitting in the front, giggle. And then we have a stab. We think we can remember fragmented phrases like ‘send her victorious, noble and glorious’. But we don’t do much better than Amelia. And you can’t blame us: neither of us was born or grew up in England and though Mum has lived there since Dad died, she doesn’t have cause to sing God Save the Queen often. 

I ask the kids if they know the Tanzanian national anthem.  They do. And all three launch into it loudly and with alacrity, belting it out in Kiswahili.   It is on occasions such as this that I am reminded of the identify crisis my children face: born in England, to an Irish/Scottish mum who was raised in Africa by Indian born, Irish extraction mother and African born father of Scottish origin who never visited Scotland in his life, and a dad whose mother was born to English parents in a nomadic village in the Belgian Congo. Only their paternal grandfather was a real Englishman. I suppose it is this confusion that has persuaded Amelia she is Australian and explains why Ben has assumed a South African identity?