Archive for June, 2007

What I miss most

June 30, 2007

My friend, Eliza, a photographer, took this picture of the dogs and I on the farm several months ago.It reminds me of what I miss most about Africa when I’m away from her: space, sunshine, views, my two labradors, Africa and – especially, after three months of living apart – my husband.




June 30, 2007

This month’s Harpers Bazaar sports an article entitled 6 Ways to Fight Cellulite.

I wish I didn’t feel I ought to buy magazines that touted ways to rid my legs of orange peel. I wish I had my thirteen year old daughter’s attitude; she arrived for breakfast (on a cold, wet, grey morning) wearing pink micro shorts.

Aren’t you cold, I asked. Yes, she said, ‘a bit, but I’m celebrating my thighs’.

Good girl.

You’re It

June 30, 2007

The Good Woman has tagged me. I love tags because, let’s face it, being tagged is flattering, it’s evidence that somebody’s actually reading what you write. I also love them because some days it’s hard to know what to write about and answering a few questions is a good way to prompt inspiration. And I love reading other writers’ blogs when they’ve been tagged because you get the essence of the person in bite-sized pieces … here goes …
What were you doing ten years ago?
Ten years ago … um … Oh, I had a six month old; Hattie, my youngest, was born in February 1997. She arrived with the cord around her neck twice and looked like she’d had a few rounds in a box ring; her little face was black and blue. We spent several days in Special Care and then, when she was a week and a half old, we flew back to Africa: myself, Ben (5), Amelia (3) and Hattie (10 days). Everybody boarding the same flight watched in horror, all willing themselves to be as far from me and brood as possible. The nine months or so that followed were some of the happiest in my life. I completely succumbed to motherhood, I stopped worrying that I was ‘just a mum’ and got on with it. I wrote a(nother) unpublished book at odd hours whilst nudging Hat’s rocker with my foot every time she threatened to erupt into wailing. And I ate jam sandwiches and drank Guinness at 11 at night. Happy days.

What were you doing one year ago?
One year ago new shareholders threw the farm a lifeline and persuaded husband, who had resigned, to stay on. He said he would if they promised to fund the place properly. We were stupid enough, when they swore blind to manage responsibly, to believe them. Because we couldn’t bear to leave a place we’d grown to love. Just goes to show that you ought always to go with your gut; six months later and the place had crumbled, we were on our way out anyway, significantly poorer and hugely disillusioned.

Five snacks you enjoy

Olives, crackers, grapes, handfuls of dry breakfast cereal and bits of biscuits, I kid myself that if I break the corner off a biscuit I’m not actually eating a whole one. The fact I break the corner of several dozen and practically empty the tin doesn’t count.

Five songs to which you know all the lyrics Still, sadly or happily depending on your point of view, the songs I used to sing, really, really badly, to my kids when they were wee. Now, when I sing, they put their hands over their ears and groan loudly so I don’t anymore, except when in the car on my own with (my choice of) music up loud and can sing away as tunelessly as I like, getting all the lyrics wrong because I don’t get enough practice.Five things you would do if you were a millionaire

I am, sometimes, and briefly, at the beginning of the month in Tanzania (where a million Tanzanian shillings equates to about 400 quid) and then I use my million to fill shopping trolley.

What you’d do with a million pounds is a frequent topic of conversation around the dinner table en famille. My children haven’t yet grasped just how far a million pounds would go: Hat would buy me a new laptop, for example, Amelia a chateau in France with swimming pool and vineyard.

I’m not sure what I’d do? But presumably I wouldn’t have to grovel to schools for assisted places for my kids.

I think it’d buy me peace of mind?

Five bad habits

Too much time on the computer kidding myself I’m working when in fact I’m obsessively checking emails

Too much wine too probably, but I tell myself life’s too short not to transform every evening into an occasion, even if just me, hubby and scrambled egg. And a glass of Pinotage, of course.

I am reticent and sensitive and wish that I weren’t

I’m impatient which makes me swear (which makes a sixth I think?)

Five things you like doing
Walking, Swimming, Being in the bush, Trawling book shops because I like the company of books; their feel and their scent, Making marmalade and chutney, I don’t do it often but it inspires a feeling of tremendous achievement and wholesomeness when I do: ranks of jars lined and filled with piping hot preserve, evidence that there’s a domestic goddess lurking in there somewhere.

Five things you would never wear again
Nowadays I wear jeans, t’shirts, shorts and flip flops (not all at once, obviously) and always a lot of very loud silver jewellery (my youngest knows I’m coming by the jangle of bangles; I think she means that in a good way?) Which I suppose means that the things I no longer wear are those I once did (when I was young and stupid and worked in London in the late eighties) and include high heels, very short skirts, tights (yay, African living means tights aren’t necessary), too much makeup and a constricting little suits.

Five favorite toys
Conventional toys don’t really do it for me. I’m seriously technologically challenged (I’m the sort of person who loses posts on her own blog and spends days trying to find the story she wrote last week and misplaced before uploading it, you can imagine what happens when I try to post comments on other bloggers sites; perhaps they’re floating aimlessly around cyberspace trying to find a home?). If toys are things you enjoy, then that’d be my family, my dogs, my cats, my books, my little bit of Africa …

I need to tag somebody, but I need to think about that and I need an excuse to trawl a few blogs before I do … it’s called Research, rather like incessant email checking is called Working.

History Lessons

June 30, 2007

Yesterday, partly because the sun was shining and partly because I am determined my children will not waste the unexpected extra week we have in England watching the telly, I dragged everybody off to nearby English Heritage stately home. I don’t know how much they learned of their own English Heritage but I do know they loved belting up and down broad staircases asking questions I couldn’t answer. When they got bored – and I’ve been a mother long enough to know that the slightest hint of boredom must be respected and fended off with food – we sat in the sun and had a picnic whilst the resident peacocks surrounded us like Red Indians round a Totem Pole.

I don’t know if the children will remember much of what they learned about the place itself but they won’t forget that Ben put a tennis ball in his mouth and posed like a Gargoyle on the castle wall (to the astonishment of several passers by) or that a peacock bit Mum in an attempt to steal her salami sandwich. Perhaps the memory of one will prompt the history of another?

If there’s one lesson they learn …

June 29, 2007

Sucking up to schools is over; we have visited and spent long days at five or six or seven. I had lost count by the end of our first week here. I – and especially the kids – can relax. Nobody has to put long trousers on again this hols (Ben), nobody has to get trussed up in a skirt that hangs below the knee (Amelia) and nobody has to decant contents of handbag into something that resembles actual handbag instead of habitual you-never-know-what-you-may-need rucksack (me). It’s a relief.

Whether it will have paid off – our grovelling – I don’t know yet. Whether we’ll be granted an astonishingly generous bursary I must wait and see. Of all the schools we saw, we loved two (warm, funny Registrars; friendly children; enough discernibly different accents for me not to worry my kids would come home with plums in their mouths and airs above their station) and hated a third. Mainly because I was continually reminded – by every member of staff I met – of all the money ‘sloshing about’. Not in the bursary bucket but in the bank accounts of most of the parents. They could offer to educate my kids for nothing and I’d decline; if there’s one lesson my children learn please may it be that having cash to flash isn’t important. And because we’re never likely to have much money, me and their dad, I’d hate to put them in an environment where they felt compelled to keep up.

Or justify the fact their mother lugged old Gap ruck sack about at Speech Day (from which she dispensed bubble gum, pens, plasters, paper hankies and lollipops) and not a Prada handbag into which she popped the keys to her new Range Rover.

Anybody out there parenting budding Britney?

June 28, 2007

I need help.

I’m doing a story for an English newspaper based on my pitch to the editor ‘what do you want to do when you grow up and what does your mother want you to do?’. I need to talk to teens who want to pursue careers that his/her parents would perhaps rather they didn’t. Think daughters who say they want to be the next Britney Spears or boys who aspire to become Wayne Rooney. Not because I have anything against either (well, I do but you know what I mean) but because I’m not prepared to allow my kids to kid themselves they are the next Britney or Wayne or whomever since my job as a mother is to protect them from the world at large including themselves and sometimes somewhat fanciful notions.

So. If you’ve got a budding Britney or Wayne or similar and would rather they were going into law or medicine, drop me a line?


Better class of rubbish

June 27, 2007

Topshop’s former brand manager, Jane Shepherdson, is to take on a role at Oxfam in an attempt to rebrand the charity’s clothing shops as ‘ethically chic’. Ms Shepherdson told the Sunday Times ” … if you buy from Oxfam you are recycling.” You’re kidding?!

No. I must not poke fun at the clearly good-hearted Shepherdson who is going to do the job for nothing. If you live in Africa, though, shopping for second hand clothes is necessary in order not to go naked. Or mad; where I live it’s the only retail therapy I get (that and tomatoes and onions in the local food market which aren’t half as much fun as rifling through a pile of ‘mitumba’ on an old fertilizer sack on the ground in the hope I might unearth a little number from Dior, a pair of Gap jeans or a stunning Helmut Lang jacket as a friend did).

My habit for second-hand clothes translates during my brief sojourn in England as an inability to bypass any charity shop – Oxfam, Help the Aged, Cancer Research, Heart Foundation, Help for Obsessive Compulsive Second Hand Clothes Addicts (that one’s a joke btw) – without going in. My daughters have inherited same passion, so, to Ben’s horror, we all traipse in and begin scrabbling through other people’s cast-offs.

The experience I have gleaned from years of scouring African markets for fashion gems is useful here, certainly, (check seams for signs of straining, check zips and buttons, check the labels – not because I’m a snob but because labels are a good giveaway of wear) but it has been augmented further. Mum’s closest town is a drossy place with an ugly high street down which parade most of the UK’s population of teenage mothers and many of the morbidly obese too. The local Oxfam, therefore, reflects this and few treasures have been discovered. Yesterday, though, we found ourselves in a charming picture postcard town (the sort of place where local mothers do the school run in Range Rovers and where you need to take out a mortgage to buy the kids lunch because McDonald’s doesn’t feature) which was awash with charity shops. Needless to say, we dove into the first one we came to and exited with bags full of Finds.

I have learned, therefore, that the rich toss out a better class of rubbish. Much of which, happily, until now, has ended up in Africa.

Hope Shepherdson doesn’t make Oxfam too desirably chic.

What a choice

June 27, 2007

An anomaly …

Making Poverty History is a global aspiration, and Africa remains key on any MPH agenda – especially when posed vociferously by Bono and Geldof et al. Good for them.

Making our planet a smoke free zone is, however, also high on many people’s wish list. Indeed in England – as of 1st July – it will be an offence to smoke in public places.

And here’s where it gets tricky: many, indeed thousand and thousands of Africans make a living out of a habit that is being forced out of existence.

The economies of Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania, for example, are dominated by tobacco production. Together, these 3 countries produce an annual crop of over 250,000 tons of tobacco. Tanzania is the biggest player of the three, all of which have picked up production in light of Zimbabwe’s collapse. Tobacco in Tanzania isn’t grown on large scale commercial plantations, instead it is cultivated by small-holders who are supported (inputs, technical know-how, transport) by international tobacco companies. Sure, the tobacco merchants need their produce but the farmers need food on the table more. It’s a symbiotic relationship that – importantly – preserves familiar subsistence lifestyles; not enough people understand that Africa’s future depends on the integration of peasant farmers in private enterprise.

In the First World one had a choice: to smoke or not. In the Third, choice – any choice – is always a luxury. Ought we – in the West – impose limitations on choice? Would we, if we knew it might jeopardize the chance of making poverty history, certainly in the case of the 55,000 peasant farmers in Tanzania who grow tobacco for the cigarettes that will be disallowed in public places from Sunday, support a ban?

Quit smoking or help make poverty history?

What a choice.

Old Fashioned Gratitude

June 24, 2007

In light of fact it’s a cold, wet morning, the children cannot find an excuse to avoid the thank you letters I have been nagging them to write. I tell myself that it’s important to encourage the children to write thank you letters for it demonstrates a tangible and lasting gratitude and it gives them rare opportunity to actually get pen and paper out and give the poor struggling post offices something to do. I tell my children that if they don’t write thank you letters to assorted generous aunts and great aunts, they won’t be getting the 10, 20 or (in exceptionally rare and happy moments) 30 quid they got this time the next time they visit family in England. Idealism may justify parental tactics but nothing like cold hard money talk to get the kids motivated. They’re all scribbling away as I type.

It occurs to me as I watch them (the girls decorating their epistles with colourful gel pens, drawing flowery scrolls and smiley faces, Ben battling to get a single word down and finding endless excuses to procrastinate: washing his hands, going for a pee, needing a drink of water before he begins) that writing a letter to Father Christmas was never this hard. No, those were written at length, with alacrity (long before Christmas, probably because my kids wised up to the fact the Father Christmas they knew had pretty poor time management skills and needed as much advance warning as was possible, especially given fact that even though he apparently lived in the Northern Hemisphere, he clearly did all his shopping for their stockings in Shoprite in Arusha) and with no encouragement at all. Letters to Father Christmas were written in beautiful English, with no spelling mistakes. They were written in silence, erasers at the ready. There was no faffing about, and no fighting. They bore detailed descriptions about precisely what it was they wanted and where to get it from (usually not Shoprite in Arusha). They often ran to several pages, despite my urgent warnings that it was important not to appear greedy. Letters to Father Christmas may have spelt out – with exaggerated courtesy – the desire for a mobile phone, in a particular colour, by Nokia, model number included.I suppose because the kids hoped that cell phone ownership might mean they could duck the whole thank-you letter thing because it’d afford opportunity to send aunts and great aunts quick text that read,

Thx v v much 4 £10. C u nxt time Lol ben.

Too bad Father Christmas never obliged then.

Plumbing and post-it notes

June 23, 2007

I am recovering today. From an operation. Plumbing. We women have superfluous pipes that, at a certain age, apparently develop problems. I hadn’t meant to have an operation whilst on holiday but given where I live (in an outpost of note) and given faulty plumbing that persisted, it seemed sensible not to argue with doctor. I’m not allowed home for ten days – which means I have to delay my return. Which makes me sad: I miss husband, dogs, cross cats and even incessant cry of muezzin competing loudly with jangle of church bells.

I hate operations and hospitals. I hate the disinfected smell of wards: I hate it so much I fainted once going to visit a friend who’d had his wisdom teeth out. And my own intimate experience with same is no better. I whinged like mad when I came round about pain so they gave me morphine. Which I readily accepted despite knowing I’d been dosed with something else before waking up. Morphine didn’t work so I whinged some more so they gave me something to swallow. I reacted badly to that and passed out. That shut me up; I stopped whinging then, put up with the pain and watched telly.

Today I’m skulking about with anaesthetic hangover. I plan to take a leaf out of Hattie’s book later . She – not content with trawling ailes of Tesco and the numerous other stores we have been to in last two weeks – has developed a passion for a door stop sized Argos catalogue; she shops from her bed. Frankly I think it’s a wise passion for any woman to develop, though Hat’s taste needs a little honing. She wants a plastic pink door bell for her bedroom door. I don’t want to be a kill joy or sound like a snob so how do I explain I can’t buy it without saying, ‘don’t be so common, darling’. She has earmarked everything on her wish-list with little strips of yellow post it notes, so that the catalogue looks like a hefty research tool. It occurs to me now that the door bell mightn’t match the fun of her catalogue browsing, perhaps I’ll just suggest she looks for something else.

Anyway, off now to fill up my hot water bottle and find that catalogue to do a little in-bed browing myself …