Archive for June, 2007

In need of a pillow

June 20, 2007

Recent comms with fellow blogger thegoodwoman.blogspot.com (who is about to relocate to Kenya) have prompted me to remember a story that was related to me in Nairobi by a taxi driver; I was in his cab en route to the dentist or gynae or the shoe shop (I forget; I visit the metropolis for myriad reasons – some fun – shoes and good food – others pretty foul: dentist and gynae.)Having heard dozens of stories about car jacking in the capital and indeed the country at large, I asked the cab driver, who was called Jacob, whether the tales I’d heard were true or exaggerated: was car jacking really that bad?

Oh yes, said Jacob, in some areas.

Why, I wanted to know, ‘because there aren’t enough jobs’, he told me, ‘and there are too many young people; if they can’t find work, they steal’.

So how do they operate I pressed? Hold up a car, drive across the border into Tanzania (as happened to the vehicle of acquaintances) and flog it?

Sometimes, he said, yes. But not always.

Sometimes they hold up your car, stick you in the boot (having relieved you of cell phone and wallet) and proceed to use your vehicle as a means to get around town to several different locations quickly where they can hold up more cars, clean the drivers out and move on to the next profitable venue before the cops catch them.

Good grief, I said.

Yes, said Jacob, mournfully, ‘you can spend alot of hours in the darkness of your car boot before they decide they no longer need the services of your vehicle and abandon it’ (with you still in the boot I presume?).

It’s why I put a pillow in mine, he continued.

‘What?’ I said, bemused, ‘a pillow?’

Yes, said Jacob, ‘then when I am car jacked, at least I will be comfortable’.

So goodwoman, my advice on car jacking would be several fold: buy a really, really old car (one that won’t fetch much at auction and looks decrepit enough not to get you – or more importantly – car jackers around town with much speed); buy a car without a boot – a station wagon (that way if you get put in the boot, at least you can see out, wave at people you know in the traffic and perhaps alert somebody to your predicament) and finally – stick a pillow in there.

Just in case.

Does my bum look big in this?

June 16, 2007

It’s raining.Big, proper, black, noisy rain – like in Africa. The sky is a shroud and the thunder is rumbling crossly beneath it. We have had – according to the news, and in this region at any rate – the heaviest rainfall in a single day in over thirty years. I love that statistics such as heavy rain are recorded and filed in weather archives to be hauled out the next time the rain comes down in a big way.

It felt like the UK’s equivalent to a Monsoon, and it was, apparently: ‘the return of the Westerlies’. And it made me feel at home.

Between showers, Amelia and I went shopping. For clothes. In the shops that weren’t ‘closed due to flooding’.

‘Oooh, I love this shop’, exclaimed Amelia in every single store we entered, none of which she had ever been into in her life before. And ‘oooh, I love this top’, at almost every rail she visited. She wouldn’t let me go far when she went into the fitting rooms and kept hollering over the door, ‘Mum … Mum! … Mum?’ to make sure I hadn’t gone far. She got her hangers in a tangle and felt nervous approaching the till to pay. I don’t suppose there are many thirteen year old girls like that here. I am warmed by her naivete as much as I worry about it; am I preserving her childhood, her ‘innocence’, in Africa or preventing her from growing up like her Western peers?

As much as I enjoy the media whilst I am here – the papers, the magazines, GMTV – I can’t help noticing that Amelia is suddenly made aware of things I’d rather she remained oblivious of: stick insects with inflatable boobs masquerading as models (‘aren’t they beautiful, mum’ she whispers in tones of quiet reverence, ‘no darling, they look sick and tired and pale’) and Americans who tout books with literary titles like ‘Skinny Bitch’, a book the sales of which have soared since Victoria Beckham was spotted clutching a copy. Sorry. But I don’t want to look like Mrs B. And I especially don’t want my daughter to look like her.

But I think – for all the anxiety I feel at cosseting my daughter – the lessons she has received on skinny so far, courtesy of her African upbringing, are – paradoxically – healthier ones: as far as she knows, and long, oh please, long may it last, skinny equates to poverty and hunger and not having a choice. So perhaps I ought worry less. In African culture voluptuousness is celebrated. If you asked your friend, ‘does my bum look big in this?’ you’d want her to respond with a resounding, ‘yes’ not a disappointed ‘what bum?’.

Reluctant

June 15, 2007

Recent web searches which threw out my blog include ‘strong pennis’ and ‘reluctant machine’. I am assuming they were not made by the same surfer?

Talking reluctant, another school today after a day off yesterday when it poured with rain and we went to the pub for lunch.

So reluctant I may be, but restored I certainly am.

Onwards!

The Reason Why … note to self

June 14, 2007

OK. Here’s a thing. Grovelling for places at schools I can’t afford isn’t just about the education.And no, it’s not about going to the Right School or knowing the Right People either; that’s just not my style. Indeed my ethos in life is that knowing the Wrong People and flying in the face of convention is a whole lot more fun.It’s about cricket.

When Ben was nine he began to be bullied at his prep school (in Africa). A painful year of investigation and reassurance ensued. In vain, for the bullying persisted and finally we withdrew our son.

The upsides of a really bad situation were several: first of all we got him into a day school close to home (he had been boarding at my brother’s Alma Mater), secondly I learned that flying in the face of convention rather suited us and thirdly, Ben learned a valuable lesson about life: you can change bad situations.

Analyzing why Ben was bullied took time. He is clever (but not too clever), funny (but not cocky), he is neither too fat, nor too thin. He is a perfectly ordinary boy. It transpired he was targeted because he was ‘rubbish at sport’. Later, when his self-esteem improved, he was able to articulate that those on teams were treated with a degree of reverence, by children and staff alike. But those who failed to make teams were dismissed to the outfield. The outfield is a lonely place where you’re too far away for people to notice if you’re happy or sad until it’s too late. With Ben’s help – and blessing – I wrote about our experience

Stand up to them my boy, don’t be a wimp”-Life & Style-Women …Shortly after Ben changed schools, he watched a cricket world cup and it pressed a button. For the first time ever he took up a bat and began to teach himself by watching what the pros did. He tossed a ball onto the roof of the house for batting practice and bowled against the garden wall. His dog fielded for him. He did not allow the fact there was no cricket played in his international school to deter him. He spent hours in the garden, celebrating his ‘centuries’, putting a hand up when he got a ‘wicket’. I would watch him in the evening, he was oblivious to my observation, only knowing he was playing at the Oval for England, or on the ground at Newlands for South Africa (handy this identity crisis, sometimes, it means ones allegiances can vacillate).

Five years later and Ben has captained school teams that he has rustled up simply because he has been so desperate for a game, he has played charity matches within our local community, enjoyed our own brand of ‘village’ cricket and even been accepted to play by the more serious and largely Indian regional cricket clubs. Last year he attended a ten day program for young cricketers in India, sponsored by his late and much loved Great Uncle.

Ben wants to play cricket. For a club, a county, for England. Or South Africa. Or even Ireland. He can’t get what he needs to do that from where we live. And I feel I owe it to him, given the battering he sustained at prep school, given the fact he has taught himself everything he knows, to try to grant a wish.

That’s why I’m grovelling. Because when we walk around smart schools boasting some of the best cricket grounds in England, my son says, ‘I just want to get out there and bowl, Mum’.

I have to know I tried.

Because he has, so hard.

One down, four to go …

June 12, 2007

Our first school visit.

The children – Ben and Amelia – dressed themselves in shiny new interview outfits (out of which I had cut price tags) and slipped feet into squeaky new shoes and off we went in mother’s car which is very old and has bandages on the wheel arches on account of extensive rust. I didn’t put them there; the MOT men did, last week. Mum suggested the car wash might be a good idea ahead of our interview; I replied that the state of car was appropriate given we were grovelling for assisted places. Arriving at the school I was unnerved to discover a shiny new Vogue Range Rover presumably belonging to other prospective parents. The rather shinier family we kept bumping into mid tour, perhaps?

No matter. The staff were warm and friendly. The children behaved beautifully: they did not fight, battled to stifle yawns and remembered not to pick their noses. We even managed the odd question. About pocket money and weekends out. Don’t you hate that, ‘any questions’ thing? I do. Because I rarely have any, not because I haven’t been paying attention but because I am trying to absorb all that was being said to me and can’t do two things at once. The Head – on completion of our tour (after a somewhat intimidating lunch in the school dining room when the eyes of several hundred children fell upon Ben and Amelia as they tried to eat) – asked me how it had been.

Fabulous, I said. Very interesting. If a little overwhelming.

Overwhelming? He replied, ‘It shouldn’t be overwhelming’.

I’m from Africa, I reminded him, Tesco is overwhelming.

He laughed and I felt emboldened; a sense of humour is always encouraging.

By the time we had finished both kids had decided this was the school for them. Whether because they really meant it or because the whole experience was so traumatic they are trying to skip the remaining four, I have no idea. Amelia was footsore after a day in shiny new blue shoes and I was ready for a drink. (I didn’t feel it would be wise to ask for wine when asked what I wanted to drink mid tour: instinct told me they meant tea, coffee or a glass of water, not cold Chablis).

We got home. I slumped in front of computer. With glass of wine.

And Amelia cut the price tag out of the collar of my shirt.

Next one tomorrow. Will wear old shirt.

Village life

June 10, 2007

The fete was an enormous success. Partly because it was all so novel. But largely because the girls were able to buy books and other’s people’s rubbish for less than a pound. I don’t know if they haggled prices as they would do in a market at home. I was afraid to listen. Instead I just revelled in their joy at purchasing – amongst other things – candles, earrings, a large china goose and a rather horrid little ship made of shells – at bargain prices. Ben bought five raffle tickets having persuaded himself he was bound to win the £100 first prize. He didn’t.

The Red Arrows flew over the village before the fete began. Amelia insisted we walk to the village green to watch them. Trying to persuade her that we’d see them from any point in the (enormous) sky above the (small) village proved futile. The children and I made our way up the lane to the green and mid way heard a huge roar above us. We all ducked (as you do).

What was that? the children gasped.

The Red Arrows, apparently. We missed them.

In the evening my aunt and uncle, who live next door to mum, popped in on a new neighbour to welcome them to the village. It transpired they’d been living here for twelve years and had merely moved house. I thought that was screamingly funny. Had this been Africa, not only would you have known them in the first few weeks, you’d have had them round, been invited back, bitched endlessly about them and wept copiously when they moved on. Perhaps in Africa we need people more but our tolerance only extends so far; newcomers are welcomed with alacrity into communities but this doesn’t mean they’re safe from merciless gossips with not enough to do other than order tea from ranks of uniformed staff.

Today I can enjoy the Sunday papers. A noted luxury. The Sunday Times isn’t the same online; you can’t hear the rustle of newsheet and nor are you obliged to spread out on the floor as you read. Bliss.

The G8 on Africa … what would I know

June 9, 2007

This whole G8 summit thing on Africa … I don’t know … what do you think?Geldof and Bono have slammed it calling it a pantomime and farcical, and campaigners for Africa suggest the £30 billion pledge will fall short of what’s needed.

The money is destined to fight disease – malaria, TB and Aids – in Africa.

How come nobody ever talks about addressing the root problem of these diseases? How come nobody ever talks about education? Ronald Ross – who discovered that it was mosquitoes that transmitted the malarial parasite and how – put in place vector control programs and drastically reduced the mortality rate. Ask most rural Africans where malaria comes from and they won’t be able to tell you. The study of the malarial genome, the potential discovery of an anti-malaria vaccine, glow-in-the-dark mozzies, it’s all great science, it all makes riveting news, but what about common or garden preventative measures?

Africa needs education and a commercial leg-up more than it needs charity. Both would promote long-term health (in the population and the economy). Where once subsistence farmers tried to eke a living out of their land, many now sit under trees waiting for aid trucks. What if they stop coming? Or what when their contents are hijacked by greedy politicians?

The thing about Africa is that you need to know it intimately to understand its machinations. Idealism is fine. In theory. But in Africa a little cynicism works better. As Rehema – who has helped me to raise my children – comments, ‘why do the poor people in the West keep giving money to the rich people in Africa, none of that’s going to come my way, Memsahib’. And she laughs wryly.

If I had been at the G8 summit I’d have suggested teaching Africa how to take care of herself. I’d have put forward the idea that promoting relevant education mightn’t be a bad idea (as Rehema commented, ‘I’d like my daughters’, she has four, by four different men, ‘to understand how to avoid pregnancy’ and, she added, ‘I’d like them to know how to farm well’). I’d have tentatively brought up the subject of involving smallholder farmers in private enterprise (slammed by the critics as exploitation; how can it be when both parties benefit commercially?).

Helping Africa to help herself is sustainable. And ultimately rewarding. Throwing money at her benefits only a few and corrodes the dignity of her people. It hampers them. And anyway, -in the end – people are going to get sick of Africa’s sob story.

But what would I know.

I’m just a housewife.

Arrived

June 8, 2007

Well. We arrived. Safe and sound. No hiccups. We ignored the frustrated tut-tutting and cross looks from commuters in London when we stood on the wrong side of the escalators weighed down with enormous suitcases which made us impossible to pass. By the time we boarded our train north, I was almost hysterical with relief which embarrassed my children because I laughed too loudly on the train which made everybody stare. Especially the man opposite us who was trying to conduct a telephone call.

Today has been spent trying to attire ourselves with a wardrobe sufficiently respectable to present ourselves at assorted schools for interviews. We had to start from scratch; as Amelia observed on our way to the shops, ‘the only thing I am wearing that is not second hand is my pants’. Generally we are dressed in mitumba – literally translated as ‘second hand’ – having been acquired in the local African markets. So – aside from pants – we had to buy everything: shirts, shoes, skirts and trousers for Ben. Which was tricky. He is tall and thin. It is like trying to dress a bean. Which also made me laugh. Loudly. In Next. Ben got cross and told me to shut up because everybody was staring. Again.

Shoes as far as Ben was concerned were easy. Black. Laces. Cheap (Ben is the sort of person who reads the prices on the menu before ordering). Footwear was trickier as far as Amelia was concerned. We went from sky high heels to pink and green camouflage pumps to decidedly inappropriate boots. We compromised – finally (with her perched on a stool in the umpteenth shoe shop looking like a disgruntled Cinderella with dozens of shoes scattered at her feet) – on a pair of blue pumps with a kitten heel. They are ghastly. She loves them. Partly because I hate them and partly because it means that – wearing them – she will be even taller than me. I have remembered to take the price labels off the soles and the tags out of collars.

I gave up trying to buy something to wear so that I could masquerade as proper sensible mother. Instead I shall go in trousers, old denim jacket and large, loud African beads which I habitually wear. ‘Great’, said Amelia, ‘you’re going to look cool and I’m going to look like my great-grandmother dressed me’.

Perfect.

Tomorrow is the village fete.

What’s a fate, asked Hat.

Fete, I said, not fate. But I didn’t know the answer. My mother hissed, ‘tell her its somewhere to spend money’.

‘No’, I said, ‘please don’t’.

Instead I smiled and offered a ‘let’s wait and see’.

So we will.

In the meantime Hat is marvelling that at 6.31 it is still light. I will not marvel if she comes to tell me it’s already light at 4.31 tomorrow morning, that would be tempting fate.

Anticipation

June 6, 2007

We fly tonight. The children are in a fever of excitement. I am trying to squeeze too much (mostly dirty laundry which means this blog will continue to attract searches on body odour) into too little in the way of baggage space because I am anxious about herding three wild African children with absolutely no street savvy across London (Heathrow to Kings Cross). Limiting what we will have to carry seems a sensible first step in not losing anybody or anything in transit.

Our arrival in London, at dawn tomorrow, will mean, amongst other things, fights over who is going to press the buttons in the elevators whilst I try to encourage the kids – to the astonishment of fellow lift-riders – to take turns (remember one of mine is nearly 16, another almost 14); riotous laughter on the escalators and – probably – attempts to walk up the downs and down the ups. It will involve trying to keep the children out of danger in the early morning stampede of London commuters as they waft along marvelling at the sights and sounds oblivious to the fact they are holding up half the capital’s work force who battle to pass them.

It will mean calculating into Tanzanian shillings the price of a sandwich as we board the train, which will elicit sounds of outrage, ‘10,000/- for a sandwich! But that’s a whole months’ pocket money!’

There are so many things about life in the West that astound the children and stop them dead in their tracks (hence the frustration with which they infect commuters in a hurry), tomorrow’s only the beginning. But there is such humour, such innocent joy, to be enjoyed in their myriad observations about life in England. That everybody we encouter probably dismisses us as eccentric matters not a jot.

Big Night Out Beauty Pageant

June 5, 2007

I had precisely six days in my new home before I had to be on the move again.

Six days in which to familiarize myself with my new environs (so that I knew vaguely where to buy loo paper and bread); six days in which to reintroduce dogs to cats and ensure everybody was reasonably well and happy (even dogs seem bemused at cats new found affection for one another) and six days in which to unpack so that some semblance of ‘home’ was achieved before I had to leave again.

Happily the six days also afforded some insight into Outpost’s social life. Unhappily I think I witnessed the annual highlight on the social calendar on day three so presumably have little else to look forward to for the remaining 362 days of the next twelve months.

I attended the annual beauty pageant, the winning local contestant would go forward to the national finals.

I have never attended a beauty show in my life, far less one in Tanzania. And I anticipated the evening with a mixture of ‘oh God, no!’ dread and ‘oh goody! Writing fodder!’glee. My husband exhibited much more of the former and was hoping I would not find the complimentary tickets I thought I had lost in the detritus of unpacking. Unluckily for him, I did and off we went.

The evening was hosted at the local hotel, one time guest house for visiting Kaiser early in the last century. It is pivotal to everything that happens in this tiny place and home to everybody who visits. Including us. When we first came. Its proportions are magnificent. Its décor marginally less so. But that all adds to the undeniable charm of the place, which is supplemented by the flamboyant Pashtun proprietor who claims long-time local genealogy.

The seating was arranged such that those of us with higher price complimentary tickets were seated conspicuously close to the runway and just behind the judges.

‘No bloody sneaking off early, then?’ complained His Nibs.

Already the music was pumping loudly and lots of failed wannabe beauty queens, fatly squeezed into sequined dresses and micro skirts, were parading obviously whilst talking into cell phones. Alongside the runway was a lurid red and gold three piece suite, vast sofa and arm chairs upholstered in faux velvet. I wondered who was going to sit there. Until I realized it constituted first prize, along with 150 quid in cash.

We ordered beers and husband introduced me to the eclectic assortment of people he has met since taking up residence here. (After a mere seven weeks he is painfully know-all about everything from Who’s Who to where to buy loo paper and how to get to the bakery). I met hotel owner’s English (from Lancashire) wife and their beautiful daughter. I met two Indian men who own a profitable transport business. I met several of my husband’s new colleagues (African, Greek, English) and I met a couple of young American volunteers who viewed me – the newcomer – with disdain. I wanted to tell them I had been in Africa for longer than they’ve been alive but feared that’d rather give my age away. And being at a beauty contest one feels compelled to at least feign youth.

After several beers and a lot of very loud music courtesy of a local band (so that I couldn’t hear anything of what my husband’s new friends said so that now they either think I am very, very stupid for nodding dumbly or are delighted because I have agreed to host company Christmas party for 600 employees, their wives, children and mothers-in-law) the show began.

A tall Tanzanian girl, calling herself MC2, stepped onto the stage to introduce us to each of the 11 contestants. She wore impossibly high heels and was – apparently – according to a man who is clearly a regular follower of the country’s beauty pageants, Number Three Runner Up In Last Year’s Nationals. I nodded and made some polite sounds (inaudible above the racket so he probably thinks I am mute) whilst I thought to myself that either last year’s competition wasn’t that stiff or complacency has improved her appetite; she clearly doesn’t ever ask herself – or anybody else – ‘does my bum look big in this?’. Yes honey, it does. Huge. Enormous. Gargantuan.

No matter. She had bags of self confidence and introduced the girls with aplomb. Whilst regarding them smugly – as you’d expect Number Three Runner Up In Last Year’s Nationals to regard mere entrant from small dusty one-horse town in middle of absolutely bloody nowhere. The girls sashayed out onto the runway in assorted gowns, most wore hair extensions so that long straight tresses fell down their backs. One wore a headdress which was about 2 ft tall which I thought a very clever tactic for she was short and quite fat and the extra height afforded by headgear gave illusion of elegance. All of them introduced themselves – in Kiswahili – and in true Miss World style informed the several hundred spectators that they enjoyed reading novels, going to the movies (where? Here? I don’t think so … bunch of fibbers) and wanted to study law and Save The World.

After all 11 had paraded in evening wear, MC2 told us they were going to model Beachwear.

‘Beachwear?’ I hissed to the man next to me, an English man who has lived here for seven years, ‘but this is a Muslim territory’ (where the women peep coyly out of black bui buis).

‘It won’t be beachwear as you and I know it’, he said with authority.

Contestant Number One minced onto the runway in an itsy, bitsy, teeny, weeny yellow polka dot bikini with a scrap of chiffon tied about her hips feigning modesty.

I raised my eyebrows at neighour who admitted, ‘Oh. Perhaps it is. Beachwear as we know it, I mean’.

I was staggered. What will their fathers think I wondered?

The men in the audience guffawed loudly and cheered. Sexism clearly isn’t a sin here.

When the last of the bikini-clad beauties had strutted off the runway in exaggerated catwalk style (putting each foot directly in front of the other as they strode so that their hips swung and they looked like they were making a dash for the loo) we were informed by MC2 that we were to await the judges decisions and whilst this was under discussion we’d be treated to some more live music.

With that a very, very old man wearing a Trilby, a brilliant shiny blue suit and those two tone Black and White minstrel shoes trotted onto the stage clutching a red electric guitar. The applause was tumultuous. He was clearly a local celebrity who had – according to the beauty pageant voyeur – produced a hit in 1978.

Right.

Old Man Rocker took off from a Presley stance in Armstrong tones. He wiggled and twisted and shimmied and showed us that despite his age, he has absolutely no need of either hip or knee replacement. Dozens of members of the audience danced up onto the catwalk to join him and thrust 10,000/- notes into his waistband. Whether because they were fans or wanted to cop a slice of his 15 minute fame by getting their faces on the telly (oh yes, local television station was there too), I have no idea.

By the time his number was up and he had come to a halt, half way to the splits, guitar held aloft, the crowd was on its feet.

The return of the beauties was mildly disappointing after such showmanship but – not to be out done and presumably in a last ditch attempt to secure a top slot – several of them (but not all so this part was clearly optional extra) wriggled back on stage to perform a little dance. MC2 was obviously getting a bit tired of aspirant national beauty queens determined to shove her from top slot (or at least that of national Runner Up No 3) so she was reduced to waving them impatiently offstage when she thought they’d had enough of the lime light.

Alas by then we’d had enough too; it was after midnight and a result looked like a while coming. We crept off home to bed and heard the next day that contestant No 1 (easily the most composed) won. She came from the capital, Dar, apparently. Which would explain her passion for ‘the movies’. Perhaps her punishment for cheating (because she wasn’t a local girl, but perhaps none of them were?) will be the price she’ll have to pay to get the enormous three piece suite home.

A good evening out on the town? Absolutely. Outpost living is going to be more fun than I thought. Albeit it only once a year.