Archive for July, 2007

What is Education?

July 30, 2007

I have come under fire a little for my decision to homeschool Hat. From friends, mostly: friends with kids who articulate concern over my choice because, they say, Hat will miss out ”socially”.

I appreciate what they mean. To a point. But question how genuine their concern is: are they really worried Hat’s life will be socially compromised (no children’s birthday parties where we are, no ballet lessons, no tennis coaching)? Or do they object to somebody breaking the conventional mould, somebody not sending their child to school? Or does my decision – amongst those friends with children Hat’s age at boarding school – conjure an uncomfortable guilt? It doesn’t matter. As Husband, who is irritatingly Font of all Knowledge but thankfully also Font of Wisdom, notes: people are going to criticise whatever decision parents make vis a vis choices of education for their children.

But to my own. We have moved to an Outpost 500 miles from where we used to live. And where Hat used to go to school. There are no suitable schools where we are now. When we made the decision to move, I put the question of ”school” to each of my children. The eldest two vetoed Homeschool.  Partly because – at almost 16 and 13 – frienships with their peer groups are established and important. Partly because they were concerned about their mother, who can’t add up the contents of shopping basket (not even here in Outpost), teaching them IGCSE Maths. But Hat, who was adamant she didn’t want to go to boarding school for a number of fairly sound reasons, including the fact she would only see her mother once a month and her father once a term, opted for home school.

We researched various choices of school and dismissed several on assorted grounds: too ‘Christian’ (we live in a community of myriad religions – Christian, Muslim, Hindu – it seemed appropriate that ‘school’ reflect this); too expensive; too narrow in scope, too devoid of colour.  The books arrived and Hat unpacked them with glee. We have dipped into them since. On recce. Navigating our way around the lessons in advance of the real thing: when ‘term’ begins, when her older siblings return to ‘proper’ school. We have made lists of the things we need to buy: poster paints, pencils, pads of white paper.

But Hat’s ‘school’ will not be limited to a classroom at home, it will not be rigidly designed around an academic calendar. Her father’s job means extensive travel throughout Tanzania, to remote places on the map hundreds of miles away. His work will take him to the shores of Lake Tanganyika, to the Southern Highlands, to the dry interior around the Ruaha National Park. Must Hat and I remain here in solitary splendour whilst he explores a country Hat has lived in all her life just so that we can do ‘school’?

No. I don’t believe so. Hat doesn’t either. Already she is demanding her own map of the country so that,”I can tick off all the places I’ve been to”. Must we stay home alone and dryly turn the pages of geography books when we could be living the geography, absorbing the history, collecting treasures for a nature table, taking pictures for a collage? No.

Why? Because life’s too short to lose opportunities for adventure. And I want Hat to understand that as much as I want her to understand fractions and the rudiments of grammer. More, maybe. Because she’s going to spend so much of her life incarcerated in educational institutions, what’s a year or two picking up knowledge in the bush? Because I really, really want my children to know that sometimes bending rules, sometimes not conforming, is more rewarding than being straight-jacketed into Normal. Education is imperative. I’m not convinced school is.

I know that the opportunity to have Hat at home with me this year, next, even the one after, on the pretext of teaching her is a gift. I know that. I just hope that in five or ten or twenty years time, Hat will remember it as one too.

Celebrating Laundry

July 27, 2007

Tomorrow we are going shopping. This is why:

broken-washing-machine.jpg

Washing machine I brought with me to Outpost from Land of the Living is broken. Not my fault, nobody had ever explained why you need to secure the drum in advance of transporting wretching thing. I just thought it was public health and safety nanny state nonsense. So I didn’t bother. For those of you tempted to be as rash, I can now explain why you need to secure bloody drum (with bar provided if you haven’t lost it – I, somewhat predictably had – or several duvets stuffed around it). If you don’t, the machine will, in transit, shake like a jelly in need of a xanax fix and the drum, which -owing to severe anxiety attack – will have spent the three days on the move trying to escape casings, will end up looking like this:

brocken-washing-machine-2.jpg

Aluminium foil. Aluminium foil that’s been squished ready to discard. Much as you would sandwich wrappings. Washing machine don’t work when their drums have been subjected to such trauma. Which is when you have to buy a new one.

However, there is an upside. It means we are afforded shopping trip. Not any old shopping trip (you can’t get butter in Outpost, you’re hardly going to get a Phillips Whirlpool), a shopping trip to Mwanza! Our nearest city. A mere five hours drive away. Mostly on appallingly bad dirt roads.

The children are ecstatic: said trip will mean an early rise, a picnic breakfast on the road (washing machine shop closes at noon) a night in an hotel, an icecream (you can’t get those here either) and the opporutnity to trawl the shelves of a supermarket which is so big you need a trolley. Unlike the one here which is so tiny you stand at counter and point to what you want so assistant can clamber shelves to get it for you.

You never thought anticipating putting a load on could be so exciting, did you? No. Didn’t think so. But then you don’t live in the Outpost. I know. Because I know all 8 people here and you – so sadly – don’t count amongst them.

An Experiment

July 27, 2007

Hypothesis: to see if what Husband says – that long shower will still use significantly less water than even the shallowest bath – is in fact true.

Method: stood under shower which is erected over bath, put plug in bath, turned water on, washed self from head to toe using exfoliator mitts bought in Boots meant to reduce cellulite on thighs and bum and make me look like Elle McPherson (aka The Body), shaved legs, shampoo’d and conditioned hair (a rare treat which explains why I usually look more like Worzel Gummidge than what used to look like when resided in land of living). Turned taps off. Got out. Towelled self dry. Noted – with some measure of disappointment – that I still looked like Gummidge and not a bit like The Body.

Result: I had – indeed – used only a fraction of the water that children and I used when we shared a bath (not altogether, obviously, one at a time, in quick succession so water – which only had time to go from warm to tepid not warm to ice-cold – got scummier by the body – not The Body, as noted with sadness above – which meant Ben got out dirtier than he got in)

Additional anticipated but somewhat irksome result: Husband is right.

Further experiments: Husband says he can shower with less water than I. This is not suprising: he does not need to exfoliate or shave acres of body and nor does he have long masquerading-as-blonde-hair to wash.

Reason for mindless experimentation such as this: When you have to stand over a patch of dust and dribble water from a hosepipe onto it to coax some semblance of ”lawn” from its arid depths, you will understand why.

Just to prove how Far Out Outpost really is …

July 26, 2007

Where I live – in Outpost of quite some considerable note – there are none of Africa’s characteristic local taxis – matatus as they are called in Kenya (because immediately post independence entrepreneurs bought used military vehicles to ferry people from the suburbs to jobs in the city and passengers paid tatu – the Swahili word for 3 – cents a ride) or dala-dalas as they’re called in Tanzania beacuse, you’ve guessed it, the swahili word dala is jargon for five and original journeys were just five cents.

matatu-3.jpg

Despite providing affordable transport, matatus or dala-dalas – which have improbable names like God Is Good or Allah is Great (depending on the owner’s religious leaning, presumably) or X-Factor or – bizarrely – Guantanamo Bay – are not popular for any other reason; their drivers have no manners, pulling off the road at random without indication, pulling back onto it on a whim without use of such superflous instruments as rear view or side mirrors (those are for driver – who wears aviator shades – to admire himself in), they drive recklessly and overload, squeezing passengers, luggage, goats and chickens into the airless scrum that is their interior. I have heard stories of matatu drivers reading the paper as they drive, or squeezing an extra punter between themselves and driver’s door.

But in Outpost, because its so tiny (nowhere to go) and demand therefore almost non-existent (nobody to go anywhere), matatus/dala-dalas – mercifully for the rest of us that use the roads here – do not feature at all. Not one. There are old fashioned taxis, with yellow lights on top to indicate whether they’re free to hire or not. And there are bicycles. The alternative bush dala-dala.

outpost-matatu.jpg

I am reliably informed – by James, the garden boy – that a ride on a bicycle dala dala (matatu equivalent) is 200 shillings. More, granted, than five cents. But only about 8 pence at today’s rate. 

Safer, less crowded and brilliantly airconditioned.

What did they do in the Old Days?

July 26, 2007

Minx wonders what people did before the Web came along, before communication was so gratuitously instant.

They wrote letters.  Which they sealed in envelopes, onto which they stuck a stamp and then they popped them in a post box. Why they. This was meus – until only a handful of years ago. Until the WorldWideWeb rendered envelopes and postage stamps and fat pads of Basildon Bond almost redundant.

I began writing letters when I was six: letters home were an obligatory part of our boarding school week.

Dear Mummy and Daddy, How are you? I am fine. I like school. Love from me x

The I Like School was essential if your letter was to pass muster with the class room censor.

I didn’t know how much my letters home were appreciated until I became a mother (with children at boarding school) myself.  As a child I had anticipated the arrival of letters in the school dining room (at lunchtime) with palpable excitement: the entire school was hushed as the member of staff on duty read out names from the bundle of post in her hands. Great kudos was attached to those who received letters regularly. I was amongst the lucky ones: my mum was dogged in her religious dispatch of twice weekly letters.

I always imagined I could smell her skin (Elizabeth Arden) on the pages that slipped from the envelope, and as I read, I could see her sitting at her desk to write, I could hear the sounds of homelife on the farm a hundred miles away. Letters from Mum tipped the taste of her chocolate cake into my boiled cabbage world at school. They transcended me – briefly – back home.

And until my own children began to write to me, in deliciously childish scrawl, illustrating the parts of the page they hadn’t managed to fill with text with pictures from their own boarding school world, I imagined my letters to Mum and Dad were reassuringly regular reminders that I was still in the land of the living for I told them so little. I was wrong; my children told me little more but I could scent their very essence on lined paper grubby with eraser marks. I kept every one, in a box file marked “Letters from the Children”.  We take them out sometimes and laugh at the funny things they said, their extraordinary phonetic spelling, their drawings.

I have four letters that rank amongst my most precious possessions: from my father, I really could smell his hand on the page: tobacco. He wrote the last only days before he was killed in a road accident. For years afterwards I wished I could erase the words that dictated his imminent weekend plans – perhaps if he’d never written them, he’d still be here I used to think.

As teenagers my girlfriends and I – absent from each other during the long summer holidays – wrote lengthy epistles describing the precise words a crush had uttered, they made for delciously long gossipy reads that one could return to again and again. I had a friend who never failed to seal an envelope without enclosing some small treasure: a photo, a pressed flower, a pinch of colourful paperclips. Their uselessness didn’t matter, what mattered was that you’d received more than a letter, you’d received something that bordered on a parcel.

I have arm-twisted my kids into letter writing: thankyou letters to assorted grannies and great aunts who have yet to debut the WorldWideWeb (if, indeed, they ever do). It means the children understand communication can be afforded through pen and paper and not just digits upon a keyboard. Hat has yet to appreciate a postcard needs an address; you can understand her reasoning: why won’t a letter in the mail get to Granny Hirst if simply addressed ”to granny hirst” when an email to my mum gets there with just her name@.

Would I part with my internet connectivity in lieu of letters to a remote PO Box number in an Outpost a million miles from anywhere. Would I ditch the techno talk for the romantcism of letters in the mail?

No. No I wouldn’t. I loved letters – writing them, receiving them. I still love them, though they present infrequently in my life now. But I love the ”being in touch” more than the “getting in touch”. I’m glad I knew about letters, I shall be eternally grateful that I was part of a generation that understood the pleasure of letters. But I’m even more grateful I can tag onto the Internet generation. It might mean I never receive a letter in the post from my babies again, but I’ll settle for that if I can be assured of regular one liners:

hi mum, how r u? cd u please send gran’s email address again? lol x

I’ve still got a box file of letters written by them long ago, we can always review them and giggle at the things they said, their drunk-spider scrawl, I can reminisce and they can laugh at how we did things in The Old Days.

The Importance of Communcation

July 25, 2007

Problemchildbride has resurfaced to write, her blogging has been compromised of late on account of communication problems.

I have enormous empathy.

When I first began blogging/blabbing I did so from a dialup connection at home on the farm; at best my speeds ran to 9.6 Kbps. It was an arduous process of dedication. Or a self-centred determination to have myself heard? In any event, it took time. Not least because it took half a day to open a page but frequently the phone would cut off mid sentence and I’d lose my thread (aka post to that point). Eventually the phone cut off altogether since farm hadn’t only neglected to pay us, they’d neglected to pay everybody else too, Tanzania Telecommuncations Company Ltd included.

When we made the decision to relocate to Outpost, I stipulated good communication was a must. Or I’d go mad (given what I’ve seen so far there’s a fair chance of that anyway, but I wasn’t to know that at the time). Husband, not wishing to be married to mad woman – or even one who nagged incessantly about bad internet connection – did his utmost to get it all installed ahead of Her Ladyship’s arrival.

Alas, it did not work.

It does now. In the two weeks I have been here I have – instead of nagging Him obsessively – taken up my rant with local internet provider TTCL (as above; they offer a wireless and broadband connection as well as common-or-garden 9Kbps dialup variety). They have been enduringly patient.

First they installed broadband via phone line and a monitor, which winks at me lewedly from shelf above where I write. It worked sporadically. Up and down’s like a Whatsits drawers. I called the friend I was trying to cultivate at TTCL, Mr Stima (loosely translates as ”power” in colloquial Kiswahili) and reported my problem.  He arrived to investigate and informed me dodgy connection was on account of bad power in shack outside the house which I somewhat grandly – and presumptuously as it turned out – was calling my ”office”. He suggested I relocate inside and it might work better there. I did. It didn’t. So he said I ought use laptop instead of preferred desktop, there was clearly a problem with that he said sniffily. Don’t think so; laptop connection just as fickle. Mr Stima departed as confounded as I.

Several days and alot of Husband Nagging later, I reported persistent problem again. Mr Stima returned with reinforcements (doubtless he has already binned me as a nutter and is faintly afraid of woman obsessed with taking up residence in cyberspace); he came with four (FOUR!) colleagues. The five of them stood over me as I demonstrated my difficulty in connecting. The monitor winked and grinned and flashed rudely but the three lights that ought to have remained illuminated in order to establish a link simply refused to do so.

Having dissed both my power and my assorted computers, Mr Stima was running out of excuses. It must be the line, he said. His workmates nodded sagely in agreement. What could be wrong with the line, I asked. ”Perhaps it has been stolen, they do that you know”, they said in tones of hushed reverence. Oh I said in small voice, ”what now?”. We will go and investigate, they said bravely. And off the trailed.

They did indeed investigate line, whether they found fault I don’t know. The connection continues to be sporadic so they have suggested perhaps it’s a problem with their server and offered to connect me to a backup wireless system (for a fee, obviously). Only two technicians came back to do that – perhaps they have grown bored of newly resident nutter – they were charming and helpful and now I am connected via monitor at 100Mbps (when it works) or alternatively wireless (at a less speedy, but far faster than I’m used to, 250 Kbps). My desk is quite crowded now, given all the phones and monitors not to mention laptop but it does mean I’m more or less assured of connection. And communication. And conversation. Not counting all that I’ve had with Mr Stima and his merry band of men over last ten days of course.

The Contrariness of Mrs Weaver

July 24, 2007

 The Good Woman has written a quite lovely piece that describes her packing experience – her parcelling up of memories – http://topblogmag.blogspot.com/2007/07/packing-on-inside.html; she is about to relocate from Scotland to Kenya.

With a recent – and not entirely happy (in a perfect world I’d have stayed where I was forever) – move of my own over, I had cause to mull over her words as I dug amongst the last of dozens and dozens of dusty packing boxes, unearthing my own memories from bubble wrap and brown paper.  And later, because I deserved it and because I couldn’t think where to put everthing I’d unwrapped, I rewarded myself with a walk on the dam, accompanied by kids and dogs.

There we came upon an acacia tree adorned with the nests of weaver birds

the-colony.jpg

In weaver bird communities, Mr Weaver Bird is solely responsible for the nest building. He needs to build a nest to a sufficiently high standard that he attract a mate. And any potential Mrs Weaver Bird is going to be very fussy, her demands exacting. She wants a home in a thorny tree, so its safe from predators (my cats, for example), at the end of a long, thin branch so she gets plenty of advance warning in the event of snake attack. She’d quite like to be close to water, preferably directly above it as such proximity not only enhances her security (from cats, snakes et al) but it means she can preen whilst admiring her reflection in the water’s surface.  Mrs Weaver has no tolerance of shoddy workmanship (sticky out twigs, untidy entrances etc) and – get this, this is the best bit (a gem of information from my eldest daughter, Amelia, who says she wants to be the next Attenborough except she doesn’t have his voice she says – or other bits of him, I want to point out) Mrs Weaver Bird is especially hard to please when it comes to colour scheme; she will absolutely not – under any circumstance, even if the nest fits the bill in every other respect – consider a home that has begun to go brown. She will only marry and move into the home of Mr Weaver Bird if the nest is still green.

But why, I want to know?

Because says Amelia (aka next Attenborough if she had the voice and other bits) if the nest is brown, it means it was built some time ago and Mr Weaver Bird still hasn’t managed to fill it with a mate yet which means there’s probably something wrong with him. Like what? I ask, ‘like he’s weedy and produces ugly babies’.

Given my not very beautiful new home and fact I have had to abandon own exacting standards, I think my own Mr Weaver Bird must consider himself very fortunate that I have agreed to move in regardless.

    the-neighbourhood.jpg

Counting Blessings

July 23, 2007

We have moved from this …

from-this.jpg

beautiful painstakingly renovated barn, home for six years to this …

to-this.jpg

When I think about the space and light and elegantly generous proportions of our old house, when I remember it’s ancient beams, which inspired us to build about them, saving all we could find of the old as we went, squirrelling from dumps for appropriate treasures because we thought it’d always be home, and  when I want to weep for the very essence of a place I miss, I will myself to remember the tough stuff.  I consider that everything that was precious came with me: my family, my dogs, the pictures hanging on the walls.  And I remind myself that it will become home – most places do, given time.

But when it gets really bad and we’re falling over one another in the tiny, dark, faintly charmless bungalow that’s home now, I remember we’re earning a salary again. For the first time in a year.

That usually does the trick.

Dressed for DIY

July 22, 2007

Today, being Sunday, Husband is home all day. (Saturday is a day of work for him). Sundays, as a result, are a day of work for the rest of us: we are all chivvied into busy-ness by His Nibs who can’t sit still for two minutes.

Today we began to hang our pictures. We have collected dozens in the twenty years we have been together. Some we ought not to have bothered to hang onto but I’m not good at throwing anything away and consequently our rubbish has followed us around Tanzania like a bad smell.

Anyway. Picture Hanging. Having unpacked them from bubble wrap I set about deciding which picture was to go in what room. Husband followed me about armed with hammer and nails and rather bored expression wishing he’d never suggested hanging pictures in the first place.

This is how we hang pictures: once I have decided precisely where which picture should go and with which other (like my life, I quite like my walls to be cluttered), Husband – having done that whole ‘up a bit, down a bit, left a bit’ nonsense puts his thumb behind the frame to identify roughly where the nail should go by holding the picture wire. It’s all en exercise in guess work and – as you can imagine – the pictures rarely end up exactly where I’d hoped. Then he yells, ‘take the picture, take the picture, take the bloody picture before I drop it’, which I do, reminding him there’s no need to shout, all the while he’s got thumb pressed to wall at point he thinks nail ought to be in order for my picture to hang somewhere near the point I’d like it to hang.

And then he whacks nail into the wall with all his might, and absolutely no ceremony.  No raw plugs or spirit levels or drill bit for us. Oh no, we’re far too good for that.

Considering our Heath Robinson approach and fact there were absolutely no electrical gadgets involved, I have to say I was quite suprised to note Husband wearing ridiculous yellow DIY goggles for the job. Mind you, I did see sparks – not to mention several kilos of plaster – fly every time he struck the wall with his hammer. Perhaps it was as well he was protecting his eyes.

Even if he did look bloody silly.

Green Fingered?

July 21, 2007

My Lawn

This is what my lawn looks like.

This is post planting – courtesy of grass delivered by non-conversant pilot – and post signifant amount of (precious) watering. This is not strictly lawn-cultivating country but I am determined to beat the odds and have a garden. With a lawn. One that I can mow.

I am not a good gardener. I have learnt, by default, over the years sort of what to do.  And mostly what not to do. I buy gardening books. But not because I read them (I mean to), mainly in the hope that people might notice them lying – redudant – under coffee table, gathering dust (especially here, no lawn and all that) and think, ‘well at least she’s trying, bless her!’.

I buy packets of seeds which expire before I plant them out. I buy plants in pots which die when they become root-bound . I try to artfully design rockeries but my efforts look as if I’ve buried an entire tribe in my garden: the Masai bury their dead beneath mounds of stones and each time they pass – as a mark of respect – they add another: that’s what my rockeries are inclined to look like: piles of stones. And not much else.

I’d love people to say of me, as they say of friends of mine, ‘she’s got a beautiful garden, isn’t she clever’. I’d love to be able to spout the latin names of exotic flowers. I’d love to know what plants are meant to go where and whether they like sun or shade. But then I’d quite like people to recognise me as a fabulous cook too and that isn’t likely to ever happen.

Just as Domestic Goddess and my name are never going to be used in the same sentence, I doubt Green Fingered and I will be either.

Still, a lawn would be nice …