Archive for July, 2007

Cause for Excitement

July 20, 2007

Yesterday two things gave rise to tremendous excitement.

Provisions for Hat’s home school arrived, all the way from America, courtesy of Expediated Mail Service. I received notification that I was to present at the Post Office, armed with ID, to collect my packages. Hat – enthused as she is about everything, including school – opted to come with me.

The Post Office is situated on a tiny, dusty road. It doesn’t look like it sees a great deal of business. Inside I walked to the EMS counter and waited for the woman sitting behind it to finish with the customer she was dealing with. She did and I approached, presented my paperwork and asked if she could help me.

She could not, she said. I was to take a seat. She gestured to the red plastic seat on which I’d been sitting waiting not two foot from her counter. I resumed waiting. We sat inches from each other, neither of us doing or saying anything. If you discount her grinning at a slightly unnerved Hat.

After a bit I suggested she call whomever it was that might be able to help. So she did. Over her shoulder to the partition next to her. A besuited man wearing a thick tie (in this heat?) approached and asked how he could help. I presented my paperwork.

You must wait for Customs to get here, he said, to clear your parcels.

But it’s just books, I protested, for her school, I said, pointing at Hat.  I’m not going to have to pay am I, I asked (books and educational supplies being tax exempt).

No, he said, but the Customs man must open your boxes.

With that he brought the three big cartons clearly marked with the homeschools details to within tantalizing view of Hat. And we proceeded to wait. Various people came and went, not many, one or two, everybody said hello and wanted to shake us by the hand. One gentleman was charmed to meet Hat, whom he called Cat, an error my little girl had the grace to overlook.

Finally, after alot of hand-shaking and sustained grinning at Hat by woman, still sitting idle, behind her counter, Customs appeared in form of short, fat man in green suit. He indicated I should follow him behind the desks and open my parcels which I did, sitting on the floor whilst he sat in a chair, with some difficulty since they were tightly taped up. He proffered a broken pair of scissors which I politely attempted to use but reverted to my teeth. As each box was opened he peered inside and dug about unearthing books on science and maths and critical thinking. He was clearly very disappointed not to discover something more incriminating. Finally he sat back in his seat, ‘You can go’, he said, waving a hand to motion we should leave with our parcels. Despite the bureaucratic performance with Customs, nodody asked for any ID. Hat and I, weighed down by boxes of books, tottered out to the car where Hat dove into her quarry with delight.  When we got home she insisted we unpack and tick off contents to ensure we had everything we needed to do school for a year; I have to admit to feeling a little overwhelmed by the two tomes called Teaching Manuals but will not let my anxiety spoil her evident joy.

Later second of the day’s highlights presented: my grass arrived. Lawn grass. Not spliff grass. Which might have improved Custom’s dayI suppose.

I am desperate to plant some semblance of a garden , to counter the permanence of dust. But I cannot get the necessary here so was obliged to prevail upon kind friends in Arusha to source and send a sack of grass. Which they duly, and sweetly, did; the grass was dispatched on a plane carrying ‘high end’ (that means they pay alot) tourists from Lake Tanganyika to the west of me back to Arusha to the east, the country being so large, they are forced to land and refuel in the Outpost. Geography might in this case be on my side.

Ben and I drove the few minutes to the airstrip and asked if we could wait runway side for a plane delivering a package.

Sawa, replied the gardener, or whoever he was, and indicated it was OK for us to proceed to the front of the tiny airport. We sat in the shade and waited, watching the big sky and listening for a plane. In due course it appeared and bumped down the dusty strip, coming to a halt in front of us. Interested tourists looked out at what must have been an odd sight: a remote African airstrip with nobody about but a white woman in a pair of shorts and her teenage son. The pilot, wearing stripes and and those faintly ridiculous and inevitable Aviator Shades, clambered out of the cockpit.

Hello, I said.


Do you have a package for me, I persisted, despite his apparent lack of interest in any kind of conversation.

Yeah. Wait. I’ll get it.

We waited and watched the refuelling begin, the tourists got out to stretch their legs and get a better look at us.

Finally the pilot swaggered up with my bag of grass.

Are you on your way back to Arusha? I asked, how long will it take? Have you come from Mahale?

Jesus, he replied, you sure ask alot of questions.

I couldn’t resist it: ‘you would too’, I said, ‘if you lived here and didn’t get the opportunity for much conversation’.

Christ he said, you live here.

I ought to have said ‘no, I just hang about on bush strips looking to talk to pilots because I have nothing in the world better to do’. But I didn’t, I just nodded, took my bag of grass, thanked him and shot home to begin planting.

Celebrity Chef goes shopping

July 19, 2007

Hat and I go shoppping. Hat, bless her, has written a list (she hasn’t lived here long enough to know that you get to the  store, look at shelves, buy whatever is there, which isn’t much, in case its not there the next time, and then cater around your purchases). Anyway, she came armed with a list drawn up after consulting 100 Delicious Cakes and Biscuits to Bake. Hat is an aspirant celeb chef.

First stop was the market. Hat hoppped out of the car optimistically clutching her list. No Hat, I say, this is tomato and onion stop. Oh, she says, but presses on valiantly. I’ll carry your basket she volunteers.

We wander the dusty stalls and I wonder what I’m going to feed the family (beyond the inevitable tomatoes and onions which they are quite bored of despite my attempts to disguise them as egg curry, sausage casserole and chocolate mousse). Not much apparently. Though we do source some fat garlic and even fatter fresh ginger alongside which is being sold sachets of ginger powder. I can make ginger biscuits, says Hat with sweet enthusiasm as she hands over the necessary for a small packet.

I buy fruit. Passion fruit, from Arusha the vendors tell me excitedly. Like me, I tell them; I”m from Arusha. They laugh, as if that’s too improbable to believe: fruit from Arusha is one thing, a silly white woman quite another. The passion fruit is exorbitantly expensive and – I discover on closer inspection when I get home – mostly bad. I also buy two huge water melon and persuade Hat, who is now listing precariously to one side in a bid to lug basket, to let me help her. We add a suspiciously rank smelling pineapple to our collection, overpriced carrots (also from Arusha, I am told) and ten thin skinned naajis (tangerines) which turn out to be delicious.

Feeling mildy deflated we proceed to the grocery store which is a tiny dark windowless place with shelves stacked to the ceiling with unlikely items like packet Creme Caramel and pancake mixture. Hat stands at the glass counter consulting her list.

Bicarbonate of Soda? she enquires


I don’t think they’ve got any Hat, I say, we’ll get some when we go to Arusha (where we’ll also get passion fruit and carrots considering the amount I’ve just forked out for both).

Dark Chocolate?

The assistant proffers a KitKat. Which will taste of Omo owing to close proximity to washing detergent. I know: I’ve bought chocolate here before.

Hat presses bravely on: Golden Syrup? she asks.

A blank look.

Not to worry she says, I’ll just use honey (the region produces quantities of the stuff; we have two huge mtungis of it at home which I worry nobody will eat since Ben referred to it as bee vomit).

We don’t leave with much but we have managed to find porridge oats and baking powder.

I’ll make muffins, says Hat, I’ve got everything I need to make muffins.

Except raisins I remind her.

Not to worry, she smiles, I don’t like raisins anyway.

She makes muffins.

They are delicious.

Road to Nowhere?

July 17, 2007


There are two roads into and out of the Outpost.

 One looks like this.

 The other looks exactly the same.

Lights out

July 17, 2007

If it’s not the water, it’s the wretched power.

The circuit breaker keeps tripping and we keep being plunged into darkness. Power cuts here are an occupational hazard. Oddly I didn’t mind as much when it was national power company’s shortcomings that kept us in the dark. But I do mind when fault lies within, potentially, theoretically, my own control.

I request services of an electrician. He appears and tells me his name is Concubine. I can’t believe it, stifle a giggle and ask him to repeat it. “Oh! Columbine?!” I say with a measure of relief.

Columbine gingerly examines the fuse box. I suggest he measures power input but he tells me he doesn’t have the necessary tool to do that and continues to poke about amongst wires. If he doesn’t measure power input before he puts his fingers in sockets, his could be the shortest career recorded in electrics.

He tells me I cannot use all my electrical gadgets at once. He tells me that to do so will trip switch again. I tell him I’ve lived in Africa almost all my life and know that to aspire to greedily utilize oven, iron, water heater and elecric kettle simultaneously would be to tempt fate. Or darkness.

We reach a stale mate.

I source an alternative electrician. His name isn’t nearly as interesting but, reassuringly, he arrives armed with what I’d expect electricians to be armed with: a power monitor and an air of confidence that Columbine appeared to lack. He looks as if he knows what he’s doing which means he’ll leave me – with his life – with lights.

Power is restored. I can even use the electric kettle at the same time as the water pump which means I can fill it first which is quite handy.

Saving the planet? I’ll start with water

July 16, 2007

This is what it means when you need to be mindful of how much water you use, if, like us, you only get water three times a week for 3 hours at a time. If you’re really, really lucky.

 You need to have ample storage: I have two small tanks elevated above the ground and one underground (utilized for the first time today since patched up after being punctured by roots of nearby mango tree), I also have four large plastic blue containers which granted are not very beautiful garden features but they are potentially very useful ones;

You need to adopt that faintly disgusting ‘let it mellow’ mantra with loo usage;

You need to have short, sharp showers: get under shower, turn it on, briefly, wet self and soap, turn shower off, wash, turn on to rinse. As quickly as you can. Hair washing days need to be timed with max water days, especially when you have long hair like me and so need several shampoos and handfuls of conditioner to get it both clean and comb-able.  Baths are out of the question.

You need to wear your clothes – with exception of undies, obviously – for several days running; this is because there is absolutely not enough water for copious amounts of laundry; try to time clothes changes with days out so that you at least look marginally presentable and don’t smell;

Because arrival of water is erratic (you are never sure which three days nor which three hours, turning on of main tap is at the whim of dara ya maji, the local water board), you need to have a tap dedicated to incoming water supply and you need to keep beady eye on it so that you’re on the ball the moment it begins to gurgle promisingly.

When that happens, you need to move swiftly into action and fill assorted tanks and plastic containers. When they’re full, you can set about dribbling water on the dust and dead grass that is masquerading as a lawn – though usually you don’t get that far.

I can’t think about saving Planet Earth right now, all my energies are consumed with conserving sufficient water to keep my family clean enough that they don’t become health hazard or social pariahs.

Hunter Gatherer

July 15, 2007

His Nibs, aka the Husband, got us all up at 5 this morning and drove us for two hours across the bush in order that we could eat breakfast somewhere different. And he could blat a few birds. For lunch. Or supper. Or whatever. The pot, anyway. Who needs Tesco, he’d say, when you can eat roadkill. Or similar.  My husband’s ancestral instincts are never far away: he’d be as happy living in a cave, wearing a bearskin and spearing mammoth for tea as he is living in a house with duck a l’orange in the oven. Indeed, he might be happier, were it not for the fact mammoth days would have meant he’d have been obliged to live without a fridge full of cold beer.

Whatever. We bounced our way the two hours back home, husband having satisified that primal hunter-gatherer thing men seem to harbour.  We met a roadside chameleon on the way and Hat gently hoisted him to safety, to the horror of several African women walking by; chameleons are unlucky as far as Africans are concerned.

Tomorrow I need to do some hunting-gathering of my own – to source loo paper and icing sugar …


Clawing back some Sanity

July 14, 2007


It was fixed, it was fixed, it was fixed! In Outpost! Found a fundi who could mend hard drive (a problem with its memory, he said, not unlike owner I replied, a witticism born of relief which was lost on him). Amazing. Especially amazing given I cannot find anyone to fix water heater or door handle on eldest daughter’s bedroom door (which means both her privacy compromised and my hearing because cannot close her very loud, very bad, very 13 year old music in).

Walked last night. On nearby dam from which town’s water supply is drawn. With the kids and the dogs. We watched the sun go down and I clawed back some sanity.

It felt good; I feel better.


July 13, 2007

The fish arrived the next afternoon. With attendant baggage. To our relief. And – though they mightn’t have registered it yet – the relief of the entire staff of, and any transit passengers in, Dar es Salaam International Airport who would surely have begun to smell a rat (or similar) had our bags not been dispatched so hastily. I ripped it from the clingwrapped bag and dropped into the deep freeze without drawing breath.

Challenges on Day One, therefore, included:

– making enough telephone calls to ensure our luggage was loaded onto that day’s flight;
– braving ‘town’ to purchase tomatoes, potatoes and mozzi nets (and chocolate to distract the children from all the nutters who kept approaching the car to leer in at them – this place is either national dumping ground for anybody who doesn’t conform to normalcy or a stagnant puddle spawned off inbreeding gene pool – entirely understandable given the distance one would have to go to find a partner; or perhaps insanity is what happens to everybody who lives here long enough, also entirely understandable given my first two days);
– battling to capture every drop of water that fell from every tap in order that we can wash, flush loos (we live by the faintly disgusting mantra ‘if it’s yellow, let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down’ now) and trickle the odd mugful onto my jaundiced lawn (parent stock carefully uprooted from my garden in Arusha and transported here)

Challenges on this – Day Two – include trying not to have a total nervous and emotional breakdown when my Desktop (which contains every word I have ever written – including four unpublished books – none of which I’d backed up, naturally) crashed in spectacular fashion and promised internet connection failed to work.

Outpost living isn’t going to be easy.

But perhaps it means I will always have something to talk about.

Perhaps it means I’ll be a better person for the adventure.

Or perhaps it just means I’m going to go mad too?

Given the fact their mother is threatening to fall apart at the seams, my children have been pillars of strength, suggesting I drink sweet tea (interestingly it was only yesterday that Amelia asked for an explanation as to the importance of sweet tea) or have a lie-down. My husband has stopped taking my tearful calls.

The tea helped; it encouraged me to be proactive. I called a friend in Arusha who organizes highly paying safari clients onto execu-jets that – by virtue of destination must stopover in Outpost to refuel (when I bet they all peer out the aircraft windows and wonder if anybody lives in this God forsaken place); she has suggested sending my hard-drive to Arusha where it can be seen by the necessary technician and returned to me in same luxury manner.

My hard drive is going to travel in better style than I ever will.

So long as it comes home working, I won’t hold a grudge.


July 13, 2007

We’re here.

Home. I suppose. Though it doesn’t feel like it yet. It feels alien, not in a threatening way, just in a faintly aloof, unfriendly way. Like meeting a stranger for the first time, one with whom you don’t make the instant connection you’d like to make, somebody you need to learn to get to know, to like.

The getting here was a challenge.

The eight hours in Heathrow (bristling with armed policemen in flak jackets and busy with people about to take to the skies – for what reason, one wonders? Holidays? Family reunions? Happy events? Sad ones? New homes? Like us) was followed by another 8 in the air.

A fast changeover in Nairobi, so fast that I was enormously relieved to ID our bags on the runway as we boarded our plane to Kilimanjaro (and note that the one containing kippers was splitting, kippers evidently intent on escaping) and we were winging our way back into Tanzania, above cloud through which Mts Kilimanjaro and Meru peeked to say hello. The tourists on board all took out their cameras and focused on Kilimanjaro’s increasingly meager snowcap, Kibo, (global warming making its presence felt? Or a mountain battling with the annual tramp of 20,000 pairs of human feet?).

At Kilimanjaro International Airport we cling-wrapped the bag with the kippers which was gaping wide open now and checked in for our flight – via Zanzibar and Dar es Salaam – to the Outpost.  It was delayed.

So we sat. And we sat. And we watched the execu-jets outside being boarded by high-paying hunting clients who’d fly into Outpost to refuel (Outpost’s existence is sustained only en passant, only because Tanzania is too big to fly across on one tank of aviation fuel) before transferring to luxury bush camps where they’d drink Scotch and shoot Big Game.

Clock watching I grew anxious the delay would compromise our Dar connection. I went to the desk to articulate my worries. As I was doing so, a faux blonde Englishman with hot potatoes in his mouth bustled up, ‘my charter is here’. The girl on the desk didn’t bat an eyelid. Nor did I. He insisted, more loudly now (so that the entire departure lounge could hear just how terribly important he was), ‘my private charter is here, can you let me out’.

The girl behind the desk shuffled off to oblige. I wanted to spin round and tell him how rude I thought he was, interrupting whilst she was plainly dealing with me. I wanted to tell him that charters were two a penny here, that Tanzania is so vast and so poorly serviced with commercial flights that private charters thrive, I wanted to tell him I thought he was a twit and that I knew his hair wasn’t that colour naturally. I wanted to tell him that I was only being forced to fly horribly delayed commercial because my Lear jet was in the hangar on blocks (which would have been a lie, obviously – the owning a Lear, not the on blocks bit). But I didn’t. Because I was too tired to think of any of those things at the time. I did laugh though. I hope he realized my tittering was on account of his posing and not because I was impressed.

Finally our plane (the not so precise Precision Airways) boarded, by which time I knew we would not make our connection. It took several attempts to persuade airline staff of same. By which time I was almost in tears. The children were slumped in their seats, too tired even to fight. Please radio Dar and ask them to hold the flight for us, I begged pathetically, the next one doesn’t leave for 24 hours, I can’t sit in the airport for 24 hours, with kids, we’ve already been travelling for 24.

They never confirmed whether they had done or not. But we were rushed through Dar on arrival and shortly thereafter shunted onto a plane bound for Outpost which had been sitting on the tarmac for sometime sans aircon; it was like stepping into a kiln. I could only hope kippers and rest of baggage were somewhere with us.

We took off – with explanations of, and apologies for, delayed departure on account of ‘operational difficulties beyond our control’; whether we were said operational difficulties, I didn’t care.

It was only once we were airborne that the enormity of our impending isolation dawned on the children. Flying to the Outpost you traverse huge swathes of untouched Africa, not a road nor a single railway line scar the plains, no corrugated iron roofs wink up at you reassuringly. Nothing. Just bush and rock and the shadow of scudding clouds thousands of feet below. We were bound for the Middle Of Nowhere.

The children were wide eyed and quiet. Not a sound as we landed on a dirt strip throwing up a dusty cloud behind us as we rattled toward the tiny terminal building, relic of colonialism. We disembarked to fierce heat and stood in the shade of a palm waiting for the luggage to be unloaded from the plane and dragged up the sandy path to the loftily named Arrivals Hall (hall?!) on a rickety hand pulled cart.

Alas. Ours was not amongst it. All I could think of was the 5 kg of kippers tightly cling-wrapped sitting abandoned on a runway in scorching 30 degree heat. And the smell that must surely by now be emanating.

Leaving on a Jet Plane

July 9, 2007

I have just received two things which have made me feel a little better – and a lot braver – about impending departure from a place where telephone always works, rooms are bathed in light with the flick of a switch and taps emit healthy gush when you turn them on. My return to back of beyond where the phone rarely works, electricity is often cut and all that comes out of taps on most days is a miserable little gurgle accompanied by spiteful spit of something that looks uncomfortably like bile but is, in fact, filthy water, is a trifle intimidating after four weeks of living in England; I’ve become soft about the edges, literally and metaphorically.

So receiving a Rockin Girl Blogger award from Insteadi and a Still-To-Be-Named award from the Good Woman has inspired me to bite my lip, put my head down and get on with it.  I shall try not to think about the encouraging little text husband sent to tell me there is almost no water at home, that the lawn I was trying to get started has curled up and died and that my internet connection still isn’t working so I shall be cut off until I’ve waged war on those responsible. Or, more probably, bribed them.  Instead I shall focus on the bigger picture: that, for all its frustrations, I am going home. That shopping in a market, haggling over the price of tomatoes in Kiswahili is, because I’m used to it, less overwhelming that selecting shampoo in Tesco. That taking up my eternal challenge to become a culinary whizz with the barest of minimum is something I’ve become rather good at (the challenge, not the actual cooking you understand).

So. I’m leaving. Today. On a jet plane. With my three children, five huge bags and a credit card that looks like it could use a holiday. Which it’ll be getting; nothing to buy where I’m going (except those tomatoes, of course). 36 hours from now I shall be Home. And I sincerely hope my luggage will be too; husband has ordered 3 kgs of kippers, which won’t smell nice if they get waylaid in Nairobi, Kilimanjaro, Zanzibar or Dar en route.

Please don’t go away; I’ll be back.