Archive for August, 2007

An explanation of animal habits

August 27, 2007

We are walking through the bush near the dam and come upon a heap of animal droppings.

Whose are those? I ask Font of all Knowledge, husband.

Dikdik, he says in nonchalant manner of man who has spent his life tracking animals through the African wilds.


Why do they do that? I want to know, why do they do their poo in one place.

They always do, says FOAK.

But why, I persist. He doesn’t know why.

I know why, pipes up Hat, who has been whittling a stick with a penknife. And she proceeds to explain.

Once upon a time, she says, delighted to have capitivated audience of two rapt parents who think she is about to deliver Attenborough style wisdom on animal habits, there was a dikdik who drowned in a huge pile of elephant poo. His friends and family were very sad and decided to get revenge on the elephant, which is why they all poo in the same place, one day they hope their pile of poo will be big enough to drown the elephant.


But then she considers the almost flat heap of dung, I think it’s going to take a long time, she says.

On the way home, as the sun’s sinking beyond Outpost’s millions of mango trees and the muezzin is revving up to counter the morning’s Anglican hymns, we stop to buy roasted cobs of corn from a roadside vendor. Hat lies down on the backseat chewing hers thoughtfully,

Mummy, you know when we stay with Granny in England and we go to Tesco?

Yes love.

Well I like going to Tesco but the thing is when you go to Tesco you can’t stop and buy sugar cane and mealies on the side of the road, can you?

No love, you can’t.

I’m glad I live here then.


Life in a Washing Machine

August 26, 2007

Sometimes I think my life is like living inside a washing machine. From the languid tumble of a slow, soothing rinse, cushioned by layers of soft sheets, to the hectic speed of a hard, fast spin.

doing-school.jpgMy slow and languid days have been spent teaching Hat (we relocated to the garden when it got too hot to be inside, and she sat beneath the shade of a spreading mango tree to write a story).

bouganvillea-blooms.jpgLazy afternoons were spent observing with forced patience the sloth like growth of grass and the gentle unfurling of a bouvanvillea bloom,

or following lizards around the house marvelling at their hues – from dull greys and browns to brilliant scarlet and flamboyantly camp purple.

 chasing-lizards.jpg         of-brilliant-coloured-hues.jpg

Hat and I have embarked on an extracurricular art project: we are making a bead curtain, the selection of just the right coloured bead makes for astonishgly good therapy.  Therapy I wish I could offer the lizards which are being tormented mercilessly by cruel, beautiful Moshi who tosses them about with her paws and growls menacingly to try to stir them into more interesting action from their playing dead paralysis.


We have been alone, Hat and I, this week. But not lonely. She has me and I, thank God, have her. She keeps me busy so that I am distracted from the permanent dull ache at her siblings’ absence, from the lack of any adult company. Little girls need entertainment, feeding, stimulation. Mine needs school. And she needs, after her bath, to slather herself in mozquito repellent.

Which one do you want to use, I ask her, as she clambers into her pajamas, the spray or the gel?

The spray, she announces confidently, because it is more affectionate.

She means effective. And she makes me laugh.

The fast spin button was hit follwoing a fraudulent attempt to steal funds from our bank account. The speed exacerbated as I was obliged to hang on for a distant bank advisor, frustration mounting in direct proportion to my telephone bill.

And faster still when I realised three commissions were outstanding and all needed filing before the end of the week when I will on the road again and attention focussed on being briefly reunited with my children, not editing stories for newspapers. The midnight oil was burned. And when it ran too low for light, I set my alarm for four in the morning and worked with strong coffee at my side and Hat still fast asleep.

A brief lull today before the pace picks up at dawn tomorrow when Hat and I will pile back into the car and trek northwards for 500 miles towards evenings and playdates with friends, a pedicure, a dentist appointment, several capuccinos and – very best of all – a weekend with my big ones, to celebrate my son’s 16th birthday.

Where have all the years gone?

Down the drain?

No. Into the murkey reservoir of memories in my mind where some have frayed and faded with age and grown a little grey, but where others are still bright Ariel white for their clarity. As if just yesterday – like the day my boy was born, all 8lb7oz of him, at 7.50 in the morning, shrieking his cross little head off.

Livingstone I presume?

August 22, 2007

I’m reading Martin Dugard’s epic adventure of Livingstone and Stanley at present. Actually husband is reading it but since he has abandoned us this week in favour of a few days in the deep south near the border with Malawi, I have pinched it from his side of the bed and reinstalled it on mine. It’s a cracking read of early, usually eccentric, explorers.

I’ve just finished Evelyn Waugh’s slim volume, A Tourist in Africa. I was astonished to read Waugh’s comments on the Mombasa of the fifties when local inhabitants questioned the potential of the place as a holiday destination. Less than sixty years later it is overrun with European tourists , who come on package tours, eats quanties of cheap pizza, drink alot of Tusker, slather themselves in Hawaiin Tropic, fry like proverbial eggs under equatorial sun, saunter around the town dressed in tiny, flesh exposing beachware in barefaced ignorance of local Muslim community’s desire for modesty, and engage the services of either a hooker or a beachboy, depending on their particular proclivity. They take their malaria prophylactics and sleep under nets but apparently have flagrant disregard for the Big A – many take it home as a souvenir, along with dusty carvings and cheap bone jewellery. I don’t expect those with whom Waugh conversed ever imagined the Mombasa of the fifties as it is today: Sun, Sea, Sand and Sex.

Waugh also touches briefly on the story of the ill fated groundnut scheme; a disasterous British venture with which my maternal grandfather was involved, as a doctor.

The history in which I am immersing myself is pivotal to Outpost living: both Stanley and Livingstone set up shop here briefly. And the groundnuts – as my Gran always referred to the project – was just down the road, at Urambo, where my mother lived as a child.

Mum remembers the scheme’s extravagance: she was flown to boarding school north of the border in Nairobi on the company plane until funds dried up and then she and her sister were obliged to take the train to Mwanza and steamer across Lake Victoria instead, a journey which sliced five days off school holidays.

Hat has been studying what those in the past taught us. It only occurred to me last night, as I read, that she and I are living in a place steeped in rich, forgotten, history. From here she is perfectly positioned to understand the fight to end the slave trade, the race to find the source of the Nile and the Brits’ exploitation of East Africa. As well as their hasty retreat. From here, in fact, she’s perfectly placed to begin to understand something of her own muddy colonial history. It might help answer her oft asked question, ”but where am I from, Mum?”

 Then again it might not. I still don’t know what it is I’m supposed to be: British, Irish, Scottish or African?

Whose in charge anyway?

August 21, 2007

Yesterday I was obliged to push-start my old landcruiser. Not having too many places to go in Outpost, unless am accompanied by husband in which case we take his infinitely more reliable and signifcantly less ancient car, landcruiser hasn’t been driven for a bit and battery was flat.

Push starting isn’t a problem. I’m as used to it as the old banger is. But space is. My driveway – I use the term loosely – is about 6 metres long.

There will be enough room, announced garden boy James, if you know what you’re doing, Mama.

I know that, James, I said observing lack of length doutbfully.

James, the Askari, who had woken up with all the excitement of James instructing me how to get my car started and I, attempt to push the car out up and backwards out of the shortest driveway in Africa. We aren’t terribly successful, the car grunts in manner of old lady irritated to be woken from a lengthy nap and shifted only inches. 

Weka free, Mama, weka free! instructs James bossily. It is free I yell back, “See!”, I say rattling the gear shift to demonstrate the car’s in neutral.

OK, says James, I’ll get Asina, and he races off to the kitchen. Asina and James loyally followed us to Outpost because I hiked their salaries by about three times. Asina is endlessly pragmatic (when I misplace car keys she says, in tones of eternally patient mother, ”well they can’t have gone far, you haven’t been anywhere today”) and utterly tactless about her new home, ”the people here are very lazy and stupid”, she says, ”not like in Arusha”.

Anyhow, Asina comes to assist and with a heave-ho we get the car rolling whilst James shouts instructions as to whether I ought to pull steering wheel (from my pushing position at the driver’s door) down a little or left a bit.

Our first attempt fails. Just as I thought, the drive really wasn’t long enough to get enough speed up.

We’ll open the gates, says James, and push you out onto the road behind the house, that’ll give you more room to get going and then you can park the car like the bwana told you to, in the garage.

Right, I say, hoping to sound confident. Hat, who has been plucking naajis off a tree by the gate, wisely moves towards the house.

The gates are opened with great ceremony by the Askari (gate opening is his job after all, important he puts  his all into it) and we begin again, huffing and puffing and pushing the old bird up the slight incline with James, who by the way is no more than 5 ft tall and weighs about 100 lbs, giving instructions as to how I ought turn the wheel again.

Then, in full view of anybody who happens to be outside in the lane – including the entire working population of the local Anglican diocese from whom we rent this house and whose office is right next door – I leap into the driving seat, James, Asina and the Askari pushing like mad and James yelling at the top of his voice, ”fasta mama, fasta”!

With only feet to spare before I take the garage out, the car shudders to life.

Now don’t turn it off, says James, or we’ll have to do that all over again tomorrow.

I don’t plan to: turn it off, or repeat the exercise. Hat creeps cautiously out to inspect any damage and resume naaji harvest, car belts filthy black smoke into our neighbourhood and I wonder – not for the first time since I got to Outpost – precisely what my role is here and whose in charge.

Not me today, that’s for sure.


August 20, 2007

I have assumed, perhaps naturally, in light of some opposition, a somewhat defensive – and idealistic – attitude to my homeschooling efforts.

There are times – though – when I wonder whether I’m getting my messages across.

A science lesson. And I pose a question, as per my weighty Teaching Manual, ”why is it easier to remove a metal lid from a jam jar when you run warm water over the lid?”

Hat ponders this for a moment. Trying not to yawn. I am hoping she might tell me what the manual indicates I ought to hear: that the warm water causes the metal to expand which makes loosening the lid easier.

She doesn’t. She says ”because if you’ve left all sticky honey on the inside, the warm water will wash it off and you can unstick the lid”.

Not what the academics were looking for, I grant you, but hardly incorrect. Espeically given own housekeeping skills or lack of: Bovril jar in particular is a bugger to get off on account of sticky lid scenario.

Today, during history, we examined what earlier civilisations had brought us: Icarus a passion for flight; the Mexcans rubber, Leonardo da Vinci what eventually became the bicycle chain. Hat was enthralled. Less yawning.

Later – after school – she demanded a box, so, she informed me, “I can make an old fashioned chariot”.

I congratulated myself for getting message across apparently effortlessly and her for pursuing historical interest outside of the classroom.

She cut a door in the box, made cardboard strips to simulate yoke, added string as a harness and furnished her chariot with a pink silk cushion. Then she attempted to push Cat 1, Orlanda, into the box in order to give her a ride around the house. Needless to say Orlanda wasn’t keen to partake of Hat’s historical adventure and reversed back out. Unfazed Hat began to cut what she called a ”drop hole” in the top of the box but no sooner had she ”dropped” Orlanda in than she shot out. Still determined to give the cat the ride of her life, Hat gathered up a handful of dagaa – the small dried fish we get here – posted them thru the drop hole and pushed temptation into Orlanda’s path. Cat sniffed, shot in and grabbed bounty and bolted.

Hat gave up with her and – bravely I thought – went in search of foul temptered Cat 2, Moshi, who had obviously already been alerted as to waiting fate by Orlanda’s complaining for she began to struggle and growl the moment Hat picked her up. Hat – wisely – before cat took her nose off, dropped her. Moshi ran away to hide and now Hat is entertaining herself with a game of Hide and Seek with two cats.

If nothing, Hat has honed her cardboard cutting prowess and is now learning something about animal behaviour: namely that cats aren’t into history.

Wild Child

August 19, 2007


I harboured shades of anxiety about plucking a child from what was her normality – indeed normality per se – and popping her back down in a quite alien environment. 

Hat no longer goes to conventional school, she has no like-minded peers close by to play with, no birthday parties to go to, no need to host her own (oh Thank God!), no proper shops and – especially – no siblings at home now to spar with. Except for the fact we – her parents – a collection of familiar animals and her doll’s house are in Outpost with her, her life has morphed beyond recognition.

She’s just the same, though. She’s the same old happy Hat.

Yesterday, walking by the dam, armed with a walking stick and a stick of sugar cane bought on the roadside which, when she tired of carrying it, she threaded through the belt loops at the back of her shorts, Hat commented that she liked being a Wild Child.

(She means a child living in the bush, not socialite Tamara Beckwith/Tara PT Wild Child)


I like being able to take my boots off and squelch my toes in the mud and my mum won’t get cross.

(I could hardly get cross after that, could I? And I can’t see either of aforementioned Wild Children – Tamara or Tara – enjoying mud-through-toes-sensation or anything else about Hat’s wilderness for that matter)

What else?

I like having lots of wild animals.

But we don’t have lots of wild animals, I reminded her, the wildest we got was chickens from the local market (and they’ve all turned up their toes).

No, but I will collect wild animals.

Like what, I wanted to know.

Like guinea fowl, she said.

How are we going to get guinea fowl, I enquired.

You are going to get me some guinea fowl eggs and I am going to put them under a chicken’s bottom (clearly unfazed by recent poultry raising failure) and we will have guinea fowl.

And with that my Wild Child skipped off to hold hands with her dad, swinging her walking stick, sugar cane still in situ.


Gender Identity Crisis

August 17, 2007

I nominate Primal Sneeze for an award and discover She is a He. Simultaneously I receive – amongst all the already gender confusing viagra ads – an email:

Hi! My name is Irina. I am seeking the man of my life …  Maybe it’s you? Hit me up via e-mail, looking forward to hearing from you soon. Best regards.

Apologies to you both.  PM for assuming you carry a handbag and wear lippie and Irina for the fact I do.


August 17, 2007

I lay in the dark last night unable to sleep for the thoughts that were running a relay race in my head: my son is settling into boarding life, my daughter is not – not yet – there have been tearful phone calls and dozens of angst ridden text messages. I thought about them. I thought about what Hat and I had done at school; I thought about Priscus and Seneca and Attila the Hun.

In the distance the traffic rumbled.


In Outpost?

I think not.

I strained my ears and the distant growl came again, nearer now: thunder.

I lay waiting, holding my breath. Please let it keep coming.

It did, closer and closer. Then with a hefty roar it ripped the sky open with jagged light, so bright, so brief I could have sworn a torch was being flashed into my eyes.

Big African skies – and I live under one of the biggest, emptiest ones, devoid normally of anything but white-blueness – make for great stages. The tempest raged theatrically: a huge, brilliant son et lumiere show in the heavens. But the applause, I wondered, where’s the applause?

And then it came. Tentatively at first. Shyly. Like a crowd afraid to clap too hard lest they disturb the actors’ rhythm: rain on the corrugated iron roof above where I lay. But the storm’s drama soon overwhelmed its audience and the clapping reached a crescendo, a thousand palms slapping hard.

Why do I battle to sleep in any environment other than the absolutely silent. Why did I, racked with insomnia, fall alseep to the raucous standing ovation the skies were receiving?

Because there is no sound in Africa so good as a downpour. There is so scent so deeply intoxicating as rain on dust – and that outside my window was greedily sucking up every drop to quench months’ long thirst.

I woke to a dark dawn to hear the sound of birds happily bathing in puddles and the drip of water from the gutters: last night’s stragglers.

And then I went to brew coffee, and observed the pleasing dampness outside and the less pleasing sight of metal mozzi mesh and wooden slats that had been ripped from the back door.

The askari – nightwatchman- when he came to from where he was (perhaps not suprsingly) curled up asleep, told me the destruction was the result of the cat trying to get in. Not unless she was armed with a pair of wire cutters and wearing gloves could she have wreaked such damage. Besides, if she wanted to get in, why not use the perfectly good cat flap she has been using for the four months since I cut it?

 So rain and a potential raid, apparently.

Look what I got!

August 16, 2007


Look what I came home to – apart from dead chickens, of course – a gong. From Drunk Mummy. Thanks DM. Certainly offered a Bright Side. As you suggested, dusted off posh frock and minced down red carpet beaming bashfully.  Will probably be the only occassion am ever likely to be in need of posh frock in Outpost but certainly worth every second. 

Having briefly basked in glory, unzipped self and traded frock for thinking cap, I’m going to nominate Primal Sneeze for a Thoughtful Blogger Award; she’s said very kind things about both home school and the inevitablity of boarding. And she frequently makes me laugh. Thanks primalsneeze.

School Run

August 15, 2007

Well. We’re back. Five fleeting nights away – none of which offered much in the way of sleep; first I was nervously anticipating handing children over and then I was weeping into my pillow that I had.

Our maiden school run involved a round trip of 1,300 klms and meant 22 hours on the road.

We watched the sun rise. Both ways.


We ate a picnic breakfast on the bonnet in the bush. Both ways.


We watched the road unravel like rope behind of us.


Yet still lie with disconcerting length before us …


We contended with African traffic jams deluxe. Both ways. In precisely the same spot.


Back in the Outpost I am trying to be upbeat.  No mean feat in light of fact two of my three children are on the other side of this vast country.

 To add insult to injury the chickens decided to turn up their toes and die whilst we were away. The nightwatchmen, who does almost nothing but sleep, only occassionally rousing himself to stretch his legs in order he does not suffer DVT presumably, informs me that the chickens in my garden are dying because the mango tree, which is in flower, is shedding tiny blossom. He says the blossom is bad for chickens. Perhaps they eat it and it makes them sick. I don’t know. I was too tired to care, frankly. But if the fussy birds object to a little bit of blossom, I hate to think what they’ll think when a sodding great rock hard full grown green mango drops on their silly little heads. Hat is as fed up of poultry farming as I. We are going to get a goat.

And in the meantime we are going to stick up a picture of her older siblings that will make us giggle every time we look at it; this one perhaps – karaoke in the car. And alot of laughing. On the way there at any rate.


We embark on our own school tomorrow, Hat and I. In the absence of bloody hens to tend to, we’ll get stuck in earlier than I’d anticipated. You cannot survive in the Outpost if you can’t find a Bright Side to cast eyes upon, even if it seems a little remote.

Not Outpost. Bright Side.