Archive for September, 2007

Reinventing the Wheel

September 12, 2007

This is madness.

One of the charms of the Outpost was the complete lack of daladalas or matatus – the taxis prevalent in most of Africa. Taxis which are driven with reckless abandon and absolutely no consideration for punter, pedestrian or fellow road user.

The Outpost made up for the lack of more usual form of African public transport very effectively: the people of the town were able to get around on the backs of bikes, as fee-paying passengers.

This is a hot place. Doubtless the back of a bicycle was infinitely more comfortable than the stuffy interior of a daladala. And – Asina told me – the best bit about the bike arrangement (apart from the fact the general public could get about for less) was that as a passenger you could demand to be collected and dropped off at a precise point. No lugging your basket home from market. No worrying as you walked home in the dark.

But they’ve been banned. The bikes.  Because there were too many accidents.

Were there? I asked a local doctor.

Not as far as I know, she said, and I’d have heard about them.

Only a cynic, like me, then would suggest a local big wig has bought himself a mini bus and coined a useful little law that will generate some extra income for himself.

See what I mean? How on earth is the life of Africans ever going to improve when those who are meant to make a difference – who have the power to make a difference – couldn’t care less about what’s best, most appropriate, for their own.

Rehema’s opinion of Gordon Brown’s Policies

September 12, 2007

Rehema came to work with me when my children were tiny. She managed me, them, the house. I couldn’t entice her to Outpost, too far she said (she’s not wrong); instead she opted to stay behind and work for a friend.

I miss alot of things about Rehema: her roast potatoes, the way she could tidy out a cupboard, her humour. I also miss our discussions and her outspoken political opinions.

When I asked her, two years ago, whether she’d heard about Mr Brown’s policy to Make Poverty History, she replied, tiredly, that yes, she had – on the radio, she said.

And what do you think? I asked.

”This is what I think, mama”, she said, “I think the poor people in Mr Brown’s country are going to give even more money to rich ones in Africa because they think it’s going to make a difference to my life, to my daughters’ lives. And it’s not. Because not a cent will reach us”.

Make Poverty History?

September 11, 2007

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I’m all for Making Poverty History. I think it’d be a marvellous thing if every able person had a job, every child the opportunity of education, every mother antenatal care, every elderly person state aid. I think it’s the least they deserve. I believe that education is the first step towards Africa battling forth out of the mire that holds her back economically and politically.

Gordon Brown thinks so too. In a speech delivered yesterday he said:

Also we have just to build in Africa, so just as we stood side by side with Nelson Mandela to defeat apartheid, I now join Nelson Mandela in asking you to be part of the Education for All Campaign so that the day will dawn soon when 80 million children who do not go to school today because there are no schools for them to go to, will have the basic human right of education. Like people here, I have been in Africa. I have met children who, if given the chance, could be the next Mandela, or the doctor who saves lives, or a teacher who inspires children or a public service worker who cares for people in need. Let us by raising international development aid and by mobilising the world’s resources work together not only to eradicate illiteracy in the coming decade but use the medical knowledge and science that we have to eradicate the killer diseases.

Good for you, Mr Brown; Here Here!

The thing is when you – or Bono – come to Africa you only get shown the bits that the Suits who are driving you around in shiny new Toyota Landcruisers want you to see. 

I doubt you’ve ever been to places like this – where I live, the Outpost – which is so far off the beaten track that for some months of the year it’s inaccessible by road because there is no allowance in the national budget (much of which has been spent on a splendid new office block in the middle of nowhere) to maintain the 60 miles of dirt that take you to it (the Suits certainly aren’t going to subject their gleaming calvacade to the dust and potholes, or themselves to such a tedious trek). And the Outpost is one of dozens like it in Africa. Dark corners you never see for they are not deemed important on any political agenda.

Yet they are still home to thousands.

Thousands of children who want to go to school if only their parents could afford it. Thousands of children whose parents dare not complain when all their children seem to be doing at school is cultivating the headmaster’s fields ahead of the Rains. Thousands of children who’ve never heard of you or your aspirations to Make Poverty History.

Yesterday, in the market, I saw a man eating a papaya like an animal. Greedily scooping out the flesh with hungry gulps, the soft orange pulp was smeared all over his face. The crowds ignored him, giving a politely wide berth as they passed.

Hat noticed him though.

Look at that man, Mum, he must be so hungry to eat his pawpaw like that. And why is he wearing a dress?

Because he’s mad, my darling. Because he’s mad and there’s nobody to care for him and feed him and remind him that because he’s a man he may get laughed at less if he went out in a pair of shorts and not a brown mini dress.

That, Mr Brown, is the Africa you need to see.  Because it counts as much as the rest of the continent.

Even if its a long way off the beaten track. Because it might drive home the reality and the enormity of Africa’s problems. Many of which are hidden from the World for they are simply too ugly to behold.

Hat’s escape with Hippalus

September 7, 2007

Hat and I are doing maths. We are studying patterns.

The problem: if James saves 10 cents on Monday, 20 cents on Tuesday, 30 cents on Wednesday, how much will he have saved by the weekend.

“Not much”, says a seriously unimpressed Hat.

 I think we’re supposed to work out how much though, I prompt.

She does. She was right first time round: a buck fifty isn’t going to buy James the most exciting weekend in the history of entertainment.

We move onto history, and Hippalus, who was a Greek explorer who, in AD 37, learned to use the monsoons to his advantage when travelling across the Arabian Sea to India. Hat’s assignment is to write a piece describing a journey with Hippalus …

As Hippalus and I sailed through the Indian Ocean (oh, perhaps I didn’t make my geographical point very clear?) the winds (good girl) blew us to our destination. The ship we were on was old but good and strong. It had huge sails that waved frantically in the air …

Later, when she is meant to be offloading casks of olive oil (I’m assuming that’s what Greeks traded?) Hat is distracted by the beauty of India, I was too absorbed in my beautiful surroundings to work. There were high towers with big beautiful gems on them that twinkled in the morning light. There were Indian people trading goods under the shade of a massive palm tree. To add to all of India’s beauty, there was a snake charmer … and a funny little dwarf convinced his stunning carpets were magic’

The India of Hat’s adventure with Hippalus sounds like a marvellous place to escape to when Outpost overwhelms? And those magic carpets would be particularly useful given our experience earlier in the week. I just hope that the next time I do manage to escape, I’ve got more than $1.50 to take with me or the escaping mightn’t be worth it.

Justice?

September 7, 2007

The court case for the accident was held yesterday.  Abdallah was – as we knew – in the clear (though in Africa, given rife corruption, one can never be absolutely confident that evidence alone will be sufficient; police reports and pictures might be a waste of time in the face of an opportunist judge).

The driver of the other vehicle, which swerved right across the road into our path, was not in possession of any of the appropriate paperwork. Nor was his car insured. He was fined T.Shs 30,000/- which equates to just over ten quid, or 20 bucks.

I expect that taught him a lesson. I expect that with such hefty fines we can all rest assured Africa’s roads are going to be safer places.

I wish.

Lucky

September 4, 2007

Hat and I ought to have been home by last night. We weren’t. We had a car accident. The first – and I sincerely hope the last – of both our lives.

I wasn’t driving. Abdallah – who accompanies husband on lengthy trips – was; both he and husband’s company car on loan to me given fact his newer car significantly more reliable on long journeys than my (much older) one. Until it’s involved in accident of course.

Both Hat and I were in the back. To my eternal shame – and bewilderment – neither of us were wearing belts despite the fact that I am the kind of mother who rings her kids up on sleepovers to ensure they wear belts in host’s car. Despite the fact I have never let the kids ride belt-less in my car either. Perhaps I was deluded into thinking that sitting beside Hat would protect her. Perhaps I thought she deserved brief respite from the belt which she’d been wearing until 15 minutes before when we had to stop so she could be car sick. Perhaps I just didn’t think.

Four and a half hours into our journey which began at 5am and I was beginning to nod off. Suddenly there was a roar from Abdallah. I opened my eyes in time to see the bonnet crumple in front of us and steam and smoke issue forth from beneath it. And dust; the dust was everywhere. The sound of crunching metal and Hat’s screams will stay with me for a long time.

I scooped Hat out and clocked her knocks; one above her eye, welling red. She was quite white and told me I was too – apart from my apparently ”purple” nose (which had collected the seat in front of me).  I retrieved a packet of frozen butter from provisions-for-Outpost cool bag and made Hat hold it to her face; I tried to call husband but network was poor and then I let rip a torrent of abuse at the driver of the other car which had swerved at speed right across the road to connect with us in a head on collision.

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He looked at me blankly. It transpired later he and his passenger were from Rwanda. A few merdes! might have struck home more effectively.

We were in the middle of nowhere (story of my life now, it would appear, whatever the situation). There are no tow trucks to call in this part of Africa. And depending on where you are, no paramedics, no AA, certainly nothing of the sort where we were marooned. Abdallah, quite unhurt, strode about crossly, growling at the other driver and trying to make phone calls. He had the presence of mind to request I take photographs.

Fortunately, oh so fortunately, husband’s mates had been visiting him over the weekend and I presumed the boys, on their way home to Arusha, would not be far from where I was since our paths would have crossed at some point during the day. I called. They were a matter of miles away. They rescued Hat and I, sourced a doctor in the nearest large town so Hat could be checked over, fed us both bottles of Coke since we were both shaken and pale. And then, having alerted the police to the site and been assured by me we’d be fine to await husband’s rescue, we waved them on their way with biscuits and water to drop with Abdallah awaiting the cops’ assessment. We made ourselves at home in the petrol station which was to be home for the next six hours. The proprietors were kind and generous and refused to let me pay for the sweets and drinks and crisps I took from their shop. They bought Hat icecreams and told her she was a good girl. Which she is. And a brave one.

The police confirmed what I already knew: that it was the other driver’s fault, entirely. Either – they said – being a west African, he panicked and took to the wrong side of the road (which would – in his country – have been the right one), or his steering column broke, or it was a bungled attempt to car jack us. Bungled is about right; neither car was in a state to be driven.

Finally husband – looking as shattered as we had post impact – arrived from Outpost after a six hour drive and we opted to find a local hotel to spend the night before driving home in the morning.  I drank a beer in lieu of supper, whilst Hat tossed bits of her chicken to the family of alley cats resident in the dining room.  She wondered if she’d have a black eye in the morning and if she did could I take a picture. And she went to bed beside us, a matress on the floor commenting that it was amazing to think she’d been in a car crash that morning.

I just thought how lucky we’d been.

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I think we might fly next time. I think given the state of the car, we might have to.

Sense of Purpose

September 1, 2007

By Monday evening, when I am back home in the Outpost, I will have – in the past seven days: driven over 1,000 miles; reconnected with friends; had longed for conversations over too much wine during too many late nights; met my big kids’ new teachers; purchased provisions unavailable in my African outback; worn shoes every day for a week.

Best of all – though – I will have spent a whole weekend in the company of all three of my children. And I will have done what I always do: fed them (which feels comfortingly like feeding the 5,000 again), watched them sleep, nagged them to shower, hugged them (ceaselessly, so that they probably tire of it but sweetly oblige), laughed at their tales of a new school, listened to their anxieties and tried to salve them. I will have been able to launder their clothes, spoil them rotten, kiss them goodnight. And in so doing I will have reminded myself that for all the things I call myself at times (teacher, journalist, writer) lest people think less of me because sometimes they do when you ‘fess up to full time mothering, that I am just that: a mum. And that being a mum – a 24/7 mum – is where I’m most comfortable. Where I’m happiest. Where, even though I’m not the best mum in the whole world, is probably, given it’s the job I’ve done the longest, the one I do best. Because it gives me the greatest sense of purpose.

And Monday night, when those big kids are back at school and I’m back in Outpost with only Hat, that’s going to be a useful thing to hang onto until the next time I see them.