Archive for October, 2007

Images of an Outpost

October 29, 2007

On Sunday, in between wasting time – and money – on ebay (I have a party to go next month across the border in everybody-notices-what-you-wear-Nairobi as opposed to nobody-notices-Outpost and I have nothing to wear and absolutely nowhere to shop for something suitable), I insisted husband take Hat and I on a photographic tour of immediate environs.

Despite it’s obscurity today, the Outpost was once a thriving community. Abdallah the driver, says to me ‘Once mama, a long, long time ago (Abdallah is getting on) this place was full of wazungu’ (white folk). Really I say, and now, if I tell anybody where I live they respond, where?!” Abdallah thinks this is very funny.

He’s right though; the Outpost was once a des-res and only began to diminish in profile at the time of Independence, in the early sixties. Founded in 1852 by Arab slavers who travelled to the interior from the Indian Ocean, it became an important junction for caravan routes. The slavers are unwittingly responisble for the Outpost’s mango tree avenues, voluptuously green and shaded. Dr David Livingstone, as part of his crusade to put an end to the slave trade, bought an Arab house here which the slavers had built. Henry Morton Stanley stayed with him in 1872, not long before Livinstone died.  Previous to that, the explorers Burton and Speke had enjoyed a pitstop in the Outpost during their expedition to Find the Source.

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Captured in 1891 by the Germans, this became an important administrative centre between lakes Victoria and Tanganyika, providing a rail link between western and central Tanzania.  The Germans built lots of beautiful homes and flew their flag from the town’s several small hilltops.

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Until the Brits beat them during a battle on 11 September 1916; they kicked the Germans out and hoisted the Union Jack instead then. And built rows of somewhat smaller homes for their – clearly less demanding – civil servants. Homes not at all well suited to the Outpost’s geography; low ceilinged, small windowed and tiny verandah-d, their houses were hot and squat in comparison to lofty abodes left by the Germans. The Brits played cricket and tennis, their community swelled with the arrival of Groundnut employees in the fifties and shrunk when the project failed. It diminished further with Independence and further still when the country was nationalized in the seventies, when much of the Outpost’s history was wiped out. Seventy houses were razed to the ground in a single day.

Sunday’s tour took us down mango tree avenues where the trees grow so close together and so thickly, it is like driving through a tunnel.

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We admired beautiful flamboyant, in flower now. Bedecked briefly with vivid red and orange blooms as if on fire.

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We went to see Livingstone’s house; it is flanked by three of the biggest mango trees I have ever seen. Hat clambered into one and wished it were in her own garden, ”think of the tree house we could build in it, mum”, she said.

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A landcruiser full of American hunting clients rolled in, the occupants piled out, posed in front of the house whilst their guides took pictures, laughed at Hat and drove off in a cloud of dust. Weren’t they, I wondered, intrigued to climb the courtyard wall as we had done? Didn’t they want to peer inside the holes in the thick walls, vents for poor slaves once trapped inside? Didn’t they want to sit in the shade of those trees for a moment and consider the plight of thousands of men and women shackled for miles, or ponder on the achievements of the great explorers who passed through this place? Evidently not, they wanted lunch.

We meandered home eventually, past a school built decades ago, famous for one student, Julius Nyerere, past the bus stop, through a town which time and place and politics have forgotten but which history keeps a tenacious grip upon.

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Long may that last.

There mightn’t be anywere to buy a Karen Millen cocktail dress, but Africa’s forgotten past pops up around every corner of this tiny place.

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George and Rainbow Nation

October 26, 2007

There are two lizards that live on the wall outside the kitchen. Hat and I have been enjoying their antics from our schoolroom window for some weeks now.

In the morning they doze on the wall and when they get cold, they scuttle down and lie on the paving stones which are almost too hot for us to walk across. Intermittently they race back into the shade of a potplant. I have studied their sunbathing in great detail, marvelling at how they can tolerate the scalding stone for so long.  They are very clever: they rest their weight on their heels with their toes (are they toes?) raised like their tails so that the most sensitive parts of their bodies aren’t in touch with the baking cement. 

Hat and I have christened them George (dull brown with white markings, and quite fat) and Rainbow Nation, sleekly resplendent in reds, oranges and purples. I can’t fathom why Rainbow Nation, who appears so much more beautiful, so much larger, is friends with portly, plain George? Perhaps RN has a problem with self-esteem and finds it easier to befriend a less glamorous creature? Perhaps George is better at catching flies and generous about sharing his bounty? Perhaps he has a great sense of humour? Perhaps he knows where to find the best sun-spots, safe from cats? Perhaps he’s just terrific company?

In the absence of much else to entertain us, our days are distilled to seeking interest in the tiny here and now of Outpost life. Including analysing the habits of reptiles.

I can’t decide whether this is a good or a bad thing?

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23 October 1937

October 24, 2007

Yesterday – had life worked out the way we’d planned – my dad would have celebrated his 70th birthday. But life doesn’t always work out the way you’d like it to: Dad died in a car accident when he was 47.

I thought about him all day. I thought about the fact he has been gone from my life for longer now that I knew him. And yet I close my eyes and the image of his face is as clear as the photograph of him that sits on my desk. He is laughing. He laughed alot.

His name was James Tennyson Stephen. Tennyson not for the Scottish poet my Scottish grandmother may or may not have read but for the fact that if Dad was born in the morning the doctors could get out onto the courts. In the afternoon, and tennis would – alas – be off. My dad – always obliging – arrived before lunch. Tennis was On.

You don’t miss somebody any less with the passage of time. You just learn to get used to their not being around.

Ted Bowman, an American grief counsellor, suggests that though we are able to come to terms with the vacuum that the loss of a loved one creates in our lives, it takes a lifetime to come to terms with the loss of a dream.

My lost dream meant Dad and I never shared that combined 50th/21st birthday we’d talked about, Dad never walked me down the aisle, Dad never knew any of his grandchildren nor will Dad ever enjoy a beer with his son-in-law, who is the age now that Dad was when he died. He won’t know I write. He won’t know I came back to Africa (despite all his protestations that I absolutely mustn’t) and encouraged my little sister to do the same so that this year she and I can quietly raise a glass to the 100th anniversary of our family’s arrival in this part of the world.

If I could have had him back for just the day, just one day, I’d have poured him a cold beer and assured him that we – my siblings and I and especially mum – are OK. I’d have introduced him to Hat (he’d have loved her), I’d have shown him photos of my big kids (he’d have been astonished at their height, Dad wasn’t tall); I’d have apologised for coming back to Africa and even more for encouraging baby sis to do the same. But I’d have reminded him it was all his fault: you can take the girl out of Africa, I’d have said, but you can’t take Africa out of the girl. Dad – after all – only left Africa once in his life: to visit inlaws in Ireland for a brief three weeks. I’d have put the telly on for him and whilst he watched live sport, I’d have watched his face. No more waiting weeks to enjoy international rugby, I’d have teased, and we’d have debated the disallowed England try. I’d have taught him how to send a text message, I’d have laughed at his astonishment that communication could have been fine tuned to a thumb and a tiny screen (when he died we were still using a wind up phone on the farm). I’d have poured him another beer and told him all the jokes I know (more risque now that I’m a grown up), even the bad ones, just to hear him laugh.  I’d have lit him a cigarette and giggled at his outrage at the creeping smoking ban.

I’d have said Happy Birthday, Dad; I still really miss you.

Back from the Beach

October 24, 2007

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This is why ten days at the beach en famille was restorative, this is what will sustain me over the next three weeks, these are the things that will deliver sanity when the Outpost threatens to drive me over the edge:

playing at being a whole family again – with all that it entails: laughter, scrapping, being briefly eaten out of house and home;

sunshine on skin sloughed by sea and sand;

snorkling;

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walking barefoot on the beach in the late afternoon, watching the white heads of breaking waves blush quite pink at winking sunsets;

cold beer;

fish and chips and real Italian ice-cream;

sleeping soundly after too much of most of the above, stirring only when the sound of the surf rises to a crescendo in the middle of the night at the turn of tides.

None of it made saying goodbye to my big kids when we dropped them back at school any less hard – I still cried – none of it took the sting out of the two day drive home, none of it made dealing with 178 emails (most of them trying to sell me Viagra or persuade me I’d won a million in a lottery I hadn’t entered) easier. But it reminded me that as tough as Outpost living can be, escaping so that breifly you feel a milion miles away is possible.

And oh so worth it.

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In the event of a rash, seek medical advice urgently …

October 10, 2007

By Monday evening I felt significantly worse than I’d ever felt with malaria.

I had also noticed a rash developing around my torso.

I referred to the drug insert. In the event of a rash, seek medical advice urgently; this could indicate severe, possibly fatal, allergic reaction.

Marvellous.

I live miles from anything approximating an A&E department and the only Outpost doctor I have faith in was winging her way to Europe.

The rash began to itch, I grew increasingly nauseaous and my legs began to feel peculiar. I went to bed. Again.

Suffice to say, I’m still here. Thank God. 36 hours later and the drugs are slowly being eliminated, the rash is less itchy. I can eat again.

A doctor I speak to thousands of miles away in why-can’t-I-live-there Nairobi urges me not to use the same anti-malarial again: you’re clearly allergic to one or more of the ingredients, he says. Clearly.

My body is slowly winning the war against bugs and drugs. The Outpost and I remain in an arm wrestle in which, this week, the Outpost definately has the upperhand.

I’m opting out briefly – am off for two weeks R&R with my kids.

Ta-ra

Africa gets into your blood …

October 8, 2007

Those more poetic than I have often suggested, in hyperbolic fashion, that Africa gets under your skin and into your blood.

What they are suggesting – of course – is that once infected with affection for this place, it’s hard to distance yourself – literally or metaphorically.

That’s true. But I think – more correctly – it’s a case of Africa gaining entry to your heart than your blood.

Though – needless to say – she has plenty of opportunity to do that too: get into your blood.  She was coursing through my own veins all weekend.

On Saturday after ten days of no appetite (which I put down to sudden and impossibly searing temperatures during the day making it too hot to eat), the odd bout of crippling nausea (which I put down to the fact Africa doesn’t just get under your skin, into your blood and up to your heart, she frequently takes up residence in your bowel where she squats for weeks whilst you make myriad chemical attempts to evict her) and tiredness (attributed to flagging appetite, rising heat and the assumption Africa was in gut) I had had enough and decided there must be some other cause. So I took myself off to the local clinic, with Hat in tow (having sworn on my life that if anybody was going to be subjected to a blood test, it would not be her).  

The clinic is full of ranks of patient Africans sitting quietly, reverently almost, on benches lined up in tight rows. Our arrival is monitored by hundreds of pairs of interested eyes, a welcome, if brief, change of tempo to the monotony of waiting. The doctor advises me – because I can clearly afford it unlike the dozens silently observing me- to opt for Fast Track Treatment. This means I will be shunted to the head of the queue, she says. I am. And I pay the requisite amount for the privelige, the equivalent of a dollar.

The lab technician pricks my finger and smears blood onto a slide. Hat winces and looks away. Then he instructs me to wait for the results. I do, whilst I read to Hat to distract her from the howls of distressed babies being subjected to same finger prick as I have been.

Twenty minutes later and I am ushered by a white coated lab assistant into a doctor’s office. The doctor reads my test results, ”Malaria”, he announces.

Malaria? I say (with some degree of outrage given my vigilence to avoid being bitten: I go to bed slippery as an eel with all the repellent I splash on; I burn mosquito coils, our windows are screened, we sleep under nets: how can I have malaria?).

Yes. Malaria, he says pragmatically. This region is endemic: a local person in a normal house (and yours is not normal, he reminds me, you are priveliaged, yours has netting on the windows) can expect up to 300 infected bites a years. Almost one every night.

Why didn’t malaria present as it does characteristically I want to know: fevers and chills and aches and pains.

You’ve had it before?

I have.

Your partial immunity alters the symptoms and beside malaria in endemic regions can change it’s guise. It’s very clever.

He tells me what to take.

I do. A dose a day for three days. Whilst flopping about pathetically on my bed alternating between hot crossness that I don’t have the energy to do anything, and crazy dreams in which I am tearing about doing too much. So that I wake exhausted.

Much as I love this place, I’d rather Africa wasn’t in my blood, thanks very much.

How to make Money

October 5, 2007

With Christmas trotting towards us at unseemly pace (even in Muslim dominated, far from anywhere, Outpost we notice this: thanks to satellite television and the calendar counting of a ten year old).

Hat works up to her point with enormous grace and subtly. At first.

”I love Christmas Mum”.

”Do you? I do too’.

”Why do you love it?”

”Because the people I love most in the world are at home”.

”That’s nice”, she acknowledges, with a smile, ”I love it more than my birthday, even”.

”More than your birthday, why’s that?”

”Because on my birthday only I get presents, at Christmas everybody does”.

”That’s nice, Hat”. (I’m a bit distracted, I’m driving to the market and trying to avoid the bicycles that straggle untidyly and dangerous along the road)

”I like giving presents, Mum”.

”Me too”

”But I’m not sure if my pocket money is going to be enough to get presents for all the people I want to buy for” (I empathize – especially given that her list is about four times longer than mine will be).

”You’ll have to save hard”.

”Could I work, do you think? Do chores?” 

”If you promise to leave less of your rubbish scattered around the house, I may up your pocket money”.

She’s not impressed; she’s talking big bucks here. And grand schemes. Grander certainly than picking up her own dirty socks.

”Why don’t I go to work in Kaidi’s shop?”

Kaidi is the Arab who runs the local duka (we arrive armed with ambitious shopping list and leave with 40 loo rolls and a Bounty to make us feel better). Hat would barely be able to see above his counter far less get at stuff on shelves. She might attract business though; nobody’s ever seen a white child serving in a shop in this part of the world. Ever.

”You can’t do that”.

”Why not? I’ve seen Indian and African children working in shops here”.

”Yes, I know, but they’re Tanzanians, you can’t work here because you’re not”.

”How does dad work here, then?”

(This conversation is going waaaaaaay off track).

”He has a work permit”.

”Can’t I get a work permit?”

”No Hat, you can’t. Let’s think of some other way you can make some money”.

Hat does. That evening she invites me into her bedroom. Once again it’s decorated with candles, much like it was when we visited Madame Marcia.  Hat, however, looks a bit different this time; she has donned something resembling a multi-coloured wig made of that glitzy ribbon smarter people than I use to knot elaborately around gifts.

”Who are you?” I ask (I know better than to assume she’s still Hat).

”Medusa”.

(We have learned about Medusa as part of our History of Art course in school; Hat has drawn a picture of her which now glowers down at me from schoolroom walls).

”You seem quite friendly to be Medusa”, I observe

She grins and proceeds with business like haste, no time for small talk, Medusa, clearly.

”Now listen”, she instructs bossily, ”I have alot of useful things here for you to buy”.

Ah.

She proffers a host of small dishes and bowls which as far as I can tell in the dim light thrown by two flickering candles contain the likes of soy sauce, coriander seeds, cinnammon bark and a mixture of unpopped popcorn and lentils.

”This”, says Medusa, motioning to the soy sauce, ”is dragon’s blood. It will protect you against snakes, but will attract bats. It is 50/- a portion” (Clever, clever girl; she knows I hate snakes but don’t mind bats).

”These”, she continues, indicating the coriander seeds, ”are memories, their smell is more than enough to knock a knight from his steed. If you manage to take a sniff without dying (I do – sniff – and I don’t – expire), your memory will become 100% better” (another clever obervation about her mother on my daughter’s part: I spend my life hunting for car keys because I can’t remember where I put them, whilst simultaneously swearing – I used to say pardon my French until Hat said ”I’m learning French now, you know, and that’s not French”).

”They’re also 50/-”.

Medusa/Hat proceeds, ”these are crushed dragon bones. They are brilliant in rabbit stew and if you eat them like that, you’ll be able to jump twice as high as you can now” (that’d be handy) although dragons won’t like you much (oh dear).

The cinnamon bark is snake skin, I am told, harvested from her own tresses/gift tie and will render me ”Medusa’s new sister”.

The small glass of what looks like apple juice is – apparently – pig’s urine which will quench my thirst for ten hours but then I will always have to drink it or I shall always be thirsty. Or something like that. Which will, of course, oblige me to keep buying the stuff … a very clever marketing ploy I felt?

Hat tallies up what I’ve bought – or rather she counts up the cost of the seven ingredients she has thrust upon me presuming I have a need of all of them. She looks crestfallen.

”That’s only 350/-” she says, but then she brightens,” oh that’s far too cheap, I’ve made a mistake: everything is 100/- each: 700/- please.  You can drop it at the door as you leave”.

I do. In fact I pay her double (which only amounts to about a dollar); the entertainment alone was worth ten times that.

Will they remember this?

October 5, 2007

This is the view from the car park where my big kids are at school.

Will they remember how glorious it is? Or do they dash past without seeing it?

It I have taught them anything, let it be that they notice.

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Cut Off

October 3, 2007

For several hours this morning the telephone did not work. Not just the land line but my cell phone and the last resort mobile wireless phone I have as backup in the event land line fails and no credit on cell. Fat lot of good that was then.

Given that I was due to file a story with a newspaper editor the total lack of communication threw me into something of a panic. Newspapers editors have little truck for journalists who plead isolation and email failure, using such an excuse would elicit a response like, ‘there are plenty more freelancers out there who could have made a plan …’.

So I tried to make a plan. I drove to husband’s office (husband himself is away on business this week) and asked the secretary ,Verynice, if her internet was working. (Verynice really is her name, I’m not making this up, the first time I was introduced to her, ”and this is Verynice, the office secretary …”, I waited for a Margaret or Grace, assuming I’d heard “and this is our very nice office secretary” but no, that was it: Verynice).  No, said Verynice, no comms here either.

I could have driven to the nearest town (nearest as in closest on the map, not nearest as in nearby) but that would have meant 3 hours on a dirt road which my car would have battled with.

Given that at the moment the national airline has arrested all flights in and out of the Outpost it dawned on me that Hat and I were, only briefly, thankfully, utterly stranded in the middle of nowhere; unable to get out, unable to summon anybody to our rescue, unable to send sodding story.

Mercifully by lunchtime communication had been restored, I filed my piece and settled down to a happy hour browsing titles at Amazon.

God this is a surreal existence at times.

Sundried Tomatoes and Body Piercings

October 3, 2007

Amelia telephones – actually she doesn’t (after all, why waste money calling your mother when you can save your credit to sms your mates whilst your mother, because she could not possibly ignore it, responds to urgent free Call Me message with alacrity), I call her.

My piercing came out, Mum.

I feign disappointment.

But don’t worry, I’ve got a replacement.

Oh Amelia! I beseech, Why?

Because it’s cool Mum (this delivered in tones that remind me I am old, stupid and utterly devoid of anything approaching lukewarm, far less cool).

Does it hurt.

No. Not at all.

Who did it?

I did, during prep.

Marvellous. All that money on her education and she’s perforating her body like a sieve.

Indeed both my daughters’ educations are at the forefront of my mind this afternoon. During school today Hat began to read Anne of Green Gables and is required to keep a vocabulary list.

The word sundry appeared on the page.

I – who despite knowing what the words mean- battle to articulate a neat bitesized definition for my ten year old daughter so keep the Oxford dictionary to hand. As I begin to rifle through the pages for sundry (n. inpl. Oddments, accessories, items not needing to be specified … for the record), Hat breezily says, ‘oh don’t bother looking for that one, Mum, I know what that means’.

I’m impressed.

What? I ask

you know, she says, sun-dry, like the tomatoes you had in your sandwich.

My son, unlike my daughters, doesn’t divulge much about school life. If has put an earring in his nose I do not know. If he is misinterpreting half the vocabulary in his English coursework books I am blissfully unaware.

For now.

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