Archive for November, 2007

Animal Farm

November 22, 2007

I was supposed to go home to the Outpost on Monday.

But I didn’t. Because Hat was too ill.

I awoke in the middle of the night on Sunday to a plaintive little voice by my ear:

Mummy, I feel horrid, my head is so sore.

It must have been; it was very hot.

By 8am we were in the clinic in town repeating blood tests for the fourth time in as many days. The kindly Indian doctor whom we saw decided to treat her for malaria despite no evidence of parasites on slides – ‘we cannot afford to take a risk’, he said, and typhoid, presumably for the same reason: no point in taking risks. Hat, chalk white with big black circles under her eyes, began to throw up into a plastic shopping bag.

The rest of my day was spent monitoring and coaxing sips of water into her. If she doesn’t drink, said the doctor, we’ll have to admit her and put up a drip. Hat’s seen the inside of the local hospital enough times to know she’s not especially keen on a sleepover. She drank.

By Tuesday, though, she was much better. Head less sore. Pallor less ghostly.

By Wednesday one of the flock of sheep owned by the generous friends who have tolerated our presence in their lovely home for almost two weeks obliged by producing a lamb. Whilst his mother was out grazing, Hat stepped in as nanny. The lamb, which she has named Rug, took to his day time charge with alacrity and skipped around the garden behind her. When he grew tired, Hat scooped him up and folded him into her lap on the verandah whilst she read her book.

I didn’t like having a bad headache, she confided, but I do like looking after a lamb which I wouldn’t have been able to do if I hadn’t got sick.

School, needless to say, has gone by the board for now. Partly because she’s been so unwell. But also because I cannot force her nose to books and long division when there are lessons in life happening a spit from where she eats her breakfast.  Speech marks and verb identification can wait whilst she absorbs something else. She, somewhat predictably, wants to take the lamb home to the Outpost.

You can’t, I tell her, at least not until it’s weaned.

It has already, she says excitedly (for surely this means it will be hers now), all over the bedroom floor and I cleaned it up – just to prove she is responsible enough to own a lamb.

Weaned, honey, I say. Not wee’d.



Out of Site

November 17, 2007


Drunk Mummy did it and now Iota’s gone and done it: dropped out of site.

 I completely understand their reasons for blogging off. Blogging, as fabulously escapist as it is, can get in the way of real hard-copy life; it can intrude on what needs to be done, (writing a post or reading somebody else’s is, let’s face it, infinitely more entertaining than doing homework or – in my case – cooking supper).  

And I think that sometimes the urgency to blog dissipates as life takes on a slightly different shape. There’s a little less space in life’s new mould for blogging. And that’s often a good thing: Iota’s taking a break because, after almost a year, she’s found her groove. And that’s cool: I’m glad she’s happy. And I’m glad she’s settled. It’s horrid when the terrain of a new life bumps and jars and is generally pretty uncomfortable. Blogging cushions. Venting into cyberspace is extraordinarily cathartic, that faceless, nameless ranting is good for the soul. And the sympathetic, funny, empathetic responses soul food.

I began to blog because an editor said it’d be good for my profile. What’s that? I wanted to ask, but didn’t because when you’re pretending to be a writer it’s very important to keep up appearances and feign knowledge of the jargon. If he meant blogging would mean more commissions, he was talking nonsense. Somewhere in the gloomy recess of memory, though, I remembered reading that if you’re going to call yourself a writer, as I optimistically do at dinner parties in the hope somebody will think I’m interesting enough to talk to, you need to write. Every day. Even just a little bit. 500 words will do it.

So I began blogging. At a time when my own terrain was a bit bumpy. And people were kind enough to read and this whole relationship was born out of words in cyberspace.

And all that’s great. Until those with whom you have developed an affinity simply on the strength of their words and yours, disappear out of site.

And then you feel a bit sad. It’s not quite like losing touch with a  friend, because – of course – how can you be friends with somebody you’ve never clapped eyes on, never spoken to, don’t even know their real name, but it is a bit like that.

So to Drunk Mummy and Iota, I wish you all the best in your endeavours. Write a book, tell your readers about it – albeit on briefly resurrected blogs – and those of us too far from a bookstore will buy our copy online at Amazon.

Good luck, girls. I will miss you.

House sitting, dog sitting, duck sitting …

November 15, 2007

Hat and I are house-sitting.

And dog-sitting.

And cat-sitting.

And geese-sitting …

The glorious menagerie of animals we are trying to remember to feed is long. They all inhabit a garden resplendent with – at the moment – flamboyant and jacaranda trees in bloom beyond which we can see the towering massif of Mt Meru. We spend hours on our temporarily adopted verandah and laugh at the antics of the sixteen geese – which Hat has begun to name – and half a dozen ducks. Hat feeds the geese; two will take from her hands.

Try Mum, she says, they won’t bite you.

They do.

But it doesn’t hurt, does it, she asks concernedly.

No, it doesn’t. More a tug than a bite.

The six dogs we’re keeping company vie with the geese for their food which makes the geese cross. Which makes them shriek indignantly.

Their voices are supplemented by the haunting cry of a fish eagle resident in a tree just outside the garden. He’s watching in case Mrs Duck is careless with her two remaining ducklings, one black, one yellow, as she was with the two the Fish Eagle has already eaten.

The call of the owls that live in the vast fig tree in the garden is less ominous. There is a family of them, with three young, still covered in fluffy down. I think Papa Owl is teaching his young to fly, he tempts them out in the evening and we watch him swoop to a nearby fence post upon which he sits gently encouraging his chicks forth. Evidence of young appetites is abundant beneath their fig tree home: the prickly husks of hedgehogs: the owls have delicately peeled away the thorny exterior – as you might peel skin from an apple for a fussy child – and tossed them to the ground.

Sometimes the cats join us in our bird watching: they are both marmalade and one is – Hat tells me – 135 in cat years. He looks remarkably better than I do on a bad morning and I’m significantly younger than that in human years. When Hat’s not feeding geese, she’s feeding marmalades: milk and mince. We sat with well-fed cats on laps this morning and watched the geese bully the ducks around the garden and all our feathered charges as they raced about feasting on the flying ants which had emerged during a night of soft rain.

Hat has been to proper school whilst we’ve been here – with real live children and proper teachers (as opposed to lizards and her mother) and she told me she enjoyed it. On day three, though, yesterday, she came home with a roaring fever. I suppose the splendid isolation to which she has grown used means her immunity isn’t what it could be: stick her in a school of 200 and she’s a magnet for the myriad viruses in the playground which must leap with delight upon her pristine and clearly poorly exercised resistance.

Consequently she’s not at school today: she is feeding geese, watching owls, and curling up with cats.

We’re waiting for her brother to come back from England where he is writing a scholarship exam.   Her big brother engaging in the most conventional type of education and Hat immersed in the least.

Funny that. But so long as they’re both reasonably happy at opposite ends of the learning spectrum.

And I think they are?


The Upsides to a Fear of Flying

November 7, 2007

We’re home. Til the day after tomorrow. By the end of this week, Hat and I will have driven almost the entire breadth of this huge country, from the lake in the West to within touching distance of the border with Burundi, home again and north east to Arusha near the border with Kenya.

Friends ask why I don’t learn to fly. Indeed many question my proclivity to hours in a car rather than – though not always, given the lack of precise timing observed by our only commercial carrier, the optimistically named Precision Airways – fewer in the air.

Well. First of all, I couldn’t afford a plane so learning to fly would – frankly – be a futile exercise. Learn to fly and then what?

Secondly – and significanlty – I harbour a near pathological fear of flying shared by my husband which is fortunate: we’re on the same side when it comes to travel arrangements.

But mostly, you miss too much from Up There.

Were I to have flown home instead of spending two days on the road, I would have missed noticing the heartening thickness of indigenous forest unfurl as we travelled from the desolation of Kigoma to the interior; I would have missed noticing that the baskets carried by the women of Uvinza were quite different in design to those borne by the ladies on the lake (you could carve a map of Africa according the shape and weave of local people’s baskets); I wouldn’t have enjoyed the plummet from the highlands of Kasulu near the border with Burundi to the salt flats below; I would have missed the subtle changing hues of the soil – from blood red to honeyed yellow. Had I flown I wouldn’t have registered the majesty of the Malagarasi floodplain, stupendous in its width and a hurdle that defeats travellers as much today as it did during the days of Dr Livingstone’s legendary expeditions: in spate the road is impassable and even the railway line submerged. Had I not driven I wouldn’t have witnessed the voluptuous new green of the Miombo, in anticipation of rain, nor the delicate yellow pompom blossom of the acacia. I wouldn’t have felt the warm sand of the road beneath my baref eet when we stopped for a break. I wouldn’t have bought fat mangoes and plump bananas from roadside vendors. From the air I couldn’t have snapped the herd of beautiful long-horned Ankole cattle which briefly held us up on a bridge.


I wouldn’t – most importantly and deliciously of all – have watched a storm as it approached and then been swallowed by its staggering ferocity so that hail hit the windscreen and the road was obliterated briefly. I wouldn’t have drunk in the scent of rain.



The elevation and the clouds Up There smooth Africa below to insipid, colourless flatness. Drive and you are wrapped in the very fabric that she is so that you feel every knot of her weave.

And the bumps too.

But then that’s par for the course here.

Melancholy Histories

November 7, 2007


Lake Tanganyika was as awesome as expected: we looked across it to the Congo’s Eastern Highlands which rise with staggering sharpness from the water, soaring to a (unfortuantely for us) mostly rain-soaked sky. Until, predictably, our last evening when the clouds parted briefly and we could watch the sun – which had failed to shine all weekend – sink into pillowy pinks and mauves.


But as glorious as the lake is, even after nightfall when the fishermen’s boats, out to catch dagaa, like tiny whitebait, string the dark water like a necklace of lights, Kigoma, Tanzania’s largest lake side town and our home for two days, is not.

It seemed to me mournful.  A melancholy no doubt borne of a violent past – slavers passed through en route from central Africa to the East African coast – exacerbated by recent history: it was to this place that more than a million refugees fled during the Burundi/Rwanda genocide of the early nineties. Though they have gone, straggling reminders remain: the UN, for example, their base cosily bound by rolls of razor wire; an abandoned refugee camp on a hillside devoid of trees; a UN carrier based at the airport, its pilots the only other residents of our soulless hotel.

Kigoma was awash with history and mud.

          constructing-history.jpg                  constructing-history-2.jpg        

In light of Hat’s project, we visited Ujiji, site of infamous “Livingstone, I presume?”. Even that seemed sad, though. As if the ghosts of those who purportedly stood beneath the mango trees are stalking Africa still. Unsettled. Their quests not wholly nor satisfyingly solved. 


Gone Fishing

November 2, 2007


Tomorrow we are going to Lake Tanganyika.

Because of this – and because our safari will mean she misses several days of school – Hat has embarked on a project Hat in the Footsteps on the Great Explorers. She is reading a child’s history on Livingstone in honour of our expedition and tells me Livingstone was cool. She is astounded that Burton – who with Speke discovered the lake in 1853 – mastered 30 languages and she is hard pressed to comprehend the significance of Stanley’s ”Livingstone, I presume?” when he finally found the doctor on the lake’s shores in Ujiji.  He was the first white man to sight Livingstone, who was missing and believed by many to be dead, in six years I tell her. She’s not quite as impressed as I’d hoped she’d be.

Tanganyika is the second largest freshwater lake in the world, and the second deepest. Which is why the first explorers dubbed it an inland sea. It is bordered by four countries: Tanzania, Burundi, the DRC and Zambia and is clearly visible from space.


The lake has played a prominent role in history since Burton and Speke’s time: it was the scene of two important battles during WW1; in the mid sixties the Argentian revolutionary Che Guevara used the western shores of the lake as a training ground for guerrila forces in the Congo and in the 90’s Michael Palin spent time on the lake during the BBC’s Pole to Pole series aboard the MV Liembe which was once a German ship called the Graf von Götzen.  Bombed by the allies in June of 1916, scuttled by the Germans a month later, in a bid to prevent it falling into enemy hands and eventually repaired and reborn as the MV Liemba, the ship is still busily afloat and doing lake runs today.

Hat’s wish list for the weekend is growing according to her reading: she wants to witness the place of Stanley’s immortal words to the doctor, she wants to take a ride on the MV Liembe and she wants to ”sit on the beach”. Her father wants to swim and snorkel – the lake is home to over 400 species of fish, many of them as brilliantly coloured as tropical seafish. And he wants to buy fish to bring home for the deep freeze.

Like he did when we went to Mwanza on Lake Victoria – further north than Lake Tanganyika and ascribed as being infamous Source by John Hanning Speke. Mwanza is a straggling ugly town, the worst kind of example of African urbanization: chaotic, ill-planned, straddling the ”balancing rocks” and kopjes that abound upon which have mushroomed the town’s extensive slums.

Not suprisingly, therefore, Mwanza generates alot of sewage which might be a problem elsewhere but which it isn’t there since lake is handy dumping ground. The city’s effluent is poured into the lake and the fish – as a result, and certainly those close to the town (most of them I should think, certainly those with a bit of savvy about where a meal is to be found) – are very fat.

During our evening in Mwanza we enjoyed an excellent chicken curry. Not fish, husband said, ”absolutely not fish, I know what they eat around here”.

Quite, I agreed and got stuck in my Chicken Tikka.

I was somewhat suprised the next morning, then, to hear husband announce he was off to buy fish from the market to bring home for the deep freeze.

But you wouldnt’ order fish, last night, I said. On account of its diet.

I know, he said, but I shall buy fish that were caught from the middle of the lake. Not those that feast on crap near the town.

Ah. Right. Silly me.

And you would – of course – be able to tell, in the fish market, which fish came from where.


Not Enough Hours in the Day …

November 1, 2007

When I moved to the Outpost, people asked, in tones of ill-disgused alarm, ”but what are you going to do all day?”

Defensively (because there’s no other way to respond a question that suggests you are about to relocate to position of exceedingly dull) I said, ”oh I’ll be fine, I’m very good at entertaining myself”.

I’m not. Not terribly. But I am very good at sort of faffing. Immersing myself in the here and now and being quite happy to plod about there. I write. Or at least that’s what I tell people I do (and sometimes it’s true) and writing is a gloriously time consuming career; I can spend hours gazing out of the window dressing daydreaming up as loftier Writer’s Block.

I had envisaged evolving as a Domestic Goddess. Drumming up 101 exciting things to do with a mango (souffle? chutney? jam?) but alas I find that geography hasn’t improved my desire to spend time in the kitchen.

I thought about learning French. But I haven’t got round to registering with Rosetta Stone.  Too busy, you see.

Doing what? I hear you ask.

Well. I get up. Anywhere between half four and half seven depending on whether insomnia has plagued or not. I drink tea. I check emails.  I get Hat up.

We whizz a smoothie for breakfast (water melon, pineapple and banana – every day because the market offers nothing else) and make some toast. I drink more tea.

We do school. Until almost lunchtime. It depends on whether or not we have any experiments to set up. We did yesterday; currently we are breeding bacteria from soup in three water bottles. Hat can’t wait to see what they smell like after three days. I can.

Sometimes there’s time before lunch then to nip to Kaidi The Arab’s duka to shop. Or practice shopping at any rate; rarely do we acheive our list so we just get what we can, stand at a counter and listen to the ding of an old till (I feel it’s important to maintain an understanding of shopping protocol, lest I forget – something my husband says is unlikely to happen). Sometimes we go to the market. For bananas, water melons and pineapples.

Husband comes home for lunch and we eat a sandwich. Or a chapati with tuna stuffed inside masquerading as trendier Wrap.  I was quite pleased with my (rare) domestic ingenuity in the sandwich/Wrap thing but poor old Husband and Hat getting a mite bored of them now I think.

After lunch Hat reads. She takes herself (and whichever author is prevailing favourite) off to the South American string hammock donated by a great aunt which is strung between two lemon trees and reads and rocks and occassionally sings. Which is truly fabulous to behold.  Sometimes she dons her dad’s sunglasses.

I can watch her from where I am Working (aka gazing out the window having succumbed to another irksome bout of Writers Block). She is oblivious of me. It’s the best way to watch a child. When they don’t know you are.

We swim in the afternoon. When the heat becomes so oppressive we can’t think straight anymore and are sliding into that sleepy place the dogs and cats seem to occupy all day, we pile into our small pool and cool off. Hat invents all kinds of mad games, yesterday’s game involved trying to float in a bucket atop the water. We sank. Sometimes we throw pennies and race to collect them. Sometimes we swim, independently of each other, she in her own watery world, me in mine.

Then, towelled dry we drink tea, Hat at her homework, me at my laptop (the reality of a deadline having finally dawned). Sometimes Hat does her homework sitting in the swing her dad made her out of an old tractor tyre.

The dogs wake from their heat induced reverie and begin to bug us for a walk, which means driving to the dam. Which we do, as the sun is sinking taking the ennervating broil of the day with it as it collapses into syrupy yellows and mellow pinks behind the mango trees and distant kopjes.

We’re home by dark, Hat is tipped into a bath as I take courage and face my kitchen in a bid to throw some semblace of supper together. She emerges with wet hair to enquire what we’re going to eat, politely (and prudently) says, ”oh yum” and disappears to play with instructions to ”put some mozzi spray on” ringing in her ears. Husband opens me a beer as I ferret in the fridge.

By eight we’ve eaten whatever it is I’ve managed to throw together. By nine I’m fading in front of the telly and urging Hat to go to bed. She is indignant. But I want to read/play/write a letter to Alice.

But you can’t I tell her, because it’s bed time and you have school tomorrow (a school she and I have dubbed the Outpost Academy of Excellence).

She makes a face. ”Do you know Mum, I am just too busy these days, I never have any time for anything”.

I’m delighted.

For as much as I was pretty sure I could muddle my way through long days in isolation, I did harbour unspoken fears about Hat being bored.

That she isn’t, that she’s trying to wiggle out of bedtime because she still has things to do, is heartening in the extreme.