Archive for December, 2007

Close Call

December 30, 2007


Yesterday evening walking on the dam, the edges of which are now thick with bush and long grass on account of recent rain so it is increasingly difficult to find a clear path, I trod on a puff adder. I was wearing flip flops. I didn’t even notice. Except for a deep hiss emanating somewhere below me and my husband’s alarmed voice behind me:

Ohmigod! You’ve just trodden on a puff adder.

I stepped right on its middle with my flat and almost bare foot.

It moved off slowly whilst my children gaped. And I tried to gather my nerves.

I was pleased to get home and pour myself a very large glass of wine.  The puff adder is responsible for more deaths in Africa than any other snake. Though fatly lethargic, it’s also the quickest to strike under pressure.

Tomorrow I am going to the market to buy myself a pair of wellies to walk the bush in.

Husband says that given the laws of probability I shan’t need them: it’ll be forty years before you tread on another venomous snake, he says.

Except that this is the third I’ve trodden on in five years. The other two were cobras.

Think I’d be wiser to heed my brother’s words, ”how many lives you got left then, Sis?” than dear husband’s.

That and watch my step.

And get those wellies, of course.


The Spa

December 29, 2007

Yesterday morning was spent reclining in a Spa enjoying a pedicure, a facial and the animated conversation of the proprietor Madame Marcella who was quite bossy. Almost as bossy, in fact, as her sister Marcia. Although somewhat interestingly she spoke in a French accent where her sister had not.

Mum and I were ordered into camp chairs festooned with scarves whilst Marcella bustled about busily ordering us to plant our feet in an enormous bucket of hot water, proferring glasses of ice cold water to drink and tiny bits of cucumber and tomato pierced upon toothpicks as snacks. My request for a cup of tea was waved impatiently away as being unhealthy. I cannot imagine the outrage had I suggested an expresso and a fag.

The slices of cucumber that were not ingested were planted upon our eyes with promises that we would look stunning when Marcella had finished. One look from me and she pertinently added quickly, ”even more stunning that you already do”.

With the soles of our feet squeaky clean and our toes quite pink because Marcella had forgotten to mention that the water in the bucket was hot out of the kettle (she hastily emptied the contents of her iced water jug complete with lemon slices and icecubes in a bid to prevent scalding and permanent scarring) we were ready for the application of nail polish.

Ummm … do you think Amelia’s up yet asked Marcella, briefly forgetting both her accent and her adopted persona.

Why, I wondered, did she want to do Amelia’s feet too?

No, she said, I want to borrow her nailpolish.

Alas Amelia was not up and Marcella/Hat has been exposed to the wrath of a big sister awoken too early (ie before noon) too often to know that it wasn’t worth it, not even to borrow her new nail varnish.

Can I use yours then, Mum, she said a bit sadly. Mine isn’t new.

It’s so old in fact, we had a job soaking the lid off. An ancient bottle of Chanel’s Hot Red (presumably purchased back in the days when I thought I was a bit of Hot Red rather than the Tired Grey I have become) was tossed into now rather cooler water in the hope of loosening the lid. Finally, after both her clients, her older brother and Marcella herself had had a go at twisting the top off a bottle of polish that’s been firmly stuck on since the late 80’s, we had red glue pasted to our nails. At which point, predictably, Amelia arose.

By then Marcella was getting a bit bored. She brushed my hair speedily, commenting rudley on the colour, “I can see the gap between where you’re hair is pretending to be blonde and where it’s dark”.

Clearly it’s high time to do my roots. I wonder if Marcella could pluck another sister from her roomy hat: Marcellina, perhaps, a wizard with foils?

The Sustenance of Faith?

December 28, 2007

Yesterday my girls and I, along with mum who is with us from England, visited a home in the Outpost run by Mother Theresa’s order, the Missionaries of Charity.

I had seen a couple of the Sisters in town, their blue and white robes trademark of their founder. And I had wondered about their work here.

Baptised a Roman Catholic, my faith is potholed. And selective inasmuch as I don’t believe spirituality has to equate with regular attendance of Mass. Lapsed perhaps. Even lazy. But it does not render me incapable of appreciating the Faith of others. No matter where – or who – they worship.

So we went and said hello to the Sisters, two tiny Indian ladies. One chuckled endlessly and told us she had been in the Outpost on and off since 1972, ”with the odd rest back in India”, she said, giggling. The other was beady eyed and fired a volley of questions:

where was I from?

Here, I said. She looked doubtful.  Really, I continued, I’ve been in Tanzania for nearly twenty years.

But originally, she pressed, where are you from originally.

I was born in Kenya, I tell her, like my dad and my mum (gesturing towards mum) was born in India.

Her interest piqued. Where? she demanded,

 ”Bombay” said Mum.

Do you speak Hindi? she wanted to know.

Mum apologised that alas she did not; she had left when she was just six.

Nor do we anymore, said both Sisters sadly, we have been here so long we have forgotten our own language.

We were given a guided tour of their home and said hello to forty orphans and almost 100 OAPs. The children, the tiniest barely a month, were about to have their supper, mugs of uji. The bigger amongst them, just four or five, laughed uproariously at their funny visitors. The older residents, some snowy haired and bent with age, greeted us cheerfully and ululated as we walked their dormitory which had been decorated for Christmas with a crib and lights which repeated tinny renditions of We Wish You a Merry Christmas.

We left, feeling humbled. And lucky. But no more than I might feel encountering a beggar in the market, or a street child. Being up close and personal with abject poverty – the disadvantaged, the hungry, the abandoned, the despairing – is par for the course in Africa. You can drive by with tinted windows up, the air con blowing icily and your iTunes obliterating the sounds from outside, but poverty will stick out a leg and trip you up eventually, or hold out a hand, pleadingly.

So whilst the poverty wasn’t a new experience, meeting women like the Indian Sisters was. There was no piety in their demeanour, no holier than thou on account of their Good Works. They asked for nothing. They just asked questions. Are they always like this, I wondered, or does the hopelessness of the plight of so many Africans ever get them down? Perhaps when it does they are dispatched home for a ”rest”. They receive no assistance from the Government. And are reluctant to accept donations of cash. They’d rather, I am told, receive gifts in kind.  They regard their work as serious, without taking themselves too seriously. They demonstrate none of the sanctimoniousness that is sometimes found in those working to improve the lives of those less fortunate than themselves. They aren’t going to make poverty history either, but they’re certainly going to push misery into the past, if only briefly, for those whose lives they touch. Because they strung up a few balloons, set up a crib and strung it with lights that emitted tuneless Christmas Carols.

I have told Hat I will wait until one of the orange trees delivers a harvest and then I can go with fruit for the children, which will provide me with an excuse to know the Sisters a little better, to talk to them about who they are. Not what they do. Hat said she would come too. And that evening she donned a sparkly skirt, stuck a bindi to her forehead and danced like an Indian with armfuls of bangles jangling.

I suspect that would have made the Sisters laugh too.


December 27, 2007

My protracted silence has been borne of many things – Christmas amongst them, naturally. A house bursting happily at the seams too, strewn with discarded wrapping paper and the scatter cushions I acquired when I aspired – long ago – to be a proper housewife lie, well, scattered but not elegantly upon tidy sofas, rather as ankle twisting ambushes across the sitting room floor.

The mince pies are dwindling. I thought about Kate Reddy, the heroine of Allison Pearson’s book I don’t know how she does it as I crossly and hotly pummelled shortcrust pastry and urged it unwilling into pie tins: Kate Reddy buys her mince pies, decants them from giveaway packaging and – in a bid to appear a proper mother – knocks them about with a rolling pin to make them look a little more homemade. I didn’t need to knock mine about; they looked knocked about all by themselves. And I’m not sure I projected the image of proper mother as I made my own, swearing in frustration as bloodyminded pastry sprang back into the shrunken shapes I was trying to avoid or clung to the worktops in a desperate last attempt to dodge a hot oven. No matter; they are being eaten.

We sourced our Christmas tree in the bush during a picnic when it rained and the dog ate the roast chicken, we decorated it outside where it looked quite ordinary until night fell and the strings of lights reflected merrily in our small pool. Christmas Eve came and my children – presumably to prove my lessons in trying to live with a Glass Half Full approach to life were reaping reward – hung pillow cases for Santa in lieu of stockings: why, after all, hang something so meagre when – being the optimisists your mother aspires to mould you into – you could aim much higher.

Christmas lunch was mellow, cold roast chicken and ham alternated with chilled beer and dips in the pool, and all between cloudbursts. The rain which falls in torrential sheets as I write has, in recent days, drowned the services of the internet, the telephone and the satellite television connection several times.

So the year fades. And all before I managed to write a single Christmas card; does the time really pass faster as we get older or does it just seem that way?  Will I manage to compose a Round Robin letter in the New Year to crow about my children’s achievements and aspirations (which include Amelia’s second ear piercing in 2007 and plans for a belly ring in 2009). Or will good intentions lie scattered – like the cushions and the mince pie crumbs – across a floor strewn with discarded wrapping and damp towels?


Wet Towels

December 14, 2007

Hat and I have finished school for the term. I don’t know how much she’s learned. So long as she enjoyed it. She sweetly tells me that her vocabularly is broader now that she’s homeschooled.   That’s not because I’m any great orator, but because Hat has a keen ear for new words.

She asks me, ”how do you spell schrewin, mum?”

How do you spell what!? I want to know.

”You know, schrewin

I don’t darling, no. I don’t even know what you mean.  Where have you heard the word used?

”You. When you say to me after I’ve had a shower, don’t leave your wet towel schrewin all over the floor”.

Oooooooooh! Strewn!

Today, we will drive 5 hours to Mwazna on Lake Victoria where we will spend the night, ready to collect Hat’s big brother and sister when they arrive by plane from their school in the north east of the country tomorrow morning. Hat is beside herself with excitement.

And I relish four weeks of picking those wet towels up.

Not always the middle of nowhere

December 14, 2007

I discovered this week that once upon a time the Outpost held a position of great importance.

The Arabs founded it, as a centre of trading – slaves and ivory – and enjoyed enormous wealth as a consequence. Most came from Oman and called their new home Kazeh. The Germans assumed control of the region in the late 19th century and made the town, which they renamed Weidmannsheil, an administrative centre for the Protectorate. Whipped by the Brits during the East African Campaign of WWI, they retreated but not before they’d minted a sovereign from local gold which is reputed to be the most beautiful seige coin ever minted. Few remain in existence. Those that do (one or two on Ebay) fetch as much as $10,000 at auction. Their value at the time was 15 Rupees.

By 1920 Tabora, as the Outpost became widely known then as it is now (except by me, on bad days, when it’s Bloodytabora) was the most populous town in then Tanganyika, with more inhabitants than Dar es Salaam, on the coast.

Who’d have thought it? Certainly not any of the tourists who drop in on their way to luxury camps in the west. As their light aircraft refuel on the small dirt strip they clamber out to stretch their legs, I have watched them. And overheard their observations.

Where the hell are we?

Dunno. Looks like the middle of nowhere.

A quiet dawn

December 12, 2007

It amazes me as I sit here, dawn just beginning to nudge the east awake, how quietly it has crept in and mollifed the skies which raged angrily with storm all night: thunder crashed rudley and lightening lit up my bedroom in neon strobes.  Rain battered down down upon the tin roof in rowdy percussion.

By dawn, though, and there is just the faintest patter of the last drops as they drip from the mango trees outside, politely. As if nothing had happened. Tiptoeing to sleep in the sodden soil – I wonder if they will find room there?

A chorus of birds has begun, I cannot see them, only hear their early morning greetings: I imagine them shaking off damp feathers and chatting animatedly to their neighbours about the rain:”what a night!”, they will exclaim to one another.

The thunder has crept off, a distant ominous rumble now, as if complaining as it is asked to leave by a lightening sky, ”you’ve had your say, now push off”.

My brother once remarked to me, ”why use two hundred words when two will do”.

He’d have said simply, ”good rain last night”.

Just as well …

December 11, 2007

Bang on cue, as if to remind me that it’s as well I a) glean some kind of job satisfacation outside of the minimal amount proffered by writing and b) am not entirely responsible for putting all the bread on this particular family’s table, I receive another rejection. Of sorts.

 In September I entered a memoir writing competition at Kingston University. In October, oh joy, my manuscript Refugees of Empire was amongst 15 short listed.

Today I discovered that mine was amongst the five that didn’t get a final mention. That means no winnings (useful for school fees) and no chance of publication (useful for school fees, and when feigning to be a writer).

I’d like to be able to tell myself the subject matter wasn’t sufficiently PC, how could it be: I’m the progeny of bloodycolonials, I’d like to believe a publisher wouldn’t dare take my story on board but alas I fear that it’s a merely a question of the manuscript lacking merit.

No matter.


No point in calling yourself a writer if you can’t take rejection firmly on the chin; it’s par for the course, after all.

But just as well I hadn’t given up the day job eh?

Just a Mum?

December 11, 2007

On Saturday my big kids are coming home for the Christmas holidays.

I will be able to fuss over them, feed them, nag them.

And I will feel whole again.

And no, I’m not a sad old bat for attaching such a sense of self to my children: they’re what I’ve done for almost 17 years. Children are all consuming. They permeate your very consciousness so that even when they aren’t there, they are. You never stop thinking about them. Worrying about them. Wondering how they are, who they’re with, what they’re doing and whether or not they’re brushing their teeth.

As much as I call myself a writer to pretend I do something useful (when usually, actually, it’s not at all) raising three children to be the best people I can is much more so.

Once, embarrassed by my world of nappies and feeding routines and whether or not I was getting enough sleep, I referred to myself, when asked, as ”just a mum”.

Just a mum?

No ”just” about the job.

I mightn’t always do it very well – truth be known often my mothering is fairly slipshod – but it’s an important job. If only to the three people I’m trying to mould into half decent grown ups.

So. Come Saturday it’s back to the day job, the real job, the one that counts.

The one – granted – I don’t get paid for.

But then writing is hardly lucrative either.


December 9, 2007

I heard a story this week about a Dutch doctor who practices in a clinic in Lindi which is on the coast of southern Tanzania near Mozambique.

Three years into her experience in health care here she was beginning to feel heartily disillusioned and was about ready to pack it all in to go home.

One of her greatest disappointments was watching women bear child after child that they could not afford to feed, clothe or educate. The injectable contraceptives the clinic were using were cheap – and clearly ineffective – imports from Asia and they didn’t work. It is estimated that 30% of the drugs dumped in Africa are at best useless, at worst, downright dangerous.

Added to this, the Americans, on account of President Bush’s fundamentalist Christian approach to life, will not fund anything that consitutes birth control: no contraceptive pills, no condoms.

Instead women keep having babies or die at the hands of back-street abortionists.

I don’t blame the doctor. Her vocation in life is about improving that of others. How can she when the Tanzanian government and the super powers conspire to make it even worse.

It’s not that I’m off Africa this week – she’s the essence of my very self, coursing through my veins – it’s just that I’m especially off all the frustrations that continue to hamper her.