Archive for February, 2008

Living on the Moon

February 27, 2008

Hat is writing a story for a science project, the essence of which – because we are comparing the environments of other bodies in our solar system – is how one would survive if one was stranded on the moon.

I urge Hat to consider criteria such as the temperature on the moon compared to that here on earth, the lack of much in the way of gravity.

She waves me away.

It’ll be easy she says, I know what living on the moon would be like already.

How, I want to know.

Because I live here, Mum, in an outpost.

She’s not wrong.

Pretending to be English

February 27, 2008

Hat and I are eating breakfast listening to the shrill call of mouthy Egghead in the background (if he’s not careful I shall call Saidi and enquire as to whether he has a good recipe for Rooster Soup too). 

Tea. Toast. And Marmite. 

Is Marmite English, Hat wants to know. 

Yes, I tell her. Quintessentially so. 

So don’t Indian people like it? 

Not many. 

Or French people? 

Nope. 

Or Americans? 

They hate it. 

Does Asina – who is Tanzanian – like it? 

I doubt it. 

But she likes pili-pili. 

Yes, but Marmite’s not hot, is it? It’s salty. 

Does Uncle Fuzz like it? 

Yes. 

Is he English? 

Yes. (Even though in all his 76 years he’s never lived anywhere but Africa). 

Look. It says ‘100% Vegetarian’ on the label, Hat points out, that means Amelia can eat it. 

Amelia, like many 14 year old girls, has recently decided to give up meat. Unless there’s borewors on offer. Or biltong. Or steak. 

Do Kenyans like it? 

What? 

Marmite? 

Some, yes. 

The English ones? 

Yes. An anomaly, I know. But Hat’s line of enquiry is about much more than the love/hate relationship people have with Marmite. 

Instead it thinly veils a confusion about identity. 

Our conversation reminds me of one we had years ago – about a class project (when Hat attended Real School) to design a family coat of arms. Mine and Hat’s effort did not resemble her teacher’s example, an English Rose from Brighton. 

We knew which children were from Holland or Canada or Egypt or Tanzania because they had written in bold letters, ‘I AM FROM …’ and added a badly drawn flag by way of illustration.  All our effort did was prove that Hattie had a grandmother who must be very old (judging by all the sepia photographs I used – which will teach me for being a show-off) and a dead grandfather who used to ride a bicycle.   A grandfather whom Hattie never knew. ‘Who’s that?’ she asked, indignantly as I stuck a photo of husband’s father onto our piece of card ‘That’s Grandad Simon’, I said, and then, gently and in reverent tone one must adopt when talking about the departed, ‘he’s dead’. ‘No he’s not’, she snorted, examining the picture more closely, ‘he’s riding a bike’. 

Hattie’s teacher asked kind and interested questions about all the dead grandfathers and long deceased great-grandparents staring from liver-spotted images bearing testimony to lives spent in India, the Congo, East Africa.   

How exotic she remarked. 

Hattie didn’t think it was exotic.  She’d rather have had a coat of arms decorated as her teacher’s was, with pictures of Brighton Pier, Cadbury’s chocolate, pink and white complexioned children.  And a Union Jack.  That would mean she was English.   

I could tell you that’s the sole reason we eat Marmite: to reaffirm our patriotism, our sense of attachment to a place that’s never been home. I could tell you Marmite is a part of our heritage: I was obliged to bring it back to Kenya from boarding school in Britain for Mum and Dad when such imported luxuries were unavailable. 

The truth is I like the stuff. 

Because I am pretending to be English perhaps?  

marmite.jpg

Crowing

February 25, 2008

Home now.

With piles of laundry for the washing machine, two mightily relieved dogs (who enjoyed the beach but not the getting to and from: one was impossibly car sick) and a pair of bantams.

We left the beach with three – a birthday present for Hat from her Great Uncle. But one escaped en route. I think somebody had let on to her that social life in the Outpost mightn’t be what she was used to. She took um at that and fled at the first opportunity, racing across a dawn lawn yesterday, squawking indignant protest:

 I’m not bloody going there: not if I can’t get a cappuccino and regular pedicures. 

I let her go. Partly because I sympathize but mostly because I couldn’t keep up with her.

Instead I crossly bundled her two remaining companions, which Hat has christened EggHead and FlipFlop, into a cardboard box, chucked a jumper over the top in the hope of deluding EggHead into believing it was still nighttime so that he wouldn’t crow the nine hours home and tossed the whole ensemble into the car.

He still did. Crow. Albeit intermittently and surprisingly. The sound of a rooster’s shrill call from behind your seat as you drive is unnerving.

Six hours into our journey Hat grew concerned that her chickens might be getting hungry.

Shall I give them the Dorito crumbs to eat? She enquired, rattling the almost empty packet.

I thought not. ‘Too much salt’, I said, ‘mighn’t be good for them’

Salt is on my mind. Mostly because I’m off it.

Your blood pressure is too high, said the doctor I saw recently.

I am outraged. High? I question resentfully. How can it be high? I’m not too heavy. I don’t drink too much (often). I never smoke (except when I drink too much).

How much salt do you use? He wanted to know.

Too much.

So I’m off the salt and selfishly won’t let anybody else enjoy what I cannot. So the bantams were off the salt too.

I have been up since long before sunrise. Thanks to Egghead who has been delighting in the sound of his own voice since 5 a.m.

Or just trying to piss me off because I wouldn’t’ let him and his missus finish the Doritos.

Octopus Soup

February 18, 2008

School by the sea extended to the starfish gardens between the shore and the reef, courtesy of Saidi and his dugout. Saidi has been fishing this stretch of coast since he was a boy, his entrepreneurial spirit has grown over the years to include the short tour such as the one Hat and I went on.

Saidi punted us out to the starfish where we piled out into the shallow water. Starfish of myriad colours abounded: lime green with yellow spots, midnight blue with orange, almost black and red. The starfish feast on the spiny black sole-of-foot puncturing sea urchins. They feast well here and lie fatly upon the sand.

Suddenly our sea life reverie is disturbed with a squeal from Saidi; we turn to find him wrestling an octopus clinging stickily with its Velcro-strip tentacles to his arms. Hat, intrigued, moves to touch its super-glue suckers and have Saidi point out its eyes and mouth and ink sack.

Why didn’t it release its ink, I want to know.

Because I am too quick, said Saidi, who had unearthed the octopus from under the coral it was trying to wriggle beneath.

Hat and I returned to our starfish; it’d be impossible to reproduce their colours faithfully on canvas: Mother Earth has patented her work skillfully; so many of the hues found in nature cannot be copied truthfully.

As we clamber aboard the dugout ready to return I enquire as to the fate of the octopus.

‘He is here’, says Saidi, proudly pointing to the creature, lying almost inert now in the bottom of the dugout. ‘He is for soup; he will make very good soup’.

How do you make octopus soup I want to know (for what else is there to say when your marine biology lesson has morphed into one on cuisine?)

‘First’, says Saidi delighted that I should ask, ‘you hit the octopus very hard ten times on the beach (and he demonstrates: as if slapping a wet towel several times against the sand). If you do not hit the octopus’, he explains, ‘his flesh will be very tough. Then I will clean out the ink sack and take him home and chop him up. I will put him in a pan and boil him, with no water’. The octopus, he elaborates, contains enough water of its own. No salt either, he warns, enough of that too. Courtesy of its saline habitat no doubt.  When the octopus has emitted its liquid, the flesh must be drawn out, and fried with onion, tomato and pepper and then the stock can be returned to the pan and your soup is ready.

‘It is delicious’, announces Saidi, ‘you can eat it with ugali’.

With thoughts of my own imminent lunch (distinctly less adventurous fish and chips) we set sail for home, Hat takes the tiller.  

And I watch the octopus dying at my feet.

*****************************

  A math lesson is disrupted by a ruckus emanating from the beach.

Voices and cries and shouting.

Recent history in mind I fear a tribal clash taking shape at my feet.

It’s nothing so sinister.

Shoals of sardine have swum close to shore and excited fishermen are noisily organising themselves into teams to net them.

As the tide ebbs so does the hullabaloo. Hat and I go down to the sand to inspect the catch. We are not alone; the fishermen’s families have joined them and women and children are merrily dividing the spoils and cleaning the fish at the water’s edge.

Later, at sundown, I walk on the beach. It is quiet now but for the distant crash of surf and the rasping whisper of palms. All that remains of the morning’s activity lies in the sand which has been churned by the tread of dozens of pairs of scampering feet, and which is sifted with the silver of scales.

        

Sea School

February 15, 2008

School continues, of course, it must. As it has continued on the shores of Lake Tanganyika and in the bush between one place and someplace else.  Our school calendar is dictated by that of Hat’s older siblings, not by geography.

So – school goes on, albeit in a warmer, sandier and sometimes more watery shape than it would ordinarily.

Hat’s education this week has included a swim beyond the reef with her father. I watched, anxiously, flanked by two equally anxious dogs, as the piled off the coral and into the deep blue; Hat’s small pale hand clutching tightly and determinedly to her dad’s broad sunburned shoulder. She told me later, when she clambered out of the water, that she had seen a ‘Finding Nemo’ fish, that she had dived to the bottom and touched the sand, that she had been a little afraid, but not for long, not with her dad there. Her underwater adventures have continued with the spotting of puffer fish, a venomous stone fish and tiny, decorative ‘magic carpets’ floating their colourful way through the depths.

Our marine biology lessons have even extended into our dining: lunch out at a Japanese restaurant and Hat experienced her first taste of sushi and sashimi. It arrived at the table in an ornate boat, garnished with beetroot roses, carrot flowers and string-thin ribbons of onion and cucumber.  ‘How beautiful!’ exclaimed Hat. She gamely tried the tuna and the salmon and the octopus, she daringly dipped morsels into wasabi and dunked it into soy sauce. She did her best. But I think she learned, from her oriental seafood lesson, that she perhaps wouldn’t be ordering sushi again for a while. Handy given that the Outpost offers little in the way of culinary excursion and even less of the raw fish variety.

She is articulating an argument this morning in her science book about why the seas mustn’t be overfished. She keeps gazing out towards the beach and the distant breakers rolling lazily over the submerged reef.

I know where she’d rather be.

Soon, Hat, soon.

  

Empty Beaches

February 13, 2008

We’re in Kenya: Hat, husband and I. And the dogs.

We’re on the coast: the same stretch of beach that my mother-in-law enjoyed as a child, the same one my children and their father before them played on. Everything about it is familiar: the trees, the shade they cast, the sounds, the curve of the sand and the heads of coral, landmarks identified by a great grandmother for a trio of children who still refer to them by the Famous Five names she chose: North Bay, South Bay, Swallow Pool, Starfish Gardens, Crocodile Rock. But something this year has changed: the faces of the fishermen, and their demeanour, are more somber now. They greet us warmly though – the same men from whom we have bought prawns and red snapper and calamari for years – they are relieved to see that some of the regulars are coming back; they are relieved to find somebody who’ll buy their catch. They enquire after us, after the older children who, for the first time, because of school, are not with us. When I explain they smile encouraging approval, ‘it’s good for children to go to school’, they tell me (my big kids wouldn’t agree: they’d rather be here, body surfing the waves or sprawled on beds in sleepy afternoons with good books, than facing mock exam results).

How’s Tanzania? they want to know, are you getting rain?

(Rain and its debut is an integral part of any conversation in Africa)

Tanzania is fine, I say, the rain has been good.

Not here, they say, here it is late. 

Its tardiness threatens to exacerbate existing problems.

How is Kenya? I ask gently.

They shake their heads sadly, ‘two men have bought a lot of bad things to Kenya’, they say.

The tourism sector, Kenya’s golden egg, has been shattered by the post election crisis.  Beach hotels, those that remain open, are operating at less than 20% capacity (at this time of year they ought to be almost full). Charter flights from the continent have been cancelled until mid year. Over 30,000 people in the hospitality industry have lost their jobs. And the rock that the politicians hurled with such violence into the peaceful pond that this was has manifested more than mere ripples: tidal waves of uncertainty wash over Kenya’s people, threatening to engulf them. The collapse of tourism means that the taxi drivers have no passengers, the restaurants no diners, the curio vendors no buyers and the fishermen no hungry customers to haggle a morning’s catch with.

Early this morning I sat with my coffee watching the sun slide above a watery horizon, buffing the sea bronze so that it hurt my eyes to hold my gaze.  Strung along the precipice of my view were dozens of ngalos, the local fishing boats, their sails pulled tight to catch the breeze so that they skimmed the oceans surface, small keels ironing out the choppiness and tossing it nonchalantly behind in frothy wake. Such determination. Such single-mindedness in the face of prevailing adversity: who will buy their fish I wondered worriedly: I can’t cope with more than a few kilos.

Later I walked on a lonely beach and watched the waves stroke the sand so that it shivered in delight, tiny bubbles rising like goose-bumps.  Palm fronds rattled a tune in response to faint instruction from the wind. The sea receded with the tide leaving behind rock pools wriggling with myriad tiny marine creatures. And the occasional enormous breathtakingly bright star fish.

It’s still beautiful here.

Come now.

Before the madding crowd returns.

And buy kingfish for your supper from the fishermen.

The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse

February 8, 2008

There was once a Town Mouse and a Country Mouse.

The Country Mouse rarely went out, for there was nowhere to go and precious few people to meet. She scuttled about her tiny little house living her hermetic existence and eating leafy green salads from her own pocket handkerchief garden for lunch. She read. She wrote. She played with her offspring: most had scrambled out of her homely little nest and only returned sporadically to raid the fridge, get their laundry done and ask for increased allowances. But there was one left, the youngest, a constant source of amusement and companionship for our sometimes lonely Country Mouse, who never wore shoes but padded about in her barefeet (nail polish peeling from toes) and the same pair of scruffy shorts day after day. Her hair – too long now – was always screwed into an untidy knot at the back of her head.

The Town Mouse by comparison barely sat still. There were lunches (in town, naturally) to be had (paninis sweating cheese and glasses of red wine). Hair appointments to attend, pedicures to enjoy (Town Mouse always has perfectly painted red toenails), shops to trawl (even when she wasn’t buying). She was exhaustingly social, darting hither and thither and catching up with friends over too much coffee. There were school runs to do and mothers to either avoid or gossip with in the car park, there was a daughter to collect each afternoon, excited chatter to listen to, sleepovers to arrange. There were movies to see (Enchanted), dinner parties to attend. She always wore shoes and remembered to change her clothes and brush her newly done tresses every day.

The Country Mouse – despite feeling bereft of company from time to time – was never short of peace and quiet and time to find the right words. The Town Mouse barely had a moment to spare in her hectic schedule. She didn’t get enough sleep and her waistband – on account of the indulgence that attends regular meals out – was growing disconcertingly tight.

The Country Mouse visited the Town Mouse and despite the initial novelty of restaurants and cinemas and hair salons, it wasn’t long before she began to feel a little broke, a bit fatter, more tired than she was used to. It wasn’t long before she began to yearn for a little bit of space. A slower pace.

Funny that.

She hadn’t expected that.

 

 

 

 

 

Noon

February 4, 2008

I am sitting on a verandah. Not mine; I’m a long way from home.

My view extends for miles. I can’t see the horizon; it is blurred by dust that hangs listlessly in kiln-baked air. The sky – enormous sky, no sky anywhere rivals an African one for sheer magnitude – is powdery blue: high noon has smudged the definition of distant hills as if some careless deity had upended a bottle of talc so that outlines are slippery.

I can see the corrugated iron roofs of huts at the bottom of the hill glinting hotly beyond a dense thicket of trees; villages strung across a plain toasted to biscuit brown. I watch bleached Daz-white egrets fly languidly in search of shade in which to take an avian siesta, respite from the soporific warmth.

I can see a lawn parched – walking across it barefoot is like treading a bed of nails so sharp are those desiccated blades of grass – thirstily awaiting rain (the sky – cloudless but for briefly galloping horse’s tails – is thumbing its nose at scorched gardens though: no rain today it says smugly).

I can hear the leaves of the acacia whisper in the faint breeze which exhales infrequently and briefly: small, shallow, impatient sighs: where’s the bloody rain?

A dog, not my dog (but her company will do) lies beneath my chair. Panting.

That’s what Africa is doing today: panting.

Sprawled hotly at my feet and panting.