Archive for April, 2008

Letting in the Light

April 28, 2008

The rape seed flowers are brilliant; they cast a neon luminosity upwards – as if somebody had switched on a light somewhere beneath shallow soil. It looks – from where I sit in a small Northamtonshire village – as if somebody has tossed enormous yellow picnic rugs upon the countryside all around.

I’m here because Mum has been sick. I thought about whether I ought to write about it: about her illness. But I think not to – I think to sit upon it silently – would be to exacerbate the stigma that already clings tightly, parasitcally greedy, to mental illness; my mum has suffered from recurring episodes of debilitating clinical depression since I was only a little older than Hat is now.  Depression is quite black enough without keeping it in the dark. So there it is – out in the open – the reason I’m here. In England. With Mum. Where she has been accompanied by this particular visit from the Black Dog since January.

I came to see if I could make a difference. I might have done. Fleetingly. I might occassionally, with my chat and observations and the energy I have brought with me (along with a small bag and a laptop that has lurked idle beneath the dining table since I got here) have lifted Depression’s suffocating shroud and let brief, brave illuminating shafts of vitality into Mum’s life so that by evening she has the courage, the necessary allied force, to snub Depression and laugh a little. Then again, I might not have done: Depression is persistent. It’s especially persistent first thing in the morning which seems grossly unfair: Depression makes life hard enough as it is without making getting out of bed and facing the day harder still.

Depression has been a part of my life for longer than it hasn’t.  I think it defines me sometimes. But not mum – it doesn’t define her. She is Mum. Depression is Depression.  I need to keep reminding her of the separateness of it all. When the illness floods her and submerges her joie de vivre and drowns out her happiness leaving her heavy with soggy lassitude, when she says, ”I’m being so stupid”, I need to remind her: it’s not you, Mum. It’s Depression.

My children understand why I’m here. We all call Depression by its real name in my house. No point in disguising it with euphemism. Euphemism is stigma’s best friend.

When I go, at the end of the week, I hope I might have loosened Depression’s grip by the tiniest degree. I probably won’t have done: the arrogance I once assumed that I’d be able to fix Mum just by bullying her to wellness left me long ago. But I have to hope. 

And that’s what makes me lucky: because I can: hope.



Putting Bread on the Table

April 18, 2008

Hat says, ‘There’s something wrong with the bread; I don’t think it’s meant to look like that’.


She means the bread I’m making; the loaf that is ready, judging by penetrating beep of bread machine, but has yet to be removed and sliced for breakfast.


I got it for Christmas from Best Beloved. The bread machine. He gave it to me because we cannot always buy bread in the Outpost and because he could not bear for me to attempt to make my own unaided as I did in manner persuaded to me by Isabella Beeton when at 23 and newly married and naïve I thought the ability to make yeast come alive with fat bubbles and elevate dough to glossy springiness was fundamental to a happy marriage. Luckily it was not: though the yeast stayed stubbornly flat and the dough was the consistency of a cannon ball and the bread utterly inedible, though best beloved suggested I sell it to demolition mobs that were breaking down old buildings in the city we lived in then – Dar es Salaam – in favour of newer ones, we have remained together.


So. Almost twenty years on and because we no longer live within a 20 mile radius of a reasonable bakery, I was presented with a bread machine. Something small and dainty and sparkly in trademark blue Tiffany bag might have been nice to own, might have impressed my friends, something from Prada might have done too. But neither are of much use in hard-line, out-lying Outpost.  So a FastBake it was instead.


The family watched as I fastidiously measured the ingredients for the first attempt into the tin with the precise little measuring spoons provided and regular reference to recipe in accompanying booklet. They observed as I carefully set the timer and they applauded when my fat, light loaf appeared on the breakfast table the next morning.


Three months later, though, and I had become a little slapdash. Remembering there’s no bread for breakfast at 11pm when you’ve had a few glasses of Red isn’t a good approach to cooking. In my rush to get the necessary done – ‘I must just put the bread on’, I’d say importantly to BB when he enquired (by hollering through house) if I was planning on coming to bed anytime that week – I began to carelessly gauge amounts, quite disregarding the ominous little warnings in booklet: Please use measuring cup and spoons provided accurately. I also cut back on the salt – two tablespoons of it – since I thought it’d please my doctor if I did so whilst simultaneously displeasing gathering cellulite which I understand thrives on a diet stacked with sodium secreted into benign looking foods like homemade bread, for example.


On Hat’s ‘I don’t think it’s meant to look like this’, I got up to examine the fruits of my midnight labours. And she was quite right: bread’s not meant to look like that. It’s meant to look arched with pride and deliciously, inviting promise. Not slumped with soggily, grey misery.


Hat is quite a stickler. Unlike her sloppy mother.


‘I think we should look them up in the book again, Mum’, she said, ‘the instructions, she pressed.


I did.


Under Troubleshooting.


Who’d have thought you could troubleshoot a loaf of bread?


It said: if you are so slovenly you can’t be bothered to measure things out properly or if you think you know better than us and begin to invent your own recipes or if you ditch the salt because you a vain cow who would rather have sleek thighs than feed her family properly, your bread will sink disastrously in the middle and be hard and lumpen and you might just as well use it as demolition fodder. Or words to that effect. I got the message though.


I made my bread at 7 last night. Before I was too tired to see my way around the kitchen and before the Red had interfered with my eyesight so that I was unable to decipher the calibrations on the cups and spoons. 


I will – as a consequence – be able to set before Hat for breakfast today a loaf that has risen to perfect roundness, a loaf with a firm, brown crust and innards the consistency of warm marshmallows upon which her butter will melt just as she likes.


And I shall be able to bask in both her praise and a very, very rare glow of domestic and maternal success.




I am going away for a bit. Far away. For a fortnight. I shall begin my journey tomorrow and arrive at my destination 48 hours later. I like to think I’m going where I am because I’m needed there for now, might make a difference. I’m not sure I will.


But I have to try.


April 17, 2008


I slide into Tanzania Telecommunications Company Ltd to load some money onto my older daughter’s phone. Because I am a kind mother. Because I am fearful of teen sulks. Because then her excuses not to call me will ring hollow.


TTCL’s building must be the biggest in the Outpost and it is a vivid egg yellow. All over. As if somebody above us has stabbed his free range morning fry with a fork and allowed the yolk to explode across the exterior walls of this imposing building. I wear my sunglasses until I get inside, even when it’s overcast; the paintjob is headache-bright to behold.


I leave the engine of my car, parked outside the gates, running. Not so, like other expatriates (not here – there aren’t any here) the air-conditioning keeps humming coolly (the fact I don’t have a/c is beside the point). But because if I switch the ignition off, my car will not start again. Not until Hat and I have opened the bonnet, ferreted around in the boot for a bag of spanners, retightened all the battery terminal leads as we did before we left home twenty minutes ago, but which Outpost potholes have already rudely nudged out of place and gathered about us a not insignificant crowd of amused onlookers. I also leave Hat in the car because she is busy trying to think of a name for the soft toy I have just been persuaded to buy for her from a roadside vendor. It is a snow leopard whose bent plastic whiskers make him look as if he has been tempted too close to a fire.


As I scurry through the gates and towards the front door, shielding my eyes from the glare, an officious looking woman instructs an askari, lounging on a stool by the entrance and reading a paper, to tell me to move my car. I pretend not to hear and keep going.


Inside I hand over my money and my daughter’s telephone number. Please load this I say. I like the staff at TTCL. They are very helpful. And quite bored I think. Rattling around in their enormous yellow submarine they welcome any distraction and I, with my obsession to window shopping at, provide plenty. When I have a glitch with my internet connection at home the entire office staff comes out to proffer assistance.


The askari shambles in behind me.


Go and move your car, he tells me, it’s blocking the gates.


I’m going, I say, just now. This will take one minute I tell him, indicating the lady behind the counter who is already beginning to load the talk time.


But a lorry needs to get through the gates; you are blocking it.


I look outside, towards my car. It’s the only vehicle I can see and though it is, I concede, blocking the gates, I have never seen them opened in the year I have been here nor have I ever seen a vehicle even attempt to pass through them.


There’s no lorry, I point out.


The askari gives up with me and turns on the TTCL employee instead, ‘tell her to move her car’.


I understood you the first time, I retort crossly.


The lady behind the counter giggles.


Then tell her to turn her car off and close the windows, the watchman says to her, ignoring me entirely. We are not unlike recent Africa statesmen, using a mediator to resolve a spat; the reluctant mediator behind the desk is Kofi Annan, wishing the problem would go away.


If I turn off my car I say – to Kofi now because this is clearly the way forward in this particular contretemps – it will not start again and then it will be blocking the gates forever and ever. And if I close the windows, my daughter – who is inside – will cook in the heat and die. You don’t want that do you?


Everybody in the office, which is open plan, collapses with laughter. And the askari who has at least made important show of doing his job, wanders back to his post and his newspaper.


I leave triumphant and join Hat in the car.


“I’ve decided on Bubbles’’, she says.


I look blank.


‘The snow leopard, Mum; I’ve decided to call him Bubbles’’.


Lovely, I tell her.


Later I get text from other daughter, ‘gt da cash ma, thnx. Lol’.


It was worth it then.




Christmas in April

April 16, 2008

There is a fundi working on the house. He is wearing a Father Christmas hat. He has worn it every day since work began. Red and white. Though the white a little grubby now.

It’s not the fact that it’s April that bothers me; it’s not the fact his attire is about eight months too early.

It’s because it’s too damn hot for wooly hats.


Come to the Party (Line)

April 15, 2008

My little sister reminds me, when I write about Hat’s fascination with the old phone she unearths in the house we are renovating, that we grew up with an instrument even more antiquated; on the farms where we lived as children there was nothing so sophisticated as a telephone with rotating face and numbers and holes for digits, only a weighty black object with receiver and handle.


In order to make a call we’d be obliged to crank the handle long enough to alert the local telephone operator in some distant rural Post Office. Sometimes this was an exhausting task; sometimes the operator had gone for tea and your hand grew tired before he finally shuffled back to his post to doze and you’d have crossly given up on making the call altogether.


In small communities like ours – farms and ranches and tiny towns strung across the Rift Valley – the telephone service was organized into party lines. In that happy case the energies of the apathetic operators were not required. In that case you could call up a neighbour yourself. Not by dialling a number, of course, for there were, as you recall, none, nor indeed a dial.  Besides, our telephone number was Naivasha 56Y6 which came attendant with its own characteristic ring. On a party line, each of us knew our own ring and everybody else’s: crank a long, two shorts and a long for the farmer across the lake. Everybody on the party line would hear the phone trilling, you’d have to strain your ears to distinguish whether the ringing was to alert you or somebody else.


Party lines – as the ‘party’ suggested – were open to everybody (hence the importance of your own distinctive call tone: if everybody had the same ring, like today’s incessantly permeating Nokia Tune we’d all have dived for our phones simultaneously, much, come to think of it, as we do today?). It meant that, if you were 10 years old and you and your brother had grown bored of the long summer holidays and tired of nobody calling you on your own Long Long Short to invite you out for the day, you could entertain yourself, providing your mother wasn’t around, by eavesdropping on other people’s conversations, snorting mirth into your hands as you clutched the receiver trying not to be heard by Mrs. X and Mrs. Y who were busily bitching about Mrs. W and the fact the lime peel in her marmalade wasn’t cut nearly finely enough.


We had a neighbour, an eccentric and spoiled Italian woman, descendent of a Roman Count and now famous so I shan’t libelously use her name, who was never off the party line. Perhaps before she attained minor celebrity she had too much time on her hands? Dad, when he had run out of patience and kind words of encouragement to please allow him to make his own call, would shriek into the phone, ‘M, get off the bloody line’. Sometimes M, because her farm was not far from us, would try to urge my father to be more ‘neighbourly’, assisting with the donation of fence posts or the loan of a tractor. M’s neighbourliness, though, was a one way affair. Dad – having had his generosity abused too often – was tired of trying to make her understand that No meant No. He began to ignore calls if he suspected they were from M. It didn’t dissuade her, though. She merely laid in wait until somebody else called dad, then, recognizing our ring, she would ambush the call and harangue Dad all over again whilst he tried, in vain, to conduct a conversation with the poor and usually quite embarrassed caller.


My little sister says, “I guess ‘party line’ now might refer to an  08 number where a caller can listen to a sexy man or woman’’. Considering we grew up a spit from infamous Happy Valley in a country where the joke ‘Are you married or do you live in Kenya?” prevailed, it might have meant just that back then too?



Men at Work?

April 14, 2008

We are to move house. Despite the odds on finding anything remotely suitable; we have. We are – as a consequence – immersed in a flurry of activity as we urge the contractor and his team of brickies forth.


The house is an untidy remnant of the days of the British administration. Husband noted, with a hint of smug pleasure, that the road where the little house is was once the residential area of First Officers. I think, perhaps, I remark to him, that the First Officers lived in the row in front of where our home-to-be stands: the row where the houses are bigger, grander and once had a view across the plains to the south of the Outpost. Not that a view is visible any longer; it’s been obliterated by fields of maize that stand higher than an elephant’s eye.


The house – abandoned back in the sixties – is in need of spade loads of TLC (along, naturally, with same of cement to patch up yawning cracks in walls and floors). The termites, several generations of them, have built tunnels that run top to bottom and length and breadth of rooms, a spaghetti junction wrought of mud. The electrics are a veritable death trap: wires garland the house like a noose. The plumbing, what little is left, is rusty so that taps spit water the colour of smokers’ phlegm and the ceiling boards belly with damp and mould. The colonies of cockroaches evicted when we ripped the flaking kitchen units out scowl indignantly from dark recesses around the sink.


The garden, which is huge so that the children and the dogs rejoiced on seeing it, is presently a field of mahindi; the corn has yet to be harvested by the family who leased the land to cultivate. I am encouraging Sylvester, please, to plant some semblance of lawn in the gaps between the crop. Before the rain abandons us, I press. He thinks I am mad. But I am used to that. I push my way between the ranks of maize to examine what gems might lie within the garden, what can I salvage. There are a couple of palms hiding there and one or two shrubs, their prettiness disguised by the collapsing stalks and cobs shedding parchment skin. There is a glorious flamboyant tree which is slowly having the life strangled out of it by an ugly purple bougainvillea, thick and knotty with age it has clambered right to the top so that the tree sags lethargically beneath the creeper’s weight. We shall chop it down, I tell Sylvester, the bougainvillea I remember to say, not the tree. But not until the landlord has lost interest in the renovations we are making and has taken his beady eye off me.


Hat and I visit daily. Sometimes twice. Hat discovers an old dial telephone in one of the bedrooms. She is intrigued and spends ages dialing numbers. ‘Did you really used to have a phone like this when you were little’, she asks, amazed that her mother is old enough to have witnessed – utilized – the workings of something so archaic looking.  Is technology moving too quickly? If our children dismiss the communication tools of their parents’ youth as something Noah might have placed a call on when he was ordering up all those animals I think perhaps it could be?


We take the dogs when we visit. They leap from the car and race about inspecting the place, pee’ing on every stone to mark a territory that isn’t theirs yet. I wonder if they understand it will be. Theirs. Soon. The labourers used to look alarmed when I first took the dogs; they used to stop leaning on their spades and cup their crotches nervously. Now that they know my fat Labradors are a pair of softies they just keep leaning on their spades.

I do wish they’d hurry up.


Long and Winding Roads

April 13, 2008


Ten days since I wrote.


My school run interrupted the seamless passage of slow Outpost time.


I wanted to write about that. About my school run.


I wanted to describe the road, its slow unravelling, like a ball of wool being unwound behind the steady click of Hat’s knitting needles (‘a scarf’, she says, smiling, ‘for Dad’). Sometimes it unwinds quickly, our road, smoothly. Sometimes the potholes pick knotty, jarring cavities in our journey and slow us up


I wanted to describe how the sandy track and mango trees and paddy fields close to home yield to the broad Wamberi swamp, cacophonous with the sound of the water birds that have set up residence there since the rains began. I wanted to write about the new asphalt road that slips easily through the Sekenke Gorge so that the hazardous dusty escarpment we once scaled is eased with a series of seven bridges. I’d have written about Singida, a town straggled untidily on flat country between  two lakes. A town shrouded in perpetual, clinging dust, glinting with corrugated iron roofs and policed by thousands and thousands of balancing rocks standing sentinel. 




I wanted to describe the descent to the base of Mt Hanang, the subsequent climb before Babati – the town’s dam was so high, we came across a hippo grazing – where the Rift Valley cuts a magnificent sweeping swathe across the Africa that sprawls lazy in a hazy heat below us.


I wanted to entertain with stories of ill-choreographed and too frequent pee-stops, I wanted to empathise with the frustration my father felt when my younger siblings and I failed to coordinate bladder control on similarly long car journeys, ”why couldn’t you have gone back there when your brother did?”, he’d  ask. I never knew the answer: ”cos I didn’t want to” seemed impertinent.  





And punctures, I wanted to raise a smile with tales of flat tyres; Hat calmly clambered from the car and sought shade to write her journal whilst Abdallah and I changed the wheel.




I wanted to recount the miles, almost 1,000 of them, there and back, accompanied by the rise and fall of chatter from the back seat (quieter – too quiet – on the way home), the discarded crisp packets, the chewing of gum to keep me awake as I drove, to help me concentrate on the loneliness, the egg rolls and bottles of water.


I wanted to paint a picture but my colours have been stolen by the sadness that has slunk into the week.


A friend’s husband killed in a road accident; the tragic, senseless, cruel loss of a beautiful life. A little girl who will grow up without her dad. A bitter ending to a love story.  I write a letter. It seems so futile: small erasable words rattling around what will be her enormous, cold, inconsolable grief.


The memorial service of my eldest daughter’s best mate’s mother – they sat side by side in the church I was told (for I could not be there), two fourteen year olds; I hope mine was able to be brave for her friend.   I write another letter.  More hollow words.   The service was sad I was told, and the flowers beautiful.


The ongoing illness of somebody I love.  


Some people’s journeys are much, much harder than our own.


It ought to make us feel lucky to remember that.  


Prove It

April 3, 2008

Ben and I go to the Post Office to collect his new passport which has arrived from the British consulate in the capital; I know to collect it because the Expedited Mail Service called me to notify me: ‘You have a letter’, they said. 

We arrive and queue behind the one lady who is being assisted by a large woman behind the glassed counter. We wait some time; the customer is paying for something and counts out her money very slowly and several times.  Ben sighs a lot. Loudly.  

Finally – having checked the amount several times and begrudgingly handed it over – the only other customer in the Posta leaves.

I move in and enquire if I may collect my package from EMS. 

Next window, I am told. 

I look at the next window. It’s empty: there’s nobody serving there or – indeed – at any other counter in the entire Post Office. 

There’s nobody there, I say. 

Wait, I am told. 

I move seats and try not to laugh. Ben sighs some more. 

The lady who has instructed me to sit and wait at the empty window shouts loudly, in Kiswahili, ‘There’s a white woman waiting here, she thinks there’s a package for her’. She repeats herself several times. 

Finally a man ambles forth. I know he works for EMS because he is wearing a shirt that bears the insignia on epaulettes. He collapses into the seat opposite me, as if the journey from wherever it was he was drinking tea to his post in the booth called Expedited Mail Service, has exhausted him. 

We’re making progress. Ben is dozing. 

You have a letter for me? I ask 

How do you know? 

Because somebody from EMS called me to tell me so. 

You called somebody at EMS? 

No. No, somebody from here phoned me to tell me my package had arrived and that I must come and collect it. 

What’s your name, he asks. 

Benjamin James Simon Rowan. 

Is that you? He asks 

I think I’d have got away with it had I said yes.  But I don’t, I indicate Ben – ‘no, it’s him; I’m his mother’. 

You are the mother? He asks. 


He begins to shuffle through a basket of small parcels.

Ours is the bottom one. I know that because it says ‘Her Majesty’s Service’ on the back in big, black, bold, important print. 

Where is your ID? He enquires, dangling the envelope tantalizingly inches from my nose. I have come out in shorts and flip-flops. I have no handbag, no wallet. Nothing except car keys, my phone and patience that is beginning to wear a little thin. 

I don’t have any, I admit. Ben makes that irritated look that teens do when their decrepit old mothers screw up, rolling his eyes in disbelief. 

How do I know you are Benjamin James – and he considers the envelope briefly, squinting – Simon Rowan then, the EMS official asks. 

I have a brainwave: I know, I say, there’s a telephone number of the envelope – mine, it’s the one your office used to call me. Dial it and if my (indicating my cell phone) rings, you’ll know this parcel is for me. 

He considers my suggestion for a moment. Okay, he says. 

I assume he will whip his own phone from his pocket and proceed with identifying me then and there. But he doesn’t. He leaves the booth, ‘I am going to call you’, he says vanishing. 

Seconds later my phone mumbles, that small half ring before it begins to shrilly get going in earnest. Then it stops. 

Mr EMS reappears. “Did it ring”, he asks, ‘your phone”? 

Yes I say.  And with that he hands over my son’s hard won passport.  

Makes me question the long winded paraphernalia associated with the application of a British passport – I wonder if the consulate knows how easy it is to prove you own one?