Archive for May, 2008

Street Crime

May 30, 2008

Hat and I drive to town to buy Hat’s friend a birthday present in a tiny, dark Indian owned duka that sells mattresses, fans, bicycles and an assortment of trinkets. Hat likes to stand pressed against the glass counter admiring all the cheap jewellery laid out beneath it; her eyes sparkle as Aladdin’s must have done when he copped an eyeful of that cave of his.

 

Our journey, for me at least, is an exercise in angst. My husband sold my car, whilst I was in England so couldn’t see what he was doing, to help pay for next year’s school fees he said. We had discussed this. I had said, ‘Yes, sell it’ because I thought that was the right answer and because I didn’t think he’d get round to it. Or – indeed – find a buyer in mostly bicycle driven outpost.

 

How stupid can you be?

 

By the time I got home, my own car was gone and I found myself – in the event I wanted milk or bananas or a birthday present for one of Hat’s friends – in a twenty year old land cruiser which has been salvaged and painted gold. I think the gold was a mistake. I think it was rather like looking at colour swatches when you’re planning on redecorating the living room and discovering – too late – that oatmeal looks like cold glutinous grey porridge once it’s on the walls.

 

I tried to be graceful, to understand the fiscal need to get rid of a car which was only 17 years old and had central locking, electric windows and air-conditioning (which, admittedly, didn’t work). But it was hard when the 20 year old substitute failed to start. Or, and this was much, much worse, broke down in the middle of town so that I endured first the indignity of having to push it (aided by Hattie as Ben steered it out of the middle of the road) whilst all the cyclists in town whizzed past us laughing their heads off.. And then the additional and much weightier humiliation that the reason I’d come to a grinding halt was that there was no diesel in the bloody thing. That the fuel gauge no longer works and the car bleeds diesel in the same way as we bleed money to educate our children leaving a distinctly un-environmentally friendly Pied Piper trail as to where I’ve been during the day is neither, apparently, here nor there; I ought to have known by instinct that there was enough – or not as the case was – to get me from A to B.

 

So. Driving now is reduced to an exercise in angst as well as a one in upper torso toning as I battle with something that drives like a tank and has no power steering. I must change gears manually (I have been used to an automatic for eight years); I must wind my own window down whilst trying not to lose control of the heavy steering and I must guess whether there’s anything behind me or ask Hat to have a look since the rear view mirror keeps dropping off it’s perch.

 

I don’t think I’m being unreasonable here?

 

The car belches smoke and coughs and farts and rattles so that everybody in the outpost knows something old is coming. And when they see the gold, they are left in no doubt as to exactly who it is (that mad white woman who keeps having breakdowns, literally and metaphorically some days).

 

The angst is exacerbated because the car’s papers are out of date as is my Tanzanian driving license (my English one doesn’t count even though it’s kosher and I didn’t bribe to get it) and since the First Lady is in town this week (she has relatives here, God knows it’s the only reason a person would visit frankly) the place is crawling with dazzling Omo-bright uniformed traffic police desperate to show everybody they’re doing their job. They crowd – half a dozen of them – around the junction I am headed for.

 

Happily the Indian duka is on the left immediately before the cross roads where our less than friendly public servants have gathered. 

 

Hat deliberates over her purchase whilst I nervously eye the cops, hoping they’ll move off before I need to, knowing that both the colour of my car (and my skin for that matter) will make me an easy target to pick off. And with the multitudinous traffic offences I am flagrantly committing, I shall either have to pay a lofty fine or negotiate my way out of a mess with an expensive bribe.

 

The Indians giggle at my anxiety. Hat revels in being allowed to cogitate for much longer than I’d normally let her (move, move, I’m willing the policemen).  Hat buys a pair of earrings and a key ring and begins to get bored of waiting for me to pluck up the courage to go. That’s how long I’ve been here: long enough for Hat to tire of admiring trays of gaudy bracelets and paste necklaces.

 

Ok. Let’s make a run for it I say (run is not a word one ought attach to the 20 year old wreck I drive).

 

We scurry to the car hoping not to be noticed.

 

Put your seat belt on, I tell Hat (not wearing one has recently been a fineable offence).

 

She tugs ineffectually at it.

 

It doesn’t work, she says.

 

Nor does mine.

 

OK. Just drape it over one shoulder I tell her.

 

I try to start my car as quietly as I can (quiet is another word one oughtn’t attach to my car).

 

Just as I get going, a fight breaks out between two street boys and pedestrians begin to merge towards the junction where the action is taking place.

 

Everybody is distracted. Including the bevy of law enforcers who are forced to make a difficult decision: arrest street violence. Or me – a much more lucrative prospect that is barreling its way towards them.

 

Suffice to say, I did not add to their expanding waistlines on this occasion. Bribes are called chai or posho for exactly that reason; it’s why you rarely see a skinny policeman in Africa.

 

Which probably meant the scuffling street boys got away too, they’d have been able to run much faster than their portly pursuers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Looking for Laughter

May 28, 2008

 

 

I go to the ATM. There are two in the Outpost.  I only discovered this recently. One is at the petrol station. Shoved into a corner, like a hasty afterthought. It’s opposite Kaidi’s duka where we buy milk and tinned sardines and jars of jam and packets of crackers. My lists for Kaidis read like something from a Famous Five picnic. I eat how Enid Blyton must have eaten in the post war years when there was a dearth of fresh food in fifties England, as there is in noughties Outpost.

 

The ATM screen says ‘Temporarily Out of Service’ in luminescent letters that glow malevolently. ‘Even if you got the cash, babe, I ain’t parting with any of it’, it seems to mock spitefully.

 

I ring husband which is what I do when I trip up in Outpost. I ring him quite a lot. To complain usually (no power at home; no water; no internet connection; no phone; car won’t start, ATM won’t dispense money). He asked me why I always rang him, it pissed him off that I was always moaning, he said. Because you’re the only person I have here to moan to, I say.

 

‘Don’t’, he warns, ‘cut down your shade’. I want to tell him I’ll wear a sodding hat instead. But I don’t,  I demur and try not to moan as much.

 

“Honey, I’m really sorry to bug you at work, but there’s no money in the ATM, what shall I do?”, I wheedle

 

Use the one at the bank then, he hisses.

 

Which – of course – was when I realized Outpost sported two automatic teller machines.

 

Hat and I navigate our way to the bank. On foot mostly since my car is 20 years old and like the fickle old lady I am becoming, she is prone to breakdowns.   I do not want to have to call my Shade and tell him that I am now not only broke but stranded as well.

 

The bank is heaving with people. I ask the security guard at the door where I can locate the ATM.

 

It’s out of order, he tells me cheerfully, in a tone you might use to deliver somebody of the news they have won the lottery.

 

I ring husband. Again.

 

“Sorry honey, me again”. (I don’t like wearing hats see, I’d rather the shade), “but the ATM at the bank is broken”.

 

Then go and see the manager, he instructs shortly, and don’t ring me again; I’m in a meeting.

 

(Nice to be important but more important to be nice, is what I want to say now but he has already put the phone down).

 

Where’s the manager’s office? I ask the beaming askari.

 

He directs me to the far end of the hall and Hat and I push our way as politely as we can through the queuing crowds that bubble and swell at tellers’ counters.

 

Can I see the manager?

 

I must wait, I am told, he is on the phone.  He is also quite important.

 

Hat has brought a volume of Spike Milligan’s poems with her. I’m quite glad. Listening to her recite them helps to pass the time.  Various bank employees pop their heads around the door to see if what they’ve been told (that there’s a white woman and child, in shorts and flipflops, waiting to see the manager and that the woman is – unusually for a mzungu – obviously illiterate which is presumably why her daughter is reading aloud to her) is true. When they ascertain it is, they giggle and disappear.

 

Finally I am summoned into the bank manager’s office.

 

Hello …. I say, trying to read the heavily varnished and ornately carved name plate on his desk … Mr Mulilo.

 

Call me David, he says, would you like a coke?

 

I decline and Hat looks at me furiously.

 

No thanks, but I’d quite like some cash; the ATMs aren’t working.

 

What! Neither of them?

 

Sorry. No. Neither of them.

 

David/Mr Mulilo picks up his phone and dials, Are the ATMs working? he enquires of whomever picks up.

 

I already told him they weren’t. To his disappointment the recipient of his call confirms this.

 

With that, he grabs a huge bunch of keys, makes his apologies and vanishes.

 

Hat and I look at each other.

 

Why didn’t you ask for a coke man, Mum, we could be here for ages?

 

Sorry darling, I say sheepishly.

 

Hat looks longingly at the avocado coloured fridge in the corner of the office, ‘can’t I just help myself?’ she asks.

 

No. Absolutely not. This is a bank.

 

Hat makes a face and returns to Milligan.

 

I begin to cast about the office for something to entertain me.

 

It doesn’t take long before I strike lucky: pinned to the vast acreage of mostly empty notice board is a piece on paper on which is typed in big black bold letters:

 

7 Pledges of the Bank

 

Which include I am – loudly – amused to read:

 

Change is Nevitable and Ensure ATMs are always working.

 

Why are you laughing? demands Hat.

 

She’s a little young to appreciate either the irony or the typo.

 

Have you got a pen I ask, anxious to pin the experience to paper before it escapes my colander like brain.

 

She hasn’t. So I help myself to the one on Mr Mulilo/David’s desk.

 

Mum! squawks Hat in horror, that is the manager’s pen, you can’t just help yourself, this is a bank you know.

 

Touché.

 

Forty minutes pass whilst Hat alternates between reading and regarding her childishly guffawing mother crossly.

 

Finally Mr M/D scuttles back into the office, pouring sweat and brandishing his keys.

 

You can go now, he says panting,  it is full now.

 

Blank look from me.

 

The ATM machine, he says impatiently, it is full.

 

Judging by the state of him, I can only imagine that he fled across town on foot to fill the machine himself.

 

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

 

Janelle over at Ngorobob House writes eloquently and movingly about the Africa she knows. I share the same place.  I share the same big, beautiful, bold Africa. Sometimes she makes me cry. Sometimes she makes me stamp my feet in rage. Frequently she shocks me or makes me despair of her.  But often she makes me laugh: she did today.  Just as you must never allow yourself to become inured to Africa’s enormous tragedies, her willful spirit, her reckless soul, you must always, always seek the opportunities for laughter that she throws at you. Even when they are dressed in – admittedly – obscure guises.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Murderers

May 26, 2008

 

 

And after the rain we’d scrutinize the ground for signs of the siafu, angry black biting ants, which soldier for miles, their furious journey dictated by some unseen radar, swarming over and eating everything that lay in their path.  We had heard that they even ate babies left in their prams under the shade of drooping Pepper Trees when ayahs abandoned their sleeping charges to drink tea and gossip about the Memsahib in their quarters.  The siafu were quick workers and the baby had no time to cry.  His mouth would be full of swarming blackly feasting ants before he could shrilly alert the household to the jeopardy he was in.  By the time he was discovered he would be stonecolddead, his eyes deep empty cave-sockets and his mouth a round, silently gaping hole, a final strangled scream silenced in his soft throat.  And the ayah would hastily pack her bags and vanish, never to be seen again.  Mum said, Nonsense!  Siafu do not eat human babies, only baby birds and baby hedgehogs and moths who have banged their heads on an outside light bulb and lie stunned in their deadly trail.   

 

From an unpublished ms …

 

The army ant genus Dorylus, also known as driver ants, safari ants or siafu, are found primarily in central and east Africa, though the range extends to tropical Asia. There are some 70 species presently recognized, though another 60 names are applied at the rank of subspecies.

Each colony can contain over 20 million individuals. As in their New World counterparts, there is a soldier class among the workers, which is larger, with a very large head and pincer-like mandibles. They are capable of stinging but very rarely do so, relying instead on their powerful shearing jaws.

From Wikipedia

Bloody, blasted, mean spirited, evil siafu swarmed across the garden last night, not because it has rained but because the daraa ya maji has been generous of late and we were able to drench the lawn with gallons of water. They marched boldly into the bantam’s coop (home of Hat’s beautiful Mr and Mrs Bantam who have scuttled busily about the place since they took up residence here three months ago: Mr B perpetually vain and crowing loudly to alert us all to his feathered glory; Mrs B politely observing his show and sharing her grasshoppers with him).

And they murdered them.

Mr and Mrs Bantam were discovered stonecolddead this morning, their pretty little bodies, plummage quickly losing it’s lustre, quite stiff and their eyes sockets empty.

Hat has been brave. She cried. A little. And then she daubed her hair with her big sister’s pink hair dye and painted her nails – each one a different colour. May she forever approach her sadnesses with such courageous flamboyance.

From An Outpost

 

 

Home

May 25, 2008

It is almost exactly a year since we left the farm and the house we’d lovingly restored from gently collapsing store-room to a home that was full of light and air and noise.

 

 

I thought I’d never stop missing the comforting familiarity of rooms and views and shapes and sounds that had been a part of life since the children were little.  I thought I’d never stop missing being a part of a place – part of a community – to which we’d felt we’d belonged for sixteen years.

 

I haven’t been back to the house. Or the farm. But I am told that both are slowly and sadly disintegrating all over again, as if swooning from lack of tender sustenance into the dust. The house lost its soul when we left, that it’s since lost its doors, windows, wiring and part of the roof to looters doesn’t really matter.  And the community? Unchanged for the most part. Except that some people – us, for example – have moved on, to have our places filled by newcomers.

 

You imagine, with shameless arrogance, that when you depart a place that’s been yours for so long you will be missed as much as you miss it. And you are. For a bit. But Africa is used to transience; people come and go all the time. No point in wasting emotion on those who’ve gone. Chuck a rock into a pond and notice the splash, the lingering ripples. Some people make bigger splashes than others. But pluck the rock for the pond’s murky depths and its surface will remain intact. Quite unperturbed. You can’t make a hole in water. That’s what leaving is like.

 

I minded for a bit. I minded that my friends lives moved seamlessly along whilst mine had stalled on some lonely road with nobody to ask directions of. I minded that I called and they sounded distracted. Busy, social, at the hairdresser’s, God damn it! I eagerly counted the days until we could rendezvous and exchange news (over a cappuccino).

 

But the old, slow passage of time massages the sting out of missing. This time – when we were back ‘home’ in the north of Tanzania, amongst those we’d known so well for so long – I noticed a shift. In old acquaintances. And in me.

 

A friend and I agree to meet for lunch. She is preoccupied and in a hurry. We don’t have as much to say to one another as we did once. There are awkward silences where we pretend to be contemplating what the other has said when in fact we are casting about frantically for something to say. (Or at least I am: lest it be surmised Outpost living has reduced me to tedious beyond tolerance). But I realize, half way through my panini, that she is humouring me: she felt obliged to meet me for old time’s sake (hers as much as mine). We are both clinging to a past although our presents are wildly divorced. I have reached my sell-by-date I observe wryly, but without rancour.  It happens: some friendships are built to last, regardless of geography.

 

Some aren’t.

 

Those that were will never be about chewing on a piece of panini whilst you worry what to say next. Good friendships, when you pick up the last conversation you had as if there was never a three week or three month or three year lull, means lunch either gets cold or you talk with your mouth full for there is always so much to say. I had lunches like that last week too.

 

But the erosion of that one friendship personified the releasing of the knuckle white tight grip I had on what was home. 

 

I drove back to the Outpost yesterday and emerged above the plateau beyond Mt Hanang where the sun was shining again. Where low, black, soggily saturated skies gave way to a deep blue galloping cheerfully with horses tails. I peeled off my jumper for the first time in a week. I watched the Wambere Swamp roll out before me as we descended the Sekenke escarpment. Africa looked very big.  It always does out here. Its vastness hasn’t had urban holes picked in it. That frightened me once: that unapologetic immensity.

 

It didn’t yesterday; yesterday I just thought: Thank God; almost home.

 

 

 

 

lessons in learning

May 19, 2008

I am in Arusha. Where you can get your roots done. Where you can drink capuccino. Where you can speak to people other than your husband in English. But where, apparently, the sun has quite forgotten how to shine.

I drove up yesterday. I might just as well have flown in from another hempisphere: I left the glorious blue skies of the outpost behind (as well as all my warm clothes and an umbrella). Its not cool to arrive in civilisation looking like an unforunate hybrid of drowned rat/bag lady. Primarily because other people (women who never have tell tale roots and who know what a capuccino tastes like) will say ”gosh, she’s really gone bush hasn’t she?”. 

I am here because my eldest daughter is on work experience for the week. Teaching. She wants to be an actress or a psychologist. Teaching is her third choice. Or even her fourth of fifth. But seeing as neither Keira Knightly nor Freud operate workshops here, it’s teaching primary kids. She invited me to join her for lunch today. At the coffee lodge. If I could pay and pick her up, of course. I reminded her that teachers were more inclined to grab hasty sandwiches in the staff room than languish over linguine. She was most disappointed, she wanted to lunch out at said lunching joint as some of her peers are waiters there this week and she wanted to click her fingers at them and ask for a menu.

Hat is back in real school for the week (the one where she’s related to the young teacher who fancies lunch out). She told me on leaving outpost that she is not ready for real school yet.  I was elated.

Even I’m at school: alliance francais for two hours of french lessons every day.  The grey matter is being tested – certainly – but phrases and words and verb conjugations from twenty years ago are bubbling to the forefront of my mind in an encouraging way.

I’ve got a commission to file . And roots to tend to. And capuccino to drink. And french to speak.

But for the time being its rather fun practising my English.

 

Sundowners

May 15, 2008

Is there better soul food than the slow slide of dusk to nightfall? Is there anything to match it for feel-good factor?

 

Not where I live.

 

When we arrive at the dam, the big dam (the Outpost is flanked by two, one smaller than the other though both swollen happy and fat from recent good rains) the sun is still quite high and drums the earth so that sand is warm beneath our feet. Hat rides her bike and the dogs tear about in an ecstasy of new smells and mud and water. We are all tall; the sun is no longer sitting on noon and we short and stout, instead it’s put us in a rack and stretched us so that we are pin thin and gangly, as if it’s trying to pull us over the horizon with it.

 

 

 

It’s quiet. And it’s not. The dogs splash and bark at everything and nothing. The air is punctured by bird calls. But the absence of car horns and voices and the melancholy hoot of trains mean I only hear silence. Glorious, settling, silence.

 

As the sun sinks, dragging the heat and shadows with it, a few torn fragments of cloud gather about it as if in conference: ‘you gonna be around tomorrow or should we come out?’. The answer in the Outpost, at this time of the year anyway, is always, ‘Nope; I’ll be here’. The clouds blush then, a faint tell-tale pink, a little embarrassed that they’d have dared presume otherwise.

 

Night comes bustling in quickly here. Shooing away the sun when it thinks it’s had its day, hurrying it suddenly, urging it to take its heat and light – which as it collapses into distant hills, is filtered through trees – with it.

 

 

 

 

Low enough now to admire its reflection in the water’s surface which it forges bling-blindingly gold, the sun is making the most of final moments of glory. A showoff.

 

 

 

It’s cool suddenly. My beer is empty and I need a jumper. Hat clambers from the roof top from where she’s been watching the antics of the dogs and telling me about the book she is reading, Frances Hobson Burnett’s Secret Garden. It is inscribed with my grandmother’s name and the price, she remarks, was just two shillings. “Was that a lot of money then, Mum?”

We drive back into town. It isn’t dark yet. I can’t see the sun but I know where it’s hiding: behind the hills which are wearing a giveaway halo. 

 

 

 

 

 

Obscure Blessings

May 12, 2008

As a mother in Africa one is faced with myriad challenges. Some universal (nits, for example, kids the world over scratch their heads whilst their mothers bow their own in shame), some – like that described by Maggot Man – are unique to our geography. Read it if you want to be entertained. It comes highly recommended. Read it – especially – if you are a mother in this part of the world. Look away now, however, if you are neither equator bound nor able to stand the thought of creepie crawlies.

 

The mango fly to which Maggot Man refers and battles against so valiantly is one of the curved balls Africa chucks at mums.

 

Concisely, and less gracefully, than MM’s description, this is what a mango fly does: first it sleeps with its other half (or at least that’s what one must assume it does in order for this whole wretched cycle to begin, but perhaps anybody’s other half will do?), then – she, the wanton whatsit whose been sleeping around – lays her eggs and abandons them (which is how you know she’s wanton, abandoning her babies already and off to find another mangoflybloke, I don’t know: women today hey?). The eggs, which she lays on the lawn, on your bed (upon which she’s had a post-coital nap and because you left window open) or on the laundry which festoons your washing line (she’s not fussy the mango fly mother, she’s just in a hurry) lie dormant until they come into contact with some nice warm skin. Dog skin, guinea pig skin, hamster skin, they’re not especially fussy though they are particularly partial to human skin. Especially nice, soft, pliable baby human skin. Once in contact, they burrow beneath the skin and do what most incubating babes do: eat, shit, sleep.

 

This would be fine. Nobody would deny any living organism the right to a sustaining part of its lifecycle. Until one remembers that the eating, sleeping and everything else is quite possibly going on beneath the skin of your child. And even if you’re the sort of person who isn’t good at remembering things (like me, for example, who can’t remember where keys, car, sometimes even children are), you will remember about the incubating mango flies because their energetic bowel habits and frequent purges will make your baby’s skin itchy and inflamed and he or she will cry a lot. Loudly. And for several nights until finally you spot the spot and do some extensive and admirable research as MM did and evacuate the little monster. The mango fly. Obviously. Not the baby. 

 

My first experience of mango fly, or putzi (why putzi I don’t know, onomatopoeic? pssstzi is rather what you imagine you hear as maggot pops through the skin?) occurred almost 17 years ago. I was a virgin mother. Not as in Virgin Mary of course, but virgin as in not having done the mothering thing for very long so fairly clueless and lacking in self confidence.

 

Ben – who at 8 or 9 or 10 months had finally realized nighttime was for sleeping and was revelling in newfound activity – suddenly began to wake regularly and howl. I did all the things it told me to do in the books if your baby woke and cried at night: checked his nappy; gave him a hug; made him a drink; promised there was no bogey men under the cot. No to avail. He hollered. Three evenings later as I attempted to bathe him without falling into bath and drowning myself on account of 72 hour sleep deprivation, I noticed a temptingly yellow spot on his forearm. Like a zit that is begging to be squeezed. So I did. Squeeze it. And out popped a worm – a fat little maggot – which wriggled along the edge of the bath as quickly as it could, whilst Ben watched in delighted fascination whilst I retched into the loo.

 

Furtive questioning of better mothers and some research later and I realized what I was dealing with. And I got better at dealing with it for inevitably the problem continued: ironing ones clothes is all very well (the heat kills the blighters off) until the power goes off as it used to often in those days. And for a lot of days at a time. Whether to ‘fess up and admit my children had mango fly or whether to tweak the truth and say they had a boil instead presented a tough choice, Hobsons’ choicest. Come clean and people would suspect you weren’t really – clean – and they’d be left in little doubt as to the slovenly nature of your domestic skills; ie you didn’t supervise the ironing or at least make a pretence at coordinating laundry days with power days. (And in my case they wouldn’t be far off the mark: domestic goddess I am not). Fib in a bid to elicit sympathy, telling everybody it was a boil and your child risked being banished from everybody else’s sandpits (which is apparently, according to better mothers than I, where putzi fly and boil-bearing bugs and God only knows what else hang out).  Claiming either though – puzti or one masquerading as a boil – were certain to eliminate your poor baby from birthday parties. And you from coffee mornings so that proper mothers could discuss your failings at leisurely length.

 

Our geography now means that I am no longer exposed to the daily intimidations of the school car park (which – like most school car parks, and a lot of coffee mornings come to think of it? – resembled arenas of old where the Christians were tossed to hungry lions to snack on to the roaring approval of a thousand spectators), it means that if Hat’s older siblings – at boarding school – did, get mango fly, I could sneeringly and smugly enquire of the administration, “but whose organizing the laundry?”  As if Hat does, nobody but her dad and I would need to know about it.

 

Except that here, in the Outpost, with its desiccating heat and kiln dry air, mango fly offspring would be dehydrated to lifeless crisps long before they had a chance to do any subcutaneous burrowing.  We don’t get them here – much like we don’t get pedicures, cappuccinos or fresh butter.

 

I shall remind myself of that next time I am frustrated by the lack of a deli.

 

I was brought up to Count My Blessings. This is presumably one of them?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

H is for Hydrant, Hose-pipes and lots and lots of Hot Water

May 7, 2008

Ha!

 

Rain dance paid off.

 

We have discovered – in the garden of the house we anticipate moving into in June (according to contractor) or October (according to cynical husband) – a water hydrant. It came to light after we had cleared the area of maize and bush and years of accumulated rubbish and weeds.

 

It lies in the ground proudly, and promisingly, sporting an H. I didn’t know what the H was for until the plumber told me: Hydrant, he said. In English. He might as well have announced there was an oasis at the bottom of the garden.

 

Or, for that matter, a well.

 

Sylvester, who is busily and optimistically, trying to urge a lawn forth by tossing bucket upon bucket of water on the grass we have planted telephones me. (Everybody in Africa owns a mobile phone: they are a ubiquitous status symbol: Sylvester cycles to work in overalls and Wellington boots, clutching his cell phone-cum-camera which is a far trendier model than my own).  

 

The plumber is here, he announces.

 

I leap into my ancient car which was recently spray painted. It does not remotely resemble the gleaming new 4×4 modelling the colour on the paint chart: it is not a sleek bronze, it is a dirty Euro-trash gold. And I race round to the new house where a dozen fundis are languishing in the shade of the recently completed verandah. (Clever chaps: finished that off first so they’d have somehwere to languish).

 

Sylvester introduces the plumber as, merely, ‘the plumber’.

 

I enquire of him what his name is.

 

‘Fundi Maji’, he tells me importantly.

 

No, your name?

 

‘Technician’, he says beaming.

 

I tell him my name in the hope this will encourage him to be more forthcoming.

 

It does. He is called Jimba, he says.

 

We examine the hydrant together and he demonstrates how I can up the ante in the irrigation stakes by introducing a few valves and the odd hose in order that I can harvest some extra water.   Not a tired little leak, but a great gushing torrent, he says. I will be able, he assures me, to fill up the newly constructed water tank, with its 60,000 litre capacity, in less than an hour.

 

This sounds a mite too confident.  Not to say, dicey. That kind of pressure and I risk demolishing the house or certainly blasting all the dozing plasterers off the verandah. 

 

But I’ll take the chance.

 

And hope that my Outpost garden will, in time, courtesy of resident hydrant, be a veritable sanctuary of cool, lush, green; my showers always an exhilarating experience of water pounding against my skin instead of present frustrating exercise in attempting to wash beneath a lazy dribble, and my toilets perpetually flushed and sweetly scented.

 

 

 

 

In the name of God

May 5, 2008

Home now. Beneath the Outpost’s big wide-eyed-clear-blue-cloudless skies. The rain has gone, the ebullient green that I left behind has already begun to lose its confident optimism and desiccate on account of relentless sunshine and a surprisingly cool wind. This is winter. I am wearing shorts. In deference to the season, I’ll don a jersey come nightfall.

 

My journey home was long. A nine hour flight delayed by almost two and succeeded by another – shorter – flight, an equally long delay in a different airport, and a subsequent ten hours in the car.

 

My seated companion on the long haul was a missionary from Houston. He was on his way to Tanzania to sink wells. He was full of woe. Africa is a hopeless case, he told me, ‘In the ten years I have been going there to work, I have not noticed any improvement’. I wanted to ask him why he bothered then, if he hated it all so much. But I didn’t need to: he told me anyway, ‘they are the Lord’s people, I must help them’. Some, I wanted to point out, indeed a significant number, are Allah’s people actually (Tanzania’s Muslims outnumber her Christians).

 

“Are you a religious person?”, he asked me.

 

Religion, my grandmother taught me, was a private matter and ought never to be discussed over dinner lest you offend. Or, for that matter, over a revolting airline supper in a plastic tray.

 

“Not really”, I said. (He didn’t seem to be the sort to whom I wished to divulge my ideas about religion which lean more towards spirituality and individuality and what’s good for the soul than conventional Christianity).

 

“Were you not even baptized?”, he persisted.

 

Yes. A Roman Catholic.

 

“And did your mother never pressurize you to practice your religion?”

 

No. (She’s far, far too wise for that, besides, she respects my interpretation of faith. But I didn’t tell him that either; he didn’t strike me as having the intelligence or the imagination to accept my point of view).

 

Undeterred the patronizing well-drilling Christian from Houston who continues to visit Africa despite apparently hating everything about it, persevered, ‘Have you seen the film about Jesus Christ?” (Nope. But I did watch In Bruges last week, does that count?).

 

“I organized a translation so that I could show it to the people I work with on the wells”.

 

The ones he so despises, presumably?

 

“So that they could understand something about God.”

 

His God.

 

Even though they probably have their own perfectly good one.

 

I am struck, whilst he wastes time trying to convert me, by a recent conversation with an Indian doctor I know who was planning a pilgrimage to Iran. He told me that as a practicing Muslim he and others like him are dismissed by Bush as ‘fundamentalist’, terrorists in the making. This gentle and charming man, one who observes his religion privately and moderately, has never tried to convert me to anything other than greater respect for my health.

 

Eventually the Texan admitted defeat and stopped haranguing me with his Belief. He resorted to his bible instead and I to Sally Brampton’s Shoot the Damn Dog, a graceful and eloquent account of her experience of Depression.

 

On my second flight a member of the crew noticed the title of the book I was still absorbed by, ‘Sounds like a horror story’.

 

It is. For Sally Brampton.

 

For Mum.

 

For anybody who lives with the Damn Dog.

 

I’d like to see big black clouds banking on my wide-arc blue horizons. I’d like it to rain or else the new lawn I have planted will grow dangerously thirsty and perish.

 

I’d quite like a well from which to draw the necessary water to irrigate it.

 

But I think I’ll do a rain dance instead. It sounds like more fun.