Archive for June, 2008

Packing Memories

June 29, 2008

Packing continues. In short fits and abortive starts. I am roused briefly, seized by some sudden energy borne of guilt, fuelled by too much tea, which dissipates quickly with the tedium of the task in increasingly dusty hand or because I have become distracted.

 

By an envelope stuffed full of assorted family members’ x-rays: a set ordered by Hat’s orthodontist; she’ll need a retainer, he said, Hat looked appalled and promised to stop sucking her thumb; too late said the dentist, but kindly. And he smiled.

 

Another collection of misty celluloid images – quite stuck together now – show my husband’s spine. They were taken in the KCMC Hospital which lies sprawled in the shadow of Mt Kilimanjaro. They had to be ordered after he had fallen from a tree and lay sprawled on the ground beneath it (alarmingly close to an enormous rock) on Christmas day 13 years ago: he’d shinned up the trunk to retrieve a little boy’s Santa delivered boomerang. He lost his grip after posting the present back down to earth. He spent the rest of the day flat on his back (we managed to move him from lawn to bed) I administered arnica, pain killers and the odd stiff whisky (and spade loads of increasingly inebriated TLC; it was Christmas day, after all).

 

The following morning I drove him to hospital. We waited for hours before we saw the Orthopaedic surgeon (and whilst we waited we encountered a patient who had died in the corridor lying upon a stretcher; I hoped we didn’t have to wait as long as he). The surgeon pronounced husband perfectly alright and suggested he take a couple of aspirin. Weeks later, and still almost immobile, we finally sought a second opinion in distinctly more salubrious Nairobi Hospital over the border. The orthopaedic surgeon there ordered new x-rays post haste: ‘’I can’t read these bloody things’’, he said in frustrated annoyance, squinting at the originals and frowning at me (presumably for not doing better first time round and securing my best beloved better care), “the quality is far too poor”, he explained. The new set revealed husband had shorn off the ends of three of his vertebrae. Nobody could find them though.  And he was apparently, given a few weeks bed rest and rather more concerted TLC on my part, no worse for wear.


The third folder of pictures stuffed into the same giant brown envelope which is crusted with mud, testimony to a hornet’s house-building, holds my attention for much longer: the ultra sound photographs taken when I was 25 and my son a 23 week old foetus. I look at them now and am no less overcome by the emotion that attaches to those first glimpses of our babies: indefinite fuzzy outlines that we gaze upon for hours, tracing the gentle curve of tiny spines with our fingers, and trying not to cry.  

 

 

Where are the Wombles when you need them?

June 28, 2008

We are packing up.

 

Again.

 

The second time in year.

 

Only this time we’re not going as far: this time we’re not trekking from one side of a large African country to another. This time we’re merely moving across town.

 

Our new address is laughably ostentatious testimony to the snobbish hierarchy of British colonial administration:

 

House Number E8

Cheyo “A” Senior Officers Estate

Ulaya Road

 

Ulaya – in Kiswahili – means Europe. Anywhere in Europe. Anywhere from where white men may hail.

 

The houses on the dusty little lane all vary in shape and size. The one we’re moving into clearly wasn’t home to anybody of terribly high ranking; it’s too small for that.  Nor is it as well positioned as others which face the view to the east and the sun rise.  The Regional Commissioner lives in one of those now. As does the resident judge.

 

I hate packing. I hate facing the accusing clutter I have accumulated: rubbish which laments my failings as anything approximating domestic. I’d rather write than pack. I’d rather read than wrap china up in paper. I’d rather any challenge than that of securing the safety of a piece of glass in a sheet of crumpled tissue.

 

Why do we collect so much stuff?

 

Ben says, because I have bribed him to help me, ‘I’ve never seen you use these glasses, Mum, how long have you had them?’


They were a wedding present. So almost twenty years. They are
Waterford crystal whiskey tumblers. Nobody in our house drinks whiskey. One still bears a sticker.

 

‘Why don’t you sell some then?’ enquires my practical son (whilst I make mental note to give him a cheque as a present when he gets hitched, not expensive glass).

 

‘Where?’ I ask, ‘who’s going to buy cut glass in the Outpost?’

 

Once I wouldn’t have considered selling the stuff because I’d attached all kinds of sentiment to it. Now it’s just packing fodder because I can’t think what else to do with it as we trail from house to house (our 6th since we got to Tanzania), possessions which I realize I only remember I own every time I unpack or pack.

 

I’ve packed it up again.

 

If I have to pack anything, it’s books. They’re easy to pack. They don’t need wrapping first. And they provide such happy distraction from the job in hand: you can’t examine a glass with the same joy that you can the back of a book. I have packed twenty boxes so far,  I’ve barely scratched the surface, I pulled them from shelves and watched the dust motes dance in the sun, indignant at being disturbed for the first time in nearly a year.  I watched the clouds of snoozing mosquitoes come to life and swarm in a cross crowd about my head, whining that I’d woken them up. I took satisfaction in that: vengeance for the fact they keep me awake often at night. I watched the occasional gecko tumble from the pages of the odd tome and scurry quickly for cover, its small rubbery body wriggling in agitation, sometimes leaving a tail behind.  

 

Hat reports from her own packing up.

 

‘’You would be very proud of me’’, she says, ‘’I have even thrown some stuff out.’’

 

Hat is a worse squirrel than her mother.  I blame my maternal grandmother, Alice, after whom Hat is partly named and from whom I inherited not only my tendency to hoard but most of my books too. Granny A couldn’t throw a thing away: it meant her cupboards were chock-full of the most delicious treasures including the original press cuttings from the Errol murder which threw Kenya’s Happy Valley into a state of scandalous turmoil.  When I found them, they were quite jaundiced with age and curling at the edges like parchment.

 

‘’What haven’t you thrown out?’’, I enquire

 

‘’Bits and Bobs’’, she says.

 

Bits and bobs worry me; bits and bobs morph into rubbish quite quickly.

 

‘’Like what?’’

 

‘’You know: like that really long pencil I’ve got …’’

 

The sort of thing relatives give children as souvenirs of cities they’ve visited, the sort of thing you can never find a sodding sharpener for so its useful life is remarkably short.

 

‘’When did you last use it?’’ I want to know

 

‘’I can’t remember’’, she admits and wanders off.

 

I know the very long, utterly redundant pencil is going to find its way into our new home, just like my idle glass will. And I know that we will have precisely the same debate several years from now when we pack up again.

 

And I bet  the same clutter follows us then too.

 

 

 

 

Mother knows Best. Sometimes.

June 24, 2008

 

Hat and I are nearing the end of our first academic year at home school.

 

It’s been ok. Better than ok, we agree.

 

‘’It’s been good’’, says Hat.

 

Not perfect, not ideal, not always. But good. And good’s fine.

 

Hat’s school has been a motley amalgam of a formal correspondence course which we have worked at on the verandah, frequently accompanied by cats and dogs and the occasional lizard scuttling across the wall seeking the sun; regular forays back to Arusha where she was reunited with old friends in the international school she attended for six years and field trips conducted by her father: at the sea side when she stroked the octopus he caught in his hands so that she could feel its suckered tentacles against her skin and when, with her little fist firmly folded inside her dad’s much bigger one, he took her swimming beyond the reef – I watched them: her arm draped across his broad, brown shoulders. She was a bit scared, she told me later, ‘but I was so glad to have done it, Mum, I felt so grown up’.  PE has taken the form of bike rides along the dam, long walks, afternoons in the pool when Hat has insisted I race aginst her or dive for pennies to see who can collect the most. Only our guitar lessons disappointed: Hat hated those, George from the church came six times and taught the same song over and over until she wept with boredom. ‘And he sends text messages during the lesson’, she said, ‘and picks his nose’, as if I needed any more conviction that music lessons probably ought to be abandoned.  School has happened on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, in an abandoned refugee camp near the Burundi border and on board aeroplanes hanging high in a big sprawly white hot African sky.

 

Yet I still find myself defending our decision.

 

I have described Hat’s learning experience to numerous people who enquire ‘but where does she go to school?’ I teach her, I say, a bit. Mostly she teaches herself; she has produced a project on Dr Livingstone, has a map of Tanzania festooned with ribbons and post-it notes indicating where she’s been since we got here, she has designed a game to combat the spread of malaria, she is currently immersed in an investigation into India and Hinduism, simply because she wants to go there: India

 

Yes, yes, they say – as if to indicate that’s all very well. But. There is always a But.

 

What about her Social?

 

Ah yes.  That old chestnut.

 

By Social, of course, the sceptics mean the Social life I am denying my precious little girl: ‘what about the missed opportunity for playdates with children of her own age? Her own colour? Her own background?’

 

Socialising with whomever happens to be around apparently isn’t good enough.

 

That she chats happily to Asina and Salma, Sylvester and James in a funny vernacular spun of Kiswahili and English isn’t deemed socialising. That she accompanies her father and I to everything we go to here doesn’t count either. 

 

But why not? 

 

Hat is a friendly little girl. She understands, and she grasped this very quickly after we got here, that she needs to grab every chance to engage with other people.  Regardless of age, colour or creed. As a result she has bartered for a bunch of bananas at the front gate whilst the African ladies selling them to her giggled. Hat didn’t care; she was elated to have made her solo into the local business of biashara. As a result, Hat has played pool with a kind African man in a bar whilst her father and I enjoyed a beer close enough to watch. Playing on her own, he asked if he could join her.   I watched her smile and say, ‘of course’, and I watched her little face all serious in concentration as she lay her cue across the table to take her shot.  As a result Hat has attended barbeques and conversed with such an interesting cross section of people: a miner in his sixties; a mechanic from New York; a beauty therapist from Wales.

 

If there had been other children of her age about she wouldn’t have had those conversations. I am not suggesting adult company ought to replace those of her own peer group eternally, such a scenario wouldn’t be ideal either. But it does discount the accusation that is frequently levelled: ‘what about her Social …’

 

I am reading Robyn Scott’s Twenty Chickens for a Saddle. It’s a good book to be reading when you’re a mum in the bush suffering guilt-riddled anxiety attacks about your daughter’s Social.

 

When I’m not reading that, I’m flicking through the Spectator. Rachel Johnson suggests in a recent issue that some parents no longer see enough of their children. That makes me feel a bit better too; Hat definitely sees enough of me. Though she’s far too polite to say so.

 

Hat is sometimes an anxious little girl. She worries a lot. And before the critics react with an ‘Ah yes, well, bound to be some backlash with all this touchy-feely, tree-hugging home school nonsense’, I should tell you that Hat’s worrying has been a feature of her life for much, much longer than home school has.  If she were at boarding school she wouldn’t be able to articulate her anxieties like she does to me, and they might crowd her little head and would likely counter whatever advantages the Social of school was supposed to be lending to her young life.

 

This year at least, our decision to keep Hat at home and muddle along with our happy, faintly feckless, always versatile approach to her learning has unequivocally been the right one.   Whether it will be next year remains to be seen. 

 

But this year has reinforced what I thought I knew anyway: sometimes mums really do know best.

 

 

 

 

 

Pretending? … Maybe

 

 

I like to pretend. I suppose it’s one of my hobbies. Anything can happen when you pretend. Sometimes I sit in the garden and pretend. Maybe I sneak around the house pretending to be a spy on a mission or maybe I’m an under cover detective picking up mysteries in sunglasses, a detective hat and a long coat complete with the latest gadgets. Or maybe I’m the world’s last hope and maybe I manage to save everybody from the deadly Dr Evil, and maybe my stories are good enough to be written down and maybe I send them to a publisher and maybe they make the Top Ten Terrific Tales and then maybe I become a child star! Or maybe I live in a huge castle with 500 rooms and maybe it has an enormous garden, with an orchard, a swimming pool the size of the Atlantic Ocean and a forest and maybe that forest is enchanted and maybe Pegasus comes and swoops me up into the clouds.

 

But maybe, just maybe, I am happy enough to sit in my garden and pretend …

 

By Hat, aged 11

To Be (me) or Not To Be (me)?

June 23, 2008

 

 

 

 

Recently a friend articulated concern that my blog is not entirely anonymous. In many ways I regret that: forfeiting complete blanket obscurity. I was so desperate for readers, you see, that I doled out the blog address like sweeties to anyone who was prepared to write it down (actually … that’s not strictly true: I think I recall bombaring everybody on my contacts list with it when I sent a mail shot to alert them to my new email address, including my somewhat startled gynaecologist and equally perplexed bank manager).  And being a lazy correspondent (I know: an anomaly given the way I talk in cyberspace) I thought it’d be a handy way for anybody remotely interested in keeping vaguely in touch with this particular family’s movements at a – then, blog inception – precarious time in our lives, to do so.

 

But I wish I’d been more secretive.

 

Fellow bloggers, some despite creeping fame, manage to keep their identity firmly and warmly wrapped in the cloak of inscrutability.  Some bloggers guard their anonymity fiercely and are only called, and sign themselves off, Iota, or Potty Mummy. Some I have corresponded with outside the veil of blogland; they have sworn me to silence: don’t reveal my real name. I won’t, I promised.  I wonder if the bloggers whose notoriety has led to publishing deals and columns on broadsheets miss their anonymity?  The freedom that it lends to language and story telling? Some bloggers disguise themselves so well that readers are deceived even as to their gender.

 

My concerned friend wrote, somebody alerted me to blogger who posts as mzungu chick; she was getting absolutely hammered on her blog. Nasty nasty nasty stuff in the comments, You know I love that you, x and y talk about your lives so openly, but I worry about you and horrible people knowing about you and where you are, what you do etc.

 

I told her she was dear. And not to worry. I’m a housewife in the middle of nowhere in Africa; you’d have to really object to my fairly benign posts about pickling, dogs, kids, walks on dams and bread that won’t rise to come this far out to shut me up.  You’d have to really, really mind what I wrote about to make the journey worthwhile.

 

No, of course, I don’t wish I’d hung onto my anonymity because I fear for my life. Or my safety. Or even because I’m scared my feelings will be hurt.  Nor even so that I could rant unabated about the cows I rant inwardly about most of the time. No, I wish I’d hung onto it so that I could be a little more frank in my writing. Universal worries stalk us all: it would be liberating to throw some into the – usually very supportive and responsive – arena of a blog. But not when you know that some of the people who might read you absolutely know who you are. I don’t want to out my dilemmas or my failings as mine. I just want to out them as another invisible, un-named (at least not insofar as my own name) blogger’s.

 

There have been a few recently – of those universal worries, of those failings, of those dilemmas of keep-you-awake-at-night dimensions –  that I’d have loved to have described. To spin words about a worry usually helps to untangle it. And the unravelling is often hastened when you can throw it into the forum of blogsphere. Once, overcome by loneliness, I wrote a post which generated a – for this particular blog– huge response. Readers weren’t just kind; they proffered practical suggestions as to how to feel better. I couldn’t have told some friends and acquaintances how I felt that day. But some friends and acquaintances discovered anyway (because, foolishly, I’d handed out the blog address willy-nilly) and a heartfelt and overwhelming isolation was translated – a little bit smugly in the odd case – as ‘she’s not coping, you know’.  That I didn’t mind. What I minded was that my husband read my blog that day. And he knew it was me who felt lonely and sad and lost.

 

My friend Janelle says I must just write what I want, ‘Just write, man’, she urges, ‘who cares what people might think of you or what you say or how you say it, man!’ And she laughed and threw her arms open as if to gesture I ought not to care what anybody in the Whole Wide World might care what I blog/blab about. She’s like that: a cheerful two fingers up to stuffy conformity. But then my friend at Ngorobob House  admits a wee bit sheepishly and in mildly confessional tone, to owning a second blog. And she won’t give me that address …

 

 The thing is: it’s not what other people think about me that I mind. (I stopped caring about that sometime in 2001, when most of the people I knew had a view on an action I had taken and most felt at liberty to vocalize their disappointment and disgust vociferously). No. I don’t care what anybody thinks of me. But I’d hate anything I said about the lives of any of those I love most in the world to impinge upon them. I can spill my own secrets, that’s my prerogative and I’m big enough to cope with the fallout.

 

But not theirs. Never theirs. Because then they won’t be secret anymore.

 

They won’t be secret enough.

 

So. The question remains. To be (me)? Or not to be (me)?

 

Or you, for that matter?

 

 

 

Pickled

June 19, 2008

 

I have made a friend. 

 

I don’t know her well yet but on the two occasions that I have met her she seemed like the sort of person it might be fun to spend time with.  She is irreverent and very entertaining.

 

She’s a Tanzanian. Her mother, she told me, is from Iringa, her father from Mbeya, she spent two years in Zanzibar before moving to the Outpost. Which she hates, ‘God this is an awful place: if you had to live in the worst place in Tanzania, it would be this one’, she says.

 

She is very pretty and wears spaghetti tops (the same ones that the volunteer girls – as they leave the States or the UK in readiness for a big African adventure – are instructed not to wear lest they offend local sensitivities). She looks about 22. She is married to a man who looks about 62.

 

I ask her, ‘How old are you?’

 

36, she tells me.

 

I almost fall off my chair. L’Oreal needs a get a hold of this bird quickly. She is the ultimate walking talking un-airbrushed because-I’m-worth-it anti-aging advert.

 

”What’s your secret” I ask, trying not to move my face too animatedly as I talk so that I don’t deepen my 42 year old wrinkles so much that I look 62 as well.

 

”Konyagi,” she says, roaring with laughter and tipping the bottle in my direction. She drinks it with litres of Peach juice.  The bottle is branded with a label that leaves you in little doubt as to the punch this fire water packs.

 

 

 

 

”I don’t like looking as young as I do”, she complains.

 

This isn’t something you hear many women the wrong side of 18 say; I need an explanation.

 

”When I go to the soko (the market) those young whippersnappers just shout mambo ”(an informal Kiswahili greeting).

 

How does she want to be hailed, I enquire.

 

Shikamu’, she replies indignantly.

 

This is a traditional and old Swahili greeting.  It translates – literally – as ‘I hold your feet’, and the response, maharaba, means ‘You’re too kind’. 

 

It is the way you greet somebody whom you respect. Or somebody who is clearly much more aged than you are. It’s the way the boys in the market greet me. Because I am ancient, you understand. And look even more ancient when I am squinting into the sun or frowning because I don’t like the price that’s being demanded for a kilo of spuds.

 

She is very, very bored here. She has done a secretarial course in the local college, ‘Rubbish’, she pronounced, ‘but at least it gave me something to do; I can’t watch telly all day.’

 

She wants jars, she says.

 

Jars?

 

”I am going to collect honey and sell it”.

 

The region is – has been for years – famous for its honey.

 

I tell her I think that’s a very good idea, ‘If you go into the supermarket, you can’t find Tanzanian honey, only expensive imported stuff – its ridiculous that there’s honey here and you can’t find it on shelves’’, I elaborate.

 

She laughs and slaps the table between us with the palm of her hand, ‘My dear’, she says, ‘this is Tanzania! What do you expect?’

 

I have bought the local honey before. It’s very thin.

 

‘Ha, ha’, she laughs again, ‘those honey gatherers see the wazungu coming and they dilute their honey – they won’t do that with me’.

 

No. I don’t expect they will.

 

When she is not buying and selling honey (‘for a big, big profit’, she assures me), she is going to make pickles.

 

What kind of pickles.

 

Oh I don’t know. I have never made pickles before.  

 

I am going to have coffee with my her on Tuesday, me and the 15 empty jam jars I have sourced at the bottom of the kitchen cupboard.

 

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

 

Salma, who works with Asina trying to bring some semblance of order to our home, has been admitted to hospital, she has malaria. She is better than she was two days ago but she will be off work for some time. 

 

Asina observes the pile of ironing miserably.

 

Mama, she says, I think we need to get Sylvester in to do the ironing.

 

Sylvester is the Wellington boot wearing (even in the midst of a drought) gardener.

 

Do you think Sylvester can iron, I ask dubiously?

 

Mama, says Asina, have you seen Sylvester, his clothes are smart sana. Of course he can iron.

 

 

Mother Hen

June 18, 2008

 

 

The children are home.

 

All three of them.

 

Hat was joined by Amelia a week ago and by Ben on Monday; he flew home from school in the north and arrived looking long haired and lanky.

 

Mother Hen’s nest is fully feathered again.

 

And the house resonates with the sound of shouts and laughter, two televisions (despite the fact nobody’s watching either), several conflicting musical tastes and – of course – the odd scrap.

 

Like yesterday afternoon, when I took to my bed with my lap top (feigning busy, important writer off to work in peaceandquiet) and was irked to discover I was unable to do what it was I’d hidden myself away to do – sleep, naturally – as World War III was evolving next door.

 

No matter. I’d rather noise than none.

 

Whole chocolate cakes disappear in a sitting. There are no longer leftovers, instead every meal is supplemented by bread (the bread machine is begging, ‘Enough, enough already!’). Or Weetabix. Or fruit (admittedly a last resort where a fourteen year old is concerned, the suggestion ‘have a banana’ is met with a look that says you just asked her to eat worms). Feeding teens is like trying to fill an unfathomable hole.

 

Conversations are loudly five-way now, bickering, bantering, bellowing to be heard above the rest. Games are a riot. Liar Dice is a mutiny of match throwing and manipulation of rules: You can lie, says the children’s father, but you cannot cheat.  

 

I suppose, I ought to, given the suffragettes efforts, given that I am meant to aspire to Have It All, want more than this: more than a houseful of rowdy kids who are hell bent on eating me out of house, home and outpost.  But I don’t. I feel replete. All my chicks in an untidy row, shuffling, trying to get comfortable and occasionally complaining, beneath my wing. A full faculty.

 

I am writing a book. A book about madness and motherhood. Do our constantly evolving roles: daughter, sister, career girl (I used to be one once – in London – sometime last century), lover, wife, mother, aunt, grandmother, friend – mean that our identities are constantly under siege? Is that why so many more women than men succumb to Depression? Do our multi-tasking skills burn out? Does trying to juggle too much mean that we might drop something? Ourselves, perhaps? 

 

Does it mean that when my children vanish over the horizons of Grown Up I shall go mad?

 

My friend B, a man, says of women, ‘Your emotional intelligence is better honed than ours; you think too much’.

 

I don’t think it’s the thinking that’s the problem; I think the problem arises when there is no longer as much to think about.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Head Space

June 16, 2008

The photograph above, this blog’s new header, was taken by my friend E several years ago.

We were walking the dogs on the farm I lived on when I began writing this blog. A farm I loved and probably shouldn’t have done – we ought to have avoided it as everybody had warned us to – because in the end we lost it.

But whilst I was there, and despite the perpetual niggling of I-ought-to-know-betters, I did love it. And I loved walking it. Which I did almost daily. Always with my dogs. Sometimes with my children (one at a time when they had something to confide, some small childish worry that had slunk into and spoiled their school day) and occassionally with a friend. Sometimes one armed with a camera; like E.

The views and the space were stupendous. I could see Kilimanjaro – and on a clear day (like this one) both its peaks, Kibo and Mawenzi. I could see Meru, right into its big-yawn crater. I could see far to the south and the Masai Steppe where the sky seemed at last to clutch hands with the horizon it had been chasing. I could see big, bold, brave Africa spilling carelessly all around me.

I miss that.  I miss it like one might miss an old boyfriend who you’d been urged not to fall for because in the end he did what everybody said he’d do: go and break your heart. Because he was a good-for-nothing rogue. Albeit a very beautiful and eminently lovable one.

My company, when I walked alone, with just the dogs, so that all I could hear was their excited barking and the subsequent indignant cackling of hadada ibis or guinea fowl as they hefted their fat bodies to the safety of tree-tops, were the words which began to clamour cheerfully for my attention. New stories knitting themselves together. Because they found their way in – the words – whilst I emptied my head of all the superfluous clutter that had collected: the worries, the small-town-suburban nitpicking, my ever-growing To Do list.

By the time I got home, with the dogs trailing now, exhausted and panting and smiling despite being laughed at by resident bird life, the moutains would be almost invisible; they’d have ducked beneath the eiderdowns of nightfall and turned on the stars as reading lamps. By the time I got home I’d have forgotten what it was I was fretting about.

Africa is so huge she can do that: reduce the small even further, so that you can hardly see it anymore.

 

 

Pond Life

June 14, 2008

The week has been tryingly, typically, age-ingly, Outpost.

 

My car broke down. Again. I was on my way to the ATM (which – it transpired – had no money anyway so a humiliating and wasted exercise).

 

She ground to suspiciously familiar halt. She never gives any kind of a warning. She just sort of shudders, as one might shiver: goosebumps-down-your-spine. And stops. So that I am left sitting there. In the middle of the main road (which in Outpost is presently being rebuilt as President is due to visit which means I am now irksome obstacle in lorry/roller/bulldozer’s way).

 

The cyclists all whiz past me. Laughing. They’re off to market. Or the dam. Fish traps secured to the backs of bikes.

 

I call husband. Again.

 

And politely tell him I have broken down.

 

I know what it feels like to sit in the sun; I am learning to respect my Shade.

 

‘Me again. Sorry darling, hate to bother you at work, but my car has broken down. Any chance you could rescue me?’

 

He tows me to the closest petrol station, which – happily – is meters up the road. It is owned by Parish who sighs loudly every time sees me.

 

‘When are you going to get yourself a nice car?’ he asks as I battle to get the cap off the diesel tank or struggle to get bloody car going again once I’ve finally got cap off and filled wretched thing with fuel.

 

We leave my car there. I want to get out and kick the tyres and swear and shout. I don’t though. Because I am practicing to be a serene and composed; I am practicing the count-to-ten theory.

 

I have called husband a lot this week. To do what I do best here: complain.

 

There’s no water, I say. Still no water.

 

We have not had mains water for ten days.

 

We are bathing in the dregs of the last-resort-stinking-dire-straits bottom tank whose grey-green-scummy contents are usually emptied onto the garden. Not into my bath where it stagnates and smells of pond life and – I notice to my horror – even bears evidence of it: I am bathing with several of the guppies we fed into the tank months ago as mosquito prophylaxis.

 

I have called the daraa maji umpteen times this week too.

 

I have no water.

 

Pole mama

 

I have had no water for ten days.

 

Pole mama

 

When will I get water, do you suppose?

 

Today, mama.

 

Yeah. Right.  That was a week ago.

 

I want to kick some more metaphorical tyres. But I don’t. In Africa if you get water out of a tap, you’re lucky. Most people here have to walk miles with a bucket to collect the stuff.

 

We all smell faintly feral. And the laundry basket is suppurating with days worth of unwashed laundry.  

 

But on the upside (though she adds significantly to the suppuration of the basket above, being a teenager she feels compelled to change her clothes several times a day) Amelia is home, delightful, refreshing Amelia: unjaded, as yet, by Outpost life. Unlike her mother.

 

 ‘We’re going to go out for supper tonight’, I say.

 

‘Oh how lovely’, replies my darling eldest daughter with evident enthusiasm, ‘where shall we go?’

 

?

 

Oh I don’t know – such choice? An Italian joint in Fulham? A bistro in Covent Garden? A curry house in Barnes?

 

‘There’s only one place to go’, I remind her.

 

There is. We go. We are charged – because it’s Friday night and there is a disco which we aren’t here for (we’re just here for a pizza) but which we must pay for anyway.

 

Amelia and Hat want to play pool.

 

‘You can’t. You are under 18’, says the bartender.

 

Amelia and Hat want to dance.  They do. Briefly. On their own, to an African band and on a floor starry with lights and a lazily rotating Disco ball.

 

They aren’t on there long before they are ushered off.

 

‘We want to dance’, says an indignant Amelia.

 

‘You can’t. You are under 18’ says the waiter who shoos them away.

 

Amelia crossly reaches for my beer and takes a long slug. Nobody says anything about that. (Except for me of course ‘Hey, what do you think you’re doing?! Put my bloody beer down’).

 

Giving up, the girls disappear to explore.  To run in the dark. Amelia tells Hat stories that make her hair stand on end. Stories about being a teenager. I can see her, in the demi-gloom-distance, watching her older sister’s face intently, her mouth ajar. Occasionally she roars with laughter. She loves having her big sister home, even though she bosses her mercilessly at times. Dear Hat scuttles about to do her bidding, so pleased is she to have company.

 

Later Amelia stomps crossly back, ‘A man’, she says, ‘asked me I was Hat’s mum!’.

 

‘’I am too young to play pool, too young to dance but not so young I can’t be my eleven year old sister’s mother.’’

 

Would that make me look like a grandmother then, I worry?

 

 

 

Pasts

June 12, 2008

 

 

 

 

 

Sometimes the past prickles to the surface.

 

Sometimes it races by on a bike, waving joyfully and shouting cheerfully and it makes you smile as you remember, as you watch it weaving carelessly along.

 

 

The past bubbled up today. Sweetly. But uneasily too.  Sometimes the past jars and makes me want to cry. Bittersweet histories.

 

A cousin emails. She never does normally. She never has, come to think of it. She acknowledges that. We grew up together, on a farm that huddled in Kilimanjaro’s shade, the mountain delivered our drinking water. Another sweet, ice-cold, clear, clear memory. We were brown-skinned-bare-footed-blonde-haired peas in a pod. Until tragedy and life and death ripped our sweet little young green shell open and flung us carelessly to opposite ends of the earth.

 

Her father shot a lion that had cornered a herdsman up a tree when he was only 14, my own stood in front of the skin, pegged out to dry to have his photograph taken (a tiny sepia print that sits beside a bowl of oranges in my dining room). He is grinning, pretending the trophy is his, not his big brother’s; all of brown-skinned-bare-footed-blonde-haired five year old his. 

 

My cousin wrote and I rejoiced. That’s something else that tastes sweet: reunions, especially unexpected one.

 

She told me that a friend of my dad’s was travelling up through Africa – from Botswana through Zambia to my small dusty corner of Tanzania. A friend of Jimmy’s, she said.  It always tugs at heartstrings. My dad’s friends. They’re still here. Some of them. But he’s not. Not Dad. Not Jimmy. He hasn’t been for a long time. But there’s still this big achey hole. Why? Why? He has been gone now for longer than I knew him; he died when I was 19 when I was immortal and was pretty certain everybody I loved was too. Such glorious naïve happy arrogance. Bumping crazy reckless through life. You bear the bruises, you don’t think about scars.

 

So he died. Suddenly. Stolen.

 

And later, much, much later, when I was all grown up and a big girl who ought – of course – to be quite over her daddy’s long-ago death, the loss grabbed me by the throat so tightly, so suddenly, that I was winded, could hardly breathe.

 

That’s when I spoke to a counsellor. A kind man with a Geordie accent. He worked for Cruse. He knew all about death stealing loved ones: it’s what he did, he said, helped to explain what was left to the rest of us.

 

He told me it wasn’t uncommon, when biting my lip and trying not to cry (again, so that my poor darling children had to explain my weeping away to one another, ‘why’s mummy crying?’, ‘cos her dad’s died, silly’. Dear sweet, sweet babies: only 19 years ago – how ridiculous I felt; how forgiving our children are). He told me it wasn’t unusual to suddenly miss this grownup who’d gone long ago because you were a grownup now too and you wanted to know them as just that. I wanted to know dad as the man he was, not just the father he’d been.

 

So that’s why this man, Jimmy’s friend, who has suddenly been dragged from a past into my present, so that’s why this man’s name is suddenly synonymous with dad and his going and his growing-up and mine so that there’s this whole tangled bitter-sweet sadness and longing and joy and missing and loving and lumps in throats and memories clamouring unexpectedly for attention. Grief is very, very complicated. That’s what Alan at Cruse said.

 

I sourced Dad’s friends you see. Those that I could. Those whose names I could find on websites. Because I needed to know. I needed to know him better, even though he was gone. I loved what they told me, I loved that they said ‘he side-stepped bullshit with the agility of a sword dancer’.  What an epitaph.

 

Old men’s names in my Inbox at Outlook Express, old men who look like the seventy year olds they are, not the 47 year old Dad was. (I can’t imagine my dad looking old: the Grim Reaper kept him young and vital forever). Old men who use computers, the stuff of fantasy and science fiction and James Bond movies when my dad died (he said Sean Connery was best, better than Roger Moore; I wonder what he’d have made of Daniel Craig?). The stuff of the future (mine of course, not his). Like cell phones. I’ve given my cell phone number to the old boy who’s on his way up to the outpost.

 

I hope he comes to stay.

 

I hope he talks about Jimmy.

 

I hope, I really hope, I don’t cry. (My kids are bigger now; they’ll be embarrassed).

 

But I think I might.

 

 

The Imperatives of Just In Case

June 11, 2008

A friend has an Aids test. She has punctured her rubber-gloved hand whilst stitching up that of a colleague – a young, male colleague whose age (and lifestyle) means he could be HIV positive; among the 1.4 million Tanzanians (6.5% of the population) who are, 70% are between 25 and 49 years old.

 

She urges her patient to do likewise.

 

The doctor – in a bush clinic – really can’t see what all the fuss is about. My friend is pronounced HIV negative, as is her colleague. He had a test in December, he  says, so did his wife. My friend doesn’t know how reassuring this information is. She decides, on the advice of another medic whom she is conducting regular and anxious telephone conversations with, to opt for antiretroviral treatment.  She understands that there is an outside chance she may have exposed herself to the risk of contracting the infection, she can’t ignore that. The doctor laughs and says it’s not necessary: come back in six months and we’ll test again, he says, if you’re positive we can deal with it then.

 

Deal with it then.

 

When it’s too late. 

 

Tanzania faces what is classified as a ‘mature, generalized HIV epidemic’; its predicament means it is included in a 15 focus countries plan which collectively represents 50% of HIV infections worldwide.

 

Nobody can afford to Deal with It Then.

 

I tell my friend I am sure that there is no need for concern, but I can understand her decision to take the drugs.  I relate the tale of another friend who punctured her hand whilst administering a vaccination to a horse which subsequently proved rabid. She opted for a course of anti-rabies injections.

 

Just in case.

 

Not that my little tale offers much in the way of solace: I can see my friend briefly weighing up the odds: go mad and die or get sick and die? Either way she’s a loser.

 

Do Africa’s tragedies, I wonder, inure some of those who are in a position to do anything to alleviate them? Is the task of protecting a nation from HIV, malaria, hunger so overwhelming that some people talk the talk without having the energy to walking the walk? Do others carry placards, dole out business cards, enjoy the salary, drive new 4x4s, and wear halos and sanctimonious smiles just because they can profess to appearing to give a damn?  Is the job just too big? Or is it made weightier by the paper pushing that attends it?

 

Am I too cynical?

 

Hat invents a game. An accident really. We are working on a project about malaria. Who isn’t apparently? Hat creates a simple board game. Couldn’t that be manipulated as a tool to educate about the disease, I wonder?  Wouldn’t a game be an additional and useful weapon in a growing artillery against the world’s biggest killer, especially given it’d be played by the most vulnerable victims? A child dies of malaria every 30 seconds in Africa. Do the math: it’s a lot of kids. When they’re not succumbing, their mothers are.

 

So I write to malaria foundations everywhere. I write to Mr and Mrs Gates. I write to the Presidents anti-malaria initiative. I write to Amref. I write to Bono, Sir Bob, a veritable plethora of the usual celeb suspects. I write to lots of people. A few write back and say things like:

 

While we appreciate how important your request is regarding an educational game about malaria, unfortunately, it is not within the current giving priorities of the foundation. (It is. I checked. It said ‘education’ on the site)

 

What you and your daughter have created sounds like a novel idea.  One of the key components of this project is Information, Education and Communication but I am afraid we cannot offer funding for this.

 

I’m not asking for money. I’m just asking that somebody take a look for God’s sake.

 

Some invite me to submit my proposal. And will they, I wonder, take it any further when I send them a child’s hand painted board and a few Coke bottle top counters? When I admit that I am just a mum. Not a doctor. Or a scientist. Or even a graduate. I doubt it.

 

Here’s a thing: as much as Africa needs HIV and malaria treatment, so she needs education. Without it, what point is the treatment, what point the prophylaxis? As my friend’s experience perfectly illustrates, knowledge is everything. Knowledge is empowering. How many Africans who come into contact with the threat of HIV have the education to understand the importance of Just in Case? How many have the confidence borne of understanding the risk to dismiss the Deal with it Then.

 

Not enough, that’s how many. 

 

It’s not rocket science.

 

Nor is it rocket science that is required.