Archive for July, 2009

Staying Sane

July 27, 2009




That’s what it does to you sometimes.

The Outpost.

It messes with your head.

So that – in the tiny space of the huge vastness that it occupies, unhinged – everything distills. Thoughts swallowed. And collected in the small void that home becomes. Where they rattle around in discontented irritation. Kicking their heels and sighing crossly.

Does that make sense?

It could be island fever. Except that this is not an island. Or is it? Not surrounded by sea. But by scrub and sky. And nothing. And miles and miles that stretch taut. To breaking point.

So my thoughts distilled to a potency that made me lose sight of sense. Lose my head. For a bit.

Trap too many thoughts and you will begin to obsess. You will. Unless there’s a way out. And often here, there isn‘t.

So Husband said, ‘let’s go camping’.




And let’s leave the worries and the frustration and the week’s disappointments (for there had been a few) behind in the Outpost where they can keep each other company instead of haranguing you and needling you to fretful wakefulness all night.

He didn’t actually say that. But that’s what he knew would be good for me.

So. We packed the car and the kids and the dogs. And we drove hours into the big blonde savannah that sweeps out in all directions and we struck camp and we built a fire and the boys shot a couple of pigeons for the pot and I walked and walked and walked and I felt so far away from the Outpost that I thought if I stretched my arms out wide I might fly.




Sometimes the Outpost keeps them claustrophobically pinned to my side so that I am straitjacketed by myself. And my bloody obsessive thoughts. Which go round and round and round until I am sickdizzy.

And at night all five of us lay in the same tent and giggled like school children.

I am worried, said Hat, (oh gawd, not you too girl, I wanted to say) that there may be a storm and if there is we will be struck by lightening.

And we laughed harder: Hat, have you seen the sky? Not a cloud in it. Sieved; a zillion stars.

But I heard thunder.

You heard the wind.

Which roared and buffeted and kept the mosquitoes away all night and tipped ash into our scrambled egg at breakfast time the next morning as I stirred it over hot coals.

Sunsets and sunrises that get caught, briefly, in the snagging embrace of acacias (or a girl’s curls) before struggling free (like me: I must go, really, I must) and big skies and the distant, gentle, rattle of cow bells and the call of doves and dust in my hair and the taste of woodsmoked tea.




Could there really be better balm for the soul?

When I got home, I found that some, not all, but some of those worries had got bored of waiting for me.

They’d hung around for a bit and then shuffled off to bug somebody else.


Vignettes. And Vinegar.

July 21, 2009


There’s no flour. Not today. Kaidi shakes his head sadly. But there is Betty Crocker’s Moist Chocolate Cake Mix. I don’t want that, though. I want flour.

The counter is crowded. The half dozen customers, me included, are crushed to it and each shout out various items that we want (our lists are not necessarily consecutive: one person’s may interject another’s – Africa isn’t one for queuing). And Kaidi’s assistant, who is new and lostlooking, is confused. I point out washing up liquid. He hopefully picks up a bottle of shampoo.

Sio hii, I say, hii, as I jab my finger energetically.

Several customers join in until half of us are gesticulating madly in the direction of the requisite. I thank my fellow shoppers when the assistant finally identifies what it is I need.  They nod in acknowledgment.

Sometimes they pick up and examine my small collection of items, turning the apple cider vinegar over in their hands and wondering what it can be for. (Salad dressing, in case you wondered, in lieu of balsamic).

Kaidi is distracted today. Today his new assistant is trying his patience and so he is obliged to help him retrieve mango juice, biscuits and, of course, washing up liquid from shelves which he sometimes scales.   And all of that is keeping him from the business in hand: discussing shop extensions with a gentleman who has a scroll of paper spread out on the counter (occasionally he pushes the Omo and salt and oil that has accumulated there to one side in order to create a little more space for himself).

Are you going to make your shop bigger? I ask Kaidi, squeezing myself past buckets of cooking fat and sacks of maize meal towards the till (which isn’t a till at all but the end of the shop where Kaidi drink paintstrip coffee and calculates the cost of your shop with a huge calculator wrapped in plastic).

Yes, he grins.

Will we have trolleys?  I ask

Tr …?

Trolleys? I repeat, you know (and I explain in Kiswahili what trolleys are. It’s only later that I wonder how my translation must sound: carts that we fill with stuff we want and push around the store).

He smiles more broadly, ‘Yes, yes’, he says.

And I leave. Without flour. But with washing up liquid. Knowing no trolleys are coming to the outpost anytime soon.




The closest place to shop with a trolley from where I live is a six hour drive north east.

We stop for a picnic on the way. Sometimes because we get a puncture. The girls and I help their dad to change it. Girl Power we say and High Five one another when changing tyres only takes a matter of minutes. We couldn’t do it on our own. But that doesn’t matter. He couldn’t have done it as fast without us.

Girl Power!

You can get flour there. In the store (not quite a supermarket, but nearly) six hours away (where there is a lake like an inland sea and balancing rocks, as if the gods once played Jenga there).

And any vinegar you like. Apple Cider. White Wine. Balsamic.

And there are freezer cabinets and a whole section dedicated to confectionary over which my children salivate.

I fill my trolley with caution, armed with a calculator of my own. Nobody is allowed to throw anything into my cart until they have registered the price with me first.

How much is that? I demand,, as Hat is poised to chuck two tins of drinking chocolate on top of a dozen loo rolls.

Oh. Sorry. And she tells me, carefully scrutinizing the price.

I have been ripped off here royally. I have been charged precisely double before.

And that’s a lot when your full trolley (because you live in an outpost where you sometimes can’t get flour) comes to a hundred and fifty quid.

I turned round the minute I realized what had happened (doing the sums in my head as I drove away). Luckily I hadn’t gone far. Six hours would be a long way to drive back.

You’ve made a mistake, I said firmly, you’ve charged me double.

They knew they had. They were just trying it on. Like they do everybody new.

I’m not new there anymore. They know me. And they know I carry a calculator as I shop. And they know not to try and rip me off again.




We are full house.

My son is home.

He is taller.

And has returned with an alien composure. Something grown up.

I wonder where he found that.

And then I remember, a long, long way from home.

He tells us tales of his adventure. He tells us of his first experience with an ATM machine having opened his first bank account. He says he shrieked with delight when the machine spat the ten quid he’d asked for out at him. He says the lady next to him laughed.

He watched cricket at Lords.  Hallowed ground. He points to the television as we watch  The Ashes, ‘that’s where I was’, he says. And we crane our necks to see as if there might be some evidence of a boy from the bush who watched cricket there once.

‘Wow’, we say.

Breakfasts are long and late and sometimes stretch all the way to noon. Voices are raised and there are arguments.  Lunch is teenfuel chipsmayai and irresponsible if you’re over 25. (But who cares when you’re on holiday. Or, for that matter, your kids are).

And there are walks on the dam.

And I am happy.


blog collage1 


It’s winter.

That means a jersey at night. And early in the morning too. When the wind whips up

I still swim. I wonder if the fact I must swim faster, to keep just ahead of the iciness, makes up for not swimming as far?

The sky is huge. Huge. And powder blue. And crackclearcloudless.

I watched a big sun lumber up over the horizon this morning. It was redlikeblood. Or tomato sauce? Very red anyway. No added colouring Red. Hot red. Though it wasn’t then. I was in my fleece and jeans and ready to drive Husband to the airstrip.

On my way home I drove carefully, mindful of the children walking to school. Some are tiny. So small. They each carried a mtungi of water. I wondered if that was to drink later or to irrigate the Headmaster’s crop of maize with?

Two little chaps, their school regulation shorts still too big for them, had crafted an ingenious labour sharing device: they had strung their mtungis on a stick and each held one end.

That’s Africa for you.

Make a Plan.

blog collage2

Do you know what a billion looks like? 15 billion?

July 18, 2009

Excuse me whilst I drag my soap box out and give it a dust off.

Ah. There we are. Now I’ll just climb atop it and get my balance and try to keep the cynicism out of my tone  …

The leaders of the G8 have earmarked $15 billion for Africa. This is what a billion looks like in figures: 1,000,000,000. A billion: a big number, ten figures, and a little word – seven small letters – and it rolls off the tongue easily (all those zeros …). Especially off the tongues of politicians and G8 attendees.

But do you know – do they know – what a billion actually means, precisely what it represents?

An advertising agency once made clever work of putting a billion – the number – into meaningful perspective.

  • A billion seconds ago it was 1959.
  • A billion minutes ago Jesus was alive.
  • A billion hours ago our ancestors were living in the Stone Age.
  • A billion days ago no-one walked on the earth on two feet.

So. There we are. That’s a billion.

Now imagine fifteen: 15,000,000,000 bucks coming to Africa. Not, this time, for emergency aid relief, but for longer term strategizing: helping to make communities more self-sufficient. Helping to get agriculture off the ground. Teaching a man to fish …

This is good. Africa is – despite famine-fraught images which make horrible watching but stark attention grabbing headlines – much more fertile than it’s given credit for. Between the Wars, and pre-Independence, Africa was manipulated as something of a bread basket. That was certainly part of Britain’s excuse for colonizing Kenya: England was hungry. Oh, the irony …

So. Big, big (15 billionbig) bucks headed Africa’s way. President Obama has attached a little proviso to the sum: development depends upon good governance … the ingredient which has been missing in far too many places, for far too long. That is the change that can unlock Africa’s potential. And that is a responsibility that can only be met by Africans.  Obama expects mutual responsibility: that’s what he said in Ghana last week (and stop blaming Britain, the colonialists and the slave trade for the mess you’re in too, he added in an interview with Sky News: that won’t wash anymore,  it wasn’t right but lots of what’s happened in Independent Africa hasn’t been either, he said, without actually mentioning Mr Mugabe). A small warning to African heads of state who are doubtless rubbing their hands in gleeful anticipation of new fleets of ever glossier, go-faster Mercedes Benzes with mirror-black bullet-proof windows (whilst their wives make shopping lists for imminent trips to Harrods).

Oh. I do beg your pardon: I had promised to try to keep the cynicism out of my tone, hadn’t I?

Sorry. I can’t help it.

Here’s why. Here, today especially, is why.

There is an organisation here which works with smallholders. Hundreds of thousands of peasant farmers (with hundreds and thousands of dependants) whose tiny holdings straggle the west and south west of big sprawling Tanzania, a part of the country mostly naked of useful infrastructure and much of it marginal land with thin sandy soil that you don’t imagine would support a single living thing except the endless scratch-scrub miombo that grows there.  But the farmers’ crop is hardy and valuable and does not mind the poor soil in the region, nor the six months of sponge-soaked wet and six of popodom-crack dry. 

The organisation facilitates the growing and subsequent harvest and buying of the crop.  It supplies the inputs – seed, fertilizer, pesticides – and supports the farmers throughout the growing with an extension – and entirely free consultancy – service of technicians and agronomists who educate the farmers on good agricultural practice, and the cultivation of a variety of crops, incuding maize which, without encouragment, wouldn’t grow here. And then, at harvest, this outfit collects the crop from the farmers and delivers it to buyers on the other side of the country who pay the farmers for their produce.

But from this season that orgaisation will not be allowed to provide inputs. From this season the Trade Unions have said they will provide inputs. I don’t know why they have secured this responsibility: probably because they told the farmers, who have been taught to believe the Unions are acting in their best interests (after all, how could a large commercial enterprise possibly be doing so?) that they’d be better off if they did.  Besides, they don’t have a choice – the farmers – it’s the Unions way or the Highway (if, indeed, there was a highway in this forgotten part of the country).

There is a useful opportunity here for the Unions to generate some extra personal  income on the side in commissions from suppliers. Not that I’m saying that’s their incentive, of course. There is a very real risk that the Unions will not get these vital inputs to the farmers early enough and their tardiness will impact yields negatively: if you don’t get seed in ahead of the rain, you won’t get it in at all on those roads.  (No highways, remember). And the farmers won’t get a crop.

But that’s only a small part of the much larger potential of the problem.

From this season, farmers will be charged 18% interest on those inputs as opposed to the 2 they were charged last year and the one before that and the one before that. 

I don’t expect the Unions have explained to the farmers that their involvement will mean farmers’ earnings are reduced by almost a fifth.  I don’t suppose they care much that come the end of the season, when the farmers face a huge and unexpected bill, their morale will collapse along with their household incomes. Like a lot of those who attain positions of power here, the Unions will manipulate this new responsbility as a handy means to bolster their own bank balances.

British charity ActionAid warned in a report last week that one billion (that bigsmall word again) people world-wide go hungry.  (Alot of them in Africa). They said decisions at the G8 gathering could “literally make the difference between life and death for millions in the developing world”.

Providing, of course the $15,000,000,000 ends up in the hands of those who are genuinely interested and able to make that difference.

Missing Home

July 4, 2009


big skies


My tall daughter wakes at teenage-time, somewhere just before lunch.

She shambles, taller than I and still baby-sleep eyed, and hugs me.

I had a dream, Mum, she says, a horrid one: I dreamt about how much I was going to miss you when I go to school in England.

And I will miss you, I say. Because what else is there to say: I know she’s going to miss me. Though probably not as much I will feel her absence here. She’s 5’10 with lots to say: she leaves a big hole.

I don’t want to tell her about the other things she’ll miss.

When I went away to school in England, at the age she is now, I hadn’t ever worn tights before, never owned a winter coat, didn’t know it could get that cold. I knew I’d miss the sun, my mum, dad.

I expected that.

But I hadn’t counted on the myriad characteristics of Africa that I’d long for until it hurt, like a hunger pang, a tummy pain that wouldn’t go away. A lump in your throat. You don’t though, do you, miss a thing until it’s not there? Especially when it’s not necessarily palpable, not something you can quite put your finger on, or catch its essence in the lens of your camera. Or put it in your suitcase.

So. Off I went, barebrownlegged and green as they come.

I learned quickly why I needed to wear tights when barebrownlegs were rendered blue and goose bumped.

And I learned that Africa’s so big that I couldn’t fit all the bits of her into my suitcase and didn’t even know I’d left them behind until I was so far away it was too late.

Too late to bottle the scent of rain on dust, so that I might flick the lid off from time to time when the longing grew so overwhelming I thought I might burst, and inhale deeply: the smell of Home.

I still, nearly thirty years later, can’t put my finger completely on all the things that collide and collapse and combine to make this place so familiar that it feels like a glove, slip it on and you know it fits. (Not that I’d worn gloves before then either).

See. There’s this space. This big spilling space that stretches and leans and reaches so that a spreading sky can cast itself huge and blue overhead, blue calico strung tight and sprigged with the tiniest horsetail white so that it’s out of piercing range of sharp landmarks, so that it’s pulled high and taut and doesn’t dip and sag and steal those landmarks thunder, so that the stage, when the rain comes is generous for the show is always spectacular as it muddies the blueness and steeps it in charcoal clouds which it rips apart with jagged swords of hot light. You can see for miles in Africa, miles and miles: put your flattened palm to your brow and screw up your eyes and see the furthest away horizons, where the earth touches outspread fingers with darkening sky in reassuring gesture as night falls, as if to say, ‘it’s ok, it’ll all be here in the morning’. Before it plunges itself into mad psychedelic dusk, a son et lumiere, a disco in the sky, the moon a high-strung orb.

distant horizons

 And it’s the peculiar way the dust hangs, plumes of it kicked up by the hooves of cattle or the tyres of a car so that it cobwebs suspended and its motes morph gold and smudge the picture to soft-edged texture. The way it backlights late afternoon.


And it’s the broadwhitetoothed smiles in black and mocha faces, the hopeful way a woman will sit patiently roadside with three piles of six tomatoes each. Waiting for a buyer. It’s the scent of roasted corn she turns on a small fire. It’s the totos that gather at her skirts and laugh and point and wave. It’s the cheerfulness with which a girl will hold a banana leaf aloft as an umbrella in torrential rain. Getting wet doesn’t matter: not when she has cultivated a field of maize. It’s the determined way Africa’s little people soldier valiantly on in the face of adversity and corruption and the crappiest governance. The way everybody says hello. Even, especially, when they don’t know you.

It’s sitting by a river and watching the gentle, slow-tempo, movement of chocolate brown water, gazing at a distant log wondering if it’ll raise a crocodile’s head, noticing the lion ants scurry and dig and home-build in the sand at your feet. Watching and thinking. About everything and nothing. About where in the river it’ll be shallow-safe to take an evening bath.

river watching

And it’s the noises you don’t hear until they’re not there. The click and hiss and high-heel kicking of cicadas. The way the noonday bush broils as if a hundred tiny pressure cookers were on an invisible hob. The muezzin calling the faithful to prayer. The shrikes and doves which become white noise until you can no longer hear their squabbling and songs and mourning calls. Roosters who haven’t learned the rules: you’re not supposed to announce the dawn again at ten to three in the afternoon. Who cares? he laughs shrilly, throwing his head back, this is Africa, man, we bend rules here!

bath time

But my daughter already knows: I’m going to miss Home too, Mum.

And I don’t know what to say then.