Vignettes. And Vinegar.


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.


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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.

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15 Responses to “Vignettes. And Vinegar.”

  1. R. Sherman Says:

    Marvelous montage of experiences, all of which form a perfect single picture of life in East Africa.


  2. daisyfae Says:

    thank you, as always, for painting the picture of your experience. one that i will be unlikely to ever know….

  3. Grannymar Says:

    I was standing in the crush at the counter with you and out under the wonderful sky.

    Enjoy the long slow breakfast and the breathtakingly fast stretch in your children.

  4. Heidi Says:

    Dear Reluctant Membsahib,

    I usually have no words for your posts but “Beautiful, so beautiful.”

    So here are more words: nearly every post, I am millimeters from packing up my Stateside life and heading to Africa. Without a plan, something would emerge once I got there. And I would learn Kiswahili and not really expect flour. (People here do not understand why I stock up when I find things I use regularly – life in Africa, the Soviet Union, Eskimo village, etc. – the arbitrary shortages make me a hoarder.)

    You paint such a vibrant picture that I want to be in it.

  5. carol Says:

    Brilliant – love it. And so glad Ben back home safe and sound. Think Amelia will have such a ball when she comes over here – though her eyes will be out on stalks in the shops (mine were awfully sore after gawping around the shops in Cardiff last week!)

  6. Rob Says:

    Wonderfully evocative. How I remember such shops, only hardware not groceries, and Lusaka not the outpost. You go in with a plan, a recipe, a design, all worked out. But there is nothing exactly as you want, screws too long or too short, bright blue gloss paint (only) and not a light matt magnolia (for the walls). You have to think fast, on your feet, in the heat and concoct a radically different plan or recipe, whilst keeping your eyes peeled to make sure someone doesn’t run off with the roofing sheets on the back of the pickup outside, or try to swipe the 10kg of bundled bank notes clutched to your chest (no cheques please). Bundles of 1,000 – held together with “money clips” – aka paper clips, and bunched together in bundles of 10,000 with rubber bands. Shopping in Woodies or B&Q, with said trolley, is a much more peaceful, albeit less exciting way to while a way a Saturday afternoon! Enjoy the holidays and the full house.

  7. upsidebackwards Says:

    Your writing is so evocative. It always transports me.

  8. Iota Says:

    I found shopping in huge Walmarts totally bewildering at first. I was stupefied by choice – how can there be hundreds of washing-up liquids? I’ve got used to it now, of course.

    I think you should have bought the Betty Crocker Moist Chocolate Cake. It probably wasn’t a reasonable substitute for what you wanted the flour for (white sauce? bread? pastry? dumplings?) but it would have been nice anyway.

  9. Rummuser Says:

    Your shopping experience can be replicated here in India in million places! I envy your son’s Lords experience. I too wish that I had been there rooting for England when they walloped the Aussies right royally after 70 years at Lords. If England wins the Ashes this time, the cricketing world will celebrate like never before.

  10. Rummuser Says:

    Sorry, Girl power is another enviable aspect. My household consists of my widowed father, me, a widower and my son a divorcee. Three males with no feminine touch and it is hilarious to say the least!

  11. Jo Says:

    I love Kaidi’s shop, sounds a bit like my local Sainsbury’s.
    Beautiful, descriptive writing.
    Go ‘Girl Power!!!’

  12. Rummuser Says:

    A joke doing the rounds about Africa, to lighten up the mood.

    On a visit to Malawi, at the airport Mr Mbeki is met by the country’s Minister of Harbours. All of a sudden Mr Mbeki realizes that this is absurd, this country has no harbours as it is landlocked. He is very puzzled and decides to find out what the story is. At the official state banquet later that night, he leans over to the president and asks: ‘Mr President why do you have a Minister of Harbours when you don’t have any harbours?’ The president looks Mr Mbeki straight in the eye and says: ‘Well, you know that may be true Mr Mbeki, but I was just as puzzled at why you have a Minister of Law and Order?’

  13. nuttycow Says:

    Love that joke Rummuser – have duely sent back out to Kenya to do the rounds.

    RM – another great post. Sadly, by time we reached Nairobi, all the shops had turned into self service but I’m sure my parents could tell similar tales of shopping in Nigeria in the early ’80s.

    I sympathise on the weather. My mother says its about 14 in NBI at the moment – bloody freezing! The problem with African winter is it’s never a proper English, frost and chilblains coldness. It’s just damp and not warm.

    Hope all is well with the family. x

  14. Maggie Says:

    Reading your blog is like taking a voyage. I save it up, my time, until I’m in the right mood to go somewhere. And I click through.

  15. On Wee Willie Winkie and Medusa « Reluctant Memsahib Says:

    […] of Kaidi’s duka. I scan shelves for inspiration for the merchandise is out of reach, unless Kaidi grants you special dispensation and you are permitted hallowed access to examine the products you […]

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