Archive for April, 2010

Mend and Make Do. And Jam. Make Jam …

April 30, 2010


Sometimes the oddness, the isolation, of my position strikes with heart stopping light-bulb-bright clarity.

Yesterday it happened as I poured a saucepan of recently boiled rain water into the water filter.

We harvest what the skies yield during our six months of wet in big blue barrels which stand damply sentinel dotted at untidy random around the house beneath a makeshift guttering. We boil it, we filter it, we bottle it. All in a bid to avoid giardia and typhoid and dysentery.

The Arabs taught Dr Livingstone that it was imperative to boil water. He might never have met Stanley otherwise; dysentery can be more than just debilitating. They probably delivered that lesson not far from where I live for my Outpost home was, once, the focal point of explorers and slaver traders.

I boil water. I fill the loo cistern with full bottles of (unsafe to drink) tap water to minimize the flush.

 ‘How many times a day do you flush the loo’, Husband asks.

That’s how worrisome our water shortages can become.

I stand in a bucket when I take a shower so that I might preserve a little of the run off. For pot plants, the veg patch, the loo …

So I ponder, as I watch a sheet of safe, silver water spill into the filter, what else separates my life, what else makes it different? What clues would my home deliver that my life is a little unhinged?

• I can see a nest of Marabou Stork from my verandah; they hunker, long limbs and broad wings, folded into an untidy mess atop a tree. I can hear them when they take flight, they limber up noisily and flap in such uncoordinated fashion you wonder how they managed to get airborne.

• I have two chest deep freezers full of food (for in the Outpost you cannot buy butter, cheese, chickens, bacon, fresh milk …) and frozen harvests from the vegetable garden which, now that the rains have gone, will desiccate to powdery nothing within days. Beside bags of spinach are foot square cubes of ice which I will pack into a cool box tomorrow when I go to the fish market six hours drive to the north.

• A generator sits outside the kitchen door. When it sputters to life, which is often, it does so loudly and smokily so that we must close doors and windows just to hear ourselves think, just to avoid being asphyxiated by noxious black belched fumes.

 • My computer trails not one internet modem but four. Invariably one, or two, or three (and sometimes all four) options are down and so Hat cannot go to school and I cannot commune with a world outside the insular one I live in. Our tenuous connection with cyber space, Hat and I agree, is our life line.

• The lawn, quickly becoming jaundiced as it dehydrates from lush, wet green to nicotine stubble, is festooned with three different pipes. A fire hose is attached to the fire hydrant which the colonials installed fifty years ago; another is attached to the pipe line behind our house which serves a local dignitary’s home (in the vain hope he might get more water than mere mortals such as us) and – more recently – another snuck snakily in beneath the garden fence. All of them are angled optimistically into the depths of a 60,000 litre water tank into which a fourth pipe from the roof gutter feeds. All four presently peer disconsolately into the dark emptying space beneath them where guppies swim to keep the mosquito population in check. Sometimes one or other of them might spit feebly so that we get all over excited, ‘we’re got water coming in, we’ve got water coming in’, which – of course – just scares it clean away.

• Beside the swimming pool, its levels swiftly receding, are three fish traps. They lean against one another as eccentric, intoxicated garden decoration. And next to them is a dugout salvaged from the dam. For when my garden heaves a last sigh, gives up and dies altogether, I still have something to break up the brown and beige and taupe of sand.

• The medicine chest in my bathroom overflows with a plethora of drugs: antibiotics (for sore throats, boils, tyhpoid), painkillers (for sore throats, boils …), clove oil (for toothache) antimalarials (for when the guppies haven’t done their job) and malarial treatments (for when the antimalarials haven’t done theirs). On the floor beside my bed is a door stop of a book detailing every ailment you can imagine, it is well thumbed and has lost its spine. The two conspire as GP and pharmacist and when I still can’t find the answer I seek,  I text one of several doctors whose numbers are stored on my phone who are sympathetic to my lonely plight.

• On my bedside table are piles and piles of The Week and the Spectator, some remain unopened for our recent absence meant mail collected and I returned to several editions of each. Sky News and BBC World gratify the urge to remain – albeit at stretched to breaking point distance – connected to the Big Wide World, but they do not satisfy the need to understand more, they do not deliver the conservation and debate of daily newspapers: the Week and the Spectator do a good job of filling that gap.

• There is almost silence spilling for miles around me. Apart from those clumsily flying Marabou, I might hear the odd rooster, an occasional dog whose bark might – briefly – prod my own two hounds from slumbering reverie and dreams of guinea fowl shoots, come evening I might endure the rude caw of crows as they hang around the back door when those two dogs, awake now, for it’s grub time (Pavlov’s Dogs) are fed . Occasionally I will hear a plane and tip my head skyward for the sound is a rare one now that most of the scheduled services have been stopped. And at night I might hear the shriek of a train as it grumbles on its way across the loneliest bit of Africa.

 • And in my kitchen today, apart from a tall chrome water filter filled satisfyingly to the brim, there is a deep pan of guava, rose pink and glossy. Hat and my son and I collected them from the tree outside Hat’s school room window (where the birds fight over them raucously), I climbed up into its branches and felt 10 again, and now they are own their way to becoming preserve.

• And perhaps that’s the thing that sustains me most amidst the isolating madness and stifling too silent stillness of this place: the making of jam?


Tarry a While

April 21, 2010



I don’t know how many miles we did. Two thousand? Three?  Days and miles and dusted-horizons blurred so that I never knew whether it was Monday or Thursday, March or May.  Big vistas, broad views, aquamarine seas and emerald trees and lilac-bruised hills, blushing clouds and wide expanses of water as mirrors for Africa to admire her freshly laundered look in.  The rains are well and truly in the East and flame lilies push themselves forth for a long drink and a palm frond is bedecked with brightbeadeyed bats cradling babies.

But I do know now – today – what day it is (the Outpost anchors me in grownup reality, time to be responsible): a Wednesday in the last lingering days of watery April.

And I know that my eldest daughter hasn’t done as many miles this week as she was meant to do.

Was I, I wondered, the only person in the world who offered a silent prayer of thanks for the ash that the volcano spat across highwhitewide skies?

Mother Nature in quiet, cunning cahoots with Motherhood: I secured my position for a few days more and my daughter didn’t go back to school: she came home. With me.  You’re part of History in the Making, I told her: an unprecedented event, I said.

I check her reservation when I wake. On Wednesday. British Airways confirms it has been rescheduled but they warn of further disruption: Union wrought this time, not effected by God or the gods or whichever deity tweaks tectonic plates and earthly fissures just to test mankind’s sense of endurance or humour or versatility, just to prove somebody else is boss mainly. Not Gordon Brown: I was never sure what it was stranded passengers expected him to do exactly? Plug that spewing crater? Throw caution to the ashstrung wind?  

And I watched weary travellers battle their way home across a grounded continent – some demonstrating more endurance/humour/versatility than others and I thought about Africa’s stoicism when on the road and how she’d never expect anybody to come to her rescue (for she knows it would nevereverever occur to her fat politicians that her plight was anything to do with any of them as they roared by ensconced in the chilly air-conditioned interior of brand new 4x4s without so much as a glance in her direction through smoked-glass windows): she’d just get on with it.

Her erect posture and graceful sway, a bucket balanced upon her head. She’d sell a chicken roadside. Or a woven mat. Or, alas, half of her own precious forests bagged as blackly bleeding charcoal.

Or she’d  sit and wait. In the shade of a tree and watch the world go by and the clouds scud and bruise a sky.    

And she’d probably smile in the gently resigned way she has learned to.

And I had to wonder: do we hurry too much?

The Sustaining Scent of the Sea. And Memories.

April 14, 2010


It’s almost over.

My escape.

 Soon the shackles of responsibility will anchor me back in the Outpost and all that will remain of three weeks away will be peeling shoulders and the smell of salt and sea that linger for a while somewhere in the dark recess of a suitcase.

I wish. I wish that I could harness the memories, of long drives and laughter and raucous card games and heated family debate, of snorkeling with my daughter to spot sea anemones which deliver softly suckered kisses to finger tips, blossoming in the depths and festooned with a flotilla of clown fish; of close-up knees-touching, shared mugs of tea with my son; of Hat’s jostling for space and voice as she pitches herself against bigger, louder siblings. Of haggling with fishermen and subsequent deliciously too-late, too-long fish and chip lunches doused in lime and tomato sauce; of sunbaked, salt-slaked skin and a mind that is suddenly soothed.

I wish. I wish that I could distill all of that and bottle it and draw it out and inhale deeply on the scent or dab it on my wrists so that the memories might sustain through lonelier days.

I said to Husband as we drove back from a night of pizza and wine and political argument so that I was left light headed with the euphoria of being out-talked by my older children who winded me with their considered, articulate opinions – sometimes being a mother takes your breath clean away – I said, ‘I am happy: this is the best holiday’.

Because soon fullfatfivefamily holidays will be rare, because children grow up and spread wings and take flight to different destinations. And then you need to breathe deep and look at the pictures and smile wide.