Archive for August, 2014

Silk Purses from Sow’s Ears

August 25, 2014

Suddenly winter has lifted. A click of fingers and the weather’s changed; I drag the curtains back one morning four days ago and the mist has rolled right away to reveal a sky that’s clear and blue.   So sudden the change that I gasp to Ant, ‘look at that day!’

It’s still cold at this hour. The valley below the house pants and the last tendrils of low lying cloud – papery thin and gauzy – are burned away by the sun as rising smoke.

I drag my jeans on and whistle Pili up to walk.

At the bottom of the valley is a stream that runs gin clear and icy. During the rains it rose above the road so that walks, unless wading in wellies, wouldn’t have been possible here.   But now the road is dry and dusty and the stream has diminished to a trickle which is dammed by a huge bank of arum lilies. The first time I encountered them, a cloud of cottonwoolwhite, I exclaimed aloud: how beautiful!




And they continue to flourish, slender necked and yellow throated, with their emerald green petticoats.  The Afrikaans call them Varkoor, which translates as pig’s ear. But here they mock the idiom; here they are as ivorypale silk purses.






This morning I remembered my secateurs and gathered armfuls to bring home.   For such a delicate flower I am astonished at their vase life; they thrive for days, elegant heads unbowed.   It’ll be a full week before the voluptuous whiteness of their petals begins to grey and wrinkle.  And even then they hold their poise.



The sun clambers higher as I clamber the hill home so that by the time I summit, jumper tied about my waist now, the sky is high, horizons already smudged with a heathaze so that dovegrey seams to duckeggblue which deepens to cerulean.

There isn’t a cloud to be seen.





Bundles of Joy

August 23, 2014

Sometimes wandering down ethereal shopping aisles doesn’t inect the necessary retail therapy hit. Sometimes you’ve got to get out there and feel the stuff for real.


Hat needs shirts for school. We’ve trawled intangible shelves at M&S and Mango. But she doesn’t find enough of what she needs. Mitumba beckons.


Mitumba literally translates as bundles; second hand gear that arrives in Africa baled in plastic. The rag and bone men of old morph as high street charity shops and store seconds. Stuff that’s not as needed in the wealthy west so  everything – from socks to babygrows to jeans to curtains – is bound is plastic, loaded into containers and set to sea. Here, in East Africa, it disembarks as lucrative business. Vendors buy up the bales and sell the items individually. The opening of a new bundle in the market is cause for celebration; women ululate and crowd around to clap, applauding the revealing of dozens and dozens of bras, some grey and huge so that when they are hung from stalls they’ll swing as hammocks.


So, slathered in sunblock (for we are going two hours down the hill to the land of dust and sunshine) and armed with bottles of water (mitumba is thirsty work) Hat and I head off to shop.





You need to have stamina for this. My dear friend Annabel would have commented, ‘you must be strong for mitumba’. And she was right: this is three shredded wheat work. Hat is a good shopper for she knows precisely what she wants, no humming hawing vacillations: ‘no Mum, that’s gross’ she tells me shortly; no time is wasted.


We rifle through jeans hung on makeshift hangers wound of wire; you need to be careful when peeling a garment off lest the wire flick up and poke your eye out. We dig amongst heaps of blouses; there must be a method to the excavation: ‘you start at that end, I’ll start here’. And we meet in the middle. Haggling is imperative. I pluck a diamond from the rough. That’s 7 000 shillings the vendor tells me. Hat’s eyes widen, ‘Mum’, she hisses, ‘that’s only two pounds!’. I hiss back, ‘don’t look keen’. Nope I say, and nonchalantly toss the blouse back into the Josephandhistechnicolourcoat mound, ‘5 000 shillings’. Sometimes the seller will accept with alacrity (in which case you know you’re still paying over the odds). Sometimes she – usually a she, and the ladies are best, occasionally it’s a he and they’re not nearly as much fun to deal with – will suck her teeth and we’ll bat the price about a bit, back and forth, over pence. Ridiculous, I know, but this is business, this is biashara, this is the way it works.



There are other mitumba rules, apart from the necessary wrangling:


1. Check the pockets. ‘For money?’ Hat asks me amazed, and furiously begins to inspect every seam and furrow in the item. No. For holes. Nobody wants to mend an item that cost them a buck fifty for god’s sake. That said, checking pockets one day yielded eight whole dollars, soft and crumpled and creased from who knew how many months secreted away. My shopping paid for itself that day


2. Check the zips. I don’t want to have to invest in a new one that cost twice the price the jeans did in the first place


3. Check the labels, not because Brand is King, but because this is where the item’s wear and tear is most evident; too many wash cycles and you can’t see what size it is or who designed it.



So Hat and I return home, pink faced and dust laced, with a basket full of spoils. Including the softest black leather jacket which we fight over: ‘oh look Hat’, and I indicate the clearly legible label, ‘it’s made from little baby New Zealand lambs’. Euugh, that’s horrid, says Hat, ‘poor things!’. The jacket’s mine. Two of the shirts, for which we paid 3 bucks a piece, retail online, I discover later, at more than 100 dollars each.



There is nothing in the world so satisfying as a bargain.

Fly litle bird, fly

August 17, 2014

Melie and Hat on the airstrip

How do you know if the job is done?

Have I cast her well enough to cope, I worry?

“I don’t know how to use a dishwasher” my eldest daughter Melie says. So long as you can wield a bottle a bottle of Sunlight and a sponge I tell her. And she can. African Style. Washing each plate carefully under a running tap.

It’s tangible. Her going out into the BigWideWorld. I can feel the last hours that she is home rush past. I listen to her singing in the bath and I stare at my reflection as tears well. Can I hold this moment? Eke it out?

Of course I can’t. I can only brand it a memory later.

She is leaving for a first job. To share a house with other young. Her own home. On the other side of the world.

“Can you cook pasta?” I ask, last minute panic strikes as we watch a pan of spaghetti boil frothily on the hob.

She snorts, ‘of course I can Mum!’ To prove it she threads a rope from the water and flings it against the kitchen wall, ‘and to test if it’s cooked’. It sticks in an untidy S. It’s ready.

But I still can’t stop fretting than she is.

She can wash dishes and make Bolognese.

But have I taught her well enough to manage in a world that can be unkind? That moves so fast? That throws curved balls? Will she be safe? Look after herself. Eat her five a day. Or is it seven? Get enough sleep?

Will she love herself as much as I do her?

All those titles on Parenting, as if we were learning how to paint a picture or throw a clay pot, but not a single marker to let you know if you’ve done a halfwaydecent job? No boxes to tick. My husband’s role comes with tasks and targets and measures to know how he’s done. Mine doesn’t. The raising of children is not an absolute science. We parent (when I was a child, that was a noun, when did it become a verb?) as well as we can under the perpetually evolving circumstances of our lives, according to the natures of our offspring. Parenting is not prescriptive. It bends and roils and rolls and bucks and sometimes you struggle to fit its shape. Give them roots, grant them wings. Is that really enough? Such a waffely, new age directive.

Our last evening and I can’t get near enough. Her essence is so familiar. I make her lie close. A selfie, I insist, and she laughingly obliges. But does not photoshop my front teeth straight. Or iron my lines. I knew she wouldn’t. She often doesn’t listen, her habit is to hurtle herself at life. I know her so well, a piece of me carved off and hewn to a form that began as half her father, half me and now mostly her own person. Woman child. My funny, zany, brave, clever, maddening daughter.

We leave before dawn, in the dark and the cold, and her chatter sustains the three hours to the little airport from which she will leave for a big airport. She has 36 hours of travel ahead of her.

I sit and wait a while with her and then I know I must say goodbye. It is unbearably hard tearing myself away, the physical act of choosing to stand to hug and bid farewell  jars, a rip. Could her debut to the wideworld not evolve more gently? I wish I were closer. Close enough to do her laundry the odd weekend. Close enough to drive her to her new home, with duvet and linen and bedside lamp. Admire her room for real and not just via a virtual telescope. I could recklessly demand that she stay. I still hold the reins of control. Just. In the tips of my fingers.  I paid for her airfare after all. I could remove her name from the manifest. Demand a refund. Insist that she climb back into the car and drag her suitcase with her so that we might return home with her. Captive.

But I cannot do that. For this is her adventure. Her life. Her new beginning. A genesis.

I unfurl a tight hold and watch this beautiful young bird teeter to the edge of my grip and take flight.

melie and me

Looking for Real Africa

August 5, 2014


So we drove 1 000 klm at the weekend to deliver The Boy for his internship. He’s at that stage: poised for the real world, teetering, ready to take flight. Less than a year left and he graduates from Uni. He’s garnering experience for his CV. Connecting the dots. His sister is closer than that. She starts her first job in a month. I marvel at her composure. More than mine: the mother hen flapping, her feathers ruffled, fussing and clucking as all her young things scuttle out of her nest. Is this the last holiday I will be able to squeeze them all into the car for a road trip, stop for picnics so that they all tumble out, unfolding long limbs and stretching hands above heads and then peering into tupperwares to see what Mum’s bought to eat.

When I think about the end of fullfatfive car journeys, that have morphed over the years from the cacophony of crying to the Wheels on the Bus, to I Spy to fighting over who listens to what on the CD player to utter silence as everybody’s plugged into their own audio arrangement, I want to cry. So I push the thoughts out of my head and get on with this one, this road trip, this picnic, trying not to forget to pack the salt.

baobab valley

We swoop low, into hot country that breathes dust and hisses with cicadas, where the bush seems to boil and I am happy. This, this sprawling space, where the air plants warm kisses upon your cheeks as you step outside the car, where the grass sings high, dry notes, where baobabs stand Tokeinesque and tall, is real Africa. Lean. Hungry. Wanting. Waiting. My mother, when we lived on a tea farm, used to look sadly out at a garden fecund with canna lilies and loquats, a verdant lawn that touched the fringe of lime tea and say, ‘this isn’t real Africa’. She was right. It wasn’t. It was too fat.




Out of the mist the views are elastic and lean and stretch as the last light lingers long fingered as if it can’t bear to leave the prettiness behind. I can’t; I walk until almost nightfall, listening to the evening calls of bush birds and gathering guinea fowl feathers to tuck into my hat band.



And the next day we kiss The Boy goodbye, pile back into a car strewn with empty water bottles and crisp packets and biscuit crumbs and we slip through the highway-threaded national park where the elephant are uniquely and inexplicably small, nobody can tell me why , and we see grumpy buffalo staring up at us from the grass, small eyes crossed with ill humour, and we watch giraffe dance across the road ahead of us, no sound, and then stand perfectly still and gaze at us silently through impossibly long lashes.

buffalo roadside


photo (16)

We toil our way back up the valley where the corpses of vehicles lie as crushed testament to the hazards of the route, where baboons sit bored, scratching, waiting roadside for trash to be cast out of a slow moving truck windows so they might tear into the road and gather it up to either eat or examine and discard with disdain.

hazardous road

traffic corpses



A road which winds upwards just as the river beside it runs down, racing towards the sea, ‘what’s the rush?’, I wonder. And then I remember. I’m impatient to get out of those cold hills too.

mighty ruaha

But for now I’m back. Wearing slippers, curled into jumpers, watching the mist swirl where Africa masquerades as Scotland.