Archive for March, 2015

Reasons to Fly

March 18, 2015

photo (5) Istanbul. The airport a hub – a conduit, funneling people of every creed and colour to all four corners of the world. Mixed tongues are white noise here; I can recognize some languages by the lilt, the odd word, but many are too alien. A fellow passenger wonders at the tighter security; ‘I don’t remember having to go through security between connections last time’, he observes, ‘are you sure you’re right’. I point to the sign which clearly indicates, ‘international transfers’ and I remind him that Turkey has been placed upon the map and dragged into the news for reasons that might well put a noose around the security in this huge airport. I must pull off every single one of the dozen silver bangles on my wrist before I walk through the machine; at home I always make a show of trying to tug them off and explain that they are tighter in the heat and please can’t they let me off and – depending on their mood – the airport staff either laugh and wave me through or snort and roll their eyes and let me through anyway. I daren’t try that here. I wonder, as I always wonder when I travel, what presses people to move such vast distances. I thought nobody had any money anymore? Is long distance travel a luxury. Or a necessity? A bit of both for me this time. Is it necessary that I see my children? Or am I just lucky enough to luxuriate in their presence for a few precious days? Where are all these people going? Why? Business? Pleasure? Love? Life? Death? I have flown expectant with child, heavy and round, and nervous to drag a suitcase from a carousel in case my waters broke.  I have flown thin and haggard with a daughter that needed urgent medical attention in London. I have flown home brimming with tears and sadness – on the news of my dad’s death. I fell into deep slumber on the flight, exhausted by days of too little sleep, too much crying, and woke over Africa as the early light stole into the cabin. For the briefest moment I was elated at homecoming. Until I remembered why. I have flown as a new bride. On the cusp of adventure as I feigned grownupness and confidence. I’m in ubiquitous Costas as I write. Harshly lit so that the fluorescent light washes complexions of the tans we may have collected as souvenirs. Not me, of course, tans are old hat when you’ve always lived in the sun. SPF 50 for me. A slightly laughable case of closing the stable door long, long after the horse has bolted. When I was eighteen and travelling between home and college, I flew back to januarynipped London the colour of toast and my skin crumbed on the way so that even as I arrived I was miserably paler than when I left home. I am in toohot, washed of colour Costas for tea. Because I’m English. Or masquerading as English for the purposes of travel. That’s what it says in my passport; it’s what I must be. Despite what my taxi driver in Dar es Salaam said as I transited through a city breathing heavily and hotly close to rain. The parking attendant in the domestic terminal – for I had bounced through the sky from my highland home to this sultry, seaside capital in a tiny plane, as an empty Coke can caught in a wind so that we were buffeted and tipped and I, an exceedingly nervous flyer, was white knuckled with fear and focusing on the podcast I had dug into my ears at volume 10 – gave my driver lip, I interjected in Swahili, please don’t hold us up, I have a plane to catch from international. Laughter all round. They weren’t expecting that: impatient Kiswahili, ‘Really mama, you are an African!’ Memoirist Alexandra Fuller doesn’t believe we can be African if we have white skins, if our heritage is muddied and smudged by the movements of itinerant grandparents. But if I’m not African, if I’m not African when my family has called this continent Home for 111 years, what am I? English today. It is as an unfamiliar and slightly ill-fitting overcoat that I wriggle into from time to time. I know it doesn’t suit me. Drinking tea because I’m masquerading as English and because it seems the decorous thing to do at 10 in the morning. Ten in the morning where though? Where I’m headed – it’s ten in the morning in England. Where I am as I sit to write and sip my tea, it’s past noon – at home it’s after lunch – but it seems impolite to ask for a beer. Reckless. I wonder – by others’ orders – what time it is for them. Eclectic tastes and scrambled time zones – that’s the essence of airports isn’t it: lives suspended, between one world and the next. A bubble. My world is greenfieldtea and mist and dogs and my darling, darling Ant and filling hours the fullest I can with whatever I can find to hand. For the next two weeks, time will be tight. I won’t be able to amble through its wide corridors awash with silence and space so that I can hear myself think. I already anticipate the hurly-burly of the next fortnight with some trepidation. Except for the weekend with my children. That will be as a pillow beneath my head. I have rented a cottage so that I can scoop them up, cook them generous meals, listen to their stories, hear their laughter, reassure, hug, hold, kiss, scold. And there, in the cocoon that we will carve of a stranger’s home for a precious few days, we can be whoever we feel we really are.


Darkness Visible

March 3, 2015

Depression is a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self—to the mediating intellect—as to verge close to being beyond description.
William Styron, Darkness Visible


Mum has been mired in this episode of depression for fourteen months.

I nag her with Skyped texts.


Have not seen you today. hope you are ok?


Or I issue stern warnings:

If you are idle, be not solitary;

If you are solitary, be not idle.

you can have one or the other ma. not both

She describes feeling fearful and I try to calm her by instructing her how to breath deep and slow, to stop her heart from beating so quickly, butterfly wings trapped in a chest , to bring back into  line the rogue chemicals in her system that are exacerbating such disabling panic.

I copy pages of text from sites that may help and paste them into messages to her. I don’t know if they help. I don’t know how much of it she reads.

The madness of depression is, generally speaking, the antithesis of violence. It is a storm indeed, but a storm of murk. Soon evident are the slowed-down responses, near paralysis, psychic energy throttled back close to zero. Ultimately, the body is affected and feels sapped, drained.

I try to discover new ways that she might learn to cope,  I want to unearth an innovative, novel weapon in the arsenal she has deployed over the years in battling this demon Depression, but Google doesn’t tell me anything I don’t already know: there is no silver bullet.

I type the same question into a dozen search engines ‘how to get get going out of a depression?’

And I get 222 000 000 hits.

Everybody has an opinion. But nobody has the answer.

Some of the suggestions are sound: walk, eat, sleep, breathe, read.

At any rate, during the few hours when the depressive state itself eased off long enough to permit the luxury of concentration, I had recently filled this vacuum with fairly extensive reading and I had absorbed many fascinating and troubling facts.

Some are facile and patronizing: “make yourself a fancy dinner, maybe invite somebody over; take a perfumed bubble bath; rent comedy videos.”

If only you could shoo a stubborn Black Dog from your door because you ate asparagus for supper, or smelt prettily of Lily of the Valley or watched 100 minutes of Friends?

If only it were that easy.

It has to be emphasized that if the pain were readily describable most of the countless sufferers from this ancient affliction would have been able to confidently depict for their friends and loved ones (even their physicians) some of the actual dimensions of their torment, and perhaps elicit a comprehension that has been generally lacking; such incomprehension has usually been due not to a failure of sympathy but to the basic inability of healthy people to imagine a form of torment so alien to everyday experience.

Nothing that I say, nothing that I do will alleviate mum’s pain. I have learned this over time.

In the end I resort to Styron. And in his beautiful anguished words there is, oddly, comfort. I am reminded that though I, mercifully, cannot comprehend the measure of this horrid illness, it is enormous, nontheless.  It is real and all the more awful for its intangibility.

Perhaps in understanding that, in endorsing Mum’s illess as appalling and all-consuming, that is the best I can do.

Perhaps it is all she needs me to do?



What Would you Choose?

March 1, 2015

A week ago I returned from a four day writing gig in Dar es Salaam; the remit, to highlight areas of need for a large UK charity. I loved the work – I learned so much, I spoke to so many different people. I interviewed an albino woman, her albino child, a snowwhite baby boy, strapped to her back. I learned about her mothers’ fears to keep her safe in a country where albino body parts are prized in black magic and voodoo. I met newly successful entrepreneurs. I marveled at a man who volunteered in protecting his – and his community’s – environment. And then I came home and scribbled for days, submitting my commissioned case studies, articulating my reflections.

And I thought that for the horror, for the disappointment, for the poverty and the disease,  Africa never fails to amaze me with her ability to unfurl her palm and reveal the brightest gems.  That even in the godforsaken slum I describe below,  I met hope in the volunteer and I met humour.


The valley is strewn with rubbish. Feet deep. I can smell it. Fetid and warm in temperatures that rise above 30 degrees.

It’s not bad yet though. Not as bad as it could be. When the rains come – as they will, in March and April when tropical storms sweep in and out and lash so that mud slides and corrugated iron roofs clatter with the downpour – the humidity will sweatily, steadily soar and the garbage will ease upwards and down the valley towards the single source of water that this community relies upon.

And flies will rise as steam.

I contemplate, as I walk and watch and witness conversations: there’s a lethal cocktail here, waiting for the shaker that the wet weather will be.

I don’t know what’s in these bags of rubbish, some have split open to reveal seeping innards – I’m not about to delve too deeply. I pick my way gingerly through the tip (in closed shoes:’ wear your trainers’, urged my partner on the gig, ‘not Birkenstocks’) as we make our way carefully down the incline towards the water. But I can imagine. I can imagine what’s in these bags.  There are no recycling bins here. No safe, monitored, managed, tidy system of rubbish collection and disposal. No modern sanitation. There will be bags of rotting food. Bags of plastic bags, bags of newsprint that will be picked up by the wind and tossed as confetti to add to the sea of litter that swims the streets.

Bags of shit.

If you wonder why disease is rife in places like this you only need to picture the ‘dumpo’ – its Kiswahili name translates, literally, as Valley of Water. An appalling misnomer. It’s not the shaded glades and dappled brooks and streams that its name conjures. It’s a place where the earth has been gouged by erosion so that it sinks, where ramshackle buildings teeter precariously, their shallow foundations visible, like the roots of old men’s toolong teeth.   Loosened. Accidents waiting to happen: like the structures that collapsed last year. Including two latrines, which toppled as rain fell, to be washed up the valley. Taking their toxic cargo with them.

Everything about this place seems precarious. Not just the houses. The proximity of water to waste.  Life to death. Skinny kids, unshod, snotty nosed, yellow eyed, huddle to eavesdrop on conversations they don’t understand; they are intrigued by our hair. Our shoes.   Healthy children in Africa – children whose skin shines glossily (the children here have lost their lustre) often scamper after palefaces and shout ‘mzungu, mzungu’. Not here.  Here they can’t be bothered. Don’t have the energy. Here the air is oppressive with apathy and exhaustion.

I’m dying for a drink. I think of the cool box in the car, full to the brim with Coke and cold water. They need some Coke-Adds-Life here I think. They need water. I’ll wait to slake my thirst. Swigging from a bottle as I walk seems impossibly, unbearably, tauntingly, cruel. I must drink 2 litres, 3, maybe 4, in this enervating heat. These kids won’t be drinking enough. Their pee will be jaundiced too. And what they  do drink won’t be Evian-safe.   When they get sick, sicker, when their tummies begin to run they won’t have the reserves of fat, or fluid, to sustain them for long.

I think about that for a long time. I think about the thoughtless way I turn on a tap to wash my hands and run it as I lather my palms lavishly.  I remember the local doctor’s words, ‘we tell them to wash their hands, the mothers, we tell them to wash their children’s hands’. How? How will they do that when there is no tap? How will a child remember – as we have urged our own children since they were little – to wash their hands after they’ve been to the loo. How would our children remember if there was no tap in evidence to nudge a reminder? How will a safe habit develop?  The doctor says, ‘these mothers, they are ignorant’. But prompts – like taps beside a loo that always obligingly deliver water – are a luxury. Would we remember – would we bother – to wash our hands, rinse our fruit clean, wipe our children’s faces down if the water wasn’t there. If we had to clamber over hundreds, thousands, of kilos of suppurating bags of rubbish to get it to it. And if when we got to it, it was foul and spoiled anyway.

I know I wouldn’t go to the trouble.

At the bottom of the valley, where the waste and the water reach out to touch one another so that you just know there is a noxious leaching, you don’t need the water to be analyzed to tell you that, and I know I wouldn’t touch it in a million years, there is a young boy scooping handfuls to drink from a pond dammed with a truck tyre.  His palm is cupped, his head thrown back. He drinks thirstily. It doesn’t matter if he didn’t wash his hands before he put them to his mouth; the water’s filthy. I can discern a smell. In the rains it will rise to a stench.

It dribbles from a spring and the further it gets from the source, the shallower it becomes. In the dry weather, now, people dig to get water. A gaggle of girls have mined a basin in the sand and are doing their laundry. Bubbles of detergent rise and pop.  A sick man is supported up the valley, his feet only just touch the ground, his arms are slung over the shoulders of a young girl and her father, he’s too weak to bear his own weight. The sick man’s flip-flopped feet trail in the water all the way down the thinning stream.

I wonder where they’ll take him – when they’ve dragged him up the steep sided valley and to the main road. They’ll flag down a boda-boda, a motorbike, they’ll grapple about for some change to cover the fare.  The nearest hospital to this community is a Mother and Baby unit. Not much use if you’re a man with malaria or cholera or dysentery or a bit of everything. But they’ll shore him up for a few hours. Until he stabilizes, when he’ll be ferried across to the district hospital.

Or until he dies.

The doctor tells me, ‘sometimes the mothers leave it too late’.  They do. Small bodies desiccate with speed, and dangerously.  An ill-educated African woman from the ‘valley’, on a dollar a day, if she’s lucky (and the boda-boda fare to the hospital is half that at least) is going to leave it as long as she dares. And whilst daring she won’t know to examine the child’s fontanel, is it sunken? Won’t gently pinch the skin to check for elasticity, wont’ sweep the inside of her baby’s mouth with a (clean) finger to register how wet – or dry – it is. She will not notice when the child cries that there is no longer enough liquid within to create tears to fall. She doesn’t know about electrolytes. She is unlikely to have a sterilized mug or bottle to hand filled with rehydrate to coax the child to sip.  She may heave a sigh of relief when her child falls asleep. She won’t know that it may never wake up.

More than 2 million children die every year from dehydration.  Most of them in Africa.

I have water at home – there’s no excuse not to wash my hands – and an education.

The women I met had neither.

If you had to choose – had to – what would be your choice?

And then remind yourself that the women I met had none.

Water. Education. Choice.