Archive for September, 2017

Listening to Words

September 25, 2017

Image result for words scribbled on a page


I start my MA next week.

I am beside myself with delicious anticipation. Ant does not understand my excitement, ‘I don’t get it’, he says, ‘poring over books’.

But he is a Numbers man.  And I am a Letters girl.

This feels like a luxurious excuse to indulge in words. To roll them around on my tongue, test them for weight, power, the very rightness of a fit.

I listen to the poet Imtiaz Dharker In the Studio.  She describes her writing day. Or night as it happens: an owl, she scratches away between the hours of eleven and 4am and I understand why: the silent, dark cocoon of sleeping households, the surprising creative thoughts that prickle at an inappropriate 2am. I have had my best ideas in the middle of the night, and been infuriated come dawn that I did not put pen to paper then for they are eclipsed by the brittle light of day.

Dharker is not impressed by thousands of words. Her job means she must deliver the tightest few. Pack a punch.

Are words no more
than waving, wavering flags? she asks.

One of my dearest friends, E, a photographer with the finest eye, is sympathetic when my freelance gigs do not match hers in number. She kindly tells me that her equipment – the value of which would rival a small car, or two – lends gravitas, ‘everybody with a pencil, or a keyboard, thinks they can write’.

But it is the weighing of each word that is so important, the crafting, moulding, shaping of a single paragraph that can elevate the banal to the compelling, the forgetable to the memorable, the powerful to the insipid.

And words define us. We are what we say. Consider Trump’s tweets.

China steals United States Navy research drone in international waters – rips it out of water and takes it to China in unpresidented [sic] act.

And Obama.

Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.

So. I will embark on my MA, luxuriate in language, wallow in words, thread them as neatly as I can and perhaps I will pin an elusive story to the page.

Wish me luck.


Ode to My Mountains

September 23, 2017

My mountains. They’re not my mountains and I am not Isak Dinesan my-farm-my-people-my-Africa Karen Blixen . But they are the mountains I see every day from my home. My children grew up in their shadows and I grew up in the shade of one over the other side of the border; our farm was fed with the water that ran from the ice that capped Kilimanjaro. So. Indulge me: my mountains.

This evening my footfall fell hard. No dust rose as silky plumes as high as my thigh so  there was no need when I got home to bang my tackies hard on the kitchen step and watch clouds fly, no need to wonder if tapping were enough of if I ought to chuck my Converses into the washing machine for a proper wash. No dust today. Two days ago rain fell long and hard and unexpected. It caught me short on another walk. First a breath of cool air and then the run of something like spray. Individual drops that tipped to that dust so that I could identify where each one had fallen. The breeze blew and dark clouds rushed in and real rain came so that drops all joined up, dot-to-dot and wet the earth with a million tiny kisses so that the ground puckered and was left quite wet cheeked. And I soaked through and joyous. The dogs had to shake, often; halos of water rose around them. I wished I could catch them slow-motion.

So the rain that fell that evening, softly and kindly and with decorum – not like the storms that used to blow up where I lived in my western outpost, those bustled in with blacked coated bossiness, hurling arrows of hot light and stomping about grey-booted and showing off to thunderous applause – the rain that fell here, that evening, with soft kisses and dainty skips, did not strip the earth bone bare and leave it ribbed with gullies. It just came and went and politely laid the dust and rinsed the air.

So that the next morning the sky was bright Persil-for-Coloureds Blue and the mountains stood all clear headed and fresh faced.  They were still there this evening.  A wisp of cloud gathered at Meru’s summit, as if it were enjoying a quiet evening smoke. A ribbon of jet-stream so frayed that its threads are pulled loose and white against a pale sky. Soon it’ll vanish.

Meru having a smoke

And I thought, again, how lucky am I? To walk this walk at the soft end of the African day when the light is all mellow-kind and the night steals softly in. I think of an artist when I witness this expanse of sky and earth and mountains. I imagine she unfurled a canvas, pulled it tight, pondered before washing her background soft blue and punctuating it, at either end, with these two extraordinary mountains which face one another across a valley where Africa spills, where urban sprawl bleeds to scrub and smallholdings and acacia and giraffe. In the Outpost my sky was huge. Huge. But there was nothing to break it. To lend perspective. It was clipboard flat. The occasional outbreak of kopjes the only elevation that pimpled an otherwise, mostly, uninteresting complexion. This is different. This is dramatic!

When the first explorers spied Kilimanjaro, they rubbed their eyes, they thought they were seeing things: a snow cap hovering as a mirage over equatorial savannah.  I grew up beneath one of the mountains and have lived for much of my adult life within sight of her; Kilimanjaro has been a beacon, an anchor, an exclamation mark, You’re Home! I can pick her out from miles away. I point her out to a visitor, she hovers, my mountain, a ghost.

See it, I say.



No, they say, squinting, frowning.

I lean into them and point, arm outstretched, there, I say, see there.



My visitor tips forward, eyes screwed together, flattened palm to brow.

Maybe? they offer hesitantly.

There, I say, there (trying not to sound impatient) see, look between those small hills, to the right of the big tree …


And then she reveals herself, she ripples forward, her icy head thrown back, her blue shoulders shrug, she doesn’t care if my visitors sees her or not. She wears a ra-ra skirt of cloud about her waist: that’s what gives her away.


Oh! Oh! I see her. Oh my.  And in the setting sun, Kilimanjaro blushes with all the attention.

Even pretending to be invisible Kili is glorious. Majestic.

So my walk takes too long because I lose track of time and take picture after picture. But nothing in my tiny screen mimics this enormous sprawling masterpiece I’m tiptoeing through as I step up my pace and turn for home.

Daylight is nearly gone when I get in and the mountains wrap up in velvety black and the sun slides slowly off the edge of my world.


Walks and Wings

September 16, 2017

I have found a new walk.

It takes me down into the dry. Dry country. Where the land is unyielding and the wind sings with Africa’s harshest notes; the grass is whip thin here and nicotine yellowed. The ground plovers scream like things possessed every time the dogs come within 100 meters of their pebble coloured eggs which they tuck into the earth so that only beady eyes will spy them. The birds wheel angrily overheard, they are good parents. Shrilly protecting their young. I have watched, in another dry place,  where the wait-a-bit-thorn was thick and grey, I have watched a mother plover chase a hippo from her nest, wings outstretched, neck thrust forward, beak open as she omitted an ear splitting warning. Brave little bird, I thought.

So where I walk, where the plovers fly low and screech, the dust beneath my feet is thick. Talc soft and inches deep so that with every footfall a cloud rises and my sneakers are shrouded in a fine coat. I will bang them hard on the kitchen step when I get home and the air will fill with powder.


There is a snake trail across the road. A puff adder has crossed here. I can tell for the fatness of its tread. I consider it from a moment, take a picture, cast anxious glances around; I am fearful of snakes. I have trodden on too many in my time and always been lucky. I whistle the dogs worriedly. Ant always tells me the snakes will hear the dogs pounding the ground as they tear through the scrub and they’ll disappear deep and fast and my dogs will be safe.  But I don’t believe him; last week my cat, a rescue who stole my heart as he made himself at home, had a close encounter with a spitting cobra. For a day I poured milk into his eyes, fussed over him, coaxed him to eat. He is fine now. And as disdainful as ever in the way only cats can be.

The plovers arched over my head again tonight, six of them, safety in numbers, ‘ok, ok, I’m going’ I laughed at the sky and the cross little birds. The sky was huge, winter is gone. The sun left the stage reluctantly, pinking it with an encore.

And my mountains stood tall and proud and clear headed.

Same Moon, Different Mountains …

September 7, 2017

My walks are as long but feel longer. When Hat was here we talked our walks away, conversation intermittently broken to roar at one of the dogs, tearing hurly-burly and out of control, yapping at guinea fowl who laughed at them from tree tops, barrelling out of long grass bedecked with burrs so that we laughed at them too. My walks are altogether quieter now, except when I roar and the guinea fowl cackle at the dogs.


Africa is spillingly generous where I live now, on this broad valley strung between two mountains. Kilimanjaro, bare shouldered, white-headed rises on my eastern horizon – sometimes it’s obliterated by cloud, sometimes erased by dust, sometimes rendered invisible by a heat haze but close of day when dust settles and clouds have melted away and the last of the sun’s heat has dissipated, I see it then: duckeggblue, profiled against a darkening sky. I turn then and head home, and west, where Mt Meru rises jagged, jutting peaks and wrapped in green. The sun sets beneath it, a Terry’s Chocolate Orange that pencils pylons sharp against an evening sky.


There are mountains where Hat is: she sends me a photograph of her view, the Andes a snowy backdrop to Santiago’s skylines. I look at the picture for a long time and imagine her new home. From East Africa to South America. Swahili to Spanish. But lots of avocados here too, Hat smiles. I cannot see her face when I speak to her on whatsapp – my connection is too slow for that. But I can hear her smile in her voice.


When she left, and I cried, alot, Ant drew me close and said, ‘she’ll love it’. I can hear that; she is having fun. It’s all you want isn’t it – for your kids? To be happy. If she is happy, being a little sad that she is not here to talk to, to walk with, is do-able. I think of her when I wake. She trails six hours behind me. Sometimes my phone pings with a message as I prepare my morning coffee so I scold, ‘OMG! Get to bed girl!’. But sometimes our hours coincide; she is home from work, I am readying myself for bed. There is time and space to catch up with delicious disregard to schedules.


I imagine then her sun setting over her snowy mountains. Mine is long gone. In my part of the world a huge high moon has risen, all cheesefatwhite and round, so full and bright then when I pad out in my pajamas to call the cat, I won’t need a torch.


If I think that she sees my sun, my moon, even if we cannot share mountains, she seems a little less far away.


I live vicariously here whilst she’s there.




September 5, 2017

the giraffe


On the farm there were twelve giraffe. They stood bunched, a forest of long necks, a little nervous to find themselves exposed on a long bare windswept slope, devoid of trees but thick with dust.   My heart stills in my throat as we circle them so that I can catch them in my lens before they dance off the way giraffe do: low legged slow motion.

This is my new home. My newest home.

My tenth? 11th? in as many years. I don’t recall.  There have been alot of homes. For from each house I try to conjure as a home: I nail pictures to the wall so that the glass winks squiffly and gathers dust and gecko shit, I toss rugs down so that there is some semblance of familiar scent on new floors for the dogs who look around a little anxiously as if to stay, ‘we staying put for a bit this time?’.

Usually there is renovation to be done: to mould that house to home. I am not fussy. Nor house proud. Comfort is important, that’s all. (And water, power, a solid roof over my head – which isn’t always the case with the old wrecks I’m obliged to live in).  And familiarity. That’s as important to me as it is the dogs; even in the most impermanent of situations I place a clutch of well travelled photograph frames so that my children smile encouragingly up at me and a younger self admonishes me for frowning: there are no lines in the visage that glares back at me: that picture was taken in another life.

So our new home – the one I am trying to cast from a house which has not been properly occupied for forty years – more – is being knocked into shape, the resident chickens – nesting in ancient Armitage Shanks basins – have been evicted, the shenzi dogs with their worm blown bellies will have to go soon. The bats still determinedly come into roost and scatter new (naked as  yet) floors with droppings: when will you glass the windows I nag the fundi who looks nonplussed at my urgency.


Every few days I drive up the hill and monitor progress. Or not. And I stand beneath the tallest acacias I have ever seen and I look behind me to the cold shoulder of Kilimanjaro and before me to the long sweep of valley that saddles the plains between where I stand and where Mt Meru rises like an astonishing exclamation mark, piercing the blue.

And I hope that this home is a stayer.