Archive for the ‘Africa’ Category

Stuck with him

March 31, 2008

Yesterday we planned a picnic breakfast in the bush as we did so successfully 2 weeks ago. Saturday night was wet though, very wet; incessant rain which after a first initial showy downpour dribbled on for hours. But it had stopped by morning, so I packed up the requisite and off we went.

As we drove I made concerned little comments to husband like, ‘’it was very wet last night’’, and ‘’gosh it looks soggy in there’’ indicating the bush on the side of the road. He ploughed on regardless, ‘’it’ll be fine; stick with me …’’.  

We took a track off into the bush in the direction of the dam and within a few hundred meters of the road were in a wheel spin. We clambered out, put the wheel locks on, engaged 4WD and tried again. Too late. We had begun to sink into ground the consistency of a sponge. The water table here is very high anyway, six months of rain and it’s saturated, overflowing, nowhere left to go. We tried pushing but all that happened was the wheels spun and the car dug itself in deeper. We tried digging the wheels out and pushing but all that happened was the wheels spun and the car dug itself in deeper. We were in mire up to – almost – our axles.  

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I think I’ll just call Tom, said husband a mite sheepishly. (I had held my counsel and didn’t said anything tempting like, ‘’tried to warn you’’ or ‘you were right … stuck with you’). Luckily we still had network coverage. Just. Tom, poor bloke, had been up partying till 3am the night before. I don’t think he was pleased to hear from a mud bound family at 10 on a Sunday morning. Not that he said so, he graciously promised to come and rescue us.

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With that husband and dogs disappeared off to the road to flag him down since he’d have no clue just by looking which portion of the bush had swallowed us up.  The kids and I continued to dig and collect branches to lodge beneath the wheels.

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And an hour later husband appeared – on foot, sensibly this time – guiding Tom towards our car. Tom inspected the mess we’d got ourselves into, backed his car up, keeping what he hoped was a safe distance from the boggy ground we’d sunk into, hitched us up with a tow rope and began to pull. To no avail. Indeed worse than no avail. All that happened was his wheels spun ineffectually and began to sink. First one rear wheel and then the other.  

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The sky had begun to abandon all promise of blue for the day and big, black clouds were banking to the north. If it rained, we thought, we’re here till June.  

We gathered more branches, jacked Tom’s car up, first one side and then the other, with the jack slipping and sliding and sinking a foot into the quagmire, and we lined branches beneath the wheels. After several attempts we got Tom’s car unstuck. Tom drove his landcruiser to higher, safer, sandier ground whilst ours continued to languish muddily in the swamp we’d driven it into.

I don’t think we’ll try towing again he wisely said. On my suggestion – what would they do without women these men? – we jacked up every single one of our four wheels, one at a time, with the jack balancing precariously on a raft of wood in order to try to steady it and stop it from submerging beneath the gloop, and lodged branches beneath each of the wheels.

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With fingers crossed husband piled into the drivers seat, we all pushed like crazy and the car popped out of its muddy dilemma like a cork out of a bottle.  With that the rain began to fall in earnest. We – and two somewhat bemused dogs (I could imagine them commenting to one another on the drive home, ‘was that a walk then?) – clambered back into the car, all of us covered in mud and foot sore having lost flipflops in the stickiness and trodden on umpteen thorns, and were home before 2.

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We were stuck for more than 3 hours. An afternoon of hot baths and television ensued as the rain continued to fall. We have decided to abandon any more excursions to the dam until the rains have well and truly gone.

 Stick with me, he said; I didn’t need to be asked: tomorrow – April Fool’s Day -we celebrate 19 years of marital bliss. Irony abounds

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I have woken much earlier than the rest of the house, before half six, in the demi gloom that is the Outpost at dawn – our distance from the east coast means sun up is slow to reach us, that and everlasting rain darkens our mornings. As I wrote my office came to life with a million flying ants; their nests or eggs or whatever it is that lies dormant beneath the floor – both probably ? – have come rather splendidly to life under the cement (they must have extraordinary teeth? To chew through that and emerge?). The rattling of one or two pairs of wings has – with ten minutes of my putting the light on – morphed into the howling of a squadron that persistently dive bombs me as I sit at my desk – what with flying ants and – I notice – two toads hopping about, the place is a veritable wildlife sanctuary borne by weeks of rain. I never thought I’d be longing for the dry – for the interminable dust and irksome water shortages – but I think I might be now.

Road Trip

March 26, 2008

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I don’t think we could have got further from home, yet remained within Tanzania’s borders, had we tried; we drove to the far flung southerly tip of the country where it boundaries Mozambique. It was a road trip of note. The kind that leaves you bone shaken and muscle weary – as if you’ve spent days in a MagiMix – the kind that leaves the car, in Africa at least, especially an Africa on the cusp of the Long Rains, mud splattered with an interior scattered with sand and crisp crumbs and sweet wrappers and empty water bottles.  The kind feels like you had an adventure.

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Mikindani is a tiny coastal village almost 600 klms from the capital, Dar es Salaam. Its rich history means that the air is imbued with a tangible feeling of Past, that and salt and humidity and the scent of sea and fish, of course. We walked on broad, empty beaches the colour of butterscotch, flecks of mica in the sand like a dredging of caster sugar in the sunshine. We swam in glassy seas of brittle blue and bottle green and enjoyed some of the best snorkeling ever, just off the shore.  

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We ate too many chips. With everything: fish, prawns, crab and lobster. And drank too much beer. With everything. We watched the water and the waves and the sun and the storms. We drove to the vast Ruvuma river and looked at Mozambique on the other side. Just so we could say we’d done it: seen another country whilst standing in our own.

  

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We struck up a conversation with a group of totos on the bank of the river, which was swiftly being eaten up by the swell born of torrential rain.  

Do you go to school, I asked. 

Yes, they told me. 

How far away? I wanted to know. 

Far, they said: we leave at 6 in the morning and don’t get home until six at night. 

Do you learn English I asked. 

Yes, they giggled. 

What can you say, I asked. 

‘Give me a pen’, they said. 

You can’t say that to visitors, I laughed, try this, ‘Welcome to Tanzania’. 

They did, in untidy unison: welcome to Tanzania.

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We clapped, my three children and I. 

Now this, I said, ‘have a nice trip’.

Have a nice trip. 

They observed me sitting in the driver’s seat of the land cruiser awaiting return of husband who’d gone ahead on foot to explore the shore inaccessible by road now. 

Can you drive that? They asked. 

Yes, I said. And a motorbike I elaborated. And even, I said, merely to see what their reaction would be, an aeroplane. They couldn’t care about my fictitious piloting skills but they were enormously impressed that I could drive a car. As was the middle aged woman quietly observing our interaction. Women can do anything, I said. They looked even more disbelieving. As did our older spectator. 

I took their photograph. They laughed and laughed as they identified themselves on the screen of my camera. I did it three times before finally telling them my camera was tired and needed a rest.  

What do you want to do when you grow up, I asked them. 

To work, said the most outspoken boy in the group, so that I can have money. 

And then they skipped away,distracted, for a large monitor lizard had been spotted in the river and they had grown bored of a white woman who pretended she could drive. 

Give me a pen, they said as they ran off laughing. 

We spent our final night in the old German Boma overlooking the tiny village. It was magnificently aged with splendid proportions and I imagined, as I lay in my bed listening to the last of the rain and the sound of the breeze in the palms outside, the vistas this place must have witnessed in the 105 years it had watched over Mikindani. If there were ghosts, they trod the balconies and corridors and verandahs quietly for we all slept well. 

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It took two days to get home. 1,500 klms. Across plains and plateaus and mountain ranges that looked like egg white whipped horizons.  

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We wondered at how trucks got themselves into the positions they did. We didn’t know whether to be amused or frustrated by roadworks.

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 But we’re back now. I’ve loaded the washing machine four times and am rinsing the sand from umpteen towels and swimming costumes and pairs of shorts.  And the children are rediscovering home in the way kids do when they’ve been away. Holed up in their rooms, emerging now and again to ask for something to eat.  

The Little Things

March 16, 2008

I am learning, here in the Outpost, with its sparse distractions and long days, to eke as much enjoyment out of the little things. I’m not always very good at it. Sometimes the lengthy, empty days defeat me. But I’m getting better. I think?

I have learned that breakfast taken in the bush, which we sometimes do on a Sunday morning just because it’s there – the bush – tastes much better than it does at the dining room table or eaten on the wing as I dash between the washing machine in the kitchen and Hat in the schoolroom and back again. I have learned that the piquancy of orange juice and the rich aroma of coffee are sharper, deeper when accompanied by the calls of a hundred unseen birds – Turaco, ring-necked and emerald spotted wood doves, sunbirds – songs that settle upon the scrub as soft, friendly murmuring.

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I have learned that I have more patience with Hat. A walk on the dam and she wants to ride through a puddle – at speed so that her back is flecked with mud and her face too – ten times over. Once, when busier, when homework and a social life beckoned impatiently, I mightn’t have let her. I might have hurried her. I might have said, ‘Oh c’mon Hat, please, that’s enough now, we’ve got to go’. For where shall we go here? Home? Where the murmur of birds has been silenced by an urban finger-to-lips. Where bacon just tastes like bacon.

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I have learned, because they form an integral part of my tiny social circle, to watch my dogs more intently so that I no longer miss the antics that make me laugh now. I take a thorn out of Kanga’s pad and she races around me delightedly, in circles, as if to say thank you.

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Never very good at talking to people I didn’t know well, happy instead to slink behind my gregarious husband’s bigger shadow, I find that now I grasp every rare chance of conversation – I surprise myself – and milk it for all its worth so that company is left wondering if I will ever shut up.

I have learned that storms are better here. Are they, though? Will friends visit and remark upon their intensity as I do? Or is it just because they help to fill a gap? They are something to wait for, to watch, to listen to. Maybe I never really heard a storm before – not properly, not so that I could hear every instrument in its percussion – because there were too many other background noises.

I am sure I take longer to find the right words here. And I am sure that when I do (today’s was sepia-seared to describe that low hot jaundiced place on the page of an atlas) it feels like a much greater triumph than it did before.

Of course I have to – take more time over the little things: the watching, the waiting, the words – for there are many more hollow hours to fill. Perhaps it’s time to stop thinking about what I once accomplished in my day and concentrate on each tiny facet that might leap brilliantly for my attention.

Perhaps that’s the only way to survive an Outpost?

But little things aside, Hat and I are off to the Big City tomorrow, the start of a Big Safari with her Big brother and sister: a week away, over Easter. We need to begin now for we have a long way to go: we will cover almost 2,000 miles there and back, to a place close to the border with Mozambique.

I hope I don’t talk too much?

House Hunting

March 6, 2008

There is a chance we will have to move house.

 

And so we are house hunting. In most parts of the world this would mean an exercise in box ticking:

Proximity to work? Access to schools? 3 bedrooms? Or four? Number of bathrooms? Parking facility? Large garden? Or just a patio?

There is rather less choice here and so, in order not to miss any unlikely gems, we are forced to view every property that every obliging Outpost resident comes up with. (And when word is out that some fool who’ll pay a rent and renovate a place is looking, dozens do).

The first that we visit, excitedly, because it means an outing for Hat and I at any rate,  belongs to Hanif who is a very fat Swahili of Arab descent. He has brought a mate along with him, whom I have met many times and who, for reasons I have not yet fathomed, is called Parish. Parish is proprietor of a petrol station.  He chews betelnut and is generally font of all local knowledge.

I regard the house, when we arrive, tailing Fat Hanif and smaller Parish, is some dismay. It is huge, granted, plenty of space for all my assorted children, animals and books. But the garden is tiny. Indeed it is almost non-existent. The house fills the available walled space. It is also, rather bizarrely, unfinished: the walls are unpainted, the windows devoid of glass, the doorways of doors and the first floor of a staircase to get up there.  There is little in the way of plumbing (except for an outside water tank which – considering the healthy crop of sugar cane growing alongside it – has a serious leak) and no electricity. Husband politely enters the doorless doorway for a guided tour of the ground floor (we can only admire the first from below). Hat and I wait outside on the pretence of admiring the ‘garden’ whilst I try to stifle my giggles and Hat her disappointment. Hanif, judging by appearances, eats too well to be able to afford to finish the grand residence he optimistically began.

We promise to be in touch but not before husband enquires as to how peaceful the neighbourhood is. I could have told him: the house is a spit from the biggest hotel in town which runs a disco with live band every night.

‘Oh it is lovely and peaceful here’, promises Parish (who is clearly in line for some commission).

‘Except for the hotel …’ adds Hanif looking at Parish doubtfully.

Oh but that’s very far, says Parish, chewing and waving our concern dismissively away.

It’s not: I can see it just around the bend.

We move onto the second house. Husband has high hopes of this one because he is an eternal optimist. Hat and I, on other hand, have been quietly laying bets as to how ghastly it’ll be on a scale of 1 to 10 (one being ghastly beyond any redecorating redemption). Hat has bet a 2.  Her wager an informed one; she’s seen enough of the Outpost to know.

We meet the owner and follow him to the house. First impressions are promising: the area is quiet and secluded and shaded by huge old trees.

This looks better, says Husband.

It’s not. Though there are windows and doors and electricity and plumbing, it is all – along with 3 bedroom and 2 bathrooms – squeezed into the tiniest space. The flat I shared in London was a veritable broom cupboard. This was smaller. That was when I merely needed a place to lay my head and change my clothes. This needs to accommodate assorted children, animals and books. Not to mention a husband of almost 6ft2. We politely viewed the property, husband doing three point turns to get into and out of rooms. The kitchen is a lean-to of corrugated iron sheets. Water, we are promised, is not a problem (funny that; it is in most parts of the Outpost). I can’t help but notice the ranks of plastic drums which are being used to store same.

The house is a bit on the small side, admits Husband trying to turn around in corridor, shall we have a look at the garden he suggests?. We do. It is vast. Acres of space. An acre, to be precise says the owner, of – at the moment – mostly maize and beans and sweet potatoes. I imagine a pool and chickens and enough grazing for my much missed geese. I imagine bowling nets for my son. I imagine a treehouse for the girls. I imagine space to play badminton. I image a vegetable garden and herbs in tubs.

What’s that, I ask, pointing towards a derelict building on the boundary of the land.

‘That’, says our guide cheerfully, ‘is the old Hindu crematorium. But is is no longer in use’ he adds hastily when he sees Hat’s face.

Thank God. Though his attempt at reassurance doesn’t stop my vivid imagination running further amok with ghosts, ghouls and insomnic children too afraid of next-door departed to sleep. Not least because somebody has graffiti’d the word Phantom in bold black letters on the walls.

We leave – promising to be in touch. If we can come up with a realistic plan as to how to extend the shoebox to fit (unlikely), and the necessary wherewithal to carry out any extensions we might have dreamt up (even more unlikely).

That evening we see the third and final property of the day. We are obliged to collect the owner and give him a lift to the house which he swears he owns. It is a charming little cottage, remnant of the days of Colonial administration, in a big garden. A watchman appears as we drive in. He does not look as if he has any clue who the owner is. Nor does the housegirl who stands on guard by the backdoor.

How many bedrooms does it have? I enquire.

Two …? No. Um …3, says the owner, thinking hard..

And bathrooms?

“One”, he says, more emphatically. “I think?”.

A toto appears and sweetly greets us all.

Is mama in, asks the ‘owner’?

Yes, says the child, venturing towards the door. Eagleeyed, watchdog house girl quickly hisses, ‘no, she’s not’.

I giggle.

Do your tenants know that you are planning to rent this house out to somebody else? asks husband suspiciously.

Oh yes, says the owner, ‘I have given them notice, they will leave at the end of this month and then you can move in’.

I’m not moving in anywhere until I’ve seen the inside, I say quickly.

The owner shrugs. He clearly doesn’t see the necessity of viewing the house inside and out. But he’s going to work to accommodate this quirk.

Assuming, of course, the property really belongs to him.

Given that he was due – but has failed – to call me today to fix a time to re-view, this seems unlikely.  You’ve got to hand it to him though: bloody good try.

     

                            

Show and Tell

March 3, 2008

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        Low slung bellies of boats as the tide sighs …

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Clotted cream complexion protected by SPF 50 and a hat as broad as a house; vain hope she will not have to patronize Estee Lauder’s anti ageing products as her mother is forced to …

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Waiting for the tide to turn? Watching the water? Willing a crab to scuttle up the sand? Who knows. Happy though ….

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  Like my feet.  Happy, happy holiday feet …

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The percussion of palms: fronds jangle and rattle and sigh and whisper according the instruction of the band’s conductor: the wind …

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 Lengthening shadows provide perfect paint for a self portrait in the sand …

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 Whilst the sand itself yields cavnas to all the feet that have walked the shore today: mine, Hat’s, the dogs, dozens of fishermen …

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 An evening trip on a dhow, with friends, to celebrate a birthday, life, the sunset …

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 And music so that Hat dances on the deck …

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And on the way home, an elephant. One lone male, enjoying a drink, breaking his journey as we did ours.

Empty Beaches

February 13, 2008

We’re in Kenya: Hat, husband and I. And the dogs.

We’re on the coast: the same stretch of beach that my mother-in-law enjoyed as a child, the same one my children and their father before them played on. Everything about it is familiar: the trees, the shade they cast, the sounds, the curve of the sand and the heads of coral, landmarks identified by a great grandmother for a trio of children who still refer to them by the Famous Five names she chose: North Bay, South Bay, Swallow Pool, Starfish Gardens, Crocodile Rock. But something this year has changed: the faces of the fishermen, and their demeanour, are more somber now. They greet us warmly though – the same men from whom we have bought prawns and red snapper and calamari for years – they are relieved to see that some of the regulars are coming back; they are relieved to find somebody who’ll buy their catch. They enquire after us, after the older children who, for the first time, because of school, are not with us. When I explain they smile encouraging approval, ‘it’s good for children to go to school’, they tell me (my big kids wouldn’t agree: they’d rather be here, body surfing the waves or sprawled on beds in sleepy afternoons with good books, than facing mock exam results).

How’s Tanzania? they want to know, are you getting rain?

(Rain and its debut is an integral part of any conversation in Africa)

Tanzania is fine, I say, the rain has been good.

Not here, they say, here it is late. 

Its tardiness threatens to exacerbate existing problems.

How is Kenya? I ask gently.

They shake their heads sadly, ‘two men have bought a lot of bad things to Kenya’, they say.

The tourism sector, Kenya’s golden egg, has been shattered by the post election crisis.  Beach hotels, those that remain open, are operating at less than 20% capacity (at this time of year they ought to be almost full). Charter flights from the continent have been cancelled until mid year. Over 30,000 people in the hospitality industry have lost their jobs. And the rock that the politicians hurled with such violence into the peaceful pond that this was has manifested more than mere ripples: tidal waves of uncertainty wash over Kenya’s people, threatening to engulf them. The collapse of tourism means that the taxi drivers have no passengers, the restaurants no diners, the curio vendors no buyers and the fishermen no hungry customers to haggle a morning’s catch with.

Early this morning I sat with my coffee watching the sun slide above a watery horizon, buffing the sea bronze so that it hurt my eyes to hold my gaze.  Strung along the precipice of my view were dozens of ngalos, the local fishing boats, their sails pulled tight to catch the breeze so that they skimmed the oceans surface, small keels ironing out the choppiness and tossing it nonchalantly behind in frothy wake. Such determination. Such single-mindedness in the face of prevailing adversity: who will buy their fish I wondered worriedly: I can’t cope with more than a few kilos.

Later I walked on a lonely beach and watched the waves stroke the sand so that it shivered in delight, tiny bubbles rising like goose-bumps.  Palm fronds rattled a tune in response to faint instruction from the wind. The sea receded with the tide leaving behind rock pools wriggling with myriad tiny marine creatures. And the occasional enormous breathtakingly bright star fish.

It’s still beautiful here.

Come now.

Before the madding crowd returns.

And buy kingfish for your supper from the fishermen.

Noon

February 4, 2008

I am sitting on a verandah. Not mine; I’m a long way from home.

My view extends for miles. I can’t see the horizon; it is blurred by dust that hangs listlessly in kiln-baked air. The sky – enormous sky, no sky anywhere rivals an African one for sheer magnitude – is powdery blue: high noon has smudged the definition of distant hills as if some careless deity had upended a bottle of talc so that outlines are slippery.

I can see the corrugated iron roofs of huts at the bottom of the hill glinting hotly beyond a dense thicket of trees; villages strung across a plain toasted to biscuit brown. I watch bleached Daz-white egrets fly languidly in search of shade in which to take an avian siesta, respite from the soporific warmth.

I can see a lawn parched – walking across it barefoot is like treading a bed of nails so sharp are those desiccated blades of grass – thirstily awaiting rain (the sky – cloudless but for briefly galloping horse’s tails – is thumbing its nose at scorched gardens though: no rain today it says smugly).

I can hear the leaves of the acacia whisper in the faint breeze which exhales infrequently and briefly: small, shallow, impatient sighs: where’s the bloody rain?

A dog, not my dog (but her company will do) lies beneath my chair. Panting.

That’s what Africa is doing today: panting.

Sprawled hotly at my feet and panting.

 

Bottling Memories

January 31, 2008

We went for a walk yesterday evening, Hat and I; we drove to the plot of land adjacent to husband’s office, a few acres forested with enormous mango trees and overlooking distant kopjes sheathed in green where the dogs can race about, chasing vervet monkeys up trees from where they laugh and tease. Often we see mongoose here, peeping from their burrows in termite mounds. But they’re gone in a trice: the scent of the Labradors has sent them back down to the bowels of the earth from where we hear their indignant scolding: ‘why don’t you bugger off and leave us alone, and take those sodding great beasts with you’.

We have to drive across town before we can walk.

I think I’ll wear my new glasses’, said Hat as she donned a fragile contraption fashioned of chocolate wrappers and tin foil.

She spent our short journey waving and smiling at all the Africans she saw on the shabby little streets of the Outpost. Most waved and smiled back, some looked mildly startled to witness a child sporting psychedelic spectacles gesticulating madly out of the window. Occasionally she experimented with a royal wave:

‘Look mama, this is how the Queen waves’ (how does she know?).

‘Do you think the queen has a mobile phone?’ (where do children’s questions come from?)

She wears her glasses for the entire duration of our walk. Peering down into anthills willing the mongoose to come out. I imagined them staring back up, unseen from their hiding place in dim mud interiors, ‘Good God! What on earth is that?!’ they’d have exclaimed to one another in horror.

‘The grass is much greener when you’re looking on the bright side’, she told me.

That’s got to be a good thing: especially in Africa.

Driving home, the dogs sated, Hat began to recite nursery rhymes. And I joined in, teaching her the mutated versions we learned at school, 

 Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall

All the King’s horses and all the King’s men said,

‘Oh no! Not scrambled egg AGAIN’!

Hat squealed with laughter, ‘that’s so funny Mummy’.

There are moments, little fleeting moments in life, like bubbles: you want to catch them and hang onto them forever, but you know they’ll only pop. I wonder couldn’t we bottle those brief, perfect memories, preserve them forever, like scent. Then, when disillusioned, or sad, or tired, we could uncap their precious contents and allow them perfume our disenchantment away? 

I wanted to bottle yesterday evening.

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 Hat and I are going away for a few days: Hat to school, proper school, so that she can engage with children her own age, me to have my highlights done.

Granted 500 miles is a long way to travel for a play date and an appointment with your hairdresser, but needs must.

Not least because Hat responded, when I queried what the population of the Outpost might think of a child wearing enormous homemade spectacles leaning out of a car window waving frantically, ‘they will say, oh look, there goes that nutty child. With her even nuttier mother’.

Yup. Time to get back to the real world. For a bit.

Picture This …

January 30, 2008

A village.

A small African village. It is dawn. The sun clambers up over a distant eastern horizon, stealing the darkness from the sky so that cotton-wool clouds blush at its audacity. Shadows dance out from beneath the shade to enjoy the early caress of warm rays. A cockerel crows, hoarsely now; he’s been announcing daybreak prematurely, incessantly, for hours. Smoke begins to drift, ribbons of dove-grey, into a brightening sky. Somewhere a child cries the plaintive, impatient cry children make at breakfast time.

A woman ventures out of her hut. She stoops as she steps through her door and into the morning. She rubs her eyes against the brightness, stretches and smiles, enjoying this fleeting moment of peace before her chores, and her children, begin to clamour for her attention. She pulls her vivid kanga more tightly about her against dawn’s brief and surprising chill.

There is kuni to be cut for a fire; water to be collected; a maize field to weed; a market to attend; a basket to weave; a friend’s hair to braid, whilst she sits, back poker-straight, in the cool cast by a spreading fig. There is washing to be done on the banks of a river where she will gather with the other women, where they will gossip and giggle and sing and stretch brightly coloured laundry to dry on rocks so that the river’s bank is awash with rainbow puddles. But first there are children to feed: uji from a cup, or bread dunked into sweet milky chai.

Her day meanders peacefully, its pace set by the march of the sun as it slips across the arc of a huge sky. Laughter and dogs and the shrill ringing of bicycle bells subside briefly at noon when the heat breathes somnolence into our small village. All we can hear is the interminable hot hiss of unseen cicadas. Even the goats, Africa‘s effective refuge disposal teams, are quietly still, the blue Marlboro bags upon which they were banqueting forgotten for now.

But as squat shadows lengthen and the worst of the sun’s heat evaporates as it collapses syrupy in the west, our village stirs in readiness for night fall: fires are stoked, kerosene lamps lit, men gather to share cigarettes and contemplate their good fortune: the rains were kind to them this year. Women collect children and crisp sun-dried laundry up. The blanket of darkness is punctured by the orange glow of the lamps and cozy glow of camp-fires. The air perfumed with the scent of cooking.

There is peace here. Quiet peace and predictability. Tomorrow will be the same: the business of living – building fires, tending crops, milking cattle, raising children – will resume with its reassuring, uncomplicated pattern.

Now picture this: a gang, high on dope and stolen hope, machete wielding, flame throwing, hatred hurling, steals into our village. Rampage. And screams. Confusion and terror.  A mother cannot find her small son, her face stricken with panic and loss; a father is cut down as he tries to bundle his family to safety. Dogs are kicked, they howl in pain and run, tails between legs, to seek cover. Cows pull at their tethers, wild eyed.  

It’s over quickly.  And then there is suffocating silence. And smoke. And ash. An abandoned shoe lies, on its own – one blue child’s shoe – in the dust. A bucket hastily dropped, so that its precious contents have leaked and bloodied the earth. A dog whimpers softly. A child’s sobs subside slowly. The hush is deafening, it fills the air which so recently beat with the unbearable din of war and fear. African villages are never this quiet: there is always laughter and bells and radios and song and cockerels and dogs and market vendors shouting their wares.

Even the cicadas have been startled to deathly silence.

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Picture this. And don’t, please don’t, allow, Kenya’s peace be reduced to implausible archived history, an unbelievable illusion.    

Mad Dogs and Englishmen. And Women.

January 28, 2008

On Friday evening husband asked me what I’d like to do at the weekend.

I thought for a moment and then suggested a meander across Hyde Park early on Saturday morning, followed by a deli breakfast of croissants and capuccino, a spot of window shopping, somewhere ridiculously bling-bling like Burlington Arcade since something of a dearth of bling bling (or croissants or capuccino for that matter) in Outpost. Then, I suggested, how about somewhere nice for lunch? A fabulous bottle of wine, oh! and then I know what: a movie? In Leicester Square: Michael Clayton? Elizabeth: The Golden Age?

Husband looked cresfallen.

Why don’t we just go for a walk then, I said, and  have a picnic.

Oh OK, he said, that’s a good idea.

It’s not. It’s what we do most weekends.

So we packed a picnic, Hat and the dogs into the car and drove twenty miles out of town towards a forest reserve where nobody but the charcoal burners go to cut down trees.

We parked the car and walked through the forest, coming across sad little clearings where flakes of coal bore evidence of magnificent towering indigenous trees burned to fuel. We came across the charcoal burners too who stared disbelieving. Many of them are unlikely to encounter a white man often. Not here. And certainly not one tailed by his wife and small daughter (who, fearing she might get bored has come armed with a brightly coloured shoulder bag filled with 3 books and her knitting). This extraordinary little procession, marching faster than two of its foot soldiers would like, and moving through the forest accompanied by small bleats of ”how much further, Dad?” is led by two golden labradors.

Livingstone marched through the same country 150 years ago. I don’t expect he caused any less of a stir than we did.

He was a veritable Englishman Out in the Midday Sun.

We supplemented with Mad Dogs and a marginally deranged woman.