Archive for the ‘in the dark’ Category

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.




Empty Nest

January 17, 2008

There is an abandoned cricket bat in the back of my car.

It’s a metaphor for the sudden emptying of the house.

My son forgot it there. I’ll leave it where it is; lying behind my seat. Then every time I open the rear door to dump or retrieve shopping I shall see it and can briefly imagine him home and ready to bat a ball about.

We came home from our school run to find the house too tidy. Too quiet. Too jolly empty. Tiny pokey rooms have found big voices in their echoey amplification.

You can see the floor in Amelia’s room; no longer is it strewn with shoes, discarded clothes which she optimistically hopes will grow legs all of their own and make their way to the laundry basket unaided. No longer is there a cockroaches’ banquet of cereal bowls encrusted with muesli under her bed (remnants of midnight feasts, my daughter a hungry owl who makes nocturnal forays into the kitchen whilst we are fast asleep). The carpet in her room is no longer tangled. It has been pulled regimentally straight as if to compete for brownie points with the hospital corners of her bed. Drawers and cupboard doors are closed, no longer regurgitating their contents in colourful ribbons that hang out waiting to party with the debris on the floor. Why do I nag her to tidy her room; it’s very neatness now a miserable reminder she isn’t here.

And Ben’s, smaller, is similar, clinically spic and span. His bats (all but one) are standing to attention in the corner of the room, no longer languishing on the floor waiting for a game, waiting to trip me up. His shoes lined against the wall, toes pointing orderly ready to salute. I sit on his bed and notice a stray sock peeking out from beneath it. It has gathered a happy amount of dust.

I have regained control of the TV remote: no longer do I have to catch snatches of news between cricket test matches and rowdy music from pop bands with unpronounceable names. But dour monotones issuing forth from BBC World don’t make me want to dance, not like Mika does, until Amelia begs me to stop: ”Maaaaaarm, you’re so embarrassing!”.

The scatter cushions on the sofa are no longer scattered because a teen lies sprawled in their place. Instead they’re sitting up stiffly. All plumped and pompous.

Hat says, ”school’s OK Mum but I prefer the holidays”.

I know what she means.

Why don’t you play in your brother and sisters’ rooms I ask. She looks a little doubtful, their territory, clearly marked (doors plastered with Keep Out signs and lewd skull and crossbones) is usually out of bounds. Go on, I urge.

She does. Ben’s bedroom floor is now a deathtrap of Lego shrapnel and the miniature residents of her doll’s house for whom she is building a hotel, she says.

Perhaps she and I can escape there one weekend?

Sundried Tomatoes and Body Piercings

October 3, 2007

Amelia telephones – actually she doesn’t (after all, why waste money calling your mother when you can save your credit to sms your mates whilst your mother, because she could not possibly ignore it, responds to urgent free Call Me message with alacrity), I call her.

My piercing came out, Mum.

I feign disappointment.

But don’t worry, I’ve got a replacement.

Oh Amelia! I beseech, Why?

Because it’s cool Mum (this delivered in tones that remind me I am old, stupid and utterly devoid of anything approaching lukewarm, far less cool).

Does it hurt.

No. Not at all.

Who did it?

I did, during prep.

Marvellous. All that money on her education and she’s perforating her body like a sieve.

Indeed both my daughters’ educations are at the forefront of my mind this afternoon. During school today Hat began to read Anne of Green Gables and is required to keep a vocabulary list.

The word sundry appeared on the page.

I – who despite knowing what the words mean- battle to articulate a neat bitesized definition for my ten year old daughter so keep the Oxford dictionary to hand. As I begin to rifle through the pages for sundry (n. inpl. Oddments, accessories, items not needing to be specified … for the record), Hat breezily says, ‘oh don’t bother looking for that one, Mum, I know what that means’.

I’m impressed.

What? I ask

you know, she says, sun-dry, like the tomatoes you had in your sandwich.

My son, unlike my daughters, doesn’t divulge much about school life. If has put an earring in his nose I do not know. If he is misinterpreting half the vocabulary in his English coursework books I am blissfully unaware.

For now.


Lights out

July 17, 2007

If it’s not the water, it’s the wretched power.

The circuit breaker keeps tripping and we keep being plunged into darkness. Power cuts here are an occupational hazard. Oddly I didn’t mind as much when it was national power company’s shortcomings that kept us in the dark. But I do mind when fault lies within, potentially, theoretically, my own control.

I request services of an electrician. He appears and tells me his name is Concubine. I can’t believe it, stifle a giggle and ask him to repeat it. “Oh! Columbine?!” I say with a measure of relief.

Columbine gingerly examines the fuse box. I suggest he measures power input but he tells me he doesn’t have the necessary tool to do that and continues to poke about amongst wires. If he doesn’t measure power input before he puts his fingers in sockets, his could be the shortest career recorded in electrics.

He tells me I cannot use all my electrical gadgets at once. He tells me that to do so will trip switch again. I tell him I’ve lived in Africa almost all my life and know that to aspire to greedily utilize oven, iron, water heater and elecric kettle simultaneously would be to tempt fate. Or darkness.

We reach a stale mate.

I source an alternative electrician. His name isn’t nearly as interesting but, reassuringly, he arrives armed with what I’d expect electricians to be armed with: a power monitor and an air of confidence that Columbine appeared to lack. He looks as if he knows what he’s doing which means he’ll leave me – with his life – with lights.

Power is restored. I can even use the electric kettle at the same time as the water pump which means I can fill it first which is quite handy.

Identity Crisis

May 17, 2007

On route home from school yesterday I asked kids if they knew the words to God Save the Queen (a back seat scrap was brewing; singing offered a distraction). 

What’s that? they asked.  The English national anthem I said. Your national anthem (they were all born in England, and all hold British passports with coveted Right of Abode). 

‘Oh yes’, says Amelia, confidently, ‘I know it’, and proceeds to launch into ‘God save the Queen of England … For she is good and royal …. Blah blah la, la’ Mum and I, sitting in the front, giggle. And then we have a stab. We think we can remember fragmented phrases like ‘send her victorious, noble and glorious’. But we don’t do much better than Amelia. And you can’t blame us: neither of us was born or grew up in England and though Mum has lived there since Dad died, she doesn’t have cause to sing God Save the Queen often. 

I ask the kids if they know the Tanzanian national anthem.  They do. And all three launch into it loudly and with alacrity, belting it out in Kiswahili.   It is on occasions such as this that I am reminded of the identify crisis my children face: born in England, to an Irish/Scottish mum who was raised in Africa by Indian born, Irish extraction mother and African born father of Scottish origin who never visited Scotland in his life, and a dad whose mother was born to English parents in a nomadic village in the Belgian Congo. Only their paternal grandfather was a real Englishman. I suppose it is this confusion that has persuaded Amelia she is Australian and explains why Ben has assumed a South African identity?

Rallying Cry of a Rooster

May 14, 2007


I ought to have anticipated that the move would finally catch up with me.

It has. And now I feel overwhelmed.  And sad. Camping in the hiatus between packing up here and unpacking over there has lost any novel value it might – briefly – have had. The house is cold and cavernous and I feel dreadfully sad at witnessing, at such close quarters, its soullessness after enjoying it as home for so long.  I am impatient to move on but I have to wait until the end of the school year. I’m not good at waiting. And I’m especially not good at waiting in the dark.

The power cuts are endless. As is the rain.

The weekend seemed so too. It got off to a shaky start.

The cow, which I had been told had died on Friday evening (and was too queasy to investigate for myself so serves me right) had not. Instead she had lain, semi-conscious, in the cold and the wet all night, shivering and labouring to breath. 

Very early on Saturday morning Rehema informed me that the night watchmen had woken her up in the middle of the night asking to kill the cow themselves – not on any humane grounds but because they are hungry, having not been paid for months, and wanted the meat.

I – still in my pajamas – faced a stony Rehema (she is no better than I on too little sleep) across the gloom (dark, wet dawn, no power) and all I wanted was a mug of tea. I did not want to deal with the euthanasing of a cow I’d battled to save for two weeks.

My land line has been disconnected. And because of the rain, cell signal was out. I could not call the vet. And I dared not – even if I could have – call friend at 7.30 on a Saturday morning to beg him to come armed with shotgun and put cow out of misery.


So I asked watchmen what they suggested.


Slit its throat, they said, matter of factly.

But we don’t have a sharp knife said Rehema, ‘they have all gone on the lorry’. She proffered a bread knife.

This is too awful I thought; we can’t saw the poor thing to death with something I cut toast with.

No, I said, surely Ben (being a boy who likes to think he is bush savvy) has a knife.

He does. He wasn’t keen to loan it for cow-killing though. I had to beg.

It’s not sharp enough, Ben said, playing for time.

We’ll sharpen it then, I told him impatiently.

The watchmen all assured me the knife could be honed to razor sharpness.

I told them that I would pay them cash for their assistance, but that they could not take the meat which, I warned, would be full of disease (the vet had diagnosed two tick borne diseases) and drugs (syringefuls – which had clearly failed to work). They agreed to bury the animal intact. And told me later that her flesh was quite yellow with jaundice. Poor old girl.

I finally got my tea. And climbed back into bed. I could hear the plaintive bellows of the cow’s calf. And I joined in; big fat tears slid down my cheeks and into my mug. I couldn’t help it.

But later resident rooster made me laugh: he used to belong to neighbour to my left who has long moved on (abandoning rooster). Since then, rooster has moved into our garden and driven us almost to distraction by trotting onto the verandah at 6am on Sunday morning, crowing delightedly and then dashing for cover before he is pelted with assorted missiles from assorted family members.

Since rooster is considered – apparently – a farm asset, neighbour to my right (Englishman), who is still in employ of Directors and therefore firmly in enemy camp, determined to capture him. He sent his garden boy across to kidnap rooster in order to repossess him. Englishman and I are not on speaking terms; he’s also in enemy camp since he issued threats to husband to ‘get Anthea the kids’ (it’s been a surreal four months) consequently, I was not about to enter into an argument with him about ownership of a cockerel. I didn’t have to. Rooster was in no doubt as to where he belonged. The next morning he was back on my verandah crowing gleefully (I almost joined in). The charade continued for a bit: next door’s garden boy returned several times to reclaim rooster and every time he did, rooster scuttled home (bringing a girlfriend with him – one of neighbour’s layers – which was especially gratifying).

I have not been able to fathom rooster’s loyalty? Perhaps we have a better class of bug in our garden for him to breakfast on? Perhaps he enjoys the company of the geese? Perhaps he just thinks its home (as I have done, for so long).

Whatever. I have begun to appreciate his dawn calls.

A rallying cry in the face of damp, dark adversity.

Cut Off

May 10, 2007

Phone has been cut off at home; bound to happen eventually: like everything else pertaining to the farm, phone bills outstanding too and finally national phone company copped onto the fact and unceremoniously cut me off.

When I try to dial out now – which I have to do to connect to internet since no such luxury as broadband connection – I get terse little message in Kiswahili informing me in no uncertain terms that I have been disconnected, ‘pay your bill’ I am sternly told.

From now on it’s going to be the intermittent internet cafes in town. None of which work today so have begged half an hour from wealthy Indian shop keeper instead. 

His secretary is lurking, to let me know how busy and important she is and so I’d best not waffle. Instead shall try to feel inspired to write about something other than communication interruptions when I get back home (am on school run now …) and transport whatever I manage to scribble on flash pen back to internet cafe tomorrow.

Providing, of course, that the power obliges and I can turn my computer on …

Another Only in Africa Moment

May 8, 2007

Friend and neighbour Ollie went to the office of national power company, Tanesco, to pay his electricity bill. When he asked if a receipt could be issued, he was told no, that was not possible: no power, you see.

On Being a Successful Tooth Fairy

April 23, 2007

Last night I was a tooth fairy. Hat, who is ten and whom I know absolutely does not believe in fairies but is too mercenary to admit it, has lost three teeth in alarmingly quick succession. I hope this is normal; I hope that her teeth are not all falling out because I don’t feed her properly or something.

Last night there was also a power cut. You’d think this would be a hindrance, but not at all. It meant that instead of either waiting up until Hat had fallen asleep to leave the necessary or risk forgetting, falling asleep myself and waking to a disappointed wail this morning, I could deposit cash in the dark whilst she still wide awake because she couldn’t see what I was doing. (And because I forgot to buy batteries for her torch, she wasn’t able to check later).

Hat – for reasons I cannot fathom – likes to keep her teeth. The ones that have fallen out, obviously. (And the new ones she has in her head, I hope?). She stores them in a jam jar where they rattle about a bit morbidly. Perhaps she thinks I’ll forget which ones have been paid for by the fairies and she can recycle them, really – she’s that mercenary. The upside, though, is that I don’t have to grapple about in the dark, drop bloody tooth, grope around on floor trying to find it, bang head on top bunk, swear and risk waking Hat up. Hat knows all this and in a bid to make life as easy as possible for the tooth fairy (which is how I know she knows) she leaves a note for the fairies, conveniently placed on chest of drawers, explaining that she wants to keep her tooth so could they just leave the money instead. And bugger off without waking her up.

Last night she only left one tooth out – she’s saving the other two for another time, she says, it’s all part of her budgeting plan. And I carried out role of tooth fairy with consummate ease and felt very smug this morning when I woke because I was able to ask, ‘how much did the tooth fairy leave you Hat?’, rather than have Hat weep, ‘the tooth fairy didn’t come’ which would – of course – have made me feel like the world’s worst mother.


Looking on the Bright Side …

April 21, 2007

In the eight days for which I have been a single parent, considering husband’s absence, my admiration for all those people who raise children on their own – for a lot longer than I am going to be forced to do so –has soared.

I never considered how hard it might be to do this by myself for a week. Or a month. Or six. Or whatever it turns out to be.

I didn’t consider how difficult it would be at times to discipline, or even exert any kind of control, over two teens. Especially since they are both bigger than me. And I didn’t consider how hard it might be to sustain the energy required to do so ad infinitum.

I have just had a row with my fifteen year old son who has told me not to be childish.

And now I feel like crying. Which – I concede – would be childish.

So I have abandoned breakfast to write instead.


Not that I was able to write for long before called to a catastrope unfolding in the kitchen; the washing machine was overflowing and flooding the house.

All my attempts to identify where the problem was failed despite taking as much as I could of the wretched thing apart with a butter knife, sitting in a puddle on the floor craning my neck into the drum and trying really hard not to cry.

Eventually I had to prise cross son from bedroom and beg his help. He took one look and said, ‘there’s a big hole in the seal’. He’s right; there is . I couldn’t see it. Because sometimes you can’t see the wood for the trees. Or holes-in-seals for breakfast time tears. I can’t call a plumber because there isn’t one. So I shall have to identify a friend with a silicone gun and repair the hole myself. In the meantime my children will continue to go through the numerous outfits they do every day so that by mid next week the laundry basket will be regurgitating stinky clothes all over the bathroom floor.

At that point husband called to ask how morning was.

Wobbly, I said, and burst into tears all over again.

Last night as I lay in my bath I noticed that the bottoms of the bathroom curtains had been burnt – by the candles we often use in there. Not because we’re all New Age and hippy or because we enjoy romantic bubble baths by candlelight in manner of models in glossy magazines, but because we frequently don’t have lights and needs must when bathing so that I can see how clean my feet are before I get out. I pondered in some irritation on this but only for a minute, at least, I thought, we haven’t burned the house down.

I think that’s the key to life here: count your blessings: your washing machine is kaput, your darling son is furious with you, your husband -the one whose name you’ve been battling to clear – may as well be a million miles away, but at least the house is still standing.