Archive for the ‘outpost life’ Category

Putting Bread on the Table

April 18, 2008

Hat says, ‘There’s something wrong with the bread; I don’t think it’s meant to look like that’.


She means the bread I’m making; the loaf that is ready, judging by penetrating beep of bread machine, but has yet to be removed and sliced for breakfast.


I got it for Christmas from Best Beloved. The bread machine. He gave it to me because we cannot always buy bread in the Outpost and because he could not bear for me to attempt to make my own unaided as I did in manner persuaded to me by Isabella Beeton when at 23 and newly married and naïve I thought the ability to make yeast come alive with fat bubbles and elevate dough to glossy springiness was fundamental to a happy marriage. Luckily it was not: though the yeast stayed stubbornly flat and the dough was the consistency of a cannon ball and the bread utterly inedible, though best beloved suggested I sell it to demolition mobs that were breaking down old buildings in the city we lived in then – Dar es Salaam – in favour of newer ones, we have remained together.


So. Almost twenty years on and because we no longer live within a 20 mile radius of a reasonable bakery, I was presented with a bread machine. Something small and dainty and sparkly in trademark blue Tiffany bag might have been nice to own, might have impressed my friends, something from Prada might have done too. But neither are of much use in hard-line, out-lying Outpost.  So a FastBake it was instead.


The family watched as I fastidiously measured the ingredients for the first attempt into the tin with the precise little measuring spoons provided and regular reference to recipe in accompanying booklet. They observed as I carefully set the timer and they applauded when my fat, light loaf appeared on the breakfast table the next morning.


Three months later, though, and I had become a little slapdash. Remembering there’s no bread for breakfast at 11pm when you’ve had a few glasses of Red isn’t a good approach to cooking. In my rush to get the necessary done – ‘I must just put the bread on’, I’d say importantly to BB when he enquired (by hollering through house) if I was planning on coming to bed anytime that week – I began to carelessly gauge amounts, quite disregarding the ominous little warnings in booklet: Please use measuring cup and spoons provided accurately. I also cut back on the salt – two tablespoons of it – since I thought it’d please my doctor if I did so whilst simultaneously displeasing gathering cellulite which I understand thrives on a diet stacked with sodium secreted into benign looking foods like homemade bread, for example.


On Hat’s ‘I don’t think it’s meant to look like this’, I got up to examine the fruits of my midnight labours. And she was quite right: bread’s not meant to look like that. It’s meant to look arched with pride and deliciously, inviting promise. Not slumped with soggily, grey misery.


Hat is quite a stickler. Unlike her sloppy mother.


‘I think we should look them up in the book again, Mum’, she said, ‘the instructions, she pressed.


I did.


Under Troubleshooting.


Who’d have thought you could troubleshoot a loaf of bread?


It said: if you are so slovenly you can’t be bothered to measure things out properly or if you think you know better than us and begin to invent your own recipes or if you ditch the salt because you a vain cow who would rather have sleek thighs than feed her family properly, your bread will sink disastrously in the middle and be hard and lumpen and you might just as well use it as demolition fodder. Or words to that effect. I got the message though.


I made my bread at 7 last night. Before I was too tired to see my way around the kitchen and before the Red had interfered with my eyesight so that I was unable to decipher the calibrations on the cups and spoons. 


I will – as a consequence – be able to set before Hat for breakfast today a loaf that has risen to perfect roundness, a loaf with a firm, brown crust and innards the consistency of warm marshmallows upon which her butter will melt just as she likes.


And I shall be able to bask in both her praise and a very, very rare glow of domestic and maternal success.




I am going away for a bit. Far away. For a fortnight. I shall begin my journey tomorrow and arrive at my destination 48 hours later. I like to think I’m going where I am because I’m needed there for now, might make a difference. I’m not sure I will.


But I have to try.


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.  


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.


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.


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.  


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.


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.


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


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.

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.


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.


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.


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?

View of an Outpost

March 12, 2008

My brother wants to know what an Outpost looks like. He says pictures tell a thousand words. I think he is politely asking that I describe with my camera and not with the keyboard. He once queried why I used 2,000 words when two would do. He’s right.

Hat and I do school every morning whilst Orlanda – who began life as Orlando until the vet when asked to please come and remove the bits and pieces that makes Toms spray and stray told us s/he didn’t have any – lazes in the dugout by the pool watching lizards whilst she sunbathes. When Hat and I are battling with grammer or science we wish we were cats too.


 When we’re done, though, with battling, we sometimes escape to ‘town’. We drive down our little potholed lane which joins the road at a roundabout which is alternately – depending on the time of year – festooned with flamboyant blossom or yellow cassia.

                    my-lane.jpg       fabulous-flamboyant.jpg

And into town, past the old art deco cinema, which is now a bus station, past the old Sikh temple and up the road that leads to the catholic church: religions jostle happily here for space and voice. Perhaps the Outpost could be an example to the rest of the world: the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer five times a day and the church choir does their best to outshout them on Sundays. It’s merry rivalry though.

                the-bus-station.jpg        1927.jpg       


 We go over the railway line which is what brought this tiny place populace and prosperity back in its 1920s hayday, and across to the market where we haggle for spuds and onions. I feign indignance at the price of carrots, ”that’s the white price”, I say, ”what’s the Tanzanian one?”. The vendors just laugh at me. They think I’m mad. Living here endorses that. 

Driving home I never fail to marvel at the old relics still standing: the German governor’s home, with its high platform from which they hoisted their flag.

         junction-city.jpg           tabora-market.jpg          


And Julius Nyerere’s alma mater, a beautiful elegant building reached by an avenue of flamboyant and surrounded by expansive grounds. Nyerere was the founder of independent Tanzania. He was nicknamed Mwalimu which means teacher for his energetic education reforms. His old school has alot to live up to. But it doesn’t: a friend has a daughter there; the teachers never turn up for work she says.


                      goat-on-a-bike.jpg         shopping-under-shade.jpg

 We drive to the dam in the evenings. Out of town, past Africans coming home from market or setting up tiny roadside stalls selling a plethora of goods from clothes to baskets to combs to barbequed corn; Hat often scores a cob to keep her going till supper time.

And on the dam we walk the dogs and say hello to the totos tending goats or we inspect the fishermen’s catch.

                          sun-down-on-the-dam.jpg          herdsboys.jpg

 We drive home into the setting sun and the dust.

                    rush-hour.jpg          dust.jpg  

And might stop for a cold beer on the way, at the Tabora Hotel, its faded grandeur a lasting reminder of the colourful history of this place; it was built for the Kaiser when he said he was coming to visit. He never turned up. Lots of people don’t. Not to an outpost.  We’re just a little too far off the beaten track


The week that was …

March 8, 2008

Monday: Hat has acquired a guitar. She wants lessons. There isn’t a music academy in Outpost. There isn’t, as far as I am aware, a music teacher.

She grows increasingly distraught: 

– But I’ve got a guitar now, and I shall never, ever learn how to play it and it will just sit here being useless, she sobs.

I have a rare light bulb moment and write a letter to our landlords at the Anglican diocese next door. The church band practices regularly outside tiny St Stephen’s at the end of our road. I see them as I drive past: strumming or drumming or fingering a keyboard beneath the shade of a mango tree, an electric cord snaking through the dust to add power and amplification to various instruments. Perhaps one of the players would be able to help?

Shortly after dispatching my letter a besuited gentleman, who introduces himself as Christopher, appears. He has found, he tells me, a guitar playing member of the band who is prepared to teach Hat. Hat, who has rushed eagerly out to greet our visitor, does a small jig to show how pleased she is.

– He can come on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, says Christopher.

– Gosh, I say, what’s his fee?– 25,000/- (about $20)

– Gosh, I say (again), that’s quite a lot for a lesson (do the math: it’s almost 400 bucks a month).

– No, no, no, not per lesson, Christopher assures me, that’s the total fee for teaching your daughter everything he knows about music and the guitar.

Either our new teacher, who is called George, does not appreciate how much Hat has to learn or he has little in the way of knowledge to impart.

Later, when we drive to the duka, Hat notices the band practicing. She leans far out of the car window, grinning and waving. A tall man, holding a guitar, waves back.

– Do you think that’s him, Mum, do you think that’s George?

– Perhaps, I say.

– Will he recognise me on Monday?

Probably. Given that she’s the only European child hankering for guitar lessons in a several hundred kilometer radius.

Tuesday: I receive the editorial report on my book. It is 14 pages long. It says that providing I’m prepared to do the work recommended (which is considerable), I could, possibly, with a kinder market (not one that favours the autobiographies of footballers wives) and a lot of luck, be in with the smallest hint of a chance at publication. 

What do you think? Shelve it or give it a bash?

Wednesday: Husband returns from a day in the field with smallholders. He met, he says, a delightful old boy who did not know his age but remembers he was a young teenager at the start of World War I. We calculate he must be well over 100.  Fit with it, observed husband: ”he walked with a stick and his teeth were falling out but he was all there and his hearing was perfect”.

I’d like to spend a day beneath a tree with him, drinking tea and listening to his stories. He must have a few.

Thursday: Hat and I walk the dogs. Hat is wearing a skirt and for reasons unknown suddenly drops a curtsey in the dust.

– did you have to do that, Mum, she asks.

– what?

– curtsey, when you were little?

I’m not that old I tell her. I’m not 108 like the old boy her father met yesterday. Even if I sometimes look it.

Friday: Hat watches a movie on the telly, Harriet the Spy. It prods a long buried memory to shuffle to the forefront of my addled brain: her older siblings and I watched the same film in a cinema in England as I awaited her birth. It’s why she’s called what she is: I hadn’t considered the name until then.  It is about a girl of 11 who wants to be a writer. Like Hat: an eleven year old aspirant author. It’s why my own Harriet now wants a typewriter. A computer simply wouldn’t be the same.

– typewriters are a bit old fashioned, I tell her, it might be hard to fine one.

– but the Outpost is old fashioned, Mum …

What to say to that? It is. We’re in a time warp here. Dragging our feet in the dust, decades behind the rest of much racier well-heeled Tanzania.

– but why do you want a typewriter, I ask?

– I’d like to listen to the sound of the keys clacking.

The encouraging tune that accompanies writerly imagination.Perhaps that’s what I need …

Saturday: husband leaps out of bed very early to help a colleague butcher a pig they have purchased together. (This is an outpost, remember that: we don’t have the luxury of a selection of vacuumed packed meatcuts to choose from in the supermarket). He arrives home some hours later with kilos of pork including, I am thrilled to hear, the animal’s head. So that I can ”make brawn” apparently.

I wrinkle my nose at the suggestion so that husband knows exactly what I think of the idea.

I am definitely getting a typewriter. In hope that hearing the sound of my (pretence at) working as busy, important author will dissuade husband from making suggestions that I should occupy myself in kitchen in manner of 1920’s housewife.

– have you got a recipe then, for brawn?

And he begins to dig about my kitchen.

– Delia will have one, wont’ she?

– Delia is too young I tell him.  Try Mrs Beeton.

He pulls Isabella Beeton’s tome on being domestic goddess down from shelf. Several families of cockroaches vacate the pages.

– they know it’s a good place to hide, observes husband sagely.

Most of my recipe books are: where once (whilst still hell bent on becoming DG) I cooked often (and badly and too hastily) the pages are splashed with cake mixture and tomato sauce and lemon pips. Infrequent forays into new culinary adventures, however, means recipe books rarely get an airing.

Or cockroaches, clearly, evacuation.   

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.



The Need for Reinvention

March 1, 2008

Apart from the missionaries in their socks, sandals and tie-dye dresses and the volunteers, who wear earnest expressions, combats and Tivas, there are few women in the Outpost. Both those spreading the word and good works are very nice, but we share little in common – other than our geography.

Which means that my tiny social life is distilled further – to one shared, mostly, with the men husband works with. To begin with they regarded me nervously. The men. Perhaps they felt obliged to behave differently when a woman was unceremoniously dumped in their midst. But with time they have grown used to me. And I to them, and we have settled into a comfortable sort of friendship where nobody has to make much effort. They clearly no longer make special concession to the female amongst them, thankfully, for that would put everybody on edge. Now they carry right on and do the blokey stuff they did before I got here: they talk tobacco, they swear (and then look mildly apologetic – most of these boys are sweetly old fashioned), sometimes, when the evening has become especially long and beer sodden, they really relax and might fart. They regale one another with funny stories which make me laugh.  

Occasionally though, just occasionally (this being an outpost and all that jazz) one of them might bring a woman into the equation: invite her up from the capital or, even, more exotically, in from abroad. Such visitors always cause tremendous excitement and the bachelors are generous enough, because they understand the desperate need for new faces, to share their womenfolk briefly – over dinner or drinks or an afternoon barbeque.  

I, in particular, am especially greedy for female company: I miss that of my own gender acutely (I’m not a blokey girl by choice). Hat takes keen interest too but when I tell her that Mike has two ladies in for the weekend, she asks in horror, ‘TWO?!’.  

Yes I say impatiently: Two.  

But don’t they mind?  

Who? Doesn’t who mind?  

The ladies? Having to share Mike? 

Sometimes I think Hat’s regular – and often singular – exposure to adults might be confusing. 

They’re not his girlfriends, I reassure her. (Then, under my breath, ‘’though he is working on at least one’’: spend enough time in the company of just men and you will begin to think like them). 

So. In a state of agitation we ready ourselves for an evening out with The Girls. Hat and I both take care over our appearance. Ordinarily, for the lads, I’d bung on yesterday’s jeans and might drag a comb through my hair. If I can find one. Tonight I select an outfit carefully, pile washed hair on top of my head and dig out my lippy.  Any man who thinks his woman is dressing up for him is delusional. 

And off we go. To the one watering hole in town. To meet our illustrious weekend visitors. Introductions are made and we women carefully size one another up. 

Me because I need to ascertain how serious a relationship with Tom/Dick/Harry might become: this woman could become a neighbour which may, depending on what she’s like, be a very good, or a really bad, thing. 

And she because she can’t quite believe another woman would choose to live here. 

I ask most of the questions. Not because I sometimes call myself a journalist, but because the dearth of company over the past 2, 3, 4, weeks means a lot of conversation has accumulated and I need to offload at the first opportunity. 

She, when she has finished telling me about her glossy career, her fabulous social life (amazing and eclectic circle of really interesting people in Dar, you know?) and herself, might ask me whether I live here. 

No, I just find it so appealing I hang out here every weekend. Of course I live here you daft Bat. You think I’d bar-fly in this joint if I could be anywhere else? 

’Yes’’, demurely, ‘’I live here’’. 

And what I do. 

And this is where it could get interesting. Because it is at this point that I, feeling a bit pissed off (and possibly even a little pissed ) am overcome by the most horrifying compulsion to lie. 

She presumes that I must be dull or stupid or lazy because I have not carved out a life for myself somewhere racier. (I cannot be bothered to deliver my Standing By My Man speech). And so the impulse to reinvent myself just to grab her attention, to remind her that you mustn’t ever, ever judge books by covers (no matter how dusty or old or faded) is overwhelming. 

Shall I, I ponder, tell her that I am here to save Africa on behalf of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie (to whose daughter I am Godmother btw)? Or should I regale her with a tale about being in a witness protection program (“I am here for my own safety” I’d say, in a conspiratorial whisper). Could I kid her into believing I’m employed to scout for a Tanzanian baby for Mia Farrow or Madonna’s growing and cosmopolitan brood?  Shall I pretend I’m an ex Page 3 girl (whose bust has undergone significant reduction, clearly) who has made her millions and is now perfectly content to lead a life of quiet domesticity? Could I persuade her that a late Great Uncle bequeathed me squillions providing I experienced a degree of hardship first (‘and once I’ve proved myself’, I’d elaborate, ‘I’m going to take up residence at my other home: in Beverely Hills/Chelsea/Monaco”).  Or could I delude her into believing my own late father was the love child of the Queen Mother (from an illicit relationship with a Scottish stable hand) and in order to keep the story out of the Pap’s hands (and camera lenses) I am obliged to live in splendid isolation? With a handsome allowance, naturally. 

Doubtless I could dupe her into believing anything. It’s already unbelievable enough that – on the face of it at least – a sane person would actually choose to live here.  And here is where I am. Talking to a woman I’d really looked forward to meeting but who isn’t remotely interested because she dismissed me the moment she clapped eyes on me as No Life Nobby No Mates. 

I write, I say. And I teach Hat. 

Oh. She says. 


Wish I’d lied.  

Next time …  

Living on the Moon

February 27, 2008

Hat is writing a story for a science project, the essence of which – because we are comparing the environments of other bodies in our solar system – is how one would survive if one was stranded on the moon.

I urge Hat to consider criteria such as the temperature on the moon compared to that here on earth, the lack of much in the way of gravity.

She waves me away.

It’ll be easy she says, I know what living on the moon would be like already.

How, I want to know.

Because I live here, Mum, in an outpost.

She’s not wrong.

The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse

February 8, 2008

There was once a Town Mouse and a Country Mouse.

The Country Mouse rarely went out, for there was nowhere to go and precious few people to meet. She scuttled about her tiny little house living her hermetic existence and eating leafy green salads from her own pocket handkerchief garden for lunch. She read. She wrote. She played with her offspring: most had scrambled out of her homely little nest and only returned sporadically to raid the fridge, get their laundry done and ask for increased allowances. But there was one left, the youngest, a constant source of amusement and companionship for our sometimes lonely Country Mouse, who never wore shoes but padded about in her barefeet (nail polish peeling from toes) and the same pair of scruffy shorts day after day. Her hair – too long now – was always screwed into an untidy knot at the back of her head.

The Town Mouse by comparison barely sat still. There were lunches (in town, naturally) to be had (paninis sweating cheese and glasses of red wine). Hair appointments to attend, pedicures to enjoy (Town Mouse always has perfectly painted red toenails), shops to trawl (even when she wasn’t buying). She was exhaustingly social, darting hither and thither and catching up with friends over too much coffee. There were school runs to do and mothers to either avoid or gossip with in the car park, there was a daughter to collect each afternoon, excited chatter to listen to, sleepovers to arrange. There were movies to see (Enchanted), dinner parties to attend. She always wore shoes and remembered to change her clothes and brush her newly done tresses every day.

The Country Mouse – despite feeling bereft of company from time to time – was never short of peace and quiet and time to find the right words. The Town Mouse barely had a moment to spare in her hectic schedule. She didn’t get enough sleep and her waistband – on account of the indulgence that attends regular meals out – was growing disconcertingly tight.

The Country Mouse visited the Town Mouse and despite the initial novelty of restaurants and cinemas and hair salons, it wasn’t long before she began to feel a little broke, a bit fatter, more tired than she was used to. It wasn’t long before she began to yearn for a little bit of space. A slower pace.

Funny that.

She hadn’t expected that.






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.


 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.