Archive for the ‘outpost life’ Category

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.

Rose Tinted Spectacles

January 26, 2008

We are eking out our Christmas chocolates (not because we are saintly in our approach to all things confectionary  but because Treats – butter, cheese, nice fat roasting chickens, good chocolates – are hard to come by in the Outpost); we’ve got to the Quality Street: saving the best till last.

Quality Streets elicit teeth achingly sweet memories of childhood: my favourite then was the flat golden wrapped toffee. My choice has matured to the big purple one with the nut in the middle.

After supper Hat makes her selection with infinite care.

”Can I have three?”

”No, you can have two”.

This just slows up her deliberations because I’ve limited her choice.

”Have this one”, I proffer …. ”and this one”. (They are the Chocolate Orange Creme and the Strawberry Delight: which husband and I hate and she loves; imperative to have a lover of the orange and strawberry chocolates in any family or you’ll have to share the Caramel Swirls and Vanilla Fudge).

I digress.

Hat unwraps her chocolates and as I watch her smooth the colourful cellophane of each one to flatness on the dining table I am struck by another memory.

”I used to do that”, I tell her as I watch, ”when I was little.  And then I used to make spectacles using the coloured paper as lenses”.

Hat smiles, ”did you mummy?”

”Yes, I did, look”. And I pick the red wrapper up and put it to an eye. My world has gone pink.

”Rose tinted spectacles”, I say.

Hat, who is experimenting with a blue and a yellow asks, ”what does that mean?”

People who look on the bright side of life are sometimes said to be wearing rose tinted spectacles.

”I’m going to make some glasses like that, Mum, I’m going to make some with …. ” and she thinks …. ”green on one side and orange on the other.”

I laugh again.

”And then, when we go to Arusha I’m going to go to Shoprite (the largest supermarket in town) wearing my glasses and I’m going to wave at all my friends” (and she gets up from the table and minces around it waving at unseen crowds like a red carpet treading celeb might).

”People will think you’ve gone potty living in the bush” I tell her, “wearing your home-made glasses with different coloured lenses!”.

“So what?” she retorts, ”I shall them I’m looking on the bright side”.

So what indeed. Perhaps I’ll make some for myself.

My Big Toe Hurts

January 24, 2008

I do not blog because I approach life with such rampant enthusiasm I cannot bear to let an unrecorded moment slip by; I do not blog because I think I lead an enviably fascinating life that everybody is just busting to read about. 

I blog because I’m lonely. 

Yup. That’s me: the poor sad cow who talks to herself in cyberspace.  

Because there’s nobody here to talk to. 

Except darling Hat, of course, who suffers her mother’s frustrations at life in an Outpost with characteristic charm and sweetness and generosity: ‘It’s OK, Mum, you can talk to me”. 

And I can: about Barbie’s or what’s on the telly or what to cook or what to sew or when to swim or go for a walk, about the wonderful and briefly illuminating characters she introduces me to. We talk about lots of things.

But I cannot talk to her about how desperately isolating I find this place. 

That’d be unfair.  

Not to say churlish: if she is graceful enough to understand why we need to be here, old enough, at just ten, to accept that; why aren’t I? 

And my husband. I talk to him: about what’s on the news, or his day, or where we can escape to when we manage to get away.  But I cannot moan perpetually to him about being lonely. For he’d lose patience and get cross with me and then he wouldn’t talk to me about what’s on the news or his day or where we’re going on holiday. He wouldn’t talk to me at all. 

But it is lonely. 

Imagine a place where there is nothing to do unless you drive the entertainment yourself. And nowhere to go. Nowhere. Not unless you are prepared to undertake an expedition in a 4WD. (My forays out are either to Kaidi’s duka for milk or the market for bananas). The Outpost is almost 100 miles from an asphalt road. Almost three hundred from the nearest big town (where one could shop, a bit, or people watch, a bit, or eat out at more than one place). And it’s five hundred miles from anywhere to shop in a proper shop (the kind you might happily browse in), have lunch with a girlfriend, order a cappuccino, get your hair done. It is miles from a game park (despite being in the middle of the bush) and the other side of the country from the coast. It is as if it has been dropped from some celestial body high above onto the loneliest African plains on a passing whim. The only place to escape to is into yourself. Which I do: I climb into the pool and plough up and down until I am so weak knee’d and winded from the effort that I can’t think straight. And that’s good. 

People articulated concern when I moved here. But with feigned ebullience I told them, ‘’oh it’ll be fine, I’ll keep busy’. 

And I do. In a wafty sort of directionless way. For there is little to punctuate the beginning and the end of the day, like school runs (imagine missing your school run so much it almost makes you weep?!). Where once I set my alarm for 6 to get the kids up and out the door for school by seven, there is no real need to get up with any urgency here; I can begin school whenever I like: 8, 9, 10. And that’s not entirely a good thing. Where once I parcelled my chores into a few hours in order to tear across town to pick the children up, now I can take all day faffing. And that’s not a good thing either. 

Days go by and I see nobody other than my daughter, my husband, Sylvester the garden boy, Kaidi for a pint of milk. 

I need to practice having a conversation I tell myself but I find picking up the phone harder than it was once: which friend haven’t I called so recently that she’ll see my number and say ‘’oh gawd, not again, why doesn’t she get a sodding life!””. 

For I have so little to say. Other than ‘I taught, I walked, I wrote, I wished I weren’t so bloody far away.

’Hi there, it’s me’’. Again. 

‘’Oh hi, just dashing to town’’. 

‘’Oh. Right. Is this a bad time then?’’ 

‘’No, no, but I can’t chat long’’. 

‘Oh. Ok” 


‘’Well .. how are you? Busy? How are the kids?’’ 

‘’Fine, fine, very busy, never a spare moment, had visitors last weekend, got some more this weekend, going to an art exhibition and drinks on Saturday and got to host a birthday party for Jack on Sunday. God. Manic’’.  

‘’Right’’. (Lucky you). 

‘’How are you?’’, distractedly. I think she’s talking to somebody else at the same time. 

‘’Oh fine. You know. Bearing up. Bit lonely’’. 

A laugh, then, ‘’C’mon, it can’t be that bad.  There must be somebody to talk to?’’ 

‘’No. Not really’’.  

There’s the missionaries (who are very nice but a long ago memory of distant attempt by same to convert me to full blown bible reading Christianity has unnerved me), there’s a few do-good volunteers (who I’m sure are also very nice, very young, about my son’s age).  

‘’Anyway, look, sorry, I must run – I’m off to get my hair done, how delicious is that? And then I’m going to meet C for lunch’’. 


‘’Oh. Ok then. Bye. Talk soon’’. 

And I put the receiver down and wish I hadn’t called for now I feel emptier than before. 

I am lucky: I have a husband who loves me (most days), three glorious children whom I adore (most days – even if two of them are too far away to tell them that often enough), a home (in an ideal world not the home of my choice: but a home nonetheless) and a better internet connection than I’ve ever had. And I’m lucky because I can look forward to lunch. In Africa not a lot of people can do that. 

But I crave company and I long for the noise and bustle and pace of a busier world at times (getting away from it all isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, particularly not when you get this far away). 

One of my dearest friends (who remembers not to sound in too much of a hurry whenever I call) once told me, ‘it’s still your big toe that hurts’’.  

And when I’m lonely, it really does. It stings like hell and makes me forget that living in an Outpost absolutely isn’t the most difficult thing to cope with in the world.  

Even if it sometimes feel like it.    

My Week in Media

January 23, 2008

I’ve been tagged! I’ve been tagged! (Sorry, I’m just not cool enough to be blase about any kind of recognition). And by a proper, grown-up, does it for real journalist in Africa too, South of West (as opposed to wife, mother of three, pretending-to-be-journalist so she has something interesting to say at parties even though recent geography means there aren’t any to go to: hangups linger long). Thank you Mr Crilly.

And because of that I am obliged to tell you what I’ve read, watched, listened to and surfed in the past few days. Which really will go to show I’m not a proper journalist because my reading, viewing, listening and surfing aren’t nearly lofty enough to qualify for that. I only pretend to read the Spectator to impress people, in the hope they will be seduced into believing I’m alot cleverer than I am. When all I do in actuality, apart from tossing it nonchalantly onto the coffee table so that it’s seen, is alternate between salivating and giggling at Deborah Ross’s restaurant reviews.

So. To what I’ve read:

Deborah Ross. The Week (when I can find it). Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (and I had a job finding that last night too, so deeply buried was it beneath unread copies of the Spectator), ”what the bloody hell are you doing?” asked husband crossly. ”Trying to find my book” I replied just as crossly. ”Why don’t you leave it on your bedside table like normal people do?” I didn’t have an answer for that so continued to dig and finally unearthed it along with several dusty cuttings from the Sunday Times which have been lingering for months and which I still haven’t got round to reading. If I hadn’t found Salmon Fishing … I’d have picked up where I left off with Robert Guest in The Shackled Continent. ”Why do you have so many books beside your bloody bed, anway” asks irritated husband. Because, I tell him, in pompous voice I use when addressing him as the journalist I sometimes pretend I am, ”some are for relaxation, some are for research; Guest is research, for when I write my own bestseller on Africa”.

”And what’s the Spectator for then?”

”So that I know which restaurants to avoid. In the unlikely event I ever get near any of them”.

What I’ve Watched

Hannah Montana. Alot. Hat likes it and so if I find myself anywhere in the vicinity of her and the telly early evening, it’s Hannah she watches whilst I pretend not to. Because I’m too busy writing.

But it’s fine darling, you can still watch, it won’t distract me.

Are you sure Mum

Quite sure.

Then why can’t I hear you typing.

I also watch Sky, BBC World and, like South of West, BBC Food; Hat and I watch that together. And drool. Why can’t we make things like that to eat, Mum, she says, we ought to cook more. Being desperately hopeless housewife and failed DG I remind her (with sigh of relief as I count lucky stars, not something I do often on account of where I live) that Kaidi’s local duka does not sell mozarella or mascarpone or flaked almonds or pecan nuts. If it’s packet creme caramel you’re after, that’s great. If not, tough.

Last night I watched dire Romantic Comedy (I ought to know better: when is romance ever comical? really?) starring Richard Gere (who was once apparently famous for his association with a gerbil and more recently with Shilpa Shetty). Why do I do it? Waste 120 minutes in front of mindless drivel? Because, I suspect, I can’t decide what to read?

 If it’s Sunday, I watch Carte Blanche which usually reminds me what a desperate place Africa often is.

OK – what I’ve listened to:

BBC World Service, if I can get to the controls on the satellite radio beside husband’s bed first. TalkSport it not.

My ipod. Very loudly. Skipping the ghastly stuff eldest daughter uploaded onto it and replaying endlessly the stuff I did. It helps me to concentrate whilst writing. Mainly because it helps to distract me from Hannah Montana if I happen to be pretending to write in same room as Hat whilst she’s watching telly …

And finally what I’ve surfed

The Times, most days, and the Daily Mail. The Times because I aspire to be serious journalist. The Daily Mail because there is something deeply satisfying in knowing celebs don’t sport the looks they do because of luck or genes or macrobiotic diets.

This week surfing has been dictated by three commissions (no really, I’m not just saying that) – one on tobacco growing in Africa (big serious grown up piece), one on eating disorders (sadly on the up, a backlash to the antiobesity message?) and the third a contentious investigation into whether or not dads ought be encouraged into the delivery room or not.

I’ve also spent alot of time on the BBC’s learning sites in an effort to make Hat’s science lessons more interesting for her and less overwhelming for me. Never a scientist anyway, I am defeated by circuits, simple machines and that whole solid, liquid, gas thing. And whilst so doing I have stumbled across the BBC’s ingenious GCSE Bitesize revision pages . I told my son who sits his exams in four months about my find. He didn’t sound as thrilled as I’d hoped he might.

I also spend time every day checking out the depression stories delivered to my inbox by Google alerts. Sometimes I read encouraging stories: about new and realistic treatments that are being developed. Sometimes I read impossibly ridiculous ones: doctors who think Botox will cure depression – if a person cannot look depressed (because they cannot frown, say, or look sad),  they will not feel it. There’s educated reason for you. Sometimes, and at the moment in particular, my depression stories are about collapsing markets and global slumps. Which I suppose isn’t so different?

I’m going to tag Potty Mummy, Iota and Primal Sneeze if they can bear it because I think between them they’ll give us a good geographical spread on media: UK, the States and Ireland.

K. Bye now. Off to read the Speccie …

A Unlikely Visitor for Supper

January 21, 2008

Last night Sir Jack came for supper.

I hadn’t expected a visitor, Hat only alerted me to possibility of a guest whilst she was wallowing in her bath:

 Can one of my friends come round, Mum?

Sure. Where are you going? (Hat, of course, disappeared when both Madame Marcia and Marcella made their appearances)

My friend is the captain of a ship, I’m going to have supper with his crew.

Oh. Right.

Later, making scrambled egg (which is what constitutes dinner in the home of failed Domestic Goddesses), guest shambled into the kitchen.

He was wearing a large hat which obscured his face and walked with an obvious limp. Whilst on one foot he wore a boot (which looked remarkably like one I own), the other leg appeared to be missing both foot and boot.

Hello, said visitor gruffly in a really dodgy Cockney accent (not dissimilar to the one Hat had been practising for a couple of days enquiring whether she sounded ”English”), ”I’m Sir Jack”.

Oh hello, I said, trying not to giggle as I proffered a hand to shake. A hook (which I swear was the curled end of a metal coat hanger) shot out in response.

Good grief, I said, what on earth happened to your hand Sir Jack? … And your foot come to think of it. In fact, where is your foot?

Not wishing to be forward but unable to help myself, I tugged up the leg of my guest’s voluminous trousers (not something I would do ordinarily, really). I thought I caught a movement, a foot hastily retreating up inside the leg of his pants, but perhaps I’m just being uncharitable. For all I saw was a stick. A peg leg.

”Bloody sea lion”, said Sir Jack, ”ripped off my hand and my foot”.

Heavens I said, why did it do that?

“It was sitting on the X”.


”Yes, yes”’, he said impatiently, ”on the X Marks The Spot on my treasure map, had to move it off so I could get to my gold, innit?”.

Oh dear I say with as much concern as I can muster (despite swallowing laughter).

”It’s not funny, you know, bloody thing’

Your language, I remonstrate, is shocking.  I never swear, I say (madly crossing fingers)

No, he replies as quick as a flash, you just speak French instead.

Did my daughter tell you that?

She might ‘ave.

He stalked about my kitchen as I bunged bread into the toaster and opened a can of Baked Beans, his peg clipping against the floor.

And then I swore I heard him pass wind.

”You filthy bugger!” I said, feigning outrage.

“I seen a lot more filthy things in my time than you áve young lady”, he retorted without a trace of shame.

Having introduced Sir Jack to husband we all sit down to eat our eggs on toast.

I am aghast at my guest’s manners. They are beyond shocking. He eats with his mouth open and scoops food up with the fingers of his one working hand.

Would you like a drink, Sir Jack? I enquire

 Gin. He says.

We’re out, says my husband shortly.

I watch his slovenly manners for a bit longer and then can’t resist commenting, ”your table manners are shocking Sir Jack, do you get many invitations to dinner?”

”You try eating with a hook”, he says.

I keep quiet after that.

Dinner over and Sir Jack gets up and lumbers off. As an afterthought he tosses a 2p coin onto the table, ”keep the change”, he instructs gruffly.

Ooooh thanks, I’ll try not to spend it all at once.

Seconds later Hat skips out to join me in the kitchen where I am clearing up.

”How was supper with the crew?” I ask.

Disgusting, she says, and they ate like pigs, no manners at all.

Funny that, I say, Sir Jack’s were lacking too.


My daughter’s forays into the world of Make Believe are a new thing. They have made their debut in our lives since we made ours in the Outpost. I cannot decide whether they are born of a desire to be entertained, to entertain us or because, like me, the isolation is driving her ever so slightly potty. But it doesn’t matter. For they are always a happy distraction and every visitor she introduces us to is a wonderfully, colourful character whose brief presence is hugley welcome in a place largely devoid of company.


Angels in the Outpost

January 20, 2008

Driving through town we encountered a swarm of motorcyclists, all bound, Hells Angel like, in similar direction.

They weren’t riding sleek Harleys (they were on livid coloured Chinese bikes with – from the experience of owning one ourselves once – stickers on the seats that warn of the dangers of drinking wine, not alcohol, wine, pre-mounting) and were not dressed in leathers.

Where on earth are they all going? I asked bemused husband as we watched stream of solemn riders turn at a junction whilst we waited.

It wasn’t until the tail enders came into view that we guessed: they were members of a long wedding procession; we found ourselves behind two ample figured bridesmaids, riding pillion and dressed in green.


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?


January 16, 2008

I am struck by the Outpost’s voluptuousness at present; it (she?) seems fatly content and sleek in comparison to other regions. Driving as we do, across enormous distances, we traverse the country’s contours and some seem harshly barren and skinny, maize is stunted, skies white hot blue, clouds measly ribbons of papery inadequacy, melting to nothing under a merciless sun.

Not here though. Here the sky is full of fat black clouds pregnant with the promise of rain. More rain.  The earth has bled into deep puddles thick with mud. The mango trees are lushly emerald green and the flamboyant, stripped of flowers now, are sporting long sausage seed pods, a pledge that next season’s fiery blooms will be just as plentiful. More so. The grass is long, my lawn, from the dust bowl that it was, must be cut twice a week, it feels deliciously thick beneath bare feet: shagpile thick. The cress I planted at the base of a palm is long legged and gangly. The salad bowl beckons. The cattle and goats are no longer lean hipped and the women’s derrieres spill over the backs of bicycles so that it’s hard not to notice. One wears a kanga decorated with dollar signs. Apt. And hilarious. Booty as bounty.

Even the shade is plump. Gloriously plump so that there is ample under which to take refuge in the still heat before the storm.

Africa isn’t often fat. The extra poundage born of good rains won’t last long. But it looks beautiful whilst it’s here.

I wish the same could be said of my thickened post Christmas middle.

Back to School

January 10, 2008

Tomorrow, before dawn, six of us will squeeze into the car with an indecent amount of luggage, a picnic brunch, some bedding (because one cannot expect even the best hostesses’ linen cupboards to stretch to accomodating a brood of six without supplementing sheets and towels) and we will drive the 750 klm towards school in the north.

Mum will fly back to England on Sunday. And the big kids will go back to boarding school on Monday and we three, Hat, Husband and I will turn tail and drive the 750 klm home early on Tuesday.

The car will be quieter. Our brunch will be a rather solitary and solemn affair and there will be leftovers for the first time in a month.

Just as there will be too many dry towels.

How to have a Jolly Good Funeral

January 8, 2008

Yesteday evening we witnessed a funeral cortege whilst out walking. My options for a ramble here are limited – it’s either snake infested dam walls or sandy paths that circumnavigate the local cemetary.

The coffin, which was huge, more of a hefty square than loosely corpse outlining polygon, was draped in a vivid red and gold blanket and held aloft by four men who were jogging towards the graveyard. Why are they running, I wondered? Perhaps the coffin’s heavy, suggested Mum. Perhaps they are worried the rain is coming? Perhaps, I mused, it’s just the end of the day and they’re tired and hungry?

The pall bearers were tailed by sporadically straggling groups of people, mourners you might imagine, some dragging children, one or two with goats and the occasional attendee on a bicycle. Most looked remarkably cheerful given they were presumably, though not certainly, grieving their dead: some were likely just interested passers-by who fancied the opportunity for a little social intercourse on the way home.

Citizens of the poverty stricken Third World are more pragmatic about death than we are. Probably because they have to be I explained to Amelia, ”because they face so much illness and disease” I said solemnly.

”Duh, Mum, Illness and disease are the same thing”.

Ah yes. So they are.

And as a consequence funerals are both regular and well attended occasions. It’s rare to see mourners arrive on foot (except in a place like the Outpost), frequently they follow a make-shift hearse (usually a pickup truck festooned with flowers) in long cavalcades of slowly moving vehicles bedecked with vibrant bougainvillea, their hazard lights blinking and horns blaring in a noisy semblance of untidy union, all full of women weeping, ululating or catching up on the latest gossip.

I hope my funeral’s that well attended I say to Amelia.

She tells me that in some societies, in the old days (which because she’s 14 could mean as recently as the 1980’s) people would leave money in their will in order to pay people to attend lest mourners were a little thin on the ground.

I hope she’s not suggesting I do the same?