Archive for the ‘pets’ Category

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?

Animal Farm

November 22, 2007

I was supposed to go home to the Outpost on Monday.

But I didn’t. Because Hat was too ill.

I awoke in the middle of the night on Sunday to a plaintive little voice by my ear:

Mummy, I feel horrid, my head is so sore.

It must have been; it was very hot.

By 8am we were in the clinic in town repeating blood tests for the fourth time in as many days. The kindly Indian doctor whom we saw decided to treat her for malaria despite no evidence of parasites on slides – ‘we cannot afford to take a risk’, he said, and typhoid, presumably for the same reason: no point in taking risks. Hat, chalk white with big black circles under her eyes, began to throw up into a plastic shopping bag.

The rest of my day was spent monitoring and coaxing sips of water into her. If she doesn’t drink, said the doctor, we’ll have to admit her and put up a drip. Hat’s seen the inside of the local hospital enough times to know she’s not especially keen on a sleepover. She drank.

By Tuesday, though, she was much better. Head less sore. Pallor less ghostly.

By Wednesday one of the flock of sheep owned by the generous friends who have tolerated our presence in their lovely home for almost two weeks obliged by producing a lamb. Whilst his mother was out grazing, Hat stepped in as nanny. The lamb, which she has named Rug, took to his day time charge with alacrity and skipped around the garden behind her. When he grew tired, Hat scooped him up and folded him into her lap on the verandah whilst she read her book.

I didn’t like having a bad headache, she confided, but I do like looking after a lamb which I wouldn’t have been able to do if I hadn’t got sick.

School, needless to say, has gone by the board for now. Partly because she’s been so unwell. But also because I cannot force her nose to books and long division when there are lessons in life happening a spit from where she eats her breakfast.  Speech marks and verb identification can wait whilst she absorbs something else. She, somewhat predictably, wants to take the lamb home to the Outpost.

You can’t, I tell her, at least not until it’s weaned.

It has already, she says excitedly (for surely this means it will be hers now), all over the bedroom floor and I cleaned it up – just to prove she is responsible enough to own a lamb.

Weaned, honey, I say. Not wee’d.


House sitting, dog sitting, duck sitting …

November 15, 2007

Hat and I are house-sitting.

And dog-sitting.

And cat-sitting.

And geese-sitting …

The glorious menagerie of animals we are trying to remember to feed is long. They all inhabit a garden resplendent with – at the moment – flamboyant and jacaranda trees in bloom beyond which we can see the towering massif of Mt Meru. We spend hours on our temporarily adopted verandah and laugh at the antics of the sixteen geese – which Hat has begun to name – and half a dozen ducks. Hat feeds the geese; two will take from her hands.

Try Mum, she says, they won’t bite you.

They do.

But it doesn’t hurt, does it, she asks concernedly.

No, it doesn’t. More a tug than a bite.

The six dogs we’re keeping company vie with the geese for their food which makes the geese cross. Which makes them shriek indignantly.

Their voices are supplemented by the haunting cry of a fish eagle resident in a tree just outside the garden. He’s watching in case Mrs Duck is careless with her two remaining ducklings, one black, one yellow, as she was with the two the Fish Eagle has already eaten.

The call of the owls that live in the vast fig tree in the garden is less ominous. There is a family of them, with three young, still covered in fluffy down. I think Papa Owl is teaching his young to fly, he tempts them out in the evening and we watch him swoop to a nearby fence post upon which he sits gently encouraging his chicks forth. Evidence of young appetites is abundant beneath their fig tree home: the prickly husks of hedgehogs: the owls have delicately peeled away the thorny exterior – as you might peel skin from an apple for a fussy child – and tossed them to the ground.

Sometimes the cats join us in our bird watching: they are both marmalade and one is – Hat tells me – 135 in cat years. He looks remarkably better than I do on a bad morning and I’m significantly younger than that in human years. When Hat’s not feeding geese, she’s feeding marmalades: milk and mince. We sat with well-fed cats on laps this morning and watched the geese bully the ducks around the garden and all our feathered charges as they raced about feasting on the flying ants which had emerged during a night of soft rain.

Hat has been to proper school whilst we’ve been here – with real live children and proper teachers (as opposed to lizards and her mother) and she told me she enjoyed it. On day three, though, yesterday, she came home with a roaring fever. I suppose the splendid isolation to which she has grown used means her immunity isn’t what it could be: stick her in a school of 200 and she’s a magnet for the myriad viruses in the playground which must leap with delight upon her pristine and clearly poorly exercised resistance.

Consequently she’s not at school today: she is feeding geese, watching owls, and curling up with cats.

We’re waiting for her brother to come back from England where he is writing a scholarship exam.   Her big brother engaging in the most conventional type of education and Hat immersed in the least.

Funny that. But so long as they’re both reasonably happy at opposite ends of the learning spectrum.

And I think they are?



August 20, 2007

I have assumed, perhaps naturally, in light of some opposition, a somewhat defensive – and idealistic – attitude to my homeschooling efforts.

There are times – though – when I wonder whether I’m getting my messages across.

A science lesson. And I pose a question, as per my weighty Teaching Manual, ”why is it easier to remove a metal lid from a jam jar when you run warm water over the lid?”

Hat ponders this for a moment. Trying not to yawn. I am hoping she might tell me what the manual indicates I ought to hear: that the warm water causes the metal to expand which makes loosening the lid easier.

She doesn’t. She says ”because if you’ve left all sticky honey on the inside, the warm water will wash it off and you can unstick the lid”.

Not what the academics were looking for, I grant you, but hardly incorrect. Espeically given own housekeeping skills or lack of: Bovril jar in particular is a bugger to get off on account of sticky lid scenario.

Today, during history, we examined what earlier civilisations had brought us: Icarus a passion for flight; the Mexcans rubber, Leonardo da Vinci what eventually became the bicycle chain. Hat was enthralled. Less yawning.

Later – after school – she demanded a box, so, she informed me, “I can make an old fashioned chariot”.

I congratulated myself for getting message across apparently effortlessly and her for pursuing historical interest outside of the classroom.

She cut a door in the box, made cardboard strips to simulate yoke, added string as a harness and furnished her chariot with a pink silk cushion. Then she attempted to push Cat 1, Orlanda, into the box in order to give her a ride around the house. Needless to say Orlanda wasn’t keen to partake of Hat’s historical adventure and reversed back out. Unfazed Hat began to cut what she called a ”drop hole” in the top of the box but no sooner had she ”dropped” Orlanda in than she shot out. Still determined to give the cat the ride of her life, Hat gathered up a handful of dagaa – the small dried fish we get here – posted them thru the drop hole and pushed temptation into Orlanda’s path. Cat sniffed, shot in and grabbed bounty and bolted.

Hat gave up with her and – bravely I thought – went in search of foul temptered Cat 2, Moshi, who had obviously already been alerted as to waiting fate by Orlanda’s complaining for she began to struggle and growl the moment Hat picked her up. Hat – wisely – before cat took her nose off, dropped her. Moshi ran away to hide and now Hat is entertaining herself with a game of Hide and Seek with two cats.

If nothing, Hat has honed her cardboard cutting prowess and is now learning something about animal behaviour: namely that cats aren’t into history.

Wild Child

August 19, 2007


I harboured shades of anxiety about plucking a child from what was her normality – indeed normality per se – and popping her back down in a quite alien environment. 

Hat no longer goes to conventional school, she has no like-minded peers close by to play with, no birthday parties to go to, no need to host her own (oh Thank God!), no proper shops and – especially – no siblings at home now to spar with. Except for the fact we – her parents – a collection of familiar animals and her doll’s house are in Outpost with her, her life has morphed beyond recognition.

She’s just the same, though. She’s the same old happy Hat.

Yesterday, walking by the dam, armed with a walking stick and a stick of sugar cane bought on the roadside which, when she tired of carrying it, she threaded through the belt loops at the back of her shorts, Hat commented that she liked being a Wild Child.

(She means a child living in the bush, not socialite Tamara Beckwith/Tara PT Wild Child)


I like being able to take my boots off and squelch my toes in the mud and my mum won’t get cross.

(I could hardly get cross after that, could I? And I can’t see either of aforementioned Wild Children – Tamara or Tara – enjoying mud-through-toes-sensation or anything else about Hat’s wilderness for that matter)

What else?

I like having lots of wild animals.

But we don’t have lots of wild animals, I reminded her, the wildest we got was chickens from the local market (and they’ve all turned up their toes).

No, but I will collect wild animals.

Like what, I wanted to know.

Like guinea fowl, she said.

How are we going to get guinea fowl, I enquired.

You are going to get me some guinea fowl eggs and I am going to put them under a chicken’s bottom (clearly unfazed by recent poultry raising failure) and we will have guinea fowl.

And with that my Wild Child skipped off to hold hands with her dad, swinging her walking stick, sugar cane still in situ.



August 17, 2007

I lay in the dark last night unable to sleep for the thoughts that were running a relay race in my head: my son is settling into boarding life, my daughter is not – not yet – there have been tearful phone calls and dozens of angst ridden text messages. I thought about them. I thought about what Hat and I had done at school; I thought about Priscus and Seneca and Attila the Hun.

In the distance the traffic rumbled.


In Outpost?

I think not.

I strained my ears and the distant growl came again, nearer now: thunder.

I lay waiting, holding my breath. Please let it keep coming.

It did, closer and closer. Then with a hefty roar it ripped the sky open with jagged light, so bright, so brief I could have sworn a torch was being flashed into my eyes.

Big African skies – and I live under one of the biggest, emptiest ones, devoid normally of anything but white-blueness – make for great stages. The tempest raged theatrically: a huge, brilliant son et lumiere show in the heavens. But the applause, I wondered, where’s the applause?

And then it came. Tentatively at first. Shyly. Like a crowd afraid to clap too hard lest they disturb the actors’ rhythm: rain on the corrugated iron roof above where I lay. But the storm’s drama soon overwhelmed its audience and the clapping reached a crescendo, a thousand palms slapping hard.

Why do I battle to sleep in any environment other than the absolutely silent. Why did I, racked with insomnia, fall alseep to the raucous standing ovation the skies were receiving?

Because there is no sound in Africa so good as a downpour. There is so scent so deeply intoxicating as rain on dust – and that outside my window was greedily sucking up every drop to quench months’ long thirst.

I woke to a dark dawn to hear the sound of birds happily bathing in puddles and the drip of water from the gutters: last night’s stragglers.

And then I went to brew coffee, and observed the pleasing dampness outside and the less pleasing sight of metal mozzi mesh and wooden slats that had been ripped from the back door.

The askari – nightwatchman- when he came to from where he was (perhaps not suprsingly) curled up asleep, told me the destruction was the result of the cat trying to get in. Not unless she was armed with a pair of wire cutters and wearing gloves could she have wreaked such damage. Besides, if she wanted to get in, why not use the perfectly good cat flap she has been using for the four months since I cut it?

 So rain and a potential raid, apparently.


August 7, 2007

That’s not Henrietta, mum.

It is.

It’s not.

 How do you know?

Henrietta had a blue band around her foot, this chicken doesn’t.

Yes, but I took the band off because I was afraid it’d begin to dig in and make her sore.

A bit later.

That’s not Henrietta, Mum.

It is.

It’s NOT. Henrietta was all quiet and had her eyes half closed yesterday, this chicken is running around and making a noise.

Yes, well, Henrietta’s feeling better today, that’s all.

Later. In tears.

That chicken is not mine, Mum. My Henrietta had black feathers under her white ones.

What could I say to that? that I’d taken her Henrietta to the Chicken Beauty Salon and had her roots done before breakfast.

No, Hat, I’m really, really sorry. That’s not Henrietta; I lied.

And then I told the truth. And through her tears my little Hat had the courage and the grace to say, ”thanks Mum”.

Gawd this job’s hard sometimes.

Would you have told the truth?

August 7, 2007

A dilemma. And a story.

The story:

Once upon a time there was an enchanting little girl called Hat who went to the market with her big sister. They knew their mum was having a tough day because she’d recently moved to Outpost in middle of the African bush and was getting cross with intermittent power/water/internet connection, so they bought her a chicken to cheer up. Which it did; their mum laughed for the first time that day. They called the chicken Henrietta. The next day a kindly neighbour brought Henrietta a boyfriend in the hope of increasing flock numbers. And the day after that, Hat and her dad and her big brother and sister spent all morning building a love nest/chicken house for Henrietta and Arnold.

Two days later, Henrietta disappeared. Hat was distraught. She escaped through a hole in the fence, said her mum, and James – who helps her mum water the lawn she hasn’t got yet – has gone to find her, her mum told her. An hour later Henrietta reappeared, with a pretty brown friend who Hat christened Hilda. Hat’s mum secretly thought perhaps Arnold’s amorous advances were exhausting Henrietta so she had embarked on developing a harem, to give herself the occassional night off. She didn’t tell Hat that though, she told Hat that every girl needs a good girlfriend: this was Henrietta’s and wasn’t she clever to have escaped to find her and bring her home for some good girly company.

Hat – of course – was elated. And the chickens looked happy too.

We anticipate they will live Happily Ever After because that’s what happens when stories begin Once Upon a Time.

The dilemma:

I woke early to discover Henrietta was stone cold dead. I was distraught. Not for me but for darling Hat who has tended her chickens with great care and lavished attention and fine food upon them.

What will I do, what will I do? I wailed to husband who was trying to come to peacefully with a cup of coffee.

Ask James to go to the market as early as possible and buy a replacement. And get rid of the bloody body, he instructed (in manner of serial killer which alarmed me further).

James dashed off on Ben’s bike with instructions to buy one white chicken and one other. Any colour. But a chicken, not another rooster.

Hat awoke. Where’s Henrietta she said worriedly. Oh I said, crossing my fingers (for the second time in a week because I was lying through my teeth) she escaped through a hole in the garden fence, James has gone racing off to find her.

What hole? she asked (she is no fool, my daughter).

Oh. I’ve fixed it, I said (in my pajamas).

Hat looks doubtful (more at my being able to fix anything I think, than implausile story about escapee hen), but swallows my explanations.

James comes beetling back with two chickens in a black plastic bag: one white one, Henrietta Mk II, and one brown: Hilda.

Hat is elated. Look, Hat, I say: Henrietta brought a friend back!  Hat is doubly delighted.

I can hear proper mothers out there frowning. I can hear them telling themselves that it’s important to use such experiences to bring lessons about life and death to children.

Yes. Sometimes it is.

But sometimes it isn’t.

Hat doens’t need lessons about death: she’s had enough in the last three years. Her beloved Granny Neville died, her dear great uncle Robo died and her black labrador, Marmite, died. None of them could be replaced sadly – and certainly not with a clone from the market – and all of them were ill before they died, something Hat witnessed.

It’s not often – as a parent – you can make it OK for a child when a pet (and in the Outpost most creatures will count as a pet) dies. In this instance I could. I fabricated a story, pulled a couple of chickens out of a black plastic bag and began my daughter’s day with delighted chickles and happy disbelief. Instead of tears and heartbreak.

Thanks to her clever dad’s suggestion and James’ pedal power at the break of dawn.



August 2, 2007


Yesterday my daughters went to the mitumba – literally in Kiswahili ‘second hand’ – market, to buy clothes (nowhere else here; it’s our equivalent of the mall. Or Marks and Spencer. Or Gap, depending on what you find).

I  had endured an especially challenging Outpost day and was lurching from crisis to crisis: the power, the water, sporadic internet connection. That I’d roared at poor kids, cowering dogs, world at large was faint hint to girls that I was teetering on the edge. I expect they were glad to escape.

They sent me a text, ‘we r havin fun we got u fantastik suprise’. I imagined a scarf. 


It was a chicken. . Hat was clutching her tightly when I went to collect them. A live chicken and a pair of jeans for Amelia, that’s what they got. (Beats the selection of items on offer at M&S?)

We got you a kuku, Mum. Do you like her? She’s called Henrietta. Now you can have eggs for breakfast every morning.

Henrietta was the nicest thing that had happened to me all day; of course I liked her.

She was fretted and fussed over when we got home; she slept in the store beneath an up-turned crate and had a plate of rice for her supper.  Hat shot out of bed at dawn to say good morning to her and let her ito the garden where she has busily scratched for insects all day.

Until a generous new neighbour bought her a boyfriend. Arnold is ugly and has no manners. He chases Henrietta about the garden in – I suppose – an effort to seduce. But Henrietta will have none of it, she dodges his amorous advances foiling the girls’ plans at chick rearing, which is a shame for they had coined dozens of lovely names for her offspring: Hugo, Hermione, Hero, Hilda, Humphrey …


Cooked Cats

June 5, 2007

Since their move, my cats have undergone a fundamental personality change.

Where once they could not bear to share the same space – hardly even the same house – they will now concede to share the same bed – mine – without so much as the hint of a spat never mind a full scale, fur flying, brawl.

Had I not heard the details of their transit to Outpost I would have been bemused.

A needlessly embarrassed friend, he who was arm-twisted into permitting my cats space on a flight he was making to Outpost, asked me, subsequent to the cats travels, whether my cats were behaving oddly at all. I had not seen them at that point but as far as husband could tell, they seemed perfectly well and remarkably relaxed about relocation.

Oh good said friend, visibly relieved.

I pressed him for details.

It transpired that on Check In, he had plonked briefcase, shoes, watch, belt, cell phone and – unwittingly – cat box onto conveyor belt into x-ray machine. It was a few seconds before he realized what he’d done and then only because airport security went mad as two feline skeletons showed up on the screens.

Aaaaagh! screamed the woman operating the machine, ‘what do you think you are you doing? You cannot put animals through the security x-ray!’ Several astonished tourists witnessed the proceedings as did my friend’s travel companions who suggested, laughing hard, that he may have a problem explaining to cats’ owner – me – that he’d nuked her pets.

I cannot decide whether the cats new found friendship is because their cerebral chemistry has been affected by irradiation or because the trauma of same has forged an alliance that previously did not exist.

No matter. For the house is more peaceful this way.