Archive for the ‘the farm’ Category

Just bricks and mortar?

August 4, 2007

I woke last night after only an hour’s sleep stricken with longing for my old home on the farm. It was quite sudden. And the pain of missing it almost brought me to tears as I lay there.

A dear, dear friend told me, as we anticipated this move, that houses were only bricks and mortar, that we took our memories with us – along with our families, our animals, boxes of books and cartons of carefully packed glass. And we do. But not all of them. 

I have moved from a home that felt like a ship, so huge and spacious and sturdy and bright that she – and the house felt like a she for her voluptous size and generous curves and arches – sustained me through six stormy years, to a house that is tiny and dark and meanly sharp cornered so that I keep stubbing my toes on furniture squeezed too tightly together and steps that oughtn’t be there.

As I lay in the semi gloom last night (it is never quite dark here for the neon lights from neighbours that taint the velvety blackness) I missed the scream of bushbabies and the incessant chatter of the toads that lived in the pond in the garden. In the Outpost I hear neither of those: only the hoot of midnight trains and tinny mustic rattling from some not distant enough bar.

Live in a home for long enough and everything is achingly familiar. The way the bathroom door needed to be pulled to tightly before it would click shut. The way the stairs leading to our bedroom used to echo the patter of the cat as she scampered upwards to sleep with us. The way I could watch the moon rise over the acacia from my bed for the door onto the balcony outside was always open. The way the ceramic tiles on the sitting room floor shone after they’d been polished with the old fashioned floor polisher I inherited from my mother (no need of it here, it hangs forlornly in the store redudant in the face of green painted cement).  Watching my daughters, oblivious to my observation, making fairy houses by the pond, watching my son – equally oblivious of my scrutiny – bowling against the garden wall imaginging he was at the Oval, listening to his solitary batting pratice as he rolled his cricket ball down the sharply inclied roof of our bedroom in the absence of anybody to bowl at him. The house inspired ingenuity in us.

I knew I would miss the house – all that space, huge windows to throw in the sunlight, history imprinted on ancient high beams – but I had not anticipated how animated the imprint of her essence would be.  She was a refuge for longer than anywhere had been since I got married. Within her walls I grew up enough to become me, not the person I thought I ought be.  I had the courage to withdraw my children from boarding school – in the face of vociferous protest and criticism – and enrol them in a day school so that the house rattled with early morning tantrums about homework and the whearabouts of PE kits, to late afternoon laughter over tea on the verandah when they all came home.  I began to write, to distract myself from the worry about the farm itself and to help earn a crust when my husband’s dues were not forthcoming. I forged fabulously rewarding friendships. I watched in horror and sadness as others floundered. I witnessed the very best of people in that house. And the absolute worst. 

Africa is fraught with security issues, most homes are a veritable Fort Knox: burglar bars and sirens, panic buttons and alarms.  You could have kicked the front door in to the house on the farm. We could have been murdered in our beds any night of the week. Yet nobody ever attempted to steal in, I was not afraid to be there on my own.

Within days of our leaving, though, an armed gang of fifteen had broken in and ripped from the house all they could carry, including a door from its hinges. Perhaps I was there as much to protect her as she shelter us.

As much as the farm was about destruction and bankcruptcy and disappointment, so the house – such irony – was about growth. The acacias we planted towered above the verandah roof when we left. Our two eldest children towered above me.

Until the wee hours this morning I lay wondering what would become of her – who would live there eventually (for she lies abandoned now, the weeds and grass vying with those acacia for height, shabby and sad and dejected after recent looting)? Whoever it is, I hope they love her as we did. I hope they understand that she’s more than just a house.

And then, having lain so long in the dark missing the midnight sounds of the farm, I switched on my lamp to read a recent copy of the Spectator.

The political opinion pages had me asleep within minutes. Perhaps I ought to have done that earlier. But then again, perhaps sometimes it’s important to really consider what home means?


Counting Blessings

July 23, 2007

We have moved from this …


beautiful painstakingly renovated barn, home for six years to this …


When I think about the space and light and elegantly generous proportions of our old house, when I remember it’s ancient beams, which inspired us to build about them, saving all we could find of the old as we went, squirrelling from dumps for appropriate treasures because we thought it’d always be home, and  when I want to weep for the very essence of a place I miss, I will myself to remember the tough stuff.  I consider that everything that was precious came with me: my family, my dogs, the pictures hanging on the walls.  And I remind myself that it will become home – most places do, given time.

But when it gets really bad and we’re falling over one another in the tiny, dark, faintly charmless bungalow that’s home now, I remember we’re earning a salary again. For the first time in a year.

That usually does the trick.

The Importance of Company … any company

May 22, 2007

The cats have arrived safely in Outpost. I locked them in a room together the night before they flew. That way, by dawn, when I had to load them, they’d said all they needed to loudly say to one another: had hurled so much abuse, thrown so many punches that they were spent and complained only softly and briefly, peering in worried confusion out of the bars of the cage in which they were incarcerated to travel. Husband assures me they are now locked up in new house, with bowls of food, saucers of milk and buttered paws (cleaning themselves prompt necessary surge of happy hormones so that they begin to settle. And stop them skidding gracelessly across cement floors). 

Relating cat dispatching experience to fellow mother in school car park and describing what I planned to do with geese (since you ask: a friend will baby sit them until I am sufficiently well organized with lawn and pond of which there is neither yet, just dust and an expectant hole) and dogs (drive to Outpost with me when I go in a week), she told me I sounded Sad. I told her she needed to understand more about Outpost before she dismissed me as Sad; in Outpost you’d be wise to welcome all the company you can get whether it’s a cat rubbing up against your foot as your sit writing, a goose bossing a Hadada ibis outside or a Labrador pleading to be taken for a walk.  With the cats gone I was free to load the last lorry. Not a removals van or a sealed truck. No, a shaky sided, open-to-the-elements, affair which was packed in haphazard fashion with – amongst other things – half a dozen trees which I have carefully uprooted, including mango trees (if there was ever a case of coals to Newcastle, this was it: where I am going is Mango Tree capital of the world).  

Are you sure my trees are going to be OK? I asked the driver, Ali, anxiously. Of course, he said, wearing what I suppose he must have imagined was an expression of kindly reassurance but was in fact an impatient smirk that said, ‘listen lady, I generally have far more important things to transport than half an orchard and several pots of lemon grass, so wind your silly white neck in’. 

His cargo also included my desk, a double bed in bits and the fireplace from the verandah, wrought of aluminum and protruding from the rear end of his truck like a short, fat tail.   The house is now even more cavernously bare than ever.  But my Sally Worm indicates I only have to endure 6 more sleeps here.

What I will miss and what I won’t

May 9, 2007

When I move to the Outpost, my big kids will have to go to boarding school. I will miss dreadfully the seamlessness of their presence, the predictability of their return every night and the fact it is only ever a few hours away. I will miss their banter, their laughter, their reminder that I am still needed – even if it seems only at times to fill tummies, snack boxes and washing machine. I will miss seeing their sleeping forms at night when I check on them (which I still do even though they are 15 and 13 respectively). And I will miss marvelling at how sleep wipes from their faces the angst of adolescence so that they slumber semi-smiling.

I will not miss the laundry they generate, the fights they have for absolutely no reason other than to apparently hear the sound of their own voices and the daily slog to school.

I will miss my friends. My confidantes do not number many (an anomaly considering I spill my guts in cyberspace!), but they are precious. I have leaned hard on them in recent months; they’ve listened to me cry when I had to and made me laugh when I needed to. They have had the children to stay so that during this forced separation, Anthony and I can abbreviate the distance between us.

I will not miss the gossip, the one-upmanship and the small-town politics that come with almost-suburban African living. I will not miss that – despite living in one of the most poverty stricken regions of the world – it still apparently matters what you look like, how fat/thin you are, how well decorated your home is, how designer clad your children are and how artistically you have scattered cushions. No. I will miss none of that. I anticipate with relish the freedom that will attend bush living so that I can wear what I want, when I want and nobody will notice that my eyebrows need tweezing or that it is too long since I did anything about disguising the grey in my hair.

I will miss seeing my mountains, Kilimanjaro and Meru. I will miss watching how their faces change over the year and across the seasons so that in the wet and the winter they are shrouded with grey blankets which they are only warm enough to toss aside come mid afternoon when they coyly – and briefly – emerge. I will miss that, in the summer, Meru’s peak pierces an azure blue sky with such sharpness you wonder the colour does not leak out. And I will miss the plum pudding iced sugar topping of Kili. In the 16 years I have lived within view of Kilimanjaro I have never stopped marvelling at its beautiful incongruity, its sudden, majestic rise from arid plain to snow capped peak: no wonder the earliest explorers rubbed their eyes in disbelief, no wonder the Africans once believed it was capped with silver which they tried to gather but which disappointingly ran through their fingers as they descended the mountain.

I will not miss the urban sprawl that is eating the region up, spilling, ugly, from town centres and raping once virgin Africa so that blankets of forest and carpets of savannah are discarded in place of hotly glinting corrugated iron sheets and fences adorned with blue plastic bags. I will not miss daily evidence that trees are being lopped down with abandon, I will not miss noticing that Kilimanjaro’s snows recede a little more each year because it wasn’t designed to be tramped up by over 20,000 people every year. I will not miss knowing it’s one of the continents biggest rubbish dumps.

I will miss the farm. I will miss my walks. I will miss noticing the birds: comically fat and ungainly guinea fowl, elegant beaked yellow bill storks, bejeweled kingfishers, vociferous, argumentative weavers.

But I will not miss the attendant ache as I witness its demise. I will not miss the tight chested anxiety that has plagued me almost every day for the past six years because our security was so tenuous, our futures so uncertain.

I will miss my home, the house that we built from a barn with rafters a hundred years old and hard as nails. I will miss its generous proportions, its wide verandah so that when I walked up to it, it was like falling into the arms of a friend. I will miss every familiar contour of its shape, the sounds it makes at night, like now, small sighs or slams which you can pinpoint to precisely the right door.

But I will not miss waking every day and wondering how much longer we can live here.

I will miss the familiarity of a place I have lived in and loved.

But I relish the prospect of a new adventure. Perhaps that’s what’s keeps us young – new adventures – not Botox?

Lost Dog: Reward Offered

May 5, 2007

I had a horrible moment this evening.

Mum and I took the dogs, Kanga and her dippy daughter, Scally, for a walk as I do most evenings. Half way through our walk, Kanga disappeared. She does this often, charging off on the scent of a feral cat or in the hope of pushing a flock of guinea fowl into the air. And I yell, in exasperation, for about ten minutes and she always reappears looking delighted with herself, and panting hard.

But this evening, though Scally came back, Kanga did not. I called and called and called. To no avail. We walked home hoping to find her there but she wasn’t. I climbed into the car with Ben and we trawled the farm, calling her name and stopping to listen in the hope of hearing an answer.

We heard nothing but the quiet whisper of night fall and the odd agitated shriek of a bird.

We returned home, still no sign of Kanga. I was getting frantic; she has been mine since she was a pup, a constant companion for seven years in that adoring, trusting way that only Labradors can be (so that even when the whole world seems against you, they’re not). Ben offered to ride the farm on his bike and so off we both went again, me in the car, he on his bike, in the dark, calling, stopping, listening.

By this time we had attracted the attention of several of the farm’s night watchmen, ‘askaris’. Had they seen Kanga, I asked (most of them know her after watching us walk the farm every evening for six years). Nope, none had.

In the midst of our search, Anthony called from the Outpost and I promptly burst into tears, ‘I’ve lost Kanga’, I bawled. And with Ben pedaling barefoot around the farm in the dark without a light, I was at risk of losing him too. Anthony suggested I offer the askaris a reward (and reminded me that – at 15 – Ben really was old enough to find his way home).

I put out word of a reward, twice what Anthony recommended. The askaris responded with alacrity; they haven’t been paid for months. I don’t know why they still report for work, but this evening I was thankful they do.

We’ll search all night, they told me. Where did you last see her?

I showed them. And calling her name I finally, finally, after two hours of looking, heard a desperate yelp.

The askaris heard it too. We followed the sound – I was fearful Kanga had been caught in a snare, not uncommon here, and been injured. As it turned out, she’d fallen into a deep, sheer sided hole – made by an ant bear perhaps – and was unable to get out.

The askaris clambered in to haul her up and came out carrying her aloft like a trophy.

I don’t know who was more pleased to see who? Kanga me, or I Kanga?

The askaris deposited her on the back seat of my car and piled in after her; we drove home and I paid them their reward whilst Kanga raced off to find her supper. And then collapsed in an exhausted heap at my feet and I poured myself a large glass of wine.

Box Packing and Belly Piercing

May 1, 2007

We have spent almost all day packing. The children have been gracious and tolerant and willing. I hope that means they are as excited about the move as I am. Deciding what to pack now and what to keep whilst we camp (there will be a hiatus between container leaving and our own departure of some three weeks) has been taxing. But we have managed: I have persuaded Hat she does not need 34 teddies and that no they will not ‘die’ in transit in the container; I have urged Ben to consider reducing the number of tomes beside his bed (and avail of the school library instead) and I have promised Amelia that her clothes – those in the container – will be available to her the moment we reach Outpost so she can enjoy a change of wardrobe. ‘Oh good’, she said visibly relieved, ‘I thought I’d be wearing the same stuff for six months’. Heaven Forbid. Though with still sorry state of washing machine we all rather smell as if we have anyway.

The dogs are in a twitch at the sight of so many boxes and bags being filled. They sulked in the garden all day but perked up when I took them for a walk on an increasingly unkempt farm; in the eight days since I last walked it the weeds have grown ever taller and the place even more desperate looking. Not that the dogs minded, they dashed about joyfully chasing the guinea fowl, rats and feral cats that lurk in an ever-increasing tangle of vegetation.

My mum is arriving tomorrow; it is a year since I saw her and a year and a half since she last saw the children. She will notice changes everywhere including that the children have grown: doubtless she will have to speak up to Ben and Amelia now. She will also notice that I look older. Considerably.

I recently wrote a story about the benefits of stress – one being that it is supposed to rejuvenate a person’s appearance. The year I’ve had I ought to look 17. Alas, I look more than old enough to be the mother of a not-yet 17 year old son. I could be his grandmother after a sleepless night.

Between packing boxes and labelling trunks Amelia, for want of some distraction, stapled her ear. She said it was a mistake. Hmm. Convenient, then, that it’s at precisely the point where a 13 year old may want a second ear piercing and that she had a spare stud to insert, ‘well no point in wasting the hole’ she said cheerfully. I am assuming she would not feel compelled to staple either her belly button or her tongue.

To bed now. The removal company are in tomorrow. I asked if could send some grass – the kind you mow –to begin a lawn in Outpost, you understand. They have not deigned to reply, they have dismissed me as mad before we have even begun.

Talk to my lawyer

April 21, 2007

Kind friends articulate concern for me.

They are anxious that I am living on this farm – which is being torn apart by looters where it hasn’t already fallen apart – on my own with the children.

I try to reassure them, ‘Really, I’m fine’, I say, (if you discount washing machine hiccup and row with son which made me cry).

‘But if you’re not, I mean if something were to happen, you would just come, wouldn’t you’, they persist worriedly.

What? In the middle of the night. With three children (two of them bigger than me and likely bigger than potential hostess); two dogs, two cats (that hate each, something they are hissily vociferous about) and three geese. No. I don’t think that no matter how very well-meant such invitations are, I don’t think anybody – with possible exception of absent, distant husband – wants to see me and menagerie in the middle of the night.

Which is why I want to reassure them all. I’m ok, really, I am.

I’m not sure what they’re worried about. My only concern is that ex employers might try to turf kids and I (and dogs, cats, geese) out of this house.

Which would be unfair given that they owe us a fortune in unpaid salary.

I am, therefore, consulting with a lawyer. It seemed prudent.

Edward was the lawyer who represented Anthony in recent case. So he seemed as good a place as any to start. Given that no lawyer is trustworthy, no matter where they practice. (consider all that ‘shake a lawyer by the hand and count your fingers’ stuff). He is young, hungry and very, very expensive. But on a Friday afternoon, as it was then, you’ll take what you can get to keep your husband out of the clink. That meant Edward. Who means to be a high roller judging by his fee.

So last week I went to see Edward again. I think he was rather hoping he’d seen the last of us. I think he sensed – by the looks on our faces when he told us what he was charging/by state of my car/age of my phone – that we didn’t have the cash to bank roll his rising career. No matter. I went anyway, largely because I was so incensed at press coverage and wanted his advice.

Before I sat down I reminded him this was a ‘courtesy call’, lest he whack me with another $2,000 bill like last time. But then cannily (and it was canny, outwitting a lawyer is no mean feat) I brought up my various grievances against ex employers: fact we haven’t been paid and are owed enough to put a down-payment on a house; fact that – as a result of their foul play – my husband’s name has been dragged through the mud; fact that my children had to witness their dad being hauled off by the cops. I could have gone on and on but Edward stopped me and told that at some point I needed to learn to move on.

Move on! Move on?

But that’s precisely the point, I thought as I slunk off feeling frustrated. I’m not prepared to move on. Not yet. Not when we don’t have a home to go to. No. I can’t do that.

So I rang Edward later and told him to please consider my position again. And I’d consider finding the necessary towards a deposit for his fee.

He has agreed. Which means that if ex employers get nasty I can retort with a pleasing, ‘Talk to my lawyer’.

Meantime, I promise you, we’re OK.

Sue for libel …? I don’t think so.

April 20, 2007

This morning I have a meeting with the editor of the Arusha Times. Not in my capacity as journalist: I am reliably informed that as a freelancer for the local press once cannot expect to be paid. Instead one must buy space for copy from the paper much in the same way as one would buy advertising space.

No. I’m not going to see him because I want to write for him but because this week his paper carries a damning story about my husband which pertains to the court cases we endured two weeks ago. Editors here are not, apparently, as hot as they are in the UK regards timely news pegged pieces.

I have heard that the Arusha Times is anxious to present the facts in any of their stories accurately, which must make them unusual in the industry, so I am going to plead to the editor’s integrity and point out to him that the several facts he got wrong, very wrong, in his story about Anthony means that my husband comes across as the villian he is not.

Were I Victoria Beckham and the Mail had run a similar story on David I could sue for libel and claim millions.

Alas, for a paper that expects freelancers to buy copy space I wouldn’t get a bean, so such an effort would be futile. I shall simply – and politely – indicate that his journalist got her facts wrong.

The power has been off for several hours until just now.

Needless to say I filed a report with my friend Mr Dominic.

He told me that the power cut was the result of heavy rainfall last night.

I’m confused. During the rains the power is cut because of storms. During times of drought it’s also cut, because there’s not enough rain to fill the dams of national hydro-electric schemes.

The sound of Anarchy

April 16, 2007

Rehema reports that looters have begun to strip one of the old farm houses on a hill opposite where I live of the corrugated iron sheets on the roof.

I enquire whether security, such as it is, has been alerted.

Yes, she says, ‘all the askaris went running, but the looters don’t care, they just kept ripping the mbati off’.

At the same time somebody else – somebody who is still resident on the farm and ought to know better – is cutting down trees for his ‘maid’. I listened, heartbroken, to the agitated roar of a chainsaw yesterday as the beautiful hardwood was felled. The skeleton farm staff that remains is up in arms. I’d like to think this is because they’ve all adopted an eco-friendly approach to their environment but I fear their outrage has more to do with the fact they will not benefit commercially from the sale of timber as the maid is clearly going to do. And who can blame them when they haven’t been paid. Beautiful trees are all very well, but your family’s got to eat.

Nobody is in charge anymore, the place is sinking into a state of anarchy and the opportunists recognise that.

I wonder whether – when I leave this place – our home will go the same way? Whether this barn that we have spent six years lovingly restoring will be ripped apart, whether the acacias and the figs and the mango trees I have collecting as seedlings and planted will be chopped down too.

I suspect that’s just what will happen.

Keep looking forward, said Anthony. I’m trying. I’m really trying. But it’s hard when you can hear the destruction.