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Dust, Snow, Views.

February 25, 2018

Kilimanjaro rears her snow-white head right behind where I live. She’s so close that on clear dawns or storm swept evenings that leave the sky clear of cloud and dust,  I imagine that I could reach out and touch her. But mostly she is elusive. Mostly she wraps up coy soon after sunup and stays that way until the moon rises.

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Before me, and opposite Kili, on the other side of this incredible sweep of valley, rises Meru. After rain she is cut-glass-clear, her profile engraved sharply against a blue sky. But now, in the dry weather, she is often obliterated by heat and haze and the dust that rises on the wind, in the footfall of the thousands of Masai cattle that thread the land in search of pasture and water and in the wake of wheels: cars and motorbikes – the ubiquitous bodabodas – trail ribbons that lace the breeze and then fray to near nothingness.

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When the rain comes my valley view will be silvered with sheets of water that will foil the savannah – it’ll hurt the naked eye to stare at them for they will be burnished too bright by the sun – but then it will peel back to reveal brand new green.



Silver Linings

January 27, 2018


Already the year is racing by.


I write. But I do not write enough. Not here. I don’t write enough here. Here in this invisible space where I can write what I want to write, how I want to write. There need be no message, no Expert Input to validate my opinion, no word count constraint, I can even make up words to lend fullfistfullfat impact. Here I can be Me.


At the very end of last year we celebrated Hat’s 21st, early, before she headed back to South America. We celebrate on a verandah, a sultry evening, a syrupy moon hung in a salty air and the waves rolled up and down the beach unravelling as lace. I gave her a silver bracelet, a herd of tiny elephants, trunk to tail, to wrap about her wrist so that Africa would always be close to her skin, no matter how far away from it she was. And later that night, dancing on the sand, she lost it.


We hunted. Of course we did. And then we gave up. The beach is long and deep and the Spring tide high so I imagined the bangle halfway to India come the New Year.


But two days into it, two days into just-unpacked January, walking along the beach alone, anticipating – sadly – imminent departure from home of all those I love most, I noticed, partly buried, a tangle of silver, as if somebody had discarded the foil wrapper from a stick of gum. It can’t be, I thought. I took a step closer and the sun caught the metal so that it winked encouragingly and grew a shape: a tiny herd of elephants lay in the sand, trunk to tail. I let out a squeal, scooped it up and ran up the beach.


I have had an omen, I announce to everybody, all assembled eagerly for lunch. They look up, I’ve had an omen, I repeat. Yes, they say, expectantly.


2018 is going to be a good year, I say and I open my palm to reveal Hat’s lost bracelet, it’s dainty clasp broken: a miracle as her dad observes, to find something so tiny in a veritable ocean of space.




So now I am home. Home on my mountain. And back at work. Writing for a newspaper in a country I have never visited – such is the extraordinary mileage afforded on the magic carpet of the ether – minding my words, remembering to quote my Experts, counting characters. But in the slip of the day when I’ve done my time, I stand from my desk and stretch back and shoulders, roll my neck which I can hear creak for all the still, strained hours hunched over a screen and I whistle up the dogs to walk.

The garden here needs a little taming – but only a little. I do not presume to rein Africa in. I need only to know the grass around my home is short enough not to harbour snakes, beyond that I am happy to let a wilderness of acacia and thorn scramble unruly.

The sun is settling itself in the west so that it throws Meru into sharp dark-pencilled relief. Marmalade coloured light leaves reluctantly. The gnarled branches of trees, the tall, ancient trees that stand in my new-old wild garden, shred it as fingers, so that ribbons of gold wrap and gild the green.

I stand and watch my millionmile view disappear in darkness and rose-dust. I can hear the evening call of the Turaco in the forest. I think – I hope – I can feel peace settle.


sunset blog

Unpacking Piece by Peace

November 13, 2017

So there. Moved. The house is done. I trip on snags all the time. Two days ago the water heater blew up. A hiss. And then a massive pop. Bang goes hot water. Now I bathe in a bucket, tossing warm water over my head with a mug. The power is faint and intermittent: a whinging generator and batteries. Mr Lyimo ensures me my world will be a brighter place soon.


Sitting Room Before

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Sitting Room Before

When I unpacked from my halfway house into this, I calculated, as I glued furniture that had come adrift this move, or the last … or perhaps the time before that …? Who knows. In any event, I calculated that it was the tenth time I’d unpacked my motley collection of increasingly dog eared possessions in as many years.

Occasionally, when I am tired and I can’t take a hot shower and wash my hair and I must mop the fridge yet again for it defrosts between meanly wheezing bursts of power delivered for a couple of hours each evening by a sickly generator, occasionally I feel so tired of it all – of the moving, the relentless round of repairing falling down houses as home – that I could weep. Sometimes I do. Once or twice I have curled in the corner of a room and howled.

But then I scold myself, stand up, blow my nose and unpack another box. That’s just moving. That just moving once. I’ve done it once a year – on average – for ten.

And then I fill the laundry bucket with hot water, I squeeze in and I bathe and the ridiculousness of this whole mad adventure makes me laugh. I light a fire in the glorious fireplace I have restored – the best I have ever met I tell friends, for the langurous, generous way it burns wood, slow and long – and I gaze into flames cradling a glass of red wine and I feel calm. Quiet. Replete.

As if I’m home.



Sitting Room After



Sitting Room After


At this time of year, when the Short Rains fall (or not, as the case may sometimes be, though not this year – this year they are tipping down) my new mountain home is damp. The dogs traipse mud through the house. I lay discarded packing cartons as wall to wall carpet in vain hope of mopping up their paw prints . It doesn’t work. The dogs gambol in wagging wet tails which spray paint my new Off White walls with the red earth colour of fertility. I don’t have a lawn yet. But I have planted one and it will grow – such is the fecundity of the soil here and the abundance of water.

Early mornings and the light streams into my as yet un-curtained bedroom.  Through windows I can see densely wooded mountain side and above that, just above that, Kilimanjaro’s snowy peak, Kibo. It is so close I almost have no perspective. It is like silver against the blue. I can hear the throaty rattle of Colobus monkeys in the forest.


View from my bedroom window, Kilimanjaro’s Kibo above the tree line

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Snow capped Kibo from the garden


By noon though, the cloud has curtsied low and brought with it grey nets of rain so that all my views are obliterated. Yet when I don boots to slosh out with the dogs at the end of the day, the cloud has inched upwards, Kibo is visible again, it’s snowy head whiter  and the sweep of the valley between me and Mt Meru huge and brightening and aluminium-foiled for the water that lies on the plains below. I stand and look for miles and miles and miles. It is an impossible view. I wonder if anybody else in the world can see as far, as wide, as I when I stand on my mountain side? In the Outpost, my views were foreshortened but my skies were vast and lonely. My life telescoped. Here I am living a wide angle life. It feels good.


Mt Meru

The sweep of the valley to Meru in the west

On Sunday morning Ant went down to the farm. Come with me, he said, we’ll go on the motorbike. So we did. My arms wrapped tight around him. Reckless. Riding with the wind in our ears and the sun on our faces so that come evening my skin was pinked with Outside Life. And I laughed and I laughed and I laughed and Ant said, ‘beats quite alot of the last ten years doesn’t it.’

And he is right. It does.

On Learning

October 14, 2017

For a moment it was imperative to become invisible. Which seems incongruous: aren’t I invisible anyway. A writer in the ether, describing her life under an alias.

Not invisible enough.

A piece I wrote for a large national went toxic. Viral. Trolls mauled it. I didn’t read a single one of the 5 000 comments. I rarely care to.  But somebody whom I love very much, whom I had cited in the piece, did and I cared very much about that. The national paper were forced under that tsunami of vitriol to drown dissenting voices by turning the option to Comment off. Then they deleted the post from Facebook. And I heaved a sigh of relief but remain deeply saddened that an innocuous, benign 1000 words could have brought so much sadness unwittingly.

The experience taught me many things: that a 1 000 words reduces a person to a single dimension, precisely resembling the flat blandness of the sheet of paper upon which it is printed; that readers often react to the first few sentences (for had they read down, they’d never have commented as they did); that I still don’t care what people I don’t care about think of me, but I care very much when it delivers pain to those I love; that hiding behind the shield of the internet makes people mean; that readers can misinterpret the tongue in cheek humour I imagined I was writing with; that my first editor on The Times, 15 years ago, was wrong: today’s story isn’t tomorrow’s chip wrap: today’s story can hang around like a bad smell for days, weeks, months.

So – for a while – it seemed important to withdraw, not to protect myself but to protect the person my words – and others’ comments – had hurt. If trolls could find me, they could find them.

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It is so hot now that the leaves on the trees curl inwards, as if trying to hide from the heat. On the plains between my mountains, where traipsing cattle have reduced the savannah to a moonscape, dust devils dance on the wind, they twist leanly against a sky smoked white, as if stoned. Or drunk. Directionless they tip themselves backwards and wheel across the earth, madly tossing debris upwards: leaves, the chaff from maize harvests, black plastic bags which we call Africa Blooms.


 My son is here for a blissful ten days. He has not been home – home to our home – for 18 months. He strides from the plane and looks tall, composed, confident, with his broad, broad smile.   His first evening home we walk, a long, long walk and I comment on how hot it still is – but to catch the last of the light, you must endure the last of the heat too I tell him. He tells me about his London life and job. He has lived in London for seven years now. He tells me the scariest moment was when I first left him there. I blogged about that then: I had thought then that I felt more afraid than he. I was wrong. I am not always right about my children.

That’s something else I’ve learned recently.

Listening to Words

September 25, 2017

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I start my MA next week.

I am beside myself with delicious anticipation. Ant does not understand my excitement, ‘I don’t get it’, he says, ‘poring over books’.

But he is a Numbers man.  And I am a Letters girl.

This feels like a luxurious excuse to indulge in words. To roll them around on my tongue, test them for weight, power, the very rightness of a fit.

I listen to the poet Imtiaz Dharker In the Studio.  She describes her writing day. Or night as it happens: an owl, she scratches away between the hours of eleven and 4am and I understand why: the silent, dark cocoon of sleeping households, the surprising creative thoughts that prickle at an inappropriate 2am. I have had my best ideas in the middle of the night, and been infuriated come dawn that I did not put pen to paper then for they are eclipsed by the brittle light of day.

Dharker is not impressed by thousands of words. Her job means she must deliver the tightest few. Pack a punch.

Are words no more
than waving, wavering flags? she asks.

One of my dearest friends, E, a photographer with the finest eye, is sympathetic when my freelance gigs do not match hers in number. She kindly tells me that her equipment – the value of which would rival a small car, or two – lends gravitas, ‘everybody with a pencil, or a keyboard, thinks they can write’.

But it is the weighing of each word that is so important, the crafting, moulding, shaping of a single paragraph that can elevate the banal to the compelling, the forgetable to the memorable, the powerful to the insipid.

And words define us. We are what we say. Consider Trump’s tweets.

China steals United States Navy research drone in international waters – rips it out of water and takes it to China in unpresidented [sic] act.

And Obama.

Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.

So. I will embark on my MA, luxuriate in language, wallow in words, thread them as neatly as I can and perhaps I will pin an elusive story to the page.

Wish me luck.

Ode to My Mountains

September 23, 2017

My mountains. They’re not my mountains and I am not Isak Dinesan my-farm-my-people-my-Africa Karen Blixen . But they are the mountains I see every day from my home. My children grew up in their shadows and I grew up in the shade of one over the other side of the border; our farm was fed with the water that ran from the ice that capped Kilimanjaro. So. Indulge me: my mountains.

This evening my footfall fell hard. No dust rose as silky plumes as high as my thigh so  there was no need when I got home to bang my tackies hard on the kitchen step and watch clouds fly, no need to wonder if tapping were enough of if I ought to chuck my Converses into the washing machine for a proper wash. No dust today. Two days ago rain fell long and hard and unexpected. It caught me short on another walk. First a breath of cool air and then the run of something like spray. Individual drops that tipped to that dust so that I could identify where each one had fallen. The breeze blew and dark clouds rushed in and real rain came so that drops all joined up, dot-to-dot and wet the earth with a million tiny kisses so that the ground puckered and was left quite wet cheeked. And I soaked through and joyous. The dogs had to shake, often; halos of water rose around them. I wished I could catch them slow-motion.

So the rain that fell that evening, softly and kindly and with decorum – not like the storms that used to blow up where I lived in my western outpost, those bustled in with blacked coated bossiness, hurling arrows of hot light and stomping about grey-booted and showing off to thunderous applause – the rain that fell here, that evening, with soft kisses and dainty skips, did not strip the earth bone bare and leave it ribbed with gullies. It just came and went and politely laid the dust and rinsed the air.

So that the next morning the sky was bright Persil-for-Coloureds Blue and the mountains stood all clear headed and fresh faced.  They were still there this evening.  A wisp of cloud gathered at Meru’s summit, as if it were enjoying a quiet evening smoke. A ribbon of jet-stream so frayed that its threads are pulled loose and white against a pale sky. Soon it’ll vanish.

Meru having a smoke

And I thought, again, how lucky am I? To walk this walk at the soft end of the African day when the light is all mellow-kind and the night steals softly in. I think of an artist when I witness this expanse of sky and earth and mountains. I imagine she unfurled a canvas, pulled it tight, pondered before washing her background soft blue and punctuating it, at either end, with these two extraordinary mountains which face one another across a valley where Africa spills, where urban sprawl bleeds to scrub and smallholdings and acacia and giraffe. In the Outpost my sky was huge. Huge. But there was nothing to break it. To lend perspective. It was clipboard flat. The occasional outbreak of kopjes the only elevation that pimpled an otherwise, mostly, uninteresting complexion. This is different. This is dramatic!

When the first explorers spied Kilimanjaro, they rubbed their eyes, they thought they were seeing things: a snow cap hovering as a mirage over equatorial savannah.  I grew up beneath one of the mountains and have lived for much of my adult life within sight of her; Kilimanjaro has been a beacon, an anchor, an exclamation mark, You’re Home! I can pick her out from miles away. I point her out to a visitor, she hovers, my mountain, a ghost.

See it, I say.



No, they say, squinting, frowning.

I lean into them and point, arm outstretched, there, I say, see there.



My visitor tips forward, eyes screwed together, flattened palm to brow.

Maybe? they offer hesitantly.

There, I say, there (trying not to sound impatient) see, look between those small hills, to the right of the big tree …


And then she reveals herself, she ripples forward, her icy head thrown back, her blue shoulders shrug, she doesn’t care if my visitors sees her or not. She wears a ra-ra skirt of cloud about her waist: that’s what gives her away.


Oh! Oh! I see her. Oh my.  And in the setting sun, Kilimanjaro blushes with all the attention.

Even pretending to be invisible Kili is glorious. Majestic.

So my walk takes too long because I lose track of time and take picture after picture. But nothing in my tiny screen mimics this enormous sprawling masterpiece I’m tiptoeing through as I step up my pace and turn for home.

Daylight is nearly gone when I get in and the mountains wrap up in velvety black and the sun slides slowly off the edge of my world.


Walks and Wings

September 16, 2017

I have found a new walk.

It takes me down into the dry. Dry country. Where the land is unyielding and the wind sings with Africa’s harshest notes; the grass is whip thin here and nicotine yellowed. The ground plovers scream like things possessed every time the dogs come within 100 meters of their pebble coloured eggs which they tuck into the earth so that only beady eyes will spy them. The birds wheel angrily overheard, they are good parents. Shrilly protecting their young. I have watched, in another dry place,  where the wait-a-bit-thorn was thick and grey, I have watched a mother plover chase a hippo from her nest, wings outstretched, neck thrust forward, beak open as she omitted an ear splitting warning. Brave little bird, I thought.

So where I walk, where the plovers fly low and screech, the dust beneath my feet is thick. Talc soft and inches deep so that with every footfall a cloud rises and my sneakers are shrouded in a fine coat. I will bang them hard on the kitchen step when I get home and the air will fill with powder.


There is a snake trail across the road. A puff adder has crossed here. I can tell for the fatness of its tread. I consider it from a moment, take a picture, cast anxious glances around; I am fearful of snakes. I have trodden on too many in my time and always been lucky. I whistle the dogs worriedly. Ant always tells me the snakes will hear the dogs pounding the ground as they tear through the scrub and they’ll disappear deep and fast and my dogs will be safe.  But I don’t believe him; last week my cat, a rescue who stole my heart as he made himself at home, had a close encounter with a spitting cobra. For a day I poured milk into his eyes, fussed over him, coaxed him to eat. He is fine now. And as disdainful as ever in the way only cats can be.

The plovers arched over my head again tonight, six of them, safety in numbers, ‘ok, ok, I’m going’ I laughed at the sky and the cross little birds. The sky was huge, winter is gone. The sun left the stage reluctantly, pinking it with an encore.

And my mountains stood tall and proud and clear headed.

Same Moon, Different Mountains …

September 7, 2017

My walks are as long but feel longer. When Hat was here we talked our walks away, conversation intermittently broken to roar at one of the dogs, tearing hurly-burly and out of control, yapping at guinea fowl who laughed at them from tree tops, barrelling out of long grass bedecked with burrs so that we laughed at them too. My walks are altogether quieter now, except when I roar and the guinea fowl cackle at the dogs.


Africa is spillingly generous where I live now, on this broad valley strung between two mountains. Kilimanjaro, bare shouldered, white-headed rises on my eastern horizon – sometimes it’s obliterated by cloud, sometimes erased by dust, sometimes rendered invisible by a heat haze but close of day when dust settles and clouds have melted away and the last of the sun’s heat has dissipated, I see it then: duckeggblue, profiled against a darkening sky. I turn then and head home, and west, where Mt Meru rises jagged, jutting peaks and wrapped in green. The sun sets beneath it, a Terry’s Chocolate Orange that pencils pylons sharp against an evening sky.


There are mountains where Hat is: she sends me a photograph of her view, the Andes a snowy backdrop to Santiago’s skylines. I look at the picture for a long time and imagine her new home. From East Africa to South America. Swahili to Spanish. But lots of avocados here too, Hat smiles. I cannot see her face when I speak to her on whatsapp – my connection is too slow for that. But I can hear her smile in her voice.


When she left, and I cried, alot, Ant drew me close and said, ‘she’ll love it’. I can hear that; she is having fun. It’s all you want isn’t it – for your kids? To be happy. If she is happy, being a little sad that she is not here to talk to, to walk with, is do-able. I think of her when I wake. She trails six hours behind me. Sometimes my phone pings with a message as I prepare my morning coffee so I scold, ‘OMG! Get to bed girl!’. But sometimes our hours coincide; she is home from work, I am readying myself for bed. There is time and space to catch up with delicious disregard to schedules.


I imagine then her sun setting over her snowy mountains. Mine is long gone. In my part of the world a huge high moon has risen, all cheesefatwhite and round, so full and bright then when I pad out in my pajamas to call the cat, I won’t need a torch.


If I think that she sees my sun, my moon, even if we cannot share mountains, she seems a little less far away.


I live vicariously here whilst she’s there.




September 5, 2017

the giraffe


On the farm there were twelve giraffe. They stood bunched, a forest of long necks, a little nervous to find themselves exposed on a long bare windswept slope, devoid of trees but thick with dust.   My heart stills in my throat as we circle them so that I can catch them in my lens before they dance off the way giraffe do: low legged slow motion.

This is my new home. My newest home.

My tenth? 11th? in as many years. I don’t recall.  There have been alot of homes. For from each house I try to conjure as a home: I nail pictures to the wall so that the glass winks squiffly and gathers dust and gecko shit, I toss rugs down so that there is some semblance of familiar scent on new floors for the dogs who look around a little anxiously as if to stay, ‘we staying put for a bit this time?’.

Usually there is renovation to be done: to mould that house to home. I am not fussy. Nor house proud. Comfort is important, that’s all. (And water, power, a solid roof over my head – which isn’t always the case with the old wrecks I’m obliged to live in).  And familiarity. That’s as important to me as it is the dogs; even in the most impermanent of situations I place a clutch of well travelled photograph frames so that my children smile encouragingly up at me and a younger self admonishes me for frowning: there are no lines in the visage that glares back at me: that picture was taken in another life.

So our new home – the one I am trying to cast from a house which has not been properly occupied for forty years – more – is being knocked into shape, the resident chickens – nesting in ancient Armitage Shanks basins – have been evicted, the shenzi dogs with their worm blown bellies will have to go soon. The bats still determinedly come into roost and scatter new (naked as  yet) floors with droppings: when will you glass the windows I nag the fundi who looks nonplussed at my urgency.


Every few days I drive up the hill and monitor progress. Or not. And I stand beneath the tallest acacias I have ever seen and I look behind me to the cold shoulder of Kilimanjaro and before me to the long sweep of valley that saddles the plains between where I stand and where Mt Meru rises like an astonishing exclamation mark, piercing the blue.

And I hope that this home is a stayer.


Hat’s off to Santiago

August 27, 2017

The weight that sits on my chest grows progressively heavier. In the days before Hat leaves I worry it might take my breath clean away. When she says, ‘Mum,  you seem distracted’, I am afraid to speak for I know my voice will wobble under all that weight.

The morning before she flies, I flee to the bathroom, put the loo seat down to sit on it, and weep. The weight begins to dissolve wetly.   There is some relief in tears.

All the way to the airport, none of us talk much, we gaze out of the window at sky and traffic and a drying Africa, I – in the back – lie with my head tipped against her case, resting my cheek on her jacket, inhaling her scent.

The long line that straggles out of the airport, untidy, moves slowly but still too quickly. Too soon we’re at the top of it and I must relinquish my beautiful daughter to the bowels of international travel.  I must hug her hard, I must say brave things like, ‘have a wonderful, wonderful time’. I must not say, ‘please don’t go, please, I’ll miss you so’. I have nagged long and hard and tediously. Ticket? Passport? Phone? Charger? My children laugh at my fretting. But they laugh with kind affection, not the irritation I deserve.

I wait outside, gazing beyond plate glass where I cannot go, to watch for her thumbs up from the check in. To know that she has successfully navigated her baggage all the way through to her faraway destination, secured her transit vouchers.

I don’t want to stand politely and force smiles. I want to tear rudely through this queue, vault over security, ignore the shouts of airport officials and I want to snatch my Hat back, I want to wrap my arms around her and coax her home.

But I can’t do that.  This is my life. And that is hers. I need to stand stoically, sensibly aside, acknowledge her thumbs up with one of my own, blow a kiss, plaster a smile to my wet face and give a last wave. And then I must turn and go.

Ant says, kindly, ‘you silly old bag’.

He is right. I am silly. And soft. And I applaud my young daughter’s courage and spirit and adventure.

‘If only it wasn’t so far away’, I say, Santiago, ‘if only it wasn’t for so long’.  A year.

We drive home in silence. Africa shimmies, swims. I have to wipe my sunglasses dry.

Later, after a shower, I pull Hat’s sweatshirt from the laundry basket and slip it on.  She feels closer like that. I walk into her room but have to step back. Its emptiness winds me. Like a slap. I close the door.

I’ll go in tomorrow. Tomorrow. When she’ll have crossed Africa, crossed the Atlantic, crossed almost all of South America.

I’ll go in tomorrow. I’ll be braver tomorrow.


Hat's off to Santiago