Hi from me

Little bits and bobs of my life, my thoughts and my experiences in the place that has - I guess - become my home

From Pen

Friday, November 30, 2012

Swimming free

Six in the morning, and the Indian Ocean resembles a colossal pond. Barely a ripple disturbs the surface, which reflects the kaleidoscopic dawn sky: a shifting canvas of burnished gold, violet, russet and sapphire. On the water, boats seem to huddle as though sleeping. Mother Nature has offered a benevolent hand today. It is the morning of Saturday 24 November and a group of swimmers, of mixed age and ability, is gathered at the waters edge on the Peninsula. Excitement is palpable: swimming conditions are perfect and even the widespread knowledge that jellyfish will be relishing the still, warm water, does not dampen the mood. Nearly six kilometres away, clearly visible on this most magnificent morning, the island of Bongoyo rises low in the water: cloaked in green with a distinct curve of white-gold sand at its tip. It is to this beach that the cluster is heading. The ocean, deceptive in its presentation of distance, is begging to be ventured into. Photographs taken, sips of water drunk, goggles and swimming caps donned, it is not long before the swimmers have begun their journey. A few kayakers set off in their midst, and the adventure has begun. There are moments in life that cause me to stop, heart in chest, and wonder what kind twist of fate led me to be living here – in Dar es Salaam – a breath away from the Indian Ocean. Descending into the water, as I did on Saturday, was one such moment. Months of morning and afternoon mammoth swims, one too-close-for-comfort encounter with the bough of a boat, and countless jellyfish stings suddenly made sense. There was simply nowhere else on earth I would rather be than right there, feeling almost weightless in the water, about to take on this new challenge. What is it that makes swimming in open water so utterly pleasurable? So, dare I say it, addictive? There is a meditative quality about swimming, the matchless combination of breath and stroke that somehow stills the most preoccupied of minds. There is also something so balancing about the movement of the body through the water. When I swim, I – to a large extent – ‘disappear’ and am left only with breath and movement. Add to that clear, warm water and you have quite a spectacular sport. Doubtless, it takes effort and energy and certainly gives the entire body a major workout, but for me swimming always feels a little less like exercise than running or cycling. It is somehow so much gentler. An hour into the swim, and I am badly stung by a jellyfish that apparently wrapped itself around my upper right arm and delivered a sharp lash. My energy levels are high and, despite swimming through what feels like a forest of jelly, I am relishing every stroke. My friend is swimming close by but, apart from her, I see no other swimmers. The island is in view but is strangely mirage like: no matter how fast I swim, it seems to grow more distant! It doesn’t worry me: I feel liberated and care free. Another half hour later, and a few more stings, we know that we are on the last leg. My mouth is salt-lined, my arms mottled by stings and sun, yet this is heavenly! As the final stretch progresses, I feel elated and a little sad. Adrenalin is pumping, and I sense that I could swim forever, yet I am quietly relieved to see the seabed emerging far beneath me and gradually draw closer. A hunger pang bites my belly and, as I stride out of the sea, I immediately think ‘food.’ Once everyone is ashore, the mood is a cocktail of tiredness, exhilaration and satisfaction. We eat breakfast, sharing stories and comparing stings. Swimming makes ‘me’ more ‘me’. That is what I have concluded. It distils the muddles of life, clarifies my thinking, helps me to be more efficient, and soothes my spirit. What I love about it best, as a sport, is that it discriminates against no one, transcending age, size and fitness barriers. I really believe that anyone can swim, given the right support and that the effort it requires is more than justified. After the swim, I barely wanted to leave the water – so generous had it been. Luckily, it’s waiting for me to wade in again, goggles and swim cap in hand. I’ve had a day off: I think I’m ready again!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Pineapples and peace

Pineapples are plentiful; mangoes are mountainous; the rains are ruinous as they wreak havoc on sleep and fill the streets with pools so unpredictable in their depth that my bike screeches to a halt at their edge of quite its own volition. I pull up by one of the carts laden with syrupy sweet slices of the giant apple of the pine almost daily, hungry or not. Much as my tummy protests, my saliva glands – more often than not yearning for a source of refreshment – overpower all other sensibilities and demand that a couple of the semi-spheres are sucked and chewed and swallowed. The whole fruits, ridiculously rotund and ludicrously large, are too much for my basket to happily hold: instead, I take advantage of the expert knife skills of the cart-holder who offers not only the fruit in its entirety but also perfectly pruned pieces that drip their juice stickily down my arm as I continue my ride to wherever. Ah: it must be December.

Jackfruit, the monster of all fruits and freakish in its appearance, size and taste, has also arrived. I notice more of it this year than last: and I would know, having once been queen of that tropical peculiarity. No longer – I find that I can barely manage to munch more than two of the musky yellow bulbous lobes before feeling a faint queasiness. My needs and cravings have changed over the years as has, indeed, my tolerance for too much tropical flavour. Small pieces suffice of everything and, as for papaya, my throat closes if I am within six foot of that conical wonder. What was once a daily essential has joined a short list of no-gos. I guess that you really can have too much of a good thing and I did for about a year. Well, there will always be bananas.

Just returned from a weekend of sheer, simple, sanity-restoring sanctuary at an island retreat known wondrously as Lazy Lagoon, I am brown, bright eyed and at peace. I feel like a chilled out bunny and even my ever growing legion of sun-induced wrinkles isn’t going to drag me down. Lllllllaaaazzzy Lagggoooon could not be more perfectly named for, as my snorkel mate and I quickly realised upon our arrival-by-boat to this slice of paradise, it is:

a) A place in which to be bloody, beautifully, blatantly lazy;
b) Surrounded by a lagoon.

We arrived early: let’s say that, between 6.30 am and 7.45 am we had been transported from the mud-splashed, litter strewn streets of Dar to an icing-sugar fringed beach kissed by waters so turquoise that they defy description. It was hot, too, even as we enjoyed a breakfast of pineapple, eggs, warm cinnamon buns and decent coffee. The next two days (which seemed like more and yet, paradoxically, were simply not enough and passed much too fast) comprised walking along the beach; jumping in the sea; snorkelling; squeaking our feet in the ridiculously powdery sand; picking up shells; posing for photos; heading to the giant matuki (thatched) banda for meals and drinks…… and lolling.

It rained during the night: a thick, thundering, relentless, warm rain which cleared the air of mustiness and filled it with mosquitoes, but the second day was – again- one of brilliant sunshine and sea dwelling. Romantic? You bet. Take the one you love, or want to love, there and you will return attached at the lips (and the rest). Or take a true friend, as I did, and have some serious ‘down time.’ Either way…..do visit…..

Life is good. Life is amazing actually and, the more I look at mine and see how incredibly far it has moved on in three years, the more I am filled with massive amounts of energy and optimism for the next three. In the meantime, back in the present, I can only think to call myself blessed by some of the rather fabulous people I’ve been lucky enough to meet since my drift to Tanzania. Not only do I have a hard core of brilliant buddies in my life, but I have also a job that I try my best to be good at and havens to which I escape whenever the need arises. Yes, I am chuffed to be alive.

I always get whimsical before leaving the country for even just a fortnight (how could I bear to leave it for much longer than that) and this is particularly heartfelt just now in the run up to Christmas. It’s been a big year in many ways and, as the sun scorches the hairs on my arms and draws beads of thick salty sweat from the nape of my neck (from where they roll gracelessly down my spine before landing, naughtily, somewhere in my knickers), it is hard to imagine that somewhere out there my chilly homeland awaits with all that connects me to the past.

Yes: a big year. A year in which I have been a complete idiot, frankly, and done many things I regret. I’m putting that in the public domain, ‘outing’ myself….because forgiveness is a tough call and it’s taken me a while to lower the fists and sticks and guns I had pointed at myself. Can I move on please? Well, yes, I can and I’ve also done some fantastic things in 2010 and count it as a year of momentum, moving forwards and positive changes. Oh, and I got to know myself quite well at last and came out ok.

Anyway 2010: divorce. Tick. Promotion. Tick. Fun. Tick. Calm. Tick. Friends I’d die for. Tick. Even when I don’t feel so lucky – moan moan, 36, single, small-breasted, wobbly-thighed, going grey, over-worked, tired, hungover (whoops)– I soon get my perspective back either after a weekend like the one I’ve just had in the company of someone who makes me laugh so much that I will one day do something embarrassing such as literally wetting myself OR by simply reminding myself where I live, where I’m working and how incredibly god-damn lucky I am just to be around.

As a Tanzanian colleague said quite seriously around my birthday: “You are so blessed to be 36, Pen. Imagine – what a lovely long life you’re having.”


My organisation, CCBRT, is achieving fantastic things and this year many of our activities have stepped up and are leaps and bounds ahead of this time last year (and, believe the one who wrote the annual report 2009, last year was pretty amazing in terms of achievements). I am now managing the communications department (and for anyone interested that means; all media (we get a lot, a lot of attention); websites; 110 reports a year; personal stories and photos of patients; editing absolutely everything before it leaves the organisation; producing educational materials, posters, leaflets; writing magazine and newspaper articles…… yes, I have a busy job).

It is hardening – working in a place where so much poverty and vulnerability exist so close at hand, and mortality is so very vivid and real – and sometimes I admit that I don’t even see what is there right in front of me: but, but, but, some cases hit me hard.

Last week, I was involved with a crew from CNN who were visiting to film our work with women living with fistula. Fistula is the condition that occurs during a difficult labour, in which a tear forms between the bladder and the birth canal (or the rectum and the birth canal). It results in incontinence: continuous, uncontrollable leaking of urine (or faeces) which makes living a normal life impossible. Upwards of 3,000 new cases occur each year in Tanzania alone, but only around 800 corrective surgeries take place: the backlog of women living with fistula is incalculable. Fistula is socially and economically isolating: those with it are typically excluded from all community activities and rejected by society. They cannot earn an income and are usually deserted by family and friends. I have met women who have lived with fistula for over three decades and – following a relatively simple surgical procedure – are restored to life.

The tragedy is that so many thousands do not access the treatment available for fear of its cost or through sheer lack of knowledge about the treatment that exists. CCBRT offers all women with fistula free transport, lodging and treatment; provides them with new clothes once they are recovered; and even trains some of them in skills such as embroidery and beadwork so that they may start to generate an income. Last week, with the film crew, I found that on our fistula ward was a girl aged maybe 12 or 13 with a nine month old baby boy. The girl was about to have surgery to treat fistula and sat wide-eyed and silent on the edge of the bed as her baby slept. I wanted to adopt her, and her child: even with successful treatment, I could not envisage much of a life for either of them.

As I said before, I am so very lucky indeed.

The sun is hot, hot, hot. The sun here is so hot, in fact, that I can hardly believe it to be the same wondrous orb that benignly beams light and warmth into an English summer. My skin appears to visibly crisp under its radiation, my eyes wince in its glare, my body seek respite in water. There is little breeze today and, in its full mid afternoon force, the sun is reigning supreme even over the most accustomed local. It is this very heat, however, that sweetens the fruit to its most nectar-like, honey-saturated state of satiation. This sun that casts itself so freely over the ocean that the sea is brought into vivid light and displays shades of blue and green that barely exist in imagination. This sun that stretches low and ever-reddening arms as it sets each night: the air tinged pink, somehow, by the shadows of its glow. As long as this sun does not bully the odd fall of tropical rain away, I cannot loathe it.

In truth…. well, you know me: I love it.

As I write, I am sitting under the veranda of a café I come to when I need respite. It’s become almost a second home to me in Dar, and I like the staff and appreciate the fact that they know my drinks order the moment they see me. This is a rare find anywhere but here, in Tanzania, even more prized. There is bird life in the garden, beyond the rather insidious crows who dominate the feathered species of this town, and their chattering is soothing me this afternoon. People are sipping coffees, multiple languages tripping off tongues. It’s good to hear conversation, especially when I cannot understand it…. It rolls over me like music.

Later, I will swim in the later afternoon light; counting my lengths to still my mind. After that, cycling back into the maelstrom of Kimweri Avenue, I will seek solace in a slice of that pineapple and care not about the sap dripping down my chin. Later, I’ll see my best friend and hopefully savour a glass of wine (well, it IS nearly Christmas). But first, first back to my work: that which keeps me focused.

My harmless addictions. Not too much to give up in 2011, though plenty to start.

Biggest, warmest (hottest) love.

See you soon and may you all have a wonderful Christmas and New Year. Wherever it finds you.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

If Onlys and Escapes

A recent escape to the bush with a dear friend cemented my connection with Tanzania and brought me to my feet after a challenging month back in Dar. Two weeks in the UK, celebrating my parents 40th wedding anniversary, seems like a dream and I my soul was crying out for the calls of the night and the pumping hot heart of the day in the African wilderness.

We walked through long grasses, chewed a few too.... I climbed a tree, rolled about on the ground, pretended to hunt an elephant, acted so daftly that I was laughing at my own idiocy,and remembered what it is that makes me me.

Star-gazing, photographing sunset, watching the baboons dancing in the trees, spotting a breed of grasshopper painted in such vivid pink that it seemed like a Tim Burton fantasy creation...this is the stuff of life. There is a stillness, a silence about the African bush which - even when broken by the call of a hornbill or the chatter of monkeys - simply cleanses. It reminds you, no matter who you are, of your place on the planet (which, my life, is miniscule in reality though at times overwhelming in day to day life)and grounds you as nothing else can.

Last weekend, I swam in a river which has seen a few crocodiles in its day. I ate fresh, raw corn plucked from the waving stem, grasped from its silky husk and so sweet and tender that it satisfied at once my craving for liquid and sugar. When I doubt my path or question why I ended up here, in this curious land of Tanzania, this kind of earthy pleasure instantly wipes away any shakiness. I am in love with the plains, the endless sweeping vistas that release hosts of butterflies in my tummy and tickle my skin with goosebumps. I fall in love, at times like this, with life and the earth and with Africa.

Yesterday, a dala dala driver tried to kill me again. This is other side of the same Tanzanian coin - the at times dirty tail to the abundantly wondrous head of my homeland. The driver seemed not to see me, or maybe he was being rewarded for muzungu killing..... a new sport. This morning, cycling on a bike which has been royally serviced by someone who treats me like a princess (a princess who rides a bike...mmmm), a man wound down his car window and murmured 'Helloooooo baaaaaaaaaaabbbbyyyyy. I love you'..... Under my breath, I uttered a catalogue of expletives too explicit to be posted on my otherwise clean blog, and decided I hated this crazy street life.

But that is the richness of life - no? This kind of love-hate relationship with one's own surroundings. It is human nature, for sure, to think always of the road untravelled, the fork we could have taken. "If only, if only....." But no - this is not the way to live.

'If onlys' are impossible, chimerical imaginings. I am giving them up.

My niece, aged two and a half, knows me as Pennie Africa. She delighted in the handmade painted drum I took with me on my recent trip. We danced along to its beat in a fairly conservative seaside hotel, attracting as much damn attention as we could. Me, brown as a granary loaf, shaking my bum a la Africa and she chortling at the silliness of her auntie. I ran barefoot into the icy waters of the North Sea as my nephew, now five and oh so wise, regaled me on the delights of the English countryside. 'Pennie.... England is green AND brown. It's always beautiful.... but Africa is just brown..... when are you coming home? I miss you.'

Those moments, when a lump so heavingly immense rises from your stomach and lodges itself in your chest and throat, do make me question what I'm doing. It's certainly hard to explain. The thing is that I made a decision to do something different with my life: to challenge the status quo and see if I could make it. Even now I wonder: can I make it?

My job is going well. Work rolls in at such a pace that I rarely finish one thing before I start another. On top of that, I am involved with a few other outside interests that have become passions for me. I admire and get so motivated by what others are doing here that I cannot stay away. I want to join in and make some meagre contribution. I cannot believe how my life has changed.

It is orange season. There are always oranges, but right now they dominate the roadsides - great citrus pyramids that scent the air with their tangy, sweet-sharp zest. The lady opposite seems to spend here entire day carving away the outer peel, leaving a layer of pith so that they can be handled cleanly. It is, in itself, an art form. Strawberries and raspberries, too, can be found. I have, unsurprisingly, become something of an oracle on where to gather such goodies and am regularly seen hurtling along with a fruit-laden basket barely balanced on the handlebars of my trusty two-wheel friend. Having developed an ironically cruel allergy to my erstwhile favourite fruit - papaya - I am experimenting with a spell away from the tropical stuff.

I miss the English summer, especially as it manifests in my parents' garden. The daily feast of wild strawberries that proliferate in their garden paradise; the first sharp gooseberries and the quaintly misshapen cucumbers that drip in the greenhouse; the contented, busy hum of bumble bees. You may think I wax lyrical, but this I can say for sure: nothing, no nothing, beats a balmy, hazy, lazy English summer's day that oozes through to ten o'clock at night.

If you are there, enjoy it for me. Wherever you are, thank you for reading and I hope to be more inspired again soon.

Lala Salaama

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Rainy Days and It's a Wonderful Life

Recent rains have brought many challenges to the lives of those who dwell in the fair city of Dar es Salaam. When I say ‘fair city’, maybe I am being slightly generous in my praise. Only last week, I cycled over a squashed rodent (can I bring myself to write ‘rat’?) not too far from my apartment block and buried my foot in mud and squalor of dubious scent outside my local fruit and vegetable stall. I’m also the favoured foot stuff of myriad sub-Saharan flying, jumping, buzzing insects at present but, frankly, who can blame them? I like to think I’m tasty….

Digression: my greatest flaw. Rain. Rain of such intensity and force, of such admirable determination and intent to cause chaos, that even cats and dogs could not compete were they to join the thundering chorus of this season’s torrents. One afternoon, I was so hypnotized by the roar of egg-cup sized drops smashing onto every available tin, concrete and mud surface available that I left my office at CCBRT to simply stand and stare and poke my fascinated face into the wonder of it all. It was noisy, boisterous, defiant, mighty and – yes – wet.

My latest wonderful discovery is that, despite the degrees of wetness that certainly exist, there is a certain level of wetness that exists which, once achieved, means that there really is no chance of becoming any wetter. Provided that the water-to-body transfer continues at a consistently intense rate, it is simply impossible to either dry out in any significant manner or, importantly, to get any more soaked than you already are.

Making this discovery was exceptionally fun and, ultimately, freeing. As I cycled (ah yes, the adventures on a bike continue), brimming with the kind of false optimism which comes in handy in these parts, the sky was quite suddenly churning: clouds the colour of slate blocking the sun. A voice, perhaps that of Thor, clamoured ‘silly woman, seek shelter somewhere. Anywhere!!!!’, split seconds before the nimbus cracked and released its remorse.

(What followed reminded me somehow of what happens to me when I have been striding through life for months without an emotional outpouring. Once a solitary tear falls, I am wont to tumbling into such heaving mounds of distress that I hardly recognise myself. The last time this happened, I buried myself in bed for an entire day – timing the moments I needed to rehydrate with tea and juice to coincide with housemates being in the shower, or at the shops. I cannot bear to cry in public any more…)

So, yes, there I was merrily going about my business when the rain started. Now, let me explain that rain here does not necessarily start with a few light, teasing tastes of what is to follow. It does not always commence with a barely perceptible, dancing introduction. Oh no: and why should it, when it has been off stage for so many months and creating such a stir about when its grand performance will finally begin? So here it came at last; crashing into the spotlight; outperforming every other player so that they fled to cower in the wings and leaving no doubt as to its role which was, quite simply, to make everything (human, animal, vegetable, mineral, road, roof, yard and – notably – bike (plus one)) intensely, passionately, completely, incontrovertibly WET.

A magical thing occurred that day two weeks ago. I encountered a whole new experience and, with it, a rather fabulous physical and mental state. Probably rain-phobic for many years thanks to the legacy of a father who simply loathes the grey, drizzle-strewn days that seem to occur in depressing multitude in England, the experience of being transformed within minutes from dry to immeasurably drenched was surprisingly cleansing and uplifting. At first, as ample, bulbous drops commenced their descent from the sky, I cursed the heavens. I scanned the scene, searching for a place to shelter. Scarf over my head, I guess I resembled some kind of Virgin Mary figure (!), only with bike, not donkey!

As sobbing drops became heaving, grieving, inconsolable weeping, I found myself (quite logically!) getting wetter and wetter and wetter and wetter. No tree, no matter how magnificent, could offer me respite. No scarf, for sure, was going to keep my hair dry. My shorts and t-shirt were defenceless, thin cotton and were soon glued intimately to my body. There was nowhere to hide and I stopped trying! It seemed, suddenly, not only futile to seek respite from this rather astounding display of nature’s will, but actually peevish. Prudish. I was struck, quite plainly, by the irrefutable harmlessness of the rain soaking me through and through and, parking my bike under the boughs of a nearby tree, strolled out and stood still – face to the sky – exposed to the full force of torrential, tremendous downpour. It was a real Andy Dufresne moment.

Once wet, once absolutely, fundamentally, every-nook-and-cranny sodden, it dawned on me that – as I could not get any more wet, and had no close chance of getting drier – I had reached saturation point and may as well linger a while longer in the place between sky and earth. I was entranced by the solitude of the moment, for no one else beyond a few bemused drivers passed by, and heard only the symphonic splendour of drums into which the roar of the rain somehow morphed.

Joy: in a dripping moment of commune with the rainy season.

Ah yes: where was I? The challenges! It’s not easy to describe the state of some of the roads in my adopted home town but let’s just say that drainage is…. well………… drainage does not really happen.

The relationship between unpaved roads, significant quantities of soil and dust, piles of litter constructed as though they were castles, and a rainy season that makes Victoria Falls blush, is not so much symbiotic as antibiotic (yes, yes, it makes sense!): that is to say, chaotic and destructive.

We all know relationships like this, and they are messy. In this instance, they create mud and mayhem: rivers of silty, filthy water whirl down the streets, carrying not only the muck of the land but also the grime of the street be it plastic, latex (…..), paper, animal or (flinch) human waste. And, like an overflowing brook, it breaches its banks and creeps its way into ditches, potholes, back yards, lower floor flats….. carrying with it not only its dirt but also, I am certain, a grubby smirk.

What all of this metaphor and word play really boils down to is this: when it rains in Dar, streets flood. Streets flood not only with water but with disgusting, unidentifiable, reeking, rotten slicks of grimness. What look like puddles could be three feet deep. What looks like mud is probably not only mud but, honestly, mud and shit and piss and dead rats and frogs legs. Yes, really: frogs legs….. Cycling through this kind of foulness is idiotic to such a degree that even I do not attempt it. Well, OK, I did once try to get down the mud track that leads to CCBRT en-velo, but once I had experienced the sideways topple that squelched my entire lower leg in that mud-shit-piss combo, I decided my legs were worthy of more nurturing treatment.

Something more charming is called for......

I’m feeling like an extraordinarily lucky woman right now. It’s an astonishing thing to say as, to be candid, there have been times life when I have not exactly grasped this whole being alive thing with both hands. But really. Absolutely. Incredibly. Amazingly. Right now I’m feeling ecstatically blessed beyond words. I’m not sure where I was in my twenties. I mean, I know I was getting my degrees, living in Leeds, buying a house, trying to be a girlfriend/ wife…..oh, and that in my very early thirties I went to New Zealand in an attempt to rescue something…..but, really, where the hell was I?

Dar has been, by turn, malignant and benign; warm and chilly; soothing and terrorising; affectionate and loathing. I myself have been forced to grow in ways I never dreamt I would or could, and some of it has felt painful and wrong and unwanted. At times, I have hidden in my room, wrapped myself in a sheet, stroked photographs of my family and silently screamed. At others, I have resolved to take the next flight out of here. Yes, it has been extremely hard, mostly because I knew nothing of the world and learning about it has not always been pleasant.

Yet magical things really do happen. Never in my life have I been so massively blessed by the people I meet, with all their vagaries and shades. Never before have I been so committed to the people around me, in particular a number of friends who, for some strange reason that cannot to be explained, have entered my heart with such aplomb that I love them without condition and unchangeably. Never before have I been more open to these phenomenal people, nor more ready to jump for them. Never before have I felt this kind of depth of affection for a motley bunch who come from such different places and change my perspectives on pretty much everything.

It’s simply breath-taking: the richness of the human race and the bloody brilliance of it. Yes, I get hurt at times. Yes, I get raging mad. But, woweee, I will not deign to use words to describe the people I love here. They are, simply, immense.

So, how lucky am I?

Two and a half years since my formal separation, I find myself not only making my way career wise (I’m a writer, as you should know, for www.ccbrt.or.tz.... as well as an ad hoc teacher, cake maker and, ermmmmmm, karaoke queen of the Irish pub. This causes much amusement – the day I tell my parents that my education led to me running a pub night, heckling singers, making lewd innuendos, kicking my legs to New York New York…. I think I can kiss my inheritance goodbye!), but also – and much more importantly – making my way as an unattached, ‘independent’ girl. And the wonder of ‘independence’ is that, in reality, one never is.

Being single, I have come to see, does not mean being alone. I have girlfriends with whom I can share anything without fear of judgment, and I have male friends who tell me quite brutally how it is and make me roar with laughter. And, just when you think you have your friends and need no more, someone totally unanticipated flurries in like a snowstorm and turns the entire scene on its head. White out.

Life is truly beautiful.

I want to live forever.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Moshi and me. Part 2. A few small rants and lots of hope

The campaign for candid conversation

My last entry was rather personal. A rather public display of laundry. Well, maybe. But my laundry was not so dirty and I didn’t hang it all out on the line: I left rather a lot in the basket, from where it will go directly into the washing machine with a hefty glug of bleach.

Yes. I did write from the heart. If writing does not come from the heart then it is merely words on a page – like a manual, or instructions on a foil pack of antibiotics, or a Pot Noodle guide to preparation. Sometimes, the heart is not only the energy behind the flow of words, but is indeed the words themselves. The words are the heart and the heart is the words, so in some ways it is not words that you are reading but a big splat of bloody crimson heart seeping across what was once a clean sheet.

No apologies for that. It has struck me of late that we humans are so damn scared of reality that we exist in a constant state of semi-truth. We enquire about another’s wellbeing, but never expect any other response than ‘I’m fine.’ We fear exposing ourselves as the messy, muddled frauds that humans – by the very dint of our being – are. We are all responsible for perpetuating the myth that everyone else is doing so much better than we are, because we all tell each other (even our nearest and dearest) that we are OK when we are not – thus engendering in each other a morbid fear of our failures with the mistaken conviction that all around us are happy, healthy, successful, stable, fulfilled and solid.

Yet this fear of revealing ourselves to others, our fellows on this earth, really does no one any favours whatsoever. Who do we think we are protecting when we lie behind a smile and say that everything is great? It feels that, by doing this, we avoid being a pain or making a fuss or causing worry. But maybe we cause more worry. I know that I feel terribly inadequate at times when it seems that all of my friends are having the time of their lives, in strong trouble-free relationships and with glistening, peachy skinned babies.

It makes me think: ‘Shit…. Where the hell did I go wrong?”

But I know…. I know….. (because some of my friends are brave enough to tell me)…. That lives which seem to be made of solid gold are more often than not simply gold-plated and that what lies beneath is much less pretty. Because, you see, life is not that pretty. I resent the pressure to say that things are alright when they are not; to act happy when I am weeping inside; to jig about like a wind-up toy when all I want to do is slump in a corner, suck my thumb and sleep.

If, oh if only we were all free from whatever social mores force us to be so bloody dishonest about our feelings and the mucky bits of our lives and the times we have, basically, screwed up, I really believe that we’d all be so much less stressed about the jumble of life. We would soon all realise that every single one of us is a jerk, an idiot, inept and stunted and damaged and broken and struggling. It would even be quite funny – to call each other a moron for making such a pig’s ear of it. And then, ah, we could all breathe out and relax and see that we are all in the same rocky boat and we could all start to bail each other out with just a little more compassion and, vitally, humour.

Imagine that!

So, yeah, that’s why I write how I write at times. If anyone else wants to join my mini crusade to be a bit more sincere – karibuni!

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Heaving open the black metal gates outside my apartment block, the first thing I noticed was that my beloved, imperfect bike was not in its rightful place. The askari (guard) has taken to parking it between plant pots by the side of the house and is fiercesome in his protection of it. He knows what that old bit of metal means to me, and is even now able (goodness only knows how) to either hear or sense my approach – usually beating me to the gate and dragging it open before I disembark. The whole street, for heaven’s sake, knows that the girl dodging the too-many-to-mention hazards on her two-wheeled friend is Penina. It’s my trademark.

So, when I finally reached home after my Moshi jaunt, seeing a space where my bike should be stirred a disproportionate flurry of anxiety. I dropped my bags and found the askari, his green station master uniform (complete with hat) visible across the street, where he has taken to perching on a stool at a newly opened snack bar. He greeted me warmly, beaming as though I had brought with me a far greater bounty than simply my own safe return, but I was tired after a long day in the field and a delayed flight. I only wanted to know the whereabouts of my bike. Bas.

A while back, Kari’s bike disappeared for a week or so. Following some minor investigation, we managed to glean that one of the askaris had ‘borrowed’ it to do a bit of a road trip. Kari was not amused. She pretty much had the hump with that particular guard for the remainder of her stay. I was concerned that my bike had been hijacked for a similar mystery voyage and was ready to defend my irritation.

To discover, then, that it had been noticed that I had a front wheel puncture, and that my bike had been taken for repairs quite without prompting and out of sheer concern for my mobility and safety, was an absolute blessed relief. Strange as it may seem, this was one of the most reassuring things to happen to me in a long time. I felt, for the first time perhaps, a sense that I am somewhat cared about by those around me here and there are people watching out for me.

It also countered the typical assumption that everyone here is after something purely for themselves, and that as a white person I will forever be preyed upon. Following my bag-snatch incident, it’s tempting to think so. But this small gesture – my bike being taken to a fundi for fixing without so much as an utterance from me, served to confirm my faith.

Small acts of thoughtfulness and kindness have a boundless ability to make an impact. I will not have that belief rocked. Crucially, it is not the monetary cost of the act that lifts the spirit, rather the inspiration behind it. Just yesterday, the same askari handed me a small black plastic bag of the type found at every tiny dukka or stall in the city. In it, two quarters of pear – peeled and the right side of ripe.

Last week, I gave him a few thousand shillings for some chakula (food) and to demonstrate some appreciation of his watchfulness and here it was being repaid. Like a fine karmic balancing action, our mutual deeds of care produced in each of us delight and pleasure of a simple, basic kind. His handing to me of this fruit was neither flashy nor grandiose. This was not a diamond necklace moment! No. Indeed, it was more tender than anything of that ilk. It was an affectionate, open gesture that signalled our shared place in this universe and our shared humanness. Apparently worlds apart in too many ways to mention, we are both living, breathing, laughing, crying, searching, dreaming mortals: my askari and me.

Why, oh why, can’t everyone come to realise and live out this irrefutable truth?

OK: to Moshi

Sitting in a mud and brick house, perhaps three by two metres, I conversed with Asiana. The land owned by her family is high in the hills outside of Moshi, where bananas are so plentiful that I wonder what kind of demand can ever take on the bountiful supply. In the nearest town of Mwika, market day should have been renamed ‘banana day’ because the street was choking, absolutely choking, with locals selling stem upon stem of as yet unripe bananas. I have never before and, I’m pretty certain, will never again see such a mountain of one fruit in my life and I really cannot fathom where all these bananas will end up. Apparently, people travel far to buy their bananas from Mwika and quite honestly they would have to because the local population surely has its fill?

When buckets of ready-peeled bananas came past, balanced gracefully on the heads of local mamas, I enquired as to their destiny. ‘Ah. Banana wine,’ grinned my CCBRT colleague. I imagined, then, a diet comprising solely banana-based products and wondered what the effects of this might be. ‘Yellow fever’, I joked… before remembering that, sometimes, there is no amount of engineering that can bridge the sense of humour gap which, alas, can divide cultures in insurmountable ways!

Sorry, another one of my diversions. Where was I? Yes: I was in Asiana’s hut, sipping a Fanta whilst finding out about her life. She shared with me the effects of the severe malaria that she suffered as an eight year old: notably, that it rendered her completely deaf. Thinking she had become insolent and moody, her parents, teachers and peers shouted at her when she ‘ignored’ them and her father left the home in fury. Disability is little understood here, especially in rural areas, and the ‘shame’ of a child with some form of impairment very often drives families apart.

It was only thanks to an uncle that she was actually diagnosed as deaf, and she found a local school for deaf children where she received some early education. Her secondary education was less successful – the regular school she attended was simply unable to deal with her needs and she left school with few qualifications.

Perhaps I should point out that what made this interaction so interesting was that it was conducted through a third party who not only had to translate my English questions into Kiswahili., but who also then translated the spoken into the signed language. For, yes, obviously Asiana was communicating in sign language, making for an experience entirely new to me and, I have to say, curiously touching.

To reassure you, Asiana, pretty in her head scarf and a little shy in front of the camera, has recently been trained by my NGO to provide information about HIV/AIDS and the services available to other deaf people – because, as you can imagine, many of the messages about the virus are unheard by those who cannot hear. She is thrilled by her new role and I could feel the pride in both her and her mother.

Incidentally, her mother prepared a two steaming pots of lunch for us – as well as offering sodas which, unusually, I accepted with gratitude as I was sweating buckets on that tremendously hot day in the fug of the hut. One pot overflowed with plump grains of steaming sticky white rice, the other with matoke (cooked bananas in a stew like sauce).

After washing our hands in the customary manner, we dug in under the vivid green parasol shade of banana trees with nothing but the universally heart-melting chirps of day old chicks and the occasional testosterone-pumped crow of a cockerel to break the silence.

Out of Dar, I feel ultra free. I assume the air of a school girl playing truant: a childlike quality floods through my veins and endows me with an infinite capacity for laughter, marvel, wonder and curiosity. On top of this, a wave of serenity washes away my tensions, fears and doubts about being in Tanzania. They completely evapourate whenever I escape the city and, much as I love Dar and its quirks and nooks and crannies, it is the bush, the highlands, the tree-spiked plains that remind me of all that is to be loved about Africa. This is what sets my soul to rest and pulls me back to the soil and to the core of what I am.

Clinging on to the nearest fixed feature, howling with mixed mirth and discomfort, I am completely at one in the back of the land rover as it rumbles and tumbles its way up a track so dusty that we imagine ourselves to be driving inside a giant vacuum cleaner bag.

Damn it – I love it: this bashing about against the windows; this holding my breath to avoid swallowing a small desert of dust; this amazing, frustrating country. Damn it – I love it.

Hiding out in the shelter of the banana trees reminded me of my time in Cambodia in 2005. This provokes questions about my marriage and my relationships in general and incites an overwhelming urge to bring all those I love into this stunning, secret sanctuary. In particular, I wish to hold the hands of the men in my life who I know to be struggling just now and bring them into this calming place. My loyalties prevent me from naming them, but maybe if they are reading this they will know I am referring to them and will simply understand that that I wish for nothing more or less than the end of their battles and the quieting of their demons.

Here, the riddles of the universe are no longer so puzzling or demanding of resolution. Here, the web of human experience seems not so much a lethal trap but rather a wondrous, unfathomable labyrinth. Here, the pain we have all in some way suffered dissipates in a burst of sunlight piercing through the canopy onto the red earth. Here, the sheer generosity of a family with little to give – demonstrated without fanfare by the presentation of a simple meal – realigns thought about what it means to give and live well in a world so caught up in acquisition and material betterment.

There I am – back to my ‘small acts’ rant.

UFO (Unidentified Flulike Ouch)

I am ill and it’s taking its toll on my spirit. I don’t know why, but it’s widely accepted that being ill here – even with only a cold – is so strangely depressing. It started a couple of weeks back, when I started to feel mighty tired, and spiralled beyond my tolerance last week. Finally seeing a doctor on Friday was so relieving that I burst into tears and felt like the most pathetic insect on the surface of the planet. Several vials of blood later, and one weekend of wobbling about on legs that feel on the verge of snapping, and no diagnosis beyond that I’m clearly in need of acres of sleep. (Yes, I know that sleep is not measured in acres but I really feel it should be).

He came to me today, the doctor, as I just could not haul my burning body to the clinic. We peered together at a bite-gone-wrong and watched yet another malaria test turn negative. No fever, no massive changes in temperature, but an exhaustion and ache and scorching sensation that has kept me away from work at a time when I have so much to do and so much to prove.
I feel as if I am rocking on a boat, as if the world is swimming and moving away from me. It’s grim. I hate to sound like a hypochondriac, but not one part of my body feels right. I need a hug!

Raining in buckets

The weather has changed of late, maybe a cause of my malaise. Yesterday, it rained with such vigour and might that I expected the water table to rise up to my third floor home. I peered out at my neighbours’ yard and watched them wading through half a metre of brown water. Drainage in Dar is a problem in that there is none. Still, we very much need this rain and have to contend with the obstacles. It is unnerving not to see the sun in all her glory for a few days. It has been overcast for three days and I feel robbed of vitamin D. Oh, hell, how will I ever manage when I decide to return to Europe? A few days without sun and I’m disorientated and tetchy…. I may end up in a sanatorium if I go back to Leeds!

I am looking forward to the future. It may seem odd not to write ‘I’m looking forward to ….’ and then to name a particular event. But I cannot. All I can say now is that, despite feeling like a pounded up piece of flabby meat today, I am terribly eager to see what the future has in store for me. Two years back, I had never stepped foot in Sub Saharan Africa, and I had not met some of the people who have tinted my life with magical shades of myriad colours. So, bugger, I am sick today and will need a few days of rest and juice and honey and bananas, but my goodness I cannot wait to resume my place bobbing along with the brilliant momentum of this world.

I never know who reads this, but whoever you are I trust that the same momentum is carrying you forth in positive ways and that you trust in its ability to stand you on your feet. Listening to the sound of children playing and the distant beat of African music hailing from a bar down the road, I am pretty certain that whatever life force exists is ultimately reliable. It may take you on some rough rides, down cul de sacs and the wrong way along a one way street, but somehow we end up where we should.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Moshi and me. Part 1. The heavy part. Pole sana!

The ladies who sell their deep purple aubergines and crimson tomatoes screamed with excitement when I appeared in the market in Moshi last week. It has been over a year since I was last in town, but they somehow remembered this English woman who used to buy much more than she could ever hope to eat. They clapped their hands and grabbed my finger tips, recognising me and welcoming me like a long lost relative.

It was deeply comforting on many levels for it means that I have not aged quite as much as I fear I have; that my streaks of blonde do not change my look too radically; that I am remembered warmly and, poignantly, that a piece of myself remains in this upcountry town that lies humbly near the foothills of Kilimanjaro.

To see that mountain again is a pleasure and succor far beyond anything I feel adequately skilled to describe. A year and a half ago, green and fresh and bursting with anticipation, I flew into Kilimanjaro airport at sunset. My first glimpse of Tanzanian land was, indeed, the snowy peak of Kili lit by the sinking sun and her parting shafts of amber, ruby, solid gold.

Back then, it moved something in me so deep that I have never quite been able to locate it: a stirring and a calling, almost. A sense that all was well in the world and that, in some strange way, I had come home.

There have been so many changes since then. So many challenges. The past 18 months have been quite unlike any other I have known or am likely to know again. It’s been a period of absolutely coming face to face with myself – the beautiful and the ugly, the calm and the storm, the softness and the edge, the brave and the terrified.

(A reflective interval in which I will have a wee purge)

After my split from Tim, I really had to get to grips with life in a whole new way and being open about how hard this has been is not easy. In fact, it is deeply private. But to be with someone for so many years and for it to collapse so monumentally leaves one breathless, let’s say. It causes the world to spin from its axis and hurtle into outer space, without control and without known destiny. Life freezes yet refuses to simply stop. The body aches and breaks yet refuses to simply die. The heart burns yet refuses to simply cease beating. The mind thrashes about, oozing guilt, regret, directionless anger, jealousy, rage, terror, hopeless desire yet refuses to simply stop wanting back the past.

Pile on top of this the sale of a house, the end of another teaching era in my adopted home town of Leeds, a family farewell, and an unknown destination (but let’s, just to make my already fairly mixed up life a little more interesting, call it Africa……)and I guess I had a fair few spiritual balls to juggle. Yes, I came to Tanzania with much more than my thirty kilos of luggage. Seems I managed to slip a sizeable cargo of emotional detritus into the country without so much as a side glance from customs, and I have truthfully been spending a fair amount of my time sifting through it.

The good news is that I have almost ticked this cumbersome task off my ‘to do’ list. I wish to god I had sorted through it all before I left for Tanzania (I was warned, but at the time thought I was through the worst). It really wasn’t necessary to drag it about with me like a hungry, irritated Rottweiler with its canines chewing into my ankles refusing to be shaken off. I should have shot that dog dead months back but, hey, no point crying over spilt blood and that mutt is not getting another ounce of my flesh.

The bad news, white flag flying high, hands held up in surrender, is that at times I somehow managed to make a mess out of my muddle; a jumble out of my disarray; chaos, indeed, out of my confusion. Like an earthquake within a snowstorm within a thunderstorm whirling about in the eye of a tornado, I sometimes, truthfully, lost it. In doing so, I would say that there have been periods in which I have lost myself and acted most un-PC (ha, get it?): shaken myself up a bit and pushed and pulled in the wrong directions.

A master of self-flagellation, I have never really needed the errors of my ways highlighted in fluorescent pink, made into a radio jingle, or advertised on a plasma screen in the city centre. But ex-pat life can feel a little like that at times (you know: judgmental) and living through one’s private phases of ebb and flow so publically is a toughie. Again, I accept responsibility for being naïve in the extreme. For simply not knowing what people can be like and for trusting too much and protecting too little. It was all so new to me.

So what? Yes, so what? Ultimately, I’m vaguely proud of how far I’ve come since the dark days of 2007-2008 and I am almost at the point where I do not feel it necessary to beat myself up for making a few mistakes along the way. I haven’t been nasty, I haven’t wantonly hurt anyone, and I absolutely cling to my vision of the world and of love and friendship and the great unfathomable cycles of planet that always somehow bring us back to base camp.

Today, lighter, brighter somehow (heck) less serious, I know that when I move about in the world I am not lugging contraband emotions around with me anymore. I’m so very nearly free and feel a kind of boundless love for people that never existed in me before. That has been the most brilliant lesson of all: to find in myself this immense sense of compassion when all I often felt in my previous incarnation as a wife was a shriveling away from my fellow man and woman.

I like people, for all their shades of light and dark, as never before and I can give in a way that surprises me. I guess I just need to be a bit careful of what I do with that.

As for what others think. I’m not sure it’s so important any more. I reckon I am big enough and ugly enough to be perpetually optimistic without having to rationalise it and, my goodness, it beats procrastinating on the horribleness of the human race.”

Wow. Sorry. I slipped down what I thought was a short cut but ended up as one of those diversions that leads you to the parts of town you wouldn’t normally go to even with armed guards in a tank!

I think my point can be condensed into something along the lines of: I came to Africa rather young in many ways; I had more to deal with than I knew; dealing with it far from home and with the day to day flap of being in Africa was not easy; sometimes I messed up; I also came good in so many ways; I am at a stage of letting myself off for any slips; I think I’m OK; I think most people are OK; I came out of it all with a bigger, softer heart than I ever knew possible and it feels bloody great.

Yeah, OK, it also sometimes hurts a heap but even that it alright. At least I’m alive!

Yes! I am very much alive and not really needing to kick anymore.

I felt this aliveness, and a lovely earthy connection with myself, like a solid pulse when I caught sight of Kili last week. I was blessed during my stay, because the mountain top was visible for most of the time – a rare treat. The way in which Kili dominates the landscape is so hard to describe to those who have never seen her (yes, Kili is a woman!) and I hesitate to try lest I do her an injustice. I can only say that she is magnificent, mighty and intensely moving and yet she does not brag about her beauty. No. She is just there.

No matter where you are in the Moshi area you are one way or another aware of her quiet, unyielding presence. Here we are, riddled with anxieties, doubts and troubles and yet…. there she is, there she been for so long, and there she will remain (planetary balances willing) a fixed, constant reminder of the wonderfully frightening smallness of our individual concerns.

Glancing at Kili, or lulled into her aura for a few minutes of hypnosis, I feel myself and my worries melting into the land and suddenly the universe makes sense.

I need a little break. This was meant to be a piece about my time in Moshi and my tumultuous love affair with Tanzania, but I think that will be my weekend task.

Right now, I suddenly need to look at some old photos of my first weeks in the country. Oh, and at shots of Kili, who has been extremely obliging and patient when posing.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The death of a chicken and other losses

Sprawled across my bed one night, shortly before my Monday night jaunt to the pub for quiz night, I listened to the final, pleading, hopeless calls of a chicken resigned to the fate of having its neck rung. I guess it was around dinner time! What struck me, lying with a book in one hand and a bowl of spicy peas in the other, was not so much the horror of the last, throaty breaths of a living creature. Nor was it a sense of mortality, a primordial fear of death. No. Much as I felt the panic in the poor poultry’s cries, and much as I shared its anguish and the terrible inevitability of its end, extending my full sympathy to it…… what really hit me was the reality of feeding a family: the everydayness of this minor, bloodless passing.

There was nothing grim about it at all, save the noise (which was a little chilling). As the sounds pierced through the net shutter, which allows for doors to be open without nasties coming in, I called out to my housemate, suppressed laughter in my voice. ‘Can you hear that chicken being killed?’ I enquired. Of course, she could: and there was nothing remarkable about it whatsoever. It was just another street noise: a chicken being killed; Bongo flavour beats pounding through loudspeakers; the high-pitched kissing of a bottled water seller; screeching tyres and heated ripostes.

What is, at first, unacceptable or outside of one’s own sphere of understanding and experience, silently, imperceptibly creeps into the space occupied by the norms and normalities of day to day life. With no apparent fanfare, no particular event to mark the change, there is a gradual shift in expectations and cultural mores so that, one day, things that used to shock, annoy, disturb, disgust, fluster or invoke fear no longer do so. This modification is subtle. You simply realise one day that you have ceased to be an observer of a scene quite external to yourself, and have become part of it. Albeit a spare part.

This is how I feel as I cycle along Kimweri Avenue – somehow an integral part of the day to day life of my neighbourhood, understanding its routines, sounds, smells and peculiarities and yet somehow never quite absorbed fully into it. Nevertheless, this small corner of the world has become my small corner and, when I consider the oceans of difference between this and my parallel life and home in England, I am occasionally floored. It’s still the same old me, I hope, but in such a staggeringly other world that I am at times simply spinning.

Kimweri is the road that leads from the area known as Nmanga towards the peninsula (where the scene becomes less intense, the streets greener, and the houses more expensive). It is a long, paved street lined with dukkas (shops), stalls, food stands, workshops, second hand clothes on crooked wire hangers, fruit carts, bars, mobile phone card kiosks, walking salesmen bearing sunglasses, hard-boiled eggs, hair accessories, bras, DVDs, dishcloths, soap, foot files, knives, nuts .

To be frank, you can pretty much buy anything you might want along Kimweri: from a peeled orange to a cheap beach dress; from a Polaroid passport picture to a laundry basket; from a loaf of bread to a catapult. It’s not easy to explain the sheer density of small commercial enterprises that positively stuff the streets of urban Tanzania. Everything is a shop, a chance to spend a few shillings, a chance to make a living. Denominations are small, and exchanges of coins for roasted corn-cobs or bottles of alarmingly orange sweet drinks can barely generate an income. But this is trading, Africa-style, and I have grown completely accustomed to its almost twenty four hour, open, casual, impulsive rhythm. So unlike the Western world’s controlled, formalised, set-price, pay-at-the-counter-and-keep-your-receipt style of consumerism, here it is an ongoing process of barter, banter, buying; eating, drinking, carrying. It is not shopping as defined activity. It is shopping as lifestyle, as way of life.

My apartment is situated just off Kimweri, let’s say 100 metres up a dirt road which is also home to various dukkas and workshops. When I differentiate between paved and unpaved roads, please understand that even most of the paved roads are rough as hell. Kimweri is pot-hole heaven: the place where pot-holes congregate, retire to, or party when they are fed up with being the solitary pot-hole in some otherwise smooth tarmac drive. The road is in a bad way in many parts, and is rendered even more challenging to negotiate by the speed bumps that rise along some stretches.

I am not certain of the value of these. Having travelled Kimweri so often that I can practically cycle down it blind folded (and I frequently do, in effect, when darkness falls), I have concluded that neither of the hapless bumps do anything to stop the dala dala drivers from careering along as though on a race track. Neither do they pose a problem to four-wheel drive road hogs who apparently have no need to slow down for such trifles. Admittedly, the bajaji drivers seem to struggle somewhat as they veer towards the bumps but most people here drive whatever they are driving with absolute disregard for hazards, logic, rules, etiquette and others.

This includes bicycle riders, naturally. Please do not be unduly perturbed, but in the last three weeks I have had a couple of incidents involving me, my bike and bajajis which shook even me up a little. Let’s just say that my right foot is almost entirely healed and my finger was not actually broken at all. For a moment I grew paranoid, wondering if someone had a contract on my life. I felt like the old woman in A Fish Called Wanda. But, touch baobab wood, I’ve kept in one piece.

Tiny apples have been appearing on the carts and in the greengrocers which is practically a daily destination for me. Along with them, small hard pears with a rough skin and an inoffensive but not very exciting taste. I’m aware that many people miss out on the seasons here, thinking that they do not exist but, as I have written before, I very much feel them with the subtly shifting availability of different fruits. The apples and pears are from Morogoro or Lushoto, the latter being an up-country mountainous area renowned for the richness of its produce.

Also returning to the streets is my absolute favourite snack: the hard, dense, crunchy cucumbers that enjoy but a short season and are peeled and quartered lengthwise on the street for ten pence a go. Eaten with chili-laced salt they have an addictive quality and seem innocuous enough as a vice. I don’t see many Wazungu hanging around to nibble peeled cucumbers on street corners, but I suppose it might be time to admit that I am prone to being a wee bit different. Just sometimes.

Yesterday I was robbed. In the street. Just like that. One moment, my handbag was there. The next, it was gone. Poof. Snatched out of the basket on my handlebars and whizzed off down some winding alley by a quick-fingered fiend who I shall never see again. At the time, I was cycling slowly (along the road about which I wrote with such fondness before, by the way – Kimweri) whilst my house mate walked besides me, talking about men or some other equally trivial and irksome topic. The guy came between us, had a micro-second glance into my basket, and pulled the bag out with such speed that we could only stand there like fish gasping for breath. No one did a thing. So much for my neighbours!

The dress fetish continues. It is hardly surprising, when so many second hand clothes flap along the roadsides and whisper such obscenities as ‘buy me….. I fit you…. and will be perfect for the beach/ BBQ/ work/ party’. My house mate and dear dear friend, Kari, teases me that it is simply impossible for me to pass safely from any particular A to B without parting with 10,000 shillings and returning with a dress of some description. At times I have felt like an alcoholic, smuggling my latest purchase into my own flat and into my own room somehow knowing that I might be doing something a little bit naughty.

I never wore dresses before. They did not interest me. I guess that the weather in the UK is not exactly conducive to flapping skirts and exposed knees, and I also confess that being in a relationship for as long as I was probably resulted in a terrible torpor in the field of fashion! There was my wedding dress of course (I do wonder where it is….) but aside from that I was very much a jeans and jumpers girl. In this heat, however, and with the apparently endless rows of passed-on frocks from around the world, it would be churlish not to indulge.

On the street, the most I would pay for any kind of dress is the equivalent of £6, so we are not talking a bank-breaking addiction. Golly, now I’m making excuses…like a true addict.

‘Hi. My name is Pennie and I sneak dresses into the house.’

Anyway, to give you a flavour: last week I bought a slinky black backless number, a khaki shirt dress and a slip-of-a-thing to pull over bikinis on the beach. I need wardrobe space.

We have had a few electricity issues of late. I came home, ready to crash, one evening last week to find that the circuit which controls my bedroom had failed. Having no light is inconvenient, but being fan-less during these clammy, airless nights is close to unbearable. I felt every pore of my body open up and spill liquid salt, beads of saline sweat sitting on my upper lips. Someone remarked to me recently that the humidity is brilliant for one’s skin (I suppose I should think about my skin these days, being old and whatnot), but in the middle of the night, unable to sleep for the sheer density of the air, this is small comfort.

Power failings of this kind are so commonplace that they no longer surprise and barely grate unless they mean, as in this case, no hope of relief from the heat. A few nights back, I was enjoying a sit-down shower, hair foaming with shampoo, when I found myself suddenly in the dark: the shower reduced to a trickle. As the power cut, my phone rang… persistently. I stumbled out of the shower, grabbed the phone with soapy fingers, squawked that right now was not a good time to talk, and heard the generator kick in (we are allowed to use it sometimes). Abruptly bathed in light once again, I caught myself in the mirror frothy-headed, soaking wet, naked (hilarious just now with my tan lines), clutching my phone under my chin.

Yes, I had a giggle.

There have been some stunning children in the hospital lately. Children whose stories have touched me again just as I feared I had been rendered immune by so many encounters with tragedy and loss. I met a boy and his father, an oyster fisherman, who had travelled to so many different hospitals with no explanation of why the boy, aged 12, had lost so quickly and absolutely all muscle and power in his legs. This sudden collapse of his mobility had caused the family so much expense, so much time and so much sheer effort that the boy, despite his father’s patent adoration and dedication, whispered that he wanted to die when I went to speak with the family. This, he said, would make life much better for the rest of the family.

I pulled my sunglasses over my eyes at this juncture. Devastated.
Of course, there are plenty of stories like this one. It’s just that sometimes there is a look in a child’s eyes, or a tireless commitment in a parent, that particularly resonates. Some of the most shocking cases I see are children who are the victim of the open flame, of which there are so many in Tanzania. Burning rubbish in the streets, gas lamps that explode, boiling pots over fires inside houses. These things create an environment in which burns can be so severe that limbs and digits are destroyed. There are little faces in the rehabilitation department that are scarred and misshapen so badly by burns that they can hardly raise a smile. This does not stop them trying, though, these tiny people whose lives are already indelibly marked by disfigurement.

When I popped home this lunchtime, a sparrow had managed to fly through the door and up the stairwell, and was resting on the bar above my third floor front door. As I approached the door, he (definitely a boy!) chirped a little but stayed just where he was. It filled me with plain delight, this little life at my door. I don’t know why, but it reminded me of my family and friends and everyone I love who I miss more than even my words can ever explain.

I like to think the bird had flown all the way from my parents garden to invoke a memory of home and reassure me that it was still there and still supporting me, even here in Tanzania. My wish is that my own writings give similar comfort, and that all who read them are peaceful and safe and know that I carry all of them in my thoughts.


15 March 2010.