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

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

My bikini and other seasonal greetings

Yesterday, we gave a Christmas gift to Rachel: the wonderful, warm lady who spends two days a week in our apartment. She bristles with energy, and we do our best to exchange information about our lives through amateur Kiswahili and gestures. Somehow, we communicate something – although Rachel has a tendency for doubling over with squeals of laughter when the whole process breaks down.

Rachel is one of the most open hearted, dear people I have met here. She seems to genuinely care about me and my flat mate (Kari), takes such incredible care to make our home tidy and clean, and has an astounding knack for reorganizing our wardrobes so that all our clothes can be more easily found. This is achieved by categorizing our items – tops; shorts; dresses; trousers; jeans; undies - and making beautifully laundered piles of them.

Admittedly, there have been a very few occasions when I have failed to locate something as a result of my inability to fully grasp Rachel’s logic but, on the whole, her system is remarkable.
Last week, Kari and Rachel shared thoughts on my bikini. We had some old magazines lying around which Rachel was keen to flick through, if only for the pictures. She approached Kari with a page showing women wearing what must seem like very skimpy clothes to someone who has never been beyond Dar es Salaam although, to you and me, they were nothing too outrageous. What was outrageous, however, was my bikini – which Rachel managed to slide into the conversation after having asked Kari why western women wear small clothes like those in the magazine.

It soon became clear that Rachel, whilst washing my bikini on a weekly basis, had been pondering its purpose and, more significantly, seriously questioning its decency as a garment. Why, she enquired, would I choose to wear such a thing in my daily life. Why would anyone do this? Was this normal behaviour?

Rachel, in short, thought I was a bit of a loose lady who wore practically nothing and probably had very little dignity. Kari did her best to explain that bikinis are for the beach and that even she has a bikini, whilst undoubtedly stifling laughter at this almost poignant cultural misapprehension and, we hope, the matter was settled.

When I heard this story, I did not know whether to laugh or cry. Whether to laugh at the idea of myself gallivanting around Dar in a bikini with gay abandon, or whether to cry because the lady whose approval and care I actually value thought I was hussying about her hometown.
I think we’ve cleared the air. A barrel of biscuits, a sprawling hand of bananas and a kilo of sugar was our gift to Rachel and her family and I think she has seen my pyjamas enough times now to know that I’m not entirely without shame.

Not entirely.

So hot is it at present that one might, indeed, be forgiven for resorting to a bikini at any time of day. The sun positively heaves its weight with a mighty punch onto the people of Dar es Salaam, as though it has expanded in the last month; somehow slipped closer to the earth; or has actually become hotter.

Has the sun got hotter? It certainly feels that way. I cycled less than two kilometers at lunchtime yesterday and, within the first one hundred metres, I started to feel the burn. The earth seems to be baking and all who walk on it are trying to live, work and stay healthy in this giant open oven. At dusk, a breeze occasionally rises from the sea to nudge away some of the intense heat of the day but, last night as I sat by the ocean sipping a glass of wine with a friend, there was barely a murmur of freshness in the air.

As mosquitoes tucked into a feast of Pen leg, the ultimate Christmas treat, we bemoaned the distinct lack of crispness and envied those who have found themselves gripped by the chill clinch of snow. Whilst wearing dresses, shorts, cotton tops and – in essence – as little as possible (though not, let me advise you, bikinis anywhere other than on a beach!) is freeing and simple, I miss cold weather attire.

This Christmas, I would dearly love to dig out warm, thick socks or opaque tights; long sleeved tops; chunky knit sweaters (preferably borrowed from a man- don’t ask why, it’s just a penchant I have); hats, gloves and scarves. Oh, I miss my fleece, my Gortex and my sturdy walking boots.

More than this, I miss the unparalleled sensation of coming in from an invigorating, brisk walk through silent woods, where one’s icy breath dances in the still, cold air, and finding a home lit by the low, soft lights of early evening and a fire in its early stages of crackling life.

I yearn for the spicy aroma of mince pies, the first glow of wellbeing that floods through the veins after a sip of Christmas spirit, and the intense, immediate relief-laden sigh of a still slightly cold body submerged in a warm, bubbling bath.

This Christmas, I will mostly be taking cold showers. I will eat syrupy pineapples by the basket, so abundant are they at present that, for me, they have assumed a quasi status as a seasonal symbol. On the 25th, I will spend time with my surrogate family in Dar es Salaam: the friends who give me the support and strength to keep going when I sometimes feel like packing my suitcase and coming home.

No doubt, there will be some Savannah involved.

There will be a little messing about on boats, hopefully on a benign ocean, and some safari-ing. I will escape the city for a few days and connect again with the Tanzanian bush. I hope to swim, to walk, to talk and to be.

Just to be.

I hope, too, that everyone I love is able just to ‘be’ this Christmas and into 2010. I have an intimidating list of resolutions that I hope to honour, many of which are less about quitting and more about not quitting.

May you all have a truly wonderful Christmas, very much fun, succor for the soul, and a brilliant 2010. I’ll do my best to accompany you through it with some thoughts, observations and news. If I can share a little of your from time to time, it would make my New Year that much pleasurable.

Warmly, warmly.

23 December 2009

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Tidal Shift

It's not too hard to reconnect when you feel the need, or when you look in the mirror and are not quite sure who the baggy-eyed witch staring back at you is. What is hard is admitting that you have the need in the first place - now that can take some humility.

My great leveller is the ocean, a trait that runs so strongly through the Cabot line that anyone doubting the true identity of my father would be floored by this luminous thread in the genetic patchwork of the family.
Yesterday, I took a wooden boat from one of the beaches that lie to the north of Dar es Salaam and, after a half hour crossing which eased me into another mood and rhythm, arrived on the island of Mbuja with my thoughts starting to untie themselves and my body visibly relaxing.

I adore the theatre. I love great cinema, can be distracted by artifacts, get absorbed by art in all forms and am carried back through time when I enter, say, the National Gallery. Goodness, I miss all that. But, for me, there is something equally transporting and uplifting about being removed from all cultural references, in nothing but bikini, and running down to the ocean through icing-sugar sand so soft that you sink and trip all the way to the water.

When I was a child, during the many summers that my family passed on the beaches of Brittany in France, I developed a passion for sea life which was inspired and nurtured by Dad. Dad would endow me with some aptly over-the-top title such as 'Great Mariner Extraordinaire', and we disappeared for hours with buckets and nets in search of some prize catches.
There were many. The rock pools in that area were a child's paradise, teeming with fish, shrimp, crabs, urchins, anemones..... Some of our catches were surprisingly large and we literally spent hours scrambling over rocks, slipping across weedy, wet, barnacled expanses bent double as we turned rocks and prodded our nets into the deeper pools. It was here, in Brittany, that I really fell in love with the sea and, at the same time, discovered that my Dad, too, was a child again when presented with the simple wonders of rock-pooling.

I have never been afraid to run into the ocean, to take on the currents, or to get my head under water. I have always, also, been a strong swimmer. This, again, is pure Dad: this is the man who was a young lifeguard off the Devon coast; once made the Brittany news for a valiant sea rescue of a flailing swimmer; would, in my teenage years, lead me out into the Atlantic swell from the far southwestern beaches of Portugal and commandeer two hour long snorkeling marathons in water so wild and chilly that I had no option but to invest unfathomable faith in him.
It was here that Dad taught me what has become one of my guiding principles in life: just keep moving. Then, it was an instruction designed to prevent my lips from bluing at the edges in that icy sea. Now, it means something a little more than that to me, and I recall it and am driven by it at times when life threatens to grind to a halt.

Mum was, on more than one occasion, a panicking, pacing figure on the shore, wondering where her teenage daughter might have chosen as a swimming target. Again inspired by Dad, who had a penchant for using boats out at sea as destination points, I once decided to swim solo out to a boat which did not seem so far away. Except that it was. It was bloody far away, and even I have a recollection of a vague concern that crossed my mind as I swam towards the apparently chimerical vessel. I reached the shore an hour and a half after I had departed, weak-kneed, shaking, purple at the extremities, and with a mother apoplectic and so distraught that even today I cannot quite forgive myself.

So, to the ocean.

The Indian Ocean that sweeps around Africa’s east coast, and nudges the coast line and islands of Tanzania, is a tamer beast than the Atlantic of my past. At least, the parts that I can access are positively benign and, despite the warnings by certain slightly sensationalist relatives who warn me of the dangers of, variously, sharks, jelly fish, and Somali pirates (I wish I was joking), I know it to be kind and gentle.

Admittedly, it is not always refreshing as such, especially at this time of year when the blistering heat of the day turns the great expanse of water into a giant bath, but the water around the islands in this part of the world is magically clear, warmly reassuring, and, for this sea lover, hypnotic.

As I said, my mind starts to come into balance and my physical being is also somehow righted when I immerse myself in the sea. So it was yesterday. The moment my kanga was off, so was I: snorkel in hand, tripping down the beach and soon completely immersed in the warm embrace of the sea. There is no other metaphor but to say that it was crystal clear yesterday and even I, a loather of cliché, cannot find a better description.

It is then that it happens: the reconnection. Once under, with snorkel and mask in place and free to thrash out to where the coral reef, eroded and not nearly as spectacular as it surely was some years back, I am transported. Not, so much, as to another time or even another place but, rather, transported back to ‘me’. In that case, maybe not transportation at all but rather a kind of ‘bringing back’: a return. For this is the moment when I forget what my hair is doing, have no inkling of the imperfections of my body, drift far from the day to day detritus of the life that I have built, break the relay race of question-answer-question which at times plagues me, and, finally, gloriously, actually stop thinking.
At that moment, when I am lost without thought, suspended in the water with my body and spirit and mind quite free – I suddenly, dramatically, feel just like ‘me’. It’s not a certain mood, emotion, age, or anything specific, it is purely a sense of being whole and sound and somehow, simply, back.

Yesterday, back exposed to the sun, body carried by the Indian Ocean, spirit lifted by the irrepressible pleasure of watching the world of fishkind going about its colourful daily business, surrounded by legions of jellyfish which pumped past full of casual vigour, wrapped in the warmth of the salt water, I came back again and emerged, as I always do, walking steady and strong. Me again.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Losing yourself in Africa

Sometimes, I admit, it's hard to remember myself here in the middle of Dar es Salaam. Sometimes, I lose my bearings.
There are few familiar points of reference, and the elements of life that tend to ground you at home - family, childhood friends, walks in the rain, old TV shows that somehow remind you of YOU - are nowhere to be accessed.

When that happens, and I feel the drift towards a sense of total anonymity, I really have to remember to do something that makes me feel like ME. Ride my bike along the sea front; jump into a pool and thrash things out in lengths; take some photos; write a poem or twelve. It's hard to do at times, make that reconnection, but today more than ever I feel how important it is. If you leave it too long, things can really go awry.

I miss home just now. All that is familiar, secure and safe. I miss my family horribly, and would gain so much from running about with my niece and nephew for a few days.

Yes, it's hard being away at the moment.

This week I really need to pick myself up, dust off and get strong. It's fair to say that Africa can grind me down at times. Or do I do that to myself?

Anyway - to all travellers and people who live away from home. Stay focused on what you are and try to keep yourselves somehow on top.

My Tanzania Times

Hi Hi

Before I started this blog, I was writing all kinds of bits and bobs about my time in Tanzania, and e-mailing them back to people.... that was in my pre-IT days..... I thought it would be nice to post them here. I'll date them so you know when they were written. The most recent was about a week ago..... the rest getting old now.

As you read down, the oldest one (near the beginning of my time in TZ), is at the bottom....

Hope you enjoy


The drift back to Dar - November 2009

Two months it has been since I landed back in Dar es Salaam, on a humid, dusty night. Sometimes, my emotions are running such riot that I cannot even access what I am feeling: there is little precision from one minute to the next and, often, I experience a host of conflicting ups, downs and upside downs within a short space of time here in Tanzania. That day, the first in October, this was particularly acute.

I enjoyed such a special time during my three and a half week break in the UK. Admittedly, it took about two of those weeks to feel vaguely grounded again, to regain my bearings, but even as I did so I felt closer to my family than I have in years and a great tide of warmth swelled within me. It helped, too, that I was a more relaxed Pen – a brighter, more positive person than the one they said goodbye to last year. Never in my life have I had such a wonderful time with Mum and Dad – a product, I’m sure, of my being away from day to day life. But also, maybe, a product of where I’ve moved on from and what I’ve experienced in the last 12 months.

All was oiled by stunning September weather – some of the finest sunshine to kiss the UK all year. It lasted almost exactly from the day of my arrival to that of my departure, resulting in lunches on the patio, strolls by the Thames, pints in pub gardens, and birthday celebrations in the garden. I could not have wished for much more – only the improved health of Dad, which I’m sure time will bring.

So – let’s just say that leaving the warm belly of the family to embark on yet another chapter was extremely tough. Ouch. Dad and I had, to say the least, an emotional farewell at Heathrow and my flight back was punctuated by hard-to-control sobbing. The soulless, limbo-like, sleep deprived vacuum of air travel didn’t exactly soothe, and at one point I came to the decision to simply hide in the overhead cabin at Dar, and wait for the plane’s return leg to Amsterdam. I am never sure whether it is bravery or cowardice which keeps me going.
But here I am, at my table in my third floor flat in dusty Msasani, the balcony door open, the netted external door closed to stop unwanted flying creatures from invading the place. I can hear thumping music from the bar up the road, children shrieking, the cries of a maji salesman. The fan is humming overhead, offering some respite from what is now the quite repressive heat of late November.

It gets worse from here for another couple of months – the sun more and more intense; the humidity higher and higher; the temperature fiercesome. Even I, sun worshipper extraordinaire, have been drained of late, nudged over into moments of real fatigue where the prospect of yet another scorching day seems too much. Energy levels drop massively during the day, and without air conditioning in the office I have lost concentration from time to time. Still, I seem to recover at dusk, when the sky shocks with orangey red hues and a breeze drifts in from the Indian Ocean. A couple of Savannahs later, and I’m somehow restored. Indeed, it would be easier working at night that during the day. Lately, I seem to be awake during both.
The lady in the small dukka across the street sells the most wonderfully sweet watermelons. I wonder if they are addictive. Our regular conversation commences with polite enquiries about each other’s health, and progresses towards the size of melon I’m looking for. I’m an elfu moja kind of girl, as the elfu mbili option is a bit much for my fridge to bear. That’s 50p to you, if you’re wondering. I sometimes hang around for a sweet menthol, too; a fairly strong local cigarette which I get a craving for at night time. It takes something fairly radical to get me puffing by day, but once darkness falls and the stars are above me, and I get the African butterflies which flit about my stomach most evenings for no apparent reason, there is something just so soothing about that first evening drag. Ahhhhhhhhhh.

It took about three and a half weeks for me to stop waking up imagining that I was about to head downstairs to share tea and morning grumbles with Mum. Funny – she is the first person in my life to ever comment on my complete uselessness in the mornings. I never noticed it before, but maybe she’s right. Yup – I tend to warm up around evening time, when most others are winding down. Still, I developed a real fondness for seeing my folk around the house every day: part of my life again, I part of theirs. Getting used to be far away from those who know me and love me (warts and all) was extremely tough – much tougher than I ever imagined it would be.
Africa, too, came into starker contrast. The streets of Dar seemed somehow more challenging, more brutal even, than I had noticed before, and I felt fragile, vulnerable for a while. None of this strange, delayed culture shock was helped by the fact that I was hit by something fairly hefty in my second week (and I don’t mean a local bus!). Not sure what, but there is plenty going around, and whatever it was had my world spinning, rocking, and causing me to feel pathetically sorry for myself! It has crept up behind me and caught me out again since, but at least as I write I am feeling as good as it gets in the heat of a sun-burnt city.

I have a new job, and it’s taking time to adjust from teacher mode to NGO mode. Yesterday, someone whose opinion I value called me bossy. Ouch. I guess that’s the teacher in me then?? Oh well, yeah – hell I’m bossy. But, in my new role, I don’t know nearly enough to be bossy and it’s a daily challenge. My NGO is a disability organisation and a hospital and, as such, there is plenty to get to grips with that is totally new to me: medical terms and surgical procedures which are a whole other world from the one in which I have sat comfortably for much of my life. I have always been a passionate teacher but, at CCBRT where I now work, the emotions which drive my commitment are different.

My office is sited precisely opposite the hospital and, on a daily basis, patients come and queue and wait in their hundreds. I see the elderly; mothers with children or babies in their arms; middle aged men and women. I see babies or children with clubfeet; the blind; children with cleft lip or palate; women with fistula; amputees waiting to have a prosthetic limb fitted; people who have suffered burns. I see people who really have no means of paying for treatment, dressed in kangas to protect them against the harsh sun of the season.

Indeed, I see much which could depress the hell out of me. Not only the poorest of the poor – but also the most dependent, needy of all - for disability in this country is not managed in the way it would be in the West: it is a socio-economic barrier; a hard-to-escape spoke on the wheel of poverty; a ticket to nowhere much unless you happen to be one of the rare few who realises that a disability can be treated, cured, or managed in order to allow for a fulfilling, productive life.

Our organisation is like Robin Hood, and we boast about it! The poorest patients, those who really cannot pay, simply do not have to. Patients pay what they can so that, ultimately, the richest patients are subsidizing the poorest. This is a unique system, and one which means that we really are able to help those who need it most. Of that, I am proud.

Whilst I joke with a close friend of mine that the weather here is merely degrees of different ‘hotness’, I like to spot the seasonality which creeps subtly into the tropics. Late November, and a pleasant surprise appears on the street corners: something which I have missed these past six months. Pineapples, large, conical, plump and radiating the warmth of the southern hemisphere sun, have taken up residence on wooden carts along the roadsides. It is a wonderful time, then, for the men who grow and sell these perfect fruity symbols of tropical climes. Next to each stand, a plastic bucket in which sit carefully carved slices of the fruit, whose sweetness here delivers a sugar rush unmatched by the sad, imported pineapple wannabes that we see back home.

Mangoes are also making a showy comeback. In the past two weeks, the carts which were laden with oranges have taken on a new, headier passenger. Mangoes, of different size, shape, colour, texture, moisture content and sweetness, have taken Dar by storm. It could easily rain mangoes for a week or two and there would still be enough to wrap around the globe several times with a few left for breakfast.

Today, I found a clutch of red plums at the back of my grocery store, where the men pop secret surprises into my bag after a particularly large shop (sometimes an apple and, once, a custard apple!). They were small and sweet and yielding, and I ate most of them from the bag as I rode home with my goodies hanging from the handle bars.

It is a little hot to cycle, and I arrive at every destination glistening with sweat, which drips down my back and forever tricks me into thinking that I have a parade of ants marching across my skin. Cycling at night is little better: it is dangerous for a start, at least until the dala dalas have stopped careering down the roads and the rush hour traffic has eased off. It is also a little tricky on roads which require high levels of concentration to navigate even during the day. Potholes are unforgiving in the dark – indeed; they seem to breed magically at dusk. Then, there is the dust……

Still, I love my bike and I guess that there is something rather ‘Pen’ about arriving by bike for a night at the pub from time to time. The Masaai last night seemed disappointed that I was going home in a taxi: but, sometimes, a girl needs a treat.

Africa seems to have made more of a girl of me. I have no idea how, when, or why it happened, but some time in the last six months I felt an urge to start wearing dresses. Maybe it is the sight of African women, usually immaculately presented, albeit if only in kangas, or maybe it is the warmth of the climate by day and by night, but I have developed a potentially expensive love of dresses….. My tailor, who lives a couple of doors down from my apartment, is getting sore fingers from all the work I am giving him. I, in the meantime, am constantly seeking reasons for dressing up. My friends, many a few years younger than me, are very kind to humour me.

One problem: dresses and bikes are not exactly the best of friends.

The Indian Ocean is crackling across the rocks as it makes its way towards the shore. It is 4pm, and the tide is turning. Skinny-legged, long-beaked sea birds tread with caution between the stones and coral, pecking in the holes where small ghost crabs scuttle to escape the heat of the sun. There are local men wading just knee deep; others pushing boats without much urgency a little further out. Perhaps they hope to catch a fish for dinner.

Wooden fishing boats, some with sails, sit on the glistening water so invitingly that I imagine myself to be a great mariner, so tempted am I to stride into the sea and claim an oar or a sail. Across the bay, the white sands of Kawe beach lull me away from the city and give perspective to my day. I will sit here until sunset, writing, checking e-mails, adding to an important proposal that I have to write in order to secure funding for a significant number of child eye surgeries in the coming 18 months.

No doubt, others will join me. They start to drift in. Sometimes, it is hard to leave this spot and, two nights ago, I was here from 4 – 11pm, wondering at the contradictions which riddle the heart of this continent and finally reckoning that every ugly, threatening, disturbing, alienating feature must surely have its counterpart – a feature as magnificent and wonderful in measure. It is that thought which keeps me going.

Like my moods and my feelings for Tanzania, it is neither one thing nor the other. I cannot love this place unless I also hate it. For all the negativity that I am often exposed to; for all of the pessimism about the future of the country and, indeed, the continent, I remain the eternally driven, motivated and die-hard protagonist.

Just now, as a barely perceptible breeze starts to lift from the sea and valiantly endeavour to soothe me, I actually feel ok.

Monday, November 23, 2009

An African Marriage - 26 June 2009

Rafiki: time has passed us by. As I write, the BBC World Service brings news of Wimbledon and I sit on my bed in Dar es Salaam thinking with great nostalgia of freshly mowed lawns, pick-your-own strawberry fields, glasses of wine at dusk (which, I remind you, is far later for you right now than it is for me!) Homesickness swamps me at times, but especially now. The bug that has knocked flat so many of my colleagues and friends somehow hunted me down last week, and it has rendered me listless, exhausted, yellow! It is when I am ill and weak (on average once every other month, almost as predictable as sunset) that I feel the furthest from home. Far from such comforts as a family member at whom to grumble nasally; far from Ribena and Lucozade and other revolting but comforting sickness drinks; far from endless hours of Radio 4 smiled at from under a duvet, surrounded by quality newspapers bemoaning the state of the world. Ah, to ill in Blighty!

It is Winter in Tanzania. I use this seasonal descriptor with caution, lest you somehow imagine an East Africa buried in snow, decorated with icicles, shivering in the crisp night air. Rather, we have some cloudier days, a teasing breeze rattling the trees, a slight `chill` in the sea. At night, it may be deemed almost necessary at times to don a light cardigan and I have friends who swear it is too cold to swim (!) but, honestly, Winter is a misnomer for this period. It remains hot, dry, and mostly sunny. The intensity of the Summer sun is certainly being stored for later months, but even now that fiercesome orb exercises her might. This leads me to consider the ways in which the Tanzanian Winter might resemble the British and my conclusion is as follows: people get bugs. Sickness abounds. How this catching of colds occurs here, I have no idea but, my friends, rest assured that Winter flu is alive and kicking in these parts.

In a wonderful display of Mother Nature’s generosity of spirit, it is citrus season. I like to think that there is more than coincidence in this happy concurrence of colds and oranges. Vitamin C is bountiful on every street corner, roadside and hole-in-the-wall, as well as tumbling almost freely from the baskets of bicycles that wheel by in anticipation of a customer. Leaving work yesterday, walking the mere five hundred metres to the bus stand, I can truthfully state that I passed at least ten such citrus sellers, differentiated only by the fact that some are laden with oranges, skin but not pith meticulously removed, whilst others bear juicily sweet tangerines, the like of which I have never seen nor tasted.

Here, on the streets of Tanzania, sucking the juice from halved oranges, before disposing of the dehydrated fibres held within the pith, is a social activity driven by need and supported by plenitude. Oranges are everywhere, in apparently endless quantity, and provide instant refreshment and health to lagging bodies and dry mouths. Orange skeletons lie discarded everywhere, and it is to the amusement of fellow Orange Men that I often choose to remove the pith and eat the damn things, as I would at home. Tangerines are another fruit, eaten in their entirety by locals and me alike, bought en masse and often without thought of how exactly so many will be consumed.

This is the danger. At present, a citric mountain exists not far from my home, and it is monstrously challenging to fight the temptation to buy a few from the charming creator of this fruity peak. Orange-skinned beauties flout their round bodies shamelessly, falling about in their hundreds, thousands even. At 50 TZ shillings (two and a half pence), they fairly prostitute themselves, demanding to be consumed. I rarely make it home without eating at least one in the street, and without stuffing a few into a bag which is usually already groaning with some other seasonal prizes (think soft fleshed papaya, tiny black grapes, fists of thumb sized bananas).

Time for a fruit break.

The man who sells deep pink slices of watermelon on the street opposite the biggest mosque in Dar asked me to marry him the other day. I haven’t seen him for a while, having been somehow limited to the other side of town for a few weeks. But, last week, I had a couple of hours in town at my disposal and decided to stroll through the back streets to my favourite local market (Kisutu), returning via the street with the mosque. Kisutu pleases me on many levels. I have created my own space there, my own identity, being the only Muzungu (foreign) woman to shop there. The chaps there know me, letting me try things I don’t recognise, offering me an alleged special price for a kilo of this or that.

This particular visit saw me with a handful of freshly podded peas, munching on the starchy spheres as I gazed at towers of rambutan, mangoes, passion fruit. Ah: passion fruit. The fruit of passion. If they are an aphrodisiac, I really should stop eating them..... but it’s hard when you discover new varieties and just have to buy a few. This time, the Passion Man cut into a pale skinned fruit to reveal a passion of white flesh and the usual black seeds. We companionably sucked the seeds from a half, and I was hooked. A kilo came home with me: brilliant, I discovered, mixed with chunks of papaya and lifted with a squeeze of lime. Oh, simple things.

It was shortly after this revelation that I stopped to revive myself with watermelon. I knew where to find my man, for his cart is always in the same spot. He welcomed me like such an old friend and chastised me for my recent absence. Then, just as I handed over twelve pence for a slice or two, posing a question about the watermelon harvest...... his hand rested on mine and he asked, rather casually, `We can marry now. OK. ` A question or a statement, I am not certain, but what I do know is that this one of the many wonders of Africa. This directness, simplicity, frankness. It may seem damn silly to you, the idea of just getting married without knowing each other, sharing some living space, meeting the parents. I am prone to agree..... but, then again, look where that got ME!

As I walked away, watermelon-sated, I reflected on the benefits of being married to this smiling, warm faced, sincere, honest-living man who spends his days keeping his customers happy on fruit. It was not so hard to find some rationale. Though there is a limit to how much watermelon even this girl can consume.

This morning, as I opened the gate to wheel my bike onto the rough road for a dose of do-my-flu-ridden-legs-still-function exercise, a stunning brown horse cantered by. No rider, no reins, no apparent home. Just a horse. In a residential street. In a city of 4 million souls.

Moments later, a vision on a bike wobbled by. A man concentrating so very hard on not succumbing to the unbalancing qualities of a giant basket of live and vocal chickens somehow strapped to the back of his two wheel vehicle..... that he overlooked the pothole just beyond my home and, almost in slow motion, lost his valiant attempt at remaining upright and keeled sideways, trying hard not to allow any of his precious brood to hit the ground too hard. Chicken panic ensued, the birds flapping wildly, clucking manically, complaining noisily of their fate.

I helped the man to set his bike upright, agreed in rough Kiswahili that all was well, and watched him wobble off again, his determination to deliver those birds safely, evident.

Later that day, I found myself cycling behind a bread monster: a moving mass of plastic bags stuffed with soft white loaves, rolls, buns. Of course, it was in reality a bread seller cycling with his wares tied just about anywhere you can imagine and some places you would not even dream of!

These daily experiences of African street life maketh my days.

In the past few months, I have witnessed the poorest of the poor and the richest of the rich living out their days in this beautiful, complex country. In a display of contradictions unlike any others I have ever seen, this is a place in which some walk the streets collecting anything that might be of value, from bottle tops to used mobile phone top up vouchers, whilst others enjoy ten star luxury behind barbed wire-topped walls and cruise the streets in oversized four wheel drives. Very often, and curiously, the latter are those who purport to be here in aid of the former, and yet they barely seem to exist in the same domain, let alone reside as neighbours in this city of mixed blessings.

Cycling offers a unique insight into the vagaries of day to day life. I usually opt to take a back road, some bumpy, unpaved dust track where local Dar residents roast cobs of corn, sell bananas for next to nothing, clean shoes at small wooden tables, carve amazing furniture using nothing but simple tools and a lot of sweaty skill. I am usually a source of amusement, the target of what I could take to be ridicule but instead regard as gentle, warm mockery. The journey is always punctuated by cries of Mambo! Habari! Muzunguuuuuuuuu! Last week, I was trailed by a Masai on his bike, enjoying a race of sorts along a stretch of dirt road. I see bare footed children in their grotty dresses, and they are wide eyed at my presence. This is not surprising: there are so few of us white guys cycling about in Dar.

Moments after I have passed through such areas, I can be on a tarmac road, pedalling past the most Disneyland-like properties you can imagine. Palatial residences, largely hidden from view by eight foot high walls: gated and guarded and impossible to penetrate without invitation. Swimming pools grace many compounds, numerous 4x4s come and go, apparently unaware of cyclists, pedestrians, the vast majority of Dar residents per se! There go the diplomats, businessmen, UN workers, NGO heads. There go the very people who should be getting their hands dirty but, instead, focus almost exclusively on keeping their manicured fingers clean.

Visiting the supermarkets, designed with the rich ex pat in mind, I am reminded of the discrepancies which drive into the heart of this city about which I feel so much. Even fruit, readily available as you will have gathered almost everywhere on the street, is overpriced in the chilled fresh section. Imported biscuits are inflated by 500%, imported yogurt likewise. What is wrong with the local stuff, made within this fine country.... and who is buying a bag of Maltesers for one pound fifty? Somebody obviously is.

This is why, living here in Dar as I do at the moment, I simply insist on buying from the local guys when I can. Stopping on the street for the woman who carries a washing up tub full of papaya on her head. Peeling a tangerine whilst exchanging thoughts on the day with someone who was born and raised here. Yes, I admit that I go to the occasional party and I appreciate the fact that I can sometimes buy reduced price Foxes biscuits (chocolate creams last week at just fifty pence my friends!!) but I believe that there is a way of being here, a balanced way, which neither puts me at risk of some probably imagined danger, nor places me in an ivory tower far from the realities of daily life.

This morning, as always, I caught a daladala to work. The vehicle started moving away before I was fully on board, and the man guarding the door and collecting 250 shillingi from the passengers pushed me in. He was wearing trousers which were falling from his hips, the zip undone, and his t-shirt was on inside-out. I have asked before about this inside-out thing, and the rationale is actually robust. It is such a sweaty job, being the doorman on the daladalas, and wearing one’s t-shirt like this means that, at the end of the day when a Kilimanjaro is called for, the guys can transform their look and change into their evening gear with a quick t-shirt turn. Clever, eh?

There were no seats, as usual, so I squeezed into a space that would represent a challenge to Houdini, and found my face in the armpit of a lady I can only describe as ‘all woman’, my leg entwined with the legs of my fellow travellers, and one hand clinging onto the metal bar on the ceiling. Understand, if you can, that this is not a society in which men sacrifice their seats when a woman boards the bus. It is, neither, a culture which demands quality in its services. This is a straight forward, black and white, plain speaking place where polite, nuanced behaviour has no place and, whilst it takes some getting used to….. I almost like it.

This, my friends, is my average start to the day. It is at times like this that a voice I try so hard to suppress starts taunting me with questions such as ‘Why the hell are you here?’ ‘When will you give up, sell out and buy a 4X4?’ ‘Why don’t you have a rich husband who works for the United Nations and drives one of the new fleet you saw being delivered last week?’

Tough questions: much easier to ignore than to answer. Though I can say this much. There is a reality to this daily squeeze into the spaces between human bodies. There is a simple joy in receiving looks from the all-Tanzanian crew and passengers of the buses I take – surprised by this white girl who battles with the rest of them to hop on transport; who often perches on the corner of a seat or on the hot bit of metal at the front of the bus under which the engine grumbles. I love it when a seated passenger offers to hold my bag on his lap, so that I might be free to focus on the not inconsiderable feat of remaining upright as we whizz into town. I am hit by a disproportionate sense of relief if a seat is vacated and I manage to leap into it before anyone else.

In short, and at risk of sounding insincere, I am truly reminded of my humanity. This commute is one of the most equalising experiences I can imagine.

As for my African Marriage. Well. I am frequently asked if I like living in Tanzania, and have always found it an incredibly difficult question to answer. There is a hesitation, an uncertainty in my voice which I cannot disguise. Only recently did I succeed in finding the precise response that explains the relationship I have with this land.

It is like a marriage. There are moments when I bask in the sunshine, watching local life take its course, still wide eyed at some of the things I observe the way people behave, the beauty of my second homeland. These are my honeymoon moments, tender and precious. There are moments, on the other hand, when I truly hate this place: a culture I will never fully embrace; a people I can never truly comprehend; a transport system designed to reduce the average human being to rubble before the day has even started; inequalities and injustices which are institutionalised and accepted on so many levels. These are my ‘I am leaving you’ moments. The critical junctures that occur in any passionate relationship: the heart-stop seconds that can make or break a partnership. They are intense, real and merciless.

Yet, as you can see, they are somehow overcome. The reason? I am somehow married to this place and, for all that I loathe and would change, the underpinning love I feel….. the compelling sense of commitment….. seems to win over time and time again. So this is my African Marriage: a love affair with Tanzania which challenges, stretches, bends and enrages me as much as it nurtures, improves, tends and comforts me. For better or for worse, in sickness and in health, I’m in this marriage for now and, deep within me, I know it is one fiery relationship that will be very hard to walk away from.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Island Days - 8 February 2009

It is unforgivable, the length of time that has drifted since I last wrote. The reasons are manifold: I had a mixed break over Christmas, which had me falling in love (with a place, alas) but also falling so sick that I saw in New Year in attached to a drip in Aga Khan Hospital, Dar es Salaam, wondering whether rusty drips present any kind of health risk. The staff were, I have to tell you, fantastic and I had no idea that a simple mixture of sugar, salt and water sent directly to the veins is transformative. I felt high as a kite. Following a brief recovery, I developed such chronic wisdom tooth ache that my greatest nightmare became a reality: the removal of a tooth in Africa…..horror of horrors! Reader, I allowed it to happen through self-pitying, pathetic tears. I am hoping that is all for medical insurance claims for a while!

Rather than settle back into a gentle rhythm of life in Uchira, where I suppose life is fairly low octane and without too much daily grind, I decided over the Christmas break to quit my job for reasons I will not commit to paper right now. Suffice to say there was not a lot happening and I did not come out here to chew cud. So, I write to you from a traditional Swahili home in Stone Town, sipping local coffee and full of locally baked bread (a speciality here). I am here (again) to try to make a decision about which job I take next as I have a few offers and my head is exploding with possibilities. I realise how fortunate I am to be in this position but, really, I am struggling to choose.

Enough of that: I must not share my stress. Instead, I would love to share with you my new love, my great passion, my greatest discovery: Unguja. You probably know this island, this wonderful, crazy, stunning, hotch potch Spice Island as Zanzibar but this name actually refers to both Unguja and Pemba, the archipelago which lies north east of Dar in the Indian Ocean. Unguja is the big brother, the most visited, the most famous and is commonly called Zanzibar, whilst its African-Arabic-Indian, winding alleyed, infectively curious capital 'Stone Town' is also known as 'Zanzibar Town'.

This is not Tanzania. On arriving in Stone Town after a two hour boat journey, one is immediately reminded of the island's past as an influential city state, the centre of trade links with the east and a supplier of gold, ivory, wood and slaves to Asia. Long ruled by the Omani Sultanate, Islamic and Arabic flavours are abundant: this is a Muslim society, conservative in many ways, with the call to mosque a constant, lulling refrain. Architectural clues are also strong: Arabic style houses with secret internal courtyard nestle alongside Indian-style homes with elaborate balconies and, of course, the town is famous for its extraordinary doors: ornately decorated, solid wooden structures of either Indian or Arabic origin, intricately carved and usually in finer form than the buildings they inhabit.

There is disrepair everywhere: wonderful buildings ransacked, ruined, left to waste: a legacy of the bloody end of Zanzibar's independence in January 1964, when the United Republic of Tanzania was created (a classic example of the artificial creation of states in Africa at the convenience of colonial powers). Thousands were massacred at this time, thousands more fled to Europe, America, anywhere, and the island lost political independence. Even today, most Zanzibarians display a deep desire to be recognised distinctly, and visiting the place leaves no doubt as to the uniqueness of the place. This is not Africa, this is not the Middle East, this is not India. It is an intriguing melange of the three, which manifests as simply this: Zanzibar. Come and immerse yourself to understand.
I found a spiritual home in Stone Town, though I cannot fully grasp how or why. It is a world beyond the one from which I have sprung: Muslim, tropical, intense, maddening. The market draws me each time I am lucky enough to be staying in the town, which happens to be rather often these days as I have been remarkably fortunate to have a series of wonderful encounters with locals, or the friends of locals, who offer to host this crazy single English woman. I have a guardian watching over me, of this I am certain.

This time I have been particularly blessed as I am residing in a staggeringly beautiful three floor building which looks nothing from the street but behind whose bronze-studded door lies a magnificently preserved, high ceiling-ed, tiled home with an open air inner recess up into which I am now staring. The family is of Indian origin, and the mother is a fantastic cook. Yesterday, she produced two light, soft sponges the like of which I have not seen since I arrived in Africa and which were irresistible when accompanied by the strongly spiced tea so evocative of Swahili cuisine.

Which leads me on. The food of the Spice Islands. Swahili (this word refers to the coastal peoples of east Africa) cooking is so far removed from inland Tanzania's offering that I am barely able to return to the mainland after visits here. I am forever lured to the market, where fruit abounds and ten or fifteen varieties of mangoes vie for space with bananas the like of which I have never seen. Red, giant, finger sized. A jackfruit appears: someone is cutting it into manageable portions, for no on can eat a twenty kilo fruit alone(!), rubbing oil into its flesh to prevent its superglue sap from finding a victim. A cart wheels past: rambutans, unseen since Cambodian adventures, but this time not only red but also yellow prickly fruits. What is this? Oh, a Zanzibarian grape: round, dark and with crunchy seeds but rather mouth drying. A fuu? What on earth is a fuu? It looks like an olive but is date like, slightly too sweet, with a penchant for sticking to ones teeth. Custard apples, pink fleshed pomelos, something else I have never seen before which is tart and orange inside. Coconuts: young (for the water) or older (for the milk). Watermelon: ah, familiarity! Yes please.

The meat section is to be avoided, great bloody hunks attracting ravenous flies. The fish is little better but an alluring array of creatures that would befit a tropical aquarium. Aqua marine, red, rainbow coloured. Octopus stretches out lazily, little knowing that its fate is to hit the grill later that day, to be chopped into bite size pieces and sold for 5 pence on the end of a prodding cocktail stick (10pence for a piece of superior squid).

The market shifts during the day, different vendors coming and going. Now, the men have finished prayer and the coffee vendor with his metal kettle is handing out tiny porcelain cups of strong brew with a square of cashew nut sweetmeat for TS100 shillings (5 pence). In the evening, out come the carts baring slices of watermelon, under-ripe mangoes and peeled cucumber halves to be dipped in chilli salt (these are addictive, I swear). Pweza (octopus) stands crowd the streets, tiny skewers of grilled meat and banana appear and, down by the waterfront, a host of food stalls are erected at dusk offering kebabs of fish and meat; crab claws; Zanzibarian pancakes stuffed with bananas and chocolate!

The sweet scent of spices is often in the air and the market vendors are keen to sell their wares to tourists. This is an obstacle to be overcome by any visitor to this island: the pushiness of vendors can become frustrating but my slowly evolving attitude to this is that, of course, they are trying to make a living. Anyway, these spices are well worth trying and underpin a great deal of cooking here. Saffron, turmeric, nutmeg (you should see it in its original form!), coriander, cardamom, ginger, vanilla. The list streams on. Melded with coconut milk, in knowing hands, these flavours bring seafood, pilau, tea and coffee to life. There is FLAVOUR to this food!!

It has been a while since I last broke out into natural, unrestrained smiles, so it was with real delight that I noticed myself grinning broadly, uncontrollably, freely. I was completely without human contact and yet there I was, a smile so strong my cheeks ached. What inspired this? An hour-long walk through urchin infested, rocky, slippery pools; the always tricky process of stumbling about trying to squeeze my feet into my flippers; the ritual of snorkel and mask application (thanks, Dad!); the final crashing into the water amongst coral and – oh my life – fish. I wish I had the words to describe the colours and shapes and movement I witness when I find a great snorkelling spot around Zanzibar but, truthfully, I do not. Instead, I invite you all to come and experience it for yourselves, to find yourself in the same childlike amazement that makes me so deeply, honestly contented. Even after the bashing and bruising my legs suffered on the coral, I struggled to imagine a happier pursuit than observing the submarine gardens and their wildlife.

The beaches of Zanzibar are equally impossible to adequately describe. Let me ask you, instead, to pick up a travel brochure for a tropical island destination – the kind that makes you think “These photos have been enhanced” – and imagine that a place of white icing sugar sand, backed by swaying palms and coconut trees and caressed by turquoise sea really exists. Because it does. Now take traditional Zanzibarian life – women and children collecting seaweed; dhow building; fishing – and watch it continue on these unimaginably beautiful beaches. Here you have Zanzibar. Local children in clothes of vibrant pink, green, yellow, blue, pull homemade plastic-bottle cars along the sand, trailing plastic bags behind to catch the wind and generate speed. Families play simple games on the sand while tourists kite surf at great expense. Village women sit amongst the seaweed sticks at low tide, gathering their harvest to make natural marine products. Fishermen stride out from the sea bearing sticks laden with their rainbow coloured catch.

Magical places do exist and, for me, Zanzibar is one of them.

Yet it is a place that grieves me. The beach resorts – many European owned – attract a well heeled crowd who typically fly onto the island, are taxied to a hotel and stay there in luxury thinking what a paradise they have found. Alas, the reality of Zanzibar is much more gritty. Yes, it is a stunning, exotic, fascinating place but let us remember that it is Africa. Behind the hotels, in the villages, local people live on a pittance, remain poorly educated and exist in a way which contrasts massively with visitor comforts. I drank spiced tea with a local man for 5p, instead of the pound charged by my fairly basic Banda-style hostel. I wandered through the dilapidated village behind the beach (some beach resorts are actually walled to avoid ‘locals’ coming through!) and found a family selling jackfruit for 10p. We ate it together, their eyes wide open, their laughter hysterical, at this Muzungu entering their home.

I am also privileged to have met some incredible locals who have invited me to stay in their homes, thus enabling me to live simply, to experience real life on this island, and to understand the impact of tourism here: always, in a developing country, a complex and mixed issue.

My abiding belief? Zanzibar, visited sensitively and wisely, is one of the most intriguing, alluring, fascinating places you could ever hope to visit. It is blessed by a shoreline which language alone simply cannot do justice to. Its fruits, spices, fish, bread – everything – deserve the attention of food lovers. Its people are unique.

Please, please see it. Preferably with me. That way I have an excuse to go many times (!) but I can also ensure that you see the place for all that it is.

I have been deeply, horrendously homesick recently. It has been many years since I experienced that pit-of-the-stomach nausea which causes a sudden panic to arise: an urgent need to escape. My Grandfather died, aged 97: a mighty man the like of whom I am not convinced the modern world will produce. Being away from my Mum, my Sister, everyone else, at this time has been truly horrific. Being uncertain of the future has added to this feeling of insecurity and alienation. I have actually realised to acutely here what matters to me, and it is not a glittering international career at all. What is the point of that if you are miles away from those you love, and who love you? Where is the joy in not being able to see you nephew, your niece, your friends? I receive amazing emails and gifts from my Leeds students and I miss like crazy the surroundings that know who I am, and which I know. I no longer feel boring or unambitious to say that.

Last week, I was offered a job with an NGO in Dar. It threw me, if I am honest. They are doing great things here and it is an exciting opportunity. The organisation is working to mainstream disabled and vulnerable people within society and I will be running HIVAIDS training as well as developing the advocacy and lobbying side. The offer is good in terms of how I am rewarded. There are nice, interesting, passionate people to work with. But I am afraid. I am afraid to throw myself into this newness far from my loved ones. Afraid that maybe I will LOVE IT and then miss out on two or three years of my family and friends. Afraid that maybe this is not what I am at all and that really I should just be in the Dales with two cats, red wine, fireside chats and chocolate brownies. I have started to get lonely and muddled.

Decision? To accept the job, knowing that I still have the return part of my air ticket and that I am coming back in August anyway. By that time, I think I will know what really feels good and right for me.

Until then, I will hang on through the hard times and relish the new and the good. I am going to find a yoga class, somewhere to swim, somewhere to sing. I am going to try to be kind to myself in this challenging place. I am going to try, try, try.

So, wish me luck with my new venture. Hearing from you really helps so please do write. Emails can make a world of difference.

I am just off to find passion fruit. Here, they are larger, firmer and YELLOW! Tamu (sweet), they are a firm favourite. I wonder what you are doing?

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Season's Greetings - 16 December 2008

The vista has changed, perceptibly, over the last few weeks. It is dry here. Dry, dusty and oppressive. It is the hottest time of year, and we desperately need rain. It fell in Moshi at the weekend, the warning sign being an unforgiving storm of dust from which I emerged, chimney-sweep like, crawling with dust which had settled everywhere from my scalp to the gaps between my toes. Raindrops on a dust-coated Pennie do not a pretty sight make: I acquired zebra streaks and became the source of much amusement in the maze of the market. Returning to Uchira, I found that the village had not been kissed by a single drop. It remains bone dry, the searing heat of four o’clock a reminder of the cruel power of the Sun. The same Sun we worship for its ephemeral appearances ‘back home’.

I digress. I was seeking to explain the shifting vista. It is curious that, at this arid time, there is such an abundance of green. Maybe the trees are drawing from some deep, secret reserve. Not only are there so many nameless shades of green, but there are vivid, vibrant variations of pink, purple and yellow adorning the landscape like Nature’s own Christmas decorations. What strikes most, however, is the ‘Christmas Tree’. This low-slung, sturdy tree can be seen at intervals in every which direction. It is staggeringly beautiful, unashamedly photogenic, and a Sub Saharan reminder that this is December, for the tree bursts into life right now: just in time for Christmas. It is simply unmistakable....why? Because it sings out across the plains with the most staggering red flowers I have ever seen, brilliant by day and absurdly, movingly stunning in the fading light of evening. They are redder than Father Christmas’ suit; redder that a holly berry. The bloom is, somehow, the essence of Christmas colour, yet so far removed from all that I usually associate with the season. I attach a photograph. Season’s Greetings, everyone.

Beneath this glorious canopy, darkness creeps. Yesterday, I was diverted by a small, silent boy sitting in the dirt near the office. I should be accustomed to the rags so many children wear, the too-big dresses and too-small shoes. But this boy was somehow exceptionally sorry looking. Most are, at least, playful, cheeky, even rude. Most exhibit a curiosity about this Muzungu. Some even ask for money, a huge source of despair. Not this slight child, surely hot in his pyjamas and filthy from the dust. He was listless, wordless, tearless, laughterless: completely expressionless. I enquired as to his family, and both his mother and father are dead. He is a true orphan, living with others yet not socialising, not being educated due to the cost of attending school. I am hardened in so many ways, often failing to notice oddities which have now attained the status of normality. Yet this, this under developed child playing quite alone in the dust: this struck so deep that I myself was rendered redundant in word and deed. I requested that he be fed. I touched his face. I tickled his feet. He did not react. My own reaction, numb and uncertain of if and how to help, was equally dumb.

Children may be the same the world over, at some deep, primordial level, but the way they are raised, the things to which they are exposed, shape their burgeoning imaginations irrevocably. Last week in English Class, one of the young girls was wielding a thin cane: the sort bandied about by Tanzanian teachers who find that discipline is best achieved through force. Yes, corporal punishment is accepted and widely practised here. Seeing the child waving this stick, I approached and gently removed it from her hand. As I did so, every single child in that room flinched, cried out and ran for the door. The room was soon empty, but for me and Erin (the American volunteer mentioned in the last mumbling who is every inch as fantastic a girl as I hoped). I was stunned, and stood motionless, stick still in hand, until I realised the implications of this white woman in possession of the weapon of power in schools here.

I was mortified: at the fear I had unwittingly engendered; at the sight of these tiny innocents fleeing from me, of all people (!!); at the thought that, were I a native teacher, I would be quite a dab hand at this caning lark. Sometimes, I lose patience with ‘cultural sensitivity’, and the question of ‘who am I to judge?’. Sometimes, there is a ‘right’ and, in the matter of caning children who talk in class/ forget their homework/ do not pay their fees on time, my tolerance cracks.

Woe betide the child; woe betide the homosexual. Men linking fingers with men, walking along the street in a symbolic embrace, is a common sight here. The Western eye requires some adjustment to this public display of affection, tending to assume a level of attraction beyond mere kinship. If this were the case, there would be an inordinate proportion of homosexuals in Tanzania. No: this entwining of fingers and hands is just part of everyday friendship. If, indeed, it indicated anymore than this I am sorry to reveal that the hand-holders would be lynched, maybe thrown in jail, probably beaten senseless by the community. It is astounding to me how, in a country rocked by HIVAIDS, needing to address the realities of human nature, keen to progress, that homosexuality is so deeply, unanimously, vehemently reviled. Even the most highly educated, those who have travelled, those with more of a ‘world view’, share such loathing. It is illegal to be homosexual and, indeed, it is dismissed as a filthy corruption. This is another area into which I plunge with trepidation with my Kenyan and Tanzanian colleagues, but an area in which I remain resolute, open and honest in my thoughts. I cannot endorse the hatred, and I will not. There is a world of difference between sensitivity and desensitisation and I will not be desensitised.

I have spent an inordinate amount of time questioning the concept of ‘development’ since I arrived. I have many issues with the Western model, and feel strongly that do not have a grand podium from which to speak, particularly as our economies crumble around us. Last week, I was in Arusha for a conference and had the great pleasure of meeting a local lady, Gladness Pallagyo, who has, through her own efforts and entrepreneurial spirit, instigated a tourist initiative which directly benefits her local community by funding projects. She was an inspiration to me, and our connection was such that we were hugging and kissing and I was being addressed as ‘daughter’ within a day. I found myself welcomed into her home, staying for the weekend and learning of her work. Here was a native, not some white man in the guise of a ‘saviour’, using her own knowledge and wit to raise money without heading to the big donor agencies, as NGOs are wont to do, but running a cultural tourism scheme which brings money directly from tourists to the community. Her home, a stunningly lush place set in a banana and coffee plantation, takes the dung from three cattle and transforms it into heat (biogas), runs organically, and serves as a centre for the scheme. She welcomes orphans into her home and educates them locally; she is building a local library; she is opening a comp0uer centre; there is an HIVAIDS scheme and a sustainable agriculture project. All this from her own labours. Slowly, slowly it happens, over time. But it is real, sustainable development from a truly grassroots level. It is not imposed, rushed, white-man development without capacity building. It is not development ‘our way’. It is development the only way it can truly come: from those for whom it is intended. Who am I to step in, with my one-world vision, and stick a plaster on a wound that maybe isn’t even bleeding? What should be happening is the encouragement, the facilitation of work such as that of Gladness. People are already dealing with their own challenges in their own ways. Why am I even here?

Consider this. As I walk up and down the hill, I pass many people. The boys who herd their four cattle and twenty goats up and down the road each day; the family who sit under the large tree with a small table bearing a few bananas, some tomatoes and cucumbers, sometimes a mango; the women bearing trunks of plantains on their heads, chatting to each other about the day as though they were merely wearing hats. Men hack at the rocks in the road, attempting to render it more passable. Young boys and girls ferry buckets about atop their small crowns. Sometimes, a bike will come juddering down the hill, heavens knows how, loaded with pipes or bricks or a mattress! Undoubtedly, this is hard work. It is hot, physical and arduous at times. Yet never, never do I pass another human who does not call ‘Mambo!’, ‘Habari?’, ‘Poa!’. Rarely do I pass without acknowledgment and not once have I seen someone who looks miserable. Hot and bothered, maybe. Even tired. But not unhappy. I have seen so little raw unhappiness here. This has provoked much thought.

Last week, I tried to explain the concept of a ‘nervous breakdown’ to a bright, English speaking Tanzanian. I talked about the diseases endemic here, and then explained that the West has more illness of the soul and mind. A poverty of different sorts. He could not grasp the idea of depression as we know it, of stress and angst. For, you see, life here is lived in the present. It is about getting from A to B, ensuring there is food on the table today, toiling as necessary to send children to school tomorrow. It is not about acquisition, bigger and better possessions, cars, TVs, fashion. It is not about saving for holidays, and certainly not about planning for retirement from the day you are born. It is about now, and there is a value in that. Again, I ask: who am I to change that?

This is not to say that evolution is not needed. But, in my mind, the transformation must come at government and international policy levels. Trade rules, debt, aid, corruption. These are the things that are holding the average African head under water. It is policy that needs to shift. People do not need Western aspirations; they need the opportunity to have real influence on the world stage and a voice in the machinations of the international bodies. In terms of day to day life, we need to be more respectful and ask the question: who has got their priorities right? Certainly, there are issues to address. Education must be improved; child and human rights generally must be promoted; medical facilities must be accessible to all. Yes, there must be advancement. But let people be as they are. Look around you as you walk the streets of your local town. Is that the kind of model we want to replicate? I hope not.

Last weekend, I visited a man who has transformed his land into an incredible, organic plot. It boasts coffee, which is no longer profitable because of the Vietnamese coffee mountain, tobacco and bananas. Twenty two varieties of banana, in fact. Who ever knew that such richness existed within one species? (and this number does not even exhaust Nature’s banana bounty). He spoke of changing rainfall patterns, whose former predictability has gone. Irrigation is now a critical issue, and his hand-dug system was a work of art. I thought of my Father, and knew how much the two men would have to share. I wished I could transport Dad to meet this man of the soil. They are kindred spirits.

Recently, I danced with a Masai, his limbs moving in ways I embarrassed myself trying to replicate. He wore traditional dress and had a beautiful face. I wanted to run away to the Masai Mara. If I don’t come back after Christmas, maybe you will locate me there.

I have come full circle back to Christmas. I have, in the past, referred to it as the ‘C Word’. This year, I go to two National Parks and, my friends, to Zanzibar. Don’t say I didn’t invite you. I will write when I have festive stories to share. Until then, I think of you all very much indeed and send peace to you and your families and friends this Christmas. May 2009 be a gentle year for us all. 2008 was a challenge and all I ask is that, for everyone, the New Year brings love and joy.

Happy Christmas!

Dar Days - 30 November 2008

Yesterday afternoon, my brother called me from the graveside of his brother-in-law. He told me that it had started to rain, and I responded with sympathy: ‘Pole sana’. Despite the relentless, unforgiving heat and humidity of Dar es Salaam, in which thick pearls of sweat creep stealthily down the front and back of t-shirts, trousers and underwear like an endless procession of moist insects, rainfall in Dar is not widely embraced. The streets, littered and clogged with dirt when dry, become muddy canals: the drainage system, or lack thereof, renders the roads impassable.

Yes – a curious opening. Perhaps you did not know that I have two brothers and that they are both Tanzanians, born and raised in Iringa. You are probably also wondering why someone would call me from a funeral. Surely, there was more sombre business at hand? Regarding the latter, I had been promised a call and, therefore, the call was made despite the circumstances. Regarding the former, let me reassure you, firstly, that I only very recently acquired this extended family whilst on a week long work trip to Dar. There, I was the house guest of Mussa Mgata and his family. Mussa’s brother, Anda, was my guide, driver, friend and source of great mirth. We were hysterical partners. After a week in their warm company, it was clear that we were ‘family’ and, so, I have two new brothers.

After years of fighting ‘family’, I have reached a stunningly simple conclusion. Family is all there is. I don’t know what took me so long, or why my route to this clarity has been so labyrinthine, but this is all I can think. My time in Dar, whirled into the maelstrom, drama and happy chaos of a Tanzanian family, sealed my thoughts on this matter. In most African countries, family is absolutely everything. The individual is important and respected but is, ultimately, subsumed by extended kinship. It can be difficult to grasp, particularly when nephews and nieces are not described as such but are referred to as sons and daughters. Mussa’s wife called is Mama Doreen (Mother of Doreen, their daughter) more often than Glory (her name). Cousins are referred to as brothers and sisters. The suggestion that ‘brother’, ‘son’ etc is not the correct moniker is met with bewilderment.

The notion of family is not merely emotional. It has a huge practical implication. Mussa is the eldest son within his family. With this comes responsibility. He does not question or challenge this: it is part of who he is. What does this mean? It means that he has financed the schooling of several relatives; supported their businesses; provided board and lodging to various family members; bought cars/ paid deposits/ sent money. He does not blink at this and, as Anda explained, it is better to provide for family than to eat. Giving to family in this way is not only natural, it also serves the purpose of consolidating relationships and demonstrating loyalty.

I must confess that I was overwhelmed at times by so many family members coming and going, sleeping on sofas and chairs, staring as I ate dinner, laughing as I tried to roll chapattis and shape mandaazi (plain donuts), talking wildly from 6 am to midnight. But, finally, I felt cocooned by this frenetic family embrace and it reaffirmed my wish to be part of my own family – nuclear and extended. To me, this means not only Cabots and Crankshaws but also the friends I will now call brother, sister, son and daughter. You know who you are!

So, I fell in love with family in Dar. But Dar itself? I’m not sure. It certainly intrigues, though early experiences did not augur well. I was bitten to near death on my first night which, when not taking anti-malarials, is always a concern. There is no noise more menacing than the irritated, determined, unremitting bzzzzzz of a bloodthirsty mbu (mosquito), especially when it has broken into the supposed safe haven of your net. The sound that draws a close second in terms of horror in the night is that of rodents under the bed. This, too, I endured. My toothbrush was the victim of a hungry mouse, which I caught red handed in the glare of my torch. This on my first night in sticky, stifling Dar: the one night of the week with a power out which rendered fans useless.

But these are trifles. What really hit was the contrast between this traffic ridden, somewhat ‘seedy’ city and the rural landscape from which I had been transported on an eight hour bus journey. The few arterial roads into Dar are sheer madness. Dala dalas cross the central line, swerve their cargo of squeezed in passengers, crash into each other with shoulder-shrugging regularity. Tuk-tuk style mobiles ferry hapless folk about the jammed city streets, exploiting their diminutive size by going in any direction possible. The roads echo those of Phnom Penh.

Then there is consumerism. You can buy almost anything in Dar, albeit at a price, and there are even shopping malls with CINEMAS! Quantum of Solace was on, but some ridiculous guilt complex prevented me going. For there is also great poverty in Dar, as everywhere, and the contrast between these glossy complexes and the city slums serves to highlight the destitution more. This is reinforced by the presence of some very plush residences in certain parts of the city: Ambassadorial residencies; the Presidential home etc. Who am I kidding? Can I please be an Ambassador and scrap all this squat toilet/ bucket shower/ candles-by-night simplicity? Give a girl a break!

I was grateful to be with a ‘local’ all day. Not only did he see me safely to the various NGOs, potential donors and government buildings I wanted to visit, but he also took on board my adventurous streak and enabled me to access real Dar. My preference is always for the grittier side, although I did actually gag and regurgitate orange whilst investigating Dar’s biggest chicken market (which smelt nothing like farmyard chooks but purely of ‘rot’). However, I loved the fast, furious frenzy of the fish market at Kivukoni, where brawny men in blood stained clothes sell catches of prawns, octopus, tuna, snapper, tilapia, shark.... Behind, in steaming alleys, fish is fried, grilled and smoked and ready to eat from the stand. How I long for fish in Uchira. I relished pweza (BBQ octopus) and smoky, salty grilled snapper with a pudding of yellow passion fruit and guava. 50p well spent. This is how I love to experience a place.

Curry is also truly authentic in Dar, home as it is to a significant Indian population and a greater concentration of Muslims. Tandoori ovens grace many restaurants, blessing the plate with puffy, chewy naan and spicy, brick-coloured chicken, meat, fish. This at the end of a day marked by several tiny cups of treacly coffee from street vendors (often children) laden with huge kettles (2p a cup), sweet pineapple slices (5p) and the odd red banana (2-5p).

Then there is the Indian Ocean. A great, warm bath of an ocean, it laps at the edges of Dar es Salaam, with the promise of escape from the city and restoration of body and spirit. A 5p ferry hop across from Kivukoni transports you to some wonderful stretches of coast with the kind of fine, golden-white sand and vivid blue sea that we sometimes imagine is enhanced in travel magazines. I luxuriated for a day at Kipepeo, thinking endlessly of my Dad (a sea dog at heart) and cleansing myself in the salty belly of this vast sea. Accompanying me? Jellyfish; crabs bright hued fish, and the soothing sound of gently crashing waves. I am not romanticising!

I have stopped smoking. This will surprise you all, either because you had no idea that I smoked in the first place or because you think that I deserve some stress relief and that smoking is not half as bad as downing Konyagi, the ubiquitous spirit which is as cheap as Coca Cola here. Well, this girl is not ‘a smoker’, but I found myself lulled by the evil narcotic, nicotine, in my first month here. Maybe because so many people here smoke. Maybe because I am actually a bit more stressed than I sometimes actually feel and cigs can do a great impression of offering a helping hand. Maybe because they are 5p each and there is one in particular, Sweet Menthol, which almost justifies itself as a breath freshener........ Whatever the reason, I reached a point about a week ago when I actually craved a cigarette at about 10am. WARNING SIGN! Who was I turning into?

Why can I exercise absurd levels of discipline in some areas and none at all in others? Mind over matter, I decided. So I took my finest TShilling 100 piece to a little shop, bought a Sweet Menthol, sat under a Dar sky enjoying each poison filled puff, sat back and knew it was my last. That was a week ago. Wish me luck.

Back in Uchira, the air is cooler and fresher than it can ever be in Dar, kissed by Kilimanjaro and more mountainous climes. We had rain of such intensity and ferocity two nights ago that I lay awake totally hypnotised by its roar. It endured for hours, carrying with it a smell that was almost reminiscent of rain in the English countryside: hay, grass and newness.

We have a new volunteer who is going to be great company. She is an 18 year old American called Erin, and I am already bowled over by her frankness, intelligence and wit. I like her a lot. She will be working on our Sustainable Agriculture pilot. I quite like this ebb and flow of people.

We also have electricity, courtesy of new solar panels, and I cannot begin to tell you how hard this is to get used to after 3 weeks living by candle light, constantly relighting the tricky wicks and fearful of catching the mosquito net which would, certainly, disappear in seconds if lit. It feels almost wrong, clandestine, to switch on a light……

We also have more insects, birds and lizards than I have seen since I first arrived. Alas, I missed the large black garden snake that appeared (and was dispatched) on the balcony of our home whilst I was away, but I am fascinated by the array of flying, hopping, scuttling creatures with whom I share my home. The low drone of light aircraft, rising and falling humming cadences, accompanies evening reading. I am fascinated by the sheer diversity of these beings.

The moon was a barely visible crescent last night, the stars obscured by cloud cover. The night was cool and breezy. Our security guard lit a small charcoal burner to warm himself, his crossbow and arrow resting by the kitchen door. I am sleeping better but have hit a couple of big lows, missing the ease that being in the company of people who just know me brings. I miss those who just know me.

It is a little strange planning a Christmas away from family and friends, but with two weeks free I will probably take the opportunity to go on safari. The Serengeti, Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro Crater. It’s not too late to join me.

Hoping that everyone is safe, well and filling dark nights with red wine, good books and cuddles

Friday, November 20, 2009

A Fortnight Up a Dusty Hill - 13 November 2008

There are times in life, especially during periods of huge transition and challenge, when seconds, minutes, hours, days and then weeks somehow roll together in a way that leaves you feeling misplaced, somewhat dazed and certainly befuddled. That’s how I’m feeling this achingly hot, blue-skied Uchira afternoon. No doubt that a glance at Kili as I wander back up the hill to the Muzungu’s (white man) house later will place me firmly back in the world in an altogether earthy fashion, but right now at 4pm in my office, my recurring thought is ‘how did I get here?’

As I prepared to leave the UK (woefully inadequately – I barely confronted my huge life changes and instead chose to concentrate on each day and the special people in my life), I often wondered why I was feeling so angst-ridden and moody. I snapped in ways I haven’t for months and I lost my rag a few too many times. Only when a very close pal pointed out that I was undertaking most of the major upheavals possible in life all at the same time did I realise that maybe I was under a fair amount of stress and could do with a hand. It’s my Achilles Heel to be a stubborn mule, however, so the relationship breakdown, house sale, job change, move from my dearest friends, au revoir to family and eventual touch down on Tanzanian soil were challenges that I approached with a focus that precluded considering the impact on my head!

Well…. my head is actually OK, two weeks into my African odyssey, and the blips, which creep upon me like so many African ants….. huge and lightning fast…………….return to their dark lairs almost as quickly after a little cry, whinge or time alone. Like clouds blowing across the Moon at night, they are merely making their way across the skies of my mind and it is better to allow them their rite of passage than to fight them. They soon pass on.

Two things I find especially comforting here. The first is the silent but stately and protective presence of Mount Kilimanjaro, whose snowy peak graces us on a clear morning and evening. Catching me unaware, perhaps as I start the ascent up the red, rocky road to the house after a day at the office, the sight of Kili somehow lets me breathe freely and touches a part of me that so profoundly believes in the divinity of Mother Nature and the wonder of the circle of life. Kili, proudly yet humbly at my side, is incredibly calming.

I gain similar succour from the Moon, and have done since the numbing distance between myself and loved ones struck me in New Zealand. The Moon this week is full and so astoundingly vibrant that she lit the entire house throughout last night. When missing people, I get an incredible sense of closeness by gazing at the Moon and knowing that all those I love are under it with me. I have no such feeling for the Sun, which merely scorches and has no wisdom in its glare, but the Moon is a real source of peace. Edward and Eleanor, Jo and Paul, Mum and Dad, Jack and GPa, Tim and all my dear friends are under its watchful care by night and that gives me peace.

Early Experiences

This week I have mostly been eating a wide variety of bananas, mangoes and pineapples; boiled eggs; honey; some rather grim yoghurt; sweet corn (5p a cob); beans and maize; ugali; rice; veggie stew; tomatoes; baobab seeds. A trip into Moshi is an amazing chance to get a piece of cake (yes, it was my first mission!) and a decent sandwich. There is even a bakery in Moshi with passable bread and donuts (Northern Tanzania is NOT the place if you value your patisserie…. Which I do!!). I also drink amazing coffee (Kili grown) and chai. Alcohol, I am observing, is a huge problem here but a very sensitive issue to address. All I will ask is this: how can poverty and development and disease really be tackled when people are drinking what amounts to metholated spirits at all times of day? This depresses me….. I need a Tusker Beer to calm me down!

Chocolate (oh my, one day I am going to spend soooooo much on Montezumas/ Green and Blacks/ Hotel Chocolat!!) is Cadbury’s but made in Egypt and really not the same!! A Crunchie was nearly a Crunchie but a Fudge was grim!!


Oh, for the sound of silence. It is incredible how quickly one adjusts to constant noise. As I wrote that, a cockerel crowed outside my window and a baby started howling. There is music coming from somewhere but I have no idea from where. Night time is wind, birds, insects, a cacophony of sound. By 2am, the cockerels join in the choir, followed by dogs. By day, children scream, music drifts, animals moo, crow, oink, baa (is that what goats do??). My first few nights I barely slept under the cover of my mozzy net, but now I find the sounds almost lull me to sleep. As sun sets at 7pm, and I get up early, I tend to be reading and drifting from 8.30pm and will sometimes break the calls of nature with a bit of IPod or BBC World Service (when I can get it.) This feels rude but is tantamount to therapy.

Despite having my own mini identity crisis (who are we when removed from job, friends, family, home, contexts, familiarity?), I am finding my way and am profoundly lucky to be with such lovely people. It’s very hard to remember all the locals, time will cure this, but everyone here is welcoming, warm and generous hearted. Of course, I am pursued by children shouting ‘Muzungu’ wherever I go, and end up with sticky/ wet/ dirty hands when they grab on for the ride, but this is just a part of being a white woman in a black place. I’m a novelty.

Paul (Kenyan), Gerald (Tanzanian), Ernest (Tanzanian), Darran (Muzungu!!), Nicola (Uk volunteer), Babu (grandfather, really called Fred or Soap), Beatrice (our cook and altogether amazing lady)…. Everyone is lovely. This doesn’t scratch the surface of how the people are generally. Only one or two bad experiences, like my attempt to observe a group of men playing a game on a chequerboard with coke bottle tops which resulted in being shooed away! – no women allowed - but otherwise this is a place of hellos, greetings, much hand shaking and holding, and hospitality.

Darran’s birthday this week entailed an endless stream of speeches and repetitions of those same speeches, it was quite a feat of patience. Most focused on the wish that he live for more than 100 years and were quite profound. A far cry from ‘Happy Birthday, you old bugger’. I must confess, though, that it bordered on the maddening – can we please just eat the damn cake?

Romance? My heart isn’t looking and it’s not on my agenda. Despite the very handsome Foreign Office Kenyan I met at Nairobi airport, I’m staying firmly in love with myself, my friends and my family for now.

A few musings

If you wish to join me out here, please bring your sense of humour. My Mungu (God), there has to be humour. Without this, how can I survive another trip on a daladala (the local transport, which squeezes up to 20 people into a 10 seater minibus); another near death ‘oh hell, the brakes have failed on the Land rover AGAIN’ experience; another accosting by the local mildly violent nut bar (Julius, who can’t appreciate the difference between holding your arm and a Chinese burn/ patting your back and winding you with a mighty whack); another swarm of children singing ‘Muzungu’ and searching my pockets for sweets/ money/ anything chewable; another visit to Uchira Village market where, as the only white, I am ritualistically but rather warmly ridiculed for being… well… so damn white (despite being brown!!); another dinner by candlelight, for our generator was stolen some while back; another fight with a mosquito which has managed to get under my net; another giant ant in my rice. (?) Humour is all.

Things can certainly seem crazy here. Yesterday, I visited a local secondary school and attended a Civics class. There are no books to facilitate teaching, inadequate chairs and desks for the students, and the poor teachers rely on a blackboard to write down the information which he wishes the students to retain. A handful of clearly keen and motivated students took notes, others wandered in and out, many simply fell asleep, head on desks, right there in class. The school takes some boarders and, at present, the boys’ dorm sleeps over 100 in a room the size of a classroom at Leeds University Language Centre. Some boys share beds. The social and health problems associated with this are manifold.

There is an area for playing volleyball at the school, but the balls are deflated and the net is broken. They would like a tennis table and equipment. The library is full of well meaning but ill-chosen books sent from the UK, which are not relevant to the curriculum or are outdated and useless. Like the computers, which are a very old model and barely functioning, there is a tendency for richer countries to send, frankly, rubbish to developing countries with the notion that it will be gratefully received. I leave you to draw your own conclusions.

English club is a whole other issue. We undertake to improve English in what is fundamentally a room where would feel cruel to shelter animals in the UK, with kids coming and going, no materials or resources but those we cobble together ourselves and nothing of colour, vibrancy or stimulation. The teaching itself is basically about getting the children to repeat words….. I cannot even begin to compare attempting to teach English here with the joyous environment to which I have become accustomed in Leeds.

As I write, the people who live in the place next to the office have set light to their household waste. The smell is noxious, the smoke is toxic, the effect on my senses is wholly repellent. Litter is such a terrible problem in Africa. Years back, before the arrival of plastic packaging and bags, tins and cans, excessive paper etc…. most food and other essentials were either unwrapped or wrapped in natural, organic materials. Waste collection and disposal was not an issue that needed addressing. Today, the villages and towns are choking on rubbish and this is no metaphor – I have seen livestock dying as a result of plastic consumption and I have witnessed little children searching in the embers of a fire and finding half melted plastic containers to chew on, cartons to lick, lollipop sticks to suck (minus the lolly)…. One of my biggest challenges here with V2V is to sort out this issue but the complexities are mind blowing, even at this micro level. Watch this space for support from the Village Chief and his Council; funding; community commitment. Take nothing for granted!

I need your money, by the way. I’m serious!

I miss

Please do not take for granted

Electricity; water supply; internet connectivity; good bread; decent milk; great chocolate; tarmac roads; cool weather; people turning up to meetings on time; getting a reply within 24 hours; teaching resources; tables and chairs; an office without giant ants, enormous crickets, chickens in it; NHS; baked beans (Heinz of course); the BBC; Ready Steady Cook; steamed sponge puddings; Sunday night curled up with TV after a bath; glass of red; toasters; buses where you get a whole seat to yourself; trains that don’t crash all the time; Cliff Richard tunes in shops 8 weeks before Christmas (hahaaaaaaaaaaaaa. Spot the odd one out).

Badae (or byeeeeeeeeeeee)

I am determined to learn Swahili here. Why? Firstly, it’s just so damn rude not to be able to communicate properly with such chatty people. Secondly, it’ll be a great skill for me to have when I come back to the UK and realise I’ve caught some kind of Africa bug which means I have to return to do some work in DRC/ some other outpost. Finally, I hate people laughing and talking about me without the foggiest idea of what’s so funny. It goes against my nosy nature. Going to stamp that out.

I send love to you all and miss you all so very much. Sorry for my ramblings and hope you get something from them. I will write more profoundly or lightly soon, depending on my mood and how events transpire! I may also actually manage to get some photos out to you, though I have yet to work out how.

Hakuna Matata

Always, wherever I am, simply Pen