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.
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!
Back to blog
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.
Monday, March 29, 2010
Thursday, March 25, 2010
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
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.