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

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Pineapples and peace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biggest, warmest (hottest) love.

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

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