A life after Africa ……..

Its a far cry from Africa, I thought, after meeting the first of our new neighbours. Rather than the front gate being opening by a sleep disturbed Masai guard, sweating under a blanket in 40oc heat, I mistake Mike for the postman and squeeze by with an open air of indifference. “You must be new then” he says, in a non regional RP accent. Clearly he does not work for the Royal Mail, as I now pay attention to this ‘hip’ late forty something. A grey haired ‘yoof’ in a t-shirt proclaiming a love of decks (is that also a smug, ‘yes, I know it’s a Thursday afternoon and I’m clearly not in the office smile’?) and designer red shoulder bag. He looks a little too self-important to be the friendly community post-man. In a slightly awkward, hover around the mail box, it’s obvious that all we really want to do is get indoors and end this strained British civility – but now we’ve bumped into each other and we must introduce ourselves whilst this over burdened shopping bag is about to break in my hand and a tube of tomato purée is digging into my leg, I reply “Yes, my partner and I moved in last Saturday, ground floor” and I indicate the door that I so longingly want to retreat behind.

“What do you do then?” he asks, leafing through a pile of envelopes and junk mail in this hands. I find it odd this question has superseded an inquiry of name but I answer none the less. “Well, I’ve just been employed as the new Fundraising Officer for a national charity and I have to find them millions of pounds and I start on Monday and whilst excited and delighted at this new challenge, frankly, strange neighbour man, I’m terrified – and by the way it’s certainly a far cry from life in East Africa, where I previously lived, trying to find ANY money for a small grass-roots charity I adored and have now left to come back here, HERE I tell you” is obviously not what I say, so I simply reply “I’m in the charity sector; fundraising”. “Brill’” he proclaims, stuffing a Pizza flyer back into the box “I’m in TV and Film, you may have noticed the van outside…Yep! That’s mine. God, well, we’re having to do this really boring documentary at the moment about Cricket – but well you know – yeah, it’s great to be in the industry – everyone is always really impressed – but you know – the grass is always greener isn’t it”. “Well” I start…..”And my wife is in television too, you know, but she’s escaped this cricket palava – anyway – you’ll have to pop over and introduce yourselves properly sometime”. “Yes” I feign – that would be um, ‘brill’. Tosser.

As I push through the door, un-code the alarm and finally deposit the shopping bags, I still can’t quite believe that we actually live here. Not only a far cry from Tanzania – but also from the damp and dark ‘underground’ flat I convinced Hill and I to move into in Oxford, under the pretence that it had ‘potential’ (meaning with a few candles, prints and jos-sticks I could make it look vaguely homely).

Three months in since our return home from East Africa – and we are now living and working in the cities capital, London. Our new residence is a grade two listed mansion (read ‘ascetically pleasing’ from my view point and ‘bloody freezing’ from Hill’s), this whole place used to be the family residence of the Greggs family (yes – the very high street bakers who flog cheap sausage rolls and cream buns to the masses of the British Isles) before being converted into four big apartments.

I remember having a conversation with a certain middle class pig-like boy at university, who told me that by obtaining an academic degree – you automatically elevated your social class. Therefore, he said – I was about to become middle-class by proxy of obtaining a degree in English Literature. If pig boy was correct and my degree had indeed propelled me from my working class roots – what did living in a place like this now say about me? Two bedrooms for two people, so much space we feel often lost on the floor and with two gorgeous 1920’s window doors that open our front room out on to a fabulously huge garden, complete with central stone pond and fountain (and did I mention we now have two bathrooms?). Well – I say. And it sounds sick, doesn’t it – to talk about what we now ‘have’ (read rent for an extortionate amount per month) when we have just come from a place where entire families live under a sheet of tarpaulin. Yet – the ludicrousness of it all boils down to the fact that a one bedroom flat in London, comes in at just a couple of hundred quid less a month – and well – as soon as I walked in the door of this place – I knew we were going to live here. I wanted to be in the light, to be able to lie in a garden, to close the door on what was about to become my new corporate and (at times) unbearable little existence and plan for the day we could leave this rat-race, get off grid and say goodbye to what this country has become (I’m sure we can build hedges that high!) – done with a beautiful view and in the comfort to make those plans. And also, with both of us being so extremely lucky to have found jobs in the charity sector, only two weeks after landing home, meant that we were also extremely lucky to be able to have our own space again – and spend five minutes thinking about ourselves and what we want from life; rather than trying to help forty kids decide how they change and move forwards with their own.

And well – what is the plan post life in East Africa?

I am extremely lucky in that the man I have found to spend the rest of my days with has always had the same life dreams as my own. In fact, it was something we talked about on our very first date; which I think must have made me realise even then that, four years later, we would be where we are now. The grand plan is to save as much money as possible within the next five years – so that we have enough cash to buy a small piece of land, build an environmentally friendly and self-sufficient house – and live happily ever after on our small holding. We want animals and vegetables, fruit and bees and to eventually to open a space to benefit the local community in which we land. And with my 30th year fast approaching and his thirties already in swing – we both feel that this is the right time to make that decision – and work hard for it. And my goodness, if we aren’t working hard for it……..

Many people have asked me, since coming back to the UK, if I am going to continue blogging. Whilst this is something I have found really rewarding and immensely enjoyed throughout my years living in Japan, Thailand and Africa – I feel that until any future travel adventures happen – I’ll be putting the blog pen down for a while. When I moved to Edinburgh after Japan, to try my hand at becoming a “real writer”, I kept a blog about my daily life. A very brave friend of mine told me in no uncertain terms that what I was writing was mundane and frankly, quite bad. Not being the best with criticism at the time, I didn’t take the news too well. Alas though, I am a big believer in trying to learn from past mistakes and valuing what only true friends can honestly tell you (that getting up, going to work, coming home and playing scrabble doesn’t quite hold the same appeal as worldly adventure) – I so I have decided to spare you daily London life. Also, now being in an organisation within the public eye, I cannot detail who I work for or ever go into too much detail about what I do and with whom (for legal reasons which could potentially cost me my job).

For those of you wonderful enough to have encouraged me over the years and who have always enjoyed my writing (even in those self-destructive Edinburgh days), my aim is to convey some of my new inspiration and experiences through a creative medium I have always loved and don’t get to do enough; the short story.

My plan is to post each story I write into a blog site, details of which I shall post to you all when the first story goes live. As always, I’d always appreciate your comments and feedback.

In the meantime, I would like to thank everyone who read my Africa diaries and who gave so many wonderfully supportive comments on not only my writing, but on the work and achievements we were able to take part in during our year out in Tanzania. For those who would like to keep themselves informed about The Umoja Centre and all the fantastic students – please see Umoja’s website www.umoja.com.au

Once again, thank you and all my love,



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Africa Diary Chapter Twenty One

A Christmas away from home …

Sun bleached and baked, the sand sinks in a hiss of steam as the lagoon tide pulls in to re-submerge the crude wooden dows that line the ever rising shore line. Seaweed scented breeze caries the chink-chink of pangas splitting branches to construct a palm roofed beach umbrella, shading the majority of Scandinavian Christmas fugitives. Crabs scuttle with one large claw hitching a lift on the wind before disappearing into the oyster marked branches of mangrove trees.

Bomani Beach resort is a small array of thatched roofed bungalows tucked away at the edge of a small local village called Mlingitini; over-looking a salt water lagoon. The village itself is a bleach drift wood community of windowless cement houses, small scraggly chickens pecking at the sand upon which all the “roads” are made. I use the term ‘road’ loosely, as for either due to the depth of sand or the bumpy pot-holed track that leads up to the village, there is little evidence of any cars coming through here. The community appears to be made up of Muslim fisherman with their sturdy (yet extremely rickety looking) traditional dow sail boats, their wives and daughters dot the low tide shore line, cultivating seaweed upon long stretches of twine and their children, in packs of three and four, comb the beach, kicking sand at each other and ogling the handful of Norwegians who sweat into their departure lounge literature.

Although we sit on the sand under palm trees, hearing the gentle lap of the ocean, it really doesn’t feel like we are at the beach at all (although we did get to admire the greens and purples of unbroken sea urchins and find giant snail like sea creatures who, shell-less lay jelly-like in the sun, marooned like lost sea manatees). Being on the edge of a lagoon gives one the impression of sitting at the side of a great salt water lake – and it only dawned on me after hours of wondering why it felt this way, that it is because of the mangroves that thickly line the horizon. Staring out to sea has always meant the tranquility of looking out at complete nothingness, just miles and miles of blue seemingly stretching on into infinity.  And it is here, as I now sit in this chair facing this scenery, that I bring to you this blog – aware that no one has been updated on my life here in Africa for several weeks. This chapter then shall be an assortment of events which have passed, mixed with our most recent travels.

Before our long journey south east to Bagamoyo (which translates to ‘lay down your heart’ as it was where all the salves where brought from the main-land until being sold to go over-seas to work as domestic servants or on plantations) first in a sweat box bus hurtling like an angry bull along the melting tarmac roads, to be dropped off on the outskirts of a dusty town, we were bundled onto the back of a dala dala (our bags strapped into the back with a frayed piece of string), Hill wedged into the back and me, sandwiched into the front. A toothless women stroking my hair from behind and an ancient turtle like Babu (grandfather) looking at me with blind-blue eyes – after paying twice the price of the locals – we barely made 20 miles an hour as we throttle-lurched along a bumpy dirt track road in the direction of the coast. After a second Dala ride and a 20 minute tuk-tuk adventure, we arrived thirsty, dusty, sweat drenched and slightly argumentative (the vegetarian standard of menu was its usual vegetable curry made with wheat flour and little else and when told we were vegetarian, the Norwegian proprietress gave us a look of deep sympathy and confusion – as if our ethical dietary life-style was akin to a horrible disease) a heated argument followed until we finally settle down to a cold shower, the reassurance that we could pretty much design our own menu (ingredients permitted) and that they run classes on how to make your own djembe drum.

Why I had decided to book us into a Norwegian run and completely dominated guest house for Christmas is beyond me – not only do they celebrate Christmas on the 24th of December rather than the 25th (which they did with a scraggly blond pensioner dressed as Santa, which was actually a relief to see him out of his ripped denim hot-pants and tight surfer t-shirt – his lank locks flicked out of his eyes as he rudely interrupted couples trying to enjoy their dinner) and by a mountain of meat, thrown onto a BBQ, which they found a morbid fascination with photographing – but they also completely ignored the fact we were trying to celebrate Christmas the day after, with their fat fake Boxing day hangovers and placid smiles.

Although to be fair on our Scandinavian cousins, it didn’t really feel like Christmas day for us either, for after a hairy motorbike ride into Bagamoyo town by a Rasta who asked me first to give him money to fund a trip to America and then when I refused demanded money to pay for his English lessons – although his English seemed quite advanced because when I told him to bugger off, he seemed to understand perfectly and cease his demands, we arrived at Bagamoyo District Hospital.  A bloodied bandage, scarlet wound on electric white cotton, lay stuck to the floor – abandoned by a man on crutches, one foot bare and black on the dusty floor, the other elevated and bound in what was left of his bandage and gauze. The waiting room contained two drift wood benches, lop sided with orange nail-rust circles that sat on a concrete floor covered in a layer of sand. A small television crackled out of a metal cage upon the wall. A young Muslim woman with her head covered in a light pink and orange sari, sat and stared at me intently, no matter how much I goggle-eyed her back in my discomfort. The picture was showing BBC World News, images of a flooded Australia where there had previously been drought and a snow covered UK and America – experiencing one of the coldest winters in who knows hoe long. As humans discussed catastrophe and irregular weather patterns without even a single ironic comment about global warming or climate change – the sun in Bagamoyo was melting the tin roofs and causing them to pop and crack, like corn in a hot pan. I sat and continuously wiped at my sweat drenched face with a bunched up sarong and watched as a young nurse in a grubby green uniform and black trainers jumped up onto one of the benches and began watching the television screen. She couldn’t see the bandage on the floor it would seem and neither could the countless women who kept walking through, getting it caught up in their kanga skirts and long dresses of Islam. Whilst I started to panic and think about blood carried diseases, I tried to distract myself by looking into the adjacent room, where bundles and bundles of files wrapped in twine lay on the sand floor, stacked to the ceiling, I wondered why they were carelessly neglected ad just dumped like they were – perhaps the patients they belonged to were dead? A ‘mama’ walked past me, large and swollen with a small baby strapped to her back and gawped at me.

I didn’t have to endure this for too long though, as I knew that Hill would be sitting not far away in the same waiting room we had been in on a previous visit when we came to get his second rabies injection administered. Before we had come away, we decided to take the dogs for a walk around the block. As we came to the local Rasta shop on the corner, we could smell roasting corn hobs which proved too much for a certain someone’s stomach. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to walk over there babe” I said, thinking of the stray dog who prowls the area. Trying my best to restrain three dogs trying to walk over to Hill, who by now was approaching the mama fanning sweet corn over a small charcoal fire. “It’s fine” he shouted back as at the same time a three-legged rabid dog came hurtling around the corner, snarling and barking before laying into the biggest of our three dogs, Benji, who now had it by the throat, Dizzy biting its behind and our smallest, Maggie, trying to get bites in where she could.

Hill began trying the best he could to separate them (as the locals stood around bemused no doubt and pleased at the spectacle to break up the monotony of a usual early evening). As Hill kicked the dogs in the mouth, one of them (we know not whether the stray or one of ours) bit him in the knee and drew blood. Thus, we were advised to go to the doctor for a course of rabies injections. After he had been stabbed in the arm by an efficient Matron esq. nurse, we were back on the motor-bike and heading back towards the tranquility of our beach bungalow paradise. Thus, we finally got to celebrate Christmas in style, with a bottle of port in our deck chairs, floating in the drunken haze of the late African sun and lagoon breeze.

After a week in a beach bungalow, lazily watching village life, reading books and enjoying each others company without the strains of The Umoja Centre 24/7 – we decided to pack up and head to somewhere a bit cheaper and more align with our paltry budget. Francesco’s, from the outside, looks like a faded and dusty road side youth hostel with an absence of youth – well – an absence of anyone really and when I catch a glimpse of a dark haired and stubbled Mediterranean looking male in his middle years, accompanied by a beautiful dark young female sitting in the outdoor restaurant which sits directly next to the bumpy, sandy roadside – in what looked to be the throws of an argument – well you could be forgiven for thinking negative thoughts. With the bathroom smelling somewhat of sewage and the emergence of a small frog poking it’s head up through the shower drain and a menu propped up outside that read ‘Today’s Menu – Goat, Sheep, Cow’ – although a bargain at 25,000 shillings a night (12 pounds fifty) with breakfast included – I did begin to wonder what animal breakfast would be. The establishment also came with a monkey, tied to a tree on a long rope, trying to break free and two parrots in a cage, swauqking in complaint.

There is nothing nicer then in life, to have misread appearances, to feel foolish for judging a book by its cover and being quite wrong. Although we had some mis-haps (including being robbed whilst we slept – someone had climbed up the tree outside, cut holes through the mosquito net, stuck their hands through and took everything they could reach – including my make-up bag, jewelry, our phone and a pair of Hill’s shorts – they left our Swahili phrase book on the ground outside – which was nice of them) and a slightly disastrous New Years Eve meal (where we were invited to join the family and friends table- were completely ignored whilst everyone spoke Spanish and only spoken to in English when someone felt it was time to insult the British – fed lots of wine and tequila and then charged an extortionate amount of money 5 minutes before the bells chimed midnight – and on New Years day had my nice sandals stolen by the cleaning lady) the Mediterranean guy turned out to be Benjamin, an extremely kind hearted and welcoming man from The Canary Islands – who insisted on feeding us copious amounts of yummy food (including home-made cheese and ripe tomatoes in olive oil and garlic) and explained about his monkey (who I’d been having plans to free in the middle of the night). Dali, the monkey, was brought to Benjamin by a group of local guys who had caught it when he was just a baby. They had a bar of metal around its stomach which was cutting into its skin – and were trying to sell it to gullible Mzungu for lots of money. Benjamin, although not wanting to encourage this cruel trade, fell in love with the monkey and wanted to save it. Dali used to be able to run free around the guest house, until the neighbors complained about him coming into their kitchens, stealing food and destroying their banana and mango trees, and thus, Benjamin was forced to forever have him on a long rope, tied to a mango tree. Sadly, whilst we were there, a group of guys brought round a young Bush Baby which they had caught, tied a rope around it and had come to Benjamin to sell it to him – thankfully he declined and hopefully the idiots would have set the poor terrified animal free – but that I shall never know.

Next to the guest house was a shack selling and making Djembe drums, where Ali – the most famous drum maker in Tanzania – skinned and sold drums to people who came to Bagamoyo for that reason alone. We had a great jam with the Rasta’s who hung around the shop and Hill got to buy a new drum, watching them finish tightening the skin on it – and then getting to play with a famous local Ragga artist here, Jikoman.

Our return from the 40oc Tanzanian coast (via a brief day/night in Dar es Salaam, in a cheap hotel next to the bus station for the 12 hour journey back to Arusha) gave us one day to do a heap of washing and celebrate my 29th year on this planet – before being picked up at 9am on the 4th of January – for our first ever Safari expedition. The plan was to drive out to the Serengeti and camp in its heart for two nights and then drive to The Ngorongoro Crater for the day before returning back to Arusha.

Someone once told me that The Ngorongoro Crater was the most amazing place on the entire planet that they had visited – and it is easy to see why. The carter was formed when a giant volcano exploded and collapsed on itself some two to three million years ago and it is 610 m (2,000 ft) deep and its floor covers 260 km2 (100 sq mi).The Maasai used to live within the Crater itself with the animals – until in 1959, when repeated conflicts with park authorities over land use led the British to evict them to the newly declared Ngorongoro Conservation Area. In order to get to the Serengeti on our first day – we had to drive past the crater rim – giving us the most extraordinarily beautiful view of the crater floor. No matter how many photographs you take – nothing will ever do justice to this breath taking view. Aside from herds of zebra, gazelle, and wildebeest, the crater is home to the “big five” of rhinoceros, lion, leopard, elephant, and buffalo. Knowing that in 2 days time we would get to be down there – with almost every individual species of wildlife in East Africa, we were super excited! But first – we were on our way to the landscape that I have grown up watching on television – the great plains of the Serengeti.

I am lucky enough to have a father who loves wildlife and documentaries- and so was raised on a diet of David Attenborough on Sunday evenings before school the next day – telling me all about the birds and the bees. This landscape had always been a major tug on my heart to come and visit Africa – and although my experiences with the people here and all the charity work we engage in has been life-changing – there was something magnificent about standing on very the soil you have dreamed about as a child.

As we sped over bumpy dirt tracks, with endless plains of grasslands stretching left and right, crooked trees and huge white clouds that take over the entire sky – our torsos protruding up and out of the open safari truck, wind in my hair, binoculars round my neck – you can imagine my absolute elation when we slowed down after spotting two male adolescent lions, sleeping in the long grass. To be so close to such extraordinary beasts, the slight breeze catching in their manes, the occasional flick of the tail to get rid of flies – one green eye opens slowly to take you in – there is nothing quite like it.

Although our guide was noticeably unimpressed by the fact that we were not fresh off the boat – and therefore ignorant of KiSwahili and the price of everything (when I asked for some milk he had the cheek to tell me it would cost 10,000 shillings – about five pounds until I asked him in Swahili if he thought I was stupid and that was rather expensive – where he blundered and admitted to it being 2,000 – about one pound) we did get to see so many animals just on our way to setting up camp – including zebra, giraffe, hyena, wart hog, hippo and buffalo to name but a few.

The only complaint that I have about going on a safari is that you are treated as a tourist – and tourists are notoriously stupid. Safaris are an expensive business, costing a minimum of about 400 British pounds for two nights and three days (per person – for basic camping – I have no idea how much it would be to stay in a lodge!!!) – and you are also required to handsomely tip your guides and drivers. The gift shop at the entrance to the crater will charge you five times the average price of anything in a local market in town – and because you are ‘stupid Mzungu’ who have just (in their eyes and mind) stepped off the plane – they will rip you off wherever they can. There was also an array of enterprising Maasai who stood at the rim of the crater at the most scenic view point, who would ask the tourists if they would like their photo taken with them – and then extend their hands and demand 10 US dollars as payment! What I get the most upset about is that when I say ‘no thank you’ for the hundredth time about wanting a necklace with a wooden monkey or giraffe on it – or another painting of Mt Kilimanjaro – or just to give money to whoever puts their hand out – is that I am met with scorn and tuts and remarks about ‘rich white people’. It upsets me because we have given up a year of our lives to help people and raised so much money – but of course you don’t walk around with that tattooed on your forehead!

Hill thinks that I am becoming quite conservative in my attitudes (I know – me!!! The most anti-conservative far-lefty you will meet)  – because I don’t believe that handing money over to everyone that asks you for it is the right way to help – thinking it better to direct it to small projects that provide healthcare, medicine, education and food. The more that I have been out here in East Africa – the more that I am also coming to the conclusion that certain types of charity breed dependency and a bizarre form of jealously and racism. When we finally arrived at the area to set up our tents, our guide told me that without exception, we should not feed the birds (the Serengeti has over 500 species of birds – all so beautiful – a favourite of mine being the Purple Starling). When I asked him why – he said that the birds would just constantly expect tourists to feed them and they would forget how to fend for themselves. I suddenly thought that they should put up signs outside the entrance to the Serengeti and indeed in all tourist places saying ‘Do Not Give Money to Beggars’ – not because I’m a cruel and uncharitable person (having just been working out here working for free for a year and having had countless direct debits going out to charities in the past will tell you that) – but because so many tourists do put their hands in their pockets to alleviate their guilt of ignoring problems in Africa for so long, because they can afford to fly out here – tour about and film some animals with their state of the art video cameras and huge Nikon cameras – that giving a few dollars to some children on the road side makes them feel good. But problems here don’t go away because that happens – what you are evolving is a dependency on hand-outs (sitting all day waiting for Mzungu to come and hand over cash) rather than going out to find work or trying to pull themselves up and out of the poverty trap. What you breed is the assumption that anyone who comes from the western world can afford video cameras and i-pods and plane tickets – nearly all Africans I talk to here (with the exception of one) believe that there is no poverty in the west at all. It breeds the right to steal from people – as it becomes a Robin Hood scenario of ‘taking from the rich to feed the poor’. Please – I implore of you – if you are ever coming to Africa to go on a Safari, instead of putting coins into a hand – make some time to visit some great charitable projects – decide to sponsor a young person to help them get an education to find work – visit an agricultural charity and put some coins in their hands to fund irrigation systems to help farmers – ask a local seamstress to make you a new wardrobe and pay her fairly – visit an orphanage and bring some supplies for a local school. Yes – these things require a little more effort and time – but scars and problems only heal with time – and a quick fix is not the answer.

When we finished putting up the tents that night, we sat back and looked up to the infinite sky of stars above, so bright and plentiful without any human intervention; street lights or smog. Our guide, Gido, told us that we should hurry up and go to the toilet now, for we should not leave our tents during the night. Sure enough, that evening as we bedded down on the plains of the Serengeti, we could hear something chewing up the grass outside the tent and the sound of lions as they continued on their migration.

Up at 5am, we got back into the truck, wrapped up in blankets to watch the sun rise – and have the best chance of spotting more animals in the cool air of the morning. This was an event I was the most excited about, as I have long dreamed of the huge orange ball that would rise and take over the entire sky. I was not disappointed as we were blessed with a clear sky – and as the sun rose up and out of the earth, lighting up some air balloons on the horizon and stark branches of Baobab trees. Not long after, we spotted two baby leopards playing shyly in the braches of a tree by a rock formation, their mother absent as she was off on the hunt to bring back some food. As they tumbled and played with each other – the view from the other side of the truck was a thick horizon of zebra – so many you did not know where the trail started and finished. The Serengeti hosts the largest migration in the world, which is one of the ten natural travel wonders of the planet – and as luck would have it – we have come at the right season with nearly two million herbivores traveling from the northern hills toward the southern plains, crossing the Mara River, in pursuit of the rains. I think the highlight for me that day, was getting to see two separate herds of elephants, complete with a baby, as they chewed the grass they could find along their journey. After a long hot day, we ate a hearty dinner at camp before another early night in anticipation for our trip to the crater the next day.

Our descent down into the crater was a very exciting time, it was really cold and had started to rain – which I knew would be great for all the animals, especially the Hippos (do you know how much a hippo pool smells? My word, it is a good job that documentaries do not permeate the smell through your television – they are truly foul smelling animals who bathe in their own feaces). We got to see the last animal on the ‘Big Five’ list, a great big Rhino, lying on his side blissfully undisturbed by all the safari vehicles coming into his habitat. To be completely honest, the amount of tourists in safari trucks at this time of year is quite disgraceful. I’m not sure why they don’t have a cut off point as to how many people can drive in at a time – quite disturbing were two male lions lying in the grass after just finishing eating their kill of wildebeest – surrounded by about 7 trucks full of people all zooming great big camera lenses into their faces.

The best bit about that final day? I would have to say watching as a pack of hyenas managed to steal a zebra leg from a huge solitary male lion, as the drama all unfolded not through a television screen with the dulcet tones of my hero Mr. Attenborough  – but before my very own eyes…….






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Africa Diaries Chapter Twenty

Even the rich are hungry for love, for being cared for, for being wanted, for having someone to call their own.  ~ Mother Teresa

There is one word which seems to have permanently imprinted itself upon my brain in the last few days and that word is…rich. What does it actually mean and what amount of wealth does one have to own to be considered as such? Is there an estimated figure that you must prove to have in a bank account somewhere, can it be tied up in investments, is it a figure in transit or a physical gold bar under the bed?  Whilst I have always considered myself rich in non-monetary terms (as in I have a supportive family, amazing friends, a life-partner, reasonably good health etc…) I have never really had any money to my name. I grew up in an ambitious house-hold with an inventive and entrepreneurial Father, whose money making schemes sometimes prospered and at their worst, saw us homeless and surviving on a diet of rabbits shot with his rifle in the back fields. My Mum has always worked as hard as him, in a variety of jobs before finding the career she loves – long after I’d flown from the nest. Whilst my folks have now found their feet and both do amazing work (in a creative and social capacity) – when I was growing up, there was no money around for the advancement of things like my education post Secondary School. Yet I was lucky enough to be at University age under a Labour Government – and thus had access to a student loan (to which I am now nearly 20,000 pounds in debt but have the title of MA by my name) and I feel tremendously sorry for the way the new Conservative Government are restricting education and making it available only to the elitist middle and upper classes. Where are kids with an inkling of academic ability from working class backgrounds (like I was) going to end up now? I suppose there will always be an abundance of super market check-outs to man; the rich get richer until the poor get educated.


I have also never been a saver, it’s not a skill I’ve learnt and I’ve always been of the philosophy “you can’t take it with you when you’re gone”. This is not a good philosophy however, when at the age of 28, you find yourself made redundant from your job, with no money in the bank and nothing to fall back on. I shall always be forever in gratitude to my partner, who (being much wiser than I) has meticulously saved his money over the years and thus could just about afford to bail us both out of a very devastating financial situation. Whilst we may have lost the flat and city in which we lived (and thus the garden we put so much effort and care into) – thanks to my lovers penny-wise skills, we were able to come out to Africa and volunteer our lives for one year; to see what real financial hardship is like.


Yet being here in East Africa, it is on a daily basis that I am assumed to be a ‘rich’ person. Not only do some of the students I work with like to tell me that “all Mzungu are really rich” – but every person from your average man on the street, to those I actually consider to be friends here – will look me in the face and happily extend their fingers for a hand-out. I have conflicting emotions within myself because of this. On the one hand, I can see why a person would look at my skin colour and expect me to have a bulging wallet. White folks, who come out to Tanzania, be it for a holiday or to volunteer, generally do have some money to spend. Short term volunteers come to visit us – do two weeks of helping out at The Centre – and then climb Mt Kilimanjaro (A thousand pounds) – go off to Zanzibar for the beach (at least a thousand pounds) – go on a weeks Safari (lots and lots of pounds), pay for their accommodation and food – not to mention the cost of the flights to actually get out here! Through the eyes of a person who survives on less than $1 US dollar a day – it would be like me looking up at Bill Gates! And yet whilst Hill and I are spending the small amount of money he put aside for his retirement fund (which took 8 years to save), we borrowed the money for our flights (another debt I have to pay), and we must be careful with every penny we have and are working ourselves ragged and thin for free – to fight for a cause we believe in – to help people who, yes, are so much more unfortunate than we shall ever be. Yes – I have had the privilege of an education – something most people out here will never have – and I have been fortunate enough to work abroad and through that, have earned enough money to travel – earning me both academic and life skills, shaping me into the person I am today. I have not had to spend the small amount of money I have on health care, thanks to the great institution that is the British National Health Service. I’ve never had to watch friends and neighbours starve, suffer through drought, die of Malaria or Mal-nutrition, walk for water or be treated as less than a slave to make enough money to survive. When I’ve been faced un-employment, I’ve had the opportunity to fall back on Job Seekers Allowance – and I’ve had healthy parents to pick me up when I’ve been down.


However – this attitude that all white people are rich and through that create a stereo-type, the fuel for which so much racism is bred – the way Mzungu are often treated here (scammed, robbed, mis-led, grossly over-charged) – well – after almost a year in Tanzania – it is starting to wear very thin. I wish that the people here, especially the great kids I work with, would understand that whilst the poverty levels in the West don’t compare with Africa – white poverty does exist and it is a very real problem. I for one will be sparing many thoughts for the poverty stricken people within the UK this winter; the homeless, who will freeze to death on the streets and the elderly with in-sufficient heating, food and home help.


To think back to the NHS, not only does being in a country where free heath care is not available make me wish I’d never complained to have had to wait a few hours in a busy (over-worked and under-paid) casualty department – but how I miss British hospitals when I’m sick here! For those of you who take an interest in face book, you will be aware that I recently suffered from a nasty skin condition caused by an insect known as ‘Nairobi Fly’. The name Nairobi fly or Kenya Fly is applied to two species of beetle which live in East Africa. They are black and red in colour, about 6–10 mm long and live in rotting leaves where they lay their eggs. They don’t sting or bite – but if they land on you and become frightened, they release a potent toxin called pederin which causes blistering. The toxin is released when the beetle is crushed against the skin. Unlucky one day then, when unbeknownst to me one of the little buggers had crawled up my t-shirt sleeve, sprayed me with its poison and then gotten crushed against my right breast. Because they are so small – I had no idea what had happened – and just felt like someone had thrown acid over me. Within the space of two hours, my under arm and breast had blistered with white poison filled spots and the skin had eroded, causing big red lesions. Rather than go to the hospital here (regular readers of this blog will already know about the state of the health care here and lack of qualified professionals) I went to the local pharmacist. He told me that I must have an allergy – and gave me some cream. Frustrated, I went to Google to see what information I could find – but having no idea what may have caused it – ended up feeling nauseous looking though pictures of skin diseases – and the only thing that looked remotely similar to my ailment was ring-worm. Amusingly enough, it was actually the local vet who correctly diagnosed my condition. When we took Benji in (after he’d stuck his nose through the gate and had it bitten by a stray dog outside) the vet knew by description alone what had caused the ugly mess that had become my arm. Advising the cure as either toothpaste or bicarbonate of soda to bring the swelling down – and to avoid itching it or opening the blisters – as they are full of the fly’s toxins and will spread the burn. The vet, thankfully, is fully qualified, resides at her practice and being from Holland, was educated in the west. Going into a hospital for humans rather than canines, the first time you would usually meet a graduate doctor is in a big District Hospital (and an expensive one at that – and usually only in Kenya!). Even at this level there is often only the one Doctor who may double up as the District Medical Officer (with a variety of administrative and planning functions) – and has to travel though varying districts to do everything required of him/her. Hence – even if you go a local hospital – it is extremely rare that you will see a qualified doctor. To Europeans, the idea that the majority of health care needs are met by basic trained nurses or paramedical staff is hard to comprehend. However the reality in many countries is that putting medical staff through a university education is expensive and unlikely to produce the numbers required. Also, if you are privileged enough to actually be a university trained doctor here, it seems they seldom want to spend their lives working in remote villages without access to running water or power and with little scope for personal development.


The answer then – don’t get sick!


On the brighter side of current affairs here in East Africa – Caroline’s return to The Umoja Centre after her six weeks away in Australia, means I am no longer responsible for taking over her duties as Programme Manager. Whilst I enjoy a challenge, it was both physically and emotionally draining trying to maintain multiple job roles and be charged with the care of so many vulnerable people. I only hope that I did a good job in her absence? We also have a new long-term volunteer working and living at The Centre. Caroline brought back Patrick with her from Australia, who is currently on his summer break from his Teacher Training at University. He will be living in our accommodation for the next three months and I am very pleased to report that he seems completely normal, unassuming, unpretentious, un-annoying, noise considerate and willing to try and cook vegetarian cuisine!  Hooray!


So my friends and loyal readers, I now have 54 days left on East African soil and still so much left to accomplish in this short time…… so keep your eyes out for more adventures to come. Thank you for your continued support – to all the amazing people who have recently made donations – Juliet Kinsey, Therese England and Acer Landscaping in particular spring to mind – you are all the amazing people who really will be the change that we need to see in this world. Until next time …..



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Africa Diaries Chapter Nineteen

Some people holiday for the sun, others for a warmer ocean or a villa with a hammock, absorbing the latest ‘top ten departure lounge literary recommendations’ at their leisure. Re-fill on that Pina-Colada dear? Why ever not! Some wish to sample the local delicacies; anything from that which comes served in a potent clay flask, to the dark haired and healthy tans of an indigenous two week romance. Some are thrill seekers, kayaking down rapids or hallucinating with altitude sickness so they can fly a kite or play a trumpet in just their underwear at the top of a mountain. Some are more turned on by the bleak vastness of fresh snow, strapping skis to the feet and whizzing off into temporary escapist freedom.

Travellers seek the same thrills as holiday makers of course, even if they doth protest to have solely come abroad to work or become immersed in an alternative culture for an extended period of time. For me, one of the strongest motivations for holiday or travel has been for the food. For those who know me well, you appreciate that I am what is known as a ‘Foodie’. I get excited by small mouth watering finger food on china plates, the smell of exotic spices dry roasting in a pan, of anything deemed organic or rustic, by crusty white loaves smothered in expensive hummus or thick homemade gooseberry jam – by a line caught bass coated in home made pesto and grilled over an open flame – chocolate curls brushing the top of a thick and decadent wedge of rich fudge cake, Halloumi cheese drizzled in sticky balsamic vinegar. Even the words used to describe food get me worked up; creamy, crumbly, moist, rich, cheesy, melty, sizzling, mouth watering, moreish decadence. And because over the last three years (due to my partner being a Vegan) I have erred on the side of 80% Vegetarian, 10% Pescatarian (when one is close enough to smell the sea) and 10% Carnivore (on the rare occasion I treat myself to a good piece of responsible organic meat) my diet has become an adventure of wonderful culinary delights.

So what then, I hear you cry, of the food in Tanzania? Well my friends, I have to say that East Africa has been the most disappointing food experience of my travelling life so far. At first, I put this conclusion down to the simple fact of poverty. When you are forced to live on less than 1 US dollar a day, you learn to get by on what is available, cheap and filling. It is no wonder that the main staple of Tanzania is ‘Ugali’. A thick (almost mash potato consistency) blob of maize flour mixed with water. Ugali is absolutely tasteless, but it is pure carbohydrate and fills you up for the most of the day. If you can afford it and are lucky, ugali may be served with a simple sauce, or a small bowl of beans in gravy. An even bigger treat is when it is accompanied by some local spinach (mchicha) and you know life is getting better if there is a small piece of dry fish to the side. As an alternative to ugali, this meal can be replaced with rice. Due to the climate, bananas are also a big part of the Tanzania diet. Un-ripe bananas are fried in oil or served in a tomato based stew. In Arusha in particular, due to the Arab population and influence, their has been an introduction of various spices (cinnamon, cumin, hot peppers, and cloves) and a popular dish is Pilau (rice spiced with curry.) You can also pick up a chapatti with your chai on the side of the road – or a roasted maize cob (which I’d have to say is possibly my favourite culinary experience in East Africa). Sadly, poverty is one reason why culinary adventurism isn’t as highly celebrated as it is in other countries – and this fact is highlighted more at this time of year than any other.

Ominous clouds now hang over Tanzanian food supplies in the next four months due to the forecasted inadequate ‘short rains’ that are expected to hit 16 out of 26 regions (meaning farmers will have a very bad time with crops due to the extremely dry conditions). Communities across East Africa are facing life-threatening shortages of food and water and as highlighted in my previous blog entry, severe recurring drought is now the major cause. Whilst I may day-dream of roast potatoes lavished in horse radish sauce, local Tanzanians are praying for enough food to feed their children, for enough vegetation to feed their cattle (cattle are normally slaughtered only for very special occasions, such as a wedding or the birth of a baby. Cattle, sheep, and goats are raised primarily for their milk and the value they contribute to social status) – for rain to fall to provide drinking water.

As I think of these factors, it brings me an uncomfortable sense of guilt, thinking of the advantages I have been afforded in my life – of the wonderful things I have had the privilege of putting in my mouth – from fresh lobster meat plucked from the sea that morning and picked out of a claw, to stuffed olives enjoyed with an expensive red wine. And every now and then, Hill and I will treat ourselves to something that is ridiculously expensive to buy out here to spice up our home-cooked cuisine. A jar of capers causes amusement and speculation when looked upon by the Tanzanians we work with – and asking Gerry to try a small bit of wasabi was like asking him to eat space food, alien cuisine.

Yet when I think of poverty, I think of that which racks areas such as India, where despite the nation being estimated to have a third of the world’s poor; every single spice used in their cuisine carries nutritional as well as medicinal properties. I think of their diversity of food and the way in which I cannot count the amount of dishes or delights to tempt the palate. Does the difference have something to do with how much a country has been affected by war, by the accessibility of trade routes; the amount of government aid? Obviously the weather here puts heed to the diversity of what be grown and what can survive the extreme conditions.

Despite the selection and variation of Tanzanian food (and how I personally react to it) every single local person I have met here would happily choose ugali and beans over say, a stone baked pizza, licked with fresh basil and vine ripe tomatoes. There is of course, the matter of taste, the fundamentals that make us an individual – that identify us culturally – and whilst I may not rate the fare that this country has to offer, there will be someone out there – who puts Tanzanian food at number one.

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Africa Diaries Chapter Eighteen

I am engulfed in a dust storm, buried in the fine brown powder that coats you like cocoa on a sticky Middle Eastern fig. The wind that carries it is the only relief you can find in this arid heat, so dry and stark that it seems to shock even the Acacia thorn threes that dot the heat hazed horizon. A discarded plastic water bottle melts in the sun.

Wherever I have traveled before, these temperatures have been accompanied by a damp humidity that sticks the t-shirt to your back. Living in Japan, the summer saw my neighbors moving sluggishly about under umbrellas, pink as piglets, their faces constantly being dabbed at with dainty kitsch handkerchiefs. Living in Thailand, the streets were wet saunas accompanied by the scent of frying shrimp, limes and coconut masking the open sewers; wolfing down raw chilies as the sweat carasoled down the back of my legs. In East Africa – I feel like the air has been sucked from every small particle of water to be found, the top of my head is the black car bonnet burning under the midday suns savagery. And just when you want to pour buckets of cold water over your bonce – you realize there isn’t any water. At all. We are now in a drought.

“Vic – Maji (water) is gone from tap” said Rose, as she shyly tapped on my office door “sorry for interruption”.

“Hamna Shida (no problem) I replied, jumping up to fetch Gerry and Hill to go and inspect the two water tanks outside.

“Both are empty” said Gerry as he came back, smelling like a butchers counter in August. “Do the neighbours not have any either?” I asked, immediately beginning to feel a sense of panic at the thought of oncoming thirst. Gerry went off to go and tap on the surrounding neighborhood gates whilst I went to retrieve the telephone number of the local water board. On the way back to my desk I noticed that there was a bill slip blue-tacked to the wall behind Gerry’s chair. Low and behold it was our water bill – for September! Being now the end of October (and paying the bill being Gerry’s responsibility ) I had stern words with him before sending him straight into town with a) enough money to cover the bill b) some extra in case of a fine. Unlike England, where I am pretty sure it is against the law to cut someone’s water off without prior warning, it transpired that they cut us off whilst we slept in our beds.

Gerry came back with no change but a slip of paper to say we have now paid and also some extra to be re-connected – I should flipping hope so! You can’t run an education centre with forty students, five staff and three dogs with no water! Especially when even the cunning cockroaches have rolled over and, legs twitching to the skies, given up on the struggle! “What time are the fundi’s (workmen) coming?” I asked “The Mama told me that they would come at 2pm” he said.

2pm.No water fundi’s.

4pm. No water fundi’s.

5:30pm. Water board office now closed. It is Friday. They are only open for half a day on Saturday. Oh happy weekend. The students finally leave the centre looking like old prunes and both male and female toilets have become worse than any open squat hole toilet in town. At least the flies are enjoying themselves.

Saturday morning sees Hill and I up at the crack of dawn and driving through the brown winds and potholes to the water board office. After a few wrong turns, we were finally directed into a little white building with a queue of frustrating looking people fanning themselves with white envelopes. The man behind the plastic glass sweats back at me with a brown smile “Yes Mama?” he asks. I explain my displeasure at having no water, even though we have paid all charges and detailed how we were promised to be re-connected yesterday. Harassed, he leads us round the back, out into the dusty yard and through to another white building. We are intercepted by a large looking lady with swollen ankles and a water board identity badge around her neck. She takes our receipt of payment from my hands and looks disapproving at me when I tell her our sorry little tale. “Wait here” she barks, leaving us standing in a small corridor with other waterless unfortunates.I am beginning to smell myself.

After five minutes she is back “I have sent them straight away” she says, thrusting my receipt back into my hands. “Really – they are coming now to give us water?” I plead, trying (thirstily) to sound mildly authoritarian. “Yes, look they go”. She motioned to a truck in the yard with some vest wearing men leaning sluggishly against its wheel rims (looking slighty drunk may I add). Feeling dubious, we drove to a nearby café and had a breakfast of sweet ginger tea and omelets before driving back to the desert.

1pm – still no water board.


2pm. Hill decided to phone the water board and have a rant. I am lighting jos-sticks outside our toilet door as I can no longer bear the smell of steaming faeces and stagnant urine. The guard has come back with two buckets of grey looking water from a nearby tap – I am so grateful I could cry. After several attempts at making connection – Hill finally gets to speak to a manager. He (Mr. Ernest) assures us that the water fundi’s will definitely come today, we have his assurance. Even Hill, one of the most patient men I know (he has to be to put up with me!) is now suffering from agro. How we take water for granted.

4pm. No water.

5:30pm. No water and the water board office is now closed. Tomorrow is Election Day in Tanzania – there is no way anyone is going to working. My hair could fuel a deep fat fryer and I smell nasty- the thought of a bucket shower is not appealing. The poor dogs are going insane.

On Sunday and still waterless we go round to our friends Magere and Ailsa’s for refuge and to have a jam session. Magere has now built a make-shift vocal booth with ply-wood and foam and it looks amazing (but is like an oven to be inside). We had a really great day and managed to record two songs. On is a song by Collins (Ghetto Grade – Raga Artist) and I sang the chorus for him (in Patwa may I add – which took some time to get my head around – but had great fun trying). Then we all worked around this drum loop Magere’s been working on – I played djembe and Ailsa and I wrote some lyrics for a chorus – then we sang and recorded some harmonies. Hill and Collins both wrote and recorded a rap – Frank played keyboard and Magere sang and produced it. Took hours and hours so we stayed for a dinner of rice and beans (lucky for us as with no water – we weren’t quite sure how we were going to cook and wash up!) and we left feeling like we’ve accomplished something!

On Monday, with still no sign of the water board – Hill and Gerry drove down to the water board as they were opening. “Don’t come back unless it’s with those bloody fundi’s” I shouted after them. Finally, they returned with two dopey looking guys with a tool kit. The relief! Two hours later and lots of holes being dug in the front garden (still no water) I went out to get an update on the situation. “Big problem?” I enquire. With some help of translation through the students, it transpired that being cut-off was not our only problem. A water pipe had burst at the top of the road – none of our neighbours had water either – and it was going to take a long time to fix. I went back to report the bad news to Rose, who, by now, was like a tiny brown shrimp within a sea of dirty dishes in the kitchen.

“Vic” she said, wiping her brow, one had on her small hip. “Water is life – for cook, for drink, for clean, for all.” “I know Rose, I know” I said, hugging my arms to my chest for fear of the aroma being released. Finally, in the late afternoon – we began to see a slow trickle of water – and the long and slow process of trying to re-fill our water tanks began.

It is only until you have to be without something – something as taken for granted as water – that you realize how immensely lucky we are. I am told that the water situation is going to get worse within the coming month – as they are going to start water rationing because of the drought. How ridiculously irresponsible are we with our water in the UK? For the last few days every tiny drop of water we could find became precious – and we only had to last a couple of days. Most (in fact nearly all) of our students have no water in their homes at all. They must walk every morning to the village tap (this can sometimes mean walking for miles) and stand in a queue to take a bucket home. This water is not clean and is often contaminated with such things as water-borne diseases including eye-attacking bacteria. The tap only gets turned on a certain times by the water board. Some of our students get up at 3am to stand in the queue – for fear of getting no water at all. They said in that queue for hours – then they come to school all day having had nothing to eat and work their socks off – just for a chance to try and pull themselves up and out of poverty. People always write to me and tell me what a wonderful thing I am doing out here in Tanzania – but it is absolutely nothing in comparison to what these kids are doing for themselves.

It has been my immense fortune then, to have had some real, really, really great news. In the absence of water – we have come into some money. Three of my grant applications were accepted in one week – making that my forth success in total. From the days of despair and frustration of feeling like I was never going to have any success in helping these youngsters – now I can truly say that my time here has been worthwhile to them. We were approved of funding to cover our Tanzanian Teaching Salary for one year; we were given the funding to provide our IT room with a projector and screen and finally, money to replace some of our computers which are falling to bits. On top of having secured the funding to re-furnish and buy books for our library – I finally feel like I am on a role. In fact – I’m feeling quite good about myself – it’s the best feeling in the world to see all those months of hard work finally paying off. I have also been completely over-whelmed by the generous love and support of not only my amazing friends and family – but of their friends and family who have never met me or any of these wonderful young people. After putting out an emergency face book appeal to raise the money to have a tables tennis table built (to give these students the best Christmas present ever – their first proper Christmas!) we managed to raise over the total needed in just two days. My enormous thanks and gratitude to: Mum, Dad, Caroline and Iain Brown, Laura Sulliven, Gavin Mackay, Fay Jones and Edd Hill, Blair Robertson, John Cudworth, Michael Plaxton, Lisa Hill, Sara & Rob Ryder, Ewan Simpson & Marianne Harkins, James Mallen, Scott Graham, Yagmor Koz, Ben Wal…den, Rune Rosseland, Ann Sinclair and Chris Walken.

I would also like to give an enormous shout out to my best friend, Marianne Harkins. Marianne has made it her personal mission to part all her friends from their Christmas Present spending cash – and direct it all to The Umoja Centre. Her and her partner and another of best friends, Ewan Simpson made an amazing donation – and though that I now have to thank Heulwen Baughn, Jean Simpson and Caroline and Iain Brown.

Quite honestly – it amazes me that you are all the kind of people who believe that we CAN be the change we wish to see in the world. That together we can make a difference and touch and change lives for people we may never even meet. Trust me when I say that every penny you have donated goes directly into helping these amazing young people I work with. Without you all – I wouldn’t have the strength and support to make wonderful things happen – so THANK YOU! Until next time …. Xxxx Vic.

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Africa Diaries Chapter Seventeen

Once again, life has taken an interesting turn here at The Umoja Centre and change, like the weather, has seen my behavior become like that of a small goat, un-tethered and knowing not which way to run. As the sun burns brighter and the temperature rises higher each day, so do the amount of responsibilities and the work load. Almost three weeks ago, Caroline once again left us again for a sojourn to Australia and made me the acting manager in her absence. This is of course fine by me and because I have done it once before – I knew that I would cope – however having to do it and remain above water in my current job roles, as Grants Officer and Sponsorship Coordinator and English teacher – well – lets just say I’ve run myself quite thin. During the same time of Caroline’s absence, we also said goodbye to Jen, who has been living with us at the centre for the past three months. Whilst we miss her, her potato salad and her helping hands – I have to admit (sorry if you are reading this Jen – lol) that it has been really wonderful for Hill and I to have our own space back again. It’s reminded me of the home we created for ourselves in Oxford – and the intimacy that a couple can only achieve when they can shut the door on the world and all that inhabit it. Just the simple pleasures of cooking and eating together, wandering about in your smalls and desirables, not having to well; simply bother with anyone has been just what the doctor ordered. I can quite honestly say that whilst my experiences here in East Africa have been both life changing and rewarding, in my heart I feel absolutely ready to come home. Home to my friends and my family. To myself, to my independence, my pass times and my pleasures. I know that sounds remarkably selfish, when there is so much work to be done here – so many people to help and having to say goodbye to these amazing young people is absolutely going to emotionally cripple Hill and I – but well – there is a ticking in my heart.

A crippling of the stomach has been a problem I have faced in the last three days; owing to the fact that I am a woman.

“Yes – me I have pain of stomach too” said Rose, as she wiped up the rice debris from the kitchen table into her small hands. “My mother she tell me to eat the oil of cow”. “Hmmmm” I replied, watching as she shook her hands over the compost bin, a small disturbed cloud of black fruit flies billowing at the movement in the heavy heat of the afternoon. “Yes, she tell me to get one kilo of cows oils and drink for woman pain – but one kilo is very expensive”. “For Maasai medicine?” I ask, helping to set out the plastic blue cups in time for the students afternoon tea break. “Yes – maybe 5,000” (two pounds fifty). I laughed as she stirred in the usual hefty doses of sugar into the ginger tea and went back to my office to down some Ibroprohen – Mzungu medicine. The next day Rose told me that she had drank the oils of cows mixed into her porridge and that now she was feeling tip-top. I know I have been in Africa for too long when I started to wonder about obtaining this revolutionary menstrual pain killer myself.

Aside from all the work at the centre, we have found a little time to indulge our love of music and have been extremely fortunate to meet some very inspiring new friends. Ailsa (lovely lady from Aberdeen who remembers me serving her large glasses of white wine in the Hammer back in my barmaid days!!!!! – small world) and her boyfriend Magere (amazing Reggae/African blues artist) have been inviting us round their house and thus their studio to have a jam and record some songs. They have a lovely guy called Collins living with them at the moment who is a Raga artist. We are all working on a track together at the moment – Magere plays the Adungu (African harp), Ailsa on keyboard, me on djembe and vocals, Collins on vocals (he wrote the track) and Hill is producing it. It’s really cool to be working on something so fresh and completely outside of my usual folky scope. I am also hoping to lay down some tracks with Magere (I will be the proud owner of my own Adungu next week) – and his Maasai guard who has such an unusual and powerful voice – exciting times! It’s great to finally have some friends here our own age and on our wave length, Tanzania does seem to be a destination for either your (well intentioned yet daft)18 year old gap year students on mummy and daddy’s money – or older people who have the money to invest in setting up businesses to cater for Safari hopping Mzungus. Despite the huge problem of poverty here – there is money in Tanzania – unfortunately it is all kept in the pockets of rich white and Asian people – through Tanzanite gems, safari tours and very expensive hotels. It’s a good job charities like The Umoja Centre exist to try to help the marganalised and poverty stricken local community!

Ok – I shall sign off here – we have been working too hard to have any more news – but know we are both well and looking forward to seeing you all in three months (ish) ….. keep being the change you wish to see in the world…..


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Africa Diaries Chapter Sixteen

As we grow up we are told all kinds of stories, some deeply rooted in folk mythology, some passed down by our family members or filtered to us through religion; some are even created by large fizzy drink manufacturers. Part of the thrill of a child’s imagination is to endorse the anticipation of a pound coin left under a pillow in place of a wobbly tooth, a man who lives in the belly of a whale or a generous fat fellow in a red costume. We like to think that we grow out of these fantastical delights and yet we still encourage it in our own children, we take a bite from the mince pie left by the fire place; yet we become educated, cynical, realistic. For those who have never received an education, read a newspaper, watched a television – been proved an absurdity by science and its pioneers – a beautiful childlike innocence remains. I have heard some wonderful stories here in East Africa, told with such a conviction and belief that I feel it’s my creative duty to share some with you now. When Gerry had a terrible toothache, so bad that one bite would shoot immense pain up into his head – he told me about The Wadoodoo. The Wadoodoo is a small insect which crawls into your mouth, burrows into your teeth and causes decay. It has nothing to do with that sticky substance that forms on your teeth called plaque, combined with the sugars and / or starches of the foods that we eat – no, no, no. Tooth decay is the occupation of the infamous Wadoodoo. When a woman is pregnant with a baby, it is extremely dangerous for her to bend down; advice from an old Mama who acts as a local mid-wife. The simple reason is that when a woman heavy with child bends to say, tie her shoe, the baby will move to her back and begin to climb up the spine. Recently there was a big scare here in Arusha, so scared were the residents of this small town that it was publicised in the local press. If you receive a telephone call from an unknown number, you must not answer it under any circumstances. The reason being? If you were to answer this call – the result would be sudden death. Yes folks, you heard it correctly. Sudden death via mobile phone, or to be more specific, you may get a brain haemorrhage due to the high frequency. The best story I have heard though was from a man who I met recently whilst on one of our monthly hiking trips. As we trekked through the thick layers of fine brown coco-powder soil, cockerels scratching at the discarded maize husks, mama’s selling neatly piled arrangements of carrots, tomatoes and avocados, the small children, barefoot and tattered, as usual, took one look at us, screamed Mzungi! Mzungu! And then ran away, hiding behind their mama’s skirts. “You know” said Leonard as he cast his arms wide to take in our surroundings “all small children are scared of you white people”. “When we are small, our parents tell us that the white man can steal our soul and control the day that we die”. I laughed out loud feeling that I was being wound up again. “No, I do not joke” he said, pointing to a small boy who had hidden behind a wheel barrow, peeping out behind the dusty wheel rims. “They say that if the white man catches you, he will take your blood and then he can decide the day you will die”. The White Man. The Boogie Man. This would certainly explain the behaviour of many little kids I have come into contact here. The ones who play ‘chicken’ daring their friends to run up and touch you and then run away. Or the ones who see you and burst into tears, screaming that you are a ghost, a white devil. I like to think that parents tell their children these stories as a way to make them behave “if you don’t be a good boy then the Mzungu will come and take your blood!” I for one would have been afraid! Folklore, stories, legend. Every culture in the world has their own special pool of these gems, whether real or imagined and isn’t that just part of the beautiful tapestry and variation of the human race? I know there are no such things as fairies, but it doesn’t stop me casting a longing glance when I see dust mites floating through the dappled sunlight of a late afternoon. There may not be flying reindeer on Christmas Eve, but I still feel that giddy excitement (or perhaps that’s just the single malt?) before I go to my bed. Just as when I lived in Japan and I was told that the Moon is actually a rabbit eating a rice cake, I truly love the unbelievable here. It is far too easy in a culture so affected by poverty, by disease, by the unfair hand – to turn empathy into pity, to begin to pray for their escape – to think – Oh these poor uneducated people who think babies can crawl up your spine. Whilst we can offer the knowledge and education that is so readily available to us in the West and offer alternative explanations, it’s also important to listen to local story and legend; the child who touches my hand and finds only smiles and laughter – this is the child who grows into an adult who understands that colour is only skin deep – and that there is no longer any need to be afraid. There will always be an element of self discovery and then a fond recollection for the feelings of your childhood. How true this is of anything that we do not understand, of what we have never had the opportunity to become exposed to. I truly feel that the problem of say, racism, is due to a stubborn drive to stop learning about the world and the people within it – to close youself to any self discovery. If we could only take each other by the hand and realise that no matter how different our culture – essentially in the end – we all boil down to the same thing – we were all once little children, fantastical, imaginative and pure.

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