A haze of romance surrounds the idea of living in Africa. When I say, ‘I live in Kenya’ to somebody back home in England, invariably the eyes of person you are talking brighten, then gaze off longingly into the middle distance. No doubt they are picturing open savannas, gigantic skies, lions, giraffes, acacia trees and Masai warriors. ‘How wonderful!’ they reply full of awe.
At this point I smile and say, ‘yes it is!’ rather smugly, but to be honest the truth is rather different for a town loving person like me. Once used to spending free time indulging myself in pastimes such as shopping, selecting nice outfits to wear and arranging whole weekends around meeting friends at restaurants or pubs, I find that living in Africa is stretching my comfort zone. The thing is; my sense of adventure is buried so deep within me as to be undetectable. I hate camping and even find picnics hard work.
While old Kenya hands make nothing of throwing a gas stove, a tent and a sheepskin rug into the back of the ‘Landy’ for a camping trip and torment me by looking agonisingly relaxed and in control, I am sent into spasms of nervous angst. The prospect of being away from home comforts terrifies me. Swatting flies, treading on thorns, squatting behind bushes and being plunged into inescapable heat is not something I relish. Horrible lists begin to take shape before my eyes, as the preparation required seems enormous. I hate making lists.
In addition, I know, from reluctant experience that for me camping in Africa involves thorns, lack of shade, intolerable heat, an uncomfortable, sleep deprived night spent amongst wild animals, nuisance baboons and tiny ants that get into everything. Sometimes even snakes and scorpions to boot.
Rather than seeing camping as a challenge, arriving at an unspecific location many hours from home to stay in a place without running water or bathroom facilities has seen me lock myself in the car with air conditioning blasting for some time, belligerently refusing to get out. When my husband sighs and says, ‘isn’t this a beautiful spot?’ My reaction is to think of more suitable words like, ‘hell’.
It was just as bad when we lived at the coast. An inexperienced sailor, at weekends I was required to feign bravado before heading out onto the shark infested Indian Ocean in a flimsy Laser, making for some distant sand bar that only reveals itself at low tide. Sunburned and traumatised after being nearly mown down by the daily Zanzibar ferry, I swore to myself ‘never again’. We even joined the ‘Hash House Harriers’, an expat running club, in a desperate attempt to make friends and found ourselves wheezing through six kilometre runs cross country at dusk, sweltering in nearly one hundred percent humidity. For more than a few years I felt homesick for not just family but the changing seasons back home.
When I read or hear about the experiences of early settlers in East Africa I feel rather humbled. Elspeth Huxley’s mother and father reacted against what they called ‘encroaching civilisation’ after years of living in Thika, by moving to the wild foothills of Mount Kenya to escape crossing paths with other dreaded people. In their place I would have been delightedly laying on tea for newcomers, pathetically grateful for company. Karen Blixen managed her coffee farm single handed and had to ride two hours to the centre of Nairobi in the early 1900s. Isolated expatriate families working for the colonial government and stationed out in ‘the bush’, would have needed a heavy dose of adventurous spirit to face the hardships of living far from doctors, shops and communications. Many were dogged by ill health for their whole lives.
A lady I met recently told me she was sent with her husband to a heavily Masai area, Kajiado, down near the Tanzanian border. ‘I was living in a rather dull grey stone house with corrugated iron roof and windows with no glass. For two years, from dawn til dusk I had a crowd of curious Masai circling the house, staring in at me.’
I also met an intrepid German lady who lives on the edge of the Ngorogoro Crater. She arrived in the 1970s with her farming husband and in order to set up home was compelled to learn butchery, grow all her vegetables, milk cows, make butter and experiment with making furniture (after overseeing the building of her own house). She was grateful to have had a post second world war handbook to give her practical tips at the time.
Another friend’s great grandparents left England and worked as doctors on the baking shores of Lake Turkana in the late 19th century. It seems incredible that they survived and their descendants are living here still.
Since moving to Africa and while certainly privileged to be here, I have had to familiarise myself with long drop loos, potholed roads, what goes on under the bonnet of four wheel drive vehicles, mango worms (grubs that bury themselves under your skin), doses of dysentery, sunburn, jellyfish stings and dehydration. While I cannot deny the backdrop is undeniably breathtaking and there are many wonderful things about living here, life in Africa is not always as hopelessly romantic as it seems. However, faced with 9 weeks of summer holidays with three stir crazy kids, I have a feeling desperation will drive us to find that camping rears its ugly head at some point!