Sunday, March 29, 2009
She is a very affectionate girl. She would like to take the guinea pig to bed with her, snuggle with it in front of the tv, carry it everywhere - but sadly it leaves a trail of wet puddles and brown pellets. The house is beginning to stink already. So far it has weed on my bed, her bed and her sister's bed. She has tried carrying it around in a cloth, but it won't stay still for a second. All weekend I have been summoning my daughter to clear up a mess here and there,
'it wasn't me!' she says plaintively
'but it's your guinea pig!' comes the now familiar reply.
'OK' she says with a sigh.
Yesterday my husband made a smart run for it, but we are still waiting for the paint to dry. The man who works at the grounds of our local kindergarten is hard at work making a hutch. Last week I asked how much it would cost.
'7,000 shillings' he said. I looked confused,
'You recently made one for my friend for 3,500?'
'OK 4,000' he replied quick as a flash, climbing down immediately. Then I felt guilty,
'How about 4,500?' I suggested.
I wonder how it will turn out.
Meanwhile little guinea lives in a cardboard box - that is, on the brief occasions that it is not being carted around the house. We don't know if it's a girl or a boy so we alternate saying 'he' or 'she'. It's called Sooty foot - on account of its black back leg.
Our eldest daughter's siblings beg to have a hold all day.
'No, it's mine' she says crossly to them.
'Don't be selfish!' bellow her eavesdropping parents from a next door room.
One upside is that she has managed to make one of her younger sisters into a personal slave while she is 'busy' holding the guinea pig. It goes something like this;
'Please get Sooty Foot some water, a carrot, some lettuce, ask mummy if....'
Our biggest fear was that our dogs might get the guinea pig in a death grip immediately but so far they don't seem the slightest bit perturbed by the new arrival. What we didn't anticipate was the constant state of heightened emotion - I wonder if it will ever pass?
On friday afternoon my husband said,
'I swear I can smell rain - I'm sure it will come tonight or tomorrow'
After all the speculation and me regularly asking random passers by when they thought rain might come, he was maddeningly right and we had our first shower.
That smell that comes when the rain starts falling is the very best. On this occasion there was no great storm with thunder and lightening (which we were expecting after weeks of insufferably hot weather), just the first exciting drop, drop, drop on dry dusty ground, the smell of wet grass, wet tarmac, wet dirt; then more drops as it rained harder. Nothing dramatic, just very welcome.
But already there is woe. Florence who works in our house said,
'it's not enough! It hardly rained at my house! We need lots of rain! More than this!'
but nevertheless we are keeping our fingers crossed that the rainy season has perhaps begun as more clouds roll above us covering up the blue.
My friend said, 'I am depressed, what happens if the rains fail?' as she stared out over the yellow of her parched garden.
'The rains won't fail' I said with authority, 'everything will be alright.'
That's another thing. It's strange how rainfall can be so localised here. You might be driving through sheets of rain one minute with wipers going flat out, then five minutes later you break through the wet curtain and the absolutely tarmac is dry. Not a drop.
You can understand why rain in Kenya (and probably all over Africa) is known as 'God's blessing' or baraka. It's not done to complain about getting drenched or feeling miserable about wet weather. You will get no sympathy, just a smile and the response 'mvua ni baraka'.
The anticipation before it falls is immense. Weather forecasts promising rain have been wrong for months, satellite images show it approaching but no one knows when.
When I was out buying bales of straw to protect my most failing plants, the lady vendor on the side of the road said to me confidently,
'the reason it has not rained is because people have been complacent. They have forgotten God. Now he is showing them that they must repent and pray very hard if they want rain. When he is satisfied, the rain will come.'
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
I have fallen into the habit of asking everyone I see when they think it’s likely to rain.
‘At the end of the month,’ said the gardener very definitely.
‘When it’s full moon, which I think is on Thursday,’ said a friend.
An older friend today said, ‘I’m not sure but I keep getting signs. My little finger was swollen this morning and my joints are aching which is usually a sign of rain on its way.’
Meanwhile we look up and it’s still clear blue sky.
A friend flew up here from Dar es Salaam on Monday and he said that the view on landing in Kenya was 'unbelievable', everywhere was so dry, so brown. A far cry from lush Tanzania. He had never seen the Nairobi national park look like that before.
On another topic, I went to a children’s birthday party with my three and six year old daughters last weekend. A teenage guest brought along five tame snakes as a sort of side show between the puppets and the cake. The snakes were handed around amongst the kids and I thought,
‘Only in Kenya.’
Some of the glamorous ‘old Kenya’ mums who grew up here were happy to drape them around their necks and study the beautiful markings close up. I shrank away, trying to hide. I spotted a small child trying to hand a snake back to his mum when he had had enough and she was dodging about trying to avoid touching it.
‘don’t give it to me, give it to him’ she shrieked.
The teenager was a bit worried that they might slither off into the bush(/the garden) and get lost. We asked him what he fed the snakes and he said mice and quails eggs – how lovely.
Monday, March 23, 2009
I did feel there was a bit of injustice in the fact that the adult actors were getting a lot of acclaim through award ceremonies worldwide but the many excellent child actors and actresses were probably still in India...possibly going nowhere. I also slightly questioned the fact that the character of the male lead who was such an all round nice guy, given the harsh, hand to mouth upbringing he endured.
The Mumbai slums reminded me a lot of Africa. I guess slums are slums wherever you are.
Definitely worth watching.
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Apologies for sounding as if I am of pensionable age but my point is that I find re-visiting home while you are living overseas makes you feel like a total fish out of water, especially when struggling to make sense of new technological advances. The Oyster card and that old craze for wearing headsets with mobile phones really threw five years ago. Last Christmas I struggled to understand what the newest multi-megabite ipod had to offer and what on earth a Nintendo DS or a Wii was. I still haven’t got to grips with Playstation (and hopefully never will).
In addition, on returning home, there’s always a new, bewildering set of reality TV based celebrities who I have never heard of splashed all over the magazine pages (mostly, I admit; Now, Heat, Closer, OK etc).
Plus, there are new buzz words that sound completely alien. 'Sexting' and 'Twitter' are a couple of pertinent examples so far in 2009, I have done my best to find out what they mean before publically embarrassing myself with ‘English’ friends.
I understood the concept of 'sexting' when somebody explained the new teenage craze, though was not sure that those three teenage girls who sent nude photos of themselves to male friends in the US deserved a criminal record for child pornography. Realistically, it won’t put any other teenagers off sexting will it? - though it is certain to terrify their parents.
Twitter? I’m not too sure about it. Apparently sending short messages or 'tweets' to ‘followers’ (thousands if you happen to be a celebrity) is the most immediate method of relaying information to a large group that exists; i.e. the internet version of texting. Press send and you have sent your missive to scores of recipients. Barack Obama used it during his election race, Britney and Stephen Fry swear by it and have hundreds of thousands of followers. Apparently it is very useful for those in the computer industry who want to exchange information instantly on viruses but I'm not sure who else uses it in a professional capacity?
My friend said she thought Twitter was sad.
‘Imagine feeling that you have to update people on silly details about what you are doing all the time? As if people cannot bear to be alone? It’s all this 21st century business of having to ‘be in touch’ all the time with non stop mobile phone calls and texts. I preferred the old days when sometimes you just couldn’t call. What happened to a bit of peace and quiet?’
As a blogger, I didn’t have much to say.....
Monday, March 16, 2009
It's still hot and dusty with no sign of rain.
Thursday, March 12, 2009
'world trade is falling at an alarming rate and commodity prices have tumbled.'
I know it sounds naive and highly controversial but a little part of me wonders if the global economic crisis will really be so bad for Africa in the long term? It must be good to see for once that the West is by no means invincible and also makes mistakes.
The good(ish) news for Africa (sorry) is that while the rest of the world's economic growth slows to 0% or below, Africa's slow down won't be quite so bad. In Africa it is predicted to average 3%. In Kenya last year economic growth was around 7% I believe and before the election scuppered things there were hopes that it might reach 9%. On the ground, there is still a building boom going on in Nairobi and property prices have not ceased to skyrocket. Banks are reporting 50% and even 100% profits and there is currently plenty of activity in the city in spite of the higher cost of living and tragically starvation in other parts of the country.
Kofi Annan popped into Kenya today but we don't yet know exactly what he is up to. Hopefully he is busy pasting over cracks between Kibaki and Odinga in the shaky coalition. The latest row between them concerned the handling of an investigation into the recent murder of two Oscar Foundation members. A recent US envoy told Kenya (in slightly different words than mine), 'clean up your act and address the problem of corruption in Government if you want to get anything out of your relationship with Obama.' The pressure to address corruption problems is building.
The popularity of Kenyan politicians is at an all time low. The radio networks are launching a second '24 hours for Kenya' food initiative tomorrow, once again seeking donations from the public for those people starving due to the drought. For instance, Kiss FM is broadcasting messages that say:
'the politicians are not standing with us, so instead we must stand together as Kenyans and fight starvation.'
Last time 172 tons of food were donated in twenty four hours and has since been distributed country wide. The target this time is 200 tons and 2 million shillings to be spent on transportation.
On Tuesday university students protested in the town centre against extra-judicial killings by the police. As the day wore on the peaceful protest (inevitably?) turned violent and there was looting and destruction of property in the CBD. They were campaigning to sack the head of police Hussein Ali, Attorney General Amos Wako and Government Spokesman Alfred Mutua, as was recommended in Philip Alston's report.
Michaela Wrong (author of 'it's our time to eat') and other foreign reporters like to predict a total meltdown in Kenya, even civil war but let's hope they are wrong. Kenyans are doing their best to address their problems, joining together in crisis and criticising corrupt leaders for their blatant failures.
In light of the fact that the developed world does not seem to have done such a good job in managing things on the home front recently, perhaps there is some hope that Africa will emerge from this horrible time a little bit stronger, maybe more independent if only for the fact that perhaps, in thrifty times, the Western world is less likely to be guiltily throwing money at 'poor old Africa' without bothering to watch where it lands. Who knows, could the 'aid to africa' shebang be finally put under an 'effectiveness' microscope. UN and aid consultants should be made to justify their shiny new Toyota Landcruisers and hefty travel/living allowances through real results.
Nobody wants more suffering or loss of jobs/income but Africa is more used to hard times than the West. Could the fall of the Developed world be the making of the Undeveloped or will everyone be caught in the downward spiral together?
Oh doesn't that AEW rant on!?!
Monday, March 09, 2009
I had to send Lionel off to Bath to pick up Monsoon swimming costumes, school shoes and a pair of hi tech trainers that were not available within twenty five miles. Heavens knows what he came back with, I hadn’t time to look and was waiting in for the Boden order. When he got back I rushed off to the chemist to buy sachets of childrens’ Calpol and Neurofen. They only let me have one box muttering something about overdosing. I hope Petunia won’t mind, I think she did say she wanted six of each box in her text.
It reminded me of the time that, on a whim, our daughter wanted a kilo of citric acid to make her own lemon and orange squash. I tried the supermarket first, found they didn’t stock it then headed to the chemist. After scanning shelves in vain then enquiring at the desk, I found that the pharmacist was most suspicious of me and asked a hundred questions as to what I wanted it for. I explained about my daughter living in East Africa and how she couldn’t get things there so he softened a little, but was very firm about that fact that the most I could buy was 200 grams and didn’t I know that citric acid was in high demand by junkies as it was used for cutting cocaine! You can imagine my panic as I backed it in my wheelie bag between layers of knickers before setting out for Heathrow. What would customs think!
The Boden order arrived at the eleventh hour and we somehow sailed through the airport check-in but I did have a hot flush when asked by the desk clerk, ‘did you pack these bags yourself?’ Lionel was hopping from foot to foot as he was certain we were over our weight allowance and would have been furious to have been fined. As I sat down in a relieved heap with a cup of coffee in Cafe Nero I thought we were through the worst, then Lionel unfortunately reminded me that we had a long list of magazines to buy at WHSmith. He told me that it would take some time to locate the required titles; Heat, Hello, Red, Golfer’s World, Landrover Monthly and Marie Claire and ought I not try the airport’s Boots for some more Calpol sachets as well?
We had not anticipated the terribly long walk to our departure gate while struggling with five kilos of magazines; however we somehow miraculously made it without getting a hernia.
It was wonderful to arrive, though I realised with dismay that I had forgotten to bring anything for the house helps and I was absolutely meaning to buy them something. They must have been overlooked somewhere between the Boden order and the school shoes. We handed over the requested goods to Petunia and received barely a thank you. The whole thing was overshadowed by Cressida who was making a terrible fuss about the school shoes, insisting that she would not be seen dead wearing them.
My son in law sends the children in to our room very early by way of some kind of wonderful wakeup call but in fact it is generally 3am our time. On the first day we staggered out of the guest wing in time for a raucous breakfast and for the past few days the house seems to have been full of Petunia’s friends and endless numbers of other people’s children. Lionel told Petunia that he had one of his heads and has been devouring thrillers in bed for over twenty four hours. It’s alright for some.
Friday, March 06, 2009
Scary things keep happening around here - but I'm beginning to accept that that's nothing new.
Oscar Kamau was deemed responsible for organising a demonstration yesterday to champion human rights in light of the recent publication of a report into police killings (especially of Mungiki member suspects). Local minibuses relied on by commuters in Nairobi's almost gridlocked transport infrastructure, were put out of service yesterday, but a real rally or demonstration failed to materialise. Oscar Kamau long ago set up an NGO called the Oscar Foundation providing free legal aid to the poor. Their focus was apparently based around the disappearance and killing of Mungiki suspects. They have 8,000 cases of executions and disappearances on their books and were inviting ICC to investigate the crimes.
Yesterday, government spokesman Alfred Mutua said; 'Mungiki has an NGO which is the Oscar Foundation. It uses the foundation to get money from abroad.' At 6pm Oscar Kamau and a colleague were mysteriously shot dead in Oscar's car on State House road by two gunmen who 'casually walked out of a white Nissan van and shot them through their closed windows'. Hitman style.
Re the protests, a reader, Tina Wanyeki from Westlands gave her insights:
'Kenyans know, the greatest weapon of Mungiki goons is fear. They intimidate people into thinking that they can wreak havoc in the whole of Nairobi in hours. In fact these hooligans are just kids who finished school recently.'
Tom Cholmondeley may have finally turned a corner in his court case. He has been in prison awaiting trial for nearly 3 years - and not a nice prison either. Being an over 6 foot white land owner in a local Kenyan high security jail has, by all accounts, been no picnic. However, court assessors pronounced yesterday that 'the accused is not guilty of murder.... because there was no sufficient proof that the rifle which inflicted the fatal injuries was that of the suspect'. The judge will make his final ruling on 30th April.
There was also some going over of old ground vis a vis the reasons for the raiding of the Standard Newspaper offices a few years ago. Former MP Paul Muite has, in a rather foolhardy move, taken on the President, accusing him of instigating the raid because he feared the newspaper was about to run a story about him having multiple wives - an accusation he hotly denies while the First Lady has been reduced to tears in public on the matter. Scurrilous stuff.
Now what was I going to say about cakes?
Oh yes, do make a chocolate one, not too big - put sweets on it (ie smarties) and you will avoid the humiliation of yours being last on the table to go... The sight of so many cakes grouped up together sitting in the sun can turn over the stomach of even the most enthusiastic potential buyer.
Note to self - bin or destroy Nairobi Star newspaper before children get home from school today!
Wednesday, March 04, 2009
It was a scorching day. We drove an hour and a half out of Nairobi to get to the venue. The playing fields looked like proper African savanna with scrubby yellow patches of grass and dust devils whirling up out of nowhere. We parents stood en masse in the midday sun with hats on and not enough suncream and heckled shamelessly from the sidelines. The children were overheating but enthusiastic - or rather, heroic in the circumstances. There were mothers running onto the pitch to help with untied shoe laces and offer bottles of water and dad's and mums giving uninterrupted streams of advice to their preciouses.
Ultimately our team lost.
'I don't think I am a very good goalie' said my daughter this morning at breakfast. 'Nonsense' I said -'and besides, this is just the beginning of your sporting career. You are going to be brilliant.'
'Will I have to play football?' she asked
'Probably not when you go to your big school, but you are very good at it so it would be a shame to give up.'
'OK' she said, 'but I don't want to be goalie again.'
Monday, March 02, 2009
ME: ‘how is the credit crunch going your end?’
HER: ‘OK I suppose, just bought a book on how to be more thrifty.’
ME: ‘Buying book not a good start. Maybe it’s time to dispense with those expensive floor and surface wipes and switch to good old Vim.’
HER: ‘will never give up my wipes!’
It got me thinking about how a move to Kenya/East Africa means being credit crunched on arrival. It is illegal to bounce a cheque and the banks give 0.00 overdraft facility, so you always have to remain in credit. Expat salaries are certainly not sky high these days and for years now big companies have been shaving off employees 'perks', making them responsible for all their own household costs overseas. Presumably this trend will continue in light of the global economic crisis.
For many locally, the loan shark is the only option to get into credit as (perhaps sadly) many employers are unwilling to pay out loans to be repaid by deducting from salaries. We ended up paying off a nasty loan shark for a new staff member who had managed to get into a tangled web of debt before arriving. It was all very 1950s.
Local mortgages (only recently available here) charge from 13-15% interest which makes you think hard before buying property. Any savings that you hold locally will earn you very little or no interest (which is more or less the same as the UK now, but certainly wasn’t the case beforehand). Plus there’s a monthly service charge for the privilege of holding a bank account – that one was hard for me to get used to. When I worked as local hire in the Embassy in Tanzania, a message was sent from above to ban salaries paid in the form of local ‘cash’ cheques as this method of queuing up and withdrawing the monthly wage was dangerous due to the risk of muggings. Management wanted to insist that everyone hold a personal bank account for money to be paid into. There was near mutiny as no local hire staff could afford to lose a percentage to the bank service charge – especially as they were only being paid £400 a month or less as it was. Most people live more or less hand to mouth so saving is near impossible.
In addition, I don’t want to sound derogatory, but frankly compared to any European capital there is little frivolous shopping to be done. Brand names are few and far between. In the main, electrical items and clothes are so much more expensive here than anywhere else in the world (because of vast import taxes) that you just don’t feel tempted to buy. Instead you see expats and wealthy locals hold off until the annual splurge back home/foreign trips. This leaves a rather frugal eleven months of the year remaining. In the past two months I have bought a pair of gym trousers for £10 (from Mr Price) and a few birthday presents.
If you do move to Kenya from the 'developed' world then there are a few things that you will find yourself able to spend big money on, some are necessities, others crazy luxuries. In other ways you will even see yourself making some savings:
Luxuries, if you so desire..:
- 1) Weekends away at terribly posh safari lodges or beach houses designed for rich Americans (ie $1,000 per head per night)
2) Furniture – made by white/long term expats, always prices in thousands and made of old railway sleepers, dhow wood and cedar.
3) There’s a very nice Italian shoes and bags shop that I sometimes dream about. Everything in there is around £100.
4) A swanky hairdo (if you are lucky).
5) Gold and silver Jewellery – ditto made by white long term expats who occasionally get things photographed in Tatler.
6) Club membership. Hugely expensive, unless you are v. Lucky that your company pays.
7) Glossy magazines. You won’t get one here for less than £10.
Necessities I'm afraid...:
- 1) Cars - they are comparatively very expensive due to import taxes. People prefer to by big 4x4s just because the roads are crazy here and you are more likely to survive in one than a Toyota Corolla.
- 2) School fees – ouch. Think UK Private school costs and you are paying from aged 2 onwards.
- 3) A mortgage (13% - 15% interest charged as explained above) – and houses in Nairobi are up to a level with UK property prices now.
- 4) Rent – shooting up all the time.
- 5) Security – you do need to pay for night security plus backup response units, whether it is via firm or by your own arrangement with employees, but it’s expensive.
- 6) Members of household staff. You might rather put this in the luxury category but they more people you employ the better as it means cash filters down to those who most need it.
- 7) Drinking Water (you can’t just drink it out of the tap). You will spend a fortune on this every year. Plus it’s not uncommon to get water delivered in a truck as the mains supply is often unreliable.
- 8) Local flights (no ‘Easy Jet’ in Africa so hopper flights for weekends away are hundreds of pounds a throw).
- 9) A work permit costs a couple of thousand pounds and you need one of those to be able to live here – it must be renewed every two years.
- 10) Imported food. All taxed so horribly expensive – unless you work for the UN and have a pass for their ‘duty free’ supermarket.
- 11) Electricity – this has just doubled in the past year.
- 12) Going to visit family – this usually involves a long haul flight.
- 13) Health insurance (no state healthcare)
Savings - sometimes surprising?:
- 1) Frivolous purchases can be kept to a minimum as temptation is not nearly so strong due to lack of media pressure or availability. There are no ‘seasonal fashions’ here.
2) No need for any form of heating, except maybe an occasional open fire.
3) Vegetables and fruit are reasonably priced and delicious.
- 4) Meat – a leg of lamb or a beef fillet is a fraction of the price of that in UK, but don’t ask me where it comes from.
- 5) Beauty treatments. Waxing, eyebrow shaping, pedicures all a snip compared to England!
- 6) Public transport - if you are brave enough.
- 7) Clothes and shoes - with a samey year round climate you just don't need very many clothes, especially if you are an not so glamorous expat housewife who tends to live life in jeans/shorts and flipflops.
I read a shocking statistic in the Telegraph Money section (dec 6th 2008 – Ian Cowie). Back in 1997 UK residents saved an average of 10.4% of their household income. In the second quarter of 2008 savings had collapsed to 0.4% of income and in fact at the beginning of 2008 the ratio actually went negative where the average household spent 1.1% more than it earned.
Now I can’t pretend that I am a great ‘saver’ but thank goodness we, as a family, have been severely limited in terms of getting our hands on any credit over the past ten years in Africa. It could have been seriously messy. Thank heaven for small mercies - Given half a chance I would be the worst of them all, I just know it; wanting the latest jacket and winter boots and buying myself a 'treat' every saturday.