Wednesday, December 23, 2009
For ten years we've been buying floppy firs from the side of the road that smell vaguely like Christmas, but are otherwise fairly unconvincing. Not sure what they are exactly, casuarinas? The problem is that the branches don't stand up well to weighty decorations. We used to buy them in Dar es Salaam, then again we arrived here in Kenya.
Eventually unable to stand the guilt of buying cut trees, one year we bought a 'planted' one. That survived for two Christmases, then died a sad and gradual death in a plastic pot outside. It went brown and there was nothing we could do to save it.
For the past two years we cut saplings that shouldn't be there from around the base of the huge monkey puzzle type tree in our garden. That was good and looked incredibly effective, though the trunk and spines are horribly spiky.
Last weekend we put up our Nakumatt special that we bought for 3,000/-. I was sad about the fact that the arterial branches didn't spread very far. It looks odd to me.
'It's a relief not to be messing around with pots, trays and watering,' my husband said. 'It's always sad to watch the thing gradually dying over Christmas isn't it. Plus it's a relief not to be so horribly spiked in the back when diving underneath to put the fairy lights on.'
'You're right' I said looking at the plastic fir, 'it's a relief.'
Though the words of my sister-in-law were ringing in my ears....
'You know you have to use a fake tree for twenty years in order to make it in the least bit eco-friendly'
Friday, December 18, 2009
Getting my husband to have a turn out has been tough, but I've just about had enough of his shirts hanging in my cupboard because his is so crammed with stuff he never wears or deems as too small. Everything that hangs there has a seam of dust where the hanger sits.
Other things are hard to throw out as you think, well it might do for fancy dress one day?!?! ... There's a lot of stuff that I've kept that I am still wearing ten years on. It's also a bit tragic to face up to all the mistake purchases I've made in the past.
Now that I've sorted through everything (not for the first time since living here, I might add, so the pickings are getting a bit thin), I'm slightly worried that there's nothing much left and rue the fact that for the past three years, on annual leave in England, I only seem to buy cheap plain t-shirts or gym trousers.
A friend of mine (who famously said whilst living in England 'there's never anything wrong with wearing sequins during the day!') - says she only ever invests in fabulous, expensive, one off clothes - therefore her wardrobe always 'works'.
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
Now, no more excuses not to fill the fridge - or fail to put up the christmas tree.
Must get back to that cut out and stick paper medieval village. It's driving my daughter and I NUTS!
The KPLC hotline told us that their technicians surveyed our transformer yesterday and deduced that the oil had been stolen (common problem), then after stuggling on for a while it blew. A time line on producing spare parts and getting it fixed is anyones guess; I was told, 'it may take some few days'.
It doesn't help that the gardener then piped up and said the same thing happened to the transformer near his home x3 weeks ago and it still hasn't been fixed.
We are very lucky to have a small generator, but it's not big enough to heat water. Yesterday we boiled water on the gas stove for the kids bath and I had the quickest (most agonising) cold shower ever. Next I expect we will run out of gas, then the local garage will tell us 'out of stock'. We're having lots of cups of tea with off milk.
We can't use the washing machine or iron as the generator is not big enough, but have figured out a way of pumping water to the roof using various extension leads, so at least we have cold water for flushing loos etc. On the up side, at least our mains power bills should be better this month!
We have lights and TV at night along with the endless generator drone, but have to switch it all off at bed time (my husband lay awake listening out for gunshots again...).
In other news, my email has been down for a week, quite a few tools etc have gone missing from my husband's garage since our night watchmen have been rotating and yesterday I found a bag of rubbish outside the kitchen door with human faeces inside, flying toilet style. This is a mystery to me as there are two toilets outside which are perfectly clean and kept stocked up with loo roll, soap, cleaning products, mops etc. by us. No need for plastic bags and newspaper. Everybody hotly denies leaving the bag there and got terribly upset with me and each other - accusations flying. The nightwatchman said he would 'investigate'. The atmosphere in the house today is strained. I wondered if it was some kind of juju/witchcraft gesture - but as far as I am aware have not fallen out with anyone. Nice though.
Monday, December 14, 2009
Anyway, When I got the security report the inevitable happened, I started worrying about driving home alone after the girls’ night out that I’d agreed to go on that day.
‘I’ll be home by nine’ I said to my friend, ‘what do you think? That’ll probably be OK won’t it? It’s not late’
‘Oh, but apparently the security reports say nine is the worst time to be on the road.’ she said....reassuringly.
What didn't help is that the Saturday before, there had been a shootout in Karen in broad daylight, bullets flying near the roundabout during a car chase. I was on the phone to a friend at the time and we heard the shots simultaneously. The conversation went a bit like this;
‘Ooo, Did you hear that?’
‘Yes, sounded like a car back firing’
‘Yes, except it’s like multiple backfires. Then it stops, then it starts again.’
Bang, bang, bang, bang,
‘There it goes again!!’
'It's like fireworks'
‘It must be gunshots, wonder where it’s coming from’ etc etc.
It was apparently an exchange of fire between thugs and police. A lot of the information we get later about incidents like these is mixed up like Chinese whispers.
‘One thug was shot.’
‘No, I heard two.’
‘Actually, it was three because another guy died later in hospital.’
After the shooting was finished that Saturday, crowds gathered. Our friendly taxi driver in Karen told my parents-in-law that he did a brisk trade that day ferrying people to the mortuary to view the bodies. The mind boggles.
In the end I figured that I’d be brave and go out on my own in spite of security fears. Our girls night was going to be a sushi making evening where I could learn to make my own sushi, sashimi, prawns tempura etc. Thus it might ultimately be a money saving exercise as sushi is my favourite treat.
On the way there at 5pm, I gave our house help a lift to the shops. I explained where I was off to, that it was an evening course put on by via a cookery school set up by a friend.
‘You English are so lucky,’ she said, ‘you can try so many different types of work. Us Kenyans are forced to stick to one thing.’
Florence sees ‘English’ as defined by expat housewives. I found myself using my lame catch-all excuse for everything (as I used embarrassingly when speaking to Dragon entrepreneur, James Caan)
‘Yes, I know,’ I said, ‘we are lucky, except we do have terrible trouble with work permits....’ I trailed off. I was going to say..... 'not all English have such a gilded existence as me' - but by then I had lost momentum.
The sushi evening was fantastic, though our German instructor, who is really a friend, was in a bit of a scary mood at first. I think she had had a long day. We trainees all brought bottles of wine with us, but then were too terrified to ask if we were allowed to open them. I was ten minutes late, and another friend half an hour late. Understandably, this didn’t go down well. At first we all stood about awkwardly watching as our instructor did all the cooking work. Later we all had a chance to get stuck in to the sushi making and were up to our elbows in rice, salmon and nori sheets.
‘That is a disaster!’ the instructor said looking at my Maki roll. ‘Far too much rice. It will never close now. You must start again!’ She certainly didn't hold back from telling it like it is.
When we did get to open the wine eventually, I made it my personal mission to make sure our instructor’s glass was topped up but she was almost to busy to sip it. Fortunately I got home safely, proudly carrying my plate of sushi and pot of pickled ginger. The traffic was so heavy that nine pm looked reassuring like six pm.
But then when we were out again on Thursday I heard the next morning there had been another shootout that night (at nine pm), two car jackings outside Karen Country Lodge, two men were beaten up in their car, one hospitalised.. in fact the list goes on and on. Am not sure exactly what happened or how much was true.
When we chatted yesterday, another friend said,
‘You know I left the party on Thursday on my own at midnight?’
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘You were following us weren’t you?’
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘but then a good song came on the radio, so I decided to drive around the block to listen to it before going home,’
‘You’re nuts!’ I said.
‘I know!’ she said.
‘Next time, listen to the song once you are safely parked in your drive’ I said.
‘I will,’ she said.
My husband heard gunshots on Saturday morning at five am and struggled to find out what that was about. He phoned a friend.
'Look' the friend said, 'I just can't get excited about all these gun shots. It could be the police emptying a cartridge at a bunch of shadows for all we know.'
My husband read in the Nation today (Monday) that a gang of thieves were disturbed by a curious on duty policeman whilst leaving an empty house with a stolen TV, a gas cooker, clothes etc. Tragically the policeman was shot dead, plus two of the gangsters died in the exchange of fire. Back up arrived and stolen goods were left abandoned as the surviving theives escaped.
Hearing gunshots makes living in Karen resemble the Wild West.
Added to this, I wish our power would stop going off, plunging us into total darkness all night (apparently our transformer has blown up and we are still out - could be a few more days). Fortunately we stayed home all weekend and have no more plans to go out for a while. If we do go anywhere, I’m relying on the fact that so many people on the road travelling to and from xmas parties at the moment means that the probability of us getting caught out is somehow less. One thing is certain. Life is never dull.
Friday, December 11, 2009
The first happy visitor was our ex-askari, Cosmas who we have been supporting financially for the past few years. He lives in Kibera. I’ve written a lot about the donor fatigue I/we felt, but we could never bring ourselves to give up because he was so determined to improve his lot in life and never gave up. In fact he’s a really amazing character.
We first got to know him six years ago when he worked with us as a watchman. He needed our help as he and his wife were continually unwell and working nights was obviously not helping matters. Eventually he confided to us that he was HIV positive – the root of most of his family’s problems. His wife is also HIV positive, but not his son. At the time, he explained to us the struggle of keeping this a secret (he was certain he would be rejected by family and those living around him if they knew) but trying to get anti-retroviral drugs regularly and stay healthy with a diet that included plenty of fresh vegetables was putting a huge strain on him.
It’s a long story but since leaving the world of being a watchman/guard working for a large security company, he has got himself loads of training; he’s a qualified HIV tester and counsellor/he can now drive/is computer savvy/accounts savvy/can surf the internet etc. The downside was that none of this training helped him get an income. A real low point was the Jan 07 election crisis when not only did he lose all his possessions and fear for his and his family's life, he was put back to square one with his project funding due to the country-wide disruption.
Un-deterred though and after what has been years of highly tenacious pursuit of funding and endless disappointments and delays, Cosmas has finally, finally been granted funding for a project in Kibera which he and his wife put together called ‘Hope Life’. The project’s aim is to educate 10-18 year old girls in Soweto East (Kibera) on HIV awareness. He now has secured funding for a six month pilot scheme, which if run properly will be rolled out for a further two years. He also has a paid job at AMREF starting in Jan.
He told me that he and his wife decided to stop asking us for money since October because they have lately been just about managing without our help. They’ve been regularly receiving Nakumatt vouchers for food from AMREF for various HIV testing work and had received help from the Hope Life project backers with his rent. He looked so well, so happy and so hopeful. He said his wife and son are also doing well. His son has recently completed his school exams.
The second visitor was Philip the cook who I found a full time job for a couple of years ago. He’s an older guy who might normally retire but still has kids of school age, so fees and family costs to bare. When I met him he was working for a friend, then odd jobbing 'freelance' as a cook, which was unsatisfactory and to be honest, quite stressful for me as for a short time I was acting as his pa. Although he was an excellent, hard working cook and used to fill my freezer with delicious soups and other dishes – an invaluable help when we had visitors - I was very pleased with myself when I found him a permanent job. Problem solved.
In the new place he got a very good salary and lodging with a nice family. I gathered from the employers that the job went quite well for him for significantly more than a year. Sadly though there were issues later and after a while Philip left quite suddenly/voluntarily to go back to his home.
Unexpectedly he arrived at our gate this week for a visit. He said he’s been home and unemployed for a year. When I asked why he left his good job, he looked shifty. He could have been in contact over the past year if he had wanted me to help with finding more work but now he looks ill, thin and he’s lost a load of teeth. It was a bit of a shock to see him. Apparently he’s staying with a brother in Kibera and says he is starting fresh on the quest from work. It almost makes you want to cry.
Thursday, December 10, 2009
There was a small hiccup when I got to school/kindergarten at nine. The school was closing for the Christmas break that day. First I asked how the Kenyan teacher's food collection had gone for the Special Needs day-care centre that she volunteers at in her spare time. She said lousy - 'in spite of written reminders going out to parents, I've had very little.'
She said, 'I've now had to split up your hamper so that it can go around further, help more parents.'
'We've only collected 12,000 and it's going to cost him 100,000 to transport his wife's body upcountry to be buried.'
Double damn. I felt annoyed as I had put in 2,000 of the 12,000 myself.
'Make sure you mention it at the end of the carol service I said. Make the parents feel guilty. Perhaps they have simply forgotten?'
The Apathy! I thought - though I know I have been guilty of this many times myself. Fund raising is always a struggle whichever way you look at it.
At midday, the headmistress did mention the appeal again at the end of a very sweet carol concert. With the help of two other mums who stood at the narrow exit saying loudly 'donations please' to all the parents as they left, the school managed to raise 55,000 in total.
I also saw another parent carry into the school a big bag of food for the day-care centre. Perhaps it wasn't so bad.
By afternoon I was still feeling fairly smug. My day was continuing to go comparatively well until.... crash. Our neighbour's in-house tree cutter felled a giant eucalyptus through our hedge into our drive and worst.... straight through our power lines.
'It was the wind' he said sheepishly when I bellowed for him to come and see the damage.
'GRRRRR' I said, thinking, quite lucky no one was standing or driving underneath when it came down!
The neighbour's tree cutter quickly sliced the tree into pieces and with the help of many hands it was no longer blocking our access in and out of our house.
I winced and shouted 'hatari ya stima!' as I saw the fundi (who wore misleadingly professional looking ear defenders and hard hat) wield his chainsaw dangerously close to the live power cables. My husband said over the phone from the office,
'take photos in case of liability.'
As I write, I do so to the hum of the generator which I ought to switch off - it's been on since dawn, after a very dark night. We've had no mains power since yesterday afternoon and have had no success in trying to contact the owners of the next door property - who we were certainly hoping to have received an apology from by now.
Now we are at the mercy of KPLC (Kenya Power and Lighting). Fingers crossed that they come today with new cables as promised - but whether they do or not is anyones guess.
Tuesday, December 08, 2009
It’s a moody, atmospheric book set in Nigeria about a girl called Kambili, coming of age. The story also puts under the microscope the family’s brand of austere Catholicism and the difference between the philanthropic, God fearing public image of her father as compared to the terrifyingly misguided personal side. Though wealthy, Kambili lives in terror at home, trying to attain top marks at school to appease her anger driven father. She has a brother who is her only source of comfort. She finds it impossible to describe her home life to outsiders, connect with school peers or even her mother.
The catalyst for the story comes in the form of the colourful Aunty Ifeoma, who arrives then gives the fourteen year old Kambili a first opportunity to branch away from her oppressive home. Kambili goes to stay with her aunt and becomes part of a new family with all its ups and downs and struggles to make ends meet. In addition, this visit finally gives Kambili the chance to get to know her grandfather who represents the traditional Nigerian belief system and for this reason is abhorred by his own son.
As time passes, Kambili begins to come out of herself with the help of the strong minded widow aunt who is a university lecturer, boisterous cousins and the very special Father Amadi.
I’m now looking forward to reading Half a Yellow Sun.
Monday, December 07, 2009
The most exciting thing happened! My husband and I were, (in passing) invited to the British High Commission drinks reception for the ‘dragons’ of the well known TV show, Dragon’s Den. I am a big fan and lap-up the shows when I’m in England in the summer. Sadly Dragon’s Den is not currently televised here but I’m endlessly fascinated by entrepreneurs’ who have ‘made it’ and what makes them tick (probably in the hopes of picking up life changing tips). My next favourite TV program is ‘Secret Millionaire’, so you can see a pattern forming here.
First I panicked that the British High Commissioner’s wife had been so casual in issuing the verbal invitation that she might rescind it, or simply forget. In the end I managed to drop into conversation to the BH Com himself that we were very excited about the party, to which he replied, ‘Oh, you’re coming are you?’
Apparently the BHC himself had invited lots of charity people and worthies. His wife was concerned that the dragons might be unimpressed by a lack of fans or groupies, hence her invitation to me was preceded by ‘have you watched Dragon’s Den’. She then waited for a suitably enthusiastic response before going on.
Next I lost the plot completely. On Saturday I got my hair done, bought a new top and then set about googling the Dragons on, http://www.bbc.co.uk/dragonsden/about/tv.shtml, in order to do some comprehensive small talk revision. I had learned that Peter Jones would not be coming but Deborah Meaden, Duncan Bannatyne, Theo Paphitis and James Caan would be. There are all out here filming with Comic Relief, visiting Nairobi slums, looking at Sports and HIV charities. My mum texted me, ‘remember you and Deborah went to the same school!’ it said. My mother-in-law skyped to update me on the latest projects they’ve invested in. I was in.
While battling through hideous Nairobi traffic early on Friday evening, made-up to the nines, doubt set in. I wondered how many hundreds of people would be there at the drinks and if we’d even catch sight of the dragons, let alone talk to them. To while away the time I briefed the other four people in the car on how the dragon’s had all made their money, so that they too could chat to them in an informed way if the opportunity arose. My thinking was forewarned is forearmed.
One friend just thought I was a bit sad, as did my husband. The Zimbabwean entrepreneur couple did prick up their ears when I mentioned ‘leather business’- (James Caan’s parent’s family business), as the Zim wife has a company making beaded leather sandals, shoes belts etc and ‘chain of health spas’ (Duncan Bannatyne), as the Zim husband has a successful company refining essential oils – so I felt I’d been useful – if a bit too keen.
When we arrived, late, we found that the dragons were already there, but they’d only just signed their names above ours in the visitors book. How exciting. As usual with TV people, they all looked quite small – Shame Peter Jones wasn’t there as I understand he’s around 7ft. There were lots of drinks guests milling about, but not too, too many.
First I went to talk to a French friend and took time scoping the dragons from a distance. When I saw Deborah at a loss (someone was getting her a drink) and I dove in. She was very nice, smiley and chatty. I said I was from the West Country in England and we did get to the fact that we were at the same school in a sort of natural, roundabout way. Not a needy, ‘I went to the same school as you!!!’ - so that went well. The only problem was that my French friend kept dominating the conversation and I was left chipping in when possible. After around five minutes Deborah made some very civil excuse and moved off.
By this stage I was aware that time was running on. I had to extricate myself from the French friend’s endless chat. I looked over and saw that my husband was in a semi-circle of people talking to James Caan. I went and hovered on the outside edge, was introduced finally, but then immediately excluded again. Plan B.
I looked around and saw to my horror that two of my best friends had the two remaining dragons up against the wall in deep chat. DAMN! I thought. I should have been with them! One was chatting to Duncan, the other Theo. They had it absolutely covered. Again, I went to hover in that area, but there was no letting me in, no matter how hard I tried. I decided to stay put in the vicinity and chat to someone I knew who stood nearbye. He immediately rumbled my plan. He raised his eyebrows, ‘Oh hello....again?’
I watched as my ex-best friends were throwing their heads back and howling with laughter, a dragon a-piece. Double damn. What happened to the sisterhood? Just as I tried to throw daggers over Theo and Duncan’s shoulders, the BHC called our attention so that he could make some speeches. These went on a bit. Embarrassingly I found myself standing in front of all the Dragons and the comic relief guy as the speeches went on, so tried to shuffle off to one side rather than brazen it out with one hundred pairs of eyes staring in my direction.
As the speeches finished there was a sort of stampede to my side of the room as fellow guests realised that it was their last chance to get a sound-bite with the dragons. I guessed that a lot of them were peddling various charities.
Once alone, I hissed at my friends, ‘how did you manage to talk to Theo and Duncan, alone! Goddmanit’
‘Oh’, said one casually, ‘I’ve actually bagged all four, plus the comic relief guy – who incidentally was a bit of a jerk!’
My eyes popped out, she went on,
‘The thing is, you have to be forty and fabulous’ she said, ‘and then just go for it!’
I was feeling increasingly desperate. I could see the Comic Relief guy grabbing the Dragon’s arms and saying something about dinner bookings. I did manage to speak to James Caan again at the bar though.
‘What do you do?’ he asked me.
‘Um....I’m a blogger...’ I said, then launched into something about how hard it was to get work permits here. OMG – I can’t believe I whined and made excuses to a can-do millionaire about the difficulty of an expat working in Kenya. It was so lame!
I could have said, ‘I am freelance writing and I’m actually half way through writing a book’ – but no.... just ‘I’m a blogger and a mother’ popped out. I think I have self confidence issues. I lay awake that night fuming at myself about that one!
I really wanted to talk to Theo too, as he’s my absolute favourite, but it just didn’t happen. He had a semi-circle of people talking to him at the end and there was just no way a gap was going to open up. My second friend (who runs her own business) said after chatting to him alone for ages, that he was charming. That didn’t help.
The Zim friends said Duncan was ‘glazed over’ and disinterested by the time they got to him. I nearly killed them for forgetting to mention to him that they are in the essential oils business.
‘Oh yes, damn I forgot,’ said the Zim husband, ‘so he’s the spa guy?’
‘Yes!’ I almost screamed.
The Zim wife/friend made me laugh so much. She and her husband are incredible examples of people who lost their farm, everything in Zim and have successfully worked their way back up in Kenya, to a point where they own two businesses and their own house etc. They are fab.
‘I told James Caan,’ she said in the car later, ‘that there’s actually no difference between him and me, we’re both the same.’
I nearly choked! ‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘the only difference is that he has five cars including a Maybach, an Aston Martin, multiple homes and a gazillion pounds in the bank.’
‘I know,’ she said, ‘he was very nice but when I spoke to him he hadn’t even heard about land reform in Zimbabwe or even Amin’s expulsion of Asians in Uganda in the 70s. But at least he was interested. He asked lots of questions and listened. Not like that other one.’
The Dragons’ are still here in Kenya until Tuesday. I have resisted the temptation to stalk them at their hotel (though I did find out where they are staying). They looked a little shaken by their experiences of filming in the slums and we'd talked about the problem of HIV and Aids here.
My parting thoughts are that it must be exhausting being a celeb – particularly a millionaire investor one, where no doubt everybody has an idea to pitch wherever they go. In retrospect I feel a bit silly about getting so awfully excited and keen to impress. It was fun though.
Friday, December 04, 2009
Last monday morning I arrived at the kindergarten to find one of the trusty caretakers looking extremely distressed. He had just heard that his wife had been killed in a road traffic accident involving a matatu. They have 4 kids. A mum at the same school lost her husband in a plane crash last month and a very nice fitness instructor at the local club lost his two year old daughter suddenly to pneumonia in November too. It makes your heart bleed. AND IT'S CHRISTMAS!
On another subject, I'm surprised to hear Caroline Mutoko on Kiss FM desperately urging people to spend, spend, spend on the radio every morning. I usually admire her so much, but this just seems pretty sick.
'Worry about January later! Even though you might not be able to afford it - go and spoil yourselves! You deserve it! You've been good this year!'
I know she has to honour her advertising commitments but really, it's not very 'credit crunch' is it? I have to switch channels when I hear her doing the nauseating hard sell.
'A seven piece leather sofa suite' 'a seven piece cotton duvet and bed set'. The last thing people need is more tat.
Talking of which, I plan to sort out all the redundant clothes that lurk in my cupboard and give them away this christmas. PLAN - is the operative word.... I have already given away a heap of kids t-shirts and trainers to the Turning Point Trust, but it's always easier turning out things that don't actually belong to you isn't it! My girls have not even noticed yet! I am slightly dreading the, 'Mum, where has my pink t-shirt gone?' or 'Mum, where have those really comfy trainers disappeared to?' when they finally are home on holiday.
I am ashamed to say that in my cupboard, gathering dust, are many clothes from the 1990s that have not been worn for more than ten years. There's nothing wrong with them. I just never wear them. In Kenya we are very lucky to find that recycling is easy. There's never a problem to find a new home for your no longer wanted things. We don't have to stomach the trauma of sticking good as new/mistake purchases into the huge recycling bins outside Tescos and wince when we think of them getting shredded.
Perhaps Caroline Mutoko should be advocating the turning-out and giving-away of stuff at Christmas instead of encouraging this senseless spending. Let the advertisers do their own ads and jingles instead of making the well-loved presenters wax lyrical on and on about their various products. In my view, it would be much more in the spirit of xmas 2009.