Friday, November 30, 2007

Bear baiting

Am I alone in finding Vladimir Putin a very scary man? I’ve been following his political reforms (increasingly centralised power) repeated ratcheting-up of military posturing and indeed threatening behaviour very much aimed at the “West”: huge financial investments, re-starting long-suspended surveillance flights, upping long-range missiles and so on. Now I read in today’s on-line Guardian (would someone please remind me how to put in links?) that the forthcoming elections are being rigged through massive intimidation and bribery of voters, in particular state employees, but also students and the general public. Ballot stuffing is predicted, international observers number a puny 400, the evening news is showing 16 minute slots of his party’s electoral rallies. I am not surprised by any of this, but I do find it worrying. Obviously it is naïve to believe that Russia can entirely break free of Soviet-style authoritarianism in a matter of a few years, but it looks very much to me like they are regressing, with Putin ever more powerful and untouchable.

It’s difficult to know what an appropriate response should be. Antagonising Putin risks all-out hostility and withdrawal of cooperation on many important issues, and there is of course the real politik considerations of having them on side in the war on terror. (I don’t want to get into that one here, suffice to say I am not sold on the war on terror.) On the other hand, it’s a huge and powerful country, massively armed and potentially dangerous. Shouldn’t there be some murmurings from the international community?


Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Home alone

I suppose it’s not all that surprising but after such a long break I seem to have got out of the habit of blogging regularly, and then I end up with too much to say and too little time to write it in, and also the worry that you’ll get bored and tune out before your each the…er, hello?

So before I launch into what I’ve been up to, I’ll just share a couple of pieces of news with you. My sister, no longer very struggling author Marie, has just sold her book ‘Gods Behaving Badly’ (as if you didn’t know) to Ben Stiller’s production company to be turned into a TV series. It will still have to get past the pilot stage, but nevertheless, exciting stuff! And my dear friend Lizzie, whose great blog Switzerlady has generated a cult following, has been reborn as Ganda Lady (she’s moved to Uganda) and I wish I could remember how to do links so I could send you all whizzing over to her new place. Anyway, you can always google it.

Meanwhile we’ve been having a fairly hectic time of it since I returned from SA. Paulo is involved in something called the Initiativa das Terras Comunitarias (Community Land Initiative), set up to help local communities register their land rights in order to be able to utilise them to better and more lucrative effect. At this stage, he’s implementing a series of meetings and film showings with community leaders, government bodies and the communities themselves. Not, as you may have guessed, in Pemba, and indeed not even close to Pemba. The furthest away he is working is on the border with Tanzania, quite literally as he’s been bathing in the waters of the great Rovuma river which is the border. That’s about 500km from here. So to cut a long story short, of the 17 working days since I’ve been back, he’s been away for 9, and this week he’ll be away all week. As for me, I’ve also been away on Ibo and Quirimba islands – it was my turn last week – for 4 days. So, we’ve had 4 working days and 3 week-ends together. This is quite emotionally stressful after a 6 week separation, then add in the fact that both being at home, i.e. working full time and caring for two under-4s, one of whom still needs special attention, and travelling for work are tiring and stressful in their own way (Paulo recently drove 1000km in 4 days) and you’ve got two rather worn-down adults looking forward to a week off at Christmas with no travelling and minimal stress. Enough whingeing. We’ll survive.

The week before last, when Paulo was only away for three days, I was able to make a flying visit to Meluco. The idea was to inspect the guesthouse that we’ve been putting some money into rehabilitating and consult with the owner on next steps. She wasn’t there, in fact she was in Pemba, but the house was looking much better, definitely meeting minimum standards for minimum-standard tourists. What saved the day (it’s a bit frustrating to drive 7 hours in order not to meet the person you wanted to meet) was the fact that Meluco was celebrating 35 years as a town. So, in typical fashion, everyone was drunk or on their way, and there was a lot of drumming and traditional dancing. The variety of drums is always astonishing: huge great bass drums made out of oil barrels cut in half with a tightly-stretched goat skin laid over the end, tiny little drums that have a wooden spike to fix them to the ground and which are vigorously beaten with thin sticks, round drums and hexagonal ones, deep, high, fast and slow. I’ve seen most of the dances before, but it’s always enjoyable and this time there was one where all the young men were dressed as women (“Why?” “Because they have to dress as women for this dance.”) and another where they were also playing little wooden flutes. But by far the highlight as far as I was concerned was a little group off to one side who appeared at first glance to be playing a tape of traditional music. Far from it! They were in fact playing home-made instruments through two clapped out old tape players that were serving as amplifiers, and a megaphone as a speaker. Three guitarists, including bass and lead, playing guitars made of shaped planks of wood with a few strings attached, accompanied a singer/rapper whose mic was made of an old torch with something rigged up inside, and kept time with the drummer, whose drum kit comprised of a bass drum (as above, but with pedal), two traditional drums, and two cymbals hammered out of sheet metal of some kind. It was FANTASTIC. I have lost the cable that downloads photos from my camera, but I’ll make a plan and post a photo here as soon as I can. Got to see it to believe it.

On to Ibo and Quirimba, last week, where I did lots of good work and spoke to lots of interesting people and also spent an hour reading in the shade of two huge, ancient mango trees. I believe I have mentioned my love of mangoes before, but I feel I should add that mango trees also give the best shade of any tree, and as such I was in a good place to enjoy my novel (a bizarre book called Wild Sheep Chase). My love of mangoes, however, pales into insignificance next to the enthusiasm of the local children. It’s an annual feast: free, bountiful, wonderfully sweet and juicy fruit literally falling from the heavens. A dozen or so dirty kids were hanging out under the trees where I was sitting. The rustle of leaves and thud of a dropping fruit triggered a scrambling flurry of bony elbows and knees culminating in a dusty dive into the sand to grab the prize. Then a triumphant grin and a sticky face. As the children are spread out under the tree and as the mangoes fall randomly, there is a pretty even distribution of fruit, although the bigger kids often get the better of the smaller in a one-on-one. Usually there is no squabble over the winner, although I did see one foul: a nasty tackle from the rear which drew a sharp reprimand from a watching adult. The fallen child lay in the dirt and wept rather over-dramatically, but she kept the mango. I also got lucky: a mango fell near me and the kids were too scared to come and claim it. It was delicious.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

M is for Mango

Looks like we’re in for a hot “summer”. Well, it’s always hot at this time of year, but this year it’s kicking in hard. On the other hand, and this is no scant consolation, it’s mango season again. I have already posted here about mangoes and how they fill me with joy (and my teeth with hairs), but really, is there anything more wonderful than that succulent orange flesh, tangy and sweet and juicy? And, as we’re going to spend Christmas here for the first time in 3 years, and the office will be closed for a week, I may have time to make mango jam this year. Mango jam is breathtakingly fantastic, and extremely easy to make, although I will need some help in keeping the boys away from the huge vat of bubbling sugar and fruit. In fact, I’m planning a very homely Christmas this year, and I need your help. I want biscuit/cookie recipes to which to apply my new star-shaped cookie cutters. I anticipate much fun with J and S (although perhaps I shall enjoy it the most) and then tins full of yummy golden biscuits. If someone sends me a good recipe that is. Please?

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Friday, November 09, 2007

My book club

As I said, probably the best thing about being in hospital was having time to read, something in short supply at home. I read 8 novels (8! O bliss), of varying quality. Of these, I strongly recommend:

The Road, by Cormack McCarthy

Utterly bleak and totally without hope but as always beautifully written and absolutely compelling. Stayed up late to read it in one sitting.

Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier

You’ve probably seen the film, unlike me, but the book is great: beautiful, understated, pretty bleak but full of hope and redemption.

Sacred Games, by Vikram Chandra

A massive, rollicking, hugely entertaining romp through present-day Mumbai: gangsters, cops, actresses, prostitutes, gurus, it’s got it all, and it’s very well written to boot. Not one for those who don’t like 3 inch spines and small print.

Suite Française, by Irene Nemirovsky

An exceptional classic, dealing with a period of French history I had never really engaged with, that draws you into each private drama, and brings home the tragedy of the author’s own untimely death. I desperately wanted to know how it was all going to turn out.

Have only read a quarter of a Guardian Weekly since I got back.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Milpark Hospital, Johannesburg... where I’ve been living for the past 6 weeks. Joaquim had a horrible accident: on the 21st of September he fell into our rubbish pit where for two days previously we had been burning lots of garden waste: branches, leaves etc. As a result the pit was full of hot coals and he ended up with 3rd degree burns on both feet. It was horrific, I don’t want to describe it. We flew to Jo’burg where an ambulance was waiting for us and we checked in at Milpark. At which point a lot of very competent and caring people took over and Joaquim began to recover. We avoided skin grafts, just. The plastic surgeon was great, keeping me informed about progress at every dressing change (first 48 hours then 72) and then at the end allowing me to stay in theatre so I could have a look. By then the worst had long passed, and I could see the skin healing at 3 day intervals.

Joaquim was amazing. Once the pain had gone (about 2 weeks) he was cheerful, uncomplaining, patient, playful and positive. He went off to theatre for dressing changes with a smile, put the mask over his nose and mouth and took deep breaths – pausing to tell me it was yucky – and passing out with minimal fuss. He didn’t try to walk until the doctor said he could, and then was brave enough to put his feet down and have a go. Once he could leave his bed we went to the zoo (4 times), the park, shopping malls and so on. And we made some new friends: Chris, Dez and Mekyla, a lovely South African family who took us in with open arms and took us out for week-end “jols”: picnics, candle dipping, monkey park. Joaquim loved it and Mekyla in particular, who, although 12 years old, was incredibly sweet and lovely to him. Meeting them and the 10 day stretch that super-maman (that’s my mother for those of you who don’t read Marie’s blog) spent with us to give me moral support, were the highlights of our stay. And the only other good point was that I read more in six weeks than in the last six months. Apart from that I spent a lot of time playing with plastic dinosaurs, cars, plasticine and mega-blocs, colouring in and reading children’s books.

We were both very happy to be back in Pemba last Saturday, and were met by a very excited Sebastian and a beaming Paulo. Home at last. Joaquim is very nearly better. His feet are still bandaged to protect the new skin, which is thin and fragile. I change his dressings every three days. In about 10 days we’ll progress to socks and slippers, and a few weeks after that, if he’s comfortable, soft shoes. For six months we have to be very careful with the sun, and the surgeon says that although they will look healed, they won’t actually be fully healed for 12-18 months. It’s a long and slow process. Nonetheless, he’s already walking with support and playing with his friends at nursery (he was determined to go back on Monday and his teacher says he’s doing fine) and at home. I reckon when the bandages come off he’ll regain full mobility very quickly. On the whole, we’ve been very lucky, he should have no or minimal scarring and hopefully no long-term trauma. Although he’s a little sensitive (cries easily, easily startled), he’s generally happy and cheerful so I think he will soon be fine, if very wary of matches, candles, stoves, hot drinks, etc. (maybe not such a bad thing). So the long-term perspective is very good.

And now we both want to move on and get back to normal, so I will not be saying much more on the subject here.

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