Tales & images from life as me…

Archive for January, 2012

TIA Tales – snakes


I am home from my travels and busy downloading (metaphorically and literally) all the amazing experiences and character interactions and details that a trip like the one I just took (from Mwanza right across Tanzania all the way to Zanzibar Island with my brother and our friend Nick – aka Coops) leaves you with.

I think there may be several blog updates on a range of subjects that were raised. We talked and talked and learned and learned and remembered how magic it is to feel free to wander this amazing earth. But returning to the style of the TIA Tales column I have selected just one area for discussion this week, and this time it’s snakes.

Snakes came up A LOT during our trip – the boys were just a little paranoid (I have to dob on J for checking under the taxi on arrival at the airport in case one was lurking!) – but they are also a part of life here in East Africa. A small part, I hasten to add. We don’t see them every day, or live in fear, but we do live alongside them. I thought you’d enjoy a few stories from my repetoir. Below are a whole series of quick fire tales – the further you read the more dramatic they get!

My first time

I was in Kenya the first time I actually came face-to-face (as it were) with a snake in the wild. It turned out to be a puff adder, but I didn’t know that when I stepped jauntily onto my front step and was yelled at by an askari (guard) to ‘get back’. He beat the poor thing to death with a pole and once it was safely dead I was allowed to examine it. I was sorry it was dead, but in a school environment I could understand that this very large and poisonous snake, perhaps wasn’t a good idea. Now, I’ve always quite liked snakes, but this type of snake has slightly raised scales so it feels disgusting. As I held it up by the end of its tale for a photo (with my arm held aloft it still reached the floor) the whole thing squirmed as if it was still alive – I don’t mind admitting I let out a yelp! – it turned out it had just eaten a rat which was still in its stomach…alive!

Snake on Fire

I was on duty one night in one of the boarding houses when one of the girls ran out of her room screaming snake. The mama/matron I was working with shot straight into the room and smashed a paraffin lamp all over the sleeping snake (which was only a harmless brown house snake, hiding under the bed) and promptly set it alight – she nearly burned the whole place down! I suggested a pillow case as a safer option for next time!

In my garden – the tree dive

Our poor gardener, Musa (who we love a great deal), had been warned by Damien that he should wear boots in the garden as his bare feet just aren’t safe. You won’t believe the irony in this one… Just one day later Musa is working in his Wellington boots under the mango tree when a snake falls from the tree. It lands absolutely perfectly, face down in Musa’s boot and in its panic sinks its teeth into his ankle. Of course, had he been bare foot it would most likely have simply slithered away. Poor Musa whipped the snake out by the tale and slung it across the garden with no idea what type it was. On closer examination he found the teeth of the animal in his skin. He applied a tournequet (how on earth to you spell that?!) and, bless him, sat down to wait for us to get back as he didn’t want to leave our gate unguarded. Thanks goodness it wasn’t a mamba, only a harmless tree snake in the end – he has now been told in no uncertain terms that if anything like this happens again he goes straight to the hospital!

In our store

On another occasion Musa came and knocked on our door. I was off work, sick and he proudly presented a small tray with what looked like worms on. When I asked what they were he explained that he knew I liked animals and wanted to show me these baby cobras that he found in our store! A blinkin’ nest of them! I asked him in Swahili ‘are they dead?’. ‘A me lala’ he replied (they are sleeping!) and then proceeded to do the funniest impression of them when they wake up ever – he was wiggling his head and spitting and trying to make himself mini. I laughed at the time. I now realise those little babies have as much strength in their venom as their parents and far less control over it!

Masai boy rescue

With my brother and Coops we visited the Arusha snake park recently – a fantastic spot to visit if you’re ever in the area. Our guide told us about a young boy they had managed to save from a Black Mamba bite. The boy had been bitten low on the leg (which is a good start) and the Masai boy’s father had immediately tied his leg so tightly that the blood could not circulate to his heart and got him onto a pikipiki (a motorbike taxi) to get to the Snake Park where he knew there is a treatment centre. The boy was already passing out – they call this snake the seven steps snake as this is usually all you have before you lose consciousness and then, within minutes, die.

Once he arrived he had to be given 14 vials of anti-venom – most snake bites require just one. It took days to get him out of the coma and even longer for him to recover, but he did recover. Now he has a permanent scar – not from the bite, but from where his foot was not lifted off the ground when he was on the back of the bike and it dragged behind the whole way to the centre. He was so out of it he hadn’t been aware of the deep tarmac burns.

And finally… my friend the anti-venom maker

This is one of my favourite snake stories, again involving the Black Mambaa, and it came from a man I interviewed many years ago who runs a snake park and crocodile farm in Malindi, Mombasa. He had previously been a Mamba expert who wandered the forests and collected the snakes in order to milk them of their venom and then release them again. The venom is then used to make anti-venom. He had become quite blasé about his job and begun to relax about the fact that he was dealing with one of the deadliest snakes in the world. One afternoon he caught another Mamba, he had already milked a couple that day but this time he did not bother with his thick gloves. Midway through the milking process the snake twisted and caught his hand with its tooth. He knew he was in trouble. Luckily he was by his camp and the anti-venom he always carried so he staggered to the medical box. He said he could feel the restricted breathing and pumping blood in seconds. He reached into the medical bag for a syringe whilst explaining to the camp boy he had been bitten, that he needed a fire built, boiling water and that he might pass out. After several panicked attempts he finally got the needle in…

Several hours later he woke up. It was pitch dark and no fire was lit. When he could get up he wandered towards the lights of a small village and eventually stumbled across his camp boy. ”Where were you?” he asked. “You were supposed to build a fire but I can see you didn’t even try.”

“Oh, sorry Sir,” the boy replied shrugging and wide-eyed. “You said it was a Mamba, I thought you were dead.”!

Have a great week guys. Please do share any snake tales you know of – I love hearing your stories and I know the other readers do too.


TIA Tales – Dudus


A dudu is a bug or insect in Swahili. Having just been on safari, the presence of all sorts of bizarre insects that I live alongside everyday was firmly brought to my attention. As much as I don’t want to put anyone off coming to this incredible continent, there are simply too many good stories about said creatures to avoid the subject! Since there are so very many insects around, this week’s column will focus on flies, bet you never thought you’d find flies as a subject matter entertaining – you’ll be surprised.

With our recent trip in mind, I think I have to start with tsetse flies. For those of you not from round here these are similar to a regular fly but have fatter bodies and an evil little probe which they use to sink into unsuspecting flesh. They also have a revolting way of sitting on the window and gyrating their bodies against it, often with their little fly tongues out, as though they are simulating sex – hence my calling them the tsexy tsetses! Their bite hurts like hell and can last quite some time, plus they potentially carry tsetse fever or sleeping sickness so they are really not friends.

Enter me, Damien, his brother (Oli), my brother (J), and a mate of ours from school (Nick), all in Damien’s car introducing J and Nick to the Serengeti. Bear in mind my brother had taken seven years to visit me in Africa because of his distaste for bugs and diseases just like those I describe above! Almost as soon as we enter the Western corridor the flies are on us. I have never seen so many. Seriously. The car was absolutely covered and every time the windows were cautiously lowered to allow the telescopic camera lenses to peak out at game along the way several sneaky characters would find their way in. Armed only with flip-flops (incidentally these are highly efffective weapons) the boys flapped about crushing the enigmatic little bloodsuckers, resulting in comedic frogs-in-a-box scenes. At the peak of the action Oli exclaimed ‘oh my God they’re doing it on the wing mirror and watching themselves! They’re actually reproducing in front of us. That’s just disrespectful!’

The tsetse fly is not the only fly we worry about here though. My latest encounter with a Nairobi fly has left me scarred for life, literally! The little bugs look like a cross between an ant and a fly and have two red (or orange sometimes) stripes on their backs. They don’t bite or suck your blood, it’s their blood you have to worry about. It’s actually acid. No problem if you don’t squash them but very nasty if you do, and especially nasty if, like me, you cross your legs whilst one is on your thigh!

That’s right, acid all over the inside of my thighs and no idea it had happened until the burning started. It was seriously agony, and kind of embarrassing as I was forced to walk cowboy style until the blisters went down. If you pop the blisters they contain more acid and they spread the burns further so I couldn’t risk it! Two months on, I now have two red stripes left as a reminder. You can imagine how much my brother loved that story. He spent the first few days of his trip checking everywhere for them! Luckily we rarely see them in Tanzania.

Now let me introduce you to the Mango fly. This stealthy little blighter loves warm damp clothes. It snuggles in to clothing that’s been left out to dry and lays its eggs. But that’s not the bad part. A few days later the eggs hatch and burrow under the wearer’s skin, forming a lump which grows, gets sore and later fully formed flies emerge- beautiful! The only real safeguard is to iron your clothes. If you think you hate ironing in the UK try doing in the boiling temperatures of Africa where you even have to iron your pants.

Since we’re on flies anyway, I must also mention the sausage fly – the most pointless fly ever to be created (and let’s face it a lot of them seem pretty pointless!). The life of the sausage fly involves developing it’s wings only to find that later that day they fall off and it’s nasty little sausage body is left squirming on the floor! I have not bothered to research the meaning of their life, I’m far to busy working out mine, but I really don’t get it!

I had to laugh when J, poised with flip flop in hand ready to crush a new victim, paused long enough to realize it was just a house fly. He lowered the flip flop to introduce himself and offer the fly a seat, leaning back in satisfaction saying ‘oh, how I missed the common fly!’

And then there’s the magic fire fly, who frankly saves the species from being all bad. These fairy-like creatures emit their little hopeful green lights amongst the grasses of africa and always make me smile.

I am sure loads of you have experienced funny insect tales – please feel free to share them on here, we’d love to hear! Until next week…


The write time – Jan ’12


In this category of my blog I am going to write regular (like bi-monthly, not too regular!) updates on my writing ‘career’ (inverted commas still required for now as it is all very new!). Many of you have been incredibly supportive of my move into writing full-time so I’d like to share the triumphs and tribulations along the way.

It’s been a mad few months since I started this enormous learning curve and I know there is still so much to do and discover. I’ll admit now that I had visions of wafting about in floaty skirts just ‘being a writer’ and getting my creative juices flowing, but it really isn’t like that and is genuinely hard work, or should be if you’re doing it right – I definitely plan to start dong it right from now on.

So far I’ve had good days and bad, not to mention every brilliant excuse under the sun not to write. I broke my foot (in five places in a nasty altercation with some stairs in the dark), took a long family holiday over Christmas and now I’m busy showing my brother around Tanzania. I’ve also put on a craft fair, been on the Mwanza Grand Charity Ball committee and been rehearsing and singing with a band – where’s the time to write? Well, I’ve learned that I have to make the time. In fact, I plan to treat it more as an office job from here on, and use my hours more effectively.

It’s amazing how much there is to do: I currently write for three monthly magazines in Tanzania regularly, plus I’m excited to have new commissions from Destination magazine in Kenya (I’m really keen to impress as it’s a great magazine) and a brand new magazine for Mwanza, so we’ll see how they go; i’m working on two novels (more on those in a later installment); I have four short stories and two poems in circulation with various competitions and a few more that need writing; plus there’s all this ‘platform’ stuff I’ve been trying to learn about (hence this blog and the Facebook page. I’m avoiding Twitter and all the others just now as they all seem far too complicated!); oh and then there’s research, networking with other writers, query letters and of course the completely daunting agent approaches (which I’m yet to attempt). This new job requires serious organization and time management!

I’m also discovering the issues of self-doubt; the excruciating critical eye and that awful negative inner voice that drives you to metaphorically tear up your work (not quite so effective in the modern age – just hitting delete isn’t nearly as dramatic!). It drives us (get a load of me putting myself in with other writers – us!) to need readers and comments and encouragement and then usually to regret showing work too early – awful. I am in a constant oscillation between absolute conviction that the latest idea is brilliant and will be the next big thing and then total disgust at my naivety and lack of skill! It’s exhausting, though -thanks to the writing community and my research – I understand this is pretty common.

Anyway, the good news is I’ve had a few bits of positive professional feedback recently. First, I am currently shortlisted in the Bats Blood poetry competition (which would mean my poem is printed on the front of all their wine bottles if I was selected as the winner – so please click the link above and ‘like’ it to help my entry get noticed!). And second, I received feedback from an editor who was judging a competition I had entered. I didn’t win but he rated my short story at 41 out of 45 and said he would like to see more of my work, so I’m pretty happy with that.

To complete my update on my writer’s life so far, I’d like to thank my brilliant readers – that’s you guys reading this, and also the girls checking chapters of In Lucy’s Case and the various ex-students and friends looking at the first section of The Survival Scriptures. Your feedback is invaluable and helps to keep me going, please keep commenting.

So, now it’s time to really polish the pieces for the new magazines, perfect the short stories I have and work on some more, continue with the novels and get onto this week’s installment of the TIA Tales. Hmm, it’s Damien’s birthday next week and I have a party to plan… Oh no, the distractions are everywhere!

Thanks for all the support so far. Please keep reading. Mel x


images of Mwanza


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TIA Tales – Africa Time


Time, here in Africa, is a very difficult concept. You may often hear people ask ‘do you mean Africa time or Western time?’ ie ‘are we being precise and expected to be on time’, since that is not generally the case.

Of course it doesn’t help that here in East Africa, as well as the loose and relaxed ‘Africa time’ and the more definite ‘Western time’, there is also Swahili time. Whilst far less vague than Africa time (South Africans use phrases like ‘I’ll see you now’ or ‘just now’ or ‘now now’ to combat Africa time and indicate more precisely the level of vagueness. Everyone in SA seems to psychically know what each means but can’t actually explain it to an outsider so it doesn’t help the rest of us at all!)… Anyway, where was I? Yes, whilst Swahili time is less vague than Africa time it still turns things upside down.

Let me explain. Swahili time is based on a much simpler system than our own time really. Because we are near the equator and the daylight hours barely change, it is possible to name 7am as the first hour of the day. 8am is then the 2nd hour, 9am the 3rd etc. Thus when someone says, in Swahili, saa nne (the fourth hour) they are meaning 10am or 10pm. Oh and the day is also split into loose sort of chunks – for example mchana is the mid section but could be anything from around 11am to 2pm. Confused? Try arranging to catch a bus!

“What time does the bus arrive?”

“Six o’clock.”

“Is that English or Swahili time?”

“Yes.”

“umm, ok,” I switch to Swahili and am told the same thing – ‘saa sita’, the 6th hour.

“ah so you mean 12 o’clock?”

Blank face.

“Is it mchana?”

“Yes.”

“Ok good, ummm, just to be sure can you show me on my watch!”

In fact, although the concept is quite simple once you get your head around it, it causes all kinds of surprising problems. Take, for example, Saanane Island. Its name translates to the 8th hour island but so many guide books (including TANAPA, the organization responsible for the island as a wildlife reserve, and several guide books and websites) call it 8 o’clock island when they refer to it in English. Surely it should be 2 o’clock island?!

The vagaries of time extend to everything here. Perhaps my favourite illustration of this is the amazing old train from Nairobi to Mombasa, where platform announcements go something like this: “The train will depart any time from now.”
Then an hour later: “The train will depart any time from now!”

The real irony i have discovered, though, is in schools. Many children in these countries will walk literally miles to get to school in rural areas in these countries. However, this is, perhaps quite rightly, no excuse for tardiness. Arriving on time for school is a fixed requirement and should they be late the discipline master, with a big stick, will be waiting for them when they do finally turn up. It’s a little different for the staff though.

I once visited a school with classrooms full of pupils but no teachers. On further investigation we found the teachers in the staff room, we asked why they were not teaching. ‘The Headmaster did not come to school’ they said.
“Ok but that doesn’t mean you can’t teach classes.”
“Ah but he has not made the timetable so we don’t know what to do.”
After recovering from our astounded states we pushed further.
“How long has this been going on for?”
“He has not been here all term!”
I’m guessing the Headmaster didn’t get the stick though.

As a little aside, please note: this is not a reflection of all the schools, in fact there are some absolutely amazing schools and education centers here, but teachers are badly paid and poorly treated and some do become lazy as a result. This was a pretty extreme example!

I’ll post more stories next week, and I’ll try to stick to English time so you know you can check in over the weekend and find a little African tale to amuse you. If I’m ever too busy perhaps I can just say ‘a TIA Tale from Melissa Kay will be posted any time from now!’


This is Africa -TIA Tales – Introduction


Living in Africa definitely forces you to have a laid back attitude, and a sense of humour. As an ex-pat there are things that strike us, which someone from here who has never been anywhere else may not even notice; they leap out against our Western methods, manners, or mentality. We have a saying (those of you who’ve seen Blood Diamond may recognize it, but it existed way before the film), it is simply ‘TIA’ (This is Africa) and is usually accompanied by a shrug. It is used to explain that anything can happen; that we expect it all to be upsidedown; we must just get on with it. That’s why this category section of my blog is called TIA Tales.

Those of us living here have a tendency to group together and share these experiences. Some can be incredibly funny or disgusting, some horribly irreverent (for those readers not from here please don’t be upset by these, it’s a sort of survival skill you develop here) and others heart-breakingly sad. Many stories involve death, which is odd as it is perhaps what scares us all the most, but by sharing the stories it is as though people are almost reveling in their own survival whilst enjoying the threat this continent poses – it makes us live a little more somehow.

Anyway, whenever visitors arrive we always find ourselves telling these incredible tales of insects, wild animals, diseases, corruption, car accidents and awful social services. We love the shock on their faces. I must add that whilst it all may sound a little extreme, and is not at all exaggerated, we also live so well and so happily here. There is sunshine and beauty everywhere, a little money affords a great deal, we are free to explore and travel and things are generally quite simple. I love Africa, I have loved all the countries I have visited and in no way do I want these stories ever to be seen as a negative take on the continent that has become my home… But they are just too good not to share!