Tales & images from life as me…

Archive for May, 2012

Wag Hill Weekend

I am very lucky to have a few amazing African experiences coming up over the next couple of months, but this weekend set the ball rolling right on my own doorstep.

My apologies to those who usually read my blog over a Monday morning coffee in the office – I am late this week because I was away at a little eco-lodge just across the lake from us known as Wag Hill (so named due to the initials of the owner and the little Wag Tail bird which frequents the area).

It is hard to believe this magical little spot is so very close to the city: it rests on a peninsula all its own, giving it that island vibe of glorious isolation. Anyway, I thought I’d share my Wag Hill weekend – mostly in pictures – this week, just to show you why I love this spot so much.

It had been a busy week for both of us so we did have to drag ourselves into Damien’s little boat with all the food (we took the self-catering option) and clothes, torches (very limited electricity there) and swimming paraphernalia (great pool!) – but once we were gliding across the perfectly flat lake drinking a Kilimanjaro beer, we were already in holiday mode.

Although they’re quite a climb, the rooms at Wag Hill are magnificent – each one is perched jauntily on a high point of jungle-land with a view across the lake, each one affords a different combination of angles. The privacy is absolute and you can shower looking out at the sunset, before climbing back down for drinks by the pool.

We sat chatting, eating and catching up, the low murmur of our discussion combining sleepily with the sounds of crickets and the lapping of the lake water. Only out of the corner of my eye did I spot that we had charmed a wild Genet cat from its lair. Stranegly it was when we paused, the absence of our voices broke the spell and it skittered back into the rocks. This little cat is a regular visitor to the barbeque beside the Wag Hill bar so we knew it could be tempted down again with a few leftover treats from dinner. Our baiting worked out well and I finally captured a few shots of our little friend.

Meanwhile in the distance the distinct call of hyena drifted through the darkness. Hyena in the city?! ‘Oh yes,’ confirmed Mbula ‘near the university’. We really were in the wild.

Finally heading for bed we were presented with a spectacular light show. The tiny fishing vessels which float in the lake throughout the night are each lit by a lantern and it causes a sea of little star-like dots across the water, it looks as though there might be another city out there, but it is only temporary and by the morning they have all dispersed.

The following morning I woke to the sound of chirping birds and the haunting cry of a Fish Eagle and opened my eyes just long enough to see the joyful pinks and oranges of a stunning sunrise, with the little lights from the fishing boats still lit along the water, almost ready to end the night’s work and head home. I am ashamed to say I then conked out again instead of reaching for my camera!

But I did get the camera out immediately after breakfast when we headed out on a fishing expedition (although when there are no fish it perhaps ought to be referred to as just –ing!). So there we were –ing under the warmth of the sun and simply watching. There were otters playing in the water, monitor lizards catching the rays, Fish Eagles watching the waters and kingfishers diving and tantalizing us with glimpses of their beautiful colours. The bird life around the lake really is incredible – I’d never much cared for birds until I came here, but if you don’t find these little personalities intriguing you’d be missing out for sure.

We swam, we read, we cooked (and ate too much), we chased monkeys (to stop them eating too much!) we drank (too much) and absolutely loved this tranquil little escape. How can anyone complain there is nothing to do around here?!

That night we were joined by friends and sat around a fire chatting over wine and snacks, enjoying the sounds of the water and the insects, birds and the occasional plop or glug of something in the water. You really do feel you are surrounded by nature. Perfect.

If you’re reading from here and want to make the most of a weekend, feel free to email Robyn on waghill-admin@mwanza.org to find out about their special summer self-catering deals.


TIA Tales- Pets & Vets

As I prepared for the craft fair this weekend I spent a lot of time in town and when you wander the town you are guaranteed to cross paths with both street people and street dogs. These require two entirely different stories, i am certainly not comparing the two, but it suddenly occurred to me that our little furry friends easily warrant a TIA Tale column for their mad existence out here.

For a start most local dogs are what we call ‘shenzi’ (Swahili for a bit of everything, mismatched, also used to describe a rubbish car or dodgy fundi- another great Swahili word!), there isn’t really any breeding here and few Tanzanians keep them, in fact many are really afraid of them.

Anyone who lives here will have heard the street dogs howling at night. It’s the eeriest sound, like baying wolves. It starts with one or two and then it spreads in a wave of sound until the howls go up in unison across the whole area.

The pet dogs are largely imports and most frequently imported as guard dogs – so Rottweilers and Alsatians are popular options. Our two blondes aren’t quite in that league; we have a lab and a small fluffy thing, both of which are more likely to lick you than bite you. Anyway, the pet options are increasingly popular and this week several of my friends – in one of those odd moments of synchronicity – have decided to set about bringing in a dog.

The problem, though, with doing things against the tide out here is that you make your life pretty difficult – and it means pet owners frequently have crazy tales to tell.

There’s the problem of feeding them – local shenzi dogs will pick through rubbish dumps, or if they’re fed in the house they get treated to rice and dagaa (tiny little fish that smell absolutely revolting!). If you want to get dog or cat food like Whiskers or anything fancy then you may well need to visit the big cities (Dar or Nairobi) and stock up, or pay through the nose!

But that’s nothing compared to the dangers they face out here. In the uk my cats would bring in mice and the odd bird, here the birds could take them and they’re more likely to catch a rabid bat, poisonous snake or aggressive lizard!

Plus there are ticks. These things are seriously gross. They latch onto your pet and then suck, slowly. Over a few days they get so bloated that they go from little English wood louse shape to a perfect swollen round, and then they fall off, fully satiated. If you try to pull them off before they are ready they often take their revenge by popping all over you! They can also offer tick bite fever. Imagine my friend’s delight when she looked in the mirror one morning to discover she had one on her face! She said at first she thought developed a huge mole overnight!

And when they have these encounters there’s no such thing as the veterinary clinic to pop to! We do have a vet, we have a couple actually, but it’s all mobile, and they work with what they’ve got – and that often means using you as an assistant!

A friend of ours from a nearby gold mine needed his dog to have an operation not so long ago and we volunteered to host it and the vet at our house as getting the vet to the mine site was a bit too much of a distance. I came home from work that day to find our kitchen table in the car park with the dog – split neck to tail – bleeding all over it. Rather than apologizing the vet simply waved me over and asked me to hold onto a particularly bloody flap of skin whilst he removed some apparently no-so-vital part of the poor animal’s insides! This is by no means an uncommon story around Mwanza. We replaced the table!

You can’t even imagine how many neutered dogs seem to still go on heat, or even have puppies in some cases!

It’s all pretty basic. Medicines for animals are frequently human meds and any luxury bits, like those comedy cones to stop dogs biting stitches, need to be provided by the owner!

I have to end this blog entry with a reference to The Hero Dog. This was a little shenzi dog who had a nasty accident, I assume with a vehicle because one leg was partly removed and what was left was horrifically mangled. We’d see her, hopping in three legs, and try to avert our eyes. It was disturbing. Poor thing. Many of us talked about getting a vet to put the poor thing down, but she was a wily street dog and we could never find her when we wanted to. She disappeared for a while and we all assumed she’d died, and then suddenly there she was, still hopping, but bravely going on, finding food and somehow, against all odds, surviving. I admit I don’t know where she is now but I’ll never forget The Hero Dog.

Vet or pet stories to share anyone? Please feel free to add your comments! Thanks for reading.

The write time – facing forwards

Turns out I’m a butterfly writer and am working a dystopian fiction novel – who knew?! It seems there is a term for everything in this industry, and why not? We are supposedly wordsmiths so I guess it makes sense.

Butterfly writers leap from project to project, and style to style, always having to filter ideas because there are just too many of them! I never realized it was a ‘condition’ but now I’ve been diagnosed I’m developing coping mechanisms! One of these is to set monthly targets.

This month I am going to:

  • Maintain positive relationships with editors from Destination, Travel News, Salt n Pepper and What’s Happening.
  • Approach a minimum of 5 new UK-based magazines (I’m going for the big guns now!) with viable pitches for features
  • Write another chunk of the book
  • Blog every week
  • Enter more writing competitions

Since I last wrote an update I have been on a serious rollercoaster of success and disaster, confidence and absolute despair at my total hopelessness as a writer. I never expected this journey to grill me the way it has, but the more I integrate myself into the world of writers the more I seem to hear this as a common story. Thank goodness that writers, by nature, share, is all I can say! – otherwise I might well think I was losing the plot (sorry, writer joke!) entirely.

So, in support of my mission to keep facing forwards, I won’t bore you with the low times. I’m sticking with the positive theme of last week’s ‘Good Stuff’ for this blog so let me start with the really great news: Over the past few weeks I’ve been part of an online writers’ community for people attempting to write novels. As part of the site there is an ongoing assessment of your work – in a nutshell writers can ‘publish’ the first 7,000 words of their novel and then you review other people’s work, giving them marks and feedback. For every review you do you get a point, for every point you get a review from another writer. The marks are collated and the books are ranked. There are hundreds of writers on the site, all competing to get into the top ten – once you get there you get a review by a really big publishing house (and of course you just might get noticed). Anyway, skipping to the important bit… I posted chapters from my second book ‘Creating 2054’ (which it seems is not actually sci-fi with a twist but actually slots neatly into a genre all of its own – dystopian fiction). At the time of writing I’M RANKED NUMBER 11!’ Sorry for SHOUTING I’m just so excited! Keeping fingers crossed for a few more good reviews and a leap into the top ten for later this month of course!

I’ve had my fair share of tough reviews and struggled to pick up ad continue but the lesson for this month is definitely that criticism makes you better. The negative words would follow me about for days, seared into the back of my eyeballs, but they forced to me to sort out the weaknesses and to find solutions and actually inspired a few major changes to the original format of the book (which I’m only half way through but it’s definitely getting there now!). And some of the positive ones have really touched me and served to keep me going.

At the end of this month I will finally get to here about the Bats Blood poetry competition, which a lot of you have supported me in (thank you!) so I’ll keep you posted on that. I’m also awaiting news from a couple of short story writing comps.

In the past few weeks I’ve written pieces about the Street Children’s World Cup; a writer called David Read who grew up with the Maasai and has had an amazing life (he’s 90 now and not quite as together as he was so it was quite a mission but great fun); a piece on the Mara Triangle; on Stonetown in Zanzibar; on the Western Corridor of the Serengeti; and on how to handle criticism! It’s all good and random – I’m keeping in Mwanza style! I think I can safely say I’ve escaped the old routine of school!

More TIA Tales next week.

In the mean time, a huge thank you to everyone who is supporting by reading this blog, by checking in to Melissa Kay on Facebook, following on Twitter, reading my articles or just generally listening to me! Here’s to the top ten and poems on wine bottles. Thanks guys.


TIA Tales – The Good Stuff

It’s been almost four months since this blog began and you guys have helped me reach over 7,000 hits across 32 different countries – incredible! Thank you. But if you’ve been reading the TIA Tales all this time you may well have reached a point where you’re wondering why the heck I bother living here! So today I decided I’d make a change and tell you all about the good stuff, the way I see it there’s plenty to tell.

I wanted to communicate just a little of the joy that I get from all of the elements that make up life in Africa and which are easy to forget when you’re struggling against the many set backs you tend to face here. And as I began to scrawl a list I realized how difficult this week’s blog would be to write because I want so much for you to see it all too – plus where should I start?!

Well, I’m going to start where I started, before I ever even came to Africa. My mum grew up in Rhodesia and used to talk about the smell of the rains as they were about to hit and I knew even then that there was something magical about this continent. Now I am here I have witnessed just what she means. That intense pressure in the air and the zinging, singing scent that is both earthy and metallic, and absolutely new, is intoxicating. It’s especially great when it’s been powerfully hot that day and it feels as though the weather needs to break. When the skies open and you feel that torrential power it’s awe inspiring, it’s like the earth is exhaling. You see, it never really drissles here. Africa is a place of extremes and the weather is no different. It’s either dry and sunny or WET!

The other absolutely magical weather related phenomenon are the electrical storms we get here in Tanzania. I’ve never seen anything like them. They are violent, explosive and so loud that the thunder shakes the house, but the real beauty is in the lightening. Slices of light fork from the sky and momentarily illuminate everything in a mad blue strobe effect, now imagine that reflected in the water of the lake and you have a scene that is beyond any photographers abilities.

Listen to me! I’m English, of course I would start with the weather, but I am not suppose to like the rain. I think I only like it because it is not the norm here. Plus even when it does rain it’s warm.

OK, so rain and storms. I doubt I’ve succeeded in persuading you to move here yet (if you’re one of my readers who doesn’t already live here). What else…

Life here is a mixture, but if you take the highlights for a moment I think I could sell it to just about anyone. I live with a view of Lake Victoria, we take the boat out and zoom between islands, pulling in on little bays and picnicking under palm trees. Out on the water a little while ago we spot otters and as we watched a fish eagle swooped to steal a fish that one was eating. The power and accuracy of those birds is spectacular. We have crocs, the occasional hippo and plenty of huge monitor lizards. The wildlife is endless and I haven’t even started on the Serengeti yet. But we also have rocks.

Rocks? Oh yes! Mwanza is famous for its bizarre rock formations and they really do inspire a second look. I’m no geologist, but these are special. In fact, I often pause when I’m driving or snap a photo from the boat to appreciate these ancient natural sculptures which are an insane combination of solid strength and precarious balance.

Our little community shares cultures, countries, religions and colour and muddles into a social scene. We share sundowners at the yacht club, we party at Tilapia hotel, we bring elements of our old lives into this new one with braais and St Patrick’s Day and west end theatre, sports, music and art. It’s another thing we balance, but when we wobble there is always someone to hold on to, because we’re all in the same boat and that creates a unity that is just as solid as those rocks. And let’s face it, friends count for a lot, wherever you are.

I can’t write about the good stuff without mentioning Swahili, that beautiful language which I am struggling to master but am so chuffed when I manage to make myself understood (and so grateful to the experts who don’t correct, but catch my intended meaning and smile encouragement!). With words like ‘tikitikimaji’ (watermelon) and pilipilihoho (chili pepper) what’s not to love?

I can find a ‘fundi’ for everything here, that’s definitely part of the good stuff for me. I come up with some random idea and there is always someone to help me make it happen. Just in the last week I’ve worked with a fundi who carves wood, one who makes my photo frames, another who stitches the clothes I draw, a metal fundi who is making the top section of the children’s mobiles I want to create and a shoe fundi who is making beaded sandals for me! How much fun?! It’s all part of my craft fair preparations but it means I get to work with local, skilled people and give them new ideas and a new outlet and I absolutely love it.

And there’s the fact that here I can set up a craft fair, sing with a band, take kids camping in the bush, write a book, be a journalist, sell my photographs and be all the random parts of myself and no one even blinks (except when they try to explain my job to someone else!). You can be whatever you want in Africa, as long as it’s authentically you.

I’ve mentioned living by the lake, but I also have to mention living by the Serengeti. Just an hour and half down the road and we are at the gate to the world’s greatest game park, second only perhaps to its neighbor, the Ngorogoro Crater. These vast wild spaces are a privilege to explore and those spine tingling moments when you come across a big cat or a herd of elephant, a hunt or even a kill, are … I have paused in my typing here as I cannot find a word, I’m not sure there is one for the thrill and the way time stands still and nothing else is present but what you are seeing, for the power you are witnessing, the fact we shouldn’t really be there to witness it all, the knowledge that in all that space you just happened to find that particular moment. I will never tire of safari.

I could write all day describing my favourite things. Here a just a few of the things I love that I’ve found here:

The first warm-butter light of the morning, melting over everything

The feeling you get when a lion locks its yellow eyes on yours and you feel ‘seen’

Fat little babies bottoms hammocked in a kanga on mama’s back

The swaying hips of a hawker carrying her wares on her head

Brightly coloured kangas on a washing line

Dry grasses swaying in a ripple of breeze

Lemons from my garden

Children climbing mango trees

Finding a chameleon in the road

A tortoise wandering into the hairdressers

Seeing people who have nothing laugh

Kindness is the most unexpected places

Glowing smiles

A trusting hand placed in yours so that you know you can do nothing else but try and help

Watching the baby kite in the nest opposite my office window grow strong and learn to fly

Learning to laugh when it all goes wrong

Those of you who know these things, please feel free to add more to the list. I’d love to hear a few of your ‘whiskers on kittens’ favourite things. There might be plenty wrong, but there is also a great deal that is absolutely right and I will never stop being grateful that I live here.

Over to you…