The Africa in me!
So, moving through my insane adventures from the past few months and staying, to some extent with the ex-pat theme I wrote about last week, I thought it might be interesting to consider how the African part of my identity has begun to change things in my life – particularly during my visit to the UK and in the run up to our wedding!
Having returned from Selous, I spent some time in Kenya, got plenty of work done in Mwanza and then, in early July, I left for the UK to see family and friends and do all the shopping I had been dying to do for the wedding. Seriously, I’d been downloading bridal magazines and wishing I could trawl round Accessorise and the like for months by this time – it’s like there’s some freaky chemical change in our brains and no matter how much you swear you won’t be like this… you bloody well are!
Anyway I arrived in the UK with lists, and lists of lists – yet still with this bizarrely ironic awareness that it’s just one day and the planet would survive if I didn’t get everything sorted in the time I had available. This is a decidedly odd Jekyll and Hyde schizophrenia that I am still struggling with. When we agreed this wedding would be small, tiny actually by most people’s standards, I thought (smugly) that I’d cunningly avoided all that craziness – well Hyde is having a good laugh at Jekyll right now!
So the first of the marriage-journey right-of-passage to be observed was the hen do. My sister and amazing friend of 34 years had done an incredible job to keep everything a surprise and put together a weekend of activities with a group of friends from literally all over the world. In all over twenty girls appeared at various moments over the weekend to join the fun and most of them had never met each other – yet in true traveller spirit and in a joyous surge of sisterhood everyone got on famously.
I won’t share all the details – what goes on tour and all that! – but must explain the relevance of one particular moment. There we were… on a barge…as you do! Yes, and I was wearing a captain’s hat and sailor outfit! We’d been given some basic instructions (1. You have to reach point x in order to find a spot wide enough to turn around 2. You can’t steer in reverse 3. Use the rudder to steer forwards, left = right and right = left) and then sent off ALONE to enjoy the river! After some impressive zigzagging and the occasional bounce off someone else’s boat we were just starting to get the hang of it when… right across the canal there was a huge fallen tree! Now the English, organizer part of me would have freaked: we can’t turn around, we can’t steer backwards and we have a day hire boat with a schedule of activities to keep up with, but the African me knew something would get sorted and suggested we crack open the bubbly. Everybody knows bubbles make things better! And sure enough we were quickly spotted as a day hire (and a boat full of females in sailor outfits!) and before we knew it a dozen men had grabbed ropes and were walking along the side of the canal, pulling us all the way back to a turning point – while we raised a glass to them! Don’t worry we paid them in cake! Anyway, the point is, there is always a solution and sometimes the problem and its solution turn out to be more fun than the original plan anyway. (I recall a dinner party my parents held when I was very young; the chimney caught fire and everyone ended up having drinks and nibbles around the fire truck – brilliant!)
So that’s a change that’s settled in to my subconscious. In Africa things go wrong, you expect it and you adapt. The great thing is there is always a solution.
The other thing that becomes ingrained is the value of money. I’m not pretending that every time I spend a tenner on a meal I think about the family of Africans I could have fed – sadly you just have to get used to that sort of inequality. But, when it comes to big stuff like you ted to face whilst spending on a wedding – particularly if you spend it all at once in a concentrated period of just three weeks – oh you feel the guilt! Things I may not have compromised on ten years ago – the three thousand pound dress I loved so much for starters – suddenly became a simple and easy ‘no’. I love the dress I found and I can wear it guilt free!
Another thing you build, as an ex-pat, is a circle of friends who are your stand-in family. You have to or we’d never survive the daily madness. They understand and share it all with you. As I mentioned in my previous post, that can mean family and friends back home can become one step removed… Not mine. Our family and friends bent over backwards to be there for meet ups, to shop with me, give me lifts, help with decisions and just generally listen. That was a good reminder that: partly nothing has changed and yet everything has because now I appreciate it and know the value of that time and energy given freely by people who care. Move somewhere where you have to start from scratch (which I’ve now done several times) and then say you don’t miss it!
Actually, it wasn’t just people who knew me who helped. I had a right laugh explaining to people in the UK what we were doing trying to sort a wedding in Africa just three weeks. Which bits do you explain: I live in Tanzania but am getting married in Kenya, it’s not until October but I only have three weeks to get everything I need in the UK and it all has to fit in my suitcase. In the end I said ‘I live in Kenya and I’m getting married in three weeks!’… and people helped. Complete strangers went out of their way: The manager in Coast Oxford Street who phoned around warehouses to get the bridesmaids dress sizes I needed and then paid on my behalf; loads of bridal shop assistants who spent hours helping me in and out of dresses; the patient underwear sales girl in Debenhams who later rescued my wedding shoes when I left them at the till; the charity shop woman who let me plug in my dead phone; the seamstress who stayed after hours because I was sobbing over a botched job from somewhere else; the watch seller who sent what I needed all the way from London after I made a decision too late – honestly the list was endless! And that’s another Africa thing I’ve found – when you need it, people help. Or maybe that’s a world thing and it’s not such a terrible place after all!
Right so my next Africa thing had to be getting home. To start with I’m so used to a total lack of health and safety or any sort of standards that I calmly packed fireworks and matches into my suitcases and then was surpised when they all got confiscated! – oops! And then there was the delay – a full 24hrs with every possible nightmare in between (including lost suitcases). In this particular scenario I was not even remotely calm and African about the whole thing – I was tired and blubbering and pathetic! But Damien was – calm and kind and wise on the end of the phone, he made it all work smoothly in the end.
I have to say it was only when I arrived back that Hyde kicked in again and I had one brilliantly giggling moment with Damien where we realised the whole thing is completely ridiculous. I’d spent the day gluing pearls on hurricane lamps and wrapping soaps in hessian so that I could be sure this would be the best day of our lives!! Really?! Just that phrase should be warning enough – I mean how disappointing are days that hotly anticipated and built up? – Birthdays, valentine’s, Christmas, New Years, first date… never quite live up to expectations. Best thing, do it the African way and enjoy today, let tomorrow take care of itself and don’t set your expectations too high!
Set against the inspirational stories of the Olympics and ParaOlympics (or ‘powerlympics’ as a very cute kid of a friend of mine has been saying!), or against the heart-melting stories of my friend who runs a streetchildren’s home who I was chatting to yesterday, well it’s all pretty silly! … but I still can’t wait!