Tales & images from life as me…

Archive for February, 2013

The write time – Writer’s Block


I always thought writer’s block was a total myth. One of those arty excuses for floating about and being aimless whilst you wait for inspiration. A writer must have made that one up! I mean come on – I never have no ideas, plus I usually have something I have to be writing – an article for someone, or my blog, or a bit for the home study course I’m working through – so it’s not possible to have nothing to write. And if you’re writing something, then you’re not blocked, are you!

Well, it turns out that all that is true, but writer’s block is a far more subtle mess than the classic image of the writer at the keyboard of an old-fashioned type-writer ripping useless pages from the roller and crumpling them into balls which are scattered around a waste paper basket, or simply staring at a blank page. When writer’s block tiptoed into my life and stubbornly sat itself down, it wasn’t that I couldn’t write, it was that I couldn’t write the book. On the surface I was getting on with all the work that was coming in, but when it came to the one fiction (and thus creative) project I’m doing I couldn’t form a thought, let alone a sentence.

‘You’re not a writer, you’re a wannabe’ said the voices of doubt in my head, disguising themselves as realists and settling back to enjoy a good bitch.
‘Chances are a million to one – you’ll never get it published, what’s the point?’
‘People might hate it, then you’ll feel silly. Can you really face all those rejection letters or critiques?’
‘You haven’t got the motivation or the focus to manage to actually get through an entire book – maybe two thirds is enough. You gave it a go.’
‘You’ve set yourself a mountain here – what were you thinking, inventing an entire world in the future, with a wide range of characters, new technology, different problems? – You’ll never make it all coherent, never make it believable. Give up now before you embarrass yourself.’

They go on… and on.

Up until mid-way though last year I had them gagged and bound at the back of my head, but all it takes is one set free and that one releases all the others and they don’t give up.

For those of you who now think I’m a weird schitzophrenic with multiple personalities, well… I’ll admit I was starting to worry about myself! But, when you finally run out of excuses for why you can’t possibly write today, you realise that what you actually do want to do… is write! So I had to get myself back on the path to doing just that.

I have begun several activities that have helped me to do that (summarized below in case any one else is feeling stuck, skip this bit otherwise!).
1. Talking! – for those of you who know me you’ll laugh at that being top of my list. But it’s true that talking to family and friends who care just makes you feel better, but more than that I have been able to start to understand this whole experience and, even better, when I finally got to really tell one particular friend the story I was writing and speak about the ending it suddenly became sharp in my mind and writing it seemed far less daunting. (Huge thanks to Sue who gave so freely of her time and helped me do this – asking lots of good questions and prompting lots of great stuff).
2. I’m doing a daily home study course that forces you to understand what stops you and what gets you started again so that you manage your time and energy more positively. (It’s called The Artists’ Way in case you’re interested).
3. Living! It sound silly, but by paying attention to the moment you are in, by planning a mix of activities to enjoy and by taking joy in as much as you can, the light can be put back into the world. Tromping through the daily routine, head down and teeth gritted is not living!
4. Setting goals and deadlines.
5. Reading books and articles by writers, editors and publishers.

Anyway, the upshot is I am writing again and really trying to push through to get a finished first draft by the end of next month.

There I’ve said it.

Now that I’ve said it ‘in public’ it has become a real deadline. Please help me to meet it by adding your expectations of my completion of the manuscript to this blog! If I feel your pressure then I know it will help me do what I said I was going to do!

It is both exciting and terrifying to think of having a completed manuscript. I think I’ve been putting it off because that is the point where you have to really dive in. It’s time to show it to someone, to put yourself out there. Little me amongst all those experienced professionals – how ridiculous! But (if I can maintain this new frame of mind – and I have no idea if I can, it’s my first time through this whole process!) I have decided I’m going to try.

I had to laugh when I began, last week, to read a book written by an experienced fiction editor. She opened with a chapter on first time authors and the fact that they: A/ often get stuck around two thirds of the way through their novel…I’ve done that on both my books – the first time I gave up completely! B/ they always want reassurance from agents and editors and frequently write to ask if these exceptionally busy people will review their work and tell them if they are wasting their time or actually have something worth completing… I had just sent a very high level publishing friend of a friend an email basically to that effect. How embarrassing! I am clearly typical in every way – how pathetically needy of me! As the writer of this book very clearly states, ‘if you are a writer you will need to write’. Even if this man told me to give up now, don’t quit your day job (oops too late), never write another word… I couldn’t! I’d miss it too much. I’d be back to random acts of scribbling in my spare moments. I suddenly realised that this poor, very busy man (who I’ve been badgering for a response once a month for three months!) does not need to tell me to get on with it (or not!) – it’s down to me to finish it and polish it until it’s something I can be proud of.

My course has a whole chapter on the fact that is not arrogant to want to put yourself out there, in fact it is the ultimate level of humility. I know exactly what it means now, but I think perhaps I have been struggling with not wanting to seem too big for my boots – after all, who am I to write a book? I’ve been searching for validation or a great big ‘GO’ sign. But then there is that fantastic and very famous quote:

‘Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.’ Marianne Williamson

So, my mission is to try to shine. I might run out of power sometimes, but hopefully not as often as Tanesco (our TZ power company!), and this time when I do at least I’ll know some strategies for re-charging and I’ll know I’m not alone. Perhaps I really am an ‘artist’ after all – I’ve just survived my first Writer’s Block! (Or should that be writers’ block? – oh I don’t even know the lingo properly – maybe I shouldn’t… just kidding. Whatever. The lingo can wait until after I’m a published writer!)

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TIA Tales – The magic of the mobile phone


I had to laugh as I sat in the back of a taxi last week listening to the lyrics of a pop song that went like this: ‘I’ll give you my love, my life, my phone.’ Huh?! Apparently this songstress (whom I presumed to be African, but this tune may well be out in Europe too – ?) rates her phone up alongside life and love. Well, it seems she’s not alone.

It is hard not to notice the spread of the mobile phone in Africa. It’s reach is astonishing. In a country where some estimate that 80% of the population is without electricity or running water in their homes, and less than 20% have a bank account – almost 50% of the country owns a mobile phone! (I often wonder where all these phones get charged if there are 30% of the people with a phone but no electricity, but I suppose there are ways around that. Our staff come and charge theirs at our house, for example).

The huge leaps in mobile phone technology have not been missed over here either. In fact it’s created a very odd phenomenon – a sort of technology generation gap.

Before the development of the mobile phone there was really only face-to-face communication. Land lines, though there were some, were invariably very difficult to lay and maintain long distance (not least because the distances required are enormous and the terrains they must cross are not easy). And in towns where distances are shorter the copper wires are worth money and so are frequently stolen. So no land lines.

Plus, most people will never have used a computer, or a laptop, or an iPad. Over the five years I’ve been in Mwanza a few internet cafés have popped up and some schools have computer rooms, but very few and they are very outdated. So, essentially the vast majority of people here have never really had the opportunity to learn computer skills. That means no internet, no social media, no email, no instant world-wide communication which we have all learned to enjoy over the past 20-30 years.

But what has happened instead is that the mobile phone is King. By waiting for technology to reach its current levels, Tanzania is suddenly in a position to play catch up, and it’s doing it pretty fast. Other countries are slowly moving away from the cumbersome desktop computers, Tanzania is in a position to do that in an instant.

Network here is pretty impressive, too – I’ll never forget my brother chatting to Richard Branson (who was a client of his at the time) whilst we sat in the base of the Ngorongoro Crater and a rhino nonchalantly wandered by! Yes, there are bad days when I can’t get a line out or can’t hear anyone, but by and large, for a country this size, it’s not bad. By comparison, when I visit England I often find myself cursing as I drop into a networkless-valley.

And with this network and the rapid sale of phones and SIM cards; new initiatives for roaming between countries; the ability to purchase data bundles at reasonable prices (I can keep my phone in internet for just $20 per month); suddenly half the population can now begin to access 30 years worth of technology development – independent news coverage, FaceBook, Wikipedia… Ok, that’s not entirely true. Of course not everyone will have a ‘smart phone’, some phones are just made for making phone calls and perhaps for waking you up in the morning! Some might be intermediates with the capacity to store music or take photos. But there is a huge market for the smart phones (even the thieves know this- Just as they do around the world!)

There’s nothing cooler than a Maasai in full regalia, with an iPhone to his ear, or nodding to his apple earphones as he appreciates a song! I still reckon that would make one of the coolest ad campaigns ever – I said it first! I must make a point of photographing that when I next get the opportunity – this is all I have right now.
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Actually, I have also loved the people who haven’t seen it all before – what’s not to love about the amazing wide eyes of a person who lets you take a photo on your phone and then gets to see the image on the screen? I recently had a local shoe-maker invite all his friends over to see how I could zoom right into his eye just by moving my fingers on the iphone screen. It’s good to see that sense of wonder. We forget and take this amazing technology for granted. I remember I had exactly the same reaction as my shoe-maker when I first saw my brother’s iPhone 3G back one Christmas (was it as recent as 2008?).

There are some irritations about mobile phones here, though. For example, people will sit in a beautiful quiet place and play their tinny mobile music on the phone speaker as loud as it will go, with no awareness of anyone else. Also the personalized ring tones are much loved here, as is download music or preaching to play instead of a ring tone when you call them. Hearing songs of praise or a church recording when you call – be it Muslim, Christian or whatever – is a little ‘in your face’ I feel. But my pet hates go in order as follows:

3. The annoying message that says ‘jaribu tena badai’ (try again later) when you can’t get a line.

2. People driving on the phone and slowing right down to a snail’s pace, or just swerving all over the road. (It’s banned for a reason in most first world countries, but here the effect it has on drivers is totally incredible!).

1. Kids who SMS in code and then think they can get away with writing everything like that – including their GCSE and A-level exam essays! I’m all for the evolution of language, but you need to know what’s appropriate where!

On the upside, mobiles are changing everything for the youth of Africa. They are better informed, safer (unless they’re driving!), better able to communicate and given a voice as world citizens by this technology. It is amazing to witness this dramatic development. I just hope they do ultimately realise that valuing life and love over their phone is still important!


TIA Tales – nothing ever only takes 5 minutes! – Part 1


Following on from the theme of the weekly shopping taking an unfeasibly long time here, I
began to think about the other jobs that don’t quite go to plan for bizarre and unforeseeable reasons and I realised I have any number of ideal TIA stories along this theme. You’ll notice the title is ‘part 1’, I have no idea what ‘part 2’ might consist of as yet, but I can pretty much guarantee that I will collect stories for it over the coming weeks and months, so it makes sense!

It was when I started in PR that I first heard the saying ‘there’s no such thing as five minute job’, and it was true. Everything always takes longer than you think it will, no matter where you live, especially if you need it done properly. But I never imagined how applicable this statement would be once I moved to Tanzania!

In just the past few weeks the following stories have occurred – rendering a simple task a mammoth mission…

Most recently, we were in Nairobi visiting Damien’s family for his birthday. After a lovely weekend we got up on the Monday morning at 4.30am to get to the airport and make our direct flight to Mwanza. Pretty straightforward, if a little early. When we got there things started to go pear-shaped though. ‘The flight has been cancelled’ we were told.
‘Okaaaaay, so what do we do instead?’
‘You can fly from Nairobi to Zanzibar, Zanzibar to Dar es Salaam, and Dar es Salaam to Mwanza,’ came the smiling reply!
So a three-flight, ten-hour journey to replace our one-flight two-hour journey?… Can we just stay here and catch the direct flight tomorrow?
‘Mmmm maybe, but there’s a good chance they’ll cancel that flight too!’
By the time we got home we could have slept in until 6am and driven home from Nairobi to Mwanza faster!

I invited a mate out for a drink the other night. She only lives down the road. ‘No problem’ she said ‘I’ll see you in five.’ I should have known better. It’s like in a horror film when a character says ‘I’ll just go and check, I’ll be back in a minute, don’t worry!’ – you know they’re doomed!

So I waited a good 20 minutes and then called to see what has happened. ‘Sorry, Mel… I got caught up as I was leaving. My dogs eyes were all red and puffy – I think she’s been spat at by a cobra so I had to get the vet out!” Well, as excuses go it was certainly original! Poor thing never did make it out, but the dog has happily recovered.

Talking of cobras… – we don’t get a lot of them around here, they prefer to stay away from humans, but this month I have two cobra stories. Another friend of mine is busy building a new house. She and her husband were very excited to have reached the stage of installing electrics and plumbing and the ‘fundi’ (see TIA Tales – building work if you aren’t sure what that is!) went up into the roof to get started. ‘I’ll just pop up to take a look’ – famous last words!

He popped back down again pretty fast when he came face to face with a large cobra who’d decided that this was an ideal spot to rest – nice and warm, plenty of bats to eat. The work was delayed for a week while the couple got fumigators in to clear the place! The good news is they’ve finally moved in now and it really is a stunning spot (congratulations guys!)

On the theme of fundis – I had to laugh when a Dar mate What’s App’ed me last week to complain that she had returned to her office, expecting to find the painting work to be almost completed, only to discover her fundi fast asleep on the office sofa!

Back on my own turf, I tried to do a friend – Mr Tito – a favour here in Mwanza a little while ago. My aunt had very generously sent over money to buy a local artist a mattress for his child’s bed and he and I had agreed to go shopping for it. Mr Tito is a lovely man and he was waiting for me when I arrived ten minutes late. We chose the mattress without too much difficulty and managed (with the help of two other guys) to fold it into the back of my tiny car, but part way to our destination my engine died. This has never happened to me before in Mwanza. Mr Tito knows everyone and I soon had a crowd of people around the car advising on different things that could be wrong. Everyone was so kind, they even went and found me water and insisted that I sit while they try to fix it. It was actually very heart-warming. But an hour later it was the MineSite guys who came to rescue me and actually managed to identify the problem – I think I might have been there all day, and then some, otherwise. In the end of course, my five minute favour took 2 hours!

It’s often the way on car trips actually. It’s not as though traffic is really a problem as I only potter in and out of town, but it’s the bizarre police stops (so far I’ve got out of being fined by A/crying B/ insisting that I have left my child at home and need to get back quickly and C/ telling the policeman that I got married last week! Goodness knows where the logic was on that one! It takes a few minutes but often it’s the most irrelevant or random thing that makes them smile and gets you off!); or the sudden riots (there are frequently problems with local vendors and changes in law, or with different religious groups upsetting each other); or having to stop for a huge herd of cows or goats that decide to cross just as you get there; roads destroyed by the rains; a huge lorry doing a 48 point turn – all these things can make a five minute trip take an hour.

Of course power outages don’t help. Especially when they happen just as you’re baking bread and so you have to start all over again, or just as you’ve completed an email or blog but have not clicked save and so you have to start again! You get the idea.

And as for posting these blogs – well they can often take literally hours to upload, especially if I’m including photos. I think the Galapagos one was a 12 hour process (loads of swearing involved in that one).

There really isn’t such a thing as a five minute job here. But, if I’m honest (and if I’m having a positive day!) it actually becomes part of the fun. I love gathering people’s tales of insane frustration over a drink by the lake at the end of the week – they really can be very entertaining! Feel free to share if you have any to add to my collection from 2013 so far!


TIA Tales – a tribute


This week’s blog is a bit different. It’s a story that isn’t really mine to tell – except that it happened just near by, and that my husband saw these riders only a couple of weeks before the accident (in fact, he stopped and asked them if they needed anything and advised them to stay off the main roads). Plus some of our good friends have been involved in trying to secure and help the horses in the aftermath – perhaps they can offer some updates on the story as it stands at a later date.

It is a story of determination, and overcoming obstacles, but ultimately of terrible tragedy. Wrong place, wrong moment. I hope one day I can post a follow up that gives this some rhyme or reason. I hope this changes something positively for someone in the long term. Sadly now it is just a very sad tale.

People are killed here on the roads every day, and nothing changes. I’ve mentioned in my TIA Tales – driving blog post about some of the madness here. And the hospitals here are in a desperate state – the comments about the man’s total lack of care in our main hospital here in Mwanza only serve to reinforce my blog about hospitals from last year. This is a particularly bad accident (though an entire bus load of people were killed not far from the same place last year for similar reasons and very little was said about it), and involves fairly high profile foreign travellers – perhaps it could provoke some discussion at least?

Anyway, I haven’t re-written what another journalist has already constructed very clearly, I’ll just provide the link to his article for you. I just thought I’d pay a tribute and share the tale. Article

I wish Billy all the strength he will need after this and hope he and his two horses have a swift recovery.