Tales & images from life as me…

Archive for April, 2013

my philosopher’s stones

I often notice contrasts here, especially when I compare my life up against that of my friends and family in the UK, of course. But this week I came up against one in particular that really made me think. It was simply this.

During my week I took some time to take a look at tanzanites – a stunning gemstone which is found only here, in Tanzania. The ‘tanzanite legend’ has it that they were discovered by a Maasai who spotted the raw blue gem in the ground near Kilimanjaro only 40 years ago. Their unique, often very intense, colour range is certainly part of what makes them special, but the fact that the foothills of Kilimanjaro are the only place they can be found and it is believed there is only as much as 20 years of mining left has lead to them being referred to as ‘the generation stone’, a stone no one from the next generation will be able to buy, they will have to inherit one. They are 1,000 times rarer than diamonds (though thankfully not as expensive, for now).

Not only did I look (and buy!) I also had a chance to photograph the stones. A learning opportunity that allowed me to try out some new photo techniques and mess around with the new lens my brother bought me for Christmas. All very pleasant, as you can imagine.

But it was this morning when I noticed another type of stone that I really started to think. Mwanza is known as ‘Rock City’ due to the fact that much of it is littered with giant, often very attractive, boulders. In fact an especially famous one is Bismark Rock, which is bizarrely balanced at the edge of the Lake. Anyway, mostly we rather like these rocks, but it had never really occurred to me how inconvenient they are when it comes to wanting to build.

Just meters from our house on Capri Point (a sort of hill which many of us refer to as ‘the mountain’) a site is currently being prepared for foundations to go in. For months men have been there heating and cracking the giant boulders in half, and half again, and again, until they are small enough to lift and move. It’s a process that has moved so slowly I have barely noticed each step, only the incredible end result.

And now, at the periphery of the building site, women and young men sit with piles of rocks arranged according to size and they spend their entire day in the boiling sun breaking each in half and building a new pile, repeating their action again and again until they eventually have quite literally made gravel.

The stones I worked (played) with this week and the ones they work with every week struck me as wildly world’s apart: in value, in the level of work, in their reflection of wealth. And yet the stones they were working with will be turned into building materials and crafted into something lasting, I might wear mine around my neck.

There are always several sides to every story over here and the issues of destruction and the natural geography of the land requiring the support of these boulders in order not to slide into the Lake is also being raised as a concern by some, just as the debate regarding mining in this very mineral-rich country rages on. But I only saw a simple comparison – my life and theirs.

So much of ex-pat life is about these stark contrasts that we develop coping mechanisms and filter them. After so many years I have got used to standing in the local market bargaining in Swahili and knowing I can’t get mushrooms one week and then standing in a queue in Tesco’s, surrounded by imports from all over the world the next. That’s life. Those contrasts are almost too obvious these days. It was this subtle one that made me look again this week.


Me and Sue went in a Canoe!

I’ve lived alongside Lake Victoria five years now, and am ashamed to admit that I have never paddled my own canoe (I’d like to think I’ve done the metaphorical version!).

Sometimes life here does get dull. It’s all very amusing having to wait to get out of my gate because of a herd of goats and cows with gigantic horns, or giggling at the fact that there’s a hairdresser in the butcher shop (I say ‘shop’ – it’s only slightly larger than a portaloo, there is no window, no electricity or water and, quite often, no meat!). I do enjoy meeting friends for drinks and attending the school play. But, at the end of the day, we are quite seriously lacking in terms of entertainment, high-octane action and new experiences!

So there I was enjoying a coffee with my friend, Sue, and wondering what I might do to perk myself up, when she suggested popping out on the canoes. Well, I have to admit that at first I wasn’t that enthusiastic – there are two canoes at the local yacht club (it should be called tiny boat yard, really) and they don’t look all that inspiring. Particularly as they rest beside a little boat with the word ‘Rescue’ painted on its prow… it’s rotten and has a hole! Once you’re out there you’re out there alone! But I decided I was up for it – despite the horrors of Bilherzia (a nasty disease in the lake which attacks your organs) and the presence of crocodiles and the lack of coast guard or rescue boat! Our safe little inlet belies the enormous size of this breadth of water that spans three countries and is responsible for hundreds of deaths each year, as well as being the life source for thousands. Luckily for me, it was the perfect still evening, with beautiful soft light.

We pushed off from the jetty and I was instantly besotted with this magical mode of transport. Total silence except for the dip, stroke and lift of my paddle. Seeing the world from water level makes water hyacinth and rock formations suddenly big and you, in turn, quite small. Plus, birds are not threatened by your noiseless approach, so tiny kingfishers dive and flit confidently right beside you.

This time I wasn’t quite confident enough in my paddling skills to have brought my big camera, so I just snapped a couple of shots on the phone. Next time I’m going out fully equipped!

This week my blog is neither TIA Tales nor The Write Time, it is simply a moment. One which reminded me that it’s very important to have moments …and live in them, enjoy them to the fullest and all those other momentous clichés! Find yourself a moment this week and share it – I’d love to hear what you’ve been up to, wherever you are.

The write time – any excuse!

Why is it we will make absolutely any excuse not to do what is good for us? When it comes to the gym I am amazing… at avoiding it. Too much work to do, aching from the last session, the friend I go with is away, it makes me tired so I find it hard to work once I get back, blah blah blah. We all know the avoidance tactics and sometimes I even get as far as wondering if this magical myth of being slim and feeling fit even feels as good as people say it does – I don’t remember, and anyway when I did have that feeling I was in my early 20s, of course I felt great! So what’s the point?!

This little illustration isn’t really all about the gym of course, it’s just that the gym makes an accessible metaphor to explain how hard it is to write sometimes. I think a lot of people who’ve thought about writing a book (and there are a lot of people) or doing anything creative will identify with thoughts such as:
• Let me do the housework/other jobs/phone that friend/have a shower/check my emails first so I have a clear head [oops the whole day’s gone!]
• What if I’m not good enough and people laugh at me for trying? [if you have the grace to be a beginning and the humility to learn people are actually surprisingly kind]
• What if it changes my life and I’m not ready [how can it change your life if it doesn’t exist – hmmm cart, horse?!]
• I’m too old, or I don’t have time, maybe when I retire [opposite excuses for the same inaction – somehow young and crazy or old and crazy it’s socially more acceptable to try something crazy, whilst we’re somewhere in the middle we really ought to be more sensible!]
• Perhaps it’s self indulgent, egotistical, ridiculous, _________ (fill in the blank!) [believe me if you wanted to do something to indulge and big up your ego, well it wouldn’t be this – receiving rejections, criticisms and other’s opinions is not for the feint hearted! As for ridiculous – why’s it ridiculous to do what you love?]
• What if I spend all that time and it never actually amounts to anything? [the truth is you’ll probably have enjoyed the time you gave it]

And the one that recently really got me was this:
Do you have any idea how old I will if I start to learn x or y now?
I’ve asked it many times as I wonder what on earth I’m doing trying to write a book, but this time someone [who had written a book] gave me the answer: As old as you will be if you don’t!

So here I am. I know the answers to all the stalling tactics… but I can still achieve nothing in a day in style!

Hang on. I say that, but in fact I’ve written over 70,000 words and completed my first draft of my book (thanks guys – yes I did do as I promised last month, no you can’t read it yet!), and so far this month I’ve written five commissioned articles. You’d think I’d be more positive about it all. More professional?

Not really.

See the fact is at every stage I am a beginner – which is great, since I have the openness and the excitement of a beginner, but I also have the fear. Most people start a new career in their twenties and then don’t change that career for most of their lives. They might change jobs, even roles, but they don’t start completely from scratch. If they do they might take a course first, or they’ll be guided through the system by colleagues. Not really an option in my situation. So I’m poking about in the dark! There are positives, it means I earn my lessons in a whole new way, and when the positives come they feel great (for about five minutes, before I’ve discovered the next hurdle!).

The truth is I’ve recently realised that it’s not the Philosopher’s Stone that was interesting (I really am not a Potter fan), what’s worth noting is that philosophers have stones! Brave New World was brave because Huxley was brave. Artists, dancers, actors, sculptors, designers, writers – regardless, they are putting themselves out there ready to be shot down, in public, against the odds, against their own inner voice. No wonder they are recognised as inspiring. I always thought it was their work that was inspiring – well it is of course, but it is also the characters that have achieved the work. Not that I’m suggesting for a minute that I am amongst those! – only that perhaps this journey is shaping me.

It’s very tempting to write a FaceBook page presentation of it all – you know the smiling photos of the best parts of our lives – ‘look guys I’m writing for this magazine, this newspaper, I get to travel and write and take photos in beautiful places, I’ve written a book!’ It would be true. It’s not fake. But there is so much more to it. The Facebook photos are of the great moments and that simply doesn’t reflect the daily slog or the rejections or the days you just wake up in a crap mood and there’s no one around to change it for you, no one to make you sit at your desk anyway.

This blog has been a little bit like the Facebook world… funny tales of African madness and mayhem. Well, they are funny sometimes, and I hope I’ll get my sense of humour back so I can continue to cover some of that side of life, but also after almost eight years in Africa I have stopped finding it so funny, often it covers a symptom of something much more concerning – lack of education, lack of self-respect, corruption, poverty. It doesn’t need writing about particularly, everyone knows that stuff – just like someone who’s constantly moaning in the Facebook statuses becomes tedious very quickly. But to consistently tell only one side does get tiresome too.

The past two weeks I’ve been avoiding writing my blog because I didn’t think I had anything to say. Actually I think it was really that I didn’t have anything funny to say. It’s been three weeks of writing articles, and editing photos and re-working the book and I was starting to get tired. I’d meet my deadlines, do the ‘important stuff’ and then make excuses as to why I couldn’t do this or that job I’d set myself on the book.

And then I realised… it’s not that it was tiring doing the work, or that it was too hard, it was A/ that it was terrifying because people will be able to judge it, real people might read it and form an opinion and B/ because it’s such a bloody long journey and I have no idea where it ends, or if will ever even really begin and C/ because it’s good for me! As hard as it is sometimes, I do actually want to write. I zing with the magic of pairing two perfect words together, and feel complete when a perfect sentence is structured on my page. It’s good for me and therefore that bad angel on my shoulder says ‘why not put on the TV and eat some chocolate instead? No one will know. No one reads blogs anyway, too much text, too much like hard work.’

Then someone said to me this afternoon: ‘I’ve been looking at your blog, I really enjoyed it.’ Simple as that. I avoided the urge to get on my knees and weep thank yous, but it did make me think that perhaps I should be bothered to waffle at you once again. So… these are my thoughts for the week. I’ll find something a little lighter for next time!

Thanks again for reading. Stay motivated, keep learning, be creative, enjoy the journey.