Sunday, 20 August 2017

Why I have no right to whinge.

Last week I had a bit of a whinge about the challenges of being the ‘new girl’.

Many years ago, I did a training placement in a refugee camp for Asian people expelled from Idi  Amin’s Uganda. For those too young to know what I'm talking about, Idi Amin - the then president - got it into his head that all Uganda’s problems could be sorted if the country were not home to so many Asian people. I know, yes, he was bonkers.

Many had British passports (a throw-back to the Empire) and arrived here in their thousands. Makeshift camps were set up, and bit by bit they were helped to find somewhere to live and many established their families here. But the initial phase was chaotic.

I worked in an old army camp, where families were housed in the barracks, divided from each other by flimsy walls or curtains. Most had left behind comfortable homes and flourishing businesses - and they arrived here with nothing. Adults seemed to spend a lot of time wandering around looking lost. The children - with their parents apparently so out of control - were all over the place. I spent a lot of time playing football, trying to run off a bit of the children's energy before they went back to the few square yards allotted to each family. 

But it soon became clear that many of our residents were mothers with children, their husbands apparently stateless and somewhere in Europe. And so the bulk of my work was in accumulating information about all these families - in order to show the government that it would be cheaper to allow the men in (as they would work and support their families) than to provide social assistance for the women and children. 

I spent hours and hours interviewing - often with an interpreter. These women, many of whom had never had to manage alone before, were frightened - and some were ashamed of the circumstances in which they were living. I discovered disabled children who had not been registered - their mothers had assumed having a disabled child meant they would be at the back of the housing queue. I found lone children, managing as best they could - not knowing even if their parents were still alive. 

I have never - before or since - worked as hard. But my efforts were a drop in the ocean, given the numbers and the need. These were families who had been forced to flee with almost nothing, arrive in a country with no idea what to expect and some with no English, and somehow they were expected to ‘make the best of it.’

And there must be thousands more refugees in similar circumstances today.


So when I complain about the challenge of walking into a new book group for the first time, you may - metaphorically of course - smack me.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Starting again.

Well, here I am. All sorted (well, unpacked) in my new flat. My books are on shelves. I've worked out how the washing machine works, and the cooker. My mind is beginning to settle - I can read again! (For me, an inability to read anything longer than a thousand words or so is indicative of Serious Stress.)

And now what? I've moved to a town where I know nobody. I have very good reasons to be here - there is a station, and theatres, and creative things for children in the middle of town. But I can't make friends with a station. Nor can I spend all my time using the station to see friends who live elsewhere. I have to do the brave thing - find book groups and writing groups, and walk in as the new girl.

I should, surely, be used to this? When travelling, I meet new people all the time. I can strike conversations easily. Can this be so very different?

Somehow it is. I've met some extraordinary people when I've been travelling. But most of them I'll never see again. In my experience, most travellers take very little prompting to talk about themselves and their travelling - and I'm more than happy to chip in with a reminisce or two. We might have a beer together, watch the sun go down, pass on information about bus or train times and great places to stay, and then it's farewell and on to the next town. (Tika and Everlasting, of course, are exceptions!)

But here - I feel a need to tread more warily. My interest in those I meet is as sharp as ever - but now it matters what they think of me. Where is the balance between being interested, and being nosey? I don't want to look pushy, or - like Nellie-no-mates - desperate for people to talk to. On the other hand, though I'm not unhappy on my own, I know that my life will be richer if I become part of this community.

It's over thirty-five years since I last moved to a new town. At the moment all this newness is an adventure. But sometimes I have to grit my teeth and be brave.


And if it's like this for me, when I know the language and systems and how to navigate the transport system … what is it like for refugees? My nanodrops of courage are nothing besides the reserves that they need.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Time for a moving-break.

Home-moving takes over the world.

And other peoples' moves really aren't that interesting. There's nothing original to say about packing and unpacking and forgetting the kettle (or the wine).

And so I'm shutting the blog-shop for a couple of weeks till it's all over. Hopefully I'll have my brain back by then.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

On having the concentration span of a gnat.

Stress comes in many shapes and sizes. Right now mine is in the shape of a house. People move house all the time. There's nothing original about mine, but it is taking over my world at the moment.

But it has, for me, highlighted the side-effect of this level of stress - having a concentration span reduced to that of a gnat. I do have a rudimentary understand of the neuroscience: I know that all the thinking bits of my brain are firing at the same time and finding it confusing trying to talk to each other. But does that help me live with it? Does it, hell!

I know I could be more constructive if only I could complete one task before beginning another.  But there I am sorting out a cupboard, when I remember I need to give my new address on my travel insurance people. So off I go to find the list (which list? I now have several, some of which - like my brain - fail to talk to each other). While I'm there I notice I still haven't found anyone who might like my garden tools. So I settle with the phone … and when it's bedtime I wonder - why there is stuff all over the bedroom floor? 

How am I meant to complete anything? How am I meant to remember where I left the wretched lists in the first place? 

Then - I manage to sit down for five minutes. This, I tell myself, is the moment I shall arrange the transfer of my Internet. I phone the provider … I am in a queue. I'll try tomorrow. Tomorrow comes. I try again, and this time wait in the queue … and wait … and then, oh joy, I am speaking to a person and I've come through to technical support and not home-moving … but I'm transferred … why didn't I make myself a coffee before I began this? Fortified, I might have stood a chance of concentrating in through a process that somehow took over half an hour. 


But at least it's one thing I can tick off the list. If only I could find the right list …

Sunday, 9 July 2017

On laughing through the bad times

There’s no escaping the news at the moment. A buffoon is in the White House (a man who thinks climate change is just ‘weather’ has his finger on the nuclear button). Here in the UK the referendum has exposed deep divisions which are exploited by extremists on both sides. Years of austerity have left those who look out for us impoverished and demoralised; the horror of Grenfell Tower is a testament to the powerless of the poor.

It is enough to make anyone wants to retreat into a corner and chew their own arms off. How can we feel anything but useless when those who are meant to take decisions on our behalf continue to disregard the needs and feelings of the disadvantaged? In the U.K. David Cameron’s suggestion that those who wanted nurses and firemen and women paid reasonably were ‘selfish’ (when he is paid however many thousands for one after-dinner speech) seems to sum up how little politicians care about those who elected them.

Most of us are totally powerless to change anything - other than being kind to those around us. And we must never underestimate kindness. It is, surely, evidence of our continued humanity in spite of everything. Small kindnesses can make a huge difference. 

But I think we need more than that - we need fun. How, you might ask, can we be frivolous when we are surrounded by misery and uncertainty? Isn't it somehow insulting to those in abject need if we take time out from breast-beating to have a good party? Doesn't spending time in unnecessary jollity imply a lack of concern for the general political and social mayhem?

But I think it's essential to take time out occasionally. Laughter is, in itself, restorative. Good food, especially eaten with those we love, nourishes far more than our stomachs. Even a dance round the kitchen is oddly energising.

It's probably not possible to manage a precise balance between frivolity and general angst. While it might be tempting to ignore the dreadfulness and live hedonistically, such a view is an abdication of any responsibility to hold our politicians to account. But spending every minute fighting injustice, in the light of apparent indifference from those in power, must be hugely demoralising. 


Somewhere there must be a balance - and maybe that changes from day to day. But I think it's worth striving for, even if we get it wrong most of the time.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Everlasting, the ebook!

Well, 'tis done. It's been hard to find the headspace to disentangle my Malawian exploits and reorganise them into a coherent narrative. Only time will tell if I've managed it.




On top of the writing challenge - and without going into too much ‘poor me’ detail - I'm moving. 
People move all the time. They get stressed and they get over it. Well, that's the plan. But it's been the unfortunate context in which I've tried to unscramble my Malawian diaries.

But this book felt important - more than some of the others. This is much more than ‘woman has a great time in Malawi.’ It was a trip that challenged me physically - for the first time I wondered if I really need to spend hours bouncing around in a truck while being driven up a dirt track in the rainy season. I also had an interesting encounter with termites (well, interesting in retrospect. At the time I was busy picking them out of my ears, and my nose, and from by shirt-front …)

However, the real challenge of this trip lay in its questioning all my ethical assumptions about the role of aid agencies in tackling apparently intractable poverty. From the day I arrived I met people with strong opinions - everyone had ideas, but no one had solutions. What I found most upsetting was nobody seemed to see the purpose of a career in overseas aid as working themselves out of a job. 

Given that I met almost as many opinions as people, it was difficult to unpick them all and write about them with any sense of narrative. My solution was simply to provide accounts of many of my conversations, to show how one idea built on another in my own thinking, and then leave it to you, dear reader, to reach your own conclusions.

Behind all this travelling and thinking - was Everlasting. He has agreed I can put his picture on the cover of the ebook, and to use his name in the title. He is an extraordinary man, and it was a privilege to spend six weeks with him. And something pretty special happened for him, too - so he won't forget this trip either. So, more than anything else, this little ebook is a tribute to him. 


Readers in the UK can find it here. And if anyone wants a copy to review, please let me know.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Everlasting - the book!

Everlasting is nearly here - and yes, I have decided to call my ebook about Malawi ‘Everlasting’. Partly because he's such an extraordinary man. And partly because the challenges faced by Malawians feel endless.



This has been a hugely difficult book to write. Not only have I gone through the usual process of unscrambling my diaries and unpicking the story behind them. I have also had to wrestle with some deeply conflicting opinions, and tried to find a way to give them all enough space to be thought about.

I went to Africa with deep convictions about the importance of overseas aid: its role in eradicating poverty and providing people with a dignified standard of living. It is an opinion that was challenged  from the day I arrived. I found stories about the abuse of overseas aid almost everywhere I went. I also encountered numerous small projects, often funded by passing tourists but run by and for local people in their villages, that are making a huge difference to the lives and aspirations of Malawians. I came home with more questions than answers - and I hope the book reflects that. I shall be interested to see what you make of it.


So where is it? Somewhere between here and kdp. I've no idea what the problem is, uploading the manuscript, but apparently there is one. It will be sorted - and then I can give you the link.