Sunday, 23 April 2017

Questions, questions ...

There will, as I've said before, be a book about Malawi. A narrative is beginning to emerge from my scribbles. But it will take a while - there's a lot of Life around here at the moment.

In the meantime, is there anything you would like to know about my travels? Like this blue-footed boobie, this is your change to surprise me.




My writing focus is on drawing out a narrative thread that holds a journey together. But my experience when I talk about travelling is people asking about things that I take for granted. Such as: what shoes do I pack? How do I manage money? How do I find hotels? What about food? How do I meet people? How much planning do I do? How do I manage my laundry? What about toilets?

These are the details of travelling that I now take for granted, thing I only think about if I'm asked about them. So this is your chance to ask me - anything. I'll do my best to answer over the next week or few.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Local elections ... will you vote?

It's not long till the local elections. Yawn. I can only speak for myself, but I find it hard to be interested in who will sit in the town hall and spend hours discussing the whys and wherefores of the public toilets in the supermarket car park. Just fix the wretched things and move on.

But ... would I do it? No. I couldn't face the hours wrangling over toilets, or parking, or whether the shed on Ms B's allotment breaks planning regulations. But just because I'd rather chew my arm off than get embroiled in all this doesn't mean that it isn't important. After all, I pay my Council Tax and these people have to make decisions about how it is spent. They have to decide whether the potholes in the road the outside the school are more important than toilets. Whether to cut a few buses to small villages all week or all buses on Sundays. Whether a meagre charity grant should go to the children's playground or a Christmas lunch for the elderly.

So I shall vote. Which means, under the new system, it's up to me to make sure I'm registered.

After all:



(In case it's not clear, it reads: DID YOU KNOW: BAD LEADERS ADE VOTED INTO POWER BY PEOPLE WHO DON'T VOTE)

I saw this on a rock by the roadside in Malawi - where there are no newspapers outside the major towns, and very few people have television. Which means that the only way to disseminate information in rural areas is word of mouth, notices on trees - or paintings on rocks, like this.

But surely it's a message that must resonate across the world. For if we don't vote, then we silence our own voices. And we risk being governed by tossers. Those people on the council, spending hours on the toilets (so to speak) - they are, finally, answerable to me and to you and to all of those who made sure we were registered and made it to the polling stations. Let's make sure, at least, that we elect decent people.

I've just checked - I am registered. Are you?

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Where's this Malawi book, then?

Where's this book about Malawi, then? After all, I've been back since the middle of February, and I've not said one word about it. Surely I've got some idea where it's going by now?

To be fair, no one has actually said that to my face. But there has been a hint or two, and so far I've managed to deflect them. However, I can't do that forever, so here is what is going on.

Firstly, I was ill when I came back. I've not written about being ill before, and I'm not going to start now. Suffice it to say that stringing a complete sentence together was an achievement for a few days, and it's taken a while to get back to 'normal' (whatever that means).

Secondly, plans are in place for me to move house. This has been on the agenda for a while, and now the wheels are in motion. It's something else I'm not going to write about - anyone who has moved house knows how brain-consuming it is, but that doesn't mean that anyone else is seriously interested in your dealings with agents or solicitors or your plans for new curtains. To be honest, I bore myself sometimes, thinking about it all. But it's the context in which I'm trying to have a life, so I've just got to run with it.

And then there's Malawi. I can, at the moment, find brief chunks of times to think about it - an essential preamble to trying to unpick the story of my trip. For there is a story - there are several stories - and I shall find a way to knit them together in some sort of coherent narrative. But give me time - it's not a straightforward country to think about and I need to do it justice.

In the meantime, I'll give you a picture, just to be going on with. I only know what animal this comes from because the guide told me - I wonder if anyone can guess?


Sunday, 26 March 2017

Electricity, luxury or necessity?

I don't know about you, but I take electricity for granted. Apart from the obvious fridges, freezer and washing machine, I have a plethora of gizmos and gadgets. Some of them are useful and some are just fun. And they all need plugging in and charging on a regular basis.

I have to think differently about electricity when I'm travelling. If there's none at all, well - I know where I am. Everything is charged in good time, and I'm careful with essentials. In Nepal, the government deals with a shortage of electricity by 'load shedding' - predictable power cuts which mean most people in the towns have electricity some of the time. People know where they are, and plan accordingly.

In Malawi, the supply of electricity seems completely arbitrary. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. And many hotel rooms have just the one plug.

I know I could do everything I need to do on my phone - take pictures, go online, read books, as well as sending texts and making phone calls. But I use separate gadgets, because if one goes wrong I still have the others. (A useful policy on this last trip when the charger for my iPad packed up). Which means that I had four things needing charging, and no idea when the power would be on, or for how long.

Some hotels had generators which they turned on in the evening. That helped. On other occasions I simply had to turn the chargers on whenever I could, and hope for the best the rest of the time.

All of which, of course, is a First World problem. Being realistic, what would have happened if my camera or kindle had run out of power and I couldn't recharge them? I'd probably have a bit of a hissy fit, but that's all. I'd still have enough to eat and somewhere safe to sleep. For my gizmos  are basically, toys.

But Malawians, who must live with this all the time - what is this like for them? This erratic electricity provides light to some of the towns and trading centres. (Many villages have none at all). But things like fridges are out of the question. Okay, so talk of fridges seems superfluous when so many don't have enough to eat. But I highlight fridges because of their potential to make lives so much easier for women: if they can store food safely they don't need to go to the market every day, which frees time in which they can look for paid work - which will buy the food to put in the fridge and a bit extra to help with books for the children. An electric cooker would be a complete luxury, and  mean she wouldn't have to collect wood for her fire, nor choke on woodsmoke as she stirs her soup.

Of course, such 'luxuries' are beyond the budget of millions of people in Malawi. Maybe even thinking about them is frivolous. Priorities must be food and shelter. But nothing will change unless people want them to, and believe that can. And there is no point in anyone even aspiring to change without reliable electricity.

Which puts my grumbling about trying to charge my phone into a different perspective.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

My first, sketchy, thoughts on the poverty in Malawi.

I will, in due course, write at length about the poverty in Malawi. I've met poverty before, of course, in India and the Far East, and am beginning to realise that it has a different meaning in different countries. For instance, in India the poverty feels embedded in the caste system; and there is, now, enough money in the economy to tackle its extremes. Conflicts in the Far East have left whole populations with a country to rebuild, and the determination to do just that.

And in Malawi ... I came away feeling that the poverty is so entrenched, with millions of people reliant on food aid and no prospect of earning enough money to support their families, that it will take miracles for anything to change.

For instance, this is a typical roadside market:



Heaps of green vegetables, under tarpaulins, at the roadside. Which is fine in the rainy season, when there are green vegetables to sell.

Or tomatoes:



In contrast, this market stall looks fairly prosperous, with its carrots and beans and peppers:



I was in Malawi in the rainy season, and vegetables were relatively plentiful (though the variety  is still limited). But when the rains stop, and the ground dries and vegetables shrivel, what then? Millions are dependent on what they have grown themselves and stored (which varies from year to year, depending on the rains), or the sacks of maize donated by the World Food Programme. Of course we can't leave people to starve. But as the years go by and people are still dependent on food aid, there is less urgency to tackle the poverty problem themselves.

What about work? There's work for the lucky few, and even then wages are low. Everyone else lives from one rainy season to the next.

The Malawians are kind, generous, welcoming people. They deserve better.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Cave paintings from Malawi.

Any idea what this is:


I know, it's not instantly obvious. But how much that is created these days is going to survive for 10,000 years?

For this is a cave painting from Malawi. Men and women lived in these caves, hunting and gathering, and painting on the walls. There are spears and hoes - so we know a bit about their tools. There are animals - deer and zebra. There is a wonderful giraffe, which I can't show you as I couldn't get far enough away to get the whole thing in one picture. But the painter must have had some sort of ladder (or there were several people sitting on each other's shoulders!) to reach about 5metres above the ground to paint the head. The guide suggested that it was simply decoration, to make the cave more homely.

What stunned me most was the sheer existence of these paintings. There are eight sites, close together - suggesting that several families lives alongside each other in these caves. They're reached along a dirt road that is often impassable during the rainy season, so I was lucky to get there. They are found in a granite outcrop on the lower slopes of some significant hills - my guide (the faithful Everlasting) believes there must be many more yet to be discovered. There may be a metropolis of paintings in the mountains.

But it's more than that. These paintings gave people pleasure. The same pleasure that I get from the pictures on my walls and photographs of my family. Just like the people who lived here, 10,000 years ago. We're not so very different.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

The Planter's Daughter - in print!

Will I write about Malawi? Yes, but as usual it will take time. I've diaries to reread and think about - the usual preamble to shaping a book. But this post isn't aboit Malawi.

For my Planter's Daughter is, at last, a print book.



For those who have forgotten, this novel has grown from a vignette I came across in New Zealand. Barbara Weldon was born in Ireland, and travelled to the bleakest, coldest corner of New Zealand via England and Australia in the mid-nineteenth century. I'd chosen to go there ... but what about her? What took her across the world? How did she travel? What did she find there? Did she have lovers? Children? Although the vignette implied a very troubled woman, I so wanted her to have lovers.

Research brought only the sketchiest details. But I couldn't let go of her story. So I made it up. Well, most of it. And what fun I had - wallowing in research, wandering round Ireland and Liverpool, wallowing in more research. And finally writing the novel. I've kept the bones of her story and a few unexpected details; but this is definitely fiction. (I've blogged about the publishing decisions somewhere - so won't go over that again.)

The ebook came out before Christmas and has two wonderful reviews, plus some verbal feedback that made me blush - and requests for a print book. There simply wasn't time before I left for Malawi to get that show on the road, but now, at last, I can hold a real book in my real hands.

I know the 'writing journey' is a cliche, but this has felt like an expedition. And I'm relieved - and a      teeny bit proud - of having finally produced the book!

Here  it is, on Amazon.

And, to celebrate, and for one week only, the ebook is down to 99p!