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Friday, 29 July 2005

Mad. All Mad.

Apparently a possible British terrorist suspect is on the loose in Zambia. I mean, no disrespect, but if you were about to be arrested is this really the last country you'd want to visit before lock-up? Because, you might have difficulty getting out again. As we are down to one day's supply of diesel in the entire country. Which should make life interesting... But more cheerful news is that apparently the number of doctors in rural parts of Zambia has 'soared'. Now there are 66 of them bushside. The population of Zambia is approximately 10 million...

I Hurty

Bad: I hurty. Eyes hurty, nose hurty, ears hurty, throat hurty. No pharmacy roundabouts here. Worse, no chocolate.

Good: Being able to put in a cup - honey from our bees, lemons from the trees, ginger and thyme from the garden. (With anty water). Licking out the remains of the Nutella jar.

Thursday, 28 July 2005

Not the £1m Hungry Caterpillar

Mostly, the critters here are the wriggly biggly bitey unpleasant kind. But sometimes, ya see things that are just mindblowingly psychedelic. And that's quite cool.


Acid Orange Butterfly

Mangetout With Legs

Wednesday, 27 July 2005

Hotel d'Horreur

Accommodation in Lusaka is a curious thing. There is a place we like to stay at because it's cheap and cheerful. With emphasis on both those things – it costs very little money to stay there and the company is always good. Unfortunately everyone else likes to stay there too, so it's usually booked pretty solid. We did manage to book a room for last weekend however. Or so we thought. But on rocking up, with an hour before the Embassy do started, we got told there was a mixup and now there was no room at the inn. And thus ensued a fraught 2-hour drive around Lusaka desperately trying to find somewhere to stay.

Unless you are a big businessperson on an expense account (we're not) and stay at somewhere plush like the Pamodzi or the Intercontinental Hotels, you are left with a choice of guesthouses which beggar belief. Many are openly brothels. The rest charge exorbitant prices for d├ęcor last seen in Auntie Marge's house, after she overdosed on her HRT meds with too many back issues of Gardener's World and Woman's Weekly to hand.


As we drove round and round the capital The Husband was getting a bit hysterical at the thought of showing up to the reception late, in case it was a sit-down affair. I was more worried about them running out of booze, but figured that the combination of an Irish reception in Africa would mean the show wouldn't start until at least a couple of hours after the advertised time.

In the end, in desperation, we handed over all our spending money for the weekend in return for a night in the Hotel d'Horreur, and rushed to get ready. Of course the only clean clothes either of us had were cream-coloured, as this is a colour one must never show daylight to when living in the bush. So, we kinda matched. We also looked quite crumply. Our cheap and cheerful place has an iron. Hotel d'Horreur didn't. As my flat-flat flip-floppy feet climbed into a pair of heels, I thought that given the matching outfits there would surely be some Posh 'n' Becks jokes at our expense. In any event, the climbing into crumply cream clothes was done in a terrible hurry, and it was not until the next day that we realised the true extent of the Hotel d'Horreur.

Waking up with the mother of all hangovers is bad. But waking up with the mother of all hangovers to what looks like a slaughtered zebra draped over your bed, bright sunlight streaming in the windows, and no water in the room, is a nightmare. Having gotten to bed at 2am, I woke up again at 5am, with half the Sahara residing in the back of my throat. We had no water bottles with us, and despite the ludicrously high price we had paid for the room, no water jug there either. I wondered about drinking from the tap. I could vaguely recall brushing my teeth in the tapwater earlier, but that is a different thing entirely to drinking 500 litres of it all of a slap.

I went in to the bathroom. The bath was full of ants. I don't know what they were doing. Not taking a bath, as there was no plug. But there they were, in their millions. I tried to sit down on the loo to take a leak, but the entire seat fell off and it and I ended up on the floor. I briefly wondered if urine was toxic to ants, but then I was a good girl and weed in the loo after all.

Waterwaterwaterwater, it was becoming very important. Perhaps the breakfast table would have some. Or the bar. Surely, somewhere, was water. I pulled on some clothes and caught a frightening glance of myself in the mirror. No mirrors or lighting in the bush. It's quite good that, but not when you come to the city and see what you really look like. My hair was quite borked (new favourite word) but as I was doing a very good impression of the tall one from AbFab on the lash, I decided to roll with that.

But everywhere was quiet. No bar open, no breakfast room open, no reception open. I wavered in front of the swimming pool, but come on, I have standards. I went back to the room and was frightened again, this time by the full on view of the zebra bedspread with matching pillow. I decided to go on a little hunt around the room, to keep up the safari theme. I found:

- 3 Bibles
- One bedside lamp, but the only socket in the room half a mile away
- One electric fan, plug cut off the end, no hope of plugging it in here, there or half a mile away
- Joseph's technicolour dreamcoat, posing as a blanket
- A plantpot posing as a dustbin
- Ikea (?) handles on the concrete wardrobes
- No water

There was, however, a kettle. I decided that if I boiled the tap water it would be less likely to give me the trots. But first I had to wrench the plug of the TV out of the wall, for there was only that one socket, half a mile away. The kettle was perched on a dresser thingummy, and the cord was too short to reach the socket. So it had to sit on the floor – v dangerous.

There was no switch on the kettle itself (is this even legal?). I looked inside and saw no bubbles, so clearly the connection was dodgy. I lashed the plug into the socket with a karate chop and it started to hum. The karate chop unfortunately had now rendered the whole sockety business to dangle wildly out of the wall. LUCKILY there was a switch on the actual socket, as otherwise I would have been faced with the prospect of a boiling kettle spouting steam all over my feet and no way of ever switching it off and it's The Husband's job to set rooms on fire, not mine.

I didn't however, have a wooden spoon for flicking the switch, so I had to use my hand and hope no electrocution occurred. I made tea. I hate tea, but I thought it would be slightly better than hot water. I sat on the chair to drink my tea, but the back of it fell off and I wasn't really into a stool at that point. So I went back to bed, and sat there drinking tea, and thinking how nice it would be to be able to watch TV at the same time, except that now the plug for the kettle was jammed in the wall, so no TV. I went back to sleep.

Tuesday, 26 July 2005

Bushsavages Wreak Havoc In Capital

It must be a truth universally acknowledged, that if your husband is networking with a politician responsible for distributing aid money, that it is A Bad Thing to butt in and suggest that a possible starting point for halting the spread of AIDS would be getting men to keep their penises in their pants. Ahem. Politicians are a bit like the BBC in that regard, no time for rude words. Still, I don't think said politician will hold it against me. I googled him, he has a dodgy background in line-dancing. Anyway, I blame the free booze. Did I mention there was free booze? Did I mention there was positively no security and we just rocked up at the ambassador's residence going 'Hello, we're here for the party!' Like, you could make a LIVING out of that. There must be parties at embassies every night of the week. You could go to all of them. For the free booze. Did I mention there was free booze?

The layout was admirable. Toilet immediately on the left (for you know you will need to know where that is later), free booze bar immediately on the right, and food out in the garden with dogs waiting to hoover up the droppings. It took 20 seconds for the Resident Nutjob to find us. And only another 30 for her to invite us to sleep on her floor, although she had no mattresses or bedding of any kind, and her house was very full, but she liked it that way. Indeed. Luckily the Resident Bore didn't find us until the very end, by which point I had drunk enough free booze to forget to be polite. Drink is a terrible thing. Actually that's not true. I was in fact rudely polite. Or politely rude even. I'm so sorry, I don't mean to be rude, but I have absolutely no interest in talking to you. Goodnight. Well yes it was a horrible thing to say, but the drink, the drink! Besides, if nobody ever tells him he'll continue boring people to death for the rest of his life.

Then we went dancing! It was great! In heels as well! I didn't fall over once, and had only three mystery bruises the next day. In fact the whole shebang could even have been deemed a success, were it not for the small matter of accommodation. But more of that another day.

Friday, 22 July 2005

Escape From Bushsavagery

I have been invited to a pissup civilised reception at the Irish Embassy in Lusaka. This is quite exciting. I have never been to any Embassy do, and rumour has it that the Irish ones are always piled high with booze. I will duly report back next week. I must avoid sweaty politicians and corn-footed nuns at all cost.

Thursday, 21 July 2005

360 Online Breaking News

Residents of Bushland, Bushyville are currently chanting 'We are not Afraid' as their area has been put on to high security alert, known as Code Chicken. Reports are coming through that Head of Security, Jehosephat the Nightwatchman, has been called out to investigate no less than three different occurences.

At around 16:00 some villagers reported smoke billowing from the muzungu's house at the edge of the compound. Upon investigation it was discovered that the muzungu had drunk too many g&ts and fallen asleep with some buns in the oven. In a separate incident Shoes the Mechanic reported seeing someone board a bus carrying a suspect goat. This was immediately dismissed by Jehosephat, as neither buses nor goats have ever been seen in the area. Loveness the Nurse was despatched to provide a banana and some panadol to Mr Shoes, to counteract the effect of whatever he had been smoking.

And finally, at about 16:30 Roger the Dodger – bicycle repair man – made an attempt to secure the title of local ne'er do well, when he threatened Chief with "blowing your brains out". Witnesses were unanimous in their belief that he was unlikely to achieve this with an inner tube and an old candle.

Residents have been advised to stay indoors and watch out for anything suspicious. Unfortunately this advice has had to be ignored, on account of no lights for watching anything, and the danger of using a paraffin stove indoors with no ventilation. We await further updates.

Brandishing Pens

Once upon a time, before glittering wings smashed into ivory towers, I went to New York on a plane. I went in the company of a work colleague, a young man who designed things. I was the young woman who wrote things. We worked in London for A Very Large Company, which had offices worldwide and Headquarters nestled next to the shiny Big Apple. We were off on an annual trip to the Holy Temple of Spin for a Marketing Workshop. Otherwise known as 7 days' worth of being bored to death and drinking insipid beer on the company tab.

We arrived at JFK having stolen many bags of free toiletries from business class suitably refreshed and proceeded to battle our way through several different lines of bureaucracy. The last hurdle before collecting our luggage and heading for the discounted beauty product shops workshop was Security. The Machine-Like Grumpy Security Guard asked me what I was doing in the States - if I was there on business or pleasure. Thinking to myself that I could not possibly call being holed up in a bland hotel for a week with a bunch of really stupid and trying Americans* pleasure, I stated that I had come on business. And therein was the start of some nightmare half-hour quiz show, complete with scary presenter, bright hot lights, and a buzzer continuously going 'neh-eh!' in the background. For Grumpy Security Guard's interest was now piqued.

"What kind of business?"
"Oh, I work in Marketing."
"Doing what?"
"Uh, you know, marketing stuff."
"What, like Sales?"
For Pete's sake don't make me try and explain the difference between Marketing and Sales. I have no idea. I write things. It makes stuff sell. The end.
"Well, kind of."

'Kind of' didn't cut it. There was clearly an answer he was looking for, and I was racking my brains to find it. Eventually in the midst of his interrogation I enlightened him to the fact that I was a copywriter in our firm's marketing department.

"Aha!" he yelled, banging his fist on the desk.

It seems I might as well have said I was a terrorist. And thus ensued another tortuous half-hour where he threatened to send me back to the UK because I didn't have a journalist's visa, and I got exasperated trying to explain that I was not, in fact, a journalist, but a mere copywriter, employed to sell American products. I eventually managed to convince GSG that I was not about to wreak havoc on New York, or America at Large, by whacking people to death with my sheets of copy, and he let me through. Meanwhile, my colleague had sailed through Security with a wave and a smile, despite the fact that he was carrying several scalpels and a large can of aerosol glue in his hand luggage… Such, it would seem, is the power of words and the almighty fear it drives into some people.

In those days it was a case of using my words to sell overpriced tat to people who didn't need it and probably couldn't afford it. I'd like to think that now my words go some way towards making a real difference to people. I posted earlier about a particular village here being in desperate need of a well. We have a great donor in Wales who likes to fundraise for us, so I spent ages writing up some publicity material for her about this village, for use at her next fundraising event. Before she could even organise anything, a neighbour of hers dropped by her house, read through my words, and promptly wrote out a personal cheque for close to £1,000 to build the well. While this is obviously fantastic, and yes, the villagers do need clean water, I am very conscious that publicity material such as this only ever gives one tiny piece of the story.

It is difficult to write all the time of people drinking filthy water on a daily basis, water which should bring life but often brings death. Of the thousands of small babies killed by malaria. Of the swathe of AIDS deaths which leaves widows caring for up to 20 kids in one household. For while these people undoubtedly have tough lives, they are not limpid beggars with their hands outstretched. They have pride, dignity, laughter. Their children go to school, even if it is under a tree. They work their farms, hard, every day. The women sit and twist each other's hair into elaborate styles and gossip about their neighbours. The men sit and gossip about the women. The rhythm of life is the same here as it is the world over. And yet it is not the laughter or the gossip which sells, but the hardship and the illness. And that is the way of the word.

*Disclaimer – I am not saying that all Americans are stupid. Far from it. (Hello American friends!) But I would rather chew off my own toenails than ever work with that bunch again.

Wednesday, 20 July 2005

Some Very Important News

Oooh look, I'm in the BBC today. The final piece based on my 'interview' has turned out to be a bit choppity-chop and out of context, but such is the nature of journalists and their editors.

I would like to sincerely thank Darren Waters for saying that my writing is 'considered and informative', when he could so easily have described it as the work of a 'Mad Ranty Bint'. (Ok, so he only said it was considered and informative sometimes, but that's my editing.)

The Remains Of The Day

I wish to speak with the scriptwriters of my life. I'm sure I requested an Adventure Story, not Black Comedy. I am bleary-eyed from lack of sleep. The Bushbaby has kept me awake by cackling up in the tree at an eardrum-busting level all night long. When I walked into the living room this morning I saw what was making it laugh. We have recently acquired two cats, in an attempt to stamp out the wildlife that runs riot inside our home - the bats, rats, mice, voles, giant hairy spiders and so on. Unfortunately the cats feel that they must show off their captives. On the sofa, next to a cute and fluffy toy mouse, all tucked up neat and tidy next to it, almost like bedmates, is a real mouse. Well not so much real anymore, seeing as it's dead an' all. And missing its head. But that's ok though, because I can see the head. Puked up all over the floor.

We have a sweet old lady in the UK who likes to send odd bits and pieces to the schoolkids here. We just received from her a big box of teddies for the creche. Donations in kind have to be registered, so we've got a record of incoming goods. I went to speak to the Man In Charge Of Records about the donation. I showed him the box and told him how many teddies we'd gotten. He didn't know what a Teddy Bear was. There is something incredibly sad about that. But also something incredibly funny about the fact that I now have a receipt for Teddy Balls. I don't really need a box full of furry genitalia, I've had quite enough body parts to contend with this morning...

Sunday, 10 July 2005

We Have Ways Of Making You Scream

If I was actually from Mars, things would be easier, I'm sure. I can now see why – in my previous incarnation as a copywriter - I was never employed on a well-paid government job, for I would surely have brought sense and sensibility to an arena positively proud of its utter incomprehensibility. Not following? Welcome to my world. I am attempting to fill in a hideously written Self-Assessment Tax Return Form, which the British Government has demanded I do, or prison. Or something. Well, good luck finding me. Ironically of course, I have no income to pay tax on. But still, must fill in form or prison.

Before I even begin the preliminaries I am instructed to gather round me supplementary pages. It might as well read 'suppositories', for all the joy this brings to my heart. Enclosed with all my taxy forms is a lovely big form which is supposed to help me. Except if I am using the Non-residence suppositories. Then it is officially No Good. Given that I reside in Zambia, (or do I?…) I will surely be taking the NR (jargon alert!) suppositories. The Non-residence suppositories have not been included in My Big Fat Tax Envelope. I must get them from the interweb. I am lucky to have the interweb, there can't be many aid workers living out in the bush that do.

While I am online I see that I can file my assessment by interweb. I am urged to do so, as it will be fast, secure and jolly good all round. I plough my way through the details, trying, and failing, to bypass the section for postcode, as we don’t have postcodes in Zambia. I make one up. Then I am told that my high-security access code will be posted to me. Yes, by old post. Not by zippy email-style post. So I must wait another six weeks for that to arrive before I can file online. Raah! Jolly super, how fast and efficient indeed.

I give up and try to find the correct NR forms. They are nowhere to be found. I am lost in the maze at Hampton Court Palace with no kindly guards to rescue me. You would think, on the original form, where it tells me to go get the NR Supps, it would tell me what number these extra papers go by, no? Or would that fall into the 'helpful' category? I scream at my computer screen. For good measure I also scream at a few rats who are attempting to run off with the papers on my desk. The Husband finally manages to find the forms for me using secret magic search tools. The guidance notes are TWELVE PAGES LONG. This is not right. I have a life to be getting on with.

I know you are probably bored already. Imagine how I feel. I have not filled in a single box yet, due to suppository searches. And now, before I can fill in the first bit on the first suppository, I must decipher which one of these I am:

Resident and ordinarily resident, domiciled
Resident and ordinarily resident, not domiciled
Resident but not ordinarily resident, domiciled
Resident but not ordinarily resident, not domiciled
Not resident but ordinarily resident, not domiciled
Not resident and not ordinarily resident, domiciled
Not resident and not ordinarily resident, not domiciled

There seems to be no tickbox for 'Alive, but driven crazy by the Inland Revenue.'

I do the absolutely FORBIDDEN and sneak a peek ahead at the section I have to fill in once I have figured out my residency status. Am I an EEA national? I have no idea. What does this mean? I am an Irish national, who used to live in the UK and a citizen of Europe. What is EEA? Is it same like EU?

I am instructed to fill in my forms in either blue or black ballpoint pen. They will get it in purple crayon if that is what is to hand at the time I actually figure out what I am supposed to write. And like it.

The Inland Revenue state many times all over their forms that they will calculate my tax for me (even though I will pay none). What a great idea. No apples minus no oranges equals no bananas. This is what I am now planning to fill in and return to the Inland Revenue by carrier pidgwidgeon, with spangly stars on for good measure:

I am from Mars. I eat bees. 42. Wibble.

Based on the delicate intricacies of their incomprehensible forms, I feel it is the only response they will understand.

Wednesday, 6 July 2005

Corruption

There is an excellent article this morning on corruption in Africa, for those naysayers who like to blame the citizens of that continent for the shenanigans between their leaders and those of the West. And if you are interested in that period of colonial withdrawal from Africa you could do worse than read Ryszard Kapuscinski's excellent book.

Tuesday, 5 July 2005

Out Of Water, Out Of Words

Monday and Tuesday of this week are Zambian holidays, so I am alone in the office. Well, not quite alone. There are giant rats working in tag teams to strip the place of paper and it's really wigging me out. Especially as I am trying to watch my Desperate Housewives DVDs. Water is already running out even though we've just hit July. Normally we only need to ration come September, and rain starts again in November, but the drought last rainy season is having a knock-on effect. What water we have is a lovely brown colour and full of things. Twiggy planty insecty things. How can one possibly get clean in dirty water? Luckily I am not dehydrating as we have both gin and whiskey to drink. It is also so cold I can see my breath in the mornings. It may be time for some hibernation. Chat amongst yourselves, or have a read elsewhere...

Seems we are not the only ones promoting mobile phones and microcredit...

And how depressing that we never ever learn, and the world continues to turn a blind eye to malevolent dictators.