A little help please

Dear readers,

Those of you that don’t know me in real life will know nothing of what’s happened since I started the ‘Bringing up Begu’ series a year or so back. It was going to be a light look at bringing up my second son, an unusual character who brought so much joy to my life I could barely contain it all.

In May 2020 though Begu was diagnosed with Leigh Syndrome, a genetic disorder so severe that no children who have it survive into adulthood. It’s extremely rare (one in 4 million – only 14 children living in the UK). We thought he would to live to about 14, but after diagnosis he only lived another four months. He died in September 2020 aged four and three quarters.

My partner is organising the fundraising event outlined in the attached link, in aid of the children’s hospice. If you’ve enjoyed my blog over the years then please do me the favour of at least reading the fundraising page. What I’m wondering is whether some of you might sponsor my partner, my other sons and our friends in their varying challenges. Even better, perhaps one or two of you might join in with your own challenge wherever you are and help us raise more money. If so you’ll need to give me your email address. If you don’t want to take part or sponsor us, please consider sharing the fundraising page instead (not this blog though please).

Thanks for reading. I wish I was writing something different to you.

https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/Team/RunforAmali

The birth of Begu

Trigger warning: This post is about childbirth and contains details that may upset some people.

I am writing this post in the hope that, aside from it potentially amusing some of my friends, someone may read it and then have an inkling of one version of what the hell they could expect whilst giving birth. I had no shred of an idea of my role (I’m exaggerating, before you start pfffting), despite a ten-week course from an NCT ‘instructor’ on childbirth which we shall discuss later (and she’s not gunna look good), and I was vexed that I as an adult woman in the western world did not know enough about what to expect. At high school in Britain in the 80s sex was still a dirty word – we had one sex ed lesson ever, which involved the very embarrassed male Science teacher attempting to show us with a long pointy stick the whereabouts of the sexual organs on a big poster tacked to the blackboard. We were boys and girls together in the class; the louder boys were busy shouting out crude questions carefully designed to make the teacher blush harder than he already was, and the girls were either cringing themselves or, in some cases, were so much more knowledgeable than the teacher seemed that the lesson was rendered pointless. That lesson was the extent of our official education on sex – education on relationships did not then exist, and childbirth was presented as a thing that other people did, not teenagers (except for the handful of girls that mysteriously disappeared halfway through Year 11, reappearing later on the high street with a pram). It being the 80s, I was given a book by Muv on periods, and therein lay my second small morsel of information about the workings of the female body. As previously discussed, my twenties were largely spent travelling the world or partying (I know, poor me), neither of which are activities known to magically induce knowledge of childbirth. I spent my thirties in Tanzania, and my friends in Britain selfishly chose this decade in which to give birth, thereby making me miss out on the whole experience of watching other people do it (not literally). Hence my dilemma: I was 40, and about to bring a baby into existence without having a bloody clue how to do so. It has always irked me that no one talks about this particular, mammoth event which is going to feature in a lot of people’s lives, and that that’s why women are afraid when the time comes. We are afraid of the unknown, but there’s no need for it to be completely unknown! Experience is the best teacher of course, but fore-warned is fore-armed as well. The only information freely available was the following, gathered over the few months before Begu was due, followed by my thoughts on each ‘fact’.

  1. The woman will know what to do when the time comes (in her friggin’ dreams).
  2. The baby will come out of the woman’s vagina (will it fuck).
  3. No medical interventions exist or have ever been necessary in any woman’s birth before, so you almost certainly won’t need any help (you lying bastards).
  4. Upon being easily born, the baby will latch on to the mother’s milk-laden breasts and drink its heart out (for real – this bullshit made me cry for a whole year after the birth).

I can’t be bothered with the rest but you get the idea. Here then is the story of Begu’s birth – stop reading now if you are squeamish.

Babies are supposed to be born at around forty weeks (in the UK anyway) unless there is a problem and they need to be evicted early. Despite being large and fully grown, Begu did not want to come out. Because I was a week overdue and I was 40, I was strongly encouraged to be induced. I did not understand the implications of this, and along with the fact that the midwife actually stuffed it up rather spectacularly, I regret it happening. I did not feel like I had much choice at the time though and so booked in, earlier than I would have liked because to wait another few days would have meant being in hospital over Christmas, which I did not consider fair on my monster who was then eight. I presented at the hospital at 3pm on a Friday as instructed. This Friday was part of our scheming – we’d chosen it as it was Jake’s last day teaching before the Christmas holidays. Had Begu been born before this day, Jake’s paternity leave would have started and ended that same day, thanks to Norfolk County Council not allowing teachers’ paternity leave to be split either side of a school holiday, the twats. I had actually gone gently into labour naturally by the time I checked in, but when I told the midwife in charge she ignored that fact. (Interruption needed: I LOVE THE NHS! I love the NHS and am grateful for what we have in this country. Get it? This midwife though, was horrible to me throughout my stay in hospital for no apparent reason.) She had booked me in for an induction and I was bloody well going to have it.

The junior midwife inserted a pessary in me, which would have been alright except for how far up it needs to go, and then explained that there are two types; one to gently induce labour in someone who shows little sign of starting naturally, and one to hurriedly induce fast contractions in someone whose waters had broken and who needed to get a move on, to avoid infection. I was a perfect candidate for the gentle, slow one. She gave me the other one by mistake. Within 45 minutes my entire torso was being wracked by frequent, violent contractions that I had been expecting more like six hours in. Jake attached the TENS machine (get one) and I tried not to punch people who came too close. The pain I was feeling though didn’t seem as bad as the pain on the junior midwife’s face when she realised her mistake and had to grass herself up to her senior, who furiously invited her to step into the office and then shut the door so we couldn’t hear the bollocking. On emerging she removed the pessary (but did not apologise, strangely) and the contractions calmed down a bit. I decided that this was the absolute premium moment to wander around the hospital with a machine attached to my back giving me electric shocks, looking for the canteen so I could buy a hot chocolate. Your brain gets a bit mashed, you know?

Hot drink in hand, Jake and I traversed the canteen and right in the middle of it I felt another contraction start. I dumped the cup on a table, bent over at a right angle, leaned my forearms on the table, dropped my head and shut out the world for a minute. You just have to keep breathing slowly and deeply and, if you’re a masochist, counting the seconds. It was a long contraction and when I straightened up after, the population of the canteen had been freeze-framed. Staff and customers had stopped walking and stood, trays in mid-air, watching me and holding their breath. A mother with her two daughters held a fork halfway to her mouth. Conversations had been paused whilst all eyes were on me. One man looked ready to spring into action, although I’m not sure what he thought he was going to do. I let out a breath and they all followed suit. Normal canteen activities resumed. It was quite sweet seeing that in a time of need, forty people had my back.

The pain was actually perfectly bearable with the TENS machine but this early labour went on for about eight hours. The junior midwife had given me a second pessary. Jake had not left my side at all so far, but the second he left the ward to go to the toilet my waters broke. This was supposed to happen first, and was bizarre – a bucketful of fluid poured out of me. None of this film crap where an eggcup-full plops daintily out; it kept flowing for a good half a minute. Jake came back from the bathroom (presumably a different one than that small one which I had redecorated with projectile vomit and various other bodily fluids immediately after the wrong pessary. My body seemed to explode from every orifice. Consequently Jake threw away whatever I had been wearing and we had to barricade the door shut until the cleaners could come) to find me weakly calling his name because I’d just let out a small river. A second clean-up operation commenced.

Around midnight the senior midwife examined the inside of me. Her junior had already done it once, and although she had tried to be gentle, there’s no getting around the fact that someone’s hand going up you as far as your cervix is going to cause some horrible pain. The senior made no such attempt to be careful or gentle, and from where I was she looked a bit like those vets who have to… oh never mind. She made me howl in pain and she seemed unsatisfied with whatever she discovered and grumped off without saying anything. After she’d pickaxed my cervix the contractions became a lot more painful, so I ditched the machine and asked for gas and air. This wondrous concoction had been ingested by me before, in less sanitary surroundings (at a music festival, out of a balloon) and I was looking forward to seeing what the correct ratio of components would be like as opposed to whatever the hell it was that time in a field. Breathing in and out of the tube every time a contraction started, which was every two minutes, I passed the bulk of the night. At one point, laying on my side, I opened my eyes during a particularly ferocious contraction to see Jake dozing in the chair. Here I was, sucking like mad on the tube of relief and trying to stop everything from my navel to my spine falling off, and Jake was having a nice little snooze. I thought ‘You bastard’ at him as hard as I could through my eyes, but he didn’t wake up. [I have just shown him this paragraph and he said “well, it was an exhausting night.” FML.]

One of the midwives had brought me an exercise ball in an attempt to get me off the bed, and after all night in a small space I thought I’d give it a go. I sat on it as shown, holding on to the bed for balance, and rolled around on it a bit. This felt totally hideous and I have no idea what it is supposed to achieve. I told the ball to fuck off (audibly) and walrussed back onto the bed. The junior midwife examined me again to see if my cervix had dilated enough for the latter stages of labour to begin soon. Sufficient dilation would be ten centimetres. She could see I was very tired after my four thousand contractions since the day before, and in an encouraging tone she said ‘Oh, well done! You’re two centimetres!’

‘Oh you are fucking kidding me,’ says I. She wasn’t. She removed what was left of the second pessary and regrouped with her colleagues to discuss how to sort me out. They packed me off to a labour room, a private room with one labour midwife, rather than the ward where ten of you are at the same stage. I wasn’t really ready but they tend to know what they’re doing, pessaries aside, so off I popped. From this point on my memory is hazy, thanks in equal parts to hours of gas and air and having been awake and in labour for fifteen hours so far, but I have Jake’s testimony to rely on – it turns out he did manage to stay awake for some parts.

The labour midwife suggested a Caesarean section, as the dilation was going nowhere, but I insisted I could carry on for a few more hours if I could have an epidural. The pain was getting to be too great and I was exhausted – no sleep, no food, no rest, not enough hydration, and bloody knackering pains in my actual womb lasting one minute, every other minute all night long. I apparently signed consent forms – can’t remember that – and was given an epidural which numbed everything from the waist down. The benefit of this was that although I could feel the contractions, they barely hurt anymore. In between each one, I kept falling asleep for a minute or two, then the next contraction would wake me. The disadvantage was that now that my lower body had been numbed, the contractions calmed down and came less frequently, which meant that the latter stages of labour, where the baby enters the birth canal, had been delayed. My head thought this was great and kept dozing. The rest of my body however considered this a terrible turn of events and wanted the baby out.

As for the baby, his massive head had become firmly wedged in my pelvis, so there was no way he could come out vaginally. He had spent hours nudging further and further into my pelvis and now was well and truly stuck. There followed another hour or so of me snoozing in between contractions which by now were wearing me out completely; unbeknownst to me, Jake and the labour midwife couldn’t take their eyes off the screen showing Begu’s heart rate. After the epidural more or less stopped the contractions, I’d been given an injection of oxytocin to restart them. Now every time I had a contraction, Begu’s heart rate dropped to ever more dangerous levels, and was taking longer and longer to re-stabilise. He hardly had time to recover each time before another contraction sent him into foetal distress. Poor thing – upside down, head rammed into bone, heart rate dancing all over the place; no wonder babies come out crying. By now I was off my head and had no idea of the heart issue, and so felt only vague surprise when two doctors appeared by my bedside, already in blue scrubs, smiling and suggesting I have a Caesarean now. I declined and said I could still manage, then noticed that one of the doctors was wringing her hands. ‘Get on the operating table or the baby will die’ is what I took from whatever she said next. I assented after all, as after all this I quite liked the idea of having a baby alive at the end of it, and within a few minutes they had me on the table and an anaesthetist was tickling me with his pen to establish where the numbness ended, which was immediately under my breasts.

After a few snips through my abdomen I could feel the doctors rummaging around inside me. It didn’t hurt of course, and it felt weird, but after a certain stage anything goes, so I just lay there looking forward to meeting my baby. After they did the washing up in me for a while I heard a sucking noise, a pop, which was them finally grappling Begu’s head back out of my pelvis. He was passed to the labour midwife who showed him to Jake. I could not see him yet and I asked Jake whether it was a boy or a girl (the idea of forcibly assigning a gender to someone without their input seems ridiculous now, in light of everything we know about gender, but that’s what happened). Jake, who knew I was desperate for Begu to be a girl, stammered over the fact that he was in fact a large boy, with enormous purple testicles. We did not know that babies’ genitals are swollen and red or purple when they are born, because of the hormones raging through the mother’s body being passed along the umbilical cord into the baby. It’s perfectly normal – another thing no one tells you – and it subsides after a day or two.

After a quick weight check (9.2lb) and whatever other stuff the midwife measures at birth, she wrapped Begu in a blanket and gave him to Jake, who just stared at him in disbelief that everyone in the room was still alive, although some had big holes in them, and that he was now the father of two people. I was flat out and being stitched back together and too covered in wires and tubes and hospital-type items to be able to hold Begu, but Jake held him down near my face and I touched my baby boy, my baby that I had made with my body, using only the magic of nature.

 

The pregnancy (rest of)

Trigger warning: this post is all about pregnancy and therefore contains some details that may upset people.

The rest of the pregnancy passed without incident… in my dreams! What actually happened was that I tried to maintain some semblance of normality inside my body whilst trying to achieve things that still seemed impossible on the outside of myself. The trouble was, I couldn’t remember what normality felt like. Two weeks before we were due to leave Tanzania, when I was about fifteen weeks pregnant and supposed not to be stressed, Monster still didn’t have a visa to enter the UK, but we had to vacate our house and my job shortly (and therefore the country) for the new intake of teachers. Farv had come to collect us because of that thing when you’re stuck. When I was a teenager I used to ring him sometimes at 1am (from a payphone of course) and say ‘I’ve broken down.’ Him, never one for small talk and not least in the middle of the night:

‘Where are you?’

‘A47.’

‘I’m coming.’

Only this time I’d said ‘Tanzania. It’s 6000 miles. You won’t need the towrope.’

Farv flew to Dar to pick up Monster’s visa while I was busy puking all over my classroom, and the last obstacle to leaving Tz fell into place when he returned triumphant. Leaving my home of eight years suddenly became an imminent reality, plus I had to figure out how to have a baby. I still had moving countries to contend with, but hey, who wants an easy life? All would be well because I had my dependable boyfriend by my side.

Ahem.

A few months previous to our departure Jake had planned an exciting trip backpacking around Ethiopia with his good friend S, who lives in Australia. S would fly to Addis Ababa on the date that we all left Tz, and Jake would meet him there and travel around for three weeks before flying home to the UK to join Monster and me. Four seconds after he’d paid for the flights to Addis, we found out I was pregnant. ‘Oh well,’ said I, ‘bye bye Ethiopia! You can go another time.’ ‘Ha ha,’ laughed Jake, as he arranged with S where to meet in Addis, and not even covertly. I strongly suggested with no small glint in my eye that he couldn’t go. I needed him, mostly to carry the luggage to England. I would not be carrying multiple bags and an eight-year-old and two cats across the continent of Africa which is quite big and then all the way up most of Europe and then all the way home from Gatwick airport whilst being very pregnant and travel sick and hungry and sweaty and tearful, I informed him. He shamelessly replied that it was a good job I had Farv to do all that. The impertinence! I would have slapped him, if it was the 1800s, and if he wasn’t a kickboxer.

On the day I left Tanzania then, all by myself (with Farv and Monster), Jake buggered off to Ethiopia to meet lovely S (it’s not your fault S, it’s JAKE’S FAULT entirely) and had a bloody marvellous time exploring that beautiful country whilst I went to the village I grew up in to be fattened up by Muv. If you love someone, let them go. No it wasn’t that at all, I just wasn’t physically able to prevent him from going because of my ever-increasing girth getting in the way. In the end it turned out to be brilliantly in my favour, because a) it’s a good story that garners sympathy for me and makes him look bad, and 2) I never let him forget the time he dumped me whilst pregnant to move our lives across the world while he went on holiday, so it’s pretty much his turn to make the hot chocolate every single evening for the rest of his life, for example. And Farv carried the bags anyway.

Having arrived in the UK and not having anything much to do except notify the relevant authorities of my son’s presence in the country (you all do this when you arrive in a country right?), I sat down for the first time since 1986. Muv used the opportunity to bake everything in the immediate vicinity, and my fat tum grew and grew until I was really enormous. Begu took full advantage of my gradually lowering stress levels and was growing at a rate inversely proportional to the amount of time I spent awake each day. At this point I was about seventeen weeks and I thought I’d mosey along to the doctor, to say hello and see if anyone there knew how to have a baby. I rang the midwife centre and had a conversation which amused me no end and absolutely did not amuse the midwife.

‘Hi, I’m pregnant and need to be registered in your system please.’

‘How many weeks are you?’

‘Seventeen.’

‘You should already be in our system then. Who’s your doctor?’

‘I haven’t got one yet.’

‘Where was your twelve week scan done?’

‘I haven’t had an official one.’

‘Um… how can this be?’

‘I’ve been living abroad.’

‘Oh! Just bring your foreign medical notes down here then and we’ll get you registered.’

‘I haven’t got any medical notes. I haven’t got anything.’

‘What medical care have you had so far, exactly?’

‘None as yet.’

‘What do you mean? Where have you been?’

‘Tanzania.’

‘Ah. Well come on down and we’ll sort you out.’

‘Okay. Also I’m 40.’

‘Oh… I see. Well hurry on over and I’ll see you today.’

‘Also I had typhoid at ten weeks.’

‘GET DOWN HERE RIGHT NOW!’

I did as I was told for once and drove straight there, wishing that all the women in Tanzania could have access to the kind of healthcare I knew I would receive from now on, and marvelling at the thought that many of those Tz mamas survive and manage childbirth without any professional assistance at all.

The medical staff in the UK were most concerned that it was too late to test for Down’s Syndrome, and didn’t seem to be listening when I repeatedly said that if my baby had Down’s, then I would be bringing up a baby with Down’s. I would not be aborting my precious, much-longed-for baby largely because he or she wouldn’t look quite right to other people. It wasn’t really the staff’s fault though – apparently more than 90% of people in the UK still abort a pregnancy if the baby shows definite signs of Down’s Syndrome (http://archive.wolfson.qmul.ac.uk/ndscr/reports/NDSCRreport09.pdf).

So I settled down and relaxed for the rest of my pregnancy… nope, still no! I scoured the city for a house that I could rent with cats in tow, found one, received Jake in the UK after his unauthorised holiday, rented the house, moved into it, got Monster a school place, argued with the LEA because it wasn’t the school I wanted, had an appeal hearing, lost that, started him at the school next door to our new house, didn’t think the school was the best fit, moved him to another school, and finally, finally, sat down on the settee to let my baby finish growing. I spent the last few wintry weeks of the pregnancy laying on the settee doing a big fat glorious nothing, with my favourite little cat Archie asleep on the bump and a blanket over the top of all of us. Archie watched with interest, head cocked, as Begu pushed my stomach out with his hands and kicked me in the ribs several times a day, and when he settled down under the taut skin, she went back to sleep on top of him, like a kuku keeping her egg warm. (To this day she knows that Begu was that bump and is his small furry guardian. If he is crying and I have not gone to him, she either comes to fetch me or goes to him herself, laying her paw on his face or his arm. He is doing his best to return the favour now that she is dying. In the morning before we go out he places his special blanket next to her and tells her that it will look after her until we get back. He gives her bits of ham from his plate and has started kissing her goodnight.) She slept on the Begu bump for the next few weeks, until I was so large that I couldn’t get up without assistance, couldn’t bend down to pick something up and couldn’t walk down the street without older women gasping and covering their mouths with their hands at the sight of my enormobelly parading in front of me with a will of its own.

With the due date approaching, the conundrum remained. It was lovely to have the support of my little, gingery feline settee-mate, but I wasn’t sure how helpful she’d be if I went into labour. It was all very well imagining that she’d meow ‘push, push,’ but if an interesting sparrow chirped in the garden then I’d be done for. I felt that perhaps I needed more human guidance now that I was nearing giving birth. People to whom I expressed concern over not knowing how to have a baby reminded me that I was already a mother and had done this all before. What?! All my friends had clearly lost their minds. Monster came to me at the age of three, so how on earth was I supposed to magically know what to do with a newborn? And how was it even going to get out of me in the first place? I mean, I knew how it was coming out but what was I supposed to do while that was happening? The only person that would tell me anything truthful about labour and birth was my brilliant friend Aisling, who repeated the advice that her mother gave her when she was about to give birth for the first time: at the moment you think you are going to die, the baby will be born. It wasn’t an image I relished, to be honest, but I was grateful for some truth and clarity among all the comments that were based on me just miraculously knowing what to do when the time came. And now that I mention it, universe, you do love playing tricks on me! The one thing I knew – that babies come out of vaginas – never actually happened, in the end. But that is, quite literally, another story. (Wait a week though, and it’ll probably end up on here. You’re welcome.)

Post script: Since I wrote this last week, my best ever little cat Archie has died. In Tanzania she was almost always my only evening company during those years when I couldn’t go out because my freshly-acquired monster was in bed and there were power cuts and my closest friends had all left the country simultaneously just before I’d become a parent. Whenever she heard me crying she would come from wherever she was to curl up on my lap or shoulder and purr me into a happier place. After ten years with my brilliant little best buddy living with me on two continents, she died this weekend of FIV and FeLV, with which she had lived all her life unbeknownst to me until recently. She was beautiful and perfect until the end, when she was put to sleep peacefully in my arms. She’d been purring on my shoulder five minutes previously, giving me comfort for as long as she was able.

I might get an image of her face tattooed on my forehead.

Bringing up Begu (The pregnancy)

Trigger warning: this post is all about pregnancy and therefore contains some details that may upset people.

I miss writing the blog. There, I’ve said it. Luckily for me, the blog still exists somewhere in cyberspace, and unluckily for you, I think I’ll start writing it again. I have removed all the posts about my monster and as The Farce is over the blog shall henceforth be about… um… well anything I like really. But mostly about the subject which, in the absence of a government to scrap with, now takes up most of my waking day and large chunks of my waking night as well: bringing up Begu. I promise to at least attempt levity and that there will be no bits that make you cry this time around, probably, but there won’t be an impressive, hard-won finale either, unless you count the bit where Begu almost dies of sugar and then doesn’t. Because of baby brain (it’s a real thing!) I can’t really remember how to write properly so I don’t know how this will turn out. If it’s crap, just don’t read it, but if you see me just pretend you did. I’m so tired that I probably won’t recognise you anyway even if we are life-long friends, so you’ll get away with it easily.

So. Towards the very end of The Farce, whilst I was still in Tanzania, something happened to my insides: a pregnancy (then came many small-minded comments about the apparently astonishing existence of my reproductive ability.) Unlike everyone else I was not very surprised by this pregnancy and when I saw the little pink line appear on the stick I simply thought ‘ah, there it is,’ which couldn’t have been more different than how I realised I was going to parent my monster. Jake, on the other hand, went pale when I showed him the stick and looked like he was about to fall over. His mouth spoke that he was pleased and his eyes showed a feeling not unlike terror. His actual words were ‘Wow! Oh, shit. What have we done?’ To have some confirmation of the pregnancy I thought I’d better pop to the doctor, because of the rudimentary test I had used at home which had cost 20p and came in a brown envelope. I presented myself to said doctor and he gave me the same 20p test. Well, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

With the pregnancy came a white-knuckle ride of hormones and emotions that I’d heard about but naively thought myself immune to – hysterical crying fits over nothing at all and a physical exhaustion to match the mental exertion of winning The Farce (I won, did you know?). The misleadingly-named morning sickness actually comes at any time of the day but in the early days it decided to play its hand daily at 7.30am, which was helpfully the exact time I was trying to leave the house to get a small boy to school and myself to work on time. After a while, fed up with vomiting at the front door and in my car and with being late for work, I enlisted my friend Massi The Chemistry Teacher to register my Year 9s each morning and hang out with them until I appeared, pale and smelling slightly like last week’s yoghurt, at my classroom door. When I explained why this was necessary, he beamed and hugged me and expressed great pleasure. He and his wife and children had been instrumental in my monster’s welcome to the compound and the boys remain among Monster’s favourite friends, and Massi’s pleasure was genuine. He was one of the first people I told about being pregnant, and as he loved a bit of subterfuge he was happy to mysteriously take my class every morning whilst casually refusing to tell anyone why.

Several food-related incidents occurred during these first few weeks, exacerbated by me being completely and utterly unreasonable. A different person might be embarrassed and I did think about blocking them out of my memory, but I thought what I’d do instead is write about them on the internet so that a stranger somewhere might laugh slightly for one second. Sigh. There was the dirty chicken incident, which much to Jake’s chagrin continued for several weeks. The only thing I would eat for dinner was chicken burgers from Kuku Poa. All other food made me feel sick (oh, the irony), I couldn’t go near the kitchen and by dinnertime every day I was useless and flat out on the settee trying not to puke again. I couldn’t possibly drive to Kuku Poa to pick up burgers. Jake had no driving licence and did not want to cross town at rush hour anyway. He tried to tempt me with various tasty meal options that he would lovingly craft in the kitchen and which often resulted in me not even being able to look at them without vomiting, but eventually he gave up and went to Kuku Poa pretty much every day. We spent a small fortune on chicken burgers (sorry chickens) and he ended up with a piki piki guy who started hanging around outside our front gate from about 5pm because he knew that sooner or later Jake would come out looking for a ride across town. My monster thought it was brilliant eating junk food every day and would shout as soon as Jake came home ‘Mama feels sick again! Hooray!’

The cheese and onion crisp incident is frequently aired these days at dinner parties (and if you believe that we ever have dinner parties anymore, you’ve obviously never spent any time with both my children at the same time) and is a source of much amusement, but at the time it was traumatising for me, and I know Jake still bears the mental scars of that day, the poor lamb. I had written an exhaustive shopping list and demanded that he go to U-Bend to fetch every single thing I needed immediately. He walked to the shop in the hot sun, bought all the items on the list, carried it all outside, hopped on the back of a piki piki and then had to hold the bags of shopping out on either side of him like when he used to pretend he was Tom Cruise in Top Gun*. Then he put it all away in the kitchen cupboards in the exact spots preferred and dictated by yours truly. I made a polite request of him to bring a packet of cheese and onion crisps to my camp (the settee). He made the ridiculous and unacceptable statement that he HAD NOT BOUGHT ANY. I, gasping with shock at his insolence, asked the reason for this treachery, and he dared to inform me that I had not written them on the list. Undone with disbelief, I cried ‘But you should have known!’ and promptly burst into very loud and sincere tears which lasted rather a long and perhaps unnecessary time. Some believe that I only stopped crying after he had returned to the shop and bought cheese and onion crisps, but that’s just hearsay.

Snacks became a theme in my pregnancy with Begu. Jake would fill my schoolbag each morning with about seventeen little pots of different foodstuffs because if I stopped eating even for twenty minutes I would start to feel so nauseous that I could no longer guarantee the safety of my students. Fortunately there was a sink at one end of my classroom and the kids learned to ignore me as I alternated directing their creative writing with chucking up in the corner. The little pots looked pretty and colourful lined up on my desk and later, when they knew I was pregnant, some of my Year 9s would from time to time add treats to the line-up without mentioning it, and I would delight in finding, amongst all the carrot sticks and humous, something dreadfully unhealthy and delicious.

The day I told my form group that I was having a baby, they reacted in three ways. Half of them gasped in surprise and were chuffed and exclaimed ‘Oh Miss! Our first 9R baby!’ Half of them didn’t give a shit – they were fourteen, after all. And one, my lovely wing ‘man’ (girl), yelled to the others ‘I told you!’ How teenagers just know stuff about their teachers has always been, and remains, beyond me. A few of them decided that the baby would have to be named after themselves, and harassed me towards that end until the day I left Tanzania.

After the period where my life was based solely on snacks calmed down, I thought it was all a bit too easy and simple, so to keep things interesting I got typhoid. It was crap. The drugs that kick typhoid out of your body tend to be very strong and therefore life-threatening to small foetuses, so I had to have a weaker drug which was not as powerful at getting rid of the illness. I had typhoid for three weeks then, during the first trimester, and we held our breath as unborn Begu faced his first dangerous experience. He showed us a taste of his forthcoming tenacity though and lived through it.

Relieved beyond measure, I realised that I didn’t even know if Begu was a person, singular, or multiple people. Perhaps I’d better have a little scan, I thought, and establish how many people were in me. Except it’s not as simple as that in Mwanza, so after making enquiries within the migrant worker community we procured an appointment with a doctor friend of a friend who assured us that she could scan my abdomen and do some counting. I laid on the bed at around twelve weeks and she got out her scanner – a mobile laptop-type thing the size of a small suitcase. She plugged it in and let it warm up before it would work (a bit like one of Farv’s half-cars) and smeared the sticky stuff on me. She had prepared me so well for the fact that this might not work that when the fuzzy little picture came into some focus I just stared and stared at the baby that I’d created with my body. After so many years fighting to get my relationship with my monster made legal and consequently not being allowed to try to get pregnant as well, I had suddenly made a child and could now see it on the battered old telly thing right in front of me. I looked at Jake, but he was equally speechless at the enormity of the situation. The fuzzy creature had been touching the tip of its nose, but now it raised its arm in greeting, held it aloft for a few seconds, then turned its back on us, rolled over and went to sleep. Trying to describe the feeling in retrospect of seeing that first glimpse of my Begu is making tears fill my eyes, so now I can’t see the screen properly and I don’t know what I’m typing ckd sjbfb lAHGCJNjhjfkbz. But suffice to say that, subsequent reproductive heartbreak aside, having the monster in my life for good and having the baby I watched snoozing that day with me as well makes me feel like one of the luckiest people on this earth. No doubt I’ll sprain my ankle tomorrow to redress the balance.

*Jake has just read this and informed me that he does not understand the Top Gun reference because he’s too young.

Faces of Forever Angels

Here’s a little deviation from our story, so that I can bring you stories of other people for a change. I probably talk about myself too much on this blog anyway.

In Mwanza then, there is a baby home like no other, called Forever Angels, and it is so much more than an orphanage. (This is not where Monster used to live, by the way.)

Most orphanages in Tanzania look after children, to varying degrees. Some don’t even do that, but let’s not nitpick. Forever Angels does the following good stuff, among other things:
• Looks after children aged 0-5 (this is their official purpose – what follows is just extra)
• Teaches the children in their on-site classroom (designed and built themselves)
• Hosts volunteers, to get extra hands-on attention for the children
• Encourages any relatives of the children to visit regularly, preferably with a view to eventually taking them home (often with continuing support)
• Gives jobs to said relatives to facilitate financial stability
• Develops training programs specific to individual staff members’ needs
• Builds on-site homes for long-term staff
• Provides micro-finance schemes for extremely poor parents in the local community to avoid them having to give up their children for lack of food
• Encourages adoption of their children within the Tanzanian and international community, and works with Social Welfare to ensure this continues to be an option for as many as possible of the children who have no one
• Takes in children that are neither abandoned nor orphaned but are facing other challenges; for example children with albinism whose parents want them to live without the fear of being murdered for their body parts, which are believed to bring good luck.

So many lives have been impacted by Forever Angels it is actually just ridiculous. The place is a force to be reckoned with. Babies who arrive literally at death’s door (through destitution, malnutrition, neglect, or just ignorance of childcare) are transformed time and time again from skeletal, ill, floppy little creatures that no one thinks will survive the week to chubby, bouncy, smiling babies who look like they’re happy to be alive at last. I have seen the staff at Forever Angels create this magic myself; sit up all night holding a tiny, scrawny thing and keeping it warm and giving it affection, feeding it every hour, for days on end, until the baby resembles more and more the human being it has always had the right to be.

Volunteers meaning to spend a few weeks or months there often end up staying on, sometimes for years, dedicating a large part of their lives to the little community and on occasion even residing permanently in Tanzania and helping to ensure the long term sustainability of the project. Even visiting Forever Angels once for whatever reason shows a person the new lease of life given to the children there.

The outreach families that FA work with slowly but surely become less reliant on the project, as they start to provide for their families themselves through the finance schemes and care for their children through the childcare education programs.

The staff of Forever Angels have bought land, built houses, been highly trained in their jobs, sent their kids to good schools… and they all lived happily ever after? Well… not everyone, which is why we need to help. FA work within a perpetual cycle of children being abandoned or orphaned. Their milk formula bill alone is £1000 a month. The founder once told me that her aim was that one day FA wouldn’t need to exist anymore – a wonderful day that will be, but it’s a very long way off yet.

Their end-of-year fundraiser this December “celebrates the profound impact that the Forever Angels Baby Home has had on the lives of those it has touched. It is a charity whose life-changing reach goes beyond the children whose mission it is to nurture.” In the nine years since its inception the Baby Home has cared for around 250 vulnerable children, some for years at a time; but this month they are focusing on the countless other individuals and families who have either contributed to the life-saving work or have been on the receiving end of that effort. Throughout December, you can read on their sites stories of success and compassion, a different one every couple of days. My favourite is that of Lilian, who came to FA as a teenager looking for work – and now runs the place.

This time of year is a time for giving, for thinking of others. Read the stories and have your heart warmed, but please do not rest there. If you are unable to donate any money, then for the love of humanity please share this post or the fundraising pages of Forever Angels Baby Home in the hope that others will donate something to this, one of the worthiest causes I have ever witnessed.

Santa told me he’ll bring you a present if you donate AND share the pages.

http://www.foreverangelsusa.org/thestories

http://www.foreverangels.org

 

Exploding monkeys & lies about lava

Guatemala, 2001 or thereabouts

A Welsh punk with cerise hair told me years ago about Tikal, the national park just north of a town called Flores. She advised that if I ever visited it, I should climb to the top of Temple number four, but did not explain why. Happily, I discovered the reason years later for myself. Guatemala is one of those countries that one falls quickly and inexplicably in love with. Perhaps the company, the timing or the traveller’s state of mind play a role, or perhaps the place is just bloody brilliant. Since that trip I have thought often of the colours in the streets there, and have claimed it as one of my favourite countries, not least because one of its towns is named Chichicastenango.

In preparation for the trip I attempted to teach my boyfriend Jon some rudimentary Spanish, but unfortunately he was a (deliberately) unwilling student. Rousing fragments of semi-lucid communication from the depths of my Spanish GCSE, I tried to force upon him at least a simple gracias, but when the mood takes him Jon can be as stubborn as… well – me. Had I not bothered, he no doubt would have been fluent by the time we arrived in Central America, and in fact he claims these days that his Spanish far exceeds mine, the git. Time shall tell (I would drag him to Spain purely to prove him wrong).

Various events had already occurred in the south of the country, where frijoles are served with every meal, where I was offered a bar job within twenty minutes of walking into a pub in Antigua, and where I chose not to visit any of the many orphanages (which with hindsight was blatantly a good idea!). Allow me to digress from the explosive matter at hand by first relating a sub-story about Volcan Pacayo, an active volcano on the outskirts of Amatitlan. The surface of the volcano consisted entirely of small shards of volcanic rock, which had the effect of it looking and feeling like it was covered with black snow. Wearing trainers, we struggled to trudge up the steep side as every footstep sunk a few inches into the debris. After three hours we reached the top, jubilant and excited – all ready for me to make a total fool of myself by approaching the handsome Scandinavian type that I’d shared smiles with all the way up, because I was utterly convinced he was someone I knew, someone that had been on the kibbutz with me fifteen years previously. I swore to Jon that it was him, and Jon, having never met or even seen a picture of my old mate Hasse but knowing me well, swore that it wasn’t. It wasn’t, obviously, and Jon always laughed about that, although I fail to see anything so amusing about approaching the wrong Swede at the top of a live volcano.

Perched on the rim, after venturing as near as we dared to the slippery edge and craning our necks to perhaps catch a glimpse of molten magma, someone asked the guide if anyone had ever fallen into the volcano. ‘What? No, no… why would they fall in? There used to be a fence, but… er… no, definitely no one has ever fallen into this volcano… definitely… uh… not.’ He cast a few furtive glances around us and suggested that now might be a good time to return to ground level.

The foot-sucking, deep snow of the surface made getting off the volcano even more difficult than the ascent. Jon, an avid skier, quickly discovered that the easiest method was to use one’s feet as skis, and a second later he was gone, whooshing smoothly down the side of the volcano at high speed and leaving me to wonder how the fuck I was going to get down off the blasted thing. I tried his skiing trick, but I am more or less allergic to skiing and most things sporty, so I promptly fell over and sat there looking down at him waving at me. The wide smile on his face turned to slight panic as he realised he had left me up a volcano.

A German man, after laughing heartily at my pathetic attempts to not be stuck at the top of the friggin’ thing, swished over like they do in Bond films, offered me his arm and said ‘Ve go, ja?’

Ja!’ said I. I linked my arm through his and we swooshed gracefully together, from side to side, like Torvill and Dean. All we needed was a bit of Ravel’s Bolero. We reached the bottom and I felt exhilarated. (On our return to London, a colleague dampened the buzz by telling me he’d looked down and seen bubbling magma when he’d stood on that very rim. I’ve never worked out whether he was having me on or not.)

Walking back towards the town from Volcan Pacayo, the guide pointed back at the volcano and gasped in horror, pointing at it and shouting ‘Look! Look! Now it is erupting!’ Jon and I squinted at the volcano which was now a fair way behind us, couldn’t see anything resembling an eruption, and rooted around for the binoculars. Some of the other people in the group were freaking out, but no could actually see what the guide was referring to. ‘Oh my god! Are you sure?’ the Americans among us repeatedly asked him, only to be met with a vehement ‘Yes! Look, look, the lava is rolling down the side!’ British and European people must just be more cynical, for none of those even batted an eyelid at the imaginary lava flow. Jon and I nudged each other and decided to join in the subterfuge. ‘Oh wow, I see the lava!’ we simpered as we gazed intently through the binoculars at the nebulous, dark grey slopes of the cold volcano. The guide, confused for a second at us ‘seeing’ it, realised our game and regained his composure, reassuring everyone that we were far enough away from the volcano not to have to run. We passed the binoculars around and a small number of the group saw what they wanted to see – molten, fiery lava flooding down the side of the volcano we had just stepped off an hour beforehand. One particular woman caught our fancy by loudly proclaiming that she could indeed see the erupting lava, and stating how lucky we were not to have been burned up. ‘Yes! Yes! I can! I can see it!’ (As we hiked on, moving along the gullible, mesmerised woman and her friends with some difficulty, Jon coined the phrase ‘Why lie ‘bout lava?’ which has remained in both our lives in a childish yet irresistible way, and remains in usage to this day in countries as far afield as New Zealand.)

The dismal Spanish lessons continued as we travelled around the country. I continued trying to get Jon to thank people in their language and he continued to accidentally say ‘cerveza’ instead of ‘thank you’, and ‘frijoles’ instead of ‘good morning’. At one point we crossed a crazy border into Belize, a definitive line between two peoples, cultures and languages. On one side, every person is indigenous Central American, speaks Spanish or a local dialect and dresses in brightly coloured woven fabrics. Not fifty yards away, everyone is Afro-Caribbean, speaks English, wears jeans and has that laidback Caribbean vibe about them. The stark contrast was so strange and defined that I even looked back across the border to check that my mind wasn’t playing tricks.

Anyway: monkeys. Tikal national park is a sprawling and beautiful… um… national park, and after a few hours wandering we sought out Tikal Temple IV. A Mayan structure built almost 2500 years ago stood regally in front of us, the tallest (old) structure in the ‘new’ world, soaring into the sky and daring us to climb it. Pyramidal, it held a giant staircase on the front which rose at a 45 degree angle and seemed to go on indefinitely. Warily starting to climb, we could not look to either side as the steps were so narrow and closely-set and we feared losing our grip. We were already ascending on all fours because each step was too narrow to even hold a whole foot. Halfway up I wanted to look behind me but I couldn’t because of that thing where you want to throw yourself off tall buildings or into the path of oncoming vehicles just because you know you mustn’t. At the top of Tikal Temple IV there is a small platform and onto it we briefly flopped before turning to face the world from 65 metres up in the air.

What I saw took my breath away. We were standing in the sky, looking down over the top of the rainforest. The canopy was partly shrouded in the mist which hung in swathes and veils like a colourless Aurora. Trees fought for light, towering above each other and offering their upturned leaves to the provider. A dozen vivid greens constituted a solid mass of pulsating life within which lived 300 different species, some of whom were out to play as we stood gaping. Mexican black howler monkeys leaped and raced between the trees, chasing and shrieking. Parrots, macaws and toucans glided impressively, effortlessly, above them, swooping and screaming. They looked like the multi-coloured streamers that trail behind gymnasts, never remaining in one place long enough for you to gaze your fill. All I could see for miles in every direction was Earth in pure form, untouched and unspoilt by humanity (oh, er, except the massive manmade temple I was standing on). The volume of noise was astounding, and the vastness of it all rendered me speechless, as only Mother Nature can do.

Photographs were an insult to the beauty of that fragile jungle. I did take some, but they look utterly inadequate compared to the picture stamped on my mind. Nothing could convey the purity and complexity of the forest and its plethora of creatures. Further attempts to describe it would be futile, unless Joseph Conrad were here, which would be quite difficult due to him being rather dead.

Ambling back through the park towards the gate in the contented silence that comes with being awed by the majesty of nature, we sat down under a tree, seeking shade. Having stayed so long in the sky, we found ourselves observing the merest beginnings of sunset in the park and the departure of the aggressive heat of the afternoon. Evidently other beings had been hiding from the high temperatures too and as we rested we heard the chattering of spider monkeys waking up from their afternoon siesta.

In front of us was a gently swaying palm tree. Suddenly and without noise or fuss, a spider monkey flew upwards from the centre of its branches, fell gracefully off to the side, and made good his escape across the tops of the neighbouring palm trees. Blinking rapidly, we stared at each other to check that each of us had not imagined it, then glued our eyes to the tree in case the monkey had not chosen to take his nap alone. Sure enough, after a second another monkey burst directly upwards out of the flat top of the tree, arced perfectly in the air, and ran off to join his friend. Hardly daring to breathe, we watched with pure glee as the palm tree spewed out the rest of the springing monkeys like a furry fountain. They appeared to be being fired out of some sort of cannon-like contraption within the centre of the branches; one by one they were blasted up into the air and after cascading along rainbow-shaped paths in various directions they dispersed, scampering and giggling. Two or three mothers burst upwards, trailing babies by the paw, and one adult was at the head of a line of two or three little babies of differing sizes, all holding hands. I laughed and laughed with joy at our unbelievable luck, and I smile even now when I think of it. The tree probably spent only about a minute exploding the monkeys into the air, a group of around twenty, but the sight of it will remain with me for time immemorial.

The love I feel for our damaged world is unfortunately sometimes tempered by people’s behaviour, but it’s also sometimes bolstered by the things I see and experience. I intend to travel the world for as long as I am physically able (financially, more like), and will hopefully gather new stories about exploding stuff. The bad news for you is that I might write about them on this blog.

On the flight out of the country, the Guatemalan stewardess asked Jon how his trip had been. He answered her in Spanish: ‘Si, con guacamole’.

Technology’s gift to, and hindrance of, friendship

Foreword/Warning: this post is a rambling mess and in places actually incomprehensible. It darts in and out of its own chronology and also refers to things that haven’t been mentioned yet. It resembles the scripts I make up to illustrate to my students how not to write. I can’t even recall now what its original point was supposed to be. Perhaps I should forfeit writing this blog and stick to teaching… Nah! Think of it as a stream of consciousness, only with punctuation.

 

Something fabulous happened this week. Through the addictive evil that is Facebook, contact has been re-established between myself and several people that I spent very happy times with in Israel in 1995. A whole load of us, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed (at the start anyway), from all different countries unscattered ourselves and lived together on Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, near a town called Ashqelon and a mile or two from Gaza. Six months were spent living and working communally with a bunch of fantastic and interesting people that I have never seen since. When I left Israel, I did not gather email addresses, Facebook friends, Skype nicknames or even mobile phone numbers. We had none of that stuff: some of it did not exist yet, and that which did was not nearly as captivating as watching someone’s eyes while they told a story. Computers were still surplus to our requirements. Subsequently the only communication I had with these people (with one exception) was a sporadic exchange of letters, and yes I do mean actual letters made of paper and writing.

(That one exception brought a great deal of joy to my life. We were thick as thieves in Israel, so much so that people assumed we had gone there together; in fact we first met on the aeroplane on the way out of London. She once told me that were it not for me, her experiences of that starkly beautiful country would not have been as much fun. I feel likewise, told her so, and both of us were speaking the truth. We have a pact: when the youngest of all our children is twelve, we will spend some months living on the same kibbutz and working alongside each other as we used to, but with our families by our sides. One day, our children will experience a different way of life within the myriad benefits of the commune, and they will know that we are all there together because of the nature of the true friendship of their mothers.)  

In the meantime I recently joined a Facebook group set up for ex-volunteers of our kibbutz and as a result have spent the last couple of weeks communicating online to two Argentinians, an Englishman, a Dutch woman and one delectable Dane, all of whom I shared many a story or a party (or a workday) with almost twenty years ago, and I’m thoroughly enjoying the belated conversations. After the nostalgia infected me (‘Remember when…?!’ – ‘No, that was the other Dutch Eric!’) I looked through the old photographs, wishing I could temporarily join the South Americans in the coffee house they happened to be in, together, when we’d caught each other online. Amongst the photos I found this gift, given to me when I left the kibbutz:  

Image

Is this correct? The gift-giver and I were not friends as such, so does this render it therefore untrue by default? Pretentious? Or was I just being given general advice? The question really revolves around how one is to preserve old friendships when one is wont to keep moving and everyone else re-scatters themselves around the globe as well?

As an adult with a child at home and hundreds of the buggers at work, my mouth can’t help but smile knowingly when my monster talks about his best friend (he has three or four and they are interchangeable) or when my teenagers tell me in all seriousness that their current favourite friend will be their BFF (for those of you not down with the lingo: Best Friend Forever.) We adults know in our infinite wisdom that they will move away from each other, attend different universities and find jobs in different towns or countries, or that their lives will take such different paths that they may one day struggle to find anything in common – but actually what is to stop them retaining their childhood friends in a way that we found impossible?

Between the ages of eight and eleven – which is more or less forever when you’re that age – my favourite person in the world was Ben. Ben was perfect. He was the coolest and the bravest and he was polite to my mother. He climbed haystacks with me, rode his bike around the village with me, built dens with me in the old bomb crater, ate his lunch in my garden, and he never cried. He was my nine-year-old hero. There were others, half a dozen of us, but Ben is the one who stands out most in my memory. Sure, I was in love with him and he threw my tender young emotions into turmoil every time he walked in the room, but it’s beside the point. When we turned twelve he was cruelly removed from my life (he left for boarding school) and I have never laid eyes on him since. After twenty-five years, I received a message from Ben through the wonder of technology. It read only ‘hello.’ I answered, saying only ‘I loved you.’ ‘I know,’ came his succinct reply, and suddenly the fact that I had not maintained contact with one of my first friends in life was bearable. Here then is my concession: without technology I would be lost to not only my old, dear friends, but also my newer ones. Ugh. It hurt to write that. On my laptop. Which is like air to me here in Tz. Please forgive me, darling pen and paper, and I love you no less than before, but at last I surrender: I need communication technology. But that doesn’t mean I like it, okay?

I do freely admit that I could not survive happily (ha!) in Tanzania without certain things. My mother has a healthy relationship with the grandson she’s never met, something that would not be possible without Skype. I look forward to the time I can live without Facebook, but alas that day is far from now and realistically it will probably never arrive anyway. I keep in touch with my friends using only the gadgets I have at home, which no doubt are so obsolete in the UK they won’t even work when I get them back there, but this is not out of choice (the post here is unreliable and ineffective).

If I were near my close friends, I could see them. I could visit them; hold intense conversations deep into the night. We could create memories, like the ones I have from the friendships I made for real instead of rekindling them over the internet.

Can friendship really be cemented when the people involved just spend their time watching music videos together, like my kids at school? Or sending each other text messages, instead of walking around the corner to enquire in person? Is the friendship not more valid, more passionate, when the friends have fallen out of a tree together, been chased squealing out of the pea-field by the farmer together, met up fifty times in advance of waiting for the school bus together because both are petrified of the first day at secondary school? And no, MSN messenger is not the same as meeting on the swings, as suggested by one of my Year 9s. I am intransigent on that point. Watching television was largely, in our house, kept for rainy days, times when we were ill, and Christmas. My younger students talk only about television, YouTube, their phones, and I despair. They do not own bikes, because they are driven everywhere, so how can they know the exhilaration of racing them together? Because they have mobile phones and music players perpetually in their pockets, there is no desire to seek out their own entertainment and therefore shared experiences.

But I shall now attempt to revert to my other, garbled, point, which I actually can’t remember now although I think it may have been something along these lines: regardless of the presence or absence of technology are old friends better than new ones? When does a friend venture into the realm of oldness and discard their ‘new’ tag? Old friends have shared your childhood perhaps, or your formative years, or your first forays into adulthood. Those times are irreplaceable and inimitable, and there is no doubt that the friends we make when we are younger often bring us joy throughout our lives in a way that new friends are unable to do simply because they lack the experience or a certain connection or understanding. But I am disinclined to suggest that new friends are unable to make that leap. I have made new friends in the last few years that I now cannot picture not being in my life. When those people or their partner have (or acquire) children, I cry with anguish that I cannot be around and that the child will begin to grow without me having held it, so loved is its parent within my heart (along with Skype, on those occasions). The definition of friendship varies depending on the individual of course, but what constitutes a friend that one wishes never to let go of? One need not always spend time with them, for example, for the friendship to remain as fresh as when it was created, nor even really to talk to them! My friendship with Kirby-Cane has survived us not conversing in any way for years at a time sometimes, yet I know that we will always be important features in each other’s lives (she drove all the way to Norfolk when I was in England last month just so that I could meet her baby for an hour). These people are called ‘keepers’ (aren’t they Doolie?).

One of the things I most look forward to about being able to travel outside of Tanzania one day is talking properly with my close friends, eating together, feeding each other’s kids, living life together. In the meantime, needs must: relying on technology is a necessary evil, but how does one ensure that one’s children are raised with communication technology and pea-fields in equal measures? Answers on a postcard, NOT in an email.

Thievery

Tanzania, 2008

One afternoon whilst I pottered in my empty classroom after the kids had gone, I received a text message from my partner-in-crime Sian saying that I should proceed directly to ‘big school’ to see what had materialised in her classroom, and pronto. Her being the Art teacher meant that whatever appeared there was always something interesting, but the request for urgency meant that this time it was doubly impressive. I ambled down the dusty road from my little campus to big school and made my way to the Art room, where I immediately became ridiculously excited. One of her secondary students had brought in to school (for some reason which escapes me now) a huge, heavy go-kart that he had shipped in from Dubai, and left it for safe-keeping (!) in her classroom. Though rudimentary in design, it was enormous; made from thick steel pipework and welded into shape with an assortment of fat nuts and bolts. It had a proper steering wheel and handbrake, and apart from the fact that there was a plank of wood resting on the space where a seat should have been, this go-kart was the business. 

After sneakily shutting her classroom door, Sian and I took it in turns to pump the pedals gleefully and drive it around the room in between the desks. We couldn’t go very far though obviously or get any speed up, because we were inside. And therein lay the problem: she had told Mehdi, the owner of this delicious forbidden fruit, that he was not allowed to drive it around school, so therefore it wouldn’t be fair for us to do so. At this point I do feel obliged to mention that we tried extremely hard to be sensible and professional and to resist the unyielding temptation, but ultimately what’s the point of being a teacher if you can’t break your own rules?

We had a quick scout round outside to make sure no students were loitering with intent (to catch us out), then we wheeled the great thing outside. Sian wanted to ride it down the long concrete ramp that ran alongside her block, from the Chemistry laboratory back down to the Art room door, so she jumped on and tried to pedal up the ramp; it was too steep though so I heaved against the back of the go-kart until she was at the top of the ramp. She sat there for a moment, teetering on the brow whilst we discussed the best way to turn it around in a space that was no wider than the go-kart itself. I thought I’d come up with the best option, when suddenly shouted across the playground we heard the immortal words: Miss! What are you doing? 

We turned dubiously and saw Mehdi and his friends, come to collect the go-kart. Gutted. Ever the loyal friend, I swiftly removed my hands from the vehicle with the intention of deflecting any implication of being involved with this awful misconduct! Unfortunately my weight behind it was what had been holding it at the top, and the release of pressure meant that the go-kart, and Sian, consequently started ever so slowly to commence their descent – until they bumped against my feet and rested there, gluing me to the crime. The boys sauntered towards us, hands in pockets, looking bemused and not quite realising just yet how well they could do out of this situation. As they approached the general vicinity Sian offered ‘Oh hello! We were just… um…’ The boys started laughing and one of them taunted ‘Caught red-handed, Miss.’ Sian explained that she was just showing the go-kart to me. They stared at her, then at me, then her again and then they all burst out laughing, disbelieving their luck at their having caught out teachers misbehaving instead of the infinitely more common other way round. I think that moment was integral in them learning something about life, so really we did them a favour. Or something.

Unfortunately, Sian and I found ourselves unable to turn the go-kart round, so the boys had to stroll up the ramp and help us, which lost us the tiny shred of street cred that (we imagined) still remained. They started to wheel it off towards the front gate, with us following like naughty children. They stopped halfway while they pondered how to get the heavy vehicle up and over a small but elongated hill in the path. One suggested riding it really fast up the hill but another of them reckoned it could not be done because of the gradient.

‘Ha! I could get it up there easily!’ I announced casually, displaying not only a lack of the responsibility necessary for a career in teaching but also the ridiculous one-upmanship that we try to coax the pupils away from for the twelve years that they are in our care. ‘Go on then Miss,’ says Mehdi, a crafty smile creeping onto his face. He turned the go-kart round to face the hill and put the plank back on. A challenge? From a student? Everyone knows how brilliant I am at refusing those! Sitting on the plank, I rolled the go-kart backwards to get a good run-up, paused for effect, and then gripped the steering wheel and pedalled like mad along the concrete, passed another teacher who yelled ‘go on, Miss Rose!’ and cleared the hill easily as promised. I freewheeled down the other side feeling smug and perhaps re-gaining a smidgin of the street cred we lost in front of the kids when we nicked their go-kart. The boys, amused and satisfied with the recovery, wheeled it off to the gate.

Unfortunately for all involved though, the headmaster happened to be standing nearby and intercepted them. Sian and I assumed that he was bollocking them for messing about with the go-kart in the playground after they’d received specific instructions not to. We looked at each other wearily and started trudging over very slowly to tell our boss that it was not his students that had let him down but in fact members of his staff. But before we got close enough to confess our crime, the boys left, the headmaster wandered off, and a bunch of girls told us he had seen nothing and wasn’t telling them off at all. We turned sharply on our heels and retreated into the Art room – a bit like hiding but not, because we were adults. We MIGHT have been giggling. Some days, it’s worth being a teacher.

The king and I

The Cook Islands, circa 1999

I tried not to go to the Cook Islands. Then when Lee insisted, I attempted to allow only two days instead of the week he so fervently wished for. I was determined to press on to New Zealand and was disinclined to ‘waste time’ en route (I cringe now at the thought of having uttered such dross) on a tiny island in the middle of nowhere when there was adventure to be chased in Aotearoa! Lee won the debate, naturally (if you’d met him, you’d know), and on arrival in the Cooks, ‘Fool am I!’ I shouted joyously, with all the decibels my lungs could muster, for Rarotonga is as close to paradise on Earth as I have ever seen. I’m sure you are either able to Google it or are just not that interested, but just in case you fancy a peek yet reside in my gang (the technologically illiterate) I will briefly describe it in order that you may form some sort of image in your head. An island, less than 25km in circumference, surrounded by ocean so blue and warm it hurts to arrive from London and then rest your eyes on such raw and fierce beauty. The fish that circle the island look like they have been invented by cartoonists, so bright are their myriad colours and so incandescent their scales. The middle of the island is pure, lush, unadulterated jungle, and directly in the centre is the erect column of solidified lava which once erupted from the volcano that has long since fallen away. Edging the island are, of course, the most beautifully perfect beaches that I have seen to this day, made of fine sand the colour of champagne and inhabited by pomegranate-coloured crabs the size of your head. Lagoons envelope the island, sparkling and twinkling at you gently until it’s all you can do not to tear off your clothes right there and then and throw yourself whole-heartedly into their soporific embrace. I am not exaggerating (for once).

The integral part of this anecdote is the travelling companion, without whom the event here relayed would not have taken place. Lee: the Welshman I cohabited with for five years in my early 20s; avid patriot; he of shaved head and intimidating manner; he of four gold hooped earrings in each ear; he of commanding voice so loud that I knew as soon as he’d disembarked the train to Tottenham where our house, the Den of Iniquity, shoddily stood. Lee, the rugby fanatic, who would wake the entire street if Wales were scoring tries aplenty on the television, and if they weren’t. Lee, who was always game for a party or an adventure, especially if they were unplanned and unexpected.

On the morning in question we’d been rambling around Rarotonga on hired bicycles and were discussing the local prison, which we’d spotted on the ride. It was a pretty bungalow set in even prettier gardens, with the sole prisoner bumbling around outside, extrapolating a weed here and there and waving at us cheerily as we paused to play the nosey tourists. Back in town we’d asked someone in a bar about the lack of fences or guards at the prison, and had been assured that such things were unnecessary – the prisoner was in the prison, everyone knew it, and he would remain there until he was released. He had killed someone in a drunken fistfight. We asked what would happen if perchance someone else needed to be incarcerated and the man laughed good-naturedly. ‘No one commits crime here’ was his only reply. I could not help but squeeze in a further enquiry – why the prisoner did not simply walk out of his jail’s front door, and then the garden gate, to freedom. My bar-friend laughed again – ‘where would he go?’ he asked. ‘Everyone knows everyone on the island, so there’d be nowhere to go.’

After digesting this information to a satisfactory level Lee and I wandered along to the village rugby pitch to watch a match between two of the six villages which form Rarotonga’s populace. Sitting on the grassy bank of the pitch, cool beers in hand, it seemed like the afternoon ahead of me would be spent in a sunny, somnolent daze with only the occasional cry of ‘go ON, mun!’ to break my reverie.

After a short while though, a dusty pick-up truck came careering round the corner and skidded to a stop in the gravelly car park. Out jumped five enormous young men, giants really, energy abound and smiles all over their faces. They stormed straight over to Lee and I, which in another country may have slightly unnerved me, but by now I had firmly acquisitioned the knowledge that most people who stopped me in the street here wanted simply to give me a welcome present – an apple perhaps, or some greens from their grandmother’s garden (no, really! That happened on Rarotonga). The young bulls (have you seen the size of Pacific island rugby players?!) stared at us and seemed to be trying to decide something. Satisfied with what they saw, one of them asked Lee a question –

‘Are you the Welshman with the gold earrings?’ We had already been held in high regard on other Pacific islands, simply because that region of the world is rugby-mad, as are the boys from the valleys whence Lee originated, and the islanders always seemed overtly pleased to meet a Welshman. Lee replied in the affirmative, and they turned their gaze to me.

‘And you’re the girl with the yellow hair…’ pondered the spokesman aloud. Again they seemed to be mulling over in their minds their discovery of us. Checking each other’s expressions, they nodded and smiled to one another, before turning back to us with their unintentionally perfect statement:

‘The king wants to see you. Get in the truck.’

Incredulous, we laughed out loud at the thought of us being summonsed by the monarch of a land we had just arrived in (how would he have known we were there?) or in fact any land, and the unlikelihood of me getting into a truck with five men unknown to me who were built like brick shithouses. They, however, were crestfallen and even looked a little confused by our laughter.

‘What’s funny?’ they wanted to know.

‘You reckon I’m getting in your truck? Because the king wants to see us?!’ I spluttered, in disbelief that bunches of guys still tried this crap on, although slightly in awe of them for coming up with such an original line.

‘Yeah. He sent us out to look for you.’ The guy doing the talking looked a little hurt.

Three minutes later, the bikes hurled into the bed of the pick-up along with three of the giants, Lee and I were bouncing up and down in the truck’s cab being driven to the king’s residence.

In the Cook Islands, the monarchy is elected by the public rather than gained through inheritance. Upon a new monarch being crowned (metaphorically in this case), everyone available to do so builds a new palace for them to live in. So, the palace that we were brought to in the pick-up truck had been built, brick by brick, by the people the king reigned over, for him personally. Each person who was physically able laid a brick in their democratically elected king’s palace. The palace resembled a Mediterranean villa: low and whitewashed; wide verandas and huge, arching windows everywhere. A party was in progress and in attendance were several members of the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team, and so enthralled was Lee with this particular turn of events that I was henceforth without company as he turned his attention devotedly to the gods of the rugby world. I ambled around the garden, found a barbeque in full swing and devoured some delicious chicken, made small talk with a few revellers, and then decided to explore the outer edges of the palace.

At one side of the building was a large, empty veranda with tall arched spaces in the white walls, and terracotta tiles underfoot. On the walls were pieces of art native to the island and perhaps the region in general. I slowly meandered around the room, finding pleasure in the quietude, running my hands over the carved smoothness of a wooden woman’s swollen belly here and marvelling at the intricacies of a painted palm frond there. I was alone in the cool, shaded room until a man stepped in to join me. He was Maori, nearing sixty years of age but clearly strong and with a good head of scruffy white-grey hair tickling the back of his neck; sunned skin the colour of hazelnuts. His eyes were already smiling before his mouth had even thought about it and around them were wrinkles enough to show his carefree attitude to life. He was unshaven – a sprinkle of silver covered his jaw – and he was barefoot and wearing nothing except an old pair of faded Bermuda shorts, at the top of which his little paunch sat. He carried two beers.

Smiling, he politely enquired as to whether I liked the artwork on the walls surrounding us. I, wondering if he was the artist, assured him that I did and commented on the loveliness of the palace in general and how I liked the fact that the king’s subjects had built it for him as a token of their esteem and respect. We chatted briefly about the artwork before I remembered my manners and held my hand out to my scruffy companion, which he shook with the grip of people who really mean that they actually are pleased to meet you.

‘I’m Jane,’ I offered.

‘I’m the king,’ replied the king, and handed me a beer.

His mischievous grin and the glint of pure childish joy in his eyes told me that he had set me up on purpose, of course. He giggled at my inability to find the right thing to say, instead knocking his beer against mine and insisting that I have a drink with him and continue chatting about his art collection. Thus, the rest of the day was spent in glorious decadence in the palace gardens, eating and drinking and sharing stories with friendly people who were content to allow us into their lives for the day. Lee gave the princes each one of his gold hoop earrings, and despite their affluence they professed elation at receiving such a highly-prized item – a gift from a Welshman – and secured them in their ears there and then. As for me, I pottered around the garden with my new pal the king of the Cook Islands.

A waste of good atoms

Please read firstly this article written by that joke they call a priest: http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/petermullen/100166819/michael-gove-is-doomed-to-failure-our-teachers-are-too-useless-to-be-reformed-whatever-he-does/

Below is the response I sent to him. Feel free to share it with any teachers you know, or anyone really.

Dear Reverend Mullen,

After reading your unfounded attack on teachers I feel compelled – nay, obliged – to write, not just as a teacher but also as a responsible member of society. Your letter was cause for only ridicule in my classroom, where one of my Year 11 students laughed openly and asked why you were allowed to have your “rantings” [sic] on this subject published when you so clearly do not actually know any teachers. Out of the mouths of babes? Outside of my classroom the letter served only to highlight how out of touch you are with the world as it stands today. Allow me to attempt an explanation. I shall endeavour to be more relevant than you managed to be.

Your first claim among the various unsubstantiated comments is that there exists a “contempt for excellence… to conceal the… illiteracy of these teachers.” Whilst you are entitled to your opinion, I fear that you have misunderstood the word ‘illiterate’. It would be impossible to be a teacher in the UK if one were illiterate; therefore I can assume that your own literacy skills are not up to scratch. Perhaps this is where the bitterness in your words stems from. You also mention that “[teachers] are proud of their ignorance. They were taught at colleges… which encourage it.” The very idea of this is… in fact not even worth tackling, although should you require some advice on the use of connectives, which clearly escape you, please refer to any student in my Year 9 class. You and I earned our degrees at the same university, so what is it that sets you aside from me and the rest of the teachers who graduated from that institution?

Your next point is that teachers simply “know nothing.” It is true that I personally know very little of the binomial theorem, Maths not being my area of expertise, but feel free to contact any of the Maths teachers at my school for further discussion. I in fact teach English, which is why I feel comfortable telling you that ‘Maths’ in the context of schools is a proper noun and therefore requires a capital letter, and that one should refrain from using the word ‘arse’ in one’s published articles, unless one has such a narrow range of vocabulary that one really cannot think of another word which would better suit. Teachers are specialists – if one of us does not know the answer, they defer to a colleague, an expert in that particular field, for experts in our fields is what we are. You may be interested to know that as a child it was my father, an extremely intelligent man who nevertheless worked manually all his life, rather than any of my teachers, who taught me the fundamental basics of quadratic reciprocity and the Pythagorean Theorem. Unlike you, however, he chose to teach me alongside what was already being provided, instead of simply dismissing it as nonsense without basis.

I admit that I cannot wax lyrical about sonatas, but my four-year-old son can hum any of Grieg’s compositions – does that mean I may be allowed to continue my teaching career, or must I cease, based solely on your vapid perceptions? I am also the singer in a rock band: does this contribute to my downfall? May I not have interests outside of classical music? Among my teacher friends are a cellist, a flutist, two violinists, a classical pianist (self-taught) and a trained opera singer, thereby disproving your uninformed claim that teachers know nothing of classical music. Whilst I have yet to perform at Glastonbury (that would be fun!), I see much validity in the teachers of today understanding and enjoying popular culture – you obviously have no idea how quickly a common interest in a song between student and teacher can disarm a group of moody teenagers.

Next you mention “airport novels” – there is no such classification, of course, but we as readers are aware of the sort of fiction you refer to. Whilst I personally would rather watch paint dry than read this type of throw-away novel, I also point out to you that it serves a purpose: to provide material to those with different interests or with less advanced reading skills. One cannot give Homer’s Iliad to a less than academic thirteen-year-old with no literacy support from home. It takes all sorts, as the old adage goes. One of my Year 12s can recite Andrewes actually – under duress – but chooses not to on the ground that his work is ‘boring and irrelevant.’

Most of my teaching colleagues are bi- or multi-lingual, you may be interested to learn. They speak the Renaissance languages, but also others such as Arabic, Urdu and Swahili, for example. Dropped into Tanzania, could you converse with anyone there? Do you also consider sports in education unimportant? Would you be interested to know that two girls from our swimming class recently represented our country in an international competition in Mozambique? Probably not, because you are not yet able to recognise that Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences (1983) is so glaringly and obviously true.

You mention your dismay that teachers’ knowledge of History is limited to Hitler, British imperialism and the slave trade. I have no time to discuss this point, as I am busy organising another Year 9 trip to Rwanda to illustrate the importance of learning from the mistakes of the past. Pardon me for not going into detail about the Crusades right now – I believe they were covered in Year 7.

You mention teachers’ disdain for elitism, but seemingly without any understanding of a possible reason, even if it were true of all teachers. I suggest that the reason is as follows: as teachers it is our duty to give every child the opportunity to succeed, and to fulfil their potential whether it is academic, musical or otherwise; it is our duty to instill into them a sense that every person deserves a chance and should be treated equally regardless of their abilities; it is our duty to teach them to have the confidence and wit to overcome situations where people like you chip away at their self-worth. On this point I am confused, for does not the holy book you worship and have dedicated a large part of your life to state ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’? Perhaps in your next article you could enlighten us as to why you are exempt from this order from on high. Your last comment barely warrants mentioning, but I feel I should help you educate yourself. Contrary to us “inflicting intellectual and cultural deprivation upon the young”, we are in fact bound by government guidelines to do exactly the opposite. Please refer to the QCDA for clarification. We also encourage our students to think for themselves, rather than accepting the word of people who spout without proper conviction like your good self (for one cannot have conviction when the foundations of one’s speeches are imaginings). As for being overpaid thugs (?), please do advise me as to which part of my current gross salary (£10,200 per annum as a trained and qualified teacher in a secondary school) you find offensive.

The overall tone of your article seems to be that working class people should not be allowed to be teachers. With the changes in university fees over the last two decades, your wish may indeed be fulfilled – no one from the working classes can afford to attend university any longer, so higher education is being kept for the middle and upper classes, thereby strengthening the class divide which riddles our country, and which you no doubt support. Your elitism serves only to further sever the connections made by normal people living normal lives. As long as the class divide continues to exist, our country will remain blighted and will continue to falter, and will eventually crumble. Your disappointing generalisations are not offensive to me as a teacher as much as to me as a human – our profession is under constant scrutiny from all angles and is quick to be scorned or criticised from those outside the education system, and yet it us who are helping to mould and create the leaders of tomorrow – and thank goodness, they will be better informed than you. Before you denounce us as pointless, first consider your own profession. Where is your place in an increasingly globalised world? Why are you still preaching that your way is the only way, when all around you can plainly see that society needs to ameliorate their efforts and truly understand, not just tolerate, others in order to see any progression? ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.’

You have served only to publicly display your ignorance of a profession highly respected by many. Your ludicrous claims have provided light relief for my classes, and for this I thank you, for you have helped me to illustrate to them just how much they have to set right when they enter the world soon as informed adults. Writing that paltry article was nothing less than irresponsible – as teachers we face enough apathy and disrespect from some of our students, but we let them off because they are children. To hear the same rubbish from an adult, and one whose job should involve spreading love rather than hatred, is unacceptable. Shame be upon you. You show your ignorance of the world and its needs, and other than this you have achieved nothing. You, Sir, would never make a teacher.

Yours most sincerely.