To give or not to give.

Hurray, it’s Friday! Another week gallops by in our corner of Africa. Friday is, in my opinion, probably the best day of the week as it means that a) I won’t be woken at 4am by my husbands alarm clock for two days and b) I also won’t have to drag the three Littles out of bed and have them dressed, fed, watered, bug sprayed and on the school bus by 7.25am. There is one con, however, and that is that the traffic gets worse, especially when it coincides with the last working day of the month. Lots of people get paid today. The police know this and some of them take advantage by pulling over motorists to obtain bribes for any small motoring misdemeanour. This slows the traffic down even more than usual.

Although this does have a detrimental effect on those of us who want to get somewhere in a reasonable amount of time, it does provide a fantastic selling opportunity for street vendors. As we made slow progress through the traffic today it felt like a very long superstore drive-through. You can buy all manner of things from world maps to razor blades, tea towels to dog leads, popcorn to pornography. So far I have only been brave enough to buy phone cards and a bug zapper (a tennis racket-shaped electrocuting device – allows me to commit mosquito murder with a flash of light, a pop and a satisfying smell of roasted mosquito). These vendors take their lives in their hands by walking between lines of traffic, dodging motorbikes and stepping over holes that could swallow a man. Having sat in a lot of traffic jams and contemplated the pros and cons of each item for sale, I ve concluded that popcorn is probably the product I would choose to sell as it’s light and relatively easy to carry, Dumbells would probably be the product at the very bottom of my list (although it would protect against bingo wings).

The reason for sitting in traffic today was that I was meeting a pal (JR) for lunch. JR is the country director for the Mines Advisory Group (MAG). MAG is a charity that removes these unexploded devices. Due to a long and bloody civil war Angola became one of the most landmined countries in the world. There has been peace here since 2002 and since then many people who fled parts of Angola during the conflict have returned to their homelands. The landmines and other unexploded ordnance do not understand a ceasefire and blight the countryside preventing people from using the land for housing, farming or building schools and healthcare centres. She splits her time between Luanda and the provinces. When she is here I like to meet up to hear her stories and, my goodness, my idea of a challenging day is quite different to hers. I am almost too embarrassed to mention my ‘first world problems’ in her presence. Who cares if all the apples were bruised in the supermarket or that the maid was making the bed when I wanted to take a nap, when she is having to deal with a situation where one of her team has been injured in an explosion during a mine clearing exercise. I wholeheartedly admire her and the job she does. If I had my time again I would be working as a doctor for Medicine sans Frontier or similar, although my Mum often points out that I m not good with the sight of blood so I would be more of a hinderance than a help. Instead, I ll do what I can with the orphanage and make sure we put some of our money back into the Angolan economy by hiring people and paying them fairly.

As I arrived back at my compound I saw the homeless man who regularly sleeps on some cardboard under a dirty sheet against our compound wall. He was sitting on the pavement in the shade of a palm tree. I see him regularly walking in the area looking for food. His territory seems to stretch in a 1.5 mile radius around our compound. I have often seen him sifting through the bins outside a restaurant when I m out running. Being homeless in a developed country must be terrible but being destitute in a developing country is a very desperate situation to be in. He has no one looking out for him. There is no national healthcare system, no high profile homeless charities and too many people barely making enough to feed and cloth their own families to worry about anyone else. The worse case scenario is you catch one of the many tropical diseases on offer here, best case scenario is that someone in a charitable mood offers you some money or clothing. Today, I was feeling charitable. I have been collecting mens clothing and shoes for an HIV/TB hospital in Luanda so I had a collection of items that might be suitable for him. I sifted through my pile and found a clean sheet, some t-shirts, a pair of trousers and some old shoes. I stuck them all in a plastic bag and grabbed £70 ($100) in local currency out of the safe to give him. I dashed up to the compound gate in the hope that he was still outside but he had wandered off. Disappointed that my charitable itch would remain unscratched, I popped round to a friend’s house. We discussed plans for the orphanage and she gave me a large children’s puzzle to return to someone who lives a few houses down from me. I put it into the plastic bag along with the homeless man’s supplies and left. As I walked back to my house I spotted the homeless man through the fence. I ran over to the gate and asked the guard to let me out. Approaching the man, I said “Good Afternoon” and “for you…” as I offered him the plastic bag. Without looking at me he pointed to the patch of ground next to him, so I placed the bag down as indicated. Then I held out the money. He took it from me and without saying a word he placed it on the ground next to the bag, his gaze remaining fixed on the passing traffic. Realising that this signalled the end of our exchange and with a twitchy security guard next to me, I turned and the guard escorted me back through the gate onto the ‘safe’ side of the razor wire. The guard relaxed and I sauntered home, not knowing if I had done the right thing or not.

About an hour passed. The Littles arrived home and I was just starting to make dinner when it hit me. I had just accidentally donated the beautiful wooden (and not replaceable in Angola) children’s puzzle to the homeless man! I raced out of the house, shouting to the children not to follow me and I d be back in a mo. I reached the gate and attempted to explain to the guard (with actions) what had happened. He had no idea what I was talking about but opened the gate and followed me out onto the street. The plastic bag was still against the wall where I had left it, but there was no sign of the man or the money. To my relief the puzzle was still in the bag. I grabbed it and went home. I wonder what he must have thought when/if he had opened the bag and seen the ‘shape sorting clock puzzle’.

I wrestle constantly with the question of how to help these people. I know that giving them money doesn’t help in the long-term and may just be fuelling an alcohol or drug problem. They may eat and drink well today but their lives will just return to the way they were before once the money dries up. If I asked him what he would like me to do he wouldn’t hesitate to say “I ll take the money”. My view is that this man is at the bottom of the pile and anything anyone is willing to give him has to be better than pretending that, by giving him stuff, we are making him reliant on handouts. In this place, the handouts are all he has and all he will ever have.

It serves as another reminder, and we are surrounded by them here, of how incredibly lucky we are.


Urgh, it’s Thursday.

Thursday is always my least favorite day of the week for two reasons. Firstly, I have to do my weekly grocery shop and subsequent, seemingly endless, produce disinfection. Secondly, I have to have my weekly portuguese lesson which serves to remind me how crap I am at portuguese.

I spend an inordinate amount of time meticulously soaking and manhandling fruit and vegetables. Everyone seems to have their own method – 50 ml of bleach in a sink full of water and soak for 10 minutes, or 20 ml for 15 minutes. I won’t tell you what I do as it’s too dull to repeat but it does involve the kitchen timer disturbing me at regular intervals to rinse and arrange piles of uninspiring fruit and veg. We don’t get a lot of variety here – one type of lettuce, a couple of different types of apple, avocados with stones so big that there’s hardly any room for the green stuff. At an American Womens Association lunch recently, someone had grown their own rocket (arugula) and made a salad out of it, there was a stampede for it and we re still talking about it now.

I had just added the last piece of broccoli to my mountain of washed produce when my Portuguese teacher arrived for my hour of language tuition. She is a patient teacher and does her best to maintain a straight face as we all get to grips with her mother-tongue. I do my best to distract her from the text book by asking her about the people and culture of Angola. Once we ve exhausted that subject I distract her further by asking her about her mobile phone cover or from where she bought her shoes/earrings/top/pen/car. With practice I can shrink the actual Portuguese bit down to around 10 minutes. On very rare occasions I ve even managed to distract her for an entire hour, therefore not speaking a single word of portuguese. Of course this is a pointless exercise as learning this language would actually be a huge benefit. It just makes my brain ache when I try to recall things like the definite and indefinite object pronouns – I don’t even know what these are in English! I really must try harder – I ll add it to my list of New Year resolutions along with drinking more water and being nicer to my husband.

As I type this I can hear the local nightclub firing up its speakers ready for a night of ‘duff, duff, duff, duff’. The real racket will start in the next hour or so and continue until 5 or 6 in the morning. Sometimes the base is so loud that the pictures on the walls rattle and the glasses move around in the cupboards. Luckily, the air conditioning in our bedroom is old and noisy which helps to drown out the words and some of the base. Sometimes I lie in bed listening to the beat through my pillow and fantasising about hijacking a big yellow JCB from the area next to the club and driving it onto the dance floor and over the speakers.

Loud music isn’t exclusive to this particular nightclub but is enjoyed by Angolans everywhere. From weddings to children’s parties, all the locals seem determined to make themselves and their neighbours stone deaf before they’re 40. After a children’s party once, my daughter told me that she could feel the beat from the Disney tunes ‘in her chest’. I should consider putting ear defenders on my Christmas list. Not only do I really enjoy getting into bed every night (it NEVER gets boring), I also really enjoy silence. With three small children, silence is a luxury and something that seems particularly rare in Angola.

On that note, I better get into my R.E.M stage before they crank up the decibels. Good night Mum.

Lost in translation

It was another hot and sticky day in our corner of Africa today so a swim with my training buddy (H) seemed like a good idea. I rode our school bus to the International School with the kids and deposited everyone at their respective classrooms before hopping onto a different school bus for a ride to another compound to use their pool.

When we first arrived in Angola, in a vague attempt to maintain my swimming fitness, I spent some time looking for swimming pools. Finding suitable swimming facilities in Luanda was and still is challenging. The pool on my own compound is more for recreation and, when the local amphibians aren’t spawning in it, can be a great spot for a refreshing dip if you ignore the spawn and other small pond life. If I swim diagonally I can get a 20 metre length but its not ideal. I ve tried swimming in the 50 m pool that Luanda (surprising) has but its a drive through heavy traffic and, as my maid informed me, has been the sight of lots of drownings as it is deep and people jump in it without knowing how to swim. It was built some time ago and, as with so much in this city, has fallen into disrepair.

The pool that H and I are swimming in today is 25 m long, has no pond life that we can see (although the visibility is terrible) and has so far remained open. Unfortunately the pool tiles and grout are all the same colour which makes it difficult to distinguish where the walls are so we often swim into them. The water level is so low that the filters don’t filter anything. To compensate for this the maintenance men throw lots of strong chemicals in (often just as we are changing into our swimsuits). The smell of chlorine stays in my nostrils for most of the day. I am an (almost) natural brunette when I get in the pool and fully expect to be blonde by the time I ve completed my workout. The most disturbing characteristic of this particular pool, however, is the way that the dilapidated pool lights fall out of the walls and lie face-down on the bottom of the pool with the wires curling back into the sockets from which they fell. I ve never been comfortable with electricity and water in such close proximity so I always let H get in first.

I went for a mooch around the supermarket for a few items on the way back and was greeted by a row of newly stocked soy milk that has been unavailable for months. It was £5 ($8) a carton but when you re desperate for something you ll pay it – although I did see it for £12 ($18) in a shop recently but couldn’t bring myself to pay that much for a 1 litre carton of milk. I immediately claimed 30 cartons and may go back for more. I know it must be hard to understand my elation over soy milk but we all have things that are necessary to our happiness and this is mine. I intend to be reckless with it tomorrow and may  fill my cereal bowl to the brim to celebrate.

This afternoon DT and I had a game of ‘guess what DT is trying to tell me using my broken portuguese and sign language‘. My side of the conversation went like this:

“You have a problem with your face?”

“No? Oh, your eye, you have a problem with your eye”

“You have to go to the doctors tomorrow?, No, oh, now, you have to go to the doctors now”

“The doctor wants to operate? No, the doctor wants to just look at it”

“And you need to get a transfusion??? Oh you mean a prescription?”

This is the abridged version by the way. The actual conversation lasted much longer and I m still not entirely sure what she was saying.

Sometimes I use Google Translate when I feel as though misinterpretation could lead to someone getting hurt or me having to pay someone a lot of money. It’s translation accuracy is not always reliable. Recently, DT told me that one of her family members was sick and did I have any appropriate medication that she could take to them. I felt that it was important to determine the exact nature of the complaint before I rummidged around in the medicines cabinet and prescribed something that might inadvertently kill them. I handed DT the keyboard and she typed in the medication, in portuguese, that she needed. When I pressed ‘translate’ the translation read ‘Drugs for queers’. I paused for a moment and thought about where to go from there. Eventually I explained that the translation said ‘drugs for homosexuals’ at which she got very embarrassed and told me not to worry, she’d try the pharmacist instead. It turns out that her relative had a stomach ulcer and I don’t have anything for those anyway.

Most of the time she just laughs at my portuguese which isn’t very encouraging but I let her off as she spends so much of her time elbow deep in our dirty laundry.

I ll finish here as I want to go and enjoy a glass of my new soy milk.

Was it worth it?

Once the Littles were safely despatched onto the school bus I went and sat on my bike in our storage room for an hour. I should add that the bike is sitting on a bike trainer so I was actually exercising, quite ferociously in fact. My current gardener likes to have a good look in my windows whenever he strolls past and this morning was no exception. I often wonder what he thinks when he can only see me from the waist up, bobbing around and sweating profusely. I like to think that he is impressed by my conviction to getting and staying fit. More likely is that he is utterly unconcerned with my activity and thinks only of the likelihood that I will pay him a larger tip this month.

Having ‘staff’ is something that I am still getting used to. I m fairly sure that I will never get used to it. I have drivers who take me here and there; I have my nosey gardener (Beto) and I have a maid called Teresa. I call her Dona Teresa out of courtesy (DT behind her back). She spends her days washing our dirty laundry, cleaning the house and ironing the small mountain of shirts and school uniform that a family of five generates. I am fairly picky about what I put in the washing basket as DT likes to bake everything in the tumble dryer regardless of the printed care instructions – which of course she doesn’t understand as she speaks only Portuguese. Anything that I want to save from the tumble dryer I hide on a shelf in our wardrobe and wash it in secret at the weekend when DT doesn’t work. Sometimes, when DT is away and we have a stand-in maid, the maid will come across the screwed up bundle of smelly gym gear and other exotic dirty clothing and assume that we are too lazy to fold our own clothes. On occasion Michael has discovered a very smelly pair of dirty gym shorts that have been carefully folded and put back in his draw.

DT likes to sing. She sings as she irons and she sings when she is cleaning the bathroom and she sings as she sweeps around me when I am talking on the telephone or trying to write. Obviously I can’t ask her to stop as that would make me an asshole, but I really wish she would. Right now she is in the room next-door playing Portuguese ballads on her telephone as she does the ironing.

On a Tuesday (today) I have a cook (Lena) who comes and cooks the same two meals for me every week – Meatballs ala Lena and Chicken Parmesan. When you are the chief provider of meals for a family of five you tend to get into a habit of cooking the same meals week in week out. They are meals that 80% of the family like with a further 20% eating it too providing I withhold snacks in the preceding 4 hours.  In a country that lacks convenience and fast food (and sometimes even the basic food we are used to) it is a joy to have someone come and take care of two meals. Sometimes, as a special treat, I like to get into bed for an hour on a Tuesday afternoon and think about DT doing the ironing (singing of course) and the lovely Lena preparing the dinner. It does make up for the portuguese ballad torture.

After the bike ride my driver and I drove from the Luandan suburbs, where I live, to a house downtown to attend a coffee morning of mostly American embassy spouses. Everyone had gone to a lot of effort to bake delicious fare except me who arrived with just a box of biscuits that we discovered upon opening were slightly stale. An Italian lady offered me one of her parmesan laced baked items. It looked exciting but I soon discovered that the paper case in which it came was welded to the pastry. Not wanting to put it back on my plate, I popped it into my mouth, paper case and all. Naturally I told her that it was delicious before downing half a mug of microwaved tea (my friend doesn’t have a kettle) in order to swallow the paper. It was a 2.5 hour round trip in the car for 1 hour of socialising. You might say that that wasn’t worth the effort, but Valerie (the hostess) is lovely and, despite her lack of tea making skills, I think we have a long friendship ahead of us. Angola can be an extremely challenging place to live with a small family but what gets us through is having a close network of friends around us. So it was worth the long journey to attend Valerie’s social function.

While writing todays entry I have inadvertently eaten an entire packet of chocolate digestives. I blame the portuguese ballads (which DT just turned up, must be one of her favourites). Michael can judge the type of day I have had by the quantity and variety of junk food wrappers he finds in the kitchen bin. Today there will only be the digestive’s wrapper as I was quite full when I returned from the coffee morning (paper cases are surprisingly filling). I should probably stop here and remove the crumbs from the keyboard before they cause any permanent damage to my precious blog writing device. Thanks for reading. Ciao ciao.

Its taken 4 years but I ve finally done it……

We left England in November 2010. We had 2.5 years living in Texas and we ve been in Luanda, Angola for 1.5 years. During all of that time I swore that I would keep a diary. Three small kids and a dream of becoming a pro triathlete gave me four reasonable excuses to procrastinate about putting pen to paper. The three children are now at school and I ve finally accepted that, at forty, the likelihood of becoming a pro athlete is probably pretty slim. So, here I am.

It’s most likely that the only person who will read this blog is my Mum. She has been a lifelong supporter of my written word and always offers positive feedback so I can live with only having a readership of one.

Today felt like a good day to start my blog as it has been a typical ‘Angolan day’. After sending the littles off on the school bus I swam, worked a little bit on my core and then spent 1.5 hours in a car (some of which involved being thrown around in the back as we forged our way along unmade roads, feet deep in mud) to get to an orphanage. We taught 45 orphans how to tell the time and I cut up 40 oranges surrounded by a cloud of flies (my second least favourite creature  – mosquitos are my first) ready for a small birthday celebration for all those kids with a birthday in November. Birthday celebrations can be a bit fraught as some of the kids don’t know when their birthdays are which can lead to upset. One little boy claims every month that it is his birthday. There are 3 new children at the orphanage. A brother and sister (2 and 4 years old) and a 9 year old girl who is lost and doesn’t know where her family is. My heart breaks a little bit every time I go and hear their stories. I find that I spend a little more time hugging my three on a Monday. Around lunch time we climbed back into the cars, hot from the midday sun and sticky from the fruit, and made our way home. I attempted to eat a salad in the back of the car, although it looked as though I was wearing most of it by the time we reached home.

I picked up the littles from school and then spent 15 minutes picking the weevils out of the pasta I was cooking for dinner. Between weevil picking and supervising homework, I chased a tomcat away from the house, not before he had left his ‘pee-mail’ around my back door. I like to think of myself as an animal lover but this particular cat really drives me crazy. He is pretty beaten up from all the fights he has and I would be sympathetic to his cause if he didn’t keep peeing on my air-conditioning units. When I turn on the aircon in anticipation of the wave of cool air, I am instead overcome by the whiff of fresh cat urine. No amount of air freshener seems to mask the stench. That, coupled with the fact that my 4 year old is often distracted when using the conveniences and ‘waters’ the tiles around the bowl, means that my house often smells like a public toilet. My maid has recently taken to cleaning the floors with a cleaning fluid that smells like sick. An acute sense of smell is something of a curse in this country.

Its nearly 9 pm which means bedtime in our house. My husband’s alarm clock will get him out of bed at 4 am. It means he ll miss the worst of the traffic and get an early start so that he can leave at a reasonable time and join us for dinner. So this is a good time to finish my first entry.

Night night…..