A Cup of Tea, an Act of kindness

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Squashed in the school bus

Excited voices and laughter met me as I hurried up to the school bus. I was late and they were all waiting. Once inside I saw all the seats were occupied by at least three, where there would normally be two. A couple of boys jumped up to let me sit next to Samuel, whose house I was to visit. There were still three of us squashed together. We left the school and once in Arusha we headed for the far side of town before we started dropping  children and teachers at regular intervals till it was our stop. Five of us got off.

One girl shyly grinned before disappearing into a small house that had a tiny shop in the front room selling an assortment of essentials; soap, water, tea, coffee, tomatoes, bananas, paraffin and an assortment of cans and bottles. A short distance further along the track another boy shouted excitedly for his mother to come out and meet their mzungu teacher. It wasn’t long before a few other heads popped out of  houses to see this white woman. We called out greetings, but as I had arranged transport back an hour later, I couldn’t hang around.

I followed the last three children up the track. It was getting steeper and narrower. There was no longer room for a car to pass, only bikes, motorbikes and those on foot. The red dirt felt gritty between my toes where it had crept into my sandals.

“Not far now,” Samuel said. “Just after the mango tree.” He grabbed my hand and hurried me forward. The other two children followed.

“Do you live near by?” I asked them.

They pointed up the hillside. “Maybe Two kilometers. You see the mast?”

“Really?” I could see a mobile phone mast a long way up above. It looked a long way. I’d also noticed the houses became smaller and less robust the further we got from the main road. Some were mainly mud with tin roofs.

“This way.” A narrow path led between some banana palms.

We arrived at a humble brick house and were immediately greeted by all the family. The father had been working in the  shamba digging and planting and rushed off to wash and change. The sister was sent off to make tea.  The aunty who was visiting from the capital was brought in to talk to me, and Samuel’s grandmother appeared from the back of the house, stooped over a walking cane.

There was a large sofa and a couple of chairs around a small table.   A thermos of tea was formally brought in with two china tea cups and some plastic mugs. I was presented with a china cup and talked to the grandmother in my halting Kiswahili. They were so proud of their child that had been scooped from poverty to receive a ‘proper’education in that school that was becoming so well known that thousands  lined up each year to try to get one of the limited places that were offered to the brightest applicants.

I thought my visit was coming to an end, when a meal was placed in front of us. Beans, spinach and chapati. I was so humbled by this act of kindness. The had so little, yet they wanted to share.

After we had eaten, I  took some photos that I promised to send to them. They had never had any photos before. I excused myself, then ran down the hill to the bus that was waiting for me for the second time that day.

Bibi – Grandmother

 Samuel is not his real name. I was doing an unannounced home visit to check on where he was living. So many children try to get into the school, which only takes the brightest and poorest kids. Sometimes, despite rigorous checks upon entry, a few children get places from more affluent families who go to great lengths to get their children in.

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Almost Relics – The Post Box

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Post Box Guernsey

 

I wonder how much longer we will see these around? I can’t remember the last time I wrote a letter on paper and posted it. I do still send birthday cards and the occasional post card. Less and less I send ‘hard copy’ greetings at Christmas and New Year. How times have changed since the first email I sent in the early nineties. How my writing has changed over the years.

In recent years my writing is on a computer most of the time, but I still love the luxury of sitting and writing in a leather bound notebook with my beautiful Mont Blanc pen that I received as a present many years ago. The feel of the crisp new pages, the scratchy sound as the pen moves across the page and the irregularity of the hand-printed words depending on my moods and time.

Sometimes I write in tiny notebooks when a thought occurs to me while sitting in a cafe and people watching, other times I’ll scramble around to find a scrap of paper, an old parking ticket or bill, to write down something I’ve heard on the radio while I was driving and desperate to keep the thought before it’s lost in my next interaction or activity. These notebooks and scraps of paper, the collection of thoughts and ideas over the years, I treasure for their spontaneity, individuality and personality.

Although much of their content is now transcribed to computer,  they hold a subtext and memories that stop me from abandoning them to the rubbish. There’s the hardback notebook with the cats on the cover from when I made my first tentative steps into writing. I had no idea whether it was to be ‘Life Writing’ or ‘Fiction’. Then the green-patterned cover was a more recent one and part of it is filled with notes from a job, when I must have had no other paper available. The large student book was from when I was well into a novel, but regularly meeting up with a writers group . My latest notebook is red leather, although the pages inside don’t live up to the promise of the cover. When I delve deeper under the pile of notebooks I find a cluster of envelopes. Letters on airmail paper, foreign stamps. I tenderly open one. It’s one of the letters that my parents kept on my first job overseas and more recently passed on to me. I wrote to them in blue fountain pen. The pages are brittle. It smells musty. But it’s priceless.

I hope we never stop writing letters and I vow to write one again soon.

 

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Post Box England

 

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Relic – The Berlin Wall

The word relic comes from the Latin reliquiae, meaning remains or something left behind. Something that has survived the passage of time.

 The division of Germany began with the end of the Second World War in 1945.

‘On November 9, 1989, the government relaxes travel regulations, allowing East Germans to cross the borders. When hundreds of thousands of people gather at the Wall, the leadership is unable to withstand the pressure, and the Berlin Wall falls.’

I’d wanted to see the Berlin Wall ever since reunification and this year I visited Berlin for the first time. The main section that is left intact is now covered in street art and graffiti. Well known street artists have work on the wall and in other parts of old Berlin.

 

Relics of the Berlin Wall

Relics of the Berlin Wall

Now the wall is a major tourist attraction.

 

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Possessions, Possessions, Possessions.

What was my most precious possession?

I sat in a home surrounded by many beautiful objects and possessions that had been collected throughout my life and felt a frown form on my brow. Was it the Han dynasty horse’s head I’d bought in an antique shop when living in Singapore, pre-mortgage and pre-children, with a large disposable income? What would I feel if it fell off the mantelpiece? Two thousand years, gone, smashed into little pieces of brown clay on the redbrick hearth; an ignominious end. I’d be annoyed and a little upset at its loss, nothing more.

Han Dynasty Terracotta Horse Head

Han Dynasty Terracotta Horse Head

 

So then I thought again.

Could it be my wedding ring. The story about that had also started in Singapore. We were to be married and at that time living in Brunei. In the mid-nineties there weren’t many shops in Brunei and all the jewellers favoured the yellow 24 carat gold – not for me. My husband couldn’t get time off work and I had to go to a scuba diving expo, so I went to buy the rings on my own. I’d been living in S E Asia for six years and I experienced the worst bout of food poisoning ever, after eating from a buffet in an up-market hotel on the second night of the expo. I spent the next two days in bed at the home of some friends, albeit in the most amazing colonial plantation house that I was unable to appreciate; I spent most of my time with one or other end of my body over the toilet. Eventually I was forced to get out of bed and go shopping for the rings.

Luckily many of Singapore’s shopping malls revolved around a theme and I knew where to go. The first jewellery mall in Chinatown was full of shops with, once again, predominantly garish yellow gold. The toilets weren’t very swish either. I’d had to run into them twice in less than an hour. Already beginning lose energy, I headed by taxi to one of the more expensive malls on Orchard Road. I’d seen jewellers on the upper floor, and I remembered that they had great toilets. I wasn’t sure if I’d like the price, but as I broke out in a sweat and felt my stomach turn once more I decided that with two weeks to go before the wedding, and a flight booked for the following morning, it was all or nothing.

I glided up the elevator as my stomach twinged again and eyeballed the toilets. Two sets on one floor – wonderful. There were about ten shops. I didn’t go into the first three. Just looking in the window told me enough. The next one had a possibility. When I went in for a closer look I was disappointed; not my style. A cramp got the better of me and I walked smartly to the nearest toilet. It was a false alarm, but I wasn’t feeling good. Opposite the toilets I glimpsed an interesting shop front. Then I saw glistening silver amidst the gold. I rushed inside.

The shop assistant placed the plush velvet tray in front of me. Platinum, he told me. The price tag rose. I picked one out and tried it on. It fitted perfectly, but my husband-to-be wanted a matching one. Would he like it? He’s said, white gold, simple and plain. This was plain except for a fine zigzag of yellow gold and it was platinum. I hadn’t even asked the price. A wave of nausea and strong cramp went through my body. I pulled the ring off and muttered something about toilets to the bewildered shop assistant, then sprinted out of the door. It was fortunate that they were so close. Five minutes later I returned to the shop and ten minutes after that with relief, I glided back down the escalator with two small jewellery boxes gift wrapped in a stylish bag and within, two rather expensive rings.

 

My wedding ring & henna art

My wedding ring & henna art

 

The ring went on to be the subject of a few other stories. I now wear it on my right hand after an incident with a dog and a puppy on a windy beach and a lot of blood, sand and a swollen finger. I’m attached to it – in more ways than one, as it is now stuck on the aforementioned right finger, but attached so much I couldn’t live with out it, no.

So which possession was more precious to me?

In the eighties I went as a volunteer to live on the island of Zanzibar. At a time when I only had the possessions that fitted into a suitcase, I was given a small painting by a friend there. This watercolour, since framed, has travelled with me from country to country and home to home. When I revisited Zanzibar on numerous occasions I always called on this friend who had gone on to become both a successful artist and well known personality that tourists and travellers sought out for his artwork and his knowledge of the history of the old buildings in the Stonetown.  This postcard-sized painting reminds me of the times I spent with this humble and intelligent man, the lunches always accompanied with copious amounts of incredibly hot chili peppers and a glass of red wine, the walks through stone town when he pointed out intricate balconies and buildings falling down from lack of repair, the late afternoon talks on politics, writing, art and history sitting on the inside ‘veranda’ of his ‘Arabic’ style house, where the breeze flowed through the central courtyard up through two stories to the open skies. The time he and my father  – both of similar age and both blind in one eye took turns trying to pour wine into a glass without spilling any and showing each other their differing techniques. And always, the image of knocking at his door and waiting for the key to be thrown down from the shuttered windows of the living areas above – that must have been in later years, as before the doors had been always left open. Yes, it was precious but only in the memories it held.

 

Zanzibar Stonetown

Zanzibar Stonetown

 

Possessions. Possessions. Possessions. I have so many, yet what was most prized? When I look about me yet again, I wonder what I would do if I lost all of them. What would I really miss? I think it would have to be my photos. Their preciousness is not in their material value, but in that the images are irreplaceable – at least not the older ones that were caught pre-digital days. Their value was in the moments, the glimpses, the occasions and the memories that my mind struggles to keep intact.

Maybe my most precious possession has to be my memory, for without it how would I know who I am?

 

 

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