Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Keeping busy

It makes perfect sense to me that before they can walk, babies should be taken everywhere, preferably carried in a sling, and allowed to observe their mother’s everyday activities, without becoming the focus of these activities. I think back to the babies I saw in Africa, strapped to their mother’s back, while she fetched water, tended her crops, went to the market, prepared food, washed clothes, gathered firewood, and generally went about her busy life. I don’t think I ever saw a baby cry, who was carried in this way.

The difficulty for us Western women living in a Taylorist society, is that our lives have been organised to reduce our daily ‘chores’ to a bare minimum, so that we are better able to focus on our jobs. We have supermarkets and washing machines, running water and central heating. For many of us, most of our waking day is taken up by an activity – work – that we are then unable to share with our baby when he or she is born. I might have been able to resume a job that involved constant motion, since my baby would sleep for hours on the move, in the sling, but certainly not one that required sitting for hours on end, at a computer or in meetings.

This is why having a baby in our Western society is such a fundamental change, and for the mother in particular, a major shift in identity. Overnight, almost every aspect of your day becomes utterly unrecognisable. Even once the blur of endless feedings and sleepless nights of those first few weeks is over, and you start to feel ready to reengage with the outside world, it’s impossible to pick up where you left off.

So on the one hand, you’ve got a baby who’s happiest in the arms of a busy person, and on the other, you’ve got a mother, often isolated from her friends and family, who is desperate for stimulation and company. The result? In London at least, an amazingly endless stream of activities targeted at new mums: breastfeeding cafés, NCT tea groups, baby playgroups, baby massage, baby yoga, jelly baby (swimming), sing & sign (sign language), monkey music, baby theatre, little movers (dance), storytelling, and even ‘power pramming’… Not to mention all the free workshops: using ‘real’ nappies, weaning, dental hygiene for babies…

It’s the stuff that would have made me cringe with horror a mere 6 months ago, and yet it’s what has been keeping me sane and cheerful these last few weeks. And I must admit that O. loves it, if grins are anything to go by.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


I started this blog as a means of keeping in touch with friends and family whilst in Kinshasa, so it came to a natural end when I moved back to London. Now it’s been almost a year since my last post, and in the meantime I’ve embarked on a whole new adventure: motherhood. I haven’t quite decided whether to resurrect Nayembi or leave her to rest. It’s a surprisingly time-consuming thing to keep up, and I’m not sure who I’d be doing it for.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

A tam-tam country

It has become traditional, now, for all my end-of-posting return trips to have some nightmarish element to them.

When I left Honduras in 2003, my flight to London was cancelled, and I had to hitch a ride back into town, sharing the back of a pick-up truck with the mariachi band F had hired to bid me an unforgettable goodbye. I missed my connecting flight to Nice and had to purchase a new ticket. The next day, I arrived in London to the news that this flight to Nice had also been cancelled. Determined to make it in time to surprise my brother on his eighteenth birthday, I bought a third ticket with another company for the following day. That plane was in turn delayed, which meant I had to sprint across Milan Airport with all my luggage, following a frazzled stewardess in a tight green miniskirt and needle thin, five-inch heels, in order to make the connection. I did make it to the party eventually.

On my last evening in Jordan in 2005, some complete loser spiked my drink, which on an empty stomach and after a couple sleepless nights was absolutely lethal. I spent the next two hours collapsed on the marble floor of a Sheraton loo (having had the presence of mind to lock myself in when I realised something was seriously wrong), before being rescued by my friends, carried home (literally), put to bed, my last unpacked bits and pieces hastily stuffed into my suitcases, woken up four hours later and sent off in a taxi to the airport. I somehow managed to board the plane, but then spent the entire flight vomiting at the back, listening to the flight attendants’ incessant gossip while one of them patiently handed me paper bag after paper bag.

By comparison, my departure from Kinshasa should have been a piece of cake.

After checking twice and being assured that the baggage allowance for my Brussels Airlines flight was of two bags of 23 kilos each, I arrived at the city check-in sometime in the afternoon to be told categorically and unapologetically that, since my final destination was London Heathrow, my baggage allowance was, in fact, one 23-kilo bag. My objection that they were the ones to have misled me and that at this late stage there was really very little I could do (since I was leaving the country definitively) went entirely unheeded, with the unhelpful response that since my connecting flight was with British Airways, this was not their problem (even though I bought the ticket through Brussels Airlines).

An hour of heated discussion ensued, the woman’s uncompromising and rude behaviour working us up into an unnecessary – and ultimately unproductive – frenzy. Pride and anger made us leave in a huff, but in the end I had to go to the airport early to check in there, and pay the excess baggage allowance of $120 after all.

The flight itself was fairly unremarkable, apart from the extraordinary number of babies all around me, but when I arrived in Brussels I was told…that my BA flight to London had been cancelled. So I had to battle my way against the flow of Monday-morning travellers, from the gate back to the departure hall, where I was given a new ticket for a different flight with BMI, then had to queue up for immigration and security all over again. Only to discover that the BMI flight was delayed too.

When, in a small, exhausted voice I asked the BA officer whether there would be any compensation for the cancelled flight, she handed me a voucher for 3 euros, redeemable at one of the airport cafés. When I told her about the episode with the baggage allowance, adding that Brussels Airlines had suggested that BA was to blame, she answered that in fact, BA accepted other airlines’ baggage restrictions when tickets were booked through them, so they shouldn’t have made me pay extra after all. “Vous savez, c’est encore un peu tam-tam là-bas,” she added conspiringly, completely oblivious to my astonishment (untranslatable).

And that, my friends, was the absurd remark that drew the line under more than 27 months of continually unpredictable and surprising life in Kinshasa: c’est encore un peu tam-tam là-bas.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Sexy Love

On recommendation from a good friend of ours, F tried to book a table at this romantic and aptly named Valentine’s Day dinner venue.

Photo by Vikky Bullock

Unfortunately, they were fully booked, so we sat at home and watched Supernanny Jo Frost bully a fiendish five year old into submission instead.

P.S: For reasons too complicated to go into right now, we actually celebrate Valentine’s Day on 15 February.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

All hail buckets and head torches

What should this fact tell you: The Congo River drains more than 1.3 million square miles, and, over a mere 220 miles, it descends nearly a thousand feet..?

Two things, I would suggest:

1. There is no water shortage in the Congo, at least not in the vicinity of the river.
2. There is no electricity shortage in the Congo, given the river’s incredible, unrivalled hydroelectric power.

Wrong, and wrong again.

Today we celebrate a welcome (if overdue) occasion: the return of running water after almost ten days without. Now it’s true that no African experience is possibly complete without its fair share of cold rainwater bucket showers, basin flushes and mineral water teeth brushing, and it certainly makes one more understanding of colleagues who on occasion smell rather less than fresh in the morning. Still, I was overjoyed to come home tonight to the long-awaited news that I could finally indulge in both washing my hair and pooing, without fear of running out of water.

Our 70's style bathtub

But then, just as I was basking in the luxury of lathering my hands under the tap, whilst mentally composing an ecstatic text message to our friends who so kindly allowed us to use their showers when we were reaching desperation point, I heard a frustratingly familiar click, followed by the inevitable pitch blackness. When it’s not one, it’s the other.

So now, there’s only one thing left for me to do: go take a shower while I still can.