My Now.

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Every time I have sat down to do this, no words come.

I sit and look at this screen. And nothing. No words. Nought to say.

I almost didn’t renew my blog domain.  Wrestled a while with all those ‘What’s the point, who cares, not a real writer, I am rubbish’ kind of obsessive thought patterns that plague us creatives.  Then I renewed it, just in case.

And here I am.  So off we go.

NYC.

Every day I ask myself,  “What are we doing here?”

  Of course there are answers. Rational ones.

We needed to find a consistantly stimulating and supportive educative situation for the kids.  We wanted to let our kids experience living in a developed nation again.  We wanted them to have more creative and academic opportunities.  I needed to find my creative tribe.  And to begin creating again with my creative tribe.  We wanted to stay some place for a while. To not ‘need’ to move after three years. Maybe even feel at home. 

Plus our choices were limited.  Bails can mostly only work in war zones or countries where the conversation oscilates around famine and drought.

There are actually lots of really good rational reasons for us moving our family to NYC.

But day by day.  Man, It feels tough.   

And to those of you thinking “Gee Em get over yourself.  You live in New York city…”  I have this to say.

Try it. For more than two weeks. Really. Then kindly comment.

It was always going to be a discombobulating experience moving from Malawi to NYC.  We knew that. And we knew that each of us would need to make our own  journey, would have our own battleground to navigate through.   We don’t get to always  choose how our hearts respond.  Not in the beginning anyways.  We pull our hat down low, and our scarf up high and we plough into it.  And it bites our skin and rattles our bones.  A wild and unpredictable, elemental offensive. Onwards we go.

But nothing could prepare us for the transition between two such extremes.

The first weeks were almost comical.  Not when we were in it – clearly, but in retrosect. 

How do you take three kids from the bush of Africa where they climbed mango tree’s barefoot, and whittled sticks til dusk. Where they spent hour upon hour chasing gheko’s and picking worms out of guava’s, to a symphonic backdrop of crickets and bullfrogs…

How do you then drop them in the middle of an throbbing urban metroplis, where homeless people lay strewn across the sidewalks, discarded like trash (Esi’s question – Why are the white people sleeping in the streets mummy?)  Where the subway roars like the very embodiment of rage, and they share the carriage with scantily clad women with rainbow afro’s and exposed nipple to nose, chain linked peircings, drinking  beer.

It has made for interesting conversations. 

The children at school who have same sex parents – This was a new concept for our bush kids. The guys expressing themselves in womens clothing – This was confusing, to begin with.  The beat box guys with their trousers slung low, breaking rules – They had to learn not to be intimidated.  That creative expression is not intended as aggression.

 We like those conversations. We like throwing back the question ‘Well what do you think?” or “How did it make you feel?”We like standing on the edges watching our kids wrestle to make sense of life.  Of people. 

These conversations help to remind me why we are here.  They don’t make it easier, but they help me to remember.

Bails and I are commited to raising strong, resilient, kind, open minded and wholehearted children.  Kids who will stand in the gap and say ‘Not on my watch’. Not on my watch, through conversation. Not on my watch, through debate.  Not on my watch, through Art and creativity.  Not on my watch through non-violent acts of resistance. Not on my watch through making hard personal choices for the sake of a bigger picture. Not on my watch through choosing kindness in the face of the mean.

We have chosen to show them the world in all its diversity, with its cracks and its astounding beauty.  We want them to know that we can be smitten by the glory of an African sunset or lost in the sublimity of Moonlight Sonata – that these things are there for us, to inspire us, to lift us and to remind us of Love.

To Love.

And that because of Love we don’t step over the broken people. Not ever.  

Not. On. My. Watch.

I promised myself I wasn’t going to get political here. But I guess I just did.  In my opinion, the only way to not have opinions about what is going on right now is to be, actually, dead. 

Enough said.

I don’t think that when we chose this transigent lifestyle, we chose an easy path.  Maybe we didn’t choose it at all.  Maybe life chooses us.   Or maybe it is not the choosing that matters but rather our response that matters. 

Whatever.  Wherever.  Perhaps.

I live in New York City. For now.  And It feels hard.

Apartment living feels hard.  The pace feels hard. The aggression feels hard. The competition feels hard.  The lack of community feels hard. The communal laundry room in the basement of our building feels hard. The cold wind splitting down 1st avenue feels hard. Darn it, even the grocery shopping feels hard.  And yes, The political atmosphere feels hard.

But this is my now.   And I choose my response, to my now, daily.

I struggle.  I fight.  At times I scream and pound.  And then…I submit.  We really don’t have a choice.  And yet, in that submitting we do choose. Again and again.  We choose to Love.  Paradoxical really.

This is my now.  Despite the daily toil, I believe it has purpose. I have things i must learn.  I have growing to do that is assigned personally to me. 

And so, I breath.  I say “It’s okay’. And I tap into that small voice at the end of the day that says, I will try again tomorrow.

Damn it.

E.x

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A full stop Goodbye.

Finishing is hard.

I definitely have an aversion to full stops. That is why I like these dot dot dot things …

You might have noticed I use them a lot… I like to leave things open. Open to possibility. Open to the winds of change. Open to mystery, a sense of sitting in the unknown and being okay with it…

It is one of the many contradictions of my life. Because equally I like maps and to know where I’m going next and how it’s going to look.

And I like to know that stuff in finely architectured, pedantic detail. But I don’t want to put a full stop on what went before…

I think we are all complicated like that. Different kinds of complicated. But all complicated.

As a child I couldn’t finish stories I wrote. My teachers would praise me on my aptitude and potential as a young writer, but would rebuke me for my inability to find an ending. Even today, most of the tatty children’s stories I write during rare bursts of creativity, have shabby and unsatisfactory endings.

I just struggle to tie things up in a cohesive manner and end with a period…

The past 12 weeks have been chaos.

Where did I read that before great change there is always great chaos? It sounds like something Elizabeth Gilbert would say. It probably was her, cos I actually love her, and if I were just fractionally more insane than I am, I would probably stalk her, just so I could listen to the incessant flow of truth and wisdom that comes out of her mouth.

Anyway. It has been a ‘batten down the hatches, get your head down, and plough into it’, kind of 12 weeks. Moving a family across continents takes a load of organizing.

And of course the good thing about chaos is you don’t get time to think much. Because it seems that with external chaos, internal chaos accompanies. At least for me it does. I am not a ‘ride the waves gracefully’ type. Not yet anyway.

But now it is all organized. It is all packed, paid for, sold or given away. And the chaos has vaporized. And we are waiting to leave…

No chaos = Simplicity = Space to think = Process = Urgh.

For the next 10 days, my only essential tasks are getting the kids to school on time, Picking them up on time, and filling their bellies with food. And the usual conflict resolution of course… But I am managing that with a new, highly successful strategy.

10 punctuation sentences per bicker, per child. Nice.

But I kind of want the chaos back, because how do you do a “full stop” Goodbye? I mean without the grief that surely must accompany?

And the truth is, some of these goodbyes are forever goodbyes. There are people in Malawi who we care for, who we will not see again. Some we will. Some we won’t. Malawi just isn’t a “passing through” kind of location. It takes a lot of effort and a lot of finance to get here.

Plus, most of those we are leaving behind, will likely be moving themselves to obscure corners of the world in the next year or two – Such is the life of the international community.

And just so we are clear; facebook is not the same as relationship. Social media is not the same as friendship. Saying “See you on facebook” does not appease the sadness and loss related to full stop goodbyes.

So here I am. Waking up each morning with a tangible desire to climb under a rock.

Because; I simply cannot face the full stop.

The full stop makes me cry. A lot.

Malawi has been a gift. Friends here have become sisters. Kindred souls. There are women here with whom I have shared sorrow and tragedy and deep belly laughter. Whose deepest fear and longings I have held in my hands and heart. With whom I have sat, shared silence, and said “me too”. Women who have shown up, at the exact right moment, and have been brave and selfless. Who have sat with me, held my hand, looked into my dark places and said ‘it’s okay’. Women to whom I am tethered, by the trusses of deep love and respect.

So Urgh.

I say to the kids, “It’s not goodbye, it is merely ‘until next time.’” Because, what the heck, I just don’t have the capacity for their sadness as well.

Besides, it is not like I don’t want to leave. I know it is time. Feel it deep in my bones. We are all ready.

It is just the full stop I hate.

But then…going under a rock isn’t good either. If there is one thing I know for sure it is that grief and other unresolved history don’t go away. They hide and pretend they’re not there, and then pop their heads out from under that rock at the most inconvenient time. And then bite you hard.

So its not going to be pretty. But cry I will.

2nd June. NYC baby…

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Over the noise…of a film.

I would like to spend the rest of my days living in a place so silent – and working at a pace so slow – that I can hear myself living.

Alma in Signature of all things. Elizabeth Gilbert.

I have not found myself sitting here for a long time. I have missed this chair, this desk, the way the sun drapes itself across the floor of this room, from the window to my feet.

There has just been no time. No time for writing. Thinking. Daydreaming.

I mean – I have been writing. Emails. Hastily scrawled text messages. Even a bunch of stuff about child marriage and education for girls…

And I have been really busy sitting with each of my kids every single afternoon, trying patiently to be with them and guide them as each of them navigates the various school/emotional/social challenges they are facing, working with each of their individual brilliant little minds, which each need such a totally different approach to learning, and their sensitive zealous little hearts which each need such a totally different approach to nurturing…

That’s another story altogether, but lets just say that mothering through puberty, dyslexia and ‘gaps’ due to poor early schooling is a somewhat time and energy consuming process right now.

It is all important and necessary. It is just one of those seasons. And the past few months have left me in a bit of a spin.

The film premiered here last Friday. The build up to the premiere was intense. The director May Tahazardeh flew in. The film has won 5 awards globally thus far including best short foreign film. It is getting some attention on the international film festival circuit, and here in Malawi it is causing something of a stir.

When my friend, May, and I started the research, concept and writing of this piece we truly had no idea just how provocative it would turn out to be.

It is a story, which cuts right to the heart of the deeply entrenched societal ethics and values around girls, and their right to education, and the issues surrounding child marriage.

It is designed to be a platform for discussion and to stimulate conversation. It is a tool. It presents honest questions, which need to be asked. It is uncomfortable.

Guess what?

The Malawians don’t like it.

But I have heard it said that ‘Great change is always proceeded by chaos.’

The facts are these. Here in Malawi:

Just 13 girls out of 100 finish secondary school. Of those 13, only 5 will pass their final examinations. That is 5% of girls that will graduate from high school.   In rural area’s, girls are outnumbered by their male counterparts 6 to 1.

1 in every 2 girls is married before their 18th birthday, and as a consequence, risk early death in pregnancy and childbirth because their bodies are simply not ready.

1 in 5 girls are sexually abused in childhood.

Research shows that half the reduction in under 5 mortality can be traced to increases in schooling for young women. If all women had secondary education, there would be 49 per cent fewer child deaths globally.

Children of educated mothers are more likely to receive vaccines, see a doctor if they are sick, receive rehydration if they have diarrhea, sleep under insecticide-treated nets, and benefit from other health-related practices.

The film Mercy’s Blessing is a story about a brother and a sister and about the brutal hard choices people, here in Africa, make every day, due to meager resources and severely limited options.

Most of us will never be able to get our heads around this kind of poverty. It’s useless even to try. Most of us will never know what it feels like to have to decide between two children. To feel so desperate that we are prepared to give our daughter to an old man for marriage at 12 years old.

But here’s what I have learned on this journey so far.

Yes, much of this comes down to scarcity of resources and desperate measures for survival. I do not for one moment belittle or under estimate the intolerable circumstances of most Malawian families.

But I have also learned that some of these problems are due to deeply entrenched societal attitudes, and the harmful traditional practices that are so rooted in the ethos and philosophy of this nation, that they sit and fester like a gaping wound in the very framework that holds Malawian culture together.

In the opening comments of Friday’s film premiere, we gave this analogy;

 Imagine that humanity is like a bird. This bird needs two wings to fly. If you clip one wing the bird cannot take off, let alone fly. But when both wings are strong, healthy, and equally balanced, the bird; humanity, can soar.

In the West we take the education of our girls for granted. I will never find myself in circumstances where I might be subject to the horror of giving my beautiful daughter, Esther, still a child, to a man to be used, abused and possibly raped in the name of marriage.

I will never know the distress of not knowing if I can get food in the bellies of my children today.

I will never have to choose between my children in terms of their education and their future. My little girl has every bit as much right to pursue her dreams and live out her God given potential. History has paved the way for her.

I cannot, as a foreigner in this land, ever truly empathize with the terrible and hard choices people are faced with daily.

I get it. It’s not my context. Not my culture. Not my daughter.

People feel indignant . People feel worried. People don’t want what they know and accept as culturally integral to their society, to be challenged. That is true for all of us.

But without this chaos will not see change. And hell, Malawi needs change. We know that. The Malawians know that.

But change is scary. And chaotic. It just is.

Now we go into a consultation period as the UN joint program for girls education builds a structure for taking the film, as part of their on going work with girls, into the schools and villages of Malawi.

The film will have the opportunity to do its work.

And me?

Heck, I am looking forward to carving out space.

To notice the sun creeping across the floor, and say hello to the hummingbird that visits my window each morning, and delight in my kids playing bum notes on the piano and in their tiny daily discoveries.

I am looking forward to space and in the words of Alma, in Elizabeth Gilbert’s Signature of all things to once again ‘hear myself living’.

Over the noise.

Just for a while.

I’ve missed daydreaming. I’ve missed writing down my daydreams. I’ve missed me.

It feels good to be back.

E.x

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Making a film.

Last year a friend and I made a film.

It is funny what can grow from a conversation over a cup of coffee.

The conversation went something like this;

Friend: I have a great idea. Let’s collaborate on a short film together…

Me: It is a great idea. Except I know absolutely nothing about film making…

Friend: True. But I do. And you know about acting and stories and stuff…

Me: True. But we have no money.

Friend: Oh don’t worry about that. We will worry about that later. It will come from somewhere…

And so began a crazy learning curve.

We began our search for a story.

We were looking for something relevant. Something current. We wanted to find an authentic Malawian story. Something raw and heart felt. We asked what are the current most pressing issues here in Malawi? And what are the real stories tangled into those issues?

Our aim was to find a story, write it, shoot it and create something beautiful. A piece of art, with the possible goal of putting it through the international film festival circuit.

We began our research. We wrestled with ideas. We dug deep into the stories of the people we interviewed. But as our story began to take shape, we saw something else start to evolve. A possibility.
The chance to use the medium of film, with all its power, as a master story telling vessel, to raise questions, stir up hearts and minds, evoke hope and fundamentally change attitudes. We saw the possibility to advocate for essential change, for the sake of the girl child here in Malawi, and beyond.

Today, according to UNICEF, there are 720 million girls worldwide, who have been married before their 18th birthday. Of these, approximately 250 million were married before their 15th birthday.

A girl who becomes pregnant before her body is ready is at high risk of death during childbirth. There is also a high chance that her baby may also not survive. Girls who marry as children are highly unlikely to continue in school. Their futures will be deprived as will their families and communities. Girls who are married as children often suffer horrific violence and abuse, including that of a sexual nature – Keep in mind that here in Malawi, there is no such thing as ‘rape within marriage’, According to Malawian law, such a felony cannot exist.
How can a child defend herself?
And of course the knock on effect of all of this, is these children often suffer depression and isolation, and the children born to those child mothers may not receive adequate care and nurturing.

Malawi is ranked 8th in the world in terms of child marriage.

In Malawi, less than 25% of girls finish primary education. Less than 5% of girls finish their secondary education and UNICEF draws a direct correlation between the numbers of girls finishing their education and the number of girls marrying as children.

We talked to a lot of people.

We came across brokenness in a whole new way. Like brokenness with jagged lacerated edges, the kind that takes your breath away and leaves you a little bit emotionally disfigured. That kind of brokenness.

And in amidst all that brokenness in the crumpled pages of people’s life stories, we found our story.

It is a story about a girl and a boy. Actually, a sister and brother. It is a story about child marriage, and the hard choices people make when faced with abject poverty. It is a story about the rights of the girl child to have an education and a potential filled future. It is a story about love and sacrifice.

It is based on real stories.

And it turned out my friend, May, is really rather good at what she does.

I filled in the gaps doing…stuff… and mostly fretting.

May isn’t a fretter so that’s good. She is more of a ‘get it done’ kind of girl.

The film is now in the Netherlands with May and an incredible team who are putting it through the final stages of post-production.

It will be complete in a couple of weeks.

And it is getting kind of busy here.

The film now has the backing of both UNFPA and UNICEF, the latter of whom are building a whole nationwide 2015/16 campaign around it. They are taking it out to schools and communities throughout Malawi. They will be doing public screenings and we are working with them to build and facilitate workshops and discussion groups off the back of the screening with all the different community groups – Girls, boys, parents, teachers, community chiefs and leaders.

It’s quite big.

I find myself in the midst of meetings where people talk in acronyms and use words and phrases like gender responsive pedagogy and participatory methodologies. I jot them down and then go home to my personal UN translator, Bails who explains and I say “Well why say participatory methodologies if they mean Drama Workshop??? I can totally do drama workshop. Now we’re talking.”

I feel a little like David the Shepherd boy looking up at Goliath, with my little sling and a couple of pebbles, and I’m like, okay, he’s quite big… I’ll just fire this at him and see what happens…Oh, that actually went quite well…okay, maybe I can actually do stuff other than sing a bit and count sheep…Maybe this is okay…maybe I can be useful with my gifts and stuff…maybe I can be part of something a bit important…okay…Maybe…I can always go back to singing and counting sheep…

Like I said. Its funny what can grow from a conversation over a cup of coffee.

E.x

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Rain.

I just made a cup of tea. 6 ants floated to the surface and bobbed like buoys.

This morning as I went into my underwear drawer a cockroach scuttled across my hand. I do believe it might have actually been hiding out inside my folded knickers.

Yesterday when I opened the cereal box for the kids breakfast, the contents of the inside packet was alive. Termites shuffling under toasted wheat flakes and oats like an army of tiny mutant ninja turtles.

Oh, and last night? I found a solitary pellet of gecko poo sitting centre stage on my face flannel.

None of this is novel to me.

I don’t freak out. I don’t jump or scream. I don’t whine – Well okay sometimes I do, but mostly I just pick out the debris, suck it up, and drink my tea.

We always see a spectacular increase in the wildlife here, when the rains arrive. These are the flying termites Esther and Howa collected after a recent downpour.

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They fly out of the termite hills and seem to immediately shed their wings and then lie on the floor squirming and cavorting until they are scooped up into a pot and fried. Apparently they are excellent, and full of natural oil so you don’t even have to add fat to the pan.

Yummy, right?

But, I am told one mustn’t take the small ones, because although they are very tasty they will render a person deaf…

Right.

I must have looked a little dubious when our housekeeper relayed that particular part of his explanation to me, because he then spent a good few minutes insisting that this was absolute fact and many, many, people have gone completely deaf the moment they ate a small one…

This is one of those ‘facts’ that I pop in my mental box for the curious, amusing and utterly ridiculous.

So now it sits there along with the one about spiritual ancestors living within the bodies of crocodiles. So therefore I have nothing to worry about, and can rest assured that the crocs definitely won’t eat me, or my children.

And the one about, squeezing the colostrum out of a mother’s breast and discarding it, due to colostrum killing babies…

Admittedly that one is really quite a worry.

Oh, and my all time favourite.

‘Victoria Falls was built by the British.’

The power of folklore and story…

And the peril, of a lack of decent education. Or any education for that matter.

Anyway, quite enough of my cynicism.

Malawi is in a state of National Emergency.

We melted for weeks waiting for the rains to come. Everybody was desperate. The heat was intolerable. The first time the skies opened, I was in the supermarket and I watched as Malawians fell to their knee’s, thanking God.

Now the rains have wiped out the maize crops.

Thousands have lost their homes and everything they owned.

Hundreds have died already in flash floods and mud landslides.

25 school children were swept of the road and drowned.

There was one evening where Bails was phoning around personal friends who own boats, because the government rescue boats have holes in, and there were people hanging out of tree’s and no-one could get to them.

We heard 4 people had been eaten by crocs when the river banks burst – That one might be rumor, but it’s not totally unfeasible.

Our housekeeper from our old house, Rose, lost everything one night when a cyclone hit the district she lives in. She just managed to pull her 6 kids out of bed before the house literally crumbled around them, like a scene from The three little Pigs. “I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down…”

She needs to start over completely. But she can never afford to build a house with real foundations and structure. So the best she can do is find the money to rebuild what she had in the knowledge that next time a cyclone hits…Poof.

And in a few months time, when there is no harvest, people are going to be hungry.

No-one really knows yet just how bad the situation will be.

Like life wasn’t already hard enough for the people of Malawi.

So my cynicism over the wildlife, coupled with my daily ranting about the fact that my husband has been unavailable to his family for four weeks now, as he works every waking hour co-ordinating the UN’s response to the situation, is of course completely inappropriate.

But that’s okay.

It’s my blog after all.

E. x

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Sitting with the silence.

Sitting with the silence.

We moved house.

I needed to simplify.

I needed to not drive a 30km round trip to school any more.

I needed to not feel overwhelmed by the schedule.

I needed to not feel like I needed to drink Gin every evening.

So we moved house.

It was actually quite easy. I mean, keep in mind this was one of 6 house moves within the past 8 years, only this time we didn’t switch countries or continents, so in relative terms ‘easy–peasy.’

We now live 3 minutes from school. I feel absolutely relieved.

We have down sized and down graded considerably, but it is simple and it is good.

One of the big changes has been that we inherited a housekeeper with the house, and he and his family, live within our compound.

This is normal here. Most people have a housekeeper living on their compound.

This is not something Bails and I have ever been comfortable with before.

The truth is, it was too uncomfortable to have workers living ‘on site’, because frankly the workers houses here, are not built with the workers comfort in mind. It is quite clear that the workers are there to serve the main household. The staff living quarters are small, cramped, often in disrepair and frankly inadequate.

We didn’t want to sit with the daily knowledge that whilst we live like relative ‘king’s’ our housekeeper and family, live on our property in a way that we could not.

Simply, we didn’t want to look it in the eye.

Because the truth is, this is how people here live. It’s not fair, but it is reality.

At least on our compound they have electricity. At least here they have hot water. At least here they have a bathroom with a shower and a proper toilet as appose to a bucket and a hole in the ground.

When we took this house, the housekeeper, Umali, along with his wife and three daughters were already living here, and it would have been pretty lame to evict them from their home, just because Bails and I couldn’t face the void between our two worlds…

And this is a much better option for them than any of the other options out there.

So here we find ourselves, two very different families from two very different worlds, living within one set of walls.

Its not altogether emotionally comfortable, but it is right.

Yesterday Umali came into the kitchen beaming. I thought something wonderful had occurred, because his face was literally alight as he said

“ I am very very happy”

I was slightly taken aback by such an outward show of emotion, as Malawians are usually quite guarded and rarely show sentiment or feeling. But he was actually almost…bouncing…

“Oh good” I said “What happened?”

“I am just veeeeeery very happy” he said, continuing his bouncy beamy thing,

“Yes so I see, but why? What has happened?”

“I am happy ”

“I am so happy that you are so happy, Umali, But why?”

“Madam, my family is safe. I have a very nice job and a home, and my family is cared for by your family. I can provide for my family and they are safe.”

I had to leave the room. I went to my bedroom and sat on the bed. I didn’t know what to say.

I honestly didn’t quite know quite how to hold such simple gratitude and joy.

I mean, what….?

No resentment?

No envy?

No undercurrents of bitterness?

No, ‘why do her children have all of this, whilst mine have…’

Don’t get me wrong. Malawi is full of undercurrents. It is sometimes hard to recognize truth here. So much is unsaid. This is a culture soiled by its colonial history and the abuse of power in years gone by.

One generally never knows if people are happy or not, hence my confusion over Umali’s gust of unhindered joy…

But it was lovely.

And I feel blessed to be considered a blessing.

It’s confusing sometimes. I grapple with many conflicting feelings about our life here in Africa.

Its hard not to feel like we are exasperating the problems.

I have found myself hardening my heart and puffing up my ego to justify the choices I make on a daily basis.

Like when my kids have said,

“Mummy why didn’t you give money to that beggar? What if he was really hungry?”

I have said things like

“Because I’m not sure if he is really hungry,”

Or,

“There are lots of organizations looking after people like that.”

Or, I might have even said

“I feel like he is trying to manipulate me”

Crikey. That’s awful. When I see it written on the page like that; that’s awful.

Is that the best I can do?

Is the best I have to give my kids, a lesson in “Its not my problem?”

Or, even worse, a lesson in “I don’t know how to handle this, so I’m actually just going to get defensive and puff up my ego, to numb my feelings of confusion and helplessness?”

Jeeze Em. Come on. You can do better than that.

What is wrong with sitting in that space, filled with uneasy questions, holding the silence, and saying,

“Don’t know. I simply don’t know”

Because, I don’t.

I can hide behind my judgements and my ‘rights and wrongs’, put all my uncomfortable questions into nice neat boxes with nice tidy answers pinned to the top…

Or I can try to sit in the vulnerability of each given moment, hold the silence around my questions and fully engage from a place of not knowing the answers…

Why do we seek to justify ourselves with answers?

Today, I stopped at some traffic lights and watched a beggar approach in my rear view mirror. And when he arrived at my window I took off my sunglasses and looked him straight in the eye. Then I said “Sorry my friend, not today” and he smiled at me.

I smiled back.

I am trying really hard to stay vulnerable in each present moment.

I am trying not to pretend like I’m okay with the inequalities I see every day, but I’m trying to not need answers or justifications for it either.

I am trying to sit with the silence of not knowing.

And maybe then, I will find the kind of grace and gratitude that I experience in my new friend, Umali.

E.x

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Tribe.

Tribe.

Two weeks back in Malawi.

It is dry. Dusty. A hazy glow rests on the horizon. The land looks crisp and yet the jacaranda blossoms are just emerging as if in defiance to the lands thirst. Just another of Malawi’s many contradictions.

It is good to be back. This feels like home. It’s the first time we have been allowed to stay anywhere for a third year and the familiarity and routine feel like comfy old shoes.

There are new faces. Many. And holes where old faces are missing. But soon the new faces will too become familiar old ones, and we will call them friends. It’s beautiful actually. I love how the International community reaches out and draws new members into the folds of its arms. I love how life feels like a constant evolution, like organic seed planting. I love how we old faces look for the new faces, and how we reach across cultural differences, language barriers, personality types and social comfort zones in order to welcome, embrace and nurture our community. It feels right.

Malawi can only be temporary, that’s the nature of this lifestyle, but the International community is home.

We are a tribe.

This is where we fit. Perhaps not forever. But for now.

For me, it has been a journey to arrive at this. It has been a gradual unfolding. I have a tendency to hold on to what is familiar, conventional and ‘the norm’. I don’t like surprises. I am one of those people who considers themselves spontaneous until they realize there is no map available…

Yes I know. Some of you are probably thinking how the heck did I end up married to someone like Bails. We wonder that ourselves. Often. But we are a team. He is the throttle and I am the brake.

And this nomadic tribe is our vehicle.

I know it is hard for folks at home not to worry. Most have no context for the choices we are making, no framework that we fit into. What about the children’s education? What about their friendships? What about grandparents and cousins?
Isn’t it time Bails got a regular job and we settle down?

We wrestle with these questions too.

But we generally only worry about the answers when we are in the UK.

Because we are part of a tribe, who are making the same choices. This is our normal.

We see our barefoot grubby children hanging out of tree’s, and chasing lizards, totally at home in the bush. The other day I giggled gleefully as I watched a new dad fretting when his 5 year old pulled down his pants and pee’d against the tree in the school playground. He looked over at us other parents waiting for disapproving glances, and we all gave him a reassuring ‘thumbs up’. Been there. We are all raising bush kids here.

We see teenagers, who look like teenagers. Some of them have recently left peer groups behind. It’s hard. Parents worry. But it’s okay. They are learning that ‘new’ is uncomfortable but ‘uncomfortable’ is okay. Homesickness and yearning for the old is normal, but that there is joy in the fresh awakening of new friendships, new experiences. They are flexible, open-minded, brave, resilient and often kind. They have been exposed to life’s sufferings. They understand that life is not a simple black and white sketchbook of rights and wrongs. They see the complexity of human suffering, often living in lands where the people live in abject poverty. They have grown up asking questions. And they know that often there are no answers, but they know that it is crucial to keep asking the questions.

They are a little ‘different’ to kids back home. We know that. But different is good, right? At least that is what we are teaching our kids. They are not scared of ‘different’. Their classrooms are full of different.

Different is normal in our tribe.

It has taken me 8 years to feel like I have both feet inside this nomadic caravan. I didn’t grow up doing this; I have had to learn to be flexible and brave. I have spent 8 years looking out the back window as old conventional norms grow smaller and smaller in the far off distance.

But today I think that I am stronger, braver and kinder for these 8 years.

And I feel at home in my tribe.

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A whatever kind of love.

When you grow up, what would you like to be?

A mother or a father with a fine family?

You could fly to the moon,

Or perhaps to a star,

Or simply be loved for whatever you are.

 

When you grow up, what would you like to do?

Have all the things good fortune brings, when wishes come true?

You could win worldwide fame,

Or perhaps be a star

Or simply be loved for whoever you are.

 

Willard A. Palmer.

 

 

I was sitting with Sammy a few days ago as he did his piano practice, and sometimes I like to sing along the lyrics to the melody my boys are playing. I must add, they do not like me doing this. At. All. But hey, that’s what comes of having a mummy who used to do theatre for a living. Tough luck. Yer stuck with me boys.

Actually Peter says he likes having an unconventional mum who is slightly bonkers, and breaks into song at any given opportunity – I feel his enthusiasm might waiver in the next year or two as we approach the tweenage years…

Anyway I do have a point, which I will get to shortly…

So I’m sitting with Sammy as he plays the melody and I start singing along the lyrics. Typically, at this point, he elbows me in the ribs a couple of times and gives me the usual “Mum you’re putting me off” at which point I usually hit an off key vocal top ‘c’ for maximum effect and leave him to it, but this time he didn’t. This time he said

“Mummy, listen to the words…”

So I did. And when he’d finished playing, and I’d finished singing, we sat.

According to his website, Dr Willard A Palmer was something of a musical virtuoso. He was respected and revered worldwide for his accomplishments both as a pianist, accordionist and composer during the 1950’s and 60’s.

I suspect the above song was not one of the pieces, which gave him worldwide acclaim. But as far as Sammy and I are concerned, this is the song which should clearly have established him as one of life’s genius’

To simply be loved for whoever you are.

 Is this not the bottom line?

Is this not the simplest truth?

Our simplest truth?

Our simplest yearning?

We live in a world driven by the pursuit of success and acclaim, where busy-ness and exhaustion have become some kind of status symbol to aspire to.

We measure a persons worth by how much they have, how much they achieve, whether their name is up in lights, how many followers they have on-line, or how big their salary cheque is.

We are a world of striving, competitive, over worked, under nourished, stressed out, adults.

But worse still,

We are a world of striving, competitive, over worked, under nourished, stressed out, parents.

In my 11 years on this Kamikazi road trip called parenting, I have not met a parent yet who looks upon their role and says,

‘Parenting? What’s the big deal? Its no biggy…walk in the park… yeh, I’ve totally got it nailed…”

For most of us, parenting feels something like this.

I am walking a high wire, with absolutely no safety net underneath. I am holding my breath. I am terrified of losing my balance. I am petrified of missing my footing, and I feel completely alone.

It ain’t for sissy’s.

But I do wonder, if we could all just clear some space… take a step back… stop… look…listen… re-evaluate… Breath…what would we change?

Is parenting from a place of fear, judgement and loneliness really the best we can offer our kids?

Next school year peter makes the transition to secondary school. He will lose a large percentage of his year group, because here in Malawi, traditionally there is a trend for sending kids to boarding school in South Africa at 11.

Parents want their kids to be in a more competitive environment, in schools where academics soar and competitive sports programs build competitive high acheivers. They want to provide their kids with the highest scores possible, to give them the best prospects possible.

Competition = high achievers = success.

Many of the kids thrive in this environment, and I am not here to criticize, the truth is I have no experience of this type of schooling, and therefore have no right to an opinion, other than that I think it’s a shame Peter will lose so many class mates.

I too believe in a healthy amount of competition.

But I do worry about the messages we are sending our kids.

Competition = high achievers = success = what exactly?

Our approval? Our love?

Undoubtably, it is easier for me to have these conversations from Malawi.   I am not living day by day in a highly competitive society.

My kids play football, rugby, are on swim team, take drama, and ballet, write for the school newspaper, play piano and guitar. They do lots. And its all for fun.

And I am aware that my children will make the natural transition into secondary school without the pressure of SATS or 11 plus exams. I don’t have to worry about them making the grade and being allocated a space in the ‘right’ school. In September Peter will simply cross the campus to another part of the same facility, and there are no decisions to make. There is no choice.

But I do know what it like to parent a child who is considered to have great potential. I am not sure what exactly the term ‘gifted’ means, and to be honest I am not keen on the label, which I think is an unhelpful choice of word, but I do know what it means to parent a child who, apparently, has an unusual capacity for learning. I do understand how much of a responsibility that feels, and I do understand what it is to wrestle with ‘are we doing the best we can for our child?’

And I do know what it is to parent a 10 year old who is defining himself on getting straight A’s.

So here are the questions that Bails and I ask ourselves on a regular basis.

  • Are our children happy?
  • Are our children learning in a positive environment, and therefore developing a love of learning?
  • Are our children empathic and do they have humility. Are they learning compassion for others?
  • Are our children learning to take risks, and developing resilience?
  • Are our children learning that everyone is different. That everyone has a special super power, and are they learning to embrace those differences and gifts in others?
  • Are our children playing and creating enough?
  • Do we feel connected to each of our children, or do we need to clear more space in the diary to enable this?

And most importantly; and here comes that bottom line,

  • Are our children fully aware that they are loved for who they are, and not what they achieve?

Do our children know that they are enough, for simply being who they are?

Do we, their parents, know that we are enough, simply for who we are?

Ask yourself that again.

Do, We their parents know that we are enough, simply for who we are?

Or are we just grown up versions of our little ones, hustling for worthiness In a world that tells us that our happiness lies in achievement, success and acclaim…

Are we actually modeling what we want our children to know?

Or are we so busy ‘pushing’ ourselves; ‘pushing’ our kids, to be the best, terrified that they won’t make the grade, make the team, get the part – and believe me, I know all about ‘pushing’ kids under the beguiling disguise of a slightly manipulative:

“I just want him to be the best he can be, for himself”.

Bullshit. Been there, bought the t-shirt and trust me, all it does is teach your child that his best will never, ever, be good enough.

How can we be happy if we feel that our best is not good enough? How can we be happy if we feel who we are is not good enough?

With all my heart, I want my children to know that who they are is enough. Period.

Parenting is a walk of grace in this house. But I want to climb down off that high wire and start to trust that my unconditional love will be enough to raise the kind, empathic, wholehearted, compassionate and happy individuals that I long to see my kids grow into.

 

E. x

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Yoga girl vs Eeyore.

 

   VS      

I want to write more often. Really I do.

The thing is, I think people like to read light, humorous, type writing – The kind of writing where the writer see’s everything through a sepia tinted ‘find the good in everything’ and ‘filter out all the gloom’ kind of lense.

And there’s our problem. I don’t generally do filters.

I think people want Tigger. Not Eeyore.

Yet so very often Africa brings out the Eeyore in me. Eeyore unfiltered.

For example.

Friday is grocery day. I start Friday grocery day with yoga deep breathing, because I hear that breathing deeply is what calm people do. So I breath very, very, deeply and I think happy thoughts, because apparently that will also help me to be a calm smiley person.

I drink tea, and make a shopping list.

My shopping list has three columns.

The 1st column is my ‘ideal nutritious food for the week’ column.

The 2nd column is my “Cant find ingredient, need to be flexible’ column.

The 3rd column is my ‘Hate living in this God forsaken country,’ column.

Column 1 consists of imported goods like breakfast cereal, yoghurt, and butter. I mean really, I’m not talking quinoa and ‘Green and Blacks’ chocolate people, I just want regular old cornflakes and spreadable butter. Please.

Column 2 consists of ‘plan B’ generic branded imported items, which do not ever ever taste the same, but hey, it’s not a bad thing to go without the things we like and to practice flexibility. After all we are not in Africa for the excellent cuisine, are we. Column 2 also will consist of ‘plan c’ items, where there is neither the ideal nor generic brand and therefor one must make the shift from thinking ‘cous cous’ to thinking ‘rice’. Again.

Column 3 consists of no food names, but rather just the words Hate hate hate hate.

Column 3 represents getting to the chicken freezer and finding the choice is chicken feet or crocodile steak. Or getting to the cereal isle, and finding the choice is 10 rows of generic all bran. Only. Or getting to the cold meat counter and reaching out for smoked ham to discover that what is labeled smoked ham is actually sliced cow tongue. And sliced cow tongue ain’t happening in my house.

So, I ‘yoga breath and think happy thoughts’ through my shopping list and head into town.

4 ATM’s later I resign myself to the fact that, once again, the person whose job it is to fill up the ATM’s with cash, clearly has forgotten that its his job and is most likely asleep under a tree somewhere.

I can’t fill up my car because fuel stations only take cash, and so breathing deeply and thinking happy thoughts, I head to the office to swap cars with Bails, because Bails always has fuel, whereas, because I have some weird self-destructive inability to notice the fuel gage on my car, I always have none.

Armed with full fuel tank and my cheque- book, I head to the grocery store.

What follows, is entirely dependant on which column I am being forced to operate in.

Operating in column 1 consists of happy breathing tinted with just the tiniest bit of smug delight that I got to the store on the day after delivery day, coupled with frantic texting to all my friends to share the wonderful news that on the shelves I see not only balsamic, but also (dear God, can it really be true…) apple cider vinegar.

Operating in column 2 commands deep breathing through slightly flared nostrils and clenched teeth as I frantically scan my list, and run down isles, throwing non-generics into my cart before someone else wipes out the shelves and praying for anything. Anything, that won’t cause dinnertime melt down on a nuclear scale.

Operating in column 3 usually entails breath control that is verging on hyper ventilation accompanied by the under breath mutterings of many four letter words. I would like to add that if I find myself in this third state, I am never alone. There will be at least 20 other ex-pats in the store who are also managing the strong emotions associated with borderline psychotic hysteria.

Then comes the cash register.

Have you ever stood at a cash register and watched the check out girl putting in the details of your cheque by hand…

One. Freaking. letter at a time?

With 5 second pauses between each letter?

And 12 whole minutes later, after she has put in every single letter and number, including full name, full amount, full account number, full telephone number and full bank address… she suddenly, in-explainably, accidently, deletes the whole lot? And has to start over.

One. Freaking. letter at a time.

You have no idea of the focus needed to sustain deep breathing and happy thoughts through that.

And trust me, just because the store has a sign which says ‘visa accepted here’ doesn’t mean jack.

Cos if you are ever fool enough to actually believe the sign, you can guarantee that Check out girl will ring up your entire shopping and then turn to you with a slight tilt of her head and tell you “The networks down”.

And when you humbly explain that you have no cash because every single ATM in the country is completely empty and that when the cheque book that you ordered at the bank 4 months ago finally arrived, they had forgotten to include your name on it, basically rendering it completely useless, she looks at you, sucks her teeth and shrugs her shoulders.

Or even worse, you get to the till, she rings up your shopping, and when the machine rejects your card due to ‘network down’, the check out girl who looks like a perfectly respectable, nice person changes into ‘Crazy Jesus lady’.

Seriously.

And you know I’m all about Jesus. He is my rock. But standing at the till, with 5 people all in line behind me, listening to the check out lady loudly commanding the visa machine to ‘work in the name of Jesus’ has to have been in my top 3 most surreal experiences ever. And she wasn’t taking no for an answer. I offered to pay by cheque and she called for another machine…

Oh Africa.

So here’s the thing. Even the most determined Tigger, even Tigger after 3 hours of lotus, followed by 3 hours of meditative happy thinking thoughts, can find themselves in a state of chronic Eeyore-ness, due to one trip to the grocery store.

I want to write about how the African sunrise creeps like the blush of a first kiss… about the birds in my garden whose colours are like the rainbow…about the wind in my hair as I look out across lake Malawi’s sun kissed waters at the mountains of Mozambique, and take in the sheer awesomeness of it all…

And then BAM.

Generic rice for dinner.

And Yes its true. I am a self – consumed grumpy old bag who really should be grateful for every, tiny, grain of rice that goes in my stomach, especially based on my context. I live a life of exceptional blessing in a country where most people are point blank hungry.

I know that.

But here I am. Unfiltered. Breathing deeply. E. x

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Stuff.

It is time I wrote something again.

I just don’t know what to write.

Bails says I must never, ever, work in an open plan office because apparently I talk to my computer as I write.  

He is sitting next to me writing something about “The Right to Food”.

 I am trying to think of what to write, and I need to talk, to figure out what to write.

He says I need to be in a room by myself.  Soundproof if possible.

It’s not that I don’t have anything to write about, I have plenty to write about. I think I am just stuck because… I’m not sure where to start…I guess that’s why bloggers write little and often, so they don’t get stuck…I think I’m stuck…

The “Right to Food” seems fairly obvious.   Bails spends a lot of time writing about the Right to Food, the Right to education, the Right to clean water, the Right to pretty much everything we in the West, take for granted.

Hmmm.

I went out into the bush last week. I have started driving once or twice a month for an organization called ‘Joyful motherhood’. They look after orphaned babies who have  lost their mothers in childbirth, and provide support for mothers with triplets, twins and also premature babies.  I go with the nurses out to the villages, driving them to places which, otherwise, are almost inaccessible for them.  We take formula milk to those mothers or carers whose babies need it. We weigh and measure the babies and provide advice and information, check the children are getting immunisations etc. 

I say ‘we’ but actually I am just a friend with a 4×4.  They look after 300 families a month and I give a tiny bit of myself to help them get to those in the most remote destinations.

Last week we visited a mother with triplet boys.  The boys were now a year old and strong.  I watched them physically punching one another out of the way in order to get to their mothers breast, and I thought ‘Dear God, that’s just not fair. The woman clearly needs three breasts.”

Image

It was great to be able to give her the formula milk which supports their feeding, and gives mum a break.  The three little ones were thriving and the nurses discharged them from the program, as they are now developmentally where they need to be, and old enough to eat maize porridge.

We visited two more families.  The first was a ‘kangaroo’ baby born very pre-mature. He was 1.6 kg at birth. The program encourages the mother to carry the baby on her chest ‘kangaroo’ style, which vastly improves the child’s chance of survival. He was 4 months old, feeding well and flourishing at a healthy 5.9kg .  The mother was happy and there was a joyful atmosphere as we weighed and measured her little boy, who was clearly thriving.

ImageStuff

The last family we visited was another pre-mature baby.  Only this time the mood was somber.  The mother was very sick. Her body ravaged by HIV.  She could barely walk and was hacking with a cough that had all the promise of TB. She was too sick to lactate, her body just skin on bone, and the baby was under nourished, under weight, and un-responsive.  There were two older daughters both who seemed well. The oldest at 15 years had dropped out of school to care for the baby.  There was no man in sight.   It felt desperate.   The nurses went through their tasks, and we gave enough formula for a month, until their next visit. We checked that the mother had her ARV’s. Then we left.

 There was nothing to say.

I’ve thought a lot about that family.  And the thousands of others like them here in Malawi.

 But there is nothing to say.  

I am currently working in pre-production with an Independent film maker here. We are researching, writing and producing a short film, which is a fictional Malawian story around the Education of girls. My film maker friend, May, has made a lot of films around the world, usually documentaries which connect people with different cultures, different issues and different stories. 

The education of the girl child is one of Malawi’s major talking points right now.  The rate of girls dropping out of school before or during the teenage years is vast, and is undoubtedly a massive hindrance in Malawi’s development.  There are many underlying issues; teenage marriage, lack of sanitation, poverty driven transactional sex leading to pregnancy, and the fact that Malawi is predominantly a Patriarchal society meaning that often the girls are over looked in education as their place is in the domestic home, especially if there is only the money to educate their brother…

So I am learning about this stuff at the moment. I have had my head in it for weeks. Cinematographers are flying in shortly and we begin shooting beginning of next month.  I have spent months researching, finding our story, trying to understand the complexities surrounding the education of the girl child, casting and work-shopping actors, Because every girl child has the Right to Education, right?

And then I find myself out in the bush with a mother who, with my very limited experience of HIV, I think is going to die.

 Soon.   

And it is very clear to me that the older sister is the only person who will be able to fend for her siblings. 

But she is supposed to be in school.  I know that.

And without an education, what hope does she have of being able to provide for her siblings? 

Perhaps there is an extended family… but then why are they not helping out now so this girl can go to school? 

Perhaps the baby has HIV and TB and will die too…

But there is still the 4-year-old sister to provide for…

So what choice does she have?

 Maybe she will grow and sell tomatoes at the side of the road…

 Or maybe she will sell herself.  After all, Prostitution pays better than tomatoes. Especially, if you do it without a condom. 

Perhaps that’s what her mother did.  To put food in the bellies of the children that she is prepared to die for…

I don’t know. 

I don’t know anything.

Bails writes his paper’s, I work on a film.  

Its all so simple, ‘til you end up in the Bush with real people…

So I think that’s why I’m a bit stuck.

Malawi is in the middle of a huge government corruption scandal.  It’s called “The Cash Gate crisis”.  Tens of millions of dollars have ‘disappeared’.  The donors have frozen funding for months now, Government ministers have been sacked, are being investigated and in some cases already arrested.

 People are angry.  Rightfully so. 

Because there are no medicines in the hospitals, and the kwacha is devaluing by the day due to lack of Forex. The poverty is crippling, young girls are being forced out of school and into prostitution, and People are hungry and sick and they are watching their children die of simple preventable illnesses.

And you wonder what kind of person is okay with stealing the money that is supposed to buy medicine and food and education for the most vulnerable, broken, desperate members of the community. Their own community.

So there I go, saying that there is nothing to say, and then saying, actually, quite a lot.

That’s the problem with being a verbal processor. 

I used to think that by verbally processing I could find answers.  

I don’t think that any more.

 Now I think I just need to talk. To write. Cos talking and writing somehow gives me courage and helps me to feel a little less alone and a little less sad.

But I probably should get that soundproof room.

Thank you for listening.

 

E.x

 

 

 

 

 

 

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