Lock down.

My brain is one of those brains that sifts information.

  I am amazed, on a daily basis, by how much information my kids brains seems to be able to retain.  The sheer volume of facts they lob at me every day and the number of times every week that I think ‘How do you even know that?’

Every day I pick them up from school and its like a torrent of information hits me between the ears and runs me over…and it just keeps on coming.  I mean; does anyone else out there know that adult blue whales can hold the equivalent of their body weight in water, in their mouths? Or that the Praying Mantis is such a fussy eater than when in the midst of devouring an insect, if the insects head just happens to fall off, it rejects the rest of its meal? Or that, (and this one is my personal favourite) Cows ‘moo’ in different accents, depending on where they are from.




I only know these particular facts because they were fed to me earlier today, so I haven’t sifted them yet.

I have decided that my brain sifts information and only stores  essential facts, so as to keep space for all the mundane information that must be retained, in order for ones family to function. 

I need a lot of space for stuff like:

 ‘Electricity 3 evenings in row, likelihood of 4th very slim, must cook in morning’.  


 ‘Food trucks due to arrive tomorrow, must get there before Asian community wipes out entire stock’.


‘Fuel crisis possibly approaching, must fill up 240 ltr drum in garden with 25 ltr jerry can in next 3 weeks’


‘Must buy  jerry can’. 

So you see, I just don’t have too much space for the life cycle of the sperm whale.


 But every so often a piece of information seems to manage to avoid the sifting, and it sticks.


Years ago, before we embarked on this crazy international journey, I had a cup of tea with a friend.

This friend had lived as a foreigner in another country for a number of years and had met many diplomats and their spouses along the way.   I remember her saying something like the following:

“Guard your heart. Fight the urge to self protect.  Give space for sad goodbyes, homesickness, grief and confusion, but then choose authenticity and vulnerability, keep your heart open, otherwise you will lose the essence of who you are.”

I didn’t sift this information.

Infact, over the past few years it has been something of a mantra for my life.

Man, but its hard.  Our world is a constant rollercoaster of change.  We arrive, we observe, we reach out, we take risks, we learn, we adapt, we make friends, we build relationships, we find community…always knowing that it’s a temporary thing.  Then just on the crest of ‘comfortable, settled and at home,’ we tear our children away from their friends, pack our lives back into suitcases, say goodbye and start all over.

It’s no wonder really that ones inclination is to numb and self protect.

The’ long timers’ here in Malawi; that is the white Malawian community along with a lot of repatriated Zimbabweans and South Africans, plus much of the Asian community, who have made this home, admit that they don’t make an effort with us ‘ex-pats’,

They say they are sick of making friends and then those friends leaving. 

 I totally get it.  I understand why it’s too hard. I know the sadness of permanent goodbye and the pain of watching your children grieve over lost friendships, knowing that you cannot promise that they will ever see those friends again.  It totally sucks.

I understand the need to go into ‘lock down’. To batten down the hatches, and say ‘no more’.


But then stuff like this happens.


I took the kids to an outdoor café a couple of weeks ago.  It had been a particularly crappy couple of days for one reason and another. I was feeling tired of the challenges of Africa, I can’t remember what the specifics were – probably water cuts and not being able to find some imported items which I consider essential to my survival on the planet…anyway I know I was grumpy and tired, and feeling thoroughly disillusioned 


There was only one other family at the café, and as I sat down to order my latte (Yes we can get Latte at, not just one, but two cafes, in Lilongwe) I clocked the fact that I hadn’t seen them before, and this observation usually stops me in my tracks, as I do pride myself on being Lilongwe’s most accomplished social butterfly, and frankly…well, I know everyone.

     However, grumpy me was in no frame of mind for making new friends and I sent the kids off to play and buried myself in my book.

      After a few minutes Esther started to try and connect with the little girl (she is absolutely so her mothers daughter) and I realized I needed to facilitate name swapping etc.  The child’s mother came over and introduced herself and we began a conversation.

       We were only a minute in when she told me that they, as a family, had only been in Malawi a matter of months and that they were in the process of adopting the beautiful baby on her hip, whose parents had both died of HIV and they had taken from an orphanage just weeks before.  More to the point, they were only staying for as long as the adoption process takes place…It was then, at this point in the conversation, that I felt something physical happen in my body.  I literally felt a physical withdrawal.  My heart locked down.  I felt it happen.  It was weird and it caught me totally unawares.

           I knew in that moment that I had a choice.  My weary heart was spiraling into disconnection and there is nothing I hate more than disconnection.  I have spent 7 years fighting ‘lock down’, and the urge to self protect.  Because, simply, I believe that if I don’t keep on making myself available and practicing authentic vulnerability, and in that, fighting for relationship and community, I really believe I will lose my essence and wither away.

So I made a choice.

I said, “Hey I live around the corner and this afternoon I’m hosting a kids art class, why don’t you guys come for lunch and join us for art, and meet a bunch of other families?”

 The long and the short of it is this.  

My new friend turns out to be one of the most inspirational women I think I have ever met.  We shared stories, dug ridiculously deep for two women who had never met before. 

Her story, is her story, and not mine to share, but I promise you by the end of the day I felt ‘born again’.

  I watched this beautiful Iranian woman and her beautiful children, and there was something profound in the connection she and her two children had with their new sibling. 

 It was somehow ‘sacred’. 

 I watched in awe as she put her new daughter to the breast and fed this tiny, orphaned, malnourished baby her own breast milk, and she told me how her own son had taught his new sister how to feed from the breast.

 I watched this mother and her new child, and it felt like I was on holy ground.

 I know it sounds dramatic, but they restored my hope.  And that day, I really needed my hope restored.  Malawi can leave you feeling a kind of defeated at times, and for ‘feelers’ like me, It can get exhausting.

 I so nearly missed out on a profound moment, and the beginning of a wonderful friendship, because I so nearly locked down.

 We can’t afford to miss those moments.  And sometimes they come in the most unusual packaging, right?



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September 24th.


September 24th.


I’m not ready to write this.

 My head and my heart are scrambled.  Nothing makes sense today. 

 I wanted to write something this week which would be light and humorous, after my three month break from writing, something where I made light of the long endless power cuts and water cuts which have been chipping away at my nerves like a chisel against stone…


 And then Nairobi. 


 This morning I read my April post ‘Here is the world’ and I cried. 

  I cried because everything I wrote in that post is still true.

  In the midst of another pointless, heinous terror attack, everything I wrote is still true.

 Only this time, it is just that bit closer to home.

 This time it feels personal. 

 This time it is my social circle that is asking ‘Do you know anybody there?’

 This time we have friends, who have lost friends.

 You see, the international community is not actually very big.   Everywhere we land and put down roots, all be them temporary roots, we make friends. And those friends have other friends, who know other friends, and “oh guess what…so and so knows so and so, in that place we used to live in…and did you hear that so and so moved to so and so…we should definitely connect them with so and so… and so on…”

 I always keep my eyes peeled in airports because we Internationals spend half our lives in airport lounges, and I always wonder who else might be passing through…

 So when News about Nairobi first broke, my first thought was, “Oh my God, who do we know there?”  

 I am not making this into my own personal drama.   I am just suddenly acutely aware of how close this feels and of how another little piece of my fabricated high security wall has just crumbled down.

 We heard this morning, that a former UN colleague here in Lilongwe was killed in the attack. 

 I read my April post this morning and I cried because I know it was so much easier to write about ‘terror and beauty’ when the terror was happening to a community I am not connected to, in a country far, far away.

  I still absolutely, fundamentally believe everything I wrote to be truth.

 There is still unfathomable beauty in peoples response. Beauty is still, in the words of Anne lamott, ‘rising up and like white blood cells pouring in to surround and heal the infection,’ but right now, today, to be honest, I am just a little less inclined to talk about the beauty.

 The terror has come too close.

 It’s a day of right foot, left foot, right foot, left foot and keep breathing.

 Focus on not being paralyzed.

 Holding the darkness in my hands, weeping with those who are grieving, crying out for Mercy and waiting for hope…

 And tonight I listened just a little more carefully to my children. And I held them just a little longer at bedtime. And I savoured their words and breathed in their smell.

 Perhaps tomorrow I will dance with them…Just because I can.

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How I know its time to bail out…

How I know its time to bail out…

 On Thursday we fly back to the UK for ‘home leave,’ courtesy of the United Nations.

 I am ready.

 I know I’m ready because this morning when I turned on the shower and once again the water pressure was so low that it just dripped, I sat down on the side of the bath and had a little weep.

 I know I’m ready because yesterday when I visited the 4th ATM machine and there was no money available, I head butted the machine. It was a minor head butt. Not hard enough to hurt me, but it was still a head butt, and it still caused the Malawian lady behind me in the queue, to be concerned enough to actually help me get my children back into the car.

I know I’m ready because this week at a friends house, when she turned on the AC unit and it started juddering like a washing machine on full spin, and then a gecko’s tail dropped on the floor and twitched for a full 5 minutes, followed by half the gecko flopping out of the front of the unit, My friend screamed and ran to the bathroom to vomit, where as I sighed with resignation… and made a cup of tea.

I know I’m ready because recently, at 6am, when I lumber into the kitchen and head ‘single mindedly’ for the kettle only to discover there is a power cut, I promptly morph from bleary sleep eyed mummy, to dark sadistic mummy within less than a second.

I know I’m ready because I am frankly a bit of a cow when Bails pre-empts the horror that is about to evolve due to the  ‘no tea at 6am’ thing, and briskly goes outside to start the generator, because frankly the eejit who decided to put the generator directly outside the back door (Not my husband, I should add) might as well have attached the wretched thing to the side of my head, because I now feel like there is a pneumatic drill, penetrating through my brain at 6am, which kind of undermines the whole ‘grateful for a cup of tea’ thing.

I know I’m ready because today, I decided to take the long route into town just to avoid facing the beggars pushing handicapped kids in wheelchairs. This in itself is unacceptable.  But what was “so so much worse” was that I was actually acutely irritable with the handicapped beggars, when I pulled up at an intersection and realized that they had also decided to change their usual route, and were begging on my ‘beggar free road’.   I actually told them to please stop changing their beat.

And Yes I know. I am a very bad person.

I know I’m ready because I’ve stopped noticing how beautiful my garden is, and being thankful for the endless blue skies…

 During our years living in various different parts of Africa we have had several occasions where we have found ourselves in a boat, being sailed or rowed out onto water; sometimes to look at the fish eagles, sometimes to look for hippo’s, sometimes to go snorkeling, but whatever the purpose of our boat journey there has always been one common denominator.  The boat absolutely always has a hole in it.  And there is absolutely always a little man scooping out the water from the bottom of the boat with a pot or a cup which usually also has a hole in it…  In our early days in Africa this would trouble us.  Now we know that there are no boats in Africa without holes and as long as the little man keeps scooping all will be well.

I feel a little bit like that little man at the moment. I just gotta keep scooping…just keep on scooping…come on, another day of scooping…just scoop, scoop, scoop…

So this is how I know I’m ready.

 I think its okay to run out of Grace for our situations every now and again, whether its circumstances or people.  We all need to re-fuel, right?

I need to re-fuel. 

I need to re-fuel with constant electricity, debit card shopping, chocolate caramel slices, Starbucks coffee, my nieces and nephews, Marks and Spencer’s, French wine and good cheese, my sister, my bro and my mum, The National theatre, BBC drama, A damn good haircut with highlights, convenience food, and yes, streets without handicapped beggars.

I need to refuel so that I have the head and heart space to do Africa well.

 It’s okay.  I’m scooping til I can refuel.


E. x

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TEDxLilongwe and bricks

Three weeks ago Bails and I are driving down the road and as we turn the corner into our street, there is a large brick sitting in the middle of the road.  This same brick has been sitting obtrusively in the middle of the road all week, and all week we, and clearly everyone else in our street, has been driving around this brick.  So on this day, three weeks ago, once again we maneuver around the brick, and Bails says to me

“Man, that brick is annoying.” To which I reply,

“Yer, I know. I wonder how long it will take for someone to move the annoying brick.”

At which point my wise owl of a husband looks me in the eye and says,

“Babe. You need to be the change you want to see in the world”


  ” Epiphany moment”

I look back at him in sheer wonder, and say,

“You mean… ‘I’ should get out the car and move the brick????”

He nods slowly, allowing time for my mummy brain to catch on…

“Yer babe. We need to move the brick”

You know, it’s the simple things in life that always seem to have the most profound effect on me.

I thought about this incident afterwards. I thought about bricks.

So then two weeks ago I get a phone call and it goes something like this…

“Hi. I’m from the organizing team of TEDxLilongwe and we were wondering if you would be interested in MC-ing the first ever TEDxLilongwe conference next Saturday…?”

My reply went something like this.

“Eeeeeeeeeeeerrrrrrrrrrrrr…Ooooooh  urr gosh, Mmmmmm right, um, just let me check my diary….right yes, urrrr just the usual childcare, right Ummm, gosh, Mmmm…”

Remarkably, he didn’t hang up.

We organized to meet later that day, with all of the tech team, and I did a short audition, which everyone seemed to like, and I actually thought went quite well as well, but mostly just because I managed not to vomit.

I then spent a good 10 minutes giving the organisers as many reasons as I could, as to why I probably, actually, wasn’t the right person for the job at all.  I suggested the organizer did it himself, I suggested job sharing it, I suggested perhaps a Malawian would be a better choice, A man would be a better choice, (which goes completely against everything I believe in, in terms of gender equality) I told them I hadn’t been up in front of a live audience for 8 years, and that I actually, genuinely, know nothing about anything, I even went for the ‘guaranteed to scare ‘em off line’ “ But I’m just a mummy of three kids.”

I was in complete, utter, ‘foot fully engaged with the throttle,’ panic mode.

They just kept nodding, and saying things like “We are confident you are the right person for the job”.

Why? Why would you think that?????

They suggested I read through some of the manuscripts for the day and asked me to get back to them in 24 hours.

I went home and did feotal on my bed for 24 hours .

But at some point, I did start to look through those manuscripts, and the very first one I opened was titled;

‘Expanding your comfort zone’.

Ah. Kay.  Maybe I should read that…

I started reading more manuscripts, reading the stories and idea’s that all these brave men and women were going to bring before a live audience, all of them taking huge risks, to share their stories from the platform.  And here’s what I saw.

I saw an army of brick movers.

Activists who are fighting for gender equality and empowerment for women, Entrepreneurs who are fighting for their countries economic future, Climate justice advocates who are crying out for us to wake up and take responsibility, Educationalists who are calling for focused renewed investment in the next generation, Poets and storytellers bringing their raw and vulnerable hearts and laying themselves bare. And this is just to mention a few.

Brick. Moving. Warriors.

I knew, that I needed to get my butt up on that stage and give these brave and inspiring men and women the smacking introductions they deserved

I wanted to be amongst these people.  I wanted their stories to impact my attitudes and my choices, because I spend a heck of a lot of my life driving around bricks, and complaining about the fact that no one is moving the wretched brick.

Bricks come in so many different shapes and sizes.  We get frustrated with them, we moan about them, we find them inconvenient and usually we want someone else to deal with them.

But Mahatma Gandhi said, “You need to be the change you want to see.”

And Bails said it too.

Yesterday I posted this on my Facebook page;

“ TEDxLilongwe was incredible. Such a privilege to be up on stage with so many brilliant minds and hearts. I wish the world were full of people like that. People who are trying to be ‘the change they want to see.’  How different the world would look.”

Imagine how different the world would look.

The talks will be up on-line in a few weeks and I will post links to them then, but for today, I want to encourage us all to look at the various bricks in our lives, and to consider the cumulative impact we can have on our world if we are just prepared to get out the car… and move the brick.

Maybe your brick is to teach your kids to turn off the lights and recycle.

Maybe your brick is to lobby for ‘Lads mag’s’ to leave the shelves of UK supermarkets.

Maybe your brick is human trafficking, because you have a son or a daughter too.

Maybe your brick is that old lady down the street who has no family and frankly, seems really lonely.

Maybe your brick is Truth, no matter what the cost…

We can’t fight all the battles people. But we can each choose one, and allow our commitment to that one brick, to be the stuff that defines who we are, and how we respond to our world.

This world needs me, and you, to be brick pick-er up-ers.

E. x

Posted in Malawi, The grey stuff | 2 Comments

“Here is the world”

“Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”

                                                                                              Frederick Buechner

Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Do happen. Are happening.

This is our world.

When I read the news last Tuesday morning I felt sick.  Once again our Western world has been rocked by terror. My own personal safety bubble, and that which I place my children in feels suddenly less in-penetrable.  Once again we realize our human frailty. Once again we acknowledge vulnerability and stare it in the face.

Boston is terrible. Terrifying. Completely wrong.

I wonder if the word ‘Safety’ needs re-thinking.  Or just simply removing altogether. It holds false promise.  Because the world is not ‘safe’.  We cannot protect ourselves, and those we love from the terrible things that are happening in this world.  Boston and Newton and cancer and AIDS and meningitis and War and drunk driving and suicide and on and on and on…Terrible things will happen.

Here in Malawi we live behind a six foot wall.  Above our wall sits a high voltage electric fence.  We have 24 hour guard, one during the day and two at night. They patrol the perimeter of our property every hour. They radio in a report to HQ every half hour throughout the night.  We have bars on all our windows and at night we lock our doors behind iron gates with padlocks. We sleep behind a ‘Safe haven’ another door with an iron bar across it. We have a panic button in the house, which will bring a rapid response team in full riot gear to our home within 5 minutes.

Does any of this make us ‘safe’?


Because ‘Here is the world and terrible things will happen.’

And beautiful things too.

Beautiful is people who run towards the broken and bleeding bodies of strangers in the aftermath of a bomb scene, momentarily oblivious of their own vulnerability.

Beautiful is the people of Denmark who during Nazi occupation in world war 2, hid nearly 7000 jews in the bottom of fishing boats, under the floors, and with unfathomable bravery and at absolute risk to themselves and their families, smuggled them across to safety in unoccupied Sweden.

Beautiful is a mummy and daddy called Kate and Ed Leong who lost their beautiful brave 5 year old son, Gavin, last week. And in the midst of their worst nightmare, with broken hearts, and no sense of ‘why’, or ‘how the hell to piece their lives back together,’ they gave all his organs to other mummies and daddies who were waiting for life saving organs for their babies.

Somehow, in the carnage of life’s worst horrors, people rise up.  That’s the beautiful.

I’m not for a minute saying that bad stuff has to happen in order for goodness to shine – yuk, vomit, hate that shit.

Anne Lamott summed it up beautifully for me this week when she wrote the following;

“It is hard not to be afraid, isn’t it? Some wisdom traditions say that you can’t have love and fear at the same time, but I beg to differ. You can be a passionate believer in God, in Goodness, in Divine Mind, and the immortality of the soul, and still be afraid. I’m Exhibit A.

The temptation is to say, as cute little Christians sometimes do, Oh, it will all make sense someday. Great blessings will arise from the tragedy, seeds of new life sown. And I absolutely believe those things, but if it minimizes the terror, it’s bullshit.

My understanding is that we have to admit the nightmare, and not pretend that it wasn’t heinous and agonizing; not pretend it as something more esoteric. Certain spiritual traditions could say about Hiroshima, Oh, it’s the whole world passing away.

Well, I don’t know.

I wish I could do what spiritual teachers teach, and get my thoughts into alignment with purer thoughts, so I could see peace and perfection in Hiroshima, in Newton, in Boston. Next time around, I hope to be a cloistered Buddhist. This time, though, I’m just a regular screwed up sad worried faithful human being.

There is amazing love and grace in people’s response to the killings. It’s like white blood cells pouring in to surround and heal the infection. It just breaks your heart every time, in the good way, where Hope tiptoes in to peer around. For the time being, I am not going to pretend to be spiritually more evolved than I am. I’m keeping things very simple: right foot, left foot, right foot, breathe.”

Man, I wish I could say it like that. “ Like white blood cells pouring in to surround and heal the infection…where hope tiptoes in to peer around”

The beautiful.

I always find it interesting how we as humans are so totally engaged with what is going on in our immediate geography.  We forget about ‘terrible’ until it tips up on our personal doorstep and rings the bell.  When the unthinkable happens in our community, in our family, in our nation – when it becomes ‘personal’, we flip out and panic as our fabricated safety walls start to crumble around us.  It’s normal. Its what we do.  But, and once again I quote Anne Lemott, “Its bullshit.”

We need to get over our personal geography and remember that this horror, the terrible parts of life, are happening every day all over this world to people just like you and me.  Terrible things happen every minute of every day. Take a look at the world news.  Mali. Libya. The Middle East.

So what should our response be?  Higher walls? More panic buttons?

Or beauty.

Our natural instinct is to self protect. Especially where our kids are concerned. Geeze, when it comes to my kids I’m like “how high can we get that wall? And if someone does actually try to get over it, can we up the voltage on the fence so that it actually fry’s them?”

That’s not beautiful.  Human, but not beautiful.

I want my kids to learn that nothing is guaranteed.  That life can be terrible. But it can also be exceptionally beautiful.

I want them to know that I don’t have it all figured out.

I want them to learn that beauty is contagious. And healing.  And life-giving.

I want them to learn that sometimes they will feel afraid, but that courage, and compassion and grace and love will “like white blood cells, pour in to surround and heal the infection”

I want to be brave enough to say to them (metaphorically)“The person climbing over the wall is making a wrong choice. The person is not doing a good thing. I feel afraid.  But this person is making this choice because there is something very wrong in their world, and they are hurting and afraid too.  We need to have great courage. We need to reach out. We need to offer this world our love and our brave hearts, so that less people feel hurt and afraid. We need to give this world, beautiful.

I want them to learn that people can choose beautiful.

I want them to learn that despite terrible, they can choose beautiful.


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Lost in Translation.


Sunset on Lake Malawi

I recently made quite a helpful discovery.

Apparently many Malawians mix up their R’s and L’s.  Not just in a ‘bad African English’ kind of way, but rather in a, ‘ phonetic–ly swap them over’ kind of way.  They don’t just accidently replace an R with a L, like our Sammy sometimes does with R’s and W’s, they actually also spell words by swapping R’s and L’s.  So for example, the name ‘Grace’, is pronounced and spelt ‘Glace’.

Weird. However, I am so glad I figured this one out.  It has cleared up a LOT of misunderstandings.

For example; Everyday for the past 6 months I have passed a sign on the way to school, which says the following;


               ERECTLICS  AND LOOFING – best man on the job!


Well. The mind boggles. Mine has done so for months.

Turns out, he is an electrician who also offers roofing.  Thank goodness I figured that one out.

Another example.

A few weeks ago, our gardener asked me to buy ‘bloom’ for the garden.  So, off I popped to the garden center to purchase lots of packets of brightly colored flower seeds to sow.  Days later, he reminded me about the ‘bloom’ he needed, and rather baffled I explained,

“But Lamec, I gave you the blooms.” He, in turn, looked baffled and asked me,

“When did you give me the bloom?”  I, in turn, looked more baffled and said,

“Yesterday.” He, in turn, looked even more baffled and said,

“Yesterday you gave me flowers.” I, in turn, looked even even more baffled and said,

“What’s the difference between flowers and blooms?” to which he replied in  complete utter undisguised bafflement,

“Madam, flowers is for the garden, bloom I need to sweep with”


The thing is, now I am wondering if his name is actually Lamec at all, or if it is really Ramec. And I’m wondering if the housekeeper, Rose, is actually Lose.

It’s all very confusing.


We have had lots of opportunity to travel this beautiful land the past few weeks.

We managed to make it to Cape maclear on the southern lakeshore, which is a wonderful traditional fishing village, rich in culture and bubbling with life.   It is a glorious picture postcard location, where tourism and local life are somehow compatibly intertwined in a rare companionable partnership, where it appears neither is robbing the other.

Woman washed their cooking pots and clothes in the lakeImage

whilst folks like us kayaked past.


Men lolloped around on dug out canoes waiting to pull in the days catch.


We lazed in the sun.  Naked children laughed and bathed and played in the waters edge. Ours played and swam too.


The rhythm is slooooow and people smile a lot.

I reckon if you were Malawian and could choose to live anywhere, this would be it.

Fish, irrigation for the land, water for sanitation and extreme beauty. Not a bad package. Throw in a good well equipped medical center giving access to healthcare and a school, and what else do you need?  Really?  Without the complications of western expectations, life could actually be simple and beautiful.  Simply beautiful.

I was wondering today if regular Malawian children ever say ‘I’m Boooored’.  I wonder if there is even a word for ‘bored’ in Chichewa.  Do they even understand the concept of ‘bored’, or is boredom something contrived of  ‘having’.  Does one have to have experienced our world full of stimulation, complication and excess, to feel the lack of it, to understand the state of ‘being bored’.    Its not that Malawians don’t look bored – or rather, their lives look boring, but I don’t know if  they ‘feel’ the boredom, I wonder if maybe they like the boredom…I think maybe what we call boredom they would call something else altogether. Does it even exist

Does any of that make any sense at all?  Sometimes what’s in my head just has to kind of tumble out. I know it’s a bit erratic, but it does makes sense to me.

Perhaps I will put the question to Rose (or Lose) this week.  ‘Do you have a word in Chichewa for ‘Bored’, and do Malawians get bored?’ I can picture her expression now.   Its okay, she already thinks I’m a complete fruitcake, I can’t tell you the number of times she has come running into the room saying ‘yes madam’ only to discover I wasn’t addressing her at all, just merely having a conversation with myself. That’s the problem with having staff.  No hiding your idiosyncrasies.  Bails also thinks I’m a total fruitcake for exactly the same reason.

Hey ho.

E x

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So, I had the opportunity to go on a school trip with Esther recently.

As I got on the school bus I was glad to see a mummy who I haven’t had the chance to get to know yet.  Me being the social butterfly that I am, I was excited for the opportunity to introduce myself properly and once again widen the perimeter of my ever growing friendship circle.

So, as we arrive at our destination I take my daughter by the hand, dismount the bus, and with my very best, all confidence and gaiety ‘lets be friends’ smile, I Tigger-bounce over to Nepalese Mummy and introduce myself

“Hi there, I’m Emily, Esi’s mum, I don’t think we have met properly.” To which she replied,

“oh yer. Did you always have this thing on your face?”




I was a little taken aback as my hand went to my face to search out the offensive ‘thing’ in question. Perhaps, it was the remnants of this mornings breakfast, or maybe I sneezed after applying my mascara, or worse still, a drippy nose. I mean it wouldn’t be the first time.  We are talking here about the mummy who did an entire grocery shop in Manhattan whilst wearing her daughters fairy tiara.

But then I realized that she was looking intently at my face.

My whole face.

Like I had a deformity.

And then she said,

“What do you call this thing? Freckles? “

To which I replied with, I must admit, a little relief that it wasn’t the drippy nose,

“Oh right, yes freckles”

To which she replied,

“Can the doctor not help you? Is there no cure?”




Then she looks at my beautiful baby girl and says, “Do all your children have it? It’s a terrible thing…”




“No. No cure. Doctors can’t help. We are stuck like this forever” I said thinking that any moment she is going to stop insulting me, break into peals of laughter and squeal ‘Ha ha, I had you!”

But apparently not.

Instead she says,

“I can give you a paste. It is made of parsley and other herbs and you must put it on your faces, to take away this thing…”




But here’s the funny thing.  Me being all-English and the epitome of nice manners and polite to the very end…I thanked her! I bloody well thanked her!

I have spent the last several weeks avoiding this woman like the plague, terrified that she might produce me with green parsley paste to smear on my face, and that I will actually partake in the smearing rather than tell her the truth, which is that I don’t mind my freckles.  Actually I rather like them. And besides, look at this…Image

And this…Image

And this…Image

I loooooove my kids freckles.

But I like to think of myself as someone who is open minded and adaptable so I decided to investigate the possibility that Nepal lady might have a valid point…That she might be looking after my best interests…that no freckles might be a positive thing…and because deep down I am actually vain to my core, I decided to photoshop just to see…because you never know…Because there are procedures out there today…freckle removing procedures…of the non parsley paste variety…


And so this is what I came up with.Image

Freaking. Alien. Woman.

And somehow I took out an eye, and couldn’t get it back. So I’m actually ‘Cyclopes  freaking alien woman.’

Clearly I will be keeping my freckles. And my eye, for that matter.


So, apart from avoiding Nepal lady like the plague, I have also been thinking lots about culture and behavior.   I talked to a Japanese friend and told her my freckles story, which she didn’t find remotely amusing or at all surprising. Infact she plainly told me,

“Look where I come from, people work very hard to stay out of the sun. Freckles are not considered beautiful and yes you would be pitied for having them. But you are not from my culture. In your culture you don’t mind those things. Its different rules.”

Different rules.  No need for offence. Just different rules.

I remember so well a conversation that I had with our dear sweet housekeeper in Zambia, in 2007 in our final days as we were preparing to return to the UK.  She looked at me from across the room and said,

“Ah emily, now you have a very fat bottom and it is very good.  When you first arrived here you were so thin. My God you looked like you had HIV”

Ironic. I mean, I spend my life trying not to have a fat bottom. Heck, only this morning, I went through 55 minutes of sheer pain in the hope of attaining a hard body and defying the laws of ‘sag’, and yet here in Africa, tight buns in skinny jeans is comparable, in attractiveness, to serious illness.

This world is so colorful.  People’s opinions and behaviours are so colorful. Sometimes scarlet and cerise colorful.   Yet, how dreary it would be if we all thought the same as one another. How boring it would be to go to foreign lands and see everyone dressed like the Brits – God forbid.  Or to see a world full of alabaster complexions.

And I have to say, I love it that I am not the only person out there  putting my great big foot in it.   I love that people are so obliviously offensive.  I fit right in.  Don’t get me wrong, I have to deep breath my way through many a conversation. I have to choose to not take offence.  But I do so love the colour of this international life.

To finish, my favorite story of the week.

This morning a friend here was telling me about how at the weekend, she was trying to fill out the official paperwork for applying for residency as a Malawian citizen.   One of the questions she had to answer was

‘ Are you mentally incapacitated?’ and underneath it said this;

‘ definition for above – “Idiot.”

Now thats diplomacy for you.  I think that gets a vermillion, never mind cerise.

Posted in Malawi, The grey stuff | 7 Comments

Being British.


 Living in a foreign culture is a little like trying to force size 5 feet into size 4 1/2 shoes.  They almost fit, you can just about squeeze yourself in, but they give you shocking blisters.

It’s just not always that comfortable.

We are all so defined by our own culture.  I never felt British until I left Britain.  People used to say, ‘You don’t seem very English’ mostly I suspect, because I am louder, and rather less refined than the average perception of a Brit, and because I have an annoying habit of picking up other accents, which then seem to leave traces of themselves attached to my speech like a tattoo after laser treatment. A smudge, as apposed to a defined picture.

I am so British.  I like queues.  I like good manners. I like drinking a lot of tea, and it makes no difference to me if it is 40 degree heat outside, I like it hot, with milk. And don’t try to fob me off with any of that fruit or herbal stuff. That’s not tea.

In the past year, as I have embraced my British-ness, I am unashamed to say that I have developed a love of bunting.  No-one bunts like the British, and God forbid my husband reads this, but I quite like the Queen as well.

However, I have realized, during my various seasons of living this unconventional existence in foreign lands, that we British have an awful lot to answer for.

Yesterday I went to meet a lady called Rose.  Rose will be coming to work for our family when we move into our new home in two weeks time.

Before I go any further, lets just lay this one on the table okay?

Ex-patriates in Africa, have staff.  There.  Said it.

I feel I need to just say it out loud, otherwise I might spend the next year tip-toeing around the subject, because, well frankly, I’ve noticed that people in the West have opinions about such things. It makes some folk adopt a slightly ‘pinched’ expression and behave like they can have an opinion, even though most of them have never been out of Europe or America.

We employ people, because people here are desperate for employment, so that they can feed their families and send their kids to school.  We employ people because quite often the school run is a 30 KM round trip which takes time and effort, and going to the bank can take an hour or more, and we have to visit four different grocery stores to be able to get everything we need, not to mention sitting for hours in fuel queues, so at the end of the day, it is nice to walk into the house and know things are taken care of.  We employ people so that there is a slight less likelihood of gangs of men coming to our homes in the night with machete’s to rob us. We employ people because we can afford to and because it makes our lives more comfortable, and because we internationals are very rich, and frankly most Africans are very poor.  It’s really that simple people.  But try to put all of that into a context of Africa and remember that the problems here are anything but simple.

Right. Now I can go on.  It’s always so good to get something off your chest. I just hate tiptoeing around subjects, no matter what they are.

So, Rose.

I will properly introduce you to Rose when I have properly got to know her a little, but yesterday this is how I was introduced to her.

“Rose, this is Mrs bailey, and she is going to be the new Madam in this house.”

I want to remind you, at this point that, this is not an episode from Downton Abbey. This is my life.

I don’t remember much about the next thirty seconds.  I was transported away to a place of deep mortification and embarrassment, where words failed me completely, but I do remember that Rose did not look me in the eye. Not until I took her hand, found my tongue and told her how pleased I was that she would be working with my family.  I know that, her not looking me in the eye, was a mark of respect, but it really bothered me.  It really bothered me because, between Rose and I, are nearly ¾ of a century of British colonialism and rule.  Between Rose and I there is 73 years of history which still today dictates social rules and expectations in Malawi.

People here complain that their workers have no initiative.  Perhaps that is because the British stole their right to have initiative with 73 years of dictation and disempowerment.  People complain that their workers have no common sense.  That’s a Western common sense, right? Because obviously the very word ‘common’ has connotations of ‘sharing’, of having stuff in common.  But really, am I kidding myself that I have a whole lot in common with someone who lives off a dollar a day in the local township?  Lets get something straight.  Common sense is learned, infact, I don’t even think it exists, everything is education. Everything is relative.

Gosh I’m gobby today.

Anyway, back to the whole ‘New madam in this house thing’.   At the end of the day, its just language.  It is true, I will be the new boss in that house, who sets the rules. A different set of words for the same thing.  Not my choice of words, but just words all the same.

But in the same way that I would choose different words, I also have a responsibility to choose a different attitude.

Yesterday in the grocery store I saw a lady, who was of a different culture (not British) hand her worker a bag of fresh produce and say ‘weigh’.  Like you would tell a dog to ‘sit’.  I was upset, offended on his behalf,  but then I realized that the lady in question was also from a land that we, the British, colonized.  You see?  This is what we did.  We came in and told people that our way was better, we lorded it over them, and told them to sit like dogs.  Now, all over the world are cultures who are doing it the ‘British way’, basking in the glory of the good old days, enjoying the precedence that we set.

So Bails and I sometimes feel quite ashamed of being British.

I was talking to the head of the world food program a few weeks ago.  A very nice man from Mali.  I asked him what he considered to be Malawi’s biggest stumbling block in terms of getting on its feet and one day coming out from under the security blanket of foreign Aid.  I told him that I have noticed that Malawi is rich in natural resources. The land is relatively fertile, and the climate is perfect. I don’t understand why people are not successfully growing their own food, and aren’t able to feed their families from the land.  We discussed our mutual experience of West Africa and how we both understood, in Mali and Burkina Faso, why people are hungry. It’s a dessert.  It is arid and the land is incompatible to successful food growth. The climate is brutal.  But I look at Malawi and I am confused.  He told me that the problems are very complex, but that one part of the problem is this.

When the British colonized we introduced maize as the local staple. Well actually the Portugese introduced it first in Africa, in the 16th century, but as we colonised Malawi not the Portugese, I can hardly blame them…   We told everyone to grow maize. To eat maize.  So for hundreds of years the people of East and southern Africa have been growing and eating maize.  But here’s the thing.  Maize is not a hardy crop, it needs very specific rainfall at very specific times in its growth cycle. Unless you have the privilege of irrigation, you are entirely dependent on mother nature, and lets face it, she is becoming less and less reliable.  A regular African fact of life is that periodic drought regularly causes maize crop failure and consequent famine. There are other crops that are more reliable, more hardy, but food diversity is still a foreign concept. For hundreds of years the people of Malawi have believed that Maize is the only appropriate staple food to eat. They might serve up potatoes and cabbage, but if its not got a helping of Nshima (Maize porridge) on the side its not a meal.  They prioritize the planting of maize over other crops that might well save their children’s lives.

A hundred years ago maize probably worked.  The land was not being stripped of its nutrients by over farming, de-forestation was not an issue and climate change probably meant taking a three week boat trip across the Med for a change of scene.

I am not arguing that the introduction of maize was such a crime.  What I am saying is that when we colonized, we took away peoples rights and responsibility to think for themselves.  We stripped them of their initiative, and taught them ‘not to think outside of the box’ We said that our way was the right way and that they weren’t to question it. That they were to submit to our decisions.  Even if our decisions were poppy-cock.

So, as I embark on this new season and take up my role as ‘madam’ or whatever it is I am, I need to approach it with great humility. I need to have wisdom and compassion.  I know there will be times when I feel frustrated, where I misunderstand, when I feel impatient, but I must choose humility and I must serve my workers, as they serve me.  I must find that balance between seeing them as ‘equals’ despite the truth that they will not see me as such, and yet being their boss. And I must never ever abuse the privilege I have been given.

E x

Posted in Malawi, The grey stuff | 6 Comments

Long over due.

DSC_0669This is long over due…

I started it weeks ago, but you know how time ticks by.

Transition is hard. So much to learn. So much emotion to juggle and change to adapt to. So much deep breathing which, frankly, takes time and energy…

Well I’m here now. So as my dear mum would say, ‘just get on with it.’

Malawi “The warm heart of Africa” is a land of many charms.  She is coming out of the dry season, and everyone here tells me that the land is thirsty now, yellowing grass and bare leafless branches tell that the rains came long ago.  But I cannot see it.  After the dry arid dessert of Burkina this is a landscape that nurtures my soul and I am breathing it in deeply.

I love the early morning drive to school, which takes us along leafy avenues where the early morning haze drifts sleepily through the palms and purple blossoms of the Jacarandas.  And those of you who know me, know that, if I actually have my eyes open and am actually noticing these things at the ungodly hour of 6.30am, it must be good, besides who wouldn’t fall in love with a country whose tree’s are so exotically named  ‘frangipan’ and  ‘flamboyant’ and ‘Jacaranda’.

Lilongwe is a small city and feels very relaxed after the hustle and bustle of Ouagadougou.  There are less people on the streets, less dust, less pollution, less rubbish, less heat. All of which, I embrace gladly. But there is a little less ‘heart’ too.  Ouaga was throbbing, vibrant and intense. Lilongwe feels more like a big leafy suburb, which hasn’t quite woken up, and might just miss the last train….

It feels a little like something has been robbed…I think its probably fair to say we English have rather a lot to answer for. But that’s one for another post.

Me being me, I spend a lot of time observing. I went into the market and spent a while watching the men ironing the creases out of second hand clothing which had been crammed into big parcels from abroad.  They sprayed water onto each individual garment and then used their bare hands to press and ‘iron’ each item to presentability.  I couldn’t believe it actually worked.  It took time and a good deal of effort but it worked. They buy a bundle for a few thousand kwatcha, not knowing what items are packed inside. They then sell the individual items at a profit. One lady opened her bundle only to find a large adult sized  chicken suit in amongst the various clothes. She looked a tad confused, to say the least.  Not much need for adult chicken suits in Malawi, it seems.

I never cease to be impressed by African resourcefulness. Like the Individuals who have set up business charging peoples mobile phones from a power source – imagine having to take your cell phone to the market to be charged twice a week.  We take so much for granted.

I am surprised to see that most vendors and fruit sellers here are male.  I had gotten so used to the women of Burkina carrying more than half their body weight in fruit upon their heads, sometimes impressively balanced in the most precarious way, whilst carrying a baby on the back and riding a bicycle, so I cannot help but be rather unimpressed with the men here who tend to lollop around on street corners holding out a wilting cabbage, calling me ‘mama’, or worse still, ‘baby’ and telling me how broke they are.

Some say that Malawi is ‘Africa for beginners’.  I get why.  Its definitely slower, more relaxed, gentler somehow, but I have quickly realized that ‘day to day’ living is going to be full of challenges.  The power cuts and water cuts are daily.  I have met international families who have recently been without running water every day from 6am to 6pm, and this is in the diplomatic area of town. You simply cannot do without good backup systems – big backup water tanks, big backup invertors, and a big kick butt generator.  People have gone weeks without basic food sorts like sugar and, much to my dismay, its been very hard to source carlsberg recently, but the biggest crisis by far, right now, is fuel.   Sometimes there simply isn’t any.  For days and days and days.  Then when it arrives… you can imagine, its absolute pandemonium.  The lines for fuel are breathtaking, and people literally sit for entire days, sometimes only to get to the front of the line, and be told ‘Sorry, its all done’. One friend told me that back in April she had her car in a fuel queue for 5 days waiting for the tanker to arrive, and her workers were on 8 hr shifts. Sitting. Waiting.

Rich and I were just, this evening, discussing how deeply satisfied we both feel when we know we have a full tank, and how when the petrol gage drops to below ¾ full, I actually start to get anxiety, and how very slightly worrying it is to us that our day to day equilibrium  (not to mention my mental health) is hanging in the balance, dependant on whether or not we have a full tank of fuel.

Infact today, we have three full tanks and two full jerry cans, and we are beyond smug, we are verging on euphoric.

The house we are due to move to, in the New Year, actually has an enormous hole dug in the garden with a 240 litre drum sunk in for petrol storage…I was so freaked out when we first arrived by the idea of storing huge quantities of fuel at home (Most people I know, store it in their garage) surely the risk of explosion can not be worth it. But, I have to say three months in, and I’m like ‘how many drums can we fit in the garden? And should we give up a bedroom as well?

As one friend said to me the other day ‘you know its bad, and that its taking over your life, when you catch your kids playing ‘fuel queue’s’ as she did.

We have only made it to the lake once so far, but it was wonderful. Really. What a privilege to be living an hour and a half from white sand beaches with rolling waves in a climate that is probably one of the best in the world.  We snorkeled, swam and marveled at the fish eagles. We took a speed boat out to a tiny island which is populated with hundreds of different species of lizard.  We ate Al Fresco and lazed in the sun.

Next week we head to ‘Monkey Bay’ where we have booked a cottage with its own private beach, and over New Year we are heading north to camp on the beach at Chintechi.  It’s the same beach that Rich and I stayed on with the boys back in 2007 when we hopped over from Zambia. It’s a piece of paradise.

So its not all such a challenge….

E. x

Posted in Malawi | 7 Comments