Friday, October 28, 2005

The Life of Pie-ley

You might not expect it, but Namibia is a country that has picked up on the appeal of pies, and has turned it into an art form. Even the cheapo, Petrol-station-takeaway-warmed-up-in-a-cabinet pie that I would normally avoid at all costs at home is streets ahead of your bog standard UK-chip-shop effort in terms of quality and taste. I’m becoming addicted.

My favourite pie so far is the pepper steak flavour, which actually has proper bits of steak in it, in a yummy, neither bland nor greasy pepper sauce. And it is all encased in NICE pastry, that isn’t soggy, or stodgy, or too crumbly, or too dry, or all the other unfortunate things that happen to pastry when people don’t care about how it turns out, and that take all the enjoyment out of pie eating. Occasionally the filling does spill out of the back, but there’s usually just enough pastry left with which to scoop it all up. Perfection.

I’m planning on making a list of all the places where I know you can buy a pie, so that I can strategically plan any lunch hours that I find myself in town. I’m fed up with chip butties and kabanosit sausages.

If you’re lucky, sometimes you’ll pass by one of the mobile pie-men in the street, although they don't seem to frequent this neighbourhood. They’re a bit like the gimmicky old-fashioned ice cream sellers that they have in Hyde Park, who trundle along with those hand carts with bells on, except that these guys don’t wear straw boaters. Or sell ice cream. Only pies.

Man. Now I’m hungry.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Off Day

One of the things I like most about my office is that when I arrive at 8am, or thereabouts, the two people I share my space with are sitting and reading the paper. I usually join them.

I get my daily Namibian from the guy who stands at the traffic lights at the bottom of Sam Nujoma Drive. I’m sure he thinks I’m completely crazy. I bowl up on my ancient purple bicycle, give him a couple of dollars, we exchange smiles and hellos, and then I’m off, trundling up the hill, paper neatly tucked into the rack on the back.

I usually find that a nice interlude sat perusing the news is healthy, and it stops me dripping sweat all over my grant application forms.

Today though, there are four pages of grim stories. There’s a picture of the feet and gun of the Deputy Minister’s driver, who publicly shot himself in the head yesterday. There’s a nice wee story about a skeleton that’s been found tied to a tree on a farm in Khomas; it’s believed he/she was tortured. The other news is that murder victim Juanita, who thankfully has been reunited with her severed head after a couple of weeks of strenuous searching, was killed by a blow to the back of the skull. Her family had to identify her head, which was ‘partially decomposed’. Can you imagine?

So, I’m feeling rather miserable about the state of the world today. Perhaps I’ll go back to remaining ignorant of goings on.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Connectivity

I am connected again. Finally, I can find out what’s going on in the world. I can give myself a bit of time to read about the fact that US casualties in the Iraq war have topped 2000 (still no headlines about Iraqi casualties), and that Israel have been bombing the Gaza strip again.

Even though the news is dispiriting, it feels soooo good to be in touch. I’ve felt as if there’s been a giant hole in my brain, and I’ve had to fill it with rubbish (crap chick lit – don’t bother to read Playing Away. Possibly the worst book I have ever read, but when you’re desperate….). As a consequence, I’ve been feeling remarkably stupid and ill-informed, although the Namibian has some really interesting articles in it on a Friday (one about researchers baiting giant squid with mashed up squid gonads which was particularly good), and thoughtfully gives you a run down of the week’s suicides and murders. Most people who commit suicide here seem to hang themselves, usually from trees.

My favourite article, though, is the news from Tessa Jowell that London Council Tax payers, who already pay out ridiculously hefty sums for the privilege of living in our illustrious capital, are going to have to fork out for the Olympics IF it runs over budget. If? Ha ha ha ha. I had a hunch that projects such as these habitually come in at staggeringly more than the original project cost – the Millenium Dome being a particular favourite - and so I looked some of them up.

Wonder what the chances are for the Olympics?

Sick as a Dog

While the rest of the world is coping with a mass outbreak of bird flu, in Namibia we remain blissfully carefree. A large article in the Namibian newspaper caught my eye last week, and I breathed a sigh of relief at the news that the government is not worried that the disease will ravage the country’s poultry population and then move on to decimate the humans. I’m convinced that this is partly because in Namibia chicken is regarded as a vegetable, and so would be likely to remain unaffected.

Instead, we have to deal with an outbreak of rabies in the capital. An unprecedented number of foaming and staggering dogs have been brought in to various veterinary establishments over the last few days. Not surprisingly, the city went into panic mode. A widespread rabies epidemic would be completely disastrous - there are more dogs in Windhoek than there are people, (and I’m sure that they are all trained to bark wildly at people on bicycles). That’s without considering the baboons, and all the wee animals like cats, mongooses (mongeese?) and squirrels.

In any case, a mass free vaccination programme has been launched, and unidentified stray dogs are being picked up and destroyed. I think I’ll be ok. I’m sure that my landlords have vaccinated both of their dogs, and as yet I haven’t been attacked by a squirrel. I did have a moment of worry when on my return home one of the dogs insisted on trying to lick me to death, rather than acting like the vicious attack jack russell that it clearly is meant to be (apparently a symptom of rabies in wild animals is over-friendliness). Then I considered that it is probably not what you’d call a wild animal, and in any case it is completely normal for me to spend my evenings trying to stop the damn thing licking between my toes. I think that dogs must like the taste of stale sweat.

The same seems to be true of the inevitable dog at my new home. I’m moving in just over a week, and yesterday was introduced to Boris. I don’t like dogs much, and Boris is urrrgly. I think he’s some kind of bulldog. He’s stunted and wrinkled. He waddles, probably due to his unfeasibly large testicles (a feature I noticed in surprise after my predecessor in the apartment said “This is Boris. She’s very friendly.”)

He is indeed very friendly, and he looks like he would thoroughly enjoy getting smelly dog hair all over my sofa. Also, I don’t want balls that size anywhere near anything I have to sit on on a regular basis because, frankly, they look as if they need to explode, so he’s going to have to learn to stay outside.

Anyway, hopefully I will escape a horrible, salivating death, bird flu won’t affect the chicken population, Boris’s bollocks will manage to contain themselves, and I’ll be able to burble on about nothing in particular for the foreseeable future keep you posted on his training.

I just hope I’m better at controlling him than I am unruly teenagers.

Monday, October 24, 2005

That was the week that was

And what a week it's been. Jeez, I've never been so glad to get shot of a group of people in my entire life. Coping with 20 bored, sulky teenagers is clearly not my calling in life. The little bastards.

"Miss, you must take me one photo."
"Miss, you must give me one dollar. I want to smoke."
"Miss, give me two dollars. I want to buy beer."
"Miss, let's talk business. Give me your cellphone. I want to call my sister/brother/mother/great aunt/third cousin twice removed/dog."
"Miss, this accomodation/food/place where we must perform is not good."
"Miss, blah blah, whinge, demand, whinge, pout."

It's been a torrid week. We moved from the youth hostel in Swakop, where I was sharing a room with 10 girls, to an empty house in Karibib, where I shared floor space on a mouldy mattress with 26 assorted youths of both sexes, who all seemed intent on making as much noise as possible, having as much sex as possible, and making themselves as obnoxious as possible. My most common phrase this week has been "Look, I SAID BE QUIET. How many times do I have to say it?"

Privacy was a mere wisp of a dream. More men have seen me in my underwear this last week than in the last ten years. At one point I had to share the single outdoor shower cubicle with two of the girls. The whole thing was open on to next door's yard, so god knows who's seen me naked. I'm past caring.

Then there was the business with the elastoplasts. I bought a box for emergencies, and within two days, all of the kids were wandering around with flesh-coloured plasters stuck all over them.

"Miss, you must give me one plaster".
"Why?"
"Because I have an insect bite"
"Hmm. Looks like a hickey to me."
"What miss?"
"Nothing. Have a plaster."

Friday was the real killer. I'd been looking on it as an experience to be grateful for, but never repeated, until Friday. We were all relaxing at lunch time, trying to get some rest, when all hell broke loose. I didn't understand a single word of what was happening, but there were tears, and there was screaming. Two of the girls tried to hurl themselves bodily at one of the others, who had taken refuge behind a door, and was being protected by three of my colleagues. I stood, open mouthed, entirely unheeded, shouting "Hey!! Hey, what is going on? Hello?"

It transpires that one of the girls refused to give a bit of orange to one of the others, and so, as you do, the orangeless one insulted the other one's mother. I don't know what was said, but apparently in Damaran it was a mortal insult. They seriously tried to beat her to a pulp. These girls are hardcore. I had to threaten to call the police. Last I heard, they had to actually take the poor girl to her front door, because it all started again when they got off the bus in Kamanjab.

She completely refused to perform in the afternoon, which was a pain in the arse, because she had by far the most important part to play in the proceedings; she just sat there in tears. I spent the afternoon glaring at all and sundry, in a thoroughly black mood, ready to start beating people to a pulp myself if crossed.

Then I awoke at 2am to the sound of adolescent copulation a mere foot from my head. I can testify that the condom message appears to have got through, because I heard them use it.

The rest of my week involved sitting around in the baking heat, sweeping up broken glass from outside shebeens (a Sysephean task, that one - I had no idea there was so much broken glass in the world), and refusing to give people money.

My experience in Namibia so far is that people don't ask for money, so it was quite a surprise to find so many people confidently approaching me this week, hand outstretched, saying "Give me one dollar", as if the outcome was a foregone conclusion. I was so deeply pissed off with being mistaken for a mobile cash machine by the end of last week, that I'm sure my heart turned to stone. My guilt at saying no to people entirely disappeared.

I'm so glad it's over. And I'm seriously reconsidering my desire to give birth.

Anyway, my favourite thing about the week was the troupe of baboons I saw on the way home on Saturday, perching on the electicity wires like large, ungainly birds.

They made me smile.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Leader of the pack

Now I remember why I gave up being a tour leader. It never stops, and is punctuated by long periods of intense boredom.

I got into bed last night, and was asked that loaded question:

"Miss, do you have children?"
No.
"What are you waiting for?"
Well, the right man would be useful...
"You don't have one?"
Er...
"Have one of mine - I have two!" Gales of laughter.

I went outside to make a phone call. Half way through, I noticed that boys were pouring from their room, clad only in boxer shorts, and standing around in the car park. On closer inspection, one of them appeared to be lying by the dustbin clutching his stomach. I went over to inspect, and regretted it. Projectile vomiting at bedtime is not my idea of a fun night. He was carted off to the clinic*, while the poor kid on clean-up duty retched his way back to bed. I wiped the sick spatters off my feet and went to bed.

This morning, at 5am, all of the girls woke up, as if controlled by an orbiting spaceship bent on global domination, and began showering and singing. My first sentence of the day, which is usually a cheery good morning, became "Sweet Jesus. It's too. Fucking. Early. Breakfast is not for another TWO AND A HALF HOURS. Go back to sleep."

They're sweet kids, who have great voices, and no prospects. Most of them will be lucky if they ever get a job. Statistically, four of the twenty will die of AIDS. I'm hoping they'll have got the message that they themselves are trying to convey with this tour, and that this won't be their fate but I don't know. Sometimes I find myself wondering whether they really know or want to know anything about HIV and AIDS, or whether they joined the group because that's the only thing in Kamanjab that there is to do, apart from drink and have sex. At least they will have been exposed to the information though, which is more than can be said for alot of people.

None of them has ever seen the sea before. I pointed out some seagulls to one boy, who said in a voice I reserve only for giraffes, "I've heard of seagulls. But only until now I have not seen one with my own eyes".

The same could be said of jellyfish. I ran up and down the jetty, waving my arms and shouting "Don't touch the jellyfish! Don't touch the jellyfish!", like a madwoman.

"Miss, what is it?" [prod]
"It's a jellyfish, I said don't touch it."
"Why not?" [prod]
"It will sting you. Stop touching it."
"What...?" [prod]
"It's poisonous. What part of don't touch the jellyfish don't you understand?"
Repeat several times, and you have a rough approximation of my lunch hour.

And from tomorrow, for four days, I'm solely responsible for all of them. God help us all.

*My boss told me this morning that they didn't have to spend long at the hospital. There was only one other patient in at the time - a girl who'd been raped. She was four years old. Sometimes I wonder about the human race.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Midnight Feast

I've been eaten alive. For the last three nights I've opened my eyes at about 3am, fully awake, staring into the dark. I know what's woken me, and the fact that it's now silent makes me nervous. I wait for the telltale whine to begin again, for the mosquito to dive bomb my ear, blowing a high pitched vampire raspberry at my futile attempts to kill it. The little fucker has it in for me.

If anyone could see into the room at this point, they'd witness a bizarre and silent pantomime, which always culminates with me repeatedly slapping myself over the side of the head. It doesn't work. I woke up yesterday with 38 moquito bites on my ankles and legs. I looked like I had an extremely isolated case of chicken pox. Now, 24 hours later, they've turned into giant festering blobs. I'm starting to worry less about chicken pox, and more about anthrax.

Worse, I showed my polka-dot legs to Kamati in complaint. "Why don't you use the bug spray in your room?", has asked, reasonably enough. I told him that the only spray in my room is lavender fragranced air freshener. It matches the walls.

"Well, why didn't you put the fan on?" he asked, clearly exasperated at my stupidity. What fan? He had two fans in his room, which unlike mine was decorated with manly animal prints and ochre paint. All there was in my room was a wall display with pink plastic flowers, wall to wall lilac, a faulty table lamp and an indestructible blood-sucking agent of the devil. Sexism in action.

No matter. We are now in Swakopmund, and I know that by Tuesday I will be begging for lilac paint and mosquitos. For the next few nights I'm sharing a basic 15 bed dormintory with 11 teenaged girls from Kamanjab, on the youth drama tour that I am accompanying. I'm too old for this shit.

Also, after my Oshakati trip, on which I took a towel, a sleeping bag, a pillow and a jumper, and needed none of them, I decided not to bring any of them on this trip. There are no towels at the hostel. No sleeping bags either. No pillows. Oh, and it's cold. Ford Prefect did know a thing or two after all.

Swakop is an odd place, incidentally. It's a town of wide, palm lined avenues. Stuccoed buildings, complete with cuppolas and verandas overlook the blue Atlantic. A cool breeze blows sand gently down the roads. It could be a Riviera town in the 1950s. A handpainted sign on a pharmacy door says "Out of hours service: tel 5523". A clothes shop window display helpfully informs that 'Lay-by's are allowed', in case you want to come back for your purchase. And it's utterly, utterly empty of people. I ran in here in relief, certain that I was about to be consumed by strange time-eating monsters, like the people that accidentally end up in an empty yesterday in a Stephen King story - The Langoliers.

Still, I have to say that I'm unutterably, completely happy. Long may it continue.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

The straight and narrow road...

Well, it was straight alright, but not that narrow. And we drove along it for a good five hours. Because it's inadvisable to drive after dark in this country - wildlife tends to leap in front of your headlights, causing all kinds of mayhem - we broke the journey to Opuwo at a little one goat town called Kamanjab.

Kamanjab seems nice, but all there is is the Impala Meat Market and Bakery, the New Sheild Supermarket and Bottle Store (god forbid any town should be without one) and the guest house, which is run by the most enormous Afrikaaner bloke I've ever seen, who seems to wander around alot in a bath towel looking moist and freshly talcumed. It certainly explains where all the hot water went. He's generally accompanied around the place by his terrier, which is approximately the size of one of his feet. Must be some kind of symbiotic relationship.

I've now crossed the Red Line* three times, although this time was quite different to the last. Along the main road it's all armed policemen and boot checks, but here, all we had to do was hand over some incentives and they waved us right through. Normally, in tales of Africa that I have heard, at this kind of road block you're advised to take things like cigarettes with which to sweeten the deal. Not us. We handed over a box of Ministry condoms. The condom idea itself seemed to be in vogue, but they didn't seem very satisfied with the anonymous looking government ones. They wanted Cool Ryder brand: the power of advertising.

We departed from Kamanjab in plenty of time, and set off on the long drive to Opuwo, along the dusty gravel road. I've discovered that if you put your thumb on the windscreen when cars are going past, it stops stones shattering it, and thereby cutting your journey rather short. A fortunate discovery as a toyota belting past at about a million miles an hour threw up a rock the side of my fist which bashed against the windscreen in front of my face. I can' t imagine getting stuck on the road to Opuwo. There is no traffic. You'd be there for days. I was starting to get worried about the hierarchy in the car in case we became stranded and had to start eating each other, but fortunately we made it. Better still, I saw a couple of giraffe. I nearly wet myself with excitement. I've been sooo looking forward to seeing giraffe.

The last bit of road is the most dusty I think I've ever been on. At one point we emerged from a mini sandstorm to see a woman, wrapped up to the eyeballs against the heat and dust, miserably waving a little green flag. We rocked into Opuwo, a pale cloud heralding our arrival, and when I'd finally managed to locate the office through the murk, I had to swerve slightly to avoid a large pig that seemed to be having a bath in the dust.

Opuwo is a crazy place. The main topics of conversation seem to be the heat ("Oof, it's hot today, neh?), the dust ("Oof, is dusty today, neh?)" and the water, or lack thereof ("When we will get water? I don't know. The government say this Friday, but they have said this Friday for all year." )

Bare breasted Himba women, with their goatskin headdresses, red plaits, and ochre skin shining in the heat, lug tiny lolling ochre-skinned children on their backs. Herero ladies sashay about in their huge Victorian dresses, elaborately folded headdresses so distinctive through the clouds of dust. I so wish I could draw like Vitrolica, because I know she could do a mean drawing of a Herero couple wandering along - she in her huge dress and he in his fedora, waistcoat and walking stick. I tried last night, but it just ended up looking ridiculous.

We had a little bit of excitement yesterday also, as we sat and watched it try to rain, when a toyota landcruiser started chasing an emormous cow down the middle of the main street. That was fun.

I'm pretty knackered today, as last night it was so hot I couldn't sleep. At about 2am, I became so desperate that I filled my washing bowl with some precious water, and half lay on my bed, legs protruding from my mosquito net, but feet submurged in the cool, miraculous liquid, dreaming fitfully about oversised mosquitos and the longed for rain.

It's back to Kamanjab for the next few days this afternoon. Kamati and I will sit again in the front of the Condom Estate, sharing my ipod headphones and periodically seeing who can be quickest to stick a thumb on the windscreen.

And tonight, I will try very, very hard to wash the dust from my hair.

*The line that separates the northern fifth of the country from the rest in the south, and which was used to demarcate who was allowed to live where under the Apartheid system. Guess who got the sweet deal? It's now an animal disease control checkpoint.

Monday, October 10, 2005

I left my heart in Oshakati

Well, it’s been an eventful week. The discovery that our hotel room had a TV was wonderful – I have felt very out of touch with the world. Unfortunately, I seem to have picked a week when the four horsemen of the apocalypse are trampling all over Mexico, Guatemala, Bali, Pakistan and Afghanistan. It was quite spooky really, as the only other channel seemed to be the God channel: Evangelical southern American preachers belting out the word of God all bloody day (send in your gift of any amount, and you’ll receive this free CD and prayer book, and on top of that we’ll pop a cheapo plastic gem on the altar on the 27 October, so you can try and get your unsaved loved ones’ souls placed in the crown of our saviour before they’re consigned to the fires of hell, amen), and healing people through the TV. If I weren’t so secure in my atheism, I may have been tempted to think that the week’s global events were indeed a series of doom-laden portents.

VSO really turned us into tourists for the week, which was great. My wildlife count for my stay so far now includes a kudu, springbok, eland, ostriches and a solitary warthog. I also think I should count the dead donkey we saw being skinned and divvied up by the side of the road on the way out of Oshakati on Saturday, and the wide-open, emptied head of a cow that rested on the floor in a market that we wandered through. It sort of reminded me of the time I came home from school to find my parents sorting out bits of freshly slaughtered pig into freezer bags on the kitchen floor. There was half a pigs head, eye side up, in our freezer for years. I’d be eyeballed every time I went to fish out a loaf of bread. I’m including them anyway, as these are sights the like of which I’ve not seen for a while, as for some reason, the relationship between live animal, and end product foodstuff seems to be taboo at home. Which reminds me – does anyone know the best way to kill a chicken? I’d go for strangulation, but others in the discussion were opting for decapitation. I’m not sure it’s that easy to decapitate a chicken on your own, honestly, but any thoughts welcome.

Anyway, apparently people really only eat donkey if it’s roadkill, because animals are so extremely valuable here. Literally, your animals are your bank account if you’re a subsistence farmer. Meat’s such a precious source of protein that it makes sense to take advantage of a food parcel like that when it lands in your lap. Mind you, judging from the way donkeys just stand there by the side of the road looking forlorn and forsaken, I’d say plenty of them deliberately keel over into the path of oncoming traffic out of sheer boredom.

I should probably count the mopane worm I ate too. I hadn’t realised I was such a pathetic wuss – I thought I’d find the whole idea of eating fried caterpillars a bit grim, but relatively unproblematic, but it took me at least half an hour to get over my utter disgust at the very idea of putting it’s black, leathery body anywhere near my face. I sat and stared at it lying there next to my mahangu* and trying to look as if I thought it was going to be delicious. I think I’ve been back in the UK too long. I should make it a policy to eat one whenever they’re available, to remind myself that I don’t have to worry about not having anything to eat.

I also went to my first cuca shop. These places, also known as shebeens, are illegal bars. There are thousands of them. Sometimes whole villages seem to consist of nothing more than a couple of houses, a shop, a coffin shop and ten different bars. They are the most common form of small business enterprise in Namibia, but none of them are registered. They all look like they could fit about six people in them at a squash, are called outlandish things like “Kitchen Love Bar”, and ‘Three Sisters in Beer Garden”, and are abundantly stocked with Tafel lager. Every few miles, there’s a massive Tafel warehouse, and delivery vans are out all the time, taking the nectar to the needy. I found out on Saturday night that not only are they plentifully stocked with beer, you could probably buy a lifetime’s supply of pilchards at any one shebeen. Tinned pilchards seem to be very popular up north.

It was great. We danced to South African pop songs on the sandy verge, to the amusement of the local clientele, who joined in, and quaffed plentiful supplies of Tafel. We played pool with the locals, and I was subjected to a strange and generally untillegible, but friendly tirade by a very, very drunk old woman, who kept telling me that her kids had no food, which seemed grossly unfair on the kids, seeing as she was stuffing an entire bag of tomatoes into her face, while swigging from a giant beer bottle. I also discovered that it seems perfectly acceptable to come up to a total stranger and demand that they give you half of their beer, although I didn’t try it myself. And I learned that when the guy from VSO gets worried about the looks the girls are getting from a particular man behind the bar, you leave, very, very quickly. I’m fairly convinced that’s going to be my only cuca shop experience, seeing as in Windhoek they only really exist in the townships in Katutura and Khomasdal, and I’m certain I would not be welcome.

Coming back into Windhoek was wonderful – I felt like I was coming home. Since I’ve been away all the jacaranda trees have blossomed wildly, and when you come down in to the valley, the city seems to be covered in a beautiful rash of purple blotches.

I love it here.

Right. I’m off to Opuwo, home of the Himba people, tomorrow to look at some of the work my organisation is doing, so I’ll be incommunicado for another short spell. This blog is promising to get very dull. Please do come back! I should be back in about a week, with more tales from this fabulous place.

*staple pap made out of maize meal. People keep going on about how horrible it is, but I thought it was very palatable, (if a little sandy), especially with a bit of sauce and some dried spinach (also sandy). Wash it down with some homemade beer, and you’re laughing.
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