Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Herbacious, dude...

I have planted things. Yes, indeed.

It is extremely difficult, and expensive, to buy fresh herbs here. Normally you are so grateful to find a little plastic packet of basil, or some such, that you snatch it off the hook in the manner of a sneak thief, and scuttle away before someone else can make off with it. Then, when you get them home, you find that they have gone black, or have been eaten by something, or that they are not herbs at all. So, on his extended trip to the UK over Christmas, my bloke bought some herby seeds and brought them back all the way to Namibia for me to plant.

I don’t have green fingers. I never have. I normally manage to kill anything green that comes under my care within a few short hours. I’m sure that I must be adopted, because both of my parents did/do wonders in the garden, and I was brought up with horticultural terms being drip fed into my waiting ears. Despite this, I spent years thinking that Hebe was a chain of hairdressing salons, while unthinkingly becoming widely known as the Death of Plants.

So I’m very excited about my herbs. I’m hoping that this time I will manage to actually grow something. I have images of bushy basil plants the size of small children, and coriander so abundant that I will have to construct a new porch just to house it. Fat, shiny fruits will drip from the chilli trees that I have grown in record time, and I will have enough mint to sell to Colgate for a tasty profit, and still be able to pickle my liver with unlimited mojitos for the rest of my life.

So, on Sunday I sat and sifted a pile of soil, and under the watchful eyes of the plant expert that is my beloved I sprinkled some little seeds into corners and tenderly covered them up. Then I went outside every half hour to check on them, in case they were being eaten by birds, or had decided to start growing, or something.

I’m not sure how long I’ll have to wait for them to sprout, considering the warm climate, and the amount of rain that we’re getting. I’m hoping something will have happened by this evening, or I’ll start to worry*.

*I came out this morning, and one of the coriander seeds had become exposed. This is a disaster. I hope they are planted deep enough. This is an especial worry with the mint, because the seeds are microscopic and the same colour as the soil. I am becoming distressed.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Our Father, who art in Ombalantu

“The boys room, it is not ok”, I said to Father Ethelbert, after shepherding the said boys to their cowshed. I took one look at the bathroom, and I knew all was lost. Something dark streaked the walls, and I’m damn sure it wasn’t water. When we reached the room things deteriorated.

“This room is mostly for little kids”, explained our guide, shamefacedly, as we took in the rickety beds, stained mattresses, and lively resident insect population. Something in the room smelled unpleasant. Job picked up one of the mattresses, gingerly by a corner. “That would be why there are piss stains on the mattresses” he said, bluntly.

“Ahahaha. No, that is only rain water. The roof, it has holes in it.” I slapped a mutant mosquito the size of a small dog off my leg, and looked outside at the gathering storm clouds with despair.

“So, Father, we need to move the boys. Their room it is not ok”. He sat across from me, nodding gently, and stroking his beard.

“This room, it is for small children. We cannot house the small children in the supervisors’ house, because they do not know how to treat things right. They might put newspaper down the toilets”. I thought of the horrors in the dingy bathroom I had just seen and shuddered.

“Yes, but these boys, they are not small children. And they cannot sleep in that room. Can we bring some mattresses over to the supervisors’ house, and they can sleep on the floor?”

Father Ethelbert hummed and hawed. He went into great detail about their responsibility to the people who may own the guest house next time.

“So you see, if we are to put the little children in the supervisors’ house, then if we sell this place, the next people, they will be hearing ‘But Father Ethelbert, he put the little children in the supervisors’ house, so why do you not do it?’, and then they will give us a bad name, because we make their business difficult. Do you understand me?”

I thought perhaps he was being a little too concerned about some imaginary future buyers who may or may not have a problem with putting little children in the supervisors’ house, despite the fact that housing little children in a chilly, damp, foul-smelling cowshed could constitute child abuse, but I chose not to say this for fear that my negotiations would collapse.

“I understand. Of course. But these boys, they are not little children.” I looked over at the five hulking specimens of youth, who sat stony faced, watching Mariah Carey shriek about something on Divine Divas, while the other Father sat quietly waiting for them to leave so that he could watch a badly dubbed Mexican soap called When You Are Mine on NBC, in which everyone swigs tequila, and a man called Diego wanders around with a squirrel on his head, looking constipated, and saying things like “I will resign from Café Telero and return to the hacienda for the sake of my unborn baby. And I will never see Paloma again. But our love will be strong for eternity”.

After some protracted negotiations, Father Ethelbert agreed to give me a discounted price for allowing the boys to sleep on the floor in a spare room in the house. Obstacle one, successfully overcome.

I thought that I was free at this point, but Father Ethelbert had other ideas.

“Come”, he said, as I was about to depart to eat my dinner. “We have much to discuss.”

Apparently, Father Ethelbert had a problem with the fact that our original booking, for which they had received the fax without a hitch, had been for 26 people. It had since been reduced to 21 people, but the fax informing them of the reduction had mysteriously not arrived.

“So you see, we have already bought all of the food, and no-one will eat it, so it must be paid for.”

“That’s no problem Father. We thought that that might be the case in some places, so we are prepared to pay you for 26 people, but we would like to make sure that all the food is provided. These young people, they eat a lot!” I envisioned a mountain of food being attacked and devoured by a rampaging horde of teenagers. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. They’re like locusts.

Father Ethelbert nodded, and stroked his beard.

“Yes, but do you understand. We had to buy all the food. We didn’t receive a fax saying that the booking had changed. We must now charge you for all the food.”

I agreed once more to pay for 26 people, rather than 21.

“But, do you understand my point of view?” he insisted. “We had to buy all the food…”

I sat there, dumbfounded. I wondered when he was going to get the message that I was prepared to pay for all the food. I was hungry, and I was imagining my dinner being heartily devoured by a horde of rampaging teenagers, intent on nothing but shoveling food into their heads. They invariably left a mess of plates and food all over the floor and the table, despite my protestations, and exhortations to them to ‘clean up after yourselves – where are your manners?’ I found myself wanting to say “Were you raised in a barn?”, and “What about all the starving children in Africa – a family could survive on what you’ve thrown on the floor”, but thought it best to keep that to myself. In any case, I knew that when I finally got there all that would be on offer was a pile of scraps. My stomach growled. I tuned back into Father Ethelbert just as he was earnestly repeating “Do you understand my point of view?”

“Yes! I appreciate your fucking point of view. I’ll pay for the fucking food. Alright? Jesus, Mary and Joseph, will you just shut the fuck up and let me eat my dinner?”

Of course I didn’t say this out loud. I was brought up to be polite. Also, I’ve already managed to offend one Catholic priest since I’ve been here. I thought perhaps another one might doom me to an eternity of fire and brimstone. And earlier in the day I was responsible for overseeing a condom demonstration in the Roman Catholic Mission Hall, so as far as the Catholic Church is concerned, I’m probably skating on thin ice.

So I amid much protesting and ‘do you understand’ing, I wrote Father Ethelbert a cheque in the hope that the sight of the money would actually bring home to him the message that my words were failing to deliver. “May I have an invoice and a receipt?” I asked wearily, as I pushed the money across the table into his waiting hands.

Thus ensued a protracted session of mental arithmetic that went like this:

“Hmm. Five times forty, it is what….”

“Two hundred.”

“Wait, wait. Five times forty…” Scribble, scribble. Cross out. Scribble. “Ah, two hundred. Now, add that to this, what is six times sixty?”

“Three hundred and sixty”.

“Wait. Hmmm.” Scribble, scribble. “Ah, wait. What were we doing before? What is this two hundred? How many people are in the supervisors’ house?”

Many hours later I arrived for my dinner.

It’s a good thing that steamed cabbage is not popular with the youth of Namibia.

Friday, February 17, 2006

On the Road Again

I'm off again next week on a road trip. I'm taking another group of 'yoof' on a drama tour around the north of Namibia, just south of the Angolan border. Word from the area is that it's 'fuckin' hot', subject to regular flooding (more expected next week) and riddled with mosquitos. Must remember to take net, although if the last trip is anything to go by, not only will I not have anything to hang it from, I will be sharing it with 20 randy teenagers.

Anyway, I shall be away all week, and may well return sans hair, sans eyes, sans teeth, sans everything.

Inspired by Anna I'd like to try to preserve my sanity by doing a little photo project. I'm a bit fed up of taking photos of endless skies and empty landscapes. I thought I might try and take a picture of every red ribbon I see on my travels, or something like that.

Any suggestions for other themes very welcome.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Errands

The woman in the queue behind me has absolutely no concept of personal space. Every time I shift forward to get away from her, she shuffles towards me, nudging my heels with the toes of her shoes, and all but resting her chin on my shoulder. I’m shocked at how distressing I find it. I look desperately around at the counters, two of which are manned, but empty of customers. I move towards one but the woman holds up her hand imperiously, and I am forced to move back to the front of the queue. Finally, when there is no space left for me to shuffle into, I am called up.

“Hello, I’d like to make a deposit into a bank account please.”

He takes the slip and the cheque, and makes random biro marks on the paper. He purses his lips, and types something random into the computer. I know it’s random, because his hands look like someone who’s pretending to be a virtuoso piano player.

“Would you like me to make this money available immediately?”

I’m confused, although something tells me that this should not be a difficult question.

“What do you mean?” I imagine the money sitting in the bank, behind lock and key, for an undisclosed length of time. “Doesn’t it automatically become available when the cheque clears? If I say no, how long will it take?”

“Seven to twenty working days.”

This seems like an inordinate length of time to wait for a cheque to clear, particularly as it’s written from the same bank.

“Do you want to be able to get at the money now?” he asks, with some impatience.

“I don’t know,” I say pathetically, all my decision making powers vanishing in a puff of bewilderment. “It’s not my bank account.” Then a thought occurs to me that can aid me in this troublesome decision.

“Does it cost extra to have it made available immediately?” This isn’t an unreasonable question. The banks charge you for breathing here. They charge you for putting money in, for taking it out, for leaving it there, for moving it around, for using an ATM, for requesting a statement, anything. It’s one of the reasons I haven’t opened a bank account yet. I keep my money in a safe place in my flat. Under the mattress. My mattress doesn’t practice extortion, or provide me with bank statements that are likely to make me homicidal, and then charge me for them.

He ignores my question, and begins sucking his teeth. Then he laughs. “I could normally make the money available immediately because the cheque is from this bank, but actually in this case I can’t.” He laughs again, inexplicably.

“Why can’t you?”

He looks shocked. “I’m afraid I can’t tell you that.”

There’s a short pause, while his wildly flailing hands input more random into the computer system. Then he turns to me and pushes a confirmation slip across the counter.

“You can access the money immediately.”

I resist the temptation to repeat that it’s not my money. “I thought you said you couldn’t do that?”

“Well I did.”

“Did it cost any extra?” I ask, as I tuck the slip into my purse, but he’s already looking past me. “Next!” I am elbowed out of the way by a large woman wielding a leather shopping bag the size of a large springbok.

I leave, feeling slightly confused. For some reason, I am tempted to open an account right now. I can’t explain it, even to myself.

PMA

Positive Mental Attitude. Dontcha just love acronyms? My last job was so full of acronyms that you couldn't have a conversation without sounding like a hyperactive corporate executive on a mission to confuse. 'Clare, who are the VFs on the next FEH trip? We need someone who can do ICCE and ECCE, and probably some BS aswell' . It used to take people weeks to get to grips with the goings on in a normal team meeting. This is a world where VIP stands for Visually Impaired Person. That one had me flummoxed for months.

It's the same here. We have the RACOC, the CACOC, RACE, MoSSH, MIB, NGO, CBO, NACOP, NANASO, AAC, etc. etc. It still doesn't seem right to be referring to actual people as OVCs (Orphans and Vulnerable Children) or PLWHAs (People Living With HIV and AIDS). Talk about depersonalising everything.

As you might be able to tell, at the moment, as far as I'm concerned, PMA stands for Pre Menstrual Anger. I am feeling evil.

My colleague in the corner has just discovered the RealPlayer on her laptop, and has borrowed half a million R’n’B CDs from our new receptionist.

I hate R’n’B. I can’t help it. It prompts some kind of chemical reaction in my brain that short circuits the usual neural pathways and turns me into Tension Lady – She Can Break Computers Just By Looking At Them! (TL - SCBCJBYAT!) It took me almost a minute of strenuous thought to remember the word ‘acronym’ just now, because some woman is warbling tunelessly about her baby at a volume not quite loud enough for me to hear properly.

I can’t ask her to turn it off, because she normally puts up with my music without complaint. Today, however, I’m sorely tempted to ramp up the tension by putting on the Killers. And then running amok with a sharpened pencil.

I have to get out of here before my head explodes.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Witchcraft and Wizardry

Notice under Monday’s Health and Beauty classifieds section of the Namibian (I would have posted it sooner, but Blogger decided to play hard to get for 72 hours):

DR ZUMBE. He’s a strong doctor who can treat/solve your problems within a week. –Unfaithful partner, liver problems, diabetes. You want a baby? Get one now! Weak penis. Cell…..

I’m curious – I know there are plenty of people of both sexes out there who badly want to have children. Also there are many reasons that they may not necessarily be able to – lack of fertility in one party or the other, lack of willingness on behalf of the other party, lack of other party, etc, etc. Perhaps he is intending to impregnate all comers himself; perhaps even though he has a weak penis, he has strong sperm, although this combination could present logistical problems. Turkey baster anyone?

Also, how does he plan to bypass the usual nine-month gestation period? It made me wonder whether there has been a spate of baby-kidnappings that would indicate stock-piling in anticipation of the inevitable stampede of impatient, infant-hungry clients, but I can’t see anything in the paper to cause alarm.

I’d also be interested to know quite how he hopes to cure someone of an unfaithful partner within a week. I’m assuming, in all seriousness, that he intends to use some form of witchcraft.

Whatever action he takes, it must be pretty drastic. Unfaithfulness is so de rigeur here that, were I single, I would probably avoid entering into a relationship with a Namibian man, black or white. I know that sounds harsh, and possibly even racist (if you’re going to be picky about it), but in a country where at least one person in five is HIV positive, and young men are generally considered limp, testosterone-deficient pussies if they don’t have at least three girlfriends dotted around the country, I just don’t know if I’d be prepared to take the risk, emotional or physical*.

There are usually three or four of these ads in every day, promising everything from ‘tightening of woman’s parts’ to ‘casting out of tokoloshes’. Thankfully, it’s been a while since I spotted one that claimed to be able to cure AIDS.

Anyway, I’m thinking about giving Dr Zumba a call. I wonder if he would be able to sort out a mysterious spirit that seems to have invaded our office. It appears to subsist solely on a diet of forks and bic biros*. Not only can I not write, I am having to eat my leftover spaghetti with a teaspoon.

*I realise that this is a controversial statement, and I am doubtless unintentionally maligning a large number of decent, honourable people. However, I am a foreigner in a country where I don't yet, and may never fully understand the cultural implications of alot of my actions, or the actions of other people where they pertain to me. And I've seen enough to be very, very wary.

**I did, in fact, find the missing bic biros the other day when I was driving the Condom Estate to a meeting. I pulled down the flappy shady thing (what are they called?), and there they all were, lined up as if for military inspection. Don’t ask me why.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Driving Miss Crazy

There is yet another report of a fatal collision in the paper today. It seems as if there are accidents like this every day at the moment. They always read something like:

‘A young mother and her two children aged 2 months and 3 years were killed today in a collision in Ongwediva. The accident occurred when a Toyota Tazz and a bakkie collided at traffic lights/an intersection/on a blind bend”.

It constantly amazes, and terrifies me the extent to which you take your life in your hands every time you drive on Namibia’s roads. I know the suicide rate here is high, but really, there are less selfish ways to end it all than overtaking before the brow of a hill and taking a bus full of priests and schoolkids with you on an extended vacation into oblivion, via the fiery path of vehicular immolation. Perhaps these fuckwits like idea of having company on their final journey.

People here either drive recklessly fast, or as if they have had their brains removed and replaced with little tiny pieces of biltong. They hare up behind you at a gazillion miles an hour, wait until you start to wonder if they’ve somehow become entangled in your back bumper, and then they veer off towards the oncoming traffic with a look of steely determination on their faces. At least, I used to think it was steely determination. Now I just think that they paint eyes on their lids and have a quick snooze when the endless driving all gets too dreary.

When I was driving around the country with Dan, the first day we departed from Windhoek I nearly got driven off the road by a combi* full of passengers coming round a corner doing 160km per hour on the wrong side of the road.

Combis terrify me. I got in one to go to Swakopmund at Christmas and ended up actually praying for my life. And I don’t believe in God. The only other time I’ve ever done that was when I found myself in the middle of a ferocious electric storm, while sharing a small plane from Trinidad to Tobago with 21 teary Irish travel agents. Every time lightning zigged outside the window the girl next to me wailed ‘Mother of God, we’re all going to die’, while I sat with my head between my knees, dribbling with terror, and muttering ‘please god, if we get back in one piece, I’ll become a rampaging evangelist’. Another promise broken. I’m going to hell. No doubt about it.

Anyway, the combi ride was on a par. We whizzed around one corner, the sides of our faces squashed attractively against the windows by centrifugal force, and lo and behold, a combi lay belly up by the side of the road, little wheels spinning. Bodies flung from inside lay covered in blankets as groups of people stood around helplessly waiting for the ambulances to arrive. There’s no such thing as rubbernecking in Namibia. People just pull over, and wander around, poking at the corpses with their feet and snacking.

People are also allowed to drive cars that are in an advanced state of decreptitude. One of my friends was telling me that the front of his car, which is a bit crumpled, came under police inspection when he was up north a while ago. The policewoman leaned down, and squinted at the front of the car in dismay, and then called over a colleague. He had visions of having to pay a small fortune to make the thing roadworthy again. Instead, after a bit of poking, they extracted a dead bird from the grille, and waved him on his way.

I don’t have a car in Namibia, which is fine. I can’t afford one because for some reason they keep their value, and nothing sells for less than a couple of thousand pounds unless it has no wheels, or half an engine or something. However, my bloke does have one, and he has to drive around in it a lot. He’s a great driver, but plenty of people on the road do drive as if they think they’re behind the wheel of a bag of cotton wool with a built-in 007 turbo booster, and it does worry me that in this place, you’re at the mercy of other people’s reckless idiocy.

*A minibus packed to the rafters with people, and then manned by a wannabe kamikaze fighter pilot with an incurable addiction to SMSing on the move.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Vindicated

I was right. The Namibian really couldn't top the Top Ten famous people and their allergies. In fact, they seem to be in rather a slump. I'm tempted to call them and ask them what they think they're playing at, the lazy arse bastards. Here are this weeks' top ten trivia facts:

Tuesday: Some little known facts about words
Wednesday: More little known facts about words
Thursday: Even more little known facts about words

Now I know it's nice to know that, apparently, Shakespeare invented the word Assassination (although I am somewhat sceptical about this), and that John Milton used 8,000 words in Paradise Lost. I feel enriched, I really do. Being informed that Bill Clinton, Bill Gates and Gerard Depardieu have photographic memories is interesting, although confusing, in the given context.

But they're hardly out there pounding the streets for interesting and amusing snippets to help us through our day, are they? What happened to the glory days of pig counting?

Does anyone have any suggestions for other top ten facts that I could provide them with as inspiration?

Pop your entries in the box. Most interesting wins a prize. Maybe.
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