Under the Baobab Tree

A PSYCHIC told me once that I would have twins or two children very close together, both girls. Whatever your view of psychic mediums, I did end up with two girls and they were as close together as it’s possible to be, not in age, but in the way in which they came into my life.

R took custody of his girls and I became a mother before I was one. For the best part of a year beforehand, we were not sure how or when events would unfold. We had become passengers in an emotional rickshaw, forced to let legal processes in South Africa run their course. I did not know from one day to the next whether to prepare for overnight motherhood or not which sent my head into a near-permanent spin. The night terrors that had plagued me for more than a year intensified and started to jolt me awake most nights. Loved ones haunted my dreams and took on a distressingly more twisted, darker appearance which I knew was all back to front.

We had left Malindi behind and moved to our coastal paradise, into a house with an old makuti roof and a spiral staircase leading up to the loft which overlooked the vacant plot of land next door. R would sit and try to relax there in the late afternoons. The house had a kitchen, dining area and a small living room next to the bedroom and bathroom. It was characterful and charming. A net was draped across the main front door and windows, which didn’t have glass in the panes, and over the loft area to keep out the monkeys, though sometimes they came anyway and ransacked the kitchen – leaving behind trails of rice, pasta and crushed chocolate digestives. They rarely came on Sundays.

“They’re having a day off,” I told R.

R looked at me, incredulous.

“What do you mean they’re having a day off? They’re monkeys!”

“But they’re not here though, are they? They never are on Sundays.”

After-work debriefs and conversations now took place either in the loft or the shared swimming pool. The pool was hidden in the gardens beyond the trees and pink and purple bougain villa, which ran along the coral wall and sank deep into the soil. The garden path was partially obscured by heavy green foliage and thorny branches, which our larger-than-life Austrian landlord had tried to get one of the staff to cut only for him to start hacking away at everything else instead. ‘The Terminator’, our landlord had called him.

On still nights, you could hear the waves as they came rolling and crashing against the reef. The clear, turquoise ocean and long stretch of powdery white sand on a near empty stretch of beach was my own personal oasis. I would go to it whenever I needed to clear my mind and feel the sun and salty air on my skin. I walked beyond the shoreline, past fishermen casting rods and nets into the sea, waded into warm water, stopped to lie in shallow pools of blue and watched the slow pace of life unfolding on the beach.

WE HAD MOVED to a town of entrepreneurs. There was a British joiner who had opened a wood working shop so that people could buy wood that hadn’t already been chewed by bora. Then there was the man from the Midlands who arrived in Kenya semi-retired and became a poultry farmer. He had noticed a dearth of decent, well-fed chickens, and started a chicken farm, despite never having farmed before. He came from the British textile industry but was soon supplying chickens to hotels, restaurants and private residents up and down the coast of Kenya.

A couple who owned a successful hotel had set-up a small primary school, serving the local and expatriate community so that children could attend school together, rather than homeschooling on different verandas or moving away with their families.

Kenya is full of creative, risk taking types, from locals to foreigners, all plying their trade, whether it is one they already know or a new one they have learned, and treading an unknown path that Africa needs and makes possible. Despite the many road blocks and frustrations in carving out a life here, it is Africa’s gift to those who live here.

R AND I have lived many lives together, rather like a pair of cats, all of them folded into the space of three years. Our early life in Kisumu was a hailstorm of domesticity, road trips and corporate (and, at times, national) politics, thanks to the family R was working for. All this a mere five months after we had first met. I had walked away from my life in England and fallen headfirst into a new one with R.

After Kisumu came the start of our life on the coast and a new business, first in Mombasa and then in Malindi. Malindi was a time of waiting for things to get going, punctuated by trips to South Africa. It was also our most isolating period and full of Kenya’s life limiting eccentricities.

Life changed again, deeply and irrevocably so, not only with a move further south but with the arrival of R’s girls. They landed in Mombasa as the city was labouring under a simmering, sweltering heat. R’s youngest daughter came running when she saw us. R held it together better than I did.

We had moved to a house that could accommodate us all, on the edge of the forest, a short walk from the beach. Serendipitously, the concrete stairs that ran up the side of the house, from the al fresco living area to the upstairs veranda, were wrapped around a towering baobab tree. In our house under the baobab tree, in a home we had made for R’s two girls, things began to shift and fall into place.

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2015 in review

Thank you to every single one of you who has read, commented on, liked and shared my blog. I haven’t even got to the best bits yet! 2016 promises already to be an exciting, eventful year in Africa.

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,100 times in 2015. If it were a cable car, it would take about 35 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Escape to paradise

LIFE IN Malindi, all seven months of it, was marked by dust, Italians, old colonials, a lot of time inside and as time went on, a burning, restless desire to leave.

R and I debated which town was better: Malindi or Kisumu. R thought Malindi, because it was by the sea. But the sea was blue rather than turquoise and for too much of the year, there was seaweed along the shoreline. I had been spoiled by other beaches.

I argued that Kisumu, despite not having a huge amount going for it, was well-positioned: we had travelled easily and frequently in all directions, to Kendu Bay, to the highlands, to the Mara, to Naivasha and Nairobi, and even to the Coast, before we had upped sticks altogether. Malindi gave us the option of travelling south to Mombasa or north to Somalia.

It was the right move for us to make at the time and it was Malindi that got me back into the swing of writing again. I wrote myself out of another period of difficulty and all the ones from just before. Some things that needed to end seemed as if they would never end; others, like the business, seemed in darker moments as if they would never get going. There were more obstacles in our path than we knew what to do with.

If R and I hadn’t had each other, loneliness might have been a factor, too. It was hard to make friends among the local crowd of mostly old colonials who had their ways and their in-jokes and their mannerisms. Maybe, to them, we were just passing by. Maybe they knew we would not be there for the long haul. We watched England play rugby against South Africa at the local bar and only our neighbours and the owner said anything to us all evening.

There were long emails and Skype calls into the night with friends in England. Those furthermost away from me have remained the closest and the most constant. I have watched my best friend’s little boy grow up on Skype, laughed at his robust interactions with R and met her baby girl the same way. It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be there to hold both her children as newborns. I am their mythical Auntie Jo who lives in Africa among the zebras and giraffes. One day, when they are older, I will be able to tell them about this other world I call home.

WE ESCAPED to another coastal paradise for Christmas. My first Christmas away from my family, from the cold of England and my mum’s supreme efforts to make Christmas special, was blisteringly hot, barefoot and beautiful.

On Christmas Eve, that most wistful, magical of days, we dined in a 180,000 year old coral cave restaurant. Festive songs played softly in the background, crackers adorned each table and we danced out into the night to watch classic Christmas films.

Phone calls to R’s girls, to his family and mine took precedence on Christmas morning and the rest of the day was given over to sunbeds on the lawn in front of the sparkling sea, R with his crosswords and me with my book. One moment, I was in Kate Atkinson’s Edwardian England, in Life After Life, with snow and ice and a lost soul hurtling through time over and over again, and the next I was on a sandy white beach in Kenya.

There was a boy, too big for his age, taking another child’s toys and I liked the way she stood her ground and won them back; camels gliding slowly past; kite surfers skimming deftly across the ocean; and a holidaymaker wading in after them, unable to see the mounds of coral rock half buried in the sand and hidden beyond the water’s edge until he felt them underfoot, stopped and stumbled and made his way back.

I remember all this because it was a world away from everything, good and bad and in-between, and because R turned to me and said: “You know, why don’t we move here?”

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The North Coast

“BELLA, you go to the supermarketo?”

“Yes, please,” I say to the taxi driver.

He takes us past the Italian butchery, the Italian cafe, the Italian restaurants, another Italian cafe (the one R thinks is frequented by Interpol’s Most Wanted, and, probably, Italy’s Most Tattooed) and to the Italian supermarket where the Italian cashier and I can never understand more than a few words that the other speaks.

I have always loved Italy. The year after I finished school, while the rest of my family went to Tuscany (they discovered when they got there that Dad had booked the hotel for the month before), I hopped over to Rome with my friend Chris. It was a hot, restless summer.

We made our way, Chris and I, through an intricate maze of cobbled streets and alleyways, darting into cafes to buy iced water to pour over our heads as we walked, in an effort to beat the heat as temperatures soared. We wandered and strolled and lost ourselves in Rome, took in a night time jazz festival, toured the Coliseum and dined every night on pasta and wine. My parents and brothers, their accommodation woes now sorted, caught the train down to see The Vatican and my little brother came running to me across St Peter’s Square.

R isn’t sure he needs to trek all the way to Italy; not since we wound up in Kenya’s own version of it, where it appears that anyone who isn’t Italian and who stays long enough soon becomes one.

MALINDI is an old Swahili town on the north coast, at the mouth of the Galana River, a couple of hours’ drive from Mombasa. More in traffic. You can see the signs to Garissa and Somalia the further north you go, though it would take a long time to reach them, off the noisy, dusty tarmac road, over dustier, rougher terrain and deep into the bush.

Friends and I once took the bus from Old Mombasa Town, through Malindi and onto Lamu, as far north as we could go. We travelled all day in convoy with chickens squashed and squawking at our feet. Soldiers stopped the driver at a security check point after Malindi, made us all disembark and present our passports. Lamu County, which became known to the wider world a decade later after a deadly attack on the village of Mpeketoni, was not our final destination. We were heading to Lamu Island, often confused in the foreign press with mainland Lamu, which could not be described as a holiday hotspot.

Lamu Island, part of the Lamu Archipelago of Kenya, belongs to a separate time and place. A haunt of both independent travellers and European royals, Lamu is one of the oldest and most enduring Swahili settlements in East Africa, imbued with tradition and evoking in sight, sound and approach much that modern life does not. I felt almost as though I had been transported back a few hundred years. There are no roads, only alleyways and footpaths. Residents move around by foot, donkey or dhow.

Like its island neighbour, history seeps out of Malindi’s every pore. But while Lamu feels anchored to a more linear past, Malindi has gone through several different eras, from the early Arab and Chinese traders in the 14th Century, when Malindi was rivalled only by Mombasa for dominance on the East African coastline, to the Portuguese sailors who came to rule and, later, European settlers.

The Germans left their mark on Malindi’s development (it is now the largest town in Kilifi County), when it was transformed into a resort town popular with tourists. So did the Italians, many of whom never left. The Italian embassy is the only foreign mission with a consulate office in Malindi.

AUSTERITY MEASURES brought us from Nyali to Malindi. These measures covered our whole household, including the dog, though for her there were no downsides as it meant more of whatever we cooked. Eight months since registering our business, we were still wading through the life-shortening process of getting it up and running. R had read, too late and with envy, of the two day processing time in Rwanda. In Kenya, someone always seemed to be at lunch when we needed a particular licence issued. But we took heart where we could and agreed that at least those phone lines still worked. Others were often either out of date or missing a digit.

We found a small, Swahili style apartment in the bush. I loved it even though it was closer to the road than we thought. The living room would vibrate as trucks and cars rattled and thundered past. Laying awake at night as a breeze billowed through the open windows, I could see their headlights rushing through the trees. I wondered which trucks were going to Somalia and which ones were coming back.

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The Cape

“ONE THING. Make sure you take any valuables into the room with you.”

We looked at our host, an old friend of R’s.

“Don’t leave them in the living room at night,” he continued, “in-case someone sees them through the window.”

We were staying in a farm house in the middle of a vineyard in the Western Cape. Determined criminals only would venture in here. But our hosts had been broken into before, more than once.

Across the hallway, leading down to the bedrooms and the bathrooms, was a security gate. It reminded me of the criss-cross doors on old fashioned lifts still in use in some European hotels.

Outsiders know about the heavy crime rate in South Africa. But not how it permeates so many lives and conversations. It has become an unsettling constant, wrapped up in issues of race and economics which together form the stark underbelly of a complex and beautiful country. There has been hardly anyone I have met who has not mentioned it.

Crime is to South Africans what politics is to Kenyans and what the weather (and sometimes immigration) is to the British, though it is perhaps more palpable.

EVERYTHING felt to us quieter and sadder, as though a hush had temporarily fallen. We had said goodbye to the children. They had school and we had a business trip to make to the Cape. Ours was a wine import company, bringing boutique South African wines into East Africa.

“Have you heard,” my brother James had asked an old family friend at a BBQ back in England, “she’s in the wine business now!”

I had pictured our friend’s chuckles morphing into a great big belly laugh.

It was not what any of us had expected.

My work had always centered on writing and education. But R had seen a burgeoning wine culture and an untapped market in Kenya, and because no-one gets there entirely alone, we had taken it on together, weaving our way through layers of complication, banging our heads against brick walls and watching as R’s hair turned greyer.

We were in the Cape to tour the vineyards our company was representing. A Kenyan supermarket had come to our launch in Nairobi, been impressed by our range and sent a representative to join us.

I had put the final touches of our itinerary together when we were still in Durban, in R’s father’s house. It didn’t seem as hectic then as it was when we got there. My advice to wine enthusiasts, and I know R’s, too, would be: don’t try to do 20 vineyards in a week.

Better still, try not to drive back and forth across different wine valleys in the same day. We criss-crossed Stellenbosch, Paarl, Durbanville, Ashton, Franschhoek and Robertson as if we had never seen a map.

We had. But our trip wasn’t a leisurely holiday in the Cape; if it was, I would probably pass on another one. It was planned and executed around meetings and other people’s schedules. There were more early morning starts and late night arrivals back at the farm where our hosts produced the one thing we didn’t want to see: wine.

ONE PARTICULARLY involved meeting included an elaborate tasting with the winemaker who talked us through the art and the science behind each of his wines: 20 of them were waiting for us to try. R, the designated driver, was, at this point, already sure that he had never spat out so much wine in his life.

We had chosen the first crop of vineyards based on the feedback we’d received at our launch, while potential customers selected the wines they wanted to order. Any new vineyards had to send sample stock for our professional wine consultants to try.

The main aim of our trip was to meet the winemakers and vineyard owners in person and to see how we could support each other’s businesses. This was crucial for us as ours was newly established and terms would be an early lifeline. A Spanish sommelier from Nairobi had flown to meet us there to help us select the right wines.

People were welcoming and warm and quick to laugh. Almost nothing happened on time. Meetings started at their own pace and went on longer than expected. African Time existed in the Western Cape, too; it reminded me in this way of a less eccentric Kenya.

OUR COMPLEX wine route took us over the Du Toitskloof Pass, a mountain pass surrounded by towering peaks which looks out over the Paarl and Worcester wine valleys. Everywhere is a stunning shade of emerald green. It evoked, for R, the view of Kenya’s Rift Valley, beloved by me and one of the first, emotive sights you see on the winding road down to Naivasha. Epic is a word that belongs to Africa.

We had one day off. It was a Sunday and nobody could see us. So R and I, aching for sleep but not wanting to stop and slow down, took the scenic Chapman’s Peak route along the icy, turquoise blue Atlantic from False Bay to Noordhoek and onto Cape Town. The road winds and curves around a vertical mountain side through picturesque fishing villages and naval towns that meet sandy bays below.

It was nearly dark by the time we reached the outskirts of Cape Town, sprawling with cars, fashion-conscious students and football fans spilling out of the stadium, and drove back along the main road to Stellenbosch.

We had wrestled with the idea of relocating to South Africa and got so far as telling close friends and family. I started to mentally move my life out there but we had not worked out how to do it. Then a series of things unfolded for our business while we were visiting and took the decision away.

The business was for our future and the girls’ and so R and I flew home to decide where in Kenya we might go next.

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South Africa

IT IS 5.30am. My alarm is sounding in my ear, dogs are barking somewhere outside, no light is creeping through the curtains and R and I are chronically sleep deprived.

It is R’s job to wake his older daughter, who reminds me of myself in the mornings when I was a teenager and, my family would say, well into adulthood.

R is frying eggs and bacon. I am making Nutella sandwiches. R is also trying to take photographs of his growing girl in her school uniform. She is far more obliging than I would be.

Five minutes later, they are out the door, she with her goodbyes and her oversized school bag that apparently weighs about the same as my suitcase (R tested it out on his father’s scales), while I rouse his younger one who has buried herself under the covers.

We have developed a pattern of walking slowly to the bathroom, getting her ready, packing her lunch box and doing her hair in time for R to return for the second leg of the morning school run.

She looks momentarily stricken.

“I didn’t do my homework last night,” she says, soft and sleepy.

My mind searches back to last night.

“Yes, you did,” I say.

“Did I?” she looks at me, surprised.

“You definitely did. It was Maths and reading.”

R arrives, we hurry outside in the rain and head to school.

What we do on holiday, R and I, is what most people go on holiday to avoid: child care, school runs, cooking, homework, ironing of uniforms, punishing early starts and a lot of driving.

IT HAS taken us three plane rides, a fractured overnight in Nairobi, in a motel with walls so thin they may as well not have been there (it was supposed to be an improvement on the time before, when we had camped in the cold in a 2m x 2m tent), and a late night, last minute change in car hire itinerary to get here.

South Africa is where R’s girls live. Time with them is precious. That they are in one place and R in another is the heartache across our lives and theirs. You find ways to live with it rather than under it, R as their father and me as his partner, but at times you falter. Bittersweet moments unfold when his little one is busy playing with friends when he calls and wants to carry on having fun, and he tells her she must, because he wants her to enjoy her life.

I know from the expression that sometimes runs across his face that a soaring sense of missing them has come hurtling to the surface, but when his older one talks about going to university abroad, that alone is enough to keep going so that she can have that chance.

MY FIRST visit to R’s girls started without them. We have battled at times for R to have contact and access. I have learned the law on child contact and parental rights in a country that isn’t mine and found others, fathers mostly, in similar situations.

Three days of stress and angst followed, for them, for R and for me, until they came to us. His little one put a shawl around me as we sat outside in the chilly night air and, hearing us joke to one of R’s friends that he had made several attempts to buy me some flowers but so far never managed to come home with any, piped up with an emphatic nod: “Yes, Daddy, buy her some flowers!”

She wanted to photograph us, issuing instructions from behind R’s camera so that we were wrapped in each other’s arms or planting a chaste kiss on the cheek.

On a more recent visit, R graduated to Embarrassing Dad Status: his requests to capture his older child on camera in public places were met mostly with embarrassed cries.

“It’s ok!” I assured her. “No-one from school seems to be around!”

“Those people up there are watching!” she said, laughing, pointing to a cafe on the windy beachfront.

“Just one more!” R said, clicking the shutter down and taking several.

Children and family are inherent to our visits to South Africa. Easter egg hunts and Sunday braais at Grandpa’s house with R’s brother and sister-in-law, Aunt May, the girls’ cousins, Grandpa’s old friends and however many others might pop in.

“It reminds me of Ireland,” I told my mum in a text on the first night.

I knew R’s family before they knew me. I knew their birthdays, their faces and some of their voices. The challenge when I met them was how not to look like a stalker.

“At what point should I join in when they’re discussing something I think I know about?” I asked R.

“HOW’S it going?” one of my lifelines back home wants to know.

R is attempting to coach a teenager through her Maths homework, with results similar to those yielded by my own father when he tried to help me. His youngest wants to read a book on natural sciences and to have us all play charades.

It is like stepping into another life. I feel further away from the UK, which physically I am despite the benefits of only a one hour time difference, but connected to R’s roots.

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NYALI MARKED the beginning of a seismic change in our already whirlwind life together. It was in Nyali, in our house beside the ocean, that the idea for our business took root. It was sketched out in our living room and on the upstairs veranda where we would migrate to each evening just as the horizon turned orange and the moon came to bathe the sea in twinkling, silver light.

That veranda, with its endless, ocean view, brought us both a semblance of peace in a time of growing turmoil and uncertainty. Just to sit there was enough. On other occasions, we would take my telescope up to the roof to study the stars.

I had wanted a telescope since I was five-years-old and finally got one on my 29th birthday, by which time, my parents realised, an Early Learning Centre model would probably no longer suffice. Still, there can hardly be a better place to star gaze than Africa. We dined outside with Saturn dominating the sky several days in a row.

We had idly hoped, R and I, that a move to the coast might one day be in our future. We had laughed about it, imagining ourselves when we were older, me pushing R in his wheelchair and taking him down to the beach for good behaviour. Or, if we were lucky, we would have a holiday retreat that we could share with our friends and family. It never occurred to us that we would live there now or that it would happen in the way that it did.

The unceremonious way in which R’s job had ended, then setting up a business, having to leave Kisumu and neither wanting nor needing to be in Nairobi all the time had brought us here.

WOVEN INTO the countless hours we invested in getting a business up and running, very often burning the candle at both ends (sometimes literally when the power was out), were weekend braais with neighbours who lived in the same complex as us. We were an international mix of British, South African, Dutch and Italian and spanned a range of ages, too; starting at four-years-old and ending at 60.

I have never thought of myself as an expat. It seems to me a detached, alien concept, more the preserve of those who stay within their own groups and enclaves and less a reflection of how I have lived my time here.

The socialising we did in Nyali was minimal and mostly confined to home but we made the most of it and supplemented it with walks on the beach which usually became brainstorming sessions. When the tide was out, we would clamber down a rock face at the end of the pathway between our complex and the one next door and onto the seabed. The rocks were often slippery underfoot because fishermen used them to scale the fish and I decided that when my parents visited, we would take them via the road.

A little fish market had sprouted that would flood twice a day when the tide came in. Fishermen’s basins were the natural corals of the sea. The catch would be a clown fish, red snapper, octopus or sometimes squid. Further along the beach, men offered boat rides and jet skis and women sold multi-coloured scarves that billowed and flapped in the wind. Mama Rose gave one to my mum as a thank you after she stopped at her stall.

The locals knew we were locals too and that we were just walking, striding along on the sand and venturing out to the edge of the seabed, wading through hot, rising water and past anchored boats on our way back in.

WALKING, whether on a beach, through crowded London streets, woodland, fields or busy roads is a necessity for me. It keeps me sane, makes me feel free and allows me to think.

I will always be fond of Nyali. It gave us our first taste of Indian Ocean life. But it was also the place where my sleep became most disturbed. I would lie awake in the dark in the shattering silence that comes after a generator suddenly stops, contemplating life under a cloud of complexity, not knowing where we would be living in six months’ time, and the stop and start, back and forth nature of establishing a business in Kenya.

We had talked again, for heart-aching reasons both personal and professional, about relocating. This time, to a different country.

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