I have wrestled with this recalcitrant blog so many times, I’m beginning to feel bruised. So, apologies, but I’m just going to dump it on you voetstoots. If I wait for inspiration to strike as to how to pull it all together in some meaningful way, we’ll be here till Christmas.
It’s interesting how much easier I find it to write wedged into the back of a truck bouncing along a potholed road in Africa, with sweat dripping off me, than sat here marooned in the UK in a comfortable chair on a flat surface. It just shows you that it is travel and the fascination of the new that inspires me to write with clarity of purpose; the longer I stay here, the fuzzier my ideas – about myself, and the world – seem to become.
So, in mid-October, I found myself sobbing in the supermarket.
I’d just turned a corner and found myself confronted by half an aisle’s worth of specially repackaged Halloween sweets. OK, so I may have been hormonally challenged, but at that moment it did seem that the cream of our generation’s ingenuity was being devoted to marketing ever more pointlessly refined stuff – do we really need Milkybar Ghosts or Cadbury’s ‘Scream’ Eggs, full of green goo? – rather than responding creatively to life-threatening crises like Ebola, malaria or climate change. My despair was heartfelt.
In the UK, it was the warmest Halloween on record. All sorts of topsy-turvy things were happening that you wouldn’t expect. On 30th October in Burkina Faso, an apparently spontaneous revolution was sparked when President Compaoré tried to change the constitution to allow an extension of his 27 year term in office. On 31st, after half a million incensed citizens came out on the streets to protest, Compaoré resigned and fled south. It was reported he went to Côte d’Ivoire, but we wonder if he might end up in Ghana at the holiday home kept so spruce by M. Kassim and his nephews David and Mohammed, that the President hadn’t been to in several years and that we’d parked outside for several weeks last March while I recovered from my relapse.
Then, having studiously ignored the gathering crisis for a dangerous month or two too long, the arrival of Ebola in the USA and the ‘sudden’ threat of a now out-of-control pandemic caused the transatlantic media to go into a frenzy. As the official death toll passed 5000, Cameron told the EU that “we should all do more” and the WHO gave themselves 60 days to have 70% of cases isolated, and 70% of the deceased safely buried by 1st December.
Here in UK, for a fortnight you couldn’t turn on the radio without hearing heartstring-pulling detail of daily deaths in Liberian clinics, or politicians flapping about screening for fever at Heathrow.
I went from feeling helpless frustration with zero coverage of the growing pandemic to fuming about how sensationalist blanket coverage was doing nothing to help the image of Africa abroad. The laudable achievements of the health systems in Nigeria and Senegal rapidly shutting down transmission and being declared Ebola-free were mostly ignored in favour of screaming headlines of semi-hysteria where West African countries were painted as hopeless victims without agency.
In the midst of this onslaught of negativity, I was most heartened to learn about the ‘I Am A Proud Liberian’ initiative on the Arterial Network Liberia Facebook page featuring the meme #Ebola Is Not My Identity. Through corresponding with Bai Best, a journalist at Monrovian paper the Daily Observer, I found out an art exhibition called ‘Recovery’ was already being planned at the National Museum in December and January.
On 28th October, when Africans from affected countries were banned from entering Australia, I was cheered to hear that South African businessman Patrice Motsepe’s foundation had donated $1million to Guinea. On 1st November an umbrella group of 13 UK charities called the Disasters Emergency Committee, which usually asks for funds to combat earthquakes, typhoons and floods launched their first ever campaign in response to a disease. Their Ebola Crisis Appeal raised £4million in the first 48 hours. The UK government matched the first £5 million raised, and so far the appeal has reached £30 million. The generosity of the British public is astounding.
Then, just as quickly, the hype subsided to silence, the peak of the crisis presumed over. From nothing, to deafening, to nothing again.
(Meanwhile, in Liberia, the collapse of cross border trade means that the price of the staple cassava has jumped 150% since August. Sierra Leone has experienced a 30% decline in agricultural production already, according to our man in Monrovia. General food prices have doubled.)
And then the Christmas sweets hit the shelves.
Back in Blighty, I was busy being bowled over by the perks of first world living. Later I may expand on the delights of the DWP and the public swimming pool and the library. But first let me just stop for a moment, get down on my knees, lift up my hands and give fulsome thanks to the spirit of Nye Bevan.
In the three months we have been staying as ‘Ebola refugees’ in Cornwall, our family has taken full advantage of the largesse that is the National Health Service. Our local GP in Perranporth – up for ‘Most Scenic Surgery of the Year’ award, overlooking the sea as it does – has provided us with a whole raft of check-ups, including making sure we are all typhoid-free. Ruby has had a minor procedure on an ingrowing toenail, Sampson has had a biopsy on his lip and I have had an X-ray and a series of potent physio appointments to sort out the whiplash-like after-effects of my Côte d’Ivoire concussion. And all this FOR FREE.
When Ruby went in for her op, the spacious Children’s ward at the Royal Cornwall Hospital took my breath away: as well as a host of nurses constantly wiping down, there were beautiful murals, cheery mobiles and even a dedicated attendant giving friendly explanations with photos of everything about to happen. There was a spotless kitchen for parents providing free tea, coffee, juice and toast. On coming round from their general anaesthetic, little patients were given sarnies and even a pack of JAFFA CAKES! Before being allowed to go home, Ruby was served a recuperative meal of lasagna while watching CBeebies on her personal TV screen.
The contrast with the hospitals in Cote d’Ivoire where we went for treatment for malaria and typhoid was marked. Yet, impressively, Cote d’Ivoire has so far avoided Ebola infection because its health care system is so much more established than those of its neighbours to the west. It is estimated that Sierra Leone has 2 doctors for every 100 000 people, Liberia only 1 – where Cote d’Ivoire has 14, and the USA 242.
I was even phoned to check that I was happy with the way my X-ray appointment had been handled. Are they kidding? I had a choice of venue and was processed within 24 hours! Brits are forever whinging about the state of the NHS and the ‘disgrace’ and the ‘queues’ and the blah blah blah. South Africans are used to dealing with the same delays in appointments, occasional mistakes and waiting lists for referrals, but they have to pay for it too! The rest of Africa dreams of such facilities. I recall us sitting outside doctors’ rooms in the hospital in San Pèdro in Côte d’Ivoire, waiting for hours on a wooden bench alongside 100 other people, some of whom were limp with high fever, but no-one made a fuss. Sometimes, when people here stand complaining at the desks of long-suffering receptionists, I want to slap them.
On 23rd Oct it was widely reported that the NHS was ‘in crisis’ and needing a cash injection of £8 billion by 2020. I reflected they could start by making people bring in their own jaffa cakes.
On 2nd Nov, the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report in 7 years stated unequivocally that tackling climate change is economically affordable, that carbon emissions must be reduced to zero, and that global poverty can only be reduced by halting global warming. The Guardian reported that:
Bill McKibben, a high-profile climate campaigner with 350.org, said: “For scientists, conservative by nature, to use ‘serious, pervasive, and irreversible’ to describe the effects of climate falls just short of announcing that climate change will produce a zombie apocalypse plus random beheadings plus Ebola.” Breaking the power of the fossil fuel industry would not be easy, McKibben said. “But, thanks to the IPCC, no one will ever be able to say they weren’t warned.”
The way the world first responded to the Ebola pandemic was like a litmus test: the scary numbers increasing at an exponential rate, the science unarguable, the situation blatantly globe-threatening – yet still we’re capable of ignoring it. The upward curve of the Ebola death toll throws a long shadow recalling climate change markers. It is terrifying, this stubbornness of humans, to refuse to face up to stats; we’re still more comfortable telling ourselves stories about potential Terror rather than attempting to tackle genuine horrors confronting our fellow humans on a daily basis.
On 21st November, UKIP won their second by-election on an anti-immigration platform. The good people of Rochester and Strood voted in substantial numbers for a Tory defector, Reckless by name and morally questionable on many levels by nature. “The imminent melting of the icecaps and disappearance of half the coastline, no problem; but one too many Polish delis on the high street? We draw the line…” (I paraphrase). It would serve UKIP right if all British immigrants and their descendants in Europe, ‘the colonies’ and beyond were sent home. Deal with that lot!
Twice recently I have been in a room with highly educated British people and found myself marvelling at their panic about the perceived threat of jihadis, immigrants or the imminent collapse of the NHS when, in fact, they could choose to bask in the knowledge that they possess the best health system in the world, the fastest growing economy in the G7 and live on an island thousands of miles away from the Middle East. And yet indisputable evidence of climate change – the warmest September, October, November on record – that doesn’t set any alarm bells ringing?
A few weeks ago, I was listening to a Radio 4 programme featuring Naomi Klein (author of This Changes Everything: Capitalisation Vs. the Climate). She suggested that changing our definitions might help change our outlook e.g. no longer speaking about ‘developed’ or ‘developing countries’, but rather of ‘polluters’ and ‘non-polluters’. As she spoke, I felt a real release, like a burden fall from my shoulders, as I realised that many things that scare me about the world – relentless consumerism, poisonous cityscapes, the wilful ignorance of the masses – are about to pass and the meek (read the non-polluters) shall inherit the earth. The worse it gets, the faster the crisis will be reached, the quicker the system will fall. My kids are prepared; they know how to be happy in a world without shopping malls, wifi and electricity. So I’ve stopped worrying about the End of the World As We Know It. Bring it on!
When in mid-November I found out that Bob Geldof was set to rerecord Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ 1984 Ethiopian famine single with a new line-up to raise money for the Ebola relief-effort, I have to say I felt very uneasy. And not just because I’ve learned more than I want to know about One Direction and ex-X-Factor starlets recently (thanks to Ruby’s addiction to Radio 1).
When I was 14, post-punk Bob was a hero for me as for many others, because he had the balls to stand up to Thatcher and the smug selfish politics of her generation and made it cool to care about more than money. Thirty years later, however, businessman Bob hasn’t manage to tweak the patronising tone out of the lyrics. So I’m afraid he does deserve this satire, and the comments. And this condemnation from Ghanaian artist Fuse ODG.
On 18th November, I heard an academic Robtel Neajai Pailey from the School of Oriental and African studies at the University of London on the Radio 4 Today programme reviewing the newly released Band Aid 30 single. She stated that “as a Liberian, I find it insulting” citing the lyrics ‘death in every tear’ and ‘the clanging chimes of doom’ as promoting “unchanging stereotypes of Africa”.
When she asked producer Harvey Goldsmith of the Band Aid Trust why African artists who have produced anti-Ebola songs were not invited to take part, he spluttered defensively “Well we would have done, if we were aware of them”. Goodness me Harvey, have you never heard of Google? This is what I got after a 5 minute search on YouTube – just click for a listen.
Ebola awareness tracks by African artists produced before Band Aid 30:
Ebola in Town by Shadow, D12 and Kuzzy of 2kings, Liberia
Stop Ebola, Sénégal by rappers of the ‘Y en a marre’ (Enough’s Enough) movement I LOVE THIS ONE
Ebola est là Xuman’s parody of Rihanna’s Umbrella
Save Liberia by Musicians Union of Liberia et al
Lord Have Mercy by 2C, Knowledge and Kouul 88
SOS Africa (Tribute song to Ebola victims) by Jodi
Africa Stop Ebola by Tiken Jah Fakoly, Amadou &Mariam, Salif Keita, Oumou Sangare, Kandia Kora, Mory Kante, Sia Tolno, Barbara Kanam and rappers Didier Awadi, Marcus from Banlieuz’Arts, Mokobe and others from Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Guinea, Congo, Senegal AWESOME!
Ebola Dae Kill We Terror-D of Sierra Leone asks “Where is the world?” to the tune of ‘Where is the Love’ by Black Eyed Peas
Ebola Awareness Rap by Groundzero, Nigeria
Ebola 4 Go Jimmy B, Wahid, Camouflage and Cee Jay of Sierra Leone.
Hope Song by Liberian Artists Together for Advancement
It says so much that at the very bottom of the first list of contributors to Band Aid 30 I read is the only African artist on the recording: multi-platinum-selling singer and undisputed Queen of West African music, Angelique Kidjo. The pint-sized performer from Benin with the blonde hair and big voice is not only a Grammy-award-winner but also a UNICEF international goodwill ambassador who runs her own Batonga Foundation supporting education for African girls in five countries. She has performed everywhere from the Carnegie Hall to Sydney Opera House and is favourite in the running to take over the ‘Mama Afrika’ mantle from Miriam Makeba. And yet she was not mentioned at all in the majority of media reports, which gave higher status to X-Factor runners-up and vapid vloggers like Zoella, her brother and her boyfriend (whom I wish I’d never Googled).
I remember when Zola was 18 months old and Ruby was 4, we went to see Angelique Kidjo perform at a summer outdoor concert at Spier outside Cape Town. It was a magnificent occasion, as the diva captivated the capacity crowd with her dynamic stage presence and irresistible warmth. For the encore, she got about 30 people up on stage with her to sing together. I was nearly dropping from having danced non-stop for 3 hours with Zola on my shoulders when I felt a tugging on my hand and Ruby looked up at me dreamily and said “I want her to be my Mommy”!
I totally got what she meant – Angelique Kidjo’s spirit is so powerful, her passion so tangible, she is nothing less than a weapon of mass loving. I wanted her to be my mommy too.
On 15th November I wrote in my diary:
There was a robin in the garden this morning. The cherubic red-breasted bird so beloved of northern hemisphere Christmas cards posed perfectly for the children who’d never seen one before, pecked picturesquely at crumbs on the bird table, then dived into a holly bush. The dark green spikes shuddered against the sharp cold.
I haven’t been in England in November for 20 years. The M.E. that I was diagnosed with in 1993 responded so well to the temperate warmth of South Africa on my convalescent holiday there during 1994, I haven’t risked a UK winter since.
In the first 2 weeks of November here, my energy began to wane dramatically, my capacity dropped to between 50-70%, my need for sleep increased by several hours and I began to have severe joint pain. I’ve had to boost my daily T’ai Chi routine from one short form in August to four now in order to get warm enough for my body to function. (Eternal thanks to Dr Lin and Sean Evans for teaching me this survival tool.)
While it’s good to have your life choices confirmed as sound, it’s been rather scary seeing as it’s not even proper winter yet. Even though it’s no longer possible for me to step out of the house without a hat and a scarf, people keep telling me how mild this November has been.
Not at any time on this trip – not when confronted with a man in a ski mask and a machine gun in the DRC, not when the truck was tipping over 45˚ in Côte d’Ivoire, not when Sampson’s Mum died while we were in Angola and a hard year of grieving stretched ahead – have I felt more vulnerable than now, in the UK, with the prospect of months of cruel cold to come.
After half term, Ruby started attending local secondary school Treviglas two days a week. (That still left her three days to complete five days’ worth of the South African curriculum that she’ll need to pass her end-of-year exams and progress into the next grade.) Headteacher Mrs Ross was kind enough to arrange for her to come in as a guest, allowing her to join lessons as well as witness rehearsals for their blockbuster Much Ado About Nothing. The school even lent her a sweat top and tie, bless them.
Ruby was quite nervous about going back into a classroom environment but, on her first day, she came home bursting with news of how much easier it was than she’d thought and how friendly her peers had been. Most cheering for me was her observation that gay teens were very much ‘out’ and proud – there were signs up for support groups and an unashamedly relaxed presence. This is such a huge step forward from the intimidating atmosphere in UK schools Sampson and I attended 30 years ago, which forced cousins on both sides of our family to deny their orientation and suffer needlessly until coming out in their 40s. Hooray for the 21st century! Go Treviglas!
Last week, Sampson went in to say thank you for their hospitality by giving an assembly for the school house which shares a name with his favourite surf break: Fistral. As a former pupil of ‘the other place’ – Tretherras – he’d never set foot in the school, and was pleasantly surprised at the reception. Cheers Treviglas, it was fun hanging out with you!
Treviglas pupils were the first to see Sampson’s long-awaited edit of footage of our Côte d’Ivoire experience and the challenging drive across to Liberia: brace yourself and click here to view.
If you’re in South Africa, you can also check out my article on ‘Africa Clockwise: Part I’ in Intrepid Explorer magazine’s summer 2014 edition, in stores now!
There is something soporific about the English winter. The autumn leaves were lovely but now the grass has stopped growing. As the sun begins to struggle to lift itself above the treeline during the day, I begin to struggle to lift myself out of bed in the morning. It’s dark again around 4pm, and hard then not to give up trying to work, give in to the temptation to just cook a hotpot and huddle next to the gas fire.
This, for me, is the seductive anaesthesia of the northern hemisphere lifestyle. It’s stultifying. In the dozy heat of the radiators (fuelled by an original oil-fired Rayburn in the kitchen, Sampson’s parents’ pride and joy), I am struggling to think, to breathe, to remember who I am, what I am waiting for, the purpose of my existence. Is it not to eat, to sleep and to eat again? To forget how evil the fumes of fossil fuels are in the foggy gratitude for the warmth?
Right, I need to look on the bright side a bit.
Some good things about living in Britain right now:
- Charity shops. Thank God for British people and their tendency to give perfectly good clothes away. I have kitted out the whole family in winter wear for the price of one new coat at M&S. Bless you Save The Children, Oxfam, British Red Cross, Cancer Research, Cornwall Air Ambulance and the Cats Protection Society.
- Christmas lights. We happened to be in Truro on the evening of the annual Parade of Lights featuring spectacular giant paper lanterns and several hundred participants including local schoolchildren with tiny handmade ones, many this year commemorating WW1. It was so very evocative of classic British Christmas, from the silly jumpers and all the tinselly twinkles on the bands’ hats to the reindeer-horned paper crowns given out by the local radio station worn by the foot-stamping, red-nosed crowd of 30000. (Zola was freezing because he thought he wouldn’t need a coat. He won’t make that mistake again.) St Newlyn East’s own switching on of the Festive Lights was smaller, as you’d expect the village event to be, but if anything even more delightful because of the ratio of streets (there’s only 3) to lights (thousands). I absolutely loved it. I’ve never seen an English church so crammed full of people and Christmas spirit as the parents piled in to hear St Newlyn East Academy children sing carols and watch the Christmas trees donated by village groups, all 18 of them, light up. Soooooooooo Christmassy!
- The Bio-Bus. One for the Treviglas kids who loved the fart jokes best: this “poo bus” runs on biomethane gas generated through treatment of sewage and food waste, and is operating from Bristol Airport to Bath city centre from 20th November.
In the interests of fairness however…
Some not so good things about living in Britain right now:
- Black Friday 28th November. Not convinced mass consumerism is getting out of hand? Watch this. I rest my case.
- Cold calls. On average we’re getting two a day, but we’ve had up to five. My technique is to say “Mrs PJ Sampson? No, she died last year” and hang up during their mealy-mouthed apology. Sampson’s is to say “Wait a minute, I’ll get her…” and leave the phone off the hook.
- Foggy. Weather. Head. Did I mention the dark?
By the end of the month, the debilitating decline in my health was halted. Thankfully, I seem to have acclimatised enough to be coping a bit better.
In an effort to escape the quicksand of comfort (sinking beneath excess flab, excess word count) and to cheat the somnambulance creeping up on me, I am pushing myself out to catch up with long-lost friends and relatives whenever possible around homeschooling. Thanks to all our generous mates and family who have been treating us to meals out and other gifts during visits: Fairy Godmother Justine, Uncle Spence, Uncle Paul and Fran, Barbara, Barbs, Earthgoddess Lara, Darren and Kate, Chris and Andy, Aaron and Joe.
In November, I was lucky enough to be invited to the National Carnival Conference in Luton at the UK Centre for Carnival Arts, a spectacular purpose-built space that I covet shamelessly for eMzantsi. I also attended a celebratory dinner in Oxford – but more of that anon.
On one of the three National Express coaches up to Luton, there was a screen at the front showing live GoPro footage of the road ahead. Its reflection in the window to my left had us driving on the right, and I found myself staring at that because it made me feel calmer, happier, in the right place. It made me feel like I was travelling in the truck.
Please take me back to where parking is free.
On 12th November the human race managed to land a comet on a planet 300 million miles away. On 13th November MSF Ebola vaccine trials started. It’s gotta be a good omen.
News from our man in Monrovia, that lovely feller Sean Pike at the SA Embassy, is not so cheery. The truck is fine, but the borders on all sides are still shut for the foreseeable future (Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Senegal and even Mali to Mauritania so there’s no way round). We’ve put our return flight dates back once again.
With a heavy heart, we have decided that it is in Ruby’s best interests to return to South Africa and start high school with her peers in January. She’ll live with my parents for the first term, and we’re praying we’ll have got the truck back on the road by Easter. On verra…
 Look it up non-Saffas http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Category:South_African_English How I love Wikipedia – contribute to their fundraiser now!