Never mind minorities, what about the half?

It’s a routine introduction from the announcer, except for the words:

‘… all-male final …’

I’m about to watch University Challenge.

It’s the final final. There’s been a blizzard of quarters and semis – felt like the fractions had mutated out of control, aiming for world domination.

But, all-male?

‘I bet,’ says I, ‘one team’s from an Oxbridge college* that used to be women-only.’

It is.

Somerville College, Oxford, until 1994 female-only, has reached the final with an all-male team.

The other team?

All-male, from mixed – but formerly all-male – Trinity College Cambridge.

Oxford has been on my mind.

I recently re-connected with a friend from my student days – days spent in the comforting bosom of my single-sex alma mater, St Hilda’s College, Oxford.

We re-met thanks to social media.

Like me, she was commenting on the fact that St Hilda’s – the last of Oxford’s five formerly women’s colleges to admit men (in 2008) had just announced the appointment of a new principal.

A man.

Lord Duff.

(Unfortunate name, that, Duff.)

Most of us were pretty unimpressed by the college telling us first on Facebook.

The page developed the jitters as a stream of new – mostly unfavourable – comments sprang up.

A few axe-grinders lauded the choice because he’s a scientist.

But the bit that had us gnashing our teeth came in the last line of the announcement.

[I paraphrase]

‘Oh, by the way,’ (spoonful of sugar), ‘Lord Duff’s wife, Lady Duff, is one of our old gels.’

Lady Duff?

Is she not worth a little more? Like her own name? Her own job?

Or was she, perhaps, just a qualification for the appointment?

‘Applicants must have a St Hilda’s gel in their close family in order to be considered for this important role.’

Hmm.

A few comments down the thread, came the inevitable …

‘Never mind women, what about minorities? Where are the college heads of Indian, Inuit or Bushman extraction?’ (I made up the last two, I confess.)

Now, I’m all for fair treatment of minorities.

I don’t even like calling ‘them’ minorities, they’re just people who should be treated fairly.

But while the world still doesn’t treat roughly half its population fairly, or pay them equally – and turns a blind eye to aborting of female foetuses – I think there’s room for concentrating on us. The ‘other’ half.

I listened to a radio reporter in India, this week, trying out an all female carriage on the Delhi underground. Is it a woman’s right, she asked, to be segregated?

Isn’t that interesting?

We become agitated about women being excluded from religious and networking organisations – so isn’t this tantamount to having our cake and eating it?

Not really. The alternative is groping and harassment. If the men can’t behave, then it’s definitely a woman’s right to keep them at arm’s length.

Which is not why I was involved in the campaign to keep St Hilda’s all-female.

I have nothing against mixed colleges, I just enjoyed the comfort and security of my all-female college life. (And believe me, my social life was not constrained by segregation in our sleeping and breakfasting arrangements.)

But for some young women, it wasn’t a luxury, a choice, or a preference for single-sex bathrooms, it was the only way they could brave the system, whether for religious or purely personal reasons.

The end of this last all-female Oxford enclave came about for many reasons, not least our gender’s tendency to work behind not with power. But it was – irony of ironies – an unfortunate side-effect of equal opportunity legislation that set the college on course for admitting men.

Candidates applying for university-funded posts at St Hilda’s had also to be offered the option to be based at a mixed college.

Now, St Hilda’s has a picturesque setting on a bend in the Cherwell River, a tennis court, a meadow. But Sir Christopher Wren had no hand in her buildings.

Why would good candidates, faced with a name that has stood for centuries, a historic founder like Cardinal Wolsey, instead choose an establishment set up in the 19th century by Miss Beale (the one who, with Miss Buss, ‘Cupid’s dart could not feel’)?

The college could not raise enough money to fund posts and scholarships itself and thus avoid seeing the talent opt for other, more prestigious colleges.

We just didn’t have enough rich old gels.

Or rich old husbands.

Think that’s not fair? Well, the university’s been around in one form or another since at least the 12th century, but it wasn’t until 1920 that women were able to claim a degree, even if they had studied for one. Not till the 1950s that the women’s colleges were given equal status with the men’s.

So, perhaps it was too soon to expect our graduates to be able stump up millions, like the young men who’d been churned, over the centuries, from medieval establishments into the establishment?

And mixing has brought its rewards. The proportion of male to female students is not far off 50/50 now. But the work for women is far from done. When Lord Duff takes up his post there will be only nine female heads among the 38 college leaders.

And in 2012 only 20% of professors were female – though that was up from 18% in 2011.

Some statistics suggest that it’s not that women can’t make it, nor that it’s discrimination that holds them back, but that they don’t always try. Women competing for professorships, for example, enjoy a greater success rate. If they apply.

Where women live while they’re at college may be irrelevant, not make a jot of difference. (So why does Cambridge still have women-only colleges I wonder?)

But young women still need to learn that not only can they aspire, they can succeed – even amid the daunting dreaming spires.

Which is why I’m disappointed.

A once all-female college fields an all-male team in a highly visible TV programme.

Another appoints a man as its head only six years after it went mixed.

What does that say to girls?

And, forgive me Lady Duff, for asking, but who are you?

The woman behind a good man, perhaps?

I trust so.

 

*Oxbridge is a shorthand term for Oxford and Cambridge universities. Both universities are collegiate. Many people are confused by the collegiate structure, I didn’t want to get into that here – but if you are interested there are many good explanations online, such as Wikipedia’s.

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Of blue pens and high hopes

The village high street’s heaving and the wine bar’s been full a good while now.

But it’s not yet ten o’clock.

In the morning.

A pudgy coach rolls its girth down the road, huffs and puffs into a parking place outside the packed venue – and waits.

The chill, dankness of morning has not yet evaporated, but the sun is there, somewhere. You can feel it struggling to break through the mist. And the air is tinted a little more lemon, now, than ash.

The rival bookies’ doors are winking at the world. Inviting, alluring – tempting.

‘Come in, come in! Take a punt, it won’t take long. You know you want to…’

A man steps out of his car and hesitates.

Crosses the threshold.

Takes a free pen. Opens his wallet.

Leaves before he can spend any more.

Midget blue biros lie in the gutter, symbols of dashed hopes – or dreams come true.

Not many of those yet, I’d guess, the dreams come true.

Any time now be-suited men in shiny shoes will straggle out from the wine bar and onto the street.

Standing in a gaggle they’ll twitch their shoulders, trussed up as they are in their grey or black straitjackets. Shifting from foot to foot like toddlers who needs the potty. Having a last smoke before they’re stuck in yet another public place where they can’t.

Women on heels like instruments of torture, hair in up-dos under frothy fascinators, will teeter off to climb on the bus. Bare, girly arms prickling with goosebumps, shoestring straps slipping off cold shoulders under ineffectual shrugs and shawls.

And loving it. Despite the weather that promised so much earlier in the week and delivered this damp coastal blanket.

Round here anyone with an eye on the world and an ounce of sense is leaving the car at home for the next few days. Let the train take the strain, it’s Aintree time again.

But the rest of the world awaits the one big day, the Grand National. Then the doors of the bookies stand open, unaccustomed gamblers clogging the surfaces as they try to work out how to place a bet. Incongruous as women in the Freemasons – or some antediluvian golf clubs.

It’s not comfortable, in there, if you’re an outsider. It has a language of its own, betting on the gee-gees. I can’t even understand the odds. Just about grasped the concept of each way. But trifectas, boxed bets and Burlington Bertie? The bizarre silence of the mad, arm-waving tic-tac? Too much. Though I can see the appeal.

There are those who decry the cruelty of the big race, the whips, the broken ankles, humane shots in the head despatching ruined horses. There are those who sneer at the Scousers having fun. And those who simply ignore it. But round here you can’t. And why would you?

I’m jealous, really. I’d like to be in a party, heading for that wonderful belt of green. That throng of excited people, those pretty dresses and crisp white shirts. The tang of a pint of bitter, the tingle of a glass of fizz. The aroma of chips and grass and horse sweat – and spring in the air.

But I’m back in my little office, watching the robin darting in and out of the garden, the wood pigeon waddling around after the seeds dropped from the fat ball, the chaffinches and coal tits – and bumble bees pollinating our new pear trees.

Sierra Exif JPEGAnd there are bright yellow daffodils making up for the absent sun, trees bursting with buds gradually greening the outside world.

Besides, I don’t have a fascinator – or a shoestring-strapped dress.

And you know, it really is quite cold out there.

 

Sierra Exif JPEG

 

Posted in Going out - and having fun?, Lancashire and the golf coast, Liverpool | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An un-diplomatic incident, a dead motor & a perilously pregnant woman

The men who go for water don’t make it back till after dark.

My ‘kitchen’ – the back of their vehicle – is covered in bits of charcoal and running with water. But never mind. I rustle up another macaroni cheese and no-one complains.

But the wine that’s been flowing from the box all week, keeping the frail social bonds tolerable, is in danger of running dry. With excellent timing Rosie and I just happen to have a mission to accomplish at the museum next day. We make a plan – we’ll go exploratory shopping.

Bars in Mbala sell odd things – like frozen Russian sausage. And beer, of course. But there’s not a drop of red wine in town.

It feels like a punishment for mocking the late Betty Clark, archaeological illustrator and wife of celebrated archaeologist Desmond Clark who first excavated the Kalambo Falls site in the 1950s. She famously complained that she wasn’t able to obtain the right kind of white wine locally.

Now we’re moaning because we can’t find a box – or a bottle – of red. Any red would do. My, how standards have slipped!

Rosie goes back to dig after lunch, I wash the dishes and start preparing dinner.
I stop my chopping when I hear the sound of a vehicle approaching. The first I’ve heard all week.

Germans. They park where I cook with the mbaula. Pitch a large tent slap bang in front of our view of the gorge.

Watching the sun sink down to Lake Tanganyika through the gorge over the gorge below the waterfall, from campsite

Watching the sun sink down to Lake Tanganyika through the gorge below the waterfall, viewed from campsite

I rush to make the fire, just in case they colonise that area too.

[Beach towels and package holidays spring to mind.]

Deputy caretaker, Abram, approaches to tell them about the site and take the camping fee. I see him filling in the form with registration details.

He returns, sits on one of our benches looking dejected.

I get on with my cooking. The semi-frozen sausage (yes we bought some) takes forever to cook on the dying embers of the mbaula. I cook cabbage, make a spicy tomato sauce for the potatoes – a bodged patatas bravas.

A kind student tells me he’d have paid good money for it. A compliment at last.

We all turn in very early. The wine has now completely petered out – and with it the pretence of conviviality.

CNV00007

Caretaker on left, Abram in middle with ‘brother’

Next morning, after the Germans leave, I notice the caretaker, deputy caretaker and our two Zambian colleagues are sitting in a grim-faced huddle.

Turns out the man – a diplomat at the German embassy in Dar es Salaam, refused to pay the fee.

Five dollars a head.

Said the facilities weren’t good enough.

Here, miles from anywhere, where there’s no electricity and no plumbing.

I’m angry on Abram’s behalf – he‘s recorded the visitors, there will be queries about where the money’s gone.

We can sort that out, have spare dollars, but – well I’m just angry.

As it’s the last day I head for the site after breakfast, snap some pictures. The river’s looking beautiful, the kids as noisy and playful as ever.

A woman's work is never done - washing, washing and more washing

A woman’s work is never done – washing, washing and more washing

 

Anthro-man also washing - stone tools

Anthro-man also washing – stone tools

Geographers taking pollen samples and two local helpers

Geographers taking pollen samples and two local helpers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Various experts at work on the banks of the Kalambo River

Various experts at work on the banks of the Kalambo River

Japanese dating specialist taking samples watched by Anthro-man, Collins in background (green & blue duffel bag is one of our Isles of Scilly sailcloth Ratbags btw)

Japanese dating specialist taking samples watched by Anthro-man, Collins in background (green & blue duffel bag is one of our Isles of Scilly sailcloth Ratbags btw)

Tim excavating a Middle Stone Age layer

Tim excavating a Middle Stone Age layer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Victor holding a 400,000 year old cleaver he has discovered

Victor holding a 400,000 year old cleaver he has discovered

Victor pointing to where the cleaver was found

Victor pointing to where the cleaver was found

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But then there’s one last meal to cook.

I’ve kept a treat in reserve. Tins of condensed milk, boiled for an age to make dulce de leche, accompanied by baked bananas.

The treat meets a rather subdued reception – but I’m used to that now.

Not much longer.

On our last morning I pack up while Anthro-man makes eggy bread with the last of the eggs and bread.

Everyone compliments him on a wonderful breakfast.

Bitter, moi?

Nah.

Resigned.

No, honestly.

But it’s been a disappointment, I must admit. Usually on digs, after a day or so of ups and downs, camaraderie kicks in. Something, this time, just hasn’t gelled. And I blame myself – naturally.

But it’s nearly over.

The experts in the leather-upholstered white vehicle make to leave first, but their engine’s flat. Could it be that sitting in it every night reading and writing notes (and shaving) has drained the battery?

It’s an automatic, won’t respond to a hill start. Frowns break out. The mechanically minded manage to swap in a battery from one of the older vehicles. It works. So now there’s just the old one to start.

Aberystwyth man (a skilled washer of dishes and all-round helpful type) is confident. The strongest push the heavy vehicle up our little hill and he lifts the clutch as it rolls down.

Ka-chug. With a cough it starts. And keeps on going.

But a man’s in our way, waving distractedly. He points to a figure squatting on a rock in the bushes. A woman, whose baby is showing signs of popping out any minute, must get to the hospital.

We leave. Bump our slow way up the path.

I wave goodbye to Custard, resplendent in yellow overalls, digging beside the track.

Despite the lurching and swaying of the vehicle, the woman makes it to the hospital.

And we make it to the Great – never so welcome – North Road.

Hours later we arrive at Mutinondo Wilderness and sleep wherever we can find space.

view from rock art sites 6

Looking across miombo woodland from one of Mutinondo’s rock art sites

In the morning I’m looking forward to waving the crew goodbye and being alone at last when the Japanese woman shows me her spots. She’s unwell, really unwell. Lari, co-owner of Mutinondo, tells the driver of her vehicle where the mission hospitals are en route and we send her off with a last consignment of anxiety.

Dragging a chair out onto the sunny rocks I prepare to lounge.

That’s when I see the snake.

You know, I just want to go home.

A dambo - a kind of basin that holds water in the wet season - at Mutinondo (picture taken in wet season)

A dambo – a kind of basin that holds water in the wet season – at Mutinondo (picture taken in wet season)

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In which bravery is rewarded with a carrot, but not a pear

It rained in the night.

What is it about us?

This is August, the southern hemisphere’s winter, the dry season.

It seems wherever we venture in the Northern Province we act as rain-bringers. Last time it was at a rock shelter with painted walls. We went in, came out, it rained.  It was, we learned later, a traditional rain-making site.

Spooky.

Here, there are no rock shelters, just dry, leafy ground and a few trees.

Our tent is pitched on a small incline, heads up, feet down – and a stream flowed under us last night. Our trusty, carry-all ‘Ratbags’ were sitting under the flap at the front. On the ground. The wet ground. Now we have damp sailcloth – and damp clothes.

I turn the bags upside down and leave them in the weak early sun to dry as the day grows warm.

When I go to make tea I see we’re running out of water. What with cooking, dish-washing and diluting our orange Mazoe – plus everyone using it, of course, to fill their water bottles.

Rude Man, naturally, balks at using the pan to fill his drinking container. Perhaps he doesn’t understand why he shouldn’t just dip the bottle – hell, why not his hand? – in the water.

I say nothing, just watch.

But what to do about the water?

Fill the barrel from the river, add nasty water purifying tablets, hope for the best?

No, not yet that desperate.

Our two Zambian colleagues volunteer to go to town to fill the barrel from the communal tap. They’ll buy more charcoal too. But their vehicle just happens to be the one I’m using as my kitchen.

Everyone else heads off to dig, or sample, or survey – or whatever activity his or her particular expertise demands.

Experts (and one enthusiastic little amateur) at work, with the usual audience, in and around the Kalambo River

I set my body-motor to resigned/automatic. Trudge to and fro with tins, plates, cutlery, tea bags, onions, coffee, oranges, potatoes and so on – and so on.

I stack them on the ‘table’ in the thatched shelter.

Then I decide to bathe.

There’ve been complaints about me going down to do my ablutions with Anthro-man at the end of the digging day. They think I should be going with the other two women, to save daylight-bathing time.

So I’m taking my vertigo in both hands, forcing myself to go it alone – while they’re gone and the caretaker’s watching the camp.

I tread carefully, one step at a time, down to the waterfall’s lip. Edge nervously along the bit nearest the fall itself, where the water swirls with that enticing ‘follow me’ rhythm.

I strip off, dip into the pool of cold water, dunk my head beneath the surface, lift it in a panic. Last night the soap floated away, right over the falls. It’s not a good thought.

That's where the soap went

That’s where the soap went

By the time I return the caretaker’s gone. And the first children are arriving.

How do they know I’m here and alone?

I slide into our tent, stow my night clothes under the sleeping bag and crawl out again with my notebook.

Morning sun on the dining room looking from our tent towards the gorge into which the River Kalambo falls on its journey to Lake Tanganyika

A small crowd’s gathering by the replacement kitchen. A bench outside is already full of little boys.

A man and woman, she with breasts uncovered, peer at our provisions.  Inquisitive, their hands reach into the shady thatched shelter. I realise I’m going to have to sit there.

The thatched 'kitchen replacement', the bench at the back where the little boys sat, the blue water barrel and last night's fire (that's Victor's tent not ours btw)

The thatched ‘kitchen replacement’, the bench at the back where the little boys sat and last night’s fire (the tent’s not ours, btw, and the nice white vehicle at the front is the newly arrived experts’ rather luxy chariot)

I drag myself over, perch on the one empty, hard bench, against the wall, inside, out of the warming sun. The day starts cool here – and my hair’s wet.

The woman’s red-rimmed eyes are a blurry grey where they should be white. I take the charitable view that she’s not well, but he has definitely been at the beer this morning. I’m guessing it’s Saturday, given the presence of so many school-age children.

It’s like a weird reality show. I’m sitting in a box, a rather dishevelled presenter, but it’s three dimensional. I’m on view all round.

The couple’s still here, grinning.

They ask for water, I refuse. Part of me doesn’t want to leave my sanctuary. Part of me’s worried about when we’ll have more water. Part of me just doesn’t want to encourage them – or the others. I know, it’s awful, I‘m ashamed.

Eventually some of the spectators weary of my inactivity and leave.

A few boys remain – and soon become bolder, braver.

Little faces appear at the gaps in the walls and stare at me.

They’re so cute I can’t help but smile. They scurry back to their bench.

It’s not long before they return.

One of the taller ones reaches over and points.

‘What is this?’

‘Ah, you speak English?’

He nods a shy nod.

‘It’s a carrot.’

‘Ooooooh! Carrottee!’

It’s as if I’ve performed a miracle. An excited chatter ripples around the little gang. Their eyes light up. They stare at me with something less like fear and more like wonder.

‘Can I take this carrottee to show my teacher?’ asks my little friend.

Of course he can.

They go back to sit on the bench, swinging their legs, murmuring, passing the carrot around. Eyeing me most of the time, as if by keeping an eye on me they will stop me from biting.

The head-boy comes back and points at a pear.

Not such an ‘ooh’ this time, but still the fascination.

I let him hold the pear, but take it back.

We only have four and fruit is precious. I know – precious for a bunch of healthy, ungrateful westerners?

But at least he’s seen a pear. That boy is going places. I talk to him as much as I can – his English isn’t bad but he’s young, his vocabulary limited. He tries to tell me more, frustrated I don’t understand his language.

As morning wears on I’d like to pee but can’t leave my post – or feel I can’t.

Just as I’m worrying about lunch, about opening the vehicle with the bread in the back, a man on a bike rides up, wearing Dunlops (Wellingtons to us Brits).

This is Abram making a handle for one of the (then) PhD students as part of  an experimental archaeology project on use-wear on stone tools and binding and hafting

This is Abram making a handle for one of the (then) PhD students to use in his research into use-wear on hafted stone tools

‘Abram!’ I greet the deputy caretaker with relief.

On the back of his bike is a yellow container of water. He offers me some. I drink it neat.

Have you heard songs of sweet water?

Believe me, they’re true. I’ve never tasted such water.

It comes from a spring. Abram says he’ll fetch more if we need it.

He looks around, asks where the caretaker is. I shrug.

He’s angry, the caretaker left me here alone. But I’m no longer worried.

Abram is here.

Praise the Lord.

I have been released.

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Naked bathers, stone tools, the eleventh tuna sandwich and the last straw

Rising with the sun I slide out of our tent feet first, past the sailcloth ‘Ratbags’ containing all our (present) worldly goods.

Sierra Exif JPEG

The thatched area is for sitting or food preparation – it has a stone table in the middle and bench seats which are part of the wall all around.The bathing area at the top of the falls is down a steep flight of steps just beyond it

At the far end of the campsite stand three women, calling at us.

They lapse into silence and stare at me. I’m tired, stressed (I know, I should try yoga) and – I’m sorry to say – irritated. I wish they’d go and look at something – or someone – else.

I’m stomping around thinking how best to get breakfast started when Collins tells me what the women want.

Had I noticed they were carrying pumpkins on their heads?

Um, sort of.

They’re for sale. If we buy one or more it’ll save them carrying them down to the harbour on Lake Tanganyika, some distance away.

Shame on me. I buy them all. The delighted women leave, laughing like the three little maids from school.

Things are perking up.

We rekindle the fire from last night’s smoking embers. I take the pan I’ve put on the lid of the water barrel for scooping out water, pour some into the new kettle-cum-teapot and set it to boil.

A nice Japanese woman, who’s doing something scientific that involves grains of quartz and light (thermo-luminescence dating) asks how many teabags I want taking out of the box. She thinks, rightly, they should be rationed.

‘Ten or so?’

She looks surprised.

A while later, when the porridge is ready, I go to make myself a cup of tea.

Tabs from ten teabags dangle from the kettle.

No wonder she looked surprised. She thought we were making it in the pot.

It’s a strong brew, worthy of Yorkshire.

The coffee drinkers shrug and take their coffee with added tea this once.

Dishes done, the gang troops through the burnt grass (it promotes new spring growth) to the nearest village.

We start by visiting the head man. He emerges from his grass and mud hut, chickens running around his legs. Thin, wiry, wearing a stripy t-shirt and ragged trousers, his smile is welcoming. We offer a few small gifts and make for the river.

A giggle of children dances behind us as we follow the riverbank to the location Anthro-man has pinpointed for excavation.

People making bricks, piling them to dry in the sun, look up, curious, but don’t stop.

In the river, semi-naked women are washing clothes – and themselves – totally unperturbed by our presence.

Children splash and play in the water, diving down to bring up the most amazing stone tools I’ve ever seen.CNV00025

Not from the river bed this is one they dug up

Beautiful 400,000 year old handaxe – not from the river bed this is one they dug up

Apologies for the quality - a scanned hard copy of a printed photo

Apologies for the quality – a scanned copy of a printed photo

I wait a while, watching, till they’ve started preparing the ground, but then it’s time for me to head back. Lunch to prepare.

The caretaker’s still at the site and it’s not till after lunch that I realise I’m going to be stuck here, day in, day out. Because he leaves. Leaves all our tents, all our belongings, our vehicles, unattended.

I am shackled to the site.

Sierra Exif JPEG

Would you call it a retro style kitchen? The counter has seen better (more hygienic) days

It gives me time to think what to make for dinner, to check my stocks and arrange a ‘kitchen’ in the back of the most accessible vehicle.

By mid afternoon I discover the first flaw in my planning.

I’d intended to use the lid of the plastic bin as chopping board. It’s concave when it’s on the bin. I turn it the other way up, chop my onions on the inside and turn to find the garlic. Ping! It pops back into shape. Onion shards everywhere.

Sigh.

As the diggers return it’s time to get the mbaula going. Anthro-man lights it and I stand swinging it – until it cracks my shin and showers me with charcoal embers when I stop paying attention.

It’s turning into that kind of day.

I serve up macaroni cheese, and tomatoes. It seems to go down well, but I can see our Zambian colleagues aren’t too impressed.

Next day they hatch a plan to give us all chicken and nsima for lunch. We’ve brought a big bag of maize meal to make it, a big pan and a big wooden implement for stirring it.

The deal was that the Zambian men would cook their own nsima – it’s not something I can do. But they don’t. The caretaker is going to do it – or I think that’s what’s happening.

Nothing is clear to me.

By the time they’re due back from the site I’m still not sure what’s happening or when – and make sandwiches anyway.

The nsima and chicken are ready, it seems. It goes down so-so. I pick at a wing with next to no meat on it.

It feels like rivalry on the kitchen front – and I can’t work out how to deal with it.

But it’s more than that – something’s going wrong.

Another day and the rest of the team has arrived, the stools have arrived. But the atmosphere hasn’t improved.

Three people who were students together are forming a close clique.

The two Zambians are heads-together talking politics – always fascinating, but I haven’t the time or energy to try and join in.

Three of the experts on the team put themselves out to help me – but one is downright rude and another simply unaware.

Things begin to fray.

Not everyone likes everything.

And no-one likes me doling out the food.

Next day Rude One pushes me to the end of my tether.

I’m carefully apportioning the canned tuna that I’ve eked out with other things to make 11 sandwiches (our one vegetarian’s having peanut butter.) Rude One watches me spoon it out. As I’m about to put on the second slices of precious bread, he speaks.

‘I’d rather have peanut butter, I’ll make my own.’

That night portion control becomes an issue. People want to serve themselves.

I put the two pans of sweet potato, coconut and soya chunk (it has the texture of chicken) stew by the pile of tin plates and leave them to it.

I hold back till last, along with Anthro-Man and an expert from Aberystwyth.

Everyone else is sitting around the fire eating. In their cliques.

And they’ve eaten it all. Sauce is all that’s left.

Fuming, weary, close to tears, I raid the precious bread supply.

The others see us, dart pointed looks at me, but I don’t care. No bread for them – they’ve already eaten.

I sit down on my three-legged stool and it tips me backwards, onto the ground. Someone starts to laugh. I start to cry and bend my head to hide it. Only Anthro-man and the other bread-winner notice.

I’m not enjoying this.

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An historic surrender, the last flushing loo and Custard with charcoal

November 1918. The end of the war to end all wars.

Would that it had been so.

We’re heading to Mbala.

In 1918 Mbala was called Abercorn.

The town was – is – close to the border between Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and German East Africa (now Tanzania).

Livingstone was the first white man in town, in the 1860s, but Abercorn quickly became a strategic outpost for imperial Britain, sitting as it did on the northern edge of her southern African territories.

The Great War, the first to be named a World War, was fought even in remotest Africa. But news travelled less quickly in 1918.

The Armistice in Germany was signed on the eleventh day at the eleventh hour of the eleventh month, a time remembered in silence still today.

German forces near Abercorn, though, remained undefeated – and unaware.

By November 25th the news had arrived. The colonial Germans dutifully surrendered, in Abercorn. There’s a small memorial – and a gun (well, something military) on a roundabout.

Modern Mbala’s an odd place. Quiet, despite its proximity to international borders – not just along the road, but across Lake Tanganyika, where ferries sail to the Congo from the port of Mpulungu.

Today, on this national holiday, there’s not a drop of paraffin to be bought in Mbala.

What’s more, there’s been no charcoal for sale on the road into town – and that’s a mite concerning.

I confess, it's not the Great North Road but another of the Greats - it's the only picture I have of charcoal vending though and the quality's even worse than my usual  standard because it's taken from a moving vehicle, sorry

I confess, it’s not the Great North Road but another of the Greats – it’s the only picture I have of charcoal vending though and the quality’s even worse than my usual standard because it’s taken from a moving vehicle, sorry

Because here charcoal’s not just a ‘let’s have a barbie’ luxury, it’s essential for everyday cooking. It’s a vital rural resource – and one reason so many trees are vanishing from the landscape.

The Great North Road is usually dotted with stands of huge sacks, chock-full with black chunks, waiting to be bought.

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Just to prove this was taken from a moving vehicle I decided not to crop it. This man, cycling on the wrong side of the road (normal), has a medium sized load of charcoal and very strong legs!

Men wobble around bearing perilous loads on the back of their sturdy bikes.

Today we kept on driving, waiting to buy till we were nearer our destination.

So now we’re charcoal-less.

And we’re onion-, pumpkin-, orange- and cabbage-less.

Because we haven’t passed a single stall selling vegetables.

Not even tomatoes.

With relief we discover Mbala’s market, a few hardy traders braving this serious holiday.

There’s an unusual selection of produce, including pears. And carrots.

But no pumpkins.

So I won’t be cooking slices wrapped in foil, with tomato and a bit of  butter, on the ashes of our fire.

Even if we find wood.

Even if we buy charcoal.

The paraffin situation could have been serious too, but – hooray – an Indian grocery is open on the main street.

There we stock up on candles.

And, on reflection, more candles. Pale Chinese candles that will sputter and drip by night and bend in the heat of the day. Looking flaccid and somewhat obscene. Sorry, but they do.

And finally, for now, something so essential we can’t go without it.

Drinking water.

At a communal tap we fill our barrel to the brim. Heave it into the back of the least full of our three vehicles.

I lapse into a worried silence as we bump and jolt our way past the jail, along the track to Moto Moto Museum.

Sandwiches, if the worst comes to the worst, that’s what we’ll have tonight.

The prison’s a dire warning to the lawless. In a bare compound surrounded by barbed wire, each convict has the equivalent of a small, corrugated metal garden hut. Baking by day, freezing by night.

Curly-tailed dogs follow our dust to the museum – a white-painted gem, founded by a Jesuit. Inside is a full scale village scene, artefacts from Kalambo, pickled snakes, a treasure trove of a gift shop – and the flushing loo.

We’re greeted by an old friend, Nkole. He’s had stools made for us to sit around our camp fire. But, it’s the wrong kind of wood, he’s sending them back.

What’s that? You’re wondering why we can’t sit on the ground?

It’s no fun, at night, trust me – never mind the discomfort, think scorpions and other nasty nippers.

Anyway, we’re offered two benches from the museum. These we strap to the vehicle roofs, alongside the jerry cans of diesel. There are still four more members of the team to arrive so we’ll have to come back for the new stools later.

Nkole assures us there’ll be charcoal nearer the site. I hope he’s right.

All too soon it’s time to depart. To pour water from the museum’s barrel into the loo cistern, flush it one last time. Who knows what our toilet arrangement will be at the Falls.

But – we have water, pears, carrots, candles. And the promise of charcoal.

The turning’s not too far out of town, past a lake, just where the tarmac gives way to dirt. Yes, that’s the main road into Tanzania.

We leave it and head down.

There are things you can trust guide books for, things you can’t. Trouble is, you don’t know which is which till you’ve tried it. Fortunately we’ve been here before.

The Bradt guide book says you don’t need a four by four. I beg to differ.

The water barrel sloshes, tips ominously as the vehicle jolts down each precipice of rock.

It’s as we reach a relatively smooth stretch of sandy ground that we spot the charcoal.

Anthro-man turns to me and mutters, ‘You’re in charge, go on, buy some’.

‘I don’t speak the language!’

Collins (who’s now the esteemed Director of the National Heritage Conservation Commission) jumps down to help.

It’s not his tribal area, but among the 70-odd languages of Zambia several are understood almost everywhere.

This area is Mambwe. I quickly learn the greeting.

‘Muli wuli’ I repeat.

‘Indiningo’ responds my teacher, with a laugh at my accent.

I ask him his name.

‘Custard.’

I wonder who chose that one? Did they mean to name him Custer? Ah well, it’s memorable.

Custard’s happy to sell us charcoal, but wants to put more in the bag. Collins agrees we’ll come back later and we settle on a price.

I’m about to open the passenger door but …  it’s the weekend.  Before I have a chance to re-embark the regulation drunk arrives. A friendly, inquisitive chap, he shakes my hand for an age.

When, finally, he lets go, I climb back on board with a sense of achievement.

Tonight we’ll have hot food.

After we set camp, that is. And that’s the next challenge.

Last time we came there were no facilities. Do we camp in the field near the river and sites? Dig pit latrines? Whose permission will we need?

But as we drive into the parking area by the falls we see them – ‘his’n’hers’ long drop loos.

We have a camp site.

No showers or running water, of course.

My reluctant, vertiginously handicapped knees soon discover where we’ll be bathing.

Down many, many steep steps.

At the lip of the second highest waterfall in Africa.Sierra Exif JPEG

An infinity pool of sorts. Especially if you slip.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERABeautiful?

Terrifying.

It’s going to be a long week.

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A spot of welding, a leopard and a mission

He’s looking worried.

It was meant to be an overnight stop – but there’s no way we’ll fit everything in and reach Kalambo in time to pitch camp by daylight.

We have to stay another night, but not at Thorn Tree. They have no room.

Plan B was always my favourite. There’s something reassuring about the Catholic  Mission outside town. With its grand old gardens and its fecund farm it exudes an air of calm that I suppose comes from the holy brothers. Though I’ve never actually seen any.

Our first stay there was ‘interesting’. Our twin-single-bedded room looked as if it had just been vacated by a teenage boy. In a chunky bungalow, a former family house,  it led off a huge sitting room, complete with sofa, armchairs – and a congealed-blood-coloured floor.

We shared a bathroom with a couple intent on making as much recreational use of the bed as possible. He must have had bronchitis, or been drinking while (euphemism alert) gasping for breath the amount of coughing he did.

And when I say ‘shared’ a bathroom, it was accessible from both our rooms but each of us could lock the other out. They did.

But the meals were good and there was beer available to order – always a bonus.

That was a few years ago – and now here we are again. Eight of us.

We check in and divvy up the rooms.

This time we  have a shower to ourselves. The shower head hangs forlorn, mended with rags. Water trickles down the wall instead of spraying. But it’s clean. Unless you count the fact that it’s come through those rags. No, don’t go there.

The day turns hot as we pick up our new colleague Victor from National Heritage. He volunteers to guide our shopping and we wander down to the centre of town, to a market of sorts. Buzzing with life, with colours and smells and sounds, it bakes in the full glare of the mid-morning sun.

We ponder our pan requirements as bright sparks fly from a welder and the clang of metal on metal reverberates through the dusty air. We’ll have to come back later – they’re being welded for us to our chosen size.

Never had pans made for me before – I have to assume Victor knows what he’s doing.

I’m on more comfortable ground with tin plates and cheap cutlery. Plastic bins for storage. Loo rolls. Soap. Tea towels.  Scrubbing pads for dishes. A kettle.

A water barrel that doesn’t smell too bad – and has a lid.

The list of ‘might needs’ keeps on growing.

Fill the mbaula with charcoal bought from roadside, light (just like that of course) and swing to and fro by the handle to get it going, then put on ground and cook

Fill the mbaula with charcoal bought from roadside, light (just like that of course) and swing to and fro by the handle to get it going, then put on ground and cook

Four more people are joining us at the Falls. I have to feed 12 people for seven days. Cooking over an open fire, or with charcoal on an mbaula. (Note to self: add one – no two – to the list.)

With no running water.

When you’re nearly three hours’ drive from the nearest town you don’t want to have to slip back for a few things you’ve forgotten. Like matches. Especially matches.

The supermarket’s a great big Shoprite, impressively well stocked. I decide to leave the 12 (or so) loaves till the next day, so it’s fresh,  but stock up on tins of tomatoes and beans, bags of dried soya chunks, rice, candles, UHT milk. Lentils. Paraffin lamps.

I buy matches, many matches. And a plastic box to put them in. You never know.

It’s been a while since I did this campsite cooking lark and I’m anxious. Want to buy the vegetables now but everyone agrees – there will be roadside markets on the way. Cheaper. Fresher.

We pick up our pans and head back to the mission, drop them and the water barrel off for a good wash. One of the pans has a very odd blackness across its base, as if it was engraved. I try not to think about what it might have been in another life.

At least the barrel’s not bad. The last one we had never lost its taste of oil – mechanical oil.

A quick (Zambian quick) sandwich and we’re on the road again, off to see the rock art.

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It’s always a climb for rock art – this is up on top of one of the hills

Our caravanserai slows to a stop by a small road near some big, rocky hills.

The Pied Piper would be redundant here – all you need is white folks and the children come running, materialise from seemingly nowhere. Rosie dispenses more balloons, I hand over sweets. Fruit sweets – that makes it all right, doesn’t it?

A young man arrives, also seemingly from nowhere. Turns out he’s a guide, an official guide.

Zambian rock art can be disappointing if you go expecting deep caves adorned with cavorting, Lascaux-style animals. A lot of it’s geometric – lines, circles, dots and so on.

Think Bridget Riley but (mostly) red.

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Here at Kasama, though, the hills are rich with art and one of the most celebrated pieces is a leopard. There are even some stick people. (Not to Lowry’s standard IMHO. But then, I do love Lowry – and I suppose there’s never been much call for bowler hats round here.)

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It seems Kasama has its own Banksy, too. Graffiti with a message. A religious one. If you know Handel’s Messiah well enough you’ll recognise the words from Isaiah painted expertly on the rock next to Tim. (Not by Tim, I hasten to add.)

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We’re all impressed – with the art, not the biblical verse – if a bit tired, what with all the clambering.

On the way back we manage a diversion via an old friend, Victor’s boss, then on to Victor’s. We meet his family, drink a welcome glass of Mazoe – the odd, slightly bitter and strangely addictive orange squash (that’s a dilutable drink, dear Americans, not a vegetable) that’s the staple ‘orange juice’ around rural parts.

Over dinner it turns out the mission’s supplies of alcohol have run out and in the absence of a miracle we resort to the box of red wine we’d stashed for our trip.

Several thirsty souls deplete it significantly. But we can buy some more tomorrow.

Except the shop’s not open.

It’s a national holiday.

Disaster!

But as we queue to take out cash from the one cash machine in town (a wonder it hasn’t run out already) something wonderful happens – Shoprite opens. Just later than usual.

Phew.

Soon we have 11 loaves of fresh, warm sliced bread stored in our plastic bin where they’re sweating nicely in the warmth.

And we have a new – smaller – box of wine.

There’s one last thing. Wooden spoons. We run through a market on the way out of town and pick up a few, passing Old Trafford – home of Manchester United – as we do. CNV00017And then we’re off.

I feel a mixture of emotions – but mostly fear. Have I got enough food? Will the site be OK? Will there be drunken partying locals with boom boxes there like there were last time? Where will we pee?

What if …

But there’s nothing I can do about it now. Just hope.

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