Friday, 27 April 2012

Talking Taxicab Therapy

It’s happened again. The curse of people with my day job struck at 9.36 this morning, when I was riding in the perfumed back seat of a minicab on my way to work.

Being a minister and being found out carries all sorts of risks.  I have had to change barbers and cab drivers. There is a certain stationery shop I can’t go into any more because the sweet woman who runs it wants to talk about her dead father’s soul. The fact that I don’t know where her father is, or what he’s doing, makes no difference.

Today I had travelled no further than the end of the street when the driver said, “Oh my God, Father—what am I going to do?”

I studied the back of the man’s head. I had no memory of having seen him before, but he spoke to me as if we were intimates. The trip to Crystal Palace takes about ten minutes.  I looked at my watch. Nine minutes to go.

“Sorry?” I said.

His girlfriend is drinking and earning £100,000 a year.  She’s a Hindu and he’s a Muslim.  She’s on anti-depressants.  She left him six years ago and married a Christian, then came back. She won’t take his calls, but turns up sobbing at his flat after midnight. Their sex life is great. He’s thirty years older than she is. He’s in hell. Plus, his voice is rising.

“That sounds painful,” I said. Four minutes to Crystal Palace.

“You have no idea.” Strangled sobs.  I made sure my seat belt was secure.

At two minutes till touchdown, I tried, “Why not leave her?”

“Because she’s so helpless.”

We pulled over near my office. I opened the door.  “Well, be strong,” I offered.

“That’s it!  Oh my God, Father, you’re right!  I must be strong.” He turned to face me, tears of gratitude coalescing in his lower lids. “I just knew you’d have the answer.”

One foot on the curb. “Eight pounds,” he said.

I should have said, “No charge, friend.  It’s on the house.”

But I didn’t.  It’s my job, right?

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Catching Alligators

Where I grew up in Florida, there were real, live alligators.

          You didn’t see them all that often, but we knew they were there.  Sometimes, while out fishing, you could catch a glimpse of those two little bumps gators have over their eyes, and maybe the swish of a large tail if you rowed too close.  You could hear them at night in the rural areas, making croaking songs of love for each other.

          One summer I was in a YMCA camp about forty miles from home.  I was eleven: too young to be brave about snakes and alligators and too old to admit it. There were gators in an area of swamp that we were technically forbidden to visit. But of course we did.  One boy had a near brush with one of the mainly somnolent big reptiles.  So that evening, Mr Parker came to our cabin.

          Mr Parker was the camp director. He was incredibly old—maybe fifty. We all liked him because he had a pet monkey that he would let us play with sometimes.  He sat on someone’s footlocker and talked to us about alligators. He started by asking if we were scared of them. A few hands crept upward. He stared silently at us until every boy had his hand in the air.

          “OK, boys,” he said. “I’m going to teach you how to catch an alligator. All you need is three items of equipment: a telescope, a matchbox and a pair of eyebrow tweezers.”

          The idea was that when you saw a gator, you were to turn the telescope around, making the beast look small.  Then you’d pick him up with the tweezers and put him in the matchbox before you could say, “Yippi-ky-ay-yippie!”

          We laughed politely, not wanting to forfeit monkey privileges.  We were wise enough to know that this was another one of those stories that grownups thought were good moral lessons for children.  This one about everything depending upon your point of view was OK, but not great.  We didn’t know what a metaphor was.  And, of course, we didn’t believe a word of it.

          I do now.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Guy Looks

          One of the reasons for having a blog of your own is that you can say what you like without having to run and hide. You anonymous readers do not know where I live, so I can get away with lots of stuff. That’s why today I’ve decided to debunk some myths about the superiority of women.

          You know that line about how men can’t multi-task, but women can? Let me sweep that aside straight away.  I CAN multi-task.  In fact, at this very moment, as I write, I am practising the ancient Japanese art of origami with my bare feet under the desk.

          Well, actually I’m not. But I’m pretty sure that if I applied myself, I could turn out plenty of paper swans and seabirds, and toe-flick them nonchalantly onto the carpet while disgorging reams of deathless prose into cyber-space.

There is one little problem for us men, however. It is sometimes referred to as the “guy look”. That’s when we men can’t seem to find things in the house, even though they are perfectly evident to our spouses. Like this:

“Darling, where have you put the new jar of mayonnaise?”

“It’s in the cupboard over the fridge.”

“No, it isn’t.” (said patiently)

“It’s right in front of your eyes.”

“No, it’s not.” (less patiently)

Deep sigh, heard all the way from the living room. She arrives, striding self-righteously, and picks up the jar of mayonnaise from beneath his eyes. Arched eyebrows form a look of triumph.

“Well, they’ve changed the jar.  The top used to be red, not blue.”

I have identified the problem. You may use the solution freely. We men do not so much look at things as scan them. We have a mental image of what a jar of mayonnaise looks like, and we discard all other objects as irrelevant.  This was probably useful when we were hunter-gatherers, looking for a juicy buffalo for dinner. When hunting like that, we probably wouldn’t have noticed a Volkswagen if it rolled past us on the steppes.

So let her find the mayonnaise.  We’ll get the buffaloes on the table.

Monday, 23 April 2012

How to Speak a Foreign Language

I just saw the statistics on this little blog of mine.  There’s a page that shows you a map of the world and highlights countries where you are being read.  And guess what.  I’ve got a viewer in Russia!
I wish I knew how to say “thank you” in Russian.  In fact, I wish I was a better linguist generally. I once studied Hindi for a few weeks in India. I can still count to five, and I think I remember that the taped course told me how to say, “Waiter, please take your finger out of my wine glass.”

I can find a toilet in France and ask the price of things in a whole lot of countries. But it’s dangerous to speak a little bit of another language.  I have a friend named Phred, who once told a group of Spanish peasant women that he had recently experienced an orgasm.  He was trying to say that he was tired.

I used to speak Swahili.  That’s a fact, though you wouldn’t believe it now. When I lived in Kenya it was essential, but it’s not all that useful in London. So, ni me sahao yote (I’ve forgotten it all). I do still speak Spanish. I learned to do that in a village in the mountains of The Dominican Republic where no one spoke a word of English.  The method was simple: learn or starve.  I recommend it.

When I first got there I was asked to say a few words to an assembled group of local farmers.  I went into a room with maybe a hundred hard-faced peasants, sitting with their hats in their laps. I had stayed up the night before, employing the “word for word” method.  It works like this: you take an English word and look up its equivalent in Spanish. Never mind grammar, syntax, colloquialisms and all that.  Put a big smile on your face and go for it.

I still marvel at the hospitality of those people, who sat without a twitch or a murmur or a guffaw, as I said, “Ladies and horses, I am very pregnant today.”

Monday, 16 April 2012

Trout Tickling

Have you ever tickled a trout? I have tried, but I’ve never caught one. Here’s how you do it. Lie on a flat stone in a trout stream and dangle your arms in the water. Try not to wriggle around, even though it’s probably cold, and don’t disturb the bottom if you can help it. At first, the water will be hard to see through. That’s because of all the reflected light on the surface, but after a while your eyes will adjust and you’ll be able to see quite clearly.

          The next part is tricky, because it involves a process of—to steal a phrase from the Buddhists—unlearning. All your life you have been learning to search for things, to maintain your vision in a state of tight focus. To tickle a trout you need to relax your eyes, let the emphasis on focus gently become a process of gazing, as you do when you let your eyes rest on the far distance. At first you won’t see anything much, but then, you’re not peering; you’re trying to see without effort. After a few moments, the landscape at the bottom of the stream will start to appear more clearly. Resist the urge to focus; just relax and wait.

          You will suddenly see a trout. The fish will be quite visible, but before that you will have seen nothing of it. Then others: you will note that dark-topped fish hug the shadows and hover above dark stones; light-hued fish will seek the bright sands. This is their strategy for hunting and for protection, a subtle camouflage that works on prey as well as predators. If you have been still, sooner or later a trout will actually nudge your hand, and if you are quick, you’ll have him. Just like that.

          Is this a metaphor, maybe about science and faith?

          You bet.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Culture and Coiffure

We were living in northern Kenya, at in a place called Arjiju, 14 km from the nearest outpost, in a house meant for the teacher of a school that was never built. Around us were the nkangs, or stockades, of Maasai families, and very little else.

It took months before we had the first approach from our neighbours. We could see small troops of warriors skirting the roads to avoid being seen by government police.  They sometimes carried assegai, spears, and this meant instant arrest.
           As we gradually got to know the people around us, one character stood out. His name was Desi. He was physically intimidating and very dangerous looking. I knew that Desi had been in and out of jail for such things as fighting, causing pregnancies among the wrong tribal groups, and escape, but his main crime was rustling the expensive sheep of the white ranchers who had all the good land enclosed behind fences.

One day I glimpsed him across the road, inside the rancher’s fence. He cornered a long-haired sheep and darted forward, catching it by two legs and heaving it over his shoulders.  He climbed the fence with the animal and set it down in the road.  I noticed that he seemed to be glancing in my direction.  I waved, but he ignored me.
           He shooed the sheep into a run, and when it was about fifty feet away, hurled his orinkaa, a traditional club, at the sheep with great force.  I imagined that I heard the animal’s ribs cracking as the heavy club—topped with the lug nut from a truck-- struck. The sheep dropped dead in his tracks.  With a long—I thought defiant—glance at me over his shoulder, he picked up the animal and disappeared.  I enjoy lamb chops, but I felt as if I had witnessed a murder.

One afternoon Desi was lounging on the grass where the school was meant to be with another neighbour, Letai. He was looking at me and pointing. I was trying to act casual, but got nervous when the two men approached me. Letai asked me, in the polite form of Swahili he used for communicating with palefaces, if I had a camera.
           In those days of film photography, a camera was a rare thing.  I had a Kodak Instamatic, and told him yes. He conferred with Desi for a moment, then asked if I would be willing to take his picture. I agreed happily. This seemed a chance to get friendly with these scary guys.

 Desi spoke to me for the first time. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.” He left at a trot, and I went inside to brag to my wife that I had made contact with the locals. I got out the camera, loaded a new roll of film and went back outside to wait.
            And wait.

An hour passed, then two. The sun was slipping toward the line of trees to the west.  Sundown at the Equator comes very suddenly, and I began to think Desi might miss his photo op. Finally, three hours after we made the arrangement, I saw him walking with great dignity toward the house. He was dressed in Maasai finery: red plaid sarong, leather and bead necklace and bracelets.  His hair was smeared with bright ochre mud, making a damp mat on his head, and he wore facial makeup that gave him incongruously doe-like eyes.  He had his assegai with him, too. He looked like a postcard.
           “Sorry I’m late,” said Desi, the terror of Arjiju, “I couldn’t do a thing with my hair.”

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

What I Wish I Had Said to Mary

My stepdaughter Mary was about six years old when she came to me holding a tiny object. She had been playing in the front yard and found what appeared to be a cut gemstone.

          She opened her fist slowly to reveal it.

         “Is it real?” she asked in a quavering voice.

           It looked to me like a badly made glass stone from a costume jewellery ring. I held it as solemnly as I could up to the light. I was stalling, because I didn’t know how to answer her. If I had said, “No, dear, it’s just glass,” I would have been telling the truth, something I place a fairly high value on. But then that look of childish wonder, poised on the razor’s edge between reality and fantasy, would disappear from her face. If I had told her the stone was real, on the other hand, I would have been setting her up for a fall later. That felt too much like betrayal. I couldn’t even say I didn’t know, because I did.
          I don’t remember what I said. It was probably one of those trick answers grownups use when they’re stumped. Something like, “It’s very pretty dear. Now go and help Mommy with the flowerbed. That’s a good girl.”
          Not long ago, I realised what I should have said. Too bad we don’t get a second chance, and by the time we are wiser the grownup children are making their own mistakes. Because it matters what we say to one another. It matters a lot.
          I could have said, “Look, I’ll tell you what. Bring me a little box, a matchbox, or something. You can colour it with your crayons and stick little stars on it. Then we’ll find some cotton and put the stone carefully inside. Then you take it and hide it somewhere safe, where only you know where it is. Next year at this time, we’ll open it, and then you’ll know whether it’s real or not.”
          That’s what I wish I’d said to Mary. Maybe that’s what I would like to say to myself. The thing to do when something comes along that might be important is not to get carried away, but not to explain it away, either. Put it somewhere safe, until the world has revolved enough times that I might be ready to understand what it is I’ve found.
          Because the truth doesn’t change. We do.

A version of this story appeared in my book, Seeing with Your Ears.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Forever Young

I have a nifty way of dealing with ageing: I don’t look in mirrors.
          I find that not seeing the ravages of time on my essentially youthful physiognomy enables me to live in a pleasant form of ignorance, though shaving is—I freely admit—a bit of a problem. The only danger lies in catching the occasional glimpse of an old guy in the reflection of a shop window, but I can usually manage to convince myself that it wasn’t actually me.

          I live in fear of being offered a seat on the bus.  So far, I have managed to avoid that by wearing an expression of malice as I travel from Crystal Palace to Croydon. Old ladies and children avoid me, and even dogs tend to sniff someone else’s trousers. But there is one bubble-pricking threat that cannot be avoided.
          When I lived in northern Kenya during the late eighties, my job was to get to know the scattered people of the Maasai who had been cut off from their fellows in Maasai Mara. My wife and I travelled on a Honda trail bike, negotiating such dangers as “black cotton” mud, sand and fist-sized gravel roads. We covered a lot of ground and met lots of people in remote areas.

          One important person we hadn’t managed to find was called Chief Henry Ole Taye.  He was the olaiguinini, or leader, of his age group of warriors. Every time we went in search of him, he had just left on his own motorcycle. He was reputed to be six foot seven, and several years into being an elder of the tribe.  In Maasai culture, as in much of Africa, the older you are, the better. Sort of the exact opposite of life in Britain.
          One day we were leaving the outpost of Dol Dol when I heard another motorcycle in the rutted road behind us. I was driving carefully, since my wife had threatened to leave me if I dumped both of us onto the ground again. After all, she said, I was forty-two—too old to play Evel Knievel in the African bush. The other motorcycle had no silencer and was making a noise like a giant chainsaw. I didn’t dare turn to look.  The rider began beeping his horn, its silly little noise just audible above the roars of two motors. Assuming he wanted to get by, I hugged the left bank, risking spilling us onto the dust.  But the horn kept up.  I gave up and pulled over.

          The other bike parked in front of us, and an enormous man disentangled himself from the motorcycle the way a circus clown does from his toy bike. He removed his helmet.  I knew at once that this was the legendary Chief Henry. He approached with hand outstretched, clasping his ceremonial club under his elbow.
          I took off my helmet. Chief Henry stopped and looked at me.

          “My goodness,” he said, grinning to reveal the ceremonial gap in his front teeth, “You ARE a very old man.”

          I heard my wife beginning to snigger.
          “Thank you,” I told him.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Wince Wave #1

You can see victims of the syndrome anywhere.  You are riding on a bus, say, and an ordinary-looking man across from you suddenly makes a grimace of pain.  This is probably not a heart attack, but a "wince wave”, something you have said or done whilst inattentive, bewitched or intoxicated, the memory of which will for the rest of your life cause you to cringe.

It’s not possible to give a fair account of your life without disclosing your wince waves. That means this is probably the first of many to follow in this blog.

           My wife and I had not been resident for long in a remote mountain village of the Sierra Nevada in southern Spain. Having visited in January of one year, we were bedazzled by the sight of almond trees in full, glorious blossom. Seeing them against the background of snow-covered mountain tops at the blue margins of the sky had been one reason we wanted to live there.

We bought a run-down house for about a month’s pay and moved in one September. Our Spanish was elementary, but, by carrying a phrase book with us and asking people to speak slowly, we could manage.  Our only acquaintance was the builder helping us make our house habitable, a man named Antonio.
           We had seen local farmers carrying full sacks of almonds on mule back to the road for collection by the cooperative, and I thought it might be nice to get some for ourselves. We asked Antonio.

“My friend Pepe has plenty,” he told us.  “Let’s go see.”
           We followed him up one of the winding streets to a house whose bolt-studded wooden door was left ajar to accommodate the back end of a mule. Pepe was filling a store room with unshelled almonds. He greeted us cheerfully in unintelligible Spanish. Antonio explained that we needed some almonds for the house.  Pepe smiled even more broadly and disappeared upstairs to return with a large plastic bag.

“I told him five kilos was OK,” Antonio said.
           Pepe began generously shovelling almonds into the bag. When it was full, I had an inspiration. We were new here, greenhorns from somewhere else who couldn’t speak the language. The guy was probably ripping us off.  Maybe there were only two or three kilos of almonds in the bag.

“More,” I said.
            Pepe obliged by starting another sack. When that was full, he looked at me inquiringly.  I was on a roll. I might be a foreigner, but my Mama didn’t raise no fool.

“More.  Keep going,” I said sternly.
            My wife was starting to twitch beside me. The third bag was nearly full when I signalled that I now believed we at last had our five kilos. He handed over the sacks, still smiling broadly.

“How much do we owe him?” I asked Antonio, expecting a laughable price.
           I got one.

“You don’t owe him anything,” Antonio said.  “It’s a gift”.”

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Sister Molefe Goes on Strike

I hate it when people in rich countries refer to the diets of poor countries as “staples”. It makes them sound like livestock or pet animals. Yes, if you don’t have much else around but, say, corn, you will wind up eating a lot of tortillas or maize porridge. But I have seen African kids devouring tacos and Mexicans loving their spaghetti.

Sister Molefe lived in a hut near the main road in the Botswana village of Mogoditshane. She had four children under the age of twelve. She made beautiful tapestries for sale by interweaving yarn with the plastic fibres of feed sacks. Like most women of that place she could happily walk along, chatting to friends, with a baby slung papoose-style on her back, knitting as she went, meanwhile balancing a watermelon on her head.
One day I stopped in for a visit and found her lying on some sheets of cardboard in her yard. She had slung a piece of cloth between four sticks driven into the ground for shade. When I greeted her in the usual way, she didn’t respond. She lay with closed eyes in the posture of a corpse. Her son Nsimane told me that she had been that way for two days, drinking water, but refusing to eat. I said we needed to get her to a doctor as soon as possible.
            “She’s not sick,” he said. “She’s angry.”

We went over to Sister’s prone form together. “Ask her what’s the matter,” I told Nsimane. He spoke a few words in Setswana and she replied curtly.
           “She says she wants rice,” he said. “She says she won’t eat any more mabele (sorghum), and she won’t eat mealy meal.”

             I prevented myself from pointing out that maize and sorghum were the staple crops of southern Africa. I enjoyed eating both, occasionally. Rice is a wetlands crop, not grown at all in Botswana, and therefore expensive.

“Tell her that if she does not eat she will get sick and maybe die,” I told Nsimane.
            “She knows,” he said.

Sister opened her eyes and looked at me “I want rice,” she said.
            Later that afternoon my wife and I went into the capital and bought a fifty-pound sack of white rice from the cash and carry. I felt foolish doing it.  As development workers, we were supposed to encourage local people and help them find solutions, if any, to their own poverty.  Not buy them bags of rice. I said as much to my wife, who just said, “Art, don’t be stupid.”

We delivered the rice.  Sister Molefe didn’t comment.  I admired her for that.  She was simply receiving her due. There was no sign of the grateful native receiving bounty from foreign philanthropists.
            A month or so later, I dropped by the rondavel.  Sister was entertaining a clutch of women and their babies. They were all laughing and healthy looking. I noticed that they had been sharing a pot of mabele porridge. I spoke to Nsimane.

“What happened to the rice?” I asked.
            Nsimane shrugged.  “She’s tired of rice. She just eats mabele now.”

Friday, 6 April 2012

Like a Hole in the Head

I was carrying a bundle of sticks, helping to put a grass roof on a chicken house in a Botswana village. I felt a sudden, sharp pain in my left eye and shouted out, dropping the bundle on the ground. With my right eye I thought I saw a shortish red snake slithering into the bush.
          The nearest doctor was in a Seventh Day Adventist compound. My wife, fearing I would collapse and die, dragged me there.  We waited the better part of an hour.  My eyelid was swollen, but I could see out of the eye. Reasoning that if I was going to die, I would already have done so, I stood up to leave.

          Just then the doctor appeared, a short man with bushy eyebrows. I was led into the treatment room and examined. The verdict was that I had been bitten, but probably would neither die nor go blind. He gave me a tetanus jab and an eye patch and told me not to rub it.
          “Is this the most unusual patient of the day?” my wife asked.

          “Not unusual at all,” the doctor said.  He spoke with a European accent I couldn’t identify. “Would you like to hear about my most unusual patient ever?”
          He had been working at a clinic in rural Zambia. One evening a family arrived, leading an older man by the arms. The patient was shivering and seemed to be in a trance-like state.  As he sat on the treatment bench, the doctor spotted his complaint.

          “How did he get a nail driven into his head?” he asked. The head of a rusty four-inch nail protruded from his bald scalp.
          One of the family spoke. “My uncle went mad and started attacking everyone. At first we thought he was drunk, but found out he hadn’t touched a drop. We were afraid, so we locked him in a shed.”

          “I had a terrible headache,” the patient said. “I thought people were all against me.  I was trying to defend myself. When they locked me in the shed I thought that my only option was to kill myself. There was no rope to hang myself and nothing sharp to cut myself. So I started pulling at a board until it came loose.  There was a nail in it.  I took the board and drove the nail into my head.”
          “Well, let’s take it out,” the doctor said grimly.  He put on rubber gloves and tried to pry the nail out, but it wouldn’t budge. He tried forceps and then a pair of pliers, with no result.

          “Not like that,” the patient said, and hooked his thumbnails under the head. “This is the way I did it before.”
          “You pulled the nail out before?” the doctor asked incredulously.

          “After a few minutes I was still alive and my headache started to go away. I decided to pull the nail out.  But when I did, water started shooting from the hole all the way to the ceiling. So I was frightened and pushed it back in.” He lifted the nail completely out of his head and dropped it into a metal tray the doctor was holding in shaky hands.
          “I gave him a tetanus shot and a dose of penicillin and a box of aspirin. One of those small round plasters on top. I asked if they wanted to pray with me, and they did.”

          “Did he die?” I asked.
          “No. In fact, he is one of the nicest and most popular people in his village, or at least he was when I came here last year. He wears the nail on a leather thong around his neck.”

          Auto-trepanning, anyone?

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Say Parsley for Me

Jovino was a small man who never smiled.  He was bent from the waist owing to arthritis and so had to look upward, beneath his eyebrows, to meet your eye.  He lived with his wife, Marcelina, in the palm board shack next door to me in a poor mountain village of the Dominican Republic.
Marcelina made the best coffee I’ve ever tasted.  She took the beans from where they lay drying in the rutted dirt road, and then roasted them with raw cane sugar in a flat cast iron pan. She pounded them in a big pestle and mortar, put them in an old nylon sock and left the grounds to soak in boiling water. I went over every morning for my coffee.

After nearly a year I worked up the courage to ask Jovino why he always looked so unhappy.
“Because I’m going to Hell,” he said.

I got the story from Marcelina.  In 1939, the dictator Trujillo decided to drive the Haitian population from the border areas.  Haitians are African by descent, the great-grandchildren of slaves. Dominicans liked to think of themselves as white, though generations of mixing had turned them the same colour.  Trujillo is rumoured to have spent fortunes on skin-lightening cream.
He ordered troops to the villages near the border with Haiti. The local residents were told to identify Haitians who now lived in the community to the troops or face dire consequences. The army went away, and no one did anything.  A week later they returned and shot the mayor in the road in front of the entire village.  Everyone was told to kill at least one Haitian by the time they returned a week later, or die themselves.

The way to identify a Haitian was simple. As French speakers, Haitians pronounced the word for parsley as “pere-JEEL”, but the Spanish-speaking Dominicans said “pere-HEEL”. If you asked someone, and they pronounced it wrong, they were Haitians.
As the week drew to a close, Jovino became more and more frightened. On the last day, the boy who carried water for the neighbours came by. Jovino approached him with his machete. “Say parsley for me!” he screamed, and when there was no reply, cut the boy’s head from his shoulders. He lugged the corpse to the road and added his body to the growing pile. When the soldiers came back, they nodded in approval and left

Meanwhile, back in Santo Domingo, Trujillo was entertaining some American diplomats. “While we are going chat-chat here, at the border, my people are going chop-chop,” he told them. A later count revealed that over 35,000 Haitians had been massacred in the purge.
The next time I saw Jovino, I tried to reassure him.  I told him he couldn’t have done anything else, and that if there was a God, he would surely be forgiven. But Jovino just shook his head.

 “I’m going to Hell,” he said.
“But why?” I asked.

“Because I would do it again,” Jovino said.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

What Noise?

I learned how to deal with noisy neighbours when I lived in a village in Botswana, in a house that had a curse on it.

           My wife and stepdaughter and I had all been pleased with the relative luxury of the cement block shack, because it had a tin roof and a high wall of shrubs all around.  The place belonged to a Mme Tlokweng. When she came to collect the rent, she used to stand at the gate in order not to be affected by the curse. True, the outhouse had fist-sized spiders in it, and the solitary tree was inhabited by snakes, but we had no sense of bad luck until the first Saturday night.

          In a yard some 200 metres distant, some off-duty soldiers from the army post had acquired a grass-roofed rondavel to use as an informal night club. They had a generator and a set of speakers as high as a man and a clutch of electric guitars. For percussion, they used a wrecked car’s roof as a drum. That first Saturday, the gumba-gumba music began at seven o’clock. It went on until four a.m. the following Monday, with hardly a pause-- foreign, repetitive and off-key.

          The glass rattled in the windows from the volume. My wife and I had to shout to hear each other speak. It was a palpable force that we could feel throbbing through the ground itself. By Sunday morning, after hardly sleeping at all, we were ready to leave, so we got into our jeep and drove to a shady place by the river and went to sleep in the car.

          I tried to remain cheerful.  Surely it wouldn’t continue for a second night, I reasoned. The soldiers probably had to report for duty bright and early on Monday morning.  We went home at dark. The music was still in progress. If anything, it had increased. I had underestimated the stamina of young African men.

          The music stopped abruptly just before dawn on Monday.  I heard the dying rattle of the generator and relief washed over me. It must have been a special occasion, I told my exhausted family.  A party, some celebration we knew not of. They didn’t seem to believe me.

          The week wore on, and I began to brace myself as Saturday approached. This time it began earlier, at about six. I looked at my despairing family and began to roll up bits of toilet paper to stuff in my ears. I found a few old cigarette ends, and discovered that the filters fitted nicely into place, but they didn’t seem to help much.  More than a year later, when I was having my ears syringed, the doctor was astonished at what came out. My wife wept silently, and my step-daughter seemed to be losing contact with reality. At one a.m. we got into the jeep and drove to the capital and checked into a tourist hotel we couldn’t afford.

           The next day I sought advice from an old Africa hand I had met through mutual acquaintances. He listened sympathetically. “What did the chief have to say?” he asked finally.

           “The chief?” I replied  I was vaguely aware that there was a traditional leader somewhere in the village, but had never even considered consulting him. “Can he do something?”

          The old hand smiled “Try him and see.  It can’t do any harm.”

           The following day I stood in a queue of villagers in front of the chief’s house, a traditional, mud-walled building, but larger and more sophisticated than most. I saw a new Land Rover parked behind it, and the rusty form of an air-conditioner jutted out of the wall. Along with everybody else, I carried gifts of tea, sugar and powdered milk. After an eternity, the people before me finished their tales of cow theft and wife-beating, and it was my turn.

           Chief Solomon Dihutso greeted me warmly. I sat facing him on a stool so low that my face was at the level of his knees. He began by discussing Manchester United football club, of which he was a fan. Then we turned to world politics before finally discussing the novels of EM Forster. By the time we got around to my complaint I had almost forgotten why I had come.

           “So,” he said, peering at me from a pair of filmy but possibly wise eyes, “I understand you don’t like that soldier music.”

           “No Chief,” I said, aware of the understatement. “I don’t like it at all.”

           “Hmmm,” said Chief Solomon. “Would you like my advice?”

           “Yes, Chief, please,” I said, keeping my voice even so that I wouldn’t cry.

          The chief raised a single finger. “What I think you should do is…”

          “Yes?” I nearly whined.

          “Don’t listen to it,” he said.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Real News

Every morning I log onto Google news to see what’s happening.  I steal a quick glance at Gilly’s Guardian. The other day I realised that I was just looking for excitement, that I wanted to gloat at someone’s misfortune or cringe in anxiety at what the Iranians either were or were not doing. Maybe it has to do with endorphins or dopamine or something like that; I seem to need my morning fix of excitement.

News media have to fill their pages or their air time with something. And to be fair, I have colluded in this when I worked as a journalist in my younger days. Nothing scares an editor like a blank Page One.

In my first newspaper job, the editor of the small weekly in a coastal town told me to go over to a nearby shrimping dock and get the local news. A lot of old guys were sitting in the sun, some re-weaving nylon nets, others just talking. Being young and optimistic, I went directly to a man and told him I was from the newspaper and wanted any news he might have.  He just shook his head.  I tried it again with two or three more with the same result.  I drove back to the office and told the editor there wasn’t any news.

          “Get back over there and stay till you’ve got a story,” he said, not smiling.

           I went back and left my notepad in the car. I sat on a bench, watching a man in a stained undershirt repairing a huge yellow net, using a wooden tool I had never seen before. He noticed me watching, and I asked him if I could come closer and see what he was doing. I forgot about the news and began to learn a lot about how to make a sheet bend knot. The man’s name was Oscar, and he talked ceaselessly.  About the port, about the problems people were having with osmosis on their new fibreglass shrimp boats, and how the old wooden ones were better. How the new government quota system had caused two brothers to sell up and move to Rocky Mount.  How the fire in the back of the cafĂ© had made them have to drive five miles to buy their Cuban sandwiches for lunch. Who had gotten married and who had run off with whom and who was carrying a shotgun in his boat in case he spotted the man who cuckolded him. About the shark that had been caught in someone’s net, and when opened up had been found to contain a human hand in its stomach.  Did anyone have a picture?  Sure, just ask Jimbo Jacks at the chandler’s shop. I went back to the newsroom with more stories than I could use in three issues and a grainy picture of an open shark’s belly.

           Every morning, the Indian spiritual master Meher Baba used to have read out to him what he called the “bogus news”. This was the ordinary run of headline news, which might become history someday—but probably wouldn’t. Then he liked to hear the real news, about how people around him were doing.  There was always plenty of that.

           The real news is always out there if you know how to look for it.

 (A version of this post appeared on the BBC College of Journalism blogsite)