Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Island of Wings

Writing Wednesday
Would you go to the end of the earth for love? 
1830. Neil and Lizzie MacKenzie, a newly married young couple, arrive at the remotest part of the British Isles: St Kilda. He is a minister determined to save the souls of the pagan inhabitants; his pregnant wife speaks no Gaelic and , when her husband is away, has only the waves and the cry of gulls for company.
As both find themselves tested to the limit in this harsh new environment, Lizzie soon discovers that marriage is as treacherous a country as the land that surrounds her.

This is the blurb on the back of the book I referred to in my blog post a little over a week ago. Would you go to the end of the earth for love? Possibly not. And probably not to St Kilda's. Then again, I did move to Zambia, so perhaps I would.

I found the story premise (as quoted above) a little far-fetched. Can you really live on a remote island for a whole year, particularly when pregnant, and talk to no-one else except your husband? Even if you don't speak the language? There is so much conversation that can be undertaken by simple words and gestures. And why didn't her husband try to teach her any Gaelic?

To me the story hides behind stereotypical characterisations. The minister is austere, distant, unprepared to show emotion - particularly love to his wife. The wife is subservient, timid and not prepared to make her own steps into the community. Whilst I realise that life in 1830 was very different to today, I think it would be possible at some point to write about a presbyterian who loves his wife and family, as well as God! I found it all quite frustrating, as I wanted to shout at Lizzie to pull herself together, to get a grip, to make her own way, and was thwarted by repeated put-downs.

To be fair, Lizzie's life perked up once she had a child and a maid from the mainland that she could talk to. I liked that inside the front cover was a map of St Kilda and the islands around it. When an author, or publisher, puts something like that it then I am comforted that they feel it will be helpful to the reader, to place events or people throughout the story. It would have been more use to me to know exactly where St Kilda is in relation to Scotland, but perhaps that is just me.

I did enjoy the descriptions of the islands and their inhabitants. I could virtually smell and feel the hovels that the natives lived in and I could picture the daft puffins nesting on the cliffs and the birds migrating with the seasons. I could sense the starvation that must have ripped through the community if the boat didn't come in the summer. And I could see the glorious blue sky of a summer's day, lasting almost through the night.

I cannot say I would recommend the book, although parts of it were thoroughly enjoyable to read. For me there were unresolved issues or (perhaps worse) matters that were poorly resolved. It is a bleak tale from a bleak land, but an interesting insight into a part of the world I would never have heard of otherwise. Would I go to the end of the earth for love? Possibly - but please, not here!

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

The value of books

Writing Wednesday

Talked to a woman tonight who grew up in tough town in north east of England and in her teens it all went horribly wrong ...
.. one day her teacher told her to stay after class and instead of the bollocking she was expecting he said 'you think you're nothing...
...but you're not', and gave her a copy of '1984'. And then another book a week later and then another. Her friends' lives stalled,... dying of a heroin overdose that could have killed her; but she went on to Cambridge and a PhD and is now a priest - because someone..
... disagreed with her self-assessment as worthless and gave her a book.

Rev Richard Coles, tweets, Mon 13 Feb 2012

Is it no wonder that books can be banned and censored? They have the power to change lives. They are the most important thing for a child to learn about and understand, as they develop imagination, independent thinking, thirst for knowledge and safely take you to places you've never been.

Long live the book!

Monday, 20 February 2012

Marital incompatibility

I am reading Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg at the moment. It is the tale of a woman who goes with her husband (a Scottish presbyterian minister) to live in St Kilda's, Britain's most remote island. Set in the 1830s it tells a tale of primitive living in a bleak place. In contrast, my husband is reading Spud - Learning to Fly by John van de Ruit, the third book in the Spud series. It was my Valentine's gift to him: given we both loved the first two books it was a fairly safe bet.

The other evening we were lying in bed reading our respective novels. I was contemplating what life must have been like for this poor woman, on a cold bleak island in the middle of nowhere (quite literally). What would it look like: the crags, the scrubby grassland, the lack of trees?

*chortle, chortle*
My husband is enjoying his book.

I return to the isolation of the minister's wife. She can't speak a word of Gaelic. Why doesn't her husband try to teach her a few simple words to let her communicate with the natives? Surely she would be more content if she had others to talk to; someone other than her husband, who is solely focussed on his mission to save the islanders' souls?

*chuckle, laugh*
I give my husband a look. He straightens his face and returns to reading.

My heroine is pregnant... and now she chooses to go for a walk up the hill. Her husband doesn't think this is safe. Can he be right? I read on, anticipating the worst. She slips, she falls, she...

*raucous guffaw*
The bed shakes with my husband's laughter. "Sorry," he says, but can't hold the laughter in as he returns to his book.

For me, I read of inevitable loss, of the husband taking control in a tragic situation, of him naming and disposing of the baby before she wakes up. I read of the woman's meek submission to her husband's will.

*more laughter*

I give up reading. Sometimes you have to recognise you aren't going to win.

(I'll let you know how good the book is if I am ever given the space to finish it!)

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

A rubbish post

I was challenged by Karen at The Rubbish Diet to write about rubbish in Zambia. By which she meant trash and garbage, rather than things that went wrong (of which there were many…) She is running an 8 week long campaign to reduce the amount we put in our bins. I am in awe of her achievements and do wonder how I'm going to reduce my own garbage. Anyway, after a week of Zambian blogging, I thought I would hijack Writing Wednesday with some of my experiences.

I lived in the capital, Lusaka, for 4 years. You might think that in a developing country the concept of recycling would be lost completely, and that there would be waste and litter everywhere. In practice, I think that is completely wrong. I do not recall any great quantity of litter around the streets, unless you went into the more densely populated areas and their markets. My suspicion, however, is that even there it didn’t last longer than the day. Where there is poverty, there is desperation, and anything that could be gleaned for sale, for food or for self-preservation would be.

As for recycling, in some ways they had a better system than we do here. In Africa, nothing goes to waste. I am convinced that before any of our black bags went out for the binmen (and yes – there was a regular collection!) the entire contents were ransacked for anything that might be of value or use to the maids or garden boys.  Once it reached the dump, I am sure there were even poorer people clambering all over to retrieve the remnants. This brings images of Slumdog millionaire to mind, and is not really something to be proud of. Nevertheless, it minimises waste.

As with anything, if there is limited supply then little is wasted. Zambia is a landlocked country, so everything had to be either flown in or brought on lorries through Zimbabwe (usually). Heavy items, such as paper, were disproportionately expensive. Whilst there was no formal recycling of paper, it was used with minimal waste. We recycled the free ‘Game’ magazine as wrapping paper… though I think this made us cheapskates, not eco warriors!

The best recycling of all – and far better, I believe, than anything we do in the UK – was the recycling of soft drinks. It was possible to buy them in cans, but you paid handsomely for that privilege. And then you had to throw the can away: here there was no recycling of tin. But most long-term residents didn’t do this. Instead they bought a glass bottle of coke (or fanta or sprite: those were our only choices, although diet coke arrived before we left), paying a deposit for the bottle and, when drunk, took it back for replacement. The deposit rolled over ad infinitum; the glass bottles were reused; the soft drinks were cheap. Usually we did this by the crate load but many locals did it by individual bottle. To my mind this is far better recycling than our copious use of plastic (yeuch!) and cans.

In some ways, the simple life gives natural waste reduction. If you can’t afford disposable nappies, you can never contaminate a landfill site with them as waste. If you can’t afford new clothes, you will always be in the market for hand-me-downs and second-hand offerings.

I was privileged to be connected to the Chikumbuso Womens & Orphans Project. As with all great ideas, it started with a simple thought: what if...? What if we were able to reuse all the carrier bags we have (freely handed out by local supermarkets and shops, but of low quality and non-biodegradable) that go to waste? What if it was possible to crochet plastic bags into …well, bags! 

Started by a small group of widows in the Ngombe region of Lusaka, a whole trade and industry has developed. Carrier bags are cut up and then crocheted to make bags which are then sold in the local market. The resource is, for the most part, free (donated in strategically placed bins, such as at international schools!). The women earn a living from their production; a percentage is kept for community projects. And – importantly – the plastic bags are recycled, reused and not creating uncompostable waste.

In Zambia, recycling can come in many forms. Glasses from wine bottles:

Chairs from bottle tops:

(Do you see the snake of bottle-tops on the table?)

The cans and papers are also used to create household items to sell, such as lampstands:

The best of ingenuity has to go to these gentlemen: a new style of horse and cart!

In Africa, nothing goes to waste.

If anyone in the UK is interested, I have a few bags available for sale for the Chikumbuso Women and Orphans Project: please DM me on twitter: @c_withenay

Monday, 13 February 2012

Only one thing to say

W E   W O N ! ! !

Congratulations to Zambia,
Winner of the Africa Cup of Nations 2012

(0-0 after extra time, 8-7 on penalties)

Photo: copyright Getty Images, BBC website

Thursday, 9 February 2012

The real news about yesterday's football

Forget Fabio.

Ignore Harry.

The real news came late afternoon. Zambia beat Ghana 1-0 to earn their place in the final of the Africa Cup of Nations, to be held on Sunday in Libreville, Gabon.

The Africa Cup of Nations is the pinnacle of achievement in football terms across the continent. Held biennially, it is much feted, much desired and (above all) much followed! Although many Africans have their favourite Premiership teams and footballers, this local competition is the one each nation desires.

Ghana must have been favourites yesterday. They made it to the World Cup in South Africa and (let's face it) most of the rest of the world hasn't even heard of Zambia. But it only takes one goal to win - and Zambia got it! In the other semi-final, the Ivory Coast beat Mali by the same margin. The only difference (and surely not an important one *ahem*) is that they have not yet lost a match in the competition, nor conceded a goal. Zambia certainly have stiff opposition on Sunday.

But the players may not be their biggest fear. That problem may lie with ghosts from the past.

Late evening, 27 April 1993, a Zambian Air Force plane ditched into the sea about 500m off the coast of Gabon, having just taken off from Libreville. It was carrying most of the Zambian football team on their way to a FIFA World Cup Qualifier against Senegal. All passengers and crew were killed.

Their bodies were returned to Zambia and are buried in "Heroes' Acre" at the Independence Stadium in Lusaka. The memorial is a poignant memory to a lost football generation.

Nearly twenty years on, the national football team are to return to Libreville to play in the final of the African Cup of Nations. The team now consists of players who were just children when the disaster occurred, some barely born. But, like Munich for Man Utd fans, it is an event that is never forgotten by the nation.

So on Sunday, bring out your flags for the Zambians, fighting as underdogs to win the continent's most prized cup in a land that holds such horrific memories. A win would be an emotional event for the whole nation. And delightful!

Go Chipolopolo, go!

Watch the match on Sunday from 6.30pm on ITV4.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Tiny Sunbirds Far Away

Writing Wednesday

It has been some time since I did a book review and there are several that I ought to write about, but the one that gets my top vote is Tiny Sunbirds Far Away by Christie Watson.

Set in Nigeria, the story is told by Blessing, a 12 year old girl. Her life is turned upside down when her mother walks in on her father 'on top of another woman'. Almost immediately her mother's loss of job and status meant a move from the comparative luxury of Lagos to the village, the family compound. Life changes beyond recognition as she has to do her share of the chores and learn about what is safe - from the oil workers, the freedom fighters, the non-refrigerated meat, the roadblocks, the school toilets. Nothing is straightforward and the culture shock is palpable.

Christie Watson portrays the characters beautifully. The clever older brother, Ezikiel, and his allergies. The distant mother and the loud Father with clean shoes. The grandmother who holds the family together. The grandfather, patriarch whose word is law. His second wife, who has a love of lycra clothing despite the heat. Add in the driver and his seventeen children who have to be cared for, the imman, and the complications of a relationship with a white man. It is a truly magnificent tale.

Difficult subjects are touched on with understatement and sensitivity, principally female circumcision (or FGM), which to our Western eyes is so horrific yet is sensitively portrayed as the social expectation in rural Nigeria, and the difficult issue of mixed-race relationships, if not racism against whites. There is also both religion and politics, a dangerous mix in normal circumstances. The political situation in the Nigerian oil fields, where great wealth is not filtering down to the locals and the resulting simmering resentment is always in the background ready to explode. Blessing also has to come to terms with moving into her grandfather's Islamic house after her Christian upbringing for twelve years.

Tiny Sunbirds Far Away won the Costa First Novel Award just a few weeks ago, and is well worth reading. If Christie Watson continues to write with such verve, passion and sensitivity she will many more prizes and plaudits, and deserve them all.

Friday, 3 February 2012

And for the sake of equality...

Further to Wednesday's post, the next day my Son came home with two stickers: one for being 'Star of the Day' and the other for excellent handwriting.

If you saw his normal handwriting you would be astonished by that.

And he's passed his Grade 3 Trombone exam.

*lots of proud motherly thoughts floating around*

We celebrated with chips for tea!

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

A new month...

Writing Wednesday
"Mum!" I hear my daughter scream, as she runs across the playground towards me. "Mum! Mum! I got three house points!"

"Wow!" I say. "What for?"

"For spelling February."

And she promptly did. Correctly.

She beamed from ear to ear. So tonight, we celebrate!

(Perhaps this post is a cheat for Writing Wednesday, as it is about my daughter rather than me, but I can't let my pride in her achievement go unrecognised!)
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...