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Unhappy birthday to me

Had a birthday at the weekend. Woo hoo.

Don’t mean to be ungrateful. People were nice. Gave hugs, wished Happy Birthday, bought me a pint, spent time with me, got me cards. I’m alive to see 44. Lots of people aren’t.

All that.

It’s four and a half years since I started this blog. Ostensibly to show myself that stuff does happen in my life, and as the proverbial kick up the arse to Get On With More Good Things – like writing, for starters.

Yet here my sorry arse is. Fuck all to show since blog instigation. First Monday after my 44th birthday.

The day started with the dogs going barmy at insistent knocks at the door. I didn’t answer. I was lying in bed frozen in place, heart pounding, hoping they’d go away. Hoping they were for upstairs. When Dad came to collect the dogs, he bought in the hand delivered letter they’d left.

I thought maybe it was the mortgage company’s heavy again – no matter how much my payments go up, it seems I’m never paying them enough. But no, it was some people coming to take away my car. My old banger with the autobot logo on the front that makes small people smile. My insalubrious car that smells of dogs that enjoy spending much of their time in mud and manure.

I had a run of bad luck parking at work last year, accruing several parking tickets in the space of a couple of weeks (meetings running over, being so caught up with things I forgot the time my ticket ran out, etc etc etc.) The tickets added up to £300 (now £393). I couldn’t pay. I kept putting it off. I put it off further and further till it fell out of my mind.

I don’t open letters, because I’m terrified of them, and I want to persist in my little world of Everything is Fine.

And so now I’m to lose my car.

This is all entirely stupid and irresponsible. I am perpetually stupid and irresponsible. I don’t seem to be able to stop being stupid and irresponsible.

I’m constantly given advice about things I should do, things I could do, or indeed how my life would be vastly improved by being more like the advice givee. On an intellectual level I know all the sensible things people say to me are sensible. I understand about the spreadsheets and the planning and the Getting Stuff Done, but I just can’t seem to do it. I have to give myself a stern talking to for hours to get myself to pick up the hoover for five minutes hoovering. Most often I fail to listen to myself, as my carpets will attest.

I watched The Punisher last night, when (as ever) I should have been doing something useful – maybe even something to advance my own life-fullfillment. I love comics and comic book heroes. They’re often no-hopers, loners, people that don’t Play Well With Others. They operate outside the law, live outside society, occupy the edges – and they Get Shit Done. I want to be a hero, want to make the world a better, happier, more peaceful and greener place, but I’m trapped – not only by my own incompetence and inertia. I feel like a worker in the hive; looking outside and dreaming of flying, but stuck on the treadmill of capitalism. There’s never enough money. Never enough time in the day to earn enough money.

But then we’ve established I’m rubbish at Getting Shit Done. Can’t even manage to pick up the clothes on the floor in the bedroom. (Where do all those socks come from? And the tights that bind everything into a homogenous lump?) I’m not the type of person that Amounts to Something and lives comfortably. I’m the type of person that accrues debts and fines whilst entropy accelerates around them.

I know I’m extremely privileged to have a flat, and one with a garden at that – which includes a stunning silver birch, and a triffid – but everything within is broken.  I guess my abode reflects me. It’s damp, mouldy and nothing works as it should.

I probably should and could have enough to live on. But I don’t. This month I gave my last tins of soup to the Foodbank (it’s ok, I can scrounge food from Dad) and I’m attempting to sell my roadbike (the only thing I have of any value besides the car) so I can afford to attend my birthday party on Friday.

Even there see – another example of stupid and ridiculous. Fines, debts and no food, yet I’m throwing a party.

There’s the thing though.

I’m plainly shit at life and failing to do anything especially notable with my time on this marvellous planet, but I still want to make the world dance.

Let’s just hope I can find a way to join in.

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The Sadness Werewolf

I’ve a secret. I’m a lycanthrope.

On the outside, I’m a (fairly) normal seeming middle-aged woman. Gregarious, witty, beloved by many.

Inside, however, I’m composed almost entirely from sadness.

I’ve spent a lifetime wrapping myself in silver – layers upon layers of protection; protection for myself from the sadness inside and from the external prompts that will unleash it, and protection for others, so they’re not exposed to the soul-draining despair I carry within.

I can’t always tell what will break through the armour and release the beast but, whatever triggers the sadness, I always end up at the same place; a place of profound and overwhelming loneliness.

At this point I hear the protests of my many friends: YOU ARE NEVER ALONE! YOU HAVE US! But you see, this is all part of the veneer. The me you think you know is but a vessel that carries around this fragile werecreature.

I connect to lots of people, but I never truly feel connected.

I’m a master hugger, but I seldom experience being touched with love – and it burns when it happens.

I feel like an outcast, a reject, trying always to fit in.

All the people around me, those that tell me they love me, they seem like ghost people when I’m under the thrall of the weresadness. They’re not real. Mere wraiths that don’t inhabit the same plane of existence. My reality is not your reality. I am not who you think I am.

I’ve always yearned for closeness. For that spiritual connection that some people seem to find. It’s ever eluded me. I no longer know whether I deliberately keep people at bay, or whether that’s just how things are – that I’m too strange and otherworldly for normal humans to bond with. Perhaps one of my werewolf superpowers is to exude some sort of repulsion field. Or maybe I’m like Rogue – if I touch anyone, they’ll suffer, so I keep on my gloves.

One of my earlier memories is country dancing aged about five or six. I loved country dancing. When a dance required a partner, they’d stand us girls in a circle facing inward, and invite the boys to stand behind the person they’d like to dance with. Every time I turned around, there’d be no one there. It wasn’t just the boys. I was never a popular child. Picked last at games. Sat on my own a lot. Bullied sometimes, but mostly I was too insignificant even for that.

I learned to embrace my aloneness. We all know that everything bad and sad that happens is really an opportunity – so they say – and being alone does provide that. I can do what I want when I want. I never have to explain myself to anyone, I never need argue with anyone. I can, in fact, get on with the business of Saving the World.

For so have I styled myself. I can’t be close to anyone. I can’t form a meaningful relationship with anyone (romantic or otherwise) because I have Important Work to Do. I am Strong. I am a Hero. I Get Things Done. No time for any silly stuff.

The Sadness Werewolf feels otherwise. She wants a side-kick.

Whereas my protective wards include rational thinking and logic, the Sadness Werewolf inhabits a realm of emotions. When she’s in charge, it’s akin to dogs ‘seeing’ the world through scent. Everything is a feeling. Everything hurts. I see other’s pain around them like an aura. I see all the suffering in the world and of the world and all I want to do is curl into a ball and cry forever.

This makes it hard to function.

Needless to say, I’m writing this from the umbral plane. I am indeed under the thrall of sadness. There is nothing to be done but to wait for it to recede, for the protections to reform and the werewolf to become dormant once more. I can’t ‘choose happiness’ any more than I can choose to be other than the person I am.

So I’m taking myself away for a few days – with my wolf pack. I’m going where there are Dark Skies. I want to lay next to my tent and gaze at the cosmos. I want to be reminded that my existence is both fantastically insignificant and astonishing – that I, a conscious entity, should be in the universe to marvel at the universe.

Hopefully, when I return, I’ll be able to smile at you and tell you that All is Well.

And it will be.

Sort of.

 

 

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Tempus fugit

The analogue clock on my kitchen wall – cat-shaped with a pendulum tail – reads quarter to six. It’s been quarter to six for about six months. I’ve not gotten around to changing the batteries, in the same way I don’t get around to much of anything. So it’s perpetually quarter to six, no matter how many times I check whilst running late for whatever I’m meant to be doing.

There’s always something to be rushing for. Things to be done, places to be, people to see, goals to be attained, a world to save.

So much expectation.

Time’s arrow shoots forward, constantly accelerating in our technological realm, and we must keep running lest we fall off the treadmill. As I grow older, with more to juggle, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain the pace. So often I stop trying to run; freezing in place and doing exactly nothing.

Who are we rushing about for and to what end?

Rushing to get to work because we have to work to afford to eat/have a roof/pay the rent of being alive – squeezing the things that make us feel alive into the tiny spaces not filled by Work and Obligations. Work that consists largely of spending day after day sitting at a PC, gazing mournfully out the window at a be-craned urban landscape whilst an orchid slowly dies of despondency in the corner.

I’ll be 44 this year. Although I’m in fairly good nick, I’m acutely aware that I have less time ahead of me than has already passed, and then there’s that whole speeding up thing that happens as we age. So the perennial question is…what the hell am I not doing with my life?

This world is remarkable. That I exist at all, is remarkable. Every day I’m astonished by our planet and the way it teems with life. Walking through Blenheim Park at the weekend, marveling at the stately oaks, the bright daffs, the brooding sky, the dogs rolling in fox crap, I pondered that this must surely be the most beautiful planet in the universe. Even from within the gloomy confines of the office, I can peer through grime-caked windows to marvel at the swooping gulls outside.

All of this wonder, and – given that we haven’t a Scooby how life got started and have to date found no evidence of it happening more than once – it’s entirely possible that Earth is unique, despite the inconceivable size of the universe.

This, perhaps, is truly Eden.

Here’s this incredible place and here’s us – like Bede’s bird flying so briefly through the sunlight – and what do we do with this privilege, with this ridiculously short amount of time in paradise?

If, at the end, our life does flash past our eyes, how much of it was spent within concrete looking out over more concrete versus how much time spent watching the swirl of the mist on the mountains, inhaling the scent of the sea, savoring the velvety texture of a rose petal?

We don’t all have a choice about how we spend our days, but here in the UK we’re more privileged than most. We can be masters of our destiny, at least to some extent.

How much have you looked at the clock today – because you needed to be somewhere or because you were looking forward to the end of yet another monotonous monochrome day?

How much time have you spent in the world?

Time flies.

Slow it down.

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Time slowed

Every day
lasts a thousand years
when your heart is heavy
with sadness.

No blue sky, bird song nor flittering butterfly
can bring respite.

Choose happiness!
they say.
Take joy in mindful moments!
they say.

Just. Try. Harder.

I reach out for a moment, however small
it eludes me.
Sorrow’s anchor remains
firmly chained
to my soul.

My outer shell is programmed
with the facade
of happiness.
It’s what’s expected. What’s desired.
Don’t let your sorrow bring everyone down!

The robot smile, laughs, entertains, works
All is well! All is normal!
whilst the beast inside crushes my organs
constricts my throat
leadens my legs.

I see you, walking
with your shadow of sadness.
Your pain dogging your every step.
I see you.
I feel you.
I am you.

Every day
lasts a thousand years
when your heart is heavy
with sadness.

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We are all broken

A friend posted on Facebook recently that they worried about being too broken to love.

I’ve been reflecting on this.

To my mind, only a few types of people in this world aren’t broken. You might not be broken if…

  • you’re five, and experiencing a contented childhood
  • you’re amazingly fortunate to have lived a life without trauma or drama
  • you’ve achieved Buddha levels of bliss and are untouched by suffering
  • you’re a sociopath/psychopath and unaffected by bad stuff that happens

The longer you live, the more suffering you’ll inevitably experience. Bereavements, break-ups, redundancy, illness, debts, despair, existential dread, parking tickets and the everyday embuggerances that are part of life. And that’s just the majority of those of us living in the West, some people have the misfortune to experience far worse.

Little wonder sometimes we’re not the easiest to be around. We’ll be, at times, grumpy, sad, short-tempered, impatient, recalcitrant. Few people are sufficiently resilient to be constantly chipper.

Neil Gaiman wrote a piece about his friend Terry Pratchett – often thought of as a ‘jolly old elf’ because of the light-hearted literature he produced. No, explained Neil, he was full of rage – and this drove him to do what he did.

Perhaps I said that, ah well, it had all worked out in the end, and it hadn’t been the end of the world, and suggested it was time to not be angry any more.

Terry looked at me. He said: “Do not underestimate this anger. This anger was the engine that powered Good Omens.” I thought of the driven way that Terry wrote, and of the way that he drove the rest of us with him, and I knew that he was right.

There is a fury to Terry Pratchett’s writing: it’s the fury that was the engine that powered Discworld. It’s also the anger at the headmaster who would decide that six-year-old Terry Pratchett would never be smart enough for the 11-plus; anger at pompous critics, and at those who think serious is the opposite of funny; anger at his early American publishers who could not bring his books out successfully.

In a similar vein, one of my most valuable pieces of learning came during a self-esteem class (therapy to help with the depression and anxiety I was experiencing at the time.) The trainer drew a circle and around it, pie-chart style, he wrote emotions and behaviours – anger, selfishness, jealousy, kindness, generosity, humorousness etc. His point being, he exhibits all of these things at different points of time and in differing circumstances.

All of these things serve a purpose.

When people are cross with us, they hurl hurtful words “you’re so selfish!” and we can come to believe that this defines us. “I’m a selfish person. I’m a terrible person.” Yet we’re not so quick to define ourselves by compliments we receive “Thank you, you’re so kind!” – “I’m a kind person. I’m a terrific person!”. Interesting how easy it is (for many of us) to dismiss the compliment as only reflecting a moment in time, but to hold onto the insults.

We’re a hodge-podge of behaviours. It’s what makes me me, what makes you you. I’m ok, you’re ok. 

The likelihood is that all of us have been through difficult times. We all have a story. We went through the flames and we survived – more or less intact. To quote Harley Quinn: “Own that shit.”

We are all broken.

But there’s good news.

We all have the capacity for compassion and love too.

We might be broken, but we can fix one another.

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#WhereDovesDie: Death on Gozo

They kill doves on Gozo.

As on Malta.

Any bird is a target. Tiny songbirds fall from the sky.

On a walk around the coast

…exclaiming at the diversity of plants, arthropods and lizards

…pausing at the summits of hills to delight in a turquoise sea under an azure sky

I notice an armchair, reached via a few hand-hewn steps, nestling beneath a corrugated shelter. It overlooks a small cleared area.

This part of Gozo is full of plots. Everyone, it seems, grows something: lemons, olives, cabbages, courgettes, onions, prickly pears, figs – the island is a permaculturist’s dream.

Mayhap this chair, this handy nook, is where the farmer takes 40 winks. A well-earned break from toiling in the heat.

What a pleasing pastoral scene!

But have a closer look…

Perspective changes

into something altogether more sinister.

Look there says my friend and guide. See those Y shaped metal posts fixed into the ground? They attach nets to those posts, to trap birds in. Sometimes, they capture a song bird and put it in a cage, about this big (uses hands to indicate ridiculously tiny size) and its cries lure other birds to their deaths.

I try to pull up the posts. They’re too firmly rooted.

It doesn’t look as though this one’s been used in a while reassures my friend.

Some of this sport is legal. Most of it isn’t.

Anything can be prey.

On our walk we find two shot birds.

A pure white pigeon – wearing a ring; likely a racer that didn’t make it home – and a sparrow. Neither of these birds is of value to a hunter. Too common. Killed in error.

Rare birds are the thing.

Get them while you can! Quickly now, before they’re gone!

Or colourful birds, that look good stuffed.

Turtle doves.

Bee eaters.

Herons, raptors, spoonbills.

Most of the birds to fall from the skies are migrating. On their way to breed.

They’ll never reach their destination.

Nests will never be built. Eggs never laid.

And so are species decimated.

So much death. Most of it during a two week hunting window.

Massacre over Malta

 

Find out more/Take action

BirdLife Malta

Committee Against Bird Slaughter

Chris Packham (who started the hashtag #WhereDovesDie when covering the massacre this year)

Write to the Maltese embassy in the UK:

HE Norman Hamilton
The High Commissioner

Address:
High Commission of Malta
36-38 Piccadilly
Mayfair
London W1J 0LE
Write to your MEP asking for the EU to put pressure on Malta:
Sample letter (remember to personalise your letter as identical letters are blocked!)Find your MEP

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The story of the siblings in the big house

I had a dream. It was quite interesting. It tells the story of a brother and sister. I need you to finish and/or flesh out the story for me. 

This is what happened.

There were a sister and a brother living together in a big house. I don’t know their names. The house was big. It stood alone on a grassy, windy moor. It had an upstairs and a downstairs with lots of rooms. In the entrance hallway, there was space enough to dance.

There were two stairways to the East and West of the house that led up to the attic. The attic was full of foreboding things. Whenever they walked past one of those stairways, they’d shudder and get goosebumps. They’d walk quickly past, with that prickly feeling in their back like someone was coming after them. I don’t know what things there were up in that attic, or whether any of those things were alive, but I know that just looking up one of those stairways, or touching the banister, would fill one with dread.

Because the house was so big, it was partitioned into two homes – front and back, rather than up and down. There were doors in the middle of the house that separated the dwellings. A noisy family lived in the back part of the big house. When the weather was nice, and the people wanted to open all the doors to let the air circulate, the homes were separated by blue plastic curtains – to mark territory and give some measure of privacy.

The sister and the brother mostly kept to their own rooms in their own parts of the big house and avoided one another. However, they both needed to look after the house. The sister – who was 16 with long yellow hair that she tied back in a pony tail – was serious and diligent. She liked everything to be tidy. The brother – who was several years younger and dark and small and quiet – was slow and forgetful. Perhaps he had lots of important things in his head to think about, and tended to forget about the reality in which his body lived.

One day, the sister noticed that the tall stately plants, that lived in two pots either side of the front door in the grand entrance hall, were dying. Her brother hadn’t watered them. She was angry about this. Very very angry. He never did the things he was meant to do.

She found him outside, readying his cart to go off somewhere or other. It was a magical cart and it knew its master. It waited patiently for him to load it up with bags. Ghosts flitted around the cart. They were friends of the brother and were going on the trip with him. As they always did.

The sister shouted at the brother. She raged. He stood quietly and absorbed her ire.

She was more angry than she’d ever been. Her wordless shout became so loud it shattered the windows in the house behind them. Masonry tumbled.

Her roar became so loud that all of reality disappeared, except for the sister, with her hair – tied back – flowing out behind her, and the brother – still and quiet, and the cart, with all the bags and belongings stowed upon it, and the ghosts – all floating in a black space. There may have been lightening.

And still she roared.

As she roared, she shifted shape – as she could, because both of them were magical – and became a snow white wolf. Her brother changed too, in an attempt to defend himself. He became a black sinuous dragon, like one might find in Chinese mythologies on Earth.

And still she roared.

She roared until she’d turned her brother to stone. A stone dragon. The ghosts around the cart swooped around their fallen master, bereft.

And still she roared.

There was a metallic clunk.

The cart fell back to the grassy moorland outside the house. And so did the brother. For it was he that had become metallic. All that remained of him was a pure gold dragon’s head.

The sister was human-shaped once more. The horror of her actions caught up with her. She cradled the golden head in her arms. And she cried.

And the dream ended.

Can you tell me more..?

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To surviving another year

New Year is interesting.

In reality – just another day.

And also in reality, albeit with a greater degree of construction – there’s a new number on the calendar and a sense of New Beginnings. We can put the old year behind us and look forward to everything being different, and better, in the coming year. We have the hopeful expectation that none of the trials or tribulations (or our own mistakes or perceived failings) of the old year will be able to follow us into the next.

A wise man once said to me; there are no good or bad things. There are just things, and our response to them.

Optimism and a positive outlook definitely play an important role in wellbeing, and perhaps, as part of that optimism, we also need to acknowledge that, well…

…shit happens.

2016 will contain just as many ups and downs, achievements and disappointments as did 2015. But then “Wishing you a Resilient New Year!” or “May you Survive to See 2017!” greetings cards probably wouldn’t sell especially well.

All that to say… although I do hope you experience many moments of happiness during 2016, and that you finally get around to doing whatever it was you promised yourself you’d do last year (and, seriously, DO get on with it, and get on with it RIGHT NOW, because life is short and precious) what I mostly hope for you is more mindfulness and more acceptance.

May you savour more, find joy in small things, spend less money and instead spend more time in nature, and, when the inevitable sad or bad things happen, may you accept it’s not personal, it’s not bad karma, it’s not a punishment (unless it is – but hopefully then you’ll accept it as such, if you really did lift that onesie from Primark). It’s just bad stuff that can (and does) happen to anyone, and may you find the courage, strength and support that you need to get through.

There is no road to happiness. Happiness is found in little places all the way along the road.

Here’s mud in your eye.

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I don’t want to bomb Syria. I am not a terrorist sympathiser. I can think beyond 1 and 0.

I continue to have suspicions that humans are in fact sophisticated (or praps *not* so sophisticated) artificial intelligences. As a species, we seem to need things to be ones or zeros, and struggle with complexity. “If you’re against bombing ISIS, it means you support ISIS.” No. Firstly, it’s not going to be ‘bombing ISIS’, it’s going to be ‘bombing Syria’. There are plenty of people living there who are not ISIS people, or terrorists of any sort. They are people who would actually rather like all this fighting and dying to stop, so they can rebuild their lives and go back to working in the greengrocers that used to be at the end of the street.

Secondly, this isn’t Star Wars. Most conflicts don’t have clear cut Goodies and Baddies. EVERYONE believes they are the Good Guys. Very few humans are actually evil psychopaths who take pleasure in killing (although there seem to be rather a lot who take an unwholesome pleasure in wielding power). There was a documentary about Syria several years back that illustrated this. Fighters on both sides absolutely believed they were justified in attacking the other. As the conflict wages on, and more people lose those they hold most dear, the passion for retribution accelerates – enabling the politicians to sit back. Whatever it started out as, now it’s also “I will kill you to avenge my father!”

Having said that, anyone that has the firepower to kill people by the millions, and uses that power with aplomb, is unlikely to have your best interests at heart. So I think Assad is Not a Very Nice Chap. Does that therefore mean I ‘side’ with the rebels, or, heaven forfend, ISIS? No. It gives me some understanding as to the motivation of the rebels – desperate people will do desperate things – but I’m not on the ‘side’ of anyone that’s committing atrocities and perpetuating carnage.

I’m on the side of the poor buggers caught in the crossfire. Who have no say in the matter. The people we’re condemning to death, or a life of fear and misery, or the life of the refugee, by sending in our bombers.

To those who believe that ‘collateral damage’ is just a terribly unfortunate side effect of Getting the Bad Guys – would you feel the same if you were told your family had to die, in the name of peace? I’ll wager it’s no consolation to the woman whose son’s head’s been blown off, or to the child whose family all died when their bombed home crushed them, that the people they loved died ‘for the greater good’.

Binary is great for computations. It doesn’t apply to decisions that affect people’s lives.

There will be no winners here. Other than the arms manufacturers and dealers. And the crows.

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Mpongwe and the Mumba Mosaic project; days 6 and 7 – Girls can be strong, marriages can be happy

Last night there was a small, dark blue, dragonfly in my room. As I moved to capture her, I could feel the draft her tiny wings produced. Such an appreciable effect from such a tiny, fragile creature…

Three days skipped by. Day five was mostly uneventful, so I’ll recap six and seven. Backwards.

Day seven…

I learned today that the project is called Mumba as this was the name of Hildah’s son, taken far too young in a cycling accident. Wonderful things have happened and continue to happen in his memory; including a shipment of bicycles – life-changers in rural Africa. As well as the Mumba Day Centre, there’s the Mumba Stars football team and, soon, hopefully, the Mumba Netball Team.

I learned this whilst we were speaking with the Director at the Department for Education – as Hildah explained the background to the day centre. Mr Mulenga (no relative to our Hildah) surprisingly hadn’t heard about the project. Despite the officious setting of his office (and our needing to wait in line behind several besuited gentlemen before being escorted into what felt like an audience with the Headmaster) Mr Mulenga was a kindly and enthusiastic chap. Very teacherly – easy to talk with and obviously wanting the best for the children and young people of Mpongwe, and for his teachers.

I didn’t have much to say, I felt. I shared with him some resources supplied by my public health colleague Lisa, who leads Southend’s Healthy Schools programme – a brochure about the Healthy Schools scheme (I figured the teachers might be curious about what happens in the UK) and some lesson plans and resources from Women’s Aid about discussing relationships and abuse with teens. I explained how I’d used the latter for inspiration for the conversation I had with the Mumba footballers yesterday and for planning the work I’ll be doing with schools tomorrow. With the men’s group I started out by talking about HIV/STIs and sexual health generally, then moved onto healthy/unhealthy relationships, abuse and ended with a plea for people to get tested for HIV. With the school children I planned to talk about confidence and self-esteem (what do you think self-esteem really means? What does confidence look like?) get them thinking about gender roles (women aren’t property – more on that later) and then move onto relationships, abuse and sexual health. (All of that time permitting.)

Mr Mulenga seemed delighted. He’s well up for oodles more of the whole PHSE shebang – believing such discussions are vital for young people. He pointed to some of the statements in the Women’s Aid resource pack – Boys are stronger than girls: “it’s good for them to talk about these things. To think about it. To challenge what they believe. They have these ideas in their heads and it effects how they go through life. No, boys are not always stronger than girls. Girls can be strong too. Boys and girls are not so different.” Music to my ears.

He invited me to please come back to do more – with teachers and students. Plenty of opportunities here for education support and community development.

Day six and the condom football…

Day six began with a trip to market. Not the usual array of colourful sellers, it being a Sunday. Still managed to bag a new pair of flip flops for around £2. At the day care centre we tentatively peeled the protective covering from the mosaic which we’d begun to install on day five. To Mara’s dismay, the tiles hadn’t stuck. It looked like we could be replacing Every. Tile. One. At. A. Time. A dismal prospect.

Meanwhile, Rosemary held a session with the local women – about 30 turned up from the local environs to learn about massage – specifically Story Massage – and reflexology. Story Massage involves creating a narrative and drawing it out on the masagee’s back. Clouds are stroked down the back, chicken fingers dart about, there was even a soothing snake. A few children joined in too. A dignitary from the Chief’s office arrived in time for the reflexology demonstration. All of the women were very impressed with Doctor Rosemary and were fair queuing up for her magic touch.

Meanwhile…the Mosaic Disaster turned out merely to be a Mosaic Embuggerance. Only one corner of the artwork didn’t take. The rest, mercifully, was mostly ok. Which meant the remainder of the mosaic could be cemented to the wall. The sun, however, was heading towards her bed…

…when the Mumba Stars footballers arrived for their session with Madam Sherry.

Great bunch of lads. Aged from early 20s through to 40. They were keen to show their skills in making footballs out of condoms. It’s a beautiful thing and bounces a treat. Whilst they were making it, I took the opportunity to ask why it’s so important to use condoms for the use for which they were intended. This led into a conversation about HIV, STIs and family planning. Moving onwards, I asked What makes for a happy marriage? (Most of the chaps were married). Can you tell us? (half joked one man) We’d like to know! We all agreed: love, respect, trust and good communication are important ingredients of a happy relationship. I wrote these up on the board for later reference.

So what about an unhappy relationship? Stress, financial problems – could make for tension. And when there’s tension…

Is it ever ok to hit your wife..?

No. Well, no, usually, but sometimes… if she won’t listen and won’t listen, you need to beat her just a bit to get her to listen.

Would it be ok if she beat you?

No. It would hurt my pride and I would divorce her.

The guys explained to me that women are trained and prepared for marriage – by the womenfolk in their families. If they don’t behave well, they can be returned to their families for retraining. (I was to hear this story a few more times from other sources – wives ought to understand how to behave. I wasn’t clear whether husband training also happens.) I’ll tell you what that sounds like to me I said. It’s like me discovering that my camera doesn’t work and sending it away to be fixed. People are not things. How would you feel if someone told you you weren’t good enough and that you needed to go away to be fixed? Imagine how that would hurt your feelings. And your pride.

We talked about empathy. About kindness. I pointed to the words they’d come up with earlier – the ingredients of a happy marriage. If you beat your wife, she won’t trust you. She’ll fear you. She won’t respect you. She won’t love you and you’ll not enjoy a happy marriage. I pointed to ‘Good Communication’ on the board. Try to resolve things by listening or talking. Try to understand what it might be like for her. And perhaps she’ll come to understand you better too.

Before the end of the session we returned to HIV testing and how it’s possible to live a normal life these days when on treatment. One man asked if we have HIV in the UK. Yes, I explained, although not as many cases as in Zambia. I added that people in the UK are still frightened by HIV. They’re frightened to be tested and they worry that people will treat them differently if it’s known they have it. However, we encourage people to get tested because getting timely treatment not only means they can then live a normal life, it means they can be prevented from infecting others. If we want to halt the spread of HIV in Africa, it starts with people taking action. Use condoms. Get tested.

And be kind to your wives.

We finished as the sun, that uniquely African red, sunk below the Horizon. I emerged from the darkened classroom (there’s no electricity here, so no lights) to find the whole mosaic now adorned the wall.

African sunset, with tree