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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

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Mpongwe and the Mumba Mosaic project, Day Three: Legends, adventures and the tragedy of poaching

Mwabuka Mwani!

Good morning to you! Writing about Thursday on Saturday, having spent most of Friday sleeping off some manner of malaise (likely heat/lack of sleep induced) that seems to have corrected itself now.

So today (day three – stay with me) we had a break from work. (I’ve only worked two days, but the others have been here a week.) We embarked on an adventure around Hilda’s family’s (and neighbouring) lands. Hilda has a lot of family and the family has a lot of land. In fact, Hilda’s a Princess, as her father is Chief. (Although, she explained, she can’t inherit because the line is matrilineal – only the mother knows who the father is.) We were joined by Benson – a local Community Development Officer – and, naturally, a friend of Hilda’s.

The journey began with a drive out to a wheat farm – one of the largest in Zambia. Apparently it also used to grow coffee and flowers. What exactly it grows now we weren’t able to establish as the guards at the gate weren’t letting us in. Such farms may be a boon to the economy and provide employment, but all isn’t rosy. This farm has been known to exploit children as coffee pickers, and the truck drivers play a significant role in spreading HIV in the area. There’s something they don’t want us to see.

We drove on through lands becoming noticeably richer and more fertile – past women washing clothes in the river, with healthy herds of goats and cows ambling about close by.

I’m taking you to Lake Kashiba said Hilda. This is a sacred place with historical significance. A long time  ago a group of people from the goat tribe suffered a great upset. They could not recover. So, they formed a row along the path to Kashiba, holding hands. And then, one at a time, they walked into the river and they drowned. Their bodies were never found – the lake is so deep that divers have never been able to find the bottom. They say that if you catch a fish from Kashiba, it won’t cook. It will just keep swimming in the pot. And if you go to the lake at night, you will see white clothes all around, where the goat tribe have been doing their washing. It’s a sacred place. People are very quiet when they come here.

It certainly is a beautiful, tranquil spot. The water in the limestone lake is almost emerald green. Swallows and diving birds dart across the surface. It’s clear enough to see shoals of fish. The surrounding trees are alive with birdsong and the trilling of insects. All around the shore, igneous rocks glisten. Hilda found a broken piece that contained rose quartz crystals. Having a short stroll into the undergrowth – heat dessicated leaves crackling underfoot – I startled a fairy. She flitted away on bright yellow wings.

On our way back out, we stopped by a stream to fill our water bottles, and Hilda chatted to an elder man passing with his cows. He provided an addition to the Kashiba legend; A diver went down through the underground stream that leads from the lake. He wanted to find where it came out. He was down there eight hours. When he came out, he talked about everything he had seen. And then he went mad. 

Hilda had told us that there are strong currents in the lake, which could explain why bodies are never found there. She said that sometimes the bodies appear at the wheat farm, which has a stream that’s fed by the lake. Certainly there is likely to be a whole system of caves and underground rivers attached to the lake – having looked up the geology and discovered its limestone.

The next part of our adventure was to see giraffes at Kafue lodge. An exciting prospect, even though, as none of had any money (it’s proven ridiculously difficult to get money changed) we also had no food or water – other than a few bottles purified from the stream we’d passed. (The plan had been to go to Ndola to sort out money. Didn’t quite pan out that way, however.) After a couple of hours driving along tracks in the bush (scenic, but oh so hot and thirsty) it became apparent we were perhaps a tad lost. However, our extended drive did provide me with a chance to talk with Benson about the benefits of Appreciative Inquiry for community development work. I’ve promised to spend some time talking him through the model. (We had previously spoken about the similarities and differences between social care in Zambia and the UK.)

A few stops to ask for directions from roadside huts, and we finally found ourselves by the gate to the lodge. We were told we’d missed the giraffes (presumably they have other appointments to attend to in the afternoons) but we did see the running-away-bottoms of warthogs (including delightful BEBE WARTHOGS) and zebras as we drove up. At reception we were met by the lodge’s professional greeter – a ginger and white exceedingly friendly young dog, loosely modeled on the pointer, or possibly foxhound, variety. We quickly became friends (LOOK how well I can SIT! LOOK LOOK!) although, as he was an ‘entire’ male, I did have to tell him at one point that I didn’t like him in that way.

We were clearly off season as there wasn’t a soul around in terms of visitors. We were soon greeted by a friendly South African woman however, who arranged for some food for us, and bought cool drinks to slake our thirst. It’s a scenic spot on the Kafue river, and reasonably priced as safaris go – about 35 pounds pppn, 5 pounds each for a game drive. (Looking up more information about it, it appears the lodge is actually a ‘game farm’ that’s recently opened to visitors. It’s also up for sale, if you have around $3.8 million to spare.)

Our friendly host (the woman, not the dog. He was mostly just interested in leaping around and belly rubs) told us she’s studying nature conservancy. On hearing about our work with the village, she asked whether we’re including environmental sustainability. A good point. As we know from our permaculture friend Graham Burnett, both people and planet need to be considered together if people are to thrive.

Whilst waiting for dinner, and enjoying the ambiance, we met the resident anti-poacher (and, I think, manager?) An imposing Boer who’d served with the British paratroop regiment. Like every park across Africa, Kafue is at constant war with poachers: They come across the river. They break my fences. Every morning. Every evening. We had fifteen just this morning and more will come tonight. It’s relentless. I cannot shoot them. I shoot at them. And I shoot their dogs. Have you ever seen what a hunting dog will do to an animal? Bastards. They come over, they take my game. Just one of these animals is worth $20,000. The government does nothing. No one does anything. The larger parks, there are enough animals that stocks can replenish. Not here. Soon there will be no game animals left in Kafue. They will kill everything.

He was a very angry, very aggressive man. Hilda tried to speak with him about having words with the chief of the people doing the poaching. (Needless to say, Hilda knows the chief.) Our friend barked a contemptuous laugh. Your friend the chief, the bush meat he serves you? That’s my meat. My game. It’s easy to understand the anger, however. What must it be like to battle against such relentless attack with no support; no one prepared to treat the crime seriously. If Africa’s wildlife – and heritage – is to survive, governments need to take more effective action on poaching. And, concurrent with that, attitudes need to change at the local level. Benson said how much he’d love to bring his family to the lodge, and how they would love to see the animals. Even Benson had never seen a giraffe in the wild. Perhaps educating children about the wonders of wildlife is a good place to start.

We returned home late and tired from our adventures. Sadly, however, I was to be denied sleep. The down side of staying at motel style accommodation is the noise and the light. A noisy bar full of excitable chaps watching (on this occasion) the Zambian music awards. The bar’s right outside my room. And bright lights surround the complex – I’m denied the stars I was so looking forward to watching. Still – very comfy double bed and a hot shower. That’s not to be sneezed at. The music awards finished about 1am. Which is about when my neighbour began his amorous adventures. He’d clearly found himself an energetic and highly skilled woman as his vociferous appreciation continued till well after 5am.

Sleep deprivation certainly contributed to my inability to function on day 4. Consequently I retired at mid-day to sleep off a massive headache, dizziness and general not-at-all-rightness. Normal service resumed today, however – day 5; 12 September 2015. That historic day which saw Jeremy Corbyn elected as Leader of the Opposition.

Beer was drunk.

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Mpongwe and the Mumba Mosaic project. Day two: jigsaws, netball and running with dust.

And on the second day we persevered with mosaic making.

Lead artist Mara crafted the eagle that forms the centre piece. Helpers tiled around the main hand image. It’s looking something like this… (photo credit: Rosemary Cunningham – who’s also blogging. Go have a butchers.)

Now, although lots of fun is to be had sifting through shiny colourful tiles, smashing up large tiles, snipping them to shape and so forth, it turns out this is blooming tricksy stuff. For the mosaic to look superb once installed, the tiles need to fit neatly together. Otherwise loads of black grout fills in the spaces and rather hampers the aesthetic. I’ve never been one for jigsaws. Nor patience. For mosaic-ing, it helps to have an eye for the first and an abundance of the second. Nevertheless, despite the ineptitude of myself, and the lack of experience of our community helpers, under Mara’s tutelage a work of art is beginning to emerge.

Whilst Mara and crew were busy tiling in the borrowed second classroom, local plasterer (and one of Hilda’s brothers-in-law – married to Petroba, mentioned in Day One) Alex crafted the mosaic border. Helped by the local Chairman. Kudos to these lads – and their assistants – who toiled for hours in the heat to get the job done.

(Credit again to our Rosemary! My own photos still in the camera. No uploady thing)

**live update: just had to pop outside briefly to investigate a screechy animally sound. Large owl that had been scrabbling about in the roof flew over my head. Looked for all the world like a barn owl. Do they have those in Zambia? Who knew: owls play scrabble.***

Back to day two…

The other Very Exciting Thing (besides the mosaic) that happened today was speaking to the young women – Mercy and Lindewe (pictured in the top photo) – about setting up a netball club. They play a bit, but, as they explained to me; people just think we’re playing. Like children. They don’t think we’re being serious. These young women aren’t children, they’re 19 and 21 respectively. They want the opportunity to get serious about sport. Just as they see the young men getting serious about football (and getting football kits and getting in lots of photos and appearing on lots of websites – and this is all a Good Thing, and we need the same for Mpongwe’s young women.)

**it’s definitely a barn owl.**

We had a planning meeting, the three of us. (This is back with Mercy and Lindewe, by the way, the owls weren’t involved. In case you were wondering. They may be a whiz at scrabble, but netball isn’t really an owl thing.) Things we discussed:

  • A name? The Mumba Netball Club
  • Who’s going to be involved? Lindewe and Mercy are going to collect names of girls/women who are interested in learning, playing and competing at netball.
  • Ages? 15 – 25 (with some flexibility if others want to join)
  • Manager? Coach? They’re going to think about/talk to the others about who might be manager – ie person that generally organises things (club nights, training and competitions) and coach – ie someone with good netball skills and who is good at encouraging others that can plan training sessions. There could be a teacher at a nearby school able to teach a few girls/women how to coach.
  • Equipment? They have hoops. The Mumba women can probably make skirts and tabards. What they’d especially like from us UK supporters is t-shirts with a club logo. I tasked them to think about a logo. They see their club colours as: green skirts and tabards and perhaps a lemon yellow t-shirt. (They wanted white, but it was quickly pointed out that that’s not the best colour for any sport, let alone one taking place on a pitch of red dust.)
  • Place to play? They think they have a piece of land identified.

It was an exciting conversation. We talked about how even in the UK we’re trying to encourage more girls and women to enjoy sports and to play regularly. Lindewe and Mercy could be great role models for their village and the surrounding communities. They could show that girls playing sports is more than ‘children playing’. Girls and women can have an organised club where they can come together, learn sports skills, learn to play well, compete with other teams, learn to coach, encourage other girls and women to be active. As anyone involved with a sporting club will know – there’s much more to be gained than simply getting fit.

We’d love to connect the fledgling Mumba Netball Club up with a UK club that can help them get started. Especially a club in the Southend area. (Netball’s not my forte. I’m a fencer and, more recently, a runner. I would value some expert input!) Please to comment if you can help!

Having spent the afternoon discussing sports, thought I’d best get my runners on and pop off for a bit of a jog. The sun was beginning to set. It’s exactly how it is in films set in Africa. A large red ball hanging over an expanse of grassland, with the one thirsty tree scenically placed off to one side. (Minus the giraffe serenely passing by in slow mo.)  I went for just one mile. Mostly to find a handy circuit and to see what running here would be like. It’s hot, even at dusk, the altitude is noticeable (it’s around 4,000ft) but it’s the DUST that I particularly noticed. Sore throat, clogged up nose. Concern for my lungs. Happily, mosaic making requires dust masks, so that might help. (I already provide a spectacle by running, by being a mzungu running, and by being in bright orange running. A dust mask will make little difference to the open mouths of the small children I jog past. HELLO! HOW ARE YOU! I AM FINE!)

Creatures in my room tonight: my spider friend, a GECKO! (I loves a gecko) and a perplexed moth. Assisted the moth by cupping her gently in my hand (I love how they flutter) and directing her to freedom. There are some interesting looking creatures here. But I’m happy to pick up a moth. You know where you are with moths.

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Mpongwe and the Mumba Mosaic project. Day one: zombies, beginnings and learning about school.

Got here Monday night. Mildly delirious from being up for 40 hours. (Can’t sleep on planes.) If you’re interested in such things, my aerial film choices:

  • Ironman 3 – meh **
  • What we do in the shadows – amusing in places ***
  • Terminator Genisys – surprisingly, disappointingly, dull *
  • Spy – hilarious. Especially Jason Statham’s self-parody ****

Stopover: Dubai spaceport. Where coffee costs eight pounds. Views flying out over the city are incredible, as are the ensuing desertscapes.

Arrived at Lusaka to be greeted by a scene from the start of the zombie apocalypse – travellers being temperature checked by be-masked health workers. Didn’t see what happened to the ones that failed…

Having happily transpired to not be one of the Walking Dead, I continued through immigration to be greeted by Mary, a friend of Hilda’s. (Hilda runs the Mumba Children’s Project – where our project’s taking place – is generally formidable, and is either related to, or a friend of, everyone in Zambia) Mary (also formidable) negotiated my way onto a local bus. Six hour, uncomfortable ride to Mpongwe (although accompanied by a kindly man who bought me a most welcome bottle of fizzy pop) arriving (properly zombie-like) shortly after midnight (or about 2am Dubai/Mos Eisley time.)

Day one of the Mumba Mosaic project: we (me, Mara (our glorious leader, founder of CAST and mosaic artist – amongst other things) Rosemary – therapist, founder of Winning Women Essex and Valli – board member for CAST) were warmly welcomed by Hilda’s family and friends at the village where Mara’s leading aforementioned mosaic project.

Jobs for today: chalking up the wall of the school/children’s centre where the mural is to go, and making a start on the mosaic artwork – a large African hand, surrounded by smaller hands, wearing a MPONGWE bracelet. People arrived from the village and further afield to find out what we were up to and to learn how to make a mosaic. Everyone was incredibly hospitable, helpful and keen to get involved.

Next door to our workshop, school was in session. Overhearing substance misuse and alcohol, I moseyed over to have an eavesdrop. Effectively, a PHSE lesson was in session. (With children of primary school age and younger.)

And why do people drink too much alcohol? Yes, because they have problems at home.

What does drinking too much alcohol do to your body? Yes, it damages the liver and the brain.

And what happens if a pregnant woman drinks alcohol? Yes, it can harm the baby and cause it to be deformed.

The teachers here are young, committed and hard working. They’re also only partially qualified – not being able to afford the fees required to complete the teaching course. They have limited resources and large classes of mixed ages and abilities. The pupils are attentive and well-behaved. They bring out well-loved work books that are falling apart. They’re pleased to receive their gift of a pencil each. (The donated coloured pencils and crayons are kept at the school for the pupils to use whilst there. As are the plastic dinosaurs. Children can never have too many plastic dinosaurs.)

We interrupted class to hand over said pencils and other donations. Teachers and pupils alike seemed delighted with the bounty. The two children’s microscopes were well received – scientific resources are effectively non-existent.

Our school offered to share their gifts with a school in a neighbouring village; a larger, grander building where a maths session was underway with a young teenage class. The class were asked to welcome us. Thanking them and with an opportunity to talk to them, I asked who enjoys maths? (Silence. Polite, and possibly slightly terrified, silence.) The teacher encouraged them to answer the strange lady who’d just burst into their lesson to dole out pencils. A few hands slowly lifted. I said something about the importance of maths and science and asked who wants to be a doctor? One hand shot straight up. A young man (who then looked a tad embarrassed at this attention drawing action) of great ambition. I fervently hope he gets the opportunity. I then asked; and how many of you girls want to be doctors? Silence. We need more lady doctors. It’s very important for girls to study maths and science. Happily, the (male) teacher backed me up. Yes, we do need women to study the sciences. From what I’ve heard so far, things are changing for girls and women in Zambia. Of course it will take time, but, everything has to start somewhere. Mighty oaks, acorns, and so forth.

Lunch was prepared by the volunteer ‘dinner ladies’ who ensure each child that attends school receives a free healthy meal. (We presented these women with two aprons donated by Southend’s public health team – they love them. They want one more though – for their assistant.) Beans, nshima (made from maize) and vegetables: wholesome, hearty and absolutely delicious. These same amazing women keep up topped up with tea throughout the day. A full day’s work. Zero pay.

We’re meeting people here who have little themselves but are striving to do what they can for their community – especially for the children. It’s common to informally adopt here. Orphans aren’t unusual. I’m told (by Hilda’s sister Petroba, on our walk back from the neighbouring school) there’s been a high incidence of cervical cancer – many mums lost at an early age. Access to screening is improving, but women are anxious about getting screened or going for treatment. (I’ve not yet established the situation re cancer treatment and care. I expect the figures would show that cancer deaths in rural communities are relatively high. Including from the more treatable cancers.)

It’s dry season here. It’s very dry. And hot. Very hot. By 2pm – by virtue of lack of sleep and general-not-coping-so-well-in-the-heat I had once again adopted a Walking Dead demeanor. We packed up around 3pm and headed home. Home being a rather super ‘lodge’. I have a comfortable room with a double bed, a hot shower and, so far, just the one massive spider. (She didn’t bother me, I didn’t bother her. It works for us.) Compared to my usual digs when working in Africa, this is exquisite luxury. At around 12 pounds (there’s no pound symbol on this keyboard) per night. And there’s even t’internet. Which is nice.

There are many photos happening, which will accompany this blog retrospectively, owing to my lack of technomological wossnames and thingamajigs.

I hope to blog each day so that everyone that’s supported the project (and helped fund my flight over here) and anyone else that’s interested can learn more about what we’re up to. If you have any questions or ideas for me , my fellow volunteers, or the community, fire away!

You can read more over at Rosemary’s blog: www.RosemaryCunningham.co.uk

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We’ll never be here again

I nearly didn’t go to the park today.

The routine is: finish work, drive to Mum’s to collect dog, stop for a cuppa (with option on a ginger biscuit), have a chat, remark on Judge Rinder’s latest case (Judge Rinder having replaced McGyver as early evening viewing), stop dog bouncing long enough to attach lead, head home – with a visit to Blenheim Park en route.

However, it was approaching 8pm and I was very aware of the amount of Stuff that I Needed to Be Doing. Promoting the next Southend Soup, advertising a charity quiz night, and, doubtless, Getting Very Cross on Twitter.

But, I do love my dog. And she was ricocheting about the car like a pinball that’s had one too many espressos. So I relented. Just a quick one then. A few throws of the ball.

I do love my dog.

She makes me pause. And remember I’m alive.

It’s a simple park. Effectively four fields – two mowed, two left wild – a small ‘swings’ area and a fenced-in overgrown pond.

It’s full of wildlife. When you look. (Full of lots of biting things too, but we’ll not worry about those.)

We walked past the roses, by the swings. The fragrant roses of myriad colours. (Always worth stopping for a sniff.)

We walked on a bit more, down towards the pond.

And then I caught sight of the setting sun.

And I stopped.

The orange sun was low in the sky, beyond the row of elder oaks. It was partly obscured by fluffy cumulus clouds – tinged pink against the baby blue sky. The clouds were placed just right, so that sunbeams fanned upwards in a display of majestic beauty.

This in itself was a sight worthy of pause.

But that wasn’t all.

Swifts swooped and shrieked. Dancing in the sunbeams.

My favourite birds. Our summer visitors. Here for such a short time. And, as is true for so many species nowadays, in steep decline. But they’re here for now.

And so I stood.

And watched.

And thought about nothing else but what I was seeing. What I was hearing. The birds, the rustling of oak leaves in the breeze.

We moved on. Stopping occasionally to be mindful. (Well, I was being Mindful. I suspect Lexi lives fully in every moment anyway.)

We met a bulldog with her bulldog puppy. (BULLDOG PUPPY!) There were some humans with them, but neither me nor Lexi were particularly interested in them. (BULLDOG PUPPY!)

A 10 minute walk took more than half hour. I drove home to the Eagles on the radio. It seemed appropriate.

So glad I stopped off at the park. Wasn’t going to. But I did. Oh, what I would have missed!

It’s so easy to be swept away by commitments, obligations, worries. There’s work, there’s politics, there’s suffering and injustice to be doing something about. There’s general Stuff to Do, Things to Organise, Places to Be. We’re busy people. Stressed people. Distracted people.

But there really is always time to stop, and smell the roses and marvel at the swifts. Everything else can wait.

The swifts won’t be here forever.
And neither will you.
But they’re here now.
And so are you.

Enjoy the moment.

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Why a marathon for Mental Health

Mental health isn’t a sexy topic.

Organisations that support people with mental health problems don’t get the same level of exposure as (for eg) cancer, children’s or animal welfare charities. This reflects how mental health is viewed in society. Despite poor mental health affecting nearly everyone at some point in their lives, people with mental health problems are still, too often, portrayed as ‘nutters’ or even ‘dangerous nutters’ in the popular press and TV shows.

It’s ok to fear, laugh at, humiliate or pity the crazy people.

Mental health only becomes ‘sexy’, it would seem, when we get to be voyeurs – fascinated by TV programmes about in-mates of modern asylums, or by the weird lives of the hoarders, or compulsive cleaners. Such programmes go some way towards raising the profile of mental health, and some are much more positive than others (see for example the uplifting documentary where James Rhodes takes his classical piano into a hospital) but, for the most part, mental health problems as entertainment isn’t helpful in combating stigma. 

The stigma doesn’t only affect those with more significant difficulties. People with lower level mental health problems – such as (extremely common) depression and anxiety – are expected to pull themselves together, get over it, or, my personal favourite: happiness is a choice. Just choose to be happy!

Why would these sad souls need support from a charity? Why fund help for people that won’t help themselves? 

The standard narrative remains so stigmatising that people still report reluctance to see their GP. This shouldn’t be. Seeing someone about mind-related worries should be as normal as booking a dentist appointment for toothache. And such is the lack of knowledge about how to effectively support people with mental health needs that there’s great disparity in the therapies and treatments people are offered when they do go to their GP. (For the record, my local practice: very good.)

There is a clear need for organisations such as Mind and Time to Change. 

I’ve had support from Southend Mind. I know the difference they can make to people’s ability to engage with the world and live a happy life. People have been saying kind things recently about the community work I do. That would never be happening had I not had help. The support not only helped me to cope with difficulties at the time, but helped me to become much more aware of my low moods and anxieties, and how to manage them. When things start to get bad now, I know what to do. (Running, and having a wonderful mood-boosting dog, helps.) One is rarely cured of a mental health problem, but the majority of people learn how to manage.

All of this is why I chose to run for Mind in Sunday’s Brighton Marathon.

I’m no endurance runner. The extensive training has made this abundantly clear. Marathon training is hard. I’m slow. I lag behind everyone else. I suffer. Man, do I suffer. The longer runs that I’ve managed have thrown up symptoms that are, frankly, terrifying. It seems likely these are linked to my brain injury – which is something of an unknown quantity when I’m putting my body under so much stress.

However, I am still going to have a go anyway.

Maybe I’ll make it, maybe I won’t, but we never really know what we’re capable of until we try.

My fundraising total is currently relatively low – under the required £500 minimum. (Although I have some funds to add in from last week’s fabulous meal at The Railway). National Mind have said that if I manage to acquire more than £500, they should be able to give some of the total to Southend Mind – directly supporting local people.

If you can bung a few quid my way, I would be extremely grateful. And if you remember, spare a thought for me on Sunday.

To quote Dr Frasier Crane, I wish you all good mental health.

https://www.justgiving.com/dustyrunsbrighton

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A post by an Hysterical Woman. In which she says both Fuck and Bollocks.

That’s twice this week it’s been suggested I’ve been over-emotional.

Once for complaining about NGO Save the Rhino having a policy of supporting trophy hunting, because I believe someone calling themselves Save the Rhino ought to be saving rhinos, and again when I posted an – admittedly upsetting – film clip of two former battery chickens and invited people to think about their choices vis-a-vis meat consumption.

What does this mean – over-emotional?

Is it that believing all life is of value renders me too sentimental? Or is that I’m an emotional woman, who simply can’t hack the harsher elements of life?

In both cases, the you’re emotional (or you’re having an emotional response – which sounds suspiciously like you’re getting hysterical dear) seemed to mean you’re not thinking straight…

…or no one should take you seriously because you’re thinking with your ovaries. 

It’s a blatant attempt to discredit a point of view. Oh don’t listen to her. She gets a bit upset when she sees pictures of hunters grinning over their latest conquest. Or of chickens that can’t use their legs because they’ve been kept in a tiny cage all their lives. Needs to man up. Grow a pair. LIVE IN THE REAL WORLD.

Is that it now? Is that what the Real World is? A place where we’re immune to the suffering of others? Where there can be no place for compassion?

To be credible, to be taken seriously, to be considered to have a point of view worth listening to, must we always adopt Vulcan-like levels of logical reasoning?

I’m a trained philosopher (albeit only green belt at most – training continues; philosophy is for life). I understand about arguments and reason. As a current student, I understand about sources. I work in public health. I understand about peer-reviewed studies, control groups, the importance of having a sound evidence base and all that malarky. I regularly read The Lancet. Some of it, I understand.

Sometimes, though, what’s RIGHT, is pretty fucking obvious. And sometimes, frankly, shit that happens is worth getting pissed off about.

How many humans on the planet? Over 7 billion. How many rhinos? Fewer than 30,000. Some species have already become extinct. The next one likely to go is the Javan rhino – fewer than 40 animals thought to remain. (Source – Save the Rhino. Those people that believe saving the rhino involves killing the rhino. A view not shared, incidentally, by almost every other conservation NGO.)

Tonight, I watched Facing Extinction – Sir Terry Pratchett’s trip to Borneo to find out what had happened to the Orangutans since his visit in the 90s. Things hadn’t gone well. As he rightly pointed out, it’s not just about the Orangs. It’s about their habitat. The forest is increasingly being cleared to grow palm oil. Once the forest is gone, it’s gone forever. And so is the vast diversity of life that lived there.

Sir Terry remarked that it felt entirely natural to be in the jungle. We are of that ecology, us humans. Nature works. Everything flourishes together. That’s not me being girly – those are the words of the great Mr Ablethorpe, my 6th form biology teacher.

In our desire for dominion, to control the beasts, the land and the seas for what we perceive as our own benefit, we have fucked up the world that is our home, the rhinos’ home, the orangutans’ home and the chickens’ home (yes yes, I understand they’re domestic animals, but there we are. They’re here now. As my Mum would say: everything has as much right to life as we do.) And we continue to fuck up our home. With many sticking their fingers in their ears and yelling LA LA LA, CAN’T HEAR YOU! any time someone – including people with considerably better credentials than me, like those people with ‘Scientist’ in their job title – presents them with information or evidence of the fucked-up-ness.

As that known to be incredibly over-emotional bloke Einstein pointed out; once the bees go, we go. He was quite intelligent. Knew a few things. Maybe he understood something about ecosystems. Or maybe he should have stuck to the physics and stopped with the scaremongering.

Emotional responses serve a purpose. Because I react with emotion, doesn’t mean that everything I have to say is bollocks, nor that the trigger to my response should be dismissed.

Unless we have some pretty niche predilections, we react to rotting food and faeces with disgust. Because those things could make us ill. Disgust is an emotion. Some people react with fear when they see a spider, wasp, snake (insert potential dangerous beastie here). Fear is an emotion. It helps us avoid danger. As social animals, we bond closely with our children and usually with our close family members and friends. We tend to call this emotion love. It drives us to look after one another – often selflessly. It helps the tribe to survive. I could go on. You get the idea.

There are people who can give you rational reasons to protect other animals and the environment. Zoologists and behaviour experts who understand about intelligence and the complexity of animals’ social lives, environmental scientists who understand the evidence-based benefits of biodiversity. Me – mostly I simply believe, morally, that the world is not ours to mess about with as we please. Other animals aren’t here for us to use and abuse whenever we wish. Especially not to kill simply because it’s fun. That’s the behaviour of the dangerous psychopath, surely? (There are non-dangerous psychopaths, apparently. Apparently, they make very good surgeons.)

What do you have when you don’t have compassion?

Apathy.

Oh well there’s nothing I can do, anyway.

There are far worse things going on in the world.

That’s just how it is now. Get used to it. 

Why don’t you worry about x instead?

I don’t always Get Emotional, but, as it transpires, there are a shit-load of things likely to Piss me Off. Most of which are about suffering or inequality. By no means an exhaustive list…

I get emotional about girls being raped in India.

I get emotional about people living under oppressive regimes; tortured and imprisoned for daring to speak in their own language.

I get emotional when powerful nations bomb the fuck out of their own people, and thousands of civilians die, are maimed for life, lose their families, homes and livelihoods.

I get emotional about people not having access to clean drinking water.

I get emotional when people die as the factory where they were working for pennies, making cheap clothes for the West, collapses.

I get emotional when people view animals as sustainable resources as though that animal’s life is of no consequence except in the context of its value to humanity.

I get emotional that so many people are having to use food banks. That the poorest in our own society continue to bear the brunt of ‘austerity’.

I get emotional whenever I hear of a suicide. To think about someone lonely. Desperate. Let down by a system. Believing there was no point continuing.

I get emotional about older people living and dying alone; isolated from the busy communities on their doorsteps.

I get emotional when people torture or abuse trusting and vulnerable animals, children or adults.

I get emotional when someone is bullied for being ‘different’.

I get emotional when powerful people fuck over the planet that is my home.

When I was in Thailand, in 2011, working with animal rescue charity Soi Dogs, I noticed that a cat in the kennels had suffered an allergic reaction to his meds. He was going into anaphylactic shock and needed urgent attention. I shouted. I got people moving. I made it abundantly clear this was an emergency. I made sure that cat got the care he needed. He survived. He belonged to a man who’d been rendered homeless by the floods. The man adored his cats. He was over-joyed when he was reunited with them. All of them.

When I helped that cat, one of the other volunteers said to me:

If I’m ever in trouble. I hope I have you in my corner!

Don’t knock my emotions.

Don’t confuse soft with weak.

One day, it could be your fucking life I’m fighting for.

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Woman has spots. Chairs meeting anyway.

I have spots.

They’ve been a part of my facial landscape since my teens. When aged about 13, a particularly spiteful Home Ec teacher (who I can only think took against me because of my incompetence around a Victoria Sponge) suggested to the class that spots like mine were the product of poor hygiene and could easily be prevented by washing. Despite indulging in frequent ablutions, and despite now having grey hair and wrinkles to further enhance my characterful features, the spots persist. They’re just there. I don’t bother about them overly. Occasionally, if I’m really lucky, I’ll get a right good squeezer.

I seldom wear make-up. I’m a Very Busy Person and have better things to spend my time on than colouring myself in. (Although I do wear it when the mood takes me; it’s like grown-up dressing up. And – this is important – I’m perfectly happy with other people opting to wear makeup. I am the sort of feminist that believes women are free to do whatsoever they wish.) Also, the older I grow, the less I care about my appearance. This doesn’t mean I turn up to work dishevelled and sporting the latest in hessian couture, but rather that I’m not out to impress or attract anyone with what I wear or how I look. Certainly in my professional life, I don’t believe my failure to wear concealer makes the slightest difference to my productivity as an employee.

Hence I was rather taken aback today to receive some discreet advice about how I might be able to cure my embarrassing little problem. The main thing that I do, work-wise, is what I tend to describe as getting people to talk to each other. (Which, as it transpires, is also what I mostly do non-work-wise.) When the council needs to consult the public they often enlist my help. I’m a trained facilitator – specialising in Appreciative Inquiry – and I’m darned good. Today, I hosted a focus group about Southend’s new energy partnership; an arrangement which could save local people lots of money.

Having been up since 6.30 am for a radio interview about Southend Soup, it’s feasible my appearance was a trifle more haggard than usual.

spots

However, my put-everyone-at-their-ease chipper demeanour, and facilitation expertise, should rate more highly than how visually appealing I am. After all, were I of the male persuasion, it would be unlikely I’d be wearing makeup and yet; I’ve never once heard anyone criticise a chap in a meeting for failing to make himself presentable.

After I’d wound down the conversation and thanked everyone for their time and contributions, one of the participants – a kindly, well-dressed gentleman likely in his 80s – decided to have a gentle word with me. He handed me a Post-it note on which, earlier in the event (obviously feeling concerned for me) he’d written the name of a brand of cream that, he assured me, was very effective at clearing up all manner of boils, blemishes and other sub-cutaneous unpleasantness. With kind intent, I’m sure, he told me how he’d used it when suffering from outbreaks in the tropics. He suggested I talk to a pharmacist as it was a less common ointment, but still available in some places.

 

antipeol

Stunned, my default reaction was the British reaction: Thank you. You’ve just been politely insulting, but, thank you.

My inside voice was less impressed. Oh, you are not telling me I need to sort out my appearance. This is not the thing you are choosing to say to me after I’ve spent two hours conducting a professional consultation. Later on, inside voice continued to provide appropriate ripostes;

does it offend you that I have blemishes? would you have offered that advice had I been male?

Although the best response was offered by a friend when I relayed this tale;

Thank you for your skin care advice. Could I ask which foundation you use..?

If one doesn’t confront such attitudes, things don’t change. However, would it really have been useful to have challenged him? Or would that, actually, have been a rather unkind thing to do – giving that his intent was to be helpful?

This is an example of everyday sexism: the expectation that women should be pretty. I’ve even heard women say it. Stuff like if you’re representing your organisation, it’s important to be well groomed. For women, well groomed means covering up any unsightly imperfections. Because men don’t wish to see that. Perhaps it’s considered an insult that a woman would attend a meeting having not made the requisite degree of effort to appear appealing.

I don’t believe appearances ought to matter anything like as much as they do. But I understand they do matter. And I’m happy to dress smartly when the occasion dictates. Sometimes going as far as to don heels. (Sometimes very much enjoying the sporting of heels.)

shoes2

It would, for example, be absurd and disrespectful to attend a wedding in scuffed trainers and muddy jeans. (Unless that was the dress code.) But, being expected to cover my spots, or working harder to eliminate them..? Should that be a requirement? What if I had a birth mark on my face? Or a scar? Am I also failing as a woman because I don’t attempt to fix my natural wrinkles using miracle creams or, heaven forfend, by injecting botulism – the most deadly toxin known to humankind – into my face?

Personally, this is my preferred method for face-lifting. Although each to their own.

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During my younger years, like so many, I spent lots of time and money on ‘cures’ for acne. I felt self-conscious and ugly. Just as young people are often made to feel unattractive if they are the ‘wrong’ shape or have anything about them that stands out as different. I was also told, as a youngster, that I’d be ‘quite pretty’ if only I’d get my teeth fixed. I had braces, but my teeth want to be wonky. Over the years they re-wonked. Used to worry about. Don’t now. And I’m happier for it.

The messages for young people (which, in my experience is when the grooming about grooming begins) should be

you’re grand, everyone’s unique, gender isn’t binary and neither’s sexuality, be kind n good n stuff, follow your passions, love yourself and accept others, celebrate difference, do lots of stuff people tell you not to, believe impossible things, spend time outdoors, don’t hurt spiders.

Not

people will love you more if you just work a bit harder to look perfect. You know, like all the shiny, successful, rich, people in the magazines and films. 

Perhaps I am being unkind and over-reacting. He meant well, and maybe I could benefit from getting some of that cream. (Spots can be a trifle sore, after all.) However, it’s the Principle of The Thing. The expectation that if I don’t look a certain way, I need fixing. Perhaps I’m even to be pitied.

For the record, I can make myself look like this

scrub2

Sometimes I wear make up. Sometimes I dress fancy and wear heels. I do it when I want to. (Which is rare these days. It’s too much of a faff.)

I don’t cover my spots because you think I should. I don’t look pretty because you think I should. Because I’m not your bitch.

Thank you.

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The Comfort of the Reaper Man. An ode to a Hero.

Reading material for a life-threatening illness..?

Terry Pratchett’s Reaper Man – a tale about Death getting cheesed off with death and putting his talent with a scythe to use as a farm-hand named Bill Door – wouldn’t seem an obvious choice to cheer up someone fearing death.

Nonetheless, when I was ailing in Southend Hospital – in 2004 – with brain ‘tumours’, fearing to sleep lest I not wake, that’s the Discworld book that my partner elected to bring. (We’re no longer together. Nothing to do with book choices.)

However, if you believe you’re facing imminent demise, it is cheering to imagine the anthropomorphic personification of Death as a tall, be-cloaked skellington with galaxies for eyes, the voice of Christopher Lee, and a penchant for kittens. After all, no one that champions cats can be all bad.

I had two books to entertain me in my quiet side room (the ones they put you in when the outlook doesn’t look too jolly. ‘Try not to worry…’) A book on meditation, and Reaper Man. Each morning, upon waking, I’d feel ok for all of a minute, then fog and dizziness would descend (I was to discover this was due to intoxication from too high a dose of anti-epileptics) rapidly followed by the arrival of my new friends Panic and Sense-of-Impending-Doom. In an effort to attain calm, I’d open the meditation book and talk myself through the breathing exercises. Inevitably, Panic’s presence would persist as the words swam across the page. And so I’d reach for Bill Door instead. His entertaining antics, along with that of the wizards grappling with undead shopping carts, were an engaging distraction. Death, it transpired, is a great comfort.

Happily, I didn’t die after all. The tumours turned out to be nothing more than a few worm larvae that had got a tad lost and, unfortunately for everyone concerned, perished within my grey matter. To quote the late Sir Terry, they were something of an embuggerance, but no great threat.

During my period of convalescence I was delighted to receive an email about a conversation with Sir Terry Pratchett taking place at the Critereon Theatre. Ticket prices were a mere £5 AND there would be an opportunity to get books signed afterwards. Given how it had helped me through the most traumatic experience of my life, I took along my dog-eared copy of Reaper Man. For the occasion, boyfriend bought a shiny new hardback copy of Going Postal – the latest Discworld offering and the world’s introduction to Moist Von Lipwig. (I’m happy to report that I got custody when we went our separate ways. Of the book, that is, not of Moist.)

Terry Pratchett was ever a delight to watch in conversation – witty, erudite, riveting and with choice words to say about inaccurate use of Awesome, his loathing of multiple exclamation marks (also featured in Reaper Man; Five exclamation marks, the sure sign of an insane mind) and his proclivity for the ellipsis. But, the highlight of the outing was the opportunity to come face-to-face with the great man.

The queue was kept moving thanks to a crisp, professional woman who ensured everyone had but five seconds to get their books signed and move on. (To be fair, it was rather a long queue and everyone probably wanted to be home before the birds began to sing.) There was, however, time for Sir Terry to bless a handful of roleplaying dice bought along by the Discworld disciple ahead of us. And then…we were before him.

I tumbled out my words. ‘thankyousomuchforyourfantasticstories (breathe) theyhelpedmecopewithabraininjuryrecently
oh but thank you’ replied my hero ‘your buying my books helped me recover from my heart surgery‘. A couple of swift and treasured signatures, and that was that.

Over the years, I took every opportunity that I could afford and was available for to see Sir Terry speak. I like to dabble with writing myself, every now and then (not often enough), and one couldn’t hope for better inspiration. (Although Neil Gaiman is nearly as good.) More recently, I listened to him at the launch of Dodger at the atmospheric Ely cathedral. There was a sweepstake for a photo opportunity with the dapper top-hatted Sir Terry. I looked on in envy as my friend went up for her turn (doing my best ‘oh but I’m so glad it was you what won the Oscar!’ face.) And most recently; a conversation with Steven Baxter at the London School of Economics about the Long Earth – a return to Sir Terry’s origins as a writer of Sci Fi and a bloomin exciting read.

Like so many millions who have enjoyed the Discworld and other offerings for decades; I was devastated to read the news of his death on 12 March 2015. Heartbroken to read the final three tweets on the TerryandRob page and the page of his daughter Rhianna. It was comforting to read that Sir Terry Pratchett died at home, with his family, and with the cat on his bed.

Everyone knows that, for great Magicians, Death turns up in person. I like to think Death had a satisfactory conversation with RoundWorld’s Master of Magic before ushering him on to whatever happens next. Maybe a game of chess. Almost certainly he’d have paused to give the cat a tickle under the chin. Death likes a cat.

So long Sir Terry Pratchett. Thank you for bringing Great A’Tuin to life. Thank you for painting such realistic and lovable characters – Gaspode! Ventinari! Vimes! Nanny Ogg and her bawdy songs! Rincewind and the wizards! The LIBRARIAN! Cohen, with his love of shoft toilet paper and good dentishtry! The Wee Free Men! – to name but a few of my favourites (DEATH is a given, of course.)

Thank you for bringing so much magic and happiness to so many for so many years.

I pledge to continue to introduce people to the magic of the Discworld, to open imaginations and encourage contemplation of the impossible.

Because somewhere, it almost certainly is turtles. All the way down.

The End..?

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artificialis

It was dead at the gate. But she liked to pretend there was life.

She looked out through the glass walls. A view across the tarmac.

Before the quiet time, she’d have seen a scene of hustle bustle. Before.

Miniature trucks shuttling luggage. Flashing lights. Rushing cars. Everyone in a hurry, hurry! People in ear defenders waving at aircraft.

She closed her eyes to better see the vibrant activity. To better hear the noise associated with the hordes arriving and departing. Visitors to her world.

Open eyes.

Gazing out at the dark world, the unlit strip, she landed an imaginary Learjet. She populated it with beautiful plastic celebrities – lips and boobs and buttocks. A small plastic dog; shaking nervously in a pink tutu.

The images dissolved, as though a circuit had broken. It was harder now to manifest stories. Memories so old. Decayed by time.

Desolation. Silence.

What she wouldn’t give to see a plastic person. She’d rush to welcome them. To love them.

Anyone.

If only they hadn’t taken the birds. If only they’d left something alive. If only.

She’d be gone too.

Had she been a real girl.