Archive for March, 2012

Top gear

The Wheelbarrow

Kenya, like most developing countries, has an ageing fleet of motor vehicles. Ramshackle cars that have exceeded their predicted lifespans many times over and have lived for years that I expect baffle even their own creators.

Because of the thin economics that afflict most of us, we strive to coax every last kilometer out of our cars with measures that include second-hand parts drawn from a burgeoning market that imports junked cars from the first world and strips them for much appreciated parts that are for sale in every  state and description imaginable.

There are also mechanics that work in garages that are nothing more than the shade of a tree and who are to be found in most neighborhoods plying their trade of keeping our cars patched and oiled as they continue to evade their grim reapers clasp. Such are the skills of these artisans that I once had an entire engine overhauled in just such a leafy garage and it is my bet that that car is still pottering about somewhere in Nairobi, no doubt a source of great pleasure and pride to its hundredth owner.

KPQ 788 was the registration of that car and it is with it, that I begin my story of my many relationships with cars over the years.

We acquired this car, my brother and I, back in the early nineties, at which stage it was already a mature 25 years old. It really belonged to my brother, but as I drove it almost as much as he did, the ownership lines had blurred. PQ, as it later came to be called, was a glorious machine that carried my friends and I to places beyond our previous frontiers that were defined mainly by bus routes and timetables.

After a couple of years of sharing PQ with my brother, I was finally able to put enough money together to get my very own car. She was oh-so-shiny and my pride and joy, my beauty. So fast that my Matilda, my everything.

Matilda, like PQ was an equally ancient jalopy that was aptly named in allegory to Harry Belafonte’s Matilda who had duped him into loving her and then took all his money and ran off to Venezuela. My Matilda, similarly, had cleaned out my bank account and even left me in some debt in her acquisition. She represented all that I had to my name back then but that had mattered very little. I was independently mobile, and though petrol would sometimes prove to be a challenge I could go anywhere I wanted whenever I wished. So fast that my Matilda, my everything.

My relationship with Matilda was however not to be as forever as I had imagined it would be when I first fell in love. As I found my way in the world, I began to want more out of life than poor Matilda could provide and with this desire came my new mistress, Wamaitha.

Wamaitha, yet another banger of a car, swept into my life brandishing wily charms at me and rendering me helpless with features like a fifth gear and even a single headrest on the driver’s seat.  Never before had I known such luxury on four wheels. Even the radio worked, albeit a bit reluctantly.

Oh, how I’d loved that car. I had named her after a shrew of a woman that I had once known who was constantly agitating for attention. She and I had a tempestuous relationship, marked with many breakdowns that led to her being frequently interred at the local garage as they transplanted part after part in efforts to keep her lively for me. Much as I had loved her, I soon had to end that relationship because it eventually reached the point where I could no longer keep up with her demands.

After a few more tumultuous flings with several other motors, I eventually met up with the love of my life, Mercy.  Mercy was everything that I’d ever wanted in a car. Two headrests, a fifth gear and even a much beloved hood ornament all forming part of her seductive livery and oh, so much more than that.

Such a thing of beauty she was. We would spend days on end gamboling across the roads of Southern Africa, conquering horizon after horizon with an ease that I quickly became accustomed to – increasingly sure that each kilometer would be tackled with the same effortlessness as the last.

But, once again, it was the endless search for better circumstances in life that separated Mercy and I. This time it came in the form of me leaving the country that I lived in then to seek my fortune elsewhere and having to leave Mercy behind forever. Mercy, oh my Mercy. Being separated from her was a very hard thing indeed and I have never loved a car again as I did her.

My current relationship is with a gas glutton that is simply known as the Wheelbarrow.  It is a rather large car of the type that a friend once described as a sitting-room on wheels. My youngest son disappears into the vastness of its back seat and cannot see out the window even when on his booster seat.

It is a relic that, in this new era of six-speed cars, does not even have a fifth gear and is a rather ponderous drive to boot.  It is also older than anyone born in post apartheid South Africa and behaves rather like it still has a seperationist’s agenda as it excludes me from the ranks of the noticeable. It makes not the slightest effort to excite as it continues to serve its  very specific purpose of just being (mostly) reliable transportation.

It is a pairing that I fear I am stuck with for the discernible future and if it’s anything like the cars I’ve driven before, it has yet another fifteen years of motoring waiting to be coaxed out of it.

My only hope is that it does not get to spend its many remaining years with me.


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Foot in mouth disease

Seven years ago, while in transit at the Johannesburg airport, I met with a couple of good friends. They had come to help me whittle away the long five hour wait that I had before jumping onto my next plane to a destination that I no longer remember. One of my friends was also seeing off his girlfriend who was on her way to some other unremembered destination.

This meeting went like countless others, with lots of froth lubricating the frolic and mirth that always went with such assemblies.

What makes me write about that day is what, at the time, was a seemingly inconsequential conversation that I had with my friend’s then brand new partner about what I considered to be a ridiculous new trend in cyberspace. These were the dawning times of the now ubiquitous web log.

“Why on earth would anybody be interested in reading what I have to say?” I remember saying to her. “Blogging is just another flash in the pan type fad and it will never catch on” I went on. Having just met me and clearly of good breeding, she let me continue digging myself into the awkward position that I later found myself in when she quietly told me that she had a blog of her very own and that she was actually quite the enthusiast.

Sensing clouds gathering and with the help of the little breeding that I had to draw from, I quickly shifted gears and charged down another avenue of conversation without for a moment yielding the soap box. You’ll understand that we only had a few hours and with the alcohol fueling my fervour, I felt compelled to squeeze my other various opinions on life, the universe and everything into this short time with my friends.

But thoughts of the quietly spoken lady and her blogging habit that I had so ridiculed remained with me. So much so, that when I got to the other side of my trip, I decided to sneak a peek at her musings looking to confirm my thoughts that blogs and the good use of time were completely unrelated.

What happened next was the beginning of a chain of events spanning many years, ultimately culminating in me writing this blurb. Her blog, http://www.kenyanpundit.com/ proved to be one of the most interesting insights into the Kenyan condition that I had read in a very long time, if ever. I had planned to just casually glance at the first page, confirm my suspicions, and move on to my then budding passion for scouring the web for the gems that it every so often yielded.

That day, I went no further. I had found a jewel embedded deep into the endless pages of drivel that the web, already in its much talked about second incarnation, had spewed. I read every bit of this blog with increasing respect for the clear and eloquent Kenyan Pundit and her varied viewpoints and, even at that stage, already hoping that we would never meet again. And if we did meet again, I hoped that she would not remember our conversation. I’d been an absolute idiot that previous day at the airport.

A few months ago, I met up with the Kenyan Pundit in roughly similar circumstances to the ones surrounding our first meeting many years prior. Good friends and beer once again mixed very well.

She had gone on to do even bigger and better things on the web and so, after the usual ribaldry and jokes about short men, the conversation quite naturally moved on to new trends in social media. We shared our thoughts and experiences on how we used platforms like Facebook and Twitter and armed with the teachings of experience, I managed to keep my tongue in check this time. I think.

Anyway, as the conversation flowed on and caution faded, I inexplicably reminded her of our very first meeting and what I’d said about blogs. To this, she responded with a smile and said, “I’m very glad that you still remember that day. What do you think about blogging now?” I sheepishly admitted that my opinion had changed somewhat and I think I might even have apologized for being such an ass. She then very graciously suggested that I start a blog of my own.

So, seven years down the line and on the urging of several other people I finally began my blog. I thought it fitting that I share this story about my first experience with a good blog and blogger and I tip my hat to those skilled in the art as I attempt to join their number.

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Are weekends with kids fun?

Perspective, in the answers to questions like these will often yield an interesting contrast of opinions. There’s the parents opinion which is absolutely irrelevant and of no consequence whatsoever and then there’s of course the children’s. In this piece, I present only my two bits and will pretend my opinion matters.

Those of us who have small children will usually be jarred awake from that recurring utopian dream where you have no kids and that the weekend ahead is to do with whatever you please. It will often be the younger one priming the cockerel to announce the coming of dawn with that oh-so-familiar screech.

Thus my day begins. I pick up the screaming bundle of joy and stagger into the kitchen looking for the bottle of milk that will plug the daily distress call the child sends across to my very understanding neighbours. It works wonders and soon that smile that I love so much is beaming at me and my nerves begin to calm, bringing my body back from red-alert status to more manageable adrenalin levels. This moment of tranquillity as the sun rises is only broken by the bubbling sounds of smelly release from my diapered descendant.

Meanwhile, on the other side of my world, a separate battle is being waged. The second banshee has arisen and has immediately escalated events into running battles between himself and my fellow inmate. Skirmishes involving cereal and underwear happen across the previously sedate vista while I clean off the incredible happenings in number two’s nappy.

“Good morning”, she manages as she chases him brandishing a toothbrush.

When the sun finally clears the horizon, we’re seated sipping the first coffee of the day wondering how best to entertain our captors for the next 48 hours. We know full well that we must, once again, show courage and bravery, never flinching at whatever they throw at us and provide a unified front to the unrelenting onslaught that awaits us. I quickly wipe away a tear before my wife spots it. I’ve always admired her for her strength and patience but I can’t help thinking again that she might be fortifying her coffee with something on the sly. Smart lady if she is.

Nice fishy!

We eventually decide to do what we always do, which is whatever the kids want to do. This wisdom acquired from many days of getting things wrong has also shown us that anything involving dirt and danger will do very well for them. There’s a nice restaurant at the beach in Hout Bay that has a huge sand pit which promises all sorts of peril and adventure and provides just the right mix of thrills to keep them interested for a while.

We set our minds to breakfasting there with the only problem being that it only opens at 10 am and so we have to contain the storm in the house for a few more hours.

The weekend will pass with us trying to direct or contain the inexplicably boundless energies of our charges in all sorts of different places like this. Sometimes we meet up with other parents and let the kids pit themselves against each other for a while. This is always very nice for all involved and I only wish we could do it more often.

To the inexperienced, this might sound like the beginning of a weekend from hell and wonder why anyone would willingly choose a life like this. This smorgasbord of intrigue, smiles, smells, amusement, amazement, bewilderment, laughter, tears, dampness and innocence is of addictive characteristic and though I curse the rising sun every Saturday, I look forward to every weekend with the children.

If you do not have small children of your own, then the best thing to do on Saturday morning is to wake up smiling, give yourself a pat on the back before proceeding to do whatever it is that you like to do. Twice even. But know that you are missing out on what is easily the greatest experience in this life.


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