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Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category

Yet another story that I wrote many years ago.

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2007-06-15

This place is really cold.

I’ve been living in Edinburgh for about two months now and still find it difficult to adjust to this bleak weather.

Last Saturday we had a rare day of sunshine. “It’s a full twenty-two degrees celsius in some places” the media proclaimed amidst warnings that we should all be sure to exercise caution and not overexpose ourselves to what they made sound like an exploding sun.

It so completely transformed the place that I was even briefly seen outside in just a t-shirt before scurrying back inside for another layer of clothing. Later, walking along the canal, I drew perplexed stares from the bare-chested men and sparingly clad women obviously reveling in the warmth beneath fragrant layers of top factor sunscreen. A very confusing state of affairs for me as I shivered on about my daily routine and I hoped that this was at least a sign that it would soon be warm enough even for me to unzip my fleece and even perhaps leave it behind eventually.

That was the hottest day that summer.

A rude reminder that I was living on the same latitude with Moscow and that people from the tropics like me were simply not built to endure these parts of the hemisphere followed. The routine skirmishes from our bunker to work, kindergarten and the shops for supplies through veritable blizzards and the terrifyingly named haar (fog) soon returned.

In all fairness, Edinburgh is a beautiful city and I became even more aware of this after visiting Birmingham and London a few weeks prior. There is a lot of beautifully preserved old architecture all over the place, if you’re into that sort of thing, and lots of canals, ponds, parks and of course the almighty Firth of Forth to walk through and see.

Of particular interest to me are the endless shows, festivals, galleries, etc. I’m so overwhelmed by the sheer extent of possibility, that at the moment, I mostly sit at home and watch the marvel that is digital TV. Perhaps one of these days I’ll stop being intimidated by that 100 page weekly entertainment magazine, and actually do something interesting. I’m thinking of visiting Rosslyn chapel, of the Da Vinci Code fame. But even the thought of that has me cracking up.  If, by any chance, I was to get lost in the haar along the way, no one would ever think to look for me on the route to a five hundred year old church, would they?

But culture is a fluid thing. Perhaps by repeatedly donning my tweed jacket and frequenting poetry recitals in incredibly old buildings across the city I might purge myself of the cultural limits imposed by my Murang’a origins and transform into a contextually socially educated and cultured person.

I have not gone so far, but must admit that I quite enjoy sipping the odd single malted distillate while staring ponderously into the distance. Posh eh?

While such behaviour would probably earn me a beating in Nairobi, I feel that it is culturally acceptable here, and I often find myself sitting at the counter of my new local, the Caledonian Sample Room, with my head tilted at a philosophical angle thinking about the enigmatic life of Robert the Bruce and the triumph that is Rabbie Burns. As you might be able to tell, I’ve been bombarded with information about the founding of this amazing culture.

That said, most of the Scots I’ve met are friendly, unassuming, salt of the earth sort of people who don’t flaunt history and culture in your face in the way many other Europeans would. The main problem is that I’ve not quite managed to cross the language barrier. No, they do not speak Gaelic nowadays, but very heavily accented English which is especially difficult to decipher after they’ve quaffed down a few pints of beer from the remarkably broad range on offer across the city.

I was once offered a “brain” sauce to go with my chips. At the time, I remember thinking that, not only do they make haggis, a sausage thingy from sheep’s stomach and innards, but they also make a sauce from its brain? What a people! They are not as far removed from my beloved Murang’a as I thought. I must get the recipe! Only later, much to my wife’s delight, did I discover that they had meant “brown” (HP) sauce.

“I dinnae ken that” is another phrase that I quickly came to learn which very often followed in the wake of anything that I said meaning “I don’t understand” and “braw” meaning “great” whenever I managed to get my meaning across.

I guess it will take some adjusting. My first steps will be to boldly go to the National Museum in town this weekend to begin the process of acclimatising by visiting the glass tomb of Dolly, that most famous of cloned sheep.

I will try to be enthralled by the expected tales of Jacobites and decapitated queens while trying to understand why they all just didn’t escape south to what surely would have been a less harsh life.

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A short while ago, I applied to do a PhD at the University of Cape Town. Yes, you read that right, I actually sat down, did some careful introspection and decided that I was equal to the task.  You see, where I come from, you are considered to be of very respectable stock if you have a title other than the standard mister or miss. I wanted to distinguish myself in society and this seemed like a good way to try and do it.  I guess this is true of most places.

I therefore set out to get myself a new title, already imagining what my business card would look like when I got through the program and started flaunting the credential.  In the back of my mind though, I did not believe that anyone would take my scribblings in answer to the interrogations about research questions, funding, etc. that you had to answer in the application process seriously. If I’m really honest with myself, I think I just wrote out the application because I had nothing better to do at the time.

Once the applications had all been completed and sent off, I settled back to wait happily in my normal routine of scouring the web for the mundane nuggets that I’ve become very skilled at ferreting out. I was very confident that I would never hear anything about the application again and it was just going to be yet another story that I would add to the ones that I normally use when trying to impress.

“I’ve applied to do a PhD at UCT you know” makes the perfect rejoinder to conversations about things like fluid mechanics that I have recently found myself in the middle of. It brings the conversation back from those heady levels to a place where you can comfortably bluff your way through by saying things like “I’m not comfortable with the traditional methodologies and tend to lean more toward the Actor-Network Theory” which you spent the morning memorising how to say.

A month or two later, however, I was surprised to receive a letter from the chap in charge of PhD applications at UCT. This must be the letter of regret, I remember thinking.  Anticipating the bad news I tore open the envelope and was shocked to discover that it was actually a request for more information about the research area and not the standard letter which usually ended with “we wish you the best in your future endeavors”.

My response, I must confess, was not immediate because I was going through a phase at the time and I had spent the morning repeatedly watching this very nice YouTube video about githeri and could not bring myself to focus on how I might contribute to the knowledge pool for a while after. Githeri, if you do not know it, is a luxurious blend of maize and beans that is the staple diet of the people of central Kenya and it is to this bane that I grew up big and strong. It had been a while since I had had some and a whimsical melancholy had descended on me rendering any serious thought impossible. I eventually did, however, get over my nostalgia and managed to craft together a response to the unanswered questions that had sat on my desk for a few weeks. An acknowledgement of receipt followed the dispatch and back to the web I went.

The date by which a response had been promised came and went without a further word from the venerable professor of screening and admissions but I continued using the fact that I’d actually applied to do a PhD as a social crutch and I imagined that it gained me respectability amongst my peers. “The activity theory is not all that it is cut out to be”, I would be heard injecting into conversations that I knew nothing about before promptly moving on as if in search of someone who could engage me in intellectual debate about it.

I would have quite happily gone on doing this but then I again entered another silly phase. This time it was the desire for feedback on anything and everything that I did or said. Prompted by this new and very strange urge, I decided to write to him and force him to send me the standard letter of regret to which I had already started formulating a scathing response demanding feedback.

Once again I was surprised that the “bugger-off” letter did not come immediately as expected and I even considered sending off the email again, sure that it might have escaped his notice or fallen foul of his spam filter. Surprise, once again, turned to shock when a response requesting a few further details was sent and this shock to incredulity when an acceptance was later offered. All this in the same morning.

They had the wrong chap was my first thought, but then they started sending me additional stuff that soon convinced me that they indeed thought that they had the right chap, but did not really know who they were dealing with.

A few days later and as the process continued, they had already started heading the letters with “Dear PhD Associate”, and the reality slowly started sinking in. So much so, that vanity soon took over and my CV for January 2012 was quickly updated with a bold “PhD Associate” under the education section. Yes, me, a PhD associate and with it even written in black and white on my CV to boot.

“I like the cut of your jib” I already imagined them saying when I introduced myself at the many high society  gatherings that I was sure to frequent as my social standing soared ever higher on the wings of my new title. I might even learn what all the theories that I had been flaunting about in the past few months were about, I remember thinking.

The bubble burst, as it was bound to, when I was later asked to expand on my research statement as a precursor to a two-week intensive induction programme that was to be conducted by a much revered professor being flown in all the way from west Africa to whip us into shape for what promised to be a grueling academic slog of at least three or four years.

“What you have done is not acceptable. It gives the impression that you are not ready to embark on PhD studies.” This was the opening statement from the Nigerian purveyor of knowledge that finally put paid to my ambitions of ever achieving that oh-so-very desirable pre-nominal.  His keen eye had sifted through all the stuff that I had not-so-meticulously put together and saw it for the formless jumble of words that it really was and with one sentence, he stopped that idle pursuit indefinitely. “If you don’t have the time or serious attitude for PhD studies, why enter the program now? You can wait until you are ready to put in the effort.”

I now have my sights set on a Knighthood. Where can I get an application form?

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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.

2010-07-23

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I wrote this story many years ago while living in Botswana. The events described here actually happened and very little dramatic license is employed. Enjoy.

RG

There’s no such thing as a free lunch

On Friday the week past, a friend of mine invited me to attend the official Microsoft Channel-Partner launch for Windows Vista, Office and Exchange 2007 here in Gaborone.

Having been to many of these shindigs, I prepared myself for a day of schmoozing by Bill’s boys and the promise of a good lunch. The lunch was always key in these things as it usually ensured fanatic attendance.

The day began quite expectedly with the usual gathering of people outside the conference facility exchanging pleasantries. The ICT community in Gaborone is so small that we’d all gotten to know each other and were even beginning to form seating alliances for the midday meal. No longer was the seating random, but preset according to the number of these things you’ve gone for and where in the feeding order (pun regretted) you were perceived to be.

After a few cursory nods to the gathering at the door I hastened into the centre and secured seating for myself and a friend, whom I knew was not far behind. The ubiquitous conference pen in my pocket, I sat and waited for everyone to enter.

It was at this point that I noticed that this might not be your typical presentation. The first deviations from the norm were the colorful spotlights/laser thingies crisscrossing the room at random; similar to the sort of thing you’d see in a night club. This was the background to which a video clip asked if we were ready for the next revolution in office automation in a continuous loop and in many subtitled languages.

The smoke machines on stage slowly oozed steam, lending more drama to an as yet unoccupied podium.

It was to this backdrop that the opening speaker bounded onto stage and asked “ARE YOU READY!!??.”  (pause) “ARE YOU REEAAADYYY!!??.” , he asked again pacing from one end of the dais to the other in step to “The Power” by Snap.

The well presented and bespectacled fellow that was screaming this had been standing with the Microsoft team welcoming people at the entrance. He was the meekest looking of the lot and this introductory roar from him had me worried about what else was to come.

I imagine most people in the crowd were caught as flat-footed and slack-jawed as I was because the Product Evangelist (a title which he later denied) kept shouting out this question until he got a few confused answers confirming a reluctant readiness. Like the Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, this fellow was oozing with enthusiasm and had already started sweating. In all fairness, however, this was Botswana. It was difficult to do anything enthusiastically without incurring the wrath of the Kalahari summer.

“I’m going to help you feel what we at Microsoft are feeling about all our new products!” he shouted on.

Some murmurings in the crowd.

“We need you to feel as great and as energized as we do if you’re going to sell these wonderful products successfully!” he added.

More mutterings.

“To help you get to the place where we are at, we’re offering an Xbox 360 to the single most enthusiastic person today!”

Rising cheers start to be heard from some corners.

“We’ve obtained permission from the management of this facility for you to stand on your chairs and show us just how excited you are!” he bellowed at us.

A girl at the front stood up on her seat and cheered even louder than everyone else, no doubt already making plans for the gaming console.

“ARE YOU READY!” he shouted again, and this time everyone including myself screamed a resounding yes. I hadn’t been that ready in a while.

The next speaker dramatically appeared on stage introduced by Mandoza’s prolific “Nkalakatha” and dancing for all he was worth while demanding that everyone rise to their feet and dance with him to this tune in true hip hop style. The deep baseline of this kwaito song reverberated across the Gaborone Sun Conference Centre and to someone passing outside it might have sounded like the sound-check session for a concert that evening. I do not remember exactly what this guy was presenting. But I do remember being very surprised at the delivery while also dancing my heart out in defiance to the stifling heat.

The morning went on with increasingly dramatic presentations with even a stern-faced no-nonsense and probably ex-military guy lecturing on the evils of non-licensed Microsoft products and offering a lifeline to those who’d crossed over to the dark side through yet another one of those cleverly acronymed migration programs.

I was incredulous. What had happened to the calm, traditional PowerPoint led offerings that I was so used to? Had I made a wrong turn somewhere and ended up at some parody of a Microsoft launch? Was there a hidden camera somewhere watching us as we jumped up and down on our seats hoping for an Xbox for Christmas? When was this madness going to end and the slide show beginning?

I only realized that they were serious when the concert ended and the promised lunch actually happened. No one forked out one hundred five-star meals on a whim, and they had certainly made sure that we earned it by sitting through that morning.

Microsoft had successfully merged a product launch with a circus and gotten us to play the clowns.

Gaborone – 2006-12-04

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