May 27, 2015
Last week my eight-year-old daughter bounced into our kitchen in Nairobi and shouted at the top of her voice, “If it’s yellow let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down!”
“Urgh,” I exclaimed, failing to suppress my prudish reaction. She, in turn, looked at me in shock.
“But Mummy, you are being so irresponsible about conservation! Don’t you know that there is a water shortage at the moment?” I was duly chastised. Apparently she was passing on instructions from her school.
There is no doubt that bringing up three children in Africa, albeit in rather suburban settings, is an adventure. Our lives may follow a very similar pattern to those of families in Britain – school runs, shopping trips and weekends away – but everything here has an added frisson of risk.
If you go on a picnic, for example, you are quite likely to be overrun by rampaging baboons. A camping holiday can involve nocturnal visits from leopards and lions; and woe betide if you unwittingly get close to a lone buffalo while taking a family walk.
Beach holidays in East Africa are tinged by the ever-present worry of malaria, jelly fish can be a serious menace, and school runs have occasionally been interrupted by terrifying street riots with machete-wielding protesters. A day of gentle sailing on inland lakes means keeping half an eye out for deadly hippo, which gives the routine capsize drill a new dimension, to say nothing of the worry of catching waterborne bilharzia. All this and I haven’t even started on biting ants, snakes and scorpions. Yes, Africa really does stretch your comfort zone.
When we left England two days after our wedding on a drizzly February day, I had no idea that my new husband’s three-year work contract might seamlessly turn into 10, or that three children would find their way into the equation. At eight, six and three, our girls are enjoying a wonderful outdoor existence with year-round sunshine, but it comes at a price. Like thousands of other expat mums in Africa, I can only bite my nails, hope my children will survive the experience and eventually turn out all right.
Our first baby’s home was Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. Tucked inside her car seat under a treated mosquito net and slathered in baby oil mixed with lemongrass, she accompanied us everywhere. We popped a quarter of a crushed tablet of Paludrine into her mouth every day and prayed she would not get malaria. During frequent power cuts in sweltering heat I tried rigging up a hand fan attached to a piece of string over her cot. When that didn’t work, I drove her up and down the sea front with the windows down.
We were fortunate to have the help of very capable ayahs, or nannies, who guided us through the ups and downs of the first throws of parenthood (and are with us to this day). But, even with those baby days behind us and our ayahs still on hand, my concerns continue. The list of necessary vaccinations for children in Africa is extensive because TB, typhoid and hepatitis A are real threats and, despite being careful, we do occasionally get struck by dysentery.
Our recent years in the cooler climbs of Nairobi in Kenya have continued to be eventful. During last year’s spell of post-election violence, our daughters would interrupt when we were listening to news broadcasts to ask, “Are they still fighting Mummy? Does that mean we won’t have to go to school tomorrow?”
Last week, my six-year old spent the entire school run quizzing me over what food I had put in the donations box at the supermarket during a local appeal for drought-stricken Kenyans.
When our children are strapped into the car in their (optional) safety seats, to set off on any kind of safari, they know they are generally in for the long haul. Excursions tend to involve five- to eight-hour stretches in the car on pitted, potholed roads filled with overloaded lorries, random police checkpoints, free-roaming donkeys and Masai herding cows across the highway. Even school trips include mountain climbing to dangerously high altitudes and white-water rafting with crocodiles.
Ironically, however, our children are also at risk on our annual trips back to England. In the country of my birth, they prove woefully unstreetwise and unprepared. Given half a chance they disappear in supermarkets and can never be trusted to look before crossing a road.
Growing up so far from health and safety rules, a National Health Service and a structured support network is challenging. If our children do survive the Africa experience unscathed, then they just might emerge as resilient, well-rounded adults. But, in the meantime, there is nothing for it but to take our chances and hope for the best.