You know, usually, when you read a book, you form some sort of ephemeral mental relationship with the author, and often, in my experience, this has a positive slant. So, for example, you may be reading a Paul Theroux book, and you may perhaps even think that he’s a bit of a caustic old cuss, but you’re still impressed with his powers of perception, his literary prowess and knowledge. Or you may be reading something by Ryszard Kapuściński and you’re blown away by his style and content. Or you may be reading a much less known author, perhaps something similar to the book I reviewed in this blog a few weeks ago, where Sara Dunn wrote about her Appointment in Zambia: A Trans-African Adventure, and related her travel experiences through Africa in a completely unsuitable vehicle, and you start to think about how mad she and her husband were to embark on their trip, but they were at least good sorts, plucky and adventurous, and very fortunate to survive in one piece. And, one way or another, you associate a little with the author and his/her perspective.
Well, I’ve recently been reading Info Africa with 3 Kids, 13 Crates and a Husband, by Ann Patras, and although she writes about experiences in Africa which, as I’ll explain in a moment, are relatively close to my heart, I’ve been finding it very difficult to feel positive about her or her experiences.
In 1980, Ann Patras, her husband Ziggy and their three young children got on a plane at Heathrow and eventually landed in Kitwe, in the Zambian Copperbelt, where they were met by someone from her husband’s new employer (Rhinestone), who took them to their temporary accommodation in the, or one of the, top hotels in the area where they were greeted by Ziggy’s new boss. She describes her first impression of Kitwe thus: “Having lived most of my life in an English town, my experience of cities was pretty limited, but what spread before me barely resembled my perception of the word ‘city’…I was instantly overwhelmed when I saw the number of black people present.” Hmm…she’s surprised that most of the people in that part of Africa were black! At their first meal in the hotel, she orders steak (naturally) and her husband asks the waiter to recommend a Zambian dish, which turns out to be nshima (I know it as nsima, which is the Malawian word, but elsewhere it is known as poshto (Uganda) or ugali (Kenya)) and relish. She continues, “But I had to hand it to Ziggy…He did manage to get about a third of the way through his ‘traditional dish’ before excusing himself to go and wash…He never tried nshima and relish again.”
They soon move into a very large and lovely house with an extensive garden, rented by the company for them, which comes with a guard, paid for by the company. Ziggy is provided with a car and driver, which Ann can also take advantage of when she needs to go somewhere. Ann is taken around the town, “Tuesday was set aside for Molly to take me on a grand tour of the shopping facilities in Kitwe. It didn’t take long. What a bloody place! Goodness knows how I was expected to provide meals.” And the book continues in a similar vein, with Ann being horrified that some things such as butter or cheese are not always immediately available in the Kitwe shops, and that, as there are no traditional English pubs in the Copperbelt, they have to go to sports clubs for drinks, “Apparently there were taverns to be found in the townships, but we were told they were not for the likes of us.”
The 13 crates (mentioned in the title of the book) of clothes and household goods that they shipped to Kitwe turn out to be not enough (?), so Ann asks her mother in England to send another crate, and fill it with: marmite, brown sauce, cake cases, freezer labels, blu tack, a tea strainer, dog collars, socks, and a fan heater. When she discovers a shop with supplies of unusual (for Zambia, in those days) goods in it, she buys 38 packets of Oxo cubes, 20 packets of chicken stock cubes, four jars of salad cream, three drums of salt and two tubs of Bisto, then 40lbs of sugar, 24lbs of rice, 12lbs of cake flour and two half-boxes of butter, most of which goes into her deep freezer.
At an afternoon party, she stretches out on a beach towel and reads her novel, while her three toddlers run around playing with other kids. Then, all of a sudden, a baby is found face down, arms outstretched and limp in the swimming pool, and it’s one of hers. It takes some time, and the help of a passer-by, to revive the child using mouth to mouth.
She sends her three kids off to pre-school when some vacancies occur, her younger twins being 2 years and ten months old, and this allows her time to sew costumes for the local drama group. She laughs at local women, dressed in chitenjes (a traditional piece of cloth worn as a skirt), running en masse to a local shop where stocks of soap powder have suddenly become available. She panics when she has sacked her houseman, and has to do the housework herself.
Enough! I’m sorry, but I do not relate to this, or her attitudes and concerns, even though some of them may perhaps have been exaggerated for literary purposes. She seems condescending (e.g. “Out in the bush, where they [the local Zambians] had all the space in the world, as well as plenty of natural resources for the project, they actually chose to live in incredibly small, all-in-one round huts”), and I’m not having a positive temporary mental relationship with this author.
I have some similar experiences to Ann Patras, in that Lindsey and I went to Zomba, Malawi, for two years in the early eighties, and then in the mid-nineties we spent another similar contract, this time travelling with our two young boys, in Gaborone, Botswana. We lived in a different way to Patras. We found our own way to Zomba, and rented a nice house near the university. We ate nsima once a week, mainly because we couldn’t afford anything else. We regularly had a whale of a time, with friends and colleagues, at some of the local bars. We often did without things that were not available, but never moaned, and I can’t even remember all of the particular shortages there were (apart from one period of over a month, when there was barely any vehicle petrol (gas) in the whole country). Certainly, meat tended to be in short supply, unless there had been a cow delivered to the market. In all of this time, we felt completely privileged, as we most definitely were, to live in a nice house and share experiences of Africa, and although our salaries were low (probably, combined, about 1/10th of what we could have been earning in the UK), we were aware that this was far more than most people in that part of Africa sustained themselves on.
You never, ever, take your eyes off your toddler kids if there’s a party in Africa and there’s a swimming pool. Certainly not to read a book! I remember one time we were sitting in the grounds of a hotel which had a pool. I was watching (of course) my younger son Shaun as he ran about. He was looking over to me, and not noticing where he was going. He headed straight into the pool! Well, I was up and into that pool, fully clothed, almost as soon as he hit the water.
No wonder there were shortages in Kitwe if, as soon as goods were on the shelves, wealthy people like Patras scooped up multiple purchases.
Perhaps I’m being too harsh towards Patras. I remember another time, it was 6.30 am on a Sunday morning in our room at the Sun Hotel, Gaborone, where we were staying while waiting for a house to become available, and Lindsey was in the shower and I was shaving. I looked around, and there was no sign of our son Jamie, who was nearly three at the time. Looking further, I noticed that the sliding window door of the room had been opened a foot or so. The hotel swimming pool was about 20 yards from our room, directly across from this door. I dashed out the door in my undies (well, I can’t remember if I was wearing undies, but let’s hope that I was), looked around, and there’s absolutely no sign of Jamie. So I ran over to the pool, mentally praying, even though I’m not particularly religious. I look in the pool, and there, at the bottom of the deep end, is a body! Bidum! BIDUM! My heart is suddenly pounding. Oh my goodness. I look closer, and it’s a large body of a man. It’s not Jamie! Bidum! BIDUM! There’s a body, and it’s not Jamie.
In the near distance, I finally see Jamie, who is playing with the garden water hose. I run over to Jamie, pick him up, and run back to the pool, holding Jamie where he can’t see anything. I look back into the pool, and yes, there is a body of a man at the bottom, and he is very still and pale coloured. So I run back to the room, deposit Jamie with Lindsey who is now out of the shower and wondering what is happening, and run over to reception, where I shout that there’s a body in the pool.
Altogether, a horrible experience. It turned out that the man in question had drowned sometime late the previous evening.
But my point, here, is that I also took my eye off my toddler for a couple of minutes, somewhere near a pool.
And didn’t we, like Ann Patras does, also make fun of the names of our, and our friends’, employees (OK, let’s not be faux-PC about this, and we shall call them servants)? Yes, we did. And we also joined clubs to play tennis, squash, and to drink. And also, we drooled over the thought of marmite (though we could never afford to buy a jar). And when our cook was due to go on holiday, didn’t we try to buy back some of those days of leave, so that we would not be left helpless? Yes, we did, though in our case, and unlike Patras, we both had full-time jobs. Like Patras, we did eat steak in Africa, yes we did, but not practically every day (“When we reached home the steak was burned to a crisp. Two pieces I couldn’t get my teeth into, even the dog gave me a very questionable look when I fed it to him. So I got some small pieces of fillet steak out of the freezer…“), and even today, thirty years later, I can probably describe to you most of the relatively few steaks I ate in Africa. And, I have to say, towards the end of reading Info Africa with 3 Kids, 13 Crates and a Husband, I found myself chuckling at some of Patras’s stories.
During our times in Africa, Lindsey and I were very privileged people, living a very privileged lifestyle, and I hope that we realised just how privileged we were. I think that what actually irks me about Info Africa with 3 Kids, 13 Crates and a Husband is that nowhere does Patras seem to recognise, and here’s that word again, how privileged she was. Doubly so, given that she obviously, fortunately for her, had access to so much wealth and support. Instead, most of her sojourn in Africa as described in this book seems to have been one long, stuck-up hoot for her.
I see that Info Africa with 3 Kids, 13 Crates and a Husband has won a silver book award, that Patras has written a sequel, and that there’s an interview with her on YouTube where she talks about her writings – in which she is likeable and not stuck-up or condescending at all. So, maybe I’ve got it all wrong.