Tag Archives: international development

Naked, Exposed … And the Knickers

8 Sep

Of course, none of the nice writer-chums who encouraged me to write the dratted book and to get it published TOLD me that I would feel all of the above.

Why didn’t they explain to me that every time I meet someone who has read the damned thing, I would feel just a tad bit unnerved?

Oh sure, I had all of the “prepare to steel yourself – or just don’t read the book reviews”  side of things. Plus the “you might get  a bit of jealousy.” Also “your more paranoid friends might avoid you and fret that you’ll write about the time they had it away with the really ugly lad from the tyre shop.” And I even received a bit of sage advice along the lines of “don’t give your heroine the same hair colour as yourself or they’ll all think you’ve been at it with someone in local government. And that you wish your husband would kick the bucket in a freak motorbike accident” (wise titbits which readers of the book will know that I duly ignored…)

But the lack of helpful guidance on what to do with the E factor (EMBARRASSMENT) has been utterly appalling. I feel as sold down the river by my writer friends on this little one, as I do by the older generation who told me that having kids was “hard work, but rewarding” (i.e. about as helpful as giving someone a jar of Marmite who has never tasted it before and telling them that it tastes like chocolate spread.)

Yeah. Every time someone – whether a good pal from old times – or a random stranger says ‘Hey – I’ve read your book!’ I just want the earth to open up and swallow me.  What DO you say to someone who tells you this? Because publishing fiction is a little bit like … Well. I’m supposed to say something along the lines of ‘exposing the dark edges of one’s soul – of laying out for the masses the very depths of one’s being.’ But that just sounds a little bit too up-itself for me. So I shall have to use a knicker-analogy. It’s a little bit like showing someone your knickers. Or perhaps… your entire knicker drawer (the good, the bad and the very dodgy looking ones that you should have binned years ago.)

I get all wound up. See?  (one of the earliest Comic Relief events...)

I get all wound up. See? (one of the earliest Comic Relief events…)

Bit of a conversation stopper. For me, at any rate (although a certain sister in law of mine will tell you that I have no problem in flashing my knickers at people. But that was when I was 15, dear!)

So I get wound up about chatting to people about my book.

I’ve tried the simple “Oh, thank you!” (makes me feel like grovel-bag of the century, makes them feel like that have to follow it up with “No – it was really good!”) I’ve also used the “Really? Who was your favourite character then?” (makes them panic as they feel they have to remember all of the names. Or induces guilt – that they’ve fibbed about how much of the book they’ve actually read.) And I’ve done the “Great! Will you do me a review on Amazon or Good Reads then?” (makes me feel like a mercenary scumbag and makes them fret that they have to give it pretend to like it, when they thought that it was a bit bobbins.)

So all that I’m left with is the flippant “Blimey. You must have been bored with your life recently, in order to get through all of that.” (And not everyone shares my sense of humour.) Or the shoving of hands over my ears and bursting forth with a song.  I find that old Black Lace tracks such as ‘The Conga’ are the best for blocking out any further responses from people. But quite frankly, reacting to people with dreadful 80’s pop makes me come across as a little bit eccentric.

So, if you have any suggestions on how I should respond to people’s very lovely and (usually) very warm-hearted approaches towards me in relation to having read ‘Mind Games and Ministers’ – then please do send them on.

In the meantime – I want to share one of the latest reviews.  A real out of the blue critique. And written by someone which much experience in social housing, who had heard aboout my book. And who’s take on my scribblings had me laughing out loud.

In fact, I’ll go with my gut instinct on this one – I’ll just say CHEERS.  No fretting over wobbly embarrassing moments. Just a big Cheers to John Perry – Mr Social Housing and International Development Himself and writer of this review who really made my day!


(PS – if you clicked on The Conga link there – more the fool you. Because you’ll be singing it for the next 6 months. As we have been doing in our house…)







Comic Remedies

19 Jun

….Part 7  (Dictated to me by small, guest blogger/daughter.)

“My mum said that I can have the last blog where we talk about the street children in Namibia.The very last thing we did that day – on the day when all of these pictures were taken – after we gave the children all of the things that had been bought for them, was this:

WE GAVE AWAY OUR BELOVED BEANO’S!!! (3 exclamation marks please, mum!)  ARRGHHHH! I just can’t believe that we did that. And other comics too! And here is a photo of the children with them:Their new comics - not enough! Need more!

But we were so happy that they got something to read. Because this will entertain them. And teach them to read english. It’s their national language actually and it is nice for them to learn.

They asked us to send books because they don’t have any. And they wanted – if they could manage to get to school like we were helping them to – to have sort of something like an after-school club, to have like – a reading club. We said that we couldn’t afford to pay for a big box of books because of how much the post office people charge you for parcels – even to the poorest people in the world 😦  And I think that our government in England could change this, if they really wanted to. WHAT CAN WE DO TO CHANGE THIS? IT MAKES ME REALLY LIVID!!!! (4 exclamation marks this time, please.)

So instead, we said that we would send them some comics instead. And this will be brilliant because we can send a lot. It’s still expensive but not anything as stupidly expensive as a big parcel. BUT this will entertain them even more than proper books, I think!

Comics are so important to our family because they helped me to read. I used to detest reading. But now, when a book is put in front of me – I can pick it up and read it. Only – I repeat – only IF IT’S INTERESTING! Also my mum, when she was my age, loved comics more than anything. Here are two photos of her reading a comic. Haha look at her glasses and that bum! No wonder she never goes out of the house without make-up on! And she still never stops reading now!

Look at that bum!

She couldn’t read without her glasses! (she still can’t!)








And here also is proof that even Grandma is made to read The Beano. Hahaha! (evil laugh.)

Grandma enjoying The Beano (in her wildest dreams/ nightmares.)

Grandma enjoying The Beano (in her wildest dreams/ nightmares.)

The kids at my school and my brother’s school where we live in west Yorkshire are now collecting their comics for all of this. Can I just say an overwhelming THANK YOU to all our school friends and parents and those very very special other ones who helped us and whose names I will not say because you might slap me. You know what? You made their lives so much better and I bet you don’t believe that. But really – be proud of yourselves because you really did put a big smile on their faces. I wish you could have seen it for yourselves.

I’m finishing with a Hello and a Thank You from them all to you.

And just to add a bit of comedy to it all, this is where we left my brother.  It has been very peaceful without him!!!!!!!!!! (10 exclamation marks, please.)

Love, The Mini Funnylass xx ”

My brother and his new house. I do hope that he is alright there ... (not!)

My brother and his new house. I do hope that he is alright there … (not!)






Simon Says?

6 Jun

Part 5



Simon didn’t say much. He didn’t have the energy to. Simon (pronounced ‘Sih-mon’ in Afrikaans) is 10 years old but weighs much less than my own 6 year old boy. Who is hardly a big lad himself.

Simon is malnourished. Along with his sister, he is an orphan and sleeps wherever he can find a warm corner in someone else’s shack.

As a small person who has no-one to keep an eye out for him, Simon has several options in life. He could walk the long road to town in Gobabis (not much fun when you are nearly-starving) and there try and beg for a few pennies off people. Or rummage through the dustbins. Or he could stay in Epako during the day and hope that someone, somewhere might find a bit of maizemail (savoury cereal porrige) to eat and perhaps he might also find somewhere safe and not too dirty to huddle down for the night.

Or he could go to school. Simon likes school. He tries to go as much as he can and has been accepted to a school within walking distance from Epako. Unlike many of the children, school is a big attraction for Simon because (our friends in Epako tell us) its the one place where he can be assured of getting something to eat.

San Bushmen children are some of the most disadvantaged and discriminated in the world. This little girl could only dream of a few items of school uniform and a blanket.

San Bushmen children are some of the most disadvantaged and discriminated in the world. Apologies for the cliche, but this little lass could only dream of a few items of school uniform and a blanket.

But as mentioned in yesterday’s blog – if you don’t have the equipment to attend school – it is almost impossible to go. School uniform is not mandatory (no-one would kick you out of school for not having the clothes) but some of the schools frown upon a child who doesn’t have the uniform. And anyway, would you want to be the only child who doesn’t have the dress or the shirt? (Shoes you can manage without of course … but just to have the one item of school uniform! This is all these kids are asking …)

Schools in Namibia (and in most African countries) also charge a school fee. Again – this isn’t mandatory – but some schools can make it difficult for children to attend if their families don’t pay this fee. Our previous work in southern Africa, with the San Bushmen made it all too clear that the poorest families need advocates who can write a damned good letter for them and stand up for their rights for a fee to be waived.

But back to Simon. The first time that we saw him smile was when he got into the car with my partner. Simon liked the car journey to the shop! And when he got to the clothes store – he and 20 other kids trundled along behind my other half (“I feel like the flippin’ Pied Piper here!”) and then it was a matter of slow little smiles all round as the kids were measured for shoes and various bits and pieces of school uniform and realised what might be happening.

San bushmen women are tiny and my girl found it amusing to keep telling me "Mum! You're like a big clumsy giant in comparison!" (Cheers, love)

San bushmen women are tiny and my girl found it amusing to keep telling me “Mum! You’re like a big clumsy giant in comparison!” (Cheers, love)

Simon was lifted up and perched next to the cash register so he could watch all of the events unfolding around him. It must have been a strange sight for him. The children from Epako were all waiting patiently in line, some of them already clutching their carrier bags filled with their new clothes. They looked sort of shell-shocked. The shop assistants who had seemed so astonished to see them all when they first marched into the shop was grinning now and talking to Simon, asking him questions about himself.  The funny little white girl was rushing about, dragging baskets of clothes and shoes with her father. The crazy white woman seemed to keep losing track of where the little white boy was (“Oh don’t worry – he’s outside doing somersaults with the other kids.”)

But don’t worry folks, I found him! Sure enough, there was my son. Bonding with his new mates thanks to all things boys and yukky (see video clip ‘Bleeugh! Look at my used plaster!’) and whilst my enormous credit card purchase thankfully wasn’t declined by my marvellous credit card company, we took a few minutes to get our breath back and to capture some of the smiles of children with their new items.

One of our helpers got a little bit shy! More smiles from the children

One of our helpers got a little bit shy! More smiles from the children

Double and Triple Phew!







Alan Sugar – Read It and Weep

5 Jun

(Part 4)

My kids started to hand out the apples we had brought and were astonished at the enormous grins that they received from the children. Fruit is an oh-so rare luxury here. My daughter was puzzled, however. “Mum – why do a lot of the kids sort of bow or curtsey when you give them something? I’ve seen grown-ups do it too here …” There wasn’t time to go into the whole spiel Empire and Slavery and Ownership Legacy at this point (and she probably would have resorted  to her pretend snoring like she usually does when I embark on a lecture), so I answered her with; “they’re just being polite. That’s all.”

And then we looked at our watches. It was already past midday. We had a car-boot full of items that needed to be bagged up for 50 kids. We had 20 kids that needed taking to the shops in order to buy them clothes for school. And we had to ensure that we were back on the road long before dusk fell due to the lack of lighting and the wildlife/driving dangers (have you ever seen a kudu? Do google this animal. You seriously do not want an antelope the size of a horse running headfirst into your car …)

We had to work fast, so we split into two groups. My other half and our friend from Epako rounded up the 20 neediest kids, flagged some taxis down at the edge of the location and headed for the shops (there were some *very* astonished customers and shop assistants on that day… the day when crazy white man turned up with 20 ragged street children – all still dizzy and grinning from their first ever ride in a CAR with a mad foreigner!)

Me and my own nippers were abandoned in Gobabis town and managed to flag down a friendly local. “Can we use your garden?” I rabbited. “We just need to fill 50 bags for 50 really needy kids. Can I borrow that table over there? Can we drink the water out of your garden tap? Can I use your loo?”

The friendly local looked rather confused, but he was very obliging and just let us get on with it (one of the things that I used to love about living in Gobabis… the attitude of ‘yeah … weird things happen…let’s live with it.’)

The day before, we had hit the shops big-time in Windhoek (Namibia’s capital) in order to buy the items that children need in order to attend school in this country. Many of the kids have to ‘board’ – that is, to stay over in school hostels – due to the distances. From the age of 6, children are often separated from their parents. This is traumatic enough for many, but imagine the ordeal of it all when you are too poor to be able to own even the most basic toiletries, a blanket or a pen and an exercise book. And school uniform and shoes? Well. Dream on, my friend.

And all of this means that the runaway and absenteeism is an enormous issue here for schools. Not to mention the bullying. Sadly, some kids will always want to pick on the dirtier, smellier and poorer children. But we knew exactly what to buy, thanks to our previous work with the San Bushmen children in southern Africa – some of the poorest and most oppressed kids in the world. So, we had bought the goodies and it was off to work!

This is what we had to do. In just over an hour, fill 50 bags, each with toothbrush, toothpaste, sunlight soap (for clothes and body), vaseline (black skin needs this!), pens, exercise books and the inevitable sweets and ‘glowing things’ (see yesterday’s blog.) My daughter – who detests all things to do with numeracy and formal education – came into her own at this point. Ticking me and her father off for fudging our mental arithmetic when it came to splitting up bulk bags of toiletries.

Whilst mother and daughter were giving Alan Sugar’s Apprentices a good thrashing (seriously – I would like to have seen that bunch of shysters doing all of this in such a short timescale…) child number 2 had found a new friend and was wandering in and out of people’s houses and sharing his sardine sandwiches with anyone who would give him the time of day . The kid was born in the wrong century and was definitely more at home in Namibia than in the UK where we all have to book play-dates several months in advance…

Bags finished, we put them back in the car and then headed off to see what chaos the others had inflicted on a humble clothes shop in the centre of Gobabis …





No Tantrums in the Townships

4 Jun

(Part 3)

I’ll admit that something I was rather stressed about when returning to Namibia was the way that my kids would behave in public. It doesn’t take a genius to notice that in general, African kids who live in the sub-Saharan countries are less … hyper … shall we say – than kids from the West tend to be.

And there are plenty of reasons for that, which I won’t go into right now.

So, watching our kids’ reactions to life in some of the poorer parts of the former township areas was very interesting. At first, as we entered the squatter camps, our son came out with “Hey – little houses made of old rubbish! Like metal and tyres and fings.  Can I have one like that? So coo-wul!” Then, as it dawned on him that this way of life wasn’t ‘play at tents in the garden’ and that he was face to face with kids who had no shoes, who had only one (dirty) set of clothes, who had no parents, who slept rough, who begged in the streets and who played in the rubbish dumps … he grew a lot quieter.

His sister was unnaturally quiet too. As we stood with friends from the less poor parts of town who were helping us to create a list of the neediest children, my daugher nudged me and asked “What on earth is that lady doing – stamping on that broken old chair?” I glanced over. “Ah – she’s made herself a sort of washing machine. She has to carry the water in and she’s stomping on the soggy blanket to get it clean and using the frame of the chair to help her to do it. Pretty clever eh?”

Nearby her baby was yarking for some more breast milk. The woman noticed us and came over to us, baby now hanging from boobie. She asked us to buy something warm for the child as their winter was approaching “He has just one thing to wear and it’s already cold in the night,” she said to us through a translator.

“What do we do?” I asked my daughter. “We were only supposed to be buying for the school aged children.” “Mum!” she murmured “I’ll buy him something myself. Look – he’s only got one sock!”

Both kids were still adjusting to what they were seeing.  In fact, I’d never seen either of them behave so meekly (without being told to.) Sure the day was a scorcher and the adults were talking about dull logistical and political stuff – but my two stood in a corner as they clasped each others hands and stared at the children in front of them.  Normally – in England for example – they would be sighing ‘Boooring!’ and ‘Where’s the Monster Munch? I’m ‘ungry!’ or  thumping each other. So this was all very unfamiliar behaviour from where I was standing…

It was all about staring.  (Not for too long … see my previous posts on ‘eye contact’!) And the brown and black children with holes in their pants and sores on their faces stared back at the funny white children who had such brightly coloured clothes and such pink and sweaty faces.

I think that it took about fifteen minutes for the reality to sink in for my wee english kids – the harsh way of life that these other children were leading.  I did experience a moment myself of ‘is this all a bit too traumatic for my two to cope with’? But I soon got over myself. And the kids got over themselves too.  But please note that this was not a deliberate ‘I’ll show my kids how flippin’ well grateful they should be’ experiment (ha, no – they’re still ungrateful little monkeys, if you ask me!) Rather, it was a lesson in 2 stages. Stage 1 being ‘Look. Observe. Show, Don’t Tell.’ And Stage 2 being ‘Right. What do we do now? Get your sleeves rolled up.’

For Stage 2, we were going to be People On A Mission! And despite their blood sugar slump and exposure to the midday sun and the shock of what they were seeing – my two didn’t even need to be asked. They sprang into action and began to engage with the children as their parents talked more logistics.  The 6 year old was well-impressed “Look – the kids make well coo-wul kites out of old bin liners! And they made a football out of old plastic bags!” Whereas the 9 year old was rather more indignant; “But this is awful! The tiny ones are playing around a rubbish dump? Why has no-one cleaned it up? Mum – you can’t ever moan about our bin-men at home again after this!'”DCIM100SPORT

Thanks to our fantastic friend who lives in Epako, we spent a good hour sorting out which were the neediest of the children that we could help. Many of them were orphans (but more on that tomorrow.) Returning to our friend’s home in a less poor part of the former township (but still very much ‘going without’ by our own standards) my son was bonding very well with the local lads and fully integrating himself into location society – wandering from home to home in the search for playmates. greg loves epako

One of the most ‘telling’ moments for me was when the children playing in the area wanted to ask him about his T shirt. I think that it was also a very revealing moment for my lad too. Sadly, he is a little chap who often feels very hard done to, because his evil Mum and Dad don’t buy him all of the stuff that he thinks that he should possess in terms of superheros, LEGO etc etc. This video clip says it all really. Check out the surprise on his face as he realises that his old T shirt – one of his many Marvel Superhero tops, and his Skylander hat – has utterly fascinated the boys. And that they don’t know who these superheroes are… And oh. How they would LOVE to wear something like that …

The dialogue on the clip here involves my boy trying to explain to them who the heroes are and what they do. His sister correcting him (of course!) And then the both of them attempting to tell jokes to the other kids (who clearly hadn’t a clue what they were on about – but they all laughed lots anyway.)

And that was the brilliant bit for us – bringing the kids had NOT been a mistake. Bringing the kids reminded us just what this was all about … Children just love each other’s company regardless. And they want to share their stuff and to have fun together …








Them in Their DARK Corner …

3 Jun

(Part 2)

Bit of a play on some very old-fashioned words to a hymn there …

One of my strongest memories of living and working in Namibia is of waking up just after dawn and hearing small children a-singing. These were the lucky ones who had a school to go to – walking long distances in order to reach their lessons. Their favourite songs as they marched along were ‘Jesus Bids Us Shine’ and ‘Jesus Loves Me! This I know.’  Both of them are huge hits with kids in southern Africa – a product of the old-fashioned missionary school approach.

I also grew up with these songs ringing in my ears. If you were not fortunate enough (or unfortunate enough according to my husband) to have been born n’ bred into a world of Sunday Schools – you probably won’t be aware that the words of that particular hymn, ‘Jesus Bids Us Shine’, are all about light and darkness.

In the midst of planning the Great Trek Back to Namibia I was teaching the words of this song to both of my children (whilst my husband griped in the background; “Please! No more! I can’t stand it! Sing your Robbie Williams stuff. Or even Andrew Lloyd Webber instead, if you have to!”) and it suddenly occurred to me to explain to the kids about how stark the contrast is between the light and the dark in southern Africa.

Darkness, even in the height of the summer, falls fast. So, those of us who love our evening BBQs (or ‘braais’ as they are called in southern Africa) wouldn’t be able to see much after 7pm there. And for the families who dwell in shacks in the former townships – especially those in the poorest parts of the areas known as ‘the informal settlements’ or ‘the squatter camps’ –  their lives are ruled by a simple lack of control over the light and the darkness.

Where there is no electricity, you are forced to use candles. Where you use candles, the reality of a shack fire and horrific injuries and death are all too real. And because more often than not, in these kind of conditions, the only toilet available is named ‘Go In The Bush’, those of us who are used to slurping our Horlicks at 9pm would be considered to be nutters to set the bladder up for such a test.

So, imagine that you are a small child. Infant school age.  And that you need to pee desperately in the middle of that darkness. Sure, the stars and the moon shine far more brightly in Namibia than in Yorkshire but would you want to take the risk of leaving the shack and the grown-ups and hopping out to the bush for a quick widdle? Snakes…scorpions…wild dogs. And the rest.

Of course – the alternative would be to wet your pants. Or the worn-out blanket that you share with your brother and sister. But you only have one pair of pants. And no running water for your mum to clean the blanket in the morning. You wouldn’t dare to be so silly.

This is the scenario that I regaled my children with (yes – I’m a laugh a minute to be around, sometimes!) But before you think of calling social services and reporting me for being a morose old bag – the conversation (and the dreadful hymn singing) actually developed into a new idea.

“Why don’t they have torches there?” one of my two asked me (I can’t remember which child, thankfully. Good job really, as they’d no doubt start squabbling over Intellectual Property Rights or something.) So, I explained about the lack of money to buy incredibly expensive things like batteries for a torch.

And then we hit on The Bright Idea. Wind-up torches! Everyone loves a wind-up torch (“Well – the slugs don’t do they? When they see Daddy out there on his midnight slug patrol. Daddy is so weird about his cabbages…”) But yes – wind-up torches for those of us who happen to live in much more affluent countries are a great deal of fun. They are oh-so handy and also quite easy to carry in suitcases …

But much more importantly – the more wind-up torches available, the less reliance on candles, the less scary (or lethal) ‘what could I be crouching on?’ moments in the bush and certainly a greater sense of safety for people who need to be outside during the dark hours.

So we sent an appeal letter to each child’s school. Not only did we end up with donations of over 60 wind-up torches but we were blessed with all kinds of flourescent and glowing implements – bracelets, stickers, small toys etc for the children in Namibia (Netherton Infant and Nursery School and South Crosland Juniors and their parents … you are bunch of little champions!)

(Part Two of the challenge was this; handling dozens of small torches and trying to convince customs officials in 3 different airports during a period of 24 hours – that you are not trying to either a) build yourself a bomb whilst in transit or b) set up a ‘Glowing Thing’ business when you arrive at your port of call. But I won’t bore you with that side of things.)

Suffice to say that the torches arrived and were distributed by us in the poorest corner of Epako in Gobabis,  a place that contains over 5,000 people and yet you won’t find on your maps of Africa (but more on why that is, tomorrow) and yes, not a single child or adult knew what these gadgets were.

But you should have seen the grin on their faces when the light dawned.

Thanks for bringing them the lights, you lot.


But the darkness falls, fast. And these kids don't want to have to go and pee in the bush, in the dark.

But the darkness falls, fast. And these kids don’t want to have to go and pee in the bush, in the dark …



Charity *did* begin at home …

2 Jun


Should we care about the way we talk to each other as adults – and to our children – when it comes to the subject of ‘charity’ and ‘giving’? When our schools send requests for a few quid so that our kid can dress up as a certain bear/sport a nose/wear pink/design a motif … should we simply dismiss the marketing money and power of these massive, national charities?

Or should we invest our donation pennies in the local charities down our streets? Those hospices, campaigns, the day care for elderly centres, the appeal for church spires and the struggling pre-schools … who may have fed, housed, saved, educated and employed people whom we actually know?

Or perhaps we might feel that the ‘on my doorstep’ connection is a little bit too obvious. That far more than enough people already give locally – and that the smaller, more imaginative charities in our country and overseas – desperately need our attention?

The purpose of this series of blogs over the next few days is NOT to make anyone feel bad about whether they do or do not ‘give.’ And if they do give – who and how and where – they should be donating to. Rather, these blogs – and the story that I will be telling  – aims to be a bit more educational. And with that in mind – a lot of the blogging will be from the perspective of the children involved (because otherwise – my daughter’s school teachers will be out to get me!)

Ingredients:  Tell a 6 and a 9 year old that they will be travelling to Namibia, southern Africa in order to try and help some of the most impoverished children in the world. Throw in the support of 2 wonderful west Yorkshire schools, parents and a few lovely friends and over the next few days you can see what the recipe produced…



Yes, our pesky kids might be far too obsessed with having fun and acting the fool, rather than focussing on the SERIOUS things in life. But when push comes to shove, the wee varmints have a lot to teach us … (PHOTO: TWO TIDDLERS IN THE FORMER TOWNSHIPS…)