This arrived in my inbox this morning as I was trying to decide what to share. It reminded me of our trip through Calvinia, a few years back now, when we discovered they have an annual sheep counting competition as part of the Hantam festival. Here’s what happened in 2011 (in English) for those interested. This could be a bit of a challenge for those suffering from insomnia if there are such limited opportunities to ‘count sheep’. There are some opportunities in Australia too by the looks of things and New Zealand have taken Counting Sheep to new levels – a little more accessible in this format.

I rather like sheep, along with cows, pigs, camels, elephants and warthogs (not necessarily in that order). And this week, two South African-made sheep made it into our garden. They’d been waiting in-doors for the English summer. (For anyone interested, they don’t know how many breeds of sheep there are anymore – too much interbreeding?). I first developed a liking for sheep back in 1995 when I first visited the UK and noticed that the sheep in England had longer faces than those in SA. (I shall resist the temptation of expanding on long and fat faces in the current political climate of both countries). I recall Geography lessons at school where we were taught about fat-tailed Merino sheep living in the Karoo (ie the Calvinia area). I think we covered sheep farming as often in Geography as we did ‘die Groot Trek’ (Great Trek) and the Boer War in History. For some reason, I took a liking to the sheep whilst reluctantly developing an interest in the last two subjects because of their implications in a post-Union SA.

Sheep were not indiginous to South Africa and for those looking to expand their knowledge on this front, the famous Farmer’s Weekly has just the article. This year marks the 200th anniversary of successful merino farming in SA, although the sheep were first introduced in 1789. For those mining in Kimberly, getting lamb was relatively straightforward in the days before supermarkets and freezers. However, it was a bit more of a challenge on the Tranvaal gold fields, until cold storage was developed (article 1, 2). Sir David Graaff played an important role in developing storage facilities, both by rail and on the sea.

And for those who love eating lamb, perhaps Iceland requires a visit – it’s the main red meat on that island.


A royal encounter (or three)

I missed the Queen’s Christmas broadcast at 3pm on Christmas Day, but managed to catch it on YouTube later that day. Isn’t technology wonderful? Then a few days later, looking for something else, I came across this documentary Cue the Queen: Celebrating the Christmas Speech  covering nearly 100 years of royal broadcasts. Sitting and watching the Queen’s speech is a very British thing to do but an important part of the speech is the Queen’s link with the Commonwealth, an institution she is fond of and which is important to its members. And in case you question the significance of the Commonwealth, I recall South Africa being really chuffed at joining the Commonwealth again after the 1994 elections brought about the end of Apartheid. Also, more recently Rwanda, Burundi, Congo and Mozambique joined the Commonwealth making a break with the tradition that it only include what were British imperial territories.

The Commonwealth evolved out of what was the British Empire. Given how African countries regard the Commonwealth, I wonder how the current de-colonising movement reconciles itself with the idea of Commonwealth or does it reject the institution too?

The term Empire conjures up bad and good images depending on your experience and reading, the same with the term Commonwealth and even Monarchy.

In the same way the Queen and her institutions such as the OBE are criticised or welcomed, there are royal practices elsewhere which evoke similar responses.

A recent trip to Rwanda happened to co-incide with one by the King of Morocco. This would have gone by unnoticed except for the fact that the conference centre, opened earlier this year, was decked out in green and red (not ideal for colour-blind sufferers) and that significant roads were closed – one for a whole day and another, the next day for about an hour. The first menat we had to detour in a city not too well known, whilst the second saw us caught in a shopping centre parking lot for the entire time the road was closed. Someone came past to tell us the King of Morocco was visiting the bank he was buying (I haven’t tried to verify this purchase).

I have no issue with such visits, and royalty and other significant people have a right to travel and do business, but do they have a right, without warning to the locals to disrupt business in this way? I later heard the disruptions had been notified through the press – but not all of us read Kinyarwandan…Someone else mentioned that this hadn’t been too bad. The King of Jordan’s visit saw the whole city centre shut off for a week!

And it’s not just Rwanda. We’ve had to wait for two hours on a Ghanaian motorway for the President’s cavalcade to pass by and similarly in Tanzania, we’ve been virtually pushed off the road pending a diplomatic fly-by on tar… eventually. Closer to home, in London, I recall getting very frustrated when teaching as I had to wait at the traffic lights on the A4 for some diplomat or other ‘important’ person to pass by… eventually… before I could get into the college to educate the next generation. And I have to remind myself that the police cordon I had to cross in November 2004 to do my viva was not because George Bush was passing through but rather to keep the protesters from blocking the roads in protest at his visit.

You’d be forgiven if you thought by now that I am anti-monarchy. I’m not, I’m afraid. One of my fondest memories is the visit of the Queen and Prince Philip to the Bank of England when I worked there – the Duke did his walk-about on our side of the welcome gathering and enquired why we’d left our desks to come and see him and the Queen. He was sure we had more important things to do. This was followed by a ‘Thank you for coming to see us though.’ A gentle acknowledgement that there was more to life… Admission time: I’m  a sucker for pomp and ceremony (a form of escapism?) but in its place and time and that doesn’t extend to interfering with the economy or education. In this day and age when equality is being promoted and the safety of leaders is potentially under greater threat than in previous years (a statement open for debate), surely keeping a low profile and blending in is called for?

One of the striking comments in the documentary on the Queen’s Christmas Speech was towards the end when after hosting a huge banquet, she quietly made her way to a train to arrive the next morning in time for her next engagement. No fuss or bother. Given her time on the throne and extent of her reign across countries, I for one hope the Queen has secretly written an autobiography or reflection on her years in office which will eventually be published – it would be another facet in the incredible diamond we call history. It would also, by default, explore how the monarchy has changed and possibly include reasons for the change.

People in leadership positions are doomed if they do and doomed if they don’t. I can’t help but think of how Jan Smuts was viewed during his command of the forces in East Africa in 1916 – some loved him and felt he did the right thing being in the frontlines with the men, whilst others felt he should have stayed at headquarters and commanded from there. There are possibly more similarities between the Queen’s behaviour today and that of Smuts in East Africa than what we see with most African leaders (President Magafule appears to be an exception).

On the pragmatic side, while we are forced to have these ‘time outs’, it’s worth considering why we insist on rushing around, filling every minute with doing something. My world didn’t end and students were still ready for their exams despite all the time I’ve given to waiting for royalty (formal and informal) to pass to who knows where. And it gives us something to talk (or complain) about.



A post on the topic of Malaria has been due for some time. It ravaged the forces and others who served during the First World War in Africa and is one of the highest killers in Africa today. The World Health Organisation Africa Region notes:

In 2015, 88% of global cases and 90% of global deaths occured in the African Region. Between 2000 and 2015, the number of malaria cases declined by 42% while the malaria death rate declined by 66% in the African Region.

How to prevent being bitten and whether or not to take anti-malarials is an on-going debate and one I keep an eye on as I’m allergic to some of the prescribed anti-malarials, don’t see why the price of the tablets should be so high if bought outside Africa, are insisted upon by travel clinics across a region even if it is known that mosquitoes are only to be found in specific locations and do not trust the long-term effects of putting such drugs into my body. However, I am aware enough to know that I do not want to contract Malaria as its consequences can be quite horrific. So what are the options?
Over the years I’ve gathered snippets of advice – alas my favourites are not socially accepted and so I can’t say I’ve tried them all, but it is worth pondering on. I wonder, too, if those serving during the First World War had been aware of some of these if the instances and severity of malaria would have been reduced…

The most recent research suggest chicken odour deters the anopheles mosquito. The photo in this article (sort of) proves another point I’d been meaning to check – anopheles mosquito has striped legs!! I have tried on recent visits to Africa to ask mosquitoes to just hang on for a bit before embarking on their vampire exercise so that I could look at their legs first. Alas, none of them has been that interested in my looking at their legs. (This handy site explains the different mosquitoes for anyone interested – although it doesn’t mention stripy legs for the anophales; also no mention of stripes in this article but a short history of research into Malaria in South Africa including findings from World War 1). And the last paragraph of this article, gives some other identifiers of anopheles mosquitoes – I might put these to the test on my next visit to a malaria area.

Another deterent, one I’ve been aware of for some years now, is elephant dung. The challenge here is collecting it and then transporting it cross border… This seems to be a popular repellent in India though.

One of the things we were brought up to use was citronella oils etc, however the effectiveness of this has been called into question and research suggests citronella is not as effective as other preventatives. The UC IPM supports this suggesting citronella works best outdoors with little wind movement. I had heard from a scientist but haven’t been able to find documentary evidence that citronella actually attracts mosquitoes. This makes sense if citronella is being burnt as it is generally away from the body.

Vitamin B1 and garlic have also been recommended as a repellent because they change your blood scent to something offputting to mosquitoes. They don’t work for all but then there’s also the challenge of having to remember to take tablets religiously for x amount of days before encountering mosquitoes – requirements just open to failure…

Covering up – a challenge getting the balance right between keeping cool and wearing enough clothing to cover the body which is thick enough to stop mosquitos penetrating.

Despite all these precautions some of us are just prone to getting bitten so it’s rather reassuring to know that there are now test kits (SA version) which can be administered personally. I’ve come close to using one but thankfully one or two crucial symptoms were missing which delayed the need.

Research into malaria has developed over the years. During the First World War, quinine was the main preventative as was covering up – the German officers kept a close eye on their men taking precautions whereas the British appeared more lax. However, quinine had its own issues which may have exaccerbated the signs and symptoms of malaria and the liquid form known as Lettow Schnapps wasn’t all that tasty.

It’s incredible how something so small can be such a significan killer and that we’re still struggling to find a way to deal with it.

Walking these streets

I couldn’t help but find myself singing I’ve been walking these streets so long as I wondered the Streets of London in the pre-Christmas season (November), although you would have thought Christmas was the next week given all the sights, sounds and bustle around. What struck me though was another link with Africa.

We’d been led to believe back in South Africa over 20 years ago that the UK was a first world country and that (as apartheid was collapsing) in order for South Africa to compete we would need to open our shops and cinemas on a Sunday. Surprisingly though, on arrival in England, a walk through London on a Sunday revealed that most shops didn’t open and if they did, mostly pubs, it was for a few hours only. The other surprising thing back then was how much more advanced South African banking was to that in the UK. I think this is still the case although the gap between the two is not as great as it used to be.

This view of Africa in general being ‘behind’, ‘developing’ or ‘third world’ is one that has been, and is still, regularly brought to our attention. But recently, walking the streets of London and New York, I was struck by some of the similarities:

  1. Hawkers – a common sight on the streets of African cities and towns, but also on the streets of London and New York, the latter selling from more ‘upmarket’ boothes but still hawking their wares – scarves, sweatshirts, souvenirs, roast chestnuts, hotdogs etc.
  2. Beggars – I was surprised at the number of people begging in New York, many interestingly wearing a hat or armband indicating that they were war veterans. It’s also been incredible to note that there are far more people sleeping and begging on the streets of London this year (at least that’s my impression – I’m sure someone will have statistics on this).
  3. Power cuts – this is a subtle one. In East and South Africa the power is generally known to go off for a few hours a day a week (or longer) depending on how unlucky you are. What brought my attention to the power cuts in London was the vision of a man walking home using a torch as the street lights in many residential areas and along some major roads have been switched off as a result of cost cutting.
  4. Overloaded vehicles – is there really any difference between an overloaded taxi (daladala, matatu etc) and a London tube carriage? Even some of the overground trains are becoming unbearable with overcrowding

As a colleague (@NorthwoodArts) recently noted, life hasn’t really changed over the last 100 years – we were talking about a shopping project – what has changed is the way we do things. No longer does the horse drawn carriage deliver bread to my door but rather a major retail delivery van does (if I so choose). Rather than send a mtoto (Swahili for child) to the market to buy some necessity, I click a few buttons and, hey presto, it’s either delivered to my computer or my front door.

And so I can go on, but I leave you with my, to date, best experience of Africa in London: it was one thing walking home and seeing the head of a giraffe peer over a wall (it turned out to be a wood carving which a shop down the road had sold – they also had elephant and a gorilla) but I definitely hadn’t expected to see a woman walking down the station stairs carrying a set of antlers all wrapped up in bubblewrap! Perhaps I should have asked how this came to be, but I didn’t want to shatter my illusion of Out of Africa, a Karen Blixen look-alike and a reminder of World War 1 African ‘war-trophies‘ (taxidermy).

An animal named

It’s a Western trait to name animals. I hadn’t given this any thought until we did a trip to Tunisia where I rode on some camels. In true novice tourist fashion, I innocently asked what my camel’s name was. The reply was ‘Monica’. When I got to camel number two and asked the same question I got a strange look and was told the camel didn’t really have a name but I could call it ‘Said, if you really want to’. This promoted further questions and discovery. A point reaffirmed when we visited Mongolia and farming friends in Tanzania. None of these people name their animals – to do so gives them an identity which leads to an attachment making the loss of the beast (for food, income etc) far more difficult to cope with.

In contrast, was the Boer tendency to name their oxen. Listening to Dr Hanschell‘s reminiscences of his time with the Lake Tanganyika Expedition, he was quite taken with the Boer oxen having names – those most prominent being Rooinek and Engelsman (Red neck and Englishman). From Hanschell’s recollection these two oxen received the most beatings and yellings – the Boer’s sense of humour (?) at the antagonism between Brit and Boer which had erupted in the 1899-1902 War.

The Boers working as transport riders too named their oxen as noted by Norman Jewell in his memoirs (forthcoming). Here, all the oxen (eighteen pairs) in each team had the same name for each position allowing any driver to take over the span of oxen.

Most recently the significance of animal names was brought home with the killing of Cecil the lion. I leave Themba Mzingwane to say more (thanks to Jennifer Upton for the link).

Kilimanjaro – a constant companion

This was the phrase I recently read in Ian Gleeson’s The Unknown Force: Black, Indian and Coloured Soldiers through Two World Wars. The phrase is one I’ve found rather intriguing every time I’ve read it or something similar. Surprisingly, it features more regularly in memoirs of men who served in East Africa during World War 1 than I thought it would.

What is intriguing about this statement is that there is no guarantee that Mount Kilimanjaro will be visible all through the day or even for consecutive days. In fact the morning I was reading this sentence, I happened to be in the air from Nairobi and couldn’t see a thing outside the windows due to the cloud. But, I hear you say, at over 35,000 feet you’re not likely to see the top of the 19,000+ foot high mountain if there’s cloud cover. This might be the case, but on my last 3-week visit to the Kilimanjaro area earlier this year, I saw the mountain on only two days. For the remainder, she was covered in cloud.

Numerous soldiers talk of using the mountain as a guide to help them know where they were and in which direction they were travelling. This is another statement that constantly surprises me given the frequency with which Kilimanjaro is covered in cloud and particularly at the time the South African forces would have been there. They arrived shortly before the rainy season started in March. The battle for Salaita Hill was fought in early February 1915 following which the South African and other Allied forces started to move around the mountain to converge on Moshi. The Allied forces converged on Moshi in March and then moved onto Kahe, Korogwe and Handeni and Kondoa Irangi, most of which was during this ‘long rain’ season which lasted until May. How the men could therefore reliably use Kilimajaro as a guide for where they were, is a question which regularly challenges me.

Perhaps, though, it was the recollection of having seen the mountain which remained with the men and the glimpse they possibly caught at sunrise or sunset which reassured them of where they were. But how it helped guide them, remains a mystery to me – not least because I can’t tell you where I am around the mountain despite all my years of visiting her. Despite this, Kilimanjaro is a reassuring companion and a source of inspiration and awe.

Africa from above

Soon after a visit to Malta, I flew to South Africa and what a contrast!

Looking out of the plane window, roughly two hours away from Johannesburg, the terrain was quite different to what I expected to see – it struck me that I must have been on the west side of Africa as I was flying with a different airline to the one I usually use. The patterns on the ground were striking and it looked empty, devoid of human life – or at least the signs of it. I thought I spotted a road – with perhaps a little settlement (3 shining spots – roofs?). It could only have been a road as it was so straight and long: a characteristic feature of African roads whether they be black, brown (red-brown) or yellow dependent on their location and content. This road was red-brown and was running perpendicular to the direction we were flying. I wondered where it started and where it would end, but knew I would remain ignorant as I refused to put the television screen on to look at the map. The changing landscape was far more fascinating and gave me food for thought especially as the intensely built-up sprawl of Johannesburg and the East Rand was not far away.

Malta is closer to Johannesburg – no, not in feel or in distance, but in how built up it was. It apparently has the highest population density in the world and it’s only an island 30km long!

Another road appeared outside the window – this one wound around a few obstacles but no obvious settlement could be seen.

Back to Malta … how do you fit so many people on so small a place? You build housing on top of housing and have very narrow streets. This reminded me of Zanzibar and the old “Arab Quarter” of Mombasa. This has often intrigued me as in South Africa and in some of East Africa houses or dwellings are generally more spread out and single storey. Cities are different with office blocks and apartments and in South Africa now there are housing villages where town-houses (1-up-1-down) are built attached and/or in close proximity to each other with walls encircling a number of them. But this is still nothing like Malta, Zanzibar or Mombasa.

Why is it that in such hot climates, people have chosen to build and live ‘on top of each other’? Is it to provide relief from the heat by creating shade patches? There do seem to be courtyards behind the doors to allow communal gathering and access to some sun for drying clothes and spices or vegetables etc. The girs in Mongolia spring to mind here too – a whole family and visiting friends all living in one closed tent in the middle of all that open space. I could cope with two of us living in a ger, but not more and especially not for a long winter! Each to his/her own…

I am clearly a girl of open spaces and although I enjoy exploring new environments and cultures, I was pleased that in Malta we had the space of the ocean to look over from our window.

With that, and as anticipated, the open land began to fill up and soon buildings became the dominant feature of the terrain below the plane. And, it struck me, in South Africa there are places where housing is built with very narrow streets and little space between buildings, some of which are more than one storey high: tucked between the mine-dumps (or where they used to be) were the squatter camps or as they now tend to be called, informal settlements … we’ll leave that for another day… it’s time to prepare for landing over the largest sprawled area of indoor shopping I’ve yet experienced and avoid…