Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Zambia Trip Part 1

Japanese cars. Thousands of bloody cheap Japanese cars in pastel colours all called things like ‘Big Horn’ and ‘Yakult’ (well…possibly) have been flooding into Zambia and now in the capital Lusaka the traffic grinds into grid-lock twice a day every day. There is much building work too. Many of the derelict sites that had been there when I left 4 years ago have been bought up, tarted up and stuffed with glass. The supermarkets have almost everything (bar pork pies) and Spar in the main Arcades mall is more expensive then Asda in Cambridge. Zambia is now officially the second most expensive African country to live in and all this is mostly due it seems to AID money filling the coffers of a new middle class and a swelling expatriate community. Corruption is so endemic that it is written in as ‘contingency’ in every budget. Meanwhile the poor still sit in sewage around the edges of the city desperately devising daily plans to stay alive. Downtown the potholes are so deep people have stuck canoes in them as statements and their was a ‘mini’ riot during a by-election that involved one too many machetes for my liking. (Luckily I was on the other side of town.)
I had a fascinating and exhausting trip. The rains had been slamming down for months and electricity, telephones and internet servers were either down or sluggish so I had to seek out everyone by hiring a cab driver called Francis and zapping around like a crazy thing. I managed to source several good interviews from the blind and VI community and still get to see friends and stuff in a 2-day fishing fandango with my pa. We stayed at a camp with a resident hippo called Basil who mowed the lawns around the chalets day and night…..a bit disconcerting in the dark…

I wanted to mourn Teelo but I couldn’t find a way or a place. I kept looking for his dreads when we went out in the evening …as if he would appear any minute with a bedraggled cigarette, a beer and a huge hoot of laughter.

I’ll bang on about the trip in the next couple of entries but right now I am ravenous and need to raid my fridge.

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Mosquito blues

Today on the news they were discussing the very British method of keeping teenagers as murderously miserable and as isolated as possible. The method, invented to keep the teenage riffraff away from ‘volitile’ areas such as street corners and shopping areas in case they run riot and graffiti everything or stab everyone or, god forbid, demand some kind of loving respect and equality, is called ‘the mosquito’ and is a sonar weapon that a Bond villain would be proud. It plays a pattern of piercing high frequency bursts that are unbearable to anyone under 20 years old.

Apparently there are thousands around the country and they are indiscriminate in whom, under 20, they pierce. Mothers wander around shopping malls wondering why their toddlers are going berserk and their babies’ ears are bleeding. Perfectly nice teenagers with A levels and everything find they start snarling at spitting at their parents after a simple trip downtown and 10 year olds are forced to wear hoodies and hang together in tight sulky groups to protect their ears.

Obviously this is a real ‘be seen and not heard’ child torture that could only have been dreamt up by English nannies snorting starch and dreaming of horsehair mattresses.
But, and oh hooorah, in the face of this assault what does the wonderfully ingenious British teenager do? Why, they download the horrible noise onto their mobile phones and play it in class of course. Teachers all over the country have been unable to account for the sudden strange disruptions,howls of rage and clutching of ears by their pupils as they themselves cannot hear the noise being too old and passed it. Serves us all bloody right really.(I wonder if this is all approved under Sharia law.)

I am off to Zambia tomorrow. Next post from roadside cyber cafĂ© in Lusaka unless the server is down because of the rain…..Tarraaa

Saturday, 9 February 2008

Da Da Day!

As I have a British passport I feel I must comment on the weather. Today, Feb 9th, I went out in a T-shirt. The sun was actually warming, the sky bright blue and everything glittered as if embedded with mica. Potentially climate changetastic but still so lovely.

This is how gorgeous today was:
I round a corner and walk into a spattering of of ‘yoof’ who seem to be running (and cycling) nervously away from another larger and scarier bunch of ‘yoof’ coming down the road behind them. The larger bunch are walking in a tight formation, shoulders hunched and hoodies up against the glare of the sun but as I get closer one of them steps away a little dizzily and lets his hoodie slip back from his face. He is shorter then the others, not yet acned and he has a delicate baby face that he raises up to the sunshine. He shuts his eyes and smiles. The others pause slightly, out of step.
‘Verrr nice day’, says Shorty, still with his eyes blissfully closed against the soft, warm sunlight...
‘Yerrr, verrr nice…….errr..lovely’ says a pitifully skinny tall boy. He seems unsure about something and after checking with the others he also drops back his hood. And then suddenly he croaks out ‘da da day, da da day..’
and the entire gobby lot of them break into an tuneless, out of beat but fiercely joyful acapella version of ‘Lovely Day’ by Bill Withers.
All this happens in the 20 seconds it takes me to pass them and I smile for hours and hours afterwards.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

'the Blind'

On Monday I was asked to review a play for the Radio 4 programme ‘In Touch’. It was called ‘The Blind’ and featured 6 blind and VI actors. (there is a theme methinks…)
Turns out the opening night was in the depths of Stoke Newington near no station I have ever heard of. The studio theatre was outside, round a corner and down some raggedy ass steps and in a basement. The irony being this whole trip would have been bloody difficult if not impossible for a VI person like myself to attempt without help. Luckily my Mum came along and we extended the evening to include a delicious sis kebab at a Turkish restaurant.

And the play? Erm…it was annoying but it was gripping. The author is Maeterlink who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1911. He is a symbolist which means the language and movement is non-naturalistic and sparse and he is using the ‘blind’ as a metaphor to talk about isolation, disenfranchisement, an absent God etc. Not ‘Mary Poppins ‘ then. However, having blind actors added a dimension that I don’t think the rather suave, youngster director realised. They were a strong, good looking bunch but the staging was weak and illogical. The overall effect was creepy and I felt rattled and unsure about how I felt so was glad it was all over in an hour and we could begin our marathon trek back to Cambridge.
‘Sleep on it’ said my Mum.
So I did. The review went well and I didn’t swear once.

Whilst hanging around the Beeb, I picked up my recording equipment for Zambia. I have two ridiculously huge mikes to poke in people’s faces. I am sure that will greatly encourage easy, relaxed chat. I am now trying to figure out how to get a Melton Mowbey Pork Pie through customs for a friend who was expressing lust for one on the internet. Apparently one can get the piccalilli but not the pie in Lusaka. It’s a humanitarian emergency.

Saturday, 2 February 2008

Urban Unbinding

The first law of dynamics states that for a thermodynamic cycle the sum of net heat supplied to the system and the net work done by the system is equal to zero.
More simply, (thank God for Wikipedia) the First Law states that energy cannot be created or destroyed; rather, the amount of energy lost in a steady state process cannot be greater than the amount of energy gained.
This rather makes the ‘Urban Rebound’ class at the gym a non event. All gym activities really. Apply the theory and it becomes apparent that one should stay at home in a state of entropy with the remote control and a cat in a box. (You quantum groupies you!)

‘Urban Rebound’…sounds so exciting eh? Like something one might do in a stolen car in central London. I finally got into the packed class today and it turns out far from learning ways to utilise a wire coathanger in a lock, it ACTUALLY involves running and jumping very fast and very carefully on a tiny little trampoline known in the trade as a ‘trampet’…(no, not a trumpet…that would be more interesting but painful. It would jazz up the class a little I s’pose… certainly be noteworthy (enough ed!) )

One takes in to the class:
Steel under-wired bra
Universal law of gravitation

One loses, if not weight (please refer to the first law) then certainly:
Pretensions to grown-up-ness
Bladder control

However, as it is more complicated to steal a car and drive riotously through the city (although this is certainly quite tempting right now) this version of urban rebounding may be the thing that puts the spring in my step over the next week or two. Alternately, as the trampet is so very small and I can’t see my feet when on it I may well end up in plaster. Probably better then ending up in jail…I'll bounce that idea around.

Hey - thank you all you people who commented and called me after last post. Don't this case what doesn't break me makes me very, very much stronger.

Friday, 1 February 2008

This is a miserable post but have to get it out of system. Sorry.

Several people have asked me if I am looking forward to my trip back to Zambia. Well yes, I love Zambia, the light, the beauty of the country, the wit and wisdom of the people, the life, the soul of it all even given the appalling poverty, tragedy and corruption (insert Miss World speech here) but, for me, there is this:
Macular cystic oedema. I have it badly today. It hurts and it blurs my vision and it comes and goes again seemingly for no reason. This you already know about from previous posts, but did you know that when I was in Zambia I had it for three years pretty much constantly.

In Zambia no one had the ophthalmologic equipment to diagnose the problem. I was given varying doses of a steroid that made my face puffy and made me gain weight. Next, I was told I had ‘dry eye’ and given drops. Then both. In the end the optician and ophthalmologist I saw said there was nothing they could find and nothing they could do.

The ‘problem’ is that even with the retinitits pigmentosa, I look sighted, make eye contact, can manoeuvre in good light without a cane and the only outward sign of the additional problem, the oedema, is a slight redness in the skin around my eyes and a ‘sheen’ on the eyeball. (Oh, and me hissing ‘owww’ a lot and squinting…but that’s by the by) Because I did not look (DO not look) or always act visually impaired, and because the oedema was not diagnosed, I found myself in a very difficult situation.

Lusaka has the kind of society that feeds on spurious gossip and a rumour was put around to the effect that I was faking, I was claiming visual impairment for attention. (Good grief! You would think if I was going to claim something for attention I choose something a bit more well…sexy. I was secretly working for the KGB perhaps or how about me having Liam Neeson’s love child. Oooo.lets stay there a sec…..)

As my sight deteriorated over those three years the rumour seemed to gain a foothold even amongst people I had not met before. I was physically attacked twice whilst in my favourite night club by drunken men telling me that I was faking it all just to ‘get men’. (This obviously after I had refused to sleep with them – and don’t worry on the first occasion I ran away with only a torn shirt and the other time Teelo who was drinking at the same bar, waded in, dreadlocks flying and sparks exploding from his eyes and we both ended up with free drinks all night.)

However, joking very much aside, I had people tell me they thought I was disgusting to be causing so much trouble to my family. I even had a couple at a party say to my face and surrounding guests that I was ‘an outright liar, manipulative, cruel and evil.’ The woman said she was telling me this on behalf of my friends and family and by this point I was so confused I believed her. When someone tells you they don’t believe you, that they know you are a fake..what can you do? I couldn’t pop out my own eyeball and show them the mess on my retina. It is a Kafkaesque situation. ‘I say you are mad. If you say you NOT mad then you are obviously deluded and therefore even more mad then I thought..etc etc.’

I stopped telling people about the pain. My father had problems of his own and so did many of my friends. I went out less and less and drank more and more alone. After a while even dear Teelo couldn’t tempt me out at the weekends I still managed to pull together enough production work to be busy during the day and if the pain was bad I would sleep for 40 minutes during lunch and be functioning in the afternoon. When the pain and distortion finally began to ease it didn’t matter. I began to hate myself. I began to believe I deserved to be alone. I thought of taking my passport and disappearing. I thought of poking myself in the eyes to give people the ‘real’ blindness they seemed to need, and in my darkest moments I thought I should probably kill myself, my logic being that if it was hard now how much worse would it get when I lost more sight and still was not believed?

Finally my new driver totalled my beloved car whilst drunk as a skunk at 9am. Luckily I wasn’t in it but without a car, without a driver (he was fine: he was VERY relaxed) it was no longer possible to work and I made plans to leave.
It most likely saved my life.

Would I have been able to prevent some of the scarring in the back of my eye if we had had a realistic diagnosis earlier …who knows? I was so demoralised by those three years, literally consumed by confusion, shame and self disgust that it took a full year back in UK, the diagnosis of my cystic oedema, (I cried when the ophthalmologist said whilst peering at the scarring, ‘wow, that must have been painful’), the registration of my blindness and the love of a lot of people to bring me back from a very dark place.

So am I looking forward to my trip back? It’s tricky.