vrijdag 20 juli 2018

On turning 31...

Today I am 31. Last year was the big 3-0 and I threw a nice party for my friends. 30 did not feel old, definitely not any different than 29. Today is different. Maybe because their won't be a big party because all my friends are far away. Maybe because here, without a celebration to plan and groceries to buy,  I have more time to think and reflect. 31 feels different, but not in an unpleasant way.

I look in the mirror. I don't wear make up. I never wore a lot but I have totally given up on it here in the humid Malawian heat. It would just clog my pores and usually I sweat so much that it would all be gone by 9 am anyway. My hair is tied back in a top knot. A few perky strands do their own little dance around my ears and forehead. I would love to be the kind of girl who treats her tresses with love and attention. In my imagination my brown soft hair comes down in supple waves, shiny and healthy. But well, that's only imagination.

I smile at my reflection. I look content, I know I am. I try to see myself as others see me. I still get surprised looks when I say that I am a mom. People tell me I look like I come just out of school, too young to be a mom. I don't see that. My smile makes the creases around my eyes and mouth deeper. When I stop smiling, the lines are still there. Not deep, but still visible. That's new. I put some cream on but it doesn't help, the lines stay and I know they will never go away. A decade of African sun has not been kind to my skin.

We had some guests at the lodge. They were born in 1998 and I thought that they were really young and brave to be traveling through africa. I remember when it was 1998 and when you are born in that year you cannot possibly be old enough to be traveling without parental supervision. It turned out that they were 19 and 20 and perfectly capable of taking care of themselves. It made me feel old. But after observing them I realised that I did not feel old in an unhappy, yearning way. I don't want to be 20 anymore. I like who I am now. I like what the lessons of the past decade have thaught me. I feel more at peace, have less fomo, more satisfaction. The starting wrinkles are here to stay, and so are the stretchmarks that two pregnancies caused. But despite that I feel more confident about my body than ever before. Maybe because I feel more confident about myself. I know who I am and I have learned to embrace that person. I know more about my talents, but I have also been confronted with my shortcomings and learned that I will stumble through life if I try to do it on my own. The biggest lesson I have learned is about God and His grace. Living in that grace means that I can extend it to others but also to myself. I don't have to be so hard on myself, I don't have to try to please others for acceptance and I do not have to proof anything because I am loved by the creator of the universe.

No, I also don't want to be 40. Not yet. Because 40 is properly old (just kidding.). But I am not scared of getting older. I like where I was, am grateful where I am now but I am also really hopeful for the future.  I thought that growing older was about  letting go and accepting. Letting go of that youthful skin and accepting that you will never look the way you did when you were 20. Letting go of energy and accepting that a late night takes longer to recover from. But instead, I am learning that getting older is about growth and finding peace. Knowing who you are, being content in that and doing what you are supposed to be doing gives a peace and joy that I did not possess 10 years ago. So bring on the next year with more love, more grace, more adventures and more wrinkles caused by joyous laughter!

vrijdag 6 juli 2018

7 quick takes from Hartmut

7 quick takes.
1. A couple from Australia was volunteering with the local NGO a couple of weeks ago and stayed with us. It is their first time with us on our signal hill and they, like everyone else, look for a spot with a great view over the lake and with a more or less comfortable rock to sit on. We are eagerly waiting for the whatsapp messages to load. Internet is particularly slow today but we have learned to be excited for every new batch of messages. Unexpectedly, the volunteers walk over to us and graciously asks us if there is any particular spot on the hill with superior internet reception or if the fastest here is simply the "Emergency signal". I pause for a while regarding the 2nd question about the "Emergency signal" and then it suddenly dawns on me and I need to force myself not to laugh out loud. "No", I answer, "it does not really matter where you sit as long as see the reception tower far down south at the lake shore." And yes, the "E" signal showing on top of your phone screen is the fastest you will get, but it stands for EDGE and not Emergency. So funny how one forgets the old internet carrier signals in time of 3G and 4G/LTE (and I guess soon 5G, if its not there yet).
2. So after our dear friend Philippa, who is co-running the NGO in our village, stayed the past months in the luxury chalet dubbed the "Stone house" (it  is not really luxurious at this stage as the roof was disintegrating by the day, hence poor Philippa was rather "forced" to live there). Anyway, now that she left for 3 months to the UK, immediate maintenance is required. I prepared our maintenance manager weeks in advance of her departure that we need to get cracking on the roof the day she moves out.

Fast forward 4 weeks, we managed to remove the grass roof, burn it and clean the house (1 days work) and cut 4 poles (half a day of work). I assume, the rest of 28 days or so were needed to thoroughly plan the work, do thorough risk assesssments, organise the work space and ask the ants and termites to please vacate their homes or they would be destroyed along side them? Don't get me wrong, I really enjoy our staff and have tremendous respect for them, I guess I just have a different concept of "hitting the ground running" and ASAP :).
3. I am sitting with Doris in front of our house while Sophie is frantically running in and out the house fetching all kind of toys. She is the "Oster Hase" (easter bunny) and hides them and we need to search for them once she is ready. It intrigues me how patient Doris is. She patiently sits for minutes on end (as the search is repeated multiple times) waiting for Sophie to give the signal that she is ready. In between the waiting, Doris looks up at me with he deep blue eyes and says "we can only look when Sophie tells us she is ready" and shouts "are you ready Sophie?". I am a little envious at her patience as I could do with some of it, but more profoundly I realise how privileged I am being able to witness my kids play every day and be able to spend so much time with them. In fact 24 x 7 for more than 3 months now. (Only Anneke has been 1 night away from the kids so far.)

For a dad who has previously been working long and hard hours in the corporate world and who also enjoyed going to work, the idea of a "full time dad" sounds amazing but in practice it is a massive adjustment and cannot be taken thoughtlessly. Fortunately, I did anticipate this drastic change and with lots of grace from Anneke and my kids, I think I found my sweet spot and really enjoy being together literally all the time.
4. Before we moved out here into the remoteness, one of our main concerns was of course what we do in an medical emergency. Friends wanted me to buy a satellite phone, build an airstrip or take out a comprehensive international medical plan. We decided to move without them in place and have numerous reasons, the main being that the unknown dangers are always more perceived than  the day to day dangers you have adapted to. (It is insane to come to terms how many people we know have died in car accidents in Namibia and South Africa the past months). 3 months fast forward, we still do not have any of them in place, but I still think loads about how to get us out here as fast as possible and we are in a much better position to judge what we can afford and what is practical.

So rather than spending all of our savings on an international evacuation scheme, we are looking into storing our own fuel for in case we need to hire a boat to get us out and fuel has run out in the village (which does happen...) and building relationships with people who will assist us without hesitation in such cases (in real life I think everyone here in our village would immediately assist as I have seldom come across such selfless people).
5. A broken solar panel, a broken charge controller, numerous damaged batteries some unmarked and complicated wiring and a complete sophisticated still-standing pico hydro system...the ugly and unfortunately very common face of development work in Africa.

Fortunately, this picture does not overshadow the local NGO in our village as it is running well and is mostly self governed. The library, youth club and nursery school is working well and the newly installed maize mill is also running.

As electrical engineers are supposed to know everything about electrical house installations (whereas in fact electricians are trained to do so) I have been asked to look at the electrical system and experienced yet again the aftermath of the selfish and obstructive western saviour complex. The pico hydro installation is ma perfect example. The system is immensely complex, build on the wrong spot, no drawings or spare parts are left behind and little to no training was done by the installers to allow it to run for an extended period of time. Only after completion of the project did the NGO realise that the installers were inexperienced final year students who were literally butchering around. Develoment work is great, but it needs to be done the right way and it needs to happen slowly, very slowly indeed, usually way too slow for most western money to be justifyable.

My aim will be to simplify the installation and to see if some spare parts can be sourced. Let's see how far we get.
6. You might be asking yourself what I keep myself busy with the entire day. Besides spending very good time with Sophie and Doris, I mainly keep myself busy with maintenance work. Most things in the lodge need some care and if I don't organise the team, I keep myself busy with cutting and trimming of trees, building an oven, cleaning flower beds and repair window frames or painting. And since you cannot buy much here in northern Malawi and the freight via boat is a logistical nightmare, everything is full on DIY. Furthermore, the generator broke when we arrived and so I have been forced to learn woodwork without any power tools. A skill that is almost redundant in our age but such a blessing to be able to still learn it and see it being done everyday here in the villages. I am really enjoying the learning curve and it is very satisfying.

7. The other evening Anneke suddenly tells me that the soccer world cup must have started or is about to start. How and what happened that I missed such a grand moment in my calender? The answer of course is that Zulunkhuni happened to me. The quietness, the peace, the remoteness, the lack of urgency in life and detachment from the daily internet has taken its toll and I am more and more convinced that it is not a bad thing. I have been telling Anneke for years now that I must stop being so involved in supporting my national team and I think I am getting there slowly but surely. So far I only watched a single game and thanks to God he only allowed me to watch till the 82nd minute against Korea when the electricity went off so that I would only here the bitter result the next day via word of mouth. Now at least Anneke and I are on the same page and are supporting the "red devils".
Lots of time with the girls

Always something to build or maintain.
Where we got to watch the soccer.

The oven is nearly finished.

maandag 2 juli 2018

Our minimalism

I am making a package for you, anything you want?' That should be an easy question to answer when you live in the middle of nowhere without access to shops or online shopping. To my own surprise I don't have an answer right away. I don't know what I want. I don't know what I could want. Three months in a remote village, mostly away from the endless stream of commercials, pictures of well dressed families and carefully curated and decorated homes, magazines and all the other triggers that can make you want to buy and have, is a good detox against materialism. There is nothing that I really want. Most of the money that I spend the last 3 months was on food. One of the few items that I did buy was a bin, handmade out of local bamboo by one of our watchmen. A dustbin to throw things away. Rather ironic, if I think about it.
My thoughts go to a few months back. I was reducing the content of our house and sorting things until it would fit in the four suitcases that we brought here. I always thought that we did not have that much but it still took weeks to work my way through all the toys, the clothes, the kitchen items and all the random things of which the reason they entered our house was long forgotten. It felt impossible and so many of the items that we could not bring along seemed essential. 
It turns out that even with the content of only four suitcases you can have enough. Too much even. The girls can still make a mess, eventhough they only have a few toys, I can still stand in front of my wardrobe (a figurative wardrobe) not knowing what to wear because I have too much choice.
Minimalism is hip, it's a codeword for happiness and a fashionable house and wardrobe. But it often feels as if the minimalism that is sold is just another kind of consumerism. A wolf in sheepskin. Because minimalism isn't real unless it includes a lot of white and natural materials. It is not real unless it looks like the minimalism from the magazine. It isn't real until you have spend half a month's salary on that one statement vase or that overpriced handknitted wool blanket or jumper.
White and natural materials are beautiful. The magazine pictures are envy inducing. But aren't we missing the point here? If minimalism is something that you need a budget for it feels a bit fake and leaves a sour taste in my mouth. Dear interior decorator, magazine editor, instagram influencer, if you make people feel like they do not have the money for a minimalist house or wardrobe, you are advocating consumerism, not minimalism.
To us minimalism is about being resourceful and creative. To always ask yourself (and be honest) if something is a necessity or luxury. To see if you really need to buy it new or if you can get it second hand, make it yourself or borrow it. It may not always exactly look like the magazine but it saves a lot of money, it fights consumerism and materialistic thinking and is kind to our planet and makes you unique. Hartmut made sure that I added that minimalism is not about being cheap. Quality over quantity because it's better to invest in things that last, and to buy things that are made in a sustainable way.
Here in Malawi we are living with very little. But still embarrassingly much compared to most of the people around us. It is refreshing to live in a society where stuff and fashion do not really play a role and where happiness is not based on what you have. However, not having many things is, for most people here, not a choice but a consequence of poverty. It reminds us that having the choice to live with as much or as little as you want is a luxury in itself.
Oh, and I just want to say that it is easy to live a very minimalistic life here, where I am never confronted with things I want to buy. It was a lot harder in Cape Town to limit myself and if you leave me for too long in an Ikea or Hema, I will temporarily forget everything I believe in and become a first class hoarder. Also, I do now know what I want in that package. Chocolate, books for the girls, some spices for in the kitchen... It's not hard to wake up the consumer in me but it's great that she gets to sleep so often. 

maandag 25 juni 2018

7 quick takes...

It has been a while since I wrote some normal quick takes but here we go, 7 snippets from our life.

1. Let's start with saying that we are generally all well. Hartmut is finishing up my oven (things take always long here, and for this project he did not go to the shop but sourced all the rocks, clay and sand that he used in the wild, around the lodge. Pretty cool. ) and coordination the renovation of our luxury chalet. I am trying all kinds of recipes (yesterday's egg curry was amazing.) and training the kitchen staff. The girls are mostly in the imaginary world that only exists in their heads but seems to them to be as real as the real world. We have one more week here before we take the boat to Nkatha Bay for a marketing and shopping trip. It has been more than 6 weeks since we were there and I am looking forward to some dairy and faster internet so that we can call family.

2. We had heard about it but it still took us by surprise. The lake had been wild and stormy for a few days and when we finally woke up to calmer water, we also woke up to a beach on our doorstep. It happened just before Sophie's birthfay and she is convinced that it is God's birthday present for her. The beach is dreamy, as if it came straight from a holiday postcard. Clean sand, lush green trees and creepers on the side, clear blue water. It is never quiet. From where I sit I can see the waterfall, tumbling almost 10 meters down into the lake whilst making a roaring sounds, drowning out any other noise. The girls play, they use sturdy wooden seedpods that they find on the beach as scoops to build castles and towers. They let sticks and leaves drift in the flow, created by the waterfall. I sit on my kikoi, read a book, eat bananas. A big kingfisher flies accross, then perches on a rock on the side of the beach. Butterflies flutter around. This beach is the best surprise and we will treasure it for as long as it lasts.

3. The lodge is covered by a roof of tree tops that make it a cool, shaded place. We never quite know how hot it is until we step out of the cover to walk to the village. It also makes that at night we never quite know how many stars there are unless we step out onto the big rock in the lake, in front of the lodge. The rock is one of the best places to spend the evening. It soaks up the heat of the day to radiate it at night, warming up our bodies as we lie down to stare at the milky way. We talked about making a fire place there, to make the long evenings even more comfortable but our to do list is long and we did not yet get to it until last week a tour guide came with a honeymoon couple. They were both keen for some physical activity and asked if we had any projects they could help with (we obviously loved these guests). We spend their last evening at the lodge on the rock with a nice fire in our new fireplace. We had bread on a stick, lukewarm beer and nice conversations and know for sure that this fire place will be at the heart of many more memorable evenings.

4. It happens more and more lately. While I am cooking I quickly run 'upstairs' (our house is a bit higher on the hill than the rest of the lodge so we always call it that.) To get a few fresh herbs or some salad. Our garden is coming along and we are slowly learning the tricks. Our courgettes looked great but after harvesting we found out that the inside was already eaten by caterpillars, it's a constant battle to keep the grass hoppers out of our salads and we just cannot get the spinach to grow but the radishes have been great and the mint and coriander are thriving. It is so nice to be able to add some more flavour to our meals.

5. The map book for Africa is open. Next to it a 12 year old edition of the Lonely Planet for East Africa, presumably left by a traveller passing through the lodge. Some sections are torn out, probably the parts about the places where he went or still wanted to go. Not ideal but without internet better than nothing. I make columns in my notebook. One for dates, one for destinations and one for mode of travel. Mbeya, Kisumu, Kampala, bus, train, boat. Sometimes a question mark because information is missing or old and therefore not reliable. The departure date is 5 months away so I still have time but I like planning so that we know which information is missing when we have faster internet. We are invited to a wedding in Kampala mid-December and are planning to travel there by public transport. Straight accross Tanzania by train through national parks and wild forests to there where Africa meets the Indian Ocean. Then up north to Mombasa in Kenya where the coastline is lined with coconut trees and picture perfect white beaches. After that to the west to spend some days in Kisumu, where I lived my first year in Africa. We will cross the border to Uganda and explore Kampala. I cannot wait to show the girls the market where I bought clothes and food, the place where I lived. We will eat some 'rolex' that I used to buy after work (which made me gain a lot of weight) and 'kabalagala'. The wedding will be great, Sophie and Doris will love the big dresses and beautiful decoration that will be there. I am looking forward to go back to the church where I used to go. Their choir sings with so much joy and passion that it would make me cry without fail. The way back will be the tricky part. They say there is a boat to Tanzania but it's not a ferry so you need to ask the captain nicely if you can board. If you bring some money a crew member might give you his bed. The other option is to take shared taxis around the lake, over bad roads to places that cannot really be found on the map. And then all the way south through the interior of a country that does not have money for roads. We hope that rain season comes late, because muddy roads will make that last part challenging. Or maybe we will do the entire trip the other way around and skip the ocean. Who knows. For now I just love dreaming and reading up about all the possibilities.

6. My laptop is a bit temperamental. Hartmut says that it takes after it's owner. We share one laptop. It's an old one that we bought second hand from a friend but it works fine. Well, worked fine, until we got here. The hours that we can use it are already limited because we need to charge it and that can only happen when the sun shines. But since an ant family decided to make it their home while we were sleeping just after we arrived here, something funny happened and it does not always want to switch on. We have figured out that leaving it in the sun for 15 minutes to warm up helps, but not always. And some days it does not even need to warm up at all. I am happy that we do not need to use it daily because it would drive me nuts. And because it's such a hassle we only switch it on when we really need to work on it. Oh well, it gives us more time to enjoy the life outside of the screens while we really hope that the laptop will last while we live here.

7. I don't know when I will post this but I am finishing this blog while I am in bed. It's 3:45, pitchdark and I cannot sleep. We did not have guests this week (the first time that we were just with the 4 of us since we arrived) and we had some early nights (embarrassingly early) so I think I have overdone it on the sleep. We want to get up early tomorrow (today?) but the sun won't be up for another 2 hours so I better try if I can sleep a bit more. The church that we started visiting has a camp in Khondowe, a village 5 kms north from us. The congregations are all small because the villages are small so they often go to visit other congregations for a weekend. We want to hike there to visit for a bit and it's better to hike early before the sun is hot. I will try to get some more sleep because otherwise I won't enjoy the hike. Have a great day!

vrijdag 15 juni 2018

4 years with Sophie

Liefste Soof, Je slaapt en ik kijk naar je. Mijn mooie meisje. De opgaande zon verlicht je zachte zongebruinde velletje, je kleine ronde neusje en je donkere wimpers die als perfecte halve maantjes op je wangen liggen nu je je ogen dicht hebt. Je gezicht wordt omlijst door een paar losse plukken haar en je pony. Hij is een beetje scheefgeknipt want jij was het knippen zat voor ik er klaar mee was.  Ik zie een paar sproetjes op je wangen en vraag me af of dat er meer gaan worden. Je bent zo mooi. Als je lacht houd je je hoofd een beetje scheef en trek je je schouders op. Op je neus, daar waar je ooghoeken je neus raken, verschijnen dan kleine rimpeltjes en het is onmogelijk om niet te smelten. Als je moe bent gaat je duim in je mond en gaan je blauwe ogen staren, eindeloos de verte in. Je nestelt je dan graag tegen ons aan, loom en zwaar. Uit gewoonte plukken je vingers aan de gaatjes van he 'bedje', het dekentje dat oma voor je gehaakt heeft en dat je nog altijd overal mee naar toe neemt. Ik heb je zo lief! Vier ben je nu. Bijna een hand vol. Zo groot, en nog zo klein. Je begint zo veel te snappen en geen gesprek ontgaat je. We kunnen niet meer overal over praten als jij er bij bent want alles wat we zeggen sla je op. Je bent een gevoelig meisje. Als anderen boos of verdrietig zijn ben jij dat ook op de grootste en meest temperamentvolle manier. Maar als anderen gelukkig zijn straal jij het meest van allemaal. Je raakt gemakkelijk ontroert. Mooie muziek, een lief gedichtje of een indrukwekkend uitzicht maken dat jij met een stukje van je shirt of de achterkant van je hand snel een paar tranen wegwist, hopend dat niemand het ziet. Maar ik zie het wel, en jouw ontroering raakt me elke keer weer. Wat hebben we een geluk dat jij bij ons hoort. Jij, met je intense emoties. Hoge pieken, diepe dalen... Je helpt mij om meer van het leven te genieten. Je perfectionisme zit je vaak in de weg. Zelfs als je iets voor de eerste keer doet neem je geen genoegen met een resultaat dat niet helemaal is zoals je in je hoofd had. Het maakt je boos en gefrustreerd en je twijfelt dan aan je eigen kunnen. Dat is pijnlijk herkenbaar. Lief meisje, wees toch niet zo streng voor jezelf. Je komt er wel. Oefenen is belangrijk en er is nog nooit iemand geweest die uit het niets perfecte letters kon schrijven, een levensechte ballerina kon tekenen of met mes en vork kon eten. Blijf maar oefenen en wees alsjeblieft lief voor jezelf. Je bent nu 4 en als we in Nederland zouden wonen zou dat betekenen dat je vanaf nu elke dag naar school zou gaan. Jij doet dat ook maar op je eigen manier. Jouw school is geen gebouw met juffen en meesters maar je bent je eigen juf die zelf bepaalt wat er geleerd gaat worden op je eigen tempo. Op sommige dagen is dat heel 'schools', je maakt bladen met eenvoudige sommetjes of oefent met letters. Je knutselt, tekent en stempelt. Je hebt zelf een regel gemaakt dat je om de dag zo school wil doen maar die regel breek je vaak omdat je werkbladen zo leuk vindt. Op andere dagen stel je eindeloos vragen en filosofeer je er op los. ("Ik denk dat het verschil tussen 'iets' en 'iemand' is dat 'iemand' kan bewegen als hij dat zelf wil en 'iets' niet. Een boom kan wel bewegen maar alleen als de wind dat doet dus is het een iets. Een mier kan zelf weten waar hij heen loopt dus is het een iemand." En "Ik denk dat ik later niet naar Australië wil gaan want daar zijn giftige slangen en giftige spinnen. Ga jij dan ook niet mam? Dan hoef ik me niet zo'n zorgen te maken."). Deze manier van leren past bij jou en bij ons leven in Malawi. Het leven in Malawi lijkt sowieso speciaal voor jou gemaakt. "Ik wil voor altijd hier in de wildernis wonen mam" zei je vorige week. Je geniet van het leven midden in de natuur. Je klimt in bomen en op rotsen, vindt overal diertjes om mee te spelen en je fantasie draait overuren. Je helpt mij mee in de keuken, kletst met de gasten of kijkt wat pappa aan het doen is. Je verveelt je geen moment en aan het einde van elke dag is je haar in de war, zijn je kleren vol vlekken en val jij als een blok in slaap. Je droomt over ballerinas en musicals, verre reizen en avonturen met Doris. Je vertelt me erover als je weer wakker wordt, klaar voor een nieuwe dag. Ik schrijf dit en ondertussen luisteren we nieuwe liedjes die je van Omingel hebt gekregen. Het zijn mooie Duitse christelijke kinderliedjes. Je ligt op je buik met je duim in je mond en luistert. Ineens zeg je: "Het is goed om hiernaar te luisteren. Het is water voor het zaadje van de Here Jezus in mijn hart. Dan gaat het groeien en vind ik Hem nòg liever". Ik bid dat je naar water voor dat zaadje blijft zoeken. Dat je weet wie jij bent omdat je weet wie Hij is. Dat je weet dat je goed genoeg bent omdat je gemaakt bent naar Zijn plan. En dat ik niet in de weg sta voor dat plan maar dat pappa en ik het geduld en de wijsheid hebben om je te helpen bij het ontdekken wie je bent. Liefs Mamma