“Can I talk about rubbish?”

Posted on

We’ve been busy, but it’s been a good kind of busy. Our sewing enterprise continues to take shape. We’re hoping sales in New Zealand and Australia can help us keep the prices affordable for the local market, thereby contributing, even in a small way, to reduced rubbish and carbon footprint. We’re approaching food banks in NZ about whether they’d accept our re-usable cloth sanitary pads if donated for those unable to afford disposable pads (apparently topical there right now). Let us know if making such a donation interests you or a group you know. Email office@nzcms.org.nz if you want to hear more.

Hearing about our products, our girl’s teacher invited one of us to be the “creative parent teacher” on the theme of “women’s empowerment” to celebrate the birthday of a famous campaigner for girls’ education. “Can I talk about rubbish?” she asked. “Of course,” he replied, “the main thing is that you’re a woman.”

So began our series of presentations: “Living with rubbish”. Where does rubbish go? What animals are affected? What happens when you burn it? All novel questions, it seems, around here. Promoting the three “R” (reduce, reuse, recycle), we discussed alternatives to buying heavily packaged takeaways, which left parents and teachers in the audience challenged to change their consumption habits. “This is really important,” said one parent, “everyone should hear this”. After three years of living with the overwhelming reality of the rubbish around us, it is deeply satisfying to share meaningfully about this.

We’ve done the presentation five times now, including in our neighbourhood. As well as a platform to promote the products, it feels good to celebrate our rubbish-picking neighbours as eco-heroes. Without them, our city would have 30% more rubbish to deal with! Unfortunately, they are often regarded as dirty, impolite, unhealthy bottom-feeders. “They’re actually richer than many of the legitimate citizens of this area,” the local government official tried to tell me, “squatting for free, paying no tax. They can just go home to their houses in the village.”

Such discussions have been informed by my part-time study. This semester’s topic was “climate change, justice and sustainability.” One of my first assignments was to write a letter to people back home about my convictions about climate change. You can ask for a copy by emailing office@nzcms.org.nz. I’ve also written an essay regarding “Rich Christians in an Age of Climate Change” with some thoughts for the church here, and another essay on climate change risks for our rubbish-picking neighbours and local perceptions and priorities to adapt to an increasingly uncertain future.

Little House in the Big Flood

Posted on

I never thought our house would be flooded. Sure, every time the rain is heavy, water gets into a friend’s house across from us and soaks their mattress (and we wonder how they sleep in the damp). And yes, often enough the row of rental units behind us get up to ankle deep in flood water. But our floor level has always remained high and dry (apart from the weeping walls, but that’s a separate issue).

So when we were woken at 4am one Tuesday by a violent thunderstorm we weren’t too worried. Though as we lay in bed we wondered how we’d get the girls to school. Only the day before had the normally 10 minute commute taken 1.5 hours as flooding had choked the roads and we were forced to skirt dodgily along the edge of a full-flowing muddy canal. Our kids turned up to school an hour late, mud all over their legs and even their faces! Listening again to the pounding rain, we decided this would be an off-day.

Then at six I poked my head outside. “Oops, it’s on our porch!” In fact it was pouring in under the door. We tried using rags to stop it, but it was rising too fast. Then we made frantic efforts to move toys, fabric, and other valuables upstairs, and lifted the fridge onto the seat. Another family next door didn’t have an upstairs, so damp books and clothes covered every raised surface: chairs, bench seats, beds.

We were waterlogged for the next nine hours, muddy water levels stubbornly remaining at 150mm above our floor. School was called off. Our team was doing literacy education training – that was cancelled too. The field near us became a lake, at least 500mm deep. Some neighbours who were accustomed to flooding in their homes had water up to their heads!

We kept the kids occupied for some hours upstairs, but then we gave in and let them go swimming outside with their friends. Neighbours even took the opportunity to go fishing in the streets! Fish were escaping from nearby recreational fish farms.

Finally the water receded and our power came back on at 5pm so we could pump up clean water for the cleanup. At dinner we asked the girls to name the “most fun” and the “most horriblest” thing about the day. They couldn’t name anything horrible, but had lots to say about the fun time they’d had!


Photocredit: Johnny Silvercloud on flickr.

Let me tell you a story

Posted on

Last time Mama Miriam, 40, was pregnant, her baby died at birth. “A” was determined this time would be different.

Every week, a dozen pregnant women gather with A and her team-mate. They talk about nutrition, foetal growth, breast feeding and other revolutionary ideas. They even practised putting condoms on cucumbers. (The bananas were too ripe). They usually finish with some stretches and A checks their blood pressures.

She noticed Mama’s blood pressure was high. “It’s happening again” said A, remembering last year’s tragedy. “You must go to the clinic as soon as possible”.

A local midwife did a quick ultra sound and estimated her pregnancy at six or seven months, and the baby only 1kg. The government clinic agreed that keeping her blood pressure down for the next two months was going to be important. “But your case is too complex for us here” they said. “You need a letter from Social Services to get free treatment at the public hospital.”

Thankfully Mama has been diligent with her documentation, and is one of the few people in our neighbourhood with an official identity card, somehow obtained for her unofficial address. She even managed to get a letter out of the local government representative to show she was ‘poor’. She remembered smugly: “He was asking me for money, because I’m not in his official area, but I just kept silent, and he gave it to me anyway.” Her own husband was ill, so she had waddled her own pregnant self to about four different public agencies on public transport getting the right signatures.

Knowing time was precious, Mama and A gathered all her documents and set out early the next morning for the Social Services office. It turned out that Social Services wasn’t at the location the clinic said it would be. So where is it? “It’s close” a bystander said. “That way I think”. If you’ve ever experienced an Asian megacity then you know how unhelpful such vague directions can be, with roads rarely signposted, buildings unnumbered, and houses and offices mashed together in an impossible pile of human enterprise.

The goose-chase that followed took them (via other loosely associated government offices) to a home for street kids and the homeless. The place was oddly empty except for a group of uniformed men hanging about smoking. A well-meaning social worker visiting from out of town took pity on this odd pair: a blustering foreigner and a heavily-pregnant, one-eyed woman from the dump. He personally escorted them in his car to the correct location, some 6km from the original destination. The office was entirely un-signposted and set back from the main road behind other buildings.

It was right on the start of lunch break. Several staff were sitting at desks staring determinedly into space. Not leaving. Not even eating. Just “on break”. Incredibly frustrating to watch! The walls were covered with notifications of missing children. Who would ever see these posters? They recognised the faces of two kids from our own neighbourhood (who, we found out later, were actually being held in a police cell for begging in front of a fancy supermarket).

Then the break was finally over, and getting the letter was surprisingly fast. They wrote the date wrong, so twinked it out and typed over it, wondering among themselves how many other letters that day they had dated incorrectly. “Just take this straight to the hospital, and they’ll take care of the rest”. Good news, finally! They returned home, exhausted but satisfied, A ignoring the neighbours tut-tutting for leaving her own baby for so long.

Mama and A made time to tackle the hospital two days later, A worried about the possibility of preeclampsia. Upon registering, they produced their precious letter. “The date’s been tampered with!” the staff informed them. “We can’t accept this!” In despair, A tried to explain that it came like that. Another staff member rescued them: “Actually you don’t need this letter at all. Your supporting documentation is sufficient.” So their well-earned letter was discarded. Good to know!

The biggest surprise was still to come, however. After a 3hr wait, Mama finally received her free consultation. “You’re dry,” the doctor declared after the ultrasound. “The water’s gone. You’re lucky you came today, because the baby needs to come out, now!” It didn’t help that A’s phone battery died, but she was able to borrow a charger from another patient and call me. The father, still unwell, visibly deflated when I informed him. He carries the burden of providing for four other children, and no doubt the grief of last year’s stillbirth. And now the prospect of a tiny prem baby added to the mix. Another of our team-mates was able to give him a lift to hospital, and his wife made sure the kids were properly fed for the next few days.

The baby was born that night by c-section at no cost to the family.* To everybody’s amazement, she was 3.2kg! A healthy weight, and breastfeeding fine. “What miracle is this?!” we all asked ourselves. And then… “how incompetent is that local midwife at reading ultrasounds?!!” (We’ve had a lot of bad experiences with her, but our neighbours keep using her).

In hindsight, Mama remembers some fluid discharge the night before, but as it didn’t come with pains, she thought nothing of it. By the time we were at hospital the baby was already in distress and would not have lived much longer, though her mother didn’t realise. Maybe the same thing happened last time. But this time, our intervention saved a life, and for that we are all so grateful to God.

The news spread in our neighbourhood. A few days later, a man stopped me on my way home from teaching English. “It’s so great what you guys did. Usually nobody offers more than a bar of soap from the nearest shop. But taking someone to hospital is no small thing.” (From our experience I have to agree). “And you care, even if they are a different religion.” he said. I tried to explain that Isa teaches us to love our neighbours as ourselves. In the current climate of fear and intolerance, it seems that more of this is what’s needed.


*PS In another baffling twist of bureaucracy, at the moment of birth, the baby was classed as a new patient and therefore not eligible for funding (and the mother prohibited to leave) until the correct documentation was produced. Thankfully our team-mates and the father did this part of the leg-work, visiting all the same government officials again, only this time for the baby.

The Fast

Posted on

Ramadan was in full swing when we moved back earlier this year. At 3am every day, our sleep was assaulted by loudspeakers from a half dozen neighbourhood mosques: “Wake up! Wake up! Breakfast time! Breakfast time! Women, get up, start cooking!” It’s non-stop. “The time is now twelve minutes past three! Wake up!” and so on, with intermittent musical chanting, until finally climaxing in the prayer call at around 4:30am which signals the beginning of the fast. The devout refrain from drink, food, smokes and sex until sundown.

Some of our daughter’s best friends were doing the fast. One friend, also aged six, did it for about a week. Our daughter was inspired to give it a go too, so she and I got up at 3:30am on the final day of the fast. We had a big bowl of muesli, a fried egg, and lots of water before collapsing into bed again. When I next awoke at 7am, I was already thirsty. It was going to be a long day.

As soon as our daughter met her friends outside she let them all know: “I’m fasting!” The other kids try to out-boast: “I’ve done the fast!” “I’m doing the fast too!” “No, you’re lying!” Then the teasing: “My little sister’s not fasting. She’s not fasting” our daughter would chant. Evidently they haven’t yet grasped the spiritual aspect of the fast.

“You’re not fasting are you?” some of the kids asked as we prepared lunch one day. “No, we’re followers of Nabi Isa Al’Masih. Do you know he said that when we fast we must fast in secret?” This strange idea was met with silence, then a change in subject. They’re kids: enough theology for one day!

Our daughter did remarkably well, though she allowed herself a glass of water at the 12pm and 3pm prayer calls, before we finally broke with sweet iced coconut at 6pm. We asked her later how she found it. “A bit annoying and hard” she said. Fair enough.

The end of Ramadan! Idul Fitri! The night was full of fireworks, drumming, and of course non-stop chanting on every loudspeaker in town, until the official prayers in the morning. And then, quiet, at last.

The Zoo Visit

Posted on

An update from a partner in Asia written earlier in the year.

About the same time we moved back to the slum, ‘Doug’ and his daughter moved to a room behind our house. His wife had died of breast cancer a few days prior. We knew the family as they used to live near our team-mate and we had helped them access treatment for his leprosy. We squatted with him outside his new house, and he told us about the harrowing past few weeks.

“We have public health insurance,” he said. That’s an achievement in itself, given the bureaucracy involved. “But the hospital had run out of blood. They told me to go and buy eight bags from the blood shop.” A bus ride later, he found blood, but baulked at the price: $50 per half-litre bag! Where was he going to find that sort of money? He normally makes a living by peddling small toys for children, going for perhaps 10c-a-piece. Somehow he scraped together enough to buy two bags, and he hoped they wouldn’t spoil on the hot bus-ride back to the hospital. “But the blood just poured straight through her. It was no use.”

Two days later his eleven-year-old daughter said she had seen her mother outside, beckoning to come to her. “I told her it’s not possible. Mamma is no longer here”. At this point he wiped his eyes, a rare sign of emotion in our neighbours here, who see more than their fair share of death. Left with nothing, the two of them moved to this bare one-room unit to save money.

Not too long after this we organised a zoo trip, taking advantage of the unusually empty roads caused by an annual national celebration. We invited Doug and his daughter along. “I haven’t been to the zoo in twenty-four years” he said. As it happened, 170 000 others had the same idea, making it the zoo’s busiest day of the holiday period. It was even forced to close its doors temporarily in the middle of the day as the park was full. Apparently a good number of children were separated from their parents during the day. Needless to say, it was an exhausting trip!

One of the challenges of being out in public like this is managing the attention our girls get. Most people here have only ever seen blonde hair on their imitation Barbie toys or in advertisements as a symbol of health and prosperity. In one encounter near the end of the day, a balloon seller elbowed her way to us, keen to practice her English. We didn’t want to buy a balloon, but she insisted on giving one to our daughters anyway, “because I like!” she said in English. Of course the younger of the two then kicked up a fuss because her balloon wasn’t pink. Meanwhile Doug’s young daughter, who didn’t get anything, stormed off in tears. Who can blame her? So much in her life seems unfair right now.

We persuaded our oldest to share her balloon, to everyone’s relief. Later that night we explained that our young friend’s mother had died last week, and that it was important that she was kind to her and do things like share the balloon.

“But the lady gave the balloon to me!” our daughter said. “And why did she give it to you and not the other child?” we asked. “Because we have white skin and they have black,” our daughter replied. “Is that okay? What does Jesus think about that?”

Her young mind began to connect the dots. Conversations like this makes raising kids in a slum almost seem worthwhile. We don’t need to use abstract words like “human rights”, “racism”, “global injustice” – such concepts are played out in simple everyday life.

“Maybe we can give her money,” suggested one of our girls. After more processing about how that might not always be helpful, they decided they would be friends with the young girl, “because Jesus loves her too, especially because she is sad and lonely.” There is more we can do to help her and her father during this time – teaching her to cook, for example, since without the mother in the home they only eat what junk food they can afford.

Memories become reality

Posted on

As we approached New Zealand six months ago, the plane banked and we looked down at the golden white Farewell Spit fingering the brilliant blue sea, and the green North Island coast stretched starkly around the Bight up to the white mountain. The sea and sky merged in a seamless backdrop which gave the otherworldly appearance that the land was floating in mid-air. Our daughter, having few (if any) memories of New Zealand, asked: “Is this country in the sky?” When your norm is an Asian megacity, it might as well be.

Nevertheless our kids were very excited to return to Asia. As we flew in to land last week, the same daughter eagerly looked out at the warehouses, fields and packed-in red roofs. “Is this Asia?” she asked. “But where are the malls?” Ah, so THAT’s her primary memory! At any rate, it’s heartening to know they are so fond of the place. Meanwhile, my chest tightened as I saw the smudges of smoke rising from piles of rubbish every hundred metres or so. We know the rubbish smoke was one of our big stressors in our last term, and here we are, willingly returning to the dirty milieu.

From the moment of touchdown, and in spite of already being awake 18 hours straight, the girls nagged us about visiting their old friends. We managed to put them off for two days, long enough for us to recover from heat stroke and jet lag, before visiting our old home (still empty) in the slum. The kids made an enthusiastic reunion with their friends, but quickly realised that something had changed. After a couple of minutes, one of them came to us and asked: “How do you say: ‘I don’t understand?’” After establishing that they couldn’t exchange their news, the kids resorted to running games. Their language will return soon enough.

You may have heard us tell the story of the elderly woman who broke her leg and hip after a motorbike ran into her (she was walking by the side of the road). The driver apologised and gave her about $100 to visit the hospital, but it never really set properly and she was still confined to her bed and suffering hip pain for months afterwards. Adding to her trial was her shack: the worst we know of. Its roof was old billboards and torn tarpaulins that blew open in the wind and was hopeless in the rain, and the plywood walls were little better. We had employed her daughter and son-in-law for odd jobs to contribute to a roof upgrade. Her 8-year-old grandson is a good friend of our girls.

During a skype call from New Zealand we were delighted to learn that the family had finally raised enough money to replace their shack roof with solid sheets of asbestos cement, so at least she could stay dry during the rainy season.

She recovered enough to limp about with the help of a stick. Then disaster struck again. She was picked up by police for begging in the wrong place: and the 80-year-old cripple was clapped in jail for three weeks. She returned home with terrible diarrhoea, and died of dehydration a week later, three days before our visit. “If only you had been here,” said her grieving daughter, “we could have taken her to hospital. As it was, we just had medicine from the corner stalls.”

Six months away and the senseless plight of the poor had almost become a memory, a useful fable for illustrative purposes. On our return it took just minutes for the injustice to become real enough again.

Building Businesses

Posted on

The following is a story from a partner in Asia.

“If you’re rich it’s a comfortable life here” our neighbours were telling each other. “If you need anything, you just say the word, and you have it!” I know they were talking about us. It’s hard to hide our relative wealth, and living here makes us think twice before using it.

Like that time my wife was baking biscuits when our next-door neighbour barged into the kitchen and poured out all her money woes. It was an attempt to follow orders from home to “Eat more! You’re looking skinny!” but suddenly my wife was conscious of all the margarine, flour, sugar and oats laid out before her, while our friend wept about the cost of milk for her baby grandson. She was intending to add some of that whopping bar of Whittaker’s Chocolate recently brought over by a friend. We’d been saving it in the chilli bin, but she couldn’t bring herself to get it out of in front of our distraught neighbour. And so later we munched the dry, dull biscuits with a cup of tea, grumbling about the hardships we endure. In an almost comic rebuke of our ‘luxury,’ the remaining biscuits were eaten by rats and ants that night.

The neighbours’ descent into poverty began (so it appears) when their grandson was born. Paying around $8 every five days for baby formula slowly depleted the capital of their shop over the last six months, until it was barely operational. However they tell a different story. “We are being bewitched. An evil person is using magic against us, and inciting spirits to steal our money.” Our vocab isn’t quite up to this line of discussion so we’re still hazy on the details. “We’re like that: always trying to bring each other down to get ahead. Not like you Christians – you help each other.” Convinced their house is cursed, they are currently rebuilding in a different community.

Their financial woes motivated us to seek out a Christian NGO specialising in microfinance. Initial meetings have been very positive, and many of our neighbours are interested in their low interest rates (as opposed to 20%+ from the usual loan peddlers) with accompanying small-business training. In a fortuitous turn of events, the NGO discovered that our community was the ideal place to pilot their plans for a sewing business project, and that my wife would be the ideal trainer for a group of local women to make this happen. It helps that we can also connect them with the adjacent charity school that have several sewing machines already.

Bonding over rats and rain

Posted on

Some stories from a partner in Asia.

When my big toe was bitten by a rat in the middle of the night (and through the mosquito net too, cheeky thing!) I wasn’t thinking of how it could help us bond with our neighbours. I woke with a jump, and the rat, equally as shocked, scuttled into the darkness to join its colleagues on our ceiling. In my spare time I make it my mission to find and patch all slits and cracks, trying to keep up with the new holes they crunch out every night.

A few weeks later, my daughter asked me what the words for bite and night were. It turns out she was telling the story to her best friend. “You know,” she told me later, “the rats also come into my friend’s house every night. And they climb the stairs, and he is scared because he doesn’t have a net and sleeps on the floor, so he goes onto his mummy’s bed. And they bite his mummy and daddy, and sometimes him too.”

“Is that why you told him about our rats?” I asked. “Yes”, she said, “But I didn’t know they could climb stairs.”


Another thing we bond over is leaks. The when it rains, leaks are inevitable. Luckily our roof is fairly strong, so it’s just a matter of using recycled banners to patch up the top where the wind blows the rain in.

Everyone else is trying to patch things where they can, and in the lower areas, build up their floors with rubble to reduce inundation. In fact, one enthusiastic family had a truckload of crumbled asbestos concrete roofing brought in to raise their floors. We saw this during a three year old’s birthday party, at which I counted fifty children sitting in a room little more by 2 x 2 metres to sing happy birthday and cut the cake.  We could see over the densely packed heads of the children into the adjoining room, where the neighbours were stamping and crushing asbestos into the voids. It’s slow-moving disasters like this that we feel so helpless to stop. When I tell men that asbestos is very bad for your lungs, they give me an amused smile through a haze of cigarette smoke. (A third of men smoke in this country, and in fact I’ve yet to meet the other third who apparently don’t.)

Emboldened by that birthday party, we decided to plan a smaller version for one of our own. We restricted invites to a small group of her closest friends – 25 of them – with less than one day’s notice. She then fell ill and we had to cancel. By the time we revisited the invitees for the third time to confirm a new date, everybody knew we were having a party! Thankfully they must have taken pity on us and only those invited attended. We ran a couple of simple games in our (relatively copious) living room and publicly thanked God for our new family here.

The Day of Sacrifice

Posted on

A story from a partner in Asia.

The annual day of sacrifice is typically a colourful event, but the escaped cow running loose into the crowds around the mosque forecourt made it even more so.

The mosque was to slaughter many cows and even more goats, and after the all-night prayer vigils (amplified by loudspeaker), the early-morning sermon (also amplified), and the reading of the donor’s names, the moment had arrived for ‘cow number one’ to be sacrificed.

A bustling crowd of a few hundred looked on around the edges. Vendors selling iced drinks, fried egg-pancakes and balloons were out in force. With the promise of copious amounts of fresh meat for all, there was an air of happy festivity.

The initial signs of struggle came while they were trying to figure out which legs to tie first so it would lie down the right way (facing Mecca). The imam worked up his best sholawat, a triumphant oratio of “God is great!” over the loudspeakers. In the confusion, the cow panicked, jumped loose from the bonds, and bolted straight across the yard where the crowd screamed and shrank back as one. The spooked cow made a U turn, dodged one of the quicker guys, and made several circuits of the yard. The crowd squealed in laughter and terror, men holding ropes and running in disarray, all while the imam continued his urgent soul-lifting mantra undeterred.

We stood behind a concrete barrier, just in front of ‘cow number two’, chewing his grass and lazily looking at us with those beautiful bovine eyes, seemingly unaware of the drama behind him. One of our children stroked his horn, animal-lover that she is. Eventually ‘cow number one’ was persuaded to offer its life in a different corner of the yard. It took considerable effort to drag its carcass across to the correct butchering area.

We laughed about the incident with friends that evening as they seared goat sate sticks over a scrap-wood fire. The country is glutted with red meat, paid for by the rich and dispensed free by mosques. The feast (Idul Adha) coincides with the climax of the hajj pilgrimage events in Mecca, and is the second main highlight in the Islamic calendar (the first being Idul Fitri, the post-Ramadan festivities).

“Do the donor’s keep any for themselves?” I asked. “No, that’s not allowed!” a friend replied, offering another stick of meat. “Why do they do it?” “There’s a story, about the Prophet … who was it? … Ibraham nearly sacrificing his only son, the Prophet Jesus.” “Don’t you mean Isaac, or Ishmael?” “Oh ya, one of them. God gave him a goat to sacrifice instead.”

Either way, it’s a few days of rare abundance for our neighbours. Beef is a treat, usually only eaten once a year at this occasion. Even though our neighbours often receive less desirable cuts, they seem grateful enough. One of our friends opened several bags of offal – heart, liver, guts. Another man chopped up every last piece of a goat’s skull for what he hoped would be a delicious soup.

“Is there this much meat back in the village?” I wanted to know. “No, nothing like this.” Another reason to migrate from the country. The promise of the ‘trickle-down effect’ in the city is obvious on a day like this.

Living in a ‘House of Rubbish’

Posted on

Here’s an update from some partners in South East Asia.

“Is our new house made of rubbish?” my daughter asked on our first night in our current place (a month ago now). In New Zealand we might use the kinder term “100% recycled materials”, but a child makes no such distinctions.

At first it was what you might call a “handyman’s dream” (and a mosquito’s)! I’m no handyman, but we spent a fair bit of time with fly-screen, plywood, pipes, fabric and nails and have ended up with a place that serves us well. Although it looks like a shack outside, inside it’s our personal palace! Here are some features that make our neighbours say “wow!”:

A plywood ceiling to intercept heat and carcinogenic dust falling from the recycled asbestos-cement roofing. A private toilet (we share a septic tank with our neighbours) and private water supply (we pump from groundwater – which smells of sulphur… hmm…) Most neighbours use the open canal for number twos, and around a dozen families would usually share a water point for washing. Everyone buys drinking/cooking water in polycarbonate bottles – the kind you see at the office water cooler. A layer of concrete between the ground and our “carpet” of recycled advertising banners. It makes a much less lumpy floor than most, and keeps out worms and rats. A few large persistent ants were still able to penetrate (it’s pretty low-spec concrete!) but we’ve since beaten them back. A back door and three windows for light and breeze. As well as being more pleasant, it helps reduce TB transmission between the kids playing inside. (Active TB has a prevalence of around 300 per 100 000 people here. That’s 30 times more than NZ). It doesn’t leak (yet). It’s SPACIOUS. At around 22m² for a family of four, that’s nearly twice the standard shack.

If you like, read that list again and spare a thought for our neighbours – most have none of these features.

Lions and Tigers and Magic

Moving into the ‘slum-proper’, it didn’t take long to feel more involved with day-to-day life “in-amongst-it”. A bunch of teenagers often sleep (or just talk all night) on the front porch of our neighbour’s corner-store. On our third night while in bed we heard the growling and jumping sounds of a mad dog right outside: the teenagers presumably having fun with the poor animal. Considered unclean in Islam, dogs are rare here, so we asked about it next morning. “It wasn’t a dog” they said. “It was a tiger!” Apparently the spirit of a tiger (or maybe a wolf) had entered one of the boys, which happens from time to time. We’re still not sure what to do with that information!

“Has that happened to you?” we asked the store owner. “It wouldn’t happen to me – I focus my mind on God.” He is certainly one of the more diligent pray-ers we know of. Even so, it turns out he was sick the whole of last year and sold his house in the village to pay for a magic doctor to remove (magically) a cursed yellow nail in his lung, which seemed to do the trick.

None of that is as strange as the entertainment put on as part of a wedding on the field a couple of weeks back. The party was an expensive affair that ran from dawn until past midnight, pounding our house with over-amplified music. It also featured a mid-day parade of colourful kids and the bride sitting on winged beasts held aloft on the shoulders of long-suffering dancers, and a late-night clown show.

But the afternoon matinee was a series of hypnosis attractions, whereby, at its climax, lion-spirits were called on to enter the performers: who then pounced each other in lion-battles, drank from muddy puddles on the ground, and set upon an unsuspecting live chicken with their teeth: blood and feathers flying – a kind of Marilyn-Manson-meets-David-Copperfield show. “Is that allowed?” I asked, thinking about Islam’s food laws. Apparently it’s okay if it’s for entertainment. Our daughter’s friends told her to watch out: they might bite. I told her it was just a show (I hoped).