Monday, October 27, 2008

Spring Blossoms

Spring is really here, the warmer weather, as always, ringing the final knell for any lingering spring flowers. A week of sunshine without rain and the flower fairies are hard put to it to keep their blossoms alive, as the sandy soil dries out in a flash of a lamb's tail and before we know it the garden is fading and thirsty.

A last celebration of spring, as the girls made a fairy garden, while we were braaiing last Saturday, in the last remnants of daylight after the sun had dipped below the horizon.

Hard at work they ran about the garden collecting blossoms and carefully embroidering them into a tapestry fit for a fairy queen.

A garden of blooms for the fairies to dance under the starlight - seizing the moment to enjoy the ephemeral beauty before sunrise shrivels it to dust.

A fairy circle with a mountain of rose quartz to bring love and warmth to all around.

And the first fruits of our veggie garden - alas no strawberries this year but loads of tender peas. Every pod had its peas counted to see whose age it matched. All those with six went to Youngest - the eight-pea pods to Middle Daughter and the in betweens were fair game for anyone - a chore became a fascinating game of counting and excited chatter. Enough peas for supper and some for the freezer. With mint they were delicious, though Youngest prefers them raw.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Growing up in South Africa

The intrepid and adventurous four

This picture says it all for me about children growing up in South Africa today.
Ryan, the son of our coloured gardened/farm worker drew it a few days ago and I grabbed it to photograph to share with you. He goes to school with our children, his fees paid by a sponsorship fund we’ve just set up, and he spends most weekday afternoons here playing with them, until his father finishes work. Our children look on him as an extra member of the family by now – he gets invited to all their birthday parties. It is taken for granted, even if the girls are only inviting other girls for the main part. He’s an honorary brother.

In the picture he has drawn our son as the leader, then himself, followed by the two girls, all armed to the teeth off on some perilous adventure. What I like about it is that they are all the same shade of brown: he sees them as the same as himself, until he made a belated attempt to give Youngest light coloured hair – a dawning recognition of a difference, but only as an afterthought.

It reminded me of another illustration of how our children perceive colour these days, using it as a descriptive term rather than a racial pigeonholing, and saying that a friend is 'light brown' or 'dark brown', rather than 'black' and 'coloured', which are the racial identifiers used by the adult world around them. To them it's just another physical characteristic like hair or eye colour and I hope they never have this perception clouded as they grow up.

I’m sure together they will vanquish the mysterious fire that is engulfing the tree and any dragons that lurk off- stage and stride victorious into a new world that they claim for themselves.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Of Chocolate and Presidents

It’s Sunday - a leisurely day that stretches empty ahead of us, now the rush of German students and their teacher have departed for a three day exploration of the Cape. Our girls have abandoned us to have lunch with their aunt, so it is just three of us sitting down at the table to eat up the leftovers from last night’s braai: Grabouw boerewors and spicy chicken wings, with the wine-enriched juices to pour over cold new potatoes and salad leaves.

Sunday means sweets after lunch and our son left the table swiftly, to assemble his selection from the stash of goodies given to them recently. They each have a packet of Italian Baci, brought from Germany, that I have been eyeing furtively each time I open the fridge, but that I honorably resist, as there are only about four in each packet and I know they’ve counted them. I casually ask our son if he really likes them, as I know a hazelnut lurks in the centre of each one, and he hates nuts. Hoping to have them passed on to me, or at least be given a bite to remove the offending nut, I discover that he has invented a way round it.

“I like the chocolate bit,” he says blithely, oblivious to my designs, “so I suck the whole thing and then spit the nut in the bin.”

Foiled! Not even I would be interested in the nut after that!

At lunch we were amazed to find that our son could discourse knowledgeably about the American presidential candidates, knowing the names of all of the ones from the first round, as well as who is currently ahead in the polls. “Obama has 63%,” he says authoritatively.

Impressed, we enquire how he knows all this. Do we have a budding political genius like Jennifer Lopez’ son in Maid in Manhattan?

He dashes our fond hopes without more ado and reveals that he’s been playing a game online, called Commander in Chief, involving all the presidential candidates, where he has to shoot the bad guys to protect them. The name of each of the candidates is attached to their figure and he is on first name terms with Hilary.

“How do you know which are the bad guys?” I ask.

“They wear masks,” he replies.

Of course… I should have known.

Apparently he has also been paintballing with Hilary and Obama, though one time he played on McCain’s side, until his father pointed out the error of his ways…

Friday, October 17, 2008

Rubbing Shoulders with Poverty

It was Blog action day on Wednesday. I saw it on Charlotte’s Web, where she posted about AIDS in South Africa. The theme that they asked Bloggers around the world to write about was poverty, to get a world wide dialogue going, whether from a personal or general point of view.

I didn’t post about poverty on that day, though I did write a long comment on Charlotte’s post. The truth is that I love my rose-colored spectacles, looking on the bright side, seeing the sunny view and I like to keep my blog calm and rosy! Living in South Africa though, we are rubbing shoulders with poverty the whole time. It is not tucked away in a separate housing district like in many European countries. It is sitting beside the main road into Cape Town from the airport for all to see. Our employees live in what would be considered abject poverty in Europe, but here they are better off than many because they have a regular salary. Half of the children from our children’s school come from an informal settlement of shacks that we drive past every day on the way to school.

We have to grow a tough skin in our daily life. There is no way that you can solve all the problems of everyone you meet, wave a magic wand and make it all better. You have to concentrate on helping a few people in as constructive a way as you can and get on with your lives. At the moment we are putting a lot of energy into our school, finding sponsors and fundraisers to keep it going into another year, so that as many children from disadvantaged backgrounds as possible can get an education that gives them a future.

The school provides them with a secure and stable educational environment but there is nothing we can do about their home lives. There is a long political history to these informal settlements that I won’t try to explain coherently here, but this one has a large proportion of people from the Eastern Cape/ Transkei, who have come here from a very poor rural area to find work. Up till recently all the houses were shacks, built of planks, plastic and corrugated iron, the roads just packed dirt. Water comes to standpipes at the bottom of each street and there is one toilet between about twenty houses. It looks haphazard in the extreme, but apparently there is a committee who runs everything and allocates space etc. In the last couple of years the government has had a building program going and quite a few families have been resettled in new block-built houses that, though tiny, have four rooms, running water and electricity. This doesn’t mean that the old shacks are torn down though, as there is always someone else ready to move in to a vacated space.

Up till recently this has always seemed a relatively peaceful community, away from the tensions that affect some of the Cape Town townships. We were worried about the recent xenophobia riots spreading out here, but luckily they didn’t. However, as in any human community where people are living in close quarters and on the breadline, there is much back-biting and resentment, especially about who gets the new houses. Two nights ago the official committee decided to do something about the problem of illegal shack extensions being built onto some of the houses. Apparently they went in and just knocked them down. This unsurprisingly set tensions flaring and in retaliation many of the committee members’ shack houses were torn down.

This is all hearsay. I wasn’t there. We hear it from the domestic workers at Camphill, who philosophically shrug their shoulders and get on with their lives; from the children at school, a few of whom lost their houses in the night, and others who were afraid to go home after school, in case their house would be gone. We see the damage when we drive to school, where a second night of fighting and toitoiing has left the debris of bonfires in the middle of the road; where the school sign has been torn down and rest sadly half burnt at the side of the road; the new banner advertising registration month for the school that went up only that morning has disappeared altogether.

The atmosphere at school is unchanged, an oasis of calm, where these children who have had to learn resilience very young, can come and feel safe from the uncertainty that surrounds them.

We are looking for sponsors for many of these children. The school needs financial help to keep places available for them, so I’m putting the link to the school site to help spread the word. If you feel inspired to link to the site too or know someone who might be interested in sponsoring a child’s school fees, please do send the word out into the blogosphere. Every little bit helps give a child a chance to grow into a better future.

We're lucky.We only rub shoulders with poverty. Our children are growing up with an awareness of how lucky they are. Poverty isn't something that happens in far-off lands when you live in South Africa. The child next to them in class goes home to it every day. It is something that affects real people that they know well. I hope it gives them understanding and humanity as they grow up and I hope that I am learning it too.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Toy Memories

All it takes is a toy, to make the years slip away and take you back in time.

There is a certain plastic fire engine with loads of buttons, that we gave away to Tina, who cleans for us, for her little boy. He is now 2 ½ but was born premature with water on the brain, so has had a hard start to life with much time spent in hospital and he was not expected to live for long. Her love and devotion has kept him going however and he is now getting stronger, though his development is at least a year behind his age. She usually leaves him with a carer while she’s at work but at the moment can’t find anyone, so has been bringing him with her this week.

So the red fire engine has re-entered our lives. The electronic siren, singing voice and exhortations to Grab a Star (I think) that used to drive me crazy when my children were small, are back, playing interminably in the other room, as I sit at my computer.

I am transported back to when my toddler son was given this fire engine for Christmas. We were living in a flat in South London: one of those terraced houses with two doors; a flat upstairs and one downstairs, backing on to an embankment with the station and the main railway line for the Gatwick Express. The landlord lived in the upstairs flat, a very sweet older gay man, and it was him who presented our son with the fire engine, thus inflicting its dulcet tones on us for the next five years!

It was a strange period in our lives. We were in the flat for only nine months, until we bought our own house further out, but it was the first time I’d been home alone with our son, while my husband went in to work every day. Before that we’d lived at the studio: work, home and baby nursery all combined in the one office space, with lots of people coming and going. I had to adjust to a routine with just one small toddler to base my day around, and soon a new pregnancy that made shopping a sick joke, with the local Sainsbury’s within walking distance, but having an unfortunate mix-up of smells at the entrance, so that instead of smelling the bakery as you entered, it seemed that it was the fish counter that welcomed you (though it could have been my oversensitive hormones).

This was the time when we would go for a slow walk down the street to watch the diggers digging up the street or walk to the local parks to pass the afternoon. I tried to avoid driving too often which would mean losing our parking place and having to park miles away. We had our first ever Christmas tree, bought in the street market and small enough to sit on a table, for which we made our own star decorations out of card and silver foil.

Every morning our son would howl desolately as his father left for work, making him feel awful. He’d spend hours helping me with the washing up, getting us both soaked in the process. This was also when I discovered the Waldorf system, with a toddler group at the kindergarten close by. His discovery of television, which we’d avoided till then but which became a survival tool for those too early mornings with Sesame Street, showing every morning at six, saving our sanity when our early waking son had been awake for an hour already. The desperate anxiety of a croup attack in the night. Terrible tantrums for a several week period when he decided that baths were no longer an option, hair washing even less so and teeth were not to be brushed ever.

So long ago but all brought back as if it were yesterday at the touch of a button and an irritating tune.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Testing Talent

The children have just gone back to school after their two week break, the house is momentarily quiet, with four high school students from Germany asleep upstairs after their long flight here, come to work on building a sports field for our school during their holidays.

I need to get the writing mojo back. It’s foundering beneath all the number of practical things needing doing. It feels like the school is taking over our lives – I’ve got to think about doing the school photos, starting to organize the end of year newsletter, doing packed lunches for the visiting students, cooking a proper evening meal and entertaining the teacher who is staying with us for the three weeks (the students are going on to other school families), communicating with potential sponsors. My husband is overseeing the student’s sports field project, finding supplies, getting the ground leveled, as well as being on the board and making all sorts of difficult financial decisions. And we both need to work for our living as well. Sometimes it all feels too much. How about a nice pre-packaged school where you pay your fees and that’s it. Except that we love the Waldorf system and can see how much it has done for our son at least, who is now far more self-confident than we could have expected that shy little boy to become in his first days there.

I remember his first school concert, when he was in Class 1 and just turned 7. The whole class came on stage hand-in hand to sing a couple of songs. He was in the middle of the row and just as well that they were all holding hands, as his eyes were tight shut. He sang the songs and did all the movements perfectly, keeping his eyes closed throughout, narrowly missing hitting his neighbour with his outstretched arms at several points. He quite unintentionally stole the show!

At the end of last term the oldest class organized a Talent Contest as a project. They wrote to local businesses to organize prizes, put up posters to get the rest of the school to enter. We had no expectation of our children entering, until we heard from one of the teachers that our son had said he was going to do a magic trick for it… It was the first we’d heard of it.

He’s got a book of magic tricks and had been most struck by all the number tricks in it, the kind where you pick a number, double it etc etc and then he can tell you your original number. He planned to go on stage and do some of these tricks. He asked for one of his friends to come for the afternoon so they could practise. The friend duly came, but no practising was done, they were too busy doing other things and when I gently reminded him about it, he said that he might not do it after all. Fine, I thought, he’s chickened out, I don’t blame him.

I mentioned it to his teacher and the next thing I knew she said he was going to have three assistants on stage with him and it was all settled. Dead silence on the subject at home. We hoped that he was doing some practice with his assistants at school.

Finally, as the day arrived, we got more pro-active with our interrogation techniques. We finally extracted the information that he’d worked out exactly what he was doing in his own head, but hadn’t had a run through with his assistants at all. My husband persuaded him to go through it all out loud at home with me standing in as an assistant, him standing at the back of the room to get our son to speak loudly enough. We found a clip board for the assistants to write the numbers on large enough so that the audience could see the figures with the idea of making it slightly more interesting to watch..

Unfortunately his tricks relied on the Maths skills of the assistant to come up the right answer and as an assistant even I managed to add up the figures wrong and spoil the trick once or twice. We came up with a one-liner he could use in this event and got him early to the talent show to have a run through with his designated assistants.

Heart in mouth, we sat down in the audience and the show eventually began, with several lively dance routines, which got the audience going.

He was going to have to come on next and hold the attention of this rumbustious audience. I crossed my fingers.

On he came with his gallant assistants.
Announced his trick.
Told his assistants what to do.
A long pause followed while they huddled all three of them round the clip board, its back to the audience, with much whispering going on.
Eventually they worked out the answer, found the correct playing card, held it up to the audience and our son was able to guess the right number.
Generous applause.

The audience was patient as they launched into a second trick. This time the huddling went on longer, with hushed arguing over the answer while our son stood quietly by and watched them. Eventually he could bear it no longer and had to go and help them with the Maths, which slightly curtailed the trick, as of course he would now know the answer. We meanwhile were holding on tight to our seats to restrain ourselves from rushing up on stage to sort them out. Wisely he abandoned any ideas of doing tricks number 3 and 4 and retired from the stage in reasonably good order.

I, of course, felt like rushing back stage to see if he was alright, but couldn’t be so embarrassing and eventually he rejoined the audience nonchalantly enough and watched the rest of the show. There were several other acts after that that dried up slightly, so he wasn’t alone in that, and at the end after the judging and the main prizes were handed out, there were smaller prizes for all the others, so he and his assistants got something out of it .

All he would volunteer afterwards was that next time he’d get someone else to be his assistant. A bit later at bed time, rather poignantly, he said that he wished his friend Matthew (who moved away last year and was good at Maths too) was still here.

What impressed me however was that this slight, shy ten year old, who three years ago was keeping his eyes tight shut on stage, was able to hold his ground on the same stage, even while the trick was falling apart around him and the audience starting to get a bit restless, that he had the self-confidence to even think about ‘next time’.

I was the one who was in agonies inside, shattered nerves and the rest. He, unless he is a master of disguise on the emotional front, which could be the case, seemed cool, if somewhat irritated that his friends aren’t maths geniuses like him.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

The Milk Tart Calcium Solution

Crustless Milk Tart - now an official calcium food source

Baking often seems to inspire a blog post. Perhaps that’s why I’ve hardly posted recently – I just haven’t been baking apart from the daily bread, which has become so automatic that it no longer gets the blog juices flowing. Today, after I’d spent an hour in the spring sunshine (yes we have sun! at last!) pulling a pretty flowering weed out of the ‘lawn’, which looked far worse once divested of its spreading bushiness, I was finally inspired to get another batch of rusks baked.

The house was quiet, with the kids over at their aunt’s house, my husband and dogs doing something chemical to the pool to pull it out of its winter stupor. Kneading and rolling dough into balls induced a meditative state and led me on to using up some out of date milk on making a crustless milk tart.

Milk tart is one of the most traditional South African desserts. You’ll find it at every braai, bake sale, tea party, anywhere that friends bring along a dessert. This version is by far the easiest recipe there is for it and can be whizzed up in the food processor in no time at all. It does without the pastry base of the classic milk tart and is maybe a tad less creamy in texture, but it is incredibly moreish and all my kids love it. Plus it uses up milk that is on the turn and with the price of milk these days I hate to chuck it out, so making this makes me feel good.

Even better it solves the problem of how to get enough calcium into our son to meet anything like the daily recommended dose. He’s given up cereal at breakfast, opting for toast and if we’re lucky some orange juice. He doesn’t like drinking milk, has a few slivers of cheese in his school sandwich for lunch. He’ll sometimes finish supper with a bowl of yoghurt. I know there are plenty of calcium sources besides dairy: nuts and seeds, for instance, which he won’t eat at all; dark green vegetables, yeah right, broccoli a couple of times a week is his limit there; sardines, no way; eggs yuk…

So as I broke the eggs into the food processor into the milk and butter, my eyes weren’t seeing the ingredients – they were looking at a pulsing headline in neon – CALCIUM FOOD SOURCE!!

Here is something that he’ll happily eat and get some nutrients in to him. I can bake and feel like I’m doing my job as a mother. Maybe our slight, slim boy has a chance of growing up big and strong after all … though if I produced it every day, I’m sure he’d go off it soon enough.

I posted this recipe about a year ago, but I’ll repeat it here just in case you too need a way to get some dairy into your family or maybe even just because it’s easy to bake and delicious!

Crustless Milk Tart Recipe

¾ cup / 185ml self-raising flour
2 cups / 500ml milk
2 eggs
¾ cup / 185 ml sugar
1 tsp vanilla essence
1 oz / 25g melted butter
pinch salt
½ tsp cinnamon

Put all the ingredients together into a bowl or food processor and beat to a smooth batter. Pour into a buttered pie dish (approximately 23cm/9" in diameter, but it doesn't matter if it's not exact,the finished tart will just be either a bit deeper or shallower). Sprinkle the cinnamon over the top. Bake for 45 minutes at 175C / 350F. Serve warm or cold. It sinks and becomes denser as it cools. If you eat it hot you'll need a spoon to scoop up the soft custardy tart but cold you can pick up the slices in your hand, if it hasn't vanished long before then.

Having said all that I just Googled calcium food sources and found a chart that tells me that baked beans are a good source of calcium. Phew – he loves baked beans, now I can relax!