On losing everything

A few weeks ago I came across an article on the Guardian website on blogger A Girl Called Jack. Fascinated, I read through the near entirety of her blog and immediately signed up to her Facebook page.

Fascinated – yes, impressed – even more so, after being plunged into poverty, of having to feed her two-year old son Weetabix with water, Jack not only shared her experience of feeding two people on ten pounds a week but also now uses her fame to campaign against poverty.

One of her commenters commends her on her courage for battling “Asituation which is by no means unique but shared by too many people of this planet.”

Vulnerability, not only a concept that much of Europe has rediscovered in its economic crises but one that shadows much of the economic progress that’s being made in the Third World, with Zambia being an example.

In Greece, UK and Spain it was taken for granted that one gets a job, enjoys the benefits of personal finances such as owning a car, being a homeowner, travelling and eventually retires with a pension to see you through until your demise. However, in a brief period this has proven to be a fallacy.

In Zambia we speak of a growing middle class. Neither rich nor poor, the middle class own cars, take holidays and shopping trips to nearby countries, do Sunday lunches at game lodges, play video games and watch 3D cinema.

However, Zambia lacks social security. The loss or illness of a main breadwinner, divorce or unemployment can spell the end of the middle class dream and the beginning of poverty. Retirement benefits are usually a relatively large but once-off payment which, if squandered or spent on something significant, say medical expenses, is gone. Furthermore, education and medical care cost money, public transport is privately owned and formal employment is the privilege of a minority of the population.

There are always those who can pull themselves out of the quagmire but as Jack says of herself “I almost have my happy ending. Almost. But hundreds of thousands of families in Britain are starving – and they don’t get a book deal, and they don’t get to roll onto the Sky News sofa and shout at politicians about how it is.” 


Hugh Masekela – Soweto Blues and Arab Springs

I finally had the opportunity to see the legendary Hugh Masekela in concert on Tuesday night as part of Helsinki’s Juhlaviikot festival. 

Hugh Masekela is one of those icons that stood steadfastly in my youth reminding us of the gross injustice that was Apartheid playing out just beyond our borders in South Africa.

The newspapers and television were filled with reports of violence and resistance in South Africa and films and documentaries reminded us of Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, the Sharpeville massacre and, as a young person, most profoundly of the 1976 Soweto uprising when hundreds of youth were killed and thousands injured. This rebellion was seen as a turning point in the anti-apartheid movement, one of its outcomes being a greater trend to violence.

The journey from there to the 1994 elections must have seemed like an eternity to those caught in the turmoil – no one can tell the future. I’m sure a great many people at many times must have felt so embroiled in the violent present that they could not see a future, and when they shut their eyes to dream all they saw was the worst that could possibly come.

Two decades is a long time to wait. The young people that celebrated in the so-called Arab Spring have most likely found that the systems of that keep them oppressed are far more entrenched than they imagined, they’re finding they underestimated the duration of the battle and the depth of the lust for power among the factions.

Worst of all there are no guarantees of resolution. Today, nearly forty years after the 16th June uprising, we still talk of economic apartheid in South Africa and racism, though expunged from the law, is still an everyday reality - too many people have been left out of the New South Africa.  Meanwhile to the distant observer, the lines between the good and bad guys in Egypt, Syria and other Arab states are clouding as it gets harder and harder to believe that there could be a resolution in which the common woman, the everyman and the average child wins.

Hugh Masekela reminded us that upon his release from prison Nelson Mandela advocated forgiveness and reconciliation to the point that many people didn’t get the justice they envisioned – they had to trade retribution for peace, which perhaps saved them from being caught in the vengeance and bloodlust that was foreseeable.



The sun returned for Ravintola Päivä.  A tourist arriving in Esplanadi park today would be forgiven for thinking Helsinki is ordinarily a city bustling with street food hawkers vending everything from dim sum, churros, and gulab jamun and that the park would normally be heaving with customers munching their way through a menu worthy of the United Nations. Sadly, a normal Sunday is quite the opposite.

Culinary Helsinki is paradoxical, on one hand there are many celebrated restaurants and dining experiences, but the bulk of Helsinki’s eateries are a bland and disappointing selection of Nepalese and pizza joints, and of course the dreaded kebab shop.

Of course there are natty pizzerias and Mexican restaurants, but also a dearth of bakeries or patisseries. This isn’t Brussels or Paris croissants, tarts and flans are only found either at heart stopping prices in places like Fazer café, or lying dry or lifeless in the bakery section of the supermarket.

The saddest thing of all about eating in Helsinki is the complete absence of anything that could be called Finnish. Barring the ubiquitous rice pie (riisipiirakka), there’s no equivalent of fish and chips or nshima and T-bone. Lunch in the capital is dominated by the all-you-can-eat buffet – Thai, Indian, Chinese. I have seen only one place serving a “workman’s” buffet: sausages, mashed potato, red sauce, brown sauce, mince and other food that could be called Finnish cuisine.

Naturally every city has its own culinary culture and I’m not saying Helsinki should flood its streets with food vendors just to live up to a perceived demand for street food. However, ravintola päivä does remind me of the variety of munchies that are normally impossible to find here at a reasonable price. Moreover, when you throw in good weather and excellent company – it makes a brilliant Sunday.


A mere darkening (fiction)

Here’s the plan, she says to herself: First, I’ll wait.

Mummy will have to go to the bathroom at some point. Then I’ll sneak out, I’ll leave the door just a little open so it won’t lock and I can get back in later, when it’s dark.

She nods in her self-confidence but knows somehow that her plan is as good as fantasy.

On the balcony, looking down five floors through the glass that surrounds her – she cannot see the others.

“It’s not safe,” declared her mother, “Who doesn’t understand,” her older brother says – he’s fifteen and everyone here, he insists, stays out late except him.

It’s summer.

It’s been a month since they arrived overdressed because mummy said it would be cold in Finland. But the children insisted it was summer – and besides they’d Googled the weather forecast for Helsinki - 29 degrees - and that’s too hot for coats, coats that were now folded forgotten into the plain white MDF wardrobe that lined the bedrooms in their apartment.

“Be home before dark,” Mummy had insisted, before she realised that night here in summer was a mere darkening near midnight, a shadowy haze that lifted in the early hours of the night and forced them all awake.

“Be home by seven,” she changed the rules and even Daddy rolled his eyes though he didn’t have to abide by her edicts.

“We had a brai in the park. You should have come,” he said, tipsy, talking of the others with whom he was already friends.

But she wouldn’t budge, how could you be in a park at night? Surely they’d be attacked? Wasn’t this city teeming with alcoholics and weren’t Nazi thugs at every corner preying on black people waiting to attack?

He shook his head and went to bed, his eyes covered with a scarf to block out the light.

But the other kids are outside, she insisted every evening. She knew. She’d met them during the day - some of them even spoke English.

“Then they must have bad parents.” Mummy said and would not be swayed, because yes she’d agreed to coming here, but no she would not allow this place turn her into a bad parent – a permissive parent, one of those parents who let her children become rowdy and disrespectful and to stay out all night just because they lived in a foreign country.

She listened for the other children, their frenzied screams and shouts of joy telling her that they were just outside her line of sight. Maybe tonight she’d stay on the balcony until they were quiet to find out what time their fun ended – did they really stay out until Midnight? She waited for her mother to tell her to come inside and shut the balcony door, to spoil what little fun she was having.

The sofa creaked and the advertisement break came on, she heard Mummy rise, her Finnish for Foreigners book sliding to the floor yet unread.

The bathroom door closed and the clicking of the lock told her it was time. 


A Guardian Fast - the end?

Barring an inadvertent click on an interesting link, I’m now in day six of complete abstinence from the Guardian website and newspaper. Six days, I surprise myself, of neither logging on to their site nor perusing the paper.

My reason for doing this was simple – I read the Guardian far too much. I don’t believe this is unusual, the subject of how the net is altering and conquering our daily lives is well debated and researched, however last week in the middle of a reasonably exciting book, I became acutely aware of how often I checked the Guardian, Facebook and my email.

In the habit of taking a break every few chapters, to stretch or ponder the plot, I realised that during these breaks I also checked the news – inevitably on the Guardian (no one else has such an excellent website). Furthermore, I’ve recently taken up the habit of stopping by the main University library at Kaisa Talo just to flip through the Guardian and Observer papers because there’s still nothing like good old-fashioned newsprint, even if it’s a few days old.

Of course I like to be well informed, but I concluded that this was either an obsession or an addiction. Quite frankly, I was pleased that my addiction or obsession was as benign, but I knew I was hooked and I didn’t like it.

My original intention was to spend twenty-four hours without checking the Guardian but it proved far easier than I thought though I spent the first day trying to find a viable alternative. Instead, I confirmed why the American military find it necessary to censor their service personnel’s access to it – there is no other as comprehensive, reliable and easy to access online newspaper.   

I’m certain this is the day I break my fast, but who knows? I finished the book without any more Guardian breaks and have managed to steer clear of many inviting headlines and links winking at me from Facebook and Google.

It’s certainly been an interesting exercise - rather like a non-religious Lent.

Next Facebook?


Next year's project

The scale of this urban garden put our two shelves of herbs to shame. Tomatoes, marrows, cucumbers and even a few stalks of maize  - though its cultivators must know a lot more about urban horticulture than I, I'm inspired to experiment next year on our little balcony.