Christmas comes but twice a year…

And in Mwanza tonight it’s nearly over after two days of parties, decorations and food.  Muppet Christmas Carol has just finished and we are now moving onto an episode of Sex and the City as the rain and thunder starts to roll towards us and the night draws on.

Usually I don’t really approve of Christmas starting before December.  Each year it does seem to creep forward, earlier and earlier in the year and I get sick of listening to Christmas tunes every time I enter a shop, or listen to the radio or watch TV.  But living somewhere that isn’t going to get colder, where Mariah isn’t blaring from every doorway (I love it, but have recently discovered the Lady Antebellum version) means I really don’t mind having a full Christmas weekend over the 24th and 25th of November.  Chloe, the PE teacher, suggested having a Christmas meal at our flats as many of us will be heading back to the UK (I might be going to Kenya, I can’t afford to head back again, but that’s for another time) so why not have an early celebration together?  It would also serve to spur us on for the last two weeks at school.  So we set about planning.

The flats Christmas committee (Chloe and Kerstin) gave out jobs and responsibility – I would host the Christmas Eve party as I have the roof access and biggest sitting room area, make spiced chocolate orange brownies and the sausages wrapped in bacon for Christmas dinner.  We would have dinner at mine (space reasons again) and I would play the Queen for an alternative Christmas speech.

So we planned, we plotted, we arranged a secret santa, we made decorations (blue snowflakes, laminated and hung onto the Wilkos fairy lights.  Some of the kids in my class made Christmas posters and cards to stick on the wall.

Christmas eve came quicker than anticipated.  I strung fairy lights on the stairs up to roof, paper chains were brought in, a party playlist was created and furniture was re-arranged. Balloons with santas and snowmen were strategically placed and straws with paper fruit on were put out waiting for the fresh fruit punch being made in the ground floor flat.  Fresh guacamole and houmous was made to be paired with the carrot and cucumber sticks, crisps and tortillas.

The guests began to trickle in and drinking, laughing and childish pranking began.  Highlights included ‘pegging’ unsuspecting victims, singing along with some questionable guitar playing, trying to drink a drink from the floor without using hands or sitting down and the invention of swim drinking.  A selection of early 90’s pop, recent classics and Christmas tunes filled the soundtrack for the evening, and as the guests drifted away from midnight, the inevitable drunk dancing in the kitchen began.  I finally managed to close the door on the last of the party core at 3am and settled into bed, fighting off mosquitos single-handed.

Christmas day began with the cooking of the brownies and clearing away the washing up from the night before.  We doubted that some fo the boys would come up with the good for the meal, as they were heading out to a local club, but 3 chickens were cooked, roasties, mash, veg, christmas cake, mango crumble and a spectacular, if slightly sunken, giant yorkshire pudding.  The three o’clock deadline came… and went… so we didn’t start eating until about half three, but the logistics of moving various hot plates of food from different flats to feed 14, allows for a bit of flexibility.  And if Christmas dinner can’t drag on a little bit then what’s happened to the world?

We ate well, with the ceiling fan off to try to cool down the room whilst a roaring fire was burning on the TV with my stocking (home-made) hanging next to it. In hindsight, three chickens was a bit much, even with Phil in attendance, so the spare chicken and most of the leftovers were donated to our Askaris, whilst Ed, the dog, got the bones.  All were happy, full and contented.

A short break to rest our stomachs and open the presents followed, before cracking on with the puddings and a premier screening of the recording of ‘The Locomotion’ dance that had been performed for the Maths teacher’s 63rd birthday.  Everyone drifted away taking with them their plates, bowls, tables and chairs, so that when I came back in from messing with my playlist in the kitchen, my flat was almost back to normal.

By rights, tomorrow should be Boxing Day and so we shouldn’t need to go into school, but we must, so we will.  In a few days it will be all but forgotten, the only reminders being the Christmas decorations that I’d brought over from England and we will be on a countdown for the real thing.  My Christmas plans are not fully established yet, the only firm one is that I’ll not be with my family, which will no doubt be difficult given recent events.  But I’m lucky to have people here to share things with and to be entertained by.  And I now can’t complain about Christmas starting in November again.





































For alternative recounts (eventually) of our Christmas weekend, or other stories of Tanzania, please have a look over the following blogs from my Mwanza chums:

RE: Degrees of Folk

Facebook’s a marvellous thing sometimes. This morning it alerted me to a post written on another blog talking about the degree I studied. I felt I should probably reply to it…

Here is the original post:

Just lately I’ve been listening online to what’s been emerging from Newcastle University’s Folk Music degree course. Here’s a typical example of some of their third year students in action.

(For videos, please see Andy’s original blog)

I worry a bit about endless cohorts of students forking out nine grand a year and thinking there’s a living as a folk musician waiting for them at the end of it. (I worry about my Religious Studies students too, but at least they come out able to write an essay). But mostly, while the standard of musicianship is obviously high, I worry that it’s all so excruciatingly nice. Wouldn’t you rather go and see the old guy singing down the pub than something so…polished?

If folk music has a place in the academy then perhaps a bit of competition would be good for business, maybe somewhere down South. I’ve had some fun trying to think of what my folk syllabus would look like.
Obviously students would need to learn about the tradition and how to play their instrument.

But I’d get them to read up on carnivalesque theory and go hunting misericords. I’d get them to see some traditional folk customs and write an essay about it. I’d get them to jam with musicians with whom they shared no language, and then try and copy the style of another instrument entirely. I’d send them to the Glastonbury dance tent with instructions not to come back until they’d fallen to the floor in a delirium of sweaty ecstasy. I’d get them to shut the fuck up and listen. I’d make them sleep a night or two under the stars. A passionate love affair and a heart-break or two would probably be character-building. And for their final practical, I’d pack them off to France for the summer with nothing but fifty quid, their instruments and their wits to see how they got on. A bit of enforced busking does wonders for performance skills I find.

Oh hold on a minute, that’s what I did. Forgive me. I’ve committed the unpardonable sin of thinking that my life could provide a template for everyone else. Please accept my sincere apologies. Utter hubris.

But there’s a serious point here. If folk music is as relevant as we claim then it has to have something to say. It has to have arisen, unbidden and insistent out of the sheer messy fact of being alive. It has to have come up through the feet, to have lingered in the loins, rolled around the heart and soared out from the belly. It has to give voice to what the Welsh call the hwyll and the hiraeth – loosely, joy and sorrow. That’s not something you can teach, nor something you can buy. No wonder it all sounds so clean. The poor sods haven’t had a chance to live yet.

Here’s some folk music straight from the source. It’s from Gyimes in Transylvania, and is I believe a style unique to that area. The wild intonation of their fiddles may be too tart for Western ears but for me this is the pure drop.

It makes my fingers tingle and my feet itch in a way that, sadly, nothing I’ve heard from the Folk Degree ever does. If I were eighteen with nine grand in my pocket, I know where I’d go.


And here’s my response:

Hello Andy.

I’m Ellie, I studied the Folk Degree between 2003 and 2007. I graduated with a 2:1, major in performance, and now work as a primary teacher in Tanzania, having studied a PGCE and passed at Masters level. I CAN write an essay, mainly because of the practise I had in writing them on the folk degree… Just thought I’d clear that bit up.

I was in a year group that included many mature students and many, like myself, who were 18 or 19 when they began. Before I moved to Newcastle, the only contact I had with other folk musicians was with my Mum’s Morris team. I lived in a small town in South Northamptonshire, there was very little public transport – none after 6 at night and I can’t drive. I applied to study at Newcastle, but I also applied (and was accepted) for Ethnomusicology at Queen’s in Belfast, Norse, Saxon and Celtic at Cambridge and Music combined with English and Folklore at Sheffield. I chose to study at Newcastle because I felt comfortable in the city, I wanted to learn from the tutors available and I wanted to study folk music. For me, it was the best choice I could have made.

I ended up living in Newcastle for 9 years, making friends with other students, getting to make music with them, being taught by some amazing singers and having opportunities that I doubt I would have had if I had chosen one of the other courses.

But should I have been allowed to sing folk music at 19? I had barely lived! What had I done by that point? I’d worked since the age of 14, I’d stayed up all night in the happy hardcore tent at Gatecrasher and put in an 8 hour shift in the morning. I’d had my heart broken, I’d been stalked, I’d been a witness in a rape trial, my parents had split up, I’d been to Brittany and Normandy to play with musicians there. I’d had work experience in two, rather large, West End productions, and auditioned for a third. I’d volunteered with children with learning difficulites. But I couldn’t sing a folk song properly becuase I hadn’t lived.

Whilst on the degree I had more opportunities, I got to work with musicians, singers and dancers of different styles, genres and ages. I worked at festivals both onstage and backstage. I ran a summer school with 120 participants. I went to Hungary to perform at an International Folk Dance Festival in fromt of 5000 people. I stayed up all night, each night for the week dancing and singing with Greek Cypriots, Turks, Hungarians, Italians, French, Aboriginals, Israelis…

I didn’t enjoy every single aspect of the degree, and not everyone I enrolled with completed the course. But, I have friends who have studied many different subjects at many different universities, and (surprisingly) they’ve not enjoyed every aspect of their degrees and not every member of their cohorts graduated either. Not everyone will – it’s a hard choice to make at any age, deciding what you are going to dedicate yourself to for the next 3 or 4 years. But I do not ever regret that I have done it.

My modules for the first two years were picked for me, to give me a broad musical knowledge alongside specific folk knowledge and specialised teaching in folk styles that I hadn’t had before. But in my 3rd and 4th years, I chose my modules, I chose my singing teachers. I studied Corsican and Sardinian traditional choral music, Medieval music, contemporary culture, popular music, jazz, music business and musicc teaching. It allowed me to get gigs, because I had an opportunity to meet festival organisers, folk club organisers, other musicians. My performances aren’t polished, I wouldn’t want them to be, I make mistakes, I forget words and re-write them on the spot, I talk nonsense on stage. But for others, they have the ability for excellence and want to show it.

I was never under the impression that I would have a professional career in folk music and this was never perpetuated by the tutors on the degree. If anything, they stressed the fact that very few of us would make a living from it and that we should diversify our skills. I was always going to train as a teacher, partially fuelled by a conversation with my secondary music teacher who, when I applied for the degree, said “It’s not proper music, but it’ll suit you.”

Enough people ridicule folk music and knock it down for being less worthy than classical, or jazz, musical theatre or even pop, that I think if you love the music you should encourage people for getting it out there. You may think that the performers you saw are overly polished, it’s not your taste, so what? They are doing what they enjoy, they are learning, they are developing, they have opportunities. I would not say that they are typical third years, I would say their performance is typical of them. I know them and I am very proud of them for what they have achieved (and I know that they certainly have ‘lived’ despite their young ages).

Sometimes I would like to see a bloke singing in a pub, but sometimes that can be utterly awful, out of tune and uncomfortable to listen to, but I suppose it’s allowed because he’s over 40 and being out of tune is more authentic.

I am not a fan of every performer that comes from the degree, but I wouldn’t expect to be. There is a range of style, genre and talent there (I would put myself amongst the less talented), but I am not a fan of every person I hear at a pub, folk club or festival. Variety is good, why knock people for doing what they want, if you don’t like their music, don’t go out of your way to listen to them again.

If you think that folk music has to rise unbidden then it will die away. I am teaching folk music of the British Isles to my Tanzanian students because I had an opportunity to learn about it, I am teaching here partly because I have studied it. Had I just relied on my music GCSE and A level to inform me about it (as most secondary music teachers do) then they would confidently know that folk music consists of ‘What shall we do with a drunken sailor?’, ‘Scarborough Fair’ by Simon and Garfunkle and Bob Dylan songs.

I’m still under 30, I’ve still not lived enough to sing folk songs because I’ve not busked, I’ve never been to Glastonbury, I’ve not read up on carnivalesque theory (and probably can’t spell it), I’ve not had torrid love affairs, I suppose I had better close my mouth and stop singing.

P.S. These 18 year olds that started this September don’t have 9 grand in their pockets, it’s loans that they will probably never pay back, they start to repay once they are earning over £21,000 a year but that have no impact on their credit record, applying for mortgages, loans, credit cards etc. The repayments come out at source and so, like tax and NI, could be seen as a payment that you never had. I worked as a careers adviser for teenagers for 3 years, I did read up on this a little bit in that time. But yes, if I had £9,000 in my pocket I would like to go all over and experience different things, but I didn’t so I studied something I loved instead and it has since opened those doors for me.

Please feel free to add your own comments here. I realise that my reply is rather lengthy, but it’s what I felt I needed to say…

An aside for various friends…

I found this poem when I tried, spectacularly unsuccessfully, to learn Hungarian.  This may seem an odd choice of language to learn, and well, it is, but since I had had members of a Hungarian folk band and dance group coming to stay with us since I was 12, it seemed polite to at least try.

I’ve managed to learn simple phrases like:

Yes – Igen

No – Nem

Thank you – Köszönöm

Please – Kérem

Good morning – Jó reggelt.

Good afternoon – Jó napot.

Good evening – Jó estét.

Good night/sweet dreams – Jó éjszakát.

Cheers – Egészségédre!

So at least it’s a start at the language, I can be polite, but the poem has become one of my favourites.  It is about a couple, but since I have no boyfriend at the moment (or for the forseeable future) then I’m thinking it actually fits well with friends here and far away…

I guard your eyes
With my aging hand,
with my aging eyes,
let me hold your lovely hand,
let me guard your lovely eyes.
Worlds have tumbled,
through their fall
like a wild beast chased by fright
I came, and I on you did call
scared, I wait with you inside.
With my aging hand,
with my aging eyes,
let me hold your lovely hand,
let me guard your lovely eyes.
I do not know why, or how long
can I thus remain for you –
but I hold your lovely hand
and I guard your lovely eyes.
Endre Ady

It’s wrong to wish on space hardware…

We’ve had power cuts. Power cuts, as you will imagine, are a pain in the arse. We switch, in the evenings, to a noisy generator so we have to switch off water heaters, ovens and fridges. I’ve had to cook five pieces of chicken and all my bacon to save it from going off and bin a bag of squid that was beyond redemption. But, I’ve had a good reason to cook paella and tonight I’ve made some sort of spicy chicken and tomato stew that should be interesting for tomorrow’s lunch. (Have since eaten it and it was alright, nothing to write home about… oh, hang on…)
Power cuts have also meant that the lights on the neighbouring buildings have been out, so I’ve been out on our roof, watching the stars. With no light pollution getting in the way and balmy, cloud free nights there have been millions of stars on show. The Milky Way has carved its way through the sky above our flats; I’ve spotted Orion and Taurus. The rest of the constellations are alien to me at the moment, I keep looking for the North Star which has always been a constant, but it’s no longer in my line of sight. I’ll learn the new ones, but it does feel odd when gazing at the sky to not see the familiar shapes above you.
There have been shooting stars though. I saw 9 over two nights, with bats swooping past my head. They are strangely reassuring.
I’ve been out a bit; I went to a party at a house overlooking the lake. I’m sure it’s a spectacular view in the daytime, but is a bit lost on me at night time. Saturday, I spent the day pottering about the house and watching TV after buying fabric to have some dresses made. I’ve got three wrap around dresses on the way and I’ve picked up 5 pieces of African material – one, turquoise with a tree design, is hanging over my mosquito net, another is over the back of my sofa and I’m deciding what to do with the other two. They are a complete bargain, all my material, which combined is probably around 50m has cost me 60,000TSh which is roughly £24. Sunday, I re-coloured my hair, I’m back to a dark red/plum colour, although before long it will fade back to a light auburn, but that’s the price you pay for going blonde for 4 months I suppose. The evening was spent at Isamilo Lodge at a 63rd birthday party complete with a 60s quiz and 100 track playlist from the 60s-80s.
Monday, involved a trip to Tunza Beach for an hour’s yoga session as the sunset. I’ve not had a yoga class for about 12 years, so I’m quite out of practise, but it was very relaxing with the sound of the waves, the music and the gradually fading light. The sunsets over the lake are spectacular and as dusk starts to fall, flocks of birds fly across the yellow, pink and orange sky. I came home very aware of the stomach muscles that I have that have fallen into misuse.
The after school hours of Tuesday and Wednesday have involved parents’ evenings, my first as a teacher, and have been relatively pain free. A couple of parent’s haven’t liked what I’ve had to say, but they need to know the things their children need to work on.
We are having a fake Christmas at the weekend: Saturday is our first roof party and I have a marvellous playlist ready on the iPod, Sunday we have a Christmas dinner to cook. I’ve got my stocking and Christmas decorations out ready and will be putting the fairy lights on the steps to the roof. We will make some fresh fruit juice for cocktails, complete with straws with paper fruit and mini umbrellas.
I’m still not fully settled back. On Sunday afternoon they buried my Dad and Gaggy’s ashes and I’ve not really heard from people how it went. I tried texting but couldn’t get through. I didn’t feel right being here. I keep thinking of the part in ‘Little Women’ (yes, back to that again) where Jo says that she loves her home but is so fretful that she can’t stand to be there. I felt like that in England, I’m feeling like that in Tanzania. But not always. The key must be to re-programme myself to stop thinking of how much things cost in pounds, what time it is in England, get back into the swing of work, plan how I’m going to spend my weekends and my Christmas holiday that starts in just over a fortnight… Try and sleep. Try and learn the new stars over my head. Try and let my old life go a bit more because I’m not going back there for a while.

I don’t want to change the world, I’m not looking for an new England…

And I am sunburnt

One week back and I’m still not sleeping properly, although over the last couple of days that has really been my own fault. What’s been going on then? Let’s take a quick look…

Wednesday: I had a really shitty day, no better way to describe it really, and I was in a bit of a foul mood.  Not sure why, nothing really happened to make me feel that way, probably just lack of sleep and the feeling that I don’t know what I’m doing again.  I got an email from one of my friends telling me that he too had had a shitty day, although his language was somewhat stronger.  I think moaning to each other probably helped.  But I did get to work with my Junior school choir and they have improved since the first time I met with them.  And I started writing a book.  I’ve done 6 pages and probably will never get any further with it, but I had a first line I liked and thought I’d get on and see how much I could write from that.

Thursday: Better – I had music with all of year 3 and then two lessons with year 7, a bit of possibly bad news from home that is being investigated further, but some more emails from people and entertaining photos.

Friday: Getting through the day, working on the class assembly (it’s next Friday and should be interesting) and off to a birthday party on the roof top bar of a local hotel.  After a few drinks and playing games – If you had £2000 in your hand right now would you snog Pat Butcher? Etc. – we were off to Rock Bottom, Mwanza’s current premier night club – a better one will apparently re-open after Christmas.  Loud bass, neon lights, a large screen playing music videos, smoke machines and local men and women grinding up against you it was a lot of fun.  I got home at 3amish, made a phone call to England and got to sleep in the middle of a storm with rain splashing in through my half closed windows*…

*Yes I did try to close them but they are on slats and have a rusty metal mechanism that didn’t want to work, and when you’ve drunk a bit of whisky you don’t want to be messing with that sort of thing too much.

Saturday: Alarm went off at quarter to 6, slept through, woke at 7.07 and jumped out of bed, had time to get dressed, clean my teeth and pick up a banana before heading off to school to help with the swimming gala.  Since I was meant to leave at 7.15, I didn’t have enough time to put on my sunblock.  This may have proven to be a mistake.  All the same, I got to school with Chloe, ate a slightly expensive breakfast of omelette and banana, and waiting for instructions of what to do to help.  The rain started shortly after we were in position to be helpful (my job was keeping track of swimming hats) but thankfully didn’t last long.  My main input into the day was to help sort out the sound desk so that the commentator’s microphone would work.  I managed to re-wire a cable, get all the inputs into the right channels and sort out the bass problem.  It seems that my module of music tech 9 years ago wasn’t entirely unsuccessful, but I’m sure that they could have managed it without me eventually.

I watched some really good swimming and started to feel a bit warm as the sun had emerged and there was a bit of a glare from the pool. I put on my factor 50 and felt quite smug that I had covered up in time before the burn set in. I was, in fact wrong and obviously didn’t apply the sunscreen well enough as today I have a nice red streak down my nose, a clear line of colour on my feet and most prominent and, for everyone else it seems, entertaining are the two red wings that are now across my boobs a bit. I wasn’t wearing anything particularly revealing, but my top must have slipped once or twice in the sun and I now have a chest like a zoom lolly. And no, I’m not putting a picture of the burn on here, or anywhere.

Here, however, are some of the pictures I took at the Gala:

I left in the afternoon and headed to the hotel by the lake for a drink and a look around the craft fair.  There was Tanzanite on show, I would really like some, but I just don’t have the money for it right now, so I’ll just have to gaze upon it longingly…  I did, however, buy a lovely chunky silver ring which may be a present for someone but for now is all mine.  Lunch at the Yacht Club, watching flocks of with birds flying against the cloudy grey sky and a monitor lizard lazily crawling towards the shore.

The day wore on with rugby matches, more drinks back at the hotel and an invitation to go out in a boat on a lake at 1 o’clock this morning.

And so now it’s Sunday, I woke up with cramp in one leg, which is normally a sign of drinking too much, I’ve been writing in hieroglyphs, laminating days, dates and months and starting to plan next week’s work. I’ve still got that nagging feeling that I don’t know what I’m doing and that sometime soon they’ll decide that they need to send me back, but I suppose that’s just because I’ve been away and haven’t got into the swing of things yet.

And after all, tomorrow is another day…


Somewhere in my flat, a bat is hiding. It was crouching (presumably) behind our toilet when it was disturbed by my flatmate. She screamed and it flew somewhere in our flat.  I wasn’t, unfortunately, an eye witness to this event, I was downstairs eating chips with the other ladies of our flats.  But I can picture it quite vividly.  And now, we’re not entirely sure where it might be.

I’ve sewn my mosquito net to the frame a little bit more so that the middle isn’t hanging down so low that it’s claustrophobic and I’ve strung up the fairy lights I brought back from Wilkinsons.  Add into the mix my new bedding (Primark obviously) and it’s really quite cosy now.

I’ve stuck up some new pictures on my wall – I saw a fair few people when I was in England – and I’ve baked bread and chocolate orange brownies.  I’ve managed to decode my DVD player so that I can play my region 1 DVDs including Sports Night, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and Much Ado About Nothing (which I have watched again, it was needed.)

I’ve almost caught up with my class and I’ve begun planning an assembly.  I’ve taught two year 7 music classes and tomorrow I have year 8.  In the evening is a birthday party and at the weekend an international swimming gala.

I’ve been welcomed back, bought food and tea.  I’ve been given a replacement fridge for the one that broke whilst I was away and I’ve sworn mercilessly at my printer for not recognising the ink I bought for it. I’ve been bitten by mosquitos and something mysterious that has either bitten or stung my hand, but they aren’t as painful as last time.

I’ve almost got used to the noise, the early mornings, the inability to sleep, the temperamental internet and the children shouting at me in the street.  Many seem to be fascinated by the fact that my hair is red – I dyed it back from blonde just before Gaggy’s funeral and re-pierced my lip, another source of intrigue for the children.

It’s good to be back.  It’s warm, it’s sticky, it’s noisy, there’s always something happening, but I’m not fully back into it yet.  I feel like I’ve hit the ground running without a chance to pause and take a breath.  I also miss people back home and being able to talk to them whenever I want to.  Two hour time difference is just about manageable, but three seems much further away.  It’s hard to reach people on Skype and to wait for a text message to be replied to.  But I can book in at weekends and I’m probably going to be heading back in the summer.  Lots of things to look forward to both here and there, I just need to get into the right headspace first…

I’ll get there. In the meantime, I’m watching Homeland and going to bed.  Hopefully the bat won’t disturb me as I’m trying to get to sleep.