Monday, May 25, 2015

Non-working mums

It goes without saying that there's a pressure on all women today to be high achieving and wonderful at multi-tasking. The great debate of stay at home/working mothers rumbles on and even though the years pass, the conversation stays exactly the same. When I was at a girls only school, our headmistress (way back then) was all for us majoring in physics to ultimately train as engineers and beat men at their own game. That might have worked as a life plan for one or two of us, but let’s face it, for the rest, it was like trying to force round pegs into square holes and that particular stuck record got boring.

There was a pretty vitriolic attack on the Kilimani Mums that I read online, criticising them for spending their days manicuring their nails, going to the gym then collecting kids from school. I think that this was a little unfair.

Read Here:  'Dear Kilimani Mum, how to survive your husband's affairs'

Apparently Miuccia Prada (world famous Italian Designer) recently said (in what I detected as a somewhat chippy tone..);
If you don’t work, of course you think about the problem of your wrinkles from morning until night!’ said Mrs Prada. ‘If you work, you have something better to think about.’ Adding, she could have ‘no conversation’ with a woman that doesn’t work. Okay, harsh. Apparently Rachel Johnson agrees;

Read Here: The secret of a Perfect Wife is...

Many women dread the searching dinner party question, ‘so what do you do?’ but if you are an expat wife then it's worth facing that fact that you probably can’t work (due to permit limitations) and hell, there is nothing wrong with that. If you have a chance NOT to work for a while then it’s pretty wonderful. Enjoy it. Having interests is great. Learning a new skill and setting yourself challenges - invaluable.  Getting on with some online study might be fun.  But appreciating precious time spent raising your kids, being there on a constant basis which will hopefully invest them with a sense of security which they can carry with them for the rest of their lives, should never be underestimated.

My eyes swim when looking at the websites of various literary agents.  One wrote, ‘we would love to hear more from working mums!’ Oh , for goodness sake let’s get real for a moment. Don’t you know that working mums don’t have TIME to write a manuscript in the first place, then endlessly trawl the internet to find the ‘right’ agent for their particular genre.  They are busy juggling a job, travel to work, a household, kids and then doubtless they collapse on the sofa in an exhausted heap whenever they get the chance. It's just the lazy layabouts like me who want to give it a go.

There was once a time when writers were allowed to be simply writers, artists were artists, poets, poets and housewives were unequivocally housewives. They weren’t required to do a hundred other things to justify their existence. Now that housewife is a dirty word, don’t feel done down.  My advice is; always have something in your back pocket to fling back at those nosy-parkers who ask searchingly; ‘What do you do?’ and then run with it with confidence. If necessary, make something up. ‘I’ve just taken up extreme sports’, ‘I trade stocks and shares online’ ‘I’ve just launched my own jam making business and it’s going extremely well.’  

We should all feel that we are enough and to all of those working mums out there; I take my hat off to you.  You are superheroes and I don’t know how you do it. This particular Stepford Wife is giving you all a wink ;) 

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Pet Peeve - Nairobi Insurance

How come, every year at around this time, I wake up in the middle of the night with a cold sweat in the realisation that my home insurance has lapsed.  Short of sticking pins in my eyes, how will I ever remember? No reminder has been forthcoming from the insurers by either sms, letter or email - and so the policy has just been allowed to lapse (it expired in early April). This time around, it was only when a friend was recounting the incident of a neighbourhood break-in, that the penny dropped (the friend said 'thank goodness they had home insurance').

I worked as an insurance broker in my younger days and this lack of communication definitely wasn't how we did business then.  Even way back in 1997/1998 we managed to send emails and made phone calls to make sure everyone renewed on time.  Getting through those renewal lists was the bane of my life.  However, when I called the local insurer here to follow up and get cover put in place asap, they said, 'Oh, we sent you a letter a few months ago. Did you not get it?'.  The letter evidently did not arrive and who on earth relies on snail-mail these days anyway?  I must admit that I got a little mad. Not helped by the fact that the lady on the phone kept saying that she couldn't hear me due to the bad phone line, even though I could hear her perfectly, and when I asked her to phone me back she just didn't.  So I call again (a couple of times) and each time the insurance lady puts on this whole charade, pretending that she is another operator and has never spoken to me before- until, she realises she is busted because I obviously recognise her voice and I start speaking my crappy swahili and she puts her hand over the phone when I ask her to confirm her name and I hear her saying, 'Ndiyo huyu..' (ie it's her again) before, without explanation, transferring me to someone else, obviously with the preamble that I am her most troublesome customer ever.  And in the background I say, exasperated, - 'Oh, so your name is 'ndiyo huyu is it?!' but she doesn't hear me.

When I spoke to the supervisor, who admittedly was great, I could not help but exclaim 'you let policy holders know that their insurance is about to expire by one letter sent via physical mail only - but this is 2015!'  And don't start me on the motivation required and process necessary to get the insurance cover arranged in the first place.  I am sprouting grey hairs just thinking about it!

Which leads me to vehicle insurance.  Again, the initiative to renew apparently has to come from the insured. And how come the police always know on which exact day to peer into your windscreen, to discover that your car insurance has expired? :(  It happens. Happens a lot.

It happened to me when I had a full car load of overseas visitors with children (groan).  The policeman couldn't believe his luck when he pulled me over randomly to ask questions about fire extinguishers, high vis. vests and inspect my driving licence, when he noticed that I was driving illegally. He told me to wait on a roadside verge along with a clutch of other guilty looking drivers and there I sat, making frantic phone calls to my husband who luckily launched into action.  Arrest and a visit to the local police station were threatened but I begged for a little time. Luckily the visitors also live in East Africa, so, familiar with this type of scenario, walked to the nearest shopping centre to grab some lunch. My husband, on receiving my call whilst in the office, sprang into action, heading directly into the town centre to collect the new tax disc from a member of the insurance company staff, whom he asked to stand outside on the road, circle of paper in hand, to save time. (The insurers admitted that they had failed to send any reminder about the insurance expiring, so they were pretty much on the back foot so happy to comply).

My husband then followed this speedy interception with a high speed drive to my location some kilometers away.  As he approached my car, my husband subtly placed his hand through the open passenger window, pressing it onto the inside of my windscreen, thus affixing said new tax disc in one smooth movement, then he purposefully asked the officer, 'what seems to be the problem?' Some sweet talking ensued and I was let off the charge. That was 10 years ago.  Not sure that such a crazy mission would work nowadays, largely because the dreadful traffic jams would foil any quick thinking plan.

And when it comes to random police checks, keeping tabs on the expiry date of your driving licence is another thing to bear in mind.  Again, a friend told me that she was stopped by police and arrested when the traffic policeman found that her driving licence had expired.  As we chatted over coffee, I covertly pulled mine out of my bag and unraveled the paper pages to see that mine to see that it was months out of date.  Oh dear.

Friday, May 08, 2015

Nairobi. To shop, or not to shop

On a busy bank holiday last weekend, I took my kids to a shopping centre to watch a movie.  Gasp.  Horror.  'You took your kids to a movie?' An incredulous school parent said at afternoon pick-up time this week, after asking what I had been up to.

Even worse. Even more shocking, I took someone else's child to a movie (with my kids of course).  And this child spent the whole time in the car on the way there saying, 'this is really great because my parents don't usually allow me to go to places like that because of security.' Half of me thought it was really great. Neither I, nor my family, are going to cow-tow to a culture of fear. And the other half of me thought, oh hell - well, we are committed to this now. Too late to back out.

Some of you might be reading this blog from overseas and thinking, what's the big deal?  A bank holiday, catch a movie, so what?  But for the rest of us; Nairobi + shopping centre + peak visitor time/holiday weekend and crowds = alarm bells ringing like crazy.

The Westgate attack changed everything and the Garissa attack that took place a month ago just reinforced the fact that terrorist activity will probably continue.  'Threatening' text messages circulate, warning of imminent fresh attacks, so, necessarily, everyone's behaviour has changed.  However, in my opinion, the steps that have been taken are not going to help in event of another attack. In the face of an increased level of threat, what has happened?  More security guards have been employed.  Cars are checked more vigorously. There's more screening of bags and and pockets at the entrance to shops and offices. My heart sank when I was even asked to open the boot of my car at the approach to my kids school. It is crystal clear to me that no amount of car searching or bag checking by security guards will ever derail the combined effort of a handful of well armed attackers with a specific target in mind.  

Shoppers are reminded of terrorists attacks each time they are instructed to open the boot of their car or open their handbag and it is these shoppers who are most vulnerable in the event of a shopping centre attack. If gunmen were to storm a centre, or even an office building or institution of learning, then it is the workers in that building who should be empowered to keep any visitors safe.  Shop workers should have a coordinated plan so that they can proceed to an escape route quickly, guiding customers, rather than be ‘sitting ducks’ forced to hide out, helpless, in the event of an attack. Is this in place? I honestly don't think so.

Let's say I wasn't a housewife, mum or freelance writer and I was invested in this industry (rather than coming at this from a limited knowledge) - then these are the steps that I would recommend to keep us all safer: 

1.       Evacuation Drill.
Shop keepers in major centres should be properly coordinated so that there is an agreed exit strategy in the event of an attack. Emergency exit points should be allocated for each area (perhaps one exit for a cluster of 6-10 shops) in the same way that a fire exit/fire drill is agreed upon.  These exits should make use of service corridors and back entrances. Shift workers should obviously be appraised of any emergency evacuation plan.

·         *Shoppers do not know where service corridors and rear exits are located but shop workers do. Many lives were saved at Westgate when store staff were able to guide shoppers safely to escape via service bays and access corridors.

2.       Alarm Sounding/Effective Communication of an Attack
Alarm points/panic buttons should be located near public entrances, in basements and management offices so that security guards can effectively raise the alarm in the event of an attack.  An alarm bell would ring out loudly throughout the centre (like a fire alarm) when gunmen approach or have just entered.  On hearing the alarm, shop owners and workers know that they must immediately set in motion a drill to evacuate. Relying on security guards to communicate via radio is not quick enough. 

3.       Emergency Exit Signs for shoppers
Additional signage should show shoppers where all emergency exit points are. A visible plan/map of the centre that is centrally located at a marked information point (as per UK/US shopping centres) with all exits very clearly marked would be a benefit. Shoppers (and shop workers) in Nairobi have recent attacks in the front of their minds, so would be glad to learn where emergency exits and escape routes are located.


So what happened at the weekend?  We had a great time at the movies but admittedly, when I saw the growing numbers of people in the shopping centre, I didn't hang around for lunch or an ice-cream and we just quickly made our way home.  It is now instinctive to shy away from crowded places and I heartily appreciate that this is unfair to people who work in these centres. A recent 'unofficial' text message (undoubtedly from a dubious source) warns of a possible attack that is certain to take place in Nairobi's infamous rush hour traffic. So what are we expected to do? Stay home, not work, don't send our kids to school? That's crazy. No one can avoid the Nairobi traffic and it's hopeless to think of even trying - but there are sometimes things that we can do.

It's a sad fact that we can't function at the moment without having these threats constantly in the back of our minds but it's important that we adapt to survive.  Life can't be put on hold. Having my kids familiar with 'duck and cover' drills at school and perhaps nervous to go to the shops or cinema was certainly not what I had in mind for their upbringing, but now we are faced with the situation, what can we do but get on with it. I reckon that they might be comparatively quick thinking in an emergency - I know that my instincts have certainly sharpened up! These are the times that we live in.

(p.s. An expat friend recounted the experiences of living through the terrifying 2011 Japan earthquake to me this week. This involved an emergency evacuation, newly undulating roads, a collapsed phone system, fearing for the lives of her kids in school, facing the possibility of never seeing her husband again and then going back 6 months later to a life of checking supermarket food with a geiger counter before buying while wondering what long term affects of radiation might have on her kids and suddenly life in Nairobi seems positively humdrum!).