A white Lie

by Susan Spencer

Susan has been teaching English, with passion, in the UK and overseas for the last forty years.  She is starting to compile a collection of her Dad’s stories.

I had arrive in Bagamoyo, Tanzania as a 25 year old volunteer with VSO and I was going to change the world.  That was in the late seventies.  I had already met the Head teacher who told me that I would be teaching African literature to school boys.  He suggested there were principles about teaching African novels and poetry within the socio-political framework advocated by Julius Nyerere, the innovator of African socialism. 

One, the literature was not to be taught by white women.  Two, there were very few copies of the texts.  Three, would I like to be the new Head of Department as I was the only English teacher in the school.  The Head teacher also introduced me to my house mate, who he assured me, would look after me. 

On my arrival, my housemate disappeared to her bed room for three days.  The light in the bathroom didn’t work and the toilet appeared to be leaking.  I felt physically uncomfortable, culture shocked and thought that my new house mate didn’t like me at all.  Personalising, even back then. 

The short and heavy December rains had started and it was hot, heavy and humid.  90 degrees Fahrenheit and 90% humidity.  I confused the sounds of heavy downpours on the corrugated iron roof with the sloughing of the coconut palms.  The views of the Indian Ocean were spectacular and when the sun shone, the beach was paradise.  I forbad myself to take in this beauty, as it exacerbated my emotions of loneliness, boredom and homesickness. 

And I was very hungry. 

There was a choice of three stoves: charcoal, gas and paraffin.  The charcoal stove was beyond me and the gas oven had families of small rodents living in it, attacking my skirt when I dared to open the oven.  I raked through the cupboards and found eggs, flour and paraffin.  I opted for the paraffin stove.  I remembered Lake District holidays and the use of the Primus.  I would make pancakes.  Squatting on the floor of the kitchen with my pancake mix, I lit the stove and instantly the whole of the kitchen floor was alight.  I screamed and two colleagues rushed into the kitchen.  They hastily, and handsomely, introduced themselves and beat the fire out. 

Life settled down after that.  The rains eased, I started teaching and my housemate, Uronu, emerged from her bedroom: pregnant, hospitable and polite.  Her disappearance in to the bedroom was not my fault then.  My VSO fridge also arrived which also relieved any tension.  Uronu cooked beautiful meals on a charcoal stove, served on flowery crockery.  A gossip announced to me that everyone thought that Uronu was my cook!  This notion was completely.  So in the spirit of collegiality and Tanzanian socialism, I strode off to the market, three miles away in the heat of the day and bought meat, tomatoes and potatoes.  I would make a stew.  I would brave the paraffin stove.

My mastery of the paraffin stove was marginally better and the stew bubbled ferociously on the precarious ring. 

I laid the table and served the food on the flowery crockery.  The meat was impossible to chew and the potatoes had disintegrated to a pulp.  The whole meal was inedible and was quickly dispatched to a huge pit in the bush, which was the communal dustbin. 

To save my face Uronu said, ‘The market probably sold you a tough bit of meat.  It’s quite difficult to cook gently on a paraffin stove.  Do you usually put potatoes in stews in England?’

‘No, we only eat chips!’ I lied.