Friday, January 23, 2009

When it rains, it pours!

I’m lying down surrounded by a horde of cushions on the huge floor level sofa in our newly restored house at Moses, in front of a roaring wood burning stove fire, writing this blog while I wait optimistically for the incessant rains outside to stop. And boy, when it rains here, it really pours.
Over the last month we’ve had a couple of days of beautiful sun, which we’ve taken advantage of to start picking olives from 5 of our 30 olive trees. But for the rest of the time it’s been raining. A few times, even snowing. We had arranged over the course of a couple of weekends in December, for a team of neighbours to pick our trees with us and then do another 70 or so trees at our friends Ian and Merle’s place over the hill. Not surprisingly our neighbours weren’t keen to do so in the rain and the bitter cold so we had to put it on hold. We think the local olive press down the road closes at the end of January so if the weather clears up over the next few weekends we’ll still hopefully be able to gather a few more sacks. As much as Von and I can with our wee hand held olive rakes. If we miss the press, we’ll store the olives in barrels of brine and orange peel to eat rather than use for olive oil. It will be an enormous amount of olives, yet I reckon Von will get through ours before next year’s harvest time and hopefully we can pick and save some for Ian and Merle to sample from their place when they return again in the Spring. Come back soon peeps, we miss you.

On the 6th January, we said our farewells to Von’s Mum and sister, Arlene and Antoinette, sending them off with a delightful day shopping and moseying around in Lisbon before their flight back to London in the evening. Check out their cameos on the vids below. We miss them loads already and are indebted to them for filling our new place with laughter and above all magnificent memories of our first Christmas at Moses.

Arlene and Annie reflect on their first trip to Portugal…

Since they left us, the only real drama here has been that our highly independent princess of a cat, Angel, almost broke our hearts by taking herself off into the wilderness for a week, the coldest week in Portugal for 20 years with temperatures at night dropping to minus 8 and below. Thankfully Angel returned, unscathed and a little on the hungry side. Apparently, our friends tell us, January is the month that cats tend to disappear like that here in Portugal so I suspect she’ll be off on another wandering expedition shortly. Next time though, we won’t be having kittens about it.

Kids are back at school and Von and I have taken the first fortnight of January to recharge our seriously depleted end of 2008 batteries. Pottering about the house creating some resemblance of order, cooking, cleaning, tidying up the surrounding land, and as I mentioned above, picking and pruning a handful of olive trees. Nothing major. Nothing strenuous. We now feel ready to go for all that is in store for us in 2009, the year we want to build what we came to Portugal to build: our own houses at the top of the hill that we bought in September 07 with the intention of restoring them to live in for the rest of our lives. We’ve written our annual plan and budget, sat with our architect for a day to revise the drawings reflecting all the changes we’ve made in our ideas since the first plans were completed a year ago, and already have a roofing company in place to start the timber framing at the end of January. All set. Ready for action. So although we’re most thankful for the substantial soaking of the land (and us) at the moment, we’re also praying for a break in the daily deluges so we can begin to build once more.

It’s midday and Josh has just returned unexpectedly early from school. Another teachers’ strike he says. He’s drenched from head to toe after his walk down from the village, although behind him outside, I can see the dark rain clouds dissipating a fraction. Yep, there’s even some blue up there in the skies along the valley. Might even be able to get out this afternoon, se Deus quiser. Von’s already spotted the sun and is putting on her boots in front of me. “Right, I'm off.” she says, “It’s sunny at the top. I'm gonna move some stones. You coming?”

Right behind you dear. I'm right behind you.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Home Sweet Home

Hey folks. Happy New Year. Hope all your Christmases were as wonderful as ours. After almost 2 years without a place to call our home, and after moving 7 times (!) over that period, we are finally living in our renovated house down the valley from the Portuguese village of Amieira – the house called Moses. On cue, as if to a script usually reserved for seasonal family films like Love Actually, Vonny’s mum Arlene and sister Antoinette, arrived to celebrate with us for Christmas – at midnight Christmas Eve in fact. Splendid.

It’s been a while since we posted anything to our blog and it’s been quite a ride these last 2 months. Things didn’t work out so well with "Tom and Jerry" at Bacelo. After 6 months of helping restore the houses and gardens they’d bought, one day they both decided they had had enough of our little family and told us, in no uncertain terms, to leave. Immediately. It was a big shock to us. We’d only just started the restoration of our own house in October and still did not have windows, doors, heating, water or electricity. In effect then, we were brusquely, inexplicably and unceremoniously made homeless by the people we’d invited to join us in this new life of ours in Portugal. All bridges burned. With no idea what we ever did to be evicted from the houses and gardens we had helped them build. 6 weeks on we’ve still not been able to make any sense of it all and few words have been exchanged to enlighten us. As the old people say, e vida, e vita, c’est la vie, that’s life.

We were forced to look for somewhere else to stay and fortunately our gorgeous and generous neighbours Eugenia and Joao came to our rescue once again. They opened up their old house and garage for us in the village and said we could stay as long as we needed to. Bless. They housed and fed us for 4 weeks and every night we warmed our bodies and spirits in front of their wood burning stove and in the bosom of their family. During the days, the kids continued to go to school (they’re fluent in Portuguese now and both have had awesome results in their first term’s tests in all their subjects – geniuses!) and Vonnie and I threw ourselves into finishing off the restoration of Moses. In the rain, in the snow, in the winds. Whatever the weather we worked our little socks off and became quite poorly in the process.

1 week before Christmas it really didn’t look like we’d be able to move in. It had been pretty chilly, dropping to below zero most nights, making it difficult to mix plaster and run water til the sun rose after midday thawing the ground and melting the water in the outside pipes. Von and I both had full blown conjunctivitis and bad coughs that had kept us sleepless for 4 or 5 nights on the trot. But in that last week, it was like watching, nay making, our very own Extreme DIY Makeover TV show.

Then the beautifully hand crafted African wood double glazed windows, doors and staircases were installed in 3 days by a team of talented and chirpy local carpenters (see Von’s full explanation of the importance of these babies). The thermodynamic hot water system was put in by 2 lovely plumbers, André and Nuno, from a natural energy firm down the road in Castelo Branco called ENat. The electricians Rui, Elisio and Senhor Lucas, carved out all our wonderful lime plastered walls to run cables, plugs and light sockets throughout the house (next house we’ll do this bit first to save on the heartache!). The locally made wood burning stoves, one new one antique, arrived and with our neighbours help carried the heavy mothers down the hill and mounted a chimney inside the house to act as a radiator. We insulated the roof with Rockwool and cork. We built wooden structures for the bath, sink and toilet in the bathroom. We built a temporary wooden shack on the side of the house for the washing machine, tumble dryer and tool shed. We built our first walls out of thin red fire bricks and an equal spacing of lime in between them to support the huge kitchen granite work surfaces, which were picked up from the stone mason in Oleiros 2 days later. Finally the bath, wash basin, kitchen sink, oven and washing machine were delivered, we plumbed in the taps, machine and their drains and at 6pm on Christmas Eve, the electricians finished the last bit of their work and the lights were switched on. While Von and the kids rapidly got to work transforming a building site into a resemblance of a home, I jumped in the jeep to drive the 6 hour round trip to Lisbon picking up Mum and Annie from the airport, arriving back just in the knick of time before Father Christmas and Rudolph dropped in for their usual annual nightcap.

And so it came to be that after a year, 3 months, 3 weeks and 3 days after first seeing and falling in love with the land called Moses, the Winter family with Moses our dog, and Angel and Slinky our cats in tow, tired, sick, but exceptionally satisfied, moved into our first, lovingly hand restored, warm and toasty, home. Sweet, sweet home indeed; made even sweeter and richer by the loud laughter and fullness of life accompanying Mum and Anne.

I’ve just finished reading one of their Christmas presents for me - Barack Obama’s first memoir “Dreams from my Father”. Wow. If you’ve not read it, it’s a must read. A truly beautifully written description of his honest and vulnerable quest to understand his own roots and identity with some sharp insight and implications about the nature of all of our multiracial, multicultural origins. Looking forward to ordering and immersing myself in his next books. America sorely needs someone sitting in the Whitehouse that has his level of integrity and humility of worldview. Lord, help that man and his family in the months ahead.

Over the last couple of months in my spare time, for time is something still in abundance here, I have had the awesome privilege of editing David Pott’s outstanding account of his 7 year adventure over 3 continents with the Lifeline Expedition. We’re only half way through the editing process but hopefully the ensuing book of tales of reconciliation concerning the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade will be as inspirational to read as it was to take part in. Watch this space for an early peak at pre-published drafts.

So, 2009 is almost upon us. Awaiting us are another 3 houses to restore, vegetable and flower gardens to cultivate, thousands of trees to plant, water canals and features to sculpt, a yoga temple to build, river damns to erect, phone lines to install, websites to write, children to raise into young adults and Portuguese to properly learn how to read, write and speak. A little daunted if truth be told, but if there’s one thing we’ve learnt over the last few years, it’s this. One step at a time. That’s all we can do. When it begins to feel overwhelming, we will keep remembering and repeating that wee mantra to each other. Just one step at a time dear. For fear, at times, floods in like a tide and tries to steal the very dreams that have, to date, been the wind in our sails. Fear of the exchange rate, of the wider inevitable global economic collapse, fear of our inexperience and ineptitude, fear of the future, of all things unknown and outside our control.

Yet we know that we’re not actually in control of anything really. Moreover, as the scriptures say, perfect love casts out all fear. Armed then with trowels and chisels, spades and hammers, ideas and imagination, and full to overflowing with our love of life, of God and each other, we step into the New Year, confident in the knowledge that He has not bought us this far to leave us here. Peace to you all. May all your dreams come true.

(We do have video evidence of the white carpet of snow that fell in Amieira on Dec 1st, the magical Christmas lights dripping from the trees and buildings in Oleiros and a 360 virtual tour of our new pad. Once I’ve found the cable to my mobile, currently buried somewhere in one of the 2 garages we’re using for our stuff, I’ll post ‘em up to this blog entry. So long. Até já.)

A White Christmas (well, near enough Christmas) in Amieira...

The magical lights in Oleiros....


Okay, it is January the 1st 2009. It’s blue sky, man, as Ellie has just said. We are all in our pjs and what in goodness name do I have to say. Well I can say this, we are finally, finally, finally living on the land at Moses. Finally. A lot has happened since I wrote my last blog. So much that it would be difficult to tell you all of it. So, as is the usual way on the tele at the end of the year, I will share some of the highlights since my last entry.

Highlight No1: ‘I Don’t Like Cricket, no, I Love it, Yeah!’

Earlier when the summer was with us, my family were regularly taking a 3 hour drive most weekends to go to Santarem just north of Lisbon to play the infamous game cricket. Now anyone who knows me knows that cricket has never been one of my favourite games. As a girl growing up in Barbados, it symbolised our British colonial heritage. Closer to my experience it was a time when all the men disappeared from actually doing any work and slinked off to spend what seemed to be endless hours doing nothing of any value and leaving the women at home to continue with the endless hours of work. So, when my boys decided that they would travel the 5 hour round trip in a weekend, with all that petrol to go and play cricket in Portugal I was not so impressed. But, I realised that it was really important to them so one day I decided to go. We packed up our gear piled into the car and started the long journey.

I have always found it intriguing the way you think you are going to feel a certain way about something and then you start doing it and sometimes if you are paying attention to what is actually happening you realise that the reality of your feelings are quite different. From the moment we started out on that journey it was special. Joshua was so excited that I was there. Ellie was singing away. Moses was snoring between the kids and taking up far more space in the car then he should do, as usual. And Memphis was, well, relaxed. With blue sky all around I too started to relax and let go of some tensions I’d been carrying. The scenery around us gradually changed from the vast green hills of our region where you notice mainly the land to the flat plains of olive groves and whitewashed villages where your attention is drawn more to the expansive Portuguese sky.

Eventually, we arrived in the parched dry land of Santarem, drove down a dusty road and arrived at a surreal site; an English green cricket ground in a scooped out bowl of a valley, complete with white picket fence and tea room. That day I sat in the sun and was fed, watered and nurtured by the most lovely Portuguese / South African woman and her Mother. For the first time in ages I had nothing to do all day but to sit and watch, walk my dog, chatter to my daughter and watch my boys playing in the sunshine, just playing. Not working or striving trying to do anything beyond the effort of play. My ears opened and I realised that I was hearing English speakers, South African voices, Portuguese speakers, Indian and Pakistani voices. I watched as at sunset one of the Indian players got out his prayer mat and made his devotions to Allah. I was genuinely moved, because while all of us had in someway been affected by that colonial heritage, here we all were hanging out in this tiny Portuguese village altogether to do nothing else but to play cricket, relax and talk. It was lovely. I let go of my opinions of cricket as a symbol of absent Barbadian men and worse, British colonial oppression and simply watched my first game of cricket with my new Portuguese eyes, enjoying the truly multicultural experience. We walked away from that day feeling lighter and thoroughly rested after a day of just playing. Even now, I find myself looking forward to next summer and the gathering together of unlike individuals to play and watch cricket. Well special! I do believe I’m hooked. Thanks Memphis.

Highlight 2: Our work together

As you know from our last few blogs Memphis and I have been working really hard to create our first shelter here at Moses. In the snow, the ice, the wind, the rain, the sun and even in the dark, we’ve tirelessly worked. One of the highlights for me would have to be the laying of the limecrete subfloor on the ground floor. This floor required seemingly endless hours of hard labour. Over the course of one day I made over 15 trips up our not inconsequentially steep hill to get sand, or lime, or gravel or some other building material. It’s difficult to portray this hill verbally but suffice to say that it is sheer, rocky sometimes covered by moss and without a doubt always makes your thighs burn and your heart pound. Every time I made it to the top I felt overwhelmed with gratitude, for the opportunity to do this work. For the two legs that were helping me, the arms that were pushing the wheelbarrow, the lungs and heart and other organs that supported the body that made it possible. Every time I got up that hill and filled that wheelbarrow and stopped to catch my breath and look at the view around me, it seemed like a miracle. That we were here and that we were taking our fantasy and doing all we could to try and make it reality, but mostly that there was so much joy in the doing of it. As if that wasn’t enough every time I started to make the descent (much scarier than the ascent let me tell you) there was my Memphis waiting for me at the point where it was the most difficult and the scariest. Waiting with a smile, a hug and a ‘Well done hon, I’ll take over from here’. And you know what, one day, just once, I managed it, all the way up, and all the way down, all by myself. Wicked!

Highlight 3: Our work and life with Others

When we first came here, Memphis and I had some long talks about whether we wanted to try and do this all alone or whether we wanted to work with others. After some thought, we came to the decision that no matter how much of your life you think you are doing alone off your own back, so to speak, that this is just an illusion. Our lives are always built on the foundation of the work of others, those we know of and those we have never met. To deny the input of others is simply not truthful or helpful. But little did we know that our lives would be so challenged and enriched by the people around us. Most clearly in our minds are the Portuguese people who’ve worked so hard to help us get into our shelter before Christmas. Foremost in my mind at the moment is the son of our Portuguese neighbours, Filipe, who is one very capable 18 year old.

It was the day before Christmas Eve, it was getting rainy and dark, we were really tired, with only had two good eyes between us because for over a week my right eye and Andy’s left eye had been closed by conjunctivitis. Our stuff was all over the place, the house we were about to move into was still looking more like a building site than a home and as yet we still had wet brick walls for our kitchen with huge pieces of granite just leaning up and therefore no kitchen. We were just about to trudge up the hill to get more of our stuff to bring into the house when we heard whistling. I looked up to see our Filipe skipping merrily down our long winding road with a rather large piece of machinery over his shoulder. Memphis and I just looked at each other gobsmacked. As he approached, I said ‘Filipe, what are you doing here, it’s wet, cold, getting dark and it’s nearly Christmas?’ He looked at me, smiled, shrugged and said, ‘Ah, I thought you might like some help to finish off your kitchen for Christmas.’ Down we all went together and within a few hours we had a kitchen and our Christmas lights were naked light bulbs.

So this highlight, really is about the huge thanks to life for all the many people who have just blessed us and helped us on our way. Countless numbers of people some we have met, some we have never met and some we will never meet.

Highlight No 3: Our Kids

I could right a whole blog about the kids and how they have amazed us this year. They seem to have been able to put up with a lot of sheeet from the adult world and still come out smelling of roses. For the sake of brevity, I will just write about what they directly have done to help us make a home in time for Christmas.

Our kids finished a long and exhausting term at school, got amazing grades, moved house several times and finally were on school holiday. On the first day of their school holiday, we said to them that they had earned the right to just rest and could sleep in for as long as the liked. On the very first day of that holiday Memphis and I set off for work at the usual time 7:30am to try to get in a few hours before the kids woke up and we could come and get them from the house our lovely neighbours had offered to us when we really needed it. At 10:30am I looked up from some task I had been doing to see two smiling faces looking at me and hear two lovely little voices saying, ”Hey Mummy we walked down because we want to help you”.

I couldn’t believe it. I knew they were tired, yet they’d woken up, got dressed in appropriate clothing and walked the 10 minute hike from the village to help us. Everyday over the course of the next 5 days before Christmas they proceeded to really, really, work. They gathered slates that we needed to build the kitchen walls, they broke the slates, they carried heavy buckets, they made mixes of lime and brought them in. They carried buckets of water up the ladders so I could scrub the floors. They built walls, gathered pine cones for the fire and Effie Starlight single handedly cleared and bagged all the rubbish from the site. They even gathered firewood, made a bonfire and organised a fantastic fire for us to cook our meals on, alone, without help, without being asked or prompted. And finally at Christmas Eve right up until the hour my Mum arrived they were up cleaning, finding places for everything and making it all happen and they did it with joy.

Every Christmas Eve since the day they were born, I have given them a present of new pjs, slippers and a new book. This year I hadn’t had the chance to do that and I was really upset. My yummy kids both came up to us and gave us a big cuddle and two presents each. I opened them and inside there were new pjs and slippers for Memphis and me. They looked at us and said ‘We knew you were busy making us a house for Christmas this year so we thought you would like the new pjs and slippers.’ Wow!

Many, many times since we’ve been here we’ve been told that it is time for the children to start working. But I have felt quite strongly that while I might ask them to help out with the domestic tasks of our lives I could not force them to do any of the physical work of building. Firstly, I felt they already had to work out their own story in a Portuguese school and that was enough of a challenge. And secondly, they did not ask to move here or to take on this challenge and as such the responsibility of making this work is largely Memphis’ and mine. So that if they wanted to help it would have to come from their desire and not from my forcing them. Rightly or wrongly this is how I felt and still feel. So to see them, working, really working at it with all of their strength, might, determination and most importantly desire...Wow!

Highlight No 4: Christmas Morning

I’m not really sure when Christmas Eve ended and Christmas day began. I think it began with the sound of my Mother’s and Sister’s voices coming down the hill towards the house in the dead of night. They opened the door and the party began. We did what every other family that can does on Christmas day, we ate, drank, made merry, shared presents and stories of the last year.

It is so wonderful to have them here with us, filling us up where we have grown thin and weak and weary. With them here it really has begun to feel like home and I think they have come more for us to be blessed than the other way around.

Thanks Mum and Baby Sister.

Highlight No 5: Something from Africa

This particular highlight is a big one but I will try to do it some justice in a few paragraphs.

For me it begins in Barbados! As you may know I was born in the island of Barbados. Born a descendant of enslaved Africans. Born to an island where we were taught to look towards the mother country of England and to view with suspicion all things African. I remember the first American I heard referred to herself as an African American. She was a beautiful, Rastafarian woman with long dreads, flowing skirts, lots of jewellery and dark long hands. I can’t remember her name or why I met her. But I do remember thinking why would she want to be referred to as African. You see, I was a little girl going to a school called Queen’s College where a picture of Queen Victoria hung high above us and we were all cleaned up and made to line up to wait and curtsy before Queen Elizabeth. So to hear this woman refer to herself as an African American Queen was confusing and intriguing and I believe now attuned my antenna.

Over time I chose to study in England to learn more. To study Anthropology and to try to understand a little more of the culture of the supposed mother land and the nature of human cultures through my studies at University. In England I found a lot of love and tenderness among friends and people who ultimately became family. I strove to learn, to understand, to discover what it means to have been associated with these places, Barbados and England.

When I began studying yoga and engaged in the Christian Church I met several people who have been my teachers. Two of the most significant for this part of my journey being Amy Hughes, whom I met through yoga, and David Pott, whom I met through the church. Amy taught me so much about the issues and difficulties of living sustainably in our dying planet. David taught me a great deal about the journey of reconciliation of healing, and forgiveness. I think my burning desire to leave London and to try to live a more sustainable lifestyle really came from those long discussions with Amy while out walking our dogs. But it was taking the long walks in Barbados, Africa and England with the Lifeline Expedition that really started to stir things up in me.

It was in Barbados back in the expedition of 2005, that I started to feel in my body that my ancestry dated much further back than my own little island. Yet it was in Africa in 2006 that I felt something really shift. While in Africa, I had the privilege to walk with 6 beautiful and powerful African and Caribbean women. While walking, there’s a great deal of time to talk and listen, to share the secrets of your heart and to hear the yearnings of the hearts of others.

I really can not remember who said what, but the pulling together of the conversation that I had with them one day bulldozed through my prejudices and fears of engaging with my African heritage and history. I listened to those women speak of how the richness of Europe was built on the back of Africans and continues to be built on African backs. As we walked we talked as to how could Africa rise, I remember one of them said quite passionately that Africa could never rise as long as the people of Africa were continued to be seen as charity cases, who should be given just enough help to keep them alive and that what Africans needed to be able to trade in their own resources and be paid for doing so.

Feeling all clued up on the issues of sustainability I questioned her on the necessity of trading locally of supporting natural resources and so forth. She looked at me, laughed and said sweetly, that is European talk. Now that Europe has grown its wealth exploiting African nations, middleclass Europeans can now sit back and say “oh what a mess we have made, let’s all stay at home, grow our own local economies use our own natural resources and pretend that we never did all those hateful exploitative things”. Only middleclass people she said have time for that sort of talk. I questioned them on decent wages and the fact that how could we trust that people weren’t being exploited on very poor wages. One of them challenged me on the fact that people are being paid unjust wages all over the world. As I looked at the trainers on my feet which definitely cost more than 50 pounds but which I reckon earned the maker less than 50p, I already knew she had a point. One of them later said to me, “You are not rich, but you have some money and this is what I want you to do, when you have the opportunity. Buy African, it is better for a person to earn 10 cents off their own labour than it is to earn 20 cents by a hand out. It is a matter of pride.” And these difficult and challenging conversations went on and on.

All that I saw and heard, the questions I asked on that journey and on the expedition in England in 2007, really had my head reeling for sometime. I really did not know how to honour these many dissident voices. Where is the truth when it is hidden in so much noise and pain? Is it in the voices that tell us we must all stay at home and build our own economies and use only what is native to the land, in spite of the fact that not many of us know where our true home is and we have grown used to depending on the resources of other countries? Or is it in the voice that says we have a financial responsibility to rebuild the nations that have provided the foundational finances that have built European nations and erase the injustices of the past through trade and what of all the voices between these two polarised views?

When we left London as a family travelling through France, Italy and Spain for a few months in ’07, we eventually arrived in Portugal, the first enslavers and colonisers of my African and Barbadian ancestors. Surprisingly enough in Portugal, I found more links with Africans than I ever found in England or in Barbados. Walking into the homes of Portuguese friends I saw African art, sculpture and fabric and on the radio I hear African music. My own African face did not quite seem so strange in this Portuguese countryside and many times I have heard people say this thing or that thing from Africa is beautiful.

Just like anyone else we’ve been carrying on living our lives and trying to work things out as we go. Yet, in the dark of night I have struggled with all these voices, questions, challenges and not quite known what to do. How do we try to interact responsibly with the huge issues of sustainability that are before us and yet answer for the atrocities of the past and yet try to live without falling apart under the weight of considering each and every decision made? How do we do it?

Well, finally, as always comes in life, there is a moment where all that you have been questioning and trying to work out in your head comes to be physical reality and you have to make a decision as to what you believe is right. For me all of this came to a head with choosing windows and doors.

When we first started working on our houses here we went to see a craftsman, an artisan, called Senhor Dias. From the moment we met the guy, we felt we were in the presence of a man who loved his craft, was certain of his worth and full of integrity. Over a year ago we approached him about making our windows and doors and explained, in no uncertain terms, that we wanted them made out of Portuguese wood. In is own way, he looked at us and said “I can make you whatever you want, but you will be foolish to use our pine. It is not good wood, it is not of Portugal and our native trees have been so destroyed that I will not make it out of our native wood, they need time to grow”. Because we were desperate to tick the local sustainable box, we were a little disappointed with his response.

So one year later we went back to Senhor Dias and repeated, “We really want to support local economy, local crafts people, local industry but we also have to insist that the wood we use is from sustainable forestry”. He looked at me smiled and said “You have 3 choices, you can have this Nordic pine, this Brazilian hardwood, but if you want to have the best, the most beautiful and the strongest you have to consider African wood”. He then raised himself up and said and “We have African wood from sustainable forestry, the regulations in Africa at the moment are tougher than they have ever been. If you want to be certain your windows will last, in the heat of our summers and the cold wetness of our winters you should buy from Brazil or from Africa”.

I looked at him, said nothing for a few moments and said I needed to think on this and get back to him. I went back to Bacelo and lay there all night thinking. Is this the moment when I am going to buy African? To honour a promise I made, to accept the heritage that is mine to invest even if it is 10 cents of my money not in charity but in the supporting of African economy. Can I trust this man? Can I trust this certification? And why is it that I am not even questioning the certification of Nordic pine. I have no relationship really with Brazil so that’s out of the question too. What are you going to do, River? The truth is I really didn’t know and then I heard his voice again, “If you want the best, the strongest the most beautiful, you have to go to Africa” and I wanted to go there. I went. I phoned Senhor Dias and said “Yes”!

The funny thing is that a few weeks ago, because of this decision to buy African wood, I went through a fairly nasty experience with a couple here, similar in nature to one experienced when I first returned to Barbados after university in ‘93. Back then I met up with 4 friends I’d known from childhood. They greeted me with enthusiasm and the usual love and comradeship that I’d grown accustomed to. I had some wonderful news that I’d met someone and we hoped to get married. They were thrilled for me until I said three words, “He is white.” One by one they all got in their cars, drove off and all but one of them has not spoken to me since. You may find it hard to believe but when Andy and I first walked together in Barbados, I was abused, spat on, shouted at, called a whore, a hypocrite and much worse. In those early days of the Nineties we often walked together in the streets of London or in the country lanes of Devon or Cornwall and were watched with suspicion, disgust at times. In the eyes of those people and of my childhood friends, I saw they thought they were better than me because of my choice of a white man. And unfortunately, in the eyes of a couple we know here in Portugal, I saw the same judgemental look again, simply because of our choice to buy wood from my own ancestral home.

But it is ok, those women who were childhood friends of mine may feel different now, times have changed and there’s a great deal more acceptance of mixed race relationships, and the children of those relationships. Barack Obama, need I say more. But at the time it was clear to those who spoke to me, in their absolute certainty of what was right and what was wrong I was a black woman and should marry a black man, and if you don’t tow the line you are out.

But life isn’t like that is it. There is no line to tow. There are just people trying to do the best they can with what they know at the time. I don’t want to tow the line, any line not the line of an environmentalist and not the line of my African sisters. I have to walk on my own edge, I have to work it out myself and ultimately I am being and doing the same as everyone else. I am being an ordinary woman trying to work it out as best as I can. But I am very blessed, because I have an extraordinary man, who has always given me the space and time to work it out and waits patiently while I research and bellyache over each and ever decision we make here.

Up to the day Senhor Dias came to inspect the work I was still not sure how I felt. I am sorry to say that for so long I think I held the shame of my African heritage inside me, that I was afraid to engage. Even the walk in Africa and the endless hours of questioning talking, reading, learning wasn’t enough. You see research and knowledge is one thing but everything everything everything in life has to be worked out in experience.

The day Senhor Dias came to inspect the work, he asked us how we liked the doors. I looked at him and said that I loved them, I loved his work but I loved them because they were from Africa and for me they represented the opportunity to trade with the nation of my ancestors honestly and they represented that nation trying to honour the challenges of our modern times. He looked at us and he said to us that “Yes Europe was built on the wealth of Africa and now that it is wealthy it doesn’t trust anything that comes out of Africa and without this trade Africa will stay below”. My Portuguese isn’t that great yet so I had to ask Memphis again and again, is that really what he said. So cool, to have the opportunity to work with a local man who does beautiful work and gets the international impact of what he is doing.

Every morning I open these windows and everyday I walk through these doors and I feel it, all of it. The pride, the sadness, the joy, the struggle, the fear, the hope, the beauty and the risk that we may not have made the right decision. But mostly I am proud, I am proud, that the strongest, the best and the most beautiful is from Africa and I am proud that we took the opportunity to scrimp and save our budget on everything else and to spend the majority of what we have with trading with Africa and supporting a local craftsman and encouraging sustainable forestry all at the same time. I don’t really feel the need to travel much in my life anymore but I would like to go one day and see the soil that has grown these windows and doors and to see Africa once again and I hope that those beautiful African sisters that I walked with, those women who really made me embrace my heritage as an African woman and challenged me to step up to my responsibility to buy African will walk through my door and talk teach me again.

Highlight No 6: A New Year

It is New Year’s day and last night I spent the night with my Mum, my Sister, my kids, my animals and my Memphis in our own home. We ate, danced, talked, laughed, cuddled, kissed and welcomed in the New Year together. The house is in chaos, nothing quite works yet and it still looks like a building site. It is not the building that we think will be our permanent shelter but it is home and it is called Moses and it is on the land we have been guided to. For over a week now the rain has poured from the sky, but this morning it is dry and when I open the door and go out I can hear the river, it is full and gushing white water. I can hear the ocean in the river today and I feel we are on our way. Like everyone else, we don’t know what tomorrow might bring. Like everyone else, we’re trying to work out our lives, bit by bit, piece by piece. I don’t know if all will go well for us, the economy might completely collapse and the money that we worked so hard for through our 20s and early 30s may vanish overnight, I may die before I ever see the dreams I have for this place fulfilled, but, as Morpheus says, “We are still here”. I am here. And I am so grateful for this opportunity. So very grateful.

I wish you all a Happy, Prosperous and Full to Overflowing 2009.