It’s interesting to wonder what comes into peoples minds when they are asked to guess what C-word we might be thinking about in certain circumstances or to describe certain conditions. The obvious one is THE C-word Curse. Even The Guardian prints that straight out nowadays. They did a full article on the propriety of using it in plain text a couple of years ago and I laughed when I read it and found myself feeling somehow liberated that a main stream broadsheet would enter into that fray. The Guardian is, of course, totally unique in that respect and revels in breaking new ground in journalism. THAT word, however, remains outside the conversation of polite society and is certainly not something women appreciate hearing. Men, on the other hand have come to use it more and more and it has taken on a life of it’s own with some measure of affection attached to its’ delivery. ‘Hey up you old c..t, how you doing?’ ‘Ah you silly c..t, what are you up to?’ are lines that can make blokes feel they are part of a group of mates. Delivery can, of course, be made with extreme malice and it remains an effective way of making sure people know very clearly what you think of them. It all comes down to the delivery in the end.

Otherwise, the C-word can be synonymous with something of a Curse in terms of being Cursed. That context is a totally different case and is generally something which nobody, but nobody, wants to hear used in terms of their own precious temple.

Nobody wants to hear it in relation to themselves. It’s always used when talking about other people. The thought of it being US who might succumb is something which we generally refuse to believe, preferring to think it’s someone else who will get it.

So, as a confirmed invincible immortal, it came as something of a surprise to discover I am just as ordinary as anyone and have the same statistical chance of getting Cancer as anyone reading this. A couple of weeks ago, I got the dread news that I have been diagnosed with prostate Cancer.

All sorts go through your mind when you hear the news. First thoughts are about dying of course. Then the resolute bit kicks in with ‘the c..t won’t get me!’. Next comes the philosophical where the line between dull acceptance and active resignation is drawn. Not sure where I am at the moment but I can say I am not desperately stressed about it for some reason – denial possibly or still stuck in my philosophical mode.

It was sad to hear the news. Not so much because of THE NEWS, but because it came from my wife. I had an inkling that things might not be good after having had a full health screening at a fantastic hospital in Jakarta, Indonesia. RS Pondok Indah completed a top quality job in their Executive Health Screening process. It was thorough and the results were presented incredibly professionally.

When they saw an enlarged prostate with a PSA of 11.29, they made the right recommendations and we were carried off on the great investigative train that transports you from department to department as they seek to establish what exactly is going on. In the end I was sent for a transrectal biopsy of the prostate and, no matter what anyone says if you search websites looking at what that is all about, it IS without doubt the MOST miserable and painful experience I have ever had. I was sick on one level or another for about two weeks after the biopsy and I would have asked for an MRI scan first if I ever knew the option existed for exploring the state of your prostate – the biopsy is, of course, rather cheaper.

I was setting off for UK on my own on the Saturday, and we went to review the biopsy results on the Wednesday before. It was not really good news but not all bad, so I resolved to take the flight and see what happened. The seed was planted in my head by then of course and I was mentally setting myself up for mixed news. I didn’t bargain, however, on the short and very sad call I got from Ulan on the Monday, confirming that the additional studies that were done in Indonesia to confirm the real detail of the biopsy result had revealed Cancer. Doctor Arry Rodjani of RS Pondok Indah had called her 6 times to tell her that I needed to get very urgent attention because the new results confirmed that the Cancer was there and was still treatable with a Gleason index of 3+3=6.

I really don’t know what happened inside my head at that moment. I told myself to settle down and carry on as normal. I walked over the road to my doctors surgery, carefully carrying all my notes and the results of all the tests and confirmatory printouts indicating the scale of the problem and asked for an appointment. The receptionist informed me that I was no longer registered at the practice I had been with since 1984. We had a discussion about this and she eventually decided to offer me an appointment the next day with one of their new doctors but didn’t register me. I went back home and called my brother and told him. He said he knows someone who is friendly with a urological oncologist on Harley Street. I rang his practice and they took me straight on and offered me a consultation with this great man the very next day.

I went out for a long stomp around Bedford Park and discovered what a beautiful place it is. I went out and bought the new Tony Bennett Duets album and spent time listening to some of the old songs with some of the greatest modern talent singing with him. I cooked myself some dinner and went to bed at about 8 in the evening. I slept surprisingly well and started the new life with Cancer.

The web – Google – becomes your friend when you hear news like this. BUT……. don’t do it. Stay away from Google as much as you can. There are so many conflicting lines, so many different points of view but most importantly, so many attempts to tell you what prognosis you might have. Statistics are not your friend because they depend on what they are trying to tell you and they can be quite daunting and certainly very depressing. You have to look inside yourself and feel how well you are for yourself. If you can do that and try to feel optimistic and try not to suddenly interpret all your normal aches and pains and little sniffles or coughs as being cancer rampaging through your body you will come through it fine.

I failed that test.

I decided that all the aches and pains were the cancer rampaging through my body. I was definitely going to die….. and soon. And so it went on for the next day or two. I felt very, very lonely and Ulan and I had several teary Skype calls.

Fortunately I have my brother. He is just amazing and really stepped up for me. After the consultation with Dr Peter Harper in Harley Street, I was referred to Professor Roger Kirby at The Prostate Centre on Wimpole Street. Bryn let me stay over at his place when I needed the company and he escorted me around all the places I had to visit. The Nuada Medical Centre for a 3T MRI scan – amazing machine and a long session lying there as the polo mint spun this way and that making incredibly loud banging and clunking sounds. Prostate Centre again for a discussion with Professor Prokar Dasgupta (the man who introduced Da Vinci robotic prostatectomy to UK) who has become my consultant. The Harley Street Clinic for a bone scan – I was injected with a radioactive substance, then I had to wander round London avoiding all young children and pregnant women for 3 hours before returning so they could do the imaging. And so on.

I stayed with Bryn for several nights and was really so lucky to be able to go and watch him at his work – he took me to the rehearsal of Brittens War Requiem at the Barbican and then to the full concert in the evening – now it means so much more to me and I am a definite fan. I also went to watch a solo harp concert by invitation only at the Purcell Rooms on the South Bank. He introduced me to Boris’s Bikes (which should really be Kens Bikes) so that we could cycle everywhere we went for next to nothing. We walked miles and miles and stopped for refreshments at Pattiserie Valerie whenever we saw one. We ate at Porcelli in Soho and had a wonderful time together as brothers. Bryn also got me going on the buses. Now the use of a London Bus holds no mystery for me and I will use them as much as I can from now on. It’s been absolutely wonderful to rediscover our brotherhood.

What was also simply wonderful was the way Ulan managed, at 34 weeks pregnant, to wangle a flight back to UK to join me. She cajoled and persuaded all the right people to let her fly and it was with pure and absolute joy that I drove down to Heathrow to collect her and Alix and bring them home to share my troubles with me. I had already persuaded myself that she would never do it and I would have to face the coming months on my own: missing the birth of our daughter and seeing her for the first time only in the new year, but also, having to face the prospect of the unknown consequences of the tests I was having. It was SO GOOD to have the family all together again so that we could work through everything. Our time together has always been precious, but now it is even more so.

Telling Sam, was not so easy at all. His Mum died of cancer at the age of 44. Sam was only 17 at the time and the prospect of telling him that his Dad also has cancer was utterly distressing. When I called him in the Maldives to tell him the news, I cried my sad little eyes out…. there are few more miserable things to tell your son, although I have to say that the day i told him his Mum had died was without doubt the worst imaginable.

But now we are in the routine. We travel to London for appointments as a family now. It means that Ulan and Alix can get to know the people who are caring for me and can build a relationship of trust. Poor Ulan, at 36 weeks pregnant, valiantly waddles along the streets of London as we find our way to the Prostate Centre on Wimpole Street and then as we walk to find somewhere to sit and rest and have something to eat as we wait to head back to Bedford. We have found the Garden Cafe in Regents Park does really good and healthy food so that is our preferred destination nowadays.

The other big adjustment we are making is a huge shift in lifestyle. Nowadays we are cutting red meat out of our diets and are treading the vegetarian path. To be honest, when you get down to it, vegetarian cooking is excellent and I am slowly managing to lose my lust for Full English Breakfast, choosing instead to eat muesli, low-fat yogurt, dried fruit and lots of nuts. We still eat white meat occasionally and are getting into much more fish. Salmon is emerging as a favourite and with Ulan’s ‘fancy’ rice, we are tucking in and enjoying. Now, in the evenings, we are eating a big plate of fruit and nuts and yogurt for our desert but are cutting down alot on food. I have become a resolute pomegranate fan and take concentrated pomegranate juice with some of the more commercial types. It is said to have great properties in combating prostate cancer so it is now top of the list. I drink cranberry juice and smoothies as treats now and have cut out caffiene almost entirely. Green tea is becoming very palatable but i still miss my cup of real tea in the morning and have made it decaf now.

I am feeling GREAT believe it or not. I get out and stomp around the park almost every day – up to 9 km now. I also go swimming at the Robinson Pool at the end of our road and do 20 or 30 lengths to build myself up for the challenges ahead. I have managed to lose nearly 8 kg since mid-September so I’m feeling a bit smug ūüôā Now I have only another 12 to go…..!!!

Now, after all the too-ing and fro-ing, discussions with so many people and scrutinisation by so many machines, we are on the road to treatment. On this coming Monday (7th November) we will be going to London again. We will stay with my ever-supportive brother and then at lunchtime on Tuesday I will find my way to The London Clinic to receive my radical prostatectomy. The surgeons will be using a Da Vinci robot to do the work and it will all be done through 6 keyholes in my abdomen. Having never really been sick in my whole life, it is a very daunting prospect but I am looking forward to my 3 hours at the mercy of a man-driven robot. It is supposed to be an amazing operation and, if I am lucky, the entire prostate will be removed along with absolutely ALL the Cancer.

Here’s hoping. Can’t wait to see our new little one being born in a few weeks time ūüôā


PRIVATE – Keep OUT!! Part II

In Part I, I said that my journal is a precious and private part of my life. ¬†Nobody has the right to read it unless I am happy for it’s contents to be shared. ¬†But how far can we take that argument when we consider the effect our private thoughts, beliefs and correspondence may have on other peoples¬†well-being? ¬†How does the concept of secrecy and privacy line up with public interest?

We don’t always like people – particularly strangers – to have any idea about what we have done, how we think or what we want¬†to do, unless we give permission for information to be shared. ¬†I wonder if that is a human right? ¬†From my point-of-view it is definitely MY PERSONAL right and I am willing to defend it as strongly as I can.

But what about people like Siena Miller and Jude Law?¬†ÔĽŅÔĽŅÔĽŅ

As film stars, does everyone have the right to know in intimate detail what they are doing with their lives?  Where they will be at what time and with whom?  Are they public property?  Did they choose to become the objects of such intense scrutiny simply because they chose to excel in their chosen careers?

The picture came, by the way, from an online mag called The Inquisitr. ¬†It headed an article telling the world that the couple were looking at houses in Highgate (North London – England (for US readers!! ))valued at 4 million UK pounds after they got engaged for the second time …. ¬†blah blah blah!! ¬†Personally I don’t actually care what they do or where, I just enjoy watching them at their craft ¬†– but some people seem to find it their mission on earth to find out and then tell everyone!! ¬†And not just about Siena and Jude!!

Who are these people who DO give a shit? ¬†Did their readership generate the need for this information or did the news groups offer it to a passively curious group of people who, once they are hooked on the gossip drug, begin to demand it? ¬†Is this a case of “news push” or “news pull”. ¬†Perhaps of more interest, would the people who are producing this¬†stuff¬†be willing to share such private detail of their own lives with a mass populace? ¬†Likely not since they are not cool enough to be able to BE the news, just to MAKE it somehow. ¬†Who are these parasites in this rather sad symbiosis?

Whatever it is that motivates the ever more insidious hunt for highly personal information about the lives of those we describe as famous, at some point there has to be a check and balance process in order to protect individuals who remain, in spite of what some members of the press and others like to think, private people.

Slander and libel laws were instituted ¬†to protect peoples information, privacy and thereby reputation. ¬†Wikepedia’s disambiguation of the terms states:

Slander and libel are false or malicious claims that may harm someone’s reputation

So when can it be acceptable to test these laws? ¬†What can be defined as public interest in these cases? ¬†Who will then adjudicate on such rights? ¬†Should it be news editors anxious for a quick scoop? ¬†Are the public really so short of decent things to think and talk about that they are clamouring for news of Siena and Judes life together? ¬†Or are they too lazy to do anything but be spoon-fed this crap? ¬†Whichever way you think, it is kind of scary isn’t it?

My gut tells me that there is something profoundly wrong about the current situation where the status quo seems to be finding some kind of equilibrium whereby some news groups try to invoke a kind of public interest case for gossip. ¬†The argument often hinges around our stars being role-models for young people: their behaviour has to be modulated by the impact it may have on the millions of kids who hold them in some kind of high esteem. ¬†The newspapers interest is to police the moral highways along which our poor youngsters travel. ¬†Of course, this argument falls apart when we recognise that the behaviour of the rich and famous would never come to the public eye if it weren’t for some journalists or paparazzi crawling through an obscure part of some country to obtain a photo of someone sitting in their private garden just having fun in their own private way. ¬†Our kids would never know would they? ¬†Neither would they care. ¬†Nor do they need to know. ¬†They could go on in their sublime innocence, ¬†see their idols on TV or film and drift on in romantic, blissful, ignorance of the private behaviour of the these people in their private lives. ¬†And so what? ¬†IF our icons were making love on the empty plinth of Trafalgar Square then we can understand a case for public interest, but otherwise nobody cares and good luck to them is the way we should look at it.

Antony Gormley invites people to be living

monuments on Trafalgar Square Fourth


By Culture24 Staff | 26 February 2009

an artists impression of someone standing on the plinth

One and Other, image courtesy of the artist and Tristan Simmonds

The production of  images and writings, which lead to some level of moral castigation by our press, actually generates the very problem that society would rather not see;  the robbery by mass-circulation newspapers of the innocence of our youth.  All to make a fast buck AND in the name of moral propriety!!!

Now it seems to be just too tough for those intrepid reporters and paps to crawl through the shit to collect their shit, so the news editors have found some other sad individuals to go out and hack into phones so that they can figure out where our esteemed role-models might be and what they might be planning so they can crash into those personal lives and wreck not only what they are doing, but also infect the readers with crap that nobody would really miss if it weren’t there.

Steve Bell 07.09.2010

So, is the public interest best served by this kind of journalism? ¬†I would say definitely not. ¬†If direct influence comes to bear on impressionable people by the actions in public of the rich and famous then there is a case for publication, otherwise there isn’t. ¬†In the end, we actually pay to go and see actors and others who may be described as the great and good because we want to immerse ourselves in the fantasy lives they are either playing or living.

Most of us need some fantasy in life to help us deal with the day-to-day challenges we already face . ¬†We don’t need idiots making money out of spreading miserable stories and gossip about private people which end up creating such distorted views of sections of society that we find ourselves sinking into pits of despair and lose our sense of hope for a better life.

Oh…. and don’t you think we should leave Wayne and Colleen to be young and innocent too?

Sad, sad world isn’t it?

Part III is coming ūüėČ


Few people know it but I kept a journal for many years. Why?  Well, at the time, I was really struggling with too many different and highly emotive issues in my life. I found that my mind would toss them round and round so rapidly that I quickly became confused and then, frustrated, angry or sad before heading to the pub to drink myself to oblivion and forget the whole sorry situation.

After a while I came to the conclusion that an early grave was beckoning me and that I ought to face my issues and deal with them. The journal was step one in an intensely personal process of healing which eventually enabled me to look myself in the eye again and conclude that life was not so bad after all.

I kept the writings of about 10 years in a leather bound, plain paged book that I had bought in Venice. It is a lovely book and, bearing in mind a Czech saying that people look after their books in the same way as they look after their relationships, it ended up looking just as I had hoped it would: a light leather colour when it was bought, which turned into a rather stained but beautiful piece of my life.  Somehow, the stains suggested a comfortable individual who had a certain order but nothing too detailed, definitely not anal by any means:  it became me and I was happy with it.  I began adding names and contact details in the back and kept photos that were special to me and even old till receipts and notes that I picked up on my travels until eventually the 10 years contained in the book were probably as complete an image of me and my dreams and tribulations as anyone (including me) could ever possess.  At some point I remember, as the healing process really began to pay dividends, I decided that I would share happy, joyous feelings with it as a change from the miserable musings of the confused man that I was.  The book is mine and nobody has any right to read it unless I give it to them: the right and/or the book.

Oedoen von Horvath wrote a novel, “Juegend Ohne Gott”: ¬†which he wrote as ¬†Nazism in Germany was becoming firmly established, foretelling the evils to come and the militarisation of the Hitler Youth. ¬†The novel covered the story of a young man who, obsessed with the writings in his journal, had inscribed a warning on the front cover that anyone who opened the diary would die. ¬†After the boy found the diary had been opened the suspected perpetrator was found murdered the next day and so the story unfolded.

Serious stuff.

Journals are generally considered in the west to be private documents which can often be a sanctuary of their keeper and, therefore, the privacy must be respected.

In other parts of the world, it is not always the case. ¬†Between man and wife in some cultures, it is insulting to retain such private musings and not share them with the partner. ¬†It can be seen, somehow, as a betrayal of trust in some way. ¬†In the west we don’t see it that way and consider it more of a claim of personal space than anything: a place where dark or delightful secrets can be put down for future contemplation perhaps, or simply to offload troubles.

At the moment, some parts of the UK respectable, broadsheet, press is pondering the rights and wrongs of phone hacking and the leaking of government information to the public. ¬†Only today, the so-called “Palestine Papers” have been published after having been leaked some months ago. ¬†And, of course, Wikileaks has been the big story about leaks for some long time. ¬†All this is relevant to the concept of personal and other levels of privacy and will be covered in my next missive.

END of part 1

Rules of (Engagement) Entitlement

I think of engagement as a state of being which may suggest we are about to get married or are about to start a new job or about to commence battle or fighting.

Entitlement strikes me as being something which suggests that we deserve to possess or procure or own some object or property or person.¬† Implicit is a status of rightfulness being synonymous with entitlement.¬† Under some definitions of engagement, conflict relating to disputed views of entitlement may ensue.¬† So the two words are somehow bound together ‚Äď funny isn‚Äôt it?

There are so many ways to live our lives.  We can live them decently, honourably or otherwise: it’s up to us isn’t it?  Some people tend to wander through life, floating along under the presumption that whatever comes their way is only as it should be, simply because they believe they have the right to whatever it is.  Take, for example, those individuals who cut into queues of cars or people, or who decide, for no obvious reason, that they want to demand preferential treatment in some circumstance or another.  What is it that gives them the right, or, perhaps more importantly, causes them to feel that they actually have the right to do something which causes clear disadvantage to others, without even turning a hair?

What is it that makes the ‚Äėvictims‚Äô in such cases just blithely permit it, or to grumble or, less frequently I believe, express open disgust or even challenge the actions of the ‚Äėentitled‚Äô ones.¬† Why do some of us just take it and let it happen whilst others offer various forms of resistance?¬† It‚Äôs strange.¬† Why is it that some days we will simply sit back and not even say a word: not even see an additional couple of points on the sphygmomometer, whereas other days will see us become puce with rage and enter into serious stroke territory?¬† I ask this, of course, because I am one of this type of individual: I tend to be one of the victims and I often (like today after driving in Accra again)want to try and understand why I don‚Äôt just get out of my car and bash some individuals head in ‚Äď in other words, ENGAGE with them?

The phenomenon shows itself not only on the roads but in almost all facets of modern life.¬† Even though traffic is classic battle territory, where the normally powerless people, are suddenly empowered to cause mayhem should they choose.¬†¬† Imagine being a 5 foot nothing nobody who drives a 2 ton power monster!! ¬†Too good a chance to get your own back on all those bullies you ran into every day since you popped into Kindergarten without feeling threatened by their size or strength ‚Äď and you take it with relish.

Otherwise, we can all cite examples whereby others simply presume they have rights over others which they quite simply don’t.  We all know the individuals who just walk into a meeting and take over, who woo the crowd with their charismatic approach to everything and takes the plum spot in the eyes of everyone before anyone else can even open their mouths.  Don’t get me wrong, I can be one of those people if I choose, but sometimes I just don’t have the energy; the drive to always live my life like that.  I guess I am a bit of a hybrid.

I wonder if this is a size issue.  Is it only little people who get upset about such things?  Is this the true manifestation of small-man syndrome?  Did Napoleon simply get his knickers in a twist when he was stuck in the traffic on the way to Moscow?  Does size matter?  I think not!

It could, on the other hand, have something to do with class.¬† In UK we have the reputation ‚Äď less so nowadays ‚Äď for maintaining a stiff-upper lip (try speaking English while holding your upper lip stiff and you will understand why some Brits sound as though they have tooth-ache or something).¬† The stiff upper lip fashion actually suggests that a person doesn‚Äôt show emotion.¬† It is really something which is class-driven but is this what pushes such people to treat fellow men with such disdain?¬† Is this way of viewing others only something confined to the rich and affluent?¬† You only need to spend some time working with people of lower income and education levels to know that this has nothing to do with class.

It is neither size nor class-related but simply an innate feature of the human state.  That is not to say, however, that size and class don’t contribute to low quality behaviour, they do, but these are not the principal motivators.

So what is it?  I actually think that many things contribute to the state of mind which gives some people that consistently high sense of superiority.  Genes play no small part in the equation, but I also think that a sense of security in the home environment, through consistent parental engagement and solid education are major components of the construction of decent human beings.  Of course, there are those who have chips on their shoulders and those who were born with silver spoons in their mouths who, through obstinacy and arrogance respectively, will behave badly.  But your average Joe will behave well and with courtesy mostly because they have been well brought up and have a strong sense of community values.

I guess the main point to think about is where we fit in to the spectrum of human behaviour.  Some people have a constant sense of entitlement and go through their lives blissfully ignorant of the effect this has on others.  Some people constantly apologise for occupying others space and will go to the ends of the earth to make everybody they meet feel comfortable.   Both traits are infuriating but endearing at the same time.  It is for those in the middle who have to try and live peacefully with everyone else.

I can’t decide where I fit in, but I hope I am not too much of a pain in the arse for those to whom I am connected.


The love of …… Money!!

I started this blog with the noble intention of trying to put into words my understanding of money. ¬†How do I define its’ status in my life? ¬†As I wrote, the whole piece turned into something which harangued life in Africa and I lost sight of the main motivation for writing it in the first place. ¬† Africa is, however, a place worthy of intense investigation when considering money. ¬†The people seem to have little regard for their fellow man, are quite content to worship God with great vigour, whilst, at the same time, finding it difficult to live life according to His doctrine. ¬†It is a continent of huge conflict suffering from various powerful crises of integrity at every level of society. ¬†The causes are many but it is sure that money is a major contributor to the state of Africa.

Money is, however, one of those things you can’t live without…. ¬†but in spite of that we all have to come to some conclusion about how much of it we really want. ¬†As part of that calculation we should perhaps start with some idea of how much we need. ¬†In coming to some kind of conclusion about that, we have to define what the word ‘need’ means in that context. ¬†Not so easy somehow when you view what possessions you have and then what others have, then try to translate that into what you really need and then what you would like to, or wish you already, have.

From the bible (¬†1 Timothy 6:10 ) Paul attributes Jesus with the saying ‘the love of money is the root of all evil’ and it has been variously adopted to fit many different cases of attribution of evil. ¬†It has also been widely misquoted as- ‘money is the root of all evil’.

To add extra theological weight to the discussion, the Quran and various sayings attributed to the Prophet Mohammed also deal with the role of money in the lives of people:

Abu Huraira narrated that the Prophet said: ‚ÄúA time will come upon the people when one will not care how one gains one’s money, legally or illegally.‚ÄĚ (Bukhari)

Abu Huraira narrated that the Prophet said: ‚ÄúWealth is not in having vast riches, it is in contentment.‚ÄĚ (Bukhari, Muslim).

… to quote just a couple of points which are highly relevant, not only to Africa but to mankind in general.

So money, as a source of some measure of issue across many parts of our human world, has been exercising minds for a very long time.  It can bring out the very best and also the very worst in all of us.

Irrespective of which way one considers the whole money issue, it is something which causes us to reach some level of judgement on a daily basis and our handling of it will, to some great extent, govern the way we live our lives and affect the lives of our neighbours in work or at home.

How much money do we need?  I should say that our monetary needs are driven mainly by our human needs.  We need: shelter, clothing and sustenance (food and water) in order to be able to live.

Here I sit in Accra, Ghana, living in a modest apartment comprising 3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, kitchen, living and dining rooms.  The floor area is probably around 150 square meters and the rent is a rather immodest US$2400 per month!!  In order to secure the apartment we had to pay 13 months’ rent in advance Рa cool US$31200.  Of course, just EVERYBODY has that kind of money sitting around waiting to be spent on a one year rental in advance!   In our case, we were fortunate that our employer made the payment.  It does, however, beg the questions why is the rent so high and why do the owners need so much as up-front payment?  Looking at the general cost-of-living over here, it also begs deeper analysis to identify why Africa, as a continent, needs so much help from overseas aid when there is clearly so much money in economies?  It is worth pointing out that Ghana is not the worst offender on the rented accommodation scale:  Nigerians demand some US$10000 per month with a 2-year upfront payment:  a quarter of a million will enable you to move into an average place for a year.  Congolese are rather more demanding and uncompromising.

Compare our modest (by western standards) home to that of our maid, Cecilia. ¬†She has a day room in what is known as the ‘boy‚Äôs quarters’ just behind our place. ¬†It is a single room, some 4 square meters with 2 windows and communal ablutions shared by 3 other people. ¬†We provide a bed, a TV and a fan to make the place comfortable. ¬†A junior government servant and his family may be given accommodation by the government, which is a tiny little flat of perhaps 15 square meters in a 2-storey block. ¬† Senior government servants are given homes more akin to our own depending on their seniority.

Our maid, when she is at home, on the other hand, lives with an extended family in a partially constructed house (probably not owned by them: they squat there) with no windows (there are openings but not frames or glass in them) situated in the middle of nowhere: no running water, very limited toilet facilities and a long walk to anywhere.  To arrive at our place for work, she has to take a bus for 2 hours each way.  She arrives at 8 in the morning and leaves at about 6 in the evening and we place our little boy in her care for some part of every day except weekends for the sum of about US$100 per month Рshe is well paid and, on top of that salary, we pay for her health care, to eat and to travel to and fro.  Cost to us overall is about US200 per month:  less than 10% of just our rent!

The bottom line is that the needs of both Cecilia and ourselves are met.  It is the style in which they are met that creates a differential.  The issue is, it seems to me, about expectations.  She is healthy, well fed and happy.  Would she, however, find happiness if she lived as we do?  Would we find greater happiness than we already have if we found ourselves living in her situation?

A couple of years ago, we were broke. ¬†When I say broke, I mean we had no money – cash. ¬†When I say we had no money I mean we had no money for luxury. ¬†We lived in Belgium and occupied a small apartment – even smaller than the one we are in now. ¬†We ate less, drank less, and gave ourselves very few treats. ¬†I either walked or bicycled to work and back nearly every day – we couldn’t afford a car. ¬†We travelled into town by bus and walked almost everywhere we could. ¬†Ulan was very pregnant and struggled to and from her appointments, carrying our son in her belly, on foot and by public transport. ¬†Every major spend was undertaken after great analytical sessions figuring through cost-benefits. ¬†The end result was that we were both very happy indeed, quite substantially fitter than we would have been if we had used a car to get around, and were still well-fed in a basic but healthy way. ¬†The main thing is that we were content. ¬†Life toughened up alot when Alix was born. ¬†We were hit with a huge bill for the birth and after-care. ¬†We had another mouth to feed and all the baby paraphernalia to buy. ¬†We dug as deep as we could and paid everything by ourselves without help from anybody. ¬†Alix grew up healthy and happy and remains so to this day; we often wonder what made him such a naturally contented soul.¬† We are truly blessed to have him.

Compare that to our driver (our car and driver come with my job so we are lucky) who is paid the princely sum of Ghana Cedi 190 per month. The current exchange rate makes that about US$100 or £70.  Ibrahim has a wife and two kids and another one is on the way.  He works hard for us but suffers unimaginable financial difficulties and we tend to supplement his pay by giving him extra each weekend.  He has a home and, apart from regular bouts of malaria, is healthy, as are his family.  Their diet is the Ghanaian staple of banku (maize-based staple), fufu (plantain and kasava mix) and various types of soup with meat and spices mixed together.  Sometimes they will eat rice instead of the banku or fufu but this is more expensive for them and is something of a luxury.  Chicken, beef, cowmeat (beef from an old cow I think!!) and grasscutter (large rodent) form the meat part of the diet.  The locals chew on slices of sugar-cane to try and provide energy and also to support protection from malaria.  Although life is undoubtedly a struggle, Ibrahim and his family are happy and the kids all go to school and are incredibly smartly turned-out when we see them.

Once again, I wonder, if our positions were changed, how happy would we each be?

We took Cecilia back to UK for a couple of weeks.  We did this for a number of reasons: principally to allow us to get on with clearing our household goods and sell furniture without having to worry about Alix.  Also, however, we felt it would be an amazing experience for her to visit another country and to compare it with her own.  This would be the trip of a lifetime: first time on an aircraft, a train, in a big city, in a rich country and so on.  A further and perhaps more subtle, point was to enable her to see the way we live in our home country: how we eat, how much things cost and what style of living we have compared to her perception of our life in Ghana.

Whether she took it on board or not remains to be seen. ¬†She did, however, see that we live a very modest life in UK. ¬†We don’t have the trappings of wealth that even the rich Ghanaians have over here. ¬†We live in a small apartment, have no car and eat simple food which we prepare ourselves. ¬†The costs of fuel and food and even hairdressing (we treated her to a UK style Afro hair treatment) are enormous compared to the costs for local people here. ¬†We tried to show her that life is not about having huge amounts of anything, but about surviving in a way which is compatible with the society of which you are a part.

We took Cecilia to London.  We went down by train.  She was scared stiff as we entered our first rail tunnel: her eyes became huge, as she stared intently at me when the darkness enveloped us, questioning this amazing and terrifying phenomenon.  We took her on the London Eye and she sat resolutely down on the bench in the gondola, refusing to stand up and look out until we were on our way back down and near the ground.  We took an open top bus ride and came back from the Tower of London by boat before eating and then returning home.  The cost of this simple, day trip to London was almost 3 months’ salary for her.  The cost of taking Cecilia back to UK and covering her time there was nearly 3 years salary for her.  We did not, of course, say anything about this but the comparison is relevant to the value of money to all of us.

Nowadays she no longer looks at us as rich people.  She has, however, and to her huge credit, started studying at high school so that she can improve her life by studying to become a nurse.  Maybe one day, she will find herself back in London, working at one of the big hospitals over there and making her way as happily as she does now.  Her perspective on life has changed without any doubt. She sees more about the function of money in society than she did, perhaps, before her trip.  She has decided that to increase her choices in life, she needs to have sufficient financial capability.

I can‚Äôt say how I might respond to living in any other way than I do right now.¬† Not frivolous but good.¬† I know that during the Belgian days it was reasonably hard but we dealt with it and came out of it feeling happy and peaceful.¬† Since I met Ulan, my ‚Äúneeds‚ÄĚ have changed alot ‚Äď as she sometimes snipes at me, ‚Äúyou don‚Äôt fly business class any more‚ÄĚ ‚Äď and I have dealt with it comfortably enough.¬† I am sure, however, that I would find it extremely difficult to move into a mode of life that the local people have over here.¬† I guess we could do it, but it would attach huge cultural tension to our lives and I don‚Äôt know what the consequences of that might be and I don‚Äôt want to test it.¬† In short, I guess there would be a limit and I don‚Äôt want to go anywhere near testing how far that may be:¬† too old to lose all my creature comforts maybe J

When we dream about better and more affluent times, we often cast away the shackles that money places around our ankles, and think about what kinds of house we might like, or car or other luxury items.  As I start to compare our lot with that of the mega-rich I have begun to define what I would like to have.  I have moved away from needs now and am looking at wishesJ.

I WANT to have a house which is big enough for the family:  I guess that means 4 bedrooms each with a bathroom (already moving well away from needs).  I WANT it to be set in a garden of maybe 1 acre which NEEDS to have mature trees in it and which looks over a magnificent view of mountains or the sea.  For a car, my dream (therefore a WANT) would be to have the Bentley sports or Aston Martin DB9 but a reality check suggests that the Audi Q5 would be just great (NEED????).  I NEED a big motorbike.  I WANT to be able to fly myself around the place but am happy to rent an aircraft rather than buy one.  I definitely NEED to be able to travel wherever I want to whenever I want to AND NEED to be able to transport myself around when I get there.

So that is the material stuff dealt with.  Now what about contentment?  Would having all these things help me to be content?  I think so.  Could I compromise on them all?  Yes definitely but do I want to and how far would I go?  Hmmmmmmm that is the difficult one J  Do I believe that contentment is the greatest wealth we can have?  Yes definitely, but the jury remains out on the precise limits of the material side.

New start…….

For some amazing reason, I decided to take on a Masters degree this year.  Crazy maybe at my age, but nevertheless something I simply had to do.

I was thinking about why on earth I thought it was a good idea as I struggled through the first question of my first assignment. ¬†I am, after all, doing it completely on my own: without the benefit of a local study group and in the middle of West Africa. ¬†Oh well, I thought, I have never taken the easy route through life and find that it’s more rewarding to finally succeed when working against many obstacles than to cop out and take the easy path.

My wife thinks I am the most optimistic person she has ever known. ¬†She doesn’t, perhaps, understand always, how hard it is to maintain such an outlook on life. ¬†The truth is that it can be totally draining to try and find the good in almost all situations. ¬†Anyway, being optimistic is something I have worked at and I am sure will help me find a way to cope with life’s challenges.

I think I search for the good in this difficult world at every level of my conciousness. ¬†When I am asleep I dream about it maybe. ¬†I must say that when I daydream, however, I don’t always find I am thinking of wonderful, rosy, scenes in life, so perhaps my night-time ponderings are not always so positive. ¬†Somehow, however, I find, in general, that even thinking about miserable stuff in a certain way helps me to come out of melancholic reverie with some sense of hope. ¬†It’s not just the superficial kind of hope either, but a deep sense of goodness about ‘things’ and people.

And so it was that, as I was staring at the rather strange diagrams I have to work out to finalise my response to the assignment, and with that moment of utter despair passing by as the lights of understanding started to flicker and switch on, I realised just how lucky I am. ¬†I have a home, a job, a beautiful and extraordinary wife and wonderful kids: an incredible brother and………. ¬†maybe most importantly when considering our future, I have a brain that is still excited about learning about new things and exploring new limits in life.

The course suddenly feels much lighter.

PS.  THANK you Ulan, Alix, Sam and Bryn for being my happiness.

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