Mbeke Blog

Mbeke Blog

Category: Yoga

The Black Expat Stories – African Women (Like me) do climb mountains

 

A bucket list wasn’t for me. I was either going to do it or I wasn’t! “Yes, I’ll add that to my bucket list, and that, and oh yes, that too!”, they say! A list that will go into a draw, maybe next to their will and some poor soul will find it when they have transitioned.
In Ghana, I simply asked if I could join in the climb. It was being organized by one of my colleagues’ professors and it afforded me the opportunity to meet Ghanaian intellectuals and to climb a mountain. Both were of interest. Mount Afadjato is one of the highest mountains in Ghana’s Volta region and the guide Joey took us to the summit and back down in one day.

 
In the UK when I had first accepted that I would be moving to work abroad, mountains and hills had become symbolic for overcoming challenges. Up until that point, I had been a seasonal exerciser where the long spring and summer months would find me walking for hours, bike riding and jogging. The winters would come along and it was easy to revert to eating a certain brand of apple pie and custard in front of the TV huddled under the quilt with my children. My spirit knew that the energy I needed to relocate, was going to take a sustained effort of exercise and healthy eating. And so it began. I wrapped up warm and found hills to climb, parks to exercise in and streets to jog along. The move was hard but made possible by a stronger healthier mind, body, and spirit.

 
The party of four of us who completed the climb up Mount Afadjato were all fit and the professor was practicing for her climb of Mount Kilimanjaro later that year in her efforts to fundraise for a project that documented the stories of the elderly in Ghana. The climb itself was exciting as we navigated the forest terrain. The funniest part must have been meeting the locals at the top who were sitting and talking. They looked at us as we celebrated and congratulated one another on our achievements. It was more a sneer than just a look for, they probably walked this mountain every day to their farm, or to somebody else’s! They saw no need for celebration! As Ghanaians say, ‘I didn’t mind them!’. No one was taking away this victory from us and I changed there and then to take photographs of me holding yoga poses to honor the mountain and myself.

 

 

My second big climb up Mount Kinabalu was different. There was no one there to meet us for no life sat on or close to that hard rocky surface. The last four hours of the climb had taken place in the dark with nothing but head torches to guide us. The ropes had been strategically placed alongside the stairs and rock edges and it felt as if every ounce of energy, had been diverted to my arms to pull me up. At this point, my legs felt oh so heavy and were barely holding me up. I didn’t recognize my body and why would I? I had never climbed for two days. The altitude affected my breathing and I found myself stopping, at points wondering if I would even make it to the summit.
There were no friends here and the work colleagues had gone their own way as my need to stop, to gauge the risk versus the triumph of continuing, had bought out the survivor mode in them. It was definitely every wo/man (or couple) for themselves.

Whatever happened, we would meet back at the halfway house.

The first part of the hike had been fine. Each stop had made restarting difficult for a rhythm and a momentum had already built up. The rest stops, lunch stops and toilet stops allowed the muscles to cool down and the steeper the hill became, the tighter the calves and thighs were. We kept stretching but they were holding in that lactic acid.


I had worn my blue headscarf on the morning of the climb to the summit.  This had come with me from Ghana and was a simple blue tie-dye print in satin and very similar to those found in Malaysia. In the last hour of the climb, the wind and cold became so intense, reminding me of the coldest harshest winter days in the UK. I placed my wool gloves over my mouth and cheeks to generate some heat. Tying my bandana over my mouth was fruitless for, no sooner had I tied it, that I would have to release it. That feeling of suffocation!  It was a mad situation so placing my hands on my face, provided some temporary relief and then I could go on.

 

 

 

The intensity of the climb increased as we drew closer to the summit. I had packed cloth for every leg of this climb. A fellow climber had asked me where I was from! He had seen my ‘ethnic cloth! It had been a short conversation beginning with ‘Where are you from?’.  As the cold increased, I wrapped the cotton headcloth over the satin one, grateful that I had packed it for at 2 am, having slept very little in a dormitory of 6 beds with my colleague on the bunk above, clearly unable to control his flatulence problem, meant that I wasn’t too sure what I was doing. There was a reason my spirit had wanted me to be on the top bunk! The smells wafted down and there was nowhere to turn so it was a very long night.

 

As I climbed towards the summit,  the winds increased.  I wrapped the cotton cloth over the satin scarf. The sunrise revealed the extent of the vast open space which I had just climbed. I met two of the couples descending as I approached the summit and although we were only five minutes apart, they were descending as I was going up. We stopped and shared how nausea had us feeling that we might just not make it. I climbed to the top where I stopped, watching others take their photographs with the sign and taking in the magnitude of what I had just achieved.

 

I had passed younger, fitter, taller people than myself who had stopped 10 minutes away, telling themselves they could not go any further. They looked healthier than me. I too had spun myself that lie and then I had flipped the script. I had come here to reach the top and I did! The sun had risen.

 

Back at the half-way house, we ate breakfast as it was only 10 am. It was 10 am and I had just climbed a mountain!  It was an amazing if unbelievable feeling.  We drank tea, ate breakfast and repacked for the final leg of the journey.  The climb had taken so much out of me. I wasn’t sure that I had enough leg to navigate the descent.

 

As we left, I decided to leave the others behind and walked the four hours walk alone out of the forest. My knees were hurting and I realized I would need focus, concentration, and energy to leave the forest. All the qualities and skills that I had needed to successfully arrive at the summit.  I had been told that Mount Kinabalu was a spiritual space. In between feeling the pain and soreness of my ankles, thighs, and shoulders, my knees began to hurt further. I saw monkeys, ladies in threes, crocodiles and old men watching me. As I looked back or came close, they were no longer there.

My flight was three hours delayed.

No one tells you about the spiritual, psychological and physiological impact of such a climb..but that’s for another story. The image of me standing on the mountain is my story. My headwrap is what people noticed and as I studied the image, which confirmed that women who look like me, do climb mountains.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DISCLAIMER:

The thoughts in this blog are mine. My opinions, uncensored.  Please don’t take it personally.

For information on expeditions, you can contact

Ghana :Dziedzorm JayJay Segbefia
dziedzorm@braveheartsexpeditions.org

Malaysia: Clement@trulysabah.com
0060146510218

Black Expat Stories- Why Jakarta ?

I woke up and looked out of the hotel window. Century Park Hotel was fine. The long drive and time in the traffic following the initial delays at the airport was not fun. Unfortunately, Jakarta looked a lot like Malaysia and I wondered why I had booked my long weekend here. Travelling out on one of the many public holidays in Malaysia had become a habit. I would see the Air Asia printouts in the hands as other staff members walked away from the photocopier. Expats and locals just loved to travel. Another trip was confirmed on the cheap airbus of this region and off we would go. We had already visited Bali, Vietnam, Thailand and so Jakarta was one of the many local countries on that ever-growing list. Looking out this morning though, I did start to wonder if it was time to reduce the local trips and to start planning for a few long haul trips to places like New Zealand, Australia, India or Mauritius. Paupi New Guinea sounded nice too…

The hotel had been selected as it was next to a park. Hours had been spent looking at the many hotel and flight packages, figuring out which offered a free breakfast, Wi-Fi, and free shuttle. It was back and forth and back again until I couldn’t remember what had attracted me to that particular hotel in the first place. In the end, either my selection was confused or my laptop was for we ended up in a hotel with no free breakfast or shuttle. The website also did not mention that the stadium and park were closed for renovation. The dark rainy day was not inviting and I wondered whether I had been blessed with the writing weekend I had been asking the universe for. I looked around the large room and knew that, with sufficient sustenance, I could possibly stay here all weekend and write.

Bola messaged me and we agreed to meet in the foyer to walk to the closest mall. We needed to find some food for breakfast. We had both forgotten the one-hour difference as arriving at the mall, we found that most of the restaurants were just setting up. The staff took to staring at my braids and at Bolas skin whilst putting the chairs and menus out. We kept walking, mindful but not troubled by this attention for we had become used to. Those already open, displayed a list of dishes that were dominated by meat and fish. That wouldn’t work as we were both living happily without either.

A walk towards another mall was met with can we just go back to the hotel and use their wifi to find a vegetarian place. I didn’t resist as jetlag was kicking in. I could have walked or returned.

Burgreens was such a great space with a covered outdoor space that resembled a countryside summerhouse and a small and cozy store. It was positioned on the top of a small building with two other outlets in total alignment with all that it stood for. The ground floor sold organic fresh vegetables, the middle floor sold vegetarian and health products including raw honey, essential oils and vegetarian/vegan cakes and snacks. At the top of the building, stood Burgreens selling great what we used to call whole food…wholesome dishes and all vegetarian/vegan cooked and raw. The term used now is Plant-based and as with previous labels, it has different connotations for all who use it.

 

The restaurant was set up so that customers could watch all of the food preparation and taking photographs was totally accepted. There was staff who spoke English and they were able to explain what was in each dish. At the restaurant, we saw the advert for the Healthy diet and lifestyle conference and knew that this was why we were in Jakarta on that weekend.

 

Saturday morning began with two yoga sessions for me and a meditation class for Bola. The Yin class was great as was the hot yoga class. Having qualified this year as a yoga teacher, I was mindful that I needed to practice more until I was able to commit to delivering a regular class. With my work travels being ad-hoc, I had found that I could not attend a regular class to stay in shape. Delivering a class had also proved problematic and I recalled the private teacher who had been mentioned to me some time ago.

The second yoga class was hard and reminded me that I needed to push myself more on the yoga mat. I recalled my yoga teacher saying that the body has muscle memory. So it was important that my recent memories were of an accurate and strong yoga practice.

The aura reading was enlightening and I watched the reader as her words flowed and flowed before she spoke. Her face showed no emotion and so I started studying her hair and clothes as I waited for her to return. Her energy was not definitively male or female and I asked my self if this was important. It didn’t seem to be. She didn’t look up until she had stopped writing, as if she had taken an x-ray of my soul, seeing only what she could see and then take the words to paper from that x-ray. When she spoke, I asked little for it is true that with self-awareness, there is little new news that comes my way. We thanked each other. She had only met a few like me. I laughed and then smiled.

Watching the different faces as they engaged with the knowledge from their readings, gave me pleasure too. Reflective looks and smiles were all around. People connected with memories that confirmed why that had not happened or indeed, why that had happened. With yoga classes, ancient chanting, the smell emanating from the body and soul products and delicious food, I was at home.

 

Meeting the owners of Burgreens was inspiring. A young man and woman had met in university in the US and had returned home to Indonesia, determined to eat in a way that was not harmful to the environment or to their bodies. With asthma, eczema, insomnia and ongoing colds, it was time to change their lifestyles. They had successfully healed their bodies and were now sharing that with the millions who would benefit from their knowledge and meals. The naked Burgreens, raw strawberry cheesecake, and super nutty protein bowl served me well for Saturday and Sunday morning. Helga Angelina and Max Mandias thank you for following your dream.

I stood at my window listening to the music. There were so much noise and so many people. The covered school girls moved along the road in groups and I assumed it was a school day. I couldn’t remember if this was a Sunday to Thursday or Monday to Friday region. The music increased as did the crowds. I could see colored mascots moving too with the sun reflecting on their bright colorful headpieces. I wanted to see more and my room view no longer seemed satisfactory. I put my exercise shorts and t.shirt on, checking in with the hotel staff to confirm that it was acceptable to be on the street dressed like this. I found myself in a carnival atmosphere with food sellers, clothes stalls, live bands and a flow of people carrying batons in T-shirts for the Family Olympics. The announcer included ‘African’ two or three times as he described the moving crowds. I noticed and moved on right in with those on the walk. It was the Olympic Day fun run 2017. The characters from The Justice League were also there to remind me that You can’t save the world alone. The aura reader was right.

 

Moving along with the crowds, I watched the families, police, sellers cyclists and serious runners negotiate the path. All senses were being fed. I stayed with the walkers for an hour and a half, powering up and slowing down as the body dictated. Towards the end of the run, I decided to follow others going from one side of the road to the other to catch the best images as the sun opened up over us. I retook some of the earlier shots as the dark morning had not afforded those images the intensity and contrast that came with the early morning sun. Amongst all of this activity, noise, and movement, I was temporarily rooted as I watched the drone moving over the crowds. I had seen the young men setting it up but watching it move now overhead, whilst taking its aerial shots was something else. What an invention this was. It had revolutionized so many things in my lifetime.

I drank the fresh orange juice and purchased something which looked like a banana fritter. It was the one thing that everyone nodded to when I asked vegetarian? The dignitaries sat under the canopy in front of the fan. They took selfies in their nice suits whilst waiting for the speeches to begin. Groups of children and adults were preparing to display their martial arts, stretching and balancing. Others danced to the local popular music that was pumping out. An elderly man of about 75 caught my eye with his sharp foot movements. Age was not going to catch him at all! I watched as many of those who had been walking, now sat eating noodle dishes with fish, meat, tofu and vegetables added. It had been a fun morning. The serious runners didn’t stop and looked as if they would just run on along to join another event.

Back in my hotel room, I continued to watch the crowds from my window. The traffic could still not pass down that road so it continued to back up along the park road. I was tempted to shower, change and rejoin them. I hadn’t packed yet though. There were clothes on the bed, chair, and sofa looking at me as if to say don’t you dare leave this room again. I really did need to pack.

 

Why Jakarta? All of this of course! You never know what or who you will find or what you can create until you get there.

DISCLAIMER:

The thoughts in this blog are mine. My opinions, uncensored.  Please don’t take it personally

The Black Expat stories – In search of plantain

I realized how low I was feeling as I sat at the bus stop watching the young college students. It was the time of the day where there was a lull.  The afternoon school session had ended and the workday rush had not yet begun. At 5 pm, I knew I was cutting it fine as I walked up the road to the stall. It was closed. This was my third attempt in three weeks and each time the stall had been covered over. I wondered if the trader had moved on.

I had not formed a great relationship with him. The men at the coconut stall were friendlier. They were bad boys after all and although now in their 50s and 60s, the free spirit bad girl in me, connected with them. They were always chatty and pleasant and allowed me to have coconut water in those few days when I had changed bags and left my purse at home. The owner would tell his assistants, ‘she is my good customer…comes all the time’. Some evenings, I had stopped there just to revel in the thrill of watching the men play their board games. Their bodies swayed as they weighed up the opposition, cigarette smoke hanging over them, suspended until, bang! Down would go the piece they had played, which was often followed by laughter, shouting and then silence again as the next player repeated the same process. It reminded me of the big men who played dominoes at the Christmas gatherings, weddings, and christenings, I had attended as a child. I never quite got why they banged the pieces or made so much noise but I did get that the socializing and comradery that came with playing, was always more important than winning. Here the noise level was about the same.

This man, however, insisted on short-changing me every time. He had a limp and a funny mouth. I wondered if he may have suffered a stroke at some point. He usually had to stop our proceedings to cough at length, sounding like he had bronchitis or a chest infection. He would always return my change 5 or 10 ringgit short. I had started simply standing there with my hand holding what change he had given me. The gently bang on his head which he administered, resulted in him going back to the till and returning with my balance. Maybe he was knocking sense into self! No, we were not great friends but he was the only one who sold plantain in walking distance from where I lived, and he was who I wanted to see today.

As I sat at the bus stop, too forlorn to walk back and allowing myself to indulge in this overreaction that only a plantain loving person could relate to, a Malay woman approached me. She was smiling and I knew she was going to say something about my hair.

‘Where did you get your hair done?’, she asked

‘Sorry?’, I looked at her before answering. After all, she was fully covered and I had made a lot of assumptions.

‘Where did you get your hair done? I want to do mine!

‘Sorry…? I was repeating myself!  I could hear her words yet her full covering and question did not make any sense to me. I knew that Muslims in Malaysia were more liberal than other interpretations of Islam I had experienced, but still, I was confused. She saw my confusion.

‘Yes, I’ve had it done before and I love it!’ she said “Even when it hurts’. She was clearly excited at the prospect of doing it again.

‘Sorry?’ I could feel myself repeating the same response but I seriously could not help myself. Broken record syndrome had taken full hold of me.

‘Are you a Muslim?’ I eventually asked.

‘I am but I wear braids sometimes. My husband doesn’t like it but hey ho!’ She was bubbly and funny and I was stunned and awkward.

‘I had my hair braided in London.’ I finally responded. ‘ I do know a few people here who braid too’, I added

‘Great. I shall take their numbers from you. I am not sure if those who do my hair are charging me correctly’ she admitted

‘How much do you pay?’ I enquired

‘600 ringgits. I have a Nigerian woman in Kuching who does it for me. She is married to a Malay man.’ She had definitely been overcharged. I wondered about the Nigerian woman and Malay Man. I let it go as I was working hard unpacking the Muslim women in front of me.

‘Do you live around here?’ she enquired

‘Yes…not too far. I just came to buy Plantain but the man isn’t there. I could walk home but I feel lazy’. It was a half-truth. I didn’t feel the need to bore her with my drama and recount of longing for something I could not get. Being an expat who didn’t drive often meant that I knew of only one or two places where I could find certain things. In this case, it was one.

‘Plantain? Plantain?’ She had gone into recall zone. ‘Oh yes, those big bananas! My Nigerian friends eat them’ she confirmed

‘Yes, yes!’, I agreed ‘They eat a lot of plantains’. I remembered that it had been my Nigerian friends in the UK who first introduced me to the black eye beans and plantain stew in red oil. In that world, any pot with fish or meat in it was called ‘stew’. What sweet memories!

‘I am sure they sell it in Gasing. Oh yes, my name is Rosita’ She said stretching her hand out. ‘What’s yours? My car is there so jump in and I’ll drive you there’.

I got into the car smiling at how bizarre the situation was. I had taken lifts with strangers in Ghana and in Jamaica so that was not new. It was one of the ‘calculated risks’ that I was willing to take. We stopped at the small shops a few roads from where we had met. Rosita asked trader after trader and they all seemed to be pointing in the same direction.

‘Yes, I was right. We will have to go to Gasing’ she said with a determination and spirit which totally bowled me over. Heading towards Gasing took us along some pretty rough terrain. It was an area where recent demolition had taken place and where new apartment blocks were already going up. I wondered if I had made the right decision though. I was going further and further away from my home and I didn’t know how I would get back. I felt so vulnerable in local areas without the language skills and where English was rarely spoken. Did I want plantain that badly?????

Rosita spoke openly about being a doctor as we drove along. Coming from a family where she was expected to be a doctor or lawyer, she had not planned to be anything else.   I asked her what she had wanted to do. She said Art and Design but her parents had told her that it wasn’t a solid career…. wouldn’t pay the rent. She and I came from a time where our parents were gods. My mum had died when I was sixteen and yet, two years later when I applied to university, I still didn’t do the BA in Linguistics as I could hear her voice asking me first of all, what is linguistics and what job I would get with this ‘Linguistics degree’. Hearing this in her quietly spoken Jamaican accent, meant that it sounded so much more demoralizing. I opted for Sociology instead!!!

As we pulled up at the stall, I smiled broadly. There were bunches of plantain and coconuts everywhere. It was that thing. That thing which connected me to home (UK, Jamaica, and Ghana). There it was. And plenty of it. Maybe this place too would be one of my homes…one of the places I would become a local of. A bus passed us by. A bus I had seen many times parked at the station next to my office. It was another place I could travel to by bus or taxi. I had options and everything was alright. I purchased ripe and unripe ones. Enough to last me

Rosita insisted on dropping me home and we chatted about the many ways in which plantain could be prepared. She was fascinated that I would consider eating it raw. She had eaten it boiled, mashed and fried with her Nigerian friends but none of them had ever spoken of eating it raw. She asked the usual questions about whether it would make me sick or wasn’t it designed to be ‘cooked’. Sharing my limited knowledge of foods that could be eaten raw felt good.

Outside my apartment, I asked a stranger to take a photograph of us two laughing ladies. He was in a bad mood and said he would only take one. It was not like the experience of Malaysians who often took 10 photographs when you handed them your camera and of the last five, my hand would be stretched out indicating that I’d like my phone back…please. Rosita and I laughed lots and I knew I had found a kindred spirit. As the angry stranger handed me back my phone, we both hoped he too would meet a stranger that would help to take that cloud away.

 

The Black Expat Stories – Curtains

As an expat, there is a crazy sense of displacement that I experience when it comes to things like washing curtains. Having spent most of my adult life in the UK, it was a real ritual that went alongside pulling the furniture out and vacuuming those corners which may not have been touched for months (I am embarrassed to say). It meant wiping down all of those large pieces of furniture where the dust had been hidden. The first day of sunshine was the new high wattage bulb and It would send me to the supermarket to purchase cleaning items like nice spelling Zora disinfectants.

Now I live in someone else’s home. Their agreement states that I cannot put pictures on any of the walls, so I haven’t. Me who once had a living room so filled with African masks, family pictures, sculptures and cloth that my friend’s son, on arriving for the first time, whispered to him, “is this a museum daddy?”, now lives with bare walls.

I was young, naive and hungry for everything African. My walls were a testimony to my commitment to living a truly authentic African life. The first payment which I received for a poetry reading was used to purchase an African woman with braids who sat on my wall for many years. There were copper sculptures from Ghana, cloth from Nigeria and Ethiopia, cushion covers from Kenya and that large Ashanti stool which the authorities had challenged me on carrying as they suspected I had drugs hidden inside. Of course, with my having dreadlocks that I covered, how could they come to any other conclusion.

The new sun would make all of the carvings and sculptures expose that covering they had collected over the previous six-months. As I polished some, dusted others, ensuring that those corners were clean, the curtains would be soaking. The clean lace curtains reflected the bright sunshine and sent a wave of satisfaction of a job well done. This was my home and I had put the effort in to make it look, smell and feel good for my family and I. It was always a good day when the curtains were washed.

Now I rent an apartment, with a balcony that is hardly used due to the noisy ongoing construction of yet another apartment block which has stolen the peace and tranquillity that living next to a forest should have bought me. I watch the dark skinned men working on this building site each day and I wonder if their story is in line with those I have heard of the labour force that comes from Bangladesh or Sri Lanka. Men who work long hours, while their passports and mobile phones are held. Men with long periods away from their families who look lustily at the Chinese women who bare so much flesh in their shorts and strap tops, against the backdrop of Hindu and Malay women in their (mainly) modest attire.

The curtains were filthy. Having lived in the apartment for ten months, I could not figure out why washing the curtains had become such a big deal. Then it hit me. It was about the ritual. The history. The practise and memory of this one act. There was so much love in cleansing the winter and in welcoming in the summer in the UK

In hot countries, there are no clearly defined seasons. There are days of sunshine or cloud. Drizzle or torrential downpours. After living in Jamaica, I returned to the UK during the winter and depression had set in. I could not stand the cold, the unfriendly people and the effort that everything took once I had on my two or three layers of clothing. I remember signing up for a community yoga class and being the only student who would attend. One day the yoga teacher must have had enough of my long face. He stopped the class and asked me what the matter was. I went on and on about how cold I was, how I missed Jamaica’s heat and people and how sad everyone in the UK looked. He listened attentively, showing no sign of frustration or disappointment in the views I had expressed.

He simply said

You must really live, wherever you are. Unpack the boxes. Enjoy all there is to enjoy.

I said thank you and stopped the complaining. I unpacked the many boxes which I had walked passed every day and sorted out my apartment. I put the pictures back on the wall.

Washing the curtains and cleaning the windows took me to a place of doing things on purpose. Enjoying where I am…wherever I find myself. I celebrated the array of colours which I now have every day.  The sunshine and warmth which I now have everyday.  I have new rituals .

DISCLAIMER:

The thoughts in this blog are mine. My opinions, uncensored.  Please don’t take it personally.

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