Being blonde

Oh my goodness. The day I had dreaded arrived at last – the day my roots needed doing.

I’ve had my hair highlighted blonde since I was 17. In many ways I would love to go natural, as I dislike looking artificial in other ways; I never wear make-up, rarely wear jewellery, and prefer simple clothes. So over the last few years my hairdresser in the UK had listened to the repeated phrase “not too blonde, please”, and gradually – so gradually that you didn’t notice it – my hair was getting darker. I’m not sure that I would ever have ditched the highlights completely, as I was accustomed to being a blonde, and it’s true, blondes are treated differently. But as someone who tans easily, and had reached middle age, I had an intense fear of ending up looking like Donatella Versace. My hairdresser had responded brilliantly – dear Tony, who has done my hair for more than twenty years.

But Tony was no ordinary colourist - he had risen over those twenty years to be head of colour for Vidal Sassoon UK.

So I knew I was in for some disappointment over here. In fact, I nearly chickened out of getting it done at all this time around – although it was three months since it was last done, my hair looked ok, a combination I suppose of the gradually darkening highlights and the effect of the sun on the roots. I could have waited until my conference in the UK in July and gone back to Tony. But I knew there would come a time when I would need to have it done here, and I had spotted a clean, modern place, with a French woman doing hair colour, so decided to bite the bullet.

Oh dear.

I have managed not to cry so far since it was done. I tell myself that the Senegalese don’t understand ‘natural’ anyway. Their women straighten, lengthen, colour, tease, braid and goodness-knows-what-else their hair. They glue on artificial nails, wear exotically coloured robes, layer on the gold jewellery, and totter around on glittery, jewel-encrusted high-heeled shoes. So they will probably think my pale apricot-coloured hair looks great.

I suppose this isn’t a tale of ‘louiseinsenegal’ as it could easily have happened in a suburb of London. But when she asked if I wanted the roots done the same colour, it was easier to just say ‘oui’ than to try to find the French words to explain that I wanted them the same colour as the hair next to them, ie with little silvery-blonde streaks. But even without the language differences she must have known that I didn’t want horizontal blonde stripes above my ears? When she spotted me examining them with a concerned look, she immediately offered to cover them up – but I made the assumption that the stuff she was applying was a darker colour, whereas in fact it was more bleach, so now I have two completely bleached-out areas at my temples, which in a bad light look like bald patches. & goodness knows what it will look like once the roots start to grow through.

To be fair, she knocked $20 off the price as she knew I wasn’t happy, and she told me it will be better next time as now she understands what I want. But I think much of tomorrow will be spent seeking out hats or scarves (or perhaps a wig??), and poor Tony is going to have a hell of a repair job on his hands when I go back to the UK for a conference in July…

To cheer myself up, here's a photo (from Kenya) of another African bird with funny hair.

Kenyans fighting over an orange

On the plane from Nairobi to Djibouti I read in ‘The Standard’ newspaper of 5 April that officials and supporters of the political party ODM-Kenya (the Orange Democratic Movement – Kenya) had stormed the offices of the country’s Electoral Commission demanding the registration of the orange as the party’s symbol. However the ODMPK (the Orange Democratic Movement Party of Kenya) has already registered the symbol and has vowed not to give it up. Their lawyer said ODM-Kenya had many options, and that there were many other fruits ‘like the avocado, guava, apple or lemon’ that ODM-Kenya could use instead.

Honestly, I didn’t make that up. Thank goodness the politicians in Senegal seem to be a little more concerned with the real issues facing their population.

Easter in Djibouti

Djibouti, Africa’s smallest country, sits on the junction of three tectonic plates (the African, Arabian and Somalian), two of which are moving apart at an average rate of 2cm a year, creating new land in the rift between them. Apparently this is the only place on Earth where this process is visible, as all other constructive plate margins are under the oceans. It gives rise to hot springs, frequent small earth tremors and occasional volcanoes, and means that much of the country is covered in bare, inhospitable, volcanic rock.

Additionally the climate is harsh, the southwestern corner of the country forming part of the Danakil Depression – the hottest place on Earth, where summer temperatures can reach 60˚C. What little rain there is tends to fall in short, sharp bursts, so the wadis are filled with a torrent of rushing water and broken stones, demolishing anything in its path including bridges and roads.

We (my tour group) visited the Assal Rift where the plate boundaries meet. It was a harsh landscape of black basaltic rocks and occasional outcrops of white diatomite (formed from the skeletons of microscopic diatoms from an earlier era when the area was under water), with vast jagged lava fields from a recent (1978) volcanic eruption.

Near it was Lac Assal, once a freshwater sea but now completely saturated with salts, the salt and gypsum deposits around the edges making the water look a brilliant turquoise.

We also visited Lac Abbé on the Ethiopian border. This lake, now 160 km², is all that remains of a sea of 6,000 km², now shrinking rapidly from the combined effects of climate change and a dam on the River Awash that feeds it from Ethiopia. The receding waters have left behind several hundred calcareous chimneys, up to 50m high, formed when water from hot springs under the lake (arising from numerous faults in the Earth’s crust) met the cold water of the lake. This left columns of mineral deposits – presumably calcium carbonate as, looked at closely, their colour and texture is exactly like that of limescale in a kettle. Many hot, sulphurous springs are still bubbling up around the chimneys (the name Abbé means ‘rotten’ in the local Afar dialect).

The whole area is quite dangerous, not only from the extreme heat but also because of the ground surface. The layer of sand above the underground reservoir of boiling water is very thin – jump on it and you hear a hollow sound as you feel it shake – and in places it is easy to sink deep into the sand. Only the day before we arrived the army had used a helicopter to winch out a car sunk halfway in, its occupants trapped there for three days as the sand held their doors shut.

We first saw the place in the early evening (when our thermometer had touched 50˚C around 5pm!) and the low angle of the sun cast terrible shadows on and around the chimneys. As it got dark a sandstorm blew in, and as a group we decided this place was the nearest one got to hell on Earth. Oh yes, and when the wind dies down you also get bitten to pieces as the area is infested with mosquitoes…

But the area has a harsh, apocalyptic beauty, which I would highly recommend to those who can bear the physical discomforts.

Normally Lac Abbé is home to numerous flamingos, pelicans, ibises, etc, but strangely they were absent when we visited. However we received compensation in the form of a young member of the largest species of fish on earth – a 3.5m long whale shark, which swam repeatedly around our boat over the course of the two days we spent anchored near Atar Beach in the Gulf of Tadjoura. There must have been a high concentration of plankton around the boat, as the whale shark kept coming to feed. It also seemed quite curious about humans, as it came to investigate us when we got in the water to swim and snorkel around it. It was wonderful to be so close to such a large creature, though I resisted the temptation to touch it.

I also saw turtles, manta rays, and some very aggressive surgeonfish. It would have been a wonderful place to dive.

We ended the tour with a quick trip for a few of us to a sanctuary for cheetahs and other animals rescued from captivity but too tame to be released back into the wild. Two of us were very lucky to be given special treatment, and allowed to stroke one of the cheetahs. It purred, just like a cat.

A visit to my Mum

After our marvellous trip to Lake Nakuru National Park, Mum and I travelled down to the small settlement of Kiembeni, north of Mombasa, where she is now living. I met (and stayed with) the lovely family she lodges with, and also visited the Wema Centre where she has been volunteering since last October. Mum is clearly loved and appreciated by everyone in the community there, and I think has found a place where she can be truly happy.

Wema was set up as a refuge for street girls from Mombasa, but now also caters for orphans and other vulnerable children, some from the most awful backgrounds with parents who are alcoholics and/or prostitutes, living many to a room in homes without proper roofs and beds let alone plumbing or electricity.

Mum absolutely loves her work there (helping to teach classes in the morning and to prepare dinner in the afternoons) and was keen to show me around. I don't really have any experience of children - and in fact tend to avoid them whenever possible - but I have to say it was easy, and rewarding, to interact with the children at Wema. They were clinging on to me, holding my hands, stroking my hair, and begging to be picked up and hugged. So desperate for the love most children take for granted. It was impossible to resist them and very moving.

Although many were still dressed in rags, it is clear that the Centre is doing a great job - giving those children stability, education and love, as well as hopefully a future. I know some of Mum's friends read this blog, so I will use this as an opportunity to tell you that Wema can always do with more money. Mum will never ask you as that is not in her nature, but I know she would gladly pass on donations (cash rather than clothes, etc, as the latter attract import duty). Hope you don't mind me posting this, Mum.