Thursday, 25 February 2021

HeroRATs

Not sure if any of you have seen this film, but I can thoroughly recommend it.  Naturally, while I may be keen on it, in the sense of being a professional in this business and, therefore, possessed of a passing interest, I recognize the film may not be to everyone’s taste, especially as it isn’t in English.  But it is worth a fraction of your time on earth.

 


There was a particular scene in the film I was hoping to isolate and share with you all but, sadly, I am a bit cack handed when it comes to pirating copyrighted films so, in order to see the scene I have in mind, you are just going to have to slog through the film until you see the truck blow up.  The trailer should, however give you a flavour which, if you are at least mostly human, will rest bitter on the palate.

Often, it is inconvenient to blow up every remnant of war in situ.  After all, we are trying to clear and release land back to the local population as quickly as possible so the land can be returned to productive use.  Making the locals, the beneficiaries to use acceptable terminology, wait years while we pop off every mine or projectile individually is ridiculous, they’ll starve to death before we finish.  Not only that, it buggers up the terrain and makes finding anything else that may be hidden just below the surface that much harder to find if a tonne or so of spoil and metal detector confounding shrapnel has just descended upon it.  Best to make all the bad stuff safe, or make the qualified decision that the dangerous stuff is safe enough to move, gather it all together, transport it somewhere very isolated, and let it all go together in one almighty great big bang.  That way more fields bloom, quicker.

Rapid and effective land release.  We are all under not only a self-imposed pressure to alleviate suffering, but also the budgetary pressures imposed by donors.  Whichever way you look at it and however grateful we are for their intervention and support, donors want to see a return on investment and, if we are to continue, we need to satisfy this rather fundamental requirement.

Demining is expensive, about 4 USD per square metre as a very rough average if conducted by an efficient organization so if you are demining a whole country, work it out for yourself.  Any initiative that can reduce this cost thereby releasing greater acreages to productive use has to be explored and a recent innovative idea is rats.

Rats are clever little buggers and anyone who has experience of them knows that once they are inside your house, they are almost impossible to get rid of and, if you do manage to expel them, they’ll at the very least have left you with a nest chewed from the deeds of your house inside your impossible-to-get-into wall safe.

Let us not argue whether rats are as efficient at detecting mines as a good and well trained man or woman behind the very best mine detector on the market today.  The fact remains, when something nasty is discovered, whether by rat or human, it is up to a human being to decide whether to blow the thing in-situ, or disarm and move it.  The burden of responsibility is enormous.  Regardless of the methods and procedures used to locate, identify and dispose, all remnants of war are dangerous, no matter how many precautions are employed by those who selflessly volunteer to clear them away for the greater good of their fellow citizens.  And nowadays most of us engaged in this activity are volunteers, not like my old Angolan colleague’s first introduction to combat mine clearance when he, and all his 16,17 and 18-year-old comrade conscripts were lined up shoulder to shoulder and encouraged at gunpoint to shuffle across a mine field to clear a path for the more experienced troops behind.  If I wasn’t already convinced of what a harrowing experience that must have been his confession, delivered with no hint of shame, that he was one of the lucky ones and reached the other side with heavily soiled underwear sealed the deal.

Mine clearance has changed a lot over the years.  In just the nearly four decades I have been involved in explosives disposal of one sort or another, I can see the transformation from enthusiastic amateur to highly trained professional and incidents across the profession are thankfully rare, just a few a year.  All the more remarkable when you consider that a single team can clear thousands of mines and dispose of many tonnes of ammunition a year, some of it, such as scatterable (cluster) munitions, extremely bloody dodgy.  While we are all aware that something could happen, it is still sobering when it does.  A few days ago, a truck was being loaded with ammunition so that it could be transported to a demolition site.  It is too early to say with any confidence exactly what happened but the detonation obliterated the truck killing two colleagues and injuring several more, one of whom finally succumbed to his injuries yesterday.

I know personally military explosive ordnance disposal professionals who have been decorated for bravery, and there are many others but I was hard pressed to find the scores of civilians who must surely have been recognized with an award for their quiet courage.  All I could find was this:

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-54284952

I did a quick calculation.  Given the lifetime clearance rate of this medal winner, a further 153,845 rats would be required to clear just Cambodia.  Perhaps PDSA should invest in a foundry.  After all, that’s an awful lot of medals they're going to have to mint.

 

Thursday, 8 October 2020

Little Brown Jobs

 

A while ago, long before Marcia abandoned the family leaving me to look after the children by myself (on Valentine’s Day last year if anyone is really that interested, a date notable only because it left me with a bunch of roses I suddenly had no use for), I paid for her to go to catering college.  Having passed the basic course with flying colours, Marcia then went on to specialize in patisserie, so I think you can all understand how extraordinarily pissed off we were when she left.  The children and I loved nothing more than a well-made sticky bun.

I like bread.  I know that bread isn’t exactly patisserie but it is made with yeast and generally comes out of an oven that has just scented a kitchen for at least an hour or so.  As a child in Baden-Baden I would happily walk down, and then necessarily back up, a mountain at six in the morning to collect the fresh Brötchens which constituted the main ingredient of our breakfast. I like bread so much that sandwiches, or at the very least if I have forgotten to load the fridge with lettuce, tomatoes and ham, a supermarket bun loaded with cheese and mayonnaise, forms part of my nightly routine, along with a good book.  These are habits ruinous to my waistline.  According to the BBC, if I catch Covid, I will probably die.  My survival, apparently, depends upon me giving up bad habits. I understand what the BBC are/is saying (correct me someone), but one has to ask oneself, denied inspiring literature, is life really worth living?

Marcia is so much younger than I so which person of reason could deny her the opportunity to step over the traces and gallop for a bit?  Patience is its own reward and in my case this bunch of bollocks actually seemed to work and a couple or so months ago it was with delight we welcomed her back for reasons, I hasten to add, far deeper than budget Bounties and light cream filled pastries. Now, it appears, she is a bread revolutianry.

For a while now I have had trouble sleeping.  I have no trouble actually going to sleep, I can do that in an armchair at eight in the evening.  But at no later than four in the morning, I am wide awake and worrying.  Just one, only one, of the things pressing my being to insomnia recently has been how to get 29 vehicles from Luanda to Menongue, with only half as many drivers as there were vehicles.  To achieve the seemingly impossible, a big hole was required and happily, today, I found one.  Not at all easy in the middle of a big city but there it was, the police shooting range upon which, years ago I trained.



 

Other matters pressing remain but it was with a much lighter heart I returned home this evening only to be confronted by Marcia.

I will be the first to admit to an occasional loss of patience with a tradesman, or baker as in Marcia’s case.  I will also confess the subsequent glorification of the ensuing confrontation to anyone not too bored to walk away, a desire to justify, but really an attempt to salve a growing realization of an inexcusable loss of composure. 

Marcia was foaming at the mouth.

‘Are you aware that a bread roll now weighs only 40 grammes?’

Tired and now struck dumb, I was saved by the twins.

‘Sabre tried to eat a baby bird!’ they chorused. 

‘Gosh,’ I said.

Sabre is an Alsatian.  I have trained him to kill, or at least seriously maul, anyone who comes onto the property with ill intent.  Sadly, only having a doggy brain driven by instinct, he has interpreted this somewhat liberally as an instruction to kill anything that moves except, and I am so grateful for this, children.  Our Brazilian neighbour, an adult lady, did not meet Sabre’s limited criteria so I had to cough the hospital bill for stitching her bottom back together.  There was a motion to have Sabre destroyed.  After some heated negotiation, I installed a door bell and disseminated instructions for its use.

Still, this latest transgression of his, the attempted murder of a baby bird, was far more serious than the weight of a bread roll, so I diverted my attention accordingly.

When I was a child, I felt an instinctive duty of care for anything less fortunate than myself, an emotion I carry to this day.  Chicks do fall out of their nests, and with the knowledge that left on the deck, unable to do more than flutter inches above the ground, they were destined to become extra rations for feral cats, I would always pick them up and carry them home.  Only to be told that I had, to all intents and purposes, killed them.  Merely touching them ensured their mothers abandoned them.  By moving them from where I had found them, I had condemned them to lonely starvation.  That is a lot of guilt for a five-year-old.

I refer to twins.  They are not really twins at all.  Only one is the issue of my loins, my daughter Charlotte, Charlie.  The other is Cheyenne.  Cheyenne is Marcia’s niece, the daughter of Marcia’s sister.  Marcia’s sister died.  Sad enough in itself for young Cheyenne but then, after the funeral, her father returned Cheyenne to her mother’s family on the grounds that the family had provided him a defective woman. The child, therefore, was no longer his responsibility.  Regrettably young Alex, who I really do not want to grow up to be a man who resorts too quickly to anything more extreme than a verbal exchange of difference, witnessed what I think by now we have all agreed is a jolly rare and, yes, I suppose, unforgiveable, loss of self-control.  Once the dust settles, and Cheyenne’s father regains sufficient mobility to sign the necessary documentation, I will formally adopt the girl.  In the meantime, Cheyenne lives with us and, much to the confusion of the till girls at Shoprite, our supermarket of convenience where we three, the old bloke, Charlie and Cheyenne, are now well known, I refer to the two of them as my twin girls.  Biologically, I tell anyone I am intent on teasing, it is possible for the twin issue of a mixed race couple to exhibit individually the extreme characteristics of both parents.  ‘It’s all a question of eggs’, I lecture them as I pack my groceries into non bio degradable plastic bags.  It was hard enough convincing the Shoprite belles that I wasn’t the girls’ grandfather.  Now I am satisfied half of them believe they are witnessing one of nature’s miracles.  The twins don’t mind; they get free sweets.

 



Alex hunts.  He is eleven now but he has hunted since he was old enough to draw a bow.  I am pleased to note that he has adopted my mantra, if you are not going to eat it, don’t kill it.  Sabre is sometimes a bit ambitious but obeys pretty much the same rule.  I am sure that given the opportunity, and the time, he would have devoured my Brazilian neighbour, burying what he could not manage at his first sitting.  The twins, however, still with this blessed instinct to save life and oblivious to life depending on mortality, had rescued a baby bird from Sabre’s jaws of death, leaving me with a bit of a headache.

I have no idea what this baby bird eats.  I don’t even know what kind of bird it is.  I know Guinea Fowl, I shoot them regularly, and I know they can survive, until shot of course, on grain.  I tried Google and Wikipedia and discovered that the main font of ornithological expertise resides with ‘twitchers’, who suggest that this is an ‘LBJ’.  Something rare, undiscovered even?  No, it means ‘Little Brown Job’ betraying, I suspect, similar bewilderment.  Looks like a Sparrow to me but I am in Africa, do we have Sparrows here?  If this bird dies, the twins will hate me.


 

Back to where I came in and bumped into an effervescent Marcia.  Apparently the baker is now using extra yeast, and proving his bread for longer than the legally established period….

(The production of bread is regulated here?  Bugger me, I never knew that, but Marcia has done the course, don’t forget)

…so that a reduced amount of flour and other essential ingredients results in the same size bun, but with less weight.

 In essence, Marcia was aggrieved about paying for hot air. I agree with her 100%, long live the revolution.

Under the circumstances, I think my best course of action is to keep the bird alive, and find a new baker.

Monday, 5 October 2020

Never too old to set a goal...

 

 

Some old bloke and Her Britannic Majesty’s representative in Angola, Her Excellency, Jessica Hand, British Ambassador.

Angola, landmine free by 2025.  Now that is something worth working hard for before senescence leads me to the scrap heap.

Need to see my tailor regarding the length of my trousers...

 

 

Friday, 18 September 2020

A Surprisingly Inexpensive Taste of Paradise

 


 Marcia rang me.  She has the unerring ability to ring when I am at my busiest. 

‘Andy!’ she gasped, clearly excited.  For some reason she always refers to me by the diminutive of my second name, Andrew, rather than by the name under which I have dragged myself through life, Thomas.  Sometimes I refer to her by something other than her given name, but usually only when I am very annoyed, and definitely out of earshot.

‘Deskontão are selling chocolate at 1,200 Kwanzas!  Can I buy it?’

Now bear in mind that I was in the middle of calculating the cost to the company in extra port and container detention fees occasioned by the negligence of the shipping company who, for reasons known only to themselves, unloaded our shipping containers into the wrong terminal.  I wasn’t dealing with a mere 1,200 kwanzas (about US$1.50), I was trying to recover a 100,000 times that much, $150,000. 

Now that for the first time in over a decade, the crust I earn is paid in good old GBP, my salary is pretty much inflation and Kwanza devaluation proof so, although I could see nothing remarkable in 1,200 kwanzas for a bar of chocolate which, only a year or so ago probably cost around 200 kwanzas, much less why Marcia was ringing me to ask for permission to buy one, it is still only very small change.  I think a 100 gramme bar of Milka, my favourite, is about that in Shoprite.  Clearly, the bar of chocolate offered by Deskontão had something more to offer.

‘Yes, go ahead, Marcia, buy it.’

‘Can I buy two?’

‘Sure, Marcia, fill yer boots…’ I hung up, only briefly contemplating the enormous cultural divide, and its sometimes bizarre consequences, between an African girl from the Angolan province of Uige, and a German bred Englishman.  It doesn’t, I have found, do to dwell on these differences too often as, sadly, it can easily lead to conflict arising from misunderstanding.  Best just to accept we think differently and do things in (very) different ways.  I went back to my calculations.

I had been home less than an hour when Charlie came in clutching a Bounty bar. 

I have been away from UK TV and its adverts for more than thirty years but I still remember the for then, pretty racy adverts for Bounty chocolate bars; bronzed bikini clad young things slinking out of an azure tropical sea to munch on Bounty bars under the shade of a palm tree, all executed in a manner calculated to disquiet any adolescent with red blood in their veins.  Notice that the foregoing sentences were gender neutral?  We must all make a conscious effort to be inclusive and avoid offending, so I will content myself with saying that as a young male looking at the only male in the advert being fed Bounty bars by young ladies, with a promise of further paradise to come, I couldn’t help feeling he was such a lucky bastard. The adverts certainly did for me and I am sure are responsible, at least in part, for my gipsy feet.

‘Marcia!’ I exclaimed, ‘Bounty bars!  Are these the chocolates you bought at Deskontão?  Why did you buy only two?  You should have bought loads!’  I realize that Bounty chocolates contain two bars per packet, so two packets would suffice to give the three children and Marcia each a taste of paradise, but what about me?  I am sure a little sniffle of self-pity escaped me.

‘I honestly think two is enough,’ said Marcia, very sternly, even for a girl from Uige, ‘otherwise the children will get fat.  But, if you are sure you want more, I can nip back and get some, I have to buy cream for the cake anyway.’  So cake lathered with cream doesn’t make us fat, eh? ‘Please, Marcia, buy a few more!’

She returned from shopping and dumped two boxes of Bounty bars on the table, each box containing 24 double bars of Bounty.  I did a quick mental calculation, 48 x 1,200 divided by the official exchange rate.

‘Marcia, you just lashed out over 70 quid on Bounty bars?’

It’s this cultural divide thing again, I could see she was bewildered by my simple arithmetic.

‘That’s kicking the arse out of it,’ I continued, ‘I thought you were worried about the children getting fat?’

‘Well, you were the one who told me to buy more,’ she snapped, clearly irritated.

She had obviously been very pleased with herself, and for us let’s face it, for discovering such a delicacy, and it really seemed churlish of me to pick fault, so I picked up the boxes and took them to the pantry.  Where I discovered two more boxes of Bounty bars, each containing 24 Bounties.  We now had 96 bars of Bounty, less the two already consumed.  The shopping receipt was still on the kitchen table so I had a quick squint.  Marcia had paid 1,200 kwanzas for a box of Bounties.  Bounties at five-pence ha’penny apiece? Wow!

Sorry is so hard to say, especially with a gob full of Bounty bar, but I will get around to it…

 

 

Wednesday, 2 September 2020

Older, perhaps wiser

 ...or should I say: 'Proof of Life'...

I was a bit distressed to learn that an old mate of mine who had recently been in the 'Lundas' in NE Angola sorting out a hydro project, and had fled back to UK with a severe bout of malaria, was discovered by his sister dead in his rooms.  I did not have the heart to ask if he still had his boots on, but knowing him, I bet he did.

I have passed by the barber's since this was taken last week.  Doesn't do to cut my hair too often, or wash for that matter, confuses the dog...