Archives de catégorie : Outlook

Linguistic challenges

Yesterday I was having lunch with a friend from Sierra Leone, when one of her friend’s, a British woman, happened to come by. « I can’t quite place your accent, » she said to me.

Although it’s been nearly 12 years since I left the UK, I’ve never stopped feeling British, and holding similar identities to when I left. But perhaps like with ageing, you change subtly in ways that don’t really register with your own self. I’ve had a number of people say to me over the past few weeks that my accent was « difficult to place », and that people weren’t sure it was British. Canadian was one recent suggestion. South African is a common one.

These sorts of comments can come as a surprise – have I really changed? In my primary cycles, I don’t have many British people, though my boss is British. I speak English with the kids, though their speaking is tinged by Sierra Leone. Otherwise, I’m speaking French at home. A lot of the aural media I consume (podcasts) are American or from Africa. I’m pretty sure Freetown has had an impact on my English, though I’m not best placed to say.

As one linguistic anecdote, I left the UK in 2006 when people (if I recall correctly) said ‘Two thousand and six’ (or is my mind playing tricks on me?). Skip forward, and I still find that I say ‘Thousand and eighteen’, but it’s taken me a while to realise that other people say ‘twenty-eighteen’. This morning, when I was wondering how I came to take a wrong turn in the road, I realised that in French it’s ‘deux milles dix-huit’, and that perhaps this was the reason I was not saying 20-18. Or perhaps the English language took a left turn after I left into making 2012 as two numbers, while I continued along the path of calling it two thousand and twelve.

This thing with accents can make you think that perhaps you’re losing your moorings. But whatever I’m drifting into, I’m quite happy to be there.


Travelling around every few years, I actually don’t have that many long-term possessions. For a while I had clothes that had lasted for a good number of years. But beyond a few pieces of underwear that madam wished had long since been thrown away (she was largely responsible for other items of clothing being given away), almost all of my clothes are no older than four years. Thinking about my other items (and my own personal possessions took up less than two suitcases on the recent move), there is almost nothing older than five years. About the only thing currently among the possessions older than five years is my old Nokia phone (perhaps circa 2010), which I still carry around and use as a non-work number, and then my large pocket-sized Bible.

If you’d asked me about my small black leather Bible last week, I would have told you how it was a present received on my tenth birthday (or Christmas). I would have even turned to Colossians and shown you the pages that are still tea-stained from a spilled cup in the first few months of ownership. I could have even described how I had dried the Bible after that incident on the radiator in my bedroom in 22 Hazel Crescent, an address we lived at from 1988 to 1991, and that I could still picture the scene.

Only, on Sunday I was looking at the first few pages of the Bible, and noticed the phrase ‘This edition 1997’, which comes as something of a shock. This dates the Bible to a year before doing my A-levels and then leaving home for university. Providing the date is correct (I can’t come up with a reason why it wouldn’t be), then I was given the Bible by my parents much later (I was 17).

So, a bit of a surprise. This Bible is still something I’ve had and used on a very regular basis for more than two decades. It is I think the only possession that has accompanied me to all the different places I’ve lived (Nottingham, Cardiff, Leicester, Norwich, Oxford, Brazzaville, Abidjan, Dubai, Freetown, Lusaka). So I guess it can still be described as special in some way. The zip broke a very long time ago. And the leather looks worn, as do the pages. I remember there was originally a slip explaining how to take care of the leather, which stayed inside the Bible for a few years, but never led to any action. But the Bible is still as useful as it ever was, and it’s the format of the Bible that I feel most comfortable flicking through and reading from (despite the small text size). I don’t yet feel sentimental about it, but in a life that has seen frequent change, perhaps that feeling will soon come. And maybe it will, in time, become a tattered heirloom.

The Power of Fear

(I’ve been clearing out my computer desktop and found some blog posts that I’d started writing but never posted – this is one from late 2015.)

For the last few weeks I’ve been mulling over a creative project. It’s not amazingly innovative – the proposed name I have is Freetown 366. It would be one of those projects where I try to publish a street photo every day in 2016 (which happens to be a leap year). The goal is to have a big creative project for me to focus on, which gets me out taking a lot more photos (instead of just listening to photography podcasts and reading websites).

The issue is of course that that’s quite a lot of photos, when so far I’ve taken no street photos in my life! For the past few weeks I’ve been trying to get myself to walk around the streets with my camera. But here comes the rub – I always find an excuse not to. A few months back it was that I needed a new camera – which is why a bought a little Sony camera (A5100). Then the big fear was theft, so I bought a handy wrist strap. But still I kept finding excuses – including the weather. I came to realise that there was a deep seated fear inside me about stepping out. On the surface the principal fear would be getting my camera stolen, getting into arguments or getting attacked – all of which are pretty unlikely events. The most likely negative outcome, getting the camera taken from me, hardly constitutes the end of the world.

Instead there’s a really deep underlying fear of failure, and a reluctance to leave comfort zones. It’s actually a big thing for me. I don’t really have many excuses for not doing projects like this – work is calming down, I have plenty of free time (not having much else to do without family here). And I also want to be the type of person who is a good photography, carries out projects, and writes. These are things I pencil in for my post-2030 working life, though I take on board the wisdom of Tim Ferris and others that there’s no use saying ‘I’ll do X later in life’ – if you can’t do it now, you won’t do it then.

On Friday evening (when the light was really nice) I delayed again, but on Saturday I got up with the sole intention of driving to work and then walking from there to take photos on a stroll in the city centre. This time, after weeks of putting off, I actually did it. I’d like to say that after overcoming my fears things all opened up and I came back with lots of stunning images. In fact, after more than an hour walking around I came back with very few keepers. But it’s a start.


Postscript (15 May 2018) – I finally got out there, and I didn’t skip a day of publishing photos throughout 2016 on a Facebook page, Freetown Street 366. The project didn’t create a massive buzz, but those who found the page, enjoyed the project, and the photos were featured in a local online magazine, where they are continually used to illustrate stories. There were no negative experiences to report from the streets beyond a few people saying no when I asked for permission to take their photo – and the camera I bought back then with its basic lens has been kicking around in my work bag every day since then, and continues to serve me well (in fact I sold all my other camera equipment).

There’s a mix of quality in the images, but all in some way capture the Freetown street. Did it massively increase my photography skills? I don’t think so. Did I learn how to use the camera beyond the basic settings? No. But still, I have the satisfaction of having completed a major project and created a body of work that I can be proud of. So, here’s to breaking through fear.

The last Saturday

Sitting on the front step of my house looking over our wooded compound, the sun is gradually setting on a warm Saturday evening, my last in Sierra Leone. In the past hour, we arrived back from grilled lobster on the beach and playing in the river just as it flows into the ocean. The tide was out and we could walk across the river and on to the shore. My son enjoyed lying in the water with the back of his head washed in the river. Returning home, the kids slept the whole way, and the passage through the market bustle of Lumley was relatively quick, despite the main opposition party holding a street campaign. I express pride that my Rav4 has completed its last major journey before being sold.

In the course of an hour back at the compound, we see everyone bar one of the inhabitants. In our absence, Moustapha, the caretaker, has organized a fire to burn rubbish, but a dead tree at the site of the fire is now smoking, worrying my wife T. Our neighbours, C and baby G, come out to play with J, while M helps Moustapha and his boys pull down the tree and cool the embers down with water. A young puppy that’s scared for its life and only arrived in the compound yesterday is being enticed out of its hide-out. For T, it’s the former dog reincarnated in some way, ‘Puppy’, who was recently put down down after colliding with a car coming out of the compound. Indeed the new dog does look remarkably similar.

An Italian man staying with our neighbour G comes out and runs his own dog around the compound, as the kids play about under the unoccupied but just refurbished new house. Then neighbour D wanders over with a beer to exchange news – he climbed one of the main peaks on the peninsula today and shows us a photo. The sun is setting over the sea, much more visible now bushes around the old house have been cut back. Warm social evenings with laughter.

Planning for the future

At the weekend I was speaking with a friend of mine, a West African retired from the UN after close to 20 years work. He lives in a big house in Freetown and I go there at least once a week for a church group. He said that when they were in their mid-40s « ambitious, young and foolhardy » they had great plans as they built the house. The reality though is that their two children are in the US and rarely visit Sierra Leone, and they basically just use one of the five bedrooms in the house. He was considering selling to get a smaller place.

I imagine this sort of thing is not an uncommon story for such people – and I felt it could be true for myself and my wife too. Spending the next decade and a half saving for the future, setting up a nice home, and then when house was built, the bank accounts filled and the pension fund strong, we retire, just as the children leave home for university in a far off country, rarely to be seen again.

This train of thought leads me to two (obvious) ideas, both of which are easier thought than acted upon:

  1. That for people in my position, the strong likelihood is that future financial strength is almost guaranteed, on a current trajectory. It is highly likely that in 15 years, I will actually have saved too much money. Having spent too much time concerned with collecting enough money, I will now spend my waking hours wondering about how to ensure I can give it away to my children as easily as possible. The three practical lessons from this should be i) you can perhaps worry less about saving, ii) it should be easier to leave salaried life sooner iii) one should not spend too much time worrying.

2. Secondly, that it would be easy to ignore that the good times are in fact NOW. The family (except our two elder children at university) is united, and will be so for the next 15 years. We are both in good health. Now is the time to enjoy, not scrimp and save every penny. Key moments are holidays – so better to invest in quality holiday time, and perhaps even a pleasant family bolt-hole for adventures, than think that all this comes from early retirement.

Happy taking part

At a birthday party mid-week I met a Nigerian doctor who I used to play football with. While I haven’t found the time to play since February, he still plays every week and says it’s one of the highlights of his life. This sparked a small thought in me. When it comes to playing football, we put in a lot of effort, try to improve, and perhaps occasionally take part in beautiful actions that give us a strong sense of satisfaction. We get joy from taking part, from testing ourselves, becoming better, and the exhilaration of the game.

But we don’t tend to get hang-ups if we’re not the best on the pitch – some people (yes, through nuture rather than nature) are accepted as more talented footballers than others, and we just admire what they are doing, while measuring ourselves to our own standards.

It struck me that this sort of attitude is exactly what we often hear in wider life-management. “Don’t stress about others’ achievements and successes, everyone is starting in a different place, and your job is just to run your own race from where you are.” Yet, an attitude that comes naturally in sport, seems to be far more difficult to apply in a different category – life. That’s an area in which we are constantly comparing our performance to others – ‘how did he manage to achieve that?’, ‘if I had what she had’, ‘it’s unfair me starting where I started, while he started from a different place’.

Even worse, and I don’t know how common this feeling is, but we want to be the best, and feel down on ourselves if we’re not. We can get down if we’re just mediocre, run-of-the-mill and standard in certain areas of our lives – we want to stand-out, be admired, be world-class.

Yet that’s not an attitude we bring to the beautiful game. We’re almost never the best footballer on the pitch, on our street, and in our community. Yet that doesn’t seem such a threat to our ego.

Mood swings

It’s been that regular period of introspection (and blogging) otherwise known as the first week back from holiday. I haven’t always been victim to it, but there’s a phenomena in Freetown among expats which I call ‘re-entry depression’. It’s mostly described as the negative feelings felt when getting back on the plane to return to your job in Sierra Leone.

As I’ve written before, a few weeks in the West can be alluring. As was the case back in June, we holidayed in France, and were captivated by the quality of life. This was true even staying with my sister-in-law who earns a very humble salary and lives in social housing (surprisingly good quality in France). The flat had high quality fittings – of course running water, constant electricity, piped gas, super-fast internet and plug sockets that don’t come out of the walls. A well-stocked supermarket (Lidl) is 30 metres away and is incredibly cheap. And the metro station is less than 10 minutes’ walk, and puts you in the centre of the city in the same amount of time, and all the attractions there.

If the return to work had its difficulties, the first day back went well, and reminded me why I enjoy working here. Day two though was tough, with some colleagues driving me a bit crazy. On return home in the evening, I was immediately assaulted with a barrage of problems – the compound dog looked sick and was an infection risk, the generator was having problems, the water we’re buying looks cloudy, the caretaker doesn’t seem to be feeding his children or enrolling them in school… It’s a bit much after a hard and long day.

Day three involved some chats with friends about career moves as I look to transition to the next job. I also discovered that I was in-line for an unexpected pay rise next month (small, but still a welcome surprise), and I came across a bonus payment that I hadn’t heard of before, equivalent to a month’s salary, which gets paid to staff from their fifth year at the company (i.e. in two years’ time).

The evening though brought another wild change in mood. At our small church group that meets weekly, a friend who has been heavily involved in providing mental health support to those affected by the recent tragic flooding here unloaded some of the struggles of the past five weeks. The stories she told of the trauma of families reduced further into absolute poverty through losing homes, businesses and wage-earners, and seeing family members swept away by the mud, was humbling. Can we rich people ever really empathise with the poor? Can we really know the stress of having no hope for the future, extremely limited prospects and a daily struggle to survive? Who are we lucky people to believe in prosperity, life improvement and have dreams way beyond basic survival?

In sum, a week of mood swings. How different our lives look depending on the vantage point you’re currently at.

Thoughts on the way back from New York

When I was in New York last year, I came away thinking it would be a good place to work in the future. I’m currently on my way back from New York after another week there, and I fly back with a different feeling. My over-riding sense is that New York isn’t a city that corresponds closely with my values. Perhaps three things can be taken as examples to illustrate (which are far from unique to New York):

  • In Freetown, people like looking at their phones, but you certainly don’t see the constant fixation with being online, the walking the street looking down into a phone not ahead. Perhaps influenced by my recent reading of Cal Newport’s ‘Deep work’, I’ve become much more negative about smartphones and social media. I really believe time spent on social media gives very little of value, so to see a society obsessed with this is worrying.
  • Yesterday, I had a day free, so bought a few high quality magazines and newspapers and spent several pleasant hours in Central Park. Living outside the West, and then returning to it like this, draws into sharper contrast the consumerist messaging of ‘products you need to be happy’. I felt this last month, having my young daughter suddenly exposed to all the clever marketing of attractive things for infants in the French supermarkets. She was suddenly wide-eyed with all the wonderful things on offer, and begging her parents. In the magazines and newspapers, the message is that you need an expensive over-sized watch or a luxury car to really achieve success or be a true adventurer/hero. I can just about ignore the adverts, but it permeated the writing as well. For instance, a magazine about being in nature and exploring the great outdoors, was heavily focused on ‘amazing gear you need to buy’.
  • Style is much more polarised in New York. You get a large segment that is super stylish, tanned, extremely well dressed, and clearly gym regulars. Then you get another segment that is obscenely overweight and carelessly dressed. It’s very different from France, where a pot belly or a large bicep are both much rarer.

So, I like my New York trips, and perhaps later in life I can find a three month contract in the city to really explore with my wife. But it’s not the place to be long-term I feel.

Status quo-ers

The weekend saw the sad loss of journalist-critic A. A. Gill, someone I grew up reading every week in the Sunday Times. I would devour his restaurant reviews even if I never had the slightest intention of visiting the high-class London restaurants he recommended. Instead it was the jaw-dropping style of the sentences and wit.

A friend posted one of his quotes today: « The interesting adults are always the school failures, the weird ones, the losers, the malcontents. This isn’t wishful thinking. It’s the rule. » This ties in with something I’d wanted to write about for a while – something that I’ll call the conceptual division between those who seek to thrive within the status quo, and those who look to change it.

We like to divide people – introverts and extroverts, men from Mars etc. As I see it, the status-quoers/system-battlers division is a useful one, with me firmly in the status-quoers camp. Particularly through working with colleagues, I realise that I have a strong tendency to put up with the world as it is, seek to excel within the rules, and not get too frustrated about the overall system. It’s the sort of approach that shows itself in good performance at school (not challenging the system), but doesn’t end up doing much to radically change the world.

We almost certainly need both. System-battlers seem to live in a world of constant frustration (in part because they struggle to understand how others can put up with the system) – this can waste a lot of energy and not accomplish much. But status-quoers are often blind to how they could much better results by doing things differently.


Regular readers will know I like to have several books open at any one time. I currently have three non-fiction books half-finished, plus a Hardy novel. For the non-fiction books, one is by the son of a noble family, who sent him to Eton and whose father was a British diplomat. Another is about the son of a noted public health specialist and the grandson of a medical missionary. The third is about someone who was raised by his uncle who was himself a professional footballer who had been capped for his country, Ivory Coast.

What did these three children go on to become? The first (diplomatic father) is Rory Stewart, who became a British diplomat after graduation and is now UK Minister of State at the Department for International Development. The second (public health specialist father) is Jim Grant, who was the Executive Director of UNICEF for 15 years (1980-1995) and brought about some remarkable successes in global health. The third (adopted by professional footballing uncle) is of course Didier Drogba. The point is rather simple – the fruit does not fall far from the tree. Exceptional careers often come from people whose parents have already excelled in the same field.

Does it mean that Drogba’s children will be professional footballers? Perhaps not. But people who become world-class have often picked up a huge amount just from hanging out with their parents. Powerful counter-examples could of course be cited. But I think we don’t often give enough credit to the family contexts that people come from. In my case, it’s less the career skills, than coming from a wonderfully loving stable home, that can perhaps help me in one of the most important areas – being a good husband and father.

Are my children likely to become professional footballers, medical doctors or government ministers? Quite unlikely. They’re also unlikely to pick up anything about business from me or the creative arts. Perhaps one could bet on some sort of international career, more social science than hard science, and multi-lingual.

Are they born into immense privilege? Absolutely.