Archives mensuelles : octobre 2016


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.

Sunday morning thoughts

(This will probably be a rambling blog post following my train of thoughts this morning.)

It’s interesting to look back and think about how we ended up where we ended up. I was just reading my Kindle (a chapter on Ugandan authoritarianism and aid, co-written as it happens, by my master’s thesis supervisor. Yesterday I was thinking about the 11 years since I was at Oxford after seeing matriculation photos of a friend from Freetown who just started a masters there, choosing St Antony’s on my recommendation. I bought the book on aid after reading a review on the LSE Africa blog), switching on the wifi to download my latest book purchase, ‘The Places in Between’ by Rory Stewart.

I’d bought Stewart’s book after reading a blog post by Owen Barder on an event/discussion he’d held with Rory Stewart who is apparently now a minister in the new UK Government. I’d looked up Stewart’s profile on Wikipedia, as I like to see how interesting people get to where they are (perhaps to confirm my suspicions that it’s often a privileged path to the top), and I saw that he’d written a bestselling book about walking across Afghanistan (well from Herat to Kabul). That provoked two thoughts – firstly that in 2014 I was in Herat and Kabul, and that I’d been rather intrigued by the area in between, though sadly a planned trip had fallen through (I think principally because of heavy snow). Secondly, I recall reading a review in the Sunday Times when Stewart’s book came out, which must be over a decade ago, and I’d filed it in my brain as a book I’d like to read sometime.

Some time in my early teens, our family started to get the Sunday Times. I actually have no idea why this happened, but it quickly became a Sunday tradition after church, and each of us would have our favourite parts. It may have been that the first time we ever bought the paper was while on holiday in Switzerland, to get some news of back home, though this could be wrong. I was probably more thorough than most in flicking through every single part (job adverts aside), but my particular favourite bit was the book reviews (which later became a ‘Culture’ section as the paper grew exponentially in size and cost over the years). This led directly to my first book purchases on Amazon, which if my memory serves me correctly were a travel book (by another Stewart (Stanley) about riding across Mongolia on horseback. I recently recommended this book to a British colleague working in our Nigeria office who in August was riding across Mongolia on horseback) and Ryszard Kapuscinki’s Shadow of the Sun, a memoir of the Polish journalist’s time in Africa.

(The days before Amazon were distinctly odd. In my early teens I had an interest in the history of the Spanish Main after many hours spent playing ‘Pirates’ on our Amiga computer. I remember going to our local bookshop, and saying I wanted to buy a book on pirates. The old man fired up the computer and had some odd black and green database which showed up books with the word ‘Pirates’ in them. We chose one and ordered, though we can have had very little idea on whether the book was suitable. I don’t recall being too impressed by it. The two other books pre-Amazon I remember buying were a massive chronicle of the Second World War, which I received as a school prize giving gift (I had to combine several book vouchers from different prizes), and a book called ‘Darwin on Trial’ from an early flirtation with anti-evolution theory. The bookshop has long since closed.)

Shadow of the Sun is one of the books I think of when I wonder how I got this fixation with becoming a journalist in Africa (I read a blog post by ex BBC Angola correspondent Lara Pawson on this theme yesterday). Foreign correspondents often come from families with former colonial district commissioners, just like writers often come from academic/teacher/writer parents. In my case, it was a long time before I met an actual journalist or writer, so I think the encounter with Kapuscinski’s writings was formative. Other elements that I think pushed me in this direction were a Swiss friend I very much admired, who once suggested that he would give up teaching and do missionary work and freelance journalism in Africa (he did the former, I did the latter). I also knew from career books that journalism was one of the things that history graduates did after leaving university (the other main choice seemed to be teaching).

But I also think back to the odd sudden arrival of the Sunday Times in our lives, which actually later expanded into receiving The Times every day of the week (I think we got some extraordinary price for the paper through a mail offer). For several years, I would read the paper cover to cover after getting back from school. It must have pushed me to expand my horizons. Coincidentally this morning I had breakfast to a Tim Ferris podcast in which he was giving advice to parents that in their mid-teens, children would really benefit from becoming better at reading, good writing and public speaking – skills that pay off later on in almost every area of life.

Ramble over.

Back in Freetown

Over the last few months, a lot of my expat friends on returning to Freetown from vacations have said with a sigh that it was difficult to get back on the plane and return. For my part, there was a part of me that stepped on the plane yesterday with a spring in the step. Considering I was leaving behind a two week old son and a delightful 21 month old daughter, that may seem a bit perverse, but for the time being Freetown is home in a way that not many other places are for me – we have a family house, a car, space, good internet etc.

Related to this, I remember speaking to a retired UN friend of mine who spent several years in non-family postings. He told me a few months back that he used to find it quite hard adjusting to life with his family in Nairobi during return trips. Suddenly there were responsibilities and family needs, when before he had plenty of personal time, and few jobs outside of work. There can be a certain claustrophobic-ness in suddenly landing in a space with loved ones, babies to look after, and little time to pick up a book. When you do this in a small packed flat, the feeling is increased.

But life without family loses much of the colour – and it becomes a life largely revolving around being the master of your own free time. I’m determined though to avoid a non-family duty station in future at almost all cost.