3000 kilometres later…

It’s now been more than a month since I arrived in Angola.

Thoughts so far…my first thought is that I wish I’d brought more warm clothes! The town I’m living in is fairly high up and it’s actually chilly as I leave the house before dawn each morning, so much so that I’m wearing my pashmina scarf to stay cozy.

There are lots of similarities to Mozambique in terms of the landscape, like these random rock formations which just appear on the horizon of an otherwise pancake flat landscape – just like in Mozambique.

This one is called German rock (apparently after a German bloke who jumped off the top of it!).

The food is similar – remember Xhima? Well here its called ‘fundge’.

Similar music and love of Nigerian ‘Nollywood’ movies.

Similar religions – the Church of “Jesus Christ is the Man” is here too,

And the climate is similar. It’s good to be back in a land of awesome skies and its rainy season at the moment so I’ve been driving under lots of angry skies (usually just before being battered by yet another awesome thunderstorm).

So nothing too different to Mozambique…apart from the people of course!

The Angolans certainly have their own quirks and traditions. There is however a much more obvious attitude towards pride and saving face. Angolans are incredibly proud people, in fact it has been heard Angolans categorically stating it is in fact THEM who speak the proper Portuguese and not the Portuguese themselves!

On the language front, I’m remembering more Portuguese than I thought I would and although some of the words are different I’m not as bad as one of my colleagues who regularly reverts to Spanish – in fact my Portuguese is now definitely stronger than my Spanish – although I do once in a while say a word I learnt in Mozambique and receive some odd looks for confused Angolans!

As ever our national staff are incredibly tolerant of my awful grammar and ability to speak only in present tense and will indulge me as I prattle on before then desperately raising an eyebrow to their colleague as they attempt to figure out what on earth I am wittering on about.

I have been out in the field a little (interspersed with efforts to get my head around spreadsheets which would blow your mind). As I feared my days of traipsing round minefields day after day are now just a distant memory but it’s important I have a good idea of what is going on in the field so I am determined to not spend my days confined to an office and end up as some ‘armchair general’.

If nothing else, I can claim being confined to an office is a health risk for me – I randomly get very achy legs if I sit in my office chair for too long. I firmly believe my body’s way of categorically reminding me that I am just NOT meant to be an office bod!

I have got a BIG programme to manage here – 650+ staff and 5 locations over a huge area (Angola is about 5 times the size of the UK).

The town I’m living in was fairly beaten up during the war. Some buildings still wear their scars, like this block of flats which had its top blown off yet astonishingly is still fully occupied by hundreds of residents!

But equally it seems every week a new house is renovated so the town is definitely on the mend.

Even for its slightly rough around the edges appearance, compared a couple of my previous postings it is very civilised – there is a half decent supermarket for starters which although has tear jerking prices at least sells gin, chocolate and fresh veg (my priorities being in that order of course!)

So after 3 weeks of driving round with the exiting Programme Manager, we completed our 3000km round trip in the capital for meetings with ambassadors and Government Ministers  – oo la la!

I am responsible for keeping our mineclearance programme “on the map” so to speak when it comes to embassies and donors deciding how to spend their money which generally means small talk with diplomats. I have even brought a suit with me for such occasions – although I can’t remember the last time I wore a suit so I no doubt look as uncomfortable as I feel when I am wearing it.

Anyhow, with meetings and visits done and dusted and last Friday night’s ceremonial passing on of the Programme Manager phone and the handover is complete. This programme is now MINE!


African thunderstorms rock my world

I just went to bed then got up again.

I KNEW I was going to do that. I knew that I should have just taken my laptop to bed with me. I know that sounds strange but when you have to go through the total palaver of tucking in your mosquito net, getting up and down in and out of bed is such a mission that you rarely forget to take everything you need with you as your climb under your net.

I regularly sleep with my torch, alarm clock, book, hand cream and on occasion my laptop, scattered around me as I sleep!

Anyhow even though I had properly tucked myself in for the night, I was compelled to untuck, grab my computer and re-tuck…and why you ask?

Well today I came to visit one of the new compounds we recently built. Part of my job is to check that everyone else is doing their jobs so I spend a lot of time asking why are you doing that? Or why are you NOT doing that?!

After a long day it’s now 8 o’clock and time for lights out (as in ‘generator switch off time’) and after several hours of distant growling and grumbling thunder slowing creeping towards the camp, the tap has been turned on, the heavens have opened and the storm has finally hit us.

I’m sitting in a little room, the last one in a block of 6 – imagine something like lots of little brick sheds side by side – with a tin roof over my head. The walls are thin and I’ve got the most twee (but actually fairly ineffective) pink lace curtains.

It’s like camping but without being crouched over getting soggy in a leaking tent – and yes if you cast your mind back I have in fact done just that during one of these torrential African thunderstorms…

The rain utterly pounding down on my tin roof is deafening, the lightening forks lighting up the black sky through my window with thunder loud enough to crack the glass.

And it is without a doubt one of the best places I’ve experienced a true African thunderstorm.

International Women’s Day

Today is the 100th Anniversary of International Women’s Day

Ma…’3 kids under the age of five‘ I think has been uttered on more than one ocassion round the dinner table (even if your abandonment of two of those three in John Lewis did result in a life long fear of lifts). An impressive feat nonetheless and I think you’ve turned us out ok, don’t you?

Sisters…happily married, successful careers, places to call home and beautiful babies (or baby-on-the-way). Need I say more!

Ankles…your own boss! You have worked hard to get there, you deserve all the success you are achieving.

Girlfriends…if the future of the human race was left up to me we would be en route to extinction. Your bravery (and love of rugrats) is keeping us on track.

Aunty Mo – the coolest nun going and a fantastic advice giver.

Ladies – you, amongst many other women in my life, are all an inspiration to me!

Happy International Women’s Day!

As for me…I have been on the move yet again and have arrived for Women’s Day in Luanda, the Angolan capital. As it is happily coinciding with Angolan Carnival the town is alive with music, masked children and lots of dancing on the streets.

After hours and hours in a hot dusty landrover we arrived at the office accommodation to find a filthy bathroom, most lightbulbs missing and not a drop of water to qunch our parched mouths! So I am spending Women’s Day scrubbing the bathroom before I can have a shower….well you know what they say “A woman’s work is never done”!

The town built from shipping containers!

It’s not a huge surprise I suppose considering that I am in a port town but it really does look rather odd. Houses, offices, shops…all in some shape or form an adapted shipping container!

I’m in Lobito, Benguela province. The landscape and energy zapping heat is unbelievably similar to my old Moz location in Tete except for Lobito is on the Angolan coast.

It feels an absolute world away from the other provinces I have been zipping around during my minefields visits. Winding down the hillside into Lobito town it strangely looks exactly how I would imagine Israel or Jordan to look.

Instead of usual dark red African soil brick houses, houses here are the colour of Mediterranean sand.


Dotted across the landscape, they are precariously perched on the side of the hill looking like the slightest gust of wind would send them toppling down into the sea below.



Even the local church is balanced on the edge of a cliff!

As you enter the town however life reverts from my imagined Middle East back to Africa…bustling minibus stands, street side clothes sellers, women carrying immense loads on their heads – usually with a baby strapped to their back!

We arrived at the compound yesterday after a long and dusty journey and lo-and-behold our compound is made out of….yes you’ve guessed it…shipping containers, just like the rest of the town. I was immediately convinced that without a doubt this is HALO’s most obscure compound.

We actually took the place over years ago from another charity and to be fair the shipping container concept was theirs.

The office block is 2 containers with their sides chopped out and a roof and floor between them to create 3 offices.

My sleeping accommodation is this container with plywood partitions creating ‘bijou’ sleeping quarters.

The kitchen is another roofed space between 2 containers, the radio room another container with the huge end doors welded shut and a window and door cut in to its side and the generator housing…yes you’ve guessed it – a container with the side chopped off!

It’s actually a very creative use of shipping containers.

And obviously being just that little bit more quirky than any other compound I have seen – I LOVE it!

Back to basics

My original motivation for starting this blog was to keep family and friends updated (and keep mum sane) as I wander about in whichever random place I find myself in.

To put it simply Misshelen is first and foremost about family and friends.

As I’m not on facebook (I know, I know, I must be the only person in the whole world!) I thought this week’s blog would be a good way to send home some funny pics from my short and sweet last visit…

Much to his father’s disgust Baby Jay – the bottomless pit – steals toast crumbs                         from his daddy’s plate. I think your son is hungry bro!

Looby and Grandma practice their balancing act just in case they ever decide to run away with the circus!


.              Looby the cat…a right little show off (but only when it suits HER!)

Thumbs up for good old fashioned fun cutting snowflakes out of scrap paper which Grandma cleverly made into a placemat!


I’m not sure this is even a real word…!

But it’s exactly what I am these days. The word is used to describe a female Angolan. Ok so I’m not quite native Angolan but I am certainly a resident of the country. I’ve moved to Angola!

It’s been quite a while since my last blog – my only excuse being that life has been rather on the manic side these last few weeks.

Since leaving Sri Lanka I have been back in the UK unpacking, washing, repacking, travelling south and north, unpacking and repacking again….you get the idea! After a couple of weeks catching up with friends and having some fun (rather to the detriment of my voice box unfortunately – thanks for a great rugby weekend Edinburgh folk!) I jumped on yet another long haul flight and have come back to Africa.

Wise Jackie once told me just before my first visit to Africa that ‘‘it gets in your blood and under your skin and when you leave all you want to do is to go back’’. Little old me thought no, not me….but oh how wrong I was. My year in Sri Lanka was an interesting one but as soon as I arrived in Asia last year I realised in my heart that I really wanted to be in Africa.

Well it’s true what they say that you should be careful what you wish for before just one year later I landed in Luanda – the high rise, highly populated, highly priced capital of Angola. Read THIS.

Luckily for my bank balance this was not to be my new home, instead I spent my birthday sitting in a landrover bumping along a very long road south to the middle of the country where it feels like you are back in the REAL Africa.

Now I know what you are thinking – Angola…where the heck is that? Well never fear, misshelen is here to give a geography lesson.

This stint in Africa is a little more scary than the last one as I have returned to this vast continent bearing the weight on my shoulders of being the big boss Programme Manager. Although quite exciting it’s also a little daunting as this is probably one of our most – erm – ‘challenging’ programmes. Having been here for 3 days and already with a file full of notes and a head bursting with facts, figures and to do lists it feels ever more of a challenge.

However I’m entering into the unknown with an attitude that I’m sure it will all be ok. Watch this space…

p.s internet here is truly RUBBISH! So posts may become a little sporadic over the next wee while. Might be easier if you sign up for updates so you will get an email when I post a blog. Just scroll up to ‘Get automatic updates’ on the left hand side of this page and type in your email address.

The grasshopper

This is something I was described as once by a lovely couple I worked with a few years ago. Always jumping from one adventure to the next…

Well I am taking a leap yet again. My time in Sri Lanka has come to an end. It’s been nearly a year (although I’m not sure I can even believe that myself it’s gone so quickly). And it’s been let’s say ’emotional’.

The work has been tough, the hours have been long, the bureaucracy has been exhausting, all in all quite an experience.

I feel privileged to have experienced the beginnings of this country’s post-war rehabilitation. Even just during my 12 months here I have seen unbelievably fast development – particularly in Kilinochchi which 1 year ago when we first arrived had not a soul living here and is now a thriving community.

As I have seen all over the world, the main highway through a country is generally where life ‘happens’ – goods are traded, clothes are washed, food is cooked, crops are farmed, gossip is shared – having  spent many an hour hurtling up and down the A9 highway between Jaffna and Kilinochchi, as I leave this intriguing country I share with you the sights I have seen on these drives.

These toddy-tappers shimmy up the palm trees to harvest the sap from these trees which they then ferment and sell, usually from little shack ‘toddy taverns’ along the side of the road. Driving in the late afternoon is made all the more precarious as drunken toddy drinkers wobble home on their bicycles.

The attention to detail on these road signs always makes me smile. This sign very accurately says it’s is 8.10km to Jaffna. Not 8 and not 9 but 8.1km precisely!


This character I met whilst we were surveying a new minefield. He was on his way to fertilize his fields.

It made me smile that we had stopped him on his way to work – a world away from donning a suit and heading into the City, he simply throws on a sarong and jumps on his bike!

I thought he just had the most incredibly interesting face and a wonderfully mischievous smile.

If you look at the top of this building it appears a man is bravely scaling the wall. It’s actually a construction ‘scarecrow’. The owner of a construction site will hang these to distract attention away from their shiny new expensive building and towards their scarecrow. It’s apparently to stop jealously from passers-by!

This fisherman caught my eye as he leaned his bicycle against the bridge, hitched up his sarong and waded into the waist deep water to catch his fish. His skill and patience had me transfixed for what seemed like hours as I watched him fling his net across the water then haul it in to check what he had caught. He looked about 60 years old and he fished with such a natural technique he must have been doing this since he was a boy.

You see quite some sights driving along the roads here. There’s no such thing as loading limits. This cart piled high with coconut husks was being pulled by a tractor with a lawnmower engine. The truck below is the local coffin delivery service.

Religion is hugely important in Sri Lanka and in the north where the main ethnic group is Tamil, Hinduism is the major religion. It’s impossible to drive more than a couple of hundred metres without passing a beautiful brightly coloured temple with intricately painted figures.

Each morning before heading to the minefield all our deminers will visit the temple, in fact all over the country you see adults and children, eyes closed, hands together, head bent forward as they stand in front of these small shrines and perform puja.

However, as is often the way it’s the people here who have made the place for me.

Our 2 camp cooks are unbelievable caterers. Not even the slightest bit phased by having 60+ hungry mouths to feed, these guys are up at dawn cooking up a storm over an open fire in the makeshift kitchen with pots so big I could probably fit my entire self into! Here they are making hundreds of rotis for lunch – which starts to be cooked at about 8 o’clock in the morning!

These worn out boots belong to one of my deminers. The foot you can just about see centre back is that of a man we found fixing old shoes on the side of the road. Our deminers can wear out a good pair of boots in a matter of months so we employed this fellow to patch up our old boots (he refused to have his photo taken!).

As I squatted next to him and asked about his family he told me he used to be a diver, he would strap 2 air tanks to his back and dive for lobster for the posh hotels dotted along the coast. Him and his diver pals pushed the boundaries, staying down too deep for too long just to get as many lobsters as they could before their air ran out. After several of his friends had died doing this incredibly dangerous job. his wife begged him to stop which brought him to Kilinochchi where he learned the boot mending trade. He laughed and told me he much preferred diving but his wife was the boss!

My house guard Rex, must be about 100 years old and speaks the most fantastical confused English. Should anyone decide to try to break in I doubt he is any kind of kung fu champion – he would however most likely talk them to their death. Here he is pulling jackfruit off the tree in my garden, he found it hilarious that this odd British woman actually liked eating this prickly fruit. I taught him to say “See you later” in English and each day without exception he cheerily chuckles it to me as he waves me off to work.

Rex is one of so many wonderful people I have met and worked with here. It will be sad to say goodbye but having spent a fair chunk of my overseas time in South Asia, I think I’m done in this part of the world for a while.

So onto the next adventure….watch this space!

Family fortunes

Every Christmas (post present opening, Christmas dinner and afternoon nap) we have a tradition to meet up with another family. We have all grown up together and each year, alternating between our 2 houses, the routine remains the same – more presents, lots of chocolate then GAMES!

One of the ‘kids’ (we are now all grown ups but still refer to ourselves as the adults and the kids) is a big fan of playing games…you know who you are Soph!

As the designated ‘game selector’ she has come up with some legendary options in past years – the humming game probably remaining king of them all in the hilarity stakes.

This year we played Family Fortunes, a version of the 1980’s TV show.

Why am I telling you this…? It’s because today’s blog comes in the form of Family Fortunes!

So “if I asked 100 people to name something to do to keep yourself entertained with no electricity and on a rainy day in a  very remote town in northern Sri Lanka?”….our survey said…..

1.       Read a book – definitely the number 1 answer!

2.       Cook some food (only if you have a gas cooker)

3.       Write your blog (offline of course because no power = no internet)

4.       Sleep

5.       Listen to music (until laptop / speaker / ipod batteries run out)

Answers for which you would most certainly NOT get points for…

1.       Surf the internet

2.       Watch TV

3.       Go for a walk (when it rains it RAINS here)

4.       Bake a cake (I might have a gas cooker but the oven part is electric!)

If you’ve got any bright ideas, answers on a postcard please!

Flooding in Sri Lanka

.                            Photo from Sri Lankan Guardian

It’s shocked me and my colleagues how we can be living in a country so badly and frighteningly affected by the recent flooding, yet for us to be barely impacted at all by it.

I am living the other side of the island to where the flooding has had the most devastating impact and we have not had rain for at least a week now.

According to the The Guardian; “Up to 400,000 children in Sri Lanka are facing a food crisis caused by devastating floods” and the death toll has now reached 38.

This image taken by a local photographer is shocking and shows just how high the flood waters reached.

Money is being raised and aid is arriving through the United Nations, several big charities like Oxfam and Save the Children as well as many other organisations like Shelterbox. But bearing in mind the affected people have not only had to deal with decades of war and the tsunami in 2004 but now just as they begin to rebuild their lives and their homes, many are being forced to return to the IDP camps they were living in during the war as their homes are destroyed under the rising flood waters.

And yet I have been told by people who are in the area assisting the aid efforts that people, despite everything they have been through are still managing to smile.

The unbelievable resilience of the Sri Lankan people astounds me.

Please keep this nation in your thoughts as yet again they begin their rebuilding…

When the coconut trees hear voices, they will bear fruit

Remember the story of S?

After months of mine clearance this area was ready for the first families to start returning. The resettlement began at the tail end of 2010 and this week I went back to see how it was progressing. The change to the area is absolutely unbelievable…

After having a drive around I stopped and got out my car to take a closer look at a couple of guys forging through thick vegetation on the oldest looking tractor I have ever seen with a look of sheer determination on their faces!

As I stood there an old man on a bicycle approached me.

“Good morning madam” he addressed me in perfect English. “Good morning I replied”.

“What are you doing”, he asked – a perfectly reasonable question I suppose seen as how not many white women come up into these parts.

Momentarily taken aback by his fluency in English, I explained my job and that we had just done mine clearance in the area so I was coming back to check progress. He solemnly informed me that he was from this area and 20 years ago had been displaced during the fighting. He asked would I like to see his house.

“Absolutely”, I told him. I jumped in my car and tailed him a few hundred metres down the track.

Then he told me his story…

VK is 72 years old, married for more than 50 years he has 3 grown up children. Before the war they all lived together in this house built in 1931 by his grandfather.

They led a very comfortable life. His father was a successful businessman who travelled all over South Asia for his work. He often returned with exotic and exciting gifts from his travels and many times brought mango saplings back to plant in their garden.

Plentiful trees in your garden are particularly important out here, not only can the fruit be sold to generate an income but equally important is the shade the trees provide during the long hot summers.

Over the years VK’s father brought back more than 10 different varieties of mango tree and before long had negotiated to sell as many mangoes as they could grow, every year making $500 just from the fruit growing in their garden.

Over the years VK’s father died and his own family grew up in the house. VK opened a shop and the mango trees continued to flourish.

In 1990 the war intensified in this area and the entire family was hurriedly forced to grab what they could carry and flee their home. Leaving pretty much everything behind, VK locked one room in his house (the prayer room) and fled.

Having spent the next 20 years moving constantly and mostly living with relatives, last month VK was told he could return to his land.

VK’s overgrown house. Built in 1931 by his grandfather, the roof remains over just 2 of the rooms. In the background (far left) stands the last remaining mango.

Needless to say after 20 years the contents have all but gone, the roof remains over just 2 of the rooms and his shop is just a shell. But VK has hope and determination.

Each morning he takes the 1 hour bus ride north, collects his bicycle from a relative’s house close by and cycles up to his property. He has hired some labourers to help him cut through the thick vegetation and start repairing the house.

Keen to show me his house we pushed our way through the vegetation along a secret path he has created behind his shop – so the thieves can’t find their way in and steal from him he tells me – as we walked around the destroyed rooms as he pointed out what was the kitchen, the bedroom and the prayer room (amazingly still locked!)

.           The secret path…

He is too old now he told me to run his shop but he plans to rebuild their home and eventually the family will return. I asked him was he sad about the state of the house and he told me he expected after so long away that little would remain but the thing he was most saddened by was that all but 1 of his father’s mango trees had been cut down for firewood.

“What will we do for shade in the summer now?” he asked.

He pointed to the coconut trees telling me that right now there are no coconuts because all the people moved away. Thinking he meant because no-one had been looking after the trees he said no, it’s because they need to hear the people’s voices before they grow coconuts. I must have looked completely bemused as he smiled and just said…“you’ll see when the people return and the trees hear their voices, they will start to bear fruit once more”.

This was once a bedroom… There’s a lot of work to be done to restore this beautiful house to its former glory but VK is determined.

There is a lot of work to be done here, it will be expensive and VK is not exactly a young man! When I asked him why does he not simply remain in the new house they live in down in the south of Jaffna he told me he will come back because this was his father’s house and before that his grandfather’s house.

He wants to die here so his soul can rest here, just like his father and grandfather have done before him.

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