When you meet me, it is very difficult for you to believe that I have gone through hardship in my life and that I possess manual skills that rival many of my age mates brought up in the rural areas. Great communication skills seem to suggest a life of ease and when you hear that my dad was once a diplomat and I spent my early childhood in Germany, that seals the deal.
If I start with growing up in Germany … it was indeed a time of plenty. I was after all a diplomat’s child. It came with cool perks (or so I hear; I was too young to appreciate more than having great birthday parties). When my dad’s tour of service came to an end, we came back home. What many people forget is that a diplomat is a civil servant. By the time we came back from Germany, my dad was only 30, still very young and more significantly, very junior in the civil service … ergo, not well paid.
We therefore shed our diplomatic coats and adorned our new found civil service ones. This meant several changes for us. 5 bedroom villa on half an acre to 3 bedroom maisonette on a sixteenth; posh international school to local government school, 2 Mercedes Benzes to public transport and a simple saloon car to get us from point A to point B. All in all not a bad existence.
My dad however, wanted better for his family and so began a search for better paying work, which he got. Over the next 6 or so years, my dad changed jobs a number of times and we were able to maintain a very decent standard of living (very bourgeoisie, I know). However, sometime in 1995, he lost his job and never found another until the day he died.
We maintained our standard of living for a bit, in the hope that things would get better. When no job was forthcoming, my mum pulled the plug on our middle class living, called a spade a spade and off we went to a cheaper town. As my dad still had no income, my mum (bless her entrepreneurial spirit) set about finding ways to make some money and to show us that we could survive on far less than we thought.
Survival however, is a very different ball game from middle class living. Survival means that milk is a delicacy – this must be the season my dairy intolerance checked in for I did not drink milk for a number of years. When I was in college, my nails were as pliable as a fresh leaf; simply not enough calcium to harden them.
Survival meant that we drank warm water for lunch – it is truly amazing how little food the body needs. My pictures from that time will show me as waif thin – it had nothing to do with building a model’s figure.
Survival meant learning where to get clothes. At some point, we sold some of our funky middle class clothes so we could get food. I however learnt the art of innovative shopping – I knew all the haunts and how to pick out some great 2nd hand outfits. While in campus, I held down a job hostessing at a casino and once in a while I was required to wear an evening gown. I loved showing up in my dress bought at some ‘sunshine boutique’ on the edges of a slum; washed, ironed and repaired – and still outshine the wealthy gamblers.
Survival means doing things for yourself – to this day, I hate spending money on the salon and on fundis (craftsmen). I would rather push the job as far as I can and only bring in help when I must. As a result, I am very handy with my tools, hair clipper and needle. When my drain blocks, I do not call a plumber, I buy a 400 shilling jar of drain blocker than I can use 4 times.
Survival means understanding what is essential to your survival versus what is a good to have.
As we face more job losses and pay cuts, do not despair. Aim for survival, you can always find your way back for as long as you stay alive and stay sane.