Saturday, April 10, 2010

On Colonialism, Craft and Cookery Books - my not-So-Guilty Pleasures

I've been visiting a lot of beautiful craft blogs lately where I am in wonder at the skills of the people who make such lovely things, while thinking "if only I had the time, could I do that?" Well I dabble - that's about all the time work and real life leave me to indulge what is incredibly relaxing and challenging and ultimately extremely satisfying. Making something from scratch by hand or sewing machine gives me a great buzz, and I used to do a lot more of it when the kids were small and I was either full-time in the home or working part-time or home schooling.

I qualify that by reminding readers most of this time was spent in the African bush or a provincial town (Iringa) in Tanzania, or in the backwater quietness of Vientiane in Laos, where we had plenty of support in the form of house staff who did a lot of the work that would normally be my lot. Does that sound dreadfully colonial and exploitative? Bet it did - but I knew it would, and I have defended it so often that I genuinely feel I can stand over it as being neither of the above.

As many of you who live in the so-called LDCs (Less-Developed Countries) of the world will know (Lynda, I'm thinking of you here) human capital is central to the national economy, and people have the expectation that if you come into their country with a foreign NGO (Non-Government Organisation) as we did, that the least you will do is provide local employment. Had we come over all virtuous and insisted on doing everything ourselves we would have found it a lot more difficult to gain recognition and acceptance. We would have been labelled mean and stingy and unwilling to help people help themselves through the dignity of honest work. As the ethos of our NGO (Concern Worldwide) was not to give handouts but to provide sustainabale development for people, it would have sat uncomfortably with that ethic.

As it was, we were blessed with having household staff wherever we lived who were (clichéd though it sounds) very much part of our family, and we still have contact with many of them, via the blessings of Facebook and email as well as snail mail. The children grew up with them and their children, and they were at the various family and birthday parties as guests and friends and I love to follow their children as they grow up. The staff were like any employee of the NGO, with the same terms and conditions - living in Socialist and post-Communist countries ensured that Labour Law was strictly pro-worker and we adhered to it as fairly as we expect it to be here at home.

So that's my little polemic rant- I do tend to digress all over the place in my posts, maybe I should curb the stream of consciousness a little, as I never know when I start a post where it will take me. I hope the readers can cope with this - please be brutally honest if you can't and tell me to stick to the point - I can handle constructive criticism (I think!)

This post was supposed to be about my craft and cookery books - so I will share a few photos of the ones I love, including some new knitting books I got this week - one on Party Knits and one on Knits for Kids - New Knits on the Block. The latter is perfect now that I can indulge Sofia and as the two were for sale at a knockdown price of €6.99 for two - on a BOGOF (Buy one get one free) offer - who could resist!
The other ones are journals - one is a Knitting Journal and has some lovely patterns and handy tips, while the other is a Book Lover's Companion. This was a bit sidelined when I started logging my books on iRead on Facebook and Library Thing online (see the sidebar in this blog) but I do print off the reviews and keep them in the journal. I have to start logging my knits in the journal too, with photos. Do you like the new bonnet I made Sofia? It's sitting on a cushion hand-embroidered in a Women's Project in Saidpur in Bangladesh in 1980!

The cookery books I love are on the bookshelves I photographed here - there are lots gathered over many years and plenty from recent years that were either given as presents or bought in the workplace bookclub sales - these are ubiquitous in Irish workplaces (probably elsewhere) and sales reps deliver a selection of samples to the offices for a week or so and they have wonderful knockdown prices for everything - so a Jamie Oliver marked at £30 can be had for €12 or so. I've got beautiful books for a tenner that would be three times that in the shops, so as I'm a sucker for a good bargain, once again I'm just a girl who can't say no! I love the Samuelson African Continent cookbook - it was a present from Anne in New Jersey, an old friend. Our recent houseguest Tandy (my knitting student!) gave me the BBC Masterchef book - you can see us in the photo. It ties in with the TV series so should prove fun to try out.

As I find all these books as pleasurable to read as to work from I think I'm getting plenty of great value - and I know from looking at those blogs of similar leanings that I'm not alone in that opinion! I actually use them as recipe books too - and as you can see from previous knitting posts - I get through quite a few of the patterns too!

My maternal grandfather was a tailor so maybe I inherited some of the gene pool there, I certainly have some skill in that line despite hating home ec. in school, yet I taught myself on his ancient treadle Singer machine where I made dolls' clothes, then I got an old Brother machine which died after a number of years making maxi dresses and fancy frocks for dinner dances (it was the Seventies after all!) and then I got my current machine, a Singer with lots of fancy stitching, in 1986 when we lived in the bush in Tanzania. It's a testament to the longevity of the brand that it's still going strong 24 years on, as fit for purpose as ever.

Some day I will get back to dressmaking - but I aim to lose about 5-8 kg first to get back to size 12 (no, I don't know what a size zero is and I never met anyone who did or was - but that may be just US sizing! I'm aiming for 12 UK or 40 European size and then I'll get dressmaking again - there's a goal to strive for and I have some classy pieces from my previous size 12 life that I can't wait to get into again. I made suits, skirts, bermudas, trousers, tops, dresses - you name it, I made it.

I even made a safari suit which hubby sported whenever visiting dignitaries like President Nyerere came on project visits.And as my middle son reminded me recently, my kids might need therapy in years to come to work through the trauma of being dressed in chaircovers and curtains - Sound of Music-style - during their formative years in Africa! As our curtains were the colourful "Vitenge" cloths worn by the women they made great curtains and chair covers, and it was a small step to move into kids' clothing. As the son said, many times they blended into the furniture like chameleons!


Rudee said...

I am so envious of your sewing ability. I wish I could, but just cannot get this through my head.

I wish I lived where I could afford staff. I do indulge in having someone else clean my home once a week. Even though it's small enough to do myself in no time, the woman who does it has her own business and is a single mother. I haven't the heart to let her go and she makes coming home from work on Friday night a treat. There's nothing to do but put my feet up and relax.

Anonymous said...

One of my friends lived in an underdeveloped country for awhile and she said it was "expected" that they would hire someone to help them around the house. I'm a firm believer in putting your money back into the community. I try to buy local when I can and eat/shop at small locally-owned business instead of corporations when I can. Unfortunately, it's not always easy to do that when you're on a budget.

Love your books. I love craft and cookbooks too. My father always poked fun at me for reading a cookbook like it was a regular book. I purposely pick cookbooks with a "story". Like you, many of my books remind me of places we've been or people we met. It makes the cooking process so much more fun.

I see you have a GoodFood cookbook. One of my indulgences is to get the GoodFood Magazine when I see it at bookstores here. It's quite expensive ($10) so it's a treat when I buy it. When we were in Ireland, I was able to pick up one of their cookbooks and I've been enjoying it (as well as the other ones I got while there).

FoodFunFarmLife said...

I could relate to SO much of what you said in this post about life in remote Africa !

In normal conversation I, too, often wander off topic and ramble on so you & I would get along famously 'in the flesh' I reckon !

It's true what you say about employing house staff here - I never feel guilty about it, because we treat our staff decently, pay them well, genuinely care for them/their families/problems and as you say, provide them with an income - and skills, which they can maybe use to further themselves elsewhere someday if they wish. I don't employ a cook or a nanny, but I do have staff which do everything else for me - thereby freeing me up to spend time with my children 24/7.

I do realise how lucky I am when I see my sister in the UK who works full time, raises her 2 kids & comes home to cook, clean, wash, iron & garden with her hubby. I try not to take it for granted :)

Anyway, that was my ramble for the day - hope you're having a lovely weekend (Oh and I also have no clue what a Size 0 is and am also trying to get back into my UK size 12's !)

Stephanie V said...

I've never heard of a workplace book club sale but I think it sounds like a fine idea. Are there also workplace book clubs?

Like you, I sewed everything possible - and some that weren't - when I was a mom and homemaker. The machine mostly sews quilts and doll clothes now. My wonderful Singer gave up the ghost a couple of years ago after 30+ years of constant use.

We seem to live in a DIY culture here but as we age, we find that some things need to be contracted out. I appreciate the difference in attitude in those countries where you have lived.

Mise said...

I'm pleased to see the trend back to knitting and dressmaking. My mother made most of our clothes, and we didn't appreciate it at the time, but, looking back, we were beautifully dressed, and the paper patterns were strewn about the house like imaginary friends. I guess it was the cheap chain-stores that put an end to all that for a while - people could buy 4 jumpers for the price of the wool to knit one. And now we're realising that maybe it's better to have one, and make it ourselves.

Catherine said...

Thanks so much for the comments - it's great to get various perspectives on a post!
RUDEE- I don't think you need to envy my sewing skills when you have such great woolly ones - spinning, weaving, knitting! As for affording - our staff overseas were employees of the NGO who had the idea that if we were left to fend for ourselves we'd descend into squalor and starvation (this when we were all young and enthusiastic and working so hard in our projects that we'd never feed ourselves and live on samosas and chai from the streets - could do worse!)
I also indulge in having someone clean for a few hours a week here - as she is a friend and is happy to do this work I feel it is not at all exploitative - I'd feel guilty at stopping her coming now even though there are times I think I can't afford it really as I have dropped income with pay cuts so much - €500 per month in the past year. That would buy a lot more cleaning hours! Oh well it's good we have a conscience - is it a nurse thing?!

Catherine said...

EDIE - thanks for visiting and following! I didn't realise GoodFood was so dear a magazine, or that it was a magazine! I got this Anthony Worrell-Thompson book for about €10 in this workplace club I talked about, great value.
Agree about the books - they read as well as they cook! I certainly love to sit down and browse my nice collection of craft and cookbooks and decide what to do from them!
Agree too about the local support - I try to support local businesses and buy Irish when I can, and farmers' markets too. I get my lovely eggs from the latter, and while I go on about the German discount stores like Lidl and Aldi in my blog (see the bread-maker one recently) I do think they did a service to Irish consumers by stopping the rip-off of the Irish supermarkets - when the public went to them in droves the Irish supermarkets (who would happily see the demise of all the corner shops in the country) dropped their prices overnight and now genuinely offer value - while still creaming it in profits! People power in action! As you say, household budgets dictate a lot, have to be realistic.
Keep in touch - Catherine.

Catherine said...

LYNDA - I thought of you when I wrote that piece as I felt you'd know what I meant. I never try to justify defensively if accused of perpetrating colonialism in having had house staff as I just say that employment was expected and I was trying to support the local people and the economy. I did have cooks as they came with the job and it would have been pretty churlish to fire them! But they were great support as I was home-schooling the three boys for five years in Iringa and working full-time in Dar (the same staff came with us to Mikocheni in Dar - near the Drive-in that's now the US Embassy!) when the kids went to IST. Likewise in Laos - we just heard last week from our former ayah/housekeeper Keo that Latana our beloved Thai/Lao cook died some time ago - she was so loved by everyone she worked for over the years we were all devastated to hear it. She was full of tales of all the families she'd worked for and loved sharing her cooking skills with us - taught me to cook Lao and Thai dishes as she was horrified to hear I wouldn't have a cook back in Ireland! She had someone working in her own house and as you know that was common in Tanzania too.
All the best from a hot sunny Ireland - early summer day?! hope so!

Catherine said...

STEPHANIE V - Sorry to hear your Singer died - hope you get another similar as good as the first one!
As for the workplace book clubs - they aren't like real book clubs, rather they are commercial - salespeople bring a stock of samples to the offices (usually large workplaces where they'll have a number of employees willing to part with their money!) and they are heavily discounted items - often cookbooks, craft books, boxes of greeting cards, toys, household items like the infamous silicone cupcake cases I've had incidents with, and you place your order and pay up and a week or so later they come and collect the order and deliver the items which you then collect. So it's like a shop at work! Probably 4 or so different companies bring items to my workplace. It's great for Christmas or kid's birthday pressies, and I often get bits and bobs there.
Agree about the DIY culture and it took me a while to accept having someone here cleaning my house for a few hours a week till the lady who does it who's also a friend indicated how much it meant to her to have the extra cash! Certainly it's a reciprocal arrangement - I don't think I could do exploiting!

Catherine said...

MISE - agree with you about the cost factor - yes it is dearer to knit a jumper but the quality and the saving with a handknit from a crafty shop is phenomenal plus the pleasure associated with the relaxing knitting and the satisfaction with the end product make it worthwhile! I never joined a knitting group as I can knit and when there was one in my town it clashed with bookclub night - the girl running it had a lovely knit and craft shop in town - sadly now closed due to high rents probably - and she had called it Knit and Natter - a variation on Stitch and Bitch I guess!
Glad you know the value of things like home made clothes for kids. Mine did too even though the boys laugh now at the curtain fabric jokes! I still enjoy the challenge of dressmaking clothes and it is quicker than knitting though most of my patterns have to be drawn from Burda magazines so that makes it time consuming. I don't have enough hours!
All the best, thanks for following my blog- Catherine

Lilly Higgins said...

Hi Catherine, Thanks for visiting me the other day! I only started my blog this year and people are just so nice and supportive!
We lived in Zimbabwe for three years when I was small and it really was a totally different world to here. I can relate completely to what you're saying about colonialism and a certain Irish guilt. I definitely don't have a gardener and a pool here in Cork!In 1989 my parents very bravely uprooted with their six kids (seventh on the way) and we never looked back. It was an incredible experience. We all still have a bit of the travel adventure bug! My eldest sister Ettie works with UNICEF and is now in Somalia, she's worked everywhere though but particularly loves Africa. It was brilliant that ye were able to expose your kids to travel, I think it really does have a massive positive effect!
Also you have an enviable stash of Jamie Oliver and Rachel Allen books!x

Catherine said...

Hi Lilly - glad you liked the post and thanks for following my blog. Great that you lived in Zimbabwe - we went there for a holiday from Tanzania overland in 1994 by train and bus, great experience and we spent a week in Vic Falls, wonderful place. I can see the travel bug is strong with your family still! Lucky for your sis to be with UNICEF, they are a good outfit although Somalia isn't a barrel of laughs at anytime - not that I've ever been there but I still remember when Concern volunteer Valerie Place was shot and killed in crossfire while going to a project area in 1993. I think our kids all benefitted from the travel and they have a good outlook on life still.
Yes, my cookery books are definitely a guilty pleasure - only because there are way too many recipes ever to try them all!
I look forward to visiting your blog regularly - it's a nice community and people are very positive and supportive.
All the best, Catherine.