Sandra McNeill Part 2

Normally I tell other people’s life stories rather than my own, so this is a rather different experience, but more of that later.
I was born slap-bang in the middle of the swinging sixties in Rochester, Kent. Dad, Ted was a printer and Mum, Eileen worked part-time at the local post-office. I did well at school and won a place at the local Grammar School in Gravesend. In 1984, I left home to study for a degree in Politics and History. The miners were on strike, The Clash performed in Brixton. I know, I was there. But then I moved into student digs above a chip shop in Bristol, a city I called home for the next 23 years.
My first job was in corporate sales. I guess I must have been good at it, as I rose quickly through the ranks of a fairly large PLC and ended up in a senior role but I didn’t feel comfortable with a flash car and an expense account. In 1990 I met Jim who encouraged me to follow my heart. So I left the world of annual bonuses and final salary pension schemes and became General Manager of a local small artisan factory, Bristol Blue Glass, with a long history and a world-wide reputation.
It was literally out of the frying pan and into the fire! The furnaces were worked at 1400 degrees Celsius, not the place to be in a heatwave! The glassblowers fashioned the glass free-hand using the same tools and techniques the Romans were using some 2000 odd years ago. I never tired of seeing molten sand transformed into a work of art before my very eyes. As well as supplying glassware to retailers and running a visitor centre, we also had varied and often exciting commissions. We worked with Warner Brothers Studios to make the goblets which featured in all the Harry Potter Films. One of my proudest career moments was accepting an award from the (then) Chancellor, Gordon Brown for our achievements in manufacturing. The celebration party at The National Science Museum afterwards was pretty good too – what I remember of it.
After leaving Bristol Blue Glass, I met a man who was destined to play a significant part in my life. At that time, Bristol’s inner city had three of the most socially and economically deprived wards in the country. I got the of job working on an EU funded regeneration project, helping new and existing businesses to develop and grow. My colleague, Latif Ismail, had arrived in the UK as a young teenage refugee, having fled war-torn Somalia. We became close friends.

When the EU project came to an end, Jim and I set up our own Training Company and Latif often worked for us, though he also did his own thing too, which mostly meant trying to make the world a better place. Even then.
One day in 2008, he called me and asked what I was doing tomorrow?
“Nothing much”, I replied.
“Great, you are coming to the Foreign Office with me.”
That casual phone call is how the next part of my career began. We worked together on various Foreign and Commonwealth Office funded projects under the Government’s PREVENT programme which aims to combat terrorism but it also does much more. By 2012, Latif had decided to return to Somalia. Though now relatively stable, the country was in urgent need of skills and experience to rebuild itself after more than two decades of a brutal civil war.
He returned there with a fierce determination to work to bring about lasting peace, democracy and prosperity. It was always going to be an uphill struggle. Somalia still regularly appears at the bottom of lists of those countries with the ‘lowest’ or ‘poorest’ or ‘worst’ of whatever is being measured.

As well as the devastating effect of war, – next to no infrastructure – it is also experiencing the worst of climate damage with frequent andpersistent droughts causing famine on an alarming scale. But the company we set up there now employs over 40 dynamic, talented people who are working on projects aimed at making a difference.

Great friends as well as colleagues. With Latif on a work trip to Nairobi in 2017
We are specialising in governance and state-building projects alongside many international governments including the British, US and Danish; the United Nations and the European Union. We have a track record to be proud of in spite of the scale of the challenges.

As well as this work, we have a strong commitment towards aiding the local community in Hargeisa where our organisation is based. In Muslim culture, Zakat is a form of charitable giving and is one of the five pillars of Islam. Perhaps the most significant result of our giving was when we worked with other like-minded people to build a secondary school now educating 800 pupils in Hargeisa, Somaliland.

Kaafi Academy, a secondary school we helped to build in Hargeisa, Somaliland.

I have visited Somalia on many occasions and count myself to be very privileged to have spent time there. The headlines may be dominated by stories of bomb blasts perpetrated by Islamist Extremists in Mogadishu; or stories of piracy; or famine; all of which are true (piracy less so now). But there is also much which is positive.
The Country has the longest coastline in Africa, with the Red Sea to the North of the ‘horn’ and the Indian Ocean facing east. The beaches are stunning, with undisturbed white sand that stretches for miles. In 2002 a group of French archaeologists discovered cave paintings at Laas Geel which date between 3000 – 9000 years BCE and are widely agreed to be the most vivid rock art in all of Africa, sadly only seen by the most intrepid tourists.
Despite no functioning state for a quarter of a century, Somalis have proved themselves to be not only remarkably self-sufficient, but also astonishingly innovative. They have the most advanced telecommunications systems in the whole of Africa. In response to a national currency which is pegged to no Central Bank, is unrecognised outside Somalia and is subject to hyper-inflation, they have developed a comprehensive mobile money system.
They say a picture can paint a thousand words. I love the juxtaposition of two such different worlds in this photo of a petrol station in Mogadishu. You fill your tank from a plastic bottle, standing on a makeshift table and then key the number painted on the side into your mobile phone. In an instant the money leaves your mobile account and arrives in theirs. It is also worth pointing out that Somalis living scattered around the world, send three times more money back home than the combined annual global aid budget for their country!.

Before I move onto more personal tales I think I’ll make the break here, and continue my story in next month’s ‘Pump’. Of course, I hope you have enjoyed reading this as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it, and will find the second instalment just as enjoyable.

I’ll begin this second part of my story back in Somalia.
As the country has become more stable, many Somalis are returning home, opening shops and frequenting cafes. Not surprisingly, fish is a feature of many menus. On any given day you might choose from Finger Fish, Aluminium Fish, Swiss Fish and many more exotic sounding dishes. I once ordered Chinese Fish, expecting perhaps a piquant sweet and sour sauce accompaniment. My colleague, Khadir ordered Small Fish. The plates which arrived were remarkably similar. Khadir fell about laughing as he explained: “Somalis think all Chinese people are small, so they call small fish, Chinese fish!” Camel meat is often served too. On one particularly memorable excursion, I was given pieces of the fatty hump from the stew. It is the most revered part, I later discovered. Luckily no one saw me surreptitiously feeding morsels to a stray cat circling my feet under the table.
I have made many friends and have been humbled often. Like the time someone asked me if it was true the British disliked rain. I agreed it was but was not expecting the follow-up question.
“Why? Is it because of the disease it brings?” It certainly put into perspective my disgruntlement with a sudden April shower.
Or the time a colleague gently explained that I would be unable to bring home a bag of the maize flour used to make a tasty savoury porridge. It is forbidden to take food out of a country in famine.
Some things I struggle to cope with. It is still a very patriarchal society despite the women bearing a very heavy share of the workload, both domestic and paid, which challenges my strong feminist beliefs. On one visit I decided to drive Latif, Khadir and myself from the guest house where I was staying, to the office. It was less than a mile and involved navigating two checkpoints. By the time I had arrived at work, word had already reached my colleagues that I was at the wheel. It is very uncommon for a woman to drive and seemingly unheard of for a white woman!
I now know I must expect a two-mile journey to take more than half an hour, on roads which have reverted to rough terrain. Picture the scene: the driver is honking other traffic, mostly battered cars or worn-out trucks carrying fresh supplies of khat, an indigenous shrub widely chewed for its stimulant properties. The traffic seems to be travelling in any and every possible direction, whilst trying to miss the pedestrians, hawkers, cattle, goats, camels, cats, dogs and even the odd free-roaming tortoise. Hargeisa, a city of 1 million, proudly has one set of traffic lights although I have never seen them working.
I bite my tongue hard when covering up, only to see many men casually dressed in shirts and jeans. Families typically are large. It is not unusual for a small dwelling to hold a family of 8 or more children as well as grandparents, unmarried sisters and so on. As someone once explained, so many were killed in the war, there is a duty to procreate. I remain unconvinced by such a simplistic argument, however. And will never quite get over the shock of discovering that an associate for whom I had a great deal of respect, had taken a second wife.
I had been to his house for dinner and had met his (first) wife and children and remember thinking they were such a lovely family. It may be customary, but as my very wise Somali friends and colleagues tell me, it rarely ends happily for the women and children.
But on a more positive note, we recently had input into the Somaliland Sexual Offences Bill which finally criminalises rape.
My colleague, Savannah, a graduate from Bristol University came as an intern and has now been working for us for three years. She has embraced living in Hargeisa and has been putting her love of sport to good use in her spare time. Horrified by the combination of poor diet, lack of exercise and virtually no opportunities for women to engage in sport, she set about changing things. She hires a local sports pitch every Saturday afternoon and now has up to 40 women and girls regularly playing football and is about to launch the first women’s league in the country.

A group of young women arriving for Saturday afternoon football training.
I have learned many mundane things too, such as never to put shampoo on my hair without making sure there will be enough water to rinse it off. And I know that drawing a pair of orange nylon curtains at the window is unlikely to stop a bullet!
But I have also learned that Somalis are funny, warm, generous, hospitable, committed and passionate and despite all the odds are slowly rebuilding their country. On the other hand – the Americans won’t let me into the United States simply because I have worked in Somalia. Well who wants to go to Trumpland anyway?
After 10 incredible, exciting, fascinating years, I reduced my hours last year and now work just one day a week, mostly from home, with Latif and the team.
More personally, in recent years, I have led a few wedding ceremonies for friends and families, and I decided to qualify to be a Humanist Funeral Celebrant. So for the past year I have been developing my new business, leading non-religious funeral ceremonies, memorials and celebrations of life in West Norfolk and East Cambridgeshire. It is such a huge privilege to come into people’s lives at such a difficult time and to help them to create a funeral ceremony that is right for their loved one and themselves.

Helping Jacqueline and Anthony ‘tie the knot’ at a humanist wedding ceremony, last September
Increasingly, people describe themselves as non-religious or without faith. I passionately believe there is a different and wholly positive alternative to a religious service to mark the end of a life. Respectful, meaningful, and with the person who has lived at the heart of a ceremony of thanks, recognition and remembrance.
I have also discovered that there is no such thing as an ordinary life. All lives are extraordinary and it is always an honour to hear someone’s life story, to take it away, find the best words to wrap it up as beautifully as I am able, and give it back to the family during the ceremony. A heartfelt gift.
Family is at the heart of my life. Jim and I, with our gorgeous Sarah, my step-daughter, lived happily together for 20 years. Then one fine summers’ day, whilst we were living in France, a French Notaire scolded us for our (lack of) financial planning. As we left the office, Jim went down on bended knee in the Place de la Mairie and proposed. We married in a pub in 2010. Next year we celebrate 30 years of happily ever after. We are best friends as well as husband and wife and there is no-one who makes me laugh as much as Jim.
Three years ago, we decided to base ourselves back in the UK. The question was where? We had family in Norfolk (special shout-out to Cousin Ann), and it was a place Mum and Dad had always loved visiting. So we decided we would all move here together. I’m not sure if we found The Pineapple Coach House or it found us. Either way, it is the perfect home for us all. We love the Norfolk skies, the beaches, the wildlife, the villages, the market towns, the pubs, the forests and of course the people. Perhaps Dad most loves the golf course at Swaffham, but for Mum its lunches out. Besides which Jim and I love cycling the lanes and byways.
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In 2013 we borrowed a shabby chateau in France for a long weekend and put on a mini festival for family and friends. Jim and I look exhausted but very happy after a great weekend.
My strongly held passion for a fairer society, greater social justice and the urgent need to mitigate climate damage keeps me actively involved in politics locally as well as internationally. Jim and I enjoy travelling and visiting new places at home and abroad. In 2014 we took a long-awaited gap-month and backpacked around Nicaragua.
We take great pleasure in music, theatre, film, festivals and we have always been active in putting on community events or just throwing a damn good party. On that note, Jim is 70 this year, so watch this space! I am a member of two book groups, one of them here in Stoke Ferry. I go to a regular yoga class which helps keep me sane (?).
And I still teach the odd Middle Eastern dance class. A quick plug here —- bookings now being taken for a summer dance and yoga retreat in France. Think about it!! I love cooking and am increasingly moving towards a more plant-based diet which gives me plenty of opportunities to experiment and get creative. Grandma fashion – I’m trying to get better at photography and knitting.
Well, must admit that best of all, we love our new role as grandparents to two adorable little girls.

After a dance workshop I led in France last summer.
That’s me. Thank you for reading.

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