Safari! The Swahili word means "journey" which hardly does justice to the time we spent, along with a large group from our church, in Kenya and Tanzania in September. Our first week, in a village in western Kenya, exposed us to something near the full-on Africa experience, though we were spared some of the harder aspects...
"We benefited from many years of relationships built up between the team leaders and Kenya Navigators. This enabled us to experience village life, its wonderful hospitality, and how the people live. So, we weren't boiling our own water, others did it for us." - Miriam
The entire team, plus local hosts and some of the helpers, were fitted into one very large and lively house. Although there was no electricity we enjoyed better sanitary facilities than we had feared, thanks to a rainwater collection system installed in the house. We saw how hard it is to run such a household when everything has to be done by hand - much of it in the outdoor heat. We spoke to so many people whose lives are limited by lack of education and opportunity.
"It wasn't easy facing the blatant differences between rich and poor or that we could walk away while others couldn't. But we could learn a lesson from their optimism and gratitude to God despite their challenges." - Miriam
The last few days of the trip were spent in Tanzania, where a personal highlight was a visit to Amani Children's Home for which I have raised about £2000 through 4 sponsored half-marathons and which our whole church helps to support. It was inspiring to see the care given to the children and the efforts to prepare them for a life away from the streets from which they had been rescued.
Miriam made a particular contribution by delivering women's health education sessions, first in the village in Kenya and then in a secondary school in Tanzania.
And yes, we did get to see some wildlife, first at Nairobi National Park and then on a full day trip to Tarangire National Park in Tanzania. These gave magnificent close-up views, but it was somehow more authentic to look out of the window on a bus journey and see giraffes roaming in the distance in the wild. Perhaps the most memorable sights, though, were of the people: especially the Maasai wearing their traditional clothing, herding cattle in the semi-desert, waiting at bus stops, walking along the road or even riding motorbikes.
A lot of people put in a lot of effort before and during our visit to make it happen and to look after us and we want to say a big thank-you to all of them!
The full story of the trip is on the Christ Church website.
"I've been made redundant." "Oh no!" "Oh yes!"
Just a few days before that brief exchange, I left the site that had been my workplace for the previous 29 years for the last time.
Over a period of a year or more the awareness had grown that I really wanted to do something else with my life, a feeling that grew stronger when I passed the age at which I became entitled to claim a pension, if much reduced, from the company scheme.
Then my employer announced a redundancy programme for engineers - the first for many years - and for me this was truly a Godsend. I was able to take early retirement on favourable terms and, after a reasonable handover period, I left at the end of March 2015.
The piece of paper on which my future life would be written was already far from blank. My main purpose was to help my own church, and maybe others, to improve in the field of communication - especially online - and to some extent that has happened. I had already enrolled on a photography course at MAC Birmingham, and was lined up to join Kings Heath Spanish Club which meets every Wednesday afternoon.
The photography course in particular opened more doors than I might have expected. Each participant was encouraged to find a particular subject to follow and I immediately chose my local area of Stirchley. On one of my forays with the camera I called into P Café, then newly opened, which has a special focus on arts. A creative writing session was in progress and it looked interesting... so I went along to the next session, and have been going ever since.
For the first time I was able to regularly attend the monthly Stirchley Community Market, and as well as taking photos there I've been able to offer a bit of practical help.
My first involvement with the Stirchley Baths project was to attend events that were organised to promote a funding application for the redevelopment of the building a couple of years ago. Until then we had watched the former swimming baths near our house fall into ever greater dereliction, and suddenly there was real hope that this historic building could be given a new life.
The funding application was successful, and throughout 2015 work has proceeded to transform the building into a community centre. I volunteered as a helper as the restoration work neared completion, and was able to go inside for the first time. I was very impressed with the way so many Edwardian features - such as the high glass roof and the coloured tiles and brickwork - have been retained in a modern setting.
I joined the local history group which was born out of the Baths project and have been especially interested to investigate the census records of the people who lived in the area over 100 years ago.
I was fortunate to have good working relationships with colleagues throughout my former career. Perhaps the best aspect of the year has been getting to know and, at times, work alongside many more people who are skilled and passionate about what they do.
Some photos taken in Stirchley during the year can be viewed here.
Last year an acquaintance took up keyboard playing and music theory as a hobby. She came to me early this year for help, especially with theory, as she was approaching exam time. She has been extremely successful and this year has passed grades 1, 2 and 3 theory exams and pre grade 1 piano with the Trinity Board very well. I'm her joint teacher so I can't take all the credit.
In May I finally left my job at the University of Birmingham, the best I have ever had, after 15 years there. I felt this was the right time to go, as the project had successfully completed its recruitment, and I've not looked back with any regrets.
Christians Against Poverty (CAP) has started up this year in this area as a collaboration between 6 local churches in Selly Park, Selly Oak and Stirchley. It works individually with clients to help them out of debt, as well as introduce them to the Christian message. I'm helping organise the monthly prayer meetings, and am a buddy to one of the clients.
"Leaving the University was not the end of my paid employment, as the church administrator went off sick in June and I was asked to step in. So for 4 months I went in for 3 days a week, answering calls, showing people round the building, continuing with the church notice sheet, dealing with workmen, caretakers, event bookings, and getting to know what went on every day in church."
One of the costs of leaving paid employment is that I no longer have a convenient reply to the question "What do you do?". I've always regarded my so-called retirement as a career change, my principal job (unpaid) being to work for Christ Church, especially in the role of communications. The main tangible evidence has been in the creation and running of our Facebook page as well as producing two printed newsletters (quite a sizeable editorial task, as it turned out) and assisting with the weekly notice sheet. And... I continue to take vast numbers of photos to illustrate our web pages and social media posts, and just for art's sake.
I still have a significant rôle in leading music but this had to take second place when I took on the challenge of live streaming a huge funeral for the benefit of relatives in the USA who were unable to attend in person. At the same time, we needed to run a live relay into an overflow hall. With a lot of help and advice I was able to beg, borrow or buy the necessary equipment and everything worked well, but this meant that I was unable to play any part in the music as our much-loved friend Philomena had wanted.
There is a huge amount to learn in all these areas but I am grateful to have the opportunity to do something which would have been impossible in full time employment.
We were made extremely proud by Martin who completed his degree at the University of East London (a 2.2, since you ask) and is back living at home with us. He has done some voluntary work - in particular, at the Autism Birmingham charity shop in Stirchley - and has enrolled in a programme aimed at training people for full-time employment.
Adrian and Sumaya have also moved to Birmingham where they are continuing their work, studying and writing. Even with the occasional commute to London they are still saving a lot of money by renting a flat at more sensible prices. It makes such a difference to us having everyone nearby!
The General Election proved pretty disastrous for our party but the campaign itself was quite enjoyable. We had a lot of good weather in April and, freed from the inconvenience of work, I spent 3 or 4 very healthy mornings each week delivering leaflets and letters, mostly in the sunshine.
Another high spot was a huge event for local members which both the party's leadership contenders attended.
"We're going up a-yonder!" As the coach struggled up the mountain road and the views over the edge grew ever more precipitous, some of the choir started to sing this item from their repertoire. We were on our way to the monastery at Montserrat, where Miriam's choir, the Phoenix Singers, were due to give a short performance in the Abbey.
This was one of four venues that featured in this short tour in Spain. While Miriam and her colleagues were singing I occupied myself with photography, bag-carrying and a range of other functions. There was one thing that all the concert venues had in common: they were dark, putting the camera and its owner to the test. You can see the more successful efforts here.
"It's not really a holiday." That argument got quite hard to defend when we told people that we were going to spend a few days in Cyprus.
Our main purpose was indeed to visit friends who have a connection with our church, and there was an additional "work" aspect in that some of our discussions were about the use of creative media. And who wouldn't want to know about the differences between rival colour TV encoding systems?
Through our conversations and our own excursions we learned a lot about this fascinating island that has been influenced by so many cultures through the ages. We visited ancient Greek churches, some with wall paintings centuries old (often hidden by electric heaters or rows of chairs). Evidence of Islamic culture has been pushed to the margins, at least in the south, but there are still many mosques. The rule of the road is to drive on the left, and road signs are in Greek and English, a legacy of colonial days. Adverts in Russian signal the arrival of the latest wave of newcomers, and a vital source of national income.
We were puzzled when some soldiers set up a roadblock near our hotel, and even more so when they started broadcasting pop music from loudspeakers. Was a coup in progress? It turned out to be just a rehearsal for a ceremony at which the President would rename the road, which runs through a Turkish district and previously had a Turkish name, after a Government minister. Although there is renewed hope of unifying the island, rivalry between the principal communities remains strong.
Some photos from Cyprus can be viewed here.
Start here and follow the links. There are also links to some of the photo pages in the articles above.