Learning about women's lives in Uganda. Image: Getty
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One woman's daily round in sub-Saharan Africa

Polly spoke about everything from the lot of women in Uganda (“Some people say there are improvements, but . . .”) to her broken marriage (“He stopped coming home, so I followed him to his place of work . . .”).

A Day in the Life of Polly Apio
BBC World Service

A documentary for the Women Farmers series followed one woman’s daily round in sub-Saharan Africa (21 October). The presenter/ producer, Cecile Wright, spent time with Polly Apio in Uganda, accompanying her to and from a distant well, grinding millet and bedding down in her hut. We opened to the sound of soft snoring followed by a Disneylike catalogue of morning noises: cocks crowing, birds cheeping, the sun and light and air inherent in the sounds potent and optimistic.

On the face of it, the programme idea was simple – just the two women, presenter and subject, talking on the way to the well, Polly quite open and humorous, Wright clearly someone to whom the correct question or most fruitful line of inquiry is obvious, nudging the conversation in directions that made good listening. Except it never felt manipulated. This was an honest chat over a four-kilometre walk, with the speakers growing more physically tired, and with the narrative weaving all over the place in the way that discussions on walks tend to do.

Polly spoke about everything from the lot of women in Uganda (“Some people say there are improvements, but . . .”) to her broken marriage (“He stopped coming home, so I followed him to his place of work . . .”). “Are your sons decent men?” Wright asked. Polly gave a low laugh: “They say to their wives, ‘Don’t tell Mamma or she will harass me!’”

You were increasingly aware that this conversation – the whole programme so far –had been mostly one long, continuous take. Even the unstoppably enquiring Clare Balding on her Radio 4 walk-and-talk show Ramblings has never managed such a protracted exchange. And most programmes wouldn’t allow it anyway – the trend having long been (nervously, maddeningly) to cut in and out. But the gentle intensity of the dialogue here, the faith in its natural rhythms, the many areas meandered over (infidelity, heartbreak, family traditions in Africa) effortlessly reminded us how protean and complex the human personality is.

Polly came alive as though the programme had plucked out her mystery and captured what made her so charming and strong. And then, later, to sleep. “D’you mind my kid snoring?” she asked exhaustedly, from the other side of the hut. Her walking companion just laughed, and shook her head.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Russell Brand Guest Edit

Photo: Getty
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Radio as shelter: Grenfell Tower was too frightening to look at

No song seemed to fit the mood on Hayes FM.

“Amidst all this horror, I hope to bring you some light relief. Here’s James Taylor.” Two days after the Grenfell Tower fire, a popular community station a little west of the incident was uncertain what note to strike.

The repeated ads for alarms detecting carbon-monoxide leaks (“this silent killer”) and tips on how to prevent house fires (“Don’t overwhelm your sockets and cause a spark”) sounded perhaps a little overassertive, but then the one for a day-long course focusing on resisting gender stereotyping (“Change the narrative”) felt somewhat out of place. And no song seemed to fit. James Taylor’s “Shower the People” turned out OK, but the Cranberries’ “The Icicle Melts” was unceremoniously faded out mid-flow.

This does often happen on Hayes FM, though. There are times when the playlist is patently restless, embodying that hopeless sensation when you can’t settle and are going through tracks like an unplugged bath – Kate Bush too cringey, T-Rex too camp – everything reminding you of some terrible holiday a couple of years ago. Instead, more ads. Watch your salt intake. Giving up smoking might be a good idea. Further fire safety. (“Attach too many appliances and it could cause an overload and that could cause a fire. Fire kills.”)

Then a weather report during which nobody could quite bring themselves to state the obvious: that the sky was glorious. A bell of blue glass. The morning of the fire – the building still ablaze – I had found three 15-year-old boys, pupils at a Latimer Road school that stayed closed that day because of the chaos, sitting in their uniforms on a bench on the mooring where I live, along the towpath from the tower.

They were listening to the perpetual soft jangle of talk radio as it reported on the situation. “Why the radio?” I asked them, the sight of young people not focused on visuals clearly unusual. “It’s too frightening to look at!” they reasoned.

Radio as shelter. As they listened, one of them turned over in his hand a fragment of the tower’s cladding that he must have picked up in the street on the way over – a sticky-charcoaled hack of sponge, which clung like an insect to his fingers whenever he tried to drop it. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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