nichollsretirementproject

So, end of contract! What now?

My appointment as Deputy Field Director for OXFAM in Kenya had been on the basis of a two year contract, during which OXFAM decreed that my post should be filled by a Kenyan. So six months before the end of my two years, we started the search for a new Deputy Field Director. We were not short of applicants!

Receiving, logging, sorting and rejecting applications seemed to take for ever, but eventually we had six candidates to interview and eventually whittled those down to two outstanding women, both of whom were impressive in interview, met all the criteria that we were looking for in our job description, but who had very differing experience and work history. We struggled to find any way of eliminating either of them from the race.

One candidate had considerable relevant experience working in other Non-Governmental Organisations in Kenya. The other had climbed the steep rungs of the Kenyan civil service , eventually reaching a position that, if my memory serves me well, was just short of District Commissioner. It should be remembered that, at this time, in the late 1970s and 1980s, it was almost unheard of for a woman to hold any position of responsibility in the very macho, male-dominated world of Kenyan officialdom and certainly not at senior level.

Both women were exceptional. We needed to find a way to choose between them.

Our solution was to send them on a visit to one of the projects that OXFAM was funding in the infamous Mathare Valley. Mathare Valley was, and still is, a huge slum on the edge of Nairobi, a notorious and dangerous place. Certainly not a place to be after dark.

Tens of thousands of people were crammed together in a sprawling chaos of rickety wooden shacks with corrugated iron roofs, often without any toilets or running water. It was not unknown to see people living in houses that had been cobbled together from flattened-out milk cartons! Such was the level of poverty.

When it rained, the whole valley just became a foul-smelling quagmire and in the middle of this urban hell-hole there was a valiant little school that was trying to offer some sort of care and education to abandoned children, many of whom had significant learning difficulties to accompany their poverty. Our project partner, who ran the place, was an indominable woman, who never seemed to lose her hope or her optimism that she could make a difference in this truly awful environment. We were privileged to be able to fund her work.

We decided to send our two candidates into the Valley together to visit this school, accompanied just by our driver, the equally indominable Peter Thuo, so that they could see at first hand the kind of project that OXFAM was funding. We judged that, if we had gone with them, it would not only have attracted too much unhelpful attention in the area, but it would also have changed the dynamic of the visit. We arranged for two report-back meetings to take place back at our office after the visits – one with our project partner and the other with Peter Thuo, once he had delivered both candidates home at the end of the day.

The result was illuminating and made our eventual decision much easier.

Both women turned up at the project inappropriately dressed, which was our fault, not theirs. We hadn’t told then, when we invited them to their second interviews, that we would be including a project visit in the day’s proceedings. In retrospect, that seems a little unfair on our part, a bit of a dirty trick to play, but that was how we decided to play it and it did break the impasse in which we had found ourselves.

Our project partner commented on the differences in the way that both candidates reacted to the project and to the children within it. The woman who had spent her career working within the government structure was monosyllabic throughout the visit, clearly discomforted by the experience. She found it difficult to relate to the project partner, even on a conversational level, and didn’t interact with the children at all. The whole experience had obviously shaken her.

The candidate from the NGO background had no such inhibitions. Her manner was relaxed and supportive and she even began her conversation with the project partner by apologising for turning up at the project dressed for an interview in an office.

When we spoke to Peter Thuo later in the day, he reported that during the 30 minutes that it had taken him to drive the two candidates to Mathare Valley, the woman from the government had not exchanged a single word with him, whereas the other woman had chatted away quite naturally.

So, job done. Decision made. We had found my replacement. But what about me? What was I going to do, once my two years were over.

Well, as luck would have it, the post of OXFAM Field Director for neighbouring Uganda was coming up so I thought I would have a good chance of getting the job, given that it was the next step up the promotion ladder and still within East Africa, where I had cut my development teeth.

Clearly, moving to Uganda was going to be a big decision for us as a family, so we arranged for Linda to fly to Kampala, at our expense, to meet some of the OXFAM staff there, to get a feel for the country and to look at our options for schooling for our two children. (As luck would have it, we didn’t have to pay for her return flight because, for reasons that I cannot now remember, there was a Landrover in Kampala that needed to come back to Nairobi, so the OXFAM driver from Kampala drove Linda to the border and got the vehicle through its customs formalities, and Linda drove it all the way back to Nairobi.) Linda’s assessment of the situation, after her brief visit, was that it was worth my putting in an application for the post. Yoweri Museveni had just come to power and it was starting to look as if Uganda was turning a corner.

Then events intervened. A German doctor’s car was attacked in broad daylight in Kampala and the doctor was shot and wounded. The house of another expatriate was broken into and the Ugandan staff who worked there were clubbed to death. Then thieves broke into the compound of the Director of the British NGO, Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO), and tried to steal his vehicle. The Director became aware of the commotion outside his house and, almost on instinct, rushed out to try and prevent the theft. He was shot dead!

We took the view that it would not be a responsible decision on our part to proceed with my application for the OXFAM Field Director’s job and to potentially move our two small children to Kampala.

And so the points changed again.

The Seniors’ Tale.

My mother and father grew up and met each other in Birmingham in the 1930s. They married in 1938 and my elder sister was born a year later just as Europe was about to be convulsed by the outbreak of the Second World War.

Birmingham, being practically the epicentre of UK arms manufacturing, was a prime target for German bombing and one of our most dramatic family stories revolves around an unexpected bombing raid in 1940.

My parents’ house had an ‘Anderson ‘ shelter at the bottom of the garden. These shelters were distributed by the government as a way of protecting people from bombing raids. They were simple corrugated-iron ‘igloos’ in which a family could shelter if a raid was expected.

It was up to the householder to dig a hole big enough to accommodate the shelter and then use the earth displaced from the hole to provide a protective cover over the top. The shelter would never survive a direct hit, but it was better than nothing.

One night, the air-raid sirens sounded and my parents picked up their new baby girl, my sister Jacqueline, and rushed into the garden and down into the Anderson shelter. Birmingham was bombed for the umpteenth time, and, for the duration of the raid. my parents had no alternative but to cower in their hole in the ground. Some of the explosions they heard sounded uncomfortably close.

When the ‘all-clear’ sounded, they clambered out of the shelter and were relieved to see that their house was still standing, apart, that is, for a large hole in the roof.

However, a neighbour’s house had taken a direct hit and a large piece of masonry had flown into the air and crashed through my parent’s roof, landing in my baby sister’s bedroom and destroying her cot. A chilling moment. That’s how close they all came to not surviving the war

Despite this incident and the five years of warfare that followed it, my parents never showed any animosity or bitterness towards the Germans once the war was over. Indeed, when my mother’s best friend, Joan, started going out with, and eventually married, Manfred, a young German prisoner of war, a couple of years after the end of hostilities, it made no difference to their friendship. When I was born in 1950, Joan became my godmother.

I was always brought up with something of an international perspective. Within little more than ten years of the end of the war, I can remember visiting my godmother and her family in Bielefeld in Germany. (Actually, my main and abiding memory of that visit was the large tree, groaning with ripe plums, that stood in my godmother’s garden. I spent far too much time in that tree and ate far too many plums, with the predictable and dramatic adverse impact on my digestive system.)

Our own house in Swansea where I spent most of my childhood, never seemed short of people from other parts of the world. As a young child we had Iranian boy-scouts staying in our house as part of an exchange programme that my Dad was involved with through the Scouting movement. In the 1960s I have vivid memories of the two Malawian students who were studying at the University of Swansea and who lived with us as paying guests.

Fast-forward 25 years and I find myself working for OXFAM in Kenya. We invited my parents to come and visit. For my Dad it was his first time outside of Europe apart from a work visit to the United States while he was working as an aluminium engineer. For my Mum it was her first and last visit outside of Europe. Unbeknown to her, she was nursing a brain tumour that took her life less than a year later.

Happily we were able to give them a mind-boggling visit to Kenya, only a small part of which involved a safari park. The rest of their tour revolved around visiting some of the OXFAM projects that were part of my day-to-day work as Deputy Field Director for the charity.

We used OXFAM’s oldest vehicle, a battered Landrover, known affectionately as ‘The Old Timer’, a very versatile vehicle that had had a hard life. Nevertheless, it served us very well, transporting Linda and myself, our two children and my parents into the Samburu region of Kenya.

Will it get us there?
It did!

Comfort Break

In the not too distant past the Old Timer had survived being turned over in a flash flood in a river in northern Kenya, an incident that nearly cost the life of the OXFAM Field Director at the time. The Field Director was dragged from the vehicle in the nick of time by a quick-witted and resourceful OXFAM driver called Peter Thuo, who made something of a habit of saving OXFAM Field Directors’ lives.

Shortly after I had arrived in Kenya, along with the new field Director, Nicky May, we were ‘on safari’ with Peter and were heading for Turkana, which was a good day’s journey from our office in Nairobi. After driving for about four hours, we had stopped for lunch in the shade of a tree by the side of the road. Suddenly, Peter picked up a large stone and threw it violently at Nicky. From where I was sitting, it looked like a savage, unprovoked attack and I had a sudden vision of us both being bloodily murdered by a psychopathic driver with a grudge against OXFAM staff members.

What I hadn’t noticed was the highly venomous snake that had popped up just by the side of the blissfully unaware Field Director. Fortunately, Peter’s aim was true and deadly and the threat, rather than the Field Director, was quickly eliminated. We decided to finish our lunch in the Landrover!

Anyway, back to my parents’ project visits in northern Kenya. Wherever we took them they were treated like celebrities. Even in remote villages, people were often used to seeing the occasional white person, usually representing a charity or aid organisation, but to see ‘old’ white people was really quite an event. You could almost hearing people saying in their minds “Oh my Goodness! White people have old people too.”

Langoriti Women’s Group

Travelling in the Old Timer was never a pleasure. It was an old and weary work-horse that rattled and trudged around Kenya’s unmade rural roads but never let us down.

My parents were so excited by the experience of crawling up steep and stony tracks in a scratched and battered four-wheel drive vehicle, often at zero miles an hour, and by everything that they could see passing by their windows that they were hardly aware of just how arduous the journey had been.

It took us about five hours to get to Samburu and by the time we arrived at our accommodation, both Linda and I had splitting headaches from the exhausting journey. My parents climbed out of the Old Timer like a couple of spring chickens. A perfect example of ‘Mind over Matter’.

As I write this, it occurs to me that when we were driving my parents around the rural roads of Kenya in 1986, they were the age that I am now!

What’s happening to our climate?

It is Wednesday, 25th November. I’ve just mowed the lawn!

Yes, it was wet underfoot. Yes, the resultant grass is a bit muddy. Yes, I’ve had to bring the lawn mower indoors to dry it out. But the point is that it’s the 25th November and I’ve just mowed the lawn!

For weeks, I’ve been watching it grow and thinking that I might be able to get away with leaving it until next spring But when the grass reached 6 inches (15cm) high in places, I decided that an emergency intervention was necessary. I feared that if I didn’t take action, by next April/May, the grass might have swallowed the house!

I now look forward to watching it regenerate as winter comes on!

Was there anything else?

Thinks? Has anything else of importance happened in the Nicholls household since everything closed down for the pandemic six months ago. The answer is “Not half!”

There are not many occasions when the old biblical expression “My cup runneth over” can be used in earnest but for us, even in the depths of the Covid lockdown at the beginning of June it seemed a very appropriate expression when our daughter presented us with young Joseph, our grandson.

Welcome to a very strange world, Jo-Jo. Great to see you here.

The last three months have just been a delight as we have watched Jo-Jo grow.

Even if he does spend most of his time looking a bit bewildered at the chaos going on around him.

I suppose it is a bit confusing when the cuddly toys around you are not much smaller than you are and I guess it was asking a lot of young Joe to react very actively to seeing his Uncle Tom on the phone from Sheffield.

Happily, his big sister is showing very few signs of resenting the fact that there is another bird in the nest and she is no longer the exclusive centre of everyone’s attention. I think she is enjoying having a real, live playmate at home, even if the playmate doesn’t quite understand what, on earth, is going on and doesn’t yet react very much to her various attentions.

Importantly, she is the Big Sister and she is being given the responsibility of looking after her little brother. So far, so good. Just a double joy! Long may it continue.

This is what a cup looks like when it runneth over.

A sign of the times.

Last week, Martha’s mother took her into town to do some shopping. Martha, as always, behaved impeccably and was told that she could have a little present as a reward.

Now bear in mind that there has been a fundamental shift in buying habits over the past six months, accelerating trends that were becoming clear even before Covid struck. What would she choose?

A cuddly toy with a ribbon around its neck?

No!

A book of exciting fairy stories about dragons and ogres?

No!

A big, red india-rubber ball, like the one owned by King John, who was not a good man?

No!

Some flashy, plastic Buzz Lightyear inter-planetary, extermination device?

No!

Given free rein in the toy shop and subject only to certain restrictions in cost, what did this child of the Covid era select?

Such are the times in which we live.

Can it get any worse?

At about the same time as ‘Little Kickers’ started, we became aware of some other strange behaviour on the part of our little grandaughter.

What was this all about?

Many grandparents would give their right arms.

When our daughter and daughter-in-law and their delightful daughter, Martha, moved in with us nearly two years ago, we were thrilled to bits. Being so close to your grandchild is something that many grandparents can only dream of, especially in today’s pandemic-dominated world. Martha was just under one year old when they arrived. For Linda and myself, our quiet, steady, sedate, ‘everything-under-control’ life was suddenly turned upside down.

Martha had arrived! Chaos reigned. We loved it!

Nearly two years later this little baby has learned to walk, to talk, to sing, to negotiate, to argue, and, to my eternal chagrin, is now even learning to play football! (It was one of my own proudest achievements, as our own children grew up, that they both developed musical talents and I never once had to stand on a freezing touchline on a Saturday morning watching either of them running around with a bunch of muddy hooligans chasing a ball. I do hope my granddaughter is not going to spoil my record!)

There is no shortage of photos taken of young Martha during her time with us. My favourite still remains the picture I took of her reaction to the barrier that I installed to prevent her from wandering into the more dangerous part of the kitchen on a day when I was left in sole charge. I will freely admit that I did not warn her in advance about the safety measure that I was installing. There was no consultation, no negotiation, no mutual agreement. I just did it! Martha was not quite two years old at the time, but already had a deep, well developed and abiding understanding of the concept of justice, or, more particularly, of injustice.

I think it is safe to conclude that she was not impressed.

Now she is nearly three and, despite my having put bars in her way in the kitchen, her personality is developing every day in every way. Keeping up with her can be a bit of a struggle.

Yee-hah
Learning to balance… at speed.
Learning what wellies are for.

As grandparents we have now come to understand why nature has so organised the world that humans have their children when they are in their twenties and thirties and not when they are in their seventies. It’s all about energy.

The days when we have been left in sole charge of Martha and usually been delightful, insightful, exhilarating and, it has to be said, exhausting.

Long walks on the Sussex Downs.

Art classes on wet days.
… and going to the beach to throw stones in the water

What we have come to realise is that, when it comes to looking after small children, there is a big difference between being a parent and being a grandparent, and it isn’t just the difference in energy levels.

As a parent, you are juggling so many balls at the same time, as you bring up your child. You are responsible for organising all of the minutiae of the child’s life; feeding it, clothing it, teaching it, toilet training it, keeping it safe, giving it love and enough exercise. You may also be trying to manage the demands of a job and running a household at the same time.

As a grandparent, you have time and mental space to watch the child grow and to observe the subtle changes in development and behaviour as they make their way from one week into the next. I well remember when I worked for OXFAM in East and West Africa, my job would often take me ‘up country’ for weeks at a time. When I eventually returned home full of stories and covered in dust, I would be greeted by our own two very excited children who had often developed completely new skills while I had been away. The great privilege that I have had with Martha, which I didn’t have with our own children, is that I have seen her every day for the past two years and watched the changes happen in real time.

But then, about four months ago there were some very worrying developments.

The first one, I have already mentioned. My granddaughter developed an interest in football! Oh, the shame of it!

It started in the park….

… and deteriorated from there. She is now a member of a Brighton-based, subversive terror organisation for two to three year olds, known as ‘Little Kickers.’

Dear Blog, I can only apologise!

I know, I know, dear Blog, you feel as if you have been abandoned, left on the shelf and ignored and I can quite understand why. You must feel that I don’t love you any more, as we haven’t spoken for nearly three months. But it’s not true. Really it isn’t. It’s just been a very strange time over the summer.

The whole saga started nearly two years ago. Our daughter and daughter-in-law decided that they did not want to bring up their nearly one-year-old daughter, Martha, in the polluted air of London, so they put their flat in Battersea up for sale and eventually attracted a buyer. So far, so good.

Their plan was to move to Brighton so, while the tortuous business of flat-selling was grinding on, they moved in with us and began house-hunting. Before too long, they found a house that they liked and put in an offer.

At this point, Bloody Brexit intervened. The buyer of their flat, an Italian who had been working in the UK for more than 10 years, suddenly found out that his contract was not going to be renewed, so he dropped out of the sale and the chain collapsed. The Battersea flat went back on the market and the house that they had found in Brighton went to another buyer.

Months passed. Another buyer was found for the flat and the search for a new house resumed.

A suitable house was found that met the important twin criteria of being not too far from our house, for child-minding purposes, and close enough to the mainline railway station, thereby making commuting to London quite easy. (Oh, the irony of it all! Who commutes to London these days?)

Apart from its proximity to us and the railway station, the new house offered many further advantages; a quiet location, plenty of space, a flat garden, (an absolute luxury in Brighton!), and at a price that was low enough to enable them to carry out some necessary renovations before moving in. They bought it.

Then the nightmare started to unfurl itself! One problem with the house was that it was heated by an oil-fired central heating system, which meant that there was a large tank of heating oil positioned right against the side wall of the house. This was contrary to all Heath and Safety regulations so the decision was taken to have the oil tank removed and a gas-fired system installed.

It was also decided to have proper insulation put into the roof space which necessitated tearing down parts of the ceiling in all of the rooms upstairs.

Both of these decisions were perfectly reasonable in a normal world. What they didn’t take account of was Covid 19 and Sir Peter.

Let’s start with Sir Peter, as the problem with him long pre-dates the pandemic and goes to heart of Britain’s antiquated class system.

If you go back a couple of hundred years, the land on which their house, and indeed our own house, now stand belonged to the ‘Stanford Estate’.

At the end of the nineteenth century, plots of land were systematically sold off for house building as Brighton grew. I assume that Sir Peter’s ancestors grew fairly rich from these numerous transactions. The problem was that our daughter’s house is on a plot of land that was set back about 50 metres from the nearest road, where the gas main is located, and the unsurfaced road that leads to the house still belongs to the Stanford Estate.

No problem, all we need to do is get permission from Stanford Estate to dig a trench and put in a gas line. Ha! In order to give the necessary permission, all Sir Peter had to do was to sign a piece of paper and cash the very handsome cheque that he demanded for the privilege.

It took the inimitable Sir Peter four months to sign the necessary paper! And until that document was signed, no work could proceed. (I was so angry that I was ready to don an agricultural worker’s smock, pick up a pitchfork and storm Sir Peter’s country house, holding him hostage until he signed the necessary permission and waived the outrageous fee. Fortunately, wiser counsels prevailed or else my absence from my blog might have been even further prolonged by a lengthy sojourn in one of Her Majesty’s penal institutions.)

So after a four-month hiatus, thanks to Sir Peter, the Gas Board could be called in to dig a trench and lay the 50 metres of pipe and the plumber could install the gas boiler. The whole thing took three days.

Meanwhile, the sections of the ceilings were torn down and insulating foam was inserted into the roof-space. So far, so good.

Then Covid struck.

One of the early effects of the Covid lockdown was that the company, British Gypsum, which supplies almost all of the plaster used in the UK, closed down completely and plaster became a commodity that you could only get on the black market if you had friends in low places. The shortages went on for months.

The new kitchen that was planned could not be progressed because the entire kitchen fitting company went into hibernation because of Covid, so nothing moved. Stalemate!

Meanwhile, I appointed myself Chief Painter and set about painting everything that didn’t move, which is why, dear Blog, you have been neglected.

Eventually, plaster was found to replace the ceilings, the plumber finished renewing the central heating and the kitchen fitters came out of hiding. The work continued until all that was left was for the very excellent carpenter to replace all of the skirting boards on the ground floor.

It was at this point that the afore-mentioned carpenter fell off his bike and broke several of his ribs. Inconvenient, but ribs do heal so we just had to wait. The next we heard was that the offending ribs had, indeed, healed but that the carpenter’s partner had gone into premature labour with their first child.

After a decent interval, a phone call was put through to the carpenter asking if there was any likelihood of him installing the skirting board. His solution was to pass the job on to a friend of his who was also a carpenter.

The second carpenter then went on holiday ………

And so, dear Blog, you were neglected, through no fault of your own, and I am very sorry. My work as Painter-in-Chief is nearly done, the skirting board should be fitted in the next few weeks, the days are getting shorter and the nights darker, so I hope I can make it up to you over the next month or so. Watch this unending space.

All in a day’s work!

It’s strange to reflect on the unexpectedly significant role that the Sudan, in various incarnations, has had on my life.

It started in 1972 at the end of my university career when I got the letter from Voluntary Service Overseas informing me that my application to spend two years as a volunteer somewhere in the world had been successful. They had decided to send me to teach English in Omdurman, just across the Nile from the Sudanese capital, Khartoum.

I had very little experience of teaching English apart from my year as a language assistant in a school in Germany. And at that time I had absolutely no idea where the Sudan was! I had heard of Khartoum only because I had seen the film about the unfortunate General Gordan being ignominiously despatched by the ‘fuzzy-wuzzy’ forces of the Mahdi, sometime towards the end of the nineteenth century.

A year later I had my first encounter with southern Sudan, as I made my way back on a convoy of aid trucks after a brief and heady, mid-posting mini-break in Kenya. More than ten years passed before I found myself back in Kenya, now married and with two small children and working for OXFAM in their Nairobi office. Once again trucks were on the agenda.

OXFAM had become involved in a huge famine relief effort being mounted in what was then called Southern Sudan. As often in these situations there were two major problems facing the aid agencies, getting food into the area and then being able to move it around once it arrived.

Unbeknown to us in the Nairobi office, OXFAM HQ in Oxford had agreed to commit a considerable amount of money to get involved with food distribution as a member of the Combined Agency Relief Team, appropriately enough known as CART. The first we heard about it was when we were asked to explore the possibility of buying a dozen trucks to carry the aid supplies- as a matter of some urgency, to Juba. I went into Nairobi to see what was possible.

Knowing that the money for these trucks, nearly £500,000, was coming from the British government, my first instinct was to ‘Buy British’ so I headed for the local Bedford dealer in the industrial area of Nairobi. Not a chance! Not only did they not have any trucks available to sell in Kenya, the waiting list for bringing them in from the UK was many months long. I went to see Toyota.

They had the cabs and chassis all lined up in their yard and it was only a case of building the superstructures to whatever specification we required.

The local Toyota representative could hardly believe his luck when, after a bit of token haggling on my part, we shook hands on the deal and fifteen trucks were prepared for departure.

I can’t remember which agency was responsible for organising the loads that the trucks carried but the big day finally arrived that the whole fleet, shining in the sunlight and groaning with aid supplies, was assembled on the main road out of Nairobi, in readiness for the long and tortuous journey to Juba, the capital of Southern Sudan.

Linda and I went along, with the children, to apply the appropriate stickers to the truck doors, wave the convoy off and wish them ‘bon voyage’.

It took a long time to get all of the trucks fuelled up and ready to go …

The Total service station must have thought it was their birthday!

… so for a while our kids were very happy to play in the cab of one of the trucks, pretending to be the driver, as the convoy slowly came together. Tom was about five years old and his sister, Kate, was three.

All was well until all the drivers climbed into the cabs and we pretended to wave the children goodbye, wishing them a good journey to Juba. Kate was too young to understand the implications of the game, but Tom suddenly started to get nervous as he thought that we were really going to abandon him in a big yellow truck and send him away to distant Sudan! Poor lad! His courage failed him and he crumbled!

It took a little while to calm his nerves but eventually good humour was restored and, from the safety of my arms, he was happy to wave the trucks off on their epic journey northwards.

What happened to our trucks after that, I have no idea! Southern Sudan was not part of the Nairobi office’s responsibility, so it was really none of our business. Having handed the trucks over to CART and waved them off, we just got on with our own development programme in Kenya.

All in a day’s work.

An aside.

I have never been a sportsman. I have never yearned to get up early, don studded boots and to expose myself to terrible dangers in the wind and rain on a football or rugby pitch. I prided myself on the fact that both of our children showed considerable talents in various areas, but neither of them ever wanted me to stand on a touch line in the freezing cold and show enthusiasm as they threw themselves around a muddy field in the pointless pursuit of a ball.

Now I have a beautiful granddaughter, so you can understand why the photo below is such a worrying portent.

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