Firstly apologies for the rather long delay since my last blog which has caused some people to get in touch and confirm that I am still alive (I am). The last few weeks have been quite eventful with the general elections held here on the 4th March. This was a massive event for Kenya and the whole nation was on red alert due to the crisis the country faced in the three weeks following the last elections in 2007 which left over 1,100 people dead and over 200,000 displaced (most of whom are still displaced).
If you’re not clued up on this I’ll try and give a quick summation…
Kenya is exceptionally tribal. There are 42 tribes in total, all of which hold varying degrees of dominance and political influence in the country. Since independence in 1963 the political stage has undoubtedly been dominated by the Kikuyu tribe who make up 22% of the country’s population.
One of these Kikuyu politicians is President Mwai Kibaki who was elected in 2002 on an anti-corruption campaign after Daniel arap Moi’s 24 year tenure saw the country become the second most corrupt in the world. Kibaki even appointed a chap called John Githongo as his anti-corruption ‘czar’. Sadly John Githongo and the people of Kenya took his desire to end corruption seriously so when John Githongo discovered that Kibaki himself was trousering millions of dollars in the Anglo Leasing affair he was a little disappointed to say the least and now lives in Oxford unable to return to Kenya without winding up with a bullet in his head. (probably best to Google this if you’re interested, if you’re really interested read “It’s Our Turn to Eat” by Michaela Wrong)
President Mwai Kibaki
Depressingly Kibaki and his cronies, many of whom are also Kikuyu (due to his jobs for the boys attitude to government positions) proved to be only marginally better than Moi and maintained a grip on all of the wonderful opportunities for corruption that go with positions of responsibility. Obviously the useful thing about democracy is that if you don’t like the people who lead you you can always vote them out. Except of course in Kenya where a little bit of fudgy maths such as 115% voter turn-out in some counties meant that Kibaki conveniently declared himself president again in 2007 despite almost certainly losing to Raila Odinga who is from a different tribe and part of Kenya.
Raila Odinga Uhuru Kenyatta
What happened next is a scar on the history of Kenya with people taking to the streets to teach Kikuyus a lesson. Intertribal resentment led to people being hacked to death and ‘necklaced’ (having a burning tyre put around your head until you are burnt alive). After three weeks of the country sitting uncomfortably on the precipice of a Rwanda style genocide the politicians cobbled together a coalition government of national unity with Kibaki as president and Odinga as prime minister (if you’re interested in this then watch ‘Heal the Nation’ on youtube)
So it was with baited breath that the country went to the polls on 4th March to see what happens next. This time it was again Raila Odinga in the yellow corner and Uhuru Kenyatta in the red corner. To add a bit of spice to this year’s elections Uhuru Kenyatta is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity due to alleged involvement in the 2007 violence. Suspecting that his sworn enemy Raila Odinga would be very quick to deliver him to the ICC should he win the presidency Uhuru realised that desperate times call for desperate measures and decided to team up with another of the accused, William Ruto (who interestingly was on the other side in 2007 but also facing similar charges) that together they might garner enough votes for the pair of them to win the presidency and vice presidency and thus have immunity from the ICC until their tenure ends.
VSO got a bit concerned about their volunteers during the election period so I, along with all the others, found myself despatched to Arusha in Tanzania just to be on the safe side. After six days of electronic voter counting system breakdowns, confusion and allegations of corruption Uhuru Kenyatta was declared president-elect of Kenya by getting 0.4% over the required 50% threshold and thus it was deemed safe to return.
Picture of me with Mount Meru, which confusingly is at Arusha in Tanzania
Of course Raila Odinga isn’t too chuffed with losing for the third time in a row and has gone to the Supreme Court to claim there was foul play. Personally I think he’s flogging a dead horse seeing as he lost by over 800,000 votes but then it seems that gracefully accepting defeat was never in the job description for your average Kenyan political leader. In some respects Kenyatta’s victory appears to be an anti-ICC vote because regardless of what Kenyatta did or didn’t do last time many people believe that Raila Odinga was just as guilty, if not more so, of inciting intertribal hatred and seeing as he was leader of the anti-Kikuyu faction he should be facing charges too!
The fact that Uhuru Kenyatta is the son of Kenya’s first president Jomo Kenyatta and Raila Odinga is the son of Kenya’s first opposition leader Oginga Odinga gives an indication of how far Kenyan politics has (not) come in 50 years and also how a handful of exceptionally powerful and rich families have maintained a grip on its people and resources for so long. The Kenyatta family has an estimated 500 million US dollars but then this is fairly modest in comparison to the estimated $3 billion US that President Daniel arap Moi managed to cream off during his presidency. Most of this money came in the form of aid from Western governments but in reality it was little more than a pay-off from the west to not get too cosy to the USSR or China.
The people I work with earn around $50 per month. Perhaps this illustrates how unequal Kenyan society is. I came to this country thinking it was poor but I have since changed my mind. It is not poor so much as mismanaged over the years by a succession of men who have treated its economy as their own private piggy bank. Sadly I suspect that this will take some time to change because what I am writing here is a summary of research that I have done, books that I have read and sadly it appears that the average uneducated Kenyan does not know about these things. Or at least they do not show much political will to change the status quo. One day I’m sure there will come a time when policy and actions become more important that who your dad was. In the meantime I can’t help but feel that Kenyan’s are too deferential to the archetypal African ‘Big Man’ to move on, so, step forward Uhuru Kenyatta with those allegations of corruption, violence and your millions in the bank!
The ray of light in all of this though is the new constitution that has taken effect which removes powers from the president in favour of a more devolved federal style government with governors and senators. Personally I believe that this new system with its increased levels of checks and balances will be a big step to ending corruption and could be the making of Kenya. Otherwise I hope that Uhuru Kenyatta, unlike all of Kenya’s other leaders doesn’t allow his sense of responsibility become eclipsed by his sense of entitlement. I hope my cynicism proves misplaced.
Meanwhile at the polytechnic we are making serious headway. We have now established a fish pond to grow tilapia to sell to local markets, we have established a computer room with five computers and we have been awarded enough money to install energy saving cookers that reduce firewood usage by 80% and enable us to capture the heat to heat water for showers. My hard-line financial approach is now paying dividends and with over 120 students we are collecting over 90% of school fees (Vs about 50-60% for this term last year) despite increasing the fees by 25%! In other words we are solvent and I can’t help but feel that this is a real achievement and will prove to be the foundation for great things to come.
And finally, ever keen to work on my Swahili, when I was travelling back from Arusha I picked up a book called ‘Proverbs and Sayings of the Wise’ with English translation. Honestly I think the degree of wisdom varies quite a bit so I’ll give you a flavour of some of the translations:
“Do not abuse midwives while child bearing continues” – Yes, indeed, I’m sure that this is very wise.
“If you want to eat a pig, choose the one that is fat” – Again, very good advice…
“He who is naked squats low” – Does he? This is a bit too cryptic for me. I’m undecided about this one and besides it brings back horrendous memories of me and my pot in Kimana
“Where there are old people nothing goes wrong” – Hmm, not too sure about this either, after all Silvio Berlusconi is knocking on a bit these days and so is Robert Mugabe.
And finally “When a child cries for a razor, give it to him”….(!)
Never being one for sitting around doing nothing I was slightly concerned that I might get a bit bored during the six week end of year holidays and so I contacted VSO to tell them that I needed more work to do. The result is that three weeks ago I got despatched to a small town called Kimana near the town of Oloitokitok on the Tanzanian border. Before my departure I was to make contact with a chap called Reverend Joseph who told me that there was a volunteer house that was ‘ready’ for me. Fortunately I have been in Kenya now long enough to know when to ask the right questions:
Me: So, tell me about the house. What does the house have? Does it have somewhere to cook?
Rev Joseph: No, it doesn’t have somewhere to cook, you’ll have to eat in a hotel
Me: OK, no problem, so does it have furniture?
Rev Joseph: No, there is no furniture. And you’ll need to get a mattress too…
Me: Oh, right. There’s a bed though right?
Rev Joseph: No there is no bed.
Clearly Rev. Joseph and I differed somewhat in our definition of ‘ready’ so eventually we agreed that I would stay in a small guest house for the next few weeks instead.
If you’re interested enough to type the name Oloitokitok into Google you will see it is literally at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro and the landscape is completely different to the forested mountains of Meru. On my arrival I actually saw some zebras waiting patiently at the side of the road but annoyingly I didn’t have my camera to hand.
This area is Maasai country and I am working for four weeks with a community based organisation concerned with improving the quality of life for people in the community. Kimana is not my kind of place, a dusty, dirty, ramshackle town that apparently didn’t exist as little as a decade ago and the people living here are some of the poorest I’ve met.
Traditionally the Maasai were pastoralists (cattle herders to the uninitiated) and lived a fairly nomadic lifestyle. Due to population growth and the fact that the Maasai lifestyle is fairly unsympathetic to the environment there is a real concern that this way of life is unsustainable but in the past they have not been particularly accepting of the need to change and many do not value education. In addition the society is very paternalistic and girls typically do not finish education and have little prospects; many are even married and spend their lives collecting water and carrying charcoal from the age of 12! They have asked me to do a ‘base-line’ study on the state of education in the area and the employment prospects of young people as a comparison against the Kenyan average. Once we understand the problem we might then know how to start fixing it. Either way, I think this is going to be an on-going project for me to assist with remotely.
To illustrate the point, adjoining the guest house is a little café where I have my breakfast served to me every morning by two girls, Evelyn and Gladys who are both 20. One day I asked them what their working days were as they forever seem to be in the café and they told me that they get 150 KSh a day (1.16 GBP) for working from 06:00 to 21:00. On an hourly rate that equates to around 12 KSh (9 pence) per hour!
Now, I know what some of you are thinking “But it doesn’t mean anything, after all, the cost of living is barely nothing!” I know thisbecause it’s the kind of thing I would have said. So, let’s put this into perspective. Whilst I have been staying in Kimana I have typically eaten a variation of the following each day:
Breakfast: Spanish omelette, 2 x sausages, 2 x toast, 2 x tea = 240 KSh
Lunch: Bowl of Githeri (maize and beans in sauce) with cabbage. Bottle of coke = 150 KSh
Dinner: Chicken stew, rice and vegetables = 300 KSh
Bottle of water = 60 KSh
Oranges and bananas from the market = 30 KSh
Total 780 KSh
So, I am spending, in a day, on food alone, the equivalent of more than five days of their wages. And if you factor in the fact that I am admittedly eating in café’s I think you would agree I am hardly living it up. This is not including accommodation, clothing, transport, any household costs (washing powder, toothpaste etc) or sickness (remember there is no sick pay here).
My time in Kimana has been blighted by suffering from vial gastroenteritis and I have genuinely never been so ill. After managing to get to the hospital I had to take a stool sample in a very small pot in a squat toilet with a door that wouldn’t shut properly. (You won’t find this in the Rough Guide’s “12 Thing Not to Miss in Kenya” list, on the contrary it was a thoroughly traumatic experience and I might even need a little counselling later in life) I was then subsequently subjected to various tests before I was told that I had food poisoning. I relayed this information to my friend Izack who seemed rather upset and said he didn’t understand why someone would have wanted to poison me.
Being ill has effectively meant that I was a prisoner in my hotel room experiencing terrible diarrhoea and being subjected to Kenyan TV for five days. Honestly I have never seen such atrocious telly in all my life. Most of it consists of politics (more on this later) and third-rate Mexican soap operas where the acting, dubbing and camera work is so terrible I genuinely believe that I could do better myself. Alternatively there are hip-hop videos which are very popular in Kenya. I suspect these are partially responsible for the myth that we are all filthy rich in the west. Hip hop videos are typically pretty unimaginative and follow a certain formula, namely this: Fat American black guy with an unshaven double chin who never takes his shades off sitting on a multi-million dollar yacht surrounded by beautiful women in bikinis (typically lightly skinned mixed race / Latino origin). Sadly I suspect young Kenyans view this as an accurate reflection of life in America. Either way when I see Gladys and Evelyn watching some fat guy on a yacht I can’t help but feel a little embarrassed about the status quo.
I’ll finish off this report with some pictures of my gang here in Kimana:
Not a great picture of a Maasai woman at the market
Colgate anyone? This photo cost me 2 bananas but at least I got a date with her mate behind her into the bargain!
It’s been a long time since my last blog for no other reason than I have been lazy and distracted due to various goings on. I guess it’s inevitable that after several months of being here I have lost my ‘fresh eyes’ perspective and seeing a taxi hurtling along with a guy hanging out of the boot no longer raises an eyebrow…
The local landscape has changed dramatically as the dry season came to an end at the beginning of October and now we are now well into the ‘short rains’. Having gone away for a week in early / mid-October to South Spain for my sister Kate’s wedding I returned to Meru to see the area had converted itself from a semi-arid dusty and at times brutally hot climate to a very tropical, lush green landscape with huge bugs and mosquitos everywhere. I didn’t realise that I needed to start using my bed net again until I had had a fight in my sleep with a mosquito and woke to what looked like about half a pint of my own blood on my pillow and large welts on my neck where I had been bitten numerous times.
That said, despite the mosquitoes and the fact that hanging up my washing and expecting it to dry has become a game of chance I am actually preferring the rainy season. It’s still hot and sunny but we get a torrential downpour most evenings for an hour or so which makes the temperature more bearable and our crops at the school have really come to life. We have recently brokered a deal to sell our tomatoes that the school is now producing to a high street retailer for above market rate (can you imagine Tesco’s buying their tomatoes from a polytechnic in the village? No, me neither!)
Life in Kenya seems to go from strength to strength for me partly due to the fact that I have had my motorbike for a couple of months now and have been enjoying my newfound freedom exploring some of the remote parts of the Kenyan countryside. Judging by the amount of attention the hair on my forearms gets these people probably haven’t seen a Mzungu in a very long time. Africans typically have very little or no body hair and this is a constant source of fascination, particularly for small children who I have managed to convince that my great-grandfather was a monkey.
Riding a bike in Meru is a bit like participating in a real-life arcade game where unfortunately you only get one life; but I have developed a kind of ‘1,000 yard stare’ as I anticipate taxi drivers to randomly pull out and the car in front braking hard and without any apparent reason despite having no rear brake lights. The biggest concern however is donkeys. Donkeys seem to lack any kind of fight or flight mechanism and unlike a cat / dog / human being, when they wander aimlessly into the middle of oncoming traffic, rather than panicking and running out of the way they kind of just stand there in the middle of the road. Obviously donkeys are unpredictable animals and I’m not confident enough on a bike to take on a donkey without coming off worse so at times I have resorted to performing the Keynan-esque manoeuvre of riding on to the pavement to avoid getting kicked in the face by said donkey.
As you are may be aware Barack Obama’s father was from Western Kenya so the people here have been thoroughly rooting for him to take a second election despite him seemingly completely disinterested in Africa having only come to the continent once in 2009. There were even some street parties in Western Province when victory was declared. Bizarrely the village that his step-grandmother still lives in had their own ‘election’ where local villagers got to vote for either Obama or Romney. I can’t say I was too staggered when the village voted unanimously for Obama but what I was surprised at is the fact that the TV channel ‘Citizen’ felt the need to report live from the village to declare this apparently newsworthy story. The whole piece became even more farcical when they interviewed the local witchdoctor, a toothless man in his sixties sitting on a rug in front of an array of sticks and stones, who was claiming vindication of his supernatural powers through a correct prediction of a win for Obama. Arguably the whole thing is becoming increasingly less important with Africa’s main trading partner now being China but the idea that the son of a Kenyan can become such a powerful and influential man continues to carry a lot of symbolism over here.
Paradoxically a significant proportion of the Kenyans I have met are hopelessly naive of anything Western and the wider world in general. Having had to explain numerous times to the students in the polytechnic that I am from the UK and not the US I have then subsequently found myself having to explain the difference. One day I found a pull out atlas from National Geographic magazine in a drawer and put it on the wall before asking some of the teachers where I am from; after five minutes of them painstakingly poring over the South American continent and then switching their focus to China I felt the need to at least guide them towards Europe for fear that we would be here all day.
I recently had a conversation with Bishop Lawi Imitahiu on this particular issue. The Bishop is one of the most inspiring and visionary people I have ever met; these days he is retired on account of being 80 years old but over the last 30-40 years he has lead the development of numerous schools and a large university in the locality and is a highly respected elder within Kenya and particularly Meru county. The Bishop told me that when he was at school in the 30s and 40s (when Kenya was still a colony) the education system was heavily orientated towards British values and the superiority of all things Western. Understandably when independence came 50 years ago in 1963 there was a mood to completely reject this way of thinking and the system became much more Afro-centric. In his words however the whole thing went too far the other way and the result is that there are now two generations of people who have very little understanding of much outside of Africa. The impact of this is that many Kenyans have a simplistic view of things such as the enduring belief that if you are white then you must be, by default, stinking rich.
But does all of this really matter? Well I would say that it does. OK, admittedly this is coming from a self-confessed geek who prides himself on his ability to name capital cities across the world but my argument would be that the people who are arguably least able to make a valid judgement on the quality of their leadership are the people of North Korea on the basis that they have zero exposure to anything outside of that country. Unless a nation can make an informed comparison on the quality of life that’s it leaders are facilitating then the road map for improvement will inevitably be out of focus and trust me, Kenyan politics leaves a lot to be desired. Meanwhile, do the people jubilantly celebrating Obama’s four more years in power understand his policies and the impact that they will have on them and the wider world? Well, I sincerely doubt it, but his dad was a Kenyan and to many that’s all that matters.
Here in Kithoka we are closing for the end of year and many of the students have already left with only those taking exams remaining. During my pre-departure training with VSO I was briefed a lot that I may go through a period of feeling disheartened, typically after three months. This never happened for me and I thought that I might be the exception to the rule but I can honestly say that from a work perspective the past two months have been truly frustrating and at times I have had cause to seriously question the value of my being here. Part of the problem is me and my own expectations of what can realistically be achieved in my time here. The staff are very happy with the progress that we are making and it is true that we are making some progress in some areas. For example, we have received over 80% of monies owed to us and the institution has subsequently been able to clear much of its debt. But I cannot help but feel that more could be done…. And quicker!
The principal frustration is that central to my role is the training of the management team but the management team do not want to be managers. They have been appointed into roles without any desire for those positions. Management is a mind-set that cannot be imposed on someone who is not ambitious for it. So when I look around critically at what we have actually achieved since I arrived I have struggled to feel satisfied. The approach is flawed in that the success of any skills sharing initiative will be less determined by the calibre of trainer and more determined by the competency and, more importantly, the attitude of the trainee. However, whilst VSO go to great lengths to recruit and prepare qualified and capable people there seems to be a complete lack of this ‘quality control’ from the other side with regards to how the government ministries appoint people into positions of authority and responsibility. Either way, I am learning to accept that as the first volunteer at Kithoka my role will be merely to lay the foundation for others who come after me to build upon and start to see visible progress.
Despite all of the above though it is now more than six months since I started at Kithoka Youth Polytechnic and I can honestly say that packing in work in the UK and coming out to Kenya was the best life decision I could have made. I often think back to what life was like a year ago… getting up on a cold, dark morning, filling up my car with diesel costing 1.49 per litre and frantically trying to make Nuneaton depot profitable….I’d rather be playing ‘dodge the donkey’ on a Honda any day!
I’m going to divulge a secret. The UK logistics industry is a brutal industry with wafer thin margins. The only people that know this are the people who work in it and the majority of them are wondering why on earth they are working in it. For years I have watched friends in other industries have extravagant Christmas parties and travel to exotic locations whilst I have paced nervously around my office waiting for the weekly finances before getting browbeaten for not sacking enough people. Years of this torment eventually drove me to seek refuge in a remote village in Africa but sadly I am a product of that cost-focused environment and I have become (I hate to say it) a ‘numbers man’.
So naturally I was very keen to resolve the student fees situation that I mentioned before. In case you had forgotten this is the issue whereby the student population don’t pay their fees, which means that we have no money, which means that we give them horrible food, which means that they riot because the food is horrible, which means that we remind them that have not paid us any fees, which means we have no money.
In an attempt to get off this dizzying merry-go-round of nonsense I convinced everyone that we have no option other than to crack down on this situation and formally issued each student with a letter stating the amount of money they owe the institution and a reminder that we are not prepared to re-admit students who are carrying forward a negative fees balance from the previous term. That should sort the wheat from the chaff, I thought to myself last term and I was fully prepared for student attrition to be a little high when they returned from their holidays. That said, I wasn’t expecting the retention to be quite as low as three students. Not much wheat then really! With such a poor harvest I started to panic a little at the prospect of my next review meeting with VSO and how I might talk around the fact that I had effectively destroyed the institution I had come to assist with my hard line financial management approach.
Fortunately for me over the next few days the students did start to come back. Some of them it seemed didn’t think that the term had started as across Kenya thousands of teachers are on strike indefinitely demanding up to a 300% pay increase (I think back to meetings where I have stared dispassionately at trade union reps and told them that expecting a 4% increase was unreasonable!) coupled with the idea that in Kenya turning up for something a week late is deemed acceptable, dare I say, normal. Hopefully by the end of term student numbers should be more or less where they were just in time for them to all go on holiday again.
The past few weeks have been interesting with me having to shrug off another would-be stalker. Linda (name changed), who kindly offered to escort me in a tuk-tuk to show me how to get to Mombasa bus station on my way to Machakos took the opportunity to record my phone number when I was giving it to the bus operator for reference (I didn’t mind her having it as she seemed very normal). But then I had barely arrived in Machakos when she called me to tell me that her cousin had died and that she needed to go to Nairobi ‘”urgently” but would like to “stop by and spend a few days hanging out” with me in Machakos!? (She didn’t sound very upset). I said that this was really not a good idea and quite inappropriate seeing as we had only had a ten minute conversation and I was actually in Machakos to work.
I didn’t mention her in my last blog because things hadn’t got too weird at that point and I thought she’d eventually get the message from my crystal clear texts stating that I was in no way interested in any kind of relationship, particularly with someone who lives in Mombasa. Unfortunately this didn’t have the intended effect with her insisting that she wanted to just be friends and so over the next two weeks she proceeded to call me and text me constantly. A typical conversation wouldn’t really deviate much from the following:
Linda: Hi, how are you?
Me: Fine thanks
Linda: Why didn’t you answer my other calls?
Me: Yes, sorry, I err, left my phone in another room.
Linda: What are you doing?
Me: I’m working right now
Linda: Oh, you’re always working.
Me: Yes, well, you know, I’ve got a job.
Linda: So, when are you going to invite me to Meru?
Me: I don’t really think that’s going to work Linda. There’s an awful lot I’ve got going on here.
Linda: Ok. I’m fine anyway, just watching a DVD.
Me: Right. Good.
Linda: I miss you
Me: Oh, do you? OK.
Linda: I just wanted to hear your voice
Me: OK, well, I’d better go now Linda. Lot’s to do… Bye!
Obviously this was all rather awkward and I was forever on tenterhooks with the expectation that she might start asking me if I missed her as well. One day I returned to my phone to see three missed calls and a text saying “I’d love to hear your voice right now” and I decided enough was enough…
Me: Hi Linda. The thing is I really think that you want to be more than friends with me and as I’ve said before I’m not interested in any kind of relationship with you.
Linda: Oh, I know. That’s what friends are for.
Me: OK. Do you call all of your friends up every-day just to hear their voice?
Linda: Yes, I don’t have many friends. I cherish friendship. (I swear I’m not making this up!)
Me: Err, right, well you see, I don’t think a friendship is very practical between us. We live such a far distance from each other and, well, we’re kind of pretty much strangers aren’t we really?… Besides, I’m not the sort of person who speaks to my friends every day anyway.
Linda: So you don’t want to be friends with me? What’s your problem? Is it because I am a black lady? Do you have a problem with black people?
Me: Eh? I’m living in Kenya. If I had a problem with black people I wouldn’t choose to deliberately come and live in a country full of black people. I think I’d probably live somewhere else.
And then despite me trying to let her down as gently and even-handedly as I possibly could things very quickly got a bit weird. Between receiving messages that expressed passive acceptance of rejection I received others accusing me of being gay, misogynistic, a liar, negative about everything (She wouldn’t expand on this. When I asked her what exactly I was negative about she just reiterated “everything”) and always pushing her away (this one is definitely true) before I received a final text saying that she had “never felt this way about anyone before”! So as our brief and bizarre acquaintance drew to a close I finally came to the conclusion that the talk of being friends was nonsense, there never was any dead cousin and that Linda is, after all, as suspected, a bit mad.
Having an unusual name, being active on the internet and living in a country where I am a different colour to 99.9% of the local population means that despite having my Mexican disguise ever at the ready going incognito isn’t really my forte and so I then spent the next week or so mentally re-playing my tuk-tuk encounter with Linda wondering whether she had enough information on me to successfully track me down and kill me. And what is it with me and nutters? There must be something about my face, mannerisms or the way I dress that is proving to be a sure-fire magnet for the unbalanced. A regular criticism I have received throughout my life is that I don’t smile enough and often look miserable and unapproachable. Now I am thinking this is not such a bad thing as right now the last thing I need is a demeanour that attracts even more mad people….
In other completely unrelated news revenge attacks continue in the south east of the country where 52 people were massacred last month (mainly women and children, only seven of them were men). This is purely simple inter-tribal violence linked to historical rivalries over land and water access. In Mombasa however, the completely unrelated violence that came about from the assassination of Sheikh Aboud Rogo has calmed down now despite the Kenyan navy shelling the al-shabab controlled Somalian city of Kismayo. For a while VSO were issuing security warnings on Fridays that there might be tension likely after 1 o’clock prayers particularly around large mosques across the country. Is there not something very dubious about praying if it makes you want to immediately go out and cause trouble? Normally whenever I have come out of church the things most occupying my mind are 1) where shall I get my Sunday lunch? and 2) will the washing up get done if I have a couple of pints of London Pride right now? I can honestly say I’ve never come out of church wanting to go on the rampage setting fire to things. Surely collective societies across the world need to be asking what exactly is being taught in some of these mosques as I suspect it isn’t a consistent message of compassion, tolerance and forgiveness. Sadly I suspect that would to lead to vehement accusations of xenophobia by the likes of Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and other liberal Nazis so I guess we’ll all just have to continue pretending there isn’t a problem. I think the recent senseless violence across the world and the death of a US ambassador kind of just proves my point….
The past month has been quiet with regards to the Polytechnic as the students have been on holiday for the month of August. So after having some meetings and getting some admin out of the way I took the opportunity to get out of Meru and see a little more of Kenya and so I headed down to the coast to start with Mombasa. Apart from being stiflingly hot and sticky with regular tropical rains and aggressive mosquitos Mombasa was good fun and has a very different, much more relaxed feel than Nairobi. The thing I found most surprising was how Islamic it is and in many respects reminded me of when I lived in the United Arab Emirates. The population of Muslims constitutes around 25% of the entire population of Kenya but they are very concentrated along the coast and Mombasa is apparently around 70% Muslim.
In the interest of saving money and on the advice of another volunteer called Wendy who lives on the coast I stayed in a place around 10km north of Mombasa Island called Mtwapa. Mtwapa is a really nice coastal town with some great bars and cheap places to eat but it has another side and at night can appear to be quite seedy with sex tourism very much alive and kicking. I would routinely see white women in their 50s and 60s (often German) walking around with Kenyan men who are possibly no older than 25. Even the barber shop I visited offered something called “Men Relaxing”. I didn’t ask about the men relaxing as it was only 10 o’clock in the morning and there was a queue so it didn’t feel appropriate and I’ll have to just rely on my imagination.
Mombasa is great for shopping for garments and spices etc. and whilst there I took the time to visit Fort Jesus. This is the original fort upon which the port of Mombasa was fought over between the Portuguese and the Omani Arabs over a period of around 150 years between the late 1400s and mid-1600s. To say Mombasa has a bloody history is a bit of an understatement and at one point the fort changed hands every 18 months or so by one army laying siege on it until the people inside either went mad and / or starved to death. Later when Kenya was a colony the fort was used by us ever practical Brits as a prison.
Naturally a week in Kenya wouldn’t be complete without me picking up some stranger who wants to be my new best friend. This week it was a chap called David probably in his 50s who happened to be walking out of the hotel at the same time as me. Unsurprisingly he invited himself to dinner with me and proceeded to talk at length about his brother who he claimed is the Immigration Minister and insisted that he could get me any documents I needed. David apparently has a very successful real estate business (despite staying in a hotel costing about £6 per night) and although I made it abundantly clear on a number of occasions that I am a volunteer of very modest means he seemed to convince himself that I could invest in his properties and offered to take me to Lamu to see some of them which he insisted was just over an hour away. Whilst my knowledge of Kenyan coastal geography is still quite patchy this didn’t sound quite right so whilst I went to the loo I made a very quick phone call to Wendy:
Me: Hi Wendy, quick question for you, how far is Lamu from here?
Wendy: About eight hours.
Me: Right. Thanks.
As I suspected David wasn’t quite the full ticket and so I decided to give him the slip by apologising that I had to go and meet my imaginary girlfriend. This didn’t stop him from suggesting that he could come along and despite me insisting that my girlfriend wouldn’t appreciate me turning up to meet her with another man he still tried to call me an hour later and then every day until I left the Mtwapa which meant I was constantly checking the coast was clear every time I wanted to leave my hotel. (Still haven’t worked out a method for not exchanging phone numbers). I thought he’d eventually got the message, that is until he called me again last night to tell me that all of the immigration documentation was sorted and that he could come to Meru to deliver it!
It seems I left Mombasa at the right time as a few days later a Muslim cleric Sheikh Aboud Rogo was gunned down in the city in what was effectively a drive-by shooting. The Sheik was accused by the UN and US of backing Islamist fighters based in Somalia and the killing sparked tensions that saw angry youths in Mombasa go on the rampage setting fire to a church and a van in the process. The violence quickly spread across the island with more torching of churches and eventually two more people ended up dead and as I write this tensions are still running high and people are still committing acts of violence.
This kind of thing seems to be a regular occurrence in Kenya due to the influence of Al-Shabab, a regional off-shoot of Al-Qaeda that are based in Somalia and now and again go on a raid across the border in the north east of Kenya to gun a load of people down. It seems that the situation is somewhat inflamed by the Kenyan government trying to fight a war against this terrorist group which is proving costly and largely ineffective and seems to be playing into the hands of those justifying the violence (Hmm, conventional army being given the run around by a bunch of rag-tag goat herders with AK47s living in hostile terrain and motivated by religious extremists, Gosh this all sounds vaguely familiar, haven’t we been here before….?)
After a week on the coast I had to go to a place called Machakos for motorcycle training so that I can get my ‘piki piki’ licence. The training was enjoyable enough riding off-road around some beautiful mountainous countryside on a 125cc Honda with our instructor Peter. Peter enlightened us as to why some drivers are so bad in Kenya; during the Moi regime throughout the 80s and 90s corruption was so rife that now an estimated 70% of road users have obtained their licence simply by offering the right price and have never had a test, or in some circumstances even a lesson in their lives!
The day before the test Peter spoke to the policeman who would be testing us and the policeman told him that he needed to be in another town by mid-morning so we were given two options for the following day, 1) arrive at 07:00 and do the test early or 2) come at 11:00 when he had returned from the other town. Keen to get things over and done with and head back to Nairobi in good time all four of us opted for the early test. The following morning we duly turned up at 07:00 and waited for the policeman. And waited. And waited. Until eventually he tuned up at 08:20. Surprisingly he apologised for being late (this is very unusual in Kenya, particularly with minor government officials). The policeman was congenial enough but seeing as he was now running late he was in no mood to hang about. The theory aspect of the test consisted of me being asked the meaning of four road signs and giving five examples of places where you should not overtake. After four examples (I was struggling with the fifth) he said that I had said enough and I was then asked to manoeuvre a toy car around a kind of Playmobile toy town in order to demonstrate that I knew that you can’t turn right in the left hand lane of a four-lane roundabout. Interestingly there we no questions about making phone calls whilst driving.
We then had to go outside for the practical aspect of the test that I had been gearing myself up towards for three and a half days. “OK”, he said. “I want you to ride up to the entrance of the test centre”… Sitting on my bike I was poised for further instruction….“And then turn around and come back again” he concluded. All in all we were asked to ride about 50 yards along a dirt track. I doubt I was on the bike for more than 25 seconds and when we returned he congratulated us all on passing with flying colours on the basis that none of us had fallen off. The whole test took under five minutes and we didn’t even go within a mile of a proper road! Despite being in Kenya now for four months I constantly see things that cause me to redefine my understanding of the phrase ‘complete and utter farce’. Fortunately with 15 years of driving experience and some more rigorous training on a bike in the UK I am fairly confident otherwise I am pretty sure I could reduce my life expectancy from another 48 years to around 6 weeks. In any case, I am sure my new found mobility will give me much to write about over the coming months…
Next time I will try and put some photos in showing where I live etc. but right now it’s proving a challenge.
Is what I am in danger becoming since a fellow volunteer lent me his external hard-drive with various series of The Wire and Madmen on it. That said, the last few weeks have been relatively uneventful anyway as over a week of this was spent in Nairobi at a hotel receiving rather belated ‘welcome to Kenya’ information and Swahili lessons due to me arriving out of cycle but it was nice to have a week of hot showers and ready prepared food – even if it did give me a dodgy stomach every other day.
Nairobi is a funny place and I can’t yet decide whether I like it or loath it. On the face of things the smog, the constant threat of being pickpocketed and the relative expense of everything compared to Meru doesn’t suggest a lot to be admired but what I love about Kenya is the fact that everyone and anyone does whatever they can to make a living and nowhere is this more obvious than Nairobi. I recently saw a man selling books on the side of the street; sandwiched between Time magazine and ‘The Key to Jehovah’s Kingdom’ was a thick textbook entitled ‘Complete Rhinoplasty’. Of course the cynic in me had a quiet chuckle to myself at the thought of a plastic surgeon stopping to purchase this on the way to performing a nose job. But then one day, someday, just maybe that ludicrously niche sale will happen and who am I to suggest otherwise? I really admire that hope and belief and it’s something you don’t see at home…
Back in Kithoka we are still waiting for the government to cough up the training allowance for our first year students despite the academic year having started in January. The upshot of this is that we don’t have any money to buy training materials which means that we can’t produce anything. In addition, through complete mismanagement of student fee payments over the past years we are collectively owed over 300,000 shillings by the student population so we can’t offer any food that is vaguely tasty or interesting. Last week the students decided to have a riot in the middle of the night over the fact that they get fed githeri (a soupy mixture of beans and maize that is really not very good) pretty much every day. The result was that the Polytechnic principle, area chief, police, board of governors chairman and the local MP all got called out in the middle of the night to manage the situation. I’m not entirely sure why it took so many people to calm the situation down as all it really amounted to was a few unruly teenage boys breaking a couple of windows and issuing a list of demands (less githeri was at the top of the list) however it seems that whenever there is any drama in Kenya as many people as possible have to get involved which if anything just inflames the situation and results in lots of people talking at each other and no one actually listening. This phenomenon is not just applicable to riots but it seems that any initiative whatsoever needs to be a ‘community project’ and have a committee of people that is simply too large to be effective. Sadly this is endemic in Kenya from top to bottom; the Kenyan government has no less than 42 ministries all laden with their own mindboggling amount of bureaucracy and they do not appear to be joined up in any way whatsoever. No wonder progress is so painfully slow!
To be honest I’m not surprised the students rioted as the githerii we give them really isn’t very good and if I had to eat it myself I would have rioted a long time ago. However, I am somewhat more fortunate in as much as my lunch is prepared by the catering class though even this has constituted little more than cabbage and rice for the past three weeks so I am becoming notably thinner and I wasn’t exactly chubby when I left the UK….
So, in desperation I agreed to buy one of the secretary Eunice’s chickens for 600 shillings (£4.60) so that we could cook a chicken curry for everyone. I actually agreed to pay an extra 100 shillings so that I could have one of the two big cockerels. After a bit of a debate about whether to twist his neck or chop his head off the general consensus was that twisting was better as it generates less blood. Ok, so it wasn’t the cockerel that kept me awake for six weeks but as he squawked his last I did feel I was taking revenge on some symbolic level. It took me a while to convince Pamela (the food processing teacher) that the wild movements the cockerel exhibits after it is dead is not the cockerel’s soul leaving its body but rather merely involuntary muscle spasms but once we cleared that issue up we got well underway in gutting him. I have never seen a cockerel completely gutted before and I thought it was absolutely fascinating. Other than the lungs, gall bladder and testicles everything else was eaten and the boys even saved the legs and head as an after dinner snack because I didn’t want to put them in the curry. I contemplated eating the testicles as apparently they are considered a delicacy in Taiwan if you fry them in garlic but I bottled it at the last minute. Next time we do this I am planning on killing the chicken myself as I feel it’s on my ‘things to do in Africa’ list.
Unsurprisingly life is slipping into some semblance of routine although the local people and their views never cease to amuse me; such as Eunice’s insistence that we shouldn’t eat watermelon that has been in the fridge because eating cold food will give you flu or the girl I met in a bar who insisted I must be from Israel because I have a bald head (honestly I’m not making this up. This unique brand of Kenyan logic is quite commonplace).
Whilst I continue to meet lots of new people on a regular basis I have finally learnt not to give my number out indiscriminately as it inevitably results in a subsequent stream phone calls and text messages from people I barely know. One such individual is now saved in my phone book as ‘Strange Ken’. I met Strange Ken in the street the other week by asking him whether he knew what the Your M&S logo on the back of his shirt meant. His reply was that he didn’t but he liked the design so I explained that M&S was a shop and that this was obviously the shirt of someone that worked there (I’m hoping to one day see someone wearing a red Norbert polo-shirt. God knows I palmed enough of them off on Oxfam over the years!) Somehow the conversation ended in him wanting my number and I couldn’t think up a good enough reason on the spot for why he shouldn’t have it (you can’t lie as they dial it up in front of you. I’ve been caught out before). Within an hour he had called me up and passed the phone on to his mother for me to have a conversation with. Over the past couple of weeks I have had a barrage of three to four texts and phone calls on a daily basis from him which I ignore just saying things like good morning and good night and, worryingly (and I quote) “I miss you ma daddy”. I can’t recall ever telling another man that I miss him and I’m not sure I ever will; especially not one I’ve only ever had a five minute conversation with. Needless to say this was all making me feel rather uncomfortable but it got further out of hand when his mother called me up on another number…. “Hi, I am Mama Ken”… The conversation ended with her inviting me to her birthday party so of course I made up some nonsense to her about how I was in Mombasa for a few weeks. The only reason I can think that she would want me there is that she has come to the conclusion that I have literally thousands of pounds burning a hole in my pocket that I desperately need to give away. Unfortunately it seems that this is the kind of thinking that your average rural Kenyan will arrive at, after all, we’re all filthy rich in Israel aren’t we? Naturally she is now saved in my phone book under the entry ‘Mama Strange’.
This week the area chief is chairing a meeting to discuss what to do about the electric fence that keeps the elephants away from the farms and schools including the polytechnic. The elephants are clever and have worked out that if they push against the wooden posts holding the fence in place they can bring it down without get a shock. One of the guys I occasionally go for a beer with has resorted to carrying a Dennis the Menace style catapult when walking in the bush at night but I’m not entirely convinced it would actually scare off an elephant. Honestly I think it might just incite it to charge at him and I have tried to suggest this but he seems adamant it will do the trick.
Before I sign off I want to let everyone know that I need to get my hands on some computers. They will be used by the Polytechnic as well as two of the local primary schools and the local secondary school as well as local young people, We need ideally 10 but even five would be a start. We have very little money but I am hoping that we can get together the shipping / customs costs etc. if anyone knows of any business / institution that may be prepared to donate used computers please let me know so that I can follow it up. If you want more information for what they will be used for then let me know by email and I will get in touch. Of course I can prepare a report, proposal etc if required. Thanks!
I’ll leave you with a picture I recently took of a guy I found sitting at my desk one morning. Don’t let the hat fool you, he’s an undercover Israeli.
Despite Meru having a population of somewhere between 50,000 and 300,000 depending on who you talk to there is nowhere that sells ear plugs. On at least six occasions I have experienced the momentary sense of elation followed by immediate disappointment when I have asked a chemist for ear plugs and watched them nod knowingly before producing a box of cotton wool buds. Meanwhile, the cockerel was unrelenting so I figured I had two options: 1) ensure the cockerel had an ‘accident’ (apparently if a chicken breaks a leg they have to be put down. I discussed my dilemma with the staff at the polytechnic and the general consensus was that I should either break its leg or offer to buy the cockerel and then eat it) or 2) Go to Nairobi. Admittedly bumping across half of Kenya for four hours in a matatu to buy a pair of ear plugs may seem a little excessive but desperate times call for desperate measures and a lack of faith in my own abilities to literally get away with murder persuaded me to take option two; besides I knew my friend Annie had a hot shower so there was no contest really.
Nairobi lived up to its nickname ‘Nairobbery’ when I got pickpocketed on the number 46 bus. Fortunately I must have sub-consciously sensed the wallet come out of my back pocket as immediately I knew I had been robbed. I also knew the two people responsible because they had been acting strangely brushing up against people beforehand. I was so angry that I repeatedly told them loudly in front of everyone that they were both thieves and demanded my wallet back before standing by the door and announcing to the driver and all of the passengers that no-one was getting off the bus until I had my wallet back (being a spectacle on a day to day basis is quickly becoming the norm). This subsequently sparked everyone frantically searching the bus and coincidentally it was one of the two men I accused of stealing it who produced my wallet saying he ‘found’ it on the floor before promptly handed it back to me with all of the money still inside. I think they were quite unnerved at the scene I created and I was pretty lucky that it had happened in a contained environment otherwise it would have been long gone.
Meanwhile back at the ranch life is progressing well and after two months I have just about managed to establish myself as British rather than American. Of course watching Euro 2012 games in bars with strangers has assisted in my cause to establish myself as an Englishman but the majority of Kenyans I have met have insisted that I look American which I suspect is due to the fact that I wear a wide brimmed hat most of the time. I have even had two people tell me that they thought I was Mexican – which is something I honestly never thought I’d hear.
To be honest the ear plugs were only an interim solution as I have since moved house to a self -contained flat underneath a friend’s house. Naturally this didn’t go smoothly; despite giving prior warning on no less than three occasions that I intended to move on Saturday 23rd June I arrived to find that the rooms were still crammed with boxes, the place was filthy and the toilet didn’t work. The family are horders of the first degree so for the first week I was sharing my living room with a boxed paddling pool (never used and their children are in their mid-20’s!), a zimmer frame (the couple are both in their late 40s and able bodied), camping equipment and a stretcher among other random things that I doubt have been used in the last decade. Ironically I actually had less available space than I had had in my previous accommodation! Since then I have got myself organised; the place is comfortable and life is good.
At the risk of making this blog is a little disjointed here are some interesting observations I thought worth sharing to give a little flavour of day to day life….
Prior to arriving in Africa I had never really considered the important role that voicemail plays in society. There is no voicemail in Kenya and this means that whenever someone’s phone rings answering it seems to become that person’s number one priority regardless of what else they happen to be doing at the time and riding a motorbike or negotiating a roundabout whilst driving a bus full of people will not dissuade someone from attempting to answer their phone, which brings me seamlessly onto traffic observations….
Because I have not had my motorbike I have had to rely on catching taxis everywhere for the past couple of months. The way things work in Meru is that the drivers of the taxis are employed as drivers and do not own their own vehicles so they do not appear to have any invested interest in the long term sustainability of the vehicle and will therefore load as many people as they possibly can into the car. A standard five passenger estate car will typically have:
Passenger seat: x 2 passengers
Driver’s seat: Driver + 1 passenger (I’m serious, the driver will share his seat with a passenger who kind of straddles the gear stick. Of course this is easier if the car is an automatic but on occasion I have seen the passenger changing gear on behalf of the driver)
Rear seats: x 4 passengers (although the record was four adults + a baby + a live chicken in a plastic carrier bag)
Boot: Typically just one or two people and a sack of potatoes although I have seen up to six children in the boot.
Total = 10-15 people.
Of course all of this means that the car barely moves and you can feel the under-chassis tearing apart every time we go over one of the numerous speed bumps between town and Kithoka which is possibly why every vehicle stinks of fuel. Unsurprisingly cars that have upwards of 50,000 miles on the clock are a complete wreck. I once tried engaging a fellow passenger in a discussion on the concept of the false economy but he didn’t really seem to understand and I knew my Swahili wouldn’t stretch that far.
I’m not entirely sure what agreements the taxi drivers have with their employers with regards to fuel but I suspect it is the drivers who carry the cost. This means that they are constantly running on empty and on one occasion we actually ran out completely and the driver had to flag down a guy on a motorbike to bring back a jerry can of petrol before we could set off again. Furthermore in an attempt to economise drivers also sometimes engage in turning off the engine at the top of a hill and coasting for the next mile or so to save fuel. Of course coasting at 50 miles per hour with 12 people in a five seater car can be quite unnerving in itself but when the driver decides to simultaneously wrestle his ringing phone out of his pocket is when I start to get a bit twitchy!
I once saw a driver closing the rear passenger door behind an old lady by throwing his weight into it so hard I thought she was going to need a hip replacement by the time we got to Kithoka which brings me on to the subject of chivalry….
Chivalry is well and truly dead in Kenya (or possibly never existed?). When a driver recently opened the boot for an 80+ year old lady to get in it I got out of the back seat and insisted in my broken Swahili that she could have my seat. Everyone else in the car as well as the lady in question looked at me as if I was totally mad and I got back in my seat feeling a little foolish. Perhaps I should have foreseen this situation bearing in mind that any physically demanding work appears to be done almost exclusively by women (such as going to the forest, chopping wood and hauling what looks like a quarter of a tonne back down the road on their backs or planting seed with a baby strapped to their backs), meanwhile the men just sit around chewing Miraa….
If I live long enough to get my motorbike I’ll post again in a couple of weeks. Also I tried to upload some photos this week but my circa 1995 connection can’t cope with anything technical like that so I’ll try again soon!