Twelve lessons

Back on home soil, this blog needs an ending of some sort. Even if there are no such formal endings in real life. Here follows twelve lessons for each of the twelve months Kenya has spent stealing my heart.

1. “If you follow an organism in the field for extended periods of time…you can’t help but come to the conclusion, by George, this organism isn’t doing much, is it?” – Dr Joan Herbers, Zoologist
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You know that thing about being as busy as a bee? Well it’s rubbish. Bees aren’t working round the clock. In fact, on average, they’re just working three to four hours a day (for more information about the relative productivity levels of other stars of the animal kingdom please refer to the following http://freespace.virgin.net/sarah.peter.nelson/pages/busybee.html.)

Somehow though, many of us – myself included – have managed to elevate this imaginary busyness to a much coveted virtue. Before I came to Kenya I was fully guilty of believing in the overriding importance of productivity, “making the most” of every minute and had an approach to leisure which involved calendars and lots of scheduling. So when I arrived in Kenya I developed a severe case of the “slowing down jitters”. My self-prescribed cure was whizzing round as much of the country as humanly possible. It wasn’t until I voluntarily took myself to live on an island that I was forced to just deal with the fact that it is actually OK not to do all that much.

Now this isn’t to say Kenyans don’t work bloody hard. In fact I’d go as far as to say the daily routine for a woman in rural Kenya may be as tough as it gets on this wee planet of ours. It certainly gets kinda embarrassing after a while trying to explain what my typical weekend in the UK looked like to a woman whose concept of having a break is a morning at church starting at 7.30am. The difference isn’t work load. The difference is pace. And – even more specifically – a slower pace that makes time for genuine, engaged, fully present interaction with other people.

I’m still guilty of falling into the productivity trap but I’m going to try as hard as I can to carry the memory of people at ease with the fact they have spent the day simply sat in one spot watching the world go by, talking to whoever happens to stop. I will try as hard as I can to remember there is never any benefit in being too busy to engage fully with the present moment and the person in front of you. Even if my phone has notified me that I have a message waiting on Whatsapp…

Luckily, you probably don’t need to move to Kenya to get to grips with all this. You can start with TED in the comfort of your living room. Add it to your to-do list: https://www.ted.com/playlists/204/slow_down_enjoy_life#

2. “Like parliamentary democracy, roundabouts are a great British export with a risk” – The Economist

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Only The Economist could get away with such a statement (http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21587234-parliamentary-democracy-roundabouts-are-great-british-export-risk-widening). But I hope to get away with stating that it is true.

Kenya is undeniably riddled with the problems besetting a country with a democratic governance system and an electorate ripe for division along tribal rather than ideological lines. Corruption, nepotism, conflict, inequality you name it.

It is also a country with a capital city brought to its knees by roundabouts between the hours of 7am to 9am, 4pm to 7pm and whenever it rains.

I have certainly learned that roundabouts only work in societies where road users buy into a belief in the overriding importance of polite deference and hold a deep seated aversion to confrontation and conflict. In other words, roundabouts work in Britain; the land of people who believe in the queue as a symbol of a highly functioning society.

Down with the roundabout!

3. “If the industrial nations really want to help the Africans, they should finally terminate this awful aid.” – James Shikwati, Kenyan Economist 

IMG_4530That is a picture of a hole you’re looking at. I took the photo in Laikipia, a region near Mount Kenya. It was pointed out to me by the chair lady of the Masai women’s self-help group that owned the land. Pointed out, what’s more, in the manner of someone who is unashamedly delighted to have been proved right…

Nearly 100 such holes were dug by an international NGO who came to plant trees and improve the soil quality of the area. Our guide told us how she had urged the NGO to come just before the rains fell as otherwise the trees would quickly shrivel in this scorching hot, arid part of the country. They ignored her. 100 holes later, 100 tree shoots died and the women are left with a field that is ripe with opportunity for twisted ankles both human and cattle.

This is a teeny-tiny example of bad aid. It’s also a glib example. The quote as the head of this “lesson” refers to the much more serious and saddening theory that inappropriate foreign aid only increases dependence, squashes entrepreneurialism and lets corrupt, ineffectual governments carry on without being held to account for failing to provide for the people they purport to serve. The actual scale of terrible, misguided international development efforts is huge, systemic, structural and maddeningly intangible.

It may make us feel good to give to charity and wanting to help is no bad thing. But I’m not all that sure that questioning recent moves to enshrine a commitment of earmarking 0.7% of GDP per year to foreign aid is a hobby just to be left to the “nasty” Tories… (http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/dec/05/lib-dem-foreign-aid-bill-survives-tory-attempt-kill and (http://www.spiegel.de/international/spiegel/spiegel-interview-with-african-economics-expert-for-god-s-sake-please-stop-the-aid-a-363663.html).

This is a difficult admission for someone who makes a living out of my own and other people’s genuine urge to help and make a difference. This is one lesson that I’m not quite sure of the ending yet.

4. “Now for something more lighthearted” – Me

That got heavy. Here’s a song that dominated the radio and will forever remind me of commuting to work on the bus.

 

5. “But you’re a good person” – Anonymous Kenyan friend of mine

According to a Gallup poll from 2012, Kenya ranks as the 8th most religious country in world with 88% identifying themselves as a religious person and the other 11% declared as “not religious, committed atheist or not sure”. By contrast, in the last British census from 2011, 59.3% of people checked Christian but approximately 25% said no religion.

But stats don’t tell the whole story (do they ever?). In addition to being less numerous (as a relative per centage not absolute), our 33 million Christians certainly don’t behave as religiously as Kenyan Christians. I have exceedingly few friends who go to Church on a weekly basis, I don’t think I know anyone who prays before meals and I certainly have never been to a workplace which starts the working week with a two hour devotion or the Lord’s prayer at the head of a meeting. As a result, entering a society where faith is expressed so regularly and publicly took a bit of adjusting to.

Luckily my revelation that I am not religious was usually met with no more than a bemused shake of the head as highlighted in my friend’s surprise in the quote above. I was an oddity but a fairly harmless one (although one person did ask whether – as a non-believer AND non-meat eater – I was a member of the Illuminati…).

The lesson here is not that I now have seeds of faith. Rather the lesson is that I can see the benefits of some elements of the way faith is expressed in Kenya. For example, I did find myself on occasion really rather valuing the time given over to thirty minutes of devotion before the start of a day long training session. There was something to be said about spending time collectively reflecting an important theme – often one that could stand alone from religion such as forgiveness or treating others with kindness – which brought clarity, perspective and togetherness that made the rest of the day flow more easily.

I can’t for a minute imagine this actually happening in the UK and that’s fine too. Everything has a place and I’d be the first to admit I’d be far too cynical to participate with the openess required. However, the point holds that we really don’t give much time and space to whole-hearted, un-cynical discussions of ethics and love in society. And maybe things like the atheist Sunday Assembly (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21319945) or The School of Life (http://www.theschooloflife.com/london/) represent the early beginnings of an attempt to redress the imbalance.

Finally, I can’t sing but I also now know that starting a Monday morning with an hour or so of very loud signing and dancing with your colleagues is AWESOME. Unless you’re very tired and have a lot of deadlines looming. And according to my colleague, dancing along to Sunday morning gospel on the telly is one of best weight loss mechanisms going.

6. “Muzungus are weird” – Countless Kenyan friends of mine

Final reminder: ‘muzungu’ is the term liberally applied to all white people. And yes, we are weird (for more on this please refer to this earlier post: https://twendevso.wordpress.com/2014/05/27/nairobis-weirdest-mzungu/.)

For starters, and linking back to the lesson above, we forced the Bible down the throats of people across Africa yet now we are shrugging off the strictures of the ten commandments at a rate of knots. In the ten years between UK censuses (2001 and 2011) there has been a decrease in people who identify as Christian from 71.7 per cent to 59.3 per cent and an increase in those reporting no religion from 14.8 per cent to 25.1 per cent. My Kenyan friends found this turnaround of affairs highly amusing and bizarre behaviour.

What’s more we come across as pretty rude. I can’t think of the number of times people questioned why I didn’t say hello or wave when I saw another white person. As Kenyan friends explained, if they met another Kenyan in London they would greet each other like long lost brothers or sisters. Being guilty on occasion of walking past another muzungu on the street and averting my eyes to avoid a greeting, all I can say is that it’s a combination of the fact that not all white people are from the same countru…and, perhaps more honestly, it’s a very clumsy way of trying not to be racist. Of trying not to treat the sharing of a skin colour as something special. Like I say, clumsy, overcompensating, and probably very, very wrong.

A short list of some of the other things I’ve learned can seem a bit weird: We can be too curious and once we have a thought or an idea we have to test it. Even if things might end badly. We have inappropriate relations with animals such as letting dogs sleep in our house/ on the bed/ in the bed). We created the stiletto show and wearing one is an idiotic thing to do to yourself. We are rich yet we have homeless people living on the streets.

7. “In absence of clearly defined goals, we become strangely loyal to performing daily acts of trivia” – Unknown

A quick Google for “inspirational quotes about goals” brings up a tonne of self-help – usually conflicting – advice. Regardless of what you think about goals (a requisite for a full and happy life or spoilers of the joy of the journey) there’s no denying their prominence. On the international development scene, eight goals in particular rule the roost: The Millenium Development Goals.

These eight goals were formulated – as the name suggests – at the time of the millenium and we, as a global society, are but one year away from the deadline we set ourselves for achieving them. In short, the world set itself the biggest self-improvement drive of all time and we’ll soon know if we’ve become all that we dreamed.

But considering how popular self-improvement is, ask yourself, how many of the Millenium Development Goals could you list?

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Some of us will be familiar with them from work and others will be able to hazard an educated guess. But truly, they don’t play much of a role in the collective consciousness of the UK. We don’t tend to sit around worrying about how many children are getting a primary education or about maternal mortality rates. We’re not overly concerned about combatting malaria on our wee island. Food banks and food poverty are a growing concern but we aren’t trying to tackle famine. Generally, comparatively, we’re doing all right.

In contrast, in Kenya people really KNOW about these goals. First up because these goals are more a matter of life and death. And, secondly, more cynically, perhaps they matter because there’s a lot of money attached to them. Development comes with budgets, salaries, seating allowances and free t-shirts…

But things might be about to change. Over the last few years people at the UN – and a whole host of concerned people from civil society and business – have been working furiously at drawing up a whole new set of goals, the Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs. Due for release in September 2015, with implementation getting going in 2016, the notable thing about these goals is that, this time, they are intended to be truly universal in their application. That means they aren’t going to be goals for poor countries that rich countries help out with. They are going to apply to me and you.

So it’s probably time to sit up and start paying attention.

http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2014/aug/06/sustainable-development-goals-un

For more on self-improvement at the macro-level take a listen to possibly one of my favourite This American Life episodes of all times, and the story of Honduran civil servant who convinced his bosses to let him take a fairly unihabited corner or the country and try make the perfect city from scratch: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/483/self-improvement-kick

8. “It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important” – Arthur Conan Doyle

Don’t panic. This lesson is not me trying to comfort myself about going to Africa and failing to save the world! More it has been confirmed to me that it is not grand gestures, transformational change, and once-in-a-lifetime experiences that get you up in the morning.

Nairobi is a city full of congestion (see above), ugly buildings, poverty and some crime (but not the pandemic levels people associate it with). Nonetheless I love it. For the daily, small acts of kindness and warmth people show. For the laughter. For the carrying on regardless. On the other hand, I am forever going to love gchat for keeping me close to wonderful, supportive people at home when it all felt a bit too much.

And as for the small successes I will carry with me: inspiring my taxi driver to take up running (he went on to run the Nairobi marathon in 3 hours after never having done more than 5K… errr…not fair), touching more people than I expected with my decision to quit my job (turns out lots of people have things they want to quit. Do it!), and helping one very talented woman realise she had a lot of talent.

Maybe doesn’t sound much for a year but I’m ok with that.

9. “I’d like to have my childhood all over again and spend my days making boats out of logs” – Me

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10. “It’s the economy stupid” – Bill Clinton

And sometimes I feel stupid at how little I can comprehend the craziness of the globalised economy.

Mitunda is the name given to the sprawling, hectic second hand markets you find across Kenya. In Nairobi they surpass even the craziness of Primark at Marble Arch. Really.

And funnily enough Primark goods are what you’ll find. Just before I came home I tried to buy a cheap pair of boots after realising I was going home to winter weather. I spotted a pair and tried them on. Perfect fit. The thing is they are Primark boots, imported all the way here. I know they cost about £3 in the UK. The market stall holder wanted me to pay the equivalent of £21 (post haggling!). How can it be more expensive to buy second hand shoes in Kenya than new in central London?

On the total flip side, I have a friend (who may or may not read this!) who runs a nice business buying second-hand, branded hiking jackets sent over from Europe and America – North Face, Berghaus, you name it – at rock bottom prices in the markets of Nairobi then ships them back to the UK where a business partner spruces them up and sells them to you and me for a nice profit on ebay.

Weirder still are the clothes with the tags still on from high-street charity shops in the UK. Turns out charities sort through donations and sell what they can overseas to generate income for their work and stimulate the economy overseas. It’s actually genius. But mind-blowing that Kenyans are buying clothes we donate for charity.

If you’re interested in learning more, this is a fairly comprehensive article on all the goings on: https://kivafellows.wordpress.com/2013/07/17/mitumba-101-the-second-hand-clothing-trade-in-kenya/

11. “I love you with all of my blood pump” – Unknown Pastor

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The great art of oration is alive and kicking in Kenya and I think most people could earn a small fortune if they started delivering public speaking courses to Western professionals desperate to break away from the tyranny of PowerPoint.

Perhaps it is the frequency with which people get to practice at devotions and church, but I’m constantly amazed at the confidence and bravado with which people get up and speak. No prep, no notes, skipping between English, Kiswahili and mother tongue. Storytelling draws you in, pictures are painted, pregnant pauses build tension and rhetoric is applied liberally (maybe too liberally but that’s another post).

But beyond all, Kenyan’s have a creativity with language that I simply cannot get enough of. Hence the title of this lesson. The quote is drawn from a preacher who was speaking about love one day at work. Why stick with boring physiological language like “heart” when we can talk of “blood pumps”?

Note to self: must try harder with language.

12. “Everybody hates a tourist, especially one that thinks it’s all such a laugh” – Jarvis Cocker

The lyrics to Pulp’s 1996 hit “Common People” were ostensibly written about a posh lass trying to fit into working class life in Sheffield. Nonetheless, I believe the underlying message transcends continents and cultures and offers a word of warning to anyone who thinks they can truly ever “get” what it’s like to be from a country where almost 50% of people live below the poverty line (43.3% in 2012).

“But still you’ll never get it right
`cos when you’re laid in bed at night
Watching …. roaches climb the wall
If you called your Dad he could stop it all.”

You may think this is a silly reference. It is not meant to be. I have lived the best side that Kenya has to offer because I have enough money and – more times than I care to admit – because I’m white in a place where, despite the colonial era abuses (and some on-going one’s), that draws on occasion undeserved respect and special treatment.

But more than a few times I’ve been witness to what it means not to have such favourable factors on your side and it’s shit. Truly, truly shit if you’ll excuse the language. On these occasions my rose tinted spectacles are shattered. On these occasions I get outraged, realise my naivety and gain another level of understanding about this country.

I may not “call my dad to stop it all” but I do get walk away, put it out of my mind and enjoy another magical thing Kenya has to offer. And it’s important I don’t forget that critical difference between me and the people I meet.

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When a girl goes to school

You really need to love loud music to live in Kenya. The shops pump it out through their grills, the buses crank the base of their sound systems until your chest reverberates, work meetings will involve regular outbursts of singing, even the boda boda drivers strap speakers to their motorbikes so everyone on the street can enjoy the sweet sounds of gospel hip-hop (yes, it exists). Beyond volume there seems to be a few other things most Kenyan’s agree on when it comes to music:

  • Tanzanian’s are the best lyricists and their songs ring out with beautiful poetry from the true masters of the Swahili language
  • Dancing on your own, anywhere, to music that moves you is absolutely appropriate and accepted
  • Air guitars are played at chest level not slung low by the hips, like a cool kid bass player
  • This is not the most annoying song every created (despite it clearly being the most annoying song ever created and played approximately every five minutes on Classic 105 FM)

The final thing people seem to agree on is that Congolese music is the best in all the world. And here I’m totally on board.

Nairobi’s best Congolese bar was just round the corner from my house and at weekends the resident band would take to the stage at 8pm. With six singers, three guitarists, a drummer and several others lurking at the sides the stage was full off bling-ed up clothing (the drummer’s leather suit was head to toe diamante). Gradually the dance floor would fill with people gently swaying their shoulders while the all male line-up on stage pumped their hips in time. Franco – sorcerer of the guitar – is the widely acknowledged legend of Congolese rumba. When he died in the late 1980’s there were four days of national mourning in what was then Zaire. He is still heavily revered in Kenya too and his style widely copied by Luo musicians in Western province. And he is revered by no-one more than Patrick, owner of the best bar on Rusinga. Patrick is mainly known to his patrons by a Linghala name, his stereo only plays rumba and when we went to a club one Saturday night where the live band weren’t playing rumba he refused to dance. Many a night was spent with Patrick translating the songs for me and teaching the rituals of live rumba performance including ‘praise singing’ where the musicians incorporate the name of a member of the audience into a song; a little ego boost in exchange for a tip.

As for his favourite Luo rumba musician? George Ramogi. And his favourite album? “When a girl goes to school” or “Kanyako Osomo”. As Patrick passionately explained, George’s songs weren’t all romance. Back in the 70’s he was singing about the benefits of sending girls to school rather than keeping them at home for house work and marriage. Unfortunately, there’s still a way to go for women in Kenya with only 48% of girls enrolled in secondary school. I can’t think of a more enjoyable campaigning medium than rumba!

Catch of the Night

The sun sets on Rusinga at about 7pm. There are no streets lamps on the island and few families can afford the expensive fee to connect to the electricity mains. So, at night, with light pollution minimal, the sky is a deep, dark black. As a result, the stars are impressive. Yet it’s not the stars that hold your eyes captive here. It’s the lake. The ‘city of the night’ as the locals calls it.

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Terrible as my photography is, at night hundreds of men go out to fish by the light of kerosene lamps which make the lake twinkle brighter than any night sky I’ve ever seen.

The lights attract flies which in turn attract tiny silver fish called Omena. By dawn the boats will return to shore and the catch passed to waiting women who spread them out over the land to dry in the sun. Once evening falls again, trucks will have arrived from across Kenya to distribute the fish to places as near by as neighbouring Kisumu and as far as Mombasa on the other side of the country.

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But while the “city of the night” is strikingly beautiful, the lights hide – rather than illuminate – a multitude of problems.

Overfishing and pollution of the lake due to chemical run-off from farms has dramatically reduced the fish population in Rusinga. Not just of the night time Omena, but also of the larger fish, Nile Perch and Tilapia. As a result the price of fish has soared in recent years leaving many families unable to afford their staple food; one of the reasons why the RIOFA project is trying to encourage a move to farming on the island.

But it’s not simply less money in the pocket and fewer favourite meals on the table. ‘Jaboya’ – or ‘sex for fish’ – is the practice of women trading their bodies in return for the first and freshest catch of the day; the fish that will earn them the most at the market that day (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-26186194). The result is a soaring rate of HIV prevalence, estimated to be between 15 – 30%. Two or three times higher than the national average of 6%.

Like most of Kenya, Rusinga is packed with development initiatives run by community groups, international NGOs and government agencies trying to tackle complex challenges like ‘jaboya’ with multiple causes and effects. Roadsides are crammed with signs alerting passersby to the presence of funding from foreign embassies and schemes with good intentions, yet it’s impossible to find a road sign directing you to any of the Island’s landmarks (including the mausoleum of Tom Mboya, one of the most prominent individuals involved in Kenya’s fight for independence).

Despite the high visibility of hard work and genuine effort, it’s more difficult to see what progress is being made. When you ask about some of the projects on display, locals will sigh and go on to explain what went wrong or how funds were misspent. Hundreds of books and thousands of articles have been written about the development industry, it’s failings and it’s successes. And places like Rusinga truly show the interconnectedness of social, economic and environmental issues, and how vital holistic solutions are.

Luckily, even if at times pessimism got the better of me, Rusingan’s are a sturdier bunch. Each new initiative is met with open arms. The levels of engagement in community development are impressively high. People will discuss politics for hours and hours and, from my experience, the chats down at the pub are far better informed about detailed policy initiatives than ours are in the UK!

If the development industry needs a motivational motto, there’s always the trusty “Rome wasn’t built in a day” I suppose…

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The Irony of the Widow Without A Roof

“Do you have a husband?”

I’m sitting on the shore of the Lake Victoria; the sun is setting, tiny little black and white kingfishers are diving to catch fish and an eagle has just swooped perilously close overhead. I’m sat on my own. But Kenyans can’t seem to bear the sight of a person alone so I knew it wouldn’t be too long before I was spotted and someone came to rescue me from my supposed loneliness!

Luckily my rescuer is Julie, the sister-in-law of my host on Rusinga, Dennis.

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Julie’s opening line is a classic conversation piece here. We move swiftly on to number of siblings and I ask her how many children she has. Questions such as “what do you do?” might come up much later, if at all. Julie doesn’t ask me this time but I already know what she does. She has a small shamba (small-holding or farm) near her house which I’d visited earlier that day.

Previously Julie just grew maize, maize and more maize on her plot. Now there are huge paw paw that look like they might fall on your head at any moment, cassava, potatoes, spinach, kale, passionfruit and cowpea. There are two mango trees in a tiny nursery, waiting for rain enough to plant in the soil. Moringa – a Kenyan-own-brand super food – lines the plot.

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So what prompted the change? RIOFA! Rusinga Island Organic Farmers Association: the project I’m visiting and which Julie became an early member of.

Julie’s story is similar to many of the stories I’ve heard when visiting the participating farmers. She is passionate about being able to feed herself, being able to eat healthy, pesticide free food, and – just as importantly – being able to earn a small income from selling the excess produce.

She’s also similar in sharing the main grumble I’ve heard so far on the island: there is simply not enough water on Rusinga.

This is another problem I hadn’t truly appreciated when I first arrived. Western Kenya is luscious and green, a world apart from the dryness of the north and the rocky Rift Valley. It can be hard to believe that it doesn’t rain all that much here, but as soon as I stepped onto the island the conversations almost always eventually turned to rain, or rather the lack of it. To understand the problem, you need a little history.

The island used to be covered in trees and forests. Dennis told me how he used play in them just 20 years ago as a child, spending his days foraging for wild berries and eating until he was too full for the meals his mum prepared. But as the population of the island increased – 5,000 to 35,000 in the years since 1970 – the demand for firewood for cooking increased. What’s more, all those fish that were being caught were also being smoked in little fire pits fuelled by the forest. Now there are next to no trees and, as a result, very little rain.

One of the first things RIOFA needed to do therefore, in addition to teaching the methods of permaculture, was find a way to help ensure the new crops had water enough to grow. While the farms are surrounded by a seemingly obvious water source in the form of the freshwater Lake Victoria, the expense of pumping it for irrigation is too great to be viable for all but a few lakeside farms. In general people rely on their donkeys to do the leg work and will walk too and fro several times a day collecting as much as they can.

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As part of the plan for a the long-term solution, Dennis is negotiating with the local government to protect land for tree planting. But politics and squabbles over land ownership are slowing things down. And even if they start planting, success will be dependent on an accompanying heavy weight education programme that teaches people why they shouldn’t cut down trees and the provision of alternative, affordable fuel sources.

But, in the short term, there is some light at the end of the tunnel for the new farmers. All RIOFA members have had water tanks installed next to their homes to harvest the little rain water that does fall. It works well. That is, it works well, apart from for Julie. As we walked home from the lake that evening, she told me her story.

Julie’s husband was in the process of building a new house for them when sadly he passed away. As we paused in our walk, she pointed over at a building nearby. That, she told me, was her house. I was startled and hoped it didn’t show too much on my face. I’d noticed the site earlier but had presumed no-one lived there yet as it consisted of a few walls but no windows, doors, and most strikingly no roof. Read that again. No roof.

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It would take £3,000 to put a roof over her head but Julie is a widow with no way to generate that money. Instead she makes do by living in one small room which she has covered with corrugated iron. Julie showed me around the unfinished rooms pointing out where one day she hopes to have a bathroom, a living room, a kitchen. She’d lived like this for 12 years. To make matters more painful (in my opinion, I didn’t know how to politely ask hers) Julie’s late-husband’s first wife lives in a perfectly finished house right next door. Polygamy is still quite commonly practised here and, as is customary, the wives are often provided with separate houses. It was a cruel twist of fate that left Julie with just a set of walls.

Now I know I said that it doesn’t rain much on Rusinga. But it does rain sometimes. And this is the litmus test for Julie’s dedication to her new vocation as a farmer; despite having no roof to keep her dry, Julie really, really wants the rain to come. This despite the fact that when it does rain her tiny room floods with the water coming through the unfinished door, turning the dirt floor to mud. But she knows that without the rain her crops won’t flourish.

Next to the walls of her house sits the large tank supplied by RIOFA, waiting to fill and provide water to the soil a few meters away. But without a roof there can be no rain water harvesting. And so Julie waits. For rain. For a roof. For a better future.

Adventures on a Piki Piki

Rusinga isn’t all that big but if you were to circumnavigate it you would cover 21km. In the fierce sun these distances mean that the most common mode of transport on the rough, dirt roads is the piki piki. The motorbike. Nothing beats a good piki piki journey for fun. I’ve had many memorable rides out here, none perhaps more so than the one I took with Morven when we visited Kakamega Forest…

Morven was fresh off the plane from the UK. We’d followed that up with a ten hour bus journey and had reached the nearest town to the forest just as the light was dwindling. It was also raining. We moved between the ranks of piki piki drivers trying in vain to pronounce the name of where we wanted to go (Isecheno) but were met with non-plussed shakes of the head. No-one knew where it was. Eventually we met a taxi driver who firmly informed us there was no way we were getting to Isecheno that evening; the roads were impassable due to the rain. He advised we stay in Kakamega Town for the night and see whether the roads dried out.

This was not what I wanted to hear. I wanted to wake up in the middle of the forest in our little tree house accommodation!! So I pressed on until we found two drivers who spoke no English, almost no Kiswahili but had foolhardy hearts. By this point however it was dark and the rain was getting heavier. We were committing all the cardinal sins of piki piki journeys and I just hoped Morvs had a strong spirit of adventure in her!

Soon it became more than clear that listening to the advice of the taxi man would have been the wise option. The roads were churned thick with mud and the way ahead was pitch black with the forest looming ominously around us. I quickly realised that it wouldn’t take much for our drivers to decide they’d earn a faster bob or two by robbing us and dumping us somewhere on the roadside. Trying to push these thoughts away, I concentrated on holding on tight.

The road was so slippery that our drivers struggled to keep the bikes upright. Of course, it wasn’t long until the inevitable happened. I was anxiously looking ahead, checking to see if Morven was ok, when I saw the bike slide from underneath them and watched as Morven fell off into the waiting, loving arms of the pool of mud below…In a remarkable show of good will she laughed and got back on. It was at this point I started to ask “how far?”

When I had booked our accommodation the lodge manager had told me it was just a thirty minute drive. We’d now been going for one hour but I put it down to the poor driving conditions. Cautiously, I asked my driver “how long?. “Twenty minutes” came the reply. Twenty minutes passed. “How long now?” I asked again. “Twenty more minutes”.

When we hit the two hour mark I asked again, trying to keep the rising panic out of my voice. “Twenty kilometres” came the reply. NO!!!! Now I couldn’t hide my panic and refused to go any further until we had gotten careful direction from the lodge manager. After some reasoning with myself I concluded that if these guys were going to rob us they would have done it by now, and with that uneasy “peace of mind” we carried on, arriving at 9pm after two and half hours on the back of a piki piki.

Despite such adventures I still love the piki piki. And being here on Rusinga has given me the perfect opportunity to try and learn to drive. Oscar is my trusted driver, only 45 minutes late on average and he never overcharges! On Saturday we hit the grass air strip, used by wealthy guests of the nearby luxury lodge, for our first driving school. I’m not a natural driver but after an hour I could start without stalling and after two I had the confidence to carry passengers on our way home! I’m hooked.IMG_4393 IMG-20141025-WA0006

Home of Champions

“You have fat arms. You should go to the gym this afternoon.” 

I’m in Iten, Home of Champions, and the region where a staggeringly large number of elite runners come from. We’re 2,400m above sea level and I’m not sure if it’s the altitude that’s taken my breath away or the rather harsh motivational advice I’ve just received from the rake-thin athlete next to me…

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You might not have heard of Iten but you’ll likely recognise a few of the names that started their journeys to greatness training on its dusty red roads. Perhaps you read that the world record for the marathon was broken last month by Dennis Kimetto in Berlin. He did it in 2:02:57. 26 miles in just over two hours! He’s from Elodret, the next town over from Iten. The record holder before that was Wilson Kipsang, also from Iten. Then there’s David Rudisha who smashed the record for the 800m so spectacularly at the London Olympics in 2012. He’s Masai, so not a local, but he migrated to Iten to train under the legendary tutelage of Brother Colm at St Patrick’s High School, an Irish priest whose missionary work took the form of coaching athletics to the Kenyan youth – despite having had no formal training and never running a race in his life!

Now I’m not an elite athlete (yeah, yeah I know, far from it) but a couple of years ago I was “converted” to running (ok probably more accurate to say jogging) after many years viewing it as a pointless and painful activity. Now I stand thoroughly corrected on that stance – painful but not pointless – and after spending my first six months out here training for a marathon (https://twendevso.wordpress.com/2014/07/02/kukimbia/), I wanted to try catch some of the Iten magic. Luckily my flatmate, Natalie, is also a runner and it didn’t take much to convince her a visit would be perfect preparation for the Nairobi marathon at the end of October.

We checked into the rather literally named High Altitude Training Camp established by Lornah Kiplagat, a four times world record holder. The camp, despite being booked out by professional teams for many months of the year (the Brits were arriving the week after we left), also opens its doors to mere mortals hoping for some of the star dust to rub off on them.

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Even before we’d even hit the glorious running routes winding through surrounding countryside, we found plenty to entertain us in the other guests. There were only a few but they’d come from far and with serious training schedules: twice a day runs, afternoon swims and late gym sessions. Every. Day. There was the Finnish couple who came every year for a month. She was a professional marathon runner and the second Finnish woman to reach the summit of Everest. He was a triathlete who was just about to buy an altitude tent to sleep in back at home so he could get the physiological benefits of mild oxygen-deprivation all year round… There was the French running shoe designer who also competed in middle-distance races and a Singaporean chap who enlightened us that marathons started at 3am in his country to try avoid the humidity as much as possible. Then was a man with a mysterious accent who – after much google stalking – turned out to be an ex-pro long-distance runner-turned philanthropist who was building the largest children’s hospital in Africa round the corner.

Then there was us.

We made sure to mention we’d run one of the hardest marathons in the world a few months prior (!) but there was no disguising that we were at the far amateur end of the visitor spectrum. Undeterred we set out to explore.

And before long, I’d solved the long-standing question of just why Kenyan athletes are so good. Forget the theories about fast twitch and slow twitch muscle, the benefits of being born and training at altitude, the virtues of a good diet and hard work or even the motivation that comes from running (literally) away from poverty. No. I believe the reason for such high levels of success is down to the view. Why would you stop running when every twist and turn reveals such stunning scenery?

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IMG_4338The other great thing about Iten is running into other runners. You won’t get far before a group of lanky Kenyans glides effortlessly past you. And you also won’t go long before someone stops to say hello and chat. Early on I met Charles. He can run 800m in 1 minute 48 seconds. It’s nowhere near Rudisha’s world record of 1:40:91 but it’s fast enough that he has placed his hopes for making a livelihood through running professionally.

Until he makes it, he lives in accommodation right next to the running track that the government built for a competition many years ago. They now let athletes who can’t afford rent to stay there for free. It’s a corrugated iron shack with no windows, kitchen or toilet. Charles’s chances of making it big are a way off but he has hope and a few tactics in mind. First, he is swapping from sprints to middle-distance running as a less competitive field. Second, he is looking to get foreign citizenship of a country less blessed with natural running talent. France for example. There at least he could stand out from the crowd and have a chance of pocketing some lucrative winnings. He promised that if I helped him get a passport he’d split his earnings with. It was tempting… Finally his third tactic, if running doesn’t work out; the army. Providing he can pay the bribe to get in (!) he could earn 1.2million Kenya shillings if deployed to Somalia. A small fortune if you survive.

So Iten is home to the wannabes, the up-and-coming but also the arrived. On Tuesday morning all of the above turn out for early morning training at Kamariny Stadium. It’s a dusty, worn-out track but it’s packed to the brim and awash with colour as people race past timing their laps. There amongst the crowd was Kipsang. Now I really don’t know much about running but it wasn’t hard to see that his was a superior, effortless glide. And you can’t help but be a little star struck watching someone who has achieved so much.

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I said earlier that I used to think running was kinda pointless. But watching these athletes in action I was reminded that the ability to inspire awe and wonder at what the human can achieve with determination, effort – and maybe some good genes – is far, far from pointless. So if you would like a dose of this wow-factor, here’s a heart-warming BBC documentary about Rudisha’s journey to success for your enjoyment:

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Nyinga en Akinyi

Do you know how your parents chose your name?

Maybe they named you after a favoured grandparent. Maybe after someone they admired with a wish to instil in you some desired quality. Maybe they liked the sound of the name spoken aloud, or the look of it written down. Maybe they thought it was a bit unique (before they realised everyone else was thinking the same thing and you became one of many at school). Maybe they just really, really didn’t want to pick something that could be distorted into bully-fodder!

Whatever their method it probably didn’t involve paying heed to the time of day you came into the world. Or the state of their garden that day.

Rusinga Island, where I’m staying right now, is in western Kenya. Luo country. And Luo’s name their children after all manner of significant scenarios surrounding the birth. Have a look below and see if you can work out what your Luo name might be…

N.B. The female form of the name is preceded by an ‘A’. If you’re a man, replace with an ‘O’.

What time were you born?

  • Morning (7am – 10am): Akinyi
  • Mid-morning (10 – 12noon):  Anyango
  • Midday (noon – 6pm): Achieng
  • Evening (6 – 8pm): Adhiambo
  • Late evening (8 – 12pm): Atieno
  • Night (12 midnight- 7am): Awour

What was going on of relevance to your parents’ farm?

  • Rainy season: Akorth
  • Cloudy day (TOTAL cloud cover): Aluoch
  • Harvest time: Akayo
  • Starting to eat green maize: Awino
  • Famine: Aketch
  • Your farm has a lot of weeds/ you were born on the farm (my teachers were unclear about this one): Abuya
  • Born during the weeding season: Adoyo

Was there something more important going on than the farm?!

  • Born with the head facing down: Auma
  • Your father died before you were born: Achola
  • Born on the way to hospital: Ayo
  • Born when your mother had given birth just 1 – 3 months previously and had not yet had her first postpartum period (??!!): Akumo*

*I lack the medical/ physiological knowledge to understand this clearly but it’s apparently rare and noteworthy!

Or are you a twin?

  • First born: Apiyo
  • Second born: Adongo