Penguins on the equator

Slide1 OK, so the title of this post is a little misleading, I’ll be honest. Unfortunately, there are no penguins here in Kenya. Aside from some excellent metaphorical one’s which I’d like to celebrate.

A little bit of context. When VSO start trying to prepare new volunteers for what life might be like working somewhere completely alien to them, they do a really excellent job through intensive residential and online courses. I genuinely loved these weekends with a bunch of lovely, equally excited and daunted, people from all walks of life. One of the first topics covered is culture shock.

As someone pretty well-travelled and having lived abroad before, I was in some ways less concerned about this process. In fact part of the reason I was volunteering was to be a little shocked and jolted out of my rather comfortable comfort zone at home. But at the same time I knew, particularly in the work context, adapting to different ways of doing things could take its toll.

The “iceberg model of culture” is beautifully depicted in the artist’s rendition above; the true subtly of the concept wonderfully captured in the juxtaposed elements of the composition.

Ahem…Yeah, so, the iceberg model has the following premises:

1. Seagulls = foreigners

2. Iceberg = culture

3. Fish = locals

4. Penguins = friendly locals who help out foreigners!

If the iceberg is culture then the metaphor holds that foreigners only see the tip of it. That bit poking up above the surface of the choppy waters. As we fly away from our homes and arrive in foreign lands, we immediately notice the obvious. We see things like art, music, religious and community rituals and ceremonies, dress, language, food and leisure choices. The visible manifestations of culture.

What we don’t see so readily are the beliefs, the social norms and attitudes, the values, the web of complex interpersonal relationships, the history. These form the giant underside of the iceberg which the fish/ locals, swimming about during their daily lives, see so often they take it for granted that this is the way things are. So familiar are they with this icy landscape they sometimes they slip into thinking it is “normal”, universal, something all people have grown up with and “get”. In other words, the seagulls don’t know what they’re missing and the fish don’t totally realise the need or desire of the seagulls to experience and understand the same vista.

And this is where penguins become far more than slightly comical birds in the lives of a VSO volunteer. Because we’re not just here for fun and holidays. Because we have to try and live our lives for a length of time and feel vaguely happy and supported. Because we have a job to do and expectations of employers to meet. We need to see that hidden iceberg belly so we don’t misunderstand, cause offence, get offended, and spend all our time in a mess of frustrated confusion.

In summary, VSO’s advice to new volunteers upon arriving in your new home country is: FIND YOUR PENGUIN.

What I found is that the penguins tend to find you. I was too busy trying to land on the iceberg to make any concerted effort in this regard!

My first penguin is Xaviers, a lovely, slightly shy but incredibly grounded, smart and competent Progammes Coordinator at my placement organisation. Xaviers was sent to introduce me to the NGO I was going to be working for but, more than that, she was sent to help me navigate Nairobi and, crucially, find my way from my house to my office. A task that proved remarkably hard for someone who is their late 20s…

As luck would have it, it turned out Xaviers was not only my colleague but my next door neighbour. And over the last eight months I have found myself relying on her time and time again and never being met with any impatience. Amongst many things, here are few examples of the help Xaviers has given me:

How to top up my electricity meter using my phone, how to find the bus station in town from my office, the prices of common bus journeys so I don’t get ripped off, the names of common bus stations so I know how to ask for where I want to go, how to make sure our programmes actually meet the needs of young people, how to deal with office politics, what it means to work hard and stick to your principles and how to make Mixed Tea.

VSO placements, you’re told, are going to be hard. Progress will be slow with many steps backwards. Xaviers has pretty much been the main reason I’ve kept trying and kept working. Time and time again when I don’t know where to turn, she is there being totally unflappable and ready to work through the problems with me. I would have probably have spent eight months twiddling my thumbs if it hadn’t been for her but for some reason she kindly tells me I have helped her which makes me feel pretty good about life.

My second penguin is Mildred, the HR Manager who sits in the office next door to me. As a social lynchpin, having Mildred take me under her wing meant instant access to a huge colony of penguins. Mildred’s main delight is in teaching me about the funny ways of Kenyans with a focus on: love and relationships, politics and religion. The Big Three cultural topics which I’ve found way more entertaining than The Big Five you find in the safari parks.

Without a television I’m not sure there’s any other way I would know quite as much as I do about the in’s and out’s of damaging tribalism, titilating scandals and the fact that, apparently, white people consistently pick the least attractive black people to date. For other insights from Mildred check out:

From Mildred I also learned that, in contrast to the UK, tights are totally unacceptable office attire. This made me blush remembering the stash of new M&S tights I brought out with me knowing that office wear was more formal than back home. And which I wore every day in my first few weeks. When I mentioned this, Mildred gave a little smile and said “I didn’t say anything as I wanted you to notice what was going on around you yourself and make your own changes”. A true teacher.

My third penguin is Lucy, my Kiswahili teacher. Lucy was the first person I met in Kenya and now I pretty much go to my weekly language class as much for the kind understanding and cultural translations of what has happened in my life since we last met as the grammar and vocabularly instruction. Her long history with VSO gives her a huge empathy for the difficulties of the job, making her the perfect listener to troubles. And she never fails to point out the cultural insights language can give you having taught me most recently that the Kiswahili word for “government” is “siricali” or “top-secret”…! Revealing, no? You can find past lessons here:

I love penguins. They are cute, have funny walks, and are a fun bunch to hang out with. They might even teach you how to do that walk if you spend enough time with them.


Mixed Tea

This week I have been learning how to make Kenyan Tea aka Mixed Tea.

When I first got to Kenya I have to admit I was quite underwhelmed by the tea on offer, especially considering it is a major tea growing nation! Sadly, I think a lot of the best quality tea gets exported… probably in vast quantities to the little Island I call home to satisfy the Brits notorious love affair with the stuff.

But, with time, Mixed Tea has grown on me and has pretty much replaced Yorkshire Tea as my number one favourite. Made right it is a creamy, filling brew that can almost act as a meal! I’ve learnt that you call this “chai fupe”. “Quality tea”. I.e. it’s heavy on the milk and therefore pricier to make. So if you get a visitor asking for “chai fupe” you know you have a fuss pot basically. I think I fall into that camp…

So here is how you make the stuff:

1. Take three simple ingredients: tea “leaves” which appear more like granules to me, milk and water.


2. Boil up the water first (some people would argue do the milk first. I am experimenting to see which works best)

3. Add in the milk and bring to the boil again

4. Add in the tea leaves and let it brew for 3-4minutes. This is the really tricky part. Ideally you don’t stir the mixture but milk has a seriously annoying tendency to boil over especially when cooking on one of these gas cookers which doesn’t have very subtle settings. I had very burnt milk the first few attempts.

IMG_33495. Strain the mixed tea through a sieve to catch the granules. Ideally into a thermos. EVERYONE uses thermos flasks here.

6. Drink before gross skin forms. Mmmmmmm!! Yummy!


Calderas and caves

This weekend a few of us took advantage of a VSO workshop held outside of Nairobi and went on a hike to the Menengai Caldera – the world’s second largest caldera (sort of like a crater but caused by a volcano collapsing on itself rather than the top blowing off!).

IMG_3286It was quite a sight to be seen. But I have to admit it was the Mau-Mau caves nearby that held my attention more.

The caves get their name from the independence guerrillas who used them to hide from British troops during the Mau-Mau rebellion against colonial rule from 1951 – 1960. Fact of the day was finding out that “Mau-Mau” is an acronym which stands for “Mzungu Arudi Ulaya, Mwafirika Apate Uhuru” or, loosely, “Let the white man go back to Europe and the Africans regain Independence!”

These days the caves have an altogether different use, as a place of worship for Christians coming on retreat to pray and fast for days and weeks at at time. This was our first glimpse of the caves, hopefully you can just make out the temporary little shelters. The huge tree you can see is a fig tree. Fig trees have huge resonance for many of the ethnic groups in Kenya but in particular Kikuyo’s and often mark a meeting place.


Our guide had told us we could actually go into the cave although I have to admit I was feeling a bit funny about this. It seemed slightly inappropriate to go into the space of people who had clearly come here to retreat in private. But of course my curiosity overrode my squeamishness. And I was all the more curious when we arrived at the entrance to the site…


After descending a treacherous ladder made out of the roots of the fig tree and any old bit of wood that was lying around, or so it seemed, we came to the actual entrance of the cave.


By this point I really felt weird. As we walked into the pitch blackness of the cave we could hear the angry shouting of a man somewhere in the depths. Slowly it became clear he was praying furiously. Taking care to avoid tripping over the buckets that collected the water dripping off the walls of the cave for drinking water,  we walked in deeper but never saw the man who the voice belonged to. However we did stumble across other people sitting praying in silence in the dark. I have no idea how many people were in there in total!


Now, I’ve been to a fair number of religious sites both at home in the UK and overseas. But I’ve never been to a place like this. And I have to admit I didn’t feel comfortable. There was something about the hostility and harshness of the location that didn’t inspire the awe and wonder or peace and serenity that I have felt at other times despite not being religious. It felt isolating and lacking in humanity. The aggressive slogans written on the cliffs in white paint instructed you to fear the power of God and I found it alienating. There was not one part of me that could relate to the motives that would bring people here.

So it was with a strong sense of relief that we clambered back up the fig tree ladder and into the fresh air where the sun was shining.

I took a video, so despite the pitch black you might get a sense of the environment.




Will you marry me?

I’m getting to that age where quite a few of my friends are talking about getting married or actually doing it. It’s exciting! One question that occasionally comes up is “would you, as a woman, ever ask the man to marry you?”. The answer differs from friend to friend, with many feeling a bit squeamish about it. But until today I never realised how significant it was that we can even discuss this as a possibility…

As I’ve said, I’m trying my hardest to learn some Kiswahili. It’s very slow progress. Today, we were learning about conjugating verbs in the passive tense….snore! Until, we got to the verb “to marry” or “kuoa”.

I wanted to say “Lucy married Nick”. “Lucy alimoa Nick”. Incorrect my teacher interjected! Totally puzzled because I knew I had the form right, I queried where my mistake lay. Turns out, it is actually not possible to say a woman married a man in Kiswahili. A woman can only ever be passive in relation to the verb to marry. Or in other words, while Nick can marry Lucy, Lucy can only ever be married by Nick.

Yikes! After International Women’s Day I’m wondering if it would be possible to launch a subtle gender equity campaign by misusing the active and passive forms at high frequency?

Ninajifunza Kiswahili

My flatmate, Sarah, and I have been trying to learn Kiswahili…slowly…

This week we learned that many verbs in Kiswahili are simply made my modifying others. Here’s an example to explain:

So the verb “to beat” is kupiga. As in “Ninapiga watoto wangu” or “I beat my children”. (I promise I don’t. I don’t have children). Then a tonne of other verbs are made by simply adding the name of an object. Which makes for some nice combinations…

  • Kupiga simu. Literally, “To beat a phone”. Or rather, to make a phone call.
  • Kupiga vikono. “To beat hands” or “to clap”.
  • Kupiga wagoti. “To beat knees” or “to kneel”.

What a brilliant system!! But my absolute favourite has to be how you talk about a ringing phone: “Simu yangu inalia”. “My phone is ringing” or in a literal translation “My phone is crying” (Kulia is to cry”).

And the best bit is when you hear the literal translation being used in English – I was totally bewildered the first time someone asked “whose phone is crying”.

Now I know.

A Saturday Sacrifice

Today is Saturday. I was having a pretty slow morning. A pretty slow day to be honest. Feeling a wee bitty hungover, I’d spent most of it indulging in a TV binge before entering into a raging debate with myself over whether I should do something more productive.

The proactive part of me had finally won out and I’d just reached the bottom floor of my apartment block with the intention of going swimming when, upon turning the corner, I saw a bloodied goat being loomed over by three men.

I recognised this goat. In fact, I’d been admiring him just last night looking so sweet having a little chew on the grass outside the security gate. I had however also been complaining about him to my colleague Mildred explaining that his bleating was waking me up too early in the morning for my liking. So there were mixed feelings when I saw that his throat had been slit.

Stopping to get a better look I got a fright to see his legs start to wiggle!

“Don’t worry, he is brain dead at this point! He can’t feel a thing!”

That’s my neighbour Salim. He went on to explain I had stumbled onto a sacrifice. This goat wasn’t intended for Salim’s dinner table but instead for the mosque that evening as an offering.

Salim’s wife explained that their son has been having a few too many car crashes recently (I can attest to that, I saw the car last weekend…) so the family have decided they need to do a little extra to keep him safe.

Now the goat was dead, the process of de-skinning and chopping up could take place. And I wasn’t about to miss that I tell you! I ran and grabbed my camera…so luckily you too can sit back and view!

I don’t think I’ll forget the collective “yeeeuuuughhh” when the bladder was split open and the urine poured out. Sorry you can’t smell that through the video…

Next up after the dissection was the cleaning of the bowels… We traipsed out the grassy area at the back of our apartments with a clean bucket of water and some rather gruesome looking organs. I’ve never seen anything like the pile of grass that poured out of that’s goat’s belly!

The final thing to do was to wait for the eagle to come for the small amount on unusable innards. That job was left to me and the kids as the adults went off to start the roasting. To be honest, I’m not sure who had the more fun job… grass that has been sat in a goat’s belly for three days does NOT smell good…


Lucky for me, unlucky for goats, we’re going to have another sacrifice next month to try nip these car crashes in the bud. So I’ll be able to catch the actual death moment. And wait for another eagle.

Sexual Networking

One topic my colleagues never tire of talking about – and I must admit I never tire hearing about – is sex. Considering how widely abstinence is promoted it is fairly amusing!

Very early on in my time at work I was sat round with my closest work buddies at the 10am All Staff tea break chatting over our daily Kenyan mixed tea and two mandazis. Talk quickly turned to which was better: for your husband to have a mistress or to have a second wife.

Unanimous agreement was reached almost instantly. Second wife! Why? At least you know her status then… (HIV status).

It was hard logic to argue with! And then I was put on the spot when I was asked why we Brits put up with secretive affairs and high divorce rates when legalising polygamy might provide a solution? I won’t get into the pros and cons of polygamy versus monogamy here but I would argue that at the very least women should be allowed to marry multiple men in the name of equity!

What I couldn’t understand in the following weeks after this conversation however, was why, if polygamy was so acceptable, did those people suspected of having a second wife or of looking for one get talked about in such hushed, gossipy tones. Turns out, in these straightened economic climes, if you can afford a second wife then everyone wants to know where you got the money to be able to afford them…!