Tuesday, August 31, 2010

My 12th month in Kenya

Its my one year anniversary in Kenya so time for a quick update. This month has been interesting. I met a guy called Johnnie who whisked me away to the Masai Mara for a weekend..The photos will explain all. It is a pity however,how little respect safari vans have for the wildlife.

At one point, several white vans surrounded wildebeest who were about to cross the river. One van completely blocked the access site for the animals. When we drove past the Wilde beast, they were moving back and forth, dazed and confused by the white vans parked in front of the river, blocking their crossing. Instead, they attempted to avoid the vans which was impossible as all van drivers communicate by phone and meet at the same point, as if there are no other wildebeest to glare at in all of the Mara

Despite the harassment of the animals, I enjoyed nights sitting around a cosy bonfire, listening to a man on a guitar sing about the stars, making it up as he went along.And of course Masai warriors with advice for me on what to do if a wild animal approached.

This is what he said:
If a buffalo charges at you, lie down on a flat piece of ground and stay absolutely still as the indented buffalo horns cannot pierce your body.
If a wild cat approaches, do not run, they will outrun you. Best stay still and hope they get bored of the stillness. Zebra are relatively calm so don't fret.

I can't remember the rest, a lot of it involved staying calm and not moving.

My birthday was on the 21st. Johnnie and I headed to the Ngong hills which can be seen in the distance from his house. while I was on the phone home, three boys approached the jeep. Johnnie brought a football along, so the four of them played together at the top of the hills until the ball slid off the ledge and plunged to a lower level.

Amazingly, one of the boys ran all the way downhill to try to retrieve the ball, with no success. We then drove in search of their ball. All scampered out, and returned quickly when they discovered the ball. We then played a quick game of football on a rough piece of ground, their school grounds. I stayed in goals as didn't feel like running around. One boy complained to me that the oldest boy was claiming the ball for himself. Johnnie had a word with him later

That night, we celebrated with drinks in the Brew Bistro, followed by a night of dancing in Nairobi's biggest and most famous brothel: Florida. We dominated the dancfloor and didn't seem to notice just how sleazy Florida actually is. Great music but the place is full of whores

I have decided to extend my time in Kenya so 12 months in Kenya is no longer an apt name for this blog...perhaps the land of highs and lows..life without ups and downs is such a bore. Thats why I came to Kenya afterall.

Monday, July 26, 2010


Just back from the lovely coast of Kenya, a relaxing place where beach boys serenade and then..ask for money. Lindi and I met a few interesting characters on our trip.

We took the train from Nairobi to Mombasa, a 15 hours trip, indeed polo pole. No high speed trains in Kenya. In fact we spotted a matatu passing us on the road beside the tracks. Life on the train passed quickly as we made friends in the dining carraige, ordering wine and Tuskers. A remant from the past, there were little tables with greyish tableclothes and service where you wish you brought your own cork screw as it does take quite a while to open a bottle of wine...

After a bumpty sleep on the top bunk, we arose to the warm winter sun of the coast and the pine tree vistas. Children waved by the train tracks and many begged

We watched the world cup with a fellow expatriot from Ireland. I had my Spanish jersey from Spain, 3 sizes too big. It read 'Espana' on the back so I was pleased to be on the winning side for a change. We sat in an open square and paid a few shillings for chairs. We hugged and celebrated Spain's win despite losing electricty along the way, we just about managed to watch the world cup in its entirety

Another night, we stumbled across a muslim wedding. I heard beautiful music coming from the stairs above a restuarant and slipped upstairs only to be invited to take off my shoes and sit with other muslim women as we waited for the bride to arrive

'Just wait', they said, 'She will be here soon'

Always an alarming reponse in Kenya as 'just wait' could mean one hour or several. I was wearing a mini dress and my hair was uncovered, very risky attire given the situation

The brides mother inisted we cover our hair with our head scarves

'I dont have one', I responded, getting ready to leave
Suddenly, brightly coloured scarves were hurled in our direction

'Take a seat' which mtranslates 'squat on the floor'
Great, its not easy aquatting in a mini dress
My legs were gangly and bare, so I knelt down as the pins and kneedles ached

The bride never came...so during one of the many dances and songs, I bolted to the door with Lindi, lmy head scarf flying off my head, landing beside our muslim sisters

'Take some deserts with you', one girl offered...so i did

Then off to a night club, the brothel known as 'florida'
And as you might imagine, we were the only women paying for our drinks. The rest had to work for them

I was trying to watch the Germany vs Uruguay match but kept getting distracted by prostitutes in Sharon Stone costumes, legs uncrossed

Another quick exit

Then off to the lovely Lamu

We stayed on Shella beach, and spent our days sun bathing and chatting with locals including...
The Masai warriors of the coast, friendly chaps who wanted us to buy their jewellery
and beach boys who wanted us to pay for Dhow trips

Life on the beach is relaxing but the night life is interesting. You have to take a boat to the night club or a donkey, a little different from home

There we met Satan, the manager of Petleys and friends from other places

Several drinks later, myself and Lindi boarded a Dhow boat bound for Shella

The fuel had ran out so we drifted in the ocean several minutes with 3 drunken men from Petleys. Then after picking up some fuel from another boat, the engine broke down

Thanks to the whiskeys, we found the situation quite amusing. Eventually, the engine was given a kick start, and off we went, with one the beach boys singing 'Maria Maria' in my honour

I had told him I was married. He asked if my husband was still alive

'Yes', I replied. 'He is a young man'

Then he actually pretended to jump off the boat at the thought of my husband still living..

Eventually , we made our way to Shella, in one piece

Kwaheri Lamu

Life is more serious in Nairobi, with talk of upcoming constitution on August 4th. I'll write again soon with tales of constitution mayhem. Its bound to be dramatic..

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Mob justice

Last Wednesday,I was delivering a training program in Malaba, near Uganda, to parents of children with disabilities.I was encouraging parents to interact with their children with speech and language problems in order to further stimulate the children's language skills

I was on my way to the bathroom in the compound, when I turned the corner and confronted an angry group of young men, whipping a younger boy on the back with car tyres. An older man was laughing in the corner at the spectacle. I found out later that the boy had apparently stolen some roofing from a nearby shop. The owner of the hotel where I was was staying, paid local youths to kill him and they decided to carry out the torture in the grounds of the hotel where I was staying

The boy appeared intellectually disabled. Gripped by panic and fear, he was wailing loudly and unable to articulate at the thought of his imminent death.
The crowd was getting more and more animated. When I returned from the bathroom, the situation was getting out of control. One man was charging at the boy with a shovel.

This is when I decided to intervene.

I could not let them beat a man with a disability to death in front of me when I was giving a lecture next door on valuing people with disabilities.

I ran towards the man with the shovel, pleading and shouting at him to stop.
A woman crept up toward me, giggling quietly, and whispered in my ear. She explained to me that the boy was a thief and this was how Kenyans dealt with petty theft- by handing down a death sentence and dealing with it themselves

The police were not called.There was no need. They would deal with this themselves.

The owner protested that the policeman would ask him why he had not killed him.

The mob were getting more fired up and took off towards the back of the hotel.The boy was bleeding on his head as one man had hurled the shovel at him and hit him on the head. He was also bleeding inside his shirt from the public whipping

I continued to follow them, with my bosses looking on in silence and complacence. This is the system here, they said, despite it being illegal.

Mob justice

I continued to plead with the owner to take him to the police so they could investigate the matter. Eventually the owner agreed to take him to the police

I screamed at the owner saying that he himself should be charged with attempted murder..the boy after all was disabled and had stolen a small amount of roofing material, hardly deserving of death by blow to the head with a blunt instrument

He replied that the man was not disabled. He was caught stealing and must be punished. He was simply teaching him a lesson and ordered the mob to stop

'I am saving his life', he protested

I insisted that he in fact was trying to kill him. I was the one trying to save his life

All this time, my boss was laughing, proclaiming that this is Kenya and Marie, you are like an Afican woman, fearless

The crowd simply did not see the benefit of taking him to the police..he would not learn his lesson, he would steal again. Besides the police would beat him also

So there... a day in the life of Marie Fahy in Kenya

And all I wanted to do was go to the toilet!

Kenya is a harsh place and sometimes very barbaric

but then why are there so many Christians heading off to mass every Sunday if, when the whim takes them, they beat a man to death with a shovel for stealing so little

Where is the compassion? It's not very Christian

Innocent people are being lynched not only in Malaba but also in Nairobi. Mob justice is absolutely unethical in African society so why does it continue?

Change can only come when the administrators adhere to and respect the law..Kenya has a long way to go in this repect

The judiciary system, just as other government departments, are riddled with corruption and it is not surprising that people have taken the law in their own hands

Having witnessed firsthand "mob justice" in Kenya, I absolutely condemn this barbaric act which is due to the incapability of the Kenya Police and high level of corruption which sees many criminals walk free after small handouts forcing the public to take the law in their own hands.

I don't believe that Kenyans are bloodthirsty and enjoy killing their compatriots but the justice system here just doesn't seem to work, leaving people with no other option but to take the law into their own hands.

Many law enforcers have failed to deliver and people have to live with the fear that they are not well protected. In other cases law enforcers have forged alliances with criminals and this has reduced the confidence that people have in them. It's time kenyans reviewed the way their law enforcers work, and maybe give them enough resources.

Otherwise many more people will get killed on mere suspicion of having committed a crime.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Pimp my ride

The other day while whizzing down a highway in Nairobi in a battered health and safety risk matatu, the wheel fell off. I was seated in the front beside the driver and noticed some confusion amoungst passengers in the back. As I turned around, the matatu had fallen sideways as we skided along the highway on three wheels! I jumped out with the other passengers when we screeched to a halt. My immediate reaction was laughter at the sight of the missing wheel- the entire thing had flown off while we were driving.

Noone was injured. I took a photo of the scene and exchanged laughs with the other passengers.I am getting very laid back about these type of matatu situations since that same week, the door of another matatu had fallen off.I could have been more alarmed but since none of the other passengers appeared concerned, I also moved away from out battered three wheeled matatu and hailed the next one, hoping that this time all vehicle parts would remain intact for the duration of my short journey.

No-one seems to complain about the state of the unroad-worthy vehicles. People complain all the time about the crazy erratic driving skills of the matatu drivers but not about the state of the vehicles. Road accidents are reaching alarming rates yet there is no monitoring of these battered machines or the driving skills of road users.

Imagine the worst Hiace van, ceilings lined with second hand carpet, dodgy doors that don't shut, blaring music at 120 decibles, a tout extracting shillings from 20customers who are squashed in 12 seats (they have no half seat rates despite sharing a seat with up to 3 people). The ceilings are so low that even I, at 5 foot 3bang my head everytime I attempt to 'alight'.

The police continue to extract bribes but noone insists on updating the matatus to a reasonable state of safety. Seat belts alone would be a good idea, let alone operational doors and wheels

Later that same day, I was invited to the polo club in Ngong road to go horse riding with a friend. I must be the only person in Kenya to arrive at a polo club in a matatu.One other member flies to the club by helicopter, a relation of ex- President Moi. I arrive in style in a battered matatu, four wheels this time,dusting the flies from my face and the red Africa soil from my shoes

That is the confusing contradiction of this great place.One minute you are riding down the highway in a three wheeled matatu complaining about Mzungu prices and the next minute you are riding a horse in an elite polo club.Kenya is certainly confusing and unpredictable but I am addicted to the highs and lows. It's certainly never boring and keeps you on your toes!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Is sexual harassment to blame for crashes? Daily Nation, Kenya

I came across this hilarious article in the Daily nation last week. Only thing is, it wasn't meant to be funny. It goes like this....

26,662; the number of people killed in road accidents in Kenya last year
Female passengers who caress boda riders blamed for rise in accident

According to one chief in Meru, the problem is not Chinese made motorbikes or their riders. The chief, who was addressing a public gathering last week, said the cause of motorbike accidents is...female passengers.

"Women passengers caress the riders, who are young men with hot blood. This is what leads to accidents", he declared

Motorbike manufacturers should now consider changing the design of their models. For instance, they can put the luggage carrier between the rider's seat and the passenger's. For extra caution, they can convert it into a cage or plastic box. This will ensure that there is a reasonable distance between the passengers and hot-blooded riders. Another option would be to have handle-bars between the two. This would require passengers to hold the handle- bars rather than virile riders. That way, contact would be reduced and, one hopes, so would accidents

Ingenious piece of critical thinking and deduction..
Kenyan women are to blame for the rise in motorbike accidents rather than the drivers who don't know how to drive

Watch out for these futuristic boda boda models on the market and
take care girls,
try not to caress your hot-booded boda boda driver, however tempting it may be

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Delicious ambiguity at Semana Santa de Sevilla

Some stories don't have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what's going to happen next. Delicious ambiguity... Gilda Radner

I decided to take a break from Africa for Easter and head to Semana Santa in Sevilla...not the usual thing for a volunteer working in Africa but necessary I thought.The original arrangement was to meet a friend in Santa Justa train station at 5.30pm but as by bags didn't arrive on the London-Madrid flight, I spent most of Holy Thursday in Madrid airport rather than enjoying the festivities in Semana Santa de Sevilla.

Anyway, not the end of the world, I thought. Draw on your newly learned patience from Africa where nothing works according to plan and you are expected to wait and wait. I'll be a few hours late and rejoin celebrations later that night. I waited from 1.30pm to 5.30pm that day, sipping cups of cafe con leche, eating Jamon Serrano sandwiches and trying to relax..not easy. Tranquillo, I murmured to myself..the bags will arrive soon and then I'll be on my way.

Eventually the bags arrived and I headed straight to Atocha train station, Madrid, to grab the AVE high speed train to Seville. Only 2 hours 20 minutes from Madrid to Seville, a little different from African trains (pole pole) and the Irish rail service which promises improvement with the slogan "getting there"..

I luckily met up with 2 American girls on the train. Deanna was living in Seville for 6 months, and spoke Spanish with a Sevillian accent. Her friend was visiting from Chicago. As I was 5 hours late for my meeting with my friend, my only option was to stay on the girls couch for the night and make contact with him in the morning. Thank you Deanna for your kindness. I would have had to sleep in Santa Justa train station if I didn't happen to bump into you on the train

I emailed my friend that night to let him know where I was and luckily, he was online so we made contact. He came and picked me up... straight to Semana Santa festivities. Despite my fatigue, I joined the festivities on the streets, my nervous energy keeping me going.

The streets were thronged with people, all admiring the procession of pasos, floats of lifelike wooden sculptures of individual scenes of the Passion and images of the Virgin Mary. Some of the sculptures are considered artistic masterpieces, as well as being culturally and spiritually important to the local Catholic population.

The processions are organised by Hermandades and Cofradías, religious brotherhoods. During the processions, members precede the pasos, dressed in penitential hoods, accompanied by brass bands.

The standard structure of a procession is:
A great cross (Cruz de Guía - Guiding Cross) is carried at the beginning of each procession. A number of people dressed in the distinctive pointed hood (Capirote), and holding long wax candles, marching in silence. These are the Nazarenos. Moving between the lines are diputados de tramo, guardians who keep the formations organized. A group of altar boys, acolytes,march behind, with chandeliers and incense, and other servants. Then The Paso follows.

There are 3 pasos, the first one is a sculpted scene of the Passion ; the second is an image of Christ; and the third an image of the suffering Blessed Virgin Mary, known as a dolorosa.
The structure of the paso is richly carved and decorated with fabric, flowers and candles. Many of the structures carrying the image of Christ are gilded, and those carrying the image of the virgin are silver-plated.

A distinctive feature of Semana Santa in Seville is the style of marching of the pasos. A team of men, the Costaleros (literally "sack men", for their distinctive headdress), supporting the beams upon their shoulders and necks, lift, move and lower the paso. As they are all inside the structure and hidden from the external view by a curtain, the paso seems to move by itself. On the outside an overseer (Capataz), guides the team by voice

The crowd behaves relatively normally while Nazarenos are marching, though one man actually pushed me out of the way..I responded with "tranquillo" (relax) to the fanatic. This turns to respectful silence when the images pass. Small children beg for sweets, from the Nazarenos.

So as religious as it sounded, it was a lot of fun. The ambience was intoxicating...crowds on the streets, dressed in traditional dress, men in black suits and the rest of us.. We spent nights eating in terraces, eating gambas con ajo, marinated olives, choco balls with white wine followed by coffee with Baileys. Que delicioso, a big contrast to the fried chicken, greasy chapatis and beans I have grown accustomed to in Nairobi. I made mming noises after every morsel of food I tasted..so When Harry met Sally scene in restaurant..mmmmmmmmm

So next trip, Il Ngwesi, near Mount Kenya next weekend

Stay tuned for more adventures.
.and for those of you not living in Kenya...come visit

Slaintate(slainte + ate)- a blend of Irish & Spanish, meaning cheers to you

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Absence from blog

Just returned from one month's holidays in Spain..will update blog v soon with details and some photos. Stressed already and only back in Nairobi one week..

Saturday, March 20, 2010

TRUE IRISH GHOST STORY..in honour of St. Patrick

..forwarded by a friend... This happened a while ago, and even though it sounds like an Alfred Hitchcock story, it's true.

John Bradford, a 20 yr old UCD student, was on the side of the road hitchhiking on a very dark night and in the midst of a storm. No cars were traveling that night. The storm was so strong he could hardly see a few feet ahead of him. Suddenly, he saw a car slowly coming towards him and stop. John, desperate for shelter and without thinking about it, got into the car and closed the door.... only to realize there was nobody behind the wheel and the engine wasn't on!! The car started moving slowly. John looked at the road ahead and saw a curve approaching. Scared, he started to pray, begging for his life.

Then, just before the car hit the curve, a hand appeared through the window and turned the wheel. John, paralyzed with terror, watched as the hand repeatedly came through the window, but never touched or harmed him.

Shortly thereafter John saw the lights of a pub appear down the road. So, gathering strength, he jumped out of the car and ran to the pub. Wet and out of breath, he rushed inside and started telling everybody about the horrible experience he had just had. A silence enveloped the pub when everybody realized he was crying and....wasn't drunk.

Suddenly the door opened and two other people walked in from the stormy night. They, like John, were also soaked and out of breath. Looking around, and seeing John Bradford sobbing at the bar, one said to the other...'Look Paddy...there's that idiot that got in the car while we were pushin' it.'

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Hell's Gate photos

Just returned from a weekend trip at Hell's Gate, Naivasha. Sounds more stunning than the name suggests. Trixie and I decided to meet in a central location on Friday afternoon, to get a matatu to Naivasha. I navigated my way down Ronald Ongala street, past the hellish noise of shouting matatu touts, through the markets pumping out music from the eighties to compete against background noise. How more people don't suffer from sensori-neural hearing loss, I don't know. I had to cover my ears just to survive the noise pollution. Everyone else looked perfectly at home with the 80 decibel noise.

Just as my nerves were about to give way, I sought peace and tranquillity at a petrol station. Only people with cars can enter, so the majority are pedestrians, I perched myself between two petrol pumps and waited for Trixita to arrive. A guard- even the petrol pumps have guards- approached and asked me to move, unaccustomed as he was to Muzungus standing between petrol pumps. Luckily Trixie arrived and we shoved ourselves past the crowd, towards the ticket stand, yelling to get heard. We chose our seats in front, so as to save our sanity.

I chose the paralysis seat, half seat with a bar across, near certain death if there is a road accident, a step up from the seats behind...
The views were spectacular once we pulled out of Nairobbery. Lush rolling hills, large plateaus and green green life. The matatu driver took the usual risks- driving on the wrong side of the road, overtaking on bends. They must give out free Driver's Licences here as they did in Ireland in the old days, as people here drive dodgily. Not that I'm an expert or anything, but overtaking with no view of the road in front is nearly certain to cause an accident

I did mention to the driver more than once
"Oh is that wise. You can't see around that bend"
"pole pole, whats the rush?"

He ignored me, of course, or pretended he didn't understand. I will have to alter my accent here as very few people see to understand what I am on about

Then soon after arrival, we change matatus for round two- another back breaking experience from Naivasha town to the Lake. A man approached carrying everything he could possibly sell that day. We wore about 6 hats, several necklaces, odds and ends, all around his neck. He was not impressed when I took a photo of him. But what a sight all the same. A one man shop.

We past several flower farms along the way. Employers no doubt from Europe, in trouble recently for contributing to the Lake pollution. Several fish were found floating dead on the surface of the lake. We past the miserable huts of the lowly paid workers- one room huts, with sheet coverings for doors, a vast difference from the wealthy entrepreneurs who drive in Lland rovers, milking the profits afforded from meagre wages paid to the backbreaking work of local flower pickers

When we finally arrived at the camp. I had to bargain for my bed, something I always like to do after a long matatu trip. We did land on our feet however, managing to sleep in the wing of the owner's cottage as all beds were sold out...to Swedish students. It suited me, a colonial room for two with bathtub ...nice

That night as I sipped my beer, two volunteers joined me at the restaurant overlooking the Lake. An Indian volunteer spoke of his homeland at the foot of the Himalayas and seemed stuck on the idea that Muslim Indians had more interest in Pakistan than India.

As he put it " it's as if they come to my father's house, eat our food, sleep in our beds..they even die in India and still they cheer for Pakistan in the cricket

He repeated this analogy several times in case i didn't get it the first time.

I decided to divert to another subject- travelling in Afghanistan. We were lost in stories of travels past when suddenly in the corner of my eye, I spotted a huge black insect crawling up my knee- a cross between a spider and a giant hairy spiky sea urchin. I flicked it and it wouldn't budge. Then I started to scream, and lept to a nearby chair.

Other travellers were just shaking the stress of Nairobi from their shoulders when I went leaping across them, diving into to one of the nearby chairs. What a sight! I don't know which is scarier; a giant African insect or a screaming leaping Irish woman raving about the insect. You make up your own minds..but it was huge and not a incy wincy spider or caterpillar

Anyway, my heart raced for one hour, so I decided to head back to the cottage to calm my nerves. I'm in Africa now. Massive insects are all part of this wonderful continent.

The following day, five of us headed off in bikes around Hells Gate National Park..a beautiful track lead the way past zebras, war hogs and gazelle. We stopped briefly for photos and then off to Hell- the gears or brakes didn't work but what to do except keep peddling. We hired a guide at the entrance to the gorge, and hiked past lower and upper gorges, lifting ourselves up and down rocks, sliding down ridges, with beautifully coloured craggy edges on the rock

A wonderful sunny day, great to feel part of nature. We past a boy herding his goats, a Masai warrior, dressed in a brightly coloured kanga. By the time we made our way back to the bikes, I was exhausted and had little energy for the 8 km journey.

That night we rested at the restaurant, swapping travellers tales and sipping red wine..no insects this time, except Hippo who had made their way to the edge of the camp, on the other side of the electric fence

Next trip- Lake Baringo for more wild life spotting- hopefully this time, from a distance....

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Where's the outrage?

Recently, while reading the daily soap opera paper devoted to rival politicians, The Daily Nation, I came across an article which held a particular resonance for me. The title was "No, it's not easy to write about magical Kenya" by Rasna Warah.

She wrote "it is difficult for many Kenyans to experience the magic of Kenya simply because they are too hungry, too desperate, and too downtrodden to marvel at the beauty of a scarlet sunset dipping into the Indian Ocean or a herd of gazelle dancing across a savannah".

How is it possible for a writer to write about the magic of Kenya when the world around her is crumbling? If Kenya burns, we will all feel the heat, regardless of income or social status. I am finding that all my blogs mention the rotten state of Kenya rather than the beautiful people or sunsets. Every week, another scandal erupts, reminding me of corruption, impunity and total disregard of the political elite for the welfare of their citizens. Already several scandals involving theft of free primary education money, the profit from stolen maize and the pocketing of money allocated for the building of infrastructure, have depressed both Kenyans and foreigners.

But where is the outrage? Why the complacency?Are people so scarred and oppressed that they cannot take a stand?

I have found myself in recent weeks, erupting in uncontrolable rage at the pole pole rate of change here. I realise this is a developing country and that I am not here to impose change on anyone. But day after day, reform seems to creep along at a snail's pace. There is no public outcry at the state of politics or anything else for that matter. Rather a fatalistic notion that this is Kenya and this is the way it will always be.

On a return trip from Uganda, I asked the bus conductor to put on the chick flick "The Notebook" on the dvd player to relieve us from the constant monotony and freakish films they had chosen- a film about Nigerian dwarves pinching women's arses and bribing officials followed by Kenny Rogers Live and then to top it all off, Gospel music. I suggested a change of scene- some Hollywood romance to ease the nerves. After ten minutes, a harmless love scene involving the two main characters (they kissed at the beach), jerked the conductor into action. He quickly changed the film, opting for The tragic South African film "Sarafina" which explicitly shows the violence in Soweto during the aparteid regime.

When challenged about the appropriatenss of this film, one man retorted "we are used to this violence". Hollywood romance does not translate here. Kissing is strictly taboo, reserved for tourists and honeymooners.

I recently imploded when a manager in the organisation suggested that I was doing too much and that we should scale down activities. Scale down to what- nothing?

I am reactive. I have always known that. When I am angry, my eyes bulge, my face reddens and my hands fling about. Its a scarry sight but somehow people find my facial changes funny here. As a taxi driver said to me last night; " you look funny when you are angry". Kenyans seem more controlled in their anger. The stoney faces remain stoney faced. There are no explosions, or drama or raised voices..in front of me anyway. Such repressed anger..even in children. How do they not burst with emotion with all they carry inside?

Cultural differences I suppose- fascinating and unfamiliar but frustrating as hell.

The paper seller on the corner of my road replied "God help us" when I asked him what was in the paper that day. Divine intervention may not be enough to rescue this state. Its up to the people of Kenya to save this place- not the volunteers or the aid workers. A little bit of Kenya protest is needed in regular doses

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Up and down

Visiting Karen Blixen's house last Sunday with a group of friends, I noticed a poster on the wall about her life and writing. Author of "Out of Africa", she frequently wrote to her mother in Denmark about her life in Kenya, running a farm at the foot of the Ngong Hills. Her farm no longer remains but her writing does, of a time long past but not forgotten- Colonial Kenya. I lingered for a while reading one particular letter she had written: "I was not drawn to Africa because it is was rich, but its riches are boundless"

And this is certainly true, if you have an open attitude and can see all the riches it beholds

Many time here in Nairobi, I have been caught up with numerous issues. Important questions like can I afford to live here as a volunteer? or how can I get faster internet access? or how can I communicate with people at home if I can't access skype?

Consumed with such questions, I wonder how I found myself in such a recondite place where even the basic necessities of life like health, education, technology are considered luxuries that few can afford. Only today in The Daily Nation, I read an article about the ongoing saga of the stolen millions from the Free Primary Education Fund. Hundreds of thousands of innocent children will suffer because the elite under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education misplaced Doner money. More aid money down the drain in a country already swelling to the brim with dependency on aid. And still the culprits remain in their positions, wealthy with the money they misplaced. Kenya's forgotten children will remain in villages all over the country, denied their basic right to education.

There are other problems too but I have been adviced by my Kenyan friends not to worry about the small stuff like lack of Internet access. And I understand why. With the weight of massive burdens, people here are resigned not to sweat the small stuff and exude a patience which I admire. I have not heard a voice raised in frustration (except my own) nor a tormented look on any one's face since I arrived. Not even in Kibera, where people set up shack in Africa's largest slum. Without sanitation, living in hovels which provide the most basic kind of shelter. Literally, they only have the roof over their head and the shirt on their back. Still there is laughter and children playing as if its just another day. Life goes on.

And now for its riches ...because they are everywhere if only you have the eyes to see them. I left Ireland hoping for a change of scenery and what I got instead was a change of perspective. Sure the little things bother me all the time. But I have to remember why I am here and the job I have to do. The little things will have to wait.

Last weekend crystallised in all that I loved about Kenya. I was invited to a Team Building Day at Masai Lodge by the Occupational Therapy Department at Kenyatta Hospital. We were instructed to meet at 7.3o in Kenyatta.

I should have known! 7 30 in Kenya translates to 9 am. Instead of turning over for another sleep at 8 am , I got up at 6.45 am only to realise my mistake when I got to Kenyatta. And as I looked around searching for the familiar faces of my colleagues, I noticed my other Muzungu friend, Trixie, who had mistakenly kept the time.

I have learned from my mistake. Always always add at least one hour and then hope for the best that people will stick to that time. You never know. Time is unique here in that no one seems to live by the clock. Rather a notion that when you get there, it is time enough. No rushing..you can always blame the traffic

So we arrived at Masai Lodge in the beautiful natural surround of Nairobi National Park, well after 10 am and then the games began.

We were instructed to introduce ourselves while walking around a swimming pool, announcing important details like our name, our marital status ( very important here) and our shoe size, type of tooth paste etc. I discovered that I was one of two single people. the other single person was also a Muzungu. All my colleagues in their thirties were married with children. Even the ones in their twenties.

We kicked off with strenuous exercises geared for a fitter crew. And then a team game where we had to lift other members of our team over a rope. Large and small, light and the not so light were lifted with grace over the rope and onto the other side as if their life depended on it.

Afterwards, there was a two hour hike near Nairobi National Park with a Masai Warrior- to fend off Lions in case they got hungry. He was draped in a bright red robe, tied in the middle with a luminous belt of different colours. On his head, a red head dress with flowers over a red plaited long wig. Quite an outfit for the hike. He carried his Masai stick with the rounded edge, a formidable figure in our group of inexperienced trekkers.

We walked over rivers and rocks, under dry grizzly bush and over dry red crackled dust, in the hot African sun. I chatted with colleagues about the general happenings in Nairobi. Most are from upcountry regions in rural Kenya. Most made their way to Nairobi in search of a better life for their family. Some of the married men had left their families behind in order to bring in money for their families and had been lured by the appeal of the single life too.

Everything was going well until we approached a thin metal drawbridge overlooking a deep ravine with murky brown river far beneath. Nothing between us and the abyss except bush and rocks. I was one of the first to cross unfortunately. There was a queueing system and I was up near the front. Great

I was terrified, as I have some experience of Kenyan construction - it is not made to last. My legs quivered as I slowly walked across, clinging to the metal rope and trying to look across the horizon. Behind the team were yelling "come on Muzungu, move faster" or "I think she's going to crawl."

I kept my slow pace. Now it was my time for pole pole (slowly slowly). No rushing now as I was on African time. They would have to wait while I made the crossing. So slowly I crossed with someone behind me murmuring "relax relax". Now was no time for relaxing. I couldn't relax here, put my feet up or turn around for a chat. I was risking my life in this crossing..pole pole

And finally I reached the other end. Not far behind me, one of the girls was midst anxiety attack. Her feet gave way under her and she told me later that all she wanted to do was lie down on the bridge and rest. However, pole pole she reached the other end.When she reached the other end, her t shirt was soaked in sweat and she was hyper ventilating. No one offered her sympathy as is often the case here. Just nervous laughter. I consoled her and reassured her that I was also scared. At least we only had to cross it once.. it was only going to be once, right?

No, there was no way back from Kitengela re-cycled glass factory.. all that way for recycled glass! We would have to cross again. What a cruel joke. All I had to do was follow the others and pretend that the bridge was safe and that we wouldn't fall to our deaths far far beneath. One wise guy mentioned that I should stop and admire the scenery.

Is he out of his mind?? At a time like this, stop and admire the scenery beneath us...very far beneath us. I needed a stiff drink to relax not admire the scenery

Nothing like the fear factor to bond a team. If you can make it across a stringy metal bridge overlooking a steep ravine, you can accomplish anything. At least we were still alive I thought..that was team building enough for me

And then the highlight of the day-swimming in the pool. However we decided to turn it into a basketball game of boys against the girls.The girls had a not so easy victory as the boys couldn't swim. What a match. Splashing, pulling the ball, throwing it into our handmade basketball net which consisted of a chair, fowling- one of the funniest sports I have ever played in the water

Afterwards, we relaxed with Tuskers and listened to the beat of Luya music in the background.

Many tribes live in Nairobi and an event like this was a rich musical blend of all cultures.I got a chance to listen to all types of music. Luya from the West, the rhythmical Kamba beats of the East, The Flame dance; a risky dance for a female as it involves hula movements of the hip which seem to drive the male folk into a queer state.

I announced that I would be dancing but at a distance.My mother told me always keep my distance from men.. all men and now was the time to remind people of this. There would be no grinding movements near my behind.I would be keeping my distance

Everyone was laughing. What kind of dance would that be with between male and female.It didn't exist here. The whole idea of dancing here is to simulate sex, and to keep the rhythm, something many of us from the west are not used to.

I watched and I learned. Do not move your shoulders, only your hips. Bend your knees and make circular subtle round hip movements while listening to the beat. It was a teasing dance. I forgot who I was for a few hours while I lost myself in the rhythm and followed the others, dancing in circles, all without the aid of alcohol.I surprised myself

Afterwards I felt exhilarated. I had finally learned to African dance and was enchanted by the way everyone lost themselves in the music. Dancing there, that night, under another cloudless African sky, I thought this is one of Kenya's riches. The freedom to dance uncontrollably.

The night wore on and even the Masai warrior had changed his clothes. I didn't recognise him in his western dress- he was less luminous now and looked like everybody else.

Later that night, we got a lift home with one of my colleagues and his mistress, a woman half his age...no judgement. He had invited her to a work party! And he wasn't the only one with a complicated love life. Another colleague of mine told me that he didn't live with his partner and his two children. He kept up the face of the loving partner in public but in fact she didn't want to live with him as they had married early in life and she hadn't had a chance to enjoy her youth- that was his version.

Another woman reminded me that it was expected after college that you marry and have children. The parents wanted grandchildren. There was little time for waiting after college. If a woman reached 27 she is considered old. I reminded her that I was 35 and had never been married. She told me I was free then like an animal, like a Simba. I wasn't expected to live by Kenyan standards and since I had left Ireland last year, I wasn't expected to live by Ireland's societal norms either

What a liberating feeling. I was free here. Free not to be judged by societal norms. No one is ever entirely free of such norms but I was more liberated than before. This is what I was hoping for, to shrug off norms, when I set off for Africa 5 months before. Tired of the constant demands and expectations of home, I shrugged off all expectations placed on Irish women of child bearing age and headed off to Africa..for a change of scenery...and perspective

And there, I found it. Freedom from expectation and freedom from all the burdens placed on women today. I had joined the ranks of women who instead of giving birth, decide to head out into the world and discover all the riches that other cultures provide. I could learn another language here or easier just to dance under the stars. Whatever took my fancy.

That night in the car, I felt that I had finally discovered all that was good about life in Africa

Sure there are many things that challenge a person here. Lack of internet access, power cuts, the haggling of no fix prices.But here I am really stretching myself. In the face of all these challenges, I feel truly alive. Why do we need so many lows in order to enjoy the highs? To give us a sense of perspective I suppose

Up and down is an expression Kenyans use to express the fact that they are busy. Up and down is the way I feel most days here. Loving the place then hating it five minutes later. You could be accused of being Bipolar given the different strong emotions you feel in one day

The more obstacles placed in my way, the more I feel grateful for all I have here. Great likeminded friends who continually support me, freedom to dance all night without self consciousness awareness of rules imposed on you.I am free here and alive. That is more important to me than fast internet access (well most of the time) or new clothes or gadgets

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Saying goodbye to paradise

Carlos left yesterday.
We spent his last 4 days in Africa together as luckily he missed his flight home on Friday. Convincing himself that his flight was at 3.45 pm rather than 2.15 , he came to work with me at Kenyatta hospital on Fri am. When he finally arrived at the airport at 2 pm, his flight had left and there was nothing left to do but stay with me 4 more days.
I am reminded of a book called "a woman's world", edited by the great Irish travel writer Dervila Murphy, who wrote about the relationships women encounter when they travel alone on their journey.
First of all, women share relationships with local women due to common bonds of children, and family. Often I been invited to a family home by a woman in a shared taxi or in the back of a horse drawn cart. Passing through markets, I brush arms with other women looking for the best deal on clothes or vegetables.
An invite from a woman is less threatening and for the most part, I accept as I get a rare glimpse into the household of a local family. Usually I offer to cook, but I am often ushered into a reception room as a guest and not allowed to help. I haven't a clue how to cook Ugali or chapati anyway and would make a mess.
Then there are the relationships with children. This I love most of all.
Today, I spent the morning in a Special Unit for children with intellectual disabilities in Nairobi. I was touched by one affectionate child, who hugged me every few minutes, proclaiming I was his new rafiki (friend) and when snack time came around, he shared every bite of food he had with me. First mandazi (donut), then chapati... he wasn't the only one. Every child in the room naturally shared their food with the child sitting beside him.
I couldn't help comparing them to the spoilt brats I have worked with in the past, who have tantrums when asked to share their toys.
As for the relationships with men, these are the most complicated for women travelling alone. Often I find though, men in otherwise hostile terrain, view a lone western woman as vulnerable and go out of their way to assist and help in a rather macho but welcoming manner. In Pakistan I have experienced a barrage of questions about why my father or brother allow me to travel in such a manner but usually this is accompanied by an invite to their home to meet their wives or children. Women in Pakistan are usually accompanied by males even to the market and are never out alone.
There are always unwanted advances as one would encounter at home. Travel has taught me to be alert and friendly where ever possible as even a hostile situation can be defused with patience and compassion. If someone says "hello", I reply, even if he wants me to buy a pair of socks I don't need or an expensive Dhow trip that I cant afford. Friendliness doesn't cost anything and creates a better atmosphere when travelling alone. Plus you can glean very useful information about the region with a quick exchange on the side of a street, information you will not find in any "Lonely Planet"
The worst thing about travel is the goodbyes. I have had more intense 4 or 9 day relationships than 9 year relationships. Days spent with travel buddies amount to weeks or months at home as we fit our friends and family in at weekends and around busy schedules. You can get to know someone very well on the back of a 10 hour bus, bumping along unpaved roads, with a chicken on your lap, laughing or enduring loss or theft as is the case in Africa also.
Everything is intensified and maybe thats why I travel so much. I need to intensify my life, to put a frame around my life and say this is it. I only get one chance and I am going to enjoy all of it.
The goodbyes are still hard but I have learned to mellow with travel. I have learned that you must let people go and not hold on to them.
So as the swans come to drink at your palm, they must also be allowed to fly away again (woman's world ref)
You say goodbye often and hello even more times. Eventually it balances itself out and the result is an interesting mix of friends from all over the world, many on facebook.
Hello to all of you I have met on the road
till we meet again...
As for you women out there who comment that you would love to travel as I do but do not have the courage to travel, its 2010 afterall. Decades of feminism and still I hear this.
Would you ever hear a man say " I dont have the courage to do x, y or z". Rather "I want to go to x,y or z, what is the best way..."
Get off the couch girls, take out the lonely planet, rucksack, antimalarials and get travelling. Escape the recession!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Hotel Cliff beach villas

Well just returned from paradise, Zanzibar island, where I spent 12 amazing days. Most days were spent on the beach rusting my skin as Kenyan children would say. I rusted so much, I turned pink, then purple patches and now parts of me are white again.

I headed to Zanzibar alone on the 18th as I couldn't wait for the other volunteers who were traveling overland ooch on the 22nd. I flew with fly540 only to be greeted by customs who insisted that Irish citizens should pay 100 dollars for the visa. I didn't have such currency on me so luckily a chap from the dive centre at Kendwa beach helped me out. I still made a scene if only for the drama of it. I do like confrontations

I met Jose Carlos, a Spanish beach boy, on my second day. Like the local beach boys, he spent his days hanging out, chatting, laughing and making sure he had a good time.

Me alegre que verte Carlos. Hasta pronto en Nairobi

I have been practising my Spanish ever since. Swahili is taking longer

Christmas eve and day were spent on the beach and nights in Kendwa rocks and Sunset dancing till 3. How the locals dance here. Dancing just for the pure enjoyment of it. No self consious behaviour. Pure rhythm and lots of practice.

Beach boys work out on the beach everyday. Some of them are bursting out of their own bodies in muscle. Its too much for my delicate sensibilities. Little hassle here, a welcome relief from the constant hussle and hastle of Nairobi

Then it was time to leave for Tiwi beach, Kenya
Thats where we checked into Cliff Beach villas and then the drama really began
I managed to get bitten by a stone fish on the first night followed by bed bugs on the second night! Great way to ring in the new year!

I also discovered that I left some of my clothes in Zanzibar, only my favourite ones of course. A fiasco with the laundry in Malindi guesthouse, Stonetown caused this as well as my own carelessness when rushed and under pressure to move.

Its very difficult to rush when one has turned into a beach girl not that I was ever known for my punctuality

Here is a poem written by the hilarious Racheal Tuckley, a VSO volunteer, about our 4 day New Years experience at Cliff beach villas:

Hotel Cant Afford Ya

On a long matatu highway,
hot wind in my hair
Warm smell of old tilapia
up through the air
At the end of a long bumpy road,
I finally saw lightsI was looking forward to chilling out,
We were due to stay 4 nights

There we stood in the doorway;
We heard warning bells,
We were thinking to ourselves,
This could be heaven or this could be hell
She asked for my valuables and,
told us her family way,
Don’t you trust me, she said,
and we thought…It’s only for a few days…

Welcome to the hotel cliff beach villa
Such a dodgy place
Such a potential space
Plenty of scope at the hotel cliff beach villa
But you can’t be cool - no water in the pool

Her mind seems definitely twisted,
has she got the paranoid bends?
She got a few masaai and askari boys,
weirdly don’t wanna be friends
How we laid in our bedrooms,
trying not to sweat.
Most days to remember,
every night to forget

So we talked to the captain,
she said, ‘I don’t want to shout…
Please don’t bad mouth me…
I should have thrown you all out’
How does she hear our talking from so so far away???
Flooding wakes you up in the middle of the night
How much longer shall we stay?

Welcome to the hotel cliff beach villa
Over-priced food
Will put you in a mood
Breaking into your room at the hotel cliff beach villa
What a nice surprise,
if your towel arrives

No water in the toilet,
No champagne, or ice,
And we thought we are all just visitors here,
of our own device
And in various mattresses
Bed bugs gathered for a feast,
We don’t know who last slept in these beds,
Maybe they were deceased?!!!

Last thing I remember,
we were Squirming to our cab
And trying to negotiate fairly
Without feeling too
We destroyed our financial details…
And she shouted as we leave…
“Please don’t destroy my property”…
and“Were you talking about me?”

Now I'm relaxing in another paradise.
How much fun can one woman have?

Donkeys are the mode of trasnport here.
I walk to the beach everyday, passing a maze of narrow streets, lined with pink flowers and coral stones. Kids yell out "jambo, jambo" beach boys "do you want a boat ride" or :wannw ride a donkey today?No hastle if you dont want anything. I walk right on by.

Ninjas warriors and Massai watch me stroll the streets,
wondering where I have come from and how much money I have

I feel slightly underdressed when walking alongside muslim women in their black veils or Bui Bui

So thats all the news of Christmas.
I hope you all had a wonderful time and hope to see you soon.
My friends are in my thoughts as always