Friday, 24 July 2009

Village Life Part One

I will break with the main narrative briefly to try to illustrate what living in Eramba without running water, electricity or western toilets is like.

We are lucky enough to have three water sources; a large tank (2300litres!) stands within our small compound and collects the rain from the roof. It can be simply fetched using jerry cans using the handy tap on its side. Unfortunately, having sat in a plastic for up to several weeks, the water takes on the taste of the tank so we restrict this source to use in washing. Luckily, there is a small stream in the same valley that the school overlooks, around which most people in Eramba seem to congregate in the evenings. The women and children always find it hilarious that a young man is fetching water but given that our house is up a steep hill and that the container is 20 litres I do it by necessity as much as choice – Sophie simply cannot life the barrel! The taste is delicious. No Alpine spring, but considerably better than plastic (for parental benefit, yes we are purifying it, don’t worry). The third source is rainwater that we collect in some of our pans during the frequent heavy afternoon storms.

As we have to carry all of our own water, even over short distances, we have become far more aware about exactly how much is required by certain tasks. A basic wash will only be a few litres, cooking one, tea (which we have both become addicted to) about three quarters, hair wash 2-5 with more for Sophie, washing up a couple more, but by far the biggest consumer is clothes washing. It always requires at least a whopping twenty litres, even for a modest pile.

A lack of electricity is also manageable, with the aid of our lamps and the kind help of our paraffin seller, Kevin who showed us how the mechanism works on the first night. Toilets however, prove a little more challenging. The recently constructed long drop that even has a ceramic bowl rather than a simple pit also happens to be infested with wasps around three inches long, as I painfully discovered in the first weekend! Although Mr Ouko had the white spongy egg sacks and the attached wasps removed immediately, they have a nasty habit of reappearing at inopportune moments. The fear of another dive bombing generally keeps us both out of that cubicle. To make use of the alternative older long drop is a refined art. As there is a pool of stagnant water at the end of the ‘drop’ certain precautions must be taken against the inevitable hoard of mosquitoes. Morning is the best time as it is too cold for the menaces to appear. If I must use it in the warmer afternoon I apply repellent before opening the door (paying special attention to certain areas that will be vulnerably exposed to the hole). I then charge in, drop trou, and finish as quickly as humanly possible before the smell of repellent asphyxiates me or before one of the hoard finds a chink in my DEET armour. I emerge, as though from an underwater dive, gasping for breath and blinking in the face of the bright sun. Needless to say, flushing western toilets are a frequent fantasy – Kisii is a haven in this respect.

Week One in Eramba School

We made the brief walk down the dusty road from Kiamoncha to Eramba with Mr Samuel on Friday to be introduced to the whole school. The buildings sit on at the top of one of the sloping hills that leads down to a small, gurgling stream, from which one often sees school workers fetching buckets of water. From its perch, Eramba gets a fine view of the various shambas (small farms) with their patchwork of maize, teas, occasionally bananas, and the clumps of trees that protrude from this mosaic. The school itself has a small plot next to the sloping games fields in which agriculture students get an opportunity to put into practice the techniques they have learnt – this year they are growing kale.

There are three main buildings, other than the long-drop blocks and the small wooden and mud kitchen. They are arranged at right angles to one another, forming a C shape with a space in the centre for assemblies or outdoor reading. The top section is entirely comprised of classrooms, the lowest more classrooms and the staff room, and the middle one the library, chemistry lab, and an unfinished series of offices. All are simple brick and corrugated iron structures with high ceilings supported by wooden beams – like the church they remain remarkably cool, even in the heat of the day. Desks and chairs pack each classroom, leaving little space for the teacher to write on the blackboard. Sometimes up to seventy students are crammed into a room even smaller than a normal English classroom, yet discipline is fierce so the pupils are silent.

The library is somewhat gloomy – shelves line the walls, filled with previous KEP donations but they sometimes cover the windows. Precious little light reaches the desks and benches. The staffroom is simply a collection of desks scattered in a room – there is very little personal space to work though it provides a welcome retreat for the various teachers who eat, mark, read the papers and chat there. The lab is well-stocked but two computers and a generator lurk unused in a corner – a sign of what we will be inevitably be asked to help with.

We only met Masara Ombori (the head) and the rest of staff over the course of the following week (6th to 10th) when we also got a better idea about the problems the school faces. Mr Ombori is a tall, quiet man who teaches biology – very measured and calculating, his enthusiasm for our ideas has always been moderate but genuine. Tragically, we suspect that he is still grieving after witnessing the killing of his two cousins last year during the post-election violence. His taciturn nature has probably been magnified by those terrible months. Mr Samuel compliments him well – with seemingly boundless energy, he eagerly answers all of our own questions and is keen to find ways to accommodate our aims. He is also, as we discovered in one of our first form English lessons, an excellent teacher.

We are gradually getting to know the other staff – Joel Bichango, the literature teacher is quiet but charismatic in an understated way and clearly has the respect of his students. Lynette Nyaata, the business studies teacher (and the only woman) is warm, bubbly and suits her role as counsellor perfectly. She also was kind enough to invite us to stay at her house within a few minutes of introducing ourselves, an offer than was repeated by students and staff alike. Mr Austin Wandabwa, the biology and agriculture teacher, though full of a little bluster when discussing clubs, is also a hard-working and a keen supporter of our aims.

The lessons we attended were revealing about the style of Kenyan education. Having lacked textbooks for so many years, the general formula remains: teacher talks, writes notes on board, students copy them. This simple formula is often repeated for a whole lesson with a little discussion at the end, if there was any at all. There were exceptions of course – Mr Samuel, in a lesson about descriptive writing got them involved by both contrasting tall and short, thin and ‘muscular’ (very tactful) and by making everyone write a short description of their desk partner. Sophie’s and my other half could barely look at us they were so shy, let alone write about us! But the young Mr Nyaswabu’s Christian Religious Education lesson was a simple lecture – with a warm classroom drowsiness was inevitable.

Joel’s lesson on ‘A meeting in the dark’ by the Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong’o was fascinating, not because of the teaching (a single reading rotation and commentary) but because of the seriousness of the issues it touched upon: western Christian morality vs. African traditional beliefs, pre-marital sex and female circumcision. Given that we had been warned that these were somewhat taboo, it was amazing that they were being tackled so directly.

The somewhat tedious teaching style left us disappointed at the lack of opportunity students were given to show initiative, a deficiency that seemed to translate into their general behaviour – other than Dennis and his friends, everyone was wary of approaching us. In other KEP schools students were apparently very inquisitive, suggesting that, while Eramba is one of the most successful schools in the area, it might have achieved this while sacrificing the integrity of its pupils.

On a lighter note, lunch at school has been an interesting experience, especially compared to the buffet dinners we had been having in Nairobi and Kisii where we helped ourselves to chapattis, fried rice, goat and beef stews, curried vegetables and chicken. On Monday and Tuesday we had a simple lunch of maize straight off the cob and boiled and beans with the students. Sophie pointed out the many small bugs included in the mix – clearly an unintentional extra source of protein! More of an issue are the portions they give us with gleeful predictions that we will leave weighing a 100kg – a huge, heaping bowl is apparently the norm and anything less and we are accused of letting ourselves starve. Even I struggled to finish. We have since switched to the teacher’s food – an epic slab of ugali (maize flour boiled into a think, solid mass), sukuma-wiki (kale) and a little goat. The portions are still massive, but they are usually lacking in insects.

This first week has been about collecting information about where our attention needs to be directed, through observation and some direct questionnaires. We distributed questions for teachers that revealed a lack of revision material, too few experiments for all years (50% of every KCSE science mark is practical work) not enough support for extra curricular activities, and a lack of awareness amongst students about the process of applying to university or technical college. There is no longer a careers teacher – in what is proving to be a common cause of problems, it was around the 2008 post-election violence when the position became vacant. We are awaiting other suggestions from our newly-created suggestions box for students although their lack of initiative in approaching us does not bode well for this. The absence of a proper university and careers section in the library and the fact that the KEP pamphlet dealing with both has gone missing indicates post-education opportunities (PEO) should be a key focus. Indeed, we would like to spend some time working on the library – as well as the gloom, the books are messily arranged, displayed poorly and there are not enough benches or desks to make it an effective room for working in. The fiction section is also tiny which was surprising given the passion to read most students seemed willing to mention. Although when any book costs the equivalent of at least a hundred avocadoes this becomes a little more understandable! We have also settled on three special days for the school – sports, careers, and an open day/harambe or fundraiser to show off the school to parents as well as raising some money. Budgeting for textbooks and science equipment must wait for further teacher feedback.

These criticisms aside, Eramba is clearly an excellent school. For 2008, a bad year for every school given the violence, Eramba still came second in the district. Students, while a little quiet, are neat in their black trousers/skirt, white shirts/blouses and green jumpers. Prefects proudly sport red blazers. Perhaps most importantly, the teaching at Eramba is clearly good enough for some students to go to university, a feat than some schools in the area have never achieved. An average ‘B’ mark is generally regarded as high enough to guarantee one a place at on of the seven public universities, although this depends on how well the other students sitting their KCSEs performed that year – ‘B’ was the average for boys two years ago, with one pupil managing an A- overall last year, despite the political turmoil. So while there is a reassuring amount of work we can do, we are intervening in a school that is already, partly due to KEP support, a success story.

Weekend in Eramba

On Saturday (4th) we experienced our first local market and realized how inexpensive fresh fruit and vegetables were going to be. Perhaps market is something of an exaggeration – it consisted of a handful of the local farmers setting out mats on the ground at the centre of Eramba (which is only a scattering of houses itself) and selling their recently-picked produce. Four small mangoes were 20 shillings (£1 = 120 Kenyan shillings or Ksh), avocadoes 2-3 ‘bob’, fresh mandazi 5 Ksh and tomatoes only 10 Ksh for a fairly large bunch. Some of the vendors also sold kale, small dried fish from Lake Victoria, sugar cane and sometimes potatoes – a great selection given that it was only a hundred metres from our door. Nyokongo, a larger village about twenty minutes away (considerably longer when Dennis takes a ‘shortcut’) also had a much larger market on Sunday – livestock, bananas, yams, carrots (very rare), limes, mandazi in all shapes and sizes as well as clothes, shoes and roofing were all sold in the open space on which the village houses faced.

By this time we had already made a great friend – Dennis. Anyone who can put up with our disastrous cooking of small peas (Friday) deserves special commendation and Dennis truly did his best to choke down our failure of a meal. Fortunately we have since managed to demonstrate some ability to cook and he has remained our invaluable guide and companion, both in school and out of it. He is in Form 3, the year before students sit their final exams called KCSEs, and while initially shy and a little hesitant with his English he is now open and free with us. We’ve even tentatively managed to discuss local attitudes to school pupils having boyfriends and girlfriends – they are generally frowned upon and ‘education first, love after’ seems to be a favourite motto. We get the impression he likes his new status as best friend of the mzungus – he has introduced us to his friends Jared and Albert and is always very protective of us in school. He has so far helped us cook chapattis, get the best prices at the market and allowed us to meet some more of his friends informally – like Dennis most students were far more wary of talking openly with us in public.

Having met Dennis, we were introduced to the whole community by Mr Ouko on Sunday (5th) in church. We met the pastor, who kindly told us he would give some of the sermon in English for our benefit, and then sat in the basic wooden-framed, but thankfully cool, church. Over the next 45 minutes as the congregation began to arrive, various people stood up to sing devotional songs that were far more vibrant than any English hymns – they were certainly sung with more enthusiasm. When the church was packed with singing adults, staring children who were more interested in us than the service, and many crying babies, the pastor started to preach. After a few readings, more hymns and prayers, we were brought up to the front and thanked for the work KEP has already done – Mr Ouko was generous with his praise and we were grateful than such a pillar of the community had created such a favourable impression of us.

The sermon itself was Victorian in style with classic themes of thrift and toil. ‘The Regulation of Money’ cited various Psalms to illustrate the need to live within ones means, borrow only what you could afford to pay back, save for the future, be sensible but generous with loans and gifts and, most interestingly, to see money as a means to an end rather as an end in itself. Compared with the sermons that other project workers heard, in which communities were told that a single immoral member tainted the whole, ours seemed eminently practical and useful.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Eramba Introduction

Come Friday (2nd) with everyone slightly jaded, we frantically packed and waited in the Mushauri cafĂ© for our deputies to collect us – the heads were at a conference in Mombassa. Over a plate of fried fish, rice and chapattis we met Mr Samuel, the charismatic, energetic and highly intelligent deputy of Eramba, whose enthusiasm from Kenyan politics and secondary education became immediately apparent. He had studied literature and then journalism and passionately discussed the need for Kenyans to learn to resolve conflicts peacefully, with particular reference to the 2008 election violence when politicians allegedly abused tribal differences for their own personal ends. Most importantly, he was keen on KEP, its aims and its methods, as he demonstrated over the course of the following week as he became our most dynamic partner in the school.

Another matatu ride, this one even more bumpy as we were traveling on small rural tracks rather than roads, we passed through Mirani and were kindly taken straight to our compound (Kiamoncha). It is owned by Mr Ouko, the chairman of the board of governors – he is apparently close to retirement though he has aged remarkably well and is a highly respected figure in the community. He teaches medicine in Kisii and continues to practice when he can, not to mention his five children, four of whom are already working in their father’s profession. The compound is a community project and holds a few small workshops with ancient Singer sewing machines, a small sapling nursery, a block of primitive long drops, a single ceramic crouching toilet, and our house. Built in brick and covered in white paint, our four rooms (two bedrooms, sitting room, and dining/kitchen/washing room) are all very comfortable. Mr Ouko had gone to a lot of effort to provide everything we need – chairs, mosquito nets from the local health clinic perfectly fitted for our beds, a gas stove, basins for washing and paraffin lanterns. The thick smell of the fuel has already become synonymous with relaxing evenings spent reading.

Over the course of the following days (Saturday 4th and Sunday 5th) we explored Eramba and its surroundings, adapted to life without electricity, running water or toilets and made an immensely useful friend in Dennis. Eramba is no transport hub – Mr Samuel had kindly arranged for the matatu to take us directly. We decided to walk to Mirani (about 50 minutes) through the characteristic Kisii tapestry of green farmland and met two figures of note – a man who turned out to be mad and followed us for some minutes, and Esta, who invited us into her house. She showed off her cows, chicken, simply-furnished low-roofed house, complete with cheerful Christmas decorations (a common cheap form of ornamentation) and, like every other house we had been to, a poster of Barack Obama.

It is hard to underestimate the deeply-felt pride that all Kenyans take in the fact that the most powerful leader in the world is, in their minds, from their own country (he is firstly a Kenyan, then American). Any mention of his name is guaranteed to bring a beaming smile to the face of anyone who is listening – the mantra ‘yes we can’ seems to have a popular following here, encapsulating the ambition many Kenyans feel to better themselves and their country. He also represents the ultimate ‘big man’ who has risen to such a position of status and authority. Obama T-shirts, caps, sweets and even songs are everywhere. The excitement at his election must have been electric - just as the atmosphere will be when (or perhaps if) he visits Kenya again. Unfortunately, at the time of writing, Obama was actually condemning Kenya for failing to pass significant economic reform, not to mention the judicial furor associated with the post-election violence. In his recent African visit he made a point of not coming to Kenya, landing instead in Ghana.

Kisii Town Training

The KEP base house in Kisii is on a hill, high enough to be tough to walk up to, and low enough to be tiring to walk up from, that overlooks some of the appealing forested hills around the town. Ben and Gloria, the local kiosk owners, are just around the corner – they seem never to sleep and always cheerfully serve us soda at any hour. We have a permanent guard/night watchman and the amazing Castan who cleans, cooks and generally pampers us and proves his worth in operating the shaky double pump that has left many of us shivering in the shower when the water has cut out. One large living room with deceptively hard sofas and chairs, a kitchen, two bedrooms for coordinators are on the ground floor, and a series of large dormitory-style rooms are just above. It is hardly the lap of luxury – peeling paint, moldy walls and a leaky roof that created a mini-river on the floor of our room whenever it rains are some of the less appealing features! But with (sometimes) warm showers, a pair of flushing western toilets (as long as the pump is working) and the company of the other project workers it is a welcome refuge.

Over the course of the first week (Tuesday 30th to Thursday 2nd) that we spent training for the project, the simple Kisii house truly became a temporary home. We cooked, washed, relaxed, discussed the project, read, played and, whenever the roof leaked, fought the incoming water, together. Collective excitement to be in such a far-removed location was mixed with anticipation and apprehension and being about to be thrust into what was built up to be a wilderness (Eramba turned out to be very comfortable). Having spent less than half a day as a full group before the trip, having the opportunity to get to know one another better was a perfect break from the somewhat repetitive training. My introduction of Mafia on the first night created a group of addicts, some more willing than others, but all have resigned themselves to the game.

By the Thursday night everyone was eager to get to their project school and we had only a restaurant and a bar separating us from an early start. Unfortunately the start necessitated buying a replacement phone, a heavy trip to the market, and organizing a transfer of money having stupidly forgotten my debit card. But the previous night was fun nevertheless if a tad surreal – from a discussion of the American dream, education and moral relativism to gossip about potential project worker romance and then from negotiating the bride-price of Buffy (one of the coordinators) in cows with some Kenyan friends to the number of children her prospective husband would want (twenty!). The food was what we were coming to recognize as typically Kenyan – ugale (maize flower boiled slowly) chapattis, goat and beef stew, beans and tomato salsa with several different types of rice. We the moved from the restaurant to the bar to experience a combination of 90s dance music, Tusca beer and the sometimes alarmingly keen and sweaty bumping and grinding of the Kenya men. Interestingly, although homosexuality is illegal and generally unmentionable in Kenya, men are far less physically reserved around each other, preferring to dance with the male mzungus than the women. This extends to holding hands on the street and applies to grown men as well as boys. Sam embraced the male dancing with gusto – he proudly presented us with his arm that had the numbers of two Kenyan friends scrawled across and explained that he’d secured an invitation to a tea factory.

Friday, 10 July 2009

An Introduction to Kisii

There was a noticeable change in the terrain from Narok and Sotik (two places we passed through on the matatu journey) to Kisii. From flat, dusty plains with deep brown soil to hilly, lush and green farmland with rich, dense reddish earth. Kisii's unique economy of great agricultural produce mixed with financial poverty is written on the land - Kisii farmers grow maize, beans, small mangoes, bananas, yams, potatoies, avocados, tea (as a cash crop), sugar cane, tomatoes and ground nuts in abundance. But the poor dirt roads, narrow andvulnerably to the frquent heavy rains, especially in November and December, and the small size of the strips of farm land prevent a large scale export of produce far beyond Kisii town. The great hospitality of the region can be partly explained by the simple fact that it is difficult for families to sell or consume all they can produce.

Just as Nairobi was full of contrasts, so too with Kisii. We were trust into what is fairly described as a rubbish-strewn town that often smells of sewage in the heat, as visibly unappealing as its surroundings are beautiful. Several main, dusty streets are lined with a mixture of small electronics stores and book suppliers and branches of international banks and supermarkets. The main market is a thrilling experience - a myriad of small stall offer a wide range of staples as well as fruit and vegetables, including large mangoes from the coast and deliciously sweet pinapples. Not a comfortable area to spend a great deal of time in though as children would inevitably pounce on any muzungu (white 'visitors') foolish enough to stand still. Hydra-like, the children endlessly multiply if given sweets or even acknowledged, as they call up what seems like every child living in Kisii. But the centre is full of character: market stall owners, friendly and apparently delighted to see muzungus trying to bargain for their goods, the casual greetings of many passers by, and the unique atmosphere of the bars and restaurants make for a strangely charming Kisiicombination.

Beginnings - Nairobi and the journey to Kisii

Firstly, apologies for the massive delay in posting. Internet is slow so I thought it best to wait until I had a lot to say! So, from the top, here we go...

Along the road from Nairobi airport to the city center are scattered billboards that convey a sense of the character of the capital - they are covered with advertisements for the latest four by fours, luxury car engines, corporate insurance, business loans from western banks and private security. As one drives into the heart of the city the buildings and the people give the impression of the great contrasts and extremes within Nairobi: wealth and poverty, state of the art business technology and primitive transport, central superstores and suburban shanty-towns.

The wealthy professional elite (bankers, lawyers, doctors and politicians) in their tailored suits and high-rise offices rub shoulders with the peddlers and market stall owners. Mobile phones, and advertisements for the two competing brands Zain and Safaricom, are everywhere - no street is complete without at least one retailer offering sim cards, credit, and accessories. Yet, the matatus, old Nissan minibuses that provide the main means of transport within Nairobi and Kenya as a whole, shudder and splutter along, looking as though they should have been taken out of service years ago. The pristine supermarkets (Nakumatt is the main brand name) with their clinical cleanliness and neatly-stacked shelves of central Nairobi are far removed from the crudewooden shacks of the suburbs that offer everything from basic groceries to bicycle repair.

After the early landing and a brief walk around the city, all the project workers and coordinators spent a single night in the heavily guarded Shalom House at Dagorati Corner, a dusty extremity of Nairobi. Our first introduction to Kenyan rain was an especially violent one - having not broken for almost a week, the clouds unleashed a power cut inducing torrent, saturating the ground and darkening the skyline so that is resembled night rather than day.

The matatu ride to Kisii the following day was fairly uneventful. Bumpy, cramped and painfully long all come to mind and yet, a combination of retro pop and rock music blasting from the speakers and the east African countryside flying past was oddly atmospheric. We stopped at a roadside cafe to experience several firsts: long drops (the most common toilet in Kenya, essentially a deep hole in the ground), mandazi (deep-frying dough balls, Kenyan donuts) and Crest (a bitter lemon soft drink made in Kisii). Needless to say, after a sweaty matatu ride, the latter were considerably more welcome than the first! I also had a plate of fried rice and some small peas, a meal that indirectly led to our abortive attempts to cook similar peas in Kiamoncha - the lesson not to by small, unidentifyable legumes from Kisii market was learnt very quickly!