Thursday, 9 August 2012

Last Post

I am sitting by gate 9 at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport waiting for a 16:40 flight to Dubai and from there home to Birmingham. This will be my last post from Kenya for a little while. As previously posted this has been a very worthwhile trip and a lot has been achieved. As ever there is still more to do. Our harvest of maize, millet and green grams, (mung beans), has been gathered in but there is no rest for the farmer. We now need to plant desmodium seeds to grow a biological barrier against the Striga weeds that attack our maize in time for the next growing season which starts in early September. The fields need to be prepared for our next planting and the tomatoes will soon be ready for harvesting and selling. The school and College students are on holiday at the moment but will soon be back to their studies, (on August 27th) and making the final push to the end of the year. Our ‘candidates’ for the KCPE, (Kenya Certificate of Primary Education), will doubtless face more Zonal and district mock exams when they go. They are going to need a lot of stamina!
I’m looking forward to seeing Judi and the family again. Although this has been a relatively short visit it’s still a long time to spend away from them. I hope the blog will continue to interest you in the future. I tend to write less while I’m in the UK but will, I hope, be returning to Kenya before too long.Oriti, (bye) and Nyasae Ogwhedhi, (God be with you).

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Coming home

So it’s come to the time when I step back into the 21st Century a bit at a time. I’m sitting on the bed in my room at St. Anna’s Guest House in Kisumu killing time before my flight to Nairobi early tomorrow morning. The rainy season seems to be setting in again. It’s a dark grey evening in Kisumu and the rain has been on a steady drizzle for the last hour or so. St Anna’s has developed a lot since we first started coming here. I’m in room eighteen tonight, one of the rooms in the original building. As well as adding another block of rooms each room now has a TV in it. There’s nothing on except bad rap videos so I’m watching a video of U2 from a recent Glastonbury festival. It’s a bit of a tenuous link but I know Bono, U2’s singer is a big advocate for Africa. It always feels slightly surreal sitting in the relative luxury of a room with TV, electricity and a warm shower after spending time in rural Kosele. Our neighbours are still working on witchcraft as a plausible explanation for the sudden death of a young mother whose son we are now caring for. I think the story has taken a new twist since the death as there seems to be some intimation that a genie is involved somewhere along the line as well. Meanwhile the U2 light and sound show flashes in the corner of my laptop screen reminding me of an even more bizarre world that I am returning to.
The journey from Kosele to Kisumu today presented, as always, an interesting and ever changing panorama of people, funny road signs, skinny cows and insane matatu drivers hurtling along the road apparently oblivious to the safety of their passengers. Children played by the side of the road, one skilfully pushing a bike wheel, (minus tyre), along the dirt track with a metal rod. Happy as Larry, totally engaged in what he was doing. Old men stood sticks in hand, watching over their small flocks of sheep and herds of cows like old men have since time immemorial. Ladies sat by small piles of vegetables waiting for customers. In all the time I’ve done this journey I don’t think I’ve ever seen a transaction being made at one of these roadside businesses. Prize for the funniest sign today went, I think, to an advert for paint, painted on a wall in Kisumu. If the sign artist had started the last line of the advert about a foot to the left of where it was he would have fitted the last letter of the last word on and would have made a bold claim. As it was the last line claimed that the paint was “The toughest on the plane”. I hope they used it on the plane I’ll be traveling on tomorrow morning.
There is a craft market in Kisumu which sells the full range of craft souvenirs that Kenya has to offer at much lower prices than the airports. We stopped so that Mary could buy some small soapstone hippos. These are good sellers at church and help us to raise funds.  I no longer get involved in buying them. Mary our manager knows what sells best and is able to buy the hippos for a much cheaper price than I do. She doesn’t create the 'Mzungu inflation' effect. We managed to buy the smaller hippos for 30 shillings each today. Just after we had pulled up and parked discretely under the shade of a tree a bus full of bona fide tourists pulled up and poured out. You could almost feel the sense of anticipation growing in the craft market. A couple of guys came running in to the entrance, eager to man their stalls before the bonanza opportunity passed. As we were leaving the tourists were still shopping. I hope the stall holders had a good day.
As I look forward to fairly lengthy waits for flights in Nairobi and Dubai tomorrow U2 have got to the crowd sing-along of I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, (link below). It’s probably my favourite U2 song and seems like a good anthem for our neighbours in Kosele. We’re still looking for ways of helping the children we care for to really make the most of their potential and make a difference in their country. As long as we keep looking together I’m sure we’ll get closer to a real, lasting solution to the problems that are drawn to our attention in Kosele so frequently. This visit I’ve felt that we’ve taken some more firm steps in the right direction. We’ve grown some strength in our legs and will keep going. As long as we continue to love God and love our neighbours I believe we can do the impossible and achieve our dream of inspiring hope in a new generation and kindness where the harsh reality of life in rural Africa would drive it away.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Full Circle

On my last day in Kosele for this visit it seems appropriate that we were battered by a downpour again. Starting and finishing my trip with a major cloudburst seems to bring it round full circle. When the rain came I was in a meeting with Madam Nyangwe, our head teacher and Mr Isaiah, who heads up our agriculture college. Madam Nyangwe expressed her surprise, as the raindrops battered the roof of her office, sounding like rapid fire from a machine gun. “I thought the rains were over!” I think we all did. We have, thankfully, had very little rain while we have been drying our maize crop. Nothing, it seems, is predictable about the weather at the moment. This will create a challenge for us as we gear up for the next planting season at the beginning of September. The other side effect of the rain is the frog’s chorus, (follow the link below if you want to relive that particular musical moment). The frogs seem to be working in short, sharp co-ordinated bursts tonight. I wonder what switches them on and off.
This visit to Kosele has been very productive. On a daily basis I sometimes feel like the work becomes bogged down, kind of trapped in ‘African time’. Overall though I am happy with the performance of our two new teams, managing the children’s home and school respectively. As previously reported the church has just enjoyed a very successful week-end. As the summer holiday starts to unfold for the children, (the ‘candidates having finished their mock exam today), I think everybody is looking forward to a bit of down time. I’ll be traveling to Kisumu tomorrow and flying home from Nairobi on Thursday. It will be good to be back with my wife Judi again as she continues her treatment for breast cancer.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Meals on wheels

As my current trip to Kenya races towards the last few days I’ve had a really good day working with the teachers and am looking forward to finishing up our improvement plan with them tomorrow. We are doing our best to make sure that our ‘candidates, (Year 8 pupils who will be taking their public exam this November), are as well prepared for their exams as possible.
Said candidates have been out at a fairly local school today having yet another practise at this wretched exam. All of the local schools have now ‘closed’ for the summer holidays and are due to start up again at the end of August. It is still not entirely clear why the candidates have been called to sit another mock exam this week. To add to the confusion it was, as far as I knew, supposed to take place on Tuesday and Wednesday this week but is now happening today and tomorrow. I have a feeling that our pupils will be over prepared for their exam in November if the current rate of mock exams is maintained.
As well as straining our pupils mental fibre sending them to another school to sit the exam with two other schools puts a strain on our logistical resources. Our Landrover is in good repair at the moment so it wasn’t difficult to transport them all to the school that is hosting the exam. It was a bit of a squeeze but it really is possible to fit seventeen fairly large teenagers and a driver into our vehicle. It’s probably a good job that theydidn’t have to take any roads with police blocks on though. The real problem came at dinner time. We obviously have a duty to feed the children at lunchtime. As our school is on holiday at the moment we did not have a lot of takers for the free lunch that we still offer to our day scholars during the vacation. This meant that there was plenty for the candidates. The only problem was that they couldn’t come to us to eat it, and our Landrover was needed elsewhere at lunchtime. Fortunately a piki piki, (motor bike) taxi was on hand to sort the problem out. Potatoes and beans were on the menu today. They were duly loaded on the motor bike and dispatched to our hungry candidates. We have to repeat the whole process again tomorrow.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

The friendship becomes fatter

Today has seen the final step in our church becoming part of Elim Gospel Church Kenya. It was a very exciting day and an extremely appropriate time for this development. Exactly ten years ago to the day my family, (wife Judi and children Tom and Ellie), and I spent our first Sunday in our home in Kosele. At that point we were very busy preparing the home to receive the first children. We were assisted by a very enthusiastic group of students from the UK. As it’s lost in the mists of time I can’t remember how we celebrated our first Sunday in Kosele, but it was the first step in planting our small church.
The church has been through its share of ups ands downs. We’ve experienced a pastor being driven out of the area because of the post-election violence in 2007. We have been widely ridiculed in the community because of our Pentecostalism and we have seen church numbers go up and down depending on the number of Mzungu, (European), visitors to the church. Like any church we have been let down by conflict between individual members of the church and conflict between the leaders of the church. The church family is, really, not very different from our own families. Like a good family we have held together through the ups and downs, celebrating together, grieving together and giving together.
In today’s service Pastor Paul, (who had to leave Kosele in 2007 because he came from the wrong tribe), said how delighted he was to be in church at this momentous time. Despite only being the pastor for a short time Paul was loved by the church members and they were pleased to see him back for this visit. Paul and his colleague Pastor Reuben are members of the national leadership of the Elim Gospel Church in Kenya. Becoming part of this movement links our church to a number of others in different parts of the country and to a wider global family of Elim churches with a headquarters in the UK. In a very moving service Paul and Reuben anointed our new Pastor Kennedy and co-pastor Dorine, and their leadership team, all by the popular acclaim of the church members. Reuben preached the sermon in the service and coined a completely beautiful phrase. He was extolling the virtues of loving one another through showing each other kindness and creating hope in brothers and sisters lives. He said that as a result of this “the friendship becomes fatter”. It’s a lovely image and a wonderfully African sentiment.
Kennedy, our new Pastor, reminded the church of its roots in our home ten years ago. Looking round the church and seeing the happy faces, young, old, men, women, boys and girls I was reminded of a New Testament scripture from 1st Corinthians 3:6-7 which says:

“I planted the seeds, Apollos watered them, but God made them sprout and grow. What matters isn't those who planted or watered, but God who made the plants grow.”

Sitting at the back of the church it was gratifying to see how much it has grown and the confidence of its new leaders. Like everything that we do out here its not really important who started it all off. It’s the people who make sure it has legs and lasts a very long time that matter. As long as the friendship continues to get fatter I have every confidence that Hope and Kindness will outlive me and Judi.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Holding lightly to life

We had a tragic reminder today of how fragile many people’s grip on life is in our area. This week-end is very important for our church as we become members of the Elim Gospel Church in Kenya. A church service was held this afternoon as part of our celebration of this new step. We enjoyed a good turn out from the church members and a rousing sermon from Pastor Paul, one of our visitors.
At the end of the service it became apparent that something had happened to one of the ladies who attends the church. The lady in question is a widow with a young son who we have supported for some time. Apart from a very elderly mother-in-law the lady has no close relatives to support her. I was shocked to learn that she died very suddenly today, leaving her young son a total orphan.
The death is, at the moment, unexplained and is difficult to comprehend. Her mother-in-law came to our place to explain what had happened. She told us that her daughter-in-law had been to Oyugis, our nearest town, yesterday and had eaten some porridge and bananas at a 'hotel'. Shortly after this meal she felt very ill, with violent stomach pains. She was eventually taken home, firstly on a piki piki, (motor bike), taxi and, for the last leg of her journey, in a wheelbarrow. A herbal remedy was prepared for her which made her sick and appeared to relieve some of her symptoms. The mother-in-law told us that she went to check on the situation this morning and to encourage the patient to go to the hospital. She, somewhat surprisingly, said she did not want to go to hospital and could not be persuaded. This in itself is unusual as she was HIV positive and had been used to collecting Anti Retro Viral, (ARV), drugs on a regular basis. The mother-in-law left to do a few chores and came back a bit later. She couldn’t get any reply when she knocked on the door but neighbours suggested her daughter-in-law might be resting and that she would be best left alone. When the mother-in-law came back at one o’clock this afternoon there was still no answer at the door so the door was broken down and the lady was found dead in her chair.
We have taken her young son in at our place to be cared for and will be following up the case in the course of the week. The church leaders will make the necessary arrangements for the funeral and we have arranged for the body to be taken to a local mortuary. It seems unlikely than any kind of autopsy will be performed and the death will, in all likelihood, remain a mystery. At the moment the top explanation in the community is that it was a case of witchcraft, especially given that the body was found seated in a chair. There is a chance that she may have taken her own life or succumbed to an underlying chronic medical problem linked to her HIV positive status. Either way her death is a sad and shocking event. It remains to be seen what arrangements will be made by any family members about the welfare of the little boy in this case. I have a feeling that we have just added another member to our family here. Our thoughts and prayers are with him tonight. As our friend Hilda said, “No two days here are ever the same.” I wish they could be different for more positive reasons sometimes.

Friday, 3 August 2012

Matata Hospital

Oyugis, the nearest town to us, is an interesting place in the evening. At about six o’clock this evening I had to do an ‘ambulance run’ to Oyugis in our Landrover to take one of our older girls to the Matata hospital. She was in a lot of pain, having developed a very sudden and very severe stomach ache. The public health system in Kenya isn’t brilliant so we took her to the best local private hospital. Fortunately I haven’t had to do too many emergency trips to hospital this year which means that the children have stayed remarkably healthy. The downside of this is that I forgot the minor details of having a patient admitted to even a half decent private hospital.

Janet, one of our staff is staying at the hospital with our patient tonight. This means that she will need some cash to pay for supper, and some bottled water. While Madam Nyangwe, our head teacher and Janet stayed to re-assure the patient as she was admitted on the ward I hot footed it into Oyugis to buy the necessary items and get some change. Being the only white person in town has now lost its novelty for me but small children still obviously haven’t got over seeing a Mzungu, (European). Walking past the alley ways and shop fronts I still attract a chorus of “Mzungu” and “How are you?” from the younger children in town.

Early evening is a very busy time in Oyugis. Tonight was even busier than usual as Friday is the main market day in Oyugis. The piki piki, (motor bike), taxis work overtime on Fridays and you have to keep your wits about you to avoid getting run over. Walking into the centre of town I passed numerous examples of the entrepreneurial spirit that is alive and well in Kenya. Little stalls selling tiny, (but therefore affordable), amounts of food. Ladies frying chips in big pans that look like Chinese woks over a charcoal fire by the side of the road. Tiny shops advertising mobile phone time at a shilling a minute. Coffins in a variety of ‘finishes’ for sale in busy woodwork shops. ‘Mechanics’ hunkered down fixing motor bike wheels and stripping down engines in makeshift workshops by the dried mud pavement. There’s a plethora of smells as well. The acrid smell of burning rubber and oil from a roadside fire stirred occasionally by a small boy. Piles of cedar posts. The smell of chips and car fumes and latrines. As the evening becomes darker the people become more like silhouettes and the flame of the fire seem to lick up higher and more fiercely. The town has a very vibrant feel to it.
Having finished my shopping I return to the hospital where our young patient is in a little less pain – probably because she has thrown up by the side of the bed. “We will have to buy a bowl”, says Madam Nyangwe. “You will get one just outside for about seventy shillings.” Just outside turns into another walk into town which is now definitely darker but no less busy. Most of the piki pikis have got their lights on now and can’t sneak up behind me as easily. While in town I think I’d better buy some toilet rolls to take back to the hospital. At least I haven’t had to buy all of the drugs required by our patient as well. The Matata hospital has a very civilised approach to billing for our neck of the woods. We won’t have to pay for everything in advance.
As the evening wears on our patient and attendant are set for the night and Madam Nyangwe and I mount up in the trusty green ‘ambulance’ and head for home. This is a slightly tricky manoeuvre initially, as the hospital entrance is lined with wooden scaffolding which I have to reverse through to get out of the hospital gates. The entrance is an archway and I have about an inch of clearance either side of the Landrover. We eventually escape and head off through town and then up the bumpy road to our place. I still enjoy the challenge of driving the bumpy road in the dark. Tonight a fairly constant stream of piki piki riders ply their trade. Pedestrians and bicycles without lights  loom up suddenly out of the dark and I am nearly side swiped by a lorry coming from the opposite direction which suddenly advertises it’s presence as a wide vehicle at the last minute by putting its headlights on. As we drive in through our gate Madam Nyangwe tells me that Janet has called to say that our patient is sleeping. She will, hopefully, be ready to come home at a civilised time by Sunday.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Challenging time

We have another group of visitors staying with us today this time from Kenya. When we first began our work in Kosele we set up a small church, initially as a Sunday school for the children staying in the home. Over the years it has grown in to a fully fledged church and thanks to our friends Ian and Hilda the church has become much stronger in the last eighteen months. Our visitors this week-end are national leaders from the Elim movement in Kenya and have come to celebrate our church becoming part of the Elim Gospel Church of Kenya. The visit has been some time in the planning and the week-end marks a significant point in the life of the church. We are looking forward to the week-end’s events.

Things continue to go well on the farming and school front. Our maize is drying out nicely and has so far escaped the attention of the local rats. I had an enjoyable day with our primary school teachers today. Data Driven Instruction may not sound like the most promising initiative to set education alight with but we are confident that developing the way we use information about pupils’ performance will help them to improve their results and give them confidence.

On the home front things are a bit more challenging. My wife Judi had an appointment at hospital today to review her cancer treatment and will have to have two more chemotherapy sessions than she had been expecting. This means she now has four more rounds of chemo to do instead of two. The treatment regime also changes for these four sessions and sounds a lot more unpleasant than what she has experienced so far. Judi remains very positive about the future but I know that today’s news has been a blow to her, (as it has to me, Tom and Ellie, our children). Prayers for Judi’s recovery and the strength to continue the battle would be much appreciated.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Harvest Time

As advertised yesterday we started our maize harvest this morning. As a fairly recent recruit to farming and things agricultural it has been very interesting finding out how complex the decision making involved in farming is. I remember when I was at primary school we used to sing a hymn that went “We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land, And it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand”, (or something very similar). I am extremely grateful that we have a very dedicated team who understand the finer details of God’s plan for the things that grow. Duncan, our farm manager, and the Agriculture College teachers and students have a very positive approach to making sure our farming activities are carried out to a high standard and are constructively self-critical in terms of future improvements. We are already planning for the next planting season and considering the best seeds to plant for maximum yield.

The maize harvest has been very encouraging. Best guess at quantities so far suggests ten 96 kg sacks as a realistic estimate. That’s nearly a tonne of maize which is pretty good as a first go. The cobs of maize are being stored in a somewhat makeshift facility that was left behind after the building work that we had done earlier this year. This morning it was all hands on deck picking the cobs from the maize plants and carrying them in sacks from the field to be dried in the sun on a large tarpaulin. The children worked really hard and with a good heart– even the smallest ones pulled big sacks full of cobs up the field. Our post harvest management is now going to be critical. This afternoon I listened to an interesting discussion about how long it would take the rats to work out where we are keeping our maize! We need to get on and quickly dry the cobs before stripping off the kernels and putting them in sacks in our permanent storehouse.

I would never have believed that I would be actively involved in farming all those years ago when I was in primary school. Our technique of digging holes rather than ploughing the fields differs somewhat from the words in the hymn but the principles remain the same. Care for creation means being good stewards of the land that we have been blessed with. Our harvest today has been a good reward for all the hours of hard work and dedication that Duncan and his team have invested in our farm. I really thank God for them.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Harvest time

I’ve hit that time in a Kosele trip where the amount of work still remaining and the amount of time left to do it in seem to be heading off in different directions. Each time I come to this point there is a greater urgency to each day which, when managed properly, is a very positive pressure. Tomorrow is day one of our ambitious training programme and I’m looking forward to getting started. Once the planning has been done I hate hanging about. Patience is a virtue that I don’t always think I’ve fully cultivated.

The remainder of the week promises to be a very hectic time on the farm. At our Senior Managers’ meeting today we set out the timetable for harvesting our maize. We are hoping to have gathered it all in by Friday. Duncan, our farm manager, is still optimistic that we will pull in a good harvest. If this is the case it will test our storage facilities and post-harvest management. This is usually a major challenge in Kenya. As we are planning to eat the maize ourselves we won’t have the problems associated with transporting the crops to market that larger producers experience. It will be interesting to see how we manage the drying and bagging up of our crop. Ten sacks of maize kernels is quite a lot of produce, given that each sack of finished maize comes from the process of drying cobs of corn and stripping off the kernels by hand. It looks like being an all hands on deck operation with help from the Agriculture College students, the older school pupils and our day staff. Still, it’s a nice problem to have.

Monday, 30 July 2012

New friend

My daughter Ellie and her boyfriend Andy should, as I type, be somewhere over the United Arab Emirates. I’m sure I’m becoming more paranoid about flight schedules as I grow older. Having experienced a series of delayed flights in and out of Kenya in the course of our most recent visitors’ schedules it gets increasingly difficult to build enough of a margin of error into departure times without losing whole days. It was a little unnerving arriving at Kisumu airport this morning and seeing no evidence of Ellie and Andy’s flight on the departure board. I did manage to see them board the plane and take off, (ten minutes early!)

I had a little time to kill at the airport before my appointment to see the Principal at one of the High Schools in Kisumu. Whenever you sit down for long outside an airport in Kenya you attract taxi drivers touting for business. This is occasionally annoying but they normally back off with good grace if you politely decline their offer. This morning I made a really useful new friend called Bright. Just as I was thinking “I ought to go and find a taxi now”, she approached me and asked if I needed a ride to town. I was surprised, as every other taxi driver I have used has been a guy. She offered to take me to Kisumu for significantly less than the usual fare. Chatting to her on the way to my appointment it turned out that she had been a taxi driver since the year 2000 having previously been employed by a bank. Being an enterprising woman she decided to set up in her own taxi business when she finished working for the bank and now has a number of regular clients who prefer her to the other taxi drivers in Kisumu. I can understand why. She is the politest driver I have driven with in all of our time in Kenya, showing great courtesy to other road users and making a point of driving carefully. In Kenya that gives her at least two USPs, (Unique Selling Points). I’ve booked her for my next ride to the airport when I travel back to the UK on August 9th.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Kisumu musings

So it’s a hot night in Kisumu. My daughter Ellie and her boyfriend Andy are starting their journey home tomorrow so we’re staying in our favourite guest house, (St. Anna’s), and have just eaten. Having survived all of the dietary challenges of our place at Kosele Andy is feeling a bit provisional in the tummy department tonight. We’ve prayed for safe deliverance before they travel tomorrow. It’s still quite early so the howl hasn’t started yet and the church service that kicked off just before midnight last time we were here is probably still waiting for a congregation.

It’s been fun spending time in Kisumu. Ellie, my son Tom and I lived in Kisumu for a short time during the year we lived in Kenya and Ellie always enjoys retracing her steps around town when she is over here. The centre of town hasn’t really changed all that much. A few more buildings, some additions to the local tourist attraction called Impala Park. Most Kisumu residents are hoping that the new airport terminal that was opened this year will make a significant difference to the fortunes of the town. Compared to the old airport building the new one is a significant improvement. It has the capacity to handle international flights and there is clearly a desire to open up tourism in a big way. Reading a local business magazine this afternoon I learnt that a new tourist resort has opened in a ‘secluded’ location by the lake. From the pictures in the magazine it looks very impressive. I hope the tourism initiative is successful. Lake Victoria could be developed in a number of ways and Kisumu certainly needs the jobs that tourism could create.

Tomorrow I will be visiting a High School in Kisumu that teaches IGCSE, (International GCSE), qualifications. It will be helpful visiting a school that has experience of doing these qualifications as our Agriculture College students will be taking them in November next year for the first time. My wife Judi sent me a text this afternoon to say that she was reading a Sunday newspaper article in the UK which was extolling the rigor of the IGCSE. It’s encouraging to know that our trail blazing initiative in Kosele is part of a wider international movement. I can’t wait to tell the guys back in Kosele.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

The 8th Habit

I’m reading a book by Stephen Covey at the moment called “The 8th Habit”. It’s part of my preparation for our forthcoming training days. I admire Stephen Covey. His writing is both wise and accessible. In particular I enjoy his selection of illustrations. I though I’d share two of them, as they seem especially pertinent to our situation.

There are so many gifts
Still unopened from your birthday
There are so many hand-crafted presents
That have been sent to you by God
The Beloved does not mind repeating
“Everything I have is also yours”
There are so many gifts, my dear
Still unopened from your birthday


All children are born geniuses; 9,999 out of every 10,000 are swiftly, inadvertently, degeniusized by grownups.
Buckminster Fuller

We would really like to get into the business of unwrapping presents and encouraging genius.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Growing up straight

I’m continuing to plot and scheme for a 5 day training program for our teachers starting next Wednesday. This means that I’ve spent a lot of my time glued to the laptop sourcing information and inspirational material to make the training go well. I remember my own experiences as a teacher when ‘the management’ announced some new initiative that everybody needed to be trained up on. In poacher turned gamekeeper mode I find myself in the challenging, (but none the less enjoyable), position of trying to develop motivational and inspirational professional development for our team. Our overall aim is to make sure that the children in the school reach their full potential and are equipped and motivated to become outstanding members of their community– no mean feat when you consider the home backgrounds that most of them come from. For a school it’s not a particularly unusual aim but when you start to dive into the detail of what it really involves it’s a real challenge. I’ve been reading some recent books from the USA about schools that have achieved extremely good results with children from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds. The Bible tells us that if you “Point your kids in the right direction - when they're old they won't be lost.” (Message version). A simple but profound truth. Challenging enough in the modern nuclear family. A huge task for the average school but hugely rewarding when you get it right.

In the real world of the great outdoors it’s been an encouraging day on the self-sufficiency front today. Our goats are now so tame that they jump up to greet you when you enter the pen. They are also growing noticeably fatter. We postponed a management team meeting this afternoon so that we could have an all hands on deck attack on harvesting the last of our green grams, (mung beans). Net result was two and a half sacks of pods to extract the green grams from. The tomatoes in the greenhouse are also coming on well – we have about five hundred tomato plants and nearly all of them have tomatoes growing on them. Duncan, our farm manager, is typically understated when talking about them. He doesn’t think they have grown that much this week. He did point out that he is in the greenhouse everyday so probably doesn’t notice the growth as much as the rest of us. We also have an impressive looking butternut squash patch. Thanks to the keen attention of Duncan and our Agriculture College students and teachers our farm is rapidly turning into a great celebration of all things that grow. Watching nature in action at such close quarters and, for me, on such a relatively large scale really is an amazing experience.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Endangered Species

Today has had a bit of a wildlife flavour to it. Our part of Kenya does not boast any of the Big Five safari beasts to lure tourists, though there was a rumour of hyenas in the hills when we first came here. We were told that they had all been poisoned because of their anti-social diet of goats and occasional babies. This may all be rumour of course. It makes a good story though.

During this visit I have noticed an increased variety of bird life around our compound. This may have something to do with our farming activities or, possibly, the apparent change in climate, (it has been very wet for the last 12 months). Whatever the reason the birds are a welcome addition to the scenery, (until they start eating our crops).

Snakes are less welcome visitors to our place. East Africa is home to the decidedly unfriendly mamba family of snakes. Both green and black mambas are common in our area. The Black Mamba has a well deserved reputation as a fearsome beast. The less well known Green Mamba is highly venomous but less aggressive than its black cousin. I’ve had the usual busy day working on school issues today so haven’t been out much. This afternoon my daughter Ellie told me that our daytime security guard had killed a Green Mamba that had been hiding out in one of the two traditional houses that we use as storage areas. She said it wasn’t very big, (about eighteen inches long), but it was a timely reminder of the need to be vigilant. Kill on sight seems to be the usual rule over here as far as snakes go. It seems a shame. The Green Mambas are very bright green and are very pretty snakes.

We had a much more amazing wildlife encounter early this evening. The children play football on the field after supper. Beldine, one of our older girls, came hurrying over to our house after supper with something to show Ellie, (she and Ellie are very close). It wasn’t clear at first what Beldine had brought with her. It was pretty amazing when all became clear. In England it is, I think, illegal to buy tortoises as pets. Over here the tortoise is a native resident. You don’t see many of them but they are around. Beldine is obviously very observant as she had managed to find a baby tortoise. It looked like a bite sized pie with little legs and was very cute. We briefly considered starting our children’s zoo with it but decided, on reflection, that it wouldn’t be the right thing to do. We returned it to ‘the wild’ in a secret location that we hoped the children wouldn’t find. Baby tortoises have a lot of enemies so we are all rooting for its survival. As long as they maintain their allegedly docile disposition I’m quite happy to co-exist with Green Mambas too.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Where there is no laminator

I’ve been in the classroom for the last three evenings with our older children doing some study skills and encouraging them to get more serious about planning. We will be running some training for our teachers next week so my evening teaching slots have been a good opportunity to try out some of the resources and techniques that we will be training on. To support this endeavour I have spent a very pleasurable day today in Primary school teacher mode creating classroom resources. This included using sellotape as a cheap version of laminating to create a set of prompts for one of my activities tonight. Having spent my teaching career in secondary education I have never really had many opportunities to work with younger pupils. I think I would have enjoyed life in a primary school classroom.

One of the biggest challenges to teachers over here is the lack of basic reprographic and ICT resources. Just about every teacher I know, in any sector, takes the school photocopier, computer network and whiteboard for granted, (and rightly so). I am old enough to remember life in the classroom before ICT and colour copying. Running off your own worksheets using a very simple spirit duplicating machine, (a Banda machine as I remember), was a headache – literally. The smell of the meths or white spirit that it used could be quite overpowering if you had lot of copying to do.

Even a Banda machine would be a luxury for many Kenyan teachers. It is possible to get photocopying done but very rarely at school. When we need to do copying in any quantity we send it up to Kosele where it we are able to arrange for relatively cheap copying, binding and laminating. This is obviously convenient when copying is planned well in advance but it does make it difficult to service inspired bursts of creativity. Despite having a small number of laptops and a projector the cost/reliability issue of mains power over here make it very difficult to use the ubiquitous PowerPoint as a routine teaching tool. Servicing the requirements of a computer and projector in every classroom is currently beyond us. This may change in the future but for now we have to be creative and use what’s to hand to make lessons more interesting.

One of my favourite reference books over here is called "Where There Is No Doctor". It’s designed to make healthcare possible for people living in poor communities like ours, where most people can’t access even the most basic health services. I’m sure somebody, somewhere must have written the equivalent book for teachers. "Where there is no Laminator, Photocopier, Projector or Whiteboard" would, I’m sure, be an instant best seller in a place like Kosele. We’re working on our version of it. Any pointers to online sources of suitable inspiration would be most welcome.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

End of the road

Today has been another exciting day for my daughter Ellie. When she was about eleven she had her first taste of driving in our Landrover. She could barely reach the pedals and, as she reminded me today, wasn’t really sure how to stop once she got going. Both Ellie and my son Tom learnt to drive the Landrover on a big field just off the main ‘road’ to our place where the only obstacles were a few oncoming cows, small potholes and the odd pedestrian. Now aged eighteen Ellie has passed her driving test in the UK and was Judi’s odd job driver for a couple of weeks before coming out to Kenya.

I promised Ellie that she could have a proper go at driving this time round. Unfortunately the old green heap has been off the road ever since Ellie and her boyfriend Andy arrived, suffering from a number of ailments mostly associated with the Landrover equivalent of old age. At lunch time today Ellie jumped up out of her seat at the first sound of a familiar engine note heralding the return of our trusty vehicle. Wasting no time Ellie, Andy and I jumped in and set off for Kosele. After establishing that there were no major problems with our newly repaired transport, (except for a bit of a sticky accelerator pedal), I pulled over and Ellie got into the driver’s seat for her first real drive in Kenya. Her recent driving experience back home has obviously helped her and we made it to Kosele with no mishaps. Ellie was very pleased and will now, no doubt, want to try a more adventurous journey. Andy drove us some of the way back and we pulled in to our place optimistic that the repairs that have been carried out this time might keep us on the road for a bit longer.

On a less happy note we learnt that Bernard, our elderly neighbour, died today after a fairly short illness. Ellie was the first to suspect that something was wrong when she heard wailing, (a tradition when somebody dies), coming from the direction of Bernard’s house. Mary, our manager, confirmed that Bernard had died. As I wrote earlier this month Bernard was very old and was, I’m sure, ready to meet his maker. I hope he passed away peacefully. His death is a sad moment. Bernard has been a part of our lives in Kosele since we first arrived. We will miss him.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Chalk face

Sometimes the weather seems to permeate everything out here – especially on a day like today. It rained pretty heavily last night, waking everybody up at some point. The downpour hit a critical point and then just sounded like rocks pounding on the roof. Usually the weather clears by morning and it’s another sunny day in Kenya. Not this morning. With apologies to any Welsh readers our day today was just like a wet summer day in Wales. Heavily overcast, colder than usual and decidedly gloomy.

Every once in a while the task before us seems to be bigger than ever. I guess the overcast feel to the day didn’t help but today felt like one of those days. I did have a very positive meeting with Madam Nyangwe, our head teacher but then got bogged down in some irritating details and felt like I was losing momentum a bit. Trying to achieve change is often very challenging.

At moments like this it can be very tempting to drop out of sight for a while. Not exactly avoiding people or problems but putting them off for a bit while you catch your breath. Fortunately a Skype call this afternoon with my wife Judi spurred me into action and I ended up on a high note after spending the evening with the older children; setting the scene for helping them to prepare for their coming exams and encouraging them to believe the best for the future. I’m sure the children think I am crazy in the classroom. I don’t formally teach them very often and adopt a more western approach than they are used to. When you are teaching about something you both believe in and care about being in the classroom is really good fun. I would hate to get to the point where facing a class ceases to be enjoyable. Part two will involve developing a plan for future exam success. Young people are a good antidote to feeling sorry for yourself. I’m looking forward to seeing them again tomorrow night.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Things are eating my house (again)

Some of you may recall that last year I wrote about the termite attack on the house that I am currently living in. It was all out war trying to sort the problem out. They were appearing from holes in the floor inside the house and at one point I had visions of the house crashing into a kind of earthwork honeycomb created by these pesky creatures. We poisoned them, scalded them and eventually covered all their holes with concrete, having dug down to foundation level round the front of the house first. We all breathed a sigh of relief when the concrete had set and the termites seemed to have gone.

You can probably imagine my thoughts when I got up this morning and noticed the tell tale signs of termite activity around the front of the house again. A growing pile of granulated soil with a small hole in the centre, teeming with insects. If they weren’t so destructive and such a pain to get rid of they would be very admirable. If people all over the world worked at the same rate and with the same dedicated determination as termites the global economy would be in much better shape. The termites are opportunistic and have made the most of the smallest chink in our defenses to start digging, (a small crack in the concrete). I broke up the first mound of earth with a stick this morning and it is nearly as big again as I type this evening. I don’t know what it is about this particular location that the termites like. Perhaps the foundations of our house taste nice. Maybe they are launching a desperate search and rescue mission for the members of their community that went missing or were buried alive last year. Whatever the reason I now have a problem to deal with.

Building on last year’s experience this will not, I hope, take very long. I’m guessing that there is a queen somewhere in the colony which might provoke a bit of excitement around the compound. Last year Duncan, our farm manager, dug out the queen from another termite infestation. She was huge. Very nutritious though as Mary, our manager took her away and fried her. I don’t think I’d that like to try that gourmet item very much. I think the solution will be poison and concrete again. Simple, efficient and hopefully effective. Rather like the termites themselves. I think I’ll add them to the list of questions for God, (which so far includes mosquitoes and flies).

Saturday, 21 July 2012


As ever, slightly behind the people making the pace at the forefront of technology, I have made another game changing discovery in the information and ideas hoarding stakes. I have probably said before that I am something of a hoarder of sources of information. Computers made it possible for me to accumulate vast numbers of books without making our house a candidate for a reality show about hoarding. The Kindle takes the whole concept to another level. I bought one about a year ago to make it possible to take my ‘library’ out to Kenya on a portable device that satisfies our ‘Apollo 13’ approach to saving electricity. (For those of you who wonder what this involves watch the movie).

One of the frustrations of the Kindle is that it’s difficult to take notes from it straight onto a computer. My current projects over here involve a lot of training so it would be helpful to be able to cut out the middleman, (a notebook), and take useful texts from source into my word processor. I remember reading at some point about using the Kindle on a laptop and have managed to install it on my laptop over here. I usually find downloading and installing software from the Internet very tedious but on this particular occasion it really ‘did what it said on the label’ and installed without any fuss. I now have the luxury of a vast amount of training material at the click of a mouse. The computer nerd in me has had a happy day. Hopefully the trainer in me will be able to say the same throughout next week.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Tomorrow people

Today has been a Skype day. I have probably waxed lyrical about this major communication revolution before but it still amazes me every time we use it. On the first of our Skype calls today we made a link with a primary school in England. Our Class 4 pupils have been writing letters to a year 5 class in Welford First School. Our children sang a song for the Welford class and later listened to a song that the Welford children recorded for them and emailed over. Later in the afternoon Judi was able to join the first part of a meeting of all the teachers in our primary school. It was great being able to hear her share her thoughts with us. Skype definitely shrinks the distance between us. The third call we made today was a more personal one. It is my son Tom’s twenty first birthday today. Tom has been very understanding about the number of times either his mum or I have been over in Kenya for his birthday. This year was the first time we have been able to have much of a chat between Kenya and home on his birthday. Tom’s sister Ellie is over here with me so we managed to sing Happy Birthday and catch up with his news for the day. On occasions like this I do wish that cloning or massive distance hopping, (as demonstrated in The Tomorrow People many years ago), was possible.

I’m sure Jess, (one of our very recent visitors who started her journey home in the early hours of the morning today), would have the same wish. In addition to having a very long wait in Nairobi for the first leg of her return journey it sounds like she had a very long delay in Istanbul before starting the last bit. She won’t be home until well past the time her flight was due to land in Birmingham.

Our current visitors, (Ellie, her boyfriend Andy and an old friend from Kenya called Winnie), have had a very silly time in our house this evening. Winnie and Ellie have remained friends since Winnie stayed with us during the year that we lived in Kenya and started our work in Kosele. We were joined this evening by a young man called Collins who was also with us ten years ago and got on well with Tom. At the moment he is being a great help to us working with the Agriculture College teachers and students.  It was almost a reunion. Winnie is incredibly funny, and one of the worst cheats at cards I have ever met. It is impossible to do anything but love her. It was great to see the three of them and Andy having a good time together.

For those of you who remember The Tomorrow People follow the link below – don’t you just love the 70s (The cool looking belts the cast are all wearing at 8:00 on the clip are the key to avoiding jet lag, delayed flights and 21st birthdays!).

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Pushing uphill

One of the hardest things about the work that we do over here in Kosele is working out which cultural differences are worth challenging and which are really sacrosanct. I have spent some time during this visit trying to build up our older children’s confidence and communication skills. Very basic body language and eye contact lessons that are routinely delivered in primary schools in the UK. Young children in English schools are taught ‘good listening’ and ‘good sitting’. I don’t think these basic skills really feature much in the Kenyan primary curriculum. There seems to be a lack of willingness to engage adults in eye contact and, with a few exceptions, a decreasing amount of enthusiasm for answering questions in class as the children get older. I guess this isn’t unique to Kenya. It’s something I’ve often observed in English secondary schools. It’s almost like the will to engage gets sucked out of these older pupils. The will to learn often seems to head off in the same direction at the same time.

I had some fun tonight with our ‘candidates’, (the oldest pupils in our primary school who will be sitting the Kenyan Certificate of Primary Education in November). To their credit they are very conscientious at doing their ‘preps’, (homework). When I joined them for preps this evening I couldn’t help noticing that the classroom was a bit untidy so launched into a bit of an ‘environment improvement for the benefit of learning routine’, linked with a bit of a good listening, good sitting theme. It took a while to get them warmed up. Once they realised I was being serious there was a marked improvement. By the end of the session we had pretty good sitting, listening and answering and a very tidy classroom. The class is planning to surprise their teacher when he comes in at 7 a.m. by being sat confidently in their places and leaping up and greeting him first thing. I can’t wait to see the look on his face.

It’s all part of a serious attempt to start moulding characters and personalities that will be able to make a difference in their communities and their country as they grow up and become adults. Whilst it is important to celebrate differences and personal preferences there are some basic rules of conduct that apply to everybody. Words like integrity, self-discipline, reliability, honesty, hard-working, loyal and dependable often seem to be devalued by the current, increasingly, global culture. It was interesting asking the children about corruption and dishonesty. They all understand those words very well and, when pushed, were adamant that they did not want to have anything to do with them. They recognised the ways in which corrupt practises and dishonest behaviour damage society on many levels. I don’t think its wishful thinking to believe that our children can make Kenya a great country. It will be hard work though. Being in the world but not of it is a tough ask of anybody. A great prize really does await those who achieve it and we are going to push on towards it.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Mixed blessings

Today has been a day of mixed blessings. On the plus side we’ve had rain so most of our water tanks are topped off again and all the crops have had a good soaking. Oink and Annabel, our new goats, are settling in, despite an escape attempt by Oink, the bigger of the two, last night. This was thwarted by our night guards who hastily put an old gate over the top of the penned area that they spend the night in. Oink, it would appear, had managed to get over the dividing wall from her pen and into one of the other ones.

We had a nice meal with the children this evening. Chapattis and green grams, (mung beans), plus sodas to drink. It was particularly gratifying eating the green grams. They came from our own farm and are extremely tasty. We have harvested about 45 kilograms of green grams so far, (enough for about 8 meals). There are still plenty more left in the fields that have yet to be picked. The harvest from our farm so far is very encouraging.

The chapattis are part of a tradition we have when visitors are returning home. Jess and Dan, who have been with us for three weeks, will be starting their journey home tomorrow. Because of the way their flights have worked out they have a very long wait at Nairobi for their flights back to England. During their time with us they have made a great impact on the children and on our work. I know that we will all miss them. It’s always a sad occasion saying good-bye to new friends. My daughter Ellie and her boyfriend Andy will be taking the baton from them and continuing to encourage the children and their teachers. I know that everybody here will want to express their thanks to Jess and Dan and wish them a safe journey home. We all hope that they will come back and see us again in the future.

The children here are well fed and very happy tonight. As another part of the tradition we let the children watch a video or DVD of their choice and tonight they have enjoyed the added bonus of popcorn, prepared by Mary, our manager, and served up by our visitors. We have built up quite a collection of DVDs and videos over the years. The children never cease to surprise me with their viewing choices. Recent favourites include the video of one of our teacher’s wedding, a special church service recorded at the church Judi and I attend in England, The Sound of Music, (usually in two sittings as it is such a long film), and Tom and Jerry. Tonight they are happily sat watching The Teletubbies, the well known educational series for young children reviled by teachers throughout the UK, (and possibly the rest of the world). For those of you fortunate enough to have avoided the Teletubbies until now but keen to make up your own minds about the show follow the link below

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Ten years later

One of the neat things about young children is that they are usually fairly easy to bribe.  As I’m writing this blog from Kenya I wouldn’t want anybody to take that the wrong way. It might be better to say they are quite amenable to being incentivised. When we moved to Kenya for a year with our family in 2002 to start the work in Kosele it was important to my wife Judi and I to make sure our children Tom and Ellie, (then aged 11 and 8 respectively), were happy to make the journey, Judi paid a short visit to Kenya during Easter 2002 to finalise the details of our longer trip from July. She brought back a lot of photos, among them pictures including donkey carts and goats. Ellie developed a real fancy to having a goat. As most good parents would Judi and I encouraged her and said that we were sure it would be possible to have a goat. Like most parents do at some stage in their children’s lives it turns out we were being a bit overambitious. We didn’t exactly lie, (as we did have every intention of getting a goat), but for one reason or another it just didn’t happen. Ellie has reminded us about this every once in a while. I don’t think it has exactly left her scarred for life but somewhere in her subconscious a deep seated sense of goat deprivation has developed.

Today, two weeks short of ten years to the day that we first came to Kosele, Ellie’s childhood disappointment has been made good. This afternoon we welcomed two new residents to the project – Oink and Annabel the goats. Just before lunch time Mary, our manager, told me that a local guy who breeds quality goats had some young ones for sale. She rushed off with Duncan, our farm manager, to find out more. Mid-afternoon Duncan called me to say that I should come down to the goat enclosure to see the new goats. Sure enough, in the pen, there were three goats, our two does and a young billy goat. Mary had bought the male for herself and the two females were for us. They have settled into the enclosure we have built very well. We will keep them penned, rather than letting them graze as our neighbours do. We have a good supply of fodder crops for them and they seem to have good appetites.

Ellie was very excited and has now, I hope, forgiven us for letting her down when she was eight. She has fallen in love with the goats and is already very good at handling them. They are very cute animals. I would not normally associate the word cute with goats as most of the goats I have come across have been anything but. I tend think of goats as grouchy and smelly. Oink and Annabel are beautiful animals. Dark tan with a darker stripe down their backs. They are certainly from quality stock and we are hoping to successfully breed from them in about four months time. Ten years on I sometimes find it hard to believe how much our work here in Kosele has grown and thank God for it. The arrival of the goats today has been wonderful. The look on Ellie’s face when she first saw them was priceless.  All the money in the world could not buy a moment like that.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Hoping Jesus comes soon

As I am focusing on our school and management during this visit I haven’t really got out into our community very much. I made a rare foray outside the gates today to see our elderly neighbour who isn’t very well. His wife came round to say that he wanted me to pray with him. I took James, one of our security guards, with me so that he could translate and went to see what the problem was. Our neighbour must be one of the oldest members of the community. Every time I come back to Kosele I am pleasantly surprised to see him. He has looked like he won’t last the night on a number of occasions but so far he has always managed to come round and live for another day. Today he didn’t look too good. He seemed very tired. James and I sat down to have a chat with him and to pray for his health. It’s always hard to know what to pray for in these situations. There is a tendency to pray for miraculous healings as a demonstration of God’s power. I felt it more appropriate to pray that our neighbour would find relief from his suffering.

A few years ago we conducted a survey amongst our church members to find out more about their hopes and plans for the future. The community around Kosele is really very poor. Mostly subsistence farmers eking out a living and waging a constant battle with the climate. One of the elder church members wrote a sentence that I found both moving and challenging. In response to a question about his main desires for the future he wrote “I hope Jesus comes soon”. It is very difficult, as an affluent Westerner, to fully comprehend such an approach to living. It is a very different take on being a Christian to my own, reflecting our vastly differing experiences and life chances.

I don’t know whether our neighbour has the same wish. I could understand it if he did. All of his sons have died and he and his wife have buried grand children and great-grand children. In the ten years since we first came to Kosele he has become much frailer. He finds it hard to raise himself above a sitting position and looks like he would topple over face first if he tried to walk. He is a very dignified man and you can still, occasionally, see a twinkle in his eye when he tells you about his past exploits. I hope he has a comfortable and peaceful night tonight. I hope that his health takes a turn for the better. It’s kind of reassuring seeing him every time I am in Kenya. On the other hand if he really is ready to meet his maker, after a long, hard life, I hope that he enjoys a peaceful end. Like I said, sometimes it’s really hard to know what to pray for.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Day of rest II

Having said that I would try to keep the Sabbath properly, (which sounds old fashioned, obsessively religious and distinctly ‘uncool’), I have, for the first time in ages, managed to have a really great day without having to feel that my to do list has gone down. I’m sure many of you will have read variations on the theme of “all work and no play makes jack a dull boy”. Like most well worn sayings it is true. Without wishing to wax too lyrical about the benefits of stopping, reflecting and catching your breath I really hope to make it a habit. It’s too easy to charge ahead with any number of projects to the point where they control you. If resting on the seventh day was good enough for God it’s got to be right for me. Especially if it means I can ‘do good’ on the other six days.

It looks like we will have to arrange another ‘hospital break’ tomorrow. Last year I wrote about the case of one of our girls who was kept in hospital for some time after she should have been discharged because of an error in processing the paperwork to enable the hospital to reclaim the cost of her treatment from the government health fund. One of our young people who is now boarding at a local high school was admitted to hospital at the beginning of the week with ‘strong’ malaria and typhoid. This is not particularly encouraging as he must have caught them at school. He was due to be discharged from hospital today so we sent one of our staff down to pay the fees and take him back to school. Unfortunately it turned out that the doctor who was to sign the discharge note was not on duty today so the sister on the ward refused to let our patient go. This is doubly frustrating as it means we will have to pay for another fare to Oyugis and back for a member of staff tomorrow and will have to pay for another night’s stay at the hospital for our patient. It looks like we will have to get Mary, our manager, on the case.

I would appreciate it if anybody who is disposed towards praying could offer up a prayer for my wife Judi. She continues to remain amazingly upbeat during her course of treatment for breast cancer. She should have had her fourth chemotherapy session last Thursday. Unfortunately one of her blood counts was too low for the treatment to be given so she is hoping to be up to it tomorrow, (Monday 16th). My thanks for all the prayer support that Judi and I have received to date. It’s easy to be sceptical about prayer but I know that I start running on empty if I neglect it. The idea that “all things are possible with God” has been so overworked or misapplied that it has become, for many people, a cheesy Christian cliché. Despite this it remains a powerful principle and one that has kept both Judi and I going through the challenges we are currently experiencing. One of my favourite comedians of old, Dave Allen, ended his TV shows with the mischievously oblique phrase “may your God go with you”. I’m very thankful that He promises to, whatever circumstances I find myself in.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Back home

After the usual trip back to Kosele from Kisumu, (good road, slightly worse road, good road, road from hell), we are back home in Kosele and ready to get going again. We picked up another visitor in Kisumu this morning; an old friend called Winnie who lived with us for the year that my family and I spent in Kenya when we first started the work ten years ago. Winnie and my daughter Ellie were close friends during that year and it is nice to have her with us again now. Ellie and her boyfriend Andy are still recovering from a long and frustrating flight to Kenya from the UK but should be better rested by the morning.

Our football team enjoyed another rewarding outing this afternoon, winning on penalties against a team from Kaditonge, (a nearby community). That makes it played three, lost none, won three to date. The penalty shoot out was, as on the previous occasion, a real nail biter. Our victory was sealed by another fantastic save from our goalkeeper Calvince. I think we are developing a reputation as the wrong team to go up against when it comes to penalties. Our supporters got right behind the team today and had a good time cheering the lads on. In true TIA, (this is Africa), fashion we arrived at the stadium a bit late. Play was stopped briefly by rain which created interesting conditions for the two teams once play resumed. About half of the lads on the pitch played in bare feet and we had some impressive slides and tumbles in the second half. I really don’t know how the lads manage to play at all with the minimal amount of proper soccer kit that they have. They fearlessly enter into crunching tackles and sprint the length of the pitch in pursuit of a long pass. I think the soles of their feet are made of a different kind of skin to mine.

Our head teacher Madam Nyangwe set off for a head teachers’ conference in Mombasa this afternoon. The conference programme looks very interesting and I am hoping that she comes back with some inspiring ideas to help us move our school forward. I am really pleased that she has been selected to attend this event. It should give her a real boost at a time when most teachers need it, about half way through the school year.

We will be continuing with one to one tuition for our older students this week, with Ellie and Andy augmenting Dan’s input. I know that Dan has really enjoyed the work that he has done with the students and I am hoping that we will be able to continue with this approach to reinforcing the children’s learning in the future. Having the luxury of extra hands on deck to work with the children on a more personal level gives us a very powerful tool for helping them to improve. More teaching volunteers would be most welcome.

I’m not sure how well the ‘day of rest’ project will go tomorrow. There’s always so much to do. However it goes I am, as our church members would say, “Grateful to God for bringing us this far”.  

Friday, 13 July 2012


It’s nearly midnight and I’m in Kisumu. It’s been a long day. We got off to an early start today to make sure that our visitors Pete and Alex were I Kisumu in plenty of time to catch their flight from Kisumu to Nairobi and from there home. My daughter Ellie and her boyfriend Andy arrived in Kisumu, (eventually), this evening and we will be travelling back to Kosele together tomorrow.

It’s great having Ellie her but not so good that Judi has had to stay at home because of her ongoing cancer treatment. Judi was supposed to be coming on the trip with Ellie and I know she must have had a tougher day than usual today as she was really looking forward to being in Kenya again. To top it all off her chemotherapy was delayed on yesterday due to a low blood count so she will have to wait until least Monday before she can carry on with the treatment. Prayers for Judi’s health and happiness would be much appreciated.

As it’s late I’m heading for bed. I’m hoping that I’m tired enough to sleep in spite of the rousing live music event that has just started very close to my room. I had hoped to get away with a quiet night tonight. The communal howl by the local dogs was mercifully short lived tonight but it sounds like the party is only just getting going outside. 

I guess Friday night is Friday night the world over.

Thursday, 12 July 2012


Our visitors have continued to work very hard and have had a great impact on the children, staff and our work. Pete and Alex will be leaving to go back to England tomorrow so we had the sad task of saying good-bye to them at assembly this morning. (They will be leaving before school starts tomorrow to catch an internal flight from Kisumu to Nairobi hence the early farewell). Many thanks to them for all that they have done during their visit. I really hope that we will be seeing them in Kenya again in the future.

I had a very entertaining meeting today with Madam Nyangwe, (our head teacher), and Mr Isaiah who teaches in our Agriculture College. Like schools all over the world we are trying hard to improve our pupils’ achievements in maths. During our meeting today we took the first steps in planning a training day for all of the teaching staff in developing a more dynamic approach to maths teaching. It was a lot of fun. 

The quantity and quality of resources available free on the internet never fails to amaze me. With the usual uncanny timing I managed to find a Maths Teachers’ Handbook produce by a UK based organisation called VSO, (Voluntary Service Overseas). VSO works a bit like the American Peace Corps and sends volunteers all over the world to work on a variety of projects, including teaching. The Handbook was produced to assist maths teachers in the developing world and is geared towards producing resources for teaching using easily available resources, (like bottle tops, matches, nails and string). It is a mine of useful information, advice and solid teaching practises.

During our meeting we played mathematical snap, based on the children’s card game. There are a number of suggestions about how this can be applied to maths. Our game involved recognising equivalent fractions, decimals and percentages. We played a simpler version of snap using bigger number cards for the younger children and finished off our games session with a paired activity designed to help pupils to accurately estimate and draw angles without using a protractor. During our games we were able to reflect on how the children would play them and the learning points that the teacher could draw out of them, (including cheating!). We had previously identified a need to add more variety to the school’s approach to maths teaching. The Handbook provided a very helpful starting point.We are looking forward to sharing these and other ideas and resources with all the teachers. It should be a good training day.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Men from the ministry

Our work in Kosele is often interrupted by unexpected visitors. This is occasionally irritating but usually interesting and sometimes helpful. A couple of guys turned up today from the water department. They arrived in a nice four wheel drive and said that they were working on a research project to monitor the quality of water coming from boreholes in our area. The senior guy introduced himself and asked if we would sign a MOU, (Memorandum of Understanding), to register as participants in the research. It would have been unreasonable to disagree so Mary, (our manager), signed us up and we went out to the borehole to take and test the relevant samples.

 We started the borehole pump and after running the water though for about five minutes to guarantee a good sample the scientists set to work. Using a couple of multimeters the tests were conducted quickly and efficiently. It has been some time since the borehole water was tested so I was keen to get the results – especially on salinity as this affects the water’s potential for irrigation. Our water is slightly more salty than the other boreholes in the sample but well within safe limits. We could use it for irrigation at a push but it would be inadvisable to use it on our land for long as it would damage the fertility of the soil, (as many farmers in India have found out since adopting deep boreholes for irrigation).

 After the transport frustrations of yesterday it was good to meet a couple of guys who knew what they were doing, explained it well and did a good job. The monitoring program will go on for some time and “action will be taken” to deal with any issues that arise. Quite how this will be accomplished I’m not sure. I am not a hydrologist so I don’t know what can be done to remedy problems that affect the quality of water ninety metres below ground. The men from the ministry seemed very confident about it all though. There is hope yet.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012


Today our choir went to take part in a competition in Kisumu and I learnt another TIA, (This Is Africa), lesson. Having a teachable spirit is always an asset out here as there is so much to learn. Today’s lesson was all about keeping it together when everything seems to be in some sort of conspiracy to make you lose it.

The day started well enough. Our girls had been told that their bus would pick them up at 6.30 a.m. so, to be on the safe side most of them got up at 4.00 a.m. to make sure they were ready. Altogether thirty eight girls took part and the girls from the community, (the day scholars), squeezed into the girls’ dorms last night to make sure they could get up early. About half of them had never been to Kisumu before so today’s trip was a really big event for them.

I managed to get out of bed at about 5.45 a.m. to try and offer encouragement and see them off. The morning ticked on. And on and on. No sign of the bus by half past seven. Or eight o’clock. To their credit the girls were very calm about the whole thing, unlike me. It was at this point that I started to lose my patience. Phone calls to Madam Rose, (the teacher accompanying the children), established that the bus had broken down before leaving Oyugis, (our nearest town), and was being fixed. Some talk of a puncture. The morning dragged on and the girls went to their normal classes. Madam Nyangwe, the Head teacher, talked to Madam Rose. Still no progress on the bus. Madam Nyangwe then called the music co-ordinator to ask him to inform the competition organiser that our team would be late and, please, not to disqualify them. At nine o’clock Madam Rose said she could see the bus coming and that she would be with us soon. This prompted frantic rushing around to make sure the choir was ready and, eventually, at about 9.25 the bus hoved into view. The girls climbed in and tried to find a seat. The driver put our equipment into the luggage space, (without a hint of an apology for being late), and then steamed off down the bumpy road towards Kisumu.

The whole “African time” thing absolutely infuriates me. I’m pretty sure Madam Nyangwe found it pretty intolerable today as well. As it turned out the girls got to Kisumu at about 11.30 and were registered for the competition. They must have been exhausted when they finally got the chance to perform and came a creditable 12th out of seventy five entries. They arrived back at our place at about eight this evening, having had a very enjoyable day, (once it got going).

It’s a moot point whether the ‘Mzungu’, (European), approach to time is any more helpful than the African version. People certainly seem less uptight about punctuality over here. Things seem to happen today, not necessarily at a specific time. My Kenyan friends and colleagues probably have a lower blood pressure than I do. On the other hand it was only really luck that prevented our girls from being disqualified because of the bus problem. Some of the music officials were travelling on the same bus to Kisumu as our choir so were able to help sort the potential problem out. Perhaps, one day, it will be possible to have absolute faith in contracts that you enter into over here. At the moment it seems about as predictable as the Second Coming. It would be great to live to see both things happen.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Nice Moves

It has, as usual, been a fairly hectic day today. This week we have some good events coming up for the school. Very early tomorrow morning our choir will head off to Kisumu, (the nearest city to us, about an hour and a half’s drive away). Singing, drama and dance competitions are very popular over here and our choir has got through to the second round of the current competition. The girls are very good singers and have been working hard on the moves that accompany their songs. We are hoping that they have a good day tomorrow and get through to the next round.

Madam Nyangwe, our head teacher, brought me some exciting news this evening. She has received an invitation to the Primary Head teachers’ Conference in Mombasa on Saturday.  She will be one of a select few representing our zone in recognition of the work we are doing for the orphans in our area. She will be asked to open in prayer at the meeting. This is a great encouragement to us and a good testimony to the hard work that our team of teachers and support staff put in every day. I am very pleased for Madam Nyangwe as she has really gone the extra mile since she took on the role of head teacher in January.

We also have the prospect of more football matches in the coming week-ends. Word must have got out about our fantastic results at the end of last month when we beat two of our local rivals. Our sports teacher Mr. Richard will, I hope, be making arrangements with two other local schools to give them a shot at beating us. We are fortunate to have the services of a couple of good coaches, Alex and Pete, who are visiting at the moment. Our visitors have also started tag rugby coaching with the children. This promises to be an interesting development. The girls seem to be as interested as the boys. It would be quite something to be able to field a good girls tag rugby team. Maybe they could perform a haka at the next singing competition.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Day of rest

And so to the seventh day. In the interests of longevity and personal effectiveness I have been trying to observe the Sabbath in the way that it was intended – as a day of rest. It is very difficult, partly because of years of a nose to the grindstone must be busy approach to life and partly because it’s difficult to switch off the ‘immortality mentality’. This basically means that I agree with all the good things that one can do to preserve health and sanity but they apply to other people not me. It is often called burning the candle at both ends. Young people are notorious for it. I have this sneaking feeling that I am running out of middle in my own candle. I must confess to feeling more rested than I usually do and if I can manage to build some exercise into my normal daily routine I might even convince myself that I could develop a healthy lifestyle.

It is slightly odd trying to take a more biblical approach to Sunday in our particular bit of Kenya. The dominant church in our area is the Seventh Day Adventist Church. They start counting on a different day to most of the churches I’ve come across as their Sabbath day is Saturday. Consequently Oyugis, (our nearest town), is pretty close to shut down on Saturday. It’s difficult to get public transport along our road, as the taxi drivers and piki piki riders, (motorbike taxis), attend church. Life revs up again for Sunday, (very literally in our case this weekend).

The roads in much of Africa are notoriously poor. Dusty, full of potholes and bumpy in the dry season. Treacherously slippery and flooded in the rainy season. In Kenya one of the solutions to this problem is to effectively plane the surface of the road with a large vehicle carrying what looks like a huge snow plough. It’s a very effective way of getting the road surface smoother but doesn’t really provide a long term solution to the basic problem that the road is just a dirt track. Because of the Saturday Sabbath it wasn’t working yesterday but was very busy along the stretch of the road outside our place this afternoon. It sounded like a tank revving up and down outside and had the loudest reversing warning alarm I have ever heard. From our point of view it should mean that traveling time to Oyugis will be halved for about the next month or so as the road surface will actually be navigable. It will also make walking along the side of the road a less hazardous occupation. As the quality of the road gets worse all of the drivers using it tend to hurtle along the footpaths at the side of the road rather than driving on the main carriage way. Now that the road had been ‘fixed’ the Oyugis to Kendu Bay rally will at least be contested where it should be – along the road.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

The whole of the moon

For the music fans amongst you follow the link below.

Waxing philosophical tonight I had a ‘whole of the moon’ moment this evening. For those of you who don’t know the song the hook line is “I saw the crescent, You saw the whole of the moon”. It’s a poignant song and like most clever ones the chorus kind of stays with you.

I’ve had another good day today. It really has been a revelation being able to focus on a small number of tasks during this visit rather than rushing round like I usually do. I’ve been getting my maths together today as part of a curriculum review in our school. Not having taught maths for many years and having had no need to do much beyond the basics for quite a while my maths is a bit rusty. It’s encouraging to know that the relevant theory and concepts are still accessible in one of the dustier corners of my brain and satisfying getting the test paper answers right. (I must beware of getting too carried away here – it’s still fairly straightforward maths). I had a fun time after our praise and worship session this evening doing some maths revision with the children.

Back to the whole of the moon. As I have blogged previously I am a bit of a creature of habit and have a few rituals that I like to stick to when I’m over here. One of them is using the same shower cubicle at night. It has been a hot day today so I was really looking forward to my late evening soak. It’s usually a good idea to check that there is actually water in the showers before getting undressed. Water check completed I stepped under the shower – and the water stopped almost immediately. Annoyed I considered heading back indoors. The stars persuaded me to try the cubicles on the other side of the path. Tonight there are no clouds in the sky and the stars are amazing. Its lovely looking up at the stars while you are scrubbing off the dirt and sweat of the day – quite awe inspiring. Fortunately the water level was fine and I was able to enjoy my shower. I had though that the view of the stars from my usual spot was pretty spectacular but the view from a different viewpoint was out of this world. The rows of shower cubicles are arranged at right angles to each other and looking down the sky line rather than across it, (as I usually do), made the stars stretch on for miles. In the ten years that we have been in Kosele I have never before stood still and enjoyed that particular scene.

It made me think. Standing still and adopting a different perspective opened up a completely different view to me – a much ‘bigger sky’ than I had imagined before. Our work here in Kosele is still full of challenges. “African Time” still drives me nuts. Having to slow down my thinking so I communicate better is occasionally frustrating. There is always something new to learn. It is, of course, blindingly obvious that adopting a new take on familiar problems is generally a wise thing to do. Sometimes you have to be prodded fairly vigorously to take the obvious step. I’m grateful that tonight’s reminder was such a beautiful object lesson.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Education reform

It has, as ever, been an interesting day today. I’ve spent most of the time working on our education programme and school development. In common with schools all over the world we are busy comparing test scores with other schools and focusing on ways of making sure that our Standard 8 pupils get the best shot at the public exam at the end of the year. It’s a very challenging project because there are so many things to take into consideration. It is also very rewarding. I’ve been able to work very closely with Madam Nyangwe our head teacher and Mr Isaiah from the Agriculture College and we are definitely growing together as a team.

One of the safest principles to adopt is “sticking with the knitting” – in our case making sure that the children get taught appropriately, using materials suitable for their age and ability. It’s not really rocket science by any stretch of the imagination. We are about to undertake a curriculum review so I thought I’d get a bit of head start by looking at the Standard 1 revision to get a better idea of what is expected from them. This led to an interesting diversion when I discovered that Microsoft Word is able to work out the readability of text that you type into it. (To turn it on click on the spelling and grammar tool, then options and select show readability statistics).  Tonight’s post has a Flesch reading ease rating of 53.3% and a Flesch-Kincaid level of 10.8. This makes it fairly difficult to read and, (optimistically), readable by 50% of adults. I don’t plan to dumb it down any time soon.

This discovery was prompted by the contents of the Standard 1 revision encyclopaedia, in particular the exercises in the Social Studies section. Most of our Standard 1 pupils come from very poor backgrounds. They have just finished in what would be a reception class in England. They are very young. You might like to try these activities with children that you know who are in Year 1.  Questions on the topic of Our School include:

7. Pupils at school go to assembly on _______ and ___________.

8. Name the various people found in your school.

11. What is the work of a prefect in a class? ______________________

13. Why do we have rules at school? _____________________

21. What is the work of a clerk? __________________________

And my favourite

24. _________ is where teacher meet to talk more about school.

It’s always good to have high expectations for pupils !

It’s also good to know that the scourge of cheating in public exams is being dealt with severely. Cheating is notoriously rampant in schools in Kenya. After the public exams in November the newspapers are full of stories about schools and pupils who have managed to find some way of gaining an edge in the exams, (usually by buying a copy of the paper and mark scheme before the pupils sit the exam). On the back page of today’s Daily Nation there was a short report on the government’s latest proposals for anybody caught cheating in public exams. These measures will be discussed and, according to the Nation, ideally come into law in time for this November’s exams. Anyone caught cheating will face a 10 year jail term or a 10 million shilling fine. Now that’s what I call direct action.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Dancing the night away

Today has been very rewarding. I have managed to make good progress on both of my ‘big projects’ for this visit and was able to spend some time on the farm with Duncan, (our farm manager), Mary, (our manager) and a guy from the Agriculture department who gave us some helpful advice about dealing with water logging on one of our  plots. He was also very encouraging about the progress we have made on the farm. We are ‘learning by doing’ on the farm so we really appreciated a good report from the man from the ministry. As ministry advisors go our visitor was extremely knowledgeable and very professional. I did feel a bit sorry for him. Mary went to a farming workshop this morning and, I think, almost coerced him into visiting us. Mary is currently a woman on a mission with farming and is determined to make the most of every opportunity for improving our farm and advancing her own knowledge, (I am glad to say).

Our visitors have been a great help to us this week and have been hard at work with maths tuition, school field improvements and arts and crafts. It’s always a slightly anxious time as a new team of visitors settles in. I always worry that they won’t like the accommodation, the food, the climate, the activities or any combination of the above. Jessica, Daniel, Peter and Alex have been a delight to have round the place and I know that they have made a good impression on the children and staff. It is always good to spend time with young people who buck every negative stereotype of “the youths” and take what they are doing very seriously.

I also managed to spend some time this evening with our Standard 8 pupils, (the ‘candidates’ for the Kenyan Certificate of Primary Education exam). We have yet to decide how far we are prepared to go in relation to customary practices regarding the length of the school day for this class as they prepare for this important exam. (See yesterday’s blog). I’m sure that we will keep up their evening ’preps’ programme. During a relatively short trip to Kosele it is often difficult to keep on top of my to do list but I want to spend as much time as I can helping out during the evening study time. Our Standard 8 class are a really excellent group of young people and the teacher in me still enjoys the ‘penny drops’ moments you often experience when students are revising.

On a completely different but tangentially related note I also found an absolute gem of a news story in the newspaper that somebody had brought into the classroom this evening. You couldn’t make it up and it really couldn’t happen anywhere else. It would appear that all night dancing parties after male circumcision ceremonies have become an issue in one district in Kenya so the authorities have banned them. The mind boggles. From my understanding of circumcision the last thing I would want to do after experiencing it would be to celebrate, let alone dance all night.