Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Drip, drip, drip

Our greenhouse has been finished in record time and has caused great excitement among the staff and, I suspect, our neighbours. We are now in plotting and scheming mode as we make decisions about what to grow in it. There are a number of possibilities so it should be an interesting discussion. The drip irrigation is amazing. I've seen videos and read books about drip irrigation but never seen it in action. Jackson, (the engineer who supervised the construction of the greenhouse), reckons that turning the drip on for three minutes in the morning and three minutes in the evening will water the crops in the greenhouse sufficiently.

As I type I can hear the gentle patter of rain on the roof. As it's 11:20 pm this is typically good timing and I hope it continues for some time. Having previously reported my hopes that the rains had started, only to have them dashed on the rocks of further drought, I am really hoping that this is the start of a prolonged wet spell. This is the second night we have had rain, accompanied by a great fireworks show in the sky. I can almost hear our vegetables growing.

Our friends from Cisco and are setting off on their journey home tomorrow. They will be taking the same route as the previous team, spending the night at a safari lodge to break up the trip back to Nairobi. They have given 110% and we will be sad to see them go. Thank you Mike, Sally and Chris.

Having had two teams stay at the visitors centre now we have been encouraged by the lack of teething problems and impressed by the way the solar power system has performed. It is always a worry establishing new systems. We are determined to develop sustainable approaches to solving everyday problems and have made a major investment in solar power on our compound. If you can't make solar work where we are it won't work anywhere.

The visitors centre has vacancies for a little while now, giving us a chance to reflect on how we manage it and to design the hotel and tourism curriculum for our young people – using the visitors centre as a training 'hotel'. Anybody who would like to offer their services as volunteers for our project or use our place as a base for tourism should email me at Book early to avoid disappointment!

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Pesky Rustlers

Having previously written that living in rural Kenya often feels like being stuck in the middle of a Thomas Hardy/Charles Dickens novel I think I will have to extend the literary frame of reference to include westerns, (the cowboys, indians and rustlers variety). Westerns are a genre of literature that I really enjoyed when I was a teenager. If you've never read anything by JT Edson or Zane Grey novel you should give them a try.

Not very far from our place, (but far enough away not to worry), a small scale battle seems to have broken out between members of the Kalenjin and Luo tribes. Kenya is a very tribal country so it is not unusual for this type of confrontation to flare up – especially on tribal boundaries. It is slightly unusual for conflict to occur in our part of the country. It normally happens in the north up on the border with Somalia, Ethiopia and Uganda. Cross border skirmishes and clashes between villages are commonplace on these wild, porous borders. In times past the 'battles' would have been fought with traditional weapons like bows and arrows, machetes and spears. Nowadays the fighting is more likely to be in the form of a shoot out – the trusty AK47 being a favourite weapon.

The violence in our area started out, as nearly all such incidents do, as a simple case of cattle rustling. According to The Standard, (one of the main daily papers in Kenya):

“Skirmishes set off by cattle thefts along the borders of Rift Valley and Nyanza provinces have escalated hostilities between two neighbouring communities, and it is feared the situation could worsen if it gets a political dimension.

One person was killed and five others seriously injured as the violence escalated along Nandi South-Muhoroni border, despite political leaders dashing there to make passionate appeals for calm in a series of meetings through the day. What started as a disagreement over theft of a herd of 44 cattle last week led to wanton destruction of life and property. Hundreds of people were still fleeing the area last evening after hundreds of acres of sugar cane plantations were set on fire, stoking the bad memories of the inter-ethnic clashes that have in the past rocked the area.”

As a westerner it is very hard to imagine the kind of history and culture that lies behind this kind of conflict. It is particularly worrying at this time in Kenya because of the imminent presidential election. The presidential election held in December 2007 turned into a very nasty blood bath in January 2008 as tribal rivalries flared into major violence. Two of the current 'contenders' for the presidential title this year have been called to the ICC in the Hague to face charges linked to the atrocities of the 2007/8 election. The political atmosphere in Kenya is currently very tense, so it is easy to see why the conflict over cattle rustling is being analysed through a political lens.

One of our teachers, who lived in the affected area as a child, dismisses the political angle. In her experience there has always been mistrust and conflict between the two communities in question. The current flare up is, from this point of view, regrettable but easily understandable. It is, however, equally easy to understand the view that this week's problem on the borders of Rift Valley and Nyanza provinces does not bode well for the election later in the year, (most probably in December).

I would like to believe that Kenya learned its lesson as it teetered on the edge of major internal conflict in 2007/8. I'm sure that this is a widely held view. In the mean time I hope a suitably constituted posse is heading for the afflicted area to round up the 'pesky rustlers' and restore law and order before heading off into the Kenyan sunset.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Greenhouse progress

I hadn’t really appreciated how big an area 8 metres x 24 metres is until I saw our greenhouse plot this afternoon. The current team of visitors have now cleared all the ground and the first support posts have been cemented into place. Once the cover has gone on, our greenhouse is going to look and feel like a small hanger. The engineer from Amiran, (the company that supplied the greenhouse), is pleased with progress and is doing a very professional job, making sure everything is done to a high standard. I’m very impressed.

Duncan our farm manager is also very excited by the greenhouse. We talked this evening about how it was going and he is clearly delighted that we stand a good chance of having the whole thing up in three days, (the engineer originally said it was a good four days work). We are planning to grow tomatoes and kale, (sukuma wiki), in the greenhouse and Duncan is confident that we will be able to supply all our own needs for tomatoes and sukuma wiki and have some left over to sell. I’m as keen as he is to get going. As well as an engineer to help us erect the greenhouse, we have paid for the services of an agronomist who will come and advise us about what to grow in it and how we maintain it. It is difficult to avoid the temptation to plot and scheme about expanding our greenhouse operation. It seems to have so much potential. We have, fortunately, avoided running before we can walk in all of our past projects so I’m sure sanity and common sense will prevail again this time. Still ……. I’m sure we have space for at least two more greenhouses!

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Internet/Rain conspiracy

Apologies for the headline blog yesterday. I couldn’t get an Internet signal for long enough to get the blog posted and can only do the title on the phone that I use as my emergency Internet backup. I will obviously have to get a smarter phone. Having got into the habit of blogging every day it is very frustrating when the technology does not cooperate. I guess I should be thankful that it works at all – we mzungus, (white people), take an awful lot for granted.

It’s been a very busy week, as usual. A new Cisco team arrived yesterday. It was almost like a relay changeover as the outgoing team from Cisco met up with the new team at Nairobi airport yesterday morning. The team who were returning home worked like Trojans and the new team have started in exactly the same spirit. All of our visitors from Cisco have been very ‘can do’ people and our work is much richer, (not simply financially), for it. The new team have the challenge of erecting s very large greenhouse in three and a half days. If they carry on at the rate they are going we can look forward to having a greenhouse before they leave.

The weather, (sorry!), has been very frustrating this week. Every indication of rain for about the last four days, (i.e. late afternoon wind/breeze, grey clouds, spits of rain), but, at the last moment no rain. The clouds seem to either evaporate or they turn and head off in the opposite direction to us. This is becoming a bit disconcerting as we are rapidly approaching the planting season. It is really important that we get our seed planted at the optimum time. A false start by the rain does not help us very much.

The Internet seems to be holding up just now so I will post this before it goes again. I wonder if it and the rain have some sort of pact between them to wind me up.  

Friday, 24 February 2012

Rough roads

I’m typing the blog tonight from the relative comfort of a cottage at a safari lodge just outside Nakuru – six hours drive from our place and three hours drive from Nairobi. I’m travelling with the Cisco team who have been with us all week to meet up with three of their colleagues who will be staying with us from tomorrow.

The drive from Kosele to the safari lodge would have been amazing fun in a rally car but was a bit less enjoyable in a 9 seater mini bus. We have travelled quite a distance on bad roads today; largely due to repairs on the main road we should have taken giving rise to diversions across country. As it has been dry the extra traffic on the dirt roads we used stirred up the most choking sand storms and reduced visibility to zero at times. The secret of successfully negotiating dirt roads is to scan the road ahead for potholes. In these conditions it’s very difficult to do this so it was a more than usually bumpy ride. The dirt roads are unforgiving on vehicles. We saw large articulated lorries pulled over to repair punctures and about half way through the longest rough road section fell victim to the same problem ourselves – a puncture in the front driver’s side tyre. It’s slightly disconcerting changing a tyre as buses and lorries hurtle past you, and it was very strange, at different points along the road, experiencing grid lock. Lorries, minibuses and cars vied with each other for passing spaces like competitors from the cartoon series The Wacky Races.

We travelled across an interesting cross section of Kenyan landscape today, from the dry dusty hills around Kosele, through the ‘tea zone’ and in and around the hills of the Mau forest before finishing our journey just outside Nakuru. I always enjoy travelling around Kenya, (on the rare occasions that I get a chance to), and it was interesting seeing how each community makes best use of the resources that are locally available. Driving on the dirt road through the Mau forest I was surprised to see homes that looked like alpine huts, made of wood and, in one or two cases, painted in bright colours. I was amazed that farmers in this area were able to grow any crops at all on the steep slopes of the hills. When it rains I could imagine both crops and houses just sliding down the hill.

It should be an interesting day tomorrow. We will be setting off very early to travel to Nairobi to fly off in different directions. Three of the team I am travelling will be off to Heathrow and two will be flying to Mombasa for a few days before returning to London. I shall be flying back in a small plane with a fresh team of volunteers to the landing strip near our place. As I’ve never flown in a small plane before I have mixed feelings about the flight but am, on the whole, looking forward to it. I’m definitely looking forward to meeting our new friends, who have not been to Kosele before. 

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Thank you team

This week seems to have flown past and our first team of visitors from Cisco this year have nearly come to the end of their trip. Tomorrow I will be travelling with them to a safari lodge about six hours drive away, to breakup their journey back to Nairobi and make sure that they arrive at Nairobi airport in good time for their flight home on Saturday. I’m travelling to Nairobi airport with them then meeting a second Cisco team and flying back to a small landing strip near our place with them. I know that many modern companies operate a ‘hot desking’ policy to make the most of office space. Our two Cisco teams are taking the concept a step further by ‘hot planing’. The first team are flying back to Heathrow on the plane that the second team come out to Kenya on. It’s all go!

The team that are travelling back tomorrow have worked like Trojans during their stay and have made fantastic progress on building a goat enclosure for our rapidly developing farm. All of this team have been to Kosele before but I think they were a little surprised at how hot and dry it has been this week. Lugging sacks of concrete about and digging holes for wooden posts is not easy in this weather – it’s hard on the muscles and the skin. I know the children in our home and school have enjoyed the time our visitors have spent with them so thank you Camilla, Emma, Julie, Tony and Dave. You have been fantastic.

The team that will be arriving on Saturday have an equally busy time ahead of them. Their biggest single challenge will be working with a team of ‘engineers’ to erect a large greenhouse. All of this team are first time visitors to Kenya and I’m really looking forward to meeting them and introducing them to life in Kosele. It sounds corny to the point, perhaps, of cliché to say that visiting Africa is a life changing experience – but it’s true. Everybody who has visited Kosele has been deeply affected by the contrast between their own lives and life in rural Kenya.

Being plagued by mosquitoes is certainly one of the ‘African’ experiences that we can all definitely do without. I have been driven under the protection of the mosquito net over my bed to finish the blog tonight. I was sure that mosquitoes fill up on blood when they bite you, so I can’t understand why they bite me more on the boniest bits of my hands, toes and ankles than anywhere else. I will definitely be asking God how these horrible insects fit into the great scheme of things. Inconvenient for me, deadly to the thousands of children who die from malaria each year. According to the World Health Organisation, (WHO), a child dies of Malaria in Africa every minute – despite a recent fall in mortality rates. The WHO website contains the following cheery comment on malaria in Africa:

“The long lifespan and strong human-biting habit of the African vector species is the main reason why 85% of the world’s malaria deaths are in Africa

Just what we need – geriatric mosquitoes with a strong preference for people. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is “working with partners around the world to reach a day when no human being has malaria.” I hope they find lots of partners and thar they all work very hard. That day can’t come a moment too soon.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Mosquito proof

I had to go to Kisumu today to pick a visitor from South Africa up from the airport. We went the ‘scenic’ route, avoiding the major potholes and catching all the local kids on their way to school. Driving by Lake Victoria was inspiring as all the fishing boats were heading out for the day and creating a very biblical scene. It looks like the water hyacinth is coming back on our side of the lake. This aquatic pest grows very quickly, making it difficult for the fisherman to push their boats out. It also reduces oxygen levels in the lake, so it will be bad news if it gets a foothold again.

About twenty minutes out from our place on the journey to Kisumu I suddenly realised that I had forgotten to take my Malerone, (anti malarial), tablet for today. I’ve only just started taking the tablets daily – my previous anti malarial was a very convenient one a week regime. Remembering to take Malerone every day will be a challenge to start with. I tend to be in a rush most of the time and its easy to forget. Malaria is, unfortunately, only too common in our area so I will have to improve my memory very quickly. Getting malaria would be no joke.  

I try not to get too freaked out by things medical in Kenya, as it would be quite worrying if I allowed myself to dwell on them. A number of scenarios did cross my mind about the prospects of malaria though. Like. Have I got enough anti malarial resistance in me already to cover one day without taking a tablet? Do the tablets last for exactly twenty hours and if so have I been bitten and contracted malaria already? If I stay in the car until we get back can I avoid getting bitten by a mosquito? Where can I get hold of Malerone in Kisumu at eight in the morning? It ended up being easy to buy some more Malerone and I am now dosed up again. It was a sobering experience for a few moments though. The first missionaries to Africa suffered dreadfully from malaria and a host of other environmentally related health problems.

As I seem to have blogged about wildlife threats to life and limb for two days in a row now it’s probably time to risk a trip to the shower and then bed. While we were in Kisumu I bought new torches - one for our new night guard and one for me. It feels a bit over the top taking a stick as well as a huge torch with me when I go out into the compound in the dark, but you can never be sure what lies lurking in some dark, damp spot at night. It’s probably good to be on the safe side.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Bigger, better torches required

The ‘official’ visit went as well as can be expected today. I think we made a pretty good impression on our visitors. We have been waiting for some time now for our official registration as a children’s home to be finalised and I’m hopeful that today’s visit will make it happen at last.

We have fascinating conversations some evenings. We have been experimenting with small torches for our night guards instead of the huge lantern like things that they have been carrying. The small torch casts a very powerful beam with new batteries and we were hoping to be able to save some money and improve security at the same time. Unfortunately it seems that the new torches eat batteries so we will be abandoning the experiment and going back to the status quo. As well as the sound economic case for keeping the old torches Mary, our manager, let slip another, much more practical reason during our discussion.

“Did you know that last night one of the guards killed a snake?”
“No I didn’t Mary. How big was it?”
“Quite big.” (Demonstrates about an inch in diameter and eighteen inches long)
“Yes, so you see it is very important that the night guards have powerful torches all night”.

You can’t really argue with that kind of logic. The snake in question was a black mamba. National Geographic is a mine of useful, (if somewhat unnerving), information about this snake:

“Black mambas are fast, nervous, lethally venomous, and when threatened, highly aggressive. They have been blamed for numerous human deaths, and African myths exaggerate their capabilities to legendary proportions. For these reasons, the black mamba is widely considered the world’s deadliest snake.
Black mambas live in the savannas and rocky hills of southern and eastern Africa. They are Africa’s longest venomous snake, reaching up to 14 feet (4.5 meters) in length, although 8.2 feet (2.5 meters) is more the average. They are also among the fastest snakes in the world, slithering at speeds of up to 12.5 miles per hour (20 kilometres per hour).
Black mambas are shy and will almost always seek to escape when confronted. However, when cornered, these snakes will raise their heads, sometimes with a third of their body off the ground, spread their cobra-like neck-flap, open their black mouths and hiss. If an attacker persists, the mamba will strike not once, but repeatedly, injecting large amounts of potent neuro- and cardiotoxin with each strike.
Before the advent of black mamba antivenin, a bite from this fearsome serpent was 100 percent fatal, usually within about 20 minutes. Unfortunately, antivenin is still not widely available in the rural parts of the mamba’s range, and mamba-related deaths remain frequent.”
So now you know. I’m all for floodlighting the place!

Monday, 20 February 2012

Moving in and rising to a challenge

Another day of, thankfully, confounded expectations today. I had thought that our move into the new classrooms would be a bit chaotic and fairly time consuming. Thanks to another good team effort things went very smoothly and everybody was in class teaching by 9.30 am. The classrooms are huge! The new block of four classrooms will be home to our lower school and will make it possible to take more children into the school.

Our team of visitors from Cisco have been doing their bit for the Mad Dogs and Englishmen stereotype today, (and a Scotsman too!). They have worked incredibly hard, digging out foundations for our goat enclosure. As it has not rained for some considerable time the ground is like concrete, so their task has been made doubly hard. For those of you old enough to remember the show, this project is a bit like Challenge Anneka. This BBC programme, which was popular in the 1990s involved carrying off an outrageously impossible challenge in a very short time. Our team have the delights of buying all the building materials in Oyugis, (our local town), first thing tomorrow. As its market day in Oyugis tomorrow it should be a good outing.

We have the intriguing prospect of a visit from the ‘men, (and possible women), from the ministry’ tomorrow. The ministry in question is the Children’s Department and the visitors will be coming from Nairobi. I talked to the DCO, (District Children’s Officer), this morning to confirm the visit so that we can prepare for it. He told me that the visitors would definitely be arriving but he didn’t know what time they would come to our place or how many of them there would be. We will be getting a crate of sodas in to be on the safe side, (on the grounds that people from Nairobi will probably expect sodas and not the hot milky tea that we normally give visitors from closer to home).

We also have a visitor arriving from South Africa tomorrow so it promises to be an interesting day.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Praise the Lord

I really should have had more faith! We have had a very encouraging outcome in the case of the little boy who was the subject of last night’s blog. You may remember that we were not very optimistic about his chances of receiving any kind of examination or treatment until Monday and that we, (and the doctor who was treating him), were worried about his condition.

Last night we decided that Ian and Hilda would make an early start this morning to the closest hospital to us to see what could be done for the lad. As they were preparing to go Hilda managed to get through to the doctor at the hospital treating the child, and found out that he had, despite all of our worst fears, been operated on at midnight and seemed to be making good progress. You can probably imagine the sense of relief and celebration at hearing this news.

I guess prayer is a hard enough thing to get your head round if you do believe in God. It’s certainly hard to explain to people who are sceptical about faith. As a Christian I believe in the power of praying and pray very regularly, (about all sorts of things). Last night we prayed about the little boy’s situation – specifically praying for the problem to be sorted out. While we slept our prayer was answered. It’s easy to say that the boy was delivered from his situation by a caring doctor and an efficient and timely surgical procedure, (which he was). Experience, however, suggests that the treatment the child received was little short of miraculous – especially given the very poor picture painted by the doctor in the hospital yesterday afternoon. Believe it or not. It could be a coincidence. I do know that when I don’t pray the coincidences don’t happen. I’m going to continue praying and thanking God for answers to prayer. I really take encouragement from the good result we have had today. 

Saturday, 18 February 2012

(Ultra) Sounding off

After all the last minute fixing and fitting with our Visitors’ Centre our first guests are tucked up and recovering from a very long journey from the UK to our place. I’m sure there will be one or two, hopefully, small things to sort out as we go along but it’s been an encouraging start. In keeping with our vocational training aspirations we arranged for two of our older girls to prepare and serve supper in the Visitors’ Centre tonight and they did a great job – the nicest rice and beans I’ve eaten all week.

I feel really sorry for Hilda this evening. She has had the most horrendous day trying to arrange an ultra sound for a two year old boy who has an obstructed bowel. Over the years I have had some very frustrating experiences in Kenyan Hospitals, but nothing to match Hilda’s marathon today. The boy is the grandson of one of our staff, and his medical nightmare started earlier this week. The blockage in his belly has got worse over the course of the week and he was sent for treatment at the District Hospital in Oyugis, (our closest town). He was treated quite promptly for malaria but this didn’t do a lot to help. An x-ray was taken of his abdomen but it looked more like a map of Lake Victoria than anything else. An ultra sound would provide a better diagnosis.

Hilda set off on her mission to find a hospital that could do an ultra sound this morning, and finally made it back to our place at about 7 pm, having been to 5 hospitals in two different towns – all to no avail as none of them were able to perform the ultra sound. Tonight the child is in a hospital in Kisii, (about forty minutes drive away and much longer by public transport). The hospital he is in is unable to perform basic diagnostic tests and is unlikely to have anybody to perform an ultra sound until Monday. In the meantime the child’s situation is not getting any better.

Talking about the whole experience with Ian and Hilda tonight made us all think how fortunate we are in the West to have such good medical care. Our expectations of health care in Scotland and England are incredibly high, as is the standard of care. I know there are people who would say that basic nursing care and the whole experience of being in hospital are both poor in the UK at the moment. I haven’t been in hospital for a while so am in position to comment but, as far as I am aware, nobody has to share a bed with another patient in UK hospitals, doctors are generally on call 24/7 and you don’t have to pop across the road to the nearest pharmacy to buy the drugs you need as a hospital in-patient. Kenya is not a good place to be sick in – especially in a rural area like ours.

Ian and Hilda will be on the case, trying to secure the right treatment for this little boy tomorrow morning. As they go through the torturous task of finding out what can be done we can only pray that he will be able to hang on for long enough to receive the right treatment. I know that Ian and Hilda will do their best to make sure there is a good outcome to this very sad story. Unfortunately their best will be up against the best our local hospitals have to offer, so it is difficult to predict the outcome. It’s easy to ask the question “What would they do if we weren’t here?” in cases like this one as a way of managing the mixed emotions, (compassion, anger and frustration), that churn you up as you become involved. It’s a question that is easier to ask when you are safely home in the UK. Once you are ‘on the ground’ and have been made aware of the facts of cases like this one it is not easy to step back and say “I’m not here!”

Friday, 17 February 2012

Great team effort

What a day – trying to make sure our new Visitors Centre doesn’t look like it’s still being built when our visitors arrive has been a challenge but everybody has pulled off a great team effort and it is now finished. I thought it would probably be a close run thing yesterday and that’s the way it turned out. At 3.30 pm we didn’t have power for the lights in half of the building. A phone call to the contractor and the arrival of the ‘on call’ electrician put us on full power by 5.30. I’m sure the paint on the doors will have dried completely by tomorrow afternoon!

During the course of the day it occurred to me that we are now in a position to extend our vocational training for the older children to include a course in hotel and tourist services. Our Visitors Centre will, we hope, be regularly occupied by teams from a number of different backgrounds, who have a heart to work with a project like ours for a while. We don’t quite offer Hilton Dubai standard accommodation but learning to manage it would certainly help our young people to appreciate the skills required to work in the tourist industry. Watch this space. (And if you do fancy volunteering for a ‘holiday’ with a difference get in touch with me:)

To cap off a thoroughly TIA, (This Is Africa), day, tonight I went with our two night guards to a rental house just up the road to intervene in a domestic dispute between the two young women who rent the house. They are both in very poor circumstances and Ian and Hilda are assisting them by paying the rent. The two ladies had obviously had a major fall out tonight as one of our guards heard the shouting from our place. When we arrived at the house the situation was more peaceful, though the atmosphere was still rather tense. The house was full of neighbours who were also trying to calm the situation down. It soon became apparent that there was not much that could be done, other than encourage the two ladies to keep the peace and pray, (which is what we did). As we walked back to our place one of the guards said to me, “The problem is they will lock the door and then start fighting again”. I really hope they don’t. Walking up the road I couldn’t help thinking how different this life is from the one I usually live in England. Some days its like stepping back in time and being immersed in the plot of a Thomas Hardy novel.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Long rains

 The Saturday deadline for completing our new visitors’ centre is rapidly approaching. One of the classrooms is full of settees and chairs and we have another room crammed with bed frames, mattresses and seat cushions. I'm starting to feel like the owner of one of those Mediterranean hotels from a number of years ago, when tourists were flocking to holiday destinations to find that the hotel they had booked was actually a building site. I am confident that everything will be ready for our first visitors this year by Saturday morning, but it could be a bit touch and go.

I am now, officially, really excited about the weather. I promise not to go on about it after today, (unless we have a major weather event), but …… this evening we had the first proper rain since last December. I have written before about the practicality of the climate around Kosele – sun during the day, rain mostly during the evening. Tonight’s rain fitted the pattern perfectly. A strong breeze at around 6 p.m. to advertise the rain then a steady, (but not torrential), downpour for about an hour and a half. The children will, I am sure, have thanked God for tonight’s rain as it should mean we don’t need to water the vegetables by hand tomorrow morning.

Until you live in place where there is a strong chance of drought conditions, it is difficult to appreciate just how dry conditions can become when there is no rain. You see the obvious signs – leaves wilting on trees and bushes, dry patchy scrub with no new growth of grass and obviously dried up water holes and ponds. Somewhat paradoxically you only realise how dry the earth has become after is has rained. When I was in Kosele last November a long period of rain meant that our compound looked like it had a stream running through it each time the heavens opened. Walking to the classrooms this evening, after the rain, it was difficult to tell it had rained at all. It was as if all the water had just been sucked deep into the ground. As if the soil was hoarding the moisture.

Hopefully tonight’s change in the weather will be sustained. It would be a foolish farmer who rushed to plant his seed after the first sign of rain. We will need a couple of weeks of consistent rainfall before we are ready to trust our seed and fertiliser to the elements. There is too much riding on the coming harvest for everybody in our community to make mistakes at planting time. It is already clear that the previous harvest was meagre for some of our neighbours. The food will be running out within the next month for many families, and the next season’s harvest has yet to be planted. The coming season is called the ‘long rains’. We will pray that they are.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

You win some, you lose some

Today was very busy and very hot. I had to go to Kisumu, (our nearest ‘big’ town about ninety minutes drive away). I had a number things to do including picking up some anti-malarial drugs I had ordered, (I think I’ve been taking the ‘old school’ drug, Lariam, for long enough now – the dreams are getting more bizarre!). The trip also gave me an opportunity to test drive a Landrover that we have been considering buying. It made a pleasant change maintaining a constant speed, whatever the road conditions, and having a comfortable ride. Our own vehicle slows down to a crawl at the slightest gradient and, despite fitting new shock absorbers recently, the ride is a bit ‘hard’ to say the least. I asked our friend Hamir at Silverline Motors, (Great garage, Great Service), to give the ‘candidate’ Landrover the once over and he told me that it was a "clean car" but overpriced. The vendor wouldn’t drop the price so we are still in the market for a new vehicle.

Having failed at bartering on the ‘new car’ front I did have a minor haggling success on the high street in Kisumu today. I have managed to break the prescription glasses that I brought out to Kenya with me and spotted some reading glasses for sale on a street vendors pitch, outside one of the shops on the high street.  As I can’t read a thing without glasses anymore I thought it would be a good idea to buy a spare pair so tried a few on. I discovered, (to my horror), that I now need 1.75 magnification lenses to be able to read. (Does this mean I could accurately calculate when my eyes will actually wear out given that I needed 1.25 magnification glasses as little as three years ago?).

“How much are these?” I asked.
“Twelve hundred shillings”.
“You must be joking; I’ll give you two hundred”.
“What about four fifty?”
“Two fifty”
“Three hundred”

It’s amazing how quickly prices come down. You couldn’t imagine bargaining the same way in Tesco, or Wal-Mart or any of the other big stores. (It would be fun though – I’d love to see the look on people’s faces if you tried haggling at a busy checkout).

A little further down the street I noticed another guy selling the same glasses. I picked up a pair of 1.75s.

“How much are these?”.
“Three hundred and twenty shillings”
Asante Sana – (thank you very much) – I’ll take them”.

The heat has been quite ferocious today. Driving with the windows open usually creates a pleasant breeze and takes a bit of the sweat out of the weather. Not today. Despite a strong cross wind on the main road from our place to Kisumu travelling in the passenger seat was like sitting under a blow dryer on full heat. To add insult to injury a mini ‘twister’ tracked across the road over our vehicle on the way home and blew my cap off. Quick reactions from Duncan saved it from being ‘lost’. It would be churlish to complain though. The wind is still pointing to a change in the weather and the imminent arrival of rain, and I’d rather be hot than cold any day.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Valentine gifts

So, Valentine’s Day has been and gone. It’s been interesting to see how it has played out in the Kenyan press. UK papers have been criticised for being ‘London Centric’ for some time and Kenyan papers suffer from the same focus on an urban elite – the emerging middle class in Nairobi. As ever the ads for Valentine’s Day products, like most other western celebration days, have been a little unusual, (though very enterprising). I would never have thought of his and hers mobile phones as an obvious Valentine’s gift and was surprised at the Valentine promotion for the latest model Blackberry phones. Even more bizarre was an advert for a lager style beer. I know that women do drink beer but it’s not exactly a romantic beverage. Dressing it up with a free glass offer for one pack size and 6 roses for a bigger one didn’t really seem to be in the real spirit of the event. In the run up to Feb 14th there have been a number of articles about keeping the romance alive in long term relationships and marriage. Call me old fashioned but is seems a shame to see the worst aspects of cheap Western commercialism and ‘reality TV’ culture colonising Kenyan media space – in the newspapers, on TV and on numerous billboards. Needless to say the Valentine’s Day celebrations in our community were conspicuous by their absence.

I had a very positive day today, courtesy of the Kenyan government. Mary and I were invited to see the DC, (District Commissioner), this morning. The DC is the head man at the District Administration centre in Kosele. We weren’t sure why he wanted to see us so we set off to his office with a sense of anticipation. As it turned out we saw the DC’s Deputy, (the DO1 – District Officer 1). He is a very nice man, new to this District and, this morning, the bearer of great news for us. Occasionally the government distributes sacks of rice, beans and other staples such as cooking oil and ‘porridge’ to the ‘wananchi’ – (local community members). Our invitation to the DC’s office today came via the DCO, (go on, have a guess ……… OK, District Children’s Officer). He had nominated our children’s home, (and two others), to be the beneficiaries of some food rations that had been left over from a wider distribution in the community. After chatting with the DO1 we were sent to the stores to pick up our ‘chit’ for 150kg of beans, 250kg of rice, 30 litres of cooking oil and a small bale of the porridge flour that we use for feeding the children before school. This unexpected assistance will keep us in beans and rice for the best part of a month.

Chit in hand Mary, our manager, and I hot footed it, (well at least as fast as our Landrover allows), seven kilometres down the road, to the government grain stores next to Lake Victoria, to load up our precious cargo. Once the paper work had been properly processed we were asked to pull up outside a large warehouse where a team of 3 guys loaded us up. We had travelled to the store with the Director of one of the other homes so we split the cost of paying the guys for their labour, (our contribution worked out at about £1.50 or $2.35). The strength of the guys who do this kind of work never ceases to amaze me. They are always very thin and look like they’d blow over in a strong wind. They think nothing of lugging two 50kg sacks on their backs at a time, tossing them with practised ease into any configuration of vehicle.

We took the ‘scenic route’ home – avoiding the vehicle pounding potholes of the shortest route. It’s easy, as a Westerner, to criticise the governments of developing countries and to bemoan the lack of assistance that they provide for their citizens,charities and NGOs, (Non Governmental Organisation). It can be very frustrating working through official channels. Every once in a while though, on a day like today, you can celebrate a little. Knowing that you have been part of a very positive partnership, even for a short time, leaves you feeling that a small step has been taken and that doom, and gloom do not have to set the pattern for the future.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Bean counter

As I have possibly written before, I never imagined becoming a ‘bean counter’ at any point as part of my career plan. As today has been the first day of half-term it has given me an opportunity to get stuck into our long term business plan.

I always enjoyed teaching spreadsheets to the advanced level students when I was an ICT teacher. It was great watching them work through the advanced tutorial and identifying the moment when the penny dropped that, far from being the dullest piece of software on the planet, Microsoft Excel is actually pretty amazing. Unfortunately not many young people make it this far with spreadsheets and still automatically associate Excel with crushing boredom.

Like most people I’ve always learnt new skills most effectively when there has been some point to learning them. Making the course relevant to the students is one of the biggest challenges facing our Agriculture College. The students will, as part of the course they are following, have to run their own businesses and show that they are able to create business plans and manage accounts. I’m hoping that they will be able to appreciate the power in spreadsheets. It is probably a cliché to suggest that education should transform the student’s thinking, but it is, none the less, true. If we can’t push our students to the ’eureka’ moment and unlock new, creative levels of thinking in them we will not be doing our job properly. I’m sure there will be those among you who would think that waxing lyrical about spreadsheets as a tool for motivating and challenging students is a symptom of ‘losing the plot’. I hope not.

On our recent field trip to the illegal livestock market our students had an opportunity to talk to a very successful entrepreneur. He didn’t really look like the most obvious candidate to be the next Richard Branson. Sitting under a tree, half reclining on a blanket and watching over an assortment of veterinary drugs in tatty looking bottles and packets, he looked distinctly unprofessional. Appearances are often deceptive. The students discovered that he made a very good living going from market to market selling his treatments, and that he owned a thriving ‘Agrovet’ shop in one of the local towns. His enthusiasm for his business, (which became apparent once you started to talking to him), inspired some of our students to reconsider their opinions of enterprise and entrepreneurship.

We are hoping that the students’ enthusiasm for business will help them to make a good start on the initial business planning that they will have to do after half-term. We plan to introduce them to the delights of ‘bean counting’ and financial forecasting. A good spreadsheet can, (believe it or not), be like a good book. It should tell a story and be capable of producing a happy ending. I’m looking forward to teaching our students the skills they will need to make their spreadsheets come alive.

As we ponder the ‘will it, won’t it’ change in the weather I’m also hoping that the students will enjoy counting real beans in July – when we harvest a bumper crop of legumes!

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Distant thunder

Today got off to an exciting start. We have been hoping to buy a new vehicle for some time now, (see yesterday’s post about the sorry state of our Landrover). Just before I left Kenya at the beginning of December last year our friend Douglas, (who arranges our longer distance transport), told me that he had a contact who wanted to sell a Landrover. I finally got to see it this morning and zoomed off up the 'road' to test drive it to Kosele and back. (Not a great distance but far enough to work out whether it’s worth going any further with buying it).

As test drives go it was very successful. The major problems with our current Landrover are; lack of engine power and acceleration, (especially in fourth gear), bone crunching suspension and somewhat sloppy steering. Once you get used to these inconveniences it’s not a bad vehicle. It has done us proud over the last ten years. That said, driving a newer, diesel model, that suffers from none of these deficiencies was amazing. In ‘older and wiser’ mode these days I was able to resist the temptation to rush out and get the cash to pay the vendor on the spot and have arranged to take it on a longer test drive to Kisumu on Tuesday. Once in Kisumu I’ve booked an inspection by a garage that I trust, (shameless plug here for Silverline Services in Kisumu – great garage, great people!). Once Silverline have given it the once over I’ll be in a better position to make a decision about what is, after all, a major investment. The feckless impulse buyer in me is still pushing for the green light.

Have just, (9:03 pm), rushed outside in great excitement. It wasn’t very much, (at first I thought I was hearing things), but ……………… it has just rained! Given the current state of the weather in the UK I can appreciate that this is hardly earth shattering news but it will, I am sure, be greeted with cautious optimism here in Kosele. The rains are the key to our next harvest. We need to be in a position to plant seeds by the first week in March at the latest. This means we need some steady, (but not torrential), rain the week before. There has been a noticeable increase in cloud cover in the last couple of afternoons and the breeze that usually precedes rain has picked up. (I’m not making this stuff up – you really can tell when it’s going to rain). I’m sure I just heard the first, distant roll of thunder as well. Bring it on!

Its half term next week so we will be busy with our land preparation. It could be a very exciting week – new vehicle and a change in the weather. I’ll be busy praying for both.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

A long bumpy ride

I experienced another first today – being overtaken by a bicycle on a flat, open road! To add insult to injury the bike was carrying a live goat in a plastic crate tied to the luggage rack. I kid you not!

Our Landrover is very old but there is a good explanation for the slow progress we were making. This afternoon Hilda and I went to the District Hospital in Oyugis, (about 20 minutes drive away), to bring the old lady I wrote about yesterday home. The District Hospital has done all that they can for her so the doctor discharged her. She is still in a lot of pain. Having now seen the x-ray of her broken femur it’s easy to see why. After finishing up the discharge paperwork we managed to get the lady onto a mattress in the back of the Landrover and propped her up so that she could be taken home, accompanied by her son and another, female, relative.

I’ve written a number of times about the state of the road between our place and Oyugis. It’s bad enough being bounced around when you are fit and healthy enough to brace yourself as the vehicle pounds through potholes. If you are nursing a badly injured leg without very effective pain relief the journey must be torture. We drove back from the hospital in first gear for most of the way, crawling along the road. There were still one or two painful moments for our passenger.

We managed to park up about fifty yards from the ladies home, on the compound that she and her husband share with her son and his wife and children. Carrying her on the mattress into her house was less painful for her than getting her into the Landrover at the hospital and she looked very relieved and happy to be home once we had made her comfortable. The doctor has prescribed pain killers and it seems, for now, that there are enough family members around to look after her.

Hilda and I left with mixed emotions. Home is the best place for the lady to be. When Judi and I first came to live in Kenya, nearly ten years ago, an elderly neighbour broke her leg just below the knee. I don’t think her leg ever healed properly but she managed to live on for some time afterwards. We prayed just before leaving the lady this afternoon. I trust in God’s love and mercy and believe that He will bring comfort and strength to this lady and her family. I would ask any of you with the prayerful inclination to include this lady in your prayers tonight and in the days ahead.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Bless this our land and nation

After the thrill of illegal activities and travel around rural Kenya yesterday, today has been a bit tame. This afternoon we broke up for half-term. The pupils all looked, (and sounded), happy to be off for a short holiday - they were a lot noisier than usual walking out of the school gates. In honour of the occasion the pupils got to sing the national anthem twice today – morning and afternoon at flag raising and lowering time. It’s very easy to dismiss these patriotic activities in school and write them off as mindless nationalism. It is uplifting watching our ‘scouts’ march into the school's assembly area. It was actually quite funny this morning. I was standing to one side of the assembly and was able to watch the scouts preparing to march in. They all held their right arm up, ready to start marching, and then set off. When you are 9 or 10 years old it’s quite difficult getting the hang of swinging arms and legs in unison. Our two lines of scouts did very well – girls in one line wearing our school uniform, boys in the other line wearing a very unisex blue scout shirt over their own school shirt. (Which they keep on all day - I don't know how they manage it in the very hot weather we are currently experiencing). Arms and legs swung in opposite directions towards the end of the line and I couldn’t help thinking that if they were trying to gain momentum with their movements they just sort of cancelled each other out. They take it very seriously, which is touching, and I really hope that “Our God of all creation” will “Bless this our land and nation”.

During half-term we are hoping that our day scholars will come to school in the morning so that they can continue to have breakfast and lunch during the holiday. It’s always difficult to predict how many day scholars will actually turn up each day in the holidays. I suspect that it will mostly be the younger children this half-term as the older ones will be needed at home to prepare the land for planting at the end of the month. However you look at it life is tough for children in rural Kenya.

It’s no easier for old people either. Today Hilda visited an elderly lady in hospital who has been suffering from a problem with her leg for a few weeks now. She was admitted to the District Hospital this week. Since the beginning of January the lady’s condition has been deteriorating and she is now in a lot of pain. Her leg is badly swollen and, until today, we had no idea what was causing the problem. Hilda prevailed on the sister on the ward to authorise an x-ray for the old lady, which revealed a break in the leg just below the hip joint. The x-ray showed an area around the break that the radiographer said was probably infected. The outlook for this lady is not good. It wouldn’t be in the UK either but at least the care options would be better. In a country where the majority of people have no access to health services the choices for sick old ladies in ‘the rurals’ are stark. This lady’s case illustrates the difficult options facing organisations like ours all over the developing world. It’s a case book example of a “What would you do?” scenario. The lady would have to travel some distance to a hospital able to carry out any of the surgery her case requires, (exploratory surgery to treat any infection or, in the worst case, a very high amputation). Either option carries significant risks and a long period of expensive hospitalisation at some distance from home. Not treating her would mean she remains in a lot of pain and discomfort and, ultimately, faces the very real prospect of dying.  Once you know about a situation like this it’s very hard to walk away from. What would you do? What should we do? What are the long term implications of any of the actions that we might take? They aren’t easy questions to answer.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

I see no cows!

Until today I had never been to an illegal livestock market before. It’s not really the kind of thing you’d imagine taking place. A conspiracy of cows, sheep and goats. Entry on a strictly ‘password only’ basis. Shady goings on in the livestock underworld. It wasn’t quite like that but it was, none the less, an illegal gathering.

My descent into the criminal fraternity began innocently enough. We will, shortly, be building a goat enclosure so that we can give our Agriculture College students practical experience in rearing goats. There is a well know livestock market not very far from us so we decided to go on our first College field trip this morning to do some market research. I’ve blogged before about the appalling road conditions around our place. It was a bumpy ride. Once we got to the main road we had an unscheduled stop so that the driver of the matatu, (14 seater minibus), that we had hired for the morning could receive the first thousand shillings of the price we had agreed to pay him and put some petrol in the tank. Confident that we would, at least, make it to our destination we set off down a fairly decent road for the last bit of our journey.

It turned out that none of us was sure of the exact location of the market that we were heading for. As we approached the village and there were no obvious signs of livestock being herded in the general direction of a market I became concerned that we had either come on the wrong day, or too late and that the market had already finished. On entering the village our driver remembered the location and we branched off down the ‘high street’. My misgivings were slightly reduced by our driver's confidence but almost immediately increased when I looked behind us to see cattle and goats being driven up the road in the opposite direction. We did a quick about turn and followed the animals and their owners.

The market was held in a largish open space about a kilometre from the village. When we arrived it was pretty much in full swing. Groups of animals and their owners milled around the market area. Billy goats started fights with each other – their owners pulling them apart with varying degrees of success. Sheep clustered together in anxious looking groups as bulls and cows loomed over them. There didn’t seem to be any particular area for the different types of animals. Buyers and sellers haggled and argued about prices before striking a deal with an extravagant handshake.

Our students had been given a questionnaire to fill in and a clipboard and moved off in pairs to find out as much as they could about the livestock trade in general and goats in particular. I was soon accosted by a guy who had visited our place in October and had talked to me about the wisdom of buying a milk cow for our work. He was keen to help me understand the ins and outs of buying and selling in the market. He grabbed me enthusiastically by the hand and we set off round the market together. (In Kenya it is perfectly normal for guys to hold hands when they are walking in public – it’s a bit odd but you get used to it fairly quickly).

It was through my new friend that I found out about the shady side of the market. It turned out to be another TIA classic. There is a ban on the official livestock markets in the area because of an outbreak of disease, (I didn’t catch which type but obviously something serious enough for the authorities to be worried). There is a ‘quarantine’ order in place. To get round the inconvenience of the ban the farmers have simply started another market, outside the village, and continued trading, so far without interference. (As, I guess a minor concession, the market does close a bit earlier than the ‘official’ market would – at 11.30ish instead of mid-afternoon). Nobody seemed especially bothered about the new arrangements. Business continued as usual.

This time of year is a bit of a slack period in the livestock trade. There isn’t much money about as many parents have had to pay the first term’s High School fees for their children and cash is in short supply. Prices should pick up in April and peak from September to November as the next harvest comes in and people have more money in their pockets again. Good timing for our goat project.

We had a great morning and our first outing with the students was a real success. We all learned something new. If you visit our part of Kenya and see someone walking away from a village market with an animal wearing a new rope you’ll know that the animal has just got a new owner. If you see somebody driving animals away from the market with old ropes round their necks you’ll know that the market wasn’t a great success and that the animals are returning home unsold. As the market packed up and everybody headed for home there was a noticeable absence of new ropes around necks. Still, there’s always the next time - for this particular market on Sunday when the farmers will, once again, pit their collective wits against the authorities and reconvene their illegal gathering. Drovers of the world unite!

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Killing time

Trying to coordinate a visit to Kisii, the biggest town within easy distance of our place, is always a nightmare. Even on a simple trip involving no more than the bank and shopping. I felt sorry for Ian and Hilda today, as they ended up with a major trip involving multiple people and a number of activities. Their day involved; (for those with experience of this journey a drum roll would be appropriate here), going to the bank so that Mary our manager could make a money transfer to pay for a greenhouse, taking a young mum and her son for treatment to the boy’s ear, buying a bicycle for one of the church leaders to allow him to expand his pastoral round, taking one of our girls for an eye test and a new pair of glasses, buying material for school uniforms for the Agriculture College students, buying text books for the school and Agriculture College, buying bibles for church members, some general shopping for supplies, and buying a mobile phone . And those are just the things that I knew about. On the surface this to do list might not seem very demanding. But then TIA, (this is Africa), and the majority of the jobs involve at the very least an element of negotiation and clarification.

For instance. Mary dropped our ‘book order’ off at the book shop as soon as she got to Kisii, hoping that the books would be picked, packed and pucker at going home time. Everybody was ready to leave, (Duncan, who had gone with Mary to learn the ropes at the bank, Joyce, who needed the glasses, the lady and her son, Ian, Hilda, Uncle Tom Cobbley and all…). Mary was kept another hour while the book order was processed. The most disarming thing about all this is that you just sort of get into it. (You don’t have much choice). Ian said the book shop owner was very nice and asked him to sign the visitors’ book, (you couldn’t imagine that in Waterstones). If the picking and packing went anything like normal about three people would have been involved in checking to see if the books were in stock, then locating them, stacking them on a table before another person put them in a box tied up by the last member of the despatch team.

There is a point to this rant. I did, really, have a genuine reason for not going to Kisii today, (fine tuning the school and College timetables). I am, for one reason or another, still pretty much in the Western ‘to do list frame of mind’ at the moment. I haven’t got into the more African ‘could do’ mindset yet. (To be honest I rarely do – there’s just so much to do!). From the Western point of view taking the whole day to do a bit of shopping might seem to be indicative of the ‘obvious’ root causes of African poverty and lack of development. Inefficiency, poor planning and inability to 'get things done'. To really believe that would be disingenuous. From a Western point of view all of these things might seem patently true. From another point of view the Westerner’s attitude shows up typical Western arrogance, impatience and unwillingness to see an everyday activity as an opportunity for a relationship. An opportunity for a negotiation. A conversation to be had. The West’s ‘sue me if it’s wrong’, shelf edge pricing mentality completely excludes any kind of bartering. The Western way of shopping is mercifully quick but monumentally impersonal. In a culture where time is the only thing you have an excess of taking a long time over everything isn't a problem. Taking the Western view of time and time management might make short work of the to do list, but I have a nagging feeling that it can short change us on time spent with people. 

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

ET come back later

I had to take a trip up to Kosele this afternoon to see the local Children’s Officer, accompanied by Mary our manager. It was the first time I have really left our place since arriving a week ago so it was nice to get out for a bit. The visit to the Children’s Officer went well, if a little unpredictably. While we were waiting for our appointment we noticed a couple of young girls, also waiting, without an accompanying adult. The Children’s Department in Kosele has the unenviable task of protecting children from all sorts of threats to their health and welfare on a miniscule budget. If I was the Children’s Officer in Kosele I would either spend a great deal of time ‘in the field’, (ideally a very big, isolated field somewhere), or barricade myself into my office so that none of the pressing demands in the community could make their way in. It turned out that the girls were sisters and had run away from home, for very understandable reasons. The oldest was probably 9 or 10. The Children’s Officer found out more about their case though a couple of phone calls and, in the absence of any other suitable provision, asked if we could care for them until they could be returned home. What can you say? The girls came back to our home and will probably spend a couple of days with us while the Children’s Officer chases up the case. Children do, of course, run away from home in the West, but I would be surprised if they did so as frequently, or at as young an age as they do in Kenya. The current dry, hot spell is adding to the burdens of our already overstretched community. The Children’s Officer told us that the increasing hardship brought on by the weather will add to the number of cases presenting themselves at his office each day. It’s hard to imagine living like the people in our community do. The closest I can get to understanding it some days is to compare it with the rural tragedy that Thomas Hardy wrote about so often and the grim social problems that Charles Dickens catalogued. It really is another world. People shouldn’t have to live like this.

Today has been another classic ‘one extreme to another’ kind of day. Having left the Children’s Department with our two new guests we had to stop in Kosele to do some photocopying. We drove across the ‘village square’, (managing to avoid the bicycle repair business located under a tree), and parked up outside the photocopying shop. From the front passenger seat, looking to the left, I saw a largish room containing a pool table. The room had obviously been provided to serve some useful social purpose. There were an interesting collection of posters on the wall advertising local community projects. Inside the room two youngish men were playing pool. Community development has many strands in most parts of the world, but I wondered, as I waited for Mary to bring the photocopying back to the Landrover, what the two little girls in the back made of it all.

From a ‘getting things done’ point of view it’s actually been a good day today. We employed a new teacher to replace last year’s Standard 8 teacher, who has found another job in Kisumu, (the largest town that is anywhere near us).  The only blip on the horizon came in a text from our friend who had travelled to Nairobi this morning to pursue our applications for work permits. I’m afraid our initial optimism, (see yesterday’s post), has faded somewhat as it would appear that our file has been ‘misplaced’. Our friend said that he will contact us in a couple of weeks when he hopes to have better news. Guess I will just have to wait patiently for final confirmation of my alien status.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Only a few fainted

The boys got off to High School this morning at 10.30ish. They were finally enrolled in school at 4.30 p.m. According to Mary, (our manager who drew the short straw for the long day and went with them), “some boys fainted in the line while they were waiting”. Not ours I hasten to add. Duncan, (our farm manager who is an ‘old boy’ of the school that the boys are now attending), told me that each year about 400 new students are enrolled at the school. Hence the long wait to get in. As if that wasn’t bad enough he also said that the dinner queues were ‘quite long’. I guess its all part of growing up in Kenya. Probably character forming stuff. I just hope that the better qualities, (like patience and thinking about the needs of others), win out over the ‘law of the jungle’. They are all good lads. I’m sure they’ll do the right thing and be stronger for it. TIA.

It doesn’t look like we’ll be moving into our new school buildings until Wednesday at the earliest. More progress has been made but there are still a few outstanding ‘last finish’ jobs, (like making sure the off cuts off glass used for the windows are all tidied away). We have a meeting with the contractor tomorrow and I’ve prepared an ‘agreed actions’ schedule to fill in. I’ll keep you posted on progress.

Ian, Hilda and I are developing a growing optimism that we will receive our work permits this month. The friend who is helping us to chase them up sent a text today to say that it is now time to pay for the work permits. We haven’t received official notification of this yet, but our friend will be travelling to Nairobi on our behalf tomorrow to, hopefully, take the next steps. Once the necessary payment has been made to the officials in the immigration department it should only be a short time until we are issued with ‘alien registration cards’. Being an official alien will be an interesting experience. 

Sunday, 5 February 2012


Seven days have flown past and I’m mostly pleased with our progress so far. I had hoped that we would be moving into our new classrooms tomorrow but it looks like we’ll have to wait at least another day. A classic TIA, (This Is Africa), situation. For those of you who are puzzled by TIA it’s an acronym from the Leonardo DiCaprio film Blood Diamond. It’s a great movie if you haven’t seen it. TIA means that you can’t expect things to happen in Africa the same way they do in the West. This has its ups and downs – most noticeably in relation to meeting deadlines and attention to detail. Having waited this long to finish off our school building project I guess another couple of days isn’t the end of the world.

Tomorrow we will be sending our first students off to High School. The boys, (Tony, Kevin, Victor, Ben and Nicholas), are suitably excited and apprehensive. Attending High School means that they will have to be boarders at their new school.  We have managed to buy all of the things that they need to take with them to their new ‘home’. I’m sure the pink melamine cups will be fine! Fortunately, (for us at least), the school is not very far away, in Oyugis, our closest town, so we will be able to support them in their studies by visiting at parents days and being on hand to sort out any difficulties they may have. Many High School students travel a great distance to attend decent High Schools and don't see their parents or guardians very often. The school our lads will be attending, (Agoro Sare High School), has a good reputation and we are as confident as we can be that they will do well there.

I’m hoping that the coming week will be equally encouraging for our Agriculture College students. To foster a sense of collegiate identity we asked the students to design the college uniform and they have come up with a great proposal – practical, smart and green, (in colour). We’ll need to get the local tailor in to measure them up. Assuming the school building handover happens this week we will be able to make their classroom a more suitable base for them. In anticipation of future success as goat breeders we will also, probably, take them on a field trip to one of the local livestock markets.

As we all settle into our new routines I have noticed a worrying personal trend developing – getting into a ritual! So far this is limited to setting out the soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, bottle of water, nail brush and towel in the same place every night in the shower, (always using the same shower cubicle). Our showers are attached to the side of the house that my room is in. They have a wooden frame and are covered by a thin sheet of metal. They don't have a roof so you get an amazing view of the sky at night while you are taking your shower. The shower ritual is, to be honest, a fairly minor obsession and is entirely practical. If you arrange the soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, bottle of water and nail brush any other way they just fall off the wooden beam supporting them and you have to spend five minutes scrabbling around trying to pick them up off the floor. I don’t see myself slipping into the “Who moved my cheese?” mindset any time soon but you have to be sensitive to the early warning signs.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Pain in the neck

I’m sure that skeletomuscular disorders brought on by overusing a computer aren’t very common in our part of Kenya. Today I’ve been working on a website for our Agriculture College students and I think I might have overdone it a bit.  It’s a bit of an obsessional thing when you start getting into it – (fortunately Pizza and Red Bull aren’t an option over here so I can’t really go for the full on web designer approach).

I’m sure I’ve blamed my Dad for a number of things in the past without any justification, but I am absolutely sure that he is largely responsible for my hoarding instincts. Fortunately my hoarding is almost entirely electronic these days, (unlike my Dad whose garage is home to a cornucopia of amazing tools, gadgets, fishing rods, home brew, fixatives, fixtures and fittings that are testimony to a lifetime of inspired ‘stashing things away’). Not to mention the loft full of books! To be fair to Dad his hoarding instinct has meant that he’s always been on the money when the proverbial ‘rainy day’ has come or anybody has needed that specialist tool for an otherwise impossible job.

I digress. Back to the web site. Having made a living as an ICT teacher for a number of years I’ve witnessed the phenomenal growth of the Internet and Information Technology as tools for learning. Despite the more grandiose claims that have been made about the educational value of computers they have certainly opened up a whole new world of learning for anybody who can get on to the world wide web. Unfortunately you really need a fast Internet connection if you want to make the most of the vast quantity of books, audio and video files that are freely available if you have the patience to drill down to the fiftieth page of a Google search. So far I’ve managed to collect about 1500 video files, 4,000 audio files and 7,500 text files, (PDF). Nearly all of them are directly related to our work in Kenya – a combination of resources for our church, school, agriculture college and staff training.

I have a dream, (honest), of rural schools in Kenya that have access to these fabulous resources. On laptop computers, running on solar power. Viewed through a website. At fast broadband speeds. At present not very many of these schools have computers or solar power. Or the skills to design websites for learning. Or a fast internet connection, (despite explosive growth in mobile network coverage in rural Kenya, the Internet is still accessed via a phone SIM, making it nearly impossible to download large audio, video or PDF files).

We’re working on a solution. The website I’m designing will run from the hard disk of our laptops and can be shared with other schools by simply transferring the entire website to their computer(s) via a portable USB hard drive or large capacity memory stick. With the help of our friends from Cisco we are hoping to run the website on a wireless network around our school site, (using the same, simple, router technology that most of you use to run wireless networks in your homes). These simple systems will make it possible for some of the poorest pupils in Kenya to access the same high quality learning resources that better off students in the West take for granted. We hope to have the prototype running by March. Once it’s up and running and the bugs have been ironed out we’ll be able to start offering training to other teachers in the area. After that it’s just a question of helping them to obtain the computers .........................

Friday, 3 February 2012

Growing concern

The week-end looms after a very busy week in our school and college. The week seems to have passed quickly which I’m taking as a good sign. There has, as usual, been a lot to do and I think we have made good progress on our various plans and schemes. It’s been especially rewarding working with the new college team – students and teachers.

 The papers today have continued to speculate on the future shape of education in Kenya. The letters that readers have sent in offer fairly overwhelming support for the proposed changes. It’s interesting to note the widely expressed feeling that.

 “To date Kenyan children, almost from nursery school, are burdened with an overwhelming curriculum that places emphasis on rote learning and cramming for exams, rather than on creativity and nurturing talents.

I seem to remember similar sentiments being aired throughout my past life as a teacher in the UK.

As I type there is a breeze stirring the air. This is a welcome break from the very hot, dry weather that we have been having all day and throughout the week. (Apologies to UK readers who are going through a cold spell). As we get further into February the weather will become more critical for our area, as farmers will be planning to plant seeds at the end of the month.

The current hot spell, (which has lasted all of this year so far), is not unusual but does come at a cost – literally. The price of sukuma wiki, (kale), has nearly tripled. As ever this places the largest burden on the poorest people. Sukuma wiki, (Swahili for "stretch the week," or “push the week”), is a ubiquitous Kenyan dish. Nutritious and tasty, it is a way of "stretching" out kitchen resources. It is traditionally served with Ugali, another Kenyan staple, made from maize flour. The price of maize has also risen steeply exacerbating the burden on members of our community and creating real hunger.

As our college students continue preparing the land on our farm for planting we will be keeping a keen eye on the weather and praying for rain by the end of the month. Having celebrated our farming success following the harvest in December 2011 we, like all the other farmers in the country, face the coming growing season with a mixture of expectancy and anxiety. Every new growing season brings you back to the start of the farming cycle, with its attendant rewards and pitfalls. We are fortunate in being able to experiment on our farm in a way that our neighbours can’t. They have too much at stake to risk a crop failing.  We have every confidence in our methods of farming but are, like every farmer, at the mercy of an increasingly unpredictable climate. It is, for us, less of a life or death challenge than the poorest members of our community. None the less we will still be working very hard to maximise our harvest. Every farmer faces the same challenges every year. The climate is a great leveller.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Stepping out

Being at the cutting edge of education is always an exciting place to be – as long as you are the person who is planning the new moves. It’s less fun if you are on the receiving end of any changes, as we are discovering with our new Agriculture College venture.

In Kenya it is every primary school students’ dream to get to High School. The prospect of starting a new, and therefore untested, course like ours is a bit of a worry for some of the students. We have been busy explaining the benefits of our new course to some of the students, (again), and reassuring them that it will lead on to great things.

Starting a new college is a bit like launching a completely new product – you invest a lot in the research and design, plan for as much as possible and hope that the punters will be enthusiastic. So far it’s been hard work with a couple of them but I think we are getting there.

We have been assisted in promoting the college by the Kenyan government. In another of our serendipitous coincidences the national newspaper, (the Daily Nation), published an article today which announced the Kenyan government’s plans for “a major departure from the current [education] system”. The government is proposing a radical shake up of education in Kenya to be implemented from September 2013. The newspaper article goes on to give details of two new types of school that would be introduced if the proposals are accepted:

“Talent schools will offer courses in performing and creative arts such as music, drama and games besides the common courses. Vocational secondary schools will focus on artisan and trade courses in addition to the common academic subjects. Some of the core subjects are citizenship education, entrepreneurship, environmental studies, information technology and languages.”

The timing of the announcement could not have come at a better time for us. Our Agriculture College curriculum puts us at the forefront of educational innovation! Being able to share this fact with the students this morning helped us to head off a potential motivation wobble for some of them and lent an extra shine to our promises of a brighter future.

It remains to be seen how long it will take for educational reform to be achieved in Kenya. The proposals pose some serious funding and planning challenges. I really hope that they happen sooner rather than later. However it pans out we will continue to push forward with our plans for changing the students’ experience of secondary education in our bit of Kenya. Tonight I’m very optimistic that our students are less apprehensive about their prospects and that we will all enjoy working on the cutting edge together.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Much to do

One of the great things about being in Kosele is that no two days are ever the same. This is a great antidote to the whole ‘daily grind’ mentality that it is easy to get trapped in but it does mean that, no matter how hard you try, finishing the days to do list is almost always impossible. The obvious conclusion to draw from this is that it is a waste of time writing one in the first place so it would be best to just let stuff happen. The two extremes of this planning spectrum represent the worst of the West, (to do list slavery), and Africa, (Hakuna Matata – no worries). Somewhere in the middle there is a sane, productive place where heart attacks hardly happen and the really important stuff gets done. I'm really aiming for that place this year, as I will be in Kenya for a fairly long stay this time and have a lot to work on.

Our three goals this year are to make sure the new Agriculture College gets off to a good start, to continue making our primary school an exciting and challenging place to learn in and to set up the most productive farm in our district. Fortunately I have a great team of people to work with and we are all committed to being successful. We were encouraged by the harvest that we brought in at the end of December last year and by coming second in our Zone in the primary school KCPE, (Kenya Certificate of Primary Education) exam. Our candidates did us proud and set a high standard for the Year 8 pupils who will be taking the exam this year. Good progress has also been made on our new school buildings, (we should be moving into them on Monday 6th) and on the Visitors Centre, due to accommodate the first team of visitors from February 18th.

At this point in the year there are always tough decisions to make. We have received a number of applications from pupils who want to come to our primary school and expect to receive a requests to join the Agriculture College once word gets round that it is open. These decisions are always hard to make. Nearly every application comes from a ‘deserving case’. The level of poverty in our area is very high as is the demand for education, (especially at secondary level).

The High Schools in Kenya start the new school year next week, giving rise to a flurry of fund raising and assistance seeking activities by family members on behalf of prospective Form 1 students. Nearly all of the book shops and school suppliers have got some special offer on for the students who will be starting their first year at High School and for the next week or so public transport will be packed as the next crop of High School students heads off to study.

Five of our young people will be starting High School on the 6th. This will mark a special time for us as we venture out into new territory. They will be going to boarding school, (most good High Schools in Kenya are boarding).  Having looked after most of them for the last ten years it’s a bit of an advanced case of ‘the children leaving home’. Still, we are very proud of them and are confident that they will achieve a great deal in their new school.

So far eleven of last year’s Standard 8 class have started in our new Agriculture College. It’s early days yet but the teachers are very positive about the new courses that we will be running in Agriculture, Enterprise, Maths, Science and English. In two years time these students will be taking International GCSE exams. As with any new venture we have a lot to prove if we are to establish ourselves as the course that the majority of pupils want to take after finishing primary school – hence the busy year ahead. Must remember to keep that sane place in focus.