Saturday, 31 March 2012

Midnight oil

I had the most surreal experience last night – something straight out of an African comedy. It started off innocently enough. I've always been something of a night owl so at about midnight, after I'd finished for the day – I lurched off to the latrine, torch in hand, hoping not to meet any mambas bent on revenge for the recent loss of one of their number.

In a remote rural location, with very little noise pollution, sound carries a long way. As I stepped out of the latrine I heard what sounded like a major domestic dispute going on just up the road. I thought I heard a woman screaming and a guy shouting. It sounded like;

“Why don't you just kill me now?”

 It was certainly not the typical night noise. Shining my rapidly dimming torch as far up the road as I could didn't reveal an obvious explanation for the disturbance. I must confess I didn't go as close to the boundaries of our place with my torch as I might have done – it seemed a sensible step as it had just rained, my torch wasn't very bright and frogs seem to like the area around the latrines. (Frogs are just below mambas in the food chain).

As I turned to go back to my house a figure stumbled up to the fence – obviously drunk.

“Terry, it's me, your plumber” he shouted.

Somewhat taken aback I was at a loss for words. After a very confusing conversation, (as my Luo isn't very good, our plumber's English isn't brilliant and he was drunk), it turned out that he had run out of petrol and abandoned his car some way up the road. Brandishing a small plastic container he asked if I could give him one or two litres of petrol. It seemed a reasonable request, (and saying no might have encouraged him to more noisy remonstrations). The only problem was that I didn't have the key to the petrol store. Easy solution to this though – just fetch one of the night guards.

Who ended up being very elusive. Being a night guard isn't the nicest job in the world, (even if you are a very dedicated night guard), Our guys are nice people but I'm not over impressed with their ideas of patrolling or vigilance. To be fair to them we do have a fairly large property to patrol, but it also provides lots of places to 'rest' in. After looking for them for about five minutes, (with an even dimmer torch now), I decided to call one of them on his mobile. I guess it would have been more in keeping with the whole security thing to have walkie talkies but the phone worked fine. Two minutes later all three guards miraculously appeared.

Our friend the plumber had, by now, walked round to the main gate and was busy rattling his jerry can through the bars.

“Terry, it's me your plumber”, he shouted, “just let me have a little fuel”

Between us we managed to quieten him down and one of the guards went to get the fuel. We then had a conference about what to do next. Leonard, (the 'head' of the guard unit tonight), sensibly suggested that someone should go with the plumber to make sure he didn't set anything on fire with the petrol and make us culpable for any associated damages. He volunteered to go himself and toddled off into the night, carrying the fuel and following behind our drunk friend.

Twenty minutes later a car horn sounded a couple of times. I went back out to the gate to see Leonard talking to the plumber from our side of the gate. The plumber thanked us profusely, (and quite loudly), for our kindness, obviously surprised to have got a good result in his search for fuel. Between us we managed to persuade him that he should get off home. He disappeared up the road in a more or less straight line, applying a few more revs than really seemed necessary at that time of night. As we haven't heard news of any car wrecks we assume that he made it home.

Friday, 30 March 2012


On the way to Kisumu today I was overwhelmed by the hopelessness of many people’s situations out in ‘the rurals’. I’m not usually prone to bouts of pessimism, but this morning it seemed like rural Kenya was presenting its most pitiful face as I sped past in a car. I’m sure there were more children carrying sticks or tending to livestock and obviously not going to school than I’ve seen for a while. Even the children that were going to school were still carrying sticks and little containers of water – of all shapes and sizes. I wonder how Parent Teacher Associations in the west would start off the agenda item for ‘children bringing firewood to school’.

The landscape by the side of Lake Victoria looked barren and worn out. Here and there the odd oasis of green stood out in contrast to the dried up fields that had been optimistically ploughed, only to fall victim to the lack of rain. My driver, David, beeped the horn at every cyclist and pedestrian that strayed on to the main carriageway and was particularly scathing in his opinion of a group of five or six youths who were just sitting on the kerb.

“Idlers”, he said.

As a description it was hard to disagree with him, but I’m sure they wouldn’t be idlers if there were better things to do with their time. The world woke up to the power of unemployed and disaffected youth during the Arab spring. Youth unemployment is a major problem in Kenya and has the same potential for sudden and dramatic political and social upheaval.

As the journey went on, accompanied by the usual considerate driving, a dead dog in the middle of the road and clusters of cattle and sheep which had no road sense, I started to think about what it will really take to lift the lives of the people I drove past out of poverty. I’ve tried very hard to steer clear of politics in this blog, on the grounds that I’m a guest in Kenya and a citizen of Kenya’s ex colonial overseer but I do, occasionally, get very angry about the plight of the rural poor. Whether it was caused by colonisation, post independence politicking and corruption or a toxic cocktail of all the above, the fact remains that millions of people are living in houses that most children in the West would turn their noses up at as dens to play in. Their health is compromised by lack of basic infrastructure and health services and their futures are blighted by ignorance due to lack of education.

Our ‘Next Generation’ children have got a big job on their hands.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Chasing chickens

The students have been hard at work again today covering the seeds they planted yesterday with mulch. The Farming God’s Way team refer to it as God’s blanket, and it’s a very good description. Watching the mulch go on this afternoon was like watching a blanket being laid on the ground. Last Sunday we had a delivery of grass to use for mulch and it was all hands on deck today, at the end of school, moving it down to the field. From the oldest to the youngest the pupils took big armfuls of grass to add to the blanket. All we need now is a few good downpours to get it nice and wet so that it can assist the germination process.

Our next challenge on the farm is to make sure that our seeds do not get eaten by the local chickens and wildlife. This may pose something of a problem as our neighbours work on the, not unreasonable, assumption that letting their chickens forage for their food gives them the best chance of having enough to eat. This, unfortunately, means that our maize seeds are fair game and will need protecting. Last year, when I was in Lesotho training with the Farming God’s Way team, I saw a novel approach to pest control, (of the winged and furry kind). Owl silhouettes, made out of wood, were perched on top of tall poles to deter foraging. According to our guide on the farm it was a success. We could, alternatively, set up a ‘chicken’ patrol during the day, (manned by our pupils), to chase the chickens away. I think this would be more fun. If we approach it properly I’m sure we could devise some sort of associated PE activity to give it added educational value. We could, as a last resort, apply the ultimate sanction and simply eat the chickens.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Proud Dad

It looks like the rain has finally arrived, As I type it’s tipping it down outside accompanied by a fairly impressive thunder and lighting show. Our Agriculture College students should be really pleased as they spent most of today planting our maize seeds. The current downpour is just what they need to get off to a good start. We can only pray that this bout of rain is not just a flash in the pan like the last lot about three weeks ago. It’s not the end of the world if we do have another short dry spell, as our water tanks have been filling up with the last few days’ rain. It would be really good not to need the bucket irrigation gang on the job for the next little while though.

I’ve tended to write about happenings in Kenya on this blog but can’t help sharing my excitement about some family news. I don’t know how the first missionaries managed without email and text messaging. They had to wait months for news from home to reach them. For the last couple of months the Mott family has been anxiously waiting for news from the universities that my daughter Ellie has applied to to study medicine. It has been a tense time at home and over here. I was overjoyed tonight when Ellie called to say that she has received an offer for September from Durham University. (All she has to do now is get straight A grades in her A level exams!). In proud Dad mode I’m very thrilled for Ellie and relieved for both Ellie and my wife Judi now that the waiting is finally over. Thinking about Ellie’s good news makes me more determined to make sure our school and college over here help our pupils and students to bring their dreams to fruition.

Since the discovery of oil in the northern part of Kenya at the beginning of the week it has been interesting to see the reaction of the Kenyan media. Having a good chance of climbing up the development ladder as an oil producing nation is obviously good news for Kenya, but a number of commentators are raising the alarm over the potential for mismanagement of the riches oil brings and the likelihood of the discovery increasing local tensions and causing conflict. It is a sad but true fact that many African nations have suffered as a result of being rich in oil, minerals, gold and precious stones. I’m sure there are enough courageous and honest leaders in Kenya to minimise the risks of oil related issues escalating into major problems. It will take at least three years to translate the initial discovery into a viable oil producing platform – plenty of time to create the right climate commercially and politically to ensure maximum benefit to Kenya if it’s new found source of riches is sustainable.

I have always believed that the economic outlook in Kenya would pick up enough to offer our young people opportunities to get on in life. From that point of view the discovery of oil is an exciting development.  Our Agriculture College students have proved over the last couple of weeks that they are not afraid of hard work and have the determination to succeed. I hope that, in years to come, we will be able to celebrate their successes in the higher education system.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Direct action

On the same day that the Kenyan media has been celebrating the news that oil has been found in one of the remotest parts of northern Kenya another story caught my eye today. It’s a no nonsense reminder of how far there is to go as Kenya moves towards becoming a fully fledged oil producing economy.

Lynching is a fairly direct form of action. It has been practised in various forms over the millennia and there are still those who would support it as the ultimate deterrent. Today’s story in The Standard, (one of Kenya’s daily national newspapers), went like this:

“Suspected duck thief lynched

A boy was burnt beyond recognition by irate youth for allegedly stealing four ducks at Goshi village in Malindi, Kilifi County. He was allegedly found with the ducks after a thorough search, prompting the mob to storm his father’s homestead and frog-march him to a nearby bush where they hacked him to death. They then burnt the remains to ashes, leaving other locals in shock. Confirming the incident, Malindi OCPD Kiprono Langat said they are investigating the incident.”

Incidents like this do not happen every day but they fairly regularly make the news. A few years ago similar justice was handed out to somebody who stole two cabbages, (in this particular case the victim had a tyre place around his neck and it was set on fire).

When life for so many people is lived on the margins of subsistence it’s not entirely surprising if they take the law into their own hands to protect their livelihoods. I’ve never read a follow up story that gives details of what happened after the ‘investigation’ was carried out. One can only hazard a guess at the discussions taking place in and around Goshi village this evening.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Tonnes to do

It’s been a very ‘educational’ day today. This week I’m going to be carrying out a school inspection, starting with a couple of days of lesson observations. It has been a bit of a rush setting it up thanks to my extended stay in Nairobi last week. Today was also busy due to interviews for a temporary teacher to work in our pre-school class. It’s always interesting meeting candidates for teaching posts and finding out about their varied experiences and aspirations for the future. We were able to appoint a lady who has shown great determination in attaining qualified teacher status after being unable to complete her secondary education due to a lack of fees, (an all too common problem in Kenya, especially for girls).

I’m looking forward to spending a couple of days in the classrooms. It will make a nice change from planning and preparing for the future. I feel like our new school initiatives are at the same stage as our farm at the moment. Fertile ground prepared but much sowing to do before reaping the benefits. I’ve been impressed so far with our teachers’ willingness to make the most of their classroom environments by improving their display work and am hoping that I will see evidence of the same approach to the tough business of teaching.

Duncan, our farm manager has travelled to Nairobi today so that he can attend a training course tomorrow, provided by Amiran, (the company we bought the greenhouse from). I hope that he doesn’t experience the same difficulties I did ‘escaping’ from Nairobi after the course has finished. Both Duncan and I have been very impressed with Amiran. This will be the third training session that Duncan has attended. It is Amiran’s first course on organic farming using their products. So far the courses Duncan has attended have been very informative and well presented. Whilst wishing to avoid counting our chickens before they hatch Duncan and I are very optimistic about the prospects for our greenhouse project. I can’t help feeling that if Amiran were responsible for running agriculture in Kenya the whole sector would be in better shape than it is currently.

Over the last couple of years I’ve read a lot of official position comments on the importance of agriculture to Kenya’s future health and prosperity. Until we started working with Amiran I had seen relatively little evidence of any competence or enthusiasm for promoting farmers locally. I received a visit today from Amiran’s adviser for our area. He arrived at about 3.30 p.m. on an Amiran motor bike, (and even had a crash helmet with Amiran written on it). Now that we are plugged into the Amiran loop we should receive regular visits from the adviser. He seems as keen as we are to make sure our project is successful. I’m looking forward to his next visit when he will be able to advise us on how to grow a tonne of tomatoes, (literally – we should be able to grow five hundred tomato plants in the greenhouse and each plant should produce twenty kilograms of tomatoes). One way or another we have a lot to look forward to on the farm this year.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Far from the football crowd

Joyce, one of the longest serving ladies who works for us, has had a really terrible time since Friday. I only found out about her troubles this afternoon. Her story is a sharp reminder of how frequently life can turn Thomas Hardyesque out here.

On Friday a number of the pupils from our school took part in an area sports day, (this being the season for school sports – netball and football in this case). Six of our pupils were selected to represent our area at the next inter-area fixtures and came home in triumphant mood. The venue for the sports on Friday was too far to walk so they went in our Landrover.

Unknown to Joyce her son also decided to attend the sports and set off on foot. He does not attend our school so the journey to the sports must have taken him some time. I’m assuming he had a good time watching the matches. Unfortunately he did not come home after them. He hasn’t been seen since the games finished on Friday afternoon. Joyce was, as you can imagine, very upset and worried. Her son also suffers from epilepsy, adding to her burden.

After church today Duncan, (our farm manager), explained that Joyce wanted to have an announcement read out on the local radio station about the problem. The going rate for this service is ten shillings per word. Armed with enough money to have a good message read out three times Joyce set off for Kosele. We prayed with all the children tonight for the boy’s safe return.

Ten minutes after our prayers Mary, (our manager), came to see me and said that she had some good news. Joyce had just received a phone call to say that her son had been found in a village some distance away from Kosele. We can only assume that he set off in the wrong direction after the sports had finished and just kept walking. He had no money with him so probably hasn’t eaten since Friday and will, I’m sure, be in a sorry state when he gets home. Mary reckons it’s about a three hour drive to his current location and has just persuaded a taxi driver to go and pick the lad up. I know that children can just as easily get lost in the west. The main difference is the scale of response. In England the case would have made headline news by three days and a major search would have been started. Over here I shudder to think what might have happened had Joyce been unable to make her radio appeal for help due to lack of funds.

I’m really pleased that Joyce has seen the result that we prayed for. I know that she will have been praying too. Whether you think it is just coincidence or believe that a higher power is at work tonight’s events have helped to draw us together and strengthened our faith.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Pest control

I am seriously considering starting a pest control company out here. Every kind of pest seems to have made its presence felt in the last twenty-four hours.

Flies have plagued us for a little while now. They seem impervious to being shooed away and have been driving me nuts as I’ve been working in the office. I have a can of fly spray on the desk now and am beginning to worry about the satisfaction I get from watching the flies dropping off the desk as I blast them. The situation has escalated on the compound. One of our older girls came to see me this afternoon to request fly spray to drive the flies away from the kitchen. We will have to carry out a serious investigation to find out where the flies are coming from.

I have heard it said that in England you are never very far away from a rat. That certainly seems to be the case in my house at the moment. As I was tidying up in the kitchen this morning I noticed some rat droppings which suggested that at least one of our furry friends has re-discovered my supplies. To add insult to injury there were also rat droppings in the in tray on my desk. I think they had probably dropped through the gap on the ceiling board. The thought of a rat flicking through my files is a bit mind-boggling. The rat trap and poison will have to be dusted off!

Snakes are the other nuisance that are usually fairly close to all of us in this part of Kenya. I had an interesting night last night. At about midnight I decided to investigate a noise on the compound that had been bugging me for a couple of hours. It sounded like something creaking by one of the girls dorms. I positioned myself at the back of the dorm, listening as hard as I could to try and discover the source of the noise. As I looked down to the ground I noticed a two-foot long mamba slithering from the back door of the dorm towards the barbed wire fence that separates our compound from the neighbouring field. It wasn’t a very thick-bodied snake and it moved fairly gracefully, almost hypnotically. I was standing, (at this point very still), about three feet away from the snake. It paid no attention to me and must have been very surprised when one of our night guards appeared the neighbour’s side of the fence and bashed its brains out.

I’m hoping there won’t be too many other pests to deal with over the next few days. The rats and snakes are, to be honest, irritants as much as anything. Occupational hazards that, very literally, come with the territory. It would be nice to have a bit of a break from the flies though. I’m running out of fly spray and seem to be developing a twitch triggered by the flies buzzing near my ear.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Signs of the times

I have, at last, escaped from Nairobi and returned to Kosele. It’s nice being back, after a very frustrating few days in Kenya’s capital city. Having said that there is usually humour in all situations. Driving to the airport in Nairobi this morning was no exception. Driver Wesley and I set off early again in case of traffic jams. As we were heading away from the city centre the traffic wasn’t too bad and the pedestrians didn’t seem as intent on committing suicide as they did on our earlier trips to the immigration department.

We did, however, travel slowly enough for me to spot a couple of stand out signs by the side of the road. To the credit of the populace and business community in Kenya an awful lot of business is advertised and conducted in English. It makes me feel quite ashamed sometimes – I wish I could say my Swahili is as good as my driver’s English was but it isn’t. Living up to the ‘lazy’ tag as far as the English and languages go. Anyway. Because English is by no means everybody’s first language there are a lot of interesting spellings, (and sentiments), on display all over Kenya. One of my all time favourites from a few years back was advertising a Christmas/New Year function at a happening disco somewhere in Nairobi. I don’t know how anybody in their right could resist an invitation to a good Boggy Down. Another one I liked was in a restaurant near the immigration department which said No idle sitting. (The immigration department waiting room also has a sign which says No idlers. I’m not sure if that’s an exhortation to the staff in an effort to make them work harder or a stern warning to time wasters).

The first sign I saw today said Clean Water Car Wash. You have to think about this one a bit to really appreciate it. Taxi drivers and motor bike taxi operators, (piki piki), are usually keen to keep their vehicles clean. I guess a well presented vehicle might attract more customers. Consequently you see Car Washes advertised by the side of the road all over Kenya anywhere that there is a source of water – streams, puddles, public taps etc. Drivers will park their car in a stream and wash it down. The one I saw today was obviously very special – it had clean water!

The second sign was more mysterious. The three words that stood out were Hidden Pork Available. I hadn’t realised that pork was a banned or illegal product before. The mind boggles. Do Kenyans gather in the suburbs under cover of darkness and indulge in dubious pork rituals? Are there cults that worship pork? When and why did it all start? As we drew level with the sign one more, very small word, put the whole thing into perspective. Next to the word Hidden was the word Club, written so small that it was very difficult to read. The Hidden Club is obviously a cool place to go to if you fancy a pork bap!

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Legal Alien

I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien, I’m an Englishman in ………………. Kenya!

OK now I’ve got some of you with a tune rattling round your head again the link is below, (with apologies to Sting)

I have, at last, managed to obtain my work permit and am now a fully ratified missionary for three years. If any body had predicted that happening prior to the year 2000 I would have said they were crazy. The Lord moves in amazing ways. Anyway, it’s a huge relief to be finished in Nairobi. I’ll be going back to Kosele tomorrow to pursue my missionary agenda!

It was a long day in Nairobi today. Our friend who was helping with the work permits told me to be ready to see him at 9.00 am and I didn’t actually get to see him until 2.15 pm. Hanging about in Nairobi is somewhat tedious, especially given the current  security situation. The immigration headquarters, (Nyayo House), is right in the heart of the city, and is surrounded by restaurants and fairly expensive shops. The government buildings, (Office of the President, Parliament buildings and High Court), are also close by. To be honest the people on the street didn’t seem too bothered by the threat of terrorism. The streets and roads were very busy, (we had to set off early this morning, at 7.30, for our 9.00 am rendezvous, because of the rush hour traffic). I did manage a bit of a wander around the streets in the immediate vicinity of Nyayo House and stopped at a nice, reasonably priced restaurant for lunch.

Deciding that the ‘wide open spaces’ were probably the best bet in terms of personal safety I spent a very pleasant forty minutes after lunch in Uhuru Park, watching Nairobi pass by. Uhuru means freedom in Swahili and the park celebrates Kenyan Independence. It’s a bit like Hyde Park in London – only a lot smaller. It does have a boating lake complete with pedalos. These were a big hit with a group of high school students who were obviously out on a trip of some description. A lady was preaching at high volume in one corner of the park, watched by a small but interested crowd and a large Marabou Stork, perched up in a tree by the boating pond. These huge birds wheel over the park and look like sentries standing on duty in the trees. They sway with the wind but seem completely unflappable. They look like they are wearing formal dress and stand very tall.

The last steps of the alien registration process were, fortunately, very straightforward. Once I received my official entry pass I had to have my passport stamped, then had to fill another form in, pay a two thousand shilling fee, had my fingerprints taken and was finally given an acknowledgement slip. My official alien ID card should be ready in six weeks, though given the conversations I overheard while I was sitting in the waiting area next to the window where these ID cards are given out, six weeks could be a euphemism for ‘sometime this year’. At this point this is the least of my worries. My passport has the relevant stamp and I’ve got an official form which has a number on it and says Entry Pass. At 10.00 am tomorrow I should be on a plane to Kisumu and from there back to my little house in Kosele. I can’t wait. It’s been a long week.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Nairobi - extra time

Still stuck in Nairobi! I’d hoped to be finished with the work permit process today but will have to go back to the immigration department again tomorrow morning, delaying my return to Kosele. The wheels of officialdom grind slowly. The long term benefits of being patient heavily outweigh the minor inconvenience of being holed up at Sam’s while I wait for a result so it’s a case of grinning and bearing it.

I received a call from Duncan, our farm manager, this afternoon. He is a great encouragement. He told me that the cassava planting is going well and that we have had a little more rain. Cassava is a new crop for us. It is well suited to a dry climate like ours and it will be interesting to see how well our crop grows. By the time I get back to Kosele I will have been away for the best part of the working week. I’m looking forward to seeing the progress on the farm. I’ve managed to buy a couple of good, local, farming magazines while I’ve been in Nairobi and have been struck by how closely our farming initiatives tie in with the cover stories in the them. Duncan hasn't read them yet so I hope that he will find them very motivational.

As the walls of my room close in and my frustration at the lack of progress today grows I am led to reflect on our progress to date and the next steps that we need to take. The next big event is the school inspection which starts next Monday. Being forced to take a break from being in Kosele does, at least, mean that I don’t have too many distractions. This helps the inspection planning process, giving me confidence that it will help us to identify our strengths and weaknesses in the school. I’m looking forward to the week and being able to have some constructive discussions with the teachers about the actions we will take after the inspection. It is, perhaps, a little optimistic to hope that the teachers will feel as enthusiastic about the inspection. It is certainly a challenge to put a positive spin on it. In the long run I’m confident that we will make progress together during the rest of the year.

Tomorrow requires an early start. Joseph, the driver, reckons we will need to leave at 7 a.m. to make it to the city centre for 9 a.m. because of the jams. Gridlock in Nairobi is, I’m sure, just another test of my resolve. Must remember to take a good book.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Nairobi - Day two

Nairobi is a fascinating place. The ride into town takes you through a variety of neighbourhoods and an eclectic mix of building styles – the old, the new and dilapidated. One long stretch of market stalls overflows with all the goods you could imagine. Food, clothes, second hand furniture and office equipment and chickens – tied together and piled up on display. Recent road building projects have eased the congestion on the way into the city centre but it still takes some time. Motor bikes weave in and out of the three available lines and drivers switch lanes erratically. The traffic police are out in force during the rush hour – holding a two way radio to their ear in one hand and gesticulating at the traffic with the other.

Joseph, my driver today is good company and knows the quickest routes to Nyayo House, (the immigration department), in the centre of town, next to the parliament buildings. We chat about current events – the election date, state of Nairobi, corruption and Al-Shabab. Al-Shabab sympathisers threw three hand grenades into a crowded bus station on Nairobi a couple of weeks ago – killing a number of people and wounding many. Joseph says that it’s difficult to fight against Al-Shabab as it’s hard to identify them – they look like anybody else in Kenya, As we pull up to a road junction where there is obviously a hold up Joseph surprises me by rolling up his trouser leg, showing me an obviously freshwound and saying

“I was wounded in the Al-Shabab attack. I thank God I wasn’t killed”

He goes on to tell me that he was walking by the bus station when the cars containing the attackers pulled up and threw the grenades. He remembers a loud bang, blacking out then running and falling into a ditch where it sounds like he was lucky to avoid being crushed or suffocated by other victims. On the “lightning striking twice” principle I reckon it’s worth sticking with Joseph as my driver.

Going through the work permit procedures today was somewhat tedious, (as I guess it must be for anybody trying to do the same thing in the UK). It was interesting ‘people watching’ while I was waiting for my friend Reuben to arrive. The alien registration department was awash with Mzungus, (white people), all at different stages in the process of becoming an alien in Kenya. It was also interesting to see a fairly large number of Chinese applicants. China is currently investing heavily in Africa and Kenya is one of the beneficiaries.

I was planning to return to our place tomorrow. Unfortunately the registration process will not be completed until tomorrow afternoon so I’ll have to spend another night in Nairobi. Killing time in hotel rooms isn’t exactly my idea of fun but I have enough work to be getting on with so the time should, at least, be spent profitably. Joseph will be picking me up at midday tomorrow and all will, hopefully, be settled by the end of the afternoon.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Noises in the dark

It’s 9.15 p.m. and I’m listening to two unaccustomed sounds – the TV and urban traffic. I’m sitting in my room at Sam’s guests house, (the Rusam Villa) kind of killing time before my appointment with the alien registration department in Nairobi in the morning. The TV has an interesting collection of channels and a fairly depressing range of programs. I’m watching Family TV; a Christian channel which shows an interesting mixture of American tele evangelism shows, preaching and “Inspirational Music”. (I only watched a small bit of this show – when I turned it on an American guy was murdering a song in a weird kind of Pavarotti style, singing to an audience which seemed to be composed mostly of middle aged ladies with shares in cosmetics and big hair). It’s the kind of thing that makes people mock the ‘bible belt’ style of Christianity. I’ve just remembered why I don’t actually watch much Christian TV.

Family TV is the least unwatchable channel on the TV. I wish I could speak Swahili better, (i.e. at all), as the locally produced programs look interesting. Just now there is a lot of news on and a football match starring Chelsea and some European team, (sorry, I’m not very good on football). This is just an interlude before more soaps. The world clearly loves soaps – they are an international institution. The soap offerings so far this evening have been dubbed and look like they come from Latin America. The standard of acting is generally quite poor, (though the obvious endorsement for plastic surgery on display from most of the leading ladies is clearly designed to compensate for this).

The noise of the city is much more interesting. People walking past, the traffic ebbing and flowing and the dogs setting up for the howl. The howl is something I had never really heard before coming to Kenya. It starts as an uncoordinated outbreak of seemingly random barking and then builds up into an orchestrated howl – as if a wolf pack is camped out somewhere in the neighbourhood. It’s the strangest thing. I have a theory that it has something to do with the large number of German Shepherd dogs that are used as guard dogs. This will have to remain a theory in progress – carrying out the leg work of proving it is just too dangerous.

I’ve just stopped for a short news pause. The news is full of details of football hooliganism at a grudge match which was played over the week-end in Nairobi. In time honoured football hooliganism tradition the opposing fans were obviously up for a fight as they filed into the stadium. About an hour into the match a player was red carded prompting all hell to break loose. The police don’t mess about in these situations. Tear gas was deployed on the crowd, prompting a mass exodus from the stadium. The confrontation continued into the streets of Nairobi leading, allegedly, to a fan being thrown from a road bridge and breaking both legs and two deaths. This isn’t typical behaviour but it could make you think twice about going to any kind of local derby.

I’m going to need my wits about me in the morning as my friend Reuben and I negotiate official immigration channels. I guess I’d better stop filling my head with gratuitous TV and think about getting some sleep. The howl seems to have been short lived tonight, thank goodness, so I think I’ll draw some inspiration from my Kindle and hope that the prospect of becoming an official alien tomorrow doesn’t trigger too many psychotic sci-fi dreams in my Lariam, (anti-malarial drug), addled brain.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Official alien

The taking time for body and soul project took a faltering step today. I think the difficulty is that is just doesn't feel right, (however much it stacks up intellectually). Putting off taking action to make you more effective must the ultimate in procrastination!

I'm off to Nairobi tomorrow for a date with the immigration department on Tuesday where I hope to become an official alien. Although it's only a short internal flight away it still involves the same packing ritual – passport, tickets, documents for the immigration people. I'm hoping Nairobi will be a bit cooler than Kosele is at the moment. I don't much fancy traipsing round the city centre in the heat. I'd appreciate it if those of you of the praying persuasion could pray for a safe journey to Nairobi. There was a hand grenade attack on a bus station in Nairobi a couple of weeks ago, most probably linked to Somali terrorists. Kenya is currently involved in military action in Somalia and this had led to increasing insecurity in the Kenyan capitol.

When I'm in Nairobi I'll be staying at a guest house called the Rusam Villa. The term guest house doesn't really do justice to the place or it's owner, (Sam). When we first started to use it as a stopover the Rusam Villa was a small affair, boasting about 7 rooms. Sam has patiently added rooms to keep up with growing demand and is now the owner of a small hotel with conference facilities. Sam is a great advert for successful entrepreneurship in Kenya – a real home grown talent. Sam's success is particularly noteworthy in Kenya as many of the successful businesses are owned by Asian families and Sam is an African Kenyan. In addition to being a good businessman Sam is also good company. It takes between twenty and thirty minutes to drive to Sam's from the airport. Sam is always good for a conversation about the state of the nation, the economy and politics. I'm looking forward to seeing him again.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Staying on top

I seem to be developing a bit of a ritual for Saturdays. Breakfast, anti malarial tablet, accounts, tidy up from the week, plot and scheme. I'm not against a disciplined approach to doing things but it's nice to feel that life can still retain a bit of spontaneity as well.

In the self knowledge stakes I think one of my weaknesses has been procrastination. Having recognised this character flaw I have tried fairly hard to overcome it. I find I'm more successful in this area over here in Kosele, (presumably because I believe in what I'm doing and am well motivated). That said one of my favourite diversion activities before finding fresh inspiration is re-arranging my desks and tidying up and re-cycling old notes and paper by turning them into jotter pads. I created quite a large pile of them this morning! I'm fairly confident that this is a sign of an impending creative outburst.

As an avid reader of books about leadership I am convinced of the value of taking time out to recharge your batteries, gain fresh insight and perspective and generally avoid being a workaholic. Unfortunately I'm not all that good at doing this. As an equally avid reader of books on leadership written from a Christian perspective, by writers like John Maxwell, I'm also sure that it's important to take time to recharge your spiritual batteries. This is also something I haven't been doing as regularly as I should do just recently.

As a cautionary note to anybody reading this blog who is also failing to look after the body and spirit I'd like to say – DON'T. Make the time, create the space in your diary, don't put it off in the belief that it will be OK later. It won't. My future decision making depends on my present physical and spiritual health. When either of these has been neglected I don't work as well as I should do. My responses to opportunities and problems get out of kilter with what I believe I'm here to do. Having done my desk tidying for a while it's time to put some time aside for body and soul. It's the only way to make sure Hope and Kindness remains hopeful, kind and faithful to the vision God has given us

Friday, 16 March 2012

Plan B then

It has been very encouraging over the last couple of days seeing the Agriculture College students preparing our land for planting. Their academic timetable is on hold for about the next week as we need to be prepared for when the rains come. (This isn't looking very optimistic just at the moment so we are inclined to land preparation Plan B – no rains).

It has been a real eye opener seeing our Farming God's Way method rolled out on a big scale. To prepare the plot the students have been digging eight centimetre deep holes in rows going down the field. They did have a bit of practise at this last year when we prepared eighteen small plots in this way. Each of these plots contained sixty six holes for maize. Altogether we harvested about 400 Kg of maize.

On our larger scale plot each row contains sixty six holes, and the field contains forty rows – slightly more than twice as much land as we planted last year. We have two plots this size for maize so we are hoping to harvest about a metric tonne of maize. We will also be growing millet, green grams, (a kind of lentil), cassava and sweet potatoes. At the rate the students are working we should be able to meet our land preparation deadline. It's hard work for them but I hope that they will be encouraged by what they have managed to achieve by working together and that they will feel a real sense of achievement as they see the crops grow. The proof of the pudding for them will, I'm sure, be in the eating

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Chased away

Being 'chased away' has very different meanings in the UK and Kenya. If you're being chased away in the UK it generally means you need to run faster than the person who is chasing you. In Kenya if the headteacher at school threatens to “chase you” it doesn't mean a race is in the offing. It's a serious warning about being expelled.

When you are sat listening to a lady explaining to you that she was “chased away” by her husband's family it is a tragedy. Being chased away in these circumstances effectively means that you have been given up as a bad case and abandoned. In the worst case it means being sent packing from the home that you shared with the husband and left to your own devices. In many cases it's difficult for a wife who has been chased away to run back to her own family. She is left with very few options – abandoned, destitute and hopeless.

I heard about such a case this afternoon. The almost casual cruelty that people can inflict on each other appals me. The lady concerned was “chased” after the deaths of four children. This and her husband's rejection of her child by a previous relationship were, yet again, straight out of the pages of eighteenth century fiction. It's easy to be shocked by these situations as a westerner. Many people in the West would, I'm sure, write it off as  yet another reason why it's not a very smart idea to give money and assistance to backward and uncivilised people, (totally ignoring the reality of serial polygamy as a consequence of divorce, single parenthood and teenage pregnancy in the more civilised and better educated west).

The consequences of being chased away in a society which has no welfare state as a safety net  are awful. The world's oldest profession recruits from a wide range of circumstances – including wives who have been chased away by their in-laws. The fact that this is so commonplace does not make it any more palatable. Women are chased away because of family jealousies, by 'first wives' if a man has taken more than one wife, (which is common in our community), and because of 'unnatural' events, (like the death of four children at a young age). 

A cup of tea and some biscuits seems a very poor way to try and console somebody in these circumstances. Railing against the community that allows it to happen is a waste of time – it doesn't change much. The only way I can really square the issues that it raises is to believe that teaching the next generation to learn from the mistakes of its parents will, eventually, cause a change. It's long overdue.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Small is beautiful

And still it's hot, sweaty and rain free! Having had a meeting with the Agriculture College teachers today to discuss our plan for preparing our land and planting our seeds I am beginning to wonder if our Plan B option, (no rains), will have to swing into action. This is basically on the same time scale as Plan A, (ending on March 30th), but leaving the seed planting as late as possible to try and make sure there is sufficient rain to get germination off to a good start. Our neighbours must be tearing their hair out in frustration at the moment as many of them have already planted their crops.

As part of my preparation for our school inspection, (starting on March 26th), I have been on a 'back to college' research mission today. I want to make sure our teachers are equipped with some ideas and practical activities that will help them to be more adventurous in the classroom. I've been reading a book called “The Teacher's Toolkit” and have been struck by both the progress that has been made in educational research, (especial in understanding how the brain works), and how much the new research confirms observations and practises developed by the researchers that I studied in the late 70s. The more I read the more I am grateful for the opportunity that we have in our school and college to combine the best of the old and the new to design a school that we can believe in. 

I've always believed in the 'small is beautiful' principle. My experiences in teaching draws me to the conclusion that it is not possible to really educate large numbers of young people on one site. Too many of them fall through the cracks. Following a line of thought from today's research very large schools seem most likely to be emotionally unintelligent organisations. Putting theory into practise in our small school is both exciting and daunting. It's a fairly unique opportunity to create something very special but at the same time it's a huge responsibility. Too many children across the world have been the victims of well intentioned  school reforms. In the end we can only be guided by faith, a strong sense of purpose, an intelligent assessment of the research base for what we are doing and a commitment to excellence. I still can't believe that I'm doing this. It's like God has taken all the things I love doing and all the experiences I have ever had and is saying “This work is a gift for you. I want you to enjoy it. Be wise, be faithful and be fruitful.”

Tuesday, 13 March 2012


The communications revolution in Kenya continues to amaze me. As I have probably said before it was very difficult to stay in touch with the outside world when we first came to Kenya ten years ago. Throughout the year that we lived here, (July 2002 to July 2003), a small space within the radius of a banana tree outside the girls dormitory was the only place on our whole compound where it was possible to pick up a mobile phone signal. Even then it wasn't always a sure bet. We often found ourselves cut off completely – much to the dismay of our nearest and dearest.

Since then mobile communications have improved rapidly. At first we were amazed that we could pick up a phone signal in our little house. Then we thrilled to the excitement of our first hook up with the Internet. Tonight the evolution of our communications capability reaches a new peak. Skype has arrived in Kosele.

Having taught ICT for more than twenty years I am ashamed to say that I had never used Skype until today. There are a number of reasons for this. While based in the UK I never really knew anyone who Skyped. While living in Kenya it was, until very recently, difficult to get a strong enough signal with sufficient bandwidth to support even a basic Skype call at an acceptable level. I suspect it's also a generational thing – both my children use Skype routinely.

I'm sure the video camera on most laptops has a built in tendency to make anybody looking into it look like a terrorist. The video image I managed to send briefly to my wife Judi and daughter Ellie made me look like I hadn't eaten properly for a while with a bit of fish eye distortion that caused me some self image problems. Judi and Ellie's on screen appearance was also a bit strange – exacerbated by a slow Internet connection my end. It soon became apparent that sending and receiving video is still expecting a bit too much from the infrastructure here. It was nice to catch a glimpse of life at home though.

I think the most astonishing thing about Skype is the cost, (or rather lack of it). I do have to pay per megabyte for my Internet connection here. I worked out that my Skype call tonight cost eight shillings, (about £0.06 or ten cents). Sending a text from Kenya costs ten shillings. The 'freemium' business model used by Skype obviously works for them but I still find it hard to understand. It isn't difficult to work out why some people are suspicious of 'free' Internet services. They're just too good to be true.
I'm now a convert. A bit late in the day, perhaps, but currently bubbling over with ideas about using Skype to make lessons more interesting in our school, to promote Hope and Kindness and to keep in touch with the family at home.As I am now a fully paid up missionary, (should be receiving my work permit very soon), it is astonishing to think that the first missionaries to Africa had to wait months for their mail to catch up with them. It must have been very tough for them. It's so easy to take the immediacy of modern communications for granted. I am not about to complain about it though. One small step for man …........

Monday, 12 March 2012

Viva la revolution

It's good to be focusing on the work of the school and College at the moment. There is still much to be done on the farm to prepare for planting our crops but the planning has all been done so all we need now are workers and rain. We have plenty of the first and, so far, not very much of the second.

All over the world educationalists and politicians are busy re-inventing the wheel in pursuit of their own Holy Grail - an education system that is fit for purpose. Education reform has certainly been a growth industry in the UK for the last twenty years. Kenya is catching up rapidly. The government made a number of proposals a couple of weeks ago for a major overhaul of the education system. It will take some time to achieve but I think it will happen at some point in the not too distant future.

Having spent a long time working as a teacher in the UK I've seen a number of educational initiatives come and go. At the chalk face they were usually undertaken with a level of enthusiasm comparable to that of deck chair attendants on the Titanic. The major achievements of most initiatives were minor change and rampant grade inflation in public exams. Against this gloomy prospect it might seem foolish to be enthusiastic about improving teaching and learning in our school. I believe we can because we are in the enviable position of being able to design our own school and curriculum from the bottom up.

Despite my apparent cynicism I am, at heart, an optimist and an idealist. I can't believe how lucky I am to have the opportunity to do what I'm doing at the moment. The great challenge is to encourage all of the teachers to catch the same vision for change and to help them to believe that colouring outside the lines is an exciting and rewarding thing to do. It will be a tough challenge but I'm sure that, between us, we are up to it. Education has been in the hands of the politicians and men in suits for too long. It's about time the teachers reclaimed it. Successfully staging a 'chalk face revolution' might sound implausible, (and possibly a little arrogant), but I believe it's long overdue. I'll be reporting from the front line on a regular basis over the coming months.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Blank cheque

I had been planning to go to church this morning but ended up instead running the Landrover Ambulance Service up to our local private hospital, (as the nurses in the public hospitals are on strike). The patient was a five month old baby with malaria. His mum brought him in at about 9:00 am saying he had cried all night and hadn't eaten anything.

Every case that is brought to us requires a different call. In this case I was 99% sure that the problem was malaria. With an older baby our usual response is to give the mother a dose of malaria treatment tablets, (which we keep a lot of). In most cases the treatment works and mother and baby are happy. In the rare circumstances when a child's symptoms get worse despite the treatment tablets it is easy to dash up to the hospital for a second opinion. As this baby was quite young I wanted to be sure of the diagnosis so we set off up the lumpy road to the hospital.

Going to the casualty, (or ER), department of a hospital probably has a number of common features in any country; queues of people in varying degrees of discomfort, an overburdened doctor, an atmosphere of quiet anxiety. The waiting area for patients at our hospital is a wide corridor, open to the elements on one side, containing concrete seats, an admissions window, and a check in desk where a nurse weighs each patient, takes a temperature and/or checks blood pressure. Today it looked like the student nurses had been let out for the day as there was a large number of them manning the cubicles and unidentified treatment rooms. On first arrival I reckoned we were in for a couple of hours waiting around.

As well as being a good centre for treatment the hospital is, by virtue of it's status as a private institution, a well oiled money making machine. Nothing happens without payment. Five hundred shillings for initial check up and booking in – check. Five hundred more shillings before being given the form for the malaria test – check. Two hundred more shillings at the end of the process for the drugs that are prescribed. The whole series of events seems to happen in slow motion. At one point I thought the department that took the blood sample required for the malaria test contained a black hole which all the blood samples were sucked into. A large number of patients had samples taken and it seemed that none of them received results.

Eventually, about three hours after reaching the hospital, we had our final consultation with the doctor.

“The baby has malaria. He should be admitted”
“I see. Is the malaria serious?”
“No, it is a normal malaria but the temperature is high. He should be put on a quinine drip”
“Oh. Would the normal treatment tablets work?”
“So there isn't really any need to admit him. Would paracetamol syrup bring the temperature down?”
“Well, yes. He has had a paracetamol suppository as well so that should last for six hours.”
“That's good then. So it will be OK to take him home.”
“Yes, no problem.”

I think the hospital sees mzungus, (white people), as the closest thing in Kenya to a blank cheque. We have used this hospital a number of times over the years and have frequently queried suggestions that patients be admitted. Each admission cost three thousand shillings, (about £25 or $36), plus any treatment and drug costs. It's a nice little earner. We picked up the prescribed drugs from the hospital pharmacy and headed for home. Total trip time about four hours.

We continue to use this hospital because, cost issues aside, it has the best facilities around. It might seem irresponsible to argue with a doctor's treatment recommendations but we don't like being taken for a ride. The real cost of hospital treatment is hidden from every patient in the UK, because they don't have to pay for treatment. As an organisation in Kenya we are fortunate. When the children who live with us are sick we can afford to pay for their treatment. As an employer we make sure the staff have a NHIF, (National Health Insurance Fund), card which covers their hospital costs if they are admitted as in patients. Our neighbours in the community are not so fortunate. Most of them can't afford medical treatment. It's why so many children die from malaria. Living that close to the proof of Thomas Malthus's work is a sobering experience.

In 1798, Thomas Malthus published An Essay on the Principle of Population, in which he wrote:
"The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world".
Malthus T.R. 1798. An essay on the principle of population. Chapter VII, p61

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Big Sky

Kate Bush released a single in 1986 called “The Big Sky”. I don't think she wrote it in Africa but it's the only place I've ever been to where the sky is huge! (For any Kate Bush fans reading the blog who have half a song rattling round their head now click on the link below for the video that accompanied the single).

This musical reflection was prompted by the 'sky at night' experience of taking a shower in Kosele. The rain is still being elusive. Earlier this afternoon all the signs pointed to an imminent downpour – wind, grey clouds, drop in temperature. Then- nothing. The sky cleared, the wind dropped and it was hot again. Looks like more hand watering in the sikuma wiki, (kale), patch in the morning.

The up side was an almost perfect shower this evening after our praise and worship time with the children. The heat of the day had taken the edge off the cold water, and the stars were amazing. It was like standing under an open heaven. Looking up at the sky in the northern hemisphere you never appreciate how many stars there are in the sky. Here, on the equator, you can understand why God used the number of stars as an encouragement for Abraham in the Old Testament.

(Genesis 15:5 “Then He brought him, [Abraham], outside and said, “Look now toward heaven, and count the stars, if you are able to number them.” And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be.”)

There aren't many experiences that make you realise it's impossible to count the stars, that the milky way is real and that all the constellations in the astronomy books actually exist. On a cloudless night, in the shower, under the Big African Sky you catch a glimpse of the infinite. It's awesome.

Friday, 9 March 2012

A reflective moment

Today I had my first day off since arriving in Kosele at the end of January. Once I'd got over the initial shock of deciding that it would be a good thing to do I quite enjoyed it. The new Visitors Centre makes a good bolt hole 'away from it all' so I managed to find a bit of peace and quiet and had a chance to reflect on how things have gone so far.

We've made a lot of progress on the farm front – greatly assisted by the two teams of volunteers from Cisco. As I type it is still very hot and there is no sign of rain. This will be a great worry for a good number of our neighbours who have been planting their seeds for the next harvest. Last year at this time a similar thing happened. The seed was planted and the rain failed to materialise in sufficient quantity to get the crop started well. We still have some work to do, preparing our fields for planting, so I'm hoping that the rain will come in the next week. I'm also looking forward to moving on with our greenhouse project. Duncan, our farm manager, has been away for the last three days on training courses organised by the greenhouse manufacturer. From the brief reports he has given me over the phone the courses have been very useful.

Having moved into the new school buildings it's now time to get on with the serious business of appraisal and inspection. I always have this 'poacher turned gamekeeper' feeling as I start planning for the teachers' quarterly appraisals and draw up an inspection schedule for the school, (and now the college also). I was never wholly convinced of the value of the official Ofsted inspections of schools in the UK. They always smacked of the drab hand of government going through the motions. I feel very differently about our school and college in Kosele. Education really is a lifeline for the young people we care for and it is essential that it is done well. I have every confidence in our teachers' willingness to innovate and make the difference that we aim to in the children's lives. As we press on I'm inspired by a quote I have posted up next to my desk. It's from the Farming God's Way trainers reference manual and says:

We cannot provide for every person's physical needs, but we can definitely equip the poor with the knowledge to provide for themselves …...... This equipping brings a liberty that no gift or donation could ever give, as it is empowering the poor into perpetuity.”

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Vocational Education

After the activity on our farm yesterday it was good to spend time on somebody else's farm today. Mary, our manager, and I visited a Vocational Training Centre at Sikri, (a nearby village). The centre offers training in agriculture, carpentry, masonry and weaving principally for blind, deaf and mentally handicapped students. A small number of able bodied students are also enrolled each year. The centre is funded by the government and is the only training centre of its kind in Kenya. Students are referred from a number of countries in Eastern Africa.

The farm has been established for some time on a very large site and incorporates a 'forest', dairy unit, piggery, sheep rearing unit, fish pond, chicken unit, maize and fodder crops and horticulture plots. Mary and I were shown around the main units in the farm by the deputy principal of the college who was very enthusiastic about the impact training has for handicapped students. He explained that the deaf and blind are often marginalised in Kenya and clearly believes in standing up for their rights.

It was very encouraging to see a large, and clearly successful, farm in operation. The craft training facilities were also very good and there was evidence of high quality work from the students. The weaving workshop was especially impressive. Long strands of yarn were hung up along one of the walls. The deputy principal explained that this helped the blind pupils with their work.

They know that the fourth colour along is green, for example”, he said.

The output from the workshop is sold locally. We saw very colourful scarves and blankets that had been made by the students which would have sold well in craft stalls in Kisumu and Nairobi.

During our visit we talked about our work with the Farming God's Way project. The deputy principal quickly asked if it would be OK for one of the senior teachers from the centre to come back to Kosele with us to find out more about it. We were pleased to be able to co-operate and look forward to developing a relationship with the centre to share ideas and experiences.

On the way back to our place we were surprised to see a new road block in the village close to the centre. The villagers had hastily piled up earth and rocks to block the road either end of the village, dramatically reducing the speed of traffic passing through. Our passenger explained that a young school girl had been 'knocked' by a hit and run driver earlier that morning and the villagers were taking direct action. I coudn't imagine it happening at home.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012


It's been a very active, outdoors day today. As the rainy season splutters into life I was busy with the last Farming God's Way training before August.

(Visit to find out more),

It was definitely an international group today with people from Kenya, Uganda, South Africa and England attending. It was a very busy day. The ideal time frame for doing the full training, including the bible studies that go with it, is two or three days. As this was impossible for this group we raced through the material. The group was very keen, working hard at the practical activities and asking a number of good questions.

One of the enjoyable parts of this kind of training is showing visitors to our site the 'support' resources for farming that we have developed over the years. As regular readers of the blog will know we have a number of large capacity water storage tanks so that we can save a lot of the rain that falls from our gutters, (our 'roof harvest'). We've also invested in a special kind of latrine called an Ecosan latrine that enable us to use human wee and poo as fertilisers on our farm. A number of visitors to our project have expressed an interest in this kind of latrine because it is more effective than the traditional 'long drop', (does what it says on the label!), pit latrines that are widely used in our area.

In order to use the poo as a fertiliser it has to be stored for about twelve months. During normal use the Ecosan latrine separates wee and poo and stores them in different places. (This is why there is not an unpleasant smell in the latrines). After defecating ash is put down the hole in the latrine and this helps to dry it out and break it down. The final product is a non smelly compost. We successfully used this on our crops last season. We have been using the Ecosan latrine for a while now so we have got quite a good collection of 'cured' poo. In fact we have so much that there are two heaps of it on one of our fields, ready to be used as fertiliser this planting season.

I took our trainees down to these compost heaps to demonstrate how good it is as a fertiliser. Scooping up a big handful I held it up, smelt it and said,

You see, good rich compost and no smell”

The looks on everybody’s faces was priceless. It was as if I had just scooped up a handful of fresh poo.

Scoop some up for yourselves and see”, I said.

Nobody rushed to try it. I did eventually manage to get a couple of brave souls to at least smell a handful of it but I think it will be a while before the idea takes off on a large scale. The same thing happened in Uganda when Ecosan latrines were built in Kampala. The 'yuck' factor is a real challenge, despite good scientific evidence of the value of 'humanure'. (follow this link if you are interested in this approach to human waste disposal

it's a really interesting book).

As we said our goodbyes at the end of the training one of the guys made a nice comment.

We have seen how you waste nothing and that it is all used on the farm. The only thing you don't seem to have a use for is sweat”.

We're working on it!

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

The clicky counting machine

I have spent most of today thinking it's the 7th of March, which is not very helpful when conducting financial transactions at the bank. Now that our buildings have been completed we have had to make the penultimate payment to the contractor who built them.

The banking sector in Kenya demonstrates an interesting combination of professional veneer, ambitious technology and good old fashioned fallibility. We bank with a very well know international bank which has a branch in Kisii, (a largish town about forty minutes drive from our place). It isn't every day that you get the chance to make somebody a millionaire but today was that day. We had to pay the contractor just over a million shillings today – in cash. (For understandable but, ultimately, very frustrating reasons, it is not possible to write a cheque for a million shillings in Kenya. We have had a lot of hassle making payments to the contractor over the duration of the building project so its easiest to just draw the money and pay him cash).

As we were meeting the contractor at the bank Mary, (our manager), and I went up to the 'executive' part of the bank up a flight of stairs. This is very posh. There isn't usually a queue, free tea, coffee and biscuits are available and you can conduct your business with a certain amount of discretion. We always feel like imposters when we use this section of the bank as you have to pay a fee each month for the privilege and we haven't signed up for it. I'm usually worried that someone will ask if we are 'members', work out that we are interlopers and ask us to leave. The contractor must be a paid up 'executive' as he told us to meet him 'upstairs' so we obliged.

At one point in our transactions I misunderstood the rules of queuing, (which are always confusing in Kenya). Unsure of who was next I kept an eye on the counter, trying to work out when it would be my turn. A guy stood up and queued behind the person at the counter so I stood behind him. After he was served I moved to the counter. Another guy in a very smart suit,who had been sat down all the time I had been in the room, said in a fairly loud voice;

It is my turn now, I am before you. You must wait for your turn.”

Suitable chastened I sat down. As the smart guy stood up he looked at me, (now sat opposite him), and said,

We do not stand here!”

Anyway. I wrote three cheques to withdraw a total of one and a half million shillings. The lady behind the counter was very efficient and charming, (this itself is something of a public service first). Unfortunately the hardware supporting her didn't want to play today. The machine that reads the numbers from the cheques refused to read the details of one of the cheques – despite being given at least twenty chances. It was like watching a very fast merry go round. When the cheque was finally cleared and the money was brought another machine appeared on the counter – (one of my favourites).

One of the most tedious parts of going to the bank is counting the money once we've been given it to make sure we haven't been short changed. As we usually bank with the commoners we have to huddle over the money in the most secluded space we can find and count it up. This essential check is probably the best signal we could possibly give to potential muggers. In the executive section they count the money for you. One and a half million shillings is a lot of bank notes so, to make life easier, piles of one hundred thousand shillings are dropped onto a machine which then flicks through them, counting the number of notes and displaying the amount on a digital read out. As it counts it makes a very satisfying noise. When I was about six there was a craze for attaching a stiff piece of card onto your bicycle so it flicked against the spokes on the wheel and made a clicking noise. The faster you went the more satisfying the noise was. The noise the note counting machine made was exactly the same. Except. The notes were a bit dog-eared so they had to be encouraged through, slowing down the count, giving the machine indigestion and interrupting the smooth purr of the sound effects. As each pile was completed the teller expertly scooped them up and snapped a rubber band around them. It was poetry in motion until about six hundred thousand shillings when hand eye coordination failed and a hundred thousand shillings fell on the floor. Both Mary and I tensed. Would the teller just put the rubber band on once she'd picked the notes up or would she put them through the clicky counting machine again. Fortunately she made the right choice, (though the pile had to be counted three times and a further search under the counter had to be made before the counting machine obliged by counting another hundred thousand shillings off).

At the end of the exercise we were all satisfied that the correct amount of money had been handed over, (despite the machine saying that it had counted one million six hundred thousand shillings). As experiences at the bank go it was very successful and, for the size of transaction, completed in record time. I'm thinking of going the whole hog and trying the coffee next time we are invited 'upstairs'. I'll have to check what the protocol for coffee drinking is. I wonder if they let you dunk your biscuits.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Like riding a bicycle

Today has been a very productive day, (unlike last Friday which was the opposite). We now have a good plan for our immediate farming programme and are considering setting up a fish pond this year, (the man from the Fisheries Department said “Yes”). It's very encouraging when plans start coming together – especially when they have been brewing for some time. This year we will be growing; mangoes, bananas, maize, greengrams, (a type of lentil), cassava, sweet potatoes, kale, onions, tomatoes and groundnuts, (peanuts). We also plan to breed goats and farm fish. It's a big challenge but very exciting.

We are also trying hard to do the best job we can of growing bright young people – in every sense. Tonight we launched our new strategy for helping the children to make the most of their study time with us. This basically involves stricter supervision at homework time and an earlier lights out on school days. It's not rocket science but we are hoping that it will assist us in our battle against the 'traditional' approach to preparing young people for success which involves excessive hours of teaching and preps and drudgery in the holidays. Our plan is to work with the children on shorter, more focused study times and to encourage them to make the most of their leisure time.

Tonight I was in charge of the older pupils' homework room, from 7.15 pm to 8.45 pm, (with a five minute comfort break at 8.15). It made a nice change from my more usual plotting, scheming and budgeting mode of working and I enjoyed the time I spent back in the classroom. It reminded me very much of my own experience at boarding school in England, (the main difference being our pupils' enthusiasm for their work – very different from the anarchic approach that I and my fellow conspirators adopted whenever we could get away with it at prep time).

I'm planning to work with the children during homework time on a regular basis. I think this might force me to brush up a bit on some of my subject knowledge. It's been some time since I had to consider how to use the past continuous tense in English and my maths has become a bit rusty through lack of use. I took a couple of goes to reach the correct answer on some of the exercises in the first chapter of the maths book I was studying. Still, it's early days yet – I'm sure it will all come flooding back with practise. (I had to look this one up to ensure correct usage – how many of you out there in the blogosphere know the correct use of the words practice and practise?). It's very enjoyable using my teaching skills again. To be honest, as I get older, any excuse to exercise the grey matter has got to be a good thing.

Sunday, 4 March 2012


Some days it's quite difficult to comprehend what life is really like for our neighbours in the community. In church today one of the older ladies in the congregation shared a 'testimonial' that really showed just how different life is here.

The members of our church are a very faithful group of people who come to church every Sunday because they want to worship God and share some time with each other. We meet in a small 'building' made of wood and corrugated iron. One of the walls has a fairly large gap in it, (which is good because it let's the breeze in). It's a very simple, honest structure and perfectly fits the group of people who meet there on Sunday and during the week for bible study and fellowship.

Before the sermon whoever is leading the service encourages church members to share any testimonials they have. Today one lady's testimonial really moved me. The lady explained that she had been suffering from some serious disturbances and problems in her life, and asked the church members if they would pray for her. She went on to explain two of her problems. The lady at one time had a sheep and two goats, a she goat and a kid. The she goat got sick and died, despite being treated by the vet. (It wasn't quite clear how long ago this happened but, I think,it was fairly recently). As if that wasn't enough a dog killed the kid and had eaten half of it before the lady could chase it away. As an encouragement for the congregation this didn't seem to be going well. At this point in the story the lady said that her sheep started to show signs of being sick. I couldn't imagine what awful fate the poor sheep had suffered. The story picked up. The lady couldn't think of anything to do other than pray that the sheep would not die. She prayed. The sheep lived without any other intervention and the story encouraged us all to reach out to God and pray.

As testimonials go it was unlike anything I have ever heard in England. I guess dogs attack livestock in the UK and goats die. I can't imagine these misfortunes being as 'life and death' in England as they are out here. As you walk around the community and see how hand to mouth most people's lives are you begin to understand how devastating compounded misfortunes can be. As a Christian from the west I am humbled and challenged by the depth of faith that our church members have.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

All change

The pace here slows a little on Saturdays. The children get up a bit later and there is less rush as they don't have to worry about getting ready for school. After breakfast it's time for washing clothes, tidying the dorms and then relaxing – playing football, reading, doing homework.

In our seemingly constant stream of innovations and change that may change a little for the older children soon. My wife Judi emailed me an interesting article about how one of the top High Schools in Kenya prepares it's students for exams. The 'traditional' way to do it is to make the kids get up incredibly early, make them cram and revise all day then do the same again until late at night. Six in the morning until ten at night isn't uncommon. The government banned 'holiday tuition' for school students a couple of years ago. 'Tuition' meant that the students who are preparing for public exams got to spend their holidays slaving over a hot text book as well as the term time. (It was also a great opportunity for the schools to make a bit more money by charging the students for the privilege).

The full text makes an interesting read.

Kenya High School: Saturday is a working day, but no tuition here.

At Kenya High, ranked seventh with a mean of 10.6, the syllabus is covered by the beginning of May. Thereafter, candidates embark on group discussions which are guided by the teachers.

It is a learner-driven approach with teachers only guiding to ensure the bar is raised to our standard,said the schools deputy principal Ms Lucy Mugendi.
Lower classes should have covered the syllabus by October of every year before embarking on the next class’ work.
The school timetable runs from 6.20am when students attend preps up to 7.20. During this time teachers of compulsory subjects attend to the students.
They do this for free as we have not asked parents to pay us something,says Ms Mugendi.
They then go to a 40 minute morning devotion before beginning normal classes which run up to four. They also go for evening classes, which run up to nine in the evening.
We want our students to have enough rest. Indeed by 10.30pm the lights are out,she says.
The school, which has a population of more than 1,000 students, has two games days, Mondays for Form Three and Four, and Friday for the lower classes.
Since the holiday tuition was banned by the government the school now has classes up to Saturday. “Classes begin at 7.30am and run up to 4pm. “Teachers get a small token per session, but mostly it is sacrifice and love for the students that drive teachers,” said Ms Mugendi.
Two internal CATs per term and random assessment tests, which are either set internally or sourced from outside depending on the subject heads, are also administered.
Chess and scrabble are encouraged to sharpen thinking capacity and build on their word power. However, holiday time is strictly for relaxation.

MASENO school

Here teachers work hard to cover the syllabus on time and give the students time to revise and interact to improve their weak areas.

For a student to be promoted to the next class, the deputy principal said, he has to meet what the school calls The 3C’s Policy— Character, Class work and Conduct.

We will be having a staff meeting on Monday to discuss our approach to homework and teaching on Saturdays. All of the top Kenyan High Schools have the 'advantage' of being boarding schools. This makes it easy to implement a regime like the one described above. Having attended boarding myself in the 70s I remember 'preps' and fairly structured time management. In the UK wealthy parents still pay for the privilege of having somebody else put their children through the ropes at boarding schools. It obviously delivers results.

We will be trying to set up a timetable that gets the best of both worlds – creating an environment which encourages our students to be disciplined and successful in their studies and allows sufficient 'play' time to prevent them from becoming 'dull' boys and girls. It will be a very interesting staff meeting. All of our teaching staff have been drilled through the study till you drop school of academic rigour. I'm optimistic that we will deliver a good result. Last August, during the school holidays, all of the teachers happily abandoned the traditional approach to 'tuition', (which they all agreed had been a complete waste of time when they did it as students themselves), and embraced a completely different approach to preparing the oldest pupils for their public exams. We are all up for a change to 'the system'.