Thursday, 31 January 2013

We'll meet again

Today has been one long round of meetings. One of the rewarding things about all of the meetings that I've had is that they have all started on time. Anybody who has visited Africa will be familiar with the reality of ‘African Time’. When attending meetings that our outside my control I always take a book or some paperwork with me to make sure I have something to do while waiting for the meeting to start. Sometimes it can be quite comical. Most times it’s just very frustrating.

The last couple of days have been enjoyable because of the small but encouraging steps that we have taken forward.  Sometimes, as I sit typing up this blog at night, I wonder how I ever came to be here. It is enormously challenging at times believing that all our plans have a chance of succeeding. We are in the process of enrolling our new intake of students in the secondary school that we started last year. This venture started the same way that all of our projects have. With one small step following another. Putting our enrollment policy together has made me think about the promise that we are making to these young people and the hard work ahead of us. My wife Judi emailed me a very well written article from one of the Kenyan newspapers about the problem of unemployment in Kenya at the moment. Following a worldwide trend youth unemployment is now a ‘ticking bomb’ and a problem that schools are having to face. Just exactly what are we preparing young people for? How do we keep pupils motivated? These are million dollar questions that just won’t go away.

I strongly believe in the power of education to transform people’s lives. At the moment I’m reading a book called “A Chance to Make History”. It’s written by Wendy Kopp the founder of the Teach For America project which placed good US graduates in disadvantaged American schools. The results that these young teachers achieved proved that it is possible for schools to help pupils of all ages to overcome the most appalling backgrounds and become successful adults. A number of the Teach for America teachers went on to form very successful networks of schools that achieved high standards of achievement in very poor neighborhoods.

I like snappy terms that encapsulate aspirations. I found a great example in this book; “Infinity [school] has what its staff calls a “resiliency curriculum” through which traits like self-confidence, hope, gratitude, grit, and zest are taught, discussed, and tracked. Teachers work together to understand each student’s circumstances, strengths, and developmental areas and collaborate to ensure each student has the support, resources, and motivation to succeed.”

All of the meetings that I've had today have been moving us towards creating our own ‘resiliency curriculum’ and the environment in which it can be nurtured. There will always be battles to be won so it’s important to take each victory as it comes. Today we won a small victory in the battle for punctuality, which opened up time for taking on the bigger challenges.

If I was less tired I’d top the day off by going out to watch the thunder and lightning show that is happening outside. Instead I think I’ll head for bed. I don’t want to be late in the morning.

Wednesday, 30 January 2013


The Jonah syndrome continues with the weather. For the first time, as far as I can remember, I am sat wearing a fleece while working. Grey, windy and raining is not the Kenya we know and love.

Weather aside it’s been a very productive day today. The management team and I have been planning for our next season’s planting. The farm is still really very much a work in progress and we are learning from our experiences. Today we took the major decision to make generating the maximum amount of income from the farm our main goal in this activity. This may seem like a bit of a no brainer but it has helped us a great deal. It would be equally possible to make providing training experiences for our students the main aim, which would lead to very different use of the land. Our present plans look like focusing on growing water melons and sweet potatoes as major cash crops this year. We are also considering the viability of dairy farming. This would be a longer term development but it is very exciting considering the prospects for the future. It’s also rewarding seeing the management team growing stronger and more imaginative.

As I type the wind is blowing, carrying with it what sounds like the music you would hear on a fairground ride. I can’t believe the determination that our neighbors bring to attending funerals. It’s 11 p.m. and I wouldn't relish being out tonight. The ‘celebration’ has been going on all week so far. On Monday night the star attraction was a lady singer accompanied by a keyboard player. At one point it sounded very much like she was singing “The hills are live with the sound of music”. Ours certainly are.

I’m just coming to the end of another day of fasting (see earlier post) and have to say I’m feeling good on it so far. I’m experimenting with fasting on Wednesday and Saturday. This basically means not eating but drinking plenty of water. As a spiritual exercise, as opposed to a new way of dieting, it definitely encourages a new perspective to the day and our work. I've heard the story where Jesus talked about “when” rather than “if” you fast (Matthew 6:16) and it’s passed under the radar as one of those things I might do something about one day. I would hate to give the impression of being smug, ‘holier than thou’ or unduly pious, as I really try hard to avoid that kind of pretense  I realize that I am privileged to be working in a location and culture that is very different from the western lifestyle. For readers who have struggled with that particular scripture in the past though I would recommend persevering in the area of fasting and praying. 

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Weather Report

And so to the weather. I am beginning to worry about the possibility that I actually bring rain to Kosele at the start of my visits. It has hammered it down here today and the rain is still drizzling on as I type. In the long run this could be a good thing, as there is definitely a rain related problem in Kenya generally and this part of Kenya in particular. The concern is that the problem seems to be changing. I remember reading reports in the media back in the UK earlier this month about the massive amount of food that gets wasted globally. There are all sorts of reasons why this happens from the evil business practices of supermarkets to the inability of some countries (including Kenya) to maintain roads that are capable of carrying food crops to markets meaning that they rot in the fields.

This year, from what I can gather, we have suffered from the problem of having too much rain in our area. This might seem unlikely but the kind of crops that we grow out here (maize, sorghum, kale, cassava) are quite sensitive to weather extremes. Too much rain and crops are spoiled. Too little and they don’t really get started. Either way it’s a real issue for the farmers.

The rain that we've had today has been a real blessing. Everything was looking very parched and a lot of our water tanks were approaching empty. The kale and peppers that we are growing at the moment needed a good watering and we would have had to get the watering can brigade out tomorrow if the weather had stayed dry. We have, fortunately, just about finished drying our maize so things are going well. However ….. if my Jonah effect with the weather is maintained we could find ourselves in trouble as we prepare the fields for planting. Apart from creating rather unpleasant working conditions a lot of rain now won’t help us very much. Duncan, our farm manager, isn't very keen on planting into waterlogged ground. We ideally need the rain at the end of the month, once the land has been prepared. I’m guessing that a concern is building up that the rains are going to come at the wrong time and leave everybody stranded. It's a tough decision knowing when to plant. In the past the rains have appeared to arrive early so farmers have rushed to plant their seeds only to have the rain stop leaving them high and dry. Literally. For the good of the farming community around here it would be great if those of you of the praying persuasion could add our farms and preparations to your list. Something weird is happening with the climate around the world. I hope it doesn't sink our community again this season.

Monday, 28 January 2013

Patience required

My back seems to have recovered from the washing inflicted trauma that I wrote about yesterday. This has been helped by a few ‘limbering up’ exercises and a determined attempt to do as many of the good posture things as possible while working at my desk. My ‘workstation’ set up probably looks pretty bizarre to the outside observer. I’m keeping my laptop monitor at eye level by sitting it on top of a couple of boxes and have plugged in a keyboard and mouse. It’s not a pretty solution but it is ergonomically sound and very functional. Thinking about it that’s probably quite a good metaphor for many of the solutions to problems out here.

Quick update on the rat situation. I have been keeping a close eye on the rat poison that Janet put down for me a few days ago. The poison itself comes in the form of small, bright pink pellets clearly designed to be visually appealing to the average rat. They  probably have quite a nice smell too. (I haven’t risked getting close enough to test out this theory). For any readers in the coarse fishing fraternity it looks a bit like tiny boilies (an artificial bait for catching, ideally, very large carp). Anyway. The fairly large pile of poison that was laid out by the kitchen door has now disappeared, hopefully into the digestive system of a rat or rats. There has been no sign or pandemonium in the roof space of my house since the poison was put down so I’m optimistic that the problem is close to being resolved. I’ll have to check with Janet, who has been keeping the head count on dead rats.

Today has been frustrating for our teachers and for the pupils who sat their KCPE (Kenya Certificate of Primary Education) exam at the end of last year. Because of a teachers strike the exams were delayed so the release of the results has been eagerly anticipated. These exams are a very big deal. When the results are released they are officially signed off by the Education Minister who announces them, and a potted breakdown of the headline trends of which areas have done well and which haven’t on the TV. The results also determine which of the country's (mostly boarding) High Schools the pupils are invited to attend. Like results days the world over the whole thing is very competitive.  Despite the Minister’s sign off we were unable to download our results from the internet. Each attempt so far has been met with an assurance on the web site that “We are uploading the KCPE result data. The website will be available once this is completed. Please try later.” It is definitely later as I type so I guess we and all the other schools in Kenya will just have to be patient.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Putting my back into it

In this particular part of Kenya there are some fairly traditional ideas about men’s work and women’s work. Among the basics are the rules about cooking and washing clothes. Both of these are, you guessed it, ‘women’s work’. Being the well brought up 21st century western male that I am I have a different view. This quite often freaks out visitors when we have them and they stay for lunch. Especially visitors from ‘official’ bodies. I really enjoy cooking. I find it quite recreational so it’s not difficult to knock up a meal at short notice. Once the visitors have accepted that nothing is going to happen to change my determination to cook for them they quickly get used to the idea that a man has done the cooking, (though I’m sure one or two of them have worried about being poisoned).

The same general taboo applies to doing the washing. Men washing clothes is definitely off limits. It’s OK for male students to do it (it would create huge problems if they didn't)  but once you cross the threshold of adulthood that’s it. This visit I have decided to me more self-sufficient in the clothes washing department. This rush of enthusiasm is motivated by a number of factors. The lady who normally does the washing is unwell at the moment. She’s been off for a while, worn out by having children I think. I also want to avoid any particular privileges and set a good example. Retrospectively (as I have discovered) its also good exercise.

At different times in my life doing the washing has been a drag (when I was at boarding school), a laugh (when I was a student and my wife Judi and I used to go to the launderette  and a pain (when it’s too wet to hang the washing out and it has to be put to dry on radiators). Today I thought it might be fun.

Conscious of the need not to make too much of a fool of myself I have been covertly observing how the kids do it. Washing in Kenya basically involves two big washing bowls, a small plastic bucket for carrying water and a cupful of Omo. I duly assembled all of the equipment on the grass by our showers and went back to the house to pick up my pile of washing. I had only taken one step out of the door when Mary (our manager) and Janet (stores manager) said that I shouldn't be doing the washing and that they would sort it out. Sticking to my guns I assured them that it was OK – I would be fine.

Those of you who remember basic washing powders like Omo won’t be surprised at its dirt removing properties. It will, I think, shift just about anything (especially the colour in clothes). I’m sure I’ll get the hang of how much you need after a bit of practise. I chucked the first T-shirt in the bowl and started mangling it round. It seemed to be going pretty well. My boarding school skills had obviously not deserted me. Once washed it was chucked into the rinsing bowl and I started on T-shirt number two. At this point I became aware of the way that age makes your back less supple than it probably was a few years ago. (Well, OK, quite a long time ago). The one thing I was sure I wouldn't manage from my observations of the kids doing their washing was the ‘African stance’. Once you've noticed it you see it everywhere – working in the fields, cooking and doing the washing. It’s a very simple action but one that is, I think, anatomically impossible for Europeans. It basically involves setting your body in an upside down V shape by bending at the waste with a straight back. I soon discovered that my back wasn't really up to this kind of contortion (or any others).

I was, to be honest, relieved when at this point a couple of the lads came over and asked if they could help me. Resisting my first instinct to say I would be OK doing it on my own I swallowed my pride and said that it was nice of them to offer and yes please, thank you very much. I did manage to wash the shirts, socks and two pairs of jeans that had accumulated in my washing pile since arriving myself but by the end of the exercise was more than grateful for the boys’ assistance in the rinsing, wringing and hanging out to dry department. Once I had finished my back was, I am ashamed to say, in agony (though I think I managed not to make it too obvious to the casual observer).

I plan to continue my role breaking agenda during my visit but think I might try to do my washing more often to avoid prolonging the agony. I’m hoping my back will respond positively to this new form of exercise. In the meantime I will continue to be in awe of the millions of African ladies who spend a significant part of their day maintaining the ‘African stance’ without complaining, flagging or keeling over.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

On the fast track

I’m sure it’s the combination of disconnection from various news channels and being over here on my own that leads me to pay more attention to spiritual disciplines that I know I should devote more time to. Having avoided slavery to New Year’s resolutions by not making any I am aware that being spiritually focused is the starting point for being effective in what we do. Working out here without the right heart is about as fruitful as me trying to run a four minute mile or climb Mount Everest.

It’s interesting that the dieting community have recently taken hold of the benefits of fasting. Just before I came out to Kenya I listened with interest as a respected food scientist extolled the virtues of fasting as a healthy lifestyle choice. A quick Google search turned up advice on fasting diets from the UK Health Service and an interesting article in the Guardian newspaper written by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall who “has lost eight pounds since New Year, by fasting for two days out of seven, and has found the whole thing “rather exhilarating”. In the article he goes on to say:

“But now I find myself beguiled, for the first time ever, really, by a new diet. The Fast Diet, by Michael Mosely and Mimi Spencer, makes a compelling promise that with regular fasting (they propose two days out of every seven) you will quickly lose weight, while on non-fast days you can continue to eat (and, importantly, drink) whatever you like.”

I guess the crossover between religious practices and secular fads has always been productive. Perhaps we are witnessing a new coming together of weapons to fight the Western scourge of obesity. I find it amusing that a long established habit, common to all the major world religions, should emerge as a panacea for modern lifestyle issues in the secular press.

Today I read a short book called “The Rewards of Fasting”. It’s written by a Christian author called Mike Bickle. In the introduction he writes “Fasting is part of the Christian lifestyle. It is Christianity 101 ………. I call believers to fast at least one day a week. It is better to fast two days a week”. He goes on to present a strong case for the benefits of fasting as a sacrifice rather than for weight loss. Whichever end you approach it from it would seem that fasting is coming up on the radar. It’s not as hard as it might seem and you never know – you might discover it’s good for your body and your soul as it leads you to think more deeply about the root cause of your motivation to stop eating on a regular basis.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Rat in mi kitchen

With apologies to readers in Europe who are currently in the grip of winter weather this is a nice time to be in Kosele. We are at the break-point between growing seasons. Having just harvested our maize crop we are gearing up for preparing our land for the next planting period at the end of February. For optimum conditions we need the weather to stay dry for about the next month and then fairly steady rainfall to get the crops off to a good start. So far so good. There hasn't been any rain for a while and the dry, hot conditions discourage mosquitoes  It doesn't take long to get used to being a bit hot and sweaty during the course of the day and it is a real blessing not having to negotiate the mud and puddles that always accompany the rainy season.

The dry conditions are also really good for our pupils’ sporting activities – especially football. Last year we were able to improve the standard of our football pitch a bit but it is still usually unusable after heavy rain. This afternoon conditions were ideal and the boys in classes 7 and 8 made the most of it. Rugby purists that I know (self included on more than one occasion) disparage football as a bit of a ‘soft’ game. Anybody present at a football match here in Kosele would come away from the game with a very different opinion. I really don’t know where our youngsters find the strength and stamina from. They take football extremely seriously and view it very much as a contact sport. Most of the time the children play in bare feet and use a home-made football. Despite many generous gifts of new footballs from visitors it seems to be very difficult to avoid puncturing the ball on the thorn hedge or the fence that surrounds our place. The ball that most African children play with is made out of plastic carrier bags carefully layered and kept together with string. It’s often smaller than a full sized football but despite this is still very heavy and solid. Watching the ball being punted from one end of the pitch to the other and the fierce tussles for control of the game I could only admire the boys’ skill and obvious lack of pain receptors anywhere in their feet!

I am very grateful for the way that our staff look out for me while I’m here. Janet, the lady in charge of our stores, brought me some eggs this afternoon that she had bought from the market in Oyugis, our local town.

 “There is a rat eating your tomatoes” she informed me.

Sure enough three of the tomatoes in the bowl that I keep them in had the tops gnawed off. The rat is obviously an expert at sneaking in as the tomatoes were fine when I cooked my lunch today.

“I’ll bring some poison”, Janet said.

This seemed the best thing to do. The rats apparently like the poison so I’m looking forward to evidence of an effective rat control initiative. The only possible downside to it is the prospect of the rat (or rats) dying up in the roof space of my house. The last time a rat died in the roof after it had been poisoned it sounded like the ceiling board in the roof was going to come down. I really hope this one will just sneak out and quietly pass away somewhere outside. For the benefit of anybody with a UB40 song going round their head at this point the link is below.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Picking up the threads

Now that I’m getting into the Kosele routine again it’s time to start picking up the threads from last year’s visits and sorting out our priorities for this year with our various teams. As the scope of our work increases we face greater challenges in making sure that we are all doing our best for the children and community. Every time the education drum gets banged you can feel people gearing up for a variety of responses, both here and in the rest of the world. Every year I become more convinced that the quality of a country’s education system is the best indicator of its future performance in most spheres of people’s lives – economic, cultural, social, moral and spiritual. Ploughing through the research on improving education you can’t help feeling that there is a Holy Grail like quality to it. A consuming search for something better, sometime in the future that is elusive and frequently difficult to nail down. It doesn't discourage people from chasing it though.

As a teacher the most rewarding part of the job is being part of a ‘penny drops’ moment for a student. The moment when a previously incomprehensible idea or unattainable skill is fully understood or practiced for the first time. I’m afraid that these moments don’t happen often enough. For many pupils school is a loosely connected series of social events punctuated by intrusive periods of instruction. Being an optimist I am convinced that it is possible to help young people think of their school days as the ‘best days of their lives’ for all the right reasons. Being a realist I recognise that it could take some time to achieve this.

An example from our ‘preps’ (homework) time this evening illustrates this point. The children who live in our home have a supervised homework session from seven to nine in the evening. The children are very conscientious and take this time seriously. Tonight I spent about an hour working with one of our lower school pupils doing some social studies homework. He was working through a series of questions on mountains, hills, lakes and valleys. The text book he was using was written in English and he was very good at reading the questions out. He had also mastered the basic technique of knowing where to look for the answers to the questions. Sitting with him to test his understanding led to a series of drawings, looking at maps and talking about everyday examples of the topic. It was an hour well spent and was, I think, satisfying for both of us. I always find it a bit of a challenge tuning in to teaching in Kenya after being in the UK for a while because of language and cultural differences (and my tendency to talk too fast). In the end though teaching is about relationships and being able to invest enough time in them to help young people believe that they matter – that you do really care about them.

We will continue our pursuit of the Holy Grail of turning out the best educated young people in Kenya from our primary school and high school. At this point at the beginning of the school year all things are possible. There are relationships to be built, lessons to be learned and, in the end, exams to be sat.  Setting our course for the rest of the year is exciting. I really hope the children will be able to look back on 2013 at some time in the future as a year when the penny dropped for them a number of times. 

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Jambo day

As usual it’s quite late as I type today’s entry. It is a very hot sticky night. The kind of night that mosquitoes love and anti-perspirant manufacturers must pray for. It is difficult to believe that 4,000 miles away in England people will probably be scraping the snow off their cars in the morning and cursing the freezing cold weather.

I caught an early flight from Nairobi to Kisumu this morning and was impressed by the early morning sunrise over Nairobi. The daylight seems to creep in as if it’s on a fader, gradually revealing an orange backdrop to the day. I flew with Kenya airways. They are obviously making an effort with customer care and pre-flight entertainment on internal flights at the moment. The relatively small jet I flew in today had small screens on the back of each seat saying Welcome to Kenya. The welcome message was underlined by a choice selection of Kenyan tourist tunes, starting with Jambo Kenya and moving onto a soulful rendition by a very American sounding singer praising Kenya “the land that I love”. It’s a sentiment shared by many people (myself included) but it did clash a bit with the unfolding beauty in the sky outside.

The Kisumu to-do list was mercifully small today. I had a meeting with one of our staff, Millie, who is currently studying in Kisumu on a social work and development course. It was a very enjoyable meeting and encouraged me a great deal. Millie is clearly making good progress on her course and has been able to visit a number of projects around Kisumu that have the same vision that we do. It was especially encouraging to hear Millie talk about the potential benefits of fish farming and bee keeping – two developments that I have been keen on for a number of years now. Millie’s course finishes in May. She is committed to coming back to work with us in Kosele and I am looking forward to seeing her putting her new skills and ideas into action.

I have written before about the atrocious condition of the ‘rough road’ that we have to use for the last seven kilometers of our trip from Kisumu to Kosele. Rough road comes nowhere near describing the state of it now. Heavy rains earlier in the month have left some deep puddles to negotiate and the constant erosion of the rock, gravel and sand have created what would be a very good four by four trial track. I hate to be a prophet of doom but I can see some roads in the UK going the same way. The road has been well used recently by politicians on the campaign trail for the election on March the fourth. It would be nice to think that their experience of bumping along the entire 14 kilometer stretch might lead to a major road improvement project but it seems unlikely.

It is really good to be back in Kosele. We have just harvested our maize crop and I spent a very enjoyable twenty minutes this afternoon with some of our teachers and pupils stripping kernels of maize from the cobs that have been picked. I’m not sure how many sacks of maize we will end up with but it looked like a good amount to me. We should know in a few days once all of the cobs have been stripped. The farm continues to develop. Our banana trees are now looking a bit more plantation like and are taller than I am. Once we have finished with our harvesting we will have to get on with preparing the land for the next planting time at the beginning of March. This will be interesting this season as we need to carry out our first rotation of crops to allow the soil to improve. This basically means shifting everything down a plot and planting a leguminous crop, like beans, where our maize was grown to help the soil to recover from the strain of growing the maize. I still find the whole preparing and planting cycle fascinating. The process of sowing and harvesting is nothing short of miraculous. We plan to really promote the value of farming this year to encourage the children to take it seriously. There’s gold and a rewarding vocation in the soil!

The same cannot be said of our goats at the moment. We are still planning to breed goats so that we can sell the kids and milk in local markets. On the way back from Kisumu Duncan, our farm manager, told me that there is a bit of a problem at the moment with our male goat. He doesn't seem to be very keen on doing his bit in making baby goats. The situation is under review and plans are being made to encourage him to perform better, starting with a diet supplement. I wonder if Millie’s course covers performance management for goats. I’ll keep you posted.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

A game of two halves

Tonight I’m back in Kenya after an unplanned, extended stay in the UK. 2012 was a challenging year and I’m glad it’s finished. My wife Judi is now well into recovering from breast cancer after chemotherapy and surgery. She has fifteen days of radiotherapy starting on January 29th and will then be done with treatment. We will both be very relieved and are very grateful that we live in the UK. Those of you of the praying persuasion might like to pray for Judi as she starts this last leg of what has been a very long journey.

Travelling out to Kenya has been a ‘game of two halves’. (I hope you will forgive the footballisms – Africa is in the grip of the Africa Cup of Nations football competition at the moment). The first leg of my flight, from Birmingham in the UK to Dubai, was great. I live in hopes of benefiting from the, probably apocryphal, free upgrade from Economy to First Class one day but the flight out to Dubai came pretty close. Having struggled to find a decent seat during on line check in (and assuming that the flight was packed as there were very few seats to choose from) I was made up to discover I was the only occupant of my row of three seats. This gave me the luxury of choosing the best seat for the movies and an opportunity to multi-screen the in-flight information.

Despite the comfortable seats I still found it hard to sleep on the flight so was tired when we reached Dubai at 7:02 am local time this morning. I’m sure Ronald McDonald didn't have ambitions to conquer the world when the big M first got going but I’m grateful for McDonalds in Dubai. The trek to the restaurant has become the first part of my Dubai ritual. Cheeseburger, fries and coke sets you up for a good walk round the terminal as part of operation ‘Stay Awake and don’t miss the next flight’. As it turned out I needn't have worried. The second half of my journey kicked off with a ninety minute delay to the flight to Nairobi, culminating in missing my flight to Kisumu, (the penultimate part of my journey to our place in Kosele). I’m spending the night in Nairobi at our good friend Sam’s guest house. I’m holed up in one of the apartments he has built recently so, despite the unplanned stopover, have managed to get upgraded accommodation as well! Sam is a really nice guy. It’s always good to see him. On our way to the guest house (The Rusam Villa) Sam told me that he’s finished adding rooms to the business now and is looking forward to taking some time spending the money that his hard work and canny expansion have brought him, starting with a trip to Dubai. He's certainly earned it.

There’s a lot to do over here, as usual, and I can’t wait to get started. I’m on an early flight to Kisumu in the morning and am really looking forward to seeing everybody again. January tends to be a month for new resolutions and fresh starts. I haven’t made any specific resolutions for 2013 as, like most people, I find it hard to stick to them. I do have a very keen sense of anticipation about the year ahead and thank God that Judi and I are both still here and have work to do.  Joshua said “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord”. So will we.