1 Jul

I left Nairobi on the morning of Sunday 24 June and landed in London in the evening, taking the train to Manchester.  When I booked the trip I hadn’t entertained the idea that England might storm through as top of the group in Euro 2012 and would be playing their quarter final match as I was on the train between London and Manchester.  I reassured myself that I knew the England knock-out game script fairly well by now (that we would be knocked out) and if I was wrong then I would at least get to watch us in a semi-final.  As it happened, I had guessed pretty much correctly so wasn’t too devastated to have missed the game.

I spent 7 weeks in Kenya overall and they were each eventful, in their own way and for different reasons.  Working for a very small organisation like Baraka Children’s Centre in Central Kenya and a larger NGO like St John’s Ambulance Kenya in Nairobi city centre meant that I experienced very different aspects of Kenyan life.  As you may expect, say, if you came from another country and decided to volunteer in the Lake District and London, for whatever reason.

For anyone who is looking to volunteer in a place similar to Kenya for a length of time, I’d definitely recommend trying to work in 2 different areas, as it does provide the opportunity for a broader experience than working solely in one area.  Although I had not originally planned to volunteer at St John Kenya, it has turned out to be one of the better decisions that I’ve ever made, not least for this reason.

I’ve also really enjoyed writing this blog and hopefully some of the people who have read it have got some enjoyment out of it also.  It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything for the pure enjoyment of it and I think I would do it again in the future if the situation fits.  I thought it would be best to close with a final description of my experience and a few pictures of the cast!

It has been an incredibly interesting experience for me to live and volunteer in Kenya. It was an opportunity to do something very different to anything I had done before in a continent that I had never visited. It has provided me with an experience and people that I will never forget and I’m looking forward to returning before long.

Francis, founder and leader of Baraka Children’s Centre

Linda from St John on our way back from Mombasa..

Selinah, CEO of St John, posing for one in the garden!

Martin and his friend Eyal, mischief no doubt.

Heidi + doll

Chumba, Selinah’s youngest sister who lives close by in Langata

Eunice, Selinah’s nanny, not to be messed with when on the mission to get Heidi out of the house for school!

Finally, some pictures from the St John annual parade which took place on Sunday 24, the day that I left.


Last days…

25 Jun

After the long weekend in Mombasa, we returned to St John on the Monday and the main focus of my week was writing up my final report and recommendations for Selinah, the finance team and the next AFID volunteer.  It was one of the busiest weeks of the year for the St John staff, as they were completing their final preparations for the full Council meeting on Saturday 23 June and the annual parade held at one of the main government buildings in Nairobi City Centre on Sunday 24 June.  As this was the date I was due to fly back to England, I was not able to attend the parade.  Although this was disappointing,  I was able to lend a hand with the preparations and I look forward to seeing the pictures of the parade and the results of the hard work that the staff put in.

To ensure that the work that I have progressed can be carried on by the finance team and the next AFID volunteer with minimum complication, I have set out a daily plan for approximately the first month after I have left, which develops into longer-term recommendations.  Not limited to Kenya, there seems to be a focus within organisations to concentrate on long-term strategic plans and not so much on practical and achievable short-term goals.  While I appreciate that it is important for an organisation to have a long-term vision, if there is not a clear focus on practical short-term measures which support these longer-term goals, I think that it is easy for items to fall off the agenda.

I share the impression of the previous volunteer that Selinah, the management team and her supporting staff have worked very hard to professionalise and modernise the organisation in the 2 years that the majority of them have been in place.  They were generally very supportive of the short-term daily tasks and longer-term recommendations that I included in my report and discussed with them in my final week.  I have focused on ensuring these recommendations are achievable by members of the team or a future volunteer.  I think that the success of these volunteer assignments can rarely be seen in clear cut terms, however, I thought a reasonable way of looking at it is not so much what I accomplish as an individual in the time I am there but what I can enable the team to accomplish and maintain after I have left.

Midweek saw another aspect of shared British and Kenyan culture when it was England’s final Euro 2012 group match against the Ukraine.  I went to a local bar in Langata to watch the game which started at nearly 10pm Nairobi time.  This didn’t stop a heavy turnout in the bar to support England, however I think I was probably the only English person there!  There is a massive Premier League fanbase in Kenya.  Many matatus and taxis sport stickers and the odd bit of arty graffiti in support of the owner’s favourite Premier league team so I had half-expected a strong support.  Nevertheless I was slightly surprised when the person sitting next to me explained that he supported Manchester United, commented on Danny Welbeck’s improvement this season and how he hoped to see Tom Cleverley step up to the England team next season!  This turned out to be indicative of the general depth of knowledge of most of the people at the table, although I was less than impressed when a person behind got my attention to tell me “hey, you look like Peter Crouch!” (for the third of fourth time in my life), only for his mate to say “no, he just looks like any Stoke City player!”.  If they only saw Crouch in the flesh they would realise I am nowhere near tall enough…

“No mate, not that tall sorry!”

This week was also the half-term for the schools that all of Selinah’s children attend and her two elder children, Lynne (14) and Chemu (16) came home on the Thursday for the break.  School seems outwardly more rigorous in Kenya.  Half-term is only two days, with the Thursday and Friday off school, and the homework schedule generally seems more intense than when I was at their respective levels of school.  Indeed, Martin’s first question on meeting me 4 weeks ago was “do children have to do homework in England??”!! I actually think at 9 I probably didn’t but to be fair can’t really remember.  It was great to see Selinah, all her children and Eunice together before I was due to leave and the siblings seemed to get on slightly better than me, my brother and sister did when we were their age!

Due to the important nature of the weekend for the St John staff, there was no repeat of the Friday work drinks with staff as with earlier in the assignment.  However, Linda and I did go to the Carnivore in Langata, which is something of a Nairobi institution.  Basically the Carnivore is something like Bem Brasil in Manchester. You pay a set fee for the buffet and for as long as you keep your flag flying on the table the waiters will bring round great slabs of big game and carve slices for you.   This includes ostrich, crocodile, camel and some other exotic items, although I understand that the government has outlawed some of the servings so the range has reduced slightly in the 25 or so years that it has been open.

The most impressive grill

See above. The Carnivore’s version of the oven!

Now this is where most of you will be shocked.  I didn’t eat here.  There is a large bar adjoining and we actually just went out for a couple of drinks.  How I managed to keep my self control from running off to try and eat my body weight I’ll never know.  Nevertheless, I thought it would be good for anyone thinking of a future visit (or just generally interested in being greedy!) to read about it.  I am definitely interested enough to go back in the future!

Saturday morning was spent picking up some small presents for the friends that I have made here and also for some friends and family back home.  I know how predictable I must be when I told Martin that he might have a surprise present and he guessed “is it a ball?”.  However, I have learned from Selinah that he slept with said ball in his arms that night so I think he was happy enough.  Keep it simple working again!

On my final night, Linda’s mother invited myself, Selinah and all of her children round to their house for a buffet tea.  Martin and Heidi came out of Selinah’s children and were probably the quietest I’ve ever seen them.  I think this was something to do with the delicious array of food (and large amount!) that Linda’s mother had laid on which kept all of us quiet for a while!  It was oddly similar to the type of thing my family does at Christmas and it actually did feel like home.  It was a pretty perfect evening to round off my time in Kenya and I said my goodbyes a little before midnight, although I don’t intend to be away for too long either.  Although this is the entry for my last week, there will be one more entry for my general reflections on what has been an unforgettable trip, together with a few pictures of the people who made it so.

Mombasa and the coast

21 Jun

With the last full weekend of my time in Kenya coming up, I decided that it would be best to take a long weekend away to see another bit of the country.  Trying to decide between all the different places in my Lonely Planet book was a bit of a kid in a sweetshop moment, however I eventually decided that going to Mombasa, the second city in Kenya was the best idea.

Mombasa is right on the coast and seems to have tropical sunshine all year round.  My only reservation was an 8 hour bus ride, there and back, and there was another option, Lake Naivasha, just one hour away from Nairobi.  However, I managed to stay completely true to British holiday planning and thought “what about the weather?!?”.  Sure enough, the forecast for Lake Naivasha was average at best and the Mombasa decision was made pretty easily.

Rather luckily, Selinah, in her role as CEO of St john Kenya and hosting me in her house, agreed to let Linda have the Friday off St John so that a mzungu like myself was not wandering the seaside unsupervised.  She had also recommended Mombasa as the place that I should visit if I was going to go anywhere during my time with St John’s.

We set off on an overnight bus from Nairobi, leaving the River Road area at 11pm.  For anyone who both reads this blog and is planning to visit Kenya in the future, watch yourself around River Road.  Most of the Kenyans that I have worked with think it’s a pretty rough area and definitely a place where you need to keep an eye (and preferably a hand) on every valuable that you have.

After arriving in Mombasa at 6 am, we took a taxi to Backpackers Nirvana next to Nyali Beach.  I am denying now that I picked this place on the basis that I liked the name (I was later disappointed to learn that it was named after the Buddhist state, not the band).  It was a great place to stay as it was only a 5 minute walk from Nyali Beach (pictured) but also only a 20-30 minute matatu ride into Mombasa city centre.  As I was interested to see Mombasa I didn’t fancy being at a beach resort an hour or so away, relatively isolated the city.



Due to being a bit tired after a long bus ride, most of the Friday was spent largely on the beach.  I’m sure people reading this will be greatly disappointed to learn that I am not going to put any pictures of my topless body on this blog. Sorry!

More of Saturday was spent in Mombasa.  Albeit on the basis of one weekend’s evidence, it is very different to Nairobi.  It is by the sea, has perfect hot weather and seems culturally very distinct from the interior.   After trying to sum it up a few times and failing, I have taken the following description from the city website,

“Mombasa has been Kenya’s and East Africa’s doorway to the world. It was frequented by Arab traders, Chinese adventurers, European seafarers and missionaries. In the modern day, it has become home to many diverse nationalities, Indians, Arabs, Africans, Europeans and it hosts many more albeit for a short time. The most predominant culture here is the Swahili culture.

This unique mix of Arab and African ways of life came about through the interaction and intermarriage of Arab traders and the native Bantu Africans. The resulting fusion of customs, language, religion and food gave birth to the Swahili Culture. Mombasa has not always been a fairytale tourist haven, it had previously been a slave-trade hub for many centuries and has also been used by conquerors as a fortress (Fort Jesus) to safeguard their coastal possessions.”

In the brief time that I was there, I can say that it was as interesting as the above description suggests.  Marry that to staying on a perfect beach in great weather only 20 minutes away and you have yourself a great place.  The main highlights that we saw of the city were Fort Jesus and especially the old town, which feels like you could be walking around the old quarter of a major city in the Arab world but with an African influence, most apparent in the wooden doors.  I have decided way in the future when I have my own house that one of these would be a perfect addition.  Not sure what the neighbours would think though.

I also decided it was high time I got myself some African fashion for lazing around in back home.  After looking in many near identical market shops and stalls, I finally decided on something and the shirt below is evidence worn with pride (maybe not credibility though!).  I am sure that I paid slightly more than the local price, however didn’t do too bad a job of negotiating to an acceptable level for the both of us.  I always expect to be charged a bit more in a market situation in a place like Mombasa, however if the end price is close to the local price and seems fair in the context of what I’d pay back home then I don’t really have a problem.

The last evening involved going to a restaurant recommended by the staff at our place, however they only informed me that it involved a ten minute motorbike ride (no helmet included) when they had already arranged transport.  After clinging on in a state of near terror I recovered to eat my usual amount of food and wondered how many animals had to die for that particular meal.  I think it was less than 5.

After spending a long weekend on the Kenyan coast next to Mombasa, I can definitely say that I will be returning.  It has a great mix of culture, beautiful coastline, great weather and there are a number of other places on the coast that made me wish that we could have stayed for longer.

After arriving back in Nairobi, Selinah and her children also returned from their small farm that they have outside Nairobi which they often visit on weekends.  It was great to tell her that Mombasa was a superb choice and it seemed that they had enjoyed a relaxing weekend as well.  My final weekend coincides with the St John Kenya annual parade and as such my final week is expected to be one of the busiest of the year for the organisation as they prepare for this.  My week will be spent consolidating the work that I have done with the finance team and collating all the recommendations into a clear plan for the finance team and the next AFID volunteer, who is expected to arrive in August.

Dambusters and Katii

16 Jun

As the weekend approached I mentioned the idea to Selinah of a more British office tradition, after work drinks on a Friday, and asked whether it existed at St John or in Kenya as a whole.  It seems that it is not as regular a fixture here although I am not sure as to the exact reason.  After explaining something along the lines of it forges a friendly team spirit, I managed to gather Selinah, Linda, Dolly (Finance Officer) and Angela (first aid trainer) into coming to Dambusters, a bar between St John and Langata.

I always think going to a bar in a different country can throw up a few surprises, whether it’s how you pay, the size of the drink, seating/standing or something else.  Dambusters did not disappoint.  I was not adventurous, going for White Cap, which is basically the alternative lager to the more popular Tusker. However, the others largely went for Smirnoff Ice, which the waitress brought x2 for every person.  Given they had only asked for one each I thought it seemed a bit odd, but it does seem to be the normal run of things in the bars that I have been in since.

As with most countries and unlike Britain, even in normal bars it is table service rather than pay at the bar (explaining we can’t be trusted with such an arrangement always gets a few laughs). However, in Dambusters it was a little more forthright than most as rather than asking if we wanted more drinks, they simply brought more bottles to the table.  The only way you don’t take the drinks is if you actually send them back.

Linda was more surprised when it was pointed out after her second bottle that she was drinking Smirnoff Black Ice, which is a stronger version at 7%.  I asked if she had not noticed getting light headed earlier than normal but she said she hadn’t realised there was any difference. The waitress then appeared and popped another two Smirnoff Black in front of her.  I think at this point I offered to help out as the Smirnoff Black’s started to form a destructive pile!

Admittedly, I could probably have picked a better evening to take them to a bar than the first night of Euro 2012.  I gave them a first-hand example of the British male custom of trying to maintain a respectable attempt at conversation with people while there is high profile football on the wall behind, turning in the odd “yes” every 1 to 2 minutes with vacant eye contact at regular intervals.
I only noticed how distracted I had become when noticing the language around the table had changed from English to Swahili, although not sure how long that had been the case!

On Sunday, there were no adventures involving giraffes like the previous weekend but still an interesting day.  It began fairly sedate at my second church service in a row, however once that finished Selinah’s son Martin and his two friends, Eyal and Archie decided to release the pent-up energy by rolling down the grass hill next to the church about 10 times (see Archie, the tired looking one!).  To be fair I definitely think that church had a similar effect on me at age (sadly no grass hills were around).

Back at the house, the boys decided they would go for more organised fun with football, rather than simply rolling down a hill.  I was pleased as I could actually join in this time without being stared at.  To be honest I think Eyal slightly had the edge on Martin at penalties, who seemed to get a case of stagefright when his mother started watching, the pressure clearly being too much!

After it was decided that football was a bit exclusive, I was introduced to the Kenyan game Katii.  Katii is something like dodgeball and all I really know is that I wasn’t very good at it.  There are two people outside the ring who have to throw the ball to hit those inside.  Last person standing is the winner.  After being a bit complacent, I was soon eliminated by a hammer throw from Selinah, who I also have a great action shot putting Linda out of the game in the picture below (the ball is landing about a foot away from Linda’s right foot).  To be fair I did improve and even managed to win once or twice, although it is a game where being small definitely helps so I think I was at a permanent disadvantage!

The week that followed in the office at St John was particularly focused on improving St John’s credit procedures and helping the finance team put in place contracts for the services St John provides to improve debt recovery from customers who pay on credit terms.  The CEO and current finance team have worked extremely hard to professionalise St John and recognise that although it is a charity, it needs to have the discipline of a business in the majority of its operations and procedures. My experience of improving credit control and drafting contracts (especially in Kenya!) is limited to say the least, so I’m glad that they have legal advisers who will review/approve the drafts and other documents that I have worked on with the finance team!

As the previous volunteer was a retired finance director, I have been able to review his reports and had the opportunity to understand the thought process and insights into St John through the lens of someone with c.35 years more experience than me.  It is not something I had considered as a potential outcome of the assignment but it has been interesting reading and hopefully useful in the future.

The evenings of the week were largely spent planning a weekend away in Mombasa, which is the main subject of the next entry!

Mud huts, monkey freedom and interviews

10 Jun

Last weekend began early on the Friday as Kenyans celebrated their national holiday to mark independent rule.  As I was keen to take in some of the more popular tourist attractions in Nairobi, one of my temporary colleagues at St John, Linda Matata kindly offered to take me round the Nairobi National Park.  I think I impressed with my maturity in not making one Hakuna Matata based comment which must be a sign that I have grown up for than I have realised!

It is generally better if you turn up at the National Park with your own transport so that you can drive around yourself to see the animals.  It is taking some getting used to that most of these things have to be done in a vehicle, as when I hear National Park I generally think of walking/hiking/cycling, however I have been advised that doing so is a quick way to end my trip early! As the National Park is walking distance from the Langata estate we turned up on foot and saw that there is a bus which can take those who don’t have their own vehicle around.

We decided to go to the animal orphanage close to the main entrance first, which isn’t entirely dissimilar to a fairly small zoo.  Nevertheless it did have an array of interesting animals and the usual snoring lions, who seem to purely exist as a fly banquet.  The highlight was a monkey (one of many types and I cannot remember the name) who had decided that he was going to make a break for freedom and was trying to use a stick to crowbar away the stones in the trench at the bottom of his fence.  His attempts are pictured below, and while he was not successful when we were watching, I like to think that he has escaped to roam free in the park or that his efforts for the cameras have won him a place in monkey hollywood alongside other famous monkeys like Marcel from Friends.


The hyenas pictured below were also happy to entertain for the camera until a foreign predator appeared on the scene and they headed for safety inside their hyena house.  This feared species is better known as an American tourist, who obviously didn’t think that bellowing “WOW HYENAS!?!” might send them running for cover.

When we finished from the orphanage and returned to the main gate for the bus ride, we decided that as the bus was packed it didn’t look like the best way of spending the rest of the day.  Close to Langata and the National Park is Bomas of Kenya, where we went to watch a show of traditional Kenyan music, dancing and acrobats and see the traditional villages of many different tribes in Kenya.

The show was impressive, particularly the acrobats, and I was glad that the audience participation in the dances wasn’t extended away from the front row.  The villages of huts were definitely the highlight for me though.  For some of the tribes, the villages are more of a recreation of the past, however a significant number still live in villages similar to those constructed at Bomas of Kenya.  It was really interesting to understand the traditions of some of the tribes and how they inform the make up of the village.  In reality though, the signs at the front of the huts were the greatest highlight and these are my top five.

“3rd wife’s hut”
“Grandmother’s hut”
“Boys hut”
“Married son’s 2nd wife’s hut”
“Husband’s hut”

You could go inside the huts and I can say that if you value living space you do not want to be the third wife!

On Saturday, I had arranged to meet two friends from the UK who were over for a trip to the Rift Valley and safari in the Masai Mara national park.  None of us live conveniently close in the UK but it is odd how you do seek out people you know when you are further afield!  Probably the strangest thing was it didn’t really feel much different from than if we had met in Manchester or London.  They were heading out for a longer night than I had planned due to morning plans on the Sunday but it was refreshing to see familiar faces and catch up on the time I have had in Kenya so far and their plans for safari and the rift valley.  It is unlikely that I will do either of these things on this trip but I intend to come back in the future and will hopefully see them then.

For the first time in a very long time, I attended a church service on Sunday morning.  Selinah and her family attend a Catholic church and I felt that it would be respectful to attend, especially given that I would only likely lie in bed otherwise!  I can at least say that parts of the service were interesting and it was much more relevant to modern life than when I attended church as part of cubs and scouts.  Part of the service was related to the holy trinity, where the priest told a parable in which a man was asked what the holy trinity was and he replied “beer, women and nyama choma and if its not in heaven I won’t be going”.  Selinah mentioned that the man must not be Kenyan as he did not mention ugali! As I said, very different to the last service I attended!

After the service, we took a detour on the way home to the Giraffe centre.  I was told of the more unorthodox way of feeding the giraffes that some of the visitors prefer and naturally I took up the challenge!   I did promise an amusing picture after all! The only positive I can take is that if a giraffe’s tongue hits your face you don’t need to shave that area for a week #sandpaper.

I spent the rest of Sunday in the family home, which might sound a bit boring, however I should stress that Selinah’s informal concept of “African socialism” really kicked in and I think the number of visitors (plus their children in some cases) throughout the day must have hit twenty by late evening. It is really sociable and definitely one of the positive aspects of Kenyan culture that I really enjoy.  Nevertheless, I think that in Manchester I would struggle to prepare enough food to feed myself and spontaneous visitors!

After the long weekend we returned to St John’s on the Monday.  As mentioned, I am assisting in implementing actions proposed by the previous volunteer, a retired finance director.  I have no real experience of the majority of the proposed actions, but have continued with the approach that few things in accountancy or business are rocket science and that the majority of the actions do not require specialist experience.  It has been an opportunity to gain exposure and provide assistance to the finance team across a diverse range of issues including improving debt collection and the overall credit policy, developing a standard contract template for first aid training courses and how the organisation should invest the reserves that it currently holds.

I also became a panel member in interviews for a new fundraising position on Tuesday, which was the most unexpected moment of the working week.  The candidates were generally strong, with the best four going through to the final interview stage.   One of the practical questions was to develop an outline of a funding proposal in the 10 minutes before the interview and then discuss how proposals should be constructed in the interview. If I was being representative, I would probably dwell more on the performance of the strongest candidates, however I feel the honourable mention of the process does go to a man whose proposal was for a project for the disposal of used contraceptives.  Knowing my inability to keep a straight face, it was not a good thing that he described the issues in detail with complete sincerity!

On a serious note, being on the panel provided me with an insight into how the organisation recruits its people, with a transparent and professional approach.  It is something that Selinah has stressed as crucial for maintaining the modernisation of the organisation and it would likely be an improvement if other public and private organisations in Kenya adopted a similar approach.

As this entry indicates, it appears the rest of my time in St John and in Nairobi is going to be very active both in work and on the weekends, and the weekend that has just finished while I have been writing this up has continued in the same vein! Where I fit in Euro 2012 remains to be seen…

St John’s and Langata

4 Jun

After a weekend of seamlessly slipping back into conventional travelling mode at Milimani Backpackers, I agreed last Monday for my second placement to start at St John’s Ambulance Kenya the following day.  Just in case anyone thought I had some hidden talents that I have not mentioned, I can confirm that I am again assisting in a financial/commercial capacity and won’t be donning an emergency uniform anytime soon!  However on that particular Monday, one extra emergency services volunteer would likely have been more useful.

On the Monday in which the assignment was finalised, I decided to head into town to buy some slightly more formal clothing than what I was wearing to the office in Nyeri, as I thought that my morning journey to St John’s office was unlikely to begin with a nice walk across a freshly flooded field.  It was slightly surprising when I returned to Milimani Backpackers after a successful shopping trip to find out that St John’s were busy attending to an explosion in a city centre shopping area only a couple of hundred metres from where I had bought my clothes about half an hour earlier.

The aftermath was surprising (albeit only partially) for a number of reasons, not least because the public decided to congregate around the blast area rather than vacating it (a major source of frustration to St John’s I have since learned) and also for the raft of comment from politicians and other officials.  Surprisingly soon after the blast, the police commissioner said that it had been caused by an electrical fault, whereas a number of senior political figures attributed it to a terrorist attack by Al-Shabaab, an extremist Somali organisation.  The latter explanation now appears to be the commonly accepted version of events in the media.  Nevertheless, you do wonder why a senior public official attributed the cause of a large lunchtime explosion on one of the main streets in the capital to faulty electrics. There were between thirty and forty injured in the attack and it seems a minor miracle that no one died.

St John’s

I arrived at St John’s in the evening for a short introductory briefing and really appreciated that they were still able to proceed despite also co-ordinating their emergency response to the blast.  The assignment is very different from Baraka Children’s Centre, as I expected given that St John is an international organisation.  The head office where I am working is in Nairobi city centre, about 500 metres from the Kenyan parliament and there are c.50-60 employees.  There is a wider network of 9 offices in different towns and cities in Kenya with total active volunteers country-wide of approximately 4,000.  Besides providing emergency services, the organisation provides first aid training classes to individuals and businesses and also provides a range of basic medical supplies.

The head office has a finance team of three accountants who I will be assisting in implementing the recommendations of the previous volunteer.  This is slightly different to most assignments which are focused more towards a training and mentoring role. The previous volunteer was a retired finance director of a large international business who produced a comprehensive action plan detailing the necessary developments and my role is to assist the finance team in implementing these recommendations.  Given his experience, it should prove to be a challenging assignment but one which also provides more learning opportunities for me as well as those that I am working with.

Stepping into Father Christmas’s volunteer role is not going to be easy…. 

My biggest challenge, however, may well be remembering staff names in the head office, after Victor (one of the three accountants) introduced me to nearly everybody in one attempt after I arrived at the office on Monday evening.  Happily, everyone seems very welcoming and tolerant of their name being forgotten and the sum total of my Kiswahili expressions being five (hello, thank you, how are you, I’m fine, bye!).

It is also fair to say that I have landed on my feet from an accommodation perspective.  I am staying with Selinah Kibogy, who is the CEO of St John Kenya.  Selinah lives in Langata, a suburb about 10km south-west of the city centre.  Strangely similar to Francis and Lydia at my previous assignment, Selinah has two elder children at boarding school and two younger children living at home while attending primary school (Heidi, 6, and Martin, 9).   Selinah also has a number of sisters and close friends who live within close walking distance of the house and I am definitely getting used to an array of visitors in the evening.  Friends and relatives often seem to informally pop in for dinner in the evening in a manner which doesn’t really happen back in England.  Selinah has referred to “African socialism” a number of times and I am beginning to understand what she means!

After living in rural area for a grand total of three weeks, I can’t deny that I am enjoying living in the capital. Langata is within walking distance of Nairobi National Park (includes lions, elephants and leopards roaming within 12km of the city centre but I hear they rarely escape) and other tourist attractions.  After rural life for only a short time, the capital feels like there is as much to do as London or Berlin although I am sure this feeling is slightly exaggerated!

I was also pleased to learn that it was a national holiday on Friday to celebrate independence from Britain rule.  It appears that I have celebrated a bank holiday for almost opposite reasons to everyone back in Britain enjoying an extra day for the Queen’s Jubilee, however I don’t see a reason to complain! As the long weekend has been particularly eventful, I have not finished writing about it and think Nairobi life may have this effect for the remaining weeks. For those who think that this has been lacking an amusing picture or two so far, I can promise that they will arrive in the next entry!

Moving to Nairobi…

28 May

The early part of the week had a positive development when Jackson, an accounting student at the local university college came in on Tuesday to learn the systems and changes that we are implementing.  This was with a view to him assisting Francis for a small amount of time each week after I leave such that the progress is maintained and problems can be resolved.

Jackson did not have much practical experience with excel but was keen to learn and quickly understood the basics of the program and the basic systems that we are implementing.   Nevertheless, I was slightly surprised when he said he would come in for another two hours the next day to learn more!  The positive attitude was encouraging, especially given that he had voluntarily given up his own time. I hope he can continue to assist Francis, although I think this may be difficult, given that he is studying for his exams.

Kenya meeting times…

The next day I knew that Francis had to attend a meeting with the department responsible for overseeing the activities of children’s homes in the Central province of Kenya, along with the directors of all the other homes in the province.  He explained that although the meeting was scheduled to run from 10 am until 2pm, it was unlikely it would continue until the scheduled end time and that he would probably be back at the clinic by noon.

As such, I explained to the customers who came into the clinic that he would be back at twelve.  A reasonable idea you would think.  Except that at noon Francis did not return.  Nor did he return at one.  Nor two, or even three.  Not feeling sufficiently confident to serve the customers the herbal medical products myself, this did result in a lot of muttering in Swahili and disgruntled facial expressions on the faces of customers who had returned to the clinic at the second or third attempt in the vain hope that the meeting would have finished and Francis would have returned.

A particular highlight was around 3pm, when Jackson had arrived to continue learning the Excel systems, and a customer was asking for a product which per Francis’ original stock take, had one unit remaining in stock.  As such Jackson and I explained this to the customer and we explored every last section of Francis’ shelves looking for said unit, to no avail.  The customer commented that Francis should have assistants who know where all the stock is!  It later transpired that Francis had taken said unit home for one of his children the day before.  I think we had been fairly rigorous in ensuring that all of the sales/purchases activities were being recorded and explained to Francis that even stock used for the family needed to be recorded if used!  I also obtained first-hand experience of why never to trust Kenyan meeting times… both the expected and the official.

My placement with the Centre came into an end slightly earlier than expected on Friday and while I think that we have made some important changes in this time, the key point I have noticed is that having sufficient local staff is crucial to ensuring that the changes can be maintained after the international volunteer has left.  It was important to involve Jackson this week and I have emphasised to Francis the importance of either retaining his involvement or another accountancy student to provide support when Francis needs it.  This would prove far more useful than relying on the services of international volunteers in short bursts, although I appreciate that this is far easier said than done.

Moving to Nairobi

It is expected that my next placement will be in Nairobi and this should begin early this week.  On that basis I travelled to Nairobi on Saturday morning and somehow accomplished the miracle of fitting myself and two large bits of baggage into a matatu for a two and a half hour journey (for the considerable sum of 350 shillings – c.£2.50!), before taking a taxi to the Milimani Backpackers’ hostel (pictured).

The hostel is about a 20 minute walk from the city centre and most people here also appear to be on volunteer placements or work-based assignments and it has been useful to hear of other volunteers/travellers experiences of Kenya so far.  Although the hospitality I received from Francis and Lydia at Baraka Children’s Centre was not far off royal, there has also been a welcome return of some travel staples that had slipped down the priority/possibility list when staying with a pastor and his young family.

  1. The last 3 weeks may have been my most healthy diet of the last ten years.  Daily vegetable and bean stews with ugali, and more bananas, mangoes and pineapples than I can remember.  However, I have dramatically realigned it back towards a fry-up for breakfast and fried chicken to add a bit more balance.
  2. A cold beer.  While the peace of being completely teetotal for 3 weeks has an upside, it is probably not a coincidence that I resisted the on-site bar for a grand total of 3 hours before buying the first Tusker of my trip so far.
  3. Travel stories.  Anyone who has spent more than one day in a backpacker environment knows that you will hear of some travel stories that at least impress you and may even make you a little jealous.  However, one here has landed straight at number one on the list that I have heard.  Here there are two South African eighteen year olds who have finished high school and are currently two and a half months into cycling from Cairo back to Cape Town.  They have cycled through Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia and Northern Kenya without any prior training.

    Listening to their experience has been really interesting, although the two highlights I thought was that in 22 days cycling in Sudan, local families were so welcoming that they allowed them to spend the night in their home and not once accepted any payment.  Given that it is represented as near no-go area on the news, it’s interesting to hear that the people were the most hospitable of their journey so far.  The other highlight of their story was the decision to camp in the desert in Northern Kenya, before deciding that the hyena howls were too close for comfort and setting of cycling again in the night.

While hearing the above story did leave me slightly on the jealous side, I am very much looking forward to the next placement, both from the opportunity to volunteer at what is likely will be a much larger NGO with a differing experience compared to the grass-roots nature of the Baraka Children’s Centre, and also to be based in Nairobi and experience a new part of the country.


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