Category Archives: Society

Sunday is Björkday

Across Reykjavik from The Pearl

For reasons unbeknownst, by Sunday morning we still hadn’t gone swimming in Reykjavik. This is an essential Icelandic pastime boys & girls, involving lounging in geothermically heated outdoor “hotpot” pools and maybe doing one or two lengths. Regardless of the weather. And just after our 10am Sunday checkout (we were leaving at 4am on Monday morning, no need for a bed!) seemed the ideal time to rectify the situation. This was also when I decided to have an acute attack of the “oh-my-god-these-icelanders-must-be-sick-of-all-these-foreign-idiots-pretending-they’re-icelandic-for-a-week”  and got a bit grumpy, despite the lovely pool at Vesturbæjarlaug with the hottest steam room Kate & Jamie said they’d ever been in (wimps).

Hot Pots at Vesturbæjarlaug. (Photo by Joel Adams at Calvin College)

But the Icelanders we were sharing a hotpot with were very nice to us (as they always seem to be), and I felt much better when we saw an entire non-Icelandic band, wrapped up in coats, hats and scarves, doing a photoshoot and interview at the poolside. At least we weren’t doing that.

Reykjavik Perlan (photo by Jamie)

Feeling much better for my dip in the warm eggy pool and shower (it’s very comforting, and amazing for the skin), we still had a few hours to kill before our next gig (Cheek Mountain Thief at Kex), so with trepidation (due to its reputation as Reykjavik’s only tourist trap), we walked to The Pearl, a rotating restaurant with panoramic views, a fake geyser and and expensive menu.

Asja and Reykjavik from the Pearl

It was actually not bad – the middle-floor cafe isn’t too expensive and there are wonderful views (as well as the shit fake geyser):

The Fake Perlan Geyser, not even spouting. Boo.

We arrived early for the gig at Kex to indulge in one of their “big beers”

Katie & her Kex BIG BEER

and even bumped into Mike Lindsay (the Cheek Mountain Thief himself) who told us a bit about his move to Iceland, and more importantly compared beards with Jamie.

Kex Beard Convention

BUT NOW! Björk was playing Harpa! And I had a ticket! What was going to be in store? Once I’d made it to Harpa (I nearly got blown into the moat the wind was so strong) I found my way to the Silfurberg room.

Inside Harpa

Not so easy, as each person was stopped and asked not to take photos when our tickets were checked, and the first 3 doors were reserved for the (even more expensive) seated ticket-holders, for that added tradesman feel. But Silfurberg itself was surprisingly intimate, with the stage in the centre and a tiered and roomy standing area. I met up with my friends Gabriel & Ilan who’d been to see the show on the Wednesday too – they’d bagged a priority spot behind the drummer who was, they assured me “fit”. (I couldn’t disagree, purely from an aesthetic point of view of course. Hi Jamie). We could also clearly see the upturned woks (a “hang”) and big twisty guillotiney thing (a pendulum-harp) that Mark had described. Gabriel pointed out where the Tesla Coil would appear from. Joachim arrived in the nick of time, just before the lights dimmed and Björk’s choir filed on stage, closely followed by Björk in her huge orange wig.

Bjork’s Hang, Sharpsicord and Pipe Organ

Having made a point of not hearing Biophilia before the live show (I don’t have an iphone or ipad and wanted the horses mouth experience), it was exactly the sort of bonkers but perfect concept performance you would expect. There are big screens showing the visuals from the relevant apps all around the stage, projected on both sides so you can see everything from wherever you were. Björk and her choir filled the stage, playing to all sides in rotation, and Gabriel said Björk seemed much more relaxed and into the performance than the previous Wednesday, which we could tell from the cheeky grins she threw at the audience.

On the screens, ‘Moon”s moon waxed and waned through its cycle with every beat of the xylophone.  One of my favourites was ‘Crystalline’ – just watching the choir dance in crystalline formation was a joy to behold, the notes of the song perfectly echoing – well crystalline things. Maybe it brought back a bit of chemistry geekery in me, I don’t know. My other Biophilia highlight was ‘Mutual Core’, an ode to the effect tectonic plates have on our lives. It starts off with Björk singing solo the least likely, unpoetic lyrics you would ever expect in a song, like A-level geography revision to music (“the Atlantic Ridge drifts, to counteract distance…”). Bonkers quotient filled. But then the song explodes in crescendo, the choir joins in, the stage erupts with vibrancy, the screens drip with volcanic lava, IT ALL MAKES PERFECT SENSE ON SO MANY LEVELS.

Set List!

There were a few non-Biophilia songs too, highlights for me being Isobel, and Declare Independence, proper dance around and get caught up in the moment numbers. So was it worth queueing for a free ticket, getting turned away, and ending up paying fifty five quid anyway? Yes. For me at least, it was more about seeing the performance as a whole, than “seeing some Björk songs live”. She does kind of hide away to a certain extent behind her costume and choir, and only speaks between songs to say thanks and to introduce her fellow performers. But it’s a breathtaking pleasure to watch how each song is put together, with such originality, attention to detail and vibrancy. What a show.

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Back up North

I’ve finally got all my Kenya stories off my chest, but now it’s time for my next adventure – back to Iceland for the Airwaves Festival, this time with my boyfriend Jamie who is even more excited than me if that’s possible. We’re planning on a little tour of the south coast first, hopefully taking in Jökulsárlón and the Westman Islands, before heading back to Reykjavik. Expect another flurry of posts over the next couple of weeks!

I’m also back up north in another sense, in that I’m now fully moved back to Leeds, including for work. Nine months off was great but it can’t last forever! I’ll be starting an initial year’s contract carrying out medication reviews in care homes, as well as still doing a few days a month for Boots. Medication review and care of the over 80s are both things I’ve always done, and loved doing, so hopefully this will be right up my street. Hooray!

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Mangrove Heaven

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Flamingoes!

My final goodbyes said to everyone in Kimuka, I headed off to see a bit of the rest of Kenya. I’d originally thought I might do a bit of a tour so I could see different parts of the country but I soon realised that it takes days to get from place to place in Africa and that just wouldn’t possible. I was tired of being on my own too and was really missing my bloke Jamie, but I didn’t want to come straight back to the UK without seeing outside Maasailand, having travelled 4,500 miles and not knowing when I might be able to afford to go back.

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View from the Eco Camp Bar

So on the recommendation of my Rough Guide, I booked a week at the Mida Creek Eco Camp on the Coast about 100 miles north of Mombasa – and home to the Giriama people. I wanted seaside – it was by a crystal clear tidal mangrove creek and just south of the national marine park in Watamu:

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Fishing in the Creek

I wanted to see birds and wildlife – the creek is teeming with birds and fish:

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Camp guide vs Fiddler Crab

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Stork, spoonbill, egret, ibis, whimbrel, plover, etc……

There is sealife galore in the marine park, and there is a protected ancient forest along the road which is home to exotic birds, mammals…:

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Baboons in the Morning Mist

and er- huge insects:

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A Lady Millipede

The other brilliant thing about the Mida Ecocamp is that it’s a real community project – a proper example of ecotourism. Felicity, the owner, came from the UK to visit and ended up staying to set it up when she saw how poor the Mida village was, and how it got overlooked by tourists who preferred to stay in the more developed Watamu or Malindi further up the coast.

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Views across the Ecocamp

Under Felicity’s supervision, the camp was built entirely by local people, using local materials, and now employs the villagers as manager, barmen, waiters, cleaners, chefs, tour guides and security guards – Felicity’s trained them up to do it properly. They continue to buy all their produce from local farmers, fishermen and shopkeepers, all the repairs are done by local villagers.

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Giriama Dancers

All the profits go back to the village community too – they’ve paid for a schoolroom and they salary a teacher there.  This year they have been able to pay schoolfees for some of the children too. As you can imagine, the camp has made a huge difference to the village and its community spirit, petty thieving & arguing has stopped, and it’s a gorgeous place to stay, with huts made out of traditional materials on the bright white sand of the creek and a big, breezy open air bar to lounge in.

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Chef Suleman & Me

I had a brilliant time at the camp, was fed and looked after extremely well, and I had a great laugh with all the staff who were also really helpful – they took an interest in me for who I was, and not one of them tried to charm or beg money from me like elsewhere in Kenya. But for me, the biggest relief of all was to at last to find a charity project that benefits everyone, is completely open about how it does that – and most importantly – works.

You can read more about how the camp has helped the local kids and community recently, how to donate, and exactly where your money will go if you choose to help, on the ecocamp’s website here.

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Saying Goodbye – with a Dead Sheep…

Me & Virginia

After my safari trip, I was tempted to avoid the bumpy journey back to Kimuka and go straight from Nairobi to the Coast where I’d decided to spend my final week in Kenya. But Virginia, Daniel and the rest of the villagers who support the MEAC charity had picked that evening to hold a traditional Maasai dinner party as a thankyou for all the volunteers who were about to leave, and I wanted to attend – I didn’t want to be rude – and we’d been promised Maasai dancing!

The Doomed Sheep

This was clearly a bit of an event for the village, all the kids were very excited and everyone got changed into traditional costume. I wasn’t sure what else to expect, but I knew they’d be killing a sheep and roasting it on an open fire, with dancing, singing and jumping while we waited for it to cook.

Maasai Barbecue

Throughout my time in Kenya I’d been a vegetarian as I’d not long started eating meat before I arrived and couldn’t stomach the stewed Kenyan goat and lamb which was hung up in butcheries where the flies got to it. Some of the Kenyan boys, predictably, grabbed one of the dead sheep’s eyes and tried to scare me with it, but it really only succeeded in grossing me out. Everyone from the village attended and the kids especially loved it with a chance to stay up late and play with the wazungucameras, practice their English, and to teach us some Swahili & Maasai songs.

Heather & the village kids

I was told there was no need to bring my own vegetarian food, but everyone was so caught up in preparations that there was nothing but bread and sheep in the end, making it a bit of a hungry evening for me. But despite this, evening was the most comfortable I had ever felt in Maasailand, and I felt a genuine warmth and friendship towards all of us volunteers.

Maasai Singing

Maasai Dancing

When the troupe of Maasai dancers performed for everyone, Virginia made us join in with them – it was really easy to pick up and the boys even had a go at jumping (the higher the man can jump in his dance, the more girls he can claim – in Maasai culture anyway!).

Maasai Jumping

We were presented with Kangas (for the girls) and Shukas (for the boys) in a heartwarming speech that Virginia and Daniel from MEAC gave for us all.

Volunteer ceremony

It made me feel really honoured to have been welcomed into Virginia’s home and the village of Kimuka. I’m not sure that I really did make any lasting difference to their way of life, but I know I’m not going to forget what I’ve learned from them.

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Tall Stories and the Safari Tourist

Oloololo Village

I think it’s important to mention the impact of reserves and safari tourism on the Maasai people they have displaced (more for conservation reasons rather than tourism, but you can see how they would interpret their government’s treatment of them as pandering to tourist demand). We had the chance on the second evening to look round the nearby Maasai shanty village  of Oloololo, see some traditional dancing, and go on a guided bush walk to see the sunset overlooking the game reserve.

Bush walk

Johnny and I opted not to see the village as we’d been living in one for the last few weeks but as we met the others at the village “marketplace” before the bushwalk, I was saddened by the pushy and surly selling techniques the girls used, small babies strapped to their backs. They obviously hadn’t been to school, had been made to marry young, didn’t speak English, and hadn’t been taught that tourists are more likely to buy their trinkets if they returned their smiles, could answer any questions, and didn’t grab and shove them. I got the distinct impression that these young village wives would be beaten if they didn’t make enough sales, but I felt anger at a society that forces these girls into making money from tourists they obviously resent for the impact on their lifestyle, without giving them the skills to do so successfully.

Maasai Mara from the Oloololo escarpment

I found myself in a dilemma as to whether to buy variable quality junk I didn’t want in an unpleasant environment, in an attempt to make these girls’ lives easier for one day, but I just couldn’t buy into that culture. Things certainly are a far cry from this situation in Kimuka, and it did make me feel more positive about my time there.

Our Maasai guide, with our fellow safari-er Jan (Thanks to Jan’s partner Jana Hrda for the photo)

Even the bushwalk guide had clearly polished his patter to humour tourists, and while he could speak English very well, he was all about sticking to his slick plan, mixing explanations of traditional Maasai bush techniques with tall stories of achievement and proud claims of how much of the local plant and wildlife he had wiped out. It was entertaining if you took him with a pinch of salt!

Sunset over Oloololo

Both these village tours cost a small amount extra which seemed perfectly reasonable initially, but our guide, like most other Kenyans in the same situation, had worked out how to use the tourist situation to his advantage. When you multiply the individual fee we each paid by a busload of 8 tourists, his 2 hours of patter earns him the equivalent of a Kenyan teacher’s monthly wage, and I’d bet that amount again that this wasn’t shared with the village. It’s very easy for Kenyans to charge Westerners inflated prices because they know we’ll pay it, distorting the local market, and pushing up local inflation. I can only hope he was investing his earnings wisely so he could send his children to school but I’m not holding my breath.

One thing I can definitely say I’ve brought home from my trip to Kenya is  that you can never underestimate the importance of education, reading and travel.

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We’re on a Road to Nowhere

Welcome to Saikeri

During my stay in Kimuka in Maasailand, our host family offered to take us to visit a traditional Maasai village, where our host Virginia’s partner Daniel’s mother lived. You can see Saikeri to the west of the map, and Virginia’s mum-in-law’s settlement to the south-west of that. Click through to have a proper nose around:

Saikeri, Kimuka & Ngong

We trundled for nearly 2 hours through arid but stunning scrubland (the air becomes much drier the further into Maasailand you go), past numerous herds of cows and goats (or are they sheep?) in our truck, which stalled several times trying to struggle over gigantic rocks which make up the road, and had to be push-started by the passengers.

One of the good bits of road

Those 2 hours only took us as far as Kimuka’s “neighbouring” village of Saikeri. Our actual destination it turns out, was nearly another hour’s walk in the scorching heat, deep into the bush.

Maasai Landscape

But the journey, through the Great Rift Valley, was beautiful, and if you have facebook you can see fellow volunteer Knut’s 47 sec video clip of the ride here.

Traffic

We found the manyatta nestling in the scrubland & trees at the foot of the hills of the Rift Valley (if you climb to the top of them you can see Tanzania). They’re the ones that are fading into the horizon in the picture below…

The walk from Saikeri to the manyatta (note newfound stray dog friend, and hills on the horizon)

Virginia’s mum-in-law lives very traditionally, in one of the dwindling number of traditional settlements of Maasai manyatta – a small collection of houses made from a wood frame with walls of mud and dung. (Knut even had a very successful go of making a small manyatta hut of his own when we got back to Kimuka).

Daniel’s mum’s hut

Like Kimuka, there is no running water or electricity, but unlike Kimuka, there are no water tanks which collect and store rainwater, there are no toilets (the bush is sufficient) and the shower room is a bucket, sponge, and the great outdoors (done at night so no-one can see, although we weren’t convinced this rule would work for us reflectively pale-skinned Europeans!).

Daniel’s mum and the (great?)-grandkids

The journey from the manyatta back to Saikeri village, and then 20 minutes out the other side, and then all the way back again, is one that Daniel’s mum – a breathtaking, strong, smiling woman in her mid 50s – does on foot everytime she wants water. She either carries the bottles back from this well (the nearest one) on her back, or uses a donkey.

Each hut in the manyatta is separated by its own hedge

The huts each have a single room, where the whole family sleeps and cooks, although a lot of cooking and eating is done outside too. Sleeping areas are partially separated off by stick partitions, and the beds are spread with cow skins and shukas, much more comfy than I expected. Knut took a video of the settlement here or hopefully my photos give you a decent idea of what the manyatta looks like (all of the photos on this post plus a few more are also on my flickr).

Inside a manyatta hut – with a gourd used for cows milk

We also met the other female members of the manyatta community, who were the just-pubescent wives of the men that lived there, and their kids.

One of the girls (wives) let me take her photo

The men were out herding the cattle, and the girls had to make sure the sheep, which spent their day nearer the manyatta, didn’t get into mischief. They were shy but welcoming, and Virginia translated for us when we tried to say hello and thank them for their hospitality.

Daniel’s mum and “the girls”

As well as looking after the kids and animals, doing the housework and preparing food, the women also spent time making the traditional Maasai beadwork that everyone wears. Virginia’s mother-in-law showed off a beautiful wedding necklace she’d made, and I bought a traditional bangle from her for myself.  She’s traditional in her way of life, but quietly progressive in her support of girls if they want to do things their own way and defy the Maasai patriarchy.

Daniel’s mum and her beadwork

We didn’t get much time to ask questions – the girls were shy and didn’t speak English and Virginia and her mum-in-law were engrossed in catching up on the gossip so I didn’t like to interrupt too much. But we had a delicious and relaxed lunch sitting under a huge acacia tree just outside the manyatta where the sheep were also lounging, while the boys went to peer at Tanzania from the tops of the hills.

Shade!

Shade!

The visit was a real insight into how hard life can be in such isolation without the mod cons we are used to (made so much more extreme by the searing heat and limited water supplies we’d brought with us), but Virginia’s mum-in-law takes it all in her stride, laughing cheekily at us for being too slow and needing rests as she accompanies us back to Saikeri. My excuse was I was taking in the scenery, I’m not sure she bought it but that was my story and I stuck to it!

Waiting for me & Knut…

Knut walks back to Saikeri

Nearly half way..

And even having walked for nearly another hour, Daniel’s mum amazes us all by effortlessly running the last few hundred metres into Saikeri:

Last one to the tree’s it!

It was a privilege to have been welcomed into such a private and traditional way of life, so far removed from any tourists. I’m not sure I could cope, but it’s these values of hard work, family, and care for their animals and land that the Maasai are fighting to preserve.

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Health and Wealth in Maasailand

Rhoda the clinic nurse outside the Clinic

So when I was in Maasailand, I got to spend some time in a healthcare dispensary (see my last post). The government-run Kenyan dispensaries are part of a tiered system of healthcare designed to cater for all, and they don’t do too bad a job considering, especially the one in Olosho-Oibor which I visited. As well as access to dispensaries & clinics, the government also recognises the benefit of public health education, and each dispensary employs Community Health Workers, who do a brilliant job of going out to villages and educating people about sanitation, malaria and HIV prevention, and other preventable diseases. They also give out mosquito nets and condoms, and arrange screening programs for HIV. Agnes, the Community Healthcare worker based at Olosho wasn’t at work while I was there (she had to plant maize as the rainy season had started) but I was lucky enough to bump into her on my walk home one day, spade over shoulder, and she explained how she looked after the healthcare library at Olosho and the outreach programmes they run from there. She had recently run a very successful HIV education session where 50 out of 55 villagers underwent screening for the infection, encouraged by the testimony of the HIV positive patients that go along with her and explain how the medicine they now take has meant they can continue living their lives, and that a positive result doesn’t mean death, it means help.

I don’t have any pictures of Agnes or Lucy, but here’s a pic of Lucy’s little girl posing in my sunglasses…

Screening for HIV is a big problem in maasailand (especially when you consider the often fiercely upheld traditions of compulsory wife-sharing and polygamy (effectively rape), while attitudes to condom use are the exact opposite). Back at the dispensary, Lucy, another healthcare support worker tells me they offer and encourage HIV testing to all walk-in patients but there is little uptake, it’s only programmes like the ones Agnes runs that begin to allay people’s fears. Lucy explains that while there is plenty of HIV medication to go round at the moment, she worries that the more people are diagnosed, that the HIV medication will run out. You can easily imagine the scenario and how that would damage trust between communities and the government which relationship isn’t always rosy especially in Maasailand.

Another shot of Rhoda and the dispensary..!

Prescribing and dispensing was pretty different at the clinic from what I am used to. There were no guidelines or reference books, and no information as to safety in pregnancy and breastfeeding which are both quite common in Kenyan villages. You can’t discuss stopping breastfeeding though as there’s no powder milk and the baby would die. I got the impression that it was felt to be more important to give a medication and for its beneficial effects, and I was really surprised how much medication with potentially severe side effects was given out without much question. I’m not sure that risk versus benefit assessment or drug monitoring has reached Kenya yet. Or maybe it’s just that they don’t have access to the information to help them do so, or any viable alternative if a chosen treatment wouldn’t suit someone. You takes your chances…

Our dressings trolley

Prescriptions were recorded as part of the handwritten notes, then the medication was counted and given out in little polythene sachets there and then, with nothing more on the label than “1 x 1″ or “2 x 3″ or whatever. (Take one tablet once a day and Take two tablets three times a day, respectively). No drug or patients names, or dates, or warnings, but then these would have been pointless as the majority of people can’t read well enough (free primary education has only been available for the last 10 years in Kenya).

I asked Rhoda, the nurse running the clinic what the most common complaints were. She told me that coughs and upper respiratory tract infections were common due to the dust, but she treated almost all patients with chest problems with septrin or azithromycin (2 very strong antibiotics with potentially severe side effects whose use we try and minimise in the UK due to the risk of resistance – and side effects). I was pretty shocked at the number of people we treated with these. But these are the government-sanctioned treatments of choice, and all that’s available, and there’s still a culture of treating wherever possible rather than recognising self-limiting conditions. I asked Rhoda if she was worried about resistance with such high antibiotic usage rates, but she told me she wasn’t as most people she treats seem to get better. We also have to record every prescription for antibiotics in a special log book (like we would do for controlled drugs like morphine in the UK). When I asked Rhoda why, she told me this was because they’re valuable on the black market and the government doesn’t want medication going missing.

Dust

Malaria is the other most common complaint at the clinic and we saw a couple of malaria patients each day when I was there. Treatment is available, and it’s free for malaria patients in Kenya, but we agreed it’s odd that it’s so prevalent in this part of maasailand as there are no mosquitos. Nets are still given out just in case.

Another important role for the dispensary is as a kind of healthcare-focussed community centre. Vitamins are given out to almost all patients as malnourishment is common and vitamins are thought to improve the chances of getting better. The dispensary also acts as a food distribution point for food aid for eligible people (mainly kids and the sick), especially during school holidays where poor kids may not get a meal otherwise. They also host family planning awareness groups for local women, and that’s particularly important to have in a society where the cost of having a child can mean increased poverty, especially for the women, due to having to feed them and send them to school, but where children are still seen as a valuable commodity – girls can be exchanged for cows when they are of marrying age (upwards of 9 years old). As a result, most Maasai men will not tolerate their wives using contraception and will beat them if they find out. So instead of the pill or condoms, the clinic administers the 3 monthly depot contraceptive injection to those women who would like it – safe in more ways than one! Values are changing slowly, but it’s hard when younger girls with more modern values are made to marry the old, traditionally patriarchal and controlling generation.

Small communities rely on dispensaries

I wish I could have spent more time at the dispensary, especially to see the work Agnes does, and that I’d been better prepared for going – I would have brought reference sources for a start. But I’m glad I got to go even if only for a few days. Huge thanks to Rhoda for being so welcoming and friendly and showing me round. I wish her luck with her quest to be allowed to move out of the middle of nowhere when she has finished her 3 years in Maasailand the government requires

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Rhoda’s Dispensary

Ngong Hills, from the road to Olosho

Yesterday’s terrible news that at least 75 people died when a pipeline caught fire in a Nairobi slum, has had me thinking about Kenya again and the poverty that the majority of the people there live in.

When I was in Kenya earlier this year, after much perseverance at the primary school, I was allowed to spend some time at the nearest rural health dispensary, which was nearly a 2 hour walk away in a village called Olosho-Oibor (you could get a piki piki (motorbike taxi) but you had to wait hours for one and pay double because no-one wanted to ride out so far from Ngong (the nearest main town). Here’s a map (click through for an interactive version):

Kimuka & Maasailand (Olosho-Oibor is the most southerly mark)

Running the dispensary while I was there was a nurse called Rhoda. She normally shares the running of the dispensary with another nurse, but he had taken a few days off to plant maize (as had nearly everyone else, as the rainy season had just started). When the rains start, it’s quite common just to call up work the same morning and say you’re not coming in. Everyone relies on crops here and you can’t predict the weather, or annual leave to accommodate. Somehow they seem to manage!

Rhoda and a patient outside the dispensary

Rhoda is from just outside Nairobi, and studied there too, but the state requires qualified professionals – nurses, teachers and so on, to work for them for three years post qualification before you can get a job of your choice with them, as healthcare & education are funded by the state. Staff are posted where there is the greatest need in the (usually rural) community for 3 years, but generally they don’t get even a first or second choice as to location, regardless of whether they have family or children to support (which is common – it costs a lot to train professionally in Kenya and people are often older when they qualify as they’ve had to save to pay for their training).

The Olosho Oibor Dispensary

Kids and spouses can of course go with them but in rural communities there may not be schooling facilities for the kids, and it’s unlikely there will be jobs for a partner. This leads to a lot of professional families living apart while they follow their careers, like Samson from Kimuka Primary school. Parents often only see their young families only once or twice a month, or less if the distance is greater or you simply don’t have the money to travel. I do wonder if this discourages Kenyans from either training as professionals, or from staying in the country once trained – I certainly came across reports that professionals preferred to take their skills abroad where things were “better organised” – a great shame as there’s a lot of talent in Kenya, it just needs nurturing properly.

Inside the dispensary

Despite being stuck in the middle of nowhere, Rhoda was great company and very happy to answer my questions and show me round. I felt bad I couldn’t speak Maasai, or even Swahili well enough to help her out with her patients more. But I was able to help by organising the donated medication in the dispensary (most of which wasn’t really relevant for the setting, and didn’t come with useful identification) and giving out (plentiful, state-provided) medicines to patients, most of whom could understand enough English to know how many to take how many times a day. Lucy, the healthcare assistant who worked with Rhoda, helped me out with language if I got funny looks from patients!

The Maternity Block

This particular dispensary was funded and built by a large NGO (possibly the UN, although I wasn’t 100% clear). As a result the facilities were pretty impressive compared to where I’d been living in Kimuka. It was built from brick, was clean and freshly painted, had sinks in all the treatment rooms, and flushing toilets. There was a flat provided too, of similar specifications, so that staff like Rhoda who were sent there by the government, could live in satisfactory conditions. There was a small windfarm (well, one windmill) which powered the majority of the dispensary’s requirements, including TV in Rhoda’s flat for a few hours a day, quite a luxury which I’d forgotten I’d not seen for so long!

Rhoda’s Flat, from the dispensary

Rhoda took me on a tour of the facility, which wasn’t quite finished. There was a dispensary room where were were based, a consultation room and a vaccination/treatment room, where we gave babies’ vaccinations and inject women with the depot contraceptive. There is a soon-to-be completed maternity ward with flushing loo, and a healthcare library with internet access and public health education materials that the community health workers use with villagers. Patients can access these facilities too. The waiting area is outside, and it’s a friendly, informal place, although it wasn’t as busy as it can be in the dry season as people don’t like to be rained on on their way to the clinic.

Waiting Area

Most people are able to be treated at the clinic, and given medication to take away, or Rhoda will administer injections, dress wounds, and so on, on site. The clinic works on a walk-in basis for general conditions, but there are special mother & baby sessions on Thursdays where antenatal, postnatal & family planning healthcare is given one on one, and education groups are run. It’s a safe place where women can come for advice, and the uptake of these advice, information and check up services seems to be good. The dispensaries are designed to be a one-stop shop for all the healthcare needs of rural communities, and the system does seem to be well thought out and comprehensive. If someone can’t be treated adequately at a dispensary, then they can be referred to one of the provincial, regional or the national hospitals for further investigations or in-patient treatment (which carries different costs). Given the poverty of the region I was concerned that there are charges at all, but exemptions seem to be applied where there is greatest need which is better than nothing.

Healthcare charges

Pregnant women, children under 5 and people being treated for HIV or malaria are exempt, otherwise there’s a blanket 50ksh (about 30p) charge per visit. It doesn’t sound a lot but it’s not uncommon for people not to have the money – fortunately Rhoda knows most of them and in a real emergency she will let someone pay later – either way it’s much cheaper (and quicker) than travelling to Ngong and going to one of the private pharmacies. More on what sorts of patients the dispensary looks after in the next post…

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Panic on the Streets

Music is nice

There have of course been incalculable losses to businesses & livelihoods across the UK, my mind still boggles at how independent businesses will cope with the rebuild, and how the loss of retailers in towns and cities will affect those communities’ economies.

A cause of concern to me and lots of people I know is the arson at the Sony distribution warehouse during the Enfield riot on Monday night. This is the warehouse that stores physical releases from a large number independent artists & labels, before they are ordered for stock by your local indie record shop (if you’re lucky enough to have one left).

Messages posted by PIAS, the distribution company (the largest for independents in the UK), that looks after all of this state they are working hard to ensure that shops have enough stock of indie releases to continue viable trading, and they obviously are aware of how serious this situation could be for the (usually struggling) independent artists and labels whose stock was burnt by mindless louts.

Perhaps the louts think it’s an appropriate way to express themselves. How ironic that if they want “a future”, that they air their frustrations by destroying the efforts of those who have sacrificed the luxuries of a nice easy 9-5 to express themselves earning a living carrying on the great tradition of independent musicians, that of being a voice of a generation and giving hope, comfort, escape and a sense of belonging when times are difficult.

If you are concerned that these events might mean even more difficult times for independent musicians and the sometimes tiny labels that help put out their work, then here’s a list of the labels they distribute for. Have a look through, if you recognise any names, or know a favourite artist of yours is on one of them (or even if you don’t), then if you can buy something from them this week or next, physical or download, then I’m sure that’ll go some way to helping artists, small labels, and independent retailers get through what is a potentially very vulnerable situation. And you might discover some cracking new tunes too.

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Trying to Make Sense of the Senseless – #UKRiots

Well I can’t very well not mention the devastation that’s gripping the country at the moment. I won’t say much on the topic –  there’s nothing left to say, and everything left to say, and I don’t want to bore you by repeating what’s been whirling through everyone’s minds since last Friday. Apart from anything else, fellow Icelandophile Paul Sullivan of the Matador travel blogging network summarises what’s been going on, really bloody well here. Do give it a read, it’s made me feel like there is still common sense in the world.

Matador Network on the Riots

There is of course lots of speculation on why the “yoof” of the UK are destroying innocent people’s lives & communities. Is it lack of a sense of future? A lack of family and community values? A lack of education and discipline? People are suggesting National Service as a solution to these seemingly overwhelming issues, but here’s an interesting perspective on this issue, from the Guardian’s joepublic blog back in 2009, which might certainly address the sense of community and society so many people are despairing exists any longer.

But for now, my thoughts go out to all my friends and yours in London, and everywhere else where the riots have hit, who are on an emotional rollercoaster just trying to go about their daily lives. Tears, worry, fear, frustration, bewilderment, devastation, pride, defiance, and more. It’s heartening that communities are coming together (one friend lives where the local Turkish community are guarding local businesses; the twitter #riotcleanup has been a triumph of community spirit), and that like another of my good friends in Manchester, people are refusing to give up the cities they love to a bunch of thugs.

However long this lasts, and whatever the aftermath holds though, it isn’t going to be an easy ride. Stay strong Britain, and stand tall.

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