Tag Archives: Maasai

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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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.


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.



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.


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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Virtuous Volunteering..?

Well I’ve been a bit rubbish at keeping this blog up to date again. Sorry. I’ve got a fair bit of Africa to catch up on, but I guess so much happened while I was there in such unexpected contexts, it’s taken me a while to process it all properly in a way that I can explain succinctly and coherently.

So here goes with the next chapter in my Kenyan volunteering diary, and my attempt to answer my Auntie Pauline’s questions about asked me what sorts of people volunteer where I was, and what exactly my role was at the Primary School. Unfortunately it’s not very straightforward, but here goes…

First of all the volunteers. When I arrived at Kimuka Primary School, there were already 5 other volunteers there, 3 on gap years before starting university (aged 19-22) and 2 (aged 26) were on a career break wanting to try something different and help others at the same time. We were all from Westernised nations – UK, Canada, Scandinavia, Australia & the US. It seems that retirement- or near-retirement age volunteers came there quite often too from similar sorts of countries, and in fact towards the end of my stay an older American chap arrived with my charity to live in a much more remote part of Maasailand whose school had only just opened and had absolutely no resources.

Kimuka Volunteers at our leaving party

Kimuka was however relatively well off with good facilities, provided by the volunteer programme, and only 20 minutes by matatu to the nearest town with water and food supplies and an internet connection. One of my fellow volunteers was a carpenter, so spent his time doing invaluable repairs and knocking up things like desks and doors. The rest of us at Kimuka were either here for teaching experience to add to their CV, or were there for similar reasons to me – to help and be useful while seeing how other cultures live.

When we arrived, I for one assumed that the charity would have looked at my skills that I’d told them about and placed me where I would be of most use,  or that there would be some sort of programme in place to enable the community to make use of volunteers.  Perhaps as a teaching assistant for kids who are struggling with their lessons, and the teachers would explain what they wanted me to do while they led the class.  First rookie mistake.

The School Office

With a small charity like the one I went with where volunteers do not arrive regularly, and where they do not have to stay for a minimum period of say 3 or 4 months to enable continuity, it’s really hard for there to be a set programme of work for them. For instance, one volunteer might want to be a teaching assistant in Maths, but they might only stay for 4 weeks, and there might not be another for a year, making it hard to structure lessons around one day having a volunteer who wants to do a task, and one day not.

So the easiest way for the charity and teachers to deal with volunteers is ask us what we want to do. Which is hard when you have just arrived in a completely unfamiliar environment, very aware that you have no idea about cultural and practical differences, and that you don’t want to suggest anything that’s unsustainable. And that in turn makes conversations very circular:

“Tell us why did you came to Kenya?”

“Well, I wanted to come and help you and do things that you will find useful”

“That’s wonderful, tell us what you would like to do!”

“Well what do you need? I can teach and interview people and write about culture and give healthcare advice and I know lots about Western medicines, but I can’t speak Swahili or Maasai”.

“That’s great! Anything. Tell us what you want to do”

“What do you need me to do? I don’t really know what the practicalities are. This is a very different way of living to the one I’m used to”

“Whatever you want! We want you to enjoy your time here! We are so grateful to you for coming, we want you to be happy. All you have to do is say how you want to spend your time”


It became obvious that I was going to have to second guess what the people of Kimuka needed, and try and match that with things that I was able to help with, if I was going to come away feeling like I’d made a difference. This is I think mainly because there is so little context and perspective as to why volunteers come to poor nations like Kenya, and little understanding that there might be other ways to do things – only that they can get (usually much needed) new things by hosting volunteers.

But perhaps that’s an obvious situation to find yourself in when you sit back and think about the context yourself. The people that I went to live with were poor. The majority of people in the community had never visited a city and had never travelled further than the next village. They have no electricity for television (I came home with a newfound respect for TV news and documentaries), and no money to buy books or newspapers (even if they did, there is little daylight to read them in as it takes all day to see to the more essential tasks of tending the cattle and feeding the family).

Heather teaches Class 5 maths

So initially, while we tried to work out what exactly was going on, we all ended up watching teachers teach class, helping them with marking, or filling in for them if they wanted some free time (or in the headmaster’s case, if they were drunk in the pub). Which was fine if that’s what you wanted, and in fact one of the other volunteers found teaching so rewarding, she started to consider she might want to become a teacher instead of studying law, which she’d never have thought about otherwise.

But for me, this didn’t feel right. I hadn’t moved out of my flat and travelled halfway across the world just to give some school teachers a break. We eventually persuaded the school to draw up a list of things they needed, and while they were all useful things for the school, they all involved either buying supplies or having specialist skills like being an electrician. To spend money wasn’t why I’d come – although I was happy to do so, I could have sent that over via my bank without travelling such a long way and giving up so much. Perhaps naively I hadn’t really considered just how poor the community would be – we really do take a lot for granted in the West, like the fact that to complete schoolwork you need a pen, which costs money kids just don’t have – but the first I knew of these specific requests was a week after I arrived and I had no opportunity to fundraise, or approach companies for sponsorship for some of the bigger asks.

Chicken feed – Volunteer-funded Chicken Project

But in the end I managed to find out some useful information by chatting to people – not easy when there are so many volunteers in one place all asking the same sorts of questions, and when you can only ask probing questions when people are in the mood to answer.

It was from one of these discussions that I ended up setting up a relationship discussion groupfor the kids to try and address the problem of drop outs due to pregnancy. It was a shame I didn’t get to run more of them and build up more of a relationship with the kids, or run enough to make it routinely acceptable to talk about relationships and try and get away from the painfully patriarchal way of raising in disciplining kids which is prevalent in rural Kenya – but it was a start and probably the thing I’m most proud of doing while I was there.

Teachers & Volunteers

The other thing that I did that I felt was useful was the decision to pay for certain things for a couple of individuals who I know will value the gesture and use it well. One of them has vowed to start a teachers’ league against caning, and to link with other teachers who have training in non-violent methods of discipline to visit schools to provide seminars to teachers who find it hard to let go of the cane. Use of the cane was a major source of conflict between pro- and anti-caners at the school and it would be wonderful to be able to remove the fear that causes teachers (by their own admission) to use the cane, and the fear that it induces in the kids.

I found it important for my own self-respect though not to feel like my time and money was being taken for granted, so I kept all that quiet and declined all requests for significant amounts of money until I knew people were asking because of a genuine need, with a plan for using it wisely, and not because they saw a pot of money that they wanted a piece of. Not that I blame people for asking, they are far poorer than we can understand without visiting, and their only experience of Westerners is that of visitors (or “volunteers”) coming to donate money or gadgets. There’s a real feeling that there is a generation of Africans growing up thinking that all white people have unlimited amounts of unwanted cash and things, and all they want to do with it is go on a home stay African village holiday and give stuff to the locals.

Kimuka School

It’s a shame that, other than two people I met who understood how to listen to the foreign visitors’ perspectives, this won’t change without that insight and perspective, and that you can’t really get that without things like reading and discussion and travel and TV –  and that those in turn only come with the money to fund an education that allows you to get a good enough job to access such luxuries. The challenge I guess is working out how to help people out of poverty sustainably, with a mutual understanding of each others’ motivations and constraints. From other conversations I’ve had, I’ve no doubt that this is being done by NGOs and bigger organisations like VSO, and some smaller organisations with Western organisational input, but I found from my trip that realistically the amount of good that can be done in a month’s visit to a comparatively well-resourced community school is limited to the your hands-on skills and how much money you’ve been able to raise in advance to fund projects and buying of equipment.

Part of me wishes I’d gone expecting it to be nothing more than a “home-stay” holiday, then I’d have been able to relax and get stuck in with living the way my hosts did, exploring another culture without the pressure to be sitting in the school at certain times despite having nothing to d0 there. Whichever way you look at it though, I’ve met some brilliant characters, encountered genuine passion for the community and the charity’s projects, and seen some breathtaking sights – an eye opening experience if you like, one which I’ve learnt more than I could ever have imagined from, and one which I’ll never forget.


Filed under Africa, Kenya, Society, Travel

Cool Kenyan stuff (even though it’s quite warm)

A travel blog wouldn’t be complete without amusingly double-entendrified everyday products, and some photos of ace local stuff. Here is my contribution to the cause:

Doing my laundry by hand was Toss

Here I am with my very own bucket of Toss laundry detergent (available in blue or white varieties, I’m not sure why).

Want to know why Kenyans are so good at running? They run marathons for breakfast. Every day. Here are some of the guys that regularly ran past us on our way to the school:

Faster! Faster!

There are giraffes in our backyard. Well, in the next door field. I shall say no more.

No explanation needed

Awesome views. Especially sunsets. And especially sunsets from Savannah’s bar, set high up on the hillside overlooking the Maasai plains. And of course no electricity means no light pollution, so once the sun has set, the night skies are super clear – you can see galaxies! Unfortunately I’ve not managed as yet to capture this on camera, but bear with me and please believe me for now.

The Savannah Sunset resort. Sadly usually closes at sunset unless invaded by Western volunteers wanting to spend money

The Maasai are one of the more colourful Kenyan peoples. Their gorgeously coloured clothes and handmade beadwork brighten up the dingiest rainy day

Pottering along

OH AND I ALMOST FORGOT! Food is not only amazingly fresh and tasty, it is pretty cheap here. I got ALL THIS for 87p!




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The Rains in Africa

There will now follow some posts that I wrote while I was away but haven’t had the chance to publish till now. The first two weeks I was in Maasailand were blazing hot, but we knew the rains were due. Here’s how they finally hit:

Not Scotland

The whole time I’ve been here we’ve all been wondering just when the (long) rainy season will kick in. This thought is of course always accompanied by Toto’s Africa playing cringeworthily in my head. I think I’m managing to get away without letting anyone know though – I like to assume that it’s happening to everyone else as well but no-one’s brave enough to admit it either. But – I can announce now that I have not suddenly relocated to Scotland – the rains have in fact started!

Rainclouds v2.0

While the colour of the sky turns an all too familiar grey in the afternoons, the mornings are usually sunny. When the clouds do come they are biblically thunderous. After the rains it’s obvious just how much the dusty land needs water. Varying species of ants (especially gigantic ones) are everywhere, as are butterflies and other sorts of the more pretty flying insects.

A nice beetle, which was quite big, but not flying.

You can see and hear more birds, there are riots of pink and red flowers, and fresh green sprouts of grass that have been hiding just below the surface really do appear as if by magic.

Pink things and red things

The roads are a different story, as they’re so sandy to start off with the mud that forms quickly becomes very slippery, and walking along them is like walking uphill on a very wet beach.

Business as usual (note if you can the wellies on the bike’s passenger)

But the rocks on the roads become waterfalls which look wonderful, and the trenches next to them suddenly become the streams and rivers you can tell they are meant to be – but despite being up to 3 feet deep and/or wide at the height of the rain, it’s amazing how quickly they dry up again once the rains stop for the day. The river was covering the road 12 hours before I took the picture. Africa’s all-or-nothing weather is nothing if not breathtaking.

The start of a roadside river


Filed under Africa, Kenya, Travel

Get up, Stand up for Your Rights

Young ladies of Kimuka

The other day I had a really interesting chat with Virginia about the problems she sees facing the Maasai, and in particular the Maasai women. She explained the two most pressing issues are those of forced marriage and female circumcision. Many traditional Maasai fathers marry their daughters off as young as 9 years old, unless they are in school, often to men with status 30 or 40 years or more older than their new brides. Even school is not always protection for older girls, as teenagers can still be seen as more valuable married off than educated – the father is paid handsomely in cows every time he marries a daughter to someone.

New brides usually become pregnant quickly, as contraceptive use is not widespread in young girls in Kenya, and we’re not even allowed to teach it in school for fear it will encourage promiscuity – particuarly ironic given the traditional wife swapping culture between a husband and his “agemates” in Maasailand.

Girls are not considered women in traditional Maasai culture, and therefore can’t be married off, until they have been circumcised. This is also carried out around age 9 unless the girl is lucky enough to know her rights and have an understanding father who won’t punish or sanction her for refusing to have it done. The practice is performed in most tribes in Kenya, some more so than others, but the Maasai carry it out on between 50-90% of their daughters, depending who you speak to. It also carries support from the government where a bill to ban it was heavily defeated in the ’90s, despite the Kenyan government having signed up to the UN Human Rights Convention which bans genital mutilation. There are even government funded clinics  where you can send your daughter to be circumcised in a sterile environment – some charities report that these clinics have even increased the incidence of female genital mutilation (FGM).

In Kimuka where I am teaching, it’s a slightly better story. Attitudes are slowly changing, and in FGM is not carried out in Kimuka anymore (although some girls are still sent away to have it done), thanks to the work Virginia’s charity MEAC does alongside other community projects & organisation which work to educate and empower women run seminars to teach girls and women in the community about the practices and dangers of FGM (it often causes recurrent kidney & urine infections and problems during childbirth), and the options the girls have if they don’t want it done.

It’s hard to get women to come, but some do, and they tell their friends what they’ve learnt, and word spreads. Sadly the options are limited, and include speaking to your father and hoping he’s understanding, or running away to somewhere safe – another relative or a charity, although clearly this option has its significant risks too. The same goes for forced marriage, although girls who have been married to men against their will (even assuming they understand fully what’s happening to them at age 9), along with orphaned and otherwise vulnerable girls, can be put into boarding schools instead by charities, have their marriage annulled, and in the holidays go back to live with their parents (rather than their “husband”) – and if the parents try and renew the marriage they can be sent to jail for not having their child in school – a legal requirement.

Forced marriage has also stopped in Kimuka so early in life, although it’s still a risk for teenagers, and I have met at least one Maasai woman in Kimuka whose father stopped her school fees when she refused to be married as a teenager. But if girls are brave and determined, and know their rights, they can still say no to their fathers’ demands. Educated girls know that this is worth their independence, and one day it will get better.

It’s education that’s the key here in Maasailand Virginia tells me, and it’s easy to see why. One of the sad things I find is that it’s unlikely that a socially isolated, unschooled 9 year old in rural Kenya can even fully know what’s happening to her when she’s married off, raped or circumcised. But if she’s in school, she has protection for a few years at least, and has the chance of friends she can turn to for support – I’ve learnt it’s hard for Kenyan girls to talk to their mothers as they fear being beaten, or even to their sisters as they fear they will tell their parents and get into even more trouble.

Unfortunately there’s still a high drop out rate from school due to pregnancy compared with the UK, and although the anatomy of reproduction is taught in science class, there is no formal relationship or sex education. Which is where I come in. Virginia has suggested I teach the girls about relationships at Kimuka primary, so I’m going to try my best to fit as many classes in before I leave. As we know from experience in Europe, forewarned is forearmed, and it’s easier to say no to a boy if you have an idea what might be on his mind, and what the consequences for you might be.

Suddenly it’s become really obvious how important school is in Kenya. We might worry about the kids’ poor understanding in some classes, and about how they’re too scared to ask questions because of some teachers’ heavy-handedness. But – particularly for girls, any sort of education means safety, empowerment, and the chance of a future.


Filed under Africa, Culture, Kenya, Society, Travel

Another Brick in the Wall

All the kids love a mzungu

Kenya’s not without it’s problems of course, which is a big part of why we’re here. While we have no running water or electricity in Kimuka, projects have provided homes with water tanks for collecting rainwater, and some people have solar panels for limited solar power, even though it’s only really good outside of the rainy seasons. Even during my first week in Kimuka, we were seeing huge inequalities and social problems. Our school’s headteacher rarely turns up for work and clearly has a drink problem (although traditionally the Maasai don’t really see alcoholism as too much of an issue). Fathers demand that their daughters return to abusive ex-husbands, withdraw their daughters’ school fees for refusing an arranged marriage to a man 40 years older, and schoolchildren are regularly exposed to caning and violence as solutions to problems.

I must admit it’s very hard to be at school because of the caning, which happens every day – sometimes in an office, sometimes in the schoolyard in front of the school. Kids run around at breaktimes “playfully” brandishing “canes” made from the twigs lying around the school, and hitting each other seems to be normal for them. They laugh as other people are caned by the teachers, and it’s worrying that violence is such a normal part of daily life (public beatings of suspected criminals are also preferred over involving the police). It’s also extremely saddening that some of the teachers think they can induce respect and better grades not by discussing issues with students but by punishing them with the cane for asking questions if they don’t understand or are seen to have committed another minor crime, particularly as the kids have minimised the experience so much.

I must emphasise not all the teachers use or agree with caning, and that’s a relief to know. I’ve asked a few people why caning is used, and they seem to think that those who do it are either scared of the kids, use it to punish kids they don’t like, or see it as essential in reinforcing a verbal message that the child has been bad. Another theory is that those that use violence simply would like to stop but don’t see how else they would control the children – which is crazy given the rapport that some of the teachers who aren’t violent have with the kids. One thing is certain is that it is illegal in Kenya, but still widespread, and the only way some people think it will stop is if the children, or their parents complain as a big group and threaten to report the school concerned. If they don’t, there is a potentially dangerous situation where in the city, kids have taken matters into their own hands and ambushed a particularly hated teacher and beaten them half to death.

The only explanation we have managed to get out of the teachers who do cane is that “the children have been bad”, and they will not, or cannot, expand on why caning is the punishment of choice in such circumstances. There are Educational psychology courses available in Kenya, including those on alternative methods of discipline, but these must be paid for by the teachers themselves, and few people have that kind of money. I will keep trying to find out more, and if teachers are willing to attend, try and raise enough money to send teachers to help them find better ways of interacting with the kids. It won’t stop caning in the whole of Kenya, but if one school can stop it and move forward then maybe they can share their knowledge with their peers and start to make a difference.

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Filed under Africa, Kenya, Society, Travel

Elly is playing at Virginia’s House


So I thought you might like to see where I’m staying while I’m in Maasailand. Our host is the wonderful Virginia Turasha, head of the Maasai Education and Advocacy for Change (MEAC) charity I’m here with – by “our”, I mean myself, and fellow volunteers Canadian Heather (my roomy for my stay here), Norwegian Knut, and Swedish Ewelina. Also living with us in the house are Virginia’s partner Daniel, her sister-in-law Nancy and her extremely well behaved one-month-old Joel, and Virginia’s teenage son Peter, who happens to be a pupil at Kimuka primary.Daniel, Virginia and me (in my new Maasai Kanga)

Kimuka’s houses are single storey and mostly made from wooden frames and corrugated iron. They’re dry, warm (unsurprising in 30 degree C heat), cosy and welcoming, and protect us from the gusty winds that flick up the dust across the plains below the Ngong Hills. The kitchen, a separate building, is made with traditional methods (mud and cow dung) which makes it a bit safer to do all the cooking on the open fire inside. Even if it is impossible to see what you’re cooking with all the smoke!

Knut tries his hand at cooking Maasai style

At Virginia’s, we’re lucky enough to have solar panels which are enough to power a dim bulb for a couple of hours in the evenings (the sun sets around 6.30 each evening) – but even though the government hooked Kimuka up to the National Grid last year, no-one has been able to afford to link up to it so far, so that’s as much electricity as we have. Once that runs out, out come the oil lamps and battery powered torches (essential for trips to the outside toilet at the end of the garden after dark). The radio, also powered by batteries, keeps us company during the day and evenings, and Peter makes sure he treats us to as much Beanie Man and reggae as possible. Batteries are fortunately readily available in Ngong (the nearest town) and it costs 20 Ksh (15p sterling) to charge your phone at one of the many phone charging shops there.

Evening time in the house

Washing is an interesting task, and with no running water, it’s probably best described as festival style. We have two huge tanks which collect rainwater, and you help yourself to washing and cooking water using a bucket on a string and decanting into a plastic bucket of choice.

I like big butts…

As it’s not rained for nearly 4 weeks now, we ran out last week, but again Virginia has been to the water-shop and bought 4 gigantic barrels which should see us through until the rainy season starts in around 4-6 weeks. Clothes washing is done in 2 buckets out in the garden (one with soap in, one for rinsing), and bathing washing is done in the “shower room” where you can stand in your bucket (it’s a nice wide and shallow one) and splosh and scrub as much as you like. It’s not heated, but you don’t really need it to be here. And there are always wetwipes for when you can’t be bothered.

The shower room

The toilet is also festival like, at the end of the garden away from the house, and if you’ve ever been to Water Aid’s African latrines at Glastonbury festival you’ll know what I mean, but thankfully it’s nowhere near as smelly or full of the mis-aimed streams of wee that result from too much cider in the UK. Squatting over a hole in a concrete floor however can’t be avoided, even at the school, although it’s not been too hard to get used to. And the MEAC office in Ngong has a European style flushing loo, which as you can probably imagine is a bit of a treat. Running water, flushing loos and electricity for everyone is something MEAC hopes for though.

Toilet hut – at the end of the garden

We eat traditionally here as well, with lots of ugali (cornflour based dumpling affair which is a staple in Kenya), beans, cabbage, rice, and meat – and Virginia sometimes treats us to chapatis or eggs as well. Virginia cooks at lunch and at teatime, and it’s always delicious (as a vegetablist I just pick out my bits of meat, Heather being the eager recipient..). Knut and Ewelina have cooked us a vegetable spaghetti bolognese already, and even though Virginia likes using spice in her cooking, she’s not heard of a curry before so I’ll be trying my hand at that next week when I’ve had a chance to go shopping for ingredients.

Peter and Knut jamming outside the kitchen

Virginia and Daniel have their own cows, which are let out of their enclosure at the end of the garden at about 8am, go grazing till about 6pm, and are periodically checked on by Daniel, or Peter after school, in the Maasai pastoral herdsman tradition.

Virginia does the milking

The cows are kept for milk, and for sale – cows are very precious to the Maasai and your own cows are not slaughtered for meat unless it’s for a really special occasion like a wedding. Lesser celebrations require slaughtering of a goat, and Knut is keen to try doing the honours on Monday as we will have a traditional goat-based honouring of the arrival of Nancy’s baby son. Virginia also keeps chickens, who unfortunately aren’t laying at the moment, but they too run the risk of being slaughtered for the pot as a treat (a treat for us, not the chickens obviously). Aside from eggs and meat, chicken antics are always entertaining as far as I’m concerned.

Count the heads!

I have yet to try my hand at milking the cows, but I should have plenty of opportunity as they’re milked morning and night and the thick creamy milk is used to make chai, which the Maasai drink ALL the time. It’s a delicious but calorie laden drink, made with 50/50 boiled up milk and water, with a handful of tealeaves and a shedload of sugar thrown in (none of the spice and guarana that finds their way into UK festival versions). It’s drunk at every opportunity, for breakfast, tea, breaktimes and to welcome visitors, much like in Britain. So I will leave you with Heather’s contribution to the evening chai, despite the cow’s calf having other ideas about the use of the milk – nice work Heather!

Go Heather!


Filed under Africa, Food & Drink, Kenya, Travel