Category Archives: Society

Night Vision

Snowy Vilnius

Snowy Vilnius

Well I’ve been here 36 hours and I still haven’t seen Vilnius in the daylight. Oops. I’ve spent most of today snoozing – it feels like I’ve not had a proper nights sleep for a week but I feel nice and refreshed now. To make up for my day of laziness I went for a walk to a viewpoint that Lina, our hostel host, recommended especially at night, on top of the old town walls.

Vilnius Old Walls

Vilnius Old Walls

Now I don’t like to whip my map out too much in public as I hate looking like a tourist and thus a potential target. So I had a good look before I left and did the route by memory up until I came across what I thought was my turning, which was quite a narrow road, not as well lit as the main ones. Most of the other pedestrians were turning left instead of right down this side street, so I opted to follow them, and my nose and see if I could manage to take the scenic route to the town walls. They do say that the first thing you should do to explore a new city is get lost in it..

Republic of Uzupio

Republic of Uzupio

So for my next sight, I came across a large floodlit church (St Bartholomew’s), beyond which was a (snow-covered) green, a river and some pretty houses with twinkly Christmas lights. As I was surreptitiously trying to take photos of said twinkly lights without looking like a tourist, I realised I’d found the suburb of Užupis, and it had taken me hardly any time to get to, despite it looking quite a trek on the map. Vilnius, I am discovering, has quite a compact old town, so it’s nice and easy to explore.

Uzupio's Emblem (as far as I could work out)

Uzupio’s Emblem (as far as I could work out)

On my wander round, I passed several cosy-looking  bohemian eateries and a rather impressive statue called (I later found) the angel of Užupis, a depiction of the archangel Gabriel blowing his trumpet heralding the rebirth of artistic freedom in Eastern Europe. Or so the legend goes. It certainly engenders that kind of portentous feeling in the observer, at least with the atmospheric uplighting!

Republic of Uzupio

Republic of Uzupio

Užupis is interesting because it’s not actually part of Vilnius or indeed Lithuania, or so its residents would like everyone to think. This is the Independent Republic of Užupis! It was in fact the old Jewish quarter and since the second world war has been home to a variety of the displaced, which in turn attracted bohemians and artists as a haven from the Soviets, and in 1997 they declared themselves independent, complete with their own constitution (which I’ll put in my next post), currency, flag and president, although no-one is quite sure how serious all of that is. It seems to be more a statement of personal freedom and cultural harmony, and perhaps a reminder we shouldn’t take life so seriously anyway.

Marriage Love Locks

Marriage Love Locks over Vilnele

I crossed back over the river Vilnelė (the river which gives Vilnius its name no less) and noticed that the ironwork on the bridge was crammed with padlocks and the occasional ribbon. Puzzled I thought this must  be some bohemian statement, but Lina explained it was more universal than that and that it is a tradition at Lithuanian weddings for couples to “lock their love” with a padlock (inscribed with their names) to a bridge near their home, often as the groom carries his bride across (the Lithuanian threshold perhaps!). Which I thought was really lovely, even the rusty ones that had weathered the ravages of time.

I then made it up the snowy hill to the town walls, although I’m not sure if I found the right bit as the lovely views were a bit obscured by the walls themselves:

Night Time Lights

Night Time Lights

But to finish off the day, Lina took me to her favourite traditional cafe bar, as she’d been craving some sauerkraut soup all day (an excellent hangover cure apparently). I was keen to try the famous Zeppelin potato dumplings and Lina kindly ordered 2 for me without me realising! Man they were good, but there’s no way I could eat two – I was struggling with one. Not only are they basically massive sausages of minced pork wrapped in massive thick wads of potato dumpling, they come (at least at this place) doused in a creamy bacon sauce and a portion of herbs and seasoning. Absolutely delicious, perfect comfort food, and Lina has promised to give me her mother’s recipe for them to take home!

Zeppelin & Gira!

Zeppelin & Gira!

The bar also did some really good beers, some of which were from the local micro brewery. Now I’m not a big fan of beer, or ale, or anything related, but Lina suggested I try “Gira”, which she described as “bread beer”. It’s non alcoholic and quite sweet, with a hint of burnt caramel or honey. She wasn’t sure what went into making it but we both agreed it hit the spot! And after all that stodge, I think I’m ready for bed again and some more well-earned sleeping!

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Filed under Art, Culture, Europe, Food & Drink, Lithuania, Travel

I Support the #SpartacusReport

I’ve been meaning to write about disability benefit for ages, but 1) it makes me really really angry, and 2) I must admit, I’m a bit rubbish.

But one person who is most certainly not rubbish, and deserves our complete admiration, is Sue Marsh, blogger and disability campaigner with crippling Crohn’s disease, who, along with others with similarly disabling conditions has led the research which has gone into today’s Responsible Reform SpartacusReport, a crowdsource funded report carried out by Sue and her fellow sick & disabled campaigners in their spare time, having had to use the Freedom of Information act to access the public government consultation on welfare reform. (Figures and any other facts quoted in the blog are from this report, which is itself thoroughly referenced).

The story behind this is all pretty widely known in the disability campaigning community, but what if this is the first you’ve heard about welfare reform? Or if you think disability benefit claimants are all lazy, complaining & exaggerating scum, or “dribbling cripples” deserving nothing but pity? It’s easy to think it doesn’t affect you if you don’t know much about it, or if you’ve had the misfortune to buy into the stereotypes peddled by the media, but disability benefits are a lifeline to many and may be to you in years to come. Changes in health can come suddenly and unexpectedly:

  • If there is the slightest risk of you ever sustaining a head injury (road traffic accident anyone?)
  • If you have risk factors for diseases like stroke (having worked with stroke victims, I can tell you that living with the aftermath of a stroke is SCARY). Smoking, high blood pressure & family history are the main risks
  • If you have a condition which may later become progressively worse or complicated, for instance MS, or loss of sight or limbs with diabetes
  • If you have ever worked with sick or disabled people
  • If you have friends or family who have difficulty working or living their lives independently because of a medical condition
  • If you have any condition in your family (like autism) which your kids or grandkids may inherit / have inherited
  • If you are planning kids (or your kids are planning your grandkids) and have any of the usual worries that it may be born less than 100% healthy
  • If you love someone to whom any of the above applies…

…then welfare reform affects you. 

Please read on, share the link to the report (here) and use “I support the #spartacusreport” on Twitter & Facebook. Most importantly, email your MP and ask that they read the report and respond. The government says it’s listening to disabled people, but has been shown in this report to be doing the exact opposite. Make them listen.

We will not stand for 20% cuts to the most vulnerable in society when there is no justification for it, when there is still real, genuine need, and when the disability benefit fraud rate stands at only 0.5%.

We will not stand for the government & popular media continuing to demonise the sick & disabled, and propagate the myth of the disability benefit “scrounger”, hugely overquoting rates of benefit fraud in this group of claimants and using dismissive & derogatory terminology.

Why is this so important?

It often costs more to live when you have a disability, especially if you have a carer, whether that be the loss of income incurred when you cannot work yourself and a partner or family member have to give up their job to look after you, or whether you need special equipment to help you with your activities of daily living (ADLs) and mobility or help with transport costs to access medical treatment (if you need specialist help only available at regional centres this could be a couple of hundred miles round trip).

The current target of government reform is Disability Living Allowance (DLA), which was introduced to address this additional cost. It is not, unlike most other benefits, means-tested, so if you have qualifying problems affecting your daily life then you automatically get it depending on the severity of the impact of those problems. This aspect of it probably needs reform, but despite disability benefit fraud rates being 0.5%, the government wants to reduce the DLA budget by a massive 20%. Meaning they will remove vital support from a big chunk of genuine claimants – with – and this is the crucial part – genuine needs. Perversely, this DLA money can even keep some people in work by allowing them to buy for instance aids that will maintain mobility, and yet they still want to cut it.

The government wants to scrap DLA and replace it with Personal Independence Payments, or PIP, as part of the welfare reform bill. This change would cost an estimated £675million to administer (I don’t see how this would aid deficit reduction myself) and to paraphrase the Responsible Reform report, cause great cost in human suffering – as benefits which are often also lifelines are arbitrarily cut without thought or understanding, or even consideration of human rights legislation.

The government has consulted on the welfare reform bill, but has not followed its own guidelines. The consultation should have been open for 12 weeks, but rather than extend this further to allow full engagement of the sick & disabled people it affects (for instance some may need larger print or braille copies), it was closed 2 weeks early, and 2 days after debate on the welfare reform bill had begun. How could the government be taking into account the views of disabled people and their families & carers if they had already decided the legislation?

The Responsible Reform Spartacus report seeks to highlight all these failings and more. Using Freedom of Information legislation it summarises in detail the responses to the consultation that were received but never fully published, and seeks to ensure that ministers have access to the full facts before voting on the proposed changes that will make our society’s vulnerable even more ill and marginalised. Even Boris Johnson’s response to the consultation on DLA opposed the changes, explaining how it would unfairly discriminate against people with fluctuating conditions (which is pretty common) and demanding justification for the 20% cut in light of the 0.5% fraud rate.

These are the most vulnerable people in our society and they in the most part will have nowhere else to turn if their benefits are cut. Reform needs to be responsible, and engage intelligently with stakeholders – in this case sick & disabled people, their families, carers, and specialist charities. Please – get involved.


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Selling Kenya

Kenyan Personality

I’ve just been surfing my telly with more-than-terrestrial-but-less-than-proper-freeview channels on it for a little bit of junk to watch while I have my lunch after finally making it home from work (I made it up the M1 fine but Leeds has shut Armley it seems..).

As it’s Saturday afternoon there’s not much on so I found myself clicking on Afrika Rising, a programme or indeed channel (I wasn’t paying that much attention) focusing on African culture, and in this case a singer called Asa, who’s Nigerian. It wasn’t particularly her music that made me want to write this though, although it’s worth a listen, she’s got a beautiful, rich, warm voice with a quirky female-Andre 3000 style about her. She’s also been compared to Bob Marley but I don’t think that’s such a claim to fame as EVERYONE in Africa (well, Kenya anyway), is obsessed with Bob.

What made me want to write is that I wanted to connect again with a little bit of African life. I was only there for a comparatively short time, and with so many other mzungu volunteers, and in such conflicting ideas running through my head about why I was there, that it was hard to form real friendships. But I’ve found myself missing Kenya, and in particular the people that live there, their incredible diversity, persistence, ingenuity, warmth, and joy. I’ve in fact just got in touch with Rhoda, the nurse at the clinic I visited, and it’s been so lovely to hear from her.

So I thought, let’s have a look for some DVDs I can immerse myself in, it’s cheaper than a plane ticket – something maybe Michael-Palin-travelogue-like, where we get to know local people without patronising them. OK I know Michael Palin did Africa in Pole to Pole but I wondered if there was anything else I could reminisce at. My brief search revealed nothing of this genre. Type “Africa” or “Kenya” into Amazon’s search engine and you get glamorous and/or colonial Hollywood movies, a huge number of documentaries on the spectacular natural history of the region, and promotional tourism DVDs plugging the latest faceless 5-star resort or expensive safari with the focus not on exploring and discovery but doing what everyone else does, because that must be what all tourists want to do.

WHERE ARE THE BOOKS AND FILMS ABOUT REAL AFRICAN PEOPLE AND COMMUNITIES? WHY AM I BEING SOLD THINGS? WHY IS IT THAT PEOPLE ONLY MAKE DOCUMENTARIES ABOUT THE AFRICAN WILDLIFE? WHY ARE ALL THE FILMS ABOUT GLAMOURISED COLONIALISM, OR WAR, OR FAMINE, OR THE “QUAINT TRADITIONAL TRIBESPEOPLE”?!!! There are not just wildebeest and cheetah in Africa, there are real people and communities, with real, modern problems and it really pisses me off that we are still marginalising the warmth you’ll be met with when you get to know local Kenyans, and I’m sure other Africans, in favour of buying into an out-dated image of a 24/7 traditional lifestyle, as if being able to earn money by showing off your village to strangers for money, is a sustainable substitute for education, rewarding work, and development to be able to solve your own problems.

So, in response to the person who reviewed Julia Bradbury’s South African Walks, yes, people do wear tracksuit bottoms and T-shirts, yes they do all have mobiles, no they don’t have to conform to your expectations of how they should live, and no you shouldn’t be disappointed that people haven’t paraded themselves in full regalia for your viewing pleasure.

And the wildlife – yes I think it should be conserved, just like I think wildlife everywhere should be conserved (although Chris Packham may or may not agree),  but it needs to be done in a much more inclusive way, to avoid the resentment that comes from believing you’re being kicked off your homeland to make sure the foreign tourists have lions to look at. And it’s not even you they’ve paid huge sums of money to so that they can do so. Stop bigging it up to the complete exclusion of the human communities that live in the same environments (and have no idea why we make such a fuss about saving the animals because we never take the time to explain they can’t breed quicker than we can kill them).

I realise Amazon doesn’t hold the monopoly on travelogues and documentaries, but it does help dictate what the market wants. I’m sure there are plenty of shorts and modern real-life docs (we saw one at Sheffield’s DocFest in fact) but they’re not viewed widely enough to challenge preconceptions. And propagation of outdated perceptions simply pigeonholes Kenyans (and other Africans?) into the role of anonymous and passive recipient, completely ignoring the talent and genuine passion that they have that’s just waiting to be nutured so they can fulfil their potential, both collective and individual.

I guess I’ll just have to look back at my pictures instead.

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Filed under Africa, Kenya, Society, Travel

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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Filed under Culture, Europe, Festivals, Iceland, Music, Travel

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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Filed under Career, Europe, Festivals, Iceland

Mangrove Heaven

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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.


Filed under Africa, Culture, Kenya, Travel

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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