Monday, 16 February 2009

Around Uganda in 15 hours (8 of which spent asleep)

Mosquito bites: 0 (have had to face the fact that I'm just not that attractive to African mosquitoes)

Number of times inwardly cursed Kenya Airlines: 453

Well, our trip to Uganda didn't go exactly according to plan...Despite arriving early for our flight we were told that the plane had been overbooked and that we’d have to wait five hours for the next flight. Considering we already had less than 24 hours to spend in the country and would miss the hospital project visit, it was a bit of a blow to say the least.

However, such is life – there was nothing we could do about it so wait the five hours we did. The airline cafe treated us to a free breakfast of some fried eggs which didn’t seem to contain any yolk and a few sad looking chips, while blasting out 90’s British pop. Mariah Carey seems to be a particular favourite in Kenyan hotels and airports, although not so much with Cliff and Martin (or mild fans Rachel and I by the end of the trip for that matter).

As we touched down to Entebbe airport, I was immediately struck by the contrast to Nairobi, which seems so dry and dusty. Even from the air you could see how green Uganda was, and in the hour’s drive back to the hotel I marvelled at the utter beauty and lushness of the landscape. Although the car journey and inside of the hotel was all we got to see of the country, my curiosity has definitely been piqued and I hope to return some day for a holiday.

Luckily no disasters befell us on the way home – flight was on time, managed to fit a couple of films in and there wasn’t a plastic roll in sight (got to love good old BA).

Trip conclusions coming soon…

Wednesday, 11 February 2009


Hi all, have uploaded my photos if you're interested - just click here to take a look.

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Hope you enjoy!

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Day 5: Maa AIDS Awareness Programme (MAPP)

Mosquito bites: still 0

Number of times batted away a fly that wasn't there: 133

Maa AIDS Awareness Programme (MAPP) was founded in 1995 as a response to the crisis of HIV/AIDS in the Kajiado District of Kenya. The Foundation is not actually directly supporting MAAP, but I thought it would be worth a mention to get a further feel for the scope of charity work happening in the country.

Once again we set off on bumpy roads to the MAAP offices, where we were given a short presentation on some of the work the project has enabled in the community. It tackles issues such as water and sanitation, health, poverty reduction and child care using methods of training and community empowerment. It has also set up day care centres for orphans and underprivileged children, two of which we were lucky enough to visit.

I happened to be sitting in a truck with two of the Masai workers and spent an amusing half hour attempting to learn a Masai song. Rachel has footage of this but I daresay it will never see the light of day as we don’t want to be sued for section one of causing severe damage to third party ears. The drive to the centres was even more treacherous than the day before as there was no actual road to use - so up and down we went, crossing several kilometres of fields and valleys.

When we arrived at the first site, we were taken into a little hut full of children and a couple of Masai women. They sung us a song, after which the elders spoke for a few minutes about the centre. I was amazed at how quietly the children sat: there was no fidgeting or whispering to neighbours as you’d expect, just silent, neutral expressions. There were flies crawling all over their tiny faces, some batting them away occasionally but most just leaving them free to roam (in stark contrast to us visitors who were prone to manically swiping anything that brushed our skin – at one point I was doing battle with what I thought was a particularly persistent fly but which turned out to be strand of my own hair. Slightly embarrassing). There was one little girl who had flies crawling in and out of her eyes and didn’t seem to notice – for some reason that brought a lump to the throat that was difficult to dislodge.

The next site was another, much larger, day care centre. Again the children were much calmer than those we had met at the Ngei project. I mused on this to the project worker, who explained that Masai children are brought up to be very disciplined and to respect their elders. This would explain the absence of screaming excitement and why each came up to us to have his/her head patted and would not leave until the grown up had complied, a tradition in their culture. They sometimes lingered to stare in fascination at our light-coloured arms, but were too polite to grab hold for a proper look.

Our final stop was another Masai community, where we saw the bee hives and water tap they had constructed. This tribe spoke little or no English but we attempted to converse with the universal sign language of smiles. At one point I reached down to apply suncream to my burning feet and I might as well have barked like a dog whilst performing a handstand with the attention it drew. All the Masai started laughing and pointing and I froze, unsure what was going on. The project worker explained that they had probably never seen a white foot, let alone a burnt white foot having a strange white lotion rubbed onto it. I gamely laughed along and wished not for the first time that I could speak a bit of Masai.

We were already hours behind schedule by this point (you can’t rush ‘Africa-time’) but stayed for a quick lunch of goat and steaming bowls of oxtail soup. All in all, it had been another mesmerising insight into the lives of the Masai community.

Nothing further to add apart from the fact that a zebra crossed the road in front of us (which I’d been hoping for all week so that the obligatory joke could be made) and we saw another evil looking ostrich.

Tomorrow we fly to Uganda for our last full day in Africa – next blog coming soon...

Day 4: GHARP integrated rainwater harvesting

Mosquito bites: 0 (unexpected but welcome)

Interesting fact: the Masai are a pologymous lot, and when a young man reaches a certain age he is free to have sexual relations with the wives of other elders. He indicates his preferences by placing a spear in the ground outside the hut of his chosen woman (en).

Day four saw us departing early for the GHARP project, a rainwater harvesting initiative based in the Narok North District, roughly four hours outside of Nairobi. For the first time we were able to get an impression of the sense of distance in Kenya. We drove through Rift Valley and most of the journey was just arid landscape, broken up occasionally by run down villages and the dots of locals working in the fields. We had been warned to expect a bumpy ride and indeed for most of the four hours it felt like we were off-roading through large potholes. All the guide books warn tourists to avoid driving in Kenya (the roundabouts on their own would be enough to scare even the most capable Westerner) and you can see why. Despite the terrible conditions of the roads it seemed to be an unspoken agreement that it was a race to get to the front of the pack, using any means possible. Because it was so dry, when a vehicle passed on the other side of the road the dust kicked up and you could hardly see the road ahead. Shoulders tensed, we’d just shut our eyes and hope for the best, while fearing the worst. I had to chuckle when we passed a sign that said “Driving recklessly kills!” – I think we’d just been doing battle with a massive truck and ended up overtaking on a bend at the top of a cliff.

We stopped off for a 10 minute break on the way and I spent some time in one of the gift shops. As you would expect the sales people are incredibly pushy, still attempting to lower the price even after you’ve told them five times that you have no money on you. The vender told me he liked collecting english coins, so, sensing an opportunity to get him off my back I gave him a couple of quid I randomly found in my bag. It was only when Cliff got in the car and mentioned that he’d changed some Kenyan money for pounds that I realised I’d been scammed! Apparently pretending to collect coins is a common trick – seems ridiculous now I think about it, but he was very convincing and obviously I must be a bit naïve so it was a winning combination.

Back to the project: GHARP promotes rainwater harvesting and management systems and aims to improve food and water supply, sanitation, health and nutrition and provide sustainable livelihoods for disadvantaged pastoral communities in eight semi-arid areas of Kenya. It will create eight storage tanks, sanitation facilities for eight schools, 150 micro-irrigation systems, eight tree and vegetable nurseries, and 150 improved bee hives for honey production.

We were visiting one of the eight sites, which happened to be home to a traditional Masai community as well as a boarding school. At the moment only the girls board as there is not enough water for the boys as well – in fact, the school came close to being shut down recently as the water situation got so bad. Rainfall is so unpredictable in these parts that droughts are now endemic and floods occur quite frequently. It is crucial, therefore, that the coping strategies we are helping to put in place make the most of the rain that does fall. Our support has enabled the community to build a 20,000 cubic metre dam which it is hoped will be half filled when the rains come in April, as well as a water tank which will be used for showering facilities, latrines and troughs for the animals. We also saw some roof water harvesting, with gutters directing the water into a tank and out through a tap. These facilities will enable the boys to start boarding at the school as well as providing water to 1000 homes and their livestock in the surrounding area.

We also saw six beehives which are going to be owned by the community and sold for income. The Masai’s predominant income is crop generation and the project has recently helped them to build a wire meshing around their vegetable patches to protect them from an unruly hare and its penchant for the good stuff.

Once we’d seen these simple but effective solutions, we were led into the shade of a huge tree to have a welcome meeting with the Masai community. They are fascinating people famed for their colourful attire and unique traditions, and we felt honoured to be their guests. The school children were encouraged to join us and tentatively came to sit on the grass behind our chairs. Most of the women and female children have very short, shaven hair so this might explain their fascination with my long(ish), light-coloured hair. Not that I’m complaining, mind, my hair and I thoroughly enjoyed the attention of their gentle fingers.

We listened to various tribe leaders talk about the importance of the project and how it was helping to improve their economy. As the Location Chief succinctly put it “Nothing can work without water. Life IS water”. The whole project is focused around the provision of water - something we take for granted but literally is the source of everything for these people – apart from to drink, they need it for sanitation and bathing facilities, to keep their livestock alive and for their crops to grow. Water will also reduce wildlife / human conflict as before the project the women and children were having to walk many kilometres to fetch water and would often come across dangerous animals. One of the teachers I interviewed put it starkly when he made the point that none of the teachers would even be there if there wasn’t a hope for water. In other words, without the GHARP project the school would most likely shut down, leaving the children with no chance of an education.

The sentiment from the community was very clear – as with Ngei, it is very important for the Masai people to feel that the project is their own. They are self-motivated and have their own ideas and vision for the future, and recognise the need to come together to fight poverty. Some of the women have set up self-help groups making jewellery to generate an income, and are using some of the proceeds to sponsor young girls through their education. Towards the end of the ceremony all the visitors went up one by one and were presented with an item of jewellery as a gift of thanks – I think we all felt pretty overwhelmed by their generosity. We were then treated to a spectacular ceremonial dance by both the female women and children.

After the ceremony finished, Rachel and I interviewed a couple of people on camera, while the others went inside to feast on some goat the community had prepared. We left the GHARP site thrilled to have experienced a real Masai community and blown away by how friendly and gracious everyone was. As a rural project GHARP was completely different to the urban Ngei DYG but equally as impressive. The fact that it has been built on a school site will expose the children to rainwater harvesting systems at a young age, ensuring that they adopt the new techniques and become the agents of future change. This will of course have a positive impact on the long term sustainability of the project.

On the way back we saw some wild zebra and a giraffe, which took the edge off the sometimes painfully bumpy ride. Another fascinating day, another captivating project and although I may be slightly biased, another reason to support the Tribal Foundation.

On we go...

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Day 3 – Ngei Youth Development Project

Mosquito bites: 0

Interesting fact: recycling is likely to be higher in Kenya than most European countries – but for economic reasons rather than to be green (collectors are always looking to buy recycled goods)

Day three saw the beginning of our scheduled visits to projects the Foundation is supporting. First on the list was the Ngei Development Youth Group (DYG), which is based in Huruma, one of Nairobi's slum areas. It was established in 1997 by a group of young people in response to high rates of poverty and unemployment, and the resulting crime, drug abuse, teenage pregnancies and littered, unhygienic environment.

The group's vision is of a society in which young people are empowered, self-reliant and actively involved in community development. Over the past 10 years, Ngei DYG has developed a range of activities and services which include waste collection and recycling, water and sanitation, transport services, art and crafts projects, social and entrepreneurship advice and guidance and a community resource centre. In order to tackle the problems of safety and security it runs an initiative to encourage the community to build relations and work closely with the police.

As we approached the Huruma Township the poverty was evident: ramshackle huts, emaciated looking donkeys struggling to find vegetation on the dry, dusty roadside, homeless locals shuffling along or comatose on the side of the road. As we entered the slum and parked up by the Ngei office, it happened that the children were just coming out of school. The effect was immediate: what felt like a hundred excited kids immediately formed a crowd around us, waving and shouting. The noise was deafening and their smiles from ear to ear – especially when they spotted our camera woman Rachel, who was filming from the van. They were equally intrigued by digital cameras and begged to be photographed, the resulting pictures inducing peals of laughter.

What immediately strikes you about these kids is that despite their poverty they’re beautifully turned out and those attending school wear smart uniforms. Of course there are also many grubby, desperate looking children – one in particular sticks in my mind as he followed us around for the whole two hours we were there. He looked about three years old and didn’t seem to have any family or friends. He was big into shaking hands so we did our best to indulge him every time he was brave enough to come close (I’m planning to throw away a few pairs of flip flops to fit him in my suitcase along with the baby elephant). The beaming smiles of the children and the general friendliness of everyone we met made a lasting impression on us all. Despite the unlucky hand they’d drawn in life they just seemed to be getting on with it and at the risk of sounding clichéd or horribly twee, it was inspiring and in fact awe-inspiring to see (oh god, I'm sorry - just re-read that back and it does sound horrendously cliched and twee. Going to leave it in though as it's true!).

Back to the project: once inside the offices we all sat in a large circle and the structure of the group was explained. It is made up of about 40 members, all of whom live in the slum. Each pays a small monthly subscription and are given welfare benefits from within the group in return. If a member needs a loan to set up an enterprise the guarantors come from within the group. One member, for example, took out a loan to set up a playstation business. Another benefited by using the money to help a sick parent, who is now well. None of the members are very educated but all are committed to improving the general living conditions of the slum in which they live. One member told me that he used to have problems with drugs, theft and violence and had served time in prison. He is now Vice Chair of the group and his pride in what he and his colleagues have achieved is plain to see.

It has been established that the high rates of unemployment and crime among the Huruma youth are due to a lack of livelihood opportunities. Local authorities and the City Council are reluctant to provide basic services for slums, so this makes groups like Ngei crucial if there is to be any hope for the future. Examples of the income-generating activities the Ngei YDG have developed so far are: jewellery-making (I had a quick go but my butter fingers didn’t impress the pros much); recycling (they are currently serving 600 households in Huruma); garbage collection (in the poorer areas of Kenya there is litter everywhere); and water provision (they are currently providing up to 1000 residents with drinking water and shower facilities). The camaraderie within the group was evident, and as one girl explained, ‘work must be fun when you are in such challenging conditions”.

The group work hand in hand with the locals and although they admit it’s not always easy, their dedication shines through. They were eager to show us how each activity worked so we traipsed up to the top of a housing tenement to see the rubbish bins they had provided, were taken the see the showers they had built, and shown the garbage truck used in recycling and rubbish disposal.

It is vital for the group to establish income-generating activities so that they can be self-reliant – although they are grateful for donations from outside sources, they want and need to own the process. In 2007, Skillshare International (the Foundation’s charity partner) placed a development worker as a programme adviser to support the group's environmental and economic initiatives. Once the development worker has completed his placement, the Ngei members will then manage and further develop both the infrastructure and income generation activities, which will enable long-term sustainability.

I could go on and on about what we experienced in this visit but I’m conscious this has turned into a bit of an essay, it’s way past my bedtime and we have a very early flight to Uganda tomorrow. Suffice to say it’s an experience I’ll find hard to beat and at the risk of repeating myself, it’s been incredible for all of us to see for ourselves where the Foundation’s money is going. I’m a few days behind but will record our other project visits during the first opportunity I get – the days are long and exhausting but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Until next time then...

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Day 2 – Animal Magic

Mosquito bites: 0 (unexpected)

Interesting fact: 1 – did you know that the contents of one ostrich egg are equivalent to 24 chicken eggs? One to tell the grandkids.

Well, I said today was going to be a day devoted to animals and I certainly wasn’t disappointed. We were picked up at 6.30am and taken to Nairobi National Park, unique because of its suburban location with wildlife roaming only a few kilometres from the city centre. It was pretty quiet for the first half an hour or so and I was beginning to worry that the most I was destined to see in the way of animals this week was a few birds, those cows and that possible sheep. However, over the course of the next three hours we were to encounter a very respectable four of the ‘Big Five’.

First ticked off the list were buffalo, which we spotted grazing way out across the landscape. Despite our best efforts to beckon them over, they stayed resolutely away. All I’ve got to mark the sighting, therefore, is a grainy image of a few black dots. Once I’m able to upload photos you might question the buffaloes’ resemblance to bushes, but you’ll just have to take my word for it.

Next came some giraffes, which was number two ticked off the list. Sorry to skip over number two but I’m sure you’ll understand my haste to get to number three, the big one – lions! As we entered ‘Lion Valley’, we could vaguely make out two females crouching in the long grass, looking like they were up to something. All became clear a second later when we spotted a herd of zebras in the horizon. We were overcome with excitement, thinking we were about to witness a real life chase and kill. Of course the lions were having none of it and lazily let the zebras run past - I’m sure they must do it deliberately just to wind up tourists desperately willing them to play the game. Still, being that close to lions was pretty amazing. We then passed a few males sunbathing and generally not doing much, prompting a great quote from our guide: “the lions behave like Africans – the women do all the work”.

Following this was the last of our big five sightings and materialised in the form of a rather large rhinoceros. Simon spotted it with his binoculars and we all strained for a glimpse. The rhino started moving slowly but surely in our direction and a few minutes later, with bated breath, we watched as it crossed the road right in front of our jeep. It was incredible to be that close to such a magnificent animal and the highlight of the safari for most of us.

We also saw hundreds of zebras, some menacing looking ostriches (see interesting fact:1), wilderbeast, baboons and these weird creatures that resembled over-sized shady-looking hamsters. Apparently they come from the same family as the elephant – the only member of the big five we didn’t see as sadly there are none in this particular park. All in all, a fantastic experience and one I hope to repeat some day.

We rounded off the afternoon with a walk round an animal orphanage, home to creatures unable to survive in the wild (or so they say: a cynic might imply that tourism has something to do with it). We enjoyed the experience anyway, and a particular highlight was being allowed to enter an enclosure to stroke and play with a cheetah – I’ve got the scratch on my hand to prove it. We also met a pair of warthogs called Patrick and Patricia and a monkey going by the name of Barack – Obama is huge here, unsurprisingly given the fact that his half brother lives in one of the Nairobi slums.

On the way back we stopped off to observe a religious demonstration and were roped into being interviewed by a film crew making a documentary about Kenya’s reputation across the world. The sheer randomness of it was a great way to end an unforgettable day.

Tomorrow is when the tourist trail stops and the real reason for our trip begins – and I for one can’t wait to get started. First on the list is the Huruma Township to visit a youth development project the Foundation is supporting...more on that tomorrow.

Saturday, 31 January 2009

Day one - arrival in Nairobi

Mosquito bites: 1

Does one really need five pairs of flip flops for a six day trip to Africa? Can linen trousers ever really be cool? Does Kenyan Airlines serve the worst airline food ever? These were the questions I was asking myself as I struggled to get some sleep on our eight hour flight to Nairobi. Dinner consisted of an unidentified fish object (UFO) which no one, including the air hostesses, could identify and some small green tubes which I think were vegetables. After gamely chewing on the UFO for a few minutes, we gave up and concentrated on our plastic bread rolls and triangles of laughing cow. Breakfast was served about an hour later and consisted of another plastic bread roll, this time accompanied by a plastic croissant and some plastic butter. Good times.

We emerged from the plane bleary eyed and hungry at about 6am (3am UK time), where we were met by Cliff, the Chairman of Skillshare International and the Foundation’s charity partner. Immediately we were blinded by sunshine and palm trees, so with our spirits lifted we set off for the hotel. I was struck by the array of colourful buses, huge adverts for mobile phones and the vast numbers of Africans striding purposefully along the side of the road; a common sight in Nairobi given that there is virtually no public transport.

As we arrived at our destination the Zimbabwean cricket team were on their way out, which was rather disappointing all round. As regards the hotel, the staff are very friendly and like nothing better than engaging you in conversation with their generally very impressive English. I now know how to say hello and thank you in Swahili so I’m sure they’re equally as impressed with me.

After breakfast and a quick nap, it was time to head to the Karen Blixen museum, about 20km away. A guide took us on a tour through Blixen’s actual house, parts of which were used in the film of her novel Out of Africa, which won several Academy Awards back in the day. There was one hairy moment when we entered her husband’s bedroom and were greeted by a full-sized stuffed lion’s head, complete with enormous snarling teeth. Closer inspection revealed that the lion’s body had been flattened to make a rug – apparently Mr and Mrs Blixen were heavily into hunting. I just about managed to muffle my scream but was rather relieved to move on to the slightly less alarming features of the dining room.

On the way back to the hotel we saw a load of cows taking a stroll along the road (in the absence of public transport I guess even they get involved), and quite possibly a sheep.

Back to the present: dinner is next, followed by an early night as most of us only got two or three hours last night. Tomorrow will be a day dedicated to animals, and we hope to encounter some of Kenya’s stunning wildlife during our much anticipated game drive. If not, at least we’ve seen some cows and that possible sheep.

Following the safari we’ll be visiting an animal orphanage, after which I’ll be making an unscheduled stop to a suitcase shop. After all, there’s no way I’ll fit a parent-less baby elephant into my current case, especially with those five pairs of flip flops...

Until tomorrow...