Some observations…

My Kenyan experience began just over three months ago!  Time has taken on a surreal quality, it feels like I have only just arrived and also that I have been here forever!  Very weird…

I have a number of observations about life in Isiolo and Kenya that I can now begin to share, up until now I have been reticent in making broad generalisations, but as time passes, my experiences are reinforcing these!

Communication

For my learning and development colleagues, living in Kenya has given me new meaning to ‘communicating with impact’!  Here a question will be answered directly if the respondent feels that you will like the answer, if you won’t like the answer, then a different question will be answered!  It takes some careful questioning to confirm the answer you get is actually to the question you asked!

Here is an example of a conversation I have had…

Me:  Will it get much hotter here?
Friend: No
Me:  So this is the hot season?
Friend:  Yes, then the rain comes.
Me:  When does the rain come?
Friend:  October 15th
Me:  That is very accurate; does the rain come every year on October 15th?
Friend:  Yes, every year – for the rains.
Me:  Did the rains come last year on October 15th?
Friend:  No, they never came……

A few days later…

Me:  After the rains, will we have a hot season again?
Friend:  Yes, it will get much hotter in January and February that is the hot season…..

Sometimes I will revisit a topic a number of times to ensure I have got the details correctly! It can be interesting to compare answers when the questions have been
very subtly different.

Mobile phones

Everyone in Kenya seems to have a mobile phone; but the use of the phone here is very different and it has taken a while to get used to the Kenyan phone culture.  The primary
difference here is that once your phone rings, irrespective of what you are doing, you answer the phone…

I was at a large presentation and the presenter answered his phone to say call back later while he was delivering his speech!  It took a while for me to figure out that there is no voicemail service by any of the mobile providers… There is no screening of calls at all, I get some very strange looks when my phone rings and I don’t answer it!

It can be a nightmare trying to have a conversation with anyone, especially if they are popular or busy!

Driving

I have been a passenger in a number of vehicles here in Kenya, I have even had the opportunity on several occasions to sit in the front seat of a matatu (a privileged seat!).  I have noticed a driving practice here ‘up-country’ and am not sure if it unique
to this area or is widespread.

Cash is very scarce here in Isiolo and the primary concern for everyone is to make or save money.  In this endeavour, whenever there is a downhill where the vehicle can gather momentum, the car or matatu is put into neutral and we freewheel down the hill.  ‘Control’ is maintained through the use of the break…  In this way, no fuel is used, and once the momentum begins to dissipate the car / matatu is put into drive or 4th gear…

In order to ignore this incredibly dangerous driving practice I tend read as much as possible and tune out what is happening in the vehicle.  Before I arrived in Kenya I was
warned that the most dangerous health risk would be a road traffic accident, is it any wonder!

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Trip to Mombasa and a visit to Camara!

Myself and three other volunteers, Ingrid, Dan and Helen, decided to make a trip to Mombasa to visit one of our colleagues for a few days.  This was a great excuse for two things, a trip on the legendary train from Nairobi to Mombasa and a few days at the beach!

Our journey started at the Nairobi train station, where the train was waiting at the platform when we arrived; we were all a little surprised at this as there is usually a delay in the departure.  As we waited on the platform to board, the train pulled out, leaving us all behind and an incomprehensible message was relayed over the pa system, the train was off to be cleaned and would be late leaving, we all missed the ‘how late’ part and after some enquiries found it to be an hour, 2 and 3 hours depending on who we asked.  Being comfortable in my surroundings and accompanied by Dan, we went to a local supermarket near the train station and stocked up on supplies, Tusker (local beer), ice cream and a local delicacy – grilled maize!  So the four of us settled in and had a little picnic on the platform waiting for the train to return, the delay ended up being just over the two hours and we got underway at about 10pm, not bad for this journey by all accounts!

The train trip from Nairobi was one of the best journeys I have ever made.  I loved the train, which has never been modernised and is a relic from the last century!  We booked ‘upper’ class which meant we had a cabin with two berths.  We luckily had adjoining cabins so had a good bit of space between the four of us.  The food was dreadful and the toilet facilities were best left undocumented, I have used worse, but not out of choice!  The highlight of the journey was the following morning travelling through a national park and seeing herds of elephants and zebra and passing small local settlements, with all of the children waving at the train.

We arrived in Mombasa at 1pm, so the journey was a long one, but well worth it.  On arrival all we wanted was some food and a shower!  We met up with our friend Jenny who is living just north of Mombasa and after a lovely lunch travelled to Mtwapa and our hotel.  The rest of our weekend was taken up with visiting the beach and having a number of good meals, the best of which was a dhow trip from the Tamarind restaurant – the first steak I have had in Kenya, breaking my self-imposed vegetarian status!  It was wonderful!

On Monday morning, myself and Ingrid went to meet with the team from Camara (www.camara.ie).  Camara is an Irish organisation that refurbishes donated computers and distributes them across East Africa.  I was familiar with the organisation as PwC support Camara by donating their end of life computers.  To be able to see the organisation at work in Mombasa was great!  We were met by Shakeel who is currently running the centre in Mombasa and he walked us through the operation, showing us the training rooms, storage facility and technical labs.

I was really impressed with the set-up and the number of people actively working on computers to get them ready for distribution to schools in the region.  The operation was well organised and very efficient; it was really good to see something working so well.  I was also able to get some guidance from Shak and his team for my organisation, IWGD, on how best to get the computers we need to complete our project, so a very productive meeting!

Our return journey to Nairobi was by bus, a very nice coach, but took just over 10 hours, next time I think I will fly!!  I am back in Isiolo now and will be staying here for a while!  Still dealing with the ever present water problems, I generally have running water about 50% of the time at the moment.  We are apparently nearly half way through the ‘hot’ season, temperatures during the day are in the mid 40’s, but when I ask when the hot season ends, will the temperature drop much, I get very vague answers and can conclude it won’t drop that much!!!

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My trip to Nairobi…

Last weekend I took a trip to Nairobi for a meeting for VSO volunteers.  The journey takes me about 7 hours and two matatus.  It was a long and tiring day getting to Nairobi and on arrival I was struck again by the noise, pollution (smog) and the number of people!  I have adapted to the rural surroundings of Isiolo very quickly!

Two volunteers, Dan and Helen, were kind enough to put me up for the weekend – thanks again to you both! So I organised to meet Dan in the city centre, I had about an hour and half to wait and did the sensible thing and headed to a coffee shop in the centre of town, but it was noisy and packed, and I made the decision that 90 minutes of that was a step too far!! I was covered in red sand; I was hot and honestly frazzled!  So I decided to make the time work for me, and headed to the Hilton Hotel around the corner, went in through the security check (similar to airport security!) and asked for the toilets, got there and changed, washed as much of the sand etc off as possible within decency! and basically fixed myself up a bit.  I then found a little oasis of tranquillity at the pool bar, it was sunny, warm and quiet and I had the most wonderful gin and tonic in peace!  Heaven! Never mind the extravagance.

When Dan arrived, it was back to reality and a trek across Nairobi to their place, on the local bus!  On arrival, Helen, aware of my water issues in Isiolo suggested I take a hot shower!  Could this get any better!!! Then it was off for a couple of beers and a lovely evening with friends.

Saturday began with a VSO meeting and it was great to meet some of the volunteers based in Kenya that I had not met previously.  This was followed by shopping and drinks.  So a lovely weekend!

On my return to Isiolo, I arrived into a sand storm, a power cut and still no running water and life returned to normal!

It is now Tuesday and the water still has not come!!

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Getting settled in Isiolo

I have been in Isiolo for nearly two weeks now and it feels like I have been here a lot longer! Though in some respects, it is as though I have just landed from mars! There is level of planning required for absolutely everything that you do here, even the simplest tasks such as cooking and washing.

Since arriving in Isiolo, there has been a severe water shortage. Initially there was enough water at my accommodation to supply the daily needs of the residents, but last Friday, that supply finished and we were left without water. The other residents were well prepared for this having large water containers full in their flats, I did not! So the priority last Friday was to get me water, this took about 4 hours and a very accommodating taxi man!

The first step was to purchase a 100 litre container, which was relatively easy. We then needed to go to a water source and fill the tank, then get it back to the flat and up the stairs! Again, thanks to Elly (my boss) and the very nice taxi driver for assisting me!

Once I had this supply, I then had to use it for all my needs, so I have become very adept at making 3 litres work hard! Then on Tuesday, I needed a refill! So back to the spring and off we go again! On Wednesday evening, we got our water back, the luxury of a hot shower! The first thing I did – after the shower – was to fill the tank again, for when the water goes the next time. I have been assured that this will happen cyclically.

So living without running water is one thing, and I cannot control the supply, but living without a fridge for a year was too much for me! So on Thursday, we took a trip to the large supermarket in a neighbouring town, Meru and I bought a fridge! Such a good investment! I now have cheese and cold beer!

On the work front, things are very slow, but I have met lots of people within the organisation and am getting a feel for who they are and what they do. Over the next few weeks, I think the project itself will begin to take shape. I will keep you posted!

This weekend I am off to visit another volunteer, Ingrid, in Naro Moru, so photos and commentary to follow next week…

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Arriving in Isiolo…

Early on Saturday morning (16 July) we left the relative  safety of the compound we had been staying in during the week of training in  Nairobi.  With all of my luggage (quite a
lot) and the additional equipment issued by VSO, myself and Elly (my new  employer), made our way to Isiolo, via Nanyuki, by Matatu.

Matatus are hi-ace vans used as small buses to transport  people around cities and across country.  Thankfully, the matatus that travel between Nairobi and the outlying towns are kept in much better condition than the ones that operate in city centre!

Overall the journey was very comfortable and took about five hours.  Travelling out of Nairobi, a very  large, congested and polluted city, and moving into the countryside, I as
pleasantly surprised by the lush landscape and prosperous towns we passed through.  Once we moved from Nanyuki to Isiolo, the last leg of the journey, taking about an hour, the change in climate and landscape was stark.  The closer to Isiolo we got, the drier and dustier the landscape got.

My first impression was of a large bustling town, very hot and dusty, resembling a town in Morocco! There are lots of churches, a large Mosque and lots of schools!  Elly packed me and the luggage into a taxi  and whisked me off to meet his lovely wife, Elsie.  We had lunch there and took some time to relax before moving me to my new home!

Elsie and Elly found me a great one bedroom apartment on the first floor of a very secure compound and between Elsie and a very productive shopping trip to Meru, I have established a home!  I have a number of friendly neighbours that arrive for chats early in the morning and when I get back from work in the evening and they are all keen to teach me Kiswahili!  Though I am a very poor student!!

Tuesday was my first day in the office and Elly has introduced me to the local community and the various members of his organisation.  The week has been spent observing and absorbing everything – a very worthwhile exercise.  We had a power cut on Wednesday for the entire day, so no work was done at all!  But it was a good opportunity to talk and get to know everyone better.

So my first week in Isiolo has been very good and I feel I am settling in well, the locals are calling Muzungu less and less, so that is a sign that they are getting used to seeing the white woman walking around!

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Habari from Nairobi!

I arrived in Nairobi last Friday for a week long training course with VSO. Altogether there are 12 volunteers starting in Kenya this week, we will disperse to our various towns and cities on Saturday.

The highlight so far has been our trip into the town centre, where I discovered that the supermarkets here stock all of the ‘essential’ items I brought with me!

We are staying in the south of the city and ventured out on foot yesterday in search of a shop selling beer, and I had my first (of many!) Tusker after a very dusty walk around the locale.

Here are some photos

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Welcome to my blog…

On 7 July 2011, I will begin my journey to Isiolo, Kenya for a 12 month placement with VSO (www.vso.ie).  Over the next 12 months I will keep a journal of my experiences as I settle in to life in Isiolo and begin my placement with IWGD (Isiolo Welfare Group for the Disabled).

Please check back for updates!

Tara.

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