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Des in India 1 Ed500


Des Williams is a Bosco Volunteer Action (BOVA) volunteer from Scotland, who took some time out of running his own business to spend 4 months volunteering at Don Bosco Care Home, Salem, India. Des has spent time reflecting on his experiences during and after his placement and shares with us some of his thoughts a few months after returning to the UK - Anita Motha, BOVA


Sixty two boys aged from seven years up to twenty-one live here in the care home. All the boys are living with HIV; nearly all were born HIV positive.


Fr Daniel, the Rector,  has, throughout the last 5 years, developed the care home with a holistic approach. There are a variety of animals and birds on site. All the boys are responsible for their feeding and welfare. Up to 8 cows supply milk which in turn can be sold for profit which goes towards much needed funds to sustain the care home. The boys all work the land cultivating fruit and veg such as coconut, mango, carrot, onion etc. Corn is harvested and adds to the natural bounty.

Sport is enjoyed weekdays from 5-6 pm and twice on weekends. Special programmes take place fortnightly which include comedy, singing, and dancing. The boys are very talented and so enthusiastic, preparing and participating in the entertainment shows. Education is regarded highly here and the boys study morning before school and evenings for up to 2 hours. All boys rise at 5.30 am weekdays and adhere to a strict timetable, though weekends are more relaxed with more sports, rest and relaxation.

The vast majority of boys have lost at least one but probably both parents to HIV. When one parent dies it is a huge financial, physical and emotional burden on the lone parent to cope. In such cases the best option is for the boy to find a new home with Don Bosco.

All the boys take medicine twice daily to support their immune system. They attend monthly checks in hospital and their CD4 count is monitored (white blood cells). At present 54 boys are on line 1 HIV tablets and 7 on line 2. One boy seems likely soon to be going on to line 3 which is the last option available. With their health and well-being looked after in the care home, and being spiritually and emotionally supported, these boys have a better chance to extend their life expectancy.



Krishna is 17 years old and has lived in the care home for 2 years. I spoke to him to try and understand his feelings about his past and how he sees things now and in the future. He said his mother died from a snake bite when he was a few months old. He told me his father died from pneumonia when he was six. He was then looked after by an aunt until he was thirteen. He left home and worked in the kitchen in a hotel for two years until he was fifteen. An NGO then placed him in Don Bosco in Salem.

Krishna tells me his parents died in these circumstances and that is what he believes. When I asked him how he contracted HIV he said he did not know but he accepts the situation now. He said when he first arrived in the care home he was very frail and his blood count was low. He said he felt he would rather be dead. However today when I speak with him he seems happy and he has a lovely calm persona. He tells me he likes living in the care home and does not visit his home village anymore. However I felt sad when he said he had no special or close friends. He is seventeen years old living in a care home with HIV and no family or close friends. He has no hopes of a relationship or marriage. He finds contentment and reward in art. He likes drawing and painting. He is attending school but is two years behind. He misses school from time to time due to illness, like many of the boys. It was my birthday recently and Krishna drew a picture of him and I, and wished me a Happy Birthday. It was a very humbling moment.

Having spent nearly four months here, I notice similarities in the boys with boys back home. There is rivalry on the sports ground. There are friendships and groups who stick together. There is peer pressure and bullying but no greater than I would say back in Scotland. However I have noticed differences also. The boys are woken at 5.30 am, which in my opinion is too early for the younger boys. Nevertheless, they accept this and are busy all day. They study before school (which I don’t see back home), they play sports (in very hot temperatures) every day for one hour, two at weekends. They are all working daily assisting in bird and animal welfare and the cultivation of plants, vegetables and some local fruits. Salem mangos are famed throughout South India. All boys are expected to participate in all activities whether it be dance, song, drama, games etc.


The boys live in the care home within the Salesian methodology of welfare: home, school, play, Church. Although only a handful are Catholic, all boys say morning and evening prayers and attend Mass on special days. I see how they draw strength from the spiritual aspect of the Don Bosco Salesian teachings. Having visited many other Don Bosco boys' homes during my stay, this is well-equipped in terms of variety of activities, and the setting of the busy town at the foot of the Yercaud Hills is stunning.

My lasting impressions are of boys from birth, through no fault of their own, having to struggle with incurable HIV. There is a social stigma to HIV in the villages where the boys are born and they suffer not only community rejection but family apathy because they are a financial and emotional burden. These boys know they at present will probably die young. They have probably seen their parents die from HIV related illness. Some also have to cope with the fact that they may have elder siblings who do not have the virus. Not only do they have the normal problems and anxieties of childhood but all these issues to live with also. Without the commendable care and selfless daily sacrifice of the Don Bosco Fathers these boys may not be here today.

Des Williams


BOVA is a volunteer group of the Salesians. It offers opportunities to adults (18+) to live and work with Salesian communities around the world, assisting in their work with young people while experiencing life outside of the UK. Placements last between one month and two years. If you would like to find out more about serving with BOVA, contact Anita Motha

Friday, 08 November 2013 12:52

Megan in Swaziland

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Megan is a volunteer in Manzini Youth Care.

Hi Everyone!!

It’s scary to think I’ve been here for over a week already! I’ve had my ups and downs, but I’m settling ok.

This week, myself Claire-Frances, Iris and Andreas (who are the other volunteers who I’m here with) went to one of the Game Reserves in Swaziland, Malawua (not sure if that's how it’s spelt!). We took 18 of the boys from the homes with us who are doing the Prince Makosini Award, which is the equivalent of the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme back home. The boys had to cover 48 km in 3 days, which is about 30 miles I think.

Friday, 08 November 2013 12:51

Abi in the Philippines

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Abi was in Don Bosco, Pasil

27/7 After spending pretty much the entirety of my gap year in Taunton it was definitely time for me to take a trip abroad and after planning to carry out voluntary work for a long time beforehand I decided the Philippines would be a great place to go. As my Mum has relatives in the Philippines I thought it would be a great opportunity to go back and see my family, as the last time I visited was nearly 10 years ago so there was plenty to catch up on! I am spending just over 8 weeks in the Philippines but staying with my relatives for 3 weeks mostly within and around the capital Manila and then carrying out voluntary work in Cebu (an island south of Manila) for the rest of my time. 

Friday, 08 November 2013 12:48

Simon in Bolivia

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Simon volunteered in the Hogar in Bolivia. Read some of his story below:


¡Saludos de Bolivia!

The Hogar Sagrado Corazón is an all-girls’ orphanage in Montero, a town in the tropical lowlands of Santa Cruz, Bolivia. It has also been home for me for the last six weeks and half-way into my stay here I’m faced with the daunting prospect of trying to describe my volunteer experience so far. I’ve no idea how to do justice to portraying this little corner of Bolivia on the page, but I hope that at least I can offer a brief snapshot of life here at the Hogar.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012 01:00

Maria in Zambia

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An extract from Maria’s blog.

Zambia, 25/1/2012

So I found my way to the community of Salesians sisters here in northern Zambian town, Kasama. I will week by week introduce this community to you, my friends, through my eyes, which are of course influenced by my previous experiences in Asia. However, I promise to be as impartial as possible.

The journey to Lusaka wasn’t the easiest one I’ve made. It took me whole 2 days from London. After a couple of hours in Dubai, and then many hours on the plane with 2 hours delay, I finally arrived in Johannesburg in South Africa. Here I watched beautiful storm passed by and amazing sunset while boarding the plane, final plane to my destination, Zambia.

When we were approaching Lusaka airport, I was amazed of the darkness outside compared to any other airport, this one was not lit so extensively and there was not many lights around. Once I got off the plane we were 10 minutes ahead of scheduled arrival, only a number of taxi drivers were waiting in the hall. It was nearly 9 o’clock and very dark outside and I started to be a bit afraid. Fortunately, two sisters were then coming towards me and all the worries were wiped out with their warm welcome and giggling smiles. We drove to the regional house in Lusaka where I took some rest. The next morning I was on my way to see the City of Hope, another Salesian sisters’ project with one volunteer from Czech Republic, Kristina, whom I gladly chatted about her exciting experience in Zambia.

Now, let me talk about some differences. I noticed that Zambians are very affectionate when greeting a person for the first time. The handshake is accompanied by two kisses on the cheeks. People here in the centre speak English fluently, even though accent is a bit strong. I had my first long trip from Lusaka to Kasama on the bus; it took us 12 hours to get to our destination. The roads seem to be alright, not too bumpy. This pleasantly surprised me.

Today, I had my first typical Zambian food. It was beans with rice and lots of vegetables. They also served some tiny mini fish from the lake. After fast dinner all of us watched the football match between Zambia and Libya. The African cup is taking place and I am very happy to be part of it. Each time the Zambian team scored, girls were happily dancing, clapping hands, just amazing to watch them expressing the support for their team. During the match one of the girls asked me if I like caterpillars. She offered to cook them for me tomorrow. I politely thanked her and asked her to wait with such specialities for another week. I know it will come one day, but I would like to get a bit stronger before.

The centre is big, with the secondary school with around 300 girls and many teachers. There is convent for girls, currently 10 girls are here. Then there is a boarding house for another 44 girls, all teenagers whom I am going to help with. It should be a good fun, however, as an English teacher I am not going to have a big work (unlike in rural India, people speak really good English here).


Today I attended a morning mass in the chapel, which is so peaceful with the beautiful carved African map is behind the altar and the Zambian borders are indicated there. The body of Christ is placed in the middle. The floor is of marble stone and cooling.

Later after breakfast, I received my timetable. Ach, it is a bit busy, but I cannot complain since I enjoy being busy. Still I have time to write these lines here and will have time to study as well as develop my English language skills. This is the copy of the timetable:

Timetable for a volunteer:

5:00- Rising up

6:20- Mass (Monday to Friday, 7:00 on Saturdays, 7:00 on Sundays, 6:30 walking with the girls to the parish church)

Monday to Friday:

7:00- Breakfast

8:00- Library

10:00- Tea break

10:15- Assistance during break time with aspirants/postulates

10:40- Typing (or any other jobs)

12.15- Lunch

14:00- Oratory (13:30 on Fridays- Sports at school) with aspirants/postulates

16.30- Tea break/shower

17:00- Assistance at the boarding during meals/washing dishes and preparation

18:00- Preparation until 20:30 (extra English classes)

19:00- 20:00- Dinner

20:30- Good night

21:00- switching off the lights

Saturday- free day (14.30- Sports)

Sunday- 10:30- Preparation

Video after lunch

18:00- Preparation

I was shown around the Laura centre today and must say it is a big place. Girls were greeting me and they didn’t seem shy at all. Many of them study there, 400-500 pupils altogether from grade 8 up to 12. There are at least 40 girls in one class, they don’t lack desks and chairs though.

In the late morning, Sr Ireen took me to town. It is busy but small and lovely. I have not seen any tourists though. It would be very interesting to go there on my own as it is walking distance, I will indeed walk there. The prices in supermarket are high however; the same as in England or even more expensive depends on commodity.

For lunch I did something brave- I ate caterpillar. I considered very long whether to try it or now, my curiosity won over basic instincts and I crunched on it. It was deep fired, so tasted like some little snack, not too bad. I could however feel little legs in my throat and did not try to eat the second one. Next time I shall be alright eating plenty of them…

Sunday, 19 February 2012 00:00

Steph in the Philippines

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Extracts from Steph’s blog.

In their own words

Recently, we set our students a group project in English, to produce a brochure and TV advert for TVED. Here in their own words (but with a few spelling and grammatical errors corrected) is what some of the students have to say about their school:


“All I can say is it’s the best training I ever experienced. The training centre conducts an orientation to test how determined you are about studying here in Don Bosco. The student must be poor and interested to study because if you are poor there are scholarships to be offered.”

“TVED department has low tuition fees and it is a good school for me because they train you well and give you the opportunity that you are looking forward for.”

“I’m so glad when I was “in” because my first dream came true. Don Bosco teaches mostly about the values and morality and the spiritual things. He encouraged mostly the poor children and the young who are in bad ways.”

“The orientation is a kind of endurance that will measure or test the determination of the applicants if they are willing to be part of the team as Bosconians. Most of the challenges are to test your patience. It is also to measure your creativeness, attitudes and strength, to help us know if you are really capable to be a Bosconian.”

“If you are qualified to become a Bosconian you always remember the saying of the Bosconians, not only to remember it but to do it be a good Christian and honest citizen.”

“TVED is a training centre that teaches skills such as technical and intellectual and being here every day is worth it because you are learning new things every hour of the day”

“Like St John Bosco they teach young people the knowledge that they could use in life and to improve their skills like technical skills and also in sports, in using musical instruments like guitar, flute, beat-box, organ and drums.”

“There are many courses that TVED offers like IE, MT, HST and WFT. TVED has 200 plus students, 8 instructors, 2 teachers from England, 1 training coordinator and 1 training director. For me TVED is the best vocational training center because they have time about God like every morning has a mass except Saturday”

“After we log in we went to the chapel to have a mass. When the mass is ended the next task is chores. It is nice to see when everyone can work independently. After that we have a morning assembly. One student leads the prayers. We sing the Philippine National Anthem and someone will give a morning talk. When the talk is finished that is the time of our class hours. We have also different subjects but more on technical which is related to our courses. Before we end our training we have our hobbies, during this time I see the true meaning of life. It is nice to see when everyone is living together in harmony. We end our activities with afternoon assembly”

“DBTC-TVED just only helps you to learn something new that you never knew before. So be wise to use the time given to you for the hobby so that in the end you will be proud that even though you’re too busy for your study, you also learned some skills. The DBTC-TVED only wants you to learn not only in subjects but also in skills because we need an enjoyment in ourselves to continue to live life.”

“The most exciting day of Intramurals is the championship day. The winner of the game will be the champion and the champion will be proud of their team. The loser will be sad but the most important part of the game is that you do your best and most especially enjoy the game and show good sportsmanship.”

“When retreat day came we were all very excited. We all believed and expected that this retreat will give us the chance to discover our inner self. We entered the retreat house. It is situated in Mantalongon. It is a very suited place for people who wanted to relax and have peace of mind.”

“As a trainee here in TVED you are practising the good deeds of St John Bosco by doing your tasks extraordinarily well. Being a Bosconian is not easy especially doing things that are new for you but if you believe in yourself doing what is right and keep in mind that it is for your own good and you will become a good Christian and honest citizen because it is the only one thing that Don Bosco wants us to be.”

face of death perhaps, but risking ridicule or even just questions, do we opt for the easier path of aggression, be it actions, words or just in thoughts, rather than the self-sacrificing choice of loving service.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

All Hail to St John Bosco!

Today, 31st January, the church celebrates the feast of St John Bosco. We, on the other hand, have already been celebrating this feast for nearly a week. Lessons ended on Wednesday to be followed by three days of events and activities with the students, Sunday was family day, and yesterday the whole staff headed to the beach to swim in the sea, eat (a lot) and play mad games. By comparison to the goings-on of the last few days, today is fairly quiet. Time perhaps, to reflect on this saint who we are celebrating.

There is no doubt about it, Don Bosco certainly gets his name about (partly owing to the Salesians’ lack of originality in naming their projects – of the twenty or so in this province, I think all bar two are called Don Bosco something!). It is a name which, this time last year, I knew of vaguely, and in a short space of time has become incredibly familiar. Along with the name, I have come to know something of the story of this holy and pioneering spirit.

In the midst of the industrial revolution, John Bosco became a priest and dedicated his life to working with those most other clerics of the time wouldn’t touch with a barge pole. He called to him the boys from the streets, brought to the cities in search of employment or wealth but finding instead only poverty, destitution and abandonment. He welcomed those who were unwelcome elsewhere, he offered them a place to call home, a chance of an education and skills. He invited them to play and have fun and be children. He offered them the gospel of a God who loves them just as they are.

Mixed up in his story are tales of magic and miracles, incidents we might doubt through our 21st century eyes, but which were perhaps much more easily accepted by the people of his day. Irrespective of whether they happened as written, or have a more rational explanation, there is no doubt in my mind that the true miracle of Don Bosco’s life was his absolute commitment to the poor and destitute children, migrants to the growing industrialised cities, abandoned by society at large. The miracle of his life was to pray holding nothing back, and so be willing to give up everything to serve these kids whose existence everyone else would rather forget.

And the miracle to which he calls us, is not to perform feats or tricks but to place those who are most excluded by society at the very centre of our thoughts and lives.

The need he saw then, for someone to show these poor, destitute, unloved children that there was someone who cared is just as real today. There are still children displaced by poverty, damaged by abuse or abandonment, scarred by war. There are still children searching for a place to be themselves, to run and to play. There are still children who need to hear someone say “you are loved”

St John Bosco has left a legacy in his name plastered on schools and youth projects around the world: but a greater legacy will be the day when the rest of the world wakes up to the call to care enough so that no child dies of a disease that could easily be cured, no child starves on the streets, no child is dragged into the misery of war, no child is left abandoned and alone, no child descends into a spiral of depression and fear.

If we live in a civilized world, surely that shouldn’t be beyond our reach?

Tuesday, 24 January 2012 00:00

Anita in India

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We often talk about the importance of celebration to the Salesian way of working with young people. So there’s no surprise that Anita, who volunteered with BREADS in India, found many opportunities to celebrate…

Celebrate good times, come on!

There is always a reason to celebrate… in Hassan we had several of these opportunities. I remember a particular 2 weeks where the majority of our time was spent preparing for various celebration functions. Activities ranged from designing and preparing screen backdrops, decorating areas, choreographing dances, preparing short plays, singing practice, preparing food. Plenty of chances to develop team-building skills!

1) Inauguration ceremony of Bosco Plus – 16th October
2) Arrival of Don Bosco’s Relic – 26 August- one of my highlights of the course. Our institute hosted the casket containing relic of Don Bosco’s right-arm for one night. All students and staff were involved in preparing the place for the casket and public’s arrival. Many of the faithful and curious came to visit the relic and participate in the events organised. A particular highlight for me was seeing so many children from Don Bosco institutes playing and praying in the presence of the ‘friend of youth’.
3) Ganesh Chaturthi – 1st September – The birthday of Lord Ganesha – the period of celebration for this festival is variable according to different temples, but usually lasts around 10 days.
4) Teachers’ Day – 5th September – another one of my highlights. This was the first time I saw my students perform songs and dances, after witnessing all the efforts they had put in practices (within a short space of time) they really ended up stealing the show.
5) Feast of birth of BVM – 8th September
6) Onam – 9th September – a main festival of harvest in Kerala, commemorating the yearly visit of the legendary King Mahabali. The festivities of this day were arranged by the Malayalee contingent of our group -those who were missing their celebrations at home decided to bring it to Hassan. We celebrated with traditional Onam games, ‘pookalam’ (flower mat), Onasadya (a traditional feast usually comprised of 22 side dishes), songs, plays, dance and a visit from King Mahabali to distribute gifts.
7) Provincial Visit (Fr Thomas Anchukadam SDB) – 12th September
8 ) Ayodha Pooja – 5th October – a festival during Dassara where people give thanks for tools and vehicles that make their life easier at home, work, factories and offices. Blessed food and sweets (prasada) are distributed and pumpkins are smashed and kept at entrances to ward off the ‘evil eye’. We celebrated this a day early on the 4th so that students could go home for Dassara holidays afterwards.
9) Dassara – 28th September – 6th October – a 10 day festival celebrated all over India by many different names and a major festival of Karnataka (particularly at Mysore). Different prayer ceremonies (pooja) take place on each day.
10) Closing ceremony of Bosco Plus – 14th October

Sunday, 24 April 2011 01:00

Bridget in Kenya and Tanzania

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Salesian life as a lay person…..

One of my concerns before I came out here was how I would cope with the community and prayer life that the Salesians practise as part of their mission and charism. Over the last 5 weeks we have stayed – albeit for short periods – in 6 different communities and houses. (One more to go!) As one priest said to us, we could now become consultants on the Salesian houses in Tanzania!


Generally there are only 3 or 4 people in the community but in some there have been frequent visitors (ourselves included) so it often meant going down to a meal to meet another new face. I think we must have met most of the Salesians – both brothers and priests – in the East Africa province, which includes Kenya, Tanzania and Sudan. In a couple of the formation houses, where young men are studying to become brothers or priests, there have been greater numbers.

The usual routine in each house is up early for Morning Prayer and Mass at any time from 5.30am onwards. I have generally made it to Mass most days which has usually been between half six and seven followed by breakfast. The schools tend to start at half past seven with assembly so where there has been a school on the compound, we have sometimes gone to this.
During the day everyone is obviously busy with their respective jobs. The Rector (person in charge of the community) sometimes doubles up as principal of the school or as the academic master. Where the school is boarding, the brothers who are still in formation tend to be the ones who look after the boys. Most days we have either been planning or delivering INSET except for here in Nairobi as we are in between placements. We have been having a bit of a holiday since being here this week. Actually it’s been a good time to gather ourselves together and re energise as I was getting very tired by the time we left Tanzania.

Lunch tends to be about 1pm and is always a big cooked meal. There are a large number of Indian Salesians here so we have tended to eat Indian style food with rice and vegetables most days. The working day seems to end about 5pm or so, although for those houses that have youth groups and sports (oratory as they call it) the young people tend to come about that time. In every community there is a table tennis table which is used more in some than in others. In Dar es Salaam a game of table tennis was a scheduled daily event and was taken very seriously! The Papal Nuncio to Tanzania would come and play as often as he could and Zelma and I would frequently make up a foursome with him and the Rector.

The evening meal follows evening prayer and sometimes the rosary (although usually this is after supper and something that I have not regularly taken part in). They tend to eat late, about 7.45 or 8pm; once again it is a large cooked affair sometimes accompanied by a beer or a soda (rather than just water). My hope of losing weight out here has been shattered because of all the carbohydrates I’ve eaten! Sometimes the evening meal has gone on for awhile depending on the community and how involved the discussion gets. All communities have been extremely welcoming and very hospitable but some have taken a while to relax with us but then two old women coming in to their male communities must be threatening! Occasionally, after having eaten, Zelma and I will play scrabble or watch a DVD on my laptop, but more often than not we just retire to our rooms and I go to bed with a book relishing the rare opportunity to have some time on my own!

Sunday, 24 April 2011 01:00

Simon in Kenya

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Simon’s blog:

How to Write about Africa – Tuesday, January 4, 2011

I cannot write about Africa.

This might seem a pity, given that you are reading a travel blog about my first experience of being in Africa. However, in my preparation for going away, I have realised that I cannot claim to write about Africa. Nor about Kenya, for that matter, the eponymous hero of this blog. Nor even about Nairobi, where I’ll be spending the next three months working as a volunteer.

By way of explanation, I’d encourage you to read this article by Binyavanga Wainaina on how to write about Africa:

Almost without exception, everything I have read or heard about Africa from a Westerner since I began preparing to go to Nairobi has tripped up over at least a few of the very clichés which Wainaina acerbically parodies in his article. And I know I, inevitably, am doomed to do the same.

And yet, I do not pretend to write about Africa. I only want to write about my own experience based on my time living in a small corner in one city, Nairobi, where I’ll be staying at a Bosco Boys centre for children in need.
To echo the beginning of my Bolivia blog, I don’t know what direction or form this blog will take or how often it will be updated, if at all. Still, I hope that you find it interesting and all your comments are more than welcome along the way. All of your continued support is very much appreciated!

Looking ahead

I had intended to write an entry before I left discussing my hopes and expectations for my time in Kenya. But every time I came to write something the words just didn’t come. My head was buzzing about what kind of things I could expect to find when I got here, but there were too many abstract ideas and too little concrete information to pin any thoughts down on page. Essentially I just hoped to settle in, get on with whatever it was I ended up doing and to have a good time.
So it was for that reason, and that I was still packing up until the last minute, that I haven’t posted any entries yet – but I’m hoping to make up for that now! The next few entries are choice sections from my handwritten journal…

Arrived at last

Here I am, sitting at my new desk in my new room in my new home for the next few months. I feel tired and thirsty but also glad to be finally here.
Before I left, everyone I met and everything I read seemed to have something extra to tell me about Kenya or Africa. These ranged from “you’ll love it there, for sure” to “don’t forget to take your own syringes”, from “the people are so welcoming” to “watch your back” and “Nairobi is affectionately known among tourists as Nairobbery”.
Even the Nationwide employee who I met earlier this week told me that since humans originated from there, going to Africa will feel like going home.
All this, added to my own perceptions and preconceptions of Africa meant that my idea of what I was letting myself in for was a bewildering, schizophrenic mess.
So, above all, I feel a certain amount of relief that I’m now here so that I can get down to experiencing things for myself!

Smile: you’re in Kenya

I saw the title for this post on a poster as I collected my bags at Jomo Kenyatta airport, Nairobi. I thought it was a bit more authentic than Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up which was what was playing over the intercom as I passed through passport control.
I was met at the airport by three boys: Peter, Kelvin and Wilbert, who drove us the 30min journey here to Bosco Boys where I was met by the director, Fr Sebastian.
I was taken to the volunteer house. My window backs onto the garden where some vegetables are grown. Behind that in the distance is a forest-covered hill. It looks idyllic. Except, that is, for the construction works going on in between. Apparently the Chinese are digging an oil pipeline through Kenya up to Juba in Sudan and right now it is passing by my room. What better representation of the current Asian wave of influence in Africa could you ask for?
I wasn’t best pleased to discover that they work (noisily) through the night. Though I suppose the quicker they get it down, the sooner they’ll move on and out of earshot.

Karibu – Monday, January 17, 2011

I had to drag myself out of bed on the first morning at Bosco Boys. I had not had a good night’s sleep, on account of the unfamiliar cacophony of grasshoppers, dogs, birds and Chinese-operated diggers which thundered on throughout the night. I got up though and made my way to the chapel for 6.30 mass with the boys.
I walked into the chapel to find a hundred identical shaven black heads atop a hundred identical grey uniforms turn towards me. A bit unsure of myself, I sat down at the first available pew – safe for the time being.
The mass itself was unremarkable, largely given that it was unintelligible to me being, as it was, entirely in Kiswahili. But I remember being blown away by the sound of the boys singing, backed by guitar, African drums and rainshaker.
After mass I was asked by the priest to stand up at the front to introduce myself and ‘say a few words’. I’m not sure which words in particular he wanted me to say but given that he had already told them that I was Simon from England and I’d be here for three months he had already taken my best material. Judiciously, I decided that some degree of repetition was called for. ‘Hi everyone! I’m Simon. I’m from England. And I’m here for 3 months. I look forward to getting to know you all!’ Hardly an Oscar-winning performance, I know, but it got a welcoming round of applause.
I then had to go and do the same in front of the pupils at the school.
Later, one of the boys confessed to me that he hadn’t understood a word of what I’d said on either occasion but he liked it because it was short. ‘Some of these people come and stand and look lost and confused and talk for aaages.’ A vindication for not waffling!
Throughout the first day – indeed, the whole week – all the staff and volunteers and people associated with Bosco Boys were very welcoming. Everyone said ‘karibu’ to me, meaning ‘welcome’. One teacher who had already welcomed me three times in our conversation ended it by using what has become my favourite use of the imperative: ‘Feel welcomed!’
For their part, the boys’ reception was less enthused, but some of the more confident ones did make an effort to come shake my hand and others made a high five or fist bump as they passed me.
I also got to try out my first bit of kiswahili. If you say ‘Mambo’ (hey) to a young person they’ll reply ‘Poa’ (cool). That was really fun :)

The IT crowd – Wednesday, January 19, 2011

On my first day I also met another volunteer here at Bosco Boys: Gary from Germany. He’s been in Kenya since last summer (which is winter here, technically) working mostly as a teacher in the computer room here at the school. Fr Sebastian had asked me if I wanted to help him out working with the kids when they have computer classes. So this day I bumped into Gary on his way to take a lesson with form 6 and I decided to tag along.
Unfortunately, the computer room wasn’t ready to be used, so this was going to have to be a computing class taught in a normal classroom without any computer in sight.
Poor Gary. The class wouldn’t shut up. There were about 60 of them squeezed into the classroom and they all seemed to be doing something different and almost all of them were doing it noisily.
Gary managed to get across to the few at the front who chose to listen that this term we’d be working on typing and mouse skills. But the class disintegrated after about 10 minutes and Gary wisely decided that we should all go play football.
Another 10 minutes had passed by the time we found a ball to play with.
Finally, by the time we got to the playing field it was time to head back for lunch.
Not an auspicious start…
On the plus side, Gary reckons that they’re better behaved once they actually get into the computer room, so let’s hope that’s true.

Measuring up – Thursday, January 20, 2011

I still have some stories from over the weekend to write up, but before then I just wanted to write about today while it was fresh in my mind.
We had a computer class before lunch. We currently have about 28 computers working, which is just enough to start bringing classes in. Sadly 5 minutes into today’s lesson there was a power failure. Every time there’s a power failure all the computers switch off and it takes 5-10mins to get all the system back up again. To make matters worse, the kids don’t sit there patiently while Gary and I run around resetting computers, but instead they try and do it for themselves, clicking ‘okay’ or ‘cancel’ at random, trying to guess at the admin password, or, completely lost, end up fiddling with the security settings. Finally, we managed to get all the computers going again and the kids restarted their typing exercise.
And then there was another power cut. Class over.
As I was recovering over lunch, Fr Sebastian called me asking if I could accompany one of the teachers to go take photos of the other teams taking part in the Jesus Cup (great name). Jesus Cup seems to be a big deal here. From what I can gather it’s a large competition spread over a number of weekends starting a week on Saturday including football, volleyball, basketball (etc.) singing, playing instruments, performances and so on. It’s organised every year by Bosco Boys and about 17 different youth projects from around Nairobi take part.
Fr Sebastian told me that the teacher was leaving at 1.30. I looked at my watch. It read 1.35. ‘Righto, I’ll go get my camera then!’ and dashed off.
Typically, we left sometime after 2.
On the way to wherever it was we were headed first, we suddenly turned off the main road and started driving down some residential streets. Isaac, a Kenyan volunteer explained to me, ‘There’s a checkpoint ahead and the driver doesn’t have a licence.’ Good good.
We arrive at what Isaac tells me is a young offenders’ institute for girls. They’re ready for us, all uniformed up in their football kits. I notice that their shirts look very new. And they’re all Chelsea tops. And the shorts are Chelsea ones too. ‘The Chelsea team came here recently’, Isaac explains.
So, now to work. I had been told to come take photos of all the participating teams. What I didn’t realise was that we were also coming to measure the participants’ height and weight. Isaac took down each girl’s name, asked them to stand on the scales we had brought, and the teacher then used a measuring stick to work out their height.
‘And what shall I do?’, I asked.
‘Here, take this’, the teacher said, handing me a scientific calculator.
‘Ah, I see. You want me to divide their height by their weight.’
‘No, add them together.’
The rules, apparently, said that you couldn’t play in the girls’ under 17s football team if your combined height in cm and weight in kg was more than 225. But that’s crazy, I insisted to Isaac, becoming increasingly agitated by the arbitrariness of it all. You’re equating 1cm with 1kg. It’s blatant discrimination against tall people, I argued. Isaac agreed. ‘But those are the rules!’
Laughing, I accepted his argument. In fact, I laughed throughout the whole bizarre measuring process as one by one the girls came forward to be told their weight and height. Everyone must have thought that this mzungu was an utter nutcase. But I wasn’t quite so pleased when two of the girls were told they weren’t eligible to play for the football team because their scores were over 225. It’s crazy! At Bosco Boys it wouldn’t matter so much because the tall/heavy players could turn out for the over 17s team which doesn’t have a size limit, but sadly I’m not convinced that there were enough girls at the Juve to form an over 17s team…
Anyway, I took a photo of the football and volleyball teams and we said our goodbyes. The next stop was Utume, a centre run by Bosco Boys as a preparatory step between being on the streets and coming to stay at Bosco Boys proper. Some of the kids were very light – imagine a 10-year-old only weighing 27kg! – but on the plus side it meant that they all qualified for their age range.
Tomorrow I’m told we have the remaining 15 centres to go visit and reenact the same measuring farce. Seeing as it took us most of the afternoon just to get through two projects today, I have a gut feeling our merry band of measurers fully equipped with measuring stick, scales, calculator and camera will be zooming round Nairobi for most of the weekend.

Johnny foreigner

On my first Saturday here, some of the boys were given a bit of cash as a reward for academic results or improvement last term and I joined them on an outing to a huge sprawl of a market to the east of Nairobi.
I was chaperoned on this shopping trip by two of the older boys, Kelvin and Kelvin. Sadly, it was to be a frustrating afternoon for them since their 1000 shillings budget wasn’t quite enough to buy the football boots they were looking for.
All the shops in the part of the market we were walking around were basic sheds of wood, with row upon row of second hand or counterfeit clothes and multitudes of hawkers milling around them trying to get your attention. The track between the shops was just dirt and scattered trash.
I must have looked very conspicuous – sporting my sunglasses and cap – and if it weren’t for the Kelvins I would probably have been pestered more than I was. I still had my fair share of calls of ‘hi, mzungu!’ (white man) made at me, as well as lots of questions about which is my favourite EPL team as I was ushered towards a hut of t-shirts or shoes. I found it very funny when on one occasion we passed a few guys who, once I hadn’t responded to mzungu, shouted ‘albino!’ at me instead.
As we were returning to the bus, I noticed that some shopkeepers were shouting John or Johnny at me. I asked a Kelvin. ‘They’re guessing your name’, he said. I laughed, appreciating the cleverness of the tactic, though I would have been really freaked out if my name was actually John…
We had been told to get back to the meeting point to get the bus back at 4.30. The two Kelvins and I got back at 4.45. We were the first back. At 5.15, with a handful more boys, the decision was made to leave. ‘We told them 4.30’, the bus driver explained. ‘They’ll find their own way back.’ I found it bizarre that we had just left behind over half of the boys that had come out with us, but I was assured it was perfectly normal!
On the way back to Bosco Boys, we drove past Kibera, which was described to me (with a little pride, perhaps?) as the largest slum in the world. From the road which runs past it you can also see the flats which the government has built to relocate the slum inhabitants. A good idea, ne c’est pas? Except that I’m told the benefactors of this project have already sold on the flats to slightly wealthier people, keeping the cash and preferring to stay in the rent-free slum.

Hakuna matatu

I am starting to think the matatu is the reason that many Africans are more religious than we are in the West. It is because every time they step near any road they come close to one of these small minibus death traps which zoom Nairobians around the city and in doing so take a step closer to their maker.
The bus on the way back from town today (16th Jan) was essentially a Disney ride without the characters dressed in costumes. We sat at the back, though sitting is a relative term as three times I found myself airborne somewhere above my seat. With countless others I was flung hither and thither and every whichway. It was a bumpy ride.
On the plus side, I’d made a friend on the matatu. A boy sat next to me and looked at me goggle-eyed with a big grin that screamed ‘I’ve just found a mzungu!’.
I had begun to get used to the looks I got as I walked around Nairobi. At Bosco Boys, a foreign visitor, white or otherwise, is no biggie. In some of the posh parts around here, it’s not big deal either as there are plenty of mzungus hanging around. But in many other places seeing a white person is still a novelty and something to raise an eyebrow at. Or, more accurately, stare, nudge your mate and unsubtly whisper ‘look, mzungu’. Pointing is recommended for further clarification of the mzungu’s whereabouts, as if the blazing milk white skin weren’t enough already.
Generally the adults try to play it cool – unless they’re trying to sell you something – but it’s the reaction of some of the younger kids which I love. Sometimes their eyes go wide in amazement that someone should look like I do. Other times they look at me quizzically, as if something must be wrong with me. It’s a sign that I’m settling in that I’m even looking at my hand now and thinking that it is kind of weird. I can see my veins and everything. Gross, man…
Anyway, I greeted this kid on the bus: ‘Mambo,’ I said. ‘Poa,’ he replied. The start of many a great friendship. We were soon separated by the sheer quantity of people that was shoehorned onto the bus. Everytime I thought, ‘right, now this matatu is definitely full’, I was proved corrected. Even so, he managed to catch my eye a couple of times and give me a big ‘hey, you’re a mzungu!’ grin. He waved, grinning, as he got off the bus. I waved back. It was a good moment.
Meanwhile my chaperone for the day, brother Deo (one of those preparing for the pre-noviciate) had conspired to fall asleep despite his head being gently flung from the seat in front to the headrest behind.
Deo had taken me with him to meet some street kids in situu in Nairobi centre. A couple of brothers go there every week to meet the kids, organise some games, talk with them and share some bread. For some, it could be the start of a process which leads to them getting some kind of help, such as into a project like Bosco Boys or a school.
This was real poverty. The contrast with the well-fed, well-looked after boys at Bosco Boys was stark. These boys looked like they had just spent the night sleeping in the dirt. Their clothes looked like their only clothes. We got a big game of football going in which I took part, at one point making a crucial Carragher-esque clearance of the line. One boy played through the whole game in a heavy jacket that seemed to be from a kind of factory. Playing in the midday Kenyan sun, he must have wished he had been picked to play for the ‘skinnies’ team.


Where am I? I’m staying at Bosco Boys, a centre for ‘children in need’. Type Kuwinda, Nairobi, Kenya, into Google maps and work your way slightly to the north-west until you see collection of buildings next to a football pitch and a forest to the north. That’s Bosco Boys!
What is Bosco Boys? Bosco Boys is a co-ed school by day and a boys’ orphanage by night. As summarised succinctly by Peter in one of the computer classes from this week:
In my schooll we are divided into two groups DAY SCHOLARS and BOADERS. In day scholar they normally pay but for we boaders we does not pay becouse many of us are brought here by various problems maybe you was a dtreet boy or maybe you does not have parents and so you were brought here as an opharn.
Where am I staying? I live onsite, in a volunteer house which I have to myself since I’m the only male volunteer staying here at the moment. Next door live a few girls from Slovakia who live at Bosco Boys but work at different Salesian projects in the area. Gary, from Germany, lives with a Kenyan family, but comes to Bosco Boys during the weekdays.
The room is large and the bed is comfortable. I have a fridge and the shower is amazing and has always had hot water (so far). And yes, the Chinese diggers moved on after a few days leaving me to sleep in peace.
And the weather? Almost perfect.
Cold first thing (what would be described as ‘fresh’ back at home), warm during the mornings and late afternoon (somewhere in the 20s), a lovely cool temperature in the evening. Only too hot in direct sunlight between 1 and 3 in the afternoon and only too cold once night properly sets in.

On the ball

I’ve found myself playing a lot of football since I arrived here. The kids play at least an hour of games timetabled every afternoon and though some play volleyball or basketball, unsurprisingly the majority elect to head to the football pitches.
At first I played with the younger boys as at first glance the older ones looked pretty serious, kitted out in their various strips, and I thought I’d need some training before I took on those my own size.
The pitch is less than perfect. The large number of bobbles, divots and gaping holes makes the bounce as unpredictable as that of a rugby ball. Well, that’s my excuse anyway.
Somehow I’ve been persuaded to play in the Jesus Cup for the Bosco Boys Over 17 Boys Football team, despite my early protestations to not play. I have been warned that when mzungus take part, they are often targeted by the opposition. In Kenya, mzungus are softies (because we wear trainers to run, because we don’t do any manual labour) whereas Kenyans are ‘hardcore’. Clearly I need to get some training in before our first match next week!

Skin deep

Michael, one of the smaller boys, was sitting next to me the other day. He took my left hand and was looking at it earnestly and turning it over in his hands. Eventually he asked inquisitively, ‘Why isn’t your hand black?’, pointing to my palm. ‘See, mine is black here and white here’, he said, flipping his hands to show his pale palms. In his head, the irreducible logic was that as the back of my hand is white my palms should therefore be black.
The following week, the same Michael pulled gently at my hair and asked ‘Why is your hair like this but mine like this?’ gesturing towards his own closely-shaven afro. I feel that my brief explanation of genetics didn’t quite satisfy his curiosity. 

What’s going on?

Almost everyone here is bilingual, speaking at least English (the official language of the education system) and Kiswahili. Some speak many more languages than that. My friend Isaac, one of the Kenyans who works here, says that he can speak 6 tribal African languages and understand 6 others.
It’s a shame then that so few people seem to understand me. My accent, which is clearly not East African English, is unusual to most of the kids. I have been told that they would understand me better if I put on an American accent, but I wouldn’t want to inflict that on them. Instead, I’m trying my best to speak more clearly, separating the words as I go.
Outside of the classroom, however, Kiswahili is the language of choice. There are times when the amount of Swahili that goes on here can feel quite ostracising for me since I can only pick out one or two words at the moment. I feel like I miss out on an lot of information or instructions because so much is going on around me which I don’t understand. But I’m trying to pick up enough phrases so that I can at least pass the time of day with someone before I revert to the colonial tongue…
I do feel a certain amount of pressure to learn the language though. People often reminisce about previous volunteers who learned Swahili fluently within a couple of months. Well, bully for them, I think to myself. Yesterday one of the boys pointed at a German volunteer who has been here for over 6 months, saying that ‘She can speak Kiswahili, why can’t you?’ I wanted to point out the unfairness of this comparison given that I’ve barely been here for two weeks, but I couldn’t be bothered to raise to the bait.
We had three computer classes yesterday. Previous classes had managed to change enough of the settings to bring down a network of 16 computers, which meant that it wasn’t worth bringing in a class of 50 or so students into a computer room which only had 14 working computers. So, instead, I gave a couple of computing theory classes, talking about what a computer is, its functions and uses, its advantages and disadvantages and so on. Amazingly, I felt the classes went very well and for the most part the students listened and even took notes.
By the time it came to the third class of the day, which was with the youngest students, Gary had managed to fix the network and so we let them into the computer room to practise typing in Word. This didn’t quite work out as lots of little hands makes for lots of mischief, especially with computers around, and the class involved a good deal of running around, repairing crashing computers, telling kids to stop pressing random buttons, and so on. By the time we’d got them all out I felt like I’d run a marathon.
I also discovered that one of the kids at Bosco Boys is called Safari Simba. What a great name! :D

Meeting and greeting
Tips for meeting and greeting in East Africa

When meeting a Kenyan, a handshake is the done thing for greeting both men and women. You will find it always last longer than you expected. In fact, whole conversations may be played out while standing or walking clasping one another’s hands.
Also, remember to shake everybody’s hand. When you enter a room of people, the first thing you must do is go around a greet them individually (if practical).
As well as the handshake, other commonplace gestures include the high-five, the fist bump and, most bewilderingly, a combination of the two which ends with the individuals’ thumbs clicking together (directions: slap your hands together, curl round your fingers and then use your thumbs to click).
When greeting someone, always ask ‘how are you?’. The answer will always be ‘Fine.’ Everyone is always fine in Kenya. Even if you’ve just fallen down a well, if someone asks how you are, the instinctive response would be ‘fine’ and it would take a bit more questioning to ascertain the person’s actual condition.
And, of course, with the kids you can mix things up by saying ‘mambo’ as you fist bump, beat your chest once and then lift your hand up to the sky. ‘Poa poa’ is the requisite response.
‘Yes’ is also an often used greeting. Although it sounds a bit strange at first – when someone walks past you just saying ‘yesss’ – you’ll find it’s a nice alternative for saying a quick hello as you’re crossing paths.

Glorious food – Saturday, February 5, 2011

Food at Bosco Boys is a three-tier system. 1. The priests and actual brothers; 2. The pre-novices; 3. The boys (or boys/girls at the school Mon-Fri for breakfast and lunch).
Us volunteers are invited to eat with the pre-novice brothers, although recently I have gone to eat with the boys in the dining hall a few times.
For them, breakfast consists of tea (chai) with bread. I was pleasantly surprised to fiund that not all the bread was stale, as I had been warned that it would be, and it was also pleasing to see the boys apparently sharing the food around relatively equally, making sure that everyone gets their share. Having said that, as everything happens so fast, so noisily and so obstinately in Kiswahili, I have no idea as to the true nature of the dining hall politics…
A typical lunch or supper is ugali with cooked vegetables (generally French beans and/or carrots) with a suggestion of a sauce. The ugali is pure stodge and only really palatable when eaten in combination with the other food.
By way of contrast, in the relative peace and quiet of the pre-novice house, the brothers tuck into bread and butter in the mornings with tea (sugar is available if you like) or sometimes porridge. Lunch/supper (and sometimes breakfast too) always features rice and almost always kidney beans with some kind of veg. Yoghurt and mango are popular post-prandial treats. Only occasionally do we have meat.
The food might not sound too thrilling so I should add that I’ve never felt excessively hungry since I arrived and there’s always more than enough bread or rice to keep one going until the next meal. Given my Salesian background, I can’t help but think that we ought to be sharing our mealtimes with the boys and I’m often tempted by the idea of joining them for meals more often. Sadly, my stomach often wins out and I end up enjoying my rice and beans with the brothers instead… :)

Computer fever

Bosco Boys is very lucky to have such a well-equipped computer room. I have to keep telling myself this when computers are crashing and breaking and lessons are falling apart at the seams. Just to have a computer room at all sets it apart from most other public primary schools in Kenya. The director is very keen to have a fully-functioning computer room which the students can access regularly and has set aside two computer lessons a week for the forms 3-7 as a signal of his intent.
A typical lesson goes as follows.
Gary and I spend the half an hour before the class turning the computers on and loading up the program that the students will use. I then walk to the pupils’ classroom, enter and wait for the kids to calm down. It’s normally pandamonium when I get there, with kids walking around, shouting, hitting each other, still writing notes from the previous class, sleeping, walking in and out of the room etc. etc. and so it generally takes a good 5 or so minutes of commotion before I get anywhere near ‘nyamaza’ or silence. Fortunately I have the advantage of a. being relatively patient and b. being safe in the knowledge that on the whole they want to have their computer lesson and get a go in the computer room, so they know it’s in their interest to shut up so that we can get there quicker.
Once I have something close to peace, I explain what we’ll be doing in the lesson. For the first couple weeks, Gary and I just opened up Word on every computer and told them to write about their holiday one lesson, about their school the next and to write a letter another. Running out of things to set them to write about, and acknowledging that many students only managed to write ‘mynameis soandso’ in the half hour class, we change tack last week and got them practising using a keyboard using a touch-typing program.
Annoyingly this ‘Rapidtyping’ program is not as rapid as I would like and is unreliable on the computers we have, requiring Gary and I to spend the lessons dashing around the room restarting the game every time it crashes. On the plus side, some students have really taken to it and are whizzing through the levels. And we’ve almost managed to teach some of the older students to use Shift when writing a capital letter.
Apart from the typing program, there’s also a German game called Moorhuhn that Gary downloaded which involves shooting flying ducks by moving and clicking the mouse. The kids love it and it’s a fun way to get them used to controlling a mouse but sadly it only works on half a dozen computers at the moment, so we can’t use it for a whole class yet.
Looking ahead, I’m thinking of giving the kids texts which they have to type up into Word and format correctly. I’d also love to do some kind of project or even a quiz to set them, but I think that may be a bit ambitious given the level of many of the students. One day I did try to teach copy and paste (using the mouse and the Edit menu as I thought that would be simplest) but I didn’t get anywhere at all.
All suggestions for things to do in future classes are extremely welcome!
As I type this I’m doing Google searches to see if I can download some kind of sporcle style quiz game which could be used offline as a form of info-tainment…
Anyway, during the class, as I say, Gary and I patrol the room, restarting crashed computers, breaking up fights when the pupils refuse to share and somehow in between trying to pass on a few tips and tricks. At the very least, it’s important just to let the kids have access to the computers, to get them used to using them and to remove any fear or mystery about them from an early age.
The end of every class is always the same and is always a fiasco.
The bell is rung. I open the door. Gary calls time on the lesson. Nobody moves. I remind everyone to not turn off the computers (as we’ll need them for the next class). Gary asks everyone to leave. Nobody moves. Gary tells everybody to leave and switches off the server, thereby disabling half of the computers.
Panic ensues. The kids, realising their time is up, frantically start clicking buttons left right and centre, bashing away at keyboards, turning off screens, turning off computers and when finally they move away from the computer they were using they start doing the same at another computer closer to the door. Gary and I literally have to shepherd every boy and girl out of the room, cajoling, bribing and threatening as we go.
For the youngest class, I’ve started telling the kids to put their hands in the air and then on their heads as soon as the bell goes and tell them to leave like that. It’s a tactic I might start using for the older students if they continue to not listen to our pleas to not fiddle with the computers as they leave the room. However, even with one hand on their head, the other invariably strays back towards the nearest mouse to squeeze out those extra last few clicks of desperation as they are dragged kicking and screaming from the room…
Obviously they like our lessons so much they don’t want to leave!

The day I fell out of a bus – Monday, February 7, 2011

Last Friday I took a day off and took the opportunity catch up on some sleep and on some washing. Then in the afternoon I went with Gary into Nairobi town centre: he wanted to collect his residency card for his one year working visa and I wanted to have a look around.
I stepped off the matatu minibus in downtown Nairobi to discover that in getting off I’d scrapped my foot against a jagged bit of metal and I now had a bleeding gash on my left toe. Gary wasn’t having much luck either. He collected his residency card, which had already been delayed by 3 months due to various bureaucratic delays, only to find that it is due to expire in two weeks time, and not in August as it should have done. He was not best pleased.
Depsite this unauspicious start, I had an enjoyable afternoon in the centre of Nairobi. My first impression of the city is your average big bustling metropolis with loads of cars, buses and people jostling each other to make their way from a to b, but maybe it will grow on me with time. I bought some football socks for my first Jesus Cup game the following day and we met up with some of Gary’s German volunteer pals.
To get home in the evening, I got on a matatu which was headed towards Karen. When it was my stop, the bus didn’t actually stop but just slowed down enough for the two women ahead of me to hop off gently. When it came to my turn, I hesitated for a split second, thinking that the bus was really going a bit too fast for me just to ‘hop off’ onto the roadside. Then I decided that I’d better just go for it before the bus moved off any quicker and I missed my quote unquote stop.
Unfortunately for me, at that exact moment, the matatu driver decided that he wasn’t going to bother waiting for this dithering mzungu and put his foot on the accelerator, hard. By a staggering coincidence, hard is also the word I’d used to describe how I hit the tarmac, along with other adjectives such as scraping and painful.
The bus drove off and I was left lying on the road, the headlights of the traffic shining into my eyes and the blazing of horns in my ears. I limped off to the side, assessed my condition (hurting) and then did the last thing in the world that I wanted to do at that moment: get on another matatu to get me back to Bosco Boys.
Fortunately, I had been wearing my rucksack when I fell which soften the blow and although I had various bruises and pains down the right side of my body I was left relatively unscathed from the incident. Even so, I’m going to be much more careful next time!

It’s our turn to eat sweets – Thursday, February 10, 2011

The day before yesterday I ate supper in the dining hall on a table of some of the younger boys.
While we were cutting French beans (or mishiri as the boys call it) for the next day’s meal, the boy sat next to me, went across to another on the table, berated him in swahili and slapped him over the head.
‘What was that all about?’ I asked when he came back to his seat.
‘This boy,’ he explained, ‘is our captain of the table and they gave him money to buy sweets for all of us but he went and bought the sweets and ate them all himself.’
‘Much like the President of Kenya, then,’ I suggested.

The day I had my hair cut – Wednesday, February 16, 2011

I decided that I’d being putting it off long enough. On Sunday I resolved to go into the nearest town, i.e. to Kuwinda slum, and finally get my hair cut.
Now, some of you may have noticed from my photos that there’s not much variation here among the males with regards to hair type. The hair styles here fall into two groups: the close shave and the let-it-grow afro. In fear of the former, I had asked around Bosco Boys if anyone knew of any place where I could get it cut instead of having it all shaved off. No one knew seemed to understand what I was on about.
Unperturbed (surely a reasonable hairdresser would dust off the scissors for a mzungu?) I set out in search of a barbers with a small posse of boys who had tagged along for a laugh.
Even at the point when I sat down in the barber’s chair I still naively thought I could get away with getting a neat trim and not a shearing. I went to lengths to explain what I wanted, to the extent of making scissor-cutting motions to the smiling barber.
‘No problem,’ he said, as he reached for his electric shaver… Resigned, I sighed and braced myself for my new life as a skinhead.
As piles of hair fell onto my lap, a nervous smile was etched onto my face. Robert, one of the accompanying Bosco Boys, gave me an encouraging thumbs up and the barber told me to relax: he’d make it look fine. Once he had finished, I examined the damage in the mirror. On the plus side, I wasn’t a skinhead, my scalp still being covered by a short carpet of hair. But, to be fair, that carpet was now pretty short.
‘Very smart’, was the general response from the admiring boys when I got back.
‘Ah, now you look like an African,’ suggested another.
I only got a truly honest appraisal this morning at breakfast when a small girl came up to me laughing: ‘You get your head cut. It looks baaaad!’

What once was lost…

I lost my USB stick yesterday. I was really annoyed at myself because I’m normally so careful with it. At first I assumed that Gary must have it, but when I asked him he swore he gave it back to me. I remember using it before a class 7 lesson but since then we’d had two other classes and it was only later in the afternoon that I realised it had gone missing.
There was an instant temptation to say: someone’s nicked it. It feels like it’s every other day that the boys are given a lecture about stealing (or rather, not stealing) so it wasn’t a huge leap of logic to think that a boy had slipped it into his pocket during class. However, I didn’t want to begin accusing anyone before I was 100% sure that I hadn’t just misplaced it.
By the evening I had looked everywhere for it and was by then pretty certain that someone had walked off with it during class. I didn’t want to make a song or dance about it, but I thought I’d mention it to class 7 the following morning before their computer lesson.
Having made a brief announcement at the start of the lesson, a couple of names were given to me which turned out to be false leads. I tried my best not to make false accusations against anyone, but instead chose to go down the line of ‘Someone mentioned that you might know where my USB stick is. Now, why might he be saying that?’
Since Monday I’ve been helping out one of the older boys with reading and writing in English (I suspect that he may be dislexic but that’s a story for another time…). As we parted when we were heading for supper, I remembered that he was also in class 7 and asked if he’d heard anything about my USB stick. ‘Oh, you still haven’t got that back?’ said another boy who was passing. ‘So-and-so’s got it.’
‘Ah, so-and-so!’ my tutee said. ‘Don’t worry. I’ll get it back for you.’ And ran off without listening to my pleas to not make a big deal of it.
Straight after supper, my tutee jogged up to me. ‘Good news! Here you go,’ as he handed me my USB. ‘So-and-so had it. He didn’t admit it at first, but I slapped him round and then he gave it to me…’
I did my best to explain that I hadn’t wanted the guy beaten up, I just wanted my USB back. But still, I thanked him very much and was very happy to have it back in my pocket again.
To an extent, I couldn’t really blame so-and-so for pinching it as it was partly my fault for leaving my USB around the students’ computers and it was clearly just an act of opportunism.It makes me happy to think, though, that the majority (at least) of the boys here would, in the same position, not steal it like so-and-so did, but instead leave it, tell me or Gary or at worst fiddle around with it until the end of the class…

Questions, questions
Questions that I have been asked recently and tried (and often failed) to answer coherently:

‘What’s the richest country in the world?’ ‘What’s the poorest country in the world?’ ‘Why is Kenya poor?’ ‘Why is your country rich?’
I assume these topics have come up in their social studies classes. Simple kid-friendly answers are welcome!
‘Why is your hair like that and mine like this?’ ‘Why is your skin white and mine black?’ ‘If I go to your country, will my skin look like yours?’ ‘Why is your nose pointy and mine flat?’
And other genetics-related questions which I usually get in a muddle about when answering…
‘Who’s your President?’ Then on explaining that we have a Prime Minister and a Queen, ‘Who chooses the Queen?’ ‘What colours are on your country’s flag?’ Easy enough, you’d think, but then I was asked, ‘What does blue mean?’
[Actually, to put this last question in context, the kids learn that on the Kenyan flag red represents the blood lost during the Mau Mau uprisings and struggles for independence, green signifies the fertile land of the country and black symbolises the people's skin colour. So naturally, our flag should represent something similar...]
‘Which country colonised your country?’ Ah, yes, well, you see, the thing is, we were the ones who went around the world colonising other countries. ‘When was the last time your country was colonised?’ No, you see… ‘Which countries did your country colonise?’ Well, where to begin?!
And finally… ‘How do people dance in your country?’ Badly! ‘Who are the best actors that come from your country?’
Before I could answer, one boy shouted Jason Statham!

Capital offence – Thursday, February 17, 2011

One of the few games that is simple enough to work on all the computers simultaneously without causing any headaches is called Seterra, a fantastic little geography quiz game involving maps, capitals and flags of countries.
In our class today, one boy, Stanley, decided he would write down on a sheet of paper all the capital cities in Africa. He then tried to write the name of the country to which each capital belonged. He started off well, but then I think he began to guess:
Nairobi – Kenya Cairo – Egypt Algiers – Algeria Tunis – Tunisia Niger – Nigeria Brazzaville – Brazil
Close, Stanley, but no cigar.

The devil makes work for idle volunteers – Monday, February 28, 2011

Regular readers of this blog will have wondered as to why it’s been so long since my last post. I apologise for the delay and I can only say that in this case no news is indeed good news. Things have simply gotten increasingly busy here as I juggle computer tuition for the older boys with the timetabled computer classes alongside football training in the afternoons followed by English tuition classes both before and after supper and somewhere finding time to relax and hang out with the boys when I can.
To make matters worse, two volunteers who were here from Slovakia have gone back to their original posting in South Sudan and so I’m likely to receive more teaching work to do in the coming weeks in order to pick up the slack.
Wish me luck

Apologies for the delay

To make up for being so quiet on this blog recently I’m going to post a couple of long pieces concerning the events of the past couple of weekends. They’ve been eventful, certainly.
Last week Gary and I wrote and set exams for classes 4 to 7. They were their first computer exams to take place on the computer. It was a lot of hard work since almost every student had to be shown individually how to actually answer the questions on the computer using the mouse. But in general they picked it up soon enough and I’m sure it’ll just be a case of getting used to the test program and taking exams on the computers.
As for the results, one boy got an A-, almost everyone else got a B or a C, there were a few Ds and a couple of disqualified students (for misbehaviour). They might not sound that impressive, but those roughly equate to their marks in other subjects, so hopefully we pitched the exams at the right level.
Anyway, enjoy my stories from the slum and the end of Jesus Cup. Kwa heri!

Slumdog Millionaire – Monday, March 14, 2011

The smell was the first thing that hit me. The heat between the tightly packed houses of corrugated iron exacerbated the combined stench of human waste, rotting food and who knows what else. It made me want to wretch.
I had been invited to Korogocho slum by one of the pre-novices who had spent two months living there last year while working at a local school and centre for street children. He told me about the small community of Comboni priests who had been working here for many years. They funded this, he said, indicating the tarmac road we were walking on which cuts through the centre of the slum. It was already bustling with people, even this early on a Sunday morning.
Geoff, my guide, took us off the main road and down one of the paths between the ramshackle houses. We sidestepped over the open drainage system which had cut its natural winding path down the centre of the pathway. We reached a brick wall with a mural of important African figures and Geoff knocked at the iron door. We had arrived at the priests’ house for breakfast. At every Salesian project I’ve seen in Kenya so far, the lives of the priests have frankly been pretty cushty: nice homes in nice areas (Upper Hill, Karen, etc.) surrounded by examples of their many sponsors’ generosity. By contrast, these priests who shared their sliced bread and tea with us were located in the centre of the roughest part of Korogocho slum and were living the basic of lifestyles. As well as wanting to live in sympathy with the slummers, they are also forced to live this way, Geoff explained, as anything of any value that they have would get stolen. To live with the people, they must live the life of the local people.
A trainee priest from the DRC told me how he had been stabbed recently when he went out to get some bread. ‘It was only to take my phone,’ he said sadly. ‘It’s better if we just don’t go out after sunset.’
Despite being celebrated by an Italian, the Sunday mass was happily the most “African” I’ve had since I arrived: the dancers, readers and priests were all wearing African dress, the murals all depicted Biblical characters as Africans, and the whole thing took over 2 hours. Very African, indeed.
After mass, a young man came up to me whose manner instantly suggested that he was entirely ‘with it’. Having struggled through a painfully circular conversation, partly in English partly in Swahili, during which he had asked the same three questions on repeat, Geoff described how the boy had been messed up by sniffing too much glue. In fact, during our chat I noticed that he had occasionally put his handkerchief to his nose to inhale. ‘Was that covered in glue?’ I asked. ‘No,’ said Geoff, ‘He has dipped the cloth in petrol and that’s what he’s sniffing. It’s more expensive than glue, but more powerful too.’
The church overlooked a huge rubbish dump which we walked past on our way to visit Geoff’s former flat. In the distance I could see people wading through the trash hoping to find something, anything, of value which they could then flog back in the slum. Geoff told me about when the rubbish truck comes, you can see a stream of kids running and shouting after it, looking forward to the new delivery of garbage.
Geoff’s flat was in a nicer part of the slum than the priests’ house. For starters, it was a building made of brick. I asked how much it cost to rent. ‘1000 shillings a month’, he replied, which is around £10. ‘And the iron corrugated houses in the centre of the slum cost 500.’ ‘Wow! That’s really expensive,’ I said, with no irony: I thought that 10 quid a month was a lot to pay to live in a slum. Geoff agreed matter-of-factly: ‘If you don’t work, you can’t live in the slum.’
Geoff continued: ‘This nice region is the Luo area [Luo is a Kenyan tribe originally from the West of Kenya]. The dangerous area over there is the Kikuyu part [another Kenyan tribe, from the centre of the country]. If you’re a Kikuyu in the Luo part of the slum, you will be beaten and possibly killed.’ Chillingly he told me that just last year a pregnant woman was thrown off the 4-storey building we were standing under. Her only crime was being a Kikuyu who had strayed into the Luo quarter.
‘But how can you tell Luo from Kikuyu?’
‘From their skin: Luos are brown; Kikuyus are black’, he explained, before adding: ‘Plus it says so on the ID card.’
It wasn’t only the Luo who were criticised. My guide to the slum also censored the Kikuyus. ‘They’re thieves over there’, he said bitterly. Despite the huge floodlight lampposts which tower above the slum skyline, Korogocho was clearly not a place to hang around at night.
A mzungu I met the following day told me that when she had visited a slum she had received a good deal of harassment and had even had her necklace snatched from her neck. I had no such issues during my stroll through the slum, with most people ignoring me or just passively staring as I walked by. The kids were more vocal, singing the ‘how are you?’ reprise repeatedly. One particularly excited boy called ‘Hey mzungu! How are you? You are fine!’ and ran away before I’d even opened my mouth to respond. Later, a group of kids began to follow us chanting ‘How are you? How are you?’ as they went. Another boy got me to pose for his toy camera.
The history of the slum(s) here, their origins and development are not fully clear to me at the moment, and as for their future is even less is known. Everyone I speak to blames the government or successive governments (note: Kenya is still only on its 3rd President nearly 50 years after independence), probably with reason. People feel that things will only change for Korogocho and the many other slums around Nairobi with the necessary political will.

The War of Jesus Cup – Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Jesus Cup is now over. The 6-week sport and culture extravaganza hosted and organized by Bosco Boys has been brought to an end for another year. Bosco Boys itself had mixed success, winning all the volleyball cups and the girls’ football and netball trophies, but flopping in the boys’ football and basketball.
JC2011 was overshadowed by controversy throughout. It began with the ludicrous indexing system for every participant (see rants in previous posts) which caused countless arguments. I’ve suggested that next year they could try having only a height restriction, which might prove easier to oversee.
As for the matches themselves, they were consistently dogged by dodgy refereeing decisions. Almost every football game involved a refereeing mistake that inevitably led to heated scenes between rival teams, coaches and spectators who were never backwards about coming forwards to berate the opposition. One team would then sit down, strip off and refuse to continue. Sometimes even the referee walked off, complaining about the lack of respect he was being shown. Twice in one day I witnessed whole-team strops which took a quarter of an hour to sort out and later heard about a full scale brawl incited by an incident in an under 14s football match. People here take winning very seriously.
The final under 17s match held on the last day proved to be just as explosive. Ngamwanza (a project for street children) v Kuwinda (a team made up of local people from the slum) finished a bitterly-fought 1-1 draw and had reached 7-all on penalties. Kuwinda saved the 15th penalty only for the ref to blow his whistle and say it should be retaken as the ‘keeper had strayed off the line.
This was the spark which ignited the tensions that had built up through the game. The Kuwinda team was incensed at the referee and the subsequent debate escalated until over 100 people were crowded together arguing and threatening each other.
Typical Kenya, I thought. Over-officiousness, tribal conflicts, accusations of corruption and ultimately no resolution except disgruntlement and grudges. And throughout the arguing the hip-hop music continued to blare out and the fans who weren’t interested in the bickering just kept dancing.
After 20 minutes of watching the commotion, I got bored and walked off. In fact, I don’t know who actually won the game, but as there were disturbances during the award ceremony from Kuwinda people I presume that they went on to lose.
These disturbances grew and quickly led to out-and-out violence as people picked up sticks and began to throw stones. The two policemen who were there to control the crowd of hundreds could only stand by and watch, cowering behind their batons. Fortunately for me, I was apart from the fray when the violence proper kicked off and one of the boys just told me earnestly to get out of there quickly.
I returned later to see that the police had arrived and that the referee was being put in an ambulance. He had been beaten severely and had serious injuries to his head and shoulders.
He had been the target of the violence initially, but this had soon spread to general looting as the people from Kuwinda slum began to run off with anything they could lay their hands on. Fr Sebastian’s camera, the laptop and speakers which had been playing music and even the parked cars were all targeted. Extra police arrived relatively quickly, only to be driven away by stones. They only returned an hour later once everything had calmed down.
Unfortunately, before “the war” – as the boys now call it – one of the Bosco boys had borrowed one of my point-and-shoot cameras to take some pictures. It wasn’t until later in the evening that he came to me and confessed that a group of young men from Kuwinda had beaten him and taken it from him. It was the only thing that was stolen during the fracas.
The loss of the camera itself hasn’t been too bad (I had accepted the risk of the camera being broken, lost or stolen when I handed it out, which is the same reason as to why I never let anyone touch my new expensive camera), but I was very upset by the thought that my careless supervision had made the boy become a target. Luckily he wasn’t hurt, but it was certainly a sober ending to what should have been a celebratory day.

Odds and ends – Friday, March 18, 2011

After a few more downbeat posts, I wanted to lighten the tone with some short anecdotes which fall short of being worthy of entire posts by themselves.
When I first arrived, I was shocked at how the pre-novices would pile their plates at breakfast with slice after slice of white bread, sometimes just taking half or whole loaves at a time and painting each part with thick butter. Meanwhile, I just took a couple of slices, as I might back at home, with a bit of tea. I find it funny how quickly my stomach has adapted though and now I can’t survive the morning unless I’ve had at least (at least!) 5 slices of bread with 3 cups of chai. I’m looking forward to getting back to cereals when I get home…
I once caught one of the pre-novices singing ‘Never Be The Same Again’ over breakfast. I had to question him on this, as it made a change from the usual humming of church hymns. ‘Hold on! Are you singing Mel C?’ ‘Yes,’ he replied, sheepishly, ‘I like her music.’
I only discovered recently that as well as football, volleyball and basketball practice, the boys also get the chance to attend karate training during their afternoon games. Today I went along and so had my first ever taste of karate class. I found the idea of me even trying to do karate frankly hilarious – as anyone who knows me might – and, fortunately, so did the boys. I was sweating profusely, struggling to keep up with the teacher’s instructions and utterly failing to keep a straight face – and that was just the warm up! It was really good fun and the boys impressed me with how good they were. Although the teacher did say that it’s a constant struggle to keep the boys interested when they’d rather be off ‘playing football or basketball or tennis or badminton’. I’m not sure that the boys do play badminton, but I take his point nonetheless.
Since a couple of volunteers left a fortnight ago, I’ve been filling in for them at an orphanage just across the road from Bosco Boys. I go in the early evening to help out during the kids’ study time. It’s a wonderful place: the 18 boys and girls are lovely, the atmosphere is relaxing (relative to Bosco Boys, I suppose that is) and the Sister who runs the home by herself always goes out of her way to make sure that I’m well fed, which is obviously very important. She also makes sure that a couple of boys walk me back to Bosco Boys in the evening once it’s dark. On one occasion, as she let us out, I commented that it was so dark I could hardly see a thing. She replied, ‘Well, I can see you because your skin is so white I can see it in the dark!’
So much for my tan, then.

Slumdog Millionaire II – Monday, March 21, 2011

On Friday I went to Kibera, one of the largest slums in the world. I was there to meet David Kitavi, director of the Ushirika Children’s Centre, and his colleague James who would show me around.
The morning I spent with James was so interesting I even began to take notes, some of which I’ve written up here. Note: apart from the most cursory of Wikipedia searches, I haven’t verified anything he told me, but I can vouch that he sounded terribly convincing at the time.
Within Kibera there are 13 distinct ‘villages’, separated today by the slightest of roads and streams. The total population of Kibera is almost always a number plucked out of the air. Guesstimates put it at 1 million people, though others say even 1.5 or 2 million isn’t inconceivable. By contrast, a recent official government census claimed that the total population is only 150-200,000 people.
Presumably not wanting to encourage people to live there, the Kenyan government doesn’t recognise Kibera and does not provide any public service whatsoever to its inhabitants. Until, of course, election time comes and they come looking for votes. Or until they need to use Kibera to encourage the drawing out of aid money from foreign governments. Perfectly reasonable.
Kibera started life following WWII when the then government set aside an area of forest to the south west of Nairobi for the Nubians who had served the Allied Forces during the war. “Kibra” is the Nubian word for ‘forest’, though today the trees have been replaced by a jungle of iron corrugated homes and electricity pylons.
The land was only provided on a temporary basis while the government promised to construct more permanent housing elsewhere. During the first decades following independence, however, there was a huge influx of people coming to Nairobi who needed somewhere to stay. The post-independence government quickly prohibited the erection of permanent housing but the settlers ignored them and semi-permanent homes began to appear regardless. The cheap rents offered by the first landlords attracted more people and settlers soon began to establish themselves across the different, expanding villages among the fast-disappearing forest.
Following a massive population increase in Kibera during the ‘90s, a group of youths decided that they needed to protect an area for themselves to play sports. They chose an area in their village and declared it to be for their use. When developers tried to build on the land, they would come at night and tear down anything that had been put up. Soon enough they were left undisturbed.
The sports attracted young people from across the local area and the older youths decided to begin teaching the younger ones. Before long an informal education system was begun, leading eventually to referrals to get into proper primary schools (note: primary education was not free under the dictatorship of Daniel Arap Moi).
With support from the local community and the parents of the boys and girls they were helping, a group of 5 young people managed to open their own primary school in Laini Saba and named it Ushirika, which means ‘coming together’ or ‘cooperation’, a name chosen to emphasise the importance of the whole community’s involvement in the education of children.
Today, alongside the primary school which specifically targets children from dysfunctional families, there is also a youth development programme and a women’s empowerment project.
This latter is essentially a group loans scheme for which, James explained, the participants must pass through 5 stages of training before they can begin saving:
1. Individual Self-Screening
2. Group Formation
3. Group Fund + Development
4. Constitution (every group writes its own)
5. Record-Keeping
There are currently 755 women and 107 men who are involved in the scheme. I was told that an incredible 1.5m Kenyan shillings were saved during 2010 between all participants across four Kiberan villages.
Not every microfinance scheme has this kind of success, nor does every group within this project always return savings. Even so, this project just seemed to work. I suspect it’s because of the goodwill and support built up by the fact that the development was begun by local young people and has grown organically from within the community. ‘These are our brothers and sisters,’ James points out, proudly. ‘We’re not coming from outside.’
I also found it telling that the centre is completely secular, apolitical and non-tribalist. It has its own values by which is lives, symbolised by the word CHARIOT: Commitment, Honesty, Accountability, Respect, Integrity, Openness and Teamwork.
All in all, I was greatly impressed by what has been and continues to be developed at Ushirika thanks to the initiative of the local people. People taking matters into their own hands to benefit their community and actively not wanting governmental support: what better example of his Big Society could David Cameron wish for?

Football matters

Kenya v Angola Saturday 25th March 2011 African Cup of Nations Qualifier Nyayo Stadium, Nairobi Cost: 300/=
I just had to go.
On the morning of the game, while Gary was in town buying tickets, I asked the director if I could also take a couple of the boys with us.
‘No, no, it’s too dangerous,’ Father said. ‘You know, these Kenyans like to fight. Angola’s not too bad as there won’t be any opposition fans, but if it were a local team there would be fights for sure.’
‘So, it’s too dangerous to take the boys?’
‘Yes, I think so.’
‘But you’re not worried about me?’
‘You can sort yourself out.’
Hmm… Thoughts of the Jesus Cup riot resurfaced in my mind. ‘Well, if I’m not back this evening, try calling my mobile, okay?’
‘Oh no,’ came the reply, ‘we’ll call the British Embassy. They’ll arrange everything.’
Not brimming with confidence about my security, I left to meet Gary and go to the stadium.
As it happens, there were no problems. In fact, the match was very exciting and the atmosphere was electric. Angola are ranked a lowly 107 in the world but were still the clear favourites courtesy of Kenya’s awful recent form. Placed 124th in the world rankings, Kenya were yet to score in the qualifiers and were still reeling from a 1-0 defeat at the hands of tiny Guinea-Bissau.
So it was ominous when Angola’s star man Manucho scored in the first half and threatened on other occasions to increase their lead. Kenya were dreadful and the crowd soon became restless. I began to fear how the supporters would react if things didn’t improve.
A double substitution midway through the second half changed the course of the game. Jamaal, one of the subs, poached an equaliser from a rebound before Mariga, who plays for Inter Milan, scored a stunner in the last few minutes. The crowd erupted. Everyone came up to me and Gary to give jubilant high-fives, fist bumps and hugs in celebration. On the final whistle, everyone streamed out of the ground (peacefully) in sheer disbelief that Kenya had actually managed to win.

Stuck on glue

You might remember that for my very first Sunday in Kenya, I was invited to go meet a group of street kids ‘in situ’. At the time, I promised that I would go back, and last Sunday I finally kept my word – 9 weeks later – when I returned with a couple of pre-novices to Kariua.
Little had changed about the boys themselves. Their appearance was much the same, with the same filthy clothes. One boy in fact looked the spitting image of the Artful Dodger thanks to his oversized trousers and his dark suit jacket which draped over a torn shirt.
What was more noticeable to me this time, however, was the extent of the glue-sniffing that was going on. Almost every boy had a bottle in his hand or even in his mouth. A few boys seemed completely out of it, unable to raise the energy even to stand up. With those who were more with it, we organised a game of football, throughout which the boys continued to sniff the glue from their bottles while they were running after the ball.
I was going to write about my team’s glorious 8-5 triumph and my storming midfield performance, hitting the post twice, scoring a goal and setting up two more. However, having written the previous paragraph, I now realise that it’ll sound less impressive when you consider the opposition wasn’t totally sober.
After the game we sat in the shade as a group to have a chat, the brothers said a short prayer and then we shared some bread before we left.
The real work takes place during the week by a Kenyan social worker and a foreign volunteer. They meet with the street children most days, get to know them, try to help them to find crucial documents like birth certificates from their homes and eventually refer them to centres like Don Bosco Lang’ata where they can hopefully begin a rehabilitation process. After spending some time at Lang’ata, the boys could then come here to Bosco Boys Kuwinda to resume (or, in some cases, start) their primary schooling.
It’s never as straightforward as that, though. 5 of the last 6 boys who have been referred to Lang’ata have run away. One was even there with the group on Sunday. This boy had run away twice so that he could return to the streets and to sniffing glue, but was once more asking to be taken back to Lang’ata. It’s heartbreaking to see people so young so afflicted by their addiction, but at the same time I can’t help but wonder – given the number of runaways – if more could be done at Lang’ata (and Bosco Boys) to provide support specifically to overcome any drug addiction.

Winding down – Monday, May 23, 2011

That Sunday with the street kids in situ at Kariua was the beginning of the end for my time at Bosco Boys. The following week was the last week of term and the students had exams. Showing a surprising demonstration of organisation, Gary and I managed to finish all the computer tests by Tuesday (having started the previous Thursday) and so I was able to fully enjoy my final week and start preparing for James’ arrival on the Friday.
James arrived in the evening after a closing-down ceremony for the school had taken place during the day. Bosco Boys was still very much open for the boarders though and it was with happy nostalgia when James was introduced to everyone at mass on Saturday morning, just as I had been three months previously.
The following day, the vast majority of the boarders went home. Bosco Boys isn’t an orphanage and almost all of the boys have family somewhere in Kenya with whom they can (and are encouraged to) spend the holidays.
So it was a much quieter Bosco Boys that James, Gary and I said goodbye to on Monday morning as we began our holiday. Our trip took the three of us to Isiolo, Wamba and Samburu National Park and James and I continued on to Lake Nakuru, Lake Naivasha and the stunning Masai Mara. We returned to Bosco Boys, had a party thrown for us at St Vincent Maisha Bora centre, said our final thank yous and goodbyes and, on Palm Sunday, headed for the airport.


It’s been a month since I came home. I’ve spent the time organising my thousands (literally) of photos from Kenya, catching up with everyone here and catching everyone up with my first experience of Africa.
My time at Bosco Boys (volunteer stint mark two for me) was certainly a positive experience all things considered and I have no regrets about going there. Looking back, I had my fair share of ups and downs and undoubtedly there were occasions of frustration, doubt, confusion, annoyance and dejection. Even so, on reflection every day was an educational experience for me.
The evening before I left I was invited to give a short ‘goodnight’ to the boys. Sensing the opportunity for pulling off a coup de langue, I decided to do it in KiSwahili. Partly due to the limitations on what I could actually say in that language, I chose to explain to them the reason I came: kwa sababu nilitaka kusoma – because I wanted to learn. I had worked as a mwalimu, I said, lakini ninyi ni walimu zangu – but you are my teachers.
I acknowledge how clichéd it sounds (I gave an inner groan even as I uttered it) but I did want to tell the boys directly that I hadn’t come to help, to save or to solve. Rather, I had come to listen, to see, to learn and to meet them in person. I feel I achieved that, at least.
To end, I thanked them and said I looked forward to seeing them again – nitarudi moja siku – to which sentiment everyone burst out laughing. It turned out I’d just said the equivalent of ‘I will return day one’. As every single person kindly pointed out that evening, I should have said siku moja (‘one day’). I didn’t mind though. It’s good to go out on a laugh!
I said at the start that I would try not to make any sweeping conclusions about the entire continent of Africa (or indeed of Kenya) just from my short time spent at Bosco Boys. In fact, while I was there, I was often asked, ‘How do you find Kenya?’ After joking, ‘Just above Tanzania,’ I would go on to admit: ‘I live at Bosco Boys, work at Bosco Boys and hang out at Bosco Boys, I don’t really know Kenya – but I know Bosco Boys very well!’
More than that, though, going to Kenya has had an impact on how I view Africa as a whole. It feels more real to me now: less distant, less different, less impenetrable. And I can’t wait to go back!

Thursday, 22 July 2010 01:00

Jess in Lesotho

Written by

My Visit to Lesotho 22nd July – 29th August

I am a primary school teacher in a Catholic school in Leeds. I have previously volunteered in Eastern Europe, with an orphanage and children’s charity, in four previous summer holidays.  However I always had the burning ambition to volunteer in Africa and in the last few years as my faith has grown travelling to a missionary seemed the ideal solution.  I found out about the work of the Salesians on the internet, with a belief in youth, education, fun and laughter, they seemed the perfect mission to travel to.


I applied to BOVA (Bosco Volunteer Action), the volunteer section of the Salesians.  I was promptly invited to two training weekends at Savio Salesian House in Macclesfield. The weekends were both very educational, with a great amount of laughter and fun.  I made many good friends.  After the training weekends the volunteer co-ordinator arranged for me to be the first British BOVA volunteer to work in Lesotho.  So then flights, injections and arrangements were hastily made and I was all set to go, with nerves a bundle! After two flights lasting 16 hours I touched down in Johannesburg in South Africa, where I was met by the lovely Fr. Jonathan.  I stayed in Johannesburg for two nights, where I recovered from the long journey and had a chance to meet many more Salesian Priests, Sisters and Brothers.  I don’t think I’ve ever been made to feel so welcome!  After this Fr. Jonathan drove me the three hour journey south to the small country of Lesotho.  I was feeling very excited!

When I arrived at the Mission I met so many people and was made to feel so welcome again.  I didn’t think that people could be this nice!  Everyone was very interested in finding out all about me.  In the first week at the Mission I helped some local girls study and sew at a convent with the local Salesian Sisters and I helped with a weekend youth retreat, for fifty very musical and energetic local youths.  From my second week onwards at the Mission I worked in all the different educational establishments, which I was very happy and excited to ‘get stuck in’.  I taught art and craft lessons in St. Luke’s Primary School, English spelling and sentence lessons in St. Boniface High School and taught English lessons everyday in St. Mary Mazzarello Vocational College for young women.  In the time between these lessons, I helped in St. Laura Vicuna Pre-School, where I played with the children in the outdoor areas and taught and learnt songs in the classroom sessions.  I also helped out at the oratory, a youth centre, open daily from 2-5pm, where local children can come and play sports, watch films or simply play.  I played many card games here!

My favourite days at the Mission looked like this:

6.15am      English Mass with the Sisters at the convent, I didn’t go to this early morning Mass every day but liked to go few times because it was good to hear an English Mass once in a while.

7.15am      Morning prayers with the Priests and Brothers

7.30am      Breakfast, with homemade jam!

8.00am      Teach English lesson to 30 third year students at Mary Mazzarello Vocational College. My favourite lessons here were lessons I taught on English idioms I use at home.  It was great to hear the girls talk about ‘taking the Mickey’ and having ‘the gift of the gab’.

8.45am      Teach lesson to 30 second year students at Mary Mazzarello Vocational College.

9.30am      Mark the students' books 10.30am    Assist teachers at the Laura Vicuna Pre-School, with playing games and singing.  There were 160 boys and girls aged 3-5 year old. They here were so beautiful, confident and loving, a pleasure to spend time with.

12pm    Lunch at the Mission with the Priests and Brothers.

1pm    Teach art and craft lesson to 60-90 pupils of class 5 at St. Luke’s Primary School.  My favourite lesson I taught here was weaving wool around sticks to create decorative wall hangings.  The children’s faces when they finished were amazing!


2.00pm    Time out to plan my lessons for tomorrow!

3.30pm    Teach English spelling and writing lessons to 60 pupils at St. Boniface High School.  The students’ hard work, concentration and dedication to improving their already fluent English really amazed me!

4.30pm    Mass at the parish church if I didn’t go in the morning or time to help out with fun and games with the local youth at the oratory.

6.00pm    Evening prayer with the Priests and Brothers.

6.30pm    Supper, consisting of a fantastic evening meal and accompanied with a much enjoyed glass of wine and long chats into the evening.

8.00pm    Time with the Priests and Brothers to chat and relax with some television.

9.00pm    At this time I would often relax on my own in my room and fill in my bulging diary with events of the day and then have a greatly appreciated early night to bed!

At the Mission I learnt so much, many things I anticipated, about education and people in other countries and cultures.  I also learnt things I was not expecting, that the Basotho people of Lesotho are among the friendliest I have ever met.  I enjoyed finding out about the work of missionaries and that they are people to be deeply admired and respected, dedicating their whole lives to improving the lives of others.  However it was a Salesian Sister that summed up my experience, as she stated that many volunteers often learn more about themselves than they do about others.  Living within a religious community and meeting so many people to share my faith with, has made me grow stronger and more committed.  I am very thankful to all the children, teachers and Salesians I have met on my journey.

Saturday, 24 April 2010 01:00

Alex in the Philippines

Written by

Alex, a past-pupil of Salesian College Farnborough, was a volunteer in the Philippines.


Barangay Elections

It seems a century ago now that I sat in the same gym hall as I do now, writing this recollection. Yet in fact it was little over two months ago. I was new to both Mambucal and the Philippines but was lucky enough to come at a time when every person of voting age in the country was involved in choosing their new Barangay representatives.

The easiest way to describe Barangay is to liken them to a village or suburb council. A Barangay is a Philippine term used to separate populace from one another, for example, along a 3-mile stretch of road you may pass through 4 or 5 Barangay. In a city, within a mile-square there may be 2 or 3 different Barangays and each one has a democratically elected council that serve as both a local police and legislative body. Elections take place nationally every 3 years over 1 or 2 days (depending on how smoothly they run) in October and 2010 happened to be an election year. Once I’d got my head around the concept of Barangays, I was invited to a number of election debate nights. Similar to what we’ve just experienced for the first time in the UK, potential leaders were invited to a gathering of the local community (normally held in Parish halls or gymnasiums) and first of all give an account of what they would bring to the community as Barangay Captain or Secretary etc before the floor was opened up to questions from the audience.

At the first meeting I went to, about half a mile down the road from the Don Bosco Parish, I sat rather inconspicuously in the audience. However the colour of my skin and the buzz around about there being a new volunteer soon gave me away. To my astonishment and slight embarrassment I was actually personally mentioned in some of the addresses; ‘Ladies and gentleman, current Barangay Captain, Fr Andy and New Volunteer from England…’ Quite fun!

The elections themselves took place the following week and went off rather smoothly. A few recounts were needed due to close results but, there were no problems with forgeries or corruption as had been feared.

I admired the grassroots democratic approach that was taken here. There was a genuine personal approach to politics here – you knew the people you were voting for – one that is only feigned in the UK by untouchable national politicians. There are also national congressional and presidential elections in May whose terms also last for three years but I got the impression, these Barangay elections are more important to day-to-day community life.

I also admired the parallel election for a youth Barangay council. It both taught younger people the mechanics of politics as well as giving them representation in the running and operations of the Barangay. The Chairman of the Youth Council also had a seat on its senior counterpart.  In some ways, it offered a political version of the Salesian Preventative System, giving them responsibility and power to grow without seeming too gimmicky.

This was one of my first experiences of Philippine culture from a non-tourist perspective and I fully enjoyed the privilege of watching it unfold.

The Visitation of the Relic of St. John Bosco


December 5th saw the arrival of St. John Bosco’s relic to the South Philippines. The 3-week event was part of a 4-year pilgrimage around the world where a replica of Don Bosco at the time of his death is placed in a glass container, as if he was held in state. The replica itself securely houses the right hand of the saint and thousands flocked to see, touch and just be in the presence of their saint.

To understand the magnitude that the relic’s visitation has had on the people of the Philippines, you really have to know how much of an impact Don Bosco has had here. The word Salesian is engrained in their vocabulary. Just saying ‘Don Bosco’ will gain you an element of respect other tourists will not be granted. This is because so many are touched by the work of the Salesians. In the South Province alone, there are so many different Salesian houses, serving thousands of young and vulnerable people.

Entire families have grown up in the presence Don Bosco’s teachings and his pictures is far easier to find on walls than that of the Pope. In the town of Victorias, Negros Occidental, nearly every influential position in society is held by a Salesian. This is because Don Bosco Technical Institute (DBTI) was the first institution of the Salesians in the whole Philippines and is this year celebrating its 60th anniversary. Therefore, with most of the boys of the town gaining a good education from DBTI and the girls respectively being taught by the FMA Sisters, Victorias is possibly the closest thing you could get to a ‘Salesian Town’.

Short of a visit by Jesus Christ himself, I don’t think the people here would react in the way they have to this visitation.

I was lucky enough to witness the spectacle over a period of about three days, as it arrived in the island’s capital of Bacolod where the official handing-over ceremony took place between the Bishop of Negros, Fr Provincial and the Bishop of Thailand/Cambodia where the relic had come from. After the morning in Bacolod, it travelled via motorcade to Mambucal where I am staying. Being a budding amateur photographer, I was stupid enough to jump on top of one of vehicles in the procession. From here, I had a fantastic view of the entire forty-car, thirty motorcycle spectacle. And which car was I on? Why the one right in front of the relic of course!

An all-night vigil was held in the church once we arrived at Mambucal and it honestly surpassed all my expectations of it.

Saturday, 24 April 2010 01:00

Jane in Mongolia

Written by

A fascinating extract from Jane’s last email from Darkhan (Mongolia) – spending some time staying in a traditional Ger.


Last weekend I was invited by a co-worker to join her on a visit to her sister’s family in the countryside.  I jumped at this opportunity and also accepted the extended invitation to stay with her family for 2 nights (she was not going to brave the cold for an experience she grew up with and which she does not wish to repeat so I was the only English speaker staying overnight!). 

This weekend was brilliant!! It was pretty cold (-20 overnight I think) but I was fine in my sleeping bag and duvet.  I felt slightly guilty that they insisted on giving me a whole bed to myself as the other bed had 3 children and the floor accommodated 2 adults and another child. I was very grateful though and my opposition to this plan was not well put forward in my, still very limited, Mongolian.  I slept very well though and I managed to communicate in Mongolian as much as was needed. 

Photos from home aided my explanations.  So what did I do there?  I helped (or at least tried not to be a hindrance) with the milking of the cows but my toes were freezing, walking boots were not meant for this weather, so I returned to the Ger before all 12 of the cows were done.  I helped to catch goats, which were ripe for the kill, to paint a horn blue, marking them for execution – lots of animals are killed and sold or kept for the winter meals, before winter sets in as otherwise a lot die over winter.  Freezer space is not an issue.  I then helped to herd the sheep and goats for 2 1/2 hours.  This was pretty tedious work as it involves just following the sheep as they roam and eat, directing them when needed, but there is a lot of hanging around as they don’t move fast. It’s fine if you have company that speaks the same language though (unlike me!). 

For this I had borrowed a coat and boots.  The boots were ‘felt’ made from 100% sheep’s wool and although not very comfortable they were incredibly warm and my toes appreciated this greatly after the freezing they get in my boots.  This meant that I was in 3 coats, 2 jumper and 3 trousers so I felt very weighed down and was glad to sit down every now and again as we waited for the sheep/goats to move on. 

Back at the Ger I helped the mother to make Mongolian cookies.  These are doughnuts (deep fried dough) without the sugar. They are not nearly as tasty as doughnuts so I added sugar to mine and they were delicious!  That evening I helped with the milking and was better able to help this time knowing the routine and in wool boots.  I was also given the chance to milk a cow myself.  This was very slow compared to the experts but the milk came out and mostly landed in the bucket so I consider it to be a success.  Other chores which I tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to help with were chopping firewood and collecting dung (fuel for the fire). 

I also spent some time sweeping snow from the doorstep, washing up in water warmed on their stove (their cooker and sole heater) and teaching some of the children staying (2yr old, 6 yr old) the names of their animals in English, with limited success as they were so young, but the enthusiasm was there!  Their father was a much more apt learner and remembered the names next morning too!  I was very sorry to leave, as the countryside is so peaceful compared to life in cities/towns and there was a lot more active work to get involved with.  It was so quiet and peaceful with just the occasional shout/call from a farmer to his cattle or an intermittent truck bouncing over the hills in the distance. 

The family were so lovely and welcoming and the stars so much clearer than in Darkhan.  I am used to the cold now I think.  During the day the temp goes from -20 to -3 and back again but it is just cold to me and once in the minuses I don’t really feel any difference.  I can definitely appreciate a good animal skin/fur coat, boots and hat and the difference that it makes to ones warmth.  If I was staying any longer I would invest but they are actually very expensive here.  A teacher just bought a coat of this kind for 200 pounds, which filled me with horror, having never paid so much for any one thing in my life!

Jane x


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