Print this page

Simon in Kenya

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!

Last modified on Tuesday, 11 February 2014 12:26