Friday, December 30, 2011

Happy New Year from Kenya

This is going to be a super short post from me today.  I just want to wish every one of you the Happiest New Year and I hope 2012 brings all the happiness you deserve. Because you deserve loads. Because you're great.

I'm off to Lake Naivasha for a couple of days but I'll be updating the blog again upon my return.


Tuesday, December 27, 2011

It's Not Easy Being A Mzungu

(sung to this tune:

I came to Kenya fully expecting to be stared at. It happened to me the last time I came here. It was a regular occurence in India (where I was a firengi). I am used to being the only white girl on the bus or train or matatu.

Why am I stared at? It's not simply because I'm white (as would happen in rural parts of India). Nairobi is an incredibly cosmopolitan city, and its residents are used to European, American, Asian faces. But then why am I stared at? Because most Kenyans see a white person and they expect me to either be a tourist, or an ex-pat who works for an NGO, UN agency etc (I guess they have it half right). In both scenarios they expect me to be well-off. They expect me to have enough money to travel by taxi or hired driver instead of by matatu. They don't expect to see my shopping in Kangemi market for my fruit and vegetables every weekend. They don't expect me to be buying my office clothes at a mitumba market. But mostly, they embrace me for it. I get little hassle in these places and usually when I have the time to talk to people - in my broken but improving Swahili - they are impressed that I live here and are doing the same things as them.

What I was not expecting was how much white people were going to stare at me. They stare at me for the exact same reasons that Kenyans stare at me. They also expect me to take taxis, or to do all of my shopping in Westgate mall. I get full-on gawked at when I stand at the matatu stage at the end of United Nations Avenue (the actual name of the road the UN complex is on) by wazungu driving out of the UN or the US Embassy. When I have had lunch or coffee with people in Gigiri they are always surprised when I explain by commute (2 matatus in the morning, 3 in the afternoon). I am now fairly confident that I am the only international staffer or volunteer that gets to the UN by matatu every day. I might be wrong, but so far I have little evidence to the contrary.

It's difficult sometimes working in a place where the staff are living a vastly different lifestyle to me. It's difficult that I have all these expectations placed upon me.

Now, this post isn't meant to be facetious. I *know* that I am incredibly lucky and have been blessed with a comfortable situation here, more comfortable than that of most of Nairobi's residents. I have a great house, I have my medical expenses and all that sort of stuff covered. I'm also lucky that I don't just live in ex-pat land - a land devoid of matatus and sukumi wiki and many other Kenyan charms. I'm lucky that I have been able to experience community life in Nairobi to an extent, thanks to Barbara my housemate, and her colleagues in the organisation she works with who live and work in Kamgemi. I'm lucky that I am being invited to a real Kenyan wedding in February by Barbara's boss, Josephine.

It's just that sometimes it's odd living between the two worlds.

This post was inspired by another VSO volunteer's musings on the subject:

Monday, December 19, 2011

Do They Know It's Christmas Time At All?

Yes, yes they do. Despite Bob Geldof and Midge Ure's ideas to the contrary, Africa is very much aware of when it's Christmas. At least Kenya definitely is.

For the past month or so there have been growing references to Christmas everywhere. There have been the odd Christmas songs played on the radio on my way to work in the mornings. Colleagues chatting about going up-country for the holidays.

The presence of Christmas is however, most keenly felt in Nairobi's shiniest shopping centres where hundreds of fairy lights and tinsel and decorations have been on display until November. The shops have been peddling cards, and wrapping paper and decorations just like they do at home. Most of the shops could have been airlifted straight from somewhere in Ireland. The only giveaway that we're not in Ireland is the fact that when you walk outside it's 23 degrees and sunny.

I, myself, am rather excited about Christmas here. Firstly it means a couple of days off work. And secondly, it will be a time of reunion for some of the gang that arrived here in November with me who have been working in different parts of Kenya. We should have about 7 or 8 people with us for dinner in Mountain View of Christmas Day. We'll be having a secret Santa, eating and drinking lots, watching some Christmas films/festive editions of TVs (one of the girls has Father Ted on her hard-drive so I'm advocating for us to watch that!) and playing parlour games. A lovely day to spend Christmas if you ask me!

Some things I am missing about Ireland at Christmas
It's wonderful to be spending Christmas here in Kenya and I'm so lucky to be spending with lovely friends, but there are a few things I miss about Christmas at home.

The Christmas edition of the RTE Guide. And the process of highlighting everything you want to watch in it.
Minced pies and mulled wine (though I'm heading to a party this evening that might have one or both of these which is making me ridiculously excited).
The Christmas lights on Grafton Street.
Novelty Christmas jumpers.
Tins of Roses.
My Mum cleaning out every single cupboard and shelf and putting every piece of glassware and crockery in the dishwasher only to have less than 20% of it used over te Christmas period.
A Muppet Christmas Carol on TV.
The Christmas morning CD swop. Where all of us, bar my Mum, sit with our laptops and rip all of the different CDs that we got from Santa so that we have 10-12 new albums in the space of an hour.
Complaining about the fact that there is nothing good to watch on TV after dinner on Christmas Day.
The annual Wickham family game of Cluedo after dinner (prompted by the aforementioned fact that there is nothing on telly)
Turkey salad, turkey fajitas and turkey sandwiches for the 3 days after Christmas.
The tiny glimmer of hope that it might, just might be a White Christmas.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

What I've Been Up To Recently

So you’ve probably noticed by now that my blog-posting has become less frequent over the last fortnight or so. This is for two reasons. I am now pretty busy in work as described in my previous post. And I have a growing social schedule (I know, I’m as surprised as you are). This is just a quick round-up of a few things I’ve been up to over the past couple of weekends.

Cooing over baby elephants

I think I have found Úna Faulkner’s happy place. A couple of Sundays ago some of my housemates and I ventured out to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust just outside of Nairobi. The trust takes care of young elephants and rhinos that are found abandoned in the wild. The keepers there told us the stories of each and every one of the elephants in their care. Most of them seem to have been orphaned as a result of poaching or hunting. Once they are found in any of Kenya’s many national parks they are brought to the Wildlife Trust where they are cared for 24/7. The keepers actually sleep in the sheds with the elephants (I know, I have seen their bunks). The youngest of them was only 9 days old and had to wear a blanket as the major danger for such a little elephant that’s been separated from its mother is that it will get pneumonia. The sight of the little elephant walking around with blankets strapped on top of it was without a doubt the cutest thing I have ever seen.

Having Christmas Dinner

Thanks to the Kenya Irish Society I have had a proper Christmas dinner with turkey, ham and even Christmas pudding. All on a sunny Sunday in the Rusty Nail bar in Karen. Thanks to the friend of my friend’s boyfriend (a tenuous link even I’ll admit) I was invited to the Society’s annual Christmas lunch the Sunday before last. It was attended by about 150 people, most of whom were Irish but there were quite a few other nationalities represented aswell. I was sat at the young, international (and therefore I think cool) table which boasted English people, Scots, Swedes, a Namibian lady and an Argentinian. As well as Irish folk.

Santa also made an appearance to entertain the younger guests again (he didn’t make an appearance at our table sadly). So I got to meet a nice new group of people, some of whom work in the UN aswell so I now have a few more Gigiri lunch and coffee buddies!

VSOC Meeting

I’m pretty sure VSOC stands for Voluntary Services Overseas Committee but right up until this moment it hadn’t even occurred to me to question what it meant. Basically VSOC meetings happen about every time months and they are a chance for volunteers to get together to discuss any problems their having, air any grievances, have a nice lunch and basically a good catch-up with each other. This time it was held at the YMCA which gave me the worst feeling of déjà-vu ever when I walked in first. I had completely forgotten until walked in the gate again that Kevin Lewis and I (hi Kev!) had stayed there for a night back in 2009 when we’d first arrived in Nairobi. Despite it being a very reasonable place to stay we were travellers on an extremely limited budget at the time and so we moved to a not so comfortable, but oh so cheap place downtown the next night. Anyways, I’m now ramblings about old Kenya times, back to new Kenya times.

Jamhuri Day Lunch

Last weekend was a long one in celebration of Jamhuri (Independence Day) which was yesterday. All four of us housemates were invited to Barbara’s colleague Josephine’s house for lunch. It was an absolutely lovely day with great Kenyan food and wonderful company in the form of Josephine and some of her family as well as Barbara’s other colleagues Nancy and Jacinta. She also took us on a mini tour of Kangemi, the… well the slum area that borders our estate where we got the loveliest welcome from the children. We were followed around everywhere we went, like some wazungu Pied Pipers, and every so often a voice from the mass of children would shout ‘hawayu’. A response in English or Swahili from any of us would generate many, many shy giggles, it was adorable. Jamhuri Day has been one of my favourite days in Kenya thus far.

Right, I had intended up put up some photos to accompany this post but sadly I am tired and it is late. I promise the very next post will have pictures from both the above and subsequent happenings!

Kweri! xx

Sunday, December 11, 2011

What I Do

So I’ve been in my volunteer placement a month now and I finally feel ready to explain a little bit about what it is I do here.

I work in the C4D Section of the UNICEF KCO. I help to coordinate campaigns on PMTCT and VMMC with the GoK and NASCOP. I also support the work of our F4L and YLL campaigns, in line with our section’s RWP and IRs and as outlines in my TOR.

(I shall award a prize to whoever understands all of these!)

This is just to illustrate how much the UN loves acronyms. Every time I think I have them all down I read an email or hear someone mention another one that I am unfamiliar with and it sends me on a frantic google and Wikipedia search for meaning.

So yes, what does all of that actually mean? What do I do all day? I work as part of the Communication for Development team in the UNICEF Kenya Country Office. Our role is to support the other UNICEF sections such as Health, Nutrition, Child Protection etc, if they are putting together a communications campaign, whether its through the mass media (TV, radio, online) or whether its an interpersonal communications campaign, maybe using youth or religious leaders to spread particular messages. The messages might be about good hygiene and handwashing practices, the proper use of Insecticide Treated Nets, or around how to prevent the transmission of HIV/AIDS from mother to child (PMTCT).

In practice this means that I spend lots of my time in meetings, either within UNICEF or with other stakeholders and groups that we work with. We work closely with the Government of Kenya on many of our campaigns so the Ministries of Public Health, or the Ministry for Youth and Sport are big partners of ours. We also work through existing community groups and network. The Faith for Life initiative (F4L as referenced above) involves UNICEF working with the Inter Religious Council of Kenya which is a grouping of many Christian churches in Kenya, as well as many Islamic communities. We often use the services of outside creative agencies to help design particular campaigns, or communication materials like posters, handbooks and the like, but UNICEF are there to give structured feedback. We also spend a good bit of time trying to measure the impact of our work so we either conduct monitoring and evaluation ourselves, or get our partners to help with this.

So what did I do this past week? As we're coming to the end of the calendar year lots of the work we're doing at the moment is reporting on what happened in 2011 and looking forward to 2012 on what can be improved. On Monday I helped my boss to put together some of our annual reports so I tried to collate lots of information from different reports to try and see if our programmes have made an impact in our key impact areas. On Tuesday I attended a meeting with other UNICEF departments to review how well we're working together and what we can improve on for next year. On Wednesday I was at a large Kenya Country Office (KCO) Annual review meeting where all of the different sections presented their achievements for the year. On Thursday I sat in on a Faith for Life training session for religious leaders in Huruma slum where they were briefed on child and maternal health best practices so that they can spread these messages to their congregations. A lot of it was in Swahili (highlighting my own need for more lessons urgently) but I still learned loads; it helped to show me what this programme entails 'on the ground' as it were. And on Friday I went with my manager to a meeting with the National Aids and STI Control Programme, UNAIDS, UNFPA and other on our joint PMTCT campaign and what we can do to promote it further next year.

The role is a rather atypical VSO role for a number of reasons. Firstly instead of working for a local NGO or Community-Based Organisation (CBO) - as the vast majority of VSO volunteers do – I am volunteering within a UN agency, and a rather large office at that. This means that I often have resources available to me that other volunteers do not have, I have a good size office, a computer with good internet access and clear structures to work within (most of the time). They also serve pretty nice coffee and the grounds are lush and gorgeous (and replete with monkeys!). On the other hand it means that I have extra bureaucracies and systems to work within. Lots of paperwork. Lots.

Relatedly, I am not engaged in the sort of organisational capacity building that other VSOs are typically involved in. The Kenya Country Office is a high functioning organisation, I am more doing a job than developing the organisation.

So I hope that makes it a bit clearer what it is I am doing out here. If this has been too development speak-y, let me know and I’ll be less techy in future posts or clarify anything that’s too woolly in this one.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Things I've learned in Kenya - Part 2

In the second in the series of lessons from Kenya, here are a couple more of the insights I've gained from a month in Nairobi.

Public transport is based on trust.

Or at least for a blow-in like me it is. I have, in previous posts, explained a bit how buses and matatus work here in Nairobi. There are route numbers, yes. And the routes do provide a guideline as to where the matatu is going. But these are mere guidelines, not hard-and-fast rules.

If the driver encounters a road closure, flooding (which is getting pretty common at the moment) or even merely a traffic jam he is likely to turn around and try alternative routes. For me, as someone who is just about getting used to where my bus and matatu is meant to be going, this can be a little unnerving. Even though I will have clarified - most likely more than once - that the matatu that I am boarding is going 'down town', I always feel a lurch in my stomach when half way through the journey the driver swings an abrupt left and I am hurtling down an unfamiliar sidestreet. Mostly, these detours do end up bringing me to my desired location. Only once have I ended up being dumped out of a matatu unceremoniously in the middle of somewhere I didn't recognise. Luckily a schoolgirl took pity on me and showed me to where I could get a matatu the rest of the way.

I thought I'd end this section with a few gems from Classic 105. However stressful my commute can be as a result of detours or traffic, it is often rescued by 'choons' such as these:

GAA jerseys are this season's 'must-have' item in Nairobi.

I have spotted 4 GAA jerseys being sported by Kenyan men since I've arrived here. I've also seen one man wearing an FAI tracksuit top from circa 1994 and only yesterday an older woman wearing an emerald green t-shirt emblazoned with 'Irish Men Do It Better. Do Kenyans feel a deep affinity to Ireland, perhaps to do with their shared relationship with the British Empire? Not quite. The jerseys have made their way over to Kenya from Ireland, probably having been donated by their owners to a clothing collection.

The second hand clothes trade is a huge industry not only in Kenya but right across Sub-Saharan Africa. According to one report I read, it is estimated that 1/3 of the residents of the region wear 2nd hand clothes from Europe or the United States. It is commonly referred to as 'mitumba' here, which directly translates to mean 'onslaught'. Some observers fear that the practice is damaging to the indigenous economy here (hence the term mitumba). Others argue that 2nd hand clothes are vastly more affordable than new clothes, and in a country where a large proportion of the population is actually getting worse off as a result of a weak shilling, high inflation and increasing unemployment, this is hugely valuable.

I myself have bought 'mitumba' here. The weekend before starting work I headed to Toi Market with some other volunteers to pick up a few office-y type pieces, for wear in the UN complex. I found lovely brown wool River Island trousers, Topshop blouses, even Dunnes Stores tops, all for a fraction of the price they were originally sold for. So right now, I'd say I'm in favour of mitumba!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Have I Got News For You?

Yes, yes I do.

So I mentioned in an earlier blogpost that I couldn’t even begin to comment on politics, economics or society here in Kenya and that remains true. But since I read the newspaper almost every day on my way to work, I thought I would give you a brief round-up of some of what has been making headlines here over the past few weeks, at least as far as I understand it.

1) Kenya's war on terror
At the end of October Kenya launched 'Operation Linda Nchi' (in Swahili this means 'protect the country'), a military offensive into Somalia in conjunction with forces from Somalia and Ethiopia in order to wipe out Al Shabaab from Southern Somalia. This is Kenya's first 'war' since independence and was launched in reaction to a number of kidnappings and terrorists attacks on Kenyan soil in recent months. The public's reaction to it, as far as I can gather has been largely positive. The coverage though has been really interesting; the Daily Nation, for example, has two journalists deeply embedded with the troops. As such their reportage is bound to have a certain slant. The 2 journalists in question also love to include random minutiae of the forces' lives. My personal favourite? Tales of the particular roosters which keep soldiers up at night. Since Operation Linda Nchi started there have been further terrorists attacks carried out supposedly by Al Shabaab and their sympathisers, in particular in the eastern region of Kenya but also in Nairobi. All of this has created some animosity and bad feeling towards the country's many ethnically Somali residents who mainly live in the Eastleigh part of Nairobi and in Eastern Kenya.
Also related to this story, I just read today that Al Shabaab have kicked out 16 aid agencies from some of the territory that they control in Southern Somalia, among them 6 UN agencies and Concern, leaving more people (potentially 250,000) at risk of starvation in the region.
2) Election Date

The to-ing and fro-ing about the date for next year's election has been going on for months, since long before I arrived in Nairobi. In a nutshell, the new Kenyan constitution which was ratified in August of last year set the date of future elections as ' (elections here have traditionally been held in December) The cabinet and many members of parliament objected to this, and we were accused by many of doing so for selfish reasons (ie. they wanted to hold onto power as long as possible). I also heard an argument against the move which said that such a change would undermine the new constitution, if this could so easily be changed, what else in this new document (which promises many impressive and progressive reforms) would be changed? The case has been brought to court but as of last week it was ruled that the election could go ahead in December. Bodies such as the Independent Electoral Boundaries Commission has welcomed the later date stating that an August election would not have given them enough time to do their job, which involved an almost complete revamp of the country's constituency boundaries. The subject is a super hot topic here, justifiably so. After the violence that erupted after the elections in 2007 there is enormous pressure for this next election to take place under peaceful and fair conditions.

3) Demolitions

This is a super interesting story, or at least I think so. Actually, it's not one story, but several, and it's indicative of a much larger problem here. Hundreds of residents of Syokimau in South Western Nairobi had their homes (many of them very, very fancy homes) demolished The Kenyan Airport Authority claims that the homes are on the main flight path in and out of Jomo Kenyatta airport and that they have owned the land since 1971 when they acquired it through a Compulsory Purchase Order. Thet also maintain that the owners of the land at the time were compensated. So how has the land ended up with private houses on it 40 years later? Somewhere along the way land documents were forged and sold to these unsuspecting people. Which is not an uncommon practice here and demolitions occur regularly in slum areas for this reason. Questions are being asked as to how the houses were allowed to be built in the first place, and how the city authorities (to whom some of the residents were paying council taxes) failed to notice that these people were not entitled to be on this land.
4) Diplomatic row
Yesterday a Kenyan high court judge ordered that Sudanese President Hassan al-Bashir be arrested if he ever set foot on Kenyan soil. He is wanted by the International Criminal Court for charges of crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide. This led to the Sudanese leader issuing an ultimatum, giving the Kenyan ambassador 72 hours to leave the country if the order was not rescinded, and he also withdres the Sudanese ambassador to Nairobi. Kenyan-Sudan relations have always been cordial enough in the past, Kenya is certainly closer to Sudan than Uganda, which openly criticised the Sudanese government for the situation in Darfur for many years. In a twist in the tale this morning I heard on the radio that Kenya's President Kibaki has written to al-Bashir distancing himself and the government from the High Court ruling and he will be asking his Attorney General to look into the matter. From what I understand the Kenyan government is worried about the effect that this incident might have on it's war on Al Shabaab as it needs all the allies in the region that it can get.
That's all from Nairobi. Until next time, I've been Andrea Wickham. Good evening.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The day I got arrested

Well not quite. But I was brought to the main police station in Nairobi. Now before you all begin concocting elaborate plans to bust me out of my Eastern African cell let me tell you the story of my commute home from work on Tuesday and how I ended up at Nairobi Police Station.

In Nairobi buses and matatus are only allowed to pick up passengers at designated stops (or stages as they are often called). Fair enough. Seems like a fairly straight-forward piece of legislation. It is. But it is blatantly ignored by bus and matatu conductors every day. Being the economical system that it is a bus will only leave a bus stop when it’s full, or very nearly full. If that means sitting for ages waiting for other passengers to turn up, so be it. Now on Tuesday I got on my bus as usual downtown and we waited for a while for it to fill up. When it became apparent that no more passengers were coming the driver began to get impatient so we drove off. Along the way the conductor shouted and roared and tempted more passengers onto the bus at any moment he could, more often than not when we were just stuck in traffic and not at the aforementioned bus stages. Once, when a traffic police noticed this and wagged his finger at the conductor, the conductor shrugged his shoulders, shouted something in Kiswahili and the bus drove off.

This pattern of picking passengers continued until the bus was almost full when, as two passengers boarded a 2nd policeman spotted them and ran towards our bus shouting at the conductor. Seeing this, the conductor himself jumped off the bus and ran away and the policeman, instead of taking off after him hopped into the front seat of the bus beside the driver and began shouting at him. A 3rd policeman then arrived and got into the main part of the bus, pulled a few passengers off the bus and then began shouting and the driver aswell. The bus driver is still driving the bus at this point and so I thought 'brilliant, the policemen are going to be sensible, they are going to let the bus drive to its final stop and then arrest the bus driver.' Just as this thought flitted through my mind the passengers all started screaming at the policemen in Kiswahili protesting something. What I didn't know. This hadn't formed any part of my Swahili lessons thus far. The shouting from both sides continued so I eventually had to ask the woman beside me 'Sorry, what's going on?' and she replied 'They are arresting the driver for taking on passengers along the road.' Super.

We continued onto a massive roundabout at University Way, still going in the direction of home and I continued to hold onto the hope that this bus would get me home. Alas the bus did a u-turn at the roundabout, under the instructions of the policeman and we drove back to Nairobi police station. At this point the driver and some more passengers were pulled from the bus, rather roughly and for a split second I got really scared that this was going to get ugly. It didn't (at least for me). They were marched into the police station and no more was seen of them. Then all the passengers got off the bus so I just had to follow them. Some of them were laughing at the whole situation, a few looked very unimpressed and said, half to me and half to themselves, (though in English so presumably more to me - the random mzungu on the bus) that it was unfair that they had to get off the bus since they had gotten on at the correct stage. I asked of the jollier women if she was walking back to the main bus stage and she said she was so I asked would she walk me back there aswell. I had a fair idea of where I was going, but it was starting to get a bit dark and i really didn't want to be wandering around downtown Nairobi, by myself, at dusk. She was more than happy to help and she walked back with me and we had a nice wee chat. We got on another Starbus and I arrived home after 7, about an hour after I normally get home but with quite the story to tell my Mam on Skype later (hi Mum!)

That's all from me for now, more updates to follow later this weekend!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A few pictures

As per some requests here are a few photos of my new home and some of my fellow VSO volunteers. As always I've been really bad at taking photos so far but will try to take more in the coming weeks.

The gorgeous living room/reception area in my new home.

My room in Mountain View, complete with lovely blue mossie net.

The outside of my new house. Which has lots of space for visitors!

The November 2011 cohort of Kenya volunteers visiting the VSO Jitolee office.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Things I've learned in Kenya - Part 1

In the first of what I imagine will be a regular series of posts, I will recap what I have learned in the past fortnight of Kenyan life.

Kenyan men love sweater vests.

In the past week I have seen more sweater vests than in my whole life up to that point. Either Mr Schuester from Glee or Carlton from the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air has had a big influence on male fashion here. On a more general note people here are very well dressed, my bus and matatu in the morning are full of very well turned out men and women in their suits and jackets. I am so far making an effort to be fairly smart for work but I am playing it by ear to see what is acceptable or not within our office.

Always keep a spare outfit at work. And relatedly, cream trousers are a bad idea in Nairobi.

These two lessons were learned simultaneously yesterday morning on my way to work on Friday morning. I was all excited heading to work as my boss was letting me come with her to a meeting that afternoon with McCann Kenya, a media agency who are working with UNICEF and the Government of Kenya on a new Child Protection campaign which will start running across TV, radio and other media shortly. So I put on a nice smart outfit for work that morning and headed off on my commute. Upon exiting the matatu I had a little slip and got mud all down the back of my trousers. And I mean all down. The mud stain was enormous. But I was a ten minute walk from my office so I could hardly head home. So I walked up UN Avenue (yes, that is actually the name of the road that the UN complex is on) exclaiming ‘bollix’ periodically every time I glanced at the back of my legs. A quick attempt to wash some of the stain proved fruitless so I spent the entire day getting confused looks from colleagues and strangers about my trousers and had to explain over and over again my little accident in the most amusing way I could. At least it will make for an entertaining chapter in my autobiography.

Classic 105 is the best radio station in the world and must be brought to Ireland.

Classic 105 seems to be the radio station of choice for the majority of bus and matatu drivers here in Kenya. There are a few other stations I’ve noticed being played since I’ve been here (most notably some sort of Evangelical Rock station and a few hardcore R&B/Reggae one) but Classic 105 has been playing in about 80% of the modes of transport I’ve taken so far. It plays, as the name suggests, classic music, but really epic, often cheesy, and sometimes downright obscure. Here are a few deadly tunes that feature regularly on Classic 105, and have caused me on more than one occasion to be ‘the crazy singing/tapping/head nodding white lady on the bus’. (I'll put up more as I think of them)

I know that I still haven’t really written about work yet but to be honest this week was pretty quiet, I spent most of my time reading reports and looking up the kind of projects that UNICEF tend to run in the area of Communication for Development. Once things start getting busier I’ll update with what it is I’m doing.

Love from Nairobi!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Settling into Nairobi life

It’s now Sunday evening and I’ve just finished a big dinner of rice and veggies that Nicole and I cooked – our first attempt at cooking in our new home. So that’s another first out of the way. Rather than having a day of church and rest, as most Kenyans do on a Sunday, we got up super early for a day of shopping and reconnaissance. We met at 8am at a fruit stand just outside of Mountain View and got the bus into town. Mountain View is serviced by the rather swish Starbus service. Here in Nairobi the different bus routes are run by different bus companies which can identified not only by the different numbers on the buses but also the different colours and designs on the buses. It was just sheer luck (and perhaps some serendipity) that I know live along the Starbus route, a bus that is literally covered in stars.

So our first stop on our day of exploring was Riverside Drive to try to figure out where Nicole’s office was. Nicole will be working for I Choose Life Africa which is an organisation which runs Peer Mentoring Schemes in Universities and High Schools to raise awareness and to teach strategies to deal with issues of HIV/AIDS. Once our mission was accomplished (we even took a cheeky photo much to the amusement or bemusement of the security guard on duty) we headed into town for our next assignment – figure how where I get a matatu to work from. Matatus are… matatus are … They’re sort of hard to describe without seeming them in the flesh. They are essentially Hi-Ace vans used as mini-buses. They run on the many of the same routes as buses do, and many more besides. They usually have about 9 or 10 seats but they rarely depart with less than 12 people. They are not quite as colourful as the buses on the outside but every square inch of the interior is usually decorated, whether it’s with pictures of rappers, bible psalms, or both. So getting back to Sunday morning, we found our way to the main matatu stage downtown and spoke to some conductors there who helpfully informed me that the 106 matatu would bring me to the UN complex.

2nd mission completed Nicole and I stopped for a big dirty breakfast before tackling our 3rd assignment, homewares shopping. Between us we needed to buy lamps, lampshade, blue tack, bin bags and lots of random things in between. We trekked across for a good few hours, stopping only briefly for coffee and cake and called a taxi at around 3pm laden down with all sorts of things to make our rooms more homely.

So my room is now definitely feeling more my own. I’ll post pictures of both my room and the house in the next day or two so you can judge for yourselves. Oh and I’ve just been informed that we have some spare mattresses so there is *plenty* of space for people to stay over. Ahem. Get looking into flights people. Ahem.

I had great intentions of using this blog as a place to talk about some of the wider socio-economic problems facing Kenya, the political machinations of its parliament and government but I haven’t been here long enough to even contemplating trying to talking about these things yet. I am trying to talk to lots of people here about these issues, and my aim is to read the newspaper every day on my way to work so hopefully I’ll become au fait with these things in time.

Ok, this is another short post but look forward to updates about work (finally, you cry!) next time I’m online.

Monday, November 14, 2011

My new home

Karibu! Apologies in advance but this is going to be a fairly short post to cover what has been quite a busy few days. I suppose the big news is that I moved into my house today (Saturday). And it’s lovely. More than lovely actually, it’s gorgeous. I’m living out of the city itself in a compound/estate called Mountain View. It’s above Nairobi, on the main road leading west out of the city which will be handy for trips in the coming months to Naivasha and Nakuru National Parks! There are about 250 houses in Mountain View, some of which are rather fancy. The whole estate is really lush, loads of trees and greenery and that, combined with the fact that we’re a good bit out of the city, means that the air feels so much fresher up here than in does down in the city centre. The whole place is super secure, with 3 gates separating our house from the house, and lots of askari too (security guards). Because it’s so secure I think I’ll be able to run here which is brilliant, and necessary. Having spent a week getting very well fed during ICT I’m already feeling a little squishy! There are also some other VSO volunteers living in the area.

The house itself is a spacious 4 bedroom place. We have a big kitchen, and also a good size living room and a dining room. Before I make this place sound like a holiday destination I should probably state a few things. The house is situated outside of the city, and quite far from my office. Well not as the crow flies but getting to work in the morning will require a bus/matatu combination (matatus will be explained in a latter post, I promise). Our water and electricity supply is rather erratic. I’ve been in the house about 7 hours and we’ve already had a – albeit brief – power cut and according to the other inhabitants the water is often shut off over the weekend. Which might make having showers rather difficult as there are 4 of us in the house. I moved into the house with Nicole, one of the other new arrivals and the house already has two inhabitants, Barbara and Sandra (Sandy). Barbara and Sandy could not have made us feel more at home and even cooking us a fabulous pizza dinner for our first night here.

But through all of this post I’ve skipped a vital step in today’s big move. Our shopping trip! We were picked up in a truck this morning by Meshack from the VSO office who dropped us up to Mountain View with our bags and then took up shopping for homewares. VSO provides a soft furnishings allowance to enable volunteers to get some pieces to make a house a home. So off we trotted to Nakumatt (a supermarket chain here) to pick up sheets, a blanket, mugs, Tupperware, and lots of other random bits and pieces. Oh and a mattress. Very important that one. I spent a good twenty minutes in the mattress section of Nakumatt Westgate asking the shop assistant to show me lots of different mattresses while Meshack and I sat, lay, and in certain cases bounced, on them until I found a reasonable one that was in my price range. And then it was all piled onto the bag of the truck and driven to our new house. The rest of the evening was spent unpacking and also having a good walk around the area to begin to get acquainted with it.

Ok, I’m going to have to stop here for the time being as I’m falling asleep typing but in the next post remind me to cover work stuff and the last few days of our training.

Lala salama!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Practising my Kiswahili

As part of ICT (In-Country Training) with VSO we get 7 hours of Kiswahili lessons to give us volunteers some of the basics of the language. I cannot praise our teacher Lucy highly enough. In just 7 hours she has given us lots of the basic building blocks of the language, enough that I can construct lots of sentences and I just need to add to my vocabulary and language fluency. I think I might see about getting a few more lessons too though, I'm here for a year after all, it would be good to be able to hold some basic conversations with colleagues and people I meet.

So as my own self-assigned homework for this evening I am going to attempt a short update in Kiswahili (yes, I am a nerd, but this shouldn't be news to any of you).

Jana na juzi tulisoma Kiswahili (VSO wajitoleaji). Lucy ni mwalimu yetu. Wiki iliyopita sikufahamu Kiswahili lakini leo ninafahamu Kiswahili kidogo na niki ijayo nitafahamu zaidi Kiswahili. Jioni nimechoka kwasababu nimepokea mengi habari.

Mimi si njaa hapa. Ninapenda chakula hapa. Tunakula mengi na chakula cha asubuhi, chakula cha mchana na chakula cha jiona. Tunakunywa chai na kahawa pia.

Jumamosi, Nicole, Harvey (VSO wajitoleaji) na mimi nitaenda yetu nyumba mpya.

I'll post a translation in the comment section for those who want to read this without the help of Google Translate! Hope all's well with everyone at home!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Flexibility and adaptabilty

VSO selects volunteers on the basis of 7 criteria, or selection dimensions, as they call them. These are
1)A positive commitment to volunteering
2)A desire to learn and to help others learn
3)A flair for solving problems
4)Flexibility and adaptability
5)Self assurance
6)The ability to work in a team
7)Sensitivity to the needs of others

These form the basis of how candidates are assessed during individual interviews and group exercises on the selection day, and are constantly referred to throughout the training process, both online and in person. When you speak to past volunteers the one dimension, or quality that VSO volunteers seem to especially need is number 4 - flexibility and adaptability. I learned the necessity of this about 2 hours after I arrived in Nairobi.

Upon our arrival at our guesthouse on Friday we were introduced to two amazing women, Lucy, who will be our Swahili teacher and go-to person for the week, and Stella, who is a programme support officer with VSO Jitolee. Stella knew all about us, where we were from, our backgrounds, and what placements we'd be working on in Nairobi. So when she asked me where I'd be working, as a reminder to herself and I said 'UNICEF in Garissa' and she replied with a 'Oh no, UNICEF in Nairobi' I got a bit of a surprise. She told me that yes, I was originally to be placed in Garissa but I was now based in Nairobi and she said that I had been told about this. I definitely hadn't, but it was nearly midnight so I said little more, laughed it off and went to bed that night with lots on my mind.

So here are some of the things that ran through my head last night.
In some ways Nairobi would be a much easier place to live. Here you have so many Western luxuries on your doorstep, if you're willing to pay for them. I'd also never be stuck for company as there are a good community of VSO volunteers dotted around the city. It was also very far from the Somali border, which would be a great relief to Mammy Wickham.

But then the work I was going to be doing was bound to be different. I had signed up to work in a smaller UNICEF office, making regular visits to communities and villages in North East Kenya. Working in UNICEF in Nairobi would mean working in the enormous UN complex at Girigiri which I visited back in 2009. It left me with lots of questions. Lots. What would my new role be? Who would I be working with? Would I get to travel out to communities? What would I have to wear to work? (a serious consideration, I have no formal, grown-up clothes with me, only maxi-dresses and skirts to beat the band)

So yes, suffice to say it took me a while to get to sleep last night thinking about all that. I am feeling lots better about it all today. All of my above questions are still unanswered, and will probably remain unanswered until this Friday when a UNICEF representative will come to meet me and work out, with VSO and I, a working agreement for my year here. But despite my questions being unanswered I'm feeling a whole lot more positive about the news today. Whatever happens I am going to make the best of it. I am going to learn lots and lots and try and contribute in whatever way I can to UNICEF's work here in Nairobi. And sure isn't that why I came here?

Reflections on a full day in Kenya

Finally, a blogpost from Kenya! The title of this blog is no longer mildly misrepresentative!

So, ahem, yes. I have arrived in Nairobi. I landed about 23 hours ago but already it feels like Dublin airport and Navan and all of the things that have come before this are long ago. I arrived in late last night with a fellow VSO volunteer Simon from the UK, and another volunteer from the US Catherine. We were picked up at the airport by a VSO driver and whisked off to the, rather lovely, guesthouse that VSO training is based in for the first week. I have an ensuite and hot water and wireless. So we're being eased rather gently into life as a VSO volunteer in Kenya.

This morning we had the first of 7 days of training. There are 6 others on the course, as well as the 2 guys mentioned above there are 3 volunteers from VSO in the Philippines and another American woman. The day itself was very informal and mainly led by current VSO volunteers and some VSO Jitolee staff who spent the morning telling us about some of their experiences of arriving and settling in Kenya and then we spent the afternoon exploring Nairobi's Central Business District (or CBD as the cool kids call it) where all of the main shops, restaurants etc are. I managed to pick up a SIM card too (my number is 00254 707 880210 for those of you who'd like to send me a text!) so I'm feeling fairly connected with the world overall. Sadly it only seems to be able to send texts to Ireland thus far, and not make calls. But sure it's a start. Our tour finished with a trip to 2 of the volunteers' (a couple) apartment for us to get a sense of what our accommodation might be like. So all in all quite a busy first day. We've been given lots of information, so hopefully I've soaked up lots of it, or at least some of it.

That's all for now, I think my leaba calls but make sure you all (any of you who are reading this, there is someone reading this right, right??) keep me updated with news from home!

Friday, October 21, 2011

An explanation of sorts

Hello again!

It is exactly 2 weeks until I depart and I am currently sitting in VSO's training centre in Birmingham, having arrived shockingly early. This is thanks in part to my, almost obsessive penchant for punctuality, and the fact that there are only a few flights a day to Birmingham from Dublin and they are rather inconveniently timed, for me at least. As I've some time to kill I thought I might explain the name of the blog, for those who don't know me.

On August 22nd 2011 I appeared as a contestant on Channel 4 quiz show Countdown thus filling a life-long ambition. And ensuring that I will never ever again run out of something to talk about at parties. How did it come about? What possessed me to apply? Well if I was to go back to the beginning of the story I would tell you of afternoons, post-school and pre-homework, spent watching Richard, Carol and co, or of days when lessons were finished quickly and one of our teachers set us Countdown challenges as treats. (Well it was a treat for me at least) But I'll skip to my New Years resolutions for 2010. In addition to setting myself the usual goals, start learning a new language, complete a half marathon, I set myself the broader challenge to 'Do things I've always meant to do.' Within this broad theme lay a number of different ambitions I've held, but the one which I was particularly eager to achieve was to try out for Countdown. And so, over the Christmas Holidays I filled out an application form and applied.

And then heard nothing for ages.

And then in May I was called to audition in Ireland. I practiced beforehand, roping friends and colleagues into online, lunchtime, and weekend games of Scrabble. I rehearsed some Countdown-esque banter and everything. But on the day of the audition, when put through several letters and numbers games I didn't quite make the cut. And I was sad. And had to tell many, many people of my disappointment.

The ambition lingered however so when studying in London during last Spring I applied again. Surreptitiously. Like one does with second driving tests. If you don't tell people you're doing it then noone will ask you how you got on afterwards. And so another audition took place. This time over the phone. I sat, physically shaking, at my rickety Argos desk while the lovely producer called out the letters and numbers. At the end she said 'Just hold on and let me check these with a colleague'. Seconds later she was back on the line and telling me that I had qualified and could I turn up to the studios in July!

So turn up I did. With a cheering squad in tow. They were only 4 in number but they were loud. The TV show, for those familiar with it, is filmed just as briskly as it is televised. There are no breaks - just fifteen straight rounds of numbers and letters fun. For those who don't want to know how I got on please skip the next paragraph.

In short, dear reader, I lost. But I lost bravely, galliantly. It was a closely fought battle with the lead changing hands quite a few times throughout the show but I took a couple too many risks and sadly they didn't pay off. So I am not the owner of a coveted Countdown teapot yet. But I like to think I worn the charm contest, regaling stories of my brushes with former James Bonds' and my ambitions to complete a triathlon despite not being able to swim or cycle.

I also turned my Countdown appearance into a fundraising opportunity, hosting a 'Countdown 4 Kenya' event at which the episode was screened and my friends and family were pitted against my onscreen performance in the hope of winning prizes.

And so that is the story behind the blog's name. Apologies for the epic length of this post, I will endeavour to make future posts pithier!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Welcome to my humble blog!

Hello and welcome to my blog. This is where I'll be updating friends, family, and really anyone who's interested in my experiences in Kenya for the next year.

As of November I'm heading off to Kenya on a VSO ( or ) placement for a year. I'm going to be working with UNICEF in a town called Garissa in the North East province of the country. My role is as a 'Communications and Documentation Officer'. I'm not 100% sure what it means but I'm sure it'll all become clear in time.

Anyways, I hope you all enjoy reading this over the coming month. I'll try to update this as often as I have access to a good internet connection!