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!