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!