Sunday, November 18, 2012

Baking and running

These are my two new past-times. Baking and running. One might think they are contradictory but to me they are synergetic. The more I run, the more calories I burn and the more cake I am allowed to bake. And eat. Or so I tell myself.


I've always need a goal when it comes to running. I really enjoy running but getting out of bed before 6am to go for a run is made a lot easier when I know that I have a race coming up. With that in mind when I re-started running a couple of months ago I quickly set my sights on the Nairobi Marathon. Or rather, the 10k event as part of the Nairobi Marathon Sunday; there is a full marathon, half marathon 10k and family fun run of 5k run on the same morning.

The brave marathoners line up for their race.
Despite my few weeks of training I was uncharacteristically nervous before the start of the race. Luckily for me, and in spite of the crowds, I managed to bump into my friend Harvey before the race and we lined up at the start line together.

Harvey and I before the race.
After a couple of kilometers we decided to split up (as I was running a wee bit faster than Harvey) and arranged to meet at the finish line. So for the next 8km I was by myself. And it was wonderful. There was a great deal of weaving in and out to avoid the many, many walkers doing both the 10km and half marathon distances but I still managed to finish well under an hour so I was delighted with myself.

Harvey and I after the race (notice the wide shot
in order to hit some of the sweaty, redfaced-ness)

Breakfast of champions

And I celebrated the only way I know how. With food. And lots of it. I have firmly regained the running bug so I have set my sights on the Kilimanjaro Half Marathon next March. Anyone else up for it?

And so to my other new pastime, baking. Here's a little round up of what I've been baking over the past 6 weeks.

Chocolate Biscuit Cake/Rocky Road Cake

Ok, so this was not strictly baking as I did not use the oven to make these but I did melt chocolate. And butter. And golden syrup. See photograph below of the aforementioned 'heart attack over a bain-marie'.

And I crushed biscuits, and chopped almonds and ... opened a packet of marshmallows. It was hard work I am telling you!

Verdict - These were very well received at the variety of occasions I brought them to. I made two huge cakes so they were brought everywhere with me for almost a week - hiking, picnics/music festivals, the office.

Lemon Cheesecake

Lemon cheesecake as it sets in the fridge

Once again this was not strictly baking as I chose a non-bake cheesecake for my first foray into cake making. But it was a good call. Though it's hard to go wrong with a buttery biscuity base and  a topping of cream cheese, condensed milk and shedloads of lemon juice and zest. Unfortunately I have no decent photos of the lemon cheesecake so the above will have to do.

Verdict - Brought this to a BBQ at my friends' Nick and Nicole's place and it was rated very highly. I personally wish it had been a little less liquid-y so I am going to try another variation for my next cheesecake.

Lemon Squares

This isn't a very appetising picture but I
can assure you it tasted really, really good.

I love lemon. I love the smell and I love lemony flavoured goodies so these were an obvious next choice. Using a recipe from my old housemate, Sandy, I made a tray of these for a picnic day at the races. They have a shortbread-y base (butter, sugar, flour) and a gooey lemon-y topping (lemon juice and zest, sugar, eggs and a wee bit of flour). The first time I baked them they were a little over done and not lemon-y enough for my likely. After putting in the zest and juice from two lemons in the second batch and only leaving them in for the bare twenty minutes they were yum.

Verdict - Both batches proved very popular. However by this point I am starting to worry that people are going to start sending their dentist's bills to me.


Another Sandy recipe which once again proved that you can't go wrong with lashings of sugar and butter. This time the magic ingredient was lots of cocoa powder too but the next time I make them I'm going to try following a recipe that uses real chocolate. I'm sure the results will be posted!

Verdict - Whipped these up for another BBQ and they went down well for dessert. I wish I had had walnuts to add to them for some texture but I know for next time.


One of my happiest moments in Kenya so far.

This was without doubt my proudest baking moment so far. Not because it was a particularly difficult or technically challenging recipe. This is because I baked something that I really, really wanted. For those of you unfamiliar with it, brack, or tea brack, or barm brack or báirín braic, is a cake/bread traditionally associated with Hallowe'en in Ireland. Back in the day the brack used to be baked with a number of charms inside it, whoever found a specific charm, that would foretell their upcoming year. These days the only charm that remains inside the brack is the ring. Whoever finds the ring will be married within the year, or so it is believed. I didn't put any rings in my bracks as I didn't have any cheap, gold rings lying around. I'll know for next year.

I have since baked two more bracks - and I am currently soaking the dried fruit for a fourth. I have a problem. But they just taste so good.

Verdict - It turns out that bracks are cross-culturally appreciated. Having been sampled by British, American, Spanish, Sierra Leonian, Somali, Kenyan, French. I am seriously considering how I might be able to mass produce and sell these here in Kenya. Brack Obama, anyone?

Sponge Cake

A couple of weeks ago I spent a lovely lazy Sunday afternoon with my friend Sean who taught me how to make a sponge cake, and more specifically, a pineapple sponge. Using just four ingredients (self raising flour, caster sugar, butter and eggs) and a whole lot of elbow grease we made not one, but two, sponge cakes.

Verdict - One of the sponges turned out to be the tiniest bit under-done, and one was a little over-done but both were delicious. The cake I brought into the office disappeared within seconds.

Online Resources
My new baking buzz has given me an appreciation of good food blogs and recipe websites. My colleague Kim introduced me to - a massive compendium of thousands of internet recipes. I apologise in advance for how much time you may spend looking at beautiful pictures of food on this site.

My absolute favourite food blogger has to be Stuart Heritage. While not strictly a food blogger as his website contains the links to his other work (which mainly involved Live Blogging X Factor in the most hilarious way possible - see here for an example) when he does blog about his exploits in baking I cry laughing. Good examples here and here.

For more serious food blogging/recipes you can't beat Delia Smith. Her website is amazing and her Information Centre has answered many of my rudimentary baking questions. And I'm also a fan of the Irish chef Donal Skehan. Not just because he is cute and looks like he could be in a boyband (actually he was in a boyband) but because his recipes are fairly straight-forward and tend to use fairly accessible ingredients. I recently made these chickpea burgers and they were gorgeous!

Next up on my 'to bake' list is a proper traditional Christmas cake and also a lemon meringue pie. Results and pictures will, no doubt, follow.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Another side of Kenya...

(I drafted this blogpost way back in June and then, for many reasons, put it aside. However I think it's important that I more frequently broadcast all sides of my time in Kenya, so here it is. I am well and truly out of the doldrums now, for the record, and back loving life in Nairobi.)

This blog on the whole has tended to highlight the lighter side of my time here. I've talked about my travels, the animals and characters I've encountered, quirky Kenyan fashions or idiosyncrasies. I have purposefully steered away from some of the more difficult aspects of life here. But in the past few weeks these have been such a huge part of my life that I feel that it is only right that this blog deals with some challenging recent events.

A robbery
It took me a long time to decide whether to broadcast this here or not. In the end I decided that an account of my time here should attempt to show the variety of experiences that I am having, work-related or extra-curricular, Nairobi or 'up-country' based, rough and smooth.

I had my handbag snatched a few weeks ago when on a weekend away on the coast. While walking between pubs in a group a man ran up behind me and yanked my small yellow handbag from me, leaving the strap dangling around me. I remember knowing, for the second or two before it happened, what was going to happen. I could hear someone running behind me and just had some sort of women's intuition about it (or spidey sense, one could say either). My first instinct was to run after the guy, within seconds I realised this was a stupid idea and promptly stopped. But not before I was across the road, with one flip-flop discarded on the road behind me. The pulling on the thin strap of my bag left a mark on my neck, and as I had been holding the bag the guy managed to break a few of my nails in the process. Apart from that I was absolutely fine. Just shaken up. And I remained so for a few days afterwards. I just felt vulnerable, exposed and I didn't like it. I hate being weak and dislike not being in control. And for the past few weeks this is how I have felt.

Water water everywhere
But not a drop to drink. Or to wash clothes with. Or do dishes. Or flush toilets. For 20 days in May we were without water in our Mountain View house. Now many VSO volunteers live in very remote rural placements where they do not have running water so I know that we Mountain View residents are extremely lucky and have been spoiled these past few months with our flowing taps. But when it is there every day (albeit rationed) you take it for granted. And we did. But we are resourceful women. We bought water and rationed it carefully. We showered in other people's houses. We collected rain water to flush the toilets with. We got on with things. But in a month of many other frustrations it added to my general malaise.

The cold
I had been warned about the cold months of June and July but I didn't heed these warnings. How could it really be that cold? I come from Ireland for goodness sake! Nairobi could never be as cold as Ireland. Well that is indeed true. A Nairobi winter is never actually as cold as an Irish one. Temperatures in June and July are about 15 degrees during the day and drop to maybe 10 degrees at night. But it feels colder. I have been wandering the house in a hoodie and two pairs of socks most evenings this week. I have taken to wearing arm warmers in the office which is, admittedly, ridiculous but has definitely helped. My reaction can partly be explained by the fact that 7 months into my time here I have become acclimatised. But that is only part of the story. Buildings here are built so that they keep cool during the hot months of January and February. They don't have the insulation, let alone the heating systems that an Irish house would have. So, when temperatures drop the house almost feel colder than outside.

At a low ebb
I have felt myself a bit worn down of late. I hope it's not too evident on the outside but I do feel a little less than my usual chirpy self. My patience for the everyday hassles of Kenyan life has definitely diminished. To my shame I have shouted, nay screamed at matatu conductors who have tried to swindle me out of 10 shillings (about 10 cent). I have sometimes flatly ignored the 'Hi's and 'How are you's as I change matatus in the morning, unwilling to even feign enthusiasm.

7 months in I am tired. It would be nice to blend in for a few minutes. To not be such an oddity, such a target. I'm sure these feelings have been exacerbated by recent stresses in other parts of my life, and I do feel that they will subside, but right not Kenya is wearing me down a little bit. I think the sub-title says it all. I am at a low ebb here, but my spirits will lift again.

Luckily I have wonderful friends here, and back home, who are an invaluable support. They allow me ample time for 'ventage' over coffees or Skype calls. They cheer me up with their tales. They help me to put my frustrations into perspective. And things are, definitely, starting to look up.

A Year in Food

(This post is dedicated to Laura Gibbons, who rightly thinks that food blogging would be the best job in the world.)

My mother has noted that almost every time I publish a blog it contains pictures of what I ate. So with that in mind I thought I would summarise some of the highlights of this past year in Kenya through that very medium - pictures of food.

Christmas breakfast

Under the tin foil is bacon, eggs, toast, potato farls. Each of the cup contains Irish coffee. The meal took about 3 hours to prepare as we suffered some technical difficulties (power outages) but it was definitely worth the wait. Spending Christmas away from home was hard, but made a great deal easier by good food, drink and great company.

Patriotic risotto

Back in March I unintentionally made this green, white and orange risotto for the first time when my friend Laura was coming over for dinner one evening. It was doubly appropriate as our plan for the evening was to make St Patrick's Day decorations.

Food at Irish ball 

This is a slightly more professional Irish themed meal, thanks to the chefs at the Hilton Hotel.

Fish dinner of joy in Shimoni

The food is arguably the best thing about visiting the Kenyan coastline. You might not always get the weather, and the journey is a long one, but super fresh fish makes it all worthwhile. This was my Easter Sunday meal at Shimoni on Kenya's South coast - lobster, calamari and ... some sort of fish (potentially rabbit fish?). I don't quite remember now what type of fish it was, but it was tasty.

Outdoor breakfast at Il Ngwesi

After a dawn walk around a conservancy, practically bumping into elephants and other wildlife, to turn a corner and see a full breakfast buffet set up was just amazing, and utterly surreal.

Tallapia in Kisumu

Getting to see some of UNICEF's work with health facilities in Western Kenya back in May was an amazing and humbling experience. I learned more in those few days than in many months sitting in the Nairobi office. Having a chance to spend time socially with colleagues, and share hearty fish lunches, was another. This meal, eaten by Lake Victoria in one of the many restaurants lined up on its shore, was some of the best fish, and some of the tastiest ugali, that I have ever had here.

Fish dinner in Lamu/Manda Island

I caught this fish myself! See that one, the one on the right, a slightly different colour than the others, that one right there, he's mine. I caught him. And then watched him flop around a bucket for a while. He was beautiful, multi-coloured and tasty. Below is the 'before' picture. Yum.

Picnic lunch in the Mara

A full day of sitting in a safari van animal spotting does not sound exhausting but it is. Luckily our lodge packed us an amazing, if rather random lunch, to keep Odharnait and I going for the day. There was chicken, a hardboiled egg, an orange, a banana, some pineapple, a cheese sandwich and some juice.

Coffee and cake after the Ngong Hills

Fancy coffee and cake are always a treat but they feel almost deserved,earned, after a morning's hike across the Ngong Hills.

Cheese platter at Brown's Cheese Farm

Last Saturday I went on a group trip to visit Brown's cheese farm. It is not Kenya's only cheese factory these days,but it is probably the oldest, and manufactures the largest variety of cheeses - as the platter above attests to. Needless to say I bought about a kilo of cheese from their factory shop. Expect tales of a cheese induced coma to follow.

Ok, so I agree that it's kind of funny that I tend to take more pictures than I do of people, or animals, or scenery here but there is a method in my madness. All of these meals I ate with people. The pictures remind me of a time, and a place, and a group of people. And a taste. A yummy, yummy taste.

My own culinary skills have improved exponentially since moving to Kenya. The abundance - and importantly the low cost - of fresh fruit and vegetables means that I have really taken to cooking this year. . And soup-making. And most recently baking. Lots of baking. But I think I'll dedicate a separate blog to my recent adventures in baking.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

A massive thank you

Today marks exactly a year since I moved to Kenya. A year since I said goodbye to my parents in Terminal 2 of Dublin Airport at 5am, trying desperately to hold back the tears in front of the security staff. It seems like an age ago, and simultaneously like it only happened yesterday.

But this post isn't about me. It's about you. All of you.

I would like to thank all of you for reading my blog. Especially those of you in Russia, whoever you are. Thanks for driving up my page views to make me feel popular.

I would like to thank all of you who sent me cards over the past years, Christmas cards, birthday cards, St Patrick's Day cards... Each one has found a place for itself in my room.

I would like to thank everyone who sent or brought me care packages of Barry's tea, proper Irish chocolate, pop socks, pumps, One Direction diaries - all of the things that are just hard to get here!

Delighted with my silly straw glasses and
classy perfume courtesy of Órla and Úna.

Best present ever!

I would like to thank everyone who wrote me lovely email updates on their lives and kept me up to date with their latest gossip.

I would like to thank everyone who Skyped me and helped me feel that I wasn't so far away after all.

I especially want to thank those of you who came to visit - Odharnait, Lena, Kathrin and Claire. Exploring Kenya over the past year has been wonderful, but it was made even more special by exploring new places with old friends.

Having 'the craic' in the Maasai Mara
Hiking (and biking - out of shot) in Hells Gate
Country girls messing at the
Karen Blixen house

But a final, MASSIVE thank you goes out to the Wickhams - my Mum, Dad, little brother Colin, little sister Lauren and Mary (my granny, except we're not allowed to call her that as it makes her sound old). Over the past year they have sent care packages full of the most wonderful and necessary things. My personal favourite care package was a joint one between my Mum and Dad. Dad included tea, chocolate, make up. Mum packed me vitamins and wipes for dusting/cleaning. I think that sums up my parents pretty well actually!

Care package of joy from Mammy and Daddy Wickham

They have sent cards, they have phoned, emailed, texted, whatsapp-ed. They have patiently listened when I have moaned about work, commuting, my general Nairobi frustrations. They have read my blog and said nice things about it (some of which I actually believe). They have sent money to go towards holidays and towards flights home at Christmas. They have sent me links to music to ensure that I am not horribly out of touch when I go home. They have once again proven that they are the best family that anyone could ask for.
And it is only 40 more sleeps till I get to see them!

Friday, October 12, 2012

A Tale of Two Cities

Or, more accurately, two tales of two cities.

The last two films that I have gone to see in the cinema have featured two of the cities I consider home - Dublin and Nairobi. (Sadly there has yet to be a feature film about Navan but we live in hope). A completely unintentional little quirk, it was only upon leaving the cinema after the second film that I made this connection.

Ek Tha Tiger
I have been excited about seeing this movie ever since I first learned of the fact that there was to be a Bollywood film set in Dublin. I got even more excited when I found out it was to feature my Alma Mater. And that is was to be a spy thriller. My excitement reached unparalled proportions when I saw the first music video from the movie, Banjaara.

How can you not love a movie that features dancing extras dressed in Kilkenny hurling jerseys and brandishing hurls alongside extras wearing oversized leprachaun-esque hats all dancing to a song in Hindi? It also features Katrina Kaif, whose nickname in the Indian press is KK, in a Kilkenny jersey! KK in a KK jersey!

I love Bollywood. I have loved it since my summer in Kolkata, way back in the day. I love that it doesn't take itself too seriously. I love that they weave comedy, drama, romance, music, action, suspense all into the one, albeit very long, movie. One of my lifetime ambitions is to be an extra in a Bollywood movie for those very reasons.

I enjoyed seeing its portrayal of Dublin. I went to see the film with three other Irish people and it was funny the little quirks that we all picked up on. We were probably a bit pedantic, but I think that is only to be expected.

1) All of the extras had blonde or red hair. There was barely a brunette extra to be seen. In fact, there is a lovely interaction where the main character, Tiger, played by Saif Ali Khan, remarks to a colleague upon seeing a girl with 'Wow, it's like fire'. Genius.

2) There is a fight scene in, and on top of, a Luas. The first scene lasts about 5 minutes during which time the Luas whizzes up Harcourt Street, which has suddenly becoming longer than the North Circular Road.

3)Dublin pubs are inter-changeable. There were a few scenes in which Tiger and his leading lady enter one pub, are transported into the interior of another pub, and then exit through a third pub. I am not sure I should be proud of this intimate knowledge of Dublin's watering holes. Who am I kidding? Of course I should be!

Continuity critiques aside, it very affectionately portrayed some of Dublin's treasures. The Ha'penny Bridge looked wonderful, a testament to a simpler time when the only thing that really needed to cross the Liffey were people. Stephen's Green is the venue for a beautiful midnight picnic scene (which again the pedant in me knew could never happen 'sure the park closes at dusk!'). Dublin pubs were seen at their best, hubs for live music, and chat and craic.

If you had never been to Dublin before the impression  you would be left with is that Dublin is a city of academics, actors, romantic architecture, and friendly people who like a pint. And a bit of a coordinated dance routine.

Nairobi Half Life

And so to a film featuring the city that I have called home for the past year. This movie had an entirely different tone. It definitely had its comic and light moments but the movie charts one young man's journey into a life of crime. The protagonist, Mwas, moves to the city in the hope of becoming an actor. Within moments of Nairobi he is robbed, and then promptly thrown into jail, where his path towards a life of violent crime begins.

Or half a life. Because at the same time as he is mugging people, and carrying out car-jackings, he lands a part in a play at a Nairobi playhouse. We see him struggle to balance his rehearsals, with time spent hiring guns It portrays gang life in Nairobi as I imagine it to be. Not a series of highly organised, hierarchical structures with clear chains of commands and meticulously planned crimes. But groups of young lads who improvise, rather than plan their activities, who bumble through, rather than command situations. They are opportunists, like most of the thieves that I have encountered here.

One of the things that I enjoyed most about the movie was that it was a story set in Africa, but not necessarily an African story. It was the sort of story that could easily be transported to the streets of New York or London and the essence of the story would have still made sense. A young man struggling to follow his dream, but finding that sacrifices need to be made along the way in order to survive.

It portrayed many, if not quite all, sides of life in Nairobi. It highlighted the fact that Nairobi has a growing theatre and arts scene. That Nairobi has good and bad sides. Nasty characters, and inspirational ones. Stories of success, alongside those of failure.

That said, I will not be recommending it to Mammy or Daddy Wickham any time soon, not if I want them to ever come out and visit me! If you had never been to Nairobi before you might get the impression that you will no sooner step off the plane than you will be mugged and car-jacked.

Having only spent a year in Nairobi I couldn't have been quite as nit-picky as I was with Ek Tha Tiger in terms of noticing inaccuracies or inconsistencies. Though we all had a smirk during one scene in which a rather hilarious car-jacking scene takes place in the carpark of a large shopping centre. The second we saw it all of us said, in unison and probably louder than we should have in the cinema, 'Junction!'

As mentioned earlier Nairobi, and Kenya more widely, has a growing arts, theatre and film-making scene. I attended the final evening of the Slum Film Festival recently which showcased the work of young film-makers from some of Nairobi's informal urban settlements. I also made it along to one day of the Storymoja Hay Literary festival at the Nairobi museum, a new Nairobi festival linked to the prestigious Hay Festival. This blog has talked in the past (here and here) about some of the one-dimensional portrayals of this continent. It is through the cultivation of local voices, through Storymoja, through Slum Film Festival and the many other initiatives that are springing up here and in other African cities, that some of this balance can be redressed.

On a complete aside my little sister sent this blogpost to me recently and it is just genius. Not long till I'm home in Navan now and can enjoy the Shopping Centre, the Valley and Solar in all of their glory.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Turning words to deeds (and other thoughts)

(Caveat: throughout this blogpost I refer to the ‘developing world’ – an oft contested term. It is not an ideal term though it is the one I identify with most, more than ‘global south’ ‘third world’ and other similar phrases used to describe, broadly, the same countries. I prefer developing world as, for me personally, it speaks of movement, and change, and countries that are progressing which in my limited experience is quite apt. Similarly the term beneficiaries isn't ideal but I feel it makes sense in this context.)

This time last year I was in the midst of dissertation doldrums. I was transcribing interviews, double checking references, harassing everyone I know to proofread chapters to make sure what I was writing was making any sort of sense. It is only now, one year later, that I am fully able to go back and look at it again. And, while it is definitely not some ground-breaking paradigm-shifting piece of work, it did attempt to explore some questions that intrigued me. Questions such as:

  • Does the portrayal of developing world disaster stories in the press present stereotypical and demeaning portrayals of the events and victims?
  • What implications does this have?
  • Are there better ways of telling the stories of aid and development?
Dissertation Word Cloud
These questions continue to intrigue me.

My understanding of the topics and concepts I encountered in my dissertation has been broadened and deepened by living in Kenya for the past 10 months. My theoretical knowledge of the nuances of situations such as the HOA crisis has been turned into something far more practical. I traveled to Garissa as part of my role with UNICEF and got to see for myself the pastoralist communities who have settled outside the town. Many of them have come from Somalia, but other have come from remote villages in the desert between Kenya and Somalia. Many are newly arrived but others have been there for many years, driven there by drought and failing rains, in the hopes of finding better opportunities. Many continue to rear, albeit often smaller, herds of camels or goats, carving out a living in the dusty surroundings. They are proud, they are resilient - for they have had to be. 2011 was not the first time that the rains failed, and it will not be the last. They have adapted, in varying degrees, to the new conditions they find themselves in.

So how do we begin to get some of the nuances of these stories across to people who will never live in a developing country, or even visit one? How do we explain development with all of its challenges, complexities, contrasts.

There have been numerous studies carried out in the past year trying to make sense of these issues and it is these that I will mainly be drawing from in this post.

Many people who work in aid and development, and particularly anyone who has ever worked in public fundraising in the sector, are convinced that the public would give more if they knew more. ‘If people just knew what was happening in the Sahel, they would act’. Would they? Evidence suggests that many people see the appeals, read the newspaper reports on famines, natural disasters, and don’t act. And if a gap between knowing and acting does exist, how do we bridge it? How do we turn words into deeds?

We must first look at some of the potential causes of this disconnect, this passivity.

Is it the fault of the way in which NGOs frame the discussion? Communications by humanitarian agencies have for decades emphasised ‘giver power’ and, in doing so, portray those people in the developing world as the opposite – recipients, beneficiaries, victims. They are no longer agents of their own destinies but subject to the generosity, or not, of someone far away. Therefore if these images are portrayed over and over again, do those givers begin to feel dejected? ‘Didn’t I give already?’ ‘Why are things not changing in Africa?’

This theory is borne out by research carried out by Dóchas and IDEA (through IPSOS/MRBI) in April of this year. 31% of the 1000 people surveyed thought that the situation in Africa was more or less the same as it was 20 years ago. A further 14% thought that the situation on the continent was worse. More detailed results from the survey can be found here.

This is often in contrast to the reality. While Africa continues to lag behind other parts of the world in most development indicators there is no denying that great strides have been made in many areas. African economies are amongst the fastest growing in the world. And the huge drop in child mortality across Africa is something that ought to be recognised. There are still far too many children dying from preventable causes - roughly 21,000 every day - but significant progress has been made as this figure stood at closer to 40,000 in the 1980s. As Hans Zomer, director of Dóchas put it:

The research suggests that, despite clear progress in many developing countries, the good news stories from Africa are not reaching the general public. We now need a broader approach to informing the Irish people about the contribution that we in Ireland are making around the world.

NGOs are extremely sensitive to these criticisms and there has been a noticeable shift towards more positive imagery, and towards showing people in developing countries as empowered, as making changes for themselves and their communities. In Ireland the Dóchas Code of Conduct on Images and Messages is a voluntary and self regulated set of guidelines that over 50 NGOs operating in Ireland have signed up to. Some of its guiding principles include stipulations that organisations should:

  • Choose images and related messages based on values of respect, equality, solidarity and justice.
  • Avoid images and messages that potentially stereotype, sensationalise or discriminate against people, situations or places.
  • Ensure those whose situation is being represented have the opportunity to communicate their stories  themselves. 
And yet this was the front page of the Irish Daily Mail on August 3rd last year.

Now the code only applies to NGOs and not newspapers, and even then it is completely voluntary, but I still think that the fact that this image was chosen by the paper’s editor is still telling. Aid organisations themselves also seemed to fall back on these images in times of crisis justifying as simple fundraising logic. They are torn between wanting to show the humanity of the beneficiaries of their work, while at the same time communicating the urgency of their need for support. NGOs are under pressure to raise funds, fast, and so turn to images that they know will provoke an emotional reaction. These emotional reactions are not always predictable however, and the images can sometimes trigger anger at the way in which people at the frontline of famine or conflict are portrayed. (See this article for more information on this point)

So how can things be changed? How can we re-frame the way in which relief aid and development interventions are portrayed and, in so doing, help people to reconnect with people who living in the developing world?

At a gathering held as part of LSE and Birkbeck’s 3 year research project called ‘Mediating Humanitarian Knowledge’ NGO professionals in attendance put forward some of their own suggestions. One of the suggestions that came of these discussions that although organisations are often 'in competition' with each other, for funding in particular, they should aspire to and practise greater collective responsibility. Forums where organisations can debate their approaches and styles of communicating global suffering can constitute informal means of regulation for the sector. (This is already happening to an extent in Ireland through Dóchas with its C-Cubed initiative and others - see below) These professionals also recognise that their role as mediators of the relationship between donors and beneficiaries is changing. Already survivors of emergencies and beneficiaries of development aid are being seen and heard more often in television appeals and via new media platforms that potentially enable longer-term, more personal connections between supporters and beneficiaries, and between NGOs and their beneficiaries. The trend is for supporters ultimately to connect directly with recipients of aid, which is challenging the traditional role of the NGO as the gatekeeper. Could these future direct connections help people to understand aid and development better? And would this increased understanding make people more empathetic and likely to support humanitarian crises when they do occur?

And there is also recent research from the point of view of the public. Earlier this year the Overseas Development Institute in the UK, in conjunction with the Institute for Public Policy Research, published a report entitled 'Understanding Public Attitudes to Aid and Development'. 
The research drew many conclusions, one of the most important of these conclusions that the general public want to hear more stories about process and progress not just stories about input (money spent) and output (children educated). Accordingly, campaigns should communicate how change can and does happen in developing countries. Rather than a simple reassurance that 'aid works', people want to hear about how and why it works, why it doesn't always work, and the reasons why aid alone cannot achieve development targets. For example, humanitarian and development agencies have not been very good thus far in explaining the different ways that money gets to the people on the ground, or how larger organisations partner with smaller, local ones, in order to work in different communities and contexts. Explanations like this could help to clarify why agencies need to spend a certain portion of their funding on administration and operational costs in order to deliver services more effectively. 

Helen Shaw, a communications consultant, speaking at the C-Cubed conference (C-Cubed standing for Creatively Communicating Complex Ideas about Development) organised by Dóchas expressed some of her own recommendations on this topic. She believes that equality and balance in communications about aid and development should extend not only to treating the aid recipient as an equal, but also to treating the public as an equal partner on a shared journey towards change. At present, the public is asked to support and donate, but without being involved in the complexities of the aid and development debates.

I agree with Helen Shaw, and also to the related point made by the 'Understanding Public Attitudes' report. I think that the public are often presumed not to understand, or are portrayed as unwilling to engage in these discussions when this is not the case. Social media, in its various forms, provides a potential platform to transform readers and listeners of traditional media into active participants in debates about international development, humanitarian aid and similar topics. 

And that this is what this blogpost has attempted to do - it has tried to ask pertinent questions, to provoke discussions. And that is hugely important. It is the very first step to changing anything. But it's also important in its own right.. To end on a slightly cheesy West Wing quote:

We're going to raise the level of public debate in this country and let that be our legacy.

Related articles:

Friday, August 31, 2012

The Peter-Pan years?

At a party last weekend, amongst a group of people I had met only hours and minutes before, I declared my age to be 'twenty six and a half'. Obviously the declaration caused significant amusement to my new friends (well they may not be my new friends after that outburst) who thought the practice of counting halves probably should have stopped when my age went into double digits.

I was reacting to the charge from my friend Patrick that I was in my 'late twenties'. Shocked at this libelous accusation I proceeded to tell him my theory that the years 20, 21, 22, 23 constitute one's early twenties, 24, 25, 26 mid twenties and 27, 28 and 29 late twenties. I told him that I was currently 6 months away from being in my late twenties as I am 'twenty six and a half'.

For the past few days I have been trying to pinpoint the exact reasons behind my outburst, and my reluctance to be labelled as being in my late twenties. Of course, no one likes getting older. No one likes watching the appearance of the faintest of frown lines, finding their second (!) grey hair, having twinges of back pain.

But I think my reluctance stems from something slightly different. In a conversation over Skype with my friend Darren a few weeks back I declared myself to be in 'my Peter Pan years'. That day I had seen another Facebook announcement of an old school friend's engagement. I was delighted for her but it made me think about the fact that I am a long way off hitting some of those major growing-up milestones.

Don't get me wrong I am in no hurry to find myself engaged, or in a job with a pension and a parking space. I guess I am just struggling to get my head around the fact that more of my peers are in those situations. Whereas I am bouncing around Nairobi still telling people that I don't know what I want to do when I grow up and counting my ages in fractions. Have I, by moving here, stopped some of the inevitable processes of growing up? And did I do so intentionally?

But if I am really in my Peter Pan years surely I shouldn't care about the fact that the days are passing? That I am almost in my late twenties. That I am, in fact, getting older.

Despite some days mulling over these questions, I am no nearer to finding an answer. I am happy with where I am right now. I live in Nairobi, I like what I'm doing in terms of work, I have made some lovely friends.

So is Nairobi my Neverland? I guess I'll only really know when I leave. And I am not going to be doing that any time soon.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Guest Post: The Danger of a Single Story

(Alternative title: 'Stories from Kenya or how I learned to stop worrying and just enjoy the mangoes')

Guest Contributor: Odharnait Ansbro

Sunrise Mt. Kenya

I thought that once I arrived back in London, Africa would seem like a distant dream, that after a few days I’d be swept up in the rush of life in London and feel like I’d never left. But I carry the view of sunrise from the summit of Mt. Kenya in mind, the taste of mangoes on my tongue, the sound of the muezzin in my ears and the sand of Lamu’s beaches in my shoes.  Africa has, once again, gotten under my skin.

It’s been there since I was two, when my family moved to Tanzania for two and half years. So, for this three week trip to Kenya, I felt like I was going home. Everything was, at once, utterly exotic and deeply familiar. The sandstone chess sets and ebony Masai figurines on sale at every roadside tourist stop were the same as the ones my parents brought back with us. The rows of ants that appeared with every uncleaned crumb, the sharp itch of mosquito bites, the Swahili in the streets all conjured up my childhood.

But for all my pretensions to an affinity for Africa, I realised that my vision of the continent was the one I had absorbed from living most of my life in the West and seeing Africa through the lens of famine, war, disease and death.  For the first week, I was terrified I’d be robbed, or kidnapped, that the water or the sliver of lettuce in my sandwich at a café would make me sick. But my narrow view quickly ballooned into a complex, rich, colourful picture of life. 

This was mostly thanks to the many guides who led me on my travels. The principal one being the wonderful Andrea, who planned the first two weeks of our trip, picked me up from the airport, fed me chocolate and got us on a nine hour overnight bus to the coast the first day I arrived. She taught me how to haggle (Ghali sana! Do you think I arrived yesterday my friend? I live in Nairobi!), banter in Swahili, negotiate the streets of Nairobi and the markets of Kangemi.  There was Peter, her local taxi man, who talked at length about anything from religion to politics, to Maasai culture, and my guide, also Peter, who led me step by step up the slopes of Mt. Kenya (pole pole), among many others.

Art Caffe Ladies

Kenya is a country where private companies are designing and building state of the art cities run by private management companies; where you can get a cocktail in a bar in Karen that costs as much as three weekly shops in Kangemi; where stalls of lashed together branches and plastic roofs sell everything from chip pans to radios to knock off watches, 20 minutes away from shopping centres with water features and Dolce and Gabbana shoes; where every outcrop of concrete block shops from the Maasai Mara to the coast is painted in the colours of Safaricom and M-Pesa, where mobile signal is available on the summit of Mt. Kenya. It’s difficult to capture, with so few words, the diversity, the disparity and the complexity of the country I saw.

For the most part, the story of Africa we see in the West is one that has been filtered of its complexity and colour. The continent is reduced to a stage on which epic tragedies unfold again and again, a place that desperately needs to be saved, that only speaks in the passive voice. Poverty, war and disease exist but they are single stories within a multitude of others - stories of a mobile revolution, of economic growth, of (extra)ordinary people getting on with their lives. Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Adichie, made this point in her TED talk recently The Danger of a Single Story. I’ll be trying to remember it.

Friday, August 10, 2012

A visit from an old friend

(old as in 'we've known each other for a long time' not old as in 'she is an old person' - I feel Odharnait would like that clarification made)

For 3 weeks in July and August I had the pleasure of hosting my first (but hopefully not my last) visitor in Kenya - the beautiful Odharnait Ansbro. Odharnait and I have been friends for 9 years, something we calculated while on our travels. Like many of my friends it's hard to stay in contact as much as we would both like. Timezones, work schedules and other life commitments tend to get in the way. So when she said that she was coming out to see me, I was thrilled to get the chance to spend some quality time with her. something that we haven't done for a long time. As much as I enjoyed the traveling we did together, some of the most enjoyable times we had over the 3 weeks were spent in my kitchen, drinking green tea and having the chats.
I won't go step by step through our holiday adventures for fear of making you all wildly jealous. Instead I'll highlight my 3 favourite parts of our trip.

Dhows, doorways and donkeys in Lamu
Our trip Lamu can be summarised with the 3ds - dhows, doorways and donkeys. All 3 are omnipresent elements of laidback life on the island.



Lamu is just a wonderful, wonderful place. Having visited it on my first trip to Kenya back in 2009 I was anxious to make a return visit at some point this year. When Odharnait asked for some beach and coast time it was the perfect excuse for me to plan a trip there. Staying in a self-catering apartment with its own rooftop veranda, we spent 5 days sitting, eating, reading, eating, sitting some more. Just what both of us were looking for. We both agreed that it would be the perfect place to go if you needed to write your novel. We didn't quite manage to write a novel while we were there, but I did manage to finish my book for bookclub. Which is a start.

Book reading - with obligatory coffee and chocolate biscuit cake

Where Can You See Lions...
... only in Kenya. Surely I don't need to put up another link to that video, do I? Do I? Ok, here it is!

The highlight for the 2 and a half days that we spent in the Maasai Mara (apart from the gorgeous food at our lodge) was spotting lions. Lots of lions. Male lions. Female lions. I had been waiting for this moment since I arrived in Kenya and when it finally arrived I was exactly as giddy and excited as I thought I would be. For evidence of this see the video below:

Now we did spot other animals besides lions. These were (takes deep breath)

Thompson's Gazelle
Grant's Gazelle
Maasai Giraffe
Guinea Fowl
Crested Cranes
Superb Starlings
Secretary Birds
Lilac breasted roller (Zazu!)
African cave buffalo
Striped mongoose
But for me, it was all about the lions.

Not a lion

Not a lion

Not lions
Not lions
Definitely not lions

Nairobi nightlife
I couldn't let Odharnait leave Kenya without sampling some of the Nairobi nightlife. On Tuesday in between our coast and safari adventures we went for dinner with some friends and then on to K1/Klubhouse (setting of an earlier blogpost). It was 'Jazz Night'at K1 but it wasn't so much Jazz as Classic 105-esque covers.

Caution! Party Zone! Well that's me warned.

Some things never change...

Odharnait has also graciously agreed to write a guest blogpost in the coming weeks on her experiences in Kenya so keep your eyes peeled for that!

In the meantime I urge you all to get checking British Airways, SkyScanner and Kenya Airways and start planning your own trip to see me!

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Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Things I've Learned in Kenya - Part 5

'Kenyans live according to their pockets'

A colleague of mine from UNAIDS remarked this as we were stuck in traffic on our way to the UN compound after a meeting a few weeks ago, on Friday June 29th. The driver of the car nodded furiously in agreement when she said it. This was their explanation of why the roads were so jammed that day
1) It was just after payday
2) It was a Friday.

People in Kenya can afford to fuel their cars after payday so there is always increased traffic around the city streets in the fortnight after payday. After that the traffic begins to dwindle until only those who have done some excellent budgeting, or who have lots of money, can fill up their tank.

A typical Nairobi road after payday...

...and just before payday (disclaimer - this is actually a
picture of Tom Mboya Street during the curfew in 2008)

Other VSO volunteers and I had noticed a similar phenomenon after Christmas. In January our buses were more full than ever. And full of people in fancy suits, who looked a little out of place crammed into buses and matatus, laptop cases and briefcases gripped tightly on their laps, having spent their December wages (and then some) on Christmas trips to visit families upcountry.

Obama mania?

When I came to Kenya on my holidays in 2009 Barack Obama was everywhere. You could not escape his image or his name. His face was to be found on kangas, shops and restaurants were called things like 'Yes We Can Ltd' or 'Barack Obama Cafe', bookshops had shelves teeming with copies of his books.

And yet in the last 9 months since I have been here I have seen very little evidence of the American president. Many of the shops and businesses have been renamed, other images and patterns cover Kenyan women's bums.

A Barack Obama kanga - the fashion
accessory of choice in Kenya in 2008/9

Yes We Can Kinyozi (Barber)

I was only reminded of his past omnipresence when I spotted a matatu during the week sporting the sign 'Still Obama'. I couldn't help but wonder (sorry, I couldn't resist!) where has Obama gone? I hadn't noticed his disappearance until prompted by the matatu.

What might be behind this?

Well I think partly it's a quite natural process. Obama swept to power in America on such a wave of enthusiasm and popularity - a popularity he enjoyed both in the United States and overseas - that it was unlikely that it could be sustained for the entire 4 years of his first term. In Africa, there was a feeling that his election could mark a new phase in U.S. African relations. Increased trade, development assistance and tourism were all expected to come on the back of the election.

However, many are disappointed in his apparent lack of interest in Africa, and Kenya more specifically. Neither he or the First Lady have visited the land of his father since he became President. When I tell people that Obama has Irish heritage, and has visited his relations there, they are usually incredulous. This lack of a visit, combined with a feeling that he has not done enough for the continent have provoked ill-feeling in many quarters. Under his watch PEPFAR (the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief - an initiative of Obama's predecessor George W. Bush) has seen it's budget slashed drawing heavy criticism from advocates of people living with HIV/AIDS. Over a million people depend on PEPFAR funding for their Anti Retroviral Treatment. Obama's Global Health Initiative (GHI) is a $63 billion initiative aimed at tackling a broad range of tropical diseases, as well and maternal and child health issues. However, it has been criticised so far for being unfocused and uncoordinated in comparison with PEPFAR.

Even the upcoming US Presidential election has failed to relight imaginations here. The election contest is being covered in the foreign news sections of the papers, but reference to Obama's heritage are thin on the ground at the moment. Will it change if he wins in November? We shall see.

Nairobi has hipsters too

This weekend I headed along to 'Blankets and Wine' - a monthly one day music festival held just outside of Nairobi. On the first Sunday of every month, Nairobi's trendiest (and this month, me) descend on this outdoor venue armed with, as the name suggests, blankets and wine. Gig-goers are encouraged to bring their own booze and picnic with them while they enjoy what the organisers terms 'Afro fusion' music. The performers are a mix of Kenyan, and international artists. Yesterday we were treated to the sounds of Kenya's own Yunasi and Sauti Sol as well as Tumi and the Volume from South Africa.

Tumi and the Volume warm up the crowd early in the afternoon

More people arrive as the afternoon wears on

Gemma and I enjoying being among Nairobi's
cool folks ... for an afternoon at least

For me, the attraction of the event - apart from the music and the al fresco dining and drinking - was the chance to do some serious people watching. The crowd were a mix of Kenyan and mzungu (with Kenyans definitely being in the majority) families and groups of young people, hipsters and the not-so-hipsters. The style was incredible. However my personal favourite style icon of the day was the gentleman below whose blazer was made out of the exact same Maasai blanket material as I was sitting on. There are few guys who could get away with this but I think he pulls it off. What do you think?

Nairobi hipster

A hastily taken picture of the blanket
in question but you get the idea.

Also in this series: