Saturday, April 28, 2012

A trip out East...

After almost 6 months at UNICEF this week I was finally allowed out of Nairobi to go to 'the field'. The field, is basically anywhere outside of Nairobi and the first 'field' I visited was Garissa, which is rather appropriate as in some ways this was 'the placement that might have been'. I am so happy that I live in Nairobi, I have a lovely house, great friends, as much nice coffee and cake as I could have want, but I won't lie that I wasn't really excited to see what might have been, as well as a completely different side of Kenya. So, at 7.45am on Tuesday morning I set off in a rather impressive UNICEF car for Mwingi.

A picture of the car taken in the pouring rain in Mwingi.

Mwingi you say? That's not Garissa. You're right, it's not. Garissa is about 5-6 hours by road from Nairobi.. The Nairobi office drove me 2 and half hours to Mwingi where I shared a cup of chai and some chapati with my lovely driver Elijah. Then we were met by Abdi, a driver from the Garissa field office and the cargo (i.e. me) was swapped between vehicles. Another two and half hours and we drove across the Tana River and into Garissa town.

The drive
The drive itself was great and I only nodded off a few times which is rather impressive considering:
a) I was knackered
b) I will fall asleep in any moving vehicle if I stay in it long enough. 

My alertness was partly based on the great company, especially Elijah who often drives me to meetings in and around Nairobi. But most of the credit needs to the rolling and changing landscape. It was incredible watching the scenes around me change from the lush, green, wet, agricultural land surrounding Nairobi, full of its maize fields and coffee plantations, to the increasingly dry scrub of Eastern Kenya, Somali country, full of scraggly bushes and acacia trees. Scraggly bushes, acacia trees and camels! Hundreds and hundreds of camels. Yes, there were donkeys and goats too, but I'm far more likely to get excited about something that you can't see at a Petting Zoo at home. As Abdi explained, camels to Somalis are like dogs to Mzungus in that every Somali has one. 

Roadside shops and cafes

Guinness - ubiquitous here in Kenya

Lush countryside outside of Nairobi

The land gets increasingly barren as we drive East.

Clearly the rains have yet to reach this far East.

 On the drive you could see exactly how far the rains - that have been assaulting Nairobi and most parts of the country - have encroached into the North Eastern Kenya. About an hour outside of Garissa there are no more dark clouds. No more threats of rain, or sign that it may ever come. Everyone I spoke to in Garissa spoke of the rains in rushed tones. They are expected, but still they have not come. But they are expected.

The hotel

I won't lie. The thoughts of two nights in a hotel was also a nice lure of going on a field visit. I stayed in the lovely Almond Resort which is a two minute drive from the UNICEF office just outside Garissa town itself. From the registration plates in its carpark it's favoured by lots of international agency staff, as well as Kenyan families. The room, as you can see, was rather lovely. And it came with aircon and a shiny TV. I love that no matter where you go in the world, the movie on the telly is always delightfully awful (and I always watch it). What was the movie this time? The 2011 gem, Textuality. (Please click on the link, it's hilarious)
Hotel! With obligatory Al Jazeera World on.

The work

Finally I get to the reason for my visit, work! So the purpose of my field was threefold, all of which were to be completely in a day and a quarter.

1) Meet with members of G-Youth (Garissa Youth) radio project to investigate how it works and how the model might be replicated by UNICEF for its own youth community radio initiative that is proposed for Nyanza.

2) Meet with existing and potential C4D partners in Garissa such as Sifa FM (a radio station which broadcasts across the East and North East of Kenya), SIMAHO (Sisters Maternity Home) and BICHI (Bashal Islamic Community Health Initative). The latter two are community-run health initiatives which receive some support from UNICEF.

3) Meet with members of the youth group Inspiration Kenya to discuss some of the issues affecting young people in NEP which might inform the design of a baseline survey of youth issues in the region.

So lots to cram into my time. In the end I actually had to do all of this on the same day as some of the scheduling of Tuesday meetings didn't work out. I could go on and on about exactly what I did at these meetings (and if you really want to know I can forward you my official trip report) but I'll just give the overview.

My favourite part of the day was definitely the radio station visit. The G-Youth project partners with a commercial radio station called Star FM whose target audience is mainly Somalis/Somali Kenyans and they broadcast across Nairobi, and the north and east of Kenya. They have given their now unused studio in Garissa to the G-Youth project and they have also given them one of their subsidiary licenses to broadcast from. The young people produce 8 hours of content a day, from 8am to 4pm. The group of 16 young people, 7 from the first intake of trainee journalists, 9 from the new class, broadcast live and pre-recorded shows in English, Somali and Swahili, while at the same time getting trained in the theories and best practices of journalism. Their shows cover a wide range of topics. While I was there I got to see the sports team write the script for their Saturday morning show and I got to sit-in on a live call-in show on the topic of child labour. All of the young people I met were passionate and articulate. They loved what they were doing and told me that though many of them had dreamed of being journalists for years, they never thought it would actually happen. The ideal aim of the programme is that these young people might be able to pursue careers in this field going forward.

I really enjoyed the visit to SIMAHO too. It's a small facility, in terms of size, that caters to hundreds of women and families in Garissa town. They run Ante Natal Clinics, an Immunisation Clinic, a Nutrition Centre, all from a space that's probably the same size of my living room and dining room (which are admittedly very big, but still). My particular area of interest was the Ante Natal Clinics, and in particular their PMTCT )Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission of HIV) programme since I have been spending a lot of time working with government partners on a national EMTCT (Elimination of Mother to Child Transmission) framework. Having spent many hours in high level meetings with ministry representatives, UNAIDS, UNFPA, I was finally able to get a sense of what it looks like on the ground, how an ordinary pregnant woman goes through the process of getting counselled and tested, receiving ARV (Anti Retrovirals) etc.

Of all of the areas that I work in PMTCT/EMTCT is definitely the one that gets me most excited. It really is possible for a HIV positive mother to have a HIV negative baby but the amount of people who know this, or know how this can be achieved is growing, but is still quite low. By visiting an Ante Natal Clinic 4 times during the pregnancy, by getting HIV tested and counselled, preferably with one's partners, by going on the appropriate ARVs if found to be positive, by delivering used a skilled birth attendant and by exclusively breastfeeding the baby for 6 months, all children can be born negative. And this would have a big impact on the fight against HIV/AIDS. In 2009 370,000 babies around the world became infected with HIV. And all of these infections can be prevented.

Now you'll have to forgive me as I didn't take many pictures of my visits as I didn't have time and I'm also reluctant to whip out my camera all the time for fear of being that white woman.

The colleagues

I was really well looked after by all of the UNICEF field office staff who made me feel welcome right away. They kept me fed and watered with lunch and lots and lots of tea. Apparently the only remedy to the heat of Garissa is hot tea, not cool water. 'Dawa ya moto ni moto' (the solution to heat is heat) is a Swahili phrase I learned a few months back and the people of Garissa swear by it.

Lunch (it's almost obligatory now that my
blogposts contain pictures of food)

Nelson and I posing

And again
It was great catching up with Nelson too. Nelson is another VSO volunteer with UNICEF who is based in the Garissa office and is the only member of the Communication for Development team there. He used to be based in Nairobi up until the summer when he moved there. Even 6 months into my time in the UNICEF Nairobi office I find myself describing myself as 'the new Nelson' when trying to explain my role to some of my UNICEF colleagues from other departments! Nelson and the UNICEF Garissa crew took me out for some nyama choma and Tuskers, and to watch football (Bayern Munich vs Real Madrid). As I've mentioned in previous blogposts, Kenyans love their soccer!

The pondering

Throughout my visit I kept asking myself the question 'could I have lived here?' as, like most people, I like to consider the 'what might have beens' in life. And the answer that came back to me was probably not. I think I would have found a year in Garissa tough. A few months, maybe, but 12 months seems like an awfully long time. That said, I would definitely like to spend more time there, and I plan on doing a much longer visit when I go next, or when I do any field visits in future.

In some ways I would have loved it. The atmosphere in the field office is much more relaxed and laidback that the Nairobi office. That's not to say they don't work hard, the whole team (of about 10) works very hard. But they work... differently. In addition they are working much more at the grassroots level, right at the coalface as it were. My work involves drafting and reviewing broad policy documents for use nationally, or input into the design of communication materials. In Garissa time is spent with partners, distributing these communication materials, or checking up to see policies are being implemented and supporting where possible.

And the town itself is lovely. The people are very friendly and the relaxed atmosphere of the UNICEF field office is matched by the slower pace of life of Garissa town. The people in the area are pastoralists, used to letting their movements be dictated by nature, and they are not hurried. The town is small, but has all the basic amenities you need. However I've come to learn over the past few years that I'm definitely a city girl at heart. Dublin, London, Nairobi - these are the places I feel most at home in. Nairobi drives me up the wall some days with its traffic, and its pollution and its noise. But I love its bustle and its energy on the other hand.

So look forward to move updates from around Kenya in the next couple of months, but don't be expecting any news that I've upped sticks and moved to the village any time soon!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Kenya - some statistics

As part of my work I read a lot of reports. A lot. And within these reports are many many statistics about the state of Kenya. So I thought I'd share with you a couple that have really stood out for me in the past couple of weeks.

Now, I know statistics often do not tell the whole story (As Benjamin Disraeli is oft quoted as saying 'There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics'.) However I do think a few of them are striking, and taken together they do say a little about where Kenya is, and also I think, where it needs/should be.

1) Health in Kenya

There are 9 doctors in the whole of the North Eastern Province. 9. Well there were in 2007, the numbers may have improved since then but you get the idea. This is a province which had over a million inhabitants at that time (and probably has considerably more now due to the food crisis in Somalia last year). So a place with roughly the same population as Dublin has 9 doctors - or 1 doctor for everyone 120,000 people.

Now this is an extreme case but across Kenya there is a chronic shortage of doctors. The statistics for the country as a whole are better, with about 15 doctors per 100,000 people. This compares to Ireland which had 2,800 doctors per 100,000 in 2007.

A nice map from Territory size shows the
proportion of doctors that work in that country.

So how does the country survive when the health service is so chronically understaffed? The answer is Community Health Workers (CHWs) and Community Health Extension Workers (CHEWs). These people are the backbone of the health service in Kenya. Some are voluntary, but many are renumerated. These people provide basic healthcare, refer people for further treatment etc. They also dispense healthcare advice and as such are vital allies for organisations like UNICEF in spreading messages of hygiene, good nutrition and feeding practices (especially for babies and young children) and warn of the potential causes, and ways to prevent, infectious diseases such as malaria and TB.

2) Young People in Kenya

The Kenyan population is an extremely young one. Those under 15 constitute 43% of the population and those under 34 (which is young people according to some definitions, I'm sure that will make lots of my readers feel pretty good!) make up over 78% of the population. So Kenya by any standards is a young country. Even Ireland, the youngest country in the EU, appears almost geriatric in comparison. 21% of Ireland's population is under 15 and 34% are under 25.

Such a big youth population could bring Kenya many opportunities but these young people face serious challenges. Currently a Kenyan young person can expect to live to 57, which is down from 59 twenty years ago. Enrolment rates for lower secondary school stand at 90% but drop significantly to 43% when upper secondary school is examined. Enrolment rates are always problematic indicators and we can assume that the numbers attending secondary school are lower than this.Unemployment is a huge problem amongst young people. The Kenya Vision 2030 strategy has estimated that up to 70% of young people are unemployed, and seriously under-employed.

Young women in particular face significant challenges.Over 10% of women who give birth are under 19.
27% of women aged 15 to 49 years have been mutilated or cut. This remains an important cultural practice in many parts, and within certain tribes, in Kenya . In fact the Kiswahili/Arabic word for female genital mutilation is still 'tohara' which means ritual cleansing. However, public support for the practice appears to be waning with just 9% of women in the same age bracket supporting the practice.(Unfortunately I have no data on male beliefs on the practice). The government has also passed legislation in recent months making the process illegal. 

(All of the above data is from UNICEF's State of the World's Children 2012 and 2011 unless otherwise stated)

3) Technology in Kenya

Kenya is one of the most tech savvy countries in Africa, despire some of the abovementioned challenges, or perhaps even because of them. Kenya is home to some truly innovative technology companies. In terms of statistics, Kenya's mobile phone network covers 86% of the population and there were 26 million subscribers as of September 2011 which is roughly 67% of the population overall (report from Communications Commission of Kenya available here). Kenya's mobile phone users have adapted quickly to new advancements in mobile technology. The a large proportion Kenya's 14 million internet users - over one third - access the internet via their mobile phone (CCK report). When you take out the 7 million that access the internet through 3rd parties (ie internet cafes) you can see that the vast majority of those who regularly access the internet do so via their mobile phone.

Kenyans also use their mobile phone to transfer money, pay utility bills and conduct banking transactions. M-Pesa, the mobile money transfer service operated by Safaricom, has revolutionised how business is conducted in Kenya. Over 18 million mobile money transfer subscriptions exist with transactions worth over 56 Billion Kenyan Shillings between July and September last year alone. That's about €518 million!
Even I have an M-Pesa account and I have used it to top-up my phone, transfer pay a deposit for accommodation and even pay my hairdresser. The sooner such technology becomes readily available in Ireland the better I say!

Another technological innovation that began life in Kenya and has since spread across many countries is
Ushahidi. Ushahidi is, according to its own website, an open source project that allows users to crowdsource crisis information to be sent via mobile. The word 'ushahidi' means testimony in Kiswahili. The platform was developed during the post-election violence of 2007/2008 as a means of collecting eye witness reports of violence, sent in via email or text message, and mapping them onto a google map. The original map can be seen here. Since then the platform has expanded rapidly and the software has been used to map areas of crisis in the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake and the earthquake in Christchurch New Zealand as well as helping pro-democracy demonstrators organise and communicate during the Arab Spring last year.

What the ushahidi map looked like during the
 post-election violence in 2007/8.

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Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Adventures of Disco

I would like to introduce you to Disco.

This is Disco. Disco is a maroon/red 1999 Landrover Discovery and the newest addition to my friends' Laura and Cameron's house. And last weekend the 4 of us, Laura, Cameron, Disco and I travelled to the Coast for our Easter holidays.

Car packed, ready for an adventure

The trip was not without its adventures. Even before we had left Nairobi we had a few.... false starts shall we say.

False Start Number 1
No more than 10 minutes after pulling out of the driveway we were stopped by police at a checkpoint. The policeman's suspicions were aroused by Disco's number plates, which are temporary until Laura is issued with the permanent ones. The policeman said that the number plates didn't have the seal of the KRA (Kenyan Roads Authority) and therefore the car should not be driven on Kenyan roads. After some reasoning, some pleading, some phone calls to Laura's work, the policeman decided to let us off. Which was good because the alternative involved hauling our asses to the diplomatic police station at the complete other side of town.

False Start Number 2
Police dispensed with (and we prayed we wouldn't face the same problem at every police checkpoint between Nairobi and the coast) we made our way slowly through the Nairobi traffic and made it to the Mombasa Highway. But before we even got as far as they airport what appeared to be smoke started billowing from the engine. We pulled into a service station and discovered that there was no water in the engine at all and that the car was overheating. So we decided to get water and let Disco rest for a while.

False Start Number 3
So car cooled, driver and passengers refreshed with a sneaky Tusker, and we were ready to hit the road again. Cameron decided to run the engine for a few minutes to double check that the water was flowing correctly through the cooling system. However, thanks to a gust of wind  and Disco's temperamental electrics the car door closed and locked itself with the keys inside and the engine running. However Disco electrical issues also brought with it the solution to our problem. One of the back windows was a bit open (as it refused to close) and so a young guy from the garage was dragged over and stuck his skinny arm through the window and managed to unlock the car. Crisis averted and we were back on the road, albeit a few hours behind schedule. We drove for a couple of hours and then pulled into a little roadside hotel for the night, and got nyama choma (roast meat) and Tuskers, and got an early night so we could be up bright and breezy for the drive to Shimba Hills National Park the next morning.

The road may not look like much but it was the
bumpiest road I have ever travelled on.
Which is saying something cos I'm from Meath

Camping in Shimba Hills
On Friday evening, after driving along a road which was supposedly a C-Class road (ie 3rd best grade in Kenyan, equivalent to a regional road at home) but was honestly the bumpiest road ever, we arrived at Shimba Hills. Shimba Hills is a small national park about 17km from the coast, which you can actually see from some of it's highest points. We arrived around 5, just in time for a quick drive around and to put up the tent before the sun went down. We cracked open some gin, Cameron lit a campfire and we prepared a dinner of noodles, beans, instant pasts and toast - yum! The next morning we got up at the crack of dawn, grabbed a quick breakfast and drove to the other side of the park for a mini hike to the stunning Shelrick Falls. Sadly, throughout all of our time in the park we didn't spot a single elephant or leopard (which the park is famous for) but we did see one of the park's few giraffes, and lots of antelope, buffalo, beautiful birds and baboons. Then we hopped back into Disco for the final leg of our journey to the coast.

Giraffe and antelope in Shimba Hills

A fine looking tent

Laura kicking off gin o'clock

Cameron's campfire

Post dinner gin (are you sensing a trend?)

The huge spider that we found under the tent the next morning

Toast, Jam and Blueband - Breakfast of champions
Shelrick Falls

Shimoni and Wasini Island
And so at about 3pm on Saturday afternoon we arrived at Shimoni. We settled ourselves into our bandas and made our way to a recommended restaurant in the village, Four Tables Restaurant. As the name suggests it was a small place with only, you guessed it, 4 tables. Adbul, the owner, could not have been nicer and within minutes us 3 starving travellers were filling up on fresh fish, chapati, rice, sukuma wiki, beans. The Shimoni leg of our trip revolved, for the most part, around food I must admit. Or seafood and fish to be precise.
Our first view of the Ocean

On Easter Sunday we got up and booked ourselves at the last minute on a boat trip to the Kisite Mpunguti National Marine Park and Wasini Island. The Marine Park itself is famous for its fish and turtles (though I did not spot any of these). We went for a bit of a snorkel along a sandpit in the middle of the marine park. Not being the strongest swimmer I stayed pretty close to the beach at all times but even amongst the coral at the beach there were hundreds of different fish of all colours and sizes. It was absolutely beautiful. Snorkelling over, we asked the boat to drop us at Wasini Island where once again our first priority was to sort cheap yummy food. Wasini Island is a tiny island off the coast, measuring about 5km by 1km with a population of about 3,000 people. The island has no cars, no piped electricity (some of the residents have generators but these are hugely expensive to run) and little running water. Despite, or perhaps more accurately because of this, the island is relatively unspoiled. It is quiet, relaxed and friendly.

Smiling boat passengers

Rival boat

First glimpse of the marine park

Having arrived too late for lounging on the beach (the tide was in) we instead took our books to the coral garden for a sit and a read while waiting for our lift back to the mainland in the evening. The coral garden is this vast area in the middle of the island which looks either prehistoric, or post-apocalyptic. The huge lumps of coral jut out from the ground like rock trees, dotted among mangrove trees. Our guide (a young lad from the island who agreed to show us around) informed us that by 4pm the coral garden would be flooded as the time came in. We nodded politely but none of us believed him. However, he was right. At about 3.30pm the water began to pour in and by 4pm the coral garden, and even some parts of the boardwalk were submerged under water.

Sunday evening once again revolved around food. On Saturday we had ordered lobster and kalamari from Abdul and on Sunday evening he served us up our feast complete with the nicest passionfruit juice that I have ever tasted.

Lobster, kalamari and rabbit fish

Cameron, loving his dinner

Laura similarly loving her dinner

Monday morning we woke at 5am to begin the long journey back to Nairobi. Disco was still being a little temperamental so we had to stop a few times to let her cool down but we made it back to Nairobi by 6pm that evening.

Special thanks to Laura and Cameron and of course Disco for a great trip.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

St Patrick's Day in Kenya - Part 2

As promised here is the second installation from my Paddy's Day adventures in Nairobi.

The life of a VSO volunteer is rarely a glamorous one. Saturday mornings spent scrubbing mud and dust out of one's trousers. Commutes which involve skirting along or shimmying along a digger (as I had to do one afternoon this week). But last weekend I was given the opportunity to put on a nice dress, put some lipstick on, and head to a Ball. The Kenya Irish Society's St Patrick's Day Ball to be precise. This was all thanks to my fairy godmother, aka Laura Bennison, who got me a ticket at the last minute. I haven't been to a Ball in years. Not since my Trinity days probably- when you would go to as many department/society balls as you could afford, wearing swapped dresses and with a sneaky naggin in your purse. Good times.

The Ball is the highlight of the Kenya Irish Society's event calendar. Who are the Kenya Irish Society? In brief they are a group of Irish, and almost Irish, or friends of the Irish, that organise events for Irish people here. They have the odd table quiz, they have golf tournaments, and there is even talk of a céilí in May. (They are also the wonderful people who provided me with some turkey, roast potatoes and gravy at this Christmas lunch in December as written about here) But the ball - the proceeds of which go to a number of local charities and NGOs - is the highlight of their social calendar. The Hilton Hotel was decked out in Green, White and Gold for the occasion, and they even arranged for a band, Shillelagh to come over from Ireland and play for the evening. The food was wonderful (and even included an Irish themed dessert), the band played a mix of folk-y Irish tunes (Hills of Donegal, Dirty Old Town) country and western music, and solid wedding music favourites - a mix which pleased all of the generations that were in attendance and ensured the dancefloor was packed all evening. We even had a short céilí (set) dance which I LOVED. And made me hanker a little bit for another summer in the Gaeltacht.

I could keep typing but I think the pictures below give you a better flavour of the night!

The Irish flag flying proudly next to the
Kenyan one outside the Hilton.

There was green, white and orange everywhere. They could
have done with mine and Laura's banner though I reckon!

Posing with the beautiful Lisa whose dress was the
 perfect shade of green for the occasion.

Laura Bennison and I - complete with Irish pins.

Slightly blurry shot of the ballroom but you get the idea.

I think we are attempting to do a jig here. Or a reel. We're
definitely faux Irish dancing though going by the look of
concentration on our faces.

A packed dancefloor.
Yummy chocolate mousse dessert complete with mint
ice cream and a shamrock shaped chocolate decoration.

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