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!

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