Thursday, May 31, 2012

In the companies of elephants, princes and VSO volunteers

A couple of weeks ago I got the opportunity to go on a weekend away with 20 other VSO volunteers. Which would be a great weekend under normal circumstances. But this was a special weekend. This was the ‘Il Ngwesi weekend’. It was an event that other volunteers had spoken about in hushed, almost revential tones. It was ‘magical’ they said. ‘One of the best weekends we’ve had in Kenya’ ‘unmissable’. On and on they went. So when an email was sent around inviting people to sign up I replied within seconds (from under the desk of the workshop I was at).

I should probably explain what this elusive ‘il ngwesi’ thing is all about. Well Il Ngwesi is the name of a Maasai community of people who live near Isiolo in Northern Kenya. These people live in one of the most beautiful conservancies I have ever seen and about 10 years ago they set up their own exclusive (and rather expensive) eco-lodge to allow people to stay right amongst the wildlife and game.

The journey to the Eco-Lodge

Our journey officially began from Nairobi at 8am on Friday morning where we hopped into hired matatus to take us to Nanyuki (for a spot of lunch) and on to the gate of Lewa conservancy. This is where the real journey to the lodge began in my eyes. We spent nearly 3 hours driving through gorgeous scenery on the back of jeeps, spotting elephants, giraffes, rhinos (from quite far away) and many other things besides.

What's over there?

Or there?

Giraffes - my favourites.

The Lodge itself

Tired after a long - though fruitful in terms of animals spotted -game drive we arrived at the lodge. And previous reports had not exaggerated the beauty of the lodge itself. The place consists of 6 different cottages all tucked in to various sides of the hills. All of the cottages opened out on different views of the bush and we woke up both morning to see elephants and giraffes making their way to the watering hole.

Each part of the lodge was beautifully designed, as you can see in the pictures below, in a way that makes them almost look like they are part of the environment around them.
Open cottages. I could see
giraffes without having to get out of bed.

Showering in full view of the wildlife (the poor wildlife)

'A Loo with a View' - the oft forgotten sequel
to the 1985 classic film 'A Room with a View'

Chilling in the infinity pool

 Close encounters with elephants

We woke before sunrise on Saturday morning in order to grab coffee and biscuits before our bush walk. As I got my caffeine fix we watched a herd of elephants observe their own morning routine. 

Elephants down by the watering hole early in the morning

A close-up of the elephants - thanks to Simon Dixon
and his amazing camera for this photograph

Lion print! Sadly I have still yet to see lions in Kenya
And then off we went with our guide to walk through the park in the hope of spotting some animals up close. Well not too close. We had two armed guards with us to make sure that we never in any danger of getting into any trouble with an angry mammy elephant.

Peeping at elephants on our early morning bush walk
Our guide explains to us about the various animals
while the armed guard listens from the back

What was the food like I hear you ask?

Amazing. Absolutely yummy. We were so well fed throughout the weekend. There was even a cheeseboard at lunch one of the days. A cheeseboard! However my favourite meal of all was our outdoor breakfast after our bushwalk on Saturday morning. Under the trees and not far from where we'd earlier been spotting elephants and giraffes we tucked into a breakfast complete with cereals, fruits and most of the constituents of a full Irish - all it was missing was the pudding!

Full fry buffet in the middle of the bush

Omelette, rashers, saugages, fried potatoes, beans, toast.
Breakfast of champions.

Maasai lads enjoying their cuppa...

...Though not half as much as I did

Famous past guests

Before leaving on Sunday morning I took the time to browse through the guest book for some of the famous names that I had heard shad stayed at Il Ngwesi before us. And I was not disappointed.

William Wales - aka Prince William!

Catherine Middleton - the Duchess of Cambridge

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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

A trip out West...

Travelling in style

I awoke at silly o'clock last Monday morning for my latest field trip to Kisumu in Western Kenya. Why so early? Because I was FLYING to Kisumu! Kisumu is about an 8 hour drive from Nairobi (give or take a few hours) but UNICEF being UNICEF my colleagues Roselyn, Nande and I were flying there. Taking a plane felt a little indulgent since many of my VSO colleagues regularly make that trip by road but the second the nice Kenya Airways stewardness handed me my complimentary nuts and juice I thought 'feck it' - let's enjoy this while I can.

The downside of flying is that you don't get to see the countryside between Nairobi and the West. But luckily my work for the few days was mostly outside of the city of Kisumu in places like Siaya, Rongo and Homa Bay. A few days squished into the back of a landcruiser meant I got to see some of what Western Kenya has to offer.

Lovely lush green countryside.

Unlike Garissa -the site of my last trip away with UNICEF - Western Kenya, and Nyanza province in particular, has had plenty this rainy season. In fact parts of Nyanza have experienced severe flooding in the past couple of weeks with hundreds of people left homeless from floods and landslides. Kenya overall has been pretty badly hit by extreme weather during the long rains. More information can be found here, and here.

Flooding as seen on the way to visit one of the health facilities


The purpose of the trip was to do some field research and monitoring of eMTCT activities. eMTCT, to recap for new readers, stands for the Elimination of Mother to Child Transmission of HIV. I have absolutely know idea why the 'e' is small but it appears that way on lots of official documents so I'm going to stick by the apparent convention. UNICEF, along with UN agencies partners such as UNAIDS and UNFPA, government partners, and NGO partners are about to launch a new national eMTCT framework, and a Communication Strategy to match. The aim is to reduce transmission rates in Kenya to below 5% by 2015. It's an ambitious target, but it's in line with global commitments set by UNAIDS and is in line with Millenium Development Goal targets for Maternal Mortality and HIV/AIDS. According to figures from 2009 the rate of transmission from mother to baby stood at 27% when the babies were tested for HIV at 18 months. So Kenya has a long way to go, and fast.

As I may have mentioned before eMTCT is probably the only HIV/AIDS intervention in which the funding is actually growing rather than shrinking. It has been identified as an area that is, for want of a better phrase, 'an easy win'. Thousands and thousands of infections can be prevented every year if simple steps are taken by pregnant mothers and their partners. These include getting HIV tested with your partner, attending at least 4 Ante-Natal Clinics (ANC), delivering the baby in a health facility and breast-feeding exclusively for 6 months.

Also, who doesn't want to fund babies?

A Kata Shauri poster on the door of
Rongo District Hospital -
not quite hanging 'pride of place' but still

Back in 2010 UNICEF Kenya and goverment partners launched a communication campaign called 'Kata Shauri' to promote key PMTCT messages (prevention of...). Kata Shauri means 'to make a decision' and the campaign asked people to make a decision to protect their children (the subtitle to the campaign was actually 'Tulinde Kizazi' which means to protect generations so the full message was 'Make a decision to protect the generations'). In light of the new eMTCT agenda we are in the process of updating the campaign but to do that we wanted to speak to the nurses, health promotion officers and community health workers who are engaged in these activities and who spread these messages everyday.

We went to visit district hospitals and health faciltiies in key places which have been identified as areas with high prevalences of HIV/AIDS and consequently high transmission rates. In the areas we visited we heard some of the same challenges to eMTCT repeated over and over again. These included the difficulty in getting men tested and involved with ANC visits, the reluctance/inability of women to exclusively breastfeed for 6 months, the high drop-out rates from ANC clinics etc... But individual health centres also told us interesting stories. The one that stuck with us most was that of the 'mentor mother' challenges.

The Mentor Mother Dilemma

Mentor mothers are HIV positive women who provide support, counselling, and a friendly face to HIV positive pregnant women who are going through Ante Natal Care while getting diagnosed and beginning treatment for HIV. Organisations like Mothers 2 Mothers have shown that the scheme can be very effective in reducing rates of transmission to babies, but more broadly in helping HIVpositive women to live healthier lives. The idea is that nurses and health workers have very little time to dedicate to individual patients so these women take some of the burden from healthcare workers too. The Kenyan government have been so impressed with the results that have come from the scheme that they have just launched a nationwide version called the Kenya Mentor Mother Programme.

Mentor mothers are meant to be based within health centres to provide their services but some places have been using them for defaulter tracing. This is where they go out in the community to track down women who have missed their scheduled ANC or other appointments (a job usually done by Community Health Workers). However, while most mentor mothers have disclosed their HIV positive status to the community many of the women they work with have not. So by seeking out women to check why they have missed a check-up they are unintentionally disclosing their status and therefore possibly stigmatising these women within their community. We have taken this feedback to our government partners and so we hope that there will be more guidance put in place as to how mentor mothers can help to support HIV positive pregnant women without potentially opening them up to discrimination in their community.

Mentor mothers wearing their Kata Shauri aprons

I found the visit overall to be extremely beneficial. There will be a direct benefit to my work as I understand more deeply what is actually involved in eMTCT. It has gone from being words on the high-level policy documents that I read to being something more tangible. Something that affects real women and children every day. Statistics about defaulters and drop-out rates make far more sense when I have seen the over-burdened health facilities, the dedicated but over-stretched health workers and the distances many women need to travel to seek help. On a more personal level every new part of Kenya helps me to understand the country more. I learn more about different tribes (this time it was the Luos) different cultural practices etc.

So long and thanks for all the fish
It wouldn't be a proper blogpost if I didn't mention food at some point. So let me talk briefly about the fish. As Kisumu is on Lake Victoria there is an abundance of yummy fish to be found there. And as the Luo people are well used to eating it they know how to cook it well. For lunch on the second and third day we headed to what Roselyn referred to as 'Car Wash'. Car wash is indeed where cars are washed and I wish I had taken a photo of the men driving cars into the lake in order to wash them. Not far in mind you. But it's also home to a string of about 12 restaurants, all serving roughly the same food, in similar surroundings. We settled on eating at 'Lakeside Hotel' and we were not disappointed.

A feast of fish and ugali

Samuel - my VSO colleague in Kisumu -
thrilled at the prospect of our lunch

Fish before

Fish after
As our office, in conjunction with partners, continue to push eMTCT I hope to make similar visits to areas where we are focusing on elimination and keeping mothers alive so I will be sure keep you all posted.

Happy out by the lake

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Monday, May 7, 2012


Procrastination at its finest

Like most people I like to procrastinate. Especially in the run up to college deadlines. I clean my room. I organise and re-organise my notes. I purchase stationery. I spend extended amounts of time on Facebook. But when I was in final year of college, way back in 2007, my online procrastination method of choice was

For those of you who have not encountered TED before I apologise in advance for the hours you are about to lose to this website. You will be less productive in work or college, you will spend less time going out, you will neglect relationships. But it will be worth it for the hours of inspiration and ingenuity you will encounter.

A brief history of TED

TED stands for Technology Entertainment Design. The conference initially started back in 1984 as a forum for people involved in those three industries to come together to share ideas and new technologies. The format of the conference was that individual speakers would talk for 15 – 18 minutes on an idea, innovation or new way of looking at the world that they were passionate about. However in time the topics of the conference became far broader. Nowadays speakers at the TED conferences address issues of economics, international development, art, education, particle physics, the environment, marine biology, conservation

Then in 2006 someone in TED had the bright idea of putting up some of the videos of the talks online, for free. Talks began to be shared among friends and colleagues over email and emerging social media networks. People shared videos because the speakers are well-informed, engaging, funny, touching, inspiring….Talks were shared hundreds and thousands of times over, people left comments on the website and debated each other. The power of TED became the discussions the videos generated, whether these discussions were on- or offline. Their motto became ‘Ideas Worth Spreading’. Currently on there are over 900 videos, so you can see how I can easily wile away the hours on the site!

The simplicity of the format meant that it began to be replicated and in order to manage that TED came up with TEDx. They allowed people all over the world organise their own TED like events. It could use the TEDx branding as long as it conformed to some basic criteria and TED provides these independent organisers with resources and other forms of support so that these talks can be of as high a quality as possible.

TED and Andrea

Now I harbour distant dreams of attending the TED conference someday, and maybe even speaking at it (it’s good to dream big, right?) but until then I have contented myself with attending TEDx events in Dublin and London. And I had been planning to attend the next TEDx event in Nairobi when TED@Nairobi came along.

When Laura B emailed me to see if I wanted to attend a TED talk last weekend I jumped at the chance, what a lovely way to spend a Saturday evening. And so I rocked up to Braeburn school with Amy and Laura I still thought I was going to a TEDx event. It was only when the 2 hosts introduced themselves that I realised that we were attending some even more special than that.

TED @Nairobi
The two hosts for the night were Chris Anderson and Kelly Stoetzel of TED. Real TED! In California. They are the Curator (i.e. dude in charge) and Director of TED Content respectively.They explained that the theme for the February 2013 TED conference is ‘The Young. The Wise. The Undiscovered’ so they are going around to find the ‘undiscovered’ new ideas that existed in all different corners of the world. The aim was to visit 14 cities across 6 continents, the talks would be filmed and uploaded onto and some of the most interesting, engaging and popular speakers would find themselves with slots at TED 2013 in California.

Chris and Kelly of TED introduce the evening
TED@Nairobi has 25 different acts/performances each lasting 6 minutes. Halfway through the evening we were given a 40 minute break to stretch our legs, refuel (they provided lots of food and tea and coffee) and to make new friends amongst our fellow audience members. The audience at the event were a real mix. I’d say the audience was 40% Kenyan and about 60% mzungu/foreign folks. And very very trendy. The audience was super cool, I did not realise Nairobi had quite so many hipsters!

Cameras rolling

Highlights of TED@Nairobi

Like a mother asked to pick favourites amongst her children I can’t say I had a favourite. Who am I kidding of course I can! Well out of 26 it was always going to be difficult to choose just one so here are my top 5 (in no particular order).

Julie Wangombe
Julia recited her poem called ‘Call Me Africa’. Now, I’ve never been a major fan of spoken word poetry but this girl was excellent, really and truly. She carried herself way, spoke so articulately and clearly (something I look for after many years of speech and drama lessons) and you could tell she lived and felt every word of her poem. Her poem spoke to Africa’s vast diversity. Every stanza started with a new line ‘call me diversity’ ‘call me victory’ ‘call me I wish I could remember more of it now but my over-riding memory of the 6 minutes that she spent onstage is my nodding in agreement with her vivid and moving descriptions of this continent.

The theme of Africa’s diversity was touched on by many of the speakers actually and the idea that we need to move away from one-dimensional portraits of a continent of 56 counties and 1 billion people was reiterated by different individuals on the night. Far from being 'the dark continent' it is a continent with a rich and sophisticated history (as Saki Mafundikwa's talk on African typography illustrated).

Richard Turere
Richard's talk was heavily linked to that of another speaker, Paula Kahumbu from Her organisation spreads stories of conservation from around the world through online blogs and forums. She spoke of how the biggest threat to wild animals like lions comes from farmers trying to protect their herds.

And it was Paula's organisation who found Richard. Richard was 9 years old when he began to be responsible for a herd of cattle. And he would get very upset when lions from neighbouring Nairobi National Park would kill some of them. At the age of 11 he noticed that the lions would get scared off when they saw the flashing of his torchlight. So he came up with a system of lights that he erected around his cattle pen that would flash alternately and keep lions away (without having to shoot the lions). His neighbours quickly saw the effectiveness of his 'lion lights' system and within weeks he had installed 6 of his makeshift lion scaring devices. Now the idea is spreading across Kenya and Richard himself has been awarded a scholarship to a top secondary school in Nairobi as a result.

Su Kahumbu
(I have just noticed that she has the same surname as another speaker but I don't *think* they are related. If so that would be one deadly family). 
Su spoke about the crisis that is occurring in agriculture. While the population of the world is growing phenomenally quickly, the number of people engaged in agriculture continues to fall. For many it is not seen as a viable, or desirable, lifestyle/career choice.

The solution? To make agriculture sexy (and she doesn't mean through things like this). Su has made agriculture sexy, and more productive, through technology. Su's innovation is a mobile phone application (that doesn't require a super fancy phone) called icow. icow helps farmers to plan their activities through the 'cow calendar' which tells them when to milk their cows, when to start breeding etc. It has has a service where users can request information and the contact details of experts, such as AI men (artificial insemination for those out of the farming loop). The application can also be used to gather information, farmers can send information on herd numbers, milk yields etc to be used by government and NGOs for planning purposes. Already research into the impact of the programme has concluded that farmers using icow have seen their milk yields increase by over a third.

Dino Martins
This man managed to do the impossible. He made me a bit excited about insects. Insects, their presence and sheer variety, is one of the things I am finding hardest about living in Kenya so that is one mean feat. Dino spoke about the importance of bees in particular, and how one in three mouthfuls of food that we eat are thanks to the pollination of bees. And many varieties are dying out. So Dino showed us how to make bee hotels for our gardens. Now I won't be rushing out to build a bee hotel in our backyard any time soon but I did take on board what he said about create a little bit of space for insects in our hearts. So I will try, I promise. 

Kenyan Boys Choir
Ok, so this wasn't a typical TED inspiration talk but this has to be the most amazing choir I have ever seen perform live. And I'm not the only one who thinks so. They also performed for Barack Obama. Their performance will be going up on at the end of June but until then here's a taste of just how deadly they are, as any description I try to do will not do them justice.

Kenyan Boys Choir take to the stage

Dancing while doing 5 part harmonies - incredible!
But apart from those 5 I got a little something from every talk.

From Daya Olopade I learned that there needs to be a shift away from focusing on Africa’s formal structures when looking at development and aid. In some countries in Africa as much as 70% of the countries economic activity is not counted by formal measures such as Gross Domestic Product. In some countries formal institutions may be weak but informal ones may be strong and where international development aid can really add value is to strengthen and enhance these informal institutions.

From Doreen Baingana I learned about the power that language has when it comes to questions of ethnicity and tribalism. As a writer and performer she talked about her own struggles with censorship and self-censorship when it came to describing different groups in her work.

From Munir Virani I learned about the importance of vultures in our world and how the stereotypes about them being ugly, dirty disease spreaders are far from true (and so comparisons with politicians are very unfair!) In fact they are good for the environment and they actually prevent the spread of disease by stripping carcasses before feral dogs and other carnivores get to them. And they are being endangered by wind farms, chemical poisoning and other human interventions.

From Mary Abukutsa Onyango I learned of the massive under-consumptions of fruits and vegetables in Africa. And this is in spite of the fact indigenous African fruit and vegetables have massive competitive nutritional advantages over other fruits and vegetables. I will definitely be trying some of the foods I don't recognise on my next trip to Kangemi market!

From Dayo Ogunyemi I learned that there is a huge, and currently unfilled, appetite for cinema, especially African cinema, in Africa at the moment. In the United States there is one cinema screen for every 8,000 people. In India it is one screen per 100,000 people. In Sub-Saharan Africa there is one screen for every 6 million people! The majority of the region's residents watch their movies in place like this, on a 19 inch TV screen. The possibility of building community cinemas could have vast entertainment but also educational consequences for the continent.

From Eric Wainaina, a well-known Kenyan musician, I learned about the importance of taking risks when it comes to music, but also to life. He also had some really quirky ideas of how to make Kenya better. My favourite of which was his suggestion of changing the working hours during the rainy season to be from 6am to 2pm so that we avoid travelling home in the rain (as it nearly always starts raining around 4pm every day). This would stop the mental traffic jams, and road flooding situations that happen every day at this time of year.

And I could go on but this is turning into quite the post!

TED After-thoughts
I left the event on a complete high. I had listened to 25 passionate, interesting and committed people from all walks of life who were doing things that they believed were helping to change the world in some small way. I was so excited to write this blog (as I think is clearly evidenced by its sheer length) and share with you all some of the interesting tidbits, and small moments of inspiration that came from the night. 
And I'll be even more excited to watch the videos from this event, as well as the 13 other similar events when they go live on at the end of this month. 

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Sunday, May 6, 2012

Keeping busy in Nairobi

This post will be a sort of 'round up' of what's been happening with me in Nairobi over the past couple of weeks.

A Wedding

On Friday 20th April we celebrated the marriage of two gorgeous people, Kristen (another VSO volunteer) and Jack. After a small civil ceremony at the Attorney General's office the couple invited close friends and family to a dinner and celebration that mixed Kenyan and American traditions.

Kristen receiving lots of household
items as presents from Jack's aunts

Receiving a beautiful cooking pot

The happy couple kick off the dancing

Veronica gives a speech on behalf of the VSO volunteers

By Kenya standards it was a small affair (with about 100 guests as opposed to 400 - 600+) but it had all the elements of a good Kenyan celebration. There was food, there was music, there was dancing! Lots of dancing. Luhyas (which is the tribe Jack comes from) are known for their love of music, and of dancing in particular and the entertainment for the night was provided by an amazing group of drummers. All the mzungus gave the Luhya dancing a go (which mainly involves shaking one's hips and shoulders) and I'm sure we provided much amusement to the Luhya guests!

Mzungus attempted Luhya dancing

Trying to shake my shoulders

Giving it socks

Once the drummers were finished a DJ took over and the music became more of Kristen's taste, ie cheesy 90s dance tunes. When 'What is Love?' by Haddaway came on I rushed to the dancefloor and I was unable to leave it for the night.
This is when the 90s dance tunes started.
(Photo courtesy of Kristen)

VSOs - they scrub up well!
(Photo courtesy of Kristen)

An Opera

The day after the wedding Laura B and I decided to have an afternoon of culture by heading to a matinee performance of an Opera being put on in Braeburn school theatre. The Opera was a thoroughly Kenyan tale. It was written over 30 years ago by an Englishman who was teaching in Limuru Girls School in the 1970s and 1980s. The Opera was performed in the girls school at the time and then lost. Many years later past pupils from the school (including one woman who is a now a famous Opera singer in Norway) organised to have the opera performed again.

The opera told the story of Ondieki, a fisherman on the lakes of Lake Victoria. It was a tragic tale of a man who was lazy, who beat his wife and who eventually ends up drowning. Not very light stuff for a Saturday afternoon! But the singing was brilliant, the costumes were so vibrant and colourful and for an opera the production team captured the African vibes within an opera setting perfectly.

The full (massive) cast of Ondieki the Fisherman

Some of the main actors from Ondieki

An Arrival

On May Day I went to the airport and welcomed my friend - and distant cousin - Amy to Nairobi. Continuing the Wickham tradition of making silly signs* and embarrassing family members in airports and other places I made the sign below to welcome her to Kenya.

Amy is going to be in Nairobi for the next 3 months as she will be interning with the United Nations Environment Programme, which has it's global headquarters in Nairobi, in the same complex that I work in. So I've had lots of fun showing her around Nairobi, bringing her to and from work via many, many matatus, bringing her to my local market. Amy has been to Kenya many time before but she hasn't spent too much time in Nairobi. By the time she's done 3 months of commuting she'll be a pro though! I'm hoping to convince her to write a guest blog or two so hopefully she will be sharing with you guys some of her impressions over the coming months!

*When I arrived home from Calcutta in 2006 twelve members of my family and friends greeted me with signs saying 'Welcome Home Sr Andrea'. The joke being that I had become a nun after spending so long in Calcutta, the city Mother Theresa and her homes for the dying and destitute.

To this day there is a sign on my brother's door that says 'Seomra Fuinneog' and 'Failte Ar Ais Fuinneog'.  One summer in the Gaeltacht Colin had been given the nickname fuinneog (the Irish word for window) as his bed in the room was next to the window and it was his job to open and close it. Mum and Dad took much pleasure in making lots of clipart posters with pictures of windows on them.

However my favourite embarrassing signage story comes from my Gaeltacht trip back in 2000. When my parents came to visit me on one of the weekends I told them how the highlight of the week has been the 'Lá Mór Cumann' which for the non-Irish speakers among you However, my parents completely misheard me (and never bothered to clarify) and thought I had said the lawnmower coming. They thought the highlight of my week had been a lawnmower. Even after having it clarified in a letter I sent them the following week, when they arrived to pick me up on the last day they had covered the car in pictures of lawnmowers. There were pictures of lawnmowers from the Argos catalogue, pictures of ClipArt lawnmowers, handdrawn lawnmowers, and signs saying 'Caution! Lawnmower coming'. As a 14 year old this was possibly the most embarrassing thing they could have ever done but now 12 years later I'm over it. Just about.

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