Friday 27 February 2009


We’ve been working (unpaid, mind you!) the last 3 weeks in Pamoja Trust’s office. I’ve turned into IT Boy, which Tania says really suits me. Doing the job has meant we have got to visit some more slums, or “informal settlements” as they really should be called. A couple of days ago I crashed a tour with a bunch of people doing similar work to Pamoja in Morocco and some UN-type Americans. The first settlement was fine, quite homely actually – flowers outside the buildings, nice smiling kids (“HOW AH YOU?”). They’re compact - 14ft by 15ft buildings (built by community members themselves) on 3 floors, the top floor being mainly open roof – and sleep two officially. The communities organise their own saving schemes and members must meet certain criteria to qualify for a new property. The one we saw was to cost 105,000 Kenyan Shillings – that’s just under £1,000 - and it would belong to the owner outright, although there is uncertainty as to whether the government will give out official land titles in these areas. The communities plan to build more of these structures right in the middle of the settlements, amongst the more ramshackle mud and corrugated iron affairs – so that people will aspire to build and own one themselves.

The second settlement we visited was deep in Mathare (I think!) and we had to drive down increasingly narrow and busy streets full of informal private enterprise, lined with young men who didn’t seem at all happy to see us. One actually gestured across his throat with his finger – the first time I had seen any kind of negative reaction to mzungus in a slum.

We got to see how they make the bricks they use for the buildings. They had this great machine, like a press, that compacted the kind of earthy mud into a tessellating shape. To get a better look, I stood on what I thought were dried bricks. Then I noticed one of the community leaders looking disbelievingly at me and shaking his head – so I sheepishly (and quietly) got down, to find I had broken at least one of the wet, new bricks.

Doh! What a twat! Whose side are you on, Alex?

In the last place we visited that day, we got to see them making the “chang'aa” hardcore liquor, out the back of the settlement. In big metal barrels / stills, that looked just about to explode, over raging fires. I have not tried said beverage yet.

Finally, T has got me a wicked book for my birthday – John Irving’s “Hotel New Hampshire”. A Dutch guy we met, Erik, who has now sadly returned home to Hitchin (no less), recommended it. I love it; it’s ages since I have read a well-written, quirky and deviant, American story – something I would have read as a precocious teenager. Thanks T.


It was my birthday yesterday, so I thought I might write a little something. T’s stuff will be up shortly, sorry about the delay. Ain’t the Amboseli pics great tho?

It was G-R-R-REAT to get so many messages on Facebook – thanks. Does my ego wonders - not that it needs it, mind. I had a mad dream again (Lariam day is Wednesday, but we were late this week) which involved a mythical pub in Burford, called “Sheng Moss”. At breakfast yesterday, I was ruminating on how that name might have come about in my subconscious and thought of Pure Sheng, which some of my colleagues from UEA might remember was a club night organised by an older girl (name?). That led me to think of an event she put on for which she will forever be remembered and admired – by me at least – for the sheer, unbridled gall and ambition she showed in securing DERRICK MAY, no less, as DJ.

She fittingly called the one-off night “Push yer Luck” (I still have the flyer) and it took place at the ICA in Ipswich. IPSWICH!!! ICA stood for Ipswich Caribbean Association, by the way. The room was modest in all respects – admitting a couple of hundred people perhaps - a church hall type of affair. Was Derrick May going to turn up … here?

The decks were raised about 2 foot off the floor, on a small platform. They looked lonely there, in this dimly lit hall that might befit a school disco. I think there actually was a spinning mirror-ball attached to the ceiling. A few hardcore techno enthusiasts milled about (Andy Mills was one of them), not totally convinced that anything was going to happen. And then suddenly, in a whirlwind, the man himself appeared and took us (cliché alert) to another place. He started with Glenn Underground’s white label remix of “I Feel Love” (I think it was ’93 or thereabouts), almost immediately going into his electrifying, syncopated cutting and EQing routine.

It was unbelievable. It was the second time I’d seen him (once before at Ministry of Sound) , but it was the first time I had really got into what he was doing on the decks and the only time I’ve ever seen him really up close. When he was done, some hours later, he did this magic wave across his face, as if he would disappear behind it. “And like that … he was gone!”

Anyway …. thanks for indulging me that trip down memory lane.


Everyone says that, if what you want is safari, then Masai Mara is the best. It has the most game, apparently. More lions than you can shake a stick at (definitely don’t shake a stick at one). That may be the case. But what you won’t get at Mara is a bloody great volcano in the background. For that reason and that reason alone, if you’re only doing safari once, do it at Amboseli.

The landscape is unmistakably volcanic. Actually, I picked history instead of geography at GCSE and have no idea what a volcanic landscape looks like, but the rocks that litter the area, and used to outline all the parking bays, definitely look like the frozen remains of furiously bubbling lava to me. Even though the volcano is dormant, there was still a chance, no matter how negligible, that geography might happen all over us at any moment.

Our driver and guide was Animal, a big, cheery fellow with a musical laugh and delicate enunciation. He knows a lot about animals, which is just as well with a name like that. Here are a few little quiz questions for you.
1. Which is the most well camouflaged animal in an African national park?
2. What mustn’t you do if you see a cheetah?
3. Which is the most honourable animal and why?
4. Is a zebra white with black stripes or black with white stripes? (I got that one wrong. Well, I got them all wrong.)

During our visit to Nairobi National Park Orphanage, a keeper that seemed to have decided he no longer needed his hands had stuck his fingers through the wire mesh of the hyena enclosure only for the hyena to rub itself affectionately against them. Since then, the hyena has become my new favourite animal. They have a funny way of walking, as if they only learnt do it yesterday, and are embarrassed to do it in public. Funny as this is, they have nothing on warthogs. Warthogs have a two-minute memory. They’ll be running, running, running and then, after two minutes, they’ll stop and wonder what’s going on. Of all the animals in the national parks, the one I’d least like to be is the wildebeest. They look like food and they know it. The only animal to flee from passing cars, evolution has made them to be afraid of anything and everything, and they look very depressed about it.

Unlike tigers, which are terrifying in a terribly attractive way (if I were being mauled to death by a tiger, a small part of me would be thinking ‘pretty!’), lions look like thugs. Big, vicious, angry hoodlums. We were lucky enough to see them eating a wildebeest (which wears the same expression in death as in life), and making whoopee (for 2 seconds every 15 minutes, Animal told us, and I’m sure he was very relieved when, as we checked our watches, he was proved correct).

The campsite is very exciting; you have to go to the toilet (liberal sense of the term) in twos, just in case. At night, you can hear the hyenas giggling, and in the morning, you can spot all manner of animal tracks. And our cook, Joseph, cooked some of the best food we’ve eaten in Kenya so far. People seem surprised that we haven’t done Mara but looking at animals is surprisingly exhausting and, frankly, we’re all safaried out.

Photos - Amboseli

Pamoja Trust

The next Monday, just like the rest of you, we were at work for 9am. And, as working weeks do all over the world, they have flown by. As I type, we are approaching the end of our four weeks. During that time, we have been privileged to see both how the trust works and the good that it does, as well as being exposed to what doesn’t work so well, i.e. the problems associated with unreliable power supplies, poor internet connections and a general lack of IT knowledge and experience.

Alex proved useful immediately, providing guidance with the website, cleaning thousands (seriously) of viruses off all the computers and being general IT man. It wasn’t so immediately easy for me to find a way to be useful, but I have been involved in helping them with their reporting system and finding a way of tying up their financial reporting with their activities and, in doing so, I’ve been able to gain an invaluable insight to their operations, an experience that has really impressed me, and for which I’m very grateful.

Pamoja’s overriding concern is to provide slum dwellers with security of tenure – protection from forced eviction. A critical part of Pamoja’s operation, and the first step in any of the endeavours they undertake, is to recruit settlement dwellers into savings schemes in a structure known as Muungano. They encourage dwellers to put any surplus cash they have into the scheme, no matter how small. That money can then be used as collateral for obtaining loans for various needs that fit within a set of criteria, usually for housing development or the provision of basic services. The theory – and practice - is that people are more likely to commit to a project when they have put their own money towards it and it provides a means of finance that banks will not give them.

Pamoja’s involvement is always triggered in response to a threat (forced eviction) or opportunity (the provision of basic services such as water or electricity) and is, therefore, always made in response to a specific need. That need is communicated to the specific community, sometimes for the first time, during the effort to recruit them to the savings scheme. It’s probably best to explain with a specific example.

Kosovo is a settlement in a slum called Mathare. Mathare is a particularly volatile slum, and I got the impression that the word volatile was used very much as a euphemism. There is a dispute over the land occupied by the slum – the dwellers claim it is their land, as do private developers. This is possible because, in some cases, slum dwellers have been living on the land since before Kenya even achieved independence. Originally, the land on which most of the settlements have developed had been public land, which was then sold to private developers. This was done illegally, but because the government did it, the term illegal has been largely academic.

This has meant that NGOs such as Pamoja Trust have received an antipathetic reaction in Mathare on the assumption that they are working in the interests of private developers. Pamoja Trust had their first opportunity to establish a Muungano presence in a settlement in Mathare when authorities cut off water supply in an effort to curb gang activities. It became critical for the inhabitants of Kosovo to show exactly how many inhabitants had been cut off in the process.

This is why the next step in Pamoja’s work is enumerations; working out exactly how many there are of inhabitants, households, structures, structure owners, tenants etc. In doing this, they end up with data that no other authority or agency has. The particularly inspiring aspect is that to do this, Pamoja recruit inhabitants from the settlement to form teams to undertake structure numbering, enumerations and mapping. Those teams then train new teams in neighbouring settlements. This is not just because there are 183 slums in Nairobi and only 16 Pamoja Trust staff. It’s to ensure that the inhabitants themselves own both the data and the digital map, complete with geographical data, produced as a result.

In the case of Kosovo, the numbering system itself, where each structure is given a number (slums don’t provide inhabitants with addresses), conducted over two days, was enough to persuade the authorities and water company to lay down pipes with taps as an emergency supply that was provided free of charge. In fact, when the Pamoja team went back to verify the map they’d produced, they had to update it to include the pipes that had already been laid down. The final digital map helped the water company find the best positions for the pipes and water meters to be situated that would result in a water service that is vastly improved on the one that had originally been switched off.

Pamoja’s philosophy is rooted to empowering the community, enabling them to achieve their own goals, rather than doing it for them. In Kambi Moto, a settlement that has nearly completed upgrading into structures that you and I can recognise as houses, inhabitants were involved from the ‘house dreaming process’ at the beginning right through to constructing their own houses. I was interested to hear the comment made that slum dwellers are like the middle class – they don’t really know their neighbour and often don’t know about the issues that are affecting them all. Simply by numbering the houses, Pamoja noticed that they were already able to engender a sense of community that can be used to achieve common goals and fight common threats.

An interesting paradox emerged. A Moroccan team visiting to learn about Pamoja’s theory and practice said they would not have been able to achieve the same results because they would not have been authorised to carry out their own enumerations. It seems that the problems caused to Kenyan slum dwellers by an uninterested government could be solved by the community itself precisely because of the government’s lack of interest.

And if I had known anything at all about IT, given the number of problems they have with it, I might not have been able to find all that out.

Whistling Thorns

My face wasn’t much better when I woke up next morning. What wasn’t peeling off was red and raw and I was in a bad mood so I didn’t say much as Francis drove us out of Nairobi towards the Ngong hills, past the towns of Kiserian and Rongai Ongata, to the small holiday resort that is Whistling Thorns. It’s named after the acacia trees that populate the surrounding landscape. Ants make holes in the seeds, and as the wind blows, it causes them to whistle. Acacia trees also have bloody great thorns.

It’s a sweet little place with a pool and small but comfortable chalet type rooms. It also has a not quite horizontal pool table with different sized balls and most importantly, for us, a bar. It’s run by a middle-aged Dutch battleaxe with a loud voice and all the charm of a spell in prison. As we had our first cold beer, she was having a business meeting, shouting “don’t mess me about” whenever possible. She soured the charm of the place somewhat (as did my face) but several expensive cold beers numbed us very effectively.

We went on a walk with a guide, Imanu, up the hills, through the valleys and across dried up skeletons of rivers, our first foot bound experience in the Kenyan countryside. It reminded me of walking in The Lakes, albeit without any water, and rather more gazelles and zebras, and we worked up a healthy appetite. Dinner was a triumph of quantity over quality, but by the end of the night, we’d had a pleasant time, I’d nearly forgotten that I looked like a pizza, and we were ready for the epic journey, involving 4 matatus and a bus, to find Gracia Guesthouse, our home during our internship at Pamoja Trust.

Wednesday 25 February 2009


Back at Jane’s, we sat down for a soda and a chat with Bill (but not before I’d gone to the bathroom and doused my face liberally with Dettol). When, in his first email to me back in London, Bill had said, “My culture is circumcision and I hope you will enjoy it,” we’d assumed there had been some sort of communication breakdown. But as we sat with him in the sitting room while he told us about his culture and traditions, we realised there hadn’t. Circumcision, he told us, is performed publicly at the age of 14-16 years old in front of a crowd of thousands of people and is only performed in even numbered years. The procedure itself takes seconds, but the pain lasts for up to a month. It’s the single most important ceremony in his tribe (he is Kikuyu) and they believe that a man that has not been circumcised, and not experienced the pain involved, is not a real man. Even I had crossed my legs by this point, and I didn’t dare check the look on Alex’s face.

The conversation took an even more uncomfortable turn when he told us that he believed that circumcision reduced the chances of spreading AIDS. Though we couldn’t let this go, neither could we wade in with incredulous refutations. It dawned on me that to say circumcision did not reduce the chance of spreading AIDS might seem as much like propaganda - spread by ‘not real’ men - as saying it did seemed to us. So, all I could say in response was, “we believe that as long as there’s even the slimmest of chances, you should always wear protection.” I was glad to leave the topic of conversation at that.

There's something wrong with my face

The following day was our last day with Jane before we left for the weekend to Whistling Thorns, and then on to begin another of the arrangements we’d made before we left, a month long internship at Pamoja Trust. It was to be a day of pottering about, writing emails, uploading photos and just not much. I was really looking forward to it. Up until around 2pm, everything went according to (no) plan. Then, just as I was organising a second slideshow, Jane told me she was off to the market and offered to take me with her. I had 5 minutes to get ready. Keen as I usually am for a photo opportunity, I was longer than five minutes away from being ready, but when I suggested that maybe I wouldn’t go, she said, somewhat crestfallen, “That’s a shame, you’d have got some nice photos.” How could I possibly refuse? My pace changed from leisurely to breakneck, even then, it took longer than five minutes, and even then, I forgot my wallet and to moisturise my face. By the time we arrived at the market, my skin was burning and I could see it peeling off my nose.

Jane went off to do her shopping and left me to wander the aisles with my camera. I wasn’t in the mood, either to take photos or make small talk with market traders, preoccupied with the fact that there was clearly something deeply wrong with my face, which was now hurting quite badly. But in the name of professionalism, I got on with it and took some (dull) pictures. Then Bill rang to arrange to meet so he could say goodbye before heading off back to Uganda. We arranged to wait at the market for him. The first thing he said when he saw me was, “What’s wrong with your face?” What indeed. By now, my good mood of the morning had completely evaporated and I was entirely concerned with this very question.

Day 4: The Orphanage

Jane, who runs the guesthouse we were staying at, is one of four directors of an orphanage in Githurai, one of the few stone buildings on the edge of one of Nairobi’s 183 slums. Thursday was her visiting day and she was happy to take us along. We arrived just in time for a bible reading, which was weird because only the previous day, I’d told Alex I’d like to go to one. I’m not religious, and don’t believe in God, which is not something I’d recommend bringing up in conversation in Africa (and many other parts of the world), but I can’t help having respect for many of the principles, even if I have trouble with the God part specifically. Something was working in mysterious ways. The kids were at school, the babies were asleep, we all sat round a table in the courtyard, an island of order and calm, as Jessie, another director, read a passage out loud.

It was a story about giving thanks, about how twelve people had been cured of things and, of the twelve, only one returned to the temple to give thanks. “Only one out of twelve,” said Jessie when she’d finished reading, folding her glasses and closing her copy of the bible. The day we arrived in Nairobi, we’d read in a newspaper in the back of Francis’ car about a disaster in which a fuel tanker had spilled its load. People had tried to collect the spilt fuel, in an area of poverty people tend to try to make the most of every opportunity that comes their way, but it caught fire and the whole lot went up in flames. Hundreds of people had died and the death toll was still rising. The event had reminded Jessie of the passage and to be thankful for what she had, in the face of what so many had lost. Jane also gave thanks, for us as her visitors and for the donation to the orphanage that Dad had made during his last visit to Nairobi. I also had many reasons to be thankful; for my trip with Alex, for the care taken of us so far, for the opportunity to see the things I’d seen, and for the visit to the orphanage. I just don’t know how to thank God. Too many other people seem responsible. I made a mental note to thank them. But I couldn’t give thanks for being spared from a disaster. That seems too cruel to those less lucky.

After the bible reading, lunch was served – kidney beans and maize. All over the world, home cooked food is often better than the stuff you get in hotels or restaurants. I have an ignorant pallet, I can’t tell you how it was flavoured and seasoned, all I can tell you is that it was delicious. Then Jessie took me on a tour, which didn’t take long because the place is smaller than the ground floor of my parents’ house. It was impossible to see how they found room for 36 children. Most of the time, they have about 20 of them because the older ones go to boarding school, but during the holidays, they had all 36 mouths to feed and beds to find. The number used to be 37, but on the day we’d arrived in Nairobi, one of the babies, Lucy, had been the latest of only 5 kids to be adopted (apparently most often by Germans). Jane had been too sad to visit the orphanage that day. The staff have no say in who adopts the children, other than to report any potential parents who don’t seem suitable. Until then, they’re mothers with many children, any of whom could be taken away at any time, which is the ideal result. All of the food and clothing is stored in a room smaller than my bedroom. Two kittens, little more than fur and bone, keep it free of mice, which is almost the only meat they get to eat. The orphanage receives no financial help from the government, whose only role is to make sure they stick to the rules, and rely entirely on donations and whatever income the directors can provide, as Jane does with her guesthouse operation.

Noah, who was splashing around in one of the water basins, interrupted us.
“Noah! Don’t drink that water. Noah! Don’t drink it!” Jane shouted. But Noah took it as a suggestion rather than a warning.
“No, Noah! Tsk, now he’ll be sick and we’ll have to take him to hospital.” Jane and Jessie burst into exasperated laughter.

More of the kids were coming back from school. Immediately, they spotted Alex for a walking, talking climbing frame and were all over him within minutes. I was jealous, I’m not so good with kids, but they soon worked out what to do with me and had me spinning them round in circles. I managed not to smack anyone in the head with a flying foot.

There was one girl in particular that I felt for, Faith. She’d been at the orphanage since only a couple of weeks old. Like most of the kids there she wasn’t an orphan, she’d been abandoned. Her mother had left her behind the wheel of a truck, knowing the likelihood of what would happen. Her screaming saved her. Shortly afterwards, she suffered a stroke that paralysed the right side of her body. With a lot of effort from both her and the staff at the orphanage, she’s built up her strength and, although the signs are still visible, she’s very active and not far from normal. But I had an idea of how this might be affecting her; I recognised the exaggerated bends in her wrist and elbow and her refusal to high five me with her right hand. The problem was even on the same side as mine. She reminded me of me.

Having fallen asleep on the flight to Nairobi, I’d missed the duty free trolley and couldn’t buy any presents. A kind Virgin Atlantic airhostess gave me a bag of chocolates the staff had been sharing with about 10 bars left. There were twice as many children at the orphanage, but when we dished the chocolates out, they broke them into pieces, ate one and, without being asked, returned the rest to the orphanage staff for further distribution, meaning there was just about enough. When I came back into the room with my camera, they all waved the wrappers in the air, shouting ‘thank you!’

Time passes quickly when you’re playing with kids; soon it was time to leave. But the plan was to return.

Monday 9 February 2009

wot i wrot 1

I must admit I had many concerns about coming to Africa. Particularly considering my girlfriend, little packhorse that she is, had decided to bring her big, fat, expensive camera – and all the specialist equipment (lenses, filters, adaptors, cables) that goes with it – as well as her meaty Macbook Pro. On our way to Heathrow, with two enormous rucksacks, plus two smaller yet seemingly heavier ones containing said items, I thought, “This is never going to work.”

Add to that the many scary things I had heard and read about robbery and violence in Nairobi, Johannesburg and Zimbabwe particularly, I can safely say that the organic bricks were making their presence felt. However, there was solace in the fact that we were being met at the airport and that, on paper (or electronic mail to be more accurate) at least, people would be looking out for us during our stay in Nairobi.

And look out for us they have. We have been staying at someone’s private residence - Naomi donates the use of one room to her friend Jane who runs what appears to be a well-to-do ladies’ co-operative guesthouse - in a really quite posh suburb north east of the city centre, near where all the United Nations buildings are located. It’s very green and hilly and pretty, and the houses are security doored up to the teeth. A bit out of our price range, but very safe - we thought we would spend the first few days getting ourselves settled here. Lilly-livered westerners that we are.

Jane also happens to run another co-operative effort, the Open Hand orphanage based in the semi-slum of Githurai. More on that later.

Our occasional driver is Francis, whom Tan has already described delightfully. Although not particularly cheap, even with some well appreciated discounts (he’s usually ferrying UN bigwigs around, you see), the guy is an absolute diamond. He reckons Kenya has really improved in safety over the last two years, due to the communities recognising the value of tourism and the associated “mzungus” (white folk) and simply not standing for criminals living in their midst. Although I want to believe him fully, I suspect that his comments are somewhat coloured by his formidable marketing instincts.

However, mzungus still have to be careful. There are (apparently) places you do not want to be after dark and taxis are strongly recommended for moving about the city at night. Some parts of Accra Road, River Road and Latema Road, the locations of budget accommodation and many bus transport services, can be a little daunting even during the day.

Mind you, Lonely Planet says to avoid the slums pretty much like the plague and yet we found Kibera (the biggest slum in Africa) extremely friendly. But again, we had locals showing us around - and it was during the day, before many of the working guys hit the homebrew special sauce. Thanks to Bill, Milly, Patrick and the gentle, soft-spoken, massive Ugandan whose name I could never catch, for taking us around Kibera, which was a humbling and educational experience.

On Monday (edit: actually today, I wrote most of this a few days ago) we start our internship with Pamoja Trust, which works to improve living conditions in the slums of Nairobi. As yet we have absolutely no idea what we will be doing. It will mean living closer to the city centre, but we should be able to walk to and from the office and during the evenings we will take the afore-mentioned precautions.

So, a little more trepidation to contend with, but by the end of a month we will hopefully be a little more at ease with living and working in Nairobi. And after all, we do come from not-so-safe London, even if only the girly girly Westside.

Friday 6 February 2009

Photos - Kibera

Day 3: Kibera - Africa's biggest slum

The words ‘slum’ and ‘poverty’ are well used. Maybe you’ve read Shantaram, which some believe romanticises these terms. Trying to tread the line between, on the one hand, outright horror and on the other, sheer awe at the spirit of human nature to exist, it’s impossible to say that, up close, it isn’t everything you’d expect, and worse, without also saying how much more to it there is than just squalor.

So far, we’d only seen Kibera from a distance. We’d stopped at the side of the road with Francis and looked over at the unending spread of corrugated iron roofs. Even if we’d wanted him to take us there, he’d be lost in a minute, he told us. But as we approached with Bill, and came up to the stepping stones through a stream of bright blue sewage that was our entrance to Kibera, with the memory of Alex falling in the river in Scotland suddenly vivid in my mind, I had a moment where I thought, “I’m not sure I want to do this”.

I have a problem with heights. They don’t have to be big heights, even small, stone-high ones make my hands sweat and, even more uselessly, my legs shake, especially when they’re in the middle of streams of raw sewage. I looked at Alex, who shrugged and said “Oh well, in for a penny…” He was already in charge of my camera, which is more important than I am, so to avoid us all falling in at the same time, Bill came back to help the useless white woman.

Once over the stream, we began the climb up the hill through the dwellings, stepping over the ravines of sewage laced between them in every direction. As we climbed, Bill explained how the rain causes the dwellings to collapse as the earth beneath them falls away down the hill. He stopped and pointed at a bare piece of land, dwellings that once were before the rains had come. Imagining the personal belongings and, perhaps, the people that had been lost in the erosion, I couldn’t think of an appropriate response. I think I said “wow”.

Bill had contacted a friend of his, Milly, who works in a pharmacy near Kibera, who in turn had phoned a friend of hers called Patrick to show us the way, and following him, we weaved our way between the dwellings. Too busy minding my feet and keeping my balance, avoiding people, children, dogs and sewage, I had no idea what direction I was going in and was totally dependent on our guide. Although both Jane and Alex had remarked on the heat since we’d been in Nairobi, this was the first time I’d broken into a proper sweat. Not only is the slum a bad place to be ill, it’s also a bad place to be unfit, and my western lifestyle has allowed me to be very unfit. I felt embarrassed by my sweating and panting as I tried to keep up with Patrick.

What may look like chaos, to pampered eyes like ours at least, is, in fact, ordered like any town or city. Our path up the hill crossed terrace after terrace of dwelling units in a residential area. Each unit is made of mud and sheets of corrugated iron, about 5 or 6 feet across, some doors open, through which mainly women and children eyed us curiously, sometimes giggling when they saw us, other doors were padlocked while the owners were out at work. Some dwellings were decorated with flowering plants hanging in homemade plant pots and, wherever we looked, lines of washing criss-crossed between the dwellings. As we climbed further up the hill, the paths began to widen and we came across communal units such as a public toilet, a nursery school and a few shops. Soon, our path joined what Patrick told us was the main road. Like any high street, it had all the same services; fruit and vegetable stalls, butchers, fish stalls, mobile phone top up services, even a small cinema showing a Bollywood film.

Everywhere, people were going about their daily business, doing the shopping, coming home from school, coming home from work. The adults didn’t seem too bothered by our presence, save a few surprised laughs, and the children just wanted to say hello, chanting “How are you! How are you! I’m fine! I’m fine” as we passed by. In fact, I felt more comfortable here with my camera than I had done in Victoria Park a few months ago. As we carried on walking, the spread of roofs kept on coming. It’s funny that, no matter how far away from home you are, that’s what you can be reminded of. It made me think of trying to find my tent in the camping sites at Glastonbury and the opening credits of Coronation Street.

The squalor, the sewage, the hordes of people (about one million, according to the internet) and, in some areas, the smell; none of these things were a surprise. It’s obvious to anyone and everyone that no one would choose to live like this. But if Dad hadn’t already taken me to slums as a kid, it may have been a surprise that there’s no tangible sense of despair. Apparently, people are too busy. It takes skill, effort and determination to live in a slum. The entrepreneurial spirit that is so admired back home is a necessity in a slum. Without it, you might not eat. I’ve since read Jan’s comment on the photos and he has summed it up for me: it’s both humbling and uplifting.

Photos - Nairobi National Park

Day 3: Safari

Being at the park in time for sunrise was my bright idea, and it only seemed like a stupid one for as long as my shower. It was still dark when we arrived at the park, and Francis was annoyed that by the time we were let in, the sun had risen well into the sky. But in fact, the timing was perfect. There was enough light for photos, and everything was bathed in a warm, golden glow, complete with a silky cloak of early morning mist. Like guests congregating on the stairs at a house party, the animals seemed to like hanging around the road, as if human spotting. I’d thought we’d have to work hard to find the animals, but in fact, they seemed to want to find us. And I wasn’t at all prepared to see ostriches hanging around with zebras and giraffes, all gazing at us inquisitively. I had never really been that bothered by going on safari, seeing it as a tourist thing, the definition of the beaten track, but it was completely and utterly bonkers.

We didn’t see any lions, although Francis swears blind he saw one, and we did see a bunch of big deer type things suddenly gallop off as if they’d sensed one, but I was more than satisfied by the giraffes alone. We got to tick off the lions at the orphanage near the entrance to the park. A fellow visitor had been getting a little brave by approaching one lounging near the cage bars, and when it let out a long rumbling growl, it sent grown men jumping in the air and giggling like children out of sheer, primal fear.

Just as we were leaving, Bill rang. Instead of calling to arrange a place to meet, he was actually at the park, although it took another 20 minutes for us to find each other, people who’d never met each other before and who’d forgotten to ask about distinguishing features. Finally, we met, introduced ourselves and straight away, Bill fulfilled his promise to take us to Kibera, Africa’s largest slum.

Day 1

As I mentioned earlier, in preparation for our grand tour, we had contacted a number of Dad’s friends and colleagues. A result of these communications was that a driver was holding a board with our names on it as we walked through Arrivals at Jomo Kenyatta International. His name was Francis, and he knew how to spell my name. He chatted as he drove us for an hour and a half to our guesthouse, but you’ll have to ask Alex what about because I’d passed out again.

The guesthouse he took us to (Refreshing Spring Guesthouse) is run by a lady called Jane. She had organised the accommodation for Dad when he’d been here on business with the UN, whose complex is right nearby. She was waiting for us as we came into the drive, with its swept pavings and clipped hedges, and she greeted us with a warm smile. We hadn’t confirmed how long we were staying for, or discussed the activities we hoped to arrange with her, she suggested we do all this once we’d had a shower and maybe some breakfast. I wanted to hug her.

As we put down our bags and unpacked some of our things, I had never wanted to crawl into bed and let the day disappear so badly. But I know the rules: you run with the day from the moment you land. So, we had a full day to get through before we were allowed to go to bed. But it’s amazing how a shower, some breakfast (mango, papaya (looks like mango, tastes like feet), sausage, eggs and yoghurt), coffee and a fag can revive you. Soon, Francis was back and we headed off to Nairobi National Museum.

We established a great rapport with Francis and he punctuated our conversation with his big, heavy laugh. He dropped us off outside the museum and agreed to meet us a couple of hours later. We began with an iced coffee in one of the outside restaurants, getting used to the sun and the heat, the sounds and the smells. It reminded me of India, in the way that hot countries always remind me of India. But there wasn’t the same sense of chaos and overcrowding. Things seemed ordered, organised, structured. Inside the museum, we inspected the ancient human-ish fossils, the remnants of the beginnings of mankind. Africa’s pride at having hosted our birth was tangible, and as well as the halogen lamps, there was a certain magic illuminating the various bones and fossils.

When we got back to the guesthouse, Jane had prepared one of the most delicious meals I’ve ever had. Steak, potatoes, fresh vegetables and an enormous salad followed by apple crumble and ice cream. To say that it hit the spot would be to say that the Eiffel Tower is quite tall. And then, oh joy, oh happiness, we went to sweet, delicious bed.

Day 2

It was only two days ago and already I’m struggling to remember what the hell happened. Oh yes! Today was about the animals, the Giraffe Centre and Crocodile Village, and Francis was our driver and companion. Mum has a diary at home featuring pictures of Africa. The one that had caught my eye was of a stately looking home with a real life giraffe poking its head through the window. Well, that’s exactly where we ended up today, that home had belonged to the founder of the Giraffe Centre.

As a child, my favourite animal had been the giraffe. Then, it became the camel. Then I took to a fondness of sheep. And now, I’m right back where I started, with the giraffe. What a crazy, bonkers animal the giraffe is, with its awkward, lanky gait, enormous eyelashes and benignly mocking gaze. The giraffe seems to me utterly and profoundly inexplicable, and when I look at one, and when it looks at me, I can see that it’s thinking exactly the same. At the giraffe centre, you can hand feed a giraffe, and if you hold a pellet between your teeth, it’ll French kiss you. But, as the wardens kept reminding us, “no food, no friendship!” So, if you don’t have any pellets, get the hell out of its way.

Next, we went to Mamba (crocodile) Village, home to sixty odd crocodiles. I was staggered to find out that crocodiles can grow to 6.5 metres. That’s longer than a giraffe is tall. Isaac told us everything there was to know about crocodiles, assuring us, and especially the disbelieving Francis, that any one of them was ready to kill us at a moment’s notice (“But what if I sneak up behind one and grab it by the neck?” asked Francis. “How are you going to get behind it?” replied the incredulous Isaac). Indeed, as Isaac was detailing every finely honed method they had developed for the efficient slaughter of prey, a fight broke out among them. As Alex put it, “that’s properly mental”.

We had dinner that night at the Village Market, near the UN complex, and while we ate, we finally heard from Bill, a guy my Mum had met at a conference in Nanjing who is from Uganda. She’d mentioned that Alex and I would be visiting Africa, and he’d been keen for us to get in touch, so I’d sent him an email. “I’m getting a bus to Nairobi, I’ll see you there on the 2nd,” he’d said in his very first message, somewhat to my surprise. But since we’d arrived, there’d been no word. So, I was relieved to hear from him, and told him that we looked forward to seeing him the following day, pleased that all our plans seemed to be falling into place.

But first, we had a 5am trip to Nairobi National Park to check out some animals, this time without the protection of wire fences.

Zero Hour

By the time we got on the plane from Heathrow to Nairobi, I’d had 4 hours sleep in 3 days. I passed out within minutes of having fastened my seat belt, waking suddenly as the plane built up speed to take off, wondering what the hell was going on. Then a small rush of panic hit me as I realised this was not a dream. Then I calmed down again as I remembered that this was, in fact, a good idea. Hopefully.

Burn After Reading was our selection from the in flight entertainment. I had been curious about the review I’d heard on Radio 1 (playing in an outdoor shop in Scotland), suspecting that they were talking out of their ass (‘too zany’ had been the conclusion). They were indeed talking out of their ass, it was pretty good. Actually, I can’t say that because I was asleep by the end. And as Alex will tell you, in my opinion, you can’t have an opinion about a film you haven’t seen in its entirety.

But it was a crap sleep, my body longed for a position it simply couldn’t achieve, but it was good enough for the hours to pass quickly and suddenly we were 45 minutes from Nairobi. My hands began to sweat.

Sunday 1 February 2009

T minus 5 hours

Time to shut down. See you soon, folks.


i'm scared

my turn for a lariam dream! well, i guess it was the lariam - could just be my current mental state, i suppose. anyway, it ended with me forcing myself to wake up just as my tormentor slammed their hand on the glass of the door in front of me. i had been stuck in some kind of musical time loop with people following me. didn't get much sleep that night.

the last couple of days have been proper manic. have moved all my stuff into storage - 26 boxes of records, cds and tapes, plus all my music equipment, shelves, books and clothes. it's been knackering but i feel really good about it. thanks to Nej for helping me out - lifesaver, owe you big time. so now i live out of a rucksack.

said bye to my folks, which was a bit chokey - have been (surreptitiously) getting a teensy bit emotional the last few days.

so, this is it. we fly in 5 hours. bring it on.

first stop, Nairobi.

slightly less than T minus 6 hours

The blizzard seems to have stopped...

There's a cracking tennis match going on. Can't really watch it, of course.

T minus 6 hours

Here comes the blizzard...

T minus 14 hours

I don't want to go anymore. I want to go to bed. I want a lie in. I want to eat pizza. I want round the clock access to mayonnaise. I feel a bit sick. I just brushed my teeth and tongue a little too vigourously and nearly was. I've just said goodbye to Mum, also on her way to Africa, off to meet Dad. They'll both be so near yet so far. The stiff upper lip was a bit more wobbly than it was with Dad. I think if she's honest, Mum would agree that she didn't really try it at all. Dad has just been attacked by a lion, apparently. But he says not to worry, the lion's ok. So, now it's just me and my To Do list. The cat isn't talking to me. He's in the living room not making eye contact.

I feel it's important to mention how great everyone has been. Mum and Dad, without whom this trip would not be possible for me, and Alex for being really wonderful, patient and determined and for not changing his mind (fanks poo x), and all the people who have been in touch to say au revoir, give us their best wishes, their excellent travel tips as well as some extremely useful items (of which more later).

We have to leave plenty of time to get to the airport because the weathermen predict a blizzard. What is one supposed to wear when one is going to Africa through a blizzard?

Anyway, I've got to go. Stuff to do.