St. Patrick’s Day

It was business as usual here in Central Kenya on St. Patrick’s Day, with no holiday, parade or shamrock to mark the occasion. The Kikuyu people of Mukurwe-ini, my temporary home near the foothills of Mount Kenya, have never heard of our patron saint and how he is celebrated around the world.

March 17th was much like any other day here in rural Mukurwe-ini. In an attempt to bring some small taste of St. Patrick I downloaded leprechaun and shamrock colouring pages from the internet and gave them to a local nursery school. The children were very proud and excited to present their completed pictures! Following the visit to the school I attended a meeting to discuss fundraising ideas for a new Community Centre project that will provide a valuable health and social resource for the locality. Afterwards I met with a Support Group for people living with HIV, in the process of starting a basket weaving business, to check on progress and discuss pricing and marketing techniques. In the afternoon I had my weekly Kikuyu language lesson with Simon, a retired teacher and one of the Community Health Volunteers working with Vision Gardens.

Although I missed the annual celebrations and catching up with friends back home it was a rewarding way to spend St. Patrick’s Day. Many of my Kenyan colleagues and friends live in extreme poverty but they are the most welcoming and friendly in the world. I find it impossible to be lonely here.

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Mobile Again

Today we received the long awaited motorcycle from our donor partner ICAP.  Four of us travelled to Nyeri for the official handing over and were delighted that ICAP’s Country Director Dr Mark Hawkens had come from Nairobi to meet us.

I’ll be using the bike to travel out to the rural areas to run workshops with our Support Groups. It’s the best vehicle to deal with the steep hills and rough dirt tracks.

I’m currently the only person within the organisation with a motorcycle licence. Luckily for me, VSO paid for my 4-day training and test in Machakos last December, but most of our members are unable or unwilling to fork out Ksh 4,000 for the privilege. Vision Gardens can’t afford to fund them ay the moment, but hopefully in the near future. I’d hate to think the bike would be lying idle after I leave.

Vision Gardens receives motorcycle from ICAP

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Site for Community Centre

Vision Gardens is another step closer to realising its goal of providing a Community Centre for people living with HIV & AIDS and orphans in the area.  Today the District Surveyor demarcated the half-acre site earmarked for the development.

The demarcation took only five hours! The surveyor and his assistants arrived an hour late, which is very acceptable, but work could not begin until the village Elders turned up. Although the council had donated a specific site, there was some debate about where the site should actually be. One of the Elders, currently using the land to grow crops, proposed an alternative site he felt was much better!

As it was deemed an official occasion, most of Vision Gardens’ 50 members were present to witness the event. The men helped with the measuring and placing of markers but the women were not allowed to participate. I received some dirty looks from the Elders when I got too close to the surveyor.

After the officials left, prayers were said at each marker to give thanks for the land and then the overjoyed group broke into song and dance. A neighbouring old woman brought out her boudhran and joined the festivities. She reminded me a lot of my own granny in Navan.

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Unexpected Solar Eclipse

I was totally unaware an eclipse would be happening today. Yesterday, a colleague told me in passing, they had just heard an announcement on the radio, that an eclipse was planned for today, as if it had just been arranged by the powers that be.

This morning, as I was getting ready to leave for work, I heard a commotion outside. My neighbours were very excited and calling me to witness the spectacle.

Unexpected Eclipse

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An Alternative Christmas

It’s not all work and no play for us VSO volunteers. My first Christmas away from home was a very different experience, taking in a safari on the Maasai Mara and a relaxing beach holiday at the coast.

I met up with six other volunteers in Nairobi for an alternative Christmas celebration of pesto pasta and pizza, exchange of gifts, and a visit to Nairobi’s Arboretum. On the 26th we headed to the Maasai Mara for our safari and camping trip.

I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of wildlife we got to see: Zebra, buffalo, elephant, hippo, wildebeest, giraffe, lion, cheetah, gazelle, hyena, jackal, ostrich and many other species of bird.  Unfortunately the rhino and leopard managed to elude us, but with 1510 km sq to roam around, that’s not surprising.

We took the night train from Nairobi to Mombasa (an interesting experiencing in itself!) to meet up with more volunteers at the coast for New Years. On arrival at Tiwi Beach, our accommodation seemed like the perfect picturesque hide-away. The views of the ocean and white sandy beaches were amazing, but by the end of our stay I felt like I’d been a guest at Fawlty Towers!

Diani Beach, a few miles south of Tiwi, is a beautiful long beach with a strip of hotel resorts, restaurants and bars, so  lots of choice in the evenings. It’s also the place to go for water sports: I didn’t try the kite surfing, but a couple of us joined a scuba-diving trip out on the reef. My Alternative Christmas was a great way to re-charge the batteries, catch up with friends and see a bit more of Kenya.

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Coffee Coffee everywhere, but not a drop to drink

I am surrounded by coffee plantations, some of the best in the world I hear, yet haven’t had a cup of decent coffee since I got here. The Kenyans are a nation of tea drinkers. They love their chai with lots of milk and sugar.  When I order a coffee in a café, I’m presented with a mug of warm water and a sachet of Nescafe instant.  This is a very cruel joke.  What is a coffee addict to do?

A colleague shed some light on this mystery. When coffee growing was first introduced, Kenyans were not aware of the correct methods of processing and disliked the very bitter taste that resulted. This has stayed with them. I may have to start a campaign ‘Give Coffee a Second Chance’!

The coffee industry of Kenya is noted for its cooperative system of production, processing, milling, marketing, and auctioning. About 70% of Kenya’s coffee is produced by small scale holders, with an estimated six million Kenyans employed directly or indirectly in the industry. The high plateaus of Mount Kenya, plus the acidic soil provide excellent conditions for growing coffee plants. Coffee from Kenya is of the mild Arabica type and is well known for its intense flavour, full body, and pleasant aroma.

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Off to see the Wizard

My first official day of work was all about ‘introductions’. A formal letter of introduction was to be personally delivered to the District Commissioner (DC) informing him that I had arrived and would be working in the community. We could not go there directly: A strict protocol has to be followed to ensure no insult is inadvertently caused.

The local government offices are a hodgepodge of single-storey colonial buildings in various states of disrepair. Small crowds gather outside in the sun with no evident system of queuing.  Appointments are not necessary: You just turn up and wait.

Accompanied by Zipporah and Kenuwa, the Chairperson and Coordinator of our organisation, I firstly met with the Assistant Chief of Muhito, the location I will be based and one of the seven locations within Mukurwe-ini Constituency. After a brief introduction and some polite chitchat we explained that we were on the way to the DC’s office to deliver the letter of introduction.  He seemed to regard this as an important task so decided to escort us to the Ministry of Social Services for a similar encounter. After welcoming me warmly, the Officer saw fit to abandon his post to accompany us on our mission.  Our party, now five, proceeded on with some importance to the Office of the District Commissioner.

With the letter finally handed over, we could all relax. I was excited by the prospect of gate-crashing a meeting of the seven Chiefs of Mukurwe-ini.  You can imagine my disappointment when I discovered that they were not in fact the traditional tribal chiefs from my imagination, but rather civil servants in dark business suits. As our finale, we managed to catch a few minutes with the local MP before he rushed to Nairobi for a debate on Kenya’s new draft Constitution.

Time for a well deserved coffee!

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