Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The checklist

It pays to do a checklist. When going on the road, particularly by bus make sure you have the following:
- wellies (wear when going if in the rainy season)

- poncho (a fluorescent or bright colour will lift the mood in times of stress)

- ipod and/or book

- hand sanitizer

- tissues/toilet paper

- cashew nuts to munch on (or any other nuts)

- water (but never drink till you get to your destination in case you don’t get a loo break on the bus. It is known to happen. I prep by over drinking the previous day)

- camera

- phone credit, and phone

- patience

NEVER leave home without patience or a sense of humour for that matter. Otherwise you’re doomed.

I had everything today. Pity the bus got stuck. I decided to turn back instead of waiting in the pouring rain for the ‘boys’ to sort it out. Sorting anything out in Africa is usually a drama so I figured that instead of putting my life in danger and arriving at 10pm tonight in Arusha that I would go home again and start all over again tomorrow.  Lucky for those that decided to wait it out there has been an upgrade to the road system (which is why we got stuck in the first place, mud everywhere) and two very fine JCB diggers were in the area to tow the bus out. Hours later I’m sure though……and so here’s to getting to my destination tomorrow!

Friday, May 11, 2012

Mud, Murphy and Memories.

It was my birthday recently and I was totally spoilt. Thank you so much for all the messages and well wishes. I was hell bent on spending the weekend in the bush, camping. But, the rains appeared and it’s also been a bit cool at night so with words like mud, malaria, messy and moody flying around I was whisked off instead to Diani Beach, south of Mombasa. Now I don’t want to make anyone jealous…but it was damn close to paradise in my mind. Two nights of heavenly beach, pool and prosecco. I spent the actual day kicking back, eating ice-cream and sipping on bubbles. Thanks to my now very poor but lovely boyfriend I revelled in luxury. I’m still dying to get into the bush but given the weather it might not be for a while. The Tanzanian winter (it’s still in the high 20’s Celsius, sorry!) has taken root and rain and cold is all I’ll get for now.

I mentioned that I am working on the foundations for a large funding proposal which would bring benefits to three different projects, and very many people.  I went to visit one such project last week and I am still buzzing from my day out. It was one of those great yet productive adventures. The pick –up truck that I have been driving recently had just been in for a service (front suspension buggered, all shock absorbers gone, horn not working among various other rittle rattles that I had acquired from recent other adventures) and I headed off early in the morning. Just over two and a half hours later I got stuck. I was travelling on a 25km stretch on the roughest road you can dream of which in parts had subsided and so had essentially disappeared. I thought I was a dab hand at four wheel drive and know exactly how to get myself out of a muddy situation. Seems I’m an absolute amateur. A couple of local guys were passing and without even asking got straight behind the truck and started pushing. Then others appeared and soon I had a group of six or seven and two women with babies bobbing on their backs on the case. I don’t want to even think about the skid marks that flew up at them when I revved, they did well to avoid them. I think they were probably thinking this Mzungu hasn’t a notion what she’s doing but we’re experts here so let’s get on with it! It took the full revs and loads of pushing to get me out. The men sent me off, all business like and it was the women that created a fuss - put their hands out and asked for money. Needless to say, for every Tanzanian that shows openness to you, gives you hope, another snaps it right back and reminds you of the divisions.

Typically, Murphy was on my back that day and I got stuck twice more. (honestly, you should have seen the so called road). The boys had by then hitched a lift with a large truck and got out each time again to help me out. They were fantastic and I hope that the project is successful because they will most likely benefit.

The purpose of all this was to sit in on a meeting with the board of a health centre. Part of a needs analysis exercise (establishing the actual specific needs of the community and therefore justifying the application) I sat in amongst leaders and chiefs of villages as well as local villagers to hear about the water requirements and needs in the area. There are eight villages and none of them have a water source except during the rainy season when two or three can access water from a mountain source. I kid you not, this place (although wet at the moment) is mostly dry to the core with not a spec of water to be seen. It has a red earthy colour soil which twirls up dust and gets into everything and everywhere. The health centre is also in desperate need as it only has water from the mountain source when it isn’t dry or from the collection of rain water. People often travel for long distances to get to the health centre in the hope of getting water there. There is always a clatter of women with their hands and arms stuck in washing buckets when I arrive. It’s like a day out I often think. The women get to chat and gossip and catch up. Although the day washing and 10km walk home kind of takes the edge of it I’m sure.

Back to the meeting. After about three hours I had listened in on the issues, the possibilities and the challenges ahead and was quietly optimistic. The board agreed to bring the session to the villages and approach the elders so as to talk directly to people on the ground and establish the facts behind the lack of water. Several more meetings and focus groups will therefore now take place where villagers can take part in the discussion and explain how not having water impacts on them. The key thing in all this though will be getting agreement from the people to take ownership of any borehole or water source that is established. They will have to agree to setting up some sort of a system which will collect funds for maintenance. Without this the project isn’t worth my time, or theirs. Statistically water project failures are almost always due to lack of good financial management. I may not be invited to attend the meetings because to have me there could signal that the money already exists and the project is in the bag. I could also be a hindrance for people to share their true opinions. There is a cultural habit of saying yes to everything the white person says or asks and this could be a factor here.

It was a truly refreshing day out. That local people are now taking part with enthusiasm in this needs assessment process is encouraging. They will hopefully become owners and guardians of their most precious and needed resource eventually. Stay tuned for the output of the village meetings!

Oh, I was led out an alternative way to the main route by Fr. A so as to avoid getting stuck again. My wellies are now finally getting back to their original colour!

Thursday, April 12, 2012


I’m home alone. Well, kind of. Wayne and I have a new puppy called Buddy and another dog called Hamilton so I’m actually in quite good company. Little Buddy is a Staffordshire bull terrier and the cutest thing ever. Hamilton is a Jack Russell with psycho tendencies! Kind of thinks he’s human a lot of the time. Wants the comforts of human life, the food, to sit on nice chairs....and is a bit on the moody side. While Wayne is away visiting family for the month I am head down with my preparation work for a training session as well as proposals I will write. Buddy and Hamilton are keeping me well entertained and far from lonely. According to those results that come up on Google Buddy is ‘very easy to house train’. I have never trained a dog in my life and so who knows how the little thing will turn out.  I could do with a crash course on how to stop him eating and biting everything but also on how to get him to sit and come when called. He’s twelve weeks old and I’m sure if I don’t strike now I’ll miss my chance. Any tips on the easy way to make a puppy learn?

I am very pleased to see the start of a new project. Delighted actually. Fr. A and I wrote a proposal together and received funding to build homes for staff of a health centre he manages. It was when I saw the men actually digging the foundations and sweating under the heat of the sun that I realised our hard work had come to fruition. This health centre is 25km from a main road and closest town and far into the open lands where Maasai and rural tribes live. It is very difficult to attract good (or any) staff because like anywhere in the world the urban centres are more popular and some of them pay more. The staff houses on site are awful, just awful.  It was becoming more difficult to attract anyone to work for them but also to keep the doctor they have, their key employee. He lives on site without his wife and children because she won’t join him until the new homes are built.  I thought at one point that he was going to leave, it was hard for him not to see his family. It took quite some time to pull this off and I think Mr. Doctor almost didn’t believe Fr. A and so when the building work began there was a big smile across all our faces. These homes will rehouse all staff and allow for more to be recruited, in line with plans to develop the centre. They will have their own garden and shamba(allotment) and will be just lovely. I can’t wait to see them finished and everyone moved in.
The health centre has been the only source of water for miles around due to the sources drying up and rains not coming until this week. It is also the only centre for a population of about 20,000 people and we have worked hard to put some plans together to grow it and start to offer more much needed services. The Rosminians want to build a theatre and create a whole hospital as well as use only solar energy where possible. There is no power and until the national grid hooks them up (who knows when that would be) they have only solar or generator. The genny costs a fortune to run and although initial outlay is a lot the solar is by far the way to go.  If we can build staff homes to keep the back bone of the centre upright then we can do anything is my motto. Watch this space….a hospital in the making.

PS. I didn’t even see an Easter egg this year. I feel deprived.

Monday, April 2, 2012

I couldn’t resist. All the longing for ice-cream yesterday made me get in the car and drive the 8kms into town to buy Azam chocolate ripple. Thanks Mel, but the virtual tub just didn’t do it. I was plagued by the craving man and had to do something. I ate almost half the tub without stopping then got chest freeze and vowed never again. Not that Azam ice-cream comes even close to the quality stuff but when there’s nothing else it’s absolutely delicious!

While I’m rabbiting on about ice-cream and think I am very hard done by I was swiftly brought back to priorities after recovering from chest freeze when I did a few hours’ work on some projects I am focussing on. The Rosminians (missionary catholic priests, in TZ since 1945) have a number of projects in the rural back ends of nowhere about midway between the cities of Tanga and Arusha. There are two health centres and one dispensary that they run for extremely rural and extremely poor communities. The biggest challenge however is water. I am so used to rocking up to any of the centres to do my site visits or whatever and be told there isn’t a drop of water available or that there is only a few buckets left to see us through til tomorrow kind of thing. The rains also just aren't  coming and I am almost praying for them to come as it might help to cool us down too!  I have been struggling to see how I can possibly help to get enough funding to drill boreholes and get sustainable water sources set up. Last week some of the people I saw accessing water at one of the health centres had walked 10km just to get a bucket of water. I can’t comprehend it, I see it all the time but I can’t imagine doing it. It’s terrible and gross and unhygienic, and it’s life threatening.  So my big focus at the moment is to create a case for a strong funding proposal to get water for these three centres which could changes the lives of so many people in such a basic way.  Thanks to a contact I have made funding may be not just be forthcoming but life changing. It makes me feel good to be involved. The Rosminians know what needs to be done, they own and manage these centres and get things done. But they don’t have the skills to write the proposals or find new sources of funding. Here’s what I spend a lot of my time doing. So, when you turn on the tap please make sure to conserve.  And send some rain our way!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

'Phishing' for ice-cream

My friend Paul sent me an email this morning to say that he was in the air between Paris and Singapore. Don't you hate that?! Forget that I haven’t even updated my blog to include what I did for Christmas this has sent me on a minor off course collision with freshly squeezed thoughts of Kir Royale, pain au chocolat and anything indulgent and bad for me. What I wouldn’t do for a shopping spree and copious amounts of oh la la to pass the days roaming the streets of Paris. Oh how I miss the very things that sent me packing off to Africa in the first place. The guaranteed pay-check, the Friday night drinks with friends leaving me hung-over for exactly the duration of the weekend until Monday morning and everything expensive, especially chocolate!

But now that I think about it….twenty months later, my Swahili is not so good, I was miserable for much of my first year here but I am a demon with a funding proposal and found the love of my life. I have few hangovers anymore, I have learned how to find roads that don’t exist (and not drive over anything with two legs or more while on the road), I can make bread and can finally swim with confidence.  I miss all those dear to me terribly but there are some things in life you just have to do.
I recently looked in my wardrobe and pitied its owner.  My reputation is all but ruined. How do you restock when you live in the back end of Africa and don’t have access to online shopping simply because anything you order for delivery ends up in the hands of the lovely man or woman in the post office, who might I add swiftly decides it would look better on someone else once (s)he’s extracted a fine few shillings for your new garment(s) from whoever will buy. But what about the very accessible markets the voice in my head tells me. The second hand market is infamous in Africa. A whole industry and millions of people make a living from the hand-me-downs and cast offs that we have all thrown in a bag and sent down to the local charity bin. I have to say I already have a number of quite good looking items I picked up for a euro or two in my scant wardrobe. Instead of worrying about wearing dead person clothes, which is usually a big possibility when shopping in charity shops back home, I wonder about who on earth can throw away new and almost brand new clothing. Not that I have been that lucky but there are many items including Old Navy, Gap and other high street brands that come out here with the labels still on. The big guys are hardly donating their seconds, surely not!? If you’ve ever wondered where your used or not wanted clothing goes, it goes to right here in the middle of Africa. A lot of what I see here in TZ is from the US and so millions of people go about their daily lives wearing T-Shirts that might say ‘2010 Junior High class’ or ‘Wisconsin warriors’ and some more tongue in cheek which always looks hilarious because you know that people have no idea what they are wearing.

There is two sides to every industry and while I think it’s a great substitute (when I‘m in the mood to trawl through the stalls) for what I can’t buy back home there are many in the textile industry who have been put out of business as it’s easier for people to buy western clothing cheaply in the market than it is to get someone to make something at a local stall. It could also be said that the clothing that you intend for poor people is certainly not getting to them and instead becomes part of a chain of traders who profit on what you give away with good intention.  An article such as this summarises a little of the story behind the second hand trade in East Africa.  http://www.iq4news.com/lauramkenya/fashion-second-hand-clothing-booming-business-kenya
But while I pity myself for not having anything new to wear and swoon over all I really want is a tub of Ben and Jerry’s phish fish food ice-cream to devour with greedy delight.  What I wouldn’t do for a tub…..

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Roaming in 'Nairobbery'

Somehow I find myself in February with a blog backlog. That is to say I haven’t been sharing. No excuses except to say that it’s been incredibly hectic and whoever said Africa is always at a slow pace was wrong!
I need to go back to December. Nairobi. This is a place where multinationals and big brands live, where the women don’t want husbands, wear high heels and have babies independently. And where shopping is big business and sushi is as common as a cup of Kericho tea. This is international Africa without the headgear!  I really like it, although that might have something to do with the fact that I hadn’t seen anything like it for twelve months. Crash and burn on the shop floor. I spent way too much, ate lots and went on adventures around the city with co-volunteers in tow. We were meeting for a workshop and given our lack of salary and income we were determined to do it the local way. i.e. the matatu and bus.  Now I know they call it Nairobbery and everyone and his mother will tell you it’s an awful place where your life is in danger but stuff it, you’ve got to find out for yourself.
The first rule, which I learned from my lovely friend Ber (lovely mad woman from Co. Clare who can chat the legs off a donkey) is to talk to the ticket man on board. The Kenyans speak English and find us quite a novelty so get right in there and tell him exactly where you want to go so he can instruct when to get off and what other matatu to get on. (remember the matatu is the local Hiace van?) Make sure of course to be ready for eventualities ie. wrong turns, half turns, weird directions and stop offs to ask anyone who will listen. Walk with purpose (this is my newest best advice to all newcomers to Africa) so you look like you know what you’re doing and get on the next matatu. If it’s empty don’t think you’ve got yourself a bargain. He’ll wait until he’s full before he leaves and you could be the mug sitting there with him.
The target – two shopping centres in one day. The objective – exploration and adventure.
Nairobi is a buzzing city. Side streets hold the most noise and racket whilst the main thoroughfare and business district is a hive of active people in smart clothing and briefcases. Tall skyscraper buildings shadow and swoon on the central city area whereas the sprawling suburbs boast parks and vast amounts of green and tall leafy trees shooting right for the sky. It’s a mix of very lush and expansive (and expensive) suburbs with hooting, tooting, wheeling and dealing inner city chaos. The city is alive with construction of everything from grand flyover roads to some fancy looking apartment blocks. If what is rumoured is true, those Somali pirates sure are spending their money here! A familiar sight and which reminds me of the old days in London when the Irish used to wait for work, the local tradesman and labourers wait outside the construction sites each morning to see if they can get work. Although a booming city on first sight, underlining this is the poverty of many. Only few are making it big in this city but those that are flaunt it openly.  The cost of living is high, much higher than Tanzania and restaurants and bars charge almost western prices for the luxury of their services.
But this is where customer service is important and staff are trained to welcome and serve the consumer. Café lattes and frozen yogurt, martinis and champagne all take their place in this swirl of nouveau riche lifestyles. The middle class Kenyan wants everything that the west has on offer and the drive to get it is incredible. It is possible to feel like the ugly duckling beside the glamorous women who confidently demand their place as leaders and winners in a new society. Men hold them back so they would rather remain single and use them to have children only. Independence is important and they don’t want to be like others before them.
Whilst taking a taxi will get you around, the scenic route is far more entertaining. From meeting a matatu driver who gave up his job as a nurse to make more money on the road to the Maasai market where beads, tossles and all things carved can be bargained for there was plenty of adventure. There were plenty of sellers and preachers squawking at the top of their lungs for minutes on end and chickens on board who came along for the ride. (It’s not just a rural thing!) Children don’t pay if they don’t sit down but it’s okay to sit on an adults lap so you never know who you’re going to meet and what age they might be.  It’s a melange of all sorts but never overcrowded. The Kenyans demand their safety and you won’t find a man hanging out the side of any matatus here waiting for his head to pop off!
Once in before dark and all night-time outings carefully planned, Nairoberry quickly becomes Nairobi again, full of life and packed to the brim with adventure.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The African brass band

 Saturday is wedding day. Where Irish and other European wedding parties go from church to reception with tooting horns, the announcement of a wedding here comes in the form of what looks like a brass band driving around the streets of the local town playing loud and proud and with sheer gusto. The band usually consists of up to eight members, their instruments including large drum and all of them kitted out in shirts of orange, pink or burgundy colours. It’s a bit like everything here on wheels– overcrowded – but they all manage to hang on to the back of the truck and play in tune for hours while driving up and down the streets. Quite often some of the wedding party squeeze in too. It’s just amazing! While sitting in a café last weekend I was accosted more than five times by the overwhelmingly loud sounds of the wedding band and its jovial musicians. When not puffing, blowing or banging they are grinning white smiles from ear to ear, so proud of their part in the announcement. The locals give them the thumbs up and nod in agreement at their talent whilst trying to catch a glimpse of the wedding party who follow in toe with ribbons and banners across cars and trucks.

My friend Ellen from Norway married Tanzanian David recently. I thought I was going to learn about African weddings, turns out I learned about what they do in Norway. It was fascinating. They married in an Anglican church and the bit I loved most was the trumpeter! When she walked up the aisle with her Dad the trumpet went off out of nowhere. I jumped, like many others, and suddenly a real wave of excitement went through the church. When they said their ‘I do’s' there was another trumpet call. By the time they were married, half an hour into the ceremony we were all laughing and smiling and moving in our seats. I thought that given they were married how could the rumours of three hours in the church possibly be true. They were very true. Over three hours later we walked out after much singing and clapping, even dancing in the seats. The Africans know how to sing. Oh and the obligatory brass band round of the town took place while my friends and I dashed off for a sneaky G&T before getting to the reception. It didn’t seem right to go to a wedding without doing the Irish on it!

Tradition has it that at a Norwegian wedding dancing and singing takes priority. However, before I had settled into my seat ready for the meal and the fanfare of the couples arrival and cutting of the cake the Norwegian party informed me of the juicy stuff. Tap your spoon against your glass and it demands that the Bride and Groom have to kiss – standing on the table! Stamp your feet and they have to kiss under the table! Finally bang the table and the Bride’s parents have to kiss. I don’t remember how many times I tapped spoons and forks against glasses! There was a lot of standing on the table and kissing. 

What was absolutely lovely was that Ellen's mum wrote her a song and sang it to her and her new husband. Then her best friends also sang her a song they had written together.  We all got a copy of the lyrics and had to sing along to the tune of a folk song. We even got a balloon each and had to blow it until it burst. I thought that was the best thing ever, especially after a few drinks! Later on there were various other African ‘activities’ that we all partook in. Each person made their way as part of a circle around the room to toast and clink glasses with the bride and groom and those on the top table. We also had to present out gifts by dancing up to a podium and present them to the Bride and Groom. Back to Norwegian tradition, the Brides family including her brother and his wife and family performed a traditional dance to present their gifts. Her parents danced for what seemed like ages and whose energy seemed incredible.  It was a lovely day and a real taste of how different cultures can merge and co-exist. I can imagine it was a stressful time for Ellen's family what with all the African formalities they were asked to partake in and being so far from home but there were smiles all round and each of her friends and family who traveled seemed to be having the time of their lives.  Here’s to their future and the wedding brass band!