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  • Writer's pictureTom Blower

"The Interior"

First, an apology. This is a bit of a saga in length, and frankly, you'd be no worse off just skipping through and looking at the pictures. Secondly, hello. Thank you so much for taking the time to visit my site, and for those of you who have supported my endeavours in getting out here to Kenya, thank you so much. The work I'm doing with Education Partnerships Africa here may not be large-scale, but I'm hoping it will have a meaningful impact on the education of students here for a long time to come. I'll try not to publish so infrequently, but internet here is sporadic and sparse at the best of times, so please bear with me.

1st July 15 – 20:59 – Kakamega

Sitting in a well-worn maroon armchair in the living room of Bishop Nicholas Olumasai, I’m finding it hard to decide how I feel. Even glancing momentarily at the damp-ringed, warped ceiling and the walls covered in red and blue crayon fails to provide even the beginnings of an emotional summary of the past four days. Perhaps describing events might be more effective than describing feelings. I’ll start there.

Alighting from the bus from oxford at Heathrow Terminal 5, I was already stressed out – having been so diligent as to make photocopies of my passport, I’d unfortunately not been so diligent not to leave my passport in the photocopier. Luckily, I had arrived in plenty of time, and my Dad was able to bring it down from Essex on his motorbike, meaning I was checked in before many other project workers had even arrived. Flights were, well, flights, and without wasting time writing about the sensation of being catapulted through the sky at hundreds of miles and hour in a pressurised metal box, I’ll skip ahead to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Nairobi. The airport itself was abuzz with activity, seemingly very little of it actually working: the ‘health screening’ consisted of walking past an infrared camera, and despite a flurry of paperwork in filling and refilling immigration and customs forms, the bureaucratic processed seemed like a second-order priority after a glance at the slowly-accumulating piles of money on the desks of the visa officers. The presence of soldiers with AK47s did little to put my mind at ease, especially given the recent attacks on Garissa University in the northeast of the country by Islamist militant group Al Shabab. Yet despite these thoughts playing on my mind, distant memories of Kenya were suddenly awakened the moment I stepped outside into the bright morning sun.

Having visited Kenya in 2010, I had some experience of the country already, but I still felt I lacked a proper cultural perspective of the country. The smell of the deep ochre earth and the sight of kites gliding overhead among the acacia trees brought to my mind both recollections of past enjoyments and hopes of future possibilities. Aside from a stretch of only a few kilometres of unpaved bum-shakery (and hardly the worst East African road I’d experienced by a country mile at that), a relatively smooth tarmac road swept us past the corrugated-iron slums on the edge of Nairobi into the countryside, greener, more silent, and yet more vivified than the city we’d left behind. It was a good few hours before we arrived in the lakeside town of Naivasha, once the weekend retreat of the ‘Happy Valley Set’ of the colonial 1920s, now one of the biggest tourist towns in Kenya’s Rift Valley. The first large settlement since the capital, the busy centre of Naivasha offered a strong contrast to the herds of zebra and giraffe we’d seen grazing only a few hundred metres from the main road coming into town. The Kenvash Hotel in which we stayed the night certainly looked a long way from the ramshackle establishments lining the roadside with names like “Silent Motel” or “Shoemaker, Butcher and Lodging”, although my interest was piqued as to exactly what kind of living quarters dwelt behind those signs. After a fairly basic shower and a shamefully un-Kenyan meal of chips (I pled budgetary constraints), I was practically falling asleep in the restaurant, and was glad to fall into bed and almost immediate unconsciousness.

The next day, after an interestingly Kenyan take on a continental breakfast – papaya, pineapple, watermelon, mango juice, ‘Africa tea’ (milk instead of water, saturated with sugar), and paper-thin corn flakes – the group split into two, half going to Kisii, and half to Kakamega, a seven-hour bus journey away. The bus itself, like most popular forms of transport in Kenya, was gregariously decorated and named (“Home Boyz”), was spacious and comfortable, but the morning heat had me nodding m head against the window with tiredness as we sped through the small roadside settlements of lean-tos selling food, soft drinks, and mobile credit, and seemingly all sponsored by Coca-Cola. I was greatly relieved to be let off the bus and tucked into my first ugali (a dish consisting of maize-flour stirred into boiling water and left to cool into a solid block) in five years, served with delicious fried cabbage. Despite an almost non-existent knowledge of Kiswahili (the second of Kenya’s official state languages), ordering lunch was surprisingly easy, yet we also managed to make our first mistake as a mzungu (white man): trying to tip the waiter, something that doesn’t really seem to be practiced here. The afternoon’s remaining drive passed in a blur, and I was almost asleep again by the time we reached the town of Kakamega, seat of Kakamega County Government and the central hub around which EPAfrica runs one of its two projects. The house of Bishop Nicholas Olumasai, which the organisation rents for the summer, was to be the temporary home of the project co-ordinators, managers, and the twelve project workers for the Kakamega area: Florin, George, Caitlin and Oliver (from UCL and King’s); Amy, Abbie, Christie, Emily and Flora (Cambridge); and Vicky, Annie and myself (Oxford).

Contrary to what one might believe, a bed is not always a more comfortable alternative to a mat on the floor. Of the six of us sleeping in one of the two bedrooms, I was allocated one of the beds, which I am convinced was sized for a child, and whose slats stuck into my back through the thin foam mattress. Sitting here now, I realise I have no reason to complain – the fact that I am here in Kenya with the money and the opportunity to do what I am doing is far more than many Kenyans are likely to have. To even think of complaining at this juncture would be arrogant, ignorant and insensitive. I shall try not to do so, both in this context and (hopefully) within the context of my life in the UK. Here endeth the treatise on beds, as the author wisheth to retire to his.

The following days was dominated by our first forays into the town. Though we’d spent the morning running through EPAfrica training, my memory of the day is textured entirely by the sounds, smells and sights of this regional hub. To try and give a sense of the pure energy in that place, so much more intense that any other European city or town I’ve ever seen, is a hard task. Bright flashes of words and images stood out amongst a sea of dusty buildings, each vying for attention, and the swarms of people, both as a crowd and as individuals, moved as if on a million different trajectories, both physical and mental. The sense of immersion was total. After three days, I felt as if I had finally arrived.


Saturday 4th July 15 – 08:42 – 1.1KWh used

Training continued on Wednesday and Thursday, relieved by trips into town from the compound of the bishop’s house. To wake up to porridge every morning, especially before 8:00, was far from usual for me, but it felt good to sit on the veranda of the house, looking at the land sloping down to the treeline and the sunlight illuminating the ornate forms of the Hindu temple a few doors down. After the hectic rush of exams, and the hurry to prepare for coming to Kenya, I finally felt a sense of calm that I’d not felt in a long time: only momentary, but strong nonetheless.

Free at last

Though largely a formal process involving project planning and talks on cultural sensitivity, the most unexpected part of the training came when the project manager, Jo (who would see us through the first half of the project) asked us to write down and stick on the wall some of our own personal goals for the project: what did we hope to get out of it? This is why EPAfrica is such an interesting organisation, and this activity revealed to me the truly bilateral meaning of its slogan “Investing in opportunities for young people” – not only the students of the schools we’d be working in were benefiting, but ourselves as well, both as workers and as people. Though of course there were many career-oriented reasons as to why I opted to do the project, I felt it necessary to explain, as best I could, the main reason why I was here: to truly understand that I am just one small part of a vast world; to see what ‘life’ is like for people in scenarios truly different to my own; and yet to feel, transcending boundaries of geography, religion, language, and culture, that we are all nonetheless human, that we can seek an understanding, not spoken, not written, but felt. Unable to properly express myself, I pirated E.M. Forster and stuck my post-it note to the wall: “ONLY CONNECT”.

It is a strange sensation to be the only white face in a street of black ones. I had asked the bishop’s groundsman, Griffin, if there was a library I could use in town, and he happily walked me to the Kakamega National Library, one of only forty public libraries in the entire country. They were closed for stocktaking. I chose to walk back alone, and soon discovered what it means to be an object both of scrutiny and curiosity purely because of my skin. I became aware of my stark whiteness as I noticed the number of people staring at me, and my attempts at the Kiswahili greeting habari were met with smiles of amusement or open laughter. This experience was heightened when Flora and I went to buy vegetables for taking with us to Ematiha, the village we’d be working in for the project. Before we’d even approached any stallholders, two separate people came up to us asking us for money. We had to refuse, not wanting to set precedents and not actually having that much on us (less than KSH450, or £3, in my wallet), but how were they to know? All they could see were two wazungu who clearly had more money than them. I feel bad refusing the homeless money in the UK, but here the disparity between rich and poor seems so much greater. This logic that white skin = instant wealth goes some way to explaining ‘mzungu prices’, and even though we paid only KSH170 (~£1.30) for seven small onions, a pot of potatoes and a cabbage, the body language of the stallholder as we walked away made it clear that we had paid far more than a local would here. I did not feel angry (though not perhaps for the best of reasons), as I tried to put my loss and their gain into a wider perspective. Soon, I was distracted by the other wares of the market: alongside the more familiar vegetables of home, mangoes ripening in the sun; pineapples piled whole or sliced, dripping juice, in bags; shelled peanuts in gigantic mounded sacks; corn off the cob, alien in its ghostly paleness. The experience was a valuable one – bit by bit, I was learning the parameters of my existence in Kakamega.

That evening, after a hearty communal meal of stir-fry and rice, I was sitting at the table in the living room when I began to cry. Although I felt that I was acclimatising to being in East Africa, the fact of my type one diabetes had made me feel generally on edge every since arriving. If I wanted to become involved in development projects as a job, how was I to do so when I was finding it so hard to adjust to the climate and the routine of ensuring my insulin was kept cool? I was not to be deserted. Thankfully, Jo and the project co-ordinators sat me down and let me explain to them how I managed my diabetes and how to look for warning signs of hypoglycaemia (the thing I feared experiencing most out here), with the assurance that I could pass this information on to the rest of the group. I went to bed feeling much more assured than I had before.

Friday, the following day, marked not only EPAfrica’s Head Teachers Conference (HTC), where we were to meet the head teachers of our respective schools, but also the splitting of the group from central house as the project pairs and trios headed off for the beginning of our eight-week residencies in and around the schools we’d be working at. Unfortunately for me, this meant wearing a suit for the majority of the day, and seeing myself in the bathroom mirror was a stark reminder that you can’t polish a turd. Dressed to the nines (or as close as I would get, at least), we headed across town to the Golden Inn (again sponsored by Coca-Cola), the conference venue, and as we walked through the dusty, noisy, vibrant streets in the centre of town, I could not help but be impressed by the levels of industry and entrepreneurship filling every square foot of available space. From the boda bodas (motorcycle taxis) and more basic bicycles with cushions on the rear rack to the curious little metal booths selling mobile credit and boiled eggs, the resourcefulness and hard-working nature of the people I saw struck me as possessing a great level of dignity: a people not just surviving, but innovating and succeeding despite a lack of resources and support.

I should stress here, as I will continue to do so later, that I am desperately trying not to create a romanticised narrative of an overly-idealised narrative about Kakamega, nor swinging into the realms of poverty porn with clichéd and generalised remarks about ‘the nobility of the black African’ or some pseudo-scientific colonial bullshit like that. I’m just trying to explain what I experience and feel from my own limited, personal perspective.

And so to return from my digression. We arrived at the Inn just as the morning was beginning to heat up, and were glad to be received into the upstairs conference room, and were immediately perplexed by the lurid psychedelic swirls of wallpaper and dried woven grass stuck to the walls as decoration. Having relied on reputedly lax Kenyan timekeeping, we were surprised to find one of the attendees already there and waiting for us, but it was nearly an hour before the rest of the guests arrived and proceedings could begin. I had felt rather apprehensive about meeting David Ambani, principal of Ematiha Secondary School, where Flora and I were to be working, but I was relieved to be introduced to a short, round-faced man with deep brown eyes, who spoke with a gentle but sincere voice. Introductions were limited, however, by the start of discussions, which covered the increasing role of computer technology in Kenyan education, problems facing the attendant schools, and most interestingly the recent ruling in a seventeen-year legal battle between the TSC (Kenya’s main teachers’ union) and the government, a ruling which will supposedly result in a 50%-60% pay rise for teachers, back-paid to 2012, and at a accost of KSH18bn to the government.

The rest of the day continued smoothly, with a short break for a nch of ugali and sikuma wiki (kale, another Kenyan staple), and directly after the group photo which ended the HTC Ambani, Flora and I bundled into the back of a waiting car which took us back to central house, where we collected our belongings. Goodbyes were brief, and before we knew it, we were on the road to Ematiha.

I had been surprised to hear both the doctors at a local clinic I had visited, as well as many of the teachers at the HTC, refer to Ematiha being in “the interior”. From my previous research, the village seemed to be certainly a few miles from the main tarmacked road, but the phrase “the interior” brought to my mind images of pith helmets, porters, and the postcolonial literature paper I’d studied in third year, with all the attendant theorising of how such phrases formed part of the systematic oppression of countries such as Kenya. But to these people, such a phrase no longer had such semantics, describing instead a reality of many rural communities’ disadvantaged position of being far from the main highways, where schools are underfunded and unattended by many who cannot afford the fees. As we sped out of town over countless speed bumps and past hundreds of people on foot, bicycle and boda boda, I tried to divest myself from my own opinions of these words, and tried to focus on the green hues of the deepening forest. The turning for Ematiha came, and we pulled off onto a dusty, rutted packed-earth track, the kind of which I’d come to expect from my previous visit to Kenya. Here, it seemed, cars where somewhat of a rarity, and we were again the focus of countless inquisitive stares, from faces peering out of cane fields and through bushes as we passed by in a cloud of dust. After a twenty-five-minute journey past several schools, churches and shops – “the interior” was certainly much tamer than I’d been expecting – we arrived at the top of a hill as we drove into the compound of Ematiha Secondary School.

David Ambani and Ematiha Secondary School

First built in 2001 and having expanded considerably since then, the school consisted of two large classroom blocks, an administration block, some toilets, and a few smaller buildings made of corrugated aluminium or the traditional mix of mud and straw. Flora and I had only a few seconds to look around at the buildings, the students faces beginning to emerge from them, and at the school mission, painted on a large boulder by the gate (“To produce educated citizens capable of facing life challenges”) before we were ushered into Ambani’s office and introduced to the Deputy Head, the Deputy Director of Studies, and some other members of staff, then taken into the staff room. The room was furnished with several desks, with a few teachers sitting, marking or watching the TV which sat in a corner. I resigned myself to being unable to learn the names of the teachers over the blare of the TV, and was glad to be shown out into the adjoining Church of God compound where we would be staying. Just outside the small semi-detached house Ambani introduced us to Jacktonne, the school’s groundsman, a slight man with a limited amount of English to match our limited amount of Kiswahili, but who made up for it with a mile-wide grin. He pulled back a curtain of light yellow fabric, and we stepped inside.

I’m not quite sure what I’d been expecting of the place I’d be living for the next nine weeks, but the moment I stepped across the threshold of our three-room abode, it felt like home. Whilst the living area of the room was sparsely furnished, with only a pair of chairs, two tables and a gas stove, it struck me immediately as somewhere I could better improve myself through practising simplicity and self-reliance. Contrary to the information we’d been given, both the living area and both bedrooms were fitted with an electric lightbulb, and we even had the luxury of two plug sockets. Most interesting, however, was the meter on the wall, displaying the total number of kilowatt hours (KWh) used. This would be a good test of living an energy-efficient life here, I thought. We had hardly decided on which bedrooms to take (I opted for the smaller one, at about 7.5 x 3 ft), when four girls from the secondary school entered, each with a twenty-litre jerry-can of water pumped from the primary school’s borehole in the next compound. As with many of the gestures that had been shown me, my reaction was a mixture of appreciation and guilt. I resolved to ensure over the coming weeks that I was treated no better than anyone else because I was a guest, let alone a mzungu. Having unpacked, we settled down to our first independent meal of the vegetables we’d bought in town. As a first culinary foray, mashed potatoes with fried cabbage and onions was hardly the most adventurous of choices, but we were pleased with our first efforts, and headed to bed with tired limbs and full stomachs.

Today being Saturday, we had the chance to explore the local area a little, and decided to ascertain how long it would take us to walk back to the main road (the use of boda bodas being forbidden both by EPAfrica and our insurers), and so after a breakfast of porridge, we headed off back down the weather-beaten track towards Kakamega. We both noted the vastness of the empty blue sky, huge despite our being surrounded on all sides by tall, dense foliage of lush green shades. Flora and fauna aside, I noticed a considerable attitudinal change in the rural people we met in comparison to those in Kakamega. Almost everyone we greeted with habari responded with a mzuri, some even stopping to shake our hands and, with a karibu, welcoming us to the area. The level of English some of these people possessed I found both impressive and shameful, wishing that I had spent more time learning some Kiswhaili before I had arrived. The walk took us just over an hour to walk the three and a bit miles to the road, and we were just climbing the beginning of the last hill on our return walk when we began to see crowds of people flocking to an incongruous-looking couple of big-top-style tents in a field next to the road. A man walked over to greet us, explaining that his father had just died, and that the enormous throng of people had gathered for the funeral, an event clearly very different to those back in the UK. Pleased to have made his acquaintance, we headed back to the village before the arrival of the afternoon rains.

The road back to Kakamega

Here I should say a little about the climate. Every morning I awake to bright sunlight (Kenya being an equatorial country, the daylight hours remain the same practically year-round), with temperatures rising steadily through the morning before peaking in the early afternoon. The heat, however, is often mitigated by the arrival of afternoon rain, heavier even than I have seen in the USA, amplified in effect by gigantic forks of lightning, claps of thunder, and the incessant hammering of bullet-like raindrops on the corrugated-aluminium roof. The rain normally lasts no longer than an hour, and the skies clear again as the evening wears on and night draws in. Then, after a filling meal and some reading and writing, I stand outside, brushing my teeth in the moonlight, fireflies dancing in the periphery of my vision as I gaze at the sky, grown impossibly large under a canopy of stars. Try as might not to romanticise my experiences, their sight seems to me almost objectively beautiful. I head to bed, falling unconscious slowly among the many noises of the night.

Sunday 5th July 15 – 21:49 – 1.6KWh used

Today brought my most immersive experience of Kenyan culture so far. On Saturday afternoon we’d beeen invited by one of the secondary school teachers, Isaac, to attend Sunday service at 10:00 at the Word Explosion Full Gospel Ministry down the road from our house. Wary that we should attend at least one service at the Church of God, in whose compound we were living, we had accepted, thinking we could attend the latter’s early-morning service at 7:30, then go with Isaac. Yet when we arrived at the Church of God, there was not a person in sight, and before we’d had even five minutes to think about what to do our next-door neighbour Christine chivvied us into the Word Explosion church, much earlier than expected, at 8:45. Still, I thought, at least we’ll be back in time for lunch. I was dead wrong.

If one word could be applied to the vast majority of people I had ever met in and around Ematiha, ‘faithful’ would be it: to their families, to their community, but most importantly, to their God. This was my first real experience of Christianity as practiced in Africa, and I doubt I shall be forgetting it in a hurry. The sound of the keyboard and its synthetic, repetitive drum track booming over the worn-looking PA system could be heard over half a mile from the church. As we stepped from the blazing sunlight through the door of the large, mud-walled building, my eyes, adjusting to the comparative darkness, beheld a small group of people singing at the front of an almost empty room, some dancing and gesticulating feverishly, others lost in a trance, their eyes closed as they mouthed their incantations earthward. Flora and I were ushered to the second row of seats, where I stood, supremely awkwardly, waiting for the service, in any formal sense, to begin. That beginning, however, did not come. My body, still tired from the early rising, swayed back and forth in a hypnotised two-step as I tried my best to disguise my discomfort. As more people entered and the church began to pack, I felt like a charlatan and a fraud. To admit now in front of a full church that I was an atheist seemed wrong, yet to hide it seemed even more so. The music finally stopped and the buzzing choir returned to their seats – backless wooden pews, unlike the doilied plastic garden chairs Flora and I had been proffered – and I held my tongue as I waited for what was to come. A short man in a sky-blue shirt, open at the neck, stood up and, with barely a word of introduction, launched into a sermon on the importance of love in Christian teaching. Though I was surprised to find myself agreeing with much of what he had to say to start with – the premise, for example, that every human being deserves a chance to love and be loved – his tone began to change and his message to grow harsher as his voice grew in pitch until he was practically bellowing at the congregation, all the while another woman standing by him trying to play catch-up in translating his English to Kiswahili. At last a song came, and I was glad of the break from the manic proselytising, and to lose myself in fifteen minutes of three-chord chantings of the choir as the dust rose from the floor to billow around the ankles of the frenetic, almost possessed dancers. As the pastor resumed a second sermon (perhaps tirade is a better word), I felt myself sinking into a torpor. I tried to ignore my selfish discomfort and boredom and remind myself that this service was, I could see, so much more to these people than just God: it was hope in the face of adversity; it was community in the face of isolation.

Yet still I could not help but find a great part of the experience deeply psychologically unpleasant. The patronising tone of the preacher, constantly asking “Hello?” to keep his audience awake, scorning earthly riches before asking the congregation to ‘prove their love’ by giving their money to the collection, all the while reminding them of their sin and their failure whilst driving at this demand for total – and what I truly believe to be impossible – perfection and purity, really disturbed me. As much as I wanted to respect and appreciate the very differing elements of Kenyan culture, this I could not. I wanted to escape, yet I could not, called up to the front to address the crowd with words of faith, an actor, a liar on stage. Bwana sifiwe.

The service dragged on with more music and a third lengthy sermon, time seeming to move slower the longer it went; two hours, two and a half, three, three and a half, four… I couldn’t take it. My blood sugar was plummeting, and I simply could not understand the devotion of the other people: some had even brought their own bibles and were making notes in them, whilst others were offering the fact that their friends had barely survived a horrendous matatu crash in Uganda as testimony to the greatness of their God. Even sitting here now, I find it hard to conceive of how I could ever share such a strong an unwavering belief of such a nature. Maybe I never will. After more than four and a half hours of worship, the service ended and, weak and dizzy, I stumbled out of the church’s side door into the pastor’s office, where Flora and I were each given a steaming plate of rice and potatoes. Hypoglycaemic, I wolfed it down, along with a bottle of water. A wait of nearly fifteen minutes ensued whilst we waited to be greeted by Pastor Patrick, and when we finally did, I made my best attempt at a respectful Kenyan handshake (left hand clasped to right forearm) as I offered an asante sana, then some of my only Kiswahili. Whilst our presence at the service would have boosted our esteem amongst the community for us and our organisation, I was glad that our meeting was very short, I barely had the energy to make it through the door of our little house before I slumped into a chair, exhausted.

Monday 6th July 15 – 21:26 – 1.8KWh used

Today, work began in earnest. Up at 6:30, we gulped down our porridge and headed to the school where we attended the tri-weekly morning parade. Sat on the veranda of the school’s cream-coloured administration block on a leopard-print chair, I could not help but feel that I was being given an undeserved level of respect and attention as I squirmed under the gaze of two hundred scrutinising young faces. As I spoke a few words introducing myself and the project, I felt that my presence amused them more than anything, as titters and half-flashes smiles rippled through the assembled throng. It was odd: whilst I was (and still am, of course) grateful and privileged to be there to help these young people as best I could, I still felt somewhat unnerved to be so scrutinised, so observed despite being the supposed observer. It was a relief when the parade ended, the students had jogged back to their classrooms (the school’s policy being running, not walking, between lessons), and we could begin our assessment of the school.

To look beyond the tattered books, teachers’ desks covered in rat droppings, and overcrowded timetable was hard to do. But Ematiha, despite its very atmosphere feeling rather ragged around the edges, did have something going for it: enthusiastic management, good relations with its PTA and Board of Management, and staff (or at least some of them) who really seemed to care about the welfare and success of the students. This project, I hoped, would bring these students the opportunity to match their academic progress with their desire for upward social mobility, and to improve their lives through education.

Enough waffling – time to make a start. In the words of Pulled Apart By Horses, that last bastion of reason in a world gone mad:

There ain’t nothing to it

But to do it

Wednesday 8th July 15 – 21:49 – 2.4KWh used

The last two days have disappeared. I’m suddenly sitting in one of the plastic garden chairs which furnish our living area, staring blankly at the luminous pictures stuck to the wall, done by our neighbour Christine’s children in Flora’s highlighters. A short (or comparatively so) summary of the past few days will, I hope, give a sense of what life is like here.

The majority of the time has been spent inventorying the ‘books’ in the ‘library’ – in reality often shabby, defaced volumes held together seemingly by hope itself, all stored in a tiny cupboard in which it is impossible to take down a book from the shelves without elbowing the school secretary in the back of the head – and the equipment in the labs, haphazardly fitting in meetings around the by now notorious Kenyan timekeeping. I’m not saying that I’m the most punctual person ever, but when meetings finish three hours later than people say they will, you’re bound to look like a whip-wielding horological taskmaster.

Eating with the students has, thus far, been a far more preferable experience than with the teachers, for whilst taking morning tea – Africa tea, of course – is a nice experience, and important for securing good relations for the project, the disparity between what the student and staff food fills me with guilt, and ultimately, it’s nice to spend lunch talking with the people you really hope to be helping. It’s interesting that so far, Flora and I seem to be having quite different experiences of the students: the girls eat (and do most things) separately from the boys. Whilst the boys seem far more stoic and somewhat harder to engage with (though, despite my being an awkward bastard at the best of times, they open up eventually), the girls are far less reticent towards Flora, always seeking her out, and quite ready to talk about the issues facing them, notably school fees, pregnancies, and caning.

For those of us fortunate enough to live in the UK, it is hard not to seem to be taking on an air of looking down upon some practices when describing aspects of life in Kenya. But the caning of students to me is an abhorrent practice which, whilst supposedly illegal in Kenya, is still practised openly in a great number of schools, including Ematiha. Students here are routinely told to report to the staffroom, where they are made to lie down on the floor (or are held down by staff) and are beaten on their arms, their legs, their buttocks, their backs – anywhere the teacher thinks will make the student ‘learn their lesson’ the best. Despite being what the Director of Studies calls “an effective method” of discipline, it is something I hope to address later in the project.

Meantime, the routine has been wearing. Though late by Kenyan standards, I am up by 7:30, and have been working until 9:00 or 9:30 in the evening. I feel fulfilled and productive, but dog-tired. I’m not sure how long I can keep this up. For now, I seem to be the only one in the village awake except the moths, flies, cicadas, and the owner of a ridiculously loud speaker system who has no concept of the word ‘bedtime’. You win some, you lose some.

Night – 1

Tom – 0

Sunday 12th July 15 – 14:21 – 3.5KWh used

Sitting in the afternoon sun, listening to the sounds of the daily market, and glancing occasionally at passers-by on the road from Ematiha to Butsotso, I feel much more settled and peaceful than I did a few days ago, so I’ll just get on with things.

The inventorying of the library and labs went well, and by Thursday we were beginning to formulate a plan of what exactly we can do for the school. Sadly, the issue with perhaps the biggest impact on the school is something we simply cannot afford to fix with our budget of £1800. The school has no working borehole, and thus has to get water from the primary school borehole several hundred meters away, and when this borehole fails, the nearest source of running water is an untreated spring two kilometres away. Being built on a hill covered in rocks, it would take around KSH1.4m (over £10,000) to drill for water, and two previous attempts to do so manually have failed after hitting rock. Even an application to the charity’s central pot funding would not be able to cover such massive costs, and thus we will have to divert resources elsewhere in order to try and alleviate the issue. The purchase of a three-thousand-litre water tank, whilst not the most ideal solution, would at least double the current rainwater-collecting capacity of the school, and is certainly more manageable on our budget. We will head to Kakamega tomorrow to explore options.

Working longer, harder days during the week meant that the weekend could be much more enjoyable, and this kicked off on Friday evening. Having hoped to observe a meeting of the school’s Music Club, I was rather disappointed to find that it was cancelled for the week, owing to a friendly football match between Ematiha and Bushill Secondary, a school 7km away. Following the crowds of students to the primary school’s football field, I learned that two matches were to be played, and as I sat watching the girls’ match, listening to the drums normally used for Music Club being used to rouse raucous football chants, I received a tap on the shoulder, and a Form Three student (secondary school encompasses Forms One to Four) asked me if I wanted to play. I thought he meant a kickabout after the match, but then he handed me a shirt: I was to be playing against Bushill, having not played a game of football in nearly five years. Pulling on my shirt (no. 6, left mid), I looked across at the opposing, and couldn’t help feeling significantly disadvantaged. The Bushill boys’ team were decked out in full kits of t-shirts and shorts, and most had football boots. I looked at our own side: there weren’t even enough shirts to go around, and all of us, to a man, were barefoot. I was not even five minutes into the game when I came a cropper because of this – trying to make a quick turn, I grazed the top of my foot, which bled for the rest of the match. Yet despite the significant handicap of being underequipped, and playing barefoot on a pitch strewn with rocks and cow dung (in which I frequently trod), I could only marvel at the passion and commitment with which the Ematiha students threw themselves into the game, and despite a 3-1 loss, it was a pleasure and a privilege to have been invited to take part.

Just one of Kenya's many amazing skies: a storm rolls in over one of the girls' football matches

A brief digression on neighbours, or, “Take that, neighbourly obligations!”

Having been invited to the home of one of our welding contacts the previous Sunday, and yesterday to the home of the school accountant, it seems apt here for me to record a couple of observations on neighbours in Kenya.

The relations between yourself and the people you happen to live near seem, in the UK, not to be an incredibly pressing social priority. In Kenya, however, such relations seems to be held in much higher importance: neighbours are always in and out of each other’s houses, chatting, exchanging foodstuffs and information, and generally keeping an eye out for each other. When contrasted with the comparative austerity of British neighbourly relations, such a difference is to an extent a welcome change. But the community-oriented nature of life here also brings an inexorable sense of obligation, and a decline in personal withdrawal and privacy (certainly in the British sense of the word). Christine, our next-door-neighbour, is a very open person, who has been kind to us. Yet she is also very pushy, often asking us for money to contribute to her church harambee (fundraiser), and whenever she pops in – which is practically daily – I cannot help but feel that I am being judged, unable to live up to the expectations that she and many other people here, rightly or wrongly, have of wazungus.

Christine and two of her children, Blessed and Bright

I really want to be able to feel like I’m accepted in this community, not just because of what I’m here to do, but because of who I am. Yet I won’t ever be. I hide parts of myself for fear of bringing discord into my relationships with some people here, and I give gifts not because I want to, but because I feel it is expected of me. I have experienced so much generosity here, but am constantly wary that I will never be able to fully reciprocate in the manner expected of me, particularly to people like Christine, whom I have learned from several locals is rude even by Kenyan standards. So when the church today gave us a litre and a half of milk, my first thought was “Aha! Something we can give Christine! Take that, neighbourly obligations!” whilst I do love being in this community, I don’t think that I make a very good Kenyan neighbour.

Here endeth the digression.

Church today was interesting in a different way to last week. Particularly in light of the fact that the Word Explosion Full Gospel Ministry held a kesha (mega epic all-night prayer session) on Friday night from 10:00PM to 4:00AM, which kept me awake all night with their booming PA system, we decided to go to the Ematiha Church of God.

The CoG was much bigger, and much emptier, than the Word Explosion church, yet there remained some similar aspects. The energy, whilst a little less frenetic, was still present, and when Mary, one of the lay preachers, began speaking, the level of audience response made it feel more like a conversation than a sermon. Yet despite this warm, friendly atmosphere, the message of the sermon was even more disagreeable to me than Pastor Patrick’s. It was so strange to see a seventy-something-year-old woman preaching so sincerely about why women should obey their husbands and should know their place as Biblically-divined subordinates. Even when women from the congregation lamented their husbands’ lack of contribution to the family, the answer was always the same: put up with it, pray, and God will change things for you. I felt my irritation rising with the heat under the corrugated-aluminium roof: this was some kind of agency of un-agency and it sickened me. This, and the reading out exactly how much specific members of the congregation had contributed to the collection, angered me, seeming like a truly unnecessary, un-Christian level of manipulation, but I was touched by the end of the service. Walking outside the church, the entire congregation held hands and prayed, and I felt once again the strength of the church as a pillar of community, albeit, I thought, a misplaced one. Lunch could not come soon enough, and I spent the rest of the afternoon reading, writing, and visiting the house of one of the Form Three students, Abraham. Despite a relaxing weekend, I’m looking forward to a productive coming week. G’night.

Wednesday 15th July 15 – 19:28 – 4.4KWh used

Today marks the first real step towards actually bringing about some change at Ematiha Secondary, so I’ll get on with it. An early rising and quick breakfast on Monday preceded the hour-long walk to the road to catch a ride to Kakamega. Though the views of the hills, turning from green to blue as they rolled on into the distance under the rising sun, were beautiful, my feet and mind ached to swap my walking shoes and trousers from a good sturdy bicycle and a pair of shorts. Down the hill, over the river, back up the other side on the long climb through Emukaba and Emusala, I felt I would surely prefer a bone-shaking ride to the dusty trudging we were putting ourselves through. Yet time passed, and eventually we were on board a matatu­ – a people-carrier or van fitted with as many seats and as few seatbelts as possible – heading for Kakamega, lucky enough to be placed in the ‘hot seat’ right over the engine.

Having been in the comparative isolation and peace of ‘the interior’ for a week and a half, the air and energy of the big town was a real shock to the senses, but one to which I quickly adjusted as we headed for central house. For me, this was crunch time – the chance to find out my exam results, and thus what degree I’d end up with. I’m not quite sure now – as I sit here typing this up – why I put so much worry into it, but then, my heart was beating as I logged on. It was as I’d expected, a 2:1. Sadly, I’d only missed a first by a few marks, and whilst I can’t say that I’m not disappointed, and that this won’t dog me for some time to come, I think I’ve reached a point in life where my hopes and fears stretch beyond the realms of academia, and where I can move forward less tentatively than I have before. I have felt the value of education in helping me discover the person I think I am and how best I can inhabit my place in the world. Now, it was time to channel that value, and all that I had gained, into helping others on such a voyage of self-discovery. Now, more than ever, it was important to live in the present.

Our research in Kakamega went well, and Tuesday followed in a similarly productive manner, successfully meeting with the PTA chairman, Tom Mboya, regarding our plans for building a water tank and installing a library in one of the school’s two spare classroom. Yet sadly, my memory of the day was dominated by a stark reminder of the multifaceted nature of the problems faced by students here. Walking out of a meeting with the accountant we saw the crueller side of the school’s ‘discipline’ policy. Through the half-open staffroom door we could see Diostic Dynamus, the Director of Studies, holding a boy to the floor, beating him with a strip of plastic, and as I turned away, a sickening peal of laughter emanated from the room. Though I had seen and heard caning before, and tried not to engage with it too much on an emotional level, I now felt the anger rising in me, riled by seeing students trapped between brutal – and illegal – punishment and a vaguely-worded discipline code, like the first of the school rules: “1. Every student is subject to and must obey established school authority.” It is a common problem, I am told, for EPAfrica project workers; the ethical dilemma of choosing to intervene in the beating of an individual student and risking compromising the integrity of the entire project. One of the hardest aspects of this job, mentally, is coming to terms with the fact that there are some things that you simply will not be able to change over the course of nine weeks, and this thought churned over in my head for the rest of the day, leaving me only as I tipped over the brink of consciousness into sleep.

Today was spent proposing our projects to the BoM chairman, Johnes Olumbe, and it was great to see Ambani fighting our corner, helping to convince him that they were worthwhile projects. The afternoon was highlighted by our first official purchase of the project: two steel-bar stands for handwashing buckets for the students, a steal at only £6.40 for the pair. I feel pleased at the past week and a half as I sit at our little table. I’ve been waiting for many months to be here, to start effecting some change in the world into which I’ve finally been released. Now, at long last, I can begin.

The sign I painted for the library we've been constructing, proudly oversoon by Samson, one of the Form Four prefects

Saturday 19th July – 13:51

The success of the meetings with Tom Mboya and Johnes Olumbe gave me the motivational boost I needed for Thursday’s task – clearing the spare room for the proposed library of all that was already in there, which unfortunately was tens of broken chairs and desks, a few planks of wood, and a gigantic pile of several hundred kilos of firewood. From 10:00AM to 4:00PM, Flora and I (with occasional help from Jacktonne) carted wheelbarrows of this wood to the firewood store, and the construction materials nd furniture into the other spare room before ensuring that the room was swept. It was interesting to see the school’s reaction to the proposal that two wazungus effectively clear the room themselves. Flora borrowed a pair of my trousers for the task, bemusing and impressing male and female staff and students alike: after all, how could a woman possibly perform a man’s work with such commitment and so few complaints? Despite these frankly misogynistic expectations, Flora hauled like a champ, and by the end of the afternoon the room was ready for Mr. Saul, our carpenter, to begin the construction of the library once we’d ordered and collected the timber with him. The most frustrating parts of the day, I felt, were the repeated offers from the teachers to have their students help with the work. Despite my awareness of the phrase ‘many hands make light work’, I informed the Deputy Director of Studies that I could do the work myself, and point blank refused to let any students be taken out of lessons for even one minute to help. The extent to which students are treated less like students and more like an unpaid workforce continues to astound and aggravate me.

Friday meant the long walk, the matatu ride, and the re-entry to the comparative metropolis of Kakamega. The air itself seamed to scream ‘business as usual’, and I gulped great lungfulls of the stuff as we strode into Safi Bookshop to make our frist big negotiation of the project. We’d been tipped off by Jo that Aggrey, one of the senior staff, would be able to give us a discount, and he was right. Before we’d even mentioned how many books we wanted to buy, he gave us a straight-up 20% discount, making me wonder what kind of profit mark-up he was making on undiscounted books but, pleased with our discovery, we headed across town to try and find a projector for use in the science labs. Finding one for KSH45,000 (we’d been told to expect at least KSH60,000), we made our first big purchase of the project then and there, and feeling pleased as punch, we headed back to central house.

To be honest, nothing much of note happened over the following two days, apart from the reconvening of all the Kakamega project workers for a weekend’s training, and the chance to share experiences and ideas before commencing with project implementation in the coming weeks. We headed out for a meal on Saturday night to the Golf Hotel and Resort, certainly an interesting experience. Surrounded, like most of the fanciest buildings in town, with a two-metre-high wall topped with barbed wire and guarded by a rising barrier and guards with metal detectors (who yet seemed to miss the penknife I had in my pocket), the Golf reminded me of one of the places I’d stayed in Nairobi when I’d visited previously in 2010. Then, I had enjoyed the food and facilities available at such establishments, yet still conscious of how separate I had been from the world beyond the wall. Now, the sense of separation was truly complete. The serviettes, the swimming pool and the spotless toilets could hardly have been further from the economic reality faced by many millions of Kenyans. The setting only intensified my sense of hypocrisy: refusing to give money to the barely-clothed, the hungry, the legless who approached me in the dusty streets; then spending more than a week’s food budget in the village on one meal. I ordered a cheap veggie dish, and whilst I enjoyed being around the other PWs and co-ordinators, I felt unable to properly reconcile eating there with the scrounging of village life, to balance my enjoyment of Kenya with my white liberal guilt. The irony is, I suppose, is that of all the meals I’d had in Kenya so far, this one was the only one to give me a bout of extremely unpleasant diarrhoea. Poetic justice, one might say.

Samuel, a local child, and a guilty reminder of my own indolence

Tuesday 21st July 15 – 21:32 – 5.5KWh used

After a weekend of expensive and repetitive meals, and all the noise and heat of Kakamega, Flora and I were glad to be heading back towards Ematiha to oversee the beginning of construction for the library. We thought we’d left central house with plenty of time to spare, but by the time we reached the matatu stand in the centre of town, we were running late, and as no vehicles seemed to be going to Lurambi, where we’d arranged to meet Mr. Saul to order the timber, we were forced to hire out a smaller vehicle for a whopping KSH400. As if this were not bad enough, the matatu itself refused to start, and after about 150 metres of being pushed by the driver’s friends, kangarooing forwards and backwards against the red metallic seat upholstery with every attempt to get it in gear, we got off, and refused to pay, and were immediately bundled into another (mercifully working) vehicle which got us to Lurambi on time. Smarting from being so thoroughly rinsed by the drivers for a one-kilometre drive, we were relieved to find Mr. Saul impressively on-time, and even more so to get a discount on our timber (which came to KSH66,000, around £440). However, the timber would take several hours to prepare, and we were forced to rearrange transport with the driver of one of the school’s beneficiaries, who had offered his services at fuel price. Waiting outside the hardware store we’d arranged to meet him at, a nervous man approached in a large pickup, in the right place at the right time, despite only moments earlier I’d received a text saying that the timber had been delayed yet again because of an electrical failure. “Are you Mr. Werez?” He glanced furtively at both Flora and myself before answering “Yes.” We explained our situation, and apologised for the delay, asking if he could come again later. Again, “Yes.” We thanked him for being so understanding, and waved him off.

Thirty minutes later, however, we received a call from an agitated Mr. Werez, who had apparently been waiting for us for half an hour. It was then that we realised we had fallen victim to a classic mzungu error – believing are understood by someone when in fact they are saying ‘Yes’ precisely because they don’t understand what you are saying. More apologies ensued, but soon we were at Lurambi to pick up the timber. It turns out, however, that you can’t fit over a thousand feet of timber in the back of a double-berth pickup truck in one go, and we had to resign ourselves to the fact that we’d have to pay for multiple trips to and from the school. It did feel good, however, to turn up at the school with a big load of materials. As much as it pained us, we had to recruit some students to carry the materials indoors before it rained, and had to move some of them out of the library-to-be, where they were finishing off some KCSE mocks. Exhausted, we finished the day with little talking and a bit of food as clouds rolled silently over the darkening sky.

Smoke from field of burning cane stalks after the harvest blowing across the church compound. The fact that this crop takes nearly two years to grow is the cause of many financial woes in Western Kenya

So then - this is the first part of my time in Kenya. I'll repeat my opening apologies, and hope that this finds you in good health and spirits. I'll try and write again soon.


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