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  • Writer's pictureTom Blower

All That We Can Leave Behind

So, to the end of the project (well, not quite immediately). I had wanted to talk about the brief travelling I did after the end of the project, but it ended up being far more pedestrian – literally – than I had anticipated. I had bought a mountain bike for KSH7,225 (£44.25), and had planned to cycle over 200 miles southeast, back across the equator to Limuru, a town not far from Nairobi. Yet after only 20 miles, the dirt road from Kakamega to Kapsabet had taken its toll on the bike. Just as I reached the blissful smoothness of tarmac, the chain snapped, and I was left tired, sweaty and angry, a long way from where I had hoped to be. I ended up taking a matatu and meeting some of the EPAfrica lot in Nakuru, before heading to Naivasha, then walking to and up Mount Longonot, ending my time in Kenya in a £2-a-night guesthouse before walking up the Great Rift Valley escarpment and getting a lift to Nairobi. I’ll put some pictures up in another post, but for now I’ll try to relate to you some of the more interesting parts of the end half of the project.

No Man’s Land

With two weeks to go until the end of the project, Flora and I were fortunate enough o be given the chance to fly in a four-person Cessna plane from Kakamega to Nanyuki in the Central Highlands, a trip organised by Alfred Esser, Flora’s step-grandfather. On the appointed Saturday, we took a taxi about three kilometres west of town on the Kapsabet road to Kakamega Airstrip. Let in through the heavy security gate, we were seemingly the only people in the airstrip, with the exception of the security guard, who ushered us into a small waiting room. The contrast of the room to the majority of buildings I’d been in for the last few weeks was incredible. The spotless shining tiles, the chrome-furnished chairs, the baggage scanner and walk-through metal detector brought back my last memory of the UK – Heathrow Terminal 4 – and my thoughts oscillated between nostalgia and guilt at the luxury of my situation. Yet to have the experience and not to enjoy it would be more selfish than simply enjoying it, I tried to remind myself, as the only plane I’d seen so far, a white Cessna, swooped, landed, and came to a stop in front of the waiting room. The pilot, Felix, and co-pilot, Jude, hopped out and introduced themselves in the most ‘English’ English I’d heard in my time in Kenya. Both incredibly friendly, they ensured that Flora and I were comfortable in the two passenger seats in the rear of the small plane, and as they set about their pre-flight checks I looked down the runway. I could see a dark grey front of clouds moving in from over the Nandi Escarpment to the east.

As we taxied into takeoff position, my anxious thoughts battled with my excitement, both eventually drowned by the increasing roar of the propeller and the tang of aviation fuel.

I have been in light aircraft before: once in a short flight over my home town and once in a powered glider, where I was allowed to control the craft for a nerve-wracking five minutes. Yet I honestly cannot remember being more terrified of flying as in the firsty thirty minutes of that flight. Takeoff was unproblematic, but as we entered into the clouds the plane was buffeted and shaken by air pockets and turbulence. Each raindrop hit the windscreen with a crack like a whip, and with visibility no more than the ends of the wings and the nose of the plane, for a time I feared that the last thing I would see on this earth would be the faded-mustard upholstery on the back of Felix’s seat. Flora, meanwhile, seemed to be thoroughly enjoying the experience, clearly not sharing in my near trouser-soiling paroxysms of terror, smiling disconcertingly as with every bump I gripped the cover of my seat harder with whitening knuckles.

Believe it or not, I did actually manage to wrench my hands from the polyester poop-stain preventor long enough to take some photos

In retrospect, it seems I was rather melodramatic, even as a very nervous person, though I probably didn’t help myself by thinking with self-torturing regularity: “Help! I’m trapped at eleven and a half thousand feet in a flying death box!” (I might point out, however, that even Felix and Jude, both experienced pilots, described the going as “rough”. Methinks the coward doth protest too much.) My worries were allayed somewhat as we emerged from the clouds over an increasingly different Kenyan landscape. Crossing the vast green chasm of the Great Rift Valley, walled on either side by towering escarpments, the land was split not by small family shambas but by bigger, industrial farms, and dotted with rivers and lakes. To the east, everything became browner, drier, the houses more scarce, and the man-made divisions of the land more at odds with the meandering watercourses, easily identifiable from above by their islands of verdure in an ocean of dust. This was – aesthetically, at least – much closer to the Kenya I had seen on my previous visit to the country and, to my mind, much more appealing in its comparative bareness and scrubby savannah. Eventually we began to descend as we neared Nanyuki, but long before I noticed the town I saw the geological behemoth dominating the skyline of the Central Highlands: Mount Kenya, a landmark symbolising both national identity (lying at the very heart of the country) and the ‘Kenyanicity’ of many products and services I’d seen advertised on Kenyan TV and in shops. After bumping down onto an unpaved airstrip, outside the town, we stepped outside into bright sunshine and a strong southerly wind, and in that moment, for all the good (if any) I was doing, I felt a burning wanderlust stir within me, and relief that I was away, if only for a short time, from Ematiha.

The four of us stood by the side of the busy road from Nakuru in the southwest to Isiolo in the north, waiting for a taxi into Nanyuki. Having spent almost none of the flight talking to Felix or Jude (partially due to my inexorable fear of being responsible for the plane falling out of the otherwise empty sky), I began to chat more with them on the ride to town. Almost without thinking, I asked a question put to me by many people I’d met in western Kenya: which tribe are you from? Jude replied that he was half-Luhya, half-Ugandan, and then Felix answered: “I am technically a Kikuyu, but I don’t really think about myself that way.” I was slightly taken aback as Jude nodded in consensus. Having spent two months in Kakamega County, surrounded by a people so fiercely proud of being Luhya, I had been absorbed into the bubble of a tribally-oriented mindset. Felix, Jude, and Nanyuki would change all that.

Nanyuki - home of some of the strangest, most castle-esque architecture I've seen in Kenya

Nanyuki lies in Laikipia County, on the leeward side of Mount Kenya, a mountain divided by the boundaries of four different administrative counties. This part of the Central Highlands, and this town in particular, is the convergence point of many different ethnic groups: Maasai, Samburu, Luo, Kikuyu, Turkana all live and work in this area, which has seen an influx of others from further afield in recent years. Paul, a taxi driver who drove Flora and I back to our accommodation for the night (the practically palatial Nanyuki Simba Lodge), was himself a Luhya, originally from a village not far from Kakamega, but who now spent most of his time working around Nanyuki. It was he who, as we drove through the well-lit streets of the town, past restaurants, electronics shops, and even a casino, called this place “No Man’s Land”.

This distinctive lack of tribalism compared to my experience of western Kenya is really interesting. To me, it shows a rising tide of Kenyans seeking to move beyond the tribally-defined boundaries exploited by politicians ever since uhuru, and which following the disastrous 2007 elections led to what amounted to ethnic cleansing, paving the way for a new constitution in 2013. It shows an increasingly unified people forging a national identity, fighting the clichéd ‘African’ stereotypes – the mass-produced images of jumping Maasai, or painted, mask-wearing Kikuyus – peddled to tourists in the many curio shops. It shows awareness that yes, one’s tribe can still be an integral part of one’s identity, but that to turn this sense of identity into one of superiority and isolationism is to build an incredibly significant stumbling block for political progress in Kenya.

In a country already wracked by many problems, where corruption is still rampant, social welfare almost nonexistent, and infrastructure of all kinds struggling to meet demands, tribalism is a matter of both pride and political polarising. The following day, after a ludicrously large cooked breakfast served with “tree tomato juice” (whose origins I am still yet to discern), Felix told me as we drove back to Nanyuki Airstrip he expected that tribalism will cease to be a major force in Kenyan politics within the next thirty years. In many ways, despite the potential for the decline and even loss of a strong, traditional sense of identity for many people here, I hoped he would be right. We climbed back into the tiny Cessna and up into the sky, and as I mulled over these thoughts I looked down at the land, criss-crossed by roads through the sandy brown speckled with green, and saw the beginnings of unity despite division, these dirt and tarmac arteries pumping, swirling and mixing the blood of the nation with a new, modern heartbeat.

“You Are Lost”

To come back to Ematiha after EPAfrica’s ‘holiday week’ to find the school almost entirely devoid of people was a little unnerving. The watchman and a couple of small children herding lazily chewing cows were our only company in the compound. That is not to say, however, that this was an entirely unpleasant situation, and Flora and I soon adjusted to the lifeless classrooms and empty offices, the sounds of writing amplified by the silent void between the plaster walls.

But this contrast with the buzzing term-time atmosphere I did not feel so strongly until I noticed her staring. A little girl, no more than about ten or eleven years old, whose job it was to tend the half-dozen cows grazing in the compound, stood staring. Wherever in the school we worked, inside or out, she would stand, peering through windows, shutters, bars, doorways, a half-smile on her face, silent as the walls around us. The inequality between us grew as I felt her eyes penetrating me, seemingly deriving some sort of pleasure as I tried not to return her stare, unable to understand her, what it was about me that so clearly amused her. Even asking her name – Diana – did not help redress this imbalance.

Since the school closed for the holidays – most schools just ‘close for the holidays’, whilst breaking the law by letting their students come in for revision or even tuition – the number of children watching us, silently jostling for a better view of the wazungu, slowly increased, until in the afternoon we could be sitting at the table in our house with up to eight wordless faces at the window. It seemed that there was no barrier which could come between the tendrils of their curiosity and I, and no matter how I tried to convince myself that they were just excited by the novelty of my skin, it seemed to me to be indicative of a wider phenomenon. I wrote of this before; this being stuck in a limbo here. I seem unable to integrate fully with a people among whom suspicions like that of the Illuminati and the New World Order pervade strongly (and of whom Bob Dylan, the Queen, Beyonce, the Pope and Michael Jackson are all members, according to an informative Illuminati DVD I purchased from a roadside stall in Kakamega). Yet simultaneously, I am unable to ever be alone, to go anywhere unobserved, to escape this unrelenting scrutiny. I have only told a few here people that I am an atheist, for example, and often feel a wave of relief when in conversation, people enquire of Flora’s church before changing the subject: even many of those who know my religious beliefs still remind me that they are praying for me, and that of course, I will find God someday. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t feel like I can’t ever speak my mind: one of the more interesting encounters I’ve had here has been telling Bishop Olumasai, our landlord, that I am an atheist, and his response: “An atheist?! But you look like Jesus!”

Whenever Flora and I return to Ematiha from Kakamega, people here exclaim to us “Ai! You are lost.” Smiling, we always assure them, that we are not, that we are “just around”. But for all my sense of assimilation into life in Ematiha, the irony is that, in many senses, I am never so lost as when I am here.

A chalk drawing which appeared by the door of our house. Drawn by children or not, I hoped that this is not all I was seen as by the local people

A Boy Called Boy

The final week of the project was a quiet one: most of the budget had been spent, and there wasn’t a great number of things for Flora and I to do, but more significantly, there were no students in school. Classes were due to resume on Tuesday 1st September, but it was on Monday that the TSC (Teacher’s Service Commission) decided to strike over the 50%-60% pay rise they had won in court from the government, who still hadn’t paid a shilling. Considering that KCSEs would be beginning in a month’s time for Form Fours, this was quite possibly the worst time of year for a strike to occur, and I hoped it would be over before the TSC effectively negated its own existence by neglecting students nationwide.

Yet despite the lack of teachers and students, Flora and I did still have a couple of things to do to wrap up the project, most importantly the Memorandum of Understanding, a document intended to ensure the longevity and practical sustainability of the project’s various initiatives. This was to be signed by us as EPAfrica representatives, David Ambani (the principal), Tom Mboya (the chair of the PTA and namesake of a national hero of the independence movement), Johnes Olumbe (the chair of the Board of Management), and the deputy principal (who was on strike). We managed to schedule a meeting to meet with them and to ensure that all stakeholders would be willing to sign it, and so gave them copies to look at the day before.

I still had doubts. To what extent is it possible to effect any real change in situations like these, when you are here for only ten weeks? I had seen many things in Kenya which had made me question the efficacy of what I was doing, whether or not I was just wasting my time and the time of those I purported to be helping. I have seen a sickly, constipated child with a distended belly desperately tyring to void his bowels by the side of the road, wearing nothing but a ragged t-shirt. I have heard obedience, conformity and submission preached and lectured in schools, churches, marketplaces, on the TV and on the radio, whilst institutionalised corruption cripples the country from the top down. (Two soldiers in Nairobi tried to tell me my 90-day visa had expired; “But it is ok, because you will buy us lunch.”) I have sat and watched as a woman sat next to me on a matatu was literally punched and kicked out of the vehicle by her fellow passengers when she claimed she did not have enough money to pay her fare. The extent to which things here simply are what they are was best encapsulated in my mind by the name of one of the Form One boys at Ematiha: Boy.

(This is not, I should point out, the boy – or rather Boy – in question)

But what gave me hope was to see David Ambani reading through our MoU, truly a joyful sight – neither Flora nor I could recall ever seeing him so happy – and even better, the reaction of Johnes Olumbe. An older man, he had previously voiced criticisms of a couple of parts of the project, notably the water tank that we had installed, but now he spoke to us words which made me re-evaluate the entire project and the work that EPAfrica does as a whole. “When you first came here, I thought you were like those Peace Corps people who just come here, have fun, and leave. But I see now that you are not like that. You are hard-wrking people.” He had written a small speech, and I read from his paper: “These projects [...] initiated should serve as starting points to many future projects this shool [sic.] should develop and maintain.” In this I saw the real reason I was here, doing what I had been doing.

The signing of the MoU (Mboya left, Ambani right)

The work EPAfrica does is not as important in the physical change it effects in a school as the impetus to change it gives that school to change from within by boosting its own self-image. Indeed, at Ematiha the principal had already allocated some of the school’s own money to provide security grilles for the windows of the library we had installed, and Olumbe had drawn up – albeit very ambitiously – a list of improvements to make to the school in the coming years. This, I believe, is one of the most important parts of ensuring the sustainability of the work EPAfrica does – helping schools that are often underfunded and overlooked by local government to solidify for themselves an upward trajectory for themselves and their students. This, if anything, was what I hoped I could leave behind at Ematiha.

One of the hardest parts of this project has been reconciling myself with the reality that we cannot hope to ‘solve’ all of the ills that Kenya faces, or even the very specific ones that Ematiha faces. Yet though things might be as they are, and though any change at all might seem impossible (or at the very least improbable), there is, as I see it, only one option: to try, and keep on trying, and to never, never, never give up. It is our duty to one another as human beings. This I believe wholeheartedly.

This has been an amazing experience. I am healthier. I am hardier. I am happier.

I am also a total narcissist, so I’ll get on with some of that goopy, feely stuff.

Thank you to all those whose tenacity in reading this has hopefully provided them with something interesting; to EPAfrica for providing me with an incredible opportunity, some wonderful friends, and a sense of the direction I would like my life to take from here; and to the people who will likely never read these words, the many Kenyans who welcomed me into their homes and communities and, whilst perhaps not having ‘connected’ fully with me, have shown me many of the things that are truly good about life.

Be well, wherever you are and wherever you go, but always ask yourself one question (and it helps if you put it in the second person):

Where are you going?

For now.


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