Archive for October, 2010

Telling a mother how to BE one

October 24, 2010

Sometimes you feel like screaming at the whole fatalistic attitude prevalent in this country – how everyone accept everything, even if it is terribly wrong, even when they can do something about it…

Then sometimes, you actually DO scream.

What Happened?

At Kid’s we have a little toddler called Ryan, barely 1 and a half years old. We know he is HIV +ve. But when he turns up with an eye infection, a terrible lethargy and an overall dismal look and a body covered in white spots and scars you start realising that something is very wrong with this child. You assume that the mother is doing something about it, right?

Wrong. She isn’t. And when we tell the workers to tell her to take him to a clinic, she replies nonchalantly with a “No, he isn’t sick”. What do you MEAN he isn’t sick?? He looks like a charity postcard baby! This goes on for two weeks. She starts leaving the child even up to 9pm at the baby care centre, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Now it starts getting clear – the mother not only neglects her child, but she wants to abandon him.

Here you are torn in two. You want to help the child, but you also realise that once you are gone from Kenya (2 months left) this thing is going to happen again and there won’t be John playing the hero around. You cannot report her to anyone because there is no one to report her to (in Kenya social services are either non existant or or a joke). So the workers told her to please keep the child at home and when she realises that leaving he child till 9pm is not a viable option she can bring him back.

We don’t see the child for a few days and then we see him again, as sick as ever, with a worsening eye infection. What’s more… the mother hands over a blood test performed 2 months before showing all parameters deranged AND off-the-chart Liver parameters, which would scream “Hepatatis” to a blind doctor.

This time, I’ve had enough. Julianah calls the Mama Ryan and tells her to come, NOW, and talk to me. I wait, eagerly. She turns up 1 and a half hours later, a seemingly educated and well-dressed lady. I tell her the following:

Me: Your child is VERY sick and he needs to go to a hospital, NOW.
Reply: Blank stare, and not in my face.
Me: You have to take him NOW to hospital. He has hepatitis, all the blood results are off the chart, and he is very very sick.
Reply: Blank stare, away from me eyes.
Me: Good. So you will take him NOW to St Mary’s in Langata. We will pay back the money you spend. Go now, Do you understand?
Reply: Yes…(Barely audible)

She leaves soon with poor Ryan and I’m left there steaming, after making sure that she phones one of the workers to update her about her trip to the hospital, etc. That evening I hear that she DID take him there, and that they needed to do a scan for the child. All seems fine.

Until the next day when you hear that she didn’t go for the scan because she has no money, and that she will get the money on Thursday and take him that day. Now tell me, if your child was terribly sick, wouldn’t you take a loan from a good friend or neighbour, especially since you know it will be paid back by people who actually care about your son’s welfare, and make sure he is taken urgently for treatment? But no… not if you are mother who wants the child to die, who wants to get rid of a “burden”, even though it is a responsibility. That’s how I see it.

This country can at times make you feel totally desperate. The attitude, the hopelessness of it. Not all is grim and gloomy though, of course. There are many caring and loving mothers out there. But this story just burns me up. And there’s nothing I can do about it, because social services are non existant, and nobody cares if a toddler in Kibera dies. One less mouth to feed, I guess, both for the mother, and for the country as a whole. In a place where life is cheap, a hard life is more easily disposed of through negligence than through doing all you can to save it.

The Everlasting Dilemma

I pity Ryan, and I hope so much that his irresponsible mother carries out her duty, even though unwillingly. In the meantime all I can do is pray, and hope. What if Ryan dies? Would it be my fault? I could have saved the child. But only this time. Once I’m gone, the same thing would have happened.. no? The mother doesn’t give a damn about her child, but at least now she’s seen someone who cares about her child. I see it as an attempt in education. In education these people to help themselves not to become all fatalistic about life or to expect help to fall from the sky. Even when it’s a mother-child thing. Sometimes, you need to educate them in that, as well.


Kenyan Cultural Quirk Count no. ‘n’

October 24, 2010

Living in another culture is never an easy thing, but you learn and adapt.

Except this cultural quirk. You can’t get used to this. And it’s annoying, no offense to any Kenyans reading this!

Here’s how it works. You invite some Kenyans over to your place for a film. I repeat… A FILM. You buy them snacks, drinks and arrange the place for them, and they all come along. Ok, you are ready for quirk no. 27… they arrive an hour late… but you’re used to that. They settle down, you explain the film for the umpteenth time (since they turned up 25 mins into the film) and they watch it, enjoy it and like it.

Then this quirk starts. They don’t leave. In our culture, you go to watch a film, have a chat and LEAVE. But here… no. They stay. And they have nothing to do. So you are a bit perplexed as to what to do next. So you try to start a conversation. In the end, you end up letting them use the internet…fine, no objections there.

But the film finished at 6pm. It’s 8pm now. You want to… you know… live your own private life. Cook. Watch other films. Or prepare to go out. You give many hints, like “it’s dark…” or “so is it far to your place?” … or even “We are going out”. OK, so Plan A doesn’t work. Plan B is next .. “I need to take a shower you know…”. Here’s where it gets rude.. they don’t apologise for their staying or prepare to leave… no. They tell you “It’s OK, we’ll wait untill you finishedd the shower”. OH MY GOD. You bite your tongue and stop yourself from screaming at them and actually GO take a shower (even if it was nothing more than an excuse) and you dress up and you obviously expect them to be ready to leave.

But no. it’s 8.20pm and they are still using your laptop for internet purposes. You get the keys, you tell them “Come on, we have to go” and one of them says “Can I check facebook?” and you say “NO I’m sorry we have to go coz the taxi will be here soon”. They grudgingly oblige and you go down the stairs with them. at the doorway you tell them “OK I’ll wait for the taxi here, you go on coz it will start raining” (and at this point I thank God for the light drizzle that has actually started) and you wait for them to leave the compound. Then up you go, change into your PJ’s and stay in bed checking your emails and listening to Queen whilst you curse the moment you invited them over.

No… I’m not exxagerating. In this culture once you invite over for an event, you invite him over for the whole day. And it gets to you. After a while they might just turn up without any invitation as if it were their home. You tend to lose your privacy, and the distance between work and home blurs into a hazy mess.

Lessons Learnt

We’ve discussed this with many-a-volunteer living in Kenya and they all say “that’s why we don’t invite them over”. It sounds bad, very bad actually, but it is the only way you can prevent your home from becoming a sort of “hanging out” place. We’ve had students turn up at our place when we weren’t even there, and they say “we will wait for you” and you have to insist on telling them to “Go coz we will be late”. Even worse, one turns up uninvited and reacts to your startled expression by saying “If I phoned you you’d have said no so I came here” !!! WHATTT????! “£$”£^$##”

No. 1: Do not invite Kenyan friends over to your place casually unless you are sure of what you’re doing.
No. 2: This doesn’t only happen with poorer Kenyans. I’ve met people who invited wealthy Kenyans over for 11am Brunch and they leave after 8pm, or they leave their kids for the “afternoon” and they turn up for them at 10pm, no excuses provided.
No. 3: Only invite them if you know how to say “No”, even at the cost of sounding rude. I haven’t got that in me, so I suffer the consequences.

I know I sound bad with all the above written, but at one point you realise your private life is being compromised. How would you feel if your friends turn up suddenly at your place, expecting you to let them use the internet, provide them with soda and snacks and you have no desire to have them around? Seriously???

Lulling in Lamu

October 13, 2010

Breathtaking. That’s the only word I have for Lamu… a quaint town by the Indian Ocean, barely touched by tourism. Imagine warm seas, palm trees, mangroves, dhows, 3 cars on an entire island, genuinely friendly people and donkeys, everywhere.

Lara and Steph, my dearest of friends came over for a 12 day visit from the UK so we planned to go to the coast, a good break after London and Nairobi grey skies. We set off on Tuesday 5th at night on a good bus ride to Mombasa, an 8 hr bus ride which was quite comfortable actually considering it’s a Kenyan bus (I looked for the best buses in Nairobi and went via Coast Express). The only thing I’d complain about is this scenario:

1. It’s nighttime. People want to sleep
2. There is a flat screen TV showing a film called “In Hell”
3. The violence, rape, murder and beating up of people in general shown in the film isn’t exactly what you feel like watching on an 8 hr trip.
4. The driver and conductor don’t get the message when people are trying to sleep and the occasional snore is heard in the bus.
5. Why show such violent movies? Ma nifhimx.

Anyways, we got to Mombasa at around 5am and we had no idea where to catch Lamu buses. No problemo. We ask this guy, who runs in the middle of the street, stops a bus speeding straight towards him, and we clamber up, barely knowing what we are doing, and find our way to the back seat. Big mistake John.
The Trip

It was all ok till we got to Malindi. Good road, lovely pleasant weather. Then after the brief stop at Malindi, the road simply stopped. Basically all that was left of the road to Mpekatoni was a dirt road. The Bus started its first heaves and squeaks and we flew off the seat for the first time. It was to be 5 hrs of constant jerking around, pain, laughter out of desperation, dust, heat, panicking swahili mothers boarding the bus and stops in the middle of nowhere, where amongst things we saw a man trying to fit a motorbike (yes, a motorbike) into the luggage booth and men trying to stuff a chicken through Lara’s window.

We finally got to Lamu… no, not Lamu. Mpekatoni. I was furious. Why did he stop us there? Anyways, we ended up in a square, the only non-black people around for miles, probably, and everyone trying to carry our luggage to get some tips. I refused all help, even when one drunken man started swearing at me and screaming “I am a f****** sh**” and I said “I don’t pay for your generosity, thanks” and let him swear on at me. By that time I was half dazed anyway. We then dozed on the back seats, everyone staring at us like some creatures from another planet, and after 1 hour (or was it 2) we finally saw the SEA. We then boarded a public ferry, which I think gave me a taste of what refugees crossing the med must feel like, and 30 minutes later we were in Lamu.

Anyone visiting Kenya MUST visit Lamu. It is hard to describe it. Imagine narrow winding streets, with no cars but many donkeys. Old swahili-style building with impressive doors, many being restored by European and American owners to be rented out later on, or for personal use. Friendly people. Seafood. The Sea within sight. The widest street is so narrow that perhaps 4 people can walk side by side in it, and they call it the main street! We set off to find Yumbe house, but we were quite disappointed by the whole place… perhaps because Lara and Steph can be quite fussy at times 🙂 Thus, with the help of Katana, a local friend, we found a lovely guest house called “Stopover” where we rented a room for 3 and settled in.

What does one do in Lamu?”

Simple! Enjoy the charm of the place. Choose your breakfast in the evening and enjoy it in the morning sea breeze on the rooftop under a swahili canopy. Walk to Shela and swim in divine scenery in the warm ocean. E

at coconuts. Buy coconut souveniours. Talk to the locals. Take a dhow ride to sea a spectacular sunset, or go for a night BBQ of fish and sit warm by the bonfire under the stars. Lamu is probably the most laid-back place I’ve ever been to. Even the people speak more slowly there. “Habarrri yakoo? Jaaammbbo! Poolee Poolee”. Amazing. You feel the stress oozing out of your sweat pores under the hot sun. And you feel that life is good, that it is good to be alive, and that coconut style Monster Crab is the best seafood you have ever tasted!

I am still there, in a way. It’s hard to get back to the Nairobi stress after 5 days of experiencing what life should be about… a good community, hot sun, warm sea, mangroves alone the coast, Tropical fruit and good company. It was a great way of spending some time with your dearest of friends whom you haven’t met for nigh a year. And it could all be summed up in one word: Bliss.

I will upload some photos soon, but my first errands in Nairobi await. Be back soon!

Weird Question

October 2, 2010

2 days ago I was giving a biology tutorial to the Form 4’s (our equivalent of 6th form) on ecology… they have the KCSE exams (A Levels) in 3 weeks’ time and I want to help them as much as I can with biology, whilst Pauline is helping them with Maths and Physics…

After the lesson a shy 19 year old student, a girl, approached me and asked me “Teacher can I ask you a question I’ve been wanting to ask for a long time?” I said “Yes of course go ahead!”…expecting some medical question. And she asked “Is it true that when Albinos die, they disappear?”

I was stunned by this question. First of all – a 19 year old educated girl doing a science subject asks me such a question. Secondly – what sort of question is that?? Do we live in the 18th century? Or does this girl live in some backwood in the middle of Turkana?

I of course answered in the negative, and told her “Albinos are people like us, they die like us, you know. Don’t think they are different. All they lack is pigment in their skins”. But I went away shaking my head. That a 19-year old girl could ask me that question is scary. Yes, Kenyans are a very superstitious people. Remember the mobile phone hoax? But THIS bad? I never thought it could get worse than that. But it did.

And that is Africa… when things couldn’t get weirder, they do 🙂