Monday, 28 February 2011

An idiot’s guide to packing shopping

Diagrammatic Step-by-step guide
Kenya, near Mithini, 70km from Nairobi, 2cm below kneecap, just to the right of femoral artery

Follow these simple steps, and the diagram provided, and you too could be the proud bearer of a scar on the back of your knee cap:
  1. Purchase 6 inch steel knife from local market
  2. Hastily throw into hessian sack with several kilograms of potatoes as your matatu (minibus) turns up
  3. Retrieve hessian sack from matatu’s roof at completion of journey
  4. Pick up heavy sack in a backwards swinging motion
  5. Allow protruding knife blade to swing into the back of your leg
  6. Turn white, bleed a lot
  7. Apply gauze and duct tape, be officially banned by WatotoWa Baraka management from using knifes in future

Sunday, 27 February 2011

If you only read one post, make it this one

Kenya, near Mithini, 70km from Nairobi

I’m only going to do this once, I promise.  Please don’t stop reading (there’s a secret at the end of the post to keep you interested).

And YES, good people, this is an INTERACTIVE activity. Whoop whoop! Just thank your lucky stars I don’t have access to a flip-chart and post-it notes.

First things first, I’d like you to fetch a pencil and piece of paper.  Better still, grab a calculator.  Then I’d like you to use the following calculation to work out roughly the amount of time it takes you to earn $25 USD (US Dollars) per month:

  1. monthly salary divided by 30 days = average daily salary
  2. Divided by 8 = average hourly salary
  3. For those with good jobs (i.e. most of you) – Divided by 60 = average salary per minute
  4. Convert the amount you have into $USD
  5. Multiply this figure until you reach $25 USD
  6. The number of times you multiplied = the number of minutes it takes you to earn $25 USD per month
I would wager that for many of you it takes less time to earn $25 than you spend messing about on the internet each day.  For those of you who couldn’t find a calculator, that’s OK, just keep your receipt for the next round of drinks you buy, or next shop you do, or next taxi you take, and figure out how many times you need to do this to reach $25.

Why $25 Ian? What’s the significance, I hear your breathily pant. Well, it’s the cost of my recent gonorrhea test monthly sponsorship for a child in rural Kenya who has nothing, but who still goes to school in an effort to improve their lot.  It can be donated for as long or as short a period as you want.  It goes to an individual child, who you will be introduced to electronically, who you can write to, and who will write back.  Hell, you can come and visit them if you want, on the way to Safari, or the Maldives, or Cape Town.

It. Will. Change.Their.Lives.
Bit of a change of tone, what? Where are the toilet gags?  Not this time amigos, this time I’m not messing about.  

Do it now, right now, this very moment. Send an email to Geoffrey Ndungu (Founder of Watoto Wa Baraka) indicating your interest.  In fact, to save you the bother for this first step, just copy and paste the text below (content at your discretion):

Subject: Registration of interest – child sponsorship

Dear Geoffrey,
I am friends of Ian and Helen Thistlewood.  They have told us about the great work you do through their frankly amazing blog. I wish to register my interest in sponsoring a child, and would like to understand what the next steps may be.
Kind regards,
A good person

Right, that’s it, stop reading, send the email.

Postscript: Oh, I forgot, I promised a secret didn’t I?  OK, here we go, hushed tones.  There was this little girl called DarmarisWayua. You will never believe what she did! Seriously, this is Heat magazine fodder!  She accidently burnt down the tiny wood and thatch shack she shared with her six siblings after their father died, and their mother abandoned them.  Now their 15 year old eldest sister has quit school so she can act as a mother.  Scandalous huh?! (she might even have cellulite if viewed through a telescopic photo lens!). Now this is the best bit, but you must promise not to tell anyone.  Promise? Good.  So, they all squat on a mountainside, all seven children, the youngest only three years old, all malnourished, surviving off scraps the local community can throw their way, prey to child prostitution.  I know, wild! Promise you won’t tell? Promise?

I heard this with my own ears, I met this little girl, and her twin sister, and her older sister.  It’s not a secret any more. She, and many more, need help.  This organisation helps them, I’ve seen them do it. I’m not joking about.  Send that email now.

Darmaris - she's 9, believe it or not

Normal service resumes next time.  PARP!

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Great views, comfortable accommodation, room for pets, your new home awaits!

Kenya, near Mithini, 70km from Nairobi

I often wander around the different buildings on the small orphanage compound thinking that my friends at IKEA would have an absolute field day here.  Although they don’t, to my knowledge, have a ‘shack chic’ range currently, their approach to living in small spaces and smart storage solutions would transform this place.  I can see it now: a troupe of planners and interior designers scoping the place and visualising its transformation, logistics specialists poring over infrastructure and transport questions, and the creative team par excellence capturing in film and print the whole story.  For the people we are currently living with, that would really create a better everyday life.

Having said this, what the buildings lack in style, they do, at a basic level, make up for in function. There’s a kitchen with an open fire pit for cooking, four bedrooms, a dining room, a toilet/shower block, and a cow shed.  The kitchen and bedrooms are made out of flattened steel drums, and painted to remove the shanty town feeling.  Or as my hot-shot realtor Uncle Peter (THE man for property in Vancouver.FACT.) would say: WOW! Stunning mountain views, spacious and pretty lot, traditional and sympathetically constructed accommodation, with an open plan kitchen, and parking for eight cows, this property has to be seen to be believed. Don’t miss out!

Casa Thistlewood is one of the nine ft square rooms, furnished with a metal bunk bed (snuggle time is a strictlyself-imposed off limits activity when in residence – this is not where the magic happens), a table, and a dusty floor.  True to form, we have managed to make it a mess, although we have both broken the habit of leaving clothing and wet towels on the aforementioned dusty floor, hanging them instead from nails in the wood joists, and a makeshift clothes line. 
The room also serves as our open plan shower room. Every few days, tail wagging, I de-robe to be scrubbed down by my quip-making wife using a bowl of water, a plastic bottle, and a shower puff which I have since been banned from using on the justification that ‘this thing stinks after you use it, it’s mine, my sister gave it to ME, I keep finding hair in it’.  On this subject, the kids are fascinated with my excess of body hair, stroking my arms far more tenderly than they do the dogs, and prompting Jecinta (9) to ask Zach (orphanage Manager, 34) if he would get hair like me when he got older.  He laughed, and gently explained that no, he thought not, but his eyes were saying ‘I bloody well hope not, wookies are endangered around here’.  Recently after my weekly scrub down Helen’s been wobbling my ever-decreasing love handles asking ‘where has my Husband gone’? before tickling my belly until my left leg shakes.  After that it’s a vigorous shake, a Bonio, and a frolic in the fields.

On the subject of dogs, real ones this time, we’re now the proud sponsors of two puppies which we purchased for our new friend, the night guard Albert. Albert is a funny bloke. An ex-soldier I think, although I couldn’t get a straight answer from him other than ‘you weren’t there man, you weren’t there’!  He and I have built up a friendship based on mutual inquisitiveness.  And smoking*. He tells me about Kenyan life, I tell him about life in the UK (‘so let me get this straight Ian, sometimes a woman goes to work and a man stays at home as a “house husband”. Tee-hee-hee, that wouldn’t happen in Kenya’.)  I love his blunt line of questioning, and how quick he is to laugh.  On her first day the new volunteer, the charming and erudite Stephanie from California, was asked straight out by Albert: ‘so, you’re 30 and not married? Does that not worry you’? Bridget Stephanie took it in very good grace, realising from the small smirk on Albert’s face that he was purposefully clashing two cultures, and deftly rejected the suggestion that his brother was available, and also 30 (despite me stepping into a negotiator role and pushing the dowry up from four cows to eight cows and a goat). 
Anyway, back to the dogs. Volunteers had previously bought a dog for Albert (it continues to live at the other orphanage), naming it ooh aren’t we right-on smartasses Kofi Annan. We named the boy WotWot.  I know which one I’d find funnier hearing a Crufts announcer say.  The girl puppy was named Simba by the children -the Swahili for ‘lion’ Disney fans, and the source of a still unresolved childhood trauma for my younger brother – ‘why did Simba’s father have to die, WHY’?!
I would pay to see the moment in which my successful younger brother is about to close a deal and ‘circle of life’ comes drifting out of the radio, reducing him into a snotty and tearful mess, expensive tie used as hankie, head in hands sobbing, and explaining to his bemused client that ‘I just hasn’t got over the Lion King yet, OK pal, OK? Just let me bloody grieve’.  And if you’re reading this bruv, please can we still come to stay? Pretty please? I’ll buy you some therapy vouchers and burn all local copies of Bambi to prevent future problems.  I’ll even try to avenge Simba’s father’s death on the way down to you.

So, as you can hopefully tell, this isn’t such a bad place to live.  Book your viewing TODAY!

* Yes, I know this is a stupid, unhealthy, and socially inconsiderate habit, and I’m not proud of it, but the secret that all smokers know is that there is no higher quality face time than the five minutes of shared nicotine worship.  I have solved an unrepresentatively high percentage of professional disagreements and issues, and built stronger relationships, over a cigarette than I have done behind a desk or across a meeting table.  And for those singletons out there, I think smirting is more than just a neat phrase, I think it’s the new 

Saturday, 26 February 2011

The toilet: a comparative study

Kenya, near Mithini, 70km from Nairobi

I really don’t want my epitaph to read ‘He died as he lived. Full of shit’.  I was thinking this as I squatted over the latrine hole, hanging on for dear life to the walls of the tin shack that serves as the communal toilet.  It’s not the stench that bothers me, nor is it the flies, nor is it the general idea, it’s the sheer logistics.  I’m just not designed for this, if you’ll excuse the pun, shit. At 6 foot 4 inches, with the flexibility of a lump of granite, and an aim that even the American Army would balk at, this is not friendly fire. Now, in the spirit of diplomacy and cultural sensitivity I’ve given some thought to the relative merits of the squat versus the bowl method of expulsion, but can now categorically conclude that the latter triumphs, for the following reasons:

  • Unless you sit back to front you can’t miss when using a bowl. If you do sit back to front then, frankly, you have bigger problems, and should probably lay off the booze
  • The bowl method is more politically correct, providing as it does a male and female option (lid up or down)
  • It is far easier to read a paper/sit on a conference call (ideally on mute)/play Angry Birds when using a bowl
  • The Japanese have never invented a squat latrine that, at the press of a button, extends a small arm from under the seat rim that, somewhat erotically, shoots a stream of lukewarm water up your backside
  • It is not possible to topple face first off a bowl, landing in the dust with your pants around your ankles, to the startled bemusement of an innocent orphan (hypothetically, of course)

So, there you have it, I do believe that the contentious debate of squat vs bowl can now be closed.  Now, if you don’t mind, I have a paper to finish.

Competition time! In the interests of a healthy and open debate I’m inviting submissions that argue for or against the motion above, namely ‘this house believes the bowl is the better method of expulsion than the squat’. Leave your entries in the comments section below, or by emailing me, marking them 'dunny debate'. The best entries will be published in a future post, and the overall winner will be the recipient of a special prize!* Clearly, judging criteria will be largely based on what I find funny, so please no complex explanations of how the squat method is the holistic extension of how the intestines blah blah blah.  Yes, that means you Gillian McKeith.

*The competition organisers would like to point out that there is no special prize.

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The kids are alright

Kenya, near Mithini, 70km from Nairobi

Kenyan 4th XI.  Spot the odd one out.

There are nine children who currently live at the orphanage, seven of whom are orphans from the local area, and two of whom (Alice and Stephen) are the children of the night guard, Albert, a board and lodgings deal that’s part of his employment contract.  There are three sibling pairings (Peter and Francis, Jecinta and Bonifus, Esther and Joseph) and Josphat (nicknamed ‘nmm nmm nmm’ by Helen on account of the noise he makes when eating mangoes).    They range in ages from three to fourteen, and all attend a local school called St. Teresa’s.

You may be expecting me now to cut to the ‘serious VT’, with a backing track by Adele or Coldplay, telling you their tragic stories, and urging you to pick up the phone NOW.  Well, their stories are tragic, but that was their past, and their future looks brighter, and what strikes me most is not that they are orphans, but that they are just normal kids. They’re sweet and they giggle, they love singing, sometimes they fight, they always make a mess, and they break stuff. They smile much more than they frown. That’s a cause for celebration, and a ringing endorsement for Watoto Wa Baraka in my book.  And though I realise this isn’t the done thing, I do have a favourite – 4 year old Bonifus, who does indeed have a bonny face.  A stocky little fella who reminds me of my nephew Ben, he has the following charming characteristics:

  • He’s an eating machine. Bonifus really does fill the Dickensian orphan stereotype of ‘please sir, can I have some more’?  He’d make a terrible dinner party guest as for Bonifus dinnertime is not about socialising, about discussing house prices, and about pretending to have an opinion on wine beyond ‘nice body, good on the nose, will get me pissed enough to throw my keys in the bowl’.  Dinnertime for Bonifus is about eating.  If he’s too tired to lift his spoon, he just gets his sister to do it for him, silently masticating.  Then he falls asleep at the dinner table whilst the other kids are singing their post-dinner songs. I envy him.
  • His monkey impression is ‘hee-haw, hee-haw, hee-haw’ suggesting to me that he has been part of a social experiment that tests what would happen if every time you showed a child a monkey you told them it was a donkey.
  • He has just one word of English – ‘catch’, and follows me around with a tennis ball repeating it until we play.  Next on the curriculum are ‘howzat’ and the song ‘he swings to the left, he swings to the right, Mitchell Johnson’s bowling is shite’ 

Bonifus - on the far left. Anticipating food.

And so as the heading suggests, these kids really are alright.  That wasn’t always the case, but it is now. And we’re just here to lend a hand wherever we can to ensure that their future is more important than their past.  I realise that sounds sanctimonious so I’ll counterbalance it with the sharpest quip I’ve ever heard from a hawker, in the nearest large town, Thika.  Helen was walking along holding hands with one of the orphans, nine year old Jecinta, when the hawker shouted out ‘hey, Angelina Jolie, how’s California’?  Watch out Jon Stewart.


Special feature! Inappropriate t-shirt of the week. 
I couldn’t help but have a little ironic chuckle to myself when I saw one of the clothing donations proudly sported by the staff and the children – a job lot of black t-shirts bearing the logo ‘Slim Pledge’.  Seems to be some type of American based weight loss initiative, with curiously Masonic undertones.  In a continent infamous for distressing images of famine and malnourishment I’m pretty certain the dictates of the ‘Slim Pledge’ initiative would be laughed all the way up the Nile. A humourous (albeit darkly) rather than insensitive donation I think.


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Kenya, near Mithini, 70km from Nairobi

‘People go to Africa and confirm what they already have in their heads’, wrote Nigeria’s Chinua Achebe , ‘they fail to see what is there in front of them’.  Perhaps this is what should be printed on the immigration forms for African countries, as a friendly note of advice, even caution.  Better still, replace the words ‘go to Africa’ with simply ‘travel’, and emboss it on the back of all passports, as a mantra that reminds the bearer that unless they open their eyes they may as well turn back home.  Achebe is trying, I think, to be provocative, challenging his reader to prove him wrong, saying ‘yes, I am patronising you, but am I right? Well, am I, you punk? AM I’?

My view is that expectations are the traveler’s (and I use the term loosely) enemy, that a spirit of adventure is not fueled by expectation, but by a lack of expectations, that one should indeed ‘travel in hope rather than expectation’. For example, one of the less pleasant results of internet travel discussion forums, such as Trip Advisor, is that it creates a culture of expectation, of ‘knowing what I’m getting’, an implicit suggestion that one can avoid mistakes by knowing what to expect.  But if you know what to expect from what other people have told you, why bother going at all?  The wisdom of the crowd certainly has its place, it’s the bedrock of democracy after all, but it sits uneasily with the spirit of adventure.  Or as Henry Ford, of motor car fame, put it, ‘if I had asked the people what they wanted they’d have asked for a faster horse, with an iPod connection on the stereo and AC’.   Take away your expectations, stop listening too intently to the crowd, and the world moves from monochrome to technicolour, and you begin to see what is in front of you.

This is an attempt to give a more articulate answer to the question ‘is this what you expected’ on arrival at the orphanage, to the answer I did give, namely ‘er, dunno really’.  I can tell you what is in front of me however, about what day to day life is like as a volunteer, and about how it makes me feel and think.  It might not be what you expect…

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The handover

Kenya, near Mithini, 70km from Nairobi

It’s not often I hand over a large wad of cash to someone I’ve just met. It’s even rarer that I have just moments before retrieved said wad of cash from its concealed storage on my inner thigh whilst locked in a toilet cubicle, tip-toeing in my flip flops around turds that have missed their intended target, retching.  I mean, I could count on the toes of one shit-smeared foot the number of times this has happened and still take the other little piggies out for a fun day of roast beef and browsing through markets (they were going to the market for what? And you sing that to children? Shame on you).  

But that’s what I did today – I paid Geoffrey (Director of Watota Wa Baraka for those who weren’t paying attention in the previous posting) the 1,450 USD fee for our seven week stint, at a rest stop on the way to the orphanage. 90 dollars a week each for food and lodgings, and the rest on transport, for those of you following with a spreadsheet.  Bearing in mind we hadn’t even arrived at the orphanage yet I think my face betrayed some concern as I surreptitiously slipped the clammy, gently fragranced notes across the table.  But I’d already decided I liked Geoffrey, that I admired him, that his sense of integrity was second only to his care for those who needed care the most.  And it was his response upon receiving the cash that cemented these intuitions.  ‘Thank you’, he said, ’you know, don’t you, that this money is not what it costs us to feed and shelter you, the actual cost is far less’.  ‘Yes’, I said, ‘I'd figured that’. ‘But I want you to know’ he continued ‘that this money will help children who really do need help, children you will be meeting shortly. You’ll see for yourself how this money is spent’.  

Now, I like to think I have a well-honed bullshit detection sensor, that I can tell when someone is stringing me a line, it’s a tool of my trade in some ways. And today my sensor was gently resting in green.  In fact, I’d packed it away, because with that response I knew Geoffrey was giving it to me straight, and my respect for him grew massively.  I knew our money would be used for more than just food and board, he knew I knew, and he addressed it directly with no apology, no quibble.  To paraphrase Dick Cheney – there were now no unknowns, or known unknowns, or unknown unknowns (if you need to translate please put on your best simpleton voice and repeat 'duuuuuuuuuuuuuurrrrrrrrrrrrrr').  Geoffrey was himself, he explained, a beneficiary of child sponsorship – a doctor had assisted him in completing his education when his own family could not afford it.

Geoffrey, and his charming wife Esther, were driving us out of Nairobi to the orphanage, 70kms north east, into rural Kenya.  As we pulled off the tarmacked road he broke off from answering my inane questions (are there any snakes? No. Are they all orphans? Yes, it’s an orphanage) to comment that there really is very little infrastructure once you get into the countryside, as the dirt road with enormous pot-holes attested to, as we slowly bumped our way to our new home.  Geoffrey pointed out the British owned Del Monte fruit farm, to which I unthinkingly blurted out ‘the man from Del Monte, he say yes’, before having to give a squirming explanation of the mildly racist advertising campaign of the 1990s. The scenery grew more beautiful, with green mountains and valleys on either side, and small stalls at the side of the road selling mangoes and bananas farmed at a largely subsistence level by the residents of the smallholdings we could see from the car window.  Small children, in their school uniforms, stared confused at the two white faces peering out of the car, before smiling and returning our waves (the confusion, to be fair, may have been why three people were transporting on the back seat a gorilla in sunglasses and sporting a tubigrip bandage).

And then, 30 bone shaking kilometres later, we were there. 200 metres off the dirt track down a winding road, behind a barbed wire fence, is the compound where eleven children live with the matron, Zeporah, the night guard, Albert, the manager of the other orphanage, Zach (who splits his time between the two), four cows, two goats, two chickens, and a gazillion bloody flies.  And now with us also. Handover complete.

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Monday, 21 February 2011

You’ll be able to handle it better

Kenya, Nairobi, 7-8 February 2011 

The Kenyan immigration form is A4 (letter) size and looks as if it has been produced by a rookie as a homework assignment.  I rather liked it, although was disappointed not to see a question enquiring as to whether I was entering the country with the nefarious intentions of terrorism, crime, or political espionage.  Whenever I see such a question I’m often tempted to tick yes, and scrawl viva la revolution! in the margin.  Then I remember that I’m no real fan of latex, have difficulty touching my toes at the best of times, and bashfully complete the rest of the form (Sex? Yes please! Male).
Forms completed properly and fingerprints scanned (a US border guard once gave me the back-handed compliment that I had very clear fingerprints, i.e. didn’t do a proper man’s job), the smiling and joking Kenyan immigration officials slapped in our visas, and sent us on our way with the decree to ‘have fun’.   I locked myself in the nearest cubicle so I could slip the ridiculous wad of cash we had on us into a Ziploc bag, and then into a tubigrip bandage pulled tight over by yet-to-decompress thigh.  With 140ish Kenyan Shillings to the pound this isn’t as investment banker as it sounds, and I figured that if a would-be assailant wanted to get that close to my nether regions after a nine hour flight they deserved compensation.

Standing in the arrivals hall was the smiling and diminutive Geoffrey – director of the organisation we’d come to work with, Watoto Wa Baraka, more of both later.  Bags manhandled into his car, we drove out of the airport and onto the motorway, passing a single zebra grazing in the central reservation – an official representative of the Kenyan safari industry welcoming committee I suspect – and bounced our way through the dark, dusty, and dilapidated Nairobi roads, before pulling into our hotel for the night. 

Now, over the years I have made it my mission to successfully decode Helen’s facial expressions, and this time I filed through the mental rolodex (discarding ‘what you’re doing makes me physically sick’ and ‘shut up, I’m eating’) before pulling out ‘you’ve got to be fucking kidding me’.  Standing before us was a three storey building whose entire ground floor was boarded up, and a surprised looking night guard, with his own facial expression that said ‘nope, ‘fraid not’.  Fortunately the first floor improved, and although basic and falling apart, our accommodation for the night was just the ticket, and selected by Geoffrey on purpose I think to give our molly-cuddled western sensibilities a short, sharp, but safe shock (apologies, my ‘s’ key got jammed with some mango juice – sweet, sweet succulent, salacious mango, nmm nmm).

After a restorative ciggie on the concrete balcony, taking in the rubbish dump vista and the orchestra of howling street dogs, I decided I liked this place.  I’ve flown into new cities all over the world, been driven entranced through humid streets teeming with new and exciting life, and been deposited into the air conditioned lobbies of international chain hotels.  Now, I love fresh sheets, mints on the pillow, free biros and ‘think of our balance sheet the environment before asking for your towels to be washed’ stickers as much as the next (business) man.  But what I love more is feeling like you’ve arrived somewhere new, of having your assuredness and cynicism karate-chopped out of you. The most visceral night I’ve ever spent in a new city was in a backpackers hostel in Kuala Lumpar’s Chinatown district, sitting on its cramped balcony in the middle of the night (as my jet-lag immune buddy Tom slumbered peacefully in our dorm), chain smoking duty frees, reading a book I’d picked up from the hostel’s small collection, and watching as the city turned from night into a flurry of early morning activity.  I remember feeling nervous and elated at the same time, with that floaty other-worldly sensation that only a cocktail of one part jet-lag to two parts new city can give you.  

Settled in, and us chugging down on bottles of water, Geoffrey explained his plans for us over the next seven weeks.  ‘For the final three weeks I’d like you to work in our established orphanage in Makuyu’ he said, ‘but for the first month we need help in our new centre near Mithini’. ‘Sure’, we said, being none the wiser about either, save for reading about the organisation and its work on their website and Facebook page.  It was then that he uttered a phrase that, on the one hand, stroked our ego, and on the other, dumped a cold bucket of apprehension over our heads – ‘it’s pretty basic, but I thought you two were older, more experienced, that you’d be able to handle it better’.  With that he was gone until morning, leaving me thinking ‘geez, this guy should run for office, he’s good’.  He’d left us wanting more.  And, boy, were we about to get it. 

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