Sunday, 27 March 2011

Mzungu tax

Kenya, near Makuyu, 60km from Nairobi
I’ve revealed rather a lot about myself in these blog postings, perhaps too much*. And yet it’s not just me who has revealed more than is perhaps wise.  You, the readers, have revealed what a sadistic lot you are.  My dashboard tells me that the top two most popular postings involve me experiencing either physical pain or discomfort. So it will come as no surprise that when I asked you whether or not I should vent my spleen the overwhelming result was to the positive (83% vs. 17%).  Good for you.  You weirdos.
So allow me to start this venting with a confession.  I’m an angry man trapped inside a calm man’s body.  There, I’ve said it.  I can now commence my 12 step recovery programme 12 whole steps, are you fucking kidding me, why don’t you walk down those 12 steps into my basement full of Get a Grip torture implements!?  I exaggerate somewhat, and the truth is that 99.99% of the time I’m fairly easy going, and my outer self really doesn’t stress the little things.  But sometimes the façade cracks and I lose it.  To be clear, anger doesn’t equate to physical violence in my case – I abhor physical violence, not least because I’m rubbish at it.  But I can, 0.01% of the time, be verbally violent.  My brother once confessed to me that he’d feared I’d had a rapid mental breakdown after he watched me scream obscenities through the car window of a man who’d just dropped another empty packet of cigarettes at my feet after I’d already told him that the floor wasn’t a bin.  In my darker moments I still regret not following the guy home and then returning in the dead of night with a week’s worth of rubbish to dump through his letterbox.  And a machine gun.
Last week was a 0.01% occasion.  It had been coming – I could feel myself getting more irritable, less patient, and it was sitting on a packed and steamy matatu that it happened.  Matatus are minivans that serve as the public transport in Kenya.  They seat 14 but regularly cram in 25 or more.  I’m sure some travellers enjoy the novel experience of being crammed into a rusting death-trap, figuring they are experiencing ‘the real thing’.  I’m not one of them.  The reason these matatus are crammed is because of police corruption, because the swathe of underpaid and unscrupulous traffic police will take a bribe before they prosecute a driver for overfilling his vehicle.  The impact is that ordinary Kenyans continue to experience discomfort at best, death at worst, and that there is a smaller competitive market in matatus, and therefore less competitive imperative to reduce prices.  Plus they stink.
Each matatu has a conductor who collects the fares and manoeuvres the passengers for maximum capacity.  And each conductor is a chancer.   They regularly try to scam the passengers by withholding change, claiming they received a lower denomination bill, or in the case of mzungus (white folk) straight overcharging.  On this 0.01% day he tried to overcharge me five times the fare.  Five times!  And I lost it.  To the amusement of the other passengers (for they hate the conductors too) I started shouting at him.  I recount here a slightly censored version: ‘what is this you mother-crusher, a mzungu tax? Yeh, I’m talking to you scally-wag.  I’m not paying a mzungu tax you flipping thief, give me my change or I’m gonna turn that smile upside down!’
I got my change.  We parted company with my suggestion that he go away and perform a biologically impossible act upon his person.  My anger at this one incident was probably unjustified.  But anger at corruption, which was really the root of my displeasure, is not unjustified.  Corruption in Kenya trickles down the many layers of government and has become normalised.  And as with all trickle down theories it is those on the bottom rung who feel its impact the most. 
Take this one, particularly insidious, example.  The Kenyan Ministry of Education have recently declared that all children in education must have a birth certificate before they can take their national exams.  Education in Kenya is a big deal, and Kenya has a high literacy rate as a result, and a massive youth population who are about to take this country into a new era of prosperity.  And yet the very poorest children who would benefit from education the most rarely have birth certificates.  Watoto Wa Baraka, the organisation we have been working for, are helping the children they sponsor to procure birth certificates from the local government.  To do this the local sub-chief has to write a letter to the government ministry confirming that the child does indeed exist and is a certain age.  And to do this incredibly simple, yet important, task the sub-chief expects a bribe.  Watato Wa Baraka always refuse and politely explain that they are helping the children in the sub-chief’s area, and maybe he could forego his personal interests on this occasion so that the child could be educated.
And all credit to them for keeping their cool and their principles.  I’m fairly certain that my reaction would be to not only suggest the sub-chief conduct the aforementioned impossible act upon his person, but I would help him do it with a broom handle.
And before you ask, you weirdos, no I won’t conduct this experiment myself and post pictures.    

* Note to current or future employers/clients – it’s all fiction**, I’m completely normal and really quite exceptional at my job. 
** OK, so it’s not fiction, but the rest of that sentence is true***.
*** Maybe.

A matatu.  Pronounced maa-ta-tu.  As opposed to a Yorkshireman's ballet outfit - ma -tutu.

<I’ve calmed down now.  I would like to make a special mention for those of you who have left comments – they really are appreciated so keep them coming.  And a double special mention to those of you who have become followers – you’re my favourites.  I’m on a soft promise from a literary agent that if I get 5,000 followers a publisher may take interest.  Only 4,990 to go!  Any ideas to send this blog viral are most welcome.  Whilst you’re thinking why not become a follower yourself? >

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Crime and punishment

Kenya, near Makuyu, 60km from Nairobi

Having no children of my own puts me in a perfect position, I think, to pass judgement on how to raise children correctly and, more importantly, to objectively point out where parents are going wrong in their own efforts at parenting.  This constructive and impartial criticism is, I feel, a valuable service; particularly for new parents.  It is, after all, important to listen to outside views if you want to take parenting at all seriously.

I’m joking!  You can stop sharpening the rusks into daggers and emptying the rattle into an IED.  Dora the Explorer need not switch careers into Dora the Assassin.  Worry not, I’m the last person you’ll ever hear trotting out the limp cliché ‘everyone’s opinion is valid’, the motto on the flag of the fictional Nation of Cretin.  In the Nation of Cretin everyone’s opinion is valid, no matter how ill informed, illogical, or evidence free the opinion may be.  One result, among many, is that creationism is taught on the same science syllabus as evolution. It’s a good job the Nation of Cretin is virtually every nation on earth a fictional place, otherwise I fear I might start receiving death threats from its citizens – the cretinites.  Having said that, I am tempted to post that first paragraph onto Mumsnet, perhaps supplemented with a five point parenting plan. I think receiving a death threat in crayon and alphabet spaghetti would be rather fun.

So, having established my non-credentials in the raising of children I’d still like to share with you what, in my non-credible opinion, is the most effective (and funniest) piece of child discipline I’ve ever seen.  Little Daniel is five years old, and he has a sweet tooth. That’s him in the picture below, cute huh? He was caught with a pocket full of sugar that he’d pilfered from the kitchen, and was sitting in a dark corner licking it off his fingers.  I thought this, in itself, was pretty funny, but the punishment he received from Zach (Orphanage Manager whom Helen childishly, although accurately, keeps accusing me of having a bro-mance with), was even funnier.  Little Daniel was forced to wear a sign around his neck  and carry a cup of sugar around the compound before having to stand on the stage in the dining room with a torch played onto the sign.  He was embarrassed, he was teary, and he was ridiculed by his peers.  He’ll get over all these things.  He stole - that’s bad news even if it was just sugar.  Hopefully he won’t do it again, and therefore the punishment fitted the crime.  Just my opinion.

The sign reads: This is my story… My name is Daniel.  I love sweet things and I am a thief.  Like today I stole sugar (also maize and beans) in the kitchen.  You better watch out, I might come after you. 

<We have a winner! From the veritable deluge of two whole entries for the ‘dunny debate’ in a previous post it is after much careful consideration that the plaudits go to Matt, despite strong competition from Rhi.  I urge you to read both comments, but it was Matt’s invention of new African proverbs that snaffled him first place.  Matt (and I think I know which Matt this is) – you are a scholar and a gentleman, and we miss you and R very much. By way of a prize here is a proverb just for you:  Sometimes the gloss of friendship presents itself as Matt. >     

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Maji Imeisha. Water – all gone!

Kenya, near Mithini, 70km from Nairobi

Francis doing his best Comic Relief pose. 
He's not sad, he's just a bit lazy and hates collecting water
The rooster crows, the randy goat does his best Barry White impression, the puppies whine, the children run about making children noise, and I blearily wonder if Slimer will ever piss off and stop sticking my mouth to the pillow with ectoplasm each night.  It’s 6.30am and morning broke about half an hour ago.  My bed seems to have sagged another couple of inches during the night.  It’s time to get up.  It’s time to start the daily routine. 
Guilt propels me out of bed (another example of how you can’t leave your self behind). The older children have already left for school, and Ziporah – the eternally patient and caring house matron – has been up since 5am doing a selection of the million tiny jobs that make this place function.  Ciggie for me, porridge for the children (made out of millet, crimson red, minging) before they wander off to school repeating back to us ‘good bye children’.  And then there really is no more avoiding it – water collection time.

What’s your reaction when a colleague says they’ve just been for a workout at the gym before work?  Mine is ‘oh, wow, felt that burn huh’? before disappearing as quickly as possible in the assured knowledge that I have just escaped from a PROPERLY MENTAL person.  Well, I’m that properly mental person now.  Except my dumbbells are 25 litre jerry cans, my step machine is a hill, and my water fountain is a small water hole at the bottom of said hill.  

Bleary eyed we bump the wheelbarrow and jerry cans down the hill, 250 metres.  Yeh, well it feels long on the way back.  At the hole the water is scooped into the jerry cans, ideally from my favourite prostrate position laying over a rock, like the bastard lovechild between a beaver and a seal.  It’s then loaded onto a wheelbarrow and pushed back up the hill.  We do this two or three times, and tend to take it in turns for who pushes the wheelbarrow and who pulls it using a rope.  It was this activity that caused a domestic one day (hilarious I thought, not so much she thought) when I decided, as ‘pusher’, to act out the role of an ex-military personal trainer.  This involved shouting to the ‘puller’ (my wife, and a nickname I hope is limited to this activity) such encouragement as ‘you’re pathetic, that’s not the wall you’ve hit, the wall thinks you’re a joke! and ‘you don’t know what pain feels like, pain is what happens if you don’t pull harder’!   The flames were hardly doused when, as she dropped the rope halfway up the hill and stomped off back to the compound, I shouted out (still in character I’m keen to add) ‘yeh, well cry me a river, build me a bridge, and GET OVER IT’!   

Fortunately, the drudgery of this water collection will soon be a thing of the past as an American based organisation, Well Aware, have agreed to create a bore hole, an act that will transform life at the orphanage, and also support the local community.  And when I say local community, I mean local women, for whom a patriarchal tradition dictates that they are responsible for collecting water and then carrying it on their back, with a strap over their forehead.  Women drive this small part of the world, but have none of the power that should accompany their hard work.  It’s only feckless, useless layabout men you see slumped under trees, and it is only they that breathe their stinking alcohol breath over you and stare with their stoned eyes as they harass for a few shillings ‘for their children’.  I swiftly added the word ‘toke’ to my small Swahili collection as when ‘no’ doesn’t work, ‘piss off’ normally does.

Whilst we are on the subject of inspirational womanhood (that’s right sisters, we’re doin’ it for ourselves!) the founder of Well Aware, Sarah, visited the new orphanage with her boyfriend, Bradley, on a whistle-stop tour of Kenya to assess potential projects.  A youthful looking 36 year old from Austin, Texas, she gave up her successful law career to start Well Aware figuring, I suppose, that water trumped writs, that the ground beat the gavel.  She told me about a fantastic fundraising activity they run, the name of which I’ve completely forgotten so I’ll call it the ‘7 day stinkathon’, that requires participants to not shower until they have raised $1,000.  A great idea, and one which some of the commuters on my old tube journey seemed to have embraced fully. 

Her charitable spirit didn’t end with providing a well – on the morning of their departure Sarah handed us a bag full of treats such as porridge and, joy of joys, gen-u-ine Texan beef jerky, explaining that as their trip was nearly at an end they figured we needed it more than them.  Well, on the sight of the jerky I’m not proud to say that I lost my British reserve, and gave Sarah an impromptu, and no doubt fragrant, hug.  It was clearly her powers of lawyerly discretion that prevented her from asking if I could become the ‘after’ example for participants in the 7 day stinkathon, a warning against raising the money too slowly.

The well they are planning to install really can’t come too quickly.  Daubed in chalk against the limestone walls of the watering hole is the legend maji imeisha, the Kikuyu for no more water, written by some wag as a darkly humorous comment on the difficulties of the dry seasons.  Not only will it provide the orphanage and the community with a steady supply of clean water, but it will also reduce the number of water collection domestic disputes.  Now, FEEL THE BURN, MAGGOT!

<I've had a couple of people tell me they couldn't leave comments. If you're stuck try using this help page from Google. >

I don’t believe in anything

Kenya, near Mithini, 70km from Nairobi

I’ve not been sleeping well recently.  To those of you who know me this will come as no surprise given that I exhibit five out of the six scientifically recognised sleep disorders.  Namely: sleep anger, sleep fear, sleep anxiety, sleep aggression, sleep copulation, and sleep eating.   It’s only the last – sleep eating – that I have escaped from, leaving no wiggle room for flabby excuses.  This fine physique is entirely of my own, fully sentient, making although I can’t categorically deny ever having done the truffle shuffle during the night. 
These sleep disorders generally manifest themselves in sleep walking and talking.  Well, except one, which I don’t think even the most optimistic reconstructive physio and speech therapists could describe as the acts of walking or talking.  More like grunting and flailing. These night time shenanigans are, I think, a symptom of my brain which just never stops whirring. This is not an indicator of useful or productive brain activity, oh no, knocking around instead in my cranium is the most random, illogical, and ultimately pointless debating chamber ever called into session. 

As a result, relaxation of the spa brochure description is elusive to me, premised as it is on the assumption that the body and the mind take a break.  I feel more wound up after having a massage than before.  Sometimes there’s a jolly good reason for this (a story for a later, adults only, posting), but mostly it’s just that an hour lying flat on my front with nothing to do but think is hard work.  So when I go to bed it’s often as if the day is continuing, but with the daytime constraints of society, manners, and logic removed. Going to bed drunk is the same but to the power of 50.  There’s a top five countdown at the foot of the post that reveals, somewhat embarrassingly, that my nocturnal activities are probably more interesting than my waking moments.

Anyway, this preamble is purely to provide some context as to why I sat bolt upright in bed last night and declared to myself, out loud, ‘I don’t believe in anything’.   It’s rare that I remember my night time activities, but last night I remember having some crazy fever dreams that revolved around things disappearing, forever. Apocalyptic dreams are my assigned feverish state, and I believe that everyone has a recurring theme that dominates their mind when a fever takes hold. Rather than fluffy bunny rabbits and kittens mine is the apocalypse, ‘dem da breaks I suppose.  What I remember from last night is feeling terrified but strangely calm, even liberated. The feeling was, I imagine, the one you’d get after you accepted that yes, this asteroid is indeed heading towards earth, and no, Bruce Willis isn’t really a drilling expert, and no again, Will Smith can’t take his place instead, this is an asteroid not a group of aliens, otherwise he’d be perfect.  It was this mental cocktail, I think, that eventually transmogrified into the declaration that ‘I don’t believe in anything’. 

Ordinarily I dismiss random outpourings from my subconscious (If I didn’t I’d be in prison for violently but methodically killing the next person who didn’t say thank you when I held a door open for them).  But this time I’ve spent all day thinking about it, and what with it being a Sunday, and with me finally drawing a line in the sand and politely refusing to attend church with the children, it seems right to address the idea of belief.  It’s a bit like string theory this one, tricky subject.
So I got to thinking – what really are the big things one can believe in? What are the anchors against the choppy waters of chaos?  What can one cling on to that says ‘that’s me’, ‘that’s my identity, right there, with those folk (no, not them, they’re the Other folk)’? And when you limit it to the ‘big things’ only there’s only a couple, I think, worth considering: there’s religion obviously, and then there is its secular twin - political ideology. To be clear - I’m not talking about principles or ideals, but about belief – about something that one takes a Kierkegaardian leap of faith into, something that provides the basic skeleton of what it means to be ‘you’, and not ‘them’.  I have principles and I have ideals, and I try to structure my life in a way that more or less adheres to them, but do I actually believe in anything greater, or more supra or super natural than these? I don’t think I do.

Religious belief is out for me. Whilst it sometimes confuses me, sometimes terrifies me, sometimes angers me, and always fascinates me, I very cogently chose to take the leap of faith in the opposite direction, into atheism.  In some ways I’m jealous of those with religious belief – they have something that explains the often inexplicable human condition and a daily playbook for dealing with it, finding solace and fortitude in times of strife. And they have a community who help define who they are, and whether implicitly or explicitly, aggressively or peacefully, this definition sets boundaries by defining who the ‘other’ is – a ‘do you wanna be in my gangmentality that protects its own

Right here, in this rural isolated spot in Kenya religious belief sits as the backbone behind acts of kindness towards children who need kindness in their life.  It inspires, and it guides, and it comforts – it makes life bearable when it is hard, and joyous when it is not.  Take this random, but illuminating, example: the bathing and latrine rooms at the orphanage adjoin each other in a single tin structure and one day it happened that they were both occupied simultaneously – the latrine by me, the bathing room by the deeply religious (and utterly selfless and lovely) Ziporah.  Whilst I was throwing curses at the universe for my aforementioned lack of flexibility and temperamental constitution, she was belting out Amazing Grace.  An alien surveying the scene would undoubtedly conclude that it was Ziporah they would abduct as it was she who demonstrates the qualities their planet needed (unless they were from the Planet of the Apes in which case I’d be returned as the new king).  It is she who actively chooses joy over despondency in her own life. Their judgement would be absolutely right, of course, and off she’d go, leaving me to also clear up the goddamn marks from the tractor beam.
And yet despite all this, despite the often admirable and categorically ‘good’ approach to life a religious belief can engender, to me none of these things actually require religious belief – I don’t believe in God, and nor do I have any need to invent him.  I can write my own playbook, thank you very much, and guess what – half of what’s in there is a copy and paste from yours, the common sense and decency bits.  What it doesn’t have is a creed that spawns contradiction and conflict, that removes the need to think independently, and that at its core has, quite frankly, absolutely no basis in reality. I don’t believe in pixies or dragons either, even if lots of different people have written lots of different books about them, and I still wouldn’t believe in them if said books were compiled into an anthology over the next few hundred years.

Similarly, political ideology is a non-starter. We’ve already dealt with religious belief, so those political ideologies that are grounded in a religious conviction are off the agenda for me (aided in no small way by the fact that this ginger and brown tiger stripe beard I’ve been sporting looks, well, daft and would still look daft even if it was demanded by some religio-politic dogma).  Equally, the other ‘isms’ – Marxism, communism, socialism et al hold no real appeal for me, dogged as they are with the kind of fundamental contradictions that has consigned them permanently to the trash can of political history. Man may have been born free and equal, but nobody said he wanted to stay equal.  And whilst democracy may be used to occasionally justify wrong-headed wars, it is still the lesser of many evils, recognising as it does the fundamental conflict at the heart of the human condition, and providing a mechanism to mediate this conflict.  But it is just that – a mechanism – not an ideology.  So whilst I can admire democracy, and act democratically, I can’t really claim to have any fundamental belief in it.

So, where does this leave me? No beliefs, no stability, no anchor, no pre-written narrative for my life. Scary? Nihilistic? No, I don’t think so.  Believe it or not, it sounds absolutely bloody marvellous to me.

Yeh, I know, that was a bit heavy. To lighten the mood here’s the top five run down of my night time adventures, taken from the top 40 (winks), the head-board 100, Top of the Cots.  

5. Exit at 35,000 feet: At 12 I slept walked on a flight from the UK to Johannesburg attempting, twice, to open the door ‘so I could get out’.  Much to the relief of the other passengers, I was intercepted by a kindly air hostess.

4. Sshh, spiders: a few years ago I awoke my then girlfriend by attempting to set light to our duvet using a zippo lighter, muttering ‘sshh, need to kill the spiders’.  She still married me, the fool, although marital relations are more difficult wearing a full fire-resistant body suit.

3. Help! I’m trapped in a quarry! My teenage years were littered with sleepovers that took a disturbing nocturnal turn, not least the time I fell down a set of steep stairs from an attic room, getting wedged between the bottom stair and the door, dreaming I’d slipped into a quarry and screaming out for help. Awoken by my screams my friend’s mother opened the door, causing me to fall out, foetal like, onto the landing. I’m not quite sure how I explained that one, but still have the scar to prove it, and was later offered my first proper job by this wonderful, and understanding, woman.

2. You know Alex, in the bedroom upstairs, he just got out of prison, for murder!  Ah, young love.  Birmingham University, 1999, five boys sharing a house, the first night my new girlfriend agreed to sleep over (now my wife, she never learns), slumbering peacefully in the dead of night.  That is until I sat bolt upright in bed, eyes open, and turned to her to urgently utter the words above.  Before falling straight back to sleep.  It took two weeks and, in retrospect, a strange dynamic between my girlfriend and one of my housemates, before she declared that she simply couldn’t believe that he could do such a thing.  I thought she was properly mental, and was edging towards the door, until she explained the provenance of the rumour.  ‘Ah’ I replied, ‘there’s something you probably need to know…’

1. Tie a knot in it or something! A simple tale. Me sharing a room during school holidays with my two female cousins, aged 7,8 and 9 respectively.  I pissed on my cousin’s face, mistaking it for a urinal.  Between hysterical laughter my auntie managed to suggest the above piece of advice to my mother as she battled to gain control, a la Charlie Chaplin and the fire hose.