Monday, 30 July 2012

The strangest week

Memories of our final week overseas, written from an aeroplane:

Altitude: 40,004ft
Speed: 565mph
Location: somewhere over Turkey.

Packing up, saying goodbye

The leaving party is great – friends, drinks, karaoke and dancing.  People came from all over Kenya to wish us well.  What wonderful people, a fantastic year.  Take care, good luck.  But by 2am I am sick of saying goodbye.  I’m done with this now, it’s too sad, can’t we just click our fingers and be home? 

We visit my colleagues.  They are so glad I came to Kenya, and sad I go. You take a little piece of my heart with you, Helen.  Kenya will always be your second home.

We sell our belongings, but we give much more away.  Young Kenyan colleagues squeal over our stuff, not believing their luck.  We trek across the city, bus after bus, to sort, register, buy and visit.  It gets so functional that I realise too late this is my last time in town, my final matatu.

We pack and repack.  We gather, we divide and arrange.  The flat becomes less and less full.  Our UK friends expect us home, our Kenyan friends give us large wooden items with their very best wishes.  I wish I was just on a plane now.

Our final evening is friends, curry and laughs.  I bust out my Swahili one last time, and we walk through our neighbourhood sighing deeply, feeling so temporary it’s like we don’t exist.  We’re transparent.

Final day

Up at dawn, we awake to the realisation that we are 25% over our weight limit with only a few hours to spare.  Having given or sold every household item - including the kettle – we go in search of coffee and breakfast, and sit in the café, trying to work out the luggage puzzle. 

What follows is a few heightened hours of snapping at each other and trying to work out what to leave, as the minutes tick by.   The task finally – finally! – complete we have barely 5 minutes left in our empty flat, looking once again as it did when we arrived: like a prison cell. 

No time for sentimentality, the taxi arrives and takes us to a friend who is at work, and we leave 20kgs of possessions with her… through the kindness of others we hope to be reunited with it all.  Make it to the airport in time, to be told our luggage is still over, so departure-hall repacking begins.  We wear a lot more layers and stuff even more things into our bulging hand luggage, and hold our breaths as….our luggage is… accepted!!  Halleluyah!

Barely friends after a long morning of sniping, Dan and I bemoan our complete lack of cash to buy drinking water in the terminal.  My stress-high bottoms out, and I feel thirsty, so very tired and sad.  My back aches from all the lifting, all day, and I fight back tears at everything that is happening.  I don’t feel ready to go.  One final humiliation as my hand luggage is judged to contain weapons thanks to the unsuitable last-minute (heavy) additions.  I’m forced to check my unsecured hand luggage and arrive though the gate with the more precious possessions in my arms, too scared they won’t arrive the other side.  I’m holding my pyjamas in my hands, sobbing, as people turn to stare.  I feel utterly rootless: homeless and upset.

We arrive at our seats to find luxury, hot towels and an on-demand entertainment system.  We cry a little together as the place takes off, friends again, then watch a dystopian film which adds to the strange luxury and our feelings of loss.  A few hours later a wall of hot air greets us as we step out into a Dubai night.  It’s the night before Ramadan, and we’re here to visit my brother on our way back to the UK.


Dubai’s Terminal 3 is shiny, dramatic and enormous.  It feels like we’ve just landed on Mars.  I imagine that Oz is lurking somewhere, behind a curtain, pulling the strings of this brave new world.  We collect (all!) our luggage in an arrivals hall that could double as a deep-space film set and are met by my smiling brother, shiny shoes fresh from a party.  It’s Thursday night and the start of the weekend in the Islamic world.

Dubai continues to bamboozle us over the next few days.  My fourth time out to see him here, I am never more shocked than this time.  Fresh from 12 months in East Africa, we stare and stare at the shiny buildings, perfect roads, tall buildings and empty streets.  Everything is so clean.  So clean.  The toilets have seats, toilet paper and hand cream boasting ‘jojoba oil’. Summertime in the Middle East exists in an oven that no-one can escape from, only in the blessed relief of air conditioning, cars and buildings are our refuge from 37 degrees at night, 40 in the day.  This means the streets are empty, like a toy-town.  Muslims adhere to daylight fasting, and we adhere to the rules of respect.  It’s hotter than hell itself, but no drinking or eating in public. But behind closed doors, the food is incredible, all the things we’ve missed, and the metro is the future, and the world’s tallest building gleams in the sun like a granite rock face we once saw in Yosemite: record-breaking, inspiring awe in both of us.

We try and put our shock on hold and enjoy everything.  My brother is a wonderful host and we meet new people and swim under an unending blue sky.  We cross the border to Oman and see dolphins swimming up close.  But at the end of each day we just need to close our eyes and escape it all, too much, too much. And then, after four short days, it’s time to fly to London.

One final adventure

We pack as best we can, praying to the luggage gods to see us right this time.  I can barely lift my carry-on, that’s part of the plan.  But as we cruise in my brother’s car back to the airport, something is suddenly very wrong. 

All power cuts out and we freewheel to a halt on the highway.  Jumping out to push it into a safer spot, I realise the sun will be our biggest problem.  No power means no A/C and so we stand in the sweltering shade to figure a plan.  Once again, the minutes tick down to our flight.  Where are we?  Which intersection is this?  Will our faces melt off in the searing heat?  Will we make our flight?  No time left for dignity, we flag down a pick-up truck; our looks of distress not a performance.  We explain exactly how much luggage we have – we are late for our flight!  He will help us, but his passenger looks horrified.  The last time I see my brother he’s sheltering next to a tree, waiting for rescue.  We hope he doesn’t have to wait too long for Recovery.

The minutes in which our driver chooses to drop his passenger off first, and then drive us to the airport are some of the longest I’ve experienced.  His English is a challenge, where are we?  Do you know the way?  Do you know how far we are away?  How many minutes?  We arrive in departures as our flight is actually boarding so its all big rush rush run run.  Once again we struggle to shed our stress levels and realise too late that we’re actually, finally, returning to the UK… we’re already in the air.  And here comes the hot towels.


We’re going home.  How are we supposed to feel?  What does 'ready' feel like?  I don’t know.  I’m tired again and sad and feel weird.  How long is it since we felt normal?  How long since we felt relaxed? Was that really only a week ago?  How will it feel to be back in the UK?  Will it feel like home?  Only one way to find out.  Two hours til we land.  See you on the other side.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Breaking News

Nairobi, Kenya. Tarehe ishirini na sita, mwezi wa Juni, mwaka wa elfu mbili kumi na mbili.
Mke na Mume Waingereza kusikitika kuondokea marafiki

Watu wawili waingereza, mke na mume, leo wanasikitika kuondokea marifiki wao katika Kenya. Helen Trenchard na Dan Jones, wana miaka thelathini na moja wote, wamesema “Tutapotea, tutapotea sana. Tutasikitika sana kuondoka Kenya na tuta kosa marafiki wetu.”

 “Tunapenda Kenya sana! Uingereza, tutasikia baridi sana”, anasema Helen.

Dan na Helen walifika Kenya Julai mwaka wa elfu mbili kumi na moja, na walisalimia Bi Lucy Otieno, ambeye aliwakaribisha Kenya. Dan, Helen na Lucy, ni rafiki sasa, na walitembelea nyumbani kwa Lucy na mume wake Nick. Dan na Helen walikutana na jamaa wao wote.

Dan, anasema: “Lucy na Nick walitusaidia kuhisi kuwa nyumbani katika Kenya. Tulifurahia kukutana na jamaa wao na tulikula na tulikunywa pamoja.”

Helen na Dan, walijifunzwa Kiswahili na mwalimu wao Lucy, na walifurahia somo sana. Wanafikiri watasema Kiswahili kila siku wakati watarudi uingereza.

Dan na Helen wataondoka Kenya tarehe kumi na tisa mwezi Julai, lakini wanataka kukutana na Lucy na Nick kabla ya kuondoka. Wanapanga karamu tarehe kumi na nne mwezi wa julai, na wanataka kucheza densi na marafiki wao wema.


Nairobi,K enya. 26th June 2012:
British couple sad to leave friends

Two British people, a husband and wife, have today confirmed that they are sad to leave their friends in Kenya. Helen Trenchard and Dan Jones, both aged 30, said: “We will be lost, very lost. We will be very sad to leave Kenya and we will miss our friends.”

“We love Kenya so much!  In the UK, we will be very cold”, said Helen.

Dan and Helen arrived in Kenya in July 2011, and were greeted by Mrs Lucy Otieno, who welcomed them to Kenya. They have become friends, and the British couple have visited the home of Lucy and her husband Nick. They have met all of their family.

Dan said: “Lucy and Nick have really helped us to feel at home in Kenya. We have enjoyed meeting their family and eating and drinking together.”

Helen and Dan have learned KiSwahili from their teacher Lucy, and they have really enjoyed. They hope to speak Swahili to each other all the time when they return to the UK.

Dan and Helen leave Kenya on 19th July, but hope to meet with Lucy and Nick before then. They are planning a party on 14th July, and look forward to dancing with their good friends.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

What I Know Now

Posted by: Helen

I hate my commute. I hate every single part of it.

I hate swinging onto a moving bus and trying to gain purchase on the handrails before the front wheel hits the pot hole outside our building, sending me flying into a stranger’s lap.  Even after 12 months I still hate turning the corner to the matatu stage knowing I’ll be hassled and grabbed by the touts until I choose a vehicle, and it’s still in fate’s hands whether the one I board goes my way. When I alight in Embakasi, after all this time, I’ve still never got used to being the only white person, worse - being a white woman all alone; and while I can now handle the shouts, jeers and stares much better, I still truly dislike crossing three lanes of chugging, heavy-duty traffic on foot, dancing with double-decker articulated lorries and jumping away from motorbike taxis that try and plough me down. And there really is nothing to recommend the final part of my journey, where I march down the railway line, dodging the lakes of sewage and herds of cows, through construction dust and chai-spot smoke and blackened truck fumes; air so thick I can chew on it.

But that’s all over now.

I finished my placement at the end of June, and while I may be back next week to say a proper goodbye to all my colleagues, I'll be taking Dan along with me, making all the difference in the world. I look back on a year of my hateful commute, and count up the most annoying moments:

  • a man greeting me, expecting a response and my phone number (3 times a day)
  • being called to and laughed at by big groups of men (most days)
  • a man proposing marriage at the top of his voice (about once a month)
  • being the only witness to a terrible accident between a lorry and a cyclist (once)
  • receiving the impact of a car crashing at full speed into my matatu (once)
  • being weed on by a cow (mercifully, just once)

Yet none of these frustrations comes even CLOSE to leaving a stain on an incredible year in my life. As a testament to this truly wonderful year, the daily indignity of travelling to my placement has already become a faded memory.

I have had the very, very best time in Kenya.

I’ve gained so much, I started to compile a list of all the things I’ve learnt and there’s just too many to fit into a conversation without totally dominating it, and far too many to list in a blog post. So let me just give you a taste.

Here it is: The Abridged List of What I Know Now

I know more about things. I have really enjoyed the experience of constantly learning new stuff: a new word, a fresh perspective, a new part of town…even how to load electricity credit at the supermarket! Every day has been a steep learning curve, but I’ve appreciated the chance to learn, to get better at stuff. The many trips we’ve taken this year have taught us about the geography, geology, peoples and politics of East Africa all of which we’ve found remarkable. And if you’re still reading this blog, I hope you’ve found it interesting too.

I know more people. One of my favourite things about living abroad is that other new people are often very open to friendship, and very willing to give help. They are unguarded, non-judgmental; they’re ready to invite you out, to join a trip you’re arranging, or to show you round their neighbourhood, because they are also far from home and building a life. Or they’re Kenyan and interested in us and where we’ve come from, and they always welcome us with open arms and hot chai. We’ve tried to mimic all this friendliness in what we call the ‘Karibuni Sana’ philosophy (You are All Very Welcome); we send open invites, all the time. This approach, paired with shorter working hours and a city much smaller than London, has made for very many evenings out in which we go new places, meet new people, cab home in 15 minutes and are up for work in the morning. It’s been BUSY. But completely awesome, and we’ve made friends this year I hope we’ll keep for a lifetime.

I know Nairobi. Whilst London always felt too big, with too much going on, and too many unreachable places and fancy people, Nairobi is manageable, knowable, and has allowed us to reach into most areas. We’ve partied in East Nairobi on 70p beers and also mixed with celebrities and VIPs in the best hotels in town. If it wasn’t our stated aim for the year to step off the treadmill and have a whole mountain of fun, it’s been a truly fantastic byproduct.

I know more about how I work. My placement has been a little wonky, regular readers will know this now. I won’t be the first or last VSO volunteer to try and fail to build solid working relationships when the foundations we were given were crumbling before we arrived. But I’ve gained so much from the experience. Knowing about front-line realities of International Development must surely be more useful than a degree in that subject? Working in an environment so alien that I often thought wistfully, fondly, of the British working world I left behind, will certainly put any Bad Day in the Office in perspective once I’m back in London. And it’s definitely a plus that I’ve affirmed my personal working style, that I can say with confidence I do my best work when working with others, when I’m trusted to give my opinion and make changes, and when the goal is very clearly defined. I've found working in the exact opposite of those conditions very difficult, it's just who I am.

I know a bit more about me. I think that perhaps the things we liked most when we were 14, form the basis of our choices in later life. At 14, I wanted to be journalist, I hated the pressures of looking good and dressing right, and was never happier than when either eating cheese, performing in a play or show, or in the sunshine, playing silly jumping in games at a swimming pool (even if it wasn’t very cool at that age). And so it is for me now. This year I’ve had wonderful days swimming in warm oceans and larking around with buddies in many many swimming pools….bliss. I’ve enjoyed researching and interviewing and drafting and re-drafting and pouring time and energy into creating this blog. With no deadline or editor it’s been the most enjoyable kind of journalism. I’ve really missed cheese, and felt the absence of that side of me that loves to sing a show tune with my choir back home.

And so we come to looking good and dressing right, a pressure on women whether 14 or 40. Here in Kenya, I feel no such force. There are very few images of white female beauty in my life right now. The big billboards and glossy magazines are compelling African women to look right and use their product, and they are African pressures: better weave, lighter skin, cleaner clothes.  On an average day the only white woman I see is my reflection, and I love the lack of judgment. I’ve not really thought about losing weight or whitening my teeth or buying clothes since I arrived, which suggests that this is my natural state of being, and all those previous ‘needs’ are just outside pressure (well- durr!). Before they take offense, I must stress that there are beautiful, well-dressed Caucasian women in my life right now, but we all get together and giggle about how we recycle our two ‘going out’ outfits, how the jeans we only ever wore for painting back home have become our most prized and smartest clobber and how tiny holes have appeared at the front of all tops (why?? and why only at the front?!) but we wear them anyway.

(Before you think that being-scruffy-all-year-and-loving-it is the largest personal revelation I have experienced after a full year away, I know there are more. But I think I’ll only know what they are once I’m back home. I know I’ll miss Kenya, I just don’t yet know which parts I’ll long for the most)

And so there you have the list. All of this Stuff I Now Know adds up to the phenomenon of Lots Happens Every Week™. This does not always occur in ‘real life’ back home, and results in feeling as if  we’ve been away for much longer than 12 months. I imagine us returning to the UK through the wardrobe from Narnia, and finding that while we’ve experienced so much, perhaps less has happened back ‘home’. I wonder.

We’ve been warned that we’ll need 10-second answers to a few key questions, to better prepare for curious friends and colleagues who care but cannot hope to last the course of everything we have to say. I guess that’s why we blog, to avoid having to divulge a full year of experience in one go. But, pretentious as I may be, I don’t think I can say, Why don’t you just check out our blog? with a straight face. In the meantime I’ll keep working on my pithy responses to…

  • How was it?
  • How does it feel being home?
  • What plans do you have now? And the last one -
  • Has it changed your life?

Has my life been changed? No, I don’t think so. I quite liked my life before, and hope I will again. Has it been altered? Possibly, although only time will tell how. I know that I love adventures, making new friends and making the most of every day. I also know that I don’t really need much stuff to be happy and that living abroad really agrees with me. Beyond that, we’ll see.

Right now we’re in limbo, placements done but not quite on a plane. We’re travelling, saying goodbyes, selling our stuff and planning a leaving do. It’s busy, but much easier than leaving the UK last July. It’s also a very fun time just spending every day together and teasing each other about mood swings or bad nights’ sleep as we react in our own way to the temporary nature of our lives right now.

We will be sad to leave Kenya, but happy to be home. And I’m still working on my 10-second answers.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

A sense of achievement

Posted by: Dan

Last week, I officially finished my VSO placement with Special Education Professionals (SEP). It comes with all the mixed emotions that I’ve experienced (far too often) when leaving jobs in the UK, but with a few major differences. I feel sadder for knowing I’m not just leaving an organisation but a country. Prouder for having achieved a lot in a short, time-bound assignment. Since I always knew I’d be leaving after 12 months, it’s not the same as getting sick of a job and seeking a new one. Instead, I leave with my motivation intact and with a feeling that SEP is a truly worthwhile organisation that, unlike far too many NGOs I know, is actually DOING GOOD, and not just talking a good game.

It’s been a weird month with SEP, since I technically had my ‘leaving do’ a few weeks ago because my boss Karolien, the Chairperson of SEP, was leaving for her summer holidays in Belgium (her home country, from where she raises most of SEP’s funding). In typical Karolien/SEP fashion, my leaving do took place at her fabulous home (she’s the wife of a UN diplomat). She laid on lots of food and drink, and Helen and I enjoyed some serious boogying round her living room surrounded by SEP’s Members – all typically fantastic Kenyan dancers.

I don’t pretend that my placement has been all fun and games, but equally, I know I am fortunate in comparison to many VSO volunteers I know. SEP is a small, ambitious organisation where stuff really does get done. They needed all the ideas and capacity I could give them, and were ready to listen to every crazy idea I threw around. Crucially, they were ready to work in partnership with me. After a year of analysing the VSO experience and listening to other volunteers, this strikes me as probably the most fundamental, and often absent, condition for a successful placement.

The VSO ‘Exit Interview’ form (recently given a make-over by Eddie & Allys) asked for the top achievements that I was most proud of at SEP, and here’s what I listed…

1. Producing SEP’s first written strategic plan – a bulky document covering the next five years, but crucially not just my random ideas churned out in a locked office. Instead, based on a really fun strategic planning day I facilitated with another volunteer, where we argued about our ‘vision’, turned coloured card into a weird and wonderful stakeholder map, and played silly games to keep our spirits high.

Team photo at the strategic planning day

2. Writing a Member Handbook of policies and procedures. I know, sexy right. Not quite the ‘world-changing, poverty-alleviating’ achievement I might have dreamed of. But for SEP, a vital stepping stone to help them feel and act like a true organisation.

3. Funding (via VSO) a ‘training of trainers’ training programme for SEP Interns (young Kenyan special needs professionals) – so that they developed the confidence and skills to facilitate workshops for parents and caregivers of children with special needs. This is a biggie, because SEP currently relies on a tiny number of more experienced professionals to facilitate all its training workshops, and it’s becoming impossible. SEP has big ambitions to be a national if not East Africa-wide training centre of excellence, so by doing this training we helped increase their capacity to do that.

Irene - one of our trainees - facilitates a workshop for mothers
of children with special needs as her final "assignment"

4. Raising lots of money for SEP by running the Kilimanjaro Marathon! I still can’t quite believe that Eddie and I managed to run an entire 26 miles, but we did. And I was so proud to tell SEP that my massively generous family and friends had collectively raised over 66,000 Kenyan Shillings – about £500. In Kenya, that’s a serious amount of money, and I can now report that we’re using that to part-fund the recruitment of a paid, part time Project Coordinator for SEP to carry on the work I've been doing this year. This is massive, and feels like the most sustainable thing I’ve done. With this paid member of staff, SEP will be able to keep momentum on all its work. They’ll be able to focus continuously on finding more funding to expand their projects, they’ll be able to raise their profile throughout Kenya, and ultimately, they’ll be able to reach and support many more children with disabilities in Kenya’s poorest communities. So I know I’ve already said this a few times, but a huge ASANTE SANA from me to everyone who helped make this happen.

Posing by Mount Kilimanjaro with my SEP teeshirt and medal!

Of course, these may be the achievements I’ve been proudest of, but probably the thing I’ll remember most, the thing that will stand out as the most fun I had, will be the many, many, gorgeous, smelly, silly, smiley, awesome children I met. Being the only person in my organisation with no special needs qualification or skills, I was of almost no use whatsoever to them. But they didn’t hold it against me. And I got to spend a lot of my year playing games and avoiding being a grown-up. I’ll miss that...

P.S. This might all sound quite like ‘closure’, but don’t turn off your computer just yet! We’re not done with Kenya yet. We’ve still got a couple of weeks which we’re packing full of trips and fun before we head back home, so stay tuned for a few more tales from our adopted country...

P.P.S. With thanks to Simon Dixon, fellow VSO volunteer and photographer extraordinaire, who came to SEP, took lots of great photos for us to use for publicity, and took most of the pics above. I sincerely recommend his services.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Empire strikes back

I feel like I should have posted about Kenya's colonial past much earlier in our year. Please don’t think I’m writing about this now as some kind of grand conclusion about Kenya – it’s not – but recent conversations have prompted me to think deeply about this subject; one that was entirely absent from my own upbringing and education in the UK.

Coming to Kenya has allowed us to learn about the horrific abuse of land, people and power that formed Britain’s colonial crimes.  I understand this topic is still relevant and sensitive for many Kenyan families, and whilst I write here with objective distance, I’m not blind to the suffering of Kenyans at the hands of my countrymen.  Some of these victims are still alive today.

Our impending return to Britain reminds us that we’re British, and the Queen’s jubilee and London Olympic games are all stirring our sense of nationhood.  But never before have we been personally confronted with the idea of Britain as war criminal; it’s a thought that has lingered all year and only now finds its way into the blog.

The opening line of The Go Between reminds us that The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’  The colonial Britain I write about here feels foreign in every way.  That Britain is not my Britain, I think.  But here in Kenya, not everyone makes that distinction….

A little background…

Dan and I are British.  Born in the 1980s, into families born and bred in Europe, we have no personal links to the 80,000 Britons who gradually settled in Kenya starting in the 1890s.  But, many of the Kenyans we meet today seem to align us directly with these long-dead white settlers.

Arriving in dribs and drabs, the first few British people in Kenya initially worked alongside the local population to farm tea and coffee.  So far, so peaceful.  But Britain got serious about colonising Kenya in the 1920s.  Encouraging more and more settlers to join this corner of East Africa and help turn a profit, the British government soon figured out that to sustain all the white people and all the crops, they would need to gain control of even more land.  Enforcing land ownership laws, the colonialists worked hard to move the local population or demand taxes for ‘squatting’ on their land (hey, it worked in Ireland!) 

Green, fertile and a dead spit of British countryside, it was beautiful Central Kenya that hosted the most settlers from Britain, 30,000 of them by the 1920s.  Central Kenya is also home to the Kikuyu people, who, according to contemporary accounts, worked alongside the British and then, as more of the best land was demanded for the incoming Europeans, these local people were essentially enslaved. 

The backlash against this treatment became known as the Mau Mau rebellion; rebels who hid in the forests and during the 1950s used violent means to…  ‘encourage’ the British to go home.  Whilst the rebellion failed to force the immediate withdrawal of British settlers, the violence and need for increased security convinced the British government to join the wind of change blowing through Africa, and grant Kenya independence in 1963. 

Jomo Kenyatta and Dedan Kimathi: Kenyan heroes

Almost 50 years after independence, many of the main streets in Nairobi are still named after rebel leaders who fought for the cause, including Dedan Kimathi (who led the rebel forces until his capture and execution by the British), Jaramogi Oginga Odinga (father of Kenya’s current Prime Minister Raila Odinga), and not forgetting Jomo Kenyatta, who became (Britain’s choice for..?) Kenya’s first President. 

Mama and Papa Trenchard, in the Mau Mau caves

When my Mum and Dad visited Kenya in March, and we took a guided walk through the foothills of Mount Kenya to visit some ‘Mau Mau caves’ where the rebels hid and trained.  Our guides were chatty young Kikuyu guys talking proudly about the Mau Mau freedom fighters who, in their eyes, fought for Kenya’s freedom and won.  My parents, who grew up in 1950s Britain, remember that the UK press (naturally) spun it very differently.  The newspaper headlines of their childhoods told of evil black Mau Mau terrorists, waiting in the shadows to butcher your family.

It seems that the relationship between Kenya and Britain is long, complex, interwoven and with very dark chapters.  This post is about how I see Kenya’s colonial history impacting on its present, and what it’s like to be British and live in today’s Kenya.

‘Our colonial masters gave us so much’

The caretaker at work is over 70.  He loves to grasp me by the hand and sing the praises of the British people.  The quote above is his.  ‘Everything great comes from Britain’, he tells me, ‘I love Queen Elizabeth.’  Another time, ‘If you want something that is good quality, look for the Made in England stamp on it.  All the very best things are made in England, they last a lifetime.  Now in Kenya we are just given poor quality goods from China, it’s an insult.’

I try and explain that whilst Britain was still producing many such goods in the 1950s, mass production in England has ceased.  I tell him that in modern Britain most of our goods are also made in China, and only last a short time.  I assure him that it’s not a punishment for Africans.

This gentleman has strong views that the British way is the best way, but as he explains his love for strict rules, correct dress sense and a monarchy beloved by all, I start to realise the Britain he loves is long gone.  I see the culture he admires as a relic of Britain’s past, left behind by the Brits that pulled out in 1963.  I wonder how to tell him that Britain has moved on. 

But it’s not just our caretaker.  Kenya clearly retains some parts of British culture frozen forever from the 50s and early 60s.  Whilst the influence of local culture sometimes aligns with these 20th century leftovers, there are several examples which lead me to think that British culture I’ve only ever associated with my grandparents, is alive and well in today’s Kenya:

·         Formality is everywhere.  Greetings and handshakes are very important, every meeting must have a chair and a secretary, prayers are offered before and after meetings and for all meals.  Speakers will offer welcome and thanks to all VIPs in attendance, and the phrase ‘All protocols observed’ will follow before speech commences proper.  Far from an open-plan office, my colleagues are enclosed in small offices, behind doors that need knocking before opening. They laugh at my insistence of ‘an open-door policy’ and are puzzled that I don’t want privacy. 

·         Hierarchy and gender roles are strictly observed here, and not just because traditional tribal beliefs are held today.  It feels to me as if the social rules have been enforced by British meddling.  In the Kenyan organisation I work in, deference to your seniors is paramount and upward feedback never given.  Important issues must only be raised by a peer (never an inferior) and trickier conversations often never happen, and if these sticky points are raised, they are raised by the men.  Whilst having a ‘gender balance’ is paid lip-service on a panel or in a delegation, women criticising men is unheard of, and serving tea is always left to my female colleagues.  When Dan folds up the dry washing from the clothes line outside, the housegirls all stand and watch in curiosity.  I’m fairly sure all these women disapprove of me, ‘she leaves her husband to bring in the washing!’


·         Boy Scouts are old school.  The Scouting movement was founded in 1907 by Kenyan resident and British citizen Lord Robert Baden-Powell (he’s actually buried here, in Central Kenya).   Dan and I attended an event where the highlight was the scouts: Kenyan children (girls and boys) in long socks and neat caps marching one-two onto their ‘parade ground’ to the shouts of a Sergeant Major who was not older than 16.  They then drilled in unison, and stood to attention for ‘inspection’ by the event’s VIP.  When did British scouts stop marching?

·         Church is central.  There are many reasons why the majority of Kenyans are committed Christians, but being a former colony must surely be top of the list.  White settlers not only brought the good news, but also clear rules on how to worship: every Kenyan I know attends church on Sunday morning, some are preachers and tee-totallers for religious reasons.  Others tell me with a straight face about the people they know who have been bewitched by evil spirits.   I am reminded that weekly church attendance and an assumption that EVERYONE attends is an aspect of 1950s Britain that exists no more.

Busy pavements of South B: it's Church O'clock

·         Kenya’s currency is the shilling; and shorthand is ‘bob’.  The only person I know in the UK who still refers to money as bob is my Grandad, and he was born in 1917.

·         Even clothing reminds me of Britain in an earlier age.  Kenyans are SMART: suits are worn everywhere, shoes are buffed by the shoe-shiners on every street corner and washing clothes is almost the nation’s pastime.  My male colleagues all wear vests under their shirts, and keep a cloth handkerchief handy.  Sunday best is not an anachronism here: dresses are pressed, children are scrubbed up and our female Kenyan friend is criticized for wearing trousers to church.  In 2012.

·         Views are conservative.  Along with taking ‘woman’s place’ quite seriously, Kenyans join the rest of Africa in not accepting or even comprehending homosexuality. I've already written here about how views on marriage are more conservative than in modern Britiain, but along with that I’d place the views of your community, parents and your own sense of duty all having a big say in your life choices here.  Whilst this world-view is not unique to Britain in the last century, I offer an opinion that it has at least been shaped by Britain’s 70-year involvement in Kenya.

I’m making a well-trodden argument that culture imported from elsewhere tends to remain ‘pure’ (frozen in time), whilst the motherland that spawned that culture continues to evolve and even change quite radically.  It’s been suggested that the second and third generation white settlers who still live in Kenya maintain the more conservative tenets of the Britain their families left many years ago.  I’m told that Indian families who’ve been in Kenya for several generations are much stricter in their faith and views than their relatives who continue to live to Rajasthan and Gujarat.  These modern Indians are also struck by the same déjà vu as me, when visiting.  They too experience this phenomenon of frozen culture.

I know these old-world behaviours don’t account for every Kenyan, but I see the UK being admired by many areas of society.  Good friends of ours are young, professional, urban, liberal Kenyans.  They love the UK – ‘I really want to visit, it really seems like a place I would like’.  They tell me about their favourite Dizzy Rascal track and they LIVE for the English Premier league.

‘You people used to shoot Africans like birds’

I think it’s important to mention that not all aspects of this frozen culture show themselves as attempts to copy the colonialist thought, word and deed.  We’ve discovered that hatred for the British has also not died out in every quarter, although we hear more praise than anger, mainly because (in another homage to Britain?) Kenyans are generally unfailingly polite.

An exception is the landlord for our apartment building, who on finding out where we were from, unleashed several comments at Dan that suggested we should personally atone for the sins of our fathers.  The quote above is his.  ‘I used to hate people like you’ he spat at Dan.  How are we supposed to feel about that?

Whilst we may not hear of it, it’s obvious the anger still exists.  The Chairman of the Nairobi branch of my organization is Kikuyu, from Central Kenya.  I was attending a meeting of his members; he had to explain ahead of time to some Kikuyu gentlemen in his group that a Briton would be in their midst. ‘They weren’t happy, ‘ he tells me, ‘But I explained you are OK, that you are helping us’.  It’s a totally strange feeling, that for the first time in my life, I personally, would be smeared with the crimes of the British empire. 

The New Colonialists

An American friend asks us, ‘How do you feel, living in Kenya, when your people committed so many crimes against Kenyan people?’  A tricky question to answer.  I suppose that much like today’s white Americans feeling outrage for the millions of Africans captured and shipped to US shores in the 19th century, I did not personally participate in subjugation of the Kenyan people, so any feelings of guilt or responsibility are diluted by distance, my own horror at colonial crimes and the feeling that it’s just all ancient history.

We know now there are living Kenyans who hate us - white people will always be the enemy they spent their early lives fighting against.  But this is a small majority.  Our Kenyan friend is aghast at how her ancestors let foreigners take over their land and abuse their people.  ‘We Kenyans were so stupid!  We brought it on ourselves.’  But she also reminds us that it’s all in the past, that most Kenyans don’t see Kenya as a former colony from one Jamhuri (Independence) Day to the next.

While Britain’s past might linger in Kenya’s present, in clothes and attitudes and marching scouts, the days of colonisation is over, and as 50 years of independence becomes 100, no living person will have experienced the abuses Britain brought on Kenya.  These days the foreigners who arrive to live in Kenya are, overwhelmingly, NGO workers like ourselves.  Are we the new settlers?  I can already see the impact we are having on the language of development, of how poverty is spoken about and tackled, how (white) donors expect Kenyan charities to behave more and more like the London office.  Is our way the right way?  While we have greater economic might, we will always be able to exert influence, but it can never be as damaging as the first time we came.  That is now history.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Q: What will you miss most?

A: Our good Kenyan friends, chapatti, walking over the railway bridge, the friendliness of everyone. Learning Swahili with Lucy and Nick, going on adventures all the time, giraffes. Work-life balance. The monkeys who stole the sugar bowl from my office. A country where a cold day is almost the same temperature as a warm day in the UK. Rides on the back of pikis (motorbikes). Meeting new people constantly, and making friends with people we probably wouldn’t even meet back home. Elephants. Cute children tugging at my beard, people taking the time to find out how you are, wandering round South B. Huge, ripe avocadoes right outside my door for 20 bob (15p). Spending so much time with my loved one. Never having to wait for a bus (there’s no schedule, but there’s always one there). A big apartment. Strolling round Nairobi city centre on a Sunday. Feeling ‘light’ – few possessions, little need to buy things, no real obligations, freedom to do whatever. The support of fellow VSOs, the eagerness of people like us in a strange land to make friends and share experiences. Safaris, coconut beaches, Splendid Starlings, colourful fish, Kenyan pride, cooking on gas. Tusker beer, choma, Kenyans dancing at every opportunity, mangos.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Q: What are you most looking forward to?

A: European food and drink, seeing our friends and their children after a year away, being able to drive around in a car, having a fridge, living somewhere quieter. Roads, buses and trains that are more predictable and more comfortable, beautiful architecture, clean air, wonderful gardens, public spaces that are safe and pleasant.  Not being stared at or shouted at, just being ignored, feeling ‘at home’. Pavements and drains, baths, walking around at night, generally having more freedom to go where and when I like, having a 'right to roam' - taking a walk in the countryside.  Seeing VSO friends already back in the UK, carpets, drinking water out the tap, working in an environment I fully understand, autumn leaves.