Sunday, October 24, 2010

Back from the Mara

Habari gani? Hope you are all well. S and I have had one of the most amazing weeks in all our time in Kenya and have been very lucky to see many phenomenal things in nature and wildlife with our half term travels.
On Thursday prior to half term, both S and I took our classes to a sister school on the other side of Nairobi for a poetry workshop with international poet Valerie Bloom. She is originally from Jamaica and moved to Britain in 1979. She writes her poetry in a combination of English and Jamaican Patois Dialect, which I have recently been teaching to my Year 7 and 8 classes. The workshop was brilliant, really interactive and she recited many of her poems and was happy to talk to us afterwards. She was so engaging that I bought three of her books, which she signed. We are really lucky that she came to Kenya.
On Sunday, my friends M and E came to stay for a fortnight. On Monday, we had an early start as we booked a three day tour to the Maasai Mara, the four of us, plus two of our friends from school. As we were six, we were given a private vehicle and a driver/guide. It took around five hours to get to the Mara, ascending into the Great Rift Valley and driving past many ancient volcanoes and lots of farm land. We stayed at a tented camp which was a combination of permanent structures and green canvas- there was a roof above the tent itself and a proper tiled bathroom at the back with hot showers and a flush toilet. Over the three days, we went on an afternoon game drive, a whole day drive, and a morning one. We saw some incredible things, including five prides of lions each which were at least ten in number each time. We saw little cute baby cubs, sturdy lionesses and fully grown males lounging on rocks, under trees and in the grass. We were so close we could have put our hands out of the vehicle and stroked them. There was a great moment when a huge herd of buffalo came charging forward to frighten away the lions, who didn’t attack back as they were conserving their energy for the next hunt. We also were incredibly lucky to catch the final few days of the famous mass wildebeest migration. This is where two million wildebeest make the perilous journey across the crocodile infested Mara river to cross over to Tanzania. They enter the water in a single line and then dart through it as quickly as possible to scale a cliff edge of the other side to safety. We saw the final hundreds cross, but sadly a few didn’t make it and we watched as they drifted back down the river, whilst crocodiles swam around their corpses. The sound of the wildebeest crashing through the water is unforgettable and thrill of seeing those that survived is indescribable. I read somewhere that watching this happen is like witnessing a historical event in action and that is how it felt.
Apart from the lions, black backed jackals, zebras, giraffes, hippos, crocodiles and wildebeest, we also had many close encounters with large herds of elephants that strolled across the plains. We were even warning charged by a baby elephant that couldn’t have been even a year old as he walked straight up to the side of our van. Had I outstretched my arm I could have shook his trunk he was so close. The Mara is made up of rolling hills and flowery meadows and was very different from what we all expected and the weather was cool and refreshing as the rains are due to come soon. In many ways it reminded us of England, apart from the signs of lots of predators as every hour you would see at least one skull of a caught plains animal that had been devoured. One sighting that we had never seen before was a bat eared fox which is a very unusual creature that feasts upon ants and uses its enormous ears to hear where they are!
On our final day, we visited a traditional Maasai village and got to meet the villagers and even go into their homes. It was a striking sight to see the Maasai wearing their blankets in colours such a burnt orange, bright red and deep purple. The Maasai men had huge holes in their ear lobes that you could fit your wrist through! They explained their customs to us, for example, to get married you need to have ten cows. Their first wife is chosen for them by their father, but they can gain other wives if they have ten more cows to exchange, or as an alternative, instead of giving the cows, they can swap their sister for a wife! They explained their initiation into manhood and about how they have to kill an adult male lion. They then take the tooth and wear it around their necks. We went into one of their houses which they live in for nine years because after that the termites have wrecked them. The women build the houses and it takes two months to do so, it’s made out of wood and then is covered by cowpat. They have very small windows so that they are not bothered by mosquitos and the houses have a little burning fire inside so the first thing you smell is the smoke. There normally is a little room for sleeping in, but there are also rooms where baby goats, sheep and cows can live. The cow is very important in Maasai culture, and the more you have, the richer you are. The Maasai also drink the blood of the cow and they have a special way of extracting the blood without having to kill the animal. Attacks of the cattle are quite frequent, and only last week, they had a leopard come in the night to try and kill. The men did a traditional Maasai dance for us and they sang a deep guttural chorus together whilst they jumped up and down. They practice jumping because the man that can jump the highest in a competition doesn’t have to pay the ten cows for his wife! The funniest part of the visit was when S had a go at doing the jumping alongside the men- I have some very funny photos of that!
On Thursday, we decided to go to the freshwater Lake Naivasha and stay the night. We had a great time on a hippo boat tour of the lake. Two boatmen explained to us about the ecology of the plants and the fish, and how salmon and carp were introduced to the lake by American President Roosevelt after his visit there many years ago. They then got a Telahapia fish and threw it into the lake and three fish eagles came zooming down out of the sky to swiftly catch it. We saw over twenty pied kingfishers hiding in the reeds, and then we got up really close to over forty hippos. There was an amazing moment when a group of about twelve decided to jump up and rush out the water and the water was crashing about in front of us. It was incredible to be so close.
The next day, we awoke at 4.30am and drove two hours north to Lake Nakuru- the stunning soda lake with over two million pink flamingos. Here, we saw three spotted hyena returning from hunting during the night and we tracked them down towards their den. We also saw at least six rhino and many buffalo, baboons and vervet monkeys. We also got very close to a pride of nine lions with two adorable cubs. On our return to Nairobi, we stopped at Lake Elementitia, another enormous soda lake which is surrounded by the remains of extinct volcanoes.
On Saturday, we went to visit the Kitengela glass factory which has been influenced by the Spanish artist Gaudi. Everything is recycled and they make beautiful glass, every piece unique. We also visited Kazuri Beads where the staff is made up of over 300 single mothers who all get a decent wage and free healthcare for their families. We then went for the ultimate meat eating experience at Carnivore, where M experienced the delights of ostrich, crocodile and even ox balls!
Today, we will visit my friend A and take it easy as it is back to school for Sam and I tomorrow- only a short term now until the xmas hols. We are really looking forward to seeing my parents at Xmas in Mombasa for a fortnight, where we hope to spend lots of time snorkeling in the turquoise warm Indian Ocean! Mombasa apparently has a reef that rivals the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and we can’t wait to lounge on the white sands of Diani Beach. We are also really looking forward to R and S’s visit to Kenya in November, especially as we think they will be here for S’s 30th birthday.
That’s all from us for now, Kwaheri!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

We are married!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

A great time in Nakuru

This weekend was mine and S’s anniversary, so to celebrate S booked us into the luxury Sarova Lion Hill Lodge, which is situated inside Lake Nakuru National Park. Nakuru means ‘place of the waterbuck’ in Swahili, and we saw plenty of these furry antelope as we circulated the reserve. In the centre of the park is an enormous shallow soda lake which is full of literally thousands of pink flamingos. Apparently at one point, it was home to over two million flamingos, which is one third of the world’s population. It was an incredible sight to look down at the lake and see a large flurry of candyfloss pink where countless birds searched out for spirulina to eat; the blue green algae is cultivated by their own droppings!

Our main viewing highlights included seeing over a whopping twenty rhinoceros- including the white and black variety- both of which are endangered. Incredibly we got remarkably close to these huge creatures, and saw many baby rhinos with their parents. Another highlight was at about 6.45am when I thought I saw two big rocks in the road, and we realised as we approached that they were in fact four sloped backed spotted hyena. We got so close that we could have stuck our hands out the window and stroked them. We watched them bathe in the early morning sun before, further down the road, spotting two speedy black backed jackals pacing over the plains. We were really lucky to see these animals as they normally hide before the heat of the day. We also got to see some fresh kill- lions had attacked a buffalo during the night next to the lake and by the time we arrived, it was swarming with white backed and Rupels vultures and marabou storks that feasted on its innards and worst of all- picked out its eye ball from its eye sockets! We left before I had to watch them try to get at its tongue! Its hard to describe the excitement and anticipation of a safari in a new location or the feeling when you first spot an animal you haven’t seen before- each time we see new animals its like adding something to our collection, and its even better when you know you can get a great photo!

We also got up close to some non-menacing baboons carrying their tiny babies on their backs and under their bellies through the long grasses, extremely close to the incredible long legged secretary bird and also managed to snap some great shots of the beautiful lilac breasted roller bird which has the most amazing colours- turquoise, hot pink, green and royal blue. I am not surprised it is considered to be the national bird- its something to be proud of! We also saw enormous herds of mighty buffalo throughout the conservancy, plus the not so great privilege of seeing warthogs mating with two male gazelles fighting behind them.

The scenery of the park was breathtaking. We scaled up a large hill to Baboon Cliff which has awe-inspiring views of the entire park. We visited an impressive waterfall, and the rest of the land was a range of purple flowered meadows, acacia filled forests, wide open plains and salt flats. Everywhere we went we came across towering giraffe, grazing zebra and antelope. The variety of birds was also fantastic with African Hoopoe, Anteater chats, Ground Hornbills and Spoonbills along with the other birds that I have mentioned.

The lodge that we stayed at was glorious and such a treat. Quite a contrast from the Somalian mud huts we stayed in Nanyuki! We arrived on Friday night after a three hour drive, and were jovially welcomed to the sounds and traditional dances of local people, and then presented with a delicious dinner. The food could not be faulted and we enjoyed mighty feasts for breakfast, lunch and dinner each day. There was an outdoor swimming pool and a massage tent- and I paid for both S and I to enjoy a massage between morning and afternoon game drives. I also had the luxury of soaking in a hot bubble bath in our room-something I haven’t had the chance to do for a long time! The location of the lodge was perfect- situated neatly and inconspicuously on a hill side with stunning views of the lake. It was great to be able to wake up so early in the morning already in the park, and we ventured out on safari as soon as the gates opened. It was dark and misty, which gave the park a magical and eerie edge, but the sun soon rose and the heat warmed us up.

We were extremely pleased with our new red Suzuki that coped very well with the Kenyan roads and dust tracks- S is becoming a very skilled driver, carefully manoeuvring us across holes and ditches!

Only one weekend left before we come home to England and less than a month until our wedding- there is much to be excited about!!

Monday, May 31, 2010

A lioness prowls through the long grasses

Nanyuki adventure

Having returned today from a little adventure with S, I thought it a good time to write again.

School broke up for a ‘mini’ half term last Friday, so we took the opportunity to go away for a few days with our friends M and H, and their children. We decided to go to Nanyuki River Camel Camp, which is about a three hour drive North of Nairobi and across the equator border. It is run by an old Cambridge Uni PhD grad, who spent many years living a nomadic lifestyle in order to understand and assist Northern Kenyan pastoralists in becoming more self reliant in food. His target population was the camel owning nomads, and as a result he became familiar with traditional nomadic houses that originated in design from Somalia, and he spent many years living along the Ethiopian border helping these people. When he retired, he set up this camp, which has the traditional Somalian huts and eleven camels that are used for camel milk and camel rides across the nearby plains.

S and I stayed in the petite domed banda which is put together with sticks and covered with straw, and has a mud floor inside. A small table made from a log was the only furniture apart from two wooden stick structure beds which were fitted with heavy woollen blankets. The door to get in was just about big enough for a small child or hobbit to enter, but after we crouched through, it was like entering Dr. Who’s Tardis, suddenly feeling much bigger and we were able to fully stand up. The beds were very comfortable and warm at night, but as there was no electricity, we used a small paraffin lantern to give light to the interior. To eat, I was served a delicious camel dish, whilst S had a tasty potato stew. We sat outside and dined on low tables with big cushions, illuminated by candlelight under a glorious star filled sky. To wash, in the morning, a big bowl of steaming hot water from the fire was given to us, and we washed our hair using a bowl and a metal cup. It was remarkably liberating even though we both smelt of wood smoke for hours afterwards!

On the drive up to Nanyuki, we encountered two clearly dodgy but comical policemen (unfortunately rather common in Kenya because they get paid little) who alleged that we had been speeding, which we most definitely hadn’t been. One said to us in a friendly way, ‘Give me money’ to which we replied in an equally friendly way, ‘No, we don’t have any’. The whole exchange was quite bizarre as a minute later, an official police car pulled by. One of the policemen was rattled by this and tried to make a quick exit. The other, who had asked for money, just totally changed his manner, shrugged and said, ‘Have a lovely day’ and just let us drive off. The whole incident lasted less than three minutes- but is a sign of how far spread corruption is here.

On the first full day, we visited the Mpala Research centre which is where H lived and undertook some of his PhD research about bat eared foxes for six months. It was quite surreal but funny too as to entertain the kids, they had to play nursery rhymes and so we drove around to the sound of ‘London’s Burning’ and E singing ‘Three Blind Mice’.

The views were magnificent- a combination of vast reaching yellow plains topped with bright blue skies and deep iron red soil with mountains rising in the distance. We scaled the edge of an escarpment and were rewarded with a brief viewing of a cheetah in search of prey, and then even more exciting, our first ever viewing of a Grevy’s Zebra. Grevy’s are considered endangered and are only found in the North of Kenya and Ethiopia, sadly in small numbers. They have a very different pattern to the Plains Zebra, with a distinguishable black stripe that runs down their behind and with white bellies, they are also quite large. We spotted two or three, amongst a herd of about forty Plains which started to gallop across the plains in such a way it was breathtaking. We also were amazed to see a large herd of grey elephant, including a baby that couldn’t have been more than a month old judging by its small size. They were approaching the river for a midday drink. On the way home, to a stunning backdrop of Mount Kenya shrouded in white cloud, we came across a huge group of camels grazing- obviously popular in this area.

The next day, S and I arose very early, at 5.30am, to have a quick breakfast before heading out to Ol Pejeta Conservancy, just 15km from the Camel Camp. We had a small run in with a pair of iffy gate guards who tried to cheat us. We had entered through a little used gate at the far end of the conservancy and were clearly the first people to arrive at the park. It cost 4000 shillings for the two of us, and I handed S the exact money alongside our residents permits. S put the money on the table whilst one guard fiddled around with the receipts. At the end, the guard said we had only given him 2000 shillings. S insisted that he had, but the guard was very sneaky and kept saying that he hadn’t. There was another guard who had been walking around and to the side of S, and only when I started to sing and dance about how I wanted to speak to the boss as I knew that exact money had been given, the money was miraculously found on the floor near the second guard. Luckily, we took the receipt and left, slightly saddened that the men had behaved in a deceptive way but relieved that they had been unsuccessful.

We were not bothered for long though, as within ten minutes of driving across a magnificent plain of tall green grasses with the grand Mount Kenya, without a cloud in sight, as the backdrop, S saw what turned out to be a spotted hyena crouching half in and out of a hole. We paused for a few minutes to see what would happen, and then suddenly three big fat warthogs unexpectedly jumped out from underground running away at speed with their little erect tails standing on end, and then the hyena emerged with a big piece of hairy covered flesh in its mouth, looking directly into my camera, just long enough to snap it. Shortly after that, we saw a small black backed jackal run across the track and then be chased away by an antelope twice its size protecting its young.

As part of the conservancy, the famous environmentalist, who I once met in Shanghai, Dr. Jane Goodhall has set up the Sweetwater Chimpanzee Orphanage. Chimps are not indigenous to Kenya, but the reserve has been set up as a safe haven for rescued chimps who have suffered from the illegal bushmeat trade. It was sad to hear the stories of how dreadfully these chimps have been treated at the hands of humans, included one, called Toto, who was kept in a cage for nine years and can now hardly walk. The orphanage was originally intended for Burundi, but was unable to be built there due to civil unrest. The little chimps that we saw are the lucky ones that have been saved.

The rest of the safari showed us plenty of antelope, giraffe and other plains animals and just as we were about to leave, S spotted a lioness stalking through the long yellow grasses. We opened the sun roof and went in pursuit and watched her as she gracefully and easily paced across the land. It was a super end to a morning safari.

We departed the park and took our photos at one of the famous Equator crossing signs, and allowed a local man to show us how the water changes direction in its draining from North to South before heading back for the scenic drive back to Nairobi, passing numerous shambas, including huge flower farms and fields covered with the spiky green leaves of pineapples (belonging to the Del Monte family). We really enjoyed our adventure, as it’s always good to see new animals and scenery, Kenya has such a big variety to offer.

Things that we have been doing for the last few weeks include going to the SATC 2 first screening at Westgate. We also had a more luxurious experience the previous week when we were invited to the notorious and swanky members-only Muthaiga Club for an exquisite birthday tea party for a lovely little girl that I support. Little cucumber sandwiches with the crusts removed and profiteroles filled to the brim with cream, as well as scones served with jam and fresh clotted cream. There were fancy cake stands and tea cups, and we loved it. S must have eaten half the cake! The Muthaiga Club is the place which features in the film Out of Africa. Karen Blixen arrives off the train from Denmark and unknowingly enters the gentleman’s club looking for her fiancĂ© and is demanded to leave as she is a woman. It’s about a hundred years old and has a lot of prestige and old colonial values even today. We were shocked to see half of a stuffed lion in a glass case, which it turns out, used to be on display without the case, but the men there used to get drunk and use it as shooting practice, and so it had to go behind glass!!

The week before last, S took his class out to Hell’s Gate National Park for a day trip and they had fun walking through the deep gorge, and they showered in the natural hot springs that occur there. We also attended a fabulous college graduation barbeque to celebrate the students heading off to university.

A few weekends ago, I helped to organise with my Aussie colleague T, a successful PTA quiz night for parents and staff in our club house, to help set up a school PTA fund. About forty people attended and S’s team came third- quite well considering I kept the questions top secret.

So life continues and its our wedding in less than two months- am v.excited!!

Tuo Nane (see you!)

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Pole pole

Hope all is well with any readers out there!

The Nairobi sun continues to shine gloriously this weekend, and so with a little bit of relaxing time on my hands, I thought I should share the S&J news …

Wedding preparations have been taking up quite a bit of free time recently- it was a mammoth task to organise a wedding from another country with intermittent internet access, regular evening power cuts and unreliable skype phone calls, but ‘pole pole’ (Swahili for slowly, slowly) we appear to be getting somewhere

Work has been good for both S and I, and the weeks seem to be flying by. I have been elected vice-chair of the PTA, and I have co-organised our first event which will be on Saturday. We are hosting a quiz for parents and staff, with a small entry fee to help begin a PTA fund. I am one of the quiz masters and I have written the questions, so now I just need to turn up! I have also been co-chairing the Student Council with the Head teacher of the secondary school and its going well- with the children coming up with lots of ideas of how to improve the school.

S has been assigned a shadow teacher to his class, she will be helping him with a student who has special educational needs. He is having an easy year with only seven kids in his class!

S has been particularly sporty, with his football (he scored the winning goal last week), plus his Taekwondo (he training towards his green belt), today he also played golf as part of a tournament in Limuru outside of Nairobi. The team was made up of a few people we know from school. He has been also taking advantage of the beautiful weather here and regularly wakes up early to go for a run and some bird watching!
I started physiotherapy this week for my leg that was injured when I was hit by the car, and I received ultra sound and electric therapy which should help to repair the tissue damage. I have two pieces of equipment which I have to practice on for five minutes a day, so that hopefully my leg will soon get better. S and I both played in a friendly match of netball on Friday after school with the other teachers, and I want my leg to get better so that I can keep playing.

We had to work this Saturday as it was part of the school training- but luckily it was only for a few hours and we got a free lunch afterwards at a really nice place called the River CafĂ©. Lunch always tastes better when its free! Then, we received complimentary tickets to a charity fashion show at uber trendy ‘Tribe Hotel’ because I support a student whose mother was organising the event. The tickets should have cost £55 each. P, S and I went- dressed the best that we could, and we were sat on seats on the balcony overlooking the catwalk. Imagine our surprise and shock when one of the fashion designers ran out and said the hairdresser hadn’t turned up and begged me and P to help do the model’s hair! I was going to say no, but P roped me into it, so whilst S supped on free passionfruit cocktails- P and I started desperately to do something with the models. Lots of hair spray later- no one seemed to complain and we appeared to be successful! Whilst we were doing the hair, photographers with huge lens and video cameras started to film me pulling one models hair into a pony tail, so I just had to smile and pretend that I was supposed to be there! The evening was really interesting with free canopes, and the models outfits were spectacular. When we left, we were given free goody bags- mine included a beautiful bronze keyring and a brown African chunky bracelet, and S was given a pair of bronze cufflings! I just love getting things for FREE!

We have booked our flights home for the 3rd July- fingers crossed British weather will be sunny this summer!

We are making the most of our Africa-British link, and we have decided to have a hen do and stag do here in Nairobi as well as back home in the UK. We are both looking forward to them. After all, we only plan to get married once and so we should enjoy the experience as much as possible with our friends!

That’s all for now- take care everyone

S&J xx

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

From Nairobi despite the volcano

Hope you are all well and haven’t been affected by the volcanic eruption as much as we have!!

After S’s dad spent a lovely week with us, the following day we had our friend R arrive from Los Angeles. She had come to attend a micro-finance conference in Nairobi in a delegation of women who are trying to help end poverty through learning about alternative ways to support small communities in some of the poorest parts of the world. She attended the conference with Marianne Williamson, a spiritual author, famous in the United States, who had invited R to come to Nairobi. S went with her to a few of the conference talks and met Muhammed Yunus, a Nobel Peace Prize Winner who is from Bangladesh and he founded a bank which was designed to help lift people out of poverty.

On the Friday night, S and I were invited to the beautiful Nairobi Synagogue to attend the service where R had been invited to speak about some of her life experiences, and afterwards, we were invited by two Orthodox Jewish brothers, Levi and Mendy, to a delicious Shabbat dinner. Levi and Mendy are originally from Brooklyn, NY and they had been invited to the Jewish community in Nairobi to help lead the Passover Seder and holiday celebrations. They were very entertaining and down to earth and we all enjoyed their company and hospitality very much.

On Saturday, my parents arrived from England and over the following days, we took them on safari around Nairobi National Park, where we were astounded to come face to face with lions and lionesses almost as soon as we entered the plains! A huge lion had obviously just fed from a kill and was lounging about in the grass with his lioness companion. They were incredibly beautiful to watch and we got some great photos. Later in the day we saw a huge variety of birds, ranging from vultures to ostrich, down to tiny ‘blink and you miss it’ birds. We were shocked to drive through areas where there are normally troops of monkeys and baboons, only to find the place virtually empty. Just a week before, when we had gone with G and P on safari, there had been a big baboon that had launched himself at our car and held onto the roof as we drove along before finally dismounting and S picked up speed. We were soon to realise that the baboons were gone for good reason…S stopped the car to catch a photo of a bird, and then a movement in the long grasses revealed yet another lion- with a beautiful copper coloured mane- he looked just like Aslan in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe! By the end of the day, we had seen four different lions in different locations- sheer luck, as we know many people who have lived here for eight months and have never seen one yet!

We also visited the giraffe centre, where mum and R kissed a giraffe, the elephant orphanage, where we watched baby elephants roll in the mud and Lake Naivasha where S and Dad had a close encounter with a hippo and where we found huge groups of pelicans. The elephant orphanage is a sad reminder that poaching still goes on, and many of these tiny elephants have lost their families and mothers to someone who barbarically slaughtered them for their ivory. Another factor that brings the elephants to the orphanage is drought, which prevails in the North- hard to believe here when we have been getting torrential downpours through all the night- it is currently the season for the Kenyan long rains.

All was going well, and what with the lovely time we spent with G camping, trekking up the side of Mount Suswa volcano, golfing in Muthaiga and sunbathing in the garden of the five bedroom house we have been housesitting in- we were thoroughly enjoying the holiday. Our work at Dandora has been going well- and with books donated by our family- we have a great little library that the kids are so happy about.

On Thursday, we said our goodbyes to R and she went to the airport to fly back to LA and we headed to Naivasha. Half way around Cresent Island, the phone rang and Ruth informed us of the Icelandic Volcano. R’s flight was cancelled, and so was my parents on Sunday, and as I am writing this I have been informed that Heathrow airspace has been re-opened and R is being taken to the airport to hopefully begin her journey home. Mum and dad have been told that the earliest possible flight for them is on the 26th April- over a week after they were due to fly. This has been a little complicated, due to running out of cash, bank cards not working, medicine etc also having to move back to the school and out of the big house- but luckily, mum and dad are able to currently stay in a colleagues flat- she has been stranded in the UK and is not yet back at school. It’s the uncertainty that is affecting everyone- with news stories being the only source of information and headlines saying it could last twelve months- its hard to just relax and enjoy the extra days together. But hopefully all will soon be resolved…I know that there are so many friends of mine across the globe who have been affected…

This Saturday, S will be running our second volunteer teaching training session- this time in the slum of Mathare- there has been a big positive response with almost 40 people attending (our last session was for 11 people). We really hope that this small thing we can do will have a big impact on the children who will benefit from their volunteers being better trained.

Well that’s all for now- its back to work for me and S!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Back from our Tsavo Adventure

We have safely returned from our four day escapade on safari to Tsavo. The 330km journey took us twelve hours in the end- with the buses arriving late, us hitting morning Nairobi traffic and then the school bus accelerator going on the blink- but we were able to see camels, baboons, zebra and giraffe along the way, as well as some beautiful scenery- plains dotted with acacia and baobab trees with mountains for as far as the eye could see.

We stayed in a private sanctuary which was filled with wildlife and acts as a ‘corridor’ between Tsavo East and Tsavo West- two enormous National parks which are at least 21,000 square km in size, and is home to thousands of elephants and hundreds of lions. We slept in a little round red walled banda huts with a huge thatched roof (which was also home to a friendly bat, which ate the mosquitos!).
With a group of older students, S climbed Mount Kisigau. It was roughly a 1,600m trek- it was an extremely hard climb because of the steep and long gradients, plus the temperature was over 35 degrees. It took four and a half hours to climb and about three hours for the descent. There were three climate zones, arid and rocky at the bottom, bushy vegetation in the middle and tropical rainforest at the top. S saw huge silver backed and red legged spiders the size of his palm and yet still made it to the top! He looked rather bestragled and sweaty on his return!

S and I did game drives on different days with the children and we both saw large herds of red elephants (a deep copper red from the soil that is in Tsavo), plus numerous birds such as the peculiar looking long legged Secretary birds, Golden crested starlings, eagles, hawks, red billed hornbills, Eurasian roller and the Lilac Crested Roller which is Kenya’s national bird. The birds were incredibly beautiful with bright colour combinations and unusual and exotic looking beaks and heads. I was lucky enough to see two cheetah, which were sitting under a tree surveying the plains for prey and S saw a black backed jackal, white striped kudu, and a gerenuk. We both were lucky enough to spot a large lioness just outside the camp where we were staying- reminding us just how close the wildlife we really were!

Whilst in the camp, we saw copper headed lizards and also a beautiful animal called a Genet, which has a black and white tail like a racoon and then a spotted body.
We also got to do activities too- we learnt how to make our own elephant dung paper, weave Sisal grass into ropes and string, make colourful beaded bracelets with local women from the Imani woman’s group, plus S helped to make a life size elephant out of snares that have been found by wardens- laid down by poachers trying to catch the elephants for their precious ivory. The elephant, when complete, is going to be in display in Nairobi to try and discourage Kenyans from supporting the illegal ivory trade. We had a good time at Tsavo and look forward to returning- though the weather was extremely hot- over 35 degrees every day- it was definitely shorts and t-shirt weather!

Today, we returned to Dandora to teach the children in the morning and then in the afternoon we started our new charity project of teacher training. We trained eleven volunteers from Kenya, Burundi and Uganda about how to plan a lesson and some educational games that they can use to make their lessons interactive and fun. It was a two hour session and was well received. We have been invited to Burundi, a former French colony and to Uganda to do the same in December. We have also realised a new need for the students at Dandora- currently they do not have any water bottles and therefore don’t drink and get quite dehydrated. So S and I have spoken to our school and we are starting a mass collection of old soda bottles, which we will clean and then take to Dandora so that the children can carry water to and from school. We have also started to hatch a plan about organising a fun day for the Dandora children- where they can come to our school and use the field to play games and have face painting etc. The head teacher of the college is supportive of the plan, so we hope to do this in the Summer term. I was pleased today to receive a package of books from my friend PA in New York- she sent some picture books to donate to Dandora- so that, with the books that S’s dad is bringing from his grandparent, and the books that my mum and dad have bought, means we have built our first transportable library with at least sixty books!!

So that’s our news for now- its been a good but tiring week and we both need to catch up on our sleep and have a good rest for our last week of school before three weeks of Easter hols and family visits! Kwaheri!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Its March already!!??

S and I are good here in Africa- the weeks have been ticking by, and its not long now until S’s dad comes to visit in the last week of March, and then my mum and dad in the second week of April. We also have R coming from California inbetween. She is coming to Nairobi as part of a delegation to meet Queen Sophia of Spain, Nobel Peace Prize Winner Muhammed Yunis, plus other important key people- who are meeting in Kenya to discuss how to end poverty. We are looking forward to our visits from home- and we will be back in England in July for the wedding before we know it!

School life is going well. Last week I re-visited the volcanic Crater Lake near Naivasha with a school trip. It was a fun day with lots of wildlife spotting along the way. I also attended a theatre trip to see seven short plays written by American playwright Charles Darang at ISK. S has been busy writing all his school reports and is glad that is now over until next time! S has been enjoying his smaller class sizes now that his class has been split- he now teaches only six children which is luxury by any teachers standards!

The last couple of weekends we have remained in Nairobi- we went bowling (I beat S), played pool and table football (S beat me) and we went to the cinema. We went to the ballet yesterday at Bomas- it was part of the international Kijani festival which raises funds for HIV/AIDs projects. It was quite bizarre as there were many famous Kenyan politicians and news presenters sitting amongst us the audience and we were completely oblivious until our Kenyan friend P, who came with us, pointed them out! S was pleased this week when he scored a goal at football, and in Taekwondo he is training for the green striped belt.

Last week at Dandora, we were heartened to see some new volunteers from a local bible college come to help teach the children. S and I will be delivering a teacher training session for them, and existing volunteers next week. We are hoping to make them more autonomous so that we can spend more time with other charities too. This week we got further involved with Mogra- the children’s orphanage and school in the Mathare slum of Nairobi. The orphanage is actually 6km away from the school in a safe area, as during the election violence a few years ago, there was fears that the children would be killed amongst the slum. The sad thing about this is that they have to walk on foot to the school each day- 6km there and 6km back along dusty roads just to receive an education. Children in England don’t know how lucky they are! We helped to deliver a nutritional census of over 1000 children and their mothers, alongside some friends of ours- so that a bid can be submitted to the WFP (World Food Programme) to try and guarantee food for the children as currently the charity is struggling to provide it. It was a strange experience- we asked for the names, date of birth, height, weight, bmi of every child under the age of sixteen, plus took the details of their mothers, including HIV status. We are trying to gain statistical data to prove that the children of Mogra are malnourished. We asked the mothers if they fed their children before and/or after school, and the majority of the mothers admitted that they couldn’t as they didn’t have food. The mothers almost all had at least five children in their care- either because they were their own children, or they were the guardians (sisters or aunts) because the birth mother had died during childbirth or from HIV related illnesses. We encountered many orphans. S and I have agreed to give free teacher training to the teachers at Mogra school as their morale is low- their average salary is less than £35 a month!

That’s all our news for now. We have international cultural day on Thursday- so we are scratching our heads about what we can wear for that- at the moment it looks like we will be sporting our Fulham tops! The week after next we have an exciting four day and three night Camping Trip with the school to Tsavo East National Park which is about six hours drive from Nairobi. It is known to have a large population of predators such as lions and often boasts large numbers of elephants too. We are really looking forward to it!

Wedding plans seem to be going really well- we were pleased to learn this week that we will definitely have S’s old class singing in the church at our wedding- it should be really special. We also have several friends coming from abroad- including a few from New York and California in the USA and from Italy. We can’t wait!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Happy Valentine's Day

Habari gani? It’s been a busy couple of weeks for S and I. Last Saturday, we spent the morning again teaching children at Phase One of Dandora, and this Saturday we taught the children at Phase Four. The children were excited to see all the colourful balls and hula hoops we brought with us, purchased with the money that we raised at our staff quiz. I have babysat a few times also for our neighbours who in return bought some skipping ropes as a thank you which the children enjoyed playing with. This Saturday, we were asked to serve the children their lunch- so we scooped out rice and cabbage to share amongst the hungry kids- nothing was left over. We were invited to eat with them, as an act of Kenyan hospitality, and it was quite delicious.

This week, we donated the five teddy bears that S's grandmother knitted to an orphanage for young babies. We know two people who volunteer there. The children arrive very malnourished at the orphanage, and unfortunately there has been a virus that has swept through and made some of the children very ill. In recent weeks, several little ones have even died. We wanted to let them have something to feel comfort from, and so they seemed the best home for the bears.

We have donated the 30+ little lego sets from S's grandparents to Mogra, an orphanage that works with older children. They are going to be given out as prizes to the children that try hard in class. Our friend who is a nurse there, said that the children say that playing with a toy car is in their top three things to do, and yet almost none of them have any toy cars- so we know they will be appreciated.

Last Sunday, S and I drove back to Naivasha, as we had liked it so much from the week previous, when we visited Crater Lake. This time, we took a trip to Crescent Island, which runs into the lake and is where Out of Africa was filmed. The crescent is the outer rim of a volcanic crater which forms a deep bay. We were able to roam freely by foot amongst herds of zebra, wildebeest, dik dik, impala and waterbuck. There was a warm rain shower and so we sheltered in a little hut, before walking down the waters edge where we saw hippo bathing. I was feeling quite grateful, as the owner of the island told us that she had recently released several pythons- but we luckily did not encounter them!

We have begun to foster a little garden on our balcony, using our old water bottles, we have potted three plants that we bought at Naivasha. Some Aloe, Bougainvillea and a purple flowering shrub, plus I made a little bird bath and bird feeder out of old fizzy drink bottles. We compost all our food waste in a little bin which is used for the school gardens, and we recycle all the cardboard and plastic yoghurt pots via the school Art room. Here, it is quite easy to find another use for something if you are creative!

During the week, S learns Taekwondo on Tuesdays and on Wednesday we have our private dance lesson. We are being taught various steps including salsa and the foxtrot and we get better each week. S is very good at posing and putting on funny faces, egged on by in the instructor! On Thursday, I watched S play football, he is centre mid field. His team, the Railway Wanderers, drew against Parklands Sports Club- 2-2. It was a good score, especially as S’s team are all 30+ and the opponents were all spring chickens in their early 20’s.

I went on a school trip on Friday with the Year 7 and 8 Art class to Kazuri beads. Kazuri means ‘small and beautiful’ in Swahili, and Kazuri was set up in 1975 by Lady Susan Wood on the farm of Karen Blixen. She employed single mothers (and still does) to hand make beads out of clay and then fire them and paint them. It was really interesting to visit the factory and meet the women and see how it all comes together.

Valentines Day, was the BGE Fun Day. S and his class ran a cake stall and lemonade stand and I had a face painting stall. All the money raised goes to the school charities, and luckily the work we do at Dandora will also benefit from a cut in the proceeds. It was a hot day and I have felt the effects the sun which has turned me rosy pink, but I enjoyed painting the faces- everything from love hearts to flowers to spider man! S even let me paint his face!

That’s our news for now! Happy Valentines Day!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

S&I recently held a staff quiz here in Nairobi and with the proceeds from the entry on the door, we purchased some play equipment for the children we visit at Dandora at the weekends

Monday, February 1, 2010

Children at Dandora

S with the children of Dandora with their new uniforms. Money for the uniforms was fundraised by the children of S's old primary school in England.

S is welcomed into a local home in the Dandora slum

Hakuna Matata!

Habari zenu? Jambo once again from S&J,

Our adventures have been continuing since our last email, and it’s been almost a month since I stepped off the plane to begin my life here in Nairobi (meaning ‘place with cool waters’ by the Maasai) with S- being in England feels like a lifetime ago already!

One of the greatest blessings for us this month was to be offered the chance to borrow a champagne coloured five door Rav 4 for three months from a friend of S’s. Thanks to his generosity, S and I have been able to feel the freedom of having our own transport- something that is so necessary here in Nairobi, especially as we live in the North of the city. Asante sana K!

S has been honouring his new work schedule (no work after 6 or at weekends) which has led to relaxing and fun weekends together. We live very close to the Windsor Golf Course, and we spent one glorious afternoon walking amongst the fuchsia coloured Bougainvillea and the verdant trees, coming across the occasional Sykes monkey and constantly being surrounded by colourful butterflies. Last weekend, we explored the incredible Nairobi National Park and were treated to plentiful viewings of zebra grazing on the wide open plains which are dotted with acacia trees, elegant meandering giraffe feeding amongst the taller trees, plus numerous hartebeest, gazelles and impala watching us as they appeared to bathe in the sun on the winding hillsides. Muscular eland strolled past and groups of hefty buffalo eyed us as we slowly drove by. From a waterhole we were mesmerised by a small family of three hippo as they surfaced to catch the air, often just by poking out a hairy snout, but occasionally lifting their heads so we could see their eyes and little ears peeping at us.

We found one place where, with armed guard, we were able to explore a little by foot, and we wandered down a muddy path that ran alongside a chocolate coloured river filled with hippo, crocodiles and turtles. At another quiet spot, we were amused to see little vervet monkeys walking amongst a meadow, and then just minutes later, as we passed by a picnic spot- we saw a group of menacing baboons fighting and playing on top of the picnic benches. One big hairy baboon circled our car to remind us just who was in charge!

Even as we departed from the park as the sun began to set, we saw a little mummy mongoose and her offspring dart across the mud track, and then as we approached the gate we heard the magnificent and unmistakable sounds of lions roaring- awake as the heat of the day had passed; they were getting ready for their evening hunt. I was reading in the paper this week that some villagers outside of Nairobi are being tormented by four lions that keep attacking their animals. Can you imagine that in England? The worst we have to deal with is a fox with our chickens or a cat with our goldfish pond! Luckily the only snake we have seen so far was a dead one- long and silver at the side of the road- that is one creature I am not overwhelmingly looking forward to seeing alive!

One side effect of living in such a place with abundant wildlife is that S and I have mutated into bird watchers- binoculars, bird guide et al! I resisted at first- but haven’t been able to help myself! It’s hard not to be in awe of such vast variety in bright eye catching colours and all kinds of sizes- from the tiny starling to the mighty ostrich! We have seen so many in just a month- cranes, egrets, grebes, cormorants, herons, kites, buzzards, go-away birds, vultures, ibis, marabou, weavers, Egyptian geese, and plovers to name but a few! I expect after a year of living here, S and I will be phenomenal photographers as we will have had so much practice trying to capture them on film.

Yesterday, we ventured to the shores of Green Crater Lake which is 17km beyond Lake Naivasha- about an hours drive from Nairobi. There were breathtaking views of the escarpment- as we drove along the high roads- with the magnificent Rift Valley spreading out for as far as the eye can see. We drove by Longonot, a mighty volcano that Sam recently climbed, before we were greeted by friendly black and white colobus monkeys that scampered about the trees whilst we picnicked. A stroll to the lake side in the scorching sun revealed woodpeckers and then finally a solitary Kingfisher perching upon a boat. At the smelly but pretty crater lake (it is situated inside the crater of an extinct volcano- there is a lot of volcanic thermal activity in this area), we saw pink flamingos. As we returned home, we saw more zebra, giraffe and warthog, plus minature dik-diks hiding in the long grasses.

School life rolls by with the usual routine of lessons, lunchtimes and extra curricular activities. It is such a different pace of life than in London and it allows for a strong sense of community and school identity when you can get to know every child in the school. I have felt the successes of the two students I work with- its amazing how quickly students can progress with support.

S has been playing football with the Railway Wanderers and I have gone to cheer at a few matches. His team is made up of a variety of internationals and Kenyans- whose careers range from being world class lawyers, to cutting edge architects to working for the U.N. We enjoyed a match this week, where afterwards we went to celebrate their defeat by the University of Nairobi team (young whippersnappers!) by having a BBQ at N’s house. As we ate our vegetarian sausages looking out on the leafy garden with a full moon in the sky and stars twinkling in the night, it was easy to see how expats can come to love a life in Kenya. Warm weather and the great outdoors has its appeal!

We’ve been swimming in our outdoor pool several evenings after school- refreshing after the heat of the afternoon and S has been pursuing his Taekwondo. This week we added a new activity to our afternoons- dancing! We have hired a private dance teacher to show us how to salsa, waltz and cha cha cha our way around a dance floor. Shockingly its only £2.50 each per lesson- something we can definitely afford! So fingers crossed we will be ready to wow and amaze by the time of our first dance at our wedding on the 17th July! Our dance teacher said, ‘there is hope!’

A few Fridays ago, I created a staff quiz in the school club house to help get to know the teachers that work here and to fundraise some money for our charity work at Dandora. It was a great success with 30 staff attending and I hope to make it a regular event. S was excellent as co-quiz master!

Our weekend work at Dandora is developing- we have introduced the idea of having an assembly and set lesson times which means the children can get used to a routine for learning. S was hilarious as he got a puppet and did a puppet dance to entertain the children as I read them a story- he is a natural entertainer! The children are eager to learn and they love to be read to. You have never seen so much excitement as when we bring out the balls and skipping ropes for them to play with. Every time we go to Dandora, we are reminded of how much we take for granted. Coming home to a warm and cleansing shower, electricity at the touch of a button, a fridge full of food and knowing that we are safe as we sleep at night- its something that we all forget that we are lucky to have. Knowing if Sor I get sick, we can get well again. Knowing that we have been immunised against diseases that are a regular occurrence on the slums like Typhoid. If only everyone in the world were so lucky…

On that note, we wish you good health and the peace to enjoy all that we have. We always look forward to hearing news from home!

Tutaonana & Hakuna Matata!
J&S x
February 2010

PS- Some friends have emailed me to ask if they can help out with Dandora. If you would like to fundraise, please let me know and I will let you know how. Or if you would like to send a picture book that we can read to the children- contact me and I will send you our address.

January News- Jambo from Nairobi

Jambo! Habari gani? Greetings from Nairobi from J&S…

2010 began peacefully for us as we spent the last week of December in Perugia and Rocca D’Orcia, Tuscany, Italy- visiting ‘il nostro amico gentile’ G and his friends and family. On New Year’s Day, we helped to celebrate his grandfather’s 81st birthday with champagne and a delicious home cooked meal by his grandmother, before flying back to London briefly for a pit-stop and bag change, then returning to an airport to fly ‘home’ to Nairobi.

We have a new two-floor, two bedroom apartment on the school grounds with a lovely balcony which overlooks some green gardens and flowers in vibrant pinks and burnt orange. Each day our flat is refreshed by Jackie, our maid, who we are eternally grateful for, as she does all our washing and ironing! In the evenings, we can hear the rhythmic sounds of crickets and the croaking of frogs which play in the river that flows alongside our building (more about that later). The school compound is a lovely place to live with tennis courts, an expansive outdoor pool and lots and lots of blue sky! Nature surrounds us, even here, with plentiful beautiful birds- ibises, marabou, Egyptian geese, cranes, kites, weavers and sunbirds- and the odd gecko scaling the school walls.

S’s Year 5/6 class is growing with four new students this week, and he has been sticking to his new, improved and more organised work schedule (no work after 6pm or at weekends!) which has left us free to enjoy our free time together. Until September, I am working as Learning Support for two students with special educational needs.

Our school newly opened in the North of Nairobi in September and educates from primary right through to college. Every day at lunch time, we get a free meal- and we sit on tables with students from different year groups- it is a real family atmosphere and often doesn’t feel like a school.

The lunches we are served range from Western dishes like pizza to traditional Kenyan fare such as ugali and sikomawiki (spinach and kale- its delicious!)

S has restarted playing football. He is part of a football team called the Railway Wanderers. The team was founded when the railway was built between Mombassa and Nairobi. On Friday night, he returned home covered in deep red mud from playing in the wet field!

S and I heard heavy rains throughout the night, accompanied with an impressive thunder and lightening storm. Kenya has been without a good rain for about two years and the water is welcomed. However, ‘El Nino’ a warm current bringing the rain from the oceans has been quite unusual and this morning, S and I woke up to see a fast flowing reddish brown river where our road and path normally is- so deep it came midway up my calves! The river has burst and the campus turned into one great big watery playground for the ibis! January is ordinarily the hottest month of the year! However, we have had plenty of warm sunshine with temperatures every day of over 20 degrees.

Despite the river road, we were able to wade out with our driver to explore Ngara market- a haven for fresh fruit and veg of many varieties so that we can try to shop locally rather than support the richer and richer supermarket chain Nakumatt. We then went to Bomas, a Swahili word mean ‘enclosed homestead’. It’s a cultural centre which features representational villages of traditional homes of Kenya’s major ethnic groups, including Mijkenda, Taita, Kuria, Luo, Kisii, Kalenjin, Kamba, Kikuyu, Meru, Maasai and Embu. The tribes come from varying parts of Kenya ranging from the coast to the mountains, to the lakes, from the North, East and Central Kenya as well as the Rift Valley. We also got to watch some traditional dances and see the ‘Jambo Mambo’ an acrobatic troupe who wowed us with somersaults, and limbo-ing underneath a fire blazing pole! Whilst at Bomas, we witnessed four Sykes monkeys playing in the trees and as we explored the site we were surrounded by many varieties of colourful butterflies. We were excited to see buffalo as we drove along the peripheries of the National Park- wildlife is abundant in Kenya!

Yesterday, we went to Dandora. Dandora is an area of Nairobi where a large and toxic rubbish dump is situated. It is seen as one of the most polluted places on the planet. Sadly, many poor Kenyans end up working and even living on the dump and in its surrounding slums, as they can earn a few pennies in collecting bits of rubbish with value. S has been volunteering at Dandora since September- teaching some of the children games on a Saturday. Generously, S’s old primary school in England, recently fundraised over £410 for his work there- and the money has been used to purchase uniforms for some of the children. Even though there is ‘free education’ there are many barriers to their schooling. Many families cannot afford the shoes and uniforms needed to send their children to school, there is also a lot of hidden costs like enforced lessons on a Saturday- it means that many children miss out on school at all. Even if they do get to go, there are often up to 100 in a classroom – which has no furniture- they have to sit on mats on the floor. Needless to say, they don’t learn much! S and I were invited into the home of two women who are mothers of a girl who was one of the girls to receive a uniform. They spoke candidly about their experiences and it was very humbling. S and I are going to continue to work at Dandora- offering some teacher training to some volunteers who help the children there. We are also considering building/equipping a safe play area for the local kids.

In the afternoon, we went to buy essentials such as mosquito nets and our groceries- and visited the cinema to see Avatar. It was a far cry from the life of the people at Dandora- but S and I realise how lucky we are.

We have many plans for the next few weeks and months- we are currently trying to find a second hand vehicle so that we can be more mobile, and we are starting Swahili lessons together from next Friday. We are helping to deliver the Presidents Award at school which is the local equivalent to the Duke of Edinburgh scheme and I am organising a staff and parents quiz- with proceeds for entry hopefully going towards our work at Dandora. S is restarting Taekwondo- following his successfully obtaining a yellow belt before Christmas.

So that’s all our news so far and only one week has passed us by! We are looking forward to hearing from you and hopefully we may even get a visit!

Habari ya Mwaka Mpya! (Happy New Year!)

January 2010