Several people have asked what took me to Kenya. I joined my university friend, Stewart Skinner, and his brother and father to visit a rural community and work with the local coop to start a poultry project. You can read more about what we were doing here or on the GoFundMe page .
We must have seemed like lazy mzungus (Kiswahili for white skin) to our hosts, who were up every morning before the sun. Stewart joked I was a true dairy farmer, up early every day but my jet lag never fully subsided either and I still found it difficult to rise before 8. An 8-hour time change does that I suppose.
When I did start waking at 6:30am on our last few mornings, there was already water at our door. The pale yellow, plastic jug had been brought down to us when they also brought jugs to fill the water tank for our toilet.
Our guest house was nearly finished and it had the only flushing toilet on the property. It was being built by our friend for his parents but with work and many other financial commitments, it had been under construction for several years.
“It doesn’t make me money,” our host told me matter of factly. It has 2 bedrooms and a tiled floor bathroom with toilet and electricity. We were grateful for all of it.
Over the course of the week, I would gain a far greater appreciation for how important this was not just for our friend but for everyone in Kenya. I have already written about the corruption that leaves the country’s taxes in the pockets of politicians and outside interests rather than the infrastructure and services Kenyans so direly need. So, the burden falls on the people.
In the Cherangany, many of the homes do not have running water. Ours was brought from a well about 1/2 km away, dug by a Swedish company some years ago. Other families have bore holes (wells) they draw water out by hand.
Luckily, there is lots of clean water in the Cherangany, unfortunately it’s just not available to the people. A pipeline takes it out to the region to Eldoret but the funding to build a pipeline to the communities has been given out many times in different tenders, yet no pipeline has ever been built. The projects never even got started.
Several families may draw water from a community well, like the one our water came from. Hauled up by donkey cart, the dozen plastic jugs of water were used for bathing, laundry, cooking and cleaning.
We tried to conserve it best we could, “showering” only a few times using a wash tub in the shower stall of the latrine. I don’t know if I’ve ever bathed with so little water and when I tried to wash my hair, I realized why so many Kenyan women cut theirs short.
Otherwise, it wasn’t so bad and I enjoyed the warm sunshine streaming into the latrine before I realized there was a door. I closed it the next couple days because it seemed only too likely one of the curious neighbours, eager to see the mzungu guests, might wander by on the nearby lane!
Once bathed, we gathered up what we needed for the day and headed up to the main house. This is where our host’s parents, niece and nephews were raising lived. Like most rural Kenyan homes, the kitchen was in a separate outbuilding. I never did peek in it, but I imagine it was somewhat similar to others we saw. A clay fireplace in the corner allowed a small fire to be built for cooking. In some homes, it also doubled as an incubator to keep baby chicks warm.
We took our breakfast and dinner in the living room. Religious posters adorned the walls, several couches and chairs draped in fabric covers and coffee tables for gathering around. A thermos of chai (tea) with milk and sugar sat alongside a tray of mugs. Chai is a tradition in Kenya and many times visiting farmers to talk about the project, we were invited for chai. It’s rude to say no which can be challenging for someone whose stomach can be argumentative at the best of times.
Most mornings we had chiapatti for breakfast. It’s like a thin, fried pancake. They were rolled up and forks stuck in them for us to eat like a hot dog on a stick. They were good and everyday we wished we had brought some jam or Nutella with us to spread over them.
Some days before setting out, we would have a prayer. I quickly learned this is very common in Kenya. There was often a prayer before meetings, before our meals and another at the end of the day. It was a stark reminder of how many blessings we each have, witnessing so much gratitude among people who had so little.
Then we were off for the day to carry out our various tasks for our projects. Most days this meant a stop at the coop’s milk collection station, where dairy farmer members brought their milk to be sold collectively for a higher price than they could get on their own. We were working with a number of their directors for our poultry project.
Yogurt was also being made at the coop, which we purchased daily to take with us in case a lunch stop wasn’t in order. There were several trips to Eldoret, which allowed us to learn first hand that the road had 64 speed bumps along the way. The speed bumps in Kenya make driving any distance take far longer than necessary. Some of them are so high they will the take the bottom off your car if you’re not careful.
They’re not just limited to paved roads either. The road to our guest house had a particularly nasty one near the school, which we bottomed out on a few times with a full car.
We drove everywhere with the windows open – free A/C! Which meant that everyone could see the mzungus in the car and would wave and yell, hello. More than once, kids walking to and from school would chase the car, yelling “mzungu, mzungu, how are you?”.
Just as I had read in Road Trip Rwanda, the standard response here was “I’m fine,” and most people would respond before you even asked the question.
The rain when we arrived kept some of the dust in check at first but by mid week, we needed to close the windows whenever we met a truck or another car, even a “piggy piggy” (motorbike).
At lunch, the kids who go to a “day school” walk home. Most head to school at 6:30am and then the day wraps up between 3-4 PM. It’s a long day for sure, but they always had energy to smile and yell hello. There are so many schools. With average family sizes still being quite large, and fear mongering limiting the use of birth control, they need many schools. Government funding is provided but there are many boarding schools that families with extra income seem to take advantage of.
I only visited a boarding school briefly to drop off our host’s son. The 4-H clubs that have been started in the area are at day schools, one a Catholic school. Both have a cow and an outdoor kitchen, where some meals are provided for the children if parents opt for this. Young people also bring their own cup to school for chai of course.
Greeting everyone you meet is quite customary. Everywhere we went, we shook hands with everyone present, including the curious neighbours who may wander by to find out what the white people were doing. Cherangany is not much of a tourist destination, so we were an attraction on our own.
In a way it was refreshing to show everyone the same level of respect, no matter their position. It was also confusing to know who we were in fact there to meet, so I just introduced myself to everyone.
After a full day traveling around the region on the bumpy, dusty roads of the Cherangany to our various meetings, we usually were wrapped up around 5. We would reassemble together for a wrap-up meeting, either at the coop or the little bar across the road. We soon learned that it was owned by a local businessman who had spent his career working for the UN.
Now that he was retired, he was spending his money back in Kenya, building a bar and hotel (restaurant). We liked the concept – a couple containers stacked on one another and little cabanas that made for a nice, private meeting spot. Word still spread though and some of Stewart’s acquaintances would still find us.
It was usually dark when we climbed back in our cars to head home. The stars seemed to shine brighter in Kenya. Most of the homes near us had electricity, but short of a small yard light there were few other lights polluting the night sky. We couldn’t help but marvel at the stars.
Maybe too much, because our host kidded us, “They’re the same stars – it’s the same sky!”
Dinner was prepared, and we felt a little guilty for always being so late. I think if we didn’t have so much we were trying to do in such short time, we would have returned at a more reasonable hour, but we really were trying to get as much done as we could in the days we had.
Dinner was rice, some beef or lamb stew, cooked carrots and peas, and schuma, a stewed greens dish. Eating after 10 has never been easy for me but I ate what I could and worried about offending my host every night. In Kenya, everyone eats as much as they can every time they can. I suspect it’s a reality of not always knowing when your next meal will come. A reality I certainly have never experienced.
Sometimes we chatted politics over dinner, while we watched the news on TV. This is where we learned the tragic details of the Ethiopian Airlines flight which crashed while we were in the country. It was a sombre night for us all as many Canadians were on the flight and it’s a popular flight for people traveling to Nairobi.
Dinner was finished with chai, before we headed down through the banana grove, past the pasture and to the house, accompanied by our host with flashlight. Another jug of hot water was brought for us to wash up, we brushed our teeth a la camping style (standing outside with a water bottle) and then did any last business outside before settling in for the night.
Or maybe I should say locked in. The heavy steel doors used in Kenya allow for a lock to be put on the door that cannot be cut off from the outside. Theft is rampant and we were firmly instructed to lock the door whenever we left and once we went to bed at night. I tried not to think too much about what may happen if we didn’t, but this meant once you were “in for the night” you were in. The walls were thin and since the door made a bit of a racket, I never wanted to have to open it once everyone was in bed.
Since it was still technically the dry season, and we hadn’t seen a single mosquito, we didn’t use mosquito nets. To be careful though, I slept in tights and a long-sleeved base layer shirt most nights which meant most nights, I woke up extra hot and sweaty.
(Ironically, it was when I woke up in Amsterdam before flying home, I realized I had been bit by bed bugs, either in Amsterdam or at the fancy safari lodge.)
Aside from the crickets and the donkey braying at midnight, there wasn’t another sound. It was perhaps the quietest night I have ever experienced in recent memory. By mid-week, the heat and long days meant I was falling asleep right away and most nights, I didn’t awake again until the rooster started crowing around six.