To Turkana and Beyond!

EARCs have some downtime in August for the school winter break, so my colleagues encouraged me to see Kenya, something I’m always available to do. A volunteer friend of mine had carefully planned an epic journey way up north to Lake Turkana and it seemed an opportunity I’d be foolish to miss out on. It was an amazing and very lengthy journey. Luckily I was a little way in before I’d started as I was in Nairobi on official business, meeting with the VSO-Jitolee national volunteering team and attending an HIV-AIDS workshop.

We set off early in the morning by coach and headed west through the Rift Valley, past Nakuru to Kitale. The journey was pretty comfortable until the final section which was, to that point, the bumpiest road I’d experienced. We stayed overnight in nearby Makutano and waited for the early bus to Lodwar. We drank some coffee, had a tour of the market, ate some snacks, posted a letter, bought phone credit, shopped for a hat, drank some more coffee and eventuallythe bus arrived and we set off at midday.

The Bus to the End of The Earth/Kenya

The journey was pretty magic. We passed Marich Pass Field Studies Centre that I’d visited ten years ago when I first came to Kenya on a school trip, it seems to be still going strong. As time went on, the time between towns increased, the soil turned from red, to brown to sand and the bus became full to bursting. It felt we were far from the Kenya I’ve got to know, with the desert landscape and most strikingly the style of the long necked Turkana women entering the bus, with row upon row of beads and braided mohican hair. One tiny old man joined us late in the day, in full Turkana dress including a lethal knife bracelet. Imagine the blade of an enormous knife carved into a circle with a hole for your wrist and a strip of leather covering the inside and outside blade. It looked pretty dangerous to me and when my friend tried one on later in the trip he caused himself an immediate injury, I won’t be trying that. Anyway, this guy was pretty set upon having my seat and earned himself the nickname, ‘Lizzie’s lap dancer,’ for demanding my lap as an alternative. Since I also had a live chicken balanced on my head at this point it didn’t seem that extraordinary.

We arrived in Lodwar late in the evening, too late to travel onto the lake. Lodwar’s a town not dissimilar to many places I’ve visited in Kenya, just many more miles from anywhere else and with a massive amount of extra sand.

Dusty Lodwar - I'd Love to Know What Half a London Is

The Heat was Snooze Inducing, This Guy Had a Great Plan

We finally arrived at our destination the next morning and it really wasn’t what I expected. The desert was as barren as you’d think and I knew Lake Turkana was vast but when the green water of the lake appeared from nowhere in the midst of the palm trees you could be fooled into thinking you’d landed in the Bahamas.

A Rare Piece of Action in Turkana

Public Transport isn't Forthcoming; Turkana's Think Nothing of a 40km Walk

We stayed in Eilye Springs, the site of a freshwater spring and now home to a small resort.

Freshwater Springs in the Middle of the Desert

I stayed in a Manyatta, Turkana style hut, perfectly designed for the location.

My Manyatta

We spent lazy days by the lake and long evenings watching the star.  Took an amazing trip to Central Island, home to 14,000 crocodiles  of which we saw two and visited the local community:

A Traditional Turkana Woman

Sunset Over the Jade Sea

Some say we were crazy to make the journey one way but we weren’t hardcore enough for the return trip. We splashed out on a flight back to Nairobi from Lodwar airport which would be easy to miss. Check out the facilities for check in desk, security, baggage handling and arrivals:

Compact & Efficient!

An amazing trip and a proper adventure!

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Stupid Mzungu

My colleague came to visit me today. He’s been busy recently teaching and I’ve been busy, uh, seeing Kenya, as instructed. As he caught me unawares I was in pajamas at 3pm which set a strange enough tone but then he presented me with a bag. He sometimes brings me sweet potatoes from his farm so I asked him what he’d brough for me.  I was surprised when he said it was a tortoise. I nervously asked if it was alive, he laughed and said no. I subconsciously held the bag further and further from my body, afraid to look inside and see my decomposing tortoise gift. Eventually he said, ‘Lizzie, I can really see you’re fearing animals now. I understand now why you don’t keep fish in your house in a tank’ (like all the other Europeans). He reached into the bag and pulled out a carved wooden tortoise box he’d had especially made for me. I felt like a fool and realised sometimes Kenya isn’t as foreign as you expect it might be!

Amazing Schools Part Two: Mtwpa Educational Institute

Over the past few months I’ve travelled several times to Kilifi on the Kenyan Coast to work with Kilifi EARC and their related community based organisations. I never turn down a chance to visit Kilifi, it’s an active centre and a great town, incidentally with fantastic beaches! 

On my first trip in January 2010 I visited Mtwpa Primary School Special Unit to meet with their parent’s group. On arrival I couldn’t belive my eyes; the school is vast. 

The Grand Entrance

 Like Kerugoya School for the Hearing Impaired, Mtwpa Primary was entirely re-built a few years back with the support of a local donor. They decided to keep one of the original classrooms as a reminder of their, ‘humble beginning’. 

The 'Humble Beginning' of the School

 The school, Kenya’s biggest, has a suitably large number of pupils with over 2500 young people from age 3-13 years attending. There are plans to soon open a link secondary school and polytechnic on site so the site is set to become truly enormous. 

The majority of children board and as part of the new build, lovely colourful dormitories were added. 

The Girl's Dormitory at Mtwpa Primary School

 For reasons I failed to figure out the school is decorated by some awesome vintage cars. The children love playing in them at break times. I suggest that this amazing idea be exported everywhere. 

The Ideal School Accessory

 The Special Unit has its own compound within the school, currently with three classrooms for children with cerebral palsy, hearing impairment and the mentally challenged although they are hoping to expand to have an entire unit purely for the hearing impaired.  the school accepts children with many disabilities and integrates them into the most appropriate classroom. Although this isn’t always ideal the children seem well supported and the teachers do their best to cater for their needs. 

The school operates with limited resources but has taken advantage of some great opportunities. Staff were recently trained on creating assistive devices such as standing frames for children with cerebral palsy. The frames can be built using easily accessible materials so the staff can continue to build more as needed. 

A real strength of the unit is their dedicated parents group. There are 160 children in the unit and 158 parents are members of the group. As many of the children are from low-income families the group was established to raise funds for medical treatment, assistive devices and other support for the children. The group is in the process of setting up income generating activities and have already acquired their first cow for the sale of milk and have planted 1000 seedlings which when mature will be sold for timber. They have grand plans for a poultry project and the expansion of the dairy farm and if their current projects continue to go well I have no doubt they will be successful. See below for a picture of some of the members during our tour of the school back in January. 

Members of Mtwapa Special Unit Parents with Disabled Children Association

Amazing Schools Part One: Kerugoya School for the Hearing Impaired

Through my work with East Kenya’s assessment centres I have visited a number of schools for children with disabilities as well as special units attached to mainstream schools. Some are poorly resourced, understaffed and lack suitable adaptation for the children who learn there. 

I have visited two schools that seem to really stand out as being exceptional and that will hopefully pave the way for how such schools should look and be managed. 

The first school is close to home as my office is based in the grounds of Kerugoya’s School for the Hearing Impaired. I’ve visited many times and often pop in on the baby class when I have spare time, but I my first comprehensive tour a few weeks back. 

The school was entirely re-built several years back with support from a European foundation and the site is thoughtfully laid out and beautifully planted. The teaching seems to be relatively innovative with lots of wall displays in each classroom, most also have a ‘shop’ and other interactive teaching aids. 

Class Three

The staff recognised that students graduating (usually aged 13) didn’t always have viable options to move on to. So despite the schools expanded to include vocational classes for tailoring and woodwork where students can complete a two-year programme to prepare them for the world of work or even to set up their own business. 

The Vocational Class

Additionally the school has a class for deaf-blind students. The three students in the class are all in their mid to late twenties but will continue to attend until they feel confident to return to their home communities. They have the support of a dedicated member of staff who teaches them hand to hand signing as well as woodwork, beading, weaving and agriculture. 

The school continues to receive funding from the foundation that supported their re-build but has also developed a number of income generating activities that the children help to support. They keep a number of cows, have a poultry project for eggs, breed ornamental fish and also grow fruit and vegetables. The produce that is not consumed on site by the children is sold both directly from the school as well as at the market raising funds for maintenance of the school. 

Getting Over Excited in the Dining Hall (sorry!)

The school really sets a great example of how things can be done successfully. They were lucky to have a generous donor to get them started but maybe the government will take notice and provide more support to other schools to reach the high standards set here.

I’m BACK!

The blog’s had a bit of a break and so have I. In June I took a trip back to the UK which explains much of my absence. I was disproportionately nervous on the plane as we came into land but unsurprisingly Heathrow hasn’t changed and apart from a couple of new pound shops London was much the same as I’d left it. Pretty good though!  

The trip was arranged in order that I could take in two rather special weddings. They were equally amazing and worth the journey ten times over. 

The Betts's with Amazing Cakes

The Harris's Dancing the Night Away

 I managed to squeeze in lots of things I had missed. On the first night I scampered up Primrose Hill to take in my favourite view of London, then got ice cream from Marine Ices in Chalk Farm to celebrate. I had an amazing English themed buffet complete with miniatures roast dinners and an incredible trifle lovingly created by The Rats.

Craig and his Masterpiece

I spent an entire day drinking tea (English style) and putting the world to rights, ate Japanese food with my number one lunch buddy and had a gorgeous weekend in Llangynidr in the Brecon Beacons with the fam. 

We May Have Been a Little Lost

I visited my pre-Kenya colleagues, spent a disproportionate amount of time at the Westfield Centre and went on an allotment adventure in Bristol. 

Lex on Her Shamba

 Most of  all I enjoyed the company of great friends; it was a great trip. Going back to the UK made me remember some of the amazing things about life in Kenya so after a couple of weeks I was excited to get back to Kenya and get stuck back into work and adventures here.

A Little Bit of Cuteness in the Afternoon

Today was a public holiday so I paid a visit to a local family I’ve got to know. I’d been saving some magazines from the UK, sent by my sister, for them and today seemed a good a day as any to take them round. The children were so excited and it was lovely to spend some time reading with them. 

Girls Being Girls

 The girls started off by doing a quiz to find out what kind of friend you are by answering ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to a series of questions. From this point of they shouted, ‘YES!’ after every sentence and then fell about laughing. It really was adorable. 

Two Gigglers

 The boys were keen to escape the girls and talk football. 

Boys Being Boys

 The eldest boy and girl thanked me by reciting a Swahili poem about the importance of drinking milk. They really are a lovely family!

Going to Work

In the last few weeks my life has had a complete turnaround. Since funding arrived for the EARC programme there’s been a lot to do. In my role as a Volunteer Development Advisor, following some extensive planning, I have been delivering training to EARC staff on how to set up a volunteer programme and with local community organisations for people with disabilities and parents of children with disabilities (run by volunteers) on how to develop their work. 

In the recent weeks I have traversed Eastern Kenya to visit four EARCs, from the white sands of the coast to the green hills of the highlands and the arid and isolated North East.  You can take a guess as to which location I liked best! The trip was a huge adventure and quite liberating to travel solo over such huge distances. Kenya is a big country but it is amazing how much the landscape and culture changes from one area to the next but that’s another story. 

Due to our now hugely limited time and little funds I had just one day with each group to make a big an impact as possible. Every workshop was completely different with new locations, language barriers, resources and start times but the common theme was the genuine interest of the participants and their desire to develop the work that they do. Although I finished each session enthusiastic from their response I can’t help but feel that the impact will be quite small due to the lack of time and most significantly the lack of on-going support.  If VSO-Jitloee manages to get some more funds I may be able to go on a second grand tour to provide further support to the groups so I’m very hopeful this will happen. 

EARC Staff Hard at Work

 

The Obligatory Group Shot - Kirinyaga Community Based Organisation Leaders

 

Murang'a Community Based Organisation Leaders strategising