Friday, 18 July 2014

Travels en Afrique

Observations on my Ethiopian flights from Ouaga to Nairobi yesterday:-
1. Little difference between matatu and plane passengers with regard to the notion of queuing to get on the means of transport! A bit of a scrum to get on. I kept finding myself at the back!!!
2. No preference given to the elderly or those with children.
3. As a female traveller, I was very much in the minority.
4. Such a variety of nationalities and cultures (with associated dress) represented.
5. All seemngly carrying more hand luggage than the baggage allowance. We spent at least 20 extra minutes on the ground in Ouaga while the stewardesses attempted to get everyone's hand luggage in the overhead compartments, or convince passengers to put their smaller bags underneath the seat in front of them.
6. Best to carry own snacks. (I did.)
7. Best to have own entertainment. (I did.)

It was a long journey - 16 hours door to door. A stop in Niamey to pick noone up and drop noone off (!), though they wheeled up the stairway anyway, and a change of planes in Addis.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Musical Opportunities

One of the surprises I had in coming to Kenya in February 2003 was the discovery of the existence of an orchestra. Nairobi Orchestra has been running for getting on for 70 years now, initially involving players predominantly from the ex-pat / white community, and in recent years, with an increasing influx of Kenyan musicians, as classical music has been promoted locally. I’ve been privileged to have been part of this for over 11 years, both as player and as treasurer, serving on the committee of volunteers that seeks to provide a good programme of classical music. Each year, we'll have guest conductors and soloists come from overseas as our budget (or sponsorship) allows. At other times, we look within our own ranks for both of these. Consequently, I've had opportunity to play a couple of concertos with the orchestra, something that this Chemistry graduate turned management accountant had certainly never dreamed of doing prior to living in Nairobi! Such opportunities just don’t present themselves in the UK! In June 2007, I was asked to play Mozart’s Flute Concerto in D, followed by Bach’s 4th Brandenburg Concerto for 2 flutes (or recorders) and violin in March 2011. And in just over two weeks’ time, it’ll be back to Mozart, this time the Flute and Harp Concerto in C. Fish in a small bowl is what comes to mind, yet an opportunity that is not to be sneezed at (certainly not while playing the flute)!

The Scourge of the Plastic Bottle

The Kenyan coastline is beautiful. Aquarmarine waters, with bright white waves breaking onto a white sandy beach, lined with cassuarina and palm trees. There’s quite a bit of seaweed, parts of the beach seeming more prone to it than others. In places where coves face a certain direction, mounds of seaweed can stand several feet deep. That’s all very natural, though not particularly pleasant to walk through. However, what I’ve been noticing this holiday is the amount of rubbish that’s been mixed in with it – shoes (quite an abundance of shoes!), toothbrushes, and plastic bottles and bottle caps. The bottle caps can look quite colourful (red, blues and greens) amongst the brown weed, but it’s rubbish and shouldn’t be here at all, detracting hugely from the beauty of the rest of the beach. It’s made me think about the number of plastic bottles that must be being used each day, and discarded, either just tossed out, or disposed of via Kenya’s seemingly  ineffectual rubbish collection system. (Ineffectual, as a lot of it is evidently finding its way into the ocean, and in other places, trees are adorned with plastic bags.) How many meetings, conferences and hotels give out 500ml bottles, rather than using water filters which draw water from the taps, and reusable containers. There must be a better way of doing this before this country disappears under a mound of plastic.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Matumbato Potholes

Each time I’ve visited the UK over the last few years, I’ve had various people tell me about the potholes there. Admittedly, I don’t spend that much time there and haven’t driven on every road (!), but I’m not sure that I could say that I’ve seen any real potholes! Perhaps a few places where the edge of the road was breaking up a bit, or the occasional ‘dimple’ in the road surface. Nairobi on the other hand…. Whilst Nairobi roads are a lot better than you’d find elsewhere across this Continent (driving in the DRC is quite an artform!), potholes quickly form, and then turn into craters (which are then left that way for varying periods of time). My own road has certainly been that way. With all the road construction in the area (for 2 years now!), involving the digging up of tarmacked road surfaces (and not much in the way of relaying tarmac!), the main traffic through the area has been diverted along Matumbato. Hence, the road surface has deteriorated faster than it normally would. Within about 200 metres of my gate, there must been in the region of 20-30 craters in the road, requiring cars to take a slalom course in order to avoid the worst of them, or occupants being thrown around in the car when that wasn’t possible (with who knows what damage to the car’s suspension and shock abosorbers). One spanned the entire width of the road, and was on a bend, making it additionally difficult to negotiate. On one occasion, I was behind a car that had been forced to go across it, due to traffic coming the other way. With his front wheels in the hole, he then faced a problem of how to get out again!
The other day, I walked along that section of road with my camera, trying to capture the scale of the problem. I don’t think the photos give a true picture, but at least offer some idea of what a potholed road really looks like!
Bizarrely, within a week of my taking them, repair work started (maybe I should have taken my camera out sooner?), with workers breaking up rocks to fill them, and presumably at a later stage, tarmac being put over the top. I wonder if that’ll be the case along the entire length of the road – there are many more craters going the other way! 

Just outside my gate

Work started to repair the road outside the office gate. Not sure how long it'll last!

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

An Eventful Drive

Tuesday evenings usually see me heading out to my church home group in Karen. It used to be that I could get there in half an hour if I left after 6:30pm. These days, it’s a different story.
Last Tuesday, It poured in the afternoon. I hoped (in vain as it turned out) that people would have left work early on account of the rain. Ho, ho, ho. Instead, within metres of leaving my compound gate, and slaloming my way around the obstacle course of deep potholes (filled with water now, after the storm), I came across hundreds of stationary vehicles before the T-junction at the end of my road. All was not lost – I was turning left, and they were all headed right. However, I still needed to maneouvre my way around them, and was then stuck, as impatience had prevailed, with various vehicles which were attempting to exit from another road, now blocking the road I was on, to traffic going in any direction. (Not an unusual state of affairs in Nairobi!) Meanwhile I was entranced by the numbers of flying termites in the air, caught in the vehicles’ headlights. It was almost like a light snow flurry.
Eventually, I was moving, and turned along the road that was recently opened having been closed for road construction for nearly 2 years. Not that it’s finished. Far from it. You never quite know which side of the road to drive on. It’s quite possible to get so far, and then find you can’t go any further. The freshly laid tarmac soon reverted back to a surface that could only be described as ‘off road’ except that this is a fairly major road through this part of town. Lurching from side to side as I progressed along the undulating stretch, staying clear from the edge which is a drop off, I got onto Hospital Road. Again, this has been dug up for at least a year now. This was now a boggy mass of mud and muddy puddles. As with many of Nairobi’s roads, no thought is seemingly given to pedestrians who this evening, were trying to pick their way through the morass, the way lit only by car headlights. (Come on Nairobi City Council – surely it’s time for more pavements for the multitudes who walk!)
Finally, I reached Ngong Road. And here I made an error, turning off onto a road that goes by Nairobi Hospital, thinking that as it was after visiting hours, this should be quicker. I sat pretty much stationary for the next 15 minutes, before admitting defeat, doing a 3-point turn, and rejoining the traffic on Ngong. That in itself was a good move. What wasn’t so good however was that this led to something of an encounter with a matatu! Just past the area where matatus and buses stop to drop and pick up passengers (they don’t exactly pull off the road to do this….) there’s a left-hand filter lane for those turning left at Mortuary Roundabout. It’s not that big an opening, with a raised curbed area, preventing you from getting in if you miss it. A van on the right-hand side of me clearly wanted to get in there, and despite being in completely the wrong lane (being in the right lane ahead of time is a concept that doesn’t seem to compute with a lot of Nairobi drivers!), he started to cut across just in front of me to try to get through the opening. I had a choice – plough into him, or slam on the brakes. I chose the latter! However, the matatu driver behind me didn’t make quite the same choice, ploughing into the back of me, and was seemingly perturbed that I’d chosen to brake! It was dark, so it was difficult to see what damage there was to my car, although the fragments of the matatu’s headlight were clearly visible on the ground. I took his insurance details, and set off, a policeman arriving on the scene just as I was ready to go. Other than the initial reaction of the matatu driver, it was all fairly amicable. (Since then, I discovered just what the damage was. Whilst relatively minor, it’s meant 3 days without a car this week while it gets fixed, and a bill of about 30,000/=. Thankfully our insurance through work is very reliable, with just an excess of $100.)
And so the drive to home group continued. Nothing overly untoward after that. Heavy traffic most of the way, three lanes of traffic where there should be one or maybe at tops two. A lorry piled high with mattresses, cutting in across the central reservation, its high load looking decidedly unstable. Cyclists with no lights or reflectors venturing along roads, seemingly unaware of the dangers of being non-visible. There’s one part of the drive that I dread, at Dagoretti Corner, which is one of the reasons I normally opt to go a completely different route. There’ve been times along there I’ve felt as though I was in a rugby scrum, getting sandwiched between 2 buses. Public service vehicles ‘need’ to get places as quickly as they can, no matter what it takes to get there – driving down the wrong side of the road, forcing other vehicles off, or driving down the pavement – and then forcing their way back onto the road again, wondering why it is that you’re not necessarily inclined to let them back in.

In the end, I made it, 1 hour 45 minutes after setting out, and an hour late. For all of 10 miles! Slightly weary, and with a rather crumpled right-hand rear corner of the car. Was this an unusual drive? Not exactly. My evening activities are regular reminders to me to be thankful that while Upper Hill is getting more built up, and the road construction is seemingly never-ending (with the mud and dust that brings, depending on the time of year), being able to walk to work rather than have to commute is worth a lot!

Beggar at the Door

Having been in Kenya over 11 years now, you’d think that I’d have this one sorted. But no. I still struggle every time I’m faced with someone asking me for money, be that the lady with the baby at the traffic lights, the young person with the blind older relative in the jam, the child begging in the queue for the security check on the way into the shopping centre, my househelp, someone on my walk between the office and home, or as happened yesterday, a complete stranger who accosted me at the gate of our work compound, having asked for me by name. What is the right thing to do? My relative wealth is apparent against their glaring need. Yet, there’s an underlying sense of being targeted as a white person, and in yesterday’s case, as a missionary – clearly a soft target! And evidently my finances aren't sufficient to stretch to meet all the needs I see around me. Nor is it necessarily right to do so. My general rule of thumb is that I support those who I have relationship with already, and for the rest, I choose to support organisations that I know of that are working in the slums, or with the disadvantaged elsewhere. Still, there’s the sense of prevailing guilt that maybe these people don’t have access to such organisations.  Should I be giving them something? And of course, I need to ensure that the assuaging of the guilt in my mind because I support such organisations rather than individuals, is followed up by the actual support transferring hands / bank accounts!
Yesterday’s situation was a new one. I’d heard that this young man had been looking for me previously, but this was my first meeting with him. I’m still not entirely sure how he came by my name. I’d certainly never met him before. From  one of the people groups in northern Kenya, he mentioned the names of colleagues who spent many years working up there. His ‘story’ was that he was studying for a diploma at a veterinary college in Nairobi, was unable to pay the rent, and was now locked out of the accommodation. He needed 700/= (about £5) to travel back to his home area. In the meantime, he had no money, so had walked from the campus (a good distance away). Or at least, this was what he said. Was this a genuine need, or was I being sold a story? (Interestingly this happened within an hour or so of receiving one of those emails purportedly from friends in a crisis. That email so clearly wasn't from these friends that it was laughable. A very clear scam.) In the end, having gone home for lunch, and considered that it’s better to respond to an apparent need than to turn a cold shoulder, I did give him some money to get some food. I did however ask why he wasn’t asking others who were passing through the gate, pointing out that a number of the Kenyans earn rather more than I do! This clearly wasn’t something he’d contemplated – missionaries were definitely easier to ask, perhaps more likely to respond, or maybe, more na├»ve regarding the way the system works?! I then wrote to the colleagues, who’re now living back in the U.S. They don’t actually know him, and related a story of a similar young man (or maybe even the same one) who was doing the same thing a couple of years ago, with a similar story, targeting particular individuals, mentioning their names. And not using the money for the purposes stated! I was advised to keep clear of him, and advise others to do the same. The rationale being that if he was a good man, then his community would actually take care of him. (He was apparently back again this evening, looking for me.)
It is a constant struggle of how to maintain a soft heart, and be open to hear and respond to the genuine needs that are ever around, and  yet not be drawn into scams. A lesson I’m continuing to learn, and one that I’m fairly sure I’ll never be a master of.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

'Survival' Kit and Fruity Surprises!

I think I must be getting softer as I get older. Long gone are the days of travelling light. My first non-European travelling adventure was 5 months living out of a backpack. Now a week’s trip involves a full suitcase! Clothes and toiletries of course, but also a variety of other things to make home where I am, and make a difference to the week’s experience, be that entertainment (mp3 player and DVDs, plus laptop,though that is officially with me for work purposes), a soft down pillow (quite key around Africa where pillows can be very hard), a soft towel, or food / beverages. And my flute, music stand and music of course. (Trying to then find somewhere to play that isn’t going to cause a disturbance can then be a challenge!) An all important one, which I’ve been carrying with me on work trips for several years now, is a small cafetiere and Kenyan ground coffee. This trip, I added to this a rather smart (though inexpensive) coffee mug. Various coloured ones were being put out on the shelves at Nakumatt when I was there the other day. I couldn’t resist! Much more pleasant not having the wonderful aroma of a morning cup of coffee tainted by the smell of mildewy mould that is prevalent in crockery in SIL guesthouses in these hotter, more humid climates.
I think I may have overdone it this time. Brazzaville in the Republic of Congo, is a new destination for me, so I really didn’t know what to expect. When I unpacked it all (in the early hours of this morning), it amassed to quite an amount! I won’t be going hungry that’s for sure, especially as they’re feeding us anyway! Nice to have the option of lighter meals / snacks though.

My big surprise here was finding a plate of rambutan and mangosteens in the fridge. Last time I had these was on that first non-European adventure, when a friend and I were travelling for 5 months after university. As well as Australia, we spent time in Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia, and there were introduced to these delicious fruits. I’d never associated them with (nor seen them in) Africa before! I can attest that the Congolese version taste good too.