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.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Different Worlds

I’m writing this on a plane, flying between London and Nairobi after spending 6 weeks in the UK for my nephew’s 8th birthday and Christmas. Despite being a lot shorter journey than it was in the days of old, it’s 8 hours of being in limbo land, practically pinioned to my seat by the bulk of the person next to me, and the small space between my seat and the back of the seat in front (which at least this time seems to be staying in the upright position!).
Always very odd to be going from one world to my other, very different one. Both of them are normal in that they’re both home, and I function equally well (I think) in both, and yet so very different to each other.
In the one, there’s family, and friends who I’ve known for many years, with an increasing number of friends I’ve known from Kenya. In the other, there’s no family, and an every-changing circle of friends, as people come on shorter contracts, or figure that, mainly due to family reasons, it’s time to return to their home country.
In one, there’s an overwhelming array of merchandise in the shops. In the other, the range is getting larger, but there’s always an uncertainty for how long you’ll be able to find a preferred product on the shelves.
In one, things seem to fall apart when there’s a power cut. In the other, it’s barely noticed, businesses, schools, shops and even some homes being set up with backup generators.
In one, things are generally orderly. In the other, well, ……!
In one, roads are signposted well and satnavs are the norm anyway just in case you can’t read the signs! In the other, you’re on your own!
In one, practically every city and town has good restaurants, shops, cinemas, ……… In the other, very few of the towns have been developed to anywhere near the same level  as the capital city, which itself ‘boasts’ the largest slum in Africa.
In one, even country lanes are tarmacked. In the other, even the road between my flat and the office in the capital city is murram, with streams of muddy water during rainy season creating gullies and ravines.
In the one, the amount of daylight varies dramatically over the year, but life continues as normal. In the other, the sun comes up and goes down at pretty much the same time all year round.
In one, I blend in and have anonymity when walking amongst strangers. In the other, I don’t, and because of the colour of my skin am automatically targeted as being wealthy (which relatively speaking I am compared to some, but certainly not compared to the guy in the big new 4WD in front of me!).
In one, I was born and brought up, though am not longer resident (which has its complications). In the other, I’ve been resident for 11 years, but am only permitted to be there through the granting (and payment) of a work permit. A long term future is by no means secure.
In one, poverty is in your face. In the other,  you see it on television or read about it in the newspaper.
In one, it’s summer all year round. In the other, things are very changeable!
In one, there are tight restrictions on health and safety. In the other, there’s a much greater degree of flexibility and ‘freedom’.

Going from one world to the other can be hard, largely due to the leaving of family and friends.  However, both worlds are home. They just happen to be very different.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

It's Jacaranda Time!

My part of Nairobi, Upper Hill, has been very dirty, dusty and generally unpleasant since all the road construction started over a year ago. Various buildings are being constructed on the road that runs parallel to mine including, I’m told, a hotel and shopping mall. As well as building construction, this has led to road construction, although a year on, there seems to have been more of the de- rather than the con-struction! Most of the traffic going through Upper Hill has been coming along my road, including heavy lorries, breaking up the rather thin tarmac, and causing the air to be almost constantly filled with dust. And a good number of the other roads are now dirt rather than tarmac, having been dug up. However, at this time of the year, that is all overtaken by the beauty of all the jacaranda trees in bloom. Their lilac flowers seem to radiate light, and add a wonderful contrast to the blue sky and green vegetation around. Even when they fall, they create a beautiful lilac carpet on the ground.

I'm enjoying this beautiful addition to the neighbourhood while it lasts!

Financial Stewardship

At work, we have internal controls in place to ensure that finances are being used appropriately:-
  •          Every transaction has to have supporting documentation, including authorisation.
  •          Reimbursements aren't given without receipts.
  •         Cash counts are done regularly, and the cash and bank account balances are reconciled every month.
That would be the norm for every organization, surely? Seemingly not. In the Daily Nation (one of Kenya’s larger circulated newspapers) on Wednesday, was an article headed ‘Sh300bn missing, reveals audit’. It seems that of the Kenyan government’s expenditure for the financial year 2011/2012, Sh303billion (that’s about £2.2billion or $3.6billion) “can be regarded as not having been properly accounted for”.  The Auditor General stated the reasons for this as:-
  1. Unsupported expenditure
  2. Excess expenditure
  3. Pending bills
  4. Management of imprests
  5. Maintenance of bank and cash accounts
  6. Maintenance of accounting records
As far as I can see, that doesn't leave much (if anything) that they’re doing right! Perhaps more worrying is the statement that this was an improvement from the previous year, when there were no clean accounts!
In light of this disclosure, it helps me get some perspective and see that, whilst the internal control reviews that are conducted in every SIL entity across Africa, will always come up with some points, we’re actually not doing that badly at all!

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Context and Colour

Travelling across Africa as I do, it’s predominantly when I go to West and Central Africa that I see my ex-pat and national colleagues wearing clothing made from brightly coloured African prints. I think a lot of us in East Africa have one or two such items of clothing in our wardrobes, but it would be unusual to see someone in anything other than western clothing in the office. In Nairobi, such things seem to be reserved for special occasions. (We do have an informal ‘African’ dress code on Thursdays, but it’s really only a few of the Kenyan ladies who follow that.) On my recent trip to Ouagadougou in Bukina Faso, I was faced with an array of African dresses one lunchtime. A Burkinabe man called Abel seemingly sets up shop outside the refectoire every Tuesday lunchtime. And I was one unsuspecting customer that day! In context, these prints look great. The Burkinabe ladies in the office were adorned in a whole array of bright colours, and on the streets, it was wonderful to see ladies dressed so smartly, riding along on the motorbikes. A real splash of colour. But out of context, they can appear out of place – to this particular westerner’s eye at least.
Most of the dresses are pretty generous in size, and lacking in much shaping, partly I guess to allow for a good amount of air circulation in a hot climate (Ouagadougou’s temperatures were a ‘cool’ 35C while I was there; hot is 10C higher than that!). I had one dress in Ghana my first time there, when I needed something suitable to wear for a ceremony in which the daughter of some Wycliffe missionaries was made queen mother of the village in honour of the work that her parents had done. I could practically turn around in that dress while it remained stationary! (That same trip, I bought shirts for my dad and brother which were as toned down colour-wise as I could find. On return to the UK, they both suddenly appeared incredibly colourful!)
Abel and some of his wares

At Abel’s suggestion, I tried on various dresses in the ladies toilet. Not particularly pleasant as there was no fan or air conditioning in there, so it was a trifle warm, and there was only a small mirror so I couldn’t really get an idea of the full effect. Some of the fabrics were beautiful, but just not my colours. In the end, I settled for two, one blue, one green, with the view that I could wear them in the evenings in Nairobi in my flat at the hot time of year, or at the coast. Whether I will remains to be seen. However, even if I never wear them, I did at least provide support to the local economy in my purchases!


I was privileged on Thursday to experience something of the music scene in Ouagadougou. My friend and SIL colleague, Mary, is an ethnomusicologist in Burkina. She’s also a great flute player with whom I get together when we’re in the same place (3 times in Ouaga and once in Nairobi so far) to play through flute duets. We spent about 2 hours on Tuesday evening doing just that, ploughing our way through books of Telemann and Kuhlau. It was great! She’s also a saxophonist, and it’s predominantly with the sax (though the flute does come out occasionally!) that she gets to play in various jazz groups in Burkina. One of the groups that she plays with has a concert in Bobo, about 5 hours from Ouagadougou this Saturday, and they’ve been practising for that this week. Thursday night was the dress rehearsal in which they performed on the roof of a bar in downtown Ouaga. I got to tag along. It was fascinating, and very enjoyable. As well as electric guitar, bass, drum kit, keyboard, trumpet and sax, there were some traditional West Africa instruments: djembe, a talking drum and a kora (see note below). Rhythms seem to come naturally to most Africans. The complex rhythmic patterns that they came up with would have taken me some time to figure out, and get in my head let alone play. If they’re coming from within, I guess that’s less of a problem! I loved the interchange between the instruments, the mix of traditional and modern, and the sheer enjoyment on the faces of (most of) the players. And of course, it was improvised (a skill which is as yet, out of my range), nothing being written down. A great night out. I’m sure there must be such things going on in Nairobi. I’ve just not been a part of that particular music scene.

From www.britannica.com:- kora, long-necked harp lute of the Malinke people of western Africa. The instrument’s body is composed of a long hardwood neck that passes through a calabash gourd resonator, itself covered by a leather soundboard. Twenty-one leather or nylon strings are attached to the top of the neck with leather tuning rings. The strings pass over a notched  bridge (10 strings on one side of the bridge, 11 on the other) and are anchored to the bottom of the neck with a metal ring. In performance the instrument rests on the ground in a vertical position, and the musician plays the instrument while seated. He plucks the strings with the thumb and forefinger of each hand, while the remaining fingers hold two hand posts drilled through the top of the gourd. Possessing a range of just over three octaves, the kora is tuned by moving the leather rings located on the top of the neck.
From Wikipedia:- The talking drum is an hourglass-shaped drum from West Africa, whose pitch can be regulated to mimic the tone and prosody of human speech. It has two drumheads connected by leather tension cords, which allow the player to modulate the pitch of the drum by squeezing the cords between his arm and body. A skilled player is able to play whole phrases.


We all have a value system, but we aren’t necessarily aware of what those values are – until we’re put in a situation where people have different values! That is something that you’re dealing with constantly in a cross-cultural environment.
- Why do I get so irate when other vehicles drive off-road, or on the wrong side of the road to get ahead in a traffic jam? Mainly because the concept of waiting your turn is so inbuilt in me, that anything that usurps that value feels like an infringement, rude and offensive.
- Why do I feel offended if someone stops mid-conversation to answer their cellphone? One of my values is to focus on the person / people who I’m with. (Phone calls can be returned!)
- Why does it seem so odd if someone leaves without saying goodbye?  Acknowledging others, and one’s own part within the group, are values.
Just yesterday at Ouagadougou airport, there were a number of situations that have revealed either my own value system, or just different views of things:
 My empty water bottle being confiscated at security, despite my protestations of needing it so I could get it refilled on the plane and have a supply with me. Do they not get that an empty water bottle no longer has liquid in it, which is what the policy concerning such things is actually about?!  How dare they take what is a legitimate thing for me to have on a plane!
-    Along the same lines, once through security, there was a shop so I figured that I could get a bottle of water there to replace my confiscated empty one, only to find out that that too would be confiscated. Do they really think that I’d be able to buy explosives from a shop inside the airport?!
-    Pushing and shoving, and a man blatantly stepping in front of me in line (no different to being in a car!!).
-    Personal space being somewhat infringed with the derriere of a rather substantial woman (definitely of “traditional build”) practically in my face as she tried to settle herself in her seat….
-     A man not locking the toilet door when he was using the facilities………. Hmm.

For many of these, it’s not that there’s a right or wrong way of doing things. It’s just the norm of what we’ve grown up with or got accustomed to, so we think that our way is the right way. Flexibility is the name of the game, and the ability to laugh – not just at the situations, but also at my reaction to them!