Why I Stopped Blogging

I’ve had this blog up and running for some time now but I noticed last year that I was running out of gas. Sure, I’d proclaimed that I would be putting up stuff about our travels and our lives in Kenya, but to be honest, I hit a wall.

The last few years have been quite challenging for me, and it doesn’t look like it’s stopping any time soon. I’ve had a growth in my throat that was removed last year. I didn’t realise it would take months to recover and even now I still have a numb spot just by my chin. But it’s way better than feeling like I always have tonsillitis.

Before that I’d ripped my left shoulder and then last year after returning from Canada, I did the right one. I went from that to having a frozen shoulder, then to physio.

I also ran out of brain power. One thing I’ve noticed here is that we get mentally tired. There’s so much going on, all of the time. Things in Kenya are complicated to say the least. I was worried that we were juggling too many balls and they would start dropping one by one.

Looking after your mental health is REALLY, REALLY important, especially when you’re living in a complicated developing country. While I was looking after myself physically, I’d let the whole mental side of things down.

For the first time, we took a real holiday. Pete painted houses in Australia and New Zealand so we could take the kids and grand kids to Hawaii. We did 9 days of speaking and then took a total break for 2 weeks. It was the best medicine ever. We’ve decided that each year we’ll shut down the office, send all of our staff away and everyone can take a break over December. It worked well last year, so why not do it this year too.

I’ve found that people don’t like to talk too much about mental health, but it’s so important. I see the tide turning now, but generally you’re considered weak if you have a mental health issue. However, we’re all battling something, trying to improve ourselves in some way and be accepted.

I’ve observed lots of volunteers in developing countries and there are similar challenges for all (loneliness, finances, cultural issues, family). What you can cope with when you’re in your home country is magnified when you’re based in a developing country.

You’ve got to be tough, really tough – on the inside.

So while I don’t promise to blog regularly, I will try.

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Looking After Your Mental Health Abroad

One thing I can tell you from living in parts of the world that are considered ‘developing’ there are many challenges you don’t have to face in a First World country. All of us expats agree that it’s not for the faint hearted.

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Lack of freedom would be the biggest loss you face. Not traveling far when it gets dark. Locking your car doors and not putting your windows down. Security checks for bombs and weapons to get into a mall, mosque, government office. Not to forget getting your bags checked several times a day. It’s a hassle but it’s life here and there are other places that are way more strict than Kenya.

The separation from family is a daily challenge. We’ve got it lucky though because of technology. But when you’re reminded how many birthdays and Christmases you miss, milestones in your grandkids and the fact that they only know you through a computer. It is 8 years since we have had Christmas with our kids. A few years ago we made the decision that 2018 we would get together and after much saving and scrimping, it is only a few weeks away.

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One thing people aren’t aware of is the loneliness that can eat away at you. I’ve got expat friends who move every few years because of their spouses work. It’s hard for them to connect with people as they know they’ll be gone soon. It’s also hard to find info about basic things like where to buy stuff and how the system works here. It’s okay if you’ve got kids and work but what if you’re the trailing spouse?

It’s expensive. There’s the assumption that Africa is cheap to live in. Sure, the local fruit and veges are a good price but pretty much everything is as expensive as in Aussie, but mostly twice the price. For us our funds come from New Zealand and Australia and we lose about one third of our income because of the exchange rate. Some expats who are employed here get bonus packages (housing, travel, insurance etc) which makes it very attractive for them. Not in our case as development workers.

Some companies send out their expats every 3 months on a 6 day paid holiday. We saw that and totally understand why. The pressure of being a foreigner and the daily living conditions put on you a pressure you that you don’t have to face in your home country. A few times a year we try to get out of Nairobi, grab our tent and get among the wildlife. It’s really good therapy.

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A really big challenge is not having someone to talk to about the issues you face within your marriage, family or life. A local doesn’t understand what it’s like for foreigners and have those pressures. I’ve come to the thought that the challenges you might have in your home country and you get through them, become really big cracks when you are in a developing country. We’ve had good friends who didn’t really have issues until they went to another culture but through the pressure of having to come up with the finances of putting their kids through international schools (super expensive), trying to set up their work in a place where people didn’t understand English too well and struggling to get an income, was just too much for them. Some returned to their home country pretty quickly, while others separated.

Broken Relationship

Looking after your mental health is really important, anywhere in the world. So, if you’re out on foreign soil for a long time, here’s some of my suggestions to help you last the distance:

 

  • There’s nothing wrong with taking time out! Our Christmas break is actually an investment into our mental health. I’m calling it my mental health break after a really challenging year.

 

  • It’s okay to get out and have some fun every now and then. A missionary over here said to us ‘Don’t let people see you’re out having a coffee or people will think you’re mis-using their donation’. That’s ridiculous! You have to have an out. I go to the movies a few times a year (only $4 here) and Pete indulges in a bought coffee. Anywhere there’s nothing wrong with that. You have to live a real life.

 

  • Enjoy the journey, don’t endure it. You are in a unique part of the world so go and experience the things you can only do there. A few years ago I went white water rafting on the Nile. Who else says they’ve done that? We have got to know some absolutely amazing people that we wouldn’t have if we’d stayed back in Aussie.

 

  • Mostly, remember why you’re here. I say to Pete when he gets over something ‘We chose to live here and have to put up with the crap that comes with it’. Stay focused on why you chose to come here and remember that no one forced you to do it.

 

Have you lived in a developing country before? What we’re some of your challenges?

 

The Hustle

One thing I’ve learned from my Kenyan friends is how to hustle. Hustling involves trying to make ends meet and bring in extra income. Kenyans are very clever at finding ways to have several small streams of incomes. Some of our friends started out by renting a tuk tuk while at college, then owning one, then renting it out and finally selling it. Other sell rice and soap on the side. One sells sweets and biscuits, while having a part time job and learning to sew so that she can put herself through uni. Another mate when he is driving 8 hours to his village will stop at a bus park and offer a seat at a reduced price, that way his petrol is covered.

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You’ll see very few beggars compared to other countries because people get it that asking for money doesn’t really work – but doing something, even if it’s small, makes a difference. There’s no social welfare here so you work or you don’t eat.

We live on a very small budget. In fact a usual missionary/development worker the average budget is $45,000, we’re on half of that. A huge influence is the exchange rate and over the last year we’ve seen the Aussie and Kiwi dollar go down the toilet. So if there’s anything extra that comes our way, well, we have to trust God to get us through. As things are so expensive here, we make sure we buy items when we travel as they are WAY cheaper overseas. But for dental and optical needs it’s cheaper in Kenya, so we get that done here.

However, it’s not just about praying and hoping, it’s using your brain to see where you can ‘hustle’.

So we started thinking about how could we bring in money when we couldn’t hold down employment in another country. We are now kid free so have two bedrooms and a spare bathroom available. While it can be a hassle having extra people at home, the monetary benefits are worth it – most of the time. We’ve met some great people from lots of countries, with some of them still keeping in touch years later.

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This has enabled us to pay for extras like car repairs and travel. We have a bunch of supporters from New Zealand and Australia that help us get buy each month but there’s always things we can’t budget for. Our car is a big one because the roads are so rough. Every three years we need to cover our visas to stay in country and you can kiss goodbye $1,500 on that one.

When we head back to New Zealand and Australia (which has been way more often than we ever intended). People often ask Pete to do some painting of their house. He always gives a really cheap rate but the same people also put us up at their house and feed us.  Pete started his handyman business when we lived in Sydney and he is really good at what he does. He won’t compromise on quality and always does his best. It’s helped us to buy tickets home. It will also help us have a family holiday together for the first time in 8 years.

8 years ago there was no son-in-law nor grandkids!

And there’s the occasional time that people give us extra money to hire cars or buy tickets. It doesn’t happen a lot but when it does its mega awesome. When Pete’s dad passed away, it was a couple of people who stepped up and covered both of our flights. Trust me, it was really expensive in January. It’s always very humbling when people partner up with us because we know it’s a huge sacrifice for them. They could be spending it on their own holiday but they give it to us, with no strings attached.

Everything we have in our home is because people have generously donated towards us. From the TV to the beds to the microwave to every other piece of furniture in our house.

The time is coming soon when our car, which is costing us more in repairs than every before, will need replacing. We’re not sure how that will happen and we’re not stressing about it (not right now anyway) but Pete does have his eye on another one.

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We’re also working with our team on how our organisation can raise more funds for projects and office costs. So we’ve been all learning how to make such things as hand made soaps, candles and bracelets to possibly sell at markets both here and overseas. It costs around $500 a month just to pay our staff and run the office, so we need to find that extra.

Here’s a couple of questions to ask yourself:

  • What can I do in my situation to bring in a few extra dollars?
  • Can I cut back some areas in my spending?
  • Do I really need those new clothes, shoes, car right now or can I save it and wait?
  • Do I have some painting that Pete can do for me in 2019?

 

 

You Probably Won’t Like This

This week I saw online a video about a well known musician who visited Western Africa and was shocked when he saw young boys sleeping outside in a canoe like boat. He was so shocked his first reaction was to put them up in a hotel that night. The video at the end stated ‘these boys are safe for tonight, millions aren’t.’

The comments that came in after this was posted included words like ‘amazing, wonderful, we should be like him’. However, since I’m working on the ground in such areas I had a totally different reaction and got berated for it, so thought I would write about what actually works and why short term solutions are not the best.

What people don’t understand is that when a famous person appears in a developing country as a spokesperson or ambassador for a large organization, they are getting paid for it. The average person receives between $20 – 50,000 dollars for an appearance fee. That’s on top of their first class ticket, staying in a five star hotel etc. Very few self fund their appearances. They don’t just ‘happen’ to be in Liberia or Sudan in between a gig.

Unless it’s an emergency situation, like a famine, short term is not an answer. Famine or war situations don’t happen overnight. The famine happening in South Sudan for example, has been warned about for years.

Large NGO’s spend A LOT (some up to 90%) of their income on administration, private planes and paying their top managers more than a CEO in Aussie gets. ‘Project Costs’ can easily be hidden, but these include getaway weekends for staff, safaris (team building), conflict resolution meetings (staying at a spa can resolve a lot you know!). Meanwhile on the ground the team are working with limited resources in dangerous places and often don’t have what they need in crisis situations.

I’m not saying these things to point at certain groups but when you’ve been doing it as long as me, you see things as they really are, not how they are portrayed in the media.

So what actually does work?

Long term solutions for people to help themselves out of poverty. You have to look at it holistically. For these boys sleeping outside, putting them up somewhere for a night or two actually puts them in a worse predicament. If the famous musician wanted to do something, he would find an organization he has a trusted relationship with. They in turn would be able to come up with an action plan that would include reconciliation within their home community and find one family member that would be able to take them in. The family would need ongoing support from a community worker to make sure donations are spent where they should be (food, clothing, housing, education, medical) and not at the local bar up the road. That child will need financial support until they are at least 18 years of age. Then they need support in starting a business and going on to tertiary education.

Let’s rethink child sponsorship.

I’ve been to events where there’s a hard push after a pull in the heartstrings video presentation for the thousands in the crowd. Then the presenter talks about how bad the situation is, then they get people to put up their hands if they will sponsor a child for X amount of dollars. You’re instantly given a photo to put on the fridge and ‘wallah’ you have a new child in your family.

We need to become intelligent givers and start asking the hard questions. How much of that money gets through to the project? What child protection policies does the organization implement? Where are the annual reports? What happens when that child finishes secondary school, what is the plan?

Now I’m not discouraging child sponsorship, I do it myself.

 

What I want people to realize is:

  1. It’s not your child – they belong to someone else. You are simply assisting a community.
  2. The money doesn’t go to them – it gets pooled together to cover project costs.
  3. There is no point in sponsoring for a year or two, it’s a commitment that shouldn’t be taken lightly.
  4. Don’t send them gifts. Most of the time it won’t get there, and the money you spend on postage and the gift, could be used in a more impacting way within country.
  5. The word ‘sponsor’ in the developing world actually has negative connotations connected to it. It’s like saying someone has a sugar daddy. The money isn’t free, there are strings attached.

 

If we want to get more kids sponsored we need to be telling the success stories not just the sob stories.

My last rant is about the huge waste I see in transporting goods from your home country to a developing country. Often you can buy or get made the chairs, desks, pencils, sport gear, underwear, babies clothes, any clothes and furniture in the needy country. It costs on average $10,000 to get a container shipped over with goodies. Then, you spend up to another $5,000 to get it off the wharf with bribery money. Often when organisations sort through what is in that container, they throw half of it away (especially clothes) as they are unusable. People think giving their junk is an honourable thing. Trust me – you can keep it.

We should be encouraging manufacturing in developing countries, buying from within where possible. While we see the nice smiling faces of a kid in Africa or Asia opening a shoe box at Christmas time, it doesn’t have lasting impact. The money spent on the effort could start small businesses who employ parents and give them business training –  who could then feed their families, pay school fees, buy clothes from the market more than once a year and make sure their kids have a future. Yes, they would even buy their kids a toy.

So, did the famous musician waste his time? I hope he got to see some organisations working on the ground being a part of the solution and not cause more problems. I hope he invests into these organisations long term and gets more involved.

I hope the adults in the video don’t beat those boys up or worse because some white foreigner with a camera crew came into their ‘home’ and therefore thought the boys were getting paid for being on camera.

My hope is that we become more intelligent givers who aren’t afraid to ask the hard questions.

Organisations in developing country need partnerships that cause them to become self sustainable, they need long term solutions through development and not aid.

Go ahead and sponsor a child, it does change their lives. But also send them a letter a few times a year. Build a friendship with them, not a reliance on you as a Westerner and therefore their funder. Most of all, sacrifice your income and go and visit them at least once in your life. You will find your life will be changed forever.

You are not a donor – you are a partner. Build good partnerships.

The Medical Gap

As pretty much the entire universe knows, our youngest daughter gave birth to the most perfect baby girl on Wednesday. But it hasn’t been without its dramas.

Hannah has had gestational diabetes throughout her pregnancy. That means she has had to cut out sugar, reduce her carbs and test her insulin levels 5 times a day. There’s extra scans and monitoring baby growth closer.

Baby had been super active in the womb and it was all looking good that the doctors had decided to let Hannah go right up to the 40 week mark, where originally they were going to induce her at 38 weeks.

And then baby stopped moving.

This was one of those events that stops your heartbeat. I suggested to Hannah to call the midwife whose care she was under, who said we should immediately go to the hospital. Luke (Hannah’s husband) drove pretty determinedly but there was this heavy silence in the car. No waiting, they saw us straight away. The relief experienced when we heard the heartbeat was huge. They decided to keep her in anyway.

Although baby’s heartbeat was good, the doctors had decided to induce baby on the Tuesday night. Not sure why they chose nighttime as the morning seemed a much better idea to me.

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I was really impressed with the staff, the quality of care but mostly the concern for baby and mother. The resources and technology are amazing, way better than when I had my kids 25 years ago.

Of course, it all got me thinking about the huge gap between what is available here and that in developing countries. I’ve friends in Kenya who have had babies and it’s a whole different world there.

 

  1. The God Factor

I call it this, because there tends to be a thinking in East Africa from people in certain positions – medical staff, police, teachers – which says ‘Don’t you know who I am, I must be obeyed without questions at all times’.

Kenya: You would never dare question what the doctor says and you simply don’t ask.

NZ: They give you informed options and don’t flinch if you question them ‘why’ or ‘could we try this’.

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  1. The Price

Kenya: While there is a policy of free maternity care, practically it’s not so. You need to pay for services like scans. I’ve close friends who didn’t have the $30 for a scan and had a breach baby who died 20 minutes after birth because of complications. The emergency cesarean section would’ve saved his life but that was around $800. They only earn $200 a month. You need to take everything in with you to hospital.

NZ: Every single thing is free. Food, personal bathrooms, sanitary products, scans, hospital stay, sheets, pillows and even free wifi.

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We met a young 18 year old who had been raped and become pregnant. We arrived on the day she gave birth to her son. She was not allowed to leave hospital because her family did not have the funds for payment. Every day she stayed the debt was accruing. No doubt the family had to borrow money to get the girl home.

 

  1. Rooms

Kenya: Don’t be surprised if you are sharing a room with 8 other women. Imagine a metre between your bed and the next. Babies are often kept in a nursery, except for feeding.

NZ: While there’s the odd room that will have 4 beds in it, most are single or doubles. Baby is in your sight at all times, in a plastic bassinet beside you.

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  1. The Birth

Kenya: I’ve yet to meet a Kenyan man who has been in the birthing room. It’s just not done any other way. In rural areas it’s older women who assist.

NZ: At the hospital our daughter went to, you could have as many support people as possible. In the birthing unit you could have two.

Nairobi has a few really good hospitals, so if you can afford to go to them you do. One is notorious for bad after birth care, but people go there because it’s free.

Our close friends whose baby died not long after a breach birth were forced to go to one such hospital. She should’ve had a c-section but the staff said to her that the lines to the theatre were long and ‘she carried small so she should deliver okay’. Of course, as in Kenyan culture, the dad went home (by public transport) but was called back because something was wrong. When he got there he was told his son had died. He never got to hold him because there was ‘confusion’ to the whereabouts of his sons’ body. He was told it was in the morgue, went there and they said to him he was on the ward. Went to the ward and was told he was in the morgue. What the attendants really wanted was bribe money. A terrible experience to an unnecessary tragedy.

Of course, if you have money, nothing is a worry. I’ve friends who’ve been in birthing centres in Nairobi and loved it. I’ve also known people who travel for half an hour on a motorbike to a rural clinic to give birth, all by themselves.

I applaud the work of Kenya’s First Lady – Mrs. Margaret Kenyatta in creating Beyond Zero which aims to improve maternal health. She is using her position to bring about awareness and change in a much needed area.

Me, one of my goals to is ensure that remote medical clinics have access to water, latrines and hand washing facilities. It’s high on our 3 year goal.

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Every life is precious no matter where they are born. For me, I’m getting to enjoy my short time with Isabella Rose and find inspiration every time I look at her to help other children across East Africa have a great start in life.

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Coming Home

I once asked some friends who were returning to Australia after two years of volunteering in Tanzania “How long do you think it will take you to get used to being there?” Their answer was a couple of months.

After spending 6 weeks in the US, I can verify that answer. We were just getting used to the conveniences of life and how things worked in another world.

But now we’ve returned home.

Home is where the majority of my family is. Hannah is with her husband Luke in New Zealand, awaiting the birth of their first child next year. That leaves Pete, Liz and I.

home

We were all a bit anxious about returning because we knew what we were heading into. It will be home for a few more years. We were looking forward to a more familiar world and definitely not living out of a suitcase.

Home, a 4 letter word that means so much more than that.

Our first morning here was interesting. None of our showerheads were working, so I ended up having a bucket shower. One where you fill a bucket with boiled water and pretty much pour it over yourself a few times. I realized afterwards that I had forgotten to pull out the tap so water came out of the showerhead.

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We thought our internet had pretty good speed, until we went overseas. Now it feels painstakingly slow. It’s way better than dialup but also much slower than what we experienced in the US.

Coming home meant unpacking an entire houselot of furniture from a spare room. Because the floors had been sanded and repolished all of the cupboards were full of red dust. You could tell that the workers had thumbed through our clothes hanging up because their fingerprints were all over the place. We also discovered they had stolen our very good iron and used our TV stand as a ladder. We knew because there was paint all over it. To say we weren’t happy campers is an understatement. And this was just Monday.

Of course, you can’t live in their world any more without the internet, but guess what wasn’t working when we returned? This meant trips down to the mall to visit our friendly staff at Zuku who worked it all out for us.

Jetlag, unpacking, buying food, meetings on day 3, all were a bit much. Before Liz headed off to volunteer at her preschool I insisted that she put up the Christmas tree to keep her busy. Liz had absolutely no worries about jetlag. She slept like a baby, while Pete and I got about 2 hours sleep and stayed awake the remainder of the night. We’ve never had such jetlag in our entire lives, and we’ve done a lot of travelling. It took an entire week to get back to normal.

Coming home also meant that we were broke.

We stayed two weeks too long on our trip. While we had a couple of schools in that time, it really put the financial pressure on us. We didn’t realize how expensive the US was going to be for public transport and food. We stretched ourselves way further than ever before. We don’t have a credit card to fall back on, no savings that we could dig into. What we had is what we had and with the fall in the Aussie dollar there wasn’t much bang for your buck.

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Coming home meant coming back to very little freedom. This has been my biggest challenge to date. No more walking around at night. Always having our bags and cars checked at church and shopping malls. Having to take off my jewellery before walking out in public. Locking the metal gate and door every time you step out, even to get rid of the garbage.

The loss of freedom is something I haven’t got used to. A friend who lives here but is in New Zealand over the Christmas break, couldn’t help but send me a post of Facebook post to say she had just walked home at 10pm at night. I miss freedom.

But – this is home.

 

 

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Why Birthdays Are Important

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My 40th birthday

On the weekend I read a pathetic article in the local newspaper, so I just had to write about it.

Here’s a couple of short snippets of what it said:

‘Any man who throws a party or even considers some kind of bash after the age of 16 is a disgrace to the institution of masculinity. For women, we can be a bit accommodating and give them up to 25.’

‘Until adults in this country start acting more maturely, we will end up raising self-absorbed children who think the world owes them a living.’

Seriously, singing happy birthday to an adult compromises their masculinity?

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I’m not sure who was more excited.

 

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Lizzies birthday is on Dec 31st, so NYE is always important in our house.

And this is why I don’t buy newspapers very often.

I’m all for birthdays, but I guess that is how we raised our kids. Life itself is a great reason to celebrate. I’ve tried to find out if there is some deep and meaningful reason to why here in Kenya birthdays aren’t a big deal but all I could find is that it’s always been this way.

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Bec and Han at a friends birthday.

In some cultures children aren’t named until they’re weaned simply because they may not survive until then. Totally understandable. Many of the kids we work with don’t know the date or year they were born because it was no big deal, until they need a birth certificate!

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It’s all about the dressups.

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Jo and Min, always smiling.

For the last couple of years I’ve been taking birthday cake along to some of our kids programs. I figure it’s no big deal to spend $5 on cake and get them to sing happy birthday. Who doesn’t like to get a card which tells you how special you are and that you’re not a mistake?

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Liz and Han at Georgie Pie for a birthday.

Birthdays give us a reason to celebrate. I don’t think we celebrate the real things well. Sure, there’s huge sporting events and the Queen’s great grand-babies but nothing matters as much as our own families. With so much tragedy in the world we should celebrate more.

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Me on my 16th birthday.

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A birthday with our extended family – the Renatas.

Birthdays give a reason for families and friends to get together. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard at funerals “We should get together more” and yet we don’t. If you’re like me, you wonder where the weeks and months go, before we know it 2014 will be done and dusted.

Life is fragile and we need to handle with care. Meantime – enjoy and celebrate it!

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Pete’s parents