Why Kenya

I always get amazed on what draws people to come to Kenya to work or volunteer. Everyone has a story and I try and get them to tell me.

Some come to escape from their former life. Others to get themselves up the ladder of success in business. Some found that this was the only way to get to see this part of the world.

And then there’s me.

Food is an important medium for connecting.

Food is an important medium for connecting.

When I was in Standard 4, at about 10 years of age, we did a study – The Manyatta of Kenya.

I’m 46 years old. In ‘my day’ very few people travelled internationally. I remember one friend whose entire family went to Disneyland and they brought back a huge (and I mean huge) Winnie the Pooh. Another friend went to The Netherlands. But that was about it. I remember the same year that a plane full of tourists from New Zealand flew to Antarctica and them all perishing on a mountain there.

And then there was me.

The War Cemetery is one of the tidiest places in Nairobi.

The War Cemetery is one of the tidiest places in Nairobi.

We didn’t own a car until we inherited money from a grandparent passing. I remember travelling out of town once or twice.

Over my teens I had grown up reading adventures of people who had travelled through China, Africa, South America and India. But I’d never been there.

At the top of Mt Kilimanjaro, Tanzania.

At the top of Mt Kilimanjaro, Tanzania.

The first time I travelled internationally was when Pete went to college in Australia for 3 months, so we packed up and headed for the Sunshine Coast. Our girls were 8 weeks and a year old, I was 22.

A couple of years later we went to India for a few weeks, left the babies behind and had a blast. We would’ve been happy to move there but things didn’t pan out that way.

As the years went by we hosted plenty of international development workers or missionaries, many who worked in Africa. We threw (not literally) our girls out of their beds for our visitors. The girls thought it was cool, they didn’t know any different. I home schooled them for 6 years and integrated a lot of history, country information and cultural teaching.

You can't come to Africa and be in a hurry.

You can’t come to Africa and be in a hurry.

Then life took a turn.

We moved to Sydney, Australia where we’d never been before. Set up a new life, and it was great. That was 2002.

In 2007 I had the opportunity to travel to Kenya to graduate my students. I emailed a Kiwi friend of ours who we hadn’t seen for a few years and met up with them. It was great seeing their work with streetboys. I returned home for only a few weeks and then had to go to Ghana for a seminar. Ghana was so different to Kenya. East and West are like chalk and cheese.

Pete being walked down Mt Kilimanjaro with a broken leg.

Pete being walked down Mt Kilimanjaro with a broken leg.

In 2009 Pete and I decided that we wanted our girls to have a bigger world view. We wanted to show them that not all of the world was white, English speaking and middle class. So, we took them to Africa, specifically Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania. Our youngest daughter DID NOT want to go. She had just finished her last year at high school and decided she ‘wanted to work’ we told her she had the rest of her life to work, and she was coming.

Pete was flown to Nairobi to receive top class medical care.

Pete was flown to Nairobi to receive top class medical care.

For a year we saved, sacrificed and made budget. A couple of other young people came with us some of the way. It was a cheap trip – buses, backpackers and motorbikes. We had a blast (most of the time). After 8 weeks we returned home tired but changed.

titanic

Han & Jules on Lake Victoria

In 2010 Pete and I went to Hawaii to drop Hannah off at school. It was there that we decided to move out Sydney, we were bored. The answer was either Hawaii or Kenya. I LOVE Hawaii, love, love, love it. But we thought ‘what the heck, what have we got to lose by going to Kenya?’

In 2011, Pete, Liz and I returned to Africa with the specific thought of ‘Could we really live here and what could we do?’ This time for another 2 months but it was to Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania (Climb Mount Kilimanjaro). Pete broke his leg on the mountain, so he stayed back in Nairobi and Liz and I went throughout Uganda checking in on our projects. The change in plans gave us a longer time to see if Kenya would be our new home or not. We’d travelled through lots of countries but there was something pulling us back to Kenya.

Nairobi is bustling with small businesses.

Nairobi is bustling with small businesses.

Nairobi was the most modern city we visited. We had people we knew there. It could give us easy access to other countries. We liked it. We liked it enough that we moved in 2012.

While there is lots of wildlife which is absolutely the coolest, it’s the amazing people that you get to meet. Those who struggle from day to day but keep a positive attitude. Those who are starting out in business and doing well. Expats who come here for some sort of experience.

The scenery is amazing.

The scenery is amazing.

Nairobi is made up mainly of Kenyans but there are representatives from pretty much every nationality on earth.

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And so are the people.

Kenya is never dull and boring. There’s always something to do and people to meet. There is a lot of history here (which I love). It’s diverse and interesting. You’re always learning something new. We’re close to our water projects and the communities we work with.

We could’ve gone anywhere in the world and it we would’ve been fine but we chose Kenya.

Actually, I think Kenya chose us.

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Dispelling the Myths

There are lots of things that people ‘know’ about Africa but it’s actually what think they know. Stuff we’ve read online or more likely, what we’ve heard from others, their opinions or third hand knowledge.

Today I’m going to tell it like it really is so you can see a different side to what life here. Just remember, Africa has 54 countries, that’s a quarter of the number of countries in the entire world. Here’s 6 myths people hold about Africa.

Africa is huge.

Africa is huge.

 1. Mud Huts

Not everyone lives in a mud hut. In Kenya, 32% of people live in cities, Uganda 15%, Algeria 72%. Most of those people live in apartment blocks. In Nairobi where we live there are guards and sometimes guard dogs at the gated entrance of the property. While there are some houses, these tend to be in certain suburbs. Many homes tend to have house help. On the day we moved into our apartment, the caretaker offered his daughter as our househelp, all for $120 per month. We said no thanks.

hut  apartment

 2. Security

We have people staying in our home all of the time. They might be students coming to do research for their studies or perhaps taking a break from working in remote places around Africa. I love having people over. If I had a bigger house I would probably have a whole bunch of teenagers living with us who really need a place they can call ‘home’.

The number one question I get asked is ‘Is it safe there?’ Safety is all-relative. It’s not safe for me as a white person to walk around the streets at night, but it is during the day. We work with young people who live in the Kibera Slum. They are amazing and give me hope for our country. However, I am unwise to walk through Kibera by myself. Therefore, I go with people who live there.

Unfortunately, you can never take security for granted. We live in a relatively safe area but I still lock the car doors when I get in. We are always aware of things like our bags, phones and wallets. When we go to a slum, I take off my jewellery and leave anything I value, at home. If you wear it, you have to be prepared to lose it.

Kenya has been rocked by a number of security issues. In the last two years we’ve been involved in a rock throwing/riot situation while working, bus blow-ups (we don’t catch them if at all possible), attacks at the Coast and of course, the Westgate attack a year ago. It sounds bad but it doesn’t affect you too much unless you are involved. Even when we were running the kids program and we all had to huddle inside because the hall was being pelted with rocks, we didn’t feel afraid. We were just concerned how the little kids were going to get home safely.

The thing about acts of terrorism though is that you don’t know when and where it’s going to happen. You have to be alert and use the brain you’ve been given.

We are thankful that over the past two years we haven’t been carjacked or anything on our persons stolen. We’ve heard of it happening to lots of others but not us. May it so continue.

riot3. Money

There is money to be made in Africa. Get it out of your mind that the streets are lined with people begging with a bowl saying ‘please sir can I have some more’. Yes, there are beggars and homeless people (just like the rest of the world) and yes, a lot of people live in poverty. But – there are also people with money.

The top African countries with millionaires include South Africa, Egypt, Nigeria, Kenya, Angola, Tanzania and even Algeria. Throughout the continent there are more than 130,100 millionaires. There are 27 billionaires.

I’ve been travelling to East Africa for 7 years. In that time there’s been an obvious sign that there is a developing bigger middle class – the number of locals at the coffee shop at the shopping mall and those shopping there. There’s also been a huge increase of cars on the roads. I am forever seeing Mercedes on the road!

Ashish Thakkar - Africa's youngest billionaire

Ashish Thakkar – Africa’s youngest billionaire

4. Modern Facilities

There is a huge difference between life in the city and that in the village. We have running water, electricity (most of the time), more footpaths and lots of shopping malls. In the village there might be one small shop to buy something from or, you jump on a bus to go to the nearest town. It’s basically opposite to a city. You have to buy water in a jerry can, you probably don’t have electricity.

In Nairobi, we have a number of slums that don’t have running water or sanitation facilities. We also have a large portion of locals who have never even stepped into a slum. On the other end of the spectrum, you have young people from well off families that don’t even speak Swahili (official language) because they go to private international schools.

We are quite spoilt in Nairobi, we can pretty much buy any food that we want. It’s not always available but when it is, it’s great. There are lots and lots of places to eat out and plenty to do. Nairobi is not a place you can get bored in. We’ve friends in Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia who, when they visit are ecstatic at what food and items we regularly buy. My husband Pete went to Ethiopia last week and half of his bag was full of sugar, meat and chocolate for an associate, because they couldn’t even get things like sausages.

On the outskirts of Kigali, Rwanda

On the outskirts of Kigali, Rwanda

5. Technology

East Africa has ridiculously cheap Internet. In Australia I was spending $100 just on my phone plan and then about that much more on a telephone/TV/internet package. $45 gives us unlimited wireless internet, TV package and a landline phone (which we never use). I use $5 for phone/SMS and another $5 for internet on my phone. And that’s on a busy month.

What I really like is that you can buy a scratchie card and put credit on your phone for as little as 50 cents. MPesa is a very cool monetary system established by Safaricom. Let’s say I need $5, anyone can send me that through the phone and I get it in an instant. I can then go and withdraw it or use it to buy goods or pay a bill. I often send Pete airtime on his phone via mine. I remember when Pete broke his leg when we were in Tanzania, on Mt Kilimanjaro and I called back to our friends in Nairobi to tell them and also, could they send me some credit on my phone – and they did. Got to love this system.

mpesa

In 9 days we fly out to Australia and New Zealand for our daughters’ wedding and we all know that we will have a heart attack on how expensive our phones will cost us. One phone package in New Zealand will cost me 4 months of what we would spend here.

6. It’s Hot

As I write this blog I’m sitting in jeans, wearing a jumper and have my ugg boots on. Okay, it’s not that cold but wearing uggies is comfortable around the house. Google tells me it’s 19 degrees and will hit 24 later. Very rarely does Nairobi get to 30 degrees.

Sahara Desert

Sahara Desert

You don’t have to travel far and there’s a huge temperature difference. In Garissa (4 hours away) it’s often 35 degrees. The Lake Turkana area often gets to 50 degrees. So yes, it does get hot here but not like what people think. During the middle of the year the temperature drops to around 13 in the morning, rainy seasons are in June/July and November/December. Things have been much drier this year and the rains in June just didn’t come. I’m seeing signs of the coming rains so it actually makes me happy. Outside of the city it’s dry and brown, here’s hoping it greens up fast.

tempDon’t believe everything you hear on the news about Africa. It’s a place of adventure, challenges and amazing people. You should come on over!

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Uganda

This past week Pete and I had the privilege of traveling to Uganda to look at many of our water projects there. Because of the generosity of our Board we were able to fly the 40 minutes and not the overnight bus which takes about 14 hours. Liz stayed behind because she was heading to Australia, so there was a lot to do to organise two totally different trips.

Downtown Gulu

Downtown Gulu

Going to Uganda was great for us. It’s been a long 5 months adjusting to life in Kenya and as they say, a change is as good as a holiday.

A holiday it certainly wasn’t.

Our vehicle to get around Northern Uganda - much needed!

Our vehicle to get around Northern Uganda – much needed!

We traveled long hours with our driver Rodney, who had been kidnapped when he was a child by LRA soldiers. We got to meet his dad as we drove around Northern Uganda.

Uganda and Kenya are like chalk and cheese in many ways.

A deep bore well about an hours' drive from Kitgum

A deep bore well about an hours’ drive from Kitgum

The roads are way better in Uganda than in Kenya. However, Kenya is more developed economically. In Kenya you can get around $400 out of an ATM, in Uganda it’s only just over $100. Imagine when you have to pay everything in cash how many international bank fees you’re paying!

And Uganda is about 5 degrees warmer than where we live in Nairobi. One of those places that as soon as you’ve had a shower you are bathed in sweat again and ask yourself ‘Why did I bother?’

One of the many memorials around Northern Uganda

One of the many memorials around Northern Uganda

Alice from Pader stirring lunch for hundreds of girls

Alice from Pader stirring lunch for hundreds of girls

There was a real downside to going to Uganda and that was we had to rush from one place to another. Next time I would love to spend time just taking photos, especially of the Northern Ugandans. Of all the people I’ve seen in the world, I really love their faces. Their eyes are deep, they say everything just by looking at you. You see their pain, their history, their hopes.

Got to love the kids!

Got to love the kids!

For the first time we weren’t staying in $10 a night guest houses or hotels. Not that we went overboard but it was great to get a decent nights sleep without paperthin walls. Mind you, I told a friend up north that $80 was the most we were prepared to pay for a room, so he put us in a $15 place. It had no water or a door on the toilet, but it did have electricity, which was surprising.

Alice and I under the tree she started her work in Pader

Alice and I under the tree she started her work in Pader

We visited hospitals, schools, churches and remote communities. While I was there 18 months ago, it’s been 4 years for Pete, so he was really excited about visiting the friends we had made.

Pete and a mate at the school opening at Kituso

Pete and a mate at the school opening at Kituso

In Kampala at the opening of the water project

In Kampala at the opening of the water project

Seeing all of your hard work of organising water projects is a real highlight, but more so, meeting the people whose lives are changed forever. That’s why we are here in Africa, to change lives.

Uganda was great, but now it’s time to get back to work.