If you have ever woken up at 2am to the sound of a beating drum telling you that a baby has died…then you will understand why my stories of life in the village are not always as romantic as the books one is accustomed to reading about sun-kissed plains of Africa… This happened so many times when I was in the village… you see when someone died the drum would beat, bam, bam, bam, evenly, slowly for 24 hours. It was like a shadow of days past before phones and vehicles – as the most effective way to spread the sombre news to the community. Lying in the dark, looking up at the roof of ones’ mud hut, you would start to focus on the slow beat, feeling its vibrations through your entire body like the throb of the villages broken heart at the loss of one more person…..
Death was everywhere when I was in Africa, and sadly with it came callousness in many cases – not from all people, but from the one person I was relying on for support both then, and for years after I left the village. I am sure I will talk more about that later… but for now, let me talk a little about my experiences in the village…
Generally when I hear a story about Africa, it is of colours which are brighter and deeper, music that is more soulful, and community spirit which is more valuable than it is elsewhere in the world…. If you refer back to my first paragraph however you will see that this is not the direction that my story is going to take…. I met beautiful people, with beautiful souls who through the very act of being themselves, sharing love, life and of themselves made, and continue to make the world beautiful… some of you will recall my friend Moses, who has since passed away – he was one of these individuals…. Like every state and nation however, my experiences in Africa also have dark individuals, capable of anything to further their own goals… I will talk about them also….
Why Kenya? People ask me this all the time….
Well, in 2002 I started seeing a Sudanese man from the Acholi tribe of the South of Sudan. And while that relationship didn’t last beyond 2005, it did allow me to learn more about what these people had been forced to flee from. My Acholi friend had welcomed me into his family, and told me stories of Sudan and Kenya where he and his family had lived for some years before being able to come to Australia. It was from him that I learned exactly how hard it had been for women in Africa to be given a decent education, or indeed any education at all. I wanted to learn more first hand in Africa, but as Sudan was under fire, Kenya was the closest I could safely get.
During my Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Tasmania majoring in politics, I don’t think I wrote a single assignment which was not somehow tied to Africa and third world development. Out of interest I did an elective called African Politics and Globalisation (POL251), which required me to write an essay entitled How, if at all, could president Mbeki have said that “poverty causes AIDS”? While I had always known that AIDS was a huge problem facing Africa, it was something I had mostly associated with South Africa. As for the rest of Africa, I mostly put all their problems down to war, internal unrest, poor political leadership, and lack of education.
Until last year whenever somebody asked me what it was that I planned to do with my life I would tell them that I wanted to use my degree in politics to work at a governmental level, or with an NGO to help alleviate in Africa the problems brought on by poor education, poverty, bad governments and disease. While I had always know that I would go to Africa it was only in 2005 that I began to think seriously about it, about where and when I would go, and what I would do there. In 2006 I decided ‘Right, I’m going to Africa. I need to see in practice what I have been learning on paper if I am going to be any use to anyone at all when I graduate.’ I began to look into a number of volunteer organisations, and found maybe half a dozen which would send volunteers, who had yet to graduate, to Africa. I didn’t find any that would send me to either Sierra Leone or Sudan, the closest I could get to Sierra Leone was Ghana and the closest to Sudan was Kenya. I elected to go with an organisation called Involvement Volunteers International, mostly because they offered the biggest range of placement activities, in the most locations at the lowest cost to the volunteer. I volunteered to work in Kenya for six months, three months in Nairobi, and three months in a rural area.
Back to my village story…
So, here I am in a village in Kenya….I am waking up in the morning, it’s around 5am, and I’m looking up at a mosquito net, hearing the sounds of cows, goats, chickens and children outside. This is the normal time and way to wake of a morning when you are sleeping in a small village in rural Kenya.
I was assigned to the following two projects beginning in February 2007:
12 Weeks assisting an organisation that provides many services to the community. Duties can include teaching at local schools and teaching non-formal skills (such as carpentry, sewing and agriculture) to youth and unemployed adults, providing counselling, assisting at homeless shelters, home care for HIV/AIDS patients and providing hot meals and companionship for the elderly. Food and accommodation with a Host family is provided for a contribution of US$35 p/week.
12 Weeks assisting with an organisation that looks after orphans in a slum area of Nairobi. The organisation aims to give these disadvantaged children a chance to break their cycle of poverty by providing education and a caring environment. Volunteers are needed to teach standard classes; implement and run more creative lessons such as drama and art and organise sporting activities. The school turns into a shelter at night with children sleeping on the floor of the school. It is an emotionally draining placement and volunteers are needed to show the children love and help them regain confidence in their lives. Food and accommodation are provided for US$30 per week.
The very idea of being able to assist in these projects was inspiring. I was so excited. I immediately started fundraising, writing to churches, politicians, political parties, and other groups and clubs asking for donations to help me cover the costs of my accommodation in Kenya, and to buy first aid and school supplies to be used to help the orphans and villagers. I was met with generous support from various organisations and individuals in Hobart. Meanwhile I was working around 60 hours a week in three jobs (in two restaurants and a nursing home), and trying to sit my university exams. It was a busy and difficult time which I was sure would all be worthwhile.
So I fly to Kenya, throughout the course of the flights I had one glass of wine, 8 coffees (one from Starbucks in Malaysia made with Dutch Lady milk, which tasted AWFUL), read three trashy romance novels and then through them away in Malaysia, turned down one marriage proposal, from Nzari the Tanzanian business man (I told you yesterday I would remember his name eventually!!) who lives in Hong Kong, and had a phone number inflicted upon me (00974-5395530) by a dodgy customs official in Qatar. It was all okay though, as soon as we got within eye-shot of Kenya, I was leaning out (okay on) the window of the plane staring down in amazement at the vast African plains, the African trees that look like this:
I maintain I saw also some giraffes, though the Nzari insists that I didn’t… But hey, never ever spoil a great story or view from an aeroplane with the truth!… anyways as you know after a stupidly long bus ride I ended up in the village, where bats, goats and mosquitos provide the background soundtrack to everything I do.
Upon arrival to the village I met William Kwan a volunteer from Melbourne who gave me the basic breakdown of what was going on. ‘Right, so here’s MURUDEF, so I came here to work with patients, there aren’t many. There’s nothing in the school, and there’s nothing else either.’ I was rather jetlagged and really tired, so I listened and made non-committed sounds. MURUDEF stands for the Muma Rural Urban Development Foundation, which is run by a man called Onesmas Maassi. I wasn’t sure of what to make of this medical student from Melbourne who had several facial and neck piercings. I went to bed pretty early that night, determined to suss out everything else in the morning. So the next morning I woke up thinking okay, I live in a mud hut with no power, glass in windows, kitchen or bathroom… apparently plumbing isn’t essential!! None of which bothered me at all! A quick shower from a bucket worked for me, I was clean, my teeth were clean, I had some water, and while my feet were dirty, I was about to walk about 4km to catch a bus and it had been raining so even if they were clean, it wouldn’t have been a long term thing.
That day another volunteer, Sarah* took me to the clinic, which had basically nothing in it when we arrived and some basic first aid supplies when I left, curtesy of some donations from Mr Morgan of Morgan’s Pharmacy Hobart. The clinic was in theory (not in practice) running on the basis that care is offered at cost price. That is the doctor consultation fee is very low, about the cost of a meal in Kenya, and medicines can be bought by those who need them at cost price simply so those that are used can be replaced. Patients can pay for their medicine and/or consultation with either money or goods, ie. Chickens, bananas, beans, seeds, eggs – anything we can sell.
Later on my first day the Sarah also took me into the town of Kakamega so we could check our email, I still remember hearing a goat from inside the internet café! We also had lunch at the Silver Pot which was to become my regular eating spot, and visited the MURUDEF office where I met the most incompetent office worker in the world, Stanley. It’s important to note how incompetent he is, as he will feature later on in this story. Also, I am not being mean, the man was incompetent and lazy. Some people are unable to do things because they haven’t had the opportunity to learn, while other people are just straight out incompetent and lazy, this combination irks me.
Over my first few days in the village, I quickly realised that William had been right with his initial run-down of the situation. The placements we had volunteered for simply didn’t exist. In fact there was nothing that we could really be doing to help. In short we were filling in time, wondering why we had been sent there. By the end of my first week I was dirty, dusty, still tired from my flight and thinking ‘Everything here feels something like a disaster of a disappointment. I’m angry and sad and really, really angry. And I just want a hug!’
Our host family was Onesmas and his family, his wife, youngest son, Roger, Onesmas’s brother Livingston, his wife, his mother and another sister in law of his. Onesmas wanted (and still wants) to be a politician in the area, and once he discovered that I was a students of politics he began insisting that I help him with his political campaign. I told him that I had come to Kenya to learn, and wanted no part of local politics. As we had no official (or unofficial) work or tasks to do we, the volunteers, had been keeping ourselves busy trying to start some projects, trying for example, to start basic first aid education.
One of my tasks was cleaning up the MURUDEF computer, de-virusing it (which without anti-virus software, didn’t work), and basically organising it. In doing so we discovered a number of letters and emails that Onesmas had been sending and receiving from people in Australia. All of these letters/emails without exception were requests for money, or thank you notes addressed to people who had already sent money. I realise that this doesn’t sound at all sinister, unless you actually read the email/letters. Onesmas was writing to people saying:
“Please can you donate to us a laptop/microscope/money? We greatly need it in our support of the widows/it is very important for the clinic/it is required at the school…to access the MURUDEF account we must travel to Nairobi which is difficult and expensive, so please place the money into my personal account, the details are as follows…”
We also found letters thanking and individual in Melbourne for the donation of a microscope, which the letter said was being used in the Shikunga Clinic.
All of this would have been fine, if MURUDEF genuinely support widows, if the microscope had have gone to the clinic, and if the school required support. The microscope was sold, and Onesmas’s children board at an expensive school in Kakamega, which is an interesting since high school education isn’t free and Onesmas does not have a paying job. It is also interesting that several of the villagers told us that Onesmas had told them ‘Yes, I have wuzungu (plural for whites) coming here to give money.’ He told the nurse that he needed us there for our money. The average wage in our area is around 2,500 Kenyan shillings ($50) per month, we were each paying Onesmas 3000 shillings per week in board. At times there were four of us there with him. So imagine he was making 12,000 shillings per week at times, and still he and his family often didn’t provide meals for Shannon and I when we were staying with them.
We the volunteers were in a difficult position as we were told that our hosts would not be making money off having us stay with them. We were told that we would be provided with food and water – which we weren’t, and that any extra money would be used to support the projects we were working with. For 3000 bob per week you could buy 300 bunches of sugar bananas. You could buy 200 bottles of soft drink, you could buy 17 meals in an up market café, or 60 bowls of chips. In the village you could buy about 150 meals in restaurants. 3000 bob is a quarter of a years school fees for a secondary school student at a good school. Had our host not been in charge of the organisation we may have had someone to report him to, or complain to, we however had no one. Looking back, Onesmas was also very good at making sure we only met his relatives, in-laws etc, so we had no one to turn to.
Sarah had been scheduled to leave a week after I arrived in Kenya, she was to take the long bus ride to Nairobi and then she was going home to Australia. We agreed that I would go with her so far as Nairobi where I had a friend waiting who would let me come and stay with him for a few days while I found myself more work, in one of the orphanages or centres for street children. I had been asking Onesmas if there was any other volunteers coming to Shikunga, and he insisted each time that there wasn’t. A few days before Sarah and I had planned to leave Shannon a young, 17 year old, volunteer turned up. She is from the Gold Coast, but was joining us from the group placement she had been on in Uganda. I knew then that I couldn’t leave, there was no way in hell I was leaving a 17 year old by herself in the middle of the jungle!
When Shannon arrived she told us that she had just finished year 12 and planned to take a year off before joining the University in Queensland. She was interested in studying something in the medical field and had volunteered to come and work for 2 months with widows and orphans. She’s great with kids. So she was sent to the clinic where on a busy day they might have had on patient. On her first night in Shikunga Wil and I took her down to our hut which we called ‘The Australian Embassy’ and gave her the basic break down ‘Everything is corrupt. Your placement doesn’t exist. Onesmas is dodgy. If you are going to stay with him pay him your board weekly not in a lump sum. That way you can take off at any time you choose.’ It was such an awful thing to have to tell her. Kenya is a long way from Australia, and you have a dreadful lost feeling when you know that you have been cheated and there is nothing you could do about it.
The next morning Onesmas wanted us to go to a Pentecostal Church with him and talk to the parishioners about our projects. Now that was a joke in itself as Shannon had been there less than 36 hours so hadn’t known what we were doing, or not doing. Wil had been working on a health insurance program, which required villagers to pay the clinic about $5 every three months and receive free consultations during that time, the program may or may not have been a good idea, but that was a moot point as without strong leadership however it was never going to work – and Onesmas was not willing to take on a leadership position. He wanted to be the man to give everyone money to buy their votes, but would never be able to demand payments from someone as that might make him look ‘bad’ and cost him votes….