Oh! What’s Occurring?

Friday 4th September 2014

9:00am – I feel like I’m about to be sick from nerves. My classroom is set up: I have a seating plan, name badges, a frog bean bag and get-to-know-each-other-games. All I’m waiting for is my year 11 class of EAL (English as an Additional Language) pupils who I will be teaching drama to for the first time. I have no idea what to expect…

9:06 – the first one strolls in – a stocky lad with a swagger and an untrusting expression. He looks me up and down as if to say ‘who the hell are you?’ and silently and sullenly takes a seat at the back. I swallow nervously, plant a fake smile on my face and try to look like I know what I’m doing.

9:08 – eleven more students stroll in. They are all chatting to each other in Slovak and barely glance at me. I’m relieved that they at least sit down without me having to ask, so I grab my chance…

“Good morning year 11s, I’m Miss Wiles and I’ll be teaching you drama this year.”

No response. I sense trouble looming.

At this point I don’t have much idea of how much English they know. They are all rated as stage A for their English, which on paper means they know the bare minimum. However, I want to find out what stage A means in practice and so have been advised to play some get-to-know-each-other-games. Out comes the frog bean bag…

9:12 – I’m not getting a very enthusiastic response to the get-to-know-each-other-games.

9:14 – the frog bean bag has just been lobbed at a student’s face and hit them in the eye.

9:15 – the guy who got frogged in the eye is now punching the thrower. I tell Mr Punchy – with as much authority as I can muster – to stop. He doesn’t.

9:19 – a random student is lying on the floor with his eyes closed. When I ask him to get up he lazily opens one eye, replies in Slovak and promptly shuts it again.

9:25 – one of the boys threatens to jump out the window (we’re on a first floor). The plus side to this is that now I know he can speak some English.

9:31 – a second student threatens to jump out the window (great – he speaks a bit of English too!)

9:34 – enough is enough. With as much fake confidence as I have in me I raise my voice and tell them all to sit down. Amazingly they actually do and I realise I have no idea what to do next.

9:36 – I write the class rules on the board. I explain that rule one is ‘No throwing’.

9:37 – I ask a boy to hand out the pencil cases so that the class can copy the rules. One by one he lobs a pencil case at every other student’s head. I politely ask him to stop. He doesn’t.

9:38 – The rest of the students shout at me in Slovak whilst they scramble around picking up pencil cases.

10:01 – after twenty minutes of me writing random things on the board and getting them to copy them down (for some reason they seem to like copying) they surge out of my classroom. I sit at my desk, burst into tears and think ‘what am I doing?’

Life up the mountain in rural Uganda could not feel further away…

18th October 2014

Amazingly as I write this I have somehow made it through seven long weeks of teaching. Just. There have been wonderful and hysterical moments. And there have been moments of despair at 1am staring at piles of marking thinking ‘I’m not sure I can get through another day of this’.

As a new and inexperienced teacher, there are days when the behaviour of some of the students is overwhelming. When I’m not completely exhausted by weekends spent marking I am frequently struck by the injustice of the UK’s strong link between educational attainment and family income. The UK is one of the worst places in the world for this correlation. So whilst there are days when I feel more exhausted than ever before and it’s taking all my willpower not to hand my notice in, I am becoming increasingly driven by the injustice of how we in the UK are failing these children from lower income families.

However, five more days and the first half term will be over. Time to celebrate getting through it with friends, wine and a ceremonial burning of a frog bean bag…


Humans of Kibera

The Humans of New York project is brilliant: just a photo of a random person accompanied by a quote is such a simple concept and yet these pictures have real impact – they move and inspire. With no overarching commentary these images prompt you to consider your preconceptions about people and serve as a powerful reminder that however different our circumstances we are all united in our humanity. Whether CEO of a corporation or homeless, born into royalty or in a refugee camp – we are all made of flesh of blood. We all feel pain. We all feel love.

The problem with mainstream media is that the same images of different countries and cultures are recycled and repeated for years, and we make assumptions based on these: Africa is a place of famine and safaris. For every image we see of people lining up in Ethiopian refugee camps, or a group of children playing round open sewage in Kibera their ‘otherness’ is highlighted and we forget that how alike we really are. Every person in Kibera has experienced pain, has felt love, has day to day worries.

It is important that we see images of poverty and suffering, but we must bear in mind Africa is diverse beyond description. We need projects like Humans of New York in the developing world as well so that we don’t lose sight of our common humanity.

Here is my amateur attempt at replicating the HONY project in Kibera – one of Africa’s biggest slums. I only wish there had been more time to work on it, as it was a fascinating experience.


“People have a different idea of Kibera – me and my friends have grown up here and know that it’s a nice space to stay in. It’s a big area – not every area is bad. People have this mentality about us – but once they visit they understand. Life is fair.”

10153210_284632651700078_1439972079_n“I really like physical fitness. Maybe in the morning I go for a run and then find something to lift. I am not working right now – but I want to find work so that I can continue my studies.”
“Is your sister able to support you?”
“Yes, but also we have this playstation, which we rent out to the children after school for a few shillings”


“Why have you not learnt Luo yet?!” (every time I ever walk past her)

*Luo is a tribal language

10153108_284640645032612_1981961362_n“I love Arsenal very very much”
“Have you always supported Arsenal?”
“Of course I have – what kind of question is that?!”

10171763_284640825032594_1385778600_n“How long have you had this store?”
“Six years”
“And what were you doing before?”
“I still had this store. But during the post election violence (in 2008) everything in here was looted. They stole everything. I started from scratch.”

10152629_284640801699263_886353025_n“Me? I’m from Obama’s place – upcountry… (to the shopkeeper) How much are these trousers?!”
“650?! Are you trying to reduce me man? I have school fees to pay!”

For information on how I got involved in Kibera:

Goat kidneys and mudslides

Mud, mud, glorious mud…

My friends and family can testify that I am exceptionally clumsy. It is rare that I’m bruise or scrape free, simply because I tend to walk into things/fall over more than the average person. So as you can imagine, living on the slopes of a mountain during rainy season was a big challenge. The mud paths through the coffee plantations were slippery at the best of times, let alone after a day of torrential rain.

However, I managed pretty well for the most part (with the help of local friends who insisted on holding my hand). But when the inevitable happened and I slipped over in a particularly muddy puddle I laughed it off, walked back up the mountain and changed into new trousers.

I had noticed that many villagers avoided getting dirt or mud on their clothing at all costs (with incredible skill considering they live in mud huts). I had assumed it was mostly because Ugandans have a lot of pride in their appearance, but shortly after my graceful mud fall I asked my friends whether this was the case. I had not expected the answer they gave, but in hindsight it was obvious: many people in the village only own one set of clothes. This means that getting your clothes wet or muddy is out of the question – how can you wash your clothes at the drop of a hat (pun unintended) if you don’t have anything else to wear? I don’t know how most people manage, but one friend told me that as a teenager he would find a deserted spot at the stream to wash his clothes, lay them on a rock to dry, wash himself and then… wait. That was it.


Kuku looking immaculate on the muddy path down to her house

Mmm Kidneys

The day after mud-gate I was invited for lunch along with Kuku and Gugar (my Ugandan grandparents) to the house of their church treasurer. 14 of us crammed cosily into a small mud hut and watched as members of the family brought out various dishes. In the centre of the table was a very large plate full of matoke and gradually 14 plates of meat and sauce appeared. I felt liked I’d hit the jackpot, as the plate closest to me contained nicely cut-up pieces of meat, which I thought I could eat pretty well with one hand without making too much of a mess. However, just before we started eating this plate was pointedly removed and I was handed a dish containing two kidneys joined together by a piece of flesh.

Although I wouldn’t normally eat goat kidneys (or any organ really) by choice, I knew that it would be very insulting if I left them. So with one hand I tried to pull them apart – but no luck. Very non-politically correct I then used both hands and still could not break any pieces off. At this point I genuinely began to feel a bit upset, because I didn’t know how I could eat these kidneys if I couldn’t pull them apart, and I was so anxious not to offend our hosts. However, Kuku saw that I was in trouble, requested a knife and cut up the kidneys into nice small pieces (to the amusement of everyone else), which she then told me to eat with a spoon. By this point everyone else had finished eating so I spooned down the kidneys with a full audience, but the relief that I wasn’t going to offend my hosts meant that I chomped them down (almost) happily.

Once again, later that evening my friends enlightened me by telling me that if you are given the kidneys it is a sign that the animal in question was slaughtered in your honour. So I am hugely grateful to our hosts that they would give up an animal in my honour, and forever indebted to Kuku for enabling me to actually be able to eat it!

These are only two examples, but in my time in Kikobero village I have been humbled time and time again by how little some have and yet how much they are willing to share with each other. Feel free to slap me if I ever complain that I don’t have anything to wear, but I apologise that you won’t be getting kidneys if you come round for dinner (as I’m currently out of goat).


Kikobero village centre

Lessons from Uganda

I recently met a couple of Americans who were struggling with life in Uganda. They couldn’t cope with the food, the flies, the pit latrines, the transport, ‘Africa time’ and they labelled me an ‘absolute hero’ for staying here; the underlying assumption being that ‘West is best’ and that I am making a huge sacrifice by being in Uganda.

I found this puzzling. I certainly don’t see life in Uganda as a ‘trial’, nor do I see myself (or any expats) as martyrs by being here over the UK or US. Yes, there are challenges (power blackouts, poor roads, politics), but there are many aspects of Uganda that I prefer to the UK. ‘Development’ is not the same as ‘Westernisation’ and we in the West also have a huge amount to learn.

Here are just a few of the lessons that I’ve learnt from Uganda and which I hope to try to incorporate into my London life:

1) We control time – it doesn’t control us: a few years ago I read a beautiful description of this in ‘The Shadow of the Sun’ by Ryszard Kapuściński (definitely worth a read!) Kapuściński observed that in the West time controls everything: if a meeting starts at ten then everyone must be there by ten. Whereas in Africa time is controlled by people: the meeting starts when everyone arrives. ‘Africa time’, as it is known, is not a perfect system and of course punctuality has its benefits, but it is very liberating to just ‘be’ sometimes and live separately to the clock. It would certainly save many people a lot of stress in tube delays during London’s rush hour.

2) Life without a smartphone is… OK: Many people in Uganda have smartphones, but they’re pretty useless in the villages without power or signal. If people need to contact me they can text me, but Facebook, Whatsapp, Snapchat, Skype, WordPress, Twitter, LinkedIn and emails – they can all wait until I’m in a cyber cafe. I’ve found so many benefits to life without a smartphone: it is so much easier to connect with people when their phone isn’t buzzing every couple of minutes and it’s amazing the high quality sleep you get when you don’t spend ten minutes scrolling through various apps before bed.


Life in Uganda

3) Perspective – is it a real problem? Issues that my Ugandan friends have faced in the month that I’ve been here have ranged from ‘we need to pay a team of teachers tomorrow but the school has no money’ to ‘someone has decided to steal my land and has dumped a load of building equipment on it’ to ‘I have zero money because the authorities have frozen all my bank accounts for weeks on end over a small issue’. All of these are bigger issues than I deal with on a daily basis, but my Ugandan friends are very accepting and calm when dealing with them, because they’re used to it. This has made me re-evaluate what I consider ‘problems’ when I’m back home. Life really is too short for some of the dramas I create in my head.

4) Possessions don’t matter – what do we really ‘need’? When I first arrived in Uganda my phone was playing up a lot (to be fair it is a 12 years old Nokia 3310) and I figured I’d buy another cheap phone when I could. But the word ‘need’ has taken on new meaning here and actually with a bit of help (in the form of some folded paper and elastic bands) my phone is getting by just fine (although it did die on me when I was about to beat my high score on Snake). Living with families, particularly in Kikobero village, who can count their possessions on one hand has made me to think carefully about using the word ‘need’, and reminded me that things don’t bring happiness.

5) People matter –  I’ve mentioned before that greetings in Uganda are so important, and it feels good to be acknowledged whenever you go somewhere new. But going further than this, my Ugandan friends really care for their families – older siblings paying to put all of their brothers and sisters through school (even if there are 6+ of them), grandparents taking in their children’s children… Everything seems to be shared and there is less of a sense of individual entitlement: the family unit is the highest priority.

6) I am more than what I look like Since being in Uganda I’ve seen very few mirrors. Most Ugandans that I’ve met take huge pride in their appearance, but you can get through a whole day without having seen your reflection. I’ve found this so liberating, even though there have been times when I’ve caught my reflection in a window and found that my hair has gone rogue. But so what? There are more important things in life than hair and make-up, but it’s a lot easier to think like this in rural Uganda than it is in central London.

More than anything, having less possessions and lacking mirrors and a smartphone has given me so much headspace: space to really connect with people, and to really connect with my own thoughts. As much as I love living in London, a big part of me would like to live in Uganda. Who knows? Maybe one day…


Village life: Titus collecting water

Cleft palate camps in Mbale Hospital

I first met Martin in 2008. I was eighteen years old and – along with three friends – had been essentially ‘kicked out’ of a failed gap year project further West in Uganda where we’d been staying for five months. We were demoralised, disappointed and looking forward to getting back to the UK. The charity we were with had told us they would find us a new placement for our last few weeks, so we sat drinking soda in a Mbale cafe waiting – without much excitement – to be told what we’d be doing next (oh and we’d been given a goat as a leaving present, so it was tethered to the table).

Martin walked into the cafe, full of energy, and sat opposite us (and the goat). With a completely serious face, he said ‘the first thing you need to know about me is that I’m absolutely mad’. And he wasn’t wrong, but six years of friendship later have taught me that the world needs a bit more of Martin’s style of madness.


With my friend Martin in Mbale Hospital

And this is why I’m here in Uganda again – to make a film about Martin’s story. I’ve approached ‘professionals’ in the past few years to ask if they’d be interested in it for a film or book, but haven’t had a response. This is no good in my opinion, as Martin has a story which the world needs to hear. So I’m here with my DSLR, mic and dictaphone for my first solo film project to attempt to tell Martin’s story. I won’t talk too much about it now (as otherwise you might not watch the film!), except to say that he is a great example of what ‘development’ can be: local people making a transformative difference in their communities.

This week has been particularly exciting as Martin has been hosting a team of twenty medical staff from the US to work in Mbale Hospital as part of a cleft lip and palate camp. I’ve spent time in Ugandan hospitals before, so I was prepared for the lack of resources we’d encounter, but understandably some of the US team have found it a bit of a culture shock. Martin has been busy in the past few weeks getting radio and newspaper announcements out to the rural areas, and it has been incredibly humbling to find out how far people have travelled to access this operation.

I talked with a man named Peter, who is about my age and travelled to Mbale with his baby daughter Hope. Hope is the loveliest baby, but with a cleft lip and palate she would have grown up facing huge stigma. There is little (or no) education about what cleft lips are in rural Uganda and many families see it as a curse and hide away those afflicted from the outside world. Also a cleft palate would have made speech and eating very difficult for her. It is wonderful that she was able to have this operation whilst she is still so young, as many who came to the camp were much older and have been dealing with stigma their whole lives.


Peter with baby Hope before the operation*


Baby Hope after the operation*

The US team have been incredibly busy and have completed over fifty operations this week. It has been great working with them and they’ve been very patient explaining medical terminology to me. I also had the great opportunity to scrub up and film a couple of operations. We’re all tired now but I’m excited to see what comes up next week.

*Photos in this post have been used with the written permission of the subjects, but names have been changed.

Cultural relativism and arguments with boda drivers

Cultural Relativism

The term ‘cultural relativism’ is often used in international development – it describes the idea that no culture is superior to another, which means that issues need to be considered in the context of the surrounding culture.

Though cultural relativism is a wonderful ideal, in actuality it causes a myriad of problems in development decision-making, particularly when it comes to the Human Rights debate. In the West, the birthplace of the Human Rights Declaration, we’re huge fans of upholding the rights of the individual, whereas some cultures (particularly in Asia and Africa) regard individual rights as less important than the rights of the family group, or those of the nation.

How can you say who’s correct? Is there a point at which is it morally acceptable to step in and insist that an individual’s rights be respected? The debate rages on, over issues such as female genital mutilation, tribal rights and domestic violence to name just a few.

Uganda has its own debate continuing on its recent passing of the bill which further criminalises homosexuality. A rights based approach says that this bill goes directly against individual human rights, whereas an entirely cultural relativist approach says that we need to consider this bill from within Ugandan culture.

Ugandan Culture

Though of course you can’t skim over this bill, there is a whole lot more to Uganda. And it would be a shame if the Western media continued to portray this diverse country in terms of the homosexuality bill, HIV and Kony 2012.

Here are the top five lessons I’ve learned about surviving in Ugandan culture*:

  • ‘Deny me food, but greet me’ – Kenyan proverb. Greetings are incredibly important in Uganda – if you enter a room then it’s imperative that you shake every person in there by the hand, whether that be five people or fifty. Yesterday I was walking down the street and a stranger ran to catch me up and said ‘Mzungu! How are you?’ Wearily I told him I was fine, to which he replied ‘OK, well done’ and then ran back to his friends. I think this is considered normal behaviour.
  • Take care of your guests – every Ugandan host I’ve stayed with has been incredibly caring, and whenever I arrive somewhere I am immediately provided with a cup of African tea and food. My current host family wouldn’t even let me do my own clothes washing. I categorically insisted that I was happy to do it myself, and they all briefly watched from the sidelines, however this was the situation five minutes later:

The whole family helping me to wash my clothes

  • Check your feet – admittedly this one is less of a cultural practice and more of a practical necessity. However, after every trip to the village it’s imperative to check your feet for jiggers. For those who don’t know, jiggers are fleas that burrow under your skin (usually on your feet) and lay eggs.Here’s a picture of Rachel kindly removing 5 of them from my feet:

Rachel removing jiggers from my feet

  • Speak well – Ugandans have their own brilliant way of using English vocabulary. Your leg doesn’t hurt – ‘it is paining’, don’t ask someone to move up in the bus – just say ‘extend that way’, and don’t ask someone for help – say ‘please assist me’. To say yes or agree with someone, don’t waste words – just raise your eyebrows.
  • Get cosy on public transport – 14 seater minibus? Oh no you can fit at least 20 people in there (plus livestock!). In Mbale, my main mode of transport is boda boda – jumping on the back of a motorbike. But it’s fairly common to see 3 or more people on one motorbike. Any more than that though and it gets a bit precarious.
  • It’s OK to make a scene – disputes are a communal affair. The only arguments I have tend to be in relation to being charged ‘mzungu price’ by the boda boda men. Sometimes I give in and accept the mzungu tax of 20p, but other times I feel that it’s important to challenge it (so as not to give the impression that foreigners are so loaded that they can afford to always pay an extra 25% more each time). On the occasions I choose to argue, I can be sure that the other boda drivers as well as passers by will also get involved and give their opinion on what I should pay. Last week two Barclays security guards started shouting ‘just assist her’ to the boda driver I was haggling with. I got the local price eventually on that one #win.

* These experiences are based on my times in Southern and Eastern Uganda. I have never been to Western or Northern Uganda, which for all I know could be culturally very different.

Further reading:

Life in Kikobero Village

It is wonderful to be back in Uganda. I first came here in 2007 for six months on my “gap yah” and I can’t stop coming back (ever probably). The culture and climate are great, but the people I know here, who have welcomed me into their family, have made this place my second home.

I’m here for a little over five weeks and my main purpose is to make a short film about my good friend Martin (his story is too powerful to be mentioned in passing so he’ll get his own blog post soon). My time here will be divided between two places. Firstly I will be staying in Mbale, which is a town in East Uganda, in Martin’s house with his wife Jas, two children Isaiah (4) and Jeremiah (2), his niece Anna (9), his brother Jesse, and Saul and Rachel – who are from the village and help with cooking and taking care of the kids. It’s a full house and there are almost always other visitors around, so never a dull moment.

The rest of my time will be spent in Kikobero, a village in Bulambuli District up Mount Elgon. This is where Martin and his six siblings grew up, and I stay with their parents Samuel and Enid (who I call Gugar and Kuku – the Lugisu words for Grandfather and Grandmother*), their daughter Esther, their niece Jen and her son Wilson (15), and Titus (10) who they’ve taken in.


Kuku and Titus

Kikobero Life

Kikobero is a farming town – people grow many different crops, but the main one is coffee. Every time I’m here I’m reminded of the important role that we in the West have as consumers in demanding that coffee farmers be paid fairly. In 2013 coffee prices here crashed drastically and many people here have little or no other sources of income.

Houses are mud-huts, often with a tarpaulin roof (the sound of rain pounding on this is so loud it has to be heard to be believed). The majority of these houses don’t have power, but Kuku and Gougar manage to get electricity for a few hours per day. Water is fetched from a stream slightly further down the mountain (often by Titus with a couple of jerry cans). Using the pit latrine and washing shelter are both al fresco experiences – which is fine as it’s usually pretty warm, except at night when it gets surprisingly chilly.


Outside the house with Simon, who also used to live here, and Titus on my back.


Al fresco shower – sometimes the water is warmed over the fire, but sadly this day I got up too late so it was cold.


Our pit latrine (I always check the top of the door for snakes!)


My bedroom – often 3+ people will share the other one so that I (‘the vista’) get this one to myself – it’s unnecessary but very appreciated).

You can’t move more than a few metres in Kikobero without greeting someone. A Lugisu greeting consists of three parts:

Person 1: Mulembe
Person 2: Mulembe
P1: Otiena?
P2: Bulayi
P1: Makwa
P2: Gasilla*

Most Kikoberans are pleasantly surprised when I greet them in Lugisu, so will then excitedly chat away to me. I then just look knowledgeable and say ‘Carly’ – which means ‘OK’. So who knows what kind of things I’ve been agreeing to.

Kuku looks after me very well, especially when it comes to food. The staple food is matoke, which is a type of mild banana which can be served in a variety of ways. Potatoes (”Irish’), spaghetti (‘macarons’), peanut sauce, tomatoes and avocados also make regular appearances. A couple of times a day (always at breakfast) we’ll have some African tea – tea boiled in milk with cinnamon and (if I don’t grab my mug quickly enough) many many tablespoons of sugar.


Matoke in peanut sauce. Nom.


Mashed matoke with tomatoes and avocado.


Breakfast of bread, mini bananas and tea (note the glass of sugar!)

I really love being in Kikobero, but like Kibera, I don’t want to romanticise it, because it faces a lot of diverse and complex problems. However, I have been having a brilliant time this week climbing up and down the mountain through coffee plantations to get footage for the film. More on that next time.


Gugar with Stephen, Titus, Simon, Anna and Isaiah.

*Disclaimer – all Lugisu spellings in this post are based on my own phonetic interpretation

10 things I didn’t know about Ethiopia

After a couple of weeks  in Kenya I headed off to Addis Ababa to visit my friend Ruth who’s been doing some pretty inspiring work with Concern (check out her blog here).

Ruth and I with a local monk in Bahir Dar

I have to come clean and say that I knew very little about Ethiopia before I visited, but I definitely got the sense that many Ethiopians feel a huge amount of national pride – so over the ten days I was there they happily filled me in on a lot of details. Here’s some of my new knowledge:

1) Ethiopia was one of only two countries in Africa that was never colonised (the other one is Liberia). *This is what I was told, although having checked it out on Google I found that it was kind of colonised by the Italians for six years from 1935 – but only kind of… Let’s just say it’s open to debate. This does explain the Italian influence on the city though, which is present in the food, architecture and cars (amongst other things).

2) Ethiopia gets its name from the Greek word ‘Aethiops’ which means ‘burnt face’.

3) Biblical is best. Quite a few Ethiopians were not impressed when I introduced myself as Bex, but hugely preferred Rebecca (or “Rebcar”) because ‘Rebcar is the wife of Isaac in the Bible don’t you know?’

4) In Ethiopia a gasp is the equivalent of a Brit saying ‘mmhmm’ in agreement. I was glad to find this out as during the first few days I just thought I was saying a lot of shocking things.

5) When eating you only need to use your right hand. You are thought to be quite strange if you wash your left hand as well before a meal.

6) Ethiopia has a thriving jazz scene! I was able to enjoy an evening with Ruth and some new friends in a jazz club and it was brilliant – definitely a rival to Ronnie Scott’s.

7) Coffee drinking is a serious business! An Ethiopian coffee ceremony involves incense, papyrus leaves on the floor and some darn good (but strong!) coffee served in a little china cup and saucer. I suggested to an Ethiopian friend that I would try to recreate this ceremony in the UK, but I’d probably leave out the papyrus leaves and he was not impressed…

Traditional coffee ceremony


8) Many Ethiopians enjoy shoulder dancing (one way I know this is because we had a 12 hour coach journey during which music videos were played constantly). It’s a lot harder than it looks!

9) There are a lot of conmen around (we didn’t encounter any conwomen). Embarrassingly Ruth and I fell for a number of ruses (including buying a random man three rounds of beer), but luckily each one never amounted to much. Don’t think I can afford to move to Ethiopia long-term though.

10) However, Ethiopian hospitality is first class – from a hotel receptionist insisting I use his phone to check my emails (as there were no computers around) to a kind old man named Joseph giving us a walking tour of the merkato (supposedly the largest market in Africa) I left Ethiopia with a wonderful impression of how warm and welcoming people can be.

I would definitely recommend a visit to Ethiopia. I’m now in Uganda, where I’ll be staying put for the next five weeks. More on that soon…

How to support both the Isaac’s and the James’ (Kuwasaidia Isaac na James)

I think that most people who work in people-facing roles have certain individuals that they can’t forget. Those people that years later have just stuck with you.

For me, those two individuals are Isaac and James.

I met them both in 2009 (when they were aged fifteen) when I was volunteering as a teacher for three months in Siloam Academy – a school and orphanage in the heart of Kibera. They’ve both been living in the school for over ten years and have grown up as brothers. They live in the rough area of Kibera – the side that conforms to the media images of a slum (40 young people sleeping in one small room, food and water shortages, children going missing) and have grown up in real hardship. However, they could not be more different.

Isaac (known affectionately as ‘Kisuti’ – the suit guy) is the self-nominated class spokesperson. Any excuse for a rousing speech and he is up the front. He is kind, humble and a real thinker – someone that not only the pupils rely on, but also the teachers and staff. Whenever I was teaching and I just couldn’t explain my point to the class, Isaac would be the one who would jump up to the front and give an effusive explanation in Swahili and I could be confident that he would’ve done a great job.

Morality is very important to Isaac and whenever I’ve spent time with him we’ve often discussed heavy topics like forgiveness, retribution and moral decisions. Both his father and his sister were murdered in 2011 and how he should respond to that is an issue that weighs very heavily on him. However, there is no emotional support where he is living, and he can’t discuss it with the other young people in the orphanage because many of them have suffered their own traumas, and it just isn’t the culture to talk about it.

When I think about Aspire Kibera and its aims my thoughts often end up dwelling on Isaac. He is now a young man aged twenty, with huge leadership potential and a big heart to help others. But he has so few opportunities in front of him – for work or study. Yet I have no doubt that if he were given a small chance he would take full advantage of it and it could change everything for him.


With Isaac and James in 2012

James on the other hand is also a leader, but in a very different way. He was always the class clown and the ‘cool’ one – when he would meet me to walk me to work it was normal for him to fistbump someone and then casually inform me that he’d just greeted a prominent member of a local gang. James is the one I lose sleep over – because I worry that he will fall prey to one of the many social issues in Kibera – drug addiction, gang membership, crime. He is ever light-hearted when I talk to him, but I’ve always had the impression that his cool persona hides a lot of anger. He was one of the first orphans taken in when he was six, because both of his parents had died. For the first few years he had an uncle who used to visit him, but as he grew older the uncle had his own family and cut all contact. James acts like he doesn’t care and that he can take care of himself, but every now and again you see huge vulnerability in him.

One question that has always bothered me is whether it’s possible to design a programme to support both the Isaac’s (those who will take advantage of every opportunity given) and the James’ (those who are more angry at the world). I’m still not sure, because I believe someone has to really want to help themselves, and sometimes anger can obstruct that.

However, it’s not for me to judge and people surprise you every day. We are having talks at the moment within Aspire about potentially piloting a programme to empower young people like Isaac and James – where we would fund courses for them to gain employment with the expectation that they would work voluntarily for our sanitary programme to gain work experience. It is still in the pipeline and we have a lot of details to work out (and funding to find), but the original values of Aspire have always been to empower young people like Isaac and James – people with huge potential but very few opportunities. It’s exciting to think what could happen next.

*** I just want to be clear that the majority of this post is based on my own interpretation of these two guys, which could very well be wrong. I have also changed both of their names in this post.

The problem of corruption… and the perks (Matatizo ya ufisadi… na kitu kizuri)


I have always tried my hardest to blend in when I’m in Kibera – which can be difficult sometimes as the only mzungu (white person) – but mostly I manage to avoid being the centre of attention.

However, this week I was waiting for S (mentioned in my last post) who had promised to give me a lift – and right on time he pulls up in his pimped-out car, which is pumping out some Swahili dancehall. I jump in the front and this time notice that there are also giant speakers installed on the dashboard (though not as big as the ones on the back seat!). I assume we are leaving straight away, but S switches off the engine and turns to face me, suddenly looking very serious.

“Do you know the term ‘YOLO’?”
“You only live once?”
“Kabisa (exactly). Well Bex you only live once, and today you and me are going to leave Kibera ghetto style”

And before I can protest, S turns the volume to full (and I mean full – the bass was vibrating the entire car!) and we cruise through Kibera at 5mph with the windows down – so that S can fistbump people as we go past. So much for keeping my head down…

S is shouting to me over the music, and eventually I manage to convince him to turn it down so that I can hear him. He starts telling me how he taught himself to drive by borrowing his friend’s car. I ask him how he did in his driving test and he starts laughing.

“Bex, why would I pay KSH5,000 for someone to tell me what I already know (that I can drive), when I can pay the same amount to a broker to go into the  Ministry of Transport and get me a license – no problems.”
“So you’ve never taken a driving test?”
“Of course not, don’t be silly.”

Aah – corruption.

However, I have a confession… I may have inadvertently engaged in corrupt practices myself this week (and I’ll go even further and say I couldn’t have been gladder about it!)

The perks of corruption

A friend and I managed to get stranded in Mombasa because the government imposed a two day ban on all coaches back to Nairobi (until they complied with the law of installing a speed camera). Going against all the advice we were given we decided that we couldn’t wait it out and instead we would get the train.

Never get the train.

As our budgets were stretched we decided to travel third class (second class was over five times the price), however as the train drew up we were both seriously regretting this decision (as it was a 15 hour journey – and third class tickets don’t get a bed). I was looking at the train remorsefully, when the train guard approached me and asked where I was sitting. I replied that I was sitting in third class, but said that I would be very happy if he would like to give us an upgrade (worth a try?). He looked at me intently and then replied,

“OK, we will talk”, and then walked off down the platform.

I wasn’t sure what had just happened, but my friend looked at me admiringly and told me I clearly understood how Kenya works (I did not clearly understand how Kenya works).

Five minutes later the train man returned and asked how serious we were about wanting an upgrade. Still not entirely sure what was happening I said we would love one – and before I knew it my friend and the guard were haggling in Swahili. Soon enough, the figure of 500 shillings was agreed upon and so I casually started getting out my money, until my friend hissed in my ear,

‘What are you doing Bex?! You know this is illegal! We’ll make the exchange later’

Only then did I realise what was actually happening (#dimwitmzungu).

To cut a very long story short –  our “15 hour” journey back to Nairobi took a total of 38 hours – which amounts to over 100 mosquito bites and more than 80 train breakdowns. So I could not have been more grateful for our dodgy deal and getting an actual bed.

The problem of corruption

However, although I may have benefited from a system in which corruption is institutionalised, in practice this is a very serious problem. It’s also a problem which my Kenyan friends can’t envisage changing  because it is so embedded into daily life.

There is an area of Kibera nearby where violent crime is ever increasing – I am not allowed there without a large escort and I am banned from taking anything with me (except some change for the matatu in my shoe). Gang culture is very apparent here and there are growing numbers of kids with guns, who are out to make a quick buck at any cost. When I asked my friends about the police presence around I was laughed at – there is no presence as many of them are paid off to turn a blind eye. I was told that if the gangs become a problem, the police will organise a shootout and make sure that any threats are ‘taken care of’. Unfortunately, this is just one of many examples I’ve been given about how corruption affects daily life.

There is no quick fix to a corrupt system and change will take time (and will need to be led from the top). I think one of the scariest things about it though is that generations of young people are growing up in the urban slum areas with little or no faith in the police or the justice system…