Do It Yourself (DIY) Volunteering

I want to say THANK YOU to my Italian friends that supported me before leaving, my London friends that encouraged me and inspire me all the time, my Kenyan friends that welcomed me like a member of their familyand my own family that is just amazing.

A very special thank you goes to Adriana, Augusto, Raffaella, Roberta and Silvana. You have been following me since the beginning of my safari and contributed with some very helpful donations. I want to say a very big thank you because you have given me the chance to see some of the most beautiful and happy smiles. Your money are valued a lot here, as you requested I have bought some blocks for Thomas’ house and some books for the students at Mkombe Academy.

Today it was the last day before schools close. I called the headmaster as soon as I knew that the money had been transferred and ask him not to let the students go. All the parents were there to know the exams results and some dozens of people were waiting for me to get there and say hi. At the shop there were only 30 books available (660Ksh each) but that is enough to give at least one book to each desk. I was asked to introduce myself, I explained a little bit what Anthropology is, what I did in Kenya and what I do in Europe. I also told them how I got the books, how great their children are and how great people can be sometimes. When I finished my speech they started applauding and singing “Karibu, Karibu (welcome, welcome)”. I could feel happiness burning inside me, I’ve never felt that way before.

Thank you for making this happen!


The price of Education

Last night I had the chance to contemplate two of the most primordial aspects and needs of human nature -Violence and Education.

The Education discourse is divided in Academical and non-Academial.The Academial aspect is taught in schools and its main purpose is to teach English while giving knowledge of different scientific subjects, social studies and history. The non academical takes place within the household and is transmitted from one generation to another.

I’ve had the chance to get an insight of the former while teaching at Mkombe Academy.
This primary school has 113 students from Kindergarten (KG) to class 5 (STD 5) for a total of 7 classes. Mr Kaengo is the headmaster but also a teacher and on his side he has five colleagues. Mkombe Academy is a private school, which means that the parents have to pay for children’s books and for teachers. The fee is 1600Ksh (16 Euro) each semester. If you go to a private school in Europe chances are that your family is wealthy or you are an only child with hard working parents. People don’t have much choice here, the closest primary school is some 10Kilometers away (you have to walk) and people living in this area benefited from the decision of a local to invest money in this “building” – 2huts made of wood and mud and 1 building made of blocks. They needed some help and working as a builder was harder than I thought.

I don’t know what your memories from primary school are but I believe are pretty different from the memories that these children will have once grown up. If I think  ‘primary school’ I think Pokemon Cards, Game Boy, Nike Shoes -I had the model called Shark and I was really cool, refectory, clean classrooms, big pencil cases with dozen of colors, branded backpacks, hundreds of euros of books and so on…

Here there is only one ball made of plastic bags and rope, instead of backpacks they have plastic bags (like the ones you’re given at the off licence when you buy booze in London), every student only owns one notebook per subject and 2 pens. The books are usually shared but it depends from class to class. People buy maths books but there is only few copies of Social Studies and English books available.

Since an early age they learn that Education is a precious gift, no one will pay your school fees from secondary school onwards and if you want to get a degree you have to earn it with your money. When I was in secondary school I used to joke with my friends and say “Who is the dickhead that invented schools?-I hate school!” and until I moved to London I never considered going to school something really useful for my future. I have the feeling that in Italy education is too much taken for granted. Everyone just go to school and to university because that’s what you do before getting a job and most of the people I know (including me) pay the fees with their parents money. But this is another matter.

The experience at Mkombe Academy went really well, I taught Science and English to STD5. The first few days the students in this class where very cold and not answering my questions but they opened up a lot by the time I learned their names and I got to know them really well. Hamisi,Charo, Naftha and Brieton are the boys of the class, Zawadi (Tom’s sister), Neema and Rachel the ladies. I don’t know if I’m allowed to have a favorite pupil but I felt a very good chemistry with Naftha. Such a brilliant boy…

In class 3 I was teaching maths (just additions) and I took some classes of social studies. STD 3 is more numerous: 7boys -Henry, Juma, Shaib, Amani, Yusuf, Robert and Antony- and 4 girls- Khadija, Sheila, Rehema and Grace.  They’re all great and showed real excitement for me from the first time I walked into the class. One day I was sitting on a desk correcting homework during the break and all the students where still in class surrounding me, contemplating my skin from close up and making comments on my hair. “He has blond hair, is like a simba (lion)” someone was saying… The day before I had given them seventeen additions to do, they all did pretty well a part two boys who didn’t do any and another one who did the additions during the break and gave me his notebook to be marked later. I asked them why they didn’t do their homework and I got no answer. Immediately all the classmates started complaining: “Teacher, teacher! Teacher, teacher! You have to beat them!” They told me that they are usually punished with a stick or just with the open hand when they don’t do their homework. I refused and simply noted, only on the book of the third boy “Do your homework at Home”. I’ve never been good at orchestrating punishments.

During lunchtime I expressed my disapproval for corporal punishments to the headmaster and another teacher and they were very surprised to know that in ‘Europe’ we use diplomacy and it is illegal (I think it is) to punish students. The same day, in the afternoon, I was attending a Swahili class with KG 2 students. That day I learned how to count up to 100 – Mia Moja. KG students stay in the building made of blocks and while KG2 learn how to count KG1 must be asleep on the floor. That day was a special day for them because I joined the Kiswahili class and KG1 pupils where all sitting instead of sleeping.  After a while my phone rang and I left the building to pick the call. It was Thomas, just a quick call to see if everything was fine. When I got back to class the teacher was beating each KG1 child with a stick and telling them to sleep. One boy started crying and that got him few extra shots. She was hitting precisely, coldly and with no remorse. That’s what teachers have to do. I seated again and we started counting in Swahili again, from 1 to 100.


Tom doesn’t like the seaside. He doesn’t swim a lot but yesterday I convinced him to come with me to Bofa Beach. The water was just amazing, so hot and clean. We got back late, ate fish in mango sauce with ugali and he went to sleep before 10 o’clock. I was sitting on the sofa, making some notes and being eaten by mosquitoes while enjoying the silence and peace of the village when the family who lives in a hut opposite my house decided it was time to ‘Educate’ one of their children. I counted 14 heavy slaps in few minutes and only one hiccup. After a cold and long silence someone unleashed another series of heavy slaps. I assume it was the mother, she said few sentences with firm voice in her Mijikenda mother tongue. Educating is a ritual and I was witnessing the sound of it.

These are some of the children that live opposite my house.

The day after I asked Tom about punishments and told me that is normal to be beaten by your educators, parents and teachers. “Once you make a mistake you get beaten”.

I’ve understood two things today; The first one is that one of the reasons why people are so friendly and peaceful in this village is probably because violence is taught in the household and children learn from an early age that is something to fear. The second thing is that that day I failed as a teacher. I condemned the pupil who finished his homework in class to be punished because of my note and at the same time I let the other two boys get away with it.

Learning to live

I like the fact that most of the people ask me if my parents live in Kenya and think that I was brought up here. I am learning a lot of things and I’m totally immersed in what they call ‘traditional’ lifestyle.
Everybody has something to teach, but there is nothing like learning with the children.
They are everywhere, they are many and they are playing/learning 24/7.

When I’m not teaching at school I travel from place to place with Thomas. He likes to ride his motorbike through the bushes and I just sit back enjoying the panorama. Eventually we end up in remote villages where we visit uncles, grandparents and cousins that he calls brothers and sisters . Most of them live in huts made of mud and wood and live a humble but happy life.
When a visitor arrives is always welcomed very warmly and offered a chair with the elders. After some time I’ve learned to refuse that chair and sit on the ground with the youngest members of the family. As an outsider I have also great social mobility that allows me to learn everyone’s duties and to move around the village freely.

We don’t have electricity in the house and cooking is not easy with just a torch and a jiko. Tom and I are also very lazy and I got used to the fact that the reproductive labor is considered woman’s duty. We are often invited for dinner by neighbors and friends and I never refuse.

In my village in Kilifi lives Sidi. I’ve had dinner at her house for the past week.  She’s the greatest friend and the greatest Kiswahili teacher. She lives with her father Eddie who is the breadwinner in the family, her mother MamaSidi, her sister Kazo and Aunt Salama.

Sidi goes to kindergarten and will start primary school in September. She speak fluent Swahili and I speak fluent English. She speaks kidogo – a little- English and I speak kidogo Swahili. From her I’ve learned that the spoken word is only one of the thousands channels of communication available to human interaction and not necessarily the most efficient. I’m rediscovering the pleasure of living each action as a ritual, the pleasure of enjoying the very space where the bum lies because given by unspoken laws and not always chosen. She has taught me that simplicity is not poverty and I’ve started believing that a humble life can lead to real happiness.

Salama, MamaSidi’s sister, is in charge of cooking. She doesn’t speak any English and is a good way to test my improvements with the language. Salama cooks a lot and she loves it. I’m learning to cook the local way, one of my favourite dishes is Ugali with Fish and Kachumbari.

Ugali is just maize flour cooked with boiled water. It’s the staple food of the Mijikenda people and it’s part of their identities. A local proverb tells: “Give rice to a Mijikenda and he will tell you that he has not eaten”.

Kachumbari is just an onion and tomato salad, simple and quick to prepare. Cut the onion very thinly and wash with salted water to get rid of the strong taste. Cut the tomato thinly, mix together and add lemon juice. The only thing I’m struggling with is cutting vegetable up to perfection without a chopping board. Salama is very proud of her technique and of her ability not to cut herself with the sharp knife. She holds the tomato in her left hand and the knife with the right, being moved horizontally the knife touches her palm to make a perfect slice.

Nothing has to be said about the fish. Just go to the beach, find a fisherman and buy a kilo for 200Ksh (2euro). Boil or fry and will be delicious.

Enjoy your meal, more food stories to come.


Building the house – 10 Days later

Investing a big stake of my budget in blocks, cement and fundi was a great idea. The house is coming up pretty quickly and the foundations -the toughest part together with the roof- have been completed yesterday. It’s very rewarding to actually see the walls being built day by day, block by block. Pole-Pole.

The first time I went to Kilifi was on the 21st of July, Saturday and while I was there I couldn’t stop thinking of how to settle in this village without being perceived as a tourist and not being accommodated in a Hotel or Guest House.I loved that place, that lifestyle and that culture.

Thomas favorite uncle is called Samson. He lives in Mombasa and in the weekends comes up to his village in Kilifi to stay with his family and to supervise the works on a water well that he is building for the community.
He speaks good English, not very fluent but we understand each other. “Water is life” he told me on that day: “this well is only 9 feet deep at the moment and we need to reach 40 to find water. Pole pole (slowly slowly)”. I knew the meaning of Pole pole in Swahili but I didn’t realize that it actually is a way of approaching life, problems, plans and ideas. It’s a powerful way of thinking, very humble but efficient that often goes along with the motto that Disney taught us all ‘Hakuna Matata’ – No Problems, No stress, Don’t worry amigo, It’s going to be alright

It was my first encounter with the Mijikenda and with people whose lifestyle can be described as indigenous. It went pretty well, I gave some sweats to the children (a dozen) in Samson’s household, greeted the neighbors with my poor Swahili and eaten the most amazing fish with Ugali, tomatoes and onions.
(I’m allergic to tomatoes, other vegetables and some fruit but I keep eating bananas, mango and raw vegetables and it’s fine. My allergy is not really real and I need to find out why I feel sick eating fruits and veg in Europe).

Samson was the first relative I met and I think I passed the ‘favorite uncle test’ because straight after we went to meet Tom’s parents in Tezo. From the village near the beautiful creek where Samson lives we did a 30 minutes motorbike ride off road and finally reached the house were Tom was born and grew up. This area is known as Teso, on that day we took the road through the forest but it can be reached following the road along the coast going north for 7 kilometers.

Tom has a wonderful family, 9 sibilings, 3 nephews and loads of uncles and aunts. Fred and Grace, his parents, own a farm where he grows maize (mainly), tomatoes, sukuma, coconut trees (I counted 17), mango, mukunde, pili pili, mnavu, cundes, casorina trees and comasa trees. When the dry season kicks in he’s not able to feed the family from the shamba (farm) therefore he gets money selling coconuts for 8/10 shillings each. The thing that strikes me the most is how little they rely on the monetary system spending approximately 1 Euro per day and winning the bread cooperating with the community through an informal economy.

_____Fred, Grace, Tom and I_____

It took a while to figure out where I was and what was happening around me; after a walk around the shamba I was leaning on the walls of the house that Tom –pole pole- is building for his family. Up to this point my plan for the rest of the ‘holiday’ was to travel up north the coast to Lamu,  go to the Masai Mara park (south of the region, almost Tanzania) to see the wild beast migration, go back to Nairobi, visit Lake Victoria, Kisumu and Eldoret and finally go back to Italy. After a quick summary of the expenses of the travel and with the hammering thought I had all day since I met Samson I said “What if we build the house? Me and you, I don’t need to go to Lamu…”.

That’s how it all started. I may have missed out a lot of really cool things but I have no regrets so far.

Grace calls me Mwanangu – my Son and when I’m introduced to people I’m always referred at as “Tom’s brother”.  🙂

I would like to say a special THANK YOU to Roberta and Raffaella. I have received your generous gift and bought a trip of blocks for the house. Everyone is really grateful and your initials are now written in the cement!