Tag Archives: Kenya

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.

Violence.

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.

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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.

Jambo!

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!

 

Liminality

Liminality in anthropological terms is the disorientation and ambiguity that occurs in the middle stage of a ritual. It’s the transitory process of someone who no longer belongs to a pre-ritual status but has not yet reached the status that will hold when the ritual is complete.

My liminality has been very intense and often frustrating – I guess it always is. I was on the borderline, I came to Kenya as a tourist, I was willing to be an anthropologist and I ended up being a volunteer. I prefer to think differently now, and not try to fall into a category. Whatever I was it made my experience unique and life-changing.

Pre-Ritual status: The tourist

I arrived in Nairobi on Sunday and moved to Mlolongo with Tom and Winnie the day after. Even though I was staying in a non-touristic area and in an unconventional accommodation I spent the first five days as a tourist: I visited a couple of museums in Nairobi, enjoyed a trip to Lake Naivasha with hippos, eagles and flamingos, visited the US embassy that has been blown up in ’98, went to the seaside near Mombasa and spent a lot of money in food and transports.

Thomas was my guide, our deal was that he would have shown me the central highlands area for a week in exchange of $200 and all the expenses –food, travel and accommodation. We immediately became good friends and agreed that all the saving we could make on a $600 budget will have gone in his wallet.

It turned out that he was renting a house in Bamburi, Mombasa therefore we decided to move to the coast on Thursday 19th of July. The 8 hours bus ride was very comfortable and the bus had a big screen showing funny African comedians; I’ve noted a joke on my notebook and stumbled upon it this morning. A Kenyan comedian called Pablo was talking about Kisumu where Obama is originally from. “Do you know what O.B.A.M.A. really Means?” He asked the crowd…

“One Black African Managing America!” I thought that was kind of funny… Wait, don’t forget about his name: “Barack: Born African Raised American Certainly Kenyan”.

We arrived in Mombasa at 7pm and after a 40minutes tuc-tuc ride we got to Bamburi. It was getting dark and most of the places look very dodgy when it’s dark. Tom was telling me that this particular district is less dangerous than Nairobi but you still need to be careful if you are white and people don’t know you. It happened that a Muzungu –white man- was given drugs with food and robbed. I was already pretty scared and when we got to the house there was no electricity, a strong odor and it was infested by cockroaches. I wanted to die.

Tom, who studied electrical engineer, went to fix the fuse while I was left alone in this beautiful scenery. Luckily my girlfriend called me and I had the opportunity to moan with someone and get some comfort.

One hour later the electricity was fixed and we went with some Muslim neighbors to celebrate the last night out before Ramadan kicked in.

On Friday we went to Bamburi Beach all day with the same friends and when we got back we watched a movie; I can’t remember the title but there is a quotation that really helped me changing mindset and coping with the first cultural shocks: “It’s all in the mind. Your vision creates your reality”.

I wasn’t enjoying being a tourist a lot and I think Tom realized I was looking for something more.

___

Today is Sunday and Winnie came to visit us. She doesn’t know about the house yet, it’s going to be a great surprise! She’s now waiting outside the cybercafe, I don’t have time to finish this post! Damn!

Back to primary school

Tom has nine sibilings, the youngest is called Emmanuel and is attending the fourth year of primary school.Yesterday, while taking a break from the house building works, I followed him to school.

We walked for ten minutes on this road and finally reached Tezo Primary School.

There are 113 students and 4 teachers at Tezo Primary School. The first impression was really great, the children were playing football and as I approached the field everyone stopped and looked at me astonished.

I’m so grateful to have adventured myself on this road, these people are so enthusiastic and full of joy!

Tomorrow I’m going back to school, 10 o’clock English class and 2 o’clock Science. I will teach children in the fifth year how to use reported speech and why liquid expands when warmed up! It’s going to be exciting!

I also have a lot of projects that relates to Anthropology and the headmaster, Mr. Kaengo, gave me total freedom to carry out any kind of research.

I wasn’t expecting so many things to happen in such a short time. If you read this and you know something about anthropology and ethnography please leave a comment, I need your help! I have some ideas but when it comes to make them happen it’s not always easy so, I’m open to suggestions.

Last night I was talking to Tom and I had a great idea. In order to get an insight on their lives I would like to organize a writing/anthropology workshop where the students in the fifth grade will have the chance to learn how to draw a genealogy tree (all of them have at least 7 siblings) and to tell stories of their relatives. I will gain a lot of useful information about the tribes they come from and they will get the chance to practice their writing skills. I’ll probably need to buy some pens and A4 paper.

I am also tempted to give to some of them my camera and find out more about indigenous media.

I’m going to the beach now, this afternoon we’re hiring a lorry and move a sofa to the new house. I will finally move all my stuff to Kilifi!

Few pictures of the neighborhood:

__

Take care,

Marco

Building the house – Day 1

Things have turned out REALLY well for me.

Thomas and I have rented a house in Kilifi just one kilometer away from the beach. We have fixed the motorbike and we have bought enough cement to build a 4 bedrooms house.

I know for sure that the handshake we gave when I offered him some funding for the house was more than a business agreement. I have found a great friend that calls me brother, I’ve been welcomed by his family like the tenth son and I live in a place that is a paradise to me.

I first visited Kilifi Tezo, 7 kilometers in the hinterland forest, on Saturday 20th of July and I decided that if something had to be done there was no time to waste. We paid the neighbours 1.000 Ksh (£8) and when I arrived on Sunday morning people were busy digging the soil to remove all the weeds that accumulated in one year.

When I think of cheap labor I immediately think of exploitation and poverty. Paying such a small amount of money to make four people work eight hours  is a crime. With the Mijikendas is different; “It’s cheap labor because is home” Thomas once told me and what he meant was “Welcome, this is my community where we help each other and there’s no need to rely on money”.

This is what the plot looked like after a day of weed-cutting, the L shaped piece of ground you see on the right will be the guest room one day. We have enough cement to complete the house but we will probably need some more blocks; I’m planning to come back in December to do some research and keep working on the house.

On Monday we arrived early in Tezo and we helped the fundi (experienced builder) to make the cement. After a day of work the walls of two bedrooms were done.

 

The following weeks will be very interesting.

Mlolongo, living the Kenyan life

It’s my fifth day in Kenya and I haven’t had the chance to sit in a cybercafe yet. I arrived in Nairobi late night on Sunday and after a good hour of waiting for my bag I met Thomas, the guy who was meant to be my guide. I had only spoken to him on the phone once and as agreed he brought me to a hotel in the outskirts on Nairobi. After a good chat on what to see, where to go and how we went to eat some goat’s meat with a beer.

Thomas has a wife called Winnie, she lives in village called Mlolongo – 20 minutes away from my hotel. Mlolongo used to be a roadside slum that underwent a great metamorphosis in the past years and saw the corrugated iron structures being replaced with proper stone building. A majority of the people living here today are either workers in the emergent industries all around the town, or people who commute to Nairobi. Nonetheless the perception of this town is always brothel-like among the public and it’s easy to see eyebrows going up when you mention this name.
I don’t know why exactly but I decided to accept Winnie’s offer, bought myself a pillow, a mosquito-net and moved in with Winnie and Thomas in a one bedroom flat with no shared, one gas stove, no ruinning water and only two rooms roughly 3×3 meters.

Anthropologists like to call it participant observation, travelers like to call it budget travel and on the web is getting famous as couch-surfing (in this case more floor-surfing). I have been welcomed like a member of the family and thanks to Thomas and Winnie I had the chance to get some really cool insights on the life in Kenya.

I haven’t got much time left -I’m in an Internet cafe in Bamburi, Mombasa and I’ve only got few shillings on me- but I need you to know a couple of things.

The traffic in Kenyan cities is CRAZY. There are 2 or 3 lanes on the road and everyone goes wherever he wants, there is no fast lane or whatever and the Matatu (local bus) drivers are often reckless. The Matatu is a mini-van that fits 15 people and brings you from one place to another. There is no bus stop so a bunch of people just gather on the side of the road -where you also have merchants, stray dogs and prostitutes- and wait for the mini-van to approach. A man holding notes between his fingers is usually shouting the destination and you need to be quick and jump on the Matatu before it fills up.

A bit random but I had the best chicken of my life on Tuesday night. Me and Winnie went to a local shop and picked a chicken from a cage. We took it home with us -alive- and I had the honor to butcher it! It was a kind of rite of passage to welcome me to the family. As a good media student that I am I took a video of me cutting its throat and plucking the feathers.  I cut my finger with a sharp knife while removing the interiors but Winnie cured me with a ‘special’ mixture on “things”. Is all good now.

If you’re worried about me, please don’t. I’m now getting used to be a Musungu (that’s how they call a white man in Swahili). I was a bit frustrated in the past hours, it’s not easy getting used to a new place especially when you’re alone but I’ve now reached the coast and I’m accomodated at Thomas’ house in Bamburi, Mombasa. The environment looks more chilled out than Nairobi and there are some Wazungu (white men, plural) living in the town.

I have a thousands other things to say and this is probably the most incoherent post ever, sorry about it. Hopefully I will have some more time in the next days.