Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Riding the Rift - The Ups & Downs of Western Kenya

After an extended stay in Naivasha – volunteering, going on several safaris and recovering from Malaria - new adventures beckoned. Manu and I packed up our bags and headed north-west for Uganda.  However trouble was not far away…

We waved a bleary eyed farewell to our wonderful hosts, the Nicklin family, and set off with smiles on our faces for the 70km ride to Nakuru.

Leaving Naivasha

The start of the day is by far the most divine time to ride; there is a stillness in the air and the world around for which cycling is made for.  Dawn has become my favourite time of day since riding.  Although my sleeping inclinations mean I still don’t see it often enough.

Despite a series of punctures the ride started well and we rolled over hill and dale, with a steady torrent of trucks at our side trundling import goods upcountry and on to Uganda.  Main roads are best avoided.

Puncture Repair Man
Busy Road Riding

Tyres reinflated and bellies filled with chapatti we neared Nakuru but something was wrong.  A slight groan from Manu’s right knee had suddenly amplified into a screaming pain – as we arrived in the town she could barely pedal or even walk!  We were both in shock.  Luckily we found a rest-house nearby and called our good friend Liz – a physical therapist – who’d been such a good friend to us in Naivasha.  Several days rest was prescribed.

Heading off Solo
No Good Knee

With a visit to one of the children’s homes of Kajiji Cha Watoto – a project I’d been supporting – arranged three days and 240km hence, we arranged for Manu to get a lift.  I got back on my bike, doing my best to keep the integrity of my cycling challenge.  After all the excitement of cycling again just 24 hours earlier, it was a forlorn farewell.

Elburgon at Sunset Dawn Vale

The next days reaffirmed that I’d not been in the saddle a while.  My legs burned as I made my way up the rift valley escapement.  As always on the bike the pain came with the reward of magnificent views over Western Kenya.

Valley View Shepherds & Schoolgirls

The punctures were no longer proving a problem but a new disconcerting sound entered my cycling lexicon – the muted ping of a broken spoke.  The rocky road I was riding didn’t offer much solace as I rumbled down a 1000m descent toward Lake Victoria. In two days, five pings; I had obviously not done my spoke replacement homework… and I was down to my last spoke.

Broken Spokes

I rejoined freshly laid tar with sigh of relief.  It is a joy every touring cyclist shares; after days or hours of jarring your body, concentrating on every little rubbly contour, the first moments of gliding on to asphalt are heaven.

A few dastardly climbs later I neared Esibouye to greet Manu, Pastor Michael and the kids he provides for through his bakery project in Naivasha.  It was wonderful to be greeted in an unfamiliar place with familiar smiles and a bed I could fit in.

Manu had already befriended the kids and sized up an opportunity for the Better Life Cycle to fund a rain-water collection tank saving the kids from a treacherous walk to fetch water each day.  The sight of watching young children carrying yellow Gerry-cans of water is a common one throughout Africa; few seem to begrudge it but in an area with rainfall so abundant the small investment of a big tank and guttering was a no-brainer.

We spent a wonderful few days with the kids, sharing stories over dinner and hearing about Pastor Michael’s life.  He is without a doubt one of the most inspiring and kind-hearted individuals I’ve met.  His mother is testament to that fact.  After she abandoned him as a baby, he grew up on the streets. Luckily through the church he found a positive path out of poverty and petty crime. As he grew up he spent years trying to find his mother with nothing but a name – chasing down leads all over the country.  Eventually he found her, accepting her abandonment of him without reason and with total forgiveness. She now lives and helps to care for the children in the Kajiji Cha Watoto children’s home.

Night time stories

There may be people who speak against religion but in the face of love and dedication fuelled by belief, as is the case with Pastor Michael any argument ought to pay respect.  I was completely humbled.

With Manu’s knee rested we set off towards the Kakamega rainforest on the day of Kenyan election.  We’d barely made it 10km before a muffled ping sounded, my last spoke – bugger!  With little option we rode on… another ping.  Continuing was futile; we hitched a lift and I got on the phone to Thorn Cycles – my wheel truing incompetence was confirmed and new spokes were ordered.

Election Day Queues in Kenya

With a few weeks before the parts would arrive, I landed a short consulting contract for a safari company in Kampala, so off we went leaving our bikes for repair on our return.

Our first sample taste of Uganda left a hunger for more.  We had a wonderful few weeks the highlight of which was visiting Banda Island, a small tropical island in Lake Victoria which fulfilled childhood dreams of living like Robinson Crusoe; magical. Through my work I also got introduced to two fantastic educational NGOs - 'School for Life' & 'Lunch 4 Learning' that we would revisit on our return.

Starlight Canopy

With bike bits in hand we returned to Kakamega, fixed the bikes and set off to cycle around Mount Elgon giving the busy roads a wide berth.  It was a beautiful cycle fringed with gargantuan trees and roaming monkeys.  Yet all was not well, in spite of the rest Manu’s knee flared up again – disaster!

Baboon - after you Rainforest Ride

Our visas were just three days from expiring, so we decided to regroup in Uganda.  Manu was given a lift by some kind friends – Lakhe & Lale – and I set off to ride around the mountain.

Ups & Downs
Sewing the Dawn Seed

Thus far I’d been pretty lucky dodging the rain but my luck ran out on my cycle to the border.  I looked up at the sky, hoping to dodge the storm, but I let one too many chances to shelter pass and 10 seconds after the rain hit I was drenched.  Cowering under a tree made no difference.  Two passers-by dashed into a farm beside the road and let themselves into an outhouse, I followed suit – not quite as worried about trespassing as I might have been elsewhere in the world.

The rain relented 45 mins later, although I felt not a drop drier.  I pedalled on and took refuge for the night next to a curiously placed Chinese restaurant.  I wasn’t expecting sweet n’sour pork balls out here but that didn’t stop me laying waste to a few bowlfuls.

Muddy Road

The following day 50km from the border in the shadow of mighty Mount Elgon the asphalt stopped and the mud began.  At times the road was baked into butt-pummelling corrugated ridges at times it was like a swamp.  Mud roads in rainy-season are not for the feint-hearted.

Suam Kenya Uganda Border

The border itself was as idyllic as a border could be: a few outhouses, a few snoozing guards, children playing and a river flowing between the two countries beneath the gaze of a thick green forest.

It was the end of a both testing and wonderful time in Kenya – much to be grateful for yet I was also happy to be moving on.  Next stop Uganda.

Naivasha to Suam - ride map & profile

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Enterprising in Africa

Focussing on work with two social enterprises in Naivasha highlighted an about turn in my perspective of development.

After journeying up from Zanzibar, Naivasha was our destination returning nine months after my first visit to meet Ken.  Kenny made an incredible difference to several projects during his extended stay here; I was hoping to follow up where he’d left off.  We both wear size 10s but especially in Naivasha Kenny’s shoes are some big ones to fill!

Saying Goodbye to the Nicklin Family

The Nicklin Family – Minalyn, Peter, Sandy & Jesse - had hosted both Kenny during his time in Naivasha and me during my short visit over Christmas 2011.  They do an incredible job redefining hospitality.

Manu had been hoping to start teaching yoga to kids and by a very fortuitous twist of fate a day after arriving she had an opportunity. St. Therese Development Centre is a newly founded shelter for children who have suffered sexual abuse.  As I settled in to my work, Manu went off daily to the centre to help with teaching and using yoga as a form of therapy – and fun – for the kids.

My goal was focussed on making two social enterprises – Life Beads Kenya and Kajiji Cha Watoto (Children’s Village) – to become more profitable, helping them to expand the reach of their programmes.

Minalyn founded Life Beads Kenya six years ago to give opportunities to marginalised women and former street boys to build a better life for themselves.  The social enterprise makes beautiful hand-made crafts which provides both income and training.

Minalyn - Founder Life Beads Kenya
Pastor Michael Masteu

Kajiji Cha Watoto is an orphanage sustained by a bakery, both run by Pastor Michael Masetu and his wife Agnes.  Each day they wake a 4am and for seven hours produce thousands of small loaves and buns to sell in their local community.  The profits are used to pay for the 14 children they look after both in Naivasha and Vihiga.

To be honest I had mixed success in helping the organisations.

Pastor Michael was already running a profitable business and more than anything needed investment to help him grow.  He is incredibly dedicated and meticulous in recording almost everything by hand in a series of exercise books.  I donated my old laptop to him and together we set up financial systems in Excel. After logging his income and expenditure we projected future earnings to see what difference an investment would make.  We are going to use £2000 of Better Life Cycle funds to help him expand his bakery – doubling the capacity and funding a new piki-piki (small motorbike) to widen his area of distribution.  The result of which will hopefully bring greater security to the children Kajiji Cha Watoto cares for and should allow for more children to be cared for.

Working with Minalyn in Life Beads Kenya proved more difficult, in part as she has committed herself to an incredible number of projects; helping a local school with a feeding programme, being on the board of a new hospital, accounting for the East African Women’s League, training other groups in handicraft, doing outreach at a the local women’s prison … as well as running a family – not to mention Life Beads itself. 

Finding time to address some of the serious issues faced by Life Beads was always going to be tough.  In the end I put intentions of addressing those issues aside and focussed on more aesthetic work such as brochure design, shop refitting and helping Manu to produce a video.

I feel sad I was not able to help in a more profound way especially given the hospitality the family offered us and the potential of Life Beads to succeed.  I hope - as Minalyn would say - that ‘God will provide’.

Life Beads Kenya Team

Dead Aid & Development

As I set out on this trip I thought charity and aid was the lifeblood of development in Africa.  I held the work charities did in very high esteem and wanted to be a part of it.  I wouldn’t have considered myself ignorant – probably better informed than most, from years of taking an active interest and volunteering.  Yet the reality of my first hand experiences of the legacy left by charities/NGOs/not-for-profits on my travels has left me deeply sceptical about their approach.

There has been an uncomfortable feeling while cycling through much of East Africa, the feeling of refusing to give to very poor people who’ve asked me for something.  It seems common-sense that you can’t just dole things out randomly – money in particular – it can easily create an expectation that more will follow and dependency.  Yet in many ways it seems that this is the legacy of years of aid and charity in Africa. The outcome of which – at least in my experience - is that an unfortunate number of people in East Africa seem to expect to be given something – always on the look-out for a hand-out.

This fantastic and highly amusing TED talk by Ernesto Sirolli highlights many problems with well-meaning but clueless aid projects, as well as a surpsingly simple remedy.

This is not a fresh perspective - the leaders of aid industry are mostly very aware of the issues they’ve caused - the trouble is it’s not clear how to do it well.

Dead Aid

In her brilliant, if somewhat dense, book ‘Dead Aid’, Dambisa Moyo – a brilliant economist from Zambia - highlights the problems caused by aid at a macro-economic level, which reflect what my experiences locally.  I highly recommend the read. I agree with Dambisa in that for the most part jobs, training and trade are what are needed, not aid.

Truly free trade would almost certainly help to eradicate poverty on the continent – trouble is it is never going to happen. The developed nations continue to subsidise and protect their farming industries – mostly in the name of food security - thus locking the farmers for African nations out of the most lucrative markets.

Despite the criticism that the lion’s share of profit sails overseas, foreign investment offers new jobs, training and exposure to the standards expected by high-performing companies - albeit for maximising their own profits.  This might not be as equitable as we’d like but in the leading western economies the distribution of wealth is hardly balanced and companies tend to avoid tax like the plague in the developed economies too. Not exactly ideal but what’s the alternative?

Social enterprise in particular has become de rigeur in development – the elixir of sustainable development. Social enterprises take business efficiency and combine it with stated philanthropic goals. They tend to focus on employing disadvantaged people providing training and investment to create a product or service which generates a profit – at least in theory.

Social Enterprise

Social enterprises are transforming the livelihoods and well-being of countless people but are also not without their drawbacks.  I have witnessed several organisations using charitable funds to sustain a business which would otherwise fail – in my opinion they should be allowed to. Teaching skills for which there is not enough demand is total folly; it is another case of aid dependency. Ultimately the enterprise side of things has to work; to be profitable – failing businesses are not a driver of development.

So it is with some surprise that I now find myself with the view that aid sucks (at least too much of it) and capitalism (at least the least exploitative) isn’t that bad after all.