A rudimentary stage of construction

“I hope you’re having fun, and not too sad!” This was the parting sentence of a voice message left me by a European friend, the unorthodox English as so often neatly capturing the sentiment, midway between my last blog entry and this one. She was responding to the information that since the two weeks of holiday that followed my last update, I have been struggling in an almost total vacuum at work, unable to stay in one country for longer than a few weeks and adrift in my professional remit.

Leave had been wonderful: a succession of friends and family and time in England, Wales, and Scotland packed into an expeditious two weeks, but was soured by a desperately disorganised return to work. In the handover from one boss to another all the things that had been repeatedly promised before I went away were simply not done; no visa, no contract, no job description, nothing.

In the end I went to Kenya as a kind of default option. I had two meetings with my new boss: in the first he told me the reason my paperwork was undone was that I wasn’t a priority, and in the second he removed around 70% of my job description (that I had written) because he didn’t see the value in it. He didn’t replace it with anything, but said there might be something for me to do around July. Two months later, that remains the last interaction I’ve had with him.

I’m now writing from Kenya again, with thirty of the intervening days between then and now spent in Ethiopia. Mercifully the majority of those thirty days were busy, the Ethiopian Country Director and Head of Programmes keen to take advantage of my presence and largely undefined purpose. For three weeks or so I was involved in research and analysis on internally displaced people and refugees in Ethiopia; hardly my area, but I found with a modicum of direction and structure I was suddenly able to be effective again, and enjoyed it.

Addis Ababa itself is somewhat less developed than I had framed it. Very safe, yes, and home to a huge number of UN, African Union, and East African regional government bodies, but also dirty, lacking in infrastructure, and short on things to do. Meeting people has accordingly been slower than in many other cities, and I was grateful for four whole weeks in a row to begin to establish some tentative friendships. Perhaps the most eye-catching feature of the city is its expansion. I was amazed to read Evelyn Waugh writing in 1930 on a visit to Addis that “The whole town seemed still in a rudimentary stage of construction. At every corner were half-finished buildings…” – this is exactly my impression of it today, nearly a full century later. I look forward to discovering the city a little more fully over the coming months.

I realised recently that my challenge was not to elicit the fundamentals of management, but to incorporate the absence of management into a structure that allows me to work. It took me a while. July brings the vague promise of new projects, but in my lack of faith in external factors I have enlisted two friends in more senior positions to give me their excess tasks. The hope is that this will provide me with a steady source of things to do, not worrying too much about whether I’m “supposed” to be doing them or not, and enable me to be constructive without requiring anyone’s time.

The subsequent challenge is to break out of the lethargy that I’ve sunk into over the last few months. I haven’t been able to stay in one country for more than a few weeks since the turn of the year. That may sound dynamic or exciting, but in truth it’s draining, especially as it’s the result of disorganisation and a lack of will to do anything about it rather than being driven by goals. Even worse has been the lack of a clear role. The combination has become dislocating and demotivating, and in this brief few days in Kenya my objective is to work on my mental approach to the coming months. I have one more week here, another week in Addis, 48 hours in UK, and then (hopefully) will be able to stay in Ethiopia for a few months at least. I want to make the best of it.


What I’m listening to:

  • Dorothy Ashby, In a Minor Groove
  • Antoine Brumel, Missa Et Ecce Terrae Motus
  • The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground and Nico

What I’m reading:

  • Peter Godwin, Mukiwa
  • Kate Fox, Watching the English
  • (Finally finished) Aeneid
  • Ryszard Kapuscinski, The Emperor
  • Slavoj Zizek, The Fragile Absolute
  • Olivia Laing, The Lonely City



Challenging environments

After a 48-hour turnaround in Nairobi I flew to Lodwar, capital of Kenya’s north-western Turkana County. I was to spend ten days there interviewing staff in our field offices about the cross-border work they’d been doing with Uganda. It was only a 90-minute flight but landing was like arriving in another hemisphere: Turkana is essentially desert. The ground shimmered in the sun.

I was welcomed by Raphael, the burly, good-natured Programme Manager, who introduced me to four somewhat sullen staff and Pius the driver. Pius spoke no English apart from “fine” and “seatbelt”. I stayed a couple of days in Lodwar, little more than a village really, with three or four tarmacked roads that simply stopped and turned to murram near the edges of town. It was dusty. The electricity failed several times a day, sometimes for five or six hours at a time, taking the air conditioning with it. The normal daytime temperature was 36ᴼ.


I stayed in the grandly named County Palace, a little hotel complex past the Save the Children compound and opposite a smartly hand-painted road sign indicating Lumpy Bumpy Lane. County Palace had half a dozen little huts, some single-occupancy, some double, surrounding a spacious courtyard with plastic deck tables and single speaker that broadcast Radio Maisha every waking hour. Radio Maisha appeared to deal mostly in jingles and adverts, and loudly promoted phone-in competitions with cash prizes of ten to a hundred dollars. The A/C in my room was jammed on 29ᴼ. Dinner took two to three hours to prepare, even when it comprised no more than a stack of chapatti and a plate of oily spinach. Some mornings I awoke to the brief, desperate squalling of the day’s chicken attempting to resist the inevitable.

The next eight days were two whiplash circular field trips out of Lodwar into the desert. For the first I was part of a three-vehicle convoy with staff from two other NGOs. We drove south, stopping at Lokichar, Kainuk, and Nakwamoru before looping back north through Lomeremudang. We sped through the desert at sixty kilometres an hour, criss-crossing each other’s dust clouds and listening to execrable techno mixes on the stereo. Some of the villages we passed were scarcely believable, tiny clusters of huts a hundred miles from anywhere. Some of them were riddled with bullet holes. How did their occupants get water? What did they do when they got sick? We passed herds of goats, fat and brisk, and occasional groups of languorous camels.

After three days we returned to Lodwar, a booming metropolis of civilisation with wifi, running water, and roads as smooth as waterslides. Over that weekend I bade goodbye to the staff from the other organisations and was lucky to be able to visit Lake Turkana, hidden behind a row of palm trees that sprouted abruptly in the middle of the desert two hours from Lodwar. The lake was vast, big as a sea, and so flat that people, Jesus-like, a hundred metres in had water barely over their ankles.

Four more days in the pickup followed, looping east this time, towards the Ugandan border. The driver had a mixtape of ten tracks, two each by Madonna, Michael Jackson, Jermaine Stewart, Whitney Houston, and Rick Astley, that he played on repeat for the duration. I saw Mount Moroto, the burned-out husk of a truck that had caught the sharp edge of an inter-clan dispute (“These are not serious guys,” scoffed Ekuwam; “if they were Kikuyu they all would have been back tomorrow to collect the metal to sell”), and a mine where ex-raiders were pulling rubies from 30 feet within the earth. I learned how to eat ugali, a kind of super-viscous porridge, by rolling it into a ball with my fingertips, pressing with my thumb, scooping a mouthful of beans or greens into the depression, and hoisting it neatly into my mouth. It was a privilege. Nonetheless, by the final couple of days I was missing my friends, tired of being bitten relentlessly by ants, mosquitoes, and flies, wearied by the heat, and irritable at spending four to eight hours a day being smashed around in the back of a four wheel drive. I was glad when the trip was over.

It was to be my last travel for some time. Shivering in the Baltic 19ᴼ of Nairobi, I returned to the office and my project on summarising the learning from our borderlands projects. I worked alone and largely unsupervised: a number of personnel changes left me reporting to three people who each deflected me on to another, resulting in a near total lack of communication. For five weeks in a row I sat at my computer and shuffled information around. It was rainy season. I tired of living with colleagues, whom I started my day with at breakfast at 7am, sat next to in the minibus that arrives like an automaton at 7.20 every morning, sat next to in the office for eight hours, and then came home and spent the evening in the living room with. It made it hard to switch off from work, and work was frustrating and dull.

My disillusionment spread to Nairobi. Although my work is very similar to the last time I lived here, this time I am within a set of expectations, social frameworks, and security guidelines that previously I wasn’t. I no longer discover new areas of town; I barely ever catch a matatu or a boda-boda any more. There’s nothing forbidding me from doing those things, it just wouldn’t make sense: I live within a set of demographic norms that regulate my behaviour as effectively as any written contract. I mix by default mostly with a class of people for whom English is a second or third language and use words like palliative and neologism and germane, and bump into each other delightedly in Istanbul, Goma, and New York. I drink cocktails regularly, and think $7 a pop is a good price at which to do so. I grew bored and lethargic, and was not enjoying myself.

The routine was broken by Christmas. Over the four-day weekend I booked a trip up Mount Kenya and found myself in the company of a Kenyan, a Spaniard and an Australian. We walked for four days: seven kilometres the first, 11 the second, ascending steadily, watching the peak, Point Lenana, grow ever nearer. We slept on bunks in wooden huts and ate noodles and fried meat and vegetables prepared by the team of porters. Day Three was the big one: we left our hut at 3am with the goal of reaching the peak for sunrise. We climbed the steepest part of the mountain for three hours in the dark, scrambling up fine, loose shingle that every few steps ripped our feet from under us like Velcro coming apart. Stars carpeted the sky like the lights of an infinite city. It was -5ᴼ without the wind. We cursed each slip in the pitch dark and the freezing cold, leg muscles burning, trying not to think that we were five hours away from breakfast, and arrived at Point Lenana soon after 6am.

The peak was a place of profound communal misery. People from other groups sat around as in an outer circle of Hell, anger and confusion with the world upon their faces. We huddled in the lee of rocks and were slack and silly with pain. A disgustingly cheery middle aged lady posed for a photo with a watermelon. The Australian later confided to me that the only reason he didn’t kill her was because he was spending his remaining energy on not throwing up. We were so frozen we could barely use our cameras. I put my head between my knees. We sat for fifteen minutes in pugnacious silence before the Spaniard announced that he felt he was going to faint. We descended.


It got better from there, although even three hours later at breakfast, choking down chlorine-y purified water and sliced bread wrapped around lumps of defrosting peanut butter, I was wondering why I was doing this to myself on Christmas Day. The temperature rose steadily, though, and the landscape was spectacular. For the rest of the day we walked steadily downhill, the terrain changing around us: rockland, senecios, bamboo, woodland, lemongrass. After 24 kilometres we arrived at the final camp and had a celebratory Tusker.

The fourth day was just an hour or so’s walk until we were picked up by the car and taken to a matatu stop back to Nairobi. It was good to shower. The combination of sun and wind burn left my skin peeling in the sun vampirically for days afterwards, but the more the ache in my knees receded, the more it felt like it had been a good experience.

I was back to work the next day, and troughed. That week I was forced into sending a polite but firm email to my bosses saying I was unable to work effectively and things had to change. They did, just enough, and three weeks have passed tolerably since then. I delivered a presentation to thirty people on my borderlands project and was received with moderate approval. I wrote an article on it to submit to a journal. I am largely free to do what work I want, which produces inertia, frustration, and enjoyment in various doses, often at the same time. It’s an odd working environment and one that probably will feel better in the long term than the short, but now, for better or worse, is about to change. On Saturday I move to Hargeisa.


What I’m listening to:

  • Songhoy Blues, Music in Exile
  • Alikiba, “Mwana”
  • Yusef Lateef, The Three Faces of Yusef Lateef
  • Inside Llewyn Davis: Original Soundtrack

What I’m reading:

  • Zadie Smith, Changing My Mind
  • Virgil, Aeneid

Nairobi and Hargeisa

It was a non-transition, in a way; arriving in Kenya felt very much like going into something normal. It had all the trappings of a big change: the many, frequently rushed goodbyes, packing my Limehouse room into two rucksacks and ferrying the remainder to my parents’ house, and flying for many hours with a stopover in Addis Ababa’s great pretender of an international airport, all generating an expectation that things would feel adventurous.

Arriving in Nairobi felt, therefore, unbalancingly routine. Perhaps this was hardly surprising given that I’d lived there for several months not very long ago, and was even living in a familiar area of town. The traffic was still terrible, the wealth divide still stark, the people still laughing. October is a lovely time of year to arrive, not too hot, lilac jacaranda lining the streets and not yet wilting, the giant carapace of the sky clear and blue as jazz. It was good to be back.

I now stay in a guesthouse owned by my employer and share with up to five others, depending on how many people are passing through Nairobi in a given week. As one of only two long-termers it has the feel of living in a hotel, with the attendant perks and drawbacks. I was initially put in a bedroom without access to a bathroom, and it took delicate negotiations with Agnes, the clipped and impenetrable bookings secretary, to move into one of the better rooms. After two weeks of increasingly pointed discussions she moved me into something that is not so much a room as a wing, with a balcony the size of some of the spaces I lived in in London and a family-size bathroom. I was mollified.

My work was slightly unclear to me before leaving UK, and I’m conscious therefore that many of you aren’t sure what exactly it is I’m doing. Let me explain.

I work for Danish Demining Group, a subsidiary of the better-known Danish Refugee Council. DRC focuses on refugees and migration, while DDG focuses on the causes of migration and displacement, especially armed conflict. As well as its eponymous demining wing, DDG has an armed violence reduction wing, which is where I work.

My project is looking at armed violence reduction specifically in relation to border areas in the Horn of Africa. The logic of treating borderlands as areas of particular interest has three explanations: one, Western donors are presently very concerned with international migration, for obvious reasons, of which border crossing in eastern Africa is an important locus. Two, many eastern African countries have recently discovered oil reserves in their hinterlands. Vast tracts of territory that since independence had not been worth governmental attention are suddenly the subject of sharp contestation. Three, border areas are crucial in regional terrorism dynamics, especially with regards to Somalia’s Shabaab.

At present I’m concentrating on the Kenya-Somalia-Ethiopia border, known as the Mandera Triangle, and the Kenya-Uganda border, known as the Karamoja Cluster. Until January, my job is to collate DDG’s institutional knowledge on border security and management and publicise it on a standalone website. The idea is that any organisation interested in border issues will be able to quickly see who’s doing what where, and identify gaps and opportunities to work together.

I now work in the office, unlike my last time when I worked from home. I much prefer it: meeting people, attending staff meetings, and just being around is much more three-dimensional than sitting alone at my kitchen table all day. It does bring challenges though. Malcolm Gladwell talks in his book Outliers about something called the “power distance index”. The power distance refers to how directly subordinates are culturally permitted to challenge superiors. In the USA, and to a similar extent Britain, speaking your mind directly is basically encouraged, especially in the world of work. If you spot a mistake, you are normally expected to report it; if your boss tells you to do something that you can see a weakness or oversight in, it normally reflects well on you to raise it with him or her. The power distance in these cultures is short, and these countries are near the bottom of the index. According to Gladwell, in places such as Korea and Colombia the power distance is much greater, and dealing with tricky work situations must be done far more circumspectly.

I don’t know how much the index is accepted social science, but it’s a useful way of framing differing cultural norms. I would say that Kenya is nearer the top of the index than the bottom, and it’s taking more getting used to than I might have thought. For example, Veronica has my key to my office. She knows that I need it. My assumption is that she will find me and give it to me. This is not the case: she will wait respectfully with the key until I go and ask her for it, even if I don’t know that it exists and spend three weeks politely asking my two office-mates if I can use theirs. In another example, I need to have a meeting with David, and offer him a time on Tuesday or Wednesday. Whichever I confirm, he says the other would be better. After several oscillations I conclude David is pitifully inept, before realising that suggesting another time is a polite way of saying he can’t do either.

In many ways it is learning a new language. My speaking and listening skills are still rudimentary, and the real target of my irritation should be my own literacy level, not the people whose language I’m learning.

For reasons like this my ex-flatmate Barbara, mercifully still in Nairobi, frequently chaperones me around the city in my non-work life, puncturing my vision of myself as a streetwise Nairobian blending perfectly into the crowd. On hearing I was going to a clothes market one weekend she insisted on joining me, and not only because she needed a new pair of work trousers. We wandered into the knotted centre of Toi Market where the cubicle stalls are so stacked with goods you can no longer see the stalls themselves at all, an entire geometry of Vietnamese apparel. Barbara ducked into a tunnel of khaki trousers and began full and frank discussions with its caretaker about the dimensions of her hips. She eventually found a pair that she liked but were too long in the heel. “No problem”, assured the vendor, “the tailor will adjust.”

“How much?” demanded Barbara.

“Very cheap,” evaded the vendor.

“How much?” Barbara called after his disappearing shoulder. “If I have to pay a hundred shillings for this because I’m with your lily-white butt I’m going to be furious,” she hissed at me.


Later, hidden behind a curtain at the back of the stall, I took my jeans off and began trying on the pairs of work trousers that the vendor had given me. I had a paranoid fantasy of a terrorist choosing that exact moment to set off a bomb in the market and having to flee, my picture propelling me to international fame as the mzungu running away from the Toi Market Attacks in pink stripy boxers.

As well as Barbara I met up with a small handful of other old friends, hanging out in their flats or plunging into Nairobi’s glittering, pulsing nightlife. Nairobi’s affluent young are incredibly stylish, the first generation born and brought up in a black middle class and accordingly able to mix a deep exposure to Western fashion with the work of professional African designers. We drank cold beers in the warm nights, watching drunken old men dancing with the gorgeous hookers in the cantinas or going to rooftop bars resounding with Tanzanian r’n’b and Nigerian dance tracks.

After a month, I was sent on my first trip to another DDG office and made my first visit to Somaliland. I flew via Addis again, feeling smug at being part of the small crowd who transferred to a separate terminal for the Hargeisa flight and scowling at two blond tourists for making me look less intrepid.

East Africa is red and green: Somaliland is white. White sand, white walls, white dust, white goats. Hijabs shone turquoise, red, or golden like paint on canvas. There were few people on the streets, which were wide, and often gave onto areas of rubble or scrub with black plastic bags clinging to pointed surfaces. In the centre of town smartly painted banks and hospitals stood out against the weary housing blocks, no structure apart from the minarets rising more than two stories from the ground.

Hargeisa was bombed to the ground by Somali dictator Siad Barre in the late 1980s but won its freedom from him in 1991. It is an irony of the international system that Somaliland, with a bicameral parliament, multi-party elections, its own military, and an independent currency is recognised as a state by zero governments worldwide, while Somalia, barely able to pacify its own capital city since Barre’s demise, is recognised by every government in the world.

Concrete blast absorbers the size of hippos lined the entrance to every compound, watched over by guards dressed in fatigues and carrying old, wooden-stocked rifles. I didn’t see anyone else carrying a gun. We weren’t allowed out alone or after 9pm, and for the week I was there I saw only the office, the guesthouse, and the inside of a van with tinted windows. I went out once, to a shop, full of Turkish biscuits and fizzy drinks. The few photos I managed to take were snatched on the way to and from the airport from the back of the moving pick-up. It didn’t feel unsafe at all, and whether that validated or invalidated the pervasive security I couldn’t tell.

I spent a week there attending a security training. The corridors of the office were lined with disabled ordnance. The Somalilanders laughed a lot and talked more, naughtily picking up their phones and checking their emails despite being told repeatedly not to. They chewed gum with their mouths wide open, filling the lecture hall with obscene quiet squelching. I learned how to say hello and thank you in Somali and practiced frequently, but either my pronunciation was so bad or they were so unprepared for a white newcomer saying Somali words it never elicited a reaction. The men were either indifferent or would greet me with big grins and laugh at everything I said. I would reach towards the women for a handshake before their stillness would remind me. They must have thought an awkward half lurch was a traditional British greeting. In the guesthouse in the evenings I played with Ninja and Elan, the house cats, and watched movies or football with the expats.

In the airport at the end of the week, passengers’ bags were passed through four X-ray machines and our carry-on luggage was unpacked and searched through by hand. We were asked to switch every electronic item on and off in front of the security staff. The painstaking diligence was dispiriting and slow (why is there such a strong urge to get through bureaucracy even when there is only a waiting room on the other side?) but also faintly inspiring. Not just a national security incident but the reputation of a would-be nation is at stake in the security of Egal International, and if was my nation, I’d be diligent too.


I landed in Kenya at 1.30 on Friday morning, not looking forward to catching the minibus to work at 7.30. As soon as I switched my phone on it chirped with a message from Safaricom, my Kenyan network provider: “Welcome home!” it smarmed. OK, I thought.


What I’m reading:

  • David Shields, Reality Hunger
  • Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow
  • F Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night

What I’m listening to:

  • Ben Pearce, “What I Might Do”
  • Alice Coltrane, Journey in Satchidananda and P’tah the El Daoud
  • Nina Simone, “Ne Me Quitte Pas”
  • Serge Gainsbourg, Histoire de Melody Nelson
  • Arvo Part, Tabula Rasa


Nairobi, still

A combination of persistence and luck a few days after my previous entry allowed me to stay in Nairobi. One of the many NGOs I had approached needed a researcher to start work immediately on a project that they had fallen behind on, and, happily for both of us, I was qualified and able to start immediately. I spent the remainder of December and January mapping large-scale infrastructure projects across East Africa, including pipelines, power stations, and railways, and looking into how they might affect security in the areas they’re being built in.


At the start of February I handed over the research to a team of consultants based in Canada, and am now writing up the results of some studies into local stakeholder engagement. Infrastructure projects tend to bring in a lot of opportunities for local communities, but also risks, and my NGO has spent several months studying how construction companies can work with local people to make sure projects are mutually beneficial. I have to read technical reports into things like the difference between one and three radio broadcasts a week in illiterate communities, but I also get the satisfaction of contributing to a project that might help prevent a farmer’s house being bulldozed or a construction worker being shot at.

It’s fantastic work experience. I feel extremely lucky to be gaining a breadth of experience, in-country, for a well respected international NGO.

And, of course, I get to live in Nairobi. On being offered my contract I used Airbnb for the first time and found a flat just outside the city centre. Flatsharing is not really established in East Africa as part of the yuppie culture, but is beginning to catch on and I had a choice of ten or so once I’d put in my search parameters. I’ve again been lucky to find a very comfortable flat with three friendly flatmates, two Americans and a Kenyan. A far cry from my warehouse attic in Limehouse, I now have cable TV, an en-suite bathroom, and a balcony, from where I can have a coffee and watch birds, butterflies, and even once a lost-looking monkey in the trees outside.

I work from home and visit the office occasionally for a meeting. I’m glad I don’t have to commute. Nairobi’s roads were built in the 1970s for an urban population of 800,000. The city now holds around 4 million people, and (somehow) the growth rate of vehicle registrations is even higher than the growth rate of population. Traffic is a major feature of life and one that must cost the city thousands of hours of productivity every day.

At rush hour, queues for minibuses called matatus stretch whole blocks, hundreds of people at a time shuffling down the road for their turn to get into a 14-seater vehicle. For many Nairobians the charge of around 20p a journey makes a matatu the only affordable way of getting around. If you’re rich, you can spend eight to 10 times the price and get on a motorbike taxi, a boda-boda, and if you’re rich and prudent you can pay 10 to 15 times the price for a taxi or an Uber.

However you travel, being on the roads is somewhat anarchic, the stultifying traffic both a cause and effect of lawless driving. Boda-bodas in particular do whatever it takes to keep moving, overtaking around corners, driving on the wrong side of the road, and if things are really bad, simply mounting the pavements and forcing pedestrians out of their way. As someone who walks as a matter of preference, this irritates me. I once gestured pointedly at the road as a motorbike honked past me on a pavement, and the driver frowned at me confusedly. In my mind, there is a rule, written or not, that as a walker I have at very least priority of use of the sidewalk. Here, that assumption does not hold.

In autumn 2015 I was commuting to and from an internship in Oxfordshire. The last leg of my journey was on a bus from the centre of Oxford to my parents’ house. The little bus shelter was far too small to cover all those waiting, and I was endlessly fascinated to see every evening, even in the rain, the commuters form an immaculate queue down the street away from the shelter. No-one had to communicate to form this queue and, as far as I know, there is no law requiring it. There is no need; rules and regulations, and the benefits of obeying them, are part of the psychological profile of Britain. When I was younger, this used to either grate or amuse me, and I loved my time in countries where following rules was much less part of the collective mental landscape. Now, whether it’s the effect of several consecutive years in the UK or just that I’m more conservative as a venerable 25-year-old, I find the inefficiencies and disorganisation of the developing world annoying more than affirming.

I don’t want to become one of those people who chooses to live in a less developed country and then complains thoroughly about the poor customer service, the traffic, the politics, the corruption, and the expense of imported luxury food items. Nor, however, do I want to settle for appalling traffic and dangerous road use because really what can you expect from Africans.

Apart from the traffic, Nairobi is a fun place to live with all the opportunities and attractions of any major city. I’ve started taking French classes three evenings a week at the Alliance Francaise. I’m enjoying them in spite and not because of my teacher, a Monsieur Shadrach, who with his shaved head and neat goatee looks uncannily like a black Walter White. Every evening he arrives five minutes late and performs a showcase of laziness and dis-incentivization with a consistency that deserves some sort of documentary recognition.

Shadrach’s classes consist of working through exercises in a textbook, and his sole pedagogic technique is the question-to-the-group. I’ve had about five minutes of teacher training in my life and even I know that just throwing a question to a group is poor practice. We don’t reply because we don’t know the answer, because the answer is too obvious, because we know the answer but not the French vocabulary, because it’s awkward when more than one person begins answering at once, because people are unconfident, because we’re not sure if the question is rhetorical, because every answer apart from the one M. Shadrach is thinking of is incorrect, or for any other reason that dangling a question in front of a group of people who speak very little of a language is a bad idea.

Shadrach, however, is a firm believer that if a question is met with silence, it needs asking again, louder, higher pitched, more insistently. If that doesn’t work, he coos “cla-ass? Cla-ass?” and asks a third time, at which point, to give him his due, we’re in such despair that someone usually offers a reply to make him stop repeating himself. As if that wasn’t enough, he also has a habit of chirping at the end of every instruction, explanation, or question, “ca va? Ca va?”, a habit that I’m somehow unable to zone out and find incredibly irritating.

In another example of my inability to tolerate situations not to my liking, I’m changing classes next week.

My contract finishes on the last day of March; although I’m just beginning to feel like I know the city, I’m already a dozen applications in to the next round of job-hunting. Having got this current role on my CV, I’m feeling much more positive than last time. While I’m waiting to find out what the next step is, I’m lucky to have interesting work to be getting on with and good weather to enjoy. It was a gamble to come to East Africa, and I’m very happy that things turned out so well.

Return to East Africa

This article was first published by The Student Journals

Mum was practically singing. She had no right to be feeling happy: it was almost one in the morning, we’d been travelling for almost 24 hours and the airline had lost our entire luggage. For my family and me though, being back in Kenya for a two week holiday was more than enough to make up for it. I stood in the grounds of the guesthouse for a moment before bed, absorbing the still-warm tarmac on my bare feet, the raucous cicadas buzzing all around and the quiet smell of the bougainvillea, faintly orange in the dark.

It had been a long time. 13 years, almost, and much of the holiday was spent judging how much had changed in that time. Plenty had. The populations of Kenya and Uganda had rocketed over the last two decades or so, and it showed in Nairobi. If you’d asked me to name infamous traffic spots, I would have said Moscow, Mexico City, Mumbai, but not East Africa. We crawled and baked in the jams, watching billboards proclaiming investment banking and insurance policies, chatting to taxi drivers about politics and football. (“Liverpool,” snorted Kamau. “Most of their fans are ladies in Nakuru.”) I was sad at how completely westernized the development process was: all glossy corporate assurances of a prosperous future.

We spent three days in Nairobi waiting for our lost luggage and getting our hands on a vehicle via an old friend from our residency days. “It’s not a car, it’s a steam engine,” complained Mum as she, Dad and my brother got used to driving the old Land Rover we eventually tracked down. As if the dodgy lights, speedometer that fluttered ceaselessly in a thirty-kph radius and woeful steering weren’t enough to contend with, the ruthless driving practises and pedestrian competition kept things high-octane throughout. Everyone had a car, but the major trunk roads between the biggest cities in the region were still single lane. I saw one working traffic light the whole time, and it was brazenly ignored by everyone.

We stopped in at a giraffe conservation project and an elephant orphanage, both crowded but slightly unreal – almost like watching oneself on television more than taking in how much fun it was. Visiting the giraffe centre was one of my favourite moments of the holiday, as we climbed up to a platform and placed food in the mouth of sauntering, six-meter-tall giants with foot-long tongues that wrapped themselves slimily around our fingers.

Leaving Nairobi, we ventured northwest along the Great Rift Valley towards the lakes: Baringo, Naivasha, Elementaita, Bogoria. Baringo was perhaps the biggest shock, the campsite we’d stayed at years before was almost fully submerged by the lake. My parents reminisced to the owner, Moses, whose courtesy and helpfulness were untroubled by the rising water and falling patronage, even if his business was. We watched crocodiles sunbathing at the bottom of the gardens and went onto the lake in a canoe, where we saw giant fish eagles and tiny kingfishers swooping into the water for lunch.

As we travelled between the various lakes, we made a detour to visit my brother’s old school, where he’d boarded for a year before we moved to the UK. It feels strange being in an empty school under any circumstances, but this venerable English institution in the middle of the Kenyan countryside, with childhood friends still in old pictures on the wall, was important, especially for my brother.

We walked alongside wild giraffe, antelope and wildebeest on Crescent Island, and sneaked up on flamingos that were wading in the warm water of Lake Bogoria. The Land Rover’s engine blasted out a cloud of smoke and we spent a lot of time and money and cortisol on getting it fixed. We drank Tangawizi ginger beer. Every Kenyan we met smiled warmly and talked to us in their beautiful accent, when we could get them to switch away from Swahili with Dad into English.

Halfway through our holiday, we crossed the border into Uganda in a nightmare of traffic queues, persuasive insurance artists and night driving, which is even further from the categorical imperative than day driving. The Ugandan police stopped us to have an exchange of opinion about the Land Rover’s brake lights. Mum got sick. Dad sang. The battery light came on and we all prayed. The car’s electrics flickered on and off and we arrived in Mukono, our home of seven years, five hours later than planned and went to bed.

Over the next three days we explored the town, grown almost beyond recognition. The university where my parents had worked had grown from under 800 students in 2000, when we left, to over 8,000. The journey from there to the capital Kampala, which used to take us maybe half an hour, now took three times that. We met up with old friends, my parents’ colleagues mostly, and Tabitha, the lady who used to work for us. She cooked for us with her family at her home and, at the risk of sounding clichéd, we felt like Ugandans. We met students and young professionals we’d played with as children; they looked us up on Facebook on their phones.

After that, we spent a couple of days by the Nile, including Christmas Day when we ate tilapia and the mince pies Mum had smuggled in from England, and headed back across the border. We had one day left, which we spent in a national park, where we were lucky enough to see buffalo, hippo, rhino and two indolent lions all in the space of a few hours. “Gno gno gno, I’m a gnu!” volunteered Dad.

Back in Nairobi, preparing to leave for the airport in an apocalyptic downpour, I reflected on the trip. For us at least, things like water, electricity and internet were much better than I remembered, but both countries had far to go: what little I saw of Nairobi made the glossy “artist’s impression” of development plans in the in-flight magazine look wildly optimistic. I suppose most importantly, on both sides of the border, the people had been wonderful: warm, engaging, welcoming, quick to laugh. I would miss the tin roofs turned thunderous by rain, mosquitos slapped stiffly onto whitewashed walls, vast, bald-headed Marabou storks loitering balefully on lamp posts. Sitting in the Land Rover and watching East Africa go by: blue sky, green hills, yellow bark on the acacia trees, red earth.