Smart money

Im in an internet cafe in Nairobi (one KES per minute). In most (but not all) browsers you should be able to hold the mouse over the Swahili words (they should be green and italic) and the English translation will pop-up, don’t click, it doesn’t do anything. Try it heer: nzuri sana!.

I’m in Nairobe this weekend. Went out on friday night to a pub with music and people doing some sort of dance in a confined space. Also had a wonderful indian meal with a friend who lives in the city and her boyfriend and some other waifs and strays. That was very nice.

Saturday was the VSO committee meeting; a get together of volunteers from, in this case, the Eastern region, to talk about the process of being a volunteer, and generally to meet up, gossip and provide a support network. It was great to meet up, once again, with three of the volunteers i arrived with three weeks ago. Some of them, however, are having a rough time. I have learned to count my blessings.

Not that I have ever thought I was having it tough. I know I’m lucky to be in Tala with Sr. P. and the gang there. Some of the others are working for a very corrupt church-based organisation (CBO). Their employers expect them to finance their mobile phones and other luxury goods. (These are bishops Im talking about). And I have seen how even our own VSO office in Narirobi suffers from corner cutting and job-protection tactics. Nevertheless there are opportunities to do some good here, working with the community. One of the serving volunteers here — a great fellow whom i like very much — pointed out that it is very much the responsibility of us, the volunteers, to see how we can make a contribution and re-negotiate our contracts with our employers if and when necessary. ITs not easy.

This is how VSO makes a difference. I remember being told, on my pre-departure training, that when people (for example, our employers) ask us for additional money, we can say “I am your resource”. VSO spend a lot of money to get us here. And there are even grants in GBP to helpe us get reestablished when we return. So how does this cash help in disadvantaged countries? Because i am here. Its my responsibility to make a difference. It has the potential to be better than just sending money (as so many aid agencies do — they are motivated by politics to show that wealthy countries are helpnig poor ones, they care that so much money has been spent, but they do not do field accounting to helkp prevent fraud) but sending people. The people are the gift, not the money. The money pays what is necessary to get us here. We are the gift. And we have the possibility to see how we can make a difference. We have to act accordingly.

Retail therapy

I’m writnig this one from the VSO office in Nairibi. Today is my first trip back to the city since I was here two weeks ago for my In Country Training. Got a lift here wtih Sister Euphemia who was, I think, going to visit the auditors. I travelled in the back of a pick-up with bench seats and a fiber-glass top that was too small for me. Also travelling with me was my colleague John, sister was in the front with the driver. John told me his, absolutely amazing life story, on the way. The journey was over in no time and I didn’t giev a thought to the fact that my head was bent over all the way.

I was taken right to the shopping centre aobove which the daktari has her surgery. My original plan had been to travel to Nairobi in a matatu and take the shuttle bus to the shopping centre, so I had made my appointment for 11.30. This meant I had plenty of time to look round the shopping centre. Among the fascinating things I bought were:

parcel tape. The bat was back last night, while I was munching on my fried bananna provincale (I dunno, I just bunged some other nice things in the pan with them). At the first moment I felt cold fear run over me; then I recovered. I thought it would leave as swiftly as it did last time but it did not. It persisted in an amazing display of indoor aerobatics (there had been severa mosquitos in the room before that point). After a while, I staretd to feel uncomfortable with it. I tried making it feel uncomforable with me — by chasing it with a frying pan (!) — but it seemed unphased, and determined to rid my room of parasite-bearing vampiric insects, whether I wanted it to or not. Finall I stopped letting it harass me, sat down and continued eating my supper, and the bat, since I had stopped harassing it, continued eating its own supper of mosquitos. When they were all gone (it seemed) it left, back up the chimney. I am going to cut a square out of the old tatty mosquito net that was left in the house, and sitck it over the fireplace with parcel tape. I hope this will help keep out a variety of unwelcome flying visitors.

porridge oats. I bought oats when I was in Nairobi before and they are almost all gone. Local breakfast of choice is ugi, I tried it several times in Nairobi during my first week but didn’t find it particularly plesant.

chocolate cake mix and chocolate peanut spread. I’ts my birthday in a fortnight!

I noticed that it is possible — at a price — to get Green & Black’s organic drinking chocolate here too. Shame I don’t have access to fresh milk.

I must not forget to mention that last night, while I was at the market in Tala, storm clouds gathered in the East. In order to get back to my house before the inevitable deluge (and, man!, did it come!) I rode back on boda-boda. That was fun, and attracted lots of comments from my friends along the road.
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Im happy!
I just had my first class. I talked to the four girls in the “Advanced PC Maintenance” class about their tests, we went through the first few questions. I talked about the non-volatile ram inside a computer, what it stores and what that information is used for; I talked about booting a computer and what that means, and why it is called boot. It’s a good story. At one point I stood on the desk and attempted to lift myself by pulling on my shoe laces (yes, it is relevant). My colleague sat that the back so I could judge from her facial epressions if I was still behaving in an acceptible way with the Kenyan students; I think that had she not been there I would not have been so confident. But the point of all this is that I really enjoyed it. I have not done any teaching for a long time. It gave me a massive lift to do some today. I have been sitting fidgetting in the staffroom doing the JavaScript past paper for the last hour because the lab is closed while one of the Cisco on-line exams is being taken. Eventually I had had enough and had to come over here to the library/internet cafe and use one of these dodgey PCs to tell you all how happy I am with my morning’s work.

I’d like to add that I cooked the chips last night, made them properly by frying them first to cook and then removing them from the oil and salting them while the oil got nice and hot to put them back in and make them brown and crisp. Meanwhile I put some onion and some of the deliciously ripe and sweet tomates that they have here (unripe and flavour-less tomatoes are one of my long-standing gripes with UK supermarkets) in a pan with olive oil and fresh correander, fried them for a bit then covered them to make them steam and go lovely and soft for the tomato salsa. It was great. It wasn’t so much that I was missing chips as I had promised some colleagues that when they come to visit I will cook them something typically British, and I don’t know how to make Chicken Tikka Massala.

Awoke at 6.15 this morning and went for a run while it was still cool. The sky was clear — contrast with overcast last time I went running at that time — and I saw a beautiful sunrise. Its hot today.

I’ll write again soon and tell you about my new nickname and with some local photos.


This is just a quick one to make sure I have set the timezone properly now. Its just after five pm here now, everyone with a life has left the computer lab. I’m off next.

Marking: the CAT’s out of the bag

I just had a disagreement, though a very plesantly handled one, wiht one of the staff here about how to mark a continuous assessment test (CAT) that the girls had taken.

The test content was derived from a past exam paper. The exams are set by the university who accredit our diploma course. The situation here is pretty bad: the University staff write the sylabusses, set the exams and mark them. College staff are, I gather, rarely offered the opportunity to validate the exam papers but when they have been asked to do this — and it has happened only once — they were instructed to restrict their comments to grammar and spelling, not to comment on the content or style of questions. I have seen some of the past papers and they are very poor. Some had clearly not even been checked for spelling (one said “identify and collect errors in the following programs” rather than “identify and correct…”). I am lead to believe that at the University, the lecturers — who set their own exams — use their actual exam questions as CATs which leaves their students well prepared for the exam. College lecturers do not even see the exams before our students sit them. So it seems reasonable enough to use past papers to set CATs. There are, however, no model answers for these past papers.

The CAT I was helping to mark was one such; there were no model answers. One question asked for an explanation of concept X and had two marks allocated. One student had written an answer that comprised four bullte points, each a well-formed sentense. Two of them (the first and the last) were correct and the others incorrect. My approach to marking this was to allocate one mark each for the two correct points. My colleague disagreed.

We argued this point in a friendly way for some time. Various reasons were given for not giving the student full marks for that question. The predominant one seemed to be that the correct answers were not the first two. My colleague argued that when the exam scripts are marked by the University only the first two points would even be read so it would be impossible to get marks for the correct fourth point. At this point I had to take a walk outside to cool off. I was, after all, not angry with my colleague, but with the university staff. I dont even know if what my colleague told me is true. But my very reason for volunteering, in the first place, was to learn about different cultures, so I returned from my walk and sat town to continue marking.

Meanwhile my colleague had engaged one of the sisters as an independent arbitrator. Sister wisely observed that the way to allocate marks would depend upon the marking plan. We were back at square one since there was no marking plan for this CAT. Sister did, however, suggest that she would rather I did not mark leniently as this would make the girls complacent and not prepare them well for their exams. The marks from these cats do count towards our student’s overall progression, but the exam carries a much higher weighting.

From this I have learned:

  • To always make a marking plan for my CATs (since they are marked and count towards the student’s progression, I think I would have done that anyway)
  • That our students must be prepared for their exams by making them understand the implicit, as well as the explicit rules of engagement.
  • That I hold some strong views on fairness in education that I was not really aware of before.

Did I miss anything?

This week’s quiz

Thought it was time to stop blogging about what I miss and talk a bit about what I am enjoying out here.

Last night I enjoyed a walk to the market with James and his wife Pauline (not to be confused with Sr. Pauline) two other IT teachers at the college. Tuesday and Friday are market days in Tala. We wandered down the edge of the tarmac road talking in a lovely relaxed way. Pauline likes to test my Kiswahili and they were threatening to give me a local name. One old gentleman I met on a previous walk into town passed us on his bycicle. “Hello Mark, how are you?”, he shouted.
“I’m fine, how are you?”, I replied.
Sawa, sawa, Bwana“, he retorted smiling as he trundled down the road. Pauline told me that that was a very friendly form of address. I already liked the old gentleman for his beautiful smile. I wish I could remember his name.

At the market I bought some fresh fruit and veg. Here are some of them, I challenge you to identify all three varieties!
fruit (29k image)

One market stall man offered me some of his kitheri (maize and beans, but this time with potatoe too) while I bought onions and fresh corriander from him. Kitheri is, in fact,the most enjoyable local dish I have encountered so far. His, with the potatoe, was even nicer than the one that the cook at college prepares.

On the way back from the market I had another co-ordinated serenade from small children by the side of the road. These were different sizes and looked like a family, though I’d guess the oldest was 7 (everyone looks younger than their age here). They had lined up in front of their house and waited until I was directly in line with them, then delivered their volley: “Goo-da’hee-fning!” they shouted together.
I smiled. Oh boy did I smile. I had seen them lining up there and had not turned my head to look as I suspected they were abotu to engage me somehow. Expecting another “Mzungu” greeting I thought I’d wait and see. This one cracked my synical heart.
“Good evening, how are you?”, I responded.
“We are fine!”, they giggled and ran back to their house.

…and another thing!

And another thing…


Its not culturally appropriate even for a man and his wife to walk holding hands in public. Men walk together holding hands some times, men and women never. I get to shake the hands of many of the male teachers each morning. Apart from that physical contact isn’t obviously approipriate and neither would I seek it as it comes from a sort of trust built up on top of, amongst other thigns, that flirting protocol I mentioned before. Since that stuff needs to be at least re-learned, I’m not fretting that I dont fall into bear-hugs with my colleagues every day. In fact in London I did not. But in the evenings in London I would dance and my favourite people were there to cuddle and hug: Im not going to name names, you know who you are. And I miss it.

Today there was a hulabaloo in the staff-room. One of the teachers had found an advert in a newspaper that showed a black silhouette of a woman wearing a red bikini. He ran round the room thrusting the paper in front of female teachers and making some heck-of-a row about it. I didn’t get the details but I heard one of the older women saying that he never grows up.

There is less sexual imagery here in day-to-day life then in London. Though TV, from what I have seen, seems to have a high proportion of gangsta’ rappers surrounded by pipe-clearner thin dancers in hot pants practising hip separation moves.

I’m reminded of a story I heard about Lindy Hop: (correct me if I’ve remembered this incorrectly please) Blacks found dances from the ballroom tradition unacceptable because of the sustained contact between men and women. Whites were shocked by black women making a spectacle of their hip twists and wiggles. Lindy, therefore offends everyone with its combination of close-hold, and open hold twisting.

What I am missing

I miss the accent

British English. I have managed to tune in to the BBC World Service at last. The signal is weak so I have had to attach a piece of wire (the power cable from my walkman with the power plug cut off, in fact, but more of that later) to the antenna to get good reception. Then the buggers switch into Kiswahili every other our in the evenings. But it has made me fell better. I’m following the news more closely now than ever before.
I miss flirting

It’s something I am now programmed to do. I do it with guys as well as girls. Its part of normal life for me back home. But I think its culturally dependent. I don’t feel comfortable doing it here. The country is very conservative and very christian influenced. But more than that, there is something I can hardly put into words. Something subliminal that is warning me off. Body language. Other signals. The foundations of a protocol that leads to flirting are missing.

One of the othe volunteers who arrived with me has started calling me lovely boy in her texts and I am replying in kind, because I suspect she has noticed the same thing and feels the same desire to play a bit (we weren’t really flirting together during the week in Nairobi) and has read me as someone with whom it is safe.

I miss Lindy Hop

OK, it has to be said. This was the weekend of the London Lindy Exchange, an event with which I was closely involved last year (and sick during the weekend so not really able to take part fully) and have missed all together this year. I was with you in sprirt, guys! Please leave a comment below and let me know how it went. Got a great text from Ollie who mentioned Bomb The Bank. And I thought . o O (Hey, I thought up that name).

I did listen to some Swing at the weekend. It’s the first time I have been able to do so without feeling intensely homesick. In fact Swing mushc has been the only realy cause of homesickness for me so far. But on sunday, after the water supply was reconnected and I had done my laundry and washing up, I put on Frank Sinatra and sang along loudly and tunelessly. I even danced about the room a bit, doing odd charlestons and grapevine steps… Its just not the same.

So to all of you — and especially Swingdemon — who have said, over the last fortnight, that you’re missing me

I miss you too

Having said all this, I should explain that I am not really spending all my waking hours missing home and dreaming of Lindy Hop. On the way to work this morning (I have at least a minute’s walk from my house to the college) I asked myself “What would you be doing if you were still in the UK?”. The answer seemed to be working in some college, or doing some IT job, and stressed and complaining. And here I am working in a college, doing an IT job (I spent most of saturday fixing a problem with the Samba server here on the college network) and certainly there are things that stress me, but so far they are to do with the fact that I am adjusting to a new life. It means I am doing my best to live my life to the full. And so far, that is sustaining me very well through the rough patches.

Special thanks also to Mr Mungbean for a fantastic non-swing music collection to explore while I’m out here.


No visitors last night, neither at my dor nor down my chimney. Unless you cound the small ants who crawled over my copy of The Guardian Weekly while I completed one clue from the cryptic crossword (of which, alone, I feel more proud than of completing all bar two words in the quick one).

This morning was assembly at 7.45 again. This time I was not introduced to the girls, that being done already on monday. There are two assemblies per week. When this one was over, Sister P. told me she didn’t expect me to be attending them yet, while I’m still adjusting to Kenyan time.

I left for Tala to collect my photographs and to try again to open a bank account. The VSO office had lead me to believe it might be tricky but they did it quite simply and told me that my opening cheque would be cleared from next saturday. I have applied for an ATM card too. It will cost me KES 100 to withdraw cash over the counter in Tala and KES 20 from an ATM. There are no ATMs in Tala but there are in Nairobi, which is just as well as they will charge me KES 600 to get my cash over the counter in any branch other than the Tala one. VSO recommended Barclays bank but Tala is small and ther is only KCB: the Kenya Commercial Bank.

The lady in the photo studio was very friendly today. Repeat visits are a good thing it seems. The man in the bank also, he remembred my name ( “Charles”, lots of people here find that much easier to pronounce and remember than Mark, officials see my passport or other documentation with my full name in and choose that name to call me by.).

After the bank I went to the market, which is close by. In fact I went into a few hardware shops and
supermarkets. I bought some Kale — sliced by the market stallholder while she talked to me in excelent English about how her daughter is sponsored by an Australian via Christian Aid — and a hand-madewood and-old-tyres squee-jee to clean the water out of my shower with. The kale cost KES 5 for a bunch, and the mop, 150. Then I walked back — I didnt want to spend too long in the market as I didnt feel totally safe with my passport and volunteer ID card, even though they were in side my trousers in the money belt thing I bought at Heathrow.

On the way back to college I passed the Mother Teresa Nursary School where the children — all bedecked in little blue uniforms — lined up by the road and chanted “Mu-zung-gu-mu-zung-gu…” until I waved at them. Made me smile!

[to all those to whom it applies, have a great time at LLX]