Sunday, July 17, 2011

Van Leeuwens in Kenya 2011

Blog by Charlene VanLeeuwen
Jambo! As many of you know, the VanLeeuwen family has been happily anticipating our trip to Kenya for some time. John has shared so many stories from his FHF trips with vet students over the years that the rest of us could hardly wait for our turn. Katie, Pieter, Julie and I set off at the end of June to begin our Kenyan adventures. John was in Ethiopia since mid-June and he met us in Nairobi. In addition to our family, for the past several days we have travelled around with 2 students who have been working with John through “Vets Without Borders”, along with some or all of the UPEI students working in Kiirua. We even went a short distance with everyone crammed in the van – matatu style.
We have just returned to Nairobi and I can hear early morning Nairobi traffic going along. I am happy to avoid it for the time being. My head is spinning with images of the past several days as we have visited so many places, met so many people and seen so many things. Our internet was not working all that well so I have been saving up my reflections for this entry. It is hard to know where to begin! I could start with the Wakulima Dairy where we saw John being met as an old and well-loved friend by many, many people. They were very happy to tell him that they are now shipping 38,000 litres of milk per day and to show us the plans and work that has been started for a new expansion to begin processing their members’ milk. Or I could write about the shambas we saw in the Othaya area where many women were out harvesting tea. There were also our visits to Machakas orphanage where we played with the young children who are part of the daily feeding program or the tiny premature infant that I fed and cuddled while watching our 3 children, all the UPEI students, the 2 vet students and a med student from the UK feed and play with the other slightly older babies. Our school day visits to Kinyinjere, Ruuju and Kiirua Girls Day School were two other highlights, not to mention the celebration to open the new classrooms at Kinyinjere School and the 5 football games (soccer, to us Canadians) that helped wrap up that afternoon. Then there was my day with the women from the Ruuju and Muchui Women’s groups. Of course, my kids would remind me not to forget our safari with the two vet students Laura and Valérie, and the nutrition students, Harrison and Amy, which started off with the combi getting stuck in loose sand right beside a lioness. This delayed us just long enough that we were still around when she decided to go on a hunt for a warthog and we were right there to see the chase and capture. And this is just the tip of the iceberg!

Katie, Julie, Pieter and Laura feeding babies at the orphanage

The first of the highlights of this trip that will stay with me is the celebration that was held at Kinyinjere School for the opening of the four new classrooms organized and funded through FHF. Upon our arrival at the school (a bit late since church went on quite a bit longer than expected) we were met out at the road by the older girls. They were singing at the top of their voices to greet us and they danced alongside the combi as we drove into the school compound. There was quite a large crowd gathered there to welcome us. Mama Jen (Jennifer Murogocho) told us later that she has never seen such a large crowd come out for an event at the school. We were officially welcomed by the Head Teacher along with the Chairperson and members of the school committee. We were treated to some wonderful entertainment from the girls and boys of the school, the women parents, and a small group of the Muchui women. There were poems and songs from the students and lots of dancing led by energetic Katherine. The university students had never seen anything like this. We were all on our feet dancing along with our hosts to the delight of the parents and other children who were watching. Julie, in particular, enjoyed being part of the dancing! Then it was time for the official opening of the four classrooms. John and I opened the one sponsored by our family, Katie and Julie opened the classroom sponsored by the Challenge Girls Leadership Club (Katie is a youth leader and Julie is a member – see picture), and the Canadian girls followed by the Canadian boys opened the remaining two classrooms to much applause and cheering – African style! Then we ate, all of us. All the children, parents and guests sat down and enjoyed some rice, githeri, mokimo and chapatis. Following lunch, some lovely gifts were presented to all of the Canadians and we presented several gifts to the school including many Canada pencils and stickers along with skeins of thin yarn. Hold on now before you begin thinking that this was the wrap up of the celebration, because there was still one more highly anticipated activity to happen. Football! We had 5 soccer balls with us and several teams worth of donated jerseys, so with the help of some of the teachers, we got our enthusiastic players divided up into teams for 5 separate games, 3 for the boys and 2 for the girls. Our kids played, John played and refereed at times and I was in there too helping out with the youngest group of girls. We quickly figured out a few key phrases like “out ball”, “free kick” “green or white team”, and “starting positions” and then we were good to go. The parents enjoyed watching all of these various games and lots of football fun was had. We all headed for home quite a bit dustier than we started out, but the wind made us Islanders feel right at home.

Katie and Julie in front of the sign designating the new classroom paid for by fundraising efforts of the Challenge Girls Leadership Club

My second highlight was my day with the members of the two Women’s groups that work with FHF. Early Monday morning Shaad, Amy, Harrison, Rosemary their translator, and I all climbed into Shaad’s car matatu style for the drive to meet some of the Ruuju women. Several were coming to the school to pick up some lumber for the corn cribs that had been delivered the previous day. Amy and Harrison took advantage of the transport to be able to go and interview more of the women for their food security project, I went to talk to any of the women that were coming to the school. When we first arrived Farida took me on a tour of the gardens and then we walked over to see a few farms and to see the new tomato greenhouse. Things were lovely and green there. Farmers were busy harvesting maize since they got rains at just the right times to sustain this crop, unlike the situation for the Muchui women. I saw a couple of the corn cribs ready to store the maize drying out in the sunshine. They will be filling up over the next few days. We headed back to the school and found more than just a few of the women had come, it was more like 25, a few more than anticipated (see picture). But since this is Kenya, you expect the unexpected and we settled in to talk about family-related issues that concern them since I am a family scientist. As we were about to leave, the women wanted to thank me for coming to talk to them so they took me over to the church to sing and dance for me. Amy and Harrison came along and they were also swept up into the singing and dancing. Then we were back into Shaad’s car to go to Kiirua where I would leave the students and go on to meet with the Muchui Women. Word had spread and once again the turn out for this meeting was very high, with over 55 women coming to the business centre (see picture with part of the group). We started this meeting with enthusiastic and cheerful greetings and much singing and dancing. This was incredible to me given the tremendously horrible situation they are facing with another almost complete crop failure. These women are incredibly resilient! But we eventually got down to more serious discussions about the family issues that they have, and other ways that we might be able to help them and their families. I have clear ideas to share with the FHF project committee upon my return. I could go on and on but since the kids are waiting for the computer to be able to work on their blog entry, I shall say ”kwa heri” for now.


Charlene with Ruuju Women’s Group members

Charlene with Muchui Women’s Group members

Blog by Katie VanLeeuwen:
All right, it’s my turn. Since this trip has been an amazing experience, it would be horrible for our blog to be boring or repetitive. With that in mind I decided to focus less on what we did and more on the things I noticed or saw on this trip.
Getting through Nairobi traffic at night was a full blown adventure story complete with danger, commotion, chaos, close calls and luckily a happy ending, arriving safely at our destination thanks to the heroics of our drivers Peter and David.
In the more rural areas we were the only wasungu (white people) around and that made me uneasy at first because everyone would look at us, but I got used to it. There was even a farmer who videotaped us on his phone while we were playing with a baby. I realized they are just as interested in us as we are in them.
The topography is incredible. It seems like we’re always going up or down. The farmers deal with this by digging terraces like huge steps into the hills so that they can still plant fields. Another nice touch that adds to scenery is the bougainvillea. It’s huge and it’s everywhere! It does very well in this climate and it grows in hedges, trees, bushes, vines, along fences and comes in all different colours.
It’s always interesting to look at the markets in Kenya because they are active, diverse, and also very colourful. Many of the shops are paid by big companies to have advertisements painted on their walls in the bright signature colour of that company. It does look nicer than plain brown or gray.

Painted shops

I loved meeting the kids everywhere. Just after school lets out and the students are walking home, we would wave to them and they would get all excited and start shouting and pointing and laughing and wave back at us. Another time, at one of the farms, there was a little girl we started playing with. Though she was wary at the start, by the end of our visit she was completely comfortable with us and we all had a ball.

Children waving

We got to play with all of the kids in the park at the orphanage too. There were so many of them they would all but jump on us trying to feel our white skin or hold our hands. They were so cute in their blue sweaters and hats knitted for them. One of the vet students compared them to smurfs. I think that’s a pretty accurate description.

Katie playing with kids at the orphanage

Pieter, Valérie and Sister Alice playing with kids at the orphanage

We also had a chance to experience some traditional dancing. It involves a lot of drumming, shouting and clapping. The dancers wear very bright decorated costumes. The women shake their hips or shoulders and the men jump, stomp and parade around.
There were definitely many different and interesting things about the culture here in Kenya.


Blog by Pieter VanLeeuwen:
Mom says that I shouldn’t write everything that was interesting or fun because it would take forever to type so I’ll just do the highlights.
On the first day that we were in Kenya, we went to the elephant orphanage where we saw around a dozen young elephants. But there weren’t just elephants there; there were also some warthogs and a blind rhino. We then went to the Bomas of Kenya where we saw some tribal dances and some acrobats who were insane. The next couple of days were pretty slow (our parents had meetings) until we went to Mukurweini where we were staying for a few days. We went to farms where there were health problems and watch Daddy do his vet thing. We stayed in a rented house and if we would have lived there for a long time, I would become so fat that I would have died, the food was so good. It was hard to leave that place.
Near Meru, there was a celebration in our honor at the Kinyinjere primary school. We had lots of fun watching the singing and dancing, and we exchanged gifts. We gave them some stuff from Canada and they gave us some crafts. We organized a bunch of soccer games and lots of kids got to play, I was surprised at how good a lot of them were and how hard they could kick in bare feet. The next day we went to the Ex-Lewa dairy and went to some farms to check on some sick cows and to get blood samples from calves. While walking back to the van after the third farm, I brushed against a stinging nettle bush for the second time in the same week; it hurt so much my leg went numb. Back at the dairy office we exchanged gifts; they gave us a bunch of different crafts and we gave them some medicine for sick cows and some for dry cows.
Then we went to the Samburu National park for a couple of days of safaris with the two nutrition students Harrison and Amy and the two vet students Valerie and Laura. On the way to the lodge we got stuck in some sand and had to get another van to push us out. Now I’m very happy that we got stuck because at that very spot, a lion chased, killed and ate a warthog (see picture). It was amazing to watch and listen to. We also saw a female ostrich which was pretty cool. We had lunch and then went swimming at the pool. At 4pm, we went on our first full safari, and we saw loads of elephants and lions, some warthogs, lots of deer-like animals, a bunch of different kinds of small animals like dikdiks and Guinea fowl, we even saw a couple giraffes, but the best thing was that we saw a leopard. Unfortunately it started to get dark so we had to go back to the lodge for a buffet supper with a make-your-own pasta station. Harrison ate so much I thought that the cooks would make a limit of how much food you could eat. The next day we woke up at 5:30 am to have some hot chocolate and a cookie before going on our morning safari. It wasn’t as eventful as the day before but we all saw a hawk and a baby elephant nursing her mom, and elephants drinking at the river. Breakfast was even better than supper and there was even a make-your-own omelette station. This time I was surprised that they didn’t run out of food because of how much food our table ate. Most of us then went to the gift shop to look at stuff and my mom actually let me buy one of the slingshots that some of the employees use to make sure that the monkeys don’t get in the kitchens and dining rooms. On the way out of the park we saw a male ostrich and a zebra that was only around 20 meters away. We then went back to the hospital to pick some stuff up and drop of Harrison and Amy we then continued on to Othaya where Val and Laura will be staying for the next 2 weeks, and then went through the Nairobi traffic adventure to get to ILRI. Today we are going to go to the Nairobi national park for a long afternoon day safari. Our final safari before we leave tomorrow.


Lion with a warthog by its neck

Blog by Julie VanLeeuwen:
I don’t want to bore you with everything that has happened during the trip (some said by others above), so I will just give you MY highlights. The elephant orphanage was fun because an orphaned elephant almost knocked me over with its trunk – we were told that they like to play with shorter people. The traditional Kenyan dancing and singing was really interesting to watch, both at Bomas of Kenya, and at the Kinyinjere school. The acrobats at Bomas and at the National Museum really made my eyes pop out! Samburu National Park was amazing – especially when we got stuck, allowing us to watch a lion hunt a warthog (see Pieter’s blog). Kazuri Hand-Made Beads and Pottery was soooo cool! We saw the process of how they make the clay, form the beads and pots, heat them at 1101 degrees celcius (for the pottery) and 1000 for the beads, paint them, fire them again, and sometimes paint and fire them again, depending on the designs. With this process, the beads are rock hard and can be dropped without breaking, but the pottery is more fragile, and so it needs to stay in the firing oven for 3 days after the 8 hour bake to allow the temperature to gradually go back to normal to prevent cracking from temperature shock. They had so many cool colours and designs, including people and zebras and giraffes on pottery (see picture), and polka-dots and zebra stripes on beads. The best part is that they employ 340 women, mostly single mothers, to make the beads and pottery, so buying things there is helping single moms (see picture). The souvenir shops have so many things, it’s hard to chose. It was fun to watch Dad bargain with the shop employee, because they thought Dad was a tourist and so gave him tourist prices – but in Kenya, that is just the starting price, and then the bargaining begins. I got a jembe (drum) and some sandals with beads on them as souvenirs – memories of Kenya.


Painted pottery before and after firing.

Single moms assembling beads.

Blog by John VanLeeuwen:
OK, it is my turn. The good thing about going last is that the others who have blogged before you have already reported on the biggest and best highlights of the trip. For me, in addition to the highlights already mentioned, my biggest on-going highlight has been re-experiencing many things with a fresh perspective, through the eyes of my family, and watching their reactions to the many new and wonderful activities that they are doing each and every day. However, this trip has not been without many other first activities for me, even though this is my tenth time in Kenya. This was the first time I was involved in the interviewing and hiring of Kenyans for jobs that will help to implement projects funded through Farmers Helping Farmers – the examination/verification of the original documents from high school, university, and other courses is not something we normally do in Canada. This was the first time I helped open new school classrooms – a humbling and overwhelming experience. And this was the first time that I climbed to the top of one of the many hills that dot the landscape around the Muchui Women’s Group (see picture). It took us about an hour of many switchbacks, but the view from the top was spectacular and worth the effort, and it finally gave me the perspective that I was craving, to help me get oriented on the relative locations of local schools, local markets, and many of the women’s farms, not to mention the 20-30 km we could see in all directions. Wow! It also showed us how desperately dry in every direction we looked and could see. Nothing but dried up fields, lined by some trees and cowpeas barely hanging on. Even from that high point, I am sure that I could have heard the cheers of joy from the Muchui women when they found out that Farmers Helping Farmers was going to provide them with some corn, beans and water to get them through to the next harvest in January!
With Charlene and the kids here, it was also time to do some of those touristic things that many people do when they come to Kenya, but we usually don’t do when we come focused on Farmers Helping Farmers business. We went to an elephant orphanage, the Bomas of Kenya (recreations of the village architecture of the many tribes in Kenya – and demonstrations of their singing and dancing styles), the National Museum, and the snake park. These were all worthwhile outings, if you are into that kind of thing. And we will be going to a hand-made bead and ceramics factory (pottery, art, jewelery, etc.) and the Nairobi National Park before we leave on Sunday – all things that I had not done before, saving them for when I could enjoy them with my family.
One final first to add to the list…this was also the first time that I drove a vehicle in Kenya, in Nairobi, on the left side of the road, of course, as we needed a second vehicle to get to church on the first weekend. Since I had gotten my international driving license for when we go to Holland next week, I was legal, and brave or crazy enough to try it – but only on a Sunday morning when the traffic was light and we were only going 10 minutes down the road. Most of the crazy Nairobi drivers (mostly matatu taxi drivers) are not awake on Sunday morning. So I guess I am not that brave after all. Some people think I’m crazy for even coming to Kenya, let alone bringing my kids here, and maybe I am crazy, but the rewards for coming to Kenya far outweigh any nuisances. I look forward to sharing more memories with you on the other side of the pond.


Hilltop view of Mbarria market and Kinyinjere school

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