We can learn a great deal from the everyday lives of those who are used to living on the edge, those who have little, those in abject poverty.
Have you ever really considered the life you lead?
I’m going to ask a very blunt question…what do you give back for the life you have in Kenya? Yes, you give to the shops you buy things from out of your high salary, you keep the international schools in profit and the bars and restaurants do pretty well probably, but do you give anything back at a more fundamental level than that?
Do you contribute to the lives of normal Kenyans that may not be fortunate enough to have a job? To those that can’t afford even the few KSH to send their kids to the state schools in your area?
Maybe this narrative will explain what I mean:
When I first went to Kenya I had no idea what to expect except what I’d read in books, the wildlife, the beauty, the friendly people…it sounded wonderful, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. My husband had only been there a few weeks so he was concentrating hard on his new job whilst I stayed at home with our youngest to finish the house renovation we had already committed to before the job came up.
During that two weeks we fitted in a mini safari at Lake Nakuru, where on a night drive I saw the clearest most beautiful sky I had ever laid eyes on…it looked like a large sack of diamonds had been scattered over a sheet of black velvet. With no light pollution I leaned out of the open sided jeep and stared for longer at the sky than at the dozens of pairs of little eyes bobbing around as they were caught in the headlights.
We went to a fancy resort in Mombasa for a few days, driving sown there might I add, something we have no intention of doing again no we have discovered Jambo Jets.
We had dinner at the Sankara, explored the Village Market and wondered what Westgate would be like when it reopened. Before bed I looked out from the balcony over the Nairobi skyline and decided that as soon as the house in the UK was finished we would be coming out full time.
Every day the daily came in to clean the apartment, not used to this I made sure it was tidy before she came. They went about their work with ruthless efficiency faster and better than I ever could. Me being me I offered tea or coffee and started chatting.
Our girl, Janet, lived well out of town and walked two hours each way to work, to save money as she was raising her daughters kids and her sons only had occasional casual work. She lived in a shack, no power, no sanitation, nothing. She ironed her immaculate clothes with a charcoal filled iron.
I cannot tell you about the guilt I felt moaning that our house in the UK still didn’t have a kitchen…just a room with a sink and a cooker.
It was the lack of water that played on my mind though. Water. Can you imagine not having running water? Can you imagine worrying every time your kid took a drink that they would end up with cholera or typhoid? I know water can be brought but still, I just couldn’t get my head around it.
I’d noticed Janet and her colleagues used to take the plastic bottles from the bins for ‘recycling’, it apparently got them a few extra shillings a week, well that was the story they told. A couple of days later I also noticed that those girls who worked in the laundry, down in the basement at garden level, would wait until nobody was around and fill as many bottles as they could find from the garden hose that was left down there to keep the lawns green. They were horrified that I had seen them, explaining that they would be fired for stealing the water if anyone found out.
Can you imagine getting fired for taking a few bottles of water the was going to be used for nothing more than watering the lawns of a compound full of international workers? Fifteen months later and it still bothers me.
The last three days of my first holiday was spent filling every empty plastic bottle that was delivered to the apartment with water. They were lined up on the worktop next to a pile of notes, signed by me saying the water was a gift.
When I left the girls were instructed to start collecting bottles for my return. I sent a Whats Ap message two days before my next arrival date. The system worked amazingly well, water distribution Lizzie style!!! They never needed the notes, they were never caught, but the whole situation makes you wonder about the priorities in life.
There have been many more visits since then, every school holiday we head off to Heathrow and start a journey lasting over 12 hours…how can a few miles from the airport take almost exactly half as long as the flight from the UK? Each trip has seen water smuggled off the compound heading off to homes in Kibera. My daughters outgrown clothes go the same route, as does cases full of lost property school uniform I have managed to convince the school they want to donate to my personal crusade.
We move out full time this summer and I hope and pray that my husbands work permit gets renewed because I would like to experience life in Kenya for longer than a few short months. Even if we do only get to stay until next April it will be an experience that I think will change our childs’ outlook on life, and for that I’m glad. Yes she will be cosseted in an international school but I won’t shield her from the abject poverty that abounds in Africa. She needs to see it.
Our visits are already having an effect on her. She complains less than she used to. She wonders how the woman and her two very tiny children that occupy a position on the corner of School Lane are doing, a woman we regularly dropped off a few bananas and a cheap loaf of bread to as we passed by.
I am so grateful that I know my child never goes to bed hungry, that she has clean water to drink whenever she wants it.
The next time you see someone walking by in a shirt so white that you need sunglasses to look at it think of the effort it took to get it like that. Our lounge balcony overlooks an apartment block and everyday you see the daily hand washing the clothes for the family she works for. It’s mesmerising. She fills tubs of water and washes the clothes for the entire family in less time than my automatic machine can do a single load…and the blue soap she uses makes the laundry far whiter than the boxed powder we buy.
Am I about to replicate her efforts to give my husband whiter than white work shirts? No, not a chance, I will continue complaining that the washing machine is crap. Will I eventually find out what the blue soap is called so I can keep the soles of white socks clean? Yes, so if you can help me there please let me know.
As for my hardworking neighbour over the course of time a smile turned to a wave, which turned into a good morning and now we are at the few short conversations stage as I stare and she works.
“How the hell do you cope doing that everyday ?” I asked her. She stood up and arched backwards, you could almost hear her back creaking.
“Hakuna matata when water come from pipe, hapana, hakuna matata” She said smiling and pointing to the tap.
Bloody water again!
You can read more of Lizzie’s posts on her Underground Medic Blog.