If there’s one institution (and in fact there are many) that I’ve learned to truly appreciate during this time in Kenya, its the UK National Health Service. Free health care at the point of delivery. Treatment for those who need it, without assessment of their ability to pay. Rationed, yes. After a wait, ok. Sometimes a postcode lottery. Not a magic wand. But ambitious in its vision, a testimony to what you can choose to do with taxation, and a miracle of our times, of which to be truly proud and for which to give daily thanks. The freedom which comes from believing that should I, or mine, be struck down by illness, professional help that we can afford will, most often, be offered.
I’ve been thinking of blood recently. When we arrived, we filled out forms at Tom’s work to join the Walking Blood Bank. Gave it no further thought. Assumed, vaguely, it might be about access to pre-screened or better nourished blood. Gradually I’ve got wiser.
Now I’m in the networks I get regular texts and emails asking whether I’m a specific blood type to give blood. I’ve been a blood donor in UK, it’s surely a good thing. But here, in extemis, the appeals are to give earmarked blood, to donate my O+ for my mate, patient B, or a classmate’s dad, or the radio appeal beneficiary, patient C, and her alone. No man is an island and there aren’t the storage facilities, or, I think, enough donors. Here you need your network. You need your employment-based Walking Blood Bank. In case of emergency, you may need your O+ mates, the school mums, and their spouses, and their friends and relations, and the Quaker meeting and the book group, and additional Samaritans, and need them not just to bring grapes, or to bring the children home from school, but to turn out and to donate their blood.
Sanitary towels are another big issue. A hidden issue. An embarrassing issue I’d guess for many Kenyan young women. They aren’t cheap – probably 200 KSh – £1.50 for enough for a monthly period. But lots of poorer families in the slums try to live on 75 KSh for the whole family a day. So girls, young women, older women have to manage without sanitary towels. Try to make do with leaves, mud or rags. Many have to miss a week of school a month. Not good for self esteem, health or education.
An Irish women’s group goes to some schools in Nairobi’s slums and hands out termly sanitary towels to the pupils. Local women’s groups make cheaper ones to generate jobs. But they are a drop in the ocean. A friend passed me another appeal recently. For sanitary towels to work, you need knickers. And those who have no sanitary towels, in general have no knickers either. So this other appeal is to donate pants. Not pants for all the month. Just pants to be worn during a period. Parties for panties they suggest. Instead of bring a bottle, bring a pack of pants to donate. I have to say, it’s a form of solidarity which appeals. But like the peace movement saying that you don’t see generals holding cake sales to pay for the latest military hardware, pants, sanitary towels, blood they’re such basic needs in this country where you see many with plenty as well as extreme poverty.
Oh dear. Things have slipped out of control with StarGuard, one of my favourites. It was he who I caught crying one day over To Kill a Mockingbird from our guards’ library. He yomped through complex Wizard of the Crow, which had me stuck at page 57. A fellow reader, straight into my Good Books. And it wasn’t just that. For his first six or so months with us he was a paragon of virtue. Bright, proactive, enthusiastic. Reliable.
But looking back, things have been more haphazard for around two months. But I met him mainly in the early mornings as I bundled the children and their paraphenalia off with our liftshare. Testing SecondBorn on times tables, reminding FirstBorn that the ruse of ‘forgetting’ her trainers to avoid PE is unlikely to work a third time, bundling the cello and the swimming goggles and two hockey sticks in behind them. And then again as I scurry off into the time-sensitive mayhem of Nairobi rushhour, where every 5 minutes delay can mean an addtional 20 minutes on the journeytime. Yes, looking back, there were several days when the night guard was still there two hours late, covering for his late arrival, – but there were plausible reasons and seeming consent – doctor’s visits, trips to payroll. There was the day when he had failed to return from leave, so the night guard had to work an additional six hours, until I phoned BigBoss for emergency replacement. But he had a plausible explanation, that BigBoss had messed up on the rotas, and that his return time was scheduled as 12 hours later. Yes, some mornings he appeared rather dishevelled, not in the security guard uniform, untucked in, with flipflops not his guard boots – but I’m the mother of an 8 year old boy, and frankly, that doesn’t worry me, or even really impinge on my consciousness.
There was the day when NewBoss arrived without warning to introduce a replacement for StarGuard. This is the fourth time this has happened with different guards, – and being moved is usually shorthand for being sacked without redundancy in a country without social security – with no reason, except that you are not an unemployed cousin of NewBoss – so after the tearful, distressing first time I have got my act together. So when NewBoss and WannaBeGuard turned up I warmly praised the existing team and thanked him for his insightful oversight. No room or reason for him to introduce WannaBeGuard and so off they went again. Jobs saved for another day.
Then late one Saturday night I got a text message from an unknown number. Unsigned. Addressed to me by name it laid out in considerable detail, over three screens, why I should pass 3000 KSh to the unknown caller. It talked of ‘staring death in the face’ but was non-specific whether it was me staring death in the face or the caller.
It’s a big scam here at present, sending death threats to random numbers and hoping for payment. Investigations have shown that most of the texters are already interred in Kamiti prison. Two wise and elderly Friends at the local Quaker meeting had described their fear and distress over coffee a few weeks previously. My mate T had handled hers by not answering the phone for a fortnight to any unknown numbers. Rather like those letters from Nigerian bankers, once you know you can giggle wryly. But still startling when you first receive them.
I didn’t sleep well that night, and at 4am realised that some of the details in the rambling text chimed with other snippets StarGuard had shared. Had he sent the text and not signed it? So I initiated another robust talk at 7am on Monday. If you want to discuss difficulties I am approachable, but you MUST do it face to face. It is unacceptable to send texts like this late at night and not to sign them. Get a grip. This is never to happen again. But the texter had disclosed an illness, treatable in UK, which is stigmatised here. He hadn’t told anyone else of his diagnosis he had texted, only his doctor and his mother. And now me. So in part I did understand why he hadn’t signed it, crazy though it seems, – but we’ve all been there, screwed up the courage for a difficult discussion, done it marvellously, and then tripped over the coffee table on the way out. And I know too that security guards are here two a penny. One written warning on your file and next time you’re out. I’ve had to intervene with BigBoss before for other guards who missed a single night-time clock-in on the hourly keypad because they were waiting for us to return home from a late night party, and got a written warning on their files, the first in seven years. So I kept my misgivings in house.
And so everyday life tottered on. There are security crunch points through the year. Carjackings spike markedly when school fees are due and in the month before Christmas. So in November I had passed the guards a phone, and would phone announcing imminent arrival at the statistical danger point, outside the gates. Returning home from a night out with D last week I phoned the guards. Phone switched off. Safely in through the gates I berated them. ‘No use to have it charging safely elsewhere, what if we’d been carjacked?’ ‘Oh but we haven’t had it for a fortnight. StarGuard said you’d given it to him. He’s had it at home.’ Enough is enough I thought. I guessed he’d sold it. It’s registered in my name and I had visions of someone else sending death threats on it, and the Black Maria coming to cart me off.
But next morning at 7am, when I seek to get to the bottom of this, StarGuard again is delayed without leave. And at 730 when our housekeeper, L, gets here, she comes anxiously and sits down, and says, I need to tell you a story. StarGuard, it turns out, had texted her when he was on leave, and said he needed 2000 KS to get back to Nairobi. She hadn’t wanted him to lose his job, so she’d sent it to him. It’s a lot of money. Now he won’t give it back. He shouts when she asks for it, so much so that the night guard had told her to stop asking as she could get beaten up. He’s got 2000 KSh from another guard, currently on leave. He scares her. Last week, while I was at work, she had caught him smoking dope while on duty. She thinks he might do other drugs here too. ‘Your daughter is nearly a young woman. She isn’t safe with him here.’ And on Friday while I was at work, he had twice, maybe high, set off the panic alarm, calling armed response units out, with no reason. Oh dear oh dear. Not really any room for doubt what to do now.
But I also know that a possible side effect of the illness which he hasn’t disclosed to anyone else, is paranoid delusions. Clearly we don’t want a guard who sets off the panic alarm, crying wolf. But I can’t help wondering whether he’s been self medicating with marijuana, rather than seeking more effective support which he can’t pay for. We need to be able to trust our guards. I need to know that the other staff are safe with them. So StarGuard had to go. I did write that he had previously been exemplary. That I hoped his employer would offer him medical support if he wanted it, as I did wonder whether the issue wasn’t medical in origin. That I hoped, if he were able to return to full health, they might retain him on their books, in a position under greater supervision. But I think its likely its whistling in the wind.
Discussing the situation one to one with the night guards, one explained that he’d realised something was up a month previously, and had requested NewBoss to move StarGuard. Which I’d foiled in my ignorance, completely misreading the script. So I’ve instigated a whistleblowing policy. Notes to teacher. Look, if you fear something is up, its better to tell me face to face. But I understand you might be worried or unsure, or don’t want to lose someone their job. But our security, especially that of our children, really matters. Just write something on a bit of paper, push it under the front door, so I know what to look out for. You don’t need to sign it. I promise I won’t act hastily. But not really so different from a night-time text.
And what do I take away from all this? It’s a reminder about partial understanding, first impressions, and even fifth impressions, when you are a foreigner. Icebergs lie unseen below the surface. When I was a languages student in the 1980s I spent a month in Eastern Europe, at that time behind the iron curtain. I spent a fortnight on a Quaker workcamp in East Germany. Eight of us were Young Quakers from the West, eight were hardpressed East German Quakers, part of a community of only 300 in the country. I learned to roof, I dug drainage ditches for sewage pipes, I learned loads of new East German vocabulary. But it was the conversations which linger. To be an active Quaker, a Christian, in East Germany then, demanded real courage. You would have to be brilliant to get into university. You would be unlikely to get your choice of course or subject. There would be compromises at every stage, and to stand out against them, as many of my friends had done, to refuse to join the youth organisation, to express your real views on the Berlin Wall in the staged discussion at youth club, would have long-term consequences which they took on nonetheless. In discussions late into the night they spoke of their realities and dilemmas and we listened. Until one of the East Germans took me to one side. ‘You do get, don’t you, that one of us is in the Staasi, the secret police? They wouldn’t let this gathering go ahead, East and West together, without at least one person reporting back on everything. We don’t know who it is, which of the eight participants. But none of us are stupid enough to believe that what you see is the reality.’ None of us that is, except we eight Westerners, blithely ignorant that the idyllic holiday community we thought we had built, had so many rocks below the surface for others.
I spent three weeks in Bosnia directly after the Dayton Peace Accord, visiting micro-NGOs working on human rights and community peace building issues to assess what support we might offer. I and my colleague hitched everywhere. It was so beautiful, so alpine, deep snow, – but landmines off the road and ruined houses everywhere. Driving up a mountain road our liftgiver stopped the car at a clearing. ‘This is where we organised the bodyswaps’, he said heavily. He described the combat horrors he had in mind on this seemingly peaceful track. Another town, Tuzla, walking alongside a beautiful park. ‘Can’t we walk in there, rather than on the road’ we asked. ‘I don’t like to go in there now,’ said our companion. ‘That’s where they lynched people. Hung them from those trees.’
Gerard Manley Hopkins expressed it so well again.
‘O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there.’
‘Cliffs of fall frightful.’ Freud, wartime refugee in London, spoke of his identity as ‘an island of pain, in a sea of indifference’.
In many ways this is such a beautiful country. And it matters to me to believe that the relationships I am making, the friendships which are growing, the reality I am experiencing, is real. But it is only partial. And mine is the luxury of wealth. And I need to be alert to the signs of dissonance, the ripples on the water, which suggest that something darker is lurking, or being experienced, by someone else.
In UK I would think buying a Jacqueline Wilson paperback or two a perfectly acceptable present for a nine year old girl’s birthday. Here I scan the back of the book again, recall the child’s parents and their backgrounds, – might it include talk of boyfriends, swearing, alcohol, failure to believe in God, divorce, Harry Potter [=witchcraft]? Or indeed, if its Jacqueline Wilson, the full monty of them all? Put that high-risk book back and opt for a board game. ‘Boring!’
In UK a Tesco Finest bottle of wine brings a smile of good will to the harrassed class teacher at the end of term. In Kenya I decide wine is fine for the mzungu teacher, but no, SecondBorn’s teacher is an evangelical Christian Kenyan, almost certainly teetotal, chocolates for her.
And what of our guards? Thinnish men, managing on the Kenyan minimum wage, already getting an additional food allowance from us. What would bring them and their families a happier Christmas? We opted for a food hamper, but which one? One of the families at school advertised their company’s hamper to the parent body. Contains palm oil (for cooking), a slab of lard, a tub of blueband margarine and a bag of soap powder. ‘They’ll love it!’ enthused MoreExperiencedFriend, but I couldn’t bring myself to buy what, to my eyes, was TheWorstPresent ever.
Tom always laughs at my choice of Christmas books for him. Some very clearly are bought with solely him in mind, ‘Wildlife Photography for Experts’ for example. Others, however, he identifies as the Crossover Presents, on which he assesses I will be checking his progress at weekly intervals during the year to come. ‘How did you get on with that detective novel? Can I read it now? Pur-lee-eesee.’ And, as the year wears on, ‘Oh do get a move on. I didn’t buy it just for you you know.’ So yes, part of my criteria in the family present-giving and beyond, is to select a present you hope will really give pleasure to the recipient, but wouldn’t mind getting yourself. Tub of margarine, stricken from the list.
So back to the guards. I opted in the end for a high-class Kenyan food hamper. No chocolates nor pickles and wines in this. But a bag of dried beans, two bags of flour, a bag of sugar, a box of teabags, a tube of minty toothpaste, cooking oil, candles and so on, all put together in a practical (but vile-looking) 1970s plastic basket. Very basic rations to a Western mind. But costing, I realised, a third of a monthly wage for our guards. I was anxious giving them, but did think, well at least they could sell them on if they don’t hit the spot. But everyone’s delight seemed unforced, and today, a week on, E came and said ‘The Christmas box, it so made our Christmas.’ Which in itself is so chastening. Last year’s homemade choice of goods – phonecard, cash, torch, biscuits, chocolates – were the first time his children had ever tasted chocolate.
This year I’d managed the expat Christmas food experience far better than last year. I’d got sourcing key bits in September (mince meat), had bought the troublesome red cabbage in early December, and had put in requests to friends visiting Nairobi for business (chocolate coins, more mince pies, Christmas cake). We and our guests had eaten well. So I was downcast beyond to hear that, when we returned from our two day safari, two children had been found sorting through our rubbish bags outside the gate. Sifting through the nappies of our toddler guests, the rotten food from two weeks ago, the wrapping paper and accoutrements of a Western Christmas, to find tins and plastic which they could sell on (which anyway our handyman had taken), and cast-off food which they and their family could eat. They’d gone by the time I heard. But Kenya is a land of poverty. Christmas inclusion can’t just mean giving to those within our electric fence.
Noughties life as a new Mum in small town Hertfordshire was a Big Shock. And yes, feminism still mattered, and yes the issues were just as present as a first tim Mum, but it fossilised to a private belief, without the community – or probably my volition – to move to action.
And now 2010 in Nairobi, and I weep at the stories that Kenyan women in my life share with me. The mother who interrupted the rape of her eleven year old daughter by a family member. How the police wouldn’t get involved. How the family had to move districts for security. Of the lack of any support services. The woman who tells of her rape by a family member who was paying her school fees. How she ran away just before A levels, but still hasn’t told her mother. The girls who tell of gatekeepers demanding sex to introduce you to a possible employer. My friend, a single mum, who works as a prostitute when she can’t raise the school fees for her children. The young girl who tells of the night time cries of her sister, being raped by her father.
These aren’t well worn stories which have been wrung dry in the telling and retelling. These are painful explanations of why something didn’t happen as it might have. In my friends’ minds they aren’t the point of the story, but a contributing factor to be endured, a thread in the pattern of their lives. They are the stories of the powerlessness of poverty. Of the impotence of the vulnerable when a justice system doesn’t do justice. The stories of why feminism matters, why we women need to listen and to advocate, and why feminism can’t be allowed to be a dirty word, even in the cocoon of Small Town UK. Take time today to pray for the women of Kenya.