Kenya Visit – There is beauty everywhere

August 15th, 2011
On Monday morning we board a plane from Mandera town to Nairobi. Although I loved last week’s road trip, I am secretly relieved that we are not facing another 19 hour drive on dirt tracks. I don’t think my body could handle it, especially after feeling so weak over the last few days.

During the two hour wait for take off (this is ‘Africa time’ I am told), I start chatting to a Somali man called Patrick, who works for UNICEF. He has been in Mandera to deliver emergency aid to the thousands of refugees who are fleeing the famine.

“Is this your first time in Kenya?” he asks.

I tell him yes, and that actually it’s my first visit to Africa.

“Your first visit to Africa and they bring you to Mandera? Why would they do that?!” he laughs.

This attitude is one which seems to prevail in Kenya, and in the UK too.

Mandera is remote. Mandera town itself, which lies at the northern most tip of Mandera county, is a 1200km drive from the city of Nairobi. The first 200km are proper roads with tarmac and relatively smooth driving. The remaining 1000km are dirt tracks, punctuated by potholes. You might see the occasional four by four truck but for the most part it is a completely desolate drive. Occasionally you’ll pass through villages (‘manyatta’), consisting of a few makeshift houses constructed with wooden frames and a thatched roof. Between the villages, there is nothing. Just miles and miles of dusty red earth, and scorched looking trees. Deforestation is rife in this region as burning wood from trees is the only means by which people access energy.

The sheer distance of Mandera from Nairobi contributes to its feeling of isolation. This is compounded by the fact that there is only a very slight government presence here. Nairobi rarely concerns itself with Mandera – much like the rest of the world. Indeed, when you read the Dorling Kindersley guidebook about Kenya, in the long section describing Northern Kenya, there is much about Turkana and Lodwar. But Mandera – in spite of its incredible history, its spectacular landscape, its wealth of wildlife – is completely forgotten.

Or if it’s not forgotten, then conversation about Mandera is invariably negative. For example: ‘don’t go to Mandera, there’s nothing there’ or ‘don’t go to Mandera, you’ll be a target for rape and sexual assault’, or ‘don’t go to Mandera – it’s home to el-Shebab’.

And yet all this is totally at odds with my experiences. Yes, there is poverty, and yes, the drought has devastated communities. But I have also seen the best of humankind here in Mandera.

I have visited villages playing host to thousands of refugees fleeing the famine in Somalia, sharing the little they have with these people who have nothing.

I have met with the Mandera Council of Imams which is promoting good deeds for the “betterment of the community” by assisting women who are victims of domestic abuse and promoting peace between clans.

I have chatted to nurses and doctors at the Mandera District Hospital doing all they can to tend to the scores of malnourished children here, and watched as a woman called Hawa, a nutritional assistant, softly strokes the face of Sapria, an 8 year old orphan, as if she were her own child.

And finally, I have seen what I have been desperate to see ever since I first started working for Practical Action two years ago. I have witnessed our own projects transforming lives.

I have met women who no longer have to walk hundreds of kilometres to fetch water, and who can instead get safe water supplies from Practical Action’s shallow wells.

I have shaken hands with pastoralists who, thanks to Practical Action’s vaccination programme, can rest safe in the knowledge that their herd of ‘shoats’ (sheep and goats) will be safe from common diseases.

And I have laughed with children who know the name ‘Practical Action’, who recognise it as a force for positive change within their communities.

Yesterday, our last day in this part of Kenya, Gemma and I both received gifts of beautiful henna tattoos all over our feet and hands – a thank you gift from Mandera. Every time I look at the intricate markings on my hands, I am reminded of the warmth, vibrancy and the optimism of Mandera’s people.

In spite of the poverty, in spite of the devastation caused by drought, in spite of what they say about Mandera, there is beauty here.

And I am so proud of Practical Action for seeing it.

Tomorrow morning we fly to Kisumu. What will I find there? A different Africa I think.

2 responses to “Kenya Visit – There is beauty everywhere”

  1. Jaymini Says:

    Your trip so far sounds incredible, good luck in Kisumu I’ll look forward to reading about it x

  2. Robert Bwage Says:

    This is a good experience. Welcome to Nyanza province,Kisumu.

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