January 21, 2013
I have just returned from two weeks in Kenya, most of which was spent on a home building trip with Habitat for Humanity. It's hard to sum up an experience like this, my first, in a blog post but I want to get something down in writing before the details start to seep from my brain.
As a Brit I grew up being aware of Kenya, hearing of it in terms of its colonial legacy and the books you read written by the Europeans who made their homes there - Out of Africa, The Flame Trees of Thika - tales that paint Kenya in a fairly romantic light and are told entirely from a white settler's point of view. The Kenya we saw on this trip was quite different. This year is the 50th anniversary of Kenya's independence from Britain, and we were building a house for a family that, like most Kenyans, has been living in sub-standard housing their whole lives. I'm seen standing here with Gladys, the wife of Hillary, the homeowner our team of 24 was building a house for just across the fields. Gladys is a schoolteacher as well as mother to two young boys, living currently in a two-room mud-walled house. There is no electricity or running water. Hillary is a farmer and Gladys and her family are immaculately turned out, but they're really looking forward to moving into a solid brick house - with a bathroom - that we made an excellent start on during our eight-day build.
Doing a Habitat build gives you an insight into a country and culture you could never get as a tourist, even a tourist on a shoestring. For one thing, we were staying in a town, Bomet, in the Rift Valley, that is well off the tourist path (for good reason - there is absolutely nothing to do there. Our group managed to buy the entire town out of wine in about two days).
Every day at the build site about 10 miles away in the village of Koita, villagers, including many children, flocked to watch the build's progress and to stare at the sweaty, sun-cream-slathered and hat-wearing westerners putting the house together, from digging the foundation to mixing concrete with shovels to slapping bricks and mortar into place (with considerable advice from the local masons working at the site - my most common piece of advice was 'not like that'). Also each day a few of the women in our group, and only the women, were asked to spend the day helping the ladies who prepared our lunch about a quarter of a mile away in and outside Gladys and Hillary's mud house. We washed dishes in the open air, peeled potatoes with a knife (a peeler not being anything the women owned) and pared pumpkin leaves before they were chopped up and included in the big potato dish that would be a main feature of lunch most days. Carol, Gladys's sister-in-law, is working on those leaves (below).
We felt totally welcomed by the family, which is rather extensive by American or British standards - Hillary, the homeowner, is one of 11 children. The people in Koita are surrounded by friends and relatives and I'm pretty sure they would not have it any other way. It's certainly the only way of life they know. They are like one big, extended family consisting of scores of people. The kids were utterly fascinated by us and our cameras and iPhones - bring one out and they would converge on the device like locusts, desperate to see themselves after a photo and intrigued by everything the iPhone can do. Given these kids have no toys and no TV, an iPhone with its hundreds of uses must have been beyond their imaginations. And for some of the children, we were the first white people they had ever seen.
I'm still synethesizing the trip and experiencing a few re-entry problems. Although our hotel was basic and lacked what many would consider the comforts many hotels would lay on (thought it did have hot water and electricity), I miss being there and the daily purpose that bound our group of 24 together, the simpler way of living (no internet access for me almost the entire time) and the fact that I learned something new almost every day while I was there. Add to that exquisitely beautiful countryside and friendly, welcoming people and London, where I am now, and New York seem pretty cold by comparison.
On the subject of women, which regular readers know I cover extensively, the women in Kenya undoubtedly work extremely hard - in most cases, harder than the men. I did a couple of interviews in Nairobi before I left for the Habitat build, and those will appear in the next episode of The Broad Experience, which I hope to produce next week.
In the meantime, do get in touch if you want to find out more about doing a Habitat for Humanity build in another country - they call it the Global Village program. I'm so glad I went, and hope to do another trip next year.
(Left: Dalal snaps a picture of herself and some of that day's influx of curious children with her iPhone. Hamming it up for the camera was a favorite pastime, particularly among the boys.)