People often ask me what I actually do, which is a bit of a hard question as the job is very varied, but one of my favourite places is in the field, with the team. Nowhere is this more true than in Kenya, where we can go on Safari for up to two weeks. Nice word ‘Safari’, conjures up thoughts of lodges, stunning views and magnificent wildlife, but the truth is a little more down to earth. Safari is just Swahili for ‘travelling’.
The whole team based in Nairobi consists of three vets, two Animal Health Assistants, two community development people and the office staff who keep it all together. We all work together, but within that structure the animal health assistants have also been specialising in harness work since I joined 4 years ago.
We’ve now done many trips together, know each other well and work together pretty closely. The reason we go out for such a long time is simply because Kenya is vast. Areas of work are reached by travelling to a central town, then working out of that in the neighbouring communities. During the months between my visits, Amos and Nicholas, our animal health assistants, will make a note of places where they may have problems that they want me to look at or projects that they want me to see. As the years have gone past it is becoming more of the latter and less of the first as they gain confidence and experience.
Yesterday we were in Mwingi, Western Kenya, not far from Lake Victoria (though I’ve not yet seen it) and right on the Tanzanian border. We were working with a women’s group, which is always good. Women tend to be easier to work with, more responsive as well as more responsible and, as an added and rare bonus, it gives us the chance for a slow start as they have husbands, children and chores to do before coming to meet us.
Our hotel is above and behind a bank, right next to a Mosque, so the day still starts early with the call to prayer around 5.30 am. I lie in bed a while, looking around the room. I have a table, plastic chair, a bed and a few nails to hang cloths on. Also there is a washbasin with a cold tap, and as a bonus there seems to always be water. One corner is blocked off, forming a small cubicle with one of the brilliant, but slightly scary electric showers that emit either freezing cold, or scalding hot water. The first time I ever saw one of these I looked at the bare wires that run to the heater which is housed in the actual shower head for quite a few seconds before deciding that if electrocution was common they would probably have stopped using them after the first dozen or so deaths, and decided that I stank and therefore had to chance it. I’ve now seen them all over the world, and, so far, all has been well. Last week’s hotel only gave cold water. Here it is so hot that I have to keep turning the power off, jumping under the water for the few seconds it takes to go from boiling to freezing, then jumping out to hit the power back on. There is also a toilet, no seat, and for some reason it seems to have been sunk into the ground by quite a few inches. There’s also a large and sharp crack in the rim, which makes visits there something to be done with haste. Of course, I’m lucky, I can afford the £5 a night charge. If I look out of my window I can see countless tin shacks all around which have none of these luxuries that I take for granted. The noise outside builds as quickly as the daylight and dawn and dusk here are quite short - about half an hour - time to get up.
We’re not due to meet for breakfast till 9 am, so no hurry, but by the time I’ve had my shower, dancing between the power switch and the water, checked my emails and checked yesterday’s notes it’s time to go. Breakfast is predictable, sweetened fruit juice, Chai (tea) and half a chapatti with eggs.
We discovered a problem yesterday. The women we are working with use their donkeys as pack animals. Many have wounds along their spine so the guys were here a few months ago showing them how to make a back protector from hessian sacks. Yesterday we discovered that the hessian sack was a thing of the past. I have been dreading this event for a long time. If we use nylon against the donkeys’ skin it causes sweating, softening the skin and making the wounds worse. The hessian sack has saved the day all over the world over the years, but is getting scarcer and more expensive. I’ve been thinking all night and only come up with using a blanket instead. Yesterday we asked the women to talk to their grandmothers and fathers, to ask them if they could remember any other materials that they used to use before nylon and plastic arrived. I am hoping that they will have something for us.
Breakfast over and we’re off on a 45 minute drive up one of the worst roads I’ve seen. It’s steep and rutted with occasional boulders in the way. But what a beautiful place - small farms everywhere, set in a landscape of rolling hills, woods and streams. We pass people ploughing with oxen, charcoal burners, brick makers. Every little village has a tailor and a small shop it seems as well as a bar, which at this hour is quiet.
Arriving in our village we have left the road, driving across close cropped grass. Nobody seems to have a truck here. Cattle and donkeys are pegged out at intervals quietly grazing. People mostly smile and wave hello as we pass until we come to the shop which also houses a community centre (or a room with benches). A couple of the group have already arrived and we can see some bundles of banana leaves, the dead ones stripped from the trees which make up the main crop here. There’s not much else. One woman arrives with a bundle of rags; this is not going to be easy.
“You know, in my home we used to make our sleeping mattresses from these” Nicholas, who has been looking dangerously thoughtful, says. “Pass me that plait.”
Amos and I have been standing messing about with the leaves. He’s been tearing of strips and plaiting them together while I’ve been twisting leaves into a rope. Nicholas fetches three sticks and places them in a line, about a foot apart. We get busy following his instructions, wetting the leaves with water from the nearby well, then plaiting them into strings. He ties two strings onto each stick, then lays a pile of flat banana leaves on top of one string before bringing the other over the top and tying the bundle securely. Then he repeats the process. “What do you think?” he asks. I comment that I reckon it could work, but we’ll need stronger rope “and a lot more leaves” he adds.
The women who have grown in numbers are showing a lot of interest, one asks “How about sisal?” “Do you have that here?” They laugh at me, “Yes Chris it’s all around you!” They cut some leaves of a nearby cactus and, placing it under a stick held down with their feet they strip off the fleshy part leaving the sisal fibres that every farmer in England knows so well. We split the group, some going off to fetch more leaves, some stripping sisal. They make it look so easy and kindly said that I had done very well too. I was stripping about one leaf to their ten! They quietly took mine aside and improved the job. Someone laughed, “They say yours is dirty Chris”.
The group now is buzzing and within 45 minutes we have a back protector made. I ask what they think. They are very happy, we’re sure that the back protector will work, and best of all it is completely free. We’re also lucky that we brought Lilian, a new vet with the team who has been travelling with us. This is her tribe, so she speaks the local language and has quickly integrated both with us and here in the village. She’s translating for both Nicholas, Amos and myself and you can see that the women are happy to be able to talk directly as not all can speak Swahili. This village will come into her area when she goes solo in a couple of months so she is delighted that we have made such a good impact during her introductory visit.
After fitting the new protector to a donkey and having a soda from the shop we have a meeting to wind up. We also advise the group not to copy the idea for a week or two, check it works before you all make one. It’s raining now, we finished just in time. It’s one of those heavy storms that means we have to shout to be heard under the tin roof, but it soon passes. Then it’s time for the women to go. We have a couple of chores to do on our way back down the mountain, trying to find our contact for another nearby group. Nicholas usually drives, but throws me the keys, “You drive Chris”. “Thanks mate, the last time you asked me to drive it was because there were a lot of police on the road, what’s the problem this time?” Nicholas laughs, “Hey, you know they’re less likely to stop a Muzungu, but I’m just sleepy, lots of mosquitoes last night”.
As we make our way down the road to Mwingi I can’t help feeling a bit chuffed with myself. My little team have changed so much over the last few years. They are thinking ‘outside the box’ using local materials to make harness and pack saddles, experimenting and learning new ideas, gaining in experience and confidence as well. Can’t wait for a cup of tea and a snack, then it’ll be back to my room, catch up on my notes, emails, then supper. I think I owe them a beer tonight as well. The last thought in my head as I doze off to sleep is that it’s time I wrote a blog, well that and wondering what tomorrow will bring, no worries, whatever the problem is we’ll find some way of getting round it. It used to be ‘I’ will find a solution, but now it is ‘We’. Now that feels good.