Sarah Kutahi

Baringo, whirlwinds dominated the bare fields. I had to keep covering my eyes with the back of a sweaty hand. The strange thing is every time the whirlwinds would start they would head straight for the kitchen. When we were playing football which I will expound on later, the whirlwinds kept blinding the goalkeeper of the mentors’ team. The amount of loose soil did not make the situation easier. The team of mentees wore trousers during the game but they were not spared just like their opponents who mistakenly came out in very brightly coloured cotton shorts. Unlike the mentees, the mentors left the field wearing socks made of soil up to the knees.  

Lucky enough, Ngubereti Secondary had an alternative source of water from the traditional rain water source. When it rains, many locals harvest and store rain water in small containers, oblivious of the fact that when Peace Ambassadors visit an area, they do so in large numbers. However with salty water from a borehole, young Peace warriors, learned to appreciate fresh water.

My lips got chapped, from the hot sun and my nose got covered in what looked like the cracks of dry clay soil that had previously held water. The makuti hat I had bought in Mombasa from an Indian man struggling with Swahili ended up serving all the ladies of the family except me.

These ordeals presented an opportunity to reflect on the drought that has been eating the nation since late 2016. Newton a form four student struggled to remember the last time they had rain when it hit him, “when was the last time you guys visited?” he asked while scratching his head coupled with a narrow stare in the sky. Without giving me the chance to respond which I thank God for because I forget dates easily; he fiercely responded “that was the last time this soil got soaked with rainwater”.

7.3 billion humans in the world all need freshwater. The only percentage available at once for our use is less than 1% of fresh water, one would wonder, “how well is it distributed and utilized?” During our walk in the village, we came across a watering hole that was almost dry. The many livestock in the village came from all directions to drink a semblance of water. . This scarcity is bound to lead to conflict.

When the lack of natural resources is reported countrywide, life in large cities is not interrupted except for the necessary rationing. City dwellers are more concerned with the consumption and little about the production and availability of the resources.

Cities do not experience hardships that are experienced in the arid and semiarid areas (ASALs). They are given priority in the distribution of water hence the lack of piped water in the ASALs. Moreover cities have also recorded major contribution to the wastage of the scarce resource. Unlike Mogotio the village we visited, water that has cleaned dishes in the city can never be used for mopping the house. I was shocked to see the amount of water a grown woman uses to shower which would make one wonder “is it necessary to fill bath tubs?” The manicured loans also are dependent on the clean water from the tap instead of the recycled water from the toilets which would lessen the pressure.

Back in Baringo, the high level of poverty in this county has heightened the recurring drought over the years. Poverty was recorded at 58.6% in 2006 but with the alarming birth rate, this figure is probably higher. When the Kenya Meteorological Department warned of the possible reduction in the quantity of rainfall as a result of climate change, not much could be done by the residents. Their inability to develop larger water storage facilities or even sink boreholes to match the population and the number of livestock renders them susceptible to the ruthless weather patterns.

Our visit to mentor the young and aspiring professionals was the very first official national event for the Peace Ambassadors. We refer to them as national because, they get to target members countrywide. These mentors who were both at the early stages of their career and in institutions of higher learning, were in Baringo to uphold a commitment they made of walking with the high school students from the time they set foot in high school.

This time I was on official duty of recording all sessions between the form ones and their mentors. It gave me a chance to listens as mentors like Abdi a student of Environmental Science at Maseno University took on the heavy task. He was diligently sharing all the career options that his mentees could choose from as guided by his mentees’ interests. He offered nuggets of wisdom on issues like school performance.

This term we were out to build their confidence in capabilities and talents, hence the football match I mentioned earlier. We quickly put together a team of mentors to play against young, smart and energetic students of Ngubereti secondary school. The thought of the team facing these masters forced mentors into a quick desperate workout the previous day, a walk of 6Kilometers.

The time the game started I could not help but cast my mind back to the film about the legendary football Edson Arantes do Nascimento. In the movie, he acquires the nickname Pele which he is famously known by when he rises to fame as a result of the extraordinary ginga style of play. Ginga combines dance and music to give forth a unique martial arts style. This style was introduced in Brazil in the 16th Century by African slaves. It was later incorporated in cultural activities like football which put Brazil on the global football map. Pele was among the players who popularised ginga. Though not in Pele’s legendary league, some of the taller students played beautiful football and gave their mentors a run for their money. In the end, the young mentees won by 3 – 2. The game helped in cementing the mentor-mentee relationships

We were glad to witness more mentees demonstrating confidence and interest in extracurricular activities compared to the time we introduced the platform. The once timid models were the ones doing solo acts of rap and comedy. One girl asked the audience to complete her sentences with the syllable ‘te’. She began and in the middle got the audience in an uproar of laughter when she mentioned breasts in Swahili (matiti). This for a moment took our minds away from the scotching sun, dusty fields, and salty drinking water.

Mumo a mentor, was going back to Masinde Muliro University, lucky for her she was going to Kakamega. With the numerous eucalyptus trees which break the powerful wind and the mega climatic boost from the Kakamega Forest, she will hardly worry about the extreme hardship. The only thing boggling her was how she had to come up with a strong face for her mentees when bidding them goodbye. She was careful to neither appear too subtle nor too emotionally expressive to the fact that she was leaving. Her mentees Sarah and Brenda on the other hand wouldn’t let go of their mentor when the thought of her disappearing for another four months crossed their minds.

Occasional “I will miss you, keep in touch” were popped in the middle of a last minute conversation until Mumo took a sudden dash for the room we were staying.

“I had to put an end to that emotional havoc I was bringing my way” she confessed during final morning circle just before leaving Ngubereti secondary school.

“Kuishi kwingi, ni kuona mengi” a famous saying in Kenya that warns young people to wait their turn for wisdom to be bestowed on them accompanied with grey hair and wrinkled skin. The lady seated next to Amani in a matatu could not agree with this statement, she fumbled with the little English words she knew, to communicate with her five year old granddaughter. From the look of things, she had been visiting her daughter in the big city of Nairobi from a humble rural home, and was shocked to be dealing with a child her greying hair could not save her from.

Amani finally got to Mbale the unknown destination at the end of the long nine hours of gathered tales and endless eating. Amani who was in the company of three other friends could not help but nib on popcorn, fried peas and biscuits that her friends provided, with her eyes still stuck on her novel. Among her friends was one guy with a demeanour of a bad boy who spent all his time picking on every passenger in the matatu which was mostly followed by a series of thunderous laughter.

She regretted having taken a friend’s advice of taking at least three litres of water every day to heal her cracked skin. The skin sure is supple but she had to make-do with filthy and used toilets at random stopovers.

During breaks, she was glad to stretch her legs and study the culture of the people she would meet in Mbale. Luckily a matatu that belonged to the same Sacco as the one she had boarded pulled into the parking. The passengers were mostly “big boned”, with butts and bellies extending on either sides of the body. Women were pleased to have conformed to the standards of their new destination, Nairobi. They wore wigs that seemed misplaced on their heads and high heeled shoes they could hardly walk in and for this they rewarded themselves with a soda as they surveyed the level of attention they had brought upon themselves.

She buried her head into her novel as soon as they left and only lifted it when they got to an unfamiliar place. The break from her novel was not disappointing. She was glad to encounter the confusion wrapped in the crops that were either cane or napier grass, millet or sorghum, sisal or the ornamental cousin. She sank into her seat to have a better view of the pairs of rollers, sparrows, sterling and weavers perched on the electricity lines with occasional dives at flies and crops for their feed.

In less than one kilometre, she had crossed three bridges, each with different activities. The first one harboured throngs of naked kids who intently covered their groins with one hand as they washed with the other free hand. The soapy kids took alternating dives in the river and went straight to hang on guava trees with bare butts. The second bridge is where the driver amid crunching sounds of gravel, almost exchanged jabs with a careless driver who wanted to overtake them yet the laws of traffic in Kenya forbids overtaking on a bridge. The third bridge was under construction, and so they were forced to take a diversion.

The three bridges may belong to a meandering river, because the scattered shrubs and the euphorbia species that stood untamed gave the town away to semi-arid, that three whole rivers cannot allow. She had for a long time thought, the condition was only prevalent in the east, north and coastal parts of Kenya, she was seeing the threats of famine and drought, if water land and food were not utilized carefully.

“Whine your waist” played in the background leading Amani to a siesta that put an end to the story recording.

Amani together with her three friends were received and taken to their home for the next three adventurous days. Day one saw the four friends interact with jolly women who required that they speak the local language. The scene of the granny in the matatu came rushing to Amani’s confused mind. She could not use the languages she was accustomed to, because the eager women did not make a word of it. It was their turn to mumble foreign words that left the bad boy bemused as he in turn threw a few Luo words to the ladies. His muscular body fit closely to his casual shirt which made him even more popular with the old women.

Later on, Amani and her friends visited the next village and were surprised to see scores of children pounding rocks. Western Kenya is well known for its gigantic rocks including one that produces water earning it the name “crying stone”. The tale of the “crying stone” somewhat resembles that of Moses in the Bible. It is said, the locals were suffering from a long drought, and it took a very powerful prayer to get the water to ooze out of the rock to quench the thirst of the villagers. Another tale was that of Luanda Magere, the Luo legend who turned into a rock when his enemy pieced his shadow. The Western part of Kenya is therefore well endowed with rocks, the rocks that are giving the road construction contractors the hardest time.

Although the rocks that stand erect even in shambas give the area unique scenery, they pose a major challenge to the locals. The rocks however earn revenue for the locals who break them into small pieces that are used to construct houses. In return some space is freed for mrere, managu and saga which are the famous traditional vegetables consumed in this region. The people of western are mostly farmers, who farm maize, potatoes, beans and even tea leaves. This is the area stereotypically known for its love of Ugali, chicken and tea. Visitors look forward to the well prepared ugali, and chicken that is keenly dissected to fit every aspiring eater. Tea is served after every meal; they currently have a tea factory to support their lifestyle.

Matatu and motorcycle rides are filled with drama, Amani discovered. Matatus exceed passenger limits but the unwilling seated passengers harden the wrinkles on their foreheads to let the unsuspecting Amani know that she was not welcome to squeeze. However this was not applicable to the bad boy, who insisted on sitting wherever he could, noting wryly that “the conductor was not stupid to stop for us.” He went on to push and pull and create space for Amani together with the other friends. He seemed to truly believe in the matatu adage that ‘there is always space for one more.’ This motto also applied to the boda bodas (public motorbikes), which bundled three happy riders at the back and roared on at breath neck speed.

Amani was glad to be in the company of her friends when night won the battle against sunshine. Her butterfly filled stomach, could not stop rumbling when, a night runner was reported to be taking rounds in the compound. She fell asleep immediately after the night runner was literally turned into the hunted. The unknown person was left with no option but to allow Amani and her hosts to have a goodnight rest when bad boy came of the house with a machete and pretended to sharpen it in order to use of the culprit. She was ready to leave for her home early the next morning to avoid a repeat of the night runner incident.

The tranquillity the rural area awed Amani. Despite the presence of a few polythene bags whirling on her feet, plant and animal waste were out of sight. Not even the overflowing sewers made an attempt to appear with a foul stench in the middle of the decent environment. Amani regretted that her visit had come to an end and that Nairobi full of blocked drainage systems awaited her. The robin chats in the bush that had confidence in their wings and hardly flew away on the sight of intruders would be replaced with marabou stocks and crows in Nairobi. The situation made her wonder if she preferred the green pastures in the city or the actual vegetation in the rural areas she visited.

The high fashion supermodel that always caught the attention of both men and women for her high Janet Jackson cheek-bones and the body figure that was well complemented by her elegant height is mama Jabali. The young delightful sight was approached by many baring complements; some wondered why a goddess like her existed amongst them. She was consulted to give advice and coach “wannabe” models during beauty pageants, guaranteeing a win to the models that followed her word to the letter.

Jean-not her real name-who as a freshman ran for a crucial student’s council seat had given birth. The Gender and social welfare contestant was not only strong willed in politics but also in group discussions where she made subjects clearer and willingly lessened the burden of group assignments by offering to tackle the tough questions. Her intelligence offered a memorable narration of Greek mythologies, biographies and environmental systems to her attentive audiences. She was too busy for the juicy celebrity gossip, “that crap will fill space in my brain for nothing” she would lament dismissively adding that it did not make sense to obsess over the lives of people who had made it in life.  

The only things I had in common with Jean is that we both showered but I am pretty sure she showered more times than I did, on top of which she carried hand wash and several packets of both wet and pocket tissue. She cautiously watched where she sat, washed her fruit before eating it. By fruit I mean even the avocado and bananas that came with disposable covers or rather peels. I admired all these thus my ability to narrate it without leaving any detail. There is no way I could have matched that kind of hygienic standards.

I accepted my special place in the society as a tomboy, thanks to her girly standards that I could not keep up with. She has put on a little weight but that is not a bother to her as evidently indicated by her WhatsApp status “I know I weigh a tonne now... yes it’s totally worth it” at the end of which she has added the emoticon of a boy child’s head. She is therefore forced to share her younger brother’s clothes.

The young conservative, devoted father and partner was glad to receive Jabali. He worked two jobs to ensure the mother and child had a solid landing once they came back from Jean’s parents’ home. Whenever he did not visit he called and left an “I love you two” text message shortly after hanging up the call. This made Jean smile and sigh with relief as she passed the message of love to Jabali with a kiss on every inch of his face.

Two of my friends and I made sure to see baby Jabali before he outgrew the cuteness that comes with the new born. Jean who speaks in a low tone stands up with a grin between her now rosy cheeks that instantly informs us that chances are we could be dealing with a totally different person and so we should recalculate our moves and conversations. She stands up to give us light hugs and later on let us know that she was avoiding giving us our dream shower filled with milk. Her breasts were full with milk and any slight squeeze resulted in the serious oozing of it.

The bottles of hand wash had doubled in quantity; this was shared with everyone who dared to ask to hold her son. “Jabali caught flu, I did not like it. He now has a rash on his tongue which makes him very uncomfortable hence the caution”, said Jean protectively

“Forgive me for being too cautious it comes with the job” she adds amid a guilt smile. Jabali was sleepy the entire time we were visiting with them for he had not slept the entire previous night. For this reason Jean asked me to spend the night to assist when he would be stubborn again.

I was allowed to sleep earlier because according to Jean, I would be the one to keep an eye on the bubbly and cunning Jabali at night. I was awoken by tales of Jean’s experience, she spoke of mothers who experienced post partum depression for finding it tough to handle the aftermath of child birth. She consummately narrated a story of a woman whose family was furious for thinking black magic was used on their daughter who was now acting like a mad person. We were joined by her expectant friend who listened keenly to the recommendation from a woman who had barely come close to experiencing such. “Take time out and watch birds play in the trees, even if it cries, give your brain a break” Jean advised expertly.

Jean lied on her back held her legs by the toes; she pulled on the legs and simultaneously thrust forward as if trying to stand up. The expectant lady, who went by the name Esther, watched, closely without blinking as Jean demonstrated the easiest way to push the baby during labour. Esther burst into laughter but stopped immediately on reading the message of concern on Jean’s face

At night Jabali was up as expected and therefore I was asked to wash my hands or use the hand wash before embarking on my duty for the night as the nanny. The first few hours were smooth, I held him and he instantaneously fell asleep. His sleep lasted less than five minutes after which a short cry followed. The cries were mollified by a gentle rocking as advised by mama Jabali or a pat on the back while Jabali was leaning on the shoulder. There are times Jean took Jabali to breast feed him this was triggered by a loud continuous shrill that sent Jean to her feet. “I know that tone” Jean would say as she stood with her breast already out or a made up song which started with soft humming. This was the last time I held Jabali for that night, I slept and the next morning Jean told me, Jabali together with her went to sleep at mid night.

I came back home to my parent’s place only to realize the chicken that had roamed the house with her two chicks replicated the same behaviour as Jean. The chicken picked fights with anyone or any object that dared come close to her chicks. It caught bugs and looked for bits of spilt foods to feed her chicks. The announcement for food was made official with a clacking call from the mother chicken as the chicks ran responding with an exited squeaky call.

The chicken mother ensured every single chick was present for cuddling under her wings during breaks and at night. One chick died and therefore the only thing left behind to carry on the legacy of the family was one loud chick. The feeble creature made the same loud noise as if missing its sibling but was silenced when offered grains of rice. It followed the mother chicken around. Any attempt by the mother chicken to leave was a chance for the loud cry to resume.

June and July are cold months in Kenya, for the past two months I had made a habit of wearing my sleeping bag even during the day. I was not going to take chances with the cold that saw us record the highest electricity bill since the year started. Apparently 17 degrees is not cold at all according to a friend in the UK. In light of the facts presented I allowed the remaining chick to join me in the luxury of the warmth and cosiness of my sleeping bag under the watchful eye of its mother. It took pleasure in the invite and hardly made any noise while at it. The chick took short breaks to feed but made sure to locate even warmer spots near my armpits and even behind my pony of hair when it came back.

I remembered Jean using a heater to warm her room and ensuring a thick layer of Vaseline covered Jabali’s delicate skin in addition she made him wear layers of clothes. I also recalled the noises that alarmed Jean, prompting her to breast feed Jabali or to simply hold him, they were the same noises the chick made, when it was alone or when it was uncomfortable.

The last chick passed on two days after its food sack was badly severed by a careless cousin who accidentally stepped on it. I eagerly fought the compulsion to shed a tear or two when I saw it squeaking helplessly; lying immobile on the spot beside the ball of food it had consumed that day. In less than three minutes it was up on its feet. Jean did not equip me with the knowledge of what to do if that happened, so I tied tape around its neck amid protests from its mother who had to be restrained. The tape was gone by morning. Its efforts to feed were rendered futile since the food escaped through the opening, which it ate again. The food sac dried leading to its death.

GN... If one happened to visit the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT) which is located next to Nairobi National Park and opposite Banda school on Magadi road, the embodiment of the mother elephant by humans is witnessed. The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust was established by Dr Dame Daphne Sheldrick in memory of her husband. It has managed to raise and released over 150 orphans back into the wild. Since 1977 DSWT has been rescuing abandoned elephant and rhino calves and assigning a care taker to ensure the absence of the cow is not felt. A blanket is used to cover the calf and it is fed every two hours with formula milk which contains less fats. Elephants have a poor digestive mechanism therefore cannot be fed using cow milk. The care takers go to the extent of ensuring the calf does not spend nights alone by keeping it company throughout.

I was at it again with Mumo of course. This time round in Baringo, on a mission to mentor high school students on a vast number of issues. In order to aid their transition from high school to tertiary level of education accompanied with resilience in tackling societal difficulties such a sex in relationships at their age and career choice and development.

I was sitting next to the plumb, dark, pot bellied man who wore a grin to let me know he was the driver and my companion in the matatu till we reached our destination. I experienced a quality inherent in all drivers; the travelling made them so talkative and so knowledgeable. History and other vital information was brought to my attention about sites such as Lake Naivasha being a fresh water lake and that people mistook it for Lake Elmentaita because they were both rift valley lakes and they were not very far from each other. The shimmering blueness of the waters at a distance accompanied with the vegetative fence was proof enough that water held life in high regard and in return offered a delight to the sight of many.

Topics were switched without my knowledge and at some point I found myself comfortably agreeing that clandestine relationships led to wastage of wealth. “Too many consumers, lead to the hurried depletion of money, a resource which is very hard to get a hold of” he explained confidently with a scorn to emphasize the point. This he did as he offered me roasted maize, water and many edibles he bought by the road side with me in mind

Throughout the journey I wished I were a robber, because by the time we were getting to Nakuru, which is where we would board the next Matatu to Baringo, I knew how much wealth my driver had, and where it was stored.

We assembled in Nakuru in order to wait for every other Peace Ambassador coming from the East, the West, South and Northern Parts of Kenya to ensure Ngubereti Secondary learned lessons with everlasting value.

Peace Ambassadors Kenya, a youth led organisation which was established in the year 2012, to ensure peaceful coexistence among communities was the host organisation. This organisation adopted various strategies in implementing its vision; one of them being the mentorship of the remotely placed high schools. The programme which pairs a high school and a university student or a professional with similar interest, works to ensure students who are exposed to a myriad of challenges feel like they are part of a bigger Kenyan picture. The programme is currently in three schools, one in West Pokot, Lamu and Baringo.

For the two full days of mentorship and the three arguably greatest nights in the history of Peace Ambassadors Kenya, I managed to mentally record stories to make this blog post interesting and informative enough. First it was our arrival which had the word adventure written all over it. It was raining heavily, which we came to find out would happen throughout our night stays. During the daytime, the sun would suck dry all the water making an attempt to reach the roots of the scarcely populated vegetation. The hot sun gave everyone a permanent tan that is usually difficult to spot on a melanin engulfed skin, but this was not the case, dark became darker.

The newbie’s came packing, reminding everyone of a form one student and a freshman reporting to school or university respectively for the first time. This was a ploy by the veterans to make fun of them since they had no idea of what transpires during our visits to the schools for mentorship. Three to four t-shirts with one bottom is enough

Just like the case of Mau, mattresses were laid on the ground but there would be no exploring on this rainy night rather, the participants made use of this time to catch up, play board games and to make unnecessary noise just to annoy introverts. A hot meal of sukuma wiki, ugali and meat was served officially allowing every individual to decide how their night would end.

Baringo is a lovely county, with very hospitable and very loud people who straight away notice that you are new in the area but become very helpful. The number of acacia trees and shrubs that cover the bare rocky land gave clues of the climatic condition of this region. Sisal does very well here. The presence of the equator monument near Ngubereti Primary school added to the number of clues about the weather of this region.  

The first official day of connecting with students came, received with a compulsory shower to the few who thought the morning dew and chill could not penetrate the traces of blubber underneath their skins. The morning circle which is a well preserved tradition of Peace Ambassadors Kenya, allows individuals to make known their expectations, disappointments and their inspirations in joining the mentorship programme. It is at this point that individuals introduce themselves by mentioning, where they are from, their full name, and the professional course undertaken in the institutions of higher education.

We all got a chance to meet our mentees. My mentee is called Judy Korir, a gracefully tall and slender form four girl with a beautiful face and aura about her. I met Judy last year and she made clear her passion for travelling, which was sparked by the only trip she has ever been on; National Museums of Kenya in Nairobi. Ever since then she has been dreaming of visiting Eldoret for reasons she is not aware of, “Probably it is because I will be meeting my destiny of bathing in luxuries over there” said Judy amid laughter that had an indication that she was not serious nor obsessed about luxuries and the thought of it was enough for her.

She also wanted to become a doctor but was afraid the lack of access to information would deter her dreams. This was a school that did not have a television to show what was happening outside their school. The school did not have the capacity to purchase newspapers neither did it have even the smallest collection of literature to fill the eager minds with knowledge. I asked Judy whether she knew any female leaders; the response I received was disheartening as she gave me a straight “no”.

We got to have interesting times with our mentees, it started with photos which were shared on social media immediately and after the visit. We enjoyed sessions of team building exercises and challenges with the most innovative and creative team emerging as the winner. These sessions allowed our minds to be refreshed for yet another session of intimate discussions for the different sexes. Sexual and reproductive health and rights are was the topic of discussion allowing the girl and boy students separately to speak openly about the challenges they face on a daily basis both in school and at home.

I am a woman so I only know of what girls were taught. Various mentors spoke of the dos and don’ts when it comes to handling the down-town madam who is also known as the vajayjay. We used all sorts of names on the vagina to make it fun and in order to reduce the awkwardness that comes with this topic; it also becomes our free pass to getting access on the issues that bother them. We equipped them with information they would need in case, God forbid, they were raped.

We hypocritically discouraged sex and recommended it for marriage, yet at the back of our minds we are aware that engaging in sex should be a personal choice. The remoteness of the school; makes it easy to impart such knowledge on delicate subjects such as premarital sex or sexual orientation. We mainly capitalize on what they know and reduce the amount of new information coming to them. This is usually a risk we are willing to take, however, we remain reachable on phone when a tough one comes knocking.

The evenings were made official by the heavy nimbus clouds, announcing what would befall the land for the better part of the night. New games were invented for each night we spent in Ngubereti Secondary School however poker prevailed and on the last night an improvised dance ceremony.

With that said and done. We left the place feeling like we deserved a second life for giving a feel of importance to persons who felt undeserving of such a visit. We will not be allowed in the school next term, no one will, orders from the government, leaving us with the option of visiting in 2017.

Green Note

While in Baringo, I saw the Prosopis Juliflora shrubs that didn’t stand out in any way until I learnt that the  Cummins cogeneration Company is seeking to generate 11.5 MW worth of biofuel from them. If this works out well, then Baringo will be one of the few places in Africa where energy is literally grown!

In the middle of the disorder of an informal settlement, accompanied by musty scents from the never ending sewer in the labyrinth of the drainage trenches and hips of solid waste that occasionally harbour human waste in the name of flying toilets, lies a troubling environment. This honourable oasis had renewed the hope of the inhabitants of Mukuru Kayaba, sending most minds and bodies reeling at its sight. It had this effect on the most of them who were comfortable in iron makeshifts and could only see stone buildings in DJ Afro movies.

Mukuru Kayaba is one of Kenya’s well known informal settlements found in Nairobi. It is said informal settlements mushroom out of the ground to offer cheap labour to industries and nearby middle class settlements. This was the case with Mukuru Kayaba, it is located in the heart of the industrial area of Nairobi, and is home to thousands of people that provide cheap labour to dozens of nearby factories.

In the middle of this slum lies Mukuru Primary School. Since 1985, this school was the only source of formal education for both adults and children from Mukuru slums.

Mornings in Mukuru are characterized by hasty movement of workers making their way to industries on foot in order to save their meagre wages. As their parents eke out a living through any means necessary, children are often left to their own devices. Many end up in idle existence at best and violent crime at worst. It is against this backdrop that Mukuru Primary School strives to offer invaluable education.

Over the years, the school has managed to nurture great talent that includes Vincent Ateya of Royal Media, Eunice Mwende a nurse at a prominent hospital, Jeff Muli a sports journalist, and Catherine Wanjiru a leading advocate and renowned feminist.

The year 2007 was the year that saw the flimsy structure that had for a long time supported what was called a school for the longest time get dismantled by hammers and indignant glances from users who were fed up. Students used to enjoy the rainy seasons the most, the iron sheet roof would put an unexpected end to long boring classes, giving them time to share stories from home about a battered wife, about the marriage of a drop out, about a foetus found lying in the clogged drainages. The iron-walled structures also made it easy to avoid punishments as they could easily spy on teacher through gaping holes in the walls.  

By the time the school was receiving a face-lift, it had been providing both education and food to thousands of children. The school had become an asylum where children from tough homes had their anger mollified through child play and the tales of Aladdin and the gini. The school had also become a safe haven from social evils such as drug abuse, sexual abuse, early child marriages, and robbery.

The face-lift gave the school a new face - storey buildings neatly arranged to allow for the brief playing ground that could only be utilized for catching the 10 am sunshine. Hoarding untold stories from both students who represented their parents’ view of the whole matter and the teachers who did not have the slightest idea of how it got there.

During my last visit to the school I met John who stood in a corner outside his classroom as the other pupils played happily. John was a class eight pupil and at his age he ought to have been engaging in the same manner of play. The thought of a bright future crossed his mind, evidenced by a microscopic smile that would be dismissed the moment it tried to mess with his intelligence. His hand slipped to a plastic Rosary given to him by his mum. The only parent he and his siblings had ever known.

When I asked John why he chose to isolate himself, his answer was soft and hesitant, “a lot is at stake for me to pretend I needed to play for the mere reason of being a child.”

His mind was focused on securing one of the highly competitive scholarship slots. Eighty students had to compete for the only two scholarships that were available. These scholarships were offered by local corporates like banks plus both local and international donors..

Despite the efforts of these children to perform, very few transitioned to the next level of education. The stone building had turned well wishers against them. To an outsider, the school was now a state of the art and therefore its students had changed with the changing times as well. The truth of the matter was that these pupils still had to put up with the darkness that came with poverty.

The reduced number of scholarships was one of the benefits trampled underfoot. In addition, the health of the students was threatened by diarrhoea and other water borne diseases from the poorly managed drainage that often resulted in sewage mixing with drinking water. The emotional well being of these students who are forced to adapt to situations that extend into their adult life is wanting as well. All these alarming conditions have made the stone building in the middle of Mukuru Kayaba a mockery or is it the copper snake that people look at and assume wellness.

This building has left residents wondering whether the success of education is evaluated by improving structures or by improved overall quality of education.

This is the plight of John the class 8 student. If he doesn’t get one of the two scholarships, he will move from life beyond the glittering school structures will be mired in the slum’s squalor.

  

 

The first time Mumo heard about Mau her adrenaline pumped to levels that only allowed her to compose songs she would sing with any kid she came across in this foreign land. Mumo is one of the long serving Peace Ambassador with a robust love for trees. The agreeable and smooth tongued Mumo boisterously took advantage of any tree planting activity to fulfil the desires of her undying passion. There is no way she was going to miss out on Mau, Kenya’s famous forest.

It was Saturday the fourth day of June the day Mumo had long been waiting for. This is the day Mumo dressed in all black, a sweater tied around her waist, sun glasses on her forehead with a hat arrived in an unfamiliar place. It was later discovered that Mumo had boarded and alighted three public service vehicles finishing up with a motorcycle ride that was not that pleasant thanks to the hilly terrain and potholes on the only accessible road. She was also heard lamenting about the scorching sun which she did not expect given the reputation of forested areas.

She booked her spot on the floor among her peers where mattresses were laid and left to explore the area. That evening Mumo spend her time making acquaintances with the locals among them the village elder who also introduced himself as the lover of peace. Simon was his name. He warmly welcomed Mumo and some of her friends to his home where they learned the culture of the host community, the Ogieks.

The visitors were served honey and meat which she later on found out was the staple food of the community for ages. Community members coexisting with nature in Mau forest complex. Mumo was made aware of the segetiet (cultural spoon) that was used by the mother in-law to give honey to her daughter in-law as a symbol of acceptance into the family.

As the story telling was going on the authoritative and masterful Simon presented Mumo with moratina the local brew which she said was surprisingly sweet and tasted like fruit. However the local brew was meant for special occasions and was only taken by wazee in marking the day, therefore she was only allowed two cups.

The scorching sun was long gone by evening, replaced by a stinging cold told in desert tales. Mumo was welcomed to a harsh reality that the sweater tied on her waist could not handle without the reinforcement of Maasai shuka a friend threw on her. The scarf that was diligently tied on her head to make a modern, playful fashion statement had to be shared with the neck. It was hard to believe the sun that did not tolerate the idea of a string of sweat taking its time to travel across ones face, was overpowered by the cold that would extend into the night and get to its extreme at around 3am.

The bundling up of animals in the poles or during winter was therefore the only survival technique to go for in this situation because even the warmest of sleeping bags had no chance against the cold. Without Mumo’s realisation, the hooting of owls in the night was quickly and gladly overcome with the knocking of wood peckers and other daylight dominators.

The following day was a Sunday, fifth day of June. The cold rays of the rising sun brushed by Mumo’s skin as she walked through the thick forests in search of the unknown and to also commemorate the World Environment Day in a glamorous 10 Km Trees for Peace Walk followed by tree planting session. As she together with her peers gathered in an abyss of confusion to plan, boisterous students from universities, high schools and primary schools started trickling in.

After the walk was flagged off, Mumo started feasting on the tantalizing sceneries of valleys and landscapes that were dotted with the tranquil greenness of the shrubs.

Land as a resource, arable land for that matter, is considered a piece of diamond in a country deeply rooted in agriculture and therefore, land also becomes the cause of many conflicts in Kenya. As Peace Ambassadors, Mumo together with her peers were preaching conservation as a means of protecting forests from farming and other forms of human encroachment. Through such reforestation efforts of the Mau forest, surrounding communities would be forced to see one another as natural conservation allies.

In attendance, University of Nairobi, Kenyatta University, Pwani University and the host university, Egerton University, just to mention but a few. Njoro girl was not left out in representing high schools, Tiritagoi primary school, Rift valley prestige school, Lord Egerton Primary School made sure to have the generation that is most likely to feel the pinch of the destruction was present in large numbers.

Young Environmental enthusiasists in the company of Forest gurus struggling to retain composure on coming across amazingly decorated trees like the podo, cedar and the dombeya. Many of these trees were embracing moss and ferns making them rather eerie yet ever so beautiful. One of the forest gurus was Mr. Ruto, a Kenya Forest Service ranger with over ten years experience. His dark patched face and red eyes were testament of the many hours he had spent trekking the cold forest and seeking warm solace from bonfires.

Apart from Mr. Ruto’s forest tales, hoping and jumping over streams became the norm for Mumo. This vindicated Mau’s status as a water tower; streams emerged out of nowhere thanks to the rate of underground seepage that occurs in places with proper tree cover.

The higher she got the air becomes moist and cooler making her spontaneously turn around to look at girls with natural hair while touching her own. She lived in the big industrialised city of Nairobi where fresh air only existed in fantasies, -not that bad because the occupants have not started wearing face masks yet- therefore she made plans of moving to the middle of the jungle just to survive like Katy Perry in Roar and have all the unthinkable fun with the shy Turacos and colourful sunbirds.

It startled Mumo what a difference of few minutes travel made, with epiphany she remembered all the articles she had read about the Mau, she remembered it being called the largest of its kind in the whole of East Africa, she remembered it being called the backbone of the country, she remembered it being the main supplier of water into the major cities including her not so beloved Nairobi where the population keeps growing.

Apart from water, Mau also holds the economy of Kenya in the palm if it’s green hands. It is the source of the Mara River, which in turn supports the wildlife that has made Kenya a tourism powerhouse. Such priceless benefits from Mau were the ones that inspired Mumo as she planted trees. Hopefully, these trees would one day be part of an even bigger, not dwindling Mau Forest Complex.

Heri a class 2 dropout, a mother of two, the third and last wife (for the time being) of a man twenty years older than her stood under the only cashew nut tree left in her husband’s farm.

Her eyes wandered around the farm, surveying her work for the day and how far she still had, to go. She thought of a better, easier and faster way to toil the barren piece of land that caters for the miserably large family her husband Kenga had put together.

Just as she was about to decide, she saw her drunk husband muttering insults as he staggered his way into the compound through an opening in the hedge. She sighed, feeling stuck between the rock and a hard place. Would she spend the rest of her life stuck with a lazy drunkard and toiling on barren land?

Seven out of ten poor people in Kenya are women like Heri. Despite their poverty handicap, their husbands, children and society as a whole still expect a lot from them. These expectations often undermine their Sexual, reproductive health and rights (SRHR) which cover four areas: sexual health, sexual rights, reproductive health, and reproductive rights. These are rights, conditions and opportunities that enable men and women to enjoy their sexuality and their God given command to reproduce without coercion or discrimination.

For Heri, SRHR simply means that sex should not be a tedious, mandatory chore in the same league with the barren land that she tills day in, day out. Sadly for her, sex is even worse than that tilling because it is often demanded by her husband, which kills her mood completely. It doesn’t help matters that he is often done before she can count to thirty. She dreads sex yet she can’t say no. She loves the children that results from it but hates that he can’t take care of them.

In September 2015, I attended SRHR related training at the GoDown Art Centre in Nairobi. The UN International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) held in 1994 brought SRHR to global attention. ICPD transitioned into the UN Commission on Population and Development that recently played a critical role in developing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that touched on SRHR.

During the training on SRHR, participants were asked to review the goals one by one picking the goals that were connected to Sexual rights, Sexual health, Reproductive Health and reproductive rights. I attempted to draw a link between the environment and SRHR but this was met with blank stares.

However, Wangari Maathai had drawn this link a few years earlier when she noted that, ‘When I first started, it was really an innocent response to the needs of women in rural areas. When we started planting trees to meet their needs, there was nothing beyond that.’ I often wondered what link there was between tree planting and women’s needs but cases like Heri’s make this link clearer. A vibrant environment can empower women economically and help them to stand on their own two feet which will embolden them to say no when they don’t feel like it.

Indeed, women like Heri are the anchors, the very foundation of our communities. Although their holistic wellbeing was enshrined in the recently adopted 17 SDGs and their accompanying 169 targets, these good intentions must be enforced.

The fourteenth and fifteenth SDGs address the sustainability of marine and terrestrial ecosystems that women like Heri depend on. If she is left to carry the burden of the ecosystem that she depends on alone, both will crumble.

In Kilifi County where Heri comes from, many men behave like her husband. They spend most of their days sipping mnazi (local brew) as they engage in idle chatter.

When they finally stagger home at night, they have the nerve to refer to their unresponsive wives as “dead fish” or “overturned cockroaches.” Women are not romance ATMS – you can’t just key into them cold gestures and expect several doses of hot romance to tumble out!

Indeed, it is often said that “Women use all the four parts of their brains at all times” while men use only “one part at a time”. Therefore Women and men perceive risks and opportunity differently which begs the question, do we need different policies and implementation strategies, when it comes to matters of SRHR?

The world must meet women like Heri at the points of their needs. Because of the disconnect between SRHR policies and the ecosystems, they are often left languishing both on their farms and in their bedrooms.

Research shows that strenuous activities can result in premature births. In addition, it is impossible for a woman to get cosy and get romantic when she is tired to the bone. Even worse, women’s reproductive health has been known to suffer from unhealthy environments. For instance, contaminated water and surfaces can cause genital infections.

Although environmental hazards do not discriminate, women suffer more from them. This is why they must be protected and empowered from degenerating environments. If Heri is assisted to replenish the environment, her health and livelihood will be better of and this will boomerang back to the ecosystems that depend on her healing touch.