Tag: East Africa

Lessons from the Kenyan classroom

Children play at the sprawling Mathare slums, one of the largest and poorest in Africa, near Kenya's capital Nairobi. (Pic: Reuters)
Children play at the sprawling Mathare slums, one of the largest and poorest in Africa, near Kenya’s capital Nairobi. (Pic: Reuters)

On a recent Thursday at around midday, I saw a group of kids, not more than 15, who by their size appeared to be in nursery school.

The little boys and girls in pink checked shirts and grey pair of shorts were clustered in front of televisions on display.

They were pointing at a monkey swinging on the screens. They sighed in awe when they saw the close-up shots of ants. Around them were aisles after aisles full of new products for sale.

When I saw them, I thought: “Wow, these kids are out shopping at this hour … shouldn’t they be in class?”

However, unknown to me they were in class. Their teacher had brought her class on a trip to a SUPERMARKET.

Let that sink in.

A supermarket.

That one place that we dash into quickly to get a few things was their location for an educational trip.

Their teacher enthusiastically showed them why the many TVs in different sizes were on the shelves and why they had price tags on them. And that was not all; she was also describing to these young children why certain aisles were labelled the way they were.


Body lotion.


Again, a trip to a supermarket.

It stood out for me because school excursions during my primary school days were always out of town, probably to a beach or an agricultural institution or to the zoo or the airport – what I would now consider ‘educational’. A supermarket, in my view, was the least educational place for any learner.

But I was wrong.

From the looks of things and by the teacher’s thorough explanation of what happened here, you could tell this was an important trip.

The supermarket is in Mathare North. Mathare in Kenya is an area known for slums (second to Kibera), violence and more slums. In fact a quick search on Google shows you that the extent of poverty here is on another level.

Indeed it is true. I know, I live here.

The area has informal settlements popping up all over. Every few hundred metres you are bound to find a burst sewer that flows into water pipes, and food vendors. You will see clinics and health centres competing for space with bars and entertainment joints. You will see stalls lined up, trying to attract potential customers with their music, sales pitches or adverts.

There are car washes, colourful matatus (public taxis) and happy children playing on the road side. There are high-rise houses so close to each other that if one tenant has a cold, the neighbour next door would probably pick it up. That close. There are electricity wires in meshes swaying and scrapping the air in the Mathare skies.

Each day as I get into a matatu to town, I pass school children who, despite their torn socks and faded uniforms, carry paper bags full of books as they head to class. I see little boys and girls bracing the morning chill to get to school.

It was only when l I bumped into the class on this trip that I realised their lessons were both in and out of the classrooms.

I deduced that their teacher wanted to show them the available possibilities amidst the sea of poverty they knew. There was such a high level of want that these young minds would look forward to attending class the next day, pegged on the possibility of stepping into a supermarket that they either passed by every morning or whose branded paper bags they saw on the streets.

Seeing these inquisitive children asking why the soaps were put away from the bread and maize flour made me realise that while this visit to the supermarket was ordinary to me, it was probably a first for these little leaders.

You could see the admiration in their eyes as shoppers carried items passed them. It hit me that this trip was the opening of new chapters in these children’s lives. That beyond the mire of life in a slum town as they know it, there was so much more available. So much variety was presented to these kids but circumstances had hindered them from reaching out to them.

I saw this and I was challenged to take a fresher look at the things I have and assume exist for everyone else.

Later, the children filed past the teller and each was given a lollipop on their way out. Some of them began to undo the lollipop wrappers in glee. Then I noticed one who looked at his sweet for a while and then simply put it into his shirt pocket, stretched out his palm and joined his hand to complete a chain of little hands and glossy excited eyes.

Once their lesson for the day was over, they streamed out with their teacher.

Eunice Kilonzo is a print journalist and storyteller who tells tales on development, feminism and health. Connect with her on Twitter: @Eunicekkilonzo 

Kenya marks one year since Westgate mall attack

Men work on a damaged section of the Westgate shopping mall  in Nairobi on January 21 2014. (Pic: Reuters)
Men work on a damaged section of the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi on January 21 2014. (Pic: Reuters)

Kenya began emotional commemorations on Tuesday to mark the first anniversary of Nairobi’s Westgate mall massacre, remembering the 67 people killed by Somali Islamist gunmen and those who risked their lives to stop them.

In a speech at a memorial site opened at the capital’s National Museum, First Lady Margaret Kenyatta said the East African nation had been “seriously scarred” but was not broken by the attackers from the al-Qaeda-affiliated Shabab rebels.

“This is a time that brings much pain and sorrow to many, and is still a time of healing, [we] having also lost members of our family in this senseless massacre,” said Kenyatta, whose nephew and his fiancee were among those killed.

“The nation may have been seriously scarred but we shall never be broken as a people,” she said.

A week of memorial events opened with an emotional film called Our Nairobi, which included testimonies of those caught up in the attack.

Our Nairobi – Rama Manikumar from Arete Stories on Vimeo.

The four Shabab gunmen stormed the upmarket mall on a busy Saturday afternoon on September 21 2013, hurling grenades and shooting scores in cold blood with automatic rifles.

“We saw people panic, running and screaming everywhere all around the mall,” said Rama Manikumar, who was having a drink in a cafe when the shooting started, and whose testimony was featured in the film.

“It was like a battlefield, the whole place was in smoke, there were no lights… a lot of broken glass and ammunition on the floor,” she said.

The shopping centre was crowded with hundreds of shoppers, friends meeting for a meal, as well as a children’s cooking competition.

“I want Kenya to be back to itself, to have peace, harmony, love, and things like terrorism to never happen to us again,” said Kennedy Mungai, who had been working as a waiter at a cafe when the shooting erupted.

Shoppers were hunted down in supermarket aisles and killed, in what the Shebab said was revenge for Kenya’s sending of troops to fight the extremists in Somalia as part of an African Union force.

Kenyans, however, are hoping that the commemorations will also show how people were brought together in face of the horror.

Ranju Shah recounted how she and others had hid themselves in a storage area for two hours as fighting raged, with Kenyans from all ethnicities comforting each other.

“The whole incident has brought the people of Kenya together,” Shah said. “Everybody tried to help everybody, they didn’t care about what caste, creed or religion they were following, they were all helping each other.”

Prayers will be held on Sunday, exactly one year after the attack, with a memorial concert and candle-lit vigil for the following three nights.

“As a country we stand in solidarity with the victims and survivors of the attack,” First Lady Kenyatta added. “We will never be cowed by such acts of cowardice.”

Although Kenyan security forces were criticised for looting stores during and after the attack, The Standard newspaper said the country should pause to honour those who risked their lives to enter the gunfight in the mall to try to save lives.

“Some of the officers who went into the mall to engage the terrorists carry deep physical and emotional wounds… we need to celebrate them all,” it said in an editorial.

All four gunmen are reported to have died in the mall, their bodies burned and crushed by tons of rubble after a major fire sparked by the fighting caused a large section of the building to collapse.

Al-Shabab remain a major threat, and continue to launch attacks despite advances by African Union troops inside Somalia, and a US air strike killing its chief earlier this month.

The extremists have launched a string of subsequent attacks in Kenya, including a wave of massacres in the coastal region, which has badly affected the country’s key tourist industry.

Reuben Kyama for AFP

Kenyan commandos on frontline of poaching war

Members of a ranger elite team run after a "poacher" during a drill on August 6 2014 at the Ol Jogi rhino sanctuary. (Pic: AFP)
Members of a ranger elite team run after a “poacher” during a drill on August 6 2014 at the Ol Jogi rhino sanctuary. (Pic: AFP)

With camouflage uniforms, assault rifles, night vision goggles, thermal imaging devices and radios, wildlife rangers in Kenya’s Ol Jogi rhino sanctuary prepare for night patrol in the “war” against poaching.

As the late afternoon sun creeps towards the horizon and shadows lengthen on the sweeping plains dotted with rocky outcrops, Ol Jogi’s armed rangers get set for another tough night on patrol.

“It sounds crazy, but it’s actually a war,” said Jamie Gaymer, head of security for the vast reserve.

“It is organised crime on an international level and it is completely out of control. And these are the guys on the frontline who are having to put their lives at risk in order to protect these animals.”

Through the thick bush, some 20 men from the local community head out in pairs into the reserve covering some 240 square kilometres, an area twice the size of Paris situated in the high plains north of Nairobi.

Some men spend the night on patrol creeping through the forests, others take up “ambush positions”.

Trained by the Kenya Wildlife Service and police, the 32 men in the security force are also reserve police officers, allowed to carry weapons.

The teams have also had military training to even the odds in a potentially deadly battle with a “well-equipped enemy”, Gaymer adds.

They risk their lives every night. The poachers they hunt shoot on sight, while the rangers must also be watchful for the wild animals themselves: elephant, lion, buffalo and leopard.

“It’s dangerous, but it is also the danger that gives me a job and allows me to eat,” said 27-year-old ranger Joseph Nang’ole.

“I have children, and if we do not protect these animals, my children will not be able to see them.”

Conditions can be harsh: the night is long, cold and often wet: but for the head of the unit, Benson Badiwa, protecting the rhinos is key.

“They bring tourists to Kenya, so they help the people,” he said.

Rangers do not speak of “poachers” but rather “the enemy.”

Their mission is to protect the 66 rhinos in Ol Jogi, including 20 southern white rhino, and 46 critically endangered eastern black rhino, which face extinction with fewer than 800 left, with the vast majority in Kenya.

The animals’ horns are coveted in some Asian countries as a traditional medicine and as a status symbol.

On the black market, a rhino horn is worth twice its weight in gold: as much as $80 000 per kilo in the Middle East or Asia.

A poacher receives between $10 000 – 15 000 per kilo, a fortune for a night’s work that would take a lifetime to earn legally.

Their weapons are sometimes rented for $200-300 a night from unscrupulous police or soldiers.

Alfie, a blind juvenille black rhinoceros, receives a pat from his minder on August 6 2014 at the Ol Jogi rhino sanctuary. (Pic: AFP)
Alfie, a blind juvenille black rhinoceros, receives a pat from his minder on August 6 2014 at the Ol Jogi rhino sanctuary. (Pic: AFP)

In July, Ol Jogi suffered the worst massacre of rhinos in Kenya in more than 15 years.

Four rhinos were killed in a coordinated double attack, something “never seen” in Kenya, said Gaymer, who suspects the organised gangs had inside knowledge.

As in any war, intelligence is a crucial weapon, and Gaymer maintains a network of local informants who report on those suspected of links to poachers.

“If a guard is offered 300 000 shillings ($2 000-$3 000) to guide them to a rhino, he’ll think twice,” said Johnny Weller, Ol Jogi’s managing director.

In 2013, at least 59 rhinos were killed in Kenya, twice as many as the year before, leaving around a thousand left in the whole country.

At Ol Jogi, six rhino calves have been born this year, but eight rhinos were killed.

“We cannot let this trend continue,” said Gaymer, adding that armed rangers are now “unfortunately necessary” with the costs of protection spiralling.

At Ol Jogi, some 130 people are working to protect 66 rhinos, with some costs covered by the top-end tourists who visit.

“I have so many people, so much equipment,” Weller said, recalling simpler days in the 1980s, when the private reserves were established.

There were fewer than 400 black rhinos in Kenya in 1987, and private conservancies like Ol Jogi have contributed to the species’ survival.

Today they protect nearly 60 percent of Kenya’s rhinos, but security costs are mushrooming and rely on donations to continue.

“If the rhinos disappear, then what? Elephants, buffaloes? Where does it stop? There will always be a market for something,” Weller said.

“There is a (human) population explosion, there is need for land in this country, but if there aren’t substantial areas left for wildlife, there won’t be any left.”

In the battle to protect the wildlife, winning hearts and minds is key, to persuade local communities of the long-term benefits of protecting wildlife.

“I’d love to see political will to support rhino and wildlife,” Weller added. “Without that it will be an uphill battle.”

As dawn breaks and the night patrol ends, the rangers report all had been quiet, as they head home after debriefing, to catch some sleep before another night on the frontlines. The night may have passed without incident, but Gaymer is still downbeat.

“Across Africa we are fighting a losing battle at the moment,” he said.

Africa ‘hostile’ to gays

Many in African countries see their homelands as hostile to homosexuals, according to a poll released on Wednesday.

The poll also showed that most people in European nations feel their community is a welcoming place for gays and lesbians.

The Gallup survey of more than 100 000 people in 123 countries found just one to two percent of those polled in Senegal, Uganda, Mali and Ethiopia see their nations as gay-friendly, in a continent where same-sex relationships are still largely taboo.

Anti-gay supporters celebrate after Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni signed a law imposing harsh penalties for homosexuality on February 24 2014. (Reuters, Edward Echwalu)
Anti-gay supporters celebrate after Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni signed a law imposing harsh penalties for homosexuality on February 24 2014. (Reuters, Edward Echwalu)

One exception appeared to be South Africa, the only country on the continent where same-sex marriage is legal. Nearly half of those polled there said their community was hospitable to gays, although slightly more than half disagreed.

“As much of Africa continues to struggle with human rights for all residents, few in the region believe their communities are good places for gay or lesbian people. Anti-gay sentiment is apparent,” the polling organisation said.

The US state department has routinely cited numerous African countries for gross human rights violations, including against lesbians and gays. Those in same-sex relationships are often still targeted for discrimination and violence, according to its annual Human Rights Practices report.

International community more welcoming
The poll found 83% of those in the Netherlands said it was a “good place” for gays and lesbians to live, followed by 82% in Iceland, 79% in Spain, 77% in the United Kingdom and 75% in Ireland.

Eighty percent of Canadians said their community was welcoming.

Just three in 10 of those surveyed worldwide said their community is “a good place” for gays and lesbians to live. The ratio was 70% in the United States, which ranked 12th among the countries surveyed.

“These latest findings show that for many lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered (LGBT) people around the world, being open about their sexual orientation or gender identity likely comes with substantial risk,” says Gary Gates, a researcher at Los Angeles School of Law’s Williams Institute, who focuses on demographics and gender issues.

Another Gallup poll earlier this month showed more people who identify as LGBT report lower overall well-being.

Wednesday’s poll, based on data from face-to-face interviews between 2009 and 2013, had a margin of error of between 2.1 and 5.6 percentage points, depending on the country. – Reuters

Commonwealth Games – Kenyan cyclists dream big

From delivering milk in the hills of Kenya to racing through the streets of Glasgow at the Commonwealth Games, it is fair to say life is about to change drastically for John Njoroge, Suleiman Kangangi and Paul Ajiko.

Between them the three Kenyans will compete in the 2014 Commonwealth Games time trial on Thursday July 31, and in the road race on Sunday August 3. They will come up against competitors from strong cycling nations, such as England, Australia and South Africa, but they are not without hope or a chance.

Njoroge, Kangangi and Ajiko are from Iten, a small town on the Kenya-Uganda border that is notable for being home to many of the world’s finest long-distance runners. The hope of this trio is that it be known for its cyclists, too, with the Commonwealth Games offering the perfect showcase opportunity.

Members of the Kenyan Riders club, from left Samwel Ekiru, Suleiman Kangangi and Paul Ajiko. ‘The world has to watch out,’ says their coach Simon Blake. (Pic: Nicolas Leong)
Members of the Kenyan Riders club, from left Samwel Ekiru, Suleiman Kangangi and Paul Ajiko. ‘The world has to watch out,’ says their coach Simon Blake. (Pic: Nicolas Leong)

Kenya is where Froome was raised and first put foot to pedal on his way to becoming the 2013 Tour de France winner and one of the finest cyclists in the world, yet traditionally the country has lacked a base of top-level riders. However, success has been building. A Kenyan team finished 13th out of 9 000 teams in the 2011 l’Étape du Tour, an event that allows amateur cyclists to race the Tour de France route, and fourth in the following year’s Tour of Rwanda, Africa’s biggest cycling event.

Central to the story has been Nick Leong, a former Singaporean photographer who moved to Iten and formed the 11-strong Kenyan Riders, the country’s first professional cycling team. “Cycling is ready for a change,” Leong says. “It is important to have diversity in the sport and an African team definitely helps open it to an even larger demographic.”

Given that Iten has an altitude of 2.4km, it is no major surprise that the Kenyan Riders’ speciality is climbing. Njoroge, who at 1.65m is the shortest of the trio, works as a milk deliveryman in the highlands of Naivasha, transporting up to 60kg a day on his bicycle over long, gruelling distances. “I was working very hard,” he says. “My body was used to the heavy weight and I liked to ride at high speeds. When I heard about the Kenyan Riders team, I trained as much as I could to ensure that I could join. Cycling for Kenya is my dream.”

In 2012 Njoroge finished fourth in the Haute Route, a seven-day race in the French Alps which covers over 19.8 vertical kilometers, and is arguably the toughest cycling competition in the world. During that year’s Tour of Rwanda he also finished third, only two minutes behind South African professionals.

Like Njoroge, Kangangi has a milk-delivery background, yet this is a man who has always had a desire to improve his life; he taught himself to read, write and speak English after being taken out of school by his impoverished mother. Now Kangangi is determined to show the world his cycling abilities and, with it, the broader sporting capabilities of his home nation.

“I am proud to be cycling in Europe as a Kenyan and I want to show the world what Africans can do,” says Kangangi, who is co-captain of the Kenyan Riders, alongside Samwel Mangi. “The race course is seriously tough but I am determined to give everything. If we do a really good job, this can help us get more sponsorship and support.”

According to Kenyan Riders coach Simon Blake, this something that is essential if the sport is to grow across the country. “Bicycles are part of the Kenyan culture but so far they are used only as a utility tool,” he says. “There is no established racing scene in Kenya and racing there is at such a low level compared to where we want to be in the future. We have to go abroad for practice but unfortunately that costs heaps of money.”

In preparing for the Commonwealth Games the team have had to work without a mechanic. The riders, therefore, have had to largely look after themselves, which has included taking delivery of their time-trial bikes, which only arrived in Glasgow this week.

Yet Njoroge, Kangangi and Ajiko feel sure they can make an impact. “The world has to watch out,” Blake says. “In five to 10 years it will be Africans dominating the big tours.”