Each morning I wake to a room full of sunlight. There are curtains, but they can’t ever seem to win the argument with the sunrise, which is much stronger here in Kenya. When the light becomes impossible to ignore, I’ll yawn and heave my way downstairs for a cold shower. In the early days when we arrived, during Kenya’s driest season, we had no luxury of running water, and to avoid even more stares on the bus in the morning, we opted to keep clean with a ‘Kenyan shower’.
A Kenyan shower involves two buckets of water: one for hot, one for cold. Bring the cold water to a reasonable tepid temperature with the hot, then squat down in your birthday suit to begin throwing cupped handfuls of water over your back, head and crevices. After a few attempts I spotted some crusty flannels drying on the windowsill which, when wetted, are a significant aid to accomplishing ‘squeaky clean’. The bathroom door has a promiscuous habit of slowly easing open by the draught in the corridor, and one of my biggest fears during the dry days was that anyone sitting in the living room might be treated to a glimpse of my stark form kneeling with my head in a bucket, washing shampoo out of my hair and crying from soapy eyes.
Water can make life easy, and it can make it a chore. Only once do you settle in on the seat, having checked for a safe amount of loo roll, and then forget to check that the cistern has water in it. Whilst I would still call on a plumber when I get home, I have certainly learnt a lot about what piped water (and a lack of) allows you to do. Now that the rains are approaching and the council’s water rationing isn’t so strict, we can enjoy a regular shower as we take for granted at home on most days. Labour-saving machines like washing machines and dishwashers are simply not available though.
Washing clothes involves three buckets of water (one soapy, one less soapy, and one you try, and fail, to keep free of soap) and sore thighs after a good long squat out in the sun. Washing the dishes after a meal involves soaping each spoon, cup and plate, then filling a jug from a barrel to rinse the suds off. Every day, Violet the maid washes the floor with a wet rag, bending over to mop away the trading routes of the ant colony as they return from their explorations for food, on the floor, on the table and even on the ceiling. Daily chores are manual, time-consuming and exhausting.
Of course, life would be hard and exhausting if it wasn’t for the brilliant people I live with and call family at my new host home. The house is headed by a lady called Grace, a large and kindly grandmother who is heavily involved in community and charitable affairs, as well as the management of the few acres of land and the tenants on the farm where we live. In her working life she was a caterer and nutritionist and had a long and successful career, finally settling at Egerton University in Nakuru Town. She also has an interesting perspective of having lived through the beginning of Kenyan independence, and often refers to ‘whites’ with a frankness which at first I found unsettling. However, in one of her many projects since retirement, she has used her home to host many groups of volunteers from different countries and programs in the last few years, and even had a group of Balloon Ventures volunteers before Christmas. True to her pride in her work, she is an excellent cook, and has promised to teach me some of the Kenyan dishes before we leave in April.
Grace is assisted in her cooking and the housework by a maid called Violet. Even though my English is apparently incomprehensible to her, she has an honest humour which brings a smile with barely a spoken word. I often hear her singing as she moves about the kitchen, perhaps to her adopted niece called Joy, a sweet and timid little girl, who greets our return each evening by shaking our hands as we cross the threshold, then retreating to peek at us. Like most Kenyan children she is very shy to speak English, but she seems bright and sometimes shows off when doing her homework by loudly counting as she learns her numbers. Violet tells me that she enjoys stories; I would like to read with her one day to see how good her English really is.
We share a table most evenings with Grace’s grandson Jeremy, who is a year or two younger than us and enrolled at college in town. Studying IT, he is generally a whizz kid at phones and technology but his clear passion is for Manchester United and the Premier League. Breaking down the results of the weekend and the implications for his fantasy football team, it’s easy to feel embarrassed by the depth of his knowledge compared to mine! The other places at the table are filled by my fellow volunteers Mike and Dennis, from Scotland and Kenya respectively. Unusually we are a group of three living counterparts (the other volunteers are coupled in UK-Kenyan pairs), so with Jeremy as a fourth there is plenty of banter and gossip to bounce off each other without getting bored.
Besides those who sleep inside the walls of the house, there are a number of tenants who live in a few outhouses. I occasionally see them hanging their washing out, enjoying a radio on full volume, but their work hawking goods keeps them in town for long hours. There is also a menagerie of animals who form part of the house, earning their keep with their allotted roles. A dog, a bitch and her pups are required to lie around in the shade all day, and come nightfall, to join in the nightly barking practice with the other dogs in the neighbourhood. Their principle role is as guards, so when we return after a night on the town the first sounds we hear in the moonlit driveway are a pattering of paws and growls as they sniff us out. Now they know our smells, this checking over of us is a little less thorough, although they are still partial to giving Mike’s ankles a little chew just to show they are still on the job.
Their rivals for leftover chapattis and rice are the cat and kitten. When we arrived, the kitten was a quivering nervous ball at one month of age. Now, it has become a constant bandit in the living room, scampering around on the floor, ambushing its weary mum in endless playfights, and even surprising us all and itself one evening by clearing a meter in the air from the sofa back to the dinner table. Inside a cluttered garage live a number of egg-laying hens, and outside in the paddock by the water store stands a lonely and forlorn calf – its mother and a remaining cow were sold after the rest of the herd were stolen by rustlers before Christmas, at a great loss.
Although breakfast is now a rushed affair before commuting to town, the company shared her during evenings and dinners are as central to the experience of volunteering here as our daily work. We continue to learn about, be fascinated, surprised and frustrated by each other’s cultures, which allows us to integrate better in our separate working teams as well as appreciate the extraordinary and unforgettable experience which this program offers. Dennis has gained a scholarship to study a masters in Environmental Science come September, and we have great fun alternatively winding him up and reassuring him how life will be different as a Kenyan Geordie. Soon we will organise a casual Swahili lesson at the dinner table, and next week Michael and I will try and convince that ‘foreign’ food can be delicious and satisfying by cooking a humungous bolognaise.