Skip to content

building better beginnings and endings in Kenya and Cambridge

Photos to follow later. This is a blog about my incredible time in Kenya, but was written in Montenegro airport and a hotel in Slovenia months later, as I made my way from Rome (family for Christmas) to Ljubljana (mountains and Emma for New Year). So it skips around a little. Forwarned is forearmed…


It’s the 29th December as I start to write this. The end of a tumultuous year. I’ve been meaning to do this blog for a while (well more than a while…) but the last few months have been barreling ahead at full steam and it feels like the six thousand elements of my life have been fighting against each other to squeeze through the rapidly shrinking window of 2016.

It’s probably a bit odd that I’m blogging about Kenya now. But in another way it makes perfect sense. I’m sat in the (tiny) departure lounge at Montenegro airport – which was the only way to get from Rome to Slovenia (from family Christmas to a New Year + mountains) and I’ve got a couple of hours.

It’s such a funny little airport. I’m perched at a double table in the (only) cafe, considering a beer.. whilst directly opposite me is a snow capped mountain range. Well after a very flat run way and a fringe of black green pine trees. It’s sunny but cold. The airport staff are wrapped up in fur lined hooded coats, gloves and scarves. The women are beautiful and fierce, with straight dark hair and just a glance reveals how they hold their own air-side. It’s fairly casual – no uniforms, lots of jeans and high heeled laced boots. Unusual for an airport.

I’m in an in-between space: the only passenger to be transferring to another flight from Rome. Which makes me feel kind of cool. The nice man who sorted out my flight pass was saying how funny it is that I should have to come here to get from Rome and Ljubljana..and he’s not wrong (look at a map). But there you go. So my plan of actually getting the Kenya blog written up before my Slovenian Adventure (just remembered Slovenian Families!) starts has been forced upon me. Which is good. I like writing – I actually crave it quite a lot – but sometimes finding enough time and space proves impossible. And you know, now I’ve smelt every one of the perfumes in the (quite wee) duty free… there’s nothing more important to do..!

Landing here was kind of weird. We flew close to the water over marshy reeds and navigated our way between a flat patchwork of even spaced fields, each with a monopoly shaped house (and a few hotels) perched on it’s edge. Quite bumpy (in between trying to pop my ears – which was a struggle with all the gunk which seems to still be in my head..bloomin Christmas colds. Everytime I come to Rome at this time of year.)

So… anyway.



And Cambridge.

The two are kind of abstractly linked in my head. Roll with me here…

We moved the Hospice last month to our new build in Shelford Bottom so that took over life for a bit.. and is half of my excuse for the lack of Kenya blog so far. It’s an amazing place: set up to provide the best possible care to those living with a life-limiting illness. And at the other end of the scale and opposite in terms of scale, techniques, work-force and – just everything – is building St Mary Magdelene’s Secondary School for the Deaf in Mbere, Kenya. I did the end bit of the ‘build’ for the Arthur Rank Hospice project with all the PR bits and bobs..but was at ground level doing actual building for the Kenyan school. You couldn’t really get two further polar opposite places, experiences or projects. Both will be life-changing for so many people way into the future. Such a privilege to be involved in both.

I can’t even hope to explain the full immersive experience of Kenya, especially now it was four months ago.. but I made a few notes as I went of things that struck me so here goes… Note to self – do it as you go next time…still, that would’ve been pretty hard given the long days of manual work and lack of time to sit and just be. More important things to do. Two or three hours blogging at the end of the day wouldn’t have been the wisest use of my time. And in all honesty, my (emotional) brain (the one I feel like I need to be able to write properly) was in a unusually shadowy place at the time. Anyway enough of the futile excuses.

We had a stop-over in Doha. I think I’d stopped there before on the way to Nepal: condensation on the outside of the bus. No mountains there. Just flat expanse and mirages. It was a long’ish journey (with no sleep, as per: two seven hour flights) and when we landed we were whisked to a guest house and met the other new arrivals. We were there for the second two weeks, one lot had already left and another group who were there for the long haul – whole month – where still at the school working.

Here happened the first taste of ‘mendazi’ – basically a flat square or oblong piece of doughnut bread with no sugar – and an addiction that’s hard to fight, especially when you discover that the store down the road from the school sells them for 10 Kenyan shillings (= 8p) each.

It’s a cloud-covered day as we drive from Nairobi. It feels kind of muted and the buildings’ colours are a sun-washed and dull background to the truer colours’ paraded in the clothes of its people. We’ve another five hour minibus drive to go. After a rash of parasols we’re enveloped by a bridge’s shadow for a moment before rushing into a sun-filled road surrounded on all sides by piles and piles and heaps and mountains of clothes. They’re crammed in high and close and tight, side to side with red earth and dust, as if every child in the world has come to build colourful garment-filled castle within a thirty square metre bit of beach. Out of the thoroughfare, people lay flat on the verges (sleeping?). A twiggy bit of scaffolding hangs onto two thirds of an apartment block as if neither is sure which is propping up the other. People are picking their way home from church between sugar cane sellers and a man with arms spread wide and transformed into wings of Sunday-best-ties.

We stop for fuel, via a one-sided ramp and are bumped up and down – just to be sure we have the maximum possible amount in the tank. A lady in lemon-curd-yellow swings down the verge-side and we leave the city behind as the dusty red road slices through verges and scrub that is far greener than I expected.

People still dot the side of the road in bird-like huddles as we meteor past. Others punctuate the safety barriers like exclamation marks pointing out the first-time-excitement of a road journey in a country you don’t know yet. I’ve got my notepad out and am writing because I have to. It calms me and stops me welling up in front of strangers (its embarrassing being an emotional creature when people don’t know you). My notepad and pen make me remember that I should never miss this initial taste of a place. It’s always the freshest and most real part – the start of a dip below the surface of a somewhere you’ve only otherwise ever seen from afar and through someone else’s filter. I take out my phone ad look at the photo of my pregnant twin sisters and smile past my own little bruised heart, knowing that I’ll be okay in three months.

We stop on the way to Riandu, in a little oasis where they’ve just had a wedding (chairs – horah!), eat, chat, learn a quick traditional foot-dance from Paul (stand opposite each other, follow their lead to kick the side, front, cross, back of their foot in a preordained order. So basically coordinated, fast, fairly hilarious foot kicking each other with good reason) and then pile back into the mini-buses. A make-shift allotment at the side of the road, carefully warning ‘SEEDLINGS’ hand-painted flashes by, then a khaki-clad soldier on the side of the highway, his rifle nonchalantly slung over his shoulder. A rush of red pink blossom, washing blowing lazy in the wind from every window of that apartment, corn crops steadily reaching for the sky.

We’re stop at the side of a verge full of cows by police in hi-vis who check our business then let us carry on. We spend 20 minutes inside the mini bus running through the Kenyan sign language (KSL) alphabet and when we look out of the window again it’s verdant trees and a dipping valley of square vegetable plots. There’s a bridge to wooden shacks and pink, yellow, green t-shirts. Shack-shops adorn the roadside, vendors looking at this minibus of mzungos under surprised foreheads. It’s all play-doh colours: the mechanics is blue; ‘Gladys’ hair salon’ is green; the timber yard is red; here’s ‘Cambodia’s library & videos’; ‘Lucy Medical Clinic’; ‘Sunset Agency & Salon’. In between the haphazard building are hastily put together gazebos with tarpaulin roofs, stretched and tanned with orange-brown dust.

We’re told to close the minibus windows as sellers swarm around us and tap the windows brandishing tomatoes suffocated into clean plastic bags, sweet corn cobs and beans of green and black. We move on and then its rice-paddy fields stretching back and mud-wall huts in front of mountains silhouetting at the back of everything.

Here and there, donkeys nibble the parched ground hoping for a tender stem on parched roadsides . A little girl in a dirty pink dress stares out at us from under the ‘Thimba Health Centre’. Teenagers in woolly (self-knitted?) hats stand proud as the ‘Family Bathing Soap – you’ll want to shower for hours’ billboard sweeps past, followed by the: ‘Down in One!’ bar; ‘Destiny Motorcycle Centre’ (love that one!)’; ‘Mastra Stores for the best cereals’; ‘IFTA Pakistan Ice’; ‘KUBU Rice Store’; ‘Seventh Day Advetist Church’; ‘Enjoy a cold Tusker Beer’.

A heard of bison-like cows looking sideways at us, angry about being walked down the road in the hot afternoon sun. There goes ‘Beautiful Homes’ with a yellow awning (grin again). A corn roasting stall (we’re told it’s much tougher to eat here, than in the UK – teeth and stomach) and then there’s a lady’s bottom swaying in the air as her head in a yoga defying move, reaches the small fruits that are demanding all of her attention from their resting place on the ground. A ‘GOAT MANURE FOR SALE’ sign in the headlights, followed by a vegetable plant shop.

People are just hanging out as Sunday closes, waiting, leaning on signs, chatting…just gathering. I love the mish-mash of it all and especially the lively slogans and store names so full of promise. The sticker on the front of our church mini-bus has black at the top (GOD HATES), then red (BRIBERY), then green (JOIN HIM). Most transport here, has one of these stickers heralding the vehicle’s way forward through the busy, dusty, full of everything Kenyan landscape. Goats saunter at the kerbsides. There’s improvised street lights (?) of loose woven twigs and hessian. A couple sit under two matching balloon shaped trees and watch us and the rest of the traffic swish by.

The hills kick in at Camp Manica Retreat & Conference Centre and as we begin to climb an ambulance siren soars past in the other direction. Concrete pipes are piled high next to green and yellow plastic shack.

As we enter the town of Embu some little seedlings sprout ‘GREETINGS’ and we know we’re definitely here when we see ‘County Medical Centre – Embu’. It’s a tidy little town, Embu, and it has the ‘Glorious Book Shop’ (of course) and the obligatory ‘If you like it Crown it’ billboard for anything that needs painting. All the shops have hand painted individual signs. I love it – it’s a better welcome than that of cohesive brand recognition. Bring back shop signs with personality I say!


#Leveller – I’m now sat in the foyer of City Hotel Ljubljana, Slovenia, having arrived, had a bath, dressed and wandered into a night decadent with Christmas lights, food and mulled wine stalls and topped with more than dusting of magic. I ate the biggest bread…stottie I think is the best way of describing it, with about 7 beef kebabs inside it, chilli sauce and onions, wandered back to the hotel (with a mulled wine jacket – which is good because it IS FRICKING FREEZING!!) and am now waiting for Emma – having had another mulled wine and am now feeling rather blathered. Where has my stamina gone? No. Wait. I know the answer to that one. On Christmas holidays with my usually robust immune system it seems. That’s the thing about having a pretty good immune system. When you do fall victim to a bug it really kicks you in the guts. I keep having coughing fits in public and (lovely pretty) Christmas light-lit Slovenian places. And it’s not. cool.

So here I am attempting to wrestle myself back from a night Slovenian mulled wine oblivion. I’ve had a piece of lime moose (hold on, I mean mousse…oh, I don’t know anymore!) slice and a hot water. And decided a good way to sober up for the next 2 hours before Emma arrives is to do some blogging. About the rest of my time in Kenya… it won’t be quick, so it’s a good marker in the sand for the night ahead. Let’s do this.


So we arrive at Mary Magdelene School for the deaf at 9pm Sunday evening and I’m almost catatonic, having been travelling from 10.30am Saturday and not a wink of sleep. We’re welcomed so warmly, straight into the bosom of Riandu, Kenya: “My daughter – welcome, welcome”. It’s an overwhelming and heartfelt, bristling with an energy that keeps us conscious. Lots of the students think I’m Joanne who was here last year and also had curly hair.

We do introductions and get our sign names. Mine makes me laugh every time. It’s both hands in the sign for “D” with a zig zag downwards movement that kind of looks like you’re gesticulating “What you saying sister?”. Basically it’s about my long curly hair, rather than how vivacious I am. It’s definitely one of the best sign names. In my humble opinion. But maybe I’m biased.

Finally we sink into beds in our girls’ dorm. I manage to commandeer the only non-top-bunk-bed-bunk-bed and set up my mosquito net by sitting legs akimbo each side of the top of the wall and balancing (slightly precariously). By the time I’ve done it looks at least a little palatial. The wooden board/double mattress set up turns out to be a bit of a killer on the back though, especially compared to my (maybe actual princess?) double bed at home, in which I can sleep in the shape of star if I like, with no complaints. My bed here for the next two weeks on the other hand dips in towards all of it’s middles. I eventually swap the mattresses over, so the too big one is on top instead, and it get a little less bowl-like.


First day of work. I meet my team – The Snipers: it’s me (replacing Chris who left before I arrived) Maurice (“space cowboy“), David, Myange and John. Alongside the other new UK volunteers I discover on day one just how dusty and dirty you can get on a proper build site. I’m not sure you ever fully understand the meaning of hard and dirty work until you’ve mined ‘the pit’ and have ring of red sweat around every appendage. Man that soil gets everywhere! I’ve also never blown so much dust – bright burnished red dust – out of my nose in a two week stretch.

I valiantly – to my mind anyway – try my hand in the pit, but just can’t manage to throw the soil to the top edge (it is over twice my height) so Paul (of the foot dance) generously offers to take over. I learn how the makiga brick machine works. Njogo (who’s overseeing all of it and whose name I learn later, brilliantly, means elephant) drills us with the brick “recipe” I’ll call if for want of a better word: mix for curved bricks is 7 soil, 3 sand, 1 cement; for normal ones 10 soil, 3 sand, 1 cement. Each of these elements has to be lovingly prepared, completely by hand.

So for soil, this means digging (#fail) then seiving. For sand we dig it up from the piles dotted around the site, wheelbarrow it across to the sieve and push it through to remove all the rocks and stones. The sieves are made on site – triple chicken wire stretched over a square wooden framed seive. For cement, well emptying the bag, but once you’ve got your wheelbarrows of sand and soil, you have to add the grey dust before it gets up your nose, and mix it in…by hand with spades… Three mixes (little mountains piled back and forth). You gradually sprinkle a third of a watering can of water and mix again; mountains back and forth; more water; mountains back and forth… you get the picture, until you have the perfect consistency. It’s not a quick process (understatement).

We rotate on jobs: pushing burnished earth through a sieve knocking the stubborn lumps out with a wooden block, rumpelling the rest with another longer stake with a rag tied to its end; we clear bricks from one site to another (so many bricks…); build walls (they lean, we take them down again, we build them up again measuring in every variable direction this time); we go “to the PIIIIIT“.. well Eddie does, as his bellow follows him and his sweaty once white, now orange t-shirt into it’s ever deepening basin; we push the brick machine lever one way and then the other; carefully slide the bricks out of the mould and carry them to the new brick baking area (they bake in the sun, in between being watered each day); and in among it all, we chat to the Kenyan volunteers and the students. Generally the Kenyans are probably about four times as strong as us (me anyway) and make it look all look super-easy, joking and playing around between digging, and pulling, yanking and mixing, as if it’s not at all back-breaking.

We learn more Kenyan sign language that evening after dinner (which is most likely tasty/”kuonja” stew of some sort and a block of ugali. If you’ve ever eaten ugali you know what I mean, it literally comes in brick sized blocks, maybe a delicious chipatti or two if you’re lucky followed up by a piece of Kenyan-delicious-papaya or Kenyan-delicious-pineapple, the like of which you’ve never tasted before and never will again. Between meals there’s lots of sweet chai tea and tea or ginger/slightly petrol biscuits).

Over the next few days we learn the signs for all sorts of things. Incidentally sign can vary from country to country, region to region, town to town. It’s all dialect, like with any language. Days of the week, animals, times, we, you, hard work, amen (we have prayers and gratefulness for everything which is definitely something to take home), team, build, good, OK, tree, run, walk, car, bike, motorbike, fruit, lion, rabbit, snake… the list goes on.

There’s actually three languages on site. Maurice who I’m working alongside in The Snipers makes some valiant attempts to teach me Swahili. the general language of Kenya: “Habari?” – How are you?; “Mzuri” Good; “Asante” Thank you; “Tafadali” Please; “Pole” Sorry; “Mi mi naitwa Dawn” My name is Dawn; “rafiki” friend; “chakula” food; “wimbo” song – Maurice is always singing!).

And then there’s and Kimbere – the mother-tongue of this area. The sounds of that language make no logical sense to my brain. David – one of the long standing UK volunteers – does a really good “eating root” which basically means being lazy, but 10 minutes later I can’t even remember the sounds that make up the words. Then of course there’s KSL (Kenyan sign language) which we all seem to be doing okay with – but mainly because the students are so patient with us.

Part of the reason we are here is to show how interaction with deaf or partially hearing students is not only possible but beneficial to everyone concerned. It’s not something that happens often in Kenya. But if its seen that we’re doing it, then others might follow suit. We’re building so much more than just a school whilst we are here.

The exchange comes full circle when you realise how self-possessed and empowered and passionate the hearing (generally student) volunteers are. They’re so invigorated about the cause and are full of ideas of how to help the deaf community to be accepted both here and back in their home or university towns. It’s refreshing. That sense of community and looking after one another and really caring seems to belong very strongly to Kenyans. It’s a beautiful thing. I’m very lucky in my little home town of Buntingford, but that sense of responsibility for others, I think you rarely see it in the world these days.

The next day = wheelbarrow day. Blimey oh riley. I’ve never been quite so determined to clear a (seemingly endless) pile of (ever-increasing?) bricks in my life. They’re being shifted from the back of the dorm block which we’re in the process of building, around the front of the (currently active) dorm block (tricky corner to navigate here with hoses and a ridge and cars to avoid) down to the burgeoning pile of bricks which will eventually make up the dining hall (once Pete gets the go ahead from the planners). One makiga brick is a heavy little sucker, and gets heavier as you go. Somewhere I wrote down the weight per brick, so I’ll let you know if I ever re-find it in my scrawly bicycle notepad. The long and the short of it though is that four of them in one wheelbarrow was all I could manage. And then I had to stop at least twice on every trip, to catch my breathe and summon every last remnant of strength. The Kenyan men could do eight to twelve (which isn’t because I’m a total weakling, they are just that strong!). The Snipers moved an incredible amount of bricks that day. The hardest one by far. Bricks bricks bricks. I dream about them that night. Along with the over-powering cloud of dust that billows into the air whenever a car drives past you on the orange road.


NB: I had to stop at this point as my bum was going numb on the hotel reception chairs, and I started to get worries as to where Emma had got to. And then, we wondered out into Ljubljana to get her a massive beef kebab stottie and a glass of mulled wine before having a good old chin wag about our Christmasses and sleeping.

And then, we dived into the enchanting world of Slovenia and haven’t surfaced until today – Tuesday 3rd January, at Ljubjana airport as we make our way home (poor old Emma has a very long double airport flight and won’t be home until 6pm. I have to say I’m pretty grateful that I’m straight through to Stansted instead of another random Montenegro stop, especially as Ljubljana also seems to be amongst the tiniest airports in the world.. But obviously I’m not going to say that to her, particularly as she didn’t sleep well last night and we only just found ourselves the first decent coffee of the day…warming up).

So I’m pausing this Kenya blog and leaving it where it is for the moment, to go and write about Slovenia whilst it’s still holding it’s spell of enchanting mist, church bells and vast mountain views over me.. I’ll be back. You can follow me if you like (I’ll send you back again afterwards. Or carry on here. Up to you).

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Angela Nalliah #

    Wow Dawn, I am exhausted just reading this. Your writings are brilliant and you gave had a very varied year…well done. Lots of love for a happy and bug free 2017 xxx

    January 6, 2017

Leave a Reply

You may use basic HTML in your comments. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.