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Life in Kenya


Even the waitresses smile in Kenya!
Breakfast consisted of cereal and a colourful array of fruits, delivered daily to the door by a man with a wheelbarrow teeming with produce.
I set about blending fresh mangoes, bananas and other, less distinguishable, local produce into a refreshing milk smoothie. It was so delicious, I carried on the routine back home. Mary, Tanya's maid, was ironing. We started 'pigeon' chatting. She was a local girl, about 25, with four children and an unemployed husband. She worked six days a week, starting before our household stirred and finishing at 4pm. Her duties included cleaning the floors on her hands and knees with a cloth - perhaps there were no mops in Kenya? - and washing all the clothes by hand because there wasn't a washing machine either. Apparently, the brackish water is too corrosive. She ironed, made the beds and did a little cooking, I later discovered! For that, she earned the equivalent of 30 euros a month. I made myself a coffee and asked if she'd like one. She looked a little surprised but responded with a beautiful smile and said: "I will like." Her English vocabulary didn't extend very far but then nor did my Kiswahili so we continued in English and got by ok.

Later on, while getting ready to go out, Emma said to me in a low, confidential voice:
"You know, Mary's downstairs cooking."
"Oh, I thought we were eating out."
"We are. She's cooking for the dog."
"Cooking, for the dog?" I asked, wondering where this was going. "What's she cooking?"
"Meat!" Emma exclaimed. "She said it's the same meat she buys to cook for her family!"
Now, I knew things would be different here - pointless leaving home-soil if you don't want that - and I'd told myself on arrival to accept things as they are, not to judge, question or think too much. But, this was one of those things that just isn't right. How must she feel, preparing a meal for a dog using meat that she would later serve to her family? Did that cause Mary to consider her own circumstances or ours? I'd seen a tin of Pedigree Chum in the cupboard. Maybe the dog was given that on Mary's day off - or was that Mary's lunch? I tried not to think about it and resolved that travel is good for restoring perspective.

Children playing in a lagoon, Diani Beach, KenyaLife in Kenya is tough, there's no doubt about that. What we in the west consider a simple chore or mild inconvenience, can be more than a day's work for most people in Kenya. We are only reminded of how much we take our household appliances for granted, when they break. Tanya had told us on arrival to leave any laundry on the floor and Mary would wash them. But, when I saw her crouched over a drainage area outside the back door, working her way through a mountain of clothes, I didn't have the heart to add to her work-load. Despite the heat, drying can take a couple of days or more in such a humid environment. To compound this, everything had to be ironed to kill any eggs/lavae that might have embedded themselves into the fibres! Doing all this and more for one person, which was normally the case for Mary, was laborious and back-breaking. For the next two weeks there would be eight! So I did mine myself. It took me hours and my back ached for days after but it certainly made me appreciate things when I got home.

One thing struck me; how genuinely happy, good-natured and relaxed the Kenyan people seem to be, in spite of their toils. At first, I considered they saw us as walking dollar signs, until I observed them laughing and chatting at the sides of the roads, oblivious of our presence. Mary would raise her sweat-beaded brow from the washing tub she was bent over and beam at us. Security guards, posted at the gates of various hotels and residences, never failed to smile and wave. Even the bare-footed children seem happier. They skip along the roadside yelling 'jambo' to every car and passer-by.

We had all agreed to give Mary a decent tip at the end of our stay. I had also decided to leave her my watch. Something a little more personal. It was only a cheap thing intended for use in Kenya, but it looked nice and, more importantly, it worked. Well, I didn't realise how cheap it was, until the strap fell off while on safari. It was no longer a worthy present but I kept it, along with the tiny pin that had become unhinged. As I packed my bags at the end of the trip, I found the watch. I inspected it closely. It was easy enough to fix but it might need a new pin. Mary was in the bathroom, cleaning as usual. Would she be insulted with this gift? I didn't want her to think I'd only given it to her because it was broken. Suddenly, my reasoning seemed so misplaced. This kind of logic was commercial conditioning and without giving it a second thought I called Mary. The moment she understood my intentions, her face lit up. She beamed at me until I was so moved I had to break eye-contact. She cupped her hands in acceptance, nodded and thanked me vociferously as I spluttered my apologies for the condition it was in. What a wasteful society I was returning to.

Not all Kenyan people are living so close to the poverty line. The Maasai tribespeople have learned they possess a valuable asset that far exceeds the worth of their cattle. Their colourful heritage, renowned throughout the world, transcends all spiritual beliefs. They capitalise on it as fiercely as they guard it and it's virtually impossible to photograph a Maasai without money exchanging hands (unless, of course, you have a powerful zoom lens;)
While still on the coast of Kenya, we attended a Maasai dance at a hotel on the beach. I took advantage of the moment and snapped away. When they finished dancing, they displayed their wares - no, 'display' is too passive a description and suggests customers are free to browse at their leisure. They spread their handmade adornments at your feet and expect you to buy everything you dare look at! Their notoriety as fearsome warriors of past has clearly extended into their present-day vocation. I bought a beaded necklace I didn't want (and could have bought for half the price in Petticoat Lane) and hurried to join my friends, who looked as eager to escape as I. Suddenly, I was confronted by another Maasai salesman demanding my custom. I showed him my newly acquired necklace, smiled apologetically and turned away. "But you took photos of me! I posed especially for you!" And there was me thinking they were enjoying themselves. You can't blame them but, somehow, it erodes their mystique and we couldn't get away fast enough. If you want to see a real Scot, got to Scotland. Next stop - the Masai Mara...
Read on.....


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