Life in Kenya: ‘every day is a struggle’

“Kenya is completely mind blowing. The sheer poverty and lack of basic essentials that we take for granted back at home is astonishing.” I’d been in Kenya just four days when I said that, and I went home 27 days later still thinking that.

This summer I spent a month volunteering in Kenya, in a town called Kajiado. I lived with a host family amongst the Maasai tribe, ate the food, attended churches and community functions, and taught at a local school.


Many Kenyans lack even the most basic of resources. Photo: Sara Falcone

During the first few days before I headed to Kajiado, I stayed in a community house in Nairobi, the capital. There I went to a local school to meet the children, and that was when the reality really hit me.

I visited a school named New Franeli. It had over 200 students squeezed into eight rooms made out of scrap metal and crudely crafted benches.

Some of the children even have to stand during their four hour classes since there aren’t enough benches to go around. The school cannot afford to buy the materials for another one.

Others are not able to stay for the whole day and participate in after school sports because they can’t afford to feed themselves at lunch. Thirst is constantly a problem for every child.

Unlike here, where education, food, and clean water is guaranteed, these children have almost nothing. There’s no welfare system and no guarantees. Every day is a struggle.

Kajiado was better. Though of course the people still live in harsh conditions and the children still struggle in poverty, there are fewer people squashed into one small space. Kajiado is where you can find a portion of Kenya’s most famous tribe, the Maasai.

Renowned, perhaps with exaggeration, as fearsome warriors, the Maasai lead a mostly pastoral life, herding goats, sheep and cows from the northern reaches of Kajiado down to the coastal region of Mombasa, and even into the depths of Tanzania.

Mary and Felix Malleon, my hosts, are both members of the Maasai tribe, but while tradition survives in certain parts of their lives, these two are what most would consider to be “modern Maasai”.

For example, they live in a house made from wood and iron, with a concrete floor. They use mobiles and have a TV which runs on a weekly charged car battery. While adhering to the pastoral herding life, Felix also works as a professional chef. Mary raises their three children and is a housewife.

On the contrary, traditional Maasai live in a “Manayatta”, a hut made out of dried mud and cow dung. They can be as small as one single room, with a roof lower than five foot, and little to no ventilation or light. Had we have had to stay in one of these, I doubt I would have been able to cope with the clouds of smoke formed by cooking inside.

A Maasai diet usually consists of a lot of maize, tea, milk, kale (similar to spinach) and meat, with the signature dish of Kenya Ugali, being a staple of most Maasai meals. Ugali is ground and mashed maize, almost flavourless, but not without a strong smell and consistency.

This could be why, when preparing a goat for lunch, they didn’t waste one part of it. Of course the eyes went to the dog, but the kidneys were eaten raw, the stomach cleaned and prepared as tripe, the liver barbecued and the cuts of mutton served in the animals blood. Even the head was turned into soup.

I declined to try the raw kidney or the blood, but I can assure you the liver was very tasty.

There’s an astonishing amount of churches here in Kenya. At a guess I would suggest there are more of them than schools, hospitals and police stations put together. Religion, it seems, is even more important to Kenyans than food and clean water, if not more. These religious institutions, whether Catholic, Anglican, or otherwise, have the uncanny ability to demand devotion, the way religious clerics in the UK could only pray for.

Of course, for all of Kenya’s problems, its citizens need something to turn to. Poverty, droughts, famine and massive displacement are just a taste of what swathes of the population endure each year. If you have something to hope for, or even something to blame, life can be that bit more bearable.

“Trust in the lord and surely we shall graze in green pastures,” comes from the mouth of one preacher “Believe in the lord and god in heaven will fulfil your desires.” It’s all very hope inducing, possibly unfairly, for while their faith hasn’t faltered, last year the rains certainly did.

Many throughout Kajiado, after recovering from the shock of meeting a non-African person, have asked me “do you know my friend Jesus?” Church itself is incredibly lively; people sing and dance, prey and preach without hesitation or doubt. Infectious smiles are all that seem to be found on the faces of each attendant.

In fact the only disenfranchising feature of Kenya’s dedication to religion is the lack of effort to use their power and wealth to obvious good cause. Kenyans, regardless of earnings, always appear to pay a generous tithe which, when it comes from people in relative poverty, should certainly be used to better effect.

One example is the A.I.C Disabled Children’s Centre, which, while carrying the name of the A.I.C church, is neither funded nor provided for by the church, and has to rely on overseas aid despite the wealth of the church.

Most churches are in better condition than the local schools. They are well decorated and kitted out with high quality sound equipment with which they preach. But regardless of what they may say, people cannot live on Jesus alone, and it’s in the Kenyan church’s hands to make a difference in people’s lives by providing more than just the word of god.

Most people returning from these experiences say they got more out of it than than they feel they put into it. I don’t know about that, but what I do know is that what I thought I knew, I really had no idea. No idea about the scale of problems even in Kenya, historically Africa’s most stable country. No idea about what these people have to live through, and with a smile on their faces.

I get asked what my highlight of the trip was, and there were so many brilliant moments to choose from. I had to pick one it would be the day we went to the local centre for disabled and recovering children. We asked the kids what they would like to do, and they all said one word – “football”.

It wasn’t the football alone that I enjoyed. It was the smiles that were put on their faces during and after. That was the time I felt we’d really made a difference. Putting a smile on the kids faces just by something as seemingly insignificant as football.

I know that the problems haven’t and won’t go away just because people are going out and spending a few weeks teaching and volunteering. More needs to be done. These children depend on those who can provide to give them things like books, which offer a limitless amount of benefits to them.

You can help too…

The problems haven’t and won’t go away just because    people are spending a few weeks volunteering.

More needs to be done. These children depend on those who can provide them with things like books, which offer a limitless amount of benefits to them.

They need clothes and funding for equipment. They need to know that there are people from rich nations that care and want to do something. If you want to be one of those people, email me at jack.dobson@thelinc.co.uk

One Response to Life in Kenya: ‘every day is a struggle’

  1. Emma White says:

    Hi Jack! We also stayed with Mary and Felix and we miss them so much. What wonderful, loving people. We have since set up a small charity to fund school uniforms for those in need. Releving the pressure to buy uniforms from parents and carers enables families to buy food and school supplies instead of the ‘essential’ clothing needed to attend a ‘free’ primary school in Kenya! I hope you enjoyed the rest of your travels Jack. It was lovely to meet you.
    Emma and Phil x