Thursday, 23 January 2014


Part of taking our girls on this adventure around the globe was to broaden their knowledge, learn and to experience life in other parts of the world.  We hoped it would continue to motivate them to share, love and give and of themselves freely, and help them to recognize what is important in life. We have been blessed and a trip to the Kibera Slum reinforced that fact, for all of us.
This is the view of Kibera from the high ground.

The Kibera Slum, located in Nairobi Kenya, is one of the largest slums in the world.  It is estimated to house one million residents of which many are HIV positive.  Antonina, our friend who has helped us with our village projects, and is our guide while in Kenya, went to school with a woman named Agneta, who worked in Kibera. Agneta is the director of a group called Stawi, which in Swahili, means ‘together we can achieve more’.  Twenty-seven years ago, Agneta lost her husband to HIV.  He left her on her own to raise four children and to continue living with HIV.  As in many parts of the world, the stigma of living with HIV was unbearable.  Many committed suicide, avoided treatment and waited to die.  Agneta was determined not be one of those people.  She sought treatment, raised her four children who all graduated from University and made it her life’s ambition to help others ‘live positively with HIV’.  To her, HIV was a disease, which was preventable and manageable with the right medication and support.  It did not mean she was unethical, of low moral standards, or a drug user.  It simply meant she had loved and shared her life with someone who was ill. 
Agneta, the director of Stawi is to my left, sitting at the desk.  Judy is to Ally's right and is the chair.
Stawi has grown over the years and Agneta, her children, and other “members” of the group have helped to educate and support thousands of people affected by AIDS and HIV in Kibera.  They have encouraged them to seek testing, treatment and to live positively with HIV.  Stawi has also raised many orphaned children who have lost their parents to the disease.  The building that we visited was cramped with few features, but it was within those four walls that people were supported and children grew up loved, nurtured and with some form of education.
Agneta's son, Otto is to the right of the woman in blue. 
The children to Auntie Marilyn's right were all enrolled in school and hoped to continue.  Little Natalie has been
raised since birth with the help of Stawi, and spends her days here in the Stawi building.
After meeting with some of the members, we were taken on a tour of the slum.  As we walked down into the valley, the conditions continued to deteriorate. The higher area where the office is located, was considered to be of better class.  We were asked many questions along our journey and told to observe our surroundings.  Children came up and held our hands, stroked our arms and smiled.  Despite the poor conditions, the people were happy.  A little boy pulled a juice box car behind him on a string.  As we moved down into the valley, the path became littered with garbage, the scents became stronger and not one person asked anything of us.
Time for a tour.

Antonina is in the sunglasses walking beside her school friend, Agneta.  We are walking behind.

Although the slum works on a class system, the dwellers can work your way up from the valley with money and education. Education is provided free for little ones; however, very large class sizes, little equipment and poor teacher quality, makes it very difficult for children to achieve.  Many cannot afford uniforms and others who make it beyond the first few years cannot afford to pay the fees to continue. 

This is the dry season, but this valley floods during the rains and makes life more difficult for the residents.

Some of the biggest challenges facing the residents include crowding, poor sanitation, access to clean water and reliable electricity. Although most dwellings have a television, the power is spliced illegally and often causes fires and power failures. Water is available in some areas but it is expensive; residents must purchase jerry cans from those that can afford a water connection.
This is the valley, the most challenging area to live in Kibera.
Many attempts have been made to improve the conditions in the slum with mixed success. Our guide suggested that there has been improvement over the last 10 years, but it has been very slow.  Despite millions being invested in the area to provide better quality housing, many chose to remain in their tiny shelters, and rent out the new apartments. Those that did move out of their shacks found them quickly occupied by new immigrants.  Even the most basic of shelters are rented out by slum-lords, and are not owned by the families that reside there.  Sanitation blocks have also been installed by a number of NGO’s and although this had potential to improve the situation, the fact that there is a fee to use them (5 schillings or about 7 cents) discourages many. Mothers were already struggling to stretch what little money they had and feeding their children ranked higher than paying to use the sanitation blocks.  So, toileting in a bag became an option and the notion of flying toilets became many people’s vision of life in the Kibera. 
This photo shows the housing projects in the far back left on the outskirts of the slum.

There is a strong sense of community in the slum. Just like Canada, most people are happy to stay put and choose to stay in what is familiar, and this is no different here.  There is no easy answer to help support the poverty and improve the living conditions in Kibera, but the people are hopeful for change and it is happening slowly.  One of the women who walked along side of me, asked if I thought there was hope for better living conditions in the slum.  Did I think it was possible that life could improve? It was probably one of the toughest questions I have been asked.  As we continued our journey, I thought about how I could answer her.  She was raising her daughter and grandchild on her own, all “living positively” with HIV.  She was kind and gentle and interested in some of the places we had visited.

It was certainly an emotional day that left me grateful, inspired, and motivated.  With our visit, the Stawi organization will provide another meal for the children and continue educating those affected by HIV.   Their message was passed on and our girls got to see another part of the real world. We did not see waste flying through the air, or swollen tummies, but kind, welcoming, gentle people, living life with integrity the best they could.
The Stawi members with the Mitchell gang, taken outside of their building.
The green section is where Stawi does their work.
To answer my tour companion’s question, I suggested that there is hope for better living conditions in the Kibera, but as far as living a better life… what is it that makes a better life?  Is it health, happiness, dignity, education?  I couldn’t easily answer that question but I did let her know that the work she was doing with Stawi had already had an impact on the lives of so many people.  She was humble as she accepted that recognition. One thing I am certain of though, is that we all could learn a lesson or two from the members of Stawi, and the people we met along our journey into Kibera.

Our girls have cared, shared and been generous in so many ways.  Although our work in Africa has only just begun, we have experienced and learned so much already. Thank you Antonina, for connecting us with; Agneta, Judy, Lillian, Margret, Malcolm, Rita, Veronica, Faith, Natalie, Gaudencia, Joseph and Otto of Stawi. 


Sunday, 19 January 2014

Welcome to Kenya!

Airports in Africa are a wee bit different than the rest of the world.  We arrived at the Johannesburg Airport expecting a 5 hour gap between flights (which had just been delayed by another 2 hours).  In Canada, changing flights would involve time, a detailed formal process, and most likely additional fees… not in Africa!   

When Mark inquired about the delay the fellow at the counter made a call on is cellphone, pushed some buttons on his computer keypad and ripped up our boarding passes in front of us.   He escorted us past a line of people, moved us through the security women at the gate to his ‘friend’ who printed us new boarding passes for the plane leaving right away.  The luggage was weighed and tagged and we were told to “run” to the security gate.  Our carry-on bags were pushed through the security monitor in seconds and we were boarding the plane with no time for a washroom break.  Our boarding passes were actually printed off after the time we were to be boarding the plane.  The plane had been delayed (imagine that), which was the only way we were able to get tickets on this earlier flight. We couldn’t believe how quick and easy the transfer to an earlier flight was at the airport. 

We were the last to board the brand new plane and were wined and dined the whole trip.  Mark ordered a Heineken and was handed two.  I ordered a Coke and the same thing happened, even the packages of nuts came in twos.  Another fellow let us use his cellphone to let Antonina and Auntie Marilyn know we would be arriving early.  It was a whirlwind of activity, but I must say I would fly Kenyan Airlines anytime!

The Nairobi Airport was a whole different world and our adventures in Kenya had officially begun.  The airport was under massive construction due to a large fire that made international news.  The new building was large, yet I only saw 10 or so construction workers.  Hard hats were optional and so were shoes!  I thought about the number of workers you would see on a building that size at home and figured at that rate, the new airport would be a long time coming.  We walked off the plane and down to the tarmac, where we walked for 5 minutes before boarding a people mover to travel to the terminal.  We passed container after container of luggage with various workers attending to them in neon vests.  One took a break sitting next to the silver corrugated metal wall - topped with barbed wire, and removed his shoes.  The metal was shiny and new and had not yet taken on the tired look of everything else we saw.

We filled out our visa paperwork (which appeared to be 1970's vintage) and met Auntie Marilyn and Antonina on the other side of customs and immigration.  The process for getting a Visa was different for each one of us.  Mark had finger and thumb prints taken on both hands.  I had my picture taken, prints of my right hand only and no thumb prints.  Ally had no picture and no prints… I lost track of what happened with Meghan, but I’m fairly confident all I did was hand them $50 US for hers, which the officer promptly tucked into her bra! (She wasn't pocketing the money, that was just where she kept it - so much for a cash box)
The Nairobi Airport.  See the people standing to the left - that was where you filled out a form for your visa.

Awww family, we are so lucky!
The next challenge was loading all of the luggage, groceries and six people into the rental car.  Not rental SUV, rental van or rental Land Rover, but a rental car! What a sight we were, heading down the highway.  We were packed to the rafters, the eggs were in the glove compartment and we kept bottoming out as we went over the speed bumps. Yet, the more we looked around, the more we realized we had a pretty nice ride! The rental would get us around town comfortably after we dumped off the luggage, but it would not suffice for the voyage to the village. The potholes in Nairobi were big enough to swallow small children, so I can just imagine what we will face in the countryside!  It did have air conditioning though, which would be welcomed during the day and would allow us to keep our windows up, avoiding the diesel fumes and dust that created a blanket of smog.
Antonina trying to figure out how on earth all that luggage will fit in the vehicle.
We took in the sights of the market stalls, slums, garbage, animals and masses of people as we weaved our way along the highway.  Thank goodness Antonina was behind the wheel. Even after driving 20, 000 km through Europe, Mark refused to drive here!  It is like no other country we have visited so far.  People selling anything from lamps, furniture, mangoes to board games crowded the car when we stopped at an intersection. They were even on the 4 lane freeway in bumper to bumper traffic. Can you imagine being stopped in a traffic jam and a couch being offered up to your window?  It was the end of the workday and everyone was making their way home, whether it be hanging out of the public taxis or trekking their way on foot (It seemed like mass migration to Mark).  Two people on a motorcycle were transporting their new mattress, and made us all stare, then laugh out loud. We were amazed at the sights on the first day. Nairobi had been quite the adventure already, and we had only just arrived!

Taken right outside the airport, check out the cows!

Care for a lamp?  Or how about some snacks?
There are actually two people on this motorcycle, along with the mattress!

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Once Upon A Time

Once upon a time, a little girl named Lauren moved to Canada with her beautiful family.  She met a Canadian girl named Ally and together they formed a magical bond.  After a few short years they were separated, as Lauren returned to South Africa.  Ally was heartbroken.  She dreamt about her dear friend and of one day visiting South Africa.  Ally's parents didn't think it would fit into the plans, but fate had another agenda.  After four years of separation, a beautiful reunion took place, as the Mitchells headed to South Africa.

The girls together, along with their families, visited the Addo Elephant Reserve in the +42 degree weather.  The animals were absolutely amazing; elephant, warthog, zebra, ostrich, birds of prey, a snake being eaten by a hawk, monkey, fox, and various buck.  It was an incredible safari in the blazing heat.  The girls were in awe as they snapped photos and cooled down with granadilla popsicles. 

They visited an ostrich farm where they learned about the birds, fed them by hand, had their pictures taken while perched on top, stood on the eggs, were in awe at Ally actually riding one like a horse and dined on scrumptious ostrich kabob, burgers and biltong.

The Mitchells were introduced to beautiful people, the African work ethic, and the life of domestic workers, nannies, and gardeners.  They were shocked to hear that the minimum wage was 1.00/hour.  Although there is such poverty, townships and squatter camps here, the people are so happy, welcoming and friendly.
Lidia, what an angel!
Lauren welcomed Meggie like another sister and the three girls explored stunning beaches and enjoyed glimpses of wildlife that lingered beneath the surface.

They travelled deep into the depths of the earth and discovered caverns, flow stones and old concert halls at the Cango Caves.  They were disappointed to see the vandalism that had occurred over the years, to the once awesome stalactites.

All were amazed at the spectacular beauty they saw as they travelled up the coast towards Cape Town.  The views from Chapman’s Peak, the sunsets, the Cape of Good Hope, and the waterfront were breathtaking.  Lauren and her family shared the magic of South Africa with the Mitchells.

They travelled out to Robben Island, where they met an ex political prisoner who was housed with the Late Nelson Mandela.  Mark piped the Dark Island and Amazing Grace on the shore. They remembered, reflected and were oh so grateful.

The two families travelled in one vehicle, set up camp in the pouring rain, had many braais (bbq's) over the open fire, ate like kings, queens and princesses and spent every moment they could, together.  

They took a journey up Table Mountain in the cable car where the winds blew and the clouds rolled in, enveloping the top of the mountain and the unsuspecting guests. 

The two families embarked on a treetop adventure, zip lining ninety meters above the forest floor where they saw chameleons, and a Knysna Loerie bird.  They laughed until they almost pee’d their pants and had the time of their lives.

As the girls stayed up later and later the evil call from their parents to wake up, boomed in the air.  Not one of them complained as Merrick, Lauren's older brother and his fiancé Taz, had just come home from another 30 hour shift at the hospital.  While their family members and guests explored the Western Cape and swung from the treetops, Taz and Merrick were busy performing surgeries and saving lives.  One will never forget their reply to the question, "how was your day?"  Taz answered and said, "Merrick cut off four limbs and I saved a baby who fell off the roof of a church".  The Canadians  enjoyed hearing about Taz and Merrick's first days at the hospital as medical officers, and were surprised at what their daily routines consisted of.

Merrick and Taz - they look pretty great after working 30 hours straight!
Sadly, all fairy tales must come to an end; however, all were determined to stretch out their final day together. Sand boarding at Jeffrey's Bay challenged them all, as the wind whipped the sand against their sun-kissed skin.  They were ravenous and headed home for yet another traditional South African Braai.        Nothing quite compares to the meals enjoyed in South Africa.

Ally and Lauren started a life long friendship at the age of seven that has allowed their parents to do the same.  Dreams do come true, and as the Mitchells prepare to say goodbye after sixteen days in the jewel of Africa, they were comforted that future reunion plans are well underway.  Perhaps, they will return in eleven months to celebrate Taz and Merrick's wedding!

Once upon a time there was a girl and her family who entered the lives of four Canadians; they touched their hearts, cried, laughed, loved and lived...happily ever after.

Until we meet again

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

International Experience

Our accommodations have varied thoughout our six months on the road and I feel we have become quite adept at critiquing the standards and expectations of the various options, available to travellers.  After our last week in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, I will never look at accommodation the same again.  Our dear friends have recently purchased a Bed and Breakfast, on a beautiful property in sunny South Africa.  Although South Africa may not rate number one on many Canadian’s destination lists, it should, and a stop at Mongoose Manor, Port Elizabeth, is a must.
The view of the garden from the breakfast table!
During the last few days I have had the privilege of working along side my friend, the warm and friendly owner of Mongoose Manor, Rhoda.  She manages and maintains the property with occasional help from her CEO husband - turned short hand cook, Kerry. Kerry gave me a tip on my first day on the job.  “Rhoda maintains a high level of service and has specific expectations – don’t make suggestions or argue, just do as she tells you!”  Good advice coming from Rhoda’s husband. Perhaps that is why we were able to celebrate their 38th wedding anniversary during our visit!  As I was standing in as support staff, I figured it best that I follow suit. 

Helping out Lidia in the kitchen.
Even Mark helped out with the evening entertainment.
Boy, did I have a lot to learn.  Fruit salad must be cut up finely, onions are to be cut away from you, plates must be warmed, juice must be covered with a doily, French toast must be dipped not soaked, and the clear bottle of liquid is bleach not stain remover, plating of food is left solely up to Rhoda and never, ever, must you forget the parsley sprig, no guests in the kitchen, the green button is for the security gate, and keep to the concrete after dark, all cotton must be ironed, Miele corn is not sweet corn and clientele from around the world have different expectations as far as meals are concerned. I was exhausted and I had only just begun.
Work, work, work and fun, fun, fun!
I'm getting the hang of this B and B thing!
Amongst all of the hustle and bustle of helping out at Mongoose, there was time to take a walk down to the river, have a snooze in the hammock or sit and enjoy a book in the garden.  We met guests from around the world, and appreciated that the facilities, although beautiful, are only a small part of the success at Mongoose.  The relationships and service are what people return for.  Breakfast was a feast and all guests were satiated and merrily headed out on their way with full tummies.  After a day of sightseeing, guests returned to spotlessly clean suites.  The cleaning service was maintained each day, another expectation Rhoda saw to meticulously.  I did not try my hand at this, and was just as well, as I’m fairly confident I would not pass the white glove test! 
Can I offer you a drink from the bar?
 I only experienced a brief glimpse of what is required of a Bed and Breakfast owner/manager, but I am inspired to learn more.  Perhaps in the future, one will find a Bed and Breakfast on the shores of Lake Erie.  I will be hard pressed to run a B and B that compares to Mongoose; however, Rhoda has said that I can now add international hospitality experience to my CV.  Perhaps the future is not that far off!  Thank you so much Rhoda and Kerry for a beautiful stay at Mongoose Manor, what a treat and inspiration.

A long stay guest in the courtyard of Mongoose.

The best part of helping out at the B and B was the moments spent with dear friends.