Thursday, 27 February 2014

Patience in Dubai

We landed in Dubai for a short stay after another red eye flight from London.  We certainly were getting used to soaring above the clouds at all hours of the night.    The Dubai airport was spectacular, and almost a tourist attraction in and of itself.  There were boutiques and shops to meet any consumer’s needs.  Of course Dubai is known to be a shopper’s dream world, so why would the airport be any different?  It was massive and it took us some time to make our way out, we had to catch a train to pick up our luggage.  We were exhausted as we waited for the train, then for our luggage to come around the conveyor belt.  We couldn’t wait to make it to the hotel for a rest.

After reaching the hotel we were told that to check in early we would have to pay an additional $50.00, yikes!  The hotel accommodation was already the most expensive accommodation we had booked on our trip in the past seven months, so an additional fee was out of the question!  So, we decided to wait.  After resting for a bit on the lobby couch, we decided to head downtown to put in a few hours.  We waited for the shuttle, which dropped us off at the mall.  I felt almost at home, or perhaps close to home, in a mall just over the U.S. border.  P.F. Chang’s, The Cheesecake Factory, Desigual, Coach…you name the brand or chain, and it was here.  We didn’t buy a thing, other than an overpriced lunch.  A hamburger, fries and drink from Johnny Rockets was going for $20.00 Canadian.  I had visions of me cooking stir-fry for dinner in our hotel room, again.  As we waited for our check-in time, we checked out the tallest building in the world.
There were cool waterfall features!

An ice rink,

an aquarium

and even a Tim Hortons!

At the base of the tallest building in the world!

Lazing around by the pool, getting some schoolwork done and heading out on safari was on the agenda for the next day.  The pool was warm and the sun was hot, yet there was a breeze.  I figured Dubai would be scorching hot, after all, I had heard about temperatures of upwards of 40 degrees Celsius.  Of course for us, it was a balmy 23 degrees AND it rained!  We were in the middle of the desert and it rained, I am seriously beginning to think that we bring the rain wherever we go.  It rained throughout Europe, but let’s be honest, England and Scotland are known for their rains, so I wasn’t too concerned.  But… when we returned to London after being in Africa, they were experiencing the worst flooding ever….was that due to us?  Then there was Kenya in the dry season; it rained twice and really hard.  Again NOT normal!  Now Dubai… weren’t we guaranteed for it not to rain in Dubai?  Nope, not a chance… it rained, AND 23 degrees – it may as well have been freezing!  The pool attendant was dressed in a hat and winter jacket.
It was no wonder these two were the only ones in the pool!  I wish I had captured a photo of the pool attendant though!
We waited all day for the safari company to confirm our tour; waiting was becoming a theme in Dubai.  We were getting a little worried.  After a quick phone call and a half hour later, our safari driver arrived. The four of us piled into a 4x4 SUV and hit the desert sand for some dune bashing.  Mohammad let the air out of the tires so we could float across the land.  Mark asked how long Mohammad had been driving desert safaris and he told us it was his first day.  We figured he was kidding, but he seemed rather serious.  I was already feeling a little anxious, let alone it being Mohammad’s first day!  There were roll bars in the SUV for crying out loud!  I buckled myself in, prayed that we would see another day, and that Meg would not get motion sick. 
See the roll bars?
Turned out Mohammad had been driving for years and had trained safari drivers in various parts of the world.  He took us on some ‘extreme’ dunes where we drove across the top ridge with steep drop offs on either side…the reason for the roll bars became very clear.  We fishtailed, slid sideways, climbed steep slopes and laughed at the butterflies in our tummies.  It was so much fun.
Contact Mohammad at for a great adventure if you are headed to Dubai!
Mohammad had never had anyone bagpipe for him on safari before…imagine that!
Just as we were getting used to things we came up over a knoll and almost took out a herd of camels… are groups of camels called herds?  We stopped for a quick look and the camels were not impressed.  How dare we rush up on them, necessitating the need for them to vary off their chosen path?  A little further down the way, we came across a camel farm. 
Hello there….
We stopped off at a camp for dinner and various other safari adventures.  We had our feet painted with henna, posed with the camels, watched a belly dancer performance, saw a Falcon show and enjoyed a traditional meal.  It was quite a night.  Even Mark tried his hand at belly dancing; perhaps we will need some lessons when we return!
One of our favourite pics!

Henna tattoos, so cool!

Checking out the camels.

Belly dancer, Mark.  He thinks we should take lessons when we get back home!

We woke up in the wee hours of the morning to make our way back to the airport.  We were headed to New Zealand next, and our boarding pass indicated it was a 14-hour flight.  We still had a connection flight after we landed too, it was certainly going to be a long day…. and then we were delayed!  This wasn’t Africa, and we were not going to get on an earlier flight with a cell phone call, here.  Dubai was a short stay, yet it was getting longer and longer as we checked out every square inch of the airport.  We put in some time watching the National Geographic camera crew film the airport for a documentary, exchanged some money, got caught up on emails, uploaded photos to Flickr and updated the spreadsheets.  And, our flight got delayed even further… at this rate we were going to be sleeping in the airport.  Time ticked past slowly and we read, and wrote, and read some more. 
Homework, travelling style!
One of the airline personnel called out to the group of people at boarding gate 3C who were waiting, sleeping, fidgeting, eating, and demonstrating various levels of impatience. We were boarding… nope, not a chance.  We were just being offered a complimentary lunch – that was not a good sign.  If they were feeding us, the chances of us boarding in the next hour was nil!  We didn’t complain considering the price of a hamburger, so… free lunch it was, as the time on the boarding gate moved out a little further.
Yep, we are all looking a little sleepy!

Look at these fancy chairs!
A half-hour after our tummies were full and I had dozed off to sleep in an amazing recliner chair, Mark woke me.  We were boarding…finally!  At least they made us think we were boarding…really, we just passed through the gate to ANOTHER gate!  So, we continued to wait and our short stay in Dubai became a little longer, again.  As I’m typing this blog and looking back on our time in Dubai, I realized we had done a lot of waiting.  We waited for planes, trains, luggage, meals, hotel rooms, phone calls, shuttles, safari tours you name it.  I’ve practically written a whole blog post while I’ve been waiting here for our plane!  Now, I would not describe myself as a patient person… yeah, not patient at all!  But, after all of this waiting around, I am pleasantly surprised to say that I have not been frustrated or upset at any time.  Not even now when I am tired and really just want to catch our plane and go back to sleep, what was going on?  Did I grow some patience in the past seven months?  Was it a change in me or was it just the fact that there wasn’t really a consequence if I spent my time waiting?  I hope it is a change in me; change is good.  Time will tell I suppose, but until then I’ll keep waiting patiently, at least for our plane!

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

The Cousins Make it to Mauko Village in Kenya!

Help Cousins For Kenya support education and projects in Mauko Village by clicking the DONATE button below. Please watch the video below to see our trip to the village.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Education in Kenya

Today we were invited to Sylvia, our educational scholarship recipient’s, family home. We had to abandon the car and walk across country to reach it.  Sylvia’s Mom did not speak English but greeted us with pride and appreciation.  Her father was deaf and mute and had tears of joy in his eyes, as he came in from the fields to meet us.  They had known over the years that their daughter was able to attend highschool because of the contributions from a group of young cousins in Canada.  They had seen pictures over the years, but had never met the cousins After four years of supporting Sylvia through medical bills and school, Ally and Meg would finally meet Sylvia and her family.
The girls and Sylvia
Grandma sewed Sylvia a new skirt and blouse.  She was not able to keep them at school, but we took
them to her home to leave with her Mom and Dad.
Sylvia was the first child in her family to have had the opportunity to attend highschoolAlthough she has struggled with some health issues, she has made it to her final year and will graduate this time next year. Primary education is free in Kenya, however every child must have a uniform and each month, a small bill is due.  Often the cost of the uniform (less than five dollars) and the additional monthly fees of about a dollar a month, prevents young children from attending school.  Sylvia’s two older siblings had dropped out, her thirteen year old younger brother was in Grade two and her niece was attending school but with much difficulty.  High school is not free, and each child pays about six or seven hundred dollars a year to attend.  Many are lucky to make it to the end of grade eight and very few continue on to highschool.  Unfortunately, a family never quite knows the extent of expenses when their child enrolls in school, and oftenadditional fee requirements prevent many from continuing.  A payment was due today in the primary schools.  It was the end of the month, and the additional teachers required in the schools, which the government does not fund, needed to be paid.  Every child from grade one to six was sent home to collect sixty shillings (about 77 cents) and was not to return unless the fee was paid.  

These are the school uniforms being sold in the market.  They are made from very poor quality
cotton and therefore rip and wear out quickly.  Each uniform costs less than $5.00.
Many uniforms do not fit or are tattered and torn.
The typical class size is about a hundred students, and if the school has good parental support to pay for additional teachers, there would be two teachers as opposed to one in each classroom.  Children crowd around the desks, share resource materials, and have very long days.  I am quite proud to be a teacher.  I love my job, I work hard and take on additional responsibilitiesbut it really doesn’t compare to the job description of a teacher in Kenya.  Their dedication, commitment and ability to teach in such desperate conditions is truly remarkable.  We had the opportunity to meet with the teachers and administration of the four public schools near the village, and the girls attended class. All four schools were overcrowded and faced financial hardship, but all were making a difference in as many children’s lives as possible.  The students receiving educational scholarships were selected from these four schools. 

Ally attending Grade 8.

Meggie joins the Grade 7 class.

Some of the children attending Mauko School.
The Early Education children are provided a mid-day meal of porridge.  The porridge is prepared by a school
cook, over an open fire, in a small hut on the school property.
The educational system here, is like nothing I could have dreamt about.  One of our scholarship recipients had been sent home right before his national exams to collect funds required to pay for the funeral expenses of his classmates.  There had been traffic accident involving the school’s bus and several students were tragically killed.  The accident made national news, but nowhere was it mentioned that students who failed to produce the additional funds to bury their classmates were not permitted to write their final exams.  Exams, which counted for one hundred percent of their final grades! To many, the additional fifty-dollar fee was the end of hope of ever graduating.  After parents had poured every ounce of effort into producing four years of school fees, a tragic accident prevented many from passing.  Luckily, our scholarship recipient was in his first year and was able to continue.  We visited him at his school and all he asked from us was to speak to his friends, so they too could be motivated to continue with their studies, as he was.
Rashid had lost both of his parents and is another well deserving scholarship recipient.
His best subject was Geography, so Mark and he had a great chat.
We have been asked over the years why we provide support in Africa when there is poverty in our own country and province, and we can easily answer that question.  In Canada when they say education is free, they mean it. No child would be prevented from graduating because they had to bury their best friends. No six year old would be sent away from class if they failed to produce the seventy-five sent monthly fee.  And never have I seen children so desperate to attend school than I have here in Kenya.

Despite the hardships people face here, it was rare that anyone asked anything of us, but instead showed their gratification for the projects we were supporting in the village.  Everyone we met welcomed us and shook our hands, many bowing with respect.  The same was the case at Sylvia’s home.  I wept as Sylvia’s mom presented the girls with a bushel of ground nuts (peanuts) and a live chicken, in appreciation for supporting Sylvia through school.  These people, living in such hardship, gave freely of the few posessions they had.  I was overcome with emotion as the girls accepted the gifts, on behalf of the Cousins for Kenya.  It would have been quite disrespectful to refuse.  
Auntie Marilyn and I in tears as the girls accepted a basket of peanuts and a live chicken in
appreciation for supporting Sylvia through high school.  It was an emotional day.
The girls with Sylvia's Dad.  He is deaf and mute, but there was no problem
understanding what he was trying to convey to us.
Sylvia is the hope of a brighter future for her family.  It is up to her to use her education to secure a job,  where her earnings will be directed back to help support her family.  It is the way of life in Kenya.  Auntie Marilyn came to Kenya to teach for a short while and she and six retired teachers were inspired to start a charitable organization to fund educational scholarships.  Their group has grown and along the way Auntie Marilyn shared her experiences with Ally and Meg.  Soon afterwards, Cousins for Kenya was born.  Contributing to an educational scholarship was one of their early initiatives. The educational scholarships are working well in the village. They have provided fifteen children the opportunity to attend highschool, we were able to meet five of them. The Cousins for Kenya have made a difference here as well and hope to add more scholarship recipients to their list.  Afterall, there is no motivation like receiving a live chicken to inspire them to continue their work.

Meggie and Sylvia's Mom carrying the basket of peanuts.
Thank you so much to all of you who have supported the girls and their cousins in their fundraising efforts.  Please know that 100% of your funds have made it to the village and are certainly making a difference. Should you wish to contribute to an educational scholarship or any of the village projects, please let us know! There is so much potential here, and we have only just begun.

Life in Mauko Village

For the past five years the girls and their cousins have been raising funds to support Mauko Village, a small rural village in Western Kenya.  Mauko Village was always a stop on our world tour and I was pretty sure it would be a highlight.  I knew it would be remote, with little services, and that there would be poverty.  I knew that it would be an emotional learning experience for all of us, and that the people would touch our lives.  What amazed me was that we had set out to give; however, we have left Kenya with far more than we ever imagined.   We have met beautiful people that have become friends.  We have left with pride and confidence, knowing our efforts and funds are making a difference in the village for so many, and... we have left inspired to continue our efforts and do more for the people we have met.

Out visiting the neighbours on a village walk.
Mauko village is located a days drive outside of Nairobi, and the residents consist of mainly subsistence farmers.  The roads were rough, poverty was high, polygamy was common, and families were large.  Smiling children played in barefeet and ran to wave at the "Mzungus" (white people) passing by in the car, which was also a rarity in the village.  Other than our Auntie Marilyn and her group of retired teachers, which had visited the village years before, we were the only white people that some of the villagers had ever seen.  Many of the younger children cried in fear and ran to hide in the skirts of their older sisters or mothers.  Yet it took no time for the children to realize they had nothing to fear and an afternoon game of Ultimate Frisbee soon took hold outside our compound.  Children of all ages would come daily from far and wide, wanting to play.  They laughed, ran, tickled and played together with us, and would always leave for home as the sun went down.  Little girls carried their baby siblings on their backs and the children looked after one another despite their very young ages.  George, the boy living with his mother on our compound, became fast friends with the girls.  The community was so welcoming, nobody passed by without a greeting and handshake, and many went out of their way to invite us into their homes.

It was getting dark, time to say goodbye!
Ally and Mark playing Ultimate Frisbee with the kids.
George and the girls became fast friends and spent their evenings together playing games, laughing and
sharing stories together.  We were able to purchase George a new school uniform while we were there.
The community was large and spread out.  Families lived on land known as compounds with many huts.  There are many traditions and expectations with regards to land and building homes in the village.  The tribe that lives in Mauko is known as the Luhya tribe and tribal loyalties and traditions run deep.  I loved listening to Antonina share her stories about marriage, gender roles, laws and expectations in the village. Dowry's are still paid in the village and usually consist of cows, and there are three different types of marriage recognized there.  I was shocked to hear that when Antonina lost her husband, his brother tried to 'inherit' her and take over her land.  This was a typical practice that still happens in the rural areas.  Luckily, she was well educated, fought for her rights and ended up winning the case.  She was awarded her late husband's land and was required to claim the land by building a home on it.  We visited her 'married' homestead and learned that it would eventually be passed to her youngest son. When her sons came of age they were expected to build their homes on the land as well.

Antonina's new home.  The bricks will be added next.

Antonina lost her father a little over a month before our arrival.  We were there for the 40 days celebration.  There
was a memorial service which Mark piped at, and the men took part in a 'cyphen'.  The men sat in a circle drinking a traditional brew from a single pot with very long grass straws.  
Although there has been much progress in recognizing and awarding the rights of women, unfortunately, there is still much work to be done. Polymgamy still occurs and far too often, woman are left with nothing, to raise their children.  The woman we met, living next to our compound, had just learned that her husband had taken a second wife.  He had left her and their four children quite some time ago.  She was supporting them by growing crops on the little land they had.  Their future was not bright as the crops would barely sustain them throughout the year.  She was not alone in this situation and we were conforted to hear that the women in the village, support one another, as best they can.

This is a woman's group.  The money on the table is used for micro lending small business ventures for the
members.  They also do a merry-go-round collection where once a year each member will receive a small pool
of money to better herself.  
Travel in and around the village was done by foot, bicycle and motorcycle.  We were amazed at what people would transport on their bicycles; goats, chickens, crates of eggs, furniture, and several other people were among the more common forms of cargo.  Although there was no electricity in the village, everyone had a cell phone.  They would pay a couple of cents to charge their phones at the village shop, where a car battery was used as the electrical source.  The most common form of lighting was by parafin lamps and fire was used to heat water and cook.

Some of the interesting loads we saw!
In addition to providing educational scholarships for children to attend highschool, these are some of the other projects Auntie Marilyn's Mwikase Group and the Cousins for Kenya 
were able to introduce in the village during our stay.

The Nuru Energy presentation.  We were able to introduce a power cycle and headlamps in the village.  The headlamps  can be recharged for a small fee, allowing villagers to replace their paraffin light sources with a safer and cheaper alternative.  During our launch, 27 headlamps were purchased, more than 50% of those in attendance bought a lamp.  In the following days lamps continued to be sold - what a great success!  The funds received to charge the headlamps will be directed to the Community Resource Library to help employ a full time worker.
Introducing Solar Cookers to the villagers.  The cookers will allow the women to purify water and cook their meals
without the use of firewood.  This project was also well received in the village and one cooker was purchased on the spot with three others being spoken for.  
Cows were purchased at the local market to be given to the schools.  The cows will reproduce which can be sold to generate an income for the school in addition to the benefits their milk will provide.
We helped to purchase books for the Mwikase Community Resource Library which is set to open in June.
Kaite, one of the Cousins for Kenya, donated her birthday money to purchase a shelf in the library, now
we have something to put on the shelf with many more books to purchased later in the week!
Life in the village was certainly hard, but not one person we met complained of the hardships they were faced with.  They were hardworking, generous, caring people with strong religeous beliefs and hope for the future.  Their positive outlook and genuine interest and compassion for others was commendable.  On numerous occasions we saw people with very little, give freely.  The less they had, the more they seemed to give.  We were so blessed to have experienced such selfless acts of kindness.  We were treated like celebrities for the work we were doing in the village. Everywhere we went we were welcomed and thanked.  Many supported their arm as they shook our hands as a sign of respect and many even bowed.  We didn't deserve this praise and recognition, we only set out to help in the best way we could.  What we realized is that no matter how much we tried to give, we found ourselves taking away far more from our experiences and interactions then we ever thought possible.  We are so grateful to have had the opportunity to visit Mauko Village, it has changed our lives, and it certainly won't be our last visit. 

Saturday, 8 February 2014

On Safari in Africa!

The searing sun beat down as the wind whipped against our skin.  We left a cloud of red dust behind us as we tore across the land, in our white safari van.  Our heads poked out the top, eyes focused…we were in pursuit of something, but what…we didn’t know.  Seconds before, a Swahili voice crackled across the radio and Carlos, our driver, took off like a shot.  The road was very bumpy and we were wishing we had buckled ourselves in. 

Lions, eleven of them in fact, were tucked in together on a sandy hill underneath a small bush.  They blended in with the surroundings and you could barely see them.  The safari vans were lined up along the road. Other drivers had heard the same call we had, and the whole park seemed to have congregated around the lions in minutes.  The lions didn’t pay us any mind, as they yawned, stretched and snoozed in the afternoon heat.  Wow, our first glimpse of lions in the wild.
Eleven lions basking in the sun!
We had seen our fair share of animals before we headed to the camp for lunch; birds, crocodiles, hippos, gazelles, elephants, waterbuck, zebra, monkeys and baboons.  Right before we headed into camp we saw Jumbo the Elephant, it must have been the biggest elephant in the whole park.  Even Carlos our driver said he was big, and he sees elephant everyday! We’d had a full day and it wasn’t over yet.
Some of the animals we saw, spectacular!
When we arrived at our camp for lunch we were greeted with cool towels and cold pineapple juice.  What a treat after the hot and dusty journey we had been on. The sun was scorching and we consumed great volumes of water, which also meant we had to stop for washroom breaks.  Luckily, we timed them well and there was no need for me to duck behind a termite hill posing as bait for whatever fierce creature lurked there.  We enjoyed a meal fit for a king, where we were able to view elephants at the watering hole, and cooled off in the swimming pool.  There wasn’t much time to spare before our evening game drive began.

The sun seemed even hotter during our evening drive, if that could be possible.  We hadn’t been out long when the radio crackled and Carlos told us to hold on.  We tore off across the grasslands, making one corner on two wheels.  Ally looked at me with excitement in her eyes.  “We are after something Mom, I wonder what it is?”  Carlos had this way of building the anticipation.  We knew it must be something big, but he never told us in advance.  I suppose that was his way of avoiding disappointment. Two cheetahs were the objects of our rush.  We were closer to them than the lions and there weren’t as many Land Rovers and vans lined up along the road.  It was amazing watching them basking in the late day sun surrounded by antelope. They were apparently not too hungry! We got to know that when Carlos was focused on the radio, something big was about to happen.  
The one cheetah on the left just got up to have a look at the antelope in the distance, we
thought there might be a kill.
We also stopped off at a Maasai village.  The Maasai people are known as the warrior tribe in Africa and are nomadic cattle herders.  They are the only tribe to have kept most of their traditions and continue to wear traditional dress.  Their Shukas are woven cotton, often in red plaid and their shoes are made from old car tires. They often wear fancy necklaces, earrings and skin tattoos. We decided to pass on their preferred lunch of cow blood mixed with milk.  Ally and Meg were adorned in beaded jewelry and joined in on a traditional dance, jumping as high as they could.  We were also shown how to start a fire with two sticks and the ‘sheet of a donke’.  It took us a bit to realize they had their vowel sounds mixed up.  A Maasai guarded the grounds of our second Safari camp, which was a good thing as the camp was not fenced.  The evening before, a leopard had wandered through camp and elephant were known to appear as well.  We took the warning seriously not to travel around camp without the escort of the Maasai.  YIKES!
The Maasai Village
The next morning we were up with the sunrise and out for another morning game drive.  The radio was quiet as we passed from Tsavo East to Tsavo West National Park.  The landscape changed, the vegetation was green and lush and there were mountains in the distance.  The watering holes were abundant and it looked like this would be the land of plenty, but where were all the animals?  Our morning had been pretty quiet; we saw lots of antelope and gazelle and the odd dik-dik, but nothing really exciting.  Mark had resorted to shooting photos of the mountains, landscapes and baobab trees.  We were travelling at a fairly quick pace as animals were scarce, and I started to doze off.  All of us nearly went through the front windshield when Carlos slammed on the brakes, threw the van in reverse and told us to be silent.

There, before our eyes, was a leopard lazing on the branch of a baobab tree.  What a sight!  We captured the moment on camera and within seconds Carlos was on the radio.  Another safari van was coming down the road behind us.  Carlos gave instructions for them to approach slowly, but it was too late.  The vehicle spooked the leopard and we were its only viewers that morning.  Carlos hadn’t seen a leopard in two years! We felt so lucky! 

Hmmm, what are you guys up to?
The leopard getting up to make an escape.
The days were jammed packed with excitement and the animals and views were spectacular.  We feasted on gourmet meals and fell into bed exhausted in the evenings.  Seeing Mount Kilimanjaro in the distance, during our last game drive, was an added bonus.  What a thrill it was to have been on safari in Africa!
Some of the photos taken at our camps.
If you look very closely, you can see Mount Kilimanjaro in the distance.