Copstick on real life and death in Kenya

Continuing the diary extract blogs from nine days ago…

Comedy critic and journalist Kate Copstick is currently in Kenya, working with her charity Mama Biashara.

Among other things, it aims to help people out of poverty by giving them start-up money (and advice) to create their own small, self-sustaining businesses. 

These extracts from Copstick’s diary are heavily-edited for length. The uncut originals are on the Mama Biashara Facebook page.

So this is part of what happened, in Kenya, a little over a week ago…


FRIDAY

The coach from Nairobi for Awendo leaves at 8.00am.

After Kisii, in really quite quiet rural areas, suddenly vast swathes of land are being dug up for huge roads. And, by the looks of it, huge highways are being built. No idea why. No-one here has any idea why other than the President’s obsession with his ‘legacy’. 

Yet again, the devastated remains of tiny roadside businesses can be seen along the way. The work means that sometimes the road (as was) disappears altogether into mud and dust. The plans for the road to be built and the destruction of businesses to make way for it give no suggestion as to how long the work will take. Arrival is not important here. This is not even travelling hopefully. It is just booking the ticket and cancelling everything else. 

We get to Awendo at about 5.30pm. Even the Kenyans are pissed off. Jayne is there with a local taxi.

We start seeing business people immediately. 

The evening funding goes pretty well. All individual businesses. Fish, fried fish, bananas, petrol. The last surprises me because of the new petrol tax. But they are selling in half litres to people with sugar cane squishers and there is still wriggle room for profit at that level. 

FYI thanks to the government’s War on the Poor, kerosene – which the very poorest of people use for light – is now more expensive than diesel. So the poorest children can no longer see to do homework or try to read books. But the fattest of Kenyans can drive the biggest of gas guzzlers. Our little old ladies who sell kerosene by the thimbleful so they and their neighbours can see in the hours of darkness are devastated. 

Colonialism and its legacy can be blamed for a lot, but the passing of new taxes that punish and extort only the poor, while destroying the smallest businesses and cutting off the route to starting new small businesses in the way this government is doing requires an active greed, a terrifying selfishness and an overwhelming lack of care for the poorest people. 

The only thing that talks in Kenya now is money. If you have none you are no-one. Maybe that is the legacy of colonialism. But the Kenyans who are now in power sure love and work very hard to keep it alive.

SUNDAY

I get up at 8.00am, marvelling at my ability to do so. The Kenyans are sniggering at how long I sleep. They have been up since 6.00am.

Big news is that a load of houses nearby were set fire to in the night. As a reprisal for the three young men who attacked and killed a male family member with pangas (machetes) in a neighbouring field. There was a ‘dispute’ over family land. This is the local way of settling it. The houses are still smouldering. 

MONDAY

I read a piece in one of the newspapers about how to be a successful stand-up comedian in Kenya. The instructions were: funny accents (make fun of other tribes and other nationalities, Nigerians being particularly fertile ground because they talk funny), make fun of poor people, uneducated people, people from rural areas and old people. Dress up in a parody of whatever group you are having a go at. Basically racism, sexism and punching down.

TUESDAY

We arrive back in Nairobi at 4.45am. It is cold and dark and the centre of town is a strange mix of hustlers and prostitutes at the end of their night’s work, drunk and slightly the worse for wear but really friendly… and market traders at the start of their day. 

We wait in a bunch for a matatu (privately owned minibus) and I end up sharing with four people and five huge sacks of oranges and sweet potatoes. 

Later, we meet Doris for something to eat. We will definitely be going to Mombasa on Friday so we have tickets to buy. 

There are a load of Glam ladies there and Doris wants me to meet with them to discuss the ongoing working relationship between us. Thanks to the government’s War on the Poor, it is incredibly difficult for Mama Biashara to set up tiny businesses the way we used to and turn people’s lives around. 

So Doris has developed this amazing network of businesswomen and women with a reasonable amount of money (many of them from the streets themselves) who need/want workers for all sorts of jobs. They now trust Mama Biashara and the people we get for them. So we are putting hundreds (maybe even thousands) of men and women into employment. 

Good wages, decent treatment, frequently accommodation and food come with the job, so ideal for Phoenix Project people who need to be relocated away from their abuser. 

Our ‘official stamp’ has come from the maker. Load of bollocks, if you ask me, but everyone has one if you are an organisation. And I am giving all the volunteers a certificate to show (a) Mama Biashara is legit and (b) they are legit. So we need The Stamp. 

WEDNESDAY

Vicky meets us at Majengo. Pretty much everywhere has a Majengo. An area on the outskirts where refugees or displaced people live. A slum amongst slums. 

There are three groups. We huddle in a small room and I ask if we can open the door – just because I am a fan of things like seeing what I am doing and breathing. But they are terrified we will be seen and attacked. So the door closes. 

One group is going to sell sweet potatoes and arrowroot (boiled and grilled), one is a cleaning group and the third is a Phoenix Group. They had gone to a Maasai area because they were offered building work there. But the Maasai have turned on them. And the usual weapons of physical and sexual violence have been deployed, as ever, frequently towards children. The group want to go back to their own area. Which is unfortunately far away. But Mama provides fare and money to set up a group business once they are there. I also asked Vicky to keep me in touch with a view to adding coffee selling to the miraa business they are starting with. This leaves me pretty much out of money.

We go to Limuru and meet the lovely Vixen for a make up workshop for a dozen girls. I have brought loads of stuff from the UK. Does anyone fancy donating more make up? Hair straighteners? Decently powerful hairdryers? Brushes? 

Our make up businesses are doing amazingly well. In Kisumu, Mombasa, Kitale … around three hundred girls. 

The girls being trained today are young mums. Which means the babies are in the workshop too. So the small room is a cocktail of smells: cheap make-up, body odour, breast milk and baby poo.

Meanwhile I talk to Joy, who is a refugee from Narok where troubles are reaching a terrible pitch with daily killings, shootings, hospitals full of people with arrows poking out of every body part, house burnings and livestock slaughterings. Joy has no idea where the rest of her family is. They just ran from their burning house. She is staying with a local (Glam) lady for the moment but she needs a way of making a living.

Then we head off. To look for somewhere to eat. 

Two bites into a lump of dead something I lose a front tooth. A whole tooth. A whole front tooth. Gone. Out. All I can think of is NOW I HAVE TO GO TO THE DENTIST and my world collapses in around me like a bubble gum bubble on an upturned face. 

I try not to panic. Or cry. But it is tough. The appalling combination of my greatest fear (dentist) and the hideous prospect of the quite honestly impossible costs involved take my breath away. I freeze. 

To be fair, the missing part is a crown that was put in thirty years ago. But it has broken off right along the gumline. I can feel my hands go numb. I am dizzy. I am in my own, personal hell. Genuinely, I wish my leg had broken and not my tooth.

I am having something of a panic attack just writing this so I am going to stop now.

… CONTINUED HERE … 


Mama Biashara is totally financed by individual donations and from sales in its London charity shop. You can donate here. Copstick receives no money. She covers all her own costs including travel to and accommodation in Kenya. 100% of everything donated goes to the charity’s work.

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Filed under Charity, Kenya, Politics, Poverty

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