Category Archives: Medical

Kate Copstick is de-worming in Kenya

Continuing (in this case) some very shortened excerpts from Kate Copstick’s diary in Kenya, where she is working for her Mama Biashara charity…

Kate Copstick (left) supervises a de-worming session in Kahuho as part of her Mama Biashara work

TUESDAY 3rd MARCH

My bowels are generally getting much better.

On my way from the car to the warehousey place a bloke in a lorry tells me I look sexy and asks if I would like to have sex with him. My wrinkly old heart soars. My day is made. I tell him I am sorry but I am too busy. But thank him for the offer.

We are meeting with Felista in the evening. I have some stuff for her, including some of the Eastleigh panties, some of the FABULOUS range of bras we have had donated and a load of Poundland earphones for her to sell in the cyber cafe.

She is keen to take the whole lot of bras for the girls at DECIP, but the underwired loveliness of the multicoloured, sexy, lacy boobie hammocks we have had given to us is entirely unsuited to the pubescent schoolgirl. Especially the crazy Luo girls she is having so much trouble with.

WEDNESDAY

I awake feeling positively brimming with health. And poo, unfortunately. But no pains, headaches, dizziness, sweats. I feel, in the words of James Brown, GOOD.

We head to a slum village called Kahoho. It is built in a dam. Apparently it floods every time the rain comes. The houses have brick lips on the doors to try and stop the water coming in but to no real avail. We de-worm about a 150 children, treat some ringworm, see a young man COVERED in the stuff and do a few bits and bobs. A young boy has what looks like fungal keritosis in both eyes. He should be going to hospital but the doctors are still on strike.

David and I hand out the medicine. It is fairly obvious the kids would swallow anything if they got to wash it down with a cup of water. They are parched. Loads of them – and their mamas – have ash crosses on their foreheads. Wouldn’t it be marvellous if their faith could help them with water and their worms instead of giving them The Power of The Dirty Mark On Your Forehead for a day?

Doris tells me about the hate mail she was receiving online. She posted on WhatsApp about our little de-worming/ringworm etc clinics and was horribly trolled by a group of DOCTORS warning that ‘small time’ efforts like ours do nothing to help.

Ah, tell that to a village of ladies who, yesterday, were hunched and moaning and today, thanks to some diclofenac gel, some Ibuprofen and a few stretching suggestions, are positively gymnastic. They have sent their thanks. Ditto scabby, rashy, pussy people. And the horde of ladies with ‘ulsas’ cured overnight with a handful of antacids and some advice about not eating a Kilimanjaro sized portion of ugali before bed are ecstatic.

Curing cancer never really was on my To Do list.

But then it seems, dear doctors, it is not on your list either… 88 days on strike and counting.

THURSDAY

Back to Nairobi and our afternoon medical. Or not. Doris calls to say that the whole area we were visiting has been called to attend a meeting with Kabogo (local governor heading towards re-election). For which read that everyone has been given 300 bob to attend the meeting and make it look like Kabogo has a huge amount of support. They will get another 300 bob for their actual vote come election day. As all we have are de-wormers and scab cream, we are gazumped.

David and I pass by Garden City Shopping Mall. One of the biggest in East Africa. High end shops, huge restaurants, leisure facilities, you name it, it has it. And the high end shoppers of Nairobi would like to thank you, the British People, because the mall was built with about £12 million’s worth (might be more) of the UK’s Aid money. I take a couple of photos inside but then am followed by security guards, so I split.

We have requests for more cholera leaflets, plus our Why Lightening Your Skin With Household Bleach Is A Bad Thing info, my special What Is This Pus? A Commercial Sex Worker’s Guide To STDs and, sadly, for the Mijikenda (indigenous people along the coast) an explanation (with helpful suggestions) of rickets, scurvy and the sickness they call ‘kwashiokor’, which is malnutrition and the whole big belly horror. The drought is hitting them very hard and they are a poor people anyway. Info will go, in their languages, plus HTC’s marvellous calcium gummies for kids and anything else we can think of but the problem is massive and Mama Biashara (as the striking doctors point out) is very small. Still no reason not to try.

Good news from the coast is that the original group of ladies I helped with their devastated skin problems (20 years of scrubbing with household bleach twice a day… light skin is what the customer wants and the customer is always right) are doing great business with henna decorations and other stuff. The group now numbers 60 and growing. And it seems that with love, shade and a LOT of cream (Johnson and Johnson’s baby cream, Nivea and Ingram’s have all played their part), the skin can recover. At least enough for normal life. It will never regain its youthful bloom …

FRIDAY

We are held up in one queue at the roundabout into Haile Selassie Avenue. As we eventually clear it we see a small, doughnut-shaped police lady is the one directing the non flow of traffic.

David eyes her balefully. “That is why I hate all fat ladies” he says “I HATE them. They think very slowly.”

I let it pass.

Rain has stopped the massage workshop this evening. It will now be done tomorrow afternoon after a medical day. Starting with de-worming and, where necessary, de-jiggering.

Julius seems less than impressed with our Education Campaign posters and flyers. Even in Luhya.

But he goes home with a bunch. And I sleep

SATURDAY

We de-worm with a will. A large drunk man has come to get help with his feet. His toes look like black cauliflower. I see this very well because he refuses to sit with them in the basin of disinfectant and keeps waving them in my face.

Some of the shoshos take him to task and he leaves. Everyone seems to be covered with some sort of pustule or vesicle. One young boy has whole areas of his body crusted with clusters of tiny plooky nastiness. The place is a dermatologist’s playground. Some things are much less frightening than they look – the old scabby leg here can look quite monstrous.

There is a fair old amount of malaria, a lot of vomiting, a large knot of constipation and the usual heartburn, headaches and generally sore bodies.

The sore bodies are instructed to come back tomorrow when there will be a team of highly trained massage people to ease their bits. I lose count of the times I miraculously heal a headache and dizziness with a big mug of water. There are a few REALLY sick kids who are being very brave. It starts to rain again and we scurry to Julius’ new shelter. Unfortunately the roof is not finished and there are no walls. But it is better than the alternative. We continue the medical with many coughs and much congestion.

And then a mildly manic bloke appears, smelling pungently of home brew, but happily so.

He grabs me and shouts: “You healed me!! You healed me!!”

He raises a raggedy trouser leg to reveal a skinny calf with a tiny scar on it. “You healed me!” He repeats. Pointing at the scar.

And I remember. He was drunk then too. In November.

He had a fairly ghastly wound on his leg he said was caused by a njembe. I cleaned it up and made my own larger-sized steristrips and closed it as far as I could then lathered it with antiseptic and antibiotic powder and cream, bandaged it and gave him cod liver oil.

He shows everyone the scar. The scar is TINY. He is extremely happy. Mildly annoying, but happy.

We gather an audience of kids and continue till everyone is seen to. Then I go inside Julius’ house, where it is pitch dark – it is a traditional mud house so no electricity and he doesn’t seem to have a lamp.

We get the new foam mattress on the floor and, starting with my four students in chairs, I teach the very basics of neck and shoulder massage, loosening arms, hand massage and then we get down on the bed and work from neck to foot.

Very general stuff. But I demonstrate with some force, how so much of the problem experienced by all the women comes from the same place. And when I hit their gluteus maximus… well.

The entire thing is watched over by an amused hen who is sitting in a basin in the corner hatching chicks. There are bloody loads of them. At least a dozen. It makes a nice soundtrack to the massaging.

It is getting dark and everyone needs to go home.

More rain will come and you really want to be inside when that happens.


Copstick’s full diary entries are posted on her Facebook page.

Mama Biashara’s slogan is “Giving a  hand up. Not a hand out.” 

No-one takes any salary from Mama Biashara and Kate Copstick covers 100% of her own expenses herself. She takes no money from the charity nor from any donations to the charity. 100% of all money donated is spent on the charity’s projects.

Donations to the charity can be made HERE.

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Kate Copstick in Kenya – an autopsy, corruption, de-worming and digging

Mama Biashara logo

Last week, I posted a blog about comedy critic Kate Copstick, currently in Kenya, where her Mama Biashara charity works. 

Here are further edited extracts from her current diary:


Kate Copstick working for Mama Biashara in Kenya

Kate Copstick working for her Mama Biashara charity in Kenya

TUESDAY

I have time to talk with Felista about some of the problems the Awendo (strictly speaking I think many of them come from Kisumu) are causing. Apart from the rapist teachers, the sex crazed teens who refuse to wear knickers and the hopelessly infested heads (ringworm) and guts (worms), there is a group of boys who used to keep escaping to go swimming with one of the teachers.

One young lad was excluded from the fun because he was not very well. So he got out on his own one night and dived in. And didn’t come out.

When the body was discovered and the parents informed, they were of course:

(a) distraught at the death of their son and

(b) delighted at the possibility of making some money out of it.

They declared the boy had been beaten at DECIP (the children’s home Felista created and runs) – beaten in the water, which is why he drowned. They got 20,000 from somewhere and demanded an autopsy. No payment, no autopsy here.

Felista had just got back from watching it.

The ‘accused’ and the ‘accusers’ WATCH the autopsy procedure.

“He had a saw and he Bzzzzzzzzz,’” says Felista, doing rather a good impression of taking the top of a head off. “Then…” – She mimes lifting the skull away – “he says This is the brain. Have you ever seen a brain? And then he says: Look! Look! Is there any injury? No”. And then he says…” – Felista mimes pulling the skin away from the skull – “Look! Look! These are the eyes! Can you see any injury? No!

She mimes the entire post mortem with some enthusiasm. The Y-shaped incision… the cracking of the ribs… looking at the heart and liver… looking at the water in the lungs…

Quite a morning.

Copstick with Mama Biashara co-worker Felista

Busy Felista with Kate Copstick, working for Mama Biashara

WEDNESDAY

Felista is out somewhere but I pack what I have for her into some boxes and David and I head for DECIP. There is SO much work being done on the slum roads around this area. Nice tarmac roads for the nice people they hope will come and live in the massive apartment blocks that are being thrown up all over the place.

Throwing up massive apartment blocks is the Kenyan politicians’ money-laundering method of choice. They just sweep the poor off the place like they are dust. Their houses demolished; their shops bulldozed. Almost the whole of a little slum village called Mutego has gone. The big stone built church remains. Natch.

I totally bottle-out of doing the sex talk for the randy Luo teens. I will bring Doris and she can do it. I am not sure I could keep a straight face while advising girls not to have sex. A bit like Oliver Reed lecturing on the evils of alcohol.

We go to a (literally) rust brown village beside the bypass near Kikkuyu, park up, open the boot and start. By the time it is beginning to get dark, we have dewormed 350. Oh yes. 350 people. We have given out cough syrups and cod liver oil (each child gets a fish oil capsule with the dewormers – Thank you HTC), gallons of diclofenac gel and mini mountains of pain killers, glucosamine and antifungal ointment. I wipe pus, poke at scabs, palpate lumps and distended abdomens and stem a tidal wave of acid stomach… Generally all good stuff.

The people for whom I do not have the meds are told to come back tomorrow – A lady with tonsils like red and white rugby balls, several urinary tract infections, some diarrhea and an equal amount of constipation. (“My pupu hard, like a goat”)

There is one recurring problem: women with pain around the waist area and numbness in the legs. I am no chiropracter, but a lot of the ladies carry massive bundles of firewood on their backs, anchored with a sash around their forehead. So squished vertebrae and squashed discs are not exactly surprising. They are all going to stretch and slap on the diclofenac gel and see if there is any improvement.

Copstick (in blue) at Mama Biashara project

Copstick at a previous Mama Biashara project

THURSDAY

Julius arrives first and we go over the massage training… Most of Cheptulu and surrounding area suffers from whole body soreness and a massage really fixes them till the next load of firewood or water has to be carried.

He is also keen that I reconsider building the well. If the soil is loam all the way down, we could just about afford it.

But, if we hit rock, then the costs skyrocket. Plus we don’t have a water diviner. Snigger ye not.

I saw it work when we dug the well in Juja. I am considering asking if I can borrow the rods.

We arrange massage training for Friday as soon as I arrive and then medical Saturday (with massage) and, hopefully, Raincatcher-making on Sunday. Unless I get the rods…

Now, back to the Education Project. This is bigger than Mama Biashara has ever attempted and it is looking good.

Better still, it is possible because of a Mama Biashara business.

Around four years ago, Mama B met with a group of chokora (street boys) who wanted a grant for a printing business. There was something great about them, so they got it and the business started.

They got a great place in town, business was booming and, every month, these guys would take four boys from the streets and train them in graphic design, print and computer skills. Every one of these boys is employed. Most of them by the big print companies. But now the big companies are getting irritated by the amount of business our guys are getting and are starting to make life difficult for them.

So our guys have moved and work at night and underground (not literally).

Added to this, one of them is standing as a candidate for the local county elections – for the little people. It is SO exciting.

So now, back to the project again.

They are printing, at cost price, 2,000 posters and 20,000 flyers which will go across the whole of Kenya. I have written the content of the flyers and posters.

In 2013, the Basic Education Act was passed, making all basic education free in government schools. However, what is happening – because greed and corruption is a way of life here – is that head teachers and even class teachers create so-called Registration Fees, cooking fees, cleaning fees, standing-up fees, sitting-down fees etc. And, if the children fail to come up with the money, they are sent home from school.

So this leaflet explains (with quotes from the Act and the Constitution) that this is illegal. It is a crime. As is the levying of Examination Fees (as of last year).

People have gone crazy for these leaflets. They have already been translated into 20 tribal languages and are heading to all corners of Kenya. The people in Turkana want big posters to put on their camels and stuff has already gone to Narok for the Maasai. As I type, the nine languages spoken by the Mijikenda on the coast are being typed up. It is really rather exciting.

And our candidate – whose name is Timothy but who is known as NJuguna Wa Keja – is using this as part of his platform.


The Mama Biashara charity gives sensible sums of money to help locals start sustainable small businesses in the poorer areas of Kenya.

Their slogan is “Giving a  hand up. Not a hand out.” 

No-one takes any salary from Mama Biashara and Kate Copstick covers 100% of her own expenses herself. She takes no money from the charity nor from any donations to the charity. 100% of all money donated is spent on the charity’s projects.

Donations to the charity can be made HERE.

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Flying toilets, taking new drugs and having a penis enlargement operation

Comedy critic Kate Copstick and I record a weekly Grouchy Club Podcast. It covers more than gossip about the comedy industry as do the monthly, live Grouchy Club meetings. Inevitably, after this week’s was finished, the conversation carried on. Three main anecdotes cropped up…


Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya (Photo by Schreibkraft)

Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya (Photograph by Schreibkraft)

FLYING TOILETS

The podcast is recorded in Copstick’s Mama Biashara charity shop in Shepherds Bush, London.

The charity works in Kenya, helping small business start-ups.

When over in Nairobi, Copstick lives in slum areas and had this description of the ‘flying toilets’ in Kibera, Nairobi, said to be the largest urban slum in Africa. 

* * * * *

The houses are incredibly close together – you can’t really extend your arms in the little rat runs between the houses. It is much better now but originally there was allegedly 2,000 people to every one long-drop toilet.

Now the government have put in some standpipes and there are public toilets but you are still sharing a toilet with a helluva lot more people than you would like to. If you go out into the darkness of the night – and you really can’t see in front of your face – you have no idea what you are stepping on, you creak open the door of the long-drop toilet and have no idea what state it’s in. It’s a bit Russian Rouletty. You may also get killed or attacked on your way there or back.

So, if you wake up in the middle of the dark night and think: “God! I desperately need a shit!” – which people do a lot because there is a lot of diarrhea around – what you do is go outside and take a shit into a plastic carrier bag, then tie the top of the carrier bag and take the little butterfly bit at the top and whirl it round your head like a Scotsman flinging the hammer. When it gets to peak velocity, you let go and it flies away into the night as far as it can.

Obviously, in an ideal world, you aim high and generally what will happen is that somebody a couple of streets or houses away will hear a SPLATT! on their corrugated iron roof and they will think: Oh fuck! Somebody’s flying toilet! I must remember to go up and scrape it off in the morning!

The shit is in a plastic bag but, when the plastic bag lands, it generally splits open. Also, if you are in a big family – my mate Sylverster has a one-bedroom house for seven of them – as the children get older, when it’s not raining, the girls sleep inside the house but the boys sleep on the roof. So that can get messy.


Kate Copstick prepares for a Grouchy Club

Kate Copstick prepares for a Grouchy Club

WHITE BLOOD CELLS

For many years, Copstick has suffered from the painful and debilitating disease lupus. It is an autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue in many parts of the body.

Until 2½ months ago she was in agony most of the time…

* * * * *

Since the lupus struck, I have always had a low white blood cell count – neutropenia. The white cells are the fighter cells and scavenger cells. When you get a bruise, the neutrophils go in and clear away all the damaged blood.

Last June, they put me on this new medication – methotrexate – which I injected into the flub on my stomach. It is a kick-ass drug. It’s used in chemotherapy – for leukaemia and other cancers. Then they found out it really worked for rheumatoid arthritis and, through that, they found it worked for other auto-immune diseases like lupus.

I got put on methotrexate last June/July. Then in August in Edinburgh I got bacterial pneumonia and they thought it might be the methotrexate and I kept taking it and they said: “Oh, your white blood cell count keeps going down.”

Then suddenly, 2½ months ago, I felt great; I felt fantastic. Nothing had been changed in the drugs but I suddenly felt physically great. And the best I’ve felt psychologically for years. I was actually happy. I felt happy. Just wonderful. No pain; no headaches; no tinnitus; no cold sweats; and the white blood cell count had gone down even more.

Then, two weeks ago, the doctors said the white blood cell count had become very dangerously low.

I said: “I’m feeling fine!”

They said: “No no no no no. You’re very dangerously low.”

They kept asking me if I had temperatures and beadaches.

I said: “No! I feel wonderful!”

So, last week, they told me to stop taking the methotrexate because they thought that was lowering the white blood cells. I stopped taking it and I feel like shit this week. As soon as I stopped the injections, I got the pain back – tiredness, pain, headache, dizziness – all the lupus shit.

I mean, everything you take, every normal mainstream medication that you take does something bad to you. I think it should be about what makes you feel good. I’m fucking fed up feeling like shit. I’ve felt like shit for a lot of years, a lot.

Nothing bad seemed to be happening with the low white blood cells and I was feeling great and I reckon for me that’s better than being like this and taking handfuls of tramadol and dihydrocodeine and anything else I can lay my hands on just so I can be functional.


Devils on Horseback

“A bit like Devils on Horseback” which is dates stuffed with almonds and wrapped in bacon

PENIS ENLARGEMENT

In her TV production hat, a few years ago, Copstick developed, wrote and produced a series for the Bravo TV channel called World of Pain.

* * * * *

It was about things like pain for pleasure, sporting pain, all different things. And one episode was called Suffer To Be Beautiful which was about people having plastic surgery and all the crazy shit they do.

So I went to New York to film a penis enlargement operation. It was around the year 2000 and there was nobody in Britain who would allow me to film them. Those who go for penis enlargement tend to want people to imagine that’s how they always have been naturally.

I filmed the entire operation. It was absolutely fascinating. I was the cameraperson. When we sent it to the compliance lawyers, most of it ended up on the cutting room floor not because it was erotic but because there was just so much blood. Somebody was having the shaft of his penis split open with a scalpel and the skin peeled…

What I did not realise was that every man is born with as much penis length as anyone can give you. It just depends if you are a show-er or a grow-er.

If you are a show-er, even when you are flaccid, it is all hanging out there.

If you are a grow-er, there is more to come from inside.

So what they do, when somebody wants more length, is make two cuts in the inguinal area – just above the pubic bone – one on either side – and in there are the ligaments that hold the penis in place and they snip those.

Then – this is true – one doctor or a very strong nurse holds the patient on the operating table while the other doctor grabs the penis and pulls. And I am talking PULLS. We are talking like tug-of-war. And they yank out as much of the penis as they can.

Then they stitch up the little incisions and you are now a show-er.

What surprised me is that men who want more length want it for the locker room. They want it for that moment when the Calvin Kleins hit the carpet and another person – male or female – gets their first look at what you are packing.

This guy I was filming wanted more length. So they did that. But he also wanted more girth.

Enhancement can help a bit on girth with what they call ‘harvested tissue’. Have you ever larded a joint of meat? Where you take strips of fat…

Anyway, what they do is get the penis and slit open the skin down the length of it and then… Have you ever buttered the breast of a chicken before you roasted it?

What you do is you ease your hands in between the flesh and the skin of the chicken and you open it up so the skin separates from the flesh.

So, with penis enhancement, they get little rectangles of harvested tissue, lift the skin of the penis away from the shaft and wrap these bits of tissue around the shaft. Then they sew that bit up and do another bit until… It’s a bit like Devils on Horseback or a beef olive.

Then they stitch the skin back into place and wrap it all in very tight elastic bandage. Then the person goes away with lots of painkillers and hopes that they only think clean thoughts.

Because the single biggest problem with the process is guys who go away from the hospital, take their painkillers and, after a day or so, wake up with a bit of morning glory and burst all their stitches.

As for pee-ing, initially you are catheterised but the answer after that is to pee very very carefully.

How do you get harvested tissue? With a scalpel and a dead body.

So be careful when you sign your organ donor card. You may think you will be giving sight to the blind, but you could end up giving girth to the under-endowed and find yourself wrapped around some tiny-dicked guy’s enlarged penis.

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Political killings in Kenya and in the UK

On Friday (in London) I recorded the weekly Grouchy Club Podcast with comedy critic Kate Copstick on a bad line from a noisy cafe in Nairobi.

Copstick is in Kenya until this coming Friday, working with her Mama Biashara charity, which helps deprived individuals and groups to start up their own small legitimate businesses to support themselves; and also deals with medical problems.

Here are some more highly-edited extracts from her diary entries which appear in full on the Mama Biashara Facebook page.


Mama Biashara logo

TUESDAY 14th JUNE

Equal opportunity rejection yesterday… A Presbyterian organisation turned down my pleas for help and we were told that the Moslem children of Kibera would rather be worm-ridden and scabby-headed than have us help as I am ‘unclean’. Not even an infidel. Unclean. To be fair, that is actually quite true at the moment

Doris calls to cancel our afternoon de-worming in Kibera. She says she has been warned off because there is a LOT of tension following some members of the government publicly calling for the shooting of the Leader of the Opposition. Doris has been told to leave if she wants to be safe. So she leaves. Shortly thereafter I get sent a photo of a woman’s body burning on the streets of Kibera.

David and I sit in a massive jam on Moi Avenue caused by the fact that a matatu sacco has its stage there and, on a small two lane road, one lane is permanently blocked solid with parked buses. Ten of the buggers I counted. Why is it allowed? I wonder aloud. I am told: It is not allowed. It is against the law and by laws and City Council rules. But these buses are owned by MPs and so no one will touch them.

In the city centre, everyone is talking about the Kuria – the guy who started all the hate speech and calls for Raila to be killed – and his cronies. Nairobi is not happy.

WEDNESDAY 15th JUNE

A woman burned to death in the streets of Kibera.

A woman burned to death in the streets of Kibera, Kenya.

The government have put six of the hate speech MPs in the cells. The opposition want theirs released immediately as it was the government MPs who started it all. I fully expect one of them to threaten to scweam and scweam until he ith thick. But, instead, they threaten more disruption.

On Facebook yesterday, I posted a fucking picture of a woman ON FIRE in Kibera. They went crazy in Kibera a set a couple of random people on fire because they were the wrong tribe. NOT ONE COMMENT ON FACEBOOK !!! WTF are people about?

I mean, I know that the Orlando massacre was horrific and appalling and now all right-thinking people are standing in silence in Old Compton Street because – of course – that will change everything and not just because it will make THEM feel better. But for fuck’s sake. Sorry. Rant over.

Has America come round to the disappointing realisation that Orlando might just have been old-fashioned homophobia and not new and exciting and politically useful terrorism?

THURSDAY 16th JUNE

A new Mama Biashara juice bar

A new Mama Biashara juice bar recently opened in Nairobi.

As the picture I posted on Facebook of an actual woman on actual fire during riots in Kibera got not one reaction, I thought I would revert to something nicer in the hope that people will notice. This is part of a Mama Biashara Juice Bar. And this tiny space is home to sixty business people : chapati and coffee sellers, sugar cane juice makers, fresh fruit salad and juice sellers, samosa makers and boiled egg peeps. Mostly funded yesterday and raring to go.

I go to the market at Junction to collect stock. Worryingly, Evans – who is making two chess sets for us – has not returned from Kisii. And his phone is not going through.

Online, I read about the MP who has been shot and stabbed in the UK. Bloody hell!

For once, the craziness in the UK exceeds the craziness in Kenya.

Here, all hell has broken loose because some MPs were calling for the assassination of the leader of the opposition. In the UK, they have actually killed an MP. These are bad times. I feel like watching a Shirley Temple film or going to see Spencer JonesHerbert, just to reassure myself that there is sweetness around somewhere.

And my wonderful Uncle Bob has had a stroke. And a child has been eaten by an alligator (or something) at Disney World. And a magpie is stealing blue tit chicks in my stepsister’s garden in Scotland.

Back in my Nairobi home, I discover we have no water and I lug a jerrycan round to my cell so I can wash some clothes. Oh yes. That is how we roll here at Mama Biashara. My hopes of having hot water explode with my kettle on a dodgy plug, so a cold wash has to do. Then I organise the pile of de-wormers, malaria medication, painkillers and calcium, cod liver oil and garlic, multivitamins and cough syrup to be sent to Jayne in Awendo and Julius in Western.

Thence to bed. I play Solitaire obsessively every night, because it is about creating order out of chaos it is incredibly therapeutic for my fraught mind. I have wildly scatological dreams. A first for me… and not in a good way.

FRIDAY 17th JUNE

The administration block of Kenyatta Hospital

Administration block of Kenyatta National Hospital, Nairobi.

There are a couple of things I have forgotten to mention and one new horror to regale you with.

It turns out that Joan’s account of there being no more free ARVs for HIV+ people in Kenya is true. Médecins Sans Frontières is withdrawing from most places – Homa Bay has gone and Kibera is on the way out. Their clinics are being taken over by the Kenyan Health Authorities which means paying for everything and being treated by doctors who are – in general – doctors in name only.

Felista was also called to a meeting by the NACC (National AIDS Control Council) along with all concerned parties in the Dagoretti area to be told that the ARVs have almost run out completely and there are no more testing kits. It is one way, I suppose, of keeping your HIV infection stats looking chipper – just don’t test people.

In other news, a news crew (Kenyan) got into a small room in Kenyatta Hospital (the biggest in Eastern Africa… A beacon of light and hope blah blah blah) where 36 people were crammed in various stages of injury. These are people who had been injured in an accident and brought to Kenyatta Emergency Department. When it transpired after a couple of days that they could not pay their bill, they were dumped off the ward into this small room. Just a room – absolutely nothing that could be construed as an amenity – and relatives have to bring them food and clothing. No beds, just the stone floor. Some still bandaged up. A couple still bloodied. One bloke has been there for a year.

SATURDAY 18th JUNE

Copstick with Mama Biashara co-worker Felista

Kate Copstick (right) with Mama Biashara co-worker Felista

I am still angry with the world.

There is a new girl whom Felista wants me to see. Also the dormitory floors are oozing water. And the gate is falling apart.

The new girl – Shiko – was rescued from her uncle. She was sent to live with him after her parents died. She was beaten and locked in a back room. She is mentally impaired because of the appalling traumas she has been through – including being trapped in that locked room when fire broke out and being very very badly burned. It is impossible to tell how badly. Her scars are horrible and she has almost lost a hand. She exhibits quite a lot of obsessive behaviour – as a lot of the badly-abused kids at Felista’s do when they arrive – and eats paper. But she responds to stroking and when we put some music on she dances with me.

Another girl, Muthoni, came to Felista utterly broken after ten years of sexual abuse at the hands of her uncle from the age of five. The uncle has not been imprisoned. He said that, because he ‘married’ her when she was thirteen (and had already been abusing her for eight years) it was all OK. The police agreed.

Muthoni is now a bouncing, healthy, happy teenager. She is very cuddly – sort of like a large seven year old – and she can now see men without screaming. Recently, she has told Felista she wants a husband.

So there is great hope for the new girl Shiko. And Muthoni is looking after her.


MAMA BIASHARA EXISTS SOLELY BECAUSE OF DONATIONS. COPSTICK RECEIVES NOTHING AND SHE COVERS NONE OF HER EXPENSES IN ANY WAY. THE MAMA BIASHARA WEBSITE HAS DETAILS OF THEIR WORK.

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Beth Vyse – How breast cancer turned her from an actress into a comedian

Beth Vyse, eating daffodils

Beth Vyse – showing her animal side earlier this week in Soho

When I met Beth Vyse in London’s Soho Theatre this week, she had come straight from lecturing drama students in acting at the University of Rochester in Kent.

“I didn’t know you lectured,” I said.

I think research can be over-rated.

“Oh yes,” she told me. “I teach at LAMDA. I’ve worked at Rose Bruford, the Manchester Met – all the big Uni colleges.”

“Worked at?” I asked.

“Taught at. Directed at,” said Beth.

“You know a bit about drama, then?” I asked.

“I know a lot about Chekhov and Ibsen and Shakespeare and that kind of stuff. I performed at the Royal Shakespeare Company a few times when I first left drama school – small parts in three Shakespeares and then I understudied the leads. I was in Taming of The Shrew, The Tamer Tamed, Measure For Measure and…”

The Tamer Tamed?” I asked.

“It’s the sequel to Taming of the Shrew,” Beth told me. “By John Fletcher.”

“Were you teaching Jacobean stuff in Rochester today?” I asked.

“I was doing animal studies with them. They study animals and the physiology of animals and how they’re weighted and how they walk and communicate and eat. They find the characters within the movement of animals.”

“Surely,” I said, “there are a limited number of roles to play in Planet of the Apes and Star Wars?”

“You can use it in anything,” Beth told me. “My comedy career, perchance.”

“When were you last a camel?” I asked.

A golden-headed tamarin (Photograph by Hans Hillewaert)

A golden-headed tamarin – it screeches (Photograph by Hans Hillewaert)

“I haven’t done a camel,” admitted Beth, “but I’ve done a golden-headed tamarin many a time. Facial expressions. Eating.”

She started making screeching noises like a small monkey.

“I also teach at Soho Theatre,” Beth said. “I teach at the Comedy Lab Plus. I work with people who are already on the circuit, sketch performers, some performance artists, some cabaret performers, some normal stand-ups. I help them to try different things, shape their sets, make them more theatrical, use the audience, eye contact, that sort of thing.”

“You always wanted to study drama at university?” I asked.

“I applied to five universities. I wanted to be a town planner. But I thought: Why not apply to one drama school? So I did. And I got an audition at Rose Bruford, got in and the rest is history.”

“Why town planning?” I asked. “That says to me: a mind that wants to organise.

“I’m quite organised when it comes to certain things,” Beth agreed. “Not with some others.”

“You want,” I asked, “to make sense of the anarchy of life?”

“Yeah… Well, that’s why I teach as well. It helps me make sense of things.”

“You want,” I suggested, “to have control – not in a bad way – over the anarchy?”

“Yeah,” said Beth. “I’m always in control. It might look like I’m completely not, but I think I am. I never let it go too much.”

“So your show scripts are very tight?” I asked.

Poster image for Beth Vyse Going Dark!

Poster image for one of Beth’s earlier shows – Going Dark!

Going Dark! was really scripted. Get Up With Hands! was scripted. As Funny As Cancer is the least scripted. I wrote lots of it, but I’ve also left room for audience members to come and play the different parts in the story – to play the Chinese doctor, to play Michael Jackson, my mum, my dad. They have to read my cancer diagnosis and that’s pretty hard for anyone. It’s funny but dark and dangerous and weird.”

“And you are a Weirdo,” I said. “I missed the Weirdos Christmas Panto AND your Edinburgh show As Funny As Cancer last year. I’m embarrassed.”

“We had a chat in the street in Edinburgh,” Beth reminded me.

“Oh God, did we?” I asked.

“It was when the Guardian article about me came out.”

The Guardian piece was headlined:

FAKE BREASTS, PING-PONG BALLS AND TEARS IN A COMIC EXPLORATION OF CANCER

Beth Vyse - As funny As Cancer

Beth Vyse – the poster for As Funny As Cancer

Beth told me: “You said I had a bigger picture than the Queen of Spain got when she died.”

“I think there was about two-thirds of a page on you,” I said.

“We have gone off course,” Beth mused.

“It happens,” I said. “When is your show next week?”

“On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at the Proud Archivist in Haggerston.”

“This is your Edinburgh Fringe show As Funny As Cancer…”

“Yes.”

“You started as an actress and then became a comedian.”

“I was always an actor and then I got breast cancer when I was 28 and everything got kind-of thrown up in the air, really, and the acting kind-of dried up because I didn’t really care and then… Well, I always wanted to be a comedian. I wanted to be the David Bowie of comedy or the Kate Bush of comedy – Someone who is kind of weird and experimental and changes themselves each time. I mean, I’m nowhere near doing that. I’m teaching animal studies in Rochester!”

“Well,” I said, “David Bowie and Kate Bush’s early performances were both influenced by mime. I saw David Bowie when he was a mime and…”

“I always wanted to do comedy,” said Beth, trying to get me back on track, “but I was never brave enough. So, when I got breast cancer at 28, I decided I was going to write some comedy and get up and perform it. I thought: You don’t know how long life is and you don’t know how long you’ve got. Why don’t I just try it? What have I got to lose?

“So I started writing with a friend of mine and we took a show to Edinburgh. I really enjoyed it and I’ve just been doing more comedy ever since. My comedy is big and grotesque and raw and it’s all to do with me having breast cancer. Everything I do is, really. Once it happens to you, you can’t really change that.”

“But you didn’t talk,” I said, “about breast cancer in your shows before this one.”

Beth Vyse as Olive Hands

Olive Hands: “No-one would have known what it was about.”

“I didn’t talk about it until the five-years all-clear. Before this show, no-one would have known it had anything to do with me having cancer. I played this woman Olive Hands who was a big, grotesque, daytime TV presenter. All she wanted was fame and she had a really nice family at home but never went. A constant want for something. But why? Why would anyone want this type of thing? It was all to do with that theme of wanting something you couldn’t have. In one show, Olive Hands is ill and this is where it all came from. It seemed mental and silly; no-one would have known what it was about.”

“You got the all-clear after five years?”

“Yes. I hadn’t really let anyone know except my close family and got the five-years all-clear and decided last year was the right year to do As Funny As Cancer. I’m taking the show to Leicester, Manchester, Exeter and, in April, New Zealand and I might be going to Los Angeles later in the year.”

“And the Edinburgh Fringe?” I asked.

“I might take As Funny As Cancer up again, but also a new show. I want to have Gareth Morinan in it, playing Noel Edmonds. I’m quite obsessed with Deal or No Deal. It makes me cry!”

“Why?” I asked.

“People just suddenly win £40,000. I find it very emotional and it’s all done on complete chance. The idea is so stupid and ridiculous, but I find it very emotional and I’m interested in why it gets me like that. It is just boxes with numbers on them. It’s all complete chance.”

“Like life,” I said.

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Pit bull dog attacks Calvin Wynter, theatre producer, in New York City

Calvin Wynter wearing a yellow rubber glove this morning

Calvin Wynter wearing a yellow rubber glove this morning

This morning, I Skyped theatre producer Calvin Wynter in New York City. He used to be an equity trader on Wall Street. We had not chatted for a while. I thought it would be interesting to hear how the comedy business is going in New York.

As is often the case, the conversation got sidetracked.

He had suggested I Skype him at 11.30am, UK time, so I did.

“It’s 6.30am in the morning in New York,” I said.

“I’m up at 6.00am five days of the week,” he told me, “and 4.00am on two days.”

“Why?” I asked.

“This time last year, I went to Vipassana, a Buddhist retreat. We don’t burn incense, we don’t wear flowers, we don’t wear diapers; we just sit in our regular clothes. If you can do the lotus position, fantastic. If you can’t, you sit in a chair.”

“You’re wearing a yellow rubber glove and a sling round your neck,” I observed.

“This is me after wrist and arm surgery.”

“Why?”

“Between Wall Street and now, I spent way too much time on the computer and so I didn’t get carpal tunnel syndrome but I got some sort of pinched nerves. I ended up in hospital last year and a neurosurgeon noticed something, asked me to do a few things and said: Do you need an orthopaed referral? I said: No, as it happens, when I was attacked by the pit-bull, I got a… because, when you get your hands chewed on, they either call in a plastic surgeon or an orth and when you have your hands and leg and thigh bit away – like a 3 or 4 inch piece of my thigh was bitten away, the fat and skin…

“So I told him this and he then brought in a specialist. They did the test and then they ordered me a brace for a month but I went back and said: Look, you give the brace to most people because most people are afraid to go into surgery. You do it for them, they get a little better, it gives you time for them to get to trust you and then you do the surgery. He said: Yes. So I said: Just do the fucking surgery. And, in less than a week, he did the surgery.”

“I think,” I said. “I missed a link there. It was the bit where you said: when I was attacked by the pit-bull.”

“You didn’t know about that?”

“No. I have a shit memory, but even I would have remembered that.”

“OK. Well, this time last year – end of August, beginning of September – at the Vipassana retreat, I decided: Let’s lose a little weight. They feed you three meals a day. You got a choice of vegan and/or vegetarian and they’re delicious. You’re not starving. But I decided, because I was 245 lbs… I went through the three meals and measured out what was the amount of food you’re supposed to eat at the size I wanted to be. And I did hours and hours of walking. You’re in the country: streams, lakes, trees, all that stuff. And you’re doing chores when you’re not doing ten hours a day of meditation. After ten days, I lost 10 lbs. Then I lost another 10 lbs.

“So I lose all this weight, I’m dehydrated and I get the equivalent of the worst migraine I’ve ever had and I’ve never had a migraine – or maybe I’ve got a brain aneurism. So I’m rushed to the hospital. They perform every test possible and send me home thinking it’s a migraine and give me a strong Tylenol.

“When I call my doctor, she says: No, no. I want you to get some Aceterin. The next day, it gets really bad. So I think: If two pills are good, I’m gonna take four. Then six. I overdose. I start hallucinating. I mean, you know like Fantasia? I see a musical that I will create one day that will become the gold standard of musicals.

“But, in New York City, you never tell the doctors in the emergency room that you are hallucinating because they will put you on the psych ward and hold you for 72 hours. And, if they don’t have a psych ward, they will transfer you to one and the No 1 psych ward they like to transfer you to is Bellevue which is essentially like Bedlam in the UK.

“I remember a comedian I knew who won the big award in Edinburgh – he went to the British equivalent because he wrote his name in faeces on his wall. You know who I’m talking about.

“Anyway, I’m back in hospital again. They admit me. For six hours I tell them: I will NOT take any opiates. I was in so much pain they wanted to give me morphine and codeine. Not oxy cotton. No, they were going for like the strongest friggin’ pain pills they could give me. Finally, after six hours, I am told: We will have you committed if you don’t take it, because – you don’t know this, but – you are curled up in a ball in the corner of the bed. You are sweating profusely, you’re shaking, you’re mumbling and, every once in a while, you scream out so loud we can hear you down the hall.”

“And so…?” I asked.

“So I take the damned opiates,” Calvin told me. “And, after three days of taking them, it did lower the pain, but there was still excruciating pain. In the interim, they find my kidneys are now in renal failure and I had a macro pituitary adenoma. In other words, I had a tumour that was 1 centimetre in diameter at the centre of my head, right about where all the nerve endings are for your eyes, pushing back on my pituitary.

“Day Three of all this, I say: Fuck it! I get consciousness for a moment and I meditate solidly for an hour. You just observe and, for some reason, I kept observing one of my teeth up top and I remembered I was told to have the tooth removed but my insurance would not do an implant. Somewhere along the line, I forgot about that.

“So they remove the tooth and the headache is gone. So now they are working on my kidneys. They changed the meds. After ten days, I lose 10 lbs and I go out. So I had lost 10 lbs there and 20 lbs at the Vipassana retreat.

“Fast forward to May. I walk out of my door, I see a 98 lb woman who I later find out is a 28-year-old from Hawaii, half-Japanese, had never owned a dog before, was in New York City for the first time ever and had rescued this dog which was going to be killed the next day because it was too dangerous. She agreed to have a trainer, spent a lot of time with it before she took it home.

“I see that the dog is acting like an idiot. I make a sharp right turn. I meditate to calm my body so the dog doesn’t sense anything. It’s a pit bull. The dog leaps up. I shoot my left hand to block it.

“My cousin had been the national karate champion before Chuck Norris. My cousin was bodyguard to David Bowie, Mick Jagger right around the time hijackings were happening and celebrities were not able to bring their licensed gun-carrying bodyguards on planes with them.

“So I had lived with my cousin for a month. He had told me: If someone threatens you, you can talk to them for a while – you’re good at that – then you can run like the wind and very few people can catch you. The only time you need to fight is if the son-of-a-bitch catches you, which means he has nothing but ill-intent. Which means you have to kill him. One fast fell swoop. I’m going to teach you to kill people and, in the last week, I’m going to teach you how to kill dogs. With dogs, you break their nose; you jam it into their head; it’s a matter of seconds: they’re dead on the floor.

“Thirty years ago, pit bulls were not a problem. People owned German Shepherds, Doberman Pinschers. They didn’t have pit bulls. A pit bull’s entire skull is like a biker’s helmet. You can’t break its nose and shove it into its skull.  The one thing you’re supposed to do with pit bulls is you grab them by the balls and you swing them in the air and neuter them. You bang ‘em in the eye, go straight for their balls, lift them and fucking castrate them right then and there. They will be in so much pain, bleeding profusely and you can get away.

“But I had a bitch… a female dog, right? I get a young female dog. So she gets my arm. Thank god I remember: Use the middle finger and the pointer finger of your hand. So I hit her in the eyeballs. She releases. The other thing my cousin had told me was: Run into traffic when you’re attacked by a dog. You will be able to dodge the cars; the dog will get hit.

“I get one lane out into six lanes of traffic and I, for some reason, take a second to look back. The traffic stops. The dog is coming after me. I get to the other side of the boulevard. As I’m putting my left leg onto the kerb, the dog leaps up, was going for my balls but grabs my upper thigh and was about to clamp in for the arteries, the bones and the muscles. Now I’ve got both hands bleeding, several major lacerations on my left hand, which is my dominant hand though I write with my right hand. I use both hands because both hands are free because she’s on my thigh. I blind her in the right eye, I partially blind her in the left.”

“Literally blind her?” I ask.

“Literally. I crack the right eyeball and there’s ooze coming out. I bang the left one, so it’s partially damaged. I break her right leg. And I take all of my body weight, holding my left arm with my right hand so it has maximum power, and I lunge dead-centre at her spine. I damage the spine. She falls to the ground. She has my blood all over her.”

“Now,” I said, “it’s almost 7.30am in New York. Where are you off to now?”

Calvin Wynter: no hair, but a big Fringe

Calvin Wynter: no hair, but big on the Fringe theatre scene

“I’m headed off right now,” Calvin told me, “to have my teeth cleaned and also they did a biopsy on my jawbone. They performed dental surgery, removed the lesion and put it in for biopsy research. They called me on Friday which means I think I may have cancer. I don’t know. So far, everything that’s thought to have been cancerous was not – like the polyps I got from my colonoscopy. I had three polyps. No cancer. So who knows? Maybe the third time isn’t so good but, y’know look – I’ve had a shaved head before. I can have a shaved head again. I’m still Episcopalian, which is like your Church of England, but my philosophy is Buddhist which is essentially: What do we seek? Happiness. What is pain and sorrow? The route to happiness.”

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Comedy critic Copstick’s buttocks and Twonky’s Stinking Bishop sans cheese

The Mama Biashara show

The two Mama Biashara Fringe preview shows

In Monday’s blog, I mentioned that Kate Copstick, my Grouchy Club Podcast co-host had woken up with a face that was “massively puffy. Eyes like currants in a dumpling. But a red dumpling.” (Her words.)

Tonight, I went to see one of the Edinburgh Fringe previews which Copstick is hosting at her Mama Biashara charity shop in London – the charity gets 100% of all donations. Well, there were two previews tonight – from Daphna Baram and Sajeela Kershi.

“You look paler,” I told Copstick when I arrived.

“But still not good enough to be photographed,” she said. “You know it’s not good if you walk in and the doctor says: Oh! My goodness!… She started poking at my face, saying: Oh! It’s hot! It’s hot!… Well, I mean, Hello!?? That’s why I’m here seeing a doctor!”

“What was wrong?” I asked.

“Apparently my lupus has kicked itself up a notch,” she told me. “It’s like a computer game and I’m now at Level 5. So I got a arseful of extra steroids. They’re amazing: it’s something called depomedrone. I got a buttock full of it and, believe me, my buttocks are fairly capacious.”

“You only got it in one buttock?” I asked.

“Well,” explained Copstick. “It is on the NHS. If I had gone private, I might have got two buttocksful.”

“So,” I said, “you now have a giant left buttock and a normal right buttock? Don’t you tend to fall off chairs when you sit down?”

Rare sight - shy Copstick - at Mama Biashara

Rare sight – shy Copstick – at Mama Biashara

“No,” Copstick told me, “I just sit with a slight tilt. My right buttock is full of a metal Kenyan replacement hip joint… I think I’m going to make it a thing with Mama Biashara comedy previews that, unless you are sufficiently ill, you can’t perform… People who have some kind of permanent condition… Romina Puma is here on 4th July and has muscular dystrophy, so that’s fine. Tim Renkow is here on Wednesday and he has cerebral palsy, so that means he qualifies. And we have already had Mel Moon.

“I am setting the bar. I have lupus. Anyone less ill than me does not get to come and do a show. I think that’s fair. Do you have any stinking bishop?”

“What?” I asked.

Twonkey,” explained Copstick, “having created his marvellous new show, Twonkey’s Stinking Bishop, cannot find any stinking bishop.”

“What is a stinking bishop?” I asked.

“A fabulous cheese with a sort-of washed pinky rind and it pongs to high heaven and it’s absolutely delicious.”

“I don’t like cheese,” I pointed out, “so his chances of winning an increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award are fading fast.”

“If you mention it in your increasingly prestigious blog,” said Copstick, “just ask if anyone knows where Twonkey can get some stinking bishop in and around the Edinburgh area. It would make him very happy. Otherwise I may have to secrete some around my person on the MegaBus up to Edinburgh – which would be very unpleasant for everyone.”

“You could put it in your buttock,” I suggested.

“There is no space… steroids,” said Copstick.

“Your right buttock?” I suggested.

“Kenyan hip joint,” said Copstick flatly.

Publicity for Twonkey’s stinking Bishop (No, I have no idea why either)

Twonkey’s Stinking Bishop (No, I have no idea why either)

After Daphna Baram and Sajeela Kershi’s previews, Copstick told me: “Twonkey says a sponsorship deal can be only hours away now your increasingly prestigious blog is involved.”

I puffed with pride.

“If you won’t let me take a photo of your face for the blog,” I asked, “can I take a photo of your left buttock?”

Copstick went off somewhere.

Relaxing Canadian cannabis bath bombs

Relaxing Canadian cannabis bath bombs

She never came back.

I left.

When I got home, there was an e-mail waiting for me from Anna Smith, this blog’s occasional Canadian correspondent.

“I just heard,” it said, “that the dispensaries in Vancouver sell marijuana bath bombs and THC ‘gummy bear’ candies.”

I have never taken recreational drugs but, sometimes, it just seems like I have.

Reality. Don’t talk to me about reality.

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