Category Archives: Poverty

Everyday life goes brutally on in Kenya

British comedy critic and African diarist Kate Copstick is currently in Kenya, working for her Mama Biashara charity.

Mama Biashara (which translates as ’Business Mother’) tries to give a helping hand, small amounts of money and lots of advice to people who have nothing so they can start self-sustaining small businesses.

Its ability to fund relies solely on donations and Copstick receives no money of any kind for her work. She herself covers the cost of her own flights and her own accommodation/living expenses while in Kenya.

Her accommodation tends to be in the slums of Nairobi, which has its side effects…

Here are two edited extracts from her diary during the last week.


WEDNESDAY

SO here’s a thing. The laxative properties of aloe vera MUST NOT be underestimated. The litre or so that I drank yesterday has had the same effect on my innards as Barnes Wallis had on a Nazi dam.

Around three in the morning, all hell is unleashed. By noon I am emitting clear liquid. But I am a plucky old bint and with the aid of a soda (sugar) loperamide and 1000mg of paracetamol (pounding headache and turbo-charged bowels) plus more soda, David and I head off to Kangeme, one of Nairobi’s stinkier areas, to do a funding. 

There are 70 women in the group. All have the same problem. Husbands who beat them and/or rape them. These women have run away, mainly from the same area.

First a couple go, try to get work, maybe get a place to stay and then others come. Before you know it you have a community of beaten and abused women trying to make a new life.

However, they have no money, no wherewithal to start anything up. Generally, they will bring their youngest children with them and leave the others. But all they plan is to go back and get them. When they have a safe life to bring them to. A Mama Biashara lady has given some of them a room with some bunk beds in it. At least this is somewhere safe to sleep.

Currently, these women are on the street – because the set-up costs for prostitution are, let’s face it, low. 

But street prostitution in a slum area is precarious, going-on dangerous – and that’s on a good day. All the women have been assaulted by ‘clients’. 

As far as I can make out, around ten have been stabbed, one had her arm broken in three places with a metal bar and, currently, three are in hospital. Doris has been helping them for a few months, getting the younger ones little jobs as “dummies” for a hair and make-up college. I think “models” is the preferred term. They get 2.50, a day relaxing, getting something to eat and a lovely new hairdo. Others, Doris has found casual jobs when she can. One, in fact, has to leave the meeting as she has to go and cook chapati for a posh lady with a meeting. 

They are lovely women. And their business plans are pretty good. Sweet potato and arrowroot, fruit and carrier bags, eggs and sausages… all solid businesses. Each group is ten women – seven groups, so 70 women in all – with an average of 26 children in each group of ten, so 182. The bill is about 600 pounds. In the charity VFM stakes, that is pretty impressive. Even though I say so myself. Groups are deffo the way.

There is security, self-policing, mutual support and buying power there.

THURSDAY

Doris is off organising the buying with the ladies we funded yesterday. Some will leave for their new lives today and some tomorrow. Doris is very impressed with their knowledge and attitude with the buying. This is an important point in the process – Doris (or Vicky or Purity) watch the women to see how they are in a business situation – product knowledge, ability to strike a bargain and hold their own in a negotiation – because that will tell us a lot about any weaknesses the business might have. 

Felista sends me a slew of pictures of walls and piles of bricks. And a list of building materials which seems to feature mainly doors. And a photo of a bill for 120 quid with Not Paid written across the top. 

Mary from the Mary Faith Home calls to say their electricity has been cut off. The bill has not been paid. And the girls have still not been for their ultrasound. 

Maybe the CEO of Save the Children could hand over just a little of her £245,000 salary (plus perks) and help save these children.


Mama Biashara accepts donations HERE and runs a charity shop in Shepherds Bush, London, staffed by volunteers and (when she is in the UK) Copstick. 100% of the money earned in the shop goes directly to Mama Biashara’s work in Kenya, without any deductions.

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Filed under Africa, Charity, Kenya, Poverty, prostitution

Praising the Lord in Kenya, as dirt is shovelled over a dead 12 year old boy…

Copstick is in Kenya

Journalist, comedy critic and charity-founder Kate Copstick is currently in Kenya.

She is, once again, working there with her charity Mama Biashara.

Here are the latest extracts from her journal.

Fuller versions are posted on the Mama Biashara Facebook page.


Moses (left) enjoying his favourite nyama choma (roast meat)

Friday 26th April

We head for Mutalia, near Ruai, to visit the family of Moses who died of meningitis last Monday, aged 12. Mama Biashara buys him a coffin. And coffins are important in Kenya. 

We were with Moses in 2010, when he arrived at Felista’s suffering from extreme malnutrition. His baby brother had a serious chest infection, his sisters had infections in liver and spleen and his big brother had a growth on his back. 

Their ‘father’ had abandoned them after their mother died. That was 2010. Their great uncle took them in when they left Felista and Mama Biashara paid school fees and bills. Now the children are with their great aunt. ‘Great’ both in the sense of being their great uncle’s wife and ‘great’ in looking after them when she herself has very little and four children of her own. They call her mum.

All the children flourished. But Moses was the little academic star. He was always No 1 or No 2 in his class. He wanted to be an engineer. He was so much fun. Lively and lovely. And now he is dead. Science tells us we are all stardust, but Moses, more than most. I hope that wherever he is, whatever he is, he is shining brightly.

President Uhuru Kenyatta was seeking a loan from China

Saturday 27th

The market is full of people worrying about the Chinese invasion, new taxes and getting angrier by the second at a government that borrows vast fortunes to build roads while people starve. Everyone – even the Kikkuyu – is finding some happiness in the fact that the president has just come from a trip to China without the extra extra extra loan he went asking for. 

“The Chinas say No. I am very happy,” says one of my pals and we all nod vigorously. 

The personal debt of each individual Kenyan is calculated to be just over £1,000. Much more than a huge percentage of them see in a year. 

Now, do not get me wrong. I am a HUGE fan of their cuisine, the noodle is my staple food. I am in awe of their State Circus and their religion seems lovely. I personally do not have a phone made there, but many of my best friends do. However, the Chinese have all but destroyed the Kenyan fishing people in Lake Victoria. 

Our ladies (and men) who were doing SO well for many years have now returned to prostitution, Doris says.

What happened was this. 

The Chinese came, at the invitation of the Kenyan Government, they saw, they liked the tilapia and the tilapia business. They bought entire boatloads of fish, removed the eggs, shipped them back to China and now China farms Lake Victoria tilapia and sells it back to Kenya where it is bought, frozen, sold in supermarkets, because it is much cheaper than the fresh stuff which comes from Lake Victoria. And the Kenyan Government allows this to happen. The Kenyan fishing people of Lake Victoria are collateral damage. 

Moses: “He was so much fun. Lively and lovely. And now he is dead. Meningitis”

Tuesday 30th April

Today is Moses’ burial. 

Langata Cemetary is huge and we are over at the back amongst what Felista tells me are temporary graves for those who cannot afford permanent resting places. 

There is a huge crowd. People from the school, people from churches and I have no idea who else. Also a couple renting out chairs, a bloke selling peanuts and someone setting up a little stall selling soft drinks and snacks just behind the seating area. 

We take our places and, as a tiny, shiny little man in a shiny suit welcomes us, there is much clanking as scaffolding for a gazebo tent is erected and the coffin placed underneath. 

I am invited to sit with the family which is very touching and a great honour. Dinah has pretty much arranged everything and I think it is due to her that so many have come. 

The proceedings start with the tiny, shiny man explaining that we should all be rejoicing because this was God’s plan for Moses. I am thinking that, if it was, it was a rubbish plan. 

We then sing for around ten minutes about how great the Lord is and how wonderful/excellent/glorious/powerful/great/amazing/fabulous is his name, clapping and doing that step-dig step so beloved of the Four Tops. 

Then there is a lovely, lovely bit where people come up and talk a little about Moses (including, in an unexpected turn of events, me). 

Dinah spoke wonderfully and some kids from the school sang. But, apart from that, it was like an extended episode of Nairobi’s Got Pastors. 

There were about six or seven of them, welcomed to the microphone by the tiny, shiny man who has missed his vocation as a comedy club MC because he really whipped up the applause for each pastor. And the pastors’ wives. And every church elder who was with us. And anyone who ran a youth group, church choir or had at any time had anything to do with any church. 

I understood about 60% of what each of the suited and booted septet was saying but no one really mentioned Moses.

They name-checked their churches and I wish I had counted the number of times the words Bwana Sifiwe (Praise be to God) were uttered because I think a record must have been broken. 

I am invited to view the body. I say goodbye and wipe dust off the window covering him. Then there is a scramble for others to see him. 

I have no idea who these people are. 

There is more extended praising of Jesus’ name in song.

The family (and I) are surrounded by the suited and booted ones and prayed over with still no mention of Moses. And then we go to the graveside, marching, as we do, over dozens of unmarked graves. 

Now things rachet up a notch with much howling. 

As Moses goes into the grave, a brightly-dressed woman flings herself to the ground and threshes around shrieking. Most ignore her, but she upsets the small children. 

It turns out that she is an aunt. The mother’s sister. It turns out there is actually a family who have ignored these kids for the nine years they have been with Mama Biashara. The shrieking one is a little late in her feelings for her nephew. 

We stand as the grave is filled-in, which is horrible.

It is made even more horrible by a weeny woman with a bad weave who bursts into enthusiastic song about rejoicing. 

She really goes for it. 

For a long long time. 

Praising the Lord, as dirt is shovelled over a dead twelve year old boy.


Mama Biashara works with the poorest and most marginalised people in Kenya. It gives grants to set up small, sustainable businesses that bring financial independence and security. It offers training and employment in everything from phone repairs to manicures. It has built a children’s home, which it still supports. It has created water-harvesting solutions for drought-devastated areas. And it helps those fleeing female genital mutilation, forced marriage, sex slavery and child rape. It receives no grants and survives totally on personal donations (and sales at its shop in Shepherds Bush, London), 100% of which go to its work, none of which goes to Kate Copstick. She herself covers all her own personal expenses, including her accommodation costs and her travel costs.
www.mamabiashara.com

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Filed under China, Death, Kenya, Politics, Poverty, Religion

Lynn Ruth Miller on being stalked in Glasgow and the homeless in London

Lynn Ruth Miller in Glasgow last week

In yesterday’s blog, I was talking to a man who had decided to see what it was like to be homeless for one day on the streets of Manchester.

Now 85-year-old London-based American comic Lynn Ruth Miller gives her own views on homelessness and being stalked in Glasgow…

Here she goes…


I was so successful using my college Spanish in Barcelona (blogged about here) that I decided to give myself the acid test and go someplace where I REALLY could not understand anything anyone said.

Last week I went to Glasgow.

The Markee de Saw (left) and Miss Innocence Bliss in Glasgow

I headlined at the Allsorts Cabaret in Katie’s Bar. This is a burlesque cabaret hosted by the Markee de Saw and Innocence Bliss, both regulars on the burlesque circuit.  

And that was when I got stalked…

It was really very thrilling.

A very young man came into the club while I was waiting to go on stage. He sat very close to me and smiled significantly.

I smiled significantly back.  

What else could I do?  

I couldn’t SAY anything because there was a show going on.

At the interval, I left to put on my costume and his eyes followed me right into the dressing room. This was a brand new experience for me. I found it very awkward to get down to my undies knowing his eyes were right there in the room. After all, we had not even been introduced.

I returned to my table and there he was looking more significant than ever!!!!! 

I managed to haul myself on stage and he was right there with a hand up (to the stage, not my costume). I finished my song about being old just in case no-one noticed (but I think they all did). I sat down next to my stalker and he spoke his first words to me.

I think he said: “Would you like a drink?” 

But it was hard to catch what he said because, by this time, he had had several shots himself and the music was very loud and he was having a difficult time forming a coherent sentence.  

I think that’s a Glasgow thing.

In seconds, a large glass of white wine appeared as if by magic and the young man fastened his eyes on my bodice. I think he was trying to find my cleavage, which resembles an elongated pleat these days. But his brain couldn’t process what that was.  

I finished my wine and I think he said: ”Would you like another?”

So I nodded (significantly, of course).

I was obviously right because another glass of wine appeared before me.  

And then my stalker took my hand in his and looked even more significantly into what was left of my eyes. 

He tried to stand and failed.  

I was having a bit of trouble focusing myself, but I took his arm to help him up and that was when the bartender threw him out of the bar.

I was still glowing from this romantic encounter when I boarded the train the next morning to return to London Euston.  

My hosts and I walked to the station. It was supposed to be a 30-minute stroll but, partly because my legs are now approximately the size of a chihuahua’s and partly because my thoughts were still locked into memories of the sexiest night of life, it took us an hour to get to the station.  

We only had ten minutes to get to the train.  

My host said he would dash to Sainsbury’s and buy me lunch: a banana, a tangerine, a croissant and a small yogurt.  

As I toddled to my coach, he galloped toward me with a huge bag and thrust it in my arms. When I opened it, I realized he must have thought I wanted to feed the entire coach. I discovered a quart of water, a bag of tangerines, a large bunch of bananas, two croissants and a tub of yogurt ample enough to feed 400 starving Armenians during their revolution.

I managed to eat one of each thing and a few spoonfuls of the yogurt and then pondered on what the hell I would do with all this food because I am Jewish and we do not throw out food.

Meanwhile, the discussion in the coach drifted from Brexit to the homeless problem. 

The woman sitting across from me waxed eloquent on the outrageous way people were pretending to be homeless and fooling us by wearing tattered clothing when, as soon as their day was over, they ran around the corner and jumped into their Mercedes to motor to their luxury flat in Kensington.

I pointed out that some of them really do need our help and she said: “Really? I know for a fact that most of them earn at least £300 a day and they spend it all on heroin or cocaine.”

“Perhaps,” I said, “it would be best to give them food instead of money so they do not spend that 20p we thrust in their empty cup on drugs.”

“Absolutely not,” she said. “They won’t take food anyway. They just want to finance their disgusting habits.”

As she waxed eloquent on the sins of the charlatans sitting on our street corners, I remembered my friend Kevin who reminded me that, if I give money to someone, I have no right to tell him what to spend it on.  

“Did you ever think,” he said, “that drugs might be their only escape from a life too horrible for us to contemplate in our warm comfortable homes with our tables laden with food?”

The train pulled into Euston station and I took my huge bag of food and water along with my suitcase and my backpack with me on my way to Kings Cross to catch the Piccadilly line to go to Covent Garden.  

As I trudged to the station, I saw one of these very homeless people we were analyzing on the train.  

He was a young man in his twenties, shivering in the cold, with an empty cup sitting forlornly at his feet.  

I stopped and handed him the bananas, the bag of tangerines and the water but, before I could manage to throw a few coins in that empty cup, he was halfway through the first banana.

I thought of that woman sitting in a comfortable coach sipping her wine and nibbling at her gourmet salad.  

I thought of the comfortable place I go home to every night and the refrigerator stuffed with more food than I need and I wept.  

I wept for that poor man sitting before me so desperately hungry. He could not wait to eat that banana.  

I wept for that woman and all those like her who cannot see the hunger and the extreme need of people forced to subsist on the paltry coins we throw at them as we hurry from our warm homes to our comfortable offices or to the theatre or to a posh dinner that costs more than they will get in a year in that paper cup that sits at their feet.  

One missed paycheck, one lost job, one debilitating illness… that is all it takes to put every one of us on the street, begging strangers for help.

I do not have answers for how we can stop this growing homeless situation.  

I do know that my giving that boy a bit of fruit did nothing to solve the bigger problem.  

But what else could I do?

So I hurried on to Covent Garden to judge an LBGTQ heat in a club.  

I laughed a lot and drank some wine, but I couldn’t get the memory of that hungry boy out of my mind.

When I got home that night, all I could think of was the people I walk past every day on the street and how little we all do to help those who are not as lucky as we are.

And then I ate my dinner and began to plan for my trip to Amsterdam.

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Filed under Glasgow, Humor, Humour, London, Poverty, UK

I met a man with a family. He left home to see what it feels like to be homeless…

Manchester – Piccadilly station

When I was at college, one exercise we did was to record a normal conversation, then transcribe it exactly, word-for-word. When you do that, you realise the chaos of conversations. No sentences. Thoughts and sentences bounce around randomly, half-finished and intermingled. That interests me.

In my online blogs, I tend to ‘clean-up’ what is quoted, so it reads – I hope – more smoothly. And I cut for length. But below is a full and exact, un-cut transcription of a conversation I had at the weekend.

I was in Manchester on Sunday, at Amanda Fleming’s horror short film festival.

On Sunday night, I was sitting in Manchester’s Piccadilly station and was approached by a man asking for money. I almost never give money to beggars because I am always dubious what they will spend it on. 

But I had just bought a pack of two tiramisus from a nearby Sainsbury’s Local. So I gave him one and we ate them together on the bench.

He told me he had decided to live on the streets for a day to see what being homeless was like. He told me his very small daughter had died a few months ago. And (although this was Sunday) he had left home on Friday to see for a day what being homeless was like.

I obviously never necessarily believe what I am told by people asking for money. So I cannot guarantee anything he told me is true. 

But I switched on my iPhone during the conversation. Obviously, a vast invasion of his privacy. I will no doubt rot in hell. But I have obscured any details which could identify the man who may or may not be who he said he was. I have called him David. That is not the name he gave me. Everything else he said is quoted exactly.

BEWARE: This is quite long but, with luck, progresses interestingly!


JOHN: When did you leave home? Friday?

DAVID: We’ve really been depressed. All the family’s been depressed because of the loss. Me wife said: “You need a night out with your friends.” So every weekend she’s dressing me up well: “You’ll look nice tonight.”

Anyway, I got wrong train. I got there 15 minutes. They were only 15 minutes behind me. So… But they were on the next train. They were only 15 minutes.

JOHN: You decided you wanted to be a homeless man for a day?

DAVID: Yeah. I want to go home now. I want your advice on how to get to (ANOTHER NORTHERN CITY) from here. Can you tell me how to get to (ANOTHER NORTHERN CITY) or (ANOTHER NORTHERN CITY) or…

JOHN: Best to phone your wife. I’m only up here for the day. Why did you want to be homeless for a day? Are you a sociology professor or something?

DAVID: I just wanted to see what they went through and I couldn’t do it. I could not do it. I am here, going home now.

JOHN: You started on Friday? Or this morning?

DAVID: Friday, I got the fuck beat out of me before my friends got there. I smoked.

JOHN: What? Weed?

DAVID: No. I train (PUBLIC SERVICE WORKERS) believe it or not. I train them how to be safe when (THEY DO THEIR JOB), hopefully. And they call me a chicken coward, because I’m the one that can’t do it, so I teach it. There’s a slightly higher grade that I am on, but we don’t live very well.

JOHN: So you’re a (PUBLIC SERVICE) person.

DAVID: I’m a (PUBLIC SERVICE WORKER) trainer, I would say. Trainer, supervisor, yeah, yeah. I do training courses: gotta pass it. I’ve got a company. A few people work for me as well.

JOHN: So you decided you wanted to be homeless…

DAVID: I’m coming out of the hospital. I’m in Manchester. I discharged meself cos I’m pissed-off and I didn’t want to be near anyone. I’m not staying in that bed no longer. I’m not doing this. But there was a man and I said: “Could I have half of your cigarette?” 

And he said: “No.”

I said: “I’m not without money. I would give you a pound.”

(AT THIS POINT, A HOMELESS MAN CAME UP TO US) 

HOMELESS MAN: “I’m sorry for asking…Can you spare a…”

JOHN: I’m sorry. I’m sorry.

DAVID: Ay. Ay-up, ay-up, ay-up. I’ve just been like this all day.

(THE HOMELESS MAN WALKED AWAY)

I’ve got five people in me family. Well, four people in my family now. Because of me wages… Because of me dad’s business, me dad says: “You’ll never ever, ever, ever raise £60,000.”

I said: “If you’d sell it me for 60,000… 60,000?” 

He says: “60,000? It’s worth ten times that,” he says. “If you ever raise £60,000 on yer own” he’ll sell a share of it to us. Anyway, I bought an ice cream van. I bought an ice cream van… Tell me when you’re bored.”

JOHN: No,no. You’re keeping me warm inside the station. This is good.

DAVID: It were very very hard with the ice cream van, as I found out and I had to go begging back to me dad, saying: “It’s winter time. I’m going out and I’m taking £15 and using £10 diesel, I’m using £3 stock; I’m making £2, £3, £4 a day, dad. Please bail me out. 

He said: “I told you this. I told you that.” Blah blah blah.

JOHN: I’ve always wondered what ice cream van men do in the winter.

DAVID: What they do in the winter is what I didn’t know. They save a lot of fucking money through the summer.

JOHN: Anyway… Back in the day and being homeless…

DAVID: Yeah. I tried it. What time is it now?

JOHN: When’s your train?

DAVID: I’ve no idea. I haven’t even booked to get. What time is it? Is it half past? It might not come.

JOHN: Almost half past ten. Where are you going to? (ANOTHER NORTHERN CITY)? There’s one at 10.47.

DAVID: Where? Where to? Where to?

JOHN: To (ANOTHER NORTHERN CITY). Platform 1. 10.47. That’s in 20 minutes time.

DAVID: How do I get to get from (ANOTHER NORTHERN CITY) then to get to (ANOTHER NORTHERN CITY) or (ANOTHER NORTHERN CITY)?

JOHN: I have no idea. God knows.

DAVID: Is there one for (ANOTHER NORTHERN CITY) or is there owt?

JOHN: No. There’s just Crewe, Leeds, Buxton, Chester… and Blackpool, for some reason. If you can get to (ANOTHER NORTHERN CITY), you can get your wife to collect you.

DAVID: Yeah. You’re right. You’re right. Yeah, yeah. Yeah. But I haven’t got a penny to ring.

JOHN: (LAUGHS) Was this a very long-winded Can I have some money for the telephone routine?

DAVID: No. I’m sorry, mate. No. I will not accept. Please do not do that. Do not do that. No. I didn’t mean it like that. There’s free phones. There’s free phones. I didn’t believe it. I dialled my dad on his mobile. I dialled him on his landline. I dialled me wife. Are there any of me kids there I can talk to? I broke down in tears. I said: “Daddy’s staying out here another night if he possibly can… just to see what it’s like to be homeless. I’ll be home tomorrow”.

I don’t think I need any money to get a ticket. Are people still working in that little hole?

JOHN: The information booth? Looks like it.

DAVID: What time’s that train to (ANOTHER NORTHERN CITY)?

JOHN: 10.47 – 17 minutes time.

DAVID: Something happened and I went absolutely berserk and I absolutely lost the plot completely, tried a few drugs, really dangerous stuff.

JOHN: Today? Or after the ice cream van?

DAVID: No. (LAUGHS) After the death of me daughter.

JOHN: Oh, yes. Sorry.

DAVID: You’re not following this right, are you… We’ll get there. We’ve a long time, haven’t we?… No, it were me daughter. At least I could laugh then. It were the first time I could actually laugh and say: “No, me daughter; not the ice cream man.” That’s first time I’ve laughed and said her name. Me daughter.

(PAUSE)

JOHN: That might be the last train to (ANOTHER NORTHERN CITY). There isn’t another one on the board. You’ve got 17 minutes. That might be the last one.

DAVID: What, now?

JOHN: In 16 minutes.

DAVID: I’m gonna go there first (the information booth) and see if there’s one gonna take me to (ANOTHER NORTHERN CITY). That there (the tiramisu) were absolutely beautiful and I’ve had absolutely nowt to eat all day. I got a slice of pizza. 

Some dear said: “I haven’t got any money for you, sweetheart, but, if you want something to eat, you can have something.” 

It’s fucking dangerous out there; it’s shit; I’ve never seen anything like it. That spice – just with phtum phtum-phtum. You can see in street with… we buy each other… and there’s police there and… It’s in front of them. They can’t do anything about it. There’s nothing about it.

JOHN: Is spice the big thing now?

DAVID: Not where I live. I’ve never noticed it. That’s why I… “Can I have a drag of your ciggie?” and he said: “No!” –  Because he paid for it, obviously. A lot of money. £5. I says: “I’ll give you a pound for a drag.” He says: “Yes. But only two drags or three drags. Do you want three drags?”

I thought: He’ll charge me £1 for two or three drags? A roll-up, not a cig. A fuckin’ roll-up. But I got nowt. So I took it. 

I had two drags and I started having third drag and I started feeling funny. So I were walking about, didn’t really know where I was, very disorientated. Couldn’t find train station, bus station, nothing, slept where I thought I oughta sleep, got absolutely annihilated – me wallet has got money in, me phone, me credit cards got took off me; it’s cost me nearly £700 so far. 

It’s not too bad. I’ll get most of it back on insurance. I’ve got quite a good job. I’m not rich. I am not rich. But I have a good job as you can imagine – who trains the (PUBLIC SERVICE WORKERS). 

JOHN: Is the drug problem in Manchester now spice not smack?

DAVID: No, it’s not smack. No, no. It’s… No, no. Spice. Spice. But I got…

JOHN: What effect does spice have? Is it like cocaine? Kapow!!

DAVID: Have you had cocaine?

JOHN: No.

DAVID: No. So you don’t know. Cocaine goes be-weugh! But, no, I’m fairly good be-weugh, but that first one we was talking about, the… the… eh… the heroin. That’s BANG! That goes straight in. But no, the one that you said…

JOHN: Spice or cocaine?

DAVID: That is the most subtle one. That is the one you will have a sniff of and not know what it’s done to you, whatsoever, cos it’s so subtle, yeah?

JOHN: I think coke is really dangerous.

DAVID: It’s not very dangerous. I’ve sniffed thousands of…

(A MAN COMES UP AND ASKS US FOR MONEY)

DAVID (TO BEGGAR): Mate, I’m the same as you.

BEGGAR: I know you, man.

DAVID: I know you as well. I’m the same as you do. I’m just trying to get ten bob out of him (POINTING AT ME) me’sen. I’ve got another 13/14 minutes yet.

(THE MAN WALKS AWAY)

I hope them things (information booths) are open. If, for any reason, I can’t, can you lend me some money for phone? You can come with me to see that I phone me wife to pick me up.

JOHN: I’m past caring. Here, you can have £2. It’s a story. It’s a story. It’s a good story.

DAVID: Can you put my details in your phone so I can give you the £2 back for being so kind to me.

JOHN: How about £60,000? If you ARE going to make a phone call – I don’t think you are – you’ve got 11 minutes to the train leaving.

DAVID: How far is it to the fucking thing?

JOHN: I don’t know. Platform 1.

DAVID: Platform 1. Do you buy your ticket and then get on the train and they come and inspect it?

JOHN: I guess so. Platform 1.

DAVID: Platform 1?

(A YOUNG WOMAN IN HER 20s APPROACHES US)

YOUNG WOMAN: Guys, I’m really sorry to ask, but is there any chance you can spare a little bit of change for…?

DAVID: Darling, I’m in the same position as you.

YOUNG WOMAN: Are ya?

DAVID: This is me dad. He’s just come out to give me some money.

YOUNG WOMAN: Alright. No worries.

DAVID: I’m sorry, sweetheart.

YOUNG WOMAN: I’m shitting it. I’m just trying to get home.

DAVID: I’m the same. Me dad’s good to me. He feeds me chocolate.

YOUNG WOMAN: At least you’ve got a dad. 

DAVID: I wish I’d got a mum and I wish I’d got a baby. They both died.

LOUDSPEAKER ANNOUNCEMENT: The train approaching Platform 1 is the…

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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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Lynn Ruth Miller on San Francisco filth, hot & cold US comedy and stifling PC

Lynn Ruth back performing in a changed city

London-based American comic and 84-year-old burlesque performer Lynn Ruth Miller continues her three-week series of gigs in and around San Francisco and finds, after four years away, that the US has changed…


San Francisco was once a beautiful, sophisticated city where no man stepped out his front door unless he was dressed in shirt, tie and jacket.  Women wore hats, gloves and designer clothes always. Now it is not that way at all.  

The city feels overcrowded, noisy and filthy. Today, I walked from one end of the city to the other (you can actually do that here) and I saw homeless people who set up their own colonies cluttered with blankets, torches, heaters, empty cartons of food, pots, pans and the necessities of their lives.  

These people have no sanitation facilities and the odor that surrounds them is not very nice. They are very aggressive and taunt passers-by, insisting on money from them or just making them get out of their way.

I think of myself as a Socialist and I firmly believe we need to help those who cannot help themselves. But I was decidedly uncomfortable as I passed these clusters of filth and debris and my liberal philosophy was severely shaken. Perhaps my charitable concern for humanity is not so generous when I am faced with standards of living I never dreamed human beings lived in.

And that is what these upper middle class people I am with these days all insist. They say that many homeless people WANT to live that way. 

My darling dog-sitter Leo tells the story of a pan handler who was featured on Sixty Minutes (a TV news program) who made hundreds of dollars in his ragged clothes then went around the corner, shed his rags for conventional garb and drove to his luxury home not far away.  Could this really be?

I for one cannot believe that.  

When I saw these grey, battered human beings who were actually hard to distinguish from the litter they were sleeping in, huddled together reeking of marijuana and human waste, I could only believe that this American society with its emphasis on the need to be rich as a status symbol as well as a means of comfort and the unquenchable thirst for luxury – huge cars, expensive clothes, food that costs five times what it is worth – has created a huge underbelly of people who are trapped in the system and have no idea of how to get out.

A case in point is a man I knew casually before I left San Francisco four years ago. His is a successful reviewer and has always supported himself comfortably. For some reason he will not disclose, he was evicted from his flat and evidently it happened too quickly for him to locate a place to stay. He is desperate and, because he has never had to cope with this kind of hardship before, he has made a horrid pest of himself, calling people who hardly know him begging for a place to sleep.  

He gives the impression that he has no money at all, though the truth is he can feed himself and he can take care of himself.

BUT, if he wants a private place to live, he will have to pay well over $3,000 a month plus a deposit and, since he is a freelance writer, he is considered a bad risk.  

He is terrified to go to a shelter because, in San Francisco, they are known for their high crime rate and their incidence of robbery, rape and destruction. He is so paralyzed with self-pity that he cannot think clearly and makes himself such a pest that now no-one wants to help him.

When I was with him, I couldn’t wait to get away. He whines; he demands you  call everyone you know immediately; he complains that the place he has secured for the night at a ridiculous cost will be taken away from him.  He tries to shame you into buying him food when he has plenty of money to buy his own.

He is terrified. He reminds me of a squirrel who has plenty to eat but stores up as much food as possible for the lean winter ahead.

Once I was away from him, his obnoxious cloying and insistent behavior, I was able to put the situation into perspective. I realized that here is a typical middle class human being who never had to fight for survival suddenly put into a situation that he has never expected to encounter.   

And he is not alone in this expensive, unsympathetic, cold and demanding city.  

He is one step away from those people I saw huddled in the street defecating in gutters and taking food from dumpsters. His plight is not just heartbreaking. It is maddening that a society as wealthy as this one not only allows this to happen, but has created a perfect climate to reduce the middle class to live according to lower class standards they do not understand.  

They are desperate and cannot understand how they fell into this gutter of need with no way to fight the system.

All it takes is one thing – in his case an eviction, in others a job loss and in others an injury that debilitates them.

I like to think this cannot happen in the UK.

But I know without even asking that it does.

On a brighter note, the next night my friend Alan took me into Sacramento and I had the time of my life (again).   

I featured at The Sacramento Punchline with Turner Sparks.  

I met Turner when I was in Hanoi and he is a kind, outgoing comedian who makes his living not in comedy clubs but in men’s groups, wineries and other organizations looking for a laugh instead of a lecture. He is from Sacramento and, when he goes home to visit his folks, he puts on a comedy show at The Sacramento Punchline.

This comedy club is the poor sister of the San Francisco comedy club with the same name and the two men who were in the line up (no women of course) were polite but not particularly welcoming. After being enveloped like a long lost grandma in the burlesque community here, I was more aware of the comics’ coldness than I would have been if I had not been so spoiled by Jim Sweeny and Dottie Lux and their cast of caring, ego-boosting women.

Here is a description I found of the comedy scene in San Francisco and the United States in general:


It seems safe to say that we are in a second golden age for stand-up comedy – or, as has more often been said, a second comedy boom.

The first boom started in the 1980s when stand-up comedy went mainstream, making TV and movie stars of comedians like Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, Bill Cosby and Jerry Seinfeld. But, as is true that with the economy, that boom was followed by a bust: essentially a stand-up recession as comedy clubs across the country closed during the 1990s and all but the biggest acts went dormant. 

Now, with the rise of the alternative comedy scene and the internet, stand-up comedy is booming and relevant once again, with podcasts, social media, YouTube, Netflix, and dozens of channel/website hybrids hungry for comedians’ original content and relevancy.


What that does not say is how the emphasis on political correctness has stifled content.  

In the San Francisco area, the biggest inhibitor is the need to tread carefully when making any remark at all about sexual identity. I hear stories of people being ostracized and ignored because they referred to a Tranny (and we have beautiful ones in the Bay area – eat your heart out Brighton) as ‘she’ instead of ‘they’.

I notice this hesitancy to touch controversial topics in every show I see here and the one in Sacramento was no different. The topics were all safe and, because they didn’t touch a nerve, they weren’t that funny either.  

The heart of comedy is the shock value of the punchline. I personally would hate to see that squelched in a misguided effort of trying to spare feelings.

The next day I returned to Burlingame and met my wonderful friend Brett to go to Oakland for Samson Koletar’s comedy show at the Spice Monkey.

Samson is an Indian-born comedian from Mumbai who is amazingly enterprising and has established the Spice Monkey as a comedy club with one show on Thursday and two each night on Fridays and Saturdays. He is also Jewish and tours the country in a show called You Are Funny, But You Don’t Look Jewish featuring three other comedians from various origins: Italian, Vietnamese, African. His humor is gorgeous, intelligent and wry.  

This Thursday night I was booked in an all-male line up (as was the Sacramento show). No-one but Samson and I seemed to have any jokes. The audience was very small, no more than 20 people, but they wanted to laugh and that made it a lot easier on the performers.  

What surprised me as I sifted though my set to find jokes that would amuse them is how much my comedy has become British.

To people in the UK it seems very American, but to Americans it smacks of a foreign flavor they cannot quite identify. For example, the word ‘knickers’ here means trousers that are cut off at the knee. ‘Trainers’ are people not shoes. And ‘cunt’ is such a filthy word no-one dares use it any more than they would call a black person a… a… an ’N word’.

… CONTINUED HERE

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Copstick in Kenya: Good news and bad

More edited ongoing extracts from the diary of Kate Copstick who is currently in Kenya working for her Mama Biashara charity which gives small grants to help poor people start their own self-sustaining businesses. It also gets involved in wider social issues. 

The full diary is posted on her Facebook page.


Kate Copstick (left) working for Mama Biashara in Kenya

MONDAY

I am more than a little pissed off to learn that my 22kg of donated bras is not yet ready for collection. Something about being lost in Paris. Tomorrow, says Morris the Export Man.

I go to Corner to meet Doris. I am, to be honest, rather dreading this. Our last attempt at getting some actual paperwork done ended, if you remember, somewhat tumfily (Scottish word, a tumf is a bad mood). Since then, her texts have been entirely in Kiswahili (never a good sign) and quite formal.

But she is fine.

However, the news from the weekend is troublesome.

Since we accidentally opened this Kenya-sized can of worms and found a pit of snakes, the ghastliness has just kept on coming. All of it hidden away, all of it culturally approved (by men, mostly) and none of it ever, ever addressed.

While I was with Nais (see yesterday’s blog), Doris was around Limuru meeting a group of girls (14 in all but only 5 made it out to the meeting) who are living in a sort of forest area far outside the town. These girls (aged about 15-18) are in the same state that the Kangeme girls were.

Sent by their parents to relatives ‘in town’. The relatives say the girls will get an education or vocational training. But, when they arrive, they are house slaves for the women and sex slaves for the men. The girls are much the same in demeanour as the Kangeme girls – utterly cowed.

But they had got to hear about the Kangeme girls and got a borrowed phone and called Doris. She has absolutely no idea how they got the number. They have no skills, no ideas about business. And they are pretty much broken. We discuss what options we have. When these girls leave their community it has to be like the Kangeme girls and the women from the quarry we rescued – they all just have to disappear. Or any who are left will be beaten.

We explore creating temporary safe houses – mine here in Corner, for a start. Doris says leave it with her so I do.

We go to Chicken Master and continue to administrate over lunch. I get all the info on the Magadi and Namanga groups and then Doris tells me something terrible but which will be wonderful. The leader of the first group, Ntoto Sayoon, has been in touch from his new home.

The charcoal business is up and running and everyone is so happy. But he has a best friend. And another friend. Who are still in the old village. They are in the same position that Ntoto was. The Maasai men show their dislike of incoming men by raping their wives and children in front of them. Ntoto’s best friend did not come to Mama Biashara for funding because he did not believe it was for real. He did not believe anyone would help them, much less get them out and into a new life.

So now Ntoto wants to bring his friends into his charcoal group. He says they will share their houses with them till they get somewhere and they will share the business. Gulp.

The bad news is that, as a result of the repeated rapes, both his best friend’s wife and young daughter are pregnant. And his wife is now unwell after trying to abort by hitting herself in the stomach with a hammer.

In other news, we have also been contacted (no idea how this number is getting around…) by a group of Maasai girls from up north.

Up North in Kenya is not the joyous beer, whippets, flat caps and real tea experience that it is in England. It is quite killy. And women are quite a long way below goats in the respect stakes.

This group of around twelve girls – average age 12 – have all been ‘cut’ (female genital mutilation). All are in agony.

After the entire clitoral area is removed like taking the top off a boiled egg with a teaspoon, the girls are sewn shut with parcel twine. All these girls have massive infections. The girl who spoke to us mentioned pain, pus and maggots (which are currently probably saving their lives). She says the smell in the classroom is appalling and all the boys laugh at them. If they try to remove the stitches to clean the giant wound, they are beaten.

Not quite sure what else to say here… We are working on it.

Doris, one of Mama Bishara’s main workers

TUESDAY

I have been asked to find a Jewish Cemetery by the fragrant Sarah Chew back in London. She makes the oddest requests, but I feel I can make a fist of this one.

David has no idea what I am talking about. “What is Jewish?” he asks.

The cemetery is a tragic sight. Not a headstone left intact, totally overgrown, full of litter and homeless people enjoying an al fresco bottle of glue. This is not anything to do with anti-Semitism. This is just Kenya. If no-one is actually defending something or paying money for it, it just gets trashed.

I take pictures and we leave to spend an hour and a quarter travelling 200 yards and get beaten up (just poor Mary, not David or myself) by a real bastard of a matatu driver. Mary has a nasty scar down one side now. I am not quick enough to figure out the Swahili for “Your mother sucks cocks in hell” and had to settle for “Mchinga” (stupid) and a wanking gesture… as he drove off – not daft enough to do it while he was beside us). I feel I have let myself down badly on the sweary insult front.

Market is quiet and we get back to Corner relatively quickly. My arms look like scabby mince, my face resembles a pink bag of marbles and I cannot take another night of mosquito torture.

In the back streets of Corner we meet a great group of prozzies and pimps.

“I love your hair,” says one girl. “Can I touch it?”

So I go over and she runs her fingers through my hair, as does her friend.

“So natural,” she says. She offers me a feel of her braids. “Mine is from China.”

“You look nice,” one of the pimpy lads tells me. “Are you available for service?”

This is the closest I have come to being chatted-up in years. I smirk girlishly.

“Some other day,” I tell him.

We get a net and meet Doris. She has been back out to Limuru and played an absolute blinder. Five of the girls managed to get away from their ‘families’ and make it to town. Doris has persuaded some of the well-off customers of our Glam project (you say what you want and for how much money and we find it for you… sort of a personal shopping service) to take the girls in and give them a job as, more or less, au pairs.

Very good money, nice accommodation and – best of all – these women are offering to sponsor the girls to be trained in either hairdressing, rug making or sewing. PLUS they are not even afraid that the ‘families’ will come after them.

“If they come we will expose what they have been doing,” say the ladies.

Amazing!!!

Doris is going back tomorrow to try and collect the rest. Mama Biashara will be providing fares to get them wherever they are going.

This is where the years and years of setting up small businesses all over really comes into its own. When the call goes out, Mama Biashara people will help. That is The Way of Mama Biashara.

Now back to Casa Copstick and we open the Big Box of Bras. I want to sort them out so we can make sure they go to the right women (the old ladies of Western are not that keen on underwiring).

As we sort them, I realise Mama Biashara knows some seriously well-stacked ladies in the UK. There are some gorgeous undies. Doris is working out where best for them to go and we will start distributing.

I manage to set up my mozzie net using a mop and a slight rearrangement of furniture.

Bliss. Bliss.

Bliss is a night undisturbed by mosquitoes.


Copstick receives no money from the charity and covers all her own expenses, including flights and accommodation. The Mama Biashara charity survives solely on financial donations (you can donate HERE) and on sales in its London shop.

 

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