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Dreams and vomit and murderers in Kenya with comedy critic Kate Copstick

Mama Biashara’s Kate Copstick at a happier time in Kenya

Kate Copstick is in Kenya

Comedy critic Kate Copstick is currently in Kenya, where her Mama Biashara charity is based. It helps impoverished, sidelined people to start up their own small businesses.

She is usually based in Nairobi but, last Saturday, she went to Mombassa.

Below is a highly cut-down version of her diary, which she posts in full on Mama Biashara’s Facebook page.


We go off to the end of Mombasa where Bamburi Cement lives. It is SO quiet compared to Nairobi. Almost no traffic, no hooting and screaming. And no plague of police looking for bribes. In a little slum area north of the factory area, Vicky (of Vicky’s Cleaners fame) is waiting. We have a training session to do.

Since we first funded her, Vicky has had successes all over Kenya and into Tanzania. In keeping with what I have decided to call the Mama Biashara Model because it sounds important, Vicky has – with Mombasa now as her base – started working with older commercial sex workers (women she describes beautifully as “they have … a history”), male commercial sex workers and ex-crims who cannot ever get proper work because to be employed as anything you need a ‘certificate of good behaviour’ which you cannot get if you have been to prison.

She trains them (she is a phenomenal trainer) in all manner of skills and gives them the work when she gets new contracts (which she does all the time). Some have had enough work from Vicky alone to set themselves up in businesses. This trip, we are meeting a half dozen or so groups who have plans but need a bit of Mama Biashara luuuurve (and money, obviously).

At night, I have the most extraordinary dreams. Wonderful dreams, unlike any I can remember. They are full of people I know from all over my life and we are all in a show. I am, as well as that, invited to join Fascinating Aida and we spend a while practicing harmonies. I am so happy.

Normally all my dreams revolve around me being forced onstage (no, really) to fill in in a play – quite often Shakespeare – where I have not been to rehearsals and have only had a cursory glance at the script and no one will let me look at it again even though I know that, if I can just get the first line, the rest will come. But I have to go onstage and I can ruin everything for everyone. They are scary and stressful and guilt-ridden and horrible.

This dream was joyful. I was, again, asked to fill in in the play. But this time I was playing a corpse and so I could do nothing wrong. People would pick me up when I had to be moved and everything would just happen round about me. There was the small matter of a killer on the loose but he was caught before I went onstage.

Doris at the ferry in Mombassa

Doris warns the ferry trip to the south side is fraught with peril


I have realised that Mombasa for humans is like water for sharks: you have to keep moving or you die. Movement creates a small breeze (or large breeze if you are bobbling along in a tuktuk.

We get a matatu from town to the ferry over to the south side. Doris has rather given me the impression that The Ferry is an impressive trip, fraught with peril. Turns out it is a voyage of some four minutes. On weekdays, about 3,000 people cram on but today we are few. Yes there has been a capsizing. Once. But the thing seems to be managed with a quite un-Kenyan efficiency.

We go down to the public part of Diani Beach. Like Pirates Bay (where we were yesterday), there are hawkers and renters of rubber rings. But this is much posher. There are some (but surprisingly few) white people here. Mainly large older men with slim young local girls. And the price of the jelly coconuts has suddenly doubled.

We are having no luck getting together our recycling training group and we still do not know if we will be allowed into the village where widows are sent to be used as sex toys for rich Swahili men, so we make out way back to the ferry, stopping for phone charging and food at a place where the owner makes an immediate play for Doris. Having said which, “You are well filled-out” is not necessarily a universally acceptable chat-up line.

Doris (left) with Vicky in Mombassa

Doris (left) with Vicky of Vicky’s Cleaners


We go back out to Bamburi and find Vicky with the last of the funding groups – six women who want to make viazi karai (a Swahili delicacy) and a group of twenty young guys who want to rent out beach kit at Pirates Beach. The guys are a mix of ex rent boys and ex cons – not as iffy as it sounds. Loads of people get swept up – almost literally – in the frequent ‘street clean up’ campaigns put together by City Councils. Homeless, beggars, thieves and the rest all get collected and dumped in prison where they more or less disappear).

These guys want to get up and out and their progress at the beach will be monitored by police and City Council. They just need the capital to get started. As we talk, I realise that there is, even amongst serious hardmen like this. a real taboo about revealing that some of the guys are gay. It is extraordinary to see their spokesman almost blush to say the word.

Doris takes me to Old Mombasa Town. We dive off into the warren of streets that is the old town: a little like Marrakesh and a little like Venice. This place is home to a myriad street snacks, all delicious. We find a hole in the wall where an old beardy bloke is drinking what is definitely coffee. We ask if we can come in. We can. We drink superb coffee. We watch the Old Town world go by. It is a very other world. Doris observes that the place smells like an Indian Paan House.

“It is,” nods beardy man.

“I love paan,” I pipe up – having chewed it in London after meals as a fennel-heavy breath freshener.

“These ones are very good,” offers beardy man.

It doesn’t taste like the London paan. It tastes like chewing incense. I swallow the juice. Then suddenly I feel slightly numb.

I spit it out into a napkin. The ‘buzz’ intensifies and it feels like the top of my head has come off. I find I can neither speak properly nor do anything much. Like move. Which is unfortunate as what I know without shadow of a doubt is that I am about to vomit.

Doris says that what happens is I turn purple.

I can see my arms and they have certainly changed colour. And purple is not far off it. Luckily I have been sitting right at the door – watching the world go by – and so, powerless to do anything else, I vomit. My puke almost hits the middle of the road. I try to say sorry but my mouth won’t work. The old men in the shop are very helpful.

“Water,” they say, “and milk. Gargle and spit.”

I cannot even hold a mug of water. Doris holds it and I drink. And puke again. The owner of the shop (no, it transpires, beardy welcoming man was not the owner, merely a regular and he has now left) has come back and is creating hell that the old lady would have let me try the chewwie stuff.

Doris explains that I wanted to try it. She herself was about to try it. I am still retching into the bucket but try to back her up. Doris helpfully takes a photo. Now all the people in the shop are helping. Buckets of water swirl away the puke from the front of the shop. A tuktuk is summoned. I cannot stand to get into it for another five minutes. By then I can mumble apologies to all and clamber into the seat. We get back to the hotel where I explode in the other direction.

Kate Copstick cares in Kenya

Kate Copstick has wonderful dreams in Kenya


I have more wonderful dreams and yet again sleep like a baby. I am insistent that we return to the Paan Shop with gifts for the old lady and her husband as an apology for yesterday.

The training group for recycling is still nowhere to be found and it transpires that the widows’ village is out of bounds as it is under lockdown (along with the rest of the area) as a couple of people have been stabbed on the beach and the murderers have not been found.

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Copstick in Kenya: a girl for 50 shillings + threatened wave of Nairobi bombings

Mama Biashara’s Kate Copstick at a happier time in Kenya

Kate Copstick at work in Kenya

Comedy Kate Copstick is in Kenya, where her Mama Biashara charity is based.

These are edited extracts from her diary there. Fuller versions on the Mama Biashara Facebook page.


Kenya is wet. But warm. And very excited about the Pope coming to visit.

I planned to go to Mombasa to help the crispy ladies with the chemical burns from the toxic skin whitener (see an earlier blog).

However the woman who sold them the cream is bribing them to stay away from the police and is paying for their treatment.

I get to Shalom and Felista is waiting there. We talk about her newest arrivals at DECIP, the home that Mama Biashara built. There is a little baby. Maybe a month old, they think. Police found it where it had been left, on the main railway line, dressed in a new kanga.

There are three large, well-funded homes between where it was found and Felista. None of them would open their doors. So the police walked the miles to Felista and she took the baby. Which is now thriving.

Then there is the two year old girl who was being used as more or less a house slave by her mother. When she arrived at DECIP, she would endlessly brush the floor and wash up plates and cups because she feared she would be beaten if she didn’t. At two years old.

And finally, because Felista now has something of a reputation for helping girls and boys who have been sexually abused, people brought her a young, naked, pregnant, woman who had run out of Ngong Forest. She will not speak (except muttering to herself), seems permanently famished, keeps trying to steal knives which she hides up her sleeves and is generally Not A Happy Bunny. She is much calmer now but still no-one knows anything about her.

So now to business.

Felista has opened a cyber cafe in Kawangware as an income-generating project for DECIP. Which really needs income. Last time I was here I contributed the cost of a printer. Except Felista didn’t buy a printer. She paid the deposit on the premises, wired it up for internet and painted it. A wonderful man has filled it with 8 beautiful desktop computers and done all the IT work. It gets a lot of traffic already, but it still doesn’t have a printer.

I agree to go with Felista the next day to talk to the IT guy about this all-singing, all-dancing laser printer that is apparently the sine qua non of the cyber cafe.

I load Felista up with baby milk and nappies for the new arrival, pens and pencils for the school, a couple of bras the size of small bell tents and a pile of sanitary pads and David takes her home.

It turns out I will not be going to Mombasa by train… The train was derailed by flooding on Tuesday. And I cannot justify (or afford really) a flight.

The Mama Biashara shop in London’s Shepherd’s bush

Hard-pressed Mama Biashara shop: Shepherd’s Bush, London


One of the big challenges here is the utter inability of anyone to comprehend that getting money is not easy for me. I tell them about the shop in London. Souad and Letitia work there five days a week without fail, pushing for sales, explaining to people about the charity, working really hard. And for nothing except a warm glow. Aunty Biashara – my sister Amanda – comes schlepping in from all over the place to help out. She has been in the shop now since 2009 when we first opened. She has a proper job but still takes the time to help. We are all getting quite knackered. And sales are not always high. 75% of the money I spend in Kenya comes from the shop. My expected Lotto win has not materialised and it is a real slog keeping the charity financially bouncy. We have recently asked for more volunteers– to no avail. But we need them before Souad, Letitia and Amanda drop dead from exhaustion!

I get to Junction and start organising the sending of funds to the Coast.

There is a group of 30 older people who have been offered the job of collecting rubbish and sorting it into various categories for the local council. But they need wellies and gloves and overalls and rakes and wheelbarrows. So they get their grant from us. Which is about £250. Less than a tenner each.

Then there is a group of younger people for whom Doris has organised a contract with Mombasa Beach Hotel for 1500 jelly coconuts every couple of days. They are going to get them in the interior where they are cheaper and bring them back to the hotel in a big handcart. They will buy at 20 bob and sell at 50 bob. There are 28 of them. 1500 is the minimum the hotel will take. What they really want is 5000. So the business is going to grow.

Then there are the beach boys – guys with no real education and no training. One group has the chance to do keep fit with local ladies who want to learn to ride bicycles for exercise. So this group of 20 will get 10 bicycles to kick off their business (a bike going for £15 special price from a local dealer).

A second beach group are sort of unofficial lifeguards and unpaid Beach Patrol but they help teach kids to swim (and adults) and want lifejackets, floats and flippers etc. I send enough for ten of each to kick them off.

There is a group of men who climb the coconut palms for a living. The money is crap and the danger of falling to a squishy death is high. Most do not live past 30. I tell Doris that I would rather talk to them about another business than pay to rent a copse of palms for them to harvest. They cannot do another business, apparently. These guys are ‘chosen’ at birth by the local witchdoctor who has a vision that they will be a great tree climber. From then, they are taught to climb the palms. No school. No nothing except palm tree climbing and coconut harvesting. And early death. I tell Doris we need to think carefully about this.

Children at Mama Biashara’s DECIP in Kenya

Children at Mama Biashara’s DECIP in Nairobi, Kenya


We head to town to the incredibly helpful man who has given all her desk top computers and organised the IT for the cyber cafe. On the bus, Felista tells me about another boy (he is about 19) at DECIP (“He is mental”, says Felista) who likes to help cooking in the kitchen. Finding that there was no firewood to cook the children’s porridge, he took one of the young girls into Waithake and sold her to a woman for 50 shillings. Which he brought back proudly and gave to Felista to buy firewood. The girl was immediately rescued.

Felista hoots with laughter. “DECIP is become a place for mental people” she says.

It seems that the laser printer is, indeed, a bit of a bargain. And so we buy it. Plus power surge protection (absolutely necessary here) and some other bits and bobs.

As I quiz the nice man (Peter) about running costs and repairs, Felista gets a call from DECIP where they have just received another newbie. A two week old baby which was abandoned by a teenage mum at a police station. Well, at least I have just brought some baby milk.


Some of the Kenyan children helped by Mama Biashara

Some of the Kenyan children helped by Mama Biashara

We head to town to get a load of stationery for Felista’s cyber. I have been in touch with Doris since last night on a half hourly basis. She is trying to get back from Mombasa. I am quite glad I did not go. She was in a crowd of 300 people waiting for the midnight bus (one bus) to Nairobi. She did not get on. But at 4.30am she and three other people paid £20 each to get in the back of a big lorry making the journey. They are stuck in the massive jam that is the Mombasa Highway. By 12 noon today they are less than a hundred miles from Mombasa. The traffic is stationary. Animals are prowling. A kid goes for a wee behind a bush and is mauled by a hyena. Doris’s truck drivers leap out and kill it with stones. The child is bleeding profusely.

Doris forwards me a WhatsApp message advising me to tell all my team that Nairobi is about to be struck with a wave of bombings. It lists the usual suspects. And says the bombers are hiding in Eastleigh until given the signal. 4th Street apparently. However I still feel safer here than I would in London … which surely must be next on the list.

We go to Kawangware to Felista’s cyber. It is actually quite impressive. Nice computers (thanks to Peter). A new massive printer (thanks to Mama Biashara) and it is doing brisk business.

Felista has yet another new arrival to tell me about. Five days old and the mother came to dump it at DECIP. She already has eight children, has separated from her husband (who has four of the kids with him and they are to be found roaming the streets in Kawangware) and has a new boyfriend who will not have the new baby in his house.

Felista wants me to come to DECIP tomorrow and talk to the mother and see if I can get anything out of the non-speaking crazy naked lady from the forest.

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