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Kate Copstick in Kenya: uplifting bras, election promises and a Chinese IOU

Meanwhile, away from the pre-occupations of the UK, real life and death continue in Kenya, where comedy critic Kate Copstick is working for her Mama Biashara charity, which gives seed money to impoverished people wanting to start self-sustaining businesses. It also gives medical aid and advice to those people whom other charities overlook.

Here are the latest edited extracts from her diary, starting in Mombasa.

Fuller versions are on her Facebook page.


Mama Biashara helper Vicky with cheap de-worming tablets.

SATURDAY – A WEEK AGO

We do a load of de-worming and the usual stuff. There is quite a lot of ringworm so the tea tree oil gets a hammering. And many, many more lady-problems including a girl of fifteen who is (I translate directly from the Swahili) “removing meat” when she has a period, plus three women in their thirties whose periods have stopped, quite a lot of painful sex and much spotting.

There are, of course, loads of anaemic old ladies and a lot of  ‘kizunguzungu’ (dizziness). But when I make them drink a bottle of water with some ORS (soluble hydration tablets), they perk up and react as though I have made Illness History. It gets dark and I can see nothing so we wind down after about four hours. The tiny local pharmacy has been really helpful. My load of ointments for rashes and sore backs runs out early on.

I get a replacement SIM card for the stolen Mama Biashara phone and Doris sets about the Herculean task of recovering her contacts.

Our matatu ride back to the ferry is uncomfortable to say the least. The memo about only allowing people on the matatu if there is an available seat must have got lost in the post and we are crammed in like sausage meat in a condom. My insect bites are growing and the floor of the matatu seems to be on fire. But we reach the ferry and cool off on the short trip across.

Helper Doris (left) with Vicky in Mombassa

SUNDAY

Doris cannot get in touch with the ladies with the bleached skin – they use household bleach for skin whitening – because she has not yet got her phone contacts back. All my clothes are claggy and so I throw caution to the winds and don a dera. Even although I have no buttocks. The swelling caused by some massive mozzie bites plumps them up a bit but, next to Doris I just look like someone has let the air out of a real person. However the dera is UNBELIEVEABLY comfortable.

We go and see Ally, get more deras to sell, go and check on our friends at the pan shop in the old town and then head back to the City Mall to get Wi-Fi. And allow Doris another leg massage. We watch the ‘goats’ and the farmers come and go and Doris tells me tales of her past lives in Mombasa. She was a great, great ‘goat’ in her time.

She tells me the last time we were here she found a girl in the toilets crying. Her old, white farmer had brought her here and told her she could eat for up to 600 shillings. She had mistakenly ordered something more expensive and the bill was 1,000 shillings. He was demanding the extra 400 from her and she was tearfully calling friends to get contributions.

The main – often jammed – road out of Mombasa to Nairobi.

MONDAY

Up at sparrow’s fart and forced to get a taxi as there is waaaaay too much luggage for a tuk tuk.

I run around town looking for some big plastic bags to protect my stuff and get everything parcelled up just in time to be pointed at a notice which says that Modern Coast will no longer accept luggage in plastic bags. Luckily this is Kenya and 100 shillings to the luggage boy gets everything safely inside. I sleep. And sleep.

And wake to find I am being rained on. The air conditioning, which worked at the start of the trip, is now letting in the rain which is lashing outside and it is all coming in through the vents. A vague-looking bloke starts covering everything with Sellotape.

Ten hours to Nairobi.

David awaits at the side of Mombasa Road. He has his cousin’s car which has definitely seen better days. OK, let’s be frank, better decades.

Its primary characteristics include a non-opening passenger door, a dashboard which radiates heat from somewhere, a dodgy wheel (endless squeaking) and windows with a mind of their own. But it goes.

How far has yet to be seen.

In Gikomba, “a politician with an eye on local votes has announced he is doing something about the sewer”

In my absence from Nairobi’s KillZone, aka Gikomba, a politician with an eye on local votes has announced he is doing something about the sewer. Hoorah.

That ‘something’ turns out to be dumping a giant mountain of sand and hardcore on the road…

…totally blocking it to anything apart from sherpas and tropical mountain goats.

TUESDAY

Doris is sleeping and doing family things so I change more money and head to the market. David is late and I am moody. And the exchange rate is dropping faster than the scabs from my bedbug bites (abating at last).

The waterfront at Lamu, Kenya, where Mama Biashara works

WEDNESDAY

Doris is still in recovery from Mombasa, but we talk on the phone and she says Vicky is reporting results that are nothing short of miraculous with our Poor Mama’s Plumpy Nut.

She has gone back to Lamu where she knows villages that are literally dying on their feet. News of Poor Mama’s Plumpy Nut has spread and Vicky has been approached by some shoshos from two makeshift villages along close to the Somali border. One has been given the name Refugee and the other Mogadishu.

They are in a sort of no-man’s or everyman’s land. When the Somalis are looking for Kenyan sympathisers they raid these villages and when the Kenyans are looking for Somali infiltrators they also raid these villages. Death is a daily occurrence. Even Vicky is far too scared to go there.

But she teaches the shoshos about Poor Mama’s Plumpy Nut and gives them the ingredients. I am not sure what we can do long term for these people. Nothing we can do there is sustainable. And we can’t get them out because most of them have no ID. For now, Poor Mama’s Plumpy Nut is what we can do.

I am going to set up a fund just for Poor Mama’s Plumpy Nut – it doesn’t cost much. I can get 2.5kg of dried milk powder in Eastleigh for about £12.50 and peanuts are about £1 a kilo. Vicky has seen big results with children being given just two tablespoons per day.

OK, we are not going to make malnutrition and infant death history. We would need Bono for that. But we can make a HUGE difference with very little. Which is, of course, The Way Of Mama Biashara.

Copstick: “We can make a huge difference with very little”

I am meeting Julius (Our Man In Western) at Corner. Things have been going well. The 50-strong group of shoshos we funded to sell sweet potatoes and arrowroot have expanded and brought in three more groups of 14 women each. So the original grant – which was about £250 – has not now funded not 50 women but 92.

The ladies who got the fabulous collection of Mama Biashara’s Bras for the Bouncy Breasted have done less well than expected. Note for the future: the rural ladies of Kenya are not fans of the uplift bra. They have been removing the wire supports. But they love the ‘shouting colours’. And the local prostitutes love them too. So that is something. But our four ladies are now firmly in business. Albeit that what they want now are vests – “for the sweat”.

Big news is that Kenya Power are considering running electricity to the area. Which would be fantastic. Julius gets £50 for the necessary junction box etc on the basis that it will be a base for Mama Biashara’s head shaver and whatnot. We compile a list of the stuff he needs to take back to Western with him.

There is much malaria, he reports. I launch into a lecture about the misuse of malaria drugs. I genuinely worry about sending them when I know that every fever, every bout of the trots and every headache is instantly diagnosed as malaria.

I agree a checklist of symptoms with Julius and demand a list of everyone who is given the medication. We will see. The generic stuff is excellent and not expensive but the Kenyans LOVE to medicate. It is practically a national sport.

Back at the hotel, we watch coverage of the inaugural run of the Mombasa–Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway’s new Madaraka Express. Fabulous. It will be a HUGE help to Mama Biashara.

But President Kenyatta has put Kenya probably irrevocably in debt to The People’s Republic of China. And, if I had to have someone knocking on my door with the You-Owe-Me book, I would not choose them.


Copstick’s Diary continues HERE.

Mama Biashara survives solely on donations and 100% of all donations go to the charity’s work; none to overheads.

You can donate to Mama Biashara HERE.

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Now top comedy critic Kate Copstick pukes and shoots poo all night in Kenya

In the previous blog, Kate Copstick’s back was covered in (one presumes) insect bites.

She is currently in Kenya, working for her Mama Biashara charity.

Now read on…

THURSDAY

I don’t know what went wrong but I puke and shoot poo all night and wake up with a blinding headache. There is no water, so the room is far from fragrant. And I can barely move. Just turning over to let the air at my bites is exhausting. I text Doris to say I will be late getting up. She texts back to say her legs are worse. I fall back asleep. And awake, many hours later, no better.

Except Doris is here with her bad legs. She lifts one onto the bed and I can see that there is quite a lot of pus around the bites where she has been scratching. I give her Grabacin ointment and powder and pass out again.

When I awake, she is worse. And her leg is deffo badly infected. We send a boy for penicillin or an equivalent. Always best to give pharmacies here an option of at least three and hope they have one. In 500mg bombs. I pass out again.

When I awake, Doris has the medicine and is pressing me to a large blackcurrant Fanta. The drink of Nazis. The urine of the devil himself. But I drink. Doris says her leg is much better. The heat is going. I say: “Take one more pill tonight.” Then I pass out again.

I awake about three in the morning and try to Google everything from cerebral malaria to dengue fever. But the connection won’t go through.

Doris – having some leg problems in Kenya

FRIDAY

While not exactly feeling like ruling the world, I am much MUCH better. Neither end is a danger to its surroundings, the headache is no longer crippling and I can get up and walk about. Doris says her leg is improving and I check that she took the second antibiotic bomb last night. She did not. She thought I did not know what I was saying. I freak. And do a short impromptu lecture on the propensity of bacterial infections to bounce back, resistant to everything except napalm.

We go out to the City Mall where we are meeting Dennis, The Man From SGR (Standard Gauge Railway).

While the Chinese companies who have been building roads across Kenya (although, so far, not down to Mombasa) have not been helpful to the locals in that they have brought a lot of their own workers with them, SGR have been using Kenyan labour.

Doris made a connection with a lady called Helen who is Something High Up and, since then, SGR and Mama Biashara have pretty much transformed entire communities.

Hundreds and hundreds of the neediest people are now in great jobs. The men need two hand tools each and one wheelbarrow per ten men. Plus an overall. The women need a couple of cooking utensils and an apron. And they are paid astoundingly well. They are housed, fed and the Chinese even bring a medical clinic around regularly and will give free medication. The people who get the jobs never want to leave.

The Chinese have recently raised the wage to 1,000 a day. Which is more than a teacher makes. Even better, although the first four or five groups of people came from villages near Nairobi, Doris persuaded Helen and Dennis to take the new labour from the poorest villages close to the railway line –  wherever it reached. So this particular project is reaching far further out into the rural areas than Mama Biashara ever has before.

Most recently, the workers are coming from some of the abjectly poor Mijikenda villages in the Coastal area. The transformative effect of this work is quite thrilling. And the SGR company has had its attitude to engaging labour completely turned around.

(The Mombasa-Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway will be inaugurated in Kenya in two days time. There is a New China TV video of it on YouTube.)

There used to be The Bloke In The Office who made people form a line, and, if they were the right tribe (ie his tribe) then they might get a job. But he is being completely circumvented now and all the jobs are filled via Dennis and Mama Biashara. Exciting stuff.

We had worked out an allowance of 600 bob for two hand tools and the same for a decent overall – around £9 in all. And a decent second-hand wheelbarrow is just under £20. Dennis does it for us. No backhander, no commission… He is a bit of a convert to the Mama Biashara way of thinking. And it has resulted in the company getting an incredibly hardworking workforce. And major… er… brownie points for him.

Dennis goes. While we are here, Doris gets a leg massage in one of those big chairs that squish and poke and vibrate you. She is wildly enthusiastic about the effects.

We head to Mtwapa. We want to check how things are there since our chats with the magistrate. We discover that the police have not swooped since we spoke to the magistrates. Which is great. We talk to more girls who most definitely ARE ‘loitering’ and explain the law to them. And how ‘your phone is your friend’ in terms of filming police brutality.

There are various health problems including one girl who has endometriosis. Which must be particularly horrific in her job.

I am wilting a bit and we collect our things to go. Which is when Doris discovers that her Mama Biashara phone has been stolen. This is a little basic Nokia. Cost £15. So it has not been stolen to sell. But it has ALL Doris’s Mama Biashara contacts in it. From years back. This is quite disastrous. And done only out of badness. We are both a bit stunned. The bloke who runs the bar is puzzled. Who? Why?

We get a matatu back to town. It is driven by a man who looks like he has come straight from winning an Evil Uncle Abanazer Lookalike Competition. He has both eyes on the sky. He is driving like he wants to arrive yesterday. I had no idea a matatu could go this fast. He sees the new moon, slams on the brakes, stops the vehicle, grabs a bottle of water, leaps out, goes to the side of the road, kneels down and washes his bits. Happy Ramadan.

He leaps back in and we hurtle on. After one near miss, I murmur: Please take care, I do not want to die here on the road. He bangs the steering wheel and shouts something about Mungu Kubwa (Big God) and something about himself and being fine and 37. For a horrible moment I consider that he is informing me that, while the going rate for the big time jihadis is 52 virgins, there is another verse that says you can still get 37 if you just wipe out a couple of infidels in a matatu crash.

Happily I realise he has been telling me he has been driving like this for 37 years just fine. We still get off a stop early and get a tuk tuk home.

A reminder of Copstick’s back.

SATURDAY

The post-phone-theft gloom remains. Plus I still seem to be amassing red itchy, stingy, lumpy bits. And I cannot help but scratch. I feel at this point we should raise our glasses to Chalky, my on-guard white blood cell. He is doing a sterling job in the face of many challenges. To assuage the agony of the itchiness I have a cold shower. Which is the only kind available. The effect is immediate. Instead of pink puffy skin with angry red bumps and scabs, I now have pale bluey white skin with angry red bumps and scabs. Which is actually more horrifying.

We are going to the South Coast again today but pause to buy a new Nokia for Mama Biashara. And to get Doris another leg massage. It helps massively.

The ferry is rammed and I find myself under a humongous sack of something veggie along with the guy who is actually carrying it. There a chicken (alive) and fish (dead) and carts piled ridiculously high with stuff for the market. I have no idea where Doris is. I have a cardboard carton full of medication for the clinics this afternoon and this evening and, as I shoulder it, I feel I fit right in. Except I am white and my load does not weigh more than twice my own bodyweight.

Doris and I end up at totally different bus stops and, by the time she makes it to mine, I have received two proposals of… well… something of a warm and sticky nature.

The friendliness continues as the makaanga on the matatu offers me a share of his bag of miraa. I take a tiny bunch of the leaves, remove them from the stalk and chew them. They taste like… er… leaves… and are the very mildest of stimulants. You need to chew for about a day before you get any effect.

But I was touched he offered.


Mama Biashara survives solely on donations
and 100% of all donations go to the charity’s work,
none to overheads.

You can donate to Mama Biashara HERE.

Leave a comment

Filed under Kenya