“Some people here are asking for you,” texted Lillian.
“Are they asking for Phil or for the Mzungu?” I replied.
“For the Mzungu.”
“Then tell them the Mzungu is not here and will be back later!”
It was only the kids from the house over the road. I’d been enjoying impromptu kickabouts with them in the previous days, unable to resist the urges to intercept their football on my 50-yard walks from Josphat’s house to the school. “Mzungu! Mzungu!” they would shout every time I walked past.
Most etymologists agree that the word ‘mzungu’ is derived from the Swahili for ‘someone who wanders without purpose’. Ordinarily on my travels, I could easily relate to that. But not this time. Although far too short in the planning – so short, in fact, that my passport was not renewed in time for my original London to Nairobi flight – my trip to Kenya had been a verbal commitment to Jean and the Aquinoe trustees for over a year. It was a relief to be finally following through on the pledge.
Regrettably, the passport saga required an unscheduled detour from my current home in Germany to my old one in London. After landing at Gatwick on a fresh Friday morning in early November, I punctuated the train journey to the HM Passport Office near Victoria with a stop in Redhill.
There I met Jean and Dave for a pre-departure chat over coffee. We discussed the objectives of my visit and what could realistically be achieved in only two weeks, and before we parted ways Jean gave me a batch of English football shirts for the children and a birthday card for Rachael, the school secretary.
When the ‘mzungu’ belatedly arrived in Kitale on 13 November, then, my purpose was already clear. With the help of Josphat and all of the staff at the Aquinoe Learning Centre, it was agreed that we were going to scope a solar power project. In Josphat’s own words on an earlier email, the electricity bills had been ‘financially choking’ the school. Every penny saved on energy costs could be diverted to where it was needed more: caring for and educating the children.
I knew little, of course, about solar power. During my only other volunteering stint in Bangladesh in 2013 I had been asked to plan a small solar project, and had become interested in the possibilities. How amazing, I thought, that energy can be generated in this way. Nothing is dug up, sucked out, cut down or burnt, there are no moving parts or expensive maintenance, and there is very little waste. Once it is up, it runs.
Solar produces electrical power for as long as there is sunshine – and even for a time when there is not. With Kitale lying only one degree north of the equator, it receives an average of six hours of sunshine a day, all year round. It is the perfect location for solar power.
Due to recent heavy rains, though, the short dirt track connecting the Aquinoe Learning Centre with the main road to Kitale had more ups and downs than the Albuquerque balloon festival. On the morning of my first visit we approached the school entrance with caution.
“Mzungu! Mzungu!” shouted the children through the bars in the large metal gates, their smiles as wide as the Rift Valley.
The term I was becoming accustomed to hearing in Kenya was first used to describe the early European traders. Unlike the Arab merchants who sold their goods on the coast without venturing into the interior, the whites travelled extensively through inland East Africa in the 18th century. In this context, I suppose ‘mzungu’ could be taken as a pejorative term; a clear identifier of racial difference. But I loved hearing it, especially from the children. A foreigner sighted this far off the beaten track is giddying to them, and I’m always happy to be stared, pointed and shouted at when it is done in such a playful way.
I had arrived on the final day of term before the Christmas break, but I was not the only new feature on the school grounds. I was not even the most distracting. For standing in one corner of the playground was a bright red slide, paid for by funds from the ALC charitable trust.
Josphat had bought the slide in a town called Kisumu, where he works as a university lecturer during the week. I had taken an internal flight from Nairobi to meet him there two days earlier, so together we shared the logistical challenge of sending the new slide ahead of us on the roof of a service bus to Kitale. Unfortunately, we arrived in Kitale several hours behind the bus after suffering three punctures en route. Worse than that, we completely forgot about the slide until we were sat in a bar later that same evening, reflecting on the trials of the day. Josphat went looking for it the next morning, and found it standing like a sentry next to the bus stop.
“It is lucky nobody stole it!” I said.
“They would not know what to do with it,” he replied. “But if it had been a briefcase, it would not have been there.”
Six of the children had been hand-picked to test the new slide. Each wearing a football shirt from England, they lined up and threw themselves down, one by one. ‘Lampard No.8’ was first, then ‘Gerrard No.4’ and the rest. For once they were entirely oblivious to me, as I stood at the bottom striving to capture their smiles on my phone camera.
Throughout the morning parents arrived to take their children home, but not before some had been volunteered into cleaning their own classrooms. It was refreshing to see and worlds away from anything I might witness in the UK, where children are more accustomed to vandalising school property than sponging it down.
But that for me summed up my Kenya experience: people taking pride in their appearance, their belongings and their property, no matter their condition or how little they owned.
I spent a full week at the school, scoping the solar project and making various other little fixes. I was struck by the dedication of the staff, particularly of Gideon and Rachael, and by the inclusive environment of the school. In England, we are used to hearing of pupils being excluded or, more pertinently, of pupils excluding themselves. But the Aquinoe Learning Centre was different to anything I had experienced. It felt more like a homestead than a school, albeit one run on a relative shoestring of a budget. Hopefully, with the addition of solar power, that budget can stretch a little bit further.
I stayed in Josphat’s house for the duration of my visit. We enjoyed handsome meals home-cooked by Lillian, and after a hard day’s work the three of us would often relax over a Tusker beer or three in the Redcorns bar in town.
Originally from Mombasa, Lillian was the first Kenyan I heard refer to the unit of currency, the Shilling, as “bob”. She pronounced the word deliciously, skipping over the vowel sound as fast as her mouth would allow. “It will be fifty bob,” she said when I asked of the standard – that is, non-mzungu – motorcycle taxi fare into town. Fiff-tee bub.
But the shilling is not the only unit of currency in Kenya, it seems. The humble goat can still be a handsome inducement also.
“Thank you for everything that you have done,” said Meshack Issiye, the school caretaker, as I was preparing to leave on my final Sunday. “I don’t know what we can give you. We would give you a goat, but how would you get it home?”
The staff of the Aquinoe Learning Centre, Kitale, Kenya, 22 November 2014.