East Africa diaries: knowing rural and urban Kenya

East Africa diaries: knowing rural and urban Kenya

Intense curiosity through questioning and to eventual insight and enlightenment best describes the personal journey I have made during the three months I spent in East Africa. The primary motive for my trip was to spend two months as a Project Worker at an under-funded rural secondary school in Kenya. I worked as part of a student volunteer run charity called Education Partnerships Africa, which placed me in Machongo School in Kisii, Kenya. Following an initial period of observing and learning how Machongo operates, my project partner and I began, in partnership with the school, to plan how we were going to invest the funds into the school. We would be delivering projects with fundraised money and grants, these were in the form of infrastructure, such as improved water storage facilities and solar power systems.

We also delivered ‘softer’ projects such as the implementation of a student attendance register system. Following this I spent a month travelling through Kenya and Tanzania.

Three key aspects of my time in East Africa made it an enriching and memorable experience: my continuously changing thoughts on my role in the school and wider attitudes towards development, a battle between frustration and admiration in seeing how things are done, and the diverse aesthetic and feel of every place I travelled to. I will explain these three aspects in individual sections.

What am I doing here?

Before coming to Kenya, I felt I had a good level of awareness of the issues around development work in the global south, the criticisms of ‘voluntourism’ and the trending academic discourse on development. I entered Machongo with cynicism for my prospective work, with a somewhat insecure attitude towards my role. The idea of a university student volunteering in Africa and the privileged image attributed to this was one I do not want to fit into. At the same time, I had also seen many cliche’d volunteers work with a level of superiority above other charity workers, judging their own work as more worthy and impactful. I foresaw the importance which is given to the work done and the image which comes with it, as opposed to the real impact it has, and therefore was committed to ensuring I did the best work possible for the appropriate reasons.


As with most public schools in rural Kenya, Machongo is underfunded with students from very poor backgrounds. The school is overcrowded and has limited resources for its growing student population. Having some previous knowledge of Machongo through the preparation Education Partnerships Africa provided, I felt I had some idea of the issues which Machongo faced.

But it wasn’t till I reached Machongo school that I realised what the real issues were. Once I learnt of the significant difference between what I and what the community felt were the priorities for the school, I began to question my role in Machongo.

I experienced an immense respect Machongo’s students and teachers paid to me and my project partner. This combined with negative and self-deprecating attitudes students had towards their own culture, and together with the admiration they had for what ‘our country’ had to offer, was concerning. However, this was something I wasn’t at all surprised to see. I saw myself as contributing to this through reinforcing their perceived need for a ‘white man’ with money to come and save Machongo school from this desperation. After all, how else would you react when you are a recently graduated twenty-two year old with little experience in project management and a basic understanding of the culture you are working in.

As one would expect, on the whole most of these comments and references were largely incorrect. And thanks to the cynicism with with I entered Machongo and it’s community, I knew that the attitudes we saw were partly a statement which was actively being made for us. My project partner and I had the greatest direct influence on how we invested the project budget, and this was a known fact amongst the school management and students. Taking this into account, it was no surprise to see the respect paid to us. It was only once I got to form close relationships with the school and its individuals, away from discussions about the project that I saw an exhibit of great pride and love for their own culture.

Although the issue of these attitudes and the impact of my work remains, I acknowledged that I do come from a different culture which has very different attitudes. And it is also this culture which has the materialistic features and systems as well as needs which Machongo was attempting to attain: water and electricity systems, well-established school organisation, accurate financial records etc. Although in this there are aforementioned deeper issues of the idolisation of western culture, I was not in a position, practically or ethically, to change this. Therefore, being able to provide my perspective and experience was the best intermediate solution I felt I could provide.

This led to questioning whether taking part and ‘having a role’ really provides a net benefit. But I hope that fully taking part in Machongo and its culture with an inquisitive and respectful attitude can at least go some way in combating the negative attitudes I saw. However insignificant my real impact is, if I know I have to some level given someone in the community I worked with a cause for a positive change in attitude, I will feel I have accomplished something. It is also the case that I would have been unable to raise much of the money which I invested in the school had I not been part of a charity. The platform it provides for carrying out its work as well as the credibility it gives me has allowed me to do this work.

A greater reality that I felt was crucial to acknowledge early on was the benefits I myself would gain from my time at Machongo. The experience of managing my own projects and working with a school’s management will no doubt be very useful to me. I realised that the importance of recognising this and embracing this would allow me to have a lesser sense of guilt and doubt in my work, and made feel more motivated to deliver good quality projects and ‘make the best of the situation’.

I am not entirely clear that I can fully justify my work at Machongo; my attempts to do so perhaps seem simply weak, reactionary and passive. But my experience has left me with a greater awareness of the issues that exist in communities such as these. Arguments for and against this kind of work exist, many of which are at an academic level I am yet to explore. I agree that this form of work can only be an intermediary solution, and therefore change at a greater scale is necessary for communities such as Machongo school. The growth and improvement which Machongo aims for should be in the direction that is fitting with that of the community, so as to ensure it is respectful and considerate of the culture in which it takes place. Although this change is at a scale which I can only form a small part of, recognising this and taking an active role in this is a good first step in hopefully helping deliver the improvement Machongo wishes for.

Travelling through East Africa: a changing feel

Following my work at Machongo school, I travelled through Kenya and Tanzania. I no doubt saw incredible sights of nature throughout, in a region of the world known for its beautiful environment and diverse wildlife. What interested me most was the very vivid and stark aesthetic and soulful differences in each area I visited. Reflecting on these contrasts, I see three key settings which strongly define three different aesthetics and ‘feels’ which are a simple peephole into cornerstones of the local culture.

captura-de-pantalla-2016-11-14-a-las-11-28-50Kisii – rich and saturated

My time in Machongo, my exposure to the community around the school, the village where I lived and Kisii (the county Machongo is in) is set in my mind as a place full of saturated colour and abundance, an aesthetic of rich and dense tones. Kisii culture is tightly intertwined with agriculture, and working in a school surrounded by farms and vegetation gave me daily exposure to this. In my time in Machongo I heard many references to ‘shambas’, a term for farm, and learnt of the importance of this in the family setting. The idea of the father of the family owning his own shamaba to cultivate the food for the family is engrained into the culture, as is the receiving of a Dowry, often of cows, these being an indicator of a family’s wealth. For those working in towns and cities, the workers of a family retreat to their shamba, a cornerstone which holds the pride and importance of the family and its history. I saw the importance of agriculture transcend to children, who even have a dedicated agriculture subject in secondary education and often asked me what is grown in the land I come from, and ‘What does your family grow?’.


The cultural importance of agriculture together with a high population density and a land covered by small self-sufficient homesteads gave an image of abundance and richness in vegetation. As one might expect, the significance of agriculture was intertwined with the importance of food and its consumption. Daily rains gave way for vegetation to grow and provided a dark brown and red soil. Upon this grew the food which the Kisii people consume and hold dear to their culture. Ugali, a kind of maize corn style polenta, was beloved by everyone. Served in large pieces and eaten with all food as a key diet staple, it is thick, very filling and highly calorific. It was not uncommon for people to explain that they could not go more than one day without Ugali. This was often eaten with the dark green Kale which grew in every shamba, sweet red tomatoes and creamy rich avocados which rolled off trees. These were thrown away even if half eaten as, to my delight, were in sheer abundance and practically free. Ugali was eaten in very large quantities; one breaks off a large piece, and with one hand compacts it and moulds it, using it as a base to scoop up and eat fried kale and tomatoes with sliced avocado and an oily omelette. Food was cooked with plenty salt and vegetable oil, providing very filling and calorific meals to sustain you throughout the day. This was eaten with the right hand, allowing you to feel and embrace its varying textures as well as see and consume the different shades of the rich agriculture around you.


The richness in colour was felt in the vibrant enthusiasm and warming hospitality everyone provided, especially to any newcomer to the community. This was particularly seen in the importance of feeding guests with an abundant quantity of food. Colourful prints with intricate patterns were worn, and the student’s uniform was distinguished and easily spotted through its bright red jumper. Worn on a multitude of skin shades of brown, this provided even more saturation, leaving everything before your eyes filled with colour. Only the clear blue sky remained as an area of with no textures or shades to overcrowd it. But then, worship music with heavy beats and singing was heard in churches and family homes, filling spaces with great excitement and a strong sense of community. Accompanied by singing and dancing, with no embarrassment or shame, this added to the vigour and joy of Kisii.

captura-de-pantalla-2016-11-14-a-las-11-33-24arial view of Machongo school and it’s surroundings – small plots of dense vegetation as seen in the dark greens androids. The the intersection is the centre of the local village around which development sprawls from.

captura-de-pantalla-2016-11-14-a-las-11-33-15Students of Machongo school walk across the school site, past a patch of land used to grow kale for the school lunches.

Nairobi – urban beige and dry

My time in Kisii was harshly contrasted with the beige dryness of Nairobi. However, the vibrance and excitement I saw in Kisii was also present in Nairobi’s urban buzz and rapid movement. Concrete buildings, modernist architecture and spaghetti motorways display shades of beige, brown and terracotta, also seen in the skin tones and in two piece suits which crossed the streets of Nairobi. The odd tourist or business person added to the palette of beige.


Spots of bright colours could be seen here and there, particularly from neon lights and signage in the night time. The fast paced nature of the city, the multitude of vehicles and the pollution which it produced, provided a dust and dirty musk to the air filled with the sounds of the people and vehicles. These are cogs in the machinery of Nairobi which kept it moving.

The coast – fresh whispers and slow rhythm

Coastal places such as Stone Town in Zanzibar and the old town of Mombasa provided a break of the fast paced environment of the big city, but still, like Nairobi and Kisii, were full of life and charm. I felt a slow rhythm to these coastal towns, with a tranquil momentum which provided a sense of real life, despite the presence of tourists.


The constant sound of waves and the creaking of wooden piers and ships on the sea side and the echoed whispers and gusts between the stone walled buildings made the places memorable. The slow rhythm also provided a sense of calm and composure in the town, as people from a variety of backgrounds congregated in local markets at dusk. East Africans, Indians and Arabs calmly mixed and could be heard mingling together, with tourists filtering in between.

The matatu – excitement and joy as the unifier

These three environments form my memories of East Africa. Their vast differences are brought together by a feeling of great vibrance and excitement throughout. The matatu, a key form of public transport used by the majority of people, is a small van used to travel between towns and cities and the villages in between throughout Kenya. Every town and city has a matatu stage, in which these come together to form major transport hubs. Alternatively referred to as a Dalla Dalla in Tanzania, it is a key feature of East Africa which I feel truly encapsulates its excitement and joy.

The prices are set as are the routes, regardless of the fact that they are private businesses with little regulation. Ignoring the matatu’s eleven seats, the vehicles are often filled with twenty-five people and the cargo loaded on top of the van and under the seats can include live animals amongst other things. The matatus are filled with people travelling alone to work, children, families and groups of friends, therefore providing a place of interesting encounters and socialising. Thanks to the fact that everyone is squeezed in, listening to the same music from the matatu radio, constantly rubbing against each other as passengers get on and off the matatu, they are dealing with what would seem are awkward encounters, but are actually very amicable ones in a somewhat lively and relaxed atmosphere.


The conductor of the matatu is continuously signalling to the driver to stop and pull over, or to start driving, by tapping a coin against the glass window. The sound this produced, a clink, is an almost iconic sound of the matatu, along with the forced revving of the engine as the vehicle struggles to pull the weight of twenty five bodies and two chickens. The conductor is always on his toes, either looking outside at the passing roadside for more passengers to squeeze in to the already crammed vehicle, or collecting fares from each passenger, giving back the respective change and making sure each passenger gets off at their requested stop. The stop and start nature of the matatu causes for continuously bobbing heads, as well as sudden jolting of bodies as the matatu slows right down to roll over small but very tall speed bumps which cover Kenya’s and Tanzania’s roads.

Matatu stages are a key centre of towns and cities, both strategically as transport hubs and as a place of great vibrance and activity. Commercial activities form around them as businesses serve the needs of travellers. Drinks, snacks and any imaginable item for travel is on sale, directly to you whilst you wait in a matatu with an open window. This stimulates interaction between passengers and sellers on the stage as well as passersby, all of whom are quickly snaking in between vehicles and between the raised excited voices of the hustle and bustle of the stage. Conductors from different matatus operating on the same route compete to attract passengers, aggressively shouting to advertise the departure as they pace around the matatu stage drawing in as many passengers in rapidly so that the matatu can be the first on the route to leave. Meanwhile the driver of each matatu is revving the engine and jerking the vehicle forward bit by bit to egg on prospective passengers to hop on board and fill the vehicle up – maximising the use and efficiency of the matatu.


Additionally, boda-bodas, a form of motorbike taxis, are continuously arriving and departing to and from the matatu stage, which is also a transport hub for these. Passengers hop on and off the motorbikes and and run to and from matatus, contributing to the stop and go feel of the stage. Boda-Bodas act as a more localised form of transport, taking passengers from smaller villages to the towns and cities with a matatu stage. This adds to the excitement of a matatu stage as they also, like the conductors of matatus, compete for business.

Arriving to a matatu stage as confused tourist brings the behaviour of those working in and around the stage to another level as numerous conductors attempt to drag you to their matatu, assuring you of its very prompt departure. Likewise, Boda-boda drivers are equally keen to get your business as are street sellers offering you groundnuts, water, fizzy drinks, socks, toothbrushes and any other possible item you may need.
As a visitor and as the story teller, I have romanticised the matatu and all the activities which form part of it. Continuously rubbing against strangers who talk and shout across you isn’t particularly pleasant. Even less so when the strangers laugh at the obliviousness of the lost traveller amidst the hustle of conductors and boda-boda drivers attempting to over-charge you. The strangers notice the overpricing, and the traveller very clearly notices their awareness of the situation. But even then the traveller can still accept how the strangers know that little money is at stake and the fact that this money, regardless of the principle of it, makes an insignificant difference to a traveller’s wallet.

Often the journeys were not comfortable, and the novelty wore off within a few weeks. I often sat sweating on the seat above the motor of the matatu whilst the windows remained firmly closed so as not to provide the unwanted breeze of
fresh air. As the vehicle rolls over the thousands of speed bumps covering Kenya’s roads, I don’t fall asleep and I either hit my head on the low ceiling or my phone to flies out of my hands and falls into the crammed floor of the matatu.

Regardless of these annoyances, they still form part of the enchantment of the matatu. A love-hate relationship between its constant buzz and the immense landscapes you see as you drive along Kenya’s roads, and the lack of fresh air or personal space it provides. Yet the former always wins, as it is this which is unique and beautiful to the setting. Given the busy and stressful nature of matatu stages I was unable to take my own photos of my experience in them.


The lessons I learnt in my time in East Africa have taught me to give more importance to the patience and respect cultures deserve. They have also taught me to learn about other cultures with a more appreciative attitude. Previous to my trip I felt I was aware of this and mentally prepared to work in a completely different setting. And although these seem like simple and obvious realisations to make and understand, it has been the first hand experience of interacting with people which has allowed me observe the previously un-recognised prejudice in my attitude. I will no doubt take this lesson with me wherever I go in the world.

This experience has also taught me to value perceptions and attitudes towards my own culture and as a consequence, this highlights the importance of my behaviour and actions. It provides me with perspective in my own culture, allowing me to question the lifestyle I live and attitudes I have. More importantly it highlights the impact this has on the interaction of the culture which I come from with the culture which I have the pleasure of temporarily observing and participating in. Although I may be an individual, the impact of my behaviour contributes to this interaction. This is amplified when I work as part of a charity, in particular when money and investment become part of the dialogue.

This interaction is what can allow for a breeding ground of mutual learning between cultures. Ultimately, this has made my time in East Africa a memorable experience. As I have been able to influence how a school aims to improve, the people I have had the opportunity to work and live with have also given me the perspective and insight to question myself, the culture I am part of, and how I form a part of it.

Taking into account the opportunities my experience has provided me with, I still remain unsure about the benefit and the true impact of my work in Machongo school. But I am now able to understand and evaluate this with a base of contextual cultural knowledge and a more insightful attitude towards development. I endeavour to ensure I give the people I work with and visit in the future the same consideration. And with these people I will remain inquisitive and ask the questions they deserve to be asked. In my trip to East Africa, these questions no doubt went a long way. It was the joy and warmth in the people I met and lived with which allowed me to learn and participate in their culture.

Xan Goetzee-Barral

Recientemente licenciado en Planificación Urbana y Diseño Urbano por The Bartlett, University College London. Descubre ciudades y paisajes en bici. Interesado en 'wayfinding design', 'active travel' y 'community engagement'.

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